Thursday, October 29, 2015

video review: 'storyteller' by carrie underwood

So, I imagine this is going to go... well, I'm not inclined to say 'well', but it'll be interesting to say the least.

So next up... I think I need a little more time for Joanna Newsom to really sink it, so I might want to tackle some old business first before the week of pop from hell approaches. Stay tuned!

album review: 'storyteller' by carrie underwood

It's weird, for as much as I feel I've talked about Carrie Underwood and around Carrie Underwood, I've never actually covered one of her albums at length. And considering she's one of the main standard bearers for women in mainstream country that has a chance of getting radio play now that Taylor Swift is gone, that's saying something.

I think part of it is because I've got a complicated opinion of Carrie Underwood. Like Kelly Clarkson she emerged from American Idol with a ton of hype and was immediately catapulted to join the ranks of powerful female pop country acts that garnered a lot of attention throughout the mid-to-late 2000s. And while she might have been the most successful, she hasn't exactly been a critical darling - a ton of raw firepower but not exactly subtle in her delivery, instrumentation, and especially songwriting, even though she was working with some of the biggest names in the industry. It didn't help matters that songs like 'Before He Cheats' became ubiquitous and not for the best of reasons: you do realize that Carrie's got no proof this guy is cheating on her before she totals his car, right? It also didn't help that it was also around the time Miranda Lambert was breaking in the mainstream in the same lane and writing sharper and smarter songs without the huge arsenal of Nashville behind her, so I had an easy choice, especially as Carrie struggled around the turn of the decade especially with her third album.

Fortunately, things turned around with Blown Away in 2012, mostly through tightening her writing team and going for riskier, darker material that did cross into pop and rock much more but didn't lose that country feel entirely. Now I wouldn't say I loved that album - it had its bright spots paradoxically on the darkest tracks like 'Two Black Cadillacs' and 'Blown Away', though I have a soft spot for 'Good Girl' - but it was an improvement. And I had hope for Storyteller - she's kept most of the same team, 'Smoke Break' was a solid opening single, and though she had brought Jay Joyce onto her production team, I had hopes that he'd be kept in check and not screw up another album. Was I proven right?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

video review: 'vega intl. night school' by neon indian

So, not too big on chillwave, but this was pretty solid, and I'm finding it's grown on me with every listen.

Next up... okay, Carrie Underwood next. Stay tuned!

album review: 'vega intl. night school' by neon indian

So remember chillwave? Remember when that was a thing, a trend that seemed to spring partially from the warped edges of gleaming early 80s synthpop and the gummy, lo-fi production of Ariel Pink? Remember how it was a big thing in the indie scene for seemingly a year or two before evaporating in the hot sun for the next big trend?

Because I certainly don't. Now part of this was just time and place - I was listening to very different music in and around the latter half of the 2000s, and chillwave was one of those nebulously defined genres that completely passed me by, there and gone and I had never cared. But going back to listen through it now, I'm a little baffled why there was so much hype in the first place - yeah, the lo-fi eclecticism of the synthpop was a nifty trick, but many of the synth textures didn't really stick with me or blend into particularly solid wholes. it wasn't that it was bad - although there was a fair amount of mediocre stuff around the edges of the genre that was coasting on the fad - but again, Ariel Pink was already making similar music and doing it with more cohesion both in melodies, production, and lyrics.

That said, I do give Neon Indian a certain amount of credit for at least trying to bring a loose sense of humour and fun to a genre that often proved oddly humourless. The main project of frontman Alan Palomo, his debut record in 2009 got a lot of critical acclaim and buzz - so much so that it catapulted him into the festival circuit where he did surprisingly well for being loose, catchy, occasionally funny, and genuinely fun. So it wasn't surprising that as the backlash towards chillwave came in force, Palomo worked to double down on the bigger, buzzier, thicker sounds - even teaming up with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann to overcompress and add more density to the mix. And yeah, the melodic core was still there and some of the quirkier elements did creep through, but I was among many who felt it was a slightly less satisfying effort, even though I never found much chillwave to be all that exhilarating to begin with.

So when I heard that Palomo was looking to bring in more elements of disco and future funk for his upcoming third album, adapted from the VEGA sideproject, I was interested at least, especially considering the critical acclaim started pouring back in. Did it pay off?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 7, 2015 (VIDEO)

Yeah, I know it's late, but I fell asleep before I could post it, it happens. Overall, a decent week - though I expect next week to be absolutely bonkers busy, so stay tuned for that.

Next up, I've got a few busy days ahead, but I think I'm feeling ready to cover some Neon Indian, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - november 7, 2015

Before I start, if you're not already aware, my first full-length fantasy novel called To Kill A Dragon just dropped on Amazon - so if you're interested, I'd really appreciate if you took a look, the link's in the description below, maybe pick up a copy to drop a review. After all, if I dish it out, I need to be able to take it too.

...You see, Drake? What I did there just now is called 'marketing', and while it's on a far smaller scale and will probably lead to a far smaller return, I'd argue I didn't screw it up nearly as badly as you screwed up this week.

Monday, October 26, 2015

video review: 'pentatonix' by pentatonix

Well, better late than never. And I figured since so many of you were asking, I might as well.

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN before I talk about Carrie Underwood, Joanna Newsom, Neon Indian, and a fair few more. Stay tuned!

album review: 'pentatonix' by pentatonix

I was hesitant about covering this album. And no, not just because covering fellow YouTubers always makes me feel a bit awkward - although you could argue that most acts starting these days can present themselves as YouTubers if they do enough vlogs. And it's not that YouTubers can't transition to making very respectable music - there are plenty of examples that proves that misguided assumption false, look at Lindsey Stirling. 

No, my concern was rooted in something a little more universal, with the closest analogue being when the one big hit of a one-hit wonder is a cover... because eventually you have to start writing your own songs, define a unique musical identity. It was one of the biggest stumbling blocks that hit Karmin with their major label debut, and deep down I was dreading that happening here with Pentatonix, the five person singing group that became a YouTube powerhouse with a capella arrangements and covers of popular songs. Now I'll admit to not being a huge fan of Pentatonix - I liked a lot of their covers, they had unique personality, but they were never really a group I found as more than a curiosity... but maybe that was being unfair, because they had always included a few original tracks across their albums and the five-person a cappella presentation guaranteed they'd have that unique personality that so many one-hit wonders have lacked - hell, they've already won a Grammy for it! And besides, if you cover so much material, you've bound to pick up some tricks from the best in terms of melodic composition and writing, so I did have hope this would come together - after all, I wouldn't have gotten this many requests if this wasn't a good project, right? So I checked out the self-titled album from Pentatonix - were all of my fears unfounded?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

video review: 'fading frontier' by deerhunter

I wanted to like this album a lot more than I did, but eh, it happens. Definitely an accessible release, but I'm not sure how well it overall came together, especially considering how Deerhunter has retread these themes in the past.

Anyway, next up... honestly, I was planning on using this week to catch up on some indie stuff, but I keep getting so many requests for Pentatonix... hmm, we'll see. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 23, 2015

video review: '35 mph town' by toby keith

And so this happened. Goddamn, I really used to like this guy, shame how much his material has gotten this lazy.

Ah well, not sure what's next, but my first book To Kill A Dragon has just dropped on Amazon! Buy it, give it a read/review, and I'd be thrilled! Link here:

album review: '35 mph town' by toby keith

I'm starting to think Toby Keith might have a problem.

And no, it has nothing to do with the asinine feud with the Dixie Chicks that was around a decade ago or any assumptions of political allegiance that lack basis in fact or the drunken concert incidents that would be a black mark on his career if it wasn't for the dozens of songs he's written about booze. No, this is a larger issue tied to his music: namely, its relevance.

See, as much as Toby Keith has criticized bro-country for its inability to take anything seriously or get political or real, it's hard not to look at the success Toby Keith has had in recent years and ignore the hypocrisy. As much as I might like Toby Keith - the guy has a lot of charisma, a ton of range as a performer both comedic and dramatic, and a knack for writing great hooks - it's hard for me to not look at his past few albums and see some of the laziness. This is his eighteenth album in twenty-two years, and at this point the sheer amount of filler and bad songs are starting to pile up and obscure the true gems. And look, I liked most of Drinks After Work when I reviewed it in 2013, but in retrospect outside of certain moments it was forgettable. And the frustrating fact is that I get the uncanny feeling Toby Keith knows that and just doesn't care like before. It's not like he's under any sort of pressure - he's on his own label and probably enough royalty money to easily coast, and for the life of me I have no idea what's inspiring him right now. He tried to get his daughter Krystal's career off the ground with an album he produced, but that went nowhere and I think I was one of the few people who cared enough to review it.

So maybe it's a good thing he's now working with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark on his newest album, two songwriters I actually like and respect and the latter who dropped one of the best country albums of the 2010s thus far, at least for his leadoff single. I had hopes his newest album 35 MPH Town would at least be passable - did Toby Keith pull it off?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

video review: 'sounds good, feels good' by 5 seconds of summer

Well, this happened. Can't say I dug it all that much, hoped for more artistic progression, but I think they'll get there eventually.

Next up, I think I might as well bang out this Toby Keith review. Stay tuned!

album review: 'sounds good, feels good' by 5 seconds of summer

I almost feel obliged to talk about 5 Seconds Of Summer at this point.

See, the more I hear their singles and look at their cowriters, the more I'm seeing a group that's at least trying to head in a more interesting direction in revitalizing the pop rock and pop punk of the late 90s and early 2000s, which stands in stark contrast to everything else on modern pop radio. When I originally covered their debut EP, I didn't see much beyond a middling act who was playing to younger audiences who didn't otherwise grow up with Sum 41 or Blink-182 or Green Day or The Offspring in the same way, but their self-titled debut album did have some promise. I figured if they went with rougher production, brought some of their real instrumental chops to the forefront, and maybe tightened up the writing a bit, they'd have a shot at some staying power.

And going into this record, I had every reason to believe that was happening. Yeah, the lineage to previous mainstream-accessible pop rock and pop punk bands was pretty obvious and you could definitely argue they weren't reinventing the formula or rising above their forebears, but they weren't bad successors. And to further give them credit, they were working with songwriters from All Time Low and Good Charlotte and even Evanescence, all of which gave me the impression that if the band took the opportunity to get rougher instrumentation, they might pick up some darker subject matter along the way - hell, 'Jet Black Heart' seemed to indicate they were taking some cues from mid-2000s emo, at the very least. In other words, I was hoping this would at least be an improvement on their debut, rock a little harder - was I right?

video review: 'astoria' by marianas trench

Man, this review was so satisfying to do. Such a great band, they definitely deserve more recognition.

Anyway, next up... hmm, I've already got a review filmed and I just need to polish up editing, but I think I have the perfect idea for a follow-up here...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

album review: 'astoria' by marianas trench

This is one of the big ones, folks. This is one of the albums I've been looking forward to all year, from a Canadian pop rock band that's been quiet too long. A group that may have started with a debut that seemed to come at the tail end of a commercial boom before quietly becoming an absolute powerhouse up here with hit after hit after hit. A group that for no adequately explained reason has ever really crossed into the US even despite having irrepressibly catchy songs, solid production, excellent songwriting, and one hell of a frontman. Why is that?

Honestly, I'm not sure. I'd argue a big factor was distribution - the band's star-making, damn near classic record pop rock Masterpiece Theater didn't hit the US until September of 2010, over eighteen months after it was released in Canada, and while we couldn't get enough of them across 2011 and 2012 with the excellent record Ever After, the US charts were in a profound state of turbulence in the collapse of the club boom, I'm not really blaming them here. Thankfully they got that settled through a deal with Cherrytree and Interscope, but a bigger part of it is that Marianas Trench were a different sort of pop rock act, taking much of Fall Out Boy's theatrical ambitions and writing and marrying it to a far more lean and melodic sound, trading the obnoxiousness for populist cleverness. By their second album they had built a three-act structure for a loose conceptual framework, by their third album they embraced all-out narrative storytelling, and after the EP Something Old/Something New that contained satirical tracks like 'Pop 101', one could think that Josh Ramsay's writing was in danger of disappearing up its own ass. But I wouldn't agree here, and when I heard the loose conceptual framework behind their upcoming record Astoria, instrumentally inspired by 80s fantasy and adventure films, I realized we might have something so damn earnest that it transcends irony or satire and just becomes flat out epic - and that's not a word I ever use lightly. So you can bet I was psyched to hear Astoria - does it live up to my high expectations?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 31, 2015 (VIDEO)

And this was surprisingly easy to get done - either I'm getting better at editing or filming these, or positivity just works for me.

Next up... ooh, I've got a good one coming. No, not that one, the other one....

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 31, 2015

You know, when I looked at the Billboard Hot 100 charts this morning, I was astounded: because this week scanning through the returning entries and new arrivals, I could find little to complain. Even the songs I didn't like as much weren't so much bad and in a worse week would easily miss the bottom spots, whereas for the best we got a plethora of solid to genuinely great songs. Now I'm not too optimistic to expect this'll last in the long term, but weeks like this always give me a little thrill of hope: maybe the air is shifting as we come into the last weeks of 2015, you never know!

Monday, October 19, 2015

video review: 'confident' by demi lovato

And that's two tonight. Going to crash now, barely conscious. 

Next up, Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then I will hopefully get to talk about one of my favourite ever bands - stay tuned!

video review: 'the documentary 2 / the documentary 2.5' by the game

God, this took so long to finish. Definitely happy with how it turned out, but still... so long.

Next up in hopefully less than an hour, Demi Lovato - stay tuned!

album review: 'confident' by demi lovato

You know, throughout the course of Billboard BREAKDOWN I've come develop an odd dislike for a certain type of pop anthem, the sort that has only gotten more popular in recent years due to the return of sleepy, sanitized easy listening pop: the 'self-esteem anthem'. Now of course the broad concept can work and still have some emotional power: we all have low points and can be inspired by the right tune that pulls our spirits skyward, but there's a key element I've seen missing in so many of these songs that really bothers me: a sense of drama. In the best of cases, you get the feeling that the person who is singing is speaking with real purpose and populism to address a real wrong, or that they themselves have pushed through the crisis and are all the stronger for it. And what's even trickier is that there's no one formula to make it work: sometimes it's in the writing, sometimes the melodic swell, sometimes the expansive production, but most of the time it's in the performance.

And one of the things that tends to annoy me so much about many of these performances is how 'safe' they feel. There's nothing raw or fiery in the delivery, nothing that gets the blood coursing or show that the performer has ever been through the situations that might deserve such an anthemic response. For an easy comparison, let's take two songs from Christina Aguilera, an artist I don't even like: 'Beautiful' and 'Fighter'. Now you can argue that after Mean Girls you can't take 'Beautiful' seriously anymore, but there was a populist fervour to the song that's hard to fake, especially in comparison with far weaker entries like 'Firework' by Katy Perry. And hell, 'Fighter' is just awesome, half because it actually anchored itself in rock guitar and half because Christina sells it with a raw explosive energy that feels believable. Place a song like Rachel Platten's gutless and completely generic 'Fight Song' against it, and you realize a.) what real vocal charisma and power sounds like and b.) wow, Christina really has mismanaged her career over the past decade.

So let's talk about Christina Aguilera's spiritual successor: Demi Lovato, another former Disney starlet with a huge voice that unfortunately makes every song sound like hard work. Now it's taken me a long time to come around on Demi Lovato, because while I liked her 2013 album DEMI for the smarter-than-expected content and some solid hooks, there were way too many structural problems in the rushed composition, by-the-numbers production, and underwritten lyrics to really be excused. But DEMI has always felt like a transitional record to me, a stepping stone to when she's step out as the vibrant, fully-formed pop star that she is. And with the lead-off singles for Confident, I got the impression that Demi had not only grown as a more expressive vocalist, but had picked up the explosive, pop rock-edged instrumentation that's a natural fit for her vocal tone - and since a new Pink or Ke$ha album don't seem likely for the near future, I prayed we'd get something of quality to fill that female-driven pop rock slot that's been vacant on the Hot 100 for too long. Did Confident deliver?

album review: 'the documentary 2 / the documentary 2.5' by the game

Let's talk a little about double albums. Now I've covered a fair few double albums this year, most notably 'Summertime '06' by Vince Staples and 'The Powers That B' by Death Grips. And in both of those cases, I was left feeling that positioning them as double albums might not have been the best decision as they both could be slashed down to tighter single records with less filler - or in the case of Death Grips, they could have just stuck with Jenny Death. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not averse to the double album as a concept - one of my favourite records of all time, Ayreon's The Human Equation, is a prime example - but even Arjen Lucassen struggled with his double album The Diary under The Gentle Storm namee. Yeah, I can appreciate making both a heavy and light version of each track and then encouraging your audience to mix and match, but that could have been a much tighter release.

So when I heard that west coast MC The Game wasn't just releasing a sequel to his critically acclaimed record The Documentary, but structuring it as a double album release called The Documentary 2 and The Documentary 2.5 - yes, I know each disc was released a week apart, but it's a double album, let's be real here - I was seriously worried. Even assuming the best case scenario that each of the hour-plus discs would come together, the odds of this project being just an exhausting endeavor to work through seemed likely. And even though Blood Moon: Year Of The Wolf wasn't apparently a full project from The Game, instead more of a compilation, it was hard to overlook that it was a fragmented mess that had too many guest stars and opted for way too much style over substance.

But then again, maybe I'm being unfair. Many people absolutely loved the song The Game effectively made his own on Dr. Dre's Compton, and considering he was directly positioning these records as sequels to the one that made him huge, I had some hope this could work. Of course, he also brought out all the stops as hip-hop's best networker since Master P, and on this double album we have Kendrick, DeJ Loaf, Ice Cube, Dre,, Fergie, Puff Daddy, Ab-Soul, Q-Tip, Future, Kanye West, Drake, Snoop Dogg, Anderson .Paak, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, Nas, Lil Wayne, Scarface, DJ Quik, E-40, Ty Dolla $ign, YG, King Mez, Jon Connor, and Busta Rhymes, and those are the names I immediately recognized... although considering his hype and his Blood affiliation, I'm shocked Young Thug doesn't show up. So I expected this to be an overlong, bloated mess: was I right?

Friday, October 16, 2015

video review: 'halfway' by uncommon nasa

And that was two in one night. Okay, I might need a day off - mostly because these albums from The Game might take a bit of time to clean through. Over two hours... well, we'll see. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

album review: 'halfway' by uncommon nasa

Goddamn it, how does this keep happening? It seems like when it comes to rappers who dropped great albums in the late summer, early autumn of 2014, I'm just late to the party here!

Now to be at least a little fair here, I get the feeling the majority of people were late to the party with Uncommon Nasa. New York MC, a member of The Presence in the late 90s, affiliated with Def Jux and El-P throughout the early 2000s, he founded Uncommon Records and has steadily been cranking out experimental, rough-edged hip-hop albums, either under his name or the alias Adam Warlock. And if you go digging through his featuring credits across the past fifteen or so years, you'll see enough cosigns to respect his credentials as a thoughtful, articulate MC, but what impressed me a lot more was the production. I was reminded a little of Ratking in terms of the unmistakable New York focus, and dense, clattering textures, but Uncommon Nasa was more conceptual in his writing, not quite as blunt and immediate but just as skilled in creating a starkly vivid, gritty picture. It wasn't always easy material to approach - his flows could run a little off-kilter and sometimes the mix could get a little cacophonous for its own good, but with Land of the Way It Is and especially his critically well-received and fascinating 2014 record New York Telephone, he definitely stood as a veteran that it'd be worth keeping an eye on.

As such, when he approached me directly to cover his 2015 album Halfway, I was all the more interested - how did it turn out?

video review: 'unbreakable' by janet jackson happy now?

I kid, really, I actually enjoyed this way more than I was otherwise expecting. But it's not the only review dropping tonight, so stay tuned!

album review: 'unbreakable' by janet jackson

Well... okay, sure, why not?

You know, I'm surprised there was so much demand for me to cover Janet Jackson. I guess I shouldn't be, considering that for a good decade from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, the queen of R&B was cranking out albums that could easily be held up as high points in the genre - and keep in mind her brother Michael was just as active in this period. From the autobiographical Control that saw her seize control of her career to the more political and surprisingly relevant Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989 to the more experimental and sexual Janet in 1993, there was a period where Janet Jackson could do no wrong in her blend of incredibly tight pop and R&B. And the amazing thing is that these albums hold up - yeah, there are some synth tones and drum effects that sound dated, but not nearly as many as I was expecting.

But then R&B faded away from prominence in the late 90s and by the time it came back in the 2000s, Janet Jackson was still charting hits, but the critical acclaim wasn't coming the way it used to... mostly because the albums were of middling quality at best. The records were getting raunchier and that does work for a certain thrill, but at some point it just started feeling overdone and repetitive. It didn't help her career took a body blow thanks to that Super Bowl performance - of which the reaction was way blown out of proportion and says way more about puritanical American culture than anything else - and her albums throughout the latter half of the 2000s seemed all the more desperate to retake the spotlight. But by then R&B was fading out in favour of pop again and in 2009, the brother who had always hung over Janet's career in the eyes of the public died tragically, so Janet took a break from recording new music. Instead, she did some work for film, stage, and philanthropy, got a divorce and remarried, and only returned with a new album released on her own label this year.

And to some extent I had no idea what to expect. For as influential as Janet has been throughout the course of her career, modern R&B is a very different place than it was in the 80s or 90s or even 2000s, and I was concerned how her breathy vocals had managed to last under the wear of over thirty years in the industry. But when I heard 'No Sleeep', the lead-off single for this album, I had every reason to believe there'd be quality here - and frankly, it's only been my insane schedule that's prevented me from covering this sooner. So how is Unbreakable?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

video review: 'for you' by frankmusik

So yeah, fun review. Damn shame I couldn't film another one tonight, thanks to the celebratory noise (and me living in downtown Toronto - GO JAYS!). But rest assured, that Uncommon Nasa review is on the way, plus something you guys have been requesting - stay tuned!

album review: 'for you' by frankmusik

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

See, I think it was more coincidence than anything that I decided to pick up Frankmusik's 2014 album By Nicole, figuring there was bound to be quality given his work with Colette Carr. What I didn't expect was tightly written, explosive synthpop backed by the impressively raw vocals of Vincent Frank, where as pop music was getting more polished and reserved he was doubling down on intense passion... which could get a little awkward considering it was, for all intents and purposes, a breakup album. Because believe me, when By Nicole worked we got killer songs like 'Misdemeanor' and 'Uh Oh' and 'These Streets' and 'Call To Arms' and 'Conclusions', the last two being some my favourite songs of 2014... but as a whole, it felt a little too overwrought for the material it was trying to tackle and could have afforded a little more subtlety to undercut the bitterness.

But that said, even despite its flaws By Nicole hit enough high points that when I heard Frankmusik's new album For You was grounded in more contentment, pitching the bitterness and grief to the winds, I was definitely interested. After all, 'Call To Arms' was probably the simplest song on By Nicole in terms of being a raw, straightforward pump-up track, but it was also the best - if he could throw together a pop album of tracks like that, he could have a smash hit on his hands. So I had high hopes for this album, and pretty high expectations too - did For You deliver?

video review: 'new bermuda' by deafheaven

Well, this was outside of my usual comfort zone! Can't say I'm complaining, I really had a ton of fun filming and making this review.

Next up... well, I've got a few options ready and waiting, let's go for something a bit more obscure. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 24, 2015 (VIDEO)

Well, that was easier than usual! It's nice being able to complete an episode without completely losing your entire project.

But moving on from that, I've got another review coming tonight, so stay tuned!

album review: 'new bermuda' by deafheaven

I can imagine there are a whole load of people who are looking at me doing this review right now and rolling their eyes. "Of course he's doing this review - some pasty white guy who spends most of his time talking about every other genre besides metal now is going to talk about Deafheaven? What does this Toronto hipster who spends more time listening to hip-hop and country know about black metal, so of course he talks about the least kvlt black metal act, the type that gets all the Pitchfork brats squealing that they're redefining the sound when frankly Burzum was blending in post-rock as early as '94 and Alcest was doing it in the mid-2000s and Wolves In The Throne Room were doing for nearly their entire career until they went experimental towards drone on Celestite...

So yeah, I did some of my homework here, but here's the funny thing: for the most part none of it is wrong, and one of the reasons I've been so hesitant to cover this record. Of the genres that I've delved into this year, black metal is one that remains tough for me to appreciate - partially because I've a fan of lyrics and between the screaming and production they can be hard to parse out, partially because, as I've said in the past, nihilistic subject matter only goes so far with me, and partially because I wanted to make sure I grasped the history of the genre before covering this record. And while I will whole-heartedly admit I've still got a ways to go, I think I can speak to why the hipster set went insane for an act like Deafheaven when they dropped the critically acclaimed Sunbather in 2013: melodies, transitions, and production. Yeah, they weren't as brutal or evil-sounding in comparison with some of the heaviest black metal I've heard, and the lyrics tended towards poetic abstraction instead of bone-crunching Satanism, but when the melodies were this good, the transitions this smooth, the atmosphere this potent, and the marketing of the band this accessible, it's no surprise people jumped on board. Now admittedly I wasn't really one of them - I've always been more of a progressive metal guy - but I could see why people liked Deafheaven; they weren't reinventing the wheel, but it's hard to deny the compositional skill.

So when I heard their newest record New Bermuda was going to be more aggressive and heavy, it really seemed like the best of two worlds - win back the metal elitists who dismissed them as hipster bait, and scare away the popular crowd who only jumped on board for that reason in the first place. And given that I've never really loved a Deafheaven record - Wolves In The Throne Room and In The Woods... both hit me a little harder, although the latter is more on the prog side - I still wanted to talk about this. So how did New Bermuda turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 24, 2015

Don't be deceived by this week. Those were the words that were running through my head across this week as the initial sense of relief flooded through me. Yes, no more Drake and Future songs to cover, yes, we actually got more returning songs than new tracks on a reasonably short week, and hell, a song from one of your favourite albums of 2015 came back to the charts. But the more I pored over the charts, the more I got the feeling that the current rising 'stars' aren't exactly on the good side, and we could be in for a world of problems across the rest of the fall.

Monday, October 12, 2015

video review: 'revival' by selena gomez

Well, this record took way too long to cover. That's the problem with albums that are just tepid and bland to cover, they just stall you out and put you even further behind schedule.

But next up, I've got Billboard BREAKDOWN, but let's pray I can crank out another review in the mean time. Stay tuned!

album review: 'revival' by selena gomez

The last time I talked about Selena Gomez at length, it didn't go well.

Now to be fair, it was one of the first ever video reviews I ever did, still extremely new to the format. And I went it with a lengthy digression discussing cultural appropriation coming off of the lead-off single 'Come & Get It'. Believe it or not, I thought it might be indicative of Selena Gomez's new direction... and yet it turned out that I really didn't have to go into that much depth, because the record was atrocious. Granted, most would say expecting anything of quality out of Selena Gomez was probably asking too much, especially considering she didn't write any of it, but considering how much I did like some of the work she did with her band The Scene, Stars Dance was a shockingly big drop in quality across the board. From her phoned-in vocals to the cheap, by-the-numbers production that tried and failed to position her as a electronic diva to the lyrics that alternated between bland and asinine, there was nothing to recommend about the record, and for once the majority of critics agreed. But I think the largest problem that went unnoticed even by me at that time about Stars Dance was how anonymous is felt. Say what you will about Demi Lovato or especially Miley Cyrus, they at least have a distinctive persona to their music that has only been more honed with age, yet Selena has always seemed a little lost in what she wants to be, defaulting to a pale Rihanna imitation almost on default.

And yet believe it or not, I had hope for her sophomore album Revival. Not was 'Good For You' a surprisingly strong song with A$AP Rocky, she has the majority of writing credits on her new record and has said this record is more personal, mostly tied to the highly publicized ugly breakup with Justin Bieber, a stint in rehab, and the falling out she had with Demi Lovato. At the very least, I didn't expect her to nuke her career like Miley did with that ninety minute disaster that has already been forgotten, so what do we get with Revival?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

video review: 'stories' by avicii

Well this was a surprisingly fun review to put together. Surprisingly easy too, but that can happen.

Next up... hmm, not really sure. Long weekend up ahead, and I want to make sure I make the best of it. So probably Julia Holter and The Dead Weather, but then there's The Game and Frankmusik and I should probably talk about Deafheaven if only to get it out of the way... eh, we'll see. Stay tuned!

album review: 'stories' by avicii

Of all the electronic producers I've covered in the mainstream, both in full-length reviews and on Billboard BREAKDOWN, Avicii is one that continues to frustrate me.

See, those of you who have followed me for a long time know that I wasn't too kind to his debut album TRUE, not a bad record but ultimately an experiment that landed steadily decreasing dividends throughout its runtime in attempting to fuse folk with accessible EDM. And yet many of you probably know that two Avicii songs have landed on my year-end lists for my favourite hit songs of 2013 and 2014 with 'Wake Me Up!' and 'Hey Brother'. And the stranger thing is that I'll stand behind both of those choices even though I'd still argue that TRUE was only ever a decent album.

And here the crux of that argument: Avicii is the sort of artist who has a great grasp on the fundamentals and the broad strokes of his experimentation, but can get stuck on the details, which is why the folk sections of that debut album ended up working better than any of the electronic segments. Sure, he's a strong melodic composer in putting together dynamic, surging progressions and marrying them with well-textured guitars and banjos and solid acoustic grooves... but the second he starts adding in thicker beats or percussion, things kind of go off the rails. Hell, he's not even a bad lyricist - all of which makes me think Avicii might be a better songwriter than producer and performer - but I can't help but see the irony in an electronic producer who blended folk in and made it work, except in the underlying electronic production itself!

But that was 2013, and let's face it, the EDM world has changed significantly in even just the past two years. The leftovers of the folk boom that Avicii was riding is now long dead and most modern EDM has gone to the deep house or R&B/neo-soul route - that'd be your Calvin Harris - or suffered badly for it, like Zedd. Where does Avicii fall with his sophomore release Stories?

video review: 'evermore: the art of duality' by the underachievers

Damn great record that took me way too long to get to - stupid overloaded schedule (really just overloaded October, to be honest). 

Next up, I need a little more time for Julia Holter, so I'm probably going to go with Avicii next. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

album review: 'evermore: the art of duality' by the underachievers

Goddamn it, I'm kicking myself for this one.

See, I've actually heard about this duo before when I started getting requests last year, and given the fall is always an overloaded time for album releases, I skipped over them. And given their debut album was getting solid but not exceptional reviews, I figured I'd put them on the backburner and eventually I just never got around to covering them. So when they announced their sophomore album this year, I figured I might as well check in on that debut...

And wow. As I said, I'm exasperated with myself that I let AK and Issa Gold get past me, because this is the sort of smart, articulate, hard-hitting hip-hop I really enjoy. Breakneck, multisyllabic flows that remind more than a bit of Bone Thugz-N-Harmony, great chemistry, solid psychedelic leanings in the wordplay that have only become better articulated, they broke through with the star-making Indigoism mixtape in 2013 and the better written and tighter but slightly less refined Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium in 2014. I'm not sure whether it would have been enough to knock either into my favourites list, but they definitely would have been contenders.

And as such, I definitely had some interest in their sophomore release Evermore: The Art Of Duality - even though at fifteen tracks this looked to be an exhaustingly dense listen. Which I think even they realized, because from the album art to the track listening, they looked to be segregating this record into two distinctive parts, one light, one dark. But regardless, how did the album turn out?

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 17, 2015 (VIDEO)

Wow, I'm amazed I got this out at all. Multiple crashes, editing was absolute hell, but here it is. 

Next up... I want to cover something I'm actually going to like, so how about The Underachievers? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - october 17, 2015

Okay, normally what happens on a week full of new arrivals from a big release, you can normally expect a bunch of them to fall off the week after or at least take a sizeable dip after the hype fades. What you don't normally expect is nearly all of them to gain traction and for the charts to pick up all of the remaining tracks from that album you didn't cover and add them too! Such was the apparent magnetism of Drake & Future that not only did they not go away, they got bigger and even brought more along for the ride. Joy.

video review: 'tangled up' by thomas rhett

God, I'm not a fan of this review. It's a mess, my hair looks terrible, and the bitterness really does sour me on it - even though it was like the fifteenth take and I really wasn't feeling pretty well. It's me pushing myself too hard in one night - all the more evidence I need to better manage my time.

Okay, Billboard BREAKDOWN next - stay tuned!

Monday, October 5, 2015

album review: 'tangled up' by thomas rhett

There's no easy way to do this review.

See, this is the problem with being one of the few critics who covers country on YouTube and one of the only ones who covers mainstream country. I feel I've got an obligation to show off the best stuff, mostly because I want to see it get more traction, but for the bad stuff... well, who wants this review? Certainly not me because as I've said in the past, negative reviews aren't often that fun, and you guys mostly come for recommendations. I know there's a certain visceral catharsis watching someone tear into a terrible record, but there's a hollowness to it for me - if there was ill intent, I could feel righteous, but this is just taking out the trash.

Now some of you have realized this is all predicated on the album being bad, which is not an assumption you ever want to enter into when it comes to art. The big problem was that almost every factor going into this record screamed of outright disaster. I covered Thomas Rhett's debut album back in 2013 when bro-country was near its peak, and that album sucked. And it did so in perhaps one of the worst possible ways: by being so forgettably sterile and limp its production and melodies that the only things that stood out were Thomas Rhett's obnoxious voice and even more obnoxious personality. Let me put it like this: when you owe your industry career to your dad being an average-at-best songwriter and you make songs like the cheating song 'Take You Home' and 'All-American Middle Class White Boy', and frame them both as glorification rather than commentary, there's nothing I can remotely respect about it. 

So I'll give Thomas Rhett the slightest bit of credit when he announced he was taking his new album Tangled Up in a different direction, more towards a metropolitan pop country sound. The problem was putting aside that he needed over twenty additional songwriters to do this, the lead-off single was 'Crash And Burn', a slice of bad pseudo-vintage pop that outright stole from Sam Cooke's 'Chain Gang', made Thomas Rhett look and sound like a braying asshole, and was cowritten by Chris Stapleton, which just makes me feel really, really sad. The presence of LunchMoney Lewis and Jordin Sparks on the features list only made me feel worse - more talented people completely wasting their time. That said, the ballad 'Die A Happy Man' actually seemed decent, and right now, this album has nowhere to go but up - is there anything that can save it?

video review: 'caracal' by disclosure

Ooh boy, I'm expecting a mixed response to this video. Not so much the next one - the next one might be pretty polarizing - but this for sure might raise eyebrows.

Next up... oh, fuck, you all know it is. Thomas Rhett, stay tuned!

album review: 'caracal' by disclosure

There's no easy way to do this review.

And to some extent that's my fault, because the more I think about it, the more I feel I got into electronic music in the weirdest way possible. Last year, when I decided I wanted to push my comfort zone beyond trance and some of the greats like The Chemical Brothers, I started covering weird, critically acclaimed acts that were getting that acclaim by pushing boundaries. Acts like Levon Vincent and Objekt and Jlin and Arca were building a reputation for off-kilter, difficult electronic music, and even the ones that had a closer mainstream connection like Ghost Culture or Todd Terje or Jamie xx were still well outside. 

So when I went back to dig into Disclosure's critically acclaimed debut record Settle from 2013, I found myself distinctly underwhelmed. Yeah, 'Latch' had been everywhere, but as someone who never really loved that song, finding a record that played very much to that formula didn't really engage me all that much. Yes, there was a certain tightness to the progressions I appreciated, yes, many of the guest performances were solid, and yes, I don't see anything wrong with calling back to the trends of the past - hell, I wouldn't say this album is bad. But I was definitely baffled why this became the electronic album that captivated so many people and crossed over - if it wasn't for the murderer's row of guest stars, the production was sparse and the melodies weren't particularly interesting, with production that didn't do much more to enhance it. But again, I'm coming from a weird perspective here - I do see the appeal in certain settings and 'Help Me Lose My Mind' was indeed awesome, especially as an album closer thanks to London Grammar, but I wasn't as blown away as I hoped.

And as such, when I started hearing the buzz that Caracal, the sophomore release from Disclosure with more expensive guest stars like The Weeknd and Lorde, was considered a step back from Settle, I prepared myself for the worst. Did it at least manage to be passable?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

video review: 'b'lieve i'm goin down...' by kurt vile

Well, this was a surprisingly easy review. Glad I did it, though, pretty solid album.

Next up will either be The Underachievers or Disclosure, gotten plenty of requests for both. Stay tuned!

album review: 'b'lieve i'm goin down...' by kurt vile

I think I've been a bit unfair to Kurt Vile in the past. 

See, when I covered his album Wakin On A Pretty Daze in 2013, I was still very much in the learning curve when it came to album reviews, and finding an entry point into his woozy brand of half-stoned meandering rock music was tricky for me. I definitely found a lot to like about his knack for a solid hook, his fascination with smoky Americana, and his lyrics that knowingly walked the line of profound and asinine, depending on what level of irony you operated on. Where I initially took issue was how it seemed like with every record his textures were getting cleaner and more polished and losing some of the jangling momentum he had brought when he used to be a member of The War On Drugs - even though I'd agree with most that Childish Prodigy and Constant Hitmaker were uneven, I liked the rougher edges on those albums and they have some of my favourite cuts.

As such, by the time we reached the meandering and cleanest-to-date record Wakin On A Pretty Daze, I could appreciate the writing and a lot of the hazier melodies and hooks, but the cleaner production just didn't really gel as well as I liked, especially with some of the more tightly regimented electronic beats and pseudo-psychedelic textures. I missed the momentum and grit, and yet it seemed like with every record we were losing that, so when I heard that b'lieve i'm goin down was going to be even cleaner, I wasn't sure what I was going to get here, especially with buzz suggesting this album was emphasizing even a bit of a country sound. So okay, very different entry point than fuzzed-out psychedelia and lo-fi indie rock, I can work with this - so what did Kurt Vile deliver here?