(Warner *** 1/2)
As if the Mac Miller story wasn’t sad enough already, we now have Circles, the first posthumous album to be released under the rapper/singer’s name since he died of an accidental drug overdose in September 2018.
Miller’s death at 26 came just a month after the release of Swimming, his fifth album and the most impressive to date in an ongoing transformation from bro rapper of little consequence to a self-reflective artist of substance.
Swimming contained five songs produced by Jon Brion, the multi-instrumentalist who’s added depth and subtlety to albums by Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Kanye West. Circles takes the collaboration further: It’s made up mostly of songs that Miller and Brion had been working on at the time of the Pittsburgh rapper’s death, plus a few tracks that Miller had started on his own and Brion finished at the request of Miller’s family.
The results are moody, contemplative, dreamlike. Miller mostly sings and rarely raps, while playing keyboards, drums, and guitar on songs that work a steady, rolling groove. His woozy, plaintive vocals come to the fore. “I need somebody to save me,” he sings on “I Can See.” “Before I drive myself crazy.” And on the heartbreaking closing track, “Once A Day,” he’s self-aware of the danger of destructive thoughts: “Don’t keep it all in your head, the only place you know nobody can see.”
The album, which was intended to be the second in a trilogy beginning with Swimming, also includes an affecting cover of Arthur Lee of Love’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” Circles is warm, inviting, and consoling, and would have won Miller legions of new fans in his lifetime had he survived to see its release. — Dan DeLuca
(Capitol ** 1/2)
Ashley Frangipane’s 2015 debut, Badlands, was a pop album that succeeded top-to-bottom without contributing much to pop in return. She simply sharpened some of Lorde’s and Lana Del Rey’s angst into tighter, neon-blue-dyed hooks. On 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, she still didn’t know what she wanted to be, but tried harder to find out, which made for highs like the exasperated “Bad at Love” and the slow-burning, bi-breakup lament “Strangers.” But she can’t seem to progress as quickly as pop itself.
The more ideas stuffed into her third album, the more they boil down to the boilerplate. Separate interjections from Alanis Morissette and BTS should stick out more, no? The rocking “3am,” the chamber-pop “I Hate Everybody,” and the stomping “Killing Boys” all make themselves known. But only the closing “929” packs in all the details and desperation this album needs, with head-turners from “I forget half the people I’ve gotten in bed / And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would finally call me” to “I bought another house and I never go outside.” — Dan Weiss
(Sub Pop ***)
Wolf Parade emerged from the same early aughts Montreal scene as Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, and they’ve remained true to their artful post-punk synth pop roots while still evolving. Thin Mind is their fifth album, their second since they returned from a five-year hiatus, and their first pared down to a now Vancouver-based trio of keyboardist Spencer Krug, guitarist Dan Boeckner, and drummer Arlen Thompson. It has fewer sharp angles and startling leaps than beloved early tracks such as “I’ll Believe in Anything,” and Krug and Boeckner, who have similar gulping baritone voices, usually split the vocals track by track rather than share them.
Although some of the 10 tracks don’t bear the weight of their stentorian seriousness, most of them bristle with the appealing dark hooks and propulsive riffs reminiscent of Depeche Mode or Future Islands. It’s a thoughtful album about feeling stretched thin by anxiety (in the kinetic “Forest Green”), about “staring at the screen until I lost my vision” (from the perky highlight “Wandering Son”), about feeling fatalistic. (“If we don’t die young, we get old and die,” proclaim these veterans in ultimately life-affirming “Town Square.”) Their cynicism, especially when cloaked in hooks, is appealing. — Steve Klinge