Saturday, March 30, 2013

movie review: 'spring breakers'

Last summer in about June, I wrote 'Last Call', a short story that was published in this anthology. 

I wrote that story when I was unemployed, amidst a listless haze of bizarre art films, channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean, and the discography of Ke$ha. It's a story of a girl named Natalie who goes to a nightclub and experiences a bloody, terrifying surrealist nightmare, complete with drugs, alcohol, and far, far worse. It's not an easy story to read - I know this - and the common responses from people who have read it are 'I didn't get it' and 'it's really dark and disturbing'.

Yeah, it is. It's dark, and disturbing, and since it's partially based on truth, it's more than a little personal. It's the kind of story I had to write, if only to finally put to bed some of the darker memories of my past. But while I was writing it and trying to get inside the head of my protagonist and everyone she encounters, I felt a sick jolt of realization: that there's something deeply, perversely wrong with my generation. It's not something that can entirely be explained, even though I'll try in this review. And while many have pointed the finger at us for being the progenitors of it all, we were not the only forces shaping it. After all, we're all shaped by culture in some way, and it's very rare that we're the ones creating the culture that shapes us.

And the fact that Spring Breakers, the new Harmony Korine film starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, is able to so aptly cast, vivisect, and place that wrongness on display... It is incredible and more than a little terrifying. It's one of the best goddamn films of the year, and deserves to be held up the heavens as a cultural touchstone of my generation. And yeah, I know that's a damning indictment but I don't fucking care, it's an indictment that needs to be made. It's an indictment I've made and I'm willing to include myself as one being indicted. 

It's 'Last Call', except where I optimistically saw a painful way out, Harmony Korine has a much bleaker, bloodier view.

Friday, March 29, 2013

album review: 'delta machine' by depeche mode

Normally, the best part of writing my reviews is listening to the pile of previous material that the artist produced before their newest outing. For me, I like to use this time to get an idea of where the album fits within the context of the artist's career, to get an idea of what this album might mean. And particularly when it comes to acts that I've never heard of or listened to before, I find it a great opportunity to tear through some of my massive backlog.

And going into this review, I couldn't help but feel a little encouraged by the task ahead of me. I mean, the last time I tackled an artist with over a dozen albums worth of material, it was Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, of whom I have no qualms stating is one of the best acts of the past thirty years. And most synthpop acts from the 80s don't last if they don't have something to say, and Depeche Mode has been hailed as one of the greats of the genre, with critically acclaimed albums and a fervent cult following. And given their tendencies towards gothic electronica and being one of the most influential members of the darkwave movement (and given I'm a fan of The Cure and Sisters of Mercy), I was definitely looking forward to powering through the discography of Depeche Mode and taking in their rich history. I was looking forward to becoming a fan.

Twelve albums later, I emerged exhausted, exasperated, and distinctly dissatisfied. Twelve albums of bleak, dreary synthpop and electronica - and I'd be hard-pressed to call three of them good (Songs Of Faith and Devotion, Violator, and Playing The Angel). Four if I was pushing it (Music For The Masses). And even the four I considered good, I only consider them good. Nothing spectacular, nothing I couldn't live without, nothing that moved me on any emotional or intellectual level, hardly any songs that sent a chill down my spine.

What a letdown.

What makes matters worse is the fact that there are a lot of thing that frustrate me about Depeche Mode, a lot of little things that would so quickly elevate this band into more than the sum of its parts. The band has a unique, heavily-synth driven gothic sound, and when they finally got a decent synthesizer and grabbed heavier samples, they had a real talent for writing intricately composed melodies. Lead vocals from David Gahan and Martin Gore were pretty damn solid as well, and the two have a gift for harmony I wish they utilized more. And when the band really tried, they could write thought-provoking and wryly insightful songs.

Unfortunately, there's a thin line between 'really trying' and 'trying way too hard', and here's where my first big problem with Depeche Mode comes up. Now I want you all to remember that nerdy kid in high school who suddenly decides he wants to be 'dark', so he starts wearing black leather and only listens to gothic music (be it metal or otherwise) and starts talking about sex with a forced casualness that just makes everyone feel uncomfortable (for those of you about to get annoyed or offended, keep in mind for a brief period that I was that kid). The funny thing is about half the time, that kid does manage to make it work and it surprises everyone - and the other half of the time, it's awkward and embarrassing for everyone involved. 

Here's the interesting thing - Depeche Mode occupies the peculiar position that they both play the music that nerdy kid would listen to, and they occupy the exact same image themselves. There are points where they nail the balance between goth and synth-nerd, and it works and all of the elements come together and that dark, brooding gothic aesthetic pays massive dividends through great, potent songs - and there are other points that just inspire cringing sympathy. 

But keep in mind this is all happens when Depeche Mode is trying. There are also the stretches - the long, long stretches - where they really aren't trying to the same extent, which leads to my biggest problem with them: Depeche Mode can get really fucking boring really fast. Outside of isolated moments of brilliance, long tracts of their first four or five albums blur together in my mind because there's nothing that really stands out amongst the bleakness. And while I get the gothic dreariness is part of their style, you'd think they'd at least have some strong hooks or memorable lyrics or compelling themes to make them stand out - but more often than not, you get nothing but a bland slurry of stylistically unique but individually uninspiring synthpop songs. By the way, for those of you who are curious why I haven't begun my deeper exploration of Nine Inch Nails, it's pretty much due to a fear of this very phenomenon.

So does Delta Machine, Depeche Mode's thirteenth album, stand out among the flurry of bland boredom, or have they made something truly intriguing?

Monday, March 25, 2013

album review: 'comedown machine' by the strokes

It's the dream of every artist to make it big, for their work to be widely experienced and acclaimed by the masses, to be recognized for its greatness. It's not just that you're creating art for the sake of the art, but that the art can be experienced and enjoyed on such a wide scale that you might be able to attain that cultural paradigm shift.

So what happens when the first album you release is your big break? Right out of the gate, you hit a home run so powerful that you become widely acclaimed by the industry, the critics, and the public alike. You can hardly believe it, because not only has success come, it has come hot and fast off of your first album. All of a sudden, magazines and critics are hailing your album as a masterpiece, and that your act is the start of a new movement that  will resurrect not just your genre, but rock music in its entirety!

And then comes the terrible, terrible question, the question that comes the second you consider making another album: how the hell can you follow that?

That's the question that's plagued the indie rock band The Strokes ever since they struck it huge with Is This It, their mega-successful debut that definitely deserves the majority of the praise it gets. It was tightly written, superbly arranged, and featured some of the most solid and rhythmic electric guitar I've heard in a long time. The Strokes had a definite gift for melody, and fused with main singer/songwriter Julian Casablancas' 'teenager-in-New-York' sensibilities, it was a perfect summer smash. And combined with the success of The White Stripes, The Hives, and The Verve around the same time, it was no surprise when critics began proclaiming that The Strokes were the start of a new movement to 'save' rock, bring it back to its simpler roots in the 70s garage traditions. The post-grunge dreck of the late 90s and early 2000s was about to be swept away, replaced by a new explosion of rock...

...and it didn't happen. Post-grunge remained stubbornly implacable, only beginning to fall away as the pop-rock boom of the mid-2000s elbowed its way in. The Hives and The Verve never managed to hold onto their momentum, and most of the indie acts that gained popularity in the wake of this 'rock revolution' only managed a fraction of a breakthrough in 2004 (see my review of The Killers' 2012 album Battle Born for details). The White Stripes (arguably the most interesting of the acts), lasted a little longer before disbanding, leaving behind six mostly solid albums and Jack White's intriguing solo efforts, but nothing close to the success they were promised. 

This leaves The Strokes, one of the peculiar musical acts that has always seemed to sit in the shadows of their magnificent debut. It's honestly a bit depressing, really - Is This It was so goddamned great that it would take some genuine genius to effectively follow it up, not to mention top-notch songwriting. And for a second, when The Strokes delivered their follow-up album Room On Fire, most people thought their success was assured. Sure, it wasn't quite as polished and focused as Is This It, but that was to be expected with a sophomore album, with the band exploring their sound and trying new things. But the first evidence of the problem was here: the album sounded a bit too much like Is This It, and the songwriting hadn't quite advanced much either. There were exceptions ('Reptilia'), but overall, it was hard not to see The Strokes just sticking a bit too close to their working formula.

But then they released their third album First Impressions of Earth, and here was where the big problems with The Strokes started to come out. For starters, their sound was evolving, but their material lacked the precise control and tightness of their previous work, instead slathering distortion effects over only decent guitar work. But on even their better songs, the real problem became Julian Casablancas, the increasingly punchable face of the band - mainly because while the band was evolving, he certainly wasn't. The vocals were never the most essential thing on albums by The Strokes, but with their greater emphasis on First Impressions of Earth, Casablancas' caterwauling started to become a little insufferable. More problematic was the fact the songwriting just wasn't getting better, still feeling clumsy and lacking in focus, and it was fast becoming clear that Julian Casablancas really didn't have anything interesting to say.

So after taking five years off, The Strokes came back with Angles, their fourth album and by far their strangest - and I don't mean strange in the good way. According to sources inside the band, the recording was troubled, and it definitely does come across in the music. Casablancas apparently recorded all of his vocals separate from the rest of the band, and the tonal differences between his material and that of the rest of The Strokes is jarring. I can pinpoint three definite problems on Angles: the tonal shifts within songs are often incoherent and frustrating, the songwriting still isn't very good, and Julian Casablancas decided he wanted to add autotune to his singing, where it doesn't fit with the production at all. And really, it's a strength of the rest of the band that despite all of this, Angles actually turned out to be a decent album. 

But the problems that plagued their last album hadn't been solved - in fact, even more problems had cropped up, and when I heard The Strokes were coming back with another album (and a godawful album cover to boot), I was uneasy. Could The Strokes pull something together here?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

album review: 'the 20/20 experience' by justin timberlake

I think that Justin Timberlake and I got off on the wrong foot.

And really, it's not entirely his fault either. Like nearly every other kid who grew up in the late 90s, I got caught up the boy band wars, and I firmly landed in the Backstreet Boys camp (still am in the Backstreet Boys camp, by the way, mostly because I think the majority of their material has more lasting appeal than N'Sync). Thankfully I wasn't one of the insane fans that would automatically deride all of a band's work because of my 'allegiance' to their counterpart, but, well, Justin Timberlake was a member of N'Sync and I have never thought N'Sync were as good as the Backstreet Boys. Yes, 'Tearing Up My Heart', 'Bye Bye Bye', 'Gone', 'It's Gonna Be Me', and '(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You' are all great songs, but N'Sync gravitated towards slick, glassy R&B that I never felt they could back up effectively, mostly because they never had a member of the band with an authoritative baritenor like Kevin or A.J..

But really, it wasn't just that Justin Timberlake was a member of N'Sync - he was N'Sync, and I'm not surprised at all that he was really the only boy band member to strike out on his own and find mainstream solo success. Success that, I will admit, I dismissed for a long time for a number of reasons that I definitely couldn't articulate at the time. I definitely thought throughout the mid-2000s that Timbaland, his producer partner, was more engaging and entertaining that Justin Timberlake ever was. Timbaland had a unique style, a gift for superb hip-hop beats, and a great bass that gave his songs a surprising degree of authority. Timbaland did for the mid-to-late-2000s what the Neptunes did for the early 2000s: monopolized pop radio and made a shit-load of awesome music. 

But now it's 2013 - and after a long hiatus, Justin Timberlake has come back to 'reclaim his title' as the best male pop star in the modern industry. Let me restate something I've said a number of times before: after Michael Jackson faded away in the 90s, there has been something of a contest to see who will take his place, and for the most part of the 2000s, it has been between Usher and Justin Timberlake. Sure, Chris Brown has thrown his hat into the ring, but thankfully the majority of sane people have dismissed the little pissant's boast, which leaves this a two man race. 

But if I'm going to be completely honest, I think that Justin Timberlake has always been a bit ahead of Usher in this contest. Usher's best music has always been about, well, sex - Timberlake sings about sex and love and all the rest of that stuff, but his lyrical influences and musical stylinEgs are just a bit more eclectic (mostly thanks to Timbaland, who has been playing the Quincy Jones to Timberlake's Michael since 2006). And yeah, going back through Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds today, I can finally admit that Justin Timberlake is a good pop star. In fact, he's a great pop star, with a number of slick, polished, incredibly solid pop songs. And with shockingly solid performances in movies (I'd argue that he was one of the best things about The Social Network, outside of the script and direction) and in stand-up comedy (particularly on SNL - and considering Timberlake's pedigree, it's a little amazing that he managed not to go the way of John Mayer when it comes to braving the comedy gauntlet), I can state he's a genuine triple threat.

So why the hell can't I like the guy's music?

Because I want to like Justin Timberlake, and there are a few songs where he does deliver, but why the hell does his music feel so fleeting and forgettable to me in comparison to Usher's? The only two Justin Timberlake songs I've ever really liked off his last albums were 'Sexyback' and 'Give It To Me', the latter simply because it's one of the most scathing diss tracks to have ever become popular. That song, with verses from Nelly Furtado (dissing critics who dislike the fact she stopped singing insufferable and pretentious adult alternative and starting making much better pop music) and Timbaland (who thrashes former collaborator Scott Storch), works both because it's a great song, but also because of sheer audacity. Mostly because on that track, Justin Timberlake disses Prince.

Yeah, you read that right. The story goes that shortly after the release of 'Sexyback', Prince saw Timberlake at an Entertainment Tonight party and shouted across the room that 'sexy never left', something that Timberlake took umbrage with and recorded a pretty vicious diss in response. That took balls, particularly considering that Justin Timberlake - and indeed the majority of modern pop/R&B singers - owe a debt to Prince's experimentation and genius that would be impossible to pay off, and yet Timberlake chose to diss him. As I said before, the song was solid before Timberlake's verse, but the sheer audacity elevates it to another level.

But upon reflection, I think that's always been part of my problem with Justin Timberlake: the man is justifiably confident in his delivery and songwriting, and he has a ton of polish and sleek style - but despite all of this, in his solo work it never seemed like he was trying. And sure, you could argue that he's has never really needed to try, but to me, it leeches some of the likability out of the performer. When you consider the 'risks' he's taken as an artist, nothing that he has done has been all that revolutionary to the genre in the way Michael Jackson or Prince were in the 80s. Let's compare him to Usher, for example, because while there have been tracks Usher has phoned it in, for the most part his material is emotionally driven and passionate. And this is because Usher throws himself into tracks with force and passion, and even on his 'slow-burn' tracks like 'Climax' (which is Usher's best song), you can tell he's working his ass off to really sell the emotions in the song in a way that Justin Timberlake really never has. 

But now he's come back with a new album after a six year hiatus - and really, you have to consider what he's facing, because the pop world has evolved a lot since Timberlake dropped FutureSex/LoveSounds back in 2006. The club boom has come and (nearly) gone, indie rock has flooded the charts, and a new generation of boy bands has arrived. Along the axes of pop music (which, just to remind you all, are the axes of intelligence and maturity), the advent of mainstream indie rock has pushed half of the charts towards smarter, more mature music (mostly - there are exceptions), while the rest has shot down towards dumb immaturity in the vein of the success of One Direction and the motherfucking 'Harlem Shake'. So the task ahead of Justin is immense - not only does he have to reassert himself as a presence in the pop landscape, he has to show that he can be influential on the pop scene. If he really wants to claim the throne of the king of pop, he needs The 20/20 Experience to take off in a big way.

And having now listened to the album... I don't know if that's going to happen, because Justin Timberlake didn't just choose The 20/20 Experience as his comeback album, he also chose it as an artistic statement and chose to load it with seven minute songs. Because, as he said, 'if Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can do it, why can't we'? And putting aside the borderline heresy in that statement, The 20/20 Experience is a decidedly odd and frustrating album. It's looking to do a lot of things: a comeback for Justin Timberlake, a pop smash hit, and a critically acclaimed 'art-pop' album. Most albums would have a hard time being one of those things, and it would require a damn miracle to get all of those things to come together.

The shocking thing is how damn close The 20/20 Experience gets to that point, and its failure is all the more glaring in comparison to everything it gets right.

Friday, March 15, 2013

album review: 'heaven in this hell' by orianthi

Hey guys, how many of you remember the music of 2010?

Well, if you're having a bit of trouble remembering the hits from this year, I'm not surprised. In 2010 we were in the middle of the club music explosion, driven on by the success of Ke$ha, the Black Eyed Peas, and more. This was a year that seemed dedicated to going to the club and partying at the club until the break of dawn, and the Billboard Charts definitely reflected that. 

But here was the problem: the majority of that music sucked.

Yeah, I'm not kidding around about this one. 2010 was an awful year for the Billboard charts, with very few songs that were memorable enough to like and a whole load of crap that was memorable enough to hate. A lot of people blame Ke$ha for 2010 being awful, but I don't, mostly because while she did have several hits that made the year end chart that year, she wasn't responsible for the trend of awful music stretching across multiple acts. There was no excuse for shit like 'Imma Be' or 'Hey Soul Sister' or 'Cooler Than Me' getting big, and Ke$ha had no connection to any of that awful.

But part of the problem was that most of the hit music of 2010 just sounded alike. It embodied club music in every sense of the word - ephemeral, energetic, fun to dance to but completely forgettable come the next morning. And since I went to the club a lot in 2010, I had a chance to hear all of the absolute worst the pop and hip-hop charts had to offer. And even worse was the fact that there was so little good music that charted that year to overtake the club hits, so much so that I had a really hard time making a year end top ten list in 2010. There just wasn't enough there was distinct enough to care about.

So thus I was as surprised as anyone that the number one song on my year end best list was a pop rock song called 'According To You' from some girl named Orianthi, which completely defied by expectations by being pretty damn awesome. It's a song where Orianthi viciously savages the last guy she was with for constantly putting her down, and then bragging about how her new boyfriend actually treats her with respect and affection.   So yeah, it's a pretty basic formula that's cribbed straight from Beyonce's playbook, but Orianthi brings a pretty significant presence to the track, mostly due to the fact she's a pretty great guitarist, to the point where it was probably one of the few songs that charted in 2010 that had a guitar solo. And considering we weren't getting any good Avril Lavigne or Pink in 2010, Orianthi seemed a welcome replacement, so I picked up her album to see if there was more where 'According To You' came from.

There really wasn't. And Orianthi's Believe really isn't a good album. Yes, she is a phenomenal guitarist, and yes, she can bring a lot of personality to her tracks despite some technical weaknesses in her vocal technique, but there was a lot of filler and weak material on that album, and nothing to show Orianthi was much of a good songwriter either. Part of the problem was that Orianthi put out a lot of songs about how happy she was she made it and her 'inspirational' story, and while there's a market for those types of songs, they do have a limited shelf life. Eventually, listeners get tired of hearing the story of how you started from the bottom and then accomplished your dreams and everyone else can too (talking about you here, Drake). And really, I'd be hard-pressed to find a good enough song on that album that could follow 'According To You'. And apparently her label (Geffen) agreed - Orianthi was dropped from the label and now her newest album is courtesy of Robo Records, which has the distinction of being the backing label of Charlie Sheen. Yikes.

But then I had a new thought - there was a solid chance that Orianthi never got the chance to shine as a songwriter because of label interference and rewrites, because Geffen sure as hell didn't know how to promote Orianthi, which is probably the reason she never eked out a second hit. So is Orianthi's follow-up show new songwriting promise, or is she doomed with the label of 'One Hit Wonder'?

Monday, March 11, 2013

album review: 'the raven that refused to sing (and other stories)' by steven wilson

I wish hipsters were more sincere.

Now, in a previous review I wrote about hipster music and culture, how most of it is rife with condescension, shallowness, and capricious exclusivity, and how most of their art is praised for the superficial aesthetic rather than deeper meaning. But as hipster culture has been embraced by the mainstream, I will say there is one thing about it I can praise, and that is that there is nothing wrong with liking different things. It's gotten people to check out and try new things they've never seen or experienced before, and I think that's only a good thing, particularly for the artists who have been struggling in the underground and are now getting more attention than just Pitchfork.

That being said, with mainstream acceptance comes rampant cynicism and naked commercial exploitation, and since hipster culture is built on consumption, the effects have been all the more stark. More than once I've caught myself wondering if people are listening to weird material not because they actually like it or appreciate its value, but because it's the 'in thing' to do. They're still following a herd - just one that's a bit more scattered.

But while hipster culture has introduced a plethora of new acts to the spotlight, it's also done something I really despise, and that is to drench everything in 'irony'. This is something I've never liked about hipster culture, because it's disingenuous and more than a little disrespectful to the artists who care about their work. Furthermore, it adds an additional asterisk to questions of what people like - are they liking it because it's something they genuinely enjoy, or because they're being 'ironic' or just running with the crowd? As someone who is deeply sincere about his likes and dislikes, I find quite insulting when people claim to like something 'ironically' because it's not just condescending to their audience, it's condescending to the artist. It's the hipster saying that their artwork is only worth anything as a punchline, not related to any merit or message. And the more time I've spent on Pitchfork, reading their 'style over substance' album reviews, the more I have to wonder whether or not any of their appreciation for the music is sincere in the slightest. 

And thus it's absolutely no surprise Pitchfork has tended to completely ignore the genres of progressive rock and metal, even though one would think both music genres would be right up their ally. Musical complexity, expansive soundscapes, a strong literary and classical tradition, these are all things Pitchfork loves, yet new prog albums, even independent ones, are never reviewed. But it becomes fairly clear when one considers that prog, in nearly all of its forms, is incredibly, achingly sincere music. These are artists pouring a ton of work and depth into their craft and delivering that message completely straight. It's a mindset that allowed Jethro Tull to make Thick As A Brick, an album spoofing the ludicrous excesses of prog rock that later came to be celebrated as one of the greatest prog albums of all time. And I think one of the reasons that album is so well-liked today isn't just because prog is sincere, it also actively demands that its listener be sincere, and thus Jethro Tull's spoof ended up being less of a joke and more of a tribute to the genre - or at least that was how the fans considered it. Perhaps to the genre's detriment, the majority of prog takes itself way too seriously, and it expects the listeners to do the same.

But, you know, most of the time, prog's seriousness and complexity can work well. Yes, the worst of prog rock and prog metal earn the 'pretentious' label right out of the gate, and one of the reasons the genre is considered near-extinct in modern times is because that bloat and pretentiousness got too unwieldy to be tolerated, but the best prog rock is timeless, delving into deep issues with intellect and surprising insight. Thus it shouldn't come as any surprise that prog rock and prog metal are two of my favourite genres of music, even despite my acknowledgement of some of the inherent ridiculousness and pretentiousness. In fact, I'll be the first to admit that often the musical complexity and dynamics are what redeems some of this genre from really not being nearly as interesting as the artists seem to think it is.

And on that note, let's talk about Steven Wilson.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

album review: 'push the sky away' by nick cave & the bad seeds

Let's talk about barriers of entry in music.

Because believe me, they exist. For those of you who only listen to mainstream music, there are a whole collection of off-beat oddities that have made tons of great music and yet never have gotten a single major airplay hit. Most of the time this is because the music is weird and inaccessible, or contains disturbing subject matter, or is just so goddamn insane that there's no way that sort of music would ever get airplay. The average music listener won't know about these bands, and odds are, they won't care.

But say you've heard lots of buzz about this band, or they did get that one airplay hit and you're intrigued enough to go on Wikipedia and find out more - only to discover this act has been around for decades and have about seven or eight more albums of material. It's incredibly overwhelming to look at the thick discographies of acts like Radiohead (which is really the most commercial of my examples) or Frank Zappa or The Flaming Lips or Chumbawamba or Porcupine Tree and feel hopelessly lost. It gets even worse when you realize the act has live cuts that are apparently better than the studio albums because of poor production or incorrect mixing or acts that have periods in their discography where they made a fair amount of crap or acts that rely on concept albums that are layered and intricate and need to listened to all in one piece to be understood as an album statement (every prog-rock band EVER). And at that point, most casual music listeners unwilling to make the deep dive will just throw up their hands and say 'Fuck it' and go back to listening to the radio.

And really, you can't exactly blame them. Digging into complex discographies requires a time investment that most people just don't have. People just don't have the time or patience these days, in the days of shuffling and playlists, to wade through albums to find the songs they might like. Now I admit I'm something of a traditionalist here - I like album statements and concept albums, I like it when artists go for that overarching theme in their work that makes all the songs resonate all the stronger - but, once again, not everyone has the luxury of a long subway commute on which to listen to music.

And even with that, I was intimidated when I first considered tackling this project. I mean, fifteen albums worth of material (seventeen if you include the Grinderman project, which I did), and all the type of dense, complicated material that Pitchfork slobbers over? I knew precisely two songs from Nick Cave before tackling this - one from a collaboration with the Flaming Lips (an act that is famously inaccessible, at one point making an album called Zaireeka that I had to remix myself because it was designed to be played simultaneously on four different stereos), and his signature song 'The Mercy Seat'. That song I found on a collection of underground material from the 80s, buried between a Cameleons UK track (that's actually pretty awesome, btw) and a song from The Rain Parade (not quite as good), and while I loved 'The Mercy Seat' (and I still do, it's fucking glorious), I was still uneasy about the challenge ahead of me. It didn't make things easier when I discovered that nearly everyone had a different 'entry point' for Nick Cave's material, and labelled different albums as overrated or crap. 

So I threw up my hands and just started at the beginning with the first album Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds made called From Here To Eternity, the album he made after leaving his punk band Birthday Party. And as much as I like post-punk, I was prepared for an onslaught of dreary, infuriatingly inaccessible garbage.

It's great to be proven wrong. Because Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are fucking awesome.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

album review: 'all that echoes' by josh groban

In my list of the Top 10 Best Songs of 2012, I made the comment that there are certain acts called 'silent majority', which are acts that get hugely popular, but never quite attain the level of critical acclaim or rabid fandom that others do. This is a strange affliction that commonly hits soft rock acts, typically those that lack a distinctive personality and authorial voice. You know, like Coldplay and Foster The People. Now, the label can be disingenuous - often times these acts have a fair bit of personality hiding beneath the surface, but most casual music listeners aren't going to dig deep enough to find that. However, society and the critics aren't always wrong: sometimes acts get big without really having a lot to say or all that much meaning behind them (looking at you, Mumford & Sons!).

And if there was one act that really epitomizes the 'silent majority act' stereotype, Josh Groban would be it. Now granted, Josh Groban does have a fanbase - typically a bit older and with some significant overlap with the fanbases of Michael Buble and Celine Dion - but it's not the kind of insane fandom that epitomizes the biggest acts. You're not going to find someone who claims that Josh Groban is their favourite artist, and you'll be hard-pressed to call him a critical darling either. 

In fact, Josh Groban's artistic evolution over the past few albums really deserves an examination, because it's a study of an artist learning and trying to write better music. His self-titled debut contained no songs written by him and most were in Italian or French, a tradition that tends to alienate most critics. Most took a bit more notice on his breakthrough album Closer, which still had more foreign-language songs than English ones, but was a better showing of what Josh Groban brought to the table (three of which he had writing credits on), namely an incredible voice and top-of-the-line classical production supporting him. And while his voice was well-liked, his production was criticized for being overly grandoise and with more bombast than substance - which, in my opinion, is a completely fair criticism. Unlike Meat Loaf, Josh Groban's early songs just didn't have enough behind them without the voice and charisma, and while the public was able to overlook that, others couldn't.

Now Josh Groban's third album, Awake, continued a lot of the same trends by Closer (more English tracks), Groban really didn't write much more for it, and while critics were intrigued by more interesting tracks like 'February Song', they still didn't really support the album by any stretch, for most of the same reasons they were lukewarm or cold on Closer.  And even despite Josh Groban working with lots of new producers to fine-tune his production (often times 'shrinking' it, which I'd argue had mixed results), he still hadn't quite nailed the formula that would allow him commercial and critical success. It didn't help matters Josh Groban didn't have the incredible power of a smash single off of Awake like with 'You Raise Me Up' on Closer

So then Josh Groban did something that intrigued me and critics alike: after dropping a pretty solid Christmas album and a fantastic live album, he began taking a much larger role in the writing process of his material. This led to 2010's Illuminations, an album that nearly nailed the sweet spot of critical and commercial success, going platinum and getting some rave reviews. Interestingly, Josh Groban took the approach of writing 'smaller' songs, and in contrast to the overblown vocally difficult epics he was known for, stuck to a more conventional singer-songwriter approach. And while this did deliver some fantastic songs ('Bells Of New York City', 'Higher Window', 'Hidden Away', 'If I Walk Away'), I'd argue his best song 'War At Home' - in my opinion, the best song he's ever written - was easily his biggest and most powerful. 'War At Home', in my mind, is the theme music to the best DC comics never written, and it nails that glorious scope for which Josh Groban's voice is such an apt fit. And really, as much as I liked Illuminations, it was frustrating to see such a personality like Groban confine his scope to such 'small' songs. The critics liked it because the songs were better written, but I think I prefer Groban when he sings big sweeping epics for which his voice is a natural fit. I wanted him to kick the songwriting up a notch, not abandon his larger scope.

And so I had no idea what to expect going into his newest album, All That Echoes. Was I going to see him recapture that epic power backed by his steadily-improving songwriting talents?