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Commodore Reviews: Q1 2019

Commodore Jones | Posted on May 01, 2019

Album Art for Titanic Rising

Album Art for Titanic Rising

The first quarter of 2019 was a rather slow one for new musical releases, but so far the month of April has gotten Q2 off to a hot start. Hopefully that will continue, but in the meantime here are some of the records I’ve reviewed over the course of the first portion of the year, along with my current AOTY favorites at the bottom. Enjoy, and catch me on Sailing Through The Years every Wednesday at 4:30 PM Central.

Juliana Hatfield – WEIRD

Genre: Indie Rock

Favorite Tracks: “It’s So Weird,” “Sugar,” “Paid To Lie”

As far as present-day voices in contemporary alternative pop/rock go, Juliana Hatfield is without question one of the most tenured. Her newest release, WEIRD, is her 17th studio album under her own name since her debut in 1992, and this isn’t even counting her other projects with Blake Babies and Some Girls, among others. Suffice to say, one does not generally get to the point of releasing their 17th solo studio album without having a great degree of merit to their work, and Juliana Hatfield most certainly does; going into this new project, my expectations may not have been exceptionally high, but I certainly expected at bare minimum an enjoyable and engaging release. Once again, Juliana Hatfield does not disappoint.

From the jump, it is clear that the woman behind WEIRD is a bona fide veteran, with a mature and complete approach to her own songwriting that ensures a baseline level of quality for every song. Her album-arranging acumen is on full display, as Hatfield wisely stacks three of the best tracks on the album at the very beginning of the record: “Staying In” provides an airtight and uptempo opener with a wry and self-effacing hook, “It’s So Weird” is a legitimately groovy and somewhat stripped-back song with a killer vocal melody, and “Sugar” is the closest thing this album has to a true single, driven by a positively sunny chord progression and a rather sharply employed drum machine.

However, for as strong as this opening combo of tracks is, WEIRD quickly falls into the rather common and ultimately harmless problem that many records of a similar persuasion often do: a rather monotonous and unmemorable middle. This is not to say that there’s any material here that isn’t worth listening to; every track here has its charm and better qualities, but Hatfield would likely be the first to admit that this album isn’t exactly pushing the boundaries of what her music can be. WEIRD is a ‘90s alt-rock and pop record through and through, and while there’s absolutely no issue with making good on timeless sounds, it usually doesn’t make for a particularly standout effort. Luckily, the album picks up a little bit of a second wind towards the end, with Hatfield channeling some Dinosaur Jr. on the foreboding and intelligent “Paid To Lie,” and letting a hint of grunge greats like Pearl Jam creep into the minor-tinged “No Meaning.” All told, WEIRD is yet another good-not-great addition to the alt-rock canon, but has enough high quality playlist material on it to be a worthwhile and recommended listen for any fan of the ‘90s indie sound.

DAWN – NEW BREED

Genre: Alt R&B

Favorite Tracks: “New Breed,” “Dreams and Converse,” “We, Diamonds”

After getting her start on the third season of one of the world’s first true reality TV shows, Sean Combs’ MAKING THE BAND, New Orleans-born and Baltimore-based singer-songwriter Dawn Richard has put together an admirable solo career for herself. A purveyor of alternative R&B tinged with elements of art pop and electronica, even sometimes dipping into the edges of something more experimental, Richard, better known professionally as DAWN, wrapped up a trilogy of albums in 2016 with her fourth full-length REDEMPTIONHEART, and had been rather silent since, choosing instead to focus on a career in acting. She’s now back with her aptly titled new album NEW BREED, a more straightforward R&B release than we’re accustomed to hearing from her that incorporates the elements of pop and electronic that she’s always been wont to include in her music, but in a more accessible form than ever before. Historically, there has been a compulsion among critics to describe DAWN’s music as somewhat challenging, but to describe NEW BREED that way would be doing her a disservice. Some songs on this record, like the title track or the standout “Dreams and Converse,” are well-crafted and forward-thinking pop songs, the former carrying with it a compelling aura of darkness and the latter showing off some funk-tinged bass and guitar parts that create an irresistible groove. The general vibe and energy of these tracks, largely provided by the vocal presence of Richard herself, bring to mind a vintage Santigold, but updated for the latter half of this decade. But for as great as some of the highlights here are, this record is, at best, inconsistent in what it brings to the table. Songs like “Jealousy” and “Vultures | Wolves” have some lyrical highlights but often feel like ideas that were more successfully explored on SZA’s record CTRL two years ago. The album also runs only 32 minutes in length, and while some artists can benefit from abbreviated album runtimes, like Kanye West and co. did last year, NEW BREED almost feels underdeveloped, or as if a few too many tracks were left on the cutting room floor. There are no doubt some winners to be found on DAWN’s latest, but the originality and boundary-pushing that highlighted some of her prior releases seems to be largely missing.

Sleaford Mods – ETON ALIVE

Genre: Post-Punk

Best songs: “Into The Payzone,” “Kebab Spider,” “Policy Cream”

English post-punk outfit Sleaford Mods have been one of the more interesting acts in what has been an incredibly vibrant scene these last five-or-so years, but anyone coming to ETON ALIVE looking for more of the usual will be sorely disappointed. On their newest record they trade in their guitars for synthesizers and take on a very bleak sort of new wave sound, inspired more by Kraftwerk than by Wire. We’ll start with the good stuff: This record has some really interesting and, at times, infectious grooves on it, mostly consisting of simple drum machines and old-school analog synth loops with some bass guitar thrown in here and there. The trademark smash mouth, blue-collar attitude of the band is here and on full display, as frontman Jason Williamson is spitting his witty diatribes onto his songs just as energetically as ever. “Into The Payzone” is a quick and punchy opener with a very cool and dark instrumental, and “Policy Cream” finds Williamson letting a little bit of Bowie creep into his voice over a seedy and sinister bass line. That was how I immediately felt after about the first three songs. After having gone through all 12, though, I unfortunately must report that there really isn’t much else here to talk about. This album is monotone, front-loading its best tracks and causing the last 25-30 minutes of the record to largely slog through inferior re-hashes of what we’ve already heard. At times, like on “Firewall” and “Big Burt,” the vocal tracks and instrumentals don’t adequately mesh, and the whole production comes across as cheap and amateurishly done. The flashes of a cool and unique energy that crop up on the first few songs are tantalizing, but taken as a whole, ETON ALIVE represents something of a failure to expand upon a musical idea enough to justify a full-length project.

CHAI – PUNK

Genre: J-Pop, Indie Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Choose Go,” “I’m Me,” “This Is Chai,” “Fashionista”

CHAI, the all-female four-piece from Nagoya, Japan, have made a strong impact on the Japanese underground rock scene in a rather brief period of time. Their debut album, PINK, was a solid release that caught on in their home country, and because of that their sophomore effort, PUNK, received a somewhat larger distribution. CHAI play a strange but delightful fusion of alternative rock, post-punk, J-Pop, and electronic dance music, a sound that can really only be most closely compared to a group like Jamiroquai or Basement Jaxx. Infused with an individuality and joy uncommon to many acts, their music is a sort of infectious and contagious ray of sunshine beaming through your headphones. The album opens strong with “Choose Go!,” a track that starts off with a somewhat dour post-punk drum and bass groove before kicking up the energy for an uptempo romp with a sticky vocal melody. An even stickier vocal melody comes on the third track, “I’m Me,” an uplifting piece of power pop with some intriguing musical bells and whistles, and “This Is Chai” shifts that tone much farther into the realm of electronic, using breakbeats and chopped-up horn samples to create a downright futuristic club banger that serves as a riotous self-celebratory anthem for the band, empowering and replete with attitude. “Wintime,” “Fashionista,” and “Curly Adventure” all are highlights as well, throwing a little bit more psychedelia into the mix to go along with their bouncy hybrid grooves. At times, PUNK tends to get lost in a musical idea that just doesn’t stick as well as others, and some grooves and melodies kind of fall flat, but given how some of the hits hit, this young and exciting band can be forgiven for their creative missteps. While by no means a perfect record, the music that CHAI has put together here is just incredibly fun, managing to pack in some catchy hooks and occasionally tantalizing forays beyond normal genre boundaries. For an energetic and enjoyable listen with some interesting experiments in genre-bending, check this one out and get in on the relative ground floor of a group on the rise.

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Album of the Year Favorites So Far

Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood (chamber pop)

Girl With Basket of Fruit by Xiu Xiu (experimental)

Morbid Stuff by PUP (alt/pop punk)

Guns by Quelle Chris (jazz rap)

Ventura by Anderson .Paak (alt R&B/soul)

Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? by Deerhunter (indie rock)

LP3 – American Football (Midwestern emo)

Buoys – Panda Bear (acoustic psych pop)

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