Thursday, November 28, 2013

video review: 'knock madness' by hopsin

Okay, that takes care of November album releases, and it ends on a good note. Time to catch up on as much material as I can before early December, wish me luck!

album review: 'knock madness' by hopsin

Before we start, I want to take care of a brief piece of old business from one of my most viewed - and most openly reviled - reviews, when I covered Cage's album Kill The Architect. Since that review, I've relistened to that album several times, trying to see what others clearly found so inspirational and powerful that they felt content to hurl all manner of abuse at me, and I'd like to make a small correction to that review, as I feel I didn't quite represent myself as well as I could have. In that review, I drew several comparisons to Eminem's Encore (which with its reflective themes, depressing tone, and bleak ambiance, to say nothing of the awful singing, felt more than appropriate) and I made the comment that Cage had lost his ability to shock me in his raps. Some took umbrage to that by stating that Cage wasn't trying to do that on this album, instead opting for an introspective focus and message (even though there were enough sinister elements that could easily be construed as threatening...). 

And here's where I feel I have to make a clarification: my issue with Kill The Architect was never the change in subject matter or tone, moving towards what some would argue more 'mature' subject matter. My issue was that it didn't resonate with me as compelling, half because Cage's delivery was more low-key and lacking in energy than ever, and half because the insights he was providing into his current state of affairs felt strangely muted and distant. It was an awkward fit for the guy, and while some might empathize with his inner turmoil (and hell, there were points where I did), it felt like steps taken in a downward spiral without the slightest desire to climb back up. And as I've said time and time again, nihilistic artwork can get boring or absolutely intolerable if there's no deeper context or nuance. In contrast, Nine Inch Nails and The National both made dark, somewhat depressing albums this year, but they tempered their depression with rich context and compelling instrumentation and coherent focus, none of which I felt Cage brought to the table.

But this prompted an interesting question: most critics tend to be harsher on acts that shift their artistic direction and subject matter from their established formulas. Hell, I'd argue I'm even somewhat guilty of this, so why do we do it? Well, part of it is obviously linked to comfort with the familiar, but I think a greater portion is that when artists decide to shift direction, critics have an automatic expectation that the artist is knowledgeable enough about the genre that they can execute the shift and still maintain their artistic strengths (which can be unfair). And to be fair, not a lot of artists can pull that off. 

So instead, let's talk about an artist who seemed to be on the right track: Hopsin. A reasonably new arrival to the scene, he's an L.A. rapper who drew a lot of his inspiration and flow from Eminem for his first releases, which had trace elements of horrorcore fused with straightforward, hard-hitting hip-hop. But in 2012, he released Ill Mind of Hopsin 5, a charged track targeting trends in youth today with vitriol and biting insight. It was a phenomenal change of pace and it showed that Hopsin had potential for societal commentary beyond his previous work. But then he released Ill Mind of Hopsin 6: Old Friend (later retitled as 'Old Friend') earlier this year, and I didn't like it quite as much. Sure, it felt genuine and emotionally grounded, but the sharp anti-drug screed felt less like it was appealing to my mind and more trying to tug on my heartstrings (particularly with Hopsin's delivery), and I felt it was a step down artistically from the previous track. It shows one of the occasional weaknesses of message-driven music: jettisoning the nuance in favour of broader emotional messaging that might prove more accessible to a wider audience, but doesn't quite contain the same punch or impact (at least for me). 

And thus, I wasn't quite sure what to expect with his most recent album Knock Madness. Recorded over a period of two years, how was Hopsin going to reflect his dramatic shifts in direction over his recording period?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

video review: 'danielle bradbery' by danielle bradbery

This was a nice surprise, I actually didn't hate this album. Next up is Hopsin, and then I'm going to cover a few albums I missed earlier this year before covering Britney Spears.

Sadly, one of them won't be Chris Brown - the asshole delayed his album to 2014. COWARD.

album review: 'danielle bradbery' by danielle bradbery

Okay, let's try this again. 

Back when I reviewed Cassadee Pope's long-delayed debut album Frame By Frame, I made the point that I didn't really watch NBC's The Voice, half because I don't have a TV and half because I've never cared. To me, it was yet another reality show with an overcomplicated competition narrative between a selection of big-name stars using their 'proteges' to win over their colleagues. The question I don't think anyone was prepared to answer was how on earth The Voice would help the careers of the new acts they were promoting.

Well, it did what its predecessor American Idol did: set the artist up with a selection of professional songwriters and proceeded to scrub every iota of distinctive personality to create more blandly-written pablum for the public at large, which was arguably my biggest problem with Frame By Frame. It wasn't precisely bad as it was boring, and a big step down in terms of personality from her days with Hey Monday, which at least had something of a distinctive sound and soul in comparison to the neutered pop-country she was pursuing now.

But at least on that album Cassadee Pope had songwriting credits, which ultimately led to the few songs I actually kind of liked on that album. With our newcomer Danielle Bradbery, the winner from Season 4 of The Voice, we've got no such luck, and thus I had a real sinking feeling when I prepared myself to look at her self-titled debut album from Big Machine Records. I mentally set myself up for yet another Taylor Swift wannabe, especially considering she's seventeen and every iota of her public persona seemed to emphasize the 'cute' factor. What did I find?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

video review: 'dark wings of steel' by rhapsody of fire

Ugh, I really wish this had been better. Eh, even in genres you like, you get duds.

Next up will be Danielle Bradbery, then probably take on some Hopsin. Stay tuned!

album review: 'dark wings of steel' by rhapsody of fire

Let's talk about fantasy and heavy metal. These two genres within art have often had a pretty stable link that's persisted for decades: both were unfairly branded 'outsider' or 'low art' genres for a long time by the mainstream, both had been persecuted by alarmists trying to link them to allegations of Satanism or paganism, and both occasionally toed the line between the 'epic' and the 'epically ridiculous'. It's also the connection of how I jumped into heavy metal in my teens, pretty much bypassing nu metal and the rest of angry white boy music to settle in with power and symphonic metal acts like Blind Guardian and Nightwish. And really, fantastical subject matter is often a great fit for power and symphonic metal: they're looking to tell epic tales on the fringes of imagination, with grand scope and power, often calling to mind titanic battles and feats of heroism - and what better way to tell such stories than with grand, multi-part arrangements and blistering guitar riffs? 

But with the mainstream success of material like The Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones, I began wondering whether it wouldn't be long before the heavy metal genres I liked began to reap the rewards of that link. Of course I was being realistic about this - there's always a certain pulpy cheesiness to some metal acts that would prevent most people from taking them seriously, but some could stand to do well, and metal has occasionally been successful during the numerous fantasy booms throughout the past few decades. 

Yet even with that, Rhapsody of Fire would probably not reap many rewards of that association, because of the metal acts I've covered, they're one of the tough ones to get into in the middle. Started in 1997, the band steadily pumped out album after album throughout the late 90s and 2000s that all tied together to the same ongoing fantasy story, confined to two five-album sagas, with a pretty dense mythology by the end. That 'end', incidentally, occurred in 2011, where the band decided to amicably split into two distinctive bands, one with the same title and the other called Luca Turilli's Rhapsody of Fire (if only to additionally confuse things), with the eponymous name coming from the guitarist and primary songwriter. They released an album titled Ascending Into Infinity in 2012 that was pretty solid, but today we're going to be looking at the original Rhapsody of Fire, who have decided to dispense with the ongoing mythos and try something new, with all the lyrics written by lead singer Fabio Lione, along with a new guitarist and bassist. If anything, it feels like I'm approaching an entirely new incarnation of Rhapsody of Fire... which could be a good thing for new fans. And really, a fresh start might just be what this band needs, so I checked out Dark Wings of Steel. How did it go?

video review: 'the woman I am' by kellie pickler

Almost forgot this entirely. Ah well, here it is.

Next up is that blasted Rhapsody of Fire review. Prepare for the maelstrom, folks, this might get ugly.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

album review: 'the woman I am' by kellie pickler

If you've been listening to country radio over the past few months, you'd probably think that there aren't many solo female country stars left in the genre - with the exception of Taylor Swift (who is barely a country act these days), Miranda Lambert (who only is notching mainstream hits thanks to duets, unfortunately), and maybe Carrie Underwood (same deal as Taylor), who do you have? Well, you've got Cassadee Pope, but she's following in the Taylor Swift template and is more pop than country (an unfortunate cry from her roots, but given the patronage of Blake Shelton, not entirely surprising). But even with that, the songwriting is seldom up to par, and you don't tend to see a fair number of female country singer-songwriters gaining chart or critical acclaim.

But that doesn't mean they aren't there. Acts like Kacey Musgraves, who won Best New Artist of the Year at the CMAs (deservedly so) and Brandy Clark are still writing and singing great country songs that reflect a distinctly female presence in the genre. And really, it's a damn shame they aren't getting airplay in the same way, particularly when they write bitingly intelligent material and have a lot of flavour and texture behind their delivery. And thus, I was looking forward to the new album from Kellie Pickler, who some country music fans have wrongly branded just another American Idol 'faux-country' girl (even despite her embattled childhood and distinctive country roots). Then again, it's not hard to see why some came to that conclusion, given her first albums of output were not strong in the slightest.

But then she came back in a big way with 100 Proof last year - which earned a fair amount of critical acclaim for being an artistic breakthrough for Pickler and addressing some of the darkness in her past. And, completely unsurprisingly, the hits of that album didn't chart for anything - which was a real disappointment, because it was a very strong album and enough to pique my interest for her newest record, The Woman I Am. Between these two, Pickler had left her former label and signed with Black River Entertainment, an independent country label (yes, Pitchfork, indie country exists, why aren't you reviewing it?), which for me was an even better sign - maybe Pickler would have more control over her artistic direction, and we could get something special. So how did the record turn out?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

video review: 'midnight memories' by one direction

Well, I did it. Cue fanrage from everyone. But I didn't get into this without being honest, and I was here.

Next up... honestly, it'll either be Rhapsody of Fire or Kellie Pickler, we'll see.

album review: 'midnight memories' by one direction

There comes a time in every boy band's 'evolution' that they want to take their brand in a different direction from the typical pre-packaged pop music that made them stars. They might want to come across as darker, or edgier, or experiment with new instrumental directions or styles. It's often the first tentative step towards artistic freedom, and it's also the step that tends to either make or break boy bands. 

Let's consider the 90s boy bands and for an example, we'll talk about N'Sync and The Backstreet Boys. The latter band decided to go in a darker direction with Black & Blue, which arguably handled the transition better by opting to stick to the pop template and just play with a darker tone and energy, and, for the most part, it worked. But then again, it would take the Backstreet Boys five years to create another album, and by that point they switched genres towards adult contemporary and pop rock. The much bleaker story comes from N'Sync, who jumped onto the slick R&B bandwagon with Celebrity in 2011 - and then imploded. They went on hiatus and since Justin Timberlake's solo career took off, they never reunited, but I place most of the blame on that final album, mostly because it was only a half-hearted step towards a genre into which the band was an awkward fit. Note the difference between the two bands here: one stuck within the same genre but changed the tone, the other switched genres and fell apart.

So what should we expect from One Direction, the mega-selling boy band titan that currently rules the hearts of teenage girls everywhere? Honestly, I don't know what to expect, because having listened through both of their previous albums and watched that godawful movie (which only notable for wasting Morgan Spurlock's talent as a director), I still don't have a feel for the unique personalities behind the band. I guess some could make the argument that Harry Styles is going to become the Justin Timberlake and use One Direction as his N'Sync, but I find that hard to believe given Timberlake was at least a potent songwriter on his own and Styles doesn't really have that solo songwriting presence (both Liam and Louis have more songwriting credits). 

The other big problem is that none of these kids have ever impressed me with raw personality or charisma or talent in the way Justin Timberlake did, and while I can now tell them apart, I have yet to detect enough vocal distinctiveness to determine personalities outside of 'the cute one' in the boy band template. Yeah, it's time for full disclosure, before going into this album, I've never liked One Direction. Their harmonies are bare-bones at best, their instrumentation and production (easily the best element of their material) can lack flavour at points, and their lyrics are godawful. I don't need to link The Colbert Report's dissection of 'What Makes You Beautiful' or the seduction-through-insult methodology behind 'Little Things', all of these lyrics make One Direction come across as pickup artists who target their material at the most vulnerable parts of the psyches of their teenage fanbase. And while I won't deny it works, it doesn't come across as romantic or authentic to me, because the material is so calculated and the band is devoid of unique personality between members. I'm not going to deny that The Backstreet Boys and N'Sync used a lot of the same formula, but at least the Backstreet Boys made 'The Call' and 'Perfect Fan' and 'Larger Than Life', and N'Sync made 'Pop' and 'Bye Bye Bye' and both bands built their brand on differentiations between the members both in sound and in style. And frankly, One Direction has neither, which made me think at first Midnight Memories might be a step in the wrong direction for the band. If they're going for pop rock the same way N'Sync went for R&B, they might be in a world of trouble. Was I right?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

video review: 'desolation rose' by the flower kings

So happy that I could get this out, mostly because this is a band that really deserves more attention. 

Next up... oh boy, let's see how much hatred I get if I tackle One Direction...

album review: 'desolation rose' by the flower kings

It shouldn't be any surprise to, well, anyone at this point that I'm a big fan of progressive rock. Bearing its roots in the psychedelic rock, classical rock and early metal of the late 60s, it was a genre known for concept albums, virtuosity in instrumentation, complex and cerebral themes and lyrics, and off-beat experimentation that defied commercialism. The genre definitively peaked throughout the seventies and declined with the rise of punk, but that doesn't mean prog rock has gone away. Far from it - it still exists in the form of prog rock harkening back to the golden age, prog metal in the vein of acts like Dream Theater, Ayreon, and late-period Porcupine Tree, and even what has been described as nu-prog like Coheed & Cambria and the Mars Volta. 

And really, there are great acts in all three categories, but today we're going to be talking about a favourite act of mine that fits closest into the group of prog metal calling back to the past, yet with enough a modern touch not to brand them as a throwback. Yes, I'm talking about The Flower Kings, a Swedish prog rock group that began in the early 90s and have continued releasing albums for the past two decades. And yet, they've never really had that critical breakthrough single that would have propelled them to anything close to chart success, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a huge following for the band - which is really disappointing, because they're awesome, a cerebral act that often goes for broke with interesting concept album ideas and some great instrumental segments to back it up. I got into The Flower Kings first through their 2006 album Paradox Hotel, which acts as an exploration of various paradoxical situations with breathtaking variety. 

But it might have been an inopportune time to get into The Flower Kings, because after their 2007 album Sum Of No Evil, the band took a five year break to recharge, coming back with their exceptionally strong 2012 album Banks of Eden. And thus, I was overjoyed to hear that they had released another album this year, titled Desolation Rose. The band has made the statement that they consider this album their 'most involved, important, and interesting album ever', designed to make the audience 'question the mainstream media and rethink your whole world view'. Now I always get skeptical when prog bands become political, but to be fair, prog rock might be one of the few avenues where political music works well, assuming they put the time and intellectual nuance into articulating their points of view. And really, The Flower Kings have proven in the past that they are capable of doing this, so I went into Desolation Rose with more than a little excitement. How did it turn out?

Monday, November 18, 2013

video review: 'make a move' by gavin degraw

Almost forgot this album came out, so I'm glad I caught it. Shame it's not very good, though.

Next up... eh, I'm not sure. We'll see.

album review: 'make a move' by gavin degraw

As some of you know, the end of the year is coming up. It's always an important time for music critics, because we're the ones expected to put together our year-end lists to the general indifference of musicians and audiences alike. And for me, this year I'm making four lists: my top ten albums of the year, my top twenty-five songs, and - in the continuing tradition from my blog - the top ten best and worst hit songs of the year. These last two lists are drawn from the year end Billboard Hot 100 list, and it's also the only time I'll ever make a 'worst of' list, because, let's face it, I don't cover all of the terrible albums that get released (only most of them) and a 'worst of' list only really works with a limited field.

In any case, I've been making my year end best and worst hit songs since 2011, but today I want to look back to 2012, where I first came across 'Not Over You' by Gavin Degraw. And I'll be honest - it was an early frontrunner to make my year end list of the best songs of the year. But it didn't make the list and a year later, I'm kind of happy I didn't put it there. I had gone through a breakup close to this time last year, and 'Not Over You' did speak to me on a very visceral level - but at the same time, I was fairly certain that my integrity was compromised, and I felt certain that once some of my own angst had faded, I wouldn't like the song quite as much. And, surprise surprise, I was right. Don't get me wrong, 'Not Over You' still represents what Gavin Degraw and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder can do at their best, with reasonably punchy songwriting and a lot of bombast that toes the line between sophisticated and raw.  

And yet, I didn't feel I knew Gavin Degraw very well, so I took a deeper look through his decade-deep discography (I know, I was as surprised as you probably are). Overall, he's not bad, but I'm not sure he's the kind of act I would actively seek out in most cases. His songwriting is decent enough for the most part, but I'm not entirely surprised it's taken until recently for him to 'break' in the mainstream, because the strident and occasionally gratingly nasal nature of his voice doesn't always fit his instrumentation, which can sometimes feel a little too 'small' for his vocals. But after the success of 'Not Over You' and his collaboration with Ryan Tedder, it appears that Degraw has recruited all manner of additional producers to pump his new album up with more energy. And while I'd normally say a move in this direction smacks of selling out, it's not intrinsically a bad thing, depending on what direction they go. So I picked up Make A Move (a month late... yeah, I kind of forgot this album was coming out... sorry) and took a look - how did it turn out?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

video review: 'matangi' by m.i.a.

You wanted it, you got it.

Next up is probably The Flower Kings, then I want to cover Gavin Degraw before Kellie Pickler, Danielle Bradbury, and (sigh) One Direction. Stay tuned!

album review: 'matangi' by m.i.a.

A couple of months ago, I did a retrospective review of Shaking The Habitual by The Knife, a critically acclaimed album that I didn't quite like as much as all of the critics did. And there's a reason for that: that album, despite some very solid ambient pieces I found quite stirring, the lyrics and delivery had the subtlety of a brick through a window. But more importantly, The Knife were trying to be very political on that album, and they were using their anti-commercialism in instrumentation to emphasize how difficult it would be for the average listener to accept the paradigm changes - but at the same time, it proved to be a fatal flaw, because by doing so, they killed any populist appeal they might be able to drum up. In the heavy-handed message-mongering of the album, The Knife utilized their instrumentation to hammer home their point... a point that ultimately turned out to be bog-standard left-wing criticisms of family values, environmentalism, and offered nothing new to the cultural discourse. And by killing any broader appeal, they only embodied the worst straits of snobbish artists with a message and proved more than a little insufferable for me, even though I agreed with their message.

See, here's the thing about political music: while politics offer a whole load of fascinating and captivating topics, it's hard to make political music well. It's a balancing act between the intellectual nuance that needs to be brought to be taken seriously and the populist appeal to speak to a broader audience. And believe me, it's hard to maintain that balance and it's why I maintain one of the best political bands was the anarcho-punk collective Chumbawamba (most commonly known for their one hit 'Tubthumping'), mostly because they balanced hard-edged and smartly articulated political messages with simple melodies, a lot of wit, great hooks, and a fundamental spirit of 'we're all in this together'. Even if you disagreed with the politics - which at points I did - I don't think you can argue that the delivery of their message was ingenious.

And yet, I had to admit I was more than a little skeptical when I heard about MIA and her new album Matangi. She had made no secret of the fact that she was a political artist with a message and that she had solid pop sensibilities. I mean, the critics sure seemed to think so, given the rave reviews her albums have tended to receive - and yet, until I reviewed this album, I had no interest whatsoever in MIA. I had heard 'Paper Planes' and 'Boyz' and thought, 'Nope, I don't need any of that, those songs are vapid and incredibly obnoxious'. But I figured, hey, I was probably being unfair and there isn't much coming out in the end of this month anyways, so I decided to go through MIA's discography and give her a fair chance. And...

Eh, maybe it's not for me. Look, I mostly respect what MIA is trying to do and I can't deny she's got a gift for genre-hopping sound collages that will be unlike anything you'll ever hear, but it's not clicking for me and I know exactly why. Part of it is her voice - it's not my thing, I can accept that - part of it is her delivery - it never feels raw enough or emotionally drawn enough to really get to me - and part of it is the fact the lyrics just don't work nearly as well as they should. Yes, they're descriptive, yes, they fit the tone of the instrumentation and production - but there's no nuance here and little populism. It's unbridled and incredibly straightforward and yet lacks the energy to justify the simplicity of the approach - almost to the point of propagandizing the far-left attitudes she sings about. And while the emotional response can be compelling (when it's even there), to me it feels shallow, a stark painting that might put forward an interesting image, but lacking in dimension.

And maybe that's enough - her first album Arular was very much in this vein, and while it wasn't bad, its lack of cohesiveness did show (then again, that did seem like the point). Her second album Kala was a bit better, with 'Jimmy' being the standout track for actually having a melody worth remembering, but with the inclusion of more electronica to create a more cohesive sound, it felt like some of the texture and rawness that characterized Arular was jettisoned, which wasn't a good sign. But then again, the loss of texture should have been the last thing I was concerned about with MAYA, which seemed to be M.I.A.'s attempt to fuse internet-inspired industrial music with her usual schtick, and all it ended up doing was giving me a massive migraine. Not only did the lyrics prove M.I.A. had nothing interesting or all that insightful to say about the Internet, the instrumentation lost any hint of cohesion and only amplified the klaxon-esque howling that has always been the worst part of M.I.A.'s instrumentation. I could imagine industrial musicians like Trent Reznor coming to this album and muttering, 'Who the hell is responsible for this messy, incoherent, poorly mixed and painfully shallow nonsense?' To be fair, it was probably the first album that came remotely close to backing M.I.A.'s continued assertions she was inspired by hardcore punk, and songs like 'Meds and Feds' were easily the best on the record, but that's not saying much. And really, after MAYA, I was a little optimistic - I mean, it can't get worse than that, can it?

Friday, November 15, 2013

video review: 'woman' by rhye (RETRO REVIEW)

Huh, almost forgot about this.

Next up... well, look, MIA's discography is taking longer to process than I'd like, so probably next up will be either a retrospective or the Flower Kings album. Also, discovered today that Gavin Degraw dropped an album last month, so I'll probably cover that as well. Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

album review: 'woman' by rhye (RETRO REVIEW)

I mentioned back in my review of Janelle Monae's The Electric Lady that R&B doesn't tend to work for me as well as other genres, and for a long time, I've been struggling to figure out why. Well, I think I might finally have a finger on it and I'm going to try and articulate that opinion the best I can without offending anyone. So here it goes: R&B tends to work more on the stimulation of emotions rather than the stimulation of the mind. It's the difference between a great comedy film and a great arthouse drama - they both can be fantastic movies, but they're looking to appeal to very different parts of the human spirit, and their methods of appeal should not be used to denigrate the quality if they work effectively. And for me, I'll admit that music that has a more literate feel tends to stick with me a little better than songs just trying to tug my heartstrings. But the more I think about that, the more I realize that most of the music I love triggers a visceral emotional reaction regardless of written content, so it's got to be a little more than that. 

I think part of my problem with R&B for me comes down to subject matter and presentation. If you're looking at R&B, you're going to get various permutations of songs about love and relationships, and with few exceptions, you don't get a lot outside of that. But that's not exactly a bad thing, providing the presentation is interesting and unique enough and the songwriting and delivery is strong - these sorts of songs can still trigger that positive or negative emotional response, it just might be harder for me to articulate why. It's not a matter of reinventing the wheel or blowing my mind with high-concept theses about the human experience, it's about refining and perfecting material until it triggers the strongest emotive response from its listener. Okay, I can get behind that.

So with that in mind, I took a look at the mysterious duo Rhye that received some rave reviews earlier this year for their debut album Woman, and I figured they'd be an apt test for my hypothesis here. Did the album work for me?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

video review: 'vessel' by twenty one pilots

Well, this was a welcome surprise. Probably next will be Rhye, then Flower Kings, then (finally) MIA. Stay tuned!

album review: 'vessel' by twenty one pilots (RETRO REVIEW)

Sometimes there are acts that just slip the net. They might be great bands deserving of a ton of critical acclaim and a lot of attention, but they come out in the wrong place at the wrong time and they just get missed or lost in the shuffle. It sucks, believe me, but it happens.

Now granted, there is a reason I didn't cover the major label debut of Twenty One Pilots when it came out - my blog was inactive because work was consuming all of my time and my music reviewing was on the backburner. So in this slow period of releases (I'm getting to MIA and The Flower Kings very soon, don't worry), I figured this is the best time of any to check out their debut album Vessel. And I'll be honest and say I know very, very little about this band, outside of them being a synth-driven alternative rock/hip-hop duo out of Columbus, Ohio. And this album... well, it appears to be another one of these put together with new songs and old ones, which means we're probably not going to get a lot of album consistency and coherency, which is disappointing but kind of expected with major label debuts in this day and age. 

They're also signed to Fueled By Ramen, which is a good sign for me because they're one of the labels that have a fair standard of quality when looking at mainstream pop rock acts, like Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy (although they aren't on the label anymore), Gym Class Heroes, Cobra Starship, fun., and Paramore. In fact, these guys were the opening act for Fall Out Boy this year, so they're probably pretty solid, right?

Monday, November 11, 2013

video review: 'i love you' by the neighbourhood

Ugh, this was a disappointment. Glad to finally get this one out of my system.

Next will probably be a few more retrospectives, as I need a bit more time to get through MIA's discography. Now that'll be a review that'll get some people agitated...

album review: 'i love you' by the neighborhood (RETRO REVIEW)

A few weeks ago, the video game series Extra Credits made an episode about a growing problem in film and video games: spectacle creep. To boil the principle down, this is a belief that blockbuster movies and games have to keep becoming more and more extravagant and 'epic' with each installment in order to keep the audience's interest, and that after a certain point, you'll hit a brick wall because there's only so much you can ramp up the 'epicness' before it just starts getting ridiculous. 

The sad thing is that I don't think the Extra Credits guys went far enough with their hypothesis, because I'm here to tell you that some of this same concept is true in music as well, particularly pop music in the past few years. Most of the credit/blame for this can be placed at the feet of the rising EDM scene, where elements seeking to drive the strongest emotional reaction must be a continuous crescendo - you find this in some dubstep fans always hunting for the biggest 'drop'. It's the rise of raw grandiose spectacle over substance, which is why this year there have been so many songs with heavy backbeats and pounding percussion that utterly eclipse the lead singer or the rest of the instrumentation or the lyrical content (Katy Perry's 'Roar' springs to mind). Now let me state of 'course' this isn't the case for everyone - several acts this year managed to make those heavier beats work for them in a pop context, mostly by adopting a larger scale or a more invigorated sound in their delivery - but let's face facts, that requires an artist with distinctive personality, and we don't always get those.

So, producers and songwriters who were desperate to leap on the bandwagon figured out the next best thing to get songs to sound more potent and meaningful than they really were: reverb, letting individual sounds build and echo in the mix to create that sonorous experience. But there can be problems with that approach, and to discuss these problems, we're going to talk about the debut album from The Neighborhood that came out earlier this year to my complete indifference. This album is a classic example of how trying to make their music sound bigger and more impressive only highlights the serious weaknesses of the act and ultimately renders their album a lot worse that it otherwise would have been branded. Oh, don't get me wrong, the album is pretty damn mediocre all the same, but the poor production choices pushes this album towards bad in a big way.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

video review: the cancellation of 'lip$ha'

It needs to be said, and given my review schedule has slowed down a little bit, I figured something should be mentioned. If you all could share this to whoever you could, I would hugely appreciate it.

special comment: cancelling 'lip$ha' was a terrible business decision

In 2013, after the release of pop star Ke$ha's second album Warrior the previous year, Wayne Coyne, the frontman of critically-acclaimed psychedelic rock act The Flaming Lips released an interesting press release, suggesting that he and Ke$ha would be collaborating on a full-length album. The album would be titled Lipsha, a portmanteau of the two acts names and would be a full blending of their styles. The response to this development was expected: some eyerolls from Flaming Lips fans who only knew Ke$ha as the singer of 'Tik Tok'; some general jubilation from Ke$ha fans anxious for new material; and some reserved interest from music critics who were intrigued by how such a collaboration would develop. It would not be the first time these two had worked together: on the Flaming Lips album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, the opening track '2012' was a collaboration between the two acts and one that well-received by critics and fans alike. As was 'Past Lives', a song included on the deluxe edition of Warrior, co-written with songwriter Ben Folds and, once again, a favourite of fans and critics  And thus, many were waiting for the release of Lipsha with baited breath - they weren't sure if it was going to be good by any stretch of the mind, but it would certainly be interesting, given the half-insane creative impulses of both acts and yet the incredible talent to realize such visions.

That hope came to an abrupt conclusion today, as Wayne Coyne sadly informed the public at large through Twitter that 'Lipsha was no more'. And it wasn't difficult to discern what went wrong - Ke$ha and Wayne Coyne have a friendly relationship, but Ke$ha's relationship with her label was much rockier. In an interview with Rolling Stone on October 24  of this year, Ke$ha made a statement that was bound to infuriate her record label, which I will read in full. The question was, 'You don't have any creative control now?' Her response:

'Not really. What's been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be entirely accurate. I'd like to show the world other sides of my personality. I don't want to just continue putting out the same song and becoming a parody myself. I have so much more to offer than that and I can't wait till the world really gets to hear that on the radio.'

Well, one can be certain that won't be happening now, and with the cancellation of Lipsha, one can easily surmise that this was not a voluntary withdrawal by Ke$ha, but an act of coercion, a move by backing label RCA Records to attempt to assert control over her image, and more importantly her brand. The sad fact is that music only plays a secondary role in this particular story, and Lipsha is only an unfortunate casualty in an increasingly turbulent relationship between Ke$ha and her record label. However, the choices that RCA Records are making with regards to Ke$ha - who is still a bankable star with sold-out tours and an increasingly angry fanbase (and none of the anger is directed at Ke$ha) - are not just affronts to artistry and the creation of music, but a monumentally stupid business decision on behalf of the label that could potentially do far more damage than it prevents. So this Special Comment is not directed at fans of Ke$ha or The Flaming Lips - this is a message directed straight at the record executives who chose to make an absolutely boneheaded decision out of fear of loss of control - or worse. And here's why.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

video review: 'artpop' by lady gaga

You wanted it, you got it - although fair warning, it's probably not the opinion most of you are looking for. 

Up next... well, damn, I have no idea. I'll figure something out. Might be a retrospective coming, we'll see.

album review: 'artpop' by lady gaga

So here it is, the review you've all apparently been waiting for. It's a little amazing how many people left comments asking that I review this album, as if I wasn't going to bother - which, I have to admit, was more than a little funny to me. This album's hype machine has been working in overdrive the past couple of months, you didn't think I wasn't going to cover it, right?

Because here's the thing: I love talking about Lady Gaga. Hell, most critics do. She's the kind of artist who might not always make good music, but she always makes interesting material, and the fact that she's defiantly committed to making pop music suggests a populist streak I really appreciate. Plus, for the most part, she's a pretty solid artist in her own right, having written several songs I like a great deal. Is she arrogant or occasionally far too pretentious for her own good? Absolutely, but in most cases that's a feature rather than a criticism, and it's belied by her broad spectrum of musical influences and her willingness to experiment with different styles. She's a pop culture junkie just like me, and the fact that she clearly loves what she's doing and throws herself into it mercilessly earns her my respect.

All of that being said, I can't help but feel that some of the popular acclaim she's received might be a bit misplaced, because, really, she's really made only one consistently great album. I mean, The Fame was pretty good, but after the first five songs it takes a nosedive in quality. The Fame Monster was definitely a lot stronger as she stretched into darker, more subversive directions, and is arguably her best work, but songs like 'Telephone' are a bit weaker than they should be. As for Born This Way... well, I appreciate the experimentation and the broad variety of influences did lead to some fantastic songs, it also cast into sharper relief my big issue with Lady Gaga: that despite all of the well-crafted artifice, she doesn't really have much more substance beneath the flash and glamour besides self-obsession, exploration of the concept of 'fame', and surface-level references to other genres. And while as a pop culture geek I like and get the references, I always find myself disappointed there isn't more beneath said references. I like that she's driving the aesthetics of pop in a darker direction - I just wish she had something more to say with that shift.

But, then again, she's taken a fair amount of time off and come back with an album titled ARTPOP, which Gaga has described as 'subscribing to a reverse-Warholian formula'. This is actually kind of interesting because while Warhol was interested in exposing the art in commercialism (Warhol scholars, it's a necessary simplification, I know he was saying far more), Gaga is looking to flip that around, bring the 'art' culture into the commercialism sphere, using her own populism to introduce normally inaccessible elements to mainstream acceptance. Now let me make this clear: on a conceptual level, I love this idea, and Lady Gaga might be one of the few pop stars who could reasonably pull it off... but this sort of plan carries a lot of risk as it implies that Gaga will be able to, on sheer populism and skill alone, be able to bring these genres into the mainstream. Can she pull it off?

video review: 'word of mouth' by the wanted

Well, this turned out better than expected. Certainly better than what I'm going to have to deal with tomorrow...

So yeah, it's ARTPOP tomorrow. You have been warned.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

album review: 'word of mouth' by the wanted

Back before I was doing video reviews, back before I had my blog, back in 2011, I reviewed the new albums from two aspiring boy bands, One Direction and The Wanted. Both were rising stars on the American charts with their respective songs, 'Glad You Came' and 'What Makes You Beautiful'. Both hailed from England, and were poised to take North America by storm...

And that didn't happen. Despite the occasional single propelled through the charts for a single week (before crashing and burning), One Direction were the band that made the largest musical impact, seemingly leaving The Wanted to fizzle out on the other side of the pond. For a guy who was expecting a repeat of the TRL boy band wars of the late 90s, I was puzzled by the seeming lack of conflict and why The Wanted didn't seem to build the same audience. Well, if I were to hazard a guess, I think it would come down to two things: one, the marketing power behind One Direction and their highly devoted cult of fans (drawn because One Direction are perversely good at appealing to the deepest insecurities of their fanbase); and two, The Wanted came across as distinctly more mature, a little older and a little slicker, despite the content of their material being roughly analogous to that of their rivals. And in 2012, with silly teen pop music only getting dumber, sillier, and less mature, The Wanted taking themselves as seriously as they did probably wasn't the best move. It also really didn't help matters that Nathan Sykes, one of their better singers, had to take time off because of throat surgery - thankfully he recovered and was able to sing on Ariana Grande's album, but it couldn't have helped The Wanted's momentum going forward.

But now they are back with a new album - and apparently their marketing team continues to hate them because this week they're facing down the twin debuts of Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and Lady Gaga's ARTPOP (which I will get to, give me time). Compared with One Direction, who have their new release later this month and aren't facing, well, any competition, this doesn't look good for The Wanted. And yet, I won't hesitate to make the argument that I actually like The Wanted more than One Direction. Now that's not saying much  - neither Justin Timberlake or The Backstreet Boys have anything to worry about here - but The Wanted are opting for a slightly older audience and seem to be trying to emulate The Backstreet Boys' appeal circa Millennium and Black & Blue. So with that in mind, I picked up their newest album Word Of Mouth, a long-delayed album recorded over the course of two years with singles being released as early as a year and a half ago. I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting anything close to good here - was I wrong?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

video review: 'loved me back to life' by celine dion

Yeah, this was a bit of a dud, but once again, it happens.

Next up is The Wanted, then I'll probably cover ARTPOP. As for MIA... eh, I dunno, I've never been a fan of MIA, and considering the political angle, it could get ugly in a hurry. We'll see.

album review: 'loved me back to life' by celine dion

A lot of people really hate Celine Dion, and frankly, it's not hard to see why. Between the accent, the oversinging, the often underweight lyrics, the fact that she writes none of her own material, the incredible cheesiness of nearly everything she's ever done, and 'My Heart Will Go On' (from Titanic), she's given people plenty of reasons not to like her music. Hell, I remember a friend of mine from university who absolutely despised Celine Dion's voice, and I know she's not really alone there. And coupled with the fact that Celine is another entry in the list of 'silent majority' performers where the fanbase isn't quite as active in aggressively standing up for their favourite artist, the vitriol for Celine tends to outweigh the praise. And it's that same silent majority status that won her fame and fortune throughout the mid-90s that pisses off some people - it's music that's defiantly simple and lyrically uncomplicated aimed at a demographic that probably doesn't explore a lot of music (and doesn't want to) and thus by default I'm supposed to rake her albums over the coals...

But you know, I'm not going to do that. I don't think I'll ever call myself a Celine Dion fan - the oversinging, the underweight lyrics, the empty vocal gymnastics that are only really impressive in range and even that has limits, the limited demographic appeal, some terrible covers - but I'm sorry, I can't muster up the hate. For one, I think she has a beautiful voice that is capable of working across a wide emotional range, and while her music might be cheesy, the emotional undercurrent can resonate. There's such a thing as doing simple things right and to me, her closest analogue in another genre would be Andrew W.K. - sure, his music is dumb as hell and extremely basic in composition, but it nails the basics damn near perfectly. If anything, that's the key to Celine Dion's demographic appeal - she's never going to deliver an album with incredible complexity an nuance, but she gets the basics incredibly well. For me, her albums tend to make or break on the songwriting and performance - if Celine is given good songs like 'It's All Coming Back To Me', written by songwriting legend Jim Steinman, she'll kill it in the best possible way. But if the songwriting or the instrumentation is underweight and can't match up to her voice (she operates best with pure bombast, and the other big problem that tends to come up is that her instrumentation or songwriting rarely are strong enough to match it), the songs don't tend to work. It's a matter of balance, and it's a tough one to get with a performer like Celine Dion.

But I had to admit that I was a little intrigued when I heard she was leaving her Vegas act and recording a new album this year. Pop music has only gotten more bombastic with heavier percussion and energy, so maybe Celine might actually have a place in the modern pop scene if she modernizes well. So, I took a look at her new album Loved Me Back To Life - how did it turn out?

Monday, November 4, 2013

video review: 'the marshall mathers lp 2' by eminem

It's out - are you happy now?

I kid, of course, because this review was actually reasonably fun to make. So now I'm going back to working on the reviews for Celine Dion, The Wanted, and M.I.A.. Then Lady Gaga.

album review: 'the marshall mathers lp 2' by eminem

If you know music in the past fifteen years, you know Eminem. You probably own one of his albums, considering his classic album The Marshall Mathers LP has gone diamond in the States. He has become a fixture in American pop culture, and with several acclaimed albums under his belt, some could make the argument he has nothing left to prove.

And yet I don't think anyone has told Eminem that, as recent releases seem to have taken the form of an artist trying to recapture the spirit of something that he once had and is now gone, and he's never quite managed to find it in the same way. And this is speaking as an Eminem fan who will defend all of his albums. Yes, even Encore and Relapse, a pair of albums that aren't quite as bad as certain folks have made them out to be. Yes, Encore is incredibly uneven and contains some of the worst raps of Eminem's career, but it's also an album that does exactly what it was designed to do: a ritualistic endpoint for Eminem's career (characterized by his drug-induced spiral of depression) capped off by artistic suicide on the last track. And yet, the fans hated it and demanded the return of Slim Shady, and Eminem did just that five years later on Relapse, a tortured and punishingly bleak album where Eminem brought all of the sick nastiness behind Slim Shady to the forefront and said, 'You wanted it, you got it'. The mistakes he made with both of these albums is that stylized artistic ugliness works best with a good core framework, and the haphazard rapping and accents damaged that core and compromised those albums.

Fortunately, Eminem corrected this with 2010's Recovery, his spiritual revival where he finally put to bed some of the demons that had been haunting him over the past several years - primarily finding his place in the modern hip-hop landscape, his drug overdose in 2007, his constant issues with women, and finally the death of his best friend Proof in 2006. However, a new problem began cropping up here and on his team-up with Royce de 5'9'' the next year: the instrumentation always felt a little too polished and slick for Eminem, and lacked that gritty edge that made so much of his old material compelling. Furthermore, despite superb technical skills, Eminem's anger now felt directionless as he had solved the majority of his issues, and the resulting albums felt unfocused and too dour for their own good. The nadir of this was 'Lighters', a momentum-killing turd of a song that didn't work for me in the slightest and epitomized the worst symptoms of both poor instrumentation and unfocused rage.

And I've got to be honest here, when I heard about The Marshall Mathers LP 2, I was more than a little concerned that these problems were going to get worse. I mean, I love The Marshall Mathers LP, the album is a goddamn classic, so why besmirch it by making an record that's probably guaranteed not to be a follow-up aligned with the original on a thematic level? That album's dark madness had a lot to say about Eminem's personal psychoses and his issues with fame, pop culture, women, and his audience - and I was willing to bet that Eminem, despite being a great rapper of superb technical skill, probably would not return to this well of influences. And coupled with the list of guest stars and my own natural skepticism, I was dreading this album's release and I expected the worst. Did I get it?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

video review: 'avril lavigne' by avril lavigne

Ah, that video turned out nicely -

Okay, fine, I'll delay the Celine Dion review to cover The Marshall Mathers LP 2, are you happy now? Goddamnit, kids these days...

album review: 'avril lavigne' by avril lavigne

Okay, time for another confession: I used to be a huge fan of Avril Lavigne.

I'm serious. Her first album Let Go in 2002 is a great album and one that I really enjoy. In the past, I've made the comparison of my enjoyment of Avril Lavigne with everyone else's enjoyment of Taylor Swift: it's shallow music with some real songwriting talent behind it on occasion, but even when it's not, it can still kind of work for you. It definitely helped matters that Avril Lavigne had one big strength in her favour when it came to be a pop rock singer: she actually could convey more than one emotion. Sure, she could be bratty and obnoxious, but she also was expressive and could sound lovestruck or vulnerable or desperate and that gave her a ton of humanity that made her preferable to some real 'riot grrls'. And like with Taylor Swift, you could buy into the fact that her songs were written by someone her age. Was she ever the kind of feminist icon or a girl with a real punk edge? Well, no, but she wasn't trying to be.

But then again, I wasn't surprised when she went in a darker direction with 2004's Under My Skin. It was darker, it was rougher, it was angrier... and it wasn't as good. Don't get me wrong, I still really like the album and 'My Happy Ending' and 'Complicated' are better songs than they have any right to be, but objectively it's not great. What it led to was a change in label and...

Yeah, here's where the Avril Lavigne story takes a controversial turn because, well, she sold out. Now calm down, selling out isn't always a bad thing - you can still make good music after selling out and The Best Damn Thing had a few great songs on it. However, like with Taylor Swift's Red from earlier last year, there was a distinctive loss of personality and a definite shift towards the mainstream that didn't always favour her best elements. In particular, it was a distinctly less 'mature' album, as you could tell Avril was trying to play to a teen pop-punk audience who was, well, my age. But even at seventeen, I soured on 'Girlfriend' almost immediately because it cranked up the bratty obnoxiousness to eleven and had nothing in the instrumentation or lyrics to back it up.

And really, those problems extended to her next album Goodbye Lullaby, and despite the fact that Avril wrote the majority of the material on that album, it definitely had a shift in focus to sullen, increasingly bland relationship songs that were a pale reflection of the material that she had done before. Avril herself admitted that it was more difficult to write these sorts of introspective songs, and considering most were directed at her ex-husband, I can kind of understand why. Regardless of that, it was also her weakest album and a sign that perhaps Avril Lavigne was running out of ideas.

But now she's back this year with Chad Kroeger as a husband (ugh) and a self-titled album (five into her career... sigh). Could she recapture some of that spark she had from her early days?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

video review: 'drinks after work' by toby keith

Quite happy with this review, really think I articulated myself well-


album review: 'drinks after work' by toby keith

My name is Mark, I run the review show called Spectrum-Pulse... and I am a fan of Toby Keith.

And here's one of the infuriating things about being a fan of country music - every time I say this, people raise an eyebrow and they mutter, 'Is he serious?' And you know what, I'm goddamn sick of that, because believe it or not, what most people think they know about this guy is mostly untrue or based upon a skewed vision of the guy's music, and if you asked them to name a Toby Keith song outside of 'Red Solo Cup' or 'Courtesy of the Red, White, And Blue', you'd get a series of blank expressions.

Let's deal the elephant in the room first, shall we? First off, Toby Keith is not some hectoring Republican - he's always described himself as a Conservative democrat, a 'blue dog' if you will, and he's done a ton to support the troops, mostly because his father was an army veteran. When he wrote 'Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue' in the aftermath of 9/11 (a song that is lyrically clumsy, but not one I can hate because it's clear that it comes from a real, heartfelt place) and the death of his father, he actually refused to record a copy of it and only played it live. He only recorded a copy when he started to get a real emphatic reaction from his fans and the military at large - and then the whole Dixie Chicks feud happened and a lot of stupid was flung in both direction. For the record, though, Toby Keith is a better songwriter than the Dixie Chicks ever were, and he was actually the one who called off the feud, even if they were right in the end about Bush.

See, here's the thing that most people don't know - Toby Keith has been in the country music scene for about twenty years. He started off in the early 90s and had a steady string of hits on the country charts until his mainstream breakthrough in the late 90s and early 2000s. Primarily, his singles have been light, upbeat, self-aggrandizing and kind of jokey, and it helps that he's a clever enough songwriter who's able to laugh at himself. What's contributed to his longevity, however, is his emotional range and his skill as a songwriter - believe it or not, Toby Keith has had a huge hand in writing his material, often being one of the only songwriters on his tracks, and his work has spanned legitimate love songs, borderline comedy tracks, and his more serious work. Yes, he's got a penchant for staying on the right side of the law and he's a huge supporter of the army, but the funny thing is that he's a good enough songwriter and sings with enough conviction to bypass political biases, and he's thrown support to both Republicans and Democrats.

But Toby Keith is now 52, and while he's put out enough good-to-great albums to have the artistic clout he wants (it helps he runs his own small label under Universal), his voice has been added to the chorus of those who aren't all that pleased with the rise of bro-country. To quote directly, 'You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit?’ I don’t know how to do that. Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?…You start playing [deep songs] to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and shit.’ Keep those thoughts in mind when you also consider that Toby Keith also had major writing credits on eleven of the thirteen songs on his newest album Drinks After Work. So you'd better bet I was intrigued, both as a fan of the guy and as someone who has kept a keen eye on the state of modern country - so, what did we get on Drinks After Work?