Feedback: Kanye West – Graduation

Quick, name Kanye West’s least popular album.

You probably thought of 808s & Heartbreak, West’s damaged, alienating, electropop record that’s become the Different album of the last ten years. The divisive record itself, the completely different sound, plus that infamous media gaffe during the album cycle all made 808s an ugly period for West. It took a follow-up masterpiece for him to work his way out of the smoking crater that his reputation became after 808s. Conventional wisdom says its an album to be discarded and swallowed up by the rest of a stellar discography.

But I think conventional wisdom’s changing.

808s was and remains a graceless record, but it’s become an influential one, to boot. Obviously, Drake owes it his fucking career, and it launched Kid Cudi, but it isn’t too much effort see the album’s minimalism, deep bass, and manipulated beats in recent upstarts from FKA twigs to Lorde. Not only is it influential, it’s influencing big names. What’s more, strands 808s’ DNA still show up in West’s own work; even he hasn’t fully left the album behind. Lots of albums are called “the next Pinkerton“, but I think that claim actually holds true for 808s.

No, the Kanye album I think that’s been left behind is 808s‘ predecessor, GraduationGraduation suffers from a lack of a longstanding identity within Kanye’s canon: it’s the third and least surprising entry of the College trilogy, and it has neither the all-or-nothing oomph of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, nor Yeeus’ “what the fuck?” quotient. It’s also lost the features that defined it upon release; MBDTF laps Graduation as Kanye’s “Big Sound” record, and the person Kanye was during its album cycle was almost completely erased in light of, you guessed it, 808s.

More than any of his other albums, Graduation is a record of its time, and 2007 was a damn good time to be Kanye West. His mother Donda’s still alive and well, he’s engaged to Alexis Phifer, and he’s in the controversy-free safe zone pretty far from “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, but before “Yo, Taylor”. Fledgling label GOOD Music is just getting off the ground, and The College Dropout and Late Registration are acknowledged masterpieces with capital H Hit singles. People weren’t talking about West as a producer-turned-MC anymore, they were talking about him as a rap mainstay. He’d made it, and he knew it.

Graduation is Kanye’s party album. Inspired by arena rock (West had previously played a string of dates opening for U2), Kanye aimed large and wide for his third album, incorporating a wider range of sounds and more prominent synths, and streamlining the album by jettisoning skits and interludes. Kanye also pushed his raps to have wider appeal and be more fun, nothing quite hits the gravitas of “Never Let Me Down” or “Heard’em Say” here. Instead, Graduation opts to be simpler and more universal, although since it’s Kanye, we still get lines like “If the devil wear Prada/Adam & Eve wear nada/I’m in-between but way more fresher” and “I’m just sayin, hey Mona Lisa/Come home, you know you can’t Rome without Caesar”.

I call it Kanye’s party album because as a far-reaching pop rap album that focuses on the celebration, it’s pretty high quality. The Technicolor sonic pallet from stadium sized glitz jams like “Good Life” and “Stronger” to utterly gorgeous beats on “I Wonder” and “Flashing Lights” is always lively, even the less inspired cuts (see: “The Glory”) are saved by good beats. The synths and lighter emphasis on soul samples, eyebrow raisers when the album was released, are hardly noticable because it’s easy to get wrapped up in how good the album sounds. Kanye’s previous records weren’t exactly stripped down, but Graduation is his first album that deliberately goes big, and sounds like a million bucks while it does so.

The album’s rock steady consistency is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, 2 or 3 brilliant tracks with 7 good-to-great ones and 3 or so filler is a pretty high batting average. On the other, there’s a workman-like quality to some of those great tracks that feels a little uninspired, and Graduation‘s brilliance-to-goodness radio is nearly inverse of most of Kanye’s other albums. But it’s hard to complain with songs like Daft Punk-on-steroids “Stronger”, the sampled up “I Wonder” and “Everything I Am”, and one of my top 5 Kanye songs of all time, “Flashing Lights”. On “Flashing Lights”, the strings from Late Registration make a comeback, blending seamlessly with sky-high synths and pitch shifted vocals, and Kanye’s beat has an almost melodic flow, while Dwele’s hook keeps the whole thing grounded (it’s also part one of what I call Kanye’s “Lights Trilogy“, made of three career standouts).

When Graduation was released, it was in direct competition of then dominant rapper 50 Cent’s Curtis. What began as a lighthearted challenge ended with 50 Cent vowing to stop releasing solo material if he came in second, a promise he quietly reneged on after Graduation sold 957,000 copies in its first week to Curtis‘ 691,000 (a year later, Billboard tracked the sales to 2,116,000 for Kanye and 1,336,000 for 50). History will spin this as a David-vs-Goliath victory ala Dangerous vs Nevermind, but that’s not quite true. The 50 Cent bubble burst in 2005–compare his appearances here vs here and here–losing to Graduation itself wasn’t the beginning of the end for 50, but was the first tangible sign it had started.

I think the reason Graduation‘s left behind is that, really, it’s a subtle transition record. It makes the jump from Late Registration to 808s believable, even if you only notice that it has both of those albums’ prominent features in relief. It’s an album that tinkers with ideas instead of going full tilt with one concept (see: any Kanye album after this). While it’s mostly successful with its experiments, the end result is a rather good pop rap record instead of a fully realized or cracked masterpiece (it is exactly the kind of album that, say, Wiz Khalifa would die to make). As it is, Graduation doesn’t do quite enough to fight its way into the upper ranks of Kanye’s discography, but it isn’t quite “Cs get degrees” in action, either. It’s a hell of a good time getting a B.

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Radio Rant: Taylor Swift – Shake It Off

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Might as well get comfy with the song that’s going to be inescapable for the next few months.

Shakedown, 1989...Taylor Swift, never had the time.

I think Taylor Swift won.

Or rather, I think Taylor Swift knows she won, and “Shake It Off” is her moment of arrival as a pop star. Hell, just from a marketing stand point, the song’s release and the announcement of 1989 has been near flawless: after 3 massive pop-country albums and then the rousing success of Red as a crossover attempt, she had the clout to drop a single that doesn’t even pretend its county, complete with a video that’s kind of a playful/kind of not a jab at other artists. It’s not quite as on the nose as Kendrick’s verse on “Control”, but it’s a takeover, all the same.

Swift’s rise from fame to megafame’s been about impressive PR as much as it’s been about pumping out consistent music every two years. I’m sure if you searched her apartment, you’d find a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince with cupcake recipes and cat doodles in the margins. In addition to her lyrics balancing wide appeal and personal relationships, she’s always pitched herself as the sweet, gawky girl you had a class or two with and still get coffee with monthly, even as her records sold circles around everyone else. She acts very genuine and honest, and I’m sure Taylor Swift’s a nice person, but her so-sincere-it-can’t-be act seems like a joke you’re both in on. Imagine Jennifer Lawrence with awkward dance moves instead of pizza.

Speaking of awkward dance moves, back to “Shake It Out Off”. However awesome this thing is as a long-coming powerplay, I’m not as wild about it as a song. The beat cribs from “Happy“, and fittingly suffers from the flaw: fun as it is, the song laps itself far too much. The strain on that snare-high hat hit and marching band horn line start showing just as we come out of the “Hey Mickey” sing-talk break, and there’s still a minute of looped chorus to go after that. It’s supremely catchy, but also blurs the line between catchy and repetitive. “Shake It Out” is also unabashedly populist, blending a Pharrell beat together with Ryan Lewis/Ariana Grande horns. There’s also some Miley attitude in there (plus a side of her own “I Can’t Believe They’re Not Props” criticism) for good measure.

I don’t think this is territory Taylor Swift needs to win.

Okay, to be fair, “Shake It Off” is a fun song, such to the point that you can’t grouse about it without coming off as a sourpuss. Playing off of Swift’s awkwardness and kind-of-perceived-but-not-really faults mostly works because of the song’s dorky rush, but all of her “haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate)” talk strikes me as the wrong kind of defensive. Swift’s made a career out of passive-aggressive takedowns justified through her own victimization (“you broke up with me, so I’m going to write this song about you”), and without any inciting incident or pain to back it up, “Shake It Off” seems self-congratulatory instead of empowering. Swift is, at this point, a juggernaut commercially and bulletproof critically. More to the point, she carries herself like she knows this, and watching her bad-dance through “Shake It Off”‘s humblebrag of a video feels more like watching a supervillain gloat than an underdog try.

It doesn’t help that the song’s subject material is Taylor Swift. Other people could see themselves in “You Belong With Me” and “We(yee) Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together”, but “Shake It Off” is explicitly about Taylor Swift the same way “Power” is explicitly about Kanye West. It even flounders on that level because “Shake It Off” feels like a dishonest assessment. Who has ever (like, ever) said Taylor Swift stays out too late or has no brain, especially considering she’s widely accepted as a brilliant marketer? The “I’m dancing on my own line falls flat, too, with the song’s entire video dedicated to running the “Taylor Swift can’t dance” joke a mile into the Earth’s crust. And seeing Swift unapologetically ape a cheerleader for the bridge when her breakthrough coined “She’s cheer captain/and I’m in the bleachers” has gotta send legions of Fearless fans away in betrayal. “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” at least saw Swift making pop music on her terms, “Shake It Off” seems content to run on autopilot.

The pop world’s more interesting when Taylor Swift’s in an album cycle, and while that still holds true for 1989, “Shake It Off” isn’t exactly a promising start. It’s a fun, but kind of dull song, even divorced of its baggage. It might mark the start of Swift’s official (TM) Foray Into Pop Music, but hopefully she remembers to bring her personality with her for the rest of the album. Otherwise 1989 might be a long year.

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Radio Rant: MAGIC! – Rude

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, mon.

Sometimes, a logical choice make its way to number one, but other times there seems to be a bit of MAGIC! involved. At least, I assume there has to be; people had at least heard of Pharrell and Iggy Azalea before they were suddenly everywhere. The same cannot be said for MAGIC!, a Canadian reggae fusion band who just took first place in Genres to Run Away From In a Hurry. So, who are these guys?

Like Foster the People and Bastille, [shift]magic1[/shift] is essentially a group formed to prop up one songwriter, in this case, it’s lead singer Nasri Atweh. But, unlike jingle-writer Mark Foster and the aspirations of Bastille’s Dan Smith, Nasri’s actually gotten a career off the ground as half of The Messengers, landing high profile writing and producing gigs. The Messengers aren’t going to be rubbing elbows with superproducers like Max Martin or Benny Blanco, but they’ve had a steady career doing music that you’ve heard of. Unfortunately it might not qualify as music that you want to hear. In fact, The Messngers have worked on…

Other credits include Iggy Azalea, New Kids on the Block, and so much more Beiber.

Other credits include Iggy Azalea, New Kids on the Block, and so much more Bieber.

Nasri’s resume reads like an indictment, tying him to some of the tackiest and blandest electropop/R&B of the last five years or so. And The Messengers weren’t regulated to cranking out Pitbull or Bieber’s filler tracks; they were directly responsible for singles you probably hated. On one hand, it’s not a track record to be proud of, but on the other, it shows that the guy knows his way around a hit. But with MAGIC! at the Disco, Nasri wanted to do something different and more artistic.

Let’s get the niceties out of the way first: with that kind of pedigree, “Rude” could be a lot worse. As a songwriter and a performer, Nasri lacks Brown’s meanspiritedness or Bieber’s narcissism, which means that “Rude” registers more as annoyingly terrible than, say, reprehensible or hateful. That said, Nasri painfully lacks either of those two’s charisma, and the song’s bright nature leaves him with absolutely nowhere to hide. And three minutes and forty five seconds sounds like an eternity when the guy in front has nothing to offer.

More than anything else, that nega-quality of “Rude” is what pisses me off. The song is so incompetent that it manages to be jarringly distinct and completely forgetful at the same horrible time. I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard “Problem”, or “Fancy”, or “Happy”, but I remember the first time I heard “Rude” with the unforgettable dread normally associated with hearing Michael Bay’s on a new project. I was in the car with a friend of mine, and we both had the same “the fuck is this?” moment during a lull in conversation after realizing that the music for some ad had gone on for three minutes.

Let’s look at the music of “Rude”. Nasri formed Widespread MAGIC! when he and Mark Pellizzer jammed together, envisioning the project as “modern-day Police”. Which I suppose I could see if you took The Police, removed Andy Summers’ guitar chops, somehow made Sting doofier, ditched the band’s pop instincts and edge, and threw in the “steel drum” default setting on a children’s keyboard. No, “Rude” doesn’t even strike me as Police facsimile; it’s too colorless for that.

What it actually reminds me of is “Tonight, Tonight” by Hot Chelle Rae. Remember them (if you do, I’m so sorry)? Like “Tonight, Tonight”, “Rude” has this processed, off-brand pop music quality to it that makes it sound like a Disney show theme song or commercial jingle instead of a radio hit. Like, if you mute the sound and listen to “Rude” over this commercial, it  sounds more natural than the song does next to “Stay With Me” or “Maps”.

For such a polystyrene song, “Rude” has baffling subject matter: a young man asks a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and he says no. The young man asks twice again, and gets “Still no” and “Did I fucking stutter?” as a response. That’s it.

I mean, yeah, songs have been written about dumber subjects, but “Rude” sets up a story and then doesn’t go anywhere with it–empty promise of “I’m gonna marry that girl” notwithstanding. The song’s halfassed nature makes a little more sense when you learn that “Rude” was originally about a fight before it got reworked because the band couldn’t get the original idea to work, and Nasri didn’t want to let go of “Why ya gotta be so rude? Don’t you know I’m human, too?”

Far be it from me to argue with the guy behind “Never Say Never”, but it’s possible the original concept didn’t work, not because you couldn’t find the right angle, but because your central line is just stupid. When I think of “rude”, I think of someone cutting someone off, not leaving a door open, or being short with somebody; not offense that call for “Don’t you know I’m human, too”. It’s just a whiny and ineffective retort. Hell, it doesn’t even work in context; shouldn’t the guy’s response be “Why the hell not?” And is the dad being rude when he says “I’m sorry my friend, but the answer is no”?

I haven’t met anyone that openly likes this song. Hell, I haven’t even heard it anywhere beside the radio. It’s dull reggae pastiche at best and incompetently nonsensical at worst; there isn’t even a tangible “it’s catchy” defense for this one. At the very least, mAgIc! radiates One Hit Wonder, so I’m fairly confident they’ll be gone sooner rather than later, but I hope we don’t end up with another “Happy” on our hands. I hate it when songs overstay their welcome. Seems kinda rude.

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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.

CultsIGuessCults
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.

HAERTSHAERTS
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.

ParamoreParamore
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.

Literally.

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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