January 2015 and before a blink of an eye it will be the end of 2015 and we will be looking back on what hopefully will be a cracking year of outstanding album releases. The question is, will it be another year of comeback artists or will it be a year of pure genius debuts? Or will it be one of those years that we meander through a year of so-so albums that makes us wish we spent our time going through back catalogues. Let us keep things optimistic and welcome the year in with open wooly lambs feet (or is it hooves?!). While our writers gear up for indulging the ears with the sound of music, we get the year off to a quiet start with too extremely different albums. Mark Ronson strategically releases Uptown Special with so much international hype you cant get away from all of its coverage. Meanwhile, burning behind the scenes is Death Grips delivering their experimental and unique deployment of hip hop. For now, settle in and let us take you on a journey of New Borns for 2015. It’s going to be an interesting year.
Album Title: Uptown Special
Label: Columbia Records
Genre: Funk, RnB, Pop
Moments of standout: Track 7, Daffodils (Kevin Parker of Tame Impala).
Somehow manages to find a middle ground between funk and psychedelic, could pass as a Tame Impala song.
English DJ, guitarist and producer Mark Ronson has finally returned to the scene after a five year silence. For most, the last time we’ve heard Ronson’s name being thrown around was way back in 2010 for brilliant dance tunes Bang Bang Bang and The Bike Song. To complete the record, Ronson ping-ponged between London and Brooklyn, and road-tripped up the Mississippi auditioning unknown church singers, and hit up legendary studios from coast to coast in pursuit of the perfect groove. A feat which he has achieved convincingly, with this amazing star-studded 4th album of his.
By now most of the world has heard the undeniably catchy lead single of this album, Uptown Funk featuring Bruno Mars. I was automatically curious to hear the rest of the album, half expecting Uptown Funk to be the strongest song and all others to be a few notches more average. However, featuring stars like Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt and Jeff Bhasker, producer of three Kanye West albums – I thought wrong.
We’re warmly greeted to Uptown through a dark beat, giving the feeling of walking through a dark and shady street at night. Out of nowhere, a soulful harmonica solo by none other than living legend Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder!! Andrew Wyatt of Swedish band Miike Snow comes in and sings a warm melody to accompany the harmonica transforming the scene from a dark and creepy street of downtown, into an incredibly soulful passionate street in Uptown. After feeling so dark and alone at the very start, you can now see through the fog that was blocking the wonderful street you find yourself in.
Track two, Summer Breaking opens being led by a fuzzy guitar sound and a familiar voice. You realise it belongs to Kevin Parker, lead singer of favourite Aussie act Tame Impala. His hypnotically smooth, high pitched voice sends you into a state of euphoria as you can relax and become comfortable with this album now, you made the right choice. Your attention is grasped immediately with the next song, Feel Right featuring Mystikal, in perhaps the most spot on song title and upbeat song on the album, it really does start to feel right. This is followed directly by family favourite Uptown Funk Track five features some amazingly funky synth sounds provided by Ronson, featuring undiscovered African-American church choir singer Keyonne Starr. This adds raw authenticity, as this Starr was auditioned and chosen for this specific song, being one of the only that would be able to deliver enough oomph and power to match the music it’s accompanying. With these three songs being filled with brass and classic blues sounds, the album has undeniably delivered an amazing funk sound.
The standout track on this album is undeniably the sixth, entitled Daffodils. Yet again featuring Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, this song combines an upbeat sound of funk and blues with a clearly alternatively driven underlying bassline, which is joined by Ronson’s signature funk E13 guitar chord. All in all, this showcases a brilliantly structured yet psychedelic sound, maintaining key funk sounds splattered in all the right places. It is so far set apart from the rest of the album in regard to its sound that this could actually pass as a Tame Impala song. Depending on your opinion of Tame Impala, you can be the judge of how that would work for you, but me loving them unconditionally, this song is already my favourite of 2015 so far.
The rest of the album is filled with vibrant, upbeat funk all the way through, drawing to a close with a muffled old school 50’s tune, played with low quality from a radio speaker of the time, only to burst into high definition harmonica solo by none other than Mr. Stevie Wonder, brilliant synths brass, and brilliant vocals by Bashsker. This was an Uptown Special indeed.
Album Title_ Fashion Week
Genre_ Electronic, Experimental
Moments Of_ Clams Casino, Flying Lotus
Stand Out_ Runway N, Runway D
Californian experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips have once again caught us off guard with the surprise release of ‘Fashion Week’. Uploaded to their website and SoundCloud page, the instrumental soundtrack is not what we’ve come to expect from the group, but it certainly has its moments. It’s unclear why they decided to release an album sans MC Ride’s vocals, but we all know that Death Grips are no strangers to the old musical curve ball.
After the release of the first half of their double album ‘The Powers That B’ last year, frustrated fans are waiting intently for their follow up album ‘Jenny Death’. With no solid release date, the internet shouted ‘JENNY DEATH WHEN’ and they responded with ‘Fashion Week’. In classic Death Grips style, the self-released soundtrack was unveiled on their SoundCloud page with little to no notice. Rumours floating around the internet even suggest that the trio uploaded the album to Reddit 3 months earlier, with most dismissing it as fake. It seems unclear where on the timeline these songs were conceived, leaving many questions unanswered. Are they B-sides? Were they written to keep them in the spotlight, or just to keep their fan base sated while they wait for ‘Jenny Death’?
All of the tracks on the release are named in the style of ‘Runway J’, Runway E’ and so on to spell ‘JENNYDEATHWHEN’. Some fans have stated that ‘Fashion Week’ is the answer to that question, hinting that ‘Jenny Death’ will be released sometime during New Yorks Fashion Week in mid-February. With Deaths Grips’ colourful history of messing with their fans and labels, no one’s really sure when it will be released or if the group is even still together.
Musically, the album is loud, dissonant, jarring and heavily rhythmic in areas, but feels a little empty with the absence of MC Ride’s vocals. The tracks are strong individually, though after the halfway mark, it all starts to get a bit repetitive and had to fight hard to hold my attention, bar the occasional catchy section here and there. Album favourite ‘Runway N’ (the first one) showcases Zach Hill’s outstanding drum work and overall, has that definitive loud and aggressive-yet-quirky Death Grips sound.
Track ‘Runway D’ is another standout, boasting driving rhythms and deep bass that seem to work well without vocals where others don’t. Opener ‘Runway J’ is a good example, providing a syncopated verse structure that screams for something more. This holds true for the duration of ‘Fashion Week’, with the most enjoyable songs being the ones that feel fuller, while others yearn for Ride’s unique and unusual input.
For those that are unfamiliar with Death Grips earlier work, ‘Fashion Week’ is a good place to start. Feeling somewhat vacant without MC Rides trademark roar, the album is still enjoyable for fans and provides a much more accessible entry point for new comers. Generally, the offering good, but it lacks direction or a central theme that holds the experience together. Some tracks feel out of place in the greater context of the album, like they were just written to meet the 14 track criteria to spell ‘JENNYDEATHWHEN’. It’s still worth your time, but it won’t be your favourite Death Grips release by any stretch.