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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Answer: no one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt and Kim

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

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

And here’s where everything went off plan.

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

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

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

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You Should See Them Live: Marina and the Diamonds (Bogarts in Cincinnati)

One of modern music’s intricacies is trying to find out just how “big” is a particular artist. This can be simple in some cases, i.e: Justin Timberlake is very big while Waxahatchee is very small, but there are thousands of artists for whom you can triangulate social media presence, record sales, and media buzz, and still be way off on their actual size. Take Marina and the Diamonds for example. MatD show up all over on Tumblr and Twitter fanpages and in mash-ups online (just casually tweeting about them is enough to get fan account favorites/follows), but their highest charting album went to no. 8 in America. Their pop career in native U.K. could be generously described as transient–Electra Heart had the dubious honor of being the lowest selling number one album at the time, and its follow up FROOT peaked at no. 10. So, when you hear that they’re playing the local rock shed, you think the crowd’ll be interesting, but not the biggest draw in town.

And yet.

Even after the doors opened, the line to get in Bogarts ran down both sides of the street, and on further inspection, the marquee declared the show officially sold out. Looking at the technicolor queue, I immediately realized I’d undersold how Marina’s online fanbase translated into physical bodies (I was about as immediately thankful my girlfriend leaped on this show when it was announced and we’d had tickets for months). Attribute it to any number of factors: the show being on a Friday night, last week marking the end of the year for most schools, MatD’s general likability, or the fact that no one plays Cincinnati back-to-back and if you see a show you’ve just gotta go for it, but no matter what, The Diamonds (nickname for MatD’s fanbase) were out here.

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I don’t think I’ve seen a crowd as ready to go, too. The curtain stayed closed while the band set up, and the slightest bump or movement behind it elicited cheers and sustained chants of “MA-RI-NA!” for whichever sound tech was setting up a microphone. This happened at least three times. But, it was nothing compared to the exuberance that hit once Marina and the band came out and launched into “Bubblegum Bitch”, the biggest concert opener in her discography.

Marina’s music sounds expertly performed on albums, and that same presence transfers to her live show. She always played out to the crowd, invited us to sing along (which, as a baritone, was a bit daunting), and I don’t think she ever stayed entirely still; she was always dancing or strutting across the stage, and doing it with a smile. I was actually a little off in my review of FROOT: she didn’t break out a spotlight for “Happy”, but played it solo(ish) behind a keyboard, and the mass singalong was the sweetest moment of the night.

mynamesmarinaReally, it’d be hard to pick a point where the show slumped in any real way. Marina and the Diamonds aren’t going to deviate from the way they sound on record; sure, the drums hit harder and the vocals were stronger in the mix, but it’s not like “I’m a Ruin” suddenly became a power ballad. The live sound brought a little more slapstick energy to older songs like “I Am Not a Robot” and “Mowgli’s Road”, and FROOT highlights like “Blue” and the title track only sounded stronger free of the album’s echoing production. I was actually wondering about that transition before the show; FROOT was made with a guitar/bass/drums/synth band set-up, but had a heavily produced studio sound would be hard to replicate live. And, while “Better Than That” still sounded flat-footed and “I’m a Ruin” didn’t quite click, most of the songs did, with “Savages” even sounding better freed of the gauzy album sound.

You can always tell an artist’s feelings toward an album based not only on what they play at a show, but what they don’t play, either. Even as a tour supporting the album, the setlist was a venerable FROOT basket: a whooping eight songs were pulled from that record with only “Immortal”, “Weeds”, “Gold”, and “Soilitare” (a personal favorite) left untouched. Meanwhile Electra Heart, an album Marina has politely but pointedly left in her rear view, was absent for the first half of the set outside “Bubblegum Bitch”. She eventually came back for “Lies” and “Primadonna” and closed with a one-two combo of “Radioactive” (the only genuine surprise of the evening) and “How To Be a Heartbreaker”, all of which were rapturously received. A Heartless set makes some sense with MatD’s current line-up–the line-up was designed with FROOT in mind, after all–but seeing an artist take a “deep cuts, too” approach for one album and “hits only” for another tells you a lot about favorites.

Not that anyone probably minded. Marina and the Diamonds put on a stand up show in front of an adoring audience. Whenever Marina spoke to the crowd during the show, it felt personal, or as personal as you can get from fifty feet away. There’s a very genuine, mutual connection between Marina and the fans. As the lights came up, my friends and I realized (to our quarter-life crises horror) that this was an incredibly young crowd, most of which didn’t have the “beer me” wristbands you get at the door. With how intensely The Diamonds love this band, it seems understandable that the fanbase would skew young–what better time is there to have an artist be your life than as a young adult? The world finally came to them for a night, and they made the best of it. So did us bitter adults, too.

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Radio Rant: Jason Derulo – “Want to Want Me”

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Get jazzy on it.

Here’s one for you: Jason Derulo’s career is five years old at this point. That’s like, a decade, in pop music years; a five year career means you’ve likely survived two to three albums, your breakout trend crashing and burning, and probably had to rebound at least once. You’re basically a pop veteran. What makes this milestone remarkable for Jason Derulo is that there’s never been a time where he wasn’t fucking awful. You look at other longrunners with recent misfires, and there’s an “at least” defense: at least Wiz Khalifa used to be a credible mixtape rapper, at least Maroon 5 has “This Love” and “Sunday Morning”, or at least Chris Brown’s a decent performer. There’s no such defense for Derulo, who has been terrible since Day One. His singing’s always been over Auto-Tuned or over processed, he’s never been a commanding presence, and his songs are obnoxiously gimmicky without any other defining features. He almost ran out of steam around “The Other Side” (which is only boring instead of actively bad), but ever since “Talk Dirty”, we’ve been in a Derulaissance that’s seen him get hits off songs that have to be written this badly on purpose. You can’t tell me that “Wiggle” was ever conceived as anything but the worst.

Speaking of the worst, let’s talk about “Want To Want Me”. The song’s the lead single from Derulo’s upcoming album, so it’s a bit of a break from the tacky brass and woodwind instrumentation grafted onto “Talk Dirty”, “Trumpets”, and “Wiggle”. In fact, “Want To Want Me” is pretty much straight electropop. A stuttering bassline and programmed drumbeat lead the way in the verses, while the chorus gets outlined in quick synth blasts and occasional group vocals. It’s a smoother sound than anything Derulo’s had before, but that’s not encouraging. The guy’s past beats have relied on, as I mentioned before, some sort of gimmick or an obvious sample, but “Want To Want Me” sounds like it was the first thing queued up in GarageBand. It’s the gas station knockoff Slushi of summer pop.

This sweet and slushed iteration marks new(ish) territory for Derulo. There are still whiffs of Axe coming from “Want To Want Me”, but it’s tamer than the Tattoo/Talk Dirty cycle, which felt like being smothered in an Axe-drenched bro-tank. The sneering horndog from that era’s been replaced by a wedding singer with transparent aspirations of being JT/Drake/MJ/pre-lawsuit-Blurred Lines-era Robin Thicke/whatever guy’s riding an R&B hit right now. It’s a pedestrian move, and not a great one for Derulo, who’s never been a capable vocalist (Does Jason Derulo have a good falsetto? Spoilers: No). Derulo’s been saved multiple times, even in the pre-“Talk Dirty” days, by his songs being kind of stupid, but “Want To Want Me” is stupid in a boring way.

“It’s so hard to sleep/I got the sheets on the floor” Ugh, but what if you wake up cold at like, 4:00 AM? That’s the worst.

“In the back of the cab/I tip the driver, head to town” I can’t help but think Derulo’s dating himself here by getting a cab instead of Uber.

“I got your body on my mind/I want it back” How can you get it back if it’s not y–never mind, I’m not thinking about this.

“Girl, you don’t want/I want you to want me/And if you want, hey girl/You got me” Okay, so this chorus is not good, but I’m just going to appreciate that Derulo was maybe/probably inspired by two of the best power pop songs of all time.

“You open the door/There ain’t nothing but a smile drawn to the floor” I just realized: Jason Derulo doesn’t say anything before he comes over; he just shows up. Not even an “wyd?” Obviously, we know this didn’t happen in the way we know any club story that ends with “we totally had sex” didn’t happen, but the entire premise of “Want to Want Me” so paper thin it reads as funny more than anything else. Okay, sure, you just bomb over to this girl’s place and you have sex. Sure, Jason.

“Want To Want Me” ends up in an aggravating spot. It’s not bad enough to cause spittle-covered rage like a sizable chunk of Derulo’s catalog, but it’s not good, either. It’ll probably show up again on the Songs of the Summer charts and be used to signal the point where the DJ’s officially run out of hits at the wedding reception, but I’ll be ready to ditch this bland grab bag come fall. But, I expect this isn’t the last we’ll see from Derulo. He always wiggles into a hit, one way or another.

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Album Review: Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind

“Fuck the banjo.”

Well, points for honesty. Mumford & Sons’ first two albums 2009’s Sigh No More and 2012’s Babel were massive commercial (if not critical) successes that spearheaded the pop-folk movement and made Mumford a festival banner name, but I get where they’re coming from on “Fuck the banjo”. If I spent the last five years making my living by playing variations on the same “BAH-lol-lol, BAH-lol-lol, BAH-lol-lol, BAH-lol-lol” banjo arpeggio, I’d be tired of the damn thing, too. It’s a small miracle one of the Sons never reenacted this scene on stage. But the Mumford model, even if it became a painfully obvious in album form, worked really well in song-size packages: build some acoustic strummed momentum, sing about some form of heartache, add kick drum, enter banjo, cue barrel-chested group vocals on chorus, reduce to simmer, repeat. Over the course of an album, the formula became worn out from a songwriting perspective and exhausting to listen to for song after song, but hearing “Little Lion Man” nestled between “Nothin’ On You” and “Animal” felt satisfying. So satisfying, in fact, that the band made the same album twice.

You’d have to be exceptionally daring or exceptionally lazy to make the same album three times, however, so here we are with the electric!Mumford album Wilder MindWilder Mind doesn’t just run the Mumford formula through an amplifier, but retools the band as a radio-leaning alternative rock group. Occasionally, parts of it sound like they could come from Sign No More/Babel–the melodies in “Just Smoke” and “Broad Shouldered Beasts” sound lifted from a ballad–but Wilder Mind is, on the whole, a new product. The new Mumford even comes with new producers: longtime Arctic Monkeys collaborator James Ford and Aaron Dessner of The National give the album a veteran indie rock sound that, quality of the song be damned, at least sounds fit for the 10:30 PM spot at Lollapalooza. Lead single “Believe” leans hard into that shimmering, softly electronic, arena rock sound that U2 codified on The Joshua Tree, but surprisingly, U2 isn’t the primary influence on Wilder Mind.

That would be Dessner’s main gig, The National. M&S don’t just mime the band’s chambered, organic production, but their songwriting, as well. “Tompkins Square Park”, steadfast but mid-tempo drumming under measured vocals with subtle harmonies and all textured guitars, is a particularly nifty Trouble Will Find Me ripoff. Ditto for “Ditmas”, which is a poppier but still fruitful take on The National’s sound. These songs, along with the title track, make up some of the stronger material on Wilder Mind, but even they struggle to be memorable once the next tune clicks on. The problem with M&S imitating The National’s model is the move doesn’t play well with Mumford’s strengths. Mumford works best as a whiz-bang pop band playing songs that are broad, but not very deep. It’s designed for an instant rush: you’re supposed to get caught up in blanket sentiments and stomp and clap as the band strums furiously. The National’s style doesn’t lend itself to that kind of writing; the band’s entire premise is that they are a very (very, very, very, very) tightly wound group with intricate arrangements, mournfully wordy lyrics, and a frontman with a surprising amount of dark charisma for looking like your friend’s dad that maybe says five sentences to you all day. They’re one of the ultimate “grower” bands.

All that is to say that if you take The National’s sound without the complication, it gets pretty boring pretty quickly, such as seen on Wilder Mind. The quality’s never lax enough to get into “bad” territory (outside maybe “Believe”), but large chunks of the album are unadorned indie rock in its most average form. The middle of the album plods along contently. Soundscape-y numbers like “Cold Arms” with Mumford backed by a lone clean guitar or the atmospheric “Only Love” are competently pretty without being interesting. A lot of this has to do with Mumford as a frontman; he’s still just as schlubby a vocalist and lyricist as he ever was, but his empty-headed aching is ineffectual without do-or-die musical rush behind it.

It’s no wonder, then, that Wilder Mind‘s best song far and away in the one that sounds like old!Mumford run through an amplifier: “The Wolf”. The verses glide along nicely before building tension during a pre-chorus with drums building into double time while joined by guitars. The whole thing finally explodes into an honest to God rock out with a catchy riff that’s hard to deny, even more so on the second go around when Mumford lets loose with a howling vocal bridge. It’s easily one of the band’s best songs. Were modern rock radio not the worst, it could be a hit. But, things being what they are, I’ll be damned if it isn’t used to sell me a tablet before year’s end.

Again, I get why Mumford wanted to change their style. Not only were they likely bored of playing two dozen takes on “Little Lion Man” every show, but they would have been ripped to shreds for making Sigh No More 3. I’d even go so far as to say that the concept of Wilder Mind–one of the mainstream’s most energetic and outright loud bands goes electric–is plenty appealing. But, the band decided to shelf their passion and drive right next to the mandolin, and we’re left nodding off instead of being swept away. Marcus Mumford’s said he was obsessed with The National’s Trouble Will Find Me while making Wilder Mind. It’s only fitting that one of the former’s songs would perfect describe the latter: graceless. Two and a half stars out of five.

tldr: Mumford and Sons make a less convincing rock band than they ever did a folk band, 2.5/5.

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Radio Rant: Ed Sheeran – Thinking Out Loud AND Maroon 5 – Sugar

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Let’s thaw out today.

LoudSugarLooking at a double-header today because I’ve been seriously slacking on the radio hits. There’s been a lot of exciting music in the first quarter of 2015–there are already at least three albums that could argue for a spot in my top ten–but very little of that excitement’s translated to mainstream pop, or at least the charts. I still love “Uptown Funk”, but I’m ready for a new zeitgeist. So, let’s look at the two songs that spent a month trying to dethrone it.

First up, for no more discernible reason than I thought of it sooner, is Ed Sheeran with “Thinking Out Loud.” I’ve ragged on Sheeran before for writing bad songs, but I respect him as the British Bruno Mars: he might not always have A1 material, but he’s a solid performer who’ll sell the shit out of anything. Granted, it’s a lesser level of respect because Sheeran’ll never make me lose my shit the way this did, but still, any guy solo act that can notch multiple hits these days is doing something right. Probably. To other people. I still stand by “Don’t” and “Sing” being awful.

The biggest challenge facing “Thinking Out Loud”, meanwhile, is that it’s “Let’s Get It On” stripped to the essentials. That’s not even me being reductive (for once). That slavish, kickass guitar riff that winds through “Let’s Get It On” has been replaced by stock “dorm room soul” guitar strums, while the strings and horns are absent in favor of piano fills that are kind of winsome, but nothing too lively. Gone too, is the life in the drums. And despite all that, “Let’s Get It On” and “Think Out Loud” are unmistakably the same damn song. You can drop one on top of the other in the laziest way possible, and watch two songs become one instantaneously. Sheeran’s probably thanking those thousand stars he can’t be sued for a chord progression.

All that Marvin Gaye rubs shoulders with a lot of John Mayer, too. Granted, this sort of chilled out, clean Fender strat, white guy blues is Mayer’s wheelhouse, but I heard that endearingly wanky guitar solo, and honestly thought this was a song John Mayer wrote to afford new guitar strings after no one bought Paradise Valley. I even checked the credits. But no, Mayer only shows up on the version at the Grammys, where he backs Sheeran with Herbie Hancock and Questlove in the most overqualified and underutilized supergroup ever (my suggestion: next time pair Quest and Mayer with Dave Chappelle; proven results). There’s something dissonant about seeing this much talent on a track that’s so simple. Sheeran wrote “Thinking Out Loud” as a straight ahead wedding tune; it’s “fuck me, I’m sensitive” dressed in a schmaltzy a tie and vest.

But, here’s the problem: I like that about it. Ed shimmying through a Pharrell demo, or preening like Adam Levine rubbed me the wrong way because it felt like a cheap radio move. But despite being a much simpler, kind of boring song, “Thinking Out Loud” hits its marks as a cheesy, kind of schluby wedding tune, and Sheeran absolutely sells the chorus. Lyrically, it burns through every woo-the-girl-at-the-coffeeshop cliche possible, but Sheeran performs the shit out of it; he knows what he’s doing. Not a song that’ll end up the year-end, but a nice singalong all the same.

Also joining us today after appearing on the Worst of 2014 list is Maroon 5. I honestly kind of thought these guys were, if not done, at least in a slump after “Maps” didn’t take off, but the back to back success of “Animals (mals)” and now “Sugar” have proven me wrong. They might not have the stranglehold on the charts they during Overexposed (“One More Night” was number one for a staggering nine weeks), but the cultural currency of Adam Levine and the Maroon 4 is still alive and well.

And I don’t think anyone’s as bummed about Maroon 5 still being around as Maroon 5. They’re not just boring, they even sound bored. Their most recent album V plays with all of the passion and zeal of an amusement park show choir slumming it through “Walkin’ on Sunshine” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” at an 11 AM Tuesday performance. And that same lethargy applies to “Sugar”.

“Sugar” gets points for this much: it’s head and shoulders above “Animals” and “Maps” on every level. Mostly that’s due to pop-soul being a lively genre with bounce to it even on cruise control, but it’s also Maroon 5’s ostensible wheelhouse; the more their rhythm section gets to strut around, the better. Even though it’s (relatively speaking) loose and breezy, “Sugar” is still just as by-numbers as you’d expect: the bass pops right where it’s supposed to, the falsetto kicks in like clockwork, and the chorus is head-tiltingly smooth. Any sense of groove or real musicianship is covered in a thick studio lacquer that sands the track down to the dullest form of soul possible.

If you want to hear an excited version of “Sugar”, look no further than Katy Perry’s “Birthday” (which itself is the child of Perry’s own “Last Friday Night” and Bruno Mars’ “Treasure”). “Birthday” is a less stifled, more colorful version of “Sugar” that isn’t afraid to be a little goofy, and is all the better for it. Sure, Levine wouldn’t sing something this stupid, but Perry wouldn’t sound as bored. The similarities between the two songs feel like more than coincidence: not only do they share a cowriter and producer in Dr. Luke and Cirkut and the same vamps, but their videos have the same premise of watching pop stars crash birthday parties and weddings and everyone’s just going to go with it.

Outside “Uptown Funk”, “Sugar” is the current hit that the most real life tangibility. It’s the one that’s made its way to playlists at diners, waiting rooms, shopping malls, gyms, and wherever else music is treated as a part of the background. This seems about right. This is the kind of song that’s best experienced where you can hear enough to appreciate it on the shallowest level possible; anymore than that, and the taste of aspartame develops. Calling this song “Sugar” is a bit of a misnomer: it might be sweet, but the taste is all artificial.

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Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

One minute and thirty-six seconds. That’s how long it takes to get to the first rapped line on To Pimp a Butterfly. To even get there, you have to listen to a sample of a 1974 Jamaican soul song entitled “Every Nigger Is a Star”, George Clinton vocals, a tenacious Thundercat bassline, and Lamar singing a hook over a demented funk track. This is quite possibly the most anticipated rap album of the year, and actual rapping is one of the last of its elements you hear. No one said Lamar was going to make it easy for us.

Alright, so, perhaps not surprisingly given that his last record was a non-linear “short movie”, Kendrick Lamar wants To Pimp a Butterfly to be a lot of things. It’s his post-fame album. It’s his searching for a greater meaning album. It’s a celebration of Blackness. It wants to ask what being Black in 2015 means. It wants to be his self-consciously arty, genre and style hopping send-up to the past greats album. It wants to be Serious Art with a cohesive narrative guided by a poem that gradually builds throughout the album, but still a solid song-to-song listen. It wants to be impressive lyrically, technically, and musically.

Thank God it’s only 78 minutes.

The first thing most notice about the album is how deliberate it is in its sound. George Clinton, the founder of P-Funk, doesn’t introduce the album for nothing; there’s a lot of funk driving the record. But calling To Pimp a Butterfly a funk album is reductive and misleading: there are jazz cuts on the spectrum from the smoothness of “Institutionalized” to the freakouts happening in “For Free?” and “u”, flashes of disco, “Alright” leans into snare-heavy club territory, and more than a little psychedelic soul, particularly toward the middle of the album. It reminds me in a lot of ways of a fuller version of what The Roots were doing on undun and …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin: moody, live band-oriented instrumentals with a tendency to freak out, but unmistakably hip-hop to its core. It’s less dense than it is overwhelming; there’s a lot to listen to, like the way the “Alright” cheats a clarinet in during a verse, or the deft guitar licks in “King Kunta”. None of it’s really radio fare, but the same could be said about good kid, m.A.A.d city.

A big part of To Pimp a Butterfly‘s sound is just how damn rich it is. Each song is almost overloaded with how much it has going on, even something like “Hood Politics” that stays mostly in its lane starts with a bouncing funk beat. With the production values as high as they are–and the instrumentation as intricate as it is–this would be a fun listen just as an instrumental. The sound isn’t rich just in sheer quantity, but in how performed every little detail is. The back up singers on “King Kunta” play it up like a blaxploitation soundtrack, and the over the topness of Lamar’s drunken ranting during “u” would be corny in another context, but it fits the way the song falls apart underneath him.

Lamar pushes himself in different directions here as a rapper. At this point, he’s unarguably one of the most technically proficient mainstream rappers around; he could have dashed out a record of grinding beats into submission ala “The Blacker the Berry” and called it a day. But, tellingly, To Pimp a Butterfly‘s first single wasn’t “The Blacker the Berry”, it was the slippery, fleet-footed, multi-voiced “i”. Lamar uses an array of different voices on the album to convey a tone: he’s a broken mess on “u”, a squeaky younger version of himself on “Hood Politics”, a hood friend on “Institutionalized”, an incarnation of Lucifer named Lucy (long story) on “For Sale?”, and frequently plays off conversations with himself (see: “Momma”, “How Much a Dollar Cost?”). It’s actually a smart move; by playing up verbal tics, exaggerations, and occasionally doubletracking, Lamar by passes the fact that he still occasionally sounds gawky. And regardless of what voice he’s using, the technical abilities and flows still shine through, like the beat riding on “Wesley’s Theory”, the snarling on “King Kunta”, double time on “Momma”, rapid fire slam poetry on “For Free?”, or unrelenting lines of “Mortal Man”, he’s just a blast to hear rapping.

It’s also his lyrics that keep the narrative together. Lines occasionally get repeated (“What you want, you a house or a car/Forty acres and a mule, a piano a guitar?”), but most of the heavy lifting is done by a poem that intros or outros most of the songs. The poem adds a line or two during each iteration based on what songs it’s connecting, a move that mostly stays on the right side between interesting a tedious (it drops out just as the repetition starts to get grating on “Hood Politics”) before finally showing up in full on “Mortal Man”.

And honestly, if the album has a fault, it’s that it tries to cover way too much thematic territory in the ending interview with 2pac after “Mortal Man”. After spending the last seventy minutes laying groundwork, the album deploys its core “Black in America” thesis in a pair of poems that ultimately preach Black self-love and unity, but teeter close to respectability politicking at points. Lamar is, at the very least, aware that the message and/or its delivery are muddled; self-love jam “i” is here as a live performance (perhaps symbolizing the song’s message as an outward sign of inward goal) that is literally shouted down by a crowd (no small group has labelled Lamar as having a messiah complex, which is as hard to substantiate as it is to deny), and when he reads his final poem to 2pac symbolizing Black unity for Pac’s approval, his request is met with album-ending silence.

Even if it doesn’t quite stick the high-concept landing, To Pimp a Butterfly is an aggressively, fascinatingly Black album. A crate of surface references to wide noses, nappy hair, The Color Purple, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, colorism, racial policy at home and aboard, G-funk sounds, and gangsta culture populate the record. It’s an album about being Black and successful, being Black and depressed, being Black and on your shit, being Black and the constant tension of your Blackness being pulled and picked on by society, but being Black is at its very core. This record’s Blackness is invasive, almost as invasive as it is in Black lives. It’s the first album I’ve heard that I’m not sure I’d experience in the same way if I weren’t Black.

But, pulling back the reins here a second, let’s just examine To Pimp a Butterfly as an album. It is excellent. Even as Lamar’s ending ideas and executions trip over their own self-importance, they’re entertaining to listen to (Lamar does a great job reflecting 2pac affability when he interviews some of his back tapes), and the music, technical chops, and lyrics are all top notch. Regardless of who you are, anyone with more than a passing interest in hip-hop, soul, or jazz will finds a lot to listen to and appreciate here, and probably a lot to think about. Go check out it, five out of five.

tl;dr (but actually): To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling album that refuses to be lost in its own head, 5/5.

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