sabacomfortzoneTITLE: ComfortZone
ARTIST: Saba
LABEL: Unsigned
RELEASED: July 15th 2014

It isn’t often that I review hip hop because it has never been the kind of music I enjoy listening to. Of course, I’d never write off a whole genre but I’ve yet to find a rapper or hip hop group that I could happily listen to for hours. However, it was suggested that I give 19-year-old Chicago rapper Saba’s latest offering a listen.

ComfortZone is his second release away from the rap collective Pivot Gang. Saba is known for aggressive delivery, intricate lyrics and high energy with a reputation for connecting with fans of all kinds of hip hop. Creating beats since childhood, he is a musician who has spent his young life dedicated to his art and that’s something that I wholeheartedly admire. Saba says his music is driven by “sexy space synths”, which certainly sounds promising!

The mixtape begins with TimeZone, a catchy track led by soft chimes and a gentle beat. A slurred bass electro voice and a smooth sax towards the end accompany female choral sighs. These backing vocals are a regular occurrence on the album and almost become a default setting in Saba’s soundscapes. Burnout channels it with the vocals of Eryn Allen Kane which give it a chilled R&B vibe. Quirky clicks and piano notes set the strong but relaxed tone which continues on Butter with Jamila taking over. The deep slurred voice is back as are the chilled synths. Jamila’s ethereal female voice pairs with Saba’s fast rap delivery to provide a contrast which seems to fit together perfectly. Altogether, you come away from it in a peaceful atmosphere with simple but pretty synth lines ringing in your ears. Welcome Home sees the return of the choral backing vocals, which is haunted by a constant drone. There is a soft gentle feel behind the darkness of the rap and the metallic rippling echoes give it a touch of magic, which continues to the fluttering end.

saba401K is a darker interlude to the otherwise incredibly relaxed album. The electronic beat with exotic moans creates another chilled-out setting but Saba’s aggressive rap flows over the top and gives it an edge and a sense of danger. It certainly stands out as a symbol of the high energy live performance that he is known for. For Y’all sees another appearance of Eryn Allen Kane and the arrival of MC Tree. The gentle piano is interrupted with a sudden strong beat and soft R&B vocal harmonies. Another catchy rhythm and Saba’s fast vocal delivery make it a firm favourite, as does its perfect blend of gentle R&B and emotional passionate rap. The synth injections at the end give it a firm memorable finish. Beginning with claps and whispers, Scum deals with a strong subject matter set to a relaxed rhythm and the pretty choral backing is there again. Catchy backing licks with an unexpected twist at the end keeps it interesting.

Saba then teams up with Benjamin Earl Turner on Westside Bound. Deep echoes, a staccato beat and desperation in the delivery push it along with heaps of energy. The sound itself is slow and simple and all the effort comes from the union of the rappers. Moving into another casual, dreamy track with Whip (Areyoudown?), Saba begins with slow spacey synths, lazy piano and slurred drawn-out vocals. It has a very catchy hook with quirky squawks halfway through that give way to slow guitar plucks towards the end. Westside Bound Pt.2 features a female French voice that sets the chilled sexy feel of the track. It has a chilled party vibe with a catchy rhythm and simple steady beat. The synth work is atmospheric and the soft piano at the end mixes well with the jittery beat.

Yet more of Saba’s simple magical sound is heard on Marbles, which sees the chimes and solid beat repeat underneath his angsty rap. LEGIT enter the frame on the atmospheric and haunting Comfort Food. The first part is sleepy and dream-like with the repeated line “just look at the stars”. Almost as if two songs have been welded together, it then morphs into a jazzy electronic mix full of moog sounds and a beat that gives it a confused, scattered feel.

One of my favourite tracks is Tell You, which has a soft melodic piano, electronic spurts and a chilled-out summer vibe. Again it sounds like an R&B track from a few years ago but the violin blasts keep it original and fresh. Keeping it carefree and youthful, it shows Saba as the fun-loving teen he is. Ending on United Center with Chandlar and Ken Ross, the album is wound down in much the same way. Piano ripples, a rumbling beat and a focus on the rap, which has a steady delivery. Chilled electro riffs and ghostly chimes send it to sleep as the album finally comes to a standstill.

Although I’m not a fan of the genre, ComfortZone was an album that appealed to me. I do love 90s and early 00s R&B and because of that, I was able to get into a few of the tracks. I can’t say that I loved it but it did have a few songs that I will probably listen to again such as For Y’all and Tell You. I’d say it’s definitely for fans of Chance The Rapper and other chilled out hip hop artists.

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justlikegiantsep2TITLE: Long Road Ahead
BAND: Just Like Giants
LABEL: Unsigned
RELEASED: May 11th 2014

A little while ago, I reviewed this Southampton four-piece’s debut EP Take It Back and said glowing things about it. Since then, another EP has dropped and it was only natural that I spend a bit of time listening to three more kick-ass pop-punk tunes from Just Like Giants. Both EPs are available for free on their Bandcamp page and if you love British pop-punk, then you’re bound to love these guys, so give them a listen.

Long Road Ahead retains the high energy pop-punk style from their first EP with a more mature slant in certain areas. The catchy riffs and upbeat rhythms are still there but the vocals have grown and are now performing much more impressive runs. The new EP begins with Taking Chances, which features singing metallic riffs and strong drums shaped around a very catchy melody. It’s a perfect summer party track with a growling guitar pushing its way through the din and the high energy thrown into the song masks the fact that the lyrics tell a sad story about a relationship coming to an end.

justlikegiants2The middle track, Don’t Let Go, has loud crashing drums and a pretty melody that will no doubt stick in your ears like glue. It’s a classic pop-punk track that allows the guitars to tear through the vocals which provide a great sing-a-long sound that is perfect for a live performance. The harmonies on the chorus are on point and add a new developed sound to the vocals, which gives Don’t Let Go more depth. Every band member pulls together and gives 100% energy to the track, which turns it into a real crowd-pleaser.

Finishing off with Afterparty, the vocals take on a passionate desperate feel underneath the rippling singing riff and thumping drums. The catchy melody has a soft swaying rhythm that gives it a chilled-out character while the strong-willed guitars keep the track spinning. The layered harmonies at the end are an unexpected and unique twist that allows the EP to go out with a flourish.

Just Like Giants have clearly focused on their energetic, live-show numbers which does see them sacrifice a little of the emotion that was felt on Take It Back. They are great at doing both styles, so it would have been nice to have a ballad on Long Road Ahead amongst all the chaos that a pop-punk album normally brings. However, it is still a great EP that will no doubt be enjoyed by fans of their debut and by those who have enjoyed their live shows.

dystopiaTITLE: Dystopia
AUTHOR: Anthony Ergo
EDITION: Self-published
PUBLISHED: July 12th 2014

My first contact with Liverpool writer and musician Anthony Ergo was when he followed me on Twitter after I mentioned that I would be attending London’s first ever YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention). He was releasing his debut novel Dystopia at the event and I knew that I would have to pick up a copy. As an added bonus to a music and book blogger, Anthony was selling his band’s EP I Can See You Now with the book, so naturally I bought both!

Dystopia is a paranormal adventure story with a strong-willed female protagonist, Sasha Hunter who seems to be constantly stalked by bad luck. On her thirteenth birthday, Dystopia Day occurs. The whole world blacks out for thirteen seconds to catastrophic results and Sasha’s mother disappears. Three years on, the world is still recovering and Sasha discovers secrets about her father’s mysterious line of work and the trouble he is about to find himself in. Driven by loyalty to her father and a burning curiosity to delve deeper into a strange hidden world of darkness and danger, Sasha uncovers powers of her own and begins to put together a picture of who she really is.

Sasha is definitely one of the most likeable female protagonists that I’ve come across in YA literature in a long time. She is insecure and naive but passionate and focused. A self-confessed loner who suffers with severe asthma, Sasha is a very real girl dealing with her real problems within the bizarre world in which she is thrown into. Having a female lead in a dystopian who isn’t the picture of health is really refreshing. Not only does she have to deal with the dangerous supernatural beings that she encounters but the fact that something as simple as shortage of breath could kill her gives her a vulnerability that is easier for some readers to tap into than a perfectly fit, intelligent girl that is so common in YA dystopians. It was also really great to read a novel written by a man with a female lead that has both beauty and brains!

For most of the book, there are hints of a love triangle about to take place between Sasha and her father’s co-workers Aaron and Zara. The final chapter reveals that this triangle isn’t about to continue through the series though, which sets it apart from other novels in the genre. A common trope of YA fiction is budding romance and conflict around that. Although Dystopia has the growing love between Sasha and Aaron, by the end you realise that their relationship is no longer under any threat and so it is left to blossom, tying it up very neatly before the action continues into the second book. Both Aaron and Zara are great characters -Aaron is a gym-loving teenager with a big ego but the power to understand the feelings and emotions of others, while Zara is yet another strong-minded girl who gets things done and doesn’t take any nonsense with the useful skill of being able to see into the future. The dynamics between the two of them and Sasha is one of great friendship and they can use and play off each other’s strengths. At the end of the book, you get the sense of a great familial bond between them that hope doesn’t break.

Dystopia is full of selfless believable characters in a fast-paced plot with plenty of tension and the odd twist every now and then. Think of it as Supernatural in a YA setting. Fighting evil to save the innocent and solving the mystery that was Dystopia Day alongside a likeable cast is a ride that you won’t want to get off of and as the sequel Hysteria is out in October, you won’t have to be off for long!

 

 

 

NO_DEVOTIONTITLE: Stay
BAND: No Devotion
LABEL: Collect Records
RELEASED: July 1st 2014

After the infamous Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins’ child pornography saga, which saw him jailed for 35 years, the remaining members of the band regretfully announced that Lostprophets’ fifteen year career was officially over. However, guitarists Lee Gaze and Mike Lewis, bassist Stuart Richardson, keyboardist Jamie Oliver and drummer Luke Johnson have risen from the ashes of their former band and joined Geoff Rickly of New Jersey post-hardcore band Thursday. The new creation is now known as No Devotion and they’ve just released their debut single Stay.

Channelling some classic rockers such as The Cure and Joy Division, the new sound is somewhat different from the alternative sound of Lostprophets. Geoff Rickly admits that he’d never listened to Lostprophets but felt that the band deserved another chance. Stuart Richardson said of the new project:

“We didn’t know what else to do. We just wrote music. I didn’t know if anyone would ever want to hear it, I didn’t know if anyone would ever hear it. I just needed to occupy my brain. We just needed this.”

v3-no-devotionStay has some truly atmospheric synths and a throbbing beat that climaxes to an explosive chorus. Geoff’s vocals are the perfect match for the powerful emotional track, as they seem to soar above the steady riffs and crashing drums. A touch of 30 Seconds To Mars is also there which marks the big step away from their past. It’s the perfect song to yell at the top of your voice when you need to let out some angst which is exactly what the band seem to be doing.

Hear their new work for the first time by catching them on their short four-date tour at the end of the month beginning in Cardiff at the CF10 on July 22nd, moving to Manchester’s Sound Control on July 23rd, London’s Islington Academy on the 25th and ending at Glasgow’s ABC on the 26th.

Listen to Stay right here!

X_coverTITLE: X
ARTIST: Ed Sheeran
LABEL: Asylum
RELEASED: June 23rd 2014

Suffolk-born acoustic wizard Ed Sheeran’s new album has been a long time coming. Three years after his debut + was released, we are treated to new released X pronounced “multiply”. The singer-songwriter is still only 23 and unlike a lot of artists, he has enjoyed huge success between his two albums. Writing songs and performing with Taylor Swift and One Direction, Ed definitely hasn’t retreated to a recording studio in the last few years and this may be one reason why he has managed to produce a new album that is fresh and exciting.

Ed is known for his heartbroken ballads stripped of high impact instruments and filled with raw emotion. X definitely has a few tracks that are classic Sheeran but we do also see a more upbeat urban artist, reminiscent of his hit You Need Me, I Don’t Need You. It’s clear that Ed has been working with different producers and his style has altered but his existing fans will still love these tracks as a lot of them retain his raw, honest and open character.

Ed’s vocals lapse into a falsetto at several points on the album, most notably on its two singles Sing and Don’t. While some fans may dislike this change, both songs are catchy, upbeat pop tracks that are ideal for summer parties and festivals. Sing was co-written with hit-maker Pharrell Williams and Don’t was co-written with Moves Like Jagger producer Benny Blanco. Judging this album on its singles, you might be forgiven for thinking X was a new, cooler, urban Sheeran. Snappy rhythms, catchy choruses and tropical holiday beats are all over the album and we get it again on Tenerife Sea and Runaway.

edsheeranTenerife Sea has the new version of Ed in rhythm and general style but the lyrics are a beautiful declaration of love rather than a straight up party anthem. It’s a beautiful love song with atmospheric vocal runs and rippling acoustic riffs that simply wash over you, leaving you relaxed and content. Runaway is much the opposite. The strong beat and urban slant on this summer pop song back up a story of a young person running from their parents’ home due to needing space from their father. Runaway advocates that it’s OK to get your own space sometimes without completely destroying family relations. This is something that so many people can relate to and will definitely resonate with Ed’s young fans.

Bloodstream is another chilled summer track that will be perfect for festivals. A glitchy beat, urban R&B vibe and dazed style gives it a youthful, quirky sound. It’s about using alcohol and drugs to block out the pains of heartbreak and love but with a catchy hook that will certainly capture a crowd’s attention. Eerie backing vocals give it a dream-like edge while Ed’s vocals see it out. Clapping rhythms are great for summer festival tracks and Nina is fun, sing-a-long addition to the album. Pretty piano chimes keep appearing amidst the chilled beat and matter-of-fact lyrics. It sees a colder Ed to the warm, lovestruck artist we’re used to and sparks a pang of sympathy for the subject matter who appears to be in love with him despite him putting his career and success first.

X is full of slow, swaying ballads that Ed is best loved for. The opening track One is a chilled acoustic track with wispy vocals that tell a tale of a lost love that he is hoping to hold onto. Photograph is another beautiful ballad where Ed pours his heart out about a past relationship. Using the image of a photograph to preserve love and reminisce about good time is really touching and there is some lovely imagery in the lyrics that will impact anyone who has ever mourned the end of a relationship. Thinking Out Loud is perhaps the most romantic track on the album. Declaring eternal, unconditional love makes it perfect for a first dance song and the soft country twangs border the beautiful story.

Afire Love brings the album to a real tearjerker of an ending. It is Ed’s tribute to his late grandfather and the synth glides and piano together with the soft beat illustrate the grief perfectly. The lyrics allude to the sudden nature of death, the eternal love between the deceased and his wife and some truly heartbreaking images of a family united in sorrow. Ethereal backing vocals provide a choral feel and the ending has a big production element to it, which ends X on a devastating, theatrical note.

X gives something for fans of both Ed’s styles -emotional, acoustic Ed and upbeat, cool Ed. Personally, I prefer Ed stripped back and full of angst and heartbreak, as I love his storytelling ability but for a summer party, there are some guaranteed playlist additions on this album. Justin Timberlake fans will certainly love the ventures into Ed’s falsetto and there’s no doubt you’ll be humming along to the catchy hooks after just one listen. Thanks to Ed’s wise decision not to fade away into the background during the release of his two albums, X is likely to be a big seller so watch this space!

 

So it has now been a whole year of AskAlex and I’d like to thank everyone who has ever read or commented on a post. I’m afraid this will be my last post of its kind. I feel like it has been a great interlude to my reviews but it has now come to an end. I hope it has given you an insight into me as a person and I only hope that you continue reading my blog.

What can you do today that you couldn’t do a year ago?

Such a fitting end to a year-long feature! One thing I have definitely improved is my ability to write without fear of others’ opinions. I feel that this is really important for bloggers and journalists. You have to be honest, especially if you’re reviewing something and if that means a negative write-up, then that’s the way it has to be.

If you read my earlier posts, you’ll see that I used to be quite complimentary of pretty much everything I reviewed. However, recently I have reconsidered this. When you’re first starting out in the blogosphere, you want to gain friends and followers and so giving a positive review seems like a sure-fire way of doing so. Of course it works and you get a lovely reply back from the band/author/brand and a friendly professional rapport begins. For me, even back then, there was always a niggling doubt in my mind that perhaps this wasn’t the best way to build a blog or website upon.

I was immediately concerned that I wasn’t being honest with my readers and that really bothered me to the point where I did decide to change tack. Reviewing music as often as I do isn’t always easy. Quite often, I listen to an EP or album that someone has sent me and I just think “my god, this really isn’t for me at all” and my heart immediately sinks. Not only have I got to write a less than glowing review but I also owe it to the musician to listen to the entirety of the record -a real chore if I already hate it at the start. However, I do force myself to do this because I feel I can’t really give a fully informed review of something I’ve only heard half of -I suffer so you don’t have to!

So definitely, writing more balanced reviews is something that I’ve learnt to do in the last year and I’m really proud of myself. I feel like my blog is now more of my honest opinions rather than me trying to gain friends. Having said that, I do always look for the positives in everything and therefore, I’ll probably never give an entirely bad review -future reviewees, don’t be afraid!

 

Jack_White_-_LazarettoTITLE: Lazaretto
ARTIST: Jack White
LABEL: Third Man Records
RELEASED: June 10th 2014

Two years ago, I reviewed Jack White’s debut solo album Blunderbuss, which went on to do very well and score the number one spot in both the UK and US album charts. Jack has now returned with the follow-up and its name is Lazaretto. Based on stories and plays that Jack wrote in his late teens, the album is a rather haphazard record with twists and turns around every corner. On discovering his writing again, Jack said:

“Some of it’s garbage and I sort of laughed while I was reading it. I was going to throw away a bunch of it, but I was just coming up with new styles of attacking songwriting for the album.”

The former White Stripes frontman has never been one to fit into any particular genre and Lazaretto is no different. Elements of jazz, blues, alternative rock, country and electronica are all present on this album and as a result, the songs are diverse and totally unpredictable. The title track was released as a single back in April and it is a great introduction to the distorted nature of the record. A frantic vocal delivery and dark screaming riffs give way to a lone guitar and electronic whizzes halfway through. The violins squeal before the whole thing slowly collapses and comes to an end. However, the subject matter deals with a totally different style of music and culture. Speaking of the lead single, Jack said:

“This was a rhyme about the braggadocio of some hip-hop lyrics -the bragging about oneself in hip-hop music. The character who’s singing this song is bragging about himself, but he’s actually bragging about real things he’s actually accomplished and real things that he actually does, not imaginary things or things he would like to do.”

jackwhiteThe mismatched effect is continued on instrumental track High Ball Stepper and whimsical carnival tune That Black Bat Licorice. The former is full of glitchy sparks, fuzzy rock and haunting whines and screams. With no vocals, it’s all about creating a scene without a story and it certainly does evoke a number of feelings. That Black Bat Licorice is a big show tune which cuts between loud and tricky jazz blasts and shining electro-rock whines. The instrumental hook is catchy and will no doubt have you tapping your toes right away.

Retro showtime is a big theme on this album as the opening track Three Women (based on a track by ragtime blues singer Blind Willie McTell) and Just One Drink also heavily feature sounds from years gone by. Three Women is the story of a man who has three very different women to choose from set to a jaunty bass and jazz background. Just One Drink features the voice of Lillie Mae Rische which mingles well in harmony with Jack. It’s a summer road trip anthem that has a funky piano and a sensual vocal delivery.

Favouring the spooky side of things is Would You Fight For My Love? and I Think I Found The Culprit. Would You Fight For My Love? has tribal drums, a dark piano and haunting vocals and electronic chimes. I Think I Found The Culprit is full of foreboding and surreal harmonies that create a ghostly aura. Simple shimmers of electronica really sends shivers down the listener’s spine and brings the temperature right down.

Plenty of glimpses of Jack’s love of country and blues music are on Lazaretto. Alone In My Home, a simple upbeat jazz-piano led track about savouring time to yourself, has a lot of clear country influence. Entitlement is also led by a simple country guitar and Jack’s voice takes on an undeniable rodeo twang. Lillie Mae Rische is also responsible for the folksy sounding fiddle on many of these tracks, which really give them a lot of quirky character.

Perhaps my favourite track comes right at the end of the album. Want And Able is a simple ballad that appears to be weeping as it tells a heartbreaking story about the difference between desire and possibility. It’s a story we all know so well and have come across in our own lives very often. Jack describes it beautifully and the fact that all that is required is a soft piano and swaying melancholy rhythm adds so much weight to it.

I’m not as big a fan of Lazaretto as I was of Blunderbuss. I’ve never loved the screechy sounds of jazz but I do love all the whimsy and wackiness of the album. I think I might have enjoyed it better if I’d read Jack’s stories from which these songs came from because I’m definitely not crazy about the production. However, there will be those of love it, so pick it up if you love something rooted in blues and retro jazz but still completely unique.

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