Johnny Jewel - Digital Rain

The dominion of indie seems overrun by hordes of hard workers who relish in the self-determined deadlines and the morphable dimensions of the home studio. These provisions mount a sort of insoluble problem for musicians eager to issue their creations the moment the tape reel suspends or content with expanding upon their maximalist palettes of sound. For Johnny Jewel, the analog-minded paragon behind Portland’s discotheque-rockers Chromatics, Italo-punk outfit Glass Candy, amongst a handful of names on the Italians Do It Better roster (a label he conveniently founded and currently operates), composing and arranging music transcends the esoteric persona we’ve perhaps unfairly assigned to independent producers. It’s not only an ethos that heartily shows itself in his numberless endeavors but an amalgamation of overcast attitudes and dancefloor beats that render his discography one of the most consistently engaging across the underground spectrum.

In recent years, Jewel’s medium as an overbooked composer has shifted to scoring films that reconcile his danceable, gloomy approach to pop music—from Ryan Gosling’s Lost River to the Belgian drama Home, one is left to wonder how Jewel’s rife sentimentalism translates into his solo work. Last year’s Windswept compiled several afterthoughts from his decade-long tenure, proving that even prolific pragmatists such as Jewel have untouched material to spare. Nearly eight months later, Jewel returns with Digital Rain, a full-length concept album fawning upon the allure and presence of precipitation that coated his hometowns. Vaporous synthesizers and drum machines at his beck and call albeit with incidental restrain, Jewel’s instrumentals sow ambient movements with the textural stamina of his vintage keyboard assortment.

Throughout his career, Jewel’s philosophies as a songwriter rarely reached beyond the anachronistic beauty of all things retroactive and honed heavily on treated modern ears to his dancefloor-direct productions—Digital Rain delves in fanciful melodies alone, bridging his trademarked instrumentation in Chromatics with the reserved moods of his soundtrack work. Twinkling and veiled by misty keyboard lines, the titular opener recalls the restless feeling of being trapped indoors during a rainy day. Likewise, the Tim Hecker-esque drones of “The City of Roses” chalk out a lavish outline of the Portland skyline puncturing the migratory sea of clouds hovering above. Any which way, these sonically captivating illustrations uncover Jewel’s attempt at framing his songs with the isolationist headset he’s customarily sworn off. This time, the idol worship is marginal, if not scarcely visible past Jewel’s meditative intentions.

Johnny Jewel of Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, Symmetry

At first glance, the congested tracklist of Digital Rain seemingly insinuates Jewel is merely caching together half-assed sketches floating around in his disk space rather than confident bangers. The truth of the matter is that Digital Rain’s crowning stroke is its cyclical existence; from start to finish, Jewel’s scattered flow of songs mold into distinctive movements—in fact, it’s less of a pushover to listen to Digital Rain without scouring its tracklist. Without these barriers in name only, the splendid progression from “Mirror Image” to “La Ville de Neige” courses into one succinct arrangement rather than splintered fragments.

Ultimately, Jewel’s methodology in Digital Rain scans as a terrific antithesis to career standouts like Chromatics’ Kill for Love and Glass Candy’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X—without the cadenced stomp of the disco guiding his every move, his synthesizer interpretations are far from lifeless or uninspired. Although it will undoubtedly be swept up in the deluge of his profuse output, Digital Rain is a reflective triumph for Jewel and an afterthought for his listeners that may as well suggest a much-needed period of calm before the imminent revival of Chromatics and Glass Candy.

Porches - The House

Identity crises take artists and their listeners by storm—with the disquiet dimensions of internet-fueled hype and muddled potential for critical and consumer acclaim, who can blame musicians for playing it safe rather than taking the money and run? In spite of this plight, handfuls of restless songwriters seek out the thrill and challenge of reinvention, uncovering alien pockets of their preexisting sound or sculpting newer ones entirely. For New York’s Bandcamp notable Aaron Maine and his Porches project, taking the plunge into pseudo-stardom proved to be his career-defining strategy and a case study for all mainstream aspirants to pore over.

In the dawning moments of 2016, Maine unchained his illustrious sophomore effort Pool into the throes of speculation and unpredictable reaction. Previously fronting a spindly blend of indie rock and aimless electronica, Maine’s newfound exploration of the latter tested his project’s unpadded boundaries and imparted a minimalist expertise toward his musicianship. Rebounding with his third full-length The House, Maine clears a more formidable space on the dance floor for his analog productions to take root. Melancholy demeanor intact, this collection of credible pop sketches continues to familiarize Maine and his audience with the reflective skillset his songwriting conveys.

Porches artist

In a broader sense, The House is where all the fixings of grandeur from Pool can finally settle and prevail. Maine’s comfort zone, once weighed down by the drag of low-fidelity recording only a few years ago, appears liberated in pulsating standouts “Find Me” and “Now the Water,” fleshed out with flourishes of brass and sweeping almost-balladry. On the latter, Maine impassively croons of the meditative and engulfing properties of water—“Oh, I feel it deeper now / And I think that it’s better somehow”—and his glassy verses couldn’t testify to his immersive trajectory any better. If Pool served as the springboard for Maine to transpose his introverted persona into more synthetic channels, The House is a blissful sequel chock-full of confidence and clarity.

From a lyrical viewpoint, Maine’s deadpan mope and habit for hewing obscure, urban scenes rather than concrete stories are cloaked and engrossed by The House’s glazed production. Carrying the hallmarks of New Order’s Technique and Pet Shop Boys’ Actually albeit acclimated to indie ears, Maine takes a sacrificial leap rather than a half-assed shift in the formula. The album’s midsection, capped with the pastoral delight of “Åkeren” and chillwave-esque bounce of “W Longing,” puts this advancement into play. On the other hand, the emotional tug of “Anymore” and its danceable misery toes the line of Purple Rain-era Prince and the late idol’s mournful funk.

Without an undercurrent of conflicting influences, it’s difficult to deem The House free from occasional filler. Unlike Pool’s sequence of steady melodies, Maine savors peculiar segues (“Understanding” and “Swimmer”) and subtly experimental drafts (“Wobble”) in addition to single-worthy appendages to his discography thus far. Concurrently, The House provides another connotation in contrast with the escapist drift of Pool; the house is a space for meditation and limitless headroom where its amenities and familiarity invite and sustain the comfort of its inhabitants and their state of mind. Maine touches upon the conviction with curiosity in The House’s genesis: “I just wanna leave the house / Find something to think about.” Little does he know, the domestic visage of Porches functions best in the emptiest of surroundings. With one foot out of the door, Maine leaves his artistry vulnerable to the elements—yet, the promises that lie ahead may prove to be the catalyst for dreamier ventures to come.

Migos - Culture II

Sequels are tough. Sometimes, they will discover new ground, actually producing a result superior to the original: Godfather Part II, Terminator 2. But mostly, sequels end up a cheap, reactive imitation of the original.

A lot has changed for Migos since the first “Culture” came out a year ago. At one point in the summer, Quavo featured on 10 percent of the Billboard Top 100. He worked with pop stars including Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Liam Payne, each effort lazier than the previous. He also released the half-baked disappointment “HUNCHO JACK” with Travis Scott.

Offset emerged as the most proficient rapper in the group. His album “Without Warning” with 21 Savage and Metro Boomin was one of the most captivating projects last year, and he delivered killer verses on “Met Gala” by Gucci Mane and “Patek Water” by Future and Young Thug. He also got engaged to rap anomaly Cardi B despite (allegedly) getting another woman pregnant.

Takeoff must have also done something in the past 12 months. One time a friend texted me, “Who got a better deal: Ringo Starr of Takeoff?” I’m still not sure.

They also said a collection of homophobic things. Quavo called the support from Atlanta’s community for Makonnen’s coming out as “wack.” Then, recently, Offset rapped on YFN Lucci’s “Boss Life” that he “cannot vibe with queers.” In both cases their publicists released apologies. Neither event seemed to impact their sales. All’s well that end’s well, right? Then again, no one batted an eye when they proclaimed they’re “Goin’ to Ch-land with the chinks!” on “Get Right Witcha.” Needless to say no one should look to them for social commentary.

It raises the question, though, should we listen to music by artists that are ignorant and hateful? Can we separate art from the artist? Let’s resume the rest of this review under the assumption that yes, in fact, we can.

The best part about the original “Culture” was that it really felt like an album. At 13 songs, it was tight and focused, boasting great songs like “T-Shirt” and “Slippery.” “Culture II,” at 24 songs, feels like another bloated mixtape. I don’t want to listen to an hour-and-45-minute album, least of all by Migos. In the age of streaming, artists sacrifice concision for more plays. Around “Flooded,” “Culture II” loses its way and the listener’s interest.

Migos pioneered the Atlanta trap sonics and the triplet flow. However, others have copied and re-copied it so much that it sounds exhausted. Nearly every song follows in the order of Quavo, Takeoff then Offset. Quavo introduces the hook and starts off the party. Takeoff carries the second act. And then Offset brings it home. After a while the cycle puts you to sleep. Whenever they deviate from this, it’s exhilarating. The high-energy boom bap of “Stir Fry,” the melodic groove of “Gang Gang” or the smooth soul sample in “Made Men” are like shots of adrenaline.

On a few songs they try out new instrumental sounds. “BBO” has horns. “Too Playa” has a nice Duke Silver saxophone. “Auto Pilot,” “White Sand,” “Movin Too Fast,” “Notice Me” all have a 90s video game sort of aesthetic. The guitar makes a couple appearances. “Emoji Chain” ends on a bizarre guitar solo. The culturally appropriative “Narcos” has a mariachi-type guitar.

Since the Migos aren’t really bringing anything to the table, each song lives or dies on the merits of its producers and features. The production is all over the place. Some of the bass drops have a low-fi 21 Savage type of feel. Others are much more polished.

Rap’s most popular producers were lined up out the door to get their tags on this album. It has the likes of Kanye West, Metro Boomin, Pharrell, Mike Dean, Murda Beats, Buddah Blessed, Zaytoven and Ricky Racks. Despite all the talent in the room, Quavo, for some godforsaken reason, executively produced the album himself.

On the second song of the album, Quavo claims “This real rap, no mumble.” The lyrics are mostly a hodgepodge of vague drug and gun imagery, discussions of how much jewelry they have, euphemisms for ejaculation, indiscernible auto tune and an oversaturation of ad-libs (MAMA!).

This probably isn’t relevant, but I hope to find someone in my life who loves me as much as Offset loves McNuggets. He references them more than he mentions his fiance Cardi B. On “Flooded” he raps “I got the socket so plug me/Solitaire, chicken McNuggets.” On “MotorSport” he raps “My pinky on margarine, butter/And my ears got McDonald’s nuggets.”

Instrumentals like “Notice Me” lend themselves to self-reflection, and at times it seems like Quavo is on the precipice of saying something profound. On “Movin Too Fast” he raps “Pop one he’ll go beast, represent the ‘land of the free’/But some of my n—-s in the cell so I don’t know what that means.” On “Top Down on Da NAWF” he raps “For some reason I can’t cry cry/For some reason I am not tired/For the gang I gotta bring it home/For my grandma watching in the sky.” Hopefully in the future he can open up more.

If you cut out “Higher We Go,” “Narcos,” “Auto Pilot,” “Emoji a Chain,” “Too Much Jewelry,” “Flooded,” “Beast,” “Open it Up,” “Movin Too Fast,” “Work Hard,” “Notice Me” “Top Down on Da NAWF” and “Culture National Anthem,” and only kept “Supastars,” “BBO,” “Walk It Talk It,” “CC,” “Stir Fry,” “Gang Gang,” “White Sand,” “Crown the Kings,” “MotorSport,” “Too Playa,” and “Made Men” then you could have a good album.

After “Dark Side of the Moon” Roger Waters wrote “Wish You Were Here” lamenting their massive success. Before they had “made it,” they were one inspired unit, determined to generate quality work and get rich and famous. Once they got it, they drifted apart, detached, distracted, wondering what they were even doing it for anymore. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff all have other stuff going on, and Migos seems to no longer be the object of what’s left of their passions.

Perhaps 2018 marks the death of the album, and henceforth the death of culture. Oh well. It was nice while it lasted.

This article originally ran in the Nevada Sagebrush.