Thursday, June 30, 2016

album review: 'case/lang/veirs' by case/lang/veirs

I've talked before about team-up records and the very delicate balance that so many have to take. Ideally you want a synthesis, where everything comes together into one glorious whole that leverages the strengths of all three acts while minimizing the weaknesses. And let me stress how rare it is this actually works - more often than not one artist overshadows the other or they don't have chemistry or the entire experiment ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

That's when you have two artists - it gets even more complex when you have three, and yet enter case/lang/veirs. For those who are confused, case/lang/veirs is a concatenation of three artists' last names, all three female singer-songwriters who have amassed a pretty amount of critical acclaim: k.d. lang, Neko Case, and Laura Veirs. If you're only familiar with the mainstream, the name you probably recognize the most is k.d. lang and her signature song 'Constant Craving' as a part of the mini-wave of Canadian female singer-songwriters that got big in the 90s like Alanis Morrissette. Now if your frame of reference for female Canadian indie songwriters skews a little later, you probably recognize Neko Case, member of the New Pornographers and critically acclaimed in her own right. The last artist you probably don't know as well unless you know your underground indie folk, but Laura Veirs has actually worked with Neko Case in the past, and she also put out a stream of well-received singer-songwriter records in the 2000s. Now keep in mind that all of these women come from very different sides of indie rock and folk: Neko Case has always been on the rougher side of alternative country and Americana, k.d. lang started in a similar area but has also made pop and even collaborated with Tony Bennett, and Laura Veirs plays more to the ramshackle, smoked out ethereal side of folk rock that guarantees I'll be digging through her discography with rabid abandon the second I get some spare time. With all of that in mind, though, I can see the intersection point and why they'd want to work together, so what does this collaboration give us?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

video review: 'peach panther' by riff raff

Well, this album sucked. I know, should have expected it, but still, this was a miserable listen.

Next up, though... case/lang/veirs and then the midyear review, so stay tuned!

album review: 'peach panther' by riff raff

Okay, originally I was expecting this weekend to be a lot worse in terms of releases. I think I mentioned it on Billboard BREAKDOWN that there were also new albums from Rae Sremmurd and Iggy Azalea, which promised to be two records of continuous migraine, but since their lead-off singles have flopped, they've both delayed into later in the summer. And this leaves us with only the most courageous hip-hop artist to drop a record this past weekend... and I can't even finish that sentence.

Hell, I don't even know why I'm reviewing this. In the pantheon of joke rappers, I don't tend to have a lot of respect for Riff Raff, who basically has one joke in being an over-the-top caricature/parody of modern hip-hop, which becomes less of a joke when you realize that most of modern hip-hop is already there! And let's be honest, thanks to the Internet we've got no short supply of rappers who have better bars, production, and jokes than Riff Raff does, from The Lonely Island to Epic Rap Battles. That is unless you're taking Riff Raff seriously in a Lil B vein, but if we're going by 'so weird/bad it's good', Riff Raff isn't that far away from conventional hip-hop that I can use that excuse. As to whether Riff Raff takes himself seriously... well, there's a part of me that thinks he does with zero self-awareness and that's more sad than anything, but at the end of the day the music has to deliver, and it rarely does.

So why talk about this? Well, call it morbid curiosity more than anything. Somehow Riff Raff keeps getting guest stars that you wouldn't expect a rapper of his status to bring on, and I do hold that when it comes to stupid-as-hell bangers 'Kokayne' is ridiculously fun. In other words, even if he's on the edge of pop culture, he keeps popping up. So I figured what the hell and I checked out Peach Panther - was it any good?

video review: 'the glowing man' by swans

An absolutely punishing listen, but so worth it for the absolutely killer thematic resonance and some incredible moments.

But on the topic of punishing... well, stay tuned.

album review: 'the glowing man' by swans

This will reportedly be Swans' final album.

Or at least this incarnation of the group, which reformed after their first breakup in 1997 in 2010, working to push out some of the most massive and primeval music created in experimental rock. Because while there are very few groups I cover that I would consider impossible for mainstream listeners to appreciate, Swans is daunting even for me, known less for sane song structures than mammoth ten minute plus compositions that pile on layers of instrumentation to create thunderous crescendos and grooves. There are very few groups that dare to approach their scope and power, and while they might have been a tad more accessible in the late-80s and 90s thanks to a stronger melodic presence, which led to masterpieces like Children Of God and The Great Annihilator, in recent years the scale of their focus has led to behemoths of sound. This culminated in 2014 with To Be Kind, their largest ever work and was critically acclaimed by many - including myself - as one of the best records of that year, which further brought in a thematic focus on how a child might experience the huge emotions of the world. Swans mastermind Michael Gira has described the record's goal as ecstasy, but when engorged to such colossal scale, it's easy to see how unsettling the huge emotions might seem to anyone else.

But where do you go after such an effort? To Be Kind was the sort of high water mark that Swans had already hit twice before, but there has to be a limit to that sort of scale, you can only push crushing instrumental layers and growth so far. And as such, while I heard that Swans were - necessarily - going to be dialing the insane crescendos back a bit for The Glowing Man, how would they hit the same impact?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 9, 2016 (VIDEO)

Yeah, I know, I've been a tad late on videos over the past few days. Part of that is getting into the groove of vacation, part of it is deciphering this Swans record. And speaking of which... well, stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 9, 2016

So last week was one of the worst I'd seen on the Billboard Hot 100 in a long time - it was genuinely disheartening trying to put that episode together, pretty painful all things considered. But the good thing about hitting rock bottom is that you can always recover, and while I wouldn't say everything clicked on the Hot 100 here, I do see signs of improvement that should definitely be called out.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

video review: 'california sunrise' by jon pardi

Eh, you need guys like Jon Pardi making music, even if I wasn't really wild about this. Someone give this guy a sharper pen or a drive to experiment a little more, he's got the right textures, all he needs are the melodies.

Anyway, next is probably Swans, but that might take more time to fully process. Stay tuned!

album review: 'california sunrise' by jon pardi

You ever have one of those artists that on paper seems to check off every single box, seems to be the sort of artist you'd automatically support, who may have even come out in a time where he was a breath of fresh air and a welcome surprise to everything and everyone else around him... and you're just not a fan?

Well, for me and modern, 'mainstream' country, California artist Jon Pardi was that person - mostly because on the surface he was decidedly not mainstream! His debut album Write You A Song, released in early 2014 in the wave of interchangeable bro-country was actually very much a neotraditional country record in its composition and presentation. And yet, given that I wasn't all that won over by his voice or his songwriting, which had an odd presumptuous air to it that kind of made the romantic tracks feel a little hollow and shallow, I would only ever say the record was decent, far from the savior of the mainstream for which a few critics lauded him.

But I'll admit artists can evolve and grow over the course of a few records, and considering how much critical appraisal Pardi has received, I figured I might as well give him another chance. After all, with the increasing rise of sterile pop country, maybe getting a slice of rougher, more rustic tones would click more strongly. Who knows, I just saw a major improvement from YG from his debut two years ago that I found underwhelming, so maybe two times the charm?

video review: 'still brazy' by yg

Well, this was pretty interesting. Not a great release, but definitely a good one, recommended.

Still need more time for Swans, though, so let's handle Jon Pardi - stay tuned!

album review: 'still brazy' by yg

It's kind of amazing how much hip-hop has mutated over the past two years, isn't it?

Because if you look at the current hip-hop sound, it's in a weird place: a little more organic and melodic, drenched in autotune and trap hi-hats, and sitting in a weird place where any rapper with the slightest amount of buzz online or on Vine can blow up, especially in the mainstream. And yet if you go back just two years, while those trap trends were there, it was a very different sound that was dominant, minimalist and more touching a bass-heavy West Coast sound driven most by the LA producer DJ Mustard. 

Now let's be clear, his star has faded a lot, but if you want to find the rapper at the epicenter of his sound, look no further than YG, who released his debut album My Krazy Life that year. Before then he was most well-known for the oh-so-charming 'Toot It And Boot It' from back in 2010, but YG took his ground-level Compton gangsta rap to new heights working with DJ Mustard's stripped down synths and production. And I'll admit I was very hard on that record, but for good reason - he got shown up by a significant chunk of his big name guest stars, his own content was inconsistent and rarely treading new ground, and even if it was, doing the bare minimum in production didn't elevate the record to anything all that special for me. I can appreciate the street-level gangsta's view in Compton, but again, it really did feel like he was doing the bare minimum.

And then something happened. I'm not sure what it was, but the YG features I started hearing were getting measurably stronger in terms of flow, content, and even subtext. And given he ditched DJ Mustard completely for his sophomore album Still Brazy, I had to hope that maybe he could pull off a stronger release - was I right?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 2, 2016 (VIDEO)

So this week sucked on the Hot 100... thank god the album release schedule has improved and I've got YG and Swans next, or I'd just be flat-out miserable.

And speaking of which...

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 2, 2016

So a week or so back I might have said that I was gearing up for one of the worst upcoming album release dates in recent memory... and yet just days after I said that, all of my concerns seemed to drop away. Both Iggy Azalea and Rae Sremmurd pushed back their albums and that just leaves me with Riff Raff, and I can handle him. But apparently the universe was unwilling to let me get off that easy, because from a quick look through the charts, we've got a really bad week ahead of us, folks.

Monday, June 20, 2016

video review: 'the getaway' by red hot chili peppers

I'm actually genuinely curious how people receive this record, given the stylistic departures in the production. Overall... eh, it's decent, but I do wish it was better.

Next up, probably YG or Swans, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the getaway' by red hot chili peppers

You know, in nearly six hundred reviews, I don't think I've ever talked about the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Now, part of that is that they haven't released an album in a couple of years and they're a considerable distance out of their heyday, but on some level, what is there to say? I've yet to find a person who seriously dislikes the band and their genre-pushing blend of alternative rock, rap rock and funk, and while I'd never say they made classic albums, they sure as hell kept up a steady stream of singles that have always been a ton of fun. I always found it a little interesting that they managed to chug through the 80s with very little success before blowing up for a solid two decades and becoming rock staples. And yet with that in mind, while I can definitely say I like this band, I'd never say they were one of my favourites or that we need more Red Hot Chili Peppers material, it's not like their string of classic songs in the 90s and 2000s are going anywhere.

But you can tell in the post-Frusciante years that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are not simply content to rest on their laurels, first putting out a pretty decent record in 2011 with Josh Klinghoffer on guitar. But even that didn't seem like enough, so after a collection of EPs and live albums, they left longtime producer Rick Rubin to try something different for their newest record The Getaway, enlisting Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse. Now I've had mixed experiences with Danger Mouse in recent years - a few good, but most underwhelming - but I had no idea how his style would meld with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have tended to be a wilder, more colorful group than he'd usually work with. In other words, I was definitely willing to give The Getaway a chance - so what did we get?

video review: 'wanderlust' by little big town

So yeah, this was lousy. Go figure...

Anyway, Red Hot Chili Peppers next, so stay tuned!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

album review: 'wanderlust' by little big town

The release of this album should not be as controversial as it is.

And make no mistake, it's been controversial - which is always kind of bizarre considering Little Big Town is not a band you would expect to court controversy. But between 'Girl Crush' last year and the lead-up to this release, this group has somehow wound up in the headlines more than you'd ever expect. But then again, given how consistently Little Big Town has been compared to Fleetwood Mac, another mixed gender group that has been steadily sliding across genres, it's not that surprising. Their 2014 release Pain Killer was considered by many critics to be analogous to Tusk in its genre-bending and experimentation - most of which fell flat courtesy of Jay Joyce's overdone production.

And yet thanks to the success of 'Girl Crush', Little Big Town were bigger than ever and attracted a producer not exactly known for country: Pharrell Williams, one of the big names behind The Neptunes in the 2000s and nowadays known for his work on The Voice and the song 'Happy', which absolutely ruled 2014. So in between a series of trips between LA and Nashville and even a quick collaboration with Justin Timberlake, they put out a quick breezy record that the band themselves made very clear wasn't country at all. And let me blunt: that's fine, I was fully confident the band would sound fine in a pop context, and I'm not going to blame them because desperate country radio programmers would be plugging their songs in regardless. And if they wanted to dash out a quick side project that would be their version of Fleetwood Mac's Mirage - although you have to hope it's better than that record - I was certainly curious. So how did Wanderlust turn out?

video review: 'big day in a small town' by brandy clark

Again, this review took longer than it should have to get finished off, but it's still here - and it's a damn great album too, definitely check it out if you haven't yet.

Next up... Little Big Town's pop album. Joy. I'll get through that before RHCP, so stay tuned!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

album review: 'big day in a small town' by brandy clark

It should not be as easy to overlook Brandy Clark as it seems to be.

Now that's a bit of a weird statement, especially if you've coming from the country underground and have heard her name praised to high heavens, especially for her solo debut 12 Stories in 2013 that was easily one of the best albums of that year... and yet I bet if you mentioned her to your average country fan, you'd be lucky to find anyone who recognizes her name. And that genuinely sucks, because Brandy Clark isn't just one of the smartest and most nuanced songwriters in modern country, known for racking up credits behind Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and even Reba McEntire, but also a powerful performer in her own right with a stunning voice and real stage presence. The word of the game is subtlety - Kacey Musgraves might be a little flashier, and arguably a little catchier, but Brandy Clark brought real gravitas and grounded humanity to much of her material that tended to stick with you. Sadly, she's also reached forty, which means the image-obsessed mainstream country radio wants nothing to do with her, and even her label's stabs at pushing her to towards the mainstream have been ignored. And this strikes me as completely asinine, because one of the special things about country is that it can play to an older demographic to whom Brandy Clark would probably be a huge breath of fresh air!

But putting aside the marketing, it does look like Brandy Clark's career is gaining traction - she landed one of the best songs on the instant classic Southern Family compilation from Dave Cobb, and she landed as an opening act for Eric Church, who seems to be working overtime to restore his indie country cred with both a great album and pulling underrated talent on tour. And with Brandy Clark, she's even joined by producer Jay Joyce, who also seems to be working overtime on reputation repair. Now I'll admit I've softened on Joyce a bit - it was clear he was the biggest factor to keeping quality with Cage The Elephant, and his work with Brothers Osborne and Eric Church over the past eight months has been considerably stronger - but I wasn't sure how well he'd balance with Brandy Clark's voice, and let's face it: he's no Dave Cobb. But that didn't mean I wasn't going to cover a sophomore album that was bound to be great, so I dug into Big Day In A Small Town - what did I find?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

video review: 'the human condition' by jon bellion

The real miracle is that there are songs on this record that work at all, let alone that one of them might just be one of the best of the year. Not kidding, even if you don't want to try this record, 'Hand Of God' is something incredible.

Next up, I need to give Brandy Clark her due, so stay tuned!