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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Album Review: Paramore- After Laughter

thehardtimesIf someone told you Paramore would look the best out of their scene after a decade, would you believe them?

That’s not a dig, it’s just an honest look. In 12 years and 5 albums, Paramore have never had the same recording lineup twice; not only have members left or returned or changed roles, but those who leave do so in spectacular fashion. And yet, Paramore are in better shape now than anyone else in their age and weight class from the mid/late ’00s pop-punk scene because they still feel like themselves and sound contemporary. They’ve avoided common pitfalls, like decent commercial returns on terrible musicrecords that have no impact outside their pre-established fanbase, fucking off into the wilderness entirely, or breaking up. The attention paid to Paramore in 2017 is grounded in their current work, and not respect/appreciation for 7-10 year old singles.

Paramore’s survival hinged on how they dealt with the Farro brothers leaving in 2010. When you’re a riffs ‘n bash pop-punk group, losing your lead guitarist/riff writer and your drummer at once forces you to think outside the box, which is what happened on 2013’s Paramore (nothing says “Everything’s fine, we swear” after losing members like self-titling your next record). On that album, the band transitioned from an exceptionally peppy Warped Tour act to a studio pop rock group with New Wave and alternative rock flourishes, a move that, for me, solved Paramore’s biggest problem: their first 3 albums were each 4-6 great songs attached to a bunch of filler. More of the songs on the self-titled have a concrete identity, and even though it runs long, it still feels like their first legitimately great album.

The dirty little secret among emo-pop’s biggest crossover stars is that the scene needed them way more than they needed it. Singers as talented as Hayley Williams, Patrick Stump, and Brendon Urie were always going to be successful so long as an audience could find them; that those connections were made through MySpace pages and sharing mix cd space with The Academy Is… and Taking Back Sunday has ultimately shown to be secondary. Fall Out Boy recognized this first, tiptoeing for the sidedoor with 2008’s Infinity On High before slipping out the next year with Folie a Deux, and Panic! At the Disco exited with their transference from a multi-writer band to an Urie solo project. Paramore likely got the message when acoustic ballad “The Only Exception” became brand new eyes‘ biggest track instead of any of the album’s slash and burn ragers, and, as previously mentioned, the loss of lead guitarist Josh Farro had to be a motivator, as well.

After Laughter runs further afield of pop-punk, and instead pushes deeper into the glossy post-punk and New Wave influence seen on the self-titled. Although it doesn’t quite match that record’s highs, After Laughter finds a happy medium between the self-titled’s adventurousness and dexterity, and the sonic consistency of their pop-punk days. It’s shocking and maybe dispiriting at first, but the new sound on the record really fits (sidenote: for how much longer are we going to use “the 80s” or “80s-inspired” as shorthand for power-pop/synth-pop/post-punk/New Wave/etc? It made sense when Hot Fuss came out, but c’mon, that was 13 years ago, and that record’s directly or indirectly shaped a lot of modern, crossover aspiring rock; we can try a little harder). For one, Paramore v.2 emphasizes texture and melody over rocking out; songs like “Pool” here and “Daydreaming” on Paramore wouldn’t fit the mold on Riot! or All We Know Is Falling. For another, Williams has always been a wordy lyricist, and giving her lines room to breath only improves their effect. “I don’t need no one else/I can sabotage me by myself” gets to register on the airy bounce of “Caught in the Middle” in a way it probably wouldn’t if it was on something like “Ignorance.” In short, the genre shift has a point, instead of being shameless 80s humping because it’s the only thing the band has going for them.

It’s entirely possible that the genre jump would have gone over smoother if “Hard Times” wasn’t the lead single. The song eventually takes off, and the hook and lyrics are strong, but it’s also the jerkiest, most straightforward “We’ve listened to a lot of Talking Heads” pastiche on the album, and lacks (in very technical terms) Paramore-y oomph. It sticks after a few listens, and it in such as shit establishes the sound and aesthetic for After Laughter, but it’s not the opening shot anyone was expecting. Second song “Rose-Colored Boy” is much stronger overall, thanks to a playful bassline, chanting hook, and a killer melody; it seems like a no-brainer as an eventual single. It’s followed up by the nimble second single “Told You So,” a dramatic, slow-builder that would probably sound like “Monster” in Paramore V.1, but sashays instead of stomps.

Purely from a music perspective, a good chunk of After Laughter–songs like “Rose-Colored Boy,” maybe “Told You So,” “Fake Happy,” “Grudges,” “Caught in the Middle,” and “No Friend”–calls to mind The Strokes’ perennially underrated 2011 record Angles. There’s New Wave influence up and down both albums’ polished if slightly dry production, along with guitars that aren’t strummed as much as they are stabbed, and drummers instructed to play like drum machines. Paramore is a little more groove-oriented, but still, they’re both records with surprisingly intricate arrangements for how hard they aim for your pleasure centers. Hell, the two even have matching “mumbled, aggro-prog outliers” in “No Friends” and “You’re So Right.”

You hear the phrase “after laughter,” and one of the first places your mind goes is “it’s over,” which is the emotional through-line for this album. If Paramore was the upbeat, “new lease on life” journey that comes from your band persisting in the face of losing two founding members (drummer Zac Farro returned for AF), After Laughter is where you realize how everything’s effected you, and you ponder if going on is worth it. The darkness on this record has less to do with negativity or pessimism outright as much as it does the loss of optimism; “Rose-Colored Boy,” “Fake Happy” and “Hard Times” (just to pick a few) are about feeling beat down when you know you weren’t always like that, and even the album’s “I married Chad Gilbert” love song “Pool” equates love with drowning. But, there are lyrics along the way like “They say that dreaming is free/But I wouldn’t care what it cost me” from acoustic ballad “26,” and “We can’t keep holding onto grudges” from “Grudges” that imply maybe things can change, and so when closer “Tell Me How” ends on “I can still believe,” it feels earned.

It’s not something you’d expect from a (I guess former) pop-punk band, but After Laughter is kind of a cerebral grower of an album. There are enough immediate thrills to satisfy, but it takes a few spins to really appreciate what’s going on, especially on side 2. It feels like a slight step back from the self-titled since not quite everything works–“Forgiveness” and “26” ultimately feel inconsequential, and the mewithoutyou cameo on “No Friend” is a noble failed experiment–but it’s still a leg up overall from the band’s early albums. They escaped the scene, they escaped the arms race, but now, they’re learning to live with themselves.

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Radio Rant: Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3”

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. We’ve got an odd one today.

Imagine an artist who you swore had a “Kick Me” sign taped to their back since the first time they ever hit “Record.” Imagine an artist with a name that–even in an time where monikers like “Young Thug” and “Lil Yachty” aren’t career killers–you couldn’t say out loud without wincing before and after saying it. Imagine that this artist had a song whose name you willfully didn’t think about every time you typed it because it looks like the screen name configuration you had to settle on because all the other ones were taken. Imagine that, because the artist has tons of teen fans in spite of, or even because of the whole “Kick Me” thing, this song goes from online one-off to chart buster.

And the song, oh man, imagine if this song sounded like smashing current trends with some of the most noxious music from inside the last 10 years. Imagine if Vessel-era Twenty One Pilots were SoundCloud strivers instead of Fueled By Ramen signees. Imagine if Kid Cudi took his rock cues from the most self-pitying bands of 2007 instead of 1991. Imagine if you got brokeNCYDE to replace its irony with Young Thug. Imagine if you took scenester post-hardcore and convinced it to keep the adolescent melodrama, but to also shotgun 808s & Heartbreak and DS2.

Now, imagine if it somehow worked.

So it is with Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3,” a song that should fall flat on its face in like, 6 different ways, but is actually great because of how clunky it is. Lil Uzi Vert (a name a can’t type without sighing a little) has spent the last year or two on the peripheral of rap/Atlanta trap’s version of the youth culture with guys like Lil Yachty and 21 Savage. Honestly, my reaction to him so far has been, “Oh, so that’s what Soula Boy looked like if you weren’t in high school;” that sort of guy where half his thing is angering the Olds so much that they take time out of their daily Illmatic listens to talk about how He’s Everything Wrong With Rap Today because he looks goofy and sounds joyfully amateurish. And also probably terrible. This write off felt warranted after hearing him for the first time on “Bad and Boujee,” where his meme-ably bad verse delineates the exact point where I want the song to be over. He seemed like he had his thing, and it just wasn’t something I got into.

But then out of fucking nowhere came “XO TOUR Llif3” and its attendant “I swear, it’s good tag.” And fuck, it is. The song’s built off this yo-yoing, wiry, synth line that leads a lively but fairly standard deep bass and skittering drums “trap banger” beat. It’s not too far outside what radio adjacent rap is already doing, but whereas most radio rap emphasizes smoothness and beat-riding, “XO TOUR Llif3” is all freewheeling forward motion.

Maybe it’s just trying to look for anything else to compare the dominant trend to, but I keep coming back to how goddamn much this song sounds like pop-punk. Which I know that sounds like a leap, but it totally isn’t. Rap’s never had much to do with pop-punk, but the late ’00s/early ’10s Warped Tour scene, the era of–yikes, Punk Goes ____ comps, scenster swoops, and some of the worst music I’ve ever heard–was pretty big on rap. Not that this resulted in good music, but you listen to [checks Google again] Framing Hanley’s version of “Lollipop,” you listen to “XO TOUR Llif3,” and it’s suddenly pretty easy to imagine that little synth lead coming out of a Les Paul Epiphone and a Marshall halfstack. The verses-chorus mimic pop-punk’s soft-loud dynamic, as well, in a way that screams Warped. Uzi himself sounds more like a pop-punk guy who raps, too; listen to the way he leaps into the AutoTuned chorus around 1:28 like the least self-conscious whiner in hip-hop. It’s tempting to call his second verse Young Thug-esque because he only pronouns half the letters in each word, but it smacks of “screamed bridge” instead of post-verbal raps.

And like, come on, “XO TOUR Llif3” just is a pop-punk song. Even setting aside the musical comparisons for a second, Uzi expresses his angst and melodrama in a flat-footed way that’s far closer to pop-punk than rap. Kanye, Future, and Kid Cudi at their most nakedly emotional and wounded still adhere to rap’s stylistic flourishes and lyrical self-possession, whereas Uzi’s adolescent petulance treats a break-up as life or death in simple lines. Put it this way: none of those guys would have a chorus that rhymes “Cry” with “lied” with “eyes” with “die,” and a hook rhymes “edge” with “dead.” Speaking of, doesn’t “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead/All my friends are dead/Push me to the edge” sound entirely like it’d fit on something like this?

I think “XO TOUR Llif3” also works because it feels like the song his career has built toward. I listened around to the rest of his stuff after getting won over here, and most of it just doesn’t have the same spark. If you take it for the slurry, neon-tinged spin on trap that it is, it’s fine, but “XO TOUR Llif3” has clarity and focus that just largely isn’t otherwise present (although, as a Scott Pilgrim lifer, I am contractually obligated to love his cover art). His other work is a little too genre-bound, and “XO TOUR Llif3” soars because he breaks the rules. Take a chance on this one, you might think it’s weird at first, but it might be a fever you can’t sweat out.

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Album Review: Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

“The comedy of man starts like this/Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips”

So goes the first lyric of Pure Comedy, and however deep you just sighed or heartily you chuckled is going to dictate how you feel about folk rocker Father John Misty’s newest work overall. Since making it to the alternative major league with 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, Misty (who is really Josh Tillman but extra Father John Misty) has garnered a reputation as an acerbic indie rock provocateur whose irony-laced comments and interviews are as clever as they are insightful and self-aware. That character was up and down Honeybear, but since he made that album and 2012’s Fear Fun in relative obscurity, it wasn’t the main draw.

The same can’t be said about Pure Comedy, which pushes Father John Misty’s persona and philosophy, along with all of his worst traits, all the way to the front for a dispiriting, muddled album. It’s a project informed by Honeybear’s lousiest song, where lush but staid instrumentation and sleepy pacing aren’t able to support Misty’s sardonic commentary or hide the seams in his sometimes kidding/sometimes honest character/not character. The album is, in short, a lot, so this might take some digging.

You can’t get to what’s slippery and dissatisfied about Pure Comedy without first looking at what’s slippery and frustrating about Father John Misty. The core issue with the persona is that it sort of acts like a fog of war: by wrapping every statement, lyric, and move in a layer of smarmy, sarcastic, self-awareness, the listener has to calculate how ironic or sincere he’s being at any time. As it happens, the math usually shakes out to whichever is easiest on Misty in that moment. So you’re left wondering how many questionable decisions here be attributed to some sort of trollsy metagame, how much is in service of some oblique point about artistry, and what’s just poor decision making.

Like, okay, here’s an example. Pure Comedy is 75 minutes long. This length is a byproduct of ho-hum tempos and songs that are as overwritten as they are caustically doomsaying. Is this:

A: self-indulgent and pretentious?
B: a clever, clever ploy to by Misty to make an album that could be described as self-indulgent and pretentious in order to dupe the self-indulgent and pretentious among us (hi!) into calling it self-indulgent and pretentious, thus outing themselves as such?
C: [undoes top shirt button, sips double IPA] A meta-commentary on the commodification of independent music in our stream-driven attention economy whose length is meant to disrupt your infinite scroll of Total Entertainment with Necessary Art that will galvanize your latent existentialist angst in this uncaring world?

None of this would happen with any other artist, but I’ve seen people argue all three reasons out in the wild and it is exhausting. Well, welcome to Fog of Misty. It comes from the fact that he uses his self-awareness chiefly to defuse/preempt any criticism: his argument is that he explores other themes or topics as a way to process his inner-turmoil and neuroses, so when he eviscerates someone up and down in song (see: “Ballad of a Dying Man” here, “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” on Honeybear) he’s really just fucking around while saying all of that about himself, so anyone saying anything about him is really saying that about themselves, which means he wins because…he said it first? I don’t know, that part’s never been clear, just “I said that you hate me, so you hate you, I win.” And if you take this line of thought to its logical conclusion, you get a guy who believes he knows how wrong it all is, and if you don’t like it, then he’s proved how right he is because you hate him. You get Fred Durst with a masters degree. But, if you try to make sense of Misty’s logic, then you’re accused of either misreading him or not getting the joke that clearly he has no rhyme or reason, and fuck you for trying to understand it. This is what I mean by “whatever’s easiest:” if you write Misty off wholesale, then you lose because he anticipated it, but if you examine whatever the fuck that means, then you’re not getting that he has no point.

Which, getting to Pure Comedy, is such a fake out because Misty clearly has a point. The point of this album–stated in as many ways as possible–is that life is a bunch of happenstances daisy-chained together in a world that likely hates you, and any attempt to enforce your own narrative, epiphany, or belief system on it is hilarious. This view came to him, according to “Leaving LA,” as a kid, when he nearly choked to death in JC Penny while Fleetwood Mac played (assuming he’s being honest, there’s that Fog of Misty). I know every review says this, but “Leaving LA” is emblematic of Pure Comedy as a whole: there’s a fascinating essay/”Thread, 1/?” in the lyrics that cannot overcome the fact that it is a hellishly tedious 13 minute song with virtually no melodic invention or musical variety. If Misty’s your man, then you’ll love it, but otherwise it makes the go-forever AutoTune fade out of Kanye’s “Runaway” look measured by comparison.

The other thing that dulls the impact of “Leaving LA” is that it’s revelations end once the song does. There’s a lot of pathos there, but none of it gets revisited once the song peters out mid-thought. How hard would it be to tie some of the self-criticism from “Leaving LA” into “The Memo”’s bridge? There, Misty digitizes his voice to detach from his art, and includes robo-snippets saying “This guy just gets me” and “This is my song of the summer.” It’s a compelling moment as is–the listener’s forced to reckon with the fact that artists bare their souls on a track, and we’re like “Cool, lemme put that on the Chill Indie playlist”–but connecting it to “Leaving LA” would make both songs stronger. Really, for someone as smart and operating on a Grand Scale like Misty is on Pure Comedy, not leaving breadcrumbs back to “Leaving LA” is a key missed opportunity. It’d also do wonders for cohesion.

I realize this is granular detail, but it leads to Pure Comedy’s death by 1,000 cuts. Everything about this album’s rollout has signaled that Misty wants Pure Comedy to be his philosophical masterpiece and crowning artistic achievement, but saying that doesn’t make it so. It’s just not a conceptually sound enough record for it. And like…okay, I legitimately feel like a dick saying this, but we can agree that the cultural commentary here isn’t that deep, right? Don’t get me wrong, Misty can write clever one-liners like the best of them (look at the sheer economy in “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift”), but underneath those zingers are fairly boilerplate observations. “Put your phone down.” “Buzzwords and social constructs, right guys?” “Anyone can commercialize art.” “Live, laugh, love.” It’s 75 minutes of those “Whoa, makes you think” Banksy-lite viral posts that make the rounds. It’s trite commentary being treated as, in the album’s own words, “sacred text.”


I Love You, Honeybear tossed barbs about romance in every direction, but did so as a reaction to Misty trying to outrun his own emotions and sentimentality. That run culminates in “Holy Shit,” where he riffs on society’s absurdities before declaring to his wife “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/But what I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me” in a moment of vulnerability and surrender regardless of how illogical love is. He completely pulls off the twist because it matches the album’s emotional beats, and follows the personal stakes throughout (also not hurting things: “Holy Shit” is quite possibly Father John Misty’s best song).

Pure Comedy tries something similar with “In Twenty Years Or So,” where after 70 minutes of cantankerousness, he surmises that well, we’re supposed to blow each other up in 20 years, so you might as well treat getting a drink with someone special like it’s “a miracle to be alive” and that “There’s nothing left to fear.” It’s supposed to be another twist ending, but it feels like a cop-out. Misty spends too long making too damning a case against this cruel planet of Earth for one last-minute reversal, an early tossed-off lyric, and a sleepy number about his wife to walk back everything back. He sounds far more gleeful and convincing calling humans “demented monkeys” and Earth “This godless rock that refuses to die” than giving a reason to go on. And again, Fog of Misty bites him in the ass here; it’s totally possible to read “In Twenty Years Or So” as a preemptive “Well, actually” against criticism calling the album a downer.

Ironically for an album that’s ostensibly about humanity, that’s what’s missing from Pure Comedy. The album’s best song is easily the one that sounds like it involves actual people, “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution.” It’s still probably too long, but the melody’s nice, the chords are inventive, and most importantly, it’s lyrics connect. “…Before the Revolution” paints a vivid picture about life after the end told by someone living there, waiting for new technology to develop, and Misty sells the shit out of it with a weary vocal performance. It’s about mankind through the eyes of man. Pure Comedy needs more songs like that, and less po-faced pondering like “Two Wildly Different Perspectives.” That song, like, most of the album, is Misty talking at you instead of to or with you; he’s here to tell you that he alone sees through Them and the bullshit They’ve sold you.

I listen to Pure Comedy, and I think of Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. from last year. Like Misty, Rosenstock is a music lifer who happened into success his career’s second decade, and whose most recent album is very much an Album For Our Times. The biggest philosophical difference is that Misty’s lyrics have a sense of above-it-all remove, while Rosenstock’s anti-commercialist “Festival Song” leads with “It feels completely ridiculous/That I’m a willing participant,” putting him right there with us. Both albums run with the undercurrent of “We’refuckedwe’refuckedwe’refucked” but WORRY’s concerned about how day-to-day life actually feels, while Pure Comedy is worried about “the soul of humanity” on such a massive scale that it doesn’t involve, y’know, people. It’s an album that, by its own admission, could use some.

So yeah, Pure Comedy. I don’t know. It’s not entirely without charms: “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” is great, the title track and “Total Entertainment Forever” are lively enough, and “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” has an extended Sea Change-esque outro that’s lovely. Tillman sounds better here vocally than he has ever, and the arrangements are overtly very nice even when they have a negative BPM–but this isn’t a record that I can see myself coming back to.The cutting sarcasm and earnest reflection that worked in concert on I Love You, Honeybear are at war here, and you’re left with a sprawling, messy album that trips over itself and lays bare the headaches of its creator while being such a joyless listen that it’s not worth the aggravation in the end. The biggest joke of Pure Comedy is the amount of time and thought I’ve put into it. Somewhere, Misty laughs.

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