Finally, a record that didn't let me down in the slightest - man, it might be a quick listen, but it's a ton of fun! Next up... you know, I think it's time I discuss Death Grips. I think I'm ready, so stay tuned!
And can you blame me for thinking that? There have been a lot of rappers from the era of the early-to-mid 2000s that didn't last, and for a long time, I thought I'd have to include Ludacris in that list, one of the more iconic southern MCs to explode in that period. And if you go back through the Billboard Hot 100 charts of that time, it can be a little startling to remember how huge he was. Exploding out with an elastic flow, buckets of expressive charisma, solid enough beats and bombast, a great sense of humour, and a lightness of tone that gave his material a strong pop sensibility, it seemed like in the early 2000s he could do no wrong. Then came Release Therapy in 2006, his shot at more mature subject matter, to prove he could step outside the box, but going back to it almost a decade later, it feels both like an overreach in terms of its concept and yet underweight in terms of insight. And while there are great moments on that record, it was wildly inconsistent in terms of tone and execution, and it wasn't helped by being overloaded with guest stars, which has always been a problem for Ludacris especially when they're nowhere near his level of talent or personality. And the problems continued onto his next two records, Theater of the Mind underperforming and Battle of the Sexes just being embarrassing. Not only did it seem like Ludacris wasn't trying as hard, but he was getting outshone in terms of personality by his guest stars - which should never happen on a Ludacris record! Granted, it didn't help matters that Ludacris frequently found himself as a guest rapper on songs he should never have touched - when you're collaborating with Justin Bieber and Enrique Iglesias, you need to take a step back. Which takes us to Ludaversal. Recorded over four years, initially announced for 2012 and now pushed back to 2015, I had a lot of reason to believe this album would never get released. As much as I'm a fan of the guy - and I am - Ludacris has been out of the industry for a while, and any leftover buzz from that talent show he was on with Kesha, Brad Paisley, and Josh Groban is gone too. Yeah, he had an EP titled Burning Bridges that was released late in 2014, but was anyone going to care? I did not want to go through another mess like what happened with 50 Cent last year and Animal Ambition - Ludacris has always been one of my favourite southern MCs, I did not want to see him fall off. So with all of those concerns in mind, I checked out Ludaversal - is it good?
Man, it seems like we're on a streak of underwhelming albums here, and this one is weaker than even I expected, especially considering it took eight years to make it... eh, it happens. Next up, Ludacris - stay tuned!
It's the dream story of any indie rock band - well, at least the first half of it is. You start out with a ramshackle, rough-edged sound that catches the ear thanks to solid melodic interplay and distinctive vocals, that's just enough to entice people to read your lyrics. And while they might be a little disjointed and indulgent on that first album, your second release cleans things up significantly, refines the storytelling, and ends up creating a critically acclaimed gem, one that actually manages to snag the appeal of a major label. And your fans tense immediately - would you lose your sound in favour of something that was popular? Would you sell out?
But somehow against all odds, you use the major label influence and budget to only further refine your sound and improve the mix, and your newest release is even more critically acclaimed. There are a fair number of fans who prefer your sophomore release, but they can at least respect the cohesion and added polish that comes with time and more ambition. And then somehow on your next album from said major label, a single somehow catches fire not just on rock radio but everywhere. Suddenly, you're not just critically acclaimed, but you have an earworm of a hit and dropping an album that goes platinum, something you never would have expected.
That was the story of Modest Mouse, and it seemed like for four albums since their debut in the mid-90s they could do no wrong... and then something happened. Their 2007 follow-up, We Were Dead Before The Ship Sank, to their 2004 major break-out wasn't bad, taking a loose nautical theme for their typical brand of manic depression and confusion. And sure, it was decent, but I don't know if it was the much cleaner production, slightly more commercial focus, or songwriting that just felt a few shades less sharp than their best, but it didn't click with me as well. To me, some of that trademark raw, fluid power had been eased back, even with the added talents of The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr. And the thing is that it wasn't bad music, it just didn't seem to have that same spark.
Well, from that, Modest Mouse seemed to drop off the face of the earth, with only an extended EP in 2009 to mark any sort of progress. But now, eight years later, we have a new Modest Mouse album and I'm finally getting a chance to cover it. Yeah, I know I'm a little late to the punch here, but going through that entire discography in depth took a long time. So does Strangers To Ourselves hold up to their best?
Another album from a favourite band of mine that just doesn't deliver. Not a bad record, but pretty far from great. Eh, it happens. Next up, I think it's about time I finally get that Modest Mouse review done... stay tuned!
Back when I reviewed Blind Guardian's most recent and pretty damn awesome album Beyond The Red Mirror, I made the comment that it was one of two bands that got me into metal, and without those bands, I probably would never have become a music critic. The second band was always more symphonic, more gothic, and a fair bit more complicated to talk about. Yep, it's time to talk about a band of which I've been a fan for probably over a decade, the first metal band I saw live, a band that has been around for less time than Blind Guardian but is substantially more difficult to talk about. Yes, folks, it's time we talk about the Finnish symphonic metal titan Nightwish, a band that began in a campfire conversations in the mid-90s and spiralled away into becoming one of the most successful acts of the genre. And for the purposes of this conversation, I'm going to divide their output into three distinct categories, categorized by their female lead singer: the Tarja era, the Anette era, and the Floor era.
Nightwish began more in the realm of acoustic-flavoured power and symphonic metal, and their late 90s output was a time of developing a refining a sound that would become iconic, buoyed by the sharply melodic songwriting of Tuomas Holopainen and the glorious vocals of Tarja Turunen. Tuomas was always the band's mastermind when it came to composition, and the choice not to go with a heavy rhythm guitar section meant that melody was placed to the forefront over groove. It wasn't until 2002 and the addition of bassist Marco Hielata that the darker gothic elements moved much closer to the forefront along with some of their best compositions like 'Ever Dream', but the metal landscape was shifting too, with the success of Evanescence suddenly opening up a window for similar sounding - and better - bands to break. Suddenly, the symphonic metal sound was commercially viable, and Nightwish rode that wave to their - at that time - biggest album Once in 2004. And going back to that album, while the seeds were planted for their later expansion, it's also a very compromised record in terms of the subject matter, and I'd argue only about half of that album is very good or up to their usual standard.
And that compromised vision certainly did bleed into the band, which fired frontwoman Tarja Turunen in 2005 and split the fanbase in two with the arrival of Anette Olzon, signalling the second major era for the band. It was a time that signalled even greater ambitions for the band, who ditched any pretense towards following trends and grabbed up richer musical influences wholesale for 2007's Dark Passion Play. And yes, while Anette was not as technically refined and powerful of a singer as Tarja, she balanced against the loose roughness and eclectic style of the album far better, which was able to get darker without needing gothic pretense. Where pretense did become a factor was in Tuomas' writing, which had always walked the line of being too clever and yet bitingly straightforward. And the while the symphonic element became more and more prominent, first with the inclusion of Troy Donockley on the pipes and second with the heavier usage of orchestras, inspired by Tuomas' love of film scores. So it almost seems logical that that their 2011 album Imaginaerum would be paired with a movie and feel even larger and heavier than the last. And it was, and while I could argue that the album was even more self-referential than usual in terms of themes and lyrics, it features some of Nightwish's best melodic compositions and was overall a fantastic release.
But the problems weren't over, and midway through the tour Anette was fired and replaced with Floor Jansen of After Forever. Now there's a lot of ugliness to that conversation and nobody looks good, but it led to Floor Jansen joining the band full time along with Troy Donockley for their next album. Unfortunately, drummer Jukka Nevalainen had to take a brief hiatus and his drums were instead recorded by Kai Hahto, of the melodic death metal acts Swallow The Sun and Wintersun. Also in that intervening time, both Marco Hielata and Troy Donockley participated on the progressive metal album The Theory of Everything from Ayreon, easily one of the best records of that year, and I had to wonder if any progressive influences would be creeping towards Nightwish, especially with Marco as a secondary writer. And then I heard Nightwish was going to be discussing themes surrounding evolution on the album, even quoting Richard Dawkins! Keep in mind that the majority of Nightwish's material seems to fit in its own universe, and the last time they came remotely close to getting political was 'The Kinslayer' back on Wishmaster in 2000! To put things in context, Epica spent almost a decade trying to refinne their political messages before getting it to work consistently - I had no doubts that Tuomas was a good songwriter, but he's playing in a very different ballpark here!
In other words... look, even as a fan, I had no damn clue what to expect from this. Nightwish aiming for an even heavier sound, stabbing outwards with new subject matter and with a good half of the band changed, I had no idea what to expect, especially considering I wasn't really in love with Tuomas' solo album he dropped in 2014, written around the same time as this record. But I'm still a fan and at the very least it'd be an entertaining record, so what did we get with Endless Forms Most Beautiful?
Well, this was a great week - effectively repeating a lot of things I already said in the Kendrick review, but whatever. Okay, next up, got a whole slew of albums after I tackle this particularly difficult one. Stay tuned!
So you know how I said last week that I knew something awesome was coming this week? Well, here's a funny thing - when you start hearing press releases about certain artists beating streaming records off of critically acclaimed releases, you suddenly realize that Billboard includes streaming information in its calculations, and that means songs that would never otherwise land on the Hot 100 will suddenly notch hits. And sure, they might not stick around for long, but if they somehow land enough impressions or make enough of an impact with the audience... In any case, by now anyone who follows the music industry should know what I'm talking about: Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, and by some miracle six songs from it landed on the Hot 100. And it seems like in response the Hot 100 went into a massive panic in response to so much great music injected into it, and all sorts of semi-explicable insanity happened this week.
Man, I wish this had been better. I mean, it's good, but it should have been awesome, and it's still a bit of a letdown. It happens even from the best. Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then I have about four or five albums lined up in the queue I could easily cover. What to pick, what to pick... oh hell, I know what I'm covering, and you all should too. Stay tuned!
I've been looking forward to this project since the beginning of the year.
Now long time followers of my reviews probably aren't surprised by this, but everyone else is probably perplexed by where this album came from, who this duo is, and why anyone should care. For those who don't know, The Gentle Storm is a project under the direction of Arjen Lucassen, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and creator of the Ayreon project, an ongoing progressive metal act that pulls in vocalists from dozens of the most critically acclaimed acts in symphonic, progressive, folk, and even extreme metal. One of his long-time collaborators is Anneke Van Giersbergen, frontwoman of The Gathering and who has worked with acts as varied as Devin Townsend, Within Temptation, and Napalm Death. Together, the duo decided in 2014 to collaborate on a new project, a double album under the name The Gentle Storm. Both discs would contain the same compositions, but one would be played entirely with folk and acoustic instrumentation and other was all-out symphonic and progressive metal - and both discs would tell the same story, an epic historical romance, one of the few times Arjen Lucassen has ventured away from the sci-fi epics that have been his purview.
Now on some level, I was skeptical of this. With the exception of Guilt Machine, I've had mixed results with Arjen's side projects and solo albums, having never been a big fan of Ambeon and Star One rarely hitting as strongly as I've hoped. Plus, the double disc format struck me as the duo hedging their bets - were the compositions really so strong that they'd be able to be transferred to entirely different instrumentation and maintain their impact? Granted, this isn't the first time Arjen has done this - the first Ayreon release The Final Experiment had an acoustic version as well - but I couldn't help but feel the record might be better if they had just selected the more poignant version of each track and interweaved metal and acoustic together.
But this was the format they chose, and I knew that Arjen Lucassen was a songwriter who had never made an outright bad album. This was a team of veterans in writing and instrumentation, and it certainly wasn't shying away from being an ambitious project, so I gave the double album my full attention - was it worth it?
Man, this might have been short, but it hit me surprisingly hard. Seriously, check this out, damn good record. Next up, I'm going to cover an album I've been looking forward to since the beginning of this year. No, not that one. Or that one either. Want to know which? Stay tuned!
So time for a serious question: does Odd Future have any buzz anymore?
I don't mean that to be a slight against the rap collective, I really don't, a group that leapt out of the underground with a fully formed style and sound that won them a fair bit of critical acclaim and a strong cult following. And for a couple of years at the beginning of the decade, it seemed like the group was going to ride that wave of hype to album after album of success - not especially in the mainstream, given their subject matter and style, but there would be success.
But across 2014, Odd Future seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Yeah, there were a few scattered mixtapes but none of their big names dropped full-length records, and outside of some touring controversy that got some of their members banned from a New Zealand tour, Odd Future was pretty quiet. Now if you were to go back twenty years, there'd be no issue with this - albums and mixtapes take time to make if you're doing them right, and if Odd Future were secretly cooking things up, it'd be good to see a quality product. But we're also talking about the rapidly shifting landscape of hip-hop, where rap collectives live and die by their buzz, and with the internet that timeline has only gotten faster. And this means the unfortunate question isn't so much when the new Odd Future project would drop, but who outside their diehard fanbase would care if it did?
But out of nowhere, it looks as though we do have a new record dropping, and from the last person I'd expect: Earl Sweatshirt, the slightly off-kilter oddball of the group that initially built his reputation off of his darkly hyperbolic subject matter before destroying it with his surprisingly personal and introspective debut Doris. Now when I reviewed that debut way back in 2013, back before I even had a decent camera, and while I definitely liked it, it wasn't a record I saw myself going back to often - it was slow, dark, dreary, with Earl Sweatshirt's cadence and somber beats making it a heavy listen. Having gone back through it recently, though, I can definitely say I appreciate how meticulous and well-structured it is, balancing social commentary with a personal story well-told. In other words, of the rappers in Odd Future, I got the impression there was the most depth and layers behind Earl Sweatshirt. I was just surprised he would be first to the punch for a resurgence and not Tyler The Creator, and with a surprise album with few features and nothing from Odd Future outside of production, it looked to be an interesting listen. So what did we get?
Well, this was a total dud. Hoping for better, but given Megalithic Symphony and the mess that it was, it was probably hoping for too much for the lightning to strike twice. Anyway, Earl Sweatshirt next. Stay tuned!
There are bands that you can put on any album in their discography and immediately know the group. You can put on an AC/DC album or a Foo Fighters record and there's a sort of comfort in knowing nearly exactly what you're getting - there'll be slight differentiating factors, but you'll know what's coming. Then there are the groups that'll switch things up with every record - sometimes they'll make it subtle, sometimes they'll work in broad strokes, sometimes they'll throw curveballs into the mix that only hardcore fans will see coming. And then there's AWOLNATION, a band that no matter how many times I've listened to their debut record, I still have a hard time pinning down what the hell they're doing. After a well-received EP in 2010, they burst onto the scene with the messy, cacophonous electronic rock Megalithic Symphony in 2011, that pulled from a half-dozen styles, bands, and added plenty of their own fuzz-saturated and semi-demented flavour. Part punk, part U2-inspired rock, part genre-breaking digression, the album showed a wealth of ideas and most of them were pretty compelling. But it's definitely a record that works better in pieces than as a whole, especially in the case of its haphazard production, and it's hard to ignore that the lyrics often feel thinly sketched and underweight for the big ideas they're trying to tackle. And while 'Sail' landed on my Honourable Mentions list of my favourite hits of 2013 - because that's how long the mainstream took to catch up with the style that AWOLNATION was pushing, for better or worse - I was curious how long the band could push their ideas and whether they could develop some cohesion on the way. In other words, I was looking forward to reviewing this album - not because I expected it to be a great or classic album, but because it would be interesting. Was I rewarded here?
You know, it's rare that I get to be surprised much when it comes to these charts. I mean, sure you get your weird stuff that'll show up every week, but seventeen weeks into Billboard BREAKDOWN, it takes a lot to really pique more interest. This week, however... well, I'm not really going to say I was surprised by everything that happened, but more than a few times I was perturbed enough to wonder if things were slightly out of the ordinary. Granted, going into next week given what I've heard about streaming data, I've got a good idea what's coming, but it's always kind of nice to be thrown off-guard a little.
here’s one of the big ones. Ever since I started my channel, I’ve been asked to
give my opinion on Kendrick Lamar, flagship rapper from Top Dawg Entertainment
and one of the most critically acclaimed and respected rappers of the past five
years. A dexterous lyricist with a gift for balancing conscious lyricism with incredible
wit, often paired with top-of-the-line production, he’s been a rapper who’s
been hungry to seize the top spot, and from the critically acclaimed good
kid, m.A.A.d. city to the ‘Control’ verse that set the internet on fire in
2013, it looks like he’s been one of the few rappers who would have a shot of
what do I think of him? Well, hate to say it, but I have to echo so many other
critics in my praise – there’s not a lot of new things I can say about Kendrick
that haven’t already been said. His debut Section 80 was startlingly
smart and potent, a gut shot of social commentary fused with impressively
well-written bars and an elastic flow that started to set the stage of who
Kendrick was: a genuinely good guy, even a leader, stuck in a toxic, decaying
system that seemed engineered to destroy the hopes and dreams of young black
men. What always caught my eye about Kendrick was his gift for storytelling –
not just in crafting a great scene, but fully-fleshed out characters and
stories in that unsettling world.
came good kid, m.A.A.d city… and somehow, it was even better. Not only
was the production better, a slick and impressively modern brand of west coast
beats, but the characters were better defined, the narrative was more cohesive
and tightly written, and Kendrick’s bars were stronger than ever as things
tumble towards darkness. Hell, even guests like Drake step up their game for
some of their best bars yet. Many people claim that album is one of the best of
2012 and damn near a classic, and while I think time will tell on the latter,
it’s a damn potent hip-hop release that’s astoundingly strong and one of the
best of the year.
such, there’s been a lot of conversation where Kendrick is going to take his
material next, especially given his interviews and lead-off singles. Many were
expecting Kendrick to get more political and angry with his next album, or at
least more conscious, and with lead-off singles like ‘i’ and ‘The Blacker The
Berry’, it looked like we were getting that. But it also looked like Kendrick
was going to push his production beyond typical modern west-coast
instrumentation, which was perplexing at least. So when To Pimp A Butterfly
dropped, I definitely made sure to check it out and dig in deep – what did I
This might be my most requested record ever. Not the new Kendrick Lamar, not the new Modest Mouse or Of Montreal or AWOLNATION, this album. And I want to make this clear: I've been getting requests to cover Marina and the Diamonds since 2013 back when I started this channel. This has been a pop act I have been so inundated with requests that I talk about that it's been a struggle for me not to immediately drop into backlash mode. Because let's be blunt: when I get this many requests for an album, it's either massively popular - in this case it's not - it's incredibly good - that needed to be seen - or it's massively overrated with a diehard fanbase that won't stop even when I've said I'll cover it multiple times.
So now that time has come: Marina and the Diamonds, not a band but the solo project of Marina Diamandis, English pop singer-songwriter who made her big debut in 2010 with The Family Jewels. And as a debut in an era where UK pop was finally starting to make a splash stateside, it was a wildly varied, genuinely interesting pop album that crossed a lot of styles, featured Marina's unique vocal range, and had some genuinely intelligent lyrics. A lot of critics made comparisons of her as a cross between Lady Gaga and Kesha, but I'd argue there's a much easier comparison point in sound and style: Natalia Kills, but while Kills was more driven by icy hip-hop styles, Marina was more inspired by the garish, more theatrical indie baroque pop scene of the late-2000s from acts like mid-period Sia and Lily Allen. But the Natalia Kills comparison works - they're both playing a similar blend of rough-edged glam, they both have a theatrical presence in lyrics and delivery, and they both were better writers than your average pop starlet.
But here's the thing: Natalia Kills stuck to her guns, and even though her sophomore album Trouble sold terribly it was still an improvement across the board and probably an album I underrated when I first reviewed it. Marina and the Diamonds, on the other hand, got on board with Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Diplo, and Greg Kurstin and suddenly all of the personality and lyrical flavor I liked about her seemed to evaporate. Sure, the femme fatale persona could have worked, she's got the voice for it, but the self-awareness in the songwriting and the painfully generic electropop production did nothing for it. Yeah, there were moments that clawed back some of that personality, but not enough to save Electra Heart from being painfully generic for me.
So I'll admit to being a little interested when I heard that her newest album FROOT was going to be pitching all of the big name producers for something much more self-controlled with only a single producer besides Marina working on it. Would this mean more of her unique personality and songwriting skill returning to the forefront?
Man, I was expecting this album to be good, but this was a welcome punch. Damn great record, I find more to love about it with every listen. Next up... you know, I think it's time I finally cover that album. Not that one, the other one. Stay tuned!
It's rare that country music gets angry these days. You know, get the blood pumping for a righteous cause, something that might cause someone to load up a shotgun, grab a bottle of hard bourbon, and roll out to kick some ass. The part of me that loves outlaw country has a certain fondness for this brand of music, but it's gotten increasingly rare in the modern day, especially when the causes behind said songs tend to develop an isolationist streak that doesn't wear well. Like it or not, most of country is a conservative genre, and considering most country songwriters don't tell dark stories any more, it means that anger can come across as reactionary, and that rarely works out well, especially when the cause can be less than just.
And let's be clear, this has been an issue for decades now, but a particularly ugly side of it reared in the mid-2000s, because country was a genre that got increasingly torn on political lines. As much as I don't like the Dixie Chicks, there was a certain righteous rage to 'Not Ready To Make Nice' at getting tarred and feathered by the country establishment for being anti-Bush on the War on Terror. Now history has vindicated The Dixie Chicks years too late for it to matter, but the issue I always took with their statements, musical or otherwise, was that their framing could come across as a little preachy. Which, really, is a classic example of the biggest and most accurate criticism hurled at liberals these days, in that they're not populist and consider themselves above the discourse. If liberals are so smart and want to help everyone, why do we talk down to the audience or not show real empathy?
You want to know who did this approach a lot better? Singer-songwriter James McMurtry, born in Texas, originally a country singer in the 90s, but it wasn't until 2005 and his critically acclaimed album Childish Things that he really struck gold with songs like 'We Can't Make It Here Anymore' that struck the perfect balance and was named by acclaimed music critic Robert Christgau as the best song of the decade. Nuanced, harshly critical and pointing the finger at the right people, framed as speaking with the people and not down to them, and with a real simmering undercurrent of rage that underscored every brutal detail of his material. It also helped matters he was a great songwriter who had excellent production, a ton of texture, and solid hooks - the man didn't just write great music, he wrote great stories with detail and humanity that you could easily imagine. Throw in thematic cohesion and a solid as hell performance and you can bet he won me over.
Now he followed Childish Things with Just Us Kids in 2008, which kept the sharp writing but cranked up the anger a little hotter with harsher, more aggressive grooves - all positives, I might add - but then for nearly seven years, he seemed to disappear, with only a live album holding us over. And yet now one of the best songwriters in the industry is back with a brand new record - does the fire hold now that Bush and Cheney are long gone?
So yeah, this is late. My plan was for it to be out midway through last week, but real life decided to really kick me in the balls. It does that on occasion. Next up, another artist you probably haven't heard of, and then one you guys haven't stopped requesting for YEARS now. Stay tuned!
So here's one of the frustrating things about being an album critic covering electronic music: if you're not careful, you'll end up missing a lot of music. To some extent, electronic music has always been somewhat driven by singles that are then chopped and remixed into dozens of different forms, but with the rise of the Internet, there's been even less of an incentive to put together complete albums. As such, it's a lot more likely for an electronic producer to have built up a considerable following or even some brand of critical acclaim without ever dropping an album. This seems to be the case for Levon Vincent. Originally from New York before moving to Berlin, he's been steadily building a following in the electronic underground thanks to a selection of very well-received EPs and 12'' singles throughout the past decade. And thanks to the sudden growth in interest in deep house and darker, more challenging brands of electronic music, it doesn't surprise me that Levon Vincent might choose this time to drop his debut, self-titled album. And for me, it's a good chance to continue my exploration into electronic music and check out the meticulous work of a veteran I might never have had the chance to hear - so what did we get?
Sometimes on Billboard BREAKDOWN, we can get some pretty rough weeks... but sometimes you the weeks where it all just clicks in some of the best ways possible. The good songs win, the bad songs lose, the new songs kick ass, and even the returning tracks aren't bad. I don't think it's quite possible to ever have a perfect week - simply based on the law of averages I reckon it's impossible to a Hot 100 that's all great music - but you can have great weeks. And folks, we came pretty close here - yeah, we got some rough songs, but we also got a bonafide classic, and I couldn't be happier about that.
I don't know if it was fair to hope that this would be as great as The Cold Vein, but it could have been better than this. Next up, I'm going to do someone that I'm shocked nobody hasn't covered yet. No, it's not Madonna - I have no intentions of covering her desperate attempts to keep with the timese, it's just getting sad at this point. Instead... well, stay tuned!
So here's one of the joys of discovering a great artist, at least for me: I now have an easy excuse to go through their entire back catalog and listen to anything they might have done in the past. Which, sure, it adds to my backlog but often times it's more than worth it as I often get the chance to pick up albums that I would never have otherwise heard if I had just stuck to the mainstream. So when I heard the collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P with Run The Jewels back in 2013, not being as familiar with either artist as I wanted to be, I tore through their back catalogs with gusto. With Killer Mike it was easier - I already knew a bunch of his stuff through familiarity with Dungeon Family so finally listening to those solo albums was a welcome treat, especially PL3DGE and R.A.P. Music. But El-P was different - he might have had a slightly smaller back catalog of albums, but a record like Cancer 4 Cure demanded multiple in-depth listens to decode and fully take in. El-P was not a rapper who made simple music, in his bars or his productions, and that meant to really appreciate it, it simply took more time. And as such, it took me a while to finally branch out and start digging into the artists for whom El-P had producer credits, and while I was already familiar with Cage and The Weathermen and really enjoyed what I heard from Company Flow, one release that really caught my ear was The Cold Vein by New York hip-hop duo Cannibal Ox, entirely produced by El-P. And for good reason, it's a killer underground hip-hop record that's damn close to a classic featuring some stellar production and both MCs Vordul and Vast Aire dropping bar after bar of hard-edged and insightful wordplay. It's not precisely an easy album to take in - it's pretty icy and bleak, especially when you dig into the subject matter - but it's definitely worth it. And thus it's always been a little surprising that Cannibal Ox didn't follow up The Cold Vein immediately. Instead the duo split and dropped a few solo albums apiece and parted ways with El-P, but it wouldn't be until 2013 where they would drop a new EP with new material, songs that would eventually end up on their newest album, Blade Of The Ronin. And look, I had mixed expectations going into this - sure, they might not have El-P's beats, but it's not like they would have become worse wordsmiths, so the album was probably pretty damn good, right?
Well, it sure as hell was pretty, I'll give them that, and mostly soothing against the monster headache I had today (it hasn't gotten better). Next up, Cannibal Ox - and please god, don't disappoint me that hard...
It's a weird experience listening to Purity Ring. See, when they finally released their debut album Shrines in 2012 after drip-feeding a number of singles, it immediately attracted a lot of attention for the plethora of bizarre contradictions on display. Gleaming, shimmering keyboards that were reminiscent of the cleanest dream pop and synthpop paired with roiling waves of wobbling heavy synth and hi-hats that reminded me of trap-favoured hip-hop. The ghostly vocals of Megan James paired with the cavernous oily moans of pitch-shifting, her sweet delivery paired with lyrics both intricate and innocent and yet shockingly graphic. The band was layers of impenetrability paired with a certain visceral sound that didn't need layers of deconstruction to understand - and when you did eventually parse out the lyrics, they did very much match that feel. So why have I never been a huge fan of Purity Ring? Well, some of the reasons are pretty basic - I'm just not a fan of pitch-shifted vocals in any capacity, the sound turns me off, even though down-tuning is preferable to the chipmunk voice. But for me as visceral and borderline primal as the emotions Purity Ring struck up could be, it always felt they were blunting it through being needlessly obtuse. Don't get me wrong, I like intricate poetry, but the writing style didn't connect as well as I liked, almost being overwritten for their own sake. The dichotomies of Purity Ring reminded me a lot of St. Vincent's mid-period work on Actor and Strange Mercy, but St. Vincent always felt more grounded, mature and human in her writing instead of Purity Ring's approach of spiraling away into twee abstractions to take away from the plentiful gore if you thought about it literally. So when I heard that Purity Ring was opting to go for more of a modern pop style, I was both optimistic and a little concerned. On the one hand, a stronger pop approach could lead to a more succinct and direct style of writing, but would the poetry be as interesting without the flowery language? And what would it mean for the instrumentation? So I took a look at Purity Ring's sophomore record another eternity - what did we get?
So here's an interesting hypothetical for all of you - presume you're an artist who has scheduled to release his album - and then out of nowhere, one of your competition drops a critically acclaimed mixtape/album that gains him a ton of buzz. You're angry, you're annoyed - without warning, he seems to have stolen your thunder - do you delay your record? It's an interesting question - but it appears by staying the course, Big Sean got an interesting results on the charts. Simply put, Drake was riding a wave of hype that managed to lodge ten songs off of his new album on the charts, and when they inevitably faded, something had to replace them. Now sure, Big Sean could have impacted the chart with his album anyway, but I'd argue he wouldn't have lodged as many tracks - and unlike Drake, the songs Big Sean got charting were his best ones. I might not like the guy, but I have to give him props here, even if some of it was pure luck.
Man, I wish I loved this as much as some critics did, but in the end, it didn't quite connect as powerfully as I was hoping. Eh, it happens. Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then Cannibal Ox or Purity Ring - stay tuned!
So when I talked about The Mavericks' comeback and reviewed Mono, it was at least a comeback that could be explained relatively easily - the group had split apart amicably, it had only been a decade, there was a growing market for old-fashioned country in the wake of bro-country's ascendance, it made sense why they'd take a shot at it. If only the resurgence of The Pop Group made that much sense. Sure, post-punk has returned more to the spotlight in recent years, especially in the independent scene, but The Pop Group weren't exactly a traditional 'post-punk' group, at least however you can define that nebulous genre. While they might have kept the clear striking guitar textures and deep, washed out mix, it can easily be argued The Pop Group had more in common with funk crossed with free jazz, dub, avant-garde spoken word and noise that most post-punk. And as such, they were held as influential by no-wave acts like Swans to noise acts like Sonic Youth to other post-punk groups like The Birthday Party, which spawned Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. But The Pop Group always seemed to have a ramshackle approach that barely seemed sustainable for a few songs, let alone the two albums they managed to release in the end of the 70s - and I have to admit, of the post-punk of that era, The Pop Group is a band I appreciate more than like. Many of their songs had great elements that fired in all sorts of weird directions, but cohesion was always a problem - and it makes sense, considering the band was comprised by a group of teenagers who had more talent and imagination that cooperation. It certainly explained the lyrics, which had some evocative imagery but definitely uneven writing. Internal fighting eventually split the band apart, with the members eventually joining several other punk bands... until 2010, where talk of the band's reunion started. It took five years until Citizen Zombie was finally released - how was it?
Well, so much for covering Toby Keith today, which was my plan. Turns out the record was delayed indefinitely, so I have to cover this instead. Lovely. Next up is The Pop Group, and then Purity Ring and Cannibal Ox - stay tuned!
I don't miss a lot about pop music in the mid-2000s, but one of the things I do miss is the relevance of Kelly Clarkson. As with most reality TV show stars, nobody expected Kelly Clarkson to be huge. She might have been the first to come off of American Idol, but it wasn't like her early singles were all that interesting beyond just being pleasant enough. And speaking as one of those unfortunates who saw From Justin To Kelly and what became of future American Idols with very limited exceptions, nobody expected Kelly Clarkson to do well. And then her second album Breakaway dropped, and with a gauntlet of songwriters that included her peer Avril Lavigne and Evanescence members Ben Moody and David Hodges, Kelly Clarkson went for pop rock in the best way possible. She took all of the powerhouse vocals that had made her a star and added a convincing rock edge that put her in the same category as artists like Pink, which was a huge positive for me - hell, I'd argue she made better music than Evanescence ever put on record in the mid-2000s! And when she decided to go even darker with My December, I had reason to be enthused, but also a little concerned. And for good reason, because looking back eight years later My December is a polarizing album among fans and critics alike. Mostly because it's a nasty little record with a lot of rough, exposed edges that don't exactly make it a comfortable listen. But in retrospect, I wish Kelly Clarkson had chosen to keep going in this direction, because I reckon with more time, she could have fashioned herself something just as potent as some of the Alanis Morissette she idolized. That didn't happen. Instead, Kelly Clarkson went back to making finely tuned pop records with the guiding hands of Max Martin, Ryan Tedder, and Dr. Luke. And sure, she's made songs I like from All I Ever Wanted and Stronger, but they're nowhere near as emotionally intense as her mid-2000s material or as interesting as My December. As such, I was planning on skipping this album altogether until the requests started pouring in. But hey, she might have something here that's solid, right?
So here's an odd coincidence that I don't recall ever happening before when I've covered an act on this show - I actually saw them live before getting their album. See, last year I managed to get tickets to go see Bleachers - spoiler alert, it was incredible - and their opening act was an indie pop group called MisterWives. The New York-based band had been getting traction through other tours, most notably with Twenty-One Pilots and American Authors and a hot EP and single release. Heavily inspired by 80s synthpop, they were a natural fit to open for Bleachers, and really, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed their set. Not only bringing a lot of energy, but with an eclectic sound incorporating horns with keyboards and jittery guitars and frontwoman Mandy Lee Duffy's potent vocals, I remembered thinking that I should really take the time to review the band's album if and when they drop it. Flash forward six or seven months, and MisterWives have finally dropped that debut record and apparently have garnered enough buzz for me to actually get requests for it, even despite some mixed reviews. So I decided to check it out - what did we get?
So let's talk about comebacks again. I've talked a bit before about artists managing to revive their careers thanks to diehard fanbases, critical attention, or simply stepping into the right place at the right time - one of the reasons Sleater-Kinney's No Cities To Love did as well as it did this year, on top of just being awesome. But Sleater-Kinney wasn't just a great band, they were responsible for shaping that particular brand of feminist punk rock for years to come, and you could argue their influence runs pretty deep. The Mavericks, on the other hand... okay, who was expecting this comeback to work? For those of you who don't know, The Mavericks were a neotraditional country act that came up in the mid-90s that I'd describe as midway between Alabama and Lonestar - not quite as rollicking or twangy, but not the slick pop country that would define Lonestar successful years in the late 90s and early 2000s. They charted a few modest hits, but were never massive hitmakers with anything that hit the top 10, or made music that I'd describe as essential of the era. Hell, on some of their singles I'd have a hard time describing them as a neotraditional country act, which might have been their problem getting hits - they were too polished for most country with the ska-like horns, clean adult contemporary production, Raul Malo's rich baritenor, doofy yacht rock vibe, and tendency for covering Elvis and Cat Stevens. It's no surprise that 'All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down' is their biggest country hit and the only one I recognized at all on first listen - and they still managed to find a way to wedge an accordion solo into it! So after breaking up, I had no reason to care about The Mavericks, putting them in the same historical footnote as I put similar 90s neotraditional acts that never really caught on - yes, I know they had a Grammy, ask Marc Cohn or Debby Boone how much those matter for one's long-term career. But then they came back with In Time in 2013... and really, it was like they never left. The horns, the accordion, the eclectic country of The Mavericks only seemed to really change and evolve in the thicker grooves and picking up more texture, which was a welcome shift. But despite the waves of critical acclaim the record got, I was a little more lukewarm on it - I got the old-fashioned flavour to the vocals and songwriting, but to me it always felt a little staged and kitschy - not bad by any stretch, let me stress this, but a little broad. But then again, the band seemed to be committed to pushing their sound even further, so I made sure to check out their newest album Mono - how did that turn out?