Radio Rant: OMI – Cheerleader (+Felix Jaehn Remix)

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. And we’re starting with two, four, six, eight!

I think August has become the pop chart’s “fuck it” month. The whole Song of the Summer campaign is pretty much decided, kids gotta get back to school in a few weeks, and the “fun in the sun” thing is a lot less sexy in 95% humidity. It’s usually a slow promo season, so any new number ones tend to be whatever bubbled in the top five and still has a little gas in the tank once the Summit Hit exhausts all momentum in its ninth week or so. Hence our rude awakening last August.

This year’s winner of the “Who The Fuck Knows?” Late Summer Hit-Maker Contest is Jamaican singer Omi OMI (oh God, ALL CAPS flashbacks). OMI’s been knocking around the Jamaican music scene for the last few years, making woo-y world-pop songs with idiosyncratic and stupendously cheery lyrics. Take “Baby Mama Drama”, for example: he’s done with baby mama drama…because they’re going to make it official! “Baby Mama Drama” might be his most on the nose song, but all of his music I’ve found has that same boys-like-girls romanticism and single-minded devotion.

Which is to say that, immediately, “Cheerleader” doesn’t stand too far out from the rest of his work. I say “the rest of” and not “previous” because the original 2012 version was a one-off release with singles before it and singles after it. This version of “Cheerleader” is maybe a little brassier and midtempo than his normal fare (not to mention a bit tighter, possibly due to famous producer Clifton Dillon), and maybe hews a little closer to reggae that world pop in the dubby guitar, limber bassline, and saxophone flourishes throughout. OMI’s vocals throughout are bright and endearing, especially on the warbling chorus when he sings “I think that I found myself a cheerleader” and “She is always right there when I need her”. It’s a breezy and enjoyable if not brainy song that has Song of the Summer written all over it.

But that’s not the version that actually blew up this summer.

OMI might have found himself a cheerleader, but he doesn’t have anyone getting down to this. Sick. Beeeeeeat! like the Felix Jaehn remix does. About a year after the original’s release, a record executive for Sony dance music subsidiary Ultra Music heard the song, and signed OMI while looking for someone to remix it. “Cheerleader” went to a pair of DJs, and Jaehn’s remix was released in May 2014 (which is decades ago in pop music time), when it started gaining traction in Europe before being pushed in the states. The original had done well regionally (Dubai, Hawaii, Miami) and been a hit in Jamaica, but the remix took it somewhere else entirely. Just remember: it takes a German producer to unlock the dance rhythms and feel good vibes in a Caribbean track. Who knew?

The remix speeds up the vocal and guts the instrumentation of the original for a world house beat complete with piano, conga loops, soft pad drums, and entirely too much trumpet. The treatment on the vocals works okay enough on the chorus, but OMI’s verses trip on their own melody sped up like this, and it’s kind of chirpy. Honestly, “Too chirpy” could apply to the whole remix: it’s a little too perky for its own good. It trades the easygoing swing of the original for the peppy, empty calorie bounce of festivals and clubs. Maybe it’s because I don’t know a lot about EDM, but the ThisSickBeat version doesn’t do anything for me. It feels disjointed, like something’s missing. Sure, there wasn’t much to “Cheerleader” in the first place, but trying to appreciate the remix is like trying to divine the nuanced flavor in a Lim-A-Rita.

So, let’s look at some of those lyrics, shall we?

“When I need motivation/My one solution is my queen/Cuz she stays strong…She is always in my corner” It’s cool to refer to her as your queen and all, but seems like you’re leaning on her kind of hard here, no?

“All those other girls are tempting/But I’m empty when you’re gone” Cuz they got nothin’ on youuuuuu, baby. N-n-n-nothin’ on you, baby.

“And they say/’Do you need me? Do you think I’m pretty?/Do you feel like cheating?’/I’m like ‘No, not really'” I just love that avowed monogamist OMI turns down infidelity with the same casual denial you use when someone suggests going to that bar you don’t like.

“Oh, I think that I found myself a cheerleader/She is always right there when I need her” But like, why? The support in this relationship seems to trend pretty hard in one direction. Annie Clark ain’t gonna take that shit.

“She walks like a model/She grants my wishes/Like a genie in a bottle” She doesn’t exist. No way.

“Mama loves you, too/She thinks I made the right selection/Now all that’s left to do/Is just for me to pop the question” See that? Boy meets girl, girl has no interests/wants/desires/needs outside supporting her boy, boy shrugs off other girls who keep throwing themselves at him, girl sticks around because reasons, and he pops the question. And they said the Supreme Court killed marriage.

Not to beat a point into the ground, but you get what I’m saying here, right? I know haranguing a pop song about its dumb gender politics in a world but two years removed from “Blurred Lines” is small time, but it’s hard to ignore the way “Cheerleader” beats you over the head its wonky take. I’m more favorable to the original; the remix keeps me sitting in the bleachers.

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Album MiniReview Round-Up!

Best Coast – California Nights Whenever someone riffs on Best Coast for being too basic or simple, I can’t help but feel confused. This is a group whose breakout song alternated between a pair of two-chord riffs, and literally rhymed “crazy” with “lazy”; criticizing them for being simple begs the question “what do you want from this fucking band?”

Best Coast’s strength six years into their career isn’t making complex music with tastemaker appeal, but catchy, shimmering, guitar pop songs with surprising durability. A BC album should aspire to be a new take on the band’s sound while containing at least a handful of tracks that’ll still sound fresh a calendar year from now, and California Nights more than hits that mark. The fitness themed video for “Feeling Okay” also describes the album: BC hit the gym this time around. The songs have more heft, partially due to the cleaner production, but also by design. The band’s drums have always had punch, but they’ve never done guitar riffs like the driving “Heaven Sent” (which also cheats in a gloriously air-guitar friendly solo), or extended outro on perfectly mopey “Fine Without You”. The extra punch, plus Bethany Cosentino’s constantly improving vocals, keep standard power pop fare like “In My Eyes” and “So Unaware” from being rank and file. Some of the atmosphere from mini-album Fade Away sticks around on “Jealousy” and “Sleep Won’t Ever Come”, while the title track and closer “Wasting Time” try for grander, more experimental sounds.

Best Coast haven’t made a magnum opus yet, and, mostly on account of a languid second half, California Nights isn’t going to change that. Power pop’s a hard genre to keep fresh, but its thrills can be unending if done right. And as long as Bethany and Bobb can keep firing off catchy, crunchy guitar pop with an emo undercurrent, they’ll be more than an imitation or a cheap trick.

That second mainstream rap album, man. It’ll get you.

To be clear, we’re not looking at a B.o.B or Kid Cudi situation with A$AP. He wants to be more interesting than that. A.L.L.A leans away from radio singles in favor of dark, psychedelic sounds; forget “cloud” rap, this is rap gone down the rabbit hole. And, like I imagine most drug trips, it gets its “whoa” out of the way early: with the exception of just okay opener “Holy Ghost” (produced by Danger Mouse) and sorta interlude “JD”, the first eight or nine songs here are straight fire emoji. “Canal St.” balances a moody atmosphere with a solid performance by Rocky, who also carries the cheeky “Excuse Me” all by himself. Meanwhile, he swaps rapping for singing on the spaced out psych-ballad “L$D” (fuck subtly), while absolutely lighting up banger “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2”. A.L.L.A proves Rocky can hold on his own, which was the biggest criticism of debut Long.Live.A$AP.

That’s not to say he has to play alone, though. M.I.A struts all over standout “Fine Whine”, which also has a solid Future feature, while Miguel shows up to cover a solid Rod Stewart sample on the only kind of obvious single here (buried at the end of the album) “Everyday”. Kanye’s feature on “Jukebox Joints” is better as production than a verse, but Lil Wayne turns in delightfully loony bars on “M’$”. Longtime collaborator ScHoolboy Q and Rocky both turn in killer performances on the seductive, should-be-a-single “Electric Body”. British singer Joe Fox is all over hooks on the album and always does a solid enough job, even if him on Danger Mouse’s spaghetti-western schtick for “Holy Ghost” sounds like a Demon Days outtake.

Like someone taking the substances it’s inspired by, the significant downside to A.L.L.A (aside a handful of spectacular lyrical misfires) is a lack of cohesion and a tendency to get lost in its own haze. Eighteen tracks is high for most albums, and that goes extra for when the pace doesn’t go faster than a strung-out lurch. And, while most of the album sounds good while it’s on, most of these songs don’t lend themselves to high replay value; I like “Dreams” and “Better Things”, but can’t see myself reaching for them in a few months. Rocky’s at least got a good grip of his identity (again, this isn’t Cudi or B.o.B), and although AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP feels more like a transition than a destination, that’s not to say it’s not a fun trip.

Tame Impala – Currents
Kevin Parker wants you to like his band.

No shit, this is true for most artists, but Currents‘ strain for likability is palpable. You can see it in the gentle coaxing of song titles like “Let It Happen” and “Yes, I’m Changing”. You can hear it in every song’s determination to have a hook. You can feel it in Parker’s delay-inducing perfectionism. Listening to the album is like reading an essay by that kid in class whose self-conscious of how smart they are; the exertion of the creator’s brilliance is coded into every line.

For Parker, all that belabored finesse has gone into retooling Tame Impala’s psyched out rock into something tighter, synthier, and dancier. From the brisk, shuffling pace of “The Moment” to the looser, lounge groove of “Yes, I’m Changing”, the album’s defined by spacey synths and atmospheric electronics grounded by the band’s super-crisp drums and some immaculately produced basslines (and finger snaps in every song–finding the snaps is like finding the Wilhelm Scream in a sci-fi movie). The mixing on Currents is great throughout; it’s easy to hear every moving piece and flourish in place and enjoy Parker’s arrangements. When everything clicks–such as the vocal delay on the chorus to “The Moment”, extra gorgeous arranging on “Yes, I’m Chanigng”, the wailing synth covering the last two minutes of “Eventually”, or the entirety of the sad-eyed, spaced-out funk Song of the Year nominee “The Less I Know The Better”, it’s stunning.

These thrills are scarce to come by, though. For an album this eager to please and as dance-oriented as Currents is, large parts of it leave me cold. The production is stellar, but leaves these songs no room to hide how frequently the same tones are used, and a near constant mid-tempo lets everything blend together. I can’t immediately say what differentiates “Reality in Motion” from, like, “Past Life” outside the latter’s gimmicky pitched down monologue, but neither song makes me care to tell the differences, either. Parker’s vocals get tedious as well; his mournful, Lennon-esque falsetto worked for psychedelic rock songs, but utterly lacks the rhythm or bounce he wants these songs to have (“The Less I Know The Better” in particular would be even better with a more grounded or lively vocalist).

For how much Currents boasts how different and changed it is, it follows a worn trope: guy ditches guitars for synths and wants to prove he’s got moves. But having moves means you risk falling, and Currents is too conscientious to even allow the idea of a stumble. The record’s all about just the right influences and impeccable choices; it might be the year’s least adventurous and most curated album. As a result, it’s all very good, but very predictable. That’s the problem with reading the smart kid’s perfect essay: it ends up being perfectly dispassionate. And you can’t follow that approach with moves or the music that inspires them. Sometimes, even if it’s a wrong move, you have to let it happen.

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Livin’ the Stream: Blake Tries Apple Music

2015’s going to go down in the books as the year streaming music officially became a norm. Obviously, it’s been a thing for years, but 2015 marks streaming becoming a dominant force, not just in terms of behind the scenes number crunching, but as a cultural phenomenon. You could avoid hearing much about Spotify without trouble, Beats Music came and went as a gimmick, and even now, GooglePlay is the quiet kid in the corner, but through a combination of “the streaming wars” between services and the public’s focus on anything Apple or Taylor Swift do, streaming’s come to all.

Of course, a lot of that has to do with Apple. Apple Music, the tech juggernaut’s streaming service, co-opts the mobile Music app, and nestles its way into the most recent desktop version of iTunes. Basically, Apple brought streaming to you: the next time you went to fire up “Hey Ya” in your Music library, Apple asked if you’d want to start your three month trial period, and, one password later, you were on your way. In our current #HotTake climate, there were a lot of first impression pieces on AppleMusic, so I thought I’d examine the program now that I’ve had a few weeks to use it in my day-to-day.

Set Up
Oh, the set up Bubbles. Upon agreeing to try AM, you’re presented with genres (hip-hop, country, classical, electronic, rock, alternative, indie, hits, jazz, etc.) in bubbles, and have to tap once to “like”, tap twice to “love”, before doing the same with artists within your genre selections, all with the end goal of a highly customized “for you” section in the app. It’s a cool idea with belabored execution: surely, wouldn’t it have been faster to ask me for ten artists and start basing recommendations from there? Instead, I was stuck going through clusters of chosen artists, debating if I liked or Like-liked Alicia Keys, and praying LCD Soundsystem would show up. Sure, you don’t have to revisit this Pepto-tinged ball pit ever again, but it’s a slow start.

My Music
AM brings a lot of bells and whistles to the table, and the iPhone’s Music app was already an efficient and fully formed music player/organizer. As I read about features in AM, I got to wondering how it would work in relation to the longstanding app I already knew. The bulk of the old music app is regulated to one “My Music” section, sacrificing its efficiency in playlist creation and toggling between categories (songs/artist/albums/genres), and a clunky redesign of desktop iTunes shrunk down. On a full monitor, the list of options makes sense, but on mobile (and especially my poor, pintsize 4S), it’s just claustrophobic. The rest of the sections pop with color and sleek designs, but the opposite feels true of “my music”. Design wise, it seems to trump its musical selections while shrugging at yours.

For You
Even in the halcyon days of, digital music has treated taste curation and recommendation like an alchemical formula it’s always on the cusp of discovering. It’s never just been about playing your music, but going one-up from there: “sure, we can spin To Pimp a Butterfly, but have you heard of Stankonia?” If there’s a predictive model to music discovery, I haven’t seen it; no matter the platform, the “recommended” tag feels novel and inessential.

Which is why it’s refreshing to see that AM’s “For You” has some teeth. Its pitch is less sexy than the celeb hook-ups at Beats1 Radio or Connect, but it’s the feature with the most potential mileage. Basically, when you open “For You” or refresh it, it comes at you with six album suggestions and three Apple Music curated playlists. It gets started in the bubbles, but seems fairly receptive based on your listening habits. For example, I went spelunking in demos on Smashing Pumpkins reissues, and the next day AM spat a Smashing Pumpkins deep cut playlist at me (score!). “Deep cuts” style playlists are popular, as intro/best-ofs, and the requisite “mood” playlists are accounted for, as well. Some of the best playlists I’ve seen are the ones that forsake these standards for more inventive ones: I had one that was nothing but songs produced by Just Blaze, and another that was nothing but Rihanna hip-hop collaborations. Another boon to the playlists is length; instead of Spotify’s unwieldy 100 song behemoths, these skew between 12 and 25 songs, keeping selection tight and runtime brisk.

Even with “For You”, though, that ideal predictive music discovery model is still missing. It gives me a selection of hip-hop playlists wildly disproportionate to how much of it I listen to (I listen to about as much hip-hop as I do indie or alternative or punk on a given day; a steady 90% of my playlist selections for said day will be hip-hop). Playlist specificity is great until it isn’t: Jay Z playlist? Awesome! Jay Z guest verse playlist? Still awesome! Jay Z Guest Verses With Subtle Digs In Them? Okay, I get it, the Apple Music Hip-Hop team really thought these out–y’all wanna do a Nas best-of?

Likewise, as soon as you get outside canonized punk or alternative records, AM goes blank faced. I went on a bender where I threw Likes/streams/downloads at Title Fight, Candy Hearts, Titus Andronicus, Joyce Manor, The Wonder Years, Allison Weiss, Modern Baseball, Spraynard, Adventures, Mixtapes, and Into It. Over It to trigger some sort of response, and got “Drake: the Deep Cuts” in return. Some of the indie or alternative playlists seem pedestrian as well; I don’t know, maybe the Hip-Hop team’s creativity spoiled me.

Nifty as it is, the feature can be exhausting: AM opens in “For You” by default, even when you just want to throw on some of your music. I get it, they want to emulate the mythical All Knowing Record Store Employee, but this isn’t suggesting a record during small talk, it’s shoving half a dozen in your arm when you walk in.

Beats 1
It’s 2015, and I’m reviewing a radio station.

You can hear the pitch for Beats 1: Apple gets exclusivity on big names, DJs get to be themselves, play some tunes, talk shop; everyone walks away happy. And it’s Always On ™! I like that Beats 1 doesn’t archive their shows, it gives incentive to catch what you want to, and adds a bit of urgency to whatever you hear (it also keeps a show from being an overproduced podcast). The shows have a permanent novelty where it’s not that something’s always happening, but that something could always happen. I caught part of “Money, Pizza Respect” with The Fat Jew–who I genuinely thought was Action Bronson for the first ten minutes–where Lisa Loeb just happened to call in, chatted for a bit, and told a story about a fight between some Bloods and Crips at one of her shows back in the day. I don’t know that I needed that in my life, but I also don’t know that I didn’t need it, either.

The celebrity shows I’ve heard were both of the “Play music we like and comment” sort. Ellie Goulding had a great assortment her influences and favorite contemporaries, while Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age (sidenote: can we appreciate that Homme, whose biggest album has the underlying concept of “DJs suck, has his own radio show?) played from the same pool of stuff, but would occasionally throw a theme in for a few songs, like “animals”. They were both enjoyable, but nothing I’d make a priority.

What I’d really want to see is someone who won’t play nice. Beats 1 advertises itself as being the most exciting radio station in the world, let’s see someone whose not afraid to go there. Put Tyler on. Give Noel Gallagher an hour. Let’s see Willow and Jaden burn this thing down. That‘s exciting.

A streaming service has to do two things: play the music you want it to, and justify the existence of any of its add-ons. I can’t say Connect sticks the landing, not yet at least. Connect is a way to “keep up with the artists” and have access to content you wouldn’t find otherwise. Trent Reznor, bless his heart, has been the only one to do something meaningful with this: he put up studio quality instrumentals of two of Nine Inch Nails’ albums up the day Connect launched, and put up some extra music from the Gone Girl soundtrack since (although, full disclosure, he’s also one of the creative directors for Apple Music). Otherwise, Connect is full of the same dull announcements/postings you’ll find on even the most basic social media sites where the uploads are done by the #ContentManagement intern. I see Connect’s SoundCloud/Tumblr/Facebook/Instagram aspirations, but it reads much closer to GooglePlus.

Aside from playlists from the official Apple Music genre teams, there are activity playlists and curator playlists. “Activity” playlists are broken down by categories–“Breaking up”, “driving”, “getting it on”, “kicking back”, “running”, “lamenting the inevitable heat death of the universe”, and so on. This seems like a retooled, less whacky version of Beats Music’s Sentence feature, but still more novelty than anything else (and God help whoever’s frantically scrolling through the “Getting It On” section with their pants around their ankles, agonizing between “Bedroom Bangers” and “Trip-Hop Turn-Ons”).

Curated playlists have gotten to be part and parcel of streaming services. I think they’re kind of silly. At their best, they offer a little more (read: any) genre diversity by list, and they’re trite stereotypes at worst (to wit: NME’s first list is “Alex Turner’s Best Tracks”). I’m sure there are interesting lists there, but finding them is to go further down the rabbit hole than I’ve explored so far; most are garden variety tastemaker/”here’s what’s out”.

I’d much rather curate my own playlists, but making a playlist using streamed content only is like pulling teeth. All playlists are routed through “My Music”, meaning that you have to download each song locally, or turn on the settings to show your entire iTunes library just to make and access a custom streaming playlist. A two click process on Spotify or Tidal is jumping between two and three sections and two different settings here. It gets back at the obtuseness of “My Music”, like Apple’s made their stuff as pretty and accessible as possible while cutting every corner of your own input.

I think I’m still going to carry on through my trial period. Right now, it’s not costing me anything, and I’d like to see AM improve its functions (that and give Connect/curated playlists time to update). It’s convenient and it has enough useful features to keep me coming around, but the fact that I can’t get to my own music without it throwing a handful of records at me sums the experience up perfectly: forget ownership. Digital music has always tried to recreate the record stores they supplanted, but AM forgot the end goal: leaving with what you love.

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Records Going Down on a Tuesday

You might have noticed that today was a really light release day for new albums. That’s because earlier this year, the decision was made to move Official(ish) New Music Release Day to Friday as opposed to the old system where release dates varied internationally (Tuesday for us Americans, Monday for the Brits). The reasons for the move range between reasonable (release dates currently differ by country) to official sounding (consumer researched showed a new music preference of Saturday and Friday for those with a preference–a weird qualifier, but sure), to buzzword vomit (the move “will benefit artists who want to harness social media to promote their new music”). There’s also a “this will stop piracy, we’re sure of it!” side note tossed in, as is the music industry’s standard. And shit, everyone loves Friday; might as well cop that new Owl City record while you’re at it, right?

I can’t say I’m excited.

Look, I know this happening, there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it, and no form of rage is as impotent as Blogger Rage, but sometimes you’ve gotta get something out of your system, you know? So think of this as less an argument for why we should switch back to Tuesday, and more about what this decision says about the state of music consumption.

The very idea of moving release day is an admission that, on some level, official release dates are played out. In a world of reputable prerelease streams, surprise album drops, early digital access, and just about everything leaking, the idea of buying/listening to something for the first time on release day is quaint enough to come with a landline and print newspaper subscription. For example, I’m hyped beyond belief for the new Titus Andronicus album out at the tail end of this month. I can already legally stream five songs from it, and find the rest of the album with a well placed Google search. I’m sure it’ll be on NPR in a week or two. A release date, to a point, is now more of a formality or filing of papers than an event in and of itself.

Moving the release day instead of outright ending it still acknowledges it still has relevancy due to its stability, that we’re thankfully not switching to a culture of surprise releases. Actually, let’s air something out here: if release days are played out, they are far, far less played out than surprise releases. Surprise releases are only exciting for as long as they’re subversive; Beyonce was a daring move because no one expected an A-lister like Bey to just drop an album on us (and demand we buy it). Now that they’re conventional, that “stop everything and listen” hype has been replaced with a weary shrug. When Tyga scare jumps a new record at us, all it means is Cash Money got to scrimp on the advertising budget. I’m not saying that we’ll see an end of surprise drops (sadly), but as they become more common, they become more tedious. The world still needs a release day.

In fact, the announcement is trying to play up the importance of a release day. The Friday move, it says, is done as a way to “re-ignite excitement and a sense of occasion around the release of new music.” I get the sentiment, but this is a spectacularly blind decision. Friday already has an occasion. It’s called Friday. Pizza day at the cafeteria, jeans day at work, expanded Happy Hour, new movies at the theater, and the start of the weekend. Fun, fun, fun, motherfuckers. Fridays are already their own “work all day, play all night” marathon; if there’s a day that needs its excitement and sense of occasion reignited, it sure shit ain’t this one.

Moving to Friday also implicitly equates new music and new movies, the form of entertainment whose release is closest to “excitement and occasion”. Again, I get it, but I feel like something’s lost in the middle here: that “music experience” that everyone’s so ready to reclaim. If I’m at the movies, I’m paying to sink into a seat, shut the hell up, keep my eyes forward, experience sensory overload for two hours, and walk away. New music, even when its overwhelming, is entirely different. It’s something I might experience right now after buying it, but I might experience it later. I might experience it one way right now, and in an entirely different one later. It might mean different things in different contexts. And I’m probably going to experience it in solitude.

Tuesday understood that. Tuesday understood that, as the most ho-hum night of the week, it was the best night to get into new music for the first time. It understood that music is something you sink into by letting it accompany you in the following days and weeks, fitting in the quiet times, like a commute or doing chores. And, perched as far away from excitement as possible, Tuesday was great for letting music play the long game; if something really hit you, you had uninterrupted days to let it unfurl in your head. For example, I remember grabbing Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs the day it came out, and obsessing over it all week, letting it play uninterrupted every evening. With the switch, I’m not sure how New Music time is going to fit in the loose and always changing weekend schedule. So, thank you, Tuesday. We got shit done.

I suppose we’ll have the next month or so to see the transition pan out. I can’t say if physical sales with soar because people will make going to the record store a Friday night outing, or slump because it doesn’t fit their schedule. It might boost sagging digital sales, if only because Friday is for impulse buying, but we’ll see. I can’t imagine that it’ll helping streaming much; it’s not like people are going to start staying in and holding Currents listening parties. Most of all, I’m nervous this is going to mean giving fewer albums the time they might deserve, and in a world where music is more and more becoming everywhere and nowhere, that’s the last thing we want. And don’t get me wrong, I love Fridays, but I don’t think they’ll want to share. Meanwhile, Tuesday has all the time in the world.

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Album Review: Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

It’s fun to see what kind of images you can extrapolate from a band name, and how close those images match those of the band in real life. It’s a bit of a hobby for me. For Florence and the Machine, I’ve hit upon the idea that “the machine” in question is a gun or a cannon; some elaborate construct meant to ready, aim, and fire Florence Welch’s massive voice for maximum effect.

And, if Welch is your singer, that’s not a bad place to be; there might be singers out there with bigger ranges, but few as ready or willing to throw themselves at a track. This was basically the crux of 2011’s Ceremonials, where the band functioned as an artillery unit while Welch aimed as broad and as far as possible. It was an exhilarating if kind of exhausting album by design, and it would be hard to imagine going even bigger four years later.

Thankfully, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (album title aside) doesn’t try to outsize Ceremonials. That’s not to say that it doesn’t frequently swing big, but when it stacks vocal takes, drum tracks, and horns on songs such as “What Kind of Man” or “Third Eye”, there’s a deftness to it compared to the lumbering nature of “Only If For a Night” and “Seven Devils”. The songcraft here is more involved than Ceremonials or Lungs, and the melodies sound more intricate. You get the feeling that if Lungs was about establishing a sound and Ceremonials was about playing that sound as broad as possible, HBHBHB is about, if not necessarily shrinking, then tightening and developing what’s been touched on before.

For example, look at guitars. Prominent guitars have been mostly absent from Florence’s output despite their presence on the band’s break out single, but they come roaring back on HBHBHB. The vicious riff on “What Kind of Man” is one of the song’s defining features (it’s also the heaviest Florence has ever sounded), and “Mother” works a rubbery guitar line into its chorus. Elsewhere, guitars make the rhythmic backbone of “Ships to Wreck” and “Queen of Peace” while “Various Storms & Saints” starts with the bluesy guitar from “Girl With One Eye” and takes it to a more ornate place instead of a blues freakout. And that illustrates the growth from Lungs to now: instead of a blaring, out of control finish, this is a tightly controlled album whose songs end in smartly made climaxes (see: the title track).

But, not every song follows the standard Florence formula for big finishes. Classic rock workout “Ship to Wreck” keeps its energy level pretty consistent over a galloping four minute runtime, while the floating, ethereal “Long & Lost” is more of a goth rock interlude than full-fledged song. Meanwhile, “Caught” plays up the gospel influence that’s always existed in the band’s margins, and is one of the album’s best slowburners. A large part of why the album works is because Welch and the band focus on melodies and control. For as great as Welch is at throwing herself at a track, material like”Long & Lost”, the title track or the utterly gorgeous “St. Jude” is better because she holds some of the power back while still using her broad range. This makes the times that the band does go into overdrive (“Queen of Peace”, “Third Eye”, “Delilah”) sound even more dynamic.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful splits some of the difference between the variety on Lungs and the scope of Ceremonials for something more consistent than the former and more stable than the latter. It feels sustainable in a way the band never has before; although the songs have gotten more personal as Welch disclosed to Billboard, they sound more grounded and user-friendly than they have in the past. The drawback is that consistency, even of a high quality, can sound slight as it does with “Various Storms & Saints” and “Long & Lost”, and the record lacks a “Cosmic Love”/”No Light, No Light”-style centerpiece. Still, though, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a solid, highly replayable art rock album that starts their transition from upstarts to institution. Fire at will, four stars out of five.

tl;dr: Florence and the Machine make their brightest album yet with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, 4/5.

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Ranting About Music’s (Still Very Un)Official Bunbury Report–Saturday by Numbers

So, the Friday report was mostly words. All words, in fact. Okay lots of words, a few pictures, and a gif. But, I can be a numbers person, too. I placed second for my school at an area math competition in eighth grade. I was an accounting temp for a month a few summers back. I’m totally a numbers person. So, we’re going to recap Bunbury’s Saturday experience with numbers.

Times I Almost Dislocated My Wrist Trying to Slacken My Death Trap of a “3 Day Pass” Bracelet: 187 (approx).
I expected this thing to be like a watch or something, where you eventually forget it’s there, but it kept chafing at my wrist like a damn shackle all weekend. I think I got it to loosen a little on Friday, but my failures to do so on Saturday made me think it was just a hallucination.


Bands I Saw With Prominent Banjo and/or a Dedicated Banjo Player: 4.
Mumford and Sons might have said “fuck the banjo”, but The Devil Makes Three, The Decemberists, Kacey Musgraves, and The Avett Brothers would reply “fuck Mumford & Sons”. If Friday was unofficial “Dudes with big guitars” Day, then Saturday was unofficial “Folk on Folk on Country” Day: a day full of bands subbing in banjos, double basses, harmonies, hats, vests, accents, and favorite distilleries in between song after song after song. And that’s just the bands I saw; you know there’s no way someone called Jamestown Revival wasn’t going to bring a banjo and a double bass.

Unprompted High Fives I Got for This ShirtSeven.
Also the number of professors on it. And the number of horocruxes. It’s all numbers, people.

gennieAll-Male Bands Seen on Saturday: 0.
Okay, point of fairness, I did get a late start on Saturday (more in a minute), but given how stupendously sexist music festivals tend to be, being able to do this felt like a cool move for the ‘bury. Kacey Musgraves, Lindsey Stiriling, and Genevieve were all female-led main stage pulls, and there was a relative degree of gender egalitarianism for The Decemberists (3 women out of 7 members) and The Devil Makes Three (1 out of 3; she played double bass). The Avett Brothers had a female violinist among the eight or so people they had on stage, some of whom may or may not have been brothers.

Things You Need For Music, According to Genevieve: 2.
And they are chords and words. She announced this before leading into piano ballad “For You”, a far sparser song than the rest of her early day set. Genevieve was the only artist I saw on a lark for Saturday, and while she gets the coveted Bunbury Cults Memorial Indie Pop Award, she was as ebullient as she was loud. Solid start to the day. 

Pirouettes Done By Lindsey Stirling While Playing a Violin (While I Was in Attendance): 11.
There’s some shit you just need to see with your own eyes. And if Lindsey Stirling playing some damn fine electric violin over post-dubstep electronica while dancing around stage like it’s her ballet performance final while wearing an astronaut-silver tutu isn’t up there, then I’m sorry you don’t believe in joy. Stirling’s set was as lively as she was, blending live percussion with massive synths and of course, her signature violin leading the charge. What could have been a gimmick (or, given other YouTube acts, a war crime) was an absurdly genius move that worked in all the right ways.

Entrances to the Festival on Saturday: 3.
I mean, I still used the main gate, because fake entrances are for fake people, but it was good the management changed things after Friday’s series of snafus.

Matching Purple Suits at Kacey Musgrave’s Set: 4.
She wasn’t wearing one–although her dress looked like a repurposed carousel with extra glimmer–but her four man backing band (with banjo and double bass, natch) were in their finest Nashville Show-suits on her neon cactus covered stage. It was precious, until you realize that Kacey Musgraves writes songs like someone who has either seen or been through some shit, but whatever, she’ll get over it. In keeping with numbers, four is also the number of Lindsey Stirling’s interpretive back up dancers.

Times Kacey Musgraves Called Her Upcoming Album “Country as Shit”: 2.
KM also gets the “Country you’ll love even if you don’t like country” award. And I’m pretty sure she could take Florida Georgia Line in a bar fight.

Surprise Mid-Set Covers (Weekend Total): 3 as of Saturday.
Musgraves broke out Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Lee Hazelwood’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”. Those aren’t the surprise. The surprise was TLC’s “No Scrubs”, nestled surprisingly comfortably in her set for no other reason than why not?

Friday’s entries in the Bunbury Surprise Cover catalog were Matt and Kim reaching peak irony with thirty seconds of slow jammed out “Ignition (Remix)”, and a crowd karaoke version of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”, because you cannot deny that chorus.

Group Photos I Had a Friend of Mine Take: 2.
They turned out alright.

Selfies Same Friend Took While Taking Group Photos: 4.
Okay, sure, who doesn’t sneak that front-face camera selfie in while the squad gets in ideal Group Shot position? But four of them?! THAT’S LITERALLY TWICE THE NUMBER OF GROUP SHOTS. YOU HAD ONE JOB. Hang on, though. Two group shots of four people, and four selfies (ahem) of two people…it evens out. I can’t be mad. And beside, who could be mad at this face?


Answer: no one.

Times I Shouted “Alright!” in Approval for a Song About Filicide: 27.
Look, The Decemberists are persuasive. And, “The Rake’s Song” holds a special place in my heart as the first Decemberists’ song I ever heard.

decemberistsDays Until Colin Meloy of The Decemberists Can in Good Conscious Remove “June Hymn” from the Setlist: 21.
“June Hymn” came midway through a set that was relied on the band’s last three albums, none of which are in their classic canon. A hearty number of cuts from What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World made the list, along with a surprising amount of The King Is Dead, and three of the heavier songs from The Hazards of Love. It actually worked in their favor; The Decemberists are a veteran group who can polish even their less popular material to luster, and there are surprising legs on the new stuff they picked. Gotta drum up those Spotify streams somehow.

Military Wives in The Decemberist’s Final Song: 16.
Classics are classics. And the fist shaking chant-off Meloy orchestrated between different parts of the crowd was as close to being cast in Les Miserables as I’m ever going to get.

Rounds of Sets Missed By Being Relatively Late: 2.
This goes against yesterday’s stated goal of “If it’s happening, I’m there”, but…

Dollars Saved by  Drinking Where We Parked Instead of Buying More Beer Inside: $6 per beer times 2 beers per person times 4 people=$48, minus approximate store value of what was drank beforehand which was probably $20 for a rough savings of $28. And they say word problems are useless.

Second Thoughts I Had About Using Old Crow Medicine Show’s Set as a Sacrificial Lamb for a Spot at The Avett Brothers: null.
Trick question. OCMS is the band responsible for “Wagon Wheel”, and I have to care about what’s being sacrificed for it to count as a sacrificial lamb.

avettbrosSongs by The Avett Brothers You Need to Know to Enjoy Their Set: 0.
The Avett Brothers are one of those bands that will rarely come up in conversation, and then suddenly you’ll have half a dozen friends who shout along to every word of an hour and a half long set of theirs. I get it, though. They seem like the Uberfolk; anyone that’s ever liked a band that would qualify as folk or Americana in the loosest sense would find something to like in them. Be it the varied and rollicking arrangements, the lyrics strong enough to not get lost coming out of arena-sized speakers, or the goshdarn heart and passion, the brothers Avett (and guests) bring something for someone. In fact, I’m a little cautious to approach their album material in case it’s too tame in comparison to their live bombast. To wit:

Acoustic Guitar Strings Broken by (probably) One of the Avett Brothers Due to Excessive Rocking Out: 1.
Said (probably) brother immediately got a replacement guitar, and played a hi-hat cymbal solo until the band looped back around to finish the song. Gives you the feeling this was one of those “once a show” events.

Songs in TAB’s Encore Set: 2, 1.5 after adjustment.
They were both great songs, especially the jaunty “Slight Figure of Speech”, but I have to dock them a half song penalty for a minute long drum solo. But, the ended with…

Words That Became Hard to Say: 3.
“I and love and you”. Bless your rustic hearts for ending in numbers, Avett Brothers. You were the Saturday headliner we needed.

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Ranting About Music’s (Still Very Un)Official Bunbury Report–Friday Edition

Last year, I went to Bunbury for a day and wrote about it. This year, I’m doing all three!

After a last minuteish decision to get the Saturday pass for Cincinnati’s Bunbury last year, I resolved I’d go back and do the thing right this time around. Bunbury takes place at Sawyer Point right on the Ohio River, and if it’s going to be there, I told myself, so was I. Three day pass. Go the whole time. Cleared schedule, full days, can’t lose.

And at least for Day One, my plan was mostly successful. I wasn’t able to get inside for Wussy’s 2:30 set, but they at least soundtracked the line at the gate nicely, so I’m still counting it as something I heard. Anyway, once I got my three day bracelet (that I’ve been picking at ever since), and the obligatory carding over with, I was ready to start the day!

Markham/Machine Heart/Indigo Wild
I feel for bands that get the early slots at festivals, especially on the first day. It’s like when you plan to meet up with a friend, and they’re running late but their friend Ryan is already there, so if you two wanna find each other they’ll just catch up to you, that’s cool. It’s not that you’re against talking to Ryan, he’s friendly and all, but it’s probably not a day-maker, or why you’re there. Meandering between Markham, Machine Heart, and Indigo Wild felt like you and Ryan shooting the shit about beer or jobs: loose fun and a good time, but nothing too memorable. Of the three bands, Machine Heart’s poppy take on Metric style synth rock clicked with me the most, and any band whose singer uses a sheer cape gets extra respect points in my book. Markham and Indigo Wild were both young, eager, and watchable, so hey, at least in this metaphor, Ryan and I had some common interests.

Father John Misty
Ugh, Father John Misty. I have so many complicated feelings about this dude. On one hand, I Love You, Honeybear is a wonderfully made, incredibly melodic album. On the other hand, his whole persona is a meta-douchebag whose schticky satire fails to land because it’s unfunny, pretentious, and is less satire than pushing bullshit with a sardonic “fuck me, right?” grin (I’m aware this is a minority opinion, but oh well).

fathajahnSo who gave this asshole the right to have my favorite set of the day? All the standard press cuts from FJM live shows applied: he runs around the stage! He shakes his hips as much as Marina Diamandis! He’s actually funny (sample quotes: “Bunbury! How ya doing?! …Are you ready for that? For someone asking you how you’re doing every hour? You’re the most looked-after people in Cincinnati.” and “[referencing himself] It’s too hot to be dressed like a waiter at the Olive Garden”)! But the biggest draw was the show itself. FJM is ostensibly a folk act with orchestral flourishes in-studio, but that turned into hard-nosed rock live; for instance, the chamber pop of “I Love You, Honeybear” turned into bluesy glam on stage. And it was a transition that fit; you wouldn’t expect the electro-tinged “True Affection” to work live, but it was a standout. A fiery set completed capped with an intense take on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “The Ideal Husband” made me a fan in spite of myself.

Regardless of any other feelings, Father John Misty’s place in Bunbury’s cracked me up since it was announced. He played the main stage at 4:00, not a bad slot by any means, but one clearly selected before I Love You, Honeybear blew up the way it did. You look at the fact that he was before Bleachers and competing with like, Temples, and it just seems like the kind of thing he’d laugh at.

Catfish and the Bottlemen
CatB played the River Stage, which is a space on Cincinnati’s Serpentine Wall tooled into an amphitheater while the crowd sits on the stairs. A friend and I were so far down the side of the wall that we were at a complete side view of the stage. From that angle, I made the following observations: 1. Huh, it’s kind of hard to hear at this angle, 2. dressing in all black tells people you’re in a band, but you’re not in, like, a big band, 3. Catfish’s lead singer sounds enjoyably Julian Casablancas-y, and 4. people from England saying “Cincinnati” is really funny. My friend and I talked about tattoos or whatever.

Bleachers is the side project of fun. guitarist (and the unfortunately named) Jack Antonoff. I listened to their album Strange Desire a few times last year, and liked it more than just about anything I’ve heard from fun.: the music’s got an 80’s arena rock throwback vibe and a likable dorky-kid charm that makes songs like “Rollercoaster” and “Reckless Love” a blast to hear live.

Their only problem right now is material. Bleachers was slotted for an hour. Their only album is 39 minutes long, and two songs didn’t appear (Grimes featuring “Take Me Away” and “I’m Ready to Move On” with Yoko Ono). The band supplemented their material with a spirited cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”, an instrumental break to introduce the band, a dueling guitar/saxophone solo, and an extended intro to “I Wanna Get Better”, but so much padding at the hottest point of the day felt suffocating. It did make closer “I Wanna Get Better” feel earned, though.

Matt and Kim

Royal Blood
Whenever I’ve heard anything in the media about Royal Blood, it’s either why they’re gonna save rock and roll, or why people who think they’re gonna save rock and roll are idiots. I see where both sides are coming from: a duo of burly white dudes playing loud, riff-heavy, blues rock headbangers with attitude and skill in equal parts are going to look like saviors if you’re the sort of person who thinks rock and roll needs saving; but you can still rock the fuck out even if you think “save rock and roll” lifers are the silliest people.

royyulbludsFor my part, Royal Blood kept me occupied while I waited 20 people deep in line for a water fountain. Which brings me to something that I haven’t had to touch on yet: the setup for Bunbury as a festival is doesn’t make a lot of sense. After 5:00, there were only two staging areas left, and only one was active at a time. Hypothetically, this meant an artist had a full audience, but in practicality, it means reenacting The Lion King stampede scene through bottlenecked walkways because so help me if I don’t get a good spot for The Black Keys. What’s more, at least on Friday they undershot the number of food tents booths and water stations. Apparently, they ran out of bottled water around 7:30, which is around the same time my body decided that Coors Light was no longer close enough to water, and I had to get the real thing, hence leaving my group for the Mad Max style line. I eventually got water, complete with some light rain to celebrate, and caught the end of Royal Blood.

And here’s where everything went off plan.

Tame Impala
A talking point for my group all day had been sure, all of us liked Tame Impala, but had zero qualms about leaving them early for a good spot for The Black Keys. As I saw more and more Black Keys shirts through the day, I started bargaining with myself; “leaving early” turned into “half the set”, and so on. Our group split in half for a possible food/Black Keys stage recon run across the grounds. The food lines made us decide food wasn’t worth it, and the sea of humanity amassing near the main stage made us decide Tame Impala was probably not worth it. So, we doubled back to Tame, where we didn’t find the other half the of our group, but saw plenty of hippies swaying in a thunderstorm to what was either “Let It Happen” or “Mind Mischief”. It was cool music with a cool stage, but we decided fuck it, and lit out for the Keys. We might have done two or three laps of the grounds in fifteen minutes, but felt like we only went backwards.

blackkeysThe Black Keys
An hour waiting in a downpour gives you time to reflect. One of those thoughts might be “My kingdom for an umbrella”, but another recurring thought was that The Black Keys are an ideal festival band. They’ve got a slew of instantly recognizable material with punchy enough album cuts to match, and everything’s going to have a groove to it. They could have come out, played “Tighten Up”, “Lonely Boy”, “Gold on the Ceiling”, “Gotta Get Away”, “Howlin’ For You”, tossed in a throwback or two, and some of the stronger Brothers/El Camino songs, and the crowd would have gone nuts.

Which is more or less what happened. The band launched into “Dead and Gone”, followed it up with “Next Girl”, and away we went. The set drew heavily from Brothers and El Camino with choice picks from Attack & Release and Turn Blue and a pair of pre-Danger Mouse cuts (“Your Touch” from Magic Potion and “Leavin’ Trunk” from The Big Comeup). It was probably the least surprising set I’d seen all day, but that didn’t make “Strange Times” or “Money Maker” any less fun. I noticed a few times songs were played under their standard tempo (“Fever” in particular), possibly due to Patrick Carney’s shoulder injury earlier this year, but Dan Auerbach went above and beyond in his solos. By the last ringing notes of “Little Black Submarines”, all felt right. I even felt a little dried off.

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