Thursday, June 30, 2016

video review: 'case/lang/veirs' by case/lang/veirs

My only real complaint about this album is that I'd like to see a little more lyrical interplay, a more defined fusion of styles perhaps. As it is, it's ridiculously great and an easy favourite - I swear I've gone through the album a dozen times for this review, SO GOOD.

Next up... well, it's the midyear review. Brace yourselves, folks, and stay tuned!

album review: 'case/lang/veirs' by case/lang/veirs

I've talked before about team-up records and the very delicate balance that so many have to take. Ideally you want a synthesis, where everything comes together into one glorious whole that leverages the strengths of all three acts while minimizing the weaknesses. And let me stress how rare it is this actually works - more often than not one artist overshadows the other or they don't have chemistry or the entire experiment ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

That's when you have two artists - it gets even more complex when you have three, and yet enter case/lang/veirs. For those who are confused, case/lang/veirs is a concatenation of three artists' last names, all three female singer-songwriters who have amassed a pretty amount of critical acclaim: k.d. lang, Neko Case, and Laura Veirs. If you're only familiar with the mainstream, the name you probably recognize the most is k.d. lang and her signature song 'Constant Craving' as a part of the mini-wave of Canadian female singer-songwriters that got big in the 90s like Alanis Morrissette. Now if your frame of reference for female Canadian indie songwriters skews a little later, you probably recognize Neko Case, member of the New Pornographers and critically acclaimed in her own right. The last artist you probably don't know as well unless you know your underground indie folk, but Laura Veirs has actually worked with Neko Case in the past, and she also put out a stream of well-received singer-songwriter records in the 2000s. Now keep in mind that all of these women come from very different sides of indie rock and folk: Neko Case has always been on the rougher side of alternative country and Americana, k.d. lang started in a similar area but has also made pop and even collaborated with Tony Bennett, and Laura Veirs plays more to the ramshackle, smoked out ethereal side of folk rock that guarantees I'll be digging through her discography with rabid abandon the second I get some spare time. With all of that in mind, though, I can see the intersection point and why they'd want to work together, so what does this collaboration give us?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

video review: 'peach panther' by riff raff

Well, this album sucked. I know, should have expected it, but still, this was a miserable listen.

Next up, though... case/lang/veirs and then the midyear review, so stay tuned!

album review: 'peach panther' by riff raff

Okay, originally I was expecting this weekend to be a lot worse in terms of releases. I think I mentioned it on Billboard BREAKDOWN that there were also new albums from Rae Sremmurd and Iggy Azalea, which promised to be two records of continuous migraine, but since their lead-off singles have flopped, they've both delayed into later in the summer. And this leaves us with only the most courageous hip-hop artist to drop a record this past weekend... and I can't even finish that sentence.

Hell, I don't even know why I'm reviewing this. In the pantheon of joke rappers, I don't tend to have a lot of respect for Riff Raff, who basically has one joke in being an over-the-top caricature/parody of modern hip-hop, which becomes less of a joke when you realize that most of modern hip-hop is already there! And let's be honest, thanks to the Internet we've got no short supply of rappers who have better bars, production, and jokes than Riff Raff does, from The Lonely Island to Epic Rap Battles. That is unless you're taking Riff Raff seriously in a Lil B vein, but if we're going by 'so weird/bad it's good', Riff Raff isn't that far away from conventional hip-hop that I can use that excuse. As to whether Riff Raff takes himself seriously... well, there's a part of me that thinks he does with zero self-awareness and that's more sad than anything, but at the end of the day the music has to deliver, and it rarely does.

So why talk about this? Well, call it morbid curiosity more than anything. Somehow Riff Raff keeps getting guest stars that you wouldn't expect a rapper of his status to bring on, and I do hold that when it comes to stupid-as-hell bangers 'Kokayne' is ridiculously fun. In other words, even if he's on the edge of pop culture, he keeps popping up. So I figured what the hell and I checked out Peach Panther - was it any good?

video review: 'the glowing man' by swans

An absolutely punishing listen, but so worth it for the absolutely killer thematic resonance and some incredible moments.

But on the topic of punishing... well, stay tuned.

album review: 'the glowing man' by swans

This will reportedly be Swans' final album.

Or at least this incarnation of the group, which reformed after their first breakup in 1997 in 2010, working to push out some of the most massive and primeval music created in experimental rock. Because while there are very few groups I cover that I would consider impossible for mainstream listeners to appreciate, Swans is daunting even for me, known less for sane song structures than mammoth ten minute plus compositions that pile on layers of instrumentation to create thunderous crescendos and grooves. There are very few groups that dare to approach their scope and power, and while they might have been a tad more accessible in the late-80s and 90s thanks to a stronger melodic presence, which led to masterpieces like Children Of God and The Great Annihilator, in recent years the scale of their focus has led to behemoths of sound. This culminated in 2014 with To Be Kind, their largest ever work and was critically acclaimed by many - including myself - as one of the best records of that year, which further brought in a thematic focus on how a child might experience the huge emotions of the world. Swans mastermind Michael Gira has described the record's goal as ecstasy, but when engorged to such colossal scale, it's easy to see how unsettling the huge emotions might seem to anyone else.

But where do you go after such an effort? To Be Kind was the sort of high water mark that Swans had already hit twice before, but there has to be a limit to that sort of scale, you can only push crushing instrumental layers and growth so far. And as such, while I heard that Swans were - necessarily - going to be dialing the insane crescendos back a bit for The Glowing Man, how would they hit the same impact?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 9, 2016 (VIDEO)

Yeah, I know, I've been a tad late on videos over the past few days. Part of that is getting into the groove of vacation, part of it is deciphering this Swans record. And speaking of which... well, stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 9, 2016

So last week was one of the worst I'd seen on the Billboard Hot 100 in a long time - it was genuinely disheartening trying to put that episode together, pretty painful all things considered. But the good thing about hitting rock bottom is that you can always recover, and while I wouldn't say everything clicked on the Hot 100 here, I do see signs of improvement that should definitely be called out.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

video review: 'california sunrise' by jon pardi

Eh, you need guys like Jon Pardi making music, even if I wasn't really wild about this. Someone give this guy a sharper pen or a drive to experiment a little more, he's got the right textures, all he needs are the melodies.

Anyway, next is probably Swans, but that might take more time to fully process. Stay tuned!

album review: 'california sunrise' by jon pardi

You ever have one of those artists that on paper seems to check off every single box, seems to be the sort of artist you'd automatically support, who may have even come out in a time where he was a breath of fresh air and a welcome surprise to everything and everyone else around him... and you're just not a fan?

Well, for me and modern, 'mainstream' country, California artist Jon Pardi was that person - mostly because on the surface he was decidedly not mainstream! His debut album Write You A Song, released in early 2014 in the wave of interchangeable bro-country was actually very much a neotraditional country record in its composition and presentation. And yet, given that I wasn't all that won over by his voice or his songwriting, which had an odd presumptuous air to it that kind of made the romantic tracks feel a little hollow and shallow, I would only ever say the record was decent, far from the savior of the mainstream for which a few critics lauded him.

But I'll admit artists can evolve and grow over the course of a few records, and considering how much critical appraisal Pardi has received, I figured I might as well give him another chance. After all, with the increasing rise of sterile pop country, maybe getting a slice of rougher, more rustic tones would click more strongly. Who knows, I just saw a major improvement from YG from his debut two years ago that I found underwhelming, so maybe two times the charm?

video review: 'still brazy' by yg

Well, this was pretty interesting. Not a great release, but definitely a good one, recommended.

Still need more time for Swans, though, so let's handle Jon Pardi - stay tuned!

album review: 'still brazy' by yg

It's kind of amazing how much hip-hop has mutated over the past two years, isn't it?

Because if you look at the current hip-hop sound, it's in a weird place: a little more organic and melodic, drenched in autotune and trap hi-hats, and sitting in a weird place where any rapper with the slightest amount of buzz online or on Vine can blow up, especially in the mainstream. And yet if you go back just two years, while those trap trends were there, it was a very different sound that was dominant, minimalist and more touching a bass-heavy West Coast sound driven most by the LA producer DJ Mustard. 

Now let's be clear, his star has faded a lot, but if you want to find the rapper at the epicenter of his sound, look no further than YG, who released his debut album My Krazy Life that year. Before then he was most well-known for the oh-so-charming 'Toot It And Boot It' from back in 2010, but YG took his ground-level Compton gangsta rap to new heights working with DJ Mustard's stripped down synths and production. And I'll admit I was very hard on that record, but for good reason - he got shown up by a significant chunk of his big name guest stars, his own content was inconsistent and rarely treading new ground, and even if it was, doing the bare minimum in production didn't elevate the record to anything all that special for me. I can appreciate the street-level gangsta's view in Compton, but again, it really did feel like he was doing the bare minimum.

And then something happened. I'm not sure what it was, but the YG features I started hearing were getting measurably stronger in terms of flow, content, and even subtext. And given he ditched DJ Mustard completely for his sophomore album Still Brazy, I had to hope that maybe he could pull off a stronger release - was I right?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 2, 2016 (VIDEO)

So this week sucked on the Hot 100... thank god the album release schedule has improved and I've got YG and Swans next, or I'd just be flat-out miserable.

And speaking of which...

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - july 2, 2016

So a week or so back I might have said that I was gearing up for one of the worst upcoming album release dates in recent memory... and yet just days after I said that, all of my concerns seemed to drop away. Both Iggy Azalea and Rae Sremmurd pushed back their albums and that just leaves me with Riff Raff, and I can handle him. But apparently the universe was unwilling to let me get off that easy, because from a quick look through the charts, we've got a really bad week ahead of us, folks.

Monday, June 20, 2016

video review: 'the getaway' by red hot chili peppers

I'm actually genuinely curious how people receive this record, given the stylistic departures in the production. Overall... eh, it's decent, but I do wish it was better.

Next up, probably YG or Swans, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the getaway' by red hot chili peppers

You know, in nearly six hundred reviews, I don't think I've ever talked about the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Now, part of that is that they haven't released an album in a couple of years and they're a considerable distance out of their heyday, but on some level, what is there to say? I've yet to find a person who seriously dislikes the band and their genre-pushing blend of alternative rock, rap rock and funk, and while I'd never say they made classic albums, they sure as hell kept up a steady stream of singles that have always been a ton of fun. I always found it a little interesting that they managed to chug through the 80s with very little success before blowing up for a solid two decades and becoming rock staples. And yet with that in mind, while I can definitely say I like this band, I'd never say they were one of my favourites or that we need more Red Hot Chili Peppers material, it's not like their string of classic songs in the 90s and 2000s are going anywhere.

But you can tell in the post-Frusciante years that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are not simply content to rest on their laurels, first putting out a pretty decent record in 2011 with Josh Klinghoffer on guitar. But even that didn't seem like enough, so after a collection of EPs and live albums, they left longtime producer Rick Rubin to try something different for their newest record The Getaway, enlisting Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse. Now I've had mixed experiences with Danger Mouse in recent years - a few good, but most underwhelming - but I had no idea how his style would meld with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have tended to be a wilder, more colorful group than he'd usually work with. In other words, I was definitely willing to give The Getaway a chance - so what did we get?

video review: 'wanderlust' by little big town

So yeah, this was lousy. Go figure...

Anyway, Red Hot Chili Peppers next, so stay tuned!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

album review: 'wanderlust' by little big town

The release of this album should not be as controversial as it is.

And make no mistake, it's been controversial - which is always kind of bizarre considering Little Big Town is not a band you would expect to court controversy. But between 'Girl Crush' last year and the lead-up to this release, this group has somehow wound up in the headlines more than you'd ever expect. But then again, given how consistently Little Big Town has been compared to Fleetwood Mac, another mixed gender group that has been steadily sliding across genres, it's not that surprising. Their 2014 release Pain Killer was considered by many critics to be analogous to Tusk in its genre-bending and experimentation - most of which fell flat courtesy of Jay Joyce's overdone production.

And yet thanks to the success of 'Girl Crush', Little Big Town were bigger than ever and attracted a producer not exactly known for country: Pharrell Williams, one of the big names behind The Neptunes in the 2000s and nowadays known for his work on The Voice and the song 'Happy', which absolutely ruled 2014. So in between a series of trips between LA and Nashville and even a quick collaboration with Justin Timberlake, they put out a quick breezy record that the band themselves made very clear wasn't country at all. And let me blunt: that's fine, I was fully confident the band would sound fine in a pop context, and I'm not going to blame them because desperate country radio programmers would be plugging their songs in regardless. And if they wanted to dash out a quick side project that would be their version of Fleetwood Mac's Mirage - although you have to hope it's better than that record - I was certainly curious. So how did Wanderlust turn out?

video review: 'big day in a small town' by brandy clark

Again, this review took longer than it should have to get finished off, but it's still here - and it's a damn great album too, definitely check it out if you haven't yet.

Next up... Little Big Town's pop album. Joy. I'll get through that before RHCP, so stay tuned!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

album review: 'big day in a small town' by brandy clark

It should not be as easy to overlook Brandy Clark as it seems to be.

Now that's a bit of a weird statement, especially if you've coming from the country underground and have heard her name praised to high heavens, especially for her solo debut 12 Stories in 2013 that was easily one of the best albums of that year... and yet I bet if you mentioned her to your average country fan, you'd be lucky to find anyone who recognizes her name. And that genuinely sucks, because Brandy Clark isn't just one of the smartest and most nuanced songwriters in modern country, known for racking up credits behind Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and even Reba McEntire, but also a powerful performer in her own right with a stunning voice and real stage presence. The word of the game is subtlety - Kacey Musgraves might be a little flashier, and arguably a little catchier, but Brandy Clark brought real gravitas and grounded humanity to much of her material that tended to stick with you. Sadly, she's also reached forty, which means the image-obsessed mainstream country radio wants nothing to do with her, and even her label's stabs at pushing her to towards the mainstream have been ignored. And this strikes me as completely asinine, because one of the special things about country is that it can play to an older demographic to whom Brandy Clark would probably be a huge breath of fresh air!

But putting aside the marketing, it does look like Brandy Clark's career is gaining traction - she landed one of the best songs on the instant classic Southern Family compilation from Dave Cobb, and she landed as an opening act for Eric Church, who seems to be working overtime to restore his indie country cred with both a great album and pulling underrated talent on tour. And with Brandy Clark, she's even joined by producer Jay Joyce, who also seems to be working overtime on reputation repair. Now I'll admit I've softened on Joyce a bit - it was clear he was the biggest factor to keeping quality with Cage The Elephant, and his work with Brothers Osborne and Eric Church over the past eight months has been considerably stronger - but I wasn't sure how well he'd balance with Brandy Clark's voice, and let's face it: he's no Dave Cobb. But that didn't mean I wasn't going to cover a sophomore album that was bound to be great, so I dug into Big Day In A Small Town - what did I find?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

video review: 'the human condition' by jon bellion

The real miracle is that there are songs on this record that work at all, let alone that one of them might just be one of the best of the year. Not kidding, even if you don't want to try this record, 'Hand Of God' is something incredible.

Next up, I need to give Brandy Clark her due, so stay tuned!

album review: 'the human condition' by jon bellion

I'll admit being really surprised when the requests starting pouring in for this one. In fact, this is probably the most requested album I've had in weeks to cover, and my first response was, "Wait, we're talking about the guy who sang on 'Beautiful Now' with Zedd, right? Are people really interested in a debut album from that guy?"

Now before you all jump down my throat, let's be fair here: if you only knew him from that song, it would come as a surprise that he released four mixtapes over the past five years or is affiliated with Logic's personal label Visionary Music Group. And on some level I completely get why Logic would like this guy: he writes and produces his own work, steps into genres adjacent to hip-hop, and has the ambition to push into high concept territory. Hell, Bellion's goal with this album is not to attract the attention of hip-hop heads but Pixar so he could score one of their films! And that's only one piece of his bizarre list of influences: Kanye West, Coldplay, Andre 3000, John Mayer, J Dilla... many of these things are not like the others! So okay, at the very least this debut album promised to be interesting, at least, so I decided to check out The Human Condition - what did we get?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 25, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this was a quick episode. Shame so much of it sucked, but what can you do, really...

Okay, I think I've got to cover this Jon Bellion thing for all of you to stop asking already, and then Brandy Clark - stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 25, 2016

So, in the business, this is what we call a slow week. Hell, it's the big reason why I could get away with covering a week of country music and not really have to worry about anything else - which meant that very little worth caring about landed on the Hot 100. But that's fine, I don't mind having a shorter week, and I might as well enjoy it before the end of June happens and happiness goes right out the window - and if you've seen the hip-hop releases scheduled for June 24, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

video review: 'egomaniac' by KONGOS

And that's two. Fantastic record, just a shade away from being a shoe-in from the best of the year, really did love it.

Next up... well, that Jon Bellion album looks interesting, but Brandy Clark deserves attention too... well, we'll see. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 13, 2016

album review: 'egomaniac' by KONGOS

So one of the easiest benefits of being a music critic is that you tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to whatever eventually hits the mainstream or the radio, but that's not saying I can't get surprised. And in 2014, that definitely happened thanks to a quiet rerelease from a newly picked up South African band called KONGOS and their massive sleeper hit 'Come With Me Now', a track that never got huge in the US except on the rock charts but was nearly inescapable in Canada - and since the song was absolutely awesome and ended up topping my list for my favourite hit songs of 2014, I had no problem whatsoever with that.

And yet it didn't seem like KONGOS was able to notch a second hit in Canada... and going into their discography, I can explain why. KONGOS is a band of four brothers and even in the style of blending alternative rock with kwaito - a South African style of sampling and looping that's closest to probably UK garage - they're a weird as hell group. For one, they've got a knack for off-kilter melodic grooves with a surprising amount of grime, and yet their production is often clean and spacious enough to highlight some pretty damn great hooks... and that's before they introduce the pedal steel, accordion, inverted samples, and an uncanny ability to leap from groove to groove. Coupled with lyrics that are smarter than you'd ever expect and a hell of a lead performance from Dylan Kongos, the band released their sophomore album Lunatic in 2012 in South Africa before self-releasing it a year later in the states, and yet just before the band was about to give up and move on to new material, Epic found them, signed them, and re-released Lunatic to press their advantage. And for a rock band in 2014, the level of mainstream success 'Come With Me Now', which went platinum as a single, was both thrilling and dangerous - even though I'd make the argument KONGOS were far more than a novelty and had serious chops, the eclectic instrumentation and demented subject matter meant that they had to stick the landing or risk being branded as one-trick ponies. So did they pull it off with their newest record Egomaniac?

video review: 'last year was complicated' by nick jonas

Ugh... you know, I don't think I should be disappointed in this, but I really am. I was rooting for this guy and look what we get. Fantastic.

Fortunately, the other album I covered tonight was far better - stay tuned!

album review: 'last year was complicated' by nick jonas

There's a part of me that wants to root for Nick Jonas... probably more than I should.

And no, it's not because of any extraneous Jonas Brothers connection - that group was around nearly a decade ago and made generally pretty forgettable music, and I sure as hell am not extending the same consideration to Joe Jonas in DNCE. For me, it's more linked to watching Nick Jonas evolve over the course of 2015 and showing measurable improvements. Sure, things may have started off bad with 'Jealous', but I genuinely liked 'Chains' and with songs like 'Good Thing' and 'Levels', he was only seeming to get better, with a reasonably sharp ear for songwriting and some decent, if formulaic production...

And then Justin Timberlake came back. And okay, while it hasn't been a full and complete comeback - just one single, and no sign of an album anywhere close - but it immediately placed Nick Jonas back into the context which to some extent I've been trying to deny for his sake. Because yeah, while it's arguably JT's worst hit in some time, it had more colour and life that Nick Jonas' 'Close' with Tove Lo didn't quite have, which was dour and heavy in a way I'm not sure flatters his voice or is all that fun. Let me put it another way, what I like to call the 'Mariah/Christina' comparison: Justin TImberlake makes pop music seem natural, whereas Nick Jonas makes it seem like work. And to give the public some credit, I think they get that, because Nick Jonas has struggled for real chart momentum, to really prove that he's worthy of the upper echelon of pop stars.

And hell, maybe he'll get there. His newest album is aptly titled Last Year Was Complicated, partially inspired by the breakup from a relationship that contextualized the majority of his self-titled record that was released in late 2014 and for some reason I never covered. So what did we get with this?

Friday, June 10, 2016

video review: 'obsessed' by dan + shay

This review... easier than I expected to make, although I'm a little surprised there hasn't been a pile-on of angry fans yet...

Eh, whatever. Next up, we're taking a short break from country to talk about KONGOS, so stay tuned!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

album review: 'obsessed' by dan + shay

There's a part of me that thinks I should dislike Dan + Shay a lot more than I do.

Granted, it's a very silly and petty part of me, one that considers their brand of pop country painfully cheesy and lightweight, the sort of over-polished fluff that I'd condemn if it was coming from Hunter Hayes or Rascal Flatts... and yet I don't. For as much as they're very easy to rip on and might as well represent the "boybandification" of pop country, there's a surprising amount to like about this duo that doesn't get a lot of credit. I think a major part of it was that their debut album Where It All Began was uniformly good without being great or having huge standout singles, mostly courtesy of some pretty basic melodies and songwriting, but there was a core to this group I actually quite liked. For one, they actually tried to harmonize and tried to keep their instrumentation on the organic side, and for another the duo were the sort of songwriters able to inject enough detail to keep things a shade more interesting. Most importantly, they were so sincere in writing uncool music that I was inclined to have a measure of respect for them - despite the polish, it was authentically them, and when they referenced neotraditional country artists like George Strait, I got the impression it came from an honest place.

But while their debut has held up reasonably well, I probably was a little too generous to it - in contrast to the onslaught of bro-country that reaching the dregs of quality in 2014 - to say nothing of how bad competing pop country records like Rewind by Rascal Flatts would be - anything would have been a breath of fresh air. Now that bro-country is gone and mainstream programmers are basically plugging the radio with anything that keep the ears of the youth while steadfastly ignoring promising indie acts that promise more authentic country, Dan + Shay were poised to fill in the gap. But even with that I liked their lead-off single, and from the looks of things, Dan + Shay didn't seem to be bothering with mainstream appeal - hell, they titled their record based on a hashtag that their fans were using to describe their music. Not precisely a great sign - it did kind of smack of pandering - but again, I liked the lead-off single and I had some hope for this record. Did it deliver?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

video review: 'HERO' by maren morris

Well, this was a tremendous disappointment. Gah.

Okay, next up... probably Dan + Shay, although that KONGOS album is tempting... eh, we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'HERO' by maren morris

I've been worried about this review.

And by all accounts I shouldn't be, but I still am. I knew it was only a matter of time before the major labels 'reacted' to the success of Chris Stapleton and the burgeoning indie country scene. And thus they did it like they do any other trend in mainstream music: swoop down and find an indie starlet that could be guided towards the mainstream and throw her enough of a budget to capitalize on the sound.

Here's the problem: what an artist like Chris Stapleton has is significantly harder to fake than your average sonic gimmick. Heartfelt raw soul and the production of Dave Cobb has the sort of texture and deeper impact that resonates on a frequency that's tough to categorize, and also signifies the sort of authenticity that's even harder to deliver. But it looked like Columbia Nashville was going to try anyway with Texas country artist Maren Morris. Like many red dirt country acts she had been in the independent scene, and actually released three albums on smaller labels, but with the push and success of 'My Church', it seemed like the label was set to satisfy three trends at once: Texas country, a rougher, more soulful country sound, and the recent lyrical trend for more country to reference religion without outright being religious music. And so with the groundswell behind 'My Church', they pushed a debut album out as quickly as possible and now we've got HERO. And look, 'My Church' is a damn good song, but I've been down this road a number of times before, and I had real worries that Maren Morris might not be able to deliver as promised. So I checked out her debut - was I wrong?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 18, 2016 (VIDEO)

So I'm going to be experimenting a little with colour correction in my videos, add some richer hues, see if it looks any better. Thus far, turned out pretty sweet, I'm definitely pleased.

Next up, Maren Morris, then Dan + Shay and we'll see if the country streak will continue - stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 18, 2016

So you know how this week I'm aiming to focus more than normal on country music, given that by far it'll have the most new records dropping? Well, it turns out that the Billboard Hot 100 decided to follow suit, because especially when you take a look at our new arrivals, the big story is country music gearing up for the summer, and I can expect if songs from all those albums impact the charts, we might be seeing a fair bit more of it and I'm not really complaining.

video review: 'playing with fire' by jennifer nettles

Man, definitely a big surprise with this, and I'm a little annoyed I didn't get to it sooner - ton of fun.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then Maren Morris and probably Dan + Shay - stay tuned!

Monday, June 6, 2016

album review: 'playing with fire' by jennifer nettles

Let's talk about artistic maturity.

This is something I don't really delve into, but I think lurks in the back of the mind of most critics, that when they reach a certain age or state of life that their music is supposed to evolve or mature into something that's got a little more weight and wisdom and gravitas, particularly in the songwriting. Now of course you'll get acts that'll never change, or will approach middle age by going wilder than they've ever gone before - and all the more power to them - but it's a fair expectation that at some point, especially in more traditional genres like country, the artists begin to grow up.

And yet paradoxically, while I think this did happen to Jennifer Nettles, the former singer of pop country group Sugarland, I'm not really sure it was the best choice for her. I remember covering her solo debut That Girl in 2014 and mostly liking it, but her unique vocal tone always seemed more suited to upbeat quirkiness than downbeat, more adult-contemporary leaning country music - she wasn't Brandy Clark, after all. And so there's a certain sort of irony in noting that instead of changing direction when she left Mercury Nashville for Big Machine, Jennifer Nettles seemed to be doubling down, outright bringing on Brandy Clark herself to cowrite over half the album. Granted, she was also working with producer Dann Huff, who you could argue has definitely had a mixed legacy in country music, tending to play towards the poppy side and not really known for subtlety. But hell, it's not like Jennifer Nettles was ever known for that and working with Brandy Clark was bound to bring some of the gravitas or wit that was missing from That Girl, so how did Playing With Fire turn out?

video review: 'black' by dierks bentley

Sincerely hope this review finds an audience, given how many requests it got... but eh, given how much country I'm planning to cover this week, I can imagine it'll probably be one of the most viewed episodes.

On a different note, Jennifer Nettles review is also dropping later tonight, so stay tuned!

album review: 'black' by dierks bentley

I think Dierks Bentley doesn't get the appreciation he deserves.

Now that's a loaded statement, especially if all you know him for are the singles - most of which he himself would throw under the bus. Even though I was late to getting on board with Bentley, he's had a surprisingly interesting career, starting off the 2000s with some reasonably well-received records before making a hard left turn to crank out a bluegrass album. And while he's pivot back around to release albums like Home and Riser in the following years, he's always stood out from the pack. Sure, he's had his party songs or proto-bro-country tracks, but delve into his albums and you'll find a smarter, more inventive songwriter and one that doesn't need to cater to trends to crank out hits - and even when he does he tends to do it better! As much as 'Drunk On A Plane' is far from his best, there's still something about the detail in the writing and loaded bitterness of his delivery that adds bite to it. And again, that's him at his worst - at his best there's a subtle sort of emotive charisma to his voice that makes songs like the tribute to his late father and his crisis of faith on 'Here On Earth' some of the most powerful work you'll hear in modern country music and one of my top songs of 2014, hands down.

As such, I was prepared to give Dierks Bentley a lot of credit - sure, 'Somewhere On A Beach' was the sort of leering douchebaggery that's hard to stomach but even he had slagged the song as one he didn't write and not at all representative of his record, which was more of a concept album exploring complicated relationships. And given how true that was about his last record Riser and how Dierks Bentley has a reputation for working with the right people - he brought Maren Morris and Elle King on board for this album, always positive signs - I gave him the benefit of the doubt and dug into Black - was it worth it?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

video review: 'love you to death' by tegan and sara

Man alive, this review was absolute hell to write. Kept hoping that it'd click more and it just didn't... but thankfully, I got it out of my system. Next up would have been Dierks Bentley... but then Jennifer Nettles showed up and delivered a real surprise, so it'll probably be both dropping tomorrow, so stay tuned!

album review: 'love you to death' by tegan and sara

So let's go back to the topic of 'selling out'.

Now a few episodes back I raised the point about how even when it didn't involve a shift in genre that 'selling out' wasn't inherently a bad thing - hell, sometimes it's the first chance for bands to discover a knack for melody or hooks that they'd never bothered with in the past. And for those who do pivot towards pop... well, a pop sensibility isn't exactly a bad thing if it leads to populism without compromising artistic identity - or hell, even if it does, if the hooks are irresistible I'm prepared to forgive a lot.

Want a perfect example of that? Tegan And Sara, the Canadian indie rock identical twins that developed a decent amount of buzz in Canada but I would never consider them an act I liked. Sure, they have a couple songs in that genre that I liked - the most notable being the title track from their 2007 album The Con - but for the most part I was never impressed by their songwriting or their hooks, even if I could appreciate some of the unique ideas that colored albums like Sainthood. They were always a band I wanted to like a lot more than I did - and yet in 2013, they partnered with producer Greg Kurstin, who has worked with nearly every mainstream pop act in the past decade, to release Heartthrob. The album was an outright pivot into synthpop, and I will handily say it was the best record they've ever released. It wasn't quite a great album - it falls off after the first six or so songs, and I wasn't wild about the gratuitous pitch correction - but it was such a better fit than indie rock for the pair, if only because it accentuated the strength of their melodies and better fit the lighter scope of their writing. And while everyone loved 'Closer', I was much more impressed with 'I Was A Fool', which was one of my favourite songs of 2013.

But now it's three years later, Tegan And Sara had ditched all other producers besides Greg Kurstin, and the edit for the album looked tighter than ever, barely over a half hour. And sure, Greg Kurstin's star might have been tarnished a bit with overexposure - between Sia, Lily Allen, and Kelly Clarkson, he's been attached to far too much lackluster pop music - but I had faith they could synthesize something awesome: did they make it work?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 11, 2016 (VIDEO)

Man, nearly forgot to post this after the past few days of craziness. Between work and damn great weather, it's been a chaotic process to get stuff up. Need to correct that ASAP.

Next up is Tegan and Sara, and then a whole week of country, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - june 11, 2016

So it seems like things have finally gotten back to normal on the Hot 100. Well, as normal as you can expect in the aftermath of Drake and Beyonce laying waste to most of the past month, but for now things seem to have fallen back into their established momentum, where even major album releases don't hit with the same impact. I was expecting another week of chaos thanks to Ariana Grande, but outside of one returning entry, the biggest story of this week is the finale of The Voice - seriously.

video review: 'delirium' by lacuna coil

Man, this pissed me off so much. I was legitimately hoping for quality here... and it did not happen at all. Gah.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!