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, 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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You Should See Them Live: Modern Baseball, Joyce Manor, Thin Lips at Bogart’s in Cincinnati

One of Stereogum’s weekly columns is the Tuesday special Album of the Week. No, Modern Baseball didn’t get it for their week (it went to Kvelertak instead), but in writing about Diarrhea Planet for their week, editor Tom Breihan led with how important it is that DP’s great live, because sometimes live shows aren’t the best. That part struck a chord with me because I had just opted to not see Diarrhea Planet live at Bunbury on a festival day that reminded me that maybe live music isn’t all that some times. Watching Dead-Mow-Five from a distance can change a person.

But then I was reminded that live shows can be kind of the best.

Everything just seemed to go right on the way to Bogart’s. To wit, I’m normally an anxious ball of GoogleMaps and watch-checking nerves between leaving my place and getting to the venue, but everything worked perfectly that night. I got to the area on time, didn’t have any will-call problems, the pizza joint across from Bogart’s made a great pie, the bartender was wearing a Hamilton shirt, and he knocked one of my drinks off because we talked about how he got to see the show. It was the smoothest pre-show you or I will ever have.

And then I got inside just as openers Thin Lips were starting their first song. My lucky streak continued with Thin Lips: they were the only band on the bill I’ve never heard of before, but their flavor of Philly indie pop-punk is so in my lane that I was a little hacked off I hadn’t come across them sooner. They looked genuinely happy to be there playing songs off last year’s Divorce Year and Riff Hard that came out in May: songs that were wiry and frantic, but had room for big choruses with big hearts. Sadly, they didn’t have any CDs at their merch table, but pointed me to their online store, and mentioned they’re on SRB Productions’ stacked comp for Orlando. Give’em a try, I left as a fan.

I came to Bogart’s as a Joyce Manor fan, and the next half hour or so only confirmed it. At least I think it was half an hour? Forty minutes? I honestly lost track of time; Joyce Manor’s stock and trade is in songs that maybe average two minutes, so they buck the usual song-to-time ratio. Okay, that and after everyone around me started going nuts during opening number “Heart Tattoo” (they opened with one of my favorites–it’s like they knew), I dropped any pretense of record keeping, and joined one of the most adorably overeager but disorganized mosh pits I’ve ever been part of.

IMG_3398It might have meant a lot of jumping kids and getting covered in the last of my beer, but the high energy mimicked the band’s performance: Joyce Manor are, to put it simply, a lot of fun live. The genius of their short songs is that they’re fully realized constructs with peaks and valleys and tension and payoff, only they’re stripped down to the essentials; all killer, no filler. And the band’s been playing them long enough that they know how to build a setlist that never blurs together and always keeps the momentum going forward. Their set drew heavily from 2014’s Never Hungover Again, but plenty of deep cuts and fan favorites (including “Constant Headache,” which at 3 minutes long is Joyce Manor’s own “Only In Dreams”) made it out, too. Their live show didn’t have stage thrills, but it didn’t need them either because they had the songs. And lots of them.

This was technically my third time seeing Modern Baseball live, and each go-around so far has acted as a snapshot of where they’re at in their career. The first time…I’ll be honest, I barely remember them playing. They were touring with Candy Hearts (one of my favorite bands) and a pair of other bands, so two of friends of mine and I went to a bar on the west side of Cincy just to see Candy Hearts play; anything else was decoration. This was 2013, so Sports would have been out for awhile, and if I strain hard enough, I can remember hearing parts of “Hours Outside in the Snow” and “The Weekend.” But at the time, they were just a band not called Candy Hearts. Time number 2 was sizeable rock shed Bogart’s, but they were opening for The Wonder Years. It was 2014, so TWY weren’t touring behind a record, but MoBo were on the upside from releasing You’re Gonna Miss It All a few months back. They still sounded like a young group, but one that was sturdier and had more confident material. It was material I didn’t know that well, but the minor breakthrough that was YGMIA–an album of neurotic but free-wheeling pop-punk–led to a big fan reception. I bought the album that night, and it ended up as one of my favorites of the year.

IMG_3404It’s hard to talk about the difference between Modern Baseball then and now without talking about their most recent album Holy Ghost and the circumstances around it. Sports and You’re Gonna Miss It All were emotional crush records, to be sure, but their worldviews came through smirks or bashful smiles: primarily, they were concerned with being awkward at parties, chatting up girls, or shit-talking condescending jerksHoly Ghost, meanwhile, deals in self-doubt, a death in a co-frontman Jake Ewald’s family, and co-frontman Brendan “Bren” Lukens’ very public mental health troubles with anxiety and bipolar disorder last year. The band had to process a lot in the second half of 2015 before recording Holy Ghost, and you can hear it all over the album–not just in lyrics like “Pretending we feel safe right here gets harder every day” and “Planning our future without you, without me at times”–but in how resilient yet battered the album’s instruments sound, especially on Lukens’ frantic back half.

All of this just made people fucking thankful there was a Modern Baseball to headline 1,000+ capacity venues in 2016. Even though the house music was still playing and the lights were up, Lukens got a major cheer just when he walked on stage to adjust his gear. I cheered too, because the difference between Lukens now and when I’d seen him previously was striking. Gone was the nervous looking kid with a buzzcut and ball cap, and in his place was a longhair who still looked a bit withdrawn (tour’s gotta get sapping after a while), but nevertheless moved with an open confidence. Once Ewald and the other members came out–all sporting long hair and/or facial hair themselves–they stood tall, as well, as Holy Ghost‘s title track played over the PA so they could rip right into “Wedding Singer.”

IMG_3405It was back into the pit for me, but things moved with a better sense of pacing during MoBo’s set. And they played damn near everything over the next hour or so: all but two songs from Holy Ghost appeared, as did a majority of You’re Gonna Miss It All, and even a few homers from Sports like “Re-Done” and “The Weekend” showed up. The new stuff sounded great, and the older songs carried more weight juxtaposed with Holy Ghost than they ever did without it: “Apartment””s earnestness or the yearning of “Re-Done” felt more significant and almost pure standing next to heavy tunes like “Everyday” or tears-in-your-eyes closer “Just Another Face.” The band was in rare form, too, with Ewald sounding more natural and easy going as a frontman, and bassist Ian Farmer settling further into the “Backing Vox and Rock Out” bassist role.

The emo revival’s been written about so much that handwaving the excess of thinkpieces on it is the new cliche; instead, we should look think about the future of these bands. I think MoBo’s track record indicates that the future looks good, and not just because all their fuckin’ problems are based around the past. They’re now three consistent albums in, the line-up has solidified, and they’re beloved in a few different scenes because underneath it all, their music is approachable. Within the emo boomlet right now, maybe The World Is a Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid to Die or The Hotelier are bigger, but Modern Baseball seems more sustainable. As much as I love both of them, The World Is… builds their songs almost exclusively on constantly escalating, cinematic “holy shit” moments, and The Hotelier are so intensely personal that listening to them can be like staring into the sun of your emotions. Their potential for burnout is too high. Modern Baseball has that potential, too–even with treatment and support, a mental illness will never go away–but the approachability of their live show and Holy Ghost imply this band has more to offer. It all comes down to the last lyric on Holy Ghost and one of the night’s biggest singalongs:

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Ranting About Music’s (Eternally Un)Official Bunbury Report: Sunday Superlatives

That third festival day is rough.

Okay, in a lot of ways it isn’t, because you’re still there to see live music, and live music is very dope, but the Festival Magic (TM) is over. You’re over paying $6.25 for a Miller High Life. That awkward wristband tan-line isn’t going away. You know it’ll take nothing short of homicide or at least aggravated assault to be able to see a thing at the River Stage once a band’s started. You feel kind of like Jennifer Lawrence on the set of a new X-Men movie.

And yet you’re still there, loving it. Sunday might have been lower energy, but it had a lot of great bands, and the people-watching aspect kicked in. So instead of a straight recap or My Top 5 Hot Take Moments, here are some superlatives.

IMG_3237Hardest Rocking Stage: The River Stage.
Even though this is easily the stage I saw the least of, it housed the loudest and hardest rocking bands. Diarrhea Planet’s soundcheck alone on Saturday was rock and roll as fuck on its own, and the same went for Holy White Hounds’ yesterday, who rocked faces when I looped back around for their set, same for Cincy rockers Mad Anthony earlier in the day. Grizfolk were probably loud, too.

Stage Most Likely to Have Hosted a Future Motivational Speaker: The Sawyer Point Stage.
Between good-time-guys Red Wanting Blue and the wildly overeager X Ambassadors on Friday, Austin “Such a Nice Boy” Plaine on Saturday, and then Flint Eastwood all fired up yesterday, the Sawyer Point Stage attracted the weekend’s peppiest acts. Electropop singer-songwriter Flint Eastwood owned the shit out of her set, throwing impassioned speeches and thank yous between her impassioned (and pretty good!) songs. It’s gotta be a hard life playing the pre-4:00 slots, but her and Oddisee had to have picked up a lot of fans over the weekend. They earned it.

Weirdest Sign
For like, 70% of the weekend, I thought this one was going to go to the person in a rubber chicken mask that held a cardboard sign announcing “#JoinTheRevolution.” But then, I found out today that the Chicken Man’s “revolution” is just the name of a local foodie joint, and now I’m conflicted because 1. I’ll be honest, I was expecting something way weirder, but 2. Who doesn’t like rotisserie chicken?

Anyway, the Rotisserie Revolution lost already because on Sunday, I saw a man standing in place with a handmade “LIVENATION KILLED PRINCE” sign, and fuck it, there’s no beating that.

Biggest Bunbury Look For Him and Her: Whatever was on the shelf at H&M.
I’m not a festival veteran or anything, but over the last twoish years that I’ve attended Bunbury, the festival look seems to have gotten pretty homogenized since H&M straight up branded themselves as “Shit you’re supposed to wear while watching HAIM play at sunset, dummy.” If you got mugged, and your only description of the couple who jumped you was “A woman 16-25 in high-waisted shorts and a crop-top and a 16-25 year old male in pastel shorts and boatshoes with a fully unbuttoned floral print Hawaiian shirt,” then either cut your losses or expect the police to interrogate half the festival.

Second Biggest Bunbury Look For Her: Rompers. What’s it like to wear a romper? Genuinely curious on this; I have no frame of reference, clothing-wise.

Second Biggest Bunbury Look For Him: Out of season basketball jerseys. The most interesting of the bunch were two dudes in coordinating home/away Iverson jerseys, two separate Tune-Squad ones, and a guy in a UNC Jordan jersey (depending on how cruel you’re feeling, you can include the legion of Cavs jerseys here, too).

Band Most Likely To Appear on a Teen Drama Soundtrack Before Year’s End: Lany.
Los Angeles’ Lany seem lab-grown to reach teenage heartthrob status. Their lead singer is a Sensitive Surfer longhair who thanked us for being the largest audience they’ve had, their songs include lines about driving in the summer (with you, natch), and they prominently displayed a gear case that had “Love Sucks Sometimes” taped on it. They make pop rock that my girlfriend pointed out sounds like The 1975, and I totally agree: if The 1975 hadn’t gone camp on their last record, this is what they’d sound like.

Most Entertaining Way to Kill Time Camped Out Between Sets: Watching footage of Elle King get progressively more sunburned at the opposite side of the festival while waiting for Of Monsters and Men. We also tried to guess when she was singing “Exes & Oh’s”

Presidential Candidate Elected Based on Number of T-Shirts: Bernie Sanders.
Although I suppose wearing Trump memorabilia at the same venue that Ice Cube is playing is just asking for a fight.

World’s Most Popular Band That Didn’t Play Bunbury Based on Number of T-Shirts: Pearl Jam
Apparently, Pearl Jam are becoming Springsteen-esque in that their tour merch is the go-to for any show.

Stage That Came Closest to Maximum On-Stage Occupancy: Main stage
Most acts this weekend came in at a respectable 4 or 5 members, and then Of Monsters and Men brought half of Iceland with them for their 9 person ensemble. Not to be outdone, Florence + the Machine brought 12 people, and Florence Welch lamented not being able to bring a choir for “Shake It Out,” asking us to be her “hungover angels” instead. We obliged. It was wonderful.

Best Singing Voice Vs. Talking Disparity: Singing “Spectrum,” Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine has a voice Stereogum once called “a solar flare.” Talking to her audience between songs, she has the voice of a teacher gently reminding Ms. Welch’s kindergarten class of the importance of washing our hands before snack. I don’t get it, either.

Artist Most Considerate of the Audience: Grimes introduced “Scream” by explaining that Aristophanes wasn’t there to rap her verses in Mandarin, and asking if it was okay with us if she did them in Russian instead (sidenote: Grimes is the best). At other points, she advised us to put in earplugs if we wanted to because this next song was loud, apologized for hitting wrong buttons on her console because the sun was still out, thanked her back-up singers/dancers, and explained after “Ave Maria” that the dance break looks cooler in the dark.

IMG_3261I realize that might scan as apologetic, but in concert, it was much more like a mad scientist explaining that she’s about to create a lightning storm in her lab, or taking a second to make sure she’s properly going to turn causality on its head. I loved last year’s Art Angels, and seeing large parts of it live was wonderful; “Flesh Without Blood” made an appearance, everyone lost their shit to “Scream” (Grimes does those throat-shredding yells live, too), and in “Venus Fly” she had a bigger, meaner EDM jam than anything DeadMau5 did the night before. And not only was “Kill V. Maim” one of last year’s best songs, it’s apparently her favorite to play live. Grimes spent time between songs constantly at her synths and workstations making sure everything was right, and it made sense why: her music and live show are so intricate but fully formed that they seem teleported from some cyberpunk anime pop star’s alternate dimension. She even had one of the best crowds, too (Grimes is, again, the best). If you ever get a chance, see her live; it’s like getting shot into space.

Best Bunbury Sets Ranked by How Much I Danced
6. Leggy
5. Charles Bradley
4. The Killers
3. Big Grams
2. Florence + the Machine
1. Grimes

Ad I Was Sickest Of By the End of the Festival: Mikey’s Late Night Slice has pizza good enough and cheap enough that I had it twice ($5 a pop for a slice as big as my face was great for my hungry and broke ass–other sidenote: never move the week before a music festival), but they have the fucking creepiest looking mascot, and that jackass was on like, 4 different looping promos and I think there was even a costumed one running around, terrifying children.

Most Pleasantly Surprising Fashion Trend: Chokers are back in a big way. No one told me.

Most Unpleasantly Surprising Fashion Trend: Dear God, the number of obnoxious dudes I saw in Stars & Stripes shorts and/or American Flag brotanks. The same basic bros who wear them are the same dudes who’ll tell you about their idea for a startup, or about that time them and their man Austin got hammered at Applebees happy hour “ironically.” Might as well be a damn tuxedo t-shirt.

Most Adorable Act Witnessed: Florence Welch encouraged everyone to put someone on their shoulders as part of “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” (get it, “raise it up”? ha ha ha), and right away, most people did. Just in front of us, I saw this endearingly shy pair of slight looking teenagers whose body language said so loudly that they wanted to try it, if only the other one said “Okay, so we’re doing this.” They would lean into position, but pull back because they were waiting on confirmation from the other one to go for it. I was actively rooting for them after, like, the third attempt. Warmed my heart.

IMG_3283Artist Most Likely to Have Written an Album Specifically for Festivals: Florence+ the Machine. I don’t know that Welch and company wrote last year’s How Big How Blue How Beautiful to make sure they always had a font size over like, Fitz and the Tantrums, on festival posters, but as a conspiracy theory, it’s at least as credible as LiveNation killing Prince. That album’s larger than life cuts (“What Kind of Man,” the title track, “Mother,” and “Delilah”) are able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of their earlier work, all of which is incredibly live/festival friendly. The chorus to “Shake It Out” will always sound ebullient, but gets even more so when you’re belting it out pressed next to kids with flower crowns and drawstring bags. Welch sang as she ran around the stage, climbed parts of the rigging for “Rabbit Heart,” and leaped into the crowd, but she almost didn’t have to because we sang every word right with her.

It was also a blast to see because Florence + the Machine is my girlfriend’s favorite band ever, and seeing someone see their favorite band live is it’s own form of magic, and an excellent end to this year’s massive, muddy, Bunbury.

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Ranting About Music’s Still Soggy (And Still Un)Official Bunbury Report: Saturday 2016

A buddy of mine has what he calls Lotto Ticket Days: days where enough random, inconvenient, and trifling bullshit happens that you might as well buy a lottery ticket because fuck it, how’s your day gonna get weirder at this point? Between storms, rain delays, and a kooky line-up even by Bunbury standards, yesterday was the festival’s Lotto Ticket Day. Let’s begin.

So, I’m just never going to get to Bunbury’s Saturday shows on time. To show up late in 2014 was happenstance, to happen again last year was understandable, but if I’ve run late for 3 years in a row now for the same day, the problem is me. And I accept this character flaw. Some people can’t cross bridges, some people can’t get their life together before 2 PM on a Saturday. This year, it meant seeing Foxing’s last thirty seconds of playing, and what a cathartic half a minute it was.

Having gotten my 30 seconds of emo for the day, I made my way to the main stage to see Oddisee and his band Good Company, who–because of Bunbury’s weird availability scheduling–was the only act playing during his entire set. But it was time well-spent: Oddisee’s a conscious rapper with a live soul band sound, and with his every-man raps and affable presence, he played well off the crowd and made the main stage feel intimate. He reminded me of a slicker, smarter J.Cole. The cloud cover that started during his set crested with rain as he wrapped up an actually pretty funny piss-take “trap” version of one of his songs, but what’s a few rain drops ever hurt?

IMG_3192Conner Youngblood
“Wait, I think he’s actually playing now?”

The friends I was meeting for the day caught up with me during Conner Youngblood’s rain-delayed soundcheck, and I interrupted our conversation with the above as Youngblood’s intermittent effects-heavy electric guitar strums and synth loops became more constant but not louder electric guitar strums and synth loops. I usually roll my eyes when someone calls an artist “post-The Weeknd” because it strikes me as a try-hard description, but I could definitely see a younger, er, Youngblood jamming on “Wicked Games” or “The Party & the After Party;” he seems to favor The Weeknd’s brand of gauzy R&B. Which sounds good on record, but has trouble translating live: maybe the rain delay threw him off, but Youngblood seemed a little listless during a relatively lowkey set that convinced me he has a good SoundCloud page. A bit of an off set, but he powered through it, rain or shine.

IMG_3198The Neighbourhood
I’ve carped about this basically since the line-up was announced, but this year’s Bunbury gets plain damn weird with its roster. No where is this summed up better than sort of R&B, sort of pop, sort of rock one hit wonders The Neighbourhood getting a 5:00 to 6:00 set. Admittedly, it’s an uphill battle for a lot of bands to look cool in sunlight (see: Coldplay’s daytime Super Bowl performance), but a temperate group that leans on #aesthetic as hard as The Neighbourhood does really needs a nighttime set to even have a chance at looking convincing. Otherwise, their occasionally AutoTuned, mid-tempo balladry just looks corny.

But they were also responsible for my favorite “break character” moves of the day. The storm clouds from earlier came rolling back in after about 6 or 7 songs no one recognized. The rain came back during sort-of hit “Afraid,” and my friend remarked that, “This would be a good time for some sweater weather!” Shit you not, frontman Jesse Rutherford made a show of stopping “Afraid” midway through, and tried to hint around to his bandmates to start “Sweater Weather” without giving away that he wanted to play “Sweater Weather” in the rain. After a few “Hey, play the…you know” and “Start doing [drum pattern]”, he sang part of the chorus, and they got it. As they soldiered through “Sweater Weather,” the rain picked up into a near storm, then a full storm, causing them to say “Thanks!” and duck off as everyone headed for shelter. Was hearing “Sweater Weather” worth getting soaked through? Apparently, yes, but it was definitely cold by that point.

Rain Sucks
After The Neighbourhood officially won the Tame Impala Memorial Rainbury Award around 5:45, the next two hours was like the camping part of the last Harry Potter book: a buncha slow shit while everyone waited on the plot (or in this case, the festival) to kick back in. We waited out the storm in the tunnel under the Purple People Bridge, ate, and then we parked it in front of the Sawyer Point stage for Big Grams to start at 7:00. People behind us were swatting around a beach ball (I guess they were Death Eaters, if we’re taking this Potter comparison further), and just as BG was about to start, it starts storming again, but with the fun, fun addition of lightning. At that point, the Bunbury staff started telling people head for cover again. I don’t remember how long the delay was, but it was long enough that we went back to the tunnel, and I remembered that everyone, and I mean everyone hates that fucking camping part of Harry Potter.

IMG_3214Big Grams
I haven’t heard any of BigGrams (a duo made of indie poppers Phantograms and Big Boi). I’d kept an eye on the project, but I didn’t pay attention after their EP came and went with a shrug.

But they ended up being exactly what I needed live. I still haven’t heard any of their recorded stuff, but live, they’re responsible for some massive, cooler-than-you bangers that it’s easy to lose your shit to. Sarah Barthel’s hooks and vocals were great, Big Boi is one of the coolest people on the planet at any given moment, and the two worked great together with Big Grams songs, plus Phantogram and Outkast song or two apiece. The rain and mud soaked crowd lapped it up, and my friend and I had a blast. Some yahoo in front of us said “These two are feeling it” and it’s like no shit, bro, why wouldn’t we? Why aren’t you?

IMG_3224Ice Cube
Bunbury’s scheduling again meant that after some day acts had the festival to themselves, later names had to compete with each other. For my part, this meant being torn between seeing Ice Cube, and up and coming rockers Diarrhea Planet, who were playing opposing night times. I ran into a few kids I went to school with while sitting at DP’s facemelting sound check, and one of them made the (late night festival, but logically sound) argument that Cube was the better pick because his solo tickets went for like $200, and DP would probably let you into their next show in the area for a 24 pack of cheap beer.

So, it was off to O’Shea Jackson’s set we went. At this point, Ice Cube’s able to tour off of being motherfucking Ice Cube, and he delivered in damn near every way. “Natural Born Killaz,” “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” “You Can Do It,” and “Check Yo’ Self” all appeared, as did N.W.A. standbys “Straight Outta Compton,” “Gangsta, Gangsta,” and “Fuck Tha Police” with his son O’Shea Jackson Jr.; there was barely anything that went un-performed. He didn’t have any elaborate setup, only a screen that played music videos in background, and he didn’t need one: Ice Cube’s just a cool enough (ha) and funny enough guy that he can show up, crack shit out, and call it a blast. He even did a side vs. side chant where I got to say “fuck you!” to the people in the V.I.P, what’s not to like? Between him and Big Grams, this wet, confusing, muddy day almost made sense again.

After big sets from an alternative rock act, an indie-pop meets southern hip-hop duo, a jam band, beer-swilling garage punks, and a rap veteran, day 2 of Bunbury ended with an EDM show. I don’t get it, either.

If I’m being honest “I don’t get it” is also gonna apply to DeadMau5, a choice so bizarre that I thought the late announcement that he was headlining was trolling. Y’all know me: EDM doesn’t get covered a lot on here. It’s not that I’m adverse to it, it’s just not by and large my scene, DeadMau5 especially. His tempo and beat seemed monotonous and without texture, there wasn’t anything to latch onto, and there was only so much of seeing him at the console with the mouse head sitting next to him that I could find engaging. I’ve always heard that EDM is one of those “for the drugs” things, and after seeing DeadMau5, I could kinda see it: if you’re not fucked up, there’s a limited appeal. For a genre called “electronic dance music,” I had an easier time dancing to Big Grams or Cube than this. I don’t know, maybe I need to see Calvin Harris or whoever, instead.

But for now, me and my still probably damp shoes are back off for day 3.

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