Tag Archives: new music

Spinning Presently: Jack White’s Lazaretto

It’s been awhile since I’ve been on board the Jack White train. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked him, my interest in his stuff just seems to be on a sine wave that moves incidentally with his releases. As soon as I heard Get Behind Me, Satan, I collected all the White Stripes albums I could (save their self-titled debut) and followed them until the high point they went out on, Icky Thump. Both Raconteurs’ albums I couldn’t get enough of, and I dug a couple of cuts from the Dead Weather’s two LPs, but that was about it. I was sort of ready to close the Jack White chapter for awhile. When White’s first actual solo album, Blunderbuss, came out, I did pick it up because I knew it would be something that I’d want eventually, but at the time I never really was able to give it the time of day, and that still colours my perception of it (apart from the infectious “Love Interruption”). I have no doubt that will change in the very near future, however, as I have listened to Lazaretto, and it is fantastic.

The very first impression I get upon listening to this album is that White is super happy to be free of the restraints that he had created for himself in the White Stripes. It was Meg on Drums and Jack playing one, maybe two other instruments over top. When Lazaretto starts with “Three Women”, he throws everything down on the table and molds it into a frenetic whole, over the skeleton of a straight-up blues song, his stock-in-trade since debuting. The heavily distorted organ that delivers the riff with an extended time signature sets the tone, as the distortion on this album is such that it in no mean feat to identify the instrument being played. Organ, guitar, piano, electric piano, pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle – throw some synths in there, and you just gotta sit back and enjoy the ride. White has assembled quite a band to back him on all but the final song here (a solo acoustic number, as is tradition), giving him so many more moving pieces to work with; you gotta wonder if he was dreaming up the near orchestral sweep of “Would You Fight For My Love?” while pounding away at the three chords in “Jumble, Jumble”.

Though he is by far most associated with the guitar, the piano feels like it very much makes up the backbone of the album, peeking through at the end of every line and bashing away time behind every chorus, very much expressing the cute and coy riffs he never quite got to on the blocky chord bashing he did with his piano in the Stripes. It lends to the ‘open’ feel the record has. If you can throw layer after layer on top without worrying about limits, you could do worse that having a core piano track, which makes it feel as if White has moved into the “songwriter/arranger” role, moreso than the solo bluesman feel when he wields the guitar (though it is deployed handily for solos), as keeping track of everything that’s going on here is quite a feat in itself. On “Lazaretto” itself, White spits lyric upon lyric over top of a bassline of no lean distortion and a slick rhythm with no relief for its cymbals. The song eventually breaks apart from its rather mean feel to make way for a fiddle soloing on top of the bassline, which seems to come completely from left field, but not necessarily out of place.

In my experience, Jack White likes to hide a gem further down the track list, and Lazaretto is no exception. Right from the introduction of the electronically treated fake laughter to the headbangin’ riff, “That Black Bat Licorice” is a hell of a lot of fun. “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic/Just a buncha propaganda to make my fingers histrionic” howls Jack before adding “Like this”, as he introduces a quick little high-string guitar riff; “and this” and unleashing the riff again with all the instruments crashing down and down on the same target. He screams about how “I never liked that black bat licorice” over it all, another in the list of little phrases that White uses that gives everything that specific, detailed flavour that you’re not personally familiar with but you know means something to him (as in “Lazaretto”, where he talks about “making models of humans out of coffee and cotton”).

Even though there are a couple of tracks in the middle of the record that drag a little for me (“Entitlement” in particular doesn’t feel as vulnerable as it ought to. There’s a lot going on, which is the record’s M.O., but it doesn’t suit the humble vocal), Lazaretto is a fantastic record and I would definitely argue one of White’s best, regardless of the band associated with it. The feeling that anything can come down the line and that the instruments effortlessly tag in and out while hanging onto a cohesive whole is incredibly exciting and White is a fantastic master of ceremonies while still being able to write a hell of a tune and a hell of a riff.

“Three Women”:

“Lazaretto”:

“That Black Bat Licorice”:

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Loud Crowds & Forgotten Lyrics: A Live Album Round-Up

I have been acquiring a lot of live albums lately!  I guess that once you’ve gotten well-acclimated to an artist or at least the portion of the artist’s discography you’re comfortable with, live albums offer an extra bit of material to hear from them – most of the tracks you will be familiar with, but a performance of a little-known B-side or a radically different take on an old classic might be all you need to invigorate your enthusiasm for that artist once again. Or, if you’re enjoying an artist’s current run, a live album allows you to sort of bask in the glow of current fantastic material. Live is a whole different ballgame, apart from studio tricks (for the most part) – it can often give a better idea of the state of the band.

Enjoying the heck of out Push the Sky Away, I had to keep the good times rolling with Nick Cave’s latest output, Live at KCRW. As it is promoting the recent album, 4 of the 10 tracks here are from Push the Sky Away, and the rest sort of even-handedly comb through the Cave discography, which produces interesting results. The Bad Seeds are a drastically different line-up than they have been for a majority of their album-making career, with Warren Ellis being Cave’s right-hand man after the (somewhat) recent departure of Blixa Bargeld. As such, a lot of the performances of older songs have taken a slower and more sombre tone  (with the exception of the rowdy rendition of “Jack the Ripper” at the close of the album), most notably the formerly raucous live favourite “The Mercy Seat”. Where the songs remain relatively unchanged are the instances where the original songs were already slow and mournful – the setlist has been carefully chosen (“Eventually you’ll say one of the songs on this very short list” quips Cave after a few seconds of people shouting requests at home). Everything feels a part, though, as the performances blend each of the songs into the style of the recent album – if you were a newcomer to the band, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It feels like a statement from Cave about how he wishes to proceed or at the very least his headspace during this time – rock has been more or less left in the dust and he’s now looking for that arrangement, that melody, that loop. Push the Sky Away made very much the same statement, but putting that stamp on prior tracks feels like a manifesto.

With slight trepidation, I picked up Before the Flood by Bob Dylan & The Band. My trepidation was thus: I remember hearing the 60s concerts Dylan did in England (of “Judas!” fame) where The Band hadn’t made a name for themselves and were just his backing band. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by the performances and wanting to experience a little of that magic. How does that equal trepidation? I didn’t trust my mind, first of all. This was quite some time ago and I felt I might have been romanticizing the whole thing and would end up disappointed. Secondly, the performances I remember were circa 1966, whereas this album was from 1974, far beyond my reach of Dylan knowledge (for whatever reason, I’ve expanded little beyond Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. No, not even Blood on the Tracks, which I realize would have set me up much more nicely to experience this one). I did, however, have faith and I wanted to find a way to get into The Band, so I figured this was a good stopgap.

The setlist is culled from both acts, though leaning a little more on Dylan’s side. The first thing I noticed was that it took me awhile to recognize Dylan’s voice, which seems to have dropped or at least changed style quite a bit – his trademark sneer is toned down quite a bit, and the cadence and placing of his words seems very deliberately off-kilter from the well-familiar version (something I’ve heard from people who have gone to see him these days). The now-classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”* sounds relatively unchanged (having been released the year before), but others didn’t fare as well. Maybe the rambling style of his earlier songs was something he felt shouldn’t be duplicated – to hear an attempt to recreate something like “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”* sounds strange, as there’s so much to it and it just feels like a strangely intimate open letter society rather than a proper song/stadium rocker. The Band, for their part, sounded in fine form (and recognizable), adding a little energy to their classics I do know – “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – while impressing me with the ones I didn’t, which will be getting some re-listening as I try to figure out where I wanna drop in with The Band (probably the Brown Album, but still).

Pink Floyd rounds out the list with a live recording from before the release of even their first album, titled London 1966/1967. When I saw this, I immediately thought it would be an interesting artifact to hear – the band really developing their chops at this point, albeit with original bandleader Syd Barrett, rather than David Gilmour with whom they’d go on to much greater fame. The album consists of two ten-minute plus psychedelic jams ““Interstellar Overdrive”, which does appear on their debut album, though in much shortened form. Here it’s made clear that it’s their live freak-out showcase, with very little in the way of structure – apart from a bit of a descending riff to start out – as the band ebbs and flows and Syd with his trusty echo effects attempts to play parts of his guitar which were not necessarily intended to be played as an introduction to the more anarchic sections here. The other track is entitled “Nick’s Boogie”, based on a little ditty played by Nick Mason on his toms at the start of the track and the jam builds up from nothing, as the band members peek their heads in further and further, coming in only very intermittently with very strange noises weaving in and out. It’s great to see all the ingredients of a freak out, but what you are seeing is really the clay with would form to become the songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Not an experience I will turn to often, but if I’m lying on the floor in a daze, it might be the perfect thing.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

“Jack the Ripper”

“The Mercy Seat”

Bob Dylan & The Band

*Being unable to find the versions of these songs from the album, I will give you more or less the original versions so you get some idea of where I’m goin’

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Pink Floyd

“Interstellar Overdrive”

 

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The Long and Rhythmic Road: Getting Into Rap

It’s never been an easy time with rap and I. Of course, I bought The Marshall Mathers LP when it came out, right around my entry into high school, but it was just an end-in-itself. I never sought out any more like, nor did I follow up with any other Eminem albums. I was into it, and then it was gone just as quickly. I was there for the 2000s rap-rock craze, but it never really did much for me (my Marshall Mathers LP story could apply just as easily to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory). Since that time, rap – much like its cousin in cliche music non-preferences, country – has never really gotten me excited. Every time I heard it, I would just hear the genre as heavy beats, some dude talking fast and saying ‘yeah’ a lot and reciting their own name incessantly. I would never engage with it, as any time I heard any one of those things, I would just tune it out immediately and say “oh, rap.”

Of course, when at odds with a genre, you just hear the worst in it. You pick out those things you already know you don’t like, and that just reinforces the feeling. It doesn’t help that you’ve probably decided that you dislike the genre based the most popular iterations of it, which is what you would probably hear of it most often, as you’re not going to be seeking out something you don’t think you’re going to want to listen to.  I’d made the decision previously that I didn’t like it and really didn’t feel the need to revise it for the longest time.

It’s not that I hadn’t encountered sort of the basic elements in a different context, with rapid-fire lyrics (for rock music) delivered mostly for emphasis on rhythm rather than melody in amongst my usual listened-to bands – R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” or Radiohead’s “A Wolf at the Door.” come to mind. I never ventured further, as I just thought them to be neat extensions and experiments of the bands I was listening to rather than something to explore in isolation. The first crack in the armour came with Radiohead’s most recent effort, The King of Limbs. Though there isn’t any rapping on it, whole album is based on wonky rhythms – chopped up drum parts by drummer Phil Selway re-arranged as such as to need two drummers to play the tracks on tour. After a few cursory listens, the rhythm bug got its hooks into me and I couldn’t get enough of it (in fact, this is also what drove me to start making music, realizing  I could generate some pretty good beats with my computer to build on top of).

Now having that solid basis in beat appreciation, there was something more to be found in the rap world for me, but it was still rough going. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” was the example that I frequently brought up to people. I love the backing track – the instruments, the vocals, the hook, the beats, everything that was going on in the background totally had me hooked. At which Kanye actually came in and started rapping and it all fell apart for me. All it felt that it was doing was dulling the impact of the rest of the song. I couldn’t understand why it couldn’t have been just let be. The problem was that I was still refusing to engage with it as rap. I was trying to listen to it as a pop song or some such and then this rapper kept intruding. I was willing to acknowledge the skill in crafting the song, but that was about it. I still wasn’t ready for rap.

There may be a bright light, however. I recently re-listened to the Doomtree album No Kings, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of things. I think I’m ready to actually listen to rap for what it is rather than what I can appreciate from the view of another genre. I am into the hooks big time, but starting to appreciate the actual rapping that comprises the bulk of the songs. Take a song like “Bolt Cutter”, which reads like a radical manifesto – “my baby gave me a bolt cutter/we like to break in/and reclaim all the spaces they forgot they had taken” – a fact I had never paid attention to before. The rapping during the verses serves to colour in and give a reality to the idea that is only hinted at in the chorus, much as the instruments in most songs do. I’m beginning, too, to appreciate the variance in rhythm and flow that each of the rappers in the group brings to the table, especially when stacked up against one another in the same song, not to mention the impact a second or two of silence from the rapper can have on the rhythm.

It’s taken me awhile, but maybe I’ve listened to the right combination of songs, or maybe the time is right now for me to start to appreciate rap on its own terms. Luckily, Doomtree has seven members, all of whom have solo projects, so I feel I’ll be off to the races fairly quickly as my knowledge about the genre expands.

“E-Bow the Letter”

“A Wolf at the Door.”

“All of the Lights”

“Bolt Cutter”

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Tales From the Third Floor: Phantogram’s Voices

So there I was in the frightening third floor of the HMV in Toronto. For those not in the know, the third floor houses all of the sort of ‘fringe’ genres compared to the ubiquitous Rock/Pop which can be found on the first floor. Up there, you have punk, metal, EDM, hip-hop, folk, jazz, classical and so on and so on. Sort of a cross-section of ‘scene’ genres. If you’re into the scene, then you know what’s up and what you’re looking for. To the casual jewel-case flipper, it’s daunting. I know specific names and have heard of specific albums, but even triumphs of the genre can seem daunting if you’re not that familiar with the genre. Every song that’s played when I walked in there has had people screaming in it.

I am a pretty big fan of a lot of the electronic music that I’ve heard, but I am absolutely clueless when it comes to genre classification beyond that point. Labels like “ambient house” and “local prog-trip-hop” darted out at me and as I read the labels, I would nod slowly to myself. I would say “man…I like prog,” or “I can dig some ambient music”. Really, I have no idea what is going on there, but it’s such a thrilling combination of words! Presumably they’re not mashed together too often, or they wouldn’t have labels beside them. “This some deep shit,” I think (it probably also has a cool cover, which helps). Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about – but if I listened to it, then perhaps I would. Those descriptions would suddenly be illuminated as I match the words to the music, not considering that I don’t have much of a vocabulary to discuss electronic music (mostly I check Wikipedia after the fact and go “huh, that’s what I’ve been listening to”). Also, I could hate it.

I put the CD back down and retreat over to the listening station. After a moment of “man, these are just the artists with the best marketing”, I stuffed that bullshit away and reassured myself that a) it is a genre-specific listening station and b) it has ten albums on offer! A lot more than the standard three.

To cut a long story short, the one that ended grabbing me was Voices by Phantogram. I dig their name, I dig their aesthetic, and I dig the gnarly riff that opens the album on “Nothing But Trouble”. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips “Race For the Prize”, where the riff sounds like it’s coming from in between notes and emanates from the machine it’s played on by pulling it apart rather than by playing it on its own terms. While this would prove to be the exception rather than the rule, I was nevertheless hooked.

The connection between this band and the Lips is not the last one to be made, either, as Lips member Steven Drozd makes an appearance on “Never Going Home”, the verses of which employ a Radiohead-esque forlorn guitar part with what sounds like a drunken buzzing underneath, putting the song off-kilter at just the right angle for the close-harmony vocals of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter (Phantogram themselves) to come in, but it strangely pulls up where you expect it to dive, to an uplifting chorus of “If this love/I’m never going home”, awash in synthesizers.

For the balance of analog and electronic instruments, experimentalism and pop hooks, this album is a fascinating listen. It’s not a new game that they’re playing at, but the execution is excellent. Sarah Barthel has the kind of voice that would have had a synthetic orchestra thrown behind it in the 80s, but instead of bombast is ducking and weaving from riff to riff, synthesizer to guitar to beat and pulling you through by the hand and bringing you out to the other side. Josh Carter, who shares the vocal duties with Barthel 50/50 lives much of the album under effects but also provides some of the most anthemic moments on the album (on the aforementioned “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”)

The sense of dark and light that is depicted so clearly on the cover on both members’ faces is evident in every song on the album – nothing here is pure happiness or pure melancholy, but always somewhere in between, in flux as the songs go on. The constant movement forward ensures that the album is bereft of dull moments, and makes the 43 minutes breeze by. Often times, I get really excited at the outset of an album, as I’ll hear the first track and note so many different things this band is doing and establishing their sound in my mind. Twelve songs in, however, and I’m already over the sound and all the elements have been gone over multiple times. Of course, an album produced by all the same people at all the same time is going to have a cohesive sound but sometimes there just isn’t enough variance in the tracks. Not so with Voices. It’s a fairly eclectic and thoroughly modern album – one I’m glad I braved the third floor for.

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Colin Meloy Debuts A New Song

I just began to catch up with Jian Ghomeshi’s Q (podcast edition), and of course had to grab the one where he visited Portland. The politics, culture and topics discussed on the show seem a perfect fit with the notoriously hip town. The fact that tipped me over to that episode first, however, was the fact that Colin Meloy, of my favourite band The Decemberists*, would be performing. Little did I know that he would actually be debuting a new song (that he wrote that morning, no less!) It is, of course, everything I love about his songwriting, especially that displayed on the Long Live the King EP, which is the Decembs most recent output.

“Carolina Low”, much like “E. Watson” and “Burying Davy” before it, are starting to build a subcategory in their oeuvre of these minor-key rambling ballads, that sound very much like they emanate from the 19th-century hills and mountains of America, both in tune and narrative. It’s very much the other side of the coin from their jauntier work a la “The Legionnaire’s Lament” or “The Chimbley Sweep”, which still told detail-oriented stories, but just seemed to do more reveling in the fact that they were being told. These days, Meloy seems to get right behind those eyes and grab at the emotions, the toil and the daily hardships (see also, “Rox in the Box”), with melodies richer and more sombre. It seems that he is hearkening back to some of the older traditional folk tunes (a la “Roving Gambler”, “Blues Run the Game” or even “House of the Rising Sun” before the Animals got ahold of it) and attempting to add his own to the canon, much in the way that some modern classical composers do.

If this is pointing towards a further direction for what Meloy announced would be the band’s upcoming album, or even if he releases a folk album solo, I will be very happy indeed.

*Yes, I also claim Van der Graaf Generator as my favourite band. No, it’s not any others. Just those two. For different reasons.

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#26: Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

(Glassnote, 2013)

chvrches_the_bones_of_what_you_believe

(Image from soundstagedirect.com)

I came upon Chvrches via another of my channels for discovering new music: Jian Ghomeshi’s Q on CBC Radio (other discoveries from there include two of my now favourite bands: Austra and Elbow). It’s through there that I gain exposure to most of the new Canadian bands I listen to and has me paying close attention to the candidates in the running for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize that Canada awards to its top album of every year. Chvrches, however, being the hottest thing to come out of Glasgow since Franz Ferdinand, is sadly not eligible for that award.

What is demonstrated on The Bones of What You Believe is the modern power trio working at its finest. Yes, admittedly, the whole trio sound has been replaced by machines – by and large, synths fill in for both guitar and bass (though the guitar makes a cameo appearance in a couple of tracks, it knows its place on this album) and drum machines take over the tireless job on all but two of the tracks – but this still rocks! The songs very much resemble arena rock anthems, but reduced in scale and put in a cube. Every one of Lauren Mayberry’s melodies are instantly memorable and singable – reaching, but not straining and very affecting. The synth riffs that back many of the big choruses here – were they a tad slower and played on guitar – easily fulfill that emotional, fist-pumping, energetic feeling that a good ol’ riff oughtta give you. The backbeat pounds incessantly to the beat of your foot stomping on the ground and the big tom splashes on “Science/Visions” get you psyched for the impending chorus. Every element is already there to energize you and get your head to bangin’.

But there’s no need to change a thing. New forms of music will always take their cues from the old, and this is no different – all the pieces are there, they are just in a different place (I know synth pop is hardly old, but its status of rock-usurper is still coming into being). In place of edginess, there is relentless peppiness (though the synth sounds of “Under the Tide” will have you convinced the synths themselves are trying to stage a bloody coup). The palette of vocal instrumentation is expanded as the vocals weave in, out and between the synth lines (the bouncing loop of vocals that opens the album on “The Mother We Share”, or the punctuated sighs and shouts in the background of “Lies”) – there’s no lack of emotion or gut feeling. Unlike the wave of synth popularity, there is no sense that the synths are being used to replace another, ‘real’ instrument – we’ve come to terms with the synth’s identity as itself, and Chvrches have embraced that attitude with aplomb.

This album is a fantastic chronicle of synthpop’s rise to power and an excellent collection of songs to just get you pumped -the overall energy is fantastic and the melodies hit all the heights you want them to without sounding forced or belaboured. Produced with just the right balance of slickness and space so that you get caught up without getting overwhelmed, The Bones of What You Believe is another fully-formed debut LP that both makes a great musical statement and promise for the future.

9/10

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#25: Lorde – Pure Heroine

(Universal, 2013)

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(Image from recordstore.co.uk)

It’s very rare that I listen to an album blind (deaf?) anymore. I will usually sample a track or so before committing to purchase – don’t want to a spoil a majority of the experience. Even if I’ve yet to even hear a track on the album, the reputation of the particular band/album will have gotten to my ears in one way or another, making me feel justified. So when an album appears in front of my eyes with an austere cover (seen above) that registers zero information in my brain, my eyebrows will begin to arch even as that sneaking suspicion passes through the back of my brain: “what if it’s crap?” I tried to use all the clues available: prominently available on its own rack, on sale, so there’s probably quite a marketing push behind it. Had a sticker advertising “Tennis Court” and “Royals” as being on it, meaning it must be getting some kind of airplay. Could be good, could just be another pop album. I let the idea of ecstasy at getting a completely foreign album to me die and quickly look the album up on Wikipedia on my phone. Praise! Bought.

It’s not that my tastes are necessarily dictated by critics on the internet – though it’s hard to argue that that is how my ears are pointed to a lot of recent releases – but there is often overlap, and is nice to be able to participate in what quickly becomes codified as cultural cache. I have seldom been steered wrong by a general critical consensus.* Rather than confining my listening, that practice has gotten me into listening to more music than I would not have normally listened to than anything else and opened up my mind to more and more from disparate genres.

Lorde is 16-year-old New Zealander Ella Yelich-O’Connor attempting to carve herself a piece of the ample pop pie. She has a fantastic voice, and her melodies are all solid tunes (and often earworms, especially in the case of lead single “Royals”). The main thing that caught my attention going through the album, though, is something which a lot pop these days seems to lack but Pure Heroine seems to have in spades: space. There is room from every song to breathe here – no huge waves of synthesizer and incensed four-on-the-floor beats. Her voice is free to wheedle as it will (layered with her own harmonies), with only a couple of instrumental accessories – a strong array of electronic beats and some synthesizer (mostly filling in the bass and a few chords). There is nothing to distract the ear from the melody here – just a bare but sturdy framework to hold it up.

The content of the lyrics on the album do not belie Yelich-O’Connor’s youth, but the distance and hindsight with which they are written do: “I’m kinda over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air” she sings on “Team,” commenting as a consumer of the same musical arena in which she’s dropped this album, and pushing her pop peers aside at the same time. Nothing she sings about seems to be beyond the scope of what she’s experienced in her life so far, but it’s striking the amount of disillusionment she has having set in already at sixteen – “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies” she croons in “Royals”, hitting right to the heart of and laying by the wayside the marketing/culture feedback loop impressed upon teen girls. Later in “Royals”, she uses the language of the songs and culture she’s satirizing to list off various accolades and possessions worth bragging about that she says everyone’s all about just to reject them afterwards.

At ten songs and 37 minutes, Pure Heroine is perfect album length – not a huge investment of time, but enough to get an idea of Lorde’s songwriting style and to already get excited about whatever her next project is. This is a masterfully formed debut album one only wonders how her music will develop if this is what she’s capable of now.

9/10

*This is why a majority of my entries are positive reviews – I review every album I listen to in full during the year, but the albums are usually vetted beforehand before I listen to the whole thing. The ones I pick are ones I feel I am likely to enjoy.

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