If you missed 2013’s The Bones Of What You Believe by Chvrches, you should listen to it. The synth-electro-pop album from the Scottish trio landed on my Best Of list for the year and launched the group into a frenzy of tour dates and festivals that has raised their profile to a staggering degree ahead of the release of their sophomore work Every Open Eye. The greatest challenges for a group like this to follow up their success are two-fold: do you change your sound away from what people loved in order to avoid retracing your steps, or do you stick so close to the winning formula that everything sounds repetitive?
With every single released leading up to the album, Chvrches somehow managed to toe the line between repetitive and different, and the results were amazing. Each captured the same driving, anthemic, power of their first album with just the right amount of twist to keep the sound fresh. While the album isn’t available until Friday, thanks to NPR First Listen, you can stream the whole thing as of late Sunday, and it’s predictably excellent.
While there are several bands playing in the same soundscape as Chvrches, the separating factor is frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, as precise and eloquent with her words in interviews as she is passionate and effervescent in song. Her voice gives the instrumentation and synths from her bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty a depth and gravity that can be missing from similar electronic music. In an age of adding more and more, there’s much to be said for the group’s restraint, opting to add flavor instead of bulk and maintaining the spirit of what makes Chvrches themselves.
As for the album itself, the standout singles that punctuate the early half of the album act as plot points on the chart that is Chvrches’ meteoric rise to success. It’s rare to see a young band maintain such consistency and elevate their craft with every song, but we are clearly seeing that unfold. Every Open Eye picks up where their first album left off, and as Lauren pointed out in a Grantland podcast, the instrumentation and electronic elements and even Mayberry’s vocals are all simply part of the ecosystem to craft the finest songs. From my early plays, “Make Them Gold” and “Empty Threat” capture the prototypical Chvrches energy and lyrical magic that gives their music the flexibility for dance parties and rainy nights. “Down Side Of Me” is a perfect example of Chvrches’ less-is-more gospel that they preach, standing Mayberry’s echoing vocals nearly on their own before bringing in synth and bass reminiscent of Phantogram. Finally, a controversial choice, but letting one of the boys sing on “High Enough To Carry You Over” shows how strong the fundamentals of the music are to be able to handle such a departure from Mayberry’s voice and captures the best of 70’s and 80’s funk.
Every Open Eye is a measured and responsible follow-up to an modern electropop classic, and expands the Chvrches sound in a way that maintains their resounding energy and bursting choruses to fill the venues that keep growing to fill demand on their tours. Demonstrating the polish and seasoning that you’d expect from a second album, this is a work filled with thoughtful lyrics delivered effortlessly and roaming, evolving beats that respect the journey and don’t rush to the climax, a rare treat in today’s electronic music. It’s hard to live up to the expectations of success, but Chvrches met them with a superb album that retains the bite of their earlier work, and they deserve credit not just for the excellent work they did, but for the pop music pitfalls they avoided on Every Open Eye.
Rumors about joint albums are nothing new in hiphop. From the predictably dull Best of Both Worlds from Jay-Z and R. Kelly to the excellent Watch The Throne, every rap fan with a Twitter account wants to ‘ship their favorite two rappers on an album together. When the tweets started circulating about a Future/Drake project, most people scrolled past without a second thought, because tweets are just tweets. That all changed last Friday, when Drake confirmed the project was real, and it was dropping on Sunday night during his Beats 1 show.
Drake isn’t a monster icon in hiphop because he’s the best lyricist or storyteller or has the best beats or anything, but because he makes good songs and good albums thanks to the team he’s brought up with him, and can go from shows in Atlanta to hosting SNL effortlessly. Future is a much more polarizing figure, as trap music is growing in popularity but is still rejected by purists who value lyricism over “mood music” for teenagers on Vine. But only the most stubborn listeners could deny these two are perhaps the two biggest figures in rap in 2015 (Fetty Wap has a case) with several major releases from each within the last few months, a mainstream feud with Meek Mill, and hit after hit on the charts. If there was ever a time where interest was maximized for a joint project, it’s now.
What A Time To Be Alive was born over the course of six days in Future’s studio, and musically, the birth certificate has Atlanta all over it. With a couple exceptions, this album is a Future mixtape with Drake features, thanks to explosive, haunting, trap beats from Metro Boomin, a longtime Future producer. But regardless of where the audios came from, this mixtape succeeds because of the way Future and Drake succeed: flexibility. Look at the long list of guest verses each have under their belts over the years and it’s obvious that their styles can adapt to nearly any sound. Future’s autotune mumble floats on every beat here, leaving Drake’s higher pitch to come in sharp and cut the trap with some Toronto bravado.
From the get-go, What A Time To Be Alive sounds like it’s a continuation of Future’s #1 album Dirty Sprite 2, and Drake’s verses are just a bonus. “Big Rings” and “Diamonds Dancing” are more balanced, especially when the latter takes the beat underwater like almost every classic Drake track. “I’m The Plug” gets the trap charged up again, and “Change Locations” provides the Instagram caption for all your photos this fall (“Me and my friends we got money to spend.”), proving once again that regardless of the quality of the lyrics, these two have the quotables on lock. That’s the driving idea behind my favorite song “Jumpman,” a song probably recorded in one take with only some lyrics written down, but is insanely catchy thanks to a menacing beat and excellent delivery of some memorable takeaways (“Mutombo with the bitches you keep gettin rejected!”). We don’t get a solo Drake song (underwater beat + piano) until the closing “30 For 30 Freestyle” that sounds like “Dreams Money Can Buy” or one of his other intros, and is a rare moment of actual Drake, and not Drake trying to be trap.
There’s a lot of arguments online about the quality of the mixtape, digging into verses and beats and trying to decide on this binary scale the internet loves: classic or trash. Well, it’s neither, it’s a mixtape with two of the biggest names in the game recorded over 6 days as a gift to the fans, to keep their names in the limelight, and to probably sell 500k copies in the first week. If you love Future, there’s no reason you won’t love the codeine and Percocet production and catchy hooks. If you love Drake, there’s plenty of great moments, but obviously the guy from Degrassi isn’t going to connect with the authentic gutter raps that serve as the bones of Future’s music and career. Don’t waste your time breaking down the science, just enjoy it for what it is: mood music that took them less time and effort to make than it will for people to argue about it. That’s the dream when you reach this echelon of rap, the expectations are so high, but the fans love the work so much, you can appease them without revolutionizing the game. But if you’re a Drake and Future fan greedily gobbling up all the music they’re giving you and still complaining, I don’t know what to tell you. What a time to be alive.