What an amazing month for music! May’s iPod update features over 200 songs of genres from shoegazing indie pop to hard core rap. While not all the artists and albums made the cut for this version of What I’m Hearing, the best things did and I’m proud to bring them to you. Furthermore, several of these albums are available for free download and I’ve included the links to them here. New music, download links?! What more could you ask for?
Au Revoir Simone, Still Night, Still Light: When I first reviewed Au Revoir Simone’s 2007 release The Bird of Music (WIH, Vol. 9), I talked about the potential that their sweet sounds could become too sticky without the proper balance. Happily, I can say that on Still Night, Still Light ARS loses none of their charm while actually increasing their skill in finding a nice balance in the electro-indie pop-shoegazer triangle. At times sounding like a slightly more fleshed out Elysian Fields and at others like a less depressed Postal Service, this trio puts out easy tracks that range from joyous to melancholy without missing a beat. The female vocals are breezy, seeming to hang over the music, which through synths, keys and drums all working together, become stronger than on the previous album. ARS seems to have found their musical niche, nicely contrasting the sweet with the bitter, and sounding more comfortable with the balance throughout. Don’t Sleep On: “Shadows,” “Knight of Wands,” and “Another Likely Story.”
Chubb Rock and Wordsmith, A Crack in the Bridge: While hip-hop and rap seems to be on a definitive futuristic trend with the likes of Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West and Kid Cudi surfing the radio waves, this duo out of the East Coast seeks to bring hip-hop back to more standard roots. Relying on tried and true production and lyrics that are more about having a good time than sporting bling, Chubb Rock and Wordsmith have crafted a mixtape prelude to their June release Bridging the Gap that strips away the pretension of hip-hop in favor of sounding good and having fun. Chubb and Wordsmith have a nice contrast to their voices and delivery, an important part of a hip-hop duo. With a deep voice and an almost trudge-like delivery, Chubb Rock sounds patient on the microphone, willing to move with a beat easily. On the other hand, Wordsmith’s voice is higher and his delivery quicker, allowing him to change the feel and tempo of a song simply by rapping. I’ve been listening to Bridging the Gap for about a month now, but you’ll have to come back in June for that review. For now, A Crack in the Bridge provides a sampler of the type of music you can look forward to. Download it by clicking on the album name above. Don’t Sleep On: “Back In,” “Top of the World,” and “The New Street Kings”
Cunninlynguists, Strange Journey, Vol. 1: Cunninlynguists have to be one of the hardest working and simultaneously one of the most under-appreciated hip-hop groups today. Hailing from various parts of the state, the trio of Natti, and producers Kno and Deacon the Villain have released 6 albums since 2001, only actually having them released through a distribution company in 2003. But that hasn’t changed their approach which relies on interesting and introspective lyrics, excellent production and a splash of a grim feeling that it’s not ever going to happen for them mixed with a sense of humor that seems like it doesn’t matter if it does. On the first of two Strange Journey albums, the group looks at life on the road and the state of the music scene among other topics. The retro hooks combined with the modern beats provide the three with a solid foundation for their words, which whether talking about music, women or rapping far outshine anything available on the radio today. Whether you like loops or lyrics, this CD is a hit. Don’t Sleep On: “Don’t Leave (When Winter Comes)” featuring Slug of Atmosphere, “Spark My Soul,” and “Lynguistics,” a live version of one of their most well known songs.
Del the Funky Homosapien, Stimulus Package: The good news? Del’s got a new full-length album out, and it’s free (click on the album name above for the download link.) The bad news? For fans accustomed to the cohesive whole of Future Development (production help from Opio and A-Plus), the visionary approach on Deltron 3030 (produced by Dan the Automator) or the stellar lyrics that grace his work with Hieroglyphics, Stimulus Package is going to fall short. And the problem is that this kind of collapse is completely avoidable for Del. When at his strongest, Del’s intensity on the mic and ability to craft ridiculously great lyrics make him one of the best rappers on wax. However, all too often (this album and The 11th Hour as examples) Del isn’t content to just be on the microphone and opts to pursue the full musical production on the album as well. This is a mistake. It’s not to say that Del’s production is bad, but it is stagnant. There’s nothing much new in the beats here. For the most part, the tracks feel like repackaged West Coast beats from the ‘90s. Now if that were the case and the rapping remained vintage Del, the beats wouldn’t make a difference. But instead, the focus on production seems to detract from his focus on his rapping, and Del comes off sounding almost generic as a result. One need only look to his best work to see that he’s at the top of his rapping game when the lyrics and flow are his focus. His rapping on last year’s N.A.S.A. album outpaces anything contained here, and my hope is to see him collaborate with other producers on future work, because when he’s at his best lyrically, he’s virtually untouchable. Don’t Sleep On: “Hardcore Punks Can’t Take It,” “And They Thought That Was Hell,” and “Get It Right Now!”
Eminem, Relapse: I’ve read a lot of press both positive and negative on this album. Fortunately for my review, I had been listening to Relapse for about a week before it came out, so I was able to form my own judgments without extra media input. There’s no question that this album isn’t Eminem’s best work, which could be construed as a letdown following a four year hiatus that saw him become entangled in drugs and struggling through a lengthy rehab process during which he OD’d and almost died. But there are tracks here that showcase Eminem at his lyrical best. What’s important to consider on this album is that Eminem has found his own perspective stuck between the Slim Shady and Ken Kaniff characters. At times, he’s clearly being silly because he thinks there’s nothing else he can do. But the ridiculousness on this album in such tracks as “3 AM” and “My Mom,” actually serve to attempt to draw attention away from the other tracks. On “Medicine Ball” and “Undergound,” Eminem is back to his full bark, maniacally working his way through outrageous tongue twisters at breakneck pace. And on “Déjà Vu,” Eminem produces one of the most poignant and introspective songs of his career in dealing with his overdose. With a second album slated for release sometime in the next few months, it will be interesting to see which side of Eminem gets more exposure. One can only hope it’s the real Eminem, the one from the freestyle battles, ferocious intensity and introspective lyrics. It is this Eminem, stripped away from the silly accents, high-pitched lyrics and juvenile ideas that produces the best work, and there are certainly glimpses of that on Relapse for anyone ready to look past the radio singles. Don’t Sleep On: “Déjà Vu,” “Underground,” and “Old Time’s Sake” featuring Dr. Dre.
Hanne Hukkelberg, Blood From A Stone: Hailing from Kongsberg, Norway, Hukkelberg continues the trend of obscure Scandinavian singer-songwriters finding a home in the musical lexicon of the States. In contrast to her Swedish counterpart Lykke Li, Hukkelberg’s sounds are less playful and much more subdued, serious and sparse. With light percussion and haunting melodies, Hukkelberg lets her voice drape over the tracks like a singer in a smoke filled jazz club. Her lyrics are emotionally gripping and in combination with the music make the listener feel as if they’re being personally addressed. Don’t Sleep On: “Seventeen,” “Bandy Riddles,” and “Blood From a Stone.”
Kid Cudi, Dat Kid From Cleveland: Normally, I’m not a fan of mixtapes. Seemingly half-thrown together beats, freestyle lyrics that typically fall short of par, and the main question: what does this have to do with anything? For the most part, you can count on one or two excellent tracks and some filler on these outings. This is why I was pleasantly taken aback with Dat Kid From Cleveland. I had heard of Kid Cudi through the usual street/radio buzz, and so when a friend sent me this mixtape, to say I was skeptical would be an understatement. But here, on well-crafted and nicely sampled beats ranging from Dr. Dre to De La Soul to trance music, Cudi brings a sense of energy to his flow. The result is a collection of tracks that could easily be a full album release with a little polish. And the best part? It’s free. Also good to know is that Cudi is talking about a collaboration with Evolving Music favorite Ratatat. Stay tuned. Don’t Sleep On: “Rollin'” featuring Jackie Chain, “’09 Freestyle,” and “She Came Along” featuring Sharam.
Meanderthals, Desire Lines: In the case of the Meanderthals, the album name of Desire Lines could easily have been the band name as well. While the tone of this disc is certainly relaxed, the group has a little more focus in their musical direction than one might think from their name. This is a collection of tracks featuring a wide array of instrumentation from acoustic guitars to steel drums to drum machines and hand claps. The result is a mash-up that I can only think to term “Lounge-Tropic,” a meeting place of sounds that could easily be found in a smoky backroom of a cocktail lounge or drifting calmly across the beach on an island resort. While only 7 tracks, Desire Lines provides a set perfect for the lazy days of summer. The music is light and airy, and despite the variety of sounds, never feels overly dense or impenetrable. Grab your favorite boat drink, find your most peaceful place in the sun and enjoy. Don’t Sleep On: “Andromeda (Prelude to the Future),” “1-800-288-Slam” and “Bugges Room.”
Passion Pit, Manners: Taking generously from dance, pop and electronica, Passion Pit has emerged from Massachusetts and released a very solid product that can play in the great outdoors of summer or the confines of a dance club. New Rave, 80s power pop and electro-synth all find a home here to give lead singer Michael Angelakos delicious mosaics to howl over. Up-beat drums, crunchy bass lines and frolicking sheets of synthesizers all join forces to create simple and energetic songs that carry vocal and chorus parts that feel like they’re going to break free at any moment from their Earthly anchor and find the stars. While I wouldn’t listen to this album on repeat simply because the pop motif might wear thin, as a tempo change or a dance song in the right context, any song on this album can bring a sense of joy to the listener. More importantly, with sporadic listening, the songs reveal a few new tricks each time through. Don’t Sleep On: “Little Secrets,” “Make Light,” and “The Reeling.”
Rhymefest, Man in the Mirror: More surprising than one hip-hop mixtape in a monthly music update? Two. But here, Rhymefest has succeeded in creating a collection of songs that overflow with positive vibes and solid rapping. The premise here, as indicated by the album title, is a salute to Michael Jackson, as various songs from his history are sped up, slowed down or otherwise mashed to provide the backdrop for the rap. This is a must listen for any Michael Jackson fan, if only to see how the old classics sound freshened up with hip-hop, and a necessary mixtape for any hip-hop aficionado for the creative use of something else to form a breathing set of tracks. Mark Ronson provides the production. Don’t Sleep On: “Man in the Mirror,” “Foolin’ Around,” and “Coolie High” featuring Camp Lo.