Saturday, August 31, 2013

album review: 'colours in the dark' by tarja turunen

It's really hard to talk about Tarja Turunen without talking about Nightwish. Yes, even her solo career.

I should explain for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, and it's going to require a bit of a history lesson. Back in 1996, there was a keyboardist and insanely talented songwriter in Finland named Tuomas Holopainen, and he recruited guitarist Emppu Vuorinen and classical singer Tarja Turunen to form a band that would fuse classical symphonic music with heavy metal. In 1997, they (along with future symphonic metal titan Within Temptation) released their first albums, birthing a whole new genre of metal that would take them to fame and fortune. 

It was also one of the first genres of metal I ever explored, and Nightwish was one of the first bands I discovered that I really liked, which was in large part thanks to Tarja Turunen's soaring, powerful, operatic vocals. To put it another way, Nightwish is one of the few bands to cover 'Phantom of the Opera' and actually manage to match Sarah Brightman's incredible delivery. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, Nightwish made a ton of fantastic music that I still love to this day...

And then in 2005, Tarja Turunen was fired from the band through an open letter by Tuomas, and the fanbase split violently in two. Now as somebody with the benefit of context and hindsight, I can say that there was no party involved in this split that is completely innocent or deserves all of the blame. Tuomas was always a brilliant, introverted control freak who couldn't stand not getting his own way, and Tarja got used to being the face of the band and thus became a bit of a diva (whether or not it was encouraged by her husband, who has nothing but contempt for Tuomas, is an entirely different can of worms I don't want to touch).

But Tarja swore she was going to keep making music on her own, so the same year Nightwish released their comeback album Dark Passion Play with new vocalist Anette Olzon (which also happened to be one of the best albums of their career), Tarja also released her solo album My Winter Storm. One thing was for sure on both of those albums: neither Tarja or Tuomas were over the whole breakup thing, and were taking more than their fair share of complicated emotions regarding the whole affair. 

However, the important questions regarding that album from Tarja tend to get overlooked amid the hysterics, and I'm here to provide an answer to it: is Tarja's solo material any good? Well, to be blunt, it's better than I expected. Considering it was Tarja's first attempt to write songs on her own (with an arsenal of professionals behind her, of course), I was surprised how well many of the songs came together. And Tarja's voice is as strong and gorgeous as ever, and she has always had a lot of personality and energy in her delivery. The problem becomes that this album is automatically compared with Dark Passion Play, one of the best albums Nightwish ever made that still holds up today. Nightwish made a classic album of the symphonic metal genre, and My Winter Storm just can't compete with that, on songwriting or instrumentation (I'm not jumping into the pit of comparing the vocals of Tarja and Anette, and you can't make me).

Fortunately, her follow-up What Lies Beneath was actually a fair bit better, actually showing that Tarja's (and her collaborators') songwriting was only getting better, and Tarja was experimenting with differing symphonic metal sounds and styles, proving that she could indeed be a pretty potent solo act. Yeah, not all of the experimentation worked - the hints of more industrial sounds were especially hit-and-miss, and some of the tempo changes mid-song brought mixed results, but it was enough to give me a bit of hope that her newest album this year (released while Nightwish is in a bit of a complicated state as a band, having replaced Anette Olzon with Floor Jansen) could actually be something special.

So what do I think of Tarja Turunen's newest album Colours In The Dark?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

video review: 'right thoughts, right words, right action' by franz ferdinand

So, here's the video review to accompany the text. Quite happy with this one, all things considered, especially considering I'm posting it from vacation and didn't precisely have much time to put things together.

Oh, and the album's terrific, get it if you get the chance.

album review: 'right thoughts, right words, right action' by franz ferdinand

Now here’s something about the music industry that really gets on my nerves: when pop acts don't like to be called pop acts.

Oh sure, you get the acts that don’t care one way or another, but there are a number of acts – particularly in rock and R&B – who will always attempt to qualify their genre as anything besides pop music. And really, it’s not surprising why – many people tend to denigrate pop music simply because of their preconceptions regarding its genre, believing that it’s ephemeral, inconsequential, and stupid. Worse still, being branded a pop act is still used by some critics as a verbal shorthand to dismiss some acts out of hand without bothering to delve deeper into their ambitions or context.

And to me, this just seems goddamn wrong. Pop is a genre, not a qualifier, and it shouldn’t be used to denigrate an act one way or another, mostly because some of the best and most celebrated acts of all time have spent portions of their lifespans in the ‘pop’ consciousness. Just because said music might have a conventional structure or an accessible sound does not mean it can or should be castigated by critics who are constantly hunting for the newest eccentricity in the indie scene. In fact, I’d make the argument (again) that writing good pop music, the material that’s actually well-written and catchy and has staying power while remaining mainstream-accessible, is actually much more difficult than random independent experimentation, because you’re working within a framework that actively resists attempts to change or push boundaries. It’s also one reason I tend to like Lady Gaga’s writing methodology even if I don’t always like her music: she’s trying to make things weirder and more baroque, but she has the streak of populism to stay within the current pop consciousness.

So when I make the statement that Franz Ferdinand is an indie pop rock act, I don’t say it in order to blast the band. In fact, I’d make the argument that their pop-centric songwriting is one of the best features of their music and one of the factors that makes them the critically-acclaimed indie acts of the past decade, not to mention one of my favourites. This is a band that has a strong pop sensibility, particularly in the construction of their hooks, and they have the impeccable songwriting and energetic delivery that gives them a real presence in the pop landscape. Or, to put it as acclaimed critic Nathan Rabin described them:

Listeners might get older, but pop music always stays the same age. It’s never quite old enough to drink, legally that is. (But it still knows how to party!) The inclusion of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”... consequently feels like the birthday girl’s super-cool brother, who wears skinny jeans, does lot of coke, and spends several hours each morning trying to make his hairstyle look casual, crashing the party along with a smattering of his equally hip friends. It’s a terrific slice of 1979 New York (by way of Scotland)...

Pretty much, and indeed, if I was looking for an attitude to best describe Franz Ferdinand – that of a pop band with decidedly mature sensibilities and smarter songwriting – it would be that. So when the band exploded in 2004 (otherwise known as the first attempt for indie rock to break into the mainstream), it wasn’t really surprising that they were lumped with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Killers, Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, and others. Unlike most of the rest of these bands, Franz Ferdinand had a follow-up album waiting, and the second punch in 2005 with You Could Have It So Much Better was rougher, faster, and arguably even better. Like The Strokes on their first two albums, Franz Ferdinand had a unique sound (indie rock fused with a retro funk/disco blend that did ‘dance music with guitars’ far better than E.M.F. could have ever hoped for), hooks that were catchy as hell, and a lead vocalist with a lot of personality.

Unlike The Strokes, however, Franz Ferdinand were decent lyricists, and that led to their longevity persisting onto their third album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand in 2009, which many have deemed their weakest, yet still very strong in its own right. The songwriting was as strong as always, but to me the weaknesses were in the fact that the great hooks just weren’t there in the same way like they were back in 2004 or 2005. Sure, there was ‘Ulysses’ and ‘No You Girls’, but it started to feel like some of that spark was starting to fizzle. Worse still was the fact I got the feeling the band knew that spark was fading too, which led to their experimentation with electronic elements with mixed results.

So with all of that in mind, the band took another four years off and finally have come back with a new album this year. Has the time off been enough for the band to reclaim their spark?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

video review: 'doris' by earl sweatshirt

I can't honestly say this is one of my best reviews, but that's mostly because I still don't quite know how to feel with Earl Sweatshirt. Still, I tried to review the album and I think it turned out okay.

The album is pretty damn good too.

album review: 'doris' by earl sweatshirt

I have an odd relationship with Odd Future.

Keep in mind it's not like I dislike any of the associated acts, because for the most part, from what I've seen of Tyler The Creator and Frank Ocean, I've liked what I've seen. Hell, I was almost on the cusp of reviewing channel ORANGE last year, arguably one of the best albums to come out in 2012. But I didn't review channel ORANGE and I probably never will, mostly because it represents a bit of a strange problem I have when approaching Odd Future-associated acts: I have no idea how on earth I'm supposed to feel about them. 

Let me try to explain this. For starters, as good as Tyler The Creator can be, I'm not quite sure whether I should buy into the exaggerated elements of his persona or treat them almost as a parody. There's something strange about the way he delivers his lines that's very much unlike Hopsin or Eminem, who are straightforward and direct in their assaults - Tyler The Creator just seems oddly comfortable in the way he goes to shock, and once you get your brain on the same wavelength, he lacks the same ability to surprise. It's even not that I don't doubt that said things he's saying are true, either, but I'm not sure how I'm supposed to react to them, which adds that extra second where I pause to think about that, which kind of stifles my enjoyment of his material. I definitely appreciate the rawer, rougher production on his beats, but too often his flow does nothing to engage me and his content tends to feel strangely distant. 

Frank Ocean also tends to feel distant and isolated (except on heart-wrenching songs like 'Bad Religion'), but that was half of the point with channel ORANGE, most of which I remember listening to in a spaced-out haze of heat exhaustion wandering through the woods outside my house. I'd argue that on the sensory overload alone, channel ORANGE is an incredible success - which really does a disservice to the lyrics, which contain some of the most incredibly descriptive, cripplingly honest poetry put on record in a long time. Combined with the fact that channel ORANGE had plenty to say about the state of modern youth, sexuality, faith, and love, and I'm not surprised at all that people fell in love with the album.

And yet... for some reason, it never truly landed with me beyond a few songs. It's not an album I return to again and again, and for the life of me, I don't really understand why. I want to love it, but yet I feel distant from it, unable to truly connect. Part of it might be that so much of channel ORANGE feels alternatively very personal and then very disconnected from everyone, a bit of a passive observer in his own life. And strangely, I feel the same thing with Tyler The Creator as well, even despite he and Frank Ocean's wildly different deliveries and choices of subject matter. And while it might make for impeccable and effective artistic framing, it also can make for a bit of an odd listening experience that might have kept me away for this past year. 

So will the same be true of Earl Sweatshirt, the oft-absent member of Odd Future who has finally released his debut studio album Doris? Will this be the Odd Future member I finally connect with, or the first I must unfortunately consign to the trash?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

video review: 'paradise valley' by john mayer

Got to be honest, I'm pretty proud of this review, I think it came together well. In this review, I finally get my chance to take direct aim at John Mayer with his new album, and it's worth it. 

The album is pretty much crap, though.

album review: 'paradise valley' by john mayer

I don't like John Mayer.

I never really have, to be honest. Even since the beginning with a succession of critically acclaimed albums, I've never been a fan of the guy in any way, shape, or form. If I was being generous, I'd argue he's written maybe two songs that I like - three if I was pushing it. 

Now before the majority of you jump down my throat and call me just a troll who doesn't know what I'm talking about, let me explain this because, believe it or not, I do have a rationale for my dislike. For starters, John Mayer never really impressed me as a vocalist, particularly his range. He sounds very much like he's trying to imitate a softer post-grunge vocal technique, but the problem with singing in a hoarse, borderline rasp is that you do real damage to your vocal chords over time. And in comparison with most artists, he actually sounds better in his louder, higher range, when he's able to bring some energy to the table.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens, which leads to my second big problem with the guy: most of his music is mind-blowingly tedious. I've admitted a number of times that white guys with acoustic guitars aren't my thing, and John Mayer is one of the reasons why. While he's not a terrible guitarist, he's not exactly a virtuoso either and thus too often the melody lines of his songs sound very formulaic and similar to each other, which can make his albums get really boring really fast. This isn't helped by the fact that since he's limited his range thanks to his vocal delivery, his songs don't tend to modulate or grow or reach any sort of climax outside of a certain range of quiet reserve.

But on top of that, Mayer's hoarse delivery doesn't seem to lend itself well to truly emotional songs. Now I admit this might be a personal pet peeve (after all, I was informed that some people actually considered the emotions Luke Bryan conveyed were authentic), but to me there's a certain lack of 'closeness'. There always seems to be a certain guarded nature around Mayer's songs, that never really expose vulnerability, which immediately throws me off because it doesn't feel real. Place this in comparison with that sappy song from 2008 'Hey There Delilah' by The Plain White Ts. Now, I'll admit that song is clumsy, poorly written, and amateurishly performed, but it still manages to work for me better than the majority of John Mayer's discography because it feels genuine and sincere, emotions I have a hard time finding in Mayer's work.

Eventually, though, it all comes back to the songwriting, and I'll admit without shame that John Mayer is a much better songwriter than Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz. As I said, John Mayer has at least written songs I like ('Waiting On The World To Change' and 'Say'), but he's also written a whole ton of crap that doesn't hold up nearly as well. Part of the problem seems to be a serious lack of humour, as John Mayer delivers all of his songs with as much somber earnestness as his voice can allow. And I'll admit, at points it kind of works and I completely understand why so many people have fallen for this guy over the past decade - people respond well to that sort of thing.

But here's my sticking point: I don't buy John Mayer's sincerity in the slightest. Too often in his songs he paints himself as the sadsack loner who's just looking to serenade a girl with his guitar and oh-so-clever songwriting (most of which isn't nearly as clever as it likes to think it is). And really, that starts to come across as more than a little disingenuous when you discover that he's dated Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jessica Simpson, Minka Kelly, Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift, and now Katy Perry. And then coupled with that infamous Playboy interview in 2010 (which he attempted to brush off by saying he was just trying to be 'funny' before apologizing) and the scathing direct assault Taylor Swift launched with 'Dear John', it's hard to believe Mayer's attempts to sound romantic anymore. And yes, I will agree that Mayer is a better technical songwriter than Taylor Swift, but 'Dear John' at least sounds emotionally authentic and does a fairly apt job and describing who John Mayer really is behind the artifice. 

All of this comes together to paint an interesting, if unappealing, picture of John Mayer, reminiscent of that douchebag you meet in college who woos girls by strumming on his acoustic guitar (and is basically asking for a recreation of Animal House). And sure, I understand that's not the image he's trying to put forward of himself when he presents his material, but it's the same problem I have with Chris Brown: I can no longer separate the artist persona from the public persona in my mind, mostly because elements of said art only seem to reinforce that image!

But all of that being said, I do appreciate that John Mayer is at least trying to repair his image. I'll admit that his previous album Born And Raised was a little too self-aggrandizing, but maybe that was just a necessary transitory step. And hell, I've been surprised by acoustic acts earlier this year, maybe I'll get lucky twice. So how does John Mayer's new album Paradise Valley turn out?

Monday, August 19, 2013

video review: 'trap lord' by a$ap ferg

I talk about the new album from A$AP Ferg titled 'Trap Lord', and the reasons why trap music doesn't always work with me.

Oh, and outside of maybe two songs, the album's pretty mediocre. Sorry.

album review: 'trap lord' by a$ap ferg

Here's something you might not know: the term 'trap' often heard in rap and electronica is significantly different than you might think.

You see, in electronica and dubstep, 'trap' tended to refer to a specific type of instrumentation, complete with accelerating 808 drums, an excess of hi-hats, menacing string sections, and moody, darker layers of synthesizers. Now I'll admit right out of the gate that I'm not the biggest fan of this particular musical style, but I can definitely see its appeal, particularly when balanced out with the right lyrics. After all, cold, bleak minimalism can work if you have a performer with enough charisma or force of personality to back it up (which is rare enough in its own right, keep that in mind). 

Unfortunately, the definition of trap instrumentation is very different than what is typically considered 'trap' lyrics, which uses the term much more literally as a reference to the trapped lifestyles that many rappers struggled to escape, the traps created thanks to poverty, societal inequalities, or other such factors. And to be fair, the places where trap instrumentation and trap lyrics are balanced out can lead to some compelling symmetry within the song. Granted, it won't be much of my thing - to me, too much trap music goes for bombast over grit, which loses some texture - but I can appreciate it when it works.

The problem though, as one could easily say if looking at the Billboard Hot 100, is that this symmetry between trap instrumentation and lyrics rarely gets popular in a big way on the charts. Instead, many producers and rappers have co-opted the trap aesthetic and instrumentation to build their conventional rap songs about money, cars, and hos - and believe me, for often than not it doesn't work at all. This is actually for a fairly simple reason, believe it or not: it's hard to glamorize a lifestyle as attractive to the mainstream audience if you pair it with production and instrumentation that is bleak, dark, and makes it seem like the artist isn't having any fun. It makes the songs come across as astoundingly soulless to me, and often far darker than I suspect the artist intended. And sure, it'd be one thing if the rappers were looking to satirize their lives of partying and paint them as hollow or token, but it's clear that more often than not, they're entirely sincere.

And this isn't me coming down against vapid hip-hop either - when placed in the right context, superficial themes in hip-hop (or indeed any genre of music) can work just fine. Hell, this is all coming from the guy who'll defend crunk more than the majority of critics. As I've mentioned before, there's a place for shallow, hedonistic material, and while it might be indulgent, vacuous, or dumb as hell, it can occasionally be rather entertaining nonetheless (basically my general defense for most hair metal). The problem here doesn't come from the luxury raps, but the placement of said raps against a dour, humourless instrumentation that sucks away the possibilities of fun or awesome bombast.

So with all of that in mind, what could I hope to expect from A$AP Ferg, whose debut album is titled Trap Lord (very much analogous to T.I.'s Trap Muzik from 2003)? I've heard reasonable things about the guy from the underground, but I know exactly how much pressure to conform with the mainstream has ruined all too many rappers who had underground street cred. And while I wasn't intimately familiar with his mixtapes, I was a little encouraged that he somehow managed to dredge out Bone Thugs-n-Harmony from wherever they were and pull them onto the album. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

video review: 'trouble will find me' by the national

So, I normally post these as an edit to my typical review posts, but I want to try something new by having the videos on the main page. If you have any comments regarding the reviews, make sure to let me know whether or not you prefer the old format.

So, in case you didn't take a look at the written album review, this is my retrospective review of The National's album 'Trouble Will Find Me', and where I finally deliver the smackdown on Mumford & Sons. Fun stuff!

album review: 'trouble will find me' by the national (RETRO REVIEW)

So here's the rant you've all been waiting for, the topic of which I'm sure has been seared into your mind since the very beginning: why I, like apparently every other music critic, thoroughly hates Mumford & Sons with the hatred of a thousand suns. The faux-folk rock band that deserves to be consigned into the flaming abyss, the band that co-opted the image and earnestness of folk rock and turned it into shameless commercialism, clearly one of the worst acts to have every blighted this world today. And I, as a critic with reputably harsh standards, clearly must hate them with extreme force, right?

Well... no, not really. Make no mistake, Mumford & Sons aren't a good band, but they sure as hell aren't the scourge of all music as a slew of would-be hipsters have branded them. They have some natural talent for catchy-as-all-hell melody lines and memorable harmonies, they have a mostly distinctive sound, and they sell all of their material with gutwrenching sincerity (which, believe it or not, goes a long way with me). To me, I've consigned to the rung of 'painfully mediocre', right next to Nickelback (don't even start).

Hmm, come to think of it, Mumford & Sons does seem to strike me as rather similar to the post-grunge act that ruled the rock airwaves throughout the early 2000s. Both bands have a lead singer that sounds like he's delivering his lines directly from his colon, both were accused of selling out to the tasteless masses (believe it or not, this was actually true for very early Nickelback), and both made music that somehow lodged itself in our brains like tapeworms. 

But what I think is most indicative of the similarities between these two bands is a very important concept that I've been skirting about for a while, but haven't found the right time to talk about until now: artistic framing. This is most often conceived as a device for literature and film, where the context can be adjusted depending on how the scene is written or shot, and which can be used to powerful effect by talented directors and great writers. One of the reasons, for example, while many people despise Twilight isn't for the misogyny or the stalking or the Mormon undercurrents, but because said elements are framed in such a romantic light. In the hands of any sane writer, Bella's story could have easily been written as that of a thriller or a melodrama between a very stupid girl and her vampiric stalker, but Stephanie Meyer sets up these events to feel romantic and attractive to Bella, and thus the reader - you know, abandoning appropriate context in favour of the author's wish-fulfillment fantasy.

And believe it or not, this becomes a big issue in music as well. A lot of alarmists tend to look at acts like Eminem and Kanye West and see terrible, reprehensible human beings promoting messages of misogyny, homophobia, and violence - and yet both artists have made it clear from the very beginning that they aren't role models and that nobody should aspire to be like them (hell, Eminem wrote several songs about it). They (or at least their artistic personas) are assholes, and we shouldn't so much glorify them as recoil from or pity them (that's the one big reason that I give a pass to Relapse, an album that seems designed to make Slim Shady look as pathetic and wretched as possible). Of course, the question then becomes that some people will interpret the surface themes of the album anyways and follow their manifests of hatred anyways, but that's a trickier topic for another day.

So coming back to Mumford & Sons and Nickelback, the same problems with framing crop up here too (albeit significantly more with Mumford & Sons). We're expected to buy into these acts as having sensitivity and/or more heartfelt emotions, and it feels completely disingenuous with Nickelback's humourless and sour delivery and Mumford & Sons' consistently terrible lyrics. You don't buy into the emotions they're trying to convey because some element of their framing completely shatters that immersion. It's why I'd argue Nickelback has actually slowly been getting a bit better over the years: they've actually embraced the fact that they're douchebags, and are just rolling with it to create douche-bro party anthems that at least feel authentic (if a little gross).

Mumford & Sons, unfortunately, haven't quite reached that point of self-awareness, which I think is one of the big sticking points for me with the band. They deliver all of their material with the heartfelt earnestness of a man proposing marriage in the mid-1800s, but their lyrics are rife with lines that undermine this earnestness at every turn, which makes it look all the more like a pose (also, their music has little-to-no instrumental texture and the production is pop as all hell, but that's another issue). And more than once, I've wished that we could find that band that had all of the earnest sincerity of Mumford & Sons, but had the lyrical context and texture and was framed in a way that made sense or added additional depth.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to The National, the indie post-punk act for which I was waiting. Now I suspect that many of you actually already know this band (particularly if you watch Game of Thrones), but I just discovered this band and considering they're easily one of the best acts I've discovered in a long time, I want to talk about them at length. Make no mistake, considering my luck approaching indie acts this year, I was more than a little surprised by how incredibly solid The National was, particularly when placed in competition with their lesser contemporaries, and they pushed a lot of important buttons for me.

For starters, the lyrics were audible and high enough in the mix to make out, and occasionally there was some real emotive poetry hidden behind the clever turns of phrase. I wouldn't quite say it's as descriptive or lurid as that of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, but it's not trying to be either. The National is very much a 'mature' act, and like Deep Purple from earlier this year, they transform that maturity into a real strength that adds poignance to their lyrics. You can tell through the placement of the vocals that The National began as an alternative country act, and the importance placed on lyrics and the 'older' subject matter comes through here as well. More importantly, The National are smart enough to frame their songs intelligently, making sure that if their song's narrator could be interpreted as an asshole or a prick or a loser, he's appropriately positioned in that regard, supported by both lyrics and instrumentation. And considering how many songs The National writes about sad-sack losers who have screwed up their lives, they've nailed the formula down to a tee.

But what I find significantly more interesting with The National comes through on the other underlying theme of the majority of their work: upper class Americana, and the existential ennui that comes with it. Admittedly, The National do a very solid job speaking to all demographics, but with the highly literate songwriting and richer instrumentation, it's very clear they're targeting a certain college-aged yuppie hipster group within popular culture. And as with before, it comes back to the framing for why this works, both skewering the nastier elements of these subcultures (racism, classism, misogyny, antiquated value systems, etc.) and still writing music for the more perceptive of the audience to find the distinct sadness in said characters. In comparison to Vampire Weekend (who treat their privilege like a family heirloom only they are allowed to play with), The National are more blunt and don't hesitate to cast their narrators as just as sad, pathetic, desperate, and lonely as anyone else, and it's a testament to their excellent instrumentation that you're actually able to sympathize instead of scoff with derision at 'white people problems'.

All of that being said, I do have a few issues with The National. The band has occasionally recycled instrumental themes (which can get exasperating) and musical dynamics, which can lead to some songs running together. And as often as Matt Berninger has been compared to Nick Cave for his delivery and uncompromising framing, I'd argue he doesn't quite have the same emotional range in his voice that Cave does. Granted, he pulls off depressed and morose very well, but anger still occasionally seems like a foreign emotion to Berninger and that can get frustrating. On top of all of that, with similar thematic elements running through their previous five albums, it would be nice to see them switch up the formula, go for something darker or in a different vein entirely. Otherwise, it just feels like they lack imagination.

So, what do I think of their newest album, Trouble Will Find Me?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

album review: 'crash my party' by luke bryan

Let's talk a bit about supply and demand.

See, it's very basic economics that if you have a lot of demand and the supply stays constant, the price will go up. Similarly, if you keep the demand constant and increase the supply, the price will go down. And you might not believe it, but a similar conceit applies to music - if you have an influx of artists who are making similar versions of the same basic genre and no added increase in demand, how much people care about said artists will decrease. And if you think I'm kidding, think back to the boy band explosion of the late 90s or the crunk boom of the early 2000s - there might have been a few standouts, but the music industry pumped out a lot of very similar artists in order to capitalize on presumed trends.

And really, that's one of the few explanations I have for the current massive influx of male country acts on the pop charts right now. As of now, there are about twenty unique male country acts occupying spots on Billboard's Hot 100 - that's a fifth of the chart. In comparison, there are precisely two female country acts (Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift) and I have a hard time calling either of them pure country acts!

So how to explain this sudden influx? Well, if I were to hazard a guess, I suspect it might be partially linked to the indie rock explosion last year, where a more organic sound and 'greater authenticity' became more attractive to the mainstream public in the aftermath of the club boom. So at some point the industry executives looked up from their cocaine buckets and thought, "Well, we could go into the indie or folk rock scene and find some new acts - but oh man, they have distortion and a grittier sound and occasionally challenging subject matter and that just makes my brain hurt!" And then some bright young jackass in the board room thought, "Hey, what about those country guys? They're inoffensive and easy enough to market - we've been doing it for years, after all - and the country music scene is so polished it's practically pop anyways! Let's leave the folk rock to Mumford & Sons and Phillip Phillips, leave Kurt Vile twisting in the wind, and force Kacey Musgraves to tour with Kenny freaking Chesney if she wants to build any buzz! See, problem solved!"

Ugh. So there you have it, folks, the reason why we have over a dozen practically interchangeable male country acts dominating the charts. Sure, there's a few bright spots - Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley routinely have a fair amount of quality, and Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band will always get a few crossover hits - but certainly not many. The pandering insincerity of it all makes me sick, even if it doesn't surprise me.

And speaking of acts that don't surprise me and also kind of make me sick, let's talk about Luke Bryan.

Now let me qualify this a bit and say Luke Bryan is better than the majority of his peers. For starters, he actually has a personality, some charisma, and a distinctive voice that has country flavour. I wouldn't quite say he has a sense of humour in the vein of Brad Paisley or Toby Keith, but he's sincere enough and his delivery tends to be believable. His instrumentation is a bit more of a mixed bag, but occasionally can have some real texture and rock energy. And better yet, he doesn't tend to engage in the heavy-handed political moralizing that taints acts like Jason Aldean and Justin Moore, preferring to have a much smaller, more intimate focus (there is still some southern pandering, but it's a modern country album, there'll always be that out of Nashville). Hell, I'd even argue that he's a reasonably talented songwriter, at least on a technical level.

Here's my big problem, though: Luke Bryan can really be an asshole, sort of in the same vein as Adam Levine from Maroon 5. He's not nearly as catty, but there definitely can be that undercurrent of leering douchebaggery that really rubs me the wrong way, mostly because of the delivery and framing of the songs. Take 'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye' from his album Tailgates and Tanlines (which is just an album title that tells you more than you ever needed to know about Luke Bryan's priorities), which is basically 'One More Night' by Maroon 5 with a country twist. It's a song about a toxic relationship that only works when Bryan and his partner are having sex, but it's set up as being so romantic, when it reality it's unrealistic, sleazy, and a little misogynist, all traits that are amped to eleven on 'Country Girl (Shake It For Me)'. And look, I like my share of rap and hair metal debauchery, but when Luke Bryan tries to fuse in a call list of items of southern pride, it sounds both pandering and leering in the worst possible way. And then, of course, there's 'I Know You're Gonna Be There', where Luke Bryan cheats on his wife/girlfriend in plain sight of her just to make sure she still cares about him, with no consideration for his wife or the other girl (who he flat out admits he doesn't care about), and it's another song that's framed as him just testing her love. I honestly shouldn't have to explain everything that's wrong with that. (EDIT: I'm been informed by a trusted source that my interpretation of 'I Know You're Gonna Be There' is likely incorrect, with Bryan not referring to a current relationship, but an ex-girlfriend he's not over. I'm still of the opinion it doesn't make things better.)

But with all of that being said, I took a look at Luke Bryan's newest album Crash My Party, curious to see if some of the texture and good songwriting I liked made it over and the asshole behaviour had been dropped. For once, did I get lucky?

YouTube review after the jump

Sunday, August 11, 2013

an open letter to prime minister stephen harper

To Prime Minister Stephen Harper,

My name is Mark Grondin. I am twenty-three years old, a Canadian citizen living in Toronto, and at one point in my life, I was a member of The Conservative Party of Canada. I have voted for you, Mr. Prime Minister. And though we disagree on many points, I have respected you for your intelligence, your stances on certain policy, and your shrewd politics.

Which is why, today, I am calling upon you to boycott the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and call for a relocation of the Olympic Games to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

I am sure at this point, you are aware of the gross human rights abuses currently exploding across Russia targeting the LGBT community. You have likely heard of Stephen Fry's plea to his Prime Minister David Cameron to take a stance against Vladimir Putin and his autocratic, wholly corrupt reign that allows grotesque atrocities to take place within his nation. I do not care that said atrocities may have popular support within Russia, and that such prejudice and homophobia may be condoned by both the Kremlin and the Russian majority. The world community has grown large and will continue to grow, and if Russia wants to be included in that community and hold a place of respect in that community by hosting the Olympic Games, they must shed the backwards-looking bigotry that serves no purpose other than rancorous hatred.

I will not attempt to appeal to your emotions, Mr. Prime Minister. At this point, I'm sure those appeals have been made and discarded. Instead, I will put forward the following reasoned points that will show not only will this will be the right choice, but will benefit you, the Conservative Party, and Canadians as a whole. You have protected the rights of the LGBT community within Canada by blocking bills from your own party to restrict them, and even if the intent is only to secure your reelection, it is still the right choice to make. 

To begin, you have always made your position clear regarding your support for our men and women in uniform. The athletes that Team Canada is sending to Russia this year wear our uniform, and will put their bodies through grueling challenges in the greatest test of their lives. They have trained for years for this opportunity, and now some may have justly founded fears that they may be targeted for their sexuality before they have a chance to take to the slopes or the ice. Furthermore, there are Canadian citizens travelling to Sochi to watch and support our athletes, non-combatants who may be walking into territory that may be hostile to them. Should they have to cower or conceal who they are because of thuggish brutes who might kidnap, rape, torture, or kill them, all under the negligent eye of an autocrat? You know the answer to that, Mr. Prime Minister - you took an oath of office to stand for the safety and protection of all Canadians, including those abroad, including those who wear our flag and represent us on the world stage.

But it is not just the safety of our people, Mr. Prime Minister, but of athletes across the world from many nations who might feel in danger setting foot in Sochi - which is why I have put forward the option of Vancouver. We already have the facilities in place, and it would not require work to get them in top condition. We are one of the few nations that have that ability. And while it would be expensive, you and I both know that the economic stimulus thanks to tourism, business investment, and tax revenue to the Canadian economy through hosting this event would be a great boon to us. According to the Olympic Games Impact report conducted by the University of British Columbia, a conservatively estimated fifty million dollars was collected in tax revenue alone! Once again, we could increase Canada's economic stature on the world stage, something in which you have a vested interest. We can show the world yet again that Canada is a place of solace and safety and freedom, regardless of your race, gender, or sexuality.

And this boon is not just confined to Canada as a whole, Mr. Prime Minister. If you choose to lead your party towards this option, you will gain political capital across Canada and the world. You will show that not only will we refuse to stand along side those who advocate abhorrent and repugnant policy, but that we are offering a better alternative on our shores. You will be a leader not just of our country, but of the world, one willing to take that first, lonely step forward in favour of truth, justice, and the protection of human rights. This would be an opportunity for the Canadian government to take a stand and affirm our commitments to the protection of our citizens abroad and the preservation of higher principles we hold sacrosanct.

We will pay a diplomatic cost for this. The Russian government will not look favourably upon this. We will likely pay something of an economic cost for this as well. And there may even be a political cost for this at home, from within your own party or by those who will make the timid assertion that we should not take international action like this without the unilateral support of our allies, or that we should focus on issues within our borders before bothering to look out. You know all this, Mr. Prime Minister, and that is why as of this recording you have made statements disapproving of the Russian policy, but nothing more. President Obama has made similar statements, but he can do little at this time - the United States' international political capital is running dry in Russia. If you choose to take this step, for a moment, you may stand alone.

But that is the role of the leader. That is his purpose. The position of a man strong in his convictions and courage, his eyes clear and his gaze unwavering. Such a man knows that there is a time for words, but when words prove ineffective, action is required - and this is the time for action. We are one of the few nations on this planet that can take this action, Mr. Prime Minister, and rest assured, there will be others that will follow if you choose to lead. I know you hold respect towards the annals of history, and the great men who have led us, and you may have questioned how you might be remembered as time marches onward.

This is one such way history is made, Mr. Prime Minister, by those willing to put money and action where their mouths are and show courage to stand against those who have betrayed their oaths of office and willfully endangered the lives of their own populace. I have never doubted your courage of convictions, Mr. Prime Minister, and I know you have integrity. Now is your chance to prove it to not just to me, or to your party, or to your electorate, but the world.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt: "The credit belongs to those people who are actually in the arena... who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions to a worthy cause; who at best, know the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Step into the arena, Mr. Prime Minister. Stand against tyranny and persecution so that lives might be saved. Make history.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

album review: 'monomania' by deerhunter (RETRO REVIEW)

Let me talk to you about a pet peeve of mine: when people say 'the lyrics don't matter'.

I've gotten this comment from a number of people, and it's often followed by 'I just listen to the music, I don't care about the lyrics'. And you know, there's a bit of an argument there - ultimately, the musical compositions should be what we get behind, the instrumentation and production that composes the elements of the song, the strength of the vocalist's delivery when singing. And a lot of critics have done very well in the field of describing what works and what doesn't about said compositions, pointing out the individual elements that come together to create the music.

But here's my huge problem with this: the lyrics are still part of the song. Somebody still sat down and wrote them to fit the instrumentation, or composed the instrumentation to match with the lyrics. If the lyrics didn't matter at least a little to the artists, why don't they just fill the vocals of their track with vocal gymnastics or general incoherence? Why don't they just use nonsense words if the lyrics don't matter?

Well, the thing is, most musicians do care about lyrics - it's arguably the most straightforward way in which they can communicate their message (if they have one). Sure, you can draw interpretations from the instrumentation, particularly through the consideration of contextual sampling (see: Kanye West, The Beastie Boys, Eminem, etc.) and discuss the emotions and thoughts the artists are attempting to evoke, but the most direct way in which they communicate their message are the lyrics, and as a critic, it should be my role to interpret, explain, and analyze that message. You know, do some legwork in discerning the artistic intent and then explaining whether or not the execution of said intent actually worked.

But too often, I've seen too many critics fall into the trap of just describing what the music is. They talk about the sound that the music creates and maybe scratch the surface of the message informed by the lyrics, and even then, that particular deeper analysis is cursory at best. That's not being a critic, that's being an observer with a thesaurus. And I'll admit it, this underlying peeve is why I tend to have more acceptance for country and pop music: sure, the lyrics might be shallow or vapid or incredibly stupid, but at least they matter in the mix (particularly in country music, where less emphasis is on instrumentation and more on lyrics). 

On the same note, a lot of indie rock that opts to bury the lyrics deep at the back of the mix where they're borderline unintelligible really frustrates me. Without lyrical context, i feel like I'm grasping at straws to interpret or criticize the material, and I'm stuck asking why they're burying the vocals instead of actually paying attention to the instrumentation - instead of taking in the entire musical piece, I'm stuck listening for one component. Let me also stress that this is different than dirty vocals (like what you see in black metal and death metal) - that's a vocal style that's intended to sound threatening or scary, and once you get a handle on how to listen to those vocals, the lyrics are often easy enough to make out. But there are some bands who bury their lyrics under vocal effects  and distortion where I can't make out what they're saying without pulling up the lyrics online - and in those cases, I get why many music critics will just throw up their hands and talk about the band's 'sound' (the unfortunate problem is that too often the band gets critical acclaim based off the sound alone). 

So with all of that in mind, I was left distinctly dissatisfied when I started going through Deerhunter's discography in preparation for reviewing their newest album Monomania, particularly with their debut (unfortunately titled 'Turn It Up F****t'). It was an album dedicated to their late bassist Justin Bosworth, and has been repeatedly disowned by lead guitarist and singer Bradford Cox. I'm glad he thinks that way, mostly because putting aside the title, this album is terrible. It's clearly a case of instrumentation trumping any coherent vocals (considering there wasn't any due to terrible binaural recording techniques, it wasn't much of an accomplishment), and when looking up the lyrics, I can understand why: it was a load of trite, overwrought, teenage nonsense.

Fortunately, the band did mostly learn from that with their follow-up Cryptograms, which cleaned up some of the vocals and was generally much stronger (the second half was better than the first). I'll admit that Deerhunter does an excellent job creating expansive psychedelic soundscapes, but in cleaning up the vocals, Deerhunter exposed the lyrics, which might dance around the themes of 'death and companionship', but rarely coalesced into any coherent or all that impactful. This is mostly due to Bradford Cox's stream-of-conscience delivery, which led to interesting enough ideas, but nothing all that meaningful. 

Their third album Microcastle took things a step further and cleaned up the production even further, moving towards an even tighter focus and great accessibility. Logically, this should make the album my favourite of the three thus far, but these choices also exposed an uglier theme of the album: self-absorption to the point of myopia and paranoia, and a Peter Pan complex that could rival that of Billy Joe Armstrong. Yes, I get that Bradford Cox has had many brushes with death thanks to his genetic condition Marfan Syndrome, but his repeated refusals to grow up or properly deal with how his life will inevitably progress (even to the point of denigrating those who have grown up and who will 'wait to grow old') shows an astounding lack of maturity. Granted, this attitude was visible on his debut, but it rears its head in a big way on Microcastle, showing how he'd be most comfortable sealing himself away in a bubble, away from reality and consequence. 

And you know, this would actually be tolerable if the framing of this individualist vision had context or deeper insight or showed an iota of self-awareness - and for a few moments on Deerhunter's Weird Era Cont. (their follow-up the same year after Microcastle leaked very early), fragments of that context appears... but it's also on this album that Deerhunter returned to bad habits and shoved the vocals to the absolute back of the mix where it would be impossible to hear. At this point, I nearly threw up my hands and gave up, and if it wasn't for the strong instrumentation, I would have stopped listening to Deerhunter entirely.

Fortunately, I didn't give up - and good thing too, because their follow-up 2010 album Halcyon Days was probably my favourite of their discography thus far. Not only do they make the vocals audible, Cox actually executes a thematic throughline surprisingly well, various associated memories of discovering new music. Sometimes they were thrilling, sometimes they were chilling, but all of which were emotional and inspired a reaction that had context and made sense. It's one of the few places I argue Cox's stream-of-conscience lyrics actually work, because they fit the moment-by-moment flow of the album. Yes, the album is still self-indulgent at points (and also weirdly 'flat' at points in production - for a band so frequently trying to sound big, Deerhunter sure has a hard time getting it right), but the instrumentation was stronger than ever (drawing a lot of influence from 60's rock) and Cox showed signs of improvement. 

And thus, in the end, I was enthused going into Monomania - could it be even better than its predecessor and surprise me all the more?

Youtube review after the jump

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

album review: 'imps of perversion' by pop. 1280

You're all forgiven for not knowing who this band is.

Hell, it wasn't that long ago when I had no idea who this group was. If you're looking for acts flying completely under the radar, Pop. 1280 might just be one of the quintessential examples. Signed to Sacred Bones (an indie label out of, where else, Brooklyn), a criminally underwritten Wikipedia page, and with a reputation for abrasive, grimy gothic noise rock, Pop. 1280 certainly aren't attracting the type of critical buzz that I'd normally pick up upon. The only reason I think The AV Club bothered to review the album is because it's the beginning of August and there's barely anything else coming out until John Mayer and Chris Brown decide to simultaneously ruin the summer in one fell swoop.

So why am I bothering to review Pop. 1280's newest album Imps Of Perversion instead of continuing with my retrospectives of other acts that already came out this year? Two reasons: I still need a bit more time to go through Deerhunter's discography for when I talk about Monomania; and more importantly, the fact that Pop. 1280 describes itself as a 'cyberpunk' act.

This immediately caught my attention, because the whole 'cyberpunk' brand used to be a lot more prevalent in the 80s and 90s, with a unique aesthetic drawn from the goth, punk, and raver scenes. Heavily linked to dystopian fiction, cyberpunk tended to have underlying themes of youth fighting against corrupt institutions of the past, the balance between humanity and technology, corporate capitalism running rampant, the abuse of biotechnology, and a lot of interesting ideas that tended to get buried beneath the bondage leather and the excuse to have fetish models pop up in B-list action movies. The sad fact that outside of some critically acclaimed anime, some solid video games, a few decent table-top RPGs, a couple superb novels (often by William Gibson), and Blade Runner, there's a whole ton of crap in the cyberpunk genre that can't even hope to be intellectually engaging or interesting besides cheap masturbatory thrills. 

And nowhere is this more apparent than in music. Sure, Bowie managed to make a decent pseudo-cyberpunk album in the mid-90s with Outside, and Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero did attempt a more politically charged venture into cyberpunk trends, but most music attempting to tap into 'cyberpunk' culture failed pretty disastrously. The most egregious example was Billy Idol's catastrophic album Cyberpunk, which thoroughly destroyed whatever was left of his career. Having relistened to that album recently - and believe me, it hasn't aged well in the slightest - I think I've managed to pin down why it failed: it only grasped the surface gloss of what cyberpunk was, instead of digging into the meatier ideas beneath it.

And really, when I took a look at Pop. 1280's first album The Horror, I was optimistic. After all, there's plenty of untapped potential in cyberpunk, and if we're looking for a modern generation where cyberpunk might hold some relevance to youth, it's right now. Think about all of the themes I mentioned before and compare them to current trends right now. Double-digit unemployment, corrupt corporate overreach, disaffected youth lacking direction and seeking release however they can, these are real things for my generation, and Pop. 1280 could have made a challenging and essential album to speak to these real problems...

And they didn't do that. Their 2012 album The Horror instead opted to imitate the cheap thrills of the cyberpunk aesthetic and blend them with lyrics cribbed from a bad nu-metal songbook. I will give credit to bassist John Skultrane and Zac Ziemann's drumming for managing to build a firm foundation for the better songs, but there's very little built on top of that foundation that's worth talking about. The guitarwork by Ivan Lip is biting and distorted and occasionally builds up with monstrous energy, but with a lack of a driving tune and little chord variation, I couldn't help but lose interest in the material very quickly. Chris Bug's vocals might strive to imitate early Nick Cave, but lacking the dynamics or the air of menace, he comes across like a post-grunge singer attempting to sound dangerous or scary, neither of which I bought. And not only was the technical songwriting rudimentary at best, the lyrics forsook the more interesting ideas in cyberpunk and opted for cheap, schlocky attempts at scares with little subtlety or pacing. In comparison to anything Nick Cave has done (or The Flaming Lips' similarly titled album The Terror from earlier this year), Pop. 1280 couldn't help but look out of their depth, particularly with the lifeless and flat production work that did nobody any favours.

But that being said, I'm willing to give Pop. 1280 a second chance - debut albums are always tough to get right. So how does their follow-up Imps Of Perversion turn out?

Youtube review after the jump

Monday, August 5, 2013

album review: 'silence yourself' by savages (RETRO REVIEW)

I didn't get into punk music the 'typical' way. I wasn't given an old punk record by a family member or dropped into that particular music scene by a group of friends or attended a party or concert where said music was being played. No, pretty much any exploration of punk music - and indeed of underground culture from the mid-70s to, well, now was entirely a self-driven endeavour.

Funnily enough, I started looking into punk from one of the harder-edged scenes on the fringes of the genre: anarcho-punk. Coming out of an anarchistic high school phase, I was actively listening to Chumbawamba and started to get intrigued about their contemporaries. So one day, I picked up two four-disc collections that I highly recommend to this day as a great sampler of music of the time: No Thanks! The 70s Punk Revolution and Left Of The Dial: Dispatches From The 80s Underground. And I honestly can't count the number of bands I got into thanks to these two multi-disc sets, exposing me to several entire genres of music that I had never heard on mainstream radio or any of the clubs I frequented.

Interestingly, there was only genre that seemed to span both disc collections - and it wasn't punk music. No, it was the dark, brooding, complex, oft-inaccessible genre of post-punk, composed of the leftovers of the punk revolution and a gateway to all manner of weird, twisted music that I fell in love with instantaneously. These were acts like Wire, Bauhaus, Sonic Youth, The Sisters Of Mercy, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Television, Joy Division, The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Chameleons, and more. These are among some of the most critically acclaimed acts of the 70s and 80s, and they pushed the envelope of music further than ever before.

It's not entirely surprising, then, that as 70s nostalgia returned through this year (to say nothing of the rise of darker, industrial-flavoured music across the charts), post-punk would make a return appearance. But while Nick Cave did release a mind-blowing album this year with Push The Sky Away, it wasn't so much a post-punk revival album as a moody piece of atmosphere alternative rock from an elder statesman of the movement. 

Instead, we got a debut album from a new act that had been swelling in the underground since 2011, just waiting to explode with a mission statement scrawled in block capitals.

The band was simply called Savages, the debut album was titled Silence Yourself, and it is goddamn awesome.

Youtube review after the jump

Sunday, August 4, 2013

album review: 'wakin on a pretty daze' by kurt vile (RETRO REVIEW)

Believe it or not, I don't go into albums looking to hate them or bash them. One of the reasons I review a lot of material is because I'm looking to be surprised or caught off-guard by something of shockingly good quality. I want to find that special album that blows my mind in a dozen conceivable ways. And more importantly, to quote Abed from Community, 'I like liking things'. Hell, at the beginning of the year, you probably couldn't have told me that one of the most pleasant surprises of the year was a 4-part album from a white female rapper called Skitszo, but Colette Carr's debut album was actually surprisingly decent.

That being said, it's extremely difficult to not immediately form an opinion in your mind about what an act will sound like when you first hear about them, and I'll admit that can adjust your expectations in one way or another. I'll admit that going into critically-acclaimed indie rock albums, I tend to have a sharper critical opinion than, say, a Backstreet Boys album. And knowing my own tastes, if anything, makes it all the worse, as my ability to prejudge material is all the sharper.

So when I heard about Kurt Vile's new album, it was hard not to immediately cast more than a few judgments on the guy without even hearing a single song. A critically acclaimed, Pitchfork-adored lo-fi indie rocker primarily on a laid-back guitar with hazy, borderline incomprehensible vocals and lyrics that could only pretend to make sense on a good day? You bet your ass i prejudged the hell out of this guy and very nearly decided to ignore this album entirely. As I've said before, I don't have a lot of patience for white guys with acoustic guitars, and if they're half-stoned or have pretensions to depth, that limited amount of patience drops to a critical low. And sure, there's Beck, but he proved to have extraordinary amounts of talent, both in instrumentation and songwriting (to say nothing of his particular brand of insanity), and I can't say many of the lo-fi acts that followed in his wake did much to blow me out of the water.

And so before reviewing Kurt Vile's Wakin On A Pretty Daze, an album title that just screamed stoner indie rock in the worst possible way, I took a deep breath and plowed through this guy's discography, prepared for song after song of bland, pretentious nothing that I'd be able to jettison out my mental airlock the second it was over.

I didn't get that, and believe me, that was as much of a surprise as anything. Even as I say this, I'm still a little flummoxed why Kurt Vile works while so many other act like him have either bored or infuriated me. And while I wouldn't quite call myself a fan of his material, I found myself liking much more of his songs than I actively disliked.

Let's start with the songwriting, which is arguably the spot I would have come down hardest if he had been any of his contemporaries - and while there is a certain profundity that shows up in his material, there were more nuggets of insight in his ramblings than I expected. It's almost impossible to know how many levels of irony or sarcasm Kurt Vile might be operating on, which adds a layer of ambiguity to his presentation I found intriguing. On top of that, he doesn't tend to leap into the trap of acoustic love songs - hell, I don't even think Kurt Vile could record a truly effective love song even if he tried. Most of that comes down to his delivery, which I would describe as something of a cross between Beck and Wayne Coyne if the latter was actively smoking pot over dropping acid. And while he does abuse vocal affects and reverb more than most, it contributes excellently to a certain atmosphere that completely justifies Kurt Vile's appeal.

You see, I'd almost hesitate to call Kurt Vile an acoustic act - a lot of his material might have roots in acoustic rhythmic guitar, but it is often swallowed up in distortion and static that permeates the track, creating a rich expansiveness that still manages to feel organic and real. It may flirt with psychedelia at points, but that's only to suit the hazy, dusty feel of the tracks. Many critics have drawn connections between Vile and the gritty guitar-based singer-songwriters of the 60s and early 70s, and I can definitely buy into that aesthetic, particularly when it feels as authentic as it does.

And, of course, it helps that Kurt Vile is a gifted instrumentalist and songwriter all on his own. The guitar lines are often mesmerizingly simple, but contain enough shifts and complexity to keep me wanting more, and the natural free-flowing nature of the writing is a perfect fit for it. I'm reminded of Kacey Musgraves in a very good way, and like with her, they share the same affection for downbeat, rural Americana that feels all too real, particularly because Vile doesn't hold back from including himself in his message. It feels like the events in Vile's songwriting could have really happened to him, or are thoughts coming from a real place, and that does wonders for the atmosphere of the album.

That being said, I do have my gripes with Kurt Vile, particularly considering the fact he seems to be losing some of that richer instrumental texture with more recent albums. The distortion is peeled back, the vocals are cleaner, everything feels that much more polished, and I don't feel that's the greatest choice for preserving the atmosphere. But on the other hand, it does do wonders for exposing the smarter elements of Vile's songwriting, which I do appreciate, even though I wish more of that distorted grit would return. So does Wakin On A Pretty Daze deliver on that?

Youtube review after the jump

Saturday, August 3, 2013

album review: 'neon' by jay sean

For most of this week, I was seriously considering not doing this review.

And really, it's not like I'd be alone in this particular endeavour. To say this album has been overlooked is understating it. On this album's Wikipedia entry, there are precisely two reviews, and both of them barely scratch the surface of cursory and token. Pitchfork ignored this album entirely. Instead of reviewing this album, the AV Club opted to review the new Backstreet Boys album. And sure, I covered the Backstreet Boys album, but that's because I'm a fan and I cover pop music more than the majority of critics. Keep that in mind - the guy who bothered to review, 3OH!3, and Selena Gomez nearly made the choice to completely ignore this guy.

Now some of you might be asking why on earth so many critics are apathetic towards this new album. To explain that, you need to understand the events in the pop music scene of about four years ago - namely, Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna. While it provided ample fodder for the tabloids, the less-spoken-of fact was it also created a certain tumult in the industry. Suddenly the world had woken up to the fact that not only was Chris Brown's musical output painfully mediocre, but that he was also a generally awful human and thus wouldn't sell the same number of records (Jay Z's quiet sabotage to Brown's career notwithstanding). And when Chris Brown's album Graffiti flopped, record executives got desperate to replace the woman-beating Usher-wannabe that had been bankrolling their eleventh yacht.

So throughout 2009 and 2010, we got bombarded by a host of young R&B acts looking to take Chris Brown's place. Some, like Trey Songz and arguably Taio Cruz, managed to construct something of a personality and have a bit of staying power, while others (Iyaz and that talentless hack Jason Derulo) scraped by through having no talent or personality whatsoever, manufactured pop stars in everything but name. And it was somewhere in the middle of all of this that we get our pop star of today, a British-Indian R&B singer who called himself Jay Sean. 

Now to be completely honest, I've never had a problem with this guy. I can't exactly call him great, but he's never been offensive or unlistenable, and I can't say either of his two hits ('Down' and 'Do You Remember') were anything worth hating. However, that's also indicative of part of the problem. Jay Sean isn't bad, he's boring, the sort of studio-produced pop/R&B creation who is pleasant enough to hear but immediately forgotten afterwards. And sure, that might have worked well enough when trying to replace the greatest dearth of charisma in music, but since Chris Brown came back, what has Jay Sean done to make himself distinctive or interesting or worth talking about? And as most music critics will tell you, there's nothing worse than reviewing an act that doesn't have the slightest iota of personality.

But with that being said, I eventually decided that I should at least say something or give this guy a bit of a chance. I mean, somebody probably put money into this album, and I figured that solitary producer might be curious to hear what the critical press has to say as he looks up from the cocaine bucket. And like it or not, I'm one of the few critics who actually tends to give pop music more of a chance. So how did Jay Sean's new album Neon turn out?

Youtube Review after the jump

Friday, August 2, 2013

album review: 'shaking the habitual' by the knife (RETRO REVIEW)

Consider, if you will, minimalism.

Now you might think, with my general appreciation for acts like Meat Loaf and Nightwish and Blind Guardian and The Killers and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, that I tend to favour music that's overblown, overwrought, and generally made with a larger 'scope' in mind. And I won't lie that I do like songs in this vein more often than not - hell, I'll give a pass to Andrew W.K. for his maximalist aesthetic, even though his lyrics tend to have less substance than an empty bucket made of air. And it's not surprising that a lot of critics tend to snub acts that go for broke with a lack of abandon and complete sincerity - these acts are often deemed lowbrow or pandering to baser sensibilities. And sure, in some cases that is definitely the case, but I'd argue there's a method to writing that hyperbolic material well (the difference, for example, between Fall Out Boy's Folie A Deux and their newest album Save Rock and Roll, an album I like less and less as a cohesive whole every time I listen to it).

Likewise, minimalism often shares a similar differentiation of quality, but the distinction of being able to accomplish this aesthetic is a little subtler than its louder counterpart (the line of sincerity tends to be more sharply defined at higher volumes). Minimalism typically works through reduction, scaling back certain elements in order to draw attention and emphasis to others, or in order to create an atmosphere of emptiness and space. One of the reasons Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds succeeded so brilliantly this year with Push The Sky Away is because he utilized the minimalist style to both create a foreboding, expansive atmosphere and to draw attention to the oblique lyrics. It was no surprise that some critics panned the album in response, especially considering Nick Cave spent so much of his career overwhelming the senses that people considered his brand of minimalism dull. In other words, they completely missed the point.

Now that's not to say minimalism can't be done badly. On the contrary, it can be argued that minimalist efforts often have a much greater chance of failure than those that simply choose to go for broke on all cylinders. I've spoken before of my distaste for music in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' or 'white chick with piano' vein, and their poor usage of minimalism is often the reason why. In choosing to pull back and limit their instrumentation, they draw much tighter attention to the singer and the lyrics, and the swathe of trite, pretentious garbage that spews forth is evidence enough that these singer-songwriters just don't have anything worth saying. 

And more often than not, too much minimalist material fails simply because the musical atmosphere lacks texture and thus gets very boring very fast. Let's take James Blake's Overgrown as an example where the minimalism worked - but it only worked because Blake's careful control of the atmosphere and soulful delivery nailed the tricky balance between atmospheric and intimate. And it's a tough balance to nail - I can think of more than a few albums that don't manage to hit that sweet spot, particularly in electronica and modern hip-hop. 

So with all of that in mind, let's talk about the Swedish electronica duo The Knife, a band that takes electronic minimalism and turns it into something else entirely.

Now I'll admit right out of the gate that The Knife had a bit of a steep road to climb with me, as electronica acts (particularly those heralded by Pitchfork and music critics and pretty much only them) that tend towards tight, carefully positioned beats aren't normally my thing. And coupled with Karin Dreijer Andersson's borderline intolerable singing (she reminds me of a cross between Joanna Newsom and a screechier Tegan Quin) and the duo's tendency towards oblique, barely comprehensible lyrics, I was fairly certain this band would wear out their welcome faster than ever. And really, if I was looking to find a band with little-to-no mainstream appeal, the kind that would brand me as a hipster instantly upon mention, The Knife would leap to the top of my list. They certainly weren't doing anything to make themselves accessible or radio-friendly, that's for damn sure.

And yet, going through their discography (particularly their 2006 album Silent Shout), I started to understand the appeal of The Knife. Despite the clipped, clattering beats at the very top of the mix, the band had an expansive sound that sucked me in more often than not. The juxtaposition between Andersson's vocals and those her partner Olof Dreijer's did a fair amount to win me over (although the occasionally off-tune screeching got intolerable more than once). But what ultimately won me over were the lyrics - there's a real bleak darkness and unsettling atmosphere to their poetry that has flavour and real personality, and while I wouldn't call them technically strong lyricists, they are smart enough to convey some potent material. Yes, they've made mistakes - sometimes big ones - but overall, their good material has tended to outweigh the bad (with 'Marble House' being the immediately recognizable standout from Silent Shout and a goddamn impressive song).

So when I heard that the act was, again, accruing critical acclaim from critics and Pitchfork alike for their new album, I was interested. After numerous solo ventures, The Knife had finally reunited for their first venture on their own in seven years. How did it turn out?

Youtube review after the jump