Review – The Men: Tomorrow’s Hits

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While for many contemporary indie bands, the inevitable foray into dadrock sounds unnatural, awkward, and just plain boring, The Men are completely dedicated to their craft. Unlike, say, latter-day Wilco, which sounds undeniably like a band of its era, trying very hard to sound like a band from a previous era, ‘Tomorrow’s Hits’ sounds somewhere between a top-notch roots rock band who are putting out the slightly-lesser follow-up to a classic album (think ‘Goat’s Head Soup’) and an aged roots-rock band putting out what they perceive as a comeback (think Creedence Clearwater Revisited, or the second incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd). Whether this is superior to those bands who try for the retro angle to progress their own sound depends on who’s listening, but for those of the indie crowd who have grown cynical with the rise of quasi-indie-folk like Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers, The Men are sure to provide some reassurance that there are still folks out there willing to actually listen to Neil Young’s discography as opposed to any number of greatest hits compilations.

It’s clear from the start that The Men are occupying a fantasy land, with the first line to “Dark Waltz” going “my mom bought me this guitar/nineteen and seventy-four,” which would place singer Mark Perro, at the very least, in his late 40s if that were true. But the song is not a character story about some imagined band – it seems, at least nominally, to be about The Men, or perhaps more accurately, who The Men wish they were: an all-American, working-class bunch of boys who started a band to get out of their one-horse Midwestern town. And they pull it off pretty convincingly, abandoning the reverb present on last year’s ‘New Moon,’ and all other alternative rock tropes along with it. “Get What You Give” dispels any doubts that it’s just a gimmick, and opens up the possibility that they just might be the bastard child of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger.

“Another Night” borrows the horns right off of ‘Exile on Main St.’ and sounds just fitting a soundtrack for a night of drinking and gambling in Reno. “Different Days” builds on the momentum with some killer, relentless base and crashing chords, all to propel the stellar delivery of lines like “I hate being young,” which seems to be the mission statement for an album by a band that really does wish they were pushing 50, with all the romance and shots of whiskey that comes with being a grizzled rock road warrior.

After a brief, plaintive interlude on “Sleepless,” which goes to show that The Men are at top form when they embrace their punk roots and simply rock out rather than attempt a ballad, “Pearly Gates” shows up to knock that ironic grin off your face and blow the doors off of whatever hole-in-the-wall bar you’re sitting in. At six minutes, it’s the longest song on the album, and when I first looked at the track listing I was certain it was going to test my patience sorely, but pulling off a feat I thought was only possible from vintage Rolling Stones, it never stops rocking, it never gets boring, and it never drags on. It’s absolutely just long enough, and is the fulfillment of the promise on “Different Days.” Their enterprise of evoking the glory days of heartland rock isn’t just wishful thinking, and “Pearly Gates” makes it a reality. Things mellow out appropriately on “Settle Me Down,” which is a pleasant head-bobber that gradually fades into closer “Going Down,” which is the track most evocative of their previous work, but it’s a fitting closer – it keeps it light, and doesn’t go on too long, though I’m sure the band was sorely tempted to.

While ‘New Moon’ wasn’t the triumph I thought it could be, this album certainly approaches that potential. It’s hard to say where The Men could go from here; I’m crossing my fingers they don’t experiment with progressive rock, and instead stick to gut-wrenching roots rock, which they proven to be more than adept at here. Perhaps they could benefit from a listen of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, or maybe they’ll head in the direction of CCR’s classic ‘Chronicle’ album, but whatever they choose to pursue in the future, The Men are one of the few working bands today that I’d enjoy having a beer with as much as I would having their music soundtrack a night at the bar.

Recommended Tracks: Another Night, Different Days, Pearly Gates

GRADE: 8/10

Review – Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron

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If ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’ is a series of vignettes of life in the violent underbelly of Los Angeles, the story of one man who’s seen too many friends succumb to the harshest aspects of modern urbania and struggles to keep from being consumed himself, ‘Oxymoron’ is the converse. Schoolboy Q is the friend that went under – he’s already been consumed, and he revels in it. Q is conscious enough, though, to realize where he fits in to the context of modern alt-rap, and Kendrick, having busted down the doors for the introspective strain of gangsta rap in the mainstream by allowing the listener to observe from afar without getting their hands dirty, paves the way for Q’s immersive experience into drug-addled gang life. As he himself puts it, “this that shit that they want.” Now that mainstream listeners have had a taste of the Black Hippy perspective, they’re hungry for more, and Q is happy to deliver.

The album starts off with a track called “Gangsta,” obviously, which serves to introduce both the confrontational delivery and the dark, abrasive production of the rest of the album. “Los Awesome” keeps the momentum propelled firmly in the direction of your face, amping up the aggression to intentionally ridiculous levels. Although less so here than on tracks like “Hell of a Night” or “What They Want” (which features the incomparable 2 Chainz, no less), “Los Awesome” shows where Q may begin to fall apart – at times, he pushes things past the point of excitingly aggro to downright annoying, especially given the production, which sounds like it decided that all the bells and whistles of Lil Wayne’s early releases were worth giving a brief run-through in the span of 4 minutes. “The Purge” boasts a feature from Tyler The Creator, the king of over-the-top theatrics, and benefits greatly from his learned sense of restraint, which is what tends to make his provocations so successful. Essentially, though it’s less upbeat than the other more teeth-grinding tracks, it feels as though this is what tracks like “Los Awesome” were really going for.

That’s not to say that Q doesn’t know how to pull back at times; just maybe not all in the span of one track. Single “Collard Greens,” which served as the introduction to Q’s music for many, is by far a more accessible approach to what is essentially his bread-and-butter, namely the kind of overtly sexual intensity likely to illicit nervous laughter in newcomers. “Prescription/Oxymoron,” a 7-minute epic about addiction and insecurity, is the centerpiece of the whole album and outlines exactly who Q is as an artist. It gives the rest of the album, from the hardcore grandstanding on “Gangsta” to the mellowed-out “Studio,” a purpose, delivered by someone who feels like he’s got no choice but to be as cartoonish as he is in order to rise up out of obscurity and denigration.

‘Man of the Year’ closes the album, and has all the accessibility of “Collard Greens” without ditching the edge introduced through the course of the rest of the album. Q still sounds agitated, but exercises an impressive amount of restraint, perhaps out of a feeling of wanting more but falling short as much as it is being confident with his accomplishment here. Both sentiments are appropriate. ‘Oxymoron’ is a worthy effort in the Black Hippy canon, and although one has doubts that Schoolboy Q can overcome his cockiness enough to eventually grow out of his boyish shortcomings on future releases, this album establishes an impressive beginning to the artist’s legacy.

Recommended Tracks: Collard Greens, Prescription/Oxymoron, The Purge, Man of the Year

GRADE: 8.2/10

Review – Modern Baseball: You’re Gonna Miss It All

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While some bands in the emo scene have built a following by constructing atmospheric scenarios based on a single emotional stumbling point they have such a hard time getting past that they reword it so many times that it fills five and a half minutes of twinkly guitars and crescendoing percussion, and others have found success by jotting down every half-considered feeling of regret and angst and turning them into a chorusless sad-boy party anthems, Modern Baseball takes a more straightforward. Whether it be the “whoa-oh’s” of “Charlie Black” that hints at crossover potential with The Wonder Years’ more mature fans, or the frequent interjection of acoustic guitars that makes them seem natural tourmates with The Front Bottoms, everything about ‘You’re Gonna Miss It All’ aims to please by not hiding anything about either frontman Brendan Lukens’ early-20s discomfort or his artistic ambitions. MB’s secret weapon, though, is that they make much more liberal use of antagonistic sarcasm and bitterness than their peers, which keeps the themes they return to again and again from becoming too obvious or depleted. While Into It. Over It. makes a business of being 100% earnest and sincere, MB is far too ironic to concern themselves with baring their soul too often – they take too much pleasure in judging that asshole with an iPhone.

It’s easy to mistake MB’s artifice as cheesy sincerity at first glance. For instance, “Fine, Great” starts in immediately about a pronouncement of stuff Lukens hates and how they all stem from his own inadequacies, but aside from a voice that nasally and monotone being literally incapable of being so cliché, it’s the last line that convinces me he’s getting at something a bit deeper – “all I wanna do is worry about everyone but me.” This seems to hint at a greater consciousness of a world and status the likes of which Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional were well acquainted with, but which seems to have been either denied or made an enemy of by those in emo’s second- and fourth-wave iterations.

The rest of the album sways back and forth between the sincere and the tongue-in-cheek, using the former to make a point about the latter. Perhaps it would be a stretch to call the situations of romantic relationships in the songs a metaphor for the relationship between band and fan, but Lukens seems to use that decaying relationship as a jumping-off point for an examination of his apathy and existential dread which leads him to declare “whatever forever” with enough conviction to make it a contender for the de facto slogan of Generation Y. Musically there is an impressive amount of variation, none of which seems forced or contrived. “Going To Bed Now” almost has a country-tinged feel, and “Notes” even feature some slide guitar, while “Charlie Black” feels like feels like an introduction to emo revival for the Warped Tour set if I ever heard one.

I can’t say definitively that this is the point where emo might cross over (again), but I’d say Modern Baseball have as good a chance as there is to really break newcomers into the style. They rarely succumb to the pitfalls that keep other acts from gaining significant credibility, and the band has the serious songwriting chops and sense of detachment that make underground acts into cult favorites. Easily the best emo album of the year so far, Modern Baseball’s sophomore LP is the one that separates them from the bands that will inevitably be consigned to the dustbin of music history.

Recommended Tracks: Fine, Great; Rock Bottom; Charlie Black

GRADE: 8/10

Interview – Soda Bomb

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 At times it seems like the alternative music scene couldn’t be more stratified. There’s no way Orange County and Williamsburg could have anything in common. Pop punk kids would never dream of poking their heads in at a shoegaze show. Midwestern emo revivalists are held in the lowest of esteem by flannel-chic low-couture garage rockers. And yet, every once in a while, there comes a moment when certain gaps are bridged to create something amazing. Following in the tradition of such recent genre-benders like Teen Suicide, Soda Bomb sound like they could fit in as easily on Hardly Art as they could on Asian Man or Run For Cover. Their most recent release, The Future Is Gonna Suck, is the perfect road map to the bands myriad influences. Opener “Airhead” seems equally indebted to the emotionally sharp and melodic work of The Get Up Kids as it does to the slacker stomp of Pavement or Dinosaur Jr, with the hook “I’m doing just fine, I’m doing alright” serves as a mission statement befitting both the band and any self-doubt plagued indie kid. “Soft Grunge” shows the band at perhaps their most varied within the confines of a single song, all while poking fun at the Tumblr generation. Album closer “I Wanna Die” is where the band really displays its potential, soaring to the spaced-out heights of The World Is A Beautiful Place, while keeping their feet firmly on the ground ala Joyce Manor, with lyrical finesse smacking equally of both. It’s worth checking out the rest of their catalog as well on Bandcamp. They covered the King of the Hill theme song – what’s not to like about these guys?


It’s been almost a year since you put out anything. What’s in the works for you guys?
Going into the studio in about 3 weeks to record the new record!! Gonna be the illest-ish

Soda Bomb seems pretty close to the guys in The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die. What’s your relationship with them?
Derrick from TWIABP has been helping us put out tapes through Broken World and we’ve played a few awesome shows with them in Penn State and Connecticut! Awesome dudes who help us out a ton.

Up to this point you’ve done all your releases through Broken World Media. Do you have any plans to move up to a record label? Is this new project going to act as a kind of selling point to labels?
I mean for any band, to move up is always sick. If we could do that, that would also be sick. But for now we’re working on a smaller scope.

What’s different about your new material from your older stuff?
If you took the 90′s and both coasts and threw them in a tornado of shred then you got the new material. The older stuff is coming from a different place as far as influences.

Can you describe your writing process?
We lock ourselves in a dated looking room and play, basically.

What are you listening to right now?
Diarrhea Planet, Failure, The Cribs, Smashing Pumpkins. And Fuzz

What would you say makes Soda Bomb different from what else is out there right now?
We’re not gonna shove our beliefs down your throat just because we’re a band.

Do you have any grand plans to tour in the near future?
Hopefully!

Anything else you want to talk about?
Shout outs to mom, dad, Robin Williams, food tats, Daniel Bryan, WWF attitude era, fuck Batista, Dylan Sandler, Craig Wiener, not Dave Grohl, The band from School Of Rock, not Jack Black especially in King Kong, original cast of Digimon, the original voice actress of Timmy Turner, also did you know the cream in Oreos is horse fat?? HEH.

Review – Dum Dum Girls: Too True

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Ah, the dreaded third album, the bane of many a bright young indie rock band. It has the potential to utterly sink your career with its bloated overindulgence, or to quietly slip under the radar, only to resurface after the initial critical dismissal to be retroactively proclaimed as an overlooked gem. Dum Dum Girls, however, seem poised to boldly strike out from the pack as they’ve done time and again, and make one that’s entirely forgettable and middle-of-the-road. Sure, ol’ Dee Dee and the gang do their share of experimentation, drawing on the admirable likes of Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Cure, but this conscious break from their previous material results in a record that is far less distinctive than anyone would have expected. Given that ‘I Will Be’ was such an improvement over their utterly bland debut, their third album seemed so promising. But perhaps in an effort to appease more mainstream audiences and court some of the bored recently-ex-teenagers that Haim stole away, ‘Too True’ got all the soul sucked out of it.

The album starts off strong enough, which for an album that’s only 30 minutes long bodes well for it as a whole, with “Cult of Love.” It’s sexy, claustrophobic, and bouncy all at the same time, effortlessly mixing their garage pop past with the goth-y maturity of their future. Dee Dee’s lyrics portray a femme fatale kind of detachment, with just a hint of desperation, hidden as if beneath a sigh. This is followed by the more lightweight “Evil Blooms,” which builds upon what we’ve heard so far with something more fittingly danceable now that the weight has seemingly been lifted from our shoulders about what to expect from this album.

However, it’s all downhill from here. We’re led into a ghost of a lead single, “Rimbaud Eyes” – the latest in the saga of the “Eyes” singles. It feels like any effort that was put into this song at all was put solely on the chorus, which is itself not even the strongest on the album, and ultimately it feels like this could be a filler track on one of those 80s compilations they sell on late-night infomercials, sandwiched right between “Turning Japanese” and “I Ran (So Far Away).”The energy continues to sag as we continue on to “Are You Okay?”which features such shallow lyrics as “sometimes my heart is pure/sometimes I know it’s not,” which seems so devoid of any meaning or thought that one can only infer that however pure Dee Dee’s heart, it’s definitely not present in this album.

“Too True To Be Good” picks up the slack a bit, but is nowhere near being any kind of standout track. The upbeat nature of otherwise vapid track “In The Wake of You” really just made me feel kind of depressed that this was the same band that wrote “Bedroom Eyes,” which, I had naively thought, was the definitive statement which would set them apart from the likes of Nada Surf, Surfer Blood, et. al. surfer dudes. “Little Minx” picks up the pace a little, and “Under These Hands” wouldn’t serve terribly if it were to play over the closing credits of “Pretty In Pink” or anything, but by this point the album has mostly lost the chance of being a really great piece of work. Contrary to what you may think from reading this far, the album isn’t bad necessarily, just pretty average, which is made all the worse considering how good ‘I Will Be Was.’ However, “Trouble Is My Name” is what really makes me think that there’s hope for the Girls yet. The fact that it sounds the most like their previous work out of anything on this album probably says a lot about where they should go from here, but suffice it to say that all is not yet in the Dum Dum camp.

It’s frustrating that at every stumbling block they could have come upon on this album, Dum Dum Girls got tripped up on almost every one. From the hollow lyrics to the derivative, road-to-nowhere musical experiments, ‘Too True’ missed any opportunity it had to build upon what their previous album had set the groundwork for. But from the standout tracks, it seems like Dee Dee Penny certainly still has it in her to make something truly memorable, and such lulls can often set the stage for triumphant comebacks.

Recommended Tracks: Cult of Love, Evil Blooms, Trouble Is My Name

GRADE: 7.3/10

Review – Cherry Glazerr: Haxel Princess

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As their confectionary name might suggest, Cherry Glazerr peddle sticky sweet pop tunes that stick in your gums long after the initial consumption. As their intentionally misspelled name might also suggest, there is a calculated lack of effort put into the project, tapping into the uncool-as-cool vibes that their label, Burger Records, seems so adept at providing from the epicenter of the reject-rock world in the Greater Los Angeles area. With songs like “Grilled Cheese,” which is literally about grilled cheese sandwiches and seemingly contains no deeper meaning beyond being an ode to the most lazily-of-made lunches, it’s clear that on ‘Haxel Princess,’ Cherry Glazerr simply cannot be bothered.

But that’s probably the greatest appeal to this album. It’s not the second coming of Beat Happening’s ‘Jamboree,’ but it’s much more than just a couple of bored LA millennials leaning into their instruments for 25 minutes, although that does in fact seem to be what they’re doing. The title track really gets up and goes, and shows the band does have some finesse at what they do, complemented by the downright aggressive track “White’s Not My Color this Evening.” “Bloody Bandaid” is a slumping, charmingly juvenile song about crushes that can appeal to the romantically-inclined Blink-182 fan in us all. “Glenn the Dawgg,” again literally about what the title says it’s about (a real dog), is absurdly sentimental, but doesn’t make it any less adorable. By the time the surreal “Trick or Treat Dancefloor” concludes, it’s hard to hold on to any vestiges of pretension in the face of these cutesy slacker ballads.

Perhaps taking things a bit more seriously than similarly twee-tinged Burger girls like Peach Kelli Pop, what sets Cherry Glazerr apart is that the band seems so unassailably cool while at the same time being undeniably innocent and fun. More than anything, ‘Haxel Princess’ is just a treat to listen to, and would serve as a great introduction for the cynical doubter of the persistent SoCal garage rock scene.

Recommended Tracks: Grilled Cheese, Haxel Princess, Trick or Treat Dancefloor

GRADE: 7.5/10

Review – MIA: Matangi

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Of all the hip-hop releases this year, I think ‘Matangi’ has been the most severely underrated. Amidst the Drakes, the Earl Sweatshirts, and the Danny Browns, MIA seems to have been given the “oh yeah, and that happened” treatment, which is bewildering to me, given the actual music. My best guess is that people are over the idea of MIA, and so don’t really give much thought to actually listening to what she says. There may be a point to the way her in-your-faceitude is less like a fly in the ointment the way ‘Yeezus’ was, and more like Lisa Simpson pretentiously wagging her finger in your face about whatever hot button topic she’s taking issue with at the moment, especially considering that has been her shtick for the majority of her work. However, there’s something to be said for persistence, and that applies to the way she approaches this album just as much as it does her long-term career goals.

The first half of the album is the less radio-friendly half, abrasive portion, which serves as a test of commitment for the listener. If you’re willing to wade through the dense production of songs like the title track and “Warriors,” and the relatively middling, “Exodus,” there’s some diamonds in the rough to be found. “Come Walk With Me” shows hints of a more tender side of Maya Arulpragasam, and “aTENTion” shows some distinct and remarkably smooth house which perhaps indicates some note-taking of Disclosure’s recent success. Even “Exodus” has some redeeming lyrical quality, displaying Maya’s characteristic sarcasm.

The album takes all the themes explored in the first 7 tracks and kicks them into high gear for the second half. “Bad Girls” seems like the standout track on the album, perhaps being so idiosyncratic because it was written and completed at an entirely different time than the rest of the songs on this long-delayed album. While something of an uncharacteristic centerpiece, it is still the best song on the album, which isn’t to say that the relatively newer tracks reflect a decline in artistic quality over time. Its inclusion on the album simply demands attention, rather than simply protesting for it. “Boom Skit” boasts some of the more interesting sonic experimentation, and it’s a shame it was relegated to novelty status. “Double Bubble Trouble” is a solid dub-fusion track that seems a logical extension of her interest in the synthesis of various cultures and styles that has been such a crucial part of her style, and was hinted at further on the title track with its list of nations. “YALA” takes a sardonic jab at Drake and the culture that he represents, and contains the funniest lyrics you’re likely to find on ‘Matangi.’ “Bring The Noize” is a close second to “Bad Girls” for best track and is the most solid example of MIA refuses to slip into decline. “Know It Ain’t Right” builds on the promise of “Come Walk With Me” for sweet melody, and “Sexodus” is just as much more interesting than “Exodus” as its title would suggest, showing that the collaboration with The Weeknd was not for nothing.

While perhaps not the smash sequel to ‘Kala’ that some anti-‘Maya’ revisionists were hoping, the way MIA refuses to let up with her agenda becomes more endearing with age. In many ways, ‘Matangi’ was a much greater challenge to supporters and critics than anything she’s done before, and it pays off with some uncompromisingly confrontational music that doesn’t indicate a change in direction as much as it does pushing the limits of her style to the bursting point. It’s the musical culmination of her middle-finger display at the 2012 Super Bowl – issuing a bold challenge to the very audience that she hopes to court.

 

Recommended Tracks: Matangi, aTENTion, Bad Girls, YALA, Bring The Noize

GRADE: 8/10

Review: State Faults – Resonate/Desperate

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Screamo (if there even is such a thing that we can put a label on) has gotten a pretty bad rap. Aside from the plebs who assume all music with screaming, from post-hardcore to black metal, constitutes screamo, most people associate the word with bands such as Bring Me The Hairspray and Hot Topicthorne Heights, groups that seem to focus and intensify the disdain that is usually dished out to so-called emo bands.  But legend holds that there was indeed a time when screamo, while not a particularly endearing word in and of itself which was never self applied, was actually a respectable genre to be associated with. And with the dubiously dubbed “emo revival” and its renewal of interest in the more sensitive side of indie rock’s golden age, it is inevitable that some of its subgenres might also be explored by a new generation. Along comes State Faults and ‘Resonate/Desperate,’ an album that incorporates the experimental yearnings and sincere intensity of bands like Pianos Become The Teeth, but squeezes those bleeding hearts just a bit harder by pushing things closer to the territory of bands like I Hate Myself and Heroin.

The sonic assault starts from the first note of opening track “Meteor,” and it never lets up until it’s all over, presenting the listener with a staggering, torturous blast of emotional destruction that can sometimes be too much too handle, but in a way that commands respect from the listener rather than leaving them exhausted. It avoids bleeding things together, as the tracks are all distinct in their jagged way, but the approach is not for a single minute soft, slow, or reflective – it’s all agonizing catharsis at its most authentic. Even when they do allow for a buildup at the start of “Disintegration,” which hints at some cross pollination with the likes of The World Is A Beautiful Place, it only serves to make the rest of the towering aural monuments that much more imposing. The melodic jam of “Amalgamation” meanwhile shows that pain can indeed be beautiful, while “Diamond Dust” provides an example of just how thought-provoking such a brutal form of expression can be.

If you want an affirmation of just what incredible heights hardcore can aspire to in 2013, look no further than its most intense iteration in the form of State Faults. When “Meteor” starts off as unrelentingly as it does, and “Wildfires” still refuses to bow, it seems like an impossible feat to keep the act going over a 40+ minute album and still be interesting and exhilarating, but ‘Resonate/Desperate’ manages to pull it off stunningly. The punishing vocals that are enough to singe the eyebrows off of even the most jaded hardcore fan aren’t just for show, either. The pain in words like “baptized in mercury, rewire my circuitry/we wish impossible things and sink into nervous energies” never falls into vapid whining, as hard as some cynics might want them too.

As the final chords of “Old Wounds” sound, one can’t help but be thankful that, at long last, someone decided to do things right again. Building off of the successes of their peers, State Faults takes things one step further, dialing up the emotional catharsis and reveling, triumphant, in their despair. If you’re looking for vindication of once-guilty pleasures filed under “screamo,” then you’re in for a treat on this album.

Recommended Tracks: Meteor, Diamond Dust, Disintegration, Amalgamation

GRADE: 8.4/10

Review: Lady Gaga – ARTPOP

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What’s the most outrageous, controversial thing you could do in pop music in 2013? If you guessed dropping out of the race of outdoing everyone else’s spectacle and simply making a great record, your guess would probably be as good as anyone’s, but Lady Gaga only gets that half right on ‘ARTPOP,’ and then only accidentally. Miley Cyrus managed to upstage everyone in the game at being over-the-top, and if anyone was going to be able to top her, it would have been Lady Gaga, but she’s failed to adjust since ‘Born This Way.’ She’s still pulling all the same old tricks, and thus fails to impress anymore with her bizarre antics. Call it a case of overexposure, but her uneven music can no longer be glossed over by any great overarching statement. This was the album where the music should have been able to speak for itself; unfortunately, it’s not got much to say for itself.

There are hints of genius here and there, for example on the abrasive opener ‘Aura,’ which contains heavy industrial overtones seems outright challenging to her usual fanbase, but that song is sullied by its relatively bland chorus. Her duet with R. Kelly on “Do What U Want” is formidable, and the title track probably fulfills the ambition of the project more than any other moment on the album, but I feel like it was supposed to be more of an overture than the centerpiece, and considering the unevenness of the rest of the album, the blatant repetition of “Artpop! Artpo-o-op!” just sounds silly and banal. “Applause” does a pretty good job of closing out the album, regaining the confidence and momentum lost on all the songs that follow the title track just long enough to reconsider the hour-long slog we just listened to, if only for a moment.

But the contrast to these strong, single-worthy tracks aren’t necessarily bad, per se. They’re just nothing new, and they stand out little from either Gaga’s previous work or from the general contemporary pop music climate. “Sexxx Dreams” (oh boy, that’s a clever title, one can only wonder at how they ever came up with it) attempts to be risqué but ends up being pretty forgettable due to its overwrought craftsmanship. The collaboration with party-rappers Too $hort, T.I., and Twista on “Jewels n’ Drugs” makes for a good club track, as do most of the tracks here, but lack much depth beyond a passable beat. “Swine” sports some of the most embarrassingly pointless lyrics Gaga’s come up with yet, but it and “G.U.Y” contain some interesting production work recalling the electro-house duo Justice at times. It’s difficult to tell how seriously we should take “Donatella,” but the irony that permeates this self-parody makes it difficult to appreciate Gaga’s high-art aspirations. “Gypsy” reaches for sentimental reflection on the meaningless of fame (which she has dubiously chosen to make the focus of most of the album, a topic she’s done to death and is not worth exploring much anymore), but feels insincere, which does more to drive the message home than the actual content of the song.

It’s too bad that this album is so thoroughly average. It’s clear that Lady Gaga has some lofty goals that she hopes to achieve through her music, but she’s limited by the fact that she’s effective at making individual, isolated statements, but not especially good at uniting them with a greater message. And so it translates to her music – she makes great singles, but making albums is not her strong point. Which is perhaps why ‘The Fame Monster,’ a relatively short EP, was such a success (being largely comprised of singles), while her albums aren’t quite up to par.

 

Recommended Tracks: Aura, Do What U Want, ARTPOP, Applause

GRADE: 5.4/10

Review: Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

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What was it that made classic Eminem the cultural phenomenon that he was? What was it that made the Holy Trinity of ‘The Slim Shady LP,’ ‘The Marshall Mathers LP,’ and ‘The Eminem Show’ such great albums? Was it the anger? Nope, that’s still generally palpable both here and on his last 2 albums. Was it the production? No, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ has some pretty stellar production value, much better than his last 2 albums. Was it his predilection for controversy, his self-awareness, or his energy? That’s a bit closer. Was it his sense of humor? I think we have a winner. The contrast between genuinely funny songs like “Just Lose It” or “My Name Is” and newer songs like “Not Afraid” is pretty disappointing, and while the funnier side of Eminem has made something of a return here, it seems a little forced. Of course, there were serious songs in the golden era of his career, but what made songs like “Stan” so moving was the context of its release – it was a rare, vulnerable look at someone who was usually either spitting out uber-violent revenge  fantasies or  penning biting satire. And while Eminem is a lot more self-aware, the whole idea of naming this album after his huge breakthrough album draws incredibly strong parallels to Weezer’s attempt to recapture their magic on the Green Album – their self-titled debut was an artistic triumph, full of humor and heartbreak, while their also self-titled 2001 follow-up to ‘Pinkerton’ was a return to the poppier, geek-rock sound of their debut, but it sounded soulless, forced, and it was clear something magical was lost. Same issue here. It seems that after so long brushing off criticism, Eminem’s ego has finally been bruised by the haters who found his recent efforts a little flat.

The problem is that Eminem just doesn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for what he does. He no longer has something to prove, and he’s not young and cynical enough anymore to be able to stand back and laugh at the media circus that follows him. He’s old, he’s rich, he’s complacent, and frankly, he just doesn’t shock anymore. When he came out, his raw, over the top aggression was stunning to us, and we struggled to deal with the exposure. But after 14-odd years, we’ve gotten used to it, and he can’t bring the thrill anymore. When he insists “I’m stabbing myself/With a fucking knife in the gut, while I’m wiping my butt/Cause I just shitted on the mic, and I like getting cut,” we’re not so impressed by such hyperbolic declarations as we are reminded of a time when they would have impressed us. We’ve built up a tolerance to his psychopathic shenanigans, and while the ridiculously self-serious ‘Relapse’ and ‘Recovery’ have made such a return to form a very welcome relief, ultimately they’ll never be as memorable as “Hi kids, do you like violence?”

The variety and creative risks here are, admittedly, impressive. While the Zombies sample on “Rhyme or Reason” is bizarre at first, and the chorus is awkward and clunky, the result is ultimately pretty satisfying. Same goes for the Joe Walsh moment on “So Far….” Not all of them are hits, though. His monument to self-conscious self-aggrandizement on “Rap God” reaches for Kanye-esque heights, but falls short far short of “I Am A God,” feeling more like an attempt to reach deification than the affirmation of that status the Kanye so confidently proclaims. “Berzerk,” a Beastie Boys tribute, is nice, but honestly I don’t come to Eminem for nice. I come to Eminem to be provoked, challenged, and offended. I enjoyed listening to it, it’s a good song, all the necessary accolades for the lead single, etc. But I suspect that Slim Shady would be less than approving.

There are tracks that succeed of their own merit, as well; songs that escape the artist’s legacy and stand out as distinctively great new artistic leaps forward. There are also tracks that straight up fail. Let’s start with the latter. “Stronger Than I Was,” is, in a word, embarrassing. It would have fit perfectly on ‘Relapse,’ which is a shame. It’s a pop-friendly ballad that doesn’t even begin to feel sentimental, and considering that it follows the relatively strong “Brainless,” and is followed by the blatantly crowd-pleasing pap of “The Monster,” it makes it a whole lot more unpleasant. But there are a lot of good moments that allow this album to approach levels of greatness somewhere close to what he did 10 years ago. Opening track “Bad Guy” sounds like a pretty good distillation of Eminem’s whole career so far, and looks into the future, which, all things considered, doesn’t look all that bad by the end of it. Standout track “Love Game” is incredible, and if all other redeeming qualities on this album were stripped away, this track alone could probably save it from being as bad as the last 5 years. Eminem’s assessment of the hip-hop game, the neurotic self-deprecation, and a flow that surpasses anything preceeding, as well as Kendrick Lamaar’s contributions, make this the absolute best track on the album. It’s funny, it’s shocking, it’s musically impressive, and it’s sure to go down as one of Eminem’s very best.

For all its faults, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’ is a genuinely good album. It’s a bit of a letdown, considering I grew up with Eminem albums that were more great than good, but that shouldn’t deter you from getting it, playing it for months on end, and relive some good times from when Slim Shady introduced you to the darker side of life that we all try to hide by exposing it for everyone on TRL to see (and it shouldn’t stop you from throwing out ‘Relapse’ and Recovery.’ Seriously, why do you still have those? It’s ok to admit Eminem makes mistakes, but he gave us this album, so let’s just forget those two ever happened, agreed?).

Recommended Tracks: Bad Guy, Berzerk, Rap God, Love Game

GRADE: 8.0/10