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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Somewhere I Belong: on Chester Bennington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Lorde – Melodrama

Lorde and her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine were legitimately pop paradigm shifters.

I say that with zero hyperbole. With Pure Heroine and “Royals,” Lorde tapped into something people (but especially young people) wanted without knowing it. She came at a time where club pop was literally past its zombie state, and not only did she provide a one-off cure, but a template going forward. And that last part is what puts her above, like Gotye, Lorde wasn’t just big, she was impactful. Imagining our pop landscape without her triggers a bunch of questions: does anyone pay attention to Alessia Cara, Daya, or Halsey? How about Meghan Trainor, does “All About That Bass” catch on? How different does 1989 sound? (Sidebar: you could say parts of Melodrama sound kinda like 1989, but I’d argue that’s because 1989 quietly took notes from Lorde; there are similar vocal cues throughout, and “Blank Space” is straight up Max Martin-ized Pure Heroine.)

So while Lorde made a pop market for herself, she doesn’t seem interested in continuing down it on Melodrama, and the album’s all the better for it. She works outside Pure Heroine‘s icy, rap-inspired beats and tales of teenage ennui, instead collaborating with fun. member, Bleachers frontman, and Actual Peter Pan Jack Antonoff for a loosely narrative record about partying through, or possibly partying in, heartbreak in New York City. Musically, Melodrama trades in its predecessor’s minimalism for more dynamic arrangements that use a wider variety of unstable synths, strings, the occasional guitar, and a lot of piano; the differences are as stark as the two albums’ covers.

Melodrama is a pop album, but it isn’t really a “pop” album, if that makes sense. If you consider pop music as a spectrum with “commerce” on one end represented by Divide and Memories…Do Not Open and Blonde and Art Angels standing in for “art” on the other, then Melodrama exists closer to the art side than most Top 40 records (PH included). It’s probably just a little further along the art side than, say, ANTI. While its songs are written as pop songs, structured as pop songs, and sound the way pop songs do, none of them sound engineered for radio play, nor are they meant to chase off anyone here from “Team.” The album wants to play around with pop, but on its terms more than the mainstream’s, and is inclusive without being compromising.

In that way,
Melodrama is an extension of Lorde herself: an oddball whose good faith quirks compel far more often than they frustrate. There are tons flourishes on this album that could fall flat–I’m talking about the way Lorde drags out “And then they are boooored of me” on “Liability,” or “Broadcast the boom-boom-boom-boom/and make’em all dance to it” during the most airy, graceful parts of “The Louvre,” or the “Bwowh” in “Homemade Dynamite”–and would feel contrived coming from anyone else, but from Ella Yelich-O”Connor? They’re charming as hell (the sneering chant on “Loveless” is a brick, but fuckin’ nobody can make spelling in a song sound cool). The quirks extend to the music, too. The bouncing “Homemade Dynamite” gets closest to radio-ready, thanks to a steady, stuttering beat, and that effortlessly cool “Blow shit up with homemade d-d-dynamite” chorus, and I’m sure there’s a less interesting version of “Supercut” that takes off the stadium-ready synthpop track’s extended fade out, but generally, these songs are best when played together.

Look no further than Melodrama‘s peak run in the middle. Sure, “Hard Feelings/Loveless” is the weak link in the chain, but it’s bolstered by everything else. “Homemade Dynamite” is where the album’s off-center pop first gels, and then it launches into “The Louvre,” which balances Lorde’s best songwriting with her most interesting production. “Liability” is the heartbreaker that pumps a bunch of loneliness into her Too-Muchness, while “Sober II (Melodrama)” is the moment of blunt realization. The arc masterfully traces the “I tried to drink it away” feeling of going to a party to your emotions catching up with you and blowing it all to hell (the exact moment of delivery is the gloriously noisy part of “Hard Feelings”), and the immediate fallout, and while doing so, it’s some of the best music Lorde’s ever made.

Lorde’s writing, even at its most gleeful on “The Louvre,” cops to impermanence and eventual loss, and it’s her ability to weave you in her psyche that elevates Melodrama. She’s been a writerly lyricist since the beginning, but she outdoes herself here. Not only is her writing tighter and more empathetic, but she has these hand grenade one-liners, like “I care for myself the way I used to care for you,” and “They’ll talk about us, and how we kissed and killed each other.” It’s the lyrics that make “Supercut” and “Hard Feelings” work, even if she doesn’t overcome ho-hum arrangements elsewhere.

Melodrama’s quality is a relief for an album I was nervous about during pre-release. I’ve tried for months to get into “Green Light” beyond the lovely piano breakdown, but it just doesn’t come together; the tepid chorus doesn’t match the energetic verses. “Sober” has a similar issue, where the screwy vocals and pulsating beat build and build tension that never leads to catharsis. In a New York Times profile, Lorde talked about the time pop music warlock Max Martin discussed her “incorrect songwriting” with her (other sidebar: the details of this are now in dispute. The Times piece states that “incorrect songwriting” refers to “Green Light,” while in a podcast this week, Lorde said it was actually about “Royals.” Times writer Jonah Weiner disagrees somewhat, but the long and short of it is that the phrase “incorrect songwriting” is now a virtue in the Lorde canon). The guts of what Martin’s referencing is Lorde’s tendency to zag instead of zig with her songwriting choices; sometimes, like going from palm-muted guitars to floating synths on “The Louvre,” it works, and when it means petering out on “Sober” and “Green Light,” it doesn’t. Ditto for “Writer in the Dark” which is too undercooked musically to stand next to Lorde’s exaggerated Kate Bush impression and potent lyrics. It’s no where near enough to sink the album, but still, Melodrama isn’t without blemishes.

The other kind of a drag is that Melodrama‘s mix just seems off. It’s hyper-compressed, tinny, and even a little grating at times because it sounds like everything’s fighting to be heard over everything else. This feels like a bug and not a feature; I’m thinking of the most anthemic bits of “Perfect Places,” where Lorde’s multi-tracked vocals clash with synths, pianos, and a wet noodle drum track (speaking of: why are the drums so inert on like, 65% of this record?). I listened to songs from Melodrama next to The Weeknd, Tegan and Sara, Frank Ocean, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and Rihanna, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy or looking for a reason to yell at Jack Antonoff (who, aside from getting his smudgy fingerprints on the drums here, is largely fine), but even when Melodrama has the better arrangements, it just sounds clipped.

Even if I like it more with my head than my heart, there’s still so much on Melodrama to dig into that it’s a rewarding, emotionally supercharged experience. No matter if the bookends are comparatively flimsy, the core of this thing is excellent, and solidifies Lorde as one of our best young voices in pop. She was a gamechanger in 2013, and she’s the one to catch up with now. But, my favorite thing about Melodrama is that already, this record means a lot to people, and even my reservations melt away in the face of “The Louvre” or “Supercut,” which are impossible to not love. This album has gone from one of the most anticipated ones of the year to one of its most talked about. Melodrama deserves the chatter; let’em talk.

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Album Review: Harry Styles – Harry Styles

Early in One Direction’s career, Harry Styles became “the one with the hair” to me. Granted, that descriptor shouldn’t go far in a group as aggressively moussed as 1D, but it worked as shorthand for saying, “You know, that one” in a photo. You look at One Direction, and even before the “solo careers” conversation came to the forefront with Zayn breaking rank, Styles just seemed like The Guy. To be fair, post-Justified pop dictates that at least one member tries going alone in every successful teen group, but Styles has that preternatural charisma (see also: Lorde) where he’d try going solo even if the culture didn’t demand it. He never had the best voice–remember, 1D was a band made up of guys who couldn’t cut it on their own in X Factor–but between the vocal talent he did have, his self-possession, and being the 1D member best at being famous, he had more than enough to shoot his shot. It just seemed inevitable.

Which brings us to Harry Styles. It’s fine. Anyone here for Appointment Hate Listening is going to be disappointed (and didn’t pay much attention to 1D–most of their stuff outside “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Little Things” is okay), as is anyone expecting an instant classic. The album is a model of efficiency: discounting the elongated lead single “Sign of the Times,” songs average out to the Pop Song Standard three and a half minutes for 10 tunes in 40 minutes. The songs themselves, written by Styles and arena-ready producer Jeff Bhasker (credits: Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Mark Ronson) and his team, are similarly professional in their classic rock aspirations: the electric guitars crunch, the acoustic ones squeak and buzz, and Styles’ vocals are brought all the way to the front in a mix that’s as cozy as crushed velvet. None of the songs outright suck, but a number of them confuse evoking the greats for being great. Overall, Harry Styles is a competent debut album that suggests Styles has the pieces for a long career, he just needs to work on figuring out how they fit.

I’m also interested in what Harry Styles isn’t. The narratives around the album are that (1) Styles has bucked the expectation set by Justin Timberlake for former boy-band members breaking out, and that (2) he’s going against the grain by releasing music that’s not beholden to modern trends. These are true, but not that true. Styles is still running Timberlake’s “I’m older and sexier” playbook, he’s just doing it with pricey Gibson hollow-bodies instead of expensive synths. Really, he takes more from Timberlake than the other 1Ders: “Two Ghosts” is his “song about a pop star ex” in the vein of “Cry Me a River,” and with “Sign of the Times,” he approaches the The 20/20 Experience mentality of Serious Art with a long song done on real instruments.

And yeah, the album’s brand of guitar-slinging, singer-songwriter classic rock is trend averse, but I’d argue it chooses something even safer. Harry Styles cribs from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, (I guess, kinda) David Bowie, and Stealers Wheel; music that isn’t really “in” or “out,” it just is. You don’t have to seek out “Benny and the Jets” or “Stuck in the Middle With You”–I never have–they find you. They find you common spaces, like network drama ads, family friendly restaurants, and waiting rooms, and Harry Styles is more approachable because it leans on that familiarity. While it’s possible that shirking Quavo and whichever producer Bieber just worked with might cost Styles radio spins, I think it’ll likely benefit him now and later more than it’ll hurt: he gets cred now for being different/”different,” and odds are “Sign of the Times” will live a longer life because it doesn’t sound beholden to 2017.

You can see the benefits in the reaction to “Sign of the Times.” That wee little Harry Styles from One Direction’s opening solo bid was a 6 minute long, sing-to-the-rafters, rock ballad complete with a choir, a massive vocal performance, and wide-screen drum rolls and guitar strums was (and hell, still is) a shock; the fact that “Sign of the Times” more or less pulls off the grandeur feels secondary to it trying in the first place. But more than the “Bowie-esque” tag I’ve seen ascribed to it over and over, “Sign of the Times” calls to mind Oasis. It’s a chord-friendly, sweeping ballad. Its size and sweep belie the fact that it’s about fuckall. Its title shamelessly bites a more famous work, and–this is my favorite part–its opening lyric ganks the name of a mid-period Oasis strums-’n-piano ballad that itself is about fuckall (Noel Gallagher has to find this hilarious), and in spite of that, it still works. Wisely, Harry Styles doesn’t try anything as big again, letting “Sign of the Times” stand on its own.

Instead, he tries on a handful of rock guises. “Carolina” is humid Revolver worship. “Woman” has to exist because Styles thought covering “Benny and the Jets” would be too obvious. “Two Ghosts” dips its toes in Sea Change-y singer-songwriter melancholy with bonus “Please listen to my thoughts about my two month relationship from the first Obama administration’s twilight” subtext. You get a few Travis picking exercises out of “Sweet Creature” before the album does a 180 two songs later with the dick-swinging rock of “Kiwi.” It’s the less put-upon stuff like “From the Dining Room Table” where Styles fares best, mostly because there’s actual attention to detail in the craft and songwriting. Even if the melody’s a little sing-song on “…Table,” and opener “Meet Me in the Hallway” is overwrought, Styles holds them together as songs.

Which is the exact opposite of what happens when he tries to rawk out on “Only Angel” and “Kiwi,” neither of which need to be here. I get that Styles basically had to put one or two focus-grouped rockers on the album as part of his Rock Star candidacy, but holy fuck, could someone have at least written them? Not only could the music of “Only Angel” soundtrack a Viagra commercial set to play exclusively in Hard Rock Cafes, but its lyrics were rote by the time Styles was born. He’s a charismatic guy, but it’s impossible not to sound 76 singing “Couldn’t take you home to mother in a skirt that short” and “She’s a devil in between the sheets.” He’s let down again on “Kiwi,” which is essentially Wolfmother’s “Woman” with lyrics somehow dumber than “She’s a woman, you know what I mean.”

But, like I said, Harry Styles never really flames out, even with those 2 knuckle-draggers. This is due to the album’s core sense of self, and that’s what separates it from the work of other 1D alumni. Everyone’s working off a template of some form, Styles is just the most successful. Zayn’s “Have you heard Trilogy?” R&B-tinged pop is confident, but generally anonymous in a trend-chasing way, while Louis Tomlinson’s collaboration with Steve Aoki is an okay spin on BiebEDM. “Slow Hands” from Niall Horan is probably the most likeable of the Other Guys’ work, although anything looks promising next to Liam Payne turning in an already dated Mustardwave appearance with Quavo doing a Ty Dolla Sign impression. Styles’ closest comparison might actually be Miley Cyrus, who–having made her dollar off rap–is making MOR rootsy pop rock that’s likewise deliberately out of pop’s step. The two of them are signalling authenticity and a respect for the classics, but they’re also really, really interested in distancing themselves from their recent personas and position themselves as mature grownups. They’re making something functional instead of enduring. Boy bands and ratchet pop have a way of sticking, and they’re just trying to shake it off.

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Ranting About Music’s (Very Late and Still Un)Official Bunbury Report: Sunday 2017 7 Takeaways

Last Sunday was the final day of Bunbury ’17. Day 3 promised a robust line-up, more people, and, for the third day in a row, lots of sun. All in all, it was a good day, and below are 7 things that I took away from it.

1. Sunday Recalled Bunburys Past
There’s an argument you could make about Bunbury losing something in the last year or two compared to its earliest, more rock-centric incarnations. I don’t think the move away from rock is an inherent bad thing or wrong move, but the festival’s non-rock lineups have always felt uneven (Pretty Lights: good! G-Eazy: why?). Sunday still had the occasional outlier with slam poetry rapper Watsky and Guy Who Plays Music Jon Bellion, but yielded most of its stage space to dudes with guitars (emphasis on dudes; Bunbury recently came up dead last in a breakdown of festival lineups by gender representation in an analysis done by Pitchfork–a serious downer from 2 years ago where I went a whole day without seeing an all-male act). Be it the jams of Moon Taxi or foot-on-the-gas rush of Flogging Molly and Reverend Horton Heat, Sunday incorporated bands of varying sizes and sounds for a thematically consistent and satisfying day.

2. White Reaper Might Be Serious About That “World’s Best American Band” Moniker
“Hello, we are White Reaper, our band’s called White Reaper, we go by the name White Reaper” announced singer/guitarist Tony Esposito before the Louisville, KY band kicked into the most enjoyably dirtbag-y set of the weekend. Their second album, The World’s Best American Band, came out in April, and I’ve been spinning it constantly; imagine riff-laden power-pop/garage rock with air-guitar inspiring solos and vocals made entirely of voice cracks that sounds tailor-made to smoking cheap cigarettes in the parking lot after school, and you’re most of the way there. The band’s attitude matched the music’s with snarky banter, dual guitar solos, members jumping around, and the occasional scissor kick. I get the smirking dare of calling an album The World’s Best American Band (their first record was White Reaper Does It Again), but all I’m saying is that the only bands that were better than White Reaper were functionally Irish (Flogging Molly) or super British (The 1975). The stars and stripes are up for grabs.

3. It’s Hard to Watch Flogging Molly and Not Keeping Thinking “How?”
Veteran Celtic punks Flogging Molly were an early day highlight, charging out of the gate with “The Hand of John L. Sullivan” and never letting up, even during kinda-ballad “Float” or the heart on the sleeve anthem “If I Ever Leave This World Alive.” As I bounced between two different groups of friends, I kept finding new ways to be astounded by this band: “How have they played nothing but 16th notes like it’s nothing for the last hour?” “How is Dave King pounding Guinness in what has to be 90 degree heat?” “How am I not supposed to lose my entire shit to ‘Devils Dance Floor’?” “How is Float such an underrated album?” “How am I supposed to be excited for 30 Seconds to Mars or some shit after this?” With indefatigable energy and a massive back catalog, Flogging Molly raised pints and spirits on a hot afternoon.

(This is kind of a side note, but FM also had this weird way of making Reverend Horton Heat later in the day seem completely inert. RHH still sounded good, but their seasoned version of fast-paced, head-down rockabilly stood in the shadow of Flogging Molly’s rollicking Celtic punk rock a few hours earlier. They had a killer “Ace of Spades” cover, though.)

4. Jared Leto Really Likes Talking
Even on a day where there was distinctly more stage banter across the board than there had been most of the weekend, Jared Leto of 30 Seconds to Mars (or, marginally less charitably, Suicide Squad) was an egregious talker. He chatted in-between songs about how “his kind of people” (idk) could be counted on to be there, about how 30S2M had played Bogarts at some point in the past, and called someone in the audience “so cute.” My friends and I ended up leaving early to camp for The 1975 after a song, and it wasn’t until we were clear on the other side of the festival that we heard Leto start the next one (an acoustic version of “The Kill”), which was apparently their 4th song of about 7 or 8. At least he talked instead of surprising everyone with dead pigs or something.

5. Musings With Muse
Muse are a very well liked band, and for very understandable reasons. They put on a high-explosive live show, complete with cool visuals, several screens, cameras on mic stands, and frontman Matt Bellamy wearing light-up shutter shades and shoes (maybe he’s really excited about Graduation‘s 10 year anniversary this year). They’re the rare 21st century band with multiple songs casual listeners will easily recognize, most of which sound quite good in a stadium (“Uprising,” “Stockholm Syndrome,” “Supermassive Black Hole,” “Knights of Cydonia,” etc.) while still being technically challenging to play or sing. If you put all of these factors together, they make for quite an enjoyable live music experience, one which I’m sure many of their fans at Bunbury quite liked.

Here’s the thing, though: I can say all of that and mean it, and there’s still this voice in my head that ends each sentence with, “But Muse kind of suck.” Sorry everyone I know, but they kind of do. I’ve tried unabashedly liking them, but I still feel like the average Muse song is a bunch of Guitar Center-friendly riffs strung together, and their best work can be described as an attempt to recreate the loud parts of OK Computer. Matt Bellamy may be a more virtuosic guitarist and singer than, say Jack White, Josh Homme, or Annie Clark, but he can’t write songs like they can. And it’s not like Muse are completely lacking in good or even great songs–“Starlight” was a treat, and “Supermassive Black Hole” is solid enough that it escaped Twilight with more dignity than Robert Patterson did–just that their hit-to-miss ratio isn’t great for a festival headliner, and they’re prone to between song guitar wankery. Even with pretty lights, “Knights of Cydonia,” and “Madness” with a surprise ending, I still missed Florence Welch.

6. The 1975 are That Band.
It feels wrong to entertain the constant bemoaning of the dearth of young, capable mainstream rock bands when The 1975 are right there. They have the songs (more on that in a moment), the all-consuming fandom, and the look of what you’d expect from a young person’s band; if these guys could notch a top 10 hit Stateside, that’d be it. Their live show checked every box: big structures, vibrant lights, and singular members lead by a cool-as-shit frontman. Matty Healy not only exudes charisma, he commits to making the disaffected British rock star bit work for him. There was a point during “Change of Heart,” I think, where he was ambling around stage singing, but he’d gotten a cigarette from somewhere and held it in the same hand as his mic, and another at the end of maybe “Loving Someone” where he started tossing roses into the crowd. It was the kind of shit that sounds (hell, is) ridiculous, but through sheer dedication, Healy made it work.

That same descriptor holds true to their music. I tried getting into I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it last year, but it didn’t really stick (I gravitated more toward Teen Suicide’s It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot instead; even though they aren’t strictly speaking alike, both records are sprawling genre-crossers whose wordy exteriors betray vulnerability and probably multiple illegal substances); it turns out these songs need to be heard live. To paraphrase what music writer Steve Hyden said about Pearl Jam, I realize fans of every band say “they sound better live,” but in The 1975’s case, it happens to be true. All the moving pieces in their songs fall into place with tighter, louder, and more commanding rhythms and more powerful hooks, and older songs like “Girls” and “Heart Out” fit right in the set. And seeing The 1975 live meant hearing “Sex,” quite possibly one of the best arena rock songs of the decade, live. It also meant seeing one of my friends see one of their favorite bands live, and let me tell you, seeing someone else freak out over a fave is almost better than seeing your favorite.

7. Final Verdict
How I feel about this year’s Bunbury is kind of a head vs. heart situation. On one hand, the lineup never really gelled in a meaningful way, including a rare 0 for 3 on headliners, the undercard only worked in fits and starts, and the daily schedule always felt thin. Price is a factor, too, as both Riot Fest and Pitchfork Festival are comparable in ticket quality, but end up stomping the ‘bury in quality and quantity of bands, and the festival trades way more in veteran or up-and-coming acts than it does in the moment excitement. On the other, I had fun with the people I went with, and saw some bands I really wanted to check out. So ultimately, if you’re looking for a festival for the sake of going to a festival, I’d recommend somewhere else that’s a little more exciting and worthwhile, but if you like a few of the names on the poster, or know people who are going, it’s worth checking out. We’ll see how next year goes.

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Ranting About Music’s (Always Un)Official Bunbury Report: Saturday 2017 Q&A

The way today’s recap is going to work is that I thought of a bunch of questions yesterday. Some were preconceived, others came up as situations arose. I’m going to ask a question, and then answer it.

1. How many artists yesterday could you have confused with H&M employees?
About 3, maybe 4. San Fermin had a few members who looked like they’d know where to find something floral print in your size, Kevin Garrett has probably tried to get someone to sign up for a rewards program, and I wouldn’t be surprised if black-t-shirt-and-jeans wearer Charlie Hirsch had to get his shelf-stocking shift covered so he could play a half an hour set yesterday. Hayley Kiyoko was a maybe, and Cobi only escaped his fate by having his shirt unbuttoned, which I think is discouraged at H&M, but not outright banned.

2. Why is Saturday always the hot day?
There isn’t an answer here, I just want it on record that Saturbury is always the hottest ‘bury, except last year where it was the hottest and rainest. Speaking of which, it was supposed to rain all weekend, and instead, there’s barely been a cloud in the sky.

3. How much has the rise of online indie music distribution (free/paid streaming, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, etc.) impacted live music?
This is actually one I’ve been kicking around lately. Last Sunday, my girlfriend and I saw Broods, an electropop favorite of hers, play live. Broods are a duo on record who extend to a 4 piece live; they sounded great. But they had an opener named MICHL who was essentially just a guy playing slower, keyboard and 808-based jams, like digital singer-songwriter stuff. It was the kind of thing that made me think, “I’d rather just listen to dude’s SoundCloud,” which is how Kevin Garrett and others like him landed with me, too.

We’re at the point in music culture where it’s possible–not likely, but at least possible–for an artist to gain traction based on their online presence, and not every type of artist is well-equipped to handle the transition from studio act to live one. Particularly, it’s introverty singer-songwriter/producers who have trouble making the jump; they shoot for mysterious, but end up landing in uninspiring. Like, we had that yesterday with Garrett, who was a nice guy, but probably sounds better on SoundCloud.

4. Wait, did I just see a male romper?
The answer every time was no. Usually, it was just a guy with a matching shirt and shorts, although once I saw someone in an American flag onesie.

5. What did those airbag chairs look like, exactly?
Like this. Exactly like this.
6. How do you pronounce CVBZ?
I don’t actually know because I saw D.R.A.M. instead. Speaking of…

7. Is D.R.A.M. really that happy in person?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. He interacted with the audience a bunch of times, slow jammed, brought out “Broccoli,” “Special” from Coloring Book, and “Cha Cha,” and the crowd loved every second. His smile really is that big, too. Especially on a festival day where it felt like most acts just kind of played for the sake of playing, him and Hayley Kiyoko trying and succeeding in making that connection went a long way. Also, somewhere out there is probably video of me dancing like a Charlie Brown character to “Cha Cha.”

8. Does Hayley Kiyoko have an hour of music?
She does! Granted, it felt like a stretch (Kiyoko’s glitchy, Lorde-adjacent electro-pop works best in EP size bites), but Kiyoko broke things up by talking in between songs about what they were about and what motivated her, and it worked because she sounded sincere. The crowd fed off her enthusiasm and her sincerity, and you get the feeling she means the world to her fans–hearing an unabashedly queer women sing a song like “Girls Like Girls” has to be incredibly validating. Kiyoko still feels musically like she’s at the start of her career, and while her hour this year might have felt stretched, someday, it might not be enough.

9. Does the PA on the Sawyer Point Stage play at a softer volume than “FUCK YOU” loudness?
Apparently not. I get that late dayers like D.R.A.M. and especially EDMites Pretty Lights are going to want full volume, but even early and mid schedule acts like Cobi and San Fermin were out to destroy ear drums if you got too close.

10. What’s laundry day on a Tech N9ne tour look like?
Tour manager: “Okay, we got a load of 38-waist black Dickies, and a bunch of black long-sleeved button downs size XL.”
[all overlapping]
Tech N9ne: “Oh, that’s mine.”
Tech N9ne’s hype man: “Right here.”
Tech N9ne’s DJ: “I was looking for those.”
[silence]
Hype man: “Those are definitely my clothes, though. It’s less faded than you guys’ stuff.”
DJ: “What? Fuck you, man, my clothes aren’t faded.”
Hype man: “Your clothes get more faded than half the people at the show today. Give me my damn shirts.”
Tour manager: “There’s also a ski mask in here.”
Hype man: “Oh, my bad, that’s Tech’s stuff.”

11. This question comes from Hayley Kiyoko, but “Can I swear up here?”
Yes, Hayley. The next person on the main stage after you is going to be Tech N9ne, who is going to say a lot of swear words very quickly. You can say “bitch” once.

12. Is all EDM the same?
Not at all. In fact, the parts of Pretty Lights’ set that I saw was pretty great. Granted, the closer was a remix of “All of the Lights,” which was perfect because hearing “All of the Lights” at a loud volume is a surefire success, but PL’s stuff also seemed fairly danceable, which I can’t quite say for Bassnectar, who was just loud and spazzy and overloading. Still, though, it means Bunbury’s gone 1 and 2 on EDM, which looks better than 0 and 3.

13. Why did Kevin Garrett’s drummer have a wallet on his snare drum?
Some guesses:
-As a reminder to feed the meter after the set
-In case the ice cream truck from around outside the festival came in
-He read somewhere that Ringo Starr left his wallet on his snare while recording most of The White Album
-Have you sat on a drum throne? They don’t look wallet-friendly
-As an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records

14. People who wear tails to EDM shows: Why?
No answer again, I just needed that question out in the open.

That’s all we’ve got for day 2, come back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!

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Ranting About Music’s (Permanently Un)Official Bunbury Report: Friday 2017

Bunbury’s back in Cincinnati for it’s 5th year, and as always, I’m down to see a bunch of people play in my very own city. This year will be especially nice since I’m not doing this while moving. Anyway, let’s begin.

The Upset Victory
Due to some recent problems with the, well, Ohio River’s stage, the River Stage was moved yesterday from it’s usual place here to far opposite the main Yeatman’s stage. It seems like a move that isn’t super going to work since it bottlenecks traffic between two stages in a pretty big way, especially once either one builds up a significant crowd. And also, did you ever play that old computer game Rollercoaster Tycoon? The gist of it was that you had to build an amusement park with rides and food and janitors and stuff, and it always seemed like as your park got off the ground, you realized you didn’t build the log flume or something, and so you just chucked it in the first open area and retroactively tried to make it make sense there. That’s what being at the River Stage felt like yesterday.

The upswing to this is that you can essentially stand behind the stage and still hear everything fine, which is how I heard Cincinnati group The Upset Victory. I always like hearing local rock bands at Bunbury because they tend to play the shit out of their material, and usually on a bigger stage than they’re used to. That’s pretty much what happened with TUV, who just sounded thrilled to be there, and played their hearts out on an early Friday set.

FLOR
The first of Bunbury’s SEO-friendly acts for the weekend (a list including names like FRENSHIP, CAAMP, and probably whatever the hell CVBZ is), FLOR opened the main stage with an especially drum-y spin on radio-friendly alternative rock. They had pep, and stood out a bit based on the singer’s androgynous vocals, but otherwise they reminded me of the sort of genial, down the middle indie acts that Bunbury’s filled the lower poster ranks with for the last few years. Generally A-OK.

July Talk
Yesterday, July Talk had in their possession: a too-short timeslot, tons of bluesy riffs, two charismatic singers, and (as a friend of mine pointed out) one of the biggest voice-appearance discrepancies you’ll ever see. Singer Peter Dreimanis looks like any number of young, skinny white guys, but he has this great snarl of a voice that sounds like whiskey-soaked broken glass in the best way possible; you just look at him and try to calculate how that voice comes out of that body. The chemistry between Dreimanis and singer Leah Fay was off the charts too, and only made the band’s slash and burn rock sound better. All of their stuff is streamable, so I highly recommend checking them out, and trying to see them when they’re in your town.

NF
NF is a rapper. His website is http://www.nfrealmusic.com. His newest album is called Therapy Session. Yes, he is that serious. His style has been compared to Eminem’s, partly because Eminem is still where most people’s minds go when they see a white rapper, but also because it’s entirely possible neither of them has smiled since 2009. From the songs we saw, he also seems like a distillation of early Linkin Park’s jittery angst, but without Mike Shinoda’s stability. NF confirms last year’s All-Black Theory: that an artist wearing all black, undesigned clothing will not do anything to surprise you, so we checked out early to grab drinks out of our car instead of hearing more, which felt like its own form of therapy.

Civil Twilight
We made our way back to the River Stage for the better part of Civil Twilight’s set. CT exist in that “alternative rock/indie rock” zone, but come down firmly on the alternative rock side to me because their songs have that forward momentum and sense of drama that comes from alt. instead of indie’s bounce. The band’s been around for more than a decade, and toured pretty regularly for the last few years, which meant they had a polish that so far no one else in the day really had. You could pick out the nuances in their songs, and “Letters From the Sky” live wouldn’t have sounded out of place on In Rainbows because of it. They closed with a rollicking cover of “Immigrant Song” (that riff is somehow still underrated), probably because their most recent album is Story of an Immigrant, but also because why the fuck wouldn’t you swing the hammer of the gods?

Jared Mahone
I’ll be honest, I kind of zoned out for a bit as Civil Twilight’s set carried on. A thing to know about festivals is that if you do a full day, you’ll end up hitting kind of a lull sometime between 5:30 and 7:00 because at that point, you’ve had a bit of a day already, and the biggest acts are still a ways off. So a friend of mine and I ended up checking out the acoustic stage and the accompanying chill area. They had some kind of air/beanbag type chairs scattered about the grass (picture tomorrow? Picture tomorrow), and a raised stage for solo/small local acts. I didn’t get a beanbag chair because they were all taken, but sitting in the grass and listening to an unplugged performance made for a nice recharge.

The Shins
The Shins are a band I’ve always kind of known more about than known outright, but they ended up being a great late-day set. With a setlist that a friend relayed to me was mostly from their mid ’00s heyday, the band cranked out an enjoyable hour of music that wasn’t too intense, but was end-to-end one of the more satisfying and fun acts of the day. They were good counterprogramming to a day that had ended up kind of zigzagging on what you were hearing, and after a fairly tumultuous decade, Mercer just seems happy to have a band ready to play and an audience ready to hear him. And yes, they played “New Slang.”

G-Eazy

Death Cab For Cutie
One of the guys I go to Bunbury with has Death Cab For Cutie as one of, if not his flatout, favorite bands, so of course we were going to get a primo spot for their set. Death Cab and I are interesting in that I know and really like a lot of their songs, but I always feel like I got to them just too late in life to be a diehard fan. Like, if I had gotten to Transatlanticism a few years earlier, that would have been it. But, as it turns out, Death Cab and I (really, my entire group for the day) are a perfect match: the band is at veteran status at this point, and brought out “I Will Possess Your Heart” (the good, extended version), “Crooked Teeth,” “You Are a Tourist,” “Cath…,” “The Ghost of Beverly Drive,” “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” “The New Year,” “Title & Registration,” and closed on a beautiful version of “Transatlanticism.”

The remarkable thing about Death Cab–really with Ben Gibbard as a writer overall–is that their songs are unabashedly verbose, but they’re also easy to sing with, as evidenced by the crowd singing along with every word of like, “Title & Registration.” They also got the coveted “sunset into night” slot, so you still had that summer sun for “Crooked Teeth,” and then you get the dark for “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” It was easily the best set of the day.

Wiz Khalifa
After Death Cab’s set, I joked that going from them to Wiz Khalifa was like going from Arrival to Transformers. I didn’t mean it as a slam on Wiz (well, not entirely), but that going from one to the other demands reorienting your expectations as an audience member. One side is a fairly intricate, cerebral experience with no small measure of emotional investment, and the other side is wide-screen, high-saturation, one-size-fits-all maximalism; you’d get the same whiplash going from Noname to Kings of Leon.

And like, Wiz Khalifa just doesn’t scream “headliner material.” Snoop Dogg killed it a few years ago based on charisma and back catalog, Ice Cube excelled last year on sheer enjoyment, and Wiz really doesn’t have enough of any of those to fill 75 minutes. He could probably do a good 45 minute set, or pull from his features to work his way up to an even hour, but at 75 minutes, he’s playing snippets of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” just kind of because, and from my spot near the back of the crowd, I’m able to see a steady retreat of people who decided “Black and Yellow” isn’t worth the wait. Everything kinda bled together after a while, and eventually, I found myself sticking it out on the fascination of wanting to see what a 75 minute Wiz Khalifa setlist looked like more than just experiencing it.

But still, day 1 was an adventure, and now it’s time for day 2!

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