Friday, September 30, 2016

album review: 'care' by how to dress well

Let's briefly flashback to 2014. It's near the beginning of the summer, I'm listening through the new How To Dress Well album, the PBR&B project from singer-songwriter Tom Krell, and even despite hitting the absolutely gorgeous song 'Pour Cyril' that would later land on my list of my favourite songs of the year - we hit a bit of a snag. Even as that record is aspiring to more of a pop sound compared to the heavy melancholy of Total Loss from 2012, I wasn't certain he was pulling it off. His vocals were too thin and gentle, the self-absorbed bluntness not really fitting with the tones he was chasing, it was the sort of record that had all the ingredients of an insightful and potent pop record... that just ended up missing the mark for me.

So when I heard that Krell was taking How To Dress Well even further in a pop direction, recruiting Jack Antonoff of fun. and Bleachers and dancehall producer Dre Skull, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. On the one hand, sure, Jack Antonoff has a great ear for pop hooks and he's been the secret weapon behind some great songs before... but on the other hand the move to touch on dancehall struck me as yet another artist hopping towards tropical sounds in a bid for the mainstream, a lane that struck me as the completely wrong fit for Tom Krell. His writing might occasionally ring as simple and straightforward in a pop context, but his presentation demanded subtlety, and modern pop is nearly the furthest thing from that. And given the lukewarm response to this record, I was tentative to dig in, but Krell does have a gift for some powerful melodies, so I figured Care was worth a listen - was I right?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

video review: 'illuminate' by shawn mendes

So this was terrible. Already some people are getting peeved, but look, writing this bad needs to be taken to task, especially given the audience it's directed. Miserable listen, and when my backlog is so long, there's no excuse for something like this wasting my time.

On that note, How To Dress Well is next - stay tuned!

album review: 'illuminate' by shawn mendes

Oh, I haven't been looking forward to this.

Hell, anybody who has been watching Billboard BREAKDOWN or my last review already knows that, but let's skip back a year to chart out how we got here. Believe it or not, when I covered Handwritten last year I was going in with some high expectations, or at least a hope that Mendes could rise above his Vine star origins to flesh out actual songs. For the most part, that didn't really happen, which is why Handwritten fell below a pass for me, as he tried emulating Justin Timberlake by way of Ed Sheeran that lacked the interesting instrumentation or witty writing to get there. But still, a part of me wanted to root for this kid, and I still hold that 'Something Big' is a damn good song.

But ever since then, my opinion on Shawn Mendes has been plummeting in record time, as more singles have exposed flaws and issues that I was hoping Mendes could avoid. His writing was slipping perilously close to the self-aggrandizing douchebaggery that is symptomatic of the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' moniker, and the increasingly sterile production and delivery was not helping, all the more evidence Mendes was being pushed by his handlers in that direction. And from what I had heard going into Illuminate... well, suffice to say I was gearing up for a real disaster, even if I had some hope this fellow Canadian might be able to pull something together on his sophomore project. So what happened?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

video review: 'i remember' by alunageorge

Not going to lie, I may have chosen to cover this just to avoid Shawn Mendes for another day, because yikes

But no point wasting any more time... stay tuned!

album review: 'i remember' by alunageorge

Let's talk about female vocals in pop music.

Now I recently heard a comment from one of my close friends that she's exasperated with so much of modern pop because nearly every female singer is trying to imitate Rihanna, or at least a similar sort of mid-range nasal, husky tone. And really, I can't fault her on that, but I did start thinking where that trend came from. After all, Rihanna's been around for over a decade now on the radio, and yet this trend has been much closer to the forefront over the past few years, so what's changed?

Well, the argument could be that with the advent of autotune, less refined voices have been allowed to proliferate in the mainstream, but I think that's only a small part of this story. What's much more likely is that refinement in vocals goes in and out of style in pop, just like any other trend. Right now, it's more common to hear vocals that have a bit more of a rasp or bite to them - give it five years and I predict we'll have another subset of angel voices dominating the radio, mark my words.

So why bring this up? Well, in preparation for AlunaGeorge's sophomore album, I was struck by the odd contradiction of their sound: vocals that were clean and cooing, perhaps only a shade rougher than the pop princesses around the turn of the millennium, but production that was straight out of UK garage and modern, offkilter electronica. It's not a new phenomenon - two years before AlunaGeorge dropped Body Music Purity Ring dropped their debut, which was considerably stronger, but thanks to a fortuitous remix, AlunaGeorge actually got popular in the mainstream and was one of the acts responsible for elevating DJ Snake. As such, I was definitely curious to check out their sophomore album - they had delivered a pretty slick collection of R&B tinged electronic pop in 2014, what was their plan for 2016?

video review: 'the healing component' by mick jenkins

Well, this was ridiculously solid. So close to snagging a 9/10, but ultimately I eased back, just a tad too much bloat to enter into the tightest part of the race. Still damn great album though, definitely worth your time.

Next up... hmm, I still don't want to talk about Shawn Mendes, so let's delve into some old business... stay tuned!

album review: 'the healing component' by mick jenkins

This is one of the big ones, one of the albums I've been looking forward to for well over a year now, probably close to two, ever since I covered Mick Jenkins' star-making mixtape The Water(s) back in 2014 and he landed a song on my top fifty of that year - in the top 20. This was an MC with serious chops, not just as one of the most potent and subtly charismatic rappers I've heard in some time, but also proving himself as a thoughtful but hard-hitting presence who was willing to experiment with poise and consideration. I might not have loved the EP Wave[s] he put out in 2015, but that was more because he was testing the waters with different sounds and styles that I expected would be refined considerably on this upcoming debut.

And to be honest, I was surprised he was going to release a full-length album at all - like fellow Chicago native Chance The Rapper he had been running up considerable buzz and critical acclaim just on mixtapes alone, and considering he's not on a major label, he could have easily continued this hype until the radio got a clue and gave him a push, or he got a big name collaboration. But from what I saw of The Healing Component, at least from the features list, he didn't appear to be making that mainstream play, with his guests including BadBadNotGood, Noname, and Kaytranada - and sure, the latter two might have hype now but it's not precisely mainstream.

But I've wasted enough time here - this is a big one, so how did The Healing Component check out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 8, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well I can't imagine that this'll be contentious at all... eh, whatever, I still hold it was a good week.

And on that note - Mick Jenkins, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 8, 2016

So this was an interesting week. I'm hesitating to call it a great one - the fall turbulence is continuing and I'm not sure all the results of that are good... but the more I think about the trends here, the more I'm seeing things start to recover a bit, especially in terms of the songs rotating in and out. And while there are a few trouble spots - we'll get to them - overall this didn't seem all that bad, right?

Monday, September 26, 2016

video review: 'mud' by whiskey myers

Well, working on this was certainly preferable to the damn debate - didn't stop me from live-tweeting what happened from Twitter and whoo boy, Trump did not appear to have a good time according to every media outlet I follow (and spoilers, if you don't like me talking politics for the next month, you might want to venture away - it's going to get wild). 

Still, wish the record was better. Moving on, I've got Mick Jenkins, Shawn Mendes, How To Dress Well, and a fair few more, so stay tuned!

album review: 'mud' by whiskey myers

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one.

See, I don't talk a lot about southern rock in this series, basically because for as much as I like the sound I tend to be more of a fan of either country or outright blues rock. Don't get me wrong, the blend in the middle tends to be appealing, but it's also a narrow fit, and too often I've seen country acts go here to simply add muscle, or rock bands to add flavour - or snag some easy marketing from country - without the heavier focus on songwriting you'd like to see. Couple it with the occasional bit of belligerent machismo or southern pandering you can see creeping into the writing, and let's just say that there's a significant swathe of the genre that can kind of turn me off.

Of course, there are exceptions, and in the waning months of 2016, we're going to talk about two of them, the two southern rock acts that are consistently viewed in recent years as the leaders in the format. The first is the Georgia-based Blackberry Smoke, and fans from last year probably remember that I covered their last album Holding All The Roses and am planning to review their upcoming release in mid-October. The other band is the group we're going to be talking about today: Whiskey Myers. Texas band, a little younger, and unlike Blackberry Smoke who have toured and worked with the Zac Brown Band and Eric Church, they've remained consistently independent. And yet if I'm being completely honest, I wouldn't entirely consider myself a fan. Yes, Cody Cannon has a tremendous voice and Cody Tate is one hell of a guitarist, but I found myself wishing I could like Firewater and Early Morning Shakes a lot more than I did. Part of it was the writing, which did occasionally slide towards the issues I spoke on earlier - especially 'Ballad Of A Southern Man' on Firewater - but on Early Morning Shakes even with Dave Cobb's production I found myself lukewarm to the project at best. But hey, Cobb's production has only gotten better and with the buzz suggesting that this was a much rougher, gritty record, I was looking forward to seeing how that edge could materialize. So I finally decided to check out Mud by Whiskey Myers - what did we get?

Friday, September 23, 2016

video review: 'preoccupations' by preoccupations

Well, this was an interesting listen. Not sure it was a great one, but it was interesting - some solid post-punk, generally enjoyable.

Next up, I'm finally tackling that Whiskey Myers record before I get to AlunaGeorge. Then, if my luck holds, I should be close to being back on schedule - stay tuned!

album review: 'preoccupations' by preoccupations

So let's talk about something I don't think I've ever discussed in a review before: band names. A good name helps a band stand out, can occasionally set the tone of the music you're about to experience, can evoke a certain atmosphere and personality. For instance, one of my all time favourite band names is for the anarchist punk band Chumbawamba - it evokes curiosity, it definitely stands out, and it's got a sort of gleeful irreverence that really characterizes the wit and character of the group.

But really, the big story tied to this act is band name controversies, when a certain act calls themselves something - let's say Viet Cong in this case - and discovers that if they want to play the liberal college circuit across the United States, such a name might drive a backlash. Not going to lie, this controversy irritates the hell out of me, and not just because I could point to a slew of bands in punk, post-punk, and metal who have names with far more dark and disturbing connotations - look up what Joy Division means some time, I dare you. And while I could go on how saying 'Viet Cong is offensive' propagates a simplistic and US-centric view of the far more complicated Vietnam War, where there was considerable moral ambiguity on both sides, or how even if it was inappropriate and offensive it completely fit the dark, pummeling tone of the band's music... but it's not like the group made any of those arguments. Instead, the Canadian group shot themselves in the foot repeatedly during interviews by pleading ignorance and all sorts of nonsense, and since they obviously weren't about to do anything more interesting with the name and concept and wanted to continue making money, they eventually just gave in and changed their name to Preoccupations. Not a bad choice - not as punchy as 'Viet Cong', but it did fit the sort of detached bleak melancholy that ran through their compositions, so I won't hold it that much against them. In any case, this allowed them to get away with a second self-titled album with the new name - with a part of me kind of thinks is cheating a bit - but whatever, how is Preoccupations?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

video review: 'shape shift with me' by against me!

Well, this was way better than I was expecting - and frankly, considering how well some of the hooks came together (and served as a pretty kickass workout mix this evening), I expect to be replaying this a lot in the near future.

In the mean time, things are going to get much darker with the new Preoccupations and In The Woods... - stay tuned!

album review: 'shape shift with me' by against me!

I'm not sure what to expect out of Against Me! anymore.

Granted, they've taken a career trajectory that isn't that unfamiliar for long-running punk acts. They start off with a few critically acclaimed, insightful albums with great hooks to boot, get signed to a major label and subsequently lose a fair amount of that insight and grit to cater to a larger audience, and soon after the well runs dry they return to the independent scene, perhaps never to regain that old spark but maybe regain some critical respect or cult following.

And from what I can tell, that's exactly what has happened with Against Me!, but with a twist: not only did frontwoman Laura Jane Grace come out as transgender and transitioned, it became the focal point of her 2014 record Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And not only did it inject the band with fresh subject matter, it also further accentuated a ragged edge that had been long lacking in their material. Now that album was far from perfect - it still felt a little underwritten and I got the impression that the transgender themes could have been expanded a bit more as subject matter that is so rarely explored, even in punk - but, for lack of a better word and forgive the pun, it felt a bit transitional.

But now it's two years later, and Against Me! have a new record ready to go, with reportedly more of a romantic focus to the tracks - which I thought was a solid idea for a shift, given that this was the area I thought could do with more exploration on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, especially if they were ditching the more aimless protest songs that I felt bogged down that record. So okay, I'm onboard, did Shape Shift With Me stick the landing?

video review: 'transcendence' by the devin townsend project

Man, really wished I liked this one more. Sadly, it just did not click with me - thin, underwritten, I'm not sure what it was, but it just didn't work all the way through.

Next up, though... Against Me! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

album review: 'transcendence' by the devin townsend project

So if I'm being very honest with myself, I haven't really covered as much metal this year as I was hoping. And really, it's a case of just getting overloaded - I've had a busy year both at work and in my persona life, through all of that on average I'm putting out more videos than ever, and I'm still falling behind... although yes, I will admit there were a few cases where I dug into metal records and just didn't have enough material to make a full or informed review. Well, throughout late September and October there are a lot of metal records that have been on my anticipated list all year, and it's about damn time I dig in - don't worry, I'll be covering other genres too, but it's time for some much overdue catching up.

So let's start with an act that I've consistently liked for years now: The Devin Townsend Project. Ever since the titular frontman split off the group from projects under just his name, they've delivered a fair few records of high concept music that isn't afraid to push genre to its limit while still delivering insightful, eccentric, and yet insanely catchy music. Now the last time I covered him was in 2014, where I reviewed three of his projects - the sequel to his landmark Ziltoid The Omniscient, the country-ambient crossover masterpiece Casualties of Cool, and Z²: Sky Blue, the last of which I'd argue was a real hidden gem. The song 'Silent Majority' made my year-end list of my favourite songs but in retrospect the entire album could have had a shot at my top records of 2014 - it's grown on me that much. And as such, outside of my overloaded schedule I had no excuse not to dig into his newest Devin Townsend Project record Transcendence, where if you looked at the liner notes seemed to be bringing together a richer cast than I had expected. Anneke Van Giersbergen was of course on board, but so was Che Aimee Dorval from Casualties of Cool - awesome - and for the first time since the era of Strapping Young Lad Devin Townsend had brought in another producer. This would be Adam "Nolly" Getgood of Periphery, another band that I may have passed over earlier this year mostly because I didn't want to have the 'djent' conversation. But with the possibility that said sounds might creep into Devin Townsend's production, which might fly in contrast to his more melodic compositional style... we're getting off-topic, how's Transcendence?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 1, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this happened. Overall, not a great week by any stretch, but it's also more indicative of transition, so you never know what's going to come through next.

In the mean time, I've got a Devin Townsend record to talk about, followed by Against Me!, Preoccupations, In The Woods..., AlunaGeorge, and so many more (seriously, SO MANY MORE) - stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 1, 2016

So we live in uncertain times. The economy seems shaky, the effects of climate change are becoming more prevalent, the United States is on the precipice thanks to a bullshit horserace media narrative that's eons more dishonest than anything Hillary Clinton has said and about on par with the lies the Trump family spews daily, and now Brad and Angelina are splitting up. Now thankfully, I live in Canada, where things are a fair bit more stable all around, but that doesn't mean this instability isn't impacting the Hot 100 - albeit probably less driven by the election and more because we're now transitioning into the fall months and this happens nearly every year.

video review: 'they don't know' by jason aldean

Man, this record was a chore to review. Easy enough to edit and put together this, but man, what a bland project. Jason Aldean is capable of so much better.

Next up, though, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then let's get to Devin Townsend and Against Me! - stay tuned!

album review: 'they don't know' by jason aldean

I've put up with a lot from Jason Aldean.

And make no mistake, it seems like every time he opens up his mouth in an interview I end up finding more things about him that frustrate me or piss me off, mostly because I should like this guy more. For one, he's one of the few 'independent' country artists to have consistent chart success on mainstream radio, and you can tell in terms of his sound he at least tries to push into new directions. Don't get me wrong, 'Burnin' It Down' was awful and helped push the metropolitan country trend that followed in the aftermath of bro-country, but you can tell it was coming from a mostly unique perspective. And to give Aldean a little more credit, he does occasionally put out songs I really like - a deep cut called 'Don't Change Gone' actually landed on my list of best songs of 2014, and that list didn't include the hits!

But eventually you start shifting towards a tipping point, and in the lead-up to They Don't Know... well, it was mixed to say the least. I didn't mind his more country rock-inspired lead-off singles for this release, but then you balance it with the incident where he got caught in blackface at a Halloween party, or how his anger at the term 'bro-country' increasingly titled towards intentional ignorance - yes, you weren't at the forefront of the movement, but don't think you weren't a part of enabling the environment. And when he went to Billboard and said that he was intentionally choosing songs that weren't 'too clever or songwriterly' for his albums, I just about had it - sure, Jason Aldean, I get that not all country music has to be insightful or contain emotional nuance, but if you're going to embrace that, can your production be a little less colourless and your music be a little more fun? Granted, there's a suspicion that I've discussed with fellow country fans that also feels Jason Aldean is kind of jealous of the reputation Eric Church built for himself as the 'outlaw' in mainstream country - but Eric Church chose to embrace his singer-songwriter instinct that, yes, were a little weird but gave him real personality. Aldean has never seemed willing to compromise his swaggering alpha-bro image, which as country swings back towards quality makes him appear one-dimensional.

But whatever, we've got the new record - apparently delayed from release on streaming services so Aldean can get another #1 album on pure sales and for another headline of 'standing against the man' - so how did it turn out?

video review: 'hard ii love' by usher

Well, this was long-overdue. And yeah, it should have had 'Good Kisser' on it, but overall it's still a good record. Probably overthought the themes a bit, but eh, it happens.

But we're not done tonight - Jason Aldean up next, stay tuned!

Monday, September 19, 2016

album review: 'hard ii love' by usher

There are so many ways that I could start this review. So many obvious choices for a topic and preamble, the biggest being the storied history of one of my favourite R&B artists in the past decade and how his ups and downs have translated to some fantastic singles but inconsistent albums - with the exception of Confessions, obviously.

But I bet the fact that I would even consider Usher a favourite R&B artist when on the surface he's not all that different than many of his peers probably raises some eyebrows. Well, remember how I said several reviews back that an artist with real charisma can make music that's powerful without needing to sound like work? Usher falls right into that lane, with easily one of the most expressive vocal ranges you'll hear in R&B and the sort of poise and confidence that makes him damn near untouchable when he wants to be. And yet as an artist, I really wish I liked his albums more, but that's what you get with a singles artist, a musician far more well-known for songs that entire projects - with, of course, the exception of Confessions.

I guess that's a larger part of the problem: as a record, Confessions did have a more unified theme and at least aimed for a little more insight, which meant that it set an expectation that Usher would deliver more in this vein... and he really hasn't. He kept pushing his sound with the times or even bypassing it altogether into newer territory. People tend to forget how much a song like 'Climax' pushed that darker sort of PBR&B into the mainstream, on top of just being a jaw-dropping example of how to do a quiet storm song right as one of the best hits of 2012. 

But since then... yeah, I really liked 'Scream', but Usher seemed to have a lot of trouble pulling the album together. He released a series of singles that balanced between absolutely incredible like 'Good Kisser' - seriously, if you had put this on a record it'd have a shot at the best songs of ANY respective year regardless of being a hit - and other tracks like 'I Don't Mind' that were merely okay to good, mostly elevated by Usher's presence. But we've finally got the new, much delayed album from Usher called Hard II Love - did it deliver?

video review: 'AIM' by m.i.a.

I can imagine this review will probably pull some controversy. Granted, it's M.I.A., wouldn't that be in the spirit of everything, but given the subscriber numbers... eh, it happens.

Next up... well, I should do Jason Aldean next, but that Usher album... we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'AIM' by m.i.a

So let me put forward something with the benefit of some hindsight: could it be that M.I.A. was never that great of an artist?

Harsh charge to make, especially coming from someone who has never been all that fond of M.I.A., but let me make my case. Even when she burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s with her eclectic blend of choppy Afrobeat, hip hop, and raw provocation, I wasn't much of a fan, but I got the punk appeal. Jagged, explosive, not especially nuanced in her politics but loaded with enough potent sloganeering that she was hard to ignore, both Arular and KALA weren't really my thing but I could appreciate that she had her audience. Then MAYA happened... And here's the thing, I've heard a lot of people say that if it were released nowadays where noise rap is more prevalent, it'd get a better reception... but having gotten onboard with that genre in recent years and revisited that record, it really is as messy, shallow, and migraine-inducing as you'd remember - just because you're the first to the sound doesn't mean you did it best. She followed it in 2013 with Matangi, which I actually reviewed in full, and upon retrospect, I may have actually been too kind to it. I didn't like MAYA, but it at least felt like it was trying - when Matangi wasn't irritating the piss out of me with its sloppy misunderstandings of technology and politics and some painfully trite writing, it was just tedious, not helped by a laconic delivery which did nothing for any populism or melody the record half-heartedly tried to create.

But going into this reportedly final record, where even self-professed M.I.A fans were a little reticent, I started to wonder what it was M.I.A will have left behind. Of her five records, I'd only say two were close to good, and while I appreciate the embrace of rougher, noisier African-inspired textures in hip hop, M.I.A wasn't the only one to introduce those sounds. And fifty percent is not a winning or even passing record, so is AIM the album to tilt the scales in her favour?

Friday, September 16, 2016

video review: 'MY WOMAN' by angel olsen

I predict this review to get some fascinating response. It's a little too late to stand firm against the bulwark of people who loved this, but hey, I've been busy.

In the mean time, the schedule is piling up yet again, but we'll have to wait until I'm back in town on Saturday for M.I.A, Devin Townsend, Jason Aldean, and the rest. Stay tuned!

album review: 'MY WOMAN' by angel olsen

So I've been taking stock of the music I've enjoyed thus far this year, and there's one big trend that's starting to emerge: women on the fringes of country and folk putting out some absolutely excellent records. Sometimes they're a little more pop like Jennifer Nettles, sometimes they're a little more towards rock or mainstream country like Brandy Clark or Lydia Loveless, but between case/lang/veirs, Dori Freeman, and Lori McKenna, it's starting to coalesce into a trend, especially this summer.

In other words, given the frankly startling amount of critical acclaim going her way, I was bound to check out the newest album from Angel Olsen. Long time fans will remember that I covered her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness...  and that I didn't really care all that much for it. It wasn't because of the content, don't get me wrong - Olsen is a strong songwriter with a good penchant for capturing the emotional subtleties in her tunes, and a lot of the rougher production could have been a good compliment for it. But her biggest strength by far is her vocals, and that record chose to smother her in lo-fi fuzz that didn't flatter her subject matter or delivery - what could have been a potent torch album instead guttered into something I wish I remembered better.

So when I heard that Angel Olsen was releasing a more open-ended, experimental record that was jumping across styles - and was one of her most critically acclaimed to date - I was definitely on board. Hell, I've always wanted to like her music more but have been waiting for her to find the right sound to balance against it... so with MY WOMAN, did she get it?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

video review: 'skeleton tree' by nick cave & the bad seeds

So this happened... look, I'm not often one to be advocating on behalf of records - I prefer to analyze and discuss rather than promote, it always feels weird, especially with an album like this - but if you're on the fence about Nick Cave, you need to give this a chance. It's amazing that over the course of over three years doing this critic business that for most years I didn't get a single 10/10 and in 2016 we've had two... don't know what to tell you, folks, I gave this so many listens and yeah, it would have felt wrong to give it anything else.

But next up... hmm, Jason Aldean, MIA, Devin Townsend, that Angel Olsen review that I have filmed... probably that one (again, crazy busy this weekend), but we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'skeleton tree' by nick cave and the bad seeds

I know the easiest way to start this. It's also the way I don't want to start this. It feels cheap and exploitative to acknowledge it, especially given how so many music websites have covered this story - I can't imagine how much it stings every time he might see a review and the first thing that's mentioned is... well...

Goddamn it, this is hard - harder than for most artists, mostly because of the acts who have defined my evolution as a music critic, Nick Cave looms as one of the biggest. His record The Good Son from 1990 I would call a classic 10/10 record, and that's not even counting Henry's Dream, Murder Ballads, The Boatman's Call, Tender Prey, and Push The Sky Away, the last of which was my best album of 2013. Spoilers, I stand by that pick too: some may consider it too slow and muted and impenetrable but there's a genuinely unsettling power in the cryptic writing once you decode it, one of the few records that when Nick Cave is called an 'apocalypse prophet', he earns the title. 

So of course when I heard he was working on a new project I was thrilled... and then came the news that his fifteen year old son Arthur had died in a tragic accident. And there's no way around the fact that it would colour the album, especially when Nick Cave had come back into the studio to finish the recording. Most of the songs had been written but later takes had been semi-improvised, as Nick Cave noted that he had lost his faith in 'narrative-based songs', the sort of statement that can ring as frightening coming from the man who wrote Murder Ballads - for such a storyteller to lose his faith in that form is understandable, but genuinely chilling and reflective of the deep, unyielding pain he had to be experiencing. As such, there was a part of me that didn't even want to listen to this record: it felt too personal, too real, almost reminiscent of Blackstar, the last album David Bowie wrote before he died. And as you can likely tell by this point, I was almost certain that this album would get to me as deeply, if not more so... but by this point, with so many critics hailing Skeleton Tree as one of the best records of this year - it's currently the highest rated record on Metacritic, if you put stock in such things - I had to hear it. What did I hear?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - september 24, 2016 (VIDEO)

Well, this happened - I can imagine people might be a little surprised that I'd actually brand a Kendrick verse as subpar... but yeah, it happens, he hasn't quite mastered the tactic of coasting on pop guest verses yet like Lil Wayne (in his prime) or Ludacris could do effortlessly. The king does have weaknesses, folks.

Beyond that... I think I'm about ready to talk about Nick Cave. Brace yourselves, folks: this one gets heavy. Stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - september 24, 2016

Do you ever have those weeks where you were expecting a lot to happen... only for very little to actually materialize? I was expecting Lady Gaga to debut, for Travis Scott's album to make a major splash, for some pretty significant shakeups... and yet I didn't really see that, as we otherwise had a pretty quiet week, with a sparse number of debuts, a few returning entries, and overall very little to complain about. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

video review: 'wild world' by bastille

So this happened... man, I wish I could have liked this more, but the more I think about the writing and framing the less I like this project. Ugh, such a disappointment...

But moving on, we've got Billboard BREAKDOWN up next, then Angel Olsen and Nick Cave and whatever I've got time for before my insane weekend - stay tuned!

album review: 'wild world' by bastille

I have a gut feeling that this review will end up being more controversial than it should be.

Hell, the last time I covered Bastille it ended up controversial, mostly because while I didn't mind the record I also felt a little distant from it. Keep in mind this is a group that had a song that landed on my top ten best hit songs of 2014 and a record on which I was positive... but not one that I felt held up outside of a few songs. Part of it was the somewhat awkward blend of textures that came through matching colder, stiffer electronic beats and percussion with more organic vocal textures, and then when you factor in lyrics that occasionally aimed for higher concepts and yet rarely stuck the landing when they weren't wallowing in relationship drama that didn't match the bombast... it felt like an odd blend that didn't quite connect.

But to be fair, Bastille's always been a weird mishmash of an act - probably closest to the percussion-over-melody brand of indie pop rock that can be very hit-and-miss with me, and yet they did have a distinctive style and attitude that I wished I could like more. And that's one reason I was willing to give their follow-up record Wild World a chance - same production team, a little more experience and polish and knowledge of a workable sound, maybe it would lead to stronger songs. Was I right?

video review: 'splendor & misery' by clipping.

Oh, I expect the responses to this album to be all over the map - I only ask you actually give it a real chance before dismissing it as pretentious and up-its-own-ass (which, yeah, it kind of is, but in the right way).

Next up... probably Bastille or Angel Olsen if I can get back on schedule and give NIck Cave a few more listens to really sink in... stay tuned!

album review: 'splendor & misery' by clipping.

There will be two sets of people who will see this review.

The first set are those who know what clipping. is, the experimental rap trio signed to Sub Pop who in 2014 dropped their debut which remains one of the best records of that year and featuring some of their best ever songs. A trio known in the underground for explosively distorted music, twisted samples, and the sheer mindbending wordplay of Daveed Diggs, I know why all of you are here. You know what clipping. is and the meticulous yet delirious intensity with which they approach their work, and how their newest concept album experiment makes all too much sense for an act that has a knack for storytelling...

But let's get brutally honest, you're not the set of people I'm worried about. I'm talking about you, the people who saw Hamilton - or more likely just got the soundtrack - and were entranced by Daveed Diggs' insane skills as a rapper, which won him a Grammy and Tony earlier this year. From there you might have heard that this guy had a group dropping an album this year and were curious to hear more - maybe it would be like Hamilton? So let me disabuse you all of some notions: this is not going to be like 'Hamilton'. The theater that Diggs was involved with before Hamilton was experimental, the stuff that would never land on Broadway in a million years, and clipping. is even further away from that, in production and content. And this record looked to be pushing in even weirder directions: heralded as a hip-hop space opera - of which I hoped was a lot more Deltron 3030 than Shabazz Palaces or Logic - this is an album that was looking to push its high concept to the limit. Of course, you'd expect that from a group where one member has a Ph.D with a dissertation on experimental music and who is influenced by Tim Hecker and Death Grips, but if all you know is that 'Daveed Diggs was in Hamilton', you might run screaming for the hills before giving this record its fair consideration. And hey, you'll be in fair company, there are plenty of critics who have dismissed this project rather than admit they don't get it. So if you're expecting something accessible or easy to take in, this is your change to clear off now, friendly warning.

Are they gone? Good, so let's dig into Splendor & Misery - does it live up to some high expectations?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

video review: 'and the anonymous nobody...' by de la soul

So I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected I would. Hell, I think I enjoyed this more than a lot of people did... which is a damn shame, because it's a great, intelligent release that definitely deserves a ton more attention from legends in hip-hop.

But moving on to something more experimental, I think I'm going to push the Angel Olsen review back a day or two... mostly because clipping., Bastille, and Nick Cave all dropped records and I'm far more interested in those. Stay tuned!

album review: 'and the anonymous nobody...' by de la soul

So a few months back I had the misfortune to read a piece at MTV from someone I hesitate to call a journalist about his first exposure to De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising. And if you want to imagine the worst sort of scattershot, self-involved millennial 'thinkpiece' for which Buzzfeed pays a premium, it would be that, as the author meanders from half-hearted engagement with the project to musings about yoga, bagels, and a whole load of dance music that shows the sort of professional disinterest that creeps right up to the line of insulting. And look, I get it if the old-school sample-heavy sound isn't for you - that can be a bit of an acquired taste - but the complete failure to actually dig into the music or content almost makes me suspicious that it was an attempt to troll and gain clicks rather than make an actual point.

But it also served as a stark reminder that I myself hadn't really given De La Soul their due, so in preparation for this review and an album funded on Kickstarter and their first full project in twelve years, I went back through their entire back catalog and wow I'm glad I did. Naturally clever and insightful without being incredibly showy about it, featuring some great grooves and killer sampling choices, I can definitely see why De La Soul is held up as legends in hip-hop, and I'd argue their material has certainly aged better than some of their contemporaries. Sure, there were a few goofy elements that can read as missteps, but De La Soul were comfortable their audience was smart enough to get the subtext behind the comical flourishes, like the album-spanning middle finger to Vanilla Ice that was De La Soul Is Dead, or how measured their retort to gangsta rap was on Stakes Is High, or just how goddamn fantastic Buhloone Mindstate was, probably standing as my favourite of their classic records. Now I will say that around the turn of the millennium De La Soul did hit some diminishing returns, mostly courtesy to overloaded guest stars lists and a seeming dilution of their tighter thematic focus, but even with that I did like the aborted Art Official Intelligence trilogy to the point I'd love to see it eventually concluded. And yet, I have to say I was a little worried about this project, mostly because not only had the overloaded guest star list returned, it was more varied and eclectic than ever, which can be tough to blend into a cohesive sound or a smart narrative. But look, I had faith in De La Soul, that they could pull something together that was interesting and insightful - did they pull it off?

Friday, September 9, 2016

video review: 'the sun's tirade' by isaiah rashad

Oh, I can imagine this review raising a fair amount of controversy... but eh, I wish I liked this more too. It accomplishes its goal, that's for damn sure... I just wished I like this more.

Next up, let's see if I can get De La Soul and Angel Olsen out before I dig into Nick Cave and clipping., so stay tuned!

album review: 'the sun's tirade' by isaiah rashad

Here's something I don't often talk about when it comes to records: timing. Specifically the timing of when I might hear something in comparison with the general public - and while you would usually think that wouldn't matter all that much, it does play something of a role when you consider the hype cycle in the popular consciousness. Now since I'm a music critic I'm normally ahead of the cycle - I've heard the record early or at release, and by the time the rest of the mainstream catches up - which can be anywhere from a week to months later - I'm going to have very different feelings about the project, especially depending how much time I've sat with it or whether it's made a big impact. An easy example nowadays is twenty one pilots - I was cheerleading for the bad in early summer last year, and even though I still like Blurryface a lot, I'm also keenly aware that the band might wear out their welcome if they keep releasing weaker singles. 

But I don't want to say I'm always ahead of the game - on the flip side, I got on board with Isaiah Rashad over a full year after the release of his breakout project Cilvia Demo in 2014, a project that many consider his debut album at nearly fifty minutes... but it was an EP, and I don't normally cover those, only talking about it in the summer of 2015 as my second year anniversary review voted by you guys. And yeah, the project was great, a genuinely insightful and versatile project that showed the aftermath of family estrangement, overloaded responsibilities, and the complicated position of leadership that he falls into thanks to his success. And yet while I was enjoying the project late, Isaiah Rashad was seeing his life reflect art, sinking into a Xanax and alcohol addiction that nearly led to label conflicts with TDE, depressants reflecting isolation and inactivity weighing on him all the more heavily. Indeed, you could argue it's a miracle that we got this project at all, given how quickly drug abuse can destroy careers, but Isaiah Rashad pulled out and more than two years later has delivered a proper full-length follow-up called The Sun's Tirade. I can't imagine for long-time fans how much anticipation there is here, but you can bet I was curious about this - so how did it turn out?

video review: ' side b' by carly rae jepsen

Well, you all wanted it. And I needed more time to think through Isaiah Rashad, but the bigger story is that you wanted it. 

And on that note... let's see if I can get through The Sun's Tirade. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

album review: ' side b' by carly rae jepsen

I'm seriously starting to rethink my rule about not covering EPs.

And really, it's not even so much a rule but a guideline I gave myself to avoid getting swamped by the neverending stream of artists looking to show off their newest bundle of songs, and it's one I've been willing to break at least a couple times a year. At this point, it's borderline arbitrary, one minor stopgap to prevent my schedule from becoming overloaded. But believe it or not, I did actually have a reason why I didn't cover EPs: I liked covering albums with thematic arcs and concepts and the drive to put together a self-contained idea, and my general thinking is that you couldn't usually pull that off on an EP with two to three songs. But in a era where I've seen EPs longer than some albums - hell, Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia Demo was nearly fifty minutes - or loaded with eight or nine songs, the more you get the impression artists are calling them EPs as a stopgap, something to hold time before official releases where they can push out their extras while using that as a gentle excuse to not judge them as harshly. And in a sense that's fine, that's why most EPs were released, fragments and teasers for fans who were craving more between records - and yet in the digital era where we're no longer bound by physical space on a disc, EPs have been getting longer and longer.

So I'm left with a quandary: continue to ignore EPs except when I really, really want to highlight a neat song, or break the rule altogether to dig into Carly Rae Jepsen's E.MO.TION: Side B, a project that doesn't even attempt to hide that it's full of extras from that pretty damn good synthpop album from last year. And yet given how many critics were saying it was even better than E.MO.TION... well, I was curious. At the very least Carly Rae Jepsen's got some serious competition thanks to Shura's excellent debut Nothing's Real that dropped a few months back, and given that it is a pop record, Carly Rae Jepsen probably isn't going to be bothering with a core theme or idea anyway. So whatever, I was curious and I was looking for some good synthpop, so did with E.MO.TION: Side B did I get it?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - september 17, 2016 (VIDEO)

Man, computer problems couldn't have come at a worse time... goddamn, this has been tough to get out, especially considering I flubbed part of the audio editing the first time round.

But whatever, next up... well, you all asked for it, let's talk about Carly Rae Jepsen. Stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - september 17, 2016

So let me give you all a quick recap of my past few days. I get home from vacation, put up my big recap video, get ready to set up the Travis Scott review and then Billboard BREAKDOWN today... and then my editing computer loses multiple cores and experiences systemic hard drive failure. Now I've been having computer troubles for the past few weeks so I knew this was coming - hell, I've got a new machine in transit right now - but given the insane album release schedule of the next few weeks, I was hoping to save the transition for a slower period and not have to work with a machine that's on its last legs. No such luck - hell, I'm just thankful Billboard BREAKDOWN seems a little slower this week, giving me a little more time to prepare for the shift.

video review: 'birds in the trap sing mcknight' by travis scott

So yeah... this happened. Not quite sure I can quite explain it, but I didn't mind this at all. Pretty decent listen, all things considered, and yet the critical backlash on this one has been fascinating to watch. Go figure.

Anyway, Billboard BREAKDOWN will be going up shortly, then probably Isaiah Rashad or Carly Rae Jespen - stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

album review: 'birds in the trap sing mcknight' by travis scott

Man, Travis Scott can frustrate me.

See, I didn't want to cover Rodeo last year, mostly on the thinking that his production was too cavernous and dark to really support the banal party lyrics and his general lack of distinctive personality, but going back to that review, I can say that I don't really hate that record so much as I find it underwhelming. The problem wasn't as bad as on Days Before Rodeo, but Travis Scott was getting crowded off the stage by guest stars with more presence or charisma, and it was hard not to see his persona as a composite of other artists.

That said, in recent months I've come to the conclusion that Travis Scott can work for me in the right environment, because he does have a knack for huge hooks that can go over the top, and he's not afraid of giving his mix the depth you'd need to pull it off. I wouldn't really be expecting substance... but again, he's making over-the-top party music, you don't really need a lot of substance if you avoid errors and crank up the bombast. That's one of the reasons I was a little exasperated when people accused me of 'not liking party music' during the Rae Sremmurd review - I can like it when it has convincing swell and personality that doesn't fill me with seething rage, and at least instrumentally Travis Scott can deliver that, and even over the past few months on hooks like 'Champions', he's been a propulsive presence. 

That said, I was a little worried about The Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight - outside of the frankly bizarre title, this record had the feel of being rushed out to capitalize on Travis Scott's now ascending popularity - and yet it missed its planned release date twice! And with fewer production credits than ever - yes, I know he's the executive producer but it's not a good sign that he's handling less of the beatwork with each successive album when that production was what added so much flavor - and still plenty of guest stars... look, I had reason to be concerned, but I really did want to like this - so, did it work?

Monday, September 5, 2016


Well, this finally happened. Long video to render, which is giving me the unsettling feeling that my computer is finally starting to give out on me - not a good sign, but given the problems I've been having with the processors, it's only a matter of time. Plus, in the meantime I've got so many reviews to cover before next weekend...

Eh, Billboard BREAKDOWN is next, followed by Travi$ Scott, Isaiah Rashad, Angel Olsen, De La Soul... suffice to say, I have a lot to cover, so stay tuned!

Friday, September 2, 2016

video review: 'moonbathers' by delain

Oh, I know a whole load of you are going to be peeved with this review... but look, there was nothing all that distinctive or interesting about the writing, themes, compositions, or production on this record. When we've got Avantasia and Tarja dropping far stronger and more interesting projects, this is just forgettable and all the more cements Delain as a b-list act. Sorry.

In any case, I'll be expanding on these thoughts soon as I'll be heading home from vacation! Vlog talking about more will probably go up either tomorrow or Sunday, but we'll see. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

video review: 'dig your roots' by florida georgia line

I know I shouldn't really be all that surprised this was a letdown... but I really am. Florida Georgia Line try so desperately hard for maturity and yet fall so short it's damn near tragic. Of course, a major factor of that is some godawful, overdone production that's way too slick and sterile for its own damn good, but hey, it happens.

And on the topic of records that have their fair share of warning signs, Delain! Stay tuned!