Monday, April 29, 2013

album review: 'now what?!' by deep purple

A bit less than a year ago, a group of artists that included Carlos Santana, Iron Maiden, The Flaming Lips, and Metallica got together to produce an album cover of the 1972 album Machine Head by Deep Purple. That same year, Deep Purple was denied a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which earned the institute a fair thrashing at the hands of Billy Corgan (of the Smashing Pumpkins), Gene Simmons (of Kiss), Geddy Lee (of Rush), Kirk Hammett (of Metallica) and Slash (of Guns 'n Roses). And really, it's not like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hasn't earned that contempt - I mean, the induction of ABBA, Madonna, and Randy Newman over Deep Purple, a band that is widely considered one of the founders of heavy metal? I mean, fucking really?

But putting aside the obvious fact the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is completely full of shit, I did begin to ponder the impact of Deep Purple on rock. I mean, even though every would-be guitarist on the planet learns 'Smoke On The Water' (often incorrectly, because Ritchie Blackmore uses an alternate tuning of 'all fourths' instead of just power chords), how much had Deep Purple really affected rock & roll? With fifteen different members over forty-five years, who could even say was the definitive Deep Purple? 

Well, if we go by the annals of history, most would say the iconic lineup of Deep Purple was the 'Mark II' lineup (Ian Gillan on vocals, Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Roger Glover on bass, Jon Lord on keyboards, and the iconic Ian Paice (who is, incidentally, the only band member to last all forty-five years) on drums). And while David Coverdale (future Whitesnake vocalist) cut his teeth with the bad throughout the 70s, the majority of Deep Purple fans consider the Mark II lineup the best, mostly because they were responsible for the classic album Machine Head.

And make no mistake here: Machine Head is one of the best goddamn albums of all time. It is one of the very, very few albums that I'd award five stars without compunction, an album I'd consider damn near perfect and one of my personal favourites (funnily enough, it only came out a year and a half before one of my other favourite albums of all time, The Who's Quadrophenia). Not only does it contain 'Smoke On The Water', but also 'Pictures of Home' and 'Highway Star' and 'Lazy' and 'Space Truckin'', all songs that are classics of hard rock and heavy metal. It blows my mind to this day that the band chose 'Never Before' as the lead-out single ('Never Before' is a great song, but there were smarter choices), meaning it took until the spellbinding Made In Japan for Deep Purple to get their American breakthrough. 

It also meant that any album of covers was inevitably going to be compared to that classic - and it was ultimately the reason I didn't finish or post the review of Remachined (which is what they were going to title the covers album), because it would have been the drawn-out caterwauling of a rock snob. And while I will say immediately the album isn't nearly as good as Machine Head (like it or not, Chickenfoot even at their best isn't within spitting distance of Mark II Deep Purple), I can also say that damn near nothing is as good as that album. It's like trying to make a digital photocopy of the Mona Lisa - even if you manage to get every detail right (and they didn't, mostly because Carlos Santana and Ritchie Blackmore both have distinctive and different guitar styles and that's me being the most charitable), you lose something in the transition.

Now many people would think that on the strength of Machine Head alone, Deep Purple deserves a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. But I think that's an incomplete picture of the band, a band that went though eight different lineups and over four decades of albums. I mean, not even including live albums or compilations, Now What?! is their nineteenth album of material - and even as a longtime fan of Deep Purple, I can admit that there are large chunks of Deep Purple's discography that sucks. And while I would say that the band never released an absolutely worthless dud, they have made a lot of material that doesn't quite stand up well years or decades later.

Now, part of this problem is an incoherence of vision, and they've never been an act to make album statements (on that factor alone, I can imagine some critics would disqualify them). But the bigger problem is that they were never great or innovative songwriters either, preferring to concentrate their attention on intricate instrumental segments and virtuoso solos. Keep in mind that guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was a fantasy-obsessed guitar nerd known for awkward tunings and customized gear, and that former keyboardist Jon Lord was a classically trained and classically minded pianist. As an act, particularly in the late 60s and early 70s, Deep Purple were almost prog-like in their pursuit of musical excellence and complexity over lyrical craft. And it's pretty much due to the fact that they were so damn great on those instruments that I can appreciate them to this day, and this is coming from someone (as anybody who has read my reviews can attest) who holds lyrics to a high standard.

And so, as a fan, I can vouch for dozens of their songs off of multiple albums, but I'd be hard-pressed to find lyrical excellence in the band, particularly in comparison to the awe-inspiring instrumentation and vocal delivery. I wouldn't say their lyrics are bad, per se (okay, some of them are pretty goddamn bad, particularly throughout the 90s), but they certainly aren't offensive. What they also aren't, however, is all that thought-provoking or intellectual, particularly in the early years - Deep Purple is a band that tends to writes about simple rock star themes and concepts, and for the most part, they do it very well. Now there is an art to writing simple, potent pop songs - hell, most of the best songs of all time have a charming simplicity about them that only enhances their appeal - but here's where I'll note a real dichotomy with Deep Purple: for as phenomenal as they are musically, they've never really impressed me lyrically.

At the same time, though, at nineteen albums into their career, the members of Deep Purple are getting up in years, and I have to admit, I was more than a little worried going into this review. The last album with the 'Mark VIII' lineup for Deep Purple was Rapture Of The Deep, which was pretty damn solid, but nothing that's going to set the world on fire. And with a worrying title like Now What?!, I was a little concerned that Deep Purple may have just given up with this album.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

movie review: 'pain & gain'

I've spewed a lot of vitriol against Michael Bay in the past. I've called him a hack, I've openly criticized his cinematography and stylistic tendencies for being lowbrow and shameless, and I've accused him and his screenwriting cronies for ruining the Transformers franchise, to say nothing of the horrible, horrible slasher film remakes that his cohorts at Platinum Dunes keep churning out. And that's not even getting into his fetish for all things military and masculine.

But even with all that, I can admit that there is something about the man that if he's placed in the right environment, he can work as a director. The Bad Boys movies worked in this regard and (arguably) so did The Rock, less as deconstructionist pieces and more as direct wires into certain parts of the masculine psyche, which tend to alienate critics but draw in the cultural demographic that tends to make his movies a massive success. 

But the odd thing that I've always found with the movies Bay has actually cared about (Transformers is a franchise he has admitted he's only doing for the money), it's hard to draw the line whether or not Bay empathizes with his meathead characters or wants us to openly despise them as much as he does, putting every inch of their depravity on screen for us to either ogle or recoil away. To some extent, I think he's intending for us to do both, and that can make for a fascinating watching experience, particularly when he hires good actors to play the part.

And so I approached Pain & Gain with a certain amount of trepidation, but at the same time a bit of hope. This film has been a passion project Bay has been trying to make for years, put together on a minuscule twenty million dollar budget with all the actors taking pay cuts to participate. In fact, the only reason Pain & Gain got released at all was because Bay agreed to make another Transformers movie to give Paramount another ridiculous pile of money that those films bring in like clockwork. 

So this is a film Bay has fought for, a labour of love, a story that he had to tell and put on screen, probably one of the truest expressions of Bay as an artist. How does it fair?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

album review: 'having a beard is the new not having a beard' by the beards (RETRO REVIEW)

I don't like reviewing comedy albums.

Now this isn't to say I don't like comedy albums, because I do. Weird Al Yankovic and The Arrogant Worms are both hilarious acts that I find really funny for wildly different reasons (the former because the man is a master at song parodies and the latter because their uniquely Canadian humour has surprising breadth and wit), and I even occasionally enjoy listening to stand-up comedy albums and laughing my ass off at the better ones. But I don't like reviewing comedy albums because humor is very different for different people. For instance, I showed my sister some of George Carlin's comedy, and she didn't find it funny so much as finding it vulgar and a little too middlebrow for her tastes (but then again, she likes some of the humor in The Carrie Diaries, which i find incomprehensible). The point I'm trying to make is that everyone tends to have different tastes and styles when it comes to comedy, different things that make us laugh. 

In my case, I think the best comedy (at least for me) is something that can resonate on other levels as well, maybe spur a bit of an emotional impact or have some intellectual heft. For instance, I think Superbad is one of the funniest movies of the last decade because Judd Apatow nails the atmosphere and there's a genuine emotional connection between the characters of Michael Cera and Jonah Hill. It's the same principle with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, because the comedy seems to mean more when it comes from characters you have a connection with. On a similar note, that's why This Is 40 is such an utterly wretched comedy - half because I can't relate with Paul Rudd's slacker character, and half because the entire script is rooted in deep-seated anger and depression that makes all the comedic bits feel really uncomfortable.

And on a similar note, Aaron Sorkin's comedy tends to work when it's delivered with some class and panache and a deft talent for clever dialogue (The Newsroom makes this work about a quarter of the time, mostly when Thomas Sadoski is on screen). Community works as comedy in a similar way, but also balances the cleverness of the entire show with real emotional heft. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work on the principle that if you take real complex issues and intelligently examine them, you can wring real laughs out of the occasional silliness and idiocies of modern life and politics. Hell, that's a premise Carlin used for years, finding and complaining about the stupidity of the modern world and making it entertaining and funny. 

Either way, my basic principle behind comedy is that I like material that has some wit behind it, but also can connect with me on an intellectual or emotional level. So considering that, does Having A Beard Is The New Not Having A Beard by The Beards manage to work for me?

Monday, April 22, 2013

album review: 'reincarnated' by snoop lion

Let me tell you a story.

When I was sixteen, after getting my beginner’s permit, I began learning how to drive with a close friend and an instructor. On one chill evening, the instructor asked if he could put some music on while I was driving, and he asked me what genre I’d prefer. At that time, I was on something of an Eminem kick (like every other teenage boy growing up in the mid-2000s), so I said hip-hop and rap would be fine. He asked me which rappers I listened to, and I said Eminem and Dr. Dre and a few other acts in that vein.

His eyes lit up. ‘Kid,’ he said, ‘you haven’t heard nothing yet’, and he slid a newly burnt CD into the car’s stereo. Immediately a smooth, rollicking tone filled the car, music that I had occasionally heard in passing on the radio but had never really been exposed to in any significant way. I was immediately intrigued, and for the next several weeks, whenever we would go out for a drive, we’d put on that music and the ride would go smoothly and easily.

That music was g-funk, courtesy of 213, a group consisting of Nate Dogg (RIP), Warren G, and the legendary Snoop Dogg. It was my first real exposure to hip-hop outside of Eminem’s enclave, and while I had heard Snoop Dogg’s verse on ‘Bitch Please: Part II’ on The Marshall Mathers LP, I gravitated more to Nate Dogg’s authoritative and powerful baritone that carried the majority of those tracks. To me at that time, Snoop Dogg just seemed like another gangsta rapper, and everything I heard from him that got popular in the waning years of the decade reinforced that. It didn’t quite help matters that on his mainstream hits, he always sounded way too laid back and chill to take seriously, and compared to the assertive flow and intricate wordplay of OutKast, I didn’t quite see the appeal of Snoop Dogg.

In fact, it wasn’t until last year that I finally began to understand why Snoop Dogg worked as a performer, his appeal finally crystalizing on his collaboration with Wiz Khalifa and Bruno Mars: he was cool. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how many rappers and singers on the scene really weren’t cool in the slightest. I mean, Jay-Z wasn’t really so much cool as coldly dignified and professional, very much owning the label of ‘the new Sinatra’. Kanye and R. Kelly weren’t really cool either – most of the time they were too wrapped in their own egos/insanity to seem all that cool, falling more in line with eccentricity. For a while, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, and T.I. seemed cool, but the workmanlike nature of their music gradually seemed to make some of that coolness slip away (plus, Lil Wayne released Rebirth and that kind of destroyed his ‘coolness’ in one fell swoop). And too many of the gangsta rappers were bound up in their own egos and being ‘hard’ to really come across as cool (hell, most of the time I don’t even think they were having fun).

But Snoop Dogg was cool, and the effortless swagger that seemed to pervade his image was a big breath of fresh air. Now, granted, a lot of my issues with him remained – it was tough to tell when Snoop Dogg was trying or not, and more often than not I got the feeling he wasn’t – but I understood the appeal. People like cool, they respond to cool, they gravitate towards cool. And frankly, I was fully expecting Snoop Dogg to coast on that coolness for the rest of his career.

And then in 2011, Nate Dogg passed away - only days before the release of Snoop Dogg’s newest album. From this point forward, I can only speculate, but I do know that Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg weren’t just bandmates, but close friends, and if the outpouring of grief from Snoop Dogg over Twitter was any indication, Snoop Dogg wasn’t taking it well. Much like Eminem losing his best friend Proof, the loss of a close, personal friend sent ripples through Snoop Dogg’s life and after he finished touring, he took a trip to Jamaica that would change his life.

In 2012, Snoop Dogg announced that he had converted to Rastafarianism and he was leaving rap to become the reggae act Snoop Lion, which he described as a ‘reincarnation’. And while it was very tempting to join the mockery of this ‘evolution’ like everyone else on the Internet, I have to say I was intrigued. For an artist decades into his career, this was precisely the right way to reinvigorate a fanbase and attract newcomers to his discography. And reggae (along with its cousin funk) was a genre that I’ve always liked, but have had a lot of trouble understanding, mostly due to some unfortunate cultural myopia on one hand and my difficulty deciphering Jamaican accents on the other. So if Snoop Dogg – forgive me, Snoop Lion - was taking steps towards reggae with a full album, it might provide a new entry point for me into a genre I’ve had difficulty understanding. And really, if there was an artist on mainstream radio to approach the laid-back reggae rhythms and deft social commentary, Snoop Dogg would have probably been my first suggestion.

And on a slightly broader note, I also wondered whether or not the introduction of a modernized form of reggae might be good for the pop charts. Keep in mind that in 2012 we were coming off of the hangover of the club boom, and the slightly more organic mainstream indie trend was only beginning to take root. So on that note, I considered the possibility that a reggae/funk revival might add a certain flavor to the charts – and really, while it did get a little overblown throughout the early-to-mid 70s and throughout the mid-90s with the ska revival, I wasn’t going to deny the fact that scrag rhythms and greater diversity of instrumentation couldn’t hurt pop music. After all, a little cultural diversity never hurt anyone, particularly in an era where k-pop was starting to notch mainstream chart hits (by the way, PSY’s new single ‘Gentlemen’ sucks). And besides, in a time where Ke$ha is working to revive the psychedelia and punk energy of the 70s, why shouldn’t some of the other elements of that decade make a revival?

So I was definitely interested in Snoop Lion’s new album Reincarnated, and now that I’ve had a chance to take a look, what do I think? 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

album review: '#willpower' by

You know, people have occasionally asked me why I write this reviews/essays/rants. 

People have wondered aloud why I bother to listen to music I know full well that I might despise and then spend my time writing at great length about it. People have raised the argument that these little musings will never really amount to anything, and that since I'm not getting paid as a professional, I'm just wasting my time. People have said that since my opinion is worth the exact same as everyone else, my attempts to spur debate or inform others is nothing more than ranting from a soapbox. People have argued that since my voice will likely do nothing to sway people from buying an album or changing the critical discourse, I do not have the legitimate authority to pronounce an album a 'failure' or 'bad'. I mean, the album sold hundreds of thousands of copies and the singles charted well and 'since success is defined by the majority opinion of the masses, what gives you the right to judge it one way or the other'? Do I really have the conceit to say something is 'wrong' or 'bad' or 'a failure' when society has deemed it otherwise?

Yes, I do have that conceit - because I love music. 

Because music is more than just notes in a time signature, but is an expression of art. Because music isn't just poetry set to a tune, but a transmission of ideas unlike any other. Because music is an expression of art and culture that can encapsulate prevailing cultural attitudes and themes in ways that historical texts cannot. And sure, some people can dismiss music as being inconsequential art that really doesn't 'matter' all that much, but if we look through the timeframe of history, to the things that might survive our paltry human existence, that has the potential to last forever, art and culture are the few things that can hold their meaning and relevance outside of the passage of time. 

And yes, I know that I probably won't shape anyone's opinion, or that my words hold any great sway. I know that writing this blog outside of any burnished publication is as noteworthy as screaming empty words into the wind or scrawling graffiti in a bathroom stall. I'm fully aware that nobody in the industry is listening to me or taking any heed to what I'm saying, and that because of that, people are likely to draw the apt conclusion that I'm wasting my time.

But there is a place in society for the critic, for his role to analyze, discuss, and interpret the art presented in front of him. People use the line 'everyone's a critic' to disparage critics they don't like, but I'd argue there's more to it than that, and that there's a difference between being a critic and being a good critic. A critic will say he or she liked something - a good critic will say why, and explain why, and will provide the context for his opinion. The good critic will strive to interpret the art before him and speak truthfully, and then be able to communicate his analysis and interpretation and opinions to the masses. Because, at the heart of it, the good critic believes that the artist is showing something of himself through his art, and the critic's role is to interpret and analyze that something, and place it within its cultural context.

Which is one of the biggest reasons why pisses me the fuck off.

For those of you who are unaware, is the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, and has been widely touted as one of the most influential performers/producers of the past couple of years. Yet outside of his work with The Black Eyed Peas, he has consistently run into considerable difficulty finding solo success. Now there are a number of reasons for this, but to explain them, you all need to understand a few things about and his approach to music.

The first thing you need to note is that he puts the majority of his work into his production and sound, not his lyrics. This is why the majority of his lyrics seem to be unfinished or incomplete, or at the very least shallow as all hell. Now as someone who likes good lyrics and songwriting, this already sets me on edge, but shallow cliches can work if they're phrased correctly or are about something that's actually interesting/fun. 'I Gotta Feeling' (arguably the best song The Black Eyed Peas ever wrote) is a great song because the cliches are about partying and having a good time - but most of's cliches on his solo work is about much greater he is than everyone else, something that gets old really fast.

Now to be fair, as I've said before, ego can work well in music, provided there's enough personality to back it up - and here's where we run into my second big problem with, namely that he never sounds like he's engaged in his material. I've read articles and interviews with him where he appears to have a lot of interesting things to say and a lot of energy in which to say them, where people rave that he's some sort of genius savant, but none of that intellect or energy comes across in his music, which only seems to be about the most superficial and shallow of things. Once again, there's nothing wrong with writing silly and stupid songs about partying and having fun - Andrew W.K. built a career out of it - but Andrew W.K. brings energy and an abundance of personality where just doesn't.

But okay, if puts the majority of his effort into his production, that's obviously where I should look for more personality and excellence, right? But here's the thing, and my third big problem with the guy: his instrumentation is bland as all hell. Yes, his work can be catchy, but that doesn't make it good. Sure, I see more personality in his beats than in his vocal delivery, but too much of it is glitchy and atonal and minimalist in the worst possible way. And comparing him to talented and interesting producers like Timbaland or Kanye West or even fucking Mike Posner, he falls flat. Hell, even David Guetta, who I consider one of the most boring and bland producers working today, at least manages to channel some of EDM's 'bigness' into his material to give it presence and personality! And that's not even discussing's usage of sampling, which at best is glaringly out of context and at worst is this. It almost seems like appropriates music not because it fits the context of his song or might be interesting, but because it's somewhat popular and can be retrofitted into something guaranteed to sell.

And here's where we run headlong into my biggest issue with he's not so much an artist as a marketer, a pioneer of buzzwords and advertisement in music unlike anyone else working today. I remember reading an article that talked about label executives raving at's mastery of powerpoint presentations detailing well-researched marketing and business plans associated with his music and discussing brand recognition and market penetration. Now, I get that artists have to sell their material - as gauche as it is to suggest it, music is a business and requires money - but's approach to music is so nakedly commercial that I can't help but feel that I'm listening to advertisements instead of, you know, songs.

And when you think about it further, all of his stylistic choices bear the mark of commercial advertising: shallow, borderline meaningless lyrics; earworm hooks designed to lodge in your mind; and subject matter that tends to be about emphasizing how much better he is than his competitors. If anything, it seems like naked commercialism might just be the core of's artistic soul: making music designed to sell and sell again. I mean, for fuck's sake, he titled his new album with a hashtag, how much more transparent can you get?

And yet, I am willing to put all of this aside. After all, if Mad Men taught us anything, it's that advertisement can indeed be a work of art, and it's entirely possible that's embrace of the nakedly commercial can be considered a commentary on it, analogous to the artwork of Andy Warhol's examination of consumerism in the modern world. Sure, it could be considered nakedly commercial and displaying seething contempt for the plebeian masses that buy into his brand, but maybe that's the point is trying to make. So, with all of that in mind, does's brand new album #willpower work?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

album review: 'mosquito' by the yeah yeah yeahs

There are some musical acts that just get absolutely no reaction out of me.

Make no mistake, it's not that I think these acts are bad - in fact, the majority of the time, I'll acknowledge that they're quite excellent, accomplishing their goals admirably and producing high quality material. But in the end, if I'm asked to remember or (god forbid) sing a song from one of these acts, I'm going to be stumped, simply because the music has refused to lodge in my brain. Once again, it's not that it's bad, it's just that this music has completely failed to register with me on any sort of level. And believe me, it gets really goddamn frustrating because I want to be passionate about musical acts that my rational instincts tell me are great bands or great singers - but for some reason, the spark just isn't there.

Now for the longest time, the act that I've predominantly associated with this problem is Radiohead. And before you jump down my throat, I'll acknowledge right now that Radiohead is a great band with a lot of cool ideas and some very, very solid albums. But when I read the legendary Pitchfork review for Kid A and see the obvious passion for the album (buried behind some extremely pretentious waffle, to be sure, but then again, this is Pitchfork), I'm frustrated because I just don't have that same level of feeling for that album. I can acknowledge it's a damn good album, but I can't get worked up about it the same way I'll care about, say, a new Ke$ha album or a new Nick Cave album or a new Eminem album or a new Backstreet Boys album. 

And don't say 'you don't get it', because that comment goes nowhere with me. For as much as I analyze music, I'm fairly certain I 'get' Radiohead's deal, and I can understand what they were trying to do. But after having listened to that album (and indeed, their entire discography) multiple times, I'm genuinely frustrated that I still can't get passionate about this band. Thom Yorke dropped a new album this year and I've heard great reviews of it, but right now, I just can't care about it because Radiohead just evokes no reaction from me. Sorry, Radiohead fans, I wish I could like your favourite band to the same degree you do, but I'm not going to be a hipster and claim to like something if it doesn't get to me in some way.

And for the longest time, I tended to include The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the same category I included Radiohead: music that I would definitely acknowledge is good or great music, but  material that just left very little impact on me. And like with Radiohead, I could see what made The Yeah Yeah Yeahs a great act - solid guitar licks and great bass work, potent and evocative vocals from Karen O, and some cleverness and black humour in their lyrics carefully balanced with real emotion - but I just didn't care. Sure, I would admit they were a very solid act, and had more longevity than some of their indie rock contemporaries that burst on the scene in 2003-04, but at the time, I tended to dismiss them with the rest of that indie rock boom that I didn't care enough about to investigate further.

Fortunately for me, I've warmed a little more on The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the past while, and I think I've figured out why: most of their songs felt far too short. Sure, they worked excellently in that tight controlled burst, but the songs were so brief that they never really sunk in with me. Perhaps the only song that really stuck with me off of their first album Fever To Tell was 'Maps' (okay, part of it was because of Rock Band, I'll admit that), and that's because that song took its time and built itself on an interesting and powerful sentiment. The second album Show Your Bones was a bit of a sophomore slump, imitating the guitar work of Love and Rockets without the energy, and like The Strokes before them, felt a bit like they were treading the same water they were on their debut (although I'll admit 'Phenomena' is pretty goddamn awesome). 

Thankfully, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs managed tor recover with It's Blitz!, which managed to both innovate and maintain the elements that made The Yeah Yeah Yeahs a solid act. This album was the one that began to win me over, mostly because it felt like the band was expanding their sound and doing it in smart, intriguing ways. More importantly, it felt like they were giving their songs more of a chance to breathe and develop some texture to augment their sharp, minimalist lyrics. 

So when I heard they were releasing a new album, I was intrigued by what new innovations were going to erupt out of the woodwork. What could I expect from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs after It's Blitz!? Would it be that last saving grace before I have to suffer through's latest abomination in a couple of days?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

album review: 'true romance' by charli xcx

Today, let's talk about electronica trends in pop music.

I'll admit right of the gate that I'm not entirely up to date with everything coming out of the EDM/dubstep/trance/house scene, mostly because I don't tend to find much of that material all that interesting or engaging. I admit that most of this comes from my personal preferences in music: I like songs to have coherent lyrics, that tell stories and convey a message. I like music that can move me on both literary and musical levels, which is why I find songwriters like Nick Cave and Jim Steinman and Arjen Lucassen so compelling. These guys explore deep, complex themes in their music, and they support that music with intricately constructed lyrics that are poetic and have a lot to say.

EDM (short for electronic dance music), on the other hand, tends to operate on a different level, often without lyrics entirely. It runs more on feel and emotion and flow to evoke its  image, and thus I find it difficult to parse out what this sort of music is trying to say. What I have managed to discover is that a large quantity of this music (not all of it, settle down) tends to be about losing oneself in the dance experience and little more.

And so when we look at the pop charts now, I can't say that I like the trend of EDM creeping into pop all that much. Now, there are exceptions where this can work excellently (the immediate example is Swedish House Mafia's 'Don't You Worry Child', featuring John Martin), but one of the unfortunate remnants of the club boom is the presence of house/EDM DJs becoming power players in pop music. And it really doesn't help matters when the two leading collaborators in this genre, David Guetta and Calvin Harris, are really goddamn boring and seem to sap the individuality and personality from anyone they work with. 

Part of this problem comes, I theorize, from three things: tonal dissonance, lyric simplification, and a lack of restraint on the part of the DJ. The first factor comes into play when you realize that most EDM is written for dancing - and not all pop music is intended for this. I remember hearing so many attempted remixes of Gotye's 'Somebody That I Used To Know' last year, the DJ trying to turn it into a dance track - which completely shatters the atmosphere that Gotye and Kimbra were trying to create. The problem gets worse when you have artists actually trying to write their lyrics to the EDM beats, which can lead to a stripping away of nuance and pacing. This happened twice with David Guetta last year in 'Turn Me On' (featuring Nicki Minaj) and 'Titanium' (featuring Sia) - in both cases, the lyrics feel token and trite compared to the instrumentation, which unfortunately happens to be boring as all fuck. But the worst case of all comes when the DJ's production completely overpowers the singer and renders his/her presence superfluous on the track. Calvin Harris is the most egregious offender here, somehow managing to overpower Florence Welch (lead singer of Florence & The Machine and one of the most powerful vocalists of the past couple of years) on 'Sweet Nothing'.

Most of these problems can be linked to a lack of restraint and modulation (the usage of both soft and loud sounds in the mix). You'd think that EDM DJs, who have more access to the track layering than most, would have better control of these factors, but when you also consider that they tend to remix music for the club, you can understand why the modulation gets stripped away. But either way, it tends to mean that a lot of the little factors that can make EDM/house music actually interesting fall away when it comes onto the pop charts. 

However, that's not to say that EDM trends can be interesting and engaging when done correctly, or that dance synthpop can't be just as good as other music - the careers of Kylie Minogue and Robyn are a testament to that. So when I'm confronted with the debut album of Charli XCX, an English synthpop artist, I was immediately intrigued (although significantly cautious when I read this album has been in the works for the past three years and was shelved for an entire year). Is Charli XCX the next big EDM pop princess, coming to drive Nicki Minaj back to rap where she belongs?

Friday, April 12, 2013

album review: 'save rock and roll' by fall out boy

From the majority of people I've spoken to, here's the general consensus: if you're my age, you're expected to hate Fall Out Boy.

Well, that's not entirely the case - you're supposed to have some general distaste for the 'emo/scene' culture that began in the early 2000s and lasted until about 2009, at least within the mainstream music scene. Brought upon by what has been coined as 'the death of irony' in the wake of 9/11, the eruption of acts like Jimmy Eat World, The All-American Rejects, Simple Plan, My Chemical Romance, Marianas Trench, Panic! At The Disco, and yes, Fall Out Boy, was the 'rock music' paradigm on the Hot 100, battling it out with post-grunge and the brief indie rock spurt in 2004. These bands ruled the airwaves during my teenage years, and while I never went emo and sported the skinny jeans and bad haircuts and dye jobs, I knew a lot of people who did. But when placed in comparison to the more 'mature' indie rock that has sprung up after the club boom, most people my age have dismissed the  pop rock of the past decade as 'inconsequential', 'pissy', 'self-obsessed', or, more generally, 'shit'.

Now I could make the comment that most music aimed at teenagers can be described as such: the garage rock of the 70s, the synthpop of the 80s, and yes, the grunge explosion and punk revival of the 90s all had their fair share of self-obsessed whinging and whining. Hell, Green Day covered two separate decades of it with their breakthrough in the 90s and their massive comeback with American Idiot in 2004. And like those decades, there is a fair share of great, good, mediocre, and shit music that came out of the pop rock of the early 2000s. Yes, there was a lot of awful, but all things considered, I'd rather listen to Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco over Three Days Grace, Seether, and Theory Of A Deadman any day of the goddamn week.

So yeah, I'll come out and say it: even today, with the benefit of hindsight and a couple of years since their boom in the mid-2000s, I like Fall Out Boy. Like their label-mates and partners in style Panic! At The Disco, both acts liked to blend a variety of musical styles and intricately constructed lyrics into a theatrical explosion, and I'd argue both bands got better as the years went on. Panic! At The Disco followed their Canadian counterparts Marianas Trench by drawing influences from the past and exploring bigger concepts for album statements that actually turned out to be pretty damn awesome. No, I'm serious: for late-period pop rock, Panic! At The Disco pulled a Brian Wilson-esque style shift for 2008's Pretty, Odd and 2011's Vices & Virtues, and Marianas Trench blew their theatrical stylings up to eleven with 2009's superb Masterpiece Theater and the interesting concept album in 2011 Ever After. Seriously, check all four of these albums out, they're all excellent and highly recommended.

Fall Out Boy, meanwhile... sort of went away.

Well, that's not quite true. They reached their commercial breakthrough a little earlier than the other acts, with From Under The Cork Tree in 2005, and achieved massive success with their follow-up Infinity On High in 2007, although due to the turbulence in the music industry, it didn't quite sell as well. And their next record, Folie a Deux, a hard-edged bit of brilliant societal commentary, sold even worse, even though many critics thought it was their best album (I think poor sales could also be linked to the fact that the pop rock boom was entering its downward slide). But after its poor performance, the band disappeared for five years, with the members going onto solo projects with mixed levels of success. In the mean time, pop rock vanished, the club boom happened, and the teenagers who adored acts like Fall Out Boy began to dismiss or ridicule the band in disparaging terms.

And really, I don't entirely blame them. Fall Out Boy achieved mainstream success at the height of the boom, and unlike Green Day, lyricist Pete Wentz's self-obsession initially lacked the social commentary or level of grandiose angst to make it accessible. That was always the interesting thing about Fall Out Boy - their musical themes and delivery were self-obsessed to the point of narcissism, but there wasn't that same level of whininess or 'my life is pain' thematic elements, particularly in comparison to My Chemical Romance. If anything, that's why I think Fall Out Boy's music has aged better than that of most of its peers - while the self-absorption might seem adolescent, it's more tolerable without the teenage insufferability that came with acts like Simple Plan.

People still hated Fall Out Boy for that self-absorption, though, and Fall Out Boy was more often than not lumped in and dismissed with the rest of the emo/scene acts - which, the more I think about it, isn't really an apt comparison when it comes to the music. Fall Out Boy tended towards more genre hopping and exploration, particularly on their later albums, and the lyrics were certainly more thought-provoking. But they wore the same 'scene/emo' image, and they did share a fanbase with the other acts - which is where I think the majority of the hatred of the band is really directed. It's not about hating Fall Out Boy as much as it's about hating the people who were fans of Fall Out Boy, and hating the subculture that Fall Out Boy contributed to with their image and their self-absorption.

Now, granted, Fall Out Boy had its fair share of problems. I'd argue there isn't as much consideration of melody in their songs as there should be, and Patrick Stump's voice could get annoying. But, let's make this statement: Pete Wentz is of the reason people hated Fall Out Boy. Partially because of his lyrics that tried too hard to be clever (and yet occasionally were pretty clever), partially because he did that terrible cover of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' with John Mayer (yeah, that happened), and partially because Wentz has a monstrous ego. Kanye West has come out and said that Fall Out Boy is one of his favourite bands, and I can see why: both acts are completely invested in telling the story that is them and them only. Fortunately, Wentz had more common sense than Kanye (although one could argue about levels of talent) and was willing to talk about more interesting subjects on Folie a Deux, and while he did frame it all through his perspective, he at least had enough personality to make the story compelling.

But now five years have past, and Fall Out Boy has come out of the smoke of the club boom (which, if the charts are any indication, has finally shuddered to a dead halt) to save rock and roll with their album titled Save Rock And Roll. A title that immediately earned the expected eye-rolls and exasperated snorts from every music critic on the planet. And frankly, I was one of them. Yeah, I like Fall Out Boy, but I know Pete Wentz' head is up his own ass, and with the boom of indie rock, right now, I'm having a hard time believing rock needs saving.

So, does Fall Out Boy convince me?

Monday, April 8, 2013

album review: 'wheelhouse' by brad paisley

Oh boy, I did not expect this.

And really, as I return to Nashville to tackle my third country album review this month, I can be allowed to say that pretty nobody before this album could have expected this. Even with knowledge of the current country scene, nobody could have expected this sort of thing to come up, least of all around Brad Paisley of all people. 

For those of you who inevitably don't know who Brad Paisley is, a quick introduction. You're forgiven for not recognizing him amongst the onslaught of male country singers - as I've said before, there are a lot of them still active right now, and frankly, the majority of them don't have enough personality to stand out against the crowd. Fortunately for us all, Brad Paisley has a lot of personality, and between his personality, his sense of humour, and his incredible guitar skills, he does stand out against the crowd of Jason Aldeans and Eric Churches and Luke Bryans. And while I wouldn't quite put him on the level of The Zac Brown Band, or the true country legends like Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley does pretty well for himself.

But if I'm being completely honest, I've never taken Brad Paisley all that seriously, and most of his material really reflects why. He's a joker with a gift for writing excellently constructed silly songs, and that's all I've ever seen of him. He's not making grand statements or delving into philosophy - to me, he's always been on the borderline of being a comedy act.

And then he released his ninth album Wheelhouse - and the Internet exploded.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

album review: 'the terror' by the flaming lips

I think I'm obliged to say this as a professional: the majority of music that is designed to be 'scary' and 'intimidating' fucking sucks.

This is another incident where the fact that I am a music critic and have heard a ton of music speaks to a disconnect with the average music listener, but I think part of it comes down to my growth of musical knowledge. As I've said before, I jumped pretty much from boy bands and Eminem straight to power/symphonic metal, thus skipping the rap rock/rap metal/thrash period that most young teenage guys go through. But really, the more I think about that, the more I'm grateful I avoided those trends, because any retrospective examination into those genres has just filled me with contempt, disgust, and revulsion. And as someone who can get back into the teenage mindset enough to tolerate even the occasional Simple Plan song, there's no goddamn excuse for the dearth of quality in this genre.

So yeah, I'll come out and say it outright: acts like Hollywood Undead and Killswitch Engage and Atreyu and Underoath and Bring Me The Horizon just plain suck. Musically, they aren't within spitting distance of quality metal and content-wise, they just bore me. Too much of this material is wrapped up in unfortunate sadomasochistic tendencies (you know, always talking about the BLOOD and the PAIN and the SUFFERING and all that nonsense), and it's very rare that any of it is all that compelling. On top of that, it's hard for me to consider any of these acts remotely 'scary' or even all that intimidating, particularly recent entries in the genre. I think most of my issues with these acts comes back to similar issues that I have with the American horror film industry, namely that there is no subtlety or pacing. In the pursuit of over-the-top 'gorn', too many acts come across as way too ridiculous to take seriously, the music of immature white boys who don't have the sophistication or patience to take in something better. The slightly better side of the genre features acts that aren't taking themselves all that seriously but are still trying to come across as 'scary', and this tends to remind me of the trashy, too-hip-for-the-room schlock otherwise known as 90s horror films. 

But either way, it's not scary to me. The obsession with gore and tits in some of this material is exploitative, but it's not compelling exploitation and it has nothing to say. I'll make an exception for some of Marilyn Manson's material because he has occasionally made some interesting albums, but even that stuff relies too much on shock imagery and the musical equivalent of a jump scare. And sure, that can be startling or revolting, but that doesn't horrify me or even come across as particularly memorable. I think some of it is desensitization, but really, outside of the occasional political polemic Marilyn Manson includes (which you tend to see more of in the industrial punk/metal scene), there's just not much there.

I think the other big problem with my retrospective examination of these genres is that I'm a fan of Eminem, who is probably the only artist I can think of who balanced being scary with being listenable. That's another issue I have with most of the modern metalcore or horrorcore acts: the overproduction stands out, making the songs appear too polished to really get under my skin. Hell, this even happened a bit with Eminem's Relapse (although I'd argue that overproduction choice was part of the point of that album, showing just how heinous and simultaneously pathetic Slim Shady really was). 

But let's ask the question why The Marshall Mathers LP, arguably the best horrorcore album ever made, works and actually does come across as genuinely scary to me, even to this day. Well, there are a number of elements that contribute here: Dr. Dre's minimalistic, grimy beats, the bleak production, the tone of menace present even on the lighter tracks, or the fact that Eminem always brings an intensity that feels genuine (one of my recurring problems with horrorcore rapper Cage, by the way). But what I think made the album work the best was the grounding of it all in real, human places. Songs like 'The Way I Am', 'Kill You', 'Stan', 'Marshall Mathers', and especially 'Kim' are creepy and unnerving not just because of the instrumentation and subject matter, but the fact that they feel like they're grounded in human emotion and come from a very real, very dark place. Eminem isn't trying to ingratiate himself to you or come across like a decent human being, he's intentionally exposing his very worst impulses to the microphone and daring you to listen. This purposeful alienation really adds an interesting concept to the rest of his career, particularly on subsequent albums, and some could read that alienation and subsequent loneliness and disillusionment with fame as founding factors for his next three albums.

But I'm getting off-track, because what the ultimate point I'm trying to make is that even today, Eminem managed to nail the elements that make music genuinely scary for me, stuff that can send a shiver down my spine. And really, no other artist who has followed him has really managed to capture that same fear.

Until now. Because The Flaming Lips, the experimental rock act known for some of the strangest and psychedelic experiments in music have just released their thirteenth studio album The Terror - and it scared the shit out of me.

Friday, April 5, 2013

album review: 'pioneer' by the band perry

It's hard talking about acts that can be considered 'good'.

And I know that's the sort of comment you only ever hear from critics, but as someone who has reached their fiftieth review on this blog, it's kind of true. But the reason you typically only hear the criticism from critics is because we experience so much material that our frame of reference becomes a bit too expansive. It's a bit of a strange conundrum, but it's always a little odd when I realize that I'll probably listen to around a hundred different albums this year and ten times that many songs. I'm going to hear things I'll both like and despise - but for the average consumer who gets maybe two to five albums a year and listens to the radio, they aren't going to have that frame of reference. They'll hear something that's good and like it without question - and while I'd really prefer that more people seek out the great, there's nothing wrong with liking things, particularly when those things arguably succeed in what they set out to do. 

However, speaking as a critic, the hardest reviews to write and articulate are of the albums that are just 'good'. Everyone can go on for hours at length about something that's bad - there's a whole swarm of internet critics that have made their fame on that premise alone. And those reviews are easy to write too (the difficult part is often experiencing the awful). It takes a lot more courage of convictions to say something is great, because there will always be people who'll challenge it. I know there are people who probably find my love of Avril Lavigne and Panic At The Disco and the Backstreet Boys and Ke$ha completely baffling, but if you're a good critic, you should be able to stand by what you like.

Now most professional critics typically say that the hardest things to criticize are those in the middle: the mediocre, the 3/5, the passing grade. And that particularly becomes a problem with reviewing albums, because you tend to find filler tracks that aren't precisely bad, but they aren't going to stand out. To say something meaningful about them often requires deeper analysis, but sometimes there just isn't anything there, nothing to say.

But when I dug a little deeper, I realized that those songs can be criticized or discussed, simply by pinpointing the purpose of what those songs are intending to do and seeing whether or not they complete those goals. More often than not, mediocrity comes with more failures than weak successes. In fact, I'd argue the hardest songs to discuss and criticize aren't the ones that are mediocre or middle-of-the-road, but the ones that are good, but not great. Just above album filler in that they accomplish what they set out to do, but otherwise provide nothing interesting to talk about. Nothing that blows your mind, the average consumer will be fine with it, but it's not going to set their worlds on fire either. And speaking as someone who has spent far too much time poring over Billboard charts, there is a lot of this material.

In fact, the more I've delved into the country charts, the more I've found a significant heap of this material performing well on the charts. Sure, there's plenty of mediocre and more bad and awful than I'd like, but there's a lot of good stuff there too, music that won't ever change someone's life or be emotionally evocative or a big smash hit, but passes the time in a way that won't frustrate or disappoint anyone. 

And I remember reading a discussion regarding criticisms of Pitchfork a while ago, which made the claim that critics tend to like the imperfect and incomplete, often raising them above that of the competent and good. And while that is a problem with Pitchfork (among another things), it's not just a problem with that site. Hell, I'd argue that as a critic, I fall into the exact same trap far too often - most of the time because the flawed and incomplete often present a more complete picture of what the artist is like, providing more nuance between the lines. Critics find that more interesting and ultimately more compelling that the works of artists that are good, but nothing all that incredible or special.

But I'm not one to shy away from a challenge, so with that, let's talk about The Band Perry.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

album review: 'same trailer, different park' by kacey musgraves

Let's return, again, to country music.

Over the course of the past year since I reviewed the Zac Brown Band's magnificent Uncaged, I've had a bit of a chance to get reacquainted with country music - and by reacquainted, I mean catch a glimpse at the singles that show up on the pop charts and the occasional YouTube video that pops up. And while I could say that I did indeed see more country music when I reviewed Taylor Swift's Red, I'd be lying, mostly because that album would be lying if it called itself country.

And yet Taylor Swift is considered one of the leading country acts in this day and age, a fact that doesn't so much baffle me as disappoint me. This is mostly because I'd be stretching to call Taylor Swift much of a leader in this field on any level - her lyrics are only getting more mundane and insufferable, her vocals are absolutely nothing to write home about, and when her instrumentation contains dubstep and electropop breakdowns, you can barely consider it country music anymore! 

Well, one thing's for damn sure, you really can't find many male country singers who can match Taylor Swift's star power. Tell me this: if you're not a dedicated country listener, do you think you would have a chance in hell telling Chris Young, Justin Moore, Jake Owen, Brantley Gilbert, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, or Luke Bryan apart? Sure, I can tell them apart, but your average listener isn't going to be able to pick out each voice in 'The Only Way I Know', which features the trio of Jason Aldean, Eric Church, and Luke Bryan. And then when you factor in acts like Rascal Flatts (who have and always will bore the living shit out of me) and the influx of male country acts from the 90s who are still making hits (Tim McGraw, Clay Walker, Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton, the list goes on), the country charts are buried in an influx of acts with no one taking a definite lead in the genre. For tNhe most part, too many of these guys sound the same, with the same country rock style and the same bland lyrics that seem to be about booze, girls, cars, and loving America. You hardly ever get acts that stand out much against the herd here - I mean, say what you want about Toby Keith, but at least the man has a distinctive sound and style to his songwriting and charismatic delivery that makes him stick out. Brad Paisley has his excellent guitar playing, Florida Georgia Line has that annoying backwoods twang in the vocals ('Cruise' is still kind of awesome, though), Kenny Chesney is there to rip off Jimmy Buffett with alarming and shitty frequency, but outside of the Zac Brown Band, who the hell of this group has the serious songwriting chops to stand out and be remotely memorable? Say what you will about Garth Brooks, but at least the man had great songwriters (and he was a halfway decent songwriter himself) and he had the charisma to deliver the songs well - and that's why songs like 'Friends In Low Places' will never go away

The point that I'm trying to make here is that it doesn't tend to be vocal delivery or instrumentation that makes country songs stand out - almost unique amongst any genre of music, the songwriting and lyrics come into much higher prominence for singling out the greats. That's why Ronnie Dunn's 'Cost of Livin' is one of the best songs of 2011 - it wasn't because of the instrumentation, but because Dunn was singing a desperate song with a very desperate, uncompromising edge. It's one of the most raw and excellent country songs I've ever heard, and for the most part, it's because of the songwriting and subject matter.

In another case, let's compare three mixed-gender country acts: Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, and The Band Perry. Now let's make this clear: I both like and dislike songs from all of these bands. I think none of them are all that special or spectacular. But for me, I'm going to devote more time to talking and analyzing and ultimately thinking about The Band Perry over the other two, mostly because The Band Perry write very flawed but very interesting songs. Yes, 'If I Die Young' is shit, but I find it a lot more interesting and entertaining to talk about and thus it's more memorable compared to the middle-brow pablum that Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum keep shoveling out. Even the bad stuff that Lady Antebellum has released (like the execrable 'Just A Kiss') isn't as interesting as a song like 'Better Dig Two', mostly because The Band Perry is taking something of a risk. They're essentially the goth kids in the country scene with their obsession with death, and considering how much southern gothic imagery they co-opt, I find them more than a little amusing and kind of intriguing

And with the discussion of death filtered through a southern gothic aesthetic, we come to the female country singers - most of which have either co-opted Carrie Underwood's Beyonce-esque contempt for men with mixed results or fallen in line with the industry's traditional gender roles (Taylor Swift). To be honest, I've gotten more than a little sick of Carrie Underwood's schtick (as I said in my review of Orianthi's Heaven In This Hell that nobody cared about), but I prefer her fire-spitting to Taylor Swift's adolescence - at least it's some sign of maturity. 

But one of the more interesting country acts to come out in the wake of Carrie Underwood is former Pistol Annies' singer Miranda Lambert. Now, to be honest, I've always tended to drop her onto the B-list, mostly because for the past two years she's been making bland, not all that interesting country lacks a certain degree of depth or thought. But then she released an interesting little song called 'Mama's Broken Heart', which is a song where Lambert gets cheated on / dumped, and she has to balance her own grief-stricken rage with putting a polite friendly smile on to the public. It's a tough dichotomy to play, and Miranda Lambert plays it masterfully. 

But what I find interesting about it is the juxtaposition of societal expectations - because believe it or not, societal expectations play a huge role in country music. Keep in mind this is music often marketed solely to rural America, which has a very distinctive set of values and customs that don't really reflect those in the coastal cities - or in Canada. And while most of these societal expectations tend to be racist, sexist, homophobic, prejudiced, or just plain moronic, they're still expectations that genuinely good people in those rural areas live by. Sure, they're often expectations that reflect an America that wants to be in 1950 or 1980 (which wanted to pretend to be 1950), but people still live by them, and they are a marketing demographic. 

And here's what makes 'Mama's Broken Heart' so interesting - because it pushes the cruel double standard forced on women under those societal expectation into view. The fact that they're expected to be prim and proper 'Stepford' ladies, even in the face of their partners acting like pigs or leaving them. Now let's be fair here, the push behind Carrie Underwood would seem to suggest a more liberated mindset, but I don't quite buy it. To me, too much of Carrie Underwood's material comes across as too harsh and grating to be anything but a fantasy or a pose - you know, like how Beyonce only sounds convincing when she's angry like a man, but she's happily married to Jay-Z. Miranda Lambert, on the other hand, brings across that grief and rage and vulnerability in a way that Kelly Clarkson used to do and Adele perfected, and while most of 'Mama's Broken Heart' might seem like it's being played as a laugh, there's genuine sadness and anger in that song that makes it work better than you'd think, mostly because Lambert isn't the rail-thin knockout that Underwood is, or the fact that she's not quite as polished. I'm reminded a lot of Reba McEntire with Miranda Lambert on this track, and while she isn't quite as good as Reba, this is a good step in the right direction.

So on that topic, one should ask who wrote such a border-line transgressive (or at least out-of-the-ordinary) track for Lambert. Well, one of those songwriters is a young woman named Kacey Musgraves, who just released her major label debut album Same Trailer Different Park. 

An album that might just be one of the best goddamn albums of the year. Holy shit, did I not see this coming.