Review: MIKE - War in My Pen

Of MIKE’s four projects last year, War in My Pen is the cleanest-sounding, but the New York rapper still prizes a faraway vibe that rewards close listening.

MIKE murmurs more than he flows. The 20-year-old rapper doesn’t mix his vocals high or bury them; he floats, cushioned and suspended, within his music. He has a lot to say, but he doesn’t seem concerned about who hears it. He shares this lack of concern with his friends and compatriots—Medhane, Adé Hakim, Navy Blue, Jazz Jodi, several others. Together, they feel more like a huddle than a movement, a group of introverted, dreamy souls trying to hold on to something intangible that they sense might be pried from them.

Notably, one of those friends is Earl Sweatshirt: “I be with Mike and Med/Nowadays I be with Sage and with Six-press, ya dig?” Earl rapped on “Nowhere2go” from November’s Some Rap Songs. Earl doesn’t appear on War in My Pen, MIKE’s fourth projects of 2018, but MIKE’s name was all over Some Rap Songs, and the style they are developing in tandem feels like one complete thought that requires both of them to express. When the sound is this dreamy, and this murky, you don’t really get clear takeaways, but the dazed solitude and determined quiet of MIKE’s music taps into a general sense that there is entirely too much noise; that raising your voice to match it contributes to madness, and that the only reasonable response is to draw inward.

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Review: Chandra - Transportation EP

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Perhaps familiar from being sampled by the Avalanches, this New York tween was an inspiring underground star in the early 1980s, a reputation confirmed by this archival collection.

When the Avalanches returned in 2016 after an absence of nearly two decades, a sampled koan lurked at the heart of “Subways,” their swooning comeback: “You walk on the subway/It moves around.” The voice belongs to Chandra Oppenheim, a veteran of the New York downtown scene who attended New York Dolls shows, rubbed elbows with Madonna, opened for Laurie Anderson, played the Mudd Club, staged performance art pieces at the Kitchen, and performed with her band on “Captain Kangaroo.” Not bad for a tween: Chandra was just 12 when she and her band of the same name cut “Subways” and three other songs for a now-coveted 1980 EP.

That EP, an unreleased second one, and two four-track demos form this fidgety new reissue, a welcome resurrection since the band hasn’t gotten much notice in the decades of New York comps that have followed. After splintering from late 1970s punk band Model Citizens, Eugenie Diserio and Steve Alexander formed kinetic no wave group The Dance with future Material and Scritti Politti drummer Fred Maher. They also found themselves taken with the young Oppenheim, becoming her backing band and fostering her nascent songwriting. “Chandra would blow us away with her lyrics,” Alexander remembered in an interview with The Guardian. “We were always like, ‘Don’t change a thing.’”

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Review: Trent Reznor - Atticus Ross Bird Box

The soundtrack institution of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return to their well of ominousness and employ an array of techniques to convey anxiety, impending danger, and discomfort.

Starting with 2008’s sprawling collection of instrumental work Ghosts I-IV (released under the Nine Inch Nails aegis) and accelerating with 2010’s Oscar-winning score for David Fincher’s The Social Network, the instrumental side of Trent Reznorhas effectively shared equal billing with the more traditional industrial rock that made him a superstar. Never one for half measures, Reznor clearly sees the film-soundtrack work done alongside his longtime composing partner Atticus Ross as a chance to flex. “We aim for these to play like albums that take you on a journey and can exist as companion pieces to the films and as their own separate works,” Reznor wrote recently. He’s not kidding: The duo’s score for Fincher’s 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for instance, is 15 minutes longer than the movie itself.

In announcing the release of Bird Box, the score for Netflix’s treacly Sandra Bullock survival-horror film of the same name, Reznor described it as a way of presenting the audience with “a significant amount of music and conceptual sound” that didn’t make the film’s final cut. Even then, that “Abridged” parenthetical in the title points toward “a more expansive” version of the album due later this year. It’s just as well since what Reznor and Ross have created is better than the movie they created it for. It does exactly what good soundtracks are capable of doing, and what they expressly intend for it to do: Emerge as a rewarding experience in its own right.

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Review: Dua Saleh - Nūr EP

The debut EP from the Sudan-born, Twin Cities-based singer, poet, and activist reveals an artist with a warm, sophisticated sound and captivating presence on the mic.

Dua Saleh’s first language was Arabic, but they’ve been speaking English for so long that it’s begun to slip away. That detail is, simply, true; it’s also the kind of character note—specific and a little bit sad—that might pop up in one of their songs, which tend to deal with issues of social posture, identity, and heritage in short, impressionistic bursts. Their debut EP, Nūr—that’s “light” in Arabic, as well as a common gender-neutral name—is a superb show of control, lean except when it decides to lash out.

Saleh was born in Kassala, on the Eastern edge of Sudan, but moved to the Upper Midwest after a brief stop at a refugee camp in Eritrea. They’ve established themselves as an artist in the Twin Cities across a variety of disciplines: singer, activist, and poet. That sensibility is clear at times in their music, with its economy and densely-packed details, but what sets Saleh apart from similarly lyric-minded writers is that they resist the urge to make all the other elements of a song subservient to the writing. Nūr has stretches with compelling vocals that do not form words at all, and ones where the vocals are mixed so that the words are nearly masked. Saleh’s voice is powerful enough to contort into nearly any shape without losing its distinctive character.

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