Tuesday 23 January 2024

Albums I Never Got Round To Reviewing In 2023: Andre 3000, Drake, Foo Fighters and more…

I catch up on albums from Andre 3000, Avenged Sevenfold, Caroline Polachek, Drake, Foo Fighters, PinkPantheress, Sampha, Squid, Sufjan Stevens, Thantifaxath, Tomb Mold and Wednesday.

I didn't review a whole lot of albums in 2023. In fact, it's the least amount of albums I've reviewed in a year since this blog began. However, I did listen to a lot of albums in 2023, and I thought I ought to discuss my thoughts on a few of them here on the blog. So, as always, here are the albums I didn't review...

New Blue Sun - Andre 3000

If an unknown artist had dropped this 90 minute instrumental flute album, I wouldn’t have listened to it. And you can bet your bottom dollar Pitchfork wouldn’t have touched it, let alone given it Best New Music. But this is Andre 3000 and all us hip hop heads have been gagging for a new album from him for what feels like forever. So of course we all gave this a listen, despite having no previous interest in listening to 90 minutes of flute soloing, secretly hoping he might sneak in a cheeky rap verse. Sadly, there are no cheeky rap verses. Instead, we get a selection of very long ambient jazz/new age tracks with very long titles. There are some cool textures on this album (I particularly like the synths) and some playful flute effects. But each track is pretty stagnant in terms of progression, so I found myself zoning out a lot. I’m simply not patient enough for this type of music. I can see the appeal though.

Life Is But A Dream… - Avenged Sevenfold

Avenged Sevenfold were my gateway drug to metal as a teenager. My blast-beat-and-death-growl-damaged brain now finds them too tame. However, I was excited by the news that they were moving in a new experimental direction. Metalheads were comparing them to Mr Bungle and I love Mr Bungle. So, I checked this album out. And this shit is indeed thrillingly loco and erratic. There are theatrical thrash jams, funk songs with vocoders, a Sinatra-esque swing ballad and a classical piano instrumental as a closer. Not all of it works. ‘Beautiful Morning’ sounds a little bit too much like Alice in Chains’ ‘Them Bones’. ‘(O)rdinary’ sounds a little too much like Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. And ‘(D)eath’... well, this track just sounds like crap. But other moments like ‘Game Over’ and ‘We Love You’ are genuinely quite fun. And the piano closer is absolutely beautiful. 

Desire, I Want To Turn Into You - Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek’s octave-traversing voice (which is like a mix of Annie Lennox and Dido – the latter of whom appears as a guest on this album) combined with her seductively cryptic lyrics make her such a captivating vocalist. It helps that her production is so colourful too, throwing in everything from Balearic guitars to bagpipes. Sporting catchy melodies and simple song structures, this is undoubtedly pop music. But it’s also so much richer and more dynamic than what’s dominating the charts. With its reggaeton-flavoured beat and Drake-inspired delivery, ‘Bunny Is A Rider’ is the closest she gets to attempting a commercial sound, and it’s probably my last favourite song here because of that. The rest of the album feels much more adventurous, particularly ‘Billions’ which is such a unique song on all fronts (my track of the year from 2022).

For All The Dogs – Drake

The longer Drake remains a bachelor, the more jaded his attitude towards of women becomes. In fact, a good chunk of For All The Dogs is Drake blethering on about how fed up of women he is. That’s about as close as the singer/rapper’s 8th studio album comes to a running theme across its outrageous 23 track runtime. As always, his new record feels like a messy jumble sale of various commercial sounds infused into songs that could have been written by AI. And yet, once again, what’s so frustrating is that there are some fun and enjoyable moments peppered throughout (largely when he’s not moaning about women). For example, the part where he cycles through all the months of the year on ‘Slime You Out’ is very cool. And he shows some playfulness in his ability to rhyme ‘Griffindor’, ‘kitchen drawer’ and ‘Singapore’ on ‘Drew A Picasso’. I even think the rap verse from Adonis is cute. I just wish he’d consolidate all these fun moments into a leaner record.

But Here We Are - Foo Fighters

Tragedy sadly brings out some of the best material in musicians. This is clearly the case with But Here We Are, which feels like the Foos’ most accomplished album since 2011’s Wasting Light (if not better). Fuelled by the death of his mother and his bandmate Taylor Hawkins, Grohl has laid to rest the cliché-ridden lyrics of previous albums in favour of a raw exploration of loss and moving forward that comes straight from the heart. I never thought I’d almost cry while listening to a Foo Fighters record, but here we are. Musically, most of the songs do stick to a familiar alt rock sound. However, we do get a surprise dreampop song with some beautiful and moving vocals from Grohl’s daughter, Violet. And 10 minute track, 'The Teacher', has an almost proggy feel, while also delivering the biggest emotional gut punch.

Heaven Knows – PinkPantheress

It feels wrong to put PinkPantheress in the same category as other TikTok stars, because while her songs do share the shortness, they have a genuinely unique sound and don’t feel like a deliberate attempt to follow a quick-hit formula. Her British-accented mousey voice may have similarities to Hannah Diamond and Aluna George, but it also feel distinctive in its shy speedy delivery. And no other big pop artists are jumping on chirpy garage beats like this (or certainly throwing in MIDI guitar solos). Maybe her sound does lack a bit of dynamics at points. However, the sticky hooks do all seem to stand out from one another and have kept me coming back.  

Lahai – Sampha

Every time I’ve heard Sampha as a guest vocalist, I’ve adored his unique buttery whimper. However, I’ve never really checked out any of his solo material beyond a few live performances. I assumed he wrote fairly conventional piano ballads in the style of John Legend. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by the selection of left-field tunes here on Lahai. There are pianos all over this album, but they’re not your usual four chord arrangements, instead arranged into frenetic arrangements with equally frenetic percussion on top. Sampha’s soulful voice glides over the top, encapsulating the album’s running theme of flying which is portrayed through references to Jonathan Livingston Seagull and track titles like ‘Suspended’. It feels like an album conceived while flying around the world, filled with small cosmopolitan touches like the pronunciation of ‘Mexico’ as ‘Mehico’ or the brief bit of French in ‘Can’t Go Back’, beckoning you to explore the world and make the most of it.   

O Monolith – Squid

At this point, Squid have truly outgrown their post-punk label and mutated into something else. They’re more like a Pink Floyd/Radiohead hybrid at this point, while also sounding noisier and more unhinged than either of those bands. Their songs are intricately composed, building and building towards unpredictable climaxes. Vocalist/drummer Ollie Judge’s vocals meanwhile are much more subdued and dynamic this time around (as much as I like his loopy yelping, it prefer it in small doses as is the case here). I wish there was a song I adored here as much as ‘Narrator’ on Bright Green Field. But all the songs do have their exciting moments.  

Javelin - Sufjan Stevens

The Ascension was the grandiose opus I wanted from Sufjan, but I can see a lot of fans preferring this return to his folksy roots. Some of the instrumentals are personally a little too stripped back and dainty for my taste. But there are still many vibrant louder moments like the crescendo of ‘Goodbye Evergreen’. And of course Sufjan is still able to get up in listeners’ feels. ‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me’ might be the most heartbreaking song Sufjan has written, and is one of several songs in which a sense of defeat is the theme. But there’s also a sense that Sufjan is making peace with it (particularly in the closing track), which wasn’t the case on The Ascension.

Hive Mind Narcosis – Thantifaxath

I find a lot of black metal to be too muddy or repetitive. Canadian metal band Thantifaxath bring a cleanness and complexity to their sound, while still sounding utterly evil. They’ve been fairly quiet since their 2014 debut and I assumed that maybe they’d disbanded or sacrificed themselves to Satan. But no, they’re still going, and they’ve revved up the dissonance and progginess on Hive Mind Narcosis. From the stumbling percussion rhythms of ‘Solar Witch’ to the woozy pitch-bending tremolo guitars of ‘Mind of the Sun’, the album seems determined to be a more challenging listen. And yet the songs still flow very well and offer enough melody (albeit a very sinister kind of melody) to make it enjoyable. Unless you’re not a metal fan, in which case this’ll be intolerable.

The Enduring Spirit - Tomb Mold

Tomb Mold are another crazy Canadian metal band. On their fourth studio album, The Enduring Spirit, they weave an intricate tapestry of addictive proggy riffs and chaotic everychanging drum patterns. A lot of it’s pretty dissonant and restless. But the band also know when to throw in pockets of groove as on ‘Flesh as Armour’ or melodic Death-flavoured harmonised guitars as on ‘Servants of Possibility’. The vocals are the only area where the music lacks dynamics. ‘Will of Whispers’ for example could have probably benefitted from some clean vocals to match the clean guitars. But I guess out-of-place growls are better than out-of-tune singing.

Rat Saw God – Wednesday

There’s a lot more country on this album than I was expecting. But when Wednesday rock out they do so in spectacular fashion. Not only do the Asheville band know how to write a satisfying grungy riff, but they’re able to develop songs in unique and volatile ways – gradually speeding, slowing down or dissipating into noisy chaos as on ‘Bull Believer’. Karly Hatzman’s distinctive wail sets her apart from other rock vocalists, and I love her dingy descriptions of suburban life. And for the record, this band has nothing to do with the Addams Family character.