Arlo Parks, Cassandra Jenkins, Pale Waves and slowthai reviewed plus the E/O playlist covers a phenomenal February.
Well, that was quite a month! There were so many great releases dropping it was hard to keep up, and the four records I've chosen below are only the tip of the iceberg in a fantastic month for music (see The Weather Station and Black Country, New Road for more on that). As always in addition to my monthly album wrap I've got the E/O playlist which has an epic collection of tunes covering February and what to expect from March. Plus, I'm officially debuting a new section which will see me cover even more great music for you all going forward - lots to get through to let's get to it.
February Album Reviews
Collapsed In Sunbeams - Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks' slick indie pop come R&B goes down so smoothly on Collapsed In Sunbeams that you may miss the poetry in the Londoner's expressive journal entries. Built off the back of a fantastic set of singles rolled out over the full course of last year (all the way from 'Eugene' back pre-lockdown times in February 2020 to 'Hope' this past January), Parks' debut is a pleasurably mellow affair that pairs its artists' ASMR vocals with a delectable set of trip-hop inspired beats.
It's a deceptively simple, universally appealing formula that almost conceals the low key beauty in Parks' relatable lyricism, which comprises a collection of portrait studies based on those who shaped the singer's adolescence. The everyday characters encountered throughout Sunbeams will probably feel as familiar as your own family and friends after a couple of spins though, thanks to Parks' meticulous sketches and warmly told stories.
With a bit of luck, Collapsed In Sunbeams will find Parks the mainstream success she deserves, hopefully in good time to hear these tunes hit the radio on sunnier days when the early year overcast has cleared and summer starts to arrive.
7.0 / B-
Best Tracks: 'Hurt'/'Hope'/'Black Dog'
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature - Cassandra Jenkins
The lavish jazz pop of Cassandra Jenkins unlocks the same healing properties as the warm Norwegian water she sings of on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, the lusciously arranged, intricately performed sophomore album from the New York songwriter. Over a gorgeous palette of dreamlike folk, ambient synthpop and sensuous jazz arrangements, Jenkins relates a series of deeply intimate stories. That these are told through a series of vividly sketched characters set within oil painted landscapes only adds to the pleasure, gifting the most mundane details of these tales a smoky romance which Jenkins seems to emit effortlessly through her glowing, delicate songwriting and hushed vocal delivery.
Floating by in a tantalizing thirty minute runtime, these seven tracks are a blissful snapshot into the spiritual journey of their narrator, and Jenkins' wise lyricism blesses the record with an air of maturity lacking on most releases so early into their creators discography. Perhaps most striking though is the remarkable sound quality of these compositions - it's no stretch to say that An Overview on Phenomenal Nature could well boast the best production of any record to date this year. As such, it distinguishes Jenkins as one of the most promising folk songwriters in America on her first great work of art. She may be just two albums in, but the Brooklyn native already sounds like an assured veteran.
8.5 / A-
Best Tracks: 'New Bikini'/'Hard Drive'/'Crosshairs'
Who Am I? - Pale Waves
Just a glimpse at the cover of Pale Waves' second LP is enough to tell you that the shimmering power pop of the Dirty Hit group owes as much to Avril Lavigne and Paramore as to Alanis Morrissette, with frontwoman Heather Baron Gracie affecting a gothic aesthetic that stands in direct contrast to the Manchester acts super catchy altpop tunes.
Who Am I? is a throwback in every sense, with infectious lead single releases 'Change', 'She's My Religion', and 'Easy' kicking off the record and doing a convincing job of sounding like products of the late nineties and early noughties in the best way (flashbacks of MTV2 and Kerrang! abound), but the rest of the album doesn't shine quite as brightly when held up to closer inspection. The retro chart vibes of Who Am I? wear slightly thin in the weak midsection of a tracklist that is heavily reliant on its singles.
Gracie drops a few well intentioned yet clunky attempts at social commentary on the admittedly catchy if on the nose 'You Don't Own Me', before the likes of 'Tomorrow' and 'I Just Needed You' fall flat with the band's uninspiring attempts to execute some acoustic power ballads. Who Am I? thankfully recovers at the finish line with the earnest sweetness of 'Odd Ones Out' and light pop-punk riffs of 'Run To' before the tender piano ballad of the title track plays us out. It would be easy to write Pale Waves' sound off as basic, but this would be a mistake - the inherent simplicity of these tracks is what that makes for addictive listening, and it's a testament to Gracie and the band's skill that their best work is so easy to consume. Furthermore, it's an undeniable breath of fresh air to hear a sound so markedly different from the current pop landscape on Who Am I?, and Pale Waves clearly take great inspiration in paying homage to their millennial idols.
It's a shame there aren't more bands like this to be found in the top 40 these days, with Pale Waves offering a sweetly simple return to the undeniable hooks and melodies that dominated the charts of our youth.
6.0 / C
Best Tracks: 'Change'/'Easy'
TYRON - slowthai
Having blown up the UK rap scene back in 2019 with an album of politically charged mantras set to a singular mix of grime, ska and punk on Nothing Great About Britain, slowthai arrives proper on the world stage with TYRON. This time it's not Boris Johnson or Brexiteers that Tyron Frampton is taking to task, but himself - the twenty six year old drops an album of two halves here, pointedly split into an opening section of loud rap bangers signified by all caps titles, before downsizing to lowercase on a more introspective second half that sees slowthai execute the most affecting music of his short career to date. From the outset it's clear that TYRON isn't as production orientated as NGAB, with a low key minimalist approach more reminiscent of the modern US hip-hop sound, provided courtesy of longtime collaborator Blue Daisy and the in demand Kenny Beats. This doesn't necessarily mean there's any less passion or creativity on display however, as slowthai hungrily swallows up any and all space on these sparser beats with his inextinguishable presence (and a couple of well timed assists from Skepta and A$AP Rocky on 'Cancelled' and 'MAZZA' respectively), snatching the spotlight from the music and turning it firmly on his words, which are delivered with the sort of blazing intensity an exorcist usually reserves for demons.
The first half of TYRON hits hard but it's the second half that truly leaves a mark, showcasing an arrestingly vulnerable side of slowthai on a series of meditative tracks that make for a powerful, emotive conclusion to the record. It will be difficult to name a better three track run on any album in hip-hop this year than the closing trio on TYRON - 'nhs' finds slowthai pouring his heart and soul into his best ever verses with a life affirming message that could sound rote coming from another artist but instead feels like a well earned victory lap when considering Frampton's tough upbringing. This is followed by the stunning James Blake feature 'feel away', one of 2020's best singles, which finds new emotional depth in the wider context of the album before 'adhd' brings TYRON to a suitably thunderous finish as the rapper examines undiagnosed mental health issues from his youth with the same potent, eye opening perspective that defines these 14 tracks.
A triumph from start to finish, TYRON reveals a profound, still rapidly developing songwriter and firmly establishes slowthai as one of the most charismatic and captivating figures in hip-hop today.
8.5 / A-
Best Tracks: 'MAZZA (feat. A$AP Rocky)'/'nhs'/'feel away (feat. James Blake & Mount Kimbie)'/'adhd'
I was still figuring out this section last month so here's the full official debut of a new section to the monthly wrap up - GOODGOODNOTBAD, where I get to give you some extra quick takes on stuff I've been listening to this month that hasn't gotten the full review treatment! This is my way of including some more quickfire recommendations for all of you that are well worth checking out.
These albums can either be: Very Good, Good, Not Bad or BAD (I'll always do my best to review anything better than 'Very Good' so think of this as a kind of 'Best of the Rest' sorta thing). So with that being said, what else is out there this month and what's good?
I'll tell you what's not - Death By Rock'n'Roll is exactly as lame as it sounds as Taylor Momsen fills her cliche quota on The Pretty Reckless' monotonous fourth album. If you're looking for a more interesting choice in rock this month then the dirty psychadelia of Goat Girl's sophomore record On All Fours is a better bet as the Londoners expand their garage guitar sound with some nice electro touches.
My favourite of this bunch has to be the glowing debut of Japanese artist Nana Yamato who sings evocatively of lonely Tokyo nights on her dark, dreamy pop record Before Sunrise. I'm also really enjoying the super slick mix of lo-fi instrumentals that Luna Li serves up with ten tracks in ten minutes on her jams EP.
I was a little late to the party on Ashnikko last month but DEMIDEVIL is a super fun slice a hyperpop that doesn't take itself too seriously. Miss Grit flexes some serious guitar skills on the experimental rock of her Imposter EP, while post-rock legends Mogwai make a triumphant return with As The Love Continues, a typically epic offering of hardcore instrumentals that finds the Glaswegian veterans weaving in vocal and synth touches almost twenty years into their tenure.
Another relatively high profile instrumental release was Sound Ancestors by Madlib, a series of left field hip-hop beats which I personally found rather forgettable despite a production assist from Kieran Hebden AKA Four Tet. I was also hoping for a bit more flavor from Galway's Laoise, a new electropop artist who dropped her so-so three track Healthy EP this past February - it didn't pack the same punch for me as some of the other upcoming Irish altpop artists I've been digging lately.
Check out these nine releases ranked below and let me know whether you thought they were good, bad or indifferent:
Nana Yamato - Before Sunrise
Ashnikko - DEMIDEVIL
Goat Girl - On All Fours
Luna Li - jams EP
Miss Grit - Imposter EP
Mogwai - As The Love Continues
Laoise - Healthy EP
Madlib - Sound Ancestors
The Pretty Reckless - Death By Rock'n'Roll
Either/Or's February 2021 Playlist
42 of the best tracks from last month, assorted in a curated playlist for your listening pleasure by yours truly:
'cloud castle' - Luna Li
'Deja' - Bomba Estereo
'CHARGER (feat. Charli XCX)' - ELIO
'BODY' - FYA FOX
'White Lie' - Lenii
'Favor' - Julien Baker
'Dark Side of the Party' - Miss Grit
'New Fragility' - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
'Strong Feelings' - Dry Cleaning
'Parking Lot' - The Weather Station
'Love Story (Taylor's Version)' - Taylor Swift
'These Kids We Knew' - Rostam
'New Bikini' - Cassandra Jenkins
'Just Go' - Arlo Parks
'Missing Out' - Syd
'adhd' - slowthai
'Do You Wanna' - Nana Yamato
'The Last Man on Earth' - Wolf Alice
'Gasoline (feat. Taylor Swift)' - HAIM
'Let's Not Fight!' - Porridge Radio, Piglet
'New Detroit' - Tigers Jaw
'Here Comes The Rain' - Weezer
'Real (with Mac DeMarco)' - Juan Wauters
'Samurai Sword' - Chad VanGaalen
'Breastmilk' - The Koreatown Oddity
'Gang Signs (feat. ScHoolboy Q)' - Freddie Gibbs
'SHELTER ft Wyclef Jean, ft Chance The Rapper' - Vic Mensa
'Stop The Hate' - Femi Kuti
'I'm A Rover' - Ye Vagabonds
'Song for Nick Drake' - Skullcrusher
'That's Entertainment - 2021 Version' - Morrissey
'The Holding Hand' - Iceage
'Sad Cowboy' - Goat Girl
'Sunglasses' - Black Country, New Road
'Ceiling Granny' - Mogwai
'Good Night, I Hope The Future Brings You Only The Best!' - Himera
'Xiu' - Yu Su
'Fall In Love' - Dntel
'La Perla' - Sofia Kourtesis
'We Belong Together (Mimi's Late Night Valentine's Mix)' - Mariah Carey
'UNISIL' - SOPHIE
'Friday (Remix)' - Rebecca Black, 30H!3, Big Freedia, Dorian Electra
March's Most Anticipated Releases
Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats - UNLOCKED 1.5
Kings Of Leon - When You See Yourself
Tigers Jaw - I Won't Care How You Remember Me
Teenage Fanclub - Endless Arcade
Perfume Genius - Immediately Remixes
Justin Bieber - Justice
Lana Del Rey - Chemtrails Over The Country Club
The Antlers - Green To Gold
Death From Above 1979 - Is 4 Lovers
Dntel - The Seas Trees See
Serpentwithfeet - Deacon
tUnE-yArDs - Sketchy
Xiu Xiu - OH NO
For reviews of the above and much more this month, subscribe and check back for another wrap up at the end of March! Thanks for reading.