Tuesday, August 23, 2016

video review: 'blonde' by frank ocean (VACATION REVIEW!)

And here's the controversial review... look, it's a good record, it's got some fantastic high points, but there are some really rough points as well, and the lack of stronger, more cohesive ideas means that I'm not even sure it holds together as well as Endless. 

I'll have more to say when I get back from vacation (and this godawful sunburn I've got), but until then, Billboard BREAKDOWN is up next, so stay tuned!

video review: 'endless' by frank ocean (VACATION REVIEW!)

Well, this happened... and of course, it happened right as I went on vacation. Look, ultimately I appreciate what this visual album is and it's got some fascinating ideas, but separate any piece from it (with the exception of some really sharp production from Arca), and I'm not sure how well it holds together.

Next up, the actual album, so stay tuned!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

video review: 'honor killed the samurai' by ka (VACATION REVIEW!)

Well, this was pretty damn solid. Don't worry folks, I'll have more time to dig into everything when I get back from vacation.

And on that note, I've got two sides of a Frank Ocean record coming, so stay tuned!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

video review: 'i'm not the devil' by cody jinks

I'm still kind of on the fence about whether this is a truly great record or not. I get the feeling certain tracks will really give it some longevity, but it'll be interesting to see how long it sticks around. For the mean time, pretty damn great, I liked it!

Next up... well, I'm posting this from Madrid's airport... let's see if I can get something filmed here. A little shorter, a little more... let's call it succinct, shall we? Stay tuned!

video review: 'home of the strange' by young the giant

Ah, this was a pleasant surprise. Seriously, I did not expect this to be remotely good, and look what we got! Nice to see Young The Giant start to put together a distinct sound, it's comforting.

Next up, the Cody Jinks video and then my vacation series begins - stay tuned!

album review: 'i'm not the devil' by cody jinks

I said a few days ago that women in country music really are having a great year, but let's get brutally honest here: if you look outside most of the mainstream, country as a whole really is having a great year, and there are definitely promising signs that the radio is primed for a shift. And what I find bizarre is how little it's being covered outside of certain critical outlets dedicated to country - sure, this year we've seen a few more critics here on YouTube who are dipping their toes into the genre, but go over to certain indie-leaning outlets and they always seem a tad tentative to even touch the genre. Is it a fear of not looking cool, or do they just not know where to start? Because if it's the latter... well, I definitely get that, it's hard to break into any unfamiliar genre, but here's where you're mostly in luck: if you're looking for the two hotbeds of country quality right now, it's the acts affiliated with Dave Cobb and the Texas country scene.

And while my appreciation for Dave Cobb's stellar production is starting to be well-known on this channel, it's been a while since I've given the rough-edged red dirt honky tonk sound out of Texas some appreciation, one of the few scenes where regional radio has survived and cultivated a distinctive sound. Sure, if you go back through my top records of any given year, you'll find plenty of Texas names like Jason Eady, James McMurtry, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, and Kacey Musgraves, so let's add another name to that list: Cody Jinks. He actually got his start in thrash metal before cutting towards country and broke onto the scene with the excellent Less Wise in 2010. He then followed it with the slightly more experimental and melancholic 30 in 2012, and it seem liked everything was on path. And hell, he dropped a record called Adobe Sessions in the middle of summer last year... which for some reason, I didn't cover, even despite being a pretty damn good listen - a little smoother than his last two outside of a few darker exceptions like 'Loud And Heavy', but still solid. Well, here's as good of a time as any to make up for some lost time, so on the back of some promising critical acclaim, I dug into I'm Not The Devil - how was it?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

album review: 'home of the strange' by young the giant

So let's go back to the beginning of 2014. I was still getting the handle on my reviews and I started getting requests to cover the newest album from Young the Giant. Now I wasn't hugely familiar with the band - the most I knew from them came from Glee and even that was just 'Cough Syrup', but going through their discography, I was mostly indifferent. There was a term I adopted around that time called 'silent majority' acts, bands that critics might not care about or even bother to review, but somehow do just enough to end up on every middlebrow playlist, and at least for their self-titled debut album, Young The Giant seemed to fit into that niche. A lot of colourless liquid guitars, blurry production, mostly empty lyrics, and a frontman that just did not stand out for me. But with the introduction of Justin Mendel-Johnson to the production team for their sophomore follow-up, I had hoped things might develop a little more cohesion...

And that didn't happen. I went back to relisten to Mind Over Matter to see if I had indeed been too hard on that record, and...look, I get the appeal of a good U2-esque guitar flutter and arena rock swell, and I even thought their lyrics actually took a step in the right direction. But the production was so muddy, messy, indistinct and did absolutely nothing to flatter Sameer Gadhia vocals - which, admittedly, aren't always my thing but it could have come together better than this. But worse still were compositional problems at the roots: wild transitions in tempo and sound that almost wanted to lean towards progressive metal but didn't stick the landing, or flatter the group's knack for some decent melodic hooks. And what was most exasperating is that none of this made the record precisely bad, just overmixed and forgettable, all the more evidence that Justin Mendel-Johnson might be a far better musician than producer.

So until I started getting requests to cover this, I had no idea where the band was going to go next. It seemed like they had pivoted to making shorter records, as Home Of The Strange was easily their most succinct release to date, and they had brought in producers Alex Salibian and Jeff Bhasker to add more of a boost. And truth be told, if I hadn't heard some interesting critical buzz or if I didn't need more time to work my way through discographies from Cody Jinks, Atmosphere, and Ka, i probably wouldn't have covered this. But what the hell - I've got no ill will towards Young The Giant beyond indifference, so how did the record turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 27, 2016 (VIDEO)

Overall an interesting week, can't say I'm wild about Suicide Squad but overall pretty solid all around.

Next up Young The Giant, so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 27, 2016

So let me tell you a bit about my previous weekend. Had a party with friends on Friday, went to a bachelor party on Saturday, and most of Sunday recovering and working my way through a bunch of records in my backlog to cover my schedule this week... all of which meant that I have not yet had a chance to see Suicide Squad. Which, if you're judging by its second week numbers, if you didn't see it opening weekend you likely didn't see it at all - and yet it doesn't mean I'm not talking about the movie, because it was the biggest impact to the charts, with considerable gains, a few new arrivals, one returning entry, and even a new top five track! Frankly, I'm a little bewildered the soundtrack has had so much staying power, but popular phenomenon pop up all the time - I just wished I liked more of it.

Monday, August 15, 2016

video review: 'sremmlife 2' by rae sremmurd

This review has already gotten more hits than the past three reviews I've posted combined - and will probably go on to get even more, because apparently people like it when I get pissed. Well, except the comments section which have devolved into something of a shit-show, but that was to be expected.

And to continue that streak, Young The Giant is coming up next, so stay tuned!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

video review: 'the bird & the rifle' by lori mckenna

So this record was downright amazing. Easily one of the best of the year (and of a pretty bleak summer that we've had), ridiculously solid and well-written work here from a long-time veteran who deserves a lot more acclaim.

In any case, you all know what's coming next... stay tuned!

album review: 'sremmlife 2' by rae sremmurd

There's a lot that needs to be unpacked before I even start this review - and no, not just because I'm almost certain some of you will have seen what I said about Rae Sremmurd over eighteen months ago when I covered their debut album. To put it mildly, I wasn't kind to it - to put it bluntly, it was easily one of the worst records I had the misfortune of covering in 2015, a badly written, shoddily performed, disastrously produced slog that I disliked more with every listen - and that included going back to relisten to it for this review. But like with most atrocious music that gets popular, I had a lot more contempt for the attitudes surrounding the album and the critical pass it got, which has cascaded down further to the mostly lousy state of mainstream hip-hop in 2016, where lyrics have even been further marginalized in favour of bass-heavy clunkers and MCs who have nowhere near the charisma or flows to save them. Sure, Sremmlife was intended as dumb, over-the-top party music and was only intended to be judged on that standard - but on that standard it was bad dumb party music, with clunky flows, ugly tones, and some truly atrocious lyrics, none of which was given the tempo and impact to match its inspiration, either from trap or the equally stupid crunk music of the mid-2000s, which at least had energy and impact to match its mindless hedonism.

And yet, eighteen months later going into the sequel Sremmlife 2, I found myself unable to get all that angry or worked up about it. I think a fair bit of my anger was fueled by the fact that the mainstream and critical press had given Rae Sremmurd a pass, but it didn't look like that was happening for the follow-up. Despite some guest stars like Gucci Mane, Juicy J, up-and-coming and all around awful MC Kodak Black, and even Lil Jon of all people, none of their singles had cracked the Billboard Hot 100, and the album had been delayed to mid-August. And I have to admit, I was curious why: perhaps the waning star power of Mike Will Made It as a producer had further marginalized the group; perhaps hip-hop had moved so quickly to the next 'turnt up' rapper that Rae Sremmurd's emptiness had been prophetic... or perhaps we had another real turd coming and everyone was looking to clear out of the blast radius. Well, that wasn't going to stop me, so against all of my better judgement I checked out Sremmlife 2 - is it at least better than the first one?

Well yeah, it's 'better', I guess, in that 'tedious, incompetent, and occasionally unlistenable' is a step up from 'all-around atrocious', but none of that means I want to recommend this record, or will in any way get behind some of the more ridiculous critical appraisals of this record. And like with the last review, I'm going to try and frame this as a rebuttal to many of the people who are giving it a pass. Because again, I can't really get that angry at two kids who are trying to make fun music for dubious definitions of music or fun - but I can get a little pissed at the critics who are trying to defend this by saying how 'innovations in character, texture, and presentation are just as important as those in lyrical dexterity and punchlines' and 'maligning Rae Sremmurd for prioritizing the extra-lyrical portions of the genre reveals only how nostalgia leaves unfillable holes in people's hearts, and taste'. To put it another way, if you expect basic competency in structuring bars or content, you're a nostalgia-blinded hater without taste who can't appreciate the stylistic flourishes of Rae Sremmurd.

So for the purposes of this review, let's first establish that I'm not expecting depth in terms of lyrical content. This isn't Kendrick Lamar or Aesop Rock or Death Grips or Doomtree or Run The Jewels, and even while all of these artists have delivered hard-hitting bangers than can match content with experiments in style and delivery which proves you can have both and this is a non-excuse, let's only consider this record by terms of MCs who are looking to play to the more ignorant, nu-crunk side, who really have been around since the dawn of the genre. Even by that standard, I'm not impressed by these guys - there may have been a lot of terrible crunk back in the mid-2000s, but when it worked there was commanding presence in the vocals that let the MCs drive the beats. It's very telling that when both Juicy J and Lil Jon show up on this record they immediately attract more attention because there's enough bass in their voices to match the production, whereas Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi just don't have the same weight, no matter how much pitch correction is used. At their worst, their cackling nasal sneer doesn't even have the pretensions to melody that gave Young Thug the pass he barely deserved - hell, right from the very first track 'Start A Party' both of their voices keep cracking audibly and I'm supposed to like this, especially as they talk about drugging my girlfriend with lean? And it completely undercuts their party anthems for me as they squeal through the tracks - there's no punch to 'Shake It Fast' until Juicy J shows up and is pretty damn disgusting, or to 'Set The Roof', which only puts Lil Jon on the hook and then compresses his vocals - you know, because we want to hear more Rae Sremmurd! Probably the worst example is 'Over Here', where even by interjecting a pitch-shifted voice they can't give the sleazy elongation of syllables and outright sloppiness compelling - and on that note, one of the big vocal shifts on this record is Swae Lee piling on the autotune to croon his way through 'Look Alive', 'Came A Long Way', and 'Take It Or Leave It', with it being at its 'best' on the brighter 'Just Like Us' and at its absolute worst on 'Swang', where he goes into his gutless upper range and it sounds atrocious. And that's when they care at all, as we also have songs like 'By Chance' where it's clear everyone phoned it in that day..

And nowhere is that more apparent than the content, where apparently I'm supposed to give these guys a pass because of their style and enthusiasm. Well, since the latter is considerably damped compared to the first SremmLife, and the former makes me think we could weaponize these vocals against ISIS, the content is open season! Let's start by saying that these guys can barely stay on topic or message - if they're not throwing out some of the most bewilderingly awful punchlines between dropping rhymes, rhyming words with themselves, or dropping the mix out to disregard the flow entirely, they sure as hell aren't bothering with making sense. Again, right on the first song we have Swae Lee saying the girls he screws - which again includes your chick - are dying, and that's the sort of thing for which you'd ask an explanation! Go to the next track and Slim Jxmmi is talking about big diamonds in his mouth as he burps, which is such a non sequiteur that it immediately renders everything on the song irrelevant - including Kodak Black's verse, but we were doing that already. Or then on 'Look Alive', where Swae Lee is taking his girl shopping before breakfast, which I do not understand, and that he's going to rock her 'like a baby', which is all sorts of creepy! 

Now I could go on here listing the myriad awful lines... so I will, because on 'Black Beatles', Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane try to compare themselves to the Beatles and 'living like a geezer' - because the Beatles are old, get it? Then there's 'Shake It Fast', where Swae Lee says he's afraid of pot and drops a 'new phone who dis', all the while Juicy J tries to pay for strippers by swiping his card in her ass while he assures her the cameras are off - why don't I remotely believe you? Then there's 'Set The Roof' where during the prechorus they show exasperation the waiter screwed up their order three times only for the final line of 'now let's fill up her head and see if she chokes'. Oh yeah, the casual disregard for women of all types runs rampant here and even by hip-hop standards it's pretty pathetic, between the 'My X' reprise of 'Now That I Know' where he already has a side bitch ready to replace her to the girls he's stretching out, front and back, on 'Do Yoga'. But if we're looking for two songs to capture this record's content in a nutshell, they're 'Over Here' - with the failed Charlie Sheen punchline from Slim Jxmmi to the bungled Superman reference from Swae Lee, it's clear they roughly have an idea what they want to say, but not only is there zero subtext beyond mindless hedonism, the text barely even connects! That's why I find all of the claims of greater emotional depth on this record completely bogus, because if you're relying on barely connected subtext when the text doesn't even work, you've got no legs to stand on. Want more proof? The other song is 'Came A Long Way', which if I'm being charitable seems to be showing them wanting recognition for their come-up - but the problem is that the actual text doesn't tell any of that story, just all the more bragging about sex, drugs, and money that without even distinctive brand names becomes unbelievably tedious!

But I'm probably missing the point here, right? As long as the beats and melodies are good with solid production, nobody is going to care about anything these guys say? Well, I could refer you to the list of MCs who have great, hard-hitting production and something to say again, but that's missing the point that a lot of the production here just isn't very interesting, or go in directions that don't help the vibe. A prime example is 'Set The Roof' - forget the compression on his vocals, the most hard-hitting beat you could get to back up Lil Jon is a collaboration between Mike Will Made It and DJ Mustard, something that might have been interesting in early 2014 and already sounds stale and completely lacking in muscle? And that's before we get into production that's trying to sound way too creepy for its own good with blended theremins and chilly synths against your standard trap snares, like 'Real Chill' or 'Set The Roof', or the half-assembled walls of synth on 'Take It Or Leave It', or that hideous blended tone on 'Do Yoga'. I'd say this record tries for a little more grit like on 'Start A Party' or 'Over Here', but then whatever synth you get is either one-note or clashes terribly with the uglier vibe - and again, I don't know why you want that on party songs! Now to the production's credit, there are a few beats that did come together: 'Look Alive' actually sounds pretty lush before that too-thin synth dropped on the hook, and both 'Shake It Fast' and 'Now That I Know' could have actually connected if the keyboards weren't chopped to ribbons and barely on-key. Hell, I actually really liked the pseudo-darkwave vibe of the low roil on 'Black Beatles' - the production probably stands out the most, even if Mike Will Made It felt the need to add audio watermarks to the beginning and end of the track, or the pretty synth line that led to a more tropical vibe on 'Just Like Us', which was more in a major key and actually fit with the content better. And even though the blurry pianos driving 'Came A Long Way' sounded like they were imported from an alternative metal ballad in 2002, they fit the melancholy of the content and actually worked for me!

But folks... okay, let me let you all in on a little secret: while there will be people who will genuinely like this music and make excuses to the end of the world about the delivery and content - and keep in mind if it's your thing, i don't agree but I do get it - a fair number of people giving stuff like this and its descendants infecting mainstream radio a pass are doing it because they're terrified of being branded as 'out-of-touch' or 'irrelevant'. They make excuses to high heavens in order to justify issues that if the artist was less popular they'd delight in exposing - and I don't have these concerns, because this is garbage. Horribly written, terribly performed, and with production that only connects to a larger 'turn up' vibe in fragments, I can only hope that the rest of the public follows with current patterns and continues to aggressively ignore it. But otherwise, it's a solid 2/10 and no way in the Nine Hells can I recommend this. Folks, hip-hop might not be having a good year overall, but when you have Flatbush Zombies, Denzel Curry, SchoolBoy Q, DJ Khaled, YG, even Drake and Gucci Mane dropping better party jams, there's no excuse for this.

Friday, August 12, 2016

album review: 'the bird & the rifle' by lori mckenna

So a week or so back Billboard hosted a round table of female country artists and the current frustrations they have dealing with country radio's inability to get them on the air. This has been an ugly situation that I've discussed before at length during the height of bro-country, but even now little has changed outside of isolated moments of success, where b- and c-list male acts can snag airplay and festival stages while leaving their female counterparts high and dry. This hit an apex in 2015 with 'Tomato-gate', when radio consultant Keith Hill compared women in country to 'tomatoes in the salad' - and yet a year later outside of isolated moments, little has changed. Kacey Musgraves and Cam both stalled out on the radio despite great singles, and though Maren Morris' 'My Church' was a hit, I don't see that follow-up coming. Then you have Kelsea Ballerini's lack of concern about all of it... well, we'll see if that changes when 'Peter Pan' starts to dry up, and that's speaking from someone who likes that song!

And yet that roundtable had an undercurrent of optimism that things were going to get better - and I'd argue they're right, but I wouldn't say any of them were leading the charge. With the exception of fringe indie artists like Dori Freeman who deserve a lot more attention, 2016 has had a slew of strong albums from women, specifically older women like Brandy Clark and Jennifer Nettles who are releasing strong solo projects in their forties. And to add to that mix comes Lori McKenna, a songwriter who has been working behind the scenes for decades but recently received praise for her work behind Little Big Town's 'Girl Crush' and Tim McGraw's 'Humble And Kind'. And yet indie country fans know that she's been releasing critically acclaimed records since 2000 with a distinctive folk-touched vocal tone and the sort of sharply incisive songwriting that isn't afraid to pull punches. She actually did release an album called Unglamorous on Warner Bros in 2007 in the height of a small boom for women in country - and for the record, that record has aged incredibly well and does indeed hold up, but the production was far too slick to match her writing, and I don't have any problem believing it got lost in the crowd. So she went right back to the indie scene where country and folk blended a little more easily and four years later in 2011 dropped a borderline classic with Lorraine - seriously, if you're looking for the three records to get a full picture for Lori McKenna, it's 2004's Bittertown, 2007's Unglamorous, and 2011's Lorraine. Hell, you could argue that the reason her following two records, 2012's Massachusetts and 2014's Numbered Doors, didn't quite leave the same impact is what they had to follow, although in both cases you could make the argument the songwriting didn't quite cut as sharply as the best hits of either record.

And yet with the success of 'Girl Crush' and 'Humble And Kind', Lori McKenna now has more momentum than she's had in probably a decade, so she connected with Dave Cobb and put out a new record called The Bird & The Rifle - and yes, I know I'm late to the party here, but I knew after going through her entire discography I had to cover this. So does it live up to my high expectations?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

video review: 'morning report' by arkells

Well, this was a mild disappointment - only mild, I kind of expected it, but still, I thought there could be more to it than this. Eh, it happens.

Next up, though... oh wow, this record really is something, so stay tuned for that!

album review: 'morning report' by arkells

I've been both anticipating and dreading this release.

More specifically, I've been anticipating and dreading this review, because for as much as I'm a fan of Canadian rock group the Arkells, I haven't exactly been wild about their creative decisions over the past few years. Their 2014 album High Noon went straight for more synthetic territory, de-emphasizing the rougher basslines and distortion in favour of gleaming textures and drum machines, which to me felt like the exact opposite direction one should take with the more political and self-serious subject matter. That didn't mean there weren't great songs - hell, 'Crawling Through The Window' made my list of my favourite songs of 2014 - but as a whole High Noon just didn't hold up to the melodic groove and fast-paced heaviness of their first two records.

And that didn't look like it was changing on their newest album Morning Report. Opening singles were sliding even further towards pop and seeming all the more plastic and slick, especially with lead-off singles like 'Private School', which sent up big red flags for me. Granted, that wasn't a guarantee things were completely off the rails - after all, my favourite songs from High Noon had been deep-cuts, even if 'Leather Jacket' was a pretty sweet tune - but I did have some reservations going into Morning Report. Were they justified?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

video review: 'give a glimpse of what yer not' by dinosaur jr.

And there we have it. Man, this was a rewarding journey revisiting the entire discography, and a pretty damn solid record to cap it all off.

Unfortunately, our next few entries might not be so lucky. Still need a little more time for Lori Mckenna, so until then, we have Arkells... and presuming it doesn't get delayed, Rae Sremmurd. Strap in folks, and stay tuned!

album review: 'give a glimpse of what yer not' by dinosaur jr.

I've said a number of times in this series that it's difficult to talk about legends - and yet that's definitely not something I'd say about Dinosaur Jr., one of the bands responsible for creating the rough-edged jangling side of indie rock in the mid-80s we've all come know and love. It's an act that's defined by three distinctive eras, all with their own high and low points, strengths and weaknesses: their early indie years in the 80s before the departure of bassist Lou Barlow; their major label years in the 90s; and everything after that.

Where things get interesting are when you discuss which of the eras was best, because again, they each had their own strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I'm partial to their rough-edged material in their early years, especially Bug which I'd call a indie rock classic, mostly for a lot of the same reasons why I like early Weezer in terms of composition and letting the rattling basslines interplay with the main guitar melodies. Now don't get me wrong, there are good tracks after Barlow departed, but they rarely had the same edge as borderline J Mascis solo projects - especially Without A Sound - and none of them were really comparable to what Barlow was doing with Sebadoh anyway. Things definitely improved when they reunited in the mid-2000s for a pretty solid string of records - Farm is probably the standout for me - but it also was clear that J Mascis was starting to understand Barlow was the foundation of the group, which led to basslines that weren't exactly rougher but more prominent all the same. And hey, that was a progression I wanted to see continue, so you can bet I was interested in digging into Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not - how did it go?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 20, 2016 (VIDEO)

Bit of an odd, unstable week here. Guarantee it's going to be rough in upcoming weeks - I have that odd feeling we're on the precipice of a major shift, just watch.

Anyway, next up is Dinosaur Jr., so stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 20, 2016

So I can't be the only one who thinks that the charts are a little unstable right now, am I? Now that the summer lull has faded for good, we might not have gotten many new songs this week but it doesn't shake the feeling it's only a matter of time before everything is thrown into chaos. Keep in mind that we still have a solid fourteen weeks left - there are songs that could debut in the next few weeks that'll make the year end list, and if they debut higher they'll need even less time.

Monday, August 8, 2016

video review: 'the shadow self' by tarja turunen

Well, this was an unexpected surprise. Tarja really did deliver here, definitely impressed by this. Seriously, you should all check this out, it's kind of amazing.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, then I've got Arkells, Dinosaur Jr., and see if I can find time to get in Lori McKenna before... Rae Sremmurd. Anyway, stay tuned!