Album Review: Foo Fighters – Sonic Highway

The Foo Fighters are in a weird place.

Ok, ok, a platinum selling, non-legacy actual rock band in 2014 is in a weird place to begin with, but Foo Fighters got here in a kind of odd way. They’ve spent almost 20 years as a ubiquitous band most people like, but could never love. This seems somehow by design and circumstance; the Foo’s greatest strength (and a bit of a liability) is in their knack for no-frills alt rock that feels refreshing in contrast to whatever else is on alternative radio, but can grow stale over the course of a full album (this is why, despite their best efforts on Wasted Light, The Colour and the Shape, and There Is Nothing Left to Lose, the band lacks a true, career defining record). And whatever fights they win on radio get lost within their peer group; The Foos can’t help but sound less, say, inventive than The Black Keys, or not as cool/critically respected as Queens of the Stone Age. The tradeoff is they handily top their peers in commercial and industry viability, which isn’t nothing, but way less sexy looking.

Frontman Dave Grohl seems aware of this. Instead of fighting (ha) it, he’s kind of embraced his place as rock’s Good Ol’ Boy; he’ll gladly extol the virtues of “real music played by real people”, help induct someone into the Rock Hall of Fame, or jump head first into trad-rock collaborations, all while pulling a younger audience. It’s not that Dan Auerbach and Josh Homme refuse to play the Grammys, but if you want someone to grab a guitar and have the time of their life rubbing elbows with Tom Petty and Paul McCartney, Grohl’s your man.

All this brings us to Sonic Highways, a Foo Fighters multimedia project that is literally about the awe-inspiring power and legacy of American Rock and Roll. The pitch for the project is intriguing enough: the band and producer Butch Vig blast out to a famous music city in America (Chicago, Washington DC, Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, Seattle, LA, and New York), spend a week chatting with blues/rock icons, and use that time as inspiration while they cut a song in a legendary studio featuring a prominent local artist. It’s the logical next step after the Fighters “back to the shack” approach on Wasting Light and Grohl’s Sound City doc project.

If we’re grading by execution of concept, Sonic Highways gets a polite C+. The regional flourishes are there once you’re aware of them, but no one’s going call “Something from Nothing” the sound of Chicago, or attribute any element of “In the Clear” to New Orleans. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays on the latter, but without knowing who it is, the track just sounds like Foo Fighters doing a passable E Street impression. More to the point, Grohl’s songwriting ambition outstrips his capabilities, and the lyrics sound like those on any of his other albums with grafted-on local nods that read as Genius 101 work. The track by track guests contribute flavor more than definition; “Congregation” is a power-pop Foos single that happens to have Zac Brown guitar leads over it, and you’ll only parse Ben Gibbard or Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson’s backing vocals on “Subterranean” and “The Feast and the Famine” respectively after the fact.

That said, downplaying the guest contributions plays to Sonic Highway‘s favor. Instead of their standard approach of 12 or so songs packaged together, Sonic Highways aspires to be an end-to-end album with fairly ambitious songwriting. This leads to a baffling first few listens because typically Grohl and company deliver hooks and choruses with an expediency not seen outside Amazon Prime. That’s not quite the case here, where half the songs push the five minute mark, between extended intros, mid-song jams, and slow builds. In places like big ol hooky-but-hard-to-hate closer “I Am a River”, it works, but the spacey, Seattle indie-tinged dream pop of “Subterranean” doesn’t justify the length. The Foos aren’t strangers to four and a half minute runtimes, so even with occasional bloat here, Sonic Highways doesn’t strike out nearly as much as I thought it would.

And there is some high level Foos material here. “The Feast and The Famine” passes the Foo Fighters Big Rock Single Test: even though it explodes exactly when/where/how I expect it to, I cannot turn this fucker down (past winners: “Bridge Burning”, “Stacked Actors”, “No Way Back”). In fact, the compact, punk-y “The Feast and The Famine” would work infinitely better than turgid classic rock FM fodder “Something From Nothing” as an album opener. There are also textured moments here bring back sounds not heard from the band in awhile; the jangle on “Outside” could fit on There Is Nothing Left to Lose and the aforementioned “Subterranean” is a lovely if over-long update on “Floaty” from the group’s self-titled debut. And while “I Am a River” is an awe-inspiringly corny lighters-in-the-air closer, the opening is quite pretty, and the song embraces the fact that this has always been a corny band.

The blatant awfulness of “Something From Nothing” aside, everything on Sonic Highways offers at least one promising aspect. Even if its just some above and beyond guitar soloing on “Congregation” or “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” pulling off the combine-two-half-songs-and-hope-for-the-best strategy, it’s a decent album to hear in a sitting. It’s the album version of Interstellar: it’s an approachable, enjoyable bit of work that’s biggest downside is being far less brainy and important to listen to than it probably was to make. Three and a half out of five stars.

tl;dr: The Foo Fighters tried to make an honest to God album that mostly, kind of works. Just skip the opener. 3.5/5

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Radio Rant: Iggy Azalea ft. Rita Ora – Black Widow

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Time to assemble, y’all.

First Clueless, now Kill Bill. There's a joke in here about Iggy only being successful by blatantly piggybacking off others. You can make it yourself.Well, this was basically pre-ordained. Whoever rules the summer, good or bad, is basically guaranteed a walk-off hit on their next single (see: Robin Thicke), and for Iggy Australia Azalea, that means “Black Widow”. Fun bit of trivia before we get to the song: “Black Widow” is actually the fifth single off The New Classic, and now Azalea’s doing a Super Deluxe Reissue in November with a few new tracks to get a little more life out of the album cycle. I don’t know if I should scoff at the blatant cash-in attempt, or admire the work ethic. Suppose it’ll just come down to how good the new stuff is. It’s going to have to be better than “Black Widow”, that’s for damn sure.

“Black Widow” has nestled as part of an all-female top 5 in the Billboard Hot 100 for the last month, and it’s the slightest of the bunch. “Shake It Off” and “All About That Bass” ace it in terms of catchiness, “Bang, Bang” is at least reasonably cozy all star pop, and “Habits” is flat out great. You don’t get much of that with “Black Widow”: the beat isn’t super catchy, nor the hook especially memorable, and I couldn’t tell you anything Azalea says in either of her verses. You could at least make a case for “Fancy” having some staying power (and nudging Charli XCX into the mainstream), but it’s hard to imagine anyone aside from, like, three diehard Rita Ora fans reaching for “Black Widow” in six months.

So, let’s look at Azalea first. “Black Widow” is an anti-love song; Azalea’s lover has done her wrong, she’s not gonna take it, and–hold up, this is the exact same shit she rapped about in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it verse she had on “Problem”. It’d be easier to ignore the subject matter if there was any fire at all, but like “Problem”, Azalea’s first verse here is a forgettable bunch of bars with no particular flow or zingers in the bunch. The second verse is a little better with some more substantial lines and, more importantly, a varied flow and a kinda-clever chopped vocal break. But, like every verse Iggy’s had in the spotlight, it doesn’t make a case for why she should be there in the first place.

But, all things equal, Azalea makes a better case for her fame than hook-girl Rita Ora. Ora’s kind of like Jessie J with the talent:crossover desperation ratio flipped; they’re both competent British artists with middling careers at home that can’t take America due to lack of personality. Her song “R.I.P.” was half of a hit, but she’s never escaped her label as store-brand Rihanna. After what happened with Charli XCX post-”Fancy”, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if she had a “Boom Clap” waiting in the wings, but I don’t know how well “Black Widow” sells it. It’s a decent hook (more in a second), but Ora can’t help but sound like Rihanna the way Riri mimicked Sia on “Diamond”. The hook doesn’t have the same immediately catchiness that “Fancy” had, it’s nice but disposable.

The only place where “Black Widow” lands is the beat. The verses have the same pop-trap foundation as “Dark Horse” (Taylor Swift missed an opportunity for a bass-heavy single named “Shadow Cat” or something), but slightly faster and with a better riff over the bass. But what really makes the song work is the vamping under Ora’s hook: handclaps and a snare push louder and louder over building synths on loan from Calvin Harris. Ora matches the music as it swells, and it’s kind of hard to not be at least mildly impressed as the whole thing peaks with, “I’m gonna love ya/like a black widow, baby”

I swear that it sounds better out loud.

Actually, what’s “love ya like a black widow” mean? As much fun as it is to pretend it was inspired by some really weird Avengers fanfiction, I doubt Ora and Azalea were inspired by BlackEye. Turns out it’s about the black widow spider, who, tradition has it, devours the male in the afterglow. I kind of get where Ora’s lyrics are coming from on that front (Nothing says “I’m gonna show ya what’s really crazy” like cannibalism!), but I’m not sure Azalea got the same lesson. Instead, Azalea seems just maybe a little upset you’ve been shitty about texting her back outside hook up texts, and might come at you like a dark horse eventually, but definitely won’t eat you. Getting some mixed signals.

Yeah, this song can bite me. Azalea still hasn’t turned in a solid performance on a hit single, and her Designated Brit Hook Girl impresses less this time, too. The beat’s kinda nice, but I can’t say this is anything I can see people coming back to once its time on the charts is over. Hopefully, no pleading cash-ins take its place once that happens.

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Album Review: Taylor Swift – 1989

Taylor Swift has released an album every other fall since 2006.

This is impressive because 1: Swift is like, a year older than I am, and it’s an act of divinity if I keep the same workout routine for two weeks, and 2: her career is devoid of artistic misfires or commercial slumps; she can not only outperform you critically, but outsell you in her sleep. And now, she’s consciously pushing all that forward. Since the minute it was announced, Swift has called 1989 her “first documented, official pop album”. We’ll get to what that means eventually, but, more prominently, 1989 is Swift’s first “I’m Trying” album. Red covered more ground, and Fearless and Speak Now might have longer run times, but 1989 is a more singular capital-A Album made with the intent of taking over the mainstream by knocking down the front door. Forget trying to upset the status quo, Swift wants to be the status quo.

I know that 1989 is an “I’m Trying” album because it’s also subtly a concept album. In hindsight, it’s a little remarkable that it took imagery-and-narrative-songwriter-extraordinaire Taylor Swift five go-arounds to do a concept album, but hey, nothing says “I’m Trying” like telling a story. And, while failed romance isn’t new territory in the Swiftian canon, there’s an arc to 1989 her other albums lack. “Welcome to New York” is mediocre as a song/ad for the city, but as the opener sets a backdrop for the rest of the album (it also, you could argue, establishes 1989 as Swift’s version of the Berlin Trilogy). “Blank Space” and “Style” detail the passionate start of a relationship, even if Swift knows it’s a bad idea going in. The rest of the album sees the couple fall apart like a ten dollar dress (“All You Had to Do Was Stay”), plead and try to make up (“Wildest Dreams” and “How You Get the Girl”), before ultimately deciding that shit just isn’t worth it on closer “Clean”. Swift’s done big, rousing closing songs before, but part of what makes the conceptual difference is that “Clean” is a definitive end to an arc that started with “Blank Space” (additionally, 1989 has that “We’re trying to be dark and it isn’t working” lull near the end that plagues most concept albums). If you want to explore the “1989 as a concept record” angle more fully, Tom Breihan writing for Stereogum expands on it here in a piece that’s equal parts brilliant and overkill

No “I’m Trying” album is complete without bringing in someone next level, and when you’re Taylor Swift, next level means next fucking level. 1989‘s production credits reads like an All-Star list of pop producers: Max Martin, Shellback, and Ryan Tedder lead a team of pop-veterans; Swfit’s buddy/Bleachers frontman/fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff has two credits, and Imogen Heap (your guess is as good as mine) and longtime collaborator Nathan Chapman turn in a song each. On one hand, this is a smart move, because most everyone here has pretty proven results, but on the other, this is probably the most conservative group of hitmakers you could assemble.

Now we’re getting to “first official, documented pop album” territory. Swift’s always been a pop artist; even when they were slathered in fiddles an’ lap steels, her hits stuck because they were catchy, not because they were phenomenal examples of the country genre (tellingly, the country music institution only gave then-teenage Swift attention once she started printing money for them).

The crucial difference is that 1989 has beat machines instead of drums, guitars used for texture only, and synths just about everywhere. But, similar to Red, Swift doesn’t really let the new setup change how she writes; these are still Taylor Swift songs. “Out of the Woods” as produced by Jack Antonoff sounds like festival hipster pop akin CHVRCHES, but with its dramatic bridge, massive scope, and intensely personal lyrics, it could easily pass as an “All Too Well” style ballad on another Swift album, and the venom spitting “Bad Blood” is basically “Mean” if it sold its banjo and bought a turntable.

Does it work, though? Swift and her collaborators want to take over the radio with a sleek throwback record, not a contemporary playlist of bangerz. In light of that, the hooks on 1989 (for the most part) aim deep as opposed to fast; the full, mind-invading catchiness of these mid-tempo synthpop tracks doesn’t kick in until a few listens. It makes sense: play the long game to stage a coup, but it also means that 1989 can read as a bit flat or boring on the first few listens. But, it doesn’t register as boring the same way that Prism did, because even if “Style” or “I Wish You Would” don’t grapple your ears into submission right away, there’s enough substance to keep you coming back.

This happens more frequently in the album’s first half, where in addition to highlights “Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would”, you’ve also got the sun-kissed “Style” and mercilessly catchy “Shake It Off”. “Blank Space” stumbles a bit, but gets saved by a minimal beat, while “All You Had To Do Was Stay” is a tolerable album cut. The top half has sturdier pop songs, but can feel kind of uniform. From “Bad Blood” onward, 1989 is a little more off the rails, but brings back diminished returns; atmospheric electro-ballad “This Love” and Imogen Heap backed “Clean” are the only clear cut “good” songs. The rest plays out more as “interesting but forgetful”. “Bad Blood”‘s smooth instrumentation doesn’t mesh with the shade thrown in the lyrics, although the chant chorus is a perfect fit (also, get ready to see “Still got the scars in my back from your knives” in passive-aggressive Facebook statuses). Twitchy media paranoia on “I Know Places” is more interesting as a thinkpiece on Swift’s state of mind than as a listen, while “How You Get the Girl” is an utterly shameless lobotomized retread of “boys and girls” pop that made her in the first place. “Wildest Dreams”, all romantic cooing and rosy cheeks, is such a Born to Die/Paradise Lana Del Rey pastiche that I’m surprised she isn’t a credited writer.

“Wildest Dreams” is as good a time as any to examine the peculiar way Swift writes intimacy on 1989. She’s a grownass woman with a portion of her fanbase that’s aged as she has, while she’s simultaneously portrayed as the ultimate good girl with lots of teen and younger fans who still seek out her more chaste material. The challenge presented to her is how to write an album that appeals to both, not to mention one that’s ostensibly about a physical fling that went bad. “Blank Slate” and “Style” show how she balances the two throughout; there’s the self-aware, jaded cynicism (“Got a long list of ex-lovers that’ll tell you I’m insane”) that tries not to get attached, but the heat-of-the-moment greatness that sounds romantic if you toss it in a big enough chorus (“You’ve got that James Dean daydream look in your eye/And I got that red lip classic thing that you like”). Swift still at least writes like she believes in this stuff; we’re not at “Fuck and Run” level yet. She handles the sexier recounts by getting as vague and surface level as possible: there’s no bodies touching, just tight little skirts and red lipstick. It lends some of the material a more staged feeling, in contrast to emotional pleas scattered throughout. It doesn’t feel fully organic, one of the worst things you can say about a Taylor Swift record.

Bringing it all home, 1989‘s weakness is that for how much of an “I’m Trying” album it is conceptually, that ambition doesn’t always translate to the material. Outside of “Hey Mickey” redux “Shake It Off”, the tempo never picks up; nothing here goes for the throat. In my music library, the album naturally plays into Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob, and that album’s opener “Closer” is exactly the kind of raved up new wave jam that’s missing here. Not that it’s an entirely bum trip: “Out of the Woods”, “Style” and “I Wish You Would” are all keepers, and there’s a strong sense of melody throughout. Swift has yet to make a bad record, but there’s something cloying about 1989 that holds it back from the takeover it wants to be. Three out of five stars.

tl;dr (but actually): Taylor Swift tries hard in concept, not hard enough in practice, 3/5.

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New Music: Xerxes – Collision Blonde

NSR126For how much the internet laments that each of us is supposedly disappearing down our own music rabbit holes, there are more and more bands these days branching out of their niche subgenres, and making work that appeals to a variety of tastes. To wit, Louisville based hardcore group Xerxes, with their new album Collision Blonde.

Xerxes is a hardcore band by definition, and while there’s no way to dispute that, you can’t help but think there’s something evolved about Collision Blonde at the same time. Hardcore’s famous low-end is still present (and thicker, thanks to clearer production); it pushes the dread on opener “I Was Wrong” to the boiling point, and the menacing “Knife” is defined by its tom-tom heavy sound, feedback squalls, and teeth-grinding bassline. The musical tension that snakes through the entire album was present–but not as fleshed out–on the band’s more traditional hardcore release Would You Understand? Here, even though nothing gets as fast as “Grinstead”, Collision Blonde has an intensity that dwarfs its relatively short (28 minute) runtime.

As I was saying, Collision Blonde feels like more than “just” a hardcore album, in no small way because of its guitar parts. More frequently than not, the guitar sounds like shoegaze resisting submission cut with noise rock level urgency; think the guitars on Deafhaven’s Sunbather cut with some The Cure in for texture, and you’re just about there. They show up in proper freakout mode with “Criminal, Animal” and “A Toast”, the first two fully structured songs here, establishing a mood for the entire album. “A Toast”, in particular, is a standout cut; the bass and guitar feature an honest to God hook at first, then the song becomes a rising spoken word breakdown, and finally exploding into a thirty second onslaught of tortured screams and furious playing that doesn’t just sound huge, but oddly catchy. It’s the kind of thing you can’t play quietly.

In addition to micro bursts clocking under or around two and a half minutes, Collision Blonde has a few slowburners. The goth rock-tinged title track stretches out for four tense minutes at mid tempo, alternating between (relatively) light drum and bass grooves and intermittent guitar explosions, with the vocals being the only constant. It’s a solid demonstration that Xerxes can make longer songs work. Four and a half minute closer “Nosedive” reigns in some of the experimentation for one last hardcore workout; there are a few dynamics at work and some deft drumming and feedback, but the song sounds restrained throughout with a dash of dread before ending on a repeating coda of “Can’t make it stop” and feedback. Other experiments include “Use As Directed” and “(but here we are)”: the former is a drum and harmonic soundscape with quiet spoken vocals over distant screamed ones, a neat bit of studio work. The latter is more fully formed instrumentally, but the mumbled monologue doesn’t latch onto anything substantial. It’s a cool idea, I’m just not sure if I like the execution.

But there’s plenty I like about Collision Blonde overall. The title track and “A Toast” are both top notch, and “Knife” and “Chestnut Street” lead the charge on a number of other solid tracks. As is the case for most hardcore, the vocals are going to be the make or break for anyone unfamiliar with the genre, but Xerxes’ throat shredding, barrel chested roar is actually less abrasive than most, and some varied deliveries make this fairly accessible for the genre. It’s an ideal record for reaching punk or alternative rock fans looking to dip into another subgenre; there’s enough traditional hardcore here to give you a taste, but enough that’ll sound familiar to just about anyone to make Collision Blonde sound inviting. Bring the kids, it’ll be fun. Xerxes get it right: just because your album is an intense work of existential anguish, it can’t be infinitely listenable at the same time.

Collision Blonde is out now on No Sleep Records, follow Xerxes here on Facebook.

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Album Review: Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Let’s pop back to 2006. Bush is still in office, the World Series is about to be besmirched with a Cardinals victory, we’re trying to figure out if we needed a second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and more importantly, why did everyone see it? It’s an okay-ish time to be alive. If you were a fan of Radiohead, it was a marginally less okay time to be alive; the band was three years out from Hail to the Thief, and there was nothing solid on the horizon about a new album. And then, with only about a month of warning, frontman Thom Yorke announces that an album of his own work will be released. That album, The Eraser, is met with bracing positivity; it’s nice, Yorke’s taking the band’s “experimental laptop electronica and piano loops” thing kinda seriously, it’s slight but well composed, you feel smarter for listening to it…uh, anyone know if Johnny Greenwood’s picked up his guitar recently? Anyone?

It’s not that The Eraser was a bad album, it just felt difficult without being rewarding, and kind of inconsequential. It’s music that’s kind of interesting when it’s on, but nothing you’d venture back to on your own. Which makes the fact that it became Yorke’s go-to template in the 8 years since all the more baffling; Yorke and Radiohead have always been conscientious artists, but The EraserThe King of Limbs, and Atoms For Peace’s AMOK (basically The Eraser: LIVE!) feel like they mean more for the creators than they do for any listening audience.

Yorke, finding himself again three years removed from Radiohead’s previous album and nothing substantial on the horizon, announced an album a few weeks ago, and put the sucker up for sale barely an hour later. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes finds the artist, again, in the realm of skittering, low-mix drum patterns, wispy vocal delivery, and piano loops and of course, bleepy-bloopy-anxious synths stretched to the point of  austerity. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes pushes further into sad bastard EDM than Yorke’s past releases, as especially seen on kind-of album centerpoint/highlight “The Mother Lode”. There is, somewhere in that song, the wilted remains of a dance track redressed in a wobbly bassline that once could have been a beat drop, frigid, decaying synths, and a piano sample that comes down as the song progresses. The ending coda, where Yorke wordlessly sings and blends in with atmosphere behind him, is the album’s most beautiful moment.

Elsewhere, there are songs that work as decent listens, but do little to go above and beyond. Single “Brain In a Bottle” is “Lotus Flower, pt. III”, or “Ingenue: The Second One”, a kind-of single with a surprisingly sensual groove interrupted by a twitchy beat. “Guess Again!” is rooted in an unsteady drum sample and a forlorn piano arrangement, and with some of Yorke’s low-register vocals and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes‘ tightest song structure, sounds appropriately miserable. Even though the song takes awhile to get off the ground, closer “Nose Grows Some” finds a balance between understated melancholy and a warm sense of hope. If it was a little more compact or robust, it’d be a solid piece of mood music.

But large swaths of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes are just plain forgettable. “Interference” is just a sparse piano ballad that suffocates in its own haze-y atmosphere and a disinterested vocal delivery; if it had a stronger melody, any kind of percussion, or was just less dense, it would work better. The album’s middle section after “The Mother Lode” is disappointing, as well. “Truth Ray” is a five minute slog through the hollowed-out husk of dance track (I’m holding my breath for a lively remix), and “Pink Section” is like someone taking the background noises from Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and making it a tedious two and a half minute standalone track. These tracks aren’t bad ideas, but they’re just that: ideas. The album reaches a nadir, though, with “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)”, a seven minute that barely registers any variations for the first four minutes between adding textures to transition into “Pink Section”. For a guy who made a career out of playing up the anxiety of modern living turning us all into computers, Yorke’s threatening to get lost in the machine himself.

I don’t begrudge Yorke for wanting to explore new sounds and do something different. That’s his right as an artist. What plagued The King of LimbsAMOK, and now especially Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a lack of intensity or connection. They aren’t frustrating listens because they’re not what we want, they’re frustrating listens because they’re delivered with all the conviction of a stifled yawn, and about as much emotion. Radiohead apologists point out that the band’s best work isn’t that accessible, but what they forget is that something like Kid A had material that stuck on the first try to compensate for the record’s “very difficult, much art” tendencies (and then there’s “The National Anthem”, which is both). Yorke and collaborator Nigel Godrich are too good to make a bad album, but by staying in the same lane of art gallery-electronica for almost a decade now, they’re risking something worse: making a dull album.

Weighted record score: 3/5; the production values are too stellar for me to drive the score any lower.
Unweighted record score just as a listen in the context of Yorke’s recent output: 2.5/5.

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Album Mini Review Round-Up: Death From Above 1979, Maroon 5, Karen O, The Gaslight Anthem, FKA twigs

Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World
Drum and bass rock combo Death From Above 1979 reformed in 2011, and, in true head-down, hardworking DFA1979 fashion, toured first before cutting a new record, this year’s The Physical World. The time bassist Jesse Keeler and drummer/vocalist Sebastein Grainger (do those not just sound like rock & roll names?) more than pays off in The Physical World‘s bone-rattling assault. From the dance punk of opener “Cheap Talk” to the histrionic electronics filtered into the closing barn-burner title track, The Physical World is an unrelentingly rocking and deeply groovy listen. It’s the rarest of rock records these days; an album with massive riffs and the songwriting chops to make the rock that much more potent.

There’s no way to describe something like “Right On, Frankenstein!”, with its tight structure, quick release chorus, and outro jam as anything other than cool, or the strut of lead single “Trainwreck 1979″. Elsewhere, the duo stomps through post-hardcore punk on “Government Trash”, and the blues-rock cockswagger to “Virgins” functions as a three minute admonishment of Jack White and Dan Auerbach for forsaking bass guitar (it also rocks harder than anything off Lazaretto or Turn Blue). Even when DFA1979 gets ambitious on the teenage-runway-heartbreak tale of “White Is Red”, the emotional underpinning comes off as affecting instead of maudlin.

Veteran rock producer Dave Sardy deserves part of the credit for sculpting The Physical World into the monster it is; the muscular production lets the songs’ raw power shine through no matter the volume. And with Grainger’s frantic, explosive drumming and Keeler’s deft and nimble basslines, there’s more oomph here than some bands have in their entire discographies (DFA1979 might also be the only indie rock band alive in 2014 that can howl, “There’s nothing sacred to me/I lost it in the backseat/Where have all the virgins gone?” and have it work). It might not match the classic status of You’re A Woman, I’m a Machine, but damn if The Physical World isn’t a pure distillation of badass rock shit. 4/5

Maroon 5 – V
There’s a popular notion that music artists start work on new albums informed by what they took away from the last album cycle. Paramore learned that they had to expand their horizons eventually, Oasis once learned how much cocaine was too much cocaine, and Britney Spears is probably learning you can’t trust will.i.am. Going off of VOverexposed taught Maroon 5, “Holy shit, we have been trying way too hard.” Plenty of people (including me) ripped into Overexposed for being Maroon 5′s sellout album. We were wrong. Overexposed was Maroon 5 assimilating into the mainstream and seeing how this creative choice could pan out, a process that invited at least some interest on its creators’ behalf.

The same can’t be said for the languidly titled and languidly performed V. When Maroon 5 leaped into dance-pop on Overexposed, there was still some risk involved since the Maroon 5 brand hadn’t been reestablished outside of “Moves Like Jagger”. Now that Adam Levine and company know the hits will come, why try? V plays like Overexposed with all the fun or interesting (relative terms) parts scrubbed away in favor of stiff, hookless, forgettable vaguely soul-y tunes like “Maps” and “In Your Pocket”. There are extra electronic textures from returning keyboardist [Maroon 5 member named Not Adam Levine], but they don’t add much to clunkers like “It Was Always You” or “Leaving California”, songs so monotonous in tone I can’t tell if they’re supposed to be ballads or not.

Even V‘s comparatively bright spots, second single “Animals” and late-coming “Feelings” aren’t good enough or, failing that, exciting enough to revisit. Whenever the album tries to add flavor, the end result is a retread of a failed Katy Perry single (“Sugar”), or a The Voice promo insipid piano ballad with Gwen Stefani (guest coaching this season, Mondays at 8!). I won’t begrudge Levine for a mercenary pop career to keep his celeb status afloat, but he needs to fucking write songs to justify it. 1/5.

Karen O – Crush Songs
There’s no planned sequence to these reviews, but I can’t help but chuckle that Crush Songs proceeds V. For as much as V is a transparent sham of a product, Crush Songs aspires to be intimate and genuine. Multiple songs start with hushed “One, two, three, go…” countoffs, O sings like she’s trying not to disturb someone asleep in the next room, and everything sounds like it was done on a tape recorder. It’s so sincere a project, Linus van Pelt would host a listening party while waiting for The Great Pumpkin.

It’s a little funny to look at Crush Songs and Karen O’s other solo(ish) releases in light of her day job as frontwoman for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one of the 21st century’s most extroverted bands. These songs are stripped of all but the essentials; most are just acoustic guitar and vocals (“Visits” has some bedroom-producer percussion) and ambient noises, and most of the songs finish before the two minute mark. O is a capable enough writer that she’s able to sell the relatively simple sentiments of Crush Songs, from the simple longing of “Ooo” and “NYC Baby” to the rejection of “Body” and the Michael Jackson send-up “King”, and Songs is tuneful enough that each song sounds a little distinct.

The album’s major downfall is that it doesn’t feel like enough. “Comes the Night” sounds like a heartbreaking chorus to something unwritten, while “Other Side” could be brilliantly melancholy with a stronger beat to match its sighing vocals. There are a number of keepers here (“Ooo”, “Rapt”, “NYC Baby”, and “Body” are begging for Fall Playlists the world over), but the album as a whole doesn’t do as much as it could. It’s tempting to call Crush Songs The Moldy Yeah Yeah Yeahs*, but the first thing it reminded me of was Atlas Sounds’s Bedroom Databank collection: a prolific artist putting up their sketchbook. Sometimes there’s understated excellence, sometimes it’s a work in progress. 3/5.

The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt
It takes a certain kind of band to get to five albums. By now, you’re usually (usually) as big as you’re going to get, and past your window of opportunity for guilt-free experimentation. For The Gaslight Anthem, whose fourth album Handwritten was a classic rock faceplant of a crossover attempt, looking at LP #5 from the no man’s land between their distant punk scene roots and whatever mainstream success looks like for a modern rock band was far from promising.

Get Hurt, as it follows, is a fairly conservative record. The band dials back Handwritten‘s obnoxious riffing, and instead sticks to the cathartic, heart-on-the-sleeve delivery that’s always led to the group’s biggest moments (the emotional center of Get Hurt is inspired by frontman Brian Fallon’s divorce). That emotional rawness is what fuels the title track, as well as the somber “Break Your Heart” and closer “Dark Places”, some of the strongest moments on the album. Elsewhere, the band tries slightly more intricate arrangements, like the fleeting riffs of “1000 Years” and “Stray Paper” that mostly work, or the surprise explosion in “Selected Poems”. Rock and roll workout “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “Red Violins” fully realize what the band attempted on Handwritten. None of these would be a top ten Gaslight Anthem track, but fit cozily between their stronger material so far.

Unfortunately, Get Hurt comes up short for a “return to form” record. Pacing is a frequent issue, and there are just enough filler cuts here–looking at you “Helter Skeleton” and “Ain’t That a Shame”–to throw off the consistency this band once found effortless (The ’59 Sound and American Slang aren’t considered top-shelf for their towering singles; they’re considered top-shelf for their excellent singles supported by quite good album cuts). What makes Get Hurt a puzzling listen is that replacing the duds with the deluxe edition’s bonus tracks would be enough to redeem it entirely. But, this is a grade for the album we have, not the one I want. Get Hurt isn’t a “return to form”, but “a step in the right direction.” 3/5

FKA twigs – LP1
Arty, smoldering, bedroom “indie R&B” (music with bounce to it and influences from Prince and trip-hop that Pitchfork loves and lends itself to reviews asking chin stroke-y rhetoricals like “What is genre, anyway?”) is dangerously close to its saturation point in 2014. Between The Weeknd’s omnipresence, the rise of Grimes, Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, and that doof How To Dress Well and their influence, we’re staring down a glut of overly tasteful, critic-pleasing, introvert pop that I occasionally like and frequently hate.

This puts me at odds with LP1, because I kind of love it while kind of resenting it for enabling this trend to continue. Lead single “Two Weeks” features all the same stuttering synths and deep bass that you’d associate with this kind of music, but twigs’ persona absolutely drives it home. LP1 is full of pleading, heartbreaking torch songs, and twigs performs the hell out of each one; her voice rising, sighing, and breaking at just the right points. She’s also totally in sync with the ethereal production, too; songs like “Hours” and “Lights On” aren’t just “headphone music” because of their technical prowess, but because they have the comforting isolation of a daydream. It’s good, late night music with just enough variety (“Give Up” wouldn’t sound too weird on the radio) for an engaging listen.

Far and away the album’s best song is “Pendulum”. Produced by Paul Epworth, the song streamlines twigs’ entire canon in five minutes: vocal acrobatics, rise and fall production, and an understated emotional intensity all come together damn near seamlessly. It’s utterly captivating, a must-listen for anyone who’s ever wanted someone. Twigs really sells it, along with everything else here. The album’s an intriguing look at the disorienting zone where insecurity, romance, and raw sexuality come together; and there’s barely a stumble to speak of (it’s on track to be the “Sighing Fuck Me” Album of 2014; in a year with a Lana Del Rey relase, that is impressive). FKA twigs reflects on her time in the background during “Video Girl”, and how she wanted more. LP1 is more than enough argument to say she should have it, 4.5/5.

*”The Moldy Yeah Yeahs” joke by my buddy John. Follow him on Twitter for snark/pop culture references/a first-person account at the existential hell of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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Radio Rant: Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Who’s bringing it today?

Meghan Trainor is basically American Lorde. She was born into a music family that nurtured her talent from a young age, she’s been writing songs since before she could see movies with dirty words, a label took interest in her, hooked her up with a no-name producer, and now she has a catchy, socially conscious but message-woozy number one hit. The comparisons end as soon as you hit play, though: whereas Lorde is icy, hip-hop tinged electropop, Trainor is all bright and shiny doo-wop heavy pop-soul. I’d probably watch a show about them living out their wacky lives/careers while being roommates or something together, though. It’d be entertaining (“Lorde, I need to do my laundry before this date.” “Oh, I just started…can you wait until I finish my dark colors?” “How long will that take?” “…Five hours?” [laugh track] I am a music blogger, not a comedy writer).

Anyway, “All About That Bass“. The song leads with the “You know I’m all about that bass/’bout that bass hook, which lands on the correct side of the catchy/annoying spectrum, before launching into a fairly standard verse for 2014 pop music. The beat ostensibly borrows from an older genre, but comes with an active beat that’s more modern. And, as mandated for a song called “All About That Bass“, there’s a gimmicky over-produced double-bass riff that adds depressingly little to the song. There’s actually a lot going on in the chorus, though; that doo-wop thing comes in through a more active vocal melody and backing vocals, with subtle jangle-y guitars that make what could be a boilerplate chorus stick. The effect is felt more fully the second time around, when some jaunty piano chords and a horn line creep into the mix. It’s not a super noticeable transformation, and still rather pedestrian, but by the time everything’s firing in the song’s finale, it’s a pretty solid pop jam.

Trainor’s pretty colorful as a vocalist. Her voice strikes a good balance of personality and chops that she can make an on-the-nose lyric decrying Photoshop sound graceful in front of snappy pop soul, and she gets to show a bit more range than most (see: her riffs toward the end of the song). I’m not sure how far it’ll take her in pop, where distinction can be an asset as well as a liability, but as long as she writes songs that become incidental hits like “All About That Bass“, she should be fine.

So, what kind of bass are we talking here?

“Yeah, it’s pretty clear I ain’t no size two/But I can shake it, shake it, like I’m supposed to do” Ah, so we’re about to be in The Summer of Ass: Pumpkin Spice edition. Also, I hate docking someone on this, but Meghan Trainor singing “I ain’t no size two” isn’t revolutionary next to Mary Lambert’s “Body Love”.

“Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase/And all the right junk and all the right place” I get what Trainor’s going for here on the body-positivity vibe, but it smacks of “Your body is fine (accordingtomen)!”, and that kind of misses the mark. And why’s a white girl from Nantucket, Massachusetts dropping “that boom boom”?

“I see the magazine working that Photoshop/We know that shit ain’t real/C’mon now make it stop/If you got beauty building, just raise’em up/Cause every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top” Ok, that’s pretty cool. And the way the song is pitched puts all the emphasis on that last line. I like it.

“Yeah my mama she told me don’t worry about your size/She says, ‘Boys like a little more booty to hold at night’” Trainor, I see the intent here, but stop kneecapping your empowerment jam with this “boys still like it” ish. You don’t need to add it as a qualifier.

“I’m bringin’ booty back/Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that/No, I’m just playing” There’s a lot you could argue here about this line being anti-thin and what that could mean…but this sounds more like a throwaway lyric, ala “Walk into the club like ‘What up, I got a big cock’”. I don’t hold much against it.

And that holds for “All About That Bass” overall. Again, it’s a little tame, but it’s likeable as a song. The lyrics get like, a C+ for good ideas on bad delivery, but at least it’s coming from a place that (I assume) is meant to be positive. S’alright.

I heard about “All About That Bass” before I heard it; for awhile, it was making the rounds online as the new go-to for thinkpieces on Important Issues In Pop Songs, where it got reamed for, again, bad delivery. And that’s been weighing on my mind lately.

About a year ago, something weird happened to the way we discuss pop songs. In an era that birthed “Blurred Lines” and “We Can’t Stop”, decrying bad pop music wasn’t just a matter of taste, it became a political stance; bad pop music wasn’t just bad because it was shitty, it was bad because it represented a moral or ethical failing. I get using the moral-outrage-as-criticism model against truly reprehensible songs (again, “Blurred Lines” and “We Can’t Stop”), but it doesn’t apply across the board to any song that stumbles on its message. It’s especially jarring to see Trainor and “All About That Bass” get nailed to the wall because most of the criticism against it boils down to “It should do more. Absolutely, the song sends mixed messages, but “love yourself” is ultimately a good message, and by getting it kind of right, we have a place to start the discussion of its shakier elements (Jillian Mapes at Flavorwire makes this argument way better than I ever could). Just because it doesn’t drop a badass TedTalk into an otherwise clunky song doesn’t meant it deserves to get written off.

End of the day, Trainor’s worst crime is thinking she’s smarter than she is (again, American Lorde). Ok, that and some so-so mixing. Maybe next time throw a little more bass in the mix; this song is like, all treble.

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