Album reviews: Todrick Hall, Mark Lanegan, Drake, Kehlani, Blake Mills
IT'S fair to say, at the beginning of the year no-one expected a worldwide lockdown. And at the beginning of May, it's hard to believe that in just under a week Todrick Hall has produced a pop-driven extravaganza of an EP full of camp colour and dragged through glitter. YouTube sensation Todrick is most definitely a Diva (with a capital D), and repurposing his hit Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels as Mask, Gloves, Soaps, Scrubs is as concise as can be in explaining what life is like in the world right now. Not known for his hard-hitting lyrics, Werk Out is a light-hearted camp disco groove about home workouts. Mas(k)ot reflects on everything that has been cancelled due to Covid-19 and Meow (featuring Rhea Litre) is an expletive-packed riot cashing in on Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Not exactly a social commentary, but a fun relevant piece of art for the Tiktok and YouTube generation.
Straight Songs Of Sorrow
FEW would have thought 30 years ago that the singer from Seattle-era also-rans Screaming Trees would become the most interesting figure still standing from the grunge scene. But Mark Lanegan has produced a record to accompany his memoir Sing Backwards And Weep that is his best yet. Opener I Wouldn't Want To Say sets the tone, Lanegan urging "get out while you can" over urgent drums and moody synths, with no sign of a verse-bridge-chorus structure. Apples From A Tree follows, with gentle acoustic guitar, a simple farewell to a lover, while This Game Of Love is a lovely slow-burner, with Lanegan crooning that he's going "to lose this game of love" in a duet with his wife Shelley Brien. Guests on the album include fellow 90s alt rock survivor Greg Dulli, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Portishead's Adrian Utley, while Peter Hook's bassist son Jack Bates features on Churchbells. At 15 tracks it is too long, and there are still hints of the trademark grunge strain of self-pitying lyrics. But the combination of Lanegan's gravelly voice and his explorations of electronica, make it rewarding and compelling.
Dark Lane Demo Tapes
DRAKE'S urge to overshare may be his downfall, or his greatest talent. The Canadian don's latest mixtape is a collection of odds, sods and (as the title suggests) demos. Framed as an amuse-bouche ahead of his sixth album, due in summer, Dark Lane Demo Tapes' title is in fact a little misleading. Mostly, it collates recent leaks and discarded tracks. Like last year's Care Package, a collection of songs released off-hand or teased over the years, this feels more like an opportunity to unload than any sort of statement. Some might wonder how Drake still has so many songs lying around, after 2018's Scorpion sprawled listlessly across 25 tracks. There are sparks, of course, like on the characteristically downbeat Chicago Freestyle, and Drizzy's growling collaboration with British drill producer AXL Beats. There's also the ever-present Toosie Slide, a song made for the TikTok masses. Dark Lane Demo Tapes is either a bald stab at a commercial win, or the calling card of an artist unable, or unwilling, to maintain quality control.
It Was Good Until It Wasn't
A triumph of sharply-written R&B and glossy 90s-style production, Kehlani opts for confession and confidence in her latest release It Was Good Until It Wasn't. The 25-year-old is no stranger to musings of love, heartbreak and desire. Water is seductive as it submerges you with silky smooth vocals, while another highlight is the sultry Can I, featuring Tory Lanez, just one of the superstar collaborations that help build the 15-track album. Rapper Megan Thee Stallion makes a brief appearance on Real Hot Girl Skit - the first of the album's two sketches – while James Blake helps to bare all on Grieving. Everybody Business deals with the pitfalls of fame as Kehlani, whose high-profile relationships have been picked apart online, tries to shake-off being publicly critiqued - asking fans to "see through it all, believe through it all, breathe through it all". She ends the project with commemorative Lexii's Outro as a tribute to her friend, the rapper Lexii Alijai, who died earlier this year from a drug overdose. Kehlani had no fear in showing vulnerability in her 2017 debut SweetSexySavage, and these emotional currents flow naturally into her sophomore album.
Mills has a reputation as a deft electric guitar stylist, but in Mutable Set, his fourth solo release, he unplugs for a more soporific acoustic feel. The album title, according to Mills, refers to "anything that could change or be lost altogether". And cinematic songs like Vanishing Twin might be a Spotify-unfriendly six minutes long, but would be completely in place in a downbeat indie film. So is it mute-able? Depends whether you like the record's Icelandic feel. Think Snorri Helgason or a more earthy, homespun Sigur Ros; it's all about the cavernous soundscape. Case in point: the tactile piano on one of the standout tracks, Summer All Over, where cheeky discords give the lie to the song's optimistic message. As he sings "No movement. No future" you start to wonder if he saw lockdown coming. It's certainly not Cliff's idea of a Summer Holiday. What grows on you is the husky vocals, like an ASMR Nilsson, particularly on the soothing Money Is The One True God, whose refrain is intoned like an incantation amidst a barrage of piano chords. The exception to the set is Window Facing A Window, where he makes a not-unpleasant foray into jazz-inflected territory.