Well, this conversation was inevitable, but it's also one that I've been meaning to discuss for some time. And it's not a comfortable subject either, but it needs to be addressed in some fashion after some critics decided to make it a point when criticizing the album in the classic example of criticizing the artist, not the art. Yeah, I'm talking about indie R&B, or PBR&B if you want to get snarky about it, a term coined in the rise of a selection of unconventional R&B acts over the past couple of years. A relatively new subgenre, indie R&B drew more on more diverse aesthetics and subject matter than the classic jazz/soul/gospel influences that have driven R&B for decades now. Common acts in this genre include Frank Ocean, Miguel and The Weeknd, who built successful careers modernizing R&B tropes and subject matter. And amongst that group was the musical project of singer-songwriter of Tom Krell called How To Dress Well, who, in contrast to many of the conventions of R&B, traditional or indie, is white. Okay, let's state this right out of the gate: yes, white musicians have borrowed from black music for decades, and some built careers on assuming the general public would be ignorant enough not to look up the original source. And they tended to get away with it... until the Internet came along and made the dissemination of information and music a lot easier and gave artists of all races the equality of opportunity to enter the medium. And as a music critic, I work my hardest to focus on the art, not the artist, unless said artist's life provides additional context or meaning to the music. And I'm going to repeat what I said about cultural appropriation back when I reviewed that last tUnE-yArDs album Nikki Nack: if you're going to borrow from other cultures, know what the hell you're doing and do it well - and in the case of indie R&B, it's being shaped by a richer well of influences than solely music that has been traditionally associated with black culture, so this shouldn't be an issue! And yet whenever How To Dress Well gets brought up in some circles, the cultural appropriation conversation gets dragged up - which is a goddamn shame, because his 2012 album Total Loss was pretty damn great and deserves to be considered on its own merits featuring a strong fusion of modern R&B with the hazier, melancholic edges of indie rock, showing beautiful compositions at the intersection between gorgeous melodies and distorted, experimental rawness. And sure, you could make the parallels between his delivery and other R&B acts, but I'd argue the confessional emotions he brings to the table are universal regardless of race - and on that record, he shows them pretty damn well. So you can bet I wanted to check his new album "What Is This Heart?" - how does it go?
Well, I'm not sure about the lighting here, but I think it looks alright. Next up will probably be How To Dress Well, then Mastodon, then I might check out Open Mike Eagle. Then this month... hell, I dunno. We'll see. :D In any case, stay tuned!
Okay, let's try this again. So a few months back, in an attempt to fill some time between reviews, I covered the debut EP of 5 Seconds of Summer, She Looks So Perfect. To be kind, I was ambivalent on the EP at best, a small slice of mostly forgettable pop rock that suffered from poor production balance and questionable songwriting, not to mention a pale shadow of better pop rock acts that came before. That review received something of a mixed reaction from folks, as many were quick to make a lot of excuses for the band that didn't really fly. Yes, they started on YouTube and they're teenagers and they wrote all their own songs and they wrote so many more good ones that didn't make the EP, so I should just give them a pass, right? Well, no, I'm not doing that - half because it denigrates YouTube talents and teenagers who write their own music who do show incredible talent, and half because those excuses have nothing to do with the content of the music and everything to do with the artist. You can make all sorts of excuses for the artist in question but it's not going to make the music better. And yeah, it's silly pop rock and I probably went further in-depth into the songwriting than even the band did, but I repeat, there are plenty of pop rock bands who do this sort of thing better. I think to some degree the fandom for this band comes from the marketing machine you see every time a pop rock band in this vein gets popular, and maybe it's just with the benefit of history or some deeper knowledge of how these bands chart, but there's a formula here, shaped by the producers if not by the band itself. And with that in mind, I've seen the formula done better. That said, I did recognize that it was a four song EP, and bands seldom get the chance to show all their facets on such a small sampler, so I resolved to pick up their self-titled debut album and give them another chance - what did I find?
A bit of a frustrating record, but definitely worth many listens. So, this'll be the last video filmed at this set - moving to a new apartment tomorrow, so we'll see what the new set-up will look like. Either way, stay tuned!
I've mentioned in the past that every critic - hell, the mainstream music press - are smart to keep their eyes on Top Dawg Entertainment, the indie record label that signed Kendrick Lamar amongst others. Over the past few years, the label has very quickly garnered a reputation for high quality rap music, and it's always interesting taking that first look into the artists on that label. Kendrick Lamar, everyone should know at this point, and I've already spoken on Schoolboy Q and SZA when I reviewed the records they released this year. But what about Ab-Soul? Heralded as the 'nerd' of TDE, his 2012 album Control System was a jaw-dropping fusion of creative, multi-faceted references and one of the more outlandish rap releases of that year in terms of its content and execution. And like all of TDE's releases, it was defined by its contradictions. Where Kendrick's good kid, m.A.A.d city was defined by the dichotomy between his responsibilities to his family and his character and the world tearing away at them, and Schoolboy Q's Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron were at their core defined by the gangsta doing bad things with good intent, Ab-Soul goes for something more primal: the internal battle between a wicked intellect and the ignorance that sells. And thus we get Control System, an album in a haze that might be coaxed by drugs but goes for something spiritual. And while Ab-Soul wasn't the greatest technical rapper in the game - he rhymed too many words with themselves to be excused, and it got really distracting - the creativity and depth to the project demanded appreciation, along with a succession of killer guest verses and really strong beats. So you can bet I was psyched to dig into Ab-Soul's new album titled These Days - how is it?
So here's something you might not know about me: I listen to a lot of trance. See, there was a brief period for me in around 2009-2010 that I started delving into this melodic brand of EDM, mostly out of a desire to find out was else was in this musical landscape beyond drum & bass, dubstep, and my appreciation for The Chemical Brothers. And with its melodic focus, mid-tempo energy, and sweeping production, I came to like a lot of trance music and listen to a decent bit even today. So why haven't you seen me review many, if any, trance records? Well, you could put it down to an overloaded schedule and the fact that I still struggle somewhat with reviews of instrumental albums, but the truth of it is that I just drifted away from the genre. A lot of modern trance got more glitchy and staccato and began co-opting elements that took away from the soaring, melody driven trance I tend to like. What's kind of hilarious in hindsight was that even as I was moving away from that particular brand of EDM, the larger genre in general was moving towards the mainstream faster than ever with the success of house DJs, the rise of dubstep, and the general acceptance of EDM on this side of the Atlantic. So with that in mind, let's talk about Tiesto, who started releasing trance albums in the early 2000s before drifting into darker, electro-house territory, which culminated in his 2010 release Kaleidoscope. The funny thing with that record was that you could see the shift towards a more pop-friendly sound already in the works, with shorter, more conventionally structured songs, and the biggest arsenal of vocal collaborators outside of an Armin van Buuren album. So when I started to see Tiesto songs cropping up on the lower ends of the Billboard Hot 100 chart his year, I wasn't exactly surprised - with EDM becoming more mainstream, it wasn't a surprise that those that would crossover first would be the most accessible to a pop audience, not to mention to a critic who has difficulty reviewing EDM. So on that note alone, I figured I'd give A Town Called Paradise by Tiesto a look - how did it turn out?
Believe it or not, I kind of feel a little sorry for Ed Sheeran. See, like the majority of the world, I discovered Ed Sheeran through his breakout hits 'The A-Team' and 'Lego House' and immediately dropped him into the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' subgenre for which I just don't care. But to be fair, Ed Sheeran was one of the entries in said subgenre that stood out as better than average - he came across as sincere, he wrote some interesting melodies, and he was willing to take some risks with the subject matter in his songs. Take 'The A-Team', a song where Sheeran sings about a dying crack addict - and then frames the song as a classical tragedy. Maybe it's just me living in Toronto the last two years, but when I think of crack addicts, the image is less of 'an angel in white' and more of a fat belligerent mayor who became an international laughing stock and yet will likely win re-election because... Toronto. But putting that situation aside, it turned out that the image of Ed Sheeran that I originally formed from his singles wasn't quite accurate, because while there still was the sincerity and acoustic elements, there was also a fondness for hip-hop on that first album that reminded me a lot of early Jason Mraz albums with the actual courage to step into slightly edgier subject matter. The hodgepodge of influences painted the picture of an interesting songwriter who was too sincere and awkward for his own good and whose occasional offbeat goofiness or darker touches made him hard to nail down. But at the same time, those strange dichotomies, awkward lyrical choices and pop culture references also made Ed Sheeran a little hard for me to take all that seriously - which is a shame because on some level, I kind of like the guy. I don't think he'll ever be an act I can consider as 'cool' or more than a fun oddity, but I respected his creativity and honesty, and thus was curious what would happen with his second album, x. What did I get?
It kind of amazes me that it's been over fifteen years since Jennifer Lopez released her first album. It definitely amazes me that this is her eighth studio album over the course of the past fifteen years, and that people are actually requested that I cover this album in some way. It amazes me because I, for the life of me, do not understand the continued appeal of Jennifer Lopez outside of the Hispanic demographic, or even inside it. J.Lo began her career in TV and movies before jumping into the oversaturated pop diva scene of the late 90s, and for a few years she was very successful. However, looking back on that material, I can say that it's not exactly good. She never had the pipes of a Christina Aguilera or the creative songwriting of Shakira, instead riding the Latin trend of the time before transitioning into R&B and giving The LOX a legitimate charting hit. It didn't help matters that songs like 'I'm Real' and 'Jenny From The Block' tried to coast by on assertion of 'realness' and down-to-earth authenticity that plainly didn't reflect her multi-millionaire lifestyle and tabloid fixture romances. Eventually, hip-hop got dirtier and Jennifer Lopez's material got milder, which lead to her mid-period albums not catching on and her to star in a succession of terribly forgettable romantic comedies after the hilarious catastrophe that was Gigli. And yet in 2011, thanks to the rise of Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez's music career suddenly got a second wind and began to ride a second smaller Latin wave that saw Enrique Iglesias and even Marc Anthony briefly return to the charts. And look, the hits that J.Lo charted in this wave of dance pop weren't bad, but at the same time, we weren't exactly short on pop divas making club songs, and with Rihanna, Ke$ha, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Pink, Britney Spears, and even Christina Aguilera, what unique elements did Jennifer Lopez bring to the table? And thus, I was planning on skipping this Jennifer Lopez album. I mean, while Pitbull's career has somehow held steam despite his consistently awful lyrics, the club boom is over, and somehow I didn't get the feeling J.Lo was going to be hopping on the EDM trend, so I had no idea what to expect, especially consider twenty-six different producers worked on this record. So, what did we get?
Holy shit, this album was fantastic. Definitely worth many a listen, and while it's a little late, I was happy I had the chance to really dig in and dissect this album. Next up... hmm, not sure. Stay tuned all the same!
Let's talk about emo rap. It's a term that's used with a lot more denigration and scorn than it really deserves, because it highlights the acceptance of the toxic posturing that can exasperate me with mainstream hip-hop and how honesty and authenticity are often less and less viable. Because let's be honest, it's a lot easier to write rap about the traditional 'cash money hoes' topics than actually dig deep and expose vulnerability and feelings and confessional subject matter. And almost paradoxically, I have a lot more respect for rappers who are willing to put themselves out there and expose those deeper emotions And the mainstream has had a very complicated relationship with this sort of material, especially in recent years. Many would point of Kanye West's excellent 808s & Heartbreaks that strongly influenced acts like Drake or Childish Gambino, or would go a little further back and point to Eminem's artistic suicide on the much-maligned Encore, but to some extent these acts have retrofitted something from the underground that has been more open to this sort of confessional songwriting. And let me stress, I think it's a good thing that there are more mainstream rappers who are willing to approach this 'softening' of hip-hop culture, but I knew it'd only be a matter of time before an established heavyweight from the underground would step up to the plate. Enter Sage Francis, rapper and spoken word poet and widely hailed as one of the 'godfathers' of emo rap, a term to which he's mostly ambivalent. Starting in the late 90s, he smashed into the underground scene with a succession of extremely solid records throughout the 2000s, with my favourite probably being Human The Death Dance in 2007. And what I loved about Sage Francis wasn't just his layered yet very understandable wordplay, his willingness to tell many stories beyond his own and comment on society as a whole, and his rich collection of uniquely textured and slightly off-beat instrumentals, but the fact that he was an impressive rapper none the less. Sure, he was willing to show his emotions and write how he felt, exposing his own flaws and failures which always rang as genuine, but you could never mess with him as a rapper. But after the indie rock-inspired album Li(f)e in 2010, Sage Francis announced he was going on hiatus and after a mixtape release last year, he's back with a full album this year - was it worth the wait?
Honestly, this is probably one of my best shot Special Comments to date. Really proud of this one. But seriously, YouTube needs to address this sooner rather than later, so I'll be tweeting about updates to this story as they come out. Stay tuned!
So when I reviewed Sharon Van Etten's pretty damn solid album Are We There a few weeks back, I made reference to the acoustic musical genre that I cheekily branded 'white girls with acoustic guitars', and how while there are more acts in this vein I like than their male counterparts, I couldn't say I was a huge fan of the genre. I wasn't saying you couldn't make good music with just a girl and an acoustic guitar, but that sort of basic, minimalist setup requires every element to be on point or it'll get distracting. So what do you get when you get two white girls with acoustic guitars put together? Well, you get First Aid Kit, a Swedish country folk duo of two sisters that started on YouTube and was first discovered through a coincidental connection to one of the members of The Knife. After a cover of theirs of the Fleet Foxes went semi-viral, the duo began to release albums, starting in 2010 with The Big Black & Blue. And while I was struck by some of the intriguing songwriting that showed flavour beyond their years, it was an album that did suffer from amateurish production and a fair number of rough edges. Their second record The Lion's Roar was much stronger, with richer and more diverse production that leaned more towards country, and some of their best songwriting to date. This was a duo with serious melodic chops, and when fused with wryly clever songwriting and measured delivery, it was enough to set First Aid Kit away from the crowd and get me intrigued about their new album, Stay Gold. And honestly, as good of songwriters as they were, they were still just an acoustic duo and I wasn't sure how their signing to a major label would turn out for the band. Was I concerned for nothing?
We should have seen this coming. I mean, as soon as Billboard started factoring in YouTube streams into their charts, we should have known that at some point, an executive at Google was going to look up from the cocaine bucket and realize that all that music streaming going on at YouTube could be monetized even further to bring in even more revenue. They likely saw the success of Rdio, Spotify, and other streaming sites and figured, 'Well, we're the biggest aggregation platform for music across the board, so why don't we offer a streaming or downloading option directly? And hell, why don't we make it subscription-based, a monthly fee to watch videos ad-free? And why don't we sweeten the pot even further and offer a download link as well, let the listener pull the music right out?' In theory, this is a solid idea - until you start looking at the details and the fine print. Until you start considering the implementation of such an idea. As such, I have a series of questions I'd like to ask Google and YouTube, questions that really need answers before you shove this system out and you get the massive public outcry in the vein of what happened with Content ID. That explosion of righteous fury was mostly limited to the video game industry and the YouTubers that consume that media - you're now tackling a much bigger monster, and from the media's current coverage of this debacle, you should be in damage control if you aren't already. So keeping in mind that I'm intrigued by this streaming option and even think it could work, I do have a few concerned questions:
Well, this turned out surprisingly decent. Turns out going back to hard rock was a good fit for Linkin Park - who knew? Okay, that should take care of the major releases for the week - next up... hmm, either Sage Francis or First Aid Kit, we'll see. Stay tuned!
Do I honestly have anything more to say about Linkin Park?
This is a band of whom I've covered twice before, first with Living Things in written form and then my video review of the remix album Recharged - and honestly, I wasn't a fan of either album, as they felt like regressions into stale subject matter they'd already covered more effectively elsewhere and a musical sound that alternated between being dreary and boring and atonal and insufferable. And this is coming from a critic who can admit that Linkin Park has never really been a terrible band, even in their earlier days with Hybrid Theory. Yes, it's material that hasn't exactly aged well in comparison with their mid-period work, but it does have a certain visceral pathos that can work if you're in the right demographic for it. And I will give Linkin Park for two points that aren't often noted: a knack for incredibly solid hooks and an ability to evolve with the times, culminating with the excellent, more conceptual album A Thousand Suns in 2010, which I'll place myself in the minority by saying is probably my 'favourite' Linkin Park record. And yeah, there are better records exploring nuclear holocaust, even in the electronic rock and metal veins, but I'll give Linkin Park credit for experimentation and mostly sticking the landing.
And honestly, that was one of the reasons Living Things was such a disappointment for me, in that it simply took much of the same electronic rock sound and fused it with lyrics that couldn't support it, and it felt like a regression. And when I heard about The Hunting Party this year... well, I had no idea what to expect. Not only did the band say they were putting aside electronic rock and going back to a harder edge, they were planning to show more maturity in their subject matter as well. That, if anything, got my curiosity raised enough to pick up the album - how did it turn out?
How many of you are familiar with Hollywood director Sofia Coppola? The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she defiantly made a name for herself with an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Lost In Translation, which I most remember for an absolutely stellar performance from Bill Murray. But since then, Sofia Coppola's movies have drifted towards a theme she has explored many times: the hedonism and existential emptiness of the idle rich. Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring hammered on these themes, and while each film is beautifully shot, the framing of the movies always frustrated me, in that there always seemed to be an attempted justification behind her protagonists' poor behaviour that tended to feel flimsy. Coppola seemed to show a lot of empathy for her characters, even when that empathy didn't feel earned by the script. And I get the exact same feelings whenever I listen to Lana Del Rey. Like most people, I listened to her major label debut Born To Die in 2012 - and like most critics, I wasn't impressed. Yes, the production was lush, and Lana Del Rey could create some very pretty and opulent songs, but there was an air of artificiality and calculation surrounding every song of the record, from the arsenal of brand names to the completely out-of-place trip hop elements placed to blend both old and new ideals of wealth and success. And on a certain, shallow, fantasy-level, it kind of works... but in an era where we have Vienna Teng, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, Lykke Li, and Sharon Van Etten, you're not going to convince me that any of this is soulful or deep. It's not even a commentary on this sort of opulence in the vein of Lorde, but is instead framed as a glorification, a fantasy - and to be fair, I got the impression that was Lana Del Rey's intention. And such a fantasy would be fine if there weren't some really troublesome narratives beneath it, such as Lana Del Rey's obsession with glamorizing bad relationships or retrograde sexual politics, and she didn't really step up with the personality to back it up. So when I heard that Lana Del Rey had written 'Young And Beautiful' for Baz Luhrman's version of The Great Gatsby, I wasn't surprised in the slightest - because like that film, it's a fusion of old and new flavours of glamour that misses the depth in the spectacle. But even if I were to give Lana Del Rey the benefit of the doubt and say she was self-aware, her artistic framing certainly wasn't - coming back to Sofia Coppola, there's shallow hedonism and existential emptiness in Lana Del Rey's music, but it's framed as though we should empathize with the drama she presents when the text and subtext don't support it. And thus when she titled her second album Ultraviolence, I had no idea what to expect, especially considering the album was mostly produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. But, since it was requested time and time again, I decided to give the album a fair chance: what did I find?
Believe it or not, this album took a lot of effort to decode and figure out. In the end, mostly ambivalent on it, but there were pieces that worked. And now... ugh, let's get Linkin Park and Lana Del Rey over with. This is going to piss so many people off... but until then, stay tuned!
About a year ago, just about a month before I converted my blog to videos, I took a request to do a retrospective review of In Defense Of The Genre by Say Anything. Widely heralded as one of the strongest emo bands to break in the 2000s, Say Anything rode the tremendous success of ...Is A Real Boy into their 2007 release, an overloaded, messy, and thoroughly interesting record co-opting every variant and subgenre of emo music popular at the time and throwing it in our faces. It was ambitious, swollen with collaborators, and while I'd argue it didn't really work as a cohesive whole, it was still compelling and definitely worth a listen. But ever since that one-two punch from the mid-2000s, I've had the frustrating feeling that Say Anything might be falling into a holding pattern, The band has long ago stopped being a traditional punk act, to the point where their 2012 release Anarchy, My Dear felt distinctly underwhelming as the band attempted to recreate the visceral emotions that fueled ...Is A Real Boy to very mixed results. And when I heard that Say Anything was following it up with another collaborator-overloaded album this year titled Hebrews, I had to restrain my desire to groan with exasperation. Unlike some fans, I didn't hate Anarchy, My Dear, but my issue was that it felt distinctly neutered and lacking in dramatic force compared to Say Anything's best work, especially considering that they were trying to make a punk record and yet sounded more tame and reserved than ever before. And when I heard that not only was Hebrews going to be filled with collaborators, but that there would also be no guitars on the album, with the melody lines entirely replaced by strings arrangements and keyboards... well, I'm in favour of bands experimenting, so out of sheer curiosity, I took a look at the album. Was it as bad as I feared?
Man, this video took too damn long to create, but I think in terms of the content, it's worth it. Thanks again to Myke C-Town for the conversation, it really was quite enlightening and I really appreciated it. :D Okay, now to make massive catch-up on my schedule, it's going to be a crazy week. Say Anything first, so stay tuned!
It'd be hard to argue that The White Stripes weren't one of the most essential rock acts of the 21st century thus far. It'd be even harder to argue that at least four of their albums weren't bonafide classics by doing what more rock bands should: stripping down to the basics, writing gripping melodies, and then building back on top of them, thanks to the virtuoso talents of Jack White.
But one thing was all the more certain: ever since the breakup of the White Stripes - hell, probably even before then - Jack White has been obsessed with his place with respect to the women in his life. First with his breakup from his partner Meg White and then his divorce to Karen Elson, you can tell these events have haunted him for years, and nowhere did this become more apparent than on his debut solo album in 2012 titled Blunderbuss. And make no mistake, for the most part that album brought everything I loved about the White Stripes to the forefront on this record, and on a musical level, I dug the hell out of it. The guitarwork was solid, I liked the genre-hopping nature of the tunes between garage, blues, and folk, and the melodic composition was as good as ever. Lyrically, though, Jack White was playing in a grey zone with his framing that was tricky to gauge. While he was playing the 'evil women' card more often than was really comfortable, Jack White made it very clear that he wasn't exactly a sympathetic character, and that his damaged views on what love was or should be, all characterized by the female backing vocals that supported him. But at the same time, there's something of a limit to how much of that brand of blues rock-inspired topic I can reasonably stomach, so when I heard reports suggesting White was going back to this topic, I was a little less enthused about this record than I'd like to be, even if there was signs of more country instrumentation. So on that note, I checked out Lazaretto - how did it go?
As much as I'd argue I didn't waste my time with this video, it still was a chore to listen through that album, especially when there's Jack White, Say Anything, and Sage Francis to listen to instead. So yeah, one of those before the 200th episode special, so stay tuned!
I don't even know where to start with this. Okay, if you're not familiar with certain subsections of hip-hop, you might not be familiar with Riff Raff - and after I describe him, you might start wishing that that remained the case. Riff Raff is a white rapper from Houston and who started his career in show business on reality TV before becoming affiliated with Soulja Boy. Eventually the two of them parted ways, with Soulja Boy leaving the passing shot of calling him a 'cokehead', but Riff Raff was somehow able to garner enough attention through his mixtapes and self-released album to get signed to Diplo record label Mad Descent and release his many-times delayed album Neon Icon. And from what I had heard from him before going into this album, I had no idea how seriously I was supposed to take this. On the one hand if it's self-aware comedy... well, I didn't exactly find him funny or clever or witty, at least on previous releases. But on the other hand if I'm supposed to take him seriously, as some people clearly do, or say that he's the 'white Lil B'... look, as much as I don't like the based god, it's clear something was knocked loose in Lil B's brain that causes him to spew the inveterate pop culture free association that he calls lyrics. Where Lil B could reasonably be called an outsider artist, Riff Raff feels a bit like a poser, or at least someone attempting the same style of gaudy bargain-barrel luxury rap. As much as Riff Raff claims James Franco's character Alienfrom Spring Breakers was based on him, I don't see it because there was an air of menace and sleaze to that character that was undercut by a honest naivete. And while it's debatable how 'honest' Rifff Raff's portrayal is, it's so silly that I can't feel the slightest element of menace from his rap persona. But putting that aside, I was curious about this album, and at the very least I could look forward to guest verses from Mac Miller and Childish Gambino, so how's Neon Icon?
Man, this was a great surprise. Seriously, get this record, it's better than you'd ever expect. Next up... ugh, I should probably get Riff Raff out of the way before talking about Jack White. And then, a surprise for my 200th episode, so stay tuned!
So I've mentioned in the past that I really don't watch a lot of TV, on the count of not owning one. When I do sit down to watch TV... well, of currently running shows, that list is pretty thin. Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mad Men, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the occasional episode of Glee or The Big Bang Theory, but with Community's unfortunate cancellation and How I Met Your Mother's finale getting all the more frustrating every time I think about it, my TV schedule looks pretty thin right now. Now one of the shows I haven't watched is Pretty Little Liars, the ABC thriller drama based on a series of teen novels of which the most I know about are the mostly hilarious and occasionally insightful recaps I read over at Autostraddle. And from that peripheral information, I discovered that one of the actresses of the show, Lucy Hale, was going to be releasing a country debut album Road Between. Now, normally I don't cover these sorts of albums - I make it a priority to mostly ignore this sort of soap-opera-to-music fare, mostly because it tends to be pretty plastic, assembled by committee in order to give young actresses another creative outlet - and especially when coming from Hollywood Records, which has a really bad reputation for this sort of production. But considering I cover whatever comes out of the increasingly large number of singing competitions which often has the same assembly process, and since I am the country music critic on YouTube who actually will give this stuff the time of day, and since I'm in favour of highlighting more women in country music, even if it's just pop country, I gave Road Between by Lucy Hale a chance. After all, it's got a song by Kacey Musgraves on it, it can't be that bad, right?
It's more than a little sad that when I look at the mainstream country charts, it's almost universally dominated by male country acts, especially when you look at what's getting pushed by mainstream radio. And if you watch the charts as closely as I do, you'll notice for the most part, this is more of a radio problem, because digital airplay tends to be a little more evenly spread between the sexes, or at least a little quicker to pick up on ebbing trends.
But it didn't use to be like this. See, back in the mid-2000s, there was a rising swell of new female country stars that came in the aftermath of the popular backlash against the Dixie Chicks that led to their careers effectively ending in the mainstream. This wave included Carrie Underwood, Gretchen Wilson, and Kellie Pickler among others, but the artist who got the most critical attention was Miranda Lambert. Stepping in with a reputation for sharp songwriting, a ton of natural stage presence and fiery personality, and a series of songs that viciously thrashed the guys who did her wrong, this persona was focused best in her critically acclaimed 2007 album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And given that album is overloaded with murder ballads, you can bet that it became a quiet favourite of mine even as I drifted away from country in the mid-2000s.
However, like most records with that kind of explosive force and character, Miranda Lambert has struggled somewhat to match it. That's not saying her wit or phenomenal knack for personal framing and maturity has fallen away, but the compositions haven't always been able to match her in production or melody. And while I don't mind her slower pieces and some of the rich songwriting behind them, I do admit I prefer Miranda Lambert the firespitter to Miranda Lambert the loving wife. Of course, when she blends the two, you get incendiary tracks like 'Mama's Broken Heart', which was one of my favourite hit songs of last year, but that most recent album could have used a little more fiery guitar, some rougher production and to have eased up a little on the cymbals. So of course I was going to check out her newest album Platinum - how did that turn out?
Man, this album is only getting better every time I'm listening to it. Holy shit, this was fun. Next up, I'm taking a brief break from hip-hop and diving back to country. Miranda Lambert and Lucy Hale coming up soon, so stay tuned!
Well, I knew this day
would come. I knew that as soon as I started covering hip-hop, and especially
after I really quite liked the most recent release from Ratking, I'd have to
dive into the noisy, eclectic, and inaccessible subgenre of noise hop. A very new
genre, one inspired by the experimental fusion between noise rock and hardcore
gangsta rap, it was one I was always tentative to approach. Because let's face
it, while I do listen to some experimental and abrasive music, I do like some
trappings of conventionality or at least recognizable song structures and
melodies. And while I loved Swans' most recent record, I also know that I only
really came to embrace the band in full when they started incorporating more
melodic progressions into their music. And given that I wasn't really a huge
fan of what I had heard from the output of acts like Death Grips, I was a
little uneasy about looking up an act like Clipping, so I looked up their first
Well, if I was looking for
the perfect transitional act between traditional horrorcore gangsta rap and the
paranoid noisy insanity of Death Grips, it would be Clipping - and yeah, I
really dig it. The bizarre thing about Clipping is that once you get past the
explosively jagged noise, there is undercurrents of melody and depth to these
mixes and Daveed Diggs is a damn impressive spitter, although not the
traditional sort of visceral MC that comes with this sort of experimental
music. My issues with the act were issues of content and the MC himself - while
I definitely like Diggs' flow and lyrical construction, and appreciated the
moments where he seemed to be showing the unstable anarchy and bloody emptiness lurking beneath the
trapping of gangsta rap, there were moments that his flow got a little less
intense and his punchlines got a little corny. For the most part, however, it was
noise rap that I surprisingly liked, and when I heard they had signed to Sub Pop Records, I was curious to see what would come out of it. Would they attempt even more mainstream accessibility - well, to the extent any noise rap is accessible - or would they double down on the weirdness?
Yeah, I know this review is late. There's a reason for that: for a band like The Roots, you want to make sure you're getting things right. And at this point, after going through The Roots' massive and critically acclaimed discography, I'm a little lost where to even start. Beginning in the early 90s, the band started as an alternative hip-hop act fronted by one of the most lyrically dexterous MCs to ever pick up the microphone and a fusion of jazz and conscious hip-hop to create some impressively insightful rap I've ever heard. And it wasn't just the fact that they've easily made four classic albums, but that the albums they made hold up astoundingly well. There might have been brief moments of experimentation with the times, but I could give you a record like Things Falling Apart right now and it'd still be accessible and definitely worth your time. Now if we were looking at albums from The Roots that I'd brand as my favourites... man, it's a tough choice, but it'd probably come down to a split between the groove-rich, experimental and melody-rich Phrenology and the haunted, aching sadness of Undun, the latter being the most recent Roots album released before this one. That album is one that I've long expected The Roots would make, now that with the stability of being Jimmy Fallon's backing band they have the freedom to take more risks and get weirder. Because Undun is a concept album exploring the life in reverse of a black man trying to make it out of the trap, and while I wish the rapping had painted a little more of a stark picture, that was never their intent. What Black Thought and the rest of the band delivers is a hazy enough portrait that many could likely see resembling themselves, and combined with the soulful undercurrents, the personal yet reflective lyrics, and incredible melodies, make it easily one of the best albums of the decade thus far, at least for me. So when I heard The Roots were making another concept album with ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin this year, I was psyched, and while it might be late, I was determined that I was going to cover this album at some point, even if it is nearly a month late. So how was it?
It's really mind-boggling to me that 50 Cent's biggest years were around a decade ago.
I mean, do people remember 2003, when 'In Da Club' was the biggest song of that year? Maybe it's just me, but to some extent, the gangsta rap scene has both evolved and yet stayed the same enough to be just as receptive to 50 Cent now as it was ten years ago. With the right singles and the right leverage, I could buy 50 Cent holding down gangsta rap in the same vein as Schoolboy Q or Pusha T.
But at the same time, the question remains that even though we're finally getting a new 50 Cent release five years after the last album, do we really need another 50 Cent album? Bursting onto the scene off of some well-received mixtapes and a pretty damn solid debut album, 50 Cent brought a certain visceral punch of brutish charisma and solid wordplay to his records, and became most notable in rap music for crushing rival Ja Rule's career. But as the decade wore on, the gangsta image 50 Cent put forward got shakier and shakier. He threatened to quit rap if his single 'Ayo-Technology' didn't outsell Kanye West's 'Stronger', and when he didn't do that and instead released a decent-at-best record in 2009, the question began to arise what intangible qualities he brought to the table outside of any other gangsta rapper. And when he didn't manage to end Rick Ross' career in the same way he crushed Ja Rule, proved to be one of the worst actors working in Hollywood, and lent his voice to two utterly masturbatory video games which basically served as terribly written action hero fantasies for our protagonist here, I started to wonder if 50 Cent's gangsta cred had been too tarnished to return to mainstream rap.
But regardless of whether he should have returned to hip-hop, 50 Cent is back with a new full-length album Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win, his first album in five years and his first release since a few solid mixtapes, the last being in 2012. Does this album solidify his return and prove that rap music needed 50 Cent?
I think this review came out pretty damn solid, just about as solid as the album. Next up, I'm talking 50 Cent, then probably Clipping and (finally) The Roots before I dive straight back into country. Stay tuned!
I've gone on the record before stating that the nebulously defined subgenre of 'white guy with acoustic guitar' tends to turn me off. It's not that there isn't some serious talent in that category, but like with all minimalist setups, if every element isn't on point, it's all the more noticeable and glaring. I admit it's a bias - it's a genre that's as old as most music itself - and I can definitely respect the instrumental talent that can be brought to the table, but that's not always what you get with your typical middle-of-the-road adult alternative acts. So what about white girls with acoustic guitars? Does it bug me as much? Well, as much as the parallel exists and as much as there is some music in that particular genre that turns me off, I'll admit I've been lucky enough to find more singer-songwriters in this vein that I like and who don't exasperate me as much as their male counterparts. Granted, that doesn't mean I don't have my issues here - they can succumb to the same lazy songwriting cliches and tactics as anyone, and they can bore me just as badly. Fortunately, one of the exceptions has been Sharon Van Etten, an American singer-songwriter who stepped into the indie folk scene with the good but unremarkable Because I Was In Love in 2009. For me, I was immediately struck by the straightforward passion of her vocal delivery - she didn't mince words or was afraid to show real vulnerability, and there were occasional flights of nuance that cropped up in her songwriting. And after the rougher, shorter, more abrasive, and much better record Epic in 2010 and the much more vulnerable album Tramp in 2012, I was intrigued where Sharon would be aiming to take her newest album, especially given her recent tours with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and his reputation for visceral, gripping songwriting. How did that turn out?
Well, this was interesting. Wish it had clicked with me a little better, but I definitely recognize the quality. Next up... whoa, busy schedule all of a sudden. Probably that Sharon Van Etten album before tackling 50 Cent, Miranda Lambert, and clipping. Stay tuned!
Let's talk a bit about folktronica. The genre term was originally coined in the very early 2000s to describe a new genre fusion between traditionally organic folk music and electronica, typically driven by sampling of that instrumentation. And at first glimpse, it was a fusion that made no sense to me: folk was typically a richly organic genre defined by singer-songwriters and intricate lyrics, while lyrics tend to be the last thing that's relevant in most electronic music, especially the material intended for dance. And yet, over the past year with the success of Avicii's debut album TRUE, folktronica began inching into the mainstream, driven partially by the small folk resurgence in 2012 and the continued acceptance of EDM on the mainstream charts. Now I was really hard on Avicii's TRUE, and I reckon that while I don't think the album works all the way, it has grown on me a bit for some reasonably decent songwriting, shockingly solid organic elements, and great melodic composition. My issue with that album always came back to the fact that the electronica elements felt underweight in comparison with the richer folk sounds, but it was a sign that perhaps the genre fusion could work, and thus I resolved to keep my eyes open for any possibilities this might crop up in the future. Enter Hundred Waters, a newer indie band from Florida who achieved some measure of critical acclaim with their self-titled debut album that critics were branding folktronica. And it was a very different animal than Avicii - or indeed from Skrillex, who signed them to his vanity label in 2012 - instead taking more cues from quieter, more understated electonica in the vein of James Blake. Hundred Waters opted for fluttering hollow synths against tightly composed guitar lines, every piece coming together to create beautifully organic compositions. Now I wouldn't say that self-titled debut was perfect - I was unsure how much I liked the very breathy vocals from Nicole Miglis, and the songwriting had moments that came across as a little too precious and cute for my personal tastes - but there was talent here and while I wished the folk elements were played up a little more in the compositions, I was interested in their sophomore record The Moon Rang Like A Bell. So how did that go?