KESHA – HIGH ROAD album review

KESHA – HIGH ROAD

Kemosabe/RCA, 2020

Pop

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.

3.0/5.0

LOUIS TOMLINSON – WALLS album review

LOUIS TOMLINSON – WALLS

Arista/78, 2020

Pop/Pop rock/Britpop

It’s something that’s inevitable for every boy band or girl group. Whether they break up or not, their members will always release solo albums. There are some exceptions to the rule, like Justin Timberlake, but in general the solo releases are never as successful as the group albums. With the release of Walls, every member of One Direction has now put out a solo effort. A couple were better than others but they’re pretty much following the same trend. I’m not even really a fan of 1D, but there is a certain something they have all together that none of them have quite delivered on their own. Walls is no exception, but now the question is exactly how short it falls.

It’s not uncommon for boy band members to try and brand themselves with a specific style when they try to strike out on their own. For the most part, the 1D guys have stayed pretty close to generic pop. Harry spread out a little on his last album and Niall played around with some acoustic guitars and a hint of folk pop, but that’s about as far as anyone had gone successfully. With Walls, Louis appears to be branding himself as the Britpop guy, more specifically the Oasis-style Britpop guy. This is apparent from the first song where he sings with a cadence that sounds like Liam Gallagher. And this same voice comes back along with Oasis-style melodies on nearly half of the tracks on the album, and the title track even has a very “Wonderwall”-esque drum fill (there’s actually a couple hints at “Wonderwall” on the album).

That’s not to say that an Oasis influence is a bad thing. There’s a reason they were one of the most popular British bands of the ’90s. They’ve probably influenced dozens, if not hundreds of artists. The problem comes when the influence crosses a line into just copying, and then copying to the extent that it’s distracting. And that’s a line that this album crosses, a lot. It’s not really saved by the rest of the tracks, either. They’re all pretty generic pop or acoustic ballads that teenage girls will latch onto and teenage boys will play to impress those same girls. One in particular, “Perfect Now,” feels like it’s trying to be this decade’s “Hey There Delilah,” but it makes more sense in the context of this pop album than “Delilah” did on a pop-punk album.

Lyrically, Louis does rise above your typical vapid pop on a couple tracks. The first is “Two of Us,” a track dedicated to Tomlinson’s mother, who died in 2016 after a bout with leukemia. In it, he promises to live on in her memory with a bright vision for the future. Another instance is “Too Young,” and while it does basically follow the trope of being too young to fully realize what love is, it kind of approaches it from a different angle. Here Tomlinson is apologizing for giving into the pressure of others telling him he was too young and cutting off a relationship in a bad way. So the way I’m hearing it is he admits he was too young to understand true love, but also too young to realize that what they had probably could have lasted…? Maybe? I don’t know, but to me it’s a little refreshing despite the overall trope of the song. The rest of the lyrics on the album don’t really present much to write home about, but he does manage to avoid truly cringe-inducing lyrics for the most part.

Overall, Walls isn’t a terrible album, but it’s not a particularly good one, either. It’s greatest sin is ripping off Oasis, and there are far worse musical sins that one can commit. But it is a pervasive sin, nonetheless. Beyond that, there are two lyrical bright spots and the rest of the tracks are pretty forgettable pop. I don’t fault Louis for trying to give himself an identity outside of One Direction, but he really should have tried to find his own instead of adopting someone else’s.

2.0/5.0

Honorable Mentions of 2019

Before we get into my top favorites of the year, I’d like to mention some albums that are good in their own ways but didn’t quite make the cut. These are albums that represent some kind of special achievement, a better-than-expected comeback, or albums that impressed me in one way but weren’t really exceptional for one reason or another. Not much else to say beyond that, so on to the musics!

Equal Vision

AS CITIES BURN – SCREAM THROUGH THE WALLS–As Cities Burn finally give their fans the album they’ve been waiting 14 years for! No, I didn’t count wrong. Not only is this their first release in 10 years, but it’s the first since their 2005 debut to feature original vocalist TJ Bonnette. This reunion also brings harsh vocals back into the mix, but this isn’t just an attempt to recreate Son, I Loved You at Your Darkest. This album pulls inspiration from their entire catalog. The frantic, mathy hardcore of 2005 is traded for competent post-hardcore with mature, but distinctly As Cities Burn songwriting. Watch my full review here.

RCA

BACKSTREET BOYS – DNA–On their first album in six years, the Backstreet Boys actually try to bring their sound up to current trends. The result is better than you’d probably expect. I’m not saying it’s great, because there are some tracks here that sound incredibly dated and others that just plain aren’t that good. But a Backstreet Boys album in 2019 could have been a lot worse than this. Part of the reason I think it went this well is the group is talented enough vocally to apply themselves in a lot of different situations. It’s one of the reasons they’re one of the few bands from their era still releasing music as a group.

Darkroom/Interscope

BILLIE EILISH – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?–Billie Eilish has been getting a ton of hype this year and it will probably upset some people that this album is an honorable mention and not on my final year-end list. And look, I pretty much agree that she is a very exciting and promising voice for the future of pop music, especially considering she’s only 17. I think she has the potential to put out some really fantastic albums, but this just isn’t doing it for me like it is for other people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic debut for a young artist, but I think the best is yet to come from Billie Eilish. Watch my full review here.

Real World

THE GLOAMING – 3–The award for the prettiest album I’ve heard this year should probably go to this one. The Gloaming is an Irish folk band that tries to modernize the music by incorporating elements of contemporary classical, post-rock, and minimalism. The results aren’t necessarily ambient, but very beautiful and pensive tracks with sparse arrangements. Another carryover from post-rock is long songs with many on this album being over seven minutes, but none of them overstay their welcome. It’s an excellent album for both active listening and just playing in the background.

Decca

JEFF GOLDBLUM & THE MILDRED SNITZER ORCHESTRA – I SHOULDN’T BE TELLING YOU THIS–Jeff Goldblum continues his venture into the realm of jazz musicians with his second album, this one being a proper studio album. His backing band returns and the album features several guest vocalists, including Miley Cyrus, Sharon Van Etten, and Fiona Apple. Goldblum only offers his own voice to one track, deferring to his talented guests for most others. In a similar fashion, his piano playing is beyond competent, but he’s content to sit back in the mix and let other members of his band take the solos. There are a few clever mashups of pop lyrics with jazz instrumentals. The only thing missing is the banter with the audience and the guests like we got on The Capitol Studios Sessions. Read my full review here.

Thrill Jockey

MATMOS – PLASTIC ANNIVERSARY–Matmos, a group famous for building their songs from samples of everyday objects, turns their focus to plastic. Creating an entire album from plastic items is not only a creative challenge but an environmental message. At first, that might make this sound like a novelty record with a heavy-handed agenda, but the result is some truly impressive electronic music. Matmos effectively try their hand at various musical styles including IDM, industrial, and even Samba, all using items like vinyl records, silicone implants, billiard balls, and a riot shield. It’s very impressive for a group to continue challenging themselves like this so deep into their career and still turn out really compelling music. Watch my full review here.

Nuclear Blast

POSSESSED – REVELATIONS OF OBLIVION–And the winner of the band that waited the longest time between releases goes to the OG death metal band Possessed who put out Revelations of Oblivion thirty-two years after their last release of new material. Now, the only original member is vocalist Jeff Becerra (I know, I’m disappointed Larry LaLonde didn’t come back too), but he really does keep the original spirit of Possessed (hehe, spirit) alive in this new iteration. Usually, when a band comes back after an extended break the results leave a bit to be desired, but Revelations doesn’t suck, which is quite the accomplishment.

NPG/Warner Bros.

PRINCE – ORIGINALS–This is a collection of demos of songs that Prince wrote for other artists. If I’m perfectly honest, I wasn’t too familiar with many of these songs. And some of the ones I was familiar with, I didn’t know Prince wrote them (Manic Monday? Really?!!?). Even though these are demos, they are fully fleshed out performances of these songs, sometimes rivaling proper studio releases. Truly a testament to Prince’s perfectionism. I know you’re wondering, and yes, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is on here, and it’s just as amazing as you’re imagining. It’s just so interesting to hear how these songs were originally envisioned by their writer.

Starbomb

STARBOMB – THE TRYFORCE–Starbomb is a collaboration between comedy band Ninja Sex Party and YouTube gamer/artist Arin Hanson (a.k.a. Egoraptor). The collaboration is really not too surprising given that Danny from NSP is Arin’s co-host on the YouTube gaming channel Game Grumps. Starbomb’s sound takes the ’80s synth inspired sound of NSP and puts rapped lyrics about video games over it. The Tryforce is the group’s third (and possibly final) album and their best so far. The production has gotten better and so has their songwriting, which has transitioned from fitting as many dirty jokes as possible into a song to clever lyrics and wordplay. Comedy music is pretty niche already, making it all about video games narrows the demographic even more. But if you’re into either of those, you don’t want to miss this.

Spring Snow/Columbia

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – FATHER OF THE BRIDE–Six years after capping off a fantastic trilogy of albums with Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend return with their fourth album. Representing a bit of a stylistic shift for the band, the album pulls inspiration from genres like Americana and jam bands like Phish, but it still has a sound that is very distinctly Vampire Weekend. With only a couple exceptions, the compositions on this album are a bit more relaxed, but their lyrics are still just as dense as they’ve ever been. The album is a bit long and as such, there is some filler, but there are some real gems on here. “Harmony Hall” in particular is one of my favorite singles of the year. Watch my full review here.