Tracking new music releases with Zac Wittman: Arlo Parks, Madlib, Femi and Made Kuti, Foo Fighters, Black Country, New Road

Written By Zac Wittman, Music Columnist

In this batch of reviews, I wanted to highlight some Black artists both old and new from across the world in honor of Black History Month. There have been many incredible albums released recently, and I am going to share some of the most notable ones here. This is already shaping up to be a good year for music.

 

  1. Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

Released January 29, 2021

 

4 Globes out of 5

 

Arlo Parks is a name I was not familiar with prior to her debut album’s release. I loved Lianne La Havas’ album from last year and decided to check this out due to it being from another London based soul singer/songwriter. While Lianne’s brand of soul is more folk influenced, Arlo blends aesthetics from bedroom pop and trip hop. I would like to note the absolutely immense range of musicians Parks states she draws influence from. Everyone from Patti Smith to Beach to Stereolab to MF DOOM to Radiohead are name-dropped by her in various interviews about the album.

 

Despite how many people she claims to draw influence from, her sound is purely her own. Okay, her Radiohead influence does bleed into some tracks, especially the gorgeous “Eugene.” I mean, are we sure Colin Greenwood didn’t write that bass line? Arlo even namedrops Thom Yorke on “Too Good.” Pop culture references aside, Parks’ lyrics are commendable. She writes about herself and her deepest feelings in a way that both opens herself up to the listener while also closing herself in. She balances the extremely personal with the relatable all through the album. Heartbreak, hope, sexuality and moving on are all explored in her lyrics.

 

Her voice is enchanting, sounding like both R&B and jazz singers old and new. The instrumental pallet she works with starts to blend together from track to track, but the breezy guitar and embellishments of piano never become mere background noise due to the strength of the melodies Parks crafts on top of them. While her voice is the highlight of the record, I want to comment on how amazing the drums sound on this. When it comes to soul music, especially more modern examples, I am always blown away at how crisp the drums sound. This album is no exception to that.

 

While Arlo doesn’t venture out too much from the standard sound of the album, I have to say its homogenous sound doesn’t exactly detract from my enjoyment. “For Violet” is a gritty Portishead inspired track, and I’d like to see her explore this sound more on a future project. She seems like somebody who genuinely loves music and I’d like to see her draw from her influences a little more now that she has an album under her belt. Regardless if she experiments more or not, I sincerely wish her the best on her future projects. Maybe in a year or two I’ll get to see her on stage and I can discover these songs again. 

 

  1. Madlib – Sound Ancestors

Released January 29, 2021

 

4 Globes out of 5

 

I don’t really know what I can say that would be new about Madlib. Where would hip hop be without him? Where would modern music in general be? There are genuinely few names in hip hop production that can match him. Well, at least those that are alive. J Dilla and Madlib worked close with each other, but Dilla has unfortunately not been with us forover 15 years now. I didn’t expect anything other than an instrumental album from Madlib when I heard about his new album, but the recent passing of MF DOOM made me realize Madlib will never collaborate with him again. The greatest rapper and greatest producer in the game will never come together again. While DOOM’s passing left an unfillable hole in many of our hearts, we still have the other half of the iconic Madvillian pairing. 

 

Outside of his collaborations and his work under the Quasimoto moniker, I can’t say I am too familiar with Madlib’s solo work. “Sound Ancestors” doesn’t exactly count as a solo album, as Madlib worked on it with fellow producer Four Tet, but it was released under Madlib’s name and so I will count it as such. It sounds exactly like one would expect if they are familiar with any of Madlib’s work. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s exactly what you’d expect from him. Of course, that means it is firmly above what others could do if they attempted this.

 

There isn’t exactly a cohesive theme throughout this like Madlib’s Blue Note remix album, but I personally take this album as a sonic tribute to Black musicians worldwide from all time periods. From the bursts of free jazz to sampling Busta Rhymes and old obscure soul songs, this project goes to a lot of places in a short period of time. That is largely thanks to the fact that the songs are all between two and three minutes long and feel more like sketches than full products. However, that is par for the course when it comes to instrumental hip hop.

 

The only thing I can really fault this album for is not exactly treading new ground. It’s pretty standard for Madlib’s sound, so it’s not a bad introduction but it wouldn’t be my first pick. The other issue I have is the drum mixing. I’m not sure if this is more the fault of Four Tet, but the drums are mixed distractingly loud at points. Despite that, the rest of the album sounds great. While not his best work, this stands as a touching tribute to Dilla, DOOM, and many other artists of color from around the world, those living and passed on.

 

  1. Femi & Made Kuti – Legacy +

Released February 5, 2021

 

4 Globes out of 5

 

Novels could be written about the Kuti family. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was an important women’s rights activist and suffragist in Nigeria from the 1930s to the 60s. Her children all joined the world of politics and activism, but her son, Fela Kuti, is probably the most well known of the family. Fela popularized afrobeat, a genre that would influence artists like Talking Heads and Vampire Weekend, but most importantly was even more political than his mother. There are countless stories about Fela and his crew clashing with the authorities. His own son, Femi Kuti, followed in his footsteps by picking up a saxophone and getting into politics. Made Kuti, Femi’s son, did the exact same.

 

When you have a family history brimming with this much excitement and passion, it is hard to not expect big things from them. I know quite a bit of Fela’s seemingly endless works, but I had not heard any of his son or grandson’s work before. As far as I know, I believe this is the first time Femi and Made have collaborated. Thanks to living in a western society, finding out  current events in Nigeria is more complicated than I’d like it to be, considering how immensely interesting the country’s history and music scene is.

 

I only speak at length about Nigeria and politics because some context is needed to understand the work of the Kuti family. “Legacy +” is actually two albums, with the first half titled “Stop The Hate” consisting of Femi’s compositions, while the second half is titled “For(e)ward” and consists of Made’s compositions. “Stop The Hate” is filled with songs aimed at the political state of Nigeria, calling out corruption and the disappearance of activists in the country. While Femi is nowhere near as violent and explosive as his father both musically and in message, he still drives his point across, albeit in a more streamlined and simple fashion. The songs on this side are all accessible for anyone new to afrobeat and also pack enough of a punch to entertain anyone familiar with the genre. Made’s side is a lot more rock and jazz influenced while also sounding a lot more modern than his father’s side, and I think it is a strong start to his composing career.

 

There are some important political messages held within this album as well as some great music. While I can’t say I prefer it to Fela’s works, I can recommend this to anyone and everyone. This is Black history, both present and past. Power to the people. Kuti forever.

 

  1. Foo Fighters – Medicine At Midnight

Released February 5, 2021

 

3 Globes out of 5

 

It’s been four years since Foo Fighters have released an album. It’s been ten years since I have enjoyed one. While their last two albums have had a song or two that I thought were nice, the full releases were disappointing. Dave Grohl is one of the nice guys in rock nowadays, so he doesn’t exactly have to try too hard to be successful.

 

Thankfully, “Medicine At Midnight” is the most interesting thing the band has released since 2011’s “Wasting Light.” That doesn’t mean it’s all that good though. The production on the Foo’s albums have always been rather muddled, and this record is no exception. The album is well performed from a technical aspect, but it doesn’t sound like the band has their hearts in it. Grohl sounds fairly decent, but he doesn’t push his voice like he used to. At 52 years old, I don’t expect him to pull the vocal gymnastics he did 20 some years ago, but I know he can due to his live performances. I would give anything to hear him scream on a track again like he did on “Enough Space” or “Monkey Wrench” from 1997’s “The Colour And The Shape.”

 

Despite not being up to snuff compared to the older works, I have to give them credit for stepping out of their comfort zone. For better or worse, this doesn’t sound like any other Foo Fighters album. In fact, many of the songs don’t sound like they belong on the same album and result in an incohesive mess. Opener “Making A Fire” and closer “Love Dies Young” incorporate more danceable rhythms that make for a fun change of pace and “Chasing Birds” is a pretty acoustic ballad. The lyrics throughout the album are so incredibly generic. “Cloudspotter” was shaping up to be a good song until that chorus hit. “Waiting On A War” might be one of the weakest Foo songs in decades. “No Son Of Mine” sounds like a poor Metallica and Rammstein parody, which is unfortunate because the chorus rips.

 

I can’t say I hated this though. Hopefully Dave and the gang don’t get scared by the negative reception I’ve seen this album get and decide to continue to go in more unexpected directions. Even if they keep releasing mediocre albums, I feel comfortable knowing they will give me at least two rockin’ tunes each time.

 

  1. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time

Released February 5, 2021

 

5 Globes out of 5

 

Words cannot describe how excited I was for this album to drop. The debut album from one of the most exciting rock bands around. The London-based seven piece that is Black Country, New Road find themselves in the wave of modern experimental rock bands that have been making waves in the last few years. Their peers black midi released their debut album “Schlagenheim” back in 2019, so the indie music scene turned their eyes towards the group in anticipation. The group released the singles “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses” back in 2019 before announcing their debut album in late 2020.

 

And what an album this is. There is so much perfectly calculated tension and release throughout these six tracks that make up the 40 minute runtime. The band ebb and flow from slow midwest emo inspired passages into intense noisy jazz breakdowns and back again with such ease that it blows my mind. I know they are compared often to Slint, but every experimental post-rock influenced band is considered a Slint clone at one point. Black Country, New Road just happen to be the best of them.

 

The opening track, “Instrumental,” is a blistering full band workout through an extended jam of danceable rock and klezmer inspired instrumentation. For those not familiar, klezmer is a style of secular jewish music originating from Southeastern Europe. And oh boy, does it make this song pop so much. The next track is a rerecording of “Athens, France” that sees some minor lyrical changes from the original single version. Lyrically, the song is a beautiful exploration about potential. The following song is “Science Fair,” the album’s official lead single. Probably one of the most suspenseful songs on the album, the track holds itself back as lead singer Isaac Wood delivers a slam poetry inspired spoken word vocal take that bristles with anxiety. As the track grows to a climax, both Wood and saxophonist Lewis Evans explode in a cacophony of noise in one of the most cathartic releases I’ve heard in recent years. I also want to shout out Georgia Ellery’s incredible violin work on here, as I feel it makes the song all the more intense.

 

There has been some controversy about the band rerecording “Athens, France” and the next track on the album “Sunglasses.” I didn’t really notice the difference in the case of the first track, but “Sunglasses” has become a different beast on this record. The instrumental adds a noisy guitar intro that takes the track’s total length to just under ten minutes. Lyrically, the song still covers the topic of surviving abusive relationships and holding on to your sense of self by grounding yourself to something. Isaac keeps the grounding through the idea of feeling protected behind a pair of sunglasses, but his deeply personal lyrics about his history with abusive intimate relationships have been erased from the song. Some fans felt that the detailed refrains Isaac had written made the song more cathartic and helped them deal with their own abusive relationships. I personally am fine with the change, as I can imagine it would be uncomfortable for Isaac to have to relive those memories when he listens to this album. Still, the song is incredible in either form.

 

“Track X” is a wild departure from the rest of the album, taking influence from Steve Reich and other minimalist composers. I started to tear up as the song moved on to its outro and added that blissful synthline. The real winner of this album is the aptly named closing track “Opus.” The klezmer influence comes back, and the group creates one of the greatest dance grooves in experimental rock history. I genuinely got out of my chair a minute and a half into the track in pure shock at what I was hearing. The song transitions between this section and a slower vocal section with instrumentation that reminds me of Nina Rota’s score of “The Godfather” for some reason. This track is one of the most exciting things I’ve heard in a long time.

 

Black Country, New Road have crafted a very emotional and powerful album here. I know this album will not be for everyone, but it certainly is for me. I know we are still early on in the year, but this is a serious contender for my album of the year. Albums like this make me thankful for music.