Thursday, April 30, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 9, 2015

So here's the odd thing - remember when I said last week that the charts tend to become more unstable when there's a big change at the top, as the old hit tumbles and plenty other songs jockey for its place? Well... that's not really happening, and from what I dug up this week, it lends all the more evidence to the fact that if 'See You Again' hadn't shown up, 'Uptown Funk' would have broken 'One Sweet Day's record, or at least would have gotten a lot closer. As it was this week, it was all about what song would manage to make that big push... and the push didn't happen yet. Meanwhile, a bunch of songs fell off the charts because of longevity and were mostly replaced by... well, you'll see.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

video review: 'kindred' by passion pit

Man, I could have done without covering this. I suspect the shitstorm won't be huge, but you never know these days. On the plus side, I did get a chance to catch up on a bit of my back catalogue today, which was nice.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, Lower Dens, Alabama Shakes, and Sufjan Stevens, so stay tuned!

album review: 'kindred' by passion pit

So let me clue you all in to one of the biggest 'tricks' surrounding indie pop, and where it can have an easy path to critical acclaim with a similar sound to what's subsequently derided in the mainstream. Simple enough trick, but it works a lot more often than you think: tonal subversion. Basically how it works is a shift in the tone or content of your lyrics in comparison to that of your music - shifting the acid high to the acid freakout, a song with a generally cheery tone being about death, you get the picture. If you trace your way through the indie scene and especially indie pop, you see a lot of this. Take the typical pop framework and use it to package lyrics that might not be all that exceptional with a similar tone, but make the instrumentation go in the opposite direction and suddenly people will really start taking notice.

Now of course there's a scale of quality to this, because there are plenty of acts who go against the tone of their instrumentation lyrically and have the skill as writers to pull it off. But if we're looking for an act who has gone to this well more aggressively and consistently than nearly any other indie pop act, I'd point to Passion Pit, an indie pop band that I've liked but never quite loved that exploded in 2009 with their breakout hit Manners. And let's make this clear, I'm not really a fan of Manners as a whole - going back to it, the chiptune production and sugar-sweet instrumentation hasn't precisely aged well, and Michael Angelakos' shrill, breathy voice could start to grate on my nerves, especially considering how bleak the lyrics often got. They nailed the balance a lot better on Gossamer in 2012, swapping out pure sugar for a more opulent and varied presentation, and Angelakos' delivery didn't feel as one-dimensional - just as earnest but you could tell there was other emotions boiling behind the surface, holding on by a thread as frail and precarious as its title.

Well, turns out there was a reason for that dichotomy - Angelakos had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and after a year of cancelled tours and therapy, things seemed to have finally righted themselves, with Angelakos replacing his entire live band and bringing in a new producer: Benny Blanco, the writer/producer known for churning out some of the biggest hits of the early 2010s for Kesha, Katy Perry, and Maroon 5. To see him on a Passion Pit album seemed to imply that they'd probably be going in a much more commercial direction... did we get that with Kindred?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

video review: 'jekyll + hyde' by the zac brown band

Man, I wish this album could have been stronger... although then again, experiments like this are always risks, so it's not surprising it might not have pulled off the power of a record like Uncaged. Eh, it happens.

Next up... honestly, I've got a few that I'm interested in covering. Stay tuned!

album review: 'jekyll + hyde' by the zac brown band

If you were to ask me what my most anticipated album of 2015 was... well, depending on the day I would have given you a number of answers. Depending on the genre I would have given you a number of answers, but I was getting asked about country, it wouldn't have even been a challenge. And for me, it's always a little odd admitting things like this, because it sets expectations for this review and immediately there'll be accusations of bias or some silliness like that. Let me say that my critical faculties are not impaired, and I'm not going to give something a pass just because I'm a fan - my Nightwish review was proof of that.

That said... the Zac Brown Band is probably one of my favourite country bands ever. The project of singer-songwriter Zac Brown and a killer selection of multi-instrumentalists and backing singers, it was a band that started small with The Foundation in 2008, and while I liked that album for its singles and a couple lightweight deep cuts, it wasn't until their 2010 record You Get What You Give that they seriously won me over. Not only was this a band that knew their neotraditional country and had a gift for killer melodies and great texture, but they were also strong songwriters that could sketch great pictures and had the talent to work with the greats like Alan Jackson. And with songs like 'Colder Weather' - which I should remind you all was my pick for the best hit song of 2011 - they proved that the success of 'Chicken Fried' or 'Toes' wasn't going to confine them to lightweight beach fodder.

But while You Get What You Give was a damn solid record, 2012's Uncaged was damn near a masterpiece. No joke, if I were to make a list of my top records of 2012, it'd be fighting with Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean for the top slot. Not only was the writing even better, it showed the band getting more experimental, fusing elements of reggae, bluegrass, rock, and even R&B into their music - and what was all the more amazing is that they made it feel cohesive and powerful with songs like 'Goodbye In Her Eyes', 'Natural Disaster', and 'Last But Not Least' standing as some of their best ever.

And then things really got interesting. They put out an EP with Dave Grohl, Zac Brown later showed up on one of the best songs of the Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways, and with an upcoming collaboration from Chris Cornell on their newest record Jekyll + Hyde - along with Sara Bareilles of all people - it looked as though the Zac Brown Band were continuing their experimentation. What worried me, though, was the producer: Jay Joyce, who in recent years has developed a bad reputation for overproduction and turning albums that could have been amazing or at least passable from Eric Church, Little Big Town, and Halestorm into complete messes. And I'll admit, I was worried here: I knew Zac Brown had a reputation for a tight grip in the studio, but swapping out Keith Stegall, known for working with Alan Jackson, for Joyce struck me as a monumentally bad decision, especially considering they were already working with Grohl! But even putting that aside, I hoped for the best: did the Zac Brown Band manage to pull something together?

Monday, April 27, 2015

video review: 'bills ep' by lunchmoney lewis

The more I listen to this, the more I just love it. Goddamn, what a great EP, definitely worth breaking my rules to cover.

Next up, one of my most anticipated albums of the year, so stay tuned!

video review: 'handwritten' by shawn mendes

Ugh, I wanted this to be better. Can't all be winners, though.

No, if you want that... well, just wait, it's coming!

album review: 'bills ep' by lunchmoney lewis

I don't tend to cover EPs.

And believe it or not, there's a reason for that. As I've said in the past, I like records that are full-length album statements, mostly because they're the ones that give me a ton of material to work with in these reviews - and sometimes I don't even get that. So slice it down to four songs and I've got even less to talk about, so unless I have reason to believe this EP is going to be insanely good, I hold to this as a rule.

Today I'm going to break that rule, because the more publicity I can give to this guy, the better. Viewers of Billboard BREAKDOWN probably aren't surprised that I'm going to talk about LunchMoney Lewis, but for those of you who don't, he's something of a hip-hop artist from Atlanta and the son of a member of Inner Circle, the Jamaican reggae band that wrote the Bad Boys theme. He's been behind the scenes for a bit now, working with Dr. Luke as a producer and songwriter, but now he's striking out for himself, rounding up a couple songwriters who work with Dr. Luke for a chance in the spotlight. And I have mixed feelings about this. I've been following the legal nightmare unfolding between Kesha and Dr. Luke as she quietly works to rebrand and rebuild her career after her nightmarish 2014, and considering Becky G's debut album is nowhere in sight, signing to Kemosabe to drop a new hit seemed like an extraordinarily bad idea. But his leadoff hit 'Bills' convinced me I needed to hear more from LunchMoney Lewis, so I found his debut EP and decided to listen through it? Was it worth it?

album review: 'handwritten' by shawn mendes

Now I may have said in my last episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN that Vine was one of the worst things in recent memory to happen to mainstream hip-hop, and I stand by that. But that's not to dismiss its growing impact on pop music as well, where certain acts, trending towards a younger demographic, have earned some success too. And you know, on some level it makes sense - as attention spans grow shorter and shorter with every generation, and pop music perpetually lodged at the age of early teens, it makes sense that Vine could spawn material perfectly tailored for that audience.

But that's not saying that music from these sources is essentially bad, or even tells the complete story. More of that comes through in the rising fortunes of Ed Sheeran, the singer-songwriting who is slowly taking more and more steps from dreary, white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar territory into tighter, more groove-heavy, more fiery material. And given how much he has dominated the charts over the past year and with singer-songwriters like Hozier pushing a more organic, rougher sound, it stands to reason that the music industry would look to cash in on this in the quickest way possible.

Thus we have Shawn Mendes, a Canadian teenager from just outside of Toronto who built a following on Vine and has been tearing a swathe through the Canadian charts. Keep in mind that our radio stations have to play a certain percentage of Canadian music, so I've heard of Shawn Mendes before this review - and honestly, I don't mind him. Sure, there are moments that could use some polish, but there was some raw talent here and he sure as hell sounds more ready for prime time than Justin Bieber ever did. And hell, if he's going to bite from Ed Sheeran's template and take the one element from Vine that I actually think could be a net positive - a sense of immediacy and pop-friend punch for his hooks - this debut could actually be worth a damn, even if he didn't write the whle record. So I checked out Handwritten - did it live up to expectations?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

video review: 'short movie' by laura marling

Dear god, it took me WAY too long to get to this. Hopefully, the wait time for Sufjan Stevens will be less, but again, not quite ready for that yet.

On the other hand, this Shawn Mendes album or Passion Pit? Yeah, those coming soon, plus the new Zac Brown Band record! Stay tuned!

album review: 'short movie' by laura marling

Man, this record took way too long for me to talk about.

Now some of this I can blame on a turbulent month and a hefty back catalog, but I'd argue it's more than that in the case, so I think some explanation about my schedule is required. Before I review an album, I go back and listen through their entire back catalog. Not just the singles, not just the hits, the entire list of records - and I also endeavour to be an active listener. I'm the sort who if there are oblique or confusing lyrics, I'm going to digging through them line by line to truly parse them out, and that tends to require multiple listens. Coupled with the fact that I still try to get out multiple reviews in a week plus Billboard BREAKDOWN plus work a full time job... well, yeah, you get the picture.

And a lot of this comes down to the singer-songwriter we're going to be talking about today, a critically-acclaimed artist whose knack for intricate and mature lyricism meant her work didn't just merit additional listens, it demanded it. Yep, we're going to be talking about Laura Marling today, the sort of folk singer-songwriter that I have a hard time not liking, not just for her literary sensibility but for the fact she brought a level of maturity and songwriting craft that seemed beyond her years. And as her songwriter ventured more towards abstraction and layers, her material got trickier to process. Her first creative peak for me came on her second album I Speak Because I Can, which recruited Marcus Mumford to contribute to a record that not only easily outstripped anything he did with Mumford & Sons, but also had strong enough melodic grooves and writing to stand as one of the best of 2010. Her 2011 album A Creature I Don't Know was a little trickier to gauge given its slightly more abstract writing, but it was still incredibly solid if only because the writing was so damn good and it wasn't afraid to get noisier and nastier deeper into the record for cuts like 'The Beast' which kicks all amounts of ass. Then came Once I Was An Eagle in 2013, a record that dipped into even greater abstraction with even less instrumental accompaniment and one that took so many listens to really understand - and yet I'd still argue that as a songwriter Marling had never sounded better, an album that felt transitional only in that she was stepping towards something new and dropping an air of finality on what came before.

So when I heard she was releasing a new album that apparently featured electric guitar - a first for her - I was excited. After Once I Was An Eagle, a new beginning felt inevitable... so what did we get with her newest record Short Movie?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 2, 2015 (VIDEO)

Man, this took way too long to get out. Glad it's here, but between computer problems and editing...

Want to know what else took WAY too long to put out? My next review, so stay tuned!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 2, 2015

So here's the funny thing about when songs fall off the very top - it can take a bit of time for everything to start breaking down and getting interesting, or at least allow a little more instability into the charts. And while last week was the one that got all the big headlines, this week is where things started to shake up a little. Coupled with the Academy of Country Music having its annual awards - even though they were a complete joke - we got a couple surprises on the charts this week, even if the quality of said surprises remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

video review: 'love story' by yelawolf

Unsurprisingly, some of the reception of this album has been mixed, but for a guy who has always loved country and hip-hop, the fusion works stunningly well and I really dug this record. 

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN! Stay tuned!

album review: 'love story' by yelawolf

I've been getting requests to cover this for months now. Ever since I said that I was both a hip-hop reviewer and the only country music critic on YouTube, I've gotten asked to talk about Yelawolf, affiliated with Shady Records and one of the more perplexing talents to be affiliated with Eminem.

But before I talk about Yelawolf, I need to talk about the fusion of country and hip-hop, country rap. Believe it or not, country and hip-hop have a disturbing amount in common, which is why I'm always baffled why so many people are amazed I like both of them. I mean, country and hip-hop are both driven by strong regional pride. Both are genres that are used to telling stories, and both love their alpha-male heroes, especially if they're outlaws. Both as of right now have a serious problem sustaining female talent in the mainstream without overt sexualization, and both have been going through significant growing pains when it comes to more progressive audiences.  Both aren't afraid to speak about the real problems of the downtrodden and talk about real social issues... or at least they used to be before what got popular were songs about booze, cars, and butts. 

So what do we get with country rap? Well, many people think it started with artists like Uncle Kracker and Bubba Sparxxx in the early 2000s, gaining traction with the success of acts like Colt Ford. And I'll be blunt - most of it is goddamn terrible, thanks mostly to the fact that it caters to the lowest common denominator and generally suffers from a serious deficiency in rapping talent. And thus the choice of Yelawolf to start moving towards more of a gritty, country-influenced sound has always intrigued me. He started off with a ton of buzz off of well-received mixtapes... buzz that mostly went out the window thanks to the generally underwhelming and messy Radioactive. The frustrating thing is that Yelawolf is a solid and unique rapper, at least from a technical perspective, but his production really let him down, generally sounding thin and underweight. The album suffered from a serious lack of focus and texture - Yelawolf is a spitter, but he didn't exactly blow me away or show off the elements that made him so unique and distinctive.

Well, it's clear Yelawolf understood that, because he took the criticism to heart and after an EP with Ed Sheeran - which makes way too much sense when you think about it - he dropped another mixtape and finally has released his sophomore release. And the look of it is much different. Recorded in Nashville, with only Eminem as a guest star and with a very limited number of producers, this looked to be something grittier, with the single 'Till It's Gone' on both it and SHADY XV suggesting a sound that was closer to country rap than anything else. So you bet I was curious about the album and dove in: how is it?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

video review: 'glitterbug' by the wombats

Not quite as amazing as their debut, but still awesome and definitely worth your time all the same.

Next up... hmm, decisions, decisions. Stay tuned!

album review: 'glitterbug' by the wombats

It's one of the weirdest things about music throughout the years, and something that the more you think about it makes less and less sense: how power pop just isn't successful on mainstream radio.

I mean, sure, you might get the occasional hit from bands with enough of an edge to rock out but a penchant for the strong, sticky hooks that pop music needs, but they seldom stick around, even in years when you'd think they do well. Take the pop rock boom of the mid-2000s, the heyday of Fall Out Boy and My Chemical romance and Green Day: you'd think mainstream radio would have been desperate to snatch up more bands that were willing to take fast-paced guitar-driven rock and present it with a more polished, anthemic package, but success tended to be limited, especially if the band had a quirky, indie edge that hadn't yet become popular.

Such was the case for The Wombats, a Liverpool-based indie band that broke out with their debut album A Guide To Love, Loss, and Desperation. Like many of the indie acts of the time, you could see the lineage of their sound - the jangly production and overwritten lyrics reminiscent of the Arctic Monkeys crossed with the warped, jagged, and yet oddly theatrical styling that recalled a lot of Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand, especially with the frenetic drumming and bass harmonies. But The Wombats stood out against all of those bands for me, mostly because frontman Matthew Murphy was able to convey an air of sheer panic so well to match lyrics drenched in over-detailed working class heartbreak and wasn't afraid to toss on some lightweight backing harmonies to cut the sting a little. It helped the band had a solid sense of humor and idea of scope: the topics were pure pop idealism, and they worked to build off of that, and made one of the most intensely listenable and fun albums of 2007.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a formula that was destined to last. Four years later they dropped This Modern Glitch, and while the idealism and energy was still there, it wasn't quite the same. The writing didn't seem as sharp, the energy was less raucous and wild, and while the addition of synthesizers worked well enough in a way reminiscent of The Killers, I couldn't help but feel that The Wombats didn't need to become a cleaner or more polished band, no matter how much some of the guitars snarled. Some could argue it might have been a sell-out move... except it didn't take them any further in the mainstream. So when I heard that not only was the band staying with that direction, but even losing some of their trademark humor, I really had a bad feeling about this. Would Glitterbug end up being the album that breaks The Wombats but at the cost of what made them special?

Friday, April 17, 2015

video review: 'cherry bomb' by tyler, the creator

I expect this video to get a fair amount of debate, but eh, that's what happens when positions get complicated. Hell, I expect the same when I cover Kanye later this year.

Next up, I finally want to talk about Laura Marling, but first I might have a surprise coming...

album review: 'cherry bomb' by tyler, the creator

So maybe Odd Future does have a plan after all.

It certainly seems like something is up. When I reviewed Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, I speculated that Odd Future's fading buzz made the release of Earl's record feel like a bit of an anomaly, especially considering the lack of major Odd Future players on it. Well, maybe I should have known better because it wasn't a few weeks later when Odd Future 'leader' Tyler The Creator announced his own record to be released in a week's time.

Which for me was a good thing, because paradoxically while Tyler The Creator might be the leader of the Odd Future collective, he's probably one of the members of the group that I have the hardest time getting a firm handle on. His acrid contempt for critics who brand him as horrorcore given his complete lack of filter and graphic subject material does have merit, mostly because he's the most interesting when you dig deeper into the outsider mentality that exists half in hyperbole and half in unfiltered, bold-faced honesty. He's not rapping to shock, mostly because his audience won't find him shocking but relatable. Parallels have also been made in terms of subject matter to Ariel Pink, owning the image of the outsider even as the mainstream shows interest for all of the wrong reasons, at least in his view - hypocritical considering so much of his buzz has circled around his controversy, but at least he's somewhat aware of that.

And yet I'm not exactly a fan of Tyler The Creator, and it shouldn't be all that surprising why. As I've said in the past, pure unrelenting nihilism, even when shoved through the lens of confused adolescence, frequently wears out its welcome if it doesn't have a larger point behind it, and Tyler's material can struggle here. The warped therapy session of Goblin worked for what it was - entirely unsurprising from a teenage kid forced to grow up too fast and trying to burn through his issues, even if it was about four songs too long - and the 'prequel' of Wolf fleshed out a hall of twisted mirrors and alter egos that were well-developed against good production but did seem to deflect even more from who Tyler really is - and it was also about four songs too long. Incidentally, the whole convoluted 'narrative' behind Tyler's work is interesting conceptually, but I don't put a lot of stock in the execution - it's well-framed and I can overlook the continuity errors lyrically, but I'm often left feeling it's less than the sum of its parts and doesn't hit me as hard as individual moments.

In any case, when Tyler announced his new record Cherry Bomb with no guest appearances from Odd Future members, instead featuring Pharrell, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West, and also a radical departure in sound, I was curious to say the least. Earl Sweatshirt had managed to keep up an impressive level of quality with his comeback, and divorced from the twisted continuity of Tyler's earlier albums, maybe Cherry Bomb could stand up well in its own world, right?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - april 25, 2015 (VIDEO)

I honest to God thought I couldn't get this done tonight. The filming was hell, I started late, and I was bleary-eyed and exhausted. Whew.

Okay, next is Tyler, and then I have a slew of reviews I shouldn't have any problem knocking out... plus I've got a surprise planned for this weekend. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - april 25, 2015

Well, it finally happened. Fourteen weeks into its run, just a scant few weeks from breaking a record held for nearly twenty years, it was unseated by a dark horse soundtrack hit by a subpar rapper and a YouTuber that nobody could have seen coming. Yes, the rest of the week happened and gave me a fair amount to actually talk about, but in a rare occurence on this show, it actually looks like our Top Ten might be more interesting - because this week, 'Uptown Funk' by Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars lost the #1 slot.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

video review: 'into the wild life' by halestorm

Goddamn it, I wanted this album to be better. Joyce, you've had your chances - three strikes and you're out.

Next up, I think I'm finally ready to talk about Tyler. Stay tuned!

album review: 'into the wild life' by halestorm

You know, at some point I'm going to have the time to sit down and make an extended Special Comment on Glee and the effect it has had on popular culture. On the one hand, it cultivated one of the most rabid and insufferable fanbases you could ever find - and this is speaking as one who was once part of it - and the show's treatment of social issues could be questionable at best, even inside the LGBT sphere. Hell, it's one of those shows where the more subtext you extract, the more unsettling it becomes. But on the other hand, it was a show that did play a role in shaping popular music, especially during its prime days on the charts, and it's undeniable it played a role in the indie resurgence that managed to take root in 2012, which I do see as a net positive. Hell, the show even began to build a reputation for breaking indie rock acts, and there was a period for a few seasons where up-and-coming indie acts could have a chance for mainstream success if a Glee cover got traction.

But when I heard that Glee was covering Halestorm, I was a little amazed. See, Halestorm played closer to hard rock and even alternative metal at points, and Glee's refusal to touch most of those genres beyond the safest of possible covers - and the fact that certain rock bands outright refused to be featured - meant that Halestorm was an anomaly... albeit not by much. Their first, self-titled album dropped in 2009 mostly playing as a solid four-piece hard rock act that incorporated some decent sizzling grooves and the impressively versatile and raw vocals of Lzzy Hale. The frustrating thing about that first album is that it was playing very much in the groove that Evanescence and similar acts carved, and the by-the-numbers production and co-writing courtesy of Howard Benson didn't help them stand out. Their second album The Strange Case Of... did show an improvement, if only because the compositions had more variety in the writing and did a lot more to show off Lzzy Hale's range, but again, it was a record that only managed to connect with me in moments, and I'd probably blame Howard Benson's by-the-numbers production more than anything.

In any case, Halestorm is now back with a third album Into The Wild Life, and a new producer: Jay Joyce. To say I have mixed feelings about this is an understatement - for one, he's a producer who has the majority of his credits in country music, and while he has pushed towards experimentation with Eric Church and Little Big Town, I'd argue his production has been hit-and-miss at best, often heavy handed when it doesn't need to be. That said, he might be a solid fit with Halestorm, and in more of a rock environment, his trend towards heavier, thicker sounds could be a natural fit, and give Halestorm some much needed unique instrumental identity. So did we get that with Into The Wild Life?

Monday, April 13, 2015

video review: 'dark energy' by jlin

This review took way too long to really unpack, believe it or not. Complicated album, lot to say.

Next up, I've got to talk about Halestorm, because this... yeah, this isn't good...

album review: 'dark energy' by jlin

So as I said over this past week, it seems like the theme has been delving into musical genres and styles that are outside of my typical experience. And if that's really the case... whoo boy, we've got one for today from a genre that I've touched, but rarely explored in depth.

Yep, this time we're going to be talking about house music - and given its ubiquity, I'd be surprised if anybody couldn't recognize the sounds. Born in Chicago in the very early 80s as dance music returned to the underground, it would eventually pop up in scattered moments of popularity across the world, especially in the UK and especially in the early 90s. Or more specifically, especially over the course of the past couple of years, with the explosion of house-inspired EDM at the turn of the decade and the explosion of deep house last year. And like most house music trends, it always seems to be mutating too fast for most critics to catch up.

So when I started hearing about the newest Chicago-driven sound, nebulously defined as 'footwork', I was at least curious to find out what it was - only to discover that the term is something of a misnomer, more referring to a specific type of scene that included fast-paced dancing against some of the most aggressive house tracks you'd ever hear. I also discovered that like most house genres, it's been around since the 80s, most supported by DJ Rashad, and seems to be now making its comeback against the lethargic tones of deep house. Enter Jlin - affiliated with English electronic label Planet Mu, and initially sparking interest in the scene with the single 'Erotic Heart' back in 2011, her rise to releasing a debut album has won her a lot of critical acclaim and conversation, particularly for her near-complete absence of samples outside of vocal snippets. Regardless, given my general ambivalence towards chunks of deep house, I figured maybe something with a little more aggression and anger might work better, so I dove deep into Jlin's debut album Dark Energy - what did we get?

Friday, April 10, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - april 18, 2015 (VIDEO)

Man, it's nice when these videos come together easily for a change. Whew.

Okay, next up I think will be Jlin - or Halestorm, whichever I feel like. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - april 18, 2015

You know, it's odd, after several weeks with so much going on with the Hot 100, it's nice to get a bit of a breather. The biggest news this week isn't an avalanche of new or returning songs, but rather the longevity of the one at the top, and as such we have one of the smallest number of new tracks that I've ever seen on the twenty weeks I've covered the chart. And honestly, I'm not sure how that'll evolve over the next few weeks - the insanity of the album releases in the first quarter of this year seems to have given way to some relative calm, which means that unless we have more artists throwing curveballs - and I wouldn't discount that - we might have the chance to relax a little here.

video review: 'sometimes i sit and think, and sometimes i just sit' by courtney barnett

Dear god, this took way too goddamn long to get online. And odds are, it'll probably go over poorly. Just my luck.

Anyway, next up... zzz...

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

album review: 'sometimes i sit and think, and sometimes i just sit' by courtney barnett

I've mentioned in the past that I'm not a fan of 'twee' music, music that emphasizes willful immaturity and cuteness and normalcy for its own sake. Part of it is the aesthetic - bubblegum pop can work really well when it's done right for example - but the general aesthetic and atmosphere just turns me off. Part of it is I have a flair for the bombastic and dramatic - I like power metal for god's sake - but I reckon it runs deeper than that, because it's not like I don't like regular, down-to-earth human stories. Hell, I listen to country music and have praised artists who pull their inspiration from the most mundane of details. But to me, the combination of a willfully immature tone or sound and a choice to go for a more mundane or 'twee' approach just turns me off.

And it seems a lot of this music coasts by on relatability, where as a critic things get tricky. I'm not going to deny that there's a factor to being able to relate to an artist or sound that influences why people like it - it lends a degree of authenticity to the experience - but I'd argue there should be more than that. For me, the best artists can make that connection with their audience regardless of the stories that they're telling. On the other hand, I tend to react negatively when artists try to elevate the very mundane into something to connect with their audience and maybe along the way make it mean something. Even coming from me, it smacks of pretentiousness, a cheap way to connect with an audience without the imagination to push more boundaries. And considering so much of it doesn't play for bigger drama, it strikes of trying to find something powerful where there really isn't much there.

As such, I had a real sinking feeling going to cover Courtney Barnett, Australian singer-songwriter who had won a lot of critical acclaim for her embrace of fragments of 90s grunge, garage rock, and hints of very 'mundane' lyricism. Her debut follows two very well-received EPs, and this looks to be her most critically-acclaimed to date. As such I'm almost obliged to cover it while I work through the back catalogues of Laura Marling and Sufjan Stevens to review their albums. And even though I expected this would not be my thing at all, I vowed to give it a fair chance - part of my goals this year would be covering music outside of my usual comfort zone. So, with that, how is Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

video review: 'adventure' by madeon

This album surprised me a little. Not that it's a great record, but it was better than I expected.

Okay, Courtney Barnett or Jlin next. Stay tuned!

album review: 'adventure' by madeon

So one comment I tend to get a lot is that you should never compare artists even within the same genre, the point behind it being that since every musical act is trying to create a unique vision or through a unique execution, and thus direct comparisons will fall short in capturing that. And on some level, I can see the relevance of that argument: unless one artist is straight-up ripping off the other - which does happen, let's not kid ourselves here - it's definitely worth as a critic highlighting the unique strengths and weaknesses of an act.

But the more deeply I delved into this argument, the less I buy it. For one, when evaluating the 'unique' strengths and weaknesses, how does one explain what that uniqueness is without drawing a subsequent comparison to an established act? Not only that, if you don't understand the historical evolution of certain music, you can lose necessary pieces of context the artists themselves are trying to create. In other words, on some level the comparison is necessary and can even be a positive thing in order to better explain an artist's relevance not just to today's music, but that of the past. If I were to trace this argument further, the whole 'you shouldn't compare artists' argument is a very modern idea, tied to the belief that everything and everyone is unique and special, which I believe does a great disservice to artists in not providing a scale of quality. I instead would argue success and failure comes in different forms, which links into an acknowledgement of artistic intent while still allowing an critical eye.

Why bring all of this up? Well, when I started getting a ton of requests to cover Madeon, the stage name of French producer Hugo Pierre Leclercq, I saw a lot of comparisons being made with Porter Robinson and I immediately braced myself, especially considering the two men are friends. Now when I initially covered Worlds by Porter Robinson, it wasn't so much that the album was bad but that it did nothing for me, trying to balance a very lightweight, twee tone with overweight EDM, choppy percussion, and a lot of unrealized potential thematically, to say nothing of some naked comparisons that could be made to many other acts in his genre. Now it seems like Madeon was sidestepping some of the comparisons - mostly by getting several artists to feature on this album directly. Immediately I didn't have a good feeling going into this record, but I figured I might as well give them a fair shot. Just because Porter Robinson didn't resonate with me doesn't mean Madeon's 'Adventure' will fall in the same category, right?

Monday, April 6, 2015

video review: 'goon' by tobias jesso jr.

Well, I was leery about this album going in, and it's frustrating that my suspicions ended up being confirmed. Man, this was underwhelming.

Next up, I think I should plow through some more of Pitchfork's critical darlings - either that or the Madeon album. Stay tuned!

album review: 'goon' by tobias jesso jr.

Before we begin, let's talk a little bit about one of the most common song templates in music: the piano ballad. Long held as one of the most basic but most versatile set-ups in the industry, it's a formula that's almost classic, and can be played in many different forms. The crowning era of this - as it was for many singer-songwriters - was the 70s, where the piano could be soft and intimate or clattering and loud, aggressive or graceful. As a pianist myself - albeit one without much subtlety, I can admit - there's a certain affinity I have to very good piano ballads for their ability to craft intricate melody with every note.

But it seems as time has past, the piano ballads that get popular these days are more maudlin and subdued, where our singer-songwriter goes to the piano because he wants to evoke an atmosphere of downbeat simplicity and nothing else. This really came to a head in the first half of 2013, where we were deluged with piano ballads that weren't bad, but rarely had the songwriting heft to really grip me - sure, I like sad love and breakup songs as much as anyone, but there's more to the formula and stories that could have been told beyond that. And it can fall along a similar line of the opinion I tend to hold of 'white guys with acoustic guitars' - if you can't elevate the bare minimum into something of substance or emotive weight beyond the very most basics, it's hard for me to connect with it, simply because I've seen so much of it before.

This is one of the big reasons I've been leery about checking out the debut album from Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. Originally starting as a bassist in LA for several years, Jesso eventually moved back to Vancouver and after a particularly rough breakup and family difficulties, he started working on this album. From there Jesso was able to leverage some pretty interesting connections - JR White formerly of the duo Girls, Ariel Rechtshaid, John Collins of the New Pornographers, and most interestingly for me, Pat Carney of The Black Keys. He also managed to enlist help from one of the sisters from HAIM, and wow, it seemed like this guy hit the lottery when it comes to critically beloved friends in indie rock. And from everything I had heard going in, I wasn't going to be getting the hyper-literate and intricate songs of Josh Tillman, but something simpler and more emotive. And that can work - Perfume Genius proved that on his earlier albums - so I decided to give Tobias Jesso Jr. a chance with his debut album Goon - how is it?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - april 11, 2015

So here's the issue with weeks like this one: when you have a half-dozen songs from one artist that debut thanks to streaming, they aren't going to last. Sure, you might get a song or two that sticks around, but the majority won't, no matter how good they might be. Such is the case this week with Kendrick Lamar, who lost all but one new song from the charts - and that one took a big hit that we can only hope a boost from the newly released video will save. But unlike with Drake a while back, we don't have the new release of Big Sean to compensate for all that was lost, which leads to a backfill of old tracks and new tracks to fill the slot along with our list of regularly scheduled debuts. In other words, it was a busy week this week, and unfortunately not all for the better, but we'll get to that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

video review: 'the powers that b' by death grips ('niggas on the moon'/'jenny death')

Man, it feels like I've been waiting to get this album out of my system for ages. Long journey to get to this one, I have to say.

Okay, next up... honestly, I have no idea what's going to come after Billboard BREAKDOWN tomorrow. All I know is that tomorrow will be a crazy day for other RL reasons, and getting the damn thing done will be tough. Stay tuned!

album review: 'the powers that b' by death grips ('niggas on the moon'/'jenny death')

Ever since I started talking about hip-hop on this series, I've been asked to talk about Death Grips in some form. And I've been delaying it for a while too, mostly because in hindsight, Death Grips has gone on to be surprisingly influential in underground and even fragments of mainstream hip-hop in crafting a noisier, nastier, more industrial sound that has touched everyone from El-P to Doomtree to Kanye West. But I haven't really talked about the wild trio responsible for this sound, who rose on a wave of critical acclaim and a cult following to land on a major label... where everything seemed to self-destruct until the group fell apart and broke up. Or maybe they didn't, and the group is still together screwing with the minds of their fanbase and any music journalist who hasn't yet realized the chaos and buzz is starting to eclipse the actual music.

Okay, that's unfair, because believe it or not, when Death Grips dropped their debut album The Money Store after the well-received mixtape Exmillitary, there was a lot to like. An explosive, choppy, abrasive brand of production, impressionist lyrics that sketched out half-formed graphic nightmares, and MC Ride's bestial delivery balancing gruff nihilism with deranged paranoia. For the most part, it was pure, unrestrained id with some real visceral punch, and I can't deny it did exactly what it was designed to do... but for me, Death Grips doesn't always connect. For one, I'm not the biggest fan of MC Ride - his delivery works what the music is, but savagery loses impact with me over the course of a sustained album, even despite some eclectic production. As such, even though I'll acknowledge The Money Store being a slightly more cohesive and probably better project, I like more tracks from No Love Deep Web for a slightly more cutting and electronic approach in comparison to MC Ride's usual broad wallop. Then came Government Plates... which was just underwhelming across the board, easily Death Grips' least impressive album and one that started to show the band might be running out of ideas.

But in 2014 they dropped the first half of The Powers That B even amid the rumors of their split, and after a teasing process that frankly has gone on several months too long, they have released the second half, now giving us a full double album of material. And like I promised - and because this might be the last Death Grips release ever - I decided to cover it. What did I get?