Beyonce – ‘Renaissance’
Sounds like … pure dancefloor- and life-loving confidence.
By now the release of new Beyoncé record often feels like a massive cultural event although Queen Bey actually took a step back in terms of marketing compared to the iconic predecessor, 2016’s Lemonade. Instead, Renaissance let the music do the talking with limited amount of information ahead of its release in late July. The inescapable lead single Break My Soul already made the world wonder: Wait a second; is Beyoncé now actually into house music? Turns out, she is – but not exclusively. Renaissance is an energetic record, a post-pandemic party album that was specifically created to reunite people on dance floors, following months of social isolation. And it also works as Beyoncé’s way of reclaiming the throne as the queen of R&B and – now – maybe also of pop. I mean, Madonna’s more into legacy administration at this point. Beyoncé starts the new decade with confidence and a sound that is rooted in the history and tradition of Black RnB and Dance music while propelling it into the future.
The “please, motherfuckers ain’t stopping mе“-sample at the beginning of I’m That Girl is a fitting way to start a record that works like a DJ mix. There are no breaks, instead Beyoncé and her team of state-of-the-art-producers (including Honey Dijon, BloodPop, The-Dream and A.G. Cook) imagine a wild club night that effortlessly switches between house music, synthpop, funk, soul, hip hop, and disco. The sequencing is done brilliantly here as Renaissance does not get boring over the course of its sixteen songs. The tracks perfectly blend into each other, creating one joyful 62-minute long party. Beyoncé remains on top of all the haters and delivers memorable messages of self-assurance like “Comfortable in my skin / Cozy with who I am” and “You hate me ’cause you want me” on the funky Cozy or “I’m in the mood to fuck something up” on the disco smasher Cuff It. Renaissance might not be as political as other Beyoncé work (despite having a track called America Has A Problem on it) but in a white male-dominated world taking up spaces and stages as a Black woman and doing so confidently is a statement of its own. Renaissance tells a special story of empowerment and positivity and rises above the crisis the world is still facing. That’s the tale this record is telling and you’d better fall for its magic spell before the already planned follow-up arrives. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. (Norman Fleischer)
Xênia França – ‘Em Nome Da Estrela’
Sounds like … edgy RnB meets ancestral connection.
The second solo album by the São Paulo-based singer and song writer Xênia França continues where she left off with her self titled debut of 2017. Em Nome da Estrela picks up themes of ancestry, spirituality, and Black empowerment that Xênia introduced on her debut. The artist who previously worked with the genre bending group Aláfia, applies that approach to her solo music making. Though Em Nome da Estrela embraces RnB at its core, it turns the genre upside down, adds jazzy touches like on the only English Language track From the Heights or laces the bass-heavy grooves with drum-circle reminiscent percussion like on Já é.
The opening track Renascer sets the tone for the record as a ‘rebirth‘ of an artist and Xênia explains that most songs originated during a spiritual retreat on her home land of Brasil. She molds the past and ancestral ties into music by incorporating several interludes with old interview snippets and a recording from the 1940s as well as playing a cover version of Gilberto Gil’s 1960s Futurível. Xênia França has a distinct musical style that is difficult to be likened to anything else yet she composes and writes with the confidence of someone knowing exactly what they want. If anything, Em Nome da Estrela is a rebirth in its poetic lyrics because musically it does not deviate from the sound we came to expect from this Brazilian talent. (Liv Toerkell)
Interpol – ‘The Other Side Of Make-Believe‘
Interpol have never stopped being Interpol. Surveying the 2000-Indie scene they were part of, this has proven to be a virtue. By comparison, look at their contemporaries Bloc Party, who lost their sound two albums in and have been looking for it ever since, or Foals, who have watered down their once bubbling compositions to indistinct anthems. Interpol, meanwhile, have honed the sound they are good at and pushed it in rawer, weirder directions. Their seventh studio album The Other Side Of Make-Believe feels like the crowning achievement of this effort as well as the culmination of the second half of Interpol’s career, making the somewhat spotty Marauder feel worthwhile in retrospect. If you follow a road long enough, you will eventually get to the ocean.
Things immediately take off with lead single Toni. Over a repeating piano figure, the band develops a simmering ballad that unexpectedly morphs, elegantly keeping it’s structure hidden until well past the halfway point. Interpol’s music has always had labyrinthine qualities, but the way the band juggles rhythms and keys all across… Make-Believe is legitimately awe-inspiring at times, like seeing a precious object fall from a great height and then reform again. At the same time, there is a subdued, more easy-going quality to the music. The raging storms of Bright Lights have cleared to reveal a sky decked with clouds and occasional bursts of sunshine. Singer Paul Banks uses this simmering space to tell stories of monstrous men and their skewered desires. Mr. Credit, a stand-out and the strongest song Interpol have released in a minute, is narrated by a gambling addict, who only seems to be able to see the world in terms of stake and gains. “It’s cloudy when I come to Vegas”, Banks intones, heartbroken, perfectly capturing the reality of a man whose entire world has been consumed by one thing. Elsewhere, Renegade Hearts bursts into wails of distorted guitars seemingly at random, as if the world was tilting. It takes a lot of skill and spit to pull it of the way Interpol do here, and they do it seamlessly. At the end of the day, The Other Side of Make-Believe is too subdued to win Interpol back any fans, but for those willing to listen, it is a welcome breath of fresh air not just for Interpol but for indie music at large. (Nils Heutehaus)
Maggie Rogers – ‘Surrender’
Sounds like … hunger for everything.
Maggie Rogers’ tour accompanying the release of Surrender is called Feral Joy. On her sophomore album she emphasizes themes of desire, lust, and cherishing. Throughout the record, the artist highlights the importance and the courage it takes to choose them every day and without compromise. After her softer debut Heard It In A Past Life, Rogers’ voice and attitude rise above the melancholy in search of sustainable pleasure and joy.
Without missing a second to get to the point, Rogers’ jumps into opener Overdrive remembering the extremes of a relationship. Playful synths and classic pop lyrics follow on That’s Where I Am, where the confidence in her expanded vocal range is first revealed and reaches crescendo on Anywhere With You – “Are you ready to start?”. The possibilities of independence and devotion coexisting in romantic and platonic connection are other key themes on Surrender. The singer’s yearn for liberation on Horses explores this further.
Surrender owes its versatility to the wide range of inter-disciplinary inspiration it grew from. On Instagram, Maggie Rogers shared lists of books, albums, and films which accompanied the writing process. An important figure is Patti Smith who titled her debut record based on the animals as symbols of freedom. She sings: “Life is filled with holes, Johnny’s laying there, in his sperm coffin / Angel looks down at him and says, “Oh, pretty boy, Can’t you show me nothing but surrender?”. And Maggie Rogers proclaims her surrender most adequately on Shatter: “I don’t really care if it nearly kills me / I’d give you the world if you asked me to / I could break a glass just to watch it shatter / I’d do anything just to feel with you”, backing vocals by Florence Welch adding to its ferocity. The quintessence of this record is that the push and pull of self-realization and meaningful bonding does not have to interfere with each other. They are intimately linked entities – to stand strong is to invite the intensity of human connections in and to surrender. (Anna Stich)
Hot Chip – ‘Freakout/Release’
Sounds like … grooving along while the world is on fire.
20 years after their formation, London’s Hot Chip are still a pretty fascinating phenomenon in the world of music. Despite regularly delivering beautiful and profound pop songs they are still mainly treated as an indie act. Besides 2008’s Ready For The Floor they also never had a proper mainstream-like hit single which is utterly bizarre considering the quality of their output. Guess we live in a time where good songwriting and slightly more complex soundscapes can result in some catchy pop hooks but the majority is not getting it. Hot Chip remain the quirky and nerdy outsiders but they found a comfortable niche and simply keep delivering good tunes. Freakout/Release is their eighth full-length and it’s one of their best yet, seeing the five-piece playing out all their strengths. Following a few less on-point releases in the past decade, 2019’s A Bath Full Of Ecstasy saw the band returning to form with euphoric dance pop anthems. The follow-up takes that spirit but adds a subtle darkness and more lyrical depth to it. While the groove and the slick pop production are sill dominant characteristics on the album, the lyrical content got a bit darker, addressing the fight with personal demons as well as various societal topics. Well, it was written in the middle of the pandemic – what you gotta do?
Freakout/Release was recorded in the band’s new studio. That might have affected its sound because despite still being unapologetically pop, there is a new roughness to the sound of Hot Chip, especially when it comes to the drums. Down (which builds on a sample from More Than Enough by the Universal Togetherness Band) is a fitting way to showcase that musical shift and the title-track might easily the hardest “rocking” track the band ever released (also thanks to a bit help from the mighty Soulwax). Next to the shiny pop gems like Eleanor, Broken, and Guilty the mellow moments hit the hardest. Not Alone is a truly heart-wrenching affair and another example of how great the two voices of bandleaders Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard work together. The band also got guests on board this time like Lou Hayter who joins Taylor on the melancholic yet pumping Hard To Be Sexy. The song opens with the question: “Ain’t it hard to be funky when you’re not feeling sexy?” The bleak The Evil That Men Do with Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon is another unexpected but well done feature of the British five-piece. Freakout/Release shows that Hot Chip could not be any further away from retirement. It’s bursting with energy, musical confidence, but also lyrical depth. In another world, these guys would pose a real threat to the mainstream pop cosmos but I’m personally quite happy with where they are right now. (Norman Fleischer)
Julia Jacklin- ‘Pre Pleasure’
Sounds like … post self-analysis.
On her third record, Julia Jacklin excels in what she is already known for – smooth and reflective songwriting that slowly pecks at important core themes combined with catchy pop-rock. While her debut Don’t Let the Kids Win introduced her as a storyteller with southern pathos, Crushing emphasized vulnerability and the importance of right moment/right time, Pre Pleasure searches for intent in the unpredictability of life.
I have been thinking a lot about the various ways in which people experience art, consuming or creating because I was asked by a friend why I keep saying ‘This is how I relate to…’. I realized that not everyone searches for a learning experience or a part of themselves in what they create or the art they are confronted with, some people purely enjoy expressing or witnessing someone else’s expression. Jacklin seems to be of the same strain as me, needing a direct and personal connection to what she writes about. There is little to no distance between her and her songs which can ultimately make it a complicated process but is also its most outstanding feature. On Pre Pleasure, the Australian singer moves through her past, present and future with gained knowledge of what to take with her and what to leave behind, and how we choose to perceive things can change their overall significance. In the rhythmic breaks of Ignore Tenderness she says: “I’ve been stripping right down / Staring at my own reflection / Ever since I was thirteen / I’ve been pulled in every direction / Such a good student of all that conflicting advice”. Each track re-examines a different facet of life Jacklin has come to terms with, or at least is trying her best to do so by singing about them. She demonstrates on these ten songs that re-evaluation and reflection are core components to not just survive but to thrive. (Anna Stich)
Kolinga – ‘Legacy’
Sounds like … reclaiming inheritance.
Kolinga grew from the duo and passion project of Rébecca M’Boungou to a fully orchestrated six-piece since their debut release Earthquake. And while the artist and singer made the earth shake even with just the power of the two musicians, the new release Legacy is the aftermath of the natural force unleashed. It is a record that takes its space without apology stretching songs into the nine-minute epics like the Congolese Rumba inspired Mateya Disco. Kolinga take their name from the Lingala word for ‘Connection’ and the Congolese-French lead-singer Rébecca uses the music as a tool to reconnect to her roots and tradition. With the title Legacy she refers to an immaterial heritage that she carries within her – that all of us carry through family lineage, traditional social, and cultural heritage.
On the record, the musicians explore the meaning of that immaterial heritage through an open vein of honesty and vulnerability. The intensity of ancestral connections can be felt on the polyphonic hums of Inner Truth. Like the title hints, the voices radiate from a place deep inside. The almost ambient and meditative track is contrasted by the first rapped verses of Je Ne Suis Pas De Ce Monde. Kolinga give the track almost nine-minutes of playtime but do so to deliberately make space for the dialogue that the instruments engage in. Driven by a steady bass line, there is space for a drum solo, as well as playful melodies on the piano. Legacy is a record that deals with the complexity of personal identity and the euphoria that comes from a feeling of belonging as well as the melancholy and weight of constant alienation. Legacy bears this burden. But accompanied by the six musicians, the brass section, the warm bass lines, and the rich voice of Rébecca M’Boungou it does not feel as heavy anymore. A record that excels in and beyond its musical range. (Liv Toerkell)
Working Men’s Club – ‘Fear Fear’
When Working Men’s Club dropped their self-titled debut album in the fall of 2020 the world was already on the brink of getting shut down again due to Covid, leaving the highly energetic post-punk-infected industrial pop of the British project hanging in the air. Because it’s the untamed live energy of the group – and the hypnotic performance of leader Sid Minsky-Sargeant – which makes that kind of music shine even brighter. The follow-up arrives in a world where live music is possible again and continues the already started path while also marking a consequent progress. Still heavily infected by 80s new wave and “Hacienda” rave culture, Fear Fear takes a step further into gloomy musical territory. On the opening song 19 and the title track it’s a mixture of flickering and nervous synthesizer lines and harsh break beats that dominate the sound. Working Men’s Club embrace the tension and fuel it with a very hypnotic approach. And while the sound also gets a bit brighter every now and then the lyrical content remains bleak and existential. Widow is a bright example here when Minsky-Sargeant states “Misery is bliss to me / I love you now you’re dead you see.”
The almost seven-minute long Cut is another highlight on the album as it embraces the post-punk energy with all its intensity. It’s one of these songs that could go on and on forever. Later on songs like Rapture and Money Is Mine are heading back to harder goth/ industrial territory and it suits the band quite well, especially when they are placed next to slightly more hopeful moments. If you happen to be a fan of New Order and Joy Division (and especially the transitional era between the bands) you might have already been hooked up with the group, now the fans of Depeche Mode and 80s proto techno might also jump on board. The retro references are all over the place anyway but it’s really fun witnessing them. Working Men’s Club celebrate hypnotizing gloom on Fear Fear, setting the audience into a trance-like state. The 8-minute long closing track The Last One might be slightly shorter than Angel from the debut album but it comes with the same jaw-dropping effect. In all its nightmarish glory, Fear Fear is a record that draws you in from start to finish if you have at least a certain connection to that sort of sound and it really looks like this fascinating band just got started. (Norman Fleischer)
Ben Shemie – ‘Desiderata‘
Humankind has been fascinated with faraway galaxies and the depth of the universe for a long time. In times like these, when distant places might even feel more intriguing than ever, SUUNS frontman Ben Shemie has emerged with his new solo album Desiderata that tries to capture the inexplicable longing for outer space and our own place within it. Humankind’s wish to make sense of the world and therefore our own journey is deeply rooted in the ten eclectic and ambitious tracks that revolve around a wandering soul in the universe and mainly interstellar themes. An atmosphere hardly tangible, and yet, at the same time always seemingly within reach. Ben Shemie has created an ominous soundscape that explores the terrestrial as well as the cosmic energies embedding it all in visionary sound collages that benefit the conceptual nature of the album well.
With pulsating, sometimes subtle signals the wandering soul’s journey into deep space is elevated by Canada’s highly prestigious Molinari String Quartet – a contemporary ensemble that seems like the perfect fit for Shemie’s vision that is partly composition, partly improvisation – and most of all an extraordinary creation. The orchestral-synth fusion is heady and stimulates various other emerging influences such as industrial grooves, electronics, trip hop beats and pop hooks that come into play across the album’s unfolding. Shemie’s manipulated vocals and auto-tuned timbres reinforcing a feeling of alienation that repeatedly echoes from the new tracks. Derived from the Latin phrase de sidere (‘from the stars’), Desiderata is compelling as much as it is confusing in the best possible way at times with the element of surprise hovering over the compositions that were recorded live in only two single-takes at hotel2tango, the Montreal studio owned by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Perhaps making it Ben Shemie‘s most dynamic and refined solo work to date. (Annett Bonkowski)