Rina Sawayama – Sawayama Album Review

Dirty Hit – 2020

Welcome to the genre-blending world of Rina Sawayama

After nearly 3 years since the release of her debut mini-album RINA, Japan born, London raised pop-rock singer Rina Sawayama returns with her first fully fleshed out musical statement. To say that this album takes influence from different musical spectrums would be an understatement. The 2000’s pop hooks of Christina Aguilera get thrown in the mix with the pounding guitar riffs of Evanescence, whilst blending occasionally with 80’s arena power rock to make a fusion of sound that still manages to sound unique to Sawayama.

The album kicks straight into sixth gear with the epic opening ‘Dynasty’. A track that explores themes of trying to break free from your heritage and realising that although it will always be a part of you, you don’t have to be suppressed by it. “The pain in my vein is hereditary, Running in my bloodstream, my bloodstream, And if that’s all that I’m gonna be, Would you break the chain with me?”. It infuses these epic rising synths in the verse with the blistering heavy metal riffs in the chorus that break down into this screaming guitar solo. This is also the first instance of many where Sawayama’s incredible vocal performance shines through as she hits these huge high notes during the guitar solo that reaches an epic feat as she follows it note for note.

Bleeding into the track ‘XS’ the heavy metal guitars appear only momentarily during the chorus with these big descending riffs that juxtapose smoothly with the confident latino-pop groove and sparkly synths of the verse. It then returns in full force on the track ‘STFU!’ which breaks into a grinding metal verse that only gets angrier and more potent as the track progresses. The chorus line of “Shut the fuck up, Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?” brings back the glittery synths and calm beat as if Sawayama is trying to ask nicely, but when the person not respecting her doesn’t listen she shifts back into the dense verse, eventually turning ugly and descending into a classic metal growl. Similar to Poppy’s ‘I Disagree’ album, these tracks aren’t afraid to fuse to vastly different worlds into one.

We then take a walk away from the compact underground hardcore show and into the nightclub with the track ‘Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)’. Slowing down the pace, allowing us to dance with its groovy bass line and intermittent joyous samples of ‘Woo!’ which has all the confidence of a recent Dua Lipa track, and its dance-floor prowess. Similarly the track ‘Love Me 4 Me’ throws in another R&B induced bass line, groovy beat and classic pop chorus. If the track wasn’t produced as well the lyrics could come off as gimmicky with a line that feels like its been said a million times “You wanna love me for me, If I made it, I made it easy”. But thankfully the confidence that Sawayama brings to the track allows these feelings to feel genuine.

This confidence only builds on the track ‘Akasaka Sad’ and ‘Paradisin”. The former with it ground-shaking groove, glitchy beat and punchy chorus. And the latter with its euphoric chorus, exploding saxophone solo and humorous lyrics. “Making out, feeling carefree, But then his phone rings and Your number’s on the screen “Oh fuck”.

‘Akasaka Sad’ is also a testament to the crystal clear and highly versatile production throughout most of this album. Glitchy drumbeats, carefully chosen processed vocals and a rolling bass line that all standout and punch hard within the mix. There’s only a couple of let down moments production-wise. The track ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ which whilst has a great rhythm, everything feels slightly too blown out on the chorus to offer a huge level of distinction in the chorus. And ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’, a love letter to the 80’s power rock ballad, is presented in a strange ‘fake-live’ way where the audience screams are added into the background, almost as if the tracks trying to justify itself with fake audience approval.

Sawayama gets her most intimate and introspective on the tracks ‘Bad Friend’ and ‘Chosen Family’. With lyrics about losing touch with someone who you once shared a lot of time with, feeling bad that you haven’t maintained the relationship. “Guess we fell out, what was that all about? Maybe I overreacted, well maybe you shouldn’t have, God it’s insane how things can change like that, Don’t even know where you are”. And in parallel to that ‘Chosen Family’ is about feeling like someone you’re close to but not related to is like family “We don’t need to be related to relate, We don’t need to share genes or a surname
You are, you are, My chosen, chosen family”. From the hard hitting first quarter to the dancehall groove of the middle of the album, these tracks whilst the most personal come away as the least memorable. Repetitive lyrics, obligatory guitar solo and simple chord progressions leave these tracks feeling slightly underwhelming compared to what we’ve already heard Sawayama is capable of and don’t really offer anything progressive over their shared 7 1/2 minute run time.

Closer ‘Snakeskin’ brings back the epic build up from opening track ‘Dynasty’ as layers of synths are slowly piled on top of each other of distant trap-like beat. But the build up and pay-off don’t offer the same level of drama that the opener did and eventually leads to a slow fade out of piano that for what this ride started out as, feels a bit too tame. The sun has risen on your night out and it’s over before you’ve realised.

There are moments on this album that perhaps should be refined, or shed their skin as Sawayama puts it. But for most part it offers as a great platform for her to leap from into the world of exploring what her sound is. With so many different directions and areas of sonic potential, it will be interesting to see where Sawayama goes next.

Thundercat – It Is What It Is Album Review

Brainfeeder – 2020

The bass virtuoso takes a moment to remember life lost

On Thundercats fourth album, the big beat of past albums is often dropped in favour of a more melancholy tone, letting the music speak for itself whilst still keeping that classic comic Thundercat feel when it needs to. The follow up to critically acclaimed Drunk sees Thundercat realise he’s getting a little older, try and understand the new world around him and pay tribute to lost friend and collaborator Mac Miller.

Thundercats high octane musicianship has always been at the forefront of his playing and songwriting and is showcased on this album more than ever before. With flurries of Jazz breakdowns and jams sprinkled throughout, this album feels nostalgic and yet futuristic in the same moment.

The spacey instrumental passages within ‘Interstellar Love’ and ‘I Love Louis Cole’ showcase this unique ability of genre blending to create a sci-fi, jazz, hip-hop marriage of sounds that glides you through the astral plains of noise created within. Then suddenly landing back down on earth with the 70’s funk inspired ‘Black Qualls’ which features 3 high profile, but still lowkey features from Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington and Childish Gambino. A track inspired by trying to move on with your life but feeling the anxiety of the judgement of those you’ve left behind. The juxtaposed upbeat, walk down the street with a bounce groove and the agitated lyrics keep the sound feeling fresh but the theme of growing up stays consistent. “The box you try to throw me in don’t fit me no more, no, creative spirit talkin, creative spirit walkin”

Standout single ‘Dragonball Durag’ is bathed in classic Thundercat lyricism humour as Thundercat shows off his love for Dragon-ball. “Do you like my new whip? Watch me go zoom, zoom, Baby girl, how do I look in my durag? Would you tie the drapes?” A final uplifting moment of thumping bass, woozy guitar and a crisp saxophone solo thanks again to friend and frequent collaborator Kamasi Washington.

The final third of the album is a sombre ode to lost friend Mac Miller. ‘King Of The Hill’ one of the oldest tracks on the album, originally appearing on the Brainfeeder 10th anniversary compilation, shows Thundercats more retrospective side. “A king of the hill, Wasting his time, Chasing cheap thrills, He knows it’s gonna cost him, God knows how much”. The slow ballad of ‘Unrequited Love’ and chill lo-fi beats of ‘Fair Chance’ offer a more open expression of loss and the way Thundercat tries to deal with it. The smooth atmospheric Jazzy tones and progressions are delicate and emotion filled at the same time, Thundercat steps back from the forefront and lets the music express itself.

Whilst this album is only 37 minutes it encompasses a 15 track span and almost half of those are taken up by interluding jams and mini songs. On ‘Drunk’ these interludes offered a brief moment away from the singles. On this album however they often flow into one another creating a style of their own, but at times can saturate the album too much where a full song could have been placed or an extended jam as with the feel of this album.

That’s not to undermine the ever impressive musicianship and revival in funk jazz fusions that Thundercat has brought about in the past few years. And whilst this album might be one of the shortest in his catalogue, it still offers those moments of technical brilliance and songwriting eccentricity that we have come to know and love from Thundercat. It is what it is.