Radio Rant: Bastille – Pompeii

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Let’s take a look at a new face today.

British synth-poppers Bastille are the latest in the crop of  kinda indie bands to land a delayed, randomass top ten hit because top-tier indie artists aren’t trying for radio singles anymore. So, instead you get your Bastilles, Imagine Dragons, The Neighbourhoods, and fun.s: groups that have these massive, super-exposed hits, but arrived without any Pitchfork or pop hype.  A couple years ago, Steven Hyden (probably my favorite living music writer) coined the phrase “silent majority rock” while discussing “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People to describe these bands that seemed to will themselves into popularity.

While I don’t disagree with the term, I think it’s more accurate to call these songs “designated rock”. They split the difference between cherrypicked alternative sounds and radio accessibility, and the result is an agreeable tune that sounds vaguely alternative and dignified on the charts, and works as a pop song palette cleanser for the indie crowd. They’re really hard to hate, in other words. I’ve even reviewed some (the Neon Trees’ “Animal” is likely the first), and my reactions have ranged from enthusiasm at best to slightly positive at worst.

That said, I will take slight positivity over the infinite indifference I have towards “Pompeii” any day of the week. I can’t actually say that it’s a dislikeable song–it’s impossible to hear “Pompeii” and go the rest of the day without bobbing your head to that Gregorian chant at least once–but there isn’t much to it aside from the fact that it exists. It’s the kind of song that feels like running in place for three and a half minutes; sure, you feel a little more lively during and after, but it didn’t go anywhere. Really, it almost feels like nothing’s changed at all. I think someone said that in a song once.

Alright, let’s see where “Pompeii” and Bastille (I have to assume this band’s built on Romantic language nods–release “De Gaulle” as a second single!) stack next to other Designated Rock bands. Like most other DR, they’re fairly stylized; compare the washed out filters on the “Pomepii” cover art/Bad Blood cover to The Neighbourhood’s smeary grays or the psychedelic murals of Foster the People. It’s a cool look in any case, but it’s also a quick smoke ‘n mirrors move to make a young group look more substantial than they might really be.

That same “cool but shallow” approach goes for the music to DR bands, as well. With post-punk style synths, indie-pop drums, and layered vocals, Bastille aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they don’t sound directly like anyone else, either. Like “Radioactive”, the cascade of drums, backing vocals, and rubbery production make it easier to see Bastille as a studio project than rock band, and while it gave “Radioactive” a little extra dubstep punch, the same move stiffens the rush to “Pompeii”. That big, sweeping chorus doesn’t have any guts to it, and feels anti-climatic after the building power in the verses.

A lot of that comes down to frontman and Bastille mastermind Dan Smith (Really? “Dan Smith”? Rock bands have reached a level of bullshit were the frontrunner is led by a guy whose name screams “insurance agency middle management”?). The biggest comparison for his barrel chested, British rasp is fellow sensitive ham Marcus Mumford. Both guys excel at grabbing the listener ’round the shoulder for massive singalongs about some nebulous feelings, but, like his music, Smith sounds like he’s still holding something vital back. Be it a lack of charisma or songwriting chops, but his delivery on “Pompeii” is just too brainy to have the catharsis and the meaning, man that it strives for. I’d like Bastille a lot more if they didn’t try to hard to be smart.

Lyrically, the song kinda works but kinda doesn’t. The verses are pretty clearly the reflections of someone from Pompeii–imagery of an idle city laid to ruin, quite possibly at the hands of a vengeful deity (“Where do we begin? The rubble, or our sins?”). And, like a lot of DR bands, the lyrics are actually pretty competent; the picture in the verses is great, and even has a little personality. And the chorus, which basically wrings that “If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?” pseudo-philosophical line for all its worth, is reasonably done. Where the song falls apart is combining the two; there’s no way to pull off “nothing’s changed”, or “how am I gonna be an optimist?” when you got a front row seat to a full-body fuck by a volcano. If the two even worked together at all, I wouldn’t nitpick, but it just doesn’t take as “Pompeii” is.

Which summarizes how I feel about “Pompeii” as a whole. There’s a great song in here somewhere, but the finished product is stunted and kind of an annoying repeated listen. Designated rock can take some time to get used to, but I’m starting to write “Pompeii” off as that song with the ringtone monks that I’m never going to like. I’d rather listen to it than, say, chew on volcanic ash, but I’m more than okay with seeing the tail end of this one. I gave a few other Bastille songs a go, and “Bad Blood” stuck with me, but otherwise…eh. Maybe I’ll like their second album.

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Album Review Round Up Q1 2014 (Pharrell, Beck, St. Vincent, Against Me!)

Pharrell - G I R L
Well, let’s not all act surprised. Hell, once Pharrell’s third big name collaboration was released last summer, I started wondering if he was sitting on an album already. But no, in an interview with Pitchfork, Pharrell revealed that Columbia Records essentially commissioned him for G I R L, which is almost more foresight than I’m used to giving labels.

This all means that G I R L is informed by the reach-across-the-aisles dance numbers “Get Lucky”, “Blurred Lines”, and to a lesser extent Despicable Me 2‘s “Happy”, and the album sees Pharrell play the role of a seasoned DJ, ready to give the crowd what they want. G I R L is loaded with the same blend of pop, funk, disco, and soul that made Pharrell such a hit last year, and he clearly knows it. The record is rock solid in terms of consistency–it doesn’t have any real lows to speak of (“Lost Queen” as an 8 minute 2 parter is as close as it gets), but ignoring the independently written year old “Happy”, there aren’t any dramatic peaks, either. The album’s first half is filled with the staccato drums and twangy basslines that are more dance oriented, and made Pharrell such a hit last year. And any of them, from the horn-laden bounce of “Brand New” to the tight funk of “Hunter” could easily fit as a radio single or club cut. After culminating with “Happy”, G I R L considers the dancefloor claimed, and heads to the VIP lounge for its more laid back, experimental second half that doesn’t have the rush of side A, but still has enough groove to make your shoulders sway.

Like the main man himself, the guest artists on G I R L are rarely thrilled, but constantly entertaining. Daft Punk turn in a satisfying Random Access Memories outtake on the symphonic strut of “Gust of Wind”, and Alicia Keys is steps out of balladry for the reggae infused “Know Who You Are”. Hell, even Miley Cyrus cuts her schtick and sounds great on “Come Get It Bae”. But still, my favorite is Justin Timberlake on “Brand New”, where he gets into a falsetto-off with Pharrell while sounding as joyfully carefree as he does on Jimmy Fallon (and, pointedly, not on The 20/20 Experience).

G I R L‘s a fun time, but can’t help but be a little underwhelming. Once Pharrell starts namedropping famous women in the chorus of–wait for it–”Marilyn Monroe”, you know exactly where this is going to go, and there are few surprises over the next 40 minutes. The more I think about it, Pharrell reminds me of another super producer with an album out this year: Danger Mouse of Broken Bells. Both of these guys are at their best when they bring out a hidden edge in other artists, but their own solo (or near solo) work tends to be a little too self-satisfied for its own good. But, in either case, they’re still fun listens, 3.5/5.

Beck – Morning Phase
Beck might be 12 albums and 20 years into his career, but Morning Phase still makes a first. Unfortunately, it’s the first time that a Beck album wholly and predictably aped a Beck album. I should clarify: Beck’s hat trick has always been an eclectic mix of rock, folk, funk, psychedelia, and hip-hop in a style so effective that he could probably make your kitchen sink sound kinda catchy, but he’s always been great at finding new and distinct sounds in that style. That’s not the case for Morning Phase.

Morning Phase is billed as a “companion piece” to Sea Change, Beck’s shuffling acoustic acoustic singer-songwriter album, his critical high water mark of the 21st century, and one of the great Sad Bastard albums of the last 15 years. Morning Phase deliberately invokes Sea Change: the same warm string arrangements, breathy production, mid-tempo numbers, and even supporting players all returned over a decade later. On one hand, it makes sense to return here, because hey, this shit works. “Morning” is as majestic as any opener you’ll find, and “Waking Light”, “Heart Is a Drum”, and “Unforgiven” are blissed out, gorgeous soundscapes (especially “Unforgiven”‘s textured piano chords). To it’s credit, the album’s pacing goes a long way; no two back to back songs sound similar to the point of detriment, making Morning Phase a mood album above all else.

The problem here is that the mood is almost punishingly monotone. Even with all the obvious musical signatures repeated, the crucial difference between Sea Change and Morning Phase is that the former was driven by an immediate sense of loss that you can’t imitate with all the acoustic guitars, pianos, and violins in California. Sea Change had an austerity to its arrangements, and the reverb heavy production channeled dejection or isolation, in addition to being breathtaking. It was focused, it had a point.

Morning Phase‘s greatest problem isn’t that it lacks is predecessor (sorry, “companion piece”)’s sadness, it’s that it lacks anything in its place. Sea Change was made because it was a way to convey the emotions that Beck wanted to convey; Morning Phase was made because this shit worked on Sea Change. If you really want to see something like this that isn’t Sea Change, I’d suggest Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, which Beck produced and arranged, since it hits the same beats as Morning Phase, but better. Morning Phase is still an ornate, kinda beautiful record, and it gets marks for that, but few songs leave a lasting impression. It’s Beck, but boring. Not every first occasion needs celebrating, 3/5.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Now here’s what I was expecting from a Beck album.

St. Vincent has always felt like a warp on whoever Annie Clark actually is, and this album marks that disparity at its widest. St. Vincent pushes the artist’s inherent traits to, and sometimes past, their breaking points. The skittering drums, angular guitars, and off-kilter arrangements of the record feel exaggerated next to, say, Strange Mercy, but they’re also pulled off here with a deftness missing in St. Vincent’s previous output. The feeling of prettiness is still here, but the most prominent feature on the album is corrosion. The guitars, especially on “Birth in Reverse” and the ugly beauty of
Regret”, sound like they’re being played on rusted guitar strings through an amp covered in grit, while Clark’s vocals come in digitized and distant on multiple tracks.

The album’s delirious shininess fits with its themes of paranoia, anxiety, loneliness, and fragility, particularly in a, ah, reflektive age. But St. Vincent doesn’t have any of Reflektor‘s moralizing–there’s no “Flashbulb Eyes” or “Porno” here. It accepts, grudgingly, that the way technology has integrated itself into our lives is more or less permanent, and sounds more interested in exploring how this affects us. “Huey Newton” doubles as a surreal Google walk with a killer guitar riff, and it isn’t hard to imagine the twitchy protagonist of “Birth In Reverse” as a social media obsessive who hits you up for Candy Crush lives. Elsewhere, we get some “gear and guts” imagery via “Severed Crossed Fingers”, and a number of times St. Vincent feels away from people. But, the album also finds room for connection with “I Prefer Your Love”, an open ode from Clark to her mother. As always with St. Vincent, there’s a meaning to her choices from the lyrics to her reference choices to the “near future cult leader” she portrays on the cover, but it’s on the listener to find what they mean.

Which, thankfully, is more inviting than you’d think. For how easy it is to get lost in the record’s allusions, St. Vincent is an approachable, if weird, album. The album’s main sound is deranged pop-rock, and it possesses a dead-eyed energy that makes them stick. Part of it is that feeling of corrosion; the bulk of St. Vincent was recorded with the “everyone playing together in the room” organic feel, but the production distorts their sound to the point of near synthetic (see Clark’s goopy grey and utterly striking dye job on the cover for a visual representation). The album falters a bit from a mildly shiftless back half that starts around the clumsy “Give me Your Loves”, but the rest of St. Vincent is an enjoyable, weird mess. 4.5.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues
I’m going to be upfront: this was my favorite album of 2014′s first quarter. Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t just a great album or an Important one, it’s endlessly fascinating and commands attention. The album was written by Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, and began transitioning to living full time as a trans woman. It’s up for debate how much of TDB is pure autobiography, but that’s beside the point. The songs that make up this record burn with an intensity and an immediacy that comes from a deep personal crisis, like the simple hell of feeling disconnected from your own body.

I said that the details don’t matter because Transgender Dysphoria Blues is relatively light on specifics. Grace is such a talented songwriter that she can take these complex and specific emotions, and present them in such a way that they affect people as universal experiences. The album is loaded with trans-centric imagery (no shit, right?), but the ragged summer dresses, chipped nail polish, and fucked up femininity lead into brand new worlds raging inside us, the differences between me and you, and disillusionment. In pushing these details past their surface reference points to their rooted emotions, Transgender Dysphoria Blues succeeds as a massively humanizing and more poignant record. It slyly plays itself up as “the transgender record” to avoid becoming just “the transgender record”.

Not hurting things is the fact that Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an accomplished punk album as-is. The music’s larger than life, hitting an excellent balance between stadium-sized aspirations and furious punk catharsis, and a lean 28 minute runtime ensures that the it’s filler free and self-contained. It’s Against Me! playing to their strengths as a band. Literally the only thing holding the record back from a perfect score is the production; the band got a little carried away in gutting their work of Butch Vig’s sheen, and as a result, they underproduced some, meaning that TDB doesn’t hit as hard as it could.

Which isn’t to say that the band doesn’t hit damn hard. “Drinking With the Jocks” kicks the shit out of punk bros, even without the lyrical fuck off, and “True Trans Soul Rebel”, “Fuckmylife66″, and the title track are fantastic rock anthems in their own right. Even the material that isn’t hardwired to the main lyrical concept is exemplar; “Osama Bin Laden As the Crucified Christ” (remember, this band has songs like “Cliche Guevara” and “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) has some snarling riffs, while “Two Coffins” is an excellent little ditty regardless of context. And, of course, closer “Black Me Out” is as much of a quintessential punk anthem as they come.

Every year you get great albums, but ones as intense and compelling and flat out wonderful as Transgender Dysphoria Blues are few and far between. It isn’t exactly light subject matter, but it’s surprisingly approachable, and I keep finding something new on every listen. 4.5/5.

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Album Review: Bleeding Rainbow – Interrupt

It’s been an unsteady few years, but Philadelphia group Bleeding Rainbow might finally be finding their footing. After two albums as twee noise-pop group Reading Rainbow, the group expanded its line-up to a quartet for last year’s Yeah Right as Bleeding Rainbow. The line-up/name change coincided with a new deliberate edginess; the kid-style vocals from Sarah Everton and Rob Garcia hardened up slightly, and the music gained a more aggressive shoegaze/power-pop (think My Bloody Valentine meets Superchunk) bite. The resulting album Yeah Right was a muddled transition that hinted that the band’s shakeup could work more than it did work.

Interrupt comes a scant year later, and has all of the hallmarks of a Quick Turnaround Second Album. The songs are a little punchier, the rhythms are tighter, the band sounds much more confident, and the tempo is a little manic; essentially everything about the group’s been marginally improved (see Arctic Monkeys’ Favourite Worst Nightmare or Room on Fire by The Strokes for other examples). These elements are more visible with Interrupt‘s comparatively clear production, which allows the little moments like “Tell Me”‘s poppy lead guitar or the furious drumming on the chorus of “So You Know” to shine through. These touches are essential because the frequent drawback of the Quick Turnaround Second Album is that it can sound a little same-y.

Even though the album’s tempo diverges from its initial breakneck pace, the sense of urgency never leaves the slower numbers like the shoegaze-heavy “Out of Line” and “Monochrome”, which focus more on textured soundscapes than the hooks. And Bleeding Rainbow manages to connect the faster speed with the more intricate songcraft on standout track “Cut Up”, which runs wild through MBV guitar tones, a stadium-sized alternative rock chorus, and slaphappy garage rock energy over a deceptively short four and a half minutes. If you were to sample Interrupt, “Cut Up” or urgent opener “Time & Place” would be great places to start.

I’m a fan of Interrupt, but I know full well that it has a number of flaws. The songwriting gets by on pleasant melodies and fun group vocals, not because Bleeding Rainbow is saying anything particularly great. The band’s energy and huge sound hides the fact that some of the hooks don’t stick around once the song is over, either. It isn’t really a problem here, but the largest hurdle for Bleeding Rainbows moving forward is that they’re (technically) four albums deep and still don’t have a signature sound to differentiate them from other lower mid-tier indie bands. Interrupt is their sturdiest album to date, and hopefully they’ll use it as a launch point going forward. Just as long as they don’t switch guitarists again, or get a synth player, or something.

If “Good, not great” is shorthand for competent/enjoyable if unremarkable works, then Interrupt is the most aggressively Good album I’ve heard in awhile. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I mean it in the most flattering way possible; a record as Good as Interrupt–an approachable collection of songs made of easy to dispense thrills, and nothing more–is something to be celebrated. Granted, I might be a bit defensive because Interrupt‘s made of the kind of 90s indie/alt pastiche I could listen to for days, but in a way, you need rank and file genre albums like this every now and then. It’s the kind of simple album that makes you appreciate the Great albums when they come along, and something easy to listen to when you have a craving. For example, Interrupt hits the “noisy indie rock” mark, but without the transcendence of Japandroids, the high-intellect of Savages, or Cloud Nothings’ catharsis. It’s highly listenable, and there’s an understated value to that.

Interrupt clarifies Bleeding Rainbow’s sound more than it advances it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure or misstep. Actually, it’s exactly what the band needed right now; a batch of sturdy, confident songs with energy to spare. I could see Bleeding Rainbow pushing the edges of their sound more from here on out, going for spacier or harsher songs in the future, or I wouldn’t be surprised if we got an album like Interrupt every year or two. Either way, I’ll be sure to keep an eye on them, three and a half stars out of five.

tl;dr: Interrupt is an impressively Good slice of shoegaze-y power-pop, nothing more, nothing less. 3.5/5

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New Music: Yulianna – Popra

One of the more liberating qualities to modern music is that you can always delve into a different style or genre if you want to. It’s a great way to jump-start your creativity, and it can also lead to some unique music by exploring a particular style from an unconventional perspective. Such is the case today with Yulianna, a immensely talented operatic singer who’s second pop release, Popra came out last week.

The title “Popra” could sound gimmicky if Yulianna wasn’t so invested in the idea, but that’s what the album is: a thorough synthesis of darker electro-pop and operatic arrangements. The songs are “pop” in that they incorporate dance, R&B, and hip-hop elements, but the majority of them are from-the-ground-up opera compositions, just check out the extended piano intro to “Love” for an example. “Love” is a moody, atmospheric track with a gothic tinge that reminds me of subdued, synth-y Lacuna Coil, with a blaring synth in the chorus gives the song some focus.

“You Love Me” is the other deliberate genre blend, this time with some hip-hop percussion and flourishes of jazz acoustic guitar over its theatric base. With the livelier beat, Yulianna sings in a fleeter, slightly Lady Gaga-esque pop style as opposed to her more traditional style on the rest of the EP, and she’s able to make it work. It’s not exactly a typical radio single, but with the “la la la”s and repeated hooks, “You Love Me” is certainly the catchiest that Popra gets.

Yulianna’s music training is made extremely apparent on two songs: “I’ll Never Sleep” and her rendition of “Ave Maria”. “Ave Maria” is a slightly electronic but otherwise straight (and completely gorgeous) cover with Yulianna’s most elegant vocals that closes the EP on a graceful note. Meanwhile, highlight “I’ll Never Sleep” is essentially a full-band R&B ballad; even with sleek production, the song sounds more organic than the rest of the EP, and acts as a chance for Yulianna to perform some showstopping vocals. It’s great to hear an artist show her range on tracks like these. Popra only overreaches once, and it’s on the metal-meets-dubstep affectations of “Torture”. The song is still reasonably constructed, and Yulianna sounds great like always, but it sounds stiff and forced in a way that isn’t present on the rest of the songs here.

Pop music has been more and more experimental as of late, and it’s an exciting time to hear something like Popra. Yulianna fully engages with the pop sound of the EP, and the result is something I honestly haven’t heard anywhere else. It’s experimental by design, but accessible and easy digestible, and its short runtime lends to multiple relistens. It’s a night the opera if the balcony doubled as a dancefloor.

Visit Yulianna’s official site here to stream Popra!

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Radio Rant: Katy Perry ft. Juicy J – Dark Horse

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, where we’re back with an old favorite today.

I could only avoid her for so long. Katy Perry hasn’t exactly been slumming it during the PRISM album cycle, but her recent singles haven’t been near automatic number ones the way that early Teenage Dream singles were. “Roar” logged most of its time in the top ten playing host to songs like “Royals” or “Wrecking Ball”; it was a hit, but probably wouldn’t have done as well were it not for the Katy Perry name. Even with a proper Katy Perry rollout, second single “Unconditionally” was a bit of a stumble, not even cracking the top ten.

I want to say that’s PRISM‘s general flailing is more because of what it isn’t than what it is. It’s a slick, big-budget project that radiates beatific positivity in nearly every song; even its “we’re gonna have the good sex tonight” jam has an implicitly committed relationship. The first half is heavy on trend-grabbing singles that aren’t especially catchy, and the back eight are tepid self-reflection ballads. It’s not a fun record, is what I’m saying. Teenage Dream didn’t take itself too seriously, and was sure to show the strain when it did, (see: Perry clearly out of her range on “Firework” and “Teenage Dream”). Even the overkill of “Last Friday Night” is preferable to “Unconditionally”‘s boring seriousness.

That bring us to “Dark Horse”, a black sheep hit that I think I like more for what it isn’t than what it is. “Dark Horse” was originally released a promotional single a week before PRISM came out–one last song to generate album buzz, but isn’t considered a proper Single with backing and a video, and surprisingly gained traction immediately. My favorite thing about this song is that, unlike “Timber”, where the Powers That Be put their money on the screwball hit, Team Perry didn’t expect “Dark Horse” to do anything beyond sell a few more PRISM pre-orders. It outperformed their last planned single, and has gone to number one without a music video behind it. For a major pop star like Katy Perry, that’s nearly unthinkable.

And, credit where it’s due, the first few times that I heard “Dark Horse”, it caught me off guard. Its intro and verses use a trap beat minimal enough to spawn endless remixes, all deep bass and fingersnaps with a quick sample on loop. This isn’t what I expected from Katy Perry, but I think she needed to step out of the Dr. Luke comfort zone that she’s been steadily carving out since One of the Boys; not only are people not responding to it, but she’s also become dull as shit. A little trap-pop tourism doesn’t solve any of that, but at least it’s reassuring to know that Perry can still do some experimentation.

That said, though, the chorus here is pretty weak, like Dr. Luke and Max Martin didn’t know where they could take “Dark Horse” and still keep the hook. I don’t know what could have made it work, but the slow and measured build throws off the natural groove of the verses, and it feels disjointed as a result. Bizarre as it sounds, the chorus would actually be better if it focused less on the lyrics. And, I know that focusing on the lyrics of a Katy Perry song is like considering the vitamins in a milkshake, but there’s nothing else to really do while the beat builds.

“So, do you wanna play with magic?” You mean like the magic used in Disney’s Maleficent, in theaters this May? That’s what I got from your live performance of this song.

“Boy, you should know what you’re falling for/Do you dare to do this?” I mean, it’s a bit late for John Mayer to have second thoughts…

“Cuz I’m coming at you like a dark horse/Are you ready for, ready for/A perfect storm?” Either this song shuffles metaphors like a Vegas dealer, or Katy Perry’s a lot geekier than I thought.

Also not helping “Dark Horse” is the utterly baffling and completely terrible Juicy J verse. I don’t know if they gave him the song late, or he dropped into the studio while planning a Three 6 Mafia reunion, or what, but his verse is the rap equivalent of someone not know what to do with their hands on stage. He spends part of it on the song’s witchcraft imagery, but then goes from hyping her to being under her spell, and there’s no transition between the two, or a reason he throws a Jeff Dahlmer reference in. Perry and Juicy J seem like they didn’t compare notes before recording: she’s your Aphrodite, she’s your only one, and he sees her as this heart-eating beast. Then again, I guess this isn’t the first time an awkward rap verse has sabotaged a Katy Perry single.

Ultimately, I like “Dark Horse” more than either of PRISM‘s last two singles (or most of its album cuts), but ultimately it’s too one dimensional to be anything outside of a novelty song. Once you get past the “oh shit, Katy Perry went grime on us” sell, it wears pretty thin pretty quick, and a so-so chorus with an awful rap verse don’t do it any favors, either. Just release “International Smile” already, dammit.

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On Yr. Radar

Welcome back to On Yr. Radar, where we feature bands old and new with new material out now, or soon!

Celleste – “Superstar (By Myself)”

Montreal artist Celleste might be a singer-songwriter by definition, but don’t let the categorization mislead you: there’s not a trace of sleepy adult alternative in her strutting brand of rock and roll. Built on garage rock verses and a taunting chorus under Celleste’s bratty vocals, “Superstar (By Myself)” is a fun, sneering track with more going on than you’d think–check the descending riff in the chorus, the quiet bridge, and the early-Strokes interlocking guitars on the verses. Check out her Facebook here.

Escapists – “Breaking It Up”

Never underestimate a kickass bassline. “Breaking It Up”‘s high-swinging arena rock wouldn’t have the same punch without the overdriven bassline that snakes through guitar histrionics and anguished vocals. That’s not to discredit the rest of the song, though; throughout “Breaking It Up”, Escapists stick the landing on a sound that hits hard emotionally and sonically while sounding effortlessly huge. It’s a refreshing modern rock track that’s definitely worth a listen. Stay in tune with Escapists here for more.

IYES – “Crazy In Love (cover)”

There’s no way to get around it, this is simply my favorite cover of this song. UK eletropop duo IYES give Beyonce’s seminal hit a lush makeover without losing any of the song’s inherent charm. The drum and bass combo ground the track, giving some momentum to the dreamy keyboards and vocals that all together make for a hypnotic listen. The attention to detail here from the moody piano opening to ambient wails add to the song’s depth, and capture the feeling of being head over heels with someone while in their arms. The rest of IYES’ material is great; this is a group to watch, and you can do so here.

Grey Gordon – “500 Miles”

Today’s customary On Yr. Radar acoustic punk track is courtesy of one Grey Gordon, offering up “500 Miles” from his Still At Home Here EP. “500 Miles” (no, he’s not walking them) is a wintery emo track that’s as comforting as your favorite black hoodie on a cold day, complete with lyrics to match. Every note of Gordon’s fingerpicked guitar resonates in the song’s crisp productions, and his subtly double-tracked vocals bring Ben Gibbard of Death Cab to mind. The strummed interlude provides a smart bit of structure, making the final chorus feel like coming home. Grey Gordon’s launching a tour soon, keep an eye on his Facebook for updates.

Maggie – “Tidal Waves And Hurricanes”

“You know I’m stronger than that” is the overriding message on Ontario-by-LA singer Maggie’s new single, “Tidal Waves And Hurricanes”. Maggie’s powerhouse vocals are the main attraction, but the galloping pop-soul track behind her isn’t lacking, either. “Tidal Waves…” features a huge chorus with plenty of room for vocal gymnastics reminiscent of Adele, although Maggie’s music feels looser and less restrained (see the post chorus jam). Regardless, “Tidal Waves” is great for empowerment, singing along, and both at the same time. Keep an eye on Maggie’s website for more.

Reverend Horton Heat – “Longest Gone Man”

Let’s spin a legacy song for a second. Rockabilly legends Reverend Horton Heat have been around since the mid-80s, and “Longest Gone Man” comes from their first demo. The song is a traditional live favorite for the Rev, and finally got put to an official LP this year (REV), and as detailed on Dangerous Minds, was a favorite of Johnny Rotten’s. It isn’t hard to see how–the song’s full of twangy rockabilly punch that sounds best coming from a convertible’s stereo, or a beat-up bar jukebox. It’s worth a listen, as is the rest of back-to-basics REV.

SKATERS – “Deadbolt”

If the rest of SKATERS’ forthcoming debut album Manhattan is anything resembling “Deadbolt”, these guys are going to be someone to watch this year. Incessantly catchy and delightfully brash, “Deadbolt” restrains itself to a low simmer during the verses before all noisy hell breaks loose on the chorus. Underneath the guitar fuzz and dead-eyed vocals, there’s a pop song hiding here, but isn’t it so much more fun to hear something fucked up like this? Manhattan comes out on February 25th, and I can’t wait to hear more. Countdown with the band on their Facebook page here.

Sunday Guts – “Truthman Who?”
Closing today out with a bit of synth pop, care of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania group Sunday Guts, whose new three song EP Wet Salvos is available now on Bandcamp. “Truthman Who?” (from Wet Salvos) is a great song for zoning out; it’s easy to get wrapped up in the dreamy production and textured guitars, while the propulsive beat keeps everything moving forward. It’s excellent on its own, and as a part of Wet Salvos as a whole. Follow Sunday Guts’ Facebook for updates.

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Grammys 2014 Recap

The Recording Academy of America celebrated itself and some of last year’s biggest music with the 56th annual Grammy awards last night. The Grammys are a bit odd for an industry award show; for an artist, they’re better as exposure than a prestigious award of merit. Like all of the institutional awards ceremonies, you know what you’re in for out of the gate: the award will have more disappointments than actual surprises, there’ll be some spectacle, a few laughs, and oh my God it’s going to take forever.

One thing the Grammys gets absolutely right is putting the focus of the ceremony on the music more than the awards, simply because watching Keith Urban get in a guitar duel with Gary Clark Jr. will always be more fun than seeing Reba McEntire put a trophy for Best Country Solo Performance in someone’s hands. Few among this year’s gamut of performers truly bombed–doe-eyed country singer Hunter Hays in over his head came closest–but few went above and beyond, either. Daft Punk’s soul love letter performance with Nile Rodgers and Stevie Wonder is a lock for best of the night, while performance vets like Beyonce and Jay-Z, John Legend, Taylor Swift, and Metallica (with pianist Lang-Lang) put in solid if not showstopping work.

It was an uphill battle for top 40 pop stars, though. Katy Perry’s Maleficent trailer rendition of “Dark Horse” was a bloated mess that felt much longer than its four minute run time. Robin Thicke’s collaboration with Chicago won the “WTF?” award, but little else. Pink’s solo take on “Try” while doing aerial silk moves was rightly awesome, but “Just Give Me a Reason” with Nate Ruess (sporting a new “I Wanna Be Freddie Mercury” mustache) had its normal sleepiness compounded by coming on the heels of an engaging performance. Lorde made an interesting extended intro to “Royals”, but her minimalist style made the actual song feel a bit flimsy; there was little variety to it. Maybe pushing the multi-layered minimalism to its logical conclusion could work. Speaking of which, Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Queen Latifah, and Madonna (what?) finally removed all of the subtly from after school special “Same Love” by straight up marrying 30-something straight and gay couples in a heartwarming, IMPORTANT, and vaguely exploitative performance.

There was one constant, though: you had to bring the energy. Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl, and Lindsey Buckingham blew the roof off the ceremony with their closing (and unfairly cut short) medley that woke everyone up as the clock marched toward hour four. I was ready for the Kendrick Lamar/Imagine Dragons “m.A.A.d. city”/”Radioactive” mashup to go up like its own smoke machine, but it was a highlight due to Imagine Dragons playing like an actual rock band, and Kendrick going absolutely off on his verses.

Let’s stay on Kendrick while we go to the actual awards themselves. Lamar went into the night with seven overall nominations (AOY, Best New Artist, multiple rap category nods, and two features), and came away entirely empty handed. It was a long shot for him to get Album of the Year, so I at least thought he would pick up the consolatory Best Rap Album award, but Macklemore even got that (I know the Grammys are more generous to pop-rap, but The Heist wasn’t even the best pop-rap album nominated). That an artist as culturally admired and critically respected as Kendrick Lamar got nothing would be a shock in most other mediums, but for the Grammys, it’s nothing but business as always.

That, I think, is why the Grammys are so frustrating. The academy has made conspicuous attempts to modernize in recent years from hashtaging everything to throwing in more pop performers to tossing more nominations at blog/magazine favorites, but underneath it all, they’re still the stuffy old white guys everyone lampoons them for. Look at the rock categories: Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin competed against youngsters like Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie, with Imagine Dragons, Queens of the Stone Age, and Muse in there for the kids. Macklemore’s sweep of the rap categories is shocking, until you remember that the guy’s so safe, that your high school guidance counselor would want you to be friends with him.

That said, this year’s Big Three awards, the Song/Record/Album of the Year went to solid choices: Song and Record went to the best in category (“Royals” and “Get Lucky”, respectively), and while Daft Punk wasn’t my first choice for album of the year, it’s an understandable choice. Random Access Memories was a wonderful listen, but it was also steeped in wide-eyed idealization for the music of the 60s and 70s with immaculate production and emphasis on the quality of the musicians and the authenticity (read: as few synthesizers as possible) of the music. All of which are also true of past winners Mumford and Sons and Adele, who were also favorites in the race when they won.

So, there it is, another Grammys. We rolled our eyes, we sneered, we liked some of it, we feigned shock, and we’ll watch it again next year.

PS, here’s the quick ‘n dirty of who won in the categories I guessed.

Record of the Year
My Guess: Daft Punk – “Get Lucky”
Winner: Daft Punk – “Get Lucky”

Album of the Year
My Guess: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist
Winner: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Song of the Year
My Guess: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert – “Same Love”
Winner: Lorde – “Royals”

Best New Artist
My Guess: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Winner: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Best Pop Vocal Album
My Guess: Lorde - Pure Heroine
Winner: Bruno Mars - Unorthodox Jukebox

Best Dance/Electronica Album
My Guess: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Winner: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Best Rock Album
My Guess: Led Zeppelin - Celebration Day
Winner: Led Zeppelin - Celebration Day (and they say cynicism never wins)

Best Alternative Music Album
My Guess: Neko Case - The Worse Things Get…
Winner: Vampire Weekend - Vampires of the Modern City

Best Rap Album
My Guess: Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city
Winner: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist

Four out of nine, yikes!

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