Tuesday, July 30, 2013

album review: 'in a world like this' by the backstreet boys

I have been a fan of the Backstreet Boys for almost fifteen years.

They weren't just a band I grew up with, they were the very first band of which I was ever a hardcore fan. I own physical copies of all of their albums. I've sung Backstreet Boys songs in karaoke and in talent shows. I can play their music on the piano. I've seen them live, and I'll be seeing them again in less than a week. They are the quintessential late 90s boy band and they have earned their place in popular culture, and I'm proud to call myself a fan.

...and because I said all of this, some of you will immediately disqualify any review I give henceforth as either the gushing of an admirer or the nitpicking of a displeased fanboy. You'll probably say that there's no way I could possibly be impartial when it comes to this band, and thus my review is invalid because of some nebulous 'bias'. Now I could go on for hours how this disqualification is absolutely asinine (in fact, I already did), but I find myself pausing a little more when I consider my love of the Backstreet Boys. Is it possible that since this band was part of my childhood, I view their material with rose-coloured nostalgia? Am I giving too much credit to a pop act, particularly given my well-documented tendency of reading too much into things?

Well, maybe, but then again, I haven't exactly disabled my critical faculties when reflecting on The Backstreet Boys, and the band's material isn't immune from honest analysis or criticism. For example, I don't have particularly kind words for The Backstreet Boys' first album, most of which is catering to the Europop bandwagon and lacks significant personality. They would iron some of the kinks out before Backstreet's Back, but there are still major duds on that album. In fact, come to think of it, I would argue that all of their albums had at least one song that didn't work in the slightest (Millennium comes the closest to consistent excellence, but to me, 'It's Gotta Be You' just didn't come together). And while I'll defend their 2005 comeback album Never Gone more than most (seriously, between 'Siberia', 'Forces of Nature', 'Lose It All', and 'I Still...', that album deserves way more credit than it gets), I don't have many kind words to say about the two albums they made without Kevin Richardson in 2007 and 2009. I wouldn't call them precisely bad (okay, most of This Is Us is pretty awful), but considering the heights of which they were capable, they were disappointments. And obviously the less said about that New Kids On The Block experiment, the better.

But going back through their discography in preparation for this review, I was reminded of all the reasons I fell in love with this band in the first place. In my review of The Brilliancy EP, I talked about the three factors required to make good pop music: solid, catchy instrumentation/production (plus a hook); good lyrics/vocal delivery; and sincerity. And while The Backstreet Boys have definitely slipped up more than a few times with the first two factors, they've never become cynical or pandering or showed anything less than complete sincerity. What other band would make 'Larger Than Life', one of the biggest hits of their career, an explicit love letter to their fans? In comparison to an act like N'Sync (yeah, I'm going here, deal with it), the Backstreet Boys sounded looser and ever so slightly more organic (particularly on Millennium, Never Gone, and Unbreakable). Yes, they were occasionally hyperbolic and yes, they were occasionally jokey and cheesy, but they were always willing to include themselves as part of the joke and just run with it. If you were laughing, rest assured they were laughing with you, and yet you could tell there was genuine emotion in their delivery. People respond well to that sort of sincerity, and it's no surprise that over a decade after their heyday, there are still hardcore Backstreet Boys fans (myself included).

So when I heard they were released a new album this year, I had a moment of elation that was very quickly drowned out by some real concerns. For starters, they're not getting any younger, and if This Is Us taught the world anything, it was that modern production didn't always fit well with The Backstreet Boys (to say nothing of autotune, which didn't fit at all). And yes, it was awesome that Kevin was back, but would they manage to have that flair and personality over fifteen years into their careers, that unique presence to stand up against their personality-bereft and far less talented peers in One Direction? And as much as I really, really wanted this album to be great, I knew that the Backstreet Boys' last consistently good album came out in 2005. 

So how does In A World Like This fare?

Youtube review after the jump

Monday, July 29, 2013

album review: 'blurred lines' by robin thicke

For those of you who haven't been following the charts this year, let me provide a bit of commentary discussing the bizarre trends sprouting up on the Billboard Hot 100. While the year started slow (with the early months dominated by either the Harlem Shake, 'Thrift Shop', or a series of piano-driven ballads), a new trend began to coalesce as the summer began, a trend spurred by the release of a critically acclaimed album courtesy of one of the best electronica groups in the country, an album I may have already reviewed.

The song was 'Get Lucky', the band was Daft Punk, the album was Random Accessed Memories, and the music was a blend of funk and disco, two genres that many considered dead at the end of the 70s. And yet here they were, making a comeback unlike anything we'd seen. And while I had been saying the 70s had been making a comeback since earlier this year, it was nice to see the charts reflect some of that. And really, the stylistic flourishes that represented that decade were popping up all over the chart, from the chanting and 'righteous cause' bombast from Macklemore to the slick R&B touches with Justin Timberlake. Hell, Snoop Lion dropped an album that was basically an attempt at resurrecting politically-charged reggae! And with the exception of 'When I Was Your Man', both of Bruno Mars' charting singles were basically 70s throwbacks and they were easily on par with the best of his material!

But really, the song that had to rise to the top was 'Get Lucky'. Not only was it a scintillating and enthralling blend of disco and funk modernized, it had a real playful elegance in the lyrics that vaulted it above the average disco track. In my mind, it still is in hot contention for my list of the best songs of the year, and it might just rise to the top.

Unfortunately, it's been blocked from the #1 slot by another pseudo disco track that apparently jumped out of nowhere, also starring Pharrell, a song that very quickly drew some controversy for some rather overtly sexual lyrics. And it's this song - the title track from the album we're going to talk about today - that has blocked Daft Punk for over five weeks, and it's courtesy of an artist who I thought went out of business a good six years ago.

So let's talk about this artist, shall we? Robin Thicke is a guy you're all forgiven for forgetting, because outside of one single Glee did infinitely better, he honestly hasn't done much that I immediately remembered. Granted, I give him a bit more credit going back through his discography, but I've never been able to like his music all that much, and after listening through his albums, I think I know why. 

For starters, unlike many R&B crooners, Robin Thicke does have a fair amount of vocal personality, and his falsetto range is incredibly impressive (see, Julian Casablancas, this is how you do it). And I'll give him this, when he wants to make a song that sounds incredibly sexual, he has the slick sophistication and class to make it work. However, there's something about his delivery that doesn't quite click with me, namely that I never quite buy that he's entirely emotionally invested in his material. In comparison to, say, Usher, who throws everything and the kitchen sink into his love songs, Robin Thicke is a bit more laid-back, and that kind of puts me off a bit. On top of that, too often his lyrics can be a little too jokey and silly, and while there is a certain degree of self-awareness, it can sometimes undercut or confuse the emotional current of the song.

Now granted, I'll admit right now that R&B isn't my strong suit when it comes to genres (one of the reasons I didn't review Ciara's Body Party, outside of no interest and the general consensus being rather mixed on it). It's not that I can't recognize good R&B, but more that I have a much smaller tolerance for it in comparison to, say, country music. Most of this comes from the lyrics, in that too often the subject matter behind them seems a bit thin or the lyrics feel underwritten. But then again, that might be an area where Robin Thicke's goofier side might be an asset - he might not make an incredibly intelligent or moving R&B album, but I bet he could still make an interesting one.

So, how does his new album Blurred Lines fare?

Youtube review after the jump

Thursday, July 25, 2013

album review: 'the brilliancy ep' by the brilliancy

It really gets on my nerves that so many critics dismiss pop music.

Oh, certainly not as often as they used to, but more often than not, music critics tend to look down on pop and country and other genres that cater to mainstream radio with a certain condescension that drives me off the wall. Not only is ignorant of history (you all remember that The Beatles and Michael Jackson started out as pop acts, right) and denigrates the genre, it also places their genres of choice (often indie acts) on a higher pedestal. And the more I think about it, the more I become increasingly convinced that said pedestal isn't always earned - sure, there are plenty of independent acts that are pushing boundaries and are making interesting artistic statements, but just because they might adopt a less commercially successful aesthetic doesn't give them a complete pass if their lyrics or instrumentation aren't compelling. 

And when we circle back to the topic of good pop music, the conversation gets even trickier. What most people don't tend realize is that good pop music of any kind still requires a fair amount of talent to write and produce, and the formula to getting it right is constantly changing. In that element, I'd argue indie rock has it easier - without having to worry about mainstream airplay, they have the freedom to push boundaries and write songs about any topic under the sun, whereas pop music doesn't quite have that flexibility.

So what makes good pop music? Well, like all art, there's no defined formula, but I think I've managed to nail it down to three central concepts: solid instrumentation/production (complete with a hook), good lyrics/vocal-personality, and sincerity. Most pop songs can get mainstream airplay with two, maybe one-and-a-half out of three, but the best, most memorable pop songs get them all, and I can't stress enough how important these elements are (particularly sincerity). Getting simply one out of five might get you a passable song, but nothing more than that.

For example, let's talk about 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen, a song I don't particularly like that ruled the airwaves last year (you might have heard of it). In my books, I think the weakness in this song is the bland instrumentation (those aren't real strings, you're not fooling anyone) and the crappy lyrics, but Carly Rae Jepsen manages to salvage things with some personality and complete sincerity in her delivery. Compare this to Taylor Swift's '22', a song with a decent hook, but terrible lyrics and a complete lack of any sincere feeling, so the song just doesn't work for me. It's why songs like 'I Want It That Way' by the Backstreet Boys is such a great pop song (perfect across the board) and a song like Selena Gomez's 'Come And Get It' is such a dud (I'd give it half a point at best). And when you go back through pop music, it's extremely hard to find songs that would fit all of those criteria. Hell, even going into the independent scene I'd find a hard time locating songs that nail all three of these categories (depending on framing, independent music can occasionally get away with a lack of sincerity or a hook).

So with all of that in mind, let's talk about the self-titled EP from pop rock act The Brilliancy, and why it's probably going to make it on my list as one of the best albums of the year.

Youtube review after the jump

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

album review: 'amok' by atoms for peace (RETRO REVIEW)

As a music critic, you always end up missing albums.

Yeah, even the guys who listen to a new album every single day are going to miss a few that are outside of their preferred genre or were dismissed out of hand as being crap. Now if you're familiar with any of my reviews, I like to give everything a reasonably fair shake, but as someone with a full-time job and an active social life, I still don't have time to get through everything.

And that means, like most music critics in the middle of the summer, I took a bit of time in this brief lull to start locating the albums in my backlog that I should cover before the end of the year. Sure, I'm not going to find everything, but it can't hurt to go through the seven or eight albums with positive critical press I inevitably missed (either coming out before I started my reviews, or were put aside in favour of albums I actually had an interest in or wanted to rant about).  

And completely unsurprisingly, most of these albums that I'll be talking about over the next while (with the exception of the new releases, obviously) are going to be the critically acclaimed material that Pitchfork and the majority of the entertainment press have slobbered all over. And those of you who have been following my work know that I tend to be significantly tougher on indie rock than most - something I also won't apologize for in any way. If these are going to be the acts that might dictate the paradigm in independent music, you bet I'm going to be scrutinizing them with a critical eye. After all, if you want to be on the cutting edge, you have to earn it.

So with that in mind, let's talk about the debut album of Atoms For Peace, a collaboration act featuring Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Joey Waronker (who worked with Beck and R.E.M.) and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. From that line-up alone, one can have high expectations - that's the sort of superstar tag team you'd expect to be introduced by its own theme music! And while I'm most definitely not the biggest Radiohead fan (a conversation for later), it's hard not to look at the rest of this act with a fair amount of awe and wonder.

But then the part of my brain that leaps up whenever I get excited about new prospects made sure to say, 'Now hang on a minute, you remember what happened with Angels and Airwaves, and even though Audioslave was a relative success, it was nowhere near close to the sum of its parts.' And really, outside of Ayreon (which owes its success to the excellent coordination of Arjen Lucassen, and even he doesn't always get it right), there really hasn't been a collaboration effort that I can think of immediately that hasn't been either overshadowed by one member or significantly less than its potential. And given some of my distaste for Thom Yorke, I wasn't entirely sure I was going to enjoy the album, with the very un-Radiohead-esque name Amok. Did that opinion last?

Youtube review after the jump

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

album review: 'edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros' by edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros

Today, let's talk about the hippie movement.

As someone who has always had an interest in cultural demographics, I've always been a little fascinated by the hippie movement, particularly considering its presence in the music of the late 60s and throughout most of the 70s. So many great acts of the era can be linked directly to it and the countercultural force it was for a brief time. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, hell, pretty much all of the psychedelic rock genre owes its existence and most of its fanbase to the free love, free drugs, inner peace nirvana that the hippie movement preached. In terms of an era where cultural progressives owned the industry (rather than the other way around), it was unlike any other.

So what the hell happened? Well, pretty much what anyone with a brain could have expected. The 'intellectuals' of the hippie movement went into prog rock and avant-garde music that became too pretentious to be sustainable, the music industry digested the musical and visual aesthetic and dumbed it down for the mainstream, and midway through the 70s, a group of angry punks smashed whatever free love was left to pieces. It's a sad testament to the legacy of the hippies that Seth MacFarlane was able to sum it up aptly in the words of his talking dog on Family Guy: 'We lost the values but we kept the weed'.

Now to be completely fair, there were always gaping holes in the hippie ideology that you could fly a spaceship through, namely a complete ignorance of consequences to all the free love and free drugs. The pacifism was nice, but human nature made it abundantly clear that pacifist thinking and radical politics weren't a combination built to last (the radicalization of the leftist movements in the 70s proved this). Speaking on the topic of the philosophy, most of it was a product of the drugs and lifestyle that spawned it, and was thus incoherent, unfocused, and surprisingly shallow - without a clear message, there was never going to be societal change on the scale the hippies wanted. And on the political side (most commonly recognized as the Yippies), there may have been some movement towards social and racial equality (driven by some of the great leaders for social change of the time), but without changes on the institutional level, most of the greater 'change' died in a sputtering heap. And as for the progressive movement... well, I'll just let Will McAvoy from Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom explain (along with some rightfully required ruminations on the Tea Party):

The sad thing is that he's not wrong about any of it, hippies or Tea Party (yeah, I said it), and you can go further and trace this to how 'hippie music' and psychedelic rock suffered their painful decline throughout the 70s. But what I think was more damaging was how the image of the hippie movement was further ridiculed as 'out-of-touch' or so high that any fragments of coherent or interesting ideology is drowned out in baked-out nonsense. And really, that bugs the hell out of me, because there were nuggets of real truth and wisdom, about the human condition in that culture that gets swept away and ignored. Now I'm not exactly surprised that material was ignored - often times it was more grounded and had some serious teeth - but it was enough to justify the hippie movement's philosophy, if not its execution.

And funnily enough, issues with problematic execution are where I always used to stand on Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, another band I'd categorize as a 'silent majority' act that broke through in 2009 with their debut Up From Below. A musical project run by singer-songwriter Alex Ebert, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros resemble nothing less than an act attempting to recapture the 60s hippie aesthetic, but never quite grasping the meat of the message. 

Now don't get me wrong, I like what this band represents, and there are definitely elements of their material that I find extremely compelling. For an act that debuted in 2009, they sure as hell do a good job sounding like an act from the golden era of psychedelic rock, particularly in production. I like the interplay between the vocalists, I like the harmonies and the stomping choruses, I like the breadth of instrumentation, and I even like some of the more ridiculous and grandiose moments that only seem to work half of the time. If anything, what makes Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros stand out to me is their musical 'texture', particularly on their first album - the mix is organic and layered masterfully, yet done in a way that we don't see the seams. I don't know who does the production work for this band, but Jimmy Eat World needs to hire them as soon as possible!

But unfortunately, I know the exact reasons why Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes never worked for me: there was never any edge. Sure, the music had the sound of a hippie record, but there was no edge or hint that their lyrics meant anything, or were going to take any chances - in fact, any attempt they did try to stretch themselves lyrically on Up From Below they sounded laughably out of their depth. They did try to improve things with their second record Here, but in doing so, they also cut back on the larger scope and feel of the band, and some of the texture leaked away. If I might make a TV comparison, the second season of The Newsroom has a lot fewer mistakes than the first, but it also lost some of the grandiose bombast and utter insanity that made that first season so compellingly watchable. Simply put, if you shoot lower, you're going to fail less, but your successes won't mean as much either. 

What Here also revealed for the band was that the project's focus was solely on Alex Ebert. Now, granted, some of this was bound to come out - the album was a concept piece exploring one's difficulties with religion and spirituality - but with that knowledge comes a lack of inclusiveness that really runs contrary to the hippie ideal. Any attempts at having Ebert balanced by the other vocalists just fell painfully flat because it was so obvious where the lyrical focus was fixed. And while the album might have had a more coherent tone and narrative throughline, it still lacked the edge that would truly make the album distinctive. 

So a year after that album's release, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have come back with a self-titled album two into their career, something that just happens to be a serious pet peeve of mine. Does the band manage to overcome that peeve and create something of substance?

Youtube review after the jump

Friday, July 19, 2013

album review: 'stars dance' by selena gomez

So for those of you who aren't aware, Chris Brown did the world a much-deserved favour and delayed his album indefinitely. And while I can't say I'm disappointed with that choice, it does mean I have to set aside my monologue surrounding that 'artist' for another day. Also, purely by chance, it means that this review is the fourth in a row I have done featuring a solo female pop artist, which is interesting in its own way, particularly in a comparative sense.

But let's put that topic aside for a moment, and instead talk about cultural appropriation.

Given the cataclysmic flop of The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp's justly-criticized performance as Tonto (when he is not, in fact, anywhere close to a full-blooded Native American), the discussion surrounding white cultural appropriation has resurfaced again in the media. Many have rightfully said that the role of Tonto should have been played by a Native American, particularly when many Native actors and actresses are not often given the chance to play such a major role and Johnny Depp's eccentric choices were to the severe detriment of the film. Instead of subverting unfortunate or libelous racial stereotypes, Depp may have done the exact opposite.

And speaking as a white, Caucasian heterosexual male entering this conversational minefield, let me lay my cards on the table. Yes, I believe the artwork should be judged on its own merits outside of the identity of its creator (while, of course, keeping in mind authorial intent). I believe there's a standard of quality that should hold up regardless of the race, gender, and sexuality of the author. However, when it comes to enabling opportunities for minority players, I strongly believe that the role should be filled by actors that best fit the story, setting, and tone. In other words, if you're looking to cast a Native American part or tell a Native American story, the person who is oft best served in playing that part or telling that story is a Native American. It adds a certain degree of authenticity and nuance in the details, and in film, is often required to maintain the cinematic immersion. So in the case of The Lone Ranger, it should be obvious that a Native American should play Tonto (as one did in the serials) and thus maintain the verisimilitude of the production. Johnny Depp is a great actor, but it breaks immersion when you see a white guy obviously playing a Native role.

And yeah, I get that some nincompoop is probably going to say this is a double standard, that I'm promoting opportunities for minorities instead of just letting 'quality win out'. And yeah, it's a double standard, but in the era where we have a massive predominance of white, male, heterosexual stories written and told by white, heterosexual men, there is absolutely nothing wrong with introducing variety into the cultural narrative, and it often feels most authentic when delivered by those closest to it. I'm going to go ahead and say this outright: white privilege and the weird defensiveness that surrounds it right now is poisonous, and I'm strongly looking forward to the day when there are no more barriers to entry other than requirements of intellect and hard work. And if this means that Idris Elba continues to play Heimdall in the next Thor movie and we see continue to see a rise of popular cinema highlighting strong performances from other genders, races, and sexualities that might usually be cast by white actors, so be it.

Unfortunately, this cultural paradigm shift is still a work in progress, and there are still plenty of Caucasian artists who want to tell stories appropriate elements, themes, or stylistic quirks from other genres, and here's where we reach the tricky topic of cultural appropriation, in this case discussing music. Now it's true that white acts co-opted rock 'n roll from African-American acts and made it into the commercially successful genre it is today - and really, the sad history of how much black R&B musicians lost in the dawning days of the record industry is absolutely heart-breaking, and it's a goddamn shame more of them aren't remembered today. But even today, we see plenty of musical acts co-opt rhythms or styles that are rooted in a different cultural tradition and incorporate them into their music, and it's an interesting discussion whether or not this is cultural appropriation.

For example, let's take The Talking Heads, one of the most acclaimed acts of the 70s and 80s. If you've listened to their material, you've inevitably heard rhythmic sections that have a distinctly African sound. For those of you who don't know, The Talking Heads were originally composed of three Caucasian students (plus Jerry Harrison from the Modern Lovers). Now, is the usage of African-influenced rhythms in their music cultural appropriation? Well, to be completely honest, I don't really think so, because The Talking Heads grasped and captured the spirit behind those rhythms. They knew what they were doing, and the rhythms fit the tone of their material, particularly on Remain In Light (plus, as I mentioned, they were The Talking Heads and they easily met the standard of quality). But let's fast-forward to today with Vampire Weekend, a band that also uses African-inspired rhythms and claims to draw influence from The Talking Heads. A lot of people would argue their material isn't cultural appropriation because of Vampire Weekend's high quality, but given the weirdly defensive stance the band has taken towards white privilege, it's a little harder for me to defend them.

Look, as long as we have distinct cultures, this conversation will continue. And really, while I could wish that all artists treat their influences with quality and thought, I also know that The Lone Ranger movie exists. 

And finally, we come to Selena Gomez. You may have heard of her from her show Wizards of Waverly Place, or from one of her hit singles, or from her star-making performance in Spring Breakers (which you should all see NOW), but most likely you know her from her on-again-off-again relationship with Justin Bieber. And like with Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus, you probably have dismissed her as a Disney starlet that produces pre-fabricated pop garbage.

Well, you might want to rethink that assumption, because of the three Disney starlets I mentioned, Selena Gomez would probably be my favourite. It's a little hard to quantify why, particularly when it's tricky to tell how much Gomez writes of her music, but I will say that's a passable singer with a lot of energy and personality. It helps that she seems significantly smarter than her peers and has a much tighter control on her image and personal life. And from a little bit of research, it also seems that she has some interest in world cultures outside that of the United States, which occasionally comes out in her music videos. As for her actual songs, her backing band The Scene has a remarkably tight groove that used to balance well against Gomez's delivery. Yeah, she has made some terrible songs, but she has also made some really good ones.

So when I heard that her new album Stars Dance not only ditches The Scene, but also might contain cultural influences (her opening single 'Come And Get It' certainly seems to have something of a Bollywood vibe, and that's not even touching that awful album cover), I had justifiable reservations. Sure, Selena Gomez might be a smart girl (although given that she's giving Bieber another chance, I seriously question her tastes), but without the tightness of The Scene or a strong guiding producer, is she in way over her head?

Youtube review after the jump

Monday, July 15, 2013

album review: 'the blessed unrest' by sara bareilles

The year was 2007, and Billboard's Hot 100 chart was surging on a wave of hits. The pop rock boom of the mid-2000s was at its peak, Justin Timberlake had released his smash album Futuresex Lovesounds and with collaborators Nelly Furtado and Timbaland had taken the charts by storm. Coupled with the creative resurgence of Gwen Stefani, the peak of Fergie's, Akon's and Avril Lavigne's careers, Kanye West's well-publicized rivalry with 50 Cent, and the arrival of soon-to-be megastar Rihanna, it was a year full of monster hits that remain surprisingly solid to this day. Sure, there is a fair amount of junk - mostly courtesy of Nickelback and the post-grunge movement that just wouldn't goddamn die - but the hits of this year aren't just good, they probably can be considered some of the definitive tracks of the decade. And what's more impressive is that so many acts reached creative high-points in 2007, most of which would carry over into the slightly weaker (but still shockingly good) 2008. 

And it's not just that these songs were good (because a lot of them weren't) - they stuck in the cultural consciousness and most remain just as well-remembered six years later. This was the year Carrie Underwood smashed through with 'Before He Cheats', Maroon 5 released 'Makes Me Wonder', Beyonce dropped 'Irreplaceable', The Fray put out 'How To Save A Life', Snow Patrol charted with 'Chasing Cars', and even Amy Winehouse broke through with 'Rehab'. Hell, even the one-hit wonders of the time like 'Hey There Delilah' by the Plain White T's managed to lodge its way into our minds and bury themselves in the cultural unconscious. Even if you weren't paying any attention to the radio in 2007, I can guarantee that most of you recognize the songs I just listed, and frankly, I didn't even touch half of it.

But it's also in 2007 that a newly signed singer-songwriter named Sara Bareilles was asked to finish off her major label debut with a love song. But the songwriting process was going nowhere, and a fit of rage, she wrote one of the defining hits of the decade, a song blasting her label in a fit of angry guitar and pounding piano. And while it wouldn't seriously impact the charts until 2008, Sara Bareilles' 'Love Song' is a staple of the decade and a goddamn masterpiece of pop music. Every element works incredibly well - the sharp edges of the lyrics, the pounding instrumentals that speak to raw frustration, the sheer passion in Bareilles' vocals - and it all comes together into a song that speaks to creative frustration and the drive for independence. And speaking as a creator, I can definitely get behind this particular sentiment.

And thus I had reasonably high expectations when I went through Sara Bareilles' major label releases before The Blessed Unrest, and the underlying hope that 'Love Song' wasn't just a flash in the pan. And for once, things turned out well, with both of her albums being very solid, very well-written pop rock that sticks in the memory (with Little Voice arguably being a touch better than Kaleidoscope Heart). Described by some critics as a blend between Alicia Keys and Regina Spektor (the latter whose album I reviewed last year), Sara Bareilles manages to combine the best elements of both artists, despite them being in a genre for which I typically have a distaste: the 'White-Girl-With-Piano' genre. Now I'll admit my opinions have evolved since I reviewed What We Saw From The Cheap Seats last year, and while I'm still not a fan of the genre, I think I've been able to pinpoint why: there is very little diversity when it comes to subject matter and execution. 

I realize that I'm definitely not the target audience for Sara Bareilles and her contemporaries' work, but I can't help but notice that the genre often fails to stretch itself both in the material and the delivery, which can lead to a certain smug self-satisfaction dominating tracts of the material. It's not just that it feels interchangeable and boring, but that there is no deeper passion underlying the work - and if there is, it doesn't feel authentic. And when some the artists (Regina Spektor and Lily Allen comes to mind) do try to stretch the subject matter, they come across as so insufferably pleased with themselves that it becomes intolerable. 

So what makes Sara Bareilles stand out against the crowd? Well, unlike her contemporaries, she often seems to be trying, incorporating a greater vocal presence and more passionate soul into her delivery. Yes, I'll admit that most of the time the subject matter is small and reasonably simple, but she sells it and it feels real. And in comparison to Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles is smart enough to delve into a greater spread of subject matter and instrumentation other than just underwritten piano-driven ballads. It definitely helps that Sara Bareilles has a real knack for punchy, sly little rhymes that show some clever construction. No, it's not quite as organic as Kacey Musgraves, but it's close. And really, the harshest criticism I'll make against Sara Bareilles is that sometimes she just doesn't try as hard as she could, which lead to serviceable, but occasionally tedious songs.

So what do I think about her newest album, The Blessed Unrest?

Youtube review after the jump.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

album review: 'skitszo' by colette carr

Youtube Review after the jump.

There are two unfortunate truths in rap music: namely, that if you’re white or female, you face a much more difficult road.  If you want to rise to the top and not immediately be deemed a novelty act, you’ll have to establish a presence and achieve some amount of street cred, and do it fast. More than a few white rappers and female rappers have flamed out in spectacular fashion after less-than-impressive debut albums, and even if their mixtapes are solid, they tend to be derided (fairly or not) as a joke to the mainstream public.

So what happens if you’re a white female rapper? Unfortunately in that case, you’ve got the toughest row to hoe of all (no pun intended) – not only are you operating in the extreme minority, there are very few (if any) acts who have achieved success in this vein. I mean, who are your successful white female rappers? Can you think of any off the top of your head? At least with female rappers you have Lil Kim and Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj, and white guys have the Beastie Boys and Eminem and Macklemore, but in combination as a white female rapper, who do you get?

Well, the first one that jumped into my head was Kreayshawn, and if you look at the sad trajectory her career took after her disastrous debut album, the prospects look bleak at best. What’s all the more unfortunate is that her career charted the same path as most other rappers who get signed and rushed to market before a coherent album is released, which is a single album of sloppy club tracks that showcase none of the girl’s talent before being dropped from the label and consigned to the ephemeral dustbin of pop history. And as someone who actually thought Kreayshawn had real potential, her failure did sting a bit. And of course there was some of Cher Lloyd’s early rapping material, but I don’t like to dignify the fact that exists.

So when I heard that a female white rapper named Colette Carr was dropping her debut album this year, I was more than a little skeptical. Outside of Kacey Musgraves’ mind-blowingly great country debut with Same Trailer, Different Park, I don’t have a great track record looking at debut albums from female solo artists this year. Hell, Skylar Grey had the pedigree of Eminem behind her album and she couldn’t rise above mediocrity. So to say I had low, low expectations when it came to Colette Carr’s debut was a bit of an understatement, and coupled with the fact that it was a debut album comprised of four EPs mashed together with a few additional tracks (which was the same path Charli XCX took with her unfortunate debut), I expected this to be a disaster. And with the, well, let’s call it unfortunate album title of Skitszo, I was fully prepared to be treated to a catastrophe that would end her career before it truly began.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


So, apparently there is this site you can host videos on, and I figured 'why just read my reviews when you can hear them from me in person'!

Yeah, I know the quality isn't great - that's something I'll be working to improve over the next couple of reviews. In any case, from now on I'll be including a video of me reviewing in person along side each text review (probably at the bottom of the post, haven't quite worked that one out yet). As it is, enjoy my video review of Skylar Grey's 'Don't Look Down' - Lord knows you deserve to enjoy something from that album.

album review: 'don't look down' by skylar grey

The more I think about it, the more I believe that being labelled the 'protege' of a popular artist is a lot worse than one might think.

Sure, you get the immediate hype and buzz from association with your more popular and successful mentor, but like all popularity, it can be replaced by backlash the second you make the slightest mistake. And this backlash tends to be harsher than if you struck out on your own, because there is the implication that you had the backing of a great artists and still struck out. Sure, that might be unfair, particularly when the general public doesn't really know how much influence or control said great artist had over your work, but there is a grain of truth to it.

But if even if you succeed and rise to your mentor's level, the comparison with said mentor will always be invited, particularly if there are stylistic similarities. At best you'll be deemed a 'copycat', an act permanently confined to their greater's shadow. At worst you'll be branded a rip-off, a soulless copy of something greater that came before. And even if you manage to surpass your mentor (as I'd argue Drake and Nicki Minaj have occasionally done with Lil Wayne), there will always be that asterisk associated with your work, that it isn't quite entirely your work and thus ever so slightly not as good. 

So it's not entirely surprising that it's fairly rare a protege of a popular musical act rises even close to the level of their mentor. Sure, Justin Bieber might be more popular amongst his fanbase than Usher is right now, but Bieber certainly isn't getting Usher's level of critical acclaim. And even though 50 Cent definitely had his moment in the spotlight in the early 2000s (his publicity heightened even further by his gutting of Ja Rule's career), he has mostly faded from public view in comparison to his 'discoverer', Eminem (which, frankly, is something I'm okay with, because 50 Cent was never that talented anyway).

Now I'll admit right out of the gate that Eminem remains to this day one of my favourite rappers, and I'm definitely looking forward to his new album later this year. That said, I can't help but notice he has a rather poor reputation in recreating his level of success with his collaborators and proteges (outside of 50 Cent, obviously). As much hype as D12 had in the early-to-mid 2000s, the band never took off with the same notoriety as Eminem had, and while his influence has been a boost to Slaughterhouse's careers, they certainly haven't had that mainstream breakthrough to match their critical praise. Even Yelawolf, who was once praised as the 'next' Eminem, hasn't had the nearly same degree of success (then again, that might have something more to do with his bizarre collaborations with Travis Barker and Ed Sheeran (?)).

And I've got to be honest, I was more than a little skeptical when I heard he was the executive producer behind Skylar Grey, a rising female singer who you might recognize as a co-writer behind Eminem and Rihanna's 2010 collaboration 'Love The Way You Lie', a song I really like but don't quite love. in fact, going back through the writing credits and vocal performances of Skylar Grey, I can't exactly say I've been impressed. I'll acknowledge that her touch is recognizable on her featured tracks ('Coming Home' by Diddy, 'I Need A Doctor' by Eminem & Dr. Dre, and 'Words I Never Said' by Lupe Fiasco), but while I like all three of these songs, I don't quite love them. But I'm fairly certain I know why: Skylar Grey, at least on these tracks, has absolutely no vocal personality.

Now that's a steep charge to level, but go back and listen to all of those tracks. Sure, she's an adequate singer, but outside of a harsher, semi-darker vibe, I don't get much idiosyncrasy or force of personality behind them. There's none of Rihanna's sultriness (well, back when she was good), none of the mostly convincing innocence in Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen, none of Lady Gaga's haughtiness, none of Ke$ha or Pink's brash attitude or Avril Lavigne's brattiness. She doesn't even have the raw energy that can occasionally make Katy Perry tolerable. Basically, if I'm going to draw a comparison to R&B, Skylar Grey reminded me of Keri Hilson: an adequate singer, but devoid of the flash of the visual presentation, not much more.

But I'm always one to be fair here, so I picked up her major label debut Don't Look Down. Did she manage to grow a personality while I wasn't looking?

Friday, July 5, 2013

album review: 'magna carta holy grail' by jay-z

For those of you who don't follow the Billboard charts and industry news, let me inform you of a recent development that has led to some controversy on music forums. 

Namely, that Jay-Z executed a business deal with Samsung, with the company buying one million copies of the record in order to distribute them to Samsung customers through a downloadable app three days early. In terms of a marketing strategy, it's kind of brilliant, and exactly what you'd expect from Jay-Z, but it led to an interesting controversy, for Jay-Z argued that every sale should be counted through the RIAA charts, giving an instant platinum record before a single CD hit shelves or iTunes. Through this move, Jay-Z would have the sort of instantaneous sales boom that would immediately outstrip his frequent collaborator Justin Timberlake on the Billboard 200 charts, a number one platinum album that sold at a speed unprecedented since the late 90s boy band wars.

Given this completely unprecedented business move, the RIAA moved swiftly to respond - although not precisely the way one would expect. In order to accommodate Jay-Z's scheme, they made it clear in a recent press release that platinum records could indeed be issued before the 30 day evaluation period in order to reflect the changing digital sales climate. Billboard, on the other hand, wasn't nearly so gracious, already stating that Jay-Z's plan would not be permitted to impact the charts. But then again, this is Billboard, whose choice to include YouTube streaming in response to PSY's 'Gangnam Style' about six months too late led to the motherfucking Harlem Shake leaping to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and staying there for five goddamn weeks, so I have no illusions regarding their competence.

But all of that said, I really do admire the business logic behind Jay-Z's scheme here, and the win-win-win spirit in which it was designed. He gets another platinum record, potent sales gains, and a boatload of cash (he's releasing the album on his own label), while Samsung gets an exclusive ad campaign that can potentially rope in new subscribers eager to grab Jay-Z's newest hit, and Samsung customers get the album a couple days early and for a reduced price. To be honest, I think Jay-Z gets the best deal of the three, but that doesn't surprise me in the slightest. Unlike will.i.am, whose marketing strategy seems to be to annoy everyone attempting to hyperlink his name or get his album/songs to trend on Twitter, Jay-Z has enough business sense to utilize old school deals with modern delivery methods. If will.i.am is the 'marketing savant', Jay-Z is the Forbes-topping CEO.

And make no mistake, that's not just an appraisal of the man, but his music as well. Jay-Z may have started in the same pit of gangster rap as Nas (who he held an intense rivalry with for several years), but he always aimed higher, with a crisp professionalism that definitely makes him stand out among his peers. He's called himself the 'new Sinatra', and as treasonous as this might sound, I definitely buy it. Like Justin Timberlake, he has the same blend of class and respectability, and with the intelligence to recruit top-of-the-line producers and performers for his material. His frequent collaborations with Kanye West might not make much sense until you realize that Kanye's one of the best names in the game when it comes to production, and Jay-Z knows he can exploit that while lending Kanye some dignity and class the younger artist has always craved, to say nothing of friendship. And while I wasn't a big fan of their collaboration album Watch The Throne, I was definitely appreciative of the elements that worked and how Jay-Z was more on point than he's been in a long time. And this isn't even touching his relationship with Beyonce, one that makes all too much sense when you consider the thesis of both their respective discographies: 'I'm better than you in every single way'. 

So if I have so many good things to say about Jay-Z, why is that I haven't ever really been able to connect with his music? Well, as I said with Justin Timberlake, sheer unbridled arrogance can really put me off if it isn't delivered with the talent to back it up - and make no mistake, there are swathes of Jay-Z's discographies where he hasn't been trying as much as he could have. And while I will admit Jay-Z's refusal to deal with stupid people or incompetence is admirable (particularly the persistent rumors that he was responsible for sabotaging Chris Brown's career for 2009 and 2010 after the assault on Rihanna, who was one of Jay-Z's proteges), it would help Jay-Z's case more if he managed to keep some distance from the collaborators who can't exactly deliver at his level (the collaboration album and tour with R. Kelly spring to mind). 

But it's not just that. As I've said before, I like when artists delve deeper, actually go for some challenging material that might expose vulnerabilities or humanity in the respective artists. It's ultimately why Kanye West, despite all of the many, many problems I have with him, remains interesting enough to entice me to listen to anything to which he's attached. Jay-Z, on the other hand, always seems to be holding the audience at arms' length. He doesn't open up or reveal much about himself beyond the positive or shallowest of subjects. Sure, he'll talk about major issues and he tends to have a greater breadth of songwriting topics than most (as I've said before, the man is seriously smart), but I don't really feel like I know Jay-Z in the way I know other rappers. Sure, he's has personality and some foibles, but outside of that, it can be hard to relate to the problems of a man who is stupefyingly rich and married to Beyonce. And you can definitely tell that Jay-Z is forcibly creating this distance, which makes it hard for me to get past the mask, presuming there is one.

So what does this mean for his new album, the intriguingly-titled Magna Carta Holy Grail?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

album review: 'born sinner' by j. cole

I feel like I owe a bit of an apology to J. Cole.

See, last December, I placed Jermaine Cole's breakout single 'Work Out' on my list of the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2012, and going back to revisit that song today, I can definitely see why. Sure, the production is top-of-the-line, but the beat is annoying as hell, the subject matter is reprehensible, and J Cole's voice was pretty damn nasal (not quite as bad as Kendrick Lamar's, but that's a conversation for another day). But if I'm going back to the song now, I'd have a hard time calling branding worse than 'Payphone' by Maroon 5 or '50 Ways To Say Goodbye' by Train. I'll definitely be reevaluating my placement of the song at the end of the year, but until then, I don't think I was entirely fair to J. Cole, calling him a Drake-wannabe and taking inspiration from Chris Brown.

And to be blunt, that's not fair to the guy for a number of reasons. For starters, 'Work Out' had seven writers, one of them being Kanye West (who I can and will promptly blame for some of the douchebaggery on display on that track) and for another, it's the sort of single that all rappers jumping onto mainstream radio are expected to make (it's kind of terrifying how often this happens). Hell, I'd bet that half of Macklemore's success is linked to the fact that he broke onto mainstream radio using themes that flew in the face of the modern rap scene. But in late 2011, I completely get why J. Cole released 'Work Out', and given that it was the only song I knew by the guy, I passed judgement early without listening to his debut album. 

So when I not only heard that his first album tackled difficult subject matter (that popped up in later singles, I'd come to discover), but that his second album was coming out, I figured I'd take the opportunity to get a little deeper into an artist I may have unfairly dismissed as a sellout. And I'm glad I did, because Cole World: The Sideline Story is actually a pretty damn solid rap album, clicking in all of the right areas that would make me highly appreciate J. Cole as a legitimate talent. His instrumentation tends towards old-school sampling and classical instruments (which is always a plus for me), and his choice of guest stars (including his idol Jay-Z) is well-timed and chosen in a way not to overshadow him on his debut (a lesson that even veteran rappers don't always follow). And while he owes a lot of his rapping technique to Jay-Z and Kanye West, on his best tracks he emulates the best traits of both rappers (the class and dignity of Jay-Z and the uncompromising honesty of Kanye). 

But what really put J. Cole in my good books was the lyrical subject matter, mostly because he nails a very precise balance of sticking to 'traditional' rap topics and adding enough nuance to elevate the material, mostly in the way he includes real empathy for everyone involved. And that's not even talking about the rap tracks where he jumps headlong into subjects most rappers wouldn't touch - like abortion - and it's here where J. Cole really shines, injecting smarter social commentary and nuance into the discussion than the entire Republican party could every imagine. It's also indicative that J. Cole (who also handles the majority of the production on his album) should be left alone to do his own thing with his album, and the solitary example where there was major interference was 'Work Out', easily the worst song on the album.

So, with all of that praise, where does J. Cole stumble? Well, if I was being harsh, I'd say the biggest flaws come through in J. Cole's performance, specifically in his delivery and occasionally his lyrics. Now, don't get me wrong, the subject matter is often incredibly solid, but too often there are double rhymes and the occasional songwriting slip-up that take me out of the experience. And like most rappers, J. Cole sounds at his best when he's got a lot of energy, and while his weariness does occasionally pay dividends on some tracks, too often it can make them a little tedious to listen through. A bigger problem, however, is that J. Cole doesn't quite do enough on Cole World: The Sideline Story to distinguish himself from his main influences. A lot of the instrumentation in particular is very much reminiscent of early Kanye West albums, and while J. Cole does differentiate himself in his lyrical content, he could do more to evolve his sound.

But then again, that was his major label debut, and one had to expect that J. Cole would have to make something mostly conventional to sell it to the record label (although considering the mutating state of rap music and the record labels' increasing desperation for hits in the face of acts like Macklemore, I bet J. Cole could have afforded to go for broke and they still would have bought into it). So in following most acts, I expected the major innovation to come on J. Cole's second album, unfortunately released on the same day as Kanye's insane Yeezus. So how does it fare?