Saturday, May 30, 2015

video review: 'at. long. last. a$ap' by a$ap rocky

Whoo boy, controversy will abound with this one. Overall, pretty happy with the review, even if I got so little out of the album.

Next up, June looks to be a busy as hell month, so stay tuned!

Friday, May 29, 2015

album review: 'at. long. last. a$ap' by a$ap rocky

I have issues with A$AP Mob.

Let's put aside the fact that large tracts of their content has been fraught with wordplay that's nothing special and barely rises beyond ignorant luxury rap. Let's ignore that their usage of trap beats popularized the usage of dark, murky synth lines for this sort of hip-hop that were way more concerned with sounding menacing and were the furthest thing from fun or energetic. It was probably my biggest issue when I covered Trap Lord by A$AP Ferg way back in 2013, even though I have warmed a little to that album since. And let's move past the fact that in terms of their content, they aren't doing much different than the same luxury rap that's clogged up mainstream hip-hop for the past decade and a half.

Nope, I think my biggest issue with A$AP Mob is that, as a rap collective, they've underperformed in terms of actually dropping projects and I've frequently been underwhelmed by all of the hype placed behind the group. Hell, going back to A$AP Rocky's debut mixtape and album, I was frequently more interested in the atmosphere and more melodic, atmospheric production than A$AP Rocky himself, and his usage of pitch-shifted vocals to give his material more swell struck me more as a gimmick than anything. Yeah, I'm not going to deny he had a good flow and a fair amount of versatility, but his punchlines and introspection never really impressed me and his choice to surround himself with more interesting rappers like on tracks like '1Train' which contained a murderer's row of more distinctive MCs struck me as a poor choice. And sure, you can surround yourself with expensive brand names, but that doesn't give you a personality.

But whatever, it's a debut album, you typically expect the sophomore release to show more experimentation, and even though I'd argue the debut album didn't really define A$AP Rocky as a rapper beyond modest talent, he did look to be going for something a little weirder with his follow-up release, complete with a huge arsenal of distinctive producers and guest stars. Plus, with the death of his mentor A$AP Yams, we could be looking at a more personal affair with this - what did we get?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 6, 2015

Man, this was a harder episode to get online than I thought it'd be. Doesn't help the majority of the songs were hot garbage, but you get those weeks.

Next up, A$AP Rocky - stay tuned!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 6, 2015

And just like that, Taylor Swift is back on top.

There's honestly more to this week - a shocking amount more, really, looking at the charts you'd think it was outright chaos - but really, so much of this story revolves around Taylor Swift and 'Bad Blood'. Yeah, Kendrick Lamar plays a pretty major part too, but his verse is peripheral, a part of the machine that gave a new #1 single, a precisely timed marketing push that sent the song surging up radio, sales, streaming, and YouTube to take the top spot. And keep in mind that Taylor's not on Spotify either - the growth of 'Bad Blood' is nothing short of a minor phenomenon, and it really does eclipse most of what happened beneath it - which is kind of a good thing, because of that kind of sucked.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

video review: 'bronze age' by lmno & flavor caprice

Man, this record was a tough one to decipher. Happy I figured it out, but man, it was a tricky one, and I'm still not quite sure I've got it right.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN and A$AP Rocky, so stay tuned!

album review: 'bronze age' by lmno & flavor caprice

So I've talked a little in the past about artists who put out an incredible amount of material in a very short time. Sometimes it's because the artist is a creative genius who is going to go in so many different directions that his or her material can be maintained on so many projects and maintain quality. Sometimes it's a method for artists to get out of label obligations. Sometimes it's a case of artists who just have a knack for flooding the market with filler - and if that so happens to get popular, all the better.

But in the case of hip-hop artists, it can be a little different. For one, there's the mixtape scene, where some artists continuously feed entire full-length projects to a hungry audience. Or there's the case where they do special collaboration projects with specific producers - it might barely be a full-length project, but at the same time, it might end up turning into something special along the way.

And then there's LMNO, who I think even pushes the limit for that sort of thing. I've talked about him a couple times on this show, and it was less than a year ago when I reviewed his textured and well-written, and yet slightly dreary and meandering Preparanoia. LMNO has a reputation of pumping out a lot of material, and while he tends to be a very strong MC in terms of putting together potent, incredibly well-structured rhymes, his dry monotone and taste for dustier production means that some of his projects can start to run together.

And yet believe it or not, I was actually a little excited about this upcoming project with emergent producer Flavor Caprice. This had been a project three years in the making, which seemed to imply that this was something in which LMNO had put more care and time. And I figured I might as well get a dose of solidly dense lyrical hip-hop before checking out A$AP Rocky, so how did Bronze Age turn out?

video review: 'sol invictus' by faith no more (ft. myke c-town)

Yeah, we might be a little late to the punch here, but the album only just dropped last week and we had a complicated shoot to work with. In any case, I'm really proud with how this turned out, and thanks again to Myke for joining me here!

Next up, A$AP Rocky needs more listens, but I think I'm finally ready to tackle LMNO - stay tuned!

Monday, May 25, 2015

video review: 'hold my beer vol. 1' by randy rogers & wade bowen

Man, another record I just took a little too long to get to, but I'm glad I did.

Next up, that collaboration that's been in the workings for a while now. Stay tuned!

special comment: 10,000 subscribers q&a! (VIDEO)

Well, despite the fact my hair looks terrible in this video, I'm really thrilled this turned out the way it did.

Next up... well, it'll be out soon. Stay tuned!

album review: 'hold my beer vol. 1' by randy rogers & wade bowen

You know, I don't talk a lot about regionalism in country music - mostly because, to most mainstream listeners, you'd never be able to tell. Unless you're in Canada and get a slice of Alberta country courtesy of CRTC rules, most people would simply assume if you get country music on the radio, it's out of Nashville, especially with the increased amalgamation of radio across the US. And that's often the furthest thing from the truth, given that there are subsectors of country music all across the United States that have a distinctive sound and feel outside of the increasingly polished Nashville scene.

So let's talk about one of those scenes today and one that I've been too long in brushing over: Texas country. Commonly known as 'red dirt country' music, it tends to blur the lines between neotraditional, plain-spoken respect for the working man and rough-edged outlaw country, with brawnier guitars, a stronger acoustic flavour, and a heavier focus on lyricism and raw live performances. And while there have been plenty of country heavyweights throughout the decades that have hailed from Texas - Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson - in recent years there's been a potent resurgence as a backlash against Nashville's increasingly slick sound. And as bro-country continues to collaspe in upon itself, there's been speculation, especially in the indie scene, that red-dirt country might work to fill the vacuum.

And it's not like they don't have the quality to get there, as some of my favourite country acts of the past few years have come from this subgenre. Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, James Mc Murtry, Jason Eady, we're talking about great acts dropping solid if not downright excellent records, the best of their respective years, and thus I shouldn't be all that surprised that well-respected acts in this vein might team up and take a stab at it together. In this case, we're talking about Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers, the latter of which has been slugging it out in the Randy Rogers Band on the far outskirts of mainstream country and unfortunately got sucked into the swirling eddy that was the overly slick pop country of the mid-to-late 2000s - incidentally, the same time I stopped listening to a lot of country music. Wade Bowen comes from a similar era, but he's tended to stick to slightly more personal material and stronger songwriting. Yeah, I know I'm late to the punch - again - on covering this, but could a team-up record titled Hold My Beer, Volume 1 be the record they need to take them over the top?

Friday, May 22, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 30, 2015 (VIDEO)

And that actually went a lot smoother than I expected. Nice feeling, that is.

Next up... hmm, I've got a country record I really want to cover, but will I have a chance to get to it before a special episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN or something special for this weekend? We'll see, but stay tuned!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 30, 2015

So we’re now at the halfway point of the Billboard Hot 100 year, so let’s take stock of the situation – and while I wouldn’t quite say it was a disappointment, it certainly is interesting to see how certain trends have oscillated. R&B and neo-soul are fighting pop for dominance – with pop arguably gaining the upper hand – country has mostly stayed quiet to flush the last dregs of bro-country out of its system, all sorts of off-beat, weird tracks have fought their way up from both electronica and the indie scene, and hip-hop continues to marginalize talent and wordplay in favour of the lowest common denominator. Sure, I might lament the failure of a few promising pop and country tracks, but the rise of nu-crunk and the prevalence of Vine have driven more than its fair share of forgettable garbage to the top – and the alarming thing is that it keeps happening.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

video review: 'the first time' by kelsea ballerini

Fair bit better than expected. Not sure how often I'll revisit it in the future, but eh, you never know.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and after that... stay tuned!

album review: 'the first time' by kelsea ballerini

So I was planning on skipping this album.

And those of you who watch Billboard BREAKDOWN probably wouldn't have much cause to blame me here. I spoke a fair bit in that episode about the lead-off single 'Love Me Like You Mean It', and the independent country artist behind it Kelsea Ballerini. You also probably remember that I didn't really care for it that much, considering the stilted production and average at best lyrics that played on the less obnoxious side of Meghan Trainor. It did seem to show signs that mainstream country had finally slid far enough from bro-country that we might have more new female artists entering the scene, but it wasn't as though I liked the sound anymore, and it was disconcerting to see an indie label like Black River - who signed Kellie Pickler, for god's sake - try for the exact same game as mainstream Nashville.

And yet for some reason I started getting a sizeable number of requests to cover this album, and while June looks to be the much more promising month for country music with new releases - and most of them look pretty damn promising - I figured I might as well talk about Kelsea Ballerini. Who knows, Lucy Hale proved that she could rise above standard pop country with a better sound on Road Between - maybe 'Love Me Like You Mean It' wasn't representative of her whole album. So I checked out The First Time - how is it?

video review: 'blurryface' by twenty one pilots

Now that's the sort of surprise I want to see more of in music - man, what a great record.

Next up... ugh, might as well get this Kelsea Ballerini record out of the way... or maybe this Shamir record... ugh, either way, I'll find something, stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

album review: 'blurryface' by twenty-one pilots

I get the feeling a lot of people missed the point of my twenty-one pilots review.

Now granted, that review dropped in 2013 back when I was still getting my sea legs, and I'll freely admit that many of those early reviews were not the best things I've ever written. But still, considering how positive I was on their major label debut Vessel, the backlash I got did take me off-guard - but the more I think about it, the more I'm not entirely surprised.

Because let's be honest here: twenty-one pilots is a weird, awkward sort of group, straddling the lines between electronica, indie pop rock, emo, and even rap, and their major label debut showed more of the stress marks of that fusion than the synthesis. But as much as I thought that Tyler Joseph could use a little more seasoning and they really were crying out for a bass guitar, I saw enough potential in the songwriting and melodic composition to give the band a lot of praise. And hell, I get why a band like this develops a cult following even if their mainstream debut didn't take off with the same force - they're too unique of a group not to! That said, going back to Vessel, I do feel I overrated it a bit as it's very much a product of its time and the overall awkwardness of the release can toe the line between charming and kind of grating.

On the other hand, I've been anticipating their follow-up record Blurryface a fair bit, mostly because the lead-off singles have actually been pretty damn strong, really showing Tyler Joseph getting a lot stronger as a singer and with some welcome improvements in the songwriting. In other words, it looked like the genre fusion was coming together a lot more, so I definitely made sure to dig into it - what did we get?

video review: 'the ecology' by fashawn

And THAT covers the majority of my backlog. Now onto a very busy week (in RL and reviews), and first up is twenty-one pilots. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 18, 2015

album review: 'the ecology' by fashawn

Well, apparently for me this week is catch-up week, because man, this slipped the net. Not going to lie, I forgot that I was going to cover this when it first came out, and I'm kicking myself for it. And it was either this or talk about the new Tech N9ne album, and look, for as much as I respect his talent as a technical lyricist and his charisma, I can't get behind the majority of his production or his content, and his most recent release was even more guest star overloaded and all over the place than usual, with so many mainstream guests below his level included in a way that looks desperate more than anything else.

So that I've pissed off a fair number of you, let's talk about a rapper I actually like a fair bit more, and who has never really come across as having something to prove: Fashawn. West coast MC, affiliated with Nas and known for working with a slew of excellent producers like Evidence and Exile, he dropped his debut album Boy Meets World in 2009 - and my God, that record was something special. He may have been telling a very similar story to many rappers in talking about his come-up, but there was a spirit of youthful hope and optimism that drove that album, and paired with detailed yet plain-spoken stories and gorgeous old-school melodic production that really grabbed me. To me he fell into a similar lane with J.Cole, but came across with a more assured, tightly written presentation that resonated with me a lot more.

And yet after 2009, he seemed to drop off everyone's radar. He did a lot of touring, a couple mixtapes, put together a pretty damn solid collaboration album with Murs in 2012, and dropped a slew of guest verses, most notably for me on 'Banging Sound', from The Alchemist & Evidence collaboration album Lord Steppington early last year. From there, he signed to Nas' label Mass Appeal and set himself up for a long-awaited solo sophomore album... which I ended up missing for no adequately explained reason. I think my justification was that the reviews had only been lukewarm, but really, that's not much of an excuse, as others have absolutely raved about it. So about three months late, I dug into Fashawn's The Ecology - how is it?

Friday, May 15, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 23, 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, I guess I needed that bit of extra sleep, because I was preparing to do this last night and instead passed out damn near instantly.

Eh, whatever, it happens. Next up, I think I have one last artist in my backlog, and then back to our regularly scheduled programming, so enjoy!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 23, 2015

So after last week, I was hoping for a bit of a breather this week – and believe it or not, I got it. After the storm comes a sort of calm, and we might have one of the least active weeks of the year thus far, thanks the album release schedule slowing down to give us all a breather. And considering I used most of this week to catch up on releases I wouldn’t have otherwise covered, it’s kind of nice that Billboard BREAKDOWN also feels a little easier.

video review: 'stages' by josh groban

And that nearly takes care of my backlog. One more album that I might tackle this weekend, but first Billboard BREAKDOWN. But before then... zzz...

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

album review: 'stages' by josh groban

It seems like I've been breaking a number of 'rules' that I've traditionally held for myself, and today it looks like we're going to be tackling one of the biggest examples of that. Because everyone who begged me to cover Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett's Cheek To Cheek last year and who were put off that I really didn't have any interest are probably going to be exasperated I'm covering this - because hey, wasn't his rule that he didn't cover albums of covers?

But in the lead-up to this record, I began wondering why that is. After all, I'll talk about covers when they appear on an album, and there are plenty of examples where a well-positioned cover is just as thematically appropriate. Not really the case when you have a selection of Broadway covers put together by a classically trained operatic pop artist who is more well-known for his jawdropping vocal talents than his songwriting, but it could work. And let's be honest here: I knew Lady Gaga would do a fine job with Tony Bennett - Gaga's done that sort of material before, she's got classical training - but it didn't interest me in the same way, and after listening to the album a few times, I realized I had nothing I could really say about it, outside of it sounding exactly what I expected it would.

This is slightly different for two reasons, the first being Josh Groban himself. I'll admit that I like the guy: his material has never had stunning depth, but the man has the pipes, charisma, and power to elevate less-than-stellar writing, and I hold that his more complex 2010 record Illuminations - that had a Nick Cave cover of all things - is actually pretty damn excellent. My issue with him is that I've always wanted to see his material with a little less polish, see him get a little more visceral, challenge that incredible voice of his and test his emotional range. Now some of you might think that doing an album of Broadway covers might be flying in the exact opposite direction of that, but look at the shows he chose: Phantom of the Opera? Les Miserables? Into The Woods and Sweeney Todd? And - of course - a track from my favourite musical Chess? Sure, we're not crossing that many boundaries, but there's enough material to push Groban, and I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. That said, I didn't exactly have high expectations, and I'll admit the theater geek in me comes down hard on musical adaptations, so what did Josh Groban deliver with Stages?

video review: 'carrie & lowell' by sufjan stevens

Well, this took WAY too long to get to - it happens, but man, I want to ease back on wait times for these records. 

Now only one more record to knock off my backlog, but first, let's tackle something light, shall we...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

album review: 'carrie & lowell' by sufjan stevens

Man, it's taken me too damn long to get to this review, especially considering this is a guy I've been wanting to talk about for a while but have always had a hard time nailing him down. Because of the many, many artists I've talked about, Sufjan Stevens is damn close to one of a kind - and for the longest time, I had just ignored him because on my first few listens through his debut, he was just another quirky singer-songwriter from the indie scene that had critical acclaim and little else that really stuck with me.

And man, was I wrong in spectacular fashion. After a hard left-turn into weird electronica, Sufjan Stevens dropped the absolutely incredible Michigan, a tribute to his home state that had such an incredible balance of sound and tone it's incredible. Sufjan might not be the biggest presence as a singer - one of the reasons I've found him difficult to get into in the past was that he tended to feel overtaken by his instrumentation - but his writing and hooks were impressively detailed and eclectic, with a vibrant energy and life that made the odd kitsch of his instrumentation incredibly endearing. Is it a little over-long, off-kilter, and oddly corny at points? Yeah, but I didn't mind it, because the songwriting was so well-grounded and human that it clicked incredibly well.

Ever since then, though, Sufjan Stevens' work has struggled to recapture that balance. The closest for me came on Seven Swans, which eased things back perhaps a bit too much to bring the songwriting into tighter focus - which I'll admit clicked because most albums exploring religion with Stevens' complicated brand of framing have a lot of potential to really connect with me. His follow-up state album Illinoise went in the opposite direction and was even more elaborate, and while it did hit some spectacular highs, it didn't quite stick the landing as well for me. And then came The Age Of Adz, a weird, warped record diving back into electronics in a way that felt even more garish than before - and honestly, it doesn't quite connect, at least for me.

So when I heard that Sufjan was stripping things down to folk again and opting for a much tighter, personal focus, I was looking forward to it, especially considering the titular characters of his late mother and stepfather are placed in greater focus. Of course there'll always be moments of indulgence that are quintessential parts of his records, but it's been over a decade since Seven Swans - so what did Sufjan Stevens deliver as he came home?

Monday, May 11, 2015

video review: 'traveller' by chris stapleton

Man, I really do wish I could have loved this album instead of just liking it. Meh, it happens.

Next up, I think it might be finally time to talk about Sufjan Stevens. Stay tuned!

album review: 'traveller' by chris stapleton

I've talked a little before about songwriters working as part of the Nashville machine occasionally feel the desire to strike out and find the spotlight for themselves. They churn out dozens if not hundreds of songs for other acts, perhaps giving them a certain artistic touch or just flavourless mush, but more often than not it often serves as a sort of boot camp for aspiring artists. They start off writing for more successful acts until they can have enough clout to do it on their own.

And what's startling about Chris Stapleton is that it took so damn long. For those of you who don't read the liner notes or Wikipedia, Stapleton has been a country songwriter for acts as varied as Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, and even Adele. What most people don't know is that he's also chugged away in smaller bluegrass and southern rock acts over the past few years, which were never huge commercial successes but gave him outlets to explore and refine his craft and live presence further. But now he's finally dropping a debut country record at the age of thirty-seven, and with the waves of critical acclaim coming in, this looked to be a record I had to cover, because believe it or not, he actually cowrote 'Whiskey & You', the Jason Eady cover of a Tim McGraw song I actually placed on my year end list of the best songs of 2014. And sure, there was the possibility that other, less-interesting, more mainstream approachable songs might fill this album, but if he could write something with that sort of punch, who knows what he was saving for his own material? So I dug into that debut Traveller - what did we get?

Friday, May 8, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 16, 2015 (VIDEO)

Overall, it was a better week than expected. Shame most of hip-hop is in the shitter in the mainstream right now, but you can hope for the future.

Next up, probably Chris Stapleton and finally - finally - Sufjan Stevens. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - may 16, 2015

So remember when I was lamenting last week that the expected chaos after the collapse after a long-running #1 didn't happen? Turns out I should have just waited one week, because we might have one of the busiest weeks on the Hot 100 I've seen in a long time. Massive gains, sizeable losses and dropouts, a slew of new and returning tracks, and even new entries to the Hot 100 that show that even if the #1 slot might be safe, everything beneath it sure as hell isn't. And in some cases, that instability might end up being a good thing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

video review: 'jackie' by ciara

Well, this was... honestly better than I expected. Seriously, I expected this to go in one ear and out the other, but there's some quality here, and 'I Bet' is genuinely excellent. Sincerely hope it's a bigger hit...

Okay, next up is Billboard BREAKDOWN, then time to see what all the fuss is about with this Chris Stapleton record. Stay tuned!

album review: 'jackie' by ciara

So here's the thing: even though I was a teenager who listened to popular music in the mid-2000s, I never really got into R&B in a big way. Part of it was that I was busy listening to symphonic metal at the time, but part of it was that the mid-to-late 2000s wasn't a great period for the genre, at least in the mainstream and especially for its female artists. Sure, you had Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige, but the R&B boom of the 90s and early 2000s had faded significantly in the wave of crunk and the rising swell of pop. The male stars of the genre had fared better, with Usher, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and even Justin Timberlake raking in significant rewards, but many of the starlets who had done exceedingly well in the years prior began to struggle a bit.

And one of those artists was Ciara. Now let me admit right out of the gate I was never really a huge fan - her lyrics were frequently underwhelming when they didn't just get weird for no adequately explained reason, she occasionally worked with some obnoxious co-stars, especially early on, and her voice was so thin and delicate that it often seemed peripheral to the music, analogous to Janet Jackson but often lacking that core of strength and personality that I've tended to like about Janet's work. And yet in the era of snap percussion and incredibly minimalist beats, Ciara thrived for a few years. But as pop started to take over in the late 2000s, Ciara's material started to seem a little desperate to hold the spotlight, and that third album Fantasy Ride with its murder's row of top-line producers and guest stars ironically only stole more of the spotlight away from her. And after the follow-up the next year Basic Instinct did even worse, and I assumed, like many, that Ciara's career was over.

And yet in 2013 she came back with a self-titled album and with the rising tide of R&B, she was back on the charts. Now I'm not going to say that record's great - it's not, like most of Ciara's work I tended to find it pretty thin, as I tend to like my R&B more soulful or fiery, although Ciara's voice was becoming more rich with age. And the two Future collaborations didn't help, both of which I assume are there because they were in a relationship at the time. But two years later, the scene has changed - her engagement broke off with Future, her first child was born, her album quietly filled with some more material focusing on that broken relationship, and more cowriters and producers than ever. And as I said, I've never been a huge fan of Ciara's, but I really liked her debut single from this album 'I Bet', and hey, if she was going to spend an entire record taking potshots at Future for being a cheating asshole, that's a theme I can get behind! So how did Jackie turn out?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

video review: 'wilder mind' by mumford & sons

Man, I had low expectations for this, but it could have been a hell of a lot better than this... ugh.

Next up, either Chris Stapleton or Ciara, so stay tuned!

album review: 'wilder mind' by mumford & sons

So I've mentioned a couple times that I'm a fan of karaoke - hell, anybody who follows me on Twitter knows I occasionally post semi-witty observations when I head out to one of my favourite watering holes to sing. And one of the songs that I've put on semi-permanent rotation for myself is 'Little Lion Man' by Mumford & Sons - I can sing it well, I know the song by heart, and it's got an anthemic vibe that plays incredibly well to a crowd. One could make the argument that it's the best song Mumford & Sons ever wrote, one of the few where critics and fans could listen and acknowledge that it worked... because not since Nickelback will you find a more passionate and egregious divide between the critical press and the mainstream public than on Mumford & Sons.

And I can see both sides of the matter. When the band broke in the last few years of 2000s, they gained some attention from the mainstream public for having strong singles with anthemic choruses and a ton of rollicking energy that rarely ever got popular... and then in a quirk of fate, they did get some chart success that only increased with their second album Babel, which launched a fair few singles into the charts, won a Grammy, and solidified the folk boom of the early 2010s. And most of the critical set couldn't stand them, seeing them as a pop sellout of 'real' folk music, one of the few genres left where a vestige of authenticity still mattered. And they weren't wrong here: Mumford & Sons were slick and polished despite the folk instruments and image, and Babel was even more so, and even despite the braying howl of Marcus Mumford's voice, the band had nowhere near the grit of acts like Old Crow Medicine Show or the Avett Brothers or any slew of alternative country folk acts.

Now for me the issue was different, because I didn't mind the bluegrass tinged Mumford & Sons sound and I'm a sucker for a great stomping chorus. But the larger problem revealed itself in the framing of the songs in their lyrics - namely that they wrote a lot of catty, passive-aggressive songs about sour relationships and played them all with such serious earnest power to disguise the nastiness of the material. It's why 'Little Lion Man' remains their best song: at least they admit they were the ones who screwed things up, but beyond that? To this day, I'm still debating whether it's an issue of incompetence - the bargain-barrel symbolism would support that argument - or just douchebaggery, but it sure as hell did not make Mumford & Sons remotely likeable. And just like Nickelback, their post-grunge parallel, their material gets formulaic in a hurry if you listen through an entire album front to back.

And thus it wasn't really a surprise to me when I heard that the band had gotten so resentful of their image and the banjo that they ditched them entirely for a straight-up electric rock sound - proving it was transparaent since the very beginning, but whatever. I'll, I wasn't looking forward to this release - I covered the lead-off single on Billboard BREAKDOWN and it sounded like a watered-down U2 wannabe, and I already heard Imagine Dragons try that earlier this year. So I had low expectations, especially considering the best element of their sound - the folk groove - was now completely gone. But even with that, what did Mumford & Sons deliver with Wilder Mind?

Monday, May 4, 2015

video review: 'escape from evil' by lower dens

And that's two. Much better, and seriously a slept-on record.

Next up... damn, I might as well talk about Mumford & Sons. Stay tuned!

video review: 'suffer in peace' by tyler farr

Not a great record, but I am glad I covered this. Nice to see one bro-country artist actually improving and who might have a career after this mess.

Next up... well, stay tuned within the hour, it's rendering now!

album review: 'escape from evil' by lower dens

So there are some indie acts that just fly under the radar and nobody beyond the hardcore fanbase seems to know. I've barely gotten requests for this act, the buzz has been negligible, and even despite the fact this new record has been very well-received, nobody besides critics seems to care.

And this is something I've noticed about certain acts getting critical acclaim - it rarely means much at all for the actual act outside of very specific circumstances, and it needs to be spread wide enough to drive buzz. But even with that it might not be enough - I can think of a slew of indie acts that because they didn't get the right big performance or that huge hit single, they might have the love of critics but nobody else. Even in the age of the internet, where certain sites like Pitchfork want to define the narrative of what is popular, or where we have music critics who have accumulated enough subscribers to nearly reach half a million people, it's not often enough.

So with all of that in mind, let's talk a little about Lower Dens. Beginning with a shoestring budget in Baltimore in 2010, their debut album immediately reminded me a lot of The War On Drugs in terms of the spacious, hazy shoegaze-inspired mix and willowy vocals of Jana Hunter, but that's where the similarities ended. For one, the bass and guitar tones were far more reminiscent of post-punk, and the melodic grooves were simply phenomenally balanced against the crisp, stripped back percussion. They added more electronic elements with Nootropics in 2012, which eased back some of the haze and added sharper, more defined grooves and some synthesizers, and while I definitely think it's a damn great album, I think I liked their debut a tad more, although songs like 'Brains', 'Lamb', and especially 'Candy' were huge standouts.

And when I heard they were heading towards even more of a pop-friendly direction... well, to be honest, I was a bit mixed on it. I had no doubt in my mind that Lower Dens could write some stellar hooks if pressed for it, but I didn't want to see them shoved towards synthpop like so many other bands in their vein and lose some of their unique identity. So what did we get from Escape From Evil?

album review: 'suffer in peace' by tyler farr

You know, it's always a little fascinating to see what happens to certain artists after the trend they rode to stardom falters or fails completely. In many cases, the artists simply drop off the radar entirely, especially if they were transparently a product of the label looking to cash in. Sometimes they'll stick around for one more awkward, uncomfortable album trying to find footing with the same formula, only to be looked upon as has-beens. Some, especially if they jumped on the trend midway through their careers, will simply go back to what they did normally, with singles from that trendier record hastily wiped from memory and any live shows. And yet sometimes you get artists who are able to roll with the punches, start off riding a trend and yet able to transcend it and become staples of the genre.

And here's the thing: you can't assume that it's just the ones that'll be the most successful that'll end up in the last category. Let's be honest, what gets popular isn't always the material with the most quality, but with the most definitive image or flash or energy, and those seldom translate well into the long term, especially if your artistic persona is so tied to that image. As such, it's typically the artists that are a little more restrained or in control of that image that can ride their debuts to greater success - or, of course, if you actually a distinctive artistic identity, but that might be hoping for too much.

But could I be wrong here? For an example, let's consider Tyler Farr, a definitive b-lister in the bro-country scene who released Redneck Crazy in 2013 in the heat of the craze and rode the absolutely terrible titular single to nearly the top of the charts. Now I reviewed that album and I remember not being kind to it, but truth be told, I can barely remember that album at all. I remember the singles and i remember thinking that Tyler Farr had a good enough voice to do well - turns out the guy had classical training, which is uncommon to see in country music - but his material often came across leering and creepy when it wasn't boring and forgettable. Coupled with production that was all over the place, I was prepared to write Tyler Farr off... but then I heard his lead-off single 'A Guy Walks Into A Bar', and I was struck by its intensity and frustration, and the realization that gruff anger might actually be a solid fit for the guy. And considering rumors that this record was supposed to be a little rougher and heavier, I was actually interested in covering him, whereas you couldn't convince me to cover a sophomore record to other bro-country acts like Thomas Rhett or Cole Swindell. So what did we get with Suffer In Peace?