Radio Rant: The Chainsmokers – “Don’t Let Me Down” ft. Daya AND “Closer” ft. Halsey

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, where we’re pulling double duty today.

dontletmecloser

I know there’s an ocean-sized release out there right this second, but let’s get back to the pop charts one last time before the summer’s over. Today, we’re looking at DJ duo The Chainsmokers, who–well–are here to stay. They have, of course, been in mainstream for the last twoish years; breakout it’s-a-joke-song-but-not-really “#selfie” blew up in 2014, and they went legit with last year’s “Roses.” But it’s the simultaneous charting of “Closer” with Halsey at number 6 1 and the Daya-featuring “Don’t Let Me Down” at 8 that cements The Chainsmokers as, to me, the best example of what Chris DeVille at Stereogum calls the rise of the producer as a lead artist. DeVille’s argument is that, as a byproduct of the producer-worshiping EDM scene infiltrating and influencing pop, producers are more visible both behind the scenes and on the charts, and now guys like Calvin Harris and Zedd are more prominent in a post-“We Found Love” world. I say this is truest of The Chainsmokers because they’ve notched hits with bit players and unknowns, whereas Calvin Harris is only as successful chartwise as his collaborators.

Which hey, good for them, but it’s trouble for me because I just cannot find it in me give a shit about The Chainsmokers. And I’ve tried, too! I listened to “Roses” when it and its “The Chainsmokers aren’t hacks, we swear” narrative blew up last year, and it left me cold. I kept trying “Don’t Let Me Down” and bailing, whereas I could muster up something to say about a song as dull as “One Dance.” I don’t even really think The Chainsmokers are bad, it’s just that something about them turns me into Mean Old Mr. Rant. Their take on trendy EDM is smaller and less world-conquering than the likes of Zedd and company, but also completely fine. It just goes in one ear, rattles around okay, and out the other.

Thus brings us to “Don’t Let Me Down.” “Don’t Let Me Down” is probably going to be the fifth or sixth biggest song this summer, which feels about right in a grudgingly acceptable way; this is The Chainsmokers operating in “you wanted a hit?” mode. It starts with some a-okay guitar and drum pads under Daya’s vocals, but let’s be real, paying attention to this song’s verses is like pretending you’re invested in the first 20 minutes of a disaster movie: you’re just here to see shit blow up. The song throws some watery synths in during the build-up, adds in some drums/claps straight outta “Black Widow” to ratchet up the drama, and Daya injects as much meaning as she can into “Don’t let me, don’t let me down” and “I need you, I need you, I need you right now.” The drop comes and throws everything vaguely into trap territory with big bass, snares, “hey”s, and more handclaps as Daya repeats the song’s name a bunch. It’s smooth, it’s tolerable, it’s the signal for me to stop dancing and get a new drink when it comes on at the club.

Jokes aside, “Don’t Let Me Down” does a few things well. The drop is catchy enough, and Daya brings the drama and vocal power on the song’s second half when she gets to let loose, and nearly overpowers these place-holder lyrics (theory: “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s lyrics function only exist as scene dressing to heighten the dramatic build-up. Otherwise they pack as much meaning as singing about like, Olympic medal counts). It’s not a bad song, but “Don’t Let Me Down” feels like empty calories without the sugar overload. It’s been a totally acceptable song to hear in shopping malls, sporting events, clubs, and ads, but if I never hear it again after October, I’m absolutely fine with that. Mostly, “Don’t Let Me Down” makes me miss “Lean On.”

So there, I thought hard enough about a Chainsmokers song to replace my innate apathy with informed apathy. I just wish my feelings on “Closer” were that straight forward.

Which, “Closer.” Hooooo boy.

I can’t back out of this one now. Not only did I already write it into the title of this blog, but it just become Chainsmokers’ and Halsey’s first number one hit, so welcome to legitimacy, baby. And while ultimately “Closer” leaves me just as mixed as “Don’t Let Me Down,” it takes a far more frustrating route to get there because I almost, almost like it.

Let’s step back for a second. Now that I’ve invested some time and energy into The Chainsmokers, I’ve pinned down why they rub me the wrong way: their music is weirdly, stridently ungroovy. There’s no rhythmic through line, no unerring beat to come back to and lose yourself in. You can’t dance to this shit. Lest I sound like every anti-EDM crank ever, let me state that this is a Chainsmokers’ problem and not an EDM one: “Sweet Nothing” is still a killer dancefloor cut, and I’ve wrung more mileage out of Bieber’s sad-bro EDM tracks than I care to admit. Zedd’s “Stay the Night” is probably a D-grade song, but at least you can move to it. You can’t say that of Chainsmokers’ tunes outside the drops, the only developed parts of their songs (such to the point that I almost swear they write the drops first and work backwards from there).

All this comes to the forefront of “Closer” because, even as one of their best beats and one that’s in my lane, it still feels slight. It’s the darker, piano-y electronic ballad to “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s bright summer banger that features Halsey, the aspiring prom queen of darkish, electronicy pop ballads. And unlike “Don’t Let Me Down,” the hook at the drop absolutely works; those wistful, rotating synths interlock over a beat that’s easy to get lost in. The whole thing captures that shared, swept-up infatuation. To be fair, I consider Kanye’s “Paranoid” and “Sober” by Childish Gambino criminally underrated, so warbling robo-keyboards like this are just dog whistles for me, but still “Closer” is as strong a hook as any Chainsmokers have done. The production on the verses and the sung chorus is fine–there’s that word describing these guys again–but that hook is a make.

Then there’s the rest of this damn song.

“Don’t Let Me Down” might have had lyrics that were dashed off on the back of a takeout receipt en route to the studio that day, but “Closer” is so obnoxious that I miss that banality. The lyrics of “Closer” are about as vapid as “#selfie” but played entirely straight as a love story between two kids so self-absorbed that, y’know, maybe we have all of those “millennials are ruining _____” thinkpieces coming. It’s a love duet between two people to themselves. To wit:

“Hey, I was doing just fine before I met you/I drink too much and that’s an issue but I’m OK” Is that a pick-up line or?

“You tell your friends it was nice to meet them/But I hope I never see them again” This line, and really, anything Chainsmoker Andrew Taggert sings in “Closer,” is so vaguely affluent and douchey that it technically counts as a PostGradProblems column.

“So baby pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover/That I know you can’t afford” That’s a moment killer, right? Like, you and this person you’ve had eyes on for years are touching mouths and shit, then one or both of you reflects on how this car’s an active credit bomb, and the magic’s over.

“Bite that tattoo on your shoulder” I’d actually be kinda mad if someone bit my tattoo. Tattoos cost more than you do.

“Pull the sheets right off the corner of that mattress that you stole/From your roommate back in Boulder/We ain’t never growing older” What kind of asshole steals a mattress?

“Stay, play that blink-182 song/That we beat to death in Tucson, OK” I’m glad this song brings up blink-182 because they’re a perfect comparison for why “Closer” can take all the shit other people bought it and go die. Blink’s brat anthem “What’s My Age Again?” similarly prides itself on blowing people off; “I never wanna act my age” isn’t too far from “We ain’t ever getting older.But “What’s My Age Again?” knows this schtick has consequences and may even be pathological as Hoppus wonders aloud “What the hell is wrong with me?” in a moment of self-awareness that “Closer” either cannot or will not give. You’re not quirky or carefree, you’re just assholes.

That’s a lot to pile on a track written by a pair of bro-y DJs whose lyrical prowess is usually remedial at best, but they tried something here and it tanked. Alex Pall, the Chainsmoker who doesn’t sing on “Closer,” has described it as “comical in nature” and about “spoiled girls in college who have family money but also live the dichotomy of the broke college life” (the idea of “the broke college life” including the words “Range Rover” is the most Caucasian thing I’ve heard today), and how an ex will “remember all the horrible truths” after y’all hook up. Exactly none of that translates to the song’s delivery, which is bullshit wish fulfillment. The beat’s nice, but it can’t drown out how stupid this song is. The Chainsmokers might have escaped “#selfie” but the move from “novelty act” to “mediocre hit maker” is like boasting you’re never getting older: staying the same means not moving forward.

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You Should See Them Live: blink-182 at Riverbend in Cincinnati

A rock show on a late night in the summer singing along to the songs you love with a beer and your friends. There’s no getting more pop-punk than that.

But that makes sense, right? If you’re about to see one of the biggest pop-punk groups, why half-ass that shit? You and everyone else in the cheap seats are going to end up shouting “LATE NIGHT. COME HOME. WORK SUCKS, I KNOW” by the night’s end, so you might as well lean all the way into that with something sleeveless, swoop bangs, and Chucks (dear God, so many Chucks). You know that the slightly retooled blink-182 aren’t going to hold back, and at Riverbend, neither did thousands of their fans.

Really, the slightly retooled blink aren’t just doing well for themselves, they’re flat-out doing well. This is a pretty serious reversal from the last 7 years of rough going for the Mark, Tom, and Travis show; despite a bright reunion in 2009, sessions on an album stalled, and 2011’s Neighborhoods proved to be both a lousy blink album and a middling Angels & Airwaves one. A few years of tours and false starts later, guitarist and co-founder/singer/writer Tom DeLonge left the band (again!), leaving drummer Travis Barker and bassist co-everything Mark Hoppus to manage the band, the hits, and the dick jokes. They recruited Alkaline Trio singer/guitarist Matt Skiba to pinch hit for some 2015 tour dates, after which Skiba formally joined the band, and about a year later, here we are with California and a substantial tour. And already, California has outsold Neighborhoods‘ opening and generated its own hit; blink is friggin’ back.

So why’s blink-182, a band that was written off as lightweights in its day and even now gets the backhanded “great singles band” compliment, having a moment? It could be that us filthy, nostalgia loving millennials finally have enough disposable income to buy lawn seats by the score, but this doesn’t account for just how packed Cincinnati’s Riverbend amphitheater got, or why me and my gaggle of mid-20’s friends felt dangerously close to “old” for the crowd. Is California just so great that it captured the zeitgeist and brought in new fans? Wishful, but no; it’s handily better than Neighborhoods, and I’d even rank it above the more-filler-than-you’re-remembering Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, but ultimately it feels more like a good transition record than an outright good one.

No, I think the answer is so simple, it might as well be a blink single: this is a great band with a lot of killer songs. One of my friends said afterward that she’d been nervous about not knowing what all was played, but she was thrilled because she ended up recognizing just about everything. Blink just has that kind of depth. It actually borders on overwhelming to hear them all chained together, but look at how many hits this one band has: “I Miss You,” “All the Small Things,” “What’s My Age Again?” “Bored to Death,” “The Rock Show,” “Feelin’ This,” “First Date,” “Adam’s Song,” “Dammit,”–oh man, it’s still going–“Down,” and “Stay Together For the Kids.” You’re not gonna see Sum 41 get people fired up once “Fat Lip,” “In Too Deep,” and maybe like, “The Hell Song” come through, but blink were able to blow through half a dozen hits early on, lean into deep cuts and fan favorites for the middle, and rally again with more hits for a surprisingly fun and robust set.

And what a set it was. The songs were almost entirely played as they were written–I think the only difference was “I Miss You” used phasered clean guitar instead an acoustic–but shit, “Feelin’ This” and “Dysentery Gary” are weapons-grade catchy out of the box. Curiously, just about all of the band’s “ha ha, penis” throwaways appeared, but 1. hearing “Built This Pool” within shouting distance of the world’s biggest flat-surface swimming pool was pretty funny, and 2. they’re actually kinda entertaining as set-breathers. The rest–new songs like “Cynical” and “The Only Thing That Matters,” the classic “Carousel,” and deep cuts “Violence” and “Reckless Abandon”–held up against the more famous stuff, mostly based on setlist placement and performance (an aside: I more or less memorized Enema of the State as a mopey, broken up with 16 year old, so even though I know “Dysentery Gary” and “Dumpweed” shouldn’t fly today, ain’t shit stopping me from screaming along with “Fuck this place, I lost the one/I hate you all/your mom’s a whore!”).

IMG_3707Each member brought it for that setlist, too. Travis Barker is every bit as manic a drummer live as you’d expect (And he, the notoriously quiet member of the band, spoke! He said “Hey, Cincinnati! at one point! Hoppus even quipped “Yeah, Cleveland didn’t get that shit”), and he kept the solos to a tasteful minimum. Skiba’s a full-time member now, but still somewhat in gracious guest-star mode: he deferred to and assisted Hoppus on banter, but any apparent oddness about him playing DeLonge’s parts dissipated halfway through “First Date.” Because let’s be honest: you don’t replace the dude who wrote half of your songs without people noticing. It’s like trying to hang out with your friends knowing there’s been a rift between some folks; you’re all going to know. So instead of talking about the man directly, we were treated to a little something I’m calling…

The Top 4 Times blink-182 Subtweeted Tom DeLonge
4. Replacing him with a competent singer: Skiba seems to get on well with everyone in the blink operation, and his parts on California are enjoyable enough, but the fact that he won’t sing like someone’s constantly spraying his throat with a Super Soaker’s gotta count as a mild Tom burn.
3. “Not Now:” I’ve always gotten the feeling Hoppus, like all of us, thinks AvA is kind of silly. Introing the last pre-hiatus single DeLonge wrote with a jokey robot voice announcing “Commence. Space. Noises.” helps that theory.
2. No Neighborhoods: There are legitimate reasons for blink to let this LP fall away (it’s underwhelming, and Travis Barker’s been surprisingly candid about how not-fun it was to make), but stiff-arming “Heart’s All Gone” because it was on the band’s most DeLonge-centric record feels deliberate.
1. ”Man Overboard:” “Man Overboard” is straight-up about that time Mark and Tom fired a dude from blink-182, and if you think DeLonge wasn’t on Hoppus and Skiba’s minds as they sang tut-tutting lines like “We can’t depend on your excuses/Cuz in the end, they’re fucking useless” and “You can only lean on me for so long” then, I don’t know, I’ve got a book of alien conspiracies to sell you. This was definitely a subtweet.

Whenever I heard any news about blink in the fallout of their most recent band shake-up, I subconsciously thought “Why is this band still going?” And I didn’t think it out of malice! If anything, I was wondering why Hoppus and Barker couldn’t just dose up on post-punk records and churn out another +44 album, but I get it now. blink-182 is going to continue so long as Mark Hoppus can brandish a low-strung P-bass and chirp his way through “Dammit” because Mark Hoppus lives for being in this band. He led the charge the whole night through, whether that meant blasting through 16-year-old songs, bantering with the crowd to break out their emo swoops “Because it’s 2002 and your parents don’t ~understand~ you and Taking Back Sunday”, or telling jokes about the humidity as his gelled up mohawk lost the fight with Cincinnati’s abhorrent mid-August weather. blink-182 is what he’s done with his life, and instead of finding that limiting, Hoppus honestly seems to relish it. There was this disarming moment when, at the end of the night, he put down his bass and, as everyone shuffled out, flopped into a pile of confetti at the front of the stage with joyful abandon and just lied there for a second before leaving the stage, sweaty arms now plastered in confetti. It just seemed like a dorky, fun little moment for himself. Endearingly goofy, sweaty summer fun; that’s blink-182 in a nutshell.

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Thinkin (Too Much) Bout You: Frank Ocean Doesn’t Owe Us a Damn Thing

In case you’ve spent the last week living under a rock (in which case, can I chill with you until after the election? Yes? No?), this week’s big music news is that Frank Ocean is finally, allegedly, set to release his second album Boys Don’t Cry on Friday. This is the first significant new music we’ve heard from Frank since 2012’s Channel ORANGE, a widely beloved, critical smart bomb of ornate, vaguely futurist, soulful R&B. Channel ORANGE wasn’t praised just as being musically brilliant, but culturally important–in the wind-up to the album’s released, Ocean penned a note included in the liner notes about how his first love was a man. This was a big thing in 2012, not just because it was metatextual information and representation for queer, black men, but because it permanently altered the perception of already personal sounding songs like “Thinkin Bout You,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Bad Religion.” That was all in 2012. Frank’s been fairly quiet in the meantime, with news of a follow-up only coming to surface in April of last year, saying only that a new album and publication were coming by July, likely titled Boys Don’t Cry. But then July 2015 came went without so much as a single measure of new music by Ocean, leading to the popularity of “Frank Ocean has disappeared” meme.

Now look, I know as well as anyone that a meme’s just a meme, but these things don’t take off without some real feelings involved. Channel ORANGE was an emotionally intimate album that resonated with a lot of people, and when Frank’s deadline last year came and went without a borderline-shell game app, frenzied tweetstorms about exes and fashion shows, defensive statements, or any acknowledgment from his people, folks felt abandoned, hence the jokes that even I’ve made. I want to listen to Boys Don’t Cry. And I know I’m not alone in that.

But shit’s got an upper-limit. While I want Boys Don’t Cry so badly that I’d tolerate Apple Music’s abysmal interface to hear it even once, I would never be so crass as to argue that I or any other music fan deserve it. For all the jokes about how Frank’s left us and how dare he do that, there’s a contingent of fans and writers out there that feel truly, madly, deeply that it is their right to listen to new Frank Ocean. So I’ll say it plain.

Frank Ocean doesn’t owe you a thing.
Frank Ocean doesn’t owe me a thing.
Frank Ocean doesn’t owe us a thing.

Frank Ocean does probably owe his label heads a thing, but that’s neither here nor there.

The idea that artists and fans owe each other something routinely comes up when one party acts out against another–i.e. Father John Misty trying to finesse a concert meltdown into performance art or Death Grips’ entire career–but you’re only “owed” a record if the artist keeps your money for a preorder, which nope, isn’t the case here.

The idea that fans are “owed” an album is inane enough to cause me to short-circuit when trying to counter it, but let’s try. Setting aside “Because I really want it” as a reason fans are “owed” content from their faves, the most popular argument arises from the creator’s responsibility to create. At its heart, this argument boils down to the same thing taxpayers frequently tell Congress, and what my theater boss told me in college: “I’m not paying you for nothing; do your damn job.” I see the logic here: Frank, and any artist really, decided that music creation was going to be the way they made their way in the world, so quit stalling, knuckledown, and do it. But this argument misses the point. Be it in album sales, concert tickets, merch, or (technically) streaming revenue, we pay artists for their work when the work comes. We don’t have a “Pay $5 to Frank Ocean a month” subsidy for him to do fuck all, we paid him for Channel ORANGE because he made the album then. And as soon as he puts something else out with the potential to make me ache, feel close to someone, and pretend I’ve got a falsetto, I’ll pay him again. Part of creating is creating the best thing possible, and if that means taking more time, then that’s part of the process.

What’s bizarre about people leveling this argument against Frank is that he gets it: when Boys Don’t Cry failed to materialize last July, he withdrew from his headlining spot playing LA’s FYF Fest that August. I can’t see into his mind, but I can take a guess why: dude is an incredibly conscientious artist and, knowing the new material was in some form or fashion not ready, he opted out instead of capitalizing on old stuff (the unwritten “Don’t take big gigs without new goods” rule is why the Outkast reunion felt muted enthusiasm, and probably why LCD Soundsystem isn’t a bigger deal this year).

Going hand in hand with this, and part of why I feel fine giving Frank Ocean as much time as he needs, is a near total absence in trying to cash-in. In the 4 years since Channel ORANGE, he’s done a whopping five guest spots for non-Odd Future artists: A hook for a Jay Z deep-cut, a Beyonce collab, interludes for John Mayer and Kanye West, and a Diplo/The Clash curio for Converse Shoes. He hasn’t been dangling an album over us on social media while chasing down splashy looking features and like, pushing a movie career, but only come up recently to say that Calvin Klein makes a good undershirt. He’s not on any social media, he doesn’t do a lot of interviews or guest appearances, and I honestly think that’s how he wants to be. I look at his wobbly, earnest-art-student Grammy performance and bashful acceptance speech from that year, and I see a guy who’d rather have super deep conversations with his mom than be famous (sidenote: the shot of Frank’s mom and Tyler sitting together proves there are two kinds of happiness). If he takes some time to get it right, that’s fine; I truly believe he’s only taking this long to get it right. And even if not, fuck it, he still doesn’t owe me an album.

And lastly, y’all, it’s only been four years. Come on. I know that’s a big enough gap to mean something, but the distance between here and Mitt Romney’s political relevance is still inside the acceptable album wait time. No one yelled at D’Angelo for taking 14 years between Voodoo and Black Messiah, nor gotten on Maxwell for going 7 between records, or fussed at Erykah Badu for 5 between her last album and last year’s mixtape. No one wrote a trendpiece on what Radiohead, ostensibly the world’s biggest band, owes us for the 5 year gap between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool, although that’s probably because no one was clamoring for Radiohead after Thom Yorke inflicted that solo album on us. Hell, Fiona Apple, whose last album was neck and neck with Channel ORANGE for “Best of 2012” accolades, has been even quieter than Frank has about new music.

If you’re jonesing, go dig into Black Messiah, Wildheart, Ego Death, The Electric Lady, Reality Show, Because the Internet, LP1, Sail Out, Malibu, Beauty Behind the Madness, Z, 3, or go listen to Channel ORANGE again; that’s what I’ve been doing all summer. So don’t worry, Boys Don’t Cry will happen, and even if it doesn’t, so what? Frank Ocean owes us an album far less than we owe him our gratitude for sharing his work with us.

But for real, Frank, can’t I be grateful sooner as opposed to later? Please?

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You Should See Them Live: Alice in Chains at Taft Theater in Cincinnati

I would love to see 15 year old me’s reaction if I told him he’d go on to see one of his favorite bands live, mostly because I don’t think he’d believe me. He definitely wouldn’t believe that they came to Cincinnati and played in a sit down venue with nice carpet. He wouldn’t believe he would make a week-before choice to go. He wouldn’t believe that he would make small talk with two dudes from Dayton who sat next to him, and lamented he wasn’t a woman with big boobs. He’d probably believe that he agreed with one of those guys during small talk when he said that seeing Alice in Chains was a bit of a bucket list item because who knows much longer they’d be touring. He would jump at the chance to see Alice in Chains; he’d probably be real excited, but not before asking “Wait, how?”

A quick history: Alice in Chains a grunge band of the early ‘90s, were thought to have ceded Last Grunge Band Standing to Pearl Jam in 2002 after lead singer Layne Staley died of a drug overdose. While Staley’s death was devastating, it was a grimly logical conclusion for a band for where 80% of their discography (conservative estimate) was about junkie fatalism. You don’t hear something like “Would?”, “Nutshell”, or “Dirt” and think happy ending. Staley had functionally exited Alice in Chains in 1996 or 1997, and starring down nearly a decade of inactivity, the remaining members reunited in 2005 for some tour dates with guest vocalists before solidifying their line-up Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall in 2006. The reformed AiC put out a solid record in 2009 (I still remember buying it on its fittingly gloomy looking release day), another in 2013, and tours steadily on the concert hall and rock festival circuits.

If they play your town, I suggest you see Alice in Chains, not just because they sound great, but because history has made them a strange creature. Any other member of grunge’s big four–Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden–wouldn’t have survived losing their singer (I’m already praying that Eddie Vedder is secretly immortal), but Alice soldiered on in large part because of guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Not only is Cantrell the band’s chief musical architect, but he split lyric duty with Staley about 40%-60% depending on the album, and his haunted, Southern Rock harmonies and backing vocals are AiC trademarks. Years back, I was reading something about them online somewhere, and the author suggested that had Cantrell died instead of Staley, the band would have broken up. I’m not sure I agree with that argument, but I definitely understand it.

IMG_3609The best part of seeing Alice in Chains, though, is DuVall. It’s actually kind of hard to take your eyes off him. Not only is he effortlessly charismatic, but he’s up there giving 110% the whole time. He leans into the mic stand, he high fives and daps people in the front row, he goofs off with other bandmates, he shakes his hips and jumps around during instrumental breaks. And none of it looks contrite or like a pose; instead it just naturally looks like how dude performs. He was an energetic, afro-ed, rock and roll wailer having a blast on stage, and fuck, if he’s getting into it, so should the rest of us.

It’s interesting because on stage, DuVall is the most striking part of the show, and then you measure that against the fact that any conversation about Alice with even a little depth will mention Staley first every time (hell, this piece even does it!). The best comments about DuVall from fans usually amount to “He actually sounds pretty good” while the worst paint him with the same brush as Sublime With Rome or Arnel Pineda-era Journey: a sound-alike stand-in so the original members can keep the dream–and name–alive to the tune of $47 for the cheap seats. Actually, no, the worst comments are the racist ones. Anyway, whether he’s being praised or not, the implication is always that DuVall can’t touch Staley.

Sitting in a balcony seat while the band tore through “We Die Young”, this seems kinda fair, but mostly not. On one hand, the deference to Staley is understandable because DuVall wouldn’t have this gig if Staley hadn’t written something like “Man in the Box” that put the band on MTV. On the other, DuVall is close to matching Staley for years active in Alice, has sang late-Staley period songs like “Again” more than he did, and won’t do anything like force the band drop out of a tour supporting the world’s most popular metal act. And not only does he match Staley as a singer, but he has vocal control that Staley never developed, especially on the higher end of his range. You could hear him reach on something like the final chorus to “Man in the Box” but reaching or not, he was still singing the fuck out of each note, whereas Staley tended toward brute force and screams if he needed extra oomph (sidenote: Something I’ve never seen mentioned in the “DuVall can’t touch Layne” argument is that DuVall is in his late 40s essentially competing with Staley in the vocal prime of his early-to-mid 20s; the two’s birthdays are weeks apart. DuVall sounds healthy today, while Staley had noticeable wear and tear by 1996, although that was probably because of the heroin.)

IMG_3611But exactly none of this background or handwringing came up while the band was on stage. In fact, I was most interested in seeing how much of the new stuff came out, and they lead with new album opener “Hollow.” Only one other The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here song came out–groove-heavy single “Stone”–and a trio of songs from Black Gives Way to Blue rounded out the Alice 2.0 songs in the setlist. I had kind of hoped to hear another newer song or two because I like how this band’s evolved. Alice in Chains were always the heaviest and least ~grunge~ of the Big Four, and they’ve actually gotten heavier with time. Cantrell’s developed the ability to take these grinding, lurching, hewn-from-stone riffs in the vein of “Dam That River” and made them his main form of attack while rhythm section Mike Inez and Sean Kinney form a potent low-end. Meanwhile, DuVall and Cantrell are practically co-leading vocalists boasting meticulous, off-kilter harmonies more intricate than most of the band’s older material (“Stone” and “Check My Brain” show everything great about this approach in action). “Stone” was great to hear, as was personal favorite “Last Of My Kind” where DuVall really gets to shine on lead.

Meanwhile, the classics are classics for a reason. Just about all of the band’s hits from ‘90 to ‘94 came out, including “Man in the Box,” “Them Bones,” “We Die Young,” “Angry Chair,” and “Got Me Wrong.” I’ve always thought Alice in Chains had the weakest album roster of the Big Four–a field with Superunknown, Nevermind, and Vs. is just hideously stacked, even against something as good as Dirt–but in terms of who has the most great songs, they can go pound for pound. The rockers, all brute strength leveled with the gut dread of drug withdrawal, remain powerful, but it was the softer stuff that surprised me. “Nutshell” is quietly the grunge era’s best ballad by a Seattle mile, and “Down in a Hole” proves that Alice can be melodic as anyone else. Cantrell, Inez, and Kinney have had these songs for 20 years, and still make’em sound fresh (I realize I haven’t said much about them as performers, so here goes: Inez was only behind DuVall in terms of “fun had on-stage,” rocking out with his long curls. Kinney had that weird but reassuring thing as a drummer where he doesn’t age. Cantrell was sporting a beard, which made him look like pre-Super Soldier serum Zakk Wylde). I’ve never especially liked “Rooster” and “No Excuses,” the first two songs of the encore, but when the band finished with “Would?” I knew I’d made the right call to go.

Buzz has it that there’s a new Alice in Chains album in the pipeline, and after seeing them live, I’m definitely looking forward to it. This is a band with tons of chemistry and chops, and great songs old and new. Honestly, I’ve been on a bit of a rock kick lately, and so this was a right time, right place fit. If I told 15 year old me could have seen them, he would have been excited, surprised, and confused, but he wouldn’t have been let down.

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Radio Rant: Kent Jones – “Don’t Mind”

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, where we’re going international today.

Based on recent charts, our options right now are dancehall, EDM, or Rihanna. And while I like those 3, there’s only so many times I can say “EDM go boom, dancehall nice, yay ‘Needed Me’.” It just gets redundant, and this most recent crop flattens even the most discernible features. I know we’re smack dab in the middle of pop’s “sunshine and bangers” season, but these songs run together: even “Work From Home” and twenty one pilots’ newest crossover don’t veer too far from “EDM” or “dancehall” tendencies (or Rihanna, in Fifth Harmony’s case). The only outliers are JT’s warmed over Michael Jackson knock-off/The 20/20 Experience apology letter and “Don’t Mind” by newcomer Kent Jones. Who is Mike Kent Jones?

Let me answer that question with another question: do you remember back in December when DJ Khaled realized he had honest to God clout on Snapchat, and used said clout to promote a guy by playing the same damn song in each of his Snaps for like, a month?  I don’t either, because I don’t follow him, but apparently this happened. Kent Jones was That Guy; “Don’t Mind” was That Song. Jones got signed by Khaled last year, and he released a little-hyped mixtape last summer, so don’t feel out of the loop if “Don’t Mind” is your first time hearing him. Jones is billed as a producer, songwriter, and rapper, but he hasn’t appeared on anything outside his tape (which scans as SremmLife if SremmLife didn’t know how to throw a party, which yikes), so we’ll see where he goes.

Relentless Snapchat hounding or not, I get why “Don’t Mind” caught on, albeit not for good reason. You could tell me “Don’t Mind” came out any time in the last 8 or 9 years, and I’d believe you–not because it has a “timeless” quality to it, but because it has no quality to it. “Don’t Mind” is radio filler in its most pedestrian, most mindless form. It’s not necessarily a bad song, but good luck calling it a good one, either; this is track 37 or 38 that makes the top 40 because it sounds fine and spaces out the Rihanna singles. The same umbrella that houses quasi-tolerable, completely forgotten mediocrity like “Replay” and “Drank In My Cup” has a spot all picked out for “Don’t Mind.” There’s something to be said about succeeding on broad appeal alone, but there’s so little here to make this success look like anything but a fluke.

The one interesting musical idea to “Don’t Mind” is that dreamy piano that floats over the chorus and sounds appropriately cutesy. The rest of the production’s elements–that “Hip-Hop Beat 2” preset snare and the squelching, “Fancy”-biting synth–sound entirely like they were made in 5 minutes with the trial version of a beat-maker. The song’s beat has so much in common with chintzy dance tracks like “Crank That” or “Watch Me” that I wondered if “Don’t Mind” had a dance gimmick of its own. Answer: sort of! I looked it up, and there’s the “Don’t Mind Challenge”, which is (was?) a big thing on an app called musical.ly, which is the new cool teen app, which I hadn’t heard about until I went to research why “dont mind challenge” was on YouTube’s autocomplete, which made me feel really old once I found out where this all went. Maybe I’m thinking too hard.

We know Kent Jones wasn’t. Jones has gone on record saying that “Don’t Mind” is “pretty much all freestyle”, and looking at these lyrics, that seems less like a boast and more like deniability. The thrust of the song is that Jones is game to have sex with any woman, regardless of what language she speaks, and–huh, that sounds desperate out loud. Actually, lots of these lyrics fall apart on paper, like “She gives me desktop ’til I overload”, “I gave her the can in Kansas”, or “OKC, I forgot we met in Oklahoma” (fill in your own Kevin Durant joke here). The writing can’t cover the flimsyass and tired premise, especially when there are so many aggressively heterosexual odes to women of varying ethnicities and languages already. To wit:

Jay-Z – “Girls, Girls, Girls” (2001): Best super-dated part: Jay-Z asking a girl to write her number down for him. Worst super-dated part: Jay-Z asking his “Indian squaw” if she’s red dot or feather. I feel like this one’s hard to find online because Jay wants it buried in a post-Lemonade world. Still better than “Don’t Mind.”

Ludacris – “Pimpin’ All Over the World” (2005): Ludacris is probably one of the only rappers who can sell this shit straight, and oh my God does it work here. He compliments his girl on her outfit coordination. He honestly gets thrilled to take her places. He sounds like his life was legit changed for the better when he discovered that Canada has “Some beautiful hoes.” This might be the most mid-2000s song ever–a Ludacris single called “Pimpin’ All Over the World” that includes a minute and a half long Katt Williams skit–and it is way better than “Don’t Mind” (“Area Codes” could fit here for the intra-national category).

Young Money – “Every Girl (in the World)” (2009): A song called “Every Girl (in the World)” should be a lock here, but “Every Girl (in the World)” doesn’t mention one little country or internationality during its runtime. It fails its own premise. Young Money’s other D-grade single “Bed Rock” has avowed Canadian Drake mention sushi and wassabi in one line, and Shake & Bake and a Will Ferrell character in the next, which together is basically globalization in action. “Bed Rock” is about as good a song as “Don’t Mind.”

But “BedRock” is head and shoulders above “Don’t Mind” in terms of “rap crew hangs at a house” music videos. “Don’t Mind” has two slightly awkward moments around the same uncoordinated woman. Meanwhile, have you seen the video for “BedRock” lately? It’s a regular rap video on the surface, but there’s so much randomass, nonsensical shit happening in the background that I kind of love it! The Young Money affiliates who scamp about like unruly children. The way the pool deck scenes cut from day to night without rhyme or reason. Millz spending most of the video in a British telephone booth that just chills in the living room. Drake in that robe and carrying around a newspaper and coffee cup like he’s in Young Money’s Leave It to Beaver. A random watergun fight. Drake and Nicki’s “Hey! Stop taking so long in there!” bit with the bathroom. The love affair between Tyga and that damn camera. This has to have been the pilot for a Young Money sitcom that never happened. But I digress.

Jason DeRulo feat. 2 Chainz – “Talk Dirty” (2013): Jason DeRulo’s the lead artist here, so this should already be halfway to a failure, but then 2 Chaniz comes in with the save. Rhyming “genius” with “penis” and “Her pussy so good I bought her a pet” won’t get you points for being enlightened, but in the category where your former peer caught a W with “My pimping’s in 3D” it’ll get you far enough.

Look, the future’s always in motion. Kent Jones could turn things around and be the next Pharrell for all we know, but “Don’t Mind” doesn’t hint at that possibility. Unlike other recent pop-rap gatecrashers, he lacks Fetty Wap’s sense of self, and Desiigner’s gusto: the latter at least had the good sense to imitate someone hot at the top of their game. Meanwhile, Kent Jones has me out here thinking of novelties half his age and older. I guess I don’t mind it, and while that’s part of the intent, it’s also part of the problem.

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New Music: Gone Is Gone – Gone Is Gone (EP)

GoneIsGoneThe brief behind Gone Is Gone is a feint, but a fun one. The elevator pitch for the band has been “featuring members of Queens of the Stone Age and Mastodon…plus the drummer of At the Drive-In, and a multi-instrumentalist” while the truth is, that description runs backwards to inception of Gone Is Gone. The two guys behind that ellipse, drummer Tony Hajjar and Mike Zarin, started the band, recruited Queens-man Troy Van Leeuwen, and then came Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders to complete the set; the catalyst for the hard rock group was big riffs, not big names.

Hajjar and Zarin discovered Gone Is Gone’s sound while composing music for film trailers (you didn’t think that stuff wrote itself, did you?), and you can hear aspects to cinema scoring in the band’s sound. Even though this is a prog-ish hard rock EP, there’s nothing indulgent or out-of-place on the longer songs like closer “This Chapter” and “Starlight,” whose extended intros and codas feel earned. Everything has a point. The more head-on rockers are similarly economic, cycling through distorted riffs often enough to keep thing fresh while pivoting from loud to soft to loud again. I’m thinking of “Stolen From Me” in particular with that description: it opens with an alternating grinding and screeching riff, gets quiet, features some absolutely furious drumming and a bass-lead instrumental breakdown, and then still makes it back around the bend for a final chorus. And this is all inside three minutes! EP opener “Violescent” goes for the throat, too, with its crashing snare/guitar attack start, laser buzzsaw guitar solo, and Big Rock Finish ending. You can see how Zarin’s made a living in the scoring game: he knows how to make something that sounds exciting.

Gone Is Gone isn’t just brawny hard rock, though. While the aggro stuff has quieter moments, the composition chops really come out on mostly-keyboard interludes “Character” and “Recede and Enter.” “Character” begins peacefully enough with textured synths and clean guitar under dissociated spoken word before ratcheting the tension back up with bottom-heavy, fuzzed out guitar that interrupts the mood like a gloriously bad acid trip. “Recede and Enter” is less structured and less effective, but at least works as an exhale from “Praying From the Danger,” the EP’s most relentless stomper.

For me, Gone Is Gone is its outright best when it balances the heavy and the gorgeous the way it does on “Starlight.” While “the heavy and the gorgeous” has been attached to metal/hard rock a bunch in recent years–hello Deftones, hello Deafhaven–“Starlight” differs from, like an Incubus single because of the interplay between Sanders’ rough vocals on the chorus and the wailing, reverb-heavy melodies. It might just be the record’s best top to bottom composition, too: everything about “Starlight” from the spacey synths to Hajjar’s mood-setting drumming to Sanders alternating soft and harsh vocals to that emotive solo to the shoegaze-y ending brings its own reward in time. And, true to Gone Is Gone’s origins, it would look great with film. “Starlight” is the song I saw most dinged on YouTube for “not being like Mastodon” but with something this good, who fucking cares?

Gone Is Gone is supposed to be a prelude to a full longplayer later this year, so it’s natural to wonder what sounds will make it to the album and what won’t. When Gone is Gone plays with texture and hard rock like on “Starlight,” “Stolen From Me,” or “This Chapter” it works really well. Even a blip like “Character” wins for its inventiveness. Or, so long as they make immediate rock songs in the vein of “Violescent” they’ll still get listeners. The only time they sound like they’re coasting is on the grunting “Praying From the Danger,” a mid-tempo number in constant search of an idea.

Not to sound like everyone else for a second, but after listening to Gone Is Gone, you can see where Queens of the Stone Age and Mastodon come in as comparisons, and not just because of shared members. Queens and Mastodon represent a 21st century version of hard rock/metal: one that scratches the itch for aggressive rock music without falling down the metal subgenre rabbit hole on one side or devolving to knuckle-dragger radio rock like Five Finger Death Punch on the other. The thinking man’s headbangers, if you will. Gone Is Gone trades in that same version of hard rock, and this EP isn’t just a fit for the summer, it’s a blockbuster.

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Radio Rant: Drake ft. Wizkid and Kyla – “One Dance”

Hello Radio Runts! It’s time to get moving today!

drakeonedanceIn the lead-up to VIEWS, I said the album was shaping up to be Drake’s Age of Ultron: a potentially underwhelming project victim to its own hype, but said hype wouldn’t hurt it up front. This wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t super accurate, either. Instead, VIEWS is Drake’s Jurassic World: brushed off by critics, but devouring the competition whole. In addition to going double platinum in virtually a month and breaking Beyonce’s streaming record set a week before, VIEWS has also managed to stay at number 1 since release, dethroning Queen Bey and stiff-arming pop competition like Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, and Nick Jonas. Hell, this Radio Rant is going up weeks after it was supposed to, and it’s still number one.

This is all according to plan, I’m sure. Assuming we take him at face value, Drake’s whole career has been a conquest from the bottom to here. You look at his beginnings, and sure he’s got a hit with “Best I Ever Had” but he’s still treated as a pop novelty, written off by critics, and seen as Lil Wayne’s version of “fetch” in rap circles. For him, nothing illustrates “the bottom” like being ignored. From there, So Far Gone and Thank Me Later established presence, Take Care shored up artistic merit and critical clout, Nothing Was the Same proved he could refine (or, less charitably, reheat) his process, and the SoundCloud tracks and mixtapes of 2014 and 2015 aimed to certify his rap credentials. Piece by piece, song by song, he started building his sad-man empire.

But he never went number one on the pop charts. And it bothered him.

This might at first look surprising. Drake has, technically, gotten to number one before (twice!) as a featured artist with Rihanna, and he has enough chart accolades to qualify for his own category at your local trivia night. Why sweat an accomplishment so trite we’ve given it to Maroon 5 a bunch of times? But he can’t sweat it, not at the level he aspires to. To Drake, a number one song would show his across the board, indisputable, Greatness; that he proved himself on the biggest stage possible in front of the greatest number of people. It’s like LeBron winning a title in Cleveland: to a(n annoyingly vocal) contingent of NBA fans, it wouldn’t have mattered if LeBron dominated in stats for both teams and sprouted wings for a half court dunk, if Golden State still won the Finals, the argument against his greatness begins and ends with “No ring” So it was with Drake: for all the Hot 100 entries and Rap Song chart records he had, there was still no number one song.

All of this is prelude to the acceptably tepid “One Dance,” Drake’s first chart topper as lead artist. After SoundCloud freebie “Hotline Bling” failed to top the charts for the most Drake-as-Charlie-Brown reason possible, and VIEWS advance single “Summer Sixteen” tanked, he returned with a designer hit to dethrone, er, Desiigner. “One Dance” is a tolerable grab bag of a bunch of trends: lots of dancehall/tropical electronica, a no-name sample big enough to merit a feature credit, loose construction, and a lack of presence by a singer leaning hard on this beat doing all the work. It’s obviously succeeded, as “One Dance” is in its 7th week atop the charts as of writing this, but as a song, it barely registers.

Any enjoyment you’re going to get out of “One Dance” has to come from that beat. Afrobeat artist Wizkid, Sarz, and OVO’s very own 40 and Nineteen85 made a track whose entrancing qualities come from the interplay between two or three different drums and somewhat 90’s synths/electronic keys with occasional synth guitar over it. It’s not a massive banger, but sneakily tempts you to dance the way “Hotline Bling” (also by Nineteen85) did, by putting space between its various sounds and inviting you to fill in the gaps with your own little tilts and sways. Honestly, getting lost between that constant thump, the reedy drums, house keyboards, and sampled Kyla is the ideal version of “One Dance.”

The most troubling thing about the song is how negligible Drake is. That’s a rarity: even early on, he was the main attraction in his music. He was present on sing-y cuts like “Hold On, We’re Going Home” or rap-offs like “0 to 100/the Catch Up”–hell, he holds the line on most of VIEWS. But here, he’s lost at sea in affected patois, strangulated melodies, and forgettable lyrics, completely dependent on the beat’s heady momentum. There’s nothing for him to latch onto, and you can see him fumble about when he does the song live. Instead of sounding sensual or mysterious, he just sounds lost out there on the dancefloor.

In fact, he sounds so adrift that the lyrics of “One Dance” come and go without an impression. The crux of things is that Drake, as is his wont, is facing problems with [issue unspecified], and trying to achieve [unspecified], and that’s why he’s drunk, and needs one more dance with you. Oh, and you need to text him back as soon as he texts you because he doesn’t want to use y’all’s limited time together fighting, and Drake totally seems like the type of guy who’d use “You didn’t text me earlier” to pick a fight (sidenote: I feel like Drake is a super-fast text responder with really wordy texts and generous emoji use. He’s probably even a frequent double-texter). But it’s hard to call any of this to mind unless you’ve got the “One Dance” lyric sheet in front of you. Think of it as Drake’s version of “Shut Up and Dance.”

It’s hard to tell where “One Dance” lands. That beat is a trend-chasing lowest common denominator, but it’s also pretty effective at its job, and the song has a broad appeal. At the same time, it sounds incredibly minor because of that broad appeal: even for pop music, “One Dance” is a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s too slight to properly hate on, but also too slight to lay on too much praise. Drake finally got his lead artist number one, and he did it with a song that’s not as good as “Hotline Bling,” “Jumpman,” “Best I Ever Had,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “Headlines,” “Know Yourself,” “Forever,” “Find Your Love,” “Take Care,” “Too Much,” or damn near most of his singles (it is, at least, better than “The Motto”). I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking it. It’s just a pop song.

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