Monday, March 31, 2014

special comment: the finale of 'how i met your mother' - a response

I've been watching How I Met Your Mother since Season 3. I didn't get on board straight away because it reminded me of Friends and I've never been able to stomach that show. And since then, for nine seasons, I've watched the show and rewatched the show time and time again. I know some of the classic episodes beat-for-beat. I've laughed, I've cried, I've cheered and defended this show even in the seasons I saw it circling the drain - which, namely, was Season 5, because despite the Zoe arc in Season 6, there were moments in that season that had emotional pathos and goddamn it, I bought it.

And then we had Season 9, the season encapsulating just a few days of Barney and Robin's wedding - and I'll be honest, despite the gimmicky nature of some of the episodes and the reliance on callbacks that has become more of a crutch for this show year after year than a strength, I was on board. Some of the callbacks felt like the payoff of seasons of build-up, emotional and character arcs that lasted for years and finally met their righteous ending. I'm not going to lie, there were moments that were glorious and well-earned and I even bought into Robin and Barney as a couple, the two who had always been the most deeply broken inside and how they made each other stronger as they stayed together. 

And there were telegraphed moments throughout that season that built to the finale tonight. Going in, I had a feeling in my gut that there was tragedy in the future. I didn't know if the mother was going to live - I assumed she wasn't, it was obviously telegraphed - and honestly, I expected Ted could have been dead, and he's retracing the moments of his life that led up that climax, and how everything else didn't matter as he faced Purgatory or whatever. That would have given some real weight to the moment when Ted meets the Mother, the high point, the climax, the moment for which we've been waiting. And it would have been devilishly charming if it had ended at that moment, a quiet moment of anticlimax that would have been goddamn beautiful and earned.

The finale went in a different direction. And I will say this: on paper, the majority of makes sense. Friends, even as tightly knit as these have been, drift apart. If you have kids, you'll go weeks or months or years without seeing people. If you're on an insane travel schedule, marriages will fracture, especially when both partners are as driven and free-spirited as the two in question. And when that happens, people regress until they make stupid decisions and are forced to turn their lives around. And spouses die, and eventually, it's believable that you might return to that old flame that you've nurtured in the back of your heart year after year after year. From a position of human drama, I buy everything that happened in the finale of How I Met Your Mother - on paper.

The reason the finale does not work - and really does impressive amounts of damage to the show's many dramatic arcs as a whole - is entirely a matter of tone. And you know, tone is a tricky thing, especially when you're working with footage cobbled together for years and you've had the finale lodged in your mind almost a decade since the very first episode. And here, the misunderstanding of tone is mindboggling - because in the writers' minds, it's always been about Ted and Robin. It's the central locus, the primary element since the pilot that has defined this show - and really, it's never been about the Mother.

It was that pilot in the mind of the writers when they wrote the finale. It's just a shame they didn't consider all the other elements they had brought in, and for a show with this sort of storied history, it's amazing how much they forgot and disregarded to create this finale, most specifically the final moments.

video review: 'pulses' by karmin

Damn, I wish this had been better.

Before the deluge of April releases, I need to take care of some unfinished business, so Anette Olzon and Tokyo Police Club reviews are coming soon - so stay tuned!

album review: 'pulses' by karmin

Well, this is awkward.

See, initially I didn't want to cover this album and for good reason. For one, the reviews from other outlets did not look close to good and believe it or not, I don't like giving negative reviews. It's that same sort of logic that normally keeps me from reviewing true genre trainwrecks if I don't have anything new to say about them - except, well, with country, but that's only because I'm still the only country music critic on YouTube and somebody has to cover them.

But with Karmin, it's a little more complicated - because, like me, they got their start on YouTube, as a upstart duo making pop videos and covers. I'll admit I didn't watch the material on their channel, but I knew they had an upbeat sensibility and a certain self-deprecating goofiness about them that did redeem some of their material. On the other hand, the stuff I did hear from them wasn't great, and I wasn't really a fan of either 'Brokenhearted' or 'Hello', the former which struck me as a Katy Perry wannabe pop track and the latter which bungled a chord progression that sounded way too much like 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to be ignored. 

And thus, when I heard they got a major label deal and were dropping a new album with plenty of new pop collaborators, I felt a little uneasy about covering Karmin with my typical reviewing style, especially when some of the early reviews were less than complimentary. On the one hand, YouTube is a community and the odds that they might see my review are higher than most, and in the spirit of that community, any review I'd drop might hit closer to home. But on the other hand, I've got my integrity as a critic, and just because they started on the same platform doesn't mean they don't deserve the same level of analysis or scrutiny. And so with that in mind, I cautiously picked up Pulses and steeled myself for whatever might come - how's the album?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

video review: 'piñata' by freddie gibbs & madlib

Man, I needed this album. After a tumultuous week of reviews, this was a good breath of fresh air.

Next up, the insanity resumes with Tokyo Police Club and Anette Olzon, to say nothing of whatever is getting released in April. But first, since you all requested it... Pulses, by Karmin. Stay tuned!

album review: 'piñata' by madlib & freddie gibbs

So here's a complaint that only a music critic will ever make: if you want to come across as remotely knowledgeable as a critic, you'll need to have listened to a lot of music.

Now that's not a bad thing by any stretch, especially considering listening to the greats of any genre is often very rewarding. But at the same time, if you want to come across as any sort of expert - and let's face it, most music critics do - you accumulate a pretty impressive backlog very quickly, especially if you talk about more than one genre. And listening to greatest hits albums doesn't cut it - assuming you've already listened to the essential discographies, your next criterion is to tackle all of the music that might be critically acclaimed within the genre, and not just what got popular. In other words, there's a reason why my backlog is now longer than my entire music collection - and that's just the stuff I know about, and it's not including all the new material I need to listen through this year.

Fortunately, it's always something of a relief whenever a new record comes out by an artist who falls into the critically acclaimed category, because now I can tackle two birds with one stone: review a brand new album and take the excuse to visit the works of artists in my backlog under the pretense of 'research' and 'appropriate context'. And since this album is a collaboration, I get to tackle two artists in question, which is even better! The first you should all know: DJ and hit producer Madlib, responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed collaborations in the underground, most notably with MF Doom for the classic album Madvillainy, which showcased his love for great beats, offkilter 70s blaxploitation samples, and a decidedly unique sound rooted in the fusion between over-the-top kitsch and gangsta grime. The second is Freddie Gibbs, who signed to Interscope in 2006 before leaving the label and becoming an underground star in the mixtape scene, where he developed a reputation as a great technical gangsta rapper with an unfortunate habit of retreading similar ground over and over again. And having relistened to his debut album ESGN, it wasn't exactly an unfair assessment: Gibbs' standard methodology for his rapping was as a thug with a conscience, and that's always a tough balancing act to maintain. And thus, I was intrigued to check out their collaboration, for at least at first, it seemed like an odd fit - how did it go?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

video review: 'my krazy life' by yg

Well, I'm glad I got that out of my system.

Okay, next up is Madlib & Freddie Gibbs and Pinata. Stay tuned!

album review: 'my krazy life' by yg

I was going to skip this album.

And honestly, on first look, could you have blamed me? I've said a number of times in the past that the current crop of gangsta rappers have rarely interested me if they don't do something fresh with the formula, and YG looked like the poster child of not only cementing himself to that formula, but doing it worse than everyone else combined. Frankly, I was shocked to see him with a new album at all - for a rapper who built the first steps of his career off of the oh-so classy track 'Toot It And Boot It', I thought we had consigned him to the same memory hole in which we dumped Chingy, Mims, and Soulja Boy.

But then I thought to myself, 'Mark, get your head out of your ass, just because it's superficial and dumb party bangers doesn't mean they have to be bad, and it's not like all the material in this genre is stuff you dislike'. And to a point, that's true - I'll admit I've got a soft spot for certain brands of dumb gangsta rap, particularly in the crunk vein that was popular in the early-to-mid 2000s. But I guess some of my unironic liking for acts like Ludacris and especially Lil Jon came from the fact that what they didn't have in intelligence they made up in explosive, high-energy beats or solid technical rapping or even just an ability to go over the top with a populist vibe that can suck you in - call it the Andrew W.K. methodology, if you will. And yet with YG, his main collaborating producer is DJ Mustard, a producer who has already picked up a bad reputation in the hip-hop community for making sterile, lifeless beats that aren't all that interesting. 

In other words, the only reason why I'm covering this at all is because critical outlets that I normally respect started throwing scores that seemed suspiciously high at this album, so maybe I was presumptuous and missed something. And to give YG some credit, he did say he was drawing more inspiration from the 90s G-funk scene, most of which I do like, so I gave this album a couple of listens - how was it?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

video review: 'high noon' by jerrod niemann

Ugh, I had no assumptions this would be good, but I didn't expect it to be this bad.

Up next... okay, look, I'll get Madllib & Freddie Gibbs, but this YG phenomenon needs to be explained before I start hitting fellow critics with lead pipes. Stay tuned, this might get messy.

album review: 'high noon' by jerrod niemann

Do you guys remember back when I reviewed the Eli Young Band that I said there was just a period of time I wasn't listening to much country music outside of the material that hit the charts? Well, even with that scant knowledge, I had no idea who Jerrod Niemann was before starting to research this album - and he had a number one country single that actually briefly landed on the pop charts! 

That was the first warning sign I got when I started going through Niemann's discography and those hit singles. Signed to Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville, a label co-owned by Brad Paisley, Jerrod Niemann released his major label debut in 2010 and it's not hard to see some of Paisley's influences on that album - it was silly, hopelessly corny country music, but it wasn't offensive. But then again, I'd have a hard time calling it interesting or all that distinctive either - outside some of the comedy bits and the fact that Niemann had an agreeable voice, I'd have a hard time picking him out of a line-up of other good time country singers. And it looked like the general public agreed, as his second album did have greater musical flavour and diversity, but not a lot else especially in the breezy songwriting to really give Niemann a lot of distinctive staying power. He reminded a lot of Jake Owen, except Owen always seemed to have more charisma or maybe better songwriters.

And thus, I can't exactly say I was enthused to listen to Jerrod Niemann's third album High Noon, especially off of his lead single 'Drink To That All Night', which featured the twin cardinal sins of bro-country in bad low-key rapping and auto-tune, and none of the instrumental diversity or humour that at least made Jerrod Niemann remotely distinctive. And thus, I wasn't looking forward to covering this album but I figured I owed him at least one chance to really surprise me. How did it go?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

video review: 'shakira' by shakira

Damn, I wish this album was better. Eh, it happens.

Next up... yes, I'll will be covering 'Pinata' by Madlib & Freddie Gibbs, but I need a little more time to truly process it, so it'll probably be Jerrod Niemann next. Stay tuned!

album review: 'shakira' by shakira

Oh, I've been looking forward to this review since the beginning of the year.

See, if we were to go back twelve years to 2002 and look at my list of my top 10 best hit songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart... well, the first one would be Eminem's 'Lose Yourself' and the second would be 'Where Were You', Alan Jackson's heartbreaking song about 9/11 and really the best song not written by Bruce Springsteen about that tragedy, but the third on my list would 'Whenever, Wherever' by Shakira, an artist of which I've been a fan since she's crossed over to English radio in the early 2000s. And looking back on her massively successful career, I don't feel any shame whatsoever in saying that Shakira is the sort of pop star I really do enjoy. Not only is she the main writer of a lot of her own music - and a pretty good one at that - she's also the sort of pop star who can blend genres effectively, has a distinctive voice and sound, and also has buckets of raw charisma. She works along a similar line of alpha female sexuality that Beyonce does, but I've always thought Shakira has more emotional range and always seemed to be having more fun as a pop singer.

Plus, she's weird - and I mean that as a compliment. Between the odd assortment of instrumentation she routinely uses and her frequently bizarre lyrical choices, I'm always a little perplexed whenever I cover a Shakira album, because while she might tackle conventional pop subject matter, she's going to do it in her way, and damn everyone else. And yet, she's been quiet for a while, because after she released She-Wolf in 2009 and Sale el Sol in 2010 in Spanish, she took some time off, half to have a baby, half to work as a coach on The Voice, and half because she changed labels to RCA Records. On the one hand, I'm happy to see a new record from Shakira... but on the other hand, there are significantly more names in the writing credits than I'd usually like to see on a Shakira album, plus some collaborators that don't leave me that enthused, including Rihanna and country artist Blake Shelton of all people, who seems to make it his job to collaborate with everyone who shows up on The Voice with him. So, how is this new self-titled album from Shakira?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

video review: 'lost in the dream' by the war on drugs

Holy shit, I did not see this album coming. Genuinely gripping and an early contender with 'Daylight & Dark' and 'Sun Structures' as one of the best albums of the year.

Next up... well, I need to talk about that Freddie Gibbs & Madlib collaboration, but I need to do a little more research on that one first, so I'll probably tackle something like the Shakira album next. Stay tuned!

album review: 'lost in the dream' by the war on drugs

So believe it or not, I actually do like indie rock.

And it's always a little exasperating when the presumption is made that since I've handed out some pretty harsh reviews to indie bands recently that I might dislike the genre - or hate good music in general, because that tends to be the hyperbolic jump-off point. Because while I might listen to plenty of pop and hip-hop and country, I still have a big spot in my heart for indie rock, and I'd much prefer to hear it on the charts than other miscellaneous crap that gets popular. 

However, I will admit that there are currently popular trends in indie rock of which I'm not exactly fond. The current brand of percussion-heavy, melody-light, reverb-and-effect-swollen brand of indie rock is not exactly my cup of tea, especially in comparison with the jangly edge of mid-80s college rock, the explosive distorted edges of the 90s indie scene, or the garage-inspired riff-based roughness of the early 2000s. And on top of that, I'll wholeheartedly admit that I tend to be harder on indie rock with grander ambitions and goals than acts that are just trying to make simple pop songs. Just because you step up to the plate with big ideas doesn't win credits in my books unless executed well.

And thus it's been a real treat for myself to revisit the discography of The War On Drugs, the band that was originally formed as a collaboration between Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile. I covered Kurt Vile last year with his album Wakin' On A Pretty Daze, but The War On Drugs is decidedly more Granduciel's project, with Vile departing on amicable terms after doing a bit of work on the band's excellent second album Slave Ambient, a record that features a blend of Dylan-esque vocals, mid-80s REM-inspired riffs, U2-driven bombast, and lyrics featuring potent journeyman themes and great songwriting. And considering their newest album Lost In The Dream, the first without any involvement from Kurt Vile, has been receiving rave reviews, I figured it was about damn time to give it more than a few listens. How did it go?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

video review: 'say yes to love' by perfect pussy

Man, that was a welcome surprise. Great album, definitely liked it.

Next up... hmm, not sure. We'll see, so stay tuned!

Friday, March 21, 2014

album review: 'say yes to love' by perfect pussy

I've got a complicated relationship with noise rock.

It's a critically beloved genre, especially by Gen X critics coming up in the 90s who love Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., but I've always had a certain amount of difficulty breaking into it. Maybe it was just the walls of distortion and fuzz that defined 90s rock and the lack of distinctive driving tunes - or the fact that the mix seldom made it easy to parse out the lyrics - but the noise rock that I like often sticks closer to a punk edge rather than meandering shoegaze. After all, I like good melody lines, and the punk rock I like the most tends to have the most straightforward, potent melodies in the book, even if they are overwhelmed by waves of harsh distortion.

And thus, it wasn't long before a critically acclaimed act like Perfect Pussy caught my eye. Last year they built some impressive buzz with their debut EP I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, which stuck close to the post-hardcore roots of their lead singer Meredith Graves. But the reason I was a little averse to covering the band at first was a noted production choice where the band chose to shove Meredith Graves' vocals near the back of the mix, which would make the lyrics even more difficult to figure out. Which, if you've followed this review series, is a production choice of which I'm rarely a fan.

That being said, with the strong critical buzz surrounding their debut album Say Yes To Love, especially with regards to their feminist-themed lyrical nuance, I felt obliged to take a look out of sheer curiosity. Would Perfect Pussy end up being the Savages of this year?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

video review: 'recess' by skrillex

Hey, you asked for this.

Okay, next up is a bit of a breather, as I'll tackle Perfect Pussy and The War On Drugs. Stay tuned!

album review: 'recess' by skrillex

You asked for this.

And honestly, if I hadn't gotten a request for this, I wouldn't have covered it. Hell, until I got a request for this, I didn't know Skrillex was actually putting out an album, let alone his major label full-length debut. Yeah, turns out all of the singles I had seen cropping up on the charts were really just off of a collection of EPs, which apparently were enough to win this guy multiple Grammies. And while I'll restate the commonly held assertion that the Grammies are a joke, this guy has beaten out the Chemical Brothers, and that's just wrong.

Ugh, look, I don't often cover a lot of electronica - mostly because I'm a sucker for great lyrics and that's rarely ever a priority on electronica records, and half because the genre is so heavily populated that it would be physically impossible for me to cover every release in this category and anything else. That's not saying I don't like electronica - I love the Chemical Brothers, I listen to more than my fair share of trance, and I like some of the weirder crossover material, but I'm more than well aware of the shortcomings in my knowledge in this sector.

That said, I also know what I like, and very little of what Skrillex has released has ever engaged me beyond irritation and anger. Say what you will about dubstep, but I honestly thought the mainstream had absorbed the elements of it we liked into modern pop music and had sent Skrillex and his ilk back out to the EDM or club scene - and even with that, there's so much better dubstep than the squealing clash of harmonics that Skrillex rams together. And the infuriating thing is that I actually see potential behind Skrillex, as some of the melodies he's crafted aren't half bad, but then he triggers his mutated brand of drop and what makes a whole set of angry white boys cheer gives me a throbbing migraine. When he teamed up to work with Korn, it was a musical fusion that made perfect sense to me - irritating, painfully shallow abrasion that doesn't have the decency of having a coherent tune.

But I've always said that making judgments without in-depth knowledge is not the mark of a good music critic, so I picked up his debut album, which had collaborators that looked interesting at the very least. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

video review: 'supermodel' by foster the people

Well, you asked for it.

Up next... ugh, you'll see. I'm not looking forward to it, but I might as well get it out of my system once and for all.

album review: 'supermodel' by foster the people

If you were around me talking about music in 2011, you probably heard me drop into a rant at some point about Foster The People and their big hit single 'Pumped Up Kicks'. Hell, I even reviewed their debut album back when I wrote my reviews on Facebook, and while I'm not proud of that review by any stretch, I remember the seething hatred I had for this band and everything for which they stood.

Looking back two-and-a-half years later and after a relisten to Torches, I can say this: there are worse albums. Honestly, while I still don't like 'Pumped Up Kicks' for its terrible framing, its insincere posturing, and Mark Foster's awful falsetto, it's not worth the #3 spot I gave it on my list of the Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2011. Hell, looking back on Torches as an album, it's very much of its time: a perfectly primed dose of indie pop-rock that could have only gotten airplay in 2011 thanks to the wispy production, the whistling, and the growing acceptance of that brand of indie music.

Now that's not saying Torches is a good album - it's really so painfully mediocre it hurts, mostly due to an overstuffed upper range and synth line, a lack of good guitar melody when you could hear it at all, an over-reliance on percussion and not interesting percussion at that, Mark Foster's godawful vocals, and lyrics that were trying way too hard to be self-aware and wink at the camera. I've heard people make the argument that Torches was parodying and criticizing the would-be hipsters that embraced it, but I don't buy that, half because the insincerity was way too smug, half because the lyrics weren't nearly smart or well-framed enough to justify it, and half because unlike acts like The Beastie Boys or Ke$ha, they forgot to make the music actually 'fun' for those who didn't get the joke. Instead of working on multiple levels, Torches by Foster The People didn't work at all, only leaving us 'Helena Beats' as the best song of the album.

But what proved a lot more disturbing for me was how successful and influential Foster The People were, especially in the commercially viable indie pop/rock scene. I can trace the musical and popular lineage of bands like The Neighbourhood, Bastille, Young The Giant, and even acts like Imagine Dragons - a band I actually like - to Foster The People. They ended up sparking a mainstream explosion of percussion-driven, reverb-swollen, mix-overstuffed indie electronic rock records - which is kind of hilariously ironic, because it meant that if Foster The People really were going for parody intent, nobody got the joke. And thus, I shouldn't be surprised that Foster The People were back with a new album titled Supermodel, this time with a bigger target in mind, that being consumer capitalism? I prepared myself for the worst - what did I get?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

video review: 'sex and love' by enrique iglesias

Well, that was easier than I expected it would be.

Next up... ugh, Foster The People. Hold on, folks, this won't be pretty.

album review: 'sex and love' by enrique iglesias

So back in the 90s after grunge fizzled out all too early, pop music went through something of an identity crisis in terms of what music would chart. Pop punk, swing dance, the ska revival, Europop, boy bands, nu metal, post-grunge, adult alternative, and all manner of other genres competing for cultural dominance. It was a swirling mess of confusion that led to all manner of one-hit wonders and acts that would fizzle out dramatically in the early 2000s after 9/11 when the charts got a whole lot darker and angrier.

And one of those crazes of the time was the Latin revival, and leading the charge was Enrique Iglesias. Son of Julio Iglesias, one of the most famous and successful Latin music acts of all time, Enrique broke into English radio after two well-received Spanish albums thanks to the recommendations of Gerardo (the mugging asshole who sang 'Rico Suave'). And for a brief few years, Enrique Iglesias' fusion of Latin romance and high-energy dance tracks were a pretty potent force on the pop charts. And I'll admit, I bought into it: the production had flavour, Enrique's sincerity and passion overcame some of the questionable lyrics, and the man did have some real charisma. The man has made some killer songs that I enjoy to this day, and I won't apologize for it.

But the pop charts have always been fickle, and a few years later, Enrique Iglesias' career on English radio seemed to sputter out. His 2007 album went nowhere even though he was experimenting with a darker style, and even critics who had supported him in the past weren't exactly fond of it. So in 2010, he continued his reinvention from the smooth Latin lover into more of the club VIP, and thanks to collaborations with the other reinvented Latin artist Pitbull (people forget he used to make crunk music), he managed to leap back into the spotlight. This time, however, I wasn't onboard - the love-struck sincerity seemed less genuine now, and coupled with lyrics that were worse than ever in songs like 'Tonight (I'm Loving You)' or 'I Like It' or 'Dirty Dancer', and an abundance of sterile modern production and that sucked away his humanity, I was just about done with Enrique Iglesias.

So to be honest, I wasn't looking forward to covering this new album Sex and Love. Every step towards a rougher club/dance sound had made his music get worse, and considering initial buzz on this album was that it was sleazier than ever, I expected the worst. So what did I get?

Monday, March 17, 2014

video review: 'bring up the sun' by sundy best

Guess there can be a benefit to reading the comments after all. :)

Next up... oh yikes, Enrique Iglesias and Foster The People. Hold on, folks, this probably won't be pretty.

album review: 'bring up the sun' by sundy best

It's been almost six months since I made my Special Comment surrounding the evolving climate in country music, and where I made a plea to mainstream critics, on YouTube and otherwise, that country music should be afforded more coverage.

And for the most part, this has happened to some extent. Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and even Pitchfork have broadened their horizons slightly and have covered more country music - typically when it brushes either the pop or alternative spectra, but it's better than nothing. And yet at this current time, I'm still the only guy reviewing country music on YouTube, and honestly, I don't get it. Sure, it's a format that tends to cater to an older audience that might not be as web-savvy, and sure, it might have limited cultural force outside of the US, and sure, the people my age who are listening to country now probably haven't gotten all that invested in the genre - but still, it's a little jarring and a little lonely to see all the coverage that hip-hop, indie rock, pop, or even metal gets, and seemingly just me covering country. 

But then again, if it's just me talking, I've got a certain obligation to deliver not just quality reviews, but information and news about country acts of which you probably haven't heard - most of which I discover thanks to tips and accidents. I get annoyed with the lack of country music's web presence in comparison with other genres frequently, but the biggest contributing factor is that there isn't an aggregate. The coverage of alternative or indie country is so thin in comparison with other genres that it can be a real challenge to track down new acts, especially if they don't get mainstream radio airplay, and with the increased conglomeration of radio stations beneath single banners, a lot of local scenes end up getting lost in the shuffle.

This takes us to Sundy Best, a Kentucky-based act I would never have known existed if it wasn't for a tip in one of the comments. Primarily an acoustic country duo that called back to the days of singer-songwriters, they released their first album Door Without A Screen in 2012 that turned out surprisingly strong, with a lot of folk-inspired exuberance fused with fast-picked banjo and pretty clever songwriting. I won't say the album is without its flaws - the production has a strange lack of homegrown grit and texture that was a little perplexing, and I didn't think all of the lyrics were stellar - but they had a a melodic focus and a ton of energy, so I was interested in their sophomore album Bring Up The Sun, which came out a few weeks ago. How did it turn out?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

video review: 'kiss me once' by kylie minogue

Well, I didn't have much to say about this. Meh.

Next up is Sundy Best, then a pretty busy week coming up, including Foster The People, Enrique Iglesias, and more. Stay tuned!

album review: 'kiss me once' by kylie minogue

You know, for as much as I get annoyed by artists who don't understand their narrow range as performers, that's not saying that I find artists that have a limited skill set intolerable.

Far from it, actually, and this ties into my love of pop music - if you understand your strengths, you can work on honing that skill set into something truly potent, even if it never really reaches depth or intellectual transcendence. There's an argument to be made for music that knows what it is and works to be the best possible form of it, and that's why I have a certain amount of tolerance for shallow pop music - instead of making some grand edifying statement or approaching depth that's out of its league, it works on making the best possible example of its genre, and the music can be just as great.

Take Kylie Minogue for instance. Her music career began back in 1987 with her early albums backed by Stock, Aitken, and Waterman (the gentlemen behind the Rick Roll) and has tended to stick to one of two veins ever since: the fast-paced dance-pop track or cooing sex kitten love jams. And sure, you're not exactly getting a lot of depth in the sort of Europop in which Kylie Minogue specialized - the 'deepest' thing she's ever done was working with Nick Cave - but you did get a lot of great pop songs that got mainstream attention whenever the dance scene got popular on the charts. Thus, it's not exactly surprising her biggest career successes came in the very late 90s and early 2000s, when slick Europop briefly crossed onto the charts. 

And thus, it didn't exactly surprise me to see that Kylie Minogue was releasing a new album this year since her last album in 2010 - after all, given the rise of the festival scene, EDM, and even the modest disco revival of last year, it makes sense that Kylie Minogue would attempt yet another return to the spotlight, this time under the management of Jay Z's label Roc Nation. On the one hand, I was enthusiastic - if she was working with producers close to Jay Z, Pharrell was going to inevitably be involved and that's only a good thing. On the other hand, the other executive producer besides Minogue on this album is Sia, an artist who only seems to be getting more ephemeral and less tolerable the more she moves towards the mainstream - and Sia has more writing credits on this album than Minogue does. So with that in mind, is the album any good?

Friday, March 14, 2014

video review: 'i'm a fire' by david nail

Forgot to put this up last night. Oops.

Next up will probably be Kylie Minogue, but I'm not sure. We'll see. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

album review: 'i'm a fire' by david nail

I feel like releasing this particular review so close to that of the Eli Young Band really makes my job that much harder - because, in the danger of repeating myself, I never felt I got the full picture about David Nail by listening to the singles he sent to radio. Like the Eli Young Band, he debuted in the mainstream near the end of the 2000s and he's had a steady stream of modest hits on the country charts. Like the Eli Young Band, he has a slew of songwriting credits but most of his albums have been defined by the Nashville songwriting machine throwing credits his way. 

But unlike the Eli Young Band, every impression I got surrounding David Nail from his singles was universally negative. I don't know if it was his too-polished instrumentation, his voice that had a bit of presence but didn't quite have charm or raw passion, or the fact that his lyrics toed the line between condescending dickishness and unwittingly painting him as an asshole, but it didn't work for me whatsoever. I think part of the problem was that his singles were mostly break-up songs and were often instigated by his actions, and thus, I had little sympathy for the guy on songs like 'Let It Rain' - I'm sorry, you're not going to get me feel anything but disgust from me for your cheating, David Nail!

And when I heard the opening single from his new album 'Whatever She's Got', I was immediately steeling myself for the worst. It was the sort of bro-country love song I always find a little repulsive, a song about some capricious girl that David Nail was to screw - and what's worse is that the description of this girl is pretty far from flattering and David Nail doesn't come across much better. But then I reminded myself that David Nail is usually better than his singles and despite some deep misgivings on my part, and besides, there were some good songwriters and collaborations on the record, so it couldn't be that bad, right?

video review: 'young money: rise of an empire' by young money

Ugh, did not like this. Glad to get it out of my system.

Next up will be David Nail and then... hmmm, not sure. We'll see. Maybe Sundy Best, maybe Kylie Minogue, maybe finally take a crack at Real Estate. Either way, stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

album review: 'young money: rise of an empire' by young money

I should really be less surprised this album exists than I am.

Because honestly, I thought the 'Young Money' posse was effectively over, at least to the extent that any rap posse breaks up or rebrands itself. And I thought this happened last year with the new rap supergroup Rich Gang which released an compilation album that went nowhere. And thus, that was a sign we as a culture accepted Drake as the one mostly consistent break-out success and consigned everyone else to popular irrelevance, including Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne who both did not have good years in 2013.

Turns out I was mistaken in that regard, because Rich Gang as a supergroup is more of the project of Cash Money Records, which is owned by long-time rapper Birdman and has been around since the 90s. Young Money as a group and as a label is owned by Lil Wayne - and all of the artists with him are also co-signed to Cash Money so there's a ton of overlap. What this means is that Young Money as a group never really went away as its own entity - and thus it makes a fair amount of sense that Lil Wayne is reinvesting some energy into the project.

And let say something I don't really like to admit: Young Money is probably one of the few hip-hop supergroups that has produced multiple high-charting stars. Between Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and to a lesser extent Tyga, they've launched some pretty successful careers, and with the round of additional rappers finally getting launch albums through Young Money, it looks like Lil Wayne is set on recreating that success for the rest of the posse. Now I'm far from a multi-million dollar businessman, but if I were in Lil Wayne's shoes, I'd be more concerned with making sure my existing success stories remain success stories, because with maybe the exception of Drake, everything put out by Young Money, including from its flagship artists, has been wildly uneven in quality, especially from Lil Wayne himself!

In other words, I wasn't looking forward to another compilation album from the ever-growing Young Money ensemble, especially when there are guest stars called in from outside the label (doesn't that really defeat the purpose?). That being said, the last time they did this was in 2009 and it wasn't terrible, so how did it go this time?

Monday, March 10, 2014

video review: '10,000 towns' by the eli young band

Can't help but feel a little disappointed with this album, it should have been better. Eh, it happens.

Next up... oh, Young Money. Lovely.

album review: '10,000 towns' by the eli young band

So here's one of the frustrating things about mainstream country artists: since so many of them have songs written by other songwriters entirely, it can distort your mental picture of an act's identity. That tends to be a complaint at the root of a lot of critics' issues with bro-country: when so many of the songwriters come from the same camp and write for many different artists, acts that should have a distinctive voice begin to blur together.

But rarely has there been a case where my view of an act has been so sharply divided as when I'm talking about the Eli Young Band. They were around in the country underground as early as the mid-2000s, but they exploded into mainstream popularity in 2011 with Life At Best. And considering I was only following country radio and less distinctive albums around that period, I was perplexed that the Eli Young Band could have such a variance in quality, as 'Even If It Breaks Your Heart' was close to one of my favourite hit songs of 2012 and 'Crazy Girl' would have had a shot at being one of the worst. 

So in preparation for this review, I went back and listened through Life At Best, and surprise surprise, both songs were written by different songwriters - and neither were members of the Eli Young Band. 'Crazy Girl' was written by Lee Brice, one of the most meat-headed and devoid-of-insight songwriters working in bro-country right now, while 'Even If It Breaks Your Heart' was written by Eric Paslay, who I reviewed a month or so back and whose debut album is only getting better every time I listen to it. But even with that, I didn't have a picture of how the Eli Young Band represented themselves, so I went deeper and...

Well, they aren't bad, but they didn't really stand out much for me. I liked the heavier guitars, the good lyrical flow, and the melancholy elements that were well-characterized and smartly delivered, but between the sloppy and often flat production and the strange dreariness that bogged down and homogenized parts of the album, I wouldn't call it a great record. And thus, I didn't know what to expect when I took a look at their newest album 10,000 Towns. They had about the same number of songwriting credits, but initial buzz suggested it had a bit of a lighter tone. So, how did it go?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

video review: 'st. vincent' by st. vincent

Well, this was an intellectual adventure, and one I enjoyed the entire way.

Next up will be the Eli Young Band... and then Young Money and David Nail. Hold on, folks, this might not be pretty.

album review: 'st. vincent' by st. vincent

The term 'indie pop' has always got on my nerves. Not the music (for the most part), but the genre term itself. Springing up in the mid-80s, it describes music that was too weird or off-beat for the mainstream, but had a more melodic focus and was less characterized by angst. What always got on my nerves was the connotation associated with the genre: that simply being an indie act gave them music critic credibility they didn't always deserve. Furthermore, it denigrated pop music as corporate and derivative - and yeah, that's often true, but it's hard to deny that musical trends started in the indie scene often cross over into pop music or mainstream culture at large, and sometimes mainstream acts can do it just as well. And let's not forget, there was a point in the 90s where big chunks of the indie pop scene was enthusiastically embraced by adult alternative, shoegaze, emo, and even mainstream pop music (the 90s were weird like that).

And honestly, a lot of it really sucked. Sure, there were gems in the rough, but a large reason I don't love 90s alternative music like most critics is because the twee explosion of indie pop often fell into gutless bland garbage that didn't have the brains or deeper insight to back up the pretentiousness. And look, while I get everyone has different tastes, the 'revolt into childhood' (the embrace of twee innocence and focusing on living little ordinary lives) attitude has never ever been something I've liked. And since most of it involved fitting with a very white, middle-class, mostly educated ideal, it always felt trite, small, and in the end not exactly progressive or all that intellectual. And if you embraced the 'twee' attitudes ironically, that was even worse, because not only were you promoting by association, you lost the best element of good indie pop which was the heartfelt earnestness. 

And with the growth of 90s nostalgia, the revival of the 'hipster ideal', and the increased mainstream success of the indie scene, I feel that some of these trends are going to be coming back. And from a cultural standpoint, it makes a lot of sense - my generation is less cynical than Gen X, we're a lot less embarrassed of liking the sillier elements of our past, and many of the 'revolt to childhood' ideals aren't far from the truth when people my age can't get jobs and are stuck living with their parents. But to some extent, these trends aren't exactly healthy for long term mature cultural development, just as Gen X cynicism wasn't precisely healthy either. It's because of these trends, for instance, that tropes like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exist and have widespread popularity.

Enter St. Vincent, the stage name of Annie Clark, singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso. Her name was originally taken from a Nick Cave song, and honestly, it's kind of a perfect fit because St. Vincent has a very similar brand of subversive darkness to her material. Starting with her debut album Marry Me, she's made a point of taking twee indie pop elements and tropes and then undercutting them with a seething, disturbing madness, and it's incredibly effective in a very baroque sense. It also helps matters that she's an incredibly inventive and talented songwriter, and all of her work has been pretty damn close to great. And thus, I was looking forward to delving into her new self-titled album, which early buzz was suggesting was even more weird and twisted than previous releases. And thus, I took some time to really delve into this record, try to dig deep and parse it out - what did I find?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

video review: 'oh, what a life' by american authors

Wow, this was a fun surprise. A good palette cleanser, especially considering what might be coming up in coming weeks.

Next up... shit, I've got no idea. Stay tuned, anyhow, it'll be coming soon!

album review: 'oh, what a life' by american authors

Well, we knew this was going to happen eventually. We knew that someday, some major label executive was going to notice the smash chart success of The Lumineers and The Neighbourhood and Bastille and think, "Oh god, indie rock has actually scored a foothold on the charts, how the hell are we going to capitalize on this without signing an act that's actually challenging or hard to market?"

Well, the funny thing is that there really are a lot of bands in this vein, just indie-sounding enough to avoid the pop brush but not so indie that Pitchfork gives a damn about them. Acts that you might know and like for 'that one song' but would be hard-pressed to call yourself a hardcore fan. In other words, we're looking at a silent majority act, or, to be a little more snide, the indie rock that gets popular thanks to commercial jingles or showing up on sitcoms. And while you have acts like Bloc Party, Vampire Weekend, and Deafheaven who have shaken the silent majority label by actually being critical smash hits, most critics don't tend to care much about bands in this vein.

Enter American Authors, formerly called The Blue Pages when they were still trying to build buzz on Bandcamp. After two independently-released EPs, they landed a major label contract with Mercury in early 2013 and have since then seen their songs feature in mainstream ads around the world. And like with Alex Clare's 'Too Close' from 2012, this has led their big hit single 'Best Day Of My Life' to gain some major traction on mainstream radio. My initial judgement of them based on that single were as a cross between The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons (in other words, the marketer's wet dream), but I've been surprised by bands in this vein before and I didn't want to brand them as derivative without giving them a fair chance, so I gave their debut album a few spins. How did it turn out?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

video review: 'mastermind' by rick ross

Well, this wasn't much fun. Gah.

Next up, not sure. Right now, I need to make sure I get some sleep. Stay tuned!

album review: 'mastermind' by rick ross

I have never, ever been able to understand Rick Ross' appeal.

And by this point, I probably should have an idea why this guy is famous, but for the life of me, it's not clicking. Rick Ross released his debut album in 2006 and ever since then, we've been inundated by hits from this guy, none of which have impressed me. His reported 'best' album was Teflon Don back from 2010, and if we're looking for admittedly well-produced luxury porn, I guess Rick Ross delivers, but that's not a version of escapism I find attractive or all that interesting. Maybe it's because I look at that sort of music as walking advertisement from all the brands he mentions in his songs, and sure, I get the appeal of luxury rap, but wouldn't you want a better rapper spitting those lines?

Because here's the problem: while he has gotten better, I've never thought Rick Ross as a good rapper on a technical level. What's worse is that I can't exactly look past how transparently phony elements of his persona are - sure, he's rich as all hell, I can buy into that side of his rapping, but when he talks about hustling coke or blowing away his rivals, I find it hard to buy in comparison to a guy, to take a recent example, like Schoolboy Q. At least at his peak, Rick Ross' appeal was that of the crime boss, but maybe it was a lack of charisma, his inconsistent technique, or the fact that he was frequently blown off the stage by his many, many collaborators in the Master P school of making albums, but I was always underwhelmed by the guy. Where he wanted to come across as Vito Corleone, I always saw Luco Brazzi. And when you throw insulting trash like the 'U.O.E.N.O' verse from last year onto the mix and the complete lack of stage presence appeal in the 50 Cent mold, I was just about done with Rick Ross.

But yet, he still gets positive reviews and that utterly mystifies me. And since I'm always one to give artists a chance to surprise me, I gave his newest album Mastermind a few listens. How did it turn out?

video review: 'louder' by lea michele

Ugh, this album really should have been better. Exasperated that it isn't. Gah.

Next up... fuck, I have no clue. We'll see what happens, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

album review: 'louder' by lea michele

Ugh, I might as well admit it: I used to be a huge fan of Glee.

And I'm not really apologetic for that, either. Glee burst into pop culture in 2009 and turned itself into a cultural force capable of propelling songs and artists into the popular consciousness. And as much as it's incredibly easy to rip on the show's sloppy continuity and characterization, haphazard writing, and ham-fisted treatment of some special issues and criminally fumbled treatment of others, there are moments where Glee actually earned some of the critical praise it got, thanks to good actors, emotionally satisfying arcs, and shockingly good covers (well, at least for most of the first two seasons - things really went off the rails in Season 3 where they started burning through plots like kindling and anything close to sanity went out the window in the writer's room). 

Now, I stopped watching at the end of Season 3, mostly because Glee pulled off a genuinely season ending and I didn't need to see more, and since then, I've been reading the episode reviews on The AV Club and Autostraddle, which have proven to be often more entertaining than the episodes themselves. But there was a time back early in Glee's run that I was really into the show, almost going so far as to making an audition tape for The Glee Project (that none of you will ever find). But back when I watched the show, there was one character who drove me off the wall - and that character was Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele. That wasn't saying that she was a bad singer - she had stepped off of Spring Awakening and had a ton of natural stage presence and charisma - but that her character could be so mind-bogglingly annoying and self-obsessed. And in retrospect, my annoyance was likely linked to the fact I shared those particular traits and refused to admit it to myself.

But putting that aside, Lea Michele has finally done like many of her fellow cast have done and have started to move towards a solo direction. Now, Glee hasn't exactly had a good reputation turning its cast into stars away from the show. Matthew Morrison's solo career really hasn't taken off, Darren Criss has done some Broadway, and Heather Morris will likely just go back to dancing with Beyonce (so no worse, but no better either). The one who has probably done the most is Chris Colfer, who wrote a best-selling children's book and wrote/directed/starred-in a pretty decent indie film Struck By Lightning. And while I suspect Lea Michele will end up going back to Broadway eventually, she's trying her hand at pop stardom with her debut album Louder. How did it turn out?

Monday, March 3, 2014

video review: 'g i r l' by pharrell williams

Well, this happened. Can't imagine the controversy that'll come with this one...

On another note, it's taking me a lot longer than I'd like to get through St. Vincent's material, half because I'm enjoying it as much as I am, but also half because this week will probably kill me in terms of the amount of material I need to get through, plus keep my full-time job and a semi-functioning social life. Strap in folks, this might get wild.

album review: 'g i r l' by pharrell

It's always a little worrying when producers step out from behind the sound board and try to make hits of their own.

And I know that sounds terrible, but it circles back to the fact that it's extremely rare that a genuinely gifted producer will be a smash performer, and vice-versa, because while there is some overlap in their skill sets, it's incredibly rare to find someone who can handle both effectively. In modern years, the one that immediately leaps to my mind is Timbaland, who worked with Justin Timberlake and even had a few hits of his own throughout the mid-2000s, songs that might not have been amazing but Timbaland's unique baritone and some decent charisma gave the songs some staying power. But even with that, I'd have a hard time calling his material as a frontman amazing because there was something of a calculated element to his presentation. It was a little stiff, a little awkward, something you never saw in his beats, and that lack of comfort does show in front of a microphone. Then again, when compared to, the other beat-making producer who stepped out from behind the mic and and showed nothing but disinterest for the idea of recording lyrics that made sense and sounded anything close good, Timbaland holds up pretty well.

Now to his credit, the artist we're going to be talking about today has never really seemed to have this problem. Pharrell Williams may have started his career in the same era as Timbaland as a member of The Neptunes with Chad Hugo, making slick R&B and hip-hop jams, but his career got a major boost thanks to 'Get Lucky' and 'Blurred Lines' doing so well last year. That, plus his many production credits, some solid live performances, and that ubiquitous hat have led him to drop his second solo album. And from the early buzz, it became apparent that Pharrell wants to be a star all on his own this time, as his newest record was reported to be a feminist borderline-concept album celebrating the place of women in society. Let me repeat that: an album with strong feminist themes, written in the wake of the controversy over 'Blurred Lines', controversy that I will go on record saying was overblown even though that song did contain seriously questionable elements, written by a man.

...well, you might as well hot-link Jezebel and your local MRA forum, because I'm bound to offend somebody in this review, so before I inevitably shoot myself in the foot, how's the album?