We're back to country again, folks, and this time, I'd like to ask a question of you all: have you ever wondered how certain acts break into the music industry? How they get that connection, how they manage to get those contacts, how they manage to line up that major label contract? Well, there are a wealth of answers - the lucky demo breakthrough, the start through songwriting which catapults into a performing career, the reality show start, and, of course, nepotism! It's particularly interesting in the country music scene how many acts can be linked by family to their success - and the funny thing is that I'm not the kind of guy who will immediately condemn these acts. As with reality show winners, you occasionally get sparks of talent flying from anywhere, and the succession in the Hank Williams family presents plenty of evidence that differing musical styles and talents can be developed regardless of bloodline. And besides, the music industry is an insular world - sometimes you need to break in however you can. That being said, I still have a healthy streak of skepticism and it ignited in a big way when I heard about Thomas Rhett. He's the son of Rhett Atkins, a mid-level country singer from the late-90s who had some serious critical acclaim and then joined a songwriting team with Dallas Davidson, one of the men responsible for some of the worst country songs of the past decade (fun fact: Dallas Davidson and Luke Bryan were roommates in college - shocker). So while it's clear his father is part of the Nashville songwriting machine that's been churning out bro-country this year, Thomas Rhett is actually the primary songwriter on the majority of this material (and he's 23, the same age as me). So to be honest, I was curious what sort of material Thomas Rhett would be looking to make with his major label debut. So, with that in mind, how did his new album It Goes Like This turn out?
The year was 2004, and indie rock was experiencing an unexpected and yet very welcome boom, courtesy of the success of acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and a collection of other strong singles and albums, all of which would have mixed to diminishing success throughout the rest of the decade. The band that left arguably the biggest mainstream cultural footprint would probably be The Killers, with the success of 'Mr. Brightside', 'Somebody Told Me', and 'All The Things That I Have Done' off of their great debut Hot Fuss, but the critical crosshairs were aimed at a very different band that also had their full-length debut that year, an album that would be widely acclaimed as one of the best of the decade. Yes, of course we're talking about Arcade Fire and their legendary debut Funeral (well, actually their debut was a self-titled EP a year earlier, but whatever). I have to be honest here, for the longest time I avoided getting into Arcade Fire because there were a number of traits about the Canadian indie rock band that really pissed me off. They had a degree of arrogant, humourless pretentiousness which got insufferable in large doses, both vocalists could get more than a little grating, and the lyrics didn't seem nearly as deep or resonant as they clearly thought they were. Coupled with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne's disparaging comments on how little he liked Arcade Fire's attitude, it put me off from looking into the band for a long time. But when churning through my backlog, I decided to give the first three Arcade Fire albums a listen, and you know what? They're very good, possibly even great, and while I stand by all of my complaints, I do think the band has some real talents in composition and writing irresistibly catchy melodies with a wide variety of instruments. And say what you will about their lyrics - hit and miss though they are - they do have a fair amount of nuance in approaching big ideas which I can definitely appreciate. Funeral did a shockingly good job dissecting how human beings deal with death, and managed not to get bogged down in the bleakness of it all - I can definitely see why it is critically adored to this day. Neon Bible opted for the 'dark sophomore album' route and while it was significantly messier, it did a decent enough job - although the tonal dissonance between the lyrics and the instrumentation occasionally got very questionable. The Suburbs was perhaps Arcade Fire's simplest album in terms of instrumentation and melodies, but it paid huge dividends in a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of suburban life and problems that called to mind the roots rock and Americana of the mid-70s - and on top of that, you could buy into the fact that the sentiments driving the album came from a very real place (in other words, it should be no surprise The Suburbs is probably my favourite Arcade Fire album). So with that, I was a little encouraged going into their new album Reflektor, even despite the mixed critical opinions. How did it turn out?
Well, this came together quickly - mostly because there's so little to say about this album as a whole. Next is probably Reflektor by Arcade Fire, because I've been preparing that particular diatribe for some time. Stay tuned!
I have no goddamn clue why I'm reviewing this album. I mean, a remix album comprised of almost entirely songs from a record I thought barely scraped the ceiling of mediocre by a band that has completely run out of ideas? Really, I can't think of a greater waste of time other than review the new Christmas album by Kelly Clarkson (which isn't happening, by the way, so don't hold your breath)! First, a bit of context. Last year, when my reviews were previously confined to my blog, I reviewed Linkin Park's Living Things, and suffice to say, I didn't like it. And while upon reexamination I don't think my review is particularly well-written (it's a little too overwrought and overloaded with lecturing), I stand by my opinions surrounding Linkin Park and the album in particular. The album was poorly written, it lacked instrumental heft and weight, it was an unwelcome return to the concepts of their earlier work that haven't aged well and a distinct step down from the high-minded ambitions of A Thousand Suns, and worst of all, it was boring as tar. Yeah, 'Powerless' was a good song, but outside of that a year later, I can barely remember the album and that's never a good sign. I mean, I remember fragments of 'Burn It Down' and I remember thinking that it was mediocre at best, a far cry from the grit and energy that occasionally made some of the band's earlier material worth a listen. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that the album was getting the remix treatment, almost doubling the original album in length courtesy of guest DJs and rap verses. And as much as I'd like to be snide and point out that it apparently requires more hands in the mix to make Linkin Park vaguely sellable, I wasn't exactly set to condemn this album. After all, the remixes could add some layer of unique personality to pierce through the boredom I had with the original record, and who knows, maybe Pusha T might be able to deliver a better rap verse than he did on Kay's debut. So with that in mind, how does Recharged by Linkin Park turn out?
Yeah, this album really got to me - but in the good kind of way, so I'm not complaining in the slightest. Seriously though, check it out - it's awesome. With that in mind, it looks like this week'll be busy enough, with Toby Keith, Thomas Rhett, and Arcade Fire dropping albums before the end of the month (and somebody decided Linkin Park needed a remix album... ugh). Then it's Battle of the Canadian girls as Avril and Celine square off at the beginning of November. Stay tuned!
It is one of the most ambitious and fascinating projects ever undertaken in metal - hell, some could make the argument that it's one of the biggest in music as a whole. The brainchild of a genius singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalist with a love of prog rock, psychedelia, and science fiction. A project that has spanned dozens of metal acts, big and small. For me, it has been the introduction point to so many bands to which I've consequently discovered and loved, and the fact that something coherent and engaging could have been made from it is mind-boggling. Yes, folks, I'm talking about Ayreon, the multi-album megaproject masterminded by Arjen Lucassen. Started in 1995 with The Final Experiment, the Ayreon 'story' spanned seven albums, all of them which are good and a few are goddamn classics. In that respect, it's a little hard for me to be heavily critical of this project, partially because it played such a huge role in my discovery of progressive metal and partially because it's so goddamn great. I guess if I was going to try here, Arjen Lucassen's closest analogue in another field would be Kenneth Branagh, in that both men are fiendishly ambitious, produce highly cerebral material that can toe the line between epic and camp, and that they both have unbelievable clout in their ability to recruit players from all across their field. You want a short list of bands from where Lucassen has called up performers? How about After Forever, Blind Guardian, Dream Theater, Avantasia, Epica, Kamelot, Nightwish, Gotthard, Iron Maiden, Lacuna Coil, Rhapsody of Fire, Within Temptation, The Flower Kings, Yes, King Crimson, and even Genesis! And really, I left a whole slew of acts off the list - that's how much clout Lucassen has, and it's kind of incredible how he can call up so many different prog and metal performers to work with him time and time again. But for those of you who don't know, the Ayreon project had its concluding element with 01011001 (the binary term for Y) in 2008, with Lucassen finally setting it aside to go onto other projects, like the follow-up Star One album and the fascinating experimentation of Guilt Machine. Yet, this year, he announced he was calling together a whole new crop of musicians to come work with him on an album titled The Theory of Everything. And as an Ayreon fan and a physics grad, I was more than intrigued by what Lucassen would be able to create from his insane vision and fetish for weird science. Joking aside, this has been my most highly anticipated album of the year thus far. So, did he pull off another classic?
I dunno about this review - I mean, I stand by it, but it took me longer than I'd like to make and I'm not sure I'm entirely pleased with it. Eh, it happens. In any case, next up will probably be Ayreon, because my review of The Neighborhood is taking a sour turn to say the least. Hopefully a release from one of my favourite acts will cheer me up...
As those of you who have been following this series for a while probably know, I'm Canadian - and what you probably don't know is that Canadian radio and charts are a little bit different than the charts you find in the States. First is that outside of a few acts, hip-hop doesn't really have a huge amount of groundswell on Canadian charts - sure, we get the big names, but not a huge amount outside of that. Secondly, outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan, we didn't normally use to get a lot of country music either - which changed this year, thanks to the heavy mainstream push with regards to country music, with heavily mixed results. Thirdly, and most importantly, we have something called the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission, otherwise known as the CRTC. This government-backed commission is responsible for making sure Canadian content has a chance on our radio in the face of American competition. So in other words, Americans, if you thought you were sick of Nickelback and Justin Bieber - well, you haven't heard anything yet. But if I'm being honest, I actually support the CRTC regulations a fair bit, mostly because there's a ton of great Canadian content that most people south of the border will never hear thanks to the overwhelming amount of American material. And the fact that bands like Metric and Marianas Trench can occasionally land some chart success here not only means rock didn't really go away up here, but that the charts maintained some of that genre diversity that can get lost on the American Hot 100. Our charts are probably a little bit closer to the British charts, in that we tend to have a bit more international crossover with upcoming trends and we get more chart oddballs (although most of ours have a distinctly Canadian bent). So with that in mind, I think I have something of a duty to cover at least some Canadian content that passes by me, so let's talk about the debut album from Kay. She's a pop/hip-hop singer who initially got some viral buzz back in 2011, and a little more success courtesy of a collaboration with Pusha T last year. She's had some difficulty getting a breakthrough hit, but hey, she got picked up by Universal so she must be doing something right. So, with that in mind, how does her debut album My Name Is Kay turn out?
So glad I could finally get this out. Took a lot of work to get to this point, but I'm really happy this worked as well as it did. Still holds my record for the biggest nitpick I've ever indulged in. Next up... god, I've got no clue. Hopefully it'll be Ayreon, although I might save that for the weekend. Maybe some retrospectives, we'll see. Stay tuned!
If you know progressive metal, you know Dream Theater. It was one of the flagship bands to come out of the late 80s to adapt progressive elements into metal, and it was one of the few to do it as successfully as they did. Along with Queensryche, Fates Warning, and Tool, Dream Theater was one of the progressive metal acts that actually managed to achieve some measure of critical acclaim and commercial success, albeit most prominently in the 90s. They're a band with a reputation for incredibly long songs, instrumental excellence, and several fantastic albums throughout their career that are required listening for getting into the progressive metal genre. That's actually one of the reasons why this review is a month late - when hearing that the band was releasing a new album this year, I took the opportunity to relisten through the band's entire discography, and combining that with my regular review schedule (plus, you know, I have a full-time job), it took until now to finally talk about the band. And really, the band has such a storied history of excellence that I'm a little lost at where to even take this review other than establish my feelings about the band: they're great, but I would never quite say they're my favourite. While production in Dream Theater's early days was inconsistent at points, they've managed to iron out those issues almost a decade ago, and for the most part, the instrumentation is incredibly complex and interesting across the board. Initially I was skeptical how well the new drummer Michael Mangini would fit with the rest of the band (and I did think A Dramatic Turn Of Events did suffer a bit as Mangini worked to find his place), but he turned around surprisingly well. I still don't think James LaBrie's voice is great in a more hardcore vein, but he's incredibly melodic and powerful when he needs to be, and he's a very compelling and emotive singer. I guess if I were to nail down an consistent issue I've had with Dream Theater, it'd be that I don't always find them good 'technical' songwriters. Oh sure, they've written incredible songs with deep themes and beautiful symbolism, but there are occasional moments of lyrical clumsiness that do irk me at points. But really, I'm nitpicking here and Dream Theater has long ago reached the stage of being one of the elder statesmen of the prog metal genre. With all of that being said, however, I did take pause at Dream Theater releasing a self-titled album for their twelfth - it's just a pet peeve, I know that, but it did forewarn me that Dream Theater weren't exactly going back to their concept album days. But the positive critical buzz the album has received over the past few months did reassure me this album was indeed better than the last, and I went in with some high hopes. Did Dream Theater's Dream Theater turn out?
Yeah, this album is awesome, no arguments from me. Sincerely hope this review might get Brandy Clark a little more exposure, because she definitely deserves it. Okay, Dream Theater, let's get this done.
We return again to country music, but this week, we aren't going to talk about the mainstream country scene or the widening split between bro-country and traditional country. This time, we're going to be talking about what some have called 'underground country', the music that doesn't quite reach the airwaves these days or have a lot of pop crossover success. Here's where I'll have to confess something: outside of the mainstream country charts and outlaw country, I don't have a huge amount of knowledge regarding country acts that have never really charted outside the mainstream, acts that the average country music fan will have never heard of or likely will never hear. As I stated in my Special Comment regarding the state of modern country music, I put forward that due to the majority of critics ignoring underground country (especially Pitchfork, which I don't understand because hello, it's underground, it might actually be better than the mainstream country acts you've clearly dismissed), there isn't really a good avenue for country music fans like me to go digging for this sort of material. Honestly, if it wasn't for recommendations from the comments (thanks folks) and the regular visit to the website SavingCountryMusic, I wouldn't have the slightest clue where to start. And as I said, when the critical press ignores country music, not only does it damage the artistic and critical dialogue, but it also ignores lesser-known but potentially excellent country acts from garnering the critical acclaim they deserve. And as pretty much the only country music critic on Youtube, I guess I can make it part of my duty to revise this, so let's talk about Brandy Clark. For those of you who don't know, she's a singer-songwriter who has cowritten a fair number of country songs I like, including 'Follow Your Arrow' from Kacey Musigraves which might just be one of my favourite songs of the year. She's better known for cowriting the excellent 'Mama's Broken Heart' for Miranda Lambert and most notably for cowriting the southern gothic and absolutely hysterical 'Better Dig Two' by The Band Perry. Reportedly, she has a taste for the seedy underbelly of country folk - and speaking as a fan of outlaw country and someone who digs the hell out of southern gothic takes on Americana, I was pretty psyched for this debut release, titled 12 Stories. I was less enthused by the fact that she's signed to a very small record label with the only other signee being Neal McCoy, but hey, baby steps. So, how does the record turn out?
I can't imagine this one is going to go over well, but believe me, I'm just as disappointed as you might be. Damn it, I wanted this album to be good. Next review is either Brandy Clark or the long-delayed Dream Theater album - stay tuned!
As I've said a number of times in the past, I've long been getting sick of musical acts trying to shock or scare me. Maybe it's an issue of maturity or desensitization or the fact that by now I think I've been exposed to so many acts who base their entire appeal off of a narrow 'shock' spectrum, but most of these acts just do nothing to really get under my skin anymore. I mean, once you start listening to black metal, with acts that might genuinely be monstrous people, you pretty much have hit the absolute extreme of material designed to shock and intimidate. On top of that, most of these bands tend to go for the same subject material - pseudo-goth torture porn with mild flirtations with sexual violence or maybe a stint in the insane asylum. That being said, there are a few acts that have managed to get under my skin in a good way. Eminem always springs to mind, particularly his older stuff and especially The Marshall Mathers LP, mostly because there's always the sick undercurrent that there might be some vestige of truth in his story (and the fact that Eminem sold that material incredibly well). More recently this year, I reviewed The Terror by The Flaming Lips, an incredible album that manages to scare the hell out of me every time I listen to it, mostly because it opts for psychological horror and nails it effectively. What these two albums have in common is something that seems to finally be coming back in the horror film genre these days: subtlety and pacing, the type of horror that relies on your imagination to do the dirty work and is designed to build tension with what you don't know and can't see. It's a real shame you don't see more artists - particularly horrorcore rap artists - going in this direction - but I'm not surprised they don't: it's tough to create the right atmosphere without relying on cheap jump scares or graphic subject matter. Hell, many people would argue when Eminem made Relapse that he was relying on these to make the album 'scary' (which completely misses the point of Relapse, but that's a conversation for a later day). So let's talk about a rapper who has often been compared to Eminem and who once feuded with him, a New York horrorcore rapper named Cage. Like Eminem, he was an extremely skilled white rapper who drew on his life to fuel the darkness of his songs - yet unlike Eminem, there was a lot more significant trauma to Cage to utilize. Between drug abuse at an early age, expulsion from school, a stint at a military base in Germany, repeated beatings from his stepfather, and sixteen hellish months spent in a psychiatric hospital, Cage had more than enough terrifying material to draw upon, most of which came into sharp view on his superb 2005 album Hell's Winter. But after a disappointing and lackluster rap rock experiment in 2009 with Depart from Me, where Cage tried (and mostly failed) to incorporate elements of hardcore punk into his record, Cage has been rather quiet, only showing up in a short horror film backed by Kid Cudi (and directed by Shia LaBoeuf) in 2011. That was until this year, where he has dropped a new album titled Kill The Architect, and really, it couldn't have come at a better time, with darker rap becoming more popular in the mainstream with the onset of trap and his old rival Eminem dropping an album in a few weeks. So how does Cage's new record measure up?
I'm still kind of amazed I liked this album as much as I did, but I'm not going to deny quality when I hear it. Next album... well, I'm really not sure, to be honest. I've got a bit of time before the major releases come smashing in, so I might cover some of my backlog. Stay tuned!
We return, yet again, to the ongoing split in country music. Now, it's important to consider that despite the conflicts between established artists, one also needs to be aware of new blood entering the country music industry. These artists, providing they gain a foothold or some popularity, are the ones that will be responsible for propagating trends or drawing in the next generation. And arguably, those on the side of traditional and neotraditional country music should be concerned more than most, because it's not in the nature of people my age going into music to hold onto the past. They want to tread new ground, they're not always aware of the history, and since they likely grew up with country music with a pop twist, they'll be more inclined to drift towards crossover material. At least, that was what I thought before I heard about Scotty McCreery. For those of you who don't own a TV and/or have no idea who this guy is, Scotty McCreery rose to prominence when he won American Idol's tenth season, which I didn't watch. What proved interesting, however, were his song choices throughout that season - a big chunk of them were neotraditional country music from guys like Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson. And when he dropped his debut album... Well, it wasn't very good. But then again, that doesn't surprise me - the music was a little too sterile and saccharine and Scotty's naivete was probably not the element that should have been pushed front and center. And it also came courtesy of the American Idol songwriting factory, and even Kelly Clarkson got afflicted with that load of boring dross when she put out her first album. But after a Christmas album, Scotty McCreery started to have more writing credits on his songs and in such material appeared to express some distaste for the truck-driving, beer-drinking brand of bro-country that's currently popular now. But while this definitely intrigued me, it didn't entirely surprise - despite a surprisingly deep and mature sounding voice that threw me off-guard, McCreery seems like the last sort of guy who could credibly perform swaggering macho bro-country. So with that in mind, I took a look at his newest album See You Tonight - how did it turn out?
You know, it's kind of terrifying how successful Katy Perry has been. I mean, I think I might be one of the few people who remember her first album when she still called herself Katy Hudson and thought her music had the slightest iota of depth (it was Christian rock, so it didn't). She took a good seven year break between that amateurish effort and her follow-up, where she deposited any pretensions towards depth and went full-on pop diva. And, unsurprisingly, she was incredibly successful at it, mostly thanks to her backing producer Dr. Luke, who has been bankrolling his career off Katy Perry's stream of #1 hits, particularly off of her third album Teenage Dream. And all of this is despite the fact that Katy Perry really isn't that good of a singer and her lyrics have the personality of a damp piece of oversexed cardboard. Unlike acts like Lady Gaga (who has legitimate talent and I'll be dealing with later this month) or Ke$ha, every bit of production and autotune added to Katy Perry only seems to take away from her as an artistic personality instead of enhancing any personality that is there. The scary thing is that maybe that's for the best, because having seen Katy Perry: Part of Me and having seen the closest thing to the 'real' Katy Perry, we see a vapid woman with a perilous grasp on her emotions and stability in a way that becomes genuinely worrisome as she's exploited by the music industry and her hellish touring schedule. It's probably why 'Wide Awake' is my 'favourite' Katy Perry song: it's deceptively real and shows elements of raw emotion that most other Katy Perry songs are careful to erase. That's arguably my biggest problem with Katy Perry, and that is so much of her material feels empty, a shell composed of plastic, sex appeal, and a forced smile maximized for demographic appeal. Say what you will about Ke$ha's occasional bouts of obnoxiousness or crazy ideas, at least they come from some place real. But perhaps that might change with Prism, her newest album, an album inspired by 'letting the light in' and Katy Perry 'really working on herself'. I can barely say those sentences aloud without my eyes rolling - Katy Perry, the walking advertisement for catchy, shamelessly commercial pop music opting to create a more personal album? It was enough to catch my... well, let's call it skepticism instead of interest, so I picked up Prism and prepared myself for the worst. Did I get it?
Probably the fastest review I ever made, and it turned out pretty damn good, so that's good too. Was going to talk about Scotty McCreery next or the Avett Brothers, but it turns out Katy Perry finally dropped Prism... oh, this'll be fun.
Earlier this year, the legendarily maligned pop punk band Fall Out Boy came back from a five year break to release their newest album Save Rock And Roll, an album that I have rather complicated feelings about. Basically it's an album that works better in pieces that it does as a whole (with a couple of songs that I actually do really like, namely 'The Phoenix' and 'Young Volcanoes'), and the overloaded arrogance and venom towards their neglected fanbase kind of got my nerves more than once. What I did gloss over in my earlier review, however, was that there was something of a sonic shift on the album towards a more electronic-rock sound in the cacophony of the mix. It didn't really bother me - Fall Out Boy always stuck close to a sound that was popular in the pop scene - but it did bother the fans, who were violently split on this album (despite critics mostly being positive to it). Apparently, though, bassist and primary songwriter Pete Wentz heard it and decided to release a surprise album this year (one that flew so far under the radar I only heard about it fairly recently, and I keep an ear to the ground when it comes to this sort of thing). Recruiting producer Ryan Adams and recording the EP over two days, Pete Wentz stressed that this was something the band for fun, allowing them 'to get some demons out', inspired by Black Flag and hardcore punk from the late 80s and early 90s. And here's where I have to confess some of my own ignorance here: I don't know a lot of hardcore punk. I don't mind it - I listen to Black Flag and Fugazi, but I honestly don't have as wide of a frame of reference to the genre. I'm more of a post-punk and anarcho-punk sort of guy, personally, and I'm not the biggest fan of how some of the 'hardcore genres' have evolved over the past few years. That being said, Fall Out Boy returning to a genre they were last close to about ten years ago and being primarily a pop punk band... well, it'd probably be more accessible than jumping straight into hardcore, so why not? How does Fall Out Boy's PAX AM Days turn out?
Well, this took entirely too long to get online. Ended up having internet problems all of last evening, so while I could get access to the web, I couldn't upload anything. So I went to bed early, woke up, and somehow the problem had fixed itself. And the cable companies say they don't have throttles. Right. So yeah, probably Scotty McCreery next, or maybe that surprise Fall Out Boy punk record. Stay tuned!
A while back, I reviewed an album from the Christian rock act Skillet, mostly because I was curious to examine a genre that rarely gets touched by critics because of religious connotations and the justifiable belief that Christian rock sucks. As a Catholic myself, I've got my lengthy issues with Christian rock - particularly the groups that try to evangelize and start getting insufferable - but I wanted to see if the music was any good and the problem was the moralizing. I ended up coming to the following conclusion: Christian rock doesn't suck because of the Christian qualities - it sucks because the instrumentation, vocals, and especially the production tends to blow, with the Christian element just adding a whole new layer of moral superiority into the mix to completely alienate the majority of their audience. But, of course, there are exceptions everywhere and just because a band might be signed to a nominally Christian label doesn't mean their music is tainted by the moniker of Christian rock and thus is aggressively terrible. Hell, many people would argue Evanescence fit that role in their early years. But instead of talking about a band I hate (that would be Evanescence), let's talk about one that's actually pretty damn great: Icon For Hire, an alternative metal band signed to Tooth & Nail records who released their first album Scripted in 2011. And while the band shuns the label of Christian rock, I almost wish they adopted the genre - because thematically, this is what religious music should sound like. If Icon for Hire wanted to call themselves Christian rock, I don't think the genre would have nearly as bad of a reputation as it does, because man, this band is talented. Their debut is an album about exploring moral crises and emotional instability and the incredibly difficult decisions that come with them, all loaded with an edge of symphonic theatricality and emotional context that makes the album extremely compelling. Plus, unlike the majority of Christian rock, the production and instrumentation and great and the vocals courtesy of Ariel Bloomer did wonders for carrying the album. Yes, as with most debut albums, there are some shaky points and a certain lack of focus, but I really dug Scripted all the same and was anxious for their self-titled follow-up this year. Does it hold up to my expectations?
Man, I had so much fun making this review. It really did remind me why I like doing this, and I had a ton of fun talking about a band I like and a genre of which I'm not the biggest fan. Not gonna lie, I feel really invigorated going forward. Next review is for Icon For Hire, then I'm going back to country with Scotty McCreery. Stay tuned!
Well, I knew this was only a matter of time. With the onset of 90s nostalgia, I knew it wouldn't be long before one of the iconic genres of the decade would come back. It's also a genre with which I have a, well, let's call it complicated relationship. Of course, I'm talking about grunge. It's hard to argue that grunge didn't play a huge role in 90s music and culture, particularly considering its explosive birth in the underground in the late 80s and its eventual mainstream debut in the early 90s, smashing hair metal, synthpop, and whatever was left of the 80s into the dust to be deemed as 'gay' for a good decade to come. Centered around Seattle, grunge led alternative rock into the mainstream to dominate throughout a good portion of the 90s, with some iconic anthems and classic albums... before devolving into post-grunge in the latter half of the decade and ultimately being responsible for allowing acts like Nickelback and Three Days Grace to become popular. But in all due seriousness, every time I return to grunge, I find both more and less that I like each time. Yes, the riffs can be potent, yes, the anger can sound righteous, yes, it contributed to the rise of the second punk wave in the mainstream and gave critical acclaim to a bunch of acts that would have remained lodged in the underground for decades otherwise... but man, grunge can get pretty damn insufferable at points, particularly lyrically. Perhaps I'm not blinkered by Gen X's nostalgia for grunge, but too much of the genre just doesn't connect with me, mostly because the instrumentation was at best simplistic (drawing from hardcore punk roots crossed with heavy metal) and at worst haphazard and drowned in feedback. And that's not even touching on the lyrics, which were dour, humourless, more pretentious and serious than they had any right to be, and only capable of touching the idea of 'fun' if it was approached ironically. So maybe it's not entirely surprising that my favourite of the grunge bands to explode out of Seattle was the one that did the most experimenting and drifted furthest from the traditional grunge sound - which, of course, brings us to Pearl Jam. To me, they've always been a band I've liked but never quite loved, and also yet another act that peaked with their first album Ten (which, despite my hangups with grunge, is awesome). They followed it with Vs. and then decided they were too good to be popular, so they started experimenting with Vitalogy and never went back. It's a shame, then, that their next six albums... well, they weren't bad but they weren't anything all that special or mind-blowing, even with some of the U2-esque bits of experimentation. Out of the selection, I probably like Riot Act the most, but I couldn't help but feel that even on that album that some of the hard rock edge was gone and it wasn't coming back. Thus, I had some trepidation when going into Pearl Jam's newest release Lightning Bolt. On the heels of the The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here from Alice In Chains - which was basically a heavier version of what they had done before - I had the feeling that Pearl Jam wasn't about to attempt to recreate Ten or Vs.. They were going to make a rock album, not a grunge album, which could be both bad and good: on the one hand, Pearl Jam's experimentation has tended to be interesting, but it has also left the band without a definitive identity besides that of a grunge rock act that isn't really aging gracefully. So, is Lightning Bolt an experiment that bears fruit, or just another grunge rock album that slides into the grey morass of mediocrity?
We return to our country story already in progress, as more and more artists drift to the sides of the widening divide between those who are concerned about the pop and rap tendencies in country music as it drifts towards the mainstream - this would be your Zac Brown, your Gary Allan, your Alan Jackson, your Kacey Musgraves - and those who are riding the trend out as long as they can - your Jason Aldean, your Luke Bryan, your Tyler Farr, your Justin Moore. Recently, there's been a surprising addition to the former category: Jake Owen. For those of you who don't know who this guy is, he's a mainstream country star whose most recent single sticks so closely to the 'tailgates, booze, and girls' template that it's kind of astounding. And while those hunting for hypocrisy could get whiplash at this most recent development, it's raising an interesting question all the same for those who love traditional country music: where does one draw the line? Jake Owen has freely admitted that he doesn't write the deepest music in the world, but is this a genuine move or just the savvy calculation of a smart businessman knowing the trend has reached its peak? And even if it is rooted in genuine feeling - which to me, it kind of seems like it is - will the traditional country music scene be willing to accept the guy who performed 'Barefoot Blue Jeans Night'? That's one of the funny things about country music: there's always going to be some room for good time party music, and to some extent, defining a hard line on 'authenticity' to exclude that group could prove detrimental. Hell, even the Zac Brown Band wrote their fair share of gulf & western-inspired music with songs like 'Toes', 'Knee Deep', and 'Jump Right In'. Of course, the majority of country acts aren't protesting the concept of the good time party tune - no, their targets are the small group of songwriters behind this material who churn out song after interchangeable song that only seem to sink to lower and lower points of leering debauchery. And if we're looking for an act that might seem to be an obvious target, Joe Nichols would be near the front of the line. Over the course of his eight album career thus far, he has writing credits on seven songs, and none on this album which we'll be talking about today, titled Crickets. Don't know who this guy is? Well, he's the charming fellow who sung 'Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off' - charming. But hey, as I've said before, there's room for good music both in traditional country and the stuff that's being written for the mainstream. With that in mind, how does Crickets turn out?
Well, it took longer than i would have liked to get out, but here it is, my review of Pusha T's solo debut. Now I can go back to never having to care about this guy for a good year or so (judging by how much legwork it took to get this album out, I've probably got some time). This week... well, damn, I've got no clue. I probably should cover Joe Nichols, but man that album looks bland as all hell, and here's a case where not a single song on the album was touched by Nichols himself - lovely. On the other hand, we've got Pearl Jam. ...okay, I think I know what I'm going to be talking about tomorrow, so stay tuned!
I've got to be honest, it took a lot for me to get remotely excited about this album.
Hell, if I'm going to be completely honest, it's taken a lot for me to get excited about Pusha T as an artist altogether - which is really frustrating because everything I've heard about the guy suggests that I would actually like him as a rapper. According to the majority of the critical press, he's one of the few artists Kanye West signed to G.O.O.D. Music who was actually any good, and from what I remember from Cruel Summer last year, I think I liked what he put on the table. I remember thinking he was better than Big Sean and 2 Chainz, but then again, that's not hard by any stretch of the mind, and it brings to light a big problem I've had with rap music recently: it appears that everybody's critical standards for technical rhyming abilities have just plummeted while mine haven't moved. I look at rappers who have been laughed out of the rap game in the 90s or even the 2000s for sloppy flow or bad lyrics somehow gaining critical acclaim when their subject matter doesn't back it up.
So thus when I'm confronted with a rapper like Pusha T, who gets critical acclaim because he's got a good flow and interconnected, well-written lyrics, I'm left a little unmoved because that's my standard for good rap music - if you can't do that, I have a hard time understanding why you were given a career (looking at you, 2 Chainz)! If you just deliver that without adequate subject matter behind it or anything interesting to say, I don't really have much to praise besides basic competence.
But to be fair to the guy, I'll admit I haven't had much of a chance to peruse a lot of Pusha T's material outside of guest verses, so I figured now would be a good time as any to take a look at his big solo debut, overloaded with guest stars as it is (which I'll co-opt Nathan Rabin and coin 'The Master P effect'). If he's looking for an opportunity to establish his presence and cred in the industry, this long-delayed album titled My Name Is My Name should be worth something, right?
Man, I'm happy I got a chance to get this out. Think it's one of my better ones (despite the terrible screencap). Next will be Pusha T and probably that'll be it until Sunday (going to visit extended family for Canadian Thanksgiving), where I'll probably cover Joe Nichols. Think I'm going to skip on Of Montreal, though - I just don't have the time to get through their discography right now to deliver a review with the right context. Stay tuned!
Let's talk about artistic dichotomies. This is a bit of an odd topic, but it's one that does require an examination, particularly considering its rise within music, particularly hip-hop and rap. The principle is simple: holding two exclusive thoughts in your music simultaneously. Or, in simpler terms, the whole concept of the 'thug lover' or the 'gangsta with a sensitive side'. It doesn't really seem to make sense when you start thinking about it, but I'm not surprised at all why so many rappers try it out, because you're nailing two very different markets. The issue becomes whether or not that separation of exclusive ideas can actually be believable, which is the biggest problem I find with most of these acts. For instance, Ja Rule very much wanted to emulate 2Pac, but he also appeared on duets with female singers and tried to come across as a sensitive dude, and it completely backfired on him because the image didn't hold up under deeper scrutiny. For a more recent example, take a look at Drake - it's clear he's much more comfortable in the sensitive R&B vein, but he still plays the thug and it's rarely believable. It requires an extremely talented artist who can hold multiple personas successfully, and it takes an even better one to make them come across as remotely cohesive on the same album. Enter Danny Brown, a rapper from the underground who made major waves in 2011 with XXX, a album where Danny Brown pushed that dichotomy between thug and conscientious rapper to the absolute limit, splitting his album into two segments: the sleazy, often grossly explicit thug; and the more street-wise, down-to-earth rapper who was able to provide context for such behaviour. It helped matters that Danny Brown seems smarter than the average girl/riches/car-obsessed rapper, and his meta-commentary strewn throughout both sides of the album did wonders for bringing it all together. Plus, from an instrumentation/production/technical rapping standpoint, the majority of the album was damn near flawless. Going into XXX, I was expecting just another mixtape, and I left with my mind blown because this guy was legit, both as an extremely convincing gangsta presence and as a rapper who could intelligently speak to the grimier, more depressing lifestyles that cultivated that gangsta image. So with that in mind, I was intrigued by the fact that Danny Brown's newest album Old would be exploring that dichotomy yet again, but I was also a bit worried - the album was clearly being marketed as 'bigger' and more aimed at the mainstream hip-hop community, and with more writers on board every track, I was worried that some of the more incisive commentary or risky subject matter would get sanded down. Was I right?
Ugh, I hate giving mixed-to-negative reviews to debut acts. Sorry about missing the update yesterday, mostly because I felt ill as all hell. Next will be either Pusha T or Danny Brown - not sure which one, we'll see.
Let's talk about The Voice. Formed in the waning years of American Idol, The Voice was a desperate move by NBC to regain some market share given that several of their mainstream programs were getting crushed by Fox and CBS. They made the gamble that if they brought in several recognizable (and bankable) music stars who were desperate to regain the spotlight and had them 'overcome' the image-based discrimination of the pop scene, they'd capitalize on the degeneration of American Idol. So recruiting Christina Aguliera, who hasn't done anything worth mentioning on the charts in years, Adam Levine, who had just come out of a failed album and was hit with writer's block, Cee-Lo Green, who had just had a massive hit and was looking to coast on it as long as he could, and Blake Shelton, who hadn't had chart success in almost a decade, NBC put the show out and it was a massive hit and proved instrumental in reviving the careers of the majority of the hosts as well. But here's the element that gets interesting; most of the 'winners' from The Voice did not really succeed in the same vein as Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood or even Adam Lambert or Phillip Phillips. The albums were delayed, the hits didn't really materialize, and the show didn't turn into the massive chart-defining money spinner that American Idol had been. In short, it's hard for me to look at this show and any of the winning contestants as just props to reinvigorate the careers of established artists. That's not denigrating any of their talent, but it's worth noting that Zac Brown might have actually been wrong when he slammed Blake Shelton and how his influence had led to success for his chosen stars - because it hasn't. But perhaps this is going to change now with the arrival of Miss Cassadee Pope, the winner from the third season of The Voice (under Shelton's tutelage) and who has just released her new pop-country album Frame By Frame. Now to be completely honest, I never watched The Voice, half because I didn't care and half because, well, I don't have cable. So with that in mind, I took a look at Cassadee Pope's major label debut - did she rise above her reality show roots like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood ahead of her?
Once again, it took longer than I wanted to get this up, but I'm happy with the review. First of many for this week - Danny Brown, Pusha T, Cassadee Pope, of Montreal (which I'm delaying for as long as I can) and Austin Mahone. And I'm going to visit extended family this weekend - joy of joys. Stay tuned for tomorrow!
It's common knowledge in the music industry that the last groups to jump on a trending bandwagon are often the worst. These are the acts that can only get success via peripheral engagement with the big stars, the desperate acts shoved out by the label to wring every last penny out the dying trend. And if the genre is already facing some critical malign, you can bet the worst of it will be dumped on the groups at the end. And today, we're going to be talking about one of those groups from the dying embers of the pop rock genre in the mid-to-late 2000s, which somehow managed to carry on and even prosper. Yes, folks, we're talking about Panic! At The Disco, one of the most interesting - and frustrating - stories of the pop rock genre, complete with critical and audience polarization. Simply mentioning this band often gets you wildly differing opinions - and the sad fact is that most of those opinions aren't particularly well informed, or were shaped by the blowback against the 'emo genre' (and really, it's hard to say how much of that backlash was deserved). I should explain. Panic! At The Disco released their first album in 2005, titled A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, and it immediately polarized critics and audiences. The musical style took the vaudeville-esque showmanship of My Chemical Romance and paired it with the bitingly acerbic and surprisingly insightful lyrics of Fall Out Boy, and combined, the album is more than a bit of a wordy, pretentious, surprisingly listenable mess. Critics either loved it or hated it with a passion, and the audience was divided along similar lines, the fans loving it for the great hooks and attempts at complexity (about half of which paid dividends), the others hating it for being pretentious, too sarcastic for their own good, or for being astoundingly flamboyant and theatrical (often dumped under the pejorative of 'it's gay'). And really, all of that is true to some extent, and how much you could like A Fever You Can't Sweat Out is more linked to how much you could tolerate all of it. But the band weren't interested in repeating themselves, so when they came back in 2008 with Pretty Odd, they threw a massive curveball by releasing an album that sounded like a modernized version of the baroque psychedelic pop of the Beatles and especially the Beach Boys from the late 60s. The majority of the fans and critics were thrown off-guard and while the band won some measure of critical acclaim (mostly because the album is really goddamn great), most of their teenage fanbase deserted them in confusion. Which is a damn shame, because the album is really something special, almost reaching the point of earning the label of the 'modern day Brian Wilson'. However, a few critics pointed out that the band would have likely maintained more relevance if they had stuck with speaking to today's generation instead of aping that of the past - and Panic! At The Disco chose to do just that in 2011 with Vices & Virtues. It was a creative direction that split the band in two, leaving them without their primary songwriter Ryan Ross. Thus, the album does feel transitional - and, like all albums from Panic! At The Disco, a bit of a mess - but at the same time, it was probably my favourite album from them. Yes, it's not quite as complex as their previous works, but it nailed the elements that cemented Panic! At The Disco as the spiritual successors to Brian Wilson in my mind: incredibly catchy hooks, a wide diversity of instrumentation, surprisingly insightful lyrics, and way more heartfelt emotion than you'd expect from a bunch of leftovers from emo pop rock. I highly recommend the album and for me it was one of the highlights of 2011... And it flopped. Not critically - while most critics have never been the biggest fans of Panic! At The Disco, there was probably the most positive critical consensus with Vices & Virtues - but it certainly didn't sell well. Of course, that was to be expected, because it was released in 2011, with the club boom that wasn't nearly dead yet. On top of that, the label's choice of singles was pretty lousy (they should have led with 'Memories' and pivoted to 'Sarah Smiles'), and to be honest, Panic! At the Disco had lost a ton of fans over their career with their wildly shifting artistic direction. Plus, most former fans had long ago branded them as one of those 'emo acts' that we're all supposed to hate now, along with Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. But with Fall Out Boy's return this year with Save Rock And Roll, I wasn't surprised to see Panic! At The Disco preparing to release an album, one that was reportedly supposed to be about Vegas and the darker, seedier side of that town in the modern age, partially inspired by Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. At this point, I threw up my hands helplessly and went into this album expecting a deranged, cacophonous mess, but hopefully one with some great songs and interesting ideas. Did Panic! At The Disco's Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die! succeed?
Really not sure how this retro review will go down, to be honest. I'm pretty pleased with it, but you never know. This week will promise to be absolutely goddamn insane, and I'm going to try to cover as much as I can, but with family coming down on Friday and a full work schedule as it is... this could be a tough week. Stay tuned!
Here's something that you might not know about me: I'm a huge follower of the Billboard Hot 100 charts. I find them surprisingly fascinating in a perverse sort of way, watching what gets airplay and mainstream success thanks to a nebulous ranking which is plagued by changes in policy, odd editorial direction, or outright mistakes. The funny thing is that the music industry has had something of a love/hate relationship with Billboard throughout the decades, particularly in the mid-to-late 90s, where the record industry manipulated the charts through carefully timed single releases (to abuse the policy where a single had to be released to chart, neglecting album cuts, so the label would wait until a song had peak radio airplay then release the single to maximize chart position). And then you have cases like earlier this year, where Billboard finally decided to include YouTube streams in response to 'Gangnam Style' being blocked for weeks by a lousy Maroon 5 song ('One More Night') - and then the goddamn Harlem Shake went to #1 for five weeks.
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that every week, I make a point of going through the Hot 100 and checking out what I've been missing - as I've said, I've got a populist streak, and it makes sense to be engaged. And in the course of doing so, I've noticed a few anomalies on the charts, songs that sound a little out-of-place - intriguingly so, in a way. And one of those songs comes from the act I'm going to talk about today: Bastille.
Bastille is a band that falls into an intriguing category for me: indie rock bands that most music critics don't want to cover and yet are widely liked by the mainstream, otherwise known as 'silent majority' acts. This year, the acts that fit the bill are bands like The 1975, or Bastille, or The Neighborhood (who I'll be covering a little later) - and it often seems like music critics only review these bands with the strongest of trepidation. And to be fair, it's not hard to see why: these are acts that are being pushed towards the mainstream by the label, and with the right single or Glee cover, they can rapidly become massive hits. This happened in 2011 with Foster The People, it happened in 2012 with fun., and now it's clear the labels are looking to recreate that success this year - and some critics resent this because they feel these bands are shallow facsimiles of what 'authentic' indie music is. Now the whole argument regarding what is artistically 'authentic' or 'underground' these days with the rise of the internet has gotten insanely convoluted and more than a little stupid, so let me drop my solitary opinion here: I'm going to be making my authenticity judgement based on the music and the lyrics, not some hypothetical indie criteria or whether or not Pitchfork slobbers all over them. And I since I've got a stronger pop sensibility than some - and because I still need more time to get through Dream Theater's discography - I'm going to take a look at Bastille's debut album Bad Blood. Does it rise above its 'silent majority' status?
This review took a bit longer than I expected, but it's out. Finally. Next week will be insane - five or six new albums dropping, plus I'm going to try and knock off a few retrospectives. A life, what's that? Stay tuned!
Yes, I'm aware of the hypocrisy here with me making that statement and immediately jumping into my review of her recent album, but here's the big difference between me and what most of the non-thinking members of the entertainment press did in the aftermath of the VMAs: I'm going to talk about her music. I don't care about her image or her supposedly 'scandalous' behaviour, and as much as I'm annoyed she found a way to get twerking inserted in the cultural lexicon, I'm really not all that bothered by the fact she managed to drive up controversy at the VMAs and give the program another couple years of relevance. Frankly, the level of slut-shaming by too many correspondents 'commenting' on this issue has reached disgusting levels, particularly when you consider historical context - I mean, maybe I'm just looking at this from somebody who knows his country music, but do any of you remember Billy Ray Cyrus' early persona? He was the one who wore the sleeveless shirts and conducted his concerts like a Chip 'n Dale show and showed up in Dolly Parton's 'Romeo' where she and a gaggle of other female country singers mooned over how incredibly hot he was - in 1992, no less! And sure, he got flack for it, but when Miley does the same thing in a pop context, everyone loses their goddamn minds?
Ugh. No, if I'm going to take an issue from Miley's VMA performance, it'd be with the music - it sounded terrible, mostly because Miley Cyrus isn't very good live (she goes sharp and off-key more often than she should) and was working with a lousy song. If anything, that's been one of the big issues I've had with Miley Cyrus as an 'artist': she has been given a ton of really terrible material by her handlers who seem bewildered by the fact that Miley clearly wants to take her image in a much more provocative direction. If she's given good songs, she tends to be fairly decent on them, as evidenced by her presence on the excellent 'Ashtrays & Heartbreaks' by Snoop Lion - which, I should add, is still one of my favourite songs of the year. And thus, I think I was the only critic stepping away from the VMAs thinking, 'Well, she's got a new album coming out and she's apparently got songwriting credits on the majority of the songs - this could actually be interesting, all things considered!' And given that Miley at least seems invested in her material (in comparison with her fellow pop starlet Selena Gomez), it might come across as better than expected.
So I gave her new album Bangerz a listen - did Miley Cyrus manage to present something interesting?