Sunday, August 31, 2014

video review: 'moonshine in the trunk' by brad paisley

Man, this album should have been so much better. Still good, but there's was potential for something awesome here that just wasn't realized.

Okay, next up... well, I want to talk about LMNO, but I should probably take a look at Mick Jenkins before everyone starts screaming for me to cover another Maroon 5 record. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

album review: 'moonshine in the trunk' by brad paisley

So I want you all to imagine that you're a world-famous country singer. Easy enough, I know, but imagine that you've managed to release a series of critically well-received records, albums that straddled commercial and critical appeal... and yet, you want to go further. You want to push the boundaries of country music while still maintaining commercial accessibility to country radio. You've already released a well-received instrumental album, but you're not willing to give up airplay to be that weird, at least not in your instrumentation. In the mean time, you're kind of stuck and very quickly getting bored with your genre of choice. What do you do?

Many critics have hypothesized this is the internal dichotomy Brad Paisley is struggling with right now. Ever since the mid-2000s, he's been straining and pushing at the edges of what is traditionally defined as mainstream country, adding more instrumentation and songwriting subjects, which culminated in last year's album Wheelhouse, a release largely overshadowed by 'Accidental Racist' with LL Cool J, a song attempting to tackle race relationships and pissing off everyone.

But people who have followed this series likely know that I didn't dislike Wheelhouse as an album - in fact, it featured two songs that featured highly on my year-end list of my favourite songs of the year, 'Karate' and 'Southern Comfort Zone', and there were other songs on that album that were close to the list too. The fact is that Brad Paisley as a songwriter still has a knack for a ridiculously catchy hook, a decent bit of lyrical nuance, and some interesting instrumentation and production - if he releases a record, at least it's not going to be boring.

So even though I wasn't impressed at all by his debut single 'River Bank', I made sure to give his new album Moonshine In The Trunk a lot of attention: how is it?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

video review: 'sparks' by imogen heap

Wow, this took way too long to get out, but I'm happy to get it out all the same. Damn great album, too.

Okay, Brad Paisley next, time to get back on schedule. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

album review: 'sparks' by imogen heap

The more you think about it, the more you realize how much indie pop in the modern era owes to Imogen Heap.

And believe me, you wouldn't have thought that, especially when you look at the odd arc of her career. Starting in the late 90s with i-Megaphone, Imogen Heap stepped into the indie scene with an album blending fuzz-saturated alt-rock with gorgeously, surprisingly intricate keyboard melodies and a breathy voice that proved incredibly versatile and emotionally compelling. And while on reflection that record is so 90s it's painful, Imogen Heap's talent does shine through and would be a sign that her opulent, genre-bending sophomore release in 2005 would be worth the wait.

And oh dear god it was. Let me make this clear: i-Megaphone is a decent album. Speak For Yourself is a goddamn masterpiece that's one of the best albums of the 2000s, hands down. Raw, uncomfortably intimate, overloaded with memorable melodies and genre bending with production that Imogen Heap all did herself without a record label and nearly went bankrupt for the trouble, it's the sort of desperately small-scale conceptual record that sounds so much bigger and and more meaningful than it should be... and then goes and earns that drama. The fact that it managed to be cohesive, emotional, and incredibly catchy along the way won Imogen Heap critical acclaim, but popularity would come when the ghostly autotuned and absolutely gorgeous song 'Hide & Seek' used on The OC and then sampled by Jason Derulo for one of the worst hit songs of 2009 and possibly the decade in 'Whatcha Say'.

But by that point Imogen Heap was moving onto her newest project Ellipse, which also came out in 2009... to mostly middling reviews. Critics and fans were baffled - it wasn't like Ellipse was a bad record, overstuffed with the same rich plethora of musical ideas that formed Speak For Yourself, so why wasn't it as good? Well, after a few relistens, an answer was easily apparent: the drama and emotional intensity that defined Speak For Yourself was downplayed on Ellipse, and it made the instrumental flourishes and flowery lyrics appear a lot less gripping and much more indulgent. And the more I heard about the development of Imogen Heap's newest record Sparks, the more I was concerned that same indulgence might come up again. Sure, the music would undoubtedly be pretty, but would there be the emotional intensity that drove that sophomore masterpiece, especially after a recording process that took much longer and featured instruments Imogen Heap helped design and all manner of art campaigns accompanying the many, many singles released over the past three years. But Imogen Heap has earned a ton of good will with me, so I dove deep into Sparks: do we have another masterpiece?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

video review: 'TRXYE' by troye sivan

Okay, next is Imogen Heap. You all wanted this, you got it.

But until then, stay tuned!

album review: 'TRXYE' by troye sivan

Okay, in case most of you who are new here haven't gotten the message, I don't tend to cover EPs. I tend to like looking at fully formed albums that have definitive presence and a theme behind them, which even shallow dance-pop albums can deliver.

And on that note, I tend to be a little cautious when covering fellow YouTubers. I've talked about this way back when I reviewed Karmin's major label debut album, because YouTube is a smaller community than you might think and there's always the chance that whatever I review gets back to the artist in question. Now the conclusion I ultimately drew was that I'm still a critic, and it doesn't matter what platform they started on, they deserve the same level of criticism as any other act, and to soften my typical style would be a disservice to Troye Sivan, because the implication would be, should I go easy on him because of YouTube or because it's an EP or because he's 19, that I don't feel his art can stand in the big leagues, and that's not fair to him. And considering so many of you recommended this guy, I figured I'd do my due diligence and take a look.

So, Troye Sivan. Australian, does a lot of acting and theater work, and a prominent YouTuber who has built a pretty impressive platform. He got his major breakthrough with one of his songs featuring in the hit romance movie of this year The Fault In Our Stars, based on a novel written by author and fellow YouTuber movie. Now I haven't seen that movie, mostly because that particular brand of cancer drama tends to gun for sentimentality that I don't tend to like, but I did hear Troye Sivan's charting single on the lower end of the Billboard Hot 100 'Happy Little Pill' and wasn't exactly impressed. But I kept getting requests for this EP so I figured there had to be something that was gripping everyone and gave it several listens. What did I get?

Monday, August 25, 2014

video review: 'my everything' by ariana grande

Hopefully this'll satisfy everyone who kept requesting that I talk about this.

Anyway, next up will be Imogen Heap. Stay tuned!

album review: 'my everything' by ariana grande

It's been an eventful year for Ariana Grande.

And let's be fair here, it wasn't exactly like 2013 was a bad year for her, considering the breakthrough success of 'The Way' and to a lesser extent with 'Baby I', songs that did a fair amount to showcase her talent and did enough for me to review her debut album Yours Truly. Which, for the most part, I quite liked: the songwriting was well-framed and complimented Ariana Grande's image and delivery quite well, and it featured a fair few songs that really stuck with me, including her collaboration with Mika 'Popular Song', which landed on my list of my favourite songs of 2013. Sure, I didn't think the instrumentation and production was all that stellar, but I figured that would be something that would take a little time to iron out.

Now one element I noticed about that debut is that even though Ariana wanted to distance herself from her Nickelodeon sitcom roots, her material was still fairly 'innocent', all things considered. Sex and sexuality were referred to through innuendo, the romance took center stage, and the songs had a much lighter tone - and like someone who has seen so many teen starlets go down this road before, or even Ariana's vocal predecessor Mariah Carey, I knew that pristine image wasn't likely to last, especially as Ariana rocketed up the charts and as of this recording has three songs in the Billboard Hot 100. And with a larger stable of writers and collaborators jumping behind her, you could tell that the marketing push was looking for this album to sell a lot. Yours Truly was the warm-up, this was the real deal, so how's the record?

Friday, August 22, 2014

video review: 'maximum overload' by dragonforce

And that'll probably end off a streak of records/videos because I'm going to have company this weekend (spoilers: Imogen Heap video might be delayed until next week or Sunday, because I'm exhausted). Still pretty pleased with how it turned out, though.

Well, regardless, it's Imogen Heap and then finally I'll talk about Ariana Grande like all of you have gone on about. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

album review: 'maximum overload' by dragonforce

You won't find many metal bands with a worse reputation within their own genre than DragonForce.

And really, it was inevitable the instant 'Through The Fire And The Flames' popped up as a track on Guitar Hero and DragonForce was vaulted into stardom thanks to a focus on their blazing, gratuitously fast riffs and ludicrously overblown lyrics and sound. Even though conceptually they weren't many steps away from many common topics in traditional power metal and speed metal, they were the ones who got popular and their completely sincere embrace of their material became an easy target for backlash. It didn't help matters that the more one dug into DragonForce, the less substantial and well-written the lyrics were, to the point where the speed and occasionally solid melodic progressions were the only things saving the band from being a borderline parody of itself, especially after less-than-favourable live reviews started coming in. 

Nevertheless, DragonForce continued on with Ultra Beatdown in 2008, which tried to showcase more experimentation and progressive elements and did contain some solid enough songs, but at this point the lyrics were becoming a much more noticeable problem, demonstrating less and less cohesion and elements that were starting to actively repeat themselves. After that, lead singer ZP Theart left in 2010, replaced by Marc Hudson, and they released The Power Within in 2012, which wasn't a bad record by any stretch but the more I listened to it the more I began to think the band was missing their mark. Sure, the fast-paced speed runs were impressive, but DragonForce could write some really solid well-textured melodic grooves at a slower pace, and considering the lyrics of DragonForce were always pretty much interchangeable, I didn't want to see the band become just a gimmick.

In any case, I had no high expectations with their newest album Maximum Overload, featuring new drummer Gee Anzalone after Dave Mackintosh left to pursue progressive rock projects. So what did I get?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

video review: 'blacc hollywood' by wiz khalifa

Whew, that should be it when it comes to frustrating records this week. Let's hope for better.

Then again, next up is Dragonforce, so I've got no idea how that's going to turn out. Stay tuned!

album review: 'blacc hollywood' by wiz khalifa

The last time I talked about weed rap was way back last year when I reviewed Sonic Dopamine, the album from Cousin Ayjay, which was more of a layered and intriguing concept album about getting stoned than anything else. Even though I haven't really revisited it much since, I still respect it for some interesting wordplay, great production and a fair amount of ambition.

Yeah, we're not getting that here. Wiz Khalifa may have started with some vestige of street cred and nuggets of insight on his mixtapes, but that degenerated quickly when he burst into the mainstream in 2011 with his major label debut on Atlantic with Rolling Papers, quickly becoming the mainstream-accessible weed rapper with a strong focus on pop-friendly hooks. And to his credit, as much as Wiz Khalifa wasn't a technically strong lyrical MC, he occasionally managed to pull together some decent hooks and lightweight production that was pretty tolerable. I'll admit it, 'Roll Up' was surprisingly sincere, and his collaboration with Snoop Dogg and Bruno Mars 'Young, Wild & Free' was one of my favourite songs of 2012, even though Wiz Khalifa was probably the weakest performer on that track. And yet ever since that high point, Wiz Khalifa seemed to get less and less interesting as both a technical lyricist and with regards to his content, focused on ever shallower weed and luxury rap. And what was frustrating about him is that, well, we already have a Snoop Dogg who can step up to the mic with effortless charisma and marginally better wordplay, and Wiz Khalifa always pales in comparison. But even as his verses got more vapid, he tended to have solid enough hooks on songs like 'Work Hard, Play Hard' and 'We Own It', even though he seemed to be succumbing to Autotune abuse.

And let me make this clear: the opening singles for this record were not giving me any good feelings about this record - hell, I was planning on skipping it altogether. But I thought, 'Hey, I gave Kid Ink and Iggy Azalea a chance, and they both managed to surprise me, maybe this record isn't that bad, right?'

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

video review: 'ignite the night' by chase rice

Oh, I can't imagine how this review would inspire controversy WHATSOEVER...

Okay, got that out of the way, what's next... 

Wiz Khalifa. By the Nine Hells...

album review: 'ignite the night' by chase rice

There's one thing that tends to be true about trends in music: the acts that jump on the trend last tend to be the absolute worst. We're looking at the group that's not perceptive enough to realize it's dead and gone, the group who are gunning for the quick cash-in, and those who weren't talented enough to ride the wave when it first began to crest.

And thus I knew that as I had chronicles the rise and subsequent collapse of bro-country, I dreaded the acts at the tail end of the trend, the ones who owed their careers to helping craft the music and now had the chance to grab a hold of the spotlight, if only for a brief time. And thus, I couldn't help but feel a certain amount of dread when I prepared to look at the major label debut of Chase Rice, who was most notable for his big single 'Ready, Set, Roll' that is only now inching up the charts. And really, that song annoyed me right out of the gate, a grab-bag of country cliches with some of the most sterile and electronic production I've heard thus far this year in country music outside of Cole Swindell. And like Cole Swindell, he got his start writing for other country acts, most notably co-writing 'Cruise' with Florida Georgia Line, a song I don't exactly dislike but one that doesn't inspire anything close to intelligence.

Now to be fair, like Florida Georgia Line, Chase Rice at least seemed to be having some fun on his song and I had heard that some of his deep cuts did actually talk about things outside of the bro-country catalogue, so I steeled myself for the absolute worst and looked up his major label debut Ignite The Night. What did I find?

Monday, August 18, 2014

video review: 'the golden echo' by kimbra

Well, this was... odd. I wish I liked the instrumentation better, but Kimbra's got some solid thematic arcs here that are definitely worth some consideration.

Next up... okay, apparently Dragonforce dropped an album in 2012 that I didn't know about, so I need a little more time for them. In between...

Chase Rice. Oh fuck.

album review: 'the golden echo' by kimbra

In 2012, the world was rocked by a surprise indie hit that soared up the charts and remained there for months on end, a song that would ultimately become the #1 song of Billboard's year-end charts of that year, capping off a year in pop music that has held up surprisingly well upon re-examination. It was a level of success previously unknown to the artist and his collaborator, the former who had spent the previous decade quietly making very solid indie albums that had garnered him a fair amount of respect and critical appreciation.

Of course, the singer-songwriter I'm talking about in this case is Gotye, and the song is 'Somebody That I Used To Know', a song to this day I really like and yet can say it's not even the best song on that third album Making Mirrors. But while he works on his next record, let's talk about his collaborator on that song and the real reason why it works as well as it does: Kimbra, a New Zealand singer-songwriter who had released her debut album Vows in 2011. And having revisited that record... well, it's odd. Kimbra's blend of retro-glam breathy vocals was an odd fit against the aggressively chipper jazzy indie pop and over-expansive production, and when you throw in lyrics going for cooing lounge singer entreaties with a subversive feminist edge and an undercurrent of brittle instability, you got a unique and decidedly memorable performer. And despite a few missteps, I really dug the mess of contradictions that coalesced on that record, mostly because Kimbra was the sort of singer who I could still pull together a melodically interesting and lyrically nuanced track. 

So you can bet I was intrigued about her newest album The Golden Echo, especially considering the early buzz suggested the album was even more of a mess than its predecessor. So I took a look: what did I get?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

video review: 'they want my soul' by spoon

Man, this is a solid record. Not exceptional or something that'll blow your mind, but Spoon delivered exactly what you'd expect and a damn great version of it too. Seriously, check this album out.

Otherwise, this is going to be a busy week for me. I think I'll tackle Kimbra first, and then it's Dragonforce. Stay tuned!

album review: 'they want my soul' by spoon

So here's one of the frustrating things about being a music critic, particularly if you cover indie music in any variety. Inevitably, you build up a list of indie bands that, for some reason, could have had that big mainstream breakout hit and yet never did. And on a certain level, it makes no sense: these bands might have a pop sensibility or ridiculously catchy choruses or even a sound that would fit perfectly into the mainstream but for a slightly weirder edge, and yet they've never managed to get that big hit. It's especially infuriating if you're a fan of power pop, a genre fitting between rock and pop music with huge choruses and a ridiculous amount of pop appeal, and yet always seem to get caught in the gap and never get the airplay they deserve.

And if you know indie rock, you know one of the bands that tends to leap to the top of that list is Spoon, the indie rock band that has accumulated a ton of critical acclaim over the past decade over several great albums and yet never got that breakout hit. It's a more than a little frustrating, mostly because Spoon is a great melody-driven rock band with tons of guitar texture, ridiculously catchy choruses, and lyrics that are strikingly clever without being flashy about it. If anything, that's probably the reason Spoon never got that monster hit - they aren't exactly a flashy band or one that's about to switch up their style or sell out in order to break, instead content to pump out great record after great record for their devoted fanbase, from their early hard-edged albums reminiscent of the Pixies to the understated punch of their early 2000s work to their brief flirtation with the mainstream with their mid-2000s work. And yeah, you can count me among that group of newfound fans, with my favourite record probably being Girls Can Tell with Kill The Moonlight as a close second. 

As for my least favourite Spoon album... okay, here's the thing about Transference, their 2010 release that soured some of their newfound fans won after Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga - it's not a bad album, all exposed messy edges and minor chords and abrasive lyrics, but it's the sort of album where every 'imperfection' is carefully calculated, and that can resonate as a little off to me. But after that record, Spoon took another four years off and came back finally this year with They Want My Soul - how is it?

Friday, August 15, 2014

video review: 'worlds' by porter robinson

Well, this was a bit of a dud. Eh, they happen.

Next up, I finally tackle Spoon before heading into the significantly more crowded late August. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

album review: 'worlds' by porter robinson

It's one of the unspoken truths of synthpop that if your instrumentation and production is good enough, your lyrics won't matter. Hell, you can say that's true for the majority of modern pop music, but synthpop is probably one of the more egregious offenders, mostly because of its lineage. Throughout its early years and especially around its breakthrough with new wave in the early 80s with the rise of MTV, synthpop could get by through keeping its instrumentation and image edgy and cool, and deeper substance beyond that was just a bonus.

Now keep in mind I don't exactly think this is a bad thing: if you're not a good lyricist, it's probably best to keep that simple or minimalized and focus on the elements that will at least drive people to dance, but as a critic who appreciates when lyrics inform the context and emotion, it means I don't tend to have a lot to talk about when discussing synth albums, especially those emerging from the EDM scene. And thus I was a little wary about discussing Porter Robinson, a producer and DJ signed to Skrillex's record label and who got sick of the mainstream EDM where he made his name and wanted to shift things up. Now I don't mind the step away from EDM towards synthpop, but some of Porter Robinson's main influences did make me a little cautious. For one, he claimed to draw a lot of his influences from the high-energy j-pop scene and anime, both of which I know but I can't say I'm a huge fan.

But then again, I'm always willing to try new things, and I did mostly like that Hundred Waters release on Skrillex's label earlier this year, so I gave Worlds by Porter Robinson a chance: what did I find?

video review: 'directors of photography' by dilated peoples

Took way longer than I would have liked, but it's done. Pretty damn proud of this review, too.

Okay, need more time before Spoon or Pallbearer... hell, might as well cover that Porter Robinson record everyone keeps asking me about...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

album review: 'directors of photography' by dilated peoples

It's really been a shockingly good year for hip-hop music.

Well, you wouldn't know it if you only followed mainstream rap, but 2014 has proven to be shockingly good both in the introduction of new talent, an explosion of established MCs delivering solid projects or going in a new direction to strong results, and even old underground talents returning to the spotlight with seriously solid records. It's definitely a shame more of it hasn't elbowed its way into the mainstream just yet, but really, that's only just a matter of time, especially as a slew of strong records from TDE continue to gain mainstream attention and even some airplay.

But TDE isn't the only hip-hop label that's putting out quality, and this takes us to Rhymesayers Entertainment, an indie label based in Minneapolis who has some seriously talented MCs behind it like MF Doom, Brother Ali, and Step Brothers, the collaboration project between producers and rappers The Alchemist and Evidence, who released their debut record this year Lord Steppington.

But here's a funny thing: The Alchemist and Evidence have worked together before, on a project that has a certain amount of justly deserved critical acclaim in the underground. That project was Dilated Peoples, featuring the trio of DJ Babu, Evidence, and MC Rakaa Iriscience. After almost a decade of work, they released the exceedingly strong one-two punch in 2000 and 2001 with The Platform and Expansion Team, two records designed to be a thinking rapper's counterattack to the overheated violence and melodrama of gangsta rap. And while I definitely think The Platform is stellar, I couldn't help but notice the flow and wordplay seemed to simplify and get less interesting with each subsequent album, especially on 2004's Neighborhood Watch that had simpler production and their one genuinely awesome charting hit 'This Way' featuring Kanye West. They managed to pull things around with the reasonably solid 20/20, but it was the sort of return to form that simultaneously went grittier, more political, and a lot less likely to break through. It was their final album on Capitol Records, and after that, the group did not release an album or singles for years, going on to other projects and never really indicating there would be another Dilated Peoples record.

And yet this year, where many veterans have returned to the microphone, Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience, and DJ Babu have come together to drop a new album titled Directors of Photography, and you can bet I wanted to check it out. How is it?

Monday, August 11, 2014

video review: 'lp1' by fka twigs

Not giving this record as much critical acclaim as everyone else, but is still definitely worth your time for one of the best new talents of the genre.

Next up.. gah, need more time for Spoon and Dilated Peoples. Need another debut album... okay, stay tuned!

album review: 'lp1' by fka twigs

So let's talk about sex.

More specifically, let's talk about sex with regards to music. It's long been held that sex sells in some capacity, and you can point to dozens, if not hundreds of artists who have used sexuality in some way to sell their records. Tellingly, the number gets smaller when said sexuality is placed within the music and not just the image, and it gets smaller still when you discount the many acts who have simply made music about sex in order to titillate and nothing else. And if you want to shrink the number even further, discount all of the artists who use their music to talk around sex, using metaphors and symbolism to describe sex to get around censors or to make their songs have some additional class and poetry.

No, today we're going to be talking about a very small group of artists: those who use music that is written about sex and can even sound like sex, but in reality sex is the metaphor being used for other emotions driving the material. This is a much trickier balance to pull off, because sex is one of the most intimate, powerful, passionate experiences one can have in their lives, and using it to represent other things in art can be tricky indeed, mostly because the majority of audiences will simply focus on the sexual imagery and take things literally. You want a prime example of this dichotomy playing out in modern music? 'Do What U Want' by Lady Gaga featuring R. Kelly - easily one of the best songs off of ARTPOP, and yet it suffers the frustrating lack of lyrical cohesion where Gaga is using sex as a metaphor to describe her tempestuous relationship with her audience and the press and how they judge her work, and then R.Kelly gets on the song and makes it, quite literally, about sex. And the startling thing is that R.Kelly is such a force of personality on the song that he can make even critics like myself think the song is really about sex all along.

So how do you get around problems like this? Enter FKA Twigs, with the 'FKA' standing for 'formerly known as' in order to get around a naming controversy with another artist. She started building serious buzz in the independent scene last year with her second EP through the Young Turks indie record label and a series of music videos that didn't shy away from thought-provoking imagery. And with a simply stunning voice, some fairly potent lyrics and instrumentation that blended spacious PBR&B and indie-electronica that recalled acts like James Blake, it was music that sounded like sex and yet seemed to be saying a lot more. So of course I picked up her debut album LP1, especially after the tidal wave of critical acclaim started pouring in...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

video review: 'high noon' by arkells

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

Next up... well, not really sure just yet, as I need more time to go through some discographies before I tackle Dilated Peoples or Spoon or do my retrospective of Liars. We might get a few random records first, so stay tuned!

album review: 'high noon' by arkells

So I've mentioned in the past that rock music never really died out in the mainstream in Canada, at least not in the same way it did in the United States. Maybe it was CRTC content restrictions dictating the radio had to play at least some Canadian content and more of it happened to be rock than pop, but the ultimate result is that a burgeoning Canadian rock scene has thrived over the past four or five years even as the pop rock boom collapsed. And it's not just Canadian rock either - a steady diet of acts like Metric and Tokyo Police Club have meant that Canadian radio is more receptive to other indie acts, which has meant songs like 'Come With Me Now' by KONGOS have broken the top 10 here where they struggle south of the border.

Now I could brag and say that the reason rock never really died up here in the mainstream is because it's just better than down south, but honestly we've got our fair share of crap up here too. The band I'm going to talk about today, however, definitely does not fall into that category. This band is called the Arkells, a Hamilton-based band who dropped their fast-paced, rough-edged debut in 2008 and immediately started attracting serious buzz. And it wasn't just the sticky, melody-driven riffs or Nick Dika's prominent bass or the songwriting that was a lot more clever, nuanced, and yet shockingly earnest and steeped in Canadian imagery than you'd expect, but the band had a knack for ridiculously catchy hooks that effectively sealed their fate and made a pop turn inevitable. That turn happened with their second album Michigan Left, a breezier album that brought in more keyboards and a hazier brand of production that recalled nothing less but a rougher, louder, faster, less-subtle version of The War On Drugs - and yes, that's a high compliment indeed. It helped matters that the songwriting on that second album was just as strong, an excellently framed road movie of a record that showed songwriting that could get both personal and political.

So you can bet I was psyched to discover they were dropping a third album titled High Noon, so I checked it out: how did it go?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

video review: 'small town heroes' by hurray for the riff raff (RETRO REVIEW)

Finally glad to get this out. Very good album, by the way, definitely worth your time.

So, apparently that last Special Comment went 'tumblr viral', as it was. Kind of cool, I guess.

Okay, next up is The Arkells, who I just discovered dropped a new album! Stay tuned!

album review: 'small town heroes' by hurray for the riff raff (RETRO REVIEW)

You know, for being the only country music critic on YouTube, I haven't covered a true country record in quite some time. Hell, I haven't even really talked about the state of bro-country in a while, which used to be part of my general purview!

Well, believe it or not, there's a reason for that: mostly because country music seems to be in a profoundly confused place right now. The leading acts in the bro-country wave seem to be running as fast as they can back towards something close to neotraditional country while those that are sticking around seem to be actively getting more belligerent and worse. And while I do mostly like Maggie & Tae's 'Girl In A Country Song' for its wit, you can tell they're being pushed by Big Machine in order to play both sides of the equation. And that's not even touching on the more electronic-inspired edges creeping into country music courtesy of Jason Aldean and Sam Hunt, none of which sound remotely cohesive or close to good. It's gotten to the point where 'Hope You Get Lonely', arguably the worst song from Cole Swindell's self-titled album - an album which is on my short list of the worst albums of the year - is starting to rise up the charts.

So on second thought, let's completely ignore whatever's happening in the mainstream and talk about a country record that I've gotten a couple of requests for that came out earlier this year, from an act that's the furthest thing from mainstream polish. This band is called Hurray For The Riff Raff, a stripped-down borderline-acoustic folk and southern gothic-inspired group who gathered a fair bit of buzz after their very solid 2012 release Look Out Mama, which I really liked for its grimy mix and the exposed edges in the production. But while the band might have some traditional elements in its instrumentation and frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra's voice, Hurray For The Riff Raff lies significantly further to the left side of any political spectrum, both in promoting a queer image and singing about some loaded political subjects in their material. That, if anything was enough to attract my interest, even if it took me far too long to get to them.

Anyway, after releasing a Kickstarter-funded album of covers titled My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, they released a new album and their major label debut titled Small Town Heroes earlier this year, so I finally took the time to check it out: how is it?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

special comment: 'pop 101' (in defense of the genre: pop) (VIDEO)

It's another one of these videos I've been looking to make for a while, and I think it turned out surprisingly well. Might have to do more of these at some point...

Okay next up... well, I need a bit more time to tackle a bunch of acts, so we might be talking about another random debut. Stay tuned!

special comment: 'pop 101' (in defense of the genre: pop)

On August 4 of this year, the Canadian pop rock band Marianas Trench released their music video for a new song titled 'Pop 101', a song that sought to satirize pop music tropes and sounds throughout the past decade, from 2006 Justin Timberlake to 2013 Miley Cyrus. And like Maddie & Tae's 'Girls In A Country Song', The Roots' most recent album ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, and any number of self-aware punk records released since the dawn of the genre, Marianas Trench are commenting upon and satirizing the trends in their own genre of music, and they made a pretty damn solid song along the way.

But the release of that song and the usual slew of comments I get saying, 'Dude, you clearly just don't like pop music, so why bother reviewing it' finally spurred me to put some serious thought into a discussion that's worth having. And this discussion will be centered around three questions: what is pop music? Why do I like it? And is it worth defending? And to answer that question, I'm going to use the example of a Canadian pop rock band who wrote 'Pop 101' and who definitely deserves more attention on both sides of the border.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

video review: 'welcome to the jungle' by neon jungle

Well that was... surprisingly anticlimatic. Sheesh, not really a lot to say about the newest girl group arriving, that's for damn sure.

Okay next up... once again, I've got no idea. That debut album from The #1s looks interesting, but then again, I'll need to cover Spoon, Dilated Peoples, and plenty of others up ahead, so stay tuned!

album review: 'welcome to the jungle' by neon jungle

It's been a while since I've talked about pop girl groups, so let's revisit those again.

As I've said in the past, most girl groups don't tend to be my thing - I'm not saying I don't have a certain amount of appreciation for the roles acts like TLC or the Spice Girls played in modern pop, but they aren't usually my thing. Hell, the reason I like Girls Aloud as much as I do is more for pretty solid songwriting and great production courtesy of Xenomania more than their actual performances themselves. 

But one thing I've noticed over the past fifteen or so years is that girls groups don't so much define the pop landscape as they adapt to what is popular, especially if we're looking at groups originating in the UK. The Spice Girls rode the high-energy plastic dance pop trend throughout the 90s, Destiny's Child coasted on the path TLC already created and throughout the R&B boom of the early 2000s, and the Pussycat Dolls were the concoction of a marketing team that focused on image above all else, looked at the sleazier music of the mid-to-late 2000s and thought, "Hey, how can we make it that much worse?"

And it looks like similar trends are continuing with our current crop of British girl groups. Little Mix moved more towards R&B with their album Salute and while they haven't really gotten the chart success they deserve in the US, it's only a matter of time before the current neo-soul shift snags some of their material. Fifth Harmony, on the other hand, seems to be going for the percussion-heavy hip-hop-inspired pop with their recent single 'Bo$$', a song that I'll deal with whenever they drop that next album, because there's definitely a lot to talk about there.

The third group is Neon Jungle, the newest and arguably the girl group with the least buzz on this side of the Atlantic, one that I discovered by accident on iTunes when buying that self-titled Jungle record that I covered last week. And unlike their competition, Neon Jungle seemed to be going more along the lines of the Spice Girls by appropriating modern EDM trends for their debut album, Welcome To The Jungle. So out of curiosity, I bought the album and gave it a couple of listens: how is it?

Monday, August 4, 2014

video review: 'lese majesty' by shabazz palaces

Yeah, I know it's late, but I needed more listens to fully digest this record, it just took a lot of time.

Also, I'm quite happy with how my new lighting setup turned out. Probably will have to get used to staring into such an illuminated set, but that's an easy enough adjustment.

Next up, Neon Jungle, because it'll take a bit of time before I'm ready to tackle Spoon, so stay tuned!

album review: 'lese majesty' by shabazz palaces

Let's talk a little about Sub Pop. Most prominently known for jumpstarting the grunge movement thanks to signing Soundgarden and Nirvana, they've also signed Sonic Youth, The Postal Service, Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, and all manner of indie rock bands that have earned considerable critical acclaim over the past few years. In other words, like Top Dawg Entertainment, they're a label that critics tend to keep an eye on.

But over the past few years, Sub Pop has started doing something a little unusual - signing hip-hop groups, mostly on the experimental, noisy, abrasive side of the genre. One of these groups I've talked about before, Clipping, who dropped one of my favourite hip-hop records of this year in terms of its noisy yet very accessible sound and thought-provoking lyrics. The other group, however, I have a slightly more complicated relationship with, and it's also an act I have a very hard time making heads or tails of every time I listen to their records.

Yep, I'm talking about Shabazz Palaces, who first burst onto the scene with a pair of critically acclaimed EPs before dropping the absolutely fascinating record Black Up, an album I think I appreciate a lot more than I like. The album is layered, excellently produced, and features some thought-provoking and intelligent lyrics and themes about a different paradigm in which to approach rap music. At the same time, I couldn't really call myself a fan of the record: while I loved the jazz-fusion with noisy, off-kilter rhythms and psychedelia across the album, MC Ishmael Butler aka Palaceer Lazaro didn't really impress me with his flow or energy, and I found the free-association lyrics didn't always stick the landing as effectively as they could, no matter how much desperate extrapolation was pulled from RapGenius. 

So I was curious to take a look at their newest album, Lese Majesty, especially given that there's is little-to-no critical consensus on this record across the Internet. How did it turn out?