Monday, September 26, 2016

video review: 'mud' by whiskey myers

Well, working on this was certainly preferable to the damn debate - didn't stop me from live-tweeting what happened from Twitter and whoo boy, Trump did not appear to have a good time according to every media outlet I follow (and spoilers, if you don't like me talking politics for the next month, you might want to venture away - it's going to get wild). 

Still, wish the record was better. Moving on, I've got Mick Jenkins, Shawn Mendes, How To Dress Well, and a fair few more, so stay tuned!

album review: 'mud' by whiskey myers

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one.

See, I don't talk a lot about southern rock in this series, basically because for as much as I like the sound I tend to be more of a fan of either country or outright blues rock. Don't get me wrong, the blend in the middle tends to be appealing, but it's also a narrow fit, and too often I've seen country acts go here to simply add muscle, or rock bands to add flavour - or snag some easy marketing from country - without the heavier focus on songwriting you'd like to see. Couple it with the occasional bit of belligerent machismo or southern pandering you can see creeping into the writing, and let's just say that there's a significant swathe of the genre that can kind of turn me off.

Of course, there are exceptions, and in the waning months of 2016, we're going to talk about two of them, the two southern rock acts that are consistently viewed in recent years as the leaders in the format. The first is the Georgia-based Blackberry Smoke, and fans from last year probably remember that I covered their last album Holding All The Roses and am planning to review their upcoming release in mid-October. The other band is the group we're going to be talking about today: Whiskey Myers. Texas band, a little younger, and unlike Blackberry Smoke who have toured and worked with the Zac Brown Band and Eric Church, they've remained consistently independent. And yet if I'm being completely honest, I wouldn't entirely consider myself a fan. Yes, Cody Cannon has a tremendous voice and Cody Tate is one hell of a guitarist, but I found myself wishing I could like Firewater and Early Morning Shakes a lot more than I did. Part of it was the writing, which did occasionally slide towards the issues I spoke on earlier - especially 'Ballad Of A Southern Man' on Firewater - but on Early Morning Shakes even with Dave Cobb's production I found myself lukewarm to the project at best. But hey, Cobb's production has only gotten better and with the buzz suggesting that this was a much rougher, gritty record, I was looking forward to seeing how that edge could materialize. So I finally decided to check out Mud by Whiskey Myers - what did we get?

Friday, September 23, 2016

video review: 'preoccupations' by preoccupations

Well, this was an interesting listen. Not sure it was a great one, but it was interesting - some solid post-punk, generally enjoyable.

Next up, I'm finally tackling that Whiskey Myers record before I get to AlunaGeorge. Then, if my luck holds, I should be close to being back on schedule - stay tuned!

album review: 'preoccupations' by preoccupations

So let's talk about something I don't think I've ever discussed in a review before: band names. A good name helps a band stand out, can occasionally set the tone of the music you're about to experience, can evoke a certain atmosphere and personality. For instance, one of my all time favourite band names is for the anarchist punk band Chumbawamba - it evokes curiosity, it definitely stands out, and it's got a sort of gleeful irreverence that really characterizes the wit and character of the group.

But really, the big story tied to this act is band name controversies, when a certain act calls themselves something - let's say Viet Cong in this case - and discovers that if they want to play the liberal college circuit across the United States, such a name might drive a backlash. Not going to lie, this controversy irritates the hell out of me, and not just because I could point to a slew of bands in punk, post-punk, and metal who have names with far more dark and disturbing connotations - look up what Joy Division means some time, I dare you. And while I could go on how saying 'Viet Cong is offensive' propagates a simplistic and US-centric view of the far more complicated Vietnam War, where there was considerable moral ambiguity on both sides, or how even if it was inappropriate and offensive it completely fit the dark, pummeling tone of the band's music... but it's not like the group made any of those arguments. Instead, the Canadian group shot themselves in the foot repeatedly during interviews by pleading ignorance and all sorts of nonsense, and since they obviously weren't about to do anything more interesting with the name and concept and wanted to continue making money, they eventually just gave in and changed their name to Preoccupations. Not a bad choice - not as punchy as 'Viet Cong', but it did fit the sort of detached bleak melancholy that ran through their compositions, so I won't hold it that much against them. In any case, this allowed them to get away with a second self-titled album with the new name - with a part of me kind of thinks is cheating a bit - but whatever, how is Preoccupations?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

video review: 'shape shift with me' by against me!

Well, this was way better than I was expecting - and frankly, considering how well some of the hooks came together (and served as a pretty kickass workout mix this evening), I expect to be replaying this a lot in the near future.

In the mean time, things are going to get much darker with the new Preoccupations and In The Woods... - stay tuned!

album review: 'shape shift with me' by against me!

I'm not sure what to expect out of Against Me! anymore.

Granted, they've taken a career trajectory that isn't that unfamiliar for long-running punk acts. They start off with a few critically acclaimed, insightful albums with great hooks to boot, get signed to a major label and subsequently lose a fair amount of that insight and grit to cater to a larger audience, and soon after the well runs dry they return to the independent scene, perhaps never to regain that old spark but maybe regain some critical respect or cult following.

And from what I can tell, that's exactly what has happened with Against Me!, but with a twist: not only did frontwoman Laura Jane Grace come out as transgender and transitioned, it became the focal point of her 2014 record Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And not only did it inject the band with fresh subject matter, it also further accentuated a ragged edge that had been long lacking in their material. Now that album was far from perfect - it still felt a little underwritten and I got the impression that the transgender themes could have been expanded a bit more as subject matter that is so rarely explored, even in punk - but, for lack of a better word and forgive the pun, it felt a bit transitional.

But now it's two years later, and Against Me! have a new record ready to go, with reportedly more of a romantic focus to the tracks - which I thought was a solid idea for a shift, given that this was the area I thought could do with more exploration on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, especially if they were ditching the more aimless protest songs that I felt bogged down that record. So okay, I'm onboard, did Shape Shift With Me stick the landing?

video review: 'transcendence' by the devin townsend project

Man, really wished I liked this one more. Sadly, it just did not click with me - thin, underwritten, I'm not sure what it was, but it just didn't work all the way through.

Next up, though... Against Me! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

album review: 'transcendence' by the devin townsend project

So if I'm being very honest with myself, I haven't really covered as much metal this year as I was hoping. And really, it's a case of just getting overloaded - I've had a busy year both at work and in my persona life, through all of that on average I'm putting out more videos than ever, and I'm still falling behind... although yes, I will admit there were a few cases where I dug into metal records and just didn't have enough material to make a full or informed review. Well, throughout late September and October there are a lot of metal records that have been on my anticipated list all year, and it's about damn time I dig in - don't worry, I'll be covering other genres too, but it's time for some much overdue catching up.

So let's start with an act that I've consistently liked for years now: The Devin Townsend Project. Ever since the titular frontman split off the group from projects under just his name, they've delivered a fair few records of high concept music that isn't afraid to push genre to its limit while still delivering insightful, eccentric, and yet insanely catchy music. Now the last time I covered him was in 2014, where I reviewed three of his projects - the sequel to his landmark Ziltoid The Omniscient, the country-ambient crossover masterpiece Casualties of Cool, and Z²: Sky Blue, the last of which I'd argue was a real hidden gem. The song 'Silent Majority' made my year-end list of my favourite songs but in retrospect the entire album could have had a shot at my top records of 2014 - it's grown on me that much. And as such, outside of my overloaded schedule I had no excuse not to dig into his newest Devin Townsend Project record Transcendence, where if you looked at the liner notes seemed to be bringing together a richer cast than I had expected. Anneke Van Giersbergen was of course on board, but so was Che Aimee Dorval from Casualties of Cool - awesome - and for the first time since the era of Strapping Young Lad Devin Townsend had brought in another producer. This would be Adam "Nolly" Getgood of Periphery, another band that I may have passed over earlier this year mostly because I didn't want to have the 'djent' conversation. But with the possibility that said sounds might creep into Devin Townsend's production, which might fly in contrast to his more melodic compositional style... we're getting off-topic, how's Transcendence?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 1, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this happened. Overall, not a great week by any stretch, but it's also more indicative of transition, so you never know what's going to come through next.

In the mean time, I've got a Devin Townsend record to talk about, followed by Against Me!, Preoccupations, In The Woods..., AlunaGeorge, and so many more (seriously, SO MANY MORE) - stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 1, 2016

So we live in uncertain times. The economy seems shaky, the effects of climate change are becoming more prevalent, the United States is on the precipice thanks to a bullshit horserace media narrative that's eons more dishonest than anything Hillary Clinton has said and about on par with the lies the Trump family spews daily, and now Brad and Angelina are splitting up. Now thankfully, I live in Canada, where things are a fair bit more stable all around, but that doesn't mean this instability isn't impacting the Hot 100 - albeit probably less driven by the election and more because we're now transitioning into the fall months and this happens nearly every year.

video review: 'they don't know' by jason aldean

Man, this record was a chore to review. Easy enough to edit and put together this, but man, what a bland project. Jason Aldean is capable of so much better.

Next up, though, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then let's get to Devin Townsend and Against Me! - stay tuned!

album review: 'they don't know' by jason aldean

I've put up with a lot from Jason Aldean.

And make no mistake, it seems like every time he opens up his mouth in an interview I end up finding more things about him that frustrate me or piss me off, mostly because I should like this guy more. For one, he's one of the few 'independent' country artists to have consistent chart success on mainstream radio, and you can tell in terms of his sound he at least tries to push into new directions. Don't get me wrong, 'Burnin' It Down' was awful and helped push the metropolitan country trend that followed in the aftermath of bro-country, but you can tell it was coming from a mostly unique perspective. And to give Aldean a little more credit, he does occasionally put out songs I really like - a deep cut called 'Don't Change Gone' actually landed on my list of best songs of 2014, and that list didn't include the hits!

But eventually you start shifting towards a tipping point, and in the lead-up to They Don't Know... well, it was mixed to say the least. I didn't mind his more country rock-inspired lead-off singles for this release, but then you balance it with the incident where he got caught in blackface at a Halloween party, or how his anger at the term 'bro-country' increasingly titled towards intentional ignorance - yes, you weren't at the forefront of the movement, but don't think you weren't a part of enabling the environment. And when he went to Billboard and said that he was intentionally choosing songs that weren't 'too clever or songwriterly' for his albums, I just about had it - sure, Jason Aldean, I get that not all country music has to be insightful or contain emotional nuance, but if you're going to embrace that, can your production be a little less colourless and your music be a little more fun? Granted, there's a suspicion that I've discussed with fellow country fans that also feels Jason Aldean is kind of jealous of the reputation Eric Church built for himself as the 'outlaw' in mainstream country - but Eric Church chose to embrace his singer-songwriter instinct that, yes, were a little weird but gave him real personality. Aldean has never seemed willing to compromise his swaggering alpha-bro image, which as country swings back towards quality makes him appear one-dimensional.

But whatever, we've got the new record - apparently delayed from release on streaming services so Aldean can get another #1 album on pure sales and for another headline of 'standing against the man' - so how did it turn out?

video review: 'hard ii love' by usher

Well, this was long-overdue. And yeah, it should have had 'Good Kisser' on it, but overall it's still a good record. Probably overthought the themes a bit, but eh, it happens.

But we're not done tonight - Jason Aldean up next, stay tuned!

Monday, September 19, 2016

album review: 'hard ii love' by usher

There are so many ways that I could start this review. So many obvious choices for a topic and preamble, the biggest being the storied history of one of my favourite R&B artists in the past decade and how his ups and downs have translated to some fantastic singles but inconsistent albums - with the exception of Confessions, obviously.

But I bet the fact that I would even consider Usher a favourite R&B artist when on the surface he's not all that different than many of his peers probably raises some eyebrows. Well, remember how I said several reviews back that an artist with real charisma can make music that's powerful without needing to sound like work? Usher falls right into that lane, with easily one of the most expressive vocal ranges you'll hear in R&B and the sort of poise and confidence that makes him damn near untouchable when he wants to be. And yet as an artist, I really wish I liked his albums more, but that's what you get with a singles artist, a musician far more well-known for songs that entire projects - with, of course, the exception of Confessions.

I guess that's a larger part of the problem: as a record, Confessions did have a more unified theme and at least aimed for a little more insight, which meant that it set an expectation that Usher would deliver more in this vein... and he really hasn't. He kept pushing his sound with the times or even bypassing it altogether into newer territory. People tend to forget how much a song like 'Climax' pushed that darker sort of PBR&B into the mainstream, on top of just being a jaw-dropping example of how to do a quiet storm song right as one of the best hits of 2012. 

But since then... yeah, I really liked 'Scream', but Usher seemed to have a lot of trouble pulling the album together. He released a series of singles that balanced between absolutely incredible like 'Good Kisser' - seriously, if you had put this on a record it'd have a shot at the best songs of ANY respective year regardless of being a hit - and other tracks like 'I Don't Mind' that were merely okay to good, mostly elevated by Usher's presence. But we've finally got the new, much delayed album from Usher called Hard II Love - did it deliver?

video review: 'AIM' by m.i.a.

I can imagine this review will probably pull some controversy. Granted, it's M.I.A., wouldn't that be in the spirit of everything, but given the subscriber numbers... eh, it happens.

Next up... well, I should do Jason Aldean next, but that Usher album... we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'AIM' by m.i.a

So let me put forward something with the benefit of some hindsight: could it be that M.I.A. was never that great of an artist?

Harsh charge to make, especially coming from someone who has never been all that fond of M.I.A., but let me make my case. Even when she burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s with her eclectic blend of choppy Afrobeat, hip hop, and raw provocation, I wasn't much of a fan, but I got the punk appeal. Jagged, explosive, not especially nuanced in her politics but loaded with enough potent sloganeering that she was hard to ignore, both Arular and KALA weren't really my thing but I could appreciate that she had her audience. Then MAYA happened... And here's the thing, I've heard a lot of people say that if it were released nowadays where noise rap is more prevalent, it'd get a better reception... but having gotten onboard with that genre in recent years and revisited that record, it really is as messy, shallow, and migraine-inducing as you'd remember - just because you're the first to the sound doesn't mean you did it best. She followed it in 2013 with Matangi, which I actually reviewed in full, and upon retrospect, I may have actually been too kind to it. I didn't like MAYA, but it at least felt like it was trying - when Matangi wasn't irritating the piss out of me with its sloppy misunderstandings of technology and politics and some painfully trite writing, it was just tedious, not helped by a laconic delivery which did nothing for any populism or melody the record half-heartedly tried to create.

But going into this reportedly final record, where even self-professed M.I.A fans were a little reticent, I started to wonder what it was M.I.A will have left behind. Of her five records, I'd only say two were close to good, and while I appreciate the embrace of rougher, noisier African-inspired textures in hip hop, M.I.A wasn't the only one to introduce those sounds. And fifty percent is not a winning or even passing record, so is AIM the album to tilt the scales in her favour?

Friday, September 16, 2016

video review: 'MY WOMAN' by angel olsen

I predict this review to get some fascinating response. It's a little too late to stand firm against the bulwark of people who loved this, but hey, I've been busy.

In the mean time, the schedule is piling up yet again, but we'll have to wait until I'm back in town on Saturday for M.I.A, Devin Townsend, Jason Aldean, and the rest. Stay tuned!

album review: 'MY WOMAN' by angel olsen

So I've been taking stock of the music I've enjoyed thus far this year, and there's one big trend that's starting to emerge: women on the fringes of country and folk putting out some absolutely excellent records. Sometimes they're a little more pop like Jennifer Nettles, sometimes they're a little more towards rock or mainstream country like Brandy Clark or Lydia Loveless, but between case/lang/veirs, Dori Freeman, and Lori McKenna, it's starting to coalesce into a trend, especially this summer.

In other words, given the frankly startling amount of critical acclaim going her way, I was bound to check out the newest album from Angel Olsen. Long time fans will remember that I covered her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness...  and that I didn't really care all that much for it. It wasn't because of the content, don't get me wrong - Olsen is a strong songwriter with a good penchant for capturing the emotional subtleties in her tunes, and a lot of the rougher production could have been a good compliment for it. But her biggest strength by far is her vocals, and that record chose to smother her in lo-fi fuzz that didn't flatter her subject matter or delivery - what could have been a potent torch album instead guttered into something I wish I remembered better.

So when I heard that Angel Olsen was releasing a more open-ended, experimental record that was jumping across styles - and was one of her most critically acclaimed to date - I was definitely on board. Hell, I've always wanted to like her music more but have been waiting for her to find the right sound to balance against it... so with MY WOMAN, did she get it?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

video review: 'skeleton tree' by nick cave & the bad seeds

So this happened... look, I'm not often one to be advocating on behalf of records - I prefer to analyze and discuss rather than promote, it always feels weird, especially with an album like this - but if you're on the fence about Nick Cave, you need to give this a chance. It's amazing that over the course of over three years doing this critic business that for most years I didn't get a single 10/10 and in 2016 we've had two... don't know what to tell you, folks, I gave this so many listens and yeah, it would have felt wrong to give it anything else.

But next up... hmm, Jason Aldean, MIA, Devin Townsend, that Angel Olsen review that I have filmed... probably that one (again, crazy busy this weekend), but we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'skeleton tree' by nick cave and the bad seeds

I know the easiest way to start this. It's also the way I don't want to start this. It feels cheap and exploitative to acknowledge it, especially given how so many music websites have covered this story - I can't imagine how much it stings every time he might see a review and the first thing that's mentioned is... well...

Goddamn it, this is hard - harder than for most artists, mostly because of the acts who have defined my evolution as a music critic, Nick Cave looms as one of the biggest. His record The Good Son from 1990 I would call a classic 10/10 record, and that's not even counting Henry's Dream, Murder Ballads, The Boatman's Call, Tender Prey, and Push The Sky Away, the last of which was my best album of 2013. Spoilers, I stand by that pick too: some may consider it too slow and muted and impenetrable but there's a genuinely unsettling power in the cryptic writing once you decode it, one of the few records that when Nick Cave is called an 'apocalypse prophet', he earns the title. 

So of course when I heard he was working on a new project I was thrilled... and then came the news that his fifteen year old son Arthur had died in a tragic accident. And there's no way around the fact that it would colour the album, especially when Nick Cave had come back into the studio to finish the recording. Most of the songs had been written but later takes had been semi-improvised, as Nick Cave noted that he had lost his faith in 'narrative-based songs', the sort of statement that can ring as frightening coming from the man who wrote Murder Ballads - for such a storyteller to lose his faith in that form is understandable, but genuinely chilling and reflective of the deep, unyielding pain he had to be experiencing. As such, there was a part of me that didn't even want to listen to this record: it felt too personal, too real, almost reminiscent of Blackstar, the last album David Bowie wrote before he died. And as you can likely tell by this point, I was almost certain that this album would get to me as deeply, if not more so... but by this point, with so many critics hailing Skeleton Tree as one of the best records of this year - it's currently the highest rated record on Metacritic, if you put stock in such things - I had to hear it. What did I hear?