Wednesday, June 28, 2017

album review: 'the underside of power' by algiers

I remember covering Algiers' self-titled debut two years ago, and I remember the most prominent thought running through my head: since the dawn of post-punk and noise rock in the late 70s, it should not have taken this long to get a record like this. I think part of this was inevitable thanks to the internet and the rampant cross-pollination of genres, but still, it's not like there weren't common throughlines that could have enabled more of this fusion of the noisy grind of post-punk with a raw blend of gospel, soul and blues. Sure, there had been those who brought in more of a gothic or symphonic sound to the scene, but this was different, black Southern gothic in a much different but no less potent tradition, backed by the utterly fearsome vocals and writing of Franklin James Fisher. And it was the sort of fully formed debut that of course landed a spot on multiple of my year lists for songs and albums, but really the potential represented by this band was far more thrilling, and not just because when hip-hop looking to sample gospel finds out this exists, it's going to cause a sea change.

No, what drew more of my attention was knowing that their sophomore project The Underside Of Power was going to necessarily get political, and this should not surprise anybody. Much of their debut painted them as harbingers of doom and a brand of violence that only even perceived between the lines of those not willing to look - and that's before we even get the exceedingly well-framed and frighteningly relevant racial commentary - but given what happened last year... yeah, I had the feeling gloves were coming off. And considering the mountains of critical acclaim this record has received already, I was really excited for this. So what did we find in The Underside of Power?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 8, 2017 (VIDEO)


Well, this was interesting enough of a week... not exactly a great one, but still kind of fascinating how it split down the middle between solid to great songs and absolute shit.

Anyway, think I'm about ready for Algiers, and after that... well, we'll see, so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 8, 2017

In retrospect, maybe I expected way too much from the American public. Granted, I think I've been saying that for most of the past two years, but in this case it's particularly - and for the most part confined to the United States, I should. Because when I made the prediction that Lorde topping the sales charts with Melodrama on the Billboard 200 album charts meant that she'd have something that'd cross over... well, even despite the lack of an obvious pop single, it's not like anything on Pure Heroine was an easy crossover either. And yet, not a single new song from Lorde on the Hot 100, and only one on the Bubbling Under charts - for perspective, Canada had four, and do I even need to say the catchphrase anymore before I decide to get it printed on merch?

Monday, June 26, 2017

video review: 'saturation' by BROCKHAMPTON


So yeah, I'm not quite as crazy on this as I want to be, but overall it's still very likable, so check it out!

Next up... I'm going to see if I can squeeze both a review and Billboard BREAKDOWN in tomorrow, so stay tuned!

album review: 'saturation' by BROCKHAMPTON

So I think it's safe to say that music criticism is heading into a new era - and no, I'm not talking about the poptimism movement or the rise of awful thinkpiece criticism, I'm looking more at a shift in influence and power. Because if you go back to the mid-60s, there were names of music critics that stood out and helped to break acts, at least before the rise of major zines and music publications, where the individual critic got subsumed or in some cases actively de-emphasized.

That seems to be changing, and to be fair with the rise of the blogosphere you could have seen it coming. The Internet led to the democratization of music criticism but with the rise of YouTube and the critical personality it almost seems like we've come full circle. But whereas plenty of people can make an album review and a much smaller group can develop with the right persistence to make it something lucrative, we're now seeing the rise of critics with enough of a following that they can break acts through their reviews much in the way Pitchfork or the Village Voice or Rolling Stone used to.

Because let's be brutally honest: you guys wouldn't have asked for me to cover Saturation by BROCKHAMPTON, this Texas hip-hop collective with only one mixtape dropped last year that flew under the majority of radars, if it hadn't been for Anthony Fantano's effusive praise. Now to me that's not a bad thing - beyond the whole #TeamInternet thing it's a really great thing to see Anthony succeed and set benchmarks for where music critics can be on YouTube, but it's also good because we tend to share somewhat similar tastes in hip-hop. And while I wasn't really all that impressed by what I heard from BROCKHAMPTON's first project All-American Trash last year, I found their structure as a 'boy band collective' - their words not mine - to be at least interesting, so I figured I'd give Saturation a listen. What did I find?

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