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Future Present Past (Cult Records)
The Strokes

Future Present Past (2016) is the latest release from New York-based The Strokes, including three new tracks and a remix by drummer Fabrizio Moretti. The EP was released on June 3 on Cult Records, frontman Julian Casablancas’s label.

Upon first listen, it was clear that the band had yet again reinvented their sound while maintaining the core elements that make them so recognizable. The tracks are heavily influenced by the ’80s with synth sounds reminiscent of a broken Nintendo soundtrack. There is a clear dystopian theme that runs wild throughout, which isn’t much of a surprise when you look at what Julian’s side project, The Voidz, is all about.

The first track, “Drag Queens,” took me a few listens to warm up to, as it's the most glaringly contrastive to their previous releases. The distortion-drenched vocals, which we know to expect, are delivered with an almost disjointed vocal melody that is borderline distracting. The concept of unsettling or unpleasant sounds occurs in the guitar break in the middle as well. However, the song is focused on attacking the “messed up system,” and doing so in an avant-garde manner makes sense.

“OBLIVIUS” picks up where Comedown Machine (2013), their last full length release, left us. The duality of harmonized guitars, catchy riffs, and a massive vocal chorus is exactly what you expect to get from a Strokes song, and is all topped off with a Daft Punk-esque guitar solo. It manages to feel nostalgic and new all at the same time, which is something this band has mastered the art of doing.

“Threat of Joy” is the most low-key track on the EP, and is very reminiscent of early, unreleased B-sides of the band you can find in the depths of the internet. The chorus sounds very similar to songs circa First Impressions of Earth (2006), when the band had a darker tone and subject matter. The third track referencing Past is extremely accurate, especially to long time fans.

When rumours started earlier this year that new music was in the works with a possible summertime release, I was one of many who was hoping for a full length. However, the fact they even managed to release new material together when so many of the members are busy touring with other projects, we can’t be too picky. Say what you want about Future Present Past (2016), but The Strokes are back and that's worth celebrating.

- Garrett Olson

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Stranger to Stranger (Concord Records)
Paul Simon

Paul Simon’s latest release, Stranger to Stranger (2016), starts with a murder, ends with a lullaby, and touches on baseball, fast food, and the American political mood in between. These lyrics switch seamlessly between tones, for instance, “She killed him—sushi knife/Now they’re shopping/For a fairly decent afterlife.” Quirky songwriting is nothing new to Simon, a 50-plus year veteran of the popular music scene with a penchant for writing lyrics that are simultaneously unintelligible and insightful.

What is new about this record, however, is the degree to which it is a move away from the world of popular music and towards the world of (for lack of a better term) art. You won’t find the upbeat horn riffs of “You Can Call me Al” on this record, nor will you find the sing-along “Lai, la, lai”s of “The Boxer.” Instead, Simon, aided in part by Italian electronic artist Clap!Clap!, put together a collection of songs devoid of simple-verse chorus structures. Much of the production is heavily percussion-centric, relying on instruments invented by the late music theorist Harry Parch.

While this album may disappoint those looking for a fun track to jam to in the vein of “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” Simon’s compositions here should not completely alienate his folk fanbase. Simon’s experimentalist ambitions have not lead him to turn away from vocal-centric music, and his familiar witty-yet-anxious delivery still dominates most of Stranger to Stranger’s tracks. Furthermore, the final three tracks, “The River Bank,” “Cool Papa Bell” (about the iconic Negro League baseball player), and “Insomniac’s Lullaby,” are a tad less experimental than their predecessors. The deluxe edition of the album also includes a few more songs for traditionalist fans to enjoy—including a great live version of “Duncan” and the Simon-(doo wop icon)Dion collaboration “New York Is My Home.”

Stranger to Stranger (2016) may not be catchy, but it’s captivating and beautiful. This is the kind of album that requires a focused listen, but don’t be afraid to do just that. Take in this striking combination of voice, guitars, strings, glockenspiels, flamenco dancers, “Wristband[s],” and, well, “Werewolves.”

- Zach Morgenstern

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There’s Alot Going On (ROC Nation)
Vic Mensa

There’s Alot Going On (2016) is the first official EP from Chicago’s Vic Mensa, and is set to serve as a prelude to the release of his first full-length album. Since he put out his debut single “Down On My Luck” back in 2014, Vic Mensa has been one of hip hop’s fastest rising stars, racking up an impressive list of features, collaborators, and admirers. Mensa has had an amazing couple of years, from replacing Del the Funky Homosapien in performing his own version of the Gorillaz hit “Clint Eastwood” with Damon Albarn at Governor’s Ball 2014, to featuring alongside Sia on Kanye West’s Life of Pablo (2016) track “Wolves” and alone on Yeezy’s “U Mad,” to eventually getting signed to Jay Z’s label ROC Nation in 2015.

As the title suggests, there’s a lot going on in this short but sweet collection of songs. In order to download the seven-track EP, Mensa first asks fans to sign a pledge to vote in the upcoming elections, setting its political tone from the offset. Accompanying it is a letter in which he opens up about his struggles with depression, addiction, and watching the world fall apart around him. “You don’t have to understand me, or see eye to eye with me; just know I’m giving you my truth,” he says, foreshadowing what’s to come.

Mensa succeeds emphatically at making these songs feel both introspective and personal whilst simultaneously attempting to grapple with the bigger issues at hand. This is most evident on the EP’s first track, “Dynasty,” where he juggles coming to terms with his own struggles and triumphs whilst remembering the problems that the society in which he grew up still faces. He is unafraid to approach even the most contentious of issues, including police-on-black violence on the protest song “16 Shots” and the Flint Water Crisis on penultimate track “Shades of Blue,” with hard-hitting effectiveness. That’s not to say that he can’t have some fun though, as he spits about his drunken encounters with girls on the Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “Liquor Locker” and the sleazy but smooth “New Bae.” Mensa is at his most effective, however, when he looks inwards, as proven by the stunning titular track, “There’s Alot Going On,” where he chronicles his battles with his inner demons on the road to fame.

There’s Alot Going On (2016) serves to give us a taste of what’s to come; it acts almost as a sampling platter of but a few of the many faces of Vic Mensa, ranging from drunken sex fiend to political activist. He also switches up his style with ease, delivering fast-paced rap and suave RnB crooning with almost equal precision. This EP certainly proves his laurels, making it clear why he is one of the hottest up-and-comers in his genre. If this release was meant to whet the people’s appetite for his forthcoming debut album (tentatively titled Traffic), then it most certainly serves its purpose. Vic Mensa has captured the attention of his native Chicago—soon he will have the whole world watching.

- Jordan Balls

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