Album Review: Ariana Grande – My Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Radio Rant: The Songs of the Summer Bust Of 2014

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

I can’t say the same for this year.

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

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

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

9. Calvin Harris – Summer

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

8. Pharrell – Happy

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

7. Jason Derulo ft. Snoop Dogg – Wiggle

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

6. John Legend – All Of Me

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

5. Nico & Vinz – Am I Wrong

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

4. Sam Smith – Stay With Me

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

3. Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea – Problem

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

2. MAGIC! – Rude

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

1. Iggy Azalea ft. Charli XCX – Fancy

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

Sometimes the winners aren’t the obvious ones.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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