The Soundboard Stereo – August 2018

As we predicted in last month’s edition, August has been yet another slow, mixed month for new music. As ever, some bigger names did rear their heads and we got another handful of great albums, but probably just as many that saw their creators underperforming or simply living down to the lowest of expectations. Thankfully, September looks to be picking up steam like it does every year – particularly in terms of significant releases – but before that, here’s what we’ve had on The Soundboard Stereo this month…

Kamasi Washington – Heaven And Earth

Kamasi Washington’s profile has risen to a far higher standing than really anyone would expect from a contemporary jazz saxophonist and bandleader. His 2015 album, the three-hour-long, appropriately-titled The Epic saw critical adulation pretty much across the board, and after subsequent collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Run The Jewels comes Heaven And Earth, an album that seemingly looks to underline Washington’s presence in modern music. And for most, especially those who aren’t au fait with jazz, this can be a grueling listen, spanning two-and-a-half hours and encompassing acidic freakouts (Connections), ethereal, spacey atmosphere (The Space Traveler’s Lullaby), and even a rendition of the theme to Bruce Lee’s Fists Of Fury, all tied up by Washington’s erratic, squalling saxophone work that’s as layered and detailed as it’s seemingly possible to get. And even if the whole appeal isn’t immediately apparent, the composition and construction is first-rate across the board, taking what could easily be chalked up to severe time management issues and making something gripping. Even if that’s not always the case, Heaven And Earth is the sort of glorious oddity that’s well worth digging into. • LN

Choice picks: Connections, Fists Of Fury, Vi Lua Vi Sol

Ariana Grande – sweetener

If there’s one mainstream album that’s had people talking for the right reasons (Nicki Minaj’s Twitter rants cutting Queen from that list faster that it joined), it’s Ariana Grande’s sweetener. sweetener is by far Grande’s most cohesive release to date – her more disorganised, genre-hopping approach to putting a tracklist together (which often allowed filler to slip through the net) is gone, showcasing a trap-pop sound with heaps of inspiration from R&B that’s firmly rooted in 2018. It’s not untouched territory by any means, but the use of piano as a lead instrument and especially the quirky embellishments – whether that be the oddly enticing dreamlike synths backing R.E.M or the saxophone motif leading successful, which would be hilarious if it didn’t work so well – make it seem like a truly unique offering. Of course, Grande herself is the main draw. Aside from her always flawless vocals, she sells everything she sings. She plays sexy, reflective, lovestruck amongst others on this record, and nothing seems forced. better off, a gorgeous highlight, shows the singer give an understated performance oozing with character and beauty, not something easy to enact. To be critical, sweetener isn’t an album of sugary pop bangers that will sate any cravings immediately (aside from radio-ready singles no tears left to cry and God is a woman, perhaps the best track Grande has ever done) – it takes time to truly appreciate everything here. But not including borderline, the only real dud, this is the album where Ariana has found her sound, and without a doubt marks the start to the true upward trajectory of her career. • GJ

Choice picks: God is a woman, successful, better off

Aerosmith – Get A Grip

It’s easy to make fun of ‘90s Aerosmith, particularly with Get A Grip. This sort of flagrantly flashy hard rock is what grunge was supposed to have killed off, and with its three biggest singles Cryin’, Crazy and Amazing being basically the same song, a Bon Jovi-esque ploy to scramble together as much mainstream favour as possible wasn’t out the question (and that’s not even mentioning the attempts at social commentary on Eat The Rich). But even with all that, Get A Grip is the sort of riotous album that a band phoning it in could never produce, and even if that would inevitably come further down the line, this is still the work of a band hitting another strength in their career. The fact that so many songs from this album have become as ubiquitous as they have speaks volumes on its own, but even as far as deep cuts are concerned, the likes of Fever and Line Up speak for themselves as far as examples of a band still having that fire are concerned. Even for as unashamedly corny as Cryin’ and Crazy can be, they’ve rightly established themselves among the all-time-great power ballads, and that’s hard to argue with. And at the end of the day, while a band like Aerosmith always have and always will have a very defined audience to whom they’ll appeal, what they do on Get A Grip ultimately undeniable. • LN

Choice picks: Cryin’, Fever, Crazy

Coldplay – Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends

Plenty of people probably rolled their eyes when they saw this pick, and although plenty of others (this writer included) see the widespread Coldplay hate in the alternative community as a rather unjust phenomenon, it’s not hard to see where such opinions stem from. While the ‘dour, depressing Coldplay’ that released Fix You or The Scientist is undoubtedly responsible for most of the revulsion, the current pop incarnation of the stadium giants is sure to have alienated a few loyalists. Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends was the album that began this genre segue, capitalising on the ever-widening arsenal of instruments that had been built up on their first three albums, particularly X&Y. Although it might not be quite as consistent, Viva La Vida… is vibrant and brimming with creativity compared to Parachutes. Take Yes for example, which boasts an intro straight from a 1920s film, Arabian-sounding motifs and a soaring guitar outro with none of it feeling out of place. This record showed Coldplay’s unexpected competence with synthwork (see Death And All His Friends and the stunning Lovers In Japan) and drama (in both the vein of the anthemic Viva La Vida or the towering Violet Hill). Most importantly though, this feels like the first Coldplay album where you can hear the band’s smiles through the music – one of the many reasons why, like it or not, Viva La Vida… is responsible for the pop-centric Coldplay we have today. • GJ

Choice picks: Lost!, Lovers In Japan, Violet Hill

Dan + Shay – Dan + Shay

To some, Dan + Shay represent the breaking point of pop’s infiltration of modern country. As much as many can’t get past the idea of a duo tailoring their music to appeal to their typically young female fanbase, it’s the polish and unashamed appropriation of pop gloss that really hits a breaking point. And that’s a salient point, but in terms of sheer melodic compositions, Dan + Shay are certainly not bad at what they do. The duo do admittedly lean a bit too heavily on mushy, lovestruck softness on a track like Speechless that feels made for a very specific audience and no one else (though for a song dedicated to their wives, you can’t really expect much else), but on tracks like Keeping Score and My Side Of The Fence, there’s a tenderness that can at least be appreciated if not always liked. And while there’s not a hard or aggressive bone in this band’s body, picking up a bit of pace for Make Or Break or some more tangible melancholy on Tequila at least keeps things moving a bit more. It’s definitely not for everyone, and even then certain songs really only achieve that desired impact, but this is an album that’s harmless more than anything, and it’s hard to denigrate it for that alone. • LN

Choice picks: Keeping Score, Make Or Break, Tequila

Ryn Weaver – The Fool

Anyone familiar with the name Ryn Weaver will probably credit her single OctaHate as the thing that sparked their interest. The absolute firecracker of a pop track, initially released on Soundcloud, ignited the hearts of critics and consumers alike, and earned buzz galore prior to her first full-length. But The Fool, Weaver’s 2015 debut album to which the song belongs, presents a much less clear-cut image. The artist behind these songs is someone with solid talent and ideas but much less in terms of cohesive execution of an album. A significant portion of these songs (particularly in the album’s second half) are made around a base of organic instruments and while they’re clearly the more personal offerings, they’re nowhere near as sonically interesting as other parts of the record. The initially minimalist songs which build to a soar (Sail On, Promises) and in particular the stomping pop tracks which play with dynamics are where this project thrives. The title track and aforementioned OctaHate are some of the most emotionally rousing pop songs of the last five years – you’re quickly hooked on the adrenaline that comes as the percussion swells and Weaver ventures into the higher end of her range, and finding that those moments aren’t as common as you’d perhaps like is a slight disappointment. It’s a solid record, though, especially for a debut. A follow-up has been quietly promised for ‘soon’ for some time, and while it’s only from a small pool of eager listeners, the second album pressure is sure to be looming. Fingers crossed the quality is slightly more consistent, because more songs like the best on The Fool would make Ryn Weaver a perfect addition to the throng of artists rejuvenating the flourishing pop genre. • GJ

Choice picks: OctaHate, Sail On, The Fool

Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Georgia Jackson (GJ)

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