ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): VINCE STAPLES – “BIG FISH THEORY” | 24th June, MMXVII

It’s almost the end of June and therefore it’s time for another hip hop album review to be happening on these glorious ARM frequencies. (No don’t worry you shouldn’t have picked up the causal correlation between time and rap criticism in the previous sentence, simply because there is none). Some (who?) may say that this is a rather big deal, given that such an occurrence hasn’t happened too often in the meanderings of this site. In fact, if we’re really in the mood for a trip down memory lane, one could actually count on one hand the instalments scrutinising, discussing, and dissecting a hip hop release: first it was Kanye back in February last year, merely because noblesse oblige, then shortly after it was the irresistible and sexy Anderson .Paak, followed by a little bit of Chance The Rapper for a Summer music preview, finishing last with the mighty Bad Rabbits and their role as raconteurs of an American nightmare.

So, it was in this sort of stream of consciousness that 23-year old, Odd Future-associate Vince Staples’ recent album release came as a perfectly timed blessing. The sophomore LP by Long Beach, CA-based rapper goes by the title of Big Fish Theory and dropped on 23rd June under prominent and influential label Def Jam. The 12-track/36-minute long effort follows the widely critically acclaimed debut album Summertime ’06 (2015) as well as significant anticipation from leading news outlets and the whole scene more in general. I myself had been eyeing the MC for quite some time, although not necessarily out of a musical fandom calling – even though his most successful single off Summertime ’06 “Norf Norf” being an absolute gem – but rather because the dude, a very sharp-straight-edge-off-the-tabloids-vocal man in his early 20s who loves Sprite, seemed like a very interesting person to me. Therefore, when on 18th May lead single “Big Fish” truly grabbed my active attention (although Vince actually released an earlier first single called “BagBak” as back in time as 3rd February, though with no hint of a full album backing the track at the time), I made damn sure I wouldn’t miss the whole LP once out.

I actually wasn’t incredibly fond of the first track I fully devoted my ears to, i.e. “Big Fish”. Whilst I completely understand the song being picked as lead single as well as thematic frame for the whole concept of the album thanks to its forward-leaning catchiness and immediacy, the overall delivery results a bit too repetitive and empty, as if its main driving electronic sound and repetitive lyrics were the lowest common denominator Vince could find to fill that vacuum. A similar feeling is the one I get with reference to “BagBak”, at least as far as the instrumental track goes, nothing much than an simple, experimental base ending up being too hypnotic and unvaried to really assume he gave it a proper thought. Yet the song gains value when the lyrical delivery gets considered too, with aggressive, bold, and political elements all successfully intertwined (“Clap your hands if the police ever profiledYou ain’t gotta worry, don’t be scary ’cause we on nowAin’t no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole townTell the one percent to suck a dick, because we on now“).

One aspect that’s very interesting about Big Fish Theory, and one that my esteemed Twitter followers have already had the viewing pleasure to obtain, is that this is an album on which the opening track might actually be the best song overall. I find that too often artists tend to “sacrifice” the album opener either with a preface/prelude/intro which normally is too ambient-y anyway and doesn’t really add much to the overall musical frame, or with an annoying and unnecessary skit/oddity (this especially with hip hop/rap albums), really only contributing to boosting the track amount and nothing to the songwriting package. I’m actually a huge fan of openers and if I ever were to release my own music I swear I’d put my best song(s) right at the start of the tracklist, mainly to show myself the listeners what for. To me, this is what Vince Staples has done by placing the brilliant “Crabs in a Bucket” at number one on Big Fish Theory’s tracklist. The song, wonderfully co-produced and heavily influenced by Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon, is a dark and distorted backtrack with loads of experimental sounds and a pumping, near-to-perfect vocal delivery by Staples, refined and wrapped up by a thin, sensual, and necessary closure by Kilo Kish. The kind of song that immediately reminds me of some of my favourite rap tunes of all time.

Other album highlights include the sweaty and visceral “745”, which in many ways is that what style-related “Big Fish” and “BagBak” should’ve been, as well as the electric and vibey “Party People”, a song that despite its fun title deals in fact with deep self-search and overcoming of struggles (“Move your body if you came here to party / If not then pardon me / How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction’s all I see?”). The latter tune is also probably the only one that could’ve competed with “Big Fish”‘s radio-friendly character as main single, and in retrospect perhaps an even better choice for it. Last one to save is LP-closer and Ty Dolla $ign-collab “Rain Come Down“, a groovy G-funk cut with explicit leaning to auto-tuned, trappy sounds and the longest track on the whole record with almost 5 minutes of running time.

Unfortunately, the LP carries a number of less fortunate compositions, led by the purposeless skit “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” – I mean, come on, for once that an hip hop album is actually limited in its track listing one might as well just focus on the best songs, not least considering the fact that a skit’s main purpose is to let a 19-track album breathe… – and the not-so-dissimilar “Alyssa Interlude”, i.e. an isolated Amy Winehouse voice recording laid hand-in-hand with a sample of “I Wish It Would Rain” by The Temptations. I’m still looking for the whole point of those ones. In fact, I realized I’m not a fan of voicemail-turned-music trend songs at all, as none of the ones recently included in albums e.g. by Kanye West (“Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” on The Life Of Pablo), Frank Ocean (Blonde’s “Be Yourself” and “Facebook Story [Ft. Sebastian]”), or even Kendrick Lamar (outro on “FEAR.” in his recent effort DAMN.) really made any sense to me. The list of insipid tracks on Big Fish Theory continues with the one-two “Homage” and “Samo” at number eight and nine on the tracklist, where I simply find myself being completely indifferent towards them, mainly because the mood and genre adopted by Vince on those two songs is something that I find being not easily digestible.

Lastly, there’s one song which I’m still not convinced I truly dislike, or in other words, one that might as well end up among the ones I enjoy listening the most. That track is the mighty Kendrick Lamar and Laura Jane Lowther collab “Yeah Right”, and such a feeling stems principally from the realisation that the composition is a nothing else than a combination of parts that for me are hard to get (Vince’s industrial-rapping intro plus outro) and very positive and inspiring moments, such as the Lowther-sung refrain and Lamar’s powerful and delicious verse. If one thinks about it, this could actually sum up most of Vince Staples’ enigmatic and fascinating public character, both as an individual and in his musical persona, further amplified by the obscurity of the album’s title meaning and some of the rapper’s promotional statements, like for instance the genius move about labelling his record’s overall sound as “afro-futurism”, only to then to admit of not knowing what it really means but still enjoying “saying stuff about black people to white people”. How can one not be attracted to someone like this? My kind of artist for sure.

AV

VINCE STAPLES

“BIG FISH THEORY”

2017, Def Jam Recordings

http://vincestaples.com

VS_Big Fish Theory

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): PARAMORE – “AFTER LAUGHTER” | 19th May, MMXVII

Just about a week before Paramore’s fifth studio album After Laughter came out on Friday 12th May, another incredibly highly anticipated record – for about 17 years, to be precise – found its way to the world: in•ter a•li•a by El Paso, TX-based emo/post-hardcore legends At the Drive In. For multiple times during practically the past two weeks I’ve been so close to fall to temptation of turning that release into my next branded ARM instalment, yet for once I decided I would rather challenge myself whilst at the same time keep any potential sources of fandom and obsession intervention at an historical minimum. That’s why I eventually rather opted for the Hayley Williams-fronted pop-punk trio’s last and freshly released LP, which to be fair didn’t come without substantial media talk and hype for itself either. Nonetheless, before we go any further down that route, I’d still highly solicit you all to immerse yourselves in a deep listening experience of At the Drive In’s latest effort, but please do make sure – even if you’re not an  hysterical audiophile – you wear proper headphone equipment or blast those tunes out of decent speakers. No, I don’t mean your regular MacBook internally built-in ones. Decent speakers I mean. You’ll thank me later.

One of the most interesting aspects about Paramore’s After Laughter, released under Warner-owned label Fueled by Ramen and co-produced by guitarist Taylor York and longtime collaborator Justin Meldal-Johnsen, is perhaps that it came to be after a lengthy period during which the band actually threatened fans (and themselves) to break up for good. However, such crisis momentum was then luckily resolved by a non-negligible line-up change – bassist Jeremy Davis out, drummer and founding member Zac Farro in – and a substantial twist in sound and overall vibe, as mightily and unapologetically displayed by the Memphis Group-influenced album artwork (cfr. below).

Moreover, After Laughter follows the vastly successful and Grammy-winning self-titled album released back in 2013, which came along with huge hit singles “Still Into You” and “Ain’t It Fun“, and obviously set a very high precedent bar in the band’s artistic past. Yet, when on 19th April After Laughter’s new lead single “Hard Times” was released, it soon became clear how there was no need whatsoever to keep holding on to past trophies as there was meaty new substance to speak and get excited about again. The track widely showcases Paramore’s heavy leaning to new musical directions, specifically embracing a spongy-disco 80s sound with imposing synths and new-wavy atmospheres. This feeling got further reinforced by the album’s second single, titled “Told You So“, released just two weeks later and presenting more rhythmic and melodic references to past musical decades but also drawing discrete elements off their self-titled mood here and there.

A fascinating attribute that both songs possess, and which immediately reminded me of some of my favourite tracks such as Taking Back Sunday‘s “Stood A Chance” or The Cure’s “The Last Day of Summer“, is what sometimes call happy sad, that is, those musical arrangements where the instrumental composition and the lyrics find themselves in fundamental juxtaposition to each other, usually with the former denoting harmonious, positive, and upbeat feelings only to be dismantled by the devastation and desperation of the words sung on top of them. To me, doubtlessly one of the most beautiful and powerful aspects of music.

Generally, in fact, the whole 12-track album actually tackles rather dark and sombre themes, especially on a lyrical level, whereby cuts such as “Forgiveness” (“You hurt me bad this time, no coming back / And I cried ’till I couldn’t cry, another heart attack”), “26” (“Reality will break your heart / Survival will not be the hardest part / It’s keeping all your hopes alive / When all the rest of you has died / So let it break your heart”), and incredibly beautiful closer “Tell Me How” (You keep me up with your silence / Take me down with your quiet / Of all the weapons you fight with / Your silence is the most violent) make an effort of pairing the obscurity of their lyrical content with their overall sound. On a number of other tracks, on the other hand, such as potential fan-favourite “Rose-Colored Boy”, the vibrant and electric “Pool” as well as personal favourite and arguably best moment of the whole record “Grudges”, the music and the melodic instrumentation result way more upbeat and colourful, in spite of their lyrical content. This trademark songwriting formula seems to be working quite well for Paramore along the entirety of After Laughter, at least judging by the strict cohesiveness of each listen and the smooth song transitions to be found on the tracklist.

There are however some weak moments too, fronted by the messy and at times irritating “Caught in the Middle” and especially the eleventh song on the record, “No Friend”, basically a useless repeating guitared arpeggio loop led by an edgy drum beat and almost inaudible voice recordings, which actually turned out to be of mewithoutYou‘s Aaron Weiss, a friend of the band. It’s seriously hard to understand what kind of statement Paramore were trying to make by including this track into the final packaging, given its lack of structure or rather purpose, if not discouraging the listeners to quit their auditive experience right before the highest and finest moment on the whole LP, the aforementioned piano ballad “Tell Me How”. “No Friend” does indeed represent a shameful inclusion looking back at the whole release, not least because if follows what is potentially one of the catchiest songs on After Laughter and yet another testament to the band’s more or less hidden tributes to 80s synth-wave productions, “Idle Worship”. A hurdle-less transition between the latter and curtain caller “Tell Me How” would definitely have landed the record to higher appreciations, as far as yours truly is concerned. Yet, there’s no need to create scapegoats at all, as After Laughter can stand very firmly and convincingly still on its own, where the good and exciting bits go cast a shadow onto the weaker ones presenting a more than decent overall output. In this very case though, Paramore seem to perhaps have taken the act of casting shadows a bit too literally.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

PARAMORE

“AFTER LAUGHTER”

2017, Atlantic Recording Corporation

http://www.paramore.net

Paramore_AL

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): COLD WAR KIDS – “LA DIVINE” | 1st May, MMXVII

Hello there y’all. I’ve probably never been more distracted when drafting an ARM blogpost before and this really does come as a warning. I’m in the middle of moving house and country of residence, lord Ryan Adams just dropped a thunderous and tenacious collection of 19 (!) B-sides to his recent, critically acclaimed, and ARM-grilled album Prisoner and, last but definitely not least, Californian soul-punk outfit letlive. split indefinitely two days ago to my overwhelmingly unpleasant surprise. Yet, I really want to gift my musical impressions to the world as well in regards to San Pedro, CA-based indie legends Cold War Kids’ highly anticipated sixth studio album LA Divine, which came out early last month on Friday 7th April.

However, before I dig into the main bit of this piece, I feel I owe letlive. a short, impromptu obituary that will hopefully help demonstrate my love and affection for the band and, most of anything, the impact they’ve had on me. As I spotted their official goodbye statement a couple days ago on my social media feed it was one of those moments where the first thing you do is rub your eyes and re-read the whole thing, just to double- or even triple check that you really saw what you saw. I guess I’ve been quite lucky and fortunate in my musical fandom life so far as I almost never had to go through such a frightening realisation for the bands I love most and I will never betray or forget. Whilst it’s true that Nirvana and The Police, arguably my top favourite musical representations of all time, were actually already defunct and no more by the time I even started getting into them, other major artistic and incredible living influences on me such as Taking Back Sunday, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam or even Blink-182 are all still rocking stronger than ever. Yet letlive., who became an immense part of my life and world-perception around 7 years ago and have gone on deeply affecting me ever since, really feel like the first true, real-time musical abandonment in my life.

Letlive.’s music, energy, devotion, and lyrics all felt to me more urgent and necessary than almost anything else out there, whilst their profound carefulness for longstanding racial and social issues served as endless inspiration to say the least. Moreover, experiencing the Los Angeles-based post-hardcore band live in concert was a whole universe and life-changing occasion of its own, as I humbly tried to account for in this note. Losing them as a musical outfit is an irreplaceable loss not only for my very own artistic spectrum but for the wider alternative and counter-reacting scene as well, as possibly now more than ever the world and music would have needed their protesting rage, insurgent rebellious nature, and willingness to fight back against the establishment. With this I’d just want to thank them for having existed and wish all of the members’ very well in this hard but apparently necessary decision.

II. 2002 – 20XX. F O R E V E R Soul Punx. II._Forever

Back to our regularly scheduled programme, namely Cold War Kids’ latest 14-track effort LA Divine. I kind of have this theory where I think no good and superior art critic should ever review the same artist twice, as I feel doing so would detach them too much from that necessary fresh outlook that tends to kick in when someone is reviewing something for the first time, ultimately swallowing the critic into a subjective, self-reflecting and precedent-leaning rabbit hole that at the end of the day doesn’t benefit anyone. Thus, since I’m not a good and superior art critic myself, I feel ready to blindly omit the fact that almost exactly two years ago I already wrote – rather negatively – about Cold War Kids’ previous record Hold My Home.

The pre-release promotion for LA Divine was a rather ambitious one, with as much as four singles with correspondent music videos released in anticipation of the 44-minute long full-length effort. Incidentally, the San Pedro-native five piece decided to gradually release all first four songs on the tracklist in chronological order, paving the way with sparky and energetic lead single “Love is Mystical” on 2nd February, followed shortly after by the introspective and slower “Can We Hang On?” on 2nd March, and wrapping up with the Bishop Briggs soulful collab “So Tied Up” as well as 5-minute epic “Restless” in short succession just weeks before the full album release. Looking back, this really does feel like an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive choice, as the four tracks aren’t too dissimilar from each other at all – that is, piano-heavy, chorus-driven bangers that all lean more than one hand in both sounds and vibe towards Cold War Kids’ previous LP Hold My Home – whilst the rest of LA Divine has so much more to offer indeed. Truly noteworthy out of the singles-bucket are the opening track, with its potent intentions in both beat and lyrics, as well as “Restless”, a rather beautiful tribute to Los Angeles and its ability to shape love relationships (“I don’t get jealous, I get free / Everything good comes back to me / It seems like wherever you are / Is just a better place to be“) all embedded in carrying melodies with a groovy piano and catchy verses doing most of the job.

As previously hinted at, this album has way more to offer and enjoy though than its singles (unsurprisingly, given that with its 14 tracks LA Divine marks Cold War Kids’ longest release to date). As our good ol vinyls teach us, this record too is shaped in such a way to be divided into four main bits/themes, sequentially separated by something close to an interlude, or skit, or even filler, depending on what one prefers to call them (“LA River”, “Wilshire Protest”, and “Cameras Always On”). For instance, the first psych/lo-fi interlude “LA River” is followed by what is arguably the album’s most exciting part, with great cuts such as the live-like uplifting “No Reason to Run” as well as the gangstery “Open Up the Heavens”, which presents some of the best vocal harmonies on the whole album and comes with irresistible badass-guitars.

“Luck Down” and “Ordinary Idols” make up the main third bit of LA Divine, with the former being a solid enjoyable indie tune and the most aggressive and sped up cut of the LP, whilst the latter arguably representing one of the dullest and most boring moments, only to be partially saved by quite sublime lyrics (“Why would you idolize me? / There’s nothing I got that you don’t / You keep on fantasizing / I’ll always be the underdog“). It follows the social media/instagram-hysteria critique skit “Cameras Always On”, which then throws the listener to the final part of the record and boy, that is one hell of a closure. Both the gentle and beautiful “Part of the Night” as well as the spacey and ambient-driven “Free to Breathe” make for an excellent wrap up with a rising and extremely inspiring note. This is true especially for closing track “Feel to Breathe”, which sees Cold War Kids at their songwriting best whilst at the same time surprising the listener with unexpected guitar arpeggios and wonderfully sung by frontman Nathan Willett.

Overall, LA Divine might as well be Cold War Kids’ most inspired and coherent album in a decade, with the band’s signature groovy and R&B piano once more dominating all major tracks and undoubtedly entailing some of the band’s best songs ever written (see “Restless”, “Part of the Night”, “Free to Breathe”). Yet, the album does come with highly skippable moments as well (see “Can We Hang On?”, “Ordinary Idols”), while here and there one can’t help but feel like some of the material on this records just sounds a bit too second-hand and recycled from previous work, above all 2013’s Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and 2015’s Hold My Home  (doesn’t “Love is Mystical” sound just like it could’ve come out of the same writing session as Dear Miss Lonelyhearts’ and Hold My Home’s lead singles “Miracle Mile” and “All This Could Be Yours”?). In other words, LA Divine could certainly have benefitted from more guitars and edgy sounds and less predictable piano-formula. It’s a shame, but nothing to despair. Cold War Kids might have been ok with rendering their home town of Los Angeles divine this time round, hopes for a switch to their songwriting abilities are high for what’s next to come.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

COLD WAR KIDS

“LA DIVINE”

2017, Capitol Records

http://www.coldwarkids.com

CWK_LADivine

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): RYAN ADAMS – “PRISONER” | 1st March, MMXVII

If you follow this blog with a certain regularity – and I assume it’s almost none of you reading right now – you might have noticed that 42-year old North Carolina-native Ryan Adams is somewhat of a big deal for who’s writing this. The singer-songwriter’s self-titled album, released in late 2014 to moderate success, has had an overwhelming impact on me that only few others have over my whole life and, surely in some ways because of that, I have come to thoroughly enjoy everything he has put out ever since (not mentioning revisiting his impressively huge and prolific past catalogue). Plus, carved in the history of this blog there is also a commentary slash review of Adams’s stunning live performance at London’s Hammersmith Apollo back two years ago, as well as a rather loose take on his largely talked about 1989 cover album revisiting in his own signature style one-by-one all the songs contained in Taylor Swift’s best-selling release from 2015. Furthermore, in an attempt at celebrating and highlighting Adams’s multi-artistic talent, another blogpost entry was dedicated to one of his free verse poems off of his debut collection titled Infinity Blues and published through Akashic Books in 2009. To sum it up in other words, as you can easily judge by yourself Ryan Adams is a pretty badass talented artist.

It is with this spirit in mind and with great enthusiasm that yours celebrated the release of Prisoner, Ryan Adams’s 16th (!) studio album of his career, which came out officially a little less than two weeks ago on Friday 17th February. Prisoner is Adams’s latest release under his own LA-based label PaxAmericana Recordings and it spans 12 tracks across 43 minutes. The record was previewed by a series of singles (“Do You Still Love Me?”, “To Be Without You” and “Doomsday”) and multiple promotional trips/talk show appearances which often saw the Grammy-nominated musician performing exclusive acoustic cuts off of the record. Furthermore, as part of the album cycle, the not-so-secret metalhead and cat lover started off his own radio show called The Midnight Wave on Apple’s Beats 1 and came up with glorious deluxe packages for every fan’s delight. Obviously, Prisoner’s release is also to be accompanied by a massive worldwide live tour that will keep him busy for the remainder of 2017. This is to say, is really does look like to Adams this record means something special, something that possibly wasn’t there in with previous ones or that perhaps he himself wasn’t able to experience and embody as much, as confirmed in a recent Facebook Live Q&A.

Enough for background and scene setting, let’s jump into the actual craftsmanship of this new album without any further ado. As briefly mentioned above, the first taste of Prisoner came through its lead single “Do You Still Love Me?”, made available late last year (7th December) and very much in line with Adams’ self-titled album from 2014, both sonically and thematically with respect to the overall record. The track is one of the “rockiest” ones with huge, arena-like guitars sitting on a bed of mellow and all-encompassing keyboards. Think of Tom Petty having a go at AC/DC in an ’86 London recording studio. Lyrically, the track finds Ryan questioning (his) love longing for answers but only to find more question marks along the way (“I been thinking about you, baby / Been on my mind / Why can’t I feel your love? / Heart must be blind”). Such a sappiness and inner melancholia is in fact a key reading lens for the overall record, further confirmed by the thin, acoustic second single “To Be Without You”. The track, most than any others on Prisoner, takes the listener back to the early, folky-alt-country songwriting era of Adams with trademark heartbreaking and touches of liberation and carelessness here and there. Definitely an interesting choice for a second single as, looking back, the track is pretty much left on its own in the tracklist, i.e. not being truly representative of the overall sound (yet this might as well have been a very thought-trough choice by weirdo Adams). Wrapping up with singles, the third one revealed through YouTube, “Doomsday”, is by contrast a unique musical pearl culminating from the songwriters’ latest sonic directions including, but not limited to: 80s Bruce Springsteen, The Smiths, Bruce Hornsby and Neil Young. This song at number three on the setlist combines wonderful lyrics (“My love, we can do better than this / My love, how can you complicate a kiss? / My love, you said you’d love me now ’til doomsday comes / ‘Til doomsday comes”) with musical finesse, mixing perfectly harmonica and guitars. In pole position to becoming a Ryan Adams classic for years to come.

Just preceding “Doomsday” on the record’s tracklist is title track “Prisoner”, which unfortunately, even after prolonged and insistent listenings, might funnily enough be one of the dullest and tasteless tracks on the whole effort. Albeit being a doubtless uplifter mood-wise, especially when considered within the context of this overall moody record, the track results a bit too incomplete and frankly too naked to be a final album version, but probably too confused and at the same time elaborated to be considered as a demo or B-side. However, the title track probably remains the only lower moment on Prisoner, which indeed sees a number of incredibly subtle and powerful cuts, such as the perfect modern-day acoustic number “Haunted House” at number four, or the minimalistic, heart-wrenching, and chilling “Shiver and Shake”, both carrying exclusive signature Adams’ sound and harmonies as developed and nurtured over the past five years. These two tracks, still very much in line with an irresistible – and at times cheesy – Springsteenian 80s echoy, chorusy, and reverberate sound, with the aforementioned “To Be Without You”, come to complete side A of the LP. And yet many would say that the best is yet to come.

Track number seven is “Anything I Say to You Now”, a fiery, 5-minute long classic rock cut with numerous walls of guitar sounds that dial in direct digits to The Smiths and some lateish Police vibes, just to name a few of the influences very explicitly worn on Adams’ sleeves. No doubt the rockiest moment on the whole album alongside the lead single “Do You Still Love Me?”. Immediately after that we find the superb guitar work of “Breakdown”, possibly among the most electrifying and proud tracks Adams has released in years, with the addition of an high catchiness alert. Following the energy of “Breakdown” it’s time for yours truly’s favourite bit on the whole record (and potentially of the whole Ryan Adams catalogue, although “Shadows” and “Dear Chicago” remain hard to beat), called “Outbound Train”, which if one were not to look carefully could easily be mistaken for a song off of Bruce Springsteen’s 1986 Tunnel of Love (“Two Faces” anyone?). The track perfectly encapsulates anger, emotion, love and much more in a very uncompromising climax of sounds and lyrics (“The cars don’t move in the middle of the night / Lost inside the void of the fading tail lights / I swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl”). Tempo, structure, and rhythm all take each other by the hand and carry the listener in a phantasmagoric four and a half minute journey marking intimacy, honesty, and rawness on Adams’ behalf.

Moving on, the last trio of songs on Prisoner begins with the mellow and rather hopeless “Broken Anyway”, which finds regularly captivating and dreamy electric guitar strums accompanying a rather simple acoustic lead with pleasant vocal melody. Also, this very song, alongside the following one “Tightrope”, bear heavy influences and remnants of Adams’ Taylor Swift interpretation and recording sessions for 1989, as both tracks just simply possess that vibe and overall feel which are impossible to negate. Prisoner calls its curtains with the properly titled “We Disappear”, which showcases what might be the best guitar sound that’s been heard out there in the electrical pantheon in a very long while and turns very quickly, very weird, perfectly matching the personal mission that Adams himself has been advocating for long (read his Twitter bio).

It’s no secret by now, being two weeks into its release, that Prisoner has found enormous success and praise by both critics and charts, demonstrating once more how amazingly the singer-songwriter is still able to not only reinvent and re-craft his musical outputs but also becoming an artist on his own, disregarding for the most part trends, genres, and commercial reasonings. The overwhelmingly positive reception the record has gotten around the world does nothing else other than confirming that we, the people, needed a record like this in present times of disorder, dismay and loss of connections. That is, by figuratively stripping himself completely naked and putting his most inner emotions out there telling stories of his failed marriage and connected despair, Ryan Adams showed us all that there is nothing to fear in being open and transparent about oneself and, most importantly, that honesty and truth will eventually unite us all in appreciation. Because at heart, we really shouldn’t be capable of nothing else.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

RYAN ADAMS

“PRISONER”

2017, PaxAmericana Recording Company

http://paxamrecords.com

prisoner_ra

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): THE MENZINGERS – “AFTER THE PARTY” | 4th February, MMXVII

Yet another saturated and exciting musical phase (after what honestly was a pretty dull and modest first month of the new year) approaching yours truly, with new releases planned and expected soon from the likes of Ryan Fu**ing Adams – kind of a big deal because of thisthis and even this – and indie rock kings Cold War Kids, as well as brand new music already announced for later on down the year by mighty Blink-182, 30 Seconds to Mars and Linkin Park. It is with such an uplifting and reinvigorated spirit in mind that I’m immensely excited to introduce you all to today’s artist, featured in 2017’s first ARM instalment: meet Pennsylvanian punk-rock minstrels The Menzingers.

After the Party is The Menzingers’ fifth studio album and comes after almost four years of restless touring in promotion of the moderately successful Rented World, released in 2014. This new effort is out on influential and devoted punk-rock Hollywood-based indie label Epitaph Records, founded by legendary Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz more than 30 years ago and that over its history has released major productions by seminal, genre-defining bands such as Pennywise, Social Distortion, Descendents, and, obviously, Bad Religion. It is precisely within such a sonic framework that one should broadly position The Menzingers, as more or less explicit influences of the outfits above and a handful more are easily to be found along the band’s catalogue so far. After the Party, which at time of writing came out officially yesterday, 3rd February, overall delivers a solid, 13-track release cutting at just under 45 minutes of unstriated and uncompromising melodic punk-rock which is overwhelmingly driven by loads, loads of guitars. Personally, it’s been quite some time I hadn’t revisited such a genre – which for me in the past had been taken care by folks like Rancid, The Gaslight Anthem and potentially a bit of Against Me! – and if anything it really felt good immersing myself in such waters again. Yet, even after repetitive listens, the album sort of leaves you a bit dry and longing for something more that was missing once closing track, albeit singularly convincing, “Livin’ Ain’t Easy” calls the curtains.

In fact, I guess the biggest problem of this record is its first half, with unfortunately really only presents  the wonderfully composed and melodically rich “House of Fire” at number six for future talks. This is despite side A of the album having included two of the three major singles releases off of After the Party, namely the pretty predictable and over-heard “Thick as Thieves” (number two on the tracklist) and the following, rather dark cut “Lookers”, which despite an interesting and touching intro kind of loses itself one minute into the song and at its best results too self-referential. Furthermore, album-opener “Tellin’ Lies” might even be ok for opening live shows and festival slots but in all frankness is not far from the exact reason why this kind of punk-rock simply got too boring at one point in history. “Midwestern States”, at number four, is certainly a pretty good song on average, though definitely not something to be remembered and quite possibly not one of the songs that will stuck with the listener after the album is over. The following “Charlie’s Army”, instead, is likely to be the worst track on the whole entire record, with not only a slim vocal lead but also heavy, at times disturbing disynchronization between all instruments included. Definitely one that could have been left off the final track listing.

Fortunately, things start to get much better with the album’s middle song “Black Mass”, a sweet semi-acoustic ballad that entails great vocal emotion and superior lyrics (“We used to want to take the back roadsBut now we found a distance shorterYou used to call me darlingNow you prefer more formal“). Moreover, at number nine on the tracklist we find “Bad Catholics“, which was released as lead single late last year, arguably a right decision. The track is among the catchiest and radio-friendliest on After the Party and despite a wonderful and tempting main guitar riff doesn’t overstay its welcome and ends up at 2:52, making it the second-shortest song on the whole album. What follows is “Your Wild Years”, which alongside the aforementioned “Black Mass” contains some of the best words on the record highlighting and romanticising multi-ethnical backgrounds in form of an unusual love declaration, possibly more needed now than ever given present political times in the USA. Yet the very best of After the Party is without doubt found in its last two, closing songs “After the Party” and “Livin’ Ain’t Easy”. The former and title-track almost completely reaches songwriting and execution perfection mixing up raw emotion, fuelled guitars and drops of Taking Back Sunday, Bruce Springsteen and Foo Fighters here and there, which made me connect to it in a very intense fashion. Also, the intro guitar riff might be among the best in a good while within the recent punk-rock pantheon. Speaking of guitars, album closer “Livin Ain’t Easy” also decides to deliver chills down the listener’s spine via electric six strings, with its leading guitar lick wrapped up in beautiful reverb and chorus effects probably very reminiscent of last year’s Moose Blood’s Blush. Extremely well done and appropriate closing track.

There’s a lot of regret in me after listening to After the Party as a whole, precisely because of the last two tracks’ beauty and effectiveness. What I mean by that is that if it weren’t for the handful of boring and rather dull songs included in the LP (“Tellin’ Lies”, “Charlie’s Army” and “The Bars” leading the group), this album could’ve been really, really good and (already!) landed straight to this year’s list of best releases. Yes, because there are indeed songs that are truly exceptional (“Black Mass”, “Bad Catholics”, “After the Party” and “Livin’ Ain’t Easy”), and this Menzingers’ effort could have become a classic if, for example, released as an EP with its best of. However, in my opinion there are too many flaws to be acknowledged as such and sadly After the Party really can’t be labelled as more than an average, solid record. Yet, my love for certain, selected tunes might as well be catalysed precisely by those other poorer moments on the record, allowing them shine and emerge in contrast to the remaining ones and with regard to an overall perspective. And I guess this is exactly the splendour and magic of music: hard to explain and different for everyone. So please go on and come persuade me that this album is a masterpiece if you truly believe so, I’d be all ears.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

THE MENZINGERS

“AFTER THE PARTY”

2017, Epitaph Records

http://themenzingers.com

menzingers_atp

SAPPY NEW YEAR | 5th January, MMXVII

Well hello there esteemed readers, welcome back to a fresh and shiny new solar year, called 2017!

I really do hope everyone has had a chance to spend happy and healthy holidays with their loved ones, whichever festivities one may adhere to. I had some fantastic time off at home and skiing on the Swiss Alps. I also got the best Christmas present I’ve ever received in form of a kickass necklace with two splendid pendants that represent two of my biggest passions in life and for that matter the whole single reason why I started this site in the first place (read this if you’d like to know more about it, + pic of said best Christmas present below). Before we go any further, I’d also like to take the occasion to wish every single one of you a wonderful and passionate new year from the whole team at Everything Must Swing, which in all true honesty it’s just me, no one else really. Nonetheless, I would like for everyone’s onboarding on the new collection of 365 days into a single unity to be as passionate and inspiring as possible, and therefore I thought I’d come up with scattered bits and pieces listing some of the things that are getting me excited during the first days of 2017.

First of all, do yourself a favour and give a listen to the whole Frank Ocean‘s discography. It’s not immense, it starts with his debut mixtape nostalgia,ULTRA. (retrievable almost anywhere on the web with free download) and ends up with his latest, long-awaited LP Blonde that came out in August last year. In between these there’s the critically acclaimed first sensation studio album Channel ORANGE (released in 2012) as well as the totally unexpected, music-industry Trojan horse of a visual album Endless which came out a day before Blonde last Summer, however still only available through Apple Music. I’m suggesting to take a deep dive into his art because Frank Ocean is a pretty big deal. He used to be (or still is?) one of the most creative and daring members of the highly influential L.A. hip hop collective Odd Future and over time has received more praises and accolades in and out the music industry than almost anyone else in the past five to ten years. However, more than anything he’s a true R&B, soul sonic experimenter who has not been afraid to speak out on gender and sexuality issues as well as brilliantly setting up an elegant and refined strategy to screw a major record label – Def Jam Recordings/Universal, to be specific – through his double close-up release of Endless and Blonde. My personal take is that his music not only transcends genres and formats, but also possesses an extremely intense staying power, growing immensely on the listener at every new play. Try out for yourselves.

Secondly, in case you’re looking for some prompts and cues in terms of movies and television, I couldn’t recommend enough Dan Gilroy-directed thriller Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and taking place in a dark and gloomy L.A. whenever one would like it to take place time-wise. Wikipedia says that the movie portrays “a thief who starts shooting live footage of accidents and crimes in Los Angeles, selling the content to a local news channel as a stringer while secretly sabotaging both crime scenes and other news reporters” and to be fair I think it’s a good description of what it is about. Yet beyond its plot I truly believe that the movie has some of the best on screen dialogues and cinematography around, and while it was released quite some time ago already, appears to remain more relevant than ever theme-wise hinting at modern society’s perverse and twisted relationship with breaking news as well as a long lasting crisis of contemporary journalism. Also, it’s no surprise given the excellence of the script and some of the exchanges in the movie that the producers even decided to release the movie script in full on the Interweb. Definitely worth a watch/read if you too like me enjoy dope convos, double meanings, and lightened lines while at the same time not sacrificing an engaging and suspenseful plot.

Third, this time moving to the literary dimension, I currently find myself deep in the reading of American author James Franco’s Actors Anonymous novel, published in 2013 and tracing parallel (mostly very weird) stories about different (mostly very troubled) actors in California. The semi-autobiographical book deploys heavy name-dropping and I believe borrows most of the storylines from James Franco’s own acting career, notably having starred in movies such as the first Spider-Man trilogy, Pineapple Express, Milk, 127 Hours and many more as well as having been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2011. The novel’s tale is inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous’ famous 12 steps and 12 traditions by adapting them to the acting world and the Hollywoodian high entertainment industry as a whole, converting the book into a dark, genre-bending ensemble that – as stated before – shamelessly mixes personal memoir and quintessential fiction, not least scrutinising all sins and excesses of those involved in the maintaining of said industry. Extremely funny at times, the novel represent a true and profound insight into Franco’s take on what it really means to be acting and which higher purpose the whole activity oughta serve. Though above all the book might as well be considered a first-account collection of anecdotes, trivia and little behind-the-scenes stories about the world of global celebrities and world-famous actors that might otherwise have gone unheard, mostly because of the extent of shame and mercilessness involved. Or, as Franco puts it himself in the book’s frontispiece: “Hollywood has always been a private club. I open the gates. I say welcome. I say, look inside”. Give the book a read if you’ve ever wondered what happens to big entertainment stars in between movies and projects.

Well I guess that’s about it for now, as you can see I’ve touched upon three fundamental artistic formats (music, film and book) so as to try to not overrepresent the Queen of them all – the sonic one – as it is usually the case with this site. To be fair, there could be other entertaining-escapist suggestions I could potentially be giving you for this rather downish period of the working year, such as a couple of other movies or TV shows I’ve been glimpsing at here and there, however I don’t want to feel like telling you too much what to do and see but I’d much rather give out some initial, core inspirations such as the above ones, from which then everyone goes on their individual journey to find what really enriches them perhaps ending up at a much different place than the starting one. Actually, looking back at my three artistic cues above I only now realise that there is indeed a deep, underlying theme that somehow connects them all: Los Angeles. That is, it turns out that the Californian city of Angels – unbeknownst to me – is the lowest common denominator to all Frank Ocean, Nightcrawler and Actors Anonymous, for many different reasons. Yet, the narration of how and what this comes to be might be as well be outside of the scope of this very blogpost, thus let’s just say that I’ll leave that to me alone by considering it my own personal artistic journey that has taken off out of those initial three ingredients. Now it’s your turn to make yours a reality. Enjoy (not so) responsibly.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

ems_newyear

ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): BAD RABBITS – “AMERICAN NIGHTMARE” | 18th December, MMXVI

An exceptionally interesting year is nearing its end and at this point it’s probably safe to say the best thing that could happen to us is a full reboot and restart from scratch in 2017. I will presumably devote a dedicated blogpost fairly soon trying to sum up some of 2016’s personally most interesting artistic bits and pieces (watch this space…), but before that I couldn’t bid farewell to this kaleidoscopic and eclectic year without one last instalment of the award-winning ARM column, so very much appreciated by yours truly’s esteemed readers. Also, I have a sense that the title of the record I will be reviewing in this very blogpost – Bad Rabbits’ American Nightmare – kind of already hints at a pretty faithful depiction of one of the most relevant developments that took place over the last twelve months and beyond. Yet, as the nature of ARM chapters calls for, there will be no room for other than pure, condensed and distilled musical critique within the walls of this very webpage’s frame. First things first. Set priorities straight. Enjoy.

Bad Rabbits are a Boston, MA, based funk-soul-rock quintet that’s been around for quite some time now, namely forming back in 2007 but in reality active for much more than ten years considering early line-ups and name changes. They might not be as well-known in Europe as they appear to be in the USA, and I personally might not had stumbled upon them either had it not been for Taking Back Sunday taking them as opening act on a long tour a couple of years ago. And boy am I glad they did, as these guys really do kick asses and their live performances are a true spectacle in their own right. So far the band has published five different records (3 EPs and 2 LPs). Their latest 12-track release is indeed titled American Nightmare (see artwork below) and was made available for free (!) – but after all, come on, it’s 2016… – via their website and all other blah blah digital stores on 21st November. Fun fact, despite its gratuity the album is also for sale on iTunes Store so I decided to actually purchase it after having dowloaded it for free just because it’s me and I like to be awesome most of the times. All joking aside, make sure to support original great music with every means you have at disposal. If you really don’t want to buy records and just like to stream tracks for free, at least inject yourself with ODs of live shows and merch and and and. Remembers, a cup of coffee at Starbucks costs around £4.

The album is an impressively solid rock & roll release closing at about 46 minutes, proving that Bad Rabbits didn’t try to hold back so much and gave out as much as it made sense for them. In this regard, as the band itself later revealed over a tweet, the writing and recording process for American Nightmare took place in a much smaller, more intimate and modest context that however was able to bring inspiration and emotion back to the Boston group. Overall, the record swings between ambient/space rock atmospheres – always led by beautiful guitars and arrangements – and stripped down, raw rapping crossing funk, R&B and hard rock all in between. It’s by far one of the most intrinsically varied and articulated albums I’ve listened to this year, but in fact what strikes me as even more surprising is Bad Rabbits ability and skilfulness to create extremely catchy melodies throughout the tracklist. Take for example lead single “Original” and its angry, dirty, and in-your-face emotion, or for instance the landscape-y “Too Late”, or again the mid-album ballad “Flames”: all those choruses and recurring refrains just simply stick to you from almost the first listen and result very well placed. Try and see for yourself.

Yet the record doesn’t simply prove songwriting maturity in its overall melodic extent and accessibility but possibly more prominently through its themes and lyrics, ranging from acute self-awareness and exploration to recent socio-political frames. For instance, the chilling and breathtaking “Wwyd” at number eight on the tracklist heavily deals with street and police gun violence alongside bigger conversations about race and discrimination via a powerful, minimalistic rapping chant. Similarly delicate topics lead tracks such as the explicit and at times exaggerated opener “Stalker”, the hectic and frantic “Save Yourself” as well as curtain call self-motivational anthem “Push”, which by the way features the only guest spot on the album with brilliant rap bars Spnda. American Nightmare is clearly loaded with socio-political statements and pieces of protest, and whilst to some it might look like just another anti-establishment rock album at first glance, there is an undeniable depth to the final output which openly places the record alongside other massive mass awakening and system-rejector releases such as letlive.’s If I’m the Devil…

Another noteworthy attribute of this album is its ability to let tracks grown onto the listener and almost catapult them to each one’s personal favourite bucket off of it. That is, songs such as the legitimately weirdly synths-loaded “Game of Chess” or the rather hysterical and messy “The Wire” seem to possess this rare capability of shaping themselves into radically enjoyable sonic frames completely revolting initial impressions, at least as far as I was concerned. In fact, this dynamic affected me to the extent that I currently consider “The Wire” the best cut off the whole record (I know this is subject to change and always a dangerous statement, yet true to this moment in time). The above is not to say that American Nightmare doesn’t have its weaknesses too, not at all. Songs like the too obvious “The Cloud” at number three or the slow, stripped down semi-acoustic  (and semi-boring…) number “My Song” do in fact represent the lowest points on this album, however legitimately acceptable and by no means affecting the overall positive and enthusiastic judgement of this record.

All in all, Bad Rabbits have put out an extremely relevant, thought-through and melodically beautiful record that in so many ways could aim at representing a lot of that’s happened during this ever-changing and ever-surprising year. This is true also for the lessons that should be learned and the main takeaways after listening to it: above all it’s a record distilling virtues of hope, sacrifice and self-growth. Or, as Bad Rabbits put it themselves in closing track “Push”: “Just push yourself, no matter if you go through hell“. What better phrasing to wrap up 2016?

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time. And happy holidays this time around.

AV

BAD RABBITS

“AMERICAN NIGHTMARE”

2016, Bad Records

http://www.badrabbits.com/

badrabbits_an