Showing posts with label power pop. Show all posts
Showing posts with label power pop. Show all posts

Saturday, October 19, 2019

video review: 'in the morse code of brake lights' by the new pornographers

Well, this was... a little underwhelming and I wish it was better, but it happens. Next up, I've got a two part project from Cody Jinks, so stay tuned!

album review: 'in the morse code of brake lights' by the new pornographers

So here's a fun question: how much do people consider The New Pornographers these days?

I'd argue it's relevant, as past and present solo members like Neko Case and Dan Bejar as Destroyer have charted critically acclaimed territory in recent years that many could argue outstrips the band's original run of insane quality in the first half of the 2000s. And while I look back on projects like Brill Bruisers and Whiteout Conditions this decade with a lot of fondness, it's more for snippets of anthemic brilliance rather than a consistently strong but never quite transcendent whole. And it's not even that this supergroup feels like a 'hangout project' or anything like that for prodigious talents to bounce ideas off each other - especially in recent years, a lot of A.C. Newman's writing has a sense of urgency that keeps things driving with more momentum and outright anxiety than you normally see for acts twenty years into their careers. Maybe it's the political subtext lurking just out of frame, maybe it's middle age... either way, it has led to some phenomenal songs, and while Dan Bejar only contributes cowriting credits to a single song here, I've always thought The New Pornographers can knock at least a few songs out of the park, so what did we get from In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

video review: 'sucker punch' by sigrid

Okay, this was a lot of fun... really enjoyed it, glad y'all pointed me to it.

But now onto a much uglier conversation - stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

album review: 'sucker punch' by sigrid

You know, sometimes I get the feeling that some of you pay a little too much attention to my content. And of course I'm not going to complain that much - appreciate the attention, turn on notifications and all that, would prefer to hear it from you than plenty of others - sometimes you're attentive enough that I wind up eating my words.

So Sigrid: young Norwegian pop singer-songwriter signed to Island, and much to my surprise, I had talked about her song 'Strangers' last year around this time on a slow week of Billboard BREAKDOWN as one of my World Hits. And I liked what I heard: some blaring synthpop with a fair bit of intensity and smart songwriting, it was the sort of song that was very easy for me to like as a critic, to the point where I said when her debut album dropped, I'd be happy to cover it... and then like most episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN, I promptly forgot all about it until you guys started reminding me. And this isn't anything against her, let me stress this - I listen to a ton of music, stuff falls through the cracks, and for pop, you can definitely tell Sigrid is relying more on good writing and sharp composition than flash, and an unfortunate side effect of that is you can lose track of songs and artists. More to the point - and this is a warning sign that labels especially in the U.K. are trying to milk as many singles as possible without a ton of faith in the album - the first Sigrid songs packaged onto Sucker Punch were released as early as February 2017. That was concerning to me... but I did say I was going to cover this and I'm a man of my word, even as I'm still struggling to put my finger on why that Little Simz album isn't quite clicking the way it should. So okay, what did I get from Sucker Punch?

Monday, January 8, 2018

video review: 'POST-' by jeff rosenstock

And here's the first review of 2018! Looks to be interesting going forward, especially as we've got some more metal waiting in the wings as I polish up that top ten list... but in the mean time, Billboard BREAKDOWN on the way too, so stay tuned!

album review: 'POST-' by jeff rosenstock

So I'm actually a little surprised I didn't get as much backlash as I was expecting for my more political picks on my year-end lists - maybe you're all just used to my point-of-view by now, maybe the records' quality overran the content, or maybe I just haven't pissed off the right set of people yet. But for those of you who are bothered by the politics coming up at all, be you on the left or right... well, look, I'm not sure what to tell you, I think we were all hoping this conversation would have quieted down by now and yet with every passing day it seems to get even louder. And given how certain tax policies are now directly targeting artists in an era of greater economic inequality than ever, you can't expect them to shut up.

Granted, I'm not sure you could shut up a punk rock lifer such as Jeff Rosenstock even if you tried. When WORRY. became a critical darling in 2016 just days before the election, even in the face of a possible Democratic victory you could still hear the pronounced anxiety, how even if they won, gentrification and police brutality and social media obsession and the increased numbness of a weary millennial population wasn't going away, especially in the face of crippling self-awareness of their culpability and flaws. It was a record approaching burnout with the half-drunk determination to keep staggering forward because it couldn't get that bad... and then the election happened. And while to some extent that does lock WORRY. into a very specific context pre-election, it also threw a wide enough net and captured the cultural mood so effectively that did stick around, so it doesn't fade into immediate irrelevance like Common Black America Again did. And really, given how closely attuned Rosenstock's writing felt to his audience, I knew it was only a matter of time before he'd contextualize the insanity of the past year and come back all the stronger. It'd be political, it'd be empathetic, it'd give Rosenstock the space to push his blend of power pop, hardcore punk and even traces of ska into even more places - in short, it's the record I think a lot of people needed to start 2018. And thus, what did we get with POST-?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

video review: 'what we live for' by american authors

Well, this happened. Overall a decent record, but I can't help feeling they could have done a fair bit more. Eh, it happens.

Next up... well, Billboard BREAKDOWN for one, but then I want to get to this Weval record, as well as Grace and maybe Bat For Lashes too... stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

album review: 'what we live for' by american authors

So let's talk about surprises.

It's a sad fact of being a critic is that it's rare that you get surprised by an album. Sure, sometimes you'll get something insane coming out of the woodwork that blows your mind - which is why critics tend to shower praise on oddball records that are unlike anything they've ever heard before, and I'll admit I can succumb to this as well. But more often than not, it can be tough to go into every single record with the expectation that every album is someone's first, to try and capture that emotion of genuine awe.

And that's probably why I've got a fond spot in my heart for American Authors, something that'll probably surprise most of you if you only remember them for their sort-of hit 'Best Day Of My Life' that rapidly became a commercial product more than an actual song. And from that single it was widely thought that they were just another soulless rip-off of Imagine Dragons before that band fell off the deep end. Hell, that's what I expected when I covered their debut album Oh, What A Life - and it wasn't anything close to what I got. They were far closer to the power pop of acts like Semisonic or Fountains Of Wayne, just pressed through modern genre sounds of the time. It all lead to a weirdly likable record that didn't quite manage to work all the way through, mostly courtesy of some by-the-numbers songwriting and a frustrating inability for anyone to know what they were doing behind the production boards, but was still better than most would expect. And thus I had an interest in digging into their sophomore follow-up, which promised to continue and expand upon many of the same sounds - and hell, it's been a while since anyone cared about Imagine Dragons, so maybe American Authors might sound more fresh. So how did What We Live For turn out?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

video review: 'glitterbug' by the wombats

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

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

album review: 'glitterbug' by the wombats

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

video review: 'everything will be alright in the end' by weezer

Man, it's nice to see Weezer pull something together. Not their best, but far from their worst.

In any case, next up will probably be Hozier or Tinashe. Depends which gets the most requests over the next few hours, so stay tuned!

album review: 'everything will be alright in the end' by weezer

It's almost a cliche these days to begin a Weezer review talking about Pinkerton. Because let's be honest, it's an album that took Rivers Cuomo's band into a dark place that split critics and sent fans away in droves. Sure, the album is praised as a classic now, but it sure as hell wasn't when it was released, featuring abrasive production that some sardonic critics branded 'Pavement-lite' and lyrics that went to the uncomfortable dark recesses of Cuomo's mind, with all of its depression, absentee father figures, and myriad fears and insecurities about women. Coming off of The Blue Album, it was a massive change in focus, but keep in mind this was also 1996. Sure, the emo crowd of the time embraced Pinkerton, but the mainstream fans that came for 'Say It Ain't So' and 'Buddy Holly' and instead got 'El Scorcho' and 'Pink Triangle'? Once again, 1996 - even the Brit power pop of Oasis and Blur wasn't getting this explicit or off-kilter, and in a situation where the paradigm was shifting from Nirvana to Aqua, Pinkerton was unlike anything else. 

And its failure crushed Rivers Cuomo. He bared his soul to the world and the world spat in his face, so after a five year hiatus the band came back with the Green Album and the change was stark. Not only were the heavy shields of irony in place, but the loss of Matt Sharp's subtle bass harmonies and lighter than ever production meant the songs were all the more ephemeral and empty. For as good of a songwriter as Rivers Cuomo is - and let's make this clear, he can write great melody lines and is a solid songwriter in terms of lyrical poetry - but it was a mask. And nowhere was that more vivid than 'Beverly Hills', the successful Weezer comeback single that owed its airplay to the pop rock boom and nothing else because that song is one monster riff and that's it. It's a shockingly empty song - empty of ideas and soul, two things that Weezer used to have in spades. And from there, the next slew of Weezer albums fell into that mold, with only occasional flashes of brilliance to sustain the band as their output petered out at the end of the decade.

And so I wasn't exactly surprised to see that Weezer was returning to the original well for their newest album Everything Will Be Alright In The End, a title making a statement to both Weezer fans and critics, the latter of whom had more than their fair share of reasons to be skeptical. And I have to admit, it was really damn hard to work up any excitement about a new Weezer record, even despite the reassurances from the band that 'No, really, it's going to be more like Pinkerton!' I hate to say this, but I'm not looking for another Pinkerton so much as I'm looking for Rivers Cuomo to actually say something that comes from some place real and not just empty artifice. Did that happen?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

video review: '5 seconds of summer' by 5 seconds of summer

Well, I'm not sure about the lighting here, but I think it looks alright.

Next up will probably be How To Dress Well, then Mastodon, then I might check out Open Mike Eagle. Then this month... hell, I dunno. We'll see. :D In any case, stay tuned!

album review: '5 seconds of summer' by 5 seconds of summer

Okay, let's try this again.

So a few months back, in an attempt to fill some time between reviews, I covered the debut EP of 5 Seconds of Summer, She Looks So Perfect. To be kind, I was ambivalent on the EP at best, a small slice of mostly forgettable pop rock that suffered from poor production balance and questionable songwriting, not to mention a pale shadow of better pop rock acts that came before. That review received something of a mixed reaction from folks, as many were quick to make a lot of excuses for the band that didn't really fly. Yes, they started on YouTube and they're teenagers and they wrote all their own songs and they wrote so many more good ones that didn't make the EP, so I should just give them a pass, right?

Well, no, I'm not doing that - half because it denigrates YouTube talents and teenagers who write their own music who do show incredible talent, and half because those excuses have nothing to do with the content of the music and everything to do with the artist. You can make all sorts of excuses for the artist in question but it's not going to make the music better. And yeah, it's silly pop rock and I probably went further in-depth into the songwriting than even the band did, but I repeat, there are plenty of pop rock bands who do this sort of thing better. I think to some degree the fandom for this band comes from the marketing machine you see every time a pop rock band in this vein gets popular, and maybe it's just with the benefit of history or some deeper knowledge of how these bands chart, but there's a formula here, shaped by the producers if not by the band itself. And with that in mind, I've seen the formula done better.

That said, I did recognize that it was a four song EP, and bands seldom get the chance to show all their facets on such a small sampler, so I resolved to pick up their self-titled debut album and give them another chance - what did I find?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

video review: 'oh, what a life' by american authors

Wow, this was a fun surprise. A good palette cleanser, especially considering what might be coming up in coming weeks.

Next up... shit, I've got no idea. Stay tuned, anyhow, it'll be coming soon!

album review: 'oh, what a life' by american authors

Well, we knew this was going to happen eventually. We knew that someday, some major label executive was going to notice the smash chart success of The Lumineers and The Neighbourhood and Bastille and think, "Oh god, indie rock has actually scored a foothold on the charts, how the hell are we going to capitalize on this without signing an act that's actually challenging or hard to market?"

Well, the funny thing is that there really are a lot of bands in this vein, just indie-sounding enough to avoid the pop brush but not so indie that Pitchfork gives a damn about them. Acts that you might know and like for 'that one song' but would be hard-pressed to call yourself a hardcore fan. In other words, we're looking at a silent majority act, or, to be a little more snide, the indie rock that gets popular thanks to commercial jingles or showing up on sitcoms. And while you have acts like Bloc Party, Vampire Weekend, and Deafheaven who have shaken the silent majority label by actually being critical smash hits, most critics don't tend to care much about bands in this vein.

Enter American Authors, formerly called The Blue Pages when they were still trying to build buzz on Bandcamp. After two independently-released EPs, they landed a major label contract with Mercury in early 2013 and have since then seen their songs feature in mainstream ads around the world. And like with Alex Clare's 'Too Close' from 2012, this has led their big hit single 'Best Day Of My Life' to gain some major traction on mainstream radio. My initial judgement of them based on that single were as a cross between The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons (in other words, the marketer's wet dream), but I've been surprised by bands in this vein before and I didn't want to brand them as derivative without giving them a fair chance, so I gave their debut album a few spins. How did it turn out?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

album review: 'damage' by jimmy eat world

Ugh, I hate this. 

I hate that this is a factor in my enjoyment of songs, because it makes me look like the most nitpicking, audiophile asshole, the kind that bitches against iPods because of mp3 compression and only listens to FLACs, or the kind that remixes and remasters songs in his basement and because of that has an inflated feeling that 'he just knows music better'. Let me make this absolutely fucking clear - I completely get why people like listening to music at high bitrates, and I would be lying if I didn't say that I'd take the sound of good organic vinyl over some YouTube rip any day of the week. And yeah, I will completely stand behind artists like Nick Cave when he says that Henry's Dream didn't come out properly because of the shoddy production, and I will wholeheartedly support his choice to make a phenomenal live album where he basically replayed the album properly.

But with all of that in mind, music should be about music, not production. While there is a fine art to good production and mixing, it's arguably the least important element in comparison to the instrumentation and lyrics. The notes being played and the words being sung are the creative element, the raw spark of art - production and mixing are the editing desk, the polish, the filter from which the art is passed to us. It shouldn't matter if 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones is played mono or stereo or if it was run through a high pass filter or the reverb is a little too high on Jagger's microphone, it's still 'Satisfaction' by the fucking Rolling Stones

But as much as I don't like it, I can't help but admit that production and mixing matter. They might be the least important element in this process, but they're definitely an element in this process that is disastrous to overlook. And not for the first time, I can't help but feel that if an element of the production for this band had been improved, I'd like them a lot more.

So with that, let's talk about Jimmy Eat World, yet another entry in the list of acts that I can definitely acknowledge is good and that I can kind of like, but I can never quite love, no matter how hard I try. But unlike a case like Radiohead, I can pinpoint exactly where Jimmy Eat World doesn't work for me: the vocal production and placement in the mix has never consistently worked.

Let me expand. The band burst into the underground in 1994 with their self-titled debut, which was decent enough to score them a small cult following that was quickly squashed by their 1996 follow-up Static Prevails. Now, there are a slew of other problems with Static Prevails beyond the vocal production mix, mostly in that the songwriting was pretty lousy and the instrumentation wasn't as polished, but most of these problems were cleaned up by the 1999 album Clarity. And yes, I'll be the first to acknowledge that the best elements of Jimmy Eat World's sound - the extremely solid guitar work, the bigness in their sound, their heartfelt (if occasionally self-obsessed) lyrics - were all here. But as much as I tried, I could never get over the fact that lead singer Jim Adkins' vocals were buried midway in the track behind the guitars, and were more often than not barely audible. 

That was the other factor that always annoyed me about Jimmy Eat World, namely that the vocal performance was never very strong, as Adkins' vocals always struck me as rather thin. Fortunately the band compensated for that on their next release Bleed American, pulling the vocals more to the front of the track and adding reverb and backing vocals to support Adkins, and sure enough Bleed American was their strongest album yet. They'd follow it with Futures and Chase This Light, both albums I really like but don't quite love, mostly due to the swarm of little irritations that always seemed to leap to the forefront of my mind, mostly surrounding Adkins' vocals and the occasional sloppy or immature bit of songwriting (the worst thing I'll ever say about the instrumentation is that on a few occasions it got a little cluttered or repetitive). And yet always the persistent problem I had on all three of those albums is that every so often - often enough to be noticeable and frustrating - the vocals were just drowned out entirely behind the roar of the guitars, and while I'll admit that this will always be a pet peeve of mine, it rankles here all the more because of how much Jimmy Eat World consistently got right.

And then they released Invented in 2010, and... well, I'll be more polite to it than some of the more rabid fans and say it was uneven. Sure, the trademark elements of Jimmy Eat World were here, and the vocals were high enough in the mix that they could usually be pulled out, but the attempts to add electronic elements and a female backing vocalist did nothing to help matters, and the songwriting hadn't improved (both in technical proficiency or subject matter) since Chase This Light in 2007. But it was on Invented they let lead guitarist Tom Linton sing lead vocals, and it was here that my problem with Jimmy Eat World finally crystallizes - the vocal production on Jim Adkins' voice never fits with the production of the rest of the track. Sure, his thin tenor matches the subject matter of the songs fairly well (Jimmy Eat World has always been one of the wussiest bands in alt rock and power pop, and that's saying something), but in comparison to the crashing, epic sounding guitars and pounding bass and drums, he always sounds drowned out, which ultimately comes down to an issue of vocal production. In comparison, Tom Linton's rasp might have less range but the vocal production done for his part of the mix flows much better.

But now it's 2013, and Jimmy Eat World have been active for over nineteen years - surely on their most recent album Damage they will have figured out the vocal production balance, right?