Friday, December 9, 2016

album review: 'dear life' by high valley

So it's been a while since I've talked about Canadian country music - which yes, is a thing and I'm still a little bewildered why people act so surprised when I mention that. Folks, we have open plains, the Boots N' Hearts festival and the Calgary stampede - it might be a very regional thing up here, but we do have a big market for country music.

But just like the rest of Canadian music, Canadian country is a little different. It's probably best to see it as a similar ecosystem to Texas country in comparison with Nashville - we might import a fair bit, but there are some unique traditions and sounds that we've cultivated up here. For one, there's more of a balance, as Canadian country didn't just embrace bro-country outside of a few artists. We kept something of our neotraditional scene alive, the country rock scene flourishes about as much as the rest of rock in Canada - in other words, better than you'd expect - and of course we've got our own indie country material. Hell, I reviewed Lucette back in 2014, and her last album was a prime example of that sort of folk-touched sound that we also saw with the excellent case/lang/veirs project this year - in comparison with more American folk it's a little more atmospheric and spacious and rough-edged.

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, and that takes us to High Valley, a duo of brothers from Blumenort, Alberta, and I've actually talked about them before when I discussed their breakout single 'Make You Mine' in my roundup of the Canadian Hot 100 last year. Now they've actually been active since the late 2000s on independent labels, but the success of that single - featuring Ricky Skaggs and which has been tacked onto the American release of this album, which I'll be covering - was enough to land them on Atlantic, with the majority of the songs cowritten by the duo themselves. And look, it's hard not to see labels preparing to pitch them as an earthier, less-polished version of Florida Georgia Line, but I had hope these guys could clean up with some great harmonies to boot, especially given how good 'Make You Mine' is. So was I right?

video review: 'HERE' by alicia keys

I can't help but think Fantano was somewhat right in how mature this record is, but normally maturity feels a bit more grounded than I think this album is, which is a tad disappointing. Eh, it's got a few choice cuts, but not much.

Next up, though... whoo boy, this was fun. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

album review: 'HERE' by alicia keys

I have to admit, when voters on Patreon asked for this record in particular, I was a little stunned that there was any interest.

And I think that's on me, really, mostly because I've never really been incredibly interesting in Alicia Keys. I tend to know her more for her singles than her albums - although her first two records Songs In A Minor and The Diary Of Alicia Keys really are quite strong - and from those singles, she never struck me as the sort of artist that would really captivate me. Don't get me wrong, she has an incredible voice and is a good melodic composer, but that's where a lot of my praise tends to end, mostly because her midperiod work showed exactly where things could slip off the rails. As I Am slid towards some frustrating writing tropes that alternated between clunky and juvenile, The Element Of Freedom really felt overproduced - even if I do have a soft spot for 'Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart' - and Girl On Fire, while having a few good moments did ultimately suffer from both problems albeit to a slightly lesser extent. And this is all ignoring the biggest issue, namely that for as good of a singer as she is, I've never been wowed by the songwriting, which never seems to take the chances that she could and can definitely slip towards cliche. And at this point in her career going into her sixth album fifteen years in, I had to hope there'd be a little more experimentation - was I right?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 17, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this took entirely too long to finish editing... go figure, but man, so many songs that'll be gone in a day or two...

But anyway, next up is, well, it surprised me. Stay tuned!

video review: "awaken, my love!" by childish gambino

So this record was a trip... not precisely great, I really do wish I liked it more, but still interesting, that's for damn sure.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN and then an album that I would have ignored if not for Patreon... so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 17, 2016

I called it last week, and now here it is. Folks, this is the week of The Weeknd, because of at this moment, every single song from his album Starboy either entered, re-entered, or rose up the Hot 100 this week. That's a total of eighteen songs - and what's all the more crazy is that he didn't encompass every debut this week, thank you so very much Disney. And what concerns me more than anything is overexposure - that's one of the biggest factors that lies at the roots of how much I turned on Drake throughout this last year... so let's hope this doesn't hit The Weeknd as badly as I might expect.

Monday, December 5, 2016

album review: "awaken, my love!" by childish gambino

I feel like I have a complicated relationship with Childish Gambino.

Hell, I get the feeling a lot of critics do, mostly because it's so damn rare to see an artist leap so fully formed and relentlessly talented across genres and indeed entire mediums. Whether you know him from his comedy sketches to his writing work on 30 Rock to the cult classic Community to his soon-to-be classic show Atlanta, he's a man of extraordinary talent, and that's before we get to his stand-up or his work as a musician and songwriter. 

But if I'm also being brutally honest, I feel I should like his music a lot more than I do. The odd blend of styles and production - most outside of his mixtapes which are done in-house with producer Ludwig Goransson - that are present in his music often juxtapose with lyrics that often feel intensely personal or eclectic. There's an defined artistic style and voice that's always been present, that will then veer in unexpected directions made from a pastiche of indie music, southern hip-hop, and bizarre pop culture references, all amidst a creative mind that's incredibly ambitious but also painfully self-aware. Relistening to his debut Camp and his much-lauded follow-up Because The Internet will give you plenty of evidence why Childish Gambino is a compelling presence behind the microphone as a charismatic rapper and singer... but between his cartoonish exaggerations that occasionally slide towards campiness, often masking deeper wells of rage and self-loathing, and a genuine feeling of earnestness that can either hit transcendence or deeply felt awkwardness, he comes across as the sort of precocious yet driven creator who is not afraid to aim high, overshare, hit big and miss hard. And those sorts of chances and effort are inspiring and powerful stuff, something I can relate to on a certain level - I just wish his aesthetic and craftsmanship of his sound and narratives worked better for me.

And that was my big concern going into "Awaken, My Love!" - mostly because while I admired his lead-off singles, I didn't love the sound or artistic choices. But again, I was only seeing fragments of the story, I had to hope the whole project - his shortest in some time - would have the focus and clarity to work - was I right?

video review: 'kodama' by alcest

I'm happy I finally got the chance to cover this one. Entirely too late, of course, but still, it really was something solid, I enjoyed this. 

Of course, it's not the only record I'm covering tonight, so stay tuned!

album review: 'kodama' by alcest

So if you've been following my spiraling journey through black metal, one thing you've probably noticed is that I tend towards the more melodic and atmospheric brand of it - honestly, probably what I would recommend for most listeners trying to get into the genre. At the end of the day, I'm a junkie for great melody and tunes, and the black metal I tend to like falls in this vein.

And thus, it was only a matter of time before I had to talk about Alcest, the French experimental metal project that many consider one of the pioneering bands of the 'blackgaze' scene, blending black metal textures with shoegaze. And I'll admit while I'm not a huge shoegaze fan, early on I liked a lot of what I heard from Alcest. Even though in comparison with so many of their peers they weren't writing incredibly dark or bleak songs, there was a knack for melodic composition that I just found stunning, especially their debut album Souvenirs d'un autre monde - hell, I actually liked it more than their follow-up Ecailles de Lune. But it has always seemed like Alcest was much more drawn to the more ethereal, soaring tones that came with post-rock or shoegaze, and with each successive album the black metal tones receded more and more, before their 2014 album Shelter discarded them altogether.

in other words, there was a significant part of me that wasn't really interested in hearing more - I saw what happened when Opeth left black and death metal for old school progressive rock, and that was at least a genre I knew and understood more. And yet when I heard that Alcest's Kodama this year was actually pivoting back to black metal, reportedly inspired by the Hayao Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, I was intrigued. As much as their shift in sound could frustrate me, they did write interesting material, so I wanted to check this out - and thanks to Patreon votes, I now can. So what did we get from Kodama?

Friday, December 2, 2016

video review: 'sirens' by nicolas jaar

Well, this took way too long to get to... but I'm happy I did. Who knows if it would have clicked better before the election, but honestly, I doubt it - the sound has to hold up.

Beyond that, though... well, the schedule can shift any time, but I've got another long-overdue project next, so I'll be covering that. Stay tuned!

album review: 'sirens' by nicolas jaar

I say every year that I hope to cover more electronic music... and yet somehow, in the last few months of the year, I find myself catching up with the acts that I really should have covered months ago - hence why it has taken so long to get to this review.

And it's not like this album hasn't been on my schedule for some time. I may not have been talking much about music when Nicolas Jaar's critically adored debut album Space Is Only Noise dropped in 2011, but when I did start getting requests to cover him as early as 2015, where he reentered the spotlight courtesy of a few EPs and soundtrack albums. And when I went back to Space Is Only Noise, I actually really liked it. The slightly askew melodies, the vocal snippets against scant flutters of glitch, the intense intimacy of every bit of percussion, the haunted vocals, the odd sense of groove it had, it was a weird as hell record, but it had the sort of ridiculous poise and confidence that made Jaar seem like a veteran effortlessly crossing and blending styles. Again, like most electronica I cover, I will not say it's for everyone - too slow and diffuse to really dance to, not nearly as abrasive as more experimental producers tend to fly, not as melodic to build to consistent vibes, but not so spacious where it slips towards ambient music. This is music at the intersection of a lot of ideas, a fair few of them weird, and while they didn't all quite work for me on Space Is Only Noise - some of those melodic shifts and vocal samples were something else - I was definitely curious to check out Sirens, especially given how much critical acclaim was dumped on it. And thanks to consistent Patreon votes, it's now finally got its chance to shine - is it worth it?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

video review: 'three' by phantogram

Well, it took WAY too long to get to this, but I'm happy I got a chance to talk about it regardless, one of the fascinating cases that I wish I liked more than I did. Sort of like Radiohead, in a weird way...

And on the topic of electronica... well, stay tuned!

album review: 'three' by phantogram

Well, it's about time I talk about this.

In fact, I'm a little bewildered why it has taken me this long. Sure, I've been busy and there's been no shortage at all of more records that are flooding the last few weeks of the year, but I have to admit a certain disinterest in this record. Part of this is because I covered Phantogram's last album Voices in 2014 and didn't really care for it - but even that's not really true, from what I remember. And that's the bigger problem, I had to go back to my last review to recall anything about that record, and even a quick relisten didn't stick much with me, mostly because it felt like the poppier nature of the writing didn't really fit well with the darker, fuzzier electronic production and didn't flatter their stronger melodies.

And yet despite everything, the critical reviews have been mixed to positive on this album, including from some people I respect a great deal. They said it went louder and heavier and brought in more bombast - which okay, that could be promising if the writing and delivery picked up the slack - so I left on my schedule. And thus thanks to voting on Patreon, it somehow wound up on top of said schedule, so what the hell - how did Three by Phantogram turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 10, 2016 (VIDEO)

So this video was longer than usual... and actually really great, I dug the hell out of this! Two good weeks in a row... man, if only I had any hope we could keep this up, 2017 has some real potential to be a damn good year.

In the mean time, let's take care of old business next, shall we? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 10, 2016

So this week was a little weird. Not just because we started getting tracks from The Weeknd earlier than expected - I'm imagining next week to be just overloaded - but we got some big surprises all over the place, including a few artists I have not thought about or talked about in years. That, at the very least promised to make things interesting - note that I didn't precisely say good, although there really was some promise here.

Monday, November 28, 2016

video review: 'you can't kill us' by icon for hire

Well, this happened... my god, I wish this was so much better, especially as their first independent release. Instead, we got an only decent record combining the most frustrating elements from their last two records and none of the justifications. Joy.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

album review: 'you can't kill us' by icon for hire

This will be a bit of a weird review - and not just because I have a history with this band, but also because hindsight is one of those things that can shift one's opinion on an act pretty dramatically. 

And as much as I don't like to admit it, Icon For Hire often falls into that camp for me, mostly because they can be a difficult band to really categorize. Many people thought when they signed to Tooth & Nail - a Christian label - that they'd fall into that disreputable subgenre of badly produced crap, but Icon For Hire actually rose a fair bit above their contemporaries to make some pretty solid alternative rock and metal, with a knack for solid writing, good hooks, and the tremendous talents of frontwoman Ariel. They infused a lot more pop and hip-hop elements into their self-titled - basically to satirize all of them - and I liked that record so much in 2013 that it ended up on my top 25 albums of that year. In retrospect... I'm not at all certain I could justify it on that list now, mostly because the production the label gave them was pretty flat. Their producer Mike Green had worked with Pierce The Veil and Paramore - which has been a comparison that has been made with Icon For Hire their entire careers and not exactly a promising one - but it did not help that record and it has aged pretty poorly.

And then everything went to shit. They ran into serious conflicts with their label - probably because they've always kept Christian subject matter at arm's length, which was probably smart - went independent, and dropped an EP back in 2015... that got some polarized reactions for 'Now You Know', which railed hard against music industry sexism. And yeah, I appreciate the bluntness of the message and the deeper attempts at subtext, but the delivery did not work - Ariel's less-melodic rapped delivery, the grating synths, the flat production, it did no service to an important message. And when you hear they funded their new album through Kickstarter, raising over a hundred thousand dollars to get Mike Green back and pull it together... look, deep down I still like this group, and they've written strong hooks and smart songs, I wanted to really like this. Did You Can't Kill Us deliver?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

video review: 'the weight of these wings' by miranda lambert

Well, this took entirely too long to finish - go figure, when you have a double album that's ninety minutes and feels twice as long, but still, I had more hopes for this.

Next up... whoo boy, stay tuned!

album review: 'the weight of these wings' by miranda lambert

There's no way to get into this record without talking about the expected controversy. And don't pretend like you didn't know it was coming - hell, I bet a significant chunk of country listeners will pick up this project solely because they want to get to the roots of it all, hear the other side of the story that was only mentioned in passing on her ex-husband's record earlier this year.

For me, it ran a little deeper. I've gone on the record about being a Miranda Lambert fan for some time, and while her last record Platinum in 2014 was an overlong and frustrating listen, I knew in my gut The Weight Of These Wings would be something else entirely. Let's face it, we've heard plenty of albums from the person getting cheated on, but outside of very specific songs in R&B, you don't get many from the 'cheater', especially if it's well-framed to explore the consequences. And yeah, that leaves the very open question of what Miranda did or did not do that triggered the divorce, but from the lead-off single 'Vice' it made things clear that moral ambiguity would be the biggest story behind The Weight Of These Wings. And even that is saying something, given that it was a double album of twenty-four songs - always a risky proposition - and that her direction was taking her closer to the exploding indie country scene than the mainstream - hell, her appearance on Southern Family  was evidence in and of itself where she wanted to take her sound. And in a banner year for women in country music, I wanted to make sure I gave this album all the time it needed to really sink in? So what did we get with The Weight Of These Wings?

Friday, November 25, 2016

video review: 'starboy' by the weeknd yeah, I definitely wish this was a lot better. It's not bad - 'False Alarm' pretty much redeems this record on its merit alone - but I was hoping for more in that vein or at least some sharper, more interesting writing and we didn't get that.

And on a similar topic... well, stay tuned!