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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.





Sean Henry - Fink Music Album Reviews

Evolving from the lo-fi sound of his home recordings, the New York singer-songwriter significantly steps up his studio chops, but his songs’ emotional register often remains frustratingly oblique.

To call your record Fink is a risky proposition. Is it a wry joke? A self-own? In the case of the debut studio album from the lo-fi artist Sean Henry, the loaded title feels out of step with the record itself, which too often shies away from leaving much of an impression at all.

Given the poignant origins of Fink’s title—his father, now deceased, spray-painted the word in their basement where the two would stare at it and laugh, a foreboding memory turned familial relic—you might expect the album to feel similarly charged, either through detailed storytelling or palpable emotion. After all, on Henry’s 2015 demo tape, It’s All About Me, he spouted 16 songs’ worth of intimate musings on friendship, love, and life as if he had anecdotes to spare. According to Henry, the very word “fink,” which felt shocking and powerful in childhood, has begun to seem strangely relatable as he has entered adulthood. Yet these songs come up short of expanding upon that sentiment, and it’s difficult to tell if that’s because Henry’s lyrics cut off before exploring his stories deeper or because his vocal delivery is equal parts detached and campy, a sneaky way of pointing out emotions instead of feeling them.

Fink is a hit-or-miss collection of songs focused largely on anxiety. Henry’s style has been termed “soft grunge”—heavy guitar pop with a sad undertone, like if Heatmiser covered DSU, that’s fleshed out with a backing band he assembled in New York. His brand of lyricism concentrates on simplistic imagery and hyper-repetitive lines, which works for a song like “Party Fiend,” where his nagging pleas reveal a weary dejection. But the brunt of the album fixates on forced imagery (“Gum in Hair”) and middle-school existentialism (“Virgo,” “Are We Alive?”). Even when handling a subject like depression, on “Hard Down,” Henry reaches for surface-level descriptors (“Hard down/I want no one around/When I’m down, I’m down”). It’s possible he purposefully uses flat language to mirror depression’s crippling effects, but his yappy singing has the effect of both underselling the emotion and slighting the subject matter. The album’s touchstone influences—Elliott Smith, Sparklehorse, (Sandy) Alex G—root their songs in deceptively intricate lyrics to tackle subjects like the cyclical pain of self-sabotage or the heartbreak of addiction. Henry never quite accomplishes that on Fink, despite addressing similarly personal topics.

What Fink lacks in lyrical depth and delivery, Henry compensates for with studio savvy. His knack for affecting chords and catchy melodies, present even in his early material as Boy Crush, blossoms here with pedal-laden electric guitars and a heaviness his lo-fi home recordings didn’t capture. Opener “Imperfection” pairs an unassuming acoustic guitar part with cushy synth, a complement to the droning guitars and percussive bounciness of “Those Imaginary.” “Going Backwards Again,” despite its limited lyrics, gets a jolt of life from reversed guitars in the style of the Beatles’ Revolver, the type of musical detail that moves you the way a profound statement might. The biggest-sounding track on the record, “The Ants,” is a perfect combination of Henry’s skills. Sinister electric guitars build towards a taunting call-and-response bridge where an angry session squashing ants reaches a point of mania, his short phrasing playing up the emotion.

While the production on songs like these elevates what Sean Henry can do instrumentally, it simultaneously widens the gap between that and his lyric-writing skills. His messages feel muffled, as though he had chosen a few journal entry phrases without doing the work to explain their importance, either through more elaborate lyrics or more expressive vocal delivery. That lack of intricacy in Fink is odd, given the wide range of subject matter he covered in It’s All About Me. If nothing else, Fink showcases Henry’s newfound strength writing grittier music, even if his words get lost in the shadows of his guitar.



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