Tuesday, July 26, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 6, 2016

And just like that, the summer lull gets burst wide open, and there's a part of me that couldn't be happier. Yeah, I could definitely raise questions about why - to say nothing of the viability of both the new songs and the new #1 that did it - but I have to admit, the past few weeks have been so stagnant that there's a part of me that's thrilled there's change at all!

video review: 'autonomy music' by short fuze & uncommon nasa

Well, this was pretty damn awesome too. Definitely dig into this, it deserves a lot of attention.

Next up... hmm, not quite sure yet, we'll see. I'm curious about that Dreezy album, to be honest, but I should probably talk about Relient K too, so stay tuned!

Monday, July 25, 2016

album review: 'autonomy music' by short fuze & uncommon nasa

Let's talk a bit about cosigns.

Because as a critic, I'm always pretty wary of them. You get plenty of artists who will pitch themselves as being 'like' a specific act, or being loosely affiliated with them, or using that one guest verse that was super tight to build a bridge of association that they'd never be able to hold again under tighter scrutiny. I tend to be a fair bit more forgiving when the act that I like outright endorses them, but again, I've always got a bit of skepticism. Sure, maybe this producer I really like helped cowrite or add verses to a project and he believes in its artistic intentions... or he's trying to give a friend a leg-up or use his status to elevate someone not ready for primetime.

And yet my skepticism was sorely tested when Uncommon Nasa reached out to me about this project. Given how much I absolutely loved his last album Halfway last year, I was pretty damn optimistic when he said that he contributed both verses and all the production to Chicago MC Short Fuze, who worked with Nasa back in 2010 for his debut Lobotomy Music and who showed up for a pretty good guest verse on Halfway. And from what I know of Nasa, he isn't about to cosign or work with artists he wouldn't fully support, so I had some faith that this project could really hit home, especially as it was just under thirty five minutes, the sort of ruthlessly tight project that left no room for error. So I made sure to dig into Autonomy Music - did it stick the landing and meet expectations?

video review: 'tradition lives' by mark chesnutt

Well, this turned out a fair bit better than I expected. Seriously, give this guy some support, Chesnutt is delivering real quality here in a great country year.

But he's not the only great record I'm covering tonight - stay tuned!

album review: 'tradition lives' by mark chesnutt

Let's go back about thirty years in country music - and one could make the argument that it was bleak indeed. Country had never sounded so polished and sterile, plainly trying to play for pop radio instead of doubling down on what made the genre good in the first place - sound familiar? But that was about to change with the rise of what would become one of the biggest and most celebrated movements in country music: the neotraditional sound. Led initially by George Strait and country pop defector Reba McEntire in the mid-80s, by the late 80s it would explode thanks to a burst of terrific talent talent seldom seen before in the genre. In 1989 alone we got the debut records from Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson. And these weren't just bursts of talent from the indie scene - they were hitmakers and tremendously popular, pushing one of my favourite genres with the neotraditional sound into a creative boom that would last for nearly ten years.

But let's go back a year to 1988, where the artist we're going to talk about today, Texas country artist Mark Chesnutt, began his career on an indie label before heading mainstream. His name doesn't tend to come up as much in the neotraditional movement, but he was definitely there in the early 90s with a string of real hits. I'm honestly not sure why he isn't remembered more - I still remember most of his 90s hits, and most of them are pretty decent, if occasionally a little too slick for their own good. Maybe it was because he didn't take more of an active role writing his own songs, especially early on, but a larger factor was a cover he made of Aerosmith's 'I Don't Want A Miss a Thing', a song that was a pop sellout for both acts and that he actually regrets to this day. I'm not about to blame him for it - pop country made a massive comeback in the late 90s, it's understandable his label might have pushed him in that direction, but then his label was dissolved and for a few years he kind of got stuck in the lurch. So when country had shifted into the rougher sounds of the early 2000s, Chesnutt probably did the best thing he could have done - he went back to the indie scene and his roots with the honky tonk sound in Texas. And since then, while he hasn't been writing a lot, he's been putting out a series of critically acclaimed records - sure, he doesn't write many of the songs, but he's always had a knack for finding smart songwriters with a knack for nuance, ever since the 90s. Now this album Tradition Lives is his first since Outlaw in 2010, and it's been getting a lot of critical acclaim, especially from the indie country set, so I figured I'd give it a listen - was it worth it?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

video review: 'love & hate' by michael kiwanuka

So believe it or not, I'm expecting to get a ton of hatred for this review. This is, after all, one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year... and I think it's just solid, not great. Eh, we'll see.

Next up, Uncommon Nasa and Short Fuze, and then I can finally dig into that Mark Chesnutt record, so stay tuned!

album review: 'love & hate' by michael kiwanuka

So there's a term that's become popular in the online music critic scene, particularly on YouTube. Coined by one Todd Nathanson, it's one that's attracted a fair amount of attention, expansion, and detractors, one that I've even coined myself: the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' genre. It's a bit of a nebulous term - because obviously not all white guys with acoustic guitars make bad music, look at Mark Kozalek or James McMurtry - but it typically is used to describe a certain sort of gutless, edgeless, artless pretension that's perfect for scoring your average listless summer barbecue that wouldn't dare to threaten or challenge anybody. And given that most of this music tends to make my skin crawl, I have no problem whatsoever disparaging this type of music, not just for the often below-average songwriting and guitarwork, but more for the attitudes beneath the music - I elevate artists like Kozalek and McMurtry above this term because they're trying to make artistic statements, whereas stereotypical white guys with acoustic guitars make music in order to pick up chicks or put up a forefront of depth that isn't there.

But I'll also admit it's a narrow term, and it's by no means limited to white guys, so what about black guys with acoustic guitars? Well, you're going to find far fewer examples in this subgenre, but there are a few - Darius Rucker, former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish immediately springs to mind, and it's definitely a fair comparison. But when you consider Michael Kiwanuka, I would definitely hesitate to assign that label, mostly because he seems to play in an entirely different ballpark, even if on the surface some people might be inclined to use the label. For those who don't know, Kiwanuka is a British singer-songwriter who got his start as a session player before his breakthrough in 2012 with his debut album Home Again, which definitely had its warm folk touches and a fair amount of acoustic guitar, but tended to play more towards old school soul touches with the organ and slightly rougher production. But at the same time, as much as I liked his delivery the writing wasn't always stellar - and to be fair, good soul doesn't always need brilliant lyrics, but it feel thin at points, enough that I could see why people at first glance might assign that the label, or at least consider him a bit of a throwback. But he didn't seem willing to accept that, so recruiting Danger Mouse and fellow UK producer Inflo, he dropped his sophomore album Love & Hate that on the surface looked to be getting more conscious and develop more lyrical bite. So after I caught some strong singles, I figured I dig into this: was it worth it?

video review: 'theories of flight' by fates warning

Well, this took me WAY too long to get out - and I also apparently bungled the publishing process, so I don't think anyone has seen much of it. Gah, one click could have made it all work...

In any case, I've got Michael Kiwanuka and Uncommon Nasa/Short Fuze coming up soon, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

album review: 'theories of flight' by fates warning

It's widely understood that there were four bands who really 'broke' progressive metal towards more mainstream acceptance - well, as mainstream as prog metal gets. I've talked about Dream Theater twice and they probably stand out as my favourites, although I can definitely say that early Queensryche gets up there too. And then there's Tool... look, I'll save that discussion for if they ever actually release another album, I'm not sure I want to deal with the dumpster fire that conversation will be.

Then there's the last group, the one that gets mentioned in the same sentence and came up around the same time but never seems to get the same attention or critical acclaim. That group is Fates Warning, a group that for the past few weeks I've been exploring in detail to try and understand why exactly they never get the same attention. And I think there are a number of reasons: they never really had a huge crossover into the mainstream, they weren't active throughout a significant chunk of the 2000s, and they also weren't really as good. I'm not saying the group was bad, but the group definitely suffered through some pretty rough production throughout the 80s that would only start to turn around in earnest by the turn of the decade with Perfect Symmetry and Parallels. And yet from there... it's hard to tell what it is, beyond the unfair comparisons to stronger peers. They wrote good music, but I'm not sure I could point to that standout classic record the same way I could with Operation: Mindcrime or Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory. I don't think they were helped by trying to stick with production trends of the time rather than carve out their own route - it definitely dates both Disconnected and FWX as albums, even if I do think Disconnected is probably underrated. In any case, when the band went on hiatus and then came back in 2013 with Darkness In A Different Light, I actually quite liked that record - the band sounded fresh and invigorated, and the writing and production felt as fresh as anyone could have expected. So you can bet when I heard that Theories Of Flight was even better, hailed as one of Fates Warning's best albums, I was excited to dig in, so despite being a week or two late with this review, how did the album turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 30, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this was an interesting episode to make. Took a little longer than I expected, but overall a better week, I think, especially before Britney and Katy make their big returns.

Next up, I think it's finally time I talk about Fates Warning, so stay tuned!

special comment: #kimexposedtaylor & pop culture authenticity (VIDEO)

I'm actually a little amazed I got this out on time, but I'm definitely happy I did - fair amount to deconstruct her, and it did lead to a nifty little punchline at the end about our role in enabling this sort of drama. A little less dramatic now, thanks to the legality of it all being stripped out the picture, but eh, it happens.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 30, 2016

I have mixed feelings about the Hot 100 this week. On the one hand, our new entries look pretty promising for the first time in a while, and I have to hope that a few of these tracks will actually stick around for a bit... but on the other hand, I also have to take a look at our gains and realize that even they start to gain traction, they've got a ways to go to overtake the tidal wave of garbage that's ascending up the charts when the summer lull blocks out most competition. Joy.

video review: 'the maze' by a:j

Well, this was an interesting record to untangle. Pretty interesting, to be sure.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then I've really got a ton of records to tackle - stay tuned!

special comment: #kimexposedtaylor and pop culture authenticity

I started to feel physically ill when I started drafting this Special Comment. It's the same sinking feeling that happens whenever I have to even mention the Kardashians in anything I create, acknowledge how so many people find their utterly brainless TMZ-baiting trash so damn captivating. Even though anyone with a functioning brain stem can tell you that none of it is remotely close to real or has produced anything beyond cheap gossip and ruining the lives of people who should rightly know better at this point. Oh, don't get me wrong, I get the attraction to it - people like vapid drama, especially when it seemingly comes at the expense of the rich and famous - but even without seeing a single episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and contributing to the downward slide of humanity towards Idiocracy, at this point it should be blatantly obvious to everyone that they're more shrewd than that and are making millions off of the public not knowing any better - or caring, which is arguably even worse.

Monday, July 18, 2016

album review: 'the maze' by a:j

Let's flash back to the end of 2013. I'm a mostly fresh-faced music critic coming up on my hundredth or so album review on YouTube, trying to ensure I've covered everything I need before the end of the year. And then, almost by accident, I find a record that's been languishing in my inbox for a few months, a hip-hop release by Cousin Ayjay, a relative unknown who still managed to capture my attention for some impressively layered production and an ambitious narrative framework exploring the listless day in the life of a perpetual stoner. Now if that's seems like an oxymoron, it's because this record falls into a weird spot for me: plenty of detail in creating the characters and world around him, but as a rapper Cousin Ayjay could feel a little sloppy. The production was lush and off-kilter, but it rarely developed any sort of momentum to drive the story. In other words, it did have many of the hallmarks of an indie hip-hop passion project: lush and expansive with little to no pop appeal, but also self-indulgent and overlong, not quite coming together as strongly as it could.

And yet say what you will about A:J - he dropped the 'Cousin' from his name a few years back - he's the sort of artist I like seeing in indie hip-hop, and thus when he approached me with his newest album, I was definitely intrigued to see where he was going next. So steeling myself for another complicated listen, I dove into The Maze - what did I find?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

video review: 'nothing's real' by shura

Wow, this record caught me off-guard by how much I dug it. So tight, so distinctly memorable... great record, bound to be underrated, definitely check this out!

Next up... think I might get that indie record out the door along with Fates Warning, and after that... not sure, really, so stay tuned!

Friday, July 15, 2016

album review: 'nothing's real' by shura

I don't know what the hell is happening with synthpop this year.

See, in 2015 it seemed like every other week I was covering another band drawing from various points in the 80s to update their sound, for better or worse. 2016, though... I don't know if I just haven't covered as much of it, but that quick spurt of tight, synth-driven and accessible music seems to have faded almost as quickly as it arrived, either splitting towards the more immediately danceable electronic scene or towards different eras of retro sound. And that's a bit dispiriting in my books - as much as the 80s has felt like a well-trod ground when it comes to musical nostalgia, I still feel there's more that could be done to balance old and new in the modern age if given the chance.

As such, I was definitely curious to cover Shura, a British producer and singer-songwriter who built some groundswell on YouTube with a string of singles and got signed to Polydor for her first record,  starting her first ever headlining tour this year with Tegan & Sara. To me, a lot of that is a good sign, because even if this record's rollout has seen nearly every song on it become a 'single' - which you would kind of expect, given her YouTube roots - it seemed like there was some serious attention given to her as a songwriter who aimed for a more confessional and detailed side of writing you don't often see in synthpop. So I figured what the hell and I checked out her debut album Nothing's Real - how did that go?

video review: 'wildflower' by the avalanches

Been waiting to get to this one. I really do wish I loved it more, but it is definitely solid.

Next up... hmm, I think Shura, Fates Warning, and then maybe that indie record... stay tuned!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

album review: 'wildflower' by the avalanches

So let's talk a little about sampling.

Now if you've been listening to hip-hop - or really mainstream music at all throughout the past twenty years - you're well aware of this practice, taking a piece of music or sound and using it to build a different song, often warping or flipping it into something brand new in the process. But let's take this a step further, because normally when a hip-hop producer samples something, he adds to it with backbeats and a rapper to flow over it - the sample is not the only part of the composition.

Enter plunderphonics, a fantastic word that describes a narrow subgenre of music where the compositions are entirely composed to samples merged and twisted together so that the fragments barely resemble the original piece and come together for a brand new whole. And what's all the more surprising is that there is often so many samples in these compositions that many are often uncleared, which can lead to a legal nightmare and is the big reason why we don't really see many plunderphonic records, or when we do the samples are often innocuous, from out-of-print videos or music from decades past, long forgotten by everyone else. This takes us to The Avalanches, an Australian electronic group who released a plunderphonic record in 2000 called Since I Left You that would become critically acclaimed for its fusion of samples into a cinematic, world-crossing retro-disco experience. Now going back to relisten to this record... yes, for sure it's a very good record that demands a lot of attention, but I wouldn't say I quite loved it - I appreciated the emotive scope and real earnest power, but it does have its moments that drag and you'd like to think that The Avalanches would have a little more ambition in the final product to make more than 'string section disco', to paraphrase Robert Christgau. And yet from that point it has taken sixteen years to follow it with a new album called Wildflower, which was reportedly created to thematically recapture the euphoric feeling of summer roadtrips, mostly pushed through 60s psychedelic pop. Okay, bit of a smaller scale, but I was definitely intrigued - so did The Avalanches manage to deliver?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

video review: 'blank face lp' by schoolboy q

I literally have no idea how this review is going to be received. Seriously no clue. Eh, we'll see what happens.

Next up, let's dig into this Avalanches record, and then maybe Fates Warning and an indie surprise. Stay tuned!