Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’
It seems as if Macklemore anticipated the coming of his second album more than hip-hop fans. This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, judging by the title, is an incredibly poignant piece on the artist and the issues his success has caused among various communities. Or, I should say, that’s what Macklemore wanted it to be. The final result is one that aspires to achieve more than it actually does. With opener “Light Tunnels” setting the grand stage with his trip to the GRAMMYs, nothing that comes after concerns itself with the star in the eyes of the crowd. In fact, immediately after “Light Tunnels” comes “Downtown”, an attempted replica of “Thrift Shop”, that lampoons any serious retort Macklemore had at the accusations that he abandoned his roots for radio appeal. Still, there are some bright spots. “St. Ides” takes all the extreme bluntness from Macklemore and the overwrought orchestration from Ryan Lewis and restricts it, creating a track that is shockingly great. “Kevin” and “White Privilege II”, obvious attempts to spark political discourse, see an artist not afraid to speak his mind. It makes meme-chasing moments like “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Dance-Off” all the more forgettable. C [Brian Tabb]
Massive Attack, ‘Ritual Spirit’
For fans of any artist who slowly ages through the decades, there’s always the hope they’ll return to their former glory. And while that wish is entirely unrealistic, more because of cultural and genre shift than music ability, Massive Attack’s four track EP came dangerously close. While Ritual Spirit fails to elapse 20 minutes, the music is anything but small. Dense, foreboding, and eerily atmospheric, Ritual Spirit plays on all the best parts of Massive Attack’s brand of trip-hop. Even the hip-hop tracks, “Dead Editors” featuring Roots Manuva and “Voodoo In My Blood” featuring Young Fathers, never tread close to the easy opportunities for corniness. The latter, arguably the strongest song on the EP, uses the rapping to its benefit, dragging dark imagery over startling drum n’ bass in a way that’s wholly consuming. Most exciting, for fans that drearily hope for a blast from the past, is “Take It There” featuring longtime Massive Attack collaborator, and fellow trip-hop innovator, Tricky. It isn’t just a shoe-in for promotional appeal, the song seriously educes some of the best early 90’s trip-hop I’ve ever heard. Ritual Spirit, apart from the rapping portions (which don’t detract from the experience), pores over a genre Massive Attack helped shape. B+ [Brian Tabb]
The tone of Cardinal, the second album from Jersey act Pinegrove and their first on the Run for Cover imprint, is one of exasperation. It’s a coming-of-age album that takes place after the fact. Its authors are not living through life’s growing pains, they’re reflecting on them. Along the line is a steady stream of hard won epiphanies. Pinegrove’s sound bears some of the same indie fundamentalism as Cymbals Eat Guitars, emotive smolder of the Wrens, the unspooled Americana vibe of a Gaslight Anthem. The best songs here are the ones where the music underwrites Evan Hall’s conversational lyrics, “Old Friends”, “Cadmium”, “Size of the Moon”. While it never really strives for inventiveness, Cardinal is steeped in honesty so raw and delivered so loosely that it almost feels like a private show that your friends would put on in your basement. There’s no flash here, just a finely crafted batch of searingly personal indie rock songs. Unless you never had to grow up, it will resonate. B [Brendan Frank]
Hinds, ‘Leave Me Alone’
Two words come to mind not a minute into Leave Me Alone—“effortless” and “simple”. If I’m pressed for a couple more, they’d be “warm” and “sloppy”. If that sounds like a good time, it’s because it is; Madrileño foursome Hinds know how to kick back and shoot the shit, and songs like “Garden” and “San Diego” let it show with aplomb. In fact, Leave Me Alone is so consistently, almost uniformly laid-back that songs can feel indistinguishable from each other. Strangely, this has become one of my favorite features of the album. It’s 38 minutes of unadulterated sunshine and drunken sing-alongs. It isn’t an album that begs to be intellectualized, as some critics have done—it doesn’t even ask. It’s not even an album that wants to be experienced. It really only hopes to make you smile with smart twin harmonies and silly lyrics. On those terms, Leave Me Alone is a unqualified success. B+ [Luis Tovar]
The Snails, ‘Songs from the Shoebox’
Featuring members from Future Islands and billing themselves as “Baltimore’s answer to the California Raisins,” there was no reason to take The Snails as anything more than a trifle for a group of working musicians when it released its 2013 EP, Worth the Wait. Three years later, the Charm City beach-funk group is back with Songs from the Shoebox, pound-for-pound the most fun record of this still-early 2016.
In the world of The Snails (a world in which all the band members are snails, so all the songs are written by snails and about snail issues), going to the beach isn’t a chance to sit in the sand and watch the ocean crash. Their beach is like a 50’s surf movie–it’s about synchronized dancing, necking in the lifeguard tower, doing this kind of shit here.
Clearly, none of this is being taken too seriously, but that nonchalance can’t outweigh the talent of the performers. “Tea Leaves”, with its endless, honking saxophone riff and it’s chunky rhythm guitar, has a held-together-by-string quality to it; it sounds like it could fall apart at any moment, but it never does. Same with “Tight Side of Life”, the album’s roaring opening track, and “Parachutes”, a track that merges tender horns with the story of a snail using a parachute. It’s not to say that Songs from the Shoebox can’t be explained, it’s just more fun not to look at it too closely and dance a little bit. B [Nathan Adams]
Lucy Dacus, ‘No Burden’
It’s always a little thrilling to see just one song, sitting all alone on a new artist's Spotify page. Usually, the track is just a peek at the potential of a buzzy up-and-comer. But sometimes, it's an immediate sign that you're in for something special. Lucy Dacus’ “I Don't Want To Be Funny Anymore” was that rare song, a masterful tune with all the pieces fitting together: That sharp riff, that infectious chorus, those cutting lyrics and powerful, hearty vocals. It was perfectly short and sweet—and memorably bittersweet.)
Turns out, that wasn’t even her best stuff. On No Burden, Dacus follows up the stellar opening track with a wonderful debut album full of bigger, bolder slow-burn anthems and subtle epics. Her remarkable voice oozes over hazy riffs, at once matching the slurred style of Sharon Van Etten and Rufus Wainwright but somehow still managing to articulate every word with care. And for a solo artist, the soundscapes are surprisingly wide and majestic—if you took Dacus’ vocals out of the seven-minute “Map on a Wall”, you might confuse it for an Explosions in the Sky track. That quiet intensity is present throughout, especially on standouts “Troublemaker Doppleganger” and “Strange Torpedo”. And for every memorable riff and catchy chorus, there’s a quippy self-deprecating lyric to match. So yes, “I Don’t Want To Be Funny Anymore” is definitely the perfect gateway to get into Lucy Dacus—but what lies beyond the gate is just as exciting. B PLUS [Adam Offitzer]