Album Review: The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign

Just say that band name out loud to yourself: “The world is a beautiful place & I am no longer afraid to die.” Joke or not, the name sort of hits on everything about the Connecticut collective: they’re sprawling, they’re a bit too much, there’s more than a little post-rock in them, and they challenge you to meet them in their too muchness; that ampersand in the middle highlights how long and dramatic the name is, and it almost dares you to stop there, but fuck it, I am no longer afraid to die. The statement reads as a realization, and with it, the band’s music has always treated the sky like it’s a limit they’re trying to reach. But Always Foreign has to contend with what happens when the world might not be a beautiful place–what happens when it feels goddamn terrifying?

Such concerns weren’t problems on 2013’s When, If Ever and Harmlessness, its successor released in 2015. Harmlessness, a fantastic synthesis of post-rock musical cinema and emo revival personal catharsis, spent most of its time advocating for mental health and support systems, and saw the world as having problems, yes, but ultimately believed it was good. “I am alive, I deserve to be” goes a lyric from “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” and while it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg situation, TWIABP’s optimism meshes well with the emo revival scene they’ve influenced; in the same year that Harmlessness was released, Joy, Departed by fellow revivalists Sorority Noise culminated in a key-changing, crowd surging shout of “I STOPPED WISHING I WAS DEAD.” In context, that line is in perfect sync with TWIABP’s outlook–that after everything else has gone wrong (Joy, Departed is in broad strokes about mental illness and substance abuse), life itself is still desirable. Harmlessness believed that, even if things were wrong, the world had a way of righting itself or of being made right by the inherent goodness of others.

But Always Foreign is not Harmlessness, and you can see the differences as early as their first singles. Harmlessness‘ first single was “January 10th, 2014,” a 7 minute long epic with musical peaks and valleys, and its lyrics celebrated a story of feminist vigilantism that ended with the resolution to “Make evil afraid of evil’s shadow.” Meanwhile, Always Foreign‘s lead single “Dillon and Her Son” has instrumentation that matches “January 10th” for intricacy, but condensed to an impossibly tight run time. “Dillon…” forgoes extended musical breaks for a punky rhythm section, knotty guitars, and SNES-y synths that have a build-up and final payoff, all inside two and a half minutes. You can pick out differences in the worldviews of “January…” and “Dillon…” as well from the lyrics: the former is a celebration of world-righting justice, while the latter–which implores “Give my life back if you believe us”–expresses wonder at a slight reprieve from the world’s instability.

Even though it doesn’t appear until the album’s middle, “Dillion and Her Son” is a great opening shot for Always Foreign, because it shows how the band’s entire orientation has changed. At a glance, yeah, the songs are generally shorter, but more than that, they’re streamlined. The music still reaches for those widescreen highs, be it on perfect pop song “The Future” or Always Foreign’s lone seven minute sprawler “Marine Tigers,” but the band’s swapped out dramatic pauses for constant forward motion. Even though it seems counterintuitive, paring down actually lets the songs breathe more since they’re stripped down to the (again, still very intricate) essentials; something like “Faker” or “Infinite Steve” would risk ending up jumbled on a previous release, whereas they make for breathtaking two parters now.

Consequentially, this is TWIABP’s song-iest record. It’s still meant to be listened to in order from end to end (especially the closing trifecta of “Marine Tigers,” “Fuzz Minor,” and “Infinite Steve”), but the album’s individual parts each have a distinct identity. If you want to appreciate “The Future” as a focusing point for the album after opener “I’ll Make Everything,” that’s an option, or if you love it as a standalone The Wonder Years meets Funeral pop-punker, you can totally do that, too. “Fuzz Minor” succeeds as the middle piece in the album’s closing thesis statement, and as a hellish rebuke to the current Presidential administration equally; the sheer vitriol that singer David Bello, who is of Lebanese and Puerto Rican descent, packs into the word “spic” has to be heard to be believed. Each song is full arresting moments like that. I could go on about the music, but instead, I’ll just quote music writer Ian Cohen who said of Harmlessness, “There are at least 50 moments on this thing where I imagine yelling at a non-convert, ‘how can you think THIS IS JUST OK?'” thus predicting my reaction to “Infinite Steve” 2 years early.

I mention “Infinite Steve” because it’s the record’s closing attempt to reconcile living in a terrifying world and who you can and can’t take with you. The first half of the song is a roiling account of modern life that lashes and wails in anguish until it gives way to an impressionist story of either a communication breakdown between friends or a mass shooting set to the prettiest damn music this band’s ever made, and the contrast between the two is evocative. Always Foreign finds the world awful for lots of reasons, but, like a healthy percentage of indie/punk records this year, a big league reason is the Trump administration, who gets put on full blast directly in “Fuzz Minor,” whose supporters are questioned during “Faker,” and whose influence permeates the immigration tale of “Marine Tigers.” But, for as much political heat is on this record, TWIABP also knows that those who were closest to us are the ones who can cause the most damage; angry as “Fuzz Minor” is, it doesn’t swing nearly as hard as “Hilltopper,” a song aimed toward a former band member, does. “Gram” examines small town drug trades, while “For Robin” details watching someone’s alcoholism and substance abuse cause them to fall further and further away before dying, and together, the two songs funnel substance problems from an institutional issue to something that’s wrought devastation on so many individuals. That’s the scope of this record.

Always Foreign is the first The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die record that doesn’t take the first half of their name for granted. While the band’s outlook wasn’t pure rose-colored glass (“We Need More Skulls” comes to mind), this album is the first time that the world’s innate goodness has been interrogated. And still, I think Always Foreign ultimately believes the world is worth it. Among lyrics like “I hope evil can see this, “Will you be faking it when they’re rounding us up?” and “Four cars jammed inside every garage” are ones that say “Just hold on until the phantom’s gone,” “There are places we’re gone that our friends never will,” and the harrowed “Marine Tigers” ends with “We’re here/I told you so.” The world might not be harmless. But it isn’t helpless.

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Radio Rant: Post Malone feat. 21 Savage – “rockstar”

Hello and welcome to Radio Rants, let’s tune up for today.

There were big moves a few weeks ago on the Hot 100. The lead story was Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” overtaking Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” at the top position, a move that has been celebrated for reasons ranging from historical (Cardi is the first female rapper in 19 years, or 3 Batman actors, to have her own #1) to the mundane (“Bodak Yellow” is a legitimately good song, while “LWYMMD” is debatably Swift’s worst single to date).

But in addition to “Bodak Yellow”’s ascension, I noticed that “LWYMMD” not only fell from number one, but slid to number 3 behind “rockstar” by Post Malone and featuring 21 Savage. The rise of “Bodak” makes sense: the song’s trended upward all summer, and fans made a concerted effort in September to get it to number 1 (this video of Janet Jackson dancing to it probably helped). Between that push and “LWYMMD”’s apparent lack of legs, the “Bodak” come up was only a matter of time. “Rockstar” debuting at no. 2, though? That’s a surprise. For one, it’s higher than Post or 21 have gotten before, and for two…this is what did it?

There’s a quote out there about how 80% of success is showing up, and I can’t think of anyone in 2017’s pop scene who embodies that philosophy more than Post Malone. Malone’s career started with “White Iverson” in August of 2015, and he’s only risen since then; his debut Stony late last year has gone platinum, and “Congratulations” was a summer hit. If you really wanted to, you could have The White Rapper conversation around him, but frankly, Malone isn’t interesting enough as a rapper to merit it. His bars rely on boilerplate wordplay and a liberal application of slang ad-libs, feeling more like topical placeholders than actual verses, and mechanically, he’s stronger using a digitized, Bieber-esque vocal style that etches out little melodies than he ever is with a flow. In spirit, Malone is closest to Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews Band: vibesy chill-meisters whose music considers it hard times when no one can find a lighter or a bottle opener. 

I wouldn’t trust him for a whole album, but Malone’s traits–his musical evanescence, his nondescript presence behind the mic, and his overall affability–are probably what make him a streaming monster. He’s the kind of guy whose songs you can just let play, and probably sound better the less attention you apply directly to them. He’s a conceptual lightweight, which likely plays a big role in him doing better with pop audiences than rap ones; his rapping is the least interesting thing about him (among the most interesting: his appearance, which is like a PG-13 version of James Franco from Spring Breakers mixed with a gerbil).

And so we come to “rockstar,” Post’s newest single, and biggest hit. There’s not much to it. It’s not that I need (or hell, want) my pop to be context-dependent or meditative, but all “rockstar” does is mutter and warble its way through a bunch of rock shit that’s been done since The Black Album; if Malone’s previous output had all the depth of a Biggie poster hanging in a dorm room, then all “rockstar” does is tape a Jim Morrison one next to it. Like, for fuck’s sake, Nickelback was more inventive with the same subject matter–that’s how you know it’s time to try something else.

Then again, “try something else” seems antithetical to the Post Malone experience. “Rockstar” finds him in the same “watery synth opening, unhurried pop-trap chorus, mild verses” musical lane as “White Iverson” or “Congratulations” that’s sounded familiar to the general public since at least “The Hills,” and its effectiveness has more to do with familiarity than anything Malone or producer Tank God brings to the table. The beat itself lacks character; even after a bunch of listens, my brain still auto-reroutes to “Congratulations,” which was a little more plodding than “rockstar” but featured a hint of triumph, whereas “rockstar” doesn’t really have a mood. Even if his third hit is still technically fine, law of diminishing returns is going to kick in real quick.

“Rockstar” isn’t doing anything lyrically spectacular, either. For everything else you could say about Nickelback’s “Rockstar”–it’s like if week-old Chili’s leftovers were a song–it at least had an inkling of an idea that the “rock star” archetype was tired enough to poke fun at. Meanwhile, Post Malone plays it entirely straight, meaning that one of our rising stars of 2017 is officially getting outplayed by the dumbest band of the 21st century. You’d think that someone with Malone’s multi-genre past would bring something interesting to a song called “rockstar,” but the song’s just a bunch of moldy boasts chained to what I assume are the most easily researchable rock nods on Spotify. Malone has a line about coming “back in black,” so here’s a Bon Scott shoutout! Hey, Jim Morrison was a rock star, so let’s crowbar a line about how to “light a fire like I’m Morrison” (even though, and yes this is pedantic, but c’mon this shit is entry-level, the song is “Light My Fire”). Those two lines aside, the rest of the song is about fuckin’ hoes, popping pills, smoking, having shooters on every block, and a bunch of other average rap shit; you could argue that this is a sign of how rappers have supplanted rockers as “rock stars,” but you wouldn’t be saying anything new. Neither is Malone.

It’s easiest to see what makes “rockstar” so anemic by putting it next to what’s blocking it from number one: “Bodak Yellow.” Both songs are essentially boast tracks, but no matter what you think of “Bodak,” you can’t deny that Cardi B has serious charisma and flow; you listen to her rap about how great she is, and it’s like, “You know what? I’m convinced. You make ‘Mooooney mooooove.’” You listen to “rock star” after that, and it sounds like Post Malone and 21 Savage are just kind of there, trying to embellish on a cliché that hasn’t been reinvented since Axl Rose. “Rockstar” says nothing while sounding nice and borrowing other people’s essence, and for that, it’s as good a distillation of Post Malone as any. He’s showing up, but he’s doing it with 80% of a song.

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Radio Rant: Billboard Songs of the Summer 2017

“I start to feel it fade awaaaay” yes, it’s the end of the summer here at Ranting About Music! and, er, everywhere else, which means it’s time for that annual tradition of looking at Billboard’s Songs of the Summer list. When the entertainment world of the future needs to reconstruct the sunshiney months of 2017 American life for future movies/shows/brain uploads, they’re gonna use one of these songs to ground the setting. Well, probably; it’s hard to believe that “Believer” or something is going to exist meaningfully after November.

The Billboard Songs of Summer chart describes itself as “The summer’s most popular songs across all genres, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions, sales data, and streaming activity data from online music sources as measured/compiled/tracked by Nielsen and Nielsen Music.” The key word in there is “Summer’s,” which (I think) means that, even though the list updates weekly, the poll itself is cumulative for the summer. This (again, I think) means that, unlike the Hot 100, your ranking on the final chart is the only one that matters–that the weeks before that are just updates on the race. This is why “Shape of You” is well-placed here, despite dropping out of the top ten a couple weeks ago (in the interest of full disclosure, this paragraph’s only really here because this is the first year I’ve understood BB’s methodology behind the chart, and then there was a bit about how dumb it is that the chart doesn’t start until late June, but–). I’ve talked enough, let’s get to the listing.

10. Post Malone feat. Quavo – “Congratulations”
Post Malone’s a newer guy in that “kind of a rapper, kind of not” mold. The songs of his that I’ve heard emphasize melody, hooks, and vibe while the bars themselves are perfunctory, and I don’t mean that as a dig; I really like “White Iverson.” I like “Congratulations” somewhat less since its seams show more: Malone gets fewer pop-trap miles per gallon here, you can tell someone used a rhyming dictionary on the hook (“congratulations/vacation/dedication”), Quavo slightly over-extends himself, and the verses are just kind of placeholders to break up the chorus. “Congratulations” passes at a glancing look, but falls apart under closer inspection, which is about par for the 10th Songs of Summer spot. Makes me crave MGMT.

9. Sam Hunt – “Body Like a Back Road”
How can “Body Like a Back Road” be the 9th biggest hit of summer ’17 if I swear it’s been out for two years already?

No, I mean that. I couldn’t tell you why, but “Body Like a Back Road” feels like at latest, a mid-2016 straggler despite its release this February. If “BLABR” isn’t bro-country, it’s at least some evolved strain of it that’s less overtly obnoxious, absolutely, but just as empty headed. Hunt can sell this better than Florida-Georgia Line ever could, although no amount of barrel-chested conviction can get around a line as terrible as “Now we go way back, like Cadillac seats.” But, since “Body Like a Back Road” is from 2017, this means Liam Payne isn’t alone in trying to bring back those rap “‘ey, ‘ey, ‘ey”s that everyone hated. Good job, guys.

8. French Montana (technically) feat. Swae Lee – “Unforgettable”
Look, French Montana is just fine. On last year’s headbasher “All the Way Up,” he was more than just fine. But on “Unforgettable,” a hazier take on the dancehall beat of “One Dance” that’s matched damn near perfectly by Swae Lee doing some of his airiest singing, his bellowing entrance a minute and a half in just deflates the atmosphere. It’s like watching someone leap into a bouncy house wearing concrete shoes. Not since Pitbull on “Timber” has someone sounded like a guest on their own hit, and at least Mr. Worldwide knew how to adapt to the material. French doesn’t, so he’s a skip on what’s otherwise a killer Sremmlife 3 teaser.

7. Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
Here’s a story: in the early part of this summer, I was at a bar in downtown Cincy on a Saturday night. It was one of those places that had a big enough dance floor and soundsystem that it could pass for a club, but still felt like a bar, if that makes sense. Anyway, it was late, and the DJ had (I assume–we got there around 1) already cycled through the hits, so he threw on a “m.A.A.d city” remix. It kept people moving, but didn’t do much beyond the “YAK YAK YAK YAK” call because, y’know, 1 AM. And then, he switches it out to “HUMBLE.” and people start losing their shit. The dance floor swells immediately with kids drunk off vodka-Redbulls, and when it gets to That Point, I swear that everyone there shouted “MY LEFT STROKE JUST WENT VI. RAL.” Truth be told, “HUMBLE.” is like, the 8th or 9th best song off the new record, but seeing Kendrick Lamar connect with an audience on his own shit? That’ll make you look back and say DAMN.

6. Imagine Dragons – “Believer”
If you assume all of those “Rock is dead” pieces are correct, then Imagine Dragons are rock’s undead husk, dragged from a frozen lake, and living a half-life of futile anger and yowl-y vocals.

5. Ed Sheeran – “Shape of You”
There’s a category of pop that I’ve begun to think of as “shopping mall pop.” “Shopping mall pop” is shorthand for the kind of bland, feckless, pop song that somehow manages to be the third or fourth song you hear in every shopping mall, gym, Dairy Queen, and waiting room over the course of a year. It’s too mild to offend anyone, which means that it then ends up sticking around for forever and eventually everyone gets sick of it. “Shape of You” is this year’s entrant in the modern shopping mall pop canon, where it joins the uninspired ranks of “All of Me,” “Sugar,” “Fight Song,” and “Roar” to make your trip to TJ Maxx 40% less thrilling for three and a half minutes.

4. DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller – “Wild Thoughts”
Tracing the arc of the Songs of the Summer chart across the season, just about everything stayed in or near the top 10 for duration, with the exception of “Wild Thoughts,” which didn’t even chart for the first week or two before clawing its way to number four. “Wild Thoughts” marks Rihanna’s only appearance on the 2017 summer chart a year after her presence and influence was so pervasive in the contest that I made a game out of it, and this is…fine. “Wild Thoughts” the sort of breezy summer pop + leftfield sample combination that Riri can do in her sleep, but Tiller drags it down by sounding completely out of his depth. That unevenness happens with these DJ Khaled match-ups: sometimes they click, and sometimes one person is clearly doing all the work, work, work, work, work, work.

3. DJ Khaled feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Wayne – “I’m the One”
There’s too little beat and too much Bieber for “I’m the One” to go for nearly five minutes. Bieber, who can sound great, is basically here as a Chris Brown surrogate, but he sounds bored out of his mind. He’s not the only one who comes up short, though, as both Chance and Lil Wayne whiff on their verses, which is a bummer after how jubilant they were together last summer. Quavo alone shines, adapting to something as bright as “I’m the One” without tripping over himself, but otherwise, I get the feeling that this song only charted through inertia; something with this many high profile names on it is going to be a streaming magnet. If I sound cold on “I’m the One,” it’s mostly because it makes me miss “I’m On One,” which is top-tier Khaled.

2. Bruno Mars – “That’s What I Like”
Credit to Bruno Mars: I don’t think anyone else would pull off “That’s What I Like” nearly as well. It’s not my favorite off 24K Magic, but still, Mars was able to flip “That’s What I Like” into an all-ages hit, an impressive feat considering that under the bubbly pop song and cutesy video is a set of lyrics raunchy and ridiculous enough to be come-ons by a Will Ferrell character. Like, it’s not hard to imagine Ron Burgundy propositioning someone with offers of lobstertail dinners and the embrace of silk sheets after a night of exquisite love making by his mahogany fireplace inside his luxury condo. Mars specializes in that glorious over the topness, and as this year’s requisite wedding jam, “That’s What I Like” totally works.

1. Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber “Despacito” (remix)
I would say congratulations to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee for topping the Songs of the Summer chart with their record-tying smash “Despacito,” but taking the pole position as a lead artist for Song of the Summer might be on some Defense Against the Dark Arts professor shit as far as curses go. Here’s a Where Are They Now of this decade’s winners; the esteemed company to which Fonsi and Yankee now belong.

-2010: Katy Perry – “Californiua Gurls” Perry might have been safe from the SotS curse in years past, but 2017 has been, ah, witness to her implosion.
-2011: LMFAO – “Party Rock Anthem” In 2013, Redfoo attempted to qualify for the US Open before losing in the wildcard round, and Skyblu performed at Ms. World in 2014. The world has stopped party rocking.
-2012: Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe” Carly Rae Jepsen went on to become the Queen of Cult Smash Pop Music, which is not so bad by most metrics, but she also had the most popular in the world for a while, so it’s kind of a toss up.
-2013: Robin Thicke – “Blurred Lines” Hahahahahaha
-2014: Iggy Azalea – “Fancy” HAHAHAHAHAHA
-2015: OMI – “Cheerleader” Say what you want about Robin Thicke and Iggy Azalea, at least 1. I didn’t have to Wiki-research what they’re up, and 2 there’s information on them beyond 2016.
-2016: Drake – “One Dance” Get back to me in 2022. For now, Drake has a top selling project for the year and is taking some earned time off. If his momentum stalls on the return, you heard why here first.

Well, that’s Billboard, now here are (were?) my Songs of the Summer.

1. Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean, Quavo, Offset – “Slide”
2. Drake – “Passionfruit” (bonus Paramore version because YouTube woes)
3. Kendrick Lamar – “FEEL.” (dammit)
4. Jay Som – “Baybee”
5. SZA – “Prom”
6. Lorde – “Supercut”
7. Charly Bliss – “DQ”
8. Future – “Draco”
9. The 1975 – “Somebody Else” (blah blah, “last year,” their Bunbury set was phenomenal)
10. Japandroids – “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”

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Radio Rant: Taylor Swift – “Look What You Made Me Do”

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. She’s back.

To summarize: Taylor Alison Swift was a pop country crossover star before assuming pop music’s center, first covertly with 2012’s Red, then declaratively with 1989 in 2014. Swift is the center of pop music because, not only is she our biggest pop star, but she’s also the one most interested in holding (and keeping) the title; Beyonce and Adele are too aloof, Drake and Rihanna are too bored, and Ed Sheeran/Bruno Mars/Ariana Grande/etc. are too far behind; Swift is more than game to muck around on social media to get fans hyped or tease a video on Good Morning America. You could see this on display in her image rehab/recovery after taking an L against Kim Kardashian over Kanye’s (rightly) infamous “Famous” lyric, which Swift very understandably publicly spoke out against, but only after privately giving Kanye a go-ahead and saying she’d brush it off. The event was big enough to kick the incipient Taylor Swift backlash into full on progress, since it confirmed what people had–at first unfairly and over time less-so–long suspected of Taylor Swift being: a craven manipulator who only played at being America’s Sweetheart. A Slytherin masquerading as a Hufflepuff. A snek.

I know that’s a lot of context, but it’s relevant to “Look What You Made Me Do”’s reactionary nature. Swift, at 27 and 5 years into her reign as a pop megastar, was going to naturally outgrow her “who, me?” persona right about now, but the “Famous” debacle pushed her closer to outright villainy. And, okay, this might be selfish on my part, but I wanted that, especially once Swift started posting “I watch Twin Peaks, too, you guys” snake teasers. I was ready for her to cut the shit, throw out the scrappy lil underdog thing, and embrace her status as pop’s calculating empress. Look, I got really hyped for PSL 2.

Yet, at least with single “Look What You Made Me Do,” Reputation isn’t that. “Look What You Made Me Do” gestures toward villainy with its melodramatic strings and icy synths and drum pads, but it’s too lyrically broad and musically flailing for anything to stick beyond half-realized ideas and swells. It doesn’t commit enough toward being venom-spitting aggro-pop, nor does it capitalize on its experimental tendencies enough to make them compelling. And there just straight up isn’t anything about “Look What You Made Me Do” that screams lead single.

Musically, the song never really gels. It opens with some goffick strings and piano before switching over to big bass for the verses with an overly digitized drum beat. That part doesn’t go anywhere, but the additional synths and stabbing piano on the pre-chorus (“But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time”) work nicely, and build some actual “drama, drama” that unfortunately gets blown to hell when “Look What You Made Me Do” fumbles the chorus. Instead of anything vicious, or a killer boast, Swift just intones the song’s name a bunch of times over–shit you not–a Right Said Fred sample. The second chorus adds a jittering drum track, and the final repeat throws some extra noise in, but it’s still too underdeveloped.

The production on “Look What You Made Me Do” has a handful of signifiers like Fergie, Justin Timberlake, and Blackout-era Britney, but the essence of it calls Melodrama strongest to mind. Like Melodrama, “Look What You Made Me Do” wants to push and pull with what you can get away with in pop; they both feature “incorrect songwriting” (Jack “I guess you’re a thing now” Antonoff is involved with both, but Lorde and Swift are obviously the ones in control) with the key difference being that Lorde has a better understanding of how to toy with expectations while still making a cohesive song. Something like “The Louvre” is actively trying to deconstruct pop, but it still totally works as pop, while “Look What You Made Me Do” throws the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to hooks or melody. Again, that chorus lead-up is solid, and the last round of it would be lethal if it was the start of something instead of the end, but this sick beat is too disjointed otherwise. And good luck hearing this on the radio next to “Wild Thoughts” and “That’s What I Like.”

Of course, how “Look What You Made Me Do” sounds is only half of what’s going on here.

If the music of “Look What You Made Me Do” is a mixed bag, the lyrics are just a flatout miss. Big picture, this is not the dramatic reinvention that everything about Reputation (including “LWYMMD” itself!) has screamed. The song’s blunter than “Bad Blood,” but instead of Empress Swift bringing down fire and blood on her enemies…she still sounds aggrieved and puts the blame on the other party who manipulated and is over her. She’s still trying to sound wronged. It’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off” all over again. She wants to be the underdog.

Only here, it doesn’t take. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” sounded righteous because it was a straight shot fired against a former lover who kept playing with Swift’s emotions, and “Shake It Off” was only sort of believable because it dealt in opaque language (lots of “they”s and “the fakers,” and “the haters”) to skirt past the fact 2014 Taylor Swift didn’t have any serious competitors. But “Look What You Made Me Do” relies too much on real life context to successfully cast Swift as the victim of crimes perpetrated by Kimye and Katy Perry. Swift might have come off looking bad at the end of the “Famous” saga, but it’s worth remembering that the whole thing started over a sexist as hell lyric where Kanye–again, super rightly–faced immediate retribution on all sides in a fiasco he still hasn’t recovered from, and the whole beef only got brought back up because Swift got busted. And, this is only tangentially related, but look what you made me do, Swift’s anger at Kanye came from him saying he made her famous, a claim which sounded as dumb in February of 2016 as it does in August of 2017, making it harder to generate sympathy for her. And the idea that Taylor Swift could ever be under Katy Perry’s thumb, even before the slow-mo car crash that is Perry’s Witness cycle, is fucking hysterical.

On a slightly lower level, “Look What You Made Me Do”’s lyrics fail because it falls in some sort of diss track dead zone. It’s too narrow to work as a garden variety shit-talker, but it doesn’t hammer away at the intended targets enough, either. For everything else you can say about Katy Perry’s Swift-disser “Swish Swish,” at least it’s vague enough that it doesn’t rely on you knowing about Perry’s supremely fake beef with Swift to work (and Perry wisely released it as her third single, and not the first). Meanwhile, if “LWYMMD” is about Kanye and Kim, then like…both of these people called you by name. Y’all are past the point of subliminals like lines about “a crooked stage” and a fistful of other haphazard metaphors.

One of my first reactions to “Look What You Made Me Do” is that it is the perfect name for a Drake song. From there, I was reminded of “Back to Back,” Drake’s Grammy nominated (what a time, etc.) diss track against Meek Mill. “Back to Back” is laden with cheap shots and gets a lil gross, but it’s also ruthlessly effective. It has daggers like “Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?” but what really makes the song brutal is Drake’s bored, taunting delivery. He sounds like a guy who knows that, realistically, he’s punching down, but since you really want to do this, then fine. And he even ends with “Took a break from VIEWS, now it’s back to that.” He knows he’s too busy and too successful to deal with you. And so is Taylor Swift. I suspect she knows that, too, and I hope that she tells us as much on Reputation. She’s been a pop star, now we’re ready for a monster.

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Album Review: Arcade Fire – Everything Now

The most disappointing thing about Everything Now isn’t that it’s a bad album by Arcade Fire, but that it’s a bad Arcade Fire album. Sure, plenty of what ails this record–limp arrangements, flimsy metaphors, banal insights–could happen to anyone, but this record is a result of Arcade Fire’s worst tendencies all getting locked in a room together and enabling each other. This frustration gets compounded by the fact that some songs take off, and that thematically, Everything Now is as true to Arcade Fire as anything else they’ve ever done. The problem is that their instincts here are somehow entirely opposite of what they should be. It’s the sort of record where every move is somehow at least a questionable one.

There are a number of surface issues that plague Everything Now, but let’s start with a deep tissue problem: let’s talk about Arcade Fire and rhythm. Arcade Fire don’t use standard rock rhythm too often; instead, like a lot of mid-’00s bands, their beats have always been fairly dance-oriented. From the straight up disco of “Neighborhood #1” or “Rebellion (Lies)” to the pummel of “Keep the Car Running” or “Month of May,” they rely on, to quote Reflektor producer James Murphy, movement more than anything else. They use sheer propulsion–listen to “Rebellion (Lies)” and notice how under that disco beat, the song moves forward because of that relentless bass and piano–instead of any kind of accentuated groove or funk to get you to dance. That’s how most tracks on the band’s first 3 albums work.

Refkeltor and Everything Now, meanwhile, push for more of a groove. The drum patterns themselves aren’t too overtly different, but the way everything clicks around them changes. Instead of “Rebellion (Lies)”‘s hectoring gallop, “Reflektor” has interlocking guitar lines, nimble bass, and piano chords that all bounce around each other. The band’s rhythm section isn’t quite a perfect fit for it in terms of sheer ability, but it works because there are enough musical ideas to keep things fresh. Everything Now keeps the emphasis on groove, but largely ditches the attention to detail, much to the music’s detriment. Look at the differences between “We Exist” and Everything Now single (for some reason) “Signs of Life.” “We Exist” is tightly wound and varied in its approach, while “Signs of Life” keeps that same shallow groove for the entire runtime and chucks horns and conga drums in haphazardly because, I don’t know, James Murphy wasn’t around to tell the band he already wrote “Yeah.” Similar problems–among others–plague “Chemistry,” “Peter Pan,” and “Good God Damn” because, like I said, this isn’t a band who can sustain groove the way they can do anthemic rush or tension-and-fire release.

Nor are they the kind of band who should write “Peter Pan” or “Chemistry,” let alone put them back to back. Everything Now‘s first half teeters between promise and flailing, but these two songs put the record in a nearly inescapable rut. “Peter Pan,” for everything else you can say about it, at least seems like it’s trying to be something. That something might be a bizarre dub/reggae track with an overburdened metaphor, but I’m willing to chalk up to a failed experiment (okay, that and “We can live, I don’t feel like dying” is a good line). “Chemistry,” meanwhile, is quite possibly Arcade Fire’s worst song. Rote lyrics with tired imagery, boring capitalist takedowns, utterly baffling instrumentation (dear God, that guitar riff is awful), and Win Butler at his most insufferable is everything wrong with Everything Now in 3 and a half minutes that feel like 6. “Chemistry”‘s problem isn’t that it’s experimental or kooky; Arcade Fire will always be a band that swings big on trying weird or clunky shit, but that it sounds so aimless and self-satisfied. You get the feeling that the band isn’t totally committed to the material, which you couldn’t say for like, the more churlish material on Neon Biblie.

Other times, the experiments…work? No one’s going to put the “Infinite Content” suite in the upper-tier of Arcade Fire songs, but at least the panicked strings of the first half match the boneheaded stupidity of the central “Infinite content, we’re infinitely content” lyric, and the second half is unabashedly pretty. “Electric Blue,” led by Regine Chassange, is kind of minimal synth pop for a band known for having at least 6 people on stage, but it’s one of a select few great standalone tracks here, plus the outro is excellent. There’s a longing in “We Don’t Deserve Love” and “Put Your Money On Me” that saves them both, too; really, “Good God Damn” aside, the second half of Everything Now’s reach almost matches its grasp.

Every Arcade Fire album, in some way or another, wants to find what’s real. Funeral wanted to find genuine emotion behind loss, Neon Bible yearned for spiritual truth beyond the bright lights and noise of consumerism, The Suburbs aspired to find the individual adrift in subdivisions and stripmalls, and Reflektor was worried that technology was turning everything into a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Everything Now pulls at most of those threads, but with the new twist that the cultural noise is actively pushing down on you instead of just buzzing in the background. “Every song I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd/And it reminds me we’ve got everything now” is as perfect a description of the hell that is music streaming that I’ve come across, quasi-shallow lyricism be damned, and that batshit line about Funeral aside, “Creature Comfort” perfectly nails the buzzing dread of being overwhelmed and inadequate (the music also works because it uses propulsion more than groove).

There’s a lot of Neon Bible that comes through on Everything Now. “Good God Damn” delves into matters of faith, and it’s music recalls “Ocean of Noise,” but with stiff funk as a lesser replacement for bossa nova, while “Put Your Money On Me” wants something real against “Clouds made of Ambien,” and finds the truth in the arms of a lover. Penultimate track “We Don’t Deserve Love” recalls “Windowsill” with its desire to transcend or to feel, but as gorgeous as “WDDL” is, it and “PYMOM” lack that last emotional and musical push into catharsis that would put them with the band’s best material, and counteract songs like “Chemistry.” As is, Everything Now wants to set it’s spirit free, but it’s too unwilling to make the leap.

And more than the stifling production or Win Butler’s occasionally grating singing, it’s those flashes of almost brilliance that make Everything Now so disappointing, because you can see what it’s going for, and where it falls short. If the rhythm section wasn’t so overmatched, or if the arrangements were more clever, things would work. If the band didn’t couch their worries in Pop-era U2 smarm, it would work. If even the stronger material kicked one gear higher–if “Put Your Money On Me” or “We Don’t Deserve Love” just went for it the way “Afterlife” or “We Used to Wait” did, then it would work. But the record, crucially, is stilted where it needs grace, and thoughtless where it needs nuance. The record is afraid of what we’ve lost, but it needs to scorn less and empathize more. Arcade Fire are at their strongest when they lean into sentiment. On Everything Now, they move past the feeling.

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Album Review Round-Up: Jay-Z, Haim, Japanese Breakfast, Calvin Harris

444_album_coverJay-Z – 4:44
It’s fun to think about how much has changed since “Of course sometimes shit go down when it’s a billion dollars in an elevator.” In the 3 years since that bar, everyone involved has seen their stock rise or fall: Beyonce has only traded higher, Solange earned her seat at the table and the top of the festival bill, and Jay-Z…well, someone had to experience a downturn, right? A year has passed since Lemonade and it’s “Oh my God, Jay-Z cheated on Beyonce” flashpoint, and Hov’s spent most of it flustered, if not apologetic, alluding to some sort of eventual response.

4:44 isn’t a response to Lemonade exactly, but it also isn’t not a response to it. The record’s concept is more “Jay-Z in winter,” with Jay talking about his infidelity as well as the consequences of his past, his struggles, and how he sees rap and Black wealth discussed in the culture. Infidelity aside, this is a more musically restrained version of his Watch the Throne talk, and more engaging than Magna Carta, Holy Grail. While narrower in scope than Lemonade (“Oh my God, Jay-Z cheated on Beyonce” was its flashpoint, but that record was so much more), 4:44 is the most unguarded and honest that Jay-Z’s ever gotten, and at times where he’s keyed in like on “Smile,” it’s entirely compelling and more than a little moving. No small part of that is due to No I.D.’s production, which goes heavy on soul samples for beats that are stately and surprisingly emotive; I realize it’s practically a rap cliche to say you’d listen to nothing but the instrumentals, but on 4:44, I swear it’s true.

A part of that could be that 4:44 feels pretty medicinal as a listen. It’s an interesting cultural artifact, it’s well-made top to bottom, and you get as good a look into Jay’s head as you’ll ever get (including a bone-headed line about Jewish people’s credit and a few “That’s not how biology works” bars), but I’m not sure about its shelf life as An Album To Be Listened To. It feels like Jay-Z’s Bridge of Spies or War Horse, a new work by an old master whose informed prestige makes me feel like I’m taking its existence for granted, even though I’m not sure how much I’ll revisit the whole thing (“Smile,” “Family Feud,” and that one line aside, “The Story of O.J.” are the keepers here). Still, though, as an intellectual curiosity and an exercise in name clearing, 4:44 works more than it doesn’t.

something_to_tell_you_haimHaim – Something to Tell You
People love synchrony. There’s something in us wired to go off when we see or hear all the little pieces of something operating in tandem. You can see this in virtually anything off Michael Jackson’s first two albums. You can see it in how a wedding dance floor opens up during “Uptown Funk!” You can see it in the first six minutes of Baby Driver. You can see it in Haim’s debut Days Are Gone, a 2013 record that smartly cross pollinated indie pop, soft rock, and R&B. Even if I appreciated that album more than I outright liked it, it was still hard to deny the craftsmanship that went into a song like “Honey and I,” where every instrument and melodic flush build toward something.

The same can’t be said for follow-up record Something To Tell You, where Haim’s efforts to avoid the sophomore slump are exactly what bring them there. The 4 year wait between albums was allegedly due to writer’s block, and listening to how these songs strain for effortlessness, writer’s block is believable. Things click into place on “Nothing’s Wrong,” the swirl of Lindsey Buckingham-esque guitars on “You Never Knew,” and stomper “Kept Me Crying,” but overall, these songs are too overloaded with excessive instrumentation, pitched down vocals, and “look ma, no hands” studio tricks to work as the tossed off pop songs they aspire to be. The resulting effect is like watching someone try to act casual with too many accessories. A song like “Little of Your Love” encapsulates the pros and cons of Something to Tell You: it grabs from a handful of classic styles for something catchy and fun at first, but the repetitive chorus overstays its welcome, and any musical pleasantness is ultimately canceled out by flimsy songwriting. And more than the load-bearing production, it’s the lyrics that really sink the album. Haim write almost exclusively about relationships, doing so in a way that emphasizes their universality while–and this is key–still leaving room for the listener to project their experiences into the situation. That last essential part is what’s missing from Something To Tell You, whose lyrics about wanting you back or being ready for you or getting over you are so generic that it’s hard to believe they’re about an actual person, and not a particularly delicious baked good.

To be fair, Something To Tell You isn’t so much a disaster as much as it is Days Are Gone without getting the formula right. The multi-genre roulette is still in place, but instead of intricate placement, Haim sound like they’re tossing out every idea in hopes that one percussion track, guitar riff, or piano sequence of three will stick, and little of the album gels like it wants to. The result is underwhelming, and more than a little wheel-spinning. In that regard, Something To Tell You, with its constant promise of excitement teased but never delivered, is perfectly named.

soft_sounds_from_another_planetJapanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from a Another Planet
Japanese Breakfast (Michelle Zauner)’s follow-up to last year’s debut album Psychopomp, is a fantastic study in indie rock textures and genre-blending. Part of ‘10s indie is what you do with everything else; an artist’s choice to embrace/shun pop or electronic flourishes ends up saying just as much about the artist as an interview with Spin will, and Soft Sounds From a Another Planet is a near idealized version of indie rock that incorporates an array of sounds while still holding its core identity together.

Of course, it helps that these are just killer songs.. Zauner knows how to meld her bright voice into the spacey atmospherics of her music to great effect; she sounds equally great over guitar-squally rockers (“12 Steps”) as she does humid indie pop (“Road Head”) and songs that split the difference (“Body Is a Blade”). The opening 3 song suite of “Diving Woman,” “Road Head,” and “Machinist” near perfectly captures the album’s appeal: here, you have expansive, soft-touch shoegaze; nighttime, hip-hop filtered indie-pop; and an electronic, synthy AutoTuned banger; and that’s just the first 13 minutes. It makes for an ideal jumping point to the album’s more dramatic, airier middle section, and the intimate finish with mental health lament “Till Death” and “This House”’s acoustic strum.

The most immediate counterpart to Japanese Breakfast, in my mind, is Microcastle-era Deerhunter. Like Bradford Cox and company, Zauner wraps her version of indie rock in gauzy reverb for an end result that’s human, but very far away. But where they go with that humanity is what makes them different. Deerhunter’s humanity retreats within itself in a dissociative or depersonalized fashion, while J.Brekkie’s is, yeah, shot into space, but clear-eyed, and still full of longing, yearning, and more than a little horny. Microcastle’s first full song is called “Agoraphobia,” or the fear of open spaces, while “‘Till Death”–Soft Sounds…’s last full song–ends with a croon of “Thanatophobia,” or the fear of death, meaning how they handle other people is a point of divergence; one is afraid of everyone else, the other caps off a celebration of someone being with you through your illnesses and fears. Grappling with yourself and others, in either case, rarely sounds this good.

funk_wav_bounces_1Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1
Has the “Stars jump on a famous DJ’s album” genre ever birthed a good record?

We’ve had these things since the EDM/David Guetta explosion around the turn of the decade (Guetta’s 2009 One Love record–the one with “Sexy Bitch”–is the breakthrough effort), and the most that’s ever come from them is like, maybe “Titanium” or “Sweet Nothing.” You might get a flash of inspiration, or something like “Without You” that just works, but mostly, these projects act as places for Big Sean or whoever to fire off whatever’s lived in the Drafts folder for too long.

Which is why it’s surprising that Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1 is a near-great record, albeit with some caveats. It owes most of its overall quality to 4 stone cold killers: opening trio of “Slide,” “Cash Out,” and “Heatstroke,” and then late arrival “Feels,” all of which work way goddamn better than they deserve to. The whole album is covered in tight if kinda cheesy throwback grooves, with ScHoolboy Q, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and D.R.A.M all coming through the ultra smooth “Cash Out,” while Pharrell struts, Ariana Grande coos, and Young Thug is even more delightfully yelpy than usual on “Heatstroke.” Pharrell brings a Stevie Wonder impression that somehow actually compliments Katy Perry’s Gwen Stefani one on “Feels,” a song that’s more compelling than most of Witness (Big Sean brings a verse that probably didn’t deserve to waste away in Drafts to “Feels,” as well). But it’s “Slide,” which might actually be my song of the year, that alone makes Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 worth it on its own. Over Harris’ most sublime production, Frank Ocean turns in one of his most approachable performances possibly ever, and Quavo and Offset’s verses are the perfect balance of summer fun and Migos’ de facto darker sound. I’ve listened to this song almost every day since its February release, and still find things to like about it.

Bolstered by those 4, the rest of FWBV1 can’t help but feel slight. “Rollin” with Future and R&B newcomer Khalid would be a highlight on almost any of the other DJ records; here it’s just okay. Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott have serviceable numbers, and if you want to hear what in the pocket Snoop Dogg sounds like on a song where John Legend sings, well, you’ll probably listen to “Holiday” at least once. The record ends on a pair of stumbles; Kehlani and Lil Yachty’s “Faking It” is the only real miss here, and closer “Hard to Love” with Jessie Reyez is nice, but out of step with the rest of the record. Weird enough, FWBV1 feels like something tailored to streaming services for when you’re having people over or just want “summer music” on: it’s light, brief, and hilariously front-loaded. It’s good now, but will probably get swept up once the Chill Fall playlists make the rounds, but who knows, Calvin Harris might have something ready for that, too.

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Somewhere I Belong: on Chester Bennington

Chester Bennington of Linkin Park fame was announced dead this afternoon at the age of 41. His death has been ruled a suicide.

Bennington’s passing is heartbreaking for a number of reasons. He suffered from sexual abuse as a small child. He had a history of drug addiction starting in his teens that would come and go in his adult life. He got beat up in school for being a skinny rail of a kid. More recently, he became good friends with Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, and sang at Cornell’s memorial when he killed himself this year. Today is Cornell’s 53rd birthday, which Bennington had to be aware of.

Yet, none of Bennington’s past turmoil and hard life were readily apparent in how he presented himself with Linkin Park. I watched a lot of LP tape when I was 14 or so, and when he wasn’t singing the band’s angsty songs, Bennington came across an affable guy. He had a good chemistry with the more bro-y Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park’s rapper/producer), and seemed like maybe someone inclined to be quiet if left to his own devices, but he was sweet. A quick YouTube search pulled up an interview of him on the morning show circuit this February, praising pop stars and wearing a very fine hat and intelligent glasses; he seemed great. And now he’s gone.

So I’m gonna talk about the half a record he sort of made with Jay-Z.

But first, I want to appreciate how Bennington operated in Linkin Park. Like virtually everyone else, I’ve spent the later part of the day spinning throwback LP LPs, and their delivery system is as ingenious as it is obvious. The songs open with either some vaguely techno production or drop-tuned guitar riff, get quiet for sung or rapped verses, Bennington prepares for takeoff with some backing vocals, and then the song fires into a musically broad chorus where Bennington gets sing/scream these massive, arresting, full-body hooks. These choruses are big, as lyrically overwrought as they are musically primal, and they’re where Bennington shines. If he had to hold a note or a scream, he held the fuck out of it without shying away; just listen to how he leaps all the way into “In the End,” which may still be the purest example of Linkin Park in action. And unlike fellow nu-metal bleaters like surfer dude Brendan Boyd or the grunting of Jonathan Davis, Bennington virtually lived in his upper register; dude wasn’t afraid of sounding pretty. That was probably because he knew he could not only out-scream virtually anyone, but he could pivot between the two on a dime without losing a shred of intensity.

Okay, now we can talk about Collision Course, Linkin Park’s semi-infamous mash-up EP with (the then retired) Jay-Z. Collision Course was weird in 2004, and it’s somehow even weirder now. Try to explain to someone today that one of the biggest rappers in the world and one of the biggest rock bands in the world (when this distinction meant something) would not only work each other’s songs into new songs with rerecorded vocals, but an actual music label would release it with the expectation that people would buy it, and you’d get blank stares back. But it worked! I know this because Collision Course debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, but also because I bought it (I bought the edited version because I was more familiar with Linkin Park, who don’t swear on their records, than Jay-Z, who could buy another company if he emptied his swear jar), and that brown and blue CD lived in my portable player.

I fired Collision Course back up after today’s events out of familiarity, but I heard it almost entirely differently. Collision Course asks more of Bennington than it does Shinoda or Hov himself. The two of them just have to rework the verses of “Papercut” to (almost) fit over the beat to “Big Pimpin” and lay “Encore” over “Numb,” while Bennington has to essentially act as the glue to hold the thing together. He has to keep the touch light on the Jay-Z instrumentals while still going just as hard on the Linkin Park stuff; it requires him to expand his skill set. And, remarkably, he pulls it off. He knows how to double Shinoda’s cadences when he raps over “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and how to sound triumphant on the “Encore” part of “Numb/Encore” while letting loose on LP standbys like “Faint.” My favorite song on the project’s always been “Izzo/In the End,” where Bennington’s regulated to backing vocals, but just listen to how bright he sounds behind Jay, or the soaring notes under Shinoda’s verse. He sings like he’s supposed to be there.

More than the technical aspects or the sound, what stays with me about Bennington’s voice, and about him, is that he never sounded unsure. This is why I think people, me included, riffed on Linkin Park’s lyrics; it’s easy to point and laugh at the grandiose nature of “In the End,” “One Step Closer,” or especially “Crawling,” because they articulate their woes in the bluntest, most earnest, possible language. There’s no reflexive, self-referential irony, nor anything constituting a filter. There may not even be an edit button. But he was there, pinched register and all, and he ended up sounding like he belonged there, and so could you. That meant something to me. And I’m sure it meant something to you, too.

The number for the Suicide Prevention Helpine is 1-800-273-8255, or you can text the crisis text line 741741 “CONNECT” to start. Please use any resource you need.

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