New LPs from Courtney Barnett, Silk Sonic and Makthaverskan close out a robust 2021
Take a songwriter known for finding the details in the everyday, then have that songwriter creating an album alone for a good chunk of time during the pandemic, coming off a five-year period of three albums and accompanying tours.
That’s what you get in Barnett’s newest, her first since 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel.
The album is mostly the work of Barnett and Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, resulting in a more-stripped down affair. Written mostly in Barnett’s Melbourne apartment, they reflect the environment of their creation.
Artist: Courtney Barnett
Album: Things Take Time, Take Time
Label: Milk! Records/Mom and Pop
★★★1/4 (3.25/5 stars)
First things first, this album is definitely mid-tempo. It could be called “Mid-Tempo Takes Time, Mid-Tempo, I did say ‘Mid-Tempo, Right’?”
Barnett wanted to keep the quality of the demos she’d recorded, which were not raucous affairs because she didn’t want to disturb her neighbors.
QIn the end, the album is accurately titled, as it doesn’t grab hold in the way its predecessors, especially Sometimes I Just Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, did.
Even if the album threatens to dissolve into a mass of sameness, Barnett is too good of a songwriter to let that completely. And if anyone’s style of writing was suited for the forced isolation of a pandemic, it’s her.
“Here’s the Thing” is a languid gem where isolation lets loneliness and regressed communications skills merge. Things are less regressed in “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” which manages enough of a hook in a song of a possible love connection in that isolation.
“Take It Day By Day” has the feel of her earlier material and is the better for it, even if it makes one wish for a fuller, louder presentation, but “Write a List of Things to Do” delivers on the fuller part, a nifty piece of jangle pop that sounds more alive without needing the volume. It’s the best thing here.
Unfortunately, the latter is followed by “Splendour” which lays there, less the album’s intended warm hug and more of a shrug before nodding off. Likewise, opening track and first single “Rae Street” plays well enough, but one keeps waiting it for it to kick into gear, to have a little more variance in the tempo, but it never happens.
And when things are more subdued, Barnett’s laconic style of talk-singing, which has suited so many terrific songs for her perfectly in the past, has to carry more of the weight. One is left wishing at times for a bit more of Barnett’s prior lyrical wit or a slightly sharper eye to help that lifting.
That said, Things Take Time Take Time has plenty of reminders of why people took to her music in the first place to keep it from being a complete disappointment.
Hopefully, Barnett’s next album puts the introspection and less self-deprecation here in service of a more consistent, varied set of songs the next time around. And hopefully she’s able to do her next batch of demos in a place with better soundproofing.
Four years ago, Anderson.Paak opened for Bruno Mars at European Shows on his 24KMagic World tour.
The two hit it off. The idea of Silk Sonic came about as a joke between the two friends.
Artist: Silk Sonic
Album: An Evening With Silk Sonic
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
But at some point, they got serious enough about it to record an album, paying tribute to ’70s (and a bit of ’80s) soul music, complete with instrumental details to match the period, recording some of it in the same studio in Memphis where Al Green recorded his classic Hi Records albums and even bringing in guests like Bootsie Collins and arranger Larry Gold from Philadelphia International’s MFSB.
It’s a fine line between tribute and pastiche that Silk Sonic mostly stays on the right side of. Mostly. Occasionally, it does play like Mars and Paak are doing a soul version of what Bill Hader and Fred Armisen did with ’70s studio soft rock with the Blue Jean Committee on Documentary Now!
For the record, I’d totally watch a Silk Sonic episode of that show. With lyrics already like “Must’ve spent thirty-five, forty-five thousand up in Tiffany’s/Got her badass kids runnin’ ’round my whole crib/Like it’s Chuck E. Cheese”, they’re already part way there.
That said, while it may have begun as a joke, the duo clearly have a serious affection for the music they’re referencing together. And really, it’s an extension of what they’ve both done separately before, given the samples and sensibility that permeate Paak’s work and the “Spot the Influence” game one can play with Mars.
The two stick to a period detail right away, keeping the album to just over 31 minutes — eight songs and an intro — short enough to recall the period when acts would put out two albums in a single year.
There are no modern day excesses of albums that stretch way too long with vast battalions of guest appearances that overtake the feature artist here.
“Put On A Smile” is an example of the two at their best here, precisely because the guard gets dropped a bit for the trademark sad ’70s soul love ballad. Less talk about “bitches and hoes” and more heartbreak, which is definitely truer to the time period the two, neither of whom were alive then, are referencing. At least if we’re talking what would get played on the radio.
VIDEO: Silk Sonic “Leave The Door Open”
“Leave the Door Open”, the album’s first single and No. 1 hit, is the intended Sweet LoverMan Ballad that mostly hits the mark thanks to those backing vocals and Mars’ confident lead (although one doesn’t picture Teddy Pendergrass needing to tell his intended paramour that he also has filet mignon and weed available to seal the deal).
“Fly As Me”, where Paak takes center stage, drops the pretense of the ’70s costume party for a tongue-in-cheek slice of hip-hop braggodocio with the music (including Paak’s fine drumming) subbing in where samples would be.
“About Last Night” is a recreation of the lush love anthem that one could have seen Philly International turn out, benefitting from Thundercat’s guest work on bass. It’s a reasonably good recreation, although it misses some of the details. If you’re going to have an Ernie Isley-style guitar solo, let it stretch out and don’t bury it that far down.
“Skate” is another highlight, that delivers the type of Saturday night skate jam implied in the title, due in no small part to those strings.
“Smokin’ Out the Window” has that aforementioned Chuck E. Cheese line as well as Paak dropping in another line referencing the dinner table scene dialogue in Eddie Murphy’s’ The Nutty Professor (“Just the other night, she was grippin’ on me tight screamin’ ‘Hercules! Hercules! Hercules!'”).
It does beg for a woman to do the answer song (or at least an answer verse) though. The right riposte from someone who isn’t about to be called “a triflin’ ass bitch” could have made it funnier.
“777”, which follows “Put on a Smile,” is one of those Vegas commercials if they were about simultaneously “making money” and spending that money on sex workers over a rather antiseptic funk groove which screams for a sick bass part (paging Thundercat from the other track) to carry it that never arrives. For a song about alleged debauchery, it’s a safe chain restaurant equivalent of funk, more Bubba Gump than your beloved local seafood shack.
Treating the whole thing as a good-time surface exercise (ironic given the attention to detail), it’s easy to wish that Mars and Paak had found a couple more friends and gone all-in. Have someone on hand for that low-end growl like Pendergrass or Levi Stubbs. Have someone who could add that full-on Eddie Kendricks/Eugene Record falsetto better than Mars can. Utilize the old school move of the spoken word intro.
Throw in material that reflects the depth of the music they clearly love — the actually felt heartbreak, the social awareness.
I know, I know, then it wouldn’t be the trademarked-Slick Fun Dance Times album. It’s what they set out to do and they mostly deliver.
The assembled Silk Sonic is here to have a good time and deliver low-depth, minimal-grit cosplay that reflects the fun they’re having.
If it inspires someone to check out the singers and bands that inspired them to do this in the first place to get the truer, fuller, non-theme park version, so much the better.
This band of Swedes remains a relative unknown hre in the states. Hopefully this, their fourth album, with a title that means “Forever” in English will do the trick.
Makthaverskan chose to work with an outside producer for the first time — HOLY’s Hannes Fern. The most obvious change from 2017’s III is that Maja Milner’s vocals are a bit further down the mix with the reverb turned up, putting greater emphasis on the dreampop/shoegaze aspects of their sound.
Album: För Allting
Label: Run For Cover
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Lead single “This Time” sounds transported from early ’80s Manchester with extra shimmer as Milner sings of a breakup where the sadness and disappointment get turned inward (“This time it won’t matter, no/This time I said things that I shouldn’t have said”).
Closer “Maktologen” plays like Slowdive, if Slowdive were a C-86 band and this song was the prize track on a Cherry Red ’80s compilation. The lyrics turn the blame outward as Milner sings regretfully over wasting time on someone who repeatedly wasted chances in a relationship.
Milner’s vocals aren’t always pushed down. Reverbed to a level that would make early My Morning Jacket green with envy, they fight for space on the surging choruses of the bleak “Lova” with everything else turned up to match.
“Tomorrow” is just as reverb-drenched, but more gorgeously melodic, a song that would have been a hit in an alternate universe ’90s.
It’s not always guitars and a reverb-soaked Milner playing off each other, as “Caress” opens with synths that along with the lyrics (“Now you’re on your own/You’ll grow old and she’ll stay young”) throw a little Goth flavoring into the mix.
The whole thing holds together from start to finish — even the instrumental interludes make sense in context.
Milner meets every vocal demand — from the full belting to the subtle breathiness, getting the tone and attitude spot-on throughout. The rest of the band — Hugo Randulv and Irma Pussila Krook (bass and guitar, Gustav Data Andersson (guitar) and Andreas Palle Wettmark (drums) — delivers the mood necessary to carry it all off.
Makthaverskan likely will never get a spot opening the AMAs, but they treat the influences from before they were born as a place to live, breathe and explore, not as a costume.
As easy as it is to hear the band’s predecesssors, this isn’t the sound of pale imitation, but of a younger band that has found the same well of inspiration, drank from it and put its own voice to it.
Makthaverskan hasn’t made a bum album yet, but För Allting is their best, most gorgeous exploration yet – a lush, transportive delight that finds beauty in the sad shadows, a widescreen wall of shimmer that gets under your skin.
AUDIO: Makthaverskan “This Time”