Quarantine Quick Takes, Part 1: Big Names

I have been a bad blogger and I haven’t published anything for a few weeks. Even when I was told to work from home, I didn’t take advantage of the time to keep up with new releases. Instead I didn’t listen to anything for an entire week. Now I have a huge backlog and I’m working hard to get through it and to get some more content out. To make up for the lack of posts, I thought I’d put together some quick reviews of stuff that’s come out in March, similar to my monthly reviews but a tiny bit more in-depth and with actual scores. To kick things off, here are my thoughts on some of the releases by big-name artists that dropped this month.


CHILDISH GAMBINO – 3.15.20–I promise there’s album art there, it just happens to be a white square. Anyway, on March 15th, Donald Glover started streaming his latest Childish Gambino album in a continuous loop on a website, hence the title of the album. It was only up for a short time and then properly released to streaming services on March 22nd. People were wondering if a new album was coming after the singles “This Is America” and “Feels Like Summer” (the latter being on this album, as “42.26”). While most people seem to be into this thing, there are some who have expressed some disappointed, or at least mixed feelings about it. And I’m one of them. I’m sorry, but this just feels directionless and forgettable at times. I do like some of the beats and the occasional industrial feel, but overall this is pretty disappointing. 2.5/5.0


DUA LIPA – FUTURE NOSTALGIA–Here we have another pleasantly surprising album for this year. I went into this with no previous knowledge of who Dua Lipa is or her music up to this point. All I knew is that her name is freaking everywhere right now. What I didn’t expect was to be hit with nu disco banger after banger. Falling right in line with the title, most of the tracks draw heavy influence from the disco revival of the past decade, and they’re pretty damn good. The instrumentals are the real stars here with at least one instance of all of your favorite disco throwbacks, including talkbox, strings, and a properly French disco vocoder! With only a couple exceptions, the lyrics aren’t anything special. Most are about dancing, sex, or both. But then again, so was a lot of old school disco. You can tell that Dua Lipa had fun with this one. And you know what, so did I. 4.0/5.0

1501 Certified/300

MEGAN THEE STALLION – SUGA–Megan Thee Stallion came up with a surprisingly strong debut mixtape with last year’s Fever. She quickly took her place beside Nicki Minaj and Cardi B as one of the top female rappers and gained some viral traction with her “Hot Girl Summer” last year. This year started with reports that Megan was having trouble with her record label. The result of these troubles is a restraining order and this EP to hold us over until she can release a proper debut album. Like Minaj and Cardi, Megan isn’t shy about her sexuality, and honestly I’m still getting used to that being a subject in hip-hop, but the fact that it makes me uncomfortable means it’s working. Megan’s skills as a rapper are on full display on this EP, but it does suffer a bit when she dips her toes in the realm of pop R&B in a couple later tracks. These attempts come across pretty generic and forgettable. Hopefully her eventual debut album can make up for it. 3.0/5.0

Neon Haze/Capitol

NIALL HORAN – HEARTBREAK WEATHER–With his debut solo album Flicker, this former member of One Direction proved himself to be one of the more capable performers without the support of the group. Which has been a challenge for most of the members. With his second album, Horan continues to prove that he has more to offer than his association with the group. A handful of songs have nice nods to ’80s pop and solid hooks. The album opener and title track is particularly fun, as is the dance pop “Nice To Meet Ya.” Other tracks fit comfortably in the realm of modern pop but they’re mostly tolerable. Nothing particularly special, but nothing outright awful either. Lyrically, it’s pretty safe. A common theme seems to be small talk with a romantic interest. It’s not amazing, but it could be a lot worse. 3.0/5.0

The Null Corporation
The Null Corporation

NINE INCH NAILS – GHOSTS V: TOGETHER/GHOSTS VI: LOCUSTS–On March 26, Trent Reznor and company surprise released two sequels to the dark ambient Ghosts I-IV released back in 2008. Full disclosure, my familiarity with the previous Ghosts is limited to the sample used in “Old Town Road” and any instance of it being used in the real world and I heard it unknowingly. I’m also not a very active fan of ambient music. However I am familiar with Reznor’s soundtrack work with Atticus Ross. Starting with Together, I found it to be ultimately disappointing. The first half of the album has aimless synth and string drones with piano bits that are just kind of there and not really generating any interest. Things pick up a good bit on the second half with more interesting uses of the space and more intriguing synths. Reznor said that Together was meant for when you feel hopeful, but there’s still an atmosphere of tension and uneasiness. I guess it’s about as hopeful as a NIN release can get, though.

Locusts, on the other hand, I found to be far more interesting and successful at creating atmosphere and mood as ambient music. Reznor and Ross make much better use of the space to induce anxiety and create tension. It plays like the unsettling ambient soundtrack to a psychological thriller or atmospheric survival horror game. While it’s longer than Together, it’s packaged better over shorter tracks. However, it’s not really a game changer when it comes to ambient music or NIN in general. And they both are quite long, each one clocking in over 70 minutes. 2.5/5.0 (Together), 3.5/5.0 (Locusts)


PEARL JAM – GIGATON–Full disclosure, I’m not too familiar with Pearl Jam’s work post-Vitalogy except maybe the odd single here and there from the early 2000s. That being said, this album is pretty disappointing. When I think of Pearl Jam, I think of memorable guitar riffs and catchy chorus hooks. A few of their songs had some of the most impressive guitar work coming out of the biggest Seattle bands of the early ’90s. Gigaton just feels like it has no idea what it wants to be. Most of the tracks just feel like generic guitar rock, others go on longer than they need to, and “Dance of the Clairvoyants” sounds like they’re trying to be the Talking Heads. This is another one getting a lot of praise I just don’t understand. It’s average at best and nothing special at all really. 2.0/5.0


THE WEEKND – AFTER HOURS–The Weeknd has come a long way from his trilogy of mixtapes in 2011. I never really listened or got into R&B music, but I always kept one eye on The Weeknd because I felt like, of all the alternative R&B artists getting big, he had the potential to really impress me. There have been a few bright spots, but overall he hasn’t really accomplished that. When I saw the promotional material for After Hours, I got a little excited about the new vintage aesthetic. Maybe this could be the one. Well, it’s still not quite there. After a weak start, the album picks up a little, but there’s still a bit of bland, generic sounding R&B here that just fails to excite me. Later we get the more new wave and even synthwave inspired tracks like “Blinding Lights,” and that’s where the album really shines. The Weeknd still hasn’t quite blown me away, but this is the closest he’s gotten yet. 3.0/5.0


KESHA – HIGH ROAD album review


Kemosabe/RCA, 2020


There’s no easy way around it, Kesha’s had a rough go at it. Between eating disorders and her lawsuits, her personal life hasn’t been what one might call a good time. However, she has proven over and over to be incredibly strong, pushing through the adversity and not allowing it to keep her from doing what she loves to do: make music. Despite the less than agreeable trajectory her lawsuits have followed, she must have at least earned some creative freedom. Regardless of the score I put at the bottom of this page, this is a bold album for a pop star to release.

The range of styles and influences present on this album is far and wide and apparent in the very first track. “Tonight” starts like an epic piano ballad in the vein of songs like “We Are Young,” talking about how we need to live our lives now because it’s all we might have. Which sounds terribly cliche, but you soon learn that it’s intentionally cliche. The song quickly transitions to the party pop that made Kesha famous on her debut. This same style shows up on a few tracks on this album to great effect (especially “My Own Dance,” “Raising Hell,” and “Birthday Suit”), proving that she’s still really good at her specific brand of tongue-in-cheek, simple pop that serves no other purpose than to be fun to dance to.

The other style that appears on here is a more emotional country-ish pop that appeared on her last album, Rainbow. This is best on “Chasing Thunder” that blends gospel gang vocals and even little hints of bluegrass. “Country Blues” is similar, and while the sentiment of wondering if you missed a chance at a happy relationship feels sincere, its attempts at being cute only kind of work. The other notable track in this style is “Resentment” featuring Sturgill Simpson, Brian Wilson (yes, the Beach Boys guy), and Wrabel. Despite the input from true musical heavyweights, the song ends up being only okay. The rest of the tracks fall into pretty basic pop, but nothing is outright bad. There is one outlier, but we’ll get to that later.

If you go into a Kesha record looking for real thought provoking lyrical depth, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Deep is something Kesha just doesn’t do, but she’s also self-aware. You can pretty easily tell that being deep isn’t the goal on the dance tracks. That doesn’t mean that she’s a bad lyricist, in some cases she’s actually clever and crass at the same time. You get a sense that every “fuck” is a statement and you can’t tell me “don’t circumcise my circumstance” wasn’t a deliberate choice. A lack of depth also doesn’t mean that she can’t be sincere. I previously mentioned “Cowboy Blues,” but there’s even more genuine sincerity on tracks like “BFF” and “Father Daughter Dance.” The former is a truly heartfelt appreciation of her friendship with Wrabel and the latter expresses how she feels like she missed out on experiences other girls get to have since she never knew her father.

The only song that doesn’t really land for me at all is “The Potato Song.” It’s intended to be this statement song about how she can do whatever she wants and it has this oom-pah beat and intentionally silly lyrics. And I get it, I really do; it’s symbolic. She’s proving that she can do what she wants by putting this truly ridiculous song on her album. You can take it as her really just driving the point home or taking it too far. Personally, I lean more towards it being a step too far. You’ve been spending the entire album trying to make this point. Was taking it to the lengths of “The Potato Song” really necessary on an album that’s already 15 or 16 tracks long?

At the end of the day, High Road is a long-ish and uneven record. But when it’s good, it’s a lot of fun. Kesha is out to prove that she’s not going to let the bad things that happen to her keep her down. She’s answering to nobody but herself and she’s going to make her music the way she wants to, dammit! It’s a refreshing exercise in self-expression in the current landscape of pop music, even if some of those expressions fall a little short.