Saturday, November 2, 2013

Album Review: Fleetwood Mac, Extended Play

It seems like Fleetwood Mac make some of their best music in periods of great volatility. Rumours, the band’s 1977 masterpiece, was written and recorded during a time when the band’s personal lives were in the toilet. The Mac’s latest release, the four song EP Extended Play, was recorded in another bout of uncertainty, with multiples recording projects being derailed by Stevie Nicks’s and Lindsey Buckingham’s solo careers. Like during Rumours, the band somehow remains at their most focused during a storm, and has produced an incredible record.

One of the best things about Extended Play is that it sounds like Fleetwood Mac. In an era where the music industry seems to be pressing for more homogenization, it is great to hear a band that sounds like themselves. The EP’s lead, and best, track “Sad Angel,” is a classic Mac song of the highest caliber, reminiscent of many of the tracks from the beginning of the Buckingham-Nicks era Mac. Buckingham’s vocals effortlessly blend with Nicks’s, showing the potency of this long partnership. 

In fact, all four of the tracks on the EP fit seamlessly in the canon of the first few Buckingham-Nicks led Mac. Buckingham’s electric and acoustic guitars shine together, for an incredibly well blended, bright sound. John McVie’s bass flits between sweetly accentuating the melodies to pounding along with Mick Fleetwood’s steady, reliable drumming, showing the strength of the consistent core of the band.  And, like many good Fleetwood Mac songs, love is at the forefront of these songs from the haunting Buckingham solo piano and voice track “It Takes Time,” to the pleasant day dream of “Miss Fantasy.” Despite none of the band members being romantically linked any more (Christine McVie left the band after divorcing John, and Buckingham and Nicks terminated their romantic relationship during the recording of Rumours) it seems that these old habits die hard. 

In a musical culture where artists, consumers and producers keeping pushing for “the new,” it is refreshing to hear something so classic. Fleetwood Mac reasserts themselves as a still relevant and superstar band in 2013, and remind us why these bands are still around, and still kicking ass.

Rating: 9.0/10

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Teen Star Summer Singles: An Overview

 I do not have the best history with music made by stars of teen shows. This is both due to both professionally disliking the music, and disliking the music on principle. Recently, though, my professional opinion towards teen pop music has thawed and so I wish to publically reflect this. In past couple months, four former teen show stars, two Disney and two Nickelodeon, have released new singles – all of them, in some way or another, being a shift in career for the artists. This post will be dedicated to my thoughts on each of them, as I discuss the good, the ok…and the “Miley.”

The Good
1.      “The Way” – Arianna Grande feat. Mac Miller
             Ms. Grande is the first of two of the Nickelodeon stars on this list, both from the same show: Victorious. While Grande put out a single in 2011, in many ways I think this should be considered her proper “debut” single. Unlike 2011’s “Get Your Hearts Up,” “The Way” feels pointed and focused, suggesting that she knows her artistic direction. Grande’s new track allows me to introduce an idea that will be seen throughout this review; maturity. Despite the differences in the way each track handles maturity, one of the reasons that I like these tracks is because of that theme. After hearing many of these artists make simple, bland, for-kinds-and-teens pop songs, it is refreshing to hear them sing in more adult terms.
            While Grande is not explicit, as everyone but Miley will be, she sings about desire and wanting that has more in common with lust or mature romance than teenage attraction. On that note of her singing – OH BOY, can she sing! As other critics have noted, “The Way’ has a strong Mariah Carey-vibe to it, especially in the airy vocals Grande lays down as a pre-chorus section. The song allows Grande to run her sweet, airy voice along the octave and timbre spectra. While the main vocal stays at a consistent pitch and timbre, the accentuating vocal flourishes show off, brief as they are, the stellar range of her voice.
             Mac Miller’s intro lines and verse also fit extremely well into the flow and feel of the track. Miller not only provides the perspective of the other half of the love in question. Miller also flits between teenage and adult, as he goes from talking about “it being groovy,” to watch a movie, to telling everyone how she “Is a princess to the public but a freak when it’s time.” Grande and Miller create a fun love song that flits between teenage and adult understanding of love, and show “The Way” that other teen artists should follow.

Rating: 8.0/10

2.      “Come and Get It” – Selena Gomez
Next up we have the new single from former Wizards of Waverly Place star Selena Gomez. To Specify, this is Gomez’s debut single as a solo artist. For those that might be confused, previously Gomez was backed by her own band, The Scene. The most striking feature of “Come and Get It” is its international sound, introduced from the song’s get-go. The song starts with a chant-like vocal line over a bhangra, dhol beat that lulls one in before the explosive intro. Gomez then enters in force, backed by a Skrillex-y, roaring dubstep electronic riff that fills the corners of the speakers. These two musical ideas trade back and forth throughout the song. The Indian rhythm and melody dominate the verses, with occasional dub fills, while the electronic/dub sound of the intro dominates the chorus.           
 Gomez’s production staff has apparently been rather steeped in the British pop scene of the 1980s, not only because of Bhangra influence. Much like the Police’s megahit “Every Breath You Take,” the romantic, sweet sounding lyrics are a lot darker and more aggressive than at initial listen. When Gomez sings “This love ain’t finished yet,” it is hard to tell if she means it romantically or, to borrow a term from The Fairly Odd Parents, “threatmantically.” Much like Sting, Gomez’s writers play up the darkest parts of stalking, as she sings “This love will be the death of me / But I know I’ll die happily.”The music video helps affirm the lyric’s underlying darkness, down to the black color of her dress, are a main visual in the video.
Either way, the song is a great show of maturity for Gomez, and her best work yet. While fellow teen-y boppers Amanda Bynes and Miley Cyrus struggle with the transition out of teen stardom to adulthood, Gomez has done so with maturity and grace. “Come and Get It,” is a reflection of this coming into adulthood.

Rating: 8/10

The OK
“Gold” – Victoria Justice
   Like the other former Nick star on this list, Victoria Justice’s debut single is another simple, fun love song. I admit it, when I first played the song, I found myself surprisingly drawn-in to the track. Justice clearly does not have the same vocal ability as Grande, but her voice fits in the pop-y aesthetic well. The lyrics are somewhat simple though there is a mention of a “Catch 22”, but I suppose that comes with aiming for a more teen audience [and just because you have a team of seven songwriters does not mean you’ll get “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” as your first single]. One of the things I DO enjoy about the lyrics, and track overall, is the nature of the relationship it describes. For the first time, in a while if ever it seems, we have a song about the girl wanting the guy to break out of the friend zone. Impossible, slander, HERESY you may ask, well I was just as surprised. This is one of the main things I laud “Gold” for, breaking both the mold on pop and real relationships by actually wanting the guy to emerge out of the deepest, coldest circle of hell that is the friend zone. I also really appreciate the music and production as a whole, with one complaint I address below. The popping, bright guitar really accentuates and compliments Justice’s voice, while the drum and bassline both dance as airily as we picture our heroine.
                   As you may notice, this song is in the “OK” category, so I do have some problems with it. The main problem I have with this song is the title word “Gold.” My contention is not with the lyric itself, but the execution in the song. Despite having Justice singing at a fairly consistent mid-range for the majority of the song, for whatever reason, someone decided it would be a great idea if she basically shrieked the word “Gold.” I cringe every time that word comes through on the song. The tie in issue is, if not for that one word, I would like this song a lot more…like A LOT. The song lulls me into this happy, pop, lala land that I actually enjoy, but hearing “Gold” shrieked far beyond her uppermost register immediately snaps me out of that happy place. That one word essentially ruins the song.
                  This is not the only problem. The other complaint I have is with the bridge…basically all of it. This is another point where I put my head in my hands and wish to know what the producer was thinking. The bridge is this semi-rapped section that features Victoria Justice trying WAY too hard to sound “street.” It just…it does not work at all. I actually think it would be possible offensive to some people, seeing how it almost sounds like offensive parody rather than a genuine performance [maybe they thought the Puerto Rican heritage would give the street flare they needed]. Not only is it borderline offensive, but it is a musical non-sequitur. There is no precedent or real reason for the bridge to be structured this way.
                 I really wanted to like this song, but the two colossal red flags prevent me from thinking its ok. I still give credit to Victoria for making what would otherwise be a fair/strong debut. Also, this song seems to be proof that she should just let the writers provide the lyrics – she co-wrote the B-side “Shake,” and that makes “Gold” almost look like Lennon-McCartney by comparison
Rating: 6.0/10

The Miley
 “We Can’t Stop” – Miley Cyrus
  I tried. I tried so very hard to find anything redeemable about Miley Cyrus’s summer jam “We Can’t Stop.” But I just cannot. “We Can’t Stop” has officially shot to the top of my “Worst Songs of All Time” list…yes, I think it is that bad. The usual criticisms will apply here: poorly written, poor beat/production, too much auto-tune, but these are not the ultimate reasons for my sheer hatred for this song. I admit, “We Can’t Stop” had the potential to be the new, definitive party song, and powerful “song of the summer” at that. The problem is that, despite having the qualities of a huge, party anthem, “We Can’t Stop” does not sound like an anthem. Miley Cyrus sounds somewhere between just bored or too stoned to care about anything, leading the song to just sound as bored and careless as she is. A song about partying all night - about essentially saying “F*** tha police” - should sound like it. “Rock and Roll All Nite” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” would be scarcely remembered relics of rock and roll if Kiss and Twisted Sister sounded as bored and “give no bothers” as Miley. The only time the song displays anything close to trying to be as anthemic as it should comes during the bridge, when background voices echo the end of Miley’s lines. These people sound like they’re at the party Miley wants to be at, but she’s so stoned that she actually just imagining that party.
                Aside from the main complaint, the song just sounds like it was written by 20 year old, I-have-way-too-much-of-daddy’s-money party monster. There is no hint of intelligence in songwriting, just a near-incoherent jumble of thoughts and drunken shout outs. The issue again is, I would forgive Cyrus and her songwriting team for the bad songwriting if she actually sounded excited about what she was singing. If she sounded excited, then the line “To my home girls here with the big butt / Shaking it like we at a strip club / Remember only God can judge ya,” would actually sound empowering and “f*** yeah, we’re all awesome at this party” – like a party anthem should be. Also, Miley, TuPac is the only one who sounds cool saying “only God can judge __” you just sound like an overly, happy drunk, party chick who just wants to “spread the love.” Just because “You Can’t Stop” Miley, does not mean that you shouldn’t stop.

Raitng: 0/10 (If you couldn’t tell already)

This review may be a bit too harsh towards Cyrus and all the stereotypes I could think of, and I apologize for that. Part of my rage towards this song is that, except for the fine minds at Rolling Stone, most other critics met the song with positive review. In essence, my build up and concentration of vile here is meant to compensate for all of their reviews.
So there it is, an exercise in reviewing teen star pop music. I gave the Good, the OK, and the “Condemn forever to the darkest corners of Space,” also known as “The Miley.”
      - Jackson Sinnenberg
So maybe I have watched their shows, what’s it to ya?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Album Review: Alice In Chains, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here

Just so we get this out of the way first, no the title is not referring to the band. Alice In Chains, arguably the first grunge band on the Seattle scene in the late 80s, could be considered a dinosaur by some cynics. The band has a rocky 25 year history, marked by severe drug problems and the death of original front man Layne Staley. Regardless, Alice is back with frontman William DuVall, who recorded with the band for their last album Black Gives Way to Blue. At the very least, of this new release, I can say that Alice In Chains is far from approaching “Dinosaur status.”

The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is a classics-sounding Alice In Chains record. For the longtime fans, all the elements that they love the band for are there. The riffs are heavy and distorted, the vocals harmonize in an eerily, ethereal way, and there are moments of great softness on the album. Unfortunately, things start to blend together early in the album, making it confusing to keep track of the tracks.

In better news, only the first few tracks of the album blend together which each other – and the rest of the band’s catalog, so there is enough room for new life to emerge. Tracks like “Stone” and “Pretty Done,” sound rather similar, and classic Alice-y, so they easily fall prey to the “sounds like every other song they’ve recorded” complaint, as do others on the disc. I suppose the issue is that due to the heavy and slow nature of the riffs, the elements create a hypnotic effect on the listener. The hypnosis lulls one into being unsure of the lengths and starts/stops of tracks – not exactly the affect you want to have to keep people interesting in listening.

On the other hand, the classic Alice vocal harmonies are always a welcoming touch to the tracks. The harmonies, beyond the eerie sweetness, also help to build up the sonic landscape and assist in creating a full sounding record. In addition to this, one of the disc’s other strengths is the split in aesthetic. About one third of the tracks are more acoustic-based or softer numbers, in contrast with the sludgy, heavy tracks that make up the majority. Songs like “Voices” and the title track are done in this softer fashion, and showcase the group’s lyrical ability and musical beauty. The title track also provides Alice In Chains a soapbox, from which they take jabs at the hypocrisy of Christians’ opposition to the LGBTQ movement. The band’s thoughts are perfectly captured by the line “The devil put dinosaurs here / Jesus don’t like a queer / The devil put dinosaurs here / No problem with faith, just fear.”

These two sides, the soft/melodic and heavy come together well on the seven minute-epic, “Phantom Limb.” The verses take the heavy, creeping riffs common throughout the album, while the chorus uses beautiful harmonies and echoing guitars to create this haunting track. While not an emotional climax, it defintley represents one of the more ambitious, and successful, tracks on the disc.
Overall, the album’s hypnotic, sludge- y tracks weigh the project down. Yes the riffs and melodies are heavy, interesting and rock out – but only on the first listen through. Even during the first listen, those riffs and melodies begin to blend together.  Undoubtedly the Alice-In-Chains loyalist will be pleased with the LP. Those of us who have not drunk the punch-in-chains, will undoubtedly want something a little different.

Key Tracks: “Hollow,” “Voices,” “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” “Phantom Limb”

Rating: 6.5/10

-          Jackson Sinnenberg, whose reviews can usually be found at The Rotation, WGTB Georgetown Radio’s music blog