Album reviews: Lykke Li's 'so sad, so sexy', Gruff Rhys's 'Babelsberg' and more

Ilana Kaplan,Dave Beech
Wednesday 06 June 2018 15:16
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Lykke Li, so sad so sexy

★★★★☆

Download this: better alone, hard rain, so sad so sexy, bad woman

It’s four years since Lykke Li’s last album and the Swedish pop singer has changed her tune. Never one to shy away from experimentation, she has re-emerged with a synth-pop and trap-tinged album called so sad so sexy. The music is both of those things.

It still has Li’s devastatingly beautiful heartbreak songs juxtaposed with R&B romp-heavy tracks. The sonic diversity of the record is due in part to Li working with longtime collaborators Malay, Jeff Bhasker and T-Minus, but expanded with the help of Skrillex, Emile Haynie, DJ Dahi and Jonny Coffer.

“I understand if you leave me, just go,” Li admits on “Bad Woman” as she endures the push and pull of ending up at a crossroads in a relationship. On Li’s fourth album the inherent sadness that has always lingered in the singer-songwriter’s music is still there – but it’s shifted.

While most of the record reflects a new persona, the melancholic pop title track and “Better Alone” could have easily been found on 2014’s I Never Learn ode to the loneliness of breakups. Opener “Hard Rain” is one of the strongest moments on the record, proving to be innovative in the electropop space and avoiding cliches – something perhaps due in part to working with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam. Li’s latest foray in pop is a brilliant display of growth, both personally and professionally. She once again proves that there’s no such thing as boring in her music. Ilana Kaplan

Snail Mail, Lush

★★★★☆

Download this: Heat Wave, Pristine, Stick, Let’s Find an Out

Most five-year-olds are playing in the sandbox, but Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan was being classically trained on guitar. Before she turned 18, Jordan was already building up a fanbase in and outside of her native Baltimore in the US.

For fans who first became acquainted with Jordan’s music around her debut EP Habit, Lush is a continuation of her coming of age tale – nostalgia for lost love, the overwhelming sensation of being a rising, young musician and the chaos of getting older.

Jordan’s 10-track record parallels the beautiful plain-spoken lyrics and catharsis echoed by artists like Soccer Mommy and Julien Baker. “Is there any better feeling than coming clean?” Jordan asks on “Pristine”. This simple question sets the tone for the record: it’s the singer-songwriter’s confessional. “Heat Wave” overflows with the emptiness that comes from a devastating breakup.

“Stick” feels like a cinematic, grunge-pop theme from a Nineties romcom bursting with a bombastic chorus. It’s also the song that sums up the frequently used term for Jordan’s music: “slowcore”.

As the album reaches its conclusion the messiness that stirred up the beginning of the record comes to a halt. The gauzy, hypnotic ethos of “Deep Sea” feels like a nighttime summer drive. “Are you hung up? Or do you love me?” Jordan sings on album closer “Anytime”. By the end of Lush, she’s found a sense of calm, ready for any answer that comes her way. Ilana Kaplan

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The Get Up Kids, Kicker

★★★☆☆

Download this: Maybe, I’m Sorry, My Own Reflection

The Get Up Kids have come a long way since their formation in 1995. Frontman Matt Pryor has reinvented himself over the years in The Get Up Kids, as well as in his indie-rock project The New Amsterdams and in his solo folk records. But after a six-year hiatus, Pryor has come home again to the band that launched his career.

Now signed to Polyvinyl, Pryor and co have entered a new phase in their lives: no longer are they navigating the ins and outs of relationships in their early twenties – now they’re raising kids, moving, getting degrees and starting businesses. Kicker reflects all of that – it’s a return to form, but reveals an expected sense of maturity. Pryor and sometimes guitarist Jim Suptic split vocal duties on the EP.

“Shout out the enemy standing next to me,” Pryor exclaims on opening track “Maybe”. The Get Up Kids have never been an inherently political band, but “Maybe” sees them bombastically commenting on the current state of affairs.

The anthemic “Better This Way” has Suptic on lead vocals contemplating the necessity of forced decision-making over unwavering upbeat melodies: “I know you’re scared, but you can’t keep running.” But Pryor’s wistful vocals over fuzzy guitar riffs on closer “My Own Reflection” are perhaps the biggest highlight of the EP. Kicker is a familiar old friend; the band isn’t reinventing the wheel with their sound. Ilana Kaplan

★★★☆☆

Download this: Limited Edition Heart, Drones in the City, Architecture of Amnesia

While Babelsberg, Gruff Rhys’s fifth solo record, might well have been recorded over a three day session back in early 2016, its release now, a little over two years later, feels no less salient than were it released back then.

Ten tracks of seemingly upbeat alt-pop, Babelsberg is a record that on the outside appears bright and breezy, bordering almost on the whimsical.

Dig deeper however, and it quickly begins to reveal itself as a wryly written document of current social and political climates. That such pictures should be painted with eloquence and insight feel like a testament to Rhys’s abilities as a lyricist; that they should be delivered with a backdrop of bright and breezy alt-pop providing a delicious sense of irony that only serves to heighten the albums appeal.

That doesn’t mean to say Babelsberg is a downtrodden or despondent album. Tracks such as “Negative Vibes” or “Limited Edition Heart” soar with an unashamed timelessness that calls to mind records from the likes of Malcolm Middleton, or even at times, Serge Gainsbourg.

As such, it’s also a record that primarily caters for those readily familiar with Rhys’s solo work, and is unlikely to win over anyone without a vested interest already. That said, Babelsberg still feels something of a departure from 2014’s American Interior.

Thanks in part to its timeless arrangements courtesy of the 72 piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales and thanks in part to a narrative that would remain relevant regardless of its release date. Not a record that’s going to change your opinion of Rhys should you have one already, but a welcome step in a more expansive direction for the Welshman. Dave Beech

Jon Hassell, Listening to Pictures

★★★★☆

Download this: Slipstream, Al Kongo Udu, Ndeya

It’s difficult to know where to begin as far as Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One), is concerned. The usual place would be the beginning, moving forward chronologically as most music is intended. As far as this record is concerned however, the bottom might be a better choice.

Vertical listening might not be something one’s readily familiar with, I certainly wasn’t, but employed here it allows Hassell’s compositions to open up and evolve far more naturally than cursory listens would otherwise allow.

Described as “letting your inner ears scan up and down the sonic spectrum, asking what kind of ‘shapes’ you’re seeing, then noticing how that picture morphs as the music moves through time”. If that sounds like a strange way of doing things, that’s because it is. At least at first anyway. It makes sense though. Anyone who has spent any time with ambient music knows that it’s all about the textures, and the images they conjure and the feelings they evoke. And Listening to Pictures is if nothing else, an exploration of said textures.

Even the name, Pentimento, refers to an artistic technique used for developing depth and texture within an image, and here each track offers up its own distinct soundscape, built from the ground up with complex layers of the instrumentation, both organic and electronic.

As such, it’s not an album that strives for immediacy, but is best soaked in over multiple listens. Deconstructing each track and assaying each nuance of every moment. Of course, it takes a certain degree of patience (or pretension) to unpick the record entirely, but once unravelled listeners are rewarded with a dystopian world best described as sci-fi sleaze, and that will stay with them long after the discordant crackle of “Ndeya” has faded out. Dave Beech

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