June Quick Takes, Part 1: Big Names

And we’re back! I’ve finally decided to break my hiatus, and to get back into things I figured I’d do something similar to the Quarantine Quick Takes I did for March. I’ll probably end up doing a set of these for July as well to get fully caught up. But these will follow the same format as the ones before, there will be 3 installments and the first will cover releases from big name artists. These will be longer than my typical monthly review lists and they will actually have a score attached to them as well. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on some major releases from the month of June.

Columbia

BOB DYLAN – ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS–After 3 consecutive albums of cover songs, one of which was a triple album of American standards, Bob Dylan has given us his first album of original material in 8 years. It’s been met with a lot of critical acclaim, but sometimes I wonder if that’s just because he’s Bob Dylan and you’re supposed to like his stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dylan and his songwriting, but I’m not so sure this album deserves all the glowing reviews it’s getting. First off, the album’s title is only really indicative of two tracks in terms of sound. Second, Dylan has become a bit indulgent in his later years. This album is 70 minutes long and no song is less than 4 minutes, and more than half of them are over 6, including the 17-minute epic, “Murder Most Foul.” Of course, there are lyrical highlights because it’s Dylan, but sometimes I feel like I need a Master’s in music history to understand what’s going on. Overall, the album is still good, it’s likely his best work since 2006’s Modern Times, but this isn’t going to appeal to many people who aren’t already fans. 3.5/5.0

will.i.am/Epic

BLACK EYED PEAS – TRANSLATION–2 years after their comeback album, the now Fergie-less Black Eyed Peas have decided to hop on the reggaeton train and release an album with a very heavy Latin influence. It goes about as well as you’d expect an American group trying to capitalize on a foreign genre would go. Though it’s not like they didn’t try their darndest to do it well. The Peas recruit big names in Latin music like J Balvin, Maluma, and Shakira to feature on this album, and there are a couple tracks that pull off some pretty serviceable reggaeton. But the majority of the tracks here just play like generic Latin beats with nothing to make them stand out apart from the Latin artists who built their careers in the genre. The lyrics can be pretty bad too. I don’t know if that’s a product of translating typical Spanish reggaeton lyrics to English or what, but some of them are just laughable. There’s also a pretty corny interpolation of “Super Freak” on one track, and the album’s closer is just an awful attempt at being relevant to current events. I’m not going to say that American artists can’t adapt Latin music, but if we’re going to, we’ll have to do better than this. 1.5/5.0

Easy Eye Sound

CEELO GREEN – CEELO GREEN IS THOMAS CALLAWAY–On his 6th album, CeeLo Green has gone for a bit of a stylistic shift from the super slick, modern pop and R&B with hints of funk and soul to straight-up, old school soul. Honestly, this change is pretty welcome considering Green’s last really good and successful album was 2010’s The Lady Killer, and album whose popularity was undoubtedly bolstered by its smash hit single, “Fuck You.” Since then, Green has released a Christmas album and one other studio album, and you’d be forgiven for not knowing that because I didn’t either. Both were critical disappointments, so Green was in a position for a little reinvention. To do that, he enlisted the help of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and released it on his Easy Eye Sound label. If you want to record an old-school record, Dan’s the man, but his devotion to vintage sound and recording techniques can be a blessing and a curse. There are definitely highlights here, and Green’s voice is great for the old-school sound. But the album is sometimes vintage to a fault, which is becoming a calling card for Easy Eye Sound. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come as CeeLo works on this new direction. 2.5/5.0

Interrabang

JASON MRAZ – LOOK FOR THE GOOD–If you follow me on Instagram, I already wrote a pretty scathing mini-review of this in the midst of my hiatus. And no, my opinion of it hasn’t improved over time. I know most people haven’t paid too close attention to Jason Mraz for 12 years or so, but this really has to be the lowest he’s gone. This is a reggae album. Not his typical reggae inspired, ukulele bitch blue eyed soul, but actual reggae. Or at least some ultra polished, major label version of reggae. Not only does this music have no soul, but the lyrics are among Mraz’s worst. There are empty, feel-good platitudes (seriously, there’s a song with the lyrics “make love, not war”), awkward mentions of puberty and masturbation, and even a track where every word is repeated one after another. Add to all that the optics of a white guy from Virginia releasing an album in an inseparably black genre at this particular point in our country’s history. And no, having an older black reggae artist feature on a song doesn’t make it okay. We can hope that things can only get better from here, and maybe this is what will inspire Mraz to make more music like his first two albums again. 0.0/5.0

Epic/Nuclear Blast

LAMB OF GOD – self titled–After the longest break between albums in their entire career (5 years), Lamb of God have returned with their 8th album, and the first without founding drummer Chris Adler. And after over 20 years and 7 albums, they’ve finally decided to put out a self-titled album. (Either that, or they finally ran out of ideas for titles.) Anyway, despite the long break and the new drummer, Lamb of God have picked things right back up as if nothing has changed. They deliver their brand of groovy thrash and metalcore without sounding stale or repetitive. Basically, it sounds like Lamb of God. That might be disappointing to some people, but these guys have a style that works really well for them. Sometimes you’re hungry for a specific type of heavy music, and that happens to be Lamb of God, and they’re good at consistently serving it up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even the album cover just screams Lamb of God. An added bonus are the features of Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy who bring some nice variety. This album isn’t anything new, but it’s really good at being what it is. 4.0/5.0

Reprise

NEIL YOUNG – HOMEGROWN–This is the latest release from Neil Young’s Archives series. Homegrown is made up of songs that were recorded between 1974 and 1975, between the albums On the Beach and Zuma. It was intended to be released in 1975, but Tonight’s the Night was put out instead, despite being recorded almost 2 years prior. Homegrown sat unreleased that entire time until now. The sound of this album leans a bit more towards the folk and country influence of Harvest rather than the psychedelic tone of Beach or the leanings toward hard rock found on Zuma. Some of the songs almost sound like they could have been recorded in the same sessions as the Harvest record. And that should give you a sense of which version of Neil Young you’re getting. These are earthy tracks with personal lyrics inspired by Young’s relationship at the time. These are the sessions where the original version of “Love Is a Rose” was recorded. It’s nice to have these songs from one of the best eras of Young’s career see the light of day and fill in some of the gaps. 4.0/5.0

Hopeless

NEW FOUND GLORY – FOREVER + EVER x INFINITY–New Found Glory have officially hit double digits with their studio albums, an impressive feat for any band. But what’s especially impressive for this one is that not only is this the 10th album of a pop-punk band from the early 2000s, but it’s good! Usually bands of this genre and vintage are broken up, doing reunion shows, or making bland pop rock that only the most die hard fans will hear. That’s not to say NFG haven’t flirted with the more mature pop rock that these bands tend to evolve towards. They have on a few previous albums with mixed results. However, this album is bona-fide early 2000s pop-punk, right down to the lyrics. And the lyrics are written in a way that they don’t sound corny, which is important when you have a band of guys pushing 40 singing songs about feelings and girls. They also reap the benefits of modern production. I know super clean production isn’t exactly in vogue in the pop-punk world these days, but there’s nothing quite like those polished hooks when they hit. In short, this is exactly the album that old pop-punk heads have been waiting for. A legacy band making music like they did 20 years ago but a little more mature. 3.5/5.0

Jewel Runners/BMG

RUN THE JEWELS – RTJ4–El-P and Killer Mike, Yankee and the Brave, not the heroes we need, but the heroes we deserve, have returned when their country needed them most. This dynamic duo of hardcore hip-hop have given us another collection of incredibly solid tracks. They even released the album a few days early in the midst of the protests happening across the country. The beats hit hard and the lyrics hit even harder with their social consciousness, political commentary, and humor. Tracks like “walking in the snow” and “JU$T” hit especially hard, with Killer Mike delivering a harrowing verse on the former where he outlines plight of African Americans and almost prophetically quotes Eric Garner and retroactively, George Floyd. The feature list on the album is impressive too, with contributions from DJ Premier, Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, Mavis Staples, and Josh Homme. All serving their respective tracks well. Run The Jewels are among the best in the hip-hop game right now, and RTJ4 further proves it. 4.5/5.0

Sean’s Favorites: 2012

Wow, I am just doing so bad with these right now. But I’ve committed to writing a few of these out before publishing so you should be seeing them a little more often and hopefully we’ll be able to get through them all before the end of the year. So let’s see, 2012 is when I finished my little college detour of part time classes and enrolled full time in the third and final school of my college career. This was also the year that the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II was celebrated, the Higgs boson particle was discovered, and the Curiosity rover landed on Mars. It was also a big year for film with movies like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, and the first Hobbit being released. This was also one of the last years where I could dedicate some significant time to discovering and listening to new music, so the next few lists will be a bit shorter. With that being said, below are some albums from 2012 that were important to me at the time. I’ll also throw in a reminder that this retrospective is by no means me ranking or holding up these albums as the best of the past decade. This is a strictly personal series, but I think it offers a look into the foundations of my musical interests and tastes.

Universal Republic

ANBERLIN – VITALS–In 2012, I hadn’t paid much attention to Anberlin for 5 years or more. Never Take Friendship Personal was a landmark album for my teenage years, and I did like Cities, but it didn’t make the same impact. After that, they signed to a major label and while New Surrender and Dark Is the Way.. are fine, nothing was quite creating that same excitement as their earlier releases. But then Vitals came out. I heard the singles, and while they didn’t necessarily sound like Friendship, there was something that reminded me of it. This album has a…. vitality (sorry) that made me feel like I was listening to the Anberlin that excited me all those years ago. Especially in songs like “Little Tyrants” and “Someone Anyone.” I still think this is a highlight of their catalog.

Virgin/I.R.S./Regal

CHIDDY BANG – BREAKFAST–This was an important album for my growing appreciation of hip-hop music at the time. I had first heard of Chiddy Bang with their single “Opposite of Adults” that sampled “Kids” by MGMT. Then there was their subsequent EP that had other songs that sampled indie music, like “All Things Go” that sampled Sufjan Stevens. So basically, this rap duo liked the same music that I did, and that common ground was a good place for me to start. While I was already digging into older rap music and even enjoyed recent releases from legendary groups like the Beastie Boys, Chiddy Bang was the first contemporary artist that I actually bought an album from. Unfortunately the album hasn’t aged all that well, but it still holds a special place for me for nostalgic reasons if nothing else.

Paper + Plastick

FLATFOOT 56 – TOIL–I imagine Celtic punk is a difficult genre to keep interesting for the long term. Of course, as I say this, there are bands like Dropkick Murphys that have 9 albums out. But what I mean is keeping things interesting from album to album. However, when Toil came out I was very impressed with the way Flatfoot 56 managed to still sound fresh 4 albums in. They’ve also always been the one Celtic punk band that I was more drawn to and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s the very American focus that they have, using the working class of Chicago as their inspiration. And maybe some of that heartland rock bleeds into their sound. They’re also one of the few bands (that I’m aware of) that actually incorporates bagpipes. Toil has some of my favorite songs from Flatfoot 56, including “Strong Man” and their version of the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.”

Polyvinyl

JAPANDROIDS – CELEBRATION ROCK–I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the very album that this blog takes its name from. Japandroids really refined their unique blend of post-punk, garage, and heartland rock on this album. The tracks on Celebration Rock almost glow with a positive and triumphant attitude. No doubt, Brian King’s guitar playing plays a key role in that, the fuzzy tone that lingers around the notes gives them almost a droning quality. But it’s all clear enough for the powerful hooks to punch through with the urgency of a punk basement show. And if you look at the final track, you will find the very song that inspired the name of this blog.

TDE/Aftermath/Interscope

KENDRICK LAMAR – GOOD KID, M.A.A.D CITY–Okay, full disclosure, I didn’t listen to this album until a few years after it already came out. I had read an article about how faith was starting to pop up in prominent hip-hop releases from artists like Kanye West and Chance the Rapper. Kendrick was also mentioned and this album specifically, because of it’s overarching theme of family and faith being the strong foundation that supported Lamar in his youth in Compton. The album immediately impressed me when I gave it a spin. I knew conscious hip-hop existed, but this was like something different. Gangsta and west coast beats and flows but with more conscious lyrics. And Kendrick’s lyricism is absolutely fantastic all over this, giving a very honest, semi-autobiographical account of what it’s like to grow up black in southern California.

Dualtone/Decca/Dine Alone

THE LUMINEERS – self titled–If you judge this album solely on the single “Ho Hey,” then you are truly missing out. Yes, they lean a little hard into the gimmicks and yes, the songs are pretty simple. But I believe that simplicity matches the indeterminate era between the 1920s and 1940s that the Lumineers occupy in the narratives of their songs. And even though the songs mostly just tell stories, there’s still some sincerity there. Especially when they slow things down on tracks like “Slow It Down” and “Morning Song,” both easily among the best tracks on the whole album. Yes, this album is mostly popular because of “Ho Hey” and the fact that it came out in the middle of the indie folk craze, but it’s genuinely one of my favorites from that time. I feel like it’s unfairly overlooked because of it’s association with its hit single.

Interscope

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – HOME AGAIN–I mentioned before in my review of Kiwanuka’s most recent release that I don’t really remember where or how I heard of his name, but somehow I heard the singles “Tell Me A Tale” and “I’ll Get Along” from this album and I was very intrigued. The incredibly convincing vintage soul sound was cool, but it was also still compelling rather than just being vintage for the sake of being vintage. I eventually bought the album and was surprised to find that the majority of the songs were much quieter and mostly acoustic. Some even had clear influence from songwriters like Nick Drake. But this wasn’t a bad thing. The album is nice, welcoming, and relaxing listen from start to finish.

Warp

TNGHT – self titled EP–Around the time that trap started getting big in the hip-hop world, it was also infiltrating the world of EDM. The resulting sounds were hard hitting beats with earth shaking bass. Electronic musicians Hudson Mohawke and Lunice came together to make some trap EDM and called themselves TNGHT. They put out this 5 song, 15 minute EP in 2012 and it’s some of the hardest (and sometimes weirdest) stuff to come out of the subgenre. The duo would release a standalone single in 2013, but then they’d disappear until reappearing again in 2019. So for the longest time, this is all we had. But it’s very good and I was happy to at least have it.

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in May 2020

It’s that time again! Another month has come and gone. As always, I can’t get to everything, so there’s quite a bit of good music that I don’t get to review, especially this month since there were 5 Fridays. You’ll probably notice something a little different about this month’s list. In light of recent and ongoing events, I’ve decided to highlight artists of color. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to fill up the list as May was also an excellent month for black artists. So, collected below are releases I think you should check out.

Grimalkin

BACKXWASH – GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS LEAVE HIM OUT OF IT–Backxwash is a Canadian hip-hop artist who’s style contains elements of industrial hip-hop and horrorcore. These styles pair very well with her lyrics that often deal with evil, magic, and the occult. A lot of the darkness in her lyrics come from her personal experiences, not only as a person of color, but also as a black trans woman. If you like your hip-hop dark, heavy, and noisy, check this out.

ByStorm/RCA

DEANTE’ HITCHCOCK – BETTER–This album is actually the first I’ve heard of Deante’ Hitchcock, but apparently this has been a long time coming. Better was preceded by several mixtapes and EPs since 2012. In that time he’s attracted the attention of other big rappers like Wale and J. Cole, even being invited to appear on the latest Revenge of the Dreamers project from J. Cole’s Dreamville. This album very good, showcasing Hitchcock’s skill as a rapper, lyricist, and even a singer, and it has features from JID, 6LACK, and more.

ESGN/ALC/EMPIRE

FREDDIE GIBBS/THE ALCHEMIST – ALFREDO–May was just a fantastic month for hip hop. I’ve heard some of the best rap albums so far this year since maybe February. Alfredo is probably the best yet. I’m more familiar with Freddie Gibbs’ work with Madlib, and while Madlib is one of my favorite producers in general, The Alchemist is probably a better match for Gibbs. Something about these beats just brings out the best in Freddie’s flows and attitude. They play off each other so well, matching tones and moods perfectly. Even the features are good with guest verses from rappers like Rick Ross and Tyler, The Creator. It’s really just a total package album, good front to back.

Iron Works

KA – DESCENDANTS OF CAIN–Ka is a Brooklyn based rapper who has a unique style all his own. His raps come across almost conversational, like a poet reciting in a coffee shop rather than a rapper. His lyrics use Biblical imagery and the metaphor of the cursed lineage of Cain, the first murderer, to tell stories of his life growing up on the city blocks of New York. Ka produces the majority of the tracks on this album and the instrumentals have an almost stark feel to them, but they’re not minimalist. You really have to hear it for yourself to understand it.

Fltbys

KOTA THE FRIEND – EVERYTHING–I don’t really know how to categorize this one because there’s clear trap influence on this album, but instead hard hitting beats, the instrumentals feel bright and airy with jazz guitar samples. This is almost… summer rap. Like a trap version of something like Shwayze. These are songs for driving along the beach in a convertible or riding your bike in the middle of the day when school’s out or you’re on vacation. It’s a nice, feel-good kind of album.

TBHG

MEDHANE – COLD WATER–Something interesting is happening in Brooklyn. Medhane is another rapper from that area that is doing something different in a good way. His raps are abstract and thoughtful, but still somehow direct and forward thinking. He looks forward without forgetting the scars of his past. And the instrumentals on this album use jazz and soul samples in ways I’ve never heard before. Like the Ka album above, you really have to experience this one for yourself.

Jagjaguwar

MOSES SUMNEY – GRÆ–This one isn’t hip hop, and I really don’t know how to categorize it. Sumney is often called a singer-songwriter, but that doesn’t really narrow things down. There are clear soul influences on this album, but this is not a traditional soul album by any stretch. Sumney’s emotional lyrics are only made more powerful by his impassioned vocals, featuring a frequent and distinctive falsetto. The album also features bass playing from Thundercat on a few tracks and production from James Blake on another. It’s a little uneven, but when it’s good, it’s really good.

Columbia

POLO G – THE GOAT–There’s still a lot I don’t understand about trap rap. I’m trying my darndest, but there’s still some stuff about it that just escapes me. That being said, Polo G is one of the few artists that helps me somewhat understand the appeal, and the praise from other reviewers and critics tells me I’m barking up the right tree. His flows have variety, he doesn’t rely on auto-tune, and his lyrics have considerably more substance than some other artists in the scene.

M.A Music/3D

YOUNG M.A – RED FLU–Yet another rapper from Brooklyn! Seriously, what’s going on over there? Young M.A is another talented rapper from the borough who raps from a particularly unique perspective. Not only is she a woman, but she’s a lesbian. She’s clear in interviews that she doesn’t want her orientation to define her, and it doesn’t have to. Her rapping could easily stand on its own, but her experience still comes through in her lyrics. Female empowerment is a big theme in hip hop these days coming from artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Rico Nasty. Young M.A adds yet another female perspective to the expanding landscape of rap music.

THE 1975 – NOTES ON A CONDITIONAL FORM album review

THE 1975 – NOTES ON A CONDITIONAL FORM

Dirty Hit, 2020

Alternative/Pop rock

After delays and much hype from the band themselves, The 1975 have finally delivered their fourth album and follow-up to 2018’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships that was first promised to us back in 2019. So now that we have Notes on a Conditional Form available to us, the ultimate question is if it lives up to the hype that’s been built up around it. It was delayed because Matthew Healy and the band wanted to make sure it was perfect, right? Well, let’s find out.

First off, this album is massive, with 22 tracks clocking in at 80 minutes. The 1975 are no strangers to long albums, with every one of their full-lengths running over 50 minutes, but this one pushes the CD format to its limits in the physical editions. That’s right, this is not a double album, it’s packaged, or at least presented as a single album. (I stream everything. Don’t judge me!) As much as I like to pick on pop and rock albums when they stretch past the hour mark, a long album doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad album. If an album makes you feel like the time invested hasn’t been wasted, it can be as long as it needs to be. Unfortunately, Notes… doesn’t make the best use of its time.

That being said, this album does fare better than other long albums. There are several moments on it that are actually quite good. But there’s also just a lot of stuff that just doesn’t need to be here. For example, early on in the album there are two brief, orchestral interludes. You might think that these are setting the stage for tracks like this to be interspersed throughout the entire album, but no, they’re only tracks 3 and 5 and that’s it. Another major misstep is “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied,” which starts with gospel chorus vocals, has this very strangely pitched and rapped chorus, and a terribly mixed guitar solo. The last completely weak point is “Bagsy Not in Net,” which doesn’t really feel like a fully formed song.

The rest of the weaker tracks on the album aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not great and there’s the question of whether they fit on the album or not. An obvious pick here is “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” which features Phoebe Bridgers and sounds an awful lot like a Sufjan Steven song or even a combination of the first two Bon Iver records when the brass comes in. The Bon Iver vibes come back in a big way on “Don’t Worry,” a duet with Matty Healy’s father. The story behind the song is beautiful, but it doesn’t outweigh the similarities. And neither of these songs are awful, but they aren’t great and they just feel out of place. Similarly, the electronic tracks “Shiny Collarbone” and “Having No Head” are actually really good, but they just don’t seem to fit.

Okay, I’ve done enough complaining. It’s time to talk about the good stuff, because there’s actually some very bright spots on this album. After the intro track, “People” is an absolute banger of some noisy garage rock. It’s completely unexpected in the best way. “Me & You Together Song” sounds like some late ’90s, Third Eye Blind pop rock, but unlike the other referential tracks on the album, it’s actually an incredibly well written track that is inspired by a sound without copying it. Similarly, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” is a certifiable ’80s new wave banger. All of these tracks have The 1975’s signature cheeky lyrics, throwing a little dirty subversion into the catchy and bouncy hooks. One more thing I want to highlight is how tracks “Frail State Of Mind” and “I Think There’s Something You Should Know” expertly combine The 1975’s pop rock with styles of EDM like UK garage and house.

Ultimately, Notes… is a pretty conflicting album for me. The 1975 take a lot of risks on this album. That’s evident from the first track, named after the band itself, and consisting of a 5 minute speech on climate change from Greta Thunberg. I mean, damn. The really frustrating part is that a lot of the risks pay off, or at least break even. But the “good, not great” tracks pale in comparison to the really great ones, and then there’s the issue of the completely unnecessary ones. This isn’t a bad album, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a really great one in it somewhere if the band had been a little more focused on quality over quantity.

3.0/5.0

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS album review

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS

Southeastern, 2020

Americana/Alternative country

Today we’re looking at the new album from Jason Isbell. And it’s good, because it’s by Jason Isbell. That’s it. That’s the review… Okay, okay, I’ll give you a little more now that I’ve so clearly telegraphed my biases towards this particular artist. Alternative country was a major player in the redemption of country music in my mind. The way the genre balances elements of heartland rock, Americana, and folk to create its own brand of country that’s undeniably authentic showed me that the genre was not doomed to a future of tropes and cliches. One of the best purveyors of alternative country in recent years has been Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.

Reunions is Isbell’s seventh album, and the fourth with The 400 Unit. The songs do feature quite a few reunions, but not the kind you might expect. In an interview on Austin City Limits Live, Isbell said that, “there are a lot of ghosts on this album.” These are literally the ghosts of people who have passed and figuratively the ghosts of life in the past. These show up in a big way within the first few tracks. “Dreamsicle” tells the story of a troubled childhood marked by arguing parents and constant moves to new places, and all the narrator could do was do his best to enjoy his childhood while he was still too naive to understand how bad things were.

A more literal ghost appears on “Only Children,” a song that recounts a friend who was an exceptional songwriter, but also struggled with addictions that ended up killing him. Death returns later in the album on “St. Peter’s Autograph,” a song that Isbell wrote for his wife, Amanda Shires, after a dear friend of hers died by suicide. In it he expresses how he understands how she loved him and that he’s there to console her while she grieves. The complicated nature of love is covered on songs “Overseas” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed.” The first describing feelings for someone the narrator just cannot be with and the latter describing the way lovers dive in blindly.

The lyrics on this album are just so good. They’re always one of the greatest strengths of a Jason Isbell record. There are more songs that tell stories of desperate men, doing what’s right when it’s the hard thing to do, and being a father. I could go on gushing track by track, but there is more to this album. Great lyrics can only get you so far if the instrumentals don’t serve them well.

Fortunately, The 400 Unit deliver on this front. Reunions stays pretty firmly within the bounds of Americana and alt country even when the songs get a little louder and more rock oriented. But they also know when to pull back for quieter moments. Every track sounds as sad, hopeful, scared, or angry as the stories the lyrics tell. My only real complaint is that not every track is incredibly memorable in a way where it sticks with you, though several are. That, and the fact that the album opener, “What’ve I Done To Help” is a little repetitive and long.

Overall, this is a strong offering from Jason Isbell and company, which is pretty much what we’ve come to expect. He’s proven himself to be an incredible songwriter over and over, and The 400 Unit provide the perfect backing for his stories. It’s not without it’s faults, and I wish more songs had stronger staying power. I don’t know if Reunions will give us another “If We Were Vampires,” but it’s a great album nonetheless.

4.0/5.0

Sleeping Village Reviews

If you’ve been keeping up with me on social media, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been a lot more active and promoting another blog. Over the past few weeks, I’ve joined the cabal of drowsy scribes over at Sleeping Village Reviews, a blog that specializes in underground metal music and pretty much anything that qualifies as heavy. I mentioned in my “by the numbers” post for 2019 that heavy music makes up a majority of what I listen to. Since I try to cover a wide range here, a lot of stuff that I’d like to review goes unmentioned. Contributing to Sleeping Village will help to balance out the ratios of what’s heard and what’s written. I’ve already written four reviews for the Village, below you’ll find excerpts and links to all four. And please, spend some time browsing around the Sleeping Village in general. There are many talented writers, and if heavy music is your thing, you’re bound to find something you’ll like.

APF Records

DESERT STORM – OMENS–One of the things that initially drew me to doom metal and stoner rock was the way that the music complemented the aesthetics of one of my favorite sci-fi subgenres: the post-apocalypse. Something about the dark tone of the lyrics and sludgy riffs calls to mind images of blighted landscapes, lone wanderers, lawless lands, and road warriors. It’s especially gratifying when the artists recognize this correlation themselves, look no further than Truckfighters’ “Desert Cruiser” or Wo Fat’s “Lost Highway.” The UK’s Desert Storm also recognize this correlation and lean into it. The music video for “Drifter” off their 2018 release Sentinels is comprised entirely of clips from Mad Max 2. This fascination with the end of days is still present on Omens, their newest release, but this time it’s through the lens of mystical medieval fantasy… Read More

New Heavy Sounds

BLACKLAB – ABYSS–If you told me at the beginning of the year that one of the best sludge metal albums I’d hear in 2020 would come from two Japanese girls… I’d lean in closer and ask you to tell me more. I don’t know about you, but in my experience, when women are involved in making hard rock and metal on the doomy side of things, it tends to be pretty damn good more often than not. Some of my favorite albums from the past couple of years have been from bands like Windhand, Castle, and Electric Citizen. And this year we’ve already had great albums from Konvent and Lucifer. Well, get ready to add BlackLab to the pile… Read More

Heavy Psych Sounds

THE SONIC DAWN – ENTER THE MIRAGE–In the world of heavy psych-rock, the majority of influences often come from the rock bands of the ‘70s, and if we’re honest, the modern bands more resemble hard rock and early heavy metal. Ultimately, this is understandable; modern heavy psych likely comes from a desire to trace heavy music back to its roots, and the origin of heavy metal is often, though not without contention, considered to be Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut. As such, many of the sounds and aesthetics emulated in heavy psych come from the time period immediately before and after that key event. You rarely hear modern bands going for the sound of the true psychedelic rock of the mid-’60s, and that’s why The Sonic Dawn is different… Read More

Hausu Mountain

FIRE-TOOLZ – RAINBOW BRIDGE–I’m pulling something from the deep recesses of left field for you today. But when you’ve listened to as much music as I have, left field can provide welcome, refreshing, if sometimes puzzling breaks from the norm. (There’s a reason music critics praise experimental music so highly.) The harsh sounds of heavy metal’s more extreme sub-genres make them excellent sonic palettes for experimental artists. The best artists will recognize the similarities in different styles of music and bring them together, or they will contrast two very different genres that otherwise would never mix. The latter can be found in Fire-Toolz, who juxtaposes the clean, hazy, and nostalgic sounds of vaporwave with the harsh and oppressive sounds of black metal, noise, and other extreme genres… Read More

WHITE DENIM – WORLD AS A WAITING ROOM album review

WHITE DENIM – WORLD AS A WAITING ROOM

Radio Milk Records, 2020

Psychedelic rock/Garage rock

The COVID-19 outbreak has pretty much turned our world upside down. One area of the world that has been affected in more ways than some people might expect is the music industry. Look no further for proof of how the machinations of things we take for granted go far beyond what we might imagine. The most obvious impact is the broad cancellation of the majority of tours and festivals. This not only impacts the ticket holders, but the venues and the people who work behind the scenes. Many major artists have delayed the release of their new albums because they won’t be able to support the release with a tour. Others have delayed them because the actual means of production of physical units has been impacted. However some artists are using this as an opportunity to give us new music. Trivium didn’t delay the release of their latest album so people would have something to listen to. Charli XCX announced that she would write, record, and release an album in 5 weeks from isolation. And another artist that made a similar promise was White Denim.

On March 14th, White Denim announced that they would write, record, and release an album by April 17th. For those keeping score, that’s another entire album completed in about 5 weeks. The band met their goal and the album was made available to download from their label’s website on April 17th. For the rest of us, it was added to all major streaming services on May 8th. For those who don’t know, White Denim are a psychedelic garage rock band who often incorporate elements of progressive and math rock by way of dizzying guitar riffs. This unique brand of rock music has created songs that range from amazing to needlessly complicated to unremarkable. So where do the tracks on World As A Waiting Room fall?

First off, it’s worth mentioning that the fact that this album even exists after such a short writing and recording period is impressive. I know internet personalities have recorded stuff in shorter time as a bit of a gimmick (like Rob Scallon and Andrew Huang’s First of October project where they write and record an entire album in a single day). But the fact that this is a group of four people and that they had the additional challenge of doing this during quarantine makes this quite an accomplishment, regardless of the quality of what’s in the album. And the fact that it’s actually decent is even more impressive.

Yes, while it’s not a spectacular standout in White Denim’s discography, World As A Waiting Room is pretty good. Plenty of garage rock grooves and catchy hooks can be found in its nine tracks. A few standout track in particular are “Matter of Matter,” “DVD,” and “Eagle Wings” where some of the frantic energy of the band’s earlier material can be found. White Denim’s signature fuzzy guitars are all over the album as you’d expect with organs and synths adding extra color on several tracks like “I Don’t Understand Rock and Roll” and “Slow Death.” I guess a good way to describe the album is that it’s on-brand with the style that White Denim have established for themselves.

There are a couple glaring weaknesses of the album, however. The track “Work” is pretty light on lyrical content and is also the longest song on the album at over 6 minutes. This means the few lyrics it has are repeated quite a few times. The song does have a pretty solid groove that makes it mostly tolerable, but once you get past the 4-minute mark, it starts to wear on you. Then there’s “Queen of the Quarantine” and yes, they went there. I know it’s pretty much expected that they would write a song about the quarantine when the entire album was written in quarantine, but this one just comes across as little more than corny. There are a couple other instances of repetitive lyrics like in “Go Numb,” but the rest of the tracks are short enough to keep them from getting too annoying.

Overall, the best way to sum up the album is the way I did earlier. It’s very on-brand for White Denim, and it’s ultimately a pretty engaging listen. Their more recent output hasn’t been the most memorable to me, so I’m glad to say this one was to a degree. It does have it’s weak points, but when you consider the short amount of time that this entire album was made in, they’re pretty easily forgiven.

3.5/5.0

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in April 2020

You know the drill! Another month has come and gone and that means that I’ve listened to a lot of good music that I couldn’t dedicate an entire review to. I really don’t want good things to go unnoticed, so here are some albums I thoroughly enjoyed from the month of April. As always, these albums would have received a score of 3.5 or higher if given a full review.

Warner Music Nashville

ASHLEY MCBRYDE – NEVER WILL–I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it. A lot of the best country music these days is being made by women. This new album from Ashley McBryde is the latest bit of evidence helping to prove my case. Not every song on it might be a winner, but the good songs on it more than make up for the weak ones. Sounds range from old-time bluegrass to modern, rock-tinged outlaw country and everything in between. Just another album proving to me that modern country isn’t a lost cause.

Freeways

FREEWAYS – TRUE BEARINGS–These guys are almost occupying the same realm as the Gygax album from last year. This is some old-school, Thin Lizzy-esque hard rock with riffs and dual guitar leads aplenty. The songwriting is really solid here and there’s really no filler on the album. If ’70s hard rock does it for you, you don’t want to miss this album. Maybe add it to your list for the next Bandcamp day.

Chrysalis/Partisan

LAURA MARLING – SONG FOR OUR DAUGHTER–Laura Marling’s music in recent years hasn’t done much to grab or hold my attention. This new album has changed that. Song For Our Daughter is some of Marling’s best work in years. The arrangements are more stripped back like her earlier albums, and her songwriting is incredibly strong and compelling. I wasn’t bored once in any of my listens through this one.

Horror Pain Gore Death

MOONS – GO OUT SWINGING–Okay, I’m more than a little biased with this one because I happen to personally know this band. But I wouldn’t be sharing it if I didn’t really think it was good. This is their first full-length album and they bring some truly heavy sludge metal riffs to the party. It’s not very long, but they make their time count. They’re also the type of band to use feedback as its own instrument. If you’re in the Philly area and you see these guys on a show bill, go check them out. Good time will be had.

4AD

PURITY RING – WOMB–Five years after their last album, Purity Ring have finally delivered their third full-length. I was beginning to get worried that we wouldn’t hear from one of the most unique synth-pop groups ever again. Womb doesn’t quite have the same hard-hitting trap EDM sound that their first albums had, but the ethereal atmosphere and creepy lyrics are still there. It’s nice to have new music from them, and I hope we don’t have to wait so long for more.

Dirty Hit

RINA SAWAYAMA – SAWAYAMA–This is one of the more interesting pop albums I’ve heard this year. Rina brings so many various styles together like dance pop, J-pop, and even nu-metal. She also pulls inspiration from some of the best pop acts of the ’90s and early ’00s. But none of these styles and influences clash with each other. Rina manages to mix and meld it all together in an ultimately impressive album.

Gates of Hell

SÖLICITÖR – SPECTRAL DEVASTATION–This is some old-school speed metal with badass female vocals, and it’s some of the best traditional metal I’ve heard this year. They manage to sound classic without sounding derivative and their songwriting is so good that they never sound samey over the course of their 40 minute album. This is definitely another one to keep in mind for the next Bandcamp day.

Brainfeeder

THUNDERCAT – IT IS WHAT IT IS–Funk fusion bassist extraordinaire Thundercat returns with a project that’s a bit leaner than 2017’s Drunk, but still packed with sub-2-minute jams. And that’s really one of the album’s weaknesses. A decent chunk of it feels like it was built around sketches and jams that weren’t fully realized. But when a fully formed track comes along, it’s great. The shorter tracks are still fun, just not as good as they could be.

Fat Possum

X – ALPHABETLAND–The legendary west-coast punks have come together and delivered their first studio album in 27 years and the first with the original line-up in 35! The formula really hasn’t changed for the band either. Along with classic punk, this album has their raw takes on classic rock and roll and rockabilly, much like their albums from the ’80s. The album ends with an observant spoken word piece recited by Exene Cervenka, giving a perspective of a punk who was there from the beginning.

THE WRECKS – INFINITELY ORDINARY album review

THE WRECKS – INFINITELY ORDINARY

Big Noise Music Group, 2020

Alternative/Indie pop/Power pop

This album showed up in a list of new releases for the week and I instantly recognized the name, but I couldn’t remember where from. Some quick digging revealed that a track from their first EP was in a playlist or something I came across a couple years ago and I added it to one of my own playlists. The track was “My Favorite Liar” and it was some decent pop punk with a bit of garage rock influence. The chorus was catchy and I liked how the song sounded happy but the lyrics were angry at a specific person. I then found out that Infinitely Ordinary is the band’s first full-length. After being reminded that they had left a positive impression, I went into it with some slight anticipation.

Well… let’s just say The Wrecks have made some stylistic changes since that first EP. There are a couple hints of the pop punk I was familiar with, but the majority of what’s here lines up more with radio ready alternative pop. Now, that’s not an inherently bad thing. Some bands like WALK THE MOON can write some damn good and damn catchy songs and I’m not ashamed to admit I enjoy them. But a lot of Infinitely Ordinary just isn’t doing it for me. There are a couple things I do like, so we’ll start with those.

“Out Of Style” is a fun dance rock track that has barely sung verses and big choruses that I think is telling the story of two former lovers that put some geographical distance between themselves and both of them are coping in some unhealthy ways. At first, I didn’t like the verses, especially the second one where the vocalists describes some LED lights he hung up in his room. But it eventually grew on me and it becomes hilarious in a way when you realize this is just a product of his chosen coping mechanisms. Along with that, the hooks in the song are just great. Another track I like to a lesser extent is “This Life I Have” that switches back and forth between light, AJR-esque passages and raw, garage punk like their older material. The lyrics deal with frontman Nick Anderson’s struggles with severe impostor syndrome and the wild musical differences represent how these bouts of depression and self-hatred can hit so suddenly. The only thing about it that really bugs me is how much like AJR some of the melodies sound, otherwise it’s one of the strongest tracks here.

Beyond that, “Feels So Nice” is okay pop rock with some synthpop in the mix, but it starts off with one of the worst lyrics. “You said I look like a Stones song/I said baby I could fuck like one too.” What do either of those statements even mean? It’s almost saved because immediately after this Anderson compares the girl to a Dylan song, but I can’t decide if that’s brilliant or really stupid. What really bugs me about the lyrics are the inconsistent messages all over this album. Normally I’m a little forgiving in this area, but the sequence of these tracks makes the problem worse. The track “Four” describes how Anderson is heartbroken after his girlfriend leaves and he wants her to come home. The song sells it at the end with Anderson’s voice cracking because he’s just so passionate about it. But he also just spent the last two tracks describing how he’s coping with an ended relationship by partying and how another relationship got so stale that he just wants out. Given that, the sincerity of “Four” is a hard sell, no matter how much his voice cracks.

What makes this even worse is the that the song immediately before this, “Fvck Somebody,” (yes, it’s spelled with a v) is all about how he’s become bored in a relationship and wants his girlfriend to mess up somehow so he has an easy way to get out of the relationship. First of all, dude just needs to grow a pair and talk to his girlfriend and just end things if it’s not working for him. I know it’s a hard thing to do and it’ll hurt and it sucks and it’d be nice if it was easy. But he literally says that he’s “gotta get out without it being my fault.” Dude, just break up if you’re unhappy. Second, following this with “Four” doesn’t make me feel bad with you, it makes me wonder if you really care.

The final piece to this confusing puzzle comes in the album closer, the title track, where he describes spending time with a girl and then says that he “could get used to this infinitely ordinary life.” But just a few tracks earlier he was practically begging his girlfriend to cheat on him because the relationship got so boring. So which is it!? And I know, all four of these tracks could be describing four different relationships, but the messaging is so different and in such close proximity in some of them that it can be frustrating. Especially when other songs are set up as coming from Anderson’s personal experiences, so we’re led to believe that these are all reactions to real events, whether they are or not.

The music itself on this album doesn’t really help either. “Four” pulls heavily from the AJR brand of modern indie pop and hints of it show up on “Fvck Somebody” as well. “We All Get Lonely” sounds like a Muse song without the political commentary. The title track pulls from modern pop tropes, and that’s not always a bad thing but this particular case feels really derivative. It also has a melody that reminds me of another song, but it’s by an artist that isn’t super widely known so I’m probably the only person who cares.

I guess what bothers me the most about this album is that we know The Wrecks can do better. Their first two EPs showed a lot of promise. This band had the potential to get some real mainstream traction and be a bright spot in the current landscape of pop rock music. To see them so quickly chase after trends on their first full-length is just disappointing. That being said, we also know they have talent, and it does poke through on a couple tracks. We can hope that they only get better from here.

1.5/5.0

Sean’s Favorites: 2011

Well, I certainly took my time getting to this one. Before you get too far, you might want to go back and refresh your memory of my 2010 list. But anyway, in 2011 I finished my second year of college and left that school for a couple reasons (let’s just say I didn’t transition well to the college lifestyle). The Marvel Cinematic Universe began to truly take root with the release of the first Thor and Captain America movies, NASA flew the last Space Shuttle mission, and Osama bin Laden was found and killed. The role music played in my life was pretty similar to 2010. I was still listening and reading as much as I could. I continued to discover new things and dig deeper into genres I previously hadn’t explored. Here are some albums that have endured for me from that time.

Capitol

BEASTIE BOYS – HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO–4 years since their last album, 7 years since their last album with lyrics, and 13 years after their last great album (sorry to fans of To the 5 Boroughs), the Beastie Boys came back in the best possible way. They came back loud, funky, and ready to party. Hot Sauce fits nicely in the sound that the Beasties established through the ’90s with obscure samples, live instruments, synths, and punk rock attitude. Other Beastie Boy staples like instrumental funk tracks and the odd punk song are here too. This really was a return to form for the Beasties and it would become a fitting end to their discography. MCA sadly passed away from cancer in 2012 and Mike D and Ad-Rock announced that they would not make new music as the Beastie Boys a couple years later.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO–2010’s Brothers broke The Black Keys into the mainstream, then El Camino blasted them off the charts. The fuzzy guitars in the opening seconds of “Lonely Boy” tell you immediately that you’re not getting the slow-jamming R&B rock of Brothers. This is going to be a raucous, badass garage rock record, and you better buckle up. But the Keys haven’t forgotten their blues roots. “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Little Black Submarines” still have hints of their beloved delta blues. And later tracks like “Hell of a Season” and “Stop Stop” still pull from R&B. El Camino really is the total package and the crown jewel of the later half of The Black Keys catalog. They haven’t quite captured the same magic since.

Jagjaguwar

BON IVER – self titled–My ass was planted firmly on the indie folk bandwagon in the early 2010s. I had heard of Bon Iver, but my knowledge was limited to the song “Skinny Love,” I hadn’t heard the rest of the first album. When I saw that he had come out with a new album and it was getting very good reviews, I gave it a chance. I pressed play and was met with… not indie folk. I don’t really know how to categorize what I heard but it was beautiful and incredibly compelling. I put this album in my car stereo and it stayed there for months, despite not really being “driving music.” There are so many layers to uncover on this album. Even as I revisit it for this list, I’m hearing new things along with what made me love it in the first place.

Sensibility/Columbia

THE CIVIL WARS – BARTON HOLLOW–Sticking with the indie folk theme, The Civil Wars were one of many groups to emerge during the genre’s boom at the time. A collaboration between contemporary Christian singer Joy Williams and Americana singer-songwriter John Paul White, the band quickly proved they were not just another Mumford clone trying to capitalize on a trend. Their sound was much quieter (mostly), and their lyrics embodied feelings of longing and loss in ways that other songwriters only dream of. Barton Hollow itself plays almost like a timeline of a relationship with lighter songs leading to the explosive and raucous title track. The tone then turns to darker minor key songs and then ends with bittersweet goodbyes. Unfortunately we only got one other album from The Civil Wars before they called it quits, but they will be remembered as one of the better parts of the indie folk boom of the 2010s.

Samples & Seconds/Republic

GOTYE – MAKING MIRRORS–Yes, this is the “Somebody That I Used to Know” album, and that song is fantastic, but I think we can all agree that it was overplayed at the time. However, this album is so much more than that song. It’s track list has just one indie pop gem after another, some with hints of old school soul and R&B and even hints of Paul Simon. There is some art-pop weirdness here and there, but it’s way more accessible than it isn’t. I also feel like the fact that “Somebody…” became such a meme distracted from the strength of Gotye’s songwriting and his voice. You really should do yourself a favor and check out the rest of this album, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find. The only downside is this is the last thing that Gotye has really released. But I keep my fingers crossed in hopes of someday getting another album.

Universal

OWL CITY – ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL–I feel like I’m going to lose a lot of music fan cred by admitting that I like Owl City. Say all you want about how he’s a more sanitized, ultra twee version of The Postal Service, but if you follow Adam Young, you find out that he has a serious DIY attitude and he just does what he wants, and I respect that. All Things Bright and Beautiful was his second major label release and, to me, the best example of the Owl City brand of synth pop. The instrumentals are super clean and precise with intricate percussion tracks. These back catchy melodies and lyrics that are full of metaphor and beautiful language (that is, admittedly a little cheesy, but way less than some found on Ocean Eyes). I could go on for awhile on this one. Maybe I’ll do a full write-up for it someday.

Pure Noise

THE STORY SO FAR – UNDER SOIL AND DIRT–By 2011, the emo and pop-punk bands of the late ’90s and ’00s had either disbanded or were making radio rock and bland power pop. It was enough to keep the fans happy, but the world needed a new class of pop-punk to bring the energy back. The new decade brought that with bands like Fireworks, Man Overboard, Real Friends, The Wonder Years, and Handguns. One that quickly rose to the top was The Story So Far who kept the catchy pop hooks but brought back the harder edge of punk with more raw vocals and energy that would permeate through the entire scene over the next few years. 2011 was a good year for pop-punk, and Under Soil and Dirt was one of its best releases.

Hassle

TURBOWOLF – self titled–In the last entry of this series, I mentioned that The Sword left me hungry for more riff-heavy hard rock and metal, but I had a hard time finding it. However, I was lucky enough to find Turbowolf while I was stumbling about in the dark. But Turbowolf is not your typical stoner or doom metal band. They do have sludgy guitars, an occult aesthetic, and riffs for days, but they also have the attitude and occasional speed of punk, the atmosphere of psychedelic, and the weird synths of horror punk. Mix this all together and you get the tasty, hard rocking riff smoothie of their self titled debut.

Vulf

VULFPECK – MIT PECK–Somewhere in Michigan, a few friends decided that they were going to start a band that tried to capture the vibe and sound of old live rhythm sections like The Wrecking Crew or the Muscle Shoals band. Little did they know that they were about to create the minimalist funk powerhouse of the modern era known as Vulfpeck. Mit Peck was the first collection of tracks they released into the world, containing songs like “Beastly” and the band’s signature track, “It Gets Funkier.” With this EP, Vulfpeck introduced us to their brand of retro-styled funk and soul, but more importantly it introduced us to the bass playing of Joe Dart. (We’re not worthy!)