Well, this was fairly quick to take in. Okay, I still need more time before covering Lykke Li, Epica, or Lily Allen, so either Lindsey Stirling or that Ought band Pitchfork went crazy about. Stay tuned!
One of the very first video reviews I ever did was one that caught me by surprise in a good way. The album was Colette Carr's debut album Skitszo, and while I won't deny there were significant issues with that album, it did showcase a promising talent with a lot of personality, and 'No I.D.', a song from that album, landed on my year-end list of the Top 50 songs of 2013.
What's interesting is that that song didn't technically debut in 2013. In fact, the song was originally placed on the album of her main collaborator Frankmusik, a synthpop musician and producer who released that album Do It In The AM in 2011. Admittedly, this proves more than a little frustrating for me, but the song is still great and giving it a chance to get it and Colette Carr some additional recognition is all a good thing. Plus, given the fact that Skitszo was assembled from numerous assorted EPs and other songs, I'm inclined to give it a pass.
But what about Frankmusik, the male singer on the track? Well, after parting ways with his record label in 2011, he set off to make synthpop albums on his own label, first with Between in 2013 and now By Nicole this year. And I'll admit I was curious - I liked the slick glossiness of his production, he had a taste for solid melodic progressions, and he was a convincing presence behind the microphone. So I gave the new album By Nicole a few listens - how did it go?
Well, this has been in my backlog way too long. Glad to finally get a chance to talk about it, especially considering it turned out to be an interesting, if not exactly workable album. Okay, next up will either be Ought or Frankmusik, because I need a little more time to cover Lykke Li, Epica, and (UGH) Lily Allen. Stay tuned!
My very first concert was a Brooks & Dunn concert. I don't remember much of it - I remember Lonestar opened for them and did a pretty solid job, and that Brooks & Dunn really had a lot of flashy fireworks in their show - but the duo left on an impression on me growing up. When I was listening to 90s country, I listened to a lot of Brooks & Dunn, and looking back on them now, I'm not surprised why they did so well. Kix Brooks had the smoother tones to bring in a more pop audience, and Ronnie Dunn had the rougher, more 'country' vocals to appeal to mainstream country fans. That said, as much great line-dancing music as they made, they were never critical darlings, mostly because they weren't exactly deep songwriters before they subsumed to the Nashville songwriting machine. And as much as I like the band for making some 90s country standards, you didn't go to Brooks & Dunn for depth in mainstream country, you had Alan Jackson and George Strait for that. And thus, when Brooks & Dunn split up after two decades of music, I wasn't that fazed. What did interest me was Ronnie Dunn's continued solo career, which he kicked off in 2011 with a self-titled album and is most remembered by me with 'Cost Of Livin'', a brutally tragic song about the continued recession across the United States, especially in rural states and small towns. It was a daring move for a second single, and what makes the song so powerful is that it doesn't present a solution or a message that it's all going to be okay. That song, combined with some vitriolic remarks against the evolving state of modern country, did have me curious about his newest album, albeit with a certain degree of caution. After all, I appreciate steps in a more mature or deep direction, but I'm also aware those comments can be used to placate country music press concerned with authenticity from examining your material. So, what does Ronnie Dunn deliver?
Oh, I bet I'm going to get some hatred for this - which will be frustrating, because I still really do like this band. Eh, what can you do. Next up, I finally tackle Ronnie Dunn before moving onto the May releases. Stay tuned!
Here's one of the funny quirks about pop music, especially about artists who don't chart many hits: said artists will only typically be remembered for the element that stands out the most, which can often be a radically unfair definition of the band's content. And thus when the Neon Trees' singles 'Animal' and 'Everybody Talks' charts highly in 2010 and 2012 respectively, the popular consciousness is that they were a indie pop rock act who wrote plenty of songs about getting laid with almost naively teenage brand of kitsch. And speaking as a fan of the band who really likes both Habits and Picture Show as pop albums, I can say this definitively: that's all they do. They might switch up their style from clattery late-70s/early-80s retropop to Depeche Mode-reminiscent icy synthpop, but Neon Trees almost exclusively write about songs about hooking up and having sex, or being frustrated that they aren't having sex. It's the sort of straightforward narrow-minded pursuit that can straddle the line between embarrassingly cheesy and more than a little unsettling, and this caused some critics to brand the band as one-dimensional. That honestly strikes me as a little unfair, because Neon Trees have tried to switch up the formula across many genres of pop rock, past and present, with varying degrees of success. Personally, I think they score the most points with the committed embrace of ridiculous retro-70s cheese that worked so well for The Killers and Franz Ferdinand, but on their 2012 album there were attempts to go for darker, late 80s-inspired synthpop and darkwave tones with mixed results. What concerned me most about the Neon Trees is that the frenetic edge of their sound was slowly falling away in favour of glossier music, and while they did have a grasp of solid melodies, they might lose of their flavour, especially considering retro-disco pop returned to the charts last year and doesn't seem to be leaving any time soon. And considering I wasn't exactly blown away by their lead-off single 'Sleeping With A Friend', I was a little worried to dig into their newest album Pop Psychology. Was I worrying for nothing, were my fears unfounded?
And to end off a week of hip-hop, we get this. Ugh, wish this was better. Okay, likely no reviews tomorrow given my schedule, but I think I owe everyone a Neon Trees review at some point, so stay tuned!
You know, there are certain one hit wonders that really don't deserve the title. Upon further research, bands like a-ha and Semisonic and Chumbawamba and Dexy's Midnight Runners turn out to be far more than just 'Take On Me' or 'Closing Time' or 'Tubthumping' or 'Come On Eileen'. Just because they managed to capture mainstream attention for a brief, shining second doesn't mean their larger body of work wasn't worth considering, or that the band could or should solely be defined by their one hit.
And then there's Asher Roth, who released 'I Love College' in 2009 and immediately fell into the trap so much worse than the one-hit wonder: that of the Novelty Song artist. Where the song might have captured the zeitgeist for an instant before immediately becoming an instant punchline - or hell, it might have been the punchline upon release. The later reconsideration that can redeem some one-hit wonders is much less likely with Novelty Song artists... and to be fair, it's not like some of them deserve the additional attention. Does Asher Roth deserve reconsideration? Honestly, I'm not sure. Going back to revisit Asher Roth's debut album Asleep In The Bread Aisle wasn't entirely a pleasant experience. Sure, the production was pretty good and I liked the college-rock inspired instrumentation, but I couldn't exactly call Asher Roth a great performer. Technically, he wasn't exactly impressive as a rapper, and his stoner-douchebro affectation really got insufferable after only a few songs, mostly because it was plainly apparent that Asher Roth wasn't trying. And while there are a few acts that can make 'not trying' work for them, Asher Roth wasn't one of them, half because his lifeless flow didn't have the wit or punchlines to back it up, and half because the tracks where he did try were easily the best on the album. But even with that, I couldn't say that I really liked that album - it was smug, crass, and unbelievably petulant at points, and I really wasn't a fan of Asher Roth's style - the Beastie Boys had spent their time pretending to be and satirizing dumb frat boys, so to see Asher Roth do it somewhat unironically wasn't exactly pleasant. But to be fair to the guy, he has finally gotten around to releasing his long-delayed sophomore album, and he's claimed that it's a major shift in direction. And while I'm never one to take an artist on his word, I gave Retro Hash a listen - how did it go?
Man, this one took a lot of work to really unpack, but I'm glad I put in the work for it. Okay, let's round out this week of hip-hop with RetroHash from Asher Roth, and then I'll deal with Neon Trees and Ronnie Dunn. Stay tuned!
How much does it matter where you're from in music? Because in some genres, nobody will care one way or another - as long as the music is good, most heavy metal or pop or indie acts couldn't care less which city or town from whence you came. But when it comes to music that not only just demands a degree of authenticity, but also harkens back to the community at large, location starts to matter. You see this a lot in country music, where regionalism across the United States and Canada plays a bit of a factor in defining the referenced landmarks and delivering a specific appeal. That's one reason why country acts love to reference rural tropes in their music: whether it's building a sense of community or just affirming the fact they came from that sort of upbringing, it's a nationalist spirit in microcosm. And yet in one of many bizarre similarities between country and hip-hop, rap music does a lot of the same. Thankfully we've moved past the eras of region conflicts between west and east coast, but there's still plenty of references and callbacks to the places where these artists came, to frame their stories, add richer detail and context, and give their music a definite sense of place. Both country and hip-hop have a sense of richer history about them, and defining one's place with respect to that history is a major part of some rappers' careers. So when I started to look at Ratking, an upstart alternative hip-hop duo from New York known for chaotic and noisy production in the vein of acts like Death Grips and Clipping and with a reportedly strong punk sensibility, I was curious in spite of my own issues with this particular brand of noise rap. After all, the Beastie Boys were New York rappers who had inclinations towards punk, and they were some of the most influential and awesome acts to ever rock the music world, so it made a certain amount of sense for me to at least get a familiarity with this sort of music. So I picked up So It Goes and gave it a few spins - how did it go?
So do you want to know something that really pisses me off about mainstream radio in the modern era, something that reveals a certain type of systemic sexism that somehow has only gotten worse in the music industry? It's that whenever you have a new, up-in-coming female rapper who has a reputation for being able to spit and deliver potent lyrics, they try to give her a pop or R&B edge or at least that one song that will cross over to mainstream radio because of that pop edge. And as their careers progress, you quickly realize that the radio is going to stick with those pop-friendly songs instead of letting her step up to the microphone with hard-hitting raps, unlike her male counterparts. I mean, outside of Drake, how often have major labels gone up to rappers and said, 'Yeah, you need to be able to sing an R&B ballad or pop tune or you won't get radio play'? Male acts might be asked to dumb down their content - female rappers are asked to change their entire identity. What, you want evidence? Look at Nicki Minaj, or Kreayshawn, or even to some extent with Angel Haze. Hell, even though Colette Carr had more outright pop appeal, her singles weren't exactly the songs where she was outstripping her male counterparts, which she can easily do. And thus when I saw early buzz suggesting Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was going to be singing for the first time on her debut album The New Classic, I simply shook my head. Of course she was - even though she featured on XXL's list of top rap freshmen in 2012 with Danny Brown, Hopsin, and Macklemore, I expected that with the long-delayed release and troubled production, this wasn't going to be a hard-hitting rap album. Either way, I gave the album a listen: how did it turn out?
I do not understand why Future is famous. I've said this before about other artists, most notably about 2 Chainz way back when I reviewed his last album, and the fun fact is that I actually came to an answer about that particular rapper: apparently, he's the funny one. Frankly, since my own sense of humour is weird, I guess I can accept that for 2 Chainz, even though his technical skills as a rapper would have had him laughed out of the game only a decade ago. But with Future, I don't get it, and I'm starting to think I never will. The only reason Future has a career is because his cousin Rico Wade founded Dungeon Family and brought him on - which from a larger point of view blows my mind because this is the music collective that gave us OutKast, Killer Mike, Cee-Lo, Janelle Monae... and then Future. One of these things is not like the other, folks, so let's all give thanks for nepotism! But okay, that's obviously the push that has gotten him success, but why him? He can only barely sing with gratuitous autotune that barely gives him a personality, his rap flow varies between disinterested and embarrassing, his content only manages to paint him as a materialistic, lecherous asshole with none of the charisma that briefly made it excusable from Ludacris or T.I., and he works with terrible producers like Mike Will Made It. I listened to his debut album Pluto, which had five singles that managed to chart, and frankly, I couldn't recommend any of them other than overproduced commercials for the luxury brands he crams into his rhymes. The one thing I'll give Future is that he sounds like nobody else on the radio, but you know that's not always a good thing, right? Just because you stand out somewhat stylistically doesn't mean your lyrical content is worth a damn. But apparently he scraped up enough goodwill to make a second album titled Honest, which apparently is distinctive because Future proclaimed there would be 'no love songs on this album'. I'm fine with that - Future was never convincing on the love songs anyway - but did that mean his new album was worth a damn anyway?
You know, when Eminem released ‘Rap God’ last year, I wonder
how many people saw the underground rapper Pharoahe Monch referenced in the
lyrics and either thought, ‘Hey, I wonder who that is’, or ‘I’ve heard the
name, but if Eminem referenced him, he must be good, so it can’t hurt to check
And I’m not too proud to admit that I include myself in the
second category. I had heard of Pharoahe Monch’s strange and twisted career
before – starting in the underground with the critically acclaimed duo Organized
Konfusion with Prince Poetry before releasing his debut instant classic Internal Affairs in 1999… and then
vanishing from rap music for a good eight years after a sampling controversy
before a comeback and complete shift in style and content with Desire in 2007. I figured that once
again, it was a good opportunity to finally acquaint myself with an artist in
my backlog that I just hadn’t had time to cover.
And man, it’s a good thing I did, because Pharoahe Monch
represents almost everything I love in rap music. A lot of personality and
charisma, a taste for eclectic beats and production, an actual sense of humour,
and most of all a gift for intelligent and layered wordplay that deserved all
of the praise it got. And with the
benefit of that knowledge, I could see traces of his multisyllabic flow and
delivery in so many rappers who followed him that it’s startling that he isn’t
more famous considering his influence.
But when Pharoahe Monch returned to hip-hop in 2007, he came
back with a decidedly different edge, less of the hard-spitting yet deftly
intelligent gangsta rap that characterized his debut and more of a conscious
political angle. Now in theory, I had no issues with this: of the many rappers
who have tackled politics and serious issues in their music, Pharoahe Monch
would probably be one of the few who delivered the material with any degree of
respectable nuance. But when he released his third album We Are Renegades in 2011, I found myself a little dissatisfied. The
political arguments were distinctly disjointed, the wordplay wasn’t quite as
tight, the heavier beats and production that moved away from the soul samples
often felt like they lacked cohesion, and it all spoke to a lack of singular
focus. Sure, the album was still very good and I liked much of the content that
he brought up, but I felt his presentation suffered a bit in bringing it to the
table. On top of that, the dystopian framing device of the album felt a little
silly and hyperbolic to me – not so much bad as lacking in subtlety.
As such, I wasn’t sure what we’d get with Pharoahe Monch’s
newest album Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder. The album did promise a more personal focus – a touch I felt was
somewhat missing from We Are Renegades,
but given it was marketed as a follow-up to that album, I had no idea what he
was planning to do. So I picked up the album and expected the worst – how did
So recently I was watching one of the new React videos from the Fine Bros., specifically the 'YouTubers React to Babymetal'. For those of you who don't know, Babymetal is a band fusing J-pop and heavy metal, amongst other genres, and honestly, they aren't really my thing. But one of the questions the Fine Bros. asked got me thinking: would there be a way to fuse pop and metal in a way that was accessible to the mainstream public? Because when we look back through the Billboard Charts, the periods of time when metal has crossed over into mainstream acceptance has been thanks to rock trends of the time - the punk and post-punk movements in the 70s, hair metal in the 80s, and nu-metal and post-grunge in the 90s and 2000s. But if you were looking to skip the conventional definition of rock altogether to fuse metal and conventional pop, how might you do it? Well in my opinion we already have something of an answer, and that lies in what I'd call the most accessible genre of metal: symphonic metal. Often featuring clean vocals, pretty and upbeat melodies, soaring choruses, this was the method I got into metal and with the commercial success of a band like Evanescence, it's proven to work. And if I was looking to answer one of my recent questions of 'how can I get into symphonic music', I now have an answer if you're coming from pop: Delain, the Dutch symphonic metal band formed in 2002 by former Within Temptation keyboardist Martijn Westerholt and who might be without a doubt the most commercially accessible symphonic metal act from a pop landscape I've ever heard. Now that's not a bad thing: I've stressed a number of times pop music is worth defending and a transitory step between the two very different genres isn't a bad thing. However, Delain also strikes me as a band that instead of effectively blending the two genres chose to water down the metal side significantly. The highest praise I can give the band is that lead vocalist Charlotte Wessels is a really good singer with a lot of emotion and range, but the melodic progressions are simplistic, the guitar solos are inexcusably basic, and the production is shallow at best. On top of that, the band often seems to have a painfully high school sensibility to the lyrics, which can make some of the self-esteem and 'social commentary' anthems come across as overwrought and lacking in nuance. And while symphonic metal lyrics are often arch or borderline-irrelevant, here the arch subject matter comes across as a bit pandering to me, and that rubs me the wrong way. Now let me stress I don't think Delain is a bad band - but in a symphonic metal landscape that has Nightwish, Tarja, Within Temptation, Epica, and others, Delain doesn't really stand out for me. But I figured that I'd give them another chance with their newest album, The Human Contradiction - how was it?
The streak of metal reviews continues with this, and it's awesome. Some great riff-based metal, definitely worth a look. You know, I'll think I'll continue this streak with Delain and continue to ignore Emmure's existence. Stay tuned!
Let's talk briefly about simplicity in music. Now I tend to get a lot of... well, let's call it constructive criticism on my pop reviews saying that, 'Man, it's just pop music, it's not trying to be high art, you're too hard on it!'. And while there are points where that has been true, here's my common rebuttal to that statement: good pop music - indeed, good pop art - can require just as much, if not more talent as any other brand of art. Crafting something that has artistic purpose and can appeal to a wider demographic besides yourself, that isn't easy. And on a similar note, creating something compelling from a decidedly simple formula can be just as difficult. Sure, if you can play a couple chords you can probably make a decent pop song from that foundation, but making that foundation special so it can transcend that simplicity is an entirely different challenge. So when you move into riff-based punk and hard rock, you might notice some of the compositions of the songs are pretty damn simple when it comes to chords and progressions. And yet through delivery, through songwriting, through presentation and production, you can make something entirely unique. But even putting that aside, there's something to be said for purity, refining a simple approach down into something so visceral and effective. I keep bringing up Andrew W.K., but there's a reason why his album I Get Wet is a near-classic in my books: it takes a simplistic approach to composition, lyrics, and delivery, but it uses that simplicity in creating powerful melodic hooks and pumping everything up to larger than life status. It's a perfect fusion of artistic intent and execution, and it's a reason why simple hard-edged, riff-based rock and metal will never go out of style, in that quest to perfect that visceral thrill. As such, I was really looking forward to the debut album from the German heavy metal act The Oath, who were already building a reputation for monstrously powerful riffing that called back to the classic years of heavy metal. So I bought the album and prepared myself for a glorious trip back to the past. Did I get it?
Wow, this album was fun. And since I've been listening through the Pharoahe Monch discography in preparation for his new album, I've been awash in great music lately. Times like these I really like this job. Okay, next up is The Oath. Stay tuned!
I've made no secret of the fact that I have an unironic love of hair metal and hard rock, the sort that was most prevalent throughout the 1980s. Sure, it was dumb, cheesy, and occasionally ridiculously chauvinist, but it was a genre that at least was willing to go over-the-top when it came to instrumental prowess, bombast, and sense of fun to elevate the material, which was a huge redeeming factor for me. And thus, I can appreciate the irony that the hair metal and hard rock I would come to love effectively died out around the time I was born, replaced by a grunge and alternative scene I never really embraced in the same way. But the fun fact is that Nirvana and Pearl Jam didn't really kill that genre more than the genre simply killed itself through over-saturation and a lot of mediocre bands riding the trend, especially in the tail end of the 80s. And thus in 2008, off of listening to 01011001, the newest magnificent progressive metal project from Ayreon, I decided to check out the band of Steve Lee one of the singers associated with the project. That band was Gotthard, a Swiss hard rock that started in 1992, a few years after its brand of hard rock was supposed to be dead and yet still managed to sustain a career... and they're one of my favourite bands of all time. No, I'm not kidding, a retro-hard rock act with a terrible pun for a name is one of my favourite bands, and they're also the act I point to when I say this brand of hard rock is worth defending over their decades-long career. Their cover of Bob Dylan's 'Mighty Quinn' has been my ringtone for five years! So what makes Gotthard worth a damn? Well, in comparison to most hard rock, Gotthard had a melodic focus, which leaned towards killer hooks over displays of sheer instrumental prowess. And while the band had its fair share of cheesy ridiculousness, they also weren't bad songwriters and weren't afraid to take risks with their material or venture into different genres altogether. The combination of those two factors has meant Gotthard has made some killer rock ballads over the years, especially in their mid-period work in the late 90s and early 2000s. However, most people remember Gotthard for their frontman Steve Lee, who honestly might have been one of the best hard rock vocalists in the industry. It wasn't just that he had an impossible range that remained emotionally compelling and expressive, but he made it look easy. Sadly, Steve Lee passed away in a motorcycle accident in October 2010, and Gotthard brought in a new replacement with Nic Maeder for their 2012 album Firebirth. And while that album is pretty good, it's also decidedly transitory, as Maeder is trying to step into some pretty big shoes and he didn't quite seem to fill them, at least initially. And thus, when I heard they were releasing a new album this year with Bang!, I was excited. Hopefully touring and songwriting with the band had improved their chemistry, and this new incarnation of Gotthard would impress me. So how's the album?
And that was the second album that I had to get out of my system! Whew, that feels good. Okay, this week we're going headlong into hard rock and metal, because Gotthard, The Oath, Delain, the solo record from Tuomas Holopainen, and hell, I'll even throw Ratking under this umbrella - they all dropped albums and I'm going to cover them. Hell, I might even cover Emmure's new album! Just kidding, that won't happen. I actually value my time.
It's always a risk when a band makes a choice to go dark.
Because let's face it, while there have been several acts who have made the shift work, it's always jarring for the initial audience and there's the long list of bands whose careers imploded by making a 'dark' album. And depending on the critical or popular acceptance, it can shape the course of bands for better or for much worse.
So when power pop group Cloud Nothings announced they were working with legendary audio engineer Steve Albini and were tackling darker material, some original fans had to been feeling uneasy. This was a band who had been steadily advancing with pretty damn solid power pop that skirted the edges of lo-fi, and the question of whether they'd be capable of delivering the same quality - even with Albini, who worked with The Pixies and Nirvana - had to have been raised.
And yet in 2012, they delivered with Attack On Memory, a goddamn great album that showed the band taking huge steps in a more interesting and dynamic direction with a great melodic focus, solid lyrics, and a concept dedicated to rectifying their fans' preconceived image of the band. And what was better was that the album actually turned into a pretty solid commercial hit on its own, being many people's - including mine - first exposure to the band. And thus when they announced a follow-up without Albini or their former guitarist Joe Boyer, I was curious to see where they'd take their musical direction - would they advance even further or would they backslide?
I've mentioned in the past I have a complicated relationship with gothic music. Because despite some of the things I've mentioned in the past, I do like a large chunk of it and a lot of the bands that pioneered the format remain favourites of mine to this day. And hell, even though I never had an angry white boy phase as a teenager, I won't deny that my unironic love for symphonic metal had more than a passing fondness for goth subculture. But maybe it's just greater exposure, but I only tend to tolerate gothic music of certain veins in small doses, and I liken it to that friend you idolize on some level for being a badass. Sure, he's cool and dark and edgy and can take you on a wild ride, but in the end that brand of darkness either becomes too depressing or too insufferable to tolerate. It's one of the primary character arcs in Edgar Wright's movie The World's End with Simon Pegg's character, and there are a lot of elements that ring true there. Plus, I'll restate what I normally say about nihilistic artwork: if you don't switch up the formula or innovate with it beyond standard goth cliches, it can get insufferable really fast. The funny thing is that four albums into goth metal band Lacuna Coil's career and after the star-making double punch of Comalies and Karmacode, they seemed to have a similar revelation. For me growing up, Lacuna Coil was the good version of Evanescence and while they weren't really on the same playing field as Nightwish or Within Temptation, they still had a niche I appreciated. But after four albums of pretty damn solid gothic metal, they flipped the script somewhat with their 2009 album Shallow Life, an album that still had many goth cliches but a more mainstream-accessible focus. Unfortunately, they got this thanks to producer Don Gilmore, who is most famous for working with Linkin Park, Good Charlotte, and Hollywood Undead. And honestly, while I can't say Lacuna Coil delivered any of their best material on either Shallow Life or their 2012 album Dark Adrenaline, I blame Gilmore for why those albums are nowhere near as great as their predecessors, mostly thanks to placing the guitars on the surface in the mix and dampening the melody, and moving the vocal track closer to the front. And look, the lyrics have never been Lacuna Coil's strong point, and by lessening the focus on the melody, the songs got a lot more interchangeable and considerably weaker. Thus, I was actually enthused when I saw they had ditched Gilmore as a producer for their newest album Broken Crown Halo. And while I wasn't expecting a return to the glory days, I did hope that the band would be able to recover some of their spark. Did they pull it off?
Well, this was a bit of a letdown, but I'm glad I got to say my piece anyhow, because there are some great elements on this album that should be examined. Okay, next up will either be Cloud Nothings or I'll finally have the chance to put Lacuna Coil out of their misery. Stay tuned!
A few weeks back when I talked about Young Money, I made the statement that they were probably one of the few rap groups that had a consistent record in launching unique solo careers, at least in terms of chart success and the popular consciousness. Between Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and to a lesser extent Tyga, Young Money managed to have a lot of commercial success, especially in the past five or six years - and up until very recently, a fair amount of critical success as well.
Well, okay, that might be overstating it, because of the group only Drake has proven to be the consistent critical darling, with increasingly uneven output from his peers, and their label collaboration album Young Money: Rise of An Empire being not exactly stellar - or, you know, good. No, if I want to look for more consistent critical acclaim, I've been looking more towards Top Dawg Entertainment, an independent hip-hop record label that's been getting some serious critical buzz over the last few years, especially after the release of good kid, m.a.a.d city by Kendrick Lamar. In terms of business expertise, I find a lot more to like with Top Dawg, mostly because unlike Young Money, they're working hard on establishing a relatively small stable of solid rappers before recruiting additional talent. And while I'm not the biggest Ab-Soul fan, I've been pretty impressed by the work they've done with Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, and especially Jay Rock.
But earlier this year they announced they were signing two new artists: Isaiah Rashad and SZA, the latter of which is an R&B singer influenced by 80s synthpop and soul. And as the only female artist on Top Dawg at the moment, I was curious how her material would be shaped from that label and I made it a priority to check out her full-length debut Z. How did it turn out?
...alright, fine, I'll talk about 5 Seconds of Summer. But let me make this clear, I'm only covering this act because I need more time to write about a whole slew of other acts in my backlog and it shouldn't take me that long to cover a four song EP. And really, I don't tend to cover a lot of EPs - mostly because I like full-length albums with arcs and artistic statements, which, for the record, you can find in pop music. But even if I did cover EPs, I could not be less interested in talking about 5 Seconds of Summer. At first glance, these guys look like a low-rent Nickelodeon pilot with the production values to match it. Yes, I've covered teen pop and boy bands in the past, and I'll even admit some fondness for some of it, but good shallow pop music has elements that make it work or stand out. Even dumb power pop - which has been around in some form or another for decades - has the guys who stand head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of songwriting, melodies, or sheer presence and charisma. I'm talking about acts like Semisonic, Fountains Of Wayne, The Knack, some parts of Jimmy Eat World and Weezer. My point is that this isn't anything new, and the argument that 'well, sure, it's not new, but we can't expect teenagers to go looking for the classics because they're teenagers and they'll consume anything we shovel into their ears' smacks of real laziness and a degree of contempt for the target audience. But hey, 5 Seconds of Summer could just be the next ones to top the heap, so I picked up the Australian band's EP and gave it a listen: is it worth your time?
Well, I shouldn't have been surprised this was happening. And really, after the runaway success of Florida Georgia Line last year, it was all but inevitable that major labels would start hunting for other duos that could fill the bro-country mold. Frankly, I'm surprised I haven't tackled more groups of artists in this vein. I mean, last year there was Parmalee who were more of a band, and this year we had Sundy Best, who weren't remotely close to bro-country and were actually pretty damn awesome. And yet outside of them, bro-country has mostly been the genre of solo male artists in the vast majority - and despite many of them copying the same tropes and formulas, you could almost lay out a spectrum of how they present themselves. And as tempted as I'd be to call it a spectrum between crap and not-quite-crap, that's not really fair or representative of a difference I find interesting within the subgenre, and that is how the acts present themselves. Let's face it, as much as some bro-country artists come across as swaggering alpha male douchebags, it's not indicative of the entire genre and there are some artists who are looking to opt a more sensitive side. And sure, it doesn't always work and some of the worse acts in bro-country have been when said affectations prove completely unconvincing, but given how many bro-country artists are trying to pivot in this direction, it's interesting to see how the newest crop make it work. Enter Dan + Shay, a new country duo who started their career writing for Rascal Flatts before getting signed themselves. Now with the hit single '19 You + Me', they've got a debut album and a fair amount of popular buzz behind them, especially on the charts. So, I gave their new album Where It All Began a listen and hoped for the best: how was it?
So here's a problem in the internet age that only critics will really complain about: with the advent of iTunes and Bandcamp, it has become very easy for a lot of music to be released independently - which, more often than not, is a very good thing, as it allows the artists to retain their unique sound and flavour and not get hammered into a marketable brand by the label system. But what it also means is that if I only covered new releases that showed up on Bandcamp and released reviews 365 days a year, I would still fall even more hopelessly behind than I already am. As such, when an act from the independent country scene that I've never heard of starts to get some serious critical acclaim, I take notice, especially when I start to hear one of her biggest selling points is her songwriting. This takes us to Karen Jonas from Fredericksburg, Virginia and her debut album Oklahoma Lottery. Apparently, she has less of a web presence than I do - which, for an indie act building buzz, is a little startling - but then again, it's a little more excusable than mainstream country acts that have the same problem. And as always, I tempered my expectations: even though one of my top albums of the year thus far is the Texas indie country release Daylight & Dark by Jason Eady, I'm also very conscious of the fact that critics can tend to upsell indie acts that catch them by surprise. It's a natural human instinct, and sometimes it can eclipse critical thought and analysis. So with that in mind, I bought Oklahoma Lottery from Bandcamp and gave it my due: did Karen Jonas deliver?
One of the biggest tropes in comedy is observational humour. You know the stuff, the material that fills the acts of the late George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis C.K.. The moment-by-moment notes about the little things in life in life that are quirky or odd or out-of-place, the things that might seem inessential until you dig into the reasons why we do them. And this sort of observational style shows up in other art as well, for obvious reasons: observing the normal world around you allows outlets to create plenty of stories, and implying depth in said stories can take elements that everyone can relate to and make them seem a lot bigger than they are. And I'll be honest: with few exceptions, the sort of music that works through 'observational commentary' doesn't do a lot for me, especially if the tone of said music is more muted and mundane and actively seems to avoid drama. Sure, it's often effective in creating atmosphere and critics will eat this material up for its immersive factor and its relatability, but music that coasts by on mellow observations just does not interest me, especially when the 'insights' it presents aren't remotely revelatory. And that's not saying music about suburban or rural life can't be interesting - far from it, Arcade Fire, Lorde, Sun Kil Moon, and a whole slew of country artists have proven that wrong time and time again - but a slice of that sort of life without deeper commentary or insight often for me comes across as small-minded, bland, and rather pretentious. And really, that was my first reaction when listening to Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco's debut album 2, an album that I don't really dislike but nearly puts me to sleep every time I listen to it - which, for the record, is not a good thing. Sure, the melodic progressions were interesting and the production was pretty solid, but with the too-smooth guitar tones, DeMarco's half-stoned delivery, and the lyrics that had some decent text but sparse subtext on suburban life, I just could not get invested in that record. It might not be strictly in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' genre, but the tone and delivery of the album definitely fell into that category in trying to come across as having depth when there really wasn't much there, either through delivery or lyrics. So why the hell did I pick up his follow-up album Salad Days? Well, call it curiosity, if you want, because buzz was suggesting this would be the album where the 'laid back bro grows up'. Now this was the same defense I heard used for the new Real Estate album, but given DeMarco's taste for weird melody lines, I had the hope that something on this record might be able to grip me - was I right?
Well, this took longer than I expected to get out. Glad to see it. Next up, hmm... Dan + Shay, Lacuna Coil, Mac Demarco, Cloud Nothings, or that apparently amazing album from Karen Jonas. We'll see, stay tuned!
I've got a complicated relationship with Christina Perri. Hell, I could make the argument I have a complicated relationship with the entire genre of piano-inspired adult alternative / pop rock - as in, I tend to be more forgiving of it than the male counterparts on acoustic guitars. I cannot in good faith say that everything in this genre is good or works consistently, but when you have artists that manage to come up with some imagination or unique framing or emotionally compelling performances, I'm normally pretty supportive. And thus, acts like Adele, A Fine Frenzy, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and to a lesser extent Vanessa Carlton and Regina Spektor do manage to work for me more often than they don't. And at first listen, Christina Perri was on that list too, and I distinctly remember liking 'Jar Of Hearts' more than I didn't back in 2011. But then I listened to that debut album and my liking for her as a performer nose-dived in record time. Like it or not, Perri's greatest strength on her better songs was her emotional vulnerability, but it wasn't long before I noticed that her lyrics frequently approached hyperbole and sophomoric whining. And given she wasn't exactly an impressive instrumentalist, it consigned large chunks of her material to being less compelling and more intolerably tedious. And really, it made all too much sense for 'A Thousand Years' to be attached to the Twilight franchise because it was a song so shallow and bereft of maturity that it made perfect sense to be attached to Stephenie Meyer's masturbation fantasy. So I put Christina Perri out of my mind, resolving that I'd come back when she put out another album and hoping that she might have grown up in the mean time, so when Head Or Heart came out this year, I gave it a few listens. How did it go?
Honestly, didn't expect to get this much material out of this album, so a nice pleasant surprise. Okay, juggling a couple of different discographies right now, so I'll start with someone easy: Christina Perri! Oh joy...
It's been a while since I talked about Canadian music - so let's change that, shall we? Specifically, we're going to be talking about the Canadian rock scene, indie or otherwise. The fun fact is that when you move away from the post-grunge scene towards more of the pop/indie rock vibe, there are some really high quality bands. For one, I'm a big fan of Marianas Trench and their intricate pop opera brand of songwriting, to say nothing of great hooks, solid melodies, and at least two incredibly solid albums. On the other hand you have an act like Metric who I also really like - oddly, for a lot of the same reasons: great hooks, solid melody lines, and reasonably good songwriting. And I think at the intersection of these two, I would place Tokyo Police Club, a band that might call themselves indie rock, but does share a lot of traits with pop rock acts. While they might have a bit of a rougher sound, their lyrics are decidedly lodged in the overly verbose, almost naive landscape of emo pop rock that got popular in the mid-2000s. And while I wouldn't say they're as strong songwriters or musicians as either Metric or Marianas Trench, Tokyo Police Club for me are the definition of a good rock band: good hooks, decent vocals, occasionally interesting lyrics, and a strong pop sensibility both in theme and in execution. And it's really that pop sensibility that's defined the band for me, as there has been a progression towards an indie pop level of polish and lightweight energy that has given them more staying power than anyone would have expected from their early years. And thus, I was interested enough in their newest album Forcefield, which early buzz was suggesting was even more geared towards a mainstream pop audience, especially with the chart success of certain indie rock acts these days. What did I find?
Glad I got this out. Think I might be one of the few critics who bothered to look at this, and that's a bit of a shame, because it was pretty good. Next up, Tokyo Police Club. After that, I'll start tackling the April releases, like Dan & Shay, Lacuna Coil, Mac DeMarco, and Cloud Nothings, plus a few more. Stay tuned!
Let me take you back seven years, when word first broke that the symphonic metal band Nightwish had hired a new lead singer - the former frontwoman of Alyson Avenue, Anette Olzon. And at that moment, the Nightwish fanbase split into three distinct parts. The first were the fans of Tarja Turunen, who were incensed that she had been fired and took a while to come around to the new singer, if they did at all. The second were pro-Anette, embraced the rougher, looser tone Nightwish took with their next two albums, and really enjoyed her more dynamic stage presence. And the third group - where I would count myself - realized that Nightwish had always been the brainchild of keyboardist and songwriter Tuomas Holopainen and the band was still capable of making great music regardless of the lead singer. And with that in mind, acknowledging the change in direction, I like music that was made by both incarnations of the band. Now fast-forward to October of 2012, where the news broke mid-tour that Anette Olzon had been dismissed from Nightwish and had been replaced by the female singers from tourmates Kamelot and later by Floor Jansen. I'm not going to get into the back-and-forth drama of the whole endeavour, but I will say this: from what I know of Tuomas and the way he runs Nightwish, I was disappointed, but not surprised. But just like Tarja had done ahead of her, Anette Olzon made the choice to strike out on her own and release a solo album - and I did not expect much. Let's face it, it took Tarja three albums to hammer out a working formula, and Anette had never been responsible for any of Nightwish's songwriting. Furthermore, the buzz was suggesting this album wasn't a metal or even a hard rock record like she made with either of her previous bands, so I wasn't sure what to expect. So how was Shine?