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Perfectly exemplified years ago, it’s funny how much trap beats continue to be everywhere. There’s nary a crowded train or bus that doesn’t have that familiar high pitched rattle-snare tone playing off someone’s phone in a nearby seat. Even Joey Bada$$, usually and rightfully hailed as New Era’s king of 90s throwback, is using it. He’s at a crossroads this year. Does one embrace the boom bap classics that tickles ones fan base so thoroughly, or does one press forward into more topical themes?

With the release of All Amerikkkan Bada$$, it doesn’t seem as if Joey felt he had much of a choice in the matter. Gone are many of the New York City tones that warmed the world up to New Era on 2012’s 1999. Gone is the immense tracklist on the superfluous, yet rewarding B4.DA.$$. Despite bearing a similar title to another gangster rap classic, All Amerikkkan Bada$$ is decidedly more modern, digestible, poppy, and hooky than Joey’s usual output. Whether or not it’s a better or worse release is beside the point.

A good take on Kendrick’s “Alright” beat is “Y U Don’t Love Me?” Though it could fit in with the greater narrative of the record, it’s also its own song with Joey spitting about New York City betraying him over spacious bass tones and spastic cool jazz horns. Schoolboy Q brings the album’s first feature on seventh track “Rockabye Baby.” The stellar verse serves as a reminder that you’ve been hearing just Joey up until this point; as if Schoolboy is in the face of the listener, asking “You’ve been paying attention, right?”
This diversity in delivery is the savior of the first half of the record which pales slightly to the second.

Tracks 7 through 12 are a heavier nod to Joey’s past, complete with the gangster rap of “Ring the Alarm” and the classic boom bap of “Super Predator,” which directly quotes Illmatic along with the album’s closer. The only issue is that Joey’s choice to adopt more modern beats on the first half is fully transparent. The feel-good “Devastated,” though a great single, is a knockoff of “Hotline Bling.” However, it’s missing a stylistic tick apart from its familiar and uncomfortable trap tropes.

Joey otherwise manages to keep things pretty close to the record’s central theme: the state of black people in America in 2017. He takes shots at Fox News, the cops, and the need for consistent voices to discuss it. It’s true that “Ring the Alarm” distracts from the theme, but it’s nice to lighten the mood of All Amerikkkan Badass. It’s also nice to hear that Joey’s still playing with a lot of the 90s themes we came to know and love him by, even though it’s clear he’s being called to do more for his people and hip hop at large. Is he making any statements we can’t find elsewhere? Not really. But, the need for many voices to discuss our country’s inequities are in high demand, and Badass is happy to take up the cause. By the time you reach the end of the album, it’s hard to think of anyone doing it better.

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The results of a teacher and student coming together have no constant. There may be anything from an exchange of words to complete silence for a sixty-minute lesson. There may be an endless dialogue about what notes go where, how to play this section without screwing up the next, or simply an explanation of what G# major feels like for the player. Eastern traditions stick mainly to imitation, a “do as I do, not as I say” idea rather than spoken lessons. In the Western exchange, learning often comes by solitary repetition as opposed to dialogue; sometimes creating a space where improvisation is never an option.

Such rigidity is hardly the case when teacher Greg Beyer and student (now full-blown working artist) Alexis C. Lamb get together. “I feel like there’s a real disconnect in our education system in learning music by rote,” says Lamb about the process. At the end of an Arcomusical performance, the audience is encouraged to come up and play the berimbau, the instrument of focus and inspiration on last year’s wonderfully ornate MeiaMeia: New Music for Berimbau. With this free associated educational component involved, there’s seemingly no limit to what the bowed instrument can accomplish.

It’s a playful exchange that Beyer and Lamb have. Even the physical build of the berimbau has been reformed. Luthier David White custom-made the instruments heard on the record, allowing simple transformations that make a huge difference. Where once the gourd of the berimbau was held strictly towards the bottom of its one string, the ones heard on MeiaMeia can be moved up and down the neck; thus creating a wellspring of alternate uses.

All that can be compared to the fluidity granted to the berimbau is its deeply rooted history. Traditionally, the tones it creates are the musical accompaniment to capoeira, a traditional Brazilian dance. Representing everything from 19th century Brazilian slavery to modern art, capoeira is a sport, a musical tradition, and a martial art wrapped into a neat package. The movements of the game come largely from the berimbau, operating in common time signature.

That being said, even the traditional pulse of the berimbau is eschewed from the very first moment on MeiaMeia. Composed by Beyer and nicely titled “Home-ing”, the piece introduces the sound of the record in triplets that sound like more of a folk music tradition than a nod to Latin American rhythms. Both of these elements are fair game for Arcomusical, and the opening track is hardly the only moment where multiple traditions are employed. In Beyer’s own words: “Nothing on the album is directly from the tradition, but everything we do is informed by the tradition.”

Most compelling on MeiaMeia is the simultaneous embrace of melody and percussion. Beyer and Lamb traded composing on every other track. Beyer’s pieces are traditionally labeled as solo through sextet, while Lamb’s focus on jazzy, almost pop-like passages. Hearing the back and forth between them keeps the record at an engaging pulse. Fans of the complex polyrhythm of Dawn of Midi or the layering of Steve Reich, be not afraid.

Incidentally, Reich was influential to Beyer’s compositions from day one. “When I heard ‘Electric Counterpoint’, I was like ‘I can so hear the berimbau in this.’” Indeed, the way that Beyer plays counterpoint melodies across the staff bears a resemblance to Bach, however reinvented to fulfill a more modern set of tools and recording techniques. As Reich has done for the guitar, so has Beyer for the berimbau. What was once considered as a fairly conservative style of playing has had its lid popped, thus allowing the berimbau’s full potential to escape. “It’s really not a berimbau anymore, is it?” conjectures Beyer. The album title includes the word “new,” which is an important element to keep in mind for Arcomusical. “No one else is really setting out to create a contemporary music repertoire for Berimbau.” The project looks forward and backward in a way that’s not only heard, but felt as its songs unfold.

Occasionally, it can be difficult to discern which moments on MeiaMeia were meant to be meditative and which were meant to be more conservative. Posing this question adds quite a bit of depth to analysis of the record. This is an inexhaustible element of the songs, so let’s instead rely on what Beyer has to say: “We’ve definitely had some improv moments that have turned into compositions. But I say most of the composing comes from just us coming together.” The “us” refers to the Beyer/Lamb team, who performed a litany of external commissions for the berimbau, some quality and some disappointing, in some of Lamb’s undergraduate study at Northern Illinois University. Eventually, they decided that they may as well be composing for themselves, the process of which varies in exciting ways: sometimes they preemptively notate the music in the western tradition, sometimes they play a lot and say a little, and sometimes they just jam. Who’s to say which of these composition styles were employed for something as engrossing as Lamb’s “Mundança de onda” where berimbau voices both impressionistic and well-rehearsed play off each other? By the time its five and a half minutes have rolled by, you’ll be left gleefully scratching your head about what you’ve just experienced.

“We set ourselves up for a challenge… The sextet became the goal, and we worked up to it,” says Beyer of finishing the project. From the Indian sounds on the quintet “Solkattu” to the beautiful album cap of “Um só,” there’s a force at play both educational and engrossing. Not even the peaceful images of the Kishwaukee River (as seen on the album’s cover) were a pre-requisite for MeiaMeia. Though the river houses a spot where Beyer would sometimes bring his trusty musical bow, the core of the group, whether it takes you on a meditative journey or simply teaches you a little more about Brazilian music, is rooted in collaboration: “I will say that the energy of the band is really exciting right now. Because we play everything together, our chamber music skills have really come together. We’ve already got easily enough material for another record.” Indeed, such propulsion in creative output is hard to find in Beyer’s sector of experimental music. Fortunately for each of the genres and locales at play on MeiaMeia, we’ve got a wonderful artifact of the staying power of modern composition.

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Real Estate are boring. Their landscapes are dotted with unassuming flora and fauna like a Bob Ross painting. They’ve got a dozen wonderful songs nestled into three albums that piece together their boring-ness in a way that’s hard to decry. Their debut captured the “beach” band trend and the early releases on Captured Tracks, though it sounded clearer and less liquid. What was revealed in the reverie was that life is simple; and that Martin Courtney is happy to talk you through its banalities with a comforting manner.

The two following records were even more contented, containing specifics of Courtney’s healthy, yet “careless lifestyle” on “Green Aisles.” In Mind is an even clearer-sounding Real Estate – one that sees neither the minimalism of Real Estate nor the peaceful haze of Days. What comes through in the production is a Courtney that says many more words, but relates just a little as he always has: “I’ll meet you in the morning/Beyond that, I’ve got no plans”, he sings on centerpiece “Two Arrows”, as if we needed a reminder that he likes to keep things simple. This track contains an extended outro complete with sounds that could be found on a Quilt record. Through Courtney’s past-producer, Woods’ Jarvis Taveniere, there’s a connection between the two bands. It’s simultaneously cheap and heartwarming that they’d borrow styles. But, the instrumental here is so good, you could easily sink in and forget about the sad departure of longtime guitarist Matt Mondanile.

His absence is felt more strongly elsewhere. The relatively staid “Holding Pattern” has a pocketed lead guitar line from Jules Lynch, who compliments Courtney’s playing in a perfunctory manner on In Mind. “What this is is not real life/at least it isn’t boring”, sings Courtney mid-verse. His lyrics float about nicely, but all too often wind up containing four phrases. “White Light” is particularly victim to this pattern, giving the song a drudging predictability. Half way through one listen, it’s tiring enough to skip.

Apart from “Two Arrows”, there’s a lovely arrangement on closer “Saturday” that distracts from the formulism. Opening with soft pianos before a Real-Estate-album-closing-banger kicks in, it’s easy to remember the reasons why we’ve been enamored with this band for so many years.

Still, In Mind all too often feels like part two of Courtney’s 2015 solo record, Many Moons. The difference is that it’s more than him and Taveniere pulling the strings on this outing. The basslines of Alex Bleeker are as great as they’ve always been, but they’re further down in the mix than usual. Bleeker sings along to a chugging melody on “Diamond Eyes.” This track breaks things up from the Martin Courtney-show much like “How Might I Live” did for Real Estate’s last record, Atlas. Provided you make it to track nine, you’ll get the needed break from Courtney’s consistent vocal range.

It’s just as hard to throw shade on Real Estate as it always has. Particularly, it’s a new lineup, and the band deserves to be considered just as well as they were with Mondanile in tow. Though it sounds pristine from a studio perspective, it’s still the sound of a band that’s working through the changes. As such, the prospect of In Mind’s follow-up is very exciting.

Whether In Mind is a laborious or enchanting listen, it kicks off with “Darling”, which sounds just as great as it did when it dropped as the first single. The entire band pulls their rock and roll weight, and move through the broken time signature as if the song was as rollicking as “Beach Comber” was back in 2009. Though the rest of the record is conservatively written and performed, it is in a bold way. If your life needs to be stripped of its bombast for a little while, Real Estate remain a steadfast companion for a little R&R. Just don’t beat yourself up if you can’t sit through the whole thing.

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Though Yoni Wolf always employs as many instruments as he can get his crooked fingers on, few of the sounds are unnecessary. From the toy pianos on Oaklandazulasylum to the full strings on his latest opus as WHY?, Moh Lhean, there’s care and attention in his arrangements. You could blame this on his wonderful list of collaborators. But, only his brother Josiah joined him for production, and they are here proving that they’ve been the band’s backbone all along.

The one thing that tops Wolf’s proclivity toward ornamentation is his lack of a filter. We’ve heard rants about the type of soap he’s used to masturbate, oral sex in order to gain fans, and the plans to utilize retirement to the ends of listening to Garrison Keillor while stoned. Incidentally, Wolf lives a succinctly healthy lifestyle outside of his lyrics. There is a lot of documentation of him working out; an essential element to combating his Crohn’s disease. Furthermore, the man doesn’t even drink.

On Moh Lhean, we are hearing from a Wolf that has synchronized his art and his reality. It’s all wrapped up on opening track ‘This Ole King’; Yoni’s thoughts are preoccupied with death, but entertain “this one thing” that can be relied upon for peace of mind. Time has worn on the guy, and he is greeting it with esteem: “We know who we are/ from beyond to the veiled intentions between our cells.” He’s even saluting his body chemistry, which left him staring at his reflection in disapproval on 2009’s Eskimo Snow.

Playing into this theme is ‘One Mississippi’: “I know I gotta submit to whatever it is in control,” says Wolf. Where he once audaciously fought the bleakness that Midwestern life threw at him, he’s now adhering to major religious tenets. It’s well known that Wolf grew up in a Jewish household, but there’s never been any direct information suggesting he followed it. It’s livening to hear him be so accepting of the world. Where Bradford Cox and Deerhunter had their Fading Frontier, a celebration of life having turned out as it did, Wolf has ‘The Barely Blur’, where Son Lux joins him for a séance to man’s mysterious beginnings: “What mad stork brought us/ with no schematic and no map/ where every perfect nest disintegrates/ into the barely blur beyond.”

‘The Water’ is similarly submissive; a lurching bass reminiscent of Alopecia’s hip hop backdrops hovers over the song. Just when you think Wolf is ready to rap again, he sagaciously shrugs off the urge and tells a simple story: “out on the water/ me and my little brother/ we don’t say shit for hours/ maybe even longer.” The minutiae of this tale are akin to the hyper-specific set of details Wolf usually rolls out. The exception here is that there are far fewer words.

There’s a grace to the brothers Wolf having pared things down like this. You won’t find wordless tracks on previous WHY? records, but here there are two of them. So, even though we’re not hearing nearly as many sentiments, Moh Lhean sounds just as complete as any other WHY? record. This album is the mark of a man who knows where he is in life.

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Neither the pacing of Once I Was An Eagle swallowing Laura Marling whole, nor the forcefulness of Short Movie are present on her latest album Semper Femina. Marling has dovetailed her arrangements with her lyrics, leaving these two elements alone on the dance floor for a well-rehearsed recital. If the strings rise in dynamism, as do the lengths of the vocal phrasing. If a bass line broods and threatens the peace (‘Soothing’), Marling will approach it with a caution and grace unheard in similar arrangements that attempt to pull off the jazz/folk combination.

This dance of music and lyrics is most complex on ‘The Valley’, where guitar arpeggios meet Marling’s words like dawn: “I love you in the morning/ I love you in the day/ I love you in the evening/ If only she would stay.” Marling not only acknowledges the beauty in the valley, but recognizes it as fleeting, granting her a maturity she’s always hinted at, but never quite slam-dunked for an entire album’s length.

Semper Femina isn’t without brashness, either. ‘Wild Fire’ has Marling coaching a past lover for reassigning life’s trials to her: “I hear your mama’s kinda sad/ and your papa’s kinda mean/ I can take it all away/ you can stop playing that shit out on me.” Even her potty mouth sounds like a breeze under the song’s sizzling waltz and delicate production. The language is simply part of her lexicon, and isn’t used here for anything apart from service to the song. Such is the case with most of the elements on Semper Femina, be it the lyrics, production, or her masterful guitar performances. The words on ‘The Valley’ and ‘Next Time’ are meant to be rapturous, so the guitars follow orders and play off each other in dizzying beauty. “I can no longer close my eyes/ while the world around me dies/ at the hands of folks like me.” sings Marling on ‘Next Time’. If the world is indeed dying, we’ll need voices with character like the one presented here.

It’s an important transition that Marling is going through here at album six. She isn’t battling the world and people around her; instead she’s spending as much time being grateful for the moments she is given, addressed most directly on ‘Wild Once’. No longer decrying an urban and fussy love like on her debut Alas, I Cannot Swim, she’s looking back on the past with a gumption for the future that could have been overlooked after writing as many songs as Marling has.

On ‘Nouel’, the dance between Marling and song turns into that between Marling and Marling. “She sings along to ‘Sailor Song’/ in a dress that she made/ when she’s gone I sing along.” Marling describes, addresses, and even gives a name to the act of creation. Not only do we get a sneak peak of her own songwriting process, we get a snapshot of a musician in the throes of her prime. With Eagle already standing as one of the peaks of modern folk music, we would not necessarily have expected to hear another knockout record from her, but there’s no denying Semper Femina stands toe-to-toe with her opus. Whether addressing herself or her entire gender, the list of sagacious observations goes on: “She’d like to be the kind of free/ woman still can be alone/ how I wish I/ could flip the switch that/ keeps you from being gone.”

The list of comparison artists on Semper Femina is a lengthy one. Marling encapsulates the modernity of Conor Oberst, the tenderness of Leslie Feist, the production chops of Ryan Adams, and so on. On closer ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, she goes full Jeff Buckley mode. The guitars sway in a casual waltz with an ever-expanding vocal line, eventually culminating in a guitar solo that focuses on one note at a time, thus striking a chord with minimalist rock as well as the other genres in the album’s toolbox. “We’ve not got long anymore/ to bask in the afterglow/ once it’s gone it’s gone/ love waits for no one.” Though it’s unlikely Marling will discontinue her hot streak, she’s still reminding us that we may as well enjoy the sublimity of Semper Femina while we can.

But, comparing these tunes to past rock greats misses the point. Only in hindsight do the mirror images of this record present themselves. While listening, however, the swirl of guitars and melodies is all that matters. You’ll blink your eye, and all of ‘Next Time’ will have gone by. By the third or fourth listen, this trance will include singing along in a singsong, White Album kind of way. And there’s another reason Marling’s current state of affairs will stand the test of time. One can hardly bring it up without having to mention something already widely appreciated and loved. It’s a journey beyond explanation Marling is taking us on.

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