Saturday, May 31, 2014

video review: 'good to be home' by blu

Man, it took entirely too long to get this video out, but between social schedule, moving plans, and the Roots discography I'm powering through (plus, you know, a full-time job and shit), it's to be expected.

Next up will be whatever I can get to next before June kicks into gear. Stay tuned!

album review: 'good to be home' by blu

The more I think about it, the more grateful I am that The Alchemist and Evidence dropped the excellent album Lord Steppington very early in the year. See, I'll admit that it's been a learning process for me to discover more acts in the hip-hop underground, and considering they brought on so many names onto that record to collaborate, I got a sampler of a whole selection of artists I might not have heard before. And considering most of them delivered solid lyrics, it definitely got me interested in future projects.

The first one that jumped out at me was Styles P's last album, which was pretty solid, but he was coming from gangsta rap of which I was at least somewhat familiar. But Blu was a different act entirely - originally debuting the mid-2000s with the extremely solid Below The Heavens and inspired by both gangsta and conscious rap with a hint of a Christian angle, Blu's jagged career trajectory has been interesting, if a little concerning for his fanbase. Between the No!York release which came just after his very brief tenure with Warner Records and a selection of EPs and projects that really were a mixed bag, I wasn't sure what I was going to be getting with his newest album, especially because I didn't really like his verse on his track on Lord Steppington, 'Tomorrow'. Admittedly, part of the problem was the beat on that track, but Blu's verse wasn't all that stellar and I wasn't impressed with his flow.

That said, I wasn't about to ignore his new album Good To Be Home, half because the collaboration list looked pretty impressive. Not only was a double disk with collaborations with The Alchemist and Evidence and Fashawn, but LMNO was also reportedly on the album as well, whose album After The Fact was one of my favourite hip-hop releases of last year. And I figured, hey, with such a rich list of collaborators, it'd probably be pretty interesting, right?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

video review: 'with love from brushy mountain' by matt woods

Well, this came together quickly, but overall I'm happy with this album. Not a lot to really say about the good albums, but it makes my job that much easier.

Next up will probably be Blu, so stay tuned!

album review: 'with love from brushy mountain' by matt woods

I think it's safe to say that any critic of any stripe has pet peeves of some kind. For me, almost two hundred reviews in, they should be obvious for any long time viewer. I don't like Autotune or reverb used when it's not needed, I don't like it when rappers rhyme words with themselves, I find unjustified macho posturing to get tiresome, I goddamn hate the chipmunk voice effect, you get the drill.

But believe it or not, there are also a few elements that will tend to win me over almost immediately when it comes to music - if you're looking for areas that some would brand as 'bias', it'd be here. Musically, it comes to well-composed melody lines, rollicking guitar riffs, organ riffs, that peculiar synthesizer tone that Arjen Lucassen uses on nearly all of his projects, well-harmonized vocals, a perfectly executed dramatic crescendo, you get the picture. But beyond that, there are subjects that tend to draw my attention as well, both within and across genres.

And a decidedly odd one is the presence of prisons in country music. Brought most to the forefront by Johnny Cash with his legendary live album At Folsom Prison, to me it strikes a potent balance between the rough-edged flavour of outlaw country and the confrontations of morality and often mortality that rest at the heart of the genre's best material. Maybe it's the addition of real consequences that adds dramatic stakes, but if I hear about a record featuring prisons prominently in country music, more often than not I'm going to dig it up. 

So when the country underground started to buzz about the new album from relative unknown Matt Woods titled With Love From Brushy Mountain, named for a famous penitentiary that once housed the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., I knew I had to check it out eventually. Tennessee native Matt Woods was a relative unknown until his breakout single release last year with 'Deadman's Blues' - was there any way he could live up to the acclaim that song got?

video review: 'me. i am mariah... the elusive chanteuse' by mariah carey

Huh, I wonder which video will get more hate, this or the Special Comment. Either way, I'm glad to have gotten two birds with one stone here.

Next up... well, it's a bit of a slow week, so we'll see. I might surprise you, so stay tuned!

Monday, May 26, 2014

album review: 'me, i am mariah... the elusive chanteuse' by mariah carey

What do I say about Mariah Carey? What can I say?

Because at this point, Mariah's career has spanned almost twenty five years, a dozen albums, and more than her fair share of acclaim and influence. She's a performer whose iconic vocal delivery defined a decade of singers in R&B and pop, and whose range could rarely be matched if at all. And over a decade since her critical heyday in the 90s, her fans are still as devoted as ever. And yet for me...

Well, it's complicated. It's pretty much unquestioned that Mariah made four or five great albums in the 90s and then things kind of went awry. I can't say that I've ever really liked any of the material she released in the 2000s, even the hit singles that somehow managed to dominate the charts again and again. And yet even on that note, Mariah has never really evoked a lot of strong feelings in me other than admiration for her incredible voice and technique. What makes Mariah special is that she makes it all look so easy and fun, and it shows off her prodigious talent for emotionally compelling delivery every time. But on the other hand, Mariah Carey is not exactly an R&B act who I can say I really love. I'm not denying there's a place for her vocals, but there's also a fine line between making it look easy and looking like you're not trying, and there are albums where that line blurs more often than not, especially in the early 2000s. And as a fan of strong lyrics, I've never found Mariah to be a stellar lyricist, and I often find her songs underwritten in favour of vocal histrionics. And the fact that she popularized vocal gymnastics for their own sake in songs throughout the 90s was a large reason that that era of R&B never stuck with me.

But even acknowledging that she's an icon, she's not one that's been at her best for over a decade now. The days of Daydream and Butterfly are long gone, and frankly, I'm a little surprised she's continuing to put out music. Given how many records she's sold and the fact that's she's in her forties and has kids, she doesn't need to keep making albums, especially if they aren't going to be anything as ambitious as her earlier material. But since she decided to put out a new album with a monumentally misleading title, I figured it was time I checked in to see if our 'elusive chanteuse' was going to delivery anything close to her old brand of quality. Did that happen?

special comment: a message to PUAs, MRAs, and #notallmen

I've been planning to do this Special Comment for months now. As a music critic and observer of popular culture, I've felt compelled to speak out on this issue time and time again, and yet I was unsure of the time and place. I wasn't sure if I was the person to say something, as someone who is very much aware of his own privilege when it comes to where I got to where I am.

And yet in the wake of the Elliot Rodger shooting and the disquieting aftermath, I feel obliged to say something - and as a cultural critic and one who has a reputation for not mincing words especially on topics of social justice, I'd argue it'd be worse if I didn't. 

So to begin, this message goes out to three groups: pick-up artists, those who deem themselves men's rights activists, and, well, everyone else. Friendly warning here, I'm going to say some very uncomfortable things and I'm not looking for praise for saying this. Hell, I'm expecting to piss a lot of you off and lose subscribers thanks to this comment. But for me, what I'm going to say is common sense, fundamental truths by which I live - and you might not share them, but I hope you respect the frankness and honesty in which they are delivered.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

video review: 'to be kind' by swans

I'm actually pretty damn proud of how this video turned out. Probably one of the more difficult reviews to articulate that I've written, and it looks pretty solid.

Okay, next up is Mariah. Stay tuned!

Friday, May 23, 2014

album review: 'to be kind' by swans

There are certain rock bands that if you mention them in polite conversation, you'll have pegged yourself as a hardcore music nerd. Bands that critics love but who have never scored a hit on any chart of which you've ever heard - or you know, maybe just the one song, but it's a song that the fans will swear isn't representative of the band at all. Bands that have vast discographies of albums critics and hardcore fans will talk about for hours while everyone else in the room shrugs and goes back to their beer. 

And as a newer critic who's always hunting for more music, it's always been a difficult and yet vastly rewarding challenge to go through these discographies. Last year for me was Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Push The Sky Away ended up on my list of favourite albums of that year. And this year, the challenge looked even greater, as I was now tackling a band with a monstrous reputation in a genre up to a few years ago I wouldn't have even called music. 

The band was called Swans, originating the early 80s as an act in the no-wave scene, focused less on cohesive melodies and lyrical songs than crushing percussion, musical textures, and guttural phrases repeated into a mantra. It was a musical philosophy that flew in the face of what I liked in music... and yet by the time I got to Children of God, they had won me over wholesale. Perhaps it was the moment they opted for a slightly more melodic approach, but Swans' brand of punishing viscera was effective beyond that, primal, emotionally gripping, and genuinely unsettling, but also nuanced and frequently beautiful and outside of a brief moment on a major label with The Burning World, some of the most inspired compositions I'd heard in a while, with the biggest highlights for me being the thought-provoking Children Of God and the damn near inspired The Great Annihilator.

And thus I can only imagine how it felt for Swans fans in the late 90s when the band broke up after Soundtracks for the Blind. And yet in 2010, the band reformed with a new lineup and released My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, which was a decent return but not quite up to the standards of their truly amazing material, just feeling a little underweight. Thankfully, Swans kicked things into harsher gears with The Seer in 2012, and now they're back with their newest album To Be Kind, which is so far one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year. So with that in mind, how did it go?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

video review: 'sorry i'm late' by cher lloyd

Well, this was... well, not really fun, but interesting to say the least.

Okay, next up... you know, I'm pretty close to being ready to talk about either Swans or Mariah Carey, but I might need one more album in between... so stay tuned!

album review: 'sorry i'm late' by cher lloyd

I have a complicated relationship with Simon Cowell. On the one hand, I have a certain amount of respect for him as a businessman, and his critical feedback on shows like American Idol always held the most weight to me because he wasn't about to mince words and not tell it like it is. Sure, he was abrasive and obnoxious, but as a record executive with an eye for what tended to get popular in mainstream music, I completely got his motivation in finding and crafting pop acts into something fit to sell.

On the other hand, he also has a reputation for being responsible for promoting some of the blandest, most interchangeable pop music alive, the sort of power-chord heavy shallow dreck that you can only take so far. The man has made a killing making disposable music and shoving artists through the meat grinder. The acts with personality, like Kelly Clarkson, survive. The rest go the route of myriad Idol and X Factor finalists and even winners and vanish into obscurity.

And much to my surprise, Cher Lloyd seemed to be one of the acts from one of his shows who had a real crack at keeping her career alive, when in reality, it should have been dead on arrival. I'm not denying the girl has charisma and a good voice, but a song like 'Swagger Jagger' should have been the last thing anyone heard from her because that song is awful. And when she crossed over to the States and released 'Want U Back', I was amazed again that her career didn't fade instantly. Because while 'Swagger Jagger' was its own unique brand of bad, 'Want U Back' was one of the worst songs of 2012, a near-unlistenable brand of bitchiness, bad instrumentation, and the fusion of bad Avril Lavigne and Kesha reject demos. 

In other words, Cher Lloyd has had her two strikes, and thus I was inclined to be charitable going into her delayed sophomore album Sorry I'm Late. And I didn't expect this to be good - the only song I've ever liked associated with Cher Lloyd was 'Really Don't Care', the deep-cut duet she had on Demi Lovato's last album. But on the other hand, this was a record that was recorded with conflict between Cher Lloyd and Simon Cowell's label Syco Records, which was at least promising. So did Cher Lloyd prove me wrong?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

video review: 'behind the light' by phillip phillips

See, that's what I was talking about. One take, and it looks great. Shame the uploads keep sputtering out midway - need to figure out why that keeps happening.

Up next will probably be Cher Lloyd, because I need more time to tackle the twin monsters of Mariah Carey and Swans. Stay tuned!

album review: 'behind the light' by phillip phillips

So as I’ve mentioned a few times, I don’t really watch reality TV. Part of it is a factor of me not owning a TV and getting anything I’d want to watch online, but partially because most of the reality singing competitions just don’t really interest me. I mean, American Idol might have been a big deal about a decade ago, but you can’t say it is in the same way now.

Or can you? The late-period American Idol winners haven’t been all that bad upon closer examination. After all, I liked more of Scotty McCreery’s sophomore album than I was expecting, even so far as naming ‘Feel Good Summer Song’ as one of my favourite tracks of 2013. But of the late-period winners from that show, the one that really struck my attention was Phillip Phillips, a folk singer-songwriter who stepped up to the plate with a lot more character and personality than you normally see in reality show winners. And his debut album was surprisingly strong in that regard, bucking the trend of Idol winners delivering flavourless garbage on their debut record in order to maintain as much of their Idol audience as possible.

Now that’s not saying that album was flawless. Plenty of critics made the Dave Matthews Band comparison, and that’s not without merit, especially considering the frontman with solid acoustic guitar skills and a grittier voice singing about artfully crafted, if broadly sketched subject matter. For me, his production was a little cleaner than I’d normally like to see in folk rock, and there were definitely moments of clumsiness in his songwriting that stood out. But then again, the guy was also younger than me, the album was rushed together in two months, and it was his debut record, so I was willing to be forgiving here. And coming into his sophomore album Behind The Light, I wondered if Phillips might stand out a little better now that the brief folk rock revival of late 2012 had petered out. So I gave the album a couple listens – how did it go?

video review: 'just as i am' by brantley gilbert

God, this review. Fourteen takes, multiple reshoots, and a failed upload to boot. What should have taken two hours took seven.

Next up... bleh, too tired. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

album review: 'just as i am' by brantley gilbert

I've been looking forward to doing this review for weeks now.

Because sometimes you just know, when you sit down to write one of these things that you've got a record in your sights that will give you plenty of material with which to talk about. An album from an artist that I actually tolerated when I got back into mainstream country without really liking him. An album that from its opening single heralded something that sent a quiver of anticipation down my spine.

Not from the expectation that the album was going to be any good, mind you. Brantley Gilbert may have showed up in the country rock scene before bro-country took hold, but he bears the worst parts of the archetype, a sneering douchebag who traded in alpha male machismo and southern pandering in the cheapest way possible. I appreciate that he has the main writing credits on all of his material, because it made his songwriting much easier to castigate as the grabbag of formless country cliches that it was, especially on that last album. And speaking as both a country fan and a metalhead, I was never really impressed by his brand of country rock, which always felt too sterile and compromised to really fill in the gap between the two genres in a way like Whiskey Myers or Hank Williams III do easily. In fact, an easy comparison from his brand of self-serious, minor-key saturated post-grunge inspired country rock is Nickelback, but even if you don't like Chad Kroeger or his howl of a voice, you can at least admit he can sing and has real stage presence. Brantley Gilbert, on the other hand, has a delivery so flat and disaffected that I got nothing but smug obnoxiousness from his presentation. 

So yeah, I was looking forward to Just As I Am by Brantley Gilbert - in the same way I've been looking forward to Chris Brown's perpetually delayed album, and that is to give it the righteous thrashing it deserves. And off of the basis of 'Bottoms Up', an early front-runner to one of the worst hit songs of 2014, and the noted collaboration with Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore, I expected this album to blow and went in with zero expectations. Did Brantley Gilbert manage to surprise me?

Well, he did – because this album honestly isn’t as terrible as I was expecting. I went in expecting a disaster, and as much as I’d like to continue with my established idea and slam the album regardless, I can’t, in good conscience, admit that’s the case. So yeah, I was wrong, Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am isn’t really that bad at all. In fact, it’s actually quite passable, let down by a terrible lead-off single and an image of douchebaggery that Brantley Gilbert has cultivated, likely to his own detriment. Now that’s not saying this album is anything close to great, or even is all that good, but call it the benefit of lowered expectations because I can’t really hate this record.

Let’s start with the instrumentation – and honestly, it’s no-frills country rock: power chords, solid basslines and decent melodies, and enough distortion to rock but not too much to jump into metal. And yeah, the guitars have less texture than I’d prefer and the solos are not impressive, but to Gilbert’s credit, he does steer clear of the majority of bad musical gimmicks you normally see in bro-country. There are no electronic effects or unnecessary autotune, there are no attempts to have a rapping cadence, and there are even elements of organ and gospel that harken more to blues-inspired hard rock in the Whitesnake vein than post-grunge, which I definitely liked. That’s not saying all the melodies are stellar – I’m fairly certain ’17 Again’ took its opening riff from Our Lady Peace’s hit ‘Somewhere Out There’ – but the guitar tones are richer and the guitar-driven hooks are memorable enough, especially from ‘My Baby’s Guns ‘N Roses’ and ‘Lights Of My Hometown’. Now make no mistake, ‘Bottoms Up’ is still an atrocious song: the guitar tone feels jacked from bad down-tuned nu metal and the sullen melody line does not fit in the slightest with the bro-country party lyrics. It’s telling that there are songs like ‘Lights Of My Hometown’ and the Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore collaboration ‘Small Town Throwdown’ that execute a similar style a fair bit better. And yeah, ‘Small Town Throwdown’ is leering and stupid and painfully recycled, but it’s a better brand of it, mostly because the instrumentation has some sleazy grime, Justin Moore only gets one verse and Thomas Rhett is confined to occasional snippets, and Brantley Gilbert is significantly more convincing as a bro asshole than the lot of them, and he gets a certain grudging respect from me for that.

In fact, that might be one of the main factors that makes Brantley Gilbert at least marginally more tolerable in my eyes: he might be a swaggering alpha male, but he’s at least convincing and sincere in that role and doesn’t play up the obnoxiousness. Yeah, ‘If You Want A Bad Boy’ might play in the same field as most bro-country, but it’s at least got enough self-awareness to question whether or not the sweet girl really wants to follow his path. It does help to make songs like ‘My Baby’s Guns ‘N Roses’ slightly more believable, and I’ll give Gilbert credit for cramming that song full of as many references to that act as he possibly can. And while I might not like the flag-waving jingoism in ‘One Hell of An Amen’, the uber-patriotism is downplayed in favour of talking about how a man should face death and his God, and on a certain level, I definitely respect that. And since I’m not one to disrespect a man’s faith, I can definitely appreciate the sentiment behind ‘My Faith In You’, where Gilbert worries about how he’d react if he lost his faith. Now granted, I don’t think the dramatic stakes of the song are anywhere near as strong as, say, Dierks Bentley’s crisis of faith on ‘Here On Earth’, but Gilbert does his best to sell it.

That sincerity might be Gilbert’s biggest strength as a performer, and it makes the two best songs of the album, ‘That Was Us’ and ‘Let It Ride’, stand out a fair bit. ‘That Was Us’ is a song about old times and reconnecting with old friends, and it’s at least honest enough to capture elements like the big talk and special bond some bros have. And ‘Let It Ride’ is as good of a ‘love’ song as you’d find on this album, with Gilbert’s hesitation in the second verse when she wants a commitment before swearing to be true really coming across as sincere and kind of earned to me – it worked. That said, the other ‘relationship’ focused song on this record is ‘I’m Gone’ and is directed at ex-girlfriend and fellow country singer Jana Kramer. And while I don’t really like the song, I’ll give him some credit for marginally fair framing and not engaging in wishy-washy nonsense in the hopes of leading her on.

And then I started wondering, I’m giving this album a lot more credit and being a lot more fair to it than even I expected, so is there a possibility that I might end up liking this album? Because if I’m being honest, this album calls back to a lot of the shallow hard rock I love, and it’s self-aware enough to fit that role well – so why isn’t it clicking in the same way? Well, it all comes back to Brantley Gilbert himself: because like it or not, Gilbert isn’t Axl Rose and his vocals are easily the biggest strike against this album, at least for me. Now I get why he’s singing like this: having a grimy rasp is likely considered ‘cooler’ and more appropriate for his swaggering bro ‘bad boy’ image, and I don’t deny it has texture – but speaking as a singer, what it also does is painfully limit his vocal range and hurt him when he’s trying to come across as more emotional or sincere. I’m not saying he doesn’t try – I can tell he’s trying to emote more than his delivery allows, and I’ll give him credit for that – but his voice does very little for me, and it doesn’t help when he references hard rock tropes that get me thinking about better singers.

So in the end… you know, I really didn’t think I’d be in this position, but I’m seriously debating whether or not to recommend this album. The melodies and hooks are well done, but the solos and texture were seriously lacking. The lyrics aren’t especially creative and they can get pretty meat-headed, but their sincerity and occasional flashes of nuance and wordplay show promising signs of a better songwriter. And Gilbert’s vocals might not be my thing, but you can tell he’s pushing his range and he’s at least aware of his limits and what this record set out to be. So here’s what I’ll do: I’m giving this album a strong 5/10, but if you’re more of a fan of Brantley Gilbert’s vocals and they don’t bother you as much as they do me, check this album out. Yeah, it’s bro-country rock in every sense of the word, and I won’t call it even the best in this subgenre, but it’s a purer brand of it than most, and I’ve definitely heard worse. After all, the album is titled Just As I Am, and I can’t really deny that it is exactly that.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

video review: 'ghost stories' by coldplay

Man, this review was a struggle to write. It just inspired nothing in me whatsoever, and as a Coldplay fan, it's really disappointing.

Next up... honestly, not sure yet. We'll see.

album review: 'ghost stories' by coldplay

I think Coldplay has a worse reputation than they deserve.

Yes, they tend to get lumped into the category of silent majority acts, bands adored by the mainstream but generally viewed outside of the mainstream as making crowd-pleasing pablum, and yes, they've written more than their fair share of broadly sketched, saccharine trifle, and yes, Chris Martin can be a preening, pretentious dick, but when you take a step away from all of that, is Coldplay really all that bad?

Honestly, I don't think so. I'm not going to thrash a band for being accessible if they make good music along the way, and I'd be hard-pressed to deny that Coldplay has written some great melodies and decent lyrics throughout the course of their career. I think part of the issue with Coldplay is the undeserved hype behind them and I remember the push for the band as the next stadium rock act in the vein of U2. But while I can say Coldplay puts on a great show, having seen them live in 2009 when they toured with Snow Patrol, they're playing in a different wheelhouse than a band like U2, in instrumentation and especially in songwriting. 

But around the mid-to-late 2000s, things started to shift with Coldplay. They started working with Markus Dravs and Brian Eno when they released the slightly more experimental Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, which remains my favourite Coldplay album for amping up their epic scope into something with some actual teeth. They then tried for a concept album with Mylo Xyloto, and while I'm still not really a fan of that record, I do respect the band for sticking with Eno and trying something new. Granted, I couldn't take Chris Martin's bad pretentions behind asinine lyrics remotely seriously, and the autotune was completely unnecessary, I can't really call the album more than just a slight misfire for me.

But when I started hearing the first singles from Coldplay's newest album Ghost Stories, I was immediately worried. Not only did they seem softer and weaker than ever, they seemed to be opting for a drearier, ambient tone, the same sort that's been smothering indie rock like a plague for the past year. In other words, I had nothing but bad feeling about this album going into it: was I wrong?

Friday, May 16, 2014

video review: 'rewind' by rascal flatts

Well, that was worth a good laugh, I can tell you that. Not a good album by a long shot, but man, I needed that burst of humour. Review was a ton of fun to film too.

Next up will be Coldplay - I just need more time to deal with Swans, so be patient, it's coming.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

album review: 'rewind' by rascal flatts

I've said before that there was a period in my life where I drifted away from country music. And it wasn't because of any teenage rebellion or any nonsense like that, but there was just a period of time on mainstream country radio where I was getting nothing out of the music. It felt soulless and generic or lacking any sort of genuine emotion or feeling, and it wasn't as if it evoked a response from me other than just apathy. And I hate saying that about a genre I love, but I can't deny the facts that throughout the mid-to-late 2000s, outside of a few artists I couldn't be less interested in country music.

And of the many acts that got huge in that time frame, the band I blame the most was Rascal Flatts. For me, they were always the spiritual successors to Lonestar, in that they performed a lot of soaring, middle-of-the-road pop country and had very limited writing credits on their material. But unlike Lonestar's Richie McDonald with the pipes and passion to back up his material, you had Gary Levox, a singer who delivers his middle-of-the-road pablum with a smile as plastic as his music, and voice that did nothing for me whatsoever. It's telling that Rascal Flatts signed to Big Machine in 2010 and joined in with artists affiliated with Taylor Swift, because at their worst, both acts produce the same sort of utterly empty pop-country with not a hint of texture or depth in sight. 

And thus, I couldn't tell you how much I was dreading a review of this album, especially after the lip-syncing debacle at the American Country Music awards this year and the rumours that their newest album Rewind was an attempt to modernize their sound. And even though I've been reasonable with pop country acts like Keith Urban, Danielle Bradbury, Dan + Shay, and even Hunter Hayes in the past, there was nothing you could tell me that would make me think this album was good. But then that terrible voice in my head that's actively encouraging me to review Brantley Gilbert's upcoming atrocity spoke up and whispered, 'Dude, you can't judge an album fairly until you give it a chance to prove you wrong.' And yeah, that's true, so I picked up Rascal Flatts Rewind over continuing to work through the Swans discography or revisiting Mariah Carey's discography in preparation for her new album or even just relistening to Sturgill Simpson's new record for the dozenth time because that album explodes country awesomeness from every pore. Was Rascal Flatts worth it?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

video review: 'turn blue' by the black keys

Well, this was an interesting record to talk about. Once again, not exactly good, but definitely intriguing.

Okay, I'm going to talk about Rascal Flatts, because I listened to the album and hoo boy, this'll be fun...

album review: 'turn blue' by the black keys

If you're a male music fan, there is one statement I can make definitively: over some period of time, either in the past, present, or now, you will be a fan of the Black Keys.

For me, that period of fandom lasted about three weeks in the middle of August 2013. That's not saying I don't like the Black Keys or think they aren't a solid rock band drawing back to the grimy, lo-fi era of garage rock, but my fandom of this act has receded a fair bit over the months the more I've had a chance to reflect on their music. After all, the band's greatest strengths have been their knack for textured, rough-edged melody-driven hooks with a swaggering blues-inspired edge. But here's the thing: the band has long been aware of this advantage, and over the course of seven albums from 2002 to 2011, they milked that advantage as long as they could. Now that's not saying they didn't get some killer songs along the way, but the Black Keys had a formula, and outside of a few stylistic ventures - mostly thanks to Danger Mouse collaborations - they tended to stick to it. And while that formula made for great singles, it didn't exactly make for great album statements. That, combined with the fact the duo has written some pretty obnoxious lyrics - especially when talking about women - did mean that I cooled on the weaker parts of the Black Keys' discography in record time.

And thus when I heard they were planning to switch up their formula with their newest album Turn Blue, I was both intrigued and concerned. I'm all for bands like The Black Keys to experiment, but the opening singles gave me a lot of pause, because not only was the distortion gone, but the synth tone being used seemed really unflattering. A few enterprising critics made a Foster The People comparison, and while I'd disagree somewhat with that assessment, it certainly was a sound far removed from typical Black Keys and not exactly for the better. And thus, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the new album: did I get proven wrong?

Monday, May 12, 2014

video review: 'metamodern sounds in country music' by sturgill simpson

Holy shit, this album is amazing. Man, I needed an album like this, because this record is phenomenal.

Okay, the Black Keys next. Stay tuned!

album review: 'metamodern sounds in country music' by sturgill simpson

So here’s a friendly tip for all of you new music critics out there: if you’re going to start doing a review series like I do and want to make a year-end list of the best albums of the year – as of course you’ll want to do – it’s a very good idea to keep an eye on the genre charts and fellow critics to track albums that you may have missed early in the year. Because trust me on this, you do not want to discover midway through the next year that you might have missed a record that could have had a chance to make that year-end list.

Now granted, it’s damn near impossible to hear every record that gets some manner of acclaim – especially because even aggregators like Metacritic aren’t perfect, especially when you have albums that are removed from the mainstream. And nowhere is this truer than in country music, especially from the independent circuit. And thus, when I put out my year-end list of my top albums of 2013, I got questions why High Top Mountain, the critically acclaimed debut album from Sturgill Simpson, did not make my list. Well, the truth of the matter was that I hadn’t had the chance to listen through it when I made my list, a mistake that I knew had to be rectified as soon as possible.

So now that I’ve heard High Top Mountain, would it have made my year-end list? Well, it would have been damn close, that’s for sure. The album is great across the board, with great raw texture in instrumentation and Simpson’s thick accent, and the songwriting brings the same rich flavor to the table. Most intriguing to me was that through the hazy guitar tones, the album was rooted the psychedelic country tradition, an outgrowth of the hippie-movement throughout the late 60s and 70s. A distinct oddity in an typically conservative genre, Simpson’s socially-conscious lyrics about weed, crime, and unemployment rang all too true in crossing outlaw energy with psychedelic texture, creating a unique album that easily deserved the acclaim it got.

And thus, it wasn’t surprising that country music critics – myself included – were extremely interested in Sturgill Simpson’s follow-up record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, a record that promised to be even weirder and more experimental than his last record, something that only enthused me even more. And determined not to miss him twice, I took a look at the album: how did it go?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

video review: 'the quantum enigma' by epica

Well, this took a while to decode, but I'm glad I could pull it off.

Next up will probably be Sturgill Simpson and the Black Keys, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the quantum enigma' by epica

I've made the statement in the past that lyrics are often the least important thing in symphonic metal - or at least, for the longest time, they were for me. That's not saying I didn't notice bad lyrics or wasn't aware that some symphonic metal could get unbelievably silly or ridiculous, it's just that I didn't tend to mind as much as long as the instrumentation, production, and delivery were able to deliver that epic sweep on their own.

And if I was looking for a band to violently change my mind on this belief, that band would be Epica, an act that I can only describe as the thinking man's brand of symphonic metal. Now for the longest time, I had had a hard time into Epica, mostly because I found the guitar tone chosen on those early albums a little flat and unflattering and Simone Simons to be a talented singer but not particularly engaging behind the microphone, at least early on. And on top of not having a really immediacy to their hooks, I ignored this band for a long time. 

But man, once I got past that first album and really started digging into their lyrics, colour me wrong about this band. Epica was not only tackling big enough subject matter to match their massive orchestrations, but also was doing it with intellect, due consideration, and a lot of richly articulated nuance. This was a band that routinely explored religion, politics, philosophy, and mortality, and once they had improved their production and picked a heavier guitar tone, I found myself really getting into the band. That's not saying they don't have problems - I would be lying if I didn't say that Epica didn't get preachy every once and a while, and I still think as a band they haven't quite mastered a killer hook like their contemporaries Nightwish and Within Temptation have, but Mark Jensen and Simone Simons remain strong songwriters and performers, and they're only getting better.

And coming after their 2012 album Requiem For The Indifferent - an album demanding the audience engage in the world and be willing to work together to tackle world-shaking problems and not be divided and unwilling to compromise - I was very interested in their newest album, titled The Quantum Enigma. Now, this isn't the first time that Epica has tackled the topic of quantum physics - or rather, the complete failure of certain parts of society to not recognize that brand of science and how they need to evolve, all framed as a philosophical argument in a romantic relationship - so I was definitely wondering how on earth they'd manage to pull this off twice. So I picked up the album and dug in deep - what did I find?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

video review: 'glorious' by foxes

Well, I enjoyed this. Can't say that it's a great album or that earns its bombast, but it's still fun.

Next up, Epica. Stay tuned!

album review: 'glorious' by foxes

Now when I made my year-end list for the Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 2013, I always make a point of taking a look at what other critics tend to hold up as their favourites in this category. And while there were certain songs that crossed multiple lists including mine, there was one that I couldn't in good faith put on my list: 'Clarity' by Zedd. Many critics considered it their favourite mainstream EDM song to chart, and I definitely understand why. It had a solid crescendo, a great backing chorus, and lyrics that managed to fit the broad scope of the song. And yet, I was never a big fan of the track in comparison with songs like 'Wake Me Up!' or 'Don't You Worry Child' - I found the beat a little underweight, the synthesizer line a little overstuffed, and the melody not all that impressive.

However, there was one person in that song who did stand out for many people, and that was Foxes, a British pop singer/songwriter whose soulful delivery and careful balance between ethereal distance and raw vulnerability really anchored the song. Now I was more familiar with her from 'Just One Yesterday', a song off of Fall Out Boy's gloriously messy album Save Rock and Roll, and if it wasn't for a few sloppy rhymes in the verses, it would have made one of my other year-end lists simply on atmospheric power and drama alone. And thus, I was interested to see where Foxes would take her debut album Glorious, because to be fair, I didn't have much of a grasp on her musical identity outside of her featuring credits. What was this new album going to deliver?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

video review: 'storyline' by hunter hayes

Well, this one came out pretty quickly. Surprisingly so, actually.

In any case, Epica should be next, followed by Foxes while I work my way through Swans' discography for the big week coming up. Stay tuned!

album review: 'storyline' by hunter hayes

So here's an odd question: how much does age matter in music?

On the surface, it shouldn't matter at all. There have been young men and women of prodigious talent who can wow people no matter how old they are - hell, look at Michael Jackson as a member of the Jackson 5. But let's change the question slightly: how much does it matter in country music?

Because like it or not, most country is grounded in more mature subject matter, if not history and tradition. Neotraditional country is rooted in that spirit that tends to demand an older voice to deliver it, because let's face it, most young country stars aren't incredibly interested in the past. But even bro-country acts who just want to talk about trucks, women, and drinking do almost require their audience to at least be old enough to buy beer to at least relate with the situations you describe. As such, you really don't find many teenage stars in country music, especially in comparison with other genres like pop, hip-hop, or punk.

Enter Hunter Hayes, who signed on as a songwriter with incredible talent with Universal in 2008 - when he was seventeen. He got his start touring with Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts before dropping his solo, self-titled debut album - and I'll admit, I didn't care for it. I thought the production was extremely processed, the songwriting not particularly inspired, and despite his real talent in composition and performance, the album felt interchangeable to me. A few snarkier critics branded him as the country version of Justin Bieber, but given Bieber's musical evolution, that always struck me as unfair. And thus, I vowed to give Hunter Hayes a second chance with his newest album Storyline. How did that go?

video review: 'nikki nack' by tUnE-yArDs

Well, this was an interesting experience. Can't say I'll be revisiting the album, but it was definitely worth exploring.

Next up, either Epica or Hunter Hayes, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

album review: 'nikki nack' by tUnE-yArDs

Let's talk about cultural appropriation.

Now before everyone jumps down my throat, I think defining this in terms of music would be helpful, so here it goes: cultural appropriation means the usage of specific musical elements that can be directly linked to another culture without proper knowledge of their execution or reasoned intent. In other words, if you're going to borrow from other cultures, know what the hell you're doing and do it well. Because believe it or not, I'm not inherently against the embrace of the material from other cultures, as to strictly confine oneself to their own narrowly defined culture can limit musical expression and shuts down the conversation about integrating and blending artistic ideals and expressions.

That said, what people tend not like with cultural appropriation is when the artist uses it to add connotations of exoticism or tribalism or in the worst cases denigrating or incorrect stereotypes associated in the collective western unconscious with that sound. It's one of the issues I've had with Vampire Weekend's usage of African elements: sure, it fits the modern multicultural atmosphere the band has always striven to create, but the underlying defensiveness regarding privilege in their work has always made their usage of these elements a little uncomfortable - which is really frustrating for me because otherwise, I really like their music! This also became an issue with Arcade Fire's most recent album Reflektor, an album that utilized Haitian elements to enhance their inspiration from Black Orpheus, but then overloaded their stage show and revealed in their songwriting a serious misunderstanding of those elements.

And yet when I took a look at tUnE-yArDs' 2011 album whokill, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my fears of cultural appropriation were mostly unfounded, as lead performer Merrill Garbus seemed to be aware of the roots of her material and was trying her best to recreate that brand of pop - and was, for the most part, thanks to her soulful and bold delivery, succeeding. She reminded me on a deeper listen a lot of M.I.A., especially in her patchy lo-fi production, colourful sound collage approach, and complete lack of subtlety. But say what you will about M.I.A., at least her first two albums approached the subject matter with a cohesive tone. By contrast, whokill was perhaps the most placid and buoyant album exploring violent subject matter I've ever heard, and despite some harsh-leaning lyrics and a rich organic sound, it lacked organic depth and deeper insight to me, and it wasn't nearly raw enough to connect on a visceral level either. In other words, as much as I liked the bass melodies and the textured percussion, I felt the album lacked the punch to bely its subject matter.

So honestly, I was curious what was in store for the next album, Nikki Nack, which looked to be heading in a different direction, at least instrumentally. How did it turn out?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

video review: 'phantom and the ghost' by styles p

Pretty short review, but still was a pretty solid record that I genuinely enjoyed, and thus there isn't a lot to say about it.

Okay, next up, I should figure out what that whole tUnE-yArDs thing is about. Stay tuned!

album review: 'phantom and the ghost' by styles p

So I'll be the first to admit that as much I've learned about hip-hop over the course of the past several months of reviewing albums, I still have a ton to learn and explore, especially in the underground. Now thanks to the Internet, we probably live in the easiest time to get access to underground hip-hop, but at the same time, it also means my backlog has started to reach startling levels. And thus, given my own preferences, I tend to keep my eyes open for underground MCs that catch my eye based on my own preferences in rap music - a smarter, lyrical focus, real charisma, and the ability to talk about other concepts than standard gangsta rap.

So it wasn't long for Styles P popped up on my radar. Now I remember him a little bit from the charts in the late 90s and early 2000s, mostly due to his affiliation with The LOX, a rap group I mostly like but don't love. Now granted, my ambivalent feelings towards The LOX mostly extend to frustrations I have with Jadakiss, but that's a whole other issue - to me, Styles P was the least direct and outwardly aggressive of the trio, which I found interesting. Most recently, he dropped a verse on 'No Hesitation', a track from the Alchemist & Evidence collaboration project Lord Steppington - and I'll be blunt, it's probably my favourite song from that album. His flow and wordplay have only improved, as has his stage presence, so I made a point to look up his new album Phantom And The Ghost, which was getting positive buzz for being a more thoughtful gangsta rap record. So, how was it?

Monday, May 5, 2014

video review: 'i never learn' by lykke li

Holy shit, this album was great. Seriously, I hope her singles blow up like nobody's business, because the mainstream is perfect for this sort of thing right about now.

Okay, next I'm going to talk about Styles P, because I need more time for Epica. Stay tuned!

album review: 'i never learn' by lykke li

I've talked before about my general aversion to cutesy, small-minded indie pop, especially the type that sticks close to conventional instrumentation and plays up the twee element to eleven - but at the same time, it's a genre that has other facets, and subverting those expectations can often be just as rewarding. I've talked before about St. Vincent, who undercut her classically-inspired instrumentation with subversive lyrics and experimental edge, but she's not the only one who has tackled this playing field.

This brings us to Lykke Li, an artist who I originally expected to dislike a lot more than I do, especially off of her first album Youth Novels. It was a minimalist, underwritten exploration of young, immature emotion, all delivered through Lykke Li's high girlish vocals - and yet it worked. Lykke Li had a great grasp of melody, a phenomenal grip on atmosphere thanks to stellar production, and the balance she held between saccharine sweetness and unnerving wisdom was impressive. And in a natural step forward, her second album Wounded Rhymes improved every element, deepening and expanding the soundscapes while bringing forward a much more assertive presence behind the microphone and cleaning up some of the clumsier songwriting. It's definitely a solid record that showed Lykke Li was a force in indie pop to be reckoned with, and I was psyched for her newest album I Never Learn, not just for the album but for the potential mainstream breakthrough it could represent. After all, she was only getting better and if there was a time where minimalist, melody-driven indie pop could have a crack at the mainstream, it'd be now. As great as 'I Follow Rivers' was - and make no mistake, that song's amazing - it came out in 2011, the charts were still locked in the club boom, they weren't ready for Lykke Li yet. So, I picked up her newest album and gave it a few listens - is this the smash for which we've been waiting?

video review: 'sheezus' by lily allen

Well, glad I could finally get this out. Fascinating album and definitely worth listening through if only to talk about it, because I get the feeling this one will inspire some real debate.

Okay, Lykke Li up next. Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

album review: 'sheezus' by lily allen

I've got a complicated relationship with Lily Allen.

See, for the longest time, she was one of the most frustrating artists I've ever listened to, an act with very clear talent in instrumentation and songwriting, and I could tell she was genuinely clever and had a knack for incisive, biting songwriting. But every time I'd go back to that first album Alright, Still, I despised it more and more every single time. The rational part of my brain was telling me it wasn't a bad record, but for the life of me, I hated the framing of that album, overloaded with vapid, spiteful bitchiness that screamed of self-aware hypocrisy but didn't have the nuance or depth to really justify it. I'm told this is a British thing in how Lily Allen is supposed to be funny, but for me it was aggressively the opposite. My issue was always in the framing, which was trying to paint Lily Allen as at least a flawed protagonist figure who was skewering shallow mainstream culture, and while there was some self-awareness at how awful she came across, it was never enough to support her hollow justifications and I never felt her rather inert delivery was cute or charming or interesting enough to ignore it.

Thankfully, she seemed to clue into this problem in time for her second album It's Not Me It's You, which I liked a bit more in making Lily Allen a little more sympathetic and the framing a little more intelligent. But at the same time, the songwriting went broader in its portrayal of her newfound maturity, and her stabs at 'deeper' topics like religion and politics were shallow at best, almost cartoonish to the point of not being able to take seriously. On top of that, her instrumentation was even more of a mixed bag, displaying more influences and styles but some seriously obnoxious hooks. And the more I listened to the album, the more I got the impression that Lily Allen was never really trying or had her heart in her music - which she flat out admitted after the release of that album and then proceeded to take a five year hiatus. 

But now she's back with an album titled Sheezus, a title modeled off of Kanye West's controversial and critically acclaimed album that came out last year. And honestly, I was intrigued where she was going with this, because there are recognizable similarities between both artists. For one, they both have a tendency to mix genres in unconventional ways, they both can be insightful and somewhat self-aware songwriters about how terrible they can come across, and yet they both have egos the size of the British Isles and can be overwhelmingly full of shit. So I figured even if the album sucked, it'd still be interesting, so I gave it a few listens - how did it turn out?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

video review: 'shatter me' by lindsey stirling

Well, this was quick. Glad it came out as well as it did.

Okay, I think I'll talk about Ought first, then either Lily Allen or Lykke Li. Stay tuned!

album review: 'shatter me' by lindsey stirling

I wasn't planning on covering this album.

See, the last time I talked about dubstep was with Skrillex, and since I haven't had as much of a chance to familiarize myself with that musical subgenre since that review, I felt as though tackling more reviews of it might be a misstep. And since I also tend to be a music critic with more of a focus on lyrics, primarily instrumental albums leave me feeling simultaneously lacking material and out-of-my-depth. I tend to focus on lyrics more than most because I'm a writer and my expertise is stronger in that sort of analysis - but while I have a fair amount of musical knowledge, I'm by no means classically trained outside of several years of piano and a few years of theory. 

And with all of that, I was feeling a little intimidated to talk about Lindsey Stirling's newest orchestral-dubstep album Shatter Me. A critically beloved YouTube musician who built a huge following through covers and fusing her amazing violin skills with electronica, she's got more musical talent and creativity than I'll ever have. But that being said, I was curious all the same and I figured the more exposure I get to these sorts of eclectic fusions, the better it'll be for me in the long run anyways. So I bought Shatter Me by Lindsey Stirling and hoped for the best - did I get it?