YUNGBLUD | Childish Gambino | Jens Kuross | uSSSy | Aquilo
Spoiler alert – I have covered Childish Gambino’s This is America this week. I couldn’t not. I’m a long-time fan of his, it’s been all the internet has been talking about ever since his performance on Saturday Night Live and, crucially, it’s a bloody brilliant piece of work. But more on that later.
Aware that my review of such an acerbic and essential track for our times may well swell my visitor numbers to many times their usual levels (trust me, it’s not that hard), especially amongst our cousins from across the pond, I’ve included, where relevant, helpful little explanations in the reviews below regarding any references to the UK and British culture.
My American friends, think of this as being not just your go-to source of weekly new music reviews and recommendations but also a sort of Lonely Planet for those who really can’t be arsed to visit Britain… and – if things continue going the way they have in recent years – pretty soon probably won’t be able to anyway.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of opening my arms to all, welcome and enjoy…
1. The ‘Charm Offensive’ – YUNGBLUD: ‘21st Century Liability’
What I Know:
YUNGBLUD is known to his Mum as Dominic Harrison and is a “socially conscious artist unafraid of delivering genre-bending protest songs” from Doncaster (for the benefit of my American readers, Doncaster is one of the more refined and salubrious parts of the North of England).
His debut, self-titled EP was released in January of this year and featured the song I Love You, Will You Marry Me – the true story of a homeless man’s graffiti’ed dedication to his true love, which was commercialised by property developers.
What I Like:
When I was a youth, a mate of mine once – unwittingly, I think – misquoted Harlan Howard when he told me that punk rock was all about ‘three chords and the truth’. And while that now famous adage was actually initially applied to country music, it always seemed to hold true in my mind; that part of punk music’s beauty was in its no-frills approach, combined with its no-bullshit philosophy.
21st Century Liability has that punk spirit in spades and not just because Harrison’s strong English accent and sneering delivery is spookily Johnny Rotten-esque (side-note, also directed to my friends from across the pond – if someone shouting ‘it’s all bollocks’ in an English accent sounds weird to you… don’t worry, it sounds weird to me too.)
At its base, the track is a relatively simple set of chords and a stomping drum-beat. So far, so punk… nothing to see here.
However, where this track distinguishes itself is in all the little ‘frills’ – the guy shouting ‘Hello?’ at the ringing phone on the intro, the weird harmonica-sounding solo, the “wikky-wikky-wild-wild-west” Will Smith impression Harrison appears to be doing between verses. Its these things that add humour and charm to what is a fundamentally pretty pissed-off take on modern society.
And it, in no way, diminishes its power. On the contrary, at a time when it’s proving particularly fashionable for some musicians to present themselves as a kind of educated social conscience speaking out against idiotic and brash political leaders, it’s kind of refreshing to hear someone who isn’t trying to be that; someone who’s happy giving a machine-gun, Tasmanian Devil take on the world… basically to hear someone shouting, “it’s all bollocks”. Mr. Lydon would be proud.
21st Century Liability is the first single off an album of the same name to be released later this year.
2. The ‘Military Coup’ – Childish Gambino: ‘This is America’
What I Know:
Childish Gambino is known to his Mum as Donald Glover and to millions of people across the world as ‘that bloke off the telly’ for his stints in programmes Community and Atlanta.
I was first introduced to his work when he released debut album Camp, which is still one of my favourite hip-hop records of all time and have remained a loyal – though admittedly decreasingly effusive – fan through follow-ups Because the Internet and the distinctly P-Funk inspired Awaken, My Love!
His 2011 mixtape EP – added to Spotify earlier this year – both happily reminded me how great Glover once was and unhappily highlighted how little I’d liked his new material. Until now…
What I Like:
So much of the commentary around This is America this week has focused on the video (which isn’t necessarily an easy watch so viewers of the above should beware). And it is certainly true to say that it adds a context to the song that might not have been immediately apparent through just the music itself.
However, all the tropes, themes and tensions many have highlighted in the video are present too in the song and, as such, I’m going to try – hard though it might be – to separate out my impressions of the video and focus on the musical content of This is America, not least of all because I think that the song is a compelling and powerfully-constructed piece of art in and of itself.
The track opens with the sound of a traditional African choir, who are very quickly joined by a distinctly Afro-Caribbean-sounding guitar part. It’s as obvious a celebration of black Americans’ heritage as you could imagine.
However, this soon gives way to the much more menacing bass line and trap beats that propel us through the verses; it’s no coincidence that the transformation directly corresponds with Glover’s first mention of “This is America”, the emphasis very much on the ‘This’.
While those early elements return at times throughout the song – indeed, African drums provide a layer to the main groove – from this point on, they feel like they’ve been obscured by the all-powerful western elements; the audio equivalent of the chaos and violence happening to ‘real’ black people in the background of the video while the more stylised hip-hop culture (of which Gambino is inextricably a part) is celebrated in the foreground.
An interesting addition comes in the contribution of a gospel choir – a reference many have linked to the Charleston church mass shooting of 2015, probably because of the way in which Glover executes the singers in the video. However, on the track, there is no machine gun noise and, for me, the reference here seems more to act as a link between the two cultures with the vocal harmonies at once mirroring the African ones that begin the song while also reflecting the adoption of Christianity from western culture.
It’s a complex set of musical juxtapositions and one that wouldn’t immediately seem to sit comfortably next to each other but somehow do on This is America. But then perhaps that’s Glover’s ultimate point.
Because while the overall tone of the track is dark, there’s also a real celebration of ‘black culture’ going on here, where heritage (the African musical elements), God (gospel) and more western religions of money and image (hip-hop) can all not only be present but also complement each other.
It’s not a popular reading of the song, which many have seen as a critique rather than a celebration mainly because of the violence perpetrated in the video. However, strip that all out and what I get just from the track itself is a fundamental pride in ‘black culture’ that is more than validated by the inclusion of so many diverse and compelling musical genres, all in one.
There is no word yet on a new album from Childish Gambino, though Glover has already hinted that his next album could be the last as he plans to retire the moniker.
3. The ‘Peaceful Protest’ – Jens Kuross: ‘It Could Happen to You’
What I Know:
LA-based Kuross is a jazz drummer turned multi-instrumentalist, who’s toured with the likes of Bonobo and GoGo Penguin – both massive favourites of 45rpm.
His self-titled debut EP was released in 2016 and that was followed by the brilliantly titled, Art! At The Expense of Mental Health (Vol. 1) EP, which was released in April, from which It Could Happen to You comes.
What I Like:
I often think a song’s length can tell you a great deal about the artist’s level of commitment to it. Anyone who’s written a song will understand that there are times when you’ll be enthusiastic about a riff at the outset but by the time you’ve worked on it for hours and hours it no longer feels as fresh and the tendency is to revert to the good old-fashioned ‘fade to silence’ when your ideas run out.
Around four minutes in to It Could Happen to You the song, as we know it, fades to near nothingness, only to re-emerge, butterfly-like in a more vibrant, more expansive form where organic drums support the previous electronic beats and bright piano lines lead the way where previously they’d been muted.
It’s emblematic of a track that could have settled for second best on multiple occasions but simply refused to because of the belief it’s author had in it.
For example, the lyrics – which I so often find lacking, especially in more ambient music such as this – read, here, like alliterative riddles:
“One last lover left alive
Said the spider to the fly
Speaking softly, it’s a strange kind of suicide”
“Still too beautiful to hide
Look the devil in the eye
Watch him flutter like a bad batch of butterflies”
Kuross is playing with his language much as he does with the melodies in the song’s final two minutes, using the sound of words to conjure a meaning that may not semantically exist… or maybe it’s just so clever it goes over my head.
Either way, this is what ambient music is supposed to be, the unraveling and re-presentation of sound to form new meanings and new emotions. It Could Happen to You does this beautifully.
Art! At The Expense of Mental Health (Vol. 1) is the first volume in a three-part collection, that will come together to form a complete album so, happily, there’s plenty more where this came from.
4. ‘Guerilla Warfare’ – uSSSy: ‘Dune’
What I Know:
uSSSy may sound like North African Stoner Rock but they’re actually from Moscow and, nowadays, ‘they’ is really more of a ‘he’ in final surviving member and baritone guitar player Pavel Eremeev.
Formed in 2007, the band – which initially comprised of Eremeev, guitar player / oud expert Atrem Galkin and drummer Sergey Ledowski – have released 10 albums to date. The latest, Voyage was released last week, from which Dune comes.
What I Like:
A wise man once told me, “when you speak more quietly, they have to listen harder”. It’s a lovely sentiment and one I’ve, at times, tried to cultivate in myself.
It’s not the sort of sentiment uSSSy have much time for.
Everything about Dune is loud. Fucking loud. From the Kyuss-sized riffs of the intro to the St. Anger-era Metallica snare blasts to the Ministry-rivalling Industrial throb late in the track, subtlety has no place here. This is a realm of hell reserved for those with scant disregard for delicate eardrums.
Best of all, over the top throughout are the Arabic-scaled wanderings of Eremeev’s guitar playing; at once both spiritual and sinister.
And so, to honour my old friend’s advice I’ll be quiet now to allow you to enjoy uSSSy more fully.
5. The ‘Quiet Riot’ – Aquilo: ‘Who Are You’
What I Know:
Despite their alluring and slightly mysterious name and album cover, Aquilo are not a new men’s fragrance; rather an electronic pop duo from Silverdale in Lancashire (Americans – I will confess to not knowing Silverdale very well but, unlike the aforementioned Doncaster, I can only surmise that this is not one of the refined and salubrious areas of Northern England. I mean, they clearly don’t even teach their children basic grammar there.)
Members Tom Higham and Ben Fletcher have been performing together since 2013, releasing debut record Silhouettes in January last year and collaborating with, amongst others, Enigma and Madeon along the way. Who Are You is from second album, ii which was released last week.
What I Like:
It’s always difficult to know what an artist was truly thinking about when they wrote a lyric. In many ways, part of the beauty of great lyrics is that it’s possible to read multiple interpretations into them, and I’m very much a fan of lyricists not explaining what their songs are about so that they can allow us, as listeners, to retain whatever meanings they may have for us without being told what the ‘right’ one is.
I haven’t read anywhere an interview with Higham or Fletcher about Who Are You so my interpretation of its lyrics are simply that but, to me, this is a song about Alzheimer’s.
Take the following examples:
“Who are you?
Forgive me, I’m hopeless with faces
But you sing with a voice like I know you”
“Who are you?
Stood next to my friends, I should know you
But given my luck, I’ll run without thinking
And fall without blinking an eye”
“Who are you?
‘Cause just with a smile, I’m around you
And I’ll try my best like I know you
Who are you?
Who are you to me?”
There’s a clear disassociation going on where the author appears to feel like they should know someone but simply can’t understand from where.
I’m very fortunate in as much as I’ve never lost someone I know and love to Alzeimer’s but it is something friends and loved-ones of mine have gone through with parents and grandparents and I cannot imagine how it must feel to look at someone you love and – in some cases have spent a whole life with – only for them to not even recognise you.
In many ways, it appears to me to be a disease that is worse for those around the sufferer than it is for the sufferer, themselves.
What I admire about this song – in the way in which I interpret it – is the way in which it approaches the subject from the sufferers’ point of view. How difficult a task to adequately and accurately convey a profoundly sad story from the point of view of a person who doesn’t understand the sadness of their own situation.
Whether this is how Aquilo, themselves, wrote the song or they had something altogether different in mind, the fact that I’m able to interpret the lyrics in such a way and that I can find those lyrics so sad and yet so beautiful is a testament to the writing.
And so we reach a cease-fire for this week. You can find all of the tracks reviewed above in the 45 Revolutions per Minute playlist below or click to access the 45 RPM Playlist on Spotify itself.
For a full list of the current week’s Like This? Try These choices (updated weekly) click here.
If you like my choices (or even if you don’t), please engage in dialogue with me @45rpm_Reviews on Twitter.
The silence is broken again next week when I’ll return with five more selections for your consideration. Until then, thank you for reading and go in peace.