Tag: Albums

Album Review: Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness

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Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness

The legendary Chaka Khan returned on the 15th February with her first album since 2007. With only 7 tracks – one of which is a reworking of an earlier track – and a running time of 27 minutes, Khan has eschewed the norms of the streaming era by keeping it short and avoiding collaborations. But the shorter running time leaves little room to hide and exposes the clear weaknesses in the album.

Following a battle with addiction that resulted in a stint in rehab, Khan embraces a new found joy with the title track. ‘I wanna dance’ she sings, embracing the mantra of ‘goodbye sadness, hello happiness. It’s a funky and fun start that embraces her back catalogue whilst giving herself a modern sound.

It’s followed by Like a Lady, the finest song on the album. With playful production incorporating strings and teasing bass and guitar parts, there’s plenty of space for Khan’s vocals to soar with their tales of love and joy.

Sadly, the album nosedives from there. Don’t Cha Know feels like a remix that should have been binned immediately. Starting with watered-down dubstep, the track mostly revolves around the instrumentation. Khan’s vocals are spliced in and out, but feel superfluous. When you have that voice, you shouldn’t be digitally manipulating it and using it sparingly. The resulting track is just soulless nonsense.

Too Hot opens with an organ stream that flows into a bluesy riff. It’s perfectly serviceable – catchy even – but the repetitive chorus and overworked production combine to make the track feel inauthentic. In different hands, this may have been a fine single.

Last year’s single Like Sugar appears next. It still has that teasing bass line and funky retro vibe. It’s good, particularly the call and response vocals, but the stop start nature – another poor production choice – prevents it reaching the heights it should.

Penultimate track Isn’t That Enough gives you laid-back reggae vibes which mesh nicely with Khan’s voice. This will sound great in the sunshine at festivals, and there’s almost certainly a cracking drum and bass remix in the pipeline. An EP with this and the first two tracks would have been a fine collection of songs.

Somewhat inexplicably the final track, Ladylike, is a slowed down reworking of track two, Like a Lady. Complete with nauseating ocean sounds and centred around acoustic guitars, it losses all the joy and sense of fun that makes the other version so distinctive.

There’s moments on this album that demonstrate how good Khan can be. Taking the retro funk ethos and giving it a modern twist is a tried and tested technique for many artists, and when followed here it works nicely.

Unfortunately there’s so many experiments with other sounds and so many poor production moments – most egregiously by barely using Khan’s voice, the best instrument on the album, in some songs – that it’s hard to breeze through this album, even with its short running length.

It’s great to have Khan releasing new music and if she can find the right producer then I wouldn’t bet against her having some monster hits again. As it is, Hello Happiness starts strongly before dropping badly and never really recovering.

4/10

ALBUM REVIEW: James Blake – Assume Form

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James Blake – Assume Form 

There are certain acts who always create intrigue when they release new material and James Blake is most definitely one of those artists. Whilst the falsetto vocals, electronics and intriguing beats are omnipresent in his work, his growth as an artist has seen him span genres and become as popular in the hip hop world as he is within the indie crowd that originally supported him. In a remarkably understated and underground way, he’s become an essential part of twenty-first century music.

The Penguin has been a fan since 2011, but was hugely disappointed by 2016’s The Colour In Anything, which was overly long and lacking in substance for his aquatic tastes. [Although it should be noted he wasn’t alone in 2016 in producing overly long, unimpressive albums: I’m looking at you Frank Ocean].

Last month Blake released Assume Form, and it has been on pretty steady repeat here ever since. For anyone who has listened to the album, it’s apparent that this is a very different James Blake; he is in love and – largely – a happy chappy. From the opening title track, it’s obvious he can barely believe his luck “When you touch me, I wonder what you would want with me” and the piano and soaring strings mirror his wide-eyed wonder. It’s a little soppy and slightly meandering start, but it begins our journey into Blake’s psyche.

Assume Form has a number of collaborators that help to elevate the album. Mile High, featuring Travis Scott, benefits from some superb production with the tinkering beats always teasing the ear, and the two voices mesh together nicely. Tell Them, a tale of regret about one night stands, is possibly a little overdone on the production, but Moses Sumney’s voice really shines. Barefoot in the Park with ROSALIA has been well covered on the blog is simply exquisite and continues the story of love woven throughout the album.

But it’s the collaboration with Andre 3000 – Where’s the Catch – that most rewards repeat listen and really anchors the album. With its unsettling, murky piano and deep beat, it turns the positives of the album on their head and questions if this really is too good to be true. It’s a dark moment cleverly placed within the album. And in truth it slightly saves the album, because the preceding two tracks – Can’t Believe The Way We Flow and Are You In Love? – are clearly the weakest on the album. The former is full of scatters of sound that never settle, and lyrically loses both the subtlety and quality that succeed elsewhere.  With Are You In Love?,  the vulnerability is there, but it feels meandering and slightly unnecessary.

Power On also jars slightly; it’s hard to know if we should be delighted for the person singing and appreciate their evolution into love, or whether they remain quite selfish company. Last year’s release Don’t Miss It also makes an appearance, a song with admirable emotional honesty but lacking in musical quality.

But there are other musical highlights intertwinned. Into The Red feels like it has a baroque arrangement involved and brings the strings back to centre stage. It’s an incredibly moving track in which he acknowledges a debt much greater than – but certainly not excluding – money. I’ll Come Too feels like Blake has hijacked a touring musical and appropriated its biggest number for his own. There’s a classic melodious pop song in there, but Blake gives it his own spin. And Lullaby For My Insomniac gives an almost choral ending to the album.

Assume Form is an enjoyable journey for the listener, with a central theme and some exquisite moments of musical genius. There are a few duds in there as well, but they’re generally well masked by how the album evolves around its thematic core. On that note, your tolerance for the album will largely depend on how much you can cope with Blake’s new-found happiness. The Penguin is also slightly in love with his other half after recently getting into The Good Place, so is happy to forgive, but others may struggle given how open and on-point the lyrics are at points.

At 48 minutes the album still feels a little baggy – lose two songs and we could be talking about a masterpiece – but its probably Blake’s finest album to date and shows yet more evolution. If anything, the intrigue will be even higher when his next release comes out.

7.5/10 

It’s Album Time: Dermot Kennedy’s self-titled debut album reviewed.

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Dermot Kennedy – Dermot Kennedy

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Dermot Kennedy is a twenty five year old singer-songwriter who honed his craft busking on the streets of Dublin. He he has over three hundred million streams on Spotify. I’d never heard of him before listening to this album, which is largely a gathering together of the singles he has released over the past few years.

But those singles have received considerable backing from big beasts of the music industry. Power Over Me debuted on Annie Mac’s Radio One Show in the prestigious Hottest Record in the World slot. Moments Passed premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats One show.

His self-titled debut album was released on January 4th, and its an unusual record. There’s a lot of sadness and loss tinged throughout the record, with love and spiritual imagery featuring regularly as well. That being said, the album never really feels like a collection of songs that belong together. There’s nothing that binds together the various songs and both the tempo and ‘vibe’ of the album oscillates wildly.

The most notable asset on this album is Kennedy’s voice. Hovering somewhere between David Gray and Marcus Mumford, it is full of power and emotional heft and when it is used correctly gives an impressive rawness to the songs. Unfortunately, it is very rarely used correctly.

From the outset, the production on this album drowns any emotional heft the demos had. Album opener Power Over Me is a love song that feels insincere due to overproduction, with its big backing vocals and mass-appeal stabilisers.

Moments Passed has some heartbreaking lyrics (She said, “Oh, I know that love is all about the wind, How it can hold me up and kill me in the end”, Still I loved it, Does that mean nothing to you now?) but is renderer oddly soulless and pedestrian through the whirring, unnecessary noise.

The entire album continues in a similar manner. On almost every track I found myself writing negative comments about over-production, or emotions being diluted. I found myself wishing I could hear the acoustic versions of the tracks, to try and connect with Kennedy’s initial intentions. It’s no coincidence that the first three minutes of – the acoustic – An evening I will not forget feels like the most honest and straightforward on the record, until the unnecessary strings join the party.

Sadly this album has few redeeming features. Overly baggy (it’s drags quite badly towards the end), drowning in production to the point of soullessness and feeling relatively insincere, I hope Mr Kennedy is able to go back to basics in his future work.

4/10

It’s Album Time: Max Richter – Three Worlds

It’s Album Time: Max Richter – Three Worlds

Every now and then, there comes an artist who defines a generation in their chosen field. When it comes to modern classical music, many would assume that person to be Ludovico Einaudi. Yes, you’ve heard his music on every advert/TV show/movie going, but for me there is another worth considering – Max Richter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bona fide Einaudi superfan. It’s just that, as far as I’m concerned, Richter has pushed the sound in directions that sound new and fresh, and always excite me, whichever medium the music is applied to.

Maybe I should start with a brief introduction to the composer and his works, for those of you that are encountering him for the first time. With his debut album, and personal favourite, Memoryhouse, Richter announced himself as the future of the scene. Poetry, opera and electronica all collided with traditional classical, along with themes that challenged the listener – in particular the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict.

I first encountered the German-born Brit through the use of his music in the excellent 2010 BBC drama, Dive. Images of wind farms off the bleak North East coast seemed a perfect fit for excerpts from his 2004 masterpiece, The Blue Notebooks. After my first proper listen, it had changed the way I listened to and appreciated classical music, and it was rightly described by Pitchfork as “one of the most affecting and universal contemporary classical records in recent memory”.

Songs From Before, 24 Postcards In Full Colour and Infra further solidified his standing in neo-classical, along with his score for Oscar-nominated, Lebanese war animation, Waltz With Bashir. A re-working of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons followed, before Richter wrote and released an eight and a half hour long composition entitled Sleep. Unsurprisingly, the album was designed to be listened to while sleeping, and was accompanied by several overnight concerts, complete with beds for the listener – unfortunately I missed out on tickets for his performance in London in May.

Most recently, Richter’s score for HBO’s The Leftovers has made up for the fact that at times the show is a confusing, albeit enjoyable, mess. It’s a tour de force that plays with your emotions, and strikes all the right notes alongside the show’s most triumphant moments.

Now, the composer is back with a three-part composition to accompany the new Wayne McGregor ballet, Woolf Works, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

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As the name suggests, Woolf Works is based on three of Virginia Woolf‘s landmark novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Woven around the themes from the books are inspirations taken from Woolf’s essays, letters and diaries. Given the multitude of influences from the subject’s life, it seems fitting that Richter brings a variety of sounds and methods to the table.

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations, naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past”

Following an original voice recording of Woolf herself, “In The Garden” blends multiple orchestral sections in trademark Richter style, as we are introduced to the first of Woolf’s novels to be covered, Mrs Dalloway. The violin and cello float around the piano, and the piece reveals itself almost like one continuous flow, not stopping for a moment. “War Anthem” hits a more sombre note. Multi-layered strings evoke images of the First World War, and perfectly illustrate the post-war trauma suffered by one of the novel’s characters. The track is anguished, and yet somehow beautiful at the same time.

“Meeting Again” rounds off the first part of this triptych, seemingly continuing the same sound from the previous two compositions. The piano in particular recalls many of The Blue Notebooks’ finer moments, and truly sounds like vintage Richter.

The next ten tracks all tackle Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando. The composer introduces a more current sound, staccato strings accompanying atmospheric electronica throughout. “Modular Astronomy” gallops along at a steady pace, and is reminiscent of some of Hans Zimmer’s incredible score for Interstellar, as well as Richter’s recurring melody used throughout Memoryhouse. “Transformation” continues along the same epic path, only for “The Tyranny Of Symmetry” to change things up with a discordant and overbearing tone. Waves of synth swim around on “Persistance Of Images” as the electronic influence is ramped up, and “Genesis Of Poetry” continues in the same vein, sounding somewhat futuristic. Interspersed between these tracks are atmospheric interludes, that lend the second portion of the release a necessary structure and pace.

The third and final part of the collection opens with Gillian Anderson reciting the suicide note left by Woolf for her husband Leonard. The words are haunting, and the accompanying soundtrack of waves crashing against a shore are surely a nod to the writer’s choice of ending her life by filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into a nearby river. By covering this last novel, The Waves, in one track of almost 22 minutes, Richter allows an elaborate exploration of only a few melodies, including the introduction of a vocal from British soprano Grace Davidson. It’s a rewarding, and fitting finale, and I can only imagine how moving the conclusion of the ballet must have been.

Max Richter’s compositions have been used time and again in film and television, most notably for Shutter Island, Prometheus, Arrival, and even an episode of Black Mirror last year. There’s a reason for this: his ability to stir the emotions, and heighten the senses, is second to none. Further evidence of this comes in the form of his multiple works for opera and ballet, having worked alongside choreographer Wayne McGregor several times.

With Woolf Works, he has again delivered an astounding piece of work, leaving this listener moved to tears on more than one occasion. I only wish I’d been able to experience these emotions in their intended setting, but due to some date-bungling I managed to miss the live streaming offered by my local Odeon – on the strength of these 66 minutes, that’s a mistake I won’t be making again!

HIGHLIGHTS: “War Anthem”, “Modular Astronomy”, “Transformation”.

It’s Album Time: Migos – Culture

It’s Album Time: Migos – Culture

If you haven’t yet heard of Migos (pronounced like amigos, without the a), where have you been? Following a decent debut album in 2015, the Atlanta trap trio have taken the last couple of years by storm. Whether it’s with hit single “Bad & Bougee”, an appearance in the excellent Atlanta created by and starring Donald Glover (what do you mean you haven’t seen it yet?), or the fact that they are credited by some with creating the dab, it’s been pretty hard to avoid them. With their sophomore album, “Culture”, they’ve really hit their stride.

Firstly, I feel obliged to point out that clearly the average trap album isn’t likely to include themes that I can relate to. I’m a thirty-something accountant, living on the Essex coast. But fear not, it doesn’t detract from the huge amount of enjoyment I take from listening to this one, and it won’t for you either.

Every album should start with an intro from Snapchat hero, DJ Khaled – I’d actually quite like it if he could just walk into rooms before me and scream my arrival. I’m also a huge fan of what appears to be a xylophone loop playing underneath the vocals, and from the off the tone is set for what proves to be an incredible first five tracks.

“T-Shirt” is easily my favourite song on the album. The sample fading in and out on the production works perfectly with the vocal, and I can’t ever remember loving a tune for essentially having two choruses. The swagger and bravado you would expect from a release of this type is evident from the very first verse as Takeoff, in his trademark stacatto style, proclaims:

Lotta niggas copy, name someone can stop me

It’s Offset though, with his auto-tuned singing style, that makes it for me. This one stayed on repeat the first time I heard it, and hasn’t stopped looping in my head since.

The high standard continues with the infectious “Call Casting” – you’ll be hearing that piano for days – before we launch straight into the track Donald Glover described as “the best song ever”. I won’t bore you by describing it, or giving my insight. The best thing you can do is listen to “Bad and Boujee”, right now.

“Get Right Witcha” completes the outstanding opening to the album, with a great asian-style flute sample, and an even better drum track. It’s just a shame the track fades out at the end, because I could listen to that instrumental for weeks.

At this point, the album takes a dip in quality. That’s not to say that it’s bad, or not worthy of your time, more that it’s hard to top what has come so far. It does feel a little like listening to the same song over and over, but there are still some highlights.

“Slippery” sees Gucci Mane guesting, but it’s still Takeoff, Quavo and Offset that shine as they brag about women and cars. On “Big On Big”, I find it hardest to relate to the lyrics. I’ve never owned a Benz – in fact I don’t own a car full stop – and certainly not a mansion with a four car garage. And yet there’s still something pleasing in hearing the trio boast about their well-deserved spoils.

Short but sweet and with a killer hook, “What The Price” opens with a guitar sample that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Prince’s finest tracks, and “Brown Paper Bag” goes straight in at the deep end as Offset hits a perfect flow. “Deadz” follows with a huge brass arrangement, and a slower tempo.

Before the album reaches its conclusion, there’s time for one more killer hook. “All Ass” is the closest Migos get to a love song, professing their adoration for strippers and booty, and it probably delivers my favourite chorus:

Yeah, beat the pot, beat the pot, beat the pot, oh
Bad bitches walkin’ out with bags at the store (bad)
Stripper girl shakin’, all ass on the pole (all ass ay, all ass ay)

Things get a little weird on “Kelly Price”, with tales of drug-fuelled lovemaking sessions, and making girls “sing” like the aforementioned grammy-nominated r&b singer. Unfortunately, it’s about two minutes too long for me.

“Out Yo Way” completes the release, and one lyric in particular sums up exactly how they should be feeling:

Everybody said that we would fall away
Nobody thought that we would go up
But we blew up, blew up, blew up

Migos really have delivered an outstanding piece of work. As I said, the first five tracks are truly incredible, and set a very high bar that the rest of the album only just fails to reach. It’s a real statement, and deserves all the praise it’s getting. More importantly, it lives up to all the pre-release hype.

HIGHLIGHTS: “T-Shirt”, “Bad and Boujee”, “Get Right Witcha”, “All Ass”.

It’s Album Time: Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

It’s Album Time: Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

Following a three year absence (with the exception of a collaboration with Wavves), Dylan Baldi and Cloud Nothings return with another healthy dose of lo-fi indie rock.

“I came up to the surface, released the air” seems like the most fitting of opening lines for a band that haven’t released a proper album for a while, and it heralds what feels like another reinvention, from a group that seem to define their sound differently every few years. This time around, there’s an air of early-2000 Deep Elm roster about them, in particular Last Days of April. “Up To The Surface” is a statement of caution, which seems fitting in post-Trump America.

This trepidation doesn’t last long though. “Things Are Right With You” is a blast of vintage Cloud Nothings. There’s a blend of grunge and indie rock, with guitars soaring around Baldi’s vocal, lifting the mood to one more hopeful. “Internal World” follows with a sound that the band themselves describe as akin to Yo La Tengo. The song catches the frontman in introspective mood as he admits “I’m not the one who’s always right”.

 

With a long instrumental intro, and a bit of rock ‘n’ roll piano, “Darkened Rings” brings a rockabilly sound, reminiscent of Hot Snakes at their “Audit In Progess” best (if you’ve never heard it, you really should!). Hot on the heels of this stomper, as we reach the mid-point of the album, comes undoubtedly the best track on the album, “Enter Entirely”. The song is longer, slower-paced, and feels like the band are once again breaking new ground for themselves. The lyrics again hint at a more grown-up and inward-looking approach from Baldi, as he proclaims “I thought I knew what I could be, and now I’m there”, before going on to lift the melody and mood with “we’re moving on but I still feel it, you’re a light in me now”. I dare you to not give in and scream along.

I read one review comparing “Modern Act” to The Cure, and although I can see where they’re coming from, I still hear more of the 90’s Britpop influence that I’ve always felt was present in previous Cloud Nothings releases. There’s a fine pace and tempo, with trademark percussion and high hats propelling the song forward, and another great singalong chorus. Completing a duo of energetic pieces, “Sight Unseen” opens with the strum of guitar that sets the rhythm throughout, occasionally broken up by delicate guitar picking. A piano loop enters, and the drums push the song on toward its conclusion. Again, it’s uplifting, and Baldi’s vocal is a perfect match. After your first few listens, this will be one of the tracks you’re always looking forward to.

The album draws to a close with a return to the band’s signature chaotic sound. “Strange Year” sees a cacophony of noise being unleashed, as Baldi roars and pushes his vocal chords to their limit. Exactly the kind of lo-fi fare we’ve come to expect from the Cleveland four piece. “Realize My Fate” provides a suitable end to what is overall a great listen. Opening with an almost tribal feel (I could imagine Jordan Belfort humming along and thumping his chest), the band build to a crescendo of drums, guitar and vocals, leaving you shell-shocked at the sheer variety of what you’ve just experienced in only 9 tracks and just under 38 minutes.

 

“Life Without Sound” is certainly a welcome return from one of my favourite rock bands. Short, sweet and back with a bang, it’s a real assertion from a band that have more than found their place and sound. Their usual mix of angst and hope, coupled with energy and anarchy, still leaves me excited to see just how far they can go, and there’s no doubt that with Dylan Baldi at the helm, they’re in great hands.

I’d strongly recommend you catch them live on their upcoming tour. If you’re at the London show, I’ll see you at the front – I’ll be the one with my arms in the air, screaming along to every chorus!

HIGHLIGHTS: “Things Are Right Without You”, “Enter Entirely”, “Sight Unseen”.

It’s Album Time: Bonobo – Migration

It’s Album Time: Bonobo – Migration

British producer Simon Green, aka Bonobo, returned this month with the release of his sixth studio album, Migration. As you’ll soon hear, it’s a welcome comeback for his first release since 2013’s The North Borders.

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Opening with the title track, there’s an otherworldly feel, almost as though it could have been recorded in a secluded forest. There are hints of Mogwai in their more mellow moments, and following the first few listens it seems the perfect introduction to what will follow. “Break Apart” provides more of the same, adding Bon Iver style vocals from R&B duo Rhye, and building to a horn-fuelled finale.

Unfortunately the album isn’t without fault. I could personally take or leave the next track, “Outlier”. At almost 8 minutes long, I’m not convinced it adds anything to the album, and it comes across as a Four Tet knock off. It just sounds a little too familiar. “Grains” does its best to regain momentum with male and female chanting, giving off a spiritual and atmospheric aura – the beat that is finally introduced at the halfway point lends a more expansive and cinematic feel.

There then follows an interlude of sorts in “Second Sun”. It’s more modern classical than electronica, featuring piano and strings woven around each other, but is a welcome break from the usual bleepy synth. However, this feeling of relief is tempered as it is followed by the other damp squib on this release, “Surface”. Nicole Miglis, of the band Hundred Waters, provides a vocal which is hardly worth shouting about, and I can’t help but think that the instrumental alone would have been a more worthwhile contribution.

All is not lost though, as the album builds further to its summit. “Bambro Koyo Ganda” takes vocals from North African collective Innov Gnawa and adds a subtle bassline and sampled drum pattern. These beats made from everyday sounds are present throughout the release, and lend a semblance of uniqueness to each track. I say semblance, as it’s a tried and tested method, as used by many of Green’s contemporaries.

The triptych that follows forms, undoubtedly, the peak of the album. “Kerala” takes a Burial-style, broken, 2-step beat and adds harp samples. The soothing sounds draw you in, only for a vocal to introduce itself like a Destiny’s Child offcut. Everything blends perfectly, to provide one of the highlights of the album. Hot on its heels comes “Ontario”. Often used in electronica, the trusty sitar makes an appearance to add a global feel. It winds around piano chords and a melody is formed that occasionally lifts to the most glorious heights. Completing the hat-trick is “No Reason”. Already singled out by Mark in his A-List column on Sunday evening, the best vocal on the album (supplied by Nick Murphy, otherwise known as Chet Faker) is enveloped by a great drum track, and gentle staccato synths, perfectly straddling the line between melancholy and euphoria.

The album draws to a close with “7th Sevens” and “Figures”, both of which are very pleasing, but feel a little like electronica by numbers. Nonetheless, they provide a fitting conclusion to the album.

Not without its drawbacks, the release as a whole is a fine piece of work. Historically I’ve always favored albums that leave the best until last – Michael Jackson’s Bad always springs to mind with its closing gambit of “Dirty Diana”, “Smooth Criminal” and “Leave Me Alone” – so with each listen the first half of the album is growing on me, while the anticipation of what is yet to come builds.

As with any electronica, don’t expect to hear it in the clubs, but I could imagine it would be well-suited to a live performance, just as it is to soundtracking your daily commute, or your Sunday morning in bed with the papers. I’d recommend you give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.

HIGHLIGHTS: “Kerala”, “Ontario”, “No Reason”.