Summertime Radness: New Music from Allison Weiss, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, and Youth Culture

Allison Weiss – Remember When
It’s always great to hear an artist hit their stride on a record the way Weiss did with Say What You Mean, but it always leads to a tricky question: what next? Weiss has filled the year since her adored pop-punk/power-pop album with a few tours, and moving cross country, feeling a little reflective along the way. Remember When, her new five song EP, was inspired by the same events that birthed large parts of Say What You Mean, but approaches them with a bit of distance. Even though the record is about the same subject matter, the different perspective makes it rewarding on its own merits.

Part of that is because Remember When feels like the product of a self-imposed writing workshop. “Cerebral” isn’t a word usually associated with a genre that has galloping chords and freewheeling drums like power-pop does, but it describes someone like Weiss, who’s always been brainier than you’d think at first. Even her rambunctious songs had clever details like minor synth riffs or extra guitar licks tucked away; Remember When seems based around bringing those details to the forefront. It achieves this by slowing the songs themselves, while still sounding as intense. The effect is an EP that smolders instead of explodes.

Take something like”The Fall”, where the bass and guitar riffs flirt around each other for the verses and only connect in the chorus. Despite being fairly intricate, all the moving parts to the song work together as a whole for a tone that’s ponderous while still being likable and catchy (and who among us can’t relate to “We used to make such a great team/But I was looking for love/and we were 18/you didn’t know what you wanted/But I wanted you”?). Other stand out, “Giving Up” puts a killer melody to that moment when you knew everything in a relationship was hopelessly broken. It’s an absolutely understated track; the palm-muted guitar brings an edge of dread, but with the punchy drums and Weiss’ layered vocals, it’s still lively.

Five songs seems to be the right amount for Remember When. The title track leads off the EP with momentum that recalls Say What You Mean, although it still sounds a little more textured like the material here. Weiss’ take on Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”, built around Jeff Buckley-style clean guitar, shows the human heart at the center of the glitchy electropop original. And it’s hard not to crack a smile at hearing the song covered this way. The only stumble is on closer “Take You Back”. It’s not without its charms as an intimate acoustic number, but the full band burst finishing the song sounds forced and doesn’t go anywhere before petering it.  But even then, a last second stumble isn’t enough to throw off the whole routine. Remember When is a great listen from an artist who hit their stride, and is finding out what comes next.

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other
For anyone else, a concept album character study about a man losing everything from his sobriety to his father to his lover would be an ambitious, even a daunting task. Then, you remember that Aaron West mastermind Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s day job is leading pop punk juggernaut The Wonder Years, whose self-referential discography includes multiple albums with recurring themes and musical suites, and suddenly We Don’t Have Each Other seems like scaling down.

With Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, it seems that Campbell’s out to make the next Great American Novel: The Album. Instead of The Wonder Years’ towering riffs and over-caffeinated rush, We Don’t Have Each Other has an acoustic, almost alt country sound. The first song released was “Divorce and the American South”, a gentle plea from Aaron West to his wife backed only by an acoustic guitar. Outside of other quiet moment “Get Me Out of Here Alive”, We Don’t Have Each Other is a surprisingly full album with bass, fuzzy electric guitar, drums, and horns. And the songs don’t always stay quiet; “Grapefruit”, “St. Joe Keep Us Safe”, and “You Ain’t No Saint” eventually hit cathartic heights that sound even bigger because of their unassuming beginnings. The full band sound puts Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties closer to Americana sounding bands like The Hold Steady, rather than a Warped Tour acoustic stage act.

But the real focus of We Don’t Have Each Other is Campbell’s songwriting. His articulation can get lost in the high flying, emotionally overcharged music of The Wonder Years, but here, he writes scenes and character sketches instead of journal entries. He seldom tells us outright how Aaron’s feeling, and instead places us right next to him as he experiences the loneliness of a shared apartment in the start of a divorce, or drives from New York City to Georgia to start over. On one hand, it’s a little heavy on “I did this, so I did that” style narration, but the scenes are interesting and well done enough for it to get by.

What looks good on paper doesn’t always have flawless execution, though. The first four songs on the record are pretty great with standout melodies and solid arrangements, but the record meanders a bit with “Divorce And the American South” after the ramshackle on the road anthem “Running Scared”. Ambition only gets the better of the album once, but it happens on a crucial moment with “The Thunderbird Inn”; the song doesn’t hit a musical stride, and can’t commit to either of its lyrical themes. It throws off the momentum of the album’s more somber back half that can’t even be rallied by “You Ain’t No Saint”. The closing cover of The Mountain Goats’ “Going to Georgia” is a great thematic choice as a closer, though. The idea behind We Don’t Have Each Other is compelling, and Campbell’s intermittent victories justify the finished, if uneven, product.

Youth Culture – I Hate How Normal I’ve Become
Full disclosure: I grabbed a copy of I Hate How Normal I’ve Become because the damn thing felt catered to me. Not only is frontman Ryan Rockwell from Cincinnati as well, but the record came out the same week that I started an office job and moved to the suburbs. What are the odds, right?

Youth Culture is Rockwell’s new sideproject that he bills as the darker side to the more positive bend of his main band, pop-punk comeups Mixtapes. It’s an understandable, if not drastic difference; if Mixtapes is about putting on a bright, determined face in spite of, well, life, then Youth Culture acknowledges that a brave face and #pma don’t solve everything. It’s less of a dark record, and more of a dissatisfied one.

Youth Culture also sounds like what you would expect from a Mixtapes side project. YC’s sound is still based in Mixtapes’ hyperkintetic, shout-along pop-punk that isn’t above playing with song structures; with minor tweaks, “Serious Business”, “I’m (actually) Sorry”, “Guns and Candy”, and “Thieves Guild” could sneak into Mixtapes’ setlists without anyone noticing. Elsewhere, Rockwell includes ideas you can tell he’s always wanted to try, but never been able to with his main gig, like the whistle/clap combo on “We Live”, or blatantly synthy strings of “American Songs”. And despite the down-on-yrself vibe of the album, I Hate How Normal I’ve Become has a looser feel than Mixtapes.

IHHNIB is a mix of ok to good songs with two gems in the middle. “Tell Me About Your Blog” (which includes a title drop) is a mission statement for the album that’s backed by sharp lyrics and catchy melodies throughout, while next song “Grocery Store” throws that same dissatisfaction through a pair of tempo changes and the best barbershop quartet breakdown you’re likely going to hear all year. And it’s touches like that, or the Rick Ross line in “Tell Me About Your Blog”, or the yoga mats/McRib joke in “We Live” that makes I Hate How Normal I’ve Become worth it: underneath all the reflection, Rockwell still has time to crack a joke.

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Ranting About Music’s (Very Un)official Bunbury Saturday Report

Confession: I’ve never been to a music festival.

Ok, that’s not quite true: I went to Warped Tour a few years ago (my friends and I sat through bad metalcore to see Katy Perry on a side stage as “I Kissed a Girl” was coming up–2008 was weird), but I’ve never been to a Coa-Bonna-palooza type multi-day festival with a vowel-heavy name or those obnoxious not-quite-paper-not-quite-plastic wristbands that never feel comfortable.

Enter Bunbury, a music festival that’s light on vowels, but makes up for that by being in Cincinnati. Bunbury’s in its third summer at Sawyer Point, the Cincinnati park on the banks of the Ohio River, and is able to pull some solid headliners for a small festival (past bill toppers have included Weezer, Death Cab For Cutie, MGMT, and The National). So, after being harangued by coworkers for a month about going, I finally shelled out for a Saturday a one-day pass. Originally, I wasn’t planning on writing a field report of the day, but the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. So, between texting different people for meet-ups, getting lost between stages, and sampling some fine local Cincinnati beers, here’s who I saw (all photos by me).

NewPoliticsNew Politics
New Politics were a group I hadn’t heard, but damn near everyone I knew that was going to Bunbury was making a point to see them play relatively early in the day at the main stage. Once singer David Boyd kicked their set off with a backflip off the drum platform, I knew I was in for a good time, and the next 40 minutes did not disappoint. New Politics wheelhouse seems to be sneering, wildly enthusiastic power pop backed by off the charts stage presence. Boyd’s gymnastics came back in the form of flips, headstands, and dance moves, all while teasing singalongs, callouts, and motion from a crowd marinating in the heat and humidity of a Cincinnati afternoon in July, including the moment pictured here, when he stood on the crowd. Most of that rambunctiousness translates onto their album A Bad Girl in Harlem, which I’ve been Spotifying ever since. It was a great start to the day.

Maybe it’s because Bunbury’s a young festival, maybe Cincinnati isn’t quite the right scene, or maybe it’s any number of availability factors, but Bunbury doesn’t book a lot of Pitchfork-friendly artists. The biggest exception to that rule this year was indie pop group Cults, who I was familiar with at a glance, and played main stage at 5:45 (likely the hottest point in the day). Cults makes solid enough music, but a number of factors were working against them: their mix was more loud than coherent, their more laid back stage presence wilted on the heels of New Politics, and the crowd was almost inert. As someone who cops to being that guy who gets way too fucking into it at shows, it was hard to work through, so I ended up meeting with a friend of mine on the side halfway through Cults’ set. My friend pitched that Cults would have done better to swap times with New Politics, and I can’t say I disagree.

My girlfriend is a bigger fan of HAERTS than I am, although I still made it a point to see their set in full. Part of that was taste–I still like their music, after all–and as the day went on, it also felt like rooting for an underdog. HAERTS were slated to finish right before Paramore (the day’s headliner) started, and were listed as “TBA” on the schedules handed out at the gates of the festival.

If any of this affected the band, it didn’t show during their delightfully surprising set. HAERTS have a sound similar to Haim: ostensibly indie pop, but it’s expertly made, and there are decades of influences distilled into one graceful package (a coworker of mine texted me during their set, saying singer Nini Fabi reminded her of Stevie Nicks). Like Cults, their sound was bottom-heavy, but here, it served to show that Derek McWilliams’ bass playing might be the band’s secret weapon. I’m looking to hear more from HAERTS; their set might have been my favorite to just listen to all day.

Full disclosure: when I was choosing which day to go to Bunbury, Paramore on Saturday was the tipping point. Based on the sheer number of Paramore (and Fall Out Boy, but more on that later) shirts and merch I saw people wearing, I was far from the only one. Paramore/FOB included Bunbury in their Monumentour, so they brought the staging with them; in Paramore’s case, this meant a scoreboard style lighting display and a two level stage to differentiate Paramore the Band from Paramore the Hired Guns. As Hayley Williams was fond of saying during the show, Paramore’s been together for 10 years, and that road experience carries onto their live show. The band fired on all-cylinders during their set, from joyous opener “Still Into You” to the crowd singalong finish of “Ain’t It Fun”, and treated the show like one big party, complete with confetti, streamers, and balloons.

The band also worked plenty of older material in, too; multiple songs from Riot! came out, as did “Emergency” and “Pressure” from their debut album, plus a pair from brand new eyes. Weirdly enough, the deep cuts they pulled from the self-titled album were songs I’ve never been fond of (“Last Hope” and “Proof”), but they were still a blast to hear live. I would have liked to see “crushcrushcrush” or “Fast In My Car” make an appearance, but ah well, can’t have everything.

Foxy Shazam
I know just enough about Foxy Shazam to assume they’re a fun time live (translation: I listened to The Church of Rock and Roll a few times when it came out), and they brought on some of the party I missed by skipping Andrew W.K. They pulled heavily from their new, free album GONZO, and even if GONZO‘s a bit of a dud, the groove of “Have the Fun” and “Brutal Truth” are serviceable live. The set benefited from being the first real “after dark” affair of the night; between the heavy smoke from the band (and audience), plus the seedy stage lighting and the glowing, red Newport sign from Newport on the Levee, the river stage had the look and sinister mysticism of a 70s dive bar. I’m kind of bummed that my phone was charging, and I don’t have any pictures Foxy, but they eventually broke out “Healing Touch”, so whatever. Even if the songs weren’t grade A, it was still fun, seedy rock and roll.

FallOutBoyOrWhateverFall Out Boy
I don’t like Fall Out Boy. I like Fall Out Boy songs, but it took seeing them live to make me finally realize that I kind of can’t stand them as an entity. To be fair, I entered their set cranky begin with: I was burnt out and vaguely hungover, and the stocky person in front of me was drunkenly staggering into everyone two songs in. But even without that, it would have been a bum set that didn’t have much going for it. “Save rock and roll” applied more to their all black, leather, and fire geyser stage than it did to, well, Save Rock and Roll, which made up a painfully high percentage of their setlist. “The Phoenix” actually benefited from turning into a near-metal number, but the rest of the material felt flat, especially next to punchier numbers like “Dance, Dance”, and “I Don’t Care”.

Patrick Stump is still as great a vocalist as ever, but any stage banter with him and Pete “Every band has commented on the heat and humidity today, but I’m going to wear this zipped up leather hoodie for the next fucking hour” Wentz came off as half-hearted and tedious. The hits were alright, but none of FOB’s bloated set felt inspired or essential, so I ended up leaving early with my way lit by the pyrotechnics of (of course) “My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light’em Up)”.

I don’t know how much of the hot, packed, frantic, but ultimately satisfying experience of Bunbury carries over to the bigger festivals, but rest assured, I had a great enough time to come back next year.

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Radio Rant – Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea – Problem

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. It’s summer time!

Summer might be blockbuster season for movies, but it’s like prestige season for the pop charts. If you can get your mitts onto a number one hit between May and August and hold onto that slot for a few weeks, you’ve got a great shot at the number one song of the year, or at least a lock in the top five. Past summer hit winners include massive jams like “Yeah!”, “We Belong Together”, “Umbrella”, “Promiscuous”, “I Kissed a Girl”, “I Gotta Feeling”, and “Rolling in the Deep”; songs that grossed the GDP of a small country. Last year renewed interest in the Summer Jam race, as the country found itself embittered in a long “Whoever loses, Pharrell wins” fight between Robin Thicke and Daft Punk.

I’ve already looked at (probably) this year’s Song of Summer: Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s “Fancy”, and today I’m looking at its famous number two: “Problem” by Ariana Grande, which itself features Azalea. I’m sure Iggy and Pharrell high fived over this.

Let’s talk about Ariana Grande. Right now, she’s where Miley Cyrus was in 2010, or Selena Gomez was last year: her wacky kids show is ending, and she’s trying to establish traction for her adult pop career. Her first album came out last year, and you probably heard “The Way” at some point, assuming it was some forgotten 90s R&B cut you forgot from the rollerskating rink. Grande actually has lots of potential; she’s a trained singer that has musicals and symphony performances under her belt, but in terms of pop, she hasn’t hit the heights where she’s doing controversial music videos or godawful versions of Disney songs yet. Which really isn’t the worst thing.

Alright, I try not to comment on an artist’s image, but holy shit: this voice comes out of this body. I just can’t get my head around the physics of that; does she have an extra diaphragm in one of her legs or something? It’d be like if Thom Yorke actually sang like Damiam Abraham from Fucked Up.

So, “Problem”. Grande’s still working in retro R&B, but the beat here sounds more modern. The brass section comes out in quick blasts during the verse with a little bit of synth bass, while the drums hit surprisingly hard and build during the pre-chorus. Despite being pretty tight individually, the verses of “Problem” sound unrestrained, especially with Grande letting loose from her first note. If you like your summer pop extra sugary, bright, and bouncy, then this is the one for you. The pre-chorus builds and builds as Grande sings higher and higher before the song bottoms out.


After Grande’s last big note, the song switches radio stations for you and turns into a bass-heavy trap beat with an uncredited (?!) vocal from Big Sean. Apparently this upbeat pop song by a former child star just needed to turn into “Mercy” for its hook. To be fair, the horns, drums, and Grande start working their way back in after the drop for the chorus, so at least it sound natural. Hell, I actually like this idea for the chorus since we’ve hit the point where pop songs don’t have to be limited to one genre, and it makes “Problem” stand out a bit more. It’s one of those moves that would have pissed me off a few years ago, but it just seems smart now. Pretty catchy, too.

But no, if we want to talk about the shitty parts of “Problem”, we have to mention Iggy Azalea. Her status as 2014’s New Star is all but a foregone conclusion at this point, but she’s won that title by default more than anything else. Charli XCX’s chorus swept her away on “Fancy”, and even those verses are head and shoulders above what she’s phoning in here. Her verse has no flow, adds absolutely nothing to the song, and has no tone to it at all. It fits “Problem” lyrically, but doesn’t sound anywhere near as fun as the Jock Jam-y sax behind it or Grande teasing “One less, one less, problem”. And for fuck’s sake, her only memorable line is the laziest “99 Problems” reference I’ve ever heard.

Actually, Azalea isn’t just a problem on “Problem”, but she’s Grande’s biggest problem of the summer. “Problem” sat at number two on the charts for a few weeks (it’s since slid to number 3 in favor of this bullshit I’m going to deal with eventually), arguably held back because of its universally reviled guest verse. The song that’s kept it out of the number one spot? Iggy Azalea’s own “Fancy”. I’m not saying the Illuminati run the charts, but if they were, it’d be pretty clear who’s in their recruitment class.

End of the day, I like “Problem”. It’s nothing that’ll probably make my year end list, but it’s good as frilly summer pop. Beside, if anyone besides Azalea’s going to have a run up the charts this year, my money’s on Grande going big. We could always do worse.

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On Yr. Radar #8

We get a lot of new music here at Ranting About Music! and here’s the very best of bands you’ve never heard of with releases out now or soon. These guys and gals deserve to be on your radar.

The Hydrothermal Vents – Neptune’s Grave

“Neptune’s Grave” comes from Montreal post-punk duo The Hydrothermal Vents‘ upcoming debut album Secrets of the Deep! The duo has an easy chemistry; interlocking guitar and bass riffs feed into each other naturally, as do John Tielli and Tessa Kautman’s back and forth boy-girl vocals. THV site a major Pixies influence (although I also hear some late-80s Sonic Youth in the spoken word/discordant parts of “Neptune’s Grave”), made especially visible in the song’s outro, which reminds me of “Hey” in the best way. Secrets of the Deep! is out on July 5th, and I’m looking forward to it already.

Jalen McMillan – All Over You

I never thought that Titanic of all things would be the perfect visual for a song, but it fits Jalen McMillan’s “All Over You” to a tee. The shimmering EDM-does-soul production and adoring melody sound like they came out of a dream, and McMillan’s rapping and singing work perfectly in tandem in a post-Drake world. McMillan’s debut EP Genesis (entirely self-written/produced) comes out July 1st.

Ballad – P.A.N.L. (Party All Night Long)

Ballad, or MrLoveBallad as he’s known on social media, is releasing a single every week leading up to his EP Suite 89. The singles have been consistently enjoyable so far, but “P.A.N.L.” is my favorite of the bunch. Built on a catchy, stuttering synth and vocals inspired by modern R&B greats like Usher and Ne-Yo, the song has plenty of radio potential. Keep and eye out for the full EP, and check out some of his previous single releases.

R.A. – Dragging the Anchor
[click to listen]
Massachusetts hardcore up and comers R.A. (short for Rude Awakening) spent their first years touring North America in an effort to build a name for themselves. The hard work seems to have paid off; the band’s first LP is coming out on famed hardcore label Bridge 9 on July 1st, and the bone rattling aggression of “Dragging the Anchor” is a great primer. R.A. isn’t out to reinvent the hardcore wheel with their lumbering riffs, relentless drum blasts, and snarling vocals, but damn, if spinning the thing a few times isn’t a blast. Collateral Damage is available for streaming at NewNoise.

The Perms – The Parent Thing

I wrote about The Perms a couple years ago, and the band’s already goofy sense of humor has only gotten better over time, as evidenced by the Breaking Bad-goes-domestic video for “The Parent Thing”. It’s a fun video cooked up for a fun song; “The Parent Thing” a slice of power-pop with the right amount of stop-starts and “whoa-oh-oh”s that bands like Weezer and Barenaked Ladies have been trying to write for years.

Polaris Rose – Ocean Ending

On “Ocean Ending”, Polaris Rose specialize in the stomp ‘n strum flavor of melodic indie rock/folk that’s come into vogue over the last few years, but the song finds its character in the details. The subtle, glimmering electronics and gentle dynamics give the production an oceanic atmosphere, and the surprisingly muscular guitar riffs add edge to what could pass as simple beach music. Then again, that hidden depth and power makes “Ocean Ending” perfect beach music.

Anathema – Distant Satellites

Don’t worry, you’ll hardly notice it’s 8 minutes. Prog rock is a hard genre to master, making the synthesis of prog and electronica of Distant Satellites‘ title track even more impressive. UK critic darlings Anathema have never shied away from ambition, but the ornately arranged, stately grace of “Distant Satellites” has to be heard to be believed. Over eight minutes, the song rises, falls, rebuilds, and crescendos with the kind of thrill that epitomizes everything prog should be. Distant Satellites is out now, with rave reviews.

Smoke Idols – Come Clean

When it comes to inspiration, there’s a difference between being influenced by something, and straight-up being something. In that regard, Smoke Idols self-titled debut album isn’t so much inspired by Britpop as much as it is Britpop, care of a 2014 Spanish band. The album takes early-period Oasis snarl and dunks it in mid-period Oasis psychedelia; if you play opener “Come Clean” loud enough, you can almost hear it will itself into “Rock n’ Roll Star”. And I’m completely fine with that. Smoke Idols is free on the group’s bandcamp.

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Radio Rant: Iggy Azalea ft. Charli XCX – Fancy

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Get your finery out.

Even if you haven’t heard any of Iggy Azalea’s music, her name might sound familiar. She’s spent the last few years in that blogosphere dead zone where she had the buzz (including a feature in XXL’s Freshman of 2012 list) and minor releases to back up the hype and keep her on the radar, but label woes stalled her debut album, which only came out earlier this year. It hasn’t been for lack of trying; Azalea’s gotten plenty of media coverage, and even has backing from her inspiration, TI. While The New Classic didn’t do as well as she expected, “Fancy” hit number one.

So, “Fancy”. I’ll say this, after spending all year with good-but-stale number ones by industry dinosaurs, it’s refreshing to hear something a little hungry and trashy make its way up. The song’s fairly standard hip-pop fair: clubby beat, kinda empty, but still catchy. Azalea brings plenty of confidence and attitude, but really, it’s Charli XCX’s massive, cooler-than-thou chorus that puts “Fancy” over everything else. Her double-tracked, brash vocals have a solo-era Gwen Stefani vibe to them, only more bearable.

Less bearable, though, is “Fancy”‘s beat. It’s minimal with an occasional deep bass sound with some “hey”s thrown in with percussion, and I get going for a minimal beat, but no one’s clamoring to hear “Rack City” in 2014. A beat like this just doesn’t sound inspired or world conquering, two things I think you’d want to go for when you called your album The New Classic. Hell, it’s just a bad match for the performers: Charli’s chorus swallows it whole, and Azalea’s deft flow doesn’t have anything solid to land on. It sounds incomplete.

Well, let’s look at Azalea’s verses: “First things first, I’m the realest” If you have to tell me you’re real, I’m going to start assuming the opposite, but whatever.

“And I’m still in the Murda Bizness” Ok, that’s kinda clever. I’d reference a song TI did with me, too. If I had one.

“I could hold you down, like I’m giving lessons in physics” Gravity’s a pretty basic lesson, though. Or Iggy had some demented science teachers.

“Swagger on stupid, I can’t shop in no department” Right, because the only place you’ll find “swagger on (a) stupid (looking hat/shirt/whatever)” is Hot Topic. Ok, that one was a stretch.

“I just can’t worry about no haters, gotta stay on my grind” I’ve been on Twitter, too, Iggy.

“I’m in the fast line, from LA to Tokyo” …you mean the Pacific Ocean? the largest body of water on Earth?

“Trash the hotel, let’s get drunk at the minibar”. “Cuz every song is like trashing the hotel room”

You see what I’m getting at. Iggy’s verses and the chorus aren’t bad, there just isn’t anything to them outside usual brags about expensive shit and how she does. Which I guess is fair for a song called “Fancy”, since Jay-Z beat her to naming artists and labels by a year. But again, it works, so I can’t fault it too much. Especially as catchy as it is. Hm, I still have some space to fill here…hey, how did Iggy Azalea come up with her rap name?

Uh…huh. Ok, two things: I’d give her grief for literally invoking those old My Space/Facebook “lol, ur rap name is your pet plus ur address” charts, but we all know there’s no way in hell you’re making it in hip-hop with the first name Amethyst. It’d be like going by Aubrey, or something.

Second of all: that is her real voice? I mean, I get the logic: in hip-hop, you could bounce back from being Amethyst, you could bounce back from being Australian, but you’re dead in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef as Amethyst the Australian. It doesn’t bug me that she uses a different voice for rapping–most rappers do. It bugs me that her rap voice is affected past the point of parody; for fuck’s sake, how are you going to do an interview like Nicole Kidman and then be the black chick in Scary Movie 3 on a single? Miley Cyrus didn’t ratchet up this hard.

Then again, the video for “Fancy” is a shot for shot remake of the white girl movie, so maybe Azalea’s a little more self aware than I think. Regardless, it’s a fun, pop-rap hit, but almost aggressively so; there’s no clever sample, few punchlines, and nothing interesting to the production. It’s designed to catch in your head, and that’s what it does. It’s decent, but hardly a classic or elegant in anyway.

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New Music: Candy Hearts – All The Ways You Let Me Down

All The Ways You Let Me Down is out June 10th on through Violently Happy imprint of Bridge 9 Records.It’s early June, which means that almanacs and gloomy Ohio weather be damned, I’m convinced it’s summer. Summer, for me, is always going to mean listening to more pop-punk: what music better soundtracks hot, sun-filled days than a sub-genre so heavy on sugar and vitamin D that its albums might as well be packaged with popsicles and tanning lotion?

Candy Hearts’ new record All The Ways You Let Me Down is a venerable one stop shop for pop punk that’ll shine bright all year. It’s the rare album where every song sounds like it could be a single with its own identity, but the whole thing still feels like a cohesive whole. Pop punk veteran Chad Gilbert (of New Found Glory), who produced the band’s 2012 EP The Best Ways to Disappear, is back in the producer’s chair, but he’s eased off on that EP’s Big Rock sheen in favor for something looser and punchier. The production’s a mix of TBWTD‘s sturdiness and powerhouse drum sounds with the crunchy guitar of Candy Hearts’ debut album Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy, finding a happy medium that lends power to the album’s bigger moments without losing any of the melody.

Which is a plus, because All The Ways You Let Me Down has the biggest moments that Candy Hearts has committed to tape. Now that they’re a few years into their career, it isn’t hard to see Candy Hearts evolving in the same way that indie power-pop stars Best Coast have: the core sound remains largely unchanged, but the arrangements and lyrics have gotten subtly but unarguably more intricate. No where else would the band have tried the playful guitar lines in “The Dream’s Not Dead”, those beat shifts in the freewheeling “Fool’s Gold”, or the maddeningly catchy intro to “Michigan”, but those touches are what give the album its character.

Then, of course, there’s “Something Missing” and “Playing With Fire”, which are a departure from anything the band’s done before. “Something Missing” is straight up late 90s power pop in the vein of Third Eye Blind that isn’t quite a ballad, but has a dramatic edge that’s new to the band’s slower numbers. Two songs later, “Playing With Fire” jumps headfirst into power ballad territory, with squalling guitars and a huge, heartbreaking chorus. It’s this pair of songs that put the album’s lyrical themes of troubled relationships, self-doubt, and just not being enough.

Admittedly, those are common topics in pop punk, but Candy Hearts pull it off with more charm than most. Lead singer Mariel Loveland hasn’t lost her fondness for quirky similes–past songs have compared lovers to the string of red balloons or the danger of picking pennies up tails side down, and opener “I Miss You” compares love to a tarnished ring–but the delivery’s straightforward and you agree with the metaphor because hey, you’ve been there. There’s sadness and triumph all over ATWYLMD like you’d find on a Wonder Years or Menzingers record, but none of the existential hand-wringing or brainy rhetoric cluttering the lyrics or the hooks. The simple delivery is what makes singalongs like closer “Top of Our Lungs” such a joy.

But “Top of Our Lungs” is far from alone on that front. Candy Hearts blast their way through the album’s first seven songs, only pausing for a quick fix at “Coffee With My Friends”. The one-two-three punch of “The One To Get Me Out”, the title track, and “Michigan” might constitute some of the band’s outright best work: “The One To Get Me Out” jumps between bouncing verses and a muscular chorus, “All The Ways You Let Me Down” is the catchiest slew of relationship problems you might hear, and it’s impossible to stay still during “Michigan”. Drummer Matthew Ferraro remains Candy Hearts’ secret weapon, able to switch between hard-hitting punk rhythms and more playful pop beats on a dime, and still sound confident with both.

If there was one word that differentiates All The Ways You Let Me Down from Candy Hearts’ previous output, it would be “confidence”. The band knows what they’re doing, and the songs–joyful or downcast–reflect that. The album’s brilliantly paced from start to end, offering summery pleasures on repeated listens. Everything you need to know about it is there on the cover: bright colors and sweet delivery, but an emotional message that holds your attention, and keeps you coming back for more. Simply put, it’s great. All The Ways You Let Me Down shines so brightly, even its blemishes are hard to see.

All The Ways You Let Me Down is out June 10th on Violently Happy Records, a Bride 9 records imprintIt is available to stream on Alternative Press here, and available for preorder here and on iTunes.

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Album Review: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

The Black Keys were never here to make friends.

It’s kind of a no-brainer, with the band releasing more barbs at other artists than singles for Turn Blue, but on a closer look, isolationism and defensiveness have part of this group’s history from the start. Their first few albums were self-recorded not because no one would sign the band, but because guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney treated regional indie labels with suspicion. DIY was the mantra, and “commercial” was a dirty word. Success wasn’t a guiding principle; survival was.

And, while the Keys moved upward with each release, they always kept that underdog status: their sales and critical reception were okay, but up until Brothers, they were frustratingly aware of their lack of cultural currency. Here they were, five or six albums deep into their career, and still vying with fresh-faced art school Brooklynites for coverage in some parts of the country, and more commercially successful long-runners in others. The Keys essentially weaponized these hang-ups with El Camino, nailing the sweet spot between critical taste and pop rock thrills, and it won them the world. But, it didn’t feel like enough; the band’s underdog mentality teetered on the edge of full-blown inferiority complex (it becomes apparent seeing comments stacked back to back, like footnotes 9-13 here). After over a decade of fighting, where do you go after you hit the top?

I know that’s a lot of intro, but understanding where The Black Keys are coming from makes Turn Blue, if not a better record, at least more understandable. The album gets plenty of oomph from being written during Auerbach’s divorce, but even without that affecting the songwriting, Turn Blue is a consciously single-less “headphone album” that lets its songs play out instead of aiming for the gut. El Camino, it ain’t.

Superficially, Turn Blue isn’t going to shock anyone who listened to The Keys last few albums. It’s still polished, Danger Mouse is still co-writing and producing, and it’s still ostensibly pop rock. Where it loses traction is that it grabs the least appealing aspects of each of those records: Attack & Release‘s grafted-on muck, the psychedelic bloat from Brothers, and an expansion on El Camino‘s distrusting misogyny make Turn Blue a nearly joyless listen.

But, let’s look at the few bright spots. Much talked about opener “Weight of Love”, a sprawling, six minute, prog rock-esque jam with rises, falls, and honest to God guitar solos, kicks the album off on a high that it never quite reaches again. “Weight of Love” works because it’s focused, from the swirling intro to the huge chorus and over the top soloing. “Bullet in the Brain” briefly revisits “Weight of Love” for its intro before erupting into a catchy synth hook and a propulsive track that serves as a midalbum highlight. Single “Turn Blue” works as a slowburning blues number with Danger Mouse’s textured keyboards and strings hitting all the subtle spots in the background, and the killer bassline doesn’t hurt, either.

Elsewhere, Turn Blue is a confusing album that’s bound to shake fans that came in from Brothers onward. It suffers from pacing issues, especially in the record’s uneven first half, where “Weight of Love” gets followed up by a dud like “In Time”, and “Year in Review” is a forgettable segue between kinda-okay single “Fever” and “Bullet in the Brain”. Even if the songs aren’t always explicitly better, the backhalf feels a little more cohesive as a psychedelic classic rock send up. The guitars come to the front for “It’s Up to You Now”, the gloriously sleazy solo at the end of “In Our Prime”, and “Gotta Get Away”, while “Waiting on Words” and especially “10 Lovers” feature some of Danger Mouse’s best work here.

As I mentioned earlier, the album was written in the wake of Auerbach’s divorce. It’s a subject that’s made for a number of classic albums, and even The Black Keys’ best song is about heartbreak, but Turn Blue is painfully one-note. There are plenty of allusions to the weight, to breaking, to the cold, and sadness/distrust of lovers, but none of them really stick beyond the blues trope of “women are trouble”. This is an album that actually fucking says “All the good women are gone”. That trope appears up and down The Keys’ back catalog, but it feels flat here, knowing that there’s a name and face behind the lyrics.

In keeping with Turn Blue‘s wtf-ness, it ends on an unabashedly happy note with the doofy Rolling Stones sendup “Gotta Get Away”. It’s The Keys back to their strengths: lots of rock, a little boneheaded, but you can’t keep still while listening to it. Maybe “Gotta Get Away”‘s placement at the end of Turn Blue signifies happier times for Auerbach and the band in the future, but for now, we can only wonder. Turn Blue is well made from a technical standpoint, but suffers from aimless and uninspired songwriting with a lack of hook and depth. Put simply, it isn’t what I’ll reach for when I want bummed out music, nor is it what I’ll want if I want The Black Keys. But that might have been the idea all along. Two and a half stars out of five.

tl;dr: The Black Keys wanted a smaller audience, and Turn Blue will more than help. 2.5/5.

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