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Everything in Transit

Bloc Party Heads Somewhere Else on Hymns

2/9/16

The first thing you should know about the new Bloc Party album is that it’s not really a Bloc Party album.

In fact, if you’ve followed frontman Kele Okereke’s solo work, you’ll probably find more in common here with that than with Bloc Party’s more popular records, like Silent Alarm. The new album is called Hymns, and it’s mainly a collaboration between Okereke and the band’s guitarist, Russell Lissack. They’re all that’s left of the original Bloc Party, and while they’ve hired a new bassist and a new drummer, the former appears sparingly on Hymns and the latter not at all.

So what we have here is a transitional album, a stopover in bedroom pop territory. Which comes as a real surprise after the band’s explosive 2012 reunion, the raw and live-sounding Four. This new effort is almost entirely electronic, like Okereke’s two solo discs, and feels like it was assembled rather than played. If you liked Four, this is its exact opposite, in other words. I like curve balls (and I especially like using baseball imagery while writing this on Super Bowl Sunday), but even I can see how this might feel like messing one’s audience around.

But that’s not the only thing about Hymns that might surprise longtime listeners. Okereke digs deep into religious faith here for the first time – many of these songs, like “Only He Can Heal Me,” are straight-up gospel. If you’ve heard the first single, “The Love Within,” you know what I’m talking about. “Pull back the veil, let your eyes meet this world, the love within is moving upwards,” Okereke sings over a pulsing, joyous electronic bed. The religious imagery continues in “The Good News” and bonus track “Eden,” songs that sit awkwardly next to the usual Okereke fascinations with drugs and sex.

I can absolutely understand if all of these swerves leave people feeling confused about what they’re hearing. I spent a lot of my first listen to Hymns waiting for the guitars to kick in. But I stuck with it, and ended up liking it a great deal. This album is quiet and contemplative, juxtaposing songs of salvation with songs of isolation, all wrapped in chilly synths. “The Love Within” is the goofiest thing here, particularly that wah-wah-wah keyboard sound, but it works, if only just. I much prefer “Fortress,” which is as minimalist as The Weeknd, Okereke singing in a fragile falsetto over a barely-there beat, an organ and some clouds. “Pull me under, under the ocean, cover my mouth with yours,” he sings, and it’s chilling and lovely.

Okereke is the focal point of this album, in a way that he hasn’t quite been on other Bloc Party records, and he remains a compelling singer and wordsmith. Even he can’t save something as amelodic as “Different Drugs,” though the song does sport a nice crescendo, but give him a slinky groove like “Into the Earth” and he nails it. The songs on which new bassist Justin Harris and session drummer Alex Thomas join in are all tucked in the second half, but they actually slide into the running order nicely. Hymns gets quieter as it goes, ending with “Living Lux,” a beat-free dirge. (Or with “Evening Song,” a similarly haunting track, if you get the deluxe edition. And you should, particularly for “Eden,” which should have made the album proper.)

I can definitely understand approaching Hymns with caution and skepticism. Bloc Party is half the band it used to be, and this is an album full of sounds and textures we’ve never heard from them. But as a portrait of an always-interesting singer and artist in a period of uncertainty and upheaval, it works well. I expect the sixth Bloc Party album will sound more like we expect. Until then, I’m enjoying this one a lot more than I thought I would.

* * * * *

I’m prepping for a business trip to Washington, DC, so I’m going to cut this one short. Just a couple quick reviews of new-to-me artists, and I’ll be done.

One reason I keep going to my friendly neighborhood record store, Kiss the Sky in Batavia, Illinois, is that the owners consistently recommend excellent music. A week ago, one of them suggested I give Anderson .Paak a spin, and I’m pretty grateful. .Paak's second album, Malibu, is excellent. I like his work so much that I don’t even mind that pretentious period before his last name. (Though I may call him Anderson throughout this mini-review, just to keep my OCD from freaking out.)

Imagine if Stevie Wonder and Kendrick Lamar made an album together, and you’ll be on the right track. Malibu is a delightful mix of the modern and the vintage, dipping back into a soulful well while keeping it raw. “The Waters” is a great example – there’s a modern pop beat, a lovely choir of backing vocalists, and a spitting rap verse by BJ the Chicago Kid. It all sits nicely next to each other. Anderson’s voice is strong, but his songwriting voice is even stronger – this album jumps all over the map, from the spectal soul of opener “The Bird” to the two-part hip-hop epic “The Season/Carry Me” to the moody, Prince-like “Parking Lot” to smooth hands-in-the-air closer “The Dreamer,” featuring Talib Kweli.

Malibu is a strikingly confident record, one that is still unfolding for me. There’s a lot here, and surprises keep presenting themselves. Anderson .Paak has crafted a perfect hybrid of the old-school and the cutting edge, standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing to the horizon. He is what I wanted Frank Ocean to be. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

A Facebook friend of mine called Daughter’s Not to Disappear the first great record of 2016. I’m certainly inclined to give that nod to David Bowie’s Blackstar, but I won’t disagree that this English trio has crafted something compelling. This music exists at the intersection of shoegaze and post-rock, like the quieter moments of Explosions in the Sky records given an expansive, epic scope, and topped off with hushed and harmonized vocals. It’s enveloping, like running through a forest at night.

Elena Tonra’s voice is pretty, but her words are disturbing, heartbreaking and melancholy, and they add a personal edge to this wider-than-the-sky sound. “I feel numb in this kingdom, make me better,” she pleads on “Numbers,” over tribal drums and piercing guitar waves. “Doing the Right Thing” is about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s poignant and difficult: “I’m just fearing that one day soon I’ll lose my mind, then I’ll lose my children, then I’ll lose my love, and I’ll sit in silence, let the pictures soak out of televisions, float across the room…”

“Alone/With You” uses its mirrored structure effectively, detailing the pain of loneliness and of being with the wrong person. “I hate dreaming of being with you, terrified with the lights out," Tonra sings in one of the few moments of the album that could be called harrowing. Two songs later she is defiantly shouting, “I don’t want to belong to you, to anyone.” While the first half of the album conjures a dark mood and builds on it, the second half, starting with the electronic rhythm of “Alone/With You” and continuing with the more aggressive “No Care,” rips that mood apart. It’s a nice dichotomy, a journey I’ve enjoyed taking. While I may not call Not to Disappear a great record, it is certainly a very good one, and one I’d recommend.

Next week, probably Kanye, once he decides what to call his album. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.