Whether you’re in need of new study tunes or something fresh to play at your Saturday rager, the Voice has reviewed a slew of LPs for you:
Volcano Choir, Repave
It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Volcano Chior. That’s okay. They’ve managed to keep a fairly low profile, despite the deep talent that exists within their ranks. That is, until now. It’s pretty difficult to release an album this beautiful without turning heads.
In the last couple years, Justin Vernon has proven himself as one of the music industries’ most versatile artists. From his work with Bon Iver to his collaborations with Kanye West and other musicians, Vernon has created some of the most complex and strikingly beautiful music ever written.
Repave, Volcano Choir’s new LP, feels familiar to those of us who have been listening to Vernon’s work for the last few years. Elegant. Magnificent. Dazzling. The group’s compositions soar through layered progressions that transport the listener to new sonic worlds. “Alaskans” is a shining example of this. The song opens with a series of piano chords accompanied by a simple guitar riff, a hallmark theme of the album.
Vernon then begins to tell a story of lost love. “We were going to hit every mark, in stark/ But the suture didn’t suit you that long day in the park/ I’m talking about it/ We’re talking real love … Damn, I can’t believe you left me on the lam,” he croons. The emotion in his voice is palpable as he switches between his trademark falsetto and a deeper, gritty voice.
But, as with everything, Repave isn’t perfect. The major problem Volcano Choir faces is the similarity in all of their music. Each track begins with the same quiet introduction featuring a small chamber group of instruments, which introduces the chordal pattern of the following song. Some might argue that Vernon and Volcano Choir have simply perfected a compositional format which works for them, but after a while the album begins to get a stale.
Voice’s Choices: “Byegone,” “Alaskans”
Said the Whale, Hawaiii
Vancouver-based Said the Whale has always been a busy quintet, releasing four albums since their conception in 2007. That’s not to say that there’s any dearth of inspiration in these collections. However, their most recent effort, the intentionally misspelled Hawaiii, often retreads poppy and folksy grounds already explored by groups across the indie scene.
The album’s opening track “More Than This” uses minimal instrumentation and relies heavily on a lethargic piano and mournful vocal harmonies reminiscent of Muse. Yet this angsty feel quickly disappears on the second offering, “Mother,” an upbeat tune with a summery sound. Synth and guitar lines introduced here repeat throughout the album on the more pop-based tracks like “On the Ropes” and hit single “I Love You,” keeping the LP’s mood cheerful.
In between all this, the album offers a few somber moments. “I Could Smoke” and “Helpless Son” both move back to the ambiance created by the collection’s opening track. Said the Whale has a love affair with building tension to release it in dramatic fashion, a technique appreciated in doses, but tiring when used too often.
As far as Hawaiii’s folk offerings go, “Resolutions” and album bookend “The Weight of the Season” show heavy shades of Fleet Foxes, but manage to tack on their own twists. Muted synth patches and reverb galore in “Resolutions” combine before the song ends on a confusing conclusion, which includes the album’s only rap verse. “The Weight of the Season” also uses heavy reverb and vocal harmonies, but shines with ethereal synth patches that are unique to the track.
Said the Whale tries to push the boundaries of classification with Hawaiii, but instead ends up vacillating between two musical feels that are all too familiar. Though the band certainly avoids categorization, their style isn’t as revolutionary as they intend it to be. Hawaiii provides decent summer tunes, but it’s not exciting enough to warrant those extra “iii”s.
Voice’s Choices: “I Love You,” “Mother”
Elvis Costello/The Roots,Wise Up Ghost
Here’s an odd combination: musically adventurous new wave singer-songwriter Elvis Costello and neo-soul-hip-hop band The Roots. Despite their disparate origins, both parties have proven themselves adept at changing their style. Costello has genre-jumped for years, and The Roots have backed up a wide range on Late Night. In their new collaboration, Wise Up Ghost, Costello and The Roots demonstrate their flexibility yet again in creating something nearly as vibrant and distinct as any of their solo efforts.
Both halves of the collaboration bring their strengths to the table. Costello’s eloquent punkish lyrics are roughly crooned over The Root’s smooth and funky instrumentals. Each track is confidently delivered, and both parties compliment the other. The Roots give Costello a strong rhythmic grounding, and Costello gives The Roots a strong, lively voice to fortify their instrumental foundation.
“Walk Us Uptown” gives a strong start to the album, and, being the lead single, is one of its strongest components. Opening with a distinctly hip-hop beat, the song continues with rough and hard lyrical delivery from Costello, with force and purpose reminiscent of his previous Armed Forces and My Aim is True. It works wonderfully as an opening track, pulling the listener in more than any other song on the album, and setting up the tone for the remaining tracks to follow.
On the other end of the spectrum, the subdued R&B ballad “Tripwire” highlights the artists’ skillful elasticity. The track is uncharacteristically dark for Costello, who sings softly of holy war over The Roots’ quiet brass and sow drums. Dark tones touch the rest of the album, in tracks like the bridal suicide ballad “(She Might Be a) Grenade” and the prison-centric “Viceroy’s Row.”
The album’s only substantial flaw is its lack of excitement. No track has a daring edge. Everything sounds good, sometimes even great, and is in its place, but nothing here ever has the popping energy of This Year’s Model or the sear of Things Fall Apart. Not that it takes away from what’s there, though. Even if it’s not as revelatory as their best work, Wise Up Ghost shows both Elvis Costello and The Roots in good form.
Voice’s Choices: “Walk Us Uptown,” “Tripwire”
Ariana Grande,Yours Truly
Ariana Grande’s small figure deceives—though tiny, she possesses a powerful voice. After the release of her single “The Way” in March, the Victorious star’s fan base eagerly awaited the release of her debut album, Yours Truly.
Her first album showcases many Motown love ballads including, “Honeymoon Avenue” and “Tattooed Heart,” which focus on her vocal talents as she hits the high notes and sails through rifts.
But true to the tween sitcom star-turned-singer formula, Grande makes sure to include a range of pop on the album. “Lovin’ It,” “Piano,”and “Baby I” prove more upbeat with fast tempos and repeated, catchy choruses that will get stuck in your head.
The LP features an abundance of collaboration, with artists like Mac Miller, Big Sean, Nathan Sykes, and MIKA lending their talent. Grande’s voice doesn’t often get lost in this show of vocal stars, and it carries particularly well in “Almost is Never Enough” with Nathan Sykes.
Similarly, Grande and MIKA come together on “Poplar Song,” originally released last year, blending their voices together as they rebuke those who treated them poorly in the past. With the inclusion of the chorus from Wicked’s “Popular,” the track becomes especially lively, justifying what’s otherwise a heavy balance of other artists.
Yours Truly made it to the number one spot on iTunes within hours of its release as Grande’s fans bought up copies of the LP. The singer’s first album was certainly a commercial success, but hopefully she will be able to cast aside the formulaic pop and spotlight her soulful Motown style in her next releases.
Voice’s Choices: “Honeymoon Avenue,” “Piano”
—Zakiya N. Jamal
Jack Johnson, From Here to Now to You
Jack Johnson fans, rejoice! The Hawaiian-native singer/songwriter returns once again with From Here to Now to You, his latest album since the release of To the Sea in early summer of 2010.
The record follows Johnson’s typical style as he shares a number of quirky yet smooth melodies that flow seamlessly together from one to the next. The album opens strongly with “I Got You,” the LP’s first single released originally on June 10. The opening number immediately establishes Johnson’s upbeat and spontaneous disposition, a tone that continues throughout the album.
While some numbers are held together and made more robust by the backup vocals and band (“I Got You,” “Washing Dishes,” and “Radiate”), Johnson still weaves in his soft and delicate fingerpicking that echoes his easygoing, acoustic vibe in tracks like “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say,” “You Remind Me of You,” and “Home.”
The mixture of acoustic guitar, ukulele, and soft percussion grounds the album’s mood in the singer’s Hawaiian roots while still keeping the overall drift of the record contemporary and relatable.
The three standout tracks on the LP are “Washing Dishes,” “Shot Reverse Shot,” and “Ones and Zeros.” Filled with bar chord slides, soft beats, and vocals reminiscent of early Bob Dylan, these songs show just how far Johnson’s musical talents can stretch. From Here To Now To You is not just another stock image of Jack Johnson’s musical brilliance—the diversity within each tune makes the whole album shine.
Voice’s Choices: “Washing Dishes,” “Shot Reverse Shot”