Favorite New & Old Tracks of the Week

Kendrick Lamar at Super Bowl LVI [Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times]; Ella Fitzgerald [Giles Petard/Redferns]

Most of the new releases this week were pretty disappointing. One of the albums that landed on my mid-2022 most-anticipated list was about as meh as I deep down knew it would be. IDK & Kaytranada’s collab EP had nothing worth hearing on it other than the singles. Even Ezra Furman put out a dud.

Kendrick never disappoints though. Honorable mentions first, as always:

“The Foundations of Decay” is My Chemical Romance’s first new material in nearly a decade, so I want to like it way more than I do. It’s fine, pretty by the numbers. Maybe I’d be more into it if the mix wasn’t so awful. Maybe you don’t care about that and you’ll like it more than I do.

In anticipation of the ‘lullaby’ version of their acclaimed album “Blue Weekend”, Wolf Alice released a stripped down cut of “The Last Man On the Earth”, a fan favorite from last year’s record. It’s already one of the more bare songs on the record, meaning there’s not a huge difference between this version and the original. Ellie Rowsell’s adjusted vocal performance is enough to make the track interesting enough for a listen.

Jack Harlow’s new album is…fine. Not great. Not bad. Not far from average. “Come Home the Kids Miss You” lacks any kind of narrative or thematic cohesion, instead betting on enough of its tracklist landing as stylish & catchy. Not the worst bet to make, given Harlow’s meteoric rise recently. A lot of people hate this album, but it’s just too vapid to get any strong opinions out of me. “Dua Lipa” is the closest thing to a memorable song on the album.

The new Soft Cell album – yes, the new Soft Cell album – was the one good surprise of the week. It sounds like what you’d expect a Soft Cell album to sound like in 2022, but the band do an amazing job at treading the line between modern proclivities and trying too hard to fit into today’s palette. There’s some fat that could be trimmed. Not any whole songs, most tracks just run a bit too long, especially since the album isn’t very sonically diverse. “I’m Not a Friend of God” is one of the few moments of variety, and my favorite song on the album.

Favorite New Track of the Week: “The Heart Part 5” by Kendrick Lamar

I was so happy to hear jazz chords and bongos when I first hit play on this song.

“DAMN.” is a great album. For almost anyone else, it would be the best album they’ve ever made. For Kendrick Lamar, it was a dip in quality from his last 4 stellar releases (“untitled unmastered.” is right up there with his studio albums).

The polish was there. The lyrical craft was there. The production was on point. “DAMN.” just wasn’t pushing any boundaries. It felt like Kendrick was creatively taking a rest, riding a wave (and doing it better than everyone else), rather than making one himself.

Which is fair enough. Every album can’t be a masterpiece.

Instrumentally “The Heart Part 5” sounds closer to a late-era Marvin Gaye song than John Coltrane, but there are echoes of the sound & energy Kendrick Lamar and his team created on “To Pimp A Butterfly” and “untitled unmastered.”, a sound that gave us some of the best music of the 21st century.

Kendrick takes on the perspective of several polarizing figures across three verses, from Ye to Jussie Smollet to OJ Simpson, all done in a stream of consciousness flow reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron. The track peaks in the final verse, as Kendrick enters the headspace of the late Nipsey Hustle. There are no stand-out bars, no mind-bending double entendres (which he’s fully capable of). His delivery is poetic & earnest, magnetic in a way that only he can achieve. It’s an energy that was mostly missing on “DAMN.”.

“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” dropped this morning. Like the rest of the ‘the Heart’ series, this latest edition is not on the tracklist. It’s probably got some of the same DNA, born in the same studio sessions. Kendrick sounds creatively rejuvenated and I cannot wait to hear the album.

Favorite Old Track of the Week: “How Long Has This Been Going On?” by Ella Fitzgerald

I’ve whined about modern singers here before, and I’m kind of here to do it again.

Plenty (most?) people don’t really care about lyrics in music. Artists whose USP is the spectacular range or power of their voice have been given a pass for nebulous lyrics for as long as music has been a thing.

Every song doesn’t have to be as thoughtful as a Kendrick Lamar song. There’s a place in music for 100 gecs or to be less extreme pop stars like Ariana Grande. I’m not above a bop about being a cow (IYKYK), or the 432,541,862,985th break-up ballad – a song just has to have something else going for it if the lyrics have nothing to offer.

So what am I here to whine about?

Elocution. You can stop reading now, I understand.

I cannot stand Sia’s music. The soundtrack to my personal circle of hell is Sia covering ABBA songs. Does she have a decent voice? Sure. But the mangled warbling and seal noises she makes the English language into makes me want to sandpaper my ears off.

She’s an extreme, but there’s definitely been a rise in aggressively moany music that sounds closer to an impression of a seagull than singing in the 2010’s.

On the other end of the spectrum, is the late, great Ella Fitzgerald.

Most jazz songs aren’t exactly poetic soliloquies. Lots of songs about hats or the weather or of course, love. But someone with a natural, gorgeous voice can make the mundane sound magical.

I can’t name many singers better at that than Ella Fitzgerald. “How Long Has This Been Going On?” is the song I’ve highlighted here, but quite literally any of her music fits this conversation. The lyrics are nothing to write home about – there’s even a labored Christopher Columbus line, and to quote Jay-Z, ‘the only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace’.

Ella’s voice, her performance, her elocution elevates a boring collection of words into a love song. Sia could never.

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