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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Green Day’s American Idiot, Ten Years Later

On a Friday night this April, I stood in front of my closet, puzzled. I had to dress for the rare “culture event”; for an evening, I was a patron of the performing arts at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Theater. If you live in any midsize city, you probably have a place like Aronoff: the town’s one, centrally located, kinda-posh, modern theater that hosts Broadway Across America/touring companies (inevitably every year will include The Lion KingWicked, or Phantom of the Opera). It isn’t quite ritzy enough to merit a suit, but I needed to display my haute couture. I settled on an open neck, black, patterned button down and earth-tone pants. At the last second, I moved my s aside for my pair of beat-up Chuck Taylors.

I was seeing the Broadway adaptation of American Idiot, let’s loosen up a bit.

The show was pretty good, but my and my friends’ takeaway was holy fuck was American Idiot a great album. It’s made its way back into my personal rotation since seeing the show (the cast recording, featuring Green Day as the instrumental house band, is stellar as well), and it’s aged remarkably. The title track, “St. Jimmy” and “Letter Bomb” still sound incendiary, and no amount of overplay has dulled “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. The story concept has fallen by the wayside to history–even the stage show beefs up the album with a b-side and choice cuts from next record 21st Century Breakdown–but the operatic scale and stadium-sized ambition still follow through ten years later.

If American Idiot‘s age feels weird for me and you, I can only imagine how this has to feel to Green Day themselves, who were a decade into their career as an A-level alternative group when the album was released. Their landmark record Dookie came out in 1994, and shot them into the stratosphere as bratty, immature pop-punk slackers who wrote songs about jacking off and being stoned, but they were really catchy songs about jacking off and being stoned. Their next three albums incrementally tightened the songwriting and the sound, but gradually sold less and less as they grew out of Dookie. After the master recordings of 2003’s Cigarettes and Valentines were stolen, the band scrapped the project and started on what would become American Idiot, which didn’t just sound revitalized, but completely jump-started Green Day’s career, standing and influence, and introduced them to a whole new audience (I’ll come back to this). The album went to number one, did six time platinum in sales, and spawned between three and five massive crossover singles. Their previous album, Warning, barely made a dent anywhere outside a modern rock single. Conventional wisdom says this kind of comeback just shouldn’t be possible; this would be like The Killers spending 2014 fucking everywhere.

And make no mistake, American Idiot was fucking eveywhere in 2004 and 2005. For eighteen months, no mainstream chart was safe from “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, nor was there any quarter for music TV programming from Billie Joe Armstrong’s black button up, slack red tie, and eyeliner. At some point, you or one of your friends said screw it, and bought a copy (I even rebelled and bought the explicit version) to discover that behind those singles were cuts like “Give Me Novocaine”, the suite of “Homecoming”, and the punk onslaught of “St. Jimmy”. Part of what makes American Idiot great is a mix of the band’s focus and their veteran status: they’ve tinkered with their sound enough to know how to make nine minute five song suites like “Jesus of Suburbia” work, as well as how to make punk rock workouts “Letter Bomb”, “She’s a Rebel”, and “St. Jimmy” as explosive as the handgrenade on the album’s cover. Green Day’s reliance on powerchords and rudimentary chord progressions has been used against them before, but they get more mileage than most by chucking just enough variety into their progressions. That’s not to mention bassist Mike Dirnt’s simple but tasteful basslines, or the fact that Tre Cool is the album’s secret weapon. Moreso than Armstrong or supporting guitarist Jason White’s chugging powerchords, Cool’s surprisingly active drum beats are what keep the album’s momentum running forward. It’s just an album of good punk rock.

American Idiot also owes a lot of its success to near pitch-perfect timing. It came out just as America’s patriotism hangover from 9/11 and the Iraq War kicked in; more than a year had passed after Bush’s now infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, and we were still there. America’s reputation diminished at home and abroad as discontent for Bush grew and grew. If there was a time for a band to get Nickelodeon slime’d in front of a washed out American flag in a music video, this was going to be it. What’s actually fascinating is how much the album doesn’t sound tied to 2004 politics. The overtly political moments (“American Idiot”, “Holiday”) rail at “The age of paranoia” and “The president gas-man”, but you don’t need to relate those to The Patriot Act or Bush for them to feel their impact. You will also notice that these lyrics come pretty early on. Instead, the album’s focus is on the love, loss, and lives of disfranchised youth, themes that have continued past the anti-Bush outcry and served well in the Obama era of singed optimism and growing cynicism. The only thing really dating American Idiot to 2004 is its liberal use of the word f*g.

So American Idiot is an excellent album with an anniversary meant to make us all feel a little more distant from who we were 10 years ago, why write about it now? I’ll admit part of it is personal bias: I fucking love this album. It and my now outsized Green Day t-shirt are two things from 2004 I still own. It’s one of a select few albums where I will be thrown off momentarily if I hear one song from it, and do not hear the next song on the cd next. Ok, but I also love Arcade Fire’s Funeral, another album with a widely celebrated tenth birthday last week.

The more I thought about American Idiot, the more I realized that what makes it unique is that it’s exactly the type of album we are dangerously short on: it’s a gateway record. Alright, sure, it’s easy to laugh at 30-somethings wearing eyeliner making accessible punk records on a major label, but you know what? That shit worked. A kid hears “Holiday” enough on the radio, buys American Idiot, and then realizes Green Day’s actually got a stacked greatest hits comp and a few classics they can dig into. Kid starts looking at Green Day’s influences, and it turns out, copies of Let It BeLondon Calling, and Rocket to Russia go for pretty cheap if you stop going to Best Buy. Jump forward a few years, maybe that kid’s in a punk band, or writes for a zine or a blog or something. They’re involved. I’m not saying it’s impossible to find another way in, but if music genres want to sustain themselves and grow, someone’s got to go out and meet people where they are.

Any idiot could tell you that.

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Album Review: Ariana Grande – My Everything

Maybe it’s because we’ve had a few go’s of it now, or maybe it’s because Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus showed us how bad things could get, but we’ve finally hit the point where teen stars can age out without a disaster happening mid-step. No one demonstrates that better than former Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande, here with her second album My Everything. Grande’s pop career had a soft opening in 2013 with the minor hit “The Way” from her debut Yours Truly, a collection of innocuous I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Mariah pop jams that put the emphasis on Grande’s voice more than whatever she was singing. It kept her image, squeaky clean even by kid show standards, perfectly intact.

My Everything isn’t about outright destroying that image, but rather, subtly not mentioning it at all. Grande remains a sweet performer throughout, but she isn’t actively projecting innocence anymore; it takes a few listens (plus a The Weeknd cameo) to get the double entendre to “Love Me Harder”, and “Hands On Me” is less subtle with the opening tease of “Keep your hands on me/Don’t take them off/Until I say so”. By the time these two come up late in the album, they seem less shocking than an upfront presentation because by now, My Everything‘s established itself as a pop grab bag. And hey, taunting sex jams are part of pop, and Grande’s keen to play the part.

My Everything is Grande’s application as a jack of all trades pop star, and deliberately so. There’s something conscientious about these songs; without fail, there’s tailored production, tasteful writing, and ample opportunities for Grande to let loose with skyscraper vocals. It works: you really can’t fault the quality of the album on a song-by-song basis. She moves through Max Martin singles (“Problem”) and sample-heavy pop rap collabs (“Break Your Heart Right Back” with Childish Gambino) with the same sort of performance grace that’s quickly becoming her best strength and biggest weakness.

Let’s focus on the strengths first. Grande, more than most other pop artists, is able to emote and make her voice work with whatever she’s got behind her. She’s got the chops to pull off the somber effect of “Why Try” without tripping over the hip-hop drumline, and then sound playful on “Be My Baby” (produced by Cashmere Cat). The playful tracks, “Be My Baby”, “Problem”, “Hands On Me”, and “Love Me Harder” work better, since Grande can show more personality and presence with a livelier beat. She’s actually a perfect match for Zedd’s extroverted festival EDM; Grande runs full force to meet the towering synths in the chorus in a move where going big actually works. There are the requisite piano ballads–“Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” and the title track–and while they’re well performed, they’re nothing special.

That same “well done, but meh” criticism rings true for My Everything as a whole. While Grande’s a great performer, she can never sound like anything but a performer. It’s a curse that plagues a lot of stage/theater brats that turn pop at first; they’ve spent years jumping in and out of role and personas, and that learned performance-self hampers their ability to go full tilt like we expect from our pop stars (let it be known, Grande could stand to do worse). She has too much presence to disappear into a song ala Britney Spears, but too little personality to have it dominate one, ala Taylor Swift. She has trouble letting her hair down, in fewer words. Sam Smith’s avoided this problem by focusing on one type of song/sound, but Grande’s mile wide and inch deep approach doesn’t afford her the same flexibility. It doesn’t make My Everything a compelling listen.

Instead, the album’s like a gluten free vanilla cupcake: super sweet going down, and while delightful, doesn’t really beg for a repeat. It’s a well made, exceedingly well-sung record that’s only held back by tepid songwriting and pleasant but inert execution (ok, and some truly mediocre rap features). Grande does great work establishing herself as a competent pop singer, but she’s coming up short in personality and massive singles. But, this seems to be by design; My Everything‘s tasteful restraint implies Grande might be playing a longer game than we’re giving her credit. Three and a half out of five stars.

tl;dr: Ariana Grande makes her polite bid for pop music’s class president. 3.5/5

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Radio Rant: The Songs of the Summer Bust Of 2014

Since starting this site, I’ve reviewed the annual Songs of the Summer chart from Billboard. The Songs of the Summer chart is fairly new, and there’s kind of a naive romanticism to it; was something like “How To Love” really an essential summer hit because it happened to peak between Memorial Day and Labor Day? But, the chart more than justified itself last year with an absolutely stacked list highlighted by the summer-spanning dogfight between “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines”. It wasn’t just that those songs (plus “Radioactive”, “We Can’t Stop”, and “Cups”, dear God, “Cups”) were hits, they were inescapable.

I can’t say the same for this year.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. To the contrary, at least two of these were open Summer Hit Bait. But almost none of them have that one it factor that separates cast-offs the “Come and Get It”s from the “Call Me Maybe”s of the world. So, let’s take a look, this is your Songs of the Summer chart for 2014.

10. DJ Snake ft. Lil Jon – Turn Down For What

Of course, all the groaning I just did about this year’s list is rendered mute by Lil Jon’s liquor-soaked shout of “TURN DOWN FOR WHAT”. I’m not calling “Turn Down For What” a classic, but you can’t fuck with this one in terms of balls-out aggression, primal attitude, and the best deployment of Lil Jon that doesn’t involve Usher. DJ Snake’s beat, all punishing bass and overloaded with claps and snares, sounds like something Andrew WK would make if he went EDM. “Turn Down For What” is the audio equivalent of someone daring you to do another shot, and I will always fall for that shit.

9. Calvin Harris – Summer

Grade On Merit of Dethroning “California Gurls” as the Most Blatant Attempt at a Summer Hit: Pass.
Grade On Merit As a Summer Hit: Fail. Katy Perry at least got a number 1 for her trouble.

8. Pharrell – Happy

In a slightly different world, “Happy” would be a clear number one–for summer’s sake, it peaked way too early in the year–but when your March/April #1 makes an appearance in the summer chart, it shows how iron clad “Happy”‘s grip is on 2014. For my part, I don’t hate listening to “Happy” as long as I decide when it’s on, but what I like a lot more is this remix that pairs it with Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope”. They’re basically the same song, and “Tightrope” brings a low-end punch that “Happy” is painfully missing. I’ve embraced “Happy” as the number one song of the year, unless we get any surprises, but I’m not thrilled about the idea.

7. Jason Derulo ft. Snoop Dogg – Wiggle

We were almost rid of Jason Derulo. I thought his career was going to peter out after a few middling singles, but then “Talk Dirty” happened, and I think he released “Wiggle” just to spite us. The only way Snoop’s verse could be lazier is if he rapped his bank account number, and I don’t know about you, and I didn’t need this hook to remind me why I destroyed my recorder in fifth grade. Derulo brings nothing to the table; if he thought a song could get by on “lol, butts”, he picked the wrong year.

6. John Legend – All Of Me

The fact that this song has sustained momentum into the summer after peaking in April and May is a tribute to the unsung power of wedding DJs, beach slow dances, and dentist offices the world over.

5. Nico & Vinz – Am I Wrong

Now, here’s a nice, inoffensive, mildly flavored song that I can’t for the life of me remember ever hearing. It still sounds vaguely familiar, though. If anyone asks what we were listening to in 2014, “Am I Wrong” is a one-stop answer: there’s the electronic underpinnings, horns, sky-high vocals, and Police-y guitar all in one place. That ubiquity made it a hit this summer, but I can’t imagine wanting to sit down and listen to more by Nico & Vinz after “Am I Wrong” reaches its long-sought conclusion. If they change up their style and gain a bit of an edge, I could see them being a pop juggernaut, but as is, their just top ten fodder. Which is, in itself, not a bad thing.

4. Sam Smith – Stay With Me

Take a guy with Adele’s range and ability to wring a teardrop out of every note, her pop/soul/folk affections, take the tempo down a few notches, and you’ve got fellow Brit Sam Smith. Smith’s the kind of singer that looks good on paper and sounds great in recording; not only can he outsing nearly anyone else, but he can package material as limp as “Stay With Me” as a hit. “Stay With Me” isn’t a bad song per se, it’s just so much: it’s a shuffling, choir and organ backed, downtrodden, reflective, devotion-heavy ballad. In terms of self-seriousness, stuff like this is a rung below “We Are the World”. I much prefer “Latch” Smith’s breakthrough hit with Disclosure, where he brings some of that same longing, but struts between octaves like lonely disco king.

3. Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea – Problem

“Problem” is the purest attempt at a Summer Hit this year, with its conspicuous late April release date, airy instrumentation, and soul/bubblegum pop production. That production, Grande’s vocals, and the still-great fakeout at the chorus were good enough to get “Problem” all the way to number 2 on the Hot 100, but Azalea’s mediocre verse and a lack of personality kept it from the top spot. When I talked about songs lacking the intangible to get to number one, “Problem” was definitely on my mind: if it ever went for the throat, or amped up the bubblegum-y side of it (and maybe got anyone else for the verse), it could have gone further. Ah well.

2. MAGIC! – Rude

Instead of expressing my bafflement at this bland slice of nothing’s continued success/eagerness for its inevitable One Hit Wonder status, I’m going to share an anecdote. A month or so ago, I happened to walk by an LGBTQ rights protest that was taking place a few blocks from where I work. One of the female protesters had a sign with “Rude”‘s chorus on it, complete with “I’m gonna marry her anyway!” in big lettering. It was just a sign, but I wanted to give her points for 1. a snappy pop culture reference, 2. cleverness, and 3. finding relevance in what is likely the most irrelevant song of the year. It didn’t quite make up for the numerous times “Rude” has been inflicted on me over the summer, but hey, a chuckle’s a chuckle.

1. Iggy Azalea ft. Charli XCX – Fancy

Well, don’t act all surprised. “Fancy” has lived in the top 20 all summer, complete with a seven week stretch at number one, the second longest of any song this year (“Happy” held the spot for ten weeks). Catchy chorus aside, I’m still not that into it; the beat’s too dull, and Azalea doesn’t wow on her verses. I don’t think I’m alone on that, particularly since Azalea’s only now gaining traction with a second, more decisively bad hit. “Fancy” arguably gave Charli XCX more publicity: the association gave “Boom Clap” a leg-up, and now she’s promoing a new album for October after her critically-liked-but-undersold debut last year.

Sometimes the winners aren’t the obvious ones.

My own Songs of the Summer Top Ten in no real order
1. Disclosure ft. Sam Smith -Latch
2. Michael Jackson – Love Never Felt So Good
3. Interpol – All the Rage Back Home
4. Redbone – Come and Get Your Love (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s soundtrack is that good)
5. Charli XCX – Boom Clap
6. FKA twigs – Pendulum
7. Paramore – Aint’t It Fun
8. Lana Del Rey – Shades of Cool
9. Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea – Problem
10. Joyce Manor – Heart Tattoo

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