Monday, August 21, 2017

video review: 'known unknowns' by billy woods

So yeah, much later than I expected, but still worth talking about. Beyond that... well, I'm on vacation now, so let's bundle a couple reviews together for the next video, a few old and one new... stay tuned!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

album review: 'known unknowns' by billy woods

Well, it's about damn time I got to this, an artist I referenced in my last hip-hop review and who some have told me has dropped one of the stronger projects this year... and I have to say, it's taken me a while to really get to billy woods.

So, here's some context: he's a New York MC, he founded his own label Backwoodz Studioz, he's been putting out albums since the early-to-mid 2000s, but really started to hit a potent creative stride in the early 2010s, both on his own and as a member of the duo Armand Hammer with frequent collaborator Elucid - who I'll also probably end up covering at some point this year, given his critical acclaim. And that's important to note: if we're looking at New York hip-hop artists who are pushing and challenging the sound in the vein of what Def Jux did fifteen years ago, I'd definitely put Billy Woods on that list in a similar way I would Uncommon Nasa - the bars a little more direct here but no less thought-provoking, and often times over even more challenging production on records like History Will Absolve Me.

And yet, if I'm being brutally honest, I've struggled to completely embrace a billy woods project as a whole. Some of his songs can tilt around rap cliches, but a larger issue I found on his 2015 project Today, I Wrote Nothing was a certain scattershot nature of a lot of tracks, potent in snippets but nearly always leading to projects that felt too long and not quite coalescing as a whole, at least for me. Which was frustrating because between his blunt and curt style of delivery and some challenging and experimental production, this is the sort of rapper I'd love to wholeheartedly get behind, and with the continued stream of critical acclaim for his newest record Known Unknowns, I was hoping this could be the one to do it for me. So, what I did find?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

video review: 'woodstock' by portugal. the man

About time I got to this, especially given the peculiar story I have surrounding it.

And on that note...

album review: 'woodstock' by portugal. the man

Oh, this is awkward - mostly because if you had told me a few months ago I was going to be putting together this particular review under these circumstances, I would have called you crazy, and yet...

Okay, let me back up. A couple months ago, I was actually contacted by Portugal. The Man and their management to produce a video where I could give a 'review' of one of their upcoming songs for their new album Woodstock, that they would use in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way in their promotional material. Now I know a bunch of critics I like and respect contributed to this, but I didn't for three main reasons: one, it felt perilously close to something that might compromise my critical ethics and I'd prefer to be safe than sorry; two, if I had done that video I'd feel obliged to cover the record and I'd prefer to use my schedule additions for records I had a vested interest in reviewing; and finally, it's a Portugal. The Man record, who the hell was going to care? 

Yeah, I know, in retrospect now it feels a bit dismissive, but Portugal. The Man has never been an indie rock act I've ever had interest in. They've never been a huge critical darling as they flirted with electronic and psychedelic textures, and I personally am not a huge fan of frontman John Gourley's vocals or songwriting, but I wouldn't begrudge anybody being a fan of the group. They were fine enough, I guess, but I never found them interesting enough to pursue more, especially once they signed to Atlantic and brought Brian Burton behind the production boards - and if you've seen my reviews talking about Burton's production over the past few years, you'd understand why. And then 'Feel It Still' broke the top 40 and topped the rock charts and suddenly over a decade into their career Portugal. The Man actually had a bonafide hit! It's a weird feeling seeing that and realizing you could have been part of their promotional effort, but now I at least understand why so many people want me to cover this, so let's give 'em what they want: what did we find with Woodstock?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 26, 2017 (VIDEO)

So yeah, pretty lousy week, but it was a pretty easy one to put together, so I guess I'll take it?

Anyway, time to take care of some old business - stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

video review: 'oh, yuck' by so much light

Look, sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and this guy might just not be my thing. Eh, it happens.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN and something I probably should have covered two months ago... stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 26, 2017

Man, I'm happy this is a more reasonable week on the Hot 100 here, given how crazy my schedule is right now. And when I say reasonable, I mean that very little actually seemed to make big moves, we have a modest list of expected new arrivals, and while there is some action in the top 10 worth talking about, we're at the point where things are on the cusp of really breaking open.

Monday, August 14, 2017

album review: 'oh, yuck' by so much light

So I'm sure at this point many of you have seen a certain piece of bad writing at The Atlantic making the rounds with a particularly ugly clickbait title called 'Progressive Rock Is The Whitest Music Ever'. And yeah, the article lives down to the title, the sort of piece that reflects an uncanny lack of knowledge surrounding the genre and really a general disinterest in writing about it altogether. But aside from an easy opportunity to bag on awful music journalism, the article did get me thinking why people dislike the genre, because there are some points in calling out prog for its pretentiousness wankery, its underweight concept record with bloated orchestration, and complexity for its own sake.

Here's my point: there is a genre of music where this sort of thing bothers me... and progressive rock and metal is not really that genre. No, it's the more obscure and for me much more frustrating genre of math rock, known for complex time signatures and rigidly over-designed melodic and rhythm sections. And with less of a focus on lyricism, you can bet that I'm not really a fan - but it's also a relatively obscure subgenre and people don't tend to request it...

Until today, which takes us to So Much Light, a Sacramento-based project for Damien Verrett where on first listen you could definitely see traces of math rock in the complex, shifting time signatures and knotted melodies of his debut Supine/Spellbound in 2012. But the overall genre of the music proved to be tougher to follow: anchored almost entirely in acoustic guitar and with a pretty impressive backing list of musicians to flesh out the sound, it'd be easier to slot this towards acoustic-leaning indie rock... and then you get our frontman with a remarkably timid and thin vocal delivery and lyrics that would not be far removed from the weirder side of emo. So I'll be blunt and say I wasn't crazy about that debut at all - a couple fascinating arrangements, but little else that gripped me... but we would not see another full-length So Much Light record for another five years - an EP in 2015 and a few scattered singles, but then he signed to ANTI- and we now have a follow-up called Oh, Yuck. So okay, how did it turn out?

video review: 'rainbow' by kesha

Well, this was pretty great. Yeah, like most people I wish this was a tad better overall, but still, pretty terrific all the same.

Can't really say the same about the next record up here... stay tuned!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

album review: 'rainbow' by kesha

Man, it's nice to talk about the music for once, isn't it? Hell, it's nice that there actually is music this time, right? And indeed, there was a part of me that deep down was convinced this record would never happen, that the horrendous legal nightmare and label drama would prevent us from ever getting a third record from Kesha, but now that it has actually been released, I think there's some housecleaning that's in order, especially surrounding how so many would love to say they've been on Kesha's side since the beginning and have always loved her work, that Animal was underappreciated for its time and that Cannibal was even better and that Warrior never got the chance it deserved...

And it's at this point where I have to drop the hard stop on music critic historical revisionism, because while the mainstream public might not have been paying close attention, I sure as hell was - mostly because of my own more complicated relationship with Kesha's music. I'll be the first to admit that I didn't like the singles from Animal back in 2010 and I found her entire persona kind of obnoxious, and it wasn't until a year later when I went into that album and Cannibal in-depth - and while I will say both are more uneven than you remember, there were the hints of satirical depth, lyrical nuance and genuine pipes that for some reason Kesha's handlers didn't think the mainstream public wanted to hear. That takes us to Warrior in 2012, a record with a notoriously troubled production and was arguably crippled out of the gate thanks to sloppy promotion and horrible single choices - watch the Special Comments, I've touched on this before - but it was also the sign that Kesha was bucking against her producers and label more than ever, and that Warrior still wound up as one of my favourite records of 2012 is a testament to its craftsmanship and personality. But the public and the majority of critics didn't see that, instead focusing on the one-dimensional party girl treading water who needed a horrible guest verse from to seem relevant. And to see a lot of folks now retroactively getting onboard given the legal ordeal and a desire to be seen on the right side of music history without knowing the artistic variety and depths and incredible live show that were in plain sight all along if they had bothered to look - it reeked of cheap revisionist cynicism, especially when it seemed like, again, the music was getting pushed out of the picture.

But again, the album is finally here, and if I'm going to be very honest, I was optimistic but cautious about this record. I was all for Kesha taking a greater lead in writing and production, pushing her sound into even weirder and rougher territory leaning on rock and country, but I was worried the 'redemptive comeback' story would overwhelm the weirder elements in composition and songwriting that I've always found to be one of Kesha's best weapons. But then again, if anyone has earned the right to make a record focused on that redemptive arc it's Kesha, and she's a smart enough songwriter to challenge conventions and expectations, so at the end of the day what did we find on Rainbow?

video review: 'written at night' by uncommon nasa

Yeah, this record has really stuck with me thus far - in a year where I haven't been all that impressed by a lot of hip-hop, this one is worth your time, trust me on that.

But now on to the event that so many have wanted to see... well, stay tuned!

Friday, August 11, 2017

album review: 'written at night' by uncommon nasa

So I haven't exactly been quiet in saying that I haven't heard a lot of hip-hop in 2017 that I'm absolutely crazy about - hell, if you saw my midyear review, you'd know that the highest rap record on that list was technically dropped late in 2016 but because the physical release came out in 2017 I'm counting it there anyway so it'll at least be eligible for year-end lists in my books.

But maybe I'm missing part of the picture - because of the way my Patreon schedule is set up, I can only get to so much, and maybe truly great records aren't being requested just yet, or I just haven't had a chance to hear them. And from what Uncommon Nasa has mentioned on Twitter to me, that might be very much the case - and the funny thing is that he's modest enough not to include his own record in that accounting! But make no mistake, I was excited for this one - a veteran New York MC and producer who has been behind more critically acclaimed records than you might remember, he landed an entry on my top 25 albums of 2015 with Halfway and for damn good reason too. His production might be challenging, his rapping style might be thorny and dense, but once you were able to decode his more abstract concepts you were left with a highly rewarding and cerebral rap record. And while I didn't quite love his collaboration with Short Fuze Autonomy Music in the same way, I was definitely excited about Written At Night. Entirely self-produced with guest verses from Oh No, Open Mike Eagle, Billy Woods, Quelle Chris and more, this was one of my most anticipated hip-hop records of 2017, easily - so what did I untangle here?

video review: 'paul' by eric taxxon

And this was a nice welcome surprise - very niche and underground, but welcome all the same, you should definitely hear it.

And speaking of underground...

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

album review: 'paul' by eric taxxon

So those of you who have been watching since earlier this year probably remember me covering Eric Taxxon, an independent electronic and synthpop producer who has a reputation for putting out a lot of homegrown but remarkably catchy and varied projects within a year, touching everything from chirpy, lo-fi synthpop to plunderphonics and ambient experiments.

Well, guess who is back with a new project - which yes, I'm a bit late to the punch covering, but the fact that my patrons were as willing as they were to vote on it was kind of promising, especially as Taxxon still is very much underground in terms of music critic coverage. And in contrast to the wild experimentation of his career thus far, this album Paul looked to be doubling down on and refining the synthpop sound of his last record The Anthill, with even a few tracks that might even hint towards greater accessibility. And yes, normally that'd throw up a red flag for me but again, very much underground and if Taxxon was going to use that focus to further purify already strong melodic progressions, I was excited about what this could bring. So no more wasting time, what did we find with Paul?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 19, 2017 (VIDEO)

And here's an especially long episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN... man, this took a while to put together, as they always do...

But still not all tonight, stay tuned!

video review: 'the autobiography' by vic mensa

So now time for a bit of a posting spree, and we'll start off with a record that I didn't mind, but I wish I liked - or remembered - a lot more than I do here. Ah well, it happens.

But that's not all tonight...

movie review: 'dunkirk' (VIDEO)

Yeah, I know, I got to this one late, but it was definitely worth the discussion, at least in my view. Enjoy!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 19, 2017

It's never the album bomb weeks that are actually interesting - it's the weeks that come after, the fallout period where you see the headlong rush to plug the holes. And considering the summer music season tends to have a dry spell in album releases, this is the time where songs that might not otherwise crossover have a shot for some traction, where the weird or strange stuff might bubble up.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

album review: 'the autobiography' by vic mensa

You know, for as much as I've talked about the hip-hop scene in Chicago, I'm a little amazed it has taken me this long to talk about Vic Mensa. 

Well, okay, not that amazed, as his career trajectory has taken a couple odd turns over the past five years since his breakthrough mixtape Innanetape. That got him the attention of Jay-Z and Kanye, who loved his peculiar way of bending rhymes with honest subject matter that could be tempered towards the mainstream. And yet it took until 2016 for us to get a solid EP project out of Vic Mensa... and the reception to it was mixed. And going back to the project I can see why: on the one hand you had Vic Mensa as an MC who was unafraid to get very political and speak with candor about his own struggles with fame with remarkably honest framing... and yet he also had a bad tendency to slip towards mindless mainstream junk with weakly sung hooks and sloppy bars, which gave the impression of squandering potential. And while I did respect There's A Lot Going On for songs like the title track and '16 Shots', it reminded me a lot of when Pusha T released his solo debut with My Name Is My Name - a great, versatile rapper with a distinct style who ended up let down by pointless attempts at mainstream crossover that especially in 2016 would not have gotten traction.

So of course I was curious about his debut project, especially given that he racked up an impressive and occasionally weird list of guest stars. I wasn't going to complain about seeing Pharrell, Joey Purp, Syd or Dreezy show up, and considering what No I.D. did for Jay-Z this year there was a lot of potential going in. At the same time, though... I get repping for Chicago, but I'm not sure that was enough of an excuse to put Chief Keef on this, or why in the Nine Hells he chose to get Weezer on this project and not just Rivers Cuomo. Again, this promised to be pretty interesting, so what did I find in The Autobiography?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

video review: 'oltreluna' by progenie terrestre pura

Well, I'm glad I got this off my plate - weird record, and I put in a lot of work trying to track down how it all came together. Hell, for all of that work I wish I liked it a lot more, but whatever.

Anyway, we've got some hip-hop next, so stay tuned!

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 12, 2017 (VIDEO)

So this week mostly sucked... but it's Meek Mill, that should not be surprising to ANYONE at this point.

Fortunately, black metal tends to make things better - stay tuned!

album review: 'oltreluna' by progenie terrestre pura

So if you've been following along for the past couple of reviews, you've probably noticed that I've been more forgiving towards certain tones and textures that call to mind sci-fi or space - chilly, brighter synths, slightly alien effects, if you saw my Starset review a few months back, you know I'm fond of this sound but also pretty damn critical when the acts don't stick the landing. But considering I like this sound and I also tend to like black metal with a more atmospheric or ambient touch, surely there'd be something in this vein that came out in 2017 that might catch my interest, right?

Enter Progenie Terrestre Pura, which loosely translates from Italian as 'Pure Sons of the Earth'. They made a splash in 2013 with their debut U.M.A. by blending in elements of ambient space rock with black metal, and while I wouldn't quite say it's among the best black metal I've ever heard - some of the song structures don't quite hit the same dramatic climaxes as I'd personally prefer - what I could translate in the lyrical content was indeed intriguing, exploring dichotomies between man and machines and where a soul might fit in between. And while I wasn't exactly wild about the more ambient electronic experiments of their 2015 EP Asteroidi, I wanted to check out their newest album, described as a prequel to U.M.A. showing humanity at a more primal state and their search for the divine among the stars, leading to a test of that humanity... or at least I hoped so, given that I was having a devil of a time finding any sort of lyrics, in English or otherwise! But hey, it's black metal, I can work around this, so what did I find on OltreLuna?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - august 12, 2017

...okay, the last time Meek Mill had a big album splash on Billboard BREAKDOWN, it was the night of the US election in 2016, and while I'm not going to say that's a bad omen right out of the gate, the fact that not only are the charts late but it's because this mediocre rapper decided to skew the streaming charts thanks to 'free streams' don't exactly give me a lot of hope that's there's much quality here. Hell, at least when Jay-Z did his brand deal this time around there was quality on the table!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

video review: 'last young renegade' by all time low

About time I got this off my plate - and to think it took Billboard being stupid to get this out! 

So yeah, probably Billboard BREAKDOWN next, but who can tell... stay tuned!

album review: 'last young renegade' by all time low

So maybe I'm not seeing the arguments anymore, but I remember back in the early-to-mid 2000s - hell, probably earlier than that - the debate surrounding pop punk. And make no mistake, as the genre ebbed and flowed in popularity, the split became pronounced: the old guard who preferred the rougher, more aggressive punk side, and the more mainstream-accessible crowd who didn't care. And while I don't really see this debate much anymore, from what I can see... look, on average I'm going to gravitate to where the rougher, the better, but I'm also the first to admit that it's not the best fit for all bands. There's a spectrum when it comes to pop punk, and for every punk band that 'sold out' when they went pop, there are a few more pop-friendly acts that courted rougher audiences and didn't always stick the landing.

So take a band like All Time Low, and right from the very beginning I knew these guys would likely wind up closer to radio-friendly pop rock than anything super aggressive or political. And that was fine: they wrote fun, catchy hooks and when they got signed with Interscope, it seemed like a logical step. But maybe it was just poor timing - Dirty Work came out in the middle of the club boom in 2011, where if you weren't in Canada pop rock wasn't getting airplay - but it wasn't long before All Time Low was back on their indie label Hopeless and churning out more reasonably well-received pop punk records records. And to be completely honest, more often than not there wasn't much of a difference in their production or writing - I've listened to every All Time Low album and I found a lot of their material really runs together - but I knew it wasn't long before they'd be back on a major label, and so I wasn't surprised when they signed back with Fueled By Ramen. And since it's almost an unspoken law that Fueled By Ramen records tend to share musical tropes year after year, when buzz was suggesting All Time Low was featuring more 80s-inspired synthpop and new wave elements - hell, they brought in Tegan And Sara - I felt like I knew exactly what to expect from Last Young Renegade. Did I get it?