January 2021 (Baby Rose, Omar Apollo, Fleet Foxes, Lou Phelps)

FLASHREVIEW is a monthly roundup of capsule reviews on some of the latest albums and EPs. This post combines reviews from January and those scattered between May and December last year.

Baby Rose – To Myself

Baby Rose’s ‘To Myself’ is a bold debut that takes heartbreak for what it is: messy, passionate, and soulful, expressed like a stream-of-consciousness in its first half that it almost goes like a blur. “Sold Out” opens with the sound of a car imagining the departure of the R&B singer’s past love; she reminisces “When we were together, I was like spouse / Right beside you playing house”, but she’s quick to admit she’s “Sold out on love”, jumping through feelings of uncertainty (“Borderline”), regret (“Ragrets”), and limitation (“Pressure”).

Its slower second half is more emotionally indulgent: the mid-tempo groove of the drums and synths in “Mortal” lets lines like “I pick up the pieces then come back running every time” sharply resonate with anyone going through a breakup, especially “All to Myself” whose balladic arrangement beds Baby Rose’s smoky contralto voice with a touching depth. Like Alabama Shakes’ “Gimme All Your Love”, Baby Rose’s distinctive vocals take the forefront of an emotional narrative, stabbing each line with a guttural punch as she paves through moments she wants to forget.

Omar Apollo – Apolonio

Even if it meant giving up the reward of a debut album, Omar Apollo cut short his hour-long project ‘Apolonio’ to just over twenty minutes, saving his other tracks for when he gets a chance to perform them. He calls it a half-album, and it definitely presents itself that way from its series of sketches navigating his stylistic experimentation: from neo-soul and indie-rock to corrido and hip-hop.

While this kind of diversity suggests Apollo’s artistic indecision, he embraces it with growing confidence: the Spanish-sung “Dos Uno Nueve (219)” is an audacious homage to his Mexican-American heritage and hometown in Indiana; “Kamikaze” shows him reflecting and moving on from past relationship mistakes; and “Stayback” presents post-breakup emotional maturity as an opportunity for Apollo to refine his neo-soul production and become more open with his sexuality.

Even more assured are Apollo’s vocals reaching his upper register with ease on the soulful “Want U Around” and showing effortless adaptability to the album’s many styles; notably in “Useless” where he takes on a hazy and nonchalant baritone to complement Strokes’ guitarist Albert Hammond Jr’s unmistakable guitar feature; and in “Bi Fren” in which he takes on the feel-good flow of mumble rap.

Apolonio feels more like a mixtape than an album, but it’s a promising record for an artist who’s never afraid to try new things. And since he’s got some tracks in the vault ready to perform, we can look forward to something all the more exciting and confident, putting continuing experimentation markedly in his favour.

Fleet Foxes – Shore

Throughout 2020, industries made unfortunate yet necessary efforts to suppress the pandemic. In the arts, concert venues closed, music releases got delayed, and any form of live performance came to an abrupt halt. So for artists like Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold, it caused a loss of creative spark. It meant sleepless nights – “There were some dark weeks where I would end up waking up at 7 or 8pm and stay up till noon” – and coercion for a positive mindset – “I’d make playlists of hundreds of warm songs to immerse myself in”. Eventually, he found triumph in ‘Shore’, Fleet Foxes’ most buoyant and open album, accredited to Pecknold’s creative resilience.

Characteristic of their previous works, Fleet Foxes’ voices join invariably in pleasant harmony. But guided this time by colourful instrumentation including temple blocks, harpsichords, Frank Sinatra’s touring drum kit and “every great model of every great guitar and bass ever made”, each song in the 55-minute run time revels in the comfort of newfound optimism.

There’s “Sunblind”, a celebration of Pecknold’s greatest influences that are gone but not forgotten (Elliot Smith, Jeff Buckley and Otis Redding, to name a few); “Going-to-the-Sun Road” with its euphoric ensemble of brass leading the way to “The road of the sun / The beginning of everything”; and the booming drums in “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman” carry the album to its rousing, albeit meditative end, the titular “Shore”.

Every song left bears its own version of “[celebrating] life in the face of death”, as Pecknold calls it. His lyrics are replete with luminous imagery, narrating celebration and loss, hope and adversity – something we all relate to these days. In a time that is fueled by endless uncertainty, Pecknold captures perfectly “an album that felt like a relief, like your toes finally touching sand after being caught in a rip current”.

Mild Orange – Mild Orange

From just the first few tracks on New Zealand band Mild Orange’s self-titled album, it’s clear what slacker indie rock records do best: reverb-heavy guitars and distorted vocals that mostly provide shape and texture than lyrics to focus on.

This is notable in the lead single, “Freak In Me” (featuring an infectious slide guitar motif) and the Strokes-esque “Making Things”. But the catch here is that the surrounding tracks seem to blur into one, failing to impress on their own except to contribute to the uplifting ambience provided in those first few songs. Paradoxically, it’s what sells this album – it makes for easy listening. And with the steady buoyant pace, narrow harmonic range and motivic phrasing offered by the first half of the record, it’s not hard to assume where the rest of the 52 minutes will lead.

What does carry this album are the exuberant riffs by lead guitarist Josh Reid such as in “First Taste” and “Share This Dance”, rising above much of the instrumentation that they almost press for earworm status. Also “Fool’s Love” and “Timestables”, (given they are the final tracks on the record) which bring a more frenetic energy with its rich textures, brooding harmonies, and dynamic vocal performance from frontman Josh Mehrtens.

But much like leaving a conversation with only a memory of how it made you feel than of the words exchanged, ‘Mild Orange’ falls short of leaving a lasting impression. It’s enough to act as the soundtrack to your next road trip, but probably forgotten once you reach your destination.

Lou Phelps – EXTRA EXTRA!

Each release by Lou Phelps finds the Haitian-Canadian rapper polishing his sound and playful flow, making his latest, ‘EXTRA EXTRA!’ his most fluent. Musically, lyrically, and even with the pressure of being overshadowed by his brother KAYTRANADA, Phelps is unabashedly comfortable as he navigates the highs and lows of rising success across seven acute tracks, packing as much charisma and candour as 19 minutes could allow. In lyrics like “Tryna put millions in my account”, “Think you got a problеm, lil’ bitch / Feelin’ angry ‘cause I’m young, black and rich”, and even the more dispirited “New friends now I’m blocked from your account / And it’s all me, all by myself until the ground”, the unfaltering confidence is telling of an artist stepping into his own light. And the production (Jasper, LAKIM, tek.lun, and notably, KAYTRANADA) brings this record all the more to life from the rousing trumpet opener on the whimsical “MUST BE” to the hypnotic electro beat on “FIRE”. A lot of promise and energy on this mixtape. An exciting record that sets the precedent for any releases to come.

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