Some only remember George Watsky as the pale kid who raps fast. But to others, Watsky is much more than that. The poet, rapper, producer, social leader and now published author built his career on telling it like it is. He finds emotional common ground and plants himself there to bring things together rather than tearing them apart. On the 1st of July, shortly after another devastating mass shooting and just before the celebration of American independence and democracy, Watsky posted a video of his new single featuring fellow youtube-based songwriter Julia Nunes. The song serves as Watsky’s response to the increasing frequency of mass shootings and a scathing critique of how society tends to react to them. He satirically plays the part of a news anchor reveling in boosted ratings and a politician who manipulates emotions to further his own agenda claiming that “nothing ever could have been done to prevent it.”
The video itself is just a black box until almost the halfway mark when a list of state representative’s contact info starts to appear with the message “Call Your Senator” at the top. Watsky is certainly not the first musician to use his art as a response to this terrible event. Melissa Etheridge wrote “Pulse” as a tribute and a number of LGBT artists have made their voices heard. A large number of notable Youtube creators like Hannah Hart and Tyler Oakley have also posted their own thoughts on the issues surrounding Orlando and events like it. But Watsky’s unique voice and way of addressing these issues is as much about bringing about change as it is about bringing love and acceptance to a hurting community.
DJ Shadow made history 20 years ago with Endtroducing… a one of a kind instrumental hip-hop album composed entirely of samples. And while his later works never quite hit the same heights as that debut, the west coast producer has continued to deliver some of the most unique instrumental albums in the genre. Shadow doesn’t just make beats, he constructs impressive soundscapes that weave in and out of each other. He ties them up into a narrative arc without really needing words, and The Mountain Will Fall follows the same tack. The tracklist features more guest spots than one might expect, but none of them steal the spotlight away from where it should be: the beats, the music, the tone. It’s not an attempt to recreate Endtroducing… but Shadow’s motivations seem to come from the same place and its success stems from that more than anything else.
Experimentation and novelty made DJ Shadow a legend and the same things take The Mountain Will Fall out of the realm of beat-tapes and into its own space. The album begins with a spoken “Hi!” and swelling, ambient synth pads before the beat drops in with a sampled holler and thunderous, wonky drum sounds. The serenity and calmness of the synths and the beat sheer volume and force smash against each other in confusion and harmony, never sure if it’s a competition and if it is, who is winning. The whole project tilts that way. Elements find themselves in strange contrast with other elements, drops land in unexpected places like they showed up early or late. Most of the time, confusion serves to benefit the overall concept, but not always.
The second track, “Nobody Speak,” which features Run The Jewels, is on of the more out of place pieces. Not to say it’s bad, it just feels more like an El-P beat than a DJ Shadow beat and it’s the only fully and clearly lyrical song on the project. The tone and the lyrics don’t line up with the rest of the album, and the following track, “Three Ralphs” is hardly a full composition and serves mostly as a bridge between “Nobody Speak” and the nine following songs. By track five, “The Sideshow” however, Shadow finds a solid pocket and The Mountain Will Fall, doesn’t lose much steam from there on out. The track features abundant record scratches, deep brass bass, and a killer break-beat that nods to the sound of the mid 90’s when Shadow was coming up.
The back half of The Mountain Will Fall continues the atmospheric trend with the dark and intense “Depth Charge” and the waves and soft electronic accents of “Ashes to Oceans.” Each track contains elements that seem outside of DJ Shadow’s normal comfort zone but to his credit, he works them into his more comfortable style effortlessly. “California” picks up about three minutes in and shows a noisy, aggressive side to the artist that sounds Death Grips inspired. Tracks like “Mambo” and “Ghost Town” involve that newly popular style of hesitated drum hits and high, fast tempo, clicks. It’s a new sound for Shadow, but he makes these things sound right at home amid his piano loops and deep house bass.
Enough time and perseverance might surely make a mountain fall to the ground, just like time and perseverance can keep a legendary producer from ever sounding stale. The Mountain Will Fall is a picture of an artist who keeps moving motivated by curiosity and experimentation. Consistent evolution is the name of the game for DJ Shadow. He’s not the same DJ he was in ’96 but he’s still one of the most creative and original music-makers in the business.
Electronic dance music. A fine art in the sense that it’s a masterful way to dictate the energy and atmosphere of a room full of ravers. But not so much in the eyes of the average critical and analytic music buff, whose home lies in well-crafted, live instrumentation and audacious songwriting. Usually, electronic dance always has a habit of throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the listener. This happens with the volume turned up to eleven and an explosive electronic riff usually substituting for the refrain. But then you have exceptions such as Norwegian deejay Kygo’s debut album, Cloud Nine. Cloud Nine is a unique, downtempo take on a genre usually filled with loud noises. Traditionalists of EDM will probably hate the album’s calm and collected nature. However, Cloud Nine‘s marquee of catchy riffs, vibrant and spacious atmosphere and ensemble of incredible vocal talent will be a crowd-pleaser for casual listeners.
Cloud Nine clocks in at 55 minutes, consisting a joy ride of many different musical emotions across 15 unique tracks. It does this while keeping a philosophy of calm and tranquil musicianship. This is something you’d never see Avicii, Zedd, or any of the mainstream EDM artists take on. The album earns its name for a warm and relaxing experience that will have you feeling like you’re floating on “cloud nine”. There’s never an array of many different electronic melodies flying at once. There aren’t any loud drums or earth-shaking bass to be found. There is only the attractive craftsmanship of Kygo and his ability to create soulful songs out of the same “verse-buildup-drop” structure of the traditional EDM track. He accomplishes this electronic music production by regressing to simply a melody and its chords. For example, on the album’s most commercially exposed track, “Stay”, there are only three parts to the song’s “drop”: a warped piano track playing the chords, a simple synth melody and a smooth drum loop. All 3 parts are within a comparatively slower tempo than the average 140 BPM EDM track.
In various tracks, a particular live instrument becomes the feature of the track, setting the track’s mood and atmosphere with it. In “Raging”, it’s a dancing acoustic guitar. In “Happy Birthday”, it’s a commanding piano performance. Finally, in “Not Alone”, it’s a tranquil electric guitar. Some tracks bring the same instrument into the forefront, but employs them in a different way to match the intended color of the sound. “Serious” also features an electric guitar, but with a more passionate edge. This theme of the album helps give each track its own unique style and flavor. That’s what prevents Cloud Nine from becoming a 55-minute dud of aimless electronic music that sounds alike throughout.
Another strength of Cloud Nine stems from the host of amazing vocal talent featured on the album. Kygo managed to round up some rather gifted individuals. These individuals are both well-known inside and outside the mainstream and execute the album’s various vocal exercises. The biggest names on the album, John Legend and Foxes, both give some powerful performances on “Happy Birthday” and “Oasis” respectively. Legendary Australian duo Angus and Julia Stone also make an appearance on Cloud Nine. They kick out some fun and enchantment on closing track “For What It’s Worth”. Another fellow Australian, singer-guitarist Matt Corby, lays down a sensual and stimulating hymn on “Serious”.
Our hearts are like firestones And when they strike, we feel the love
Of course, no album gets pressed onto the store shelf without carrying a few flaws. While the near-entirety of Cloud Nine‘s music and vocal talent is flawless, the album’s songwriting itself is there, existing as a substantial weight on the enjoyment of the lyrically-minded audiences. The album’s biggest weakness is it’s rather disposable lyrics. They seem to be made up simply as a reason to have vocals on the album. The track list of Cloud Nine consists mostly of poppy love songs and cheesy inspiration songs. “Firestone” has Conrad Sewell singing, albeit in a wavy and enjoyably hypnotic tone: “Our hearts are like / firestones / and when they strike / we feel the love”. The cheese is real.
Repetition is the bane of good songwriting, and unfortunately, Cloud Nine succumbs to a hell of a lot of repetition. It is not only confined to various repeats of choruses and hooks, but even deathly repetition of singular words or phrases. In the intro to “I’m in Love”, James Vincent McMorrow shouts the title of the song 23 times in a row. Yes, you heard me, in the intro alone. Foxes’ ethereal performance on “Oasis” includes of a three-line chorus where the phrase “You’re my oasis” is repeated twice. Even Angus and Julia Stone’s performance on “For What it’s Worth” is wasted on repetition. They sing the phrases: “We were kids / trying to make it up / as we go along / as we go along” and “For what it’s worth / I was only trying to / wake you up” four and eight times, respectively.
Come take my heart of glass, and give me your love I hope you’ll still be there to pick the pieces up
There is a grand exception to the disappointing offering in songwriting, though. That exception is the song “Fragile”, spearheaded by a powerful performance by British pop icon Labyrinth. In what seems to be a sharp deviation from the corny love songs, “Fragile” draws it’s themes from the classic metaphor of the shattered heart. This falls in line with Labyrinth’s trademark of unusually artful songwriting. “Come take my heart of glass / and give me your love / I hope you’ll still be there / to pick the pieces up / ’cause baby, I’m fragile”, he sings.
For it’s rather disappointing lyrical effort, Kygo’s Cloud Nine more than makes up for it. It makes up in the form of some well-crafted, calm and collected electronic music that keeps to the form of the traditional EDM song structure…while avoiding the precarious jumping of the shark. Throughout its length, it delivers a relaxing experience through a minimalist style of production that creates a space of elation and composure in the otherwise noisy world of electronic music. Cloud Nine is backed by strong and stunning performances by a diverse range of skilled vocalists, from all kinds of fames and fortunes. For the average EDM listener used to the big sounds and heavy lines, it might be a bore. For the songwriters’ crowd, it might be a whole bunch of inedible corn, with the exception of “Fragile”. However for the casual listener, it will be nothing less than a delight.
However, the years have mostly been kind to the band.They’ve evolved and experimented with each new release and for the most part their efforts have been successful.Thom Yorke and companyhave also experimented with the way music is marketed and released. They did this with their name-your-price 2007 album In Rainbows, and the surprise release and atypical packaging of The King Of Limbs.This time, 5 years later, the band removed all social media and internet presence only to return with cryptic video loops, pamphlets, and finally 2 music videos and a release date.The hype was real, and it was strong, but now it’s here…the fabled LP 9: A Moon Shaped Pool.
Let’s be honest, The King Of Limbs had some people worried that Radiohead had their time in the sun. People assumed that the album signaled a band exiting their prime and moving towards more and more disappointing releases. The fans can rest easy. A Moon Shaped Pool is a stunning and gorgeous piece of artistry that continues to experiment, expand, and evolve the unique talents of the band’s members.It can’t truly be called a return to form because it is a new direction entirely, but there is a feeling that this new album shares an emotional and atmospheric core with Amnesiac and Kid A.
Where TKOL was punchy and percussive, AMSP is dreamy and melancholy.It focuses more on soaring strings, smooth melodies, and space textures, giving the album a more somber and dramatic quality. The string arrangements in particular make certain moments cinematic, like the light, jumpy violins that switch off with driving basses and cellos on “Burn the Witch”.It puts the listener on edge and unsettles the senses from the first moment.“Glass Eyes” and the finale of “The Numbers” are reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s work on film soundtracks; building chords and swelling to beautiful conclusions.The scope of the instrumentation elevates the songs to new and unexpected places.
The band has been working on many of the songs on AMSP since the late 1990’s and you can hear the different moments through many of the tracks.“Identikit” and “Full Stop” call back to the percussion and repetition of In Rainbows and TKOL . “Decks Dark” and “Tinker Tailor…” call back the heavily synthesized feelings of Kid A and OK Computer. This mixing of sounds gives some songs a sense of restlessness.“The Numbers”, while it revolves mostly around a Neil Young-esque vintage folk rock sound, has so many external elements. There are piano accents and percussion instruments that jump in and out, giving the track an intentional messiness. Like an orchestra tuning before a concert, things are just noisy, like they haven’t gotten settled. It’s like the elements weren’t ready for the record to exist yet, and are desperately trying to get back in order. The album was never meant to sound settled, it’s transitioning. It’s working through some personal stuff right now so please pardon the rough edges. This feeling of uneasiness and restlessness comes back over and over on “Desert Island Disk”, “Glass Eyes”, and “True Love Waits”.
Lyrically, Thom follows a similar line.The mood overall is pensive and even grim at times.It makes sense, seeing as Thom Yorke recently split with his partner of almost 25 years.Many of the songs have a somewhat cynical or pained take on the concepts of love and relationships.But Yorke also takes on social issues and the increasing digitization of the world we live in; a topic Radiohead has approached in a number of ways for years. Here, the lyrics are conflicted in a different way. Yorke advocates running away and hiding from the world, but laments being lonely and forgotten.He cycles between feeling pain and accepting that the reasons for the pain are there and they are legitimate.He flips back and forth between anger and pleading desperation on “Full Stop”.He seems to be wrestling with himself, his relationships, the world at large, and societal power dynamics, all with varying degrees of success. Sometimes he’s panicky and frantic, sometimes cocksure and arrogant, and sometimes pleading or demanding the world’s assistance. As a whole, the atmosphere is much more reserved and introspective, quieter than some of the band’s other work.
For some artists, as they move in the direction of nostalgia and self-reflection, it can become predictable and uninteresting for the listener. In the case of Radiohead, the fact that so much of this album was in the works for so many years gives it a fresh quality.It truly does read lyrically and musically as a flashback on the band’s work and on the personal lives involved. It shows where the world has gone since they started.It’s a powerful and unique statement that, despite the variety of influences involved, doesn’t ever sound messy without meaning to.It’s very calculated and very intentional.Radiohead, it seems, are far from being past their prime, and still know how to transform and make great art out of pain.
Aesop Rock has built his career on his massive vocabulary, abstract wordplay, and a talent for taking the mundane and making it sound deep and complex. Over the years, he’s experimented with his style and became more hands-on with his production. He jumped into projects with unlikely collaborators like Kimya Dawson and John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats). He gets more and more personal with his writing as he goes. His newest album, The Impossible Kid, finds one of the most unique independent rappers for the past two decades coming to terms in a new way with the fact that he’s been one of the most unique independent rappers for the past two decades.
Aesop takes on an entirely new perspective with this album, delivering his most grounded and personal album to date.On “Lotta Years” he speaks about observing young people with bad neck tattoos and removable dreadlocks. He questions his place in the future, in relation to a generation whose ideas of art and rap music are entirely different from his when he started out.A few songs later on “Blood Sandwich” he addresses two stories, one about each of his two brothers.In the first, he recounts a little league game that gets derailed by a burrowing rodent.The second is about his religious mother refusing to let his older brother attend a Ministry concert because she detects satanic influences. In classic Aesop style, the connection between these stories, and the insinuation that Aesop hasn’t spoken to his older brother for a while, isn’t initially clear. However, by painting these little vignettes, he’s really trying to put forward a clearer idea of where he came from and how that affected who he is now.
“Shrunk” details a psychiatric visit.“Dorks” is a shrugging acceptance of Aesop’s outsider status.“Kirby” tells the story of his recent decision to get a kitten at the suggestion of his psychiatrist.“Rings” laments the fact that he doesn’t do much drawing anymore.He raps that it’s “hard to admit that I used to draw.”These moments describe an Aesop Rock who, at some level, is actively trying to pull down the walls that previously existed between his life and what he puts on his records. As a whole, it makes the album easier to relate to. At least, it gives it an approachable human quality.
The human aspect actually saves the album from feeling a little bit one-note.Aesop producedthe entirety of The Impossible Kid, and while his ear has improved over his career, the album does fall prey to a lot of the same pitfalls as his production with Hail Mary Mallon on Bestiary.It feels a little rigid and harsh at times, focused more on strong and punchy quarter note rhythms than on building an atmosphere and giving the tracks interesting textures.Granted, there’s a noticeable effort made to smooth the production over, but it’s often hit-or-miss. Alternately, Aesop’s rapping technique has been consistent for the past few years, but it hasn’t shown too much evolution and can feel stale at times.The engaging and honest nature of the writing certainly helps to gloss over the album’s faults even if it doesn’t totally fix them.
Impossible Kid does have production gems here and there.“Defender” is a surprisingly ethereal track with some more nuanced drums and a smooth bass/synth combination. It has a cheesy DJ sting or two, but it’s forgivable in the greater mix. “Get Out Of The Car” cuts out the beat altogether and lets Aesop’s percussive vocals work to give the track a strong rhythm.It’s a smart choice that highlights the weight of his message on the track. You can hear that he wrote the verse to include plenty of piercing consonants to give it a rhythm.Above all, there’s poetry on the track. Word choice and delivery just proves how much he deserves the respect he’s gained.
If nothing else, Aesop Rock has always delivered tight verses that keep you hovering over the rewind button the whole time. His delivery on this album follows suit with toothy diction, quick-fire imagery, and chuckle-inducing punchlines (“Cherry? No.Whip? Yes.”). For those who go in for Aesop’s unique flow and intellectual “wordsmith-ery”, The Impossible Kid is a satisfying addition to his body of work. The album does have something going on at a deeper level.It’s less about the state of the rap game or the state of the world, and more about the state of Aesop Rock himself than anything else in his catalog.For all of the record’s faults, Aesop’s attempt to write in a less guarded way is ultimately a success. The Impossible Kid carves out a truly unique spot for itselfwithin his discography.
His music is layered with complex electronic melodies and haunting vocals. I have been listening to him for a while now, and I was very surprised to see him as a featured artist on Beyonce’s new Lemonade album. After listening to him on “Forward” with Beyonce, I decided to check in and see if he had any new music. Lo and behold he does. The Colour in Anything is James Blake’s fourth studio album. It is a bit of a continuation of his other albums, more reminiscent of a long saga than anything. You can hear the wheels of creativity turning on each track. While it may not have the sound of most mainstream music, it has a strange and hypnotic appeal to it. Blake has such a vast musical sound, you can hear elements of hip hop and experimental pop all throughout the album.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “My Willing Heart”. The song is held together with a nice in-the-pocket drumbeat and strategically placed piano chords. The lyrics are an ode to the age-old question of knowing, “When is love here?” “Points” is a track that can’t go un-mentioned. The song is a bit of a goodbye letter. It’s sung like a selection for a funeral, being held for a relationship that could have been more. It’s one of the more memorable songs on the album.
“The Colour in Anything” is the title track of this album. It’s a ballad with gospel influenced chords. The song allows you to take a moment to sit back and take a break from the other more produced tracks on the album.
While this album is interesting, it is not one I can see my self consistently listening to. At least not in the same way that I listened to Blake’s Overgrown album . That album has a special place in my heart. I will have to give this album a C-, but I will still keep my ear open for new James Blake music. I hope to see more artistic growth In the future .
*Please note that this review is based on both the visual and musical version.
Beyonce released an album called Lemonade on April 26th. She released an unannounced visual album on HBO that has been the talk of the world this past week. The album alone didn’t quite grasp my attention, but the combination of the visuals and the music did.
The album is a documentary that focuses on all of the relationships in Beyonce’s life. She talks about marriage: the good, the bad, and the ugly. She starts of with a playful, yet gripping song called “Hold Up “. She walks through town wearing a golden gown, hell bent on destroying everything in her path. The next song, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a song that demands respect. Although the song is not my cup of tea, I can appreciate the variety it adds to the album. Jack White is a featured artist on this track, which adds a rock song to the album.
In my opinion, this is when the album becomes a little stagnant. Beyonce goes on to talk about the destruction of her relationship. The next two songs, “Sorry” and “6 inch” dragged the album down. I only stuck around for the visuals and cameos at this point. Serena Williams and a few dancers in African garb danced provocatively across the screen.
Just when I was about to call it quits, the album takes another turn. “Daddy’s Lesson” is probably my favorite song on this album. It’s like the Beyonce before “I am Sasha” was allowed to come out and play for a while. The visuals even begin to look brighter. There’s an uplifting tone to the monologue. The song leads off with a New Orleans-sounding brass band. This is an inspirational country tune that talks of a troubled father/daughter relationship. I fell in love with the song the moment I heard it.
“Love Drought” isn’t a remarkable song, but it’s followed by a beautiful piano-driven ballad called “Sand Castles”. The production on this song is amazing. The vocals are raw and intense. The visuals give you an intimate look inside of Beyonce’s relationship with Jay-Z.
By the time we reach the next song , you can tell we’ve reached a different chapter of this story. We are shown a group of women when “Forward” featuring James Blake is played in the background. This song is directly followed by a snippet, “Freedom” ft Kendrick Lamar. As Beyonce sings to a crowd of women, the mothers of slain African-American teenagers are featured standing strong: the definition of strength.
“All Night” is the closing track. It’s an uplifting reggae-inspired song. The visuals feature different couples of all races and sexual orientations.
Overall, I give this album a C-rating for music. There were some gems among the rubble that made it worth listening to. Tracks like: “Daddy Lessons”, “Sand Castles”, “Freedom”, and “All Night” were great! The beginning of the album dragged a bit in my opinion. Visually, I’m giving the album a “B”. The director took some very interesting ideas and made them work. The cameos alone made profound statements.
So, if you combine the visual with the music, Lemonade gets a “B- “.
Images appears courtesy of Cosmopolitan.com and HBO.com
If one line Blueprint ever spit on a record could serve as a mantra for his career path, it might be this one from 2011’s “Radio-Inactive”:
“Make it more commercial, Print/ You probably would sell more” But I’m eating now, so I’m like, “What the hell for?”
Blueprint is one of the most prolific producers, rappers, and collaborators in the underground scene since 1999. Blueprint has steadily churned out banger after banger with acts such as: Rhymesayers, Greenhouse Effect, Soul Position, and Atmosphere. He started out as a producer; churning out dark, head-bobbing beats for Aesop Rock and Illogic. Soon, he jumped into the rap game and honed his distinctive, yet deliberate pace, along with his elastic flows. His approach has been one of constant evolution and improvement from record to record; especially since 2011’s major stylistic turning point, Adventures in Counter Culture.
On April 20, Blueprint announced a new narrative EP produced entirely by fellow Rhymesayers veteran Aesop Rock. I got the chance to chat with him between his many projects. We spoke at length about his inspiration behind the album and the stylistic direction of the story. Read the interview below:
AltWire [Dan Kok]: So Vigilante Genesis is a story album. What is the inspiration for this story in particular?
Blueprint: I mean I’d say it’s a combination of reading comic books and having shit happen in real life that kind of makes you think about what you can do and what you would do if certain things happened, you know?So the character in the story he’s…he’s just a regular dude, you know, but he’s just kind of trying to figure out how to find, you know…I guess resolution in an environment where that’s just not possible.So, he’s trying to find a way to get back at businesses or institutions or whatever his way is of fighting.But in doing so he kind of get’s taken down the wrong road.I mean it’s a fine line between activism and vigilanteism and just, you know, thinking you’re taking matters into your own hands but there’s also the law involved.And so the record kinda goes deep into-
Random nail gun noisily falls
[laughs] Random nail gun.Yeah, so there’s that fine line, so the record kinda comes from that.
There was an event where I kind of felt like…I was dealing with this business and I felt like they kind of shitted on me.And it just gave me the idea like “Man, what do you do when you can’t get no resolution?Is this why people bust out windows of businesses?”They say a lot of employee theft is due to, you know, being unhappy with pay and things of that nature, these little passive aggressive or just directly aggressive things that people do.It made me think about that, so the story kind of came from that and from just falling back in love with and rediscovering comics again.
Are there specific comics that served as a jumping off point?
I think around 2008 or 2009…I stopped drinking in 2010, but in 2008 and 2009 I started getting back into reading again. You know I missed so many comic books; years of comics.I remember looking at some top 10 lists of the best graphic novels of all time.So I went back and I looked at the list and I was like “Man, I’m gonna try to get as many of these as possible.”So I took that list and I went back and, like, I read the Watchmen for the first time…
Yeah I read Batman: The Dark Night Returns, Batman Year One…The Sandman, some Daredevil stuff, I just started getting into more of the full length graphic novels and that kind of got me into reading again.Those stories and that whole ethic.You know, those are all people with no powers except Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen; but except him, none of the other characters have powers. It just kind of awakened me to that kind of story telling.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting, those normal people and that sort of darker bent to a lot of those comics.They explore that very fine line between moral right and moral wrong.That’s very interesting that you mention those as major inspirations for this album.Does this story also sort of toe that line between moral right and moral wrong?
Oh completely, completely it does.I mean there’s parts where, you know, the character is trying to do the right thing, but he’s not afraid to, like, cut somebody or stab somebody. [laughs] You know, whereas most guys they have that absolute thing, Batman won’t use a gun, Daredevil won’t either, he won’t kill anyone.My character doesn’t really have that.It’s not necessarily revealed in this thing, in the story, that he’s that guy.He’ll take it as far as the people who are attempting to harm him will take it.
Aside from the comic books, your work seems to have sort of a juggling of the idea of having a real respect for the art form and a real reverence for the roots of everything and where it’s taken you and a knowledge and some harsh criticisms of how that has affected culture in sometimes negative ways.Does this album fit at all into that idea?
I don’t think so.I think this is kind of…Because this record, there’s only like one song that isn’t a complete story.So this record is pretty much a concept record, as much as you can make a concept record.I kind of wanted to really challenge myself to make the record its own thing and not be like anything else in my catalogue.
As far as sound goes, you’ve also had really consistently evolving sounds especially since Adventures in Counter Culture.There was a really ethereal, synth-y sound to that and Respect the Architect ended up with more of a boom-bap thing.What kind of sound influences are gonna come into Vigilante Genesis?
Well this record was produced entirely by Aesop Rock.
That right there just changes the whole feel there.Maybe a feel I wouldn’t have gone for myself for just a standard record.But for a concept record where we’re talking about the darker elements of human behavior and vigilanteism and dealing with people, I think that his production fits it perfectly.It’s not production that he would have necessarily rhymed on himself.He would send me beats for it and there may be ten beats and I would always pick the one that he didn’t think I would pick.He’d be like “Why’d you pick that one?” So he was thinking he’d put the ones he liked the most as the first 5 or 10, and I would pick the 11th one every time. [Laughs]
So you’re saying it’s a whole self contained thing.I don’t know, is this a typical Blueprint record? A typical Aesop record?An Orphanage record?None?All?
I don’t think it’s either.I think it’s gonna be something new unto itself.I think he just put out a new single from his latest record and, I mean, the stuff that we’re doing on this project doesn’t sound like anything on his record.And theres a reason, and the main reason is that when you’re telling stories, you have to make sure that the music is kind of a backdrop.It’s almost, like, the same philosophy as when people are scoring movies.When they score movies there not choosing the music that bangs, you know?There choosing the music that complements the mood of the narrative and that’s kind of what I chose in his production every time.I chose pieces that completely complemented the narrative, but they wouldn’t necessarily be beats that you would hear and say “I’m gonna write a rap song talkin’ shit” you know?It’s perfect for what I’m doing but it doesn’t necessarily fit anything that we’ve done prior.
Is this the longest full project you’ve worked with Aesop on?
Yes it is.
So what was it like to come together with him on something so highly conceptual and really ambitious?
The production part for him was probably…that was probably the easiest part.The difficult part was for me to make sure I had the story and the vision and was choosing things that could make the story sound right.Not repetitive, not sounding like his stuff or my stuff, not what people expect from us.That was the biggest challenge.I mean as far as his working attitude, Aesop is the consummate professional.He’s a guy that wakes up and does music all day.If you call him up and say “Hey I need a…whatever for this” he’ll probably get it back to you within an hour.That’s the kind of musician he is.He doesn’t play basketball or play chess, you know…[laughs] He doesn’t go to the bar, watch MMA, he doesn’t do that shit.He just is into music, he’s that kind of guy.
You’ve both had absurd turnaround times on stuff lately.Like, coming out with consistently one or two projects a year since Adventures in Counter Culture in 2011.What do you think it is about you guys that makes you so able to do that?
If I had to guess I would say that it’s the fact that neither of us drink. [laughs] That’s my first guess, I think sobriety.Cause when I was drinking I couldn’t turn around records as fast, I’d be sitting around second guessing myself for about a year having something great.I thought like “I’ll just do it when I’m inspired.”Now it’s like, “Aw, let me just finish this.Let me just dedicate more time to it.”That was my turning point.And as far as I know I don’t think [Aesop] has really ever been a drinker…as an artist those things kind of help loosen you up at times, but then they kind of have a diminishing return after a while.
I think it’s interesting you mention second guessing.Is it that you’re more confident with what you’re putting out?Or have you just learned to not second guess and just put it out because thats better than waiting until it’s perfect?
Exactly, because there’s no such thing as perfect.I’ve had situations where the music I’ve worked on for the least amount of time has been the most well received and the music that I’ve sat on forever trying to make it “perfect” has been the least well received.And in my mind I knew that because I’d worked on this thing for a long period of time that everyone else would see that or hear it.But that’s not always the case, you know.I think that as you do it longer and longer you kind of understand that more and more that just because you worked on something forever doesn’t mean its good or it’s gonna hit the people.They don’t necessarily know that backstory, they just know the finished product.
Right.So one of my big questions is that with Aesop handling the production and you taking the MCing, those are not the roles that each of you found notoriety for early in your careers.Twisting that and putting him on production and you on vocals, it seems like it might be a surprise to some.Is that something you were actively thinking about?
I mean, I think for me and Aesop, I’ve known him for so long that I feel like as a friend and as a fan I’ve watched him progress as a producer over the years to where I remember when he was afraid to do beats, he’d maybe do one beat.Then he went to where he was like “I’ll maybe do 3 or 4 and let Blockhead do the rest.”And then he’s like “You know what?I actually produced this whole record myself.”And he’d send it to me early and I’m like “Yo man, this is great.You’ve got it.”So I think that I always saw his progression from a technical standpoint even though, like you’re saying, he was known as an MC first and foremost and his production was secondary.And my role was different, I started in the background producing Illogic and Greenhouse records, then as an MC I started making a name but people still know me as a producer primarily.So my choice in that sense was, like, seeing how far he’s come and seeing how dope he is as a producer and just what he can create, I thought he could perfectly complement what I was doing.But I knew that technically he was there, and I thought this was kinda of an interesting take on what people know of us.
Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting take, whether you were intentionally trying to step outside of those expectations or not, I think it’s a cool flipping of the script.
And you have the first single out today right?
Yeah, I just posted it about 30 minutes ago.
Awesome, I’m gonna go check it out right away.I can’t wait to hear what it’s all gonna sound like.
Well I’m sure you are busy getting everything together and probably working on the next thing already.But you know I’ve got my preorder in and I really can’t wait to hear what you come up with.
Awesome.Thanks man, I appreciate that.And we’re working on a new Soul Position.I mean, it’s pretty much done, I just have to rerecord a couple things.
I can’t wait to hear that too.
Yeah, so this might be another year where I actually get out two big records.
That sounds great.Well thanks for taking the time, man.
No problem, thank you.
Here is the first single from Blueprint’s upcoming Vigilante Genesis EP, produced entirely by Aesop Rock. Vigilante Genesis comes out May 27th.
When asked what music they like to listen to, a staggering percentage of people answer: “I listen to everything…except for rap and country.” Or, at least they did back when I used to ask that question, thinking everyone felt as strongly about music as I did. I wondered why so many people are turned off by rap and country?
The term “country music” seems to implant stereotypical images. When people hear that term, they picture a: plaid-shirted, belt-buckled, cowboy-hatted, cheap beer swilling, and acoustic guitar-playing dude with a thick drawl singing about his sad dog, his sad love life, or his sad tractor. That’s not my kind of scene either, but Sturgill Simpson is, by his own admission, a “Country Artist”.
He certainly doesn’t fit the above description.
“A Sailor’s Guide To Earth” is the third full-length album by the Kentucky singer-songwriter. As much notoriety as he’s received for his take on Country and “Roots Rock” up to this point, this album spreads the sound even wider. First of all, A Sailor’s Guide is essentially a concept album. It’s literally a guide for life written to his young son; a bunch of advice-type songs riddled with meaning, morals, and lines like:
“Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done/
It don’t have to be like a father, like his son.”
The personal nature of this album could pretty quickly fall into the territory of being cheesy, but Simpson avoids that fate the same way J. Tillman did with 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. He means it and that comes across in the songwriting. Simpson continually pulls in seafaring metaphors, especially as they relate to the military. “Sea Stories” and “Call to Arms” make heavy use of the Navy a “manly” pursuit. The military is not the kind of path Simpson wants his son to think he has to take to prove himself. In “Breakers Roar” and “All Around You”, the sea is a stand-in for the fears of isolation, loneliness, and desperation; all fears which Simpson tenderly attempts to quell.
Musically, the album melts together in a way that calls to mind prog-rock albums and gives the album a flowing cohesiveness. Here, Simpson’s brand of country-soul is more pronounced than ever before. Of course, the bright steel guitar still makes an appearance on just about every song, but there are also sweeping string arrangements and horn sections. The opening track, “Welcome to Earth”, is driven by a smooth piano and strings, but then explodes into a 60’s soul groove that will not let go. “Keep It Between The Lines”, the most straightforward song on the album, has a killer 1970’s Southern Rock vibe courtesy of the brilliant Dap-Kings. The track has five fantastic solos in 4 minutes of run-time. The album’s lead single, “Brace for Impact”, finds Simpson delivering a carpe diem-type message over a driving beat before the track descends into a spacey, but groovy, synth-heavy blues outro.
Essentially, Simpson is like a third Blues Brother. The only difference is that he would’ve been totally at home in the country biker bar scene. He’s got that Blues & Soul sensibility in his writing. There are songs like “Sea Stories”, when the album doesn’t work as well, like pulling out the ice and bitters and leaving us with a glass full of straight Kentucky Bourbon. It’s a little abrasive if you’re not ready for it. However, the album’s flow keeps you from skipping around. Not to mention, “Sea Stories” is followed by a gorgeous cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”!Simpson brightens and injects some of his pained drawl into this beautiful cover song. It’s a highlight of the album and just when you think it can’t get any better, the Chicago-style horns come in and make you seriously wonder if you like this version more than the original. I bet you do.
There are a lot of spectacular moments on this album. As a whole, it’s a real success. The few less spectacular moments are overshadowed by Simpson’s sincerity and his talent for creating sounds that transcend the simple label of “country music”. It’s hard to put together an album this personal and still make it accessible and easy to relate to. The experiences Simpson writes about in this album, positive or negative, are ones most of us have had…or can take something from. A Sailor’s Guide isn’t just a guide for Simpson’s son, it’s a guide for all sailors…whether you like “country music” or not.