James Blake – ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’

Sounds like … a self-confident look at human connections in the spectrum of friendship.

Friendships and music are probably two of the biggest emotional support systems in the world that we can rely on as human beings. Despite their undeniable importance, pop music’s fascination with romantic relationships continues to be at the core of millions of songs leaving the platonic territory of friendship highly disregarded a lot of the times when it comes to the spectrum of relationships that make their way into songs. For British born singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist James Blake it is a welcome topic for his newest release titled Friends That Break Your Heart which sees him exploring the various facets of friendship in all their complexity and depth. After 2019’s highly personal Assume Form, a collection of love songs dedicated to his partner actor and activist Jameela Jamil, 2021 sees Blake return with a concept album that allows him to process the vulnerabilities and the weight of all kinds of friendly relations. Judging by the look of the cover artwork designed by Miles Johnston, Blake is ready to be emotionally open and willing to dive deep into various painful experiences once again – being in a seemingly tranquil surrounding while his body is left lying on the ground barely in one piece. Interestingly enough, the look in his eyes is not absent, but rather calm and knowing. After all, the Grammy-Award-winning artist has become kind of an expert when it comes to dealing with the emotional burden of human connections and their consequences and translating those into his introspective compositions.

In the past ten years since his self-titled debut album, Blake has remained true to his minimalistic approach of blending pop, R’n’B, electronic and dubstep with his signature sound that radiates with delicacy and empathy. Having collaborated with some of the biggest names in the music industry (Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Travis Scott, Frank Ocean) and looking back at a decade of respectable achievements over the course of five albums to date, Blake now seems to be in the comfortable position of pairing his insecurities with a new found sense of clarity and self-confidence. On Friends That Break Your Heart, he draws a map of human connections that ultimately lead back to the realisation that Blake has accomplished a personal growth and even bigger sincerity that now define the patterns and nuances of his creative output. Topped off with a number of guest appearances by SZA (Coming Back), J.I.D. and SwaVay (Frozen) and Monica Martin (Show Me) that complete the mostly wistful mood board Blake unfolds across the new songs while singing about the rise and fall of friendships. In the title track notably without the usual vocal effects laying bare “there’s many loves that have crossed my path but in the end it was friends who broke my heart.” What sounds like a personal confession straight from a diary quickly turns to a more universal sentiment. Investing in one’s friendships and carefully examining one’s role in it from time to time, is certainly something worth focusing on. Friends that break your heart most often also know your heart well enough to hopefully put the pieces back together again. Or you find the strength to do it yourself. Either way, James Blake can soothe you with a matching soundscape. (Annett Bonkowski)

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Efterklang – ‘Windflowers’

Sounds like … a playful compilation of beautiful tracks which celebrate the great moments life has to offer.

When the three band members of Efterklang were confronted with outcomes of Covid – lockdowns, social distancing, cancelled tours and being apart from each other – they took the gained time to find back to the roots of their band. It all started by opening a virtual cloud in which they collected over 70 song snippets for a new album. After a while, Casper, Mads and Rasmus decided to meet up again in person and listen to the collected sketches together. They stayed on a farm on a little island in Denmark and went through every single snippet collectively. At the end of their stay, Efterklang’s new album Windflowers was born.

The Danish band’s new work doesn’t follow any concept – it’s only three friends meeting up and having fun together. A musical playground where everybody could express their ideas. Due to the absence of any frame or concept, Efterklang could give their creativity all the freedom it needed. A circumstance which made the trio find back to their own roots and leads them on a journey back to the essential. Windflowers is a collection of varied and colourful songs that were only created by the three band members without any influence from the outside, like in the early days of the trip. No producer or other musician was involved. The nine tracks which form Efterklang’s new record consist of beautiful pop melodies, playful electronic elements, and intimate moments. Songs like Living Other Lives, Dragonfly or Abent Sar reflect the playfulness Windflowers stands for. They consist of cheerful sound effects like voice distortion or drifting synths and poppy melodies. In the contrary, tracks like Alien Arms, Hold Me Close When You Can, or Beautiful Eclipse represent the quiet and intimate side the album has to offer. Windflowers is a unique collection of nine beautiful songs which were created by three friends meeting up after a long time and having fun together. It’s a positive album which reminds us of the great moments life has to offer and that we can be grateful for them. (Miriam Wallbaum)

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BadBadNotGood – ‘Talk Memory’

Sounds like … jazz jam session decadence.

Known for their covers and collaborations with the greats of the hip-hop universe, the now-trio BadBadNotGood (Leland Whitty left the band after their last record in 2016) set out to record an album which could recreate the feel of their live performance. Talk Memory became a completely instrumental album which are often more strenuous to promote for the non-jazz fans but with clear intentions and the time to refill inspiration come remarkable results.

Though there are several nameable collaborators on the record, including Arthur Verocai, Laraaji, Terrace Martin, Brandee Younger and Karriem Riggins, one wouldn’t know since in true jamming fashion it is not about the names but about how well everyone responds and tunes into the current atmosphere. The nine minute-long opener Signal From The Noise co-produced by Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points, is the most outgoing song of the record, outlining the concept for its listeners. The tone converts rapidly to a more melancholic feel for most of Talk Memory. City Of Mirrors is, for a free-flowing jazz record, the most cohesive track and could double as a film score with its grandeur of violins. Each track highlights different instruments so on Timid, Intimidating flute and saxophone tumble over a break-beat until fading out. Talk Meaning finishes as the best reminder of BadBadNotGood’s roots by fusing funk and jazz through the wind instruments. The change in tempo throughout the album illustrates the idea that memories come back in a flash provoked by an outside circumstance and linger heavily on the mind until a new occurrence triggers something else, or maybe you talk about it with a friend and give it new meaning. (Anna-Katharina Stich)

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Shannon Lay – ‘Geist’

Sounds like … cinematic folk between reality and fantasy.

Geist is the German word for spirit, something otherworldly, but it also means mind. Both descriptions fit the fourth studio album by Shannon Lay. The Los Angeles based artists creates mystical world on the record with stripped back melodies and poetic lyrics. Geist is a quiet album but a reassured one. Shannon Lay has built her distinct musical style over a decade of touring and making music. Now it sounds like she has arrived. The ten tracks on the LP fit into the gloomy folk style the artist claimed.

The composition of the opening track Rare to Wake reminds of something from a fantasy film. A poet with a guitar turns the minimal songs like A Thread to Find into perfect sculptures of folky melancholia. Throughout the album, Shannon Lay’s vocals take center stage. especially on Awaken and Allow, it sounds like the artist were singing into a cave or a church-like building, her angelic notes echoing in hollow space. “I must not fear what comes tomorrow and I must not dream of what was yesterday”, she sings. The songs are rooted in human experiences and connections, and sound relatable and like something from a fantasy movie at the same time. (Liv Toerkell)

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Magdalena Bay – ‘Mercurial World’

Sounds like … vivid, exploratory pop in the Art Angels tradition. 

So – you are a pop music maker, in a world of millions – without the budget of a mega-label to Kim Jong-Un you into the public consciousness, how to you even garner enough attention to show people you’re not like the rest? If you’re LA/Miami pop duo Magdalena Bay, you embark on an epic exercise in world building. They first uploaded a cover of Tears For FearsHead Over Heels onto YouTube in September 2016, along with a video that already had some of their stylistic markers – 90s internet aesthetics and goofy visuals. An awful lot of songs followed, each with a self-made video, as the band put in the hard yards to find their own identity and develop their sound. Along with some other treats, for the fans that wanted to follow them along the way – a website with its own click-yourself-happy adventures, and you can even watch them play video games, if, y’know, you like that kinda thing. And so now, with the arrival of their debut album, that world is complete – Mercurial World, a record where Magdalena Bay sound like a lot of things, but most of all Magdalena Bay.

The duo really are advocates for pop as a genre, for the idea that it can still be thrilling, smart, innovative and fun, and Mercurial World is their thesis statement. Basically, the entire album sounds great – every song is glossy, slick and bubbly, effortlessly dance-friendly, and Mica Tenenbaum’s vocals bring each of their personalities to life, whether shivery and apprehensive on Secrets (Your Fire), soulful and breathless on Prophecy or high-octane on Domino. Having worked on their vision so much, they draw the benefits of that completeness on the album – their songs can express fear and fun, sincerity and snickering, with total coherence. Once you’re in the mercurial world, it’s the prism through which everything they do makes sense. They’re two people standing in front of a world that’s fucking weird, most of the time, and so they’ve made their own in response. It’s kinda like walking though an old video game, where the charm of digital waterfalls and sparking, pixelated gemstones came with the feeling the creators really put their heart and soul into every one. That’s certainly true of Mercurial World, and it’s a world that it’s a joy to spend time in. (Austin Maloney)

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