MONDAY JULY 24, 2017

FoalsCover.jpgFOALS: Holy Fire
Warner Canada, 50 minutes
Rating: 4.5/5

Between their debut Antidotes (2008) and Total Life Forever (2010), Foals untangled the knots in their sound. What was once tightly wound and anxious opened up and loosened out; the best songs on TLF (“Blue Blood,” “Spanish Sahara”) were as expansive as Antidotes was claustrophobic. Using an analogy with bands I assume Foals are influenced by, it was like seeing XTC suddenly morph into Talk Talk.  

They had skipped the awkward phase of their career, jumping from one to another (arguably better) sound with an ease few of their peers could match. That leaves their third album Holy Fire in a precarious position; should it recall the excellent TLF, or be another great leap forward?

It’s a bit of both. Holy Fire has some wide-screen moments, like the glorious “Bad Habit” and “Stepson,” but it gets tighter when it needs to. Singles “Inhaler” and “My Number” capture the band at their twitchy best, with more frequent use of dynamic volume. The rumbling fury of “Inhaler” is the most surprising new trick up their sleeves, one that reappears to great effect in “Providence.”

Holy Fire may not have the same immediate impact on fans and critics as TLF. It isn’t such a tremendous evolution. Instead it refines Foals’ sound for bigger and better effect. It lacks the drag that comes with a band trying to reconfigure themselves, leaving 11 good-to-great new wave rock songs for your everyday walkabout.

le1fcover.jpgLE1F: Fly Zone
Self-released, 42 minutes
Rating: 3.5/5

If being an openly gay rapper wasn’t such an apparent contradiction, New Yorker Le1f’s sexuality would hardly be worth mentioning. His latest mixtape Fly Zone has few sonic qualities one might assume would come from “gay rap.” Le1f doesn’t wear his outsidership like a badge. He doesn’t let himself be defined by sex in a genre known for its carnality.

So while it’s hardly a closeted affair (just listen to “Pocahontas”), Fly Zone smartly doesn’t use Le1f’s most superficially unique quality as an advantage, or cheap publicity hook. Instead he makes his case by effortlessly integrating with a notoriously homophobic genre. By standing out in the least obvious ways, he does fellow marginalized rappers a greater service than he could with any overt sociopolitical statements.

Le1f is remarkable is so many other ways; his flow is quick but his wordplay often clear, his voice a striking balance of lilt and bravado. He does wonders with a hook — “Autopilot” and “Tha Whip” could easily impact radio — but can weird out (“Spa Day”) on cue. It ultimately feels counterintuitive to bring up Le1f's sexual orientation repeatedly, considering its lack of significance is the most striking thing about Fly Zone.

Boats.jpgBOATS: A Fairway Full of Miners
Kill Rock Stars, 45 minutes

Rating: 4/5

Boats find common ground between alt-rock and sea chanties in a way that no one, outside of maybe Ween, had previously imagined. How they thought it would work as pop music is beyond me, but it has, now across three albums.

Boats’ latest A Fairway Full of Miners is far and away their best. They’re still an acquired taste, to be sure: Mat Klachefsky’s nerdy, effeminate voice defines Boats’ sound and if you aren’t down with it, there’s little room for compromise. But there’s some great counterbalance at work here; the call-and-response style of “Great Skulls” and “Advice On Bears” let the rest of the band play off Klachefsky in wonderful ways. His bandmates have greater presence here than on previous albums, rarely leaving him to fend for himself.

A Fairway Full of Miners suffers in the way most modern albums do, by being about 15 minutes too long. There are a few throwaway tracks here whose exclusion could’ve emphasized the more economical songwriting Boats have all but mastered. That aside, it’s a pretty fantastic record.

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