Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: JPEGMAFIA, Lana Del Ray, Parquet Courts, Grouper, Dream Theater

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

This past Friday was a very busy day, with many high profile releases dropping. While not every album was a winner, each one had its own highs and lows that make them worth checking out.

Experimental Hip Hop
Released October 22, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

2021 has been continuing to prove itself as an incredibly prolific year, as I have reviewed a few artists more than once in this column. JPEGMAFIA is now one of them. I have a long history with Peggy’s work. Like most people, I became acquainted with his music through his much acclaimed album “Veteran” in 2018. I explored his past projects after that record and found myself not entirely understanding the hype. I felt like I missed out on the excitement, especially when “All My Heroes Are Cornballs” dropped the following year and I couldn’t bring myself to more than just like it fine enough. After two closely tied together EPs came out since then that left no effect on me, I was convinced Peggy’s charm would forever be lost on me. That is, until “LP!” dropped. Since this album marks his last release with his record label, Peggy has released two versions of this album. The streaming on is the label approved version, while the “offline” version found on Youtube and Bandcamp contains the unedited songs with uncleared samples. Since the “offline” version is Peggy’s original intent, I will be reviewing that version.

If there is one thing I’ve always respected Peggy for, it’s that he knew how to craft the perfect aesthetic for himself. After all of these years, he has honed it into just the right sound on this album. His past works lacked a little cohesion to my ears, but much of that is resolved on this album. The first few songs are great on their own, but they don’t exactly open the album very well. “Trust!” is a great song and “Nemo!” has one of the most out-there beats I’ve heard in hip hop, but in all the first few songs feel disconnected from the rest of the record. I have seen nothing but acclaim for “Hazard Duty Pay!,” and I understand why. The song is a prime example of how samples can make music all the more invigorating. The eight song stretch from “What Kind Of Rappin’ Is This?” to “Tired, Nervous & Broke!” is likely the best thing Peggy has done, specifically the track “Rebound!.” The lengthier tracks being placed together really makes this stretch feel more fleshed out, as Peggy’s songs often feel too short to my ears. The songs range from cloud rap to trap and from turntablism to alternative R&B. “Nice!” and “100,” the latter stylized like the emoji, both show Peggy’s beat making skills and ability to reinterpret samples in a fun and clever way.

Peggy also tones down the somewhat cartoonishly over-the-top lyrics he has had on previous albums in order to craft more direct statements on these songs. There are plenty of quotable and humorous lines still, but they are more well integrated in the more personal and down-to-earth lines that they share a song with. This can be seen on songs like “Dikembe!,” “End Credits,” and “Dam! Dam! Dam!.” If anything, Peggy shows that he is a voice not only in hip hop, but in music as a whole that cannot be replicated. There is likely more I can say about this album, but it is a lot to digest. There are so many moving parts that make up a record this dense. If you like hip hop or anything sonically adventurous, then give this a listen. Even if it’s not my favorite, it certainly is one of the best hip hop albums of the year. It does beg the question “what kind of rappin’ is this?” and the answer is “good rappin’.”

Lana Del Ray – Blue Banisters
Released October 22, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

Speaking of reviewing an artist twice in one year, Lana Del Ray has returned once again. To save myself from repeating my opinion on the woman behind the art, I will direct you to that previous review from back in March. To sum it up, Lana has been a rather controversial figure in recent years, and I am not exactly fond of her and her music. With that established, I admittedly was somewhat dreading this review. To my surprise, I have less to say about it than I thought.

The main problem I have always had with Lana’s music is her lack of dynamic songs throughout her albums. “Blue Banisters” is almost entirely ballads. Fans of hers might rejoice at this, but it really makes this hour long listen all the more unappealing. Every song is a mellow piano dirge, marching on ever so slowly until the album’s runtime has expired. To her credit, it is the aesthetic that Lana has built for herself that fans love, but it doesn’t make a super interesting listen, especially when this type of music puts a large focus on the lyrics. Lana has been known to be a bit of a clumsy lyricist at times, and she wastes no time to prove it. Opening track “Text Book” is a fine enough song with its light, shimmery guitar, but Lana tramples on the atmosphere by shoehorning in some lyrics about the Black Lives Matter protests. While Lana has had some very tonally inappropriate remarks surrounding racial diversity in the music industry and the movement itself, one could read this as her coming to her senses and righting her wrongs. However, should she really be bringing this up now, in the middle of a song about daddy issues? Probably not the best spot.

This isn’t the only time Lana’s words can be misread given her past actions. She has shared photographs of her in public last year with a mesh face mask, so the line “the girls are runnin’ ’round in summer dresses with their masks off” and how it “makes [her] so happy” can be read in one of three ways. First, it is just an allegory for coming out of your shell, which is doubtful. Second, she is alluding to the fact that we are ever so slowly coming out of the global pandemic into a world that is starting to resemble life before last year, which is probable. Finally, she could be saying that she is finally glad that she doesn’t have to pretend to care for public safety anymore. I am being facetious, of course, but small things like this really make you wonder.

Another strange song choice is the interlude “The Trio.” The short track appears only four songs in and is just a remix of Ennio Morricone’s song of the same title from the film “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.” Putting aside that the film is my favorite movie of all time and that the soundtrack is my favorite score, I don’t know what she was thinking here. It interrupts the flow of the album, especially with the jarring trap beat thrown in halfway through. An interlude only four songs in also shows that this record was in dire need of a momentum breaker, and it never comes into fruition. The closest we get is “Dealer,” a psychedelic pop song with guest vocals from Miles Kane of The Last Shadow Puppets. He and Lana have worked before, and they go together very well. Lana changes up her vocal style to a more anguished and pained cry, really giving her performance much more emotion than she normally shows. She absolutely belts that chorus and the addition of drums on this track makes it all the more powerful. It is certainly one of the best songs on the record and likely my favorite.

While I may have been harsh on this album so far, it isn’t all that rough. “If You Lie Down With Me” is another great song, with the brass band adding some very welcomed variety to the instrumentation. “Living Legend” features a distorted vocal from Lana that mimics a would-be guitar solo on the outro that is absolutely sublime. The record comes to a twinkling jazzy finish with “Sweet Carolina.” The smokey piano bar setting really works for Lana. It’s a shame that most of the rest of the album is so one note. The most unfortunate part is that the album isn’t poorly written, recorded or performed. Many of these songs would be fine if they were surrounded by any other batch of songs. It is just hard when most of them sound the same and don’t do anything fresh to stand out from each other specifically. At its highs, it shows potential. At its lows, this record just floats into the background of whatever else you are doing.

Parquet Courts – Sympathy For Life
Released October 22, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

There were a lot of great albums released in 2018, with one of my favorites being Parquet Courts’s “Wide Awake.” That album bristled with energy and excitement and quickly topped many people’s best of lists for the year, including mine. The follow up has been anticipated for a while now and it finally has been delivered with “Sympathy For Life.”

This record amps up the funk and dance aspect of the band’s work, but for some reason the energy has been seriously dialed back. Maybe it’s due to the quiet and muddy mixing, but it feels like the energy and anger of the group’s past work is largely absent. Seeing as this is their danciest release, that is not a great choice. Still, there are plenty of great grooves to be found. Album opener and single “Walking At A Downtown Pace” sets the stage nicely, but it doesn’t really throw the punches out of the gate like you’d hope. The following track “Black Widow Spider,” which was also a single, underperforms as well. However, the album picks up from there.

“Marathon Of Anger” is a marvelous minimal synth song with a chorus chanted in a somewhat monotonous tone. The deadpan delivery fits the tone of this song, as it deals with the feeling of autonomy as people return to work under the guise of rebuilding a sense of community. “Plant Life” and the title track are probably the two most outright danceable songs on here, with the former being a big highlight of the album. “Pulcinella” also closes the album nicely, but the guitar work on that track feels lacking in some ways. While “Wide Awake” was heavily praised for its socially conscious and politically charged lyrics, much of that is missing on this record. That is a big shame, as this band is capable of some of the most quotable and anthemic lyrical phrases in all of modern punk.

Maybe a lot of the disappointment surrounding this album was hopes for a “Wide Awake 2,” which this record is very much not. However, this is a very nice experiment that fits the band, but it feels like it could’ve been executed much better. If this is a transitional record, then whatever they put out next could be a stone cold classic after some refinement.

Grouper – Shade
Contemporary Folk
Released October 22, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Peace is something that often feels tough to find at certain times in life. The contempt, harmonious feeling is not something that should be chased, but instead found. For many people, music is a way to relax. Folk and ambient music are both two genres I turn to in order to calm my nerves, so the melding of the two is picture-perfect when it comes to mental leisure. Thankfully, Liz Harris, known professionally as Grouper, is exactly who fits the bill.

While Grouper might not be a household name to the average person, her music has been held in titanic regard in the indie scene for quite a while now. She started by self-releasing albums in 2005, initially focusing on pure ambient and drone music. Eventually the folk influence started to creep in, culminating in her breakthrough 2008 album “Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.” Since then, she has released a number of widely acclaimed records, with her twelfth album “Shade” being the most recent. It also marks the return of her guitar playing, having been absent from her recordings since 2013’s “The Man Who Died In His Boat.” It was well worth the wait.

“Shade” is an absolutely gorgeous album. The use of space on this album is immaculate, with the acoustic guitar sitting front and center with Liz’s voice floating in the back of the mix, just audible enough for you to make out what she is saying if you listen closely. What she is saying is absolutely heartbreaking if you do manage to catch her moving lyrics. “The Way Her Hair Falls” features only a few repeated lines, but their delivery is full of love and longing. It is made more intimate when Liz stops playing a few times throughout the brief track to restart the line. While this may feel unprofessional if it were coming from anyone else, these flubs only add to the tender nature of these songs. That also is without mentioning the tape hiss that persists throughout the back of the mix throughout the album’s runtime. It really feels like a lot of this album was recorded in a bedroom in a few takes and it probably was.

Two of the more ambient tracks, opener “Followed The Ocean” and “Disordered Minds,” tickle the brain with all the lo-fi haze you could ask for. “Basement Mix” is the only song I would call uneasy in feeling, but even then it still has its relaxing elements. Closer “Kelso (Blue Sky)” is great at showing that relaxing doesn’t always equal happiness. The melancholic track details the sudden death of a friend and the following feelings but does so in a way that feels oddly comforting. Maybe it’s the gentle guitar, or maybe it’s Liz’s layered voice wrapping you up like a blanket, but she makes it feel like everything will be alright. If this record shows one thing, it’s that we all sometimes need some time to breathe, no matter how bad the rest of life gets.

Dream Theater – A View From The Top Of The World
Progressive Metal
Released October 22, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

Progressive metal is likely the “nerdiest” of all the metal genres. It has all the right amounts of cheese and overt-seriousness that make it very attractive to a certain niche. Despite being a big progressive rock and metal guy, much of the genre has been lost on me. One of the most popular bands in not only progressive metal, but in metal in general, is Dream Theater. I respect the band greatly, but they often fall into the hole that many artists in the genre do. That hole is that their music often showcases how technically proficient the band is instead of how good they are as songwriters.

To start, this is the best sounding Dream Theater album in ages. The production hits in all the right ways and everything is well performed. If anyone doubted drummer Mike Mangini’s ability ever since he took over sticks from the legendary Mike Portnoy a decade ago, then this album will surely shut them up. He absolutely tears up on every track and even outshines the veteran members of the band. That being said, John Petrucci has some of his best guitar solos in a while here as well, especially on the opener “The Alien.” I am a little disappointed with Jordan Rudess’s lack of keyboard solos, as well as the horrible synth tones he mangles out of his keyboards at times. The subtle organs he adds at certain points throughout the album do compensate a little. Weathered fans will know the weakest link to the band has been vocalist James LaBrie for a while. He has always been slandered as a vocalist, but he doesn’t sound too bad on this record. He doesn’t stretch up to any unreachable notes, and the slight nasal delivery he has started to lean towards in recent years finally fits on this album. However, the harmonies and lack of strong melodies still leave a lot to be desired in the vocal department.

The biggest offender is the songwriting. Many of the tracks are pretty long but do not do much with their runtime. The riffs are great, but there is little rewarding evolution inside of each track. Sure, there are multiple sections of each song, but they don’t feel like they are going anywhere. You kind of just sit there and wait for the next section to start and repeat that process. It is a shame, because this is unfortunately the best the band has sounded in years. The lyrics also check all the prog-metal boxes. Inner willpower? Check. Something about Zion? Check. Vague refrain about going to the stars? Check. Again, this isn’t a bad album, it is just pretty boring for what is supposed to be an exciting genre. At least they are moving in the right direction once again. However, it seems that “A View From The Top Of The World” is just a slightly elevated hill in a deep, deep valley.