Author: Michael Stephens

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An Instrumental Band Who Loves to Share Their Stage

I’m a huge fan of instrumental music. A nice solid rhythm plus melodies and motifs that weave in and out of one another is paradise to me. That is why I chose to review BadBadNotGood’s IV, which released in 2016. An album that brings together hip-hop, jazz, electronic, indie and many other elements into a conveniently (sometimes lounge-y) original package. They’re a four piece band (Matthew A. Tavares, Chester Hansen, Alexander Sowinski and Leland Whitty) from Toronto, Canada where they started out experimenting with jazz fusion and interpretations of hip-hop tracks. They have also worked with many hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown and Ghostface Killah. How did these four white guys pull this all together and make these connections? It’s actually due to Tyler the Creator, who helped their YouTube channel go viral. Tyler, being a hip-hop artist who himself became viral because of his presence on Tumblr, was able to elevate BadBadNotGood’s status in the hip-hop world.

The collaborations on BadBadNotGood’s IV give the album a unique advantage. There are five features on this eleven track album, and each one brings a new flavor to the mix. The features in the order they appear on the album are Samuel T. Herring, Colin Stetson, Kaytranada, Mick Jenkins and Charlotte Day Wilson. “Time Moves Slowly” is the first collaboration featuring Samuel T. Herring. This track begins with a simple beat with light anticipations and accents on the snare drum; it gives the song a bit more motion. The general feel is kind of slow in tempo and muffled in timbre – typically called a slow jam. Aside from vocals, the drums tend to be a bit more prominent compared to the other instruments. The hypnotizing synth organ accompanies vocals lightly as it seems to emphasize the tensions building with Samuel’s lyrical content. He sings in a mellow and subdued tone. This is not a cheery song; the lyrics clearly point out that time can painfully drag on when alone. Samuel’s tone of voice has a slightly raspy and cracking quality to it, which evokes the pain and stress one deals with when falling in and out of love with someone who doesn’t share the same feelings.

Each feature on IV brings a different vibe. “Confessions Pt. II”, for instance, with jazz saxophonist – Colin Stetson – is a full on instrumental with plenty of sax. The repetitive bass line, played on sax, reinforces the entire track. Stetson goes wild over this instrumental, along with the band’s saxophonist Leland Whitty. The next collaboration with Haitian-Canadian musician Kaytranada, titled “Lavender”, is a spacey, synth heavy, hip-hop instrumental. There is another version of this song with Snoop Dogg rapping over it that bears recognition though it wasn’t technically on the album. The video for this track stirred up controversy due to the mock assassination of “Ronald Klump.” There is a rapper featured on this album though: Mick Jenkins (American hip-hop artist), who raps over an R&B and hip-hop groove on “Hyssop of Love”. He’s got a steady and somewhat quick flow. There are also political references expertly laid out. The intro bars set that up immediately: “Wolves in disguise / How you supposed to see ’em with the wool in your eyes? / Sheep to the radio, we fooled and surprised.” He’s saying we’ve grown too accustomed to being blinded, that we don’t even notice what’s going on. It’s interesting to hear where genres like jazz and hip-hop intersect in this medley since both come from communities of color, African-American traditions and histories of oppression in America.

These vocal appearances on IV complement both the artists featured and the band’s instrumental talents. They seemed to have found a common ground where there’s enough excitement instrumentally but there’s also space for vocal accompaniments. The last feature, titled “In Your Eyes”, has a classic R&B feel to it. It’s a smooth groove with a catchy melody. Charlotte Day Wilson sings on this beautiful instrumental, laying a very silky performance. There is an accompanying string arrangement along with vocal harmonies.

BadBadNotGood has established quite a nice nook in the instrumental music world. Although they have both singing and rapping on a few tracks, their solo instrumental tracks are some of my favorites. “Speaking Gently” is one favorite that comes to mind. It’s got a dense hip-hop vibe but really opens up in the chorus with beautiful celestial synth sounds. Their versatility is what helps them explore elements of jazz and hip-hop in a nuanced way. It can be hard to pinpoint what they are and where they’re at, but I think that’s the fun part of their music.

Everyday Robots – Damon Albarn

This month I have decided to write a recording review on Everyday Robots (2014), an album (and song) by Damon Albarn which questions the role of technology in our everyday lives. Albarn has been part of the music scene since the early 90s. Starting with his Brit-pop band, Blur, which became very successful with each new album. This led to the creation of Gorillaz, a collaborative project with artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998. That project is a mixture of soul, rock, R&B, electronic, hip-hop and many other genres. Albarn is also generally a collaborative person, often featuring many other artists and giving their voice a place in his projects. He has fused multiple styles and genres throughout all his projects but has remained very unique through all his transitions. Everyday Robots is special compared to what he has done in previous works. It’s his first solo album, which he considers a very personal work.

Everyday Robots is a beautiful down-tempo album that combines elements of pop, experimental, trip hop and folktronica. It’s a great album for reflection; the instrumental arrangements alone give way to this melancholy feeling. The vocals are never dense or overwhelming. There’s a lot of space given to fully digest everything happening in each track. The first song, “Everyday Robots,” sets the tone for the album. The instrumentation is carefully placed. There is a repeating string sample, which continues throughout, but real strings later fill out the background –heightening emotions alongside the sample. A piano plays chords on each beat, providing a gentle harmonic accompaniment. Albarn also makes use of light percussive sounds like bottles and sticks.

The vocals are approached in an interesting manner – Albarn never forces the lines out, and it feels like he’s talking melodically through most of song instead of singing. Lyrically, the song is very simple yet contemplative. The first line begins with, “We are everyday robots on our phones / in the process of getting home / looking like standing stones / out there on our own.” We can all relate to this experience; the world we live in today allows us to be as connected or disconnected as we like. I think these lyrics depict how cold and lonely that can be when you realize all the people around you who are absorbed into their phones or other technology on a daily basis. Albarn is trying to get at the root of human connection and how our access to technology has perhaps changed that; maybe increased access to each other via technology has in turn made us feel more alone rather than better connected.

Another important song on the album is “Lonely Press Play.” Many people who listen to music also use it to cope with loneliness and depression. Albarn says quite a lot with this single line, “When I’m lonely, I press play.” It’s a message about how easy we can distract ourselves from life with entertainment. These days it’s easier than ever to step out of (or into) our heads and all the unresolved feelings and emotions we have. Technology has afforded us the ability to check out of life. The instrumentation accompanies the lyrics in a very sympathetic way. The piano plays chords lightly starting on beat two at the beginning of its phrase, while guitar plays double stops in its own repeating pattern over the song. There are also strings weaving in and out of the mix, playing staccato then sustaining with a crescendo.

The tone of this entire album is all about our interaction with our emotions and how technology impacts what we do about them. Negative feelings are unavoidable, but blocking them out with all these forms of entertainment can be dangerous. As I stated before this album is an entirely different approach compared to other projects he’s done and is still working on. With that said, this album is beautiful in so many ways. It’s a well needed friend when you’re feeling unresolved.

 

P.S. Gorillaz is coming out with their new album Humanz on April 28th!

Antibalas in El Barrio

Saturday February 18th in East Harlem, Carnegie Hall brought their neighborhood concerts to the historic El Museo del Barrio. Harlem, a neighborhood that is historically black and Latinx, got to experience a fusion of their culture embodied in the musical group: Antibalas. El Museo del Barrio tries to bring these events to their community regularly and for free or a low cost. This event was part of their Super Sabado program, but they’ve had other events such as lectures featuring the prominent Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz. Music, however, is a particularly strong way to immerse one’s self in culture. It also acts as a point of connection for many within the community and outside of it. This event was attended by a very diverse crowd, including a group of Eastern European women sitting near me. The band itself, Antibalas, was made of about twelve men. Though it was led by its black and Latinx members, there were a few members of other cultures who were involved as well.

Antibalas is a Brooklyn-based band composed of saxophones, trumpet, trombone, vocals, guitars, keyboard, bass, vibraphone, drums and percussion (congas and woodblocks). Their sound is a unique mixture of funk, jazz and afrobeat. Their inspiration stems from Fela Kuti and his afrobeat grooves, but their keyboardist harbors similarities with the playing style of Ray Manzarek from The Doors. The primary focus of this band resides in its brass and percussion sections which dominate both the rhythm and melody. Each member of the band had a specific role to fulfill. As a large band like this can be challenging to control, communication between one another is key. They immediately exemplified how talented and tight they were in their performance. Catchy guitar riffs, an insane keyboard solo on top and dense percussion lines mixed with call-and-response melodies from the horn section marked the beginning of Antibalas’ performance.

There was an amalgam of texture and timbre coloring the first song, which lasted about 12 minutes. The piece kept building up, leading to the vocalist emerging and calling for the audience to repeat his phrases; the audience gladly cheered the lines in excitement. As the dynamic died down, funky repeating guitar riffs settled into the mix. The band also responded to specific vocal cues by the lead singer in a call-and-response form. The lead singer began chanting, “Go up! Go down!” and the band repeated his continuous line in response. Dynamics began to build louder and louder as melodic phrases from the horn section colored the background, bringing it back to the powerful introduction with a few variations throughout. The audience was so impressed and eager to applaud that they started clapping and dancing right before the final climax.

Each song gave the audience much more than expected. They clapped to the beat as much as possible. If this wasn’t a seated event, everyone would have been dancing from the beginning. Behind each dense percussive horn driven line, a complex yet controlled and danceable drum beat was laid. Each musician had their own spotlight in one song where they would solo to showcase the talent that is Antibalas. As the last song began, the audience started to lift from their seats, unable to control themselves after an hour of outstanding music. They began to dance, both on their own and with others. The band, in response, turned the event into a wild party. Steady and fast dance rhythms grew in power while the trombonist burst out a solo that blew everyone away and empowered the entire band. An encore was definitely in order and requested by the audience who were engaged throughout the performance. In addition to their outstanding musical talent, Antibalas embodied an approach that gave the audience an even greater gift: a true community experience.

 

Here’s a taste of Antibalas: