I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
As first reactions and reviews of The Killers’ seventh studio LP Pressure Machine started to reel in, shortly after the record’s release date in mid August, many a critics and fans were quick to draw uncompromising parallels between said project and Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska. One would be doomed to fault them—the creative and spiritual surface-level similitudes between the two albums abound in spades. For starters, both full-lengths sound bare, dour, and austere, and sit adjacently to one of each respective act’s bigger, louder, and more mainstream outings to date—that is, 1984’s Born in the USA for Springsteen and last year’s Imploding the Mirage as far as the Las Vegas quartet is concerned.
Moreover, on a thematic level, apparent bona fide heartland rock and its derived blue-collar sensibilities permeate both projects’ lyrical menageries from cradle to grave, and while this is not anything new for either artist, the executional earnestness and intention of both Nebraska and Pressure Machine are peak career-level for both. Notwithstanding a creative je ne sais quois ethos pledging allegiance to full blown electric arena rock instrumentation as their trademark modus operandi, these two records and their wall-to-wall unplugged, reverberated, and acoustic tapestries seem to stick out like sore thumbs in each artist’s wider discography.
Pernickety and rambunctious thinkpiecers and fact-diggers need little time to push parallels even further, to the point of stressing out how both 1982’s storied Nebraska and this year’s Pressure Machine saw the light of day at the dawn of what would be poised to be a volatile and erratic decade to come: without clear winners or losers, and soaked amidst new technological frontiers enthralling and deranging folks in equal measure. Not to mention the comparisons drawn between both records being—loosely speaking—’concept albums’ about the good, the bad, and the evil of modern ordinary, down-on-their-luck working class anti-heroes, sparing no mention of sins and unredeemable qualities.
Now for the juicy bit, ladies and gentlemen—contrary to public opinion, we instead maintain that rather than Nebraska, Pressure Machine is The Killers’ very own Tunnel of Love, aka the Boss’ cherished eight studio album (1987). We stand to defend such assertion through a multitude of deductions and derivative clues, ranging from face-value chassis to low-level musical dissections and presumptions. At the risk of overthinking and exceedingly intellectualise the creative process engraved at the heart of both albums, we’ll go as far as to unpack each single record sequenced on the Las Vegas quartet’s bundle, and bring forward educated hypotheses as to what their companion spiritual Tunnel of Love pieces are.
Humour us on some documentarist archival trivia first. For Christ’s sake: look no further than the two album’s front covers (reported below) and the evident color scheming and wireframing they share. Would the communal traits start and end here, this would obviously be a non-starter on account of how many other albums sleeves share similar flairs and iconographies. Let us look at both records’ runtimes then—a field of comparison that should win over the curiosity of most. Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love clocks in at exactly 46:25 minutes, while the abridged (i.e. the non-spoken interludes and skits version) duration of Pressure Machine comes eerily close at 46:19 (!). We’re talking negligible differences of a mere six seconds across full length projects featuring twelve and eleven tracks, respectively (Nebraska instead only plays for 40 minutes).
Speaking of which—delving into the collections of songs laced into both LPs, the non-inclusion of the New Jersey prodigal son’s “Ain’t Got You” as part of this pound-for-pound creative appraisal is the sole concession we’re humbly asking from our dear readers, which we’re sure you’ll oblige. With its humorous and faux-bragging a cappella demeanour, coasting atop of a minimalistic and one-dimensional analogue tapestry, not only does the Tunnel of Love sound like a fish out of water amidst the sincerity and heart-on-sleeve vulnerability of the subsequent eleven numbers, but the songwriting at the core of its tune is nothing to write home about either, frankly.
We’ll cut to the chase: Pressure Machine’s first track “West Hills“‘s sombre, waltzy, and granite appeal could easily be equated to “Tougher Than the Rest“, incidentally the opening cut on an analytical Tunnel of Love minus “Ain’t Got You” too. Conversely, the jollier and softer stylistic undertones of subsequent album lead single “Quiet Town” are not too far removed from the incisive impact of Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise“, especially as both songs wrestle with darker and more dour lyrical textures juxtaposed to the easier on the ear instrumentation. Meanwhile, the stark and naked acoustic strumming of the unplugged “Terrible Thing” has got to make it Pressure Machine’s very own “Cautious Man“—easily the most bare bone stripped back offering on Tunnel of Love.
Bear with us, as we continue to ask for a certain degree of mental elasticity and artistic openness. Are the vocal cadences, angular sonic dynamics, and overall compositional structures of “Cody” not somewhat reminiscent of those in “Walk Like a Man“? The similitudes here are not the uncanniest under the sun, but they’re definitely there when listening closely enough. Even more striking are the percussive and harmonic parallels between “Sleepwalker” and the title track on the Boss’s album though. Beyond the subtle mutual melodic nods, try to pay specific attention to the rhythmic pockets between 1:09-1:43 on the former and 0:58-1:35 on the latter. Not talking about actual beats and rudiments, but rather grooves, patterns, and tightness.
Elsewhere on Pressure Machine, the Phoebe Bridgers-assisted folklore troubadour lullaby “Runaway Horses” and its shtick would in many ways sit quite at home placed back-to-back to the inflections and cadences heard on “When You’re Alone“, would it not? Moving on from there; absent the just ever so slightly increased BPM rate, track seven on Pressure Machine “In the Car Outside“—undoubtedly one of the stickier and melodically riper tunes this side of the heartland fence—is not necessarily miles away from the gelid synth tapestries, melancholic paratexts, and exaggeratedly lingering instrumental outro similarly sported by “Two Faces“. What we mean is that these two tracks sound like they just shine the same light.
By a similar token, the Las Vegas band’s frontman Brandon Flowers’ verse delivery and intonations on album standout “In Another Life“, sequenced at number eight on Pressure Machine, seem to recall in large parts the auditory rendering of the moral voluptuousness of “All That Heaven Will Allow“—both deep cuts’ unclothed and one-dimensional simplicity underline more than one lowest common denominator. Meanwhile, when decoupled from their apparent musical shells and boiled down to the narrating arc of their inertia-driven linear storytelling ethos, The Killers’ incredible “Desperate Things” (incidentally the most Nebraska-esque Killers helping to date) and Springsteen’s “Spare Parts” ring as if they could have genuinely sprouted from the same writing session.
Next thing we know, we’re nearing the end of Pressure Machine’s side B and runtime as a whole, as a result of our ambitious and pretentious intellectualisation. One could say we reserved the best for last, as The Killers’ gentle, tender, and pretty title track, with its soft and cradling arpeggio and elliptical trajectory, is nothing if not The Boss’ “One Step Up“s legitimate and groomed daughter. Closing number “The Getting By” (NB: clocking in at 5:10) represents the ultimate grand finale of references, both on a musical and empirical level. When paired up with Tunnel of Love’s own curtain call “Valentine’s Day” (NB: 5:12 minutes long), their dialled-down groove and idyllic six-string work are almost too close for comfort, making both tunes mutually interchangeable without impacting either album’s flow.
Listen, we’re in no way suggesting The Killers did this on purpose. We’re fully aware that some of the analogies presented above are more reliable and valid than others. Some of them certainly come off as a bit of a stretch. But most of the facts and figures illustrated above speak for themselves. Forget not, this has got to be seen as part of a creative continuum where musicians are constantly borrowing from each other’s work. Where they’re getting inspired and influenced by previous musical references and artistic milestones. One where they’re often, consciously or unconsciously, paying both tribute and worship to past beacons of theirs. Brandon Flowers and his band are no strangers to admitting to adoring and borrowing from the generous sounds of The Boss: after several albums on which their Nevada glittery gloss lent them a glamorous façade, the pressure of their American songwriting machine finally caught up on them.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
Minneapolis, MN alternative rock giants The Replacements released seven studio albums during their active lifetime as a band throughout the Eighties. It comes probably as no surprise that the front end of their discography—culminating with their legendary back-to-back triplet that transitioned them onto major label stardom, Let It Be (1984), Tim (1985), and Pleased to Meet Me (1987)—is commonly and widely considered to be their musical and creative apex, by both high and low-brow listeners alike. There is also little denying of the fact that a specular widespread fan consensus over their last two full length outings, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul and the following year’s swan song All Shook Down (basically a proto-Paul Westerberg solo helping), is somewhat lukewarm and nothing to write home about, at best.
Here’s the catch: hoarding broad-brush critical agreement never pushed the envelope of stoked human progress. However, speaking of broad brushes, more than revisiting and reclaiming entire parts of The Mats’ overall recorded studio output—which incidentally is completed a raft of additional live albums, compilation bundles, and EPs—this piece looks to rewrite history for on one particular project. Or rather still, its hitherto tainted, jagged, and misunderstood legacy.
Such zeroed-in record answers to the name of the aforementioned Don’t Tell a Soul: an 11-track album initially released on 1st February 1989 on Warner Music’s Sire Records. It’s The Replacements’ sixth, and the first ever featuring lead guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap on tape, who was called up in lieu of late and disgraced founding member Bob Stinson in early 1987. Now, before delving irreparably into the nooks and crannies of the argumentation here, at this stage it should probably be mentioned how this album did in actuality fare largely favourably with both music critics and the mainstream at the time.
For Christ’s sake—according to trusted sources including the documentary The Replacements: Color Me Obsessed, Don’t Tell a Soul still stands as the band’s biggest selling LP to date. Which is something that makes a featured thinkpiece set out to defend it and its glossy sound engineering such as this one all the more logically frail. Yet anytime The Replacements, their commitment to self-derangement, and their larger-than-life looming indie lore come into the foray, logic and rationality always kind of seem to default to getting thrown out of a conceptual window.
Remember the raft of additional live albums, compilation bundles, and EPs that help beef up and ornament The Mats’ lauded discography on top of their seven studio LPs? Well, glad you do—for it turns out that one of the most recent issues as part of said catalogue is an ambitious four-disc, 60-track box set filed under the title Dead Man’s Pop. It was earmarked, manufactured, and distributed in 2019 by Rhino Entertainment, under the careful curatorial supervision of the band’s biographer Bob Mehr as well as a slew of syrupy Warner execs. Crucially, the collection’s first disc is entirely comprised of a remixed, re-arranged, and re-sequenced version of Don’t Tell a Soul.
Colloquially dubbed the Don’t Tell a Soul Redux, this overhauled and reimagined collection of tracks both sprouted and harvested from raw session mixes by the album’s original producer (albeit not final mixing engineer) Matt Wallace—who was pretty much a nameless, faceless indie bloke at the time. These stood in sharp contrast to the subsequent major label-endorsed mixing work and production carried out by 80s engineering royalty and multi-Grammy Awards-winning Chris Lord-Alge, whose pedigree and portfolio read like a greatest hits list of names of that decade (Tina Turner, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna).
Therefore, far from a nostalgic and self-indulgent collector’s item, Dead Man’s Pop’s inherent revisiting flair ended up pulling out all the archival stops, except becoming an actual 30th-year anniversary reissue of Don’t Tell a Soul. For one, it’s completed by a slate of additional bundles, starting with a second disc of rarities and non-album cuts billed We Know the Night: Rare and Unreleased, collating early versions of rough drafts from the group’s Don’t Tell a Soul studio sessions, as well as late-night drunken collaborations recorded with storied singer/songwriter Tom Waits. Two final batches of tracks attached to the box set combine to form a full live album titled The Complete Inconcerated Live, expanding on the quartet’s eponymous 1989 promotional EP.
Now for the aggravating bit, ladies and gentlemen: multiple sources (as well as the horse’s very own mouth) claim that such a rush of new-found curatorial blood to the head was motivated by principal songwriter, co-founder, and creative mastermind Paul Westerberg’s fundamental dissatisfaction with their original product released thirty years ago. A reckoning that translates into the epiphany that Paul himself, bassist Tommy Stinson, stickman Chris Mars, and Slim Dunlap—in addition to countless fans around the globe—had had to coexist and wrestle with such a profound juxtapositional ethos as they looked back on their best selling album for over three decades. Pretty on brand for The Mats, if you ask us. Let that sink in for a moment.
This still leaves us at the mercy of a discursive place acknowledging how the band, its closest entourage, its devoted and diehard fans, as well as most of the critical ivory tower leagues rallied together in solidarity begging for ‘another chance’. They all convened and called for The Replacements to take another stab at the true work of art that lurked beneath Don’t Tell a Soul’s surface level polish and uptight elegance. In this respect, look no further than group’s frontman Paul Westerberg going as far as stating that “[the record] sounded good until the label brought in people to mix it to make it sound like everything else on the radio”. Elsewhere, so Wallace in retrospect: “At the time, when the mixing […] was completed, I had numerous musician friends who were rabid fans of The Replacements and each one […] accused me of ‘ruining The Replacements’”.
Yet again on the other side of this raison d’être inquisition lie folks such as yours truly—evidently allied with hundreds of thousands of disposable income-owners and unit-movers—who are struggling to make heads or tails of such a tardive and, frankly, spoilt creative undoing. This is done while hastily pointing at selected stems (requesting exhibit ”Asking Me Lies“), flat out superior songwriting-to-tape on key tunes (requesting exhibits “They’re Blind” and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here“), a more cohesive overall listen and tracklisting (requesting exhibit “I Won’t“), as well as BVs that actually enhance a composition rather than jeopardise it (requesting exhibit “We’ll Inherit the Earth“), to humbly will-whisper into existence a trialling accompanied by the following sentence: the original 1989 Don’t Tell a Soul is a better album. Period.
Your honours, isn’t this the part where we would take it upon ourselves to analyse and dissect individual clues to further cement and corroborate similar claims? Should we, though? Instead, one could surely begin with stressing out how no one involved in the conception of the record, from Paul himself to higher-ups at the label, was or is a foolish impulsive decision-maker actively pursuing a high-budget product’s kneecapping. Certainly, one has got to surrender their self-centrism and loosen their tie and trust the process here—yet perhaps more importantly embrace the notion that the band, its management, and the underlying business that supports and profits from it must’ve arrived at the decision to enrol Chris Lord-Alge on mixing duties carefully and considerably.
Yes, of course the irony of lining up signifiers such as management, business, and profit next to a band like The Replacements all in one sentence is not lost on us. Yet we humbly ask: has a sly and red herring-y knack for a dorky and naive smoke and mirrors facade not always been The Mats’ divisive modus operandi all along their blistering career? What if Dead Man’s Pop and its apparent long-overdue redemptive fanfare—finally cancelling alleged wrongs committed at the height of the group’s major label career—were all yet another sublime con-job sculpted by Paul and co. to mock industry and fanbase alike? What if we all chose to believe that the original version of this album is The Replacements’ second career act’s pièce de résistance? No matter the real answer—Mr Westerberg would not want us to tell a single soul anyway.
“It’s late July and the sky is so grey / Everyone’s in bed for a month in LA / The house is so quiet, it’s barely making a sound / My hands are shaking, my heart is beatin’ so loud“: this snapshot sourced from Ryan Adams‘ latest standout record “In It For the Pleasure” might just be ultimate living proof that the singer/songwriter has finally come to realise his definitive “soundtrack to a movie from 1984 that exists only in [his] soul“. A strict Ultracolor VCR motion picture, mind you. Bundled and contextualised as the North Carolina native’s eighteenth solo studio outing, the picturesque 12-track Big Colors station is for all intents and purposes Adams’ own shelved and obscure OST version of the show Moonlighting. Released on the heartland rocker’s very own PaxAm Recording label a mere six months after his surprise return on the scene with the bleak and dour Wednesdays, this project is reportedly billed the second in an ambitious trilogy of LPs unveiled over the course of twelve months.
This body of work is largely produced by Ryan at the helm with the support from previous collaborators Beatriz Artola and legendary Blue Note Records president Don Was. It reads as an early-to-mid 80s power pop score that clocks in at just 39 minutes of runtime, for what is the 46-year old shortest solo album to date. Notwithstanding the scantier playback experience offered here, this collection of tracks cruises by listeners like ducks to water, effortlessly translating into a renewed cohesive and layered auditory session. Not afraid, faltering, or too shy to borrow heavy-handedly from his adjacent “watercolor painting of neon blue smoke rising up off summer streets in the night“, on this thing Adams again succeeds at transcending space and time, dishing out a unified sunny season solstice affresco composed of its more dejected and understated traits.
The Big Colors’ tape was teased and anticipated by the surprise-release of the hypnotic, hammering, and introspective lead single “Do Not Disturb“, followed by the sweet free-form composition of the falsetto’ed title track in mid May. Both tasters clearly tapped into dreamlike sonic lighthouses, coasting on seas of chorus and reverb-effects—a formidably executed formula one first saw the seven-time Grammy nominee pitilessly adopt on his flawless 2014 eponymous studio album. Incidentally, both cuts double as the first two songs sequenced on the overall project, whose subsequent Smiths-onian helping “It’s So Quiet, It’s Loud” is one sure to appeal to listeners of all stripes, by way of its apex technicolor and cinematic flairs: “And the night drags on / We finish drinks sideways / Telephone rings, rattles once and stops / It hangs up while you’re dreaming / My eyes are open now / Outside it’s pouring / I daydream your voice / It echoes through the halls / In my mind, racing through the crowd / I hear your voice say mine“.
The 2019 relict “F**k the Rain” picks up both mood and steam at number four on the album’s tracklist, betraying the former Whiskeytown and Cardinals mastermind’s supreme and refined songwriting erudition, condensed into the definition of a modern radio-ripe alt rock tune. “Manchester“, another pre-hiatus broadcast media leak from three years ago, follows suit in the shape of warm synths and embracing string arrangements, fiercely exhibiting once again how pivotal and inestimable keyboards have come to be as part of the late 2010s Ryan Adams sound pantheon. The record’s side A pulls its curtains close with what might be the first real showstopper and jaw-dropper of the crop: “What Am I” is not only idyllic, earnest, and stoic folk storytelling (and a cut that could have easily sat on Wednesdays’ sequencing), but also sports one of the singers’ most crushing and shattering choruses in recent memory: “What am I? / What are we? / When we’re not you and me? / When it’s not happening / When we’re asleep at the movies / Canary in the coal mine / The poison is slow, nobody dies / I forgot to let go under the moon“.
The career and catalogue-retrospective auto-referencing is less self-indulgent than purposeful here. Cue the filmic inside-job that progresses on with the swaggerish razzmatazz of “Power“, a corky show of faux-badassery with loads and loads of guitars, sounding almost as if 2014’s austere “I Just Might” had one too many drinks and suddenly got told the way its blue jeans fit elevates the chassis of its musical silhouette. By winning contrast, “I Surrender” at number eight packs in more vibrancy, stickiness, and life-affirming ethos in just over two minutes and a half than most self-proclaimed ‘anthemic’ five-dollar cuts around today. Despite its evident semantic innuendo, the audiovisual soundtrack takes a bit of a figurative blow on “Showtime“, which for all its lush and lavish arrangements and sincere performance might have sounded better on 2017’s Prisoner album, falling short of matching the otherworldly transmissions of some of the strongest numbers on here.
The concluding trio of tunes reaffirms Ryan’s pursuit of “shamanic visions of the future when the destination is dream zone 3000“, by accurately illustrating a gnarly coda to whatever detective dramedy plot kept re-running in his mystical mind. “Operator’s on the phone, says I can’t be trusted / It’s how you left me alone, it was broke and now it’s busted / A little sunshine will do, but outside it’s disgusting / It’s barely making a sound, my heart is beatin’ so loud“: in complimentary fashion to this piece’s opening stanza, the 12-string guitar strummings of “In It For the Pleasure” coasting atop of such poetry ring as evergreen and timeless as ever. Meanwhile, this station’s swan song “Summer Rain“—soaked as it is in VCR throughput processing and water-dense compression—sums up this album’s abstract in the most striking and spiritual fashion possible. Similarly, the kooky and playful “Middle of the Line“, sandwiched in-between the latter two cuts at number eleven, provides this score’s right amount of respite and comic relief, all without compromising its throwback melodramatic knack.
Ryan was right: Big Colors is a zenith point dream time. An equinox leading to a portal that shepherds the lost like a lighthouse does for ships at sea. After brutally essaying decay and ethics on Wednesdays in the deeps of winter, this kaleidoscopic and densely chromatic multitrack unearths the boundless possibilities of the movie of our lives. It minutely focuses on aquatic framing. For a proper frame not only draws a third eye into a picture, but keeps it there longer, dissolving the liminal barrier between the subject and the outside of the shot. Provided the depth, expressionism, and total gesamtkunstwerk of Big Colors—in conjunction to its righteous honesty—our only hope as end credits roll is that the director commits to breaking the fourth wall once more in the future: “while I won’t be able to match this album for its depth and broad color forms in the future, this is the sound of my soul and a door to a place I’ll be returning to again”.
2021, PaxAm Recording
By the looks of it, this next one ahead of us is set to be a kaleidoscopic and densely chromatic summer. At the very least, as far as our musical forecast is concerned. You ask both alt-psych rock supergroup Fuckin Whatever and singer/songwriter Ryan Adams. Amidst recent notable music unveilings, including but not limited to Sir Paul McCartney, The Offspring, and The Blossom, it has emerged that the self-billed “Beach Boys for the nihilist TikTok generation” as well as the Pax Americana Recording Company-founder both saw fit to time the release of their respective highly anticipated forthcoming projects within a week-span from one another, dating early June. Incidentally, both the Taking Back Sunday, Circa Survive, and Grouplove-distilled quartet—composed of selected key members from each of the aforementioned original outfits and responding to a somewhat questionable name—and the American heartland rocker opted for an artistic inclination veered to design and portray their soon-to-be-unwrapped sonic tapestries through tints and tinges aplenty.
Counting Circa Survive’s and Saosin’s Anthony Green, Taking Back Sunday‘s Adam Lazzara and John Nolan, as well as additional percussion from Benjamin Homola of Grouplove amongst its ranks, Fuckin Whatever is a postmodern and analogue side-project gestated throughout longstanding kinships minted as part of the alternative/emo rock scene over the past two decades. The group’s debut self-titled five-cut extended play is out on 4th June on Philadelphia-based boutique imprint Born Losers Records, and features zero—yes, zero—electric or amplified instruments on tape. Co-frontman and Taking Back Sunday vocalist Lazzara clarifies how the record is instead made up of “[…] pretty much 80% mouth noises and 20% Ben slapping things around the house”, hence banking on rudimentary a cappella arrangements and visceral percussive rhythms to paint collective mental and spiritual landscapes made of rainbow-shaded rays and holographic skies.
It thus probably comes as no surprise that all three teasers dropped in anticipation to the full mind-bending gesamtkunstwerk dabble in pretty strong abstract, deconstructed, and psychedelic territory. This is perhaps best exemplified by their trippy and hallucinating lead single “Trash“—revealed to the public under purposefully elusive and mysterious circumstances in early February as part of a decisively understated roll out. Facts started to become clearer around the drop of the band’s second preview cut, coming by way of the funkier and more immediate groove-pop of “I’m Waiting On You“, about a month later. Fastforward to just weeks ago, the rather hippie and free-experimentation quartet—whose inception can be traced as far back as a remote USA parking lot during the 2016 Taste of Chaos tour—released what is poised to be the final taster before the full collection of tracks sees the multicoloured light of day: “Original Sin“. The record also marks the rated-R outfit’s official debut on licensed digital outlets (their first two songs were only made available through DIY platform Bandcamp in alignment to its Bandcamp Fridays initiative), showcasing an even more heightened songwriting sensibility in the guise of arguably the stickiest tune of the three.
On his part, former Whiskeytown-frontman and alt-rock prodigy Ryan Adams seems to have chosen to stick to dropping the reported trilogy of full length LPs he initially announced back in 2019 after all, albeit with a re-tooled roll out sequence. The first in the series, the unplugged-affine Wednesdays, whilst initially slated to be the second one after Big Colors, was actually already surprise-released this past December as the first instalment. Big Colors on the other hand, which was supposed to inaugurate the triplet body of work two years ago, has now officially been recycled and repurposed as what appears to be the principal creative statement of intent for the 46-year old poet, scheduled as second chapter with a worldwide street date pencilled in for 11th June (a third and final double album titled Chris is reported to drop later in the year). Clocking in at just below forty minutes of runtime and spanning twelve cuts in total, the project is shy of three songs that were initially announced to be sequenced on Big Colors when Adams first announced the saga (two of which, “Dreaming You Backwards” and “I’m Sorry and I Love You“, ended up making the cut on Wednesdays, which in turn saw its own tracklisting shrink from the original seventeen to just eleven).
On 23rd April, the hypnotic and ethereal “Do Not Disturb” got lifted from its second tracklisting position and used as first single off the upcoming studio full length by Adams and Pax Am. Standing as the eighteenth solo LP from the singer, the record is fiercely shaping up to employ a host of hazy, sun-soaked, and hollow color schemes in order to refract its outgoing tinctures through the lighthouse it was meant to act as in the first place. In the words of Ryan himself:
Big Colors is the soundtrack to a movie from 1984 that exists only in my soul. It’s a cliché inside a watercolor painting of neon blue smoke rising up off summer streets in the night.
It’s the most New York California album I could cut loose from my musical soul, and for me as both a guitar player and songwriter, this is the zenith point dream time.
While I won’t be able to match this album for its depth and broad color forms in the future, this is the sound of my soul and a door to a place I’ll be returning to again.
The treasures in our past are the shamanic visions of the future when the destination is dream zone 3000. This is that.
I’m only dreaming in Big Colors now.
The above excerpt is clearly paining a broad illustrative brush, though one can’t but rejoice over the blissful electric alignment of summer pigments and tones that both Big Colors and Fuckin Whatever are presently affording us to worship and adore. A radiant, glowing, and iridescent portal through which, all of a sudden, tracking the right mapping to one’s life wholesomeness does not seem too arduous and impenetrable anymore. These are budding creative fragments teaching us that colouring outside the lines is a purpose’s ultimate defiance—the only heightened and levitating cosmic field where black and white are declassed to archaic ends of a continuously superseded dialectic spectrum of movement, light, and electromagnetism. One that, instead, embraces the ultraviolet and the infrared as its lowest common denominators, and transfuses a brave new proto-sphere made of decaying palm trees, dour neon signs, and ephemeral sunsets culminating into a… big whatever one wants it to be.
We ain’t taking new BROCKHAMPTON projects lightly around here. After losing a whole year like the rest of us in 2020—causing them to fail to maintain their once-per-year LP issuing cadence for the first time since their 2016 All American Trash mixtape—the famed and celebrated pop-rap collective saw fit to unveil the first teaser to their alleged penultimate album ever as a boy band ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE toward the end of March, before unleashing the full body of work shortly thereafter on 9th April. Previewed by the manic and ferocious synthetic thrust of the rad Danny Brown-assisted “BUZZCUT“, the thirteen-chaptered sixth studio effort from the Texas-formed hip-hop group came into existence not without a certain degree of friction, huffing and panting as the culmination of a deranged and straining juncture for most of its members. Some of them spiralled into ravaging existentialism, some took time off to decompress and regroup, others lost family members to suicide, and most simply tried to do the right thing and combated an era-defining public health crisis.
Just to get some of the housekeeping and formalities out of the way here—this thing clocks in at about 45 minutes and change, is out as part of the band’s ongoing multi-year contractual obligation to Sony Music’s RCA Records, and comes co-signed, if not endorsed, by pretty much a who’s who of the hip-hop Mount Rushmore, starting with Wu-Tang Clan’s own RZA and super producer Rick Rubin. It’s sprawling and brimming with eclectic featured guests too, something of a first for BROCKHAMPTON, at least to the extent found here on a proper full length outside of sandboxing focus grouped contexts (such as last years’ pirated livestreamed Technical Difficulties mixtapes). On the newest project, a string of external vocal duties are provided by both A-list mainstream prima donnas (A$AP Rocky, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Wilson), as well as underground up-and-coming acts which one can only assume were pretty much A&R’d by Kevin Abstract and co. themselves (SoGone SoFlexy, Baird, Ryan Beatty). When considering both official tracklisted spots as well as uncredited contributions, no single record amongst the thirteen here is entirely devoid of fingerprints external to the core boy band collective’s.
The piercing and cutthroat aforementioned lead single finds Abstract in rare wordsmithing form, spitting fuming bars like his life depended on them, whilst enveloping prohibitive pockets other MCs would rather keep at arms’ length from: “Truth prevails, this is real, miss my brother / I love my mother, drove all the way to Cali’ just to check up on me / Made her go home, felt the virus / Web of life is my weave, false dreams stripped by silence“. Affording an expensive but ever so trustworthy Danny Brown feature, ornate with eccentric experimentalism coupled with exquisite velvet glove production, allows the Los Angeles-based posse to translate this joint into easily one of the standouts on the whole album right out of the gate. Moreover, its expansive and anti-climactic outro seamlessly fades into JPEGMAFIA’s low-key fly stanzas on the following G-funk “CHAIN ON“, not before alighting at a soft, glossy, and chanty refrain courtesy again of group leader Abstract.
Sequenced at number three on the tracklist one finds the carefree and summery alt-pop inklings of “COUNT ON ME“, doubling as the LP’s second single and—regrettably—tripling as one of the more lukewarm lulls on the whole project. Rocky’s lifeless uncredited intro and verse might just be uncredited for a reason, and while the Ryan Beatty and Shawn Mendes combo pairing crooning the “It’ll be okay, no matter what thеy say about us / It’ll be okay, no matter what they say about us / I know that it’ll bе okay / You ain’t even need no money, you can count on me” chorus is a certainly catchy formula, it’s also pretty much the only redeeming quality this tired radio edit has got going for itself. Counterintuitively, the following “BANKROLL“, with its intricate and busy textured beat and (properly credited) A$AP Mob indulgence does not seem to be able to invert the one-dimensional leitmotif kicked off by “COUNT ON ME”, falling short on nearly all accounts, sounding like a hodgepodge of lacklustre cutting room floor material from the group’s GINGER and iridescence studio sessions.
Fortunately, ROADRUNNER picks up quality steam and lifts off again on its (vinyl’d) B-side with one of its title tracks. “THE LIGHT” at number five is a revelatory, stark, and bare portray spat by both JOBA and Kevin Abstract set to distorted guitars and zany organ samples, interplayed by a singular foreboding and swift chorus, acting as central statement of intent for the whole entire record’s concept underpinning: “For the record, I can fly / Around the world, absorbing light / Something’s missin’ deep inside / The light“. Speaking of table centrepieces, the following six-minute epic “WINDOWS” might just stand as the boy band’s best and most grandiose roll call-meets-victory lap display by virtually all key members to date, sporting gnarly and captivating verses, bridges, and refrains one after another from, in chronological order, Video Store (Abstract and lead producer Romil Hemnani’s media company) signee and fellow Corpus Christi MC SoGoneSoFlexy, Merlyn Wood, Matt Champion, Jabari Manwa, Dom McLennon, JOBA, Kevin Abstract, and bearface.
Believe it or not, some of the most memorable moments on this thing are yet to be dissected though: “OLD NEWS” opening a hypothetical vinyl’s side C at number eight is lifted from true blue classic BROCKHAMPTON playbook MO, showcasing everything from saccharine R&B knacks, sing-along-y refrains, heartfelt and uncompromising bars from Champion, Wood, JOBA, as well as obscure talent Baird, all the way to bona fide clever producer tags worked in for prosperity (“BLEACH“, anyone?). The glamorous and sensual Charlie Wilson-assisted ballad “I’LL TAKE YOU ON“, together with bearface’s modern hymn solo gospel “DEAR LORD“, ensure some proper and much needed soulful respite is spruced atop of the otherwise musically eventful thirteen-cut tracklist, whilst the JOBA-Champion duet atop of an irresistible “WHAT’S THE OCCASION?” alternative indie beat comes across like one of the band’s most off-kilter and compelling songwriting in a while, completed by a sure fan favourite melancholic refrain (“A million little pieces all add up to nothin’ lately / Swim within my bedsheets, it’s somethin’ like a celebration / What’s the occasion? / What’s the occasion?“) as well as gorgeous Beatles-esque arrangement. Yes, you read that right.
Similarly, one could not sing enough praise about the two superlative back-to-back cuts “WHEN I BALL” and “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” on the record’s back end for switching up gears yet again—their inventive, refined, and catchy demeanour is pure sonic feast to behold. What’s even more remarkable about these two numbers is that they both manage to miraculously still leave a decisive creative impact after having undergone the evident enduring legacy from the wealth of quality material preceding them on ROADRUNNER. Yet, the award for absolute and utmost show-stopping, scene-stealing, heads-turning apex undoubtedly goes to curtain closer “THE LIGHT, PT II“. This stripped down, deconstructed, and larger-than-life helping houses what has got to be one of the most candid, bare, and brutally honest heart-on-sleeve set of verses any BROCKHAMPTON member ever put down to wax in the group’s discography. The following album closing account from JOBA, aside from being impeccably executed, acts as ultimate exhibit to life’s herculean and stoic defiance, particularly when guided by the light machine. It’s reported here in closing and in its bowing out entirety:
When that hammer pulled back, did you think of me?
You were the one that taught me how to be
Look at me now in all my glory
Overcame a lot, that’s a different story
Abandoned by the life-giver, lookin’ back at my life different
Deep cuts in the dusk of the final gasp, before your life flashed
What happens when you die? Does it fade black?
I sense you in my skin and the trucker cap
Missed it when we laughed
Didn’t trust my intuition when I saw the cracks
I’m sorry, all I ever want to do is make you proud
Fleetin’ moments, always found a way around the frown
Set aside the pain to celebrate the now
Couldn’t kick me out the house, I was fucked up
Nothing to prove without doubt, if I’m man enough
What’s the use? I could use you, ’cause I’m scared as fuck
Tuck me in, always young enough to feel loved
And share some, are you lookin’ down?
And a child reachin’ out, brittle bone, crying now
The past does not define you
The past does not define you
The burden was too much
Couldn’t save you from yourself when you’d self-destruct
Couldn’t save me from myself when I pushed my luck
To tell the truth, I am just like you
Left it all in the pistol that you used
Always be a little man, following your footsteps
Even though I’m mad, even though you’re gone
You live on, and the day I have kids
And tell ’em ’bout Grandpa and how great he is
And the grandkids’ grandkids
You’ll never meet if it weren’t for you
I wouldn’t be, neither would they
It’s safe to say I’ll find a way out the darkness
The way you left ‘Ma hits me the hardest
What a shame, things change in the blink of an eye
Fade away, fast break to the depths in the sky
Impermanence turned permanent with a nine
That’s life, that’s life
ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE
2021, RCA Records
Nashville, TN-natives Kings of Leon are the type of modern day alt/arena rock band that one would figure receives abundant questionable coverage from dime-a-dozen mainstream rock music blogs, and then some. Be it their envied stratospheric popularity, their early-to-mid noughties universal critical acclaim, or the clickbait-y inside family job they’ve got going for themselves—there is no such thing as scarcity of press icebreakers as far as the 1999-formed quartet. It’s therefore all the more surprising how this here unfolding before your very eyes gets filed as the first official album review by this site of anything lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Caleb, bassist Jared, lead guitarist Matthew, and stickman and BV-journeyer Nathan Followill have put out over more than two decades. Yet, as another reviewing taboo was demystified last summer, the time has come to entertain a virtual watercooler-blabbering conversation about Kings of Leon’s eight studio full length When You See Yourself, out worldwide just this past 5th of March Friday on the mighty RCA Records.
Whether one likes to admit it or not, Kings of Leon are one of only a handful residual overhyped, gentrified, and focus grouped bands to have come out alive the other side of the early 00s garage-rock revival mania. While it can be argued that at least some of their MO employed to withstand such ruthless and repellant industry plant cycle can attributed to, well, selling out, as well as shamelessly embracing the role of poster-children record business mercenaries (whatever that means in the current post-selfie, TikTok-era), there is quite a lot in the way of originality, refinement, and quality as part of their Southern rock-informed familial affair. One does certainly not need to be reminded of the radio-friendly and commercially-appealing ubiquity of their multi-platinum selling 2008 project Only By the Night, or the fact that the three brothers and one cousin stand hitherto nominated for as many as twelve Grammy Awards in their career—snatching four of them including Record of the Year and Best Rock Song for “Use Somebody” in 2010—to realise how warranted, highly-anticipated, and of ‘public interest matter’ any coverage of the issue of their first LP in five years oughta be.
This latest release of the collection of eleven new records on When You See Yourself represents the culmination of the longest gap in-between studio projects to date for the rock band, who chose once more to enlist British producer Markus Dravs after his work on the their preceding full length WALLS in 2016. What’s more, said limbo was reportedly slated to be less significant than the full five years it turned out to be, for main songwriter and lyricist Caleb allegedly began to mess around with first rough draft ideas of songs that would eventually land on KoL’s latest album as early as January from two years back. Unsurprisingly, had it not been for the largest public health cataclysm in a century, the record would have most likely seen the light of day at some point last year. Evidently though, that did not materialise, translating into an unsolicited epiphany affording the four Followill relatives a long and enduring de-briefing phase that helped them digest, marinate, and perfect the final batch of tracks that ended up being sequenced on this thing, making up for a robust 51 minutes of runtime by the way—almost a length colossus in the streaming age.
It is not just an unusual and business-allergic, if not externally-imposed, self-reflection that envelops some type of idiosyncrasy to this record, but perhaps even more un-analogue and old-school is the group’s unorthodox and avant-garde decision to employ distributed ledger technologies—also known as blockchain—to beef up the promotional cycle surrounding When You See Yourself. Partnering with US technology company YellowHeart, through a promo campaign wittily dubbed NFT YOURSELF Kings of Leon became the first band to offer an album as a so-called non-fungible token (NFT), a cryptocurrency-like artefact set to unlock unique perks for its holders such as limited-edition vinyl, multimedia artwork pieces, and front row seats coupled with premiere concierge treatment to all future concerts. So the band’s creative director Casey McGrath on the futuristic stunt: “We approached the release […] in such an analog way, from the band’s approach in the studio to shooting everything on film and went as far as literally pulling out the scotch tape and glue sticks, and dry transfer lettering. To approach NFT YOURSELF with a digital art mindset sent electricity through the work. For those in the space that understand, they’ll appreciate the techniques of audio-generated imaging, pose detection, and pixel morphing that we used to create this collectible art. For those that don’t, we hope they’ll appreciate the undeniable power and emotion that results from the collision of analog and digital.”
Now how does one follow that one up? Arguably only by delving head-first into the music lied to wax on this album. It was first premiered earlier in January this year by two lead singles “The Bandit“—a gritty and rough-around-the-edges trip down sonic KoL memory lane with Far West saloon-ish lyricism such as “Chiseled their names in stone / Heavy the load you tow / And the red horse is always close / And the fire don’t burn below“—as well as “100,000 People“, a clearer and more linear successor to some of the most subdued and contemplative work off WALLS, stretching over almost six minutes of dejected and defeated romantic balladry, with an appeal perhaps stronger for motion picture synchronisation than radio spins. Speaking of which during an informative and riveting chat with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, airplay potential and easy rotation were endgoals the four American purposefully tried to deliberately not chase during the studio and writing sessions for their latest outing. It is not hard to believe them in hindsight, with a finished body of work sporting just two cuts under four minutes of playtime, and as many as three fiercely running for longer than five minutes without ever overstaying their welcome. The latter crop of tracks include the nocturnal, hypnotic, and emotionally draining opener “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away” as well as the tastefully dour “A Wave“, which according to KoL’s frontman Caleb “has to stand out as one of the proudest moments in our career”.
Truth be told, the four Tennesseeans packed in reasons to be proud in spades on their latest studio effort. Look no further than the groovy, gorgeously self-aware and blue-eyed funk rock swagger of “Stormy Weather” at number four, or even the pernickety and luscious layered six-string work of the Come Around Sundown-sounding “Golden Restless Age” opening the LP’s C side. Having said that, the record’s back-end does suffer from a mild case of complacency and phoning-it-in-ness, found particularly severely on the symptomatically tired and underwhelming authoring underpinning the core of “Supermarket” as well as the bland, second-hand, overheated riff soup of the otherwise lyrically inspired “Echoing” sequenced on the album’s penultimate slot. Luckily for fans and the Leon royals themselves though, Caleb and bros. appear to outdo themselves compositionally on the extraordinarily exquisite curtain closing ballad “Fairytale“. The four minute arrangement comes in the form of a boneless and skeleton-free experimental number that sounds as if an algorithm synthetised the utmost worthy elements of their Only By the Night standout “Closer” and soaked them in the energy, vibes, and instrumental configuration of their most hardcore WALLS-era imprint. It thus becomes clear that whether in form of PR antics, or just bona fide songwriting, creative hybridity seems to be the only way Kings of Leon appear to push forward nowadays, particularly when they see themselves.
KINGS OF LEON
WHEN YOU SEE YOURSELF
2021, RCA Records
It’s Foos season all over again—after skipping a whole year and seeing their original roll out plans affected by the public health crisis bought upon by COVID-19 alongside the rest of the entertainment industries, the beloved, accomplished, and marquee alternative rock group saw fit to pick February’s first eligible new music Friday to unveil their tenth studio LP Medicine at Midnight. Following up on 2017’s slept-on and widely ignored Concrete & Gold, the post-grunge sextet currently composed of frontman and principal songwriter Dave Grohl, drummer and background vocalist Taylor Hawkins, bassist Nate Mendel, lead and rhythm guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear, as well as keys wizard Rami Jaffee reportedly chose to go into a fully groovy, dancey, and rhythmic power pop direction on their latest offering. Premiered in early November last year by something fairly faithful to said instruction coming in (the colour and) the shape of “Shame, Shame“, the record is out on RCA Records and sees the renewed inclusion of mainstream hit pop producer Greg Kurstin on production duties, after his work on Concrete & Gold four years ago.
With the exception made of 2014’s ambitious and only ever so slightly pretentious HBO-earmarked Sonic Highways project, which from a tracklist-length perspective sports a mere eight tracks on its sequencing, Medicine’s similarly scant nine cuts make for the Foo Fighters’ shortest studio album to date, with just 35 minutes and change of runtime. For as weird and zany as it sounds, Dave Grohl and band attribute the concise and efficient recording sessions, as well as their meagre output, to spooky ghosts and paranormal activity experienced in the Californian house-turned-studio they recorded the album in. The former Nirvana stickman is widely known as the earnest nicest man in rock n roll, so there should be no reason for one to doubt this—but one’s gotta hand it to them, if that is not entirely true, at least it’s a pretty darn good promo stunt. The aforementioned first lead single “Shame, Shame” had enough percussive intricacies and instrumental experimentation to have listeners both attentive and salivating over more teasers. Too bad these would be misguided shortly thereafter by second single “No Son of Mine“, a subsequent abrasive red herring dropped on New Year’s Day 2021, packing a by-the-numbers Lemmy and Motörhead worship, going as far as retooling and reverse-engineering his iconic and seminal hit “Ace of Spades“.
Whilst “No Son of Mine” is this album’s “White Limo“—therefore a trademark and formulaic MO project inclusion for the outfit at this point—third and final single in anticipation to the full length “Waiting on a War“, released in mid January just weeks prior to the official street date, is instead a true blue encapsulation of Dave Grohl’s elemental songbook down to a T: relatable universality in its lyrics, lush and climactic six-string arrangements culminating in fan-favourite, stadiums-ready sing-along choruses topped with epic outros, as well as that old familiar dash of conscientious je ne sais quoi typical of Dave’s best work hitherto. It’s predictive, run-of-the-mill, and terribly safe territory for Foo Fighters, but it’s amongst the best tunes on this thing: “Every day waiting for the sky to fall / Big crash on a world that’s so small / Just a boy with nowhere left to go / Fell in love with a voice on the radio“. Furthermore, the song is indicative of a counterintuitive pattern emerging inherent to Medicine at Midnight, where its most tasteful and effective moments might just be found in slower ballads and their acoustic compositional manifestation. Take penultimate cut “Chasing Birds” for instance, a gorgeously orchestrated Bowie-esque chanson with unplugged guitar ornaments to die for. A record that somehow manages to transcend this album’s dance floor flair and rise to a whole other life of its own above the clouds of rock and roll pantheon.
Incidentally, the latter would have made for a much more memorable and compelling closing chapter than the manic and jovial “Love Dies Young” sequenced at number nine, which despite its glossy reverb and chorus-soaked guitars set against the greasy palm muted distortion sounds just like “No Son of Mine”s illegitimate sister song, as if it were gestated from the same writing session, but after two more drinks and a puff of marijuana for all intents and purposes (the BVs on the refrain are irresistibly angelic and ethereal though). It is not a bad song and there is nothing inherently wrong in ending a consciously sought after dance rock record with the uplifting and cinematic sound design of “Love Dies Young”s back-end, though perhaps morphing this tune with its ancillary Lemmy-obituary hymn could have made for less lukewarm fillers overall. Speaking of fillers—a word that should ideally not come up in a nine-track album review—”Holding Poison” at number seven on the tracklist has got to be amongst the most underwhelming, subpar, and one-dimensional material the Seattle group has issued in years. What was probably intended to be a premiere arena rock fist-bumper and foot-stomper joint in Dave’s mind and intent, actually comes off sounding like the 101 of a hard rock tune one would teach a group of pimple-adorned pre-teens as they’re learning their analogue instruments coalesced in a world tainted by DJs and TikTok (and it’s the longest tune on the album, no less).
Need not worry too much dear readers, as there are musical reasons to rejoice aplenty to be found on the Foo Fighters’ tenth body of work. Start by hitting play on album opener “Making a Fire“; if one can make it past the cringeworthy and gentrified “na na na nas” cheaply leading up to each of the verses, the tune goes on to reveal both enthralling compositional prowess and topical meritocracy: “But if this is our last time / Make up your mind / I’ve waited a lifetime to live / It’s time to ignite, I’m making a fire“. Track number three “Cloudspotter“, with its greasy and fat guitar riffs shredding, rhythmic swagger, and catchiness in spades, is potentially the best representation of what the band set out to do from the jump when it affirmed that it went into production aiming to capture its “love of rock bands that make these upbeat, up-tempo, almost danceable records”. A similar flavoursome balance is to be experienced on the title track here, where sampled drum machines effortlessly complement slick basses and lush choral arrangements, all the while being enveloped in sticky refrains and bouncy grooves. Truth be told, such a somewhat successful creative heist at this point in the band’s career should at least be getting an ‘A for effort’. However, whether Dave Grohl likes it or not, the songs we’ll be remembering most fondly from Medicine at Midnight years down the line will still be those pulled from his diamond-in-the-rough punk rock lore—something that no matter how hard he tries to tame or shoehorn away into a focus group-ed thematic north star, still tips the scale in his favour.
MEDICINE AT MIDNIGHT
2021, RCA Records
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