Let me take you back a few years. See, back in the mid-2000s the Billboard Hot 100 charts were in a very weird place. Southern crunk was deteriorating rapidly, indie rock briefly exploded before fizzling out, pop punk and the newest incarnation of emo were tearing up the charts, and pop music was in a weird place, either coasting off of slinky R&B in the vein of Justin Timberlake or with crossovers from other genres, like Gwen Stefani building her short-lived solo career away from No Doubt or Nelly Furtado selling out to work with Timbaland and actually making better music for the trouble. And it was in this period that a series of bands discovered they could churn out hits making soft, introspective middle-brow material with just a hint of a rock edge, and in 2006 we got a deluge of bands some enterprising critics deemed 'Dawson's Creek rock'. You know the genre, songs that are just perfectly inoffensive enough to be played over long meditative montages where James Van Der Beek wistfully stares off into the distance and cries about something. And in 2006, we got the motherload, with Daniel Powder's 'Bad Day' topping the Billboard Hot 100 list of that year, with a whole slew of acts like Five For Fighting, James Blunt, Coldplay, Snow Patrol, and others surging up the charts. Hell, even Nickelback tried to go in this genre before reverting to their typical brand of meat-headed mediocrity. And to be fair, as much as I like to make fun of this genre (mostly because it's so damn easy), there was quality here, and while Snow Patrol was always the best of the genre (you know it's true), I do wish the boom had lasted a little longer and given adult alternative acts at least a little more staying power before the genre practically evaporated with the club boom with only a few exceptions. And among the list of bands to explode in that year was The Fray, a band I only find remarkable because of how incredibly accessible they were. Not enough of a brawny edge to fall into post-grunge, yet not soft enough to be dismissed as easy listening schlock, The Fray had a smash hit with their debut album How To Save A Life - despite the fact it wasn't that good and hasn't really aged well. Critics have never been kind to The Fray, and there's a very good reason for that: when you try so damn hard to please a wide audience, you end up losing some unique identity yourself. And while I tended to like their more melodic focus more than most critics, I've never been fond of Isaac Slade's vocals, I've found the guitars lacking in texture, and the lyrics have always teetered on the line between overly earnest and kind of endearing and borderline parody. In any case, The Fray hit a stumbling block with their second self-titled album, mostly because it was playing in the same wheelhouse with somehow worse lyrics. And after recording a cover of Kanye West's 'Heartless' that completely missed the point, I assumed their careers were over. But it turns out in 2012 they put out a third album Scars & Stones, and while The Fray were touting their ability to stick together, I was seriously wondering if they had forgotten their strengths. At this point, the lyrics were borderline token, Slade's falsetto was painfully weak, and the good melodies had been subsumed under flat guitar lines that were trying to sound big but had none of the personality. At this point, I assumed anybody who was still listening to The Fray had picked up Fallen Empires by Snow Patrol (a much better album) and had put The Fray out of their minds forever. Well, it turns out The Fray have a new album with a new single that sounded nothing like The Fray I knew, so out of sheer curiosity I picked up Helios. Was it the shift in direction The Fray needed to stay relevant?
Well, that was a lot better than I expected. That's always pleasant to see. Okay, next up will be The Fray's newest album, because I need a little more time to get through St. Vincent's excellent discography. Stay tuned!
So I'm going to tell you all something I'm not fond of admitting: from about mid-2008 to 2011, I didn't listen to a huge amount of country music. Sure, there were a few artists, new and old, that I did follow, and a few of my favourite country acts like the Zac Brown Band really exploded in that period. But mainstream country radio and I weren't seeing eye to eye, and the only acts outside of my favourites that I followed were the ones that eventually ended up on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 chart. But honestly, I was drifting away from country music even earlier than that, and thus going back to explore the discography of Dierks Bentley was something of a revelation. While I recognize a number of his singles, it became very quickly apparent why I never really followed him. Unlike acts like Rascal Flatts (a band I've never liked and one that was mostly responsible for driving me away from country for a time), Dierks Bentley stuck with more rough-edged neotraditional country music, but at the same time he didn't really stand out. He didn't have Eric Church's ambition, Jason Aldean's politics, Toby Keith or Brad Paisley's humour, or even Tim McGraw's gift for comforting music and killer hooks, and for a guy who churned out an impressive number of high charting hits and albums, he never really stuck with me. Now that's not saying that he makes bad music, or that his career hasn't been interesting. In 2010 after three critically well-received releases and one dud, he pulled a hard left away from mainstream country radio and released a bluegrass-inspired album that featured plenty of supporting acts from the edges of mainstream country (and was actually pretty damn solid), but that was more of an overgrown side-project and he came roaring back in 2012 with Home. That was an album that did notch some hits but nothing I really loved, mostly because they were lodged in proto-bro country territory and not the charming side at that. And thus I was seriously skeptical about his newest album Riser, partially because I recognized many of the Nashville songwriting machine behind it and not - bizarrely - Jim or Brett Beavers, two songwriters he's been working with since the beginning of his career. Yet on the other hand, he also recruited Kacey Musgraves as a collaborator on his opening track so I had no idea what to expect. So how did it go?
So the Grammys are a joke. It's amazing how few people actually know this, because they take it shockingly seriously for an award show that really has never earned the clout of a show like the Academy Awards. Now we metal fans have known the Grammys are a joke for years, because the metal and hard rock awards have never gone to the best acts in the genre or even the critically acclaimed ones, or, to put it another way, Evanescence, Linkin Park, Slipknot and Korn have more Grammys than Dream Theater, Nightwish, Queens of The Stone Age, or Ayreon. I know progressive metal is rarely well-reviewed, well, anywhere, but there's something wrong with that. Well, a few weeks ago, the hip-hop community who don't remember Will Smith, Young MC and Chris Brown having more Grammys than Public Enemy or De La Soul or 2Pac or Biggie Smalls got pretty damn angry that Macklemore won best Rap Album of the year over Kendrick Lamar's star-making album of 2012, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. And as much as I like The Heist, it's not better than Kendrick Lamar, who is probably the biggest genuine talent to come out of rap music in a while. The man is smart, nuanced, has a great ability to switch things up and vary his flow, and he's currently signed to Aftermath and is working with Eminem so if he handles his career well, he'll be fine. The fun fact is that, like most rappers who get famous, Kendrick is using his newfound success to give some of his friends a popular boost. And now we come to Schoolboy Q, fellow member of Black Hippy and gangsta rapper in his own right. I first became familiar with the guy off of his first full-length album Setbacks - and honestly, while it was good enough, I wasn't blown away. Schoolboy Q had a flexible, versatile flow but there were a lot of sloppy rhymes and not enough original content to impress me much or differentiate him from any other gangsta rapper. His socially-conscious, more mature songs were always the best on the album, but there was a lot of weed rap and brag rap that wasn't all that engaging and stuff I'd heard plenty of times before. Fortunately, his technique got a lot better on the follow-up Habits & Contradictions, an entire album set on exploring the inherent contradictions in gangsta lifestyle and Schoolboy Q himself. The album is dark and moody, but it never really loses momentum, most of the beats are surprisingly strong, Schoolboy Q brings a dark viciousness to his delivery, and all of his guest stars deliver. What's even better is how it works on two levels: if you want crass, hard-hitting gangsta rap, you'll find it, but if you look in the right spots, you'll find a surprisingly mature record lurking beneath it that trusts the audience enough not to spell out its insight - and while I won't say the album is precisely great, I've definitely heard worse gangsta rap albums in my life. And I have to admit, I was more than a little interested about what he'd deliver with Oxymoron, his major label debut and apparently a record where Schoolboy Q had a lot more creative control and flexibility. He stressed that he was sticking with his gangsta image and that gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, gangsta rap has a certain visceral appeal as a power fantasy and Schoolboy Q is smart enough not to frame himself as a role model by any means. On the other hand, we've had gangsta rap for over twenty years at this point and he was already retreading old ground on his last album, albeit doing it well, so what new material was Schoolboy Q going to bring to the table?
I might have been harsh on this album, but I really wish it was stronger and more memorable than it is. And considering what's looking to be coming out in March... yikes, it looks rough, folks. About four more albums coming out in the rest of February, so stay tuned!
Before we begin, let me share with you something that's fairly common to all music nerds, including myself: we have a strong sense of history. We've often built ourselves a stored back catalog of music from the past that we like to revisit or hold up as classics, and nothing gives most music nerds more pleasure than finding ways of linking the music of the past to the music of today. And while that can make some music nerds a little insufferable - and I count myself among that number on occasions - it can be rewarding to trace the lineage of a song or an artist, especially when that artist doesn't sound distinctly modern.
So to indulge that vice of mine, let's talk a bit about Angel Olsen. An indie folk singer-songwriter, she burst onto the scene in 2012 with Half Way Home, a debut album I liked but never quite loved. I've mentioned often I'm not a fan of white guys with acoustic guitars, and I often hold the fairer sex under the same umbrella. What made Angel Olsen stand out most was her voice, as it was very reminiscent (for me at least) of traditional country singers from the 50s and 60s, most notably Patsy Cline. It was emotive and powerful and had a great wounded vulnerability that was well-balanced against her impressive stage presence, and it was really quite compelling - almost enough to make you overlook the fact that the instrumentation wasn't anything stellar or that the lyrics were only really passable at best, pretty but not exactly substantial or powerful on their own. Sure, they supported her vocal style well, but if we want to draw a Patsy Cline comparison, she's not as good of a songwriter as Willie Nelson. On top of that, there were moments where I felt Angel Olsen might have oversold her vocals a little bit - she never engaged in the histrionics that annoy me with some vocally talented indie folk singers, but there were moments that definitely lacked subtlety.
So when early buzz was suggesting her newest album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was going in a rougher, more upbeat direction, I was definitely interested. I wasn't sure how good it would sound, but a lack of memorable melodies was a problem with the last album and now that she was on a new label, maybe it would give her instrumentation more of a kick. So how did it go?
And at this point, does anyone care? Does anyone want to hear me deliver yet another discussion/rant about bro-country like the half-dozen other times I've done it in front of every other act in this vein I've covered? I've given this particular subgenre more intellectual consideration and brain cells than it deserves, talked about the good albums and the bad albums, and at this point, I don't know what else to say. Despite songwriters, country artists, and even radio programmers saying that we've hit peak bro-country a good few months back, we're still getting artists coming out of the woodwork trying to cash in! How and why does this keep happening?
Well, in the case of Cole Swindell, I actually have an answer for that. See, what you might not know is that bro-country superstar Luke Bryan and popular Nashville songwriter Dallas Davidson were roommates at Georgia Southern University. Well, it turns out - and this is so hilariously ironic I couldn't believe it when I first read it - that Luke Bryan belonged to the fraternity Sigma Chi, and so did Cole Swindell. In fact, Swindell sold merchandise for Luke Bryan for three years before trying to make it as a songwriter himself. Fortunately for him, he hitched his star to the right wagon, Luke Bryan and bro-country became the biggest things in country music, and Cole Swindell became his opening act.
Now Cole Swindell is a bit unique in comparison with most bro-country acts, in that he doesn't really rely on the Nashville songwriting machine as heavily (indeed, there's not a single Dallas Davidson song on the album, which did surprise me) and he has writing credits on all of his songs. Hell, he's even written songs for other artists like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, Scotty McCreery, and even Chris Young's half-hearted stab at bro-country last year. The bad news is that everything he's written is terrible, some of the worst songs on the albums in question and at best only rising to being interchangeable and bland. And that was one of the reasons I didn't want to cover this album, just abuse it for five minutes.
I didn't want to cover this album. See, I've gone on record a number of times before stating that acts in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' mold just aren't for me. I find the genre oversaturated with too many acts of limited talent writing meandering songs that go nowhere in the 'Screw Me I'm Sensitive' school of songwriting. Now some of you might find this hard to believe, considering I'm a fan of country music, but most of this comes from country having a stronger attachment to songwriting structure in comparison to many of the would-be singer-songwriters dwelling in the indie folk scene. And sure, I appreciate earnestness and I like good singer-songwriters, but if you're going to go for minimalism in this vein, you only have a few elements to display and you'd better not screw them up. And I'll admit, I was immediately skeptical when I started hearing the rave reviews for the newest album from Sun Kil Moon titled Benji. Sun Kil Moon is the project of long-time singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, formerly of the Red House Painters and a long-time staple of the indie scene. And initially when the critical buzz started flying about this act, I started going through the discography - and I stopped. Why? Well, the guitar work was very good and the songwriting was interesting and layered, but for the life of me, I couldn't stand Kozelek's voice. It reminded me of Gary Lightbody's voice stripped of all good vocal technique and between the slurring and constantly going flat, as a singer myself it was distracting and it took away from the lyrics. And midway through Tiny Cities, that album of Modest Mouse covers that completely missed the point, I gave up and said, 'Well, look, I'm not a fan, so just ignore the act altogether and avoid pissing off everybody'. But the positive reviews kept coming in and it began to look like this album was more than just the Pitchfork hype machine, and in my mind I kept thinking about Dream River, the album from singer-songwriter Bill Callahan that I covered last year and ended up being one of my favourites. And it was either trying again with Sun Kil Moon or tackling Cole Swindell (ugh) and delivering yet another bro-country rant, so I gave Sun Kil Moon another chance and picked up Benji, hoping for the best. How did it go?
I've been a fan of Beck for years - if I was looking for an act I would describe as my 'go-to' for describing what indie rock can deliver at its best, Beck would be near the top of my list. Beautifully textured instrumentation (most of which he plays himself), dense lyrics, and a real heartfelt connection to his music that shows he's giving it his all, he's one of the most talented composers and songwriters to explode in the 90s, and all of his albums are worth your time, with my personal favourites being Mutations and Sea Change. That being said, Beck has been fairly quiet over the past few years, his last major project attracting headlines being Song Reader, a book full of sheet music he wrote for others to put together if they wanted to play his material. It turned out he had a very good reason for delaying his most recent effort: he had received a spinal injury back in 2008 which had led to a painful recovery process (one of the reasons the vocals on his last album Modern Guilt were so subdued and muted). That, on top of his other assorted projects and a change in label to Capitol Records, meant that by the time Beck had planned to release his newest album, six years had gone by, which really can feel like an eternity in indie rock. But now he's back with his newest album Morning Phase and I couldn't be more excited. A return to his country and folk roots with a decidedly lighter tone (well, lighter for Beck), paired as a companion piece to Sea Change? There aren't many ways to get me more enthusiastic about an indie rock project! So, did it live up to my expectations?
So recently on my walk to the karaoke bar downtown I like to frequent, I discovered a new club has opened up on route - but not your typical overpriced downtown Toronto nightclub. No, this is a place that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a country bar. And every time I walk past that bar wearing my cowboy boots and my heavy leather coat, I always have to restrain a smirk at the massive line of people trying to dress 'country', or at least in a way that blends it with standard nightclub wear. Because let's be completely fair here: most of these guys and girls would not be listening to country music if it wasn't for Taylor Swift or the rise of bro-country, and I know that more than a few of them likely threw country music under the bus a good five or six years ago. But if I'm being embarrassingly honest, I can't help but feel really quite happy at the popular revival among my generation that seems to be happening with country music. Because, sure, a lot of them are only jumping on the bandwagon for Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line (or, if they're in a more antisocial mood or want to be secure in their masculinity they'll go with Eric Church), but of that generation there will be an increased number of people who'll go deeper and find better country music beyond the popular trends, maybe in the past or in the alternative or underground scenes. And with more media outlets and critics starting to cover country music, it gives me hope that the under-served genre can be revitalized in the critical discussion. So on that note, let's talk about Lydia Loveless. Her major label debut album Indestructible Machine came out in 2011 and immediately attracted some buzz because of Lydia's fusion of classic country and punk rock - and it is awesome. The best way to describe this album would be a fusion of Hank Williams III's production and acerbic wit, Danielle Bradbery's voice, and Exile To Guyville-era Liz Phair's brand of cutting, yet vulnerable and emotionally poignant feminism. It was raw, unbridled, and distinctly memorable, with sharp lyrics and even sharper delivery, so it was obvious I was going to be interested in her follow-up this year with Somewhere Else. How did it go?
If you've been watching my reviews for a while, you've probably noticed that I don't tend to set indie rock on a pedestal. There's a reason for that: there's good and bad stuff in any musical genre, and I don't discriminate. But I would be lying if I didn't say that my standards are different for certain genres of music, and there's a reason for that: certain genres are trying to do different things and have different focuses. Most pop albums are only really trying to get you to dance or have a nonspecific good time, and if the album does it well, it has succeeded in its goal. The album isn't going to get critical acclaim from me unless it goes above and beyond - but then again, that's what I'd say about any album from any genre. The difference is that certain artists within certain genres - like indie rock or alternative country or progressive metal or certain branches of hip-hop - have bigger goals in mind. They're aiming to make something more artistically significant than just dance tracks - and while it's very tempting to reward an act just for the idea, it's the execution of the idea that really matters. That's why I've thrown some pretty harsh reviews at indie rock acts like The Neighbourhood or Young The Giant or, hell, even acts I've mostly liked in the vein of Lorde, HAIM, or Bastille. I appreciate that these acts are aiming higher, believe me, but that it's how they execute that vision that I'd like to see. It falls along the line of a central tenet of my musical philosophy: that genre is simply a descriptor of music, not a measurement of quality, and a transcendent album of any genre can be just as emotionally impacting or intellectually rewarding as any other. So what happens when you get a duo like Phantogram, who like to toe the line of indie pop between modern synthpop or the off-beat weirdness of some of their tourmates and collaborators, like The Flaming Lips? Well, that was a question I was looking to answer when I picked up their most recent album Voices - albeit not expecting much. That wasn't to say Phantogram's first album Eyelid Movies was bad - far from it, it was enjoyable enough - but it wasn't a record that really stood out to me so I was looking forward to getting reacquainted with the band. How did it go?
First, a question: how many albums do you listen to in a year?
This year, with the reviewing, I'm probably set to break two hundred. The average person I reckon doesn't get much above five percent of that, and even that feels charitable. What it ends up meaning is that I expose myself to a ton of music on a very regular basis from many different genres, and on a technical level, you learn to recognize unique facets of certain bands. You learn to hear guitar texture or triggering in the kick drums or nuance in vocal delivery or true instrumental complexity done in a cohesive manner. But the average listener doesn't care about these things - hell, even most music fans don't care about those elements, which puts me - along with other critics - in a complicated situation when it comes popular acts who attempt more experimental albums and screw it up. The two immediate examples that come to my mind are Mind Over Matter by Young The Giant and The Outsiders by Eric Church, two albums that tried more 'technical experimentation' in their instrumentation and didn't do it well by any stretch of the mind. It wasn't cohesive, it didn't flow well with the rest of the track, and it sounded sloppy - but yet the average listener is never going to pick up on that. Hell, they might find it mind-blowing if they don't know otherwise - and as a critic, it's a delicate balance between recognizing your own perspective and criticizing an act for poor execution.
Now that's not a recanting of my opinions - I stand by my comments regarding those acts, harsh though they may be, and while I can identify possible knowledge gaps in my audience, willful ignorance and blind myopia infuriates me to no end. So let me aim to correct some of that and introduce you all to a band you probably don't know if you don't listen to progressive metal, and one of my go-to acts when pointing out how to make complex, technical music incredibly well: the genre-defying band known as Cynic. Starting in the late 80s, they exploded with their debut album Focus, which is widely considered one of the best progressive albums ever released - even though defining the genre Cynic fit in was always a challenge. Death metal growling juxtaposing with spacey vocoder singing, progressive time signatures fused with jazz-inspired harmonies and rhythms, it was an album that was not looking to make it easy on the listener and demanded a lot of listens to truly decode. It was an awe-inspiring debut album that remains a classic...
And then Cynic split up and didn't release any new material for fifteen years. They thankfully reunited in 2006, and two years later released Traced In Air, an album that took steps away from the band's rougher roots towards a smoother, spacier sound. And the album is goddamn amazing, one of the best of 2008 and a long-time favourite of mine - I honestly like it more that Focus! But that album, along with the remix album Re-Traced and the EP Carbon-Based Anatomy were signs that Cynic wasn't content with being a traditional metal band or one that could be easily defined. And with early buzz suggesting their newest album had dropped the growling entirely and had moved even further towards progressive space rock, I had no idea what to expect from the oddly titled Kindly Bent To Free Us. So how did it turn out?
Let's talk - again - about bro-country. Because at this point, its prevalence in mainstream country is starting to really get on my nerves. And not for the reason you might think - as I've said in the past, bro-country is a qualifying term and not immediately a denigrating factor; just because something is bro-country doesn't immediately make it bad. But since it's everywhere, it immediately colours my expectations when it comes to certain debut acts. I mean, I can take a look at the album cover, that one hit single that gets popular, and the track list overloaded with Music Row's songwriting machine, and I can make a snap judgement on the genre. But now I'm not so sure that holds up anymore. Both Eric Paslay and (to a lesser extent) Jon Pardi surprised me by being more than just their hit singles and actually being promising country artists when I delved into their albums. In other words, I'm not quite sure what to expect going into acts like Frankie Ballard, who recently released his second album Sunshine & Whiskey. And on the surface, this looks like an archetypal bro-country album: he has only one writing credit on this record, you have a selection of Nashville's 'finest' writing for this guy, and his lead single 'Helluva Life' fits directly into the softer 'bros-trying-to-be-sensitive' brand of country that's popular right now as bro-country tries to show it has variety and staying power. And considering he was yet another male country star with an underwritten Wikipedia page and was introduced to the world via a contest run by Kenny Chesney, I had no high hopes this album would be very good. But I've been surprised in the past, and I went into this record with the slightest hope that even if it was bro-country, it'd be listenable. Was I right?
Let's briefly talk about nu metal. Born in the early 90s but exploding in the latter half of that decade, it was a genre I only happened to listen to in retrospect years after its popularity crashed, taking its rock-bottom reputation with it. Widely considered by metal purists to be a mainstream sell-out branch of 'real' metal, it's a genre that tends to inspire a lot of negative comparisons - and while there is some material of quality if you look for it, there isn't much. And while I tend to be more forgiving of nu metal than some critics, the lack of authenticity and texture in their instrumentation combined with atrociously whiny lyrics and a meatheaded attitude tended to set my teeth on edge. At least when hair metal or crunk got sleazy and borderline misogynist it sounded attractive and fun, while nu metal was content to wallow in misery - and since I never had an 'angry white boy' phase, I can't take it remotely seriously. And the depressing fact is that I think it might be coming back. Though I didn't review Of Mice And Men's most recent album Restoring Force (I didn't feel I knew enough metalcore to give the band an objective opinion, but overall I was meh on it), I definitely heard plenty of the hallmarks of nu metal on that album. And combined with new acts like Emmure and Hollywood Undead, and the popular revival of acts like Korn and Staind and Limp Bizkit (God help us all), I get the unpleasant feeling we haven't seen the last of this genre. But here's the somewhat ironic fact: nu metal's worst critics tend to be former nu metal artists, and this takes us to Deftones and lead singer Chino Moreno. Deftones has a better reputation than most nu metal acts, mostly because they were a bit more abstract in their lyrics and they jumped off the bandwagon faster towards the alternative metal/post-metal scene. I've never really been a Deftones fan, but the critical acclaim the band has received was enough to get me to look into the debut album from Chino Moreno's side project Crosses, with promises that it was melodic and thoughtful in comparison to his work with Deftones, leaning instead towards electronic rock. Did those promises follow through?
Here's a fun observation about mainstream country music: despite the dominance of male country acts, there aren't a lot of acts that focus on the darker edges of country music. You know the songs: the ones about kicking ass, drinking whiskey, playing hard and raising hell. And while you get some acts who try to talk about these subjects on mainstream radio, the majority of them aren't convincing, mostly because the instrumentation is so polished and clean and overproduced that none of the rough instrumental texture carries in to support the lyrics about crime, hard living, and the vast number of nastier topics most country musicians won't touch.
Yes, I'm talking about outlaw country, a genre that started in the 60s and lasted for a few decades before fragmenting into smaller and smaller scenes within country music, the majority of which doesn't get mainstream airplay. And believe me, that pisses me off, mostly because outlaw country is probably my favourite subgenre within country music, partially because I've always liked grimy Westerns, partially because I love murder ballads (and outlaw country is really one of the best genres for that type of song), and partially because there's a raw, potent authenticity to the music that just works for me. And what's so surprising - and ironic in a twisted sort of way - is that more bro-country acts don't even come close to utilizing the outlaw formula. After all, it's a subgenre focused on being badasses (at least on a superficial level) and I'm sure there are bro-country artists who would be attracted to the ubermasculine power fantasy of it all.
And on that note, let's talk about Eric Church. Now he's not a bro-country artist - hell, I'd have a hard time calling him a country act on some songs rather than Southern rock - but he definitely has his eyes fixed on outlaw country, a rarity for a successful country act in the mainstream. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a country act try as hard as Eric Church does to be an outlaw - and what's all the more tragic is that he hasn't quite pulled it off. Maybe it's his voice not quite having the grit or texture on those first three albums, maybe it's his instrumentation which really comes across as trying way too hard to sound rough and impressive and ends up sounding stunningly inorganic, or maybe it's the fact he's just not a great songwriter in the tradition of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, or Merle Haggard - either way, it's not quite clicking.
Now don't get me wrong, Eric Church is by no means a bad artist, and I respect the hell out of him for trying as hard as he does, across the board. You're not going to find many mainstream country acts who put this much effort into their instrumentation and sound, especially when doing so could mean a loss of mainstream success. But maybe it's the clumsiness in the songwriting or the fact that Eric Church seems to be taking everything way too seriously, but every time I listened to his last album Chief, I was always struck by how little he was getting for all the effort. The sadly ironic thing is that on the looser tracks where Eric Church wasn't trying as hard and seemed to be having fun, the music was a lot better.
Unfortunately, the early buzz surrounding Church's newest album suggested that he wasn't about to stop trying way too hard to be an outlaw. And now, we have his newest album titled The Outsiders, a title so on the nose that I can't help but raise an eyebrow and make comparisons with the S.E. Hinton novel that we all read in junior high (the one that was adapted into the film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and had Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Waits, and C. Thomas Howell). But as much as I'd like to make jokes the entire review, I will endeavour to take this album as seriously as Eric Church: does he strike gold here?
It's common practice in today's age of ubiquitous marketing that whenever there's a new movie coming out, the actors in that film pull double duty and appear on the talk show circuit to promote the film, whether it be great or terrible. And at this point, I'm honestly bewildered at why anyone would buy into that style of promotion - not only is it blatantly direct marketing, most of the actors involved seem to be exasperated to be doing it (see Bruce Willis' breakdown on live British TV regarding A Good Day To Die Hard - and having seen that POS, it's not hard to see why). I mean, the actors have a stake in the film, why the hell should anyone buy into their assertions that the movie is worth seeing instead of, say, the critical press? But let's take this a step further: what happens when you get celebrity endorsements for acts where there's no connection between them whatsoever? Well, to place stock in that sort of endorsement, I'd argue that it'd come down to the expertise said celebrity brings to the table. For instance, I got a comment when I reviewed Young The Giant's Mind Over Matter that my opinion was somehow invalid because Morrissey liked that album - and on the face of it, it's a hard argument to beat. Morrissey is a critically-acclaimed musician with decades in the industry, so why shouldn't his opinion be held higher than mine? Well, I could easily point out the long list of things Morrissey likes that are garbage and the even longer list of things Morrissey hates that aren't worth hating, but instead I'd like to take the high road and talk about a debut album endorsed by a member of The Smiths I can tolerate. This brings us to Sun Structures by the band Temples, a psychedelic rock act that has been acclaimed by Johnny Marr and Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher as one of the best new bands in England. Now that's high praise from two of the most influential names in English rock in the past thirty years, but even on that note I was skeptical. Celebrity endorsements might be indicators of quality on a roughly defined scale, but everyone has different tastes, and I'm not going to be a hypocrite and parrot the praise of legends without giving the band an evaluation myself and discovering why I might like or dislike the band outside of additional press. So, what did I think of Sun Structures by Temples?
I've got the sinking feeling that bro-country isn't going away. No, despite Kacey Musgraves winning the Grammy for Best Country Album for Same Trailer, Different Park - a well-deserved win, I might add - it doesn't mean the country music paradigm is going to change overnight, and some of the bigger bro-country acts aren't just going to evaporate. Like in the aftermath of the club boom of 2009-11, the b-listers are the ones that fall away in, leaving the heavyweights behind. But that's not to say that bro-country is going to stay in the same form, and if you take a look at the hits from Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Blake Shelton, they've opted to move away from the summer time party anthem to mid-tempo relationship songs, with mixed results. For Blake Shelton it's an easy shift, he's been making this material for over a decade, but Florida Georgia Line's 'Stay' is clumsy, overwrought, and really hard to take seriously, and it's becoming apparent that band might not have a lot of staying power. But maybe I'm even wrong about that, because there are still acts looking to hop on the good-time bro-country bandwagon, which takes us to Eric Paslay, another country singer with a criminally underwritten Wikipedia page. He struck a hit with his song 'Friday Night', which is clearly trying to jump on the trend, but he doesn't strike the image of the typical bro-country act. For one, he's older, 31 at the time of this review, and for another, he has major writing credits on all of his songs. He doesn't quite look the part of a bro-country singer, and if that wasn't convincing, his collaborating work with Amy Grant of all people might be indicative that we're dealing with someone different. And while I thought 'Friday Night' was played-out and not that interesting, I had a feeling there was more to this guy, so I checked out his debut, self-titled album: how was it?
It's hard to know what you'll get when you have two acts choosing to collaborate - because believe it or not, you don't always get success. Yeah, I've covered a number of great collaborations - Run The Jewels, Step Brothers, half of Within Temptation's last album - but you don't always get success when you put together artists that have differing musical styles. Now you don't always get disasters either - the odds of getting a Lulu (Metallica/Lou Reed) aren't likely because true catastrophe albums are pretty rare (and they tend to be hastily edited by the label into something salvageable unless the artists have too much clout for their own good - see here). More often than not you either get wildly incompatible styles and a lack of cohesion that doesn't quite damn the album but doesn't save it either, or you get a fusion in between that's agreeable, but doesn't fully embrace either acts' strengths. And it's in the latter category where I originally placed Broken Bells' self-titled debut album. James Mercer of critically acclaimed indie rock group The Shins and acclaimed producer Danger Mouse came together to form the Broken Bells project, and at the time, I mostly liked the results. The Shins have always had a taste for blissed-out psychedelia and old-fashioned pop that made their first three albums infinitely listenable, and combined with Danger Mouse's eclectic brand of production and Mercer's painfully honest and emotionally effective lyrics, Broken Bells had a lot of catchy, effective charm, even if it was a bit lightweight in terms of subject matter and it never really came together into something special. In other words, it wasn't indicative of both men's best work, and when James Mercer went back and made a new Shins album in 2012, I didn't expect to see much from this project again. Turns out I was wrong, and James Mercer and Danger Mouse have gotten back together to release a new album titled After The Disco under the Broken Bells name. How did it go?
Let me explain a bit how my schedule works. At the beginning of each month, I go through the lists of albums to be released and choose the ones I want to cover. Throughout the month, I make sure to go through the list multiple times to update it, if by some chance I miss an album or someone surprises me (hi, Beyonce!). And when it comes to albums with release dates that are different for international audiences, I tend to be ambivalent on which date I choose - if I the month is busy, I'll typically choose the later one.
That's the main reason why I didn't cover Little Mix's album Salute when it came out late last year. I rationalized that since it had an American release date in February and given my nightmarish schedule in October and November, I figured a delay until 2014 was fine. But even with that in mind, I wasn't really excited to cover this record. I've said in the past that I'm not ashamed of my liking of boy bands or even acts like S Club 7, but I've had mixed luck with girl groups. My favourite is probably still Girls Aloud, but that was more for the phenomenal production work of Xenomania rather than the girls' individual performances. And while I'm mostly ambivalent to positive on The Spice Girls (they've got some great singles, but the albums are the furthest thing from cohesive or all that solid), I really couldn't stand Destiny's Child, who I always thought was the poor man's TLC and never really grew beyond being a jump-off platform for Beyonce (because that's what the band was).
And maybe that was the reason I was a little reticent against approaching Little Mix's second album, because the band made it clear they were moving away from the 'club-dance' scene towards R&B-flavoured pop, and while I don't dislike the genre, it's not something that always interests me, particularly when it's backed by Simon Cowell's record label. And that's the other problem - Simon Cowell has a bad reputation among music circles over the past decade for making sterile copies of what's popular in pop music rather than innovating, and he proved that last year with the insane overproduction on Little Mix's label mates Fifth Harmony, another girl group that never really resonated with me. In other words, I didn't have a good feeling about Salute; was I wrong?