Thursday, June 22, 2017

video review: 'crack-up' by fleet foxes

Warned you all this'd be controversial, and I wasn't kidding. Ah well, the music industry cycle moves fast, people will get over it.

As for what's next... honestly, no clue, so stay tuned!

album review: 'crack up' by fleet foxes

I'm surprised I haven't gotten more requests for this record.

Okay, there's a part of me that isn't that surprised - indie folk always falls into a weird category when it comes to how much people want me to cover it, but Fleet Foxes is a fascinating case in their own right. For one, I wouldn't quite define them as straightforward folk music, given how much they pulled on sunny 60s pop, alternative country, and some of the hollower Celtic elements that enriched their vocal harmonies on their first two records. And while the impressionistic lyrics could make for a complicated listening experience to decode, a lot of people were just content to let the words and richly organic instrumentation wash over them, from a star-making self-titled debut to the darker yet no less compelling Helplessness Blues a few years later.

And yet there's a part of me that feels like Fleet Foxes might have been forgotten a bit - between the years between records in an increasingly quick hype cycle, even in the indie scene, to say nothing of the rise of one-time drummer for the group Josh Tillman to dominance under the moniker Father John Misty, it might have been easy for Fleet Foxes to get forgotten, especially given as their very earnest and heartfelt brand of folk was later copied ad nauseum in the early 2010s by far less complex or interesting acts. And yet six years after Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes are back after an extended hiatus, minus Tillman and on a new label with their longest record to date. And if only to soak in those harmonies, I really wanted to check this out, so what did I find on Crack Up?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

video review: 'melodrama' by lorde

So yeah, this is great - but let's be real, you all already knew that.

Next up, though... something where the greatness might be questioned a little more. Stay tuned!

album review: 'melodrama' by lorde

So here's a hidden truth about critics: as much as there should be a certain self-awareness that the vast majority of the mainstream won't care enough about your opinion whether to buy something, deep down critics love to think they can shape the pop culture conversation by their praise of certain art. And I'm not immune to this - I'd love to think that through my reviews I'm helping enshrine some albums with the historical weight and importance they'd deserve.

And yet with Lorde... going back to my review of Pure Heroine, I think I might have blown it. Yes, part of this comes with context - I was in my first year of seriously covering records, there is a learning curve, and even then I'll admit that I may have missed the mark there. Going back to Pure Heroine I criticized it for being able to categorize the frustration behind the sound without proposing a solution, or on some level catering to similar populist power fantasies as the party artists she criticized, just with different framing. And while these are somewhat salient points, they're countered by the acknowledgement that Lorde was still a teenager, and Pure Heroine in retrospect does bear some of the marks of that adolescence - not in the writing, but the framing, and even then Lorde was self-aware enough to realize that even if she had a grand vision of change, it's not like she had the cultural power to make it happen.

And thus I can't help but notice the irony in the fact that Lorde's Pure Heroine hasn't just been elevated to critical acclaim, but also became alarmingly influential - and I say alarming because for as much as I missed the message, other critics and pop stars missed it harder. The monochromatic production with greater percussion emphasis may have felt a little drab at the time, but fast-forward to so many modern pop stars seizing it as a method to be taken seriously and it's led to years of utterly forgettable tunes. Sure, abuse of autotune was eased back, but it was replaced by a crop of husky-voiced starlets who had nowhere near the charisma or intensity of emotion that always coursed through Lorde's best work, to say nothing of far weaker writing. And then there's Lorde herself: people were drawn to her charisma and seemingly vast wells of potential as an artist, but it also seemed like so few people knew how to contextualize her music or her distinct writing and presentation, which seemed to culminate in a connection to Taylor Swift who in recent years has piled up layers of artifice to reflect an increasingly artificial persona, which flew in contrast to Lorde's more raw, almost unnerving edge - earnest and heartfelt, but with the poise and confidence to pivot wildly and stick the landing. Hell, it's one of the reasons why so many critics, including myself, were convinced that Lorde wouldn't be long for pop at all, and that she'd join indie acts in the vein of Bjork or Swans where she'd have more artistic freedom to harness and refine that intensity... and yet she didn't do that. She's too much of a populist, instead enlisting Jack Antonoff as a cowriter and producer - which if you saw my last Bleachers review you'll know makes way too much sense - and calling her newest record Melodrama and describing the loose thematic ties as a breakup at a house party... well, shit, when you think about it in context it makes way too much sense, and yet I'm stunned that I missed it. But you've all waited long enough here: how is Melodrama?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 1, 2017 (VIDEO)

Well, look at that, a pretty damn good week on the show - and with Lorde coming up, it looks to be even better.

And speaking of Lorde... well, stay tuned! 

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 1, 2017

This week surprised me. In more ways than one actually, and for the most part they seem to be good surprises, where songs I was not looking forward to didn't show up, and a few that I never dared to dream would chart actually cracked through. To me, this is the sort of good news I've been conditioned not to expect going into the summer slowdown, and considering next week we'll probably get a big push for Lorde... yeah, maybe things are looking up?

Monday, June 19, 2017

video review: 'the nashville sound' by jason isbell & the 400 unit

Well, this was amazing. One of the best of the year... although everyone saying this is challenging for the best of the year may need to consider the other Jason who dropped a country record in 2017, just for reference...

Beyond that, it's Billboard BREAKDOWN and Lorde up next, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the nashville sound' by jason isbell & the 400 unit

So as a general rule, I try to read a lot of music reviews after I finish mine, try to get a sense of the general discourse around a record and maybe for a little passive acknowledgement that I was at least on the right track when it came to my interpretations. And yet in 2015, I don’t think I read a review that missed the point harder than that of Something More Than Free by Jason Isbell – and if you know anything about that record’s critical reception, you all know exactly what publication put it out. Now on some level every critic is entitled to their opinion, and it's not like Jason Isbell makes easy music, especially in alternative country, so you can expect misinterpretations, but what I found a lot more exasperating was the assertion that since he was a left-leaning alternative country songwriter and a longtime veteran of a number of acts that his record should be speaking more to the social ills and issues of the time to have any sort of relevance, especially if it was as forward-looking as it was.

Now if you’ve heard Something More Than Free – and I highly recommend you do, it’s easily in my top five of the best records of 2015 – you’d know that wouldn’t remotely fit with the complicated and deeply personal thematic arcs underscoring the project, and that said projection was pretty damn short-sighted and ignorant. But then again, it’s not like said publication is known for its well-considered or well-articulated points on country music - and yet despite that, I get the impression Jason Isbell might have been listening. Granted, considering the current American political climate and the fact that Isbell was looking to kick some of the rock elements back in with the 400 Unit, that might have been inevitable, but he’s a canny enough artist to pivot when he needs to, or to make a point. Which, of course, said publication then called this album an one-note backslide in their review and called him more of a pop songwriter, even despite him doing exactly what they wanted, so maybe he shouldn’t have cared. Or maybe he doesn’t care at all and I shouldn’t either, and after all this is probably one of my most anticipated records of 2017, so fuck it: what did we get from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on The Nashville Sound?

video review: 'ctrl' by sza

By the Nine Hells, I should have had this review out and ready on Saturday... but again, SZA is one of those artists that's just difficult for me to cover well, apparently. GAH.

Okay, Jason Isbell is up next, and then Lorde - stay tuned!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

album review: 'ctrl' by sza

So I'll admit when I covered SZA's debut EP Z three years ago - although this looks like it was retroactively called a EP for branding purposes, given I remember considering it as a full-length debut as it was about forty minutes long - it was far from one of my best reviews. Part of the issue is that I wasn't really all that strong on it one way or the other - I really dug parts of the concept and the writing, but SZA's delivery and the oddly wonky and synth-heavy production left me feeling underwhelmed. And going back to the record now... you know, I might appreciate it a little more given my greater familiarity with alternative R&B, but that doesn't mean my issues with the fragmented and cavernous production or the guest stars that frequently eclipsed SZA had gone away. At the end of the day I was left feeling SZA was a compelling writer, but maybe a little more focus and refinement in the execution could bring things together better on a future project...

A project that didn't seem to be coming. Again, Z came out in 2014, and while SZA had contributed guest verses here and there - the most notable probably coming opposite RIhanna on ANTI last year, although she'd grace plenty of fellow TDE records - I was initially surprised that the follow-up took this long to get released. Maybe it had to deal with the fact that she was now signed to RCA, and when you factor in a major label you immediately lengthen timelines, but it also seemed like there was more rebranding going on: instead of being called A as advertised, it was retitled to Ctrl. And hey, that's not a bad thing, and if she had taken the time to get the production and execution issues worked out, I was curious how her writing would translate. So, given that this is her major label debut, what do we get from Ctrl?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

video review: 'heart break' by lady antebellum

So yeah, this happened... overall not a bad record, there are a couple good songs, but as I said in the review, if I remember most of this record, it's going to be surprising.

Anyway, next up I've got SZA and then a crop of reviews that I'm really excited about, so stay tuned!

album review: 'heart break' by lady antebellum

So I'm going to say something pretty controversial here, and I want you all to understand this is not coming from a place of disrespect. Long time fans know that while I've been critical of Lady Antebellum, it's more because I see tons of potential that just doesn't materialize as often as it should. And you should also all know that when Charles Kelley put out his solo record last year, two songs from that album made my year-end list of the best songs of 2016 - and one song, 'Leaving Nashville', topped that list, it was my favourite song of last year, across the board.

So now that you all have that context, let me say this: going into this record, I was convinced Lady Antebellum should have stayed on hiatus, or maybe just broken up entirely. As a group together, they always felt uneven to me, hitting some tremendous high points that balance emotional maturity and great harmonies, but it's always felt imbalanced to me, skewed towards Hillary Scott instead of an even balance between her and Kelley. And with that more middle-aged approach to country, catering a little more to the adult alternative crowd, I've expected the writing to build to a level of sophistication that just hasn't materialized in the same way. I know they're in their thirties and they're not Little Big Town - who are all in their forties and their music is starting to sound like it - but I started to get uneasy when I saw the main producer behind Heart Break is busbee. And don't get me wrong, he can be tolerable with the right people, but nearly always more on the younger, trendier pop country mold, which just struck me as the wrong fit for Lady Antebellum, and lead-off single 'You Look Good' didn't help my feelings. But hey, I was willing to give this something of a chance, so what did I find on Heart Break?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

video review: 'wolves' by rise against

Hoping to like this a little more, but eh, it's still pretty solid all the same.

Next up, some country (if you can even call it that...), so stay tuned!

album review: 'wolves' by rise against

I'll admit I came to Rise Against late.

I mean, I knew their singles, I knew they had a few really strong early records before one of a few 'sell-out' moments, depending who you talk to. I remember there was discussion surrounding how much you could take their very earnest political material, especially when they tended to paint broad strokes, or how as years wore on and the band seemed to fade from relevance with the rest of rock radio. Most of this I only discovered years after the fact... and yeah, while I have no qualms bucking against popular consensus, this tended to be true, with their first two records holding up to this day and while I've always admired their pop sensibility, you can't deny that it did starting coming through on records like Siren Song Of The Counter Culture and especially by Appeal To Reason.

That said, when I covered The Black Market with Jon over at ARTV back in 2014, I actually really liked it, more than I expected. It was an older, slower, more weary-feeling record, but it used that time to refine the compositions and writing to cut more deeply, and I stand by it being underrated to this day. Hell, I put 'People Live Here' on my year-end list of the best songs of 2014, and if that song showcases what can happen when Rise Against focus their material, I had some hopes going into their record this year called Wolves. And obviously it was going to be touching on the election last year - they're a political band, that was happening regardless - but what caught more of my interest is that they had parted ways with long-time producers Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore, thanks to a move to a new label. On this album they were working with Nick Raskulinecz, who has been behind records from Mastodon, Deftones, Korn, and that Ghost record before Meliora that nobody cares about - so okay, what did this mean for Rise Against?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 24, 2017

So yeah, another pretty rough week here... but on the plus side, I've got an interesting record on the docket next (in fact, a fair few of them) so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 24, 2017

Do you ever have the feeling looking at the Hot 100 that no matter what happens, it's not going to be a good week? Yeah, that was my gut feel going through the Hot 100 this week - which yes, did slow down a bit as things settle in for the summer with no major releases, but at the same time, looking at some of these new arrivals... well, we'll get to it.

Monday, June 12, 2017

video review: 'witness' by katy perry

So this was lousy - actually a bit worse than I was expecting too, more because it's just a slog. Eh, it happens...

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and I have no clue what'll come after- stay tuned!

album review: 'witness' by katy perry

Does anyone else think that Katy Perry is trying way too hard?

Now that's a pretty harsh statement to make about any artist, but I've been considering the adage of while a good artist pushes their artistic boundaries, a truly great artist pushes while understanding their strengths and limitations, and I'm not sure Katy Perry does. I might have issues with One Of The Boys and Teenage Dream, but they worked for shallow, frequently ridiculous and and stupid pop music - and I don't mean that to denigrate it, believe it or not. Great pop doesn't necessarily need a lot of brains if the melody, color, and charisma is there, and while I'd make the argument Perry has always had more volume and presence than actual charisma or sex appeal, looking back there are some singles I can appreciate around the turn of the decade.

Then Prism happened, and while it was one of my very early reviews in 2013, I mostly stand by it. Katy Perry was trying to split the difference between tasteless sex appeal that forced way too many double entendres, and heartfelt power ballads where she just did not have the presence or intensity to compensate for weak writing. And when she split the difference... the most we got were mid-80s inspired synthpop grooves that Tegan & Sara had already done better earlier in the year. What was disheartening about the whole affair is that Katy Perry was very plainly trying, there was effort on display, and to see her repeatedly stumble was tough to hear.

So after taking some time to collect herself, tour with Kacey Musgraves to refine her writing chops, and connect with Hillary Clinton's political campaign to attempt to add weight to increasingly hollow anthems, we have a new album from Katy Perry. And I'll be blunt: I did not expect this to be good. 'Chained To The Rhythm' has only felt more myopic and self-serving with every listen, 'Swish Swish' has nowhere close to the impact it thinks it has, and 'Bon Appetit' was staggeringly misconceived in every way - and Katy Perry is a singles artist, so if this is what she's leading with, I was genuinely worried this would suck - does it?

video review: 'wrangled' by angaleena presley

About damn time I got to this one... and not the only review dropping tonight, so stay tuned!

album review: 'wrangled' by angaleena presley

So as I've said a number of times recently, country is at a bit of a crossroads moment right now. Between the generally inoffensive pop country, the neotraditional and Texas tones picking up market share, the insurgent indie scene, and whatever sterile garbage Nashville is churning out to try and recapture a bro-country audience that has mostly stopped listening, the mainstream could tilt in many different directions and there hasn't been a lot of clarity where the chips will fall. But in the aftermath of bro-country's collapse, there is something that needs to be addressed: if you're looking for women on mainstream radio, you're going to be left in the cold. It's not saying that there aren't a few mainstream success stories - Kelsea Ballerini, Lauren Alaina and Maren Morris playing to the pop crowd, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert continuing to mostly chalk up hits as veterans - but especially when you look at the indie crossovers, I'm a little perplexed why we haven't seen that woman who can stand up with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, or Sturgill Simpson. Because these indie acts definitely exist - hell, I've covered a fair few of them, along with the artists who have a mainstream sound and could easily have radio presence if given the chance.

Take, say, Angaleena Presley. A member of the Pistol Annies along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, with her 2014 solo debut American Middle Class she won over critics in droves. And I dearly wish that I had covered it three years ago, because of the Pistol Annies while Miranda Lambert sanded back her edge for the mainstream and Ashley Monroe played to restraint, Angaleena Presley didn't have any compunctions embracing her inner hellraiser, her production more ramshackle and grimy to match writing that didn't mince words in its cutting approach to small town Americana. Kacey Musgraves might get cute about it, and Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna might showcase complicated melancholy, but there was intelligent fury and venom from Presley that was willing to get nastier. And let's be real, despite good connections conservative country radio tends to get very skittish with this sort of content, especially considering Presley never played as broad and accessible as Lambert or Carrie Underwood in her delivery or writing. And yet fast-forward to 2017: with the indie doors broken open these days for mainstream crossover, I have to admit I was a little surprised her second album Wrangled wasn't inspiring more conversation beyond the indie critical set, especially if it was at all comparable in quality to American Middle Class. So despite being late to the punch, I dug in - what did I find?