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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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Matty - Déjàvu Music Album Reviews

Matty - Déjàvu Music Album Reviews
A breakdown that led BADBADNOTGOOD keyboardist Matty Tavares to move in with his parents also resulted in this breezy, psychedelic soft-rock album recorded with sought-after sample maker Frank Dukes.

Matty Tavares got burned out. The keyboardist’s band, Toronto jazz combo BADBADNOTGOOD, had achieved a remarkable degree of success collaborating with A-list rappers like Ghostface, Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, and Kendrick Lamar. That increased profile led to touring—which, for Tavares, soon led to anxiety and depression. He became frustrated with the band, experienced what he has called a “mental breakdown,” and moved in with his parents. While living with them, Tavares returned to making the psychedelic soft rock that he’d dabbled in since he was 16 years old, working with a close friend, producer and ubiquitous sample source Frank Dukes.

It was a therapeutic period for Tavares, who has since rejoined BBNG, but also a productive one. The result is Déjàvu, a breezy, pleasant nine-song record whose parkland harmonies and AM-radio fuzziness recall the gentle, mid-period work of Woods and Ariel Pink. Its music is simple, soothing, and often lovely, betraying little of the friction that generally accompanies a period of self-examination like the one Tavares underwent. But the lyrics are so nakedly vulnerable that they can feel, paradoxically, as if they’re not revealing much at all. Often, instead of stories or scenarios, Tavares presents emotions so undistilled that they can be easier to ignore than to engage with.

As a member of BBNG, the keyboardist contributes to a group that has long since set genre orthodoxy aside. The band gained a following by covering hip-hop instrumentals and tends to shift its tone from record to record. Tavares’ versatility has been key to this evolution: Compare his anxious contributions to 2014’s IIIwith the triumphant tenor of his chords on the title track of 2016’s IV, and you’ll have a sense of how his talents help BBNG to change colors as needed. He comes across as a hugely supportive musician, so maybe it’s no wonder that he needed a break from the demanding intimacy of the group.

On Déjàvu, his generosity manifests in the music’s consistent richness. “Clear” is laden with falsetto harmonies and soft, humming keys—yet another green world shot through with sunlight. Opening track “Embarrassed” is chillwave redux, its cushiony bass and synths transporting the listener directly back to the summer of 2009. The lyrics also convey Tavares’ real-life generosity, albeit in a less compelling way, as he describes how his aversion to conflict keeps him from confronting others: “I’m embarrassed to know you at all,” he sings. “That’s why I keep the conversations small.” The disparity between the comforting tone of the music and the needling disquiet of the words makes it tempting to tune out the latter. A similar emotion suffuses “I’ll Gladly Place Myself Below You,” as Tavares describes the self-loathing that compels us to put others’ needs before our own. Although it doesn’t read as self-pitying, the song stops at acknowledging the feeling’s existence rather than examining what caused it.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the record is its lack of memorable melodies, given Tavares’ and Dukes’ respective pedigrees. There are exceptions: “How Can He Be” is an uptempo pop track with a jaunty bass anchor and Beatles-esque harmonies on the chorus, while “Nothing, Yet” is a Tame Impala-style jam that has the catchiest verses of any song on the album. But even those cuts fail to distinguish themselves beyond the visceral pleasure of the music. On “Nothing, Yet,” Tavares doesn’t seem to have worked out exactly what to do with the chorus, which makes the song’s highlights play like wasted opportunities—they’re beautiful bridges to mild disappointment.

The most damning indictment of the songwriting on Déjàvu is also the record’s most impressive offering: its closer, the title track. Although it’s an instrumental, the eight-and-a-half-minute piece has a narrative arc that the rest of the album largely lacks. With its poise, its knowing shifts in momentum, and its comfort with the longer format, it sounds a lot like BADBADNOTGOOD—and, in that sense, it makes a neat coda to Tavares’s crisis. The transition from jazz to pop may not entirely suit him, but in releasing Déjàvu, he has shared some very pretty music and made public a private project that helped him work through deeply personal issues. Most importantly, the album documents the process that led him back to the role in which he seems most at home.

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