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New Album Review

“Hyd” EP Review

Pop is a genre that’s very hard to pin down because of just how broad that classification is. The term “pop” changes drastically across time periods and even geographic locations, and music classified as pop can often fall into other genres as well. Over the past few years record label PC Music has become known for pushing the boundaries of what pop can be, and they’ve found another winner here.

Hyd” is the self-titled debut EP by Hayden Dunham under the Hyd moniker, but it’s not their first rodeo with PC Music. In 2015 they came through with the instantly iconic “Hey QT” under the name QT, a song that is very much in PC Music’s wheelhouse of hyperpop, the experimental and maximalist take on electropop that have defined so many of my DJ sets this semester. The song is bright and polished to a sheen, with extremely autotuned vocals dancing over bassy kicks, it’s a really fun song. I bring it up here because while it shares some similarities with the tracks on “Hyd”, their fundamental approach to constructing a song has changed a lot over the past six years.

Let me explain. The actual instruments and effects that appear on the EP are classic hyperpop, lots of off-kilter synths and rapid-fire hi-hats, but they are used in a much different way. For a project with these tricks up its sleeve, the most prominent element here is actually the quiet. From the sudden stops at the height of the chorus on “Skin 2 Skin” to adding a thoughtful, pensive tone to “No Shadow”, restraint plays a massive role in this pop record, two concepts that don’t often go together. Songs are structured around this too, taking their time in building themselves up and slowly widening the soundscape before kicking into overdrive in the final minute. There are verses and choruses, but the instrumental is doing its own thing, treating the entire song as one long exhale.

The long sections where the instrumentals step back mean that the vocals become the star of the show, and they certainly perform under the spotlight. Dunham is working with a lot of conflicting vocal styles that are often used simultaneously, yet don’t clash at all. “The light defines us” is delivered with a robotic cadence while also sounding emotional and filled with wonder, and they often switch between husky and whispering to soaring and passionate on a dime. Lyrically there’s actually quite a lot of repetition, with a drawn out bridge of the line “Away from the light” repeated seven times on “No Shadow” or the multiple choruses in a row in the back end of “The Look on Your Face”. But unlike songs where repetition feels like it prevents the song from advancing, here it’s used to create mantras that drive

On first listen, this might be a bit of a surprise from a PC Music release labeled as pop by streaming services. It’s a pretty slow paced and restrained project that, when presented with the opportunity to go big and overblown, takes the reflective route instead. But if your opinions of what a pop record has to be aren’t totally set in stone, this EP will fit the bill, packaging its complicated themes and unorthodox structures into an easily enjoyable and rewindable experience. And if that isn’t pop then I don’t know what is.

-Erie

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New Album Review

Illuminati Hotties: “Let Me Do One More” Album Review

Illuminati hotties first came to my attention through a genius stealth marketing campaign. Releasing an unannounced album on a blank Bandcamp page, the band was only promoted by two cryptic tweets from Lucy Dacus and the drummer for the band Pup. The music, now released as “FREE I.H This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For,” after being deleted from record for several months. Now, it seems, we have the one we’ve been waiting for.

“Let Me Do One More” is, as you might guess based on her friends, a pop-punk singer-songwriter album. This particular genre mashup is suprisingly not explored all that well, but the Hotties make it feel natural, layering hooks on top of hooks until the songs get quite wordy and obtuse. On the faster songs, lyrics clash and bleed together fast enough that it often borders on free word association. The common refrain of “The DNC is playing dirty; I’m so sad I can’t do laundry,” is a good example, as it makes no sense on any level, but it sure does *feel* right.

Its the album’s ballads that really shine though. While high-energy pop numbers are what hook you in, the album takes you to sad emo boy hours pretty early in the tracklist. Normally the “emotional tracks” on any given pop-punk album are the worst part, but this is where that key endorsement from Lucy Dacus begins to make sense. Frontwoman Sarah Tudzin may be able to light things up with her energy, but you can tell melancholic indie chick is her true form, and so her ballads never fail to tug at my heartstrings.

There’s very little more to analyze about Illuminati Hotties, everything that’s great about them is right there on the surface. The band wears their hearts on their sleeves, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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New Album Review

“a touch of the beat…” by Aly and AJ review

ALBUM: “a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out into the sun” by Aly & AJ

RELEASE YEAR: 2021

LABEL: Aly & AJ Music

RATING: 9.5/10

BEST TRACKS: “Pretty Places” “Slow Dancing” “Personal Cathedrals” “Listen!!!”

FCC: Clean

“a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out into the sun” could not be a more apt title for this mellow pop comeback-album by Aly & AJ. With a long, Fiona Apple-esque title, songwriting assistance from Sky Ferreira, production by Yves Rothman and an 80s synthpop aura, the influences on this record are tangible but never redundant or gaudy. The upbeat tracks make you want to run through a meadow on a cool 70 degree day and the more melancholic tracks are more a warm hug than a pity party.

There were never “Oh my gosh this is so good I could cry” moments but I think that’s what makes this album special. There are no high-highs and thus there are no low-lows; it’s not mountains and valleys, it’s a steady force, an old reliable. It doesn’t feel bound in time either, it’s definitely an album I could revisit years from now and feel similarly about.

The lyricism has the vagueness that makes a pop album. However, I like the honesty that comes with specificity in lyrics, which is why I love folk music, and pop/indie music that leans folk. This album lacks some of that personality that I look for a record, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the vagueness works against the quality of the album as a whole.

Released in May of 2021, this 12 track album clocks in at just over 47 minutes. If you’re in need of a pick-me-up as we’re on the cusp of winter and as the days get shorter, it is impossible to listen to “a touch of the beat…” without feeling at least an iota happier. As my dear friend, Deethony Jaythony says about his favorite feel-good albums, this LP is a “glimmer of happiness in an uncaring void.”

Be sure to listen to this album on Spotify, or wherever you choose to consume your music. 

Happy listening,

Caitlin

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New Album Review

New Album Review: “HOUSE OF CONFUSION” by Trace Mountains

Trace Mountains’ 2020 debut album was a pleasant surprise in a year whose surprises were generally for the wrong reasons. That album, “Lost in the Country”, was this blend of optimism and realness, tackling tough subject matters like mental illness and uncertainty about the future ahead and packaging it in this very neat, jangly project that used all of these themes as undercurrents while its characters journeyed forward into the unknown. Something about the soft, breezy vocals and the hopeful sounding guitar lines really made the album click and was a source of comfort in a scary time. 

“HOUSE OF CONFUSION” is a different animal. The winding road in the distance is no longer the focus, the journey has already begun and the speaker is reflecting on the present and past. Album highlight “7 ANGELS” looks at a relationship as a series of plans, both to continue loving and knowing when it’s time to depart. Structurally this doesn’t unfold like a beginning to middle to end narrative, rather it touches on everything at once, the relationship is both coming apart and being forged through shared experience. “AMERICA” uses recognizable iconography of an “open sky” and “moonlit road”, subjects that have defined countless songs, but it uses those as a snapshot of emotions felt around them, asking “makes you feel like you lost it a distance back there, don’t it?” and ruminating on what America is now and what it’s like living in it.

The instrumentals contribute to this light melancholy with a slower, weightier feel. Both “Lost in the Country” and this album have more than just a little helping of country to go along with their indie-rock sensibilities, but here I never feel like the instrumental is trying to pull ahead of the vocals; they’re both sort of staggering side by side. The drumbeat of “ON MY KNEES” is hesitant, it feels like it wants to take off sprinting in a direction but not knowing where to go it instead takes things slow.

On Apple Music, the lyrics aren’t presented in a standard line-by-line structure and rather as a paragraph. I’m not sure if this is an intentional choice, other lyrics sites like Genius have them in the more conventional form, but I really like the visual of seeing every line back to back. It really shows how much of a stream of consciousness this album really is, using roads and nature as a suit of armor to protect from what’s really going on under the surface: a general feeling that life could be better and it’s getting harder to live with increasingly negative thoughts. Trace Mountains don’t offer any solutions to this, rather it sits back and lets the listener connect with the universal concepts, acting as a bath to soak in one’s own uncertainties.

-Erie

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New Album Review

Album Review: “Valentine” by Snail Mail

When I heard that Snail Mail was releasing a new album, I was taken right back to when I first heard their previous album, “Lush”. That album was one of the defining musical moments of my time in high school, and I’ve been anticipating the project that would eventually become “Valentine” ever since. Now this came out among several disappointing releases for me, but I’m happy to say that “Valentine” did not disappoint.

It starts off with a bang, both the title track and “Ben Franklin” are singles for a reason, and both play heavily to the band’s strengths. Lindsey Jordan’s compelling lyrics have been the face of the Snail Mail brand since its inception, and the way “Valentine” takes what on the surface seems to be a straightforward love song and weaves in themes of jealousy and transience while maintaining an overall fun and driving tone. Pacing is something this album does very well; an album like this where there isn’t that much instrumental variety can often drag but Snail Mail comes at this type of slow, synthy indie rock/pop at all different angles to make it work. The strength of the instrumentals acted almost wavelike across the tracklist, with songs like “Madonna” and “Glory” coming in to balance out slower songs like “c. Et Al.” and keep the album chugging along.

It’s been over three years since the last Snail Mail album dropped, and Jordan had been 19 when debut album “Lush” was released. This means that between albums cycles a lot has gone on in her life and the perspective the songwriting takes has now changed from someone who is just getting started with adult life to someone who would have graduated college if they weren’t busy being a super famous singer. And with the change in perspective comes a change in tone, and in doing so it loses one of my favorite elements of “Lush” when I first heard it. This was such an earnest album, with a bright tone making the songs really come to life and a lot of shouted choruses that made even ruminations on lost love sound fun and upbeat at times, and the album balanced these clashing styles perfectly. For me in high school this was a winning combination that really made “Lush” stand apart from its peers and it’s something “Valentine” has largely eschewed, this is a more weary album. “Automate” features Jordan talking about a rocky relationship, but it feels like a longer meditation delivered with a sigh, the very concept reducing love to machine-like motions.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Wanting an artist to never evolve and always to sound like their debut is creatively stifling for them, this is just to say that as a listener you might need to alter what you think a Snail Mail album should sound like in 2021. And if you’re able to do that, you’ll find an album that’s perhaps less immediate, but with just as much substance and heart.

-Erie

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Blog New Album Review

“Shut the f⁠— up talking to me” Zack Fox Album Review

Editor’s Note: If you can’t tell by the title, this article contains mature themes and language. Reader discretion is advised

ALBUM: “shut the f⁠— up talking to me” by Zack Fox

RELEASE YEAR: 2021

LABEL: Parasang

RATING: 6.2/10

BEST TRACKS: “mind your business” and “get off my d⁠—⁠”

FCC: Explicit language

Twitter personality, comedian, album art designer, and rapper Zack Fox blends humor with pure chaos on his new album, “shut the f— up talking to me.” Fox, well-known for his collaboration with Kenny Beats on their single “Jesus is the One (I Got Depression),” hasn’t exactly won over music critics with his controversial lyrics and outlandish humor. However, his reputation of making “joke rap” doesn’t mean that he isn’t capable of putting out an enjoyable product.

At just under twenty minutes, this album isn’t meant to be revolutionary or inspiring. It’s clear that the goal of this project was to create a short and enjoyable collection of songs that would get some laughs out of the listener. And in my opinion, goal achieved.

Fox’s humor, which is crude and ruthless, is present throughout the entire project. Here are some of my favorite lines:

Raise my hand up in the class and told the teacher, “Suck my d—“

“fafo” – Zack Fox

Kick a b—- n—- off a cliff without no parachute

F— n—- prolly callin’ 12 just like a Karen do

“uhh” – Zack Fox

My n—– barbaric, s— could get ugly as f— like Ed Sheeran

“shut the f⁠—⁠ up talking to me” – Zack Fox

And that’s only a few of them.

While every song has quotable bars, “mind your business” and “get off my d⁠—” are favorites of mine, and not necessarily because of the lyrics. They’re both incredibly fun and catchy, and they give Zack Fox a great opportunity to deliver solid punchlines over some of the smoothest beats I’ve heard this year. Sonically, the other tracks seem to suffer in comparison. For some of the other songs, the vocals reach a level of intensity that isn’t quite matched by the beats, which makes for a slightly awkward experience for the listener.

One example of this is Fox’s collaboration with The Alchemist on the title track, “shut the f⁠— up talking to me.” Here, Zack Fox raps about throwing someone’s baby out of their carriage over a somewhat repetitive instrumental that doesn’t seem to reach a climax.

While these stylistic decisions are interesting, I’m not convinced that they belong together. And although it is nice to see Zack Fox delve into other styles of hip-hop, I would have preferred for the energy in “mind your business” and “get off my d⁠—” to be present throughout the entire project, and I hope his future releases contain more of that energy.

Despite my criticisms of this project, it’s still worth a listen. Fox may not be the most skilled songwriter in the world, but “shut the f⁠— up talking to me” manages to stand out in an ocean of new hip-hop releases. This album is a lot of things, but it’s certainly not forgettable.

Is this an AOTY? No, at least, not for me. But it has some catchy, well-produced songs that you can play at a party. And sometimes, that’s all you really need.

-Marshall Morgan

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New Album Review

“New Shapes” by Charli XCX Track Review

Charli XCX has had a very interesting career trajectory. She first really came into public consciousness on the hook of an Icona Pop song and stayed in the mainstream radio friendly sphere for some time, crafting hits like “Boom Clap” that are still her most popular songs to this day. But for a solid five years now she’s almost been a brand ambassador for hyperpop, the experimental candy coated shock to the system that has seen a massive rise in popularity recently. For me, her music was a gateway into this world, and her last two albums, 2019’s “Charli” and “how i’m feeling now”, a meditation on the pandemic that was equal parts reflective and cathartic, were each my favorite albums of their respective years.

On Thursday, November 4, she kicked off the rollout of her upcoming album, “CRASH”, set to release in March of 2022 and with an accompanying tour. “New Shapes” is the second single off this project, and already it’s clear that the album will be a shift in style from her previous work. “Good Ones”, the first single, was an 80s-inspired pop rumination on lost love accompanied by an aesthetic straight out of that decade, down to her permed hair on the washed out album cover. I thoroughly enjoyed this song and have listened to it a lot since its release, but in a lot of ways it felt like a step back from the highs of “how i’m feeling now”, less adventurous both sonically and lyrically.

Which finally brings me to “New Shapes”. Part of the reason I took this long to talk about the actual three and a half minutes of music was because the context is very important to its appreciation. There are a lot of elements I really like. Charli’s vocal performance is great, and the minimal instrumental really sits back and puts her center stage. I love the quiet but still very present synths occasionally punctuating the track and adding some nice flair. Christine and the Queens, who are Charli XCX feature royalty thanks to her amazing work on “Gone”, are here and put in a great verse to keep the song chugging along.

There were a few elements, though, that drag the song down. The chorus is both too long and somewhat weak for the climax it’s built to be, the concept of loving “in new shapes” is a bit vague and the song could generally use a more clear direction. And while I love Caroline Polacheck’s music (and her amazing set at Hopscotch earlier this year), her feature on the third verse here was just not it. It wasn’t entirely her fault, the instrumental just completely recedes into the background, but her lines were just very awkward and it lacked the sharp edges of recent work like the absolute bop that was “Bunny is a Rider”.

And that’s my biggest frustration with this song. On its own merits it’s fine, good even, but as a Charli XCX song with big name features? It just doesn’t reach the standard her last few albums have forged through their inventive production and just by being a unique voice in a very crowded field. I’ll never forget listening to “claws” for the first time and being blown away by the energy on that track, but I don’t know if I’ll be revisiting “New Shapes” next week, much less next year. I’m still very excited to hear the full album, but it’s a different kind of excitement then I had going into her last few releases, more of how I anticipate a Marvel movie than an Oscar contender. Oh I’ll have fun with it, and take away some memories, but if “New Shapes” is an indication of the direction of the project, I won’t be blown away, and that’s something I had been getting used to from her music.

-Erie

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New Album Review

Album Review: “Queens of the Summer Hotel” by Aimee Mann

As fellow WKNC DJ Snapdragon remarked recently, the weather is no longer cute. It’s getting pretty wintery here in the Triangle, but if you’re looking for an album to hit that sweet cozy spot and make it feel like fall for forty minutes, “Queens of the Summer Hotel” is a sleeper pick.

It achieves this cozy aura by managing to capture the feel of an old record perfectly. This goes beyond the vintage-style album cover or the pianos and strings that are straight out of a 1950s living room, but in the subject matter as well. “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath” shows a snapshot of the titular pair walking “together down the primrose path” and slowly peels the layers away to detail their downfall. A certain Vermeer painting anchors the experiences of the characters in “At the Frick Museum”, while “You Could Have Been a Roosevelt” reminisces on legions of women who are entering a world that doesn’t treat them as an equal, equating it to being born in the wrong US political dynasty. These references act like a familiar blanket for the listener, while the subject matter isn’t always pleasant there is a sense of belonging that keeps you hooked.

When trying to capture a particular time period or style, it’s important to not get lost in the aesthetic and make a piece of art that can stand on its own, and “Queens” never loses sight of this. These settings are a backdrop for universal concepts of complicated romance and how life becomes very different as you grow up, all from an explicit focus on feminism and gender roles in a wider society. It doesn’t pull its punches with social critiques either. “Give Me Fifteen” is an unsettling narrative about a doctor who threatens women with “electroshock”, a stand-in for a broken system that grinds away at mental health and creates a cure that is often worse than the disease. Make no mistake, this is not a happy album, and if unflinching ruminations on mental illness is something that you don’t think you can handle, steer clear. But the way this all comes together creates a curiously warm tone that remains reflective, the quintessential fall vibe.

My first experience with Aimee Mann’s music was seeing her in a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode where she made a cameo as part of a vampire band and played one of her songs, “Pavlov’s Bell”. It’s been several decades now since that episode came out, but something that struck me when I listened to “Queens of the Summer Hotel” was how much of what made her music from that era work is present here, even in this less-guitar based form. Her commanding vocal presence and ability to take listeners on a journey haven’t wavered, and if you’re a fan of Aimee Mann’s earlier work, definitely give this one a shot.

-Erie

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New Album Review

“Any Shape You Take”: New Album Review

ALBUM: “Any Shape You Take” by Indigo De Souza

LABEL: Saddle Creek

RATING: 10/10

BEST TRACKS: “Pretty Pictures” “Real Pain” “Die/Cry”

FCC: None

Let me preface this entire review by saying that this album is my personal album of the year, at least thus far, and in my opinion, Indigo De Souza has yet to have a miss in her entire discography. Her sophomore album, “Any Shape You Take”  was released on August 27 of this year. The record is ten songs long and has a run-time of 38 minutes, an ideal length for an album.

In regard to collaboration, the album was co-produced by De Souza and Brad Cook (Alex Farrar and Adam McDaniel also have production credits). As far as songwriting goes, Owen Stone has a songwriting credit on two songs and Jake Lenderman has a credit on one. 

As a listener, I am lyricism focused, and this album’s biggest strength (although it has little to no weaknesses) are its lyrics. It very much has the honest detailed songwriting that has been emphasized in artists like Phoebe Bridgers as of late. However, De Souza juxtaposes this with repetition of phrases over and over again, that often turn into plea-like shouts. It makes for a dynamic and wonderful listening experience. As I often do in my album reviews, here is a list of just a few of my favorite lyrics from this album.

  • “Do you see me when you’re sleeping? / Do you even shut your eyes at night?” — “Die/Cry”
  • “I promise you I’ll always grow with you / And if my promise ever slips just trust I’ll have the heart to quit / I know when I am better off a friend” — “Pretty Pictures”
  • “I see you in colors, in reds and in oranges / But you can’t color me in fear” — “Way Out”
  • “Dirty the dishеs, stack them higher / We’rе not gonna wash them / We’ll throw them away / Kill me slowly, outside that diner / That we liked to go to / When things were okay”— “Kill Me”

This album is exactly what I needed this year. Other releases were somewhat lackluster, and I was losing hope in having an album I really enjoyed come out this year, but this North Carolina based artist flipped the script.

Happy listening, 

Caitlin

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New Album Review

Dochii: Oh The Places You’ll Go Album Review

Alright my recommendations feed has come up with something great. It’s a rare occasion that the algorithm will promote someone without a lot of industry weight behind them, but Dochii is the exception because I had no idea who this woman is, and she’s left a relatively thin paper trail online. So, let’s take a look at this new force in underground rap, and her introductory album “Oh The Places You’ll Go.”

The obvious starting place for Dochii is the song “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake,” (yes I know, just bear with me). The song literally starts with a teacher asking her to introduce herself to the class, straight up “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” style. This is an extremely well-worn cliché, and you better be at the top of your game if you add something new this way. Fortunately for Dochii, she is. Beyond the persona and content of lyrics, there’s no getting around the fact that Dochii is just a technically masterful rapper. This album is based around Dr. Seuss, and her flows are accordingly very fragmented and sing-songy, but the song never becomes stale. She switches between rhythmic patterns, tempos, and dynamics at such breakneck speed that one medium length song feels like full ep, giving a full impression of her range, personality, and life story through little more than the bread and butter of hip-hop.

The album’s simplicity is a thematic force as well. The ep is centered around school and childhood, hence the Dr. Seuss stuff. Again, comparisons to both Lauryn Hill and about 30 other rapppers are inveitable, but Dochii remains her own person through these well-worn topics. One of the album’s most creative choices is the decision to write and perform from the perspective of an actual tween. Dochii isn’t so much reflecting back on her childhood years so much as performing from an entirely separate character.

If there’s one complaint I have with this album, it’s the interludes. The ep is extremely short, so loading the tracklist down even further with spoken word, found sound, and other skits really makes the pace drag between the actual songs. While I’m the last person to recommending skipping tracks on albums, this is probably a situation where skipping is appropriate.

Dochii is a great addition to underground hip-hop, and while I can’t make any crystal ball predictions about her career, I can only dream of the “Places She’ll Go,” in the future. Take a listen to this new artist, she’s worth your time.