Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Ghost, Rex Orange County, Benny the Butcher, Jenny Hval, Alex Cameron

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

This week is filled with pleasant surprises as well as huge disappointments. There are laughs and revelations, taboos and vibes and so much more.

Ghost – Impera
Released March 11, 2022

2 Globes out of 5

There has been a huge push for this album’s physical media in a way that I haven’t seen even the largest artists strive for. Every local record store got an unreasonable amount of copies on both vinyl and CD, with some even getting promotional posters. Ghost are a pretty big band, but are they really big enough to necessitate that much promotion? To be fair, the album cover looks immaculate, but they really needed something eye-catching to get people to listen to their worst album yet.

Ghost has always been a gimmick from day one. In the beginning, it was the band being shrouded in mystery due to every band member being anonymous. That didn’t last very long and several lawsuits later, Tobias Forge was unmasked as the leader of the group of ghouls. Their music early on was best described as “Scooby-Doo chase music” mixed with Black Sabbath cheesiness. That combination gave something fun and lighthearted, even with Forge’s laughable overly satanic lyrics. Over the years, the band slowly became a pop machine that threw an electric guitar in the background with an organ in an attempt to call it hard rock. It is quite a sad fall from grace.

Right from the getgo, “Impera” proves its biggest flaw with the track “Kaisarion.” Every single song on this album could’ve shaved off multiple repetitions of its respective chorus. You could say the songs are “overly melodic” in the way that they are too on-the-nose with their melodies. That might sound confusing, but each song is catchy only for the duration that it is on, then it is forgotten about quickly thanks to the monotonous repetition that makes your eyes glaze over. When the lyrics aren’t horrid like on “Call Me Little Sunshine” or the band isn’t drilling a motif into your skull like the ending of “Watcher In The Sky” that feels like it goes on forever, the band doesn’t even attempt to craft a unique sound. When “Spillways” first came on, I audibly laughed at how it sounds like a mashup of “Runaway” by Bon Jovi and “Money, Money, Money” by ABBA. “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love” is a flat out horrible ballad, but the fingersnaps really drive home how much it stinks. “Twenties” might be the worst song on the album, from the poor attempt at anger and politics in the lyrics, to the intrusive backing vocals, to Forge’s worst vocal performance ever put to tape. The three interlude songs, “Imperium,” “Dominion,” and “Bite Of Passage” do nothing to add to the album’s atmosphere, with that last track being one of the most useless thirty seconds on an album.

“Hunter’s Moon” from the soundtrack to last year’s “Halloween Kills” makes an appearance here, and it is genuinely one of the band’s best songs. It oozes cheese in all of the right ways and sounds like classic Ghost. It is a shame that the same can’t be said for much of the rest of the album. The rest of the songs on the album aren’t even that bad, they are just so inoffensive and forgettable that it makes this album’s existence puzzling. Well, it actually does make sense if you think about it. This album will sell really well due to how watered down it is and Forge will cash in at the end. He even said Ghost is a paycheck to him, and it really shows.

Rex Orange County – Who Cares?
Bedroom Pop
Released March 11, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

I was primed and ready to make a quip about the album title, but I am glad I bit my tongue until the album was over. Being honest, I didn’t really care about Rex Orange County. His music never really appealed to me, but I saw merit in “Apricot Princess.” I do find his previous album “Pony” to be one of the most insufferable albums of recent memory. However, “Who Cares?” really brings out the charm that has been missing from this project.

Rex Orange County is the creative flagship of Alex O’Connor and has become one of the most popular musicians for the younger indie crowd. Until this record, his stuff never really worked for me. However, he finally hit his stride thanks to the wonderful string arrangements on these songs. The first sound to open the album is the gorgeous strings of “Keep It Up,” a breezy song that sounds somewhat like a graduation alma mater turned into a pop song. “Open A Window” is another collaboration between Alex and Tyler, the Creator. The two work together so well that I would like to see a full project from the two. The soul and R&B influence across the album feels well integrated to the breezy indie pop of Alex’s older music. “The Shade” has these light electric pianos throughout that compliment the jangly guitar so very well. I am normally a supporter of long songs, but “Making Time” does manage to persuade me on the trend of pop songs under two minutes. Conversely, “Shoot Me Down,” the album’s longest track, is also just as excellent. The groove in that song is undeniable.

The production is a little rough in some patches, but overall it is fun and breezy. Some of the aesthetic choices don’t land for me, such as Alex’s vocal delivery in spots and the rather generic lyrics. However, this is a great little album and is certainly a bounce back from “Pony.” He seems to be gunning for the summer jams a little early, but I am here for it.

Benny the Butcher – Tana Talk 4
East Coast Hip Hop
Released March 11, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

Benny the Butcher has been consistently putting out content every year, but his longest running project is the “Tana Talk” series. The first two are mixtapes that are so obscure that few have heard them. The third installment, released in 2018, came as Benny’s studio output breakthrough. Since then, he has had a number of acclaimed projects across various formats.

“Tana Talk 4” is in some playful competition with the recently released “God Don’t Make Mistakes” by Conway the Machine. I reviewed that project and showered it with praise. Benny and Conway are cousins as well as members of the collective known as Griselda alongside Conway’s brother Westside Gunn. While Conway showed much introspection and maturity on his album, Benny continues to ham up his braggadocious behavior while doubling down on his skill in the world of narcotics. It does get old after a while, as Benny cannot stretch drug metaphors out quite like Pusha T can. However, he does make up for it in charisma. “Johnny P’s Caddy” is one of the best hip hop songs of the year thanks to J. Cole outperforming Benny on his own song. Elsewhere on the album, Benny is much better complimented by the likes of Boldy James, Stove God Cooks and his cousins Conway and Westside. The production shines on the album, especially on the cut with Conway, “Tyson vs. Ali.” “10 More Commandments” features an almost psychedelic beat with those swirling pianos.

Beyond some awesome beats and wonderful chemistry, don’t expect to be blown away by this album. Benny puts in a great performance, but it isn’t anything all that special in the grand scheme of his career. Just another solid album from a solid rapper. Check it out if that’s your thing.

Jenny Hval – Classic Objects
Art Pop
Released March 11, 2022

4.5 Globes out of 5

“Classic Objects” is an apt title for Jenny Hval’s newest record, as it is definitely a classic object. A blend of art pop and world music mixed with wonderful uses of ambience makes this the modern day equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s “So.”

Right off the bat, Hval treats the audience with “Year Of Love,” a song about the relationship between an audience and performer framed around a marriage proposal that occurred at one of her shows. The Brazilian percussion mixed with the rocksteady styled keyboards make this one an interesting listen, with Hval weaving an enrapturing melody on top. “American Coffee” begins with an almost gospel-like organ, before giving way to a hypnotic rhythm that makes up the second half of the song. Hval’s lyricism is top notch on this song in particular. The title track continues to utilize the album’s instrumental palette in interesting ways, with the glittery keyboards during the chorus making it feel like the auditory equivalent of floating in a sea of bubbles and stars. As if I wasn’t already hooked enough, “Cemetery Of Splendor” is built around nature recordings, with streams babbling and birds chirping in the background. The song starts very tender and features one of the least intrusive uses of a triangle I can think of. The song moves to a huge chorus with pulsating drums and a spoken word section threading through Hval’s ethereal chorus.

As the song reaches its second half, instruments are shaved off until just the percussion and eventually only the sound effects remain. The ambiance leads into “Year Of Sky,” a progressive electronic song that emphasizes the impressive control Hval has on her vocals. She floats alongside the synths, as if she and the instruments are personifying the psychedelic lyrics. “Jupiter” takes the atmosphere the album was building upon and sends it to space. The imagery alongside the crashing symbols during the chorus feel like blasting through the atmosphere, with the droning second half signifying the wandering through the stars, expanding outwards towards an endless void. It is both calming and intensely terrifying. However, she ropes the listener back to land with the album’s shortest and most straightforward song, “Freedom.” This gorgeous folk song is an ode to the idea that freedom is inherently a broken concept and not even our expressions through art are truly free expressions of ourselves. Then, “The Revolution Will Not Be Owned” comes spilling in to close the album. The piano and drums echo spiritual jazz of the early 70s, before giving away to a more traditional structure as Hval treats us to one last euphoric chorus to end the album.

“Classic Objects” is an album I will be spending much more time with. I don’t want to jump too quickly and give this album a perfect rating, but it is pretty much as close as an album can get. The atmosphere is immaculate and Hval’s writing and composition has never sounded better. Some of the album meanders a bit too much, but I am going to chalk that up to unfamiliarity. I have no doubt that in the near future I will know every nook and cranny of this record. Do not miss this one. Certainly one of the best releases of the year so far.

Alex Cameron – Oxy Music
Pop Rock
Released March 11, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

Humor is a hard thing to integrate into music effectively in modern times. Depending on your angle, you can appear out of touch, your jokes might be dated or you could confuse hostility and offensiveness for a good joke. Thankfully, Alex Cameron is still one of the best satirical musicians working. He has a knack for writing a catchy pop hook filled with lyrics that make you stop in your tracks and question what you just heard.

From the album cover and title combo, “Oxy Music” tells you exactly what you are in for. The font and title is an obvious ode to legendary glam rock and sophisti-pop band Roxy Music, with Cameron even dressing and posing like the band’s frontman Bryan Ferry on the cover. As the album begins, Cameron proves he is as funny and witty as ever, with “Best Life” being a humorous take on those who are chronically online while “Sara Jo” looks at the state of misinformation surrounding the pandemic. After this, the humor starts to slowly fade across tracks like “Hold The Line,” “Breakdown” and “K Hole.” Cameron has never shied away from the taboo, including overt drug references, but there is a weariness to the middle portion of this album that is concerning. “Hold The Line,” a clear album highlight and one of Cameron’s catchiest songs, details the way people hide their addictions and pain, thinking they have it under wraps while denying that those afflictions are actually in control of their lives.

This is expanded upon in the album closing title track, in which Cameron admits, possibly in character, that drug addiction cannot be controlled like he thinks it can. This dark and bitter humor juxtaposed with the smooth new wave and soft rock works wonders to highlight both the absurdity of Cameron’s lyrics as well as the horrifying reality of them. “Cancel Culture,” one of the few drug related songs, was a big point of contention for fans going in due to the title. Thankfully, if there is anyone to trust with a song about that, it is Cameron. The song deals with those who apologize and try to excuse themselves for appropriating culture by claiming ignorance, despite the fact that they recognize what they are doing is wrong. Cameron directly touches on the integration of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE for short, in online discussion despite the fact that many of the people using it are non-Black. While one can misread Cameron’s sentiment as saying “cancel culture doesn’t work,” it is more accurately stating that it doesn’t properly punish those who do not care or do not wish to learn as they will just turn a blind eye.

Alex Cameron once again finds a way to balance serious issues with humor and catchy songwriting. With a rather short runtime, the album doesn’t overstay its welcome and provides a whole slew of hooks that will stick in your head. Even when the subject matter is dark, Cameron finds a way to keep it respectful and down to earth. His music is smiling through the pain. Hey, at least you’re still smiling.