Open Ear Blog

New Music Reviews | February

James Blake — Assume Form

There has always been an element of division in James Blake’s work with his more beat orientated, diverse material finding their home in the form of EPs and singles released on R&S Records. In turn that allowed his more songwriterly work to make its mark on his albums proper. On ‘Assume Form’ with its cast of collaborators, including Travis Scott, Rosalía and Andre 3000, James Blake the songwriter and James Blake the beat-smith come together more cohesively than on any album to date. Nowhere is that more clear than on the skittering percussion of “Barefoot In The Park” or the clicking treble sharp highs facing off with the rolling bass lows on “Mile High”.

“James Blake has only ever satisfied my after-dinner soundtrack before Assume Form. Since his success with the Black Panther soundtrack, Beyonce’s Lemonade, composing for Mount Kimbie, Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, Blake has channeled his experience into an album that can now be shared amongst various markets, ages and occasions. I highly recommend Barefoot In The Park with Rosalia and Tell Them with Moses Sumney and Metro Boomin, but go straight to Andre 3000’s verse on Where’s The Catch?”

Lily London, Playlist Curator, @sweetlemonadefm

Steve Mason — About The Light

Having long since left his time as the frontman of The Beta Band behind, and thanks to some impressive solo albums, it’s startling to find the rolling, swaggering vibe of his former band alive and well on “About The Light”. Now more immediate, focused, and with self-assured, we’re treated to a set of good natured Indie Pop with a soulful zeal. Production chops by Steven Street no doubt helped, likewise this being Mason’s first album co-written with his live band, but it’s clear from tracks like “Stars Around My Heart” that Steve Mason simply had a set of perfect Pop stompers ready to be unleashed. Tune in to this one.

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry — The Black Album

Live band, lo-fi analogue Roots with a timeless feel is the story on the latest from the never tiring Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Playing it relatively straight on these Roots Reggae excursions, Perry is complimented by both a super tight rhythm section and a gentle pace that offers plenty of space for his twisted toasting. The manic over-abundance of energy from his Upsetter days may be firmly behind him, but this octogenarian continues to produce dub versions of each track here that maintain a channel to a bubbling, reverb drenched world he’s been nurturing for 60 years. It’s these dub versions that ensure every Lee “Scratch” Perry album is worth checking out.

Toro Y Moi — Outer Peace

Humour is often lost when it comes to Indie Dance where the focus tends towards the very real seriousness required to get up and shake your bits on Indie dancefloors across the land while retaining your effortless Insta-cool. Not so with “Outer Peace” as Chaz Bear (aka. Toro Y Moi) shows he’s been around the block a few times with these not quite chill not quite dance floor cuts filled with knowing Indie in jokes about “James Murphy playing at my house” and brief dalliances with Daft Punk synths. At its finest however, like on “Baby Drive It Down”, are moments played completely straight. Don’t miss it.

Maggie Rogers — Heard It In A Past Life

After blowing up the internet thanks to a viral video of Pharrell Williams’ reaction on first hearing Rogers’ demo for “Alaska”, we’ve waited three long years for an album release. What we get is a sparkling display of production chops mixed effortlessly with a singer-songwriter’s knack for structure and narrative. It helps that Rogers’ Folk roots shine through in her vocals setting off a balanced contrast with the Electronica styled beats behind her. What captured Pharrell’s attention, and what Rogers has managed to maintain in “Heard It In A Past Life”, is the sense of effortlessness in each track.

Sharon Van Etten — Remind Me Tomorrow

With life as a successful actress taking off alongside other artistic pursuits, we’re happy to see that Sharon Van Etten hasn’t left music behind as ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ brings something new to her musical palette. So often we find musicians returning to music after dalliances in other arts only to find them retreading similar ground to where they left off. Not so for Van Etten as we’re treated to a deeper palette of dynamic, electronic tones that bring renewed focus to her world-wise vocals. At once retrospective and yet bound in the moment, there’s a strength here that is neither showy nor bold. Check it out.

Nicola Cruz — Siku

On album number two Nicola Cruz stretches into richly fertile experimental ground. Tying pan flutes and strings from his native Ecuador with deep synth bass and percussion, Cruz weaves a global Electronica brimming with Folk atmospherics. Not to be confused with New Age Folktronica, the experimental sounds here are built around key collaborations with indigenous folk instrumentalists, poets and musicians. Unusually for Electronica, “Siku” was in part recorded outside of the usual studio environment, with the spacious “Arka” recorded in a volcanic cave. At its best the echoing, atmospheric beats here feature thin thread traces to a far off sense of Dub.

“Nicola Cruz has become the poster boy for a new style of latin American fusing traditional instrumentation with electronic production technique and mostly conducted at a slow motion tempo. I was lucky enough to meet Nicola in Mexico last year and we’ve stayed in touch, which meant I was extra excited to hear his new album Siku on ZZK records. I’m pleased to say the album doesn’t disappoint, it plays to his strengths but enhances his status as the leader of all things Andean.”

Brian d’Souza, Founder, Open Ear @auntie._.flo

Art of Tones — Unbalanced

Brimming with Funk, Soul and Disco vibes “Unbalanced” is a remarkably steady set of sampled vocals and locked in House grooves. A broadly instrumental album, the propulsive 4/4 pulse rarely breaks, instead relying on melodic chord riffs from guitar and synth to provide the broad palette that stays rooted in classic House shapes. While the bass fills are key to “Keep On Having Fun”, it’s the pulsing synths of “Grow” that grab attention, and the Jazzy synth outro of “To The Limit” is a perfect wrap. Together these details punctuate “Unbalanced” with a sense of fun and motion that’s hard to resist.

Marvin Gaye — What's Goin' On

As a Soul album “What’s Going On” changed the musical palette by being decidedly more influenced by Jazz than any Gospel leaning album topping the charts had been before. As a Pop album it changed the way that massive labels like Motown looked at hitmaking, opening up the world to socially conscious Pop from black musicians at a time where that had rarely been comprehensible. But the most challenging aspect of “What’s Going On” is the manner in which it fails to conform to the template of a protest album, a social commentary or an overtly political album both at the time of its release and to this day.

Completely lacking in the familiar aggression, hyperbole, or discordance of so many albums dealing with societal strife, “What’s Going On” is a rich, smooth and decidedly cool album. Instead it is marked by bold moments of optimism in the face of the stark, blunt and vivid societal disharmony it paints track after track. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the way Gaye pivots from the devastating lament of “who really cares, to save a world in despair” to imploring “Live. Live for life” on “Save The Children”.

Unique and groundbreaking in its day, it’s an album that continues to resonate musically, culturally, and politically to this day. While that can be taken as a sad indictment of social progress given the near 50 years since its release, it’s the buoyant optimism for life, and a desire to build better lives, that has helped establish “What’s Going On” as an eternal classic.

Get in touch with Open Ear

We'd love to hear from you. Get in touch and we'll get back within 24 hours.