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 That slavish, kickass guitar riff that winds through “Let’s Get It On” has been replaced by stock “dorm room soul” guitar strums, while the strings and horns are absent in favor of piano fills that are kind of winsome, but nothing too lively.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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Album Review: Marina and The Diamonds – FROOT

Marina Diamandis would enjoy her career so much more if she could just stop thinking about it.

She’s got the voice to make it happen, but her biggest weakness is that for as image obsessed as she is, she can’t help but let her seams show. I liked Electra Heart (a minority opinion) as a fun-if-overthought pop record, but I see where the chronic self-consciousness and occasionally rote songwriting caused it to slump. Diamandis is an artist driven by broad concepts, but lacks the finesse for execution; Electra Heart was an exploration of female identities in the corrupted, materialistic American pop landscape on paper, but in practice it meant getting songs like “Primadonna” about a primadonna, and “Homewrecker” about, well, what do you think? She can present concepts, but not develop them.

Of course, context didn’t help Electra Heart. Diamandis submitted her entry for “meta pop star” at the exact time the winking confections of Katy Perry, the self-aware sleaze of Ke$ha, and the pop art plasticity of Lady Gaga hit their sell-by. And then there was Lana Del Rey. Del Rey was a pitch perfect, show-don’t-tell version of the Electra Heart character Diamandis insisted she was (tellingly, a Venn diagram of the two’s fanbases is almost just a circle). Del Rey made “American trophy wife on white wine and Valium” look like it was why she was put on this Earth. You could always see Diamandis adjusting her pink bow.

All of this matters because FROOT is a conscious reaction to Electra Heart. After an album full of artificial personalities and big name collaborations, FROOT is an unadorned record made with a lone coproducer and Diamandis having sole writing/composing credit. It’s an introspective, “sometimes I need to be alone” album that doesn’t have an obviously trendy single, but instead wants to be a validated, artistic statement.

Just listen to opener “Happy”. As Diamanis sings “I found what I’d been looking for in myself/Found a life worth living for someone else…Never thought that I could be, I could be happy” backed by concert hall piano chords and gentle drumming, you can practically imagine her standing still in a spotlight while removing Electra Heart’s make-up and blonde wig. There are a few more themes at play here, too. FROOT‘s inspired by a break-up (where Diamandis was the breaker-upper), which gets its share of focus, but it’s not the heart of the matter, like Vulnicura or Sea Change. Instead, this album focuses on the self-affirmation, loneliness, and recovery that come afterwards; it’s about a break-up, but I’d hesitate to call it a break-up album.

You wouldn’t, for instance, have something like the title track on a break-up album. “Froot” is probably the best distillation of the album’s sound; a sleek blend of electropop filtered through a live band setting, where programmed loops and 8-bit effects with spacey synths bounce around a glammed out disco chorus with a killer guitar riff. Combined with some of Marina’s most restrained but sensual vocals, the resulting track makes something new by blending sounds she’s worked with for years (it was also the first song released for the album, back in November, and still sounds fresh five months later).

While nothing is quite as expansive or intricate as “Froot”, the record is frontloaded with poppier cuts. Single “I’m a Ruin” balances it’s pretty, reverb-drenched atmosphere with nimble guitar work and a great vocal take, then the album peaks early with the one-two punch of “Blue” and “Forget”. “Blue” finds most of its strength in a lilting synth hook, massive New Wave chorus, and surprisingly danceable rhythm section, all of which drive the cautiously optimistic lyric “I don’t want to be blue anymore” home. “Forget” picks up “Blue”‘s momentum, cuts through the reverb, and delivers the album’s biggest pop song. You listen to these, and get an idea of what a less radio-chasing version of Electra Heart might have sounded like.

Unfortunately, FROOT‘s sleekness sound hurts it later on. “Better Than That”‘s whirring synth, incessant bass, and yelping guitar are all overproduced, resulting in a messy track that sounds suffocating, even as Diamandis has some lyrical barbs. “Weeds” is a better composition, but its effectiveness as a pop ballad is limited by the production; the song wants to be an organic, sweeping ballad, but the mix is too cloying to let anything register. Likewise, “Savages”, with its lively piano and cultural critique, sounds like a deliberate call back to Diamandis’ first album The Family Jewels, but FROOT‘s too buttoned up for that sort of hysteric goofiness to work here. It’s not that these are bad songs, it’s just that they don’t play to the album’s strengths. Minimal electro-ballad “Solitaire” does, and is a standout for it.

Weak songwriting and clunky execution show up on FROOT, too. “Better Than That” gets into confused and overly complicated gender politics (she admonishes a woman up and down for using sex to get ahead, then has a lyric saying this isn’t slutshaming because she’s not judging the sex, but that this woman betrayed her. Disagree, agree, take your pick, but this is too much thought for a not-good song), and when she tries to do cheeky girl-power pop complete with a cry of “girl in the 21st century” on “Can’t Pin Me Down”, the end result is somewhere I swear Lilly Allen or Kate Nash did years ago. Likewise, it’s hard to appreciate “Gold” when I think No Doubt was doing this same vaguely reggae, summer pop trick.

FROOT is bookended by ballads. Closer “Immortal” feels every bit as stately and honest (and “Honest”) as opener “Happy”. Again, the break-up gets plenty of references, but you wouldn’t have to stretch to imagine her singing “I want to be immortal” and “I wanna live forever/Forever in your heart/And we’ll always be together” to her fans. “Immortal” is mostly held together by string inspired synths and a steady bassline, less peaceful than the piano of “Happy”, but more determined to move on. And even though FROOT isn’t a masterpiece, it takes steps in the right direction for an artist still finding her footing. Three and a half out of five stars.

tl;dr: FROOT is a solid pop album despite a few bad apples.

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You Should See Them Live: Will Butler and Cloud Nothings at Woodward Theater

Indie rock doesn’t come through Cincinnati that often, so when I saw that Will Butler and Cloud Nothings were playing at the Woodward Theater in the city’s Over the Rhine district, I immediately made plans to go. It’s been a few months since I saw someone live, and figured hey, since I’ve never been to Woodward, the whole thing’ll be a new experience, so why not?

Woodward was entertaining as a venue. It’s a smaller place, but very much a “venue” and not a “rock club”. Sure, it’s got a bar, stage, and a balcony, but there was an air of cleanliness and culture to it. My beer (they have a slew of Cincinnati craft beers canned and on tap) came in real pint glass instead of a plastic cup. The walls were white. Most of the shows I go to are in rock clubs that revel in their own grime, bars that happen to have a small upstairs/stage, or a stadium. Woodward was different, and kinda novel for it.

Anyway, the bands.

WILLWill Butler’s one of the multi-instrumentalists in indie rock juggernaut Arcade Fire (far right here, jumping between a synth and keyboard) who released his debut solo album Policy this past Tuesday. Policy–and Butler as an artist overall–puts a high value in off the cuff spontaneity and zaniness, both of which translated to his live show. For Butler and his backing band–a drummer and a pair of synth/keyboard players–the stage was almost a playground; everyone moved between synths, guitars, keyboards, and live drums/drum machine between songs. It’s entirely possible none of the ten song setlist (Policy in full, plus two songs from Butler’s project for The Guardian) used the exact same setup, which is pretty entertaining.

It helped that Policy is a live-friendly record. The punchier numbers like jangley, power chord workout garage rock strut of “Take My Side” and glammed up piano stomper “Witness” were there in proper form, and the slapstick standout rocker “What I Want” was made even more fun by hearing its wailing backing vocals and “I know this great recipe for pony macaroni!” live. But, the biggest two highlights came from where the live show deviated from the album: “Something’s Coming”, a shambling art-rock cut on the LP, found a deeper groove live, and between its heavy low-end and rhythmic vocals, veered into LCD Soundsystem territory. “Sing to Me” was still a somber piano number live, but added slash and burn synths and cymbal crashes over its climax, a surprising but satisfying way to finish the night’s most low-key moment. It’s not super likely Policy is going to end up on a lot of year-end lists, but a copy ended up in my hands that night, and it isn’t leaving rotation anytime soon.

CloudNothingzCloud Nothings are a Cleveland (yay Ohio! Boo Cleveland!) trio who I’m honestly beating myself up for not investigating before. They’ve been on my “list of bands to check out” since their widely regarded album Attack on Memory, and I finally caught up with last year’s Here and Nowhere Else during year-end listings. The band specializes in loud, fast, cathartic rock songs whose hallmarks are dynamic guitar riffs (as seen here) and high-cardio drumming. The band’s set started with “Now Here In”, and they blasted through most of Here and Nowhere Else and Attack on Memory with barely so much as a pause between songs. Dylan Baldi stopped once to thank everyone for coming instead of watching Empire (yay Empire! Boo most other Fox shows!) And the material and performances were strong enough that there was basically no need to throw off the momentum; why pause between “Quieter Today” and “Pattern Walks” any longer than the last chords need to ring?

KloudNothngsTrying to parse the differences between Cloud Nothings’ live set and how the songs appear on the albums feels like a trite exercise. I’m not enough of a gearhead to get into the particulars, but it sounds like the rig guitarist Dylan Baldi used to record Here and Nowhere Else has become his live one, as well; the album’s wiry, fuzzy gnarled sound ran through Woodward, whether the song was “Giving Into Seeing”” or the band’s (relative term here) big hit “Stay Useless”. The only difference was a beefed up sound the Attack on Memory cuts, and maybe more graceful dynamic jumps on stuff like “Psychic Trauma”.

The undisputed highlight of the night was “I’m Not Part of Me”, hands down Cloud Nothings’ best song, and the one that got everyone in the theater moving. It was the moment where the night’s frantic, dashed together rock and roll hit transcendence, and life felt kind of complete for a bit while you and strangers screamed “You’re a part of me!” in each other’s faces. It felt jubilant. And so, while this was my first time at a new venue with a pair of artists I hadn’t seen before, I sure wouldn’t mind going back. Maybe get one or two more local beers. Emphasis on “one or two”, though; shit’s pricey.

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Album Review: Imagine Dragons – Smoke + Mirrors

Who the fuck are Imagine Dragons?

Even after going through Smoke + Mirrors, this is a hard question to answer in a meaningful way. Sure, Imagine Dragons are the biggest mainstream rock band right now, but they’re also profoundly faceless. And they aren’t just faceless next to tastemaker indie rock like Japandroids and Cloud Nothings; that’s an easy (and cheap) victory. No, Imagine Dragons’ flaunt a blandness missing from peers in their weight class, like fun., Fall Out Boy, and that guy that does “Riptide”. So, how do they do this? Is their identity made clearer on this album? Let’s take a look at the band’s music and overall aesthetic, and see what we can find out. Let’s start with the name.

“Imagine dragons”
A band’s name should introduce their look and vibe before you hear anything. Whereas “Interpol” sounds like some exclusive club or clothing label, or “Mumford & Sons” calls to mind old-timey, suspenders wearing, aw-shucksters [ed: OR NOT], “Imagine Dragons” calls up an image without doing anything with it. “Imagine dragons” doing what? What kind of dragons? Are we imagining dragons as cultural constructs, or actual flying lizards? What do we do with these dragons? It makes you want to grab Dan Reynolds by his black tee-shirt and ask, “Bro, I imagined a fucking dragon, now what?”

Profound dumbness aside, I had a point in mentioning the name. It’s a Blank Slate For Badassness; the name ensures you’re thinking of something cool, you fill it in with your idea of cool, and the end result is like, double cool without effort. And this is what Imagine Dragons functionally does with music: takes whatever trends it can grasp, stomps around for a few minutes, and calls it done. I’ve heard this described as malleability or adaptation, but I don’t buy it for ID. They aren’t like, say, OneRepublic, who can cop styles while still sounding like themselves. No, when Imagine Dragons apes AWOLNATION on the shanty lurch of “Gold”, or lifts the verses from “Riptide” before stealing Mumford & Sons’ kick-drum on “I Bet My Life”, it just sounds like bad imitation. Sometimes this doesn’t have an awful result; OneRepublic knock-off “Hopelessness Opus” is passable, and opener “Shots” is respectable, synth-friendly festival-pop fare. So, in a way, Imagine Dragons lives up to their name: you’ll think of something, it might be ugly, it might be cool. But it’ll be someone else’s idea.

Big Drums
Speaking of “Shots”, that song has some clattering drums in its final chorus that give it extra oomph. They’re also a subtle reminder that, from the summer when “Radioactive” was everywhere to Kendrick Lamar turning the band into the world’s least intricate drumline, drums have been ID’s defining instrument. It makes a degree of sense: drums are the perfect way for a rock band that doesn’t want to be a rock band to be loud. It’s the approach used on the aforementioned duds “Gold” and “I Bet My Life”, but also on the Middle East tinged nu-metal outing “Friction” (which I guess could double as ID’s Linkin Park wanna-be cut?). The drums throughout Smoke + Mirrors are the only thing bolstered by returning producer Alex da Kid; they’ve got enough depth and hip-hop bounce to keep the album’s languid arrangements moving. Being drum-heavy fits the band’s aesthetic; drums are big, dumb, surface noise and instant gratification without any thought involved.

And you know what? Sometimes that’d kind of awesome. It’s the approach Imagine Dragons uses on Smoke + Mirrors‘ best cut, the stomping, cartoonishly overdriven rocker “I’m So Sorry”. It channels the same ranging id that made “Radioactive” resonant, but in a less gimmicky way, and sounds almost like a live cut (if you’re an arena rock band, this is exactly what you should want). Add in that some of Dan Reynold’s mock profound lyrics here actually sound badass (“You’re the son of a stepfather”), that QotSA-lite outro, and it’s a winner. Sure, drums aren’t a thinking man’s instrument of choice, but does everyone need to be burdened with thought?

“Smoke and mirrors”

Guys.

Come on.

You cannot be the poster child for bloated, artistically shallow, creatively anemic rock, and name your album Smoke + Mirrors. It’s either trolling or asking for it, with zero middle ground, and this band isn’t smart enough to troll. But how does no A&R, publicist, manager, label exec, anyone not say anything about naming the album Smoke + Mirrors when the music itself is smoke and fucking mirrors?

Ranting aside, the concept of “Smoke and mirrors” on the album runs back to Reynolds’ disillusionment with life after becoming famous. In context, the song “Smoke +Mirrors” (and several cuts from the rest of the album) serve as Imagine Dragon’s “Teenage angst has paid off well.” It’s not ineffective per se, but the band mostly uses the theme to crank out more mopey but nondescript in the vein of hit “Demons”.

And that, to me, is the real smoke and mirrors to this album: fluffy, Coldplayish ballads that aspire for self-reflection, but go up in clouds. Were it not for the clunker “I am the color of boom”, “Polaroid” would pass without notice, and “Dream”, “Summer”, and Mumford redux “Trouble” all drift in one ear and out the other. The back half of this record is so driftless that not even extended, honestly pretty outro on “The Fall” can save it.

Getting back to the start, who the fuck are Imagine Dragons? They’re a band that writes at length about finding themselves, but never told us who they were in the first place. Self-discovery can be a great subject, but when the lyrics, the music, and the delivery are such constant letdowns, there’s no reason to stick around and find out who the real Imagine Dragons is. Night Visions was a sleeper-hit, and that might be true of Smoke + Mirrors as well, so we’ll see. Or it might just disappear in a puff. Two stars out of five.

tl;dr: Imagine Dragons copy a bunch of other people to find themselves. It doesn’t work, 2/5.

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Album Review: Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

Most of the way through If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late‘s “No Tellin'”, Drake implores “Please do not speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago, I’m at a higher place“. It’s a tossed-off line from deep in a five minute song, but it made me think: four years? Is that how long Drake’s been around? Shit, it is. And not just as the guy hoping to catch Lil Wayne’s runoff; Take Care came out for years ago this upcoming November. Then I realized that since Take Care, he hasn’t really gone away, and thought of something else:

When’s the last time Drake botched something?

Okay, sure, he’s got a solid album track record, but that’s easy.  Let’s just look at the guy’s 2014: pulling the rare hosting/musical guest double duty on SNL, hosting the muscled up snooze-fest that is the ESPYs, and forgoing an album in lieu of SoundCloud singles and features with buzz artists. And none of these were fuck ups. Drake, the most joked on entertainer working, is in some kind of extended can’t-lose zone. Even the infamous airball counts as a W, if only because Drake literally missing his big shot is the Drakeiest outcome possible, and we love him for that shit.

All of this is to say that a surprise album/mixtape is putting a lot of public goodwill and credibility on the line. Surprise album drops imply that this shit’s so good, you need to grab it now, without any hype or warning (it’s a strategy that worked on me. That and, as a sensitive mixed kid, I basically owe Drake tithe to begin with). I realize this is a weird thing to say, but if If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late sucked after paying for it, and you got “0 to 100/The Catch Up” for free, people would have been pissed. And then, given the nature of If You’re Reading This, it’s guerrilla release is baffling at first, then makes total sense.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is Drake’s fullest rap album. There’s no “Marvin’s Room” or “Hold On We’re Going Home”, and barely even something as radio palatable as “Miss Me”; the bulk of the album exists in the same loose flow, almost stream of conscious style Drake embraced on “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” free of sturdy melodies and powerful hooks. When he sings more than raps, like on “Now & Forever”, “Legend”, “Madonna” or “Jungle”, it’s melodically sparse and more a soundscape than anything else; outside of arguably “Now & Forever”, there’s nothing like a ballad here. And the fact that Drake mostly keeps to rapping is, for the first time, a really good thing. Drake’s always been a competent, not compelling, rapper, and you can hear him sweating through extended verses. He’s never going to have an absolutely bonkers song where he just goes for off seven minutes like Lupe Fiasco does on his new album (oh, by the way, there’s a new Lupe Fiasco album); he’s not that kind of rapper. And he’s finally stopped pretending to be. He’s perfected the delivery on his loose, cadence-heavy, stop-start flow, and sounds like he could do this shit all day.

No where is that more apparent than the album’s early hot streak between “Energy” and “No Tellin'”. “Energy” and “10 Bands” are more compact, relying on crisp snares and twinkling synth loops under Drake venting his frustrations at dealing with bullshit friends in the former, and boasting about his cash and hard work in the latter. “Energy” has already gotten buzz, and it makes sense; it’s If You’re Reading This boiled to its core. Despite that, I find myself more drawn to “Know Yourself” and “No Tellin'”. “Know Yourself” is one of the stronger headphone tracks here (see: Boi-1da’s drop), and “Running through the 6 with my woes is an early contender for the record’s meme lyric–try it out. “No Tellin'” is five minutes of Drake mugging, and it kinda works. Part of that’s the compressed effect on his vocal, part of it’s the varied flows he uses, and part of it’s the fact that he’s actually got a few clever riffs (“Beside Ricky Ross, Aubrey’s the biggest boss here, huh).

After the mostly sung mood-piece “Madonna” (the sixth song on the record, but the first 40 produces), If You’re Reading This meanders a bit. “6 God” and “Star67″ aren’t bad cuts, but feel redundant after seeing Drake achieve similar results earlier on. He’s perfected how to tell The Story of Drake, but it’s occasionally one he’s told before. PARTYNEXTDOOR shows up for two decent tracks, but “Preach” can’t help but feel inconsequential. In fact, length is the biggest woe on If You’re Reading This; there’s just no way to justify this thing’s 17 track/69 minute run time. It wouldn’t even require hard edits to pare this down a notch: ditch “Preach”, “6 God”, Lil Wayne collab “Used To”, “Company”, and maybe “6 Man” or “Jungle” if you’re feeling thrifty, and you’ve still got a solid album. Even after a midway stumble, “Now & Forever”, “You & The 6″, and “6PM in New York” (I’m also partial to the Frank Ocean lite “Jungle”) help If You’re Reading This stick the landing.

After an hour plus of frigid aloofness and isolation, the triumphant “6PM in New York” rings in what might be Drake’s most technical accomplishment. It’s still overlong and wobbles in spots, but as a loosely experimental and daring release, it hits way more than it misses. Drake tops himself not just in his performance, but in the material; his writing’s sharper than it’s ever been, and on the oversharing conversation-with-Mom personal “You & the 6″ and “6PM in new York”, he’s actually compelling as a rapper. And this is technically a mixtape before the proper album. There are plenty of keepers here, I can’t wait to see what comes next, four stars out of five.

tl;dr: Drake aces the surprise release, and flips off his label while he’s at it, 4/5

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Radio Rant: Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk!

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Who’s giving it up today?

I always expect it to blink.

First things first: who is Mark Ronson? Ronson, dutifully playing the role of Guy Striking Cool Poses To Disguise The Fact He Can’t Dance in the video, is a British DJ/producer whose been working in some capacity since the turn of the century. Read his full rap sheet if you like, but the takeaway is he’s got a fairly wide genre pallet, and collaborated heavily with Amy Winehouse, producing “Valerie”, “Back to Black”, and “Rehab”. He reads as solid enough if not earth shattering industry hired gun that’s been involved with greatness, but perhaps seldom its cause. Oh, and he’s a credited producer on a little tune called “Locked Out of Heaven”.

I get how Ronson and Mars can work together. Both these guys have a jack of all trades, multi-genre portfolio, the difference is that Mars was practicing Elvis routines and the dance in “Smooth Criminal” while Ronson was crate digging for New York hip-hop records. They update the sound of old favorites with modern flourishes so as to not get lost in their influences, and the result is something fairly distinct. This is why “Locked Out of Heaven” worked so well.

And you know what? “Uptown Funk” does it even better. It’s one of those songs that’s so fully formed, fun, and wholly aware of its “I am on my shit” status that it’s as hard to resist on the first listen as it is on the hundredth. Everything, from that vocal sample serving as the main bass line to the tight, Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riff to the post-chorus horn line to the gang vocals throughout, falls exactly into place, like an immaculate DJ set distilled into (a somehow too-short) four and a half minutes. The production’s spot-on, too; nothing gets lost in the mix, and all the elements sound larger than life, especially the drums.

Honestly, I think the drum sound and the beat here might be “Uptown Funk”‘s secret weapon. Lemme explain. For the last year or two, a lot of our soul-based pop music has used treble-y, syncopated, snare-heavy beats that work more for measured flailing and swaying around than full body dancing (this is one of four or five reasons why it’s hard genuinely dance to “Happy” or “Shake It Off” without feeling like an asshole). This kind of beat’s alright, but ultimately feels like dance music without a groove, which is hard to really get into.

There exists out there what I call “The Michael [Jackson] Beat”: an unfussy but unrelentingly powerful, bottom-heavy beat around which every other rhythm in the song is tied to. For a song to have The Michael Beat, no matter what else is happening, you have to not only be able to always find that propulsive, unchanging, beat driving things forward, but hear how every other aspect of the song ties back to it (see: “Remember the Time”). I recognize that this is hardly an MJ trademark–it shows up all over in Steve Wonder, Prince, James Brown, and Kool & the Gang, and modern acts like Janelle Monae and LCD Soundsystem (even Katy Perry used it once)–but listening to the first disc of HIStory extensively when you’re five and six tends to shape how you see things. “You Wanna Be Starting Something” is probably the purest example of The Michael Beat in action: every single fidget, riff, vocal, and handclap in the song is rooted in one, never deviating beat. And you can totally hear it at work in “Uptown Funk”, most obviously in the post-chorus breakdown when the horns come in. What makes The Micheal Beat so cool is that it’s percussive in a way that makes dancing to it look effortless, and anyone can perform the fuck over it.

Which brings me to “Uptown Funk”‘s strongest asset: Bruno Mars. I don’t know who, and I don’t know when, but someone attached to “Uptown Funk” how to get the best out of Bruno: don’t tell him to be sweet, don’t tell him to try sensual, just slap him in a sportcoat, drop him in front of the guys, and tell him get cracking. We’ve finally coaxed this guy into the recording booth. And really, the song wouldn’t be as good without someone selling it this hard in front of the mic; it’s silly shit, but Mars makes “I’m too hot, make a dragon wanna retire, man” actually sound kinda cool, and the sneer on “Cuz uptown funk gonna give it to ya!” wouldn’t work if it was dialed down. And the backing gang vocals make the song stronger, too; the call and responses are not just a lot of fun and perfectly deployed, but give Mars something to play off of. I’m sure come next album cycle, Sweet Bruno, Brooding Bruno, and Sensual Bruno will all be back, but please, more Sportcoat Bruno, too.

Because “Uptown Funk” is one of the best hits we’ve had in awhile. It’s super catchy, danceable, well-made, a great performance, and even sharing space with throwbacky jams like “Lips Are Movin'”, “Sugar”, and “Thinking Out Loud”, incredibly distinct. I’m also relieved for Ronson, not just because he’s finally notched a massive hit with his name attached to it, but it sounds like “Uptown Funk” almost gave it to him during its seven month writing process. Ronson and Mars have always been great at blending styles, and they finally found one of their own.

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