Great Job, Robot: “Communication” by Disq

There are times when the collection of ones and zeroes that comprise whatever profile it is that Spotify uses to manipulate me will truly impress. “Great Job, Robot” is dedicated to those songs that the Spotify algorithm gods throw at me that I think are quite excellent or otherwise noteworthy picks. Please be advised that these posts will concern themselves with saying mostly positive things about tunes, unlike the unreasonable slag-fests that occupy most of the real estate on this blog.

“Communication” – Disq

As much as I wonder if it’ll ever by truly hip on a Top of the Pops mainstream level again, there’s really nothing that tickles me quite like a song built almost entirely around one terrific guitar line or chord progression. “Communication” revolves around a warbling and winding guitar figure that manages to be at once hooky and hypnotic. It is strangely enhanced further by the fact that it sounds slightly out of tune at times, as if the guitarists are slamming on strings procured from some ancient pawn shop.

The song that stretches out around the central guitar line is a terrific blend of modern indie rock and throwback 90s alt guitar pop. The vocal melodies intertwine with the guitar, magnifying their effect without aping them exactly. By the time things build to a big ol’ rockin’ instrumental outro, I’m in bliss. The kids are all right.

I like “Communication” by Disq. Great job, Robot.

Josh’s Top 50 Albums of 2019

The blog may have been lacking in activity over the past year, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping up with the year’s best records. I don’t have much to say about the year’s musical zeitgeist or trends, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Common themes in music this year of hope and survival in a time of crisis seem to have carried over from the previous couple of years. I wonder if that has to do with the endless parade of awful news we’ve been bombarded with since 2016.
  • Some of the best releases were the most experimental. This was the year the rap-country crossover “Old Town Road” reigned supreme, but genre mashing felt like more of a norm than an outlier.
  • Women continued putting out most of the most interesting and diverse projects.
  • Someone keep Kanye away from Tony Robbins, please.
  • Weezer in 2019: two albums, twice the trash.

Before I count down the full-length studio albums I fell hardest for, I’d like to throw some recognition to a few other categories:

Best Live Album:
Image result for homecoming beyonce album
Homecoming by Beyoncé

Best soundtrack/compilation album:

Image result for coltrane 58
Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings by John Coltrane

Honourable Mentions:
Revenge of the Dreamers III by Various Artists (Dreamville Records & J. Cole)
The Lion King: The Gift by Beyoncé & Various Artists

Best EP:
Image result for toothsayer ep
Toothsayer by Tanya Tagaq

Honourable Mentions:
Afterlife by The Comet Is Coming
7 by Lil Nas X
Lately by Celeste


Out of a total of 274 eligible albums, here are my favourites. It was a good year.


My Top 50 Albums of 2019

50 – 41

50-4645-41
50. Tegan and Sara – Hey, I’m Just Like You
49. Refused – War Music
48. John Coltrane – Blue World
47. Jade Bird – Jade Bird
46. ScHoolboy Q – CrasH Talk
45. Lissie – When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective
44. Jidenna – 85 to Africa
43. Tinashe – Songs for You
42. Blood Orange – Angel’s Pulse
41. Burna Boy – African Giant

40 – 39

40-3635-3140. Boogie – Everything’s for Sale
39. Glen Hansard – This Wild Willing
38. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever
37. Daniel Caesar – Case Study 01
36. Maxo Kream – Brandon Banks
35. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
34. Black Midi – Schlagenheim
33. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
32. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
31. Tool – Fear Inoculum

30 – 29

 

26-3025-21
30. Flying Lotus – Flamagra
29. TOBi – Still
28. Raphael Siddiq – Jimmy Lee 
27. Miranda Lambert – Wildcard
26. City and Colour – A Pill for Loneliness
25. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
24. Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats – Anger Management
23. Marvin Gaye – You’re the Man
22. Brutus – Nest
21. Ari Lennox – Shea Butter Baby

20 – 11

20-1615-11
20. The National – I Am Easy to Find 
19. James Blake – Assume Form
18. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
17. Mannequin Pussy – Patience
16. Black Mountain – Destroyer
15. YBN Cordae – The Lost Boy
14. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
13. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall
12. Jamila Woods – LEGACY!LEGACY!
11. Tyler the Creator – Igor


The Top Ten

10. Bon Iver – i,i 

BonIver_ii

I know it’s lonely in the dark / And this year’s a visitor / And we have to know that faith declines / I’m not all out of mine

Sonic experimentation overshadowed humanity on Bon Iver’s last record, 22, A Million, but i,i finds Justin Vernon and Co. striking a balance between them. Singles like “Hey, Ma” build from cold and sparse to an increasingly ambitious and glorious wave of emotional melodies that hit like the band’s best tracks before segueing into the simple piano pop of the Bruce Hornsby-featuring “U (Man Like),” where Vernon tackles American political patriarchy in an earnest plea for men and those with power to improve. Bon Iver has always straddled the line between majesty and intimacy; i,i is a perfect example of the ways Vernon builds towering tracks off a frame of vulnerable simplicity.


9. Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold

sleaterkinney_thecenter

I need you more than I ever have / Because the future’s here, and we can’t go back

The ninth album from Sleater-Kinney boasts the best of the band’s trademark furious, crunchy guitar rock , combined with the polished production of St. Vincent’s Annie Clarke. It’s a record cemented in gritty urgency but dressed in radio-friendly pop rock. Singer Carrie Brownstein’s melodic yet antagonistic vocals anchor an album full of catchy synth and guitar riffs as she paints a dark and compelling portrait of destruction, femininity, sex, companionship, and rage that feels like the perfect soundtrack to the MeToo era.


8. Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance

LeonardCohen2019_TFTD_5x5_hi-res

I was handy with a rifle / My father’s .303 / I fought for something final / Not the right to disagree

I called Cohen’s last album, You Want it Darker,—released weeks before his death—a “stellar album to cap off an unassailable legacy” when I named it the 8th best album of 2016. Even in death, though, Cohen wasn’t done. Thanks for the Dance feels surprisingly cohesive for a posthumous record. No doubt its clarity and similarity in sound and tone to Darker owes to the fact that it was recorded during the same period, when Cohen’s son Adam was producing and shepherding his father’s legacy in Leonard’s last months. The record is as brooding, funny, sexual, sly, and engrossing as any of Cohen’s best work, and fans couldn’t ask for a better epilogue.


7. The Cinematic Orchestra – To Believe

cinematicorchestra

Why would you hide from yourself? / Belief is here to find you

The first record in over a decade from The Cinematic Orchestra is transcendent orchestral electropop, meticulously crafted and arranged to form a lush, mostly down-tempo soundscape that could ostensibly be background music, but it proves far too captivating for that. Every track—all exceeding 5 minutes but only one topping 10—has room to breathe and move and features its own little sonic narrative and emotional crescendo. An utterly satisfying triumph.


6. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

LDRNFR

They mistook my kindness for weakness / I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus / Can’t a girl just do the best she can? 

I’ve grown to appreciate Lana Del Rey more upon each successive release following her frustrating debut, Born to Die. Now, having fully shed the more performative aspects of her musical and lyrical persona and vocal style, the great American songstress within is more evident than ever. Del Rey muses about contemporary America with wit and self-awareness over the record’s 14 tracks that feel hopeful and abrasive at the same time. From the album’s opening strains and the lyric, “Goddamn man-child / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you,’” on the title track to the later admission that “Fuck it, I love you,” LDR is eminently aware with the sorry state of her country and society who excel at self-destruction, but are still willing to look for love in an increasingly hostile environment (literally).

Where are America’s patron saints when “Kanye West is blonde and gone” and “L.A. is in flames”? They’re not Norman Rockwell, as the tongue-in-cheek album title ostensibly affirms, but perhaps those willing to see through the toxic nostalgia of Americana and believe in its potential it at the same time. The succinct title of the album’s closer says it all: “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it.”


5. Little Simz – GREY Area

 

LittleSimz_GREYArea

Rejected the dotted line but not the pen / Invested in myself, that was money well spent

The best rap album of the year comes from 25-year-old UK artist Little Simz, who has spent most of the past decade grinding out a prolific string of independent releases and quietly establishing a reputation to match her work ethic, yet somehow evading a mainstream breakthrough. I came to be introduced to her from her 2017 guest spot on the Gorillaz’ Humanz album and tour. On her third studio album, Grey Area, Little Simz sounds finely-honed and confident, showcasing technical prowess and clever wordplay alongside eclectic production from Inflo (who previously worked on Michael Kiwanuka’s stellar Love + Hate). But what makes Little Simz so fascinating is the contradictions in tone and subject matter as her unapologetic passion and confidence are matched by introspection and vulnerability.


4. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors

angelolsen_allmirrors

Don’t take it for granted / Love when you have it / You might be looking over / a lonelier shoulder / Remember when we said / we’d never have children / Now I’m holdin’ your baby / now that we’re older

Angel Olsen’s fourth album, All Mirrors, is her fourth great album in a row, but it also might be her finest. Equal parts angry and uncertain, inwardly tender and outwardly incisive, its fluidity in tone and sound makes All Mirrors a frequent surprise without feeling like a radical departure from Olsen’s prior releases. Olsen’s already dynamic and purposeful songs are paired with orchestral arrangements by Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff  that, while they never overpower her voice, do sometimes become the unexpected narrative and emotional focal point. It’s a sound that lends the tracks an elegant art pop grandeur and an element of tension that Olsen is more than capable of building and releasing at will, to great effect that feels alternately intimate and epic, a melancholic drizzle and an apocalyptic torrent. And, as its title might suggest, All Mirrors is a blazingly self-aware record that brings to the fore the agony and the ecstasy of realizing the self as one’s own most constant companion and fiercest critic, and the resolve to roll with both the light and the shadow.   


3. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

 

weyesblood

Give me something I can see / Something bigger and louder than the voices in me / Something to believe

It’s hard to know what to call the sound of Natalie Mering’s Weyes Blood on Titanic Rising: it’s baroque pop as much as it’s sleepy, folksy Americana. You alternately hear the influences of The Beatles, Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann, Fleetwood Mac, Enya, just to name a few. It blends electronic and orchestral elements into a deceptively pleasant and whole aesthetic that, if listened to inattentively, floats by in what feels like an instant. It’s only when you give Titanic Rising an engaged listen that Mering’s marriage of lilting vocal prowess and evocative lyricism, initially masked by how effortlessly and without show Mering delivers them, become clear. The album uses the language of cinema, apocalypse, and broken relationships to explore emotional manipulation and the ways reality often fails to meet expectation. Through it all, Titanic Rising remains a hopeful record, one that ultimately turns the crushing discovery of one’s own insignificance into the freedom to forge a destiny of one’s own design. This is a titanic—heh—achievement in songwriting and production and a gorgeous album.


2. Brittany Howard – Jaime

brittanyhoward_jaime

See, tomatoes are green / and cotton is white / My heroes are black / So why God got blue eyes?

The debut record from Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard is titled Jaime in memoriam to the singer’s late sister, an obvious tell as to the album’s personal nature—Howard’s lyrics explore personal, spiritual, sexual, relational, family, and racial identities. It’s perhaps that intimacy that spurred Howard to break from her band and release the album under her own name. It’s not an overwhelming record; at 35 minutes and with lyrics that are as revelatory as they are straightforward, it’s comfortable even as Howard tackles sensitive topics. But it is a record that blossoms anew in its depth with each listen, as Howard’s powerhouse croon weaves through varied genre influences to create a testament to radical self-acceptance.


1. Solange – When I Get Home

When-I-Get-Home-1551384117-640x640 (1)

Brown liquor, brown liquor / Brown skin, brown face / Brown leather, brown sugar / Brown leaves, brown keys / Brown creepers, brown face / Black skin, black braids / Black waves, black days / Black baes, black things / These are black-owned things / Black faith still can’t be washed away / Not even in that Florida water 

A soulful, dreamlike, and just plain weird album, the follow up to Solange’s acclaimed A Seat at the Table tops it in my estimation. Drowsy and intimate, but lush, hopeful, and authentic in its production and subject matter, When I Get Home is the younger Knowles sister further stepping out from Beyoncé’s shadow and staking a claim for her own equal importance in the landscape.

This album, with a brief 39-minute runtime yet 19 tracks to get through, feels constantly shifting in style, sound, and collaborators in a way perfectly suited to the digital shuffle-focused era, but never feels lacking in focus or intention. As she speaks on the interlude “Can I Hold the Mic,” “I can’t be a singular expression of myself; there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations.” That complexity is what makes Solange and this album so rewarding over multiple listens.


 

Track-By-Track Review: Weezer – The Teal Album

If nothing else, I really have to hand it to Weezer for how much they’ve tightened up their timeline when it comes to doing something positive and entertaining and then ultimately shitting all over any goodwill that they had generated. It took a fair number of years of releasing fair-to-terrible albums before they had completely squandered and sullied the legacy of their unimpeachable 1990s releases. More recently, it took them only a year to follow-up 2016’s improbably decent White Album with Pacific Daydream, possibly their worst release to date (the forthcoming and surely abysmal Black Album notwithstanding).

It is a heroic display of cynical artistic bankruptcy, then, that sees the band taking just under nine months to obliterate their most recent (and vaguely inconsequential) foray into actually executing something that might make someone think, “Oh. Haha. Okay. Funny, I guess.”

Weezer scored a surprise hit in 2018 by releasing a track based on a joke-y request from a fan account on Twitter that went viral. Their cover of “Africa” by Toto wound up being their biggest hit in years. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. The fact that this cover happened is what makes this cover good. The cover itself is completely uninspired and unnecessary. It is the fact that a major rock act would take the time to assemble a very earnest recording at the prompting of a pretty ridiculous and hilarious Twitter account is the reason that this got as much attention as it did (for good reason).

What Weezer took from the whole episode, presumably, is that people loved the “Africa” cover because it was awesome and that they could make 9x as much money if they released an entire album of the goddamned things. So here we are. We have The Teal Album to deal with now, for god’s sake. Yikes.

I’m going to rate these songs on a variable scale where their original version is a 10, and the cover version will receive a score within that scale of 10. Because we’ll agree that there’s no chance that any of these could possibly be better than the original, correct?

Africa
I suppose that it is appropriate that Teal kicks off with “Africa”, the tune that got us into this whole mess. It’s how you remember it. And by that I mean it’s how you remember it from the 1980s, because Weezer does almost not a goddamned thing different with it. The chorus is slightly more rocked-up than the original, but the difference is slight. This was fine for a giggle when it was released in response to the Twitter account, but as a part of a larger collection it feels immediately grating.

Weird Al is in the video, parodying Rivers Cuomo in a video that appears to be a parody of Weezer’s 1994 video for “Undone: The Sweater Song”. It’s pretty difficult to see Al in this video without thinking about the fact that he’s an artist who puts genuine creativity and artfulness into generating what is essentially novelty content. His presence actually just accentuates the fact that Weezer’s cover of “Africa” is only novel in that it exists. There’s no comment or perspective or wit involved… it just is. I guess.

Score: 5/10
“Africa” feels super flat, but is still slightly amusing if you remember that it’s basically just a response to a meme. The chorus works reasonably well with Cuomo’s voice. The verses are pretty cringe-y, though. The instrumentation is admirably faithful for the most part, but I’m not sure that we should just be awarding points to people who are basically just tracing things.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World
Again, this cover is ridiculously faithful to the original in terms of its instrumentation. It’s clear that the amount of time spent searching for accurate sounding keyboard patches far outweighed the amount of time anyone spent saying “Do you think this album is actually a good idea?”

This… this is just awful.

Score: 2/10
I would like to give this a 1/10, but then I would have nowhere further down to go for the next song, which is actually much worse.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
A few things about this:
1) Your friends could do something roughly as good as this by recording themselves into the tape deck on a mid-90s home karaoke machine.
2) This is one of the only times where I’d begrudgingly say that the creative instincts of Marilyn Manson were on point and much better than someone else’s.
3) Wow, is this performance ever embarrassing.

Score: 1/10
I can’t imagine things getting much worse than this.

Take On Me
If I wanted to listen to a shitty (read: great) version of “Take On Me”, I would just put on Reel Big Fish’s version because at least it is ska and stupid with horns and dumb irreverence. Weezer’s take on this (perfect) song sounds like it was paid for by an ad company to pay lower royalty fees for using the song in a commercial or something. This is so pointless!

Score: 2/10
You can really catch the pitch correction on this one, if you listen closely. Good stuff.

Happy Together
I love this song, but this cover is the pits. It gets reasonably rocked-up in the chorus and it sounds like they’re finally letting Pat Wilson actually hit his drums a little, but this is still pretty weak sauce. Hearing Rivers sing these verses sounds patently creepy.

Score: 3/10
This doesn’t rock, but it’s rock-adjacent compared to some of this other shit.

Paranoid
Luckily, we get a break from Rivers singing on this one. He has been replaced on this track by one of the other guys, which is initially a relief until you listen to it for more than a few seconds. Ozzy’s voice isn’t the best, but he deserves better than this. I don’t even actually really even like this song, but this cover still makes me kinda mad.

Score: 2/10
You would walk out of a dive bar if the band there did a cover that sounded this bad.

Mr. Blue Sky
Apparently this is an ELO song, but I’m not familiar with it. As such, I must recuse myself from grading this song. I think it sounds like shit, but for all I know this cover is way better than the original (not likely). You’re on your own with this one.

Score: N/A

No Scrubs
Although this traffics in the very tired arena of “White guys cover hip hop/R&B hits”, it finally sounds like these jerks are just goofing off. It doesn’t sound any less icky, but it’s definitely creeping more towards irreverence, which makes it harder to be disgusted and easier to just say “it’s great that I never have to listen to this again in my life”. The guitar tone on the bridge section is actually kind of cool.

Score: 3/10
It’s pretty dumb that this exists.

Billie Jean
We were taught years ago that a bunch of white rocker dudes probably shouldn’t be allowed to cover songs from Michael Jackson’s glory years. It actually still sounds like Weezer is “having fun” with this one, but I think it sounded like Alien Ant Farm were having “more fun” with their cover of “Smooth Criminal”. Also, at least they had the excuse of “we would like to be rich, please”. Weezer is already rich and they have no excuse for this.

Score: 2/10 
Someone should get punched in the mouth for this.

Stand By Me
This is the worst cover on the record and I don’t even want to write about it. It’s just terrible.

Score: 0/10
This makes everything else seem like a really well-executed great idea.

The Verdict

The Teal Album is an absolute disaster and I cannot believe that this has been released to the public. While covers albums are generally a bad idea, it is rare that a covers album gets released that makes Guns ‘N Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident? look interesting and competent. At least that album totally feels like the coked-out nightmare that I’m sure it was to record.

Actually, competence is perhaps the most infuriating factor here. These covers are competent almost without exception. They’re all so faithfully performed and sonically similar to the original versions that I can’t fathom why anyone would ever choose to listen to this album. Has anyone ever sat around thinking to themselves “Yeah, Annie Lennox is pretty good, but I would love to hear this song sung by Rivers Cuomo?”

If Weezer had brought a little more creativity to the table these recordings might stand up in their own right. As it is, The Teal Album is the definition of inessential and represents a new nadir (yet again) for their career. It’s just awful!

Mark’s Top 10 Albums of 2018

Another year has come and gone. We’re mostly happy that it’s gone. But a lot of great music came out this year!

Josh has already published his annual best-of albums list and I believe it to be far more of a definitive and measured assessment of the year’s music than my own. His list spans all genres and demonstrates a (kind of freakishly complete) grasp of what happened in the 2018 musical landscape. It is on a level that I’m simply not equipped to compete with.

That being said, I did listen to music this year and I did like a bunch of it. So here are some of my thoughts about the musical year that was, most of which are just highlights from the handful of musical genres that I have a tendency to follow closely. Could this list be more diverse? Most definitely. But I am tired and most days I just want to listen to some unwashed dudes beating the shit out of some guitars.

Enjoy!

Honourable Mentions

A lot of records come out in a year and I only hear a handful of them, but I hear a lot more than just ten! Here are some things that came out this year that I enjoyed and that I think deserve a listen, but that I didn’t listen to quite as fervently as my proper top 10.

Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
This is an almost too perfectly traditional new C&W album. In a time when Country music is often the pits, it’s nice to hear something that echoes the sounds of the genre’s roots. Also, how perfect is it that this album plumbs the landscape of central Canada for its inspiration? It’s the land that time forgot!

Boyhood – Bad Mantras
Finally released this year following a long gestation period, Bad Mantras doesn’t disappoint. More great work from a songwriter that deserves more attention, featuring stronger production work and a more refined sound. Recommended.

Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
I really enjoyed Anderson .Paak’s last record, and Oxnard is perhaps even better. It was released pretty late in the year and I’ve only given it a few spins, but I love the sound of the tunes and production. Cool stuff. Although, I gotta admit… If you go ahead and give the car blowjob song (complete with skit) the number two spot on your record, you’re making a really strange choice. Not great.

Boygenius – Boygenius EP
This is a strong collaboration project from three pretty great singer songwriters. Were it not an EP and were it released a little earlier in the year, it could have edged into my top 10. We’ll talk a little more about Lucy Dacus later, but this six-song set that she’s created with Julien Baker and Pheobe Bridgers is very solid. Here’s a live video. From Carson Daly’s show. Carson Daly is alive?

Better Late Than Nevers

It’s impossible to listen to everything in a year, even just from the niche corners of the music world that I tend to creep around in. Invariably, I will wind up coming to some albums that I had missed because they wind up on other year-end best-of lists. Here are a few that I’ve been listening to recently that I had snoozed on during their proper releases.

Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want
I will admit to completely ignoring what was apparently some kind of huge comeback for this band who I will admit to completely ignoring during their initial period of relevance. Upon noticing the near-universal acclaim that this album had garnered, though, I gave it a spin. Holy smokes. This is a deep, weird, dark pit of an album. You Won’t Get What You Want is front-to-back unsettling in a way that really stands out and that I find very exciting. Had I heard this earlier in the year, it probably would have made my top 10!

Candy – Good To Feel
This album is pretty bonkers and its audacity made me chuckle a bunch of times on first listen. Also my second and third listens. I don’t even know what you call a record that seems to be a hardcore powerviolence act who also think that they’re a thrash band who also decide to end their record with a shoegaze-y indie pop song. But lemme tell you, I am HERE FOR IT. This video is pretty stupid, though.

Most Disappointing

There were a number of albums that I had been looking forward to when the year kicked off. Some of them met (or exceeded) my expectations. Others fell kind of flat for me. Here are a few albums that wound up disappointing me this year.

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
I’m a big fan of Courtney Barnett’s prior releases, and I loved the first two preview tracks off of this album. So I was very excited for the proper release. I was disappointed to find very little on the album that I liked more than the lead-off singles. It’s all still fairly good and very listenable, but there’s something about this album that feels bummed-out and dour where her earlier records had sort of delivered songs about bummer topics with a bit of a clever wink and a skip in their step. Still very good, but not really what I wanted.

Pig Destroyer – Head Cage
I took a deep dive into Pig Destroyer in 2012 after their last album, Book Burner, was released. They’ve become one of my go-to bands for a shot of super fun, intensely heavy music. So I was pretty disappointed by this set of songs. I think I’ve only listened to the thing once. I might return to it, because I might be wrong. Am I wrong? Does one work at letting a Pig Destroyer record “grow on” them? Who knows.

Top 10

Here are my top ten albums of 2018! The order isn’t super important, but I’ll number them anyway.

10 – Shame – Songs of Praise
I think that these young British creeps have a great vibe. I listened to this album quite a bit this year! “Dust on Trial” is a terrific, lurching opener.

9 – Anna Meredith – Eighth Grade soundtrack
Although this collection contains selections from Anna Meredith’s 2016 album, those tracks are complimented by even more wonderful compositions and sounds. This is really good music to work to and really good walkin’ around music. I listened to it more than I would have thought.

8 – Jon Hopkins – Singularity
I feel as though I used to make a lot of fun of people for liking this kind of thing. But here we are. Me in my middle 30s. Liking an instrumental electronic music album. Walking around listening to it on public transit thinking “maybe we are the machines”. I hate myself. This album is pretty good.

7 – Soccer Mommy – Clean
I listened the hell out of Clean this year. Although the record starts to drop off a bit in its back half, there are a pile of great tunes to be found here. Sophie Allison has a knack for sharp hooks and vulnerably biting lyricism. Although I have to admit that I felt like a real old oldster listening to these songs about young people problems. So much potential here. Great stuff.

6 – Lucy Dacus – Historian
I enjoyed the clever songwriting and wry lyricism of Dacus’ last album, but I wasn’t really prepared for just how good Historian would be. The expanded arrangements and thoughtful compositions go a long way in allowing Dacus’ lyrical talents to shine. Few artists hit the right balance when writing tunes that feel both melancholy and witty, but this artist excels. A very solid, smartly arranged album. It filled up a good segment of my listening in early 2018.

5 – Gouge Away – Burnt Sugar
Another album to file under the “fulfilment of potential” category, Gouge Away’s sophomore effort really took me by surprise. Their previous album, while a great hardcore album, was relatively straightforward. Burnt Sugar is another beast altogether, containing nods to post-rock, grunge and noise rock, all while maintaining the band’s sharp rage. Great musical moments abound. One of my favourites of the year.

4 – Hot Snakes – Jericho Sirens
Seems like a lot of attention was given to the triumphant return of Daughters this year and a little less was paid to the triumphant return of the fucking Hot Snakes. This record smokes. So much fun to listen to. It’s pretty rare these days that I hear a record and I want to sit down and learn how to play all of the songs because all of the guitar parts sound like so much fun. But all of these guitar parts sound so fun to play. I love this record.

3 – Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance
In a year that seemed full of fun punk records, this was the punk record that seemed the most fun to me. Joy is a sing-along, shout-along, laugh-out-loud riot of an album. Containing some of my favourite lyrics of the year, Idles tackle an array of hot button issues ranging from Brexit to toxic masculinity, and they do so with a gleefully irreverent swagger. Top marks!

2 – The Armed – Only Love
We’ve already gone on at length about Only Love, and its inclusion on my list should come as no surprise. I love The Armed. With Only Love, they have outdone themselves. Sprawling, spastic, strangely uplifting, this is the feel-good record that makes good people with normal ears feel bad. I think my favourite musical moment of the entire year came upon hearing the back half of “Witness”, marvelling at how such a godawful racket could be so… pretty? It’s an endlessly beguiling collection of tunes and it is almost certainly my album of the year.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BoDchaJHUnE/

My other favourite musical moment of the year was going to see The Armed play live in a scary basement. Thanks to Aaron for this video. Lolz look at that little kid go flying. It’s the best.

1 – Mass – Everyone
The real best album of this year was the album that my band put out.
Because it is our best album and you’re all shitheads for not listening to it.
What the hell is wrong with all of you?

Josh’s Top 50 Albums of 2018

2018 is a year that felt endless. Remember Yanny and Laurel? The “In My Feelings” Challenge?  Those feel like ages ago and they weren’t even early in the year. Remember Justin Timberlake’s abysmal Man of the Woods? I wish I didn’t!

So when it came to compiling the list of my favourite records from the year, it was actually a pleasant surprise to unearth some winter and spring gems that had sort of gathered dust over the past several months (like the wonderful Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson collaboration, Landfall), in addition to more recent records that have been in constant rotation (like the triumphant return of Robyn).

Then of course there are those that dropped earlier in the year that have never stopped playing. It took The Armed four months after the release of their barn-burner of a record, Only Love, to play Toronto. But I think Mark and I were both still high on that album by that point.

But from Mitski to Monáe and Cardi B to Courtney B, make no mistake, 2018 was a year that belonged to women. If there was any kind of unifying theme to a year that was otherwise only characterized by the world burning down, that was it.

The year had the same number of weeks as every other year, but I nonetheless found myself listening to more music than ever. I ended up picking my top 50 from a whopping 320+ eligible* albums to which I listened this year.

*full length, new or unreleased recordings, no live records, compilations or soundtracks


Before we get to the top 50, I’d like to get back to something I didn’t get around to last year year—offering up some love to those types of records I don’t consider for the main list.

Best soundtrack/score album:
Image result for first man score
First Man (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) composed by Justin Hurwitz

Honourable Mentions:
Phantom Thread Composed by Jonny Greenwood
Black Panther Composed by Ludwig Goransson

Best soundtrack/compilation album:
The cover image features a neck-ornament upon complete black background. It is made of animal incisors used as beads and worn by T'Challa.
Black Panther: The Album Curated by Kendrick Lamar

Best EP:
Image result for stone woman ep
Stone Woman by Charlotte Day Wilson

Honourable Mentions:
boygenius by Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers & Lucy Dacus
Legends of the Summer by Meek Mill
Hooligans by Vic Mensa



My Top 50 Albums of 2018

50 – 41

50-46
45-41

50. Coheed and Cambria – Vaxis – Act 1: The Unheavenly Creatures
49. Lil Peep – Come over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2
48. Brockhampton – Iridescence
47. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
46. Omar Sosa & Yilian Canizares – Aguas
45. Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
44. Allie X – Super Sunset
43. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
42. Troye Sivan – Bloom
41. Denzel Curry – TA13OO

40 – 39

40-36
35-31

40. Mac Miller – Swimming
39. 21 Savage – I Am > I Was
38. Cécile McLorin Salvant – The Window
37. 6lack – East Atlanta Love Letter
36. John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
35. John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album
34. The Carters – Everything Is Love
33. Lindi Ortega – Liberty
32. The Paper Kites – On the Corner Where You Live
31. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

30 – 29

30-2625-21

30. Tash Sultana – Flow State
29. The Internet – Hive Mind
28. Moaning – Moaning 
27. Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet – Landfall
26. Jean-Michel Blais – Dans ma main
25. Pusha T – Daytona
24. Sean Leon – The Death Of
23. tUnE-yArDs – I can feel you creep into my private life
22. Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
21. St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Young Sick Camellia

20 – 11

20-16 15-11

20. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy 
19. Leon Bridges – Good Thing
18. Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance
17. Florence + The Machine – High as Hope
16. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
15. Robyn – Honey
14. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
13. Lucy Dacus – Historian
12. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
11. Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa



The Top Ten

10. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard 

anderson paak

Back on my bullshit / I got some money to blow, I’m lookin’ good, bitch / Even as the king, I stay hood rich

Less focused but more ambitious (and more interesting) than Malibu, Anderson .Paak’s Oxnard finds the California singer slash everything assembling an array of guest stars for a funk and surf-soul extravaganza that bops with sun-drenched west coast flair. Sonically-diverse and era-spanning in its guest list, Oxnard sometimes threatens to lose its host and a unified aesthetic within its kitchen sink recording, but one thing it never becomes is dull.


9. The Armed – Only Love

the armed

We’ll find a place / take arms / It’ll all blow over

No album from 2018 exhibits a more balls-to-the-wall gonzo energy than this cacophonous sophomore album from Detroit hardcore band The Armed. Clocking in just shy of 40 minutes, its 11 tracks are deceptively controlled for something that sounds so frequently unhinged. Just when you think it’s about to fall apart, Only Love careens into a big pop hook or triumphant bridge. It’s experimental, playful, and best of all never predictable.

Read the Fraudsters’ full review of Only Love from May.


8. LUMP (Laura Marling & Mike Lindsay) – LUMP

lump

We salute the sun because / When the day is done / We can’t believe what we’ve become / Something else to prey upon / And evidently / It’s just another vanity / Another something to believe / The curse of the contemporary

LUMP, the sparse and wispy collaboration between singer Laura Marling and producer/instrumentalist Mike Lindsay, seems to reinforce their individual strengths by simply combining them, though their individual work might never have made them seem an obvious match. Their album of the same name is a drifting, near ambient sonic palette that, appropriate to their assertion that LUMP is an entity to which the pair gave birth, seems to exist as its own thing that passed through them. A mere six songs and a closing credits track, LUMP is a surreal, stream-of-consciousness dream that stretches Marling’s vocal and lyrical aesthetic beyond her solo work to create something akin the lush and weird worlds of Kate Bush and Björk.


7. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]

mewithoutyou

But I left what was left of my self-respect / like a Swiss Army knife on the ground / And a pocket of coins at the IDF checkpoint / by what some call ‘the Temple Mount.’

Perhaps no band has better inherited the mantle of post-rock, post-hardcore chaos of bands like Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate than mewithoutYou. Never shy of pulling off diverse genre bait & switches, the Philadelphia band shifts effortlessly between chaos and calm, or as frontman Aaron Weiss, ever the poet, puts it on the album opener 9:27a.m., 7/29, is a “jackal in the sheep flock.” For a band that frequently surprises, [Untitled] may be their hardest to peg record yet. In an era where it genuinely feels like anything could happen, [Untitled] is appropriately uncertain.


6. Noname – Room 25

noname

I know everyone goes some day / I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay / But if I have to go, I pray my soul is still eternal / And my momma don’t forget about me

As fellow Chicagoans go, rapper Noname takes her cue more from Chance the Rapper than from Yeezy, opting for soul searching and self-reflection over braggadocio. Her lo-fi, orchestral-tinged beats make for easy listening but her agile, tongue-in-cheek wordplay and dizzying array of subject matter—everything from police brutality to cancer—make Room 25 impossible to use as background music. It’s an engrossing and honest look at the ambivalent feelings that come with the experience of sudden fame.


5. Thrice – Palms

thrice

Somewhere down the way, there’s a hidden place that anyone / That all of us could find / But all our maps have failed, so venture through the veil and realize / That these roads are intertwined

If To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere, the 2016 post-hiatus return of Orange County rockers Thrice, was full of apocalyptic dread, then Palms is characterized by post-apocalyptic optimism and the search for solace and unity. There has always been an antiestablishment undercurrent to Thrice’s lyrics, but Palms finds them looking to rally an army of outcasts ready to punch up. This is clearest on the anthemic track “The Dark,” which includes a chorus of fan vocals submitted online and mixed into the record. It’s a nice touch, only one of many in a record that finds a band pushing their boundaries further than ever. It’s the album furthest away from their early material, and one that will likely alienate some fans, but it’s one that finds the calm within the storm.

Read the Fraudsters’ full review of Palms from September.


4. Blood Orange – Negro Swan

blood orange

Sixteen-year-old boy / Confused and knowing that he’s different he wants to give in / After school, sucker punched down / Down and out / First kiss was the floor / Thinking it won’t make a difference if you don’t get up / Timing is all

An immersive sonic experience where jazz marries trip hop and r&b opens a polyamorous relationship with gospel and new jack swing, Negro Swan puts to music the fluidity of (black) queer identity. A rejection of the binaries of pain and joy, Negro Swan finds Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) embracing the realities of a complex state of being: when the world marginalizes and rejects you, it is all the more important to force yourself into it. This may be the year’s most transcendent record, and one of the most rewarding.


3. Shad – A Short Story about a War

shad

Damn it feels good to be back / Damn it feels good to be black / They keep on killing us / We just keep killing it

Shad’s first concept album does more in 39 minutes than most of this year’s big rap releases could do in their bloated, stream-gaming hour+ runtimes. With earnest, exploratory lyrics, transgenre influences, and a host of guest stars from Kaytranada to Yukon Blonde and Lido Pimienta, Shad delivers his most accomplished, hopeful, and focused record to date, proving yet again why he’s Canada’s most valuable player.


2. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

DirtyComputer

Let’s get screwed / I don’t care / You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down / We’ll put water in your guns / We’ll do it all for fun 

Five years removed from her last LP, Dirty Computer finds Janelle Monáe reinventing herself after forays into Oscar-winning film acting. It’s a record that feels current, with overt references to Trump; but despite that specificity, it is less concerned with making a political statement than staking claim to the value of ‘Black excellence.’ Of course, the personal is political and Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be a controversial statement but it is. To Monáe, though, all of that is secondary than the assertion that Black art matters, and, specifically, Black women’s art. From “Pynk” to “Django Jane,” Dirty Computer is an ebullient, defiant celebration of intersectional feminism and the different stories art coming from it can tell. Janelle doesn’t need to inherit the “next Prince” mantle because she’s already well on her way to creating her own.


1. Neko Case – Hell-On

neko

God is not a contract or a guy / God is an unspecified tide / You cannot time its tables / It sets no glass or gables / God is a lusty tire fire

Nothing quite so poison as a promise

And me, I am not a mess / I am a wilderness, yes / The undiscovered continent for you to undress / But you’ll not be my master / You’re barely my guest / You don’t have permission to take any pictures / Be careful of the natural world

I don’t know if there is a better combo punch vocalist, songwriter, and lyricist working today than Neko Case. Hell-On, her sixth solo album, is a dense and nuanced foray into contradictions: she’s defiant and vulnerable, pained yet humorous, moody yet pop. Hell-On is the kind of record that continues to reward you on multiple listens with its lush intimacy. It’s one that burns down the institutions that lay claim to women’s stories without allowing those women to control the telling. And boy does Hell-On do the telling.


Reevaluating NINE INCH NAILS: Part 8 – The Slip

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Nine Inch Nails’ seventh studio album, The Slip, was released for free under a Creative Commons license on July 22, 2008. The album peaked at number 13 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Having gotten some middling enjoyment out of the other 2000s-era Nine Inch Nails albums, what am I to make of the album that Trendy Ricepaper thought so little of that he gave it away for free?

I guess there’s only one way to find out.

999,999
The Slip opens up with 90 seconds or so of rhythmic whirring that can’t really be called a “song”. It could be called “reasonably interesting sounding”. This was so obviously designed to bleed into the next track, I’m not sure why it isn’t just properly a part of the next track. But whatever.

1,000,000
The drumbeat into crunchy bass riff thing is such an obvious NIN touchstone by this point, it would have actually been a pretty shocking departure for this record to have started off without a song that sounds like “1,000,000”. The Terry Razor take on industrial pop-rock is a boilerplate now, and this track doesn’t stray too far from its progenitors. Beyond perhaps being a track that sounds like it was written in order to get the central riff licensed by some tech firm to sell some really swell new graphics cards or something.

Near the end some background vocals come in where T-bird mumbles “a million miles away” into one of your ears and it sounds like he recorded it on his phone and pasted it on top of an otherwise complete mix of the song. It’s really weird.

Also, the drums sound kind of crappy in the way where I’m not sure if it’s crappy sounding artificial drums trying too hard to sound real or if it’s just real drums that have been produced terribly.

This song may not be one in a 1,000,000 but at least we only have to sit through one of it, am I right?

Letting You
See, these fake-sounding drums and this distorted bass sound is already much more interesting than the previous song. “Letting You” captures a glimmer of the speedy, amped-up glory of past NIN gems like “Gave Up”. The production on this record is squelchy and farty, which works pretty well with this chaotic track and its fitfully bananas chorus section.

Pretty good. Really good, actually.

Discipline
This album is all buzzy bass grooves, huh? No complaints about that as far as “Discipline” is concerned, because this groove is catchy as fuck. This may be as close as Trunk Rumbzler gets to straight-up pop music, and it works very well. Even when things are brought down and some predictable NIN creepy whisper vocals come in, they’re delivered in a pretty hooky fashion.

Once he starts he cannot stop himself, guys.

Echoplex
I’ve come around on the drum sounds on this record. They’re kind of hilarious and great to me now. “Echoplex” is also pretty catchy, built around a great guitar figure that sounds like it is very fun to play. The song straddles its dance-y hook and spooky atmospherics in a very handy Nine-Inch-Nailsian fashion and concludes with a vintage T-Rez repetition jam-spiral. This is a great one.

Head Down
Hahaha. The vocals on the verses here fulfil the requirement of embarrassing almost-rap spoken word/bad idea from ol’ Trinty. I’m glad that we’ve gotten that out of the way. Luckily, the glitched-out track beneath it is just terrific. The chorus is also tightly melodic and filled with a great sense of tension. Overlooking the really silly vocal approach, “Head Down” is another winner. The sounds are really spectacular.

Lights in the Sky
After all of these fun bangers, it’s kind of a surprise to find a haunting and hushed piano ballad plopped in there. But “Lights in the Sky” is soft Terry Razor at his best. As soft as terrycloth! Terry Razor cloth! Which doesn’t actually sound soft at all. I’m getting off-track.

I’m not sure that there’s been a NIN ballad this good since “Hurt”. The chord progressions are terrific and the song is sad and unsettling in the way that all good mellow music ought to be. Uplift me later, pal. I gotta go get Reznor’d.

Corona Radiata
The final piano stroke of “Lights in the Sky” blends into this 7 minute-plus ambient drone track that is all kinds of terrific. Whatever occasional misgivings I have about T-roz as a songwriter, I cannot deny that he is a master of instrumentation, tone and texture. “Corona Radiata” is fascinating in a way that feels reminiscent of “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral, but without feeling derivative of that piece. This is great. I could listen to it all day.

The Four of Us are Dying
We’re brought into the home stretch by The Slip‘s penultimate track, “The Four of Us are Dying”. As this is another instrumental, I have no idea who the four of them are and even less of an idea of what’s killing them. Maybe they all slipped. Maybe this album is about four people who all slipped on the same patch of spooky ice and that’s why it’s called The Slip.

Anyway, we can come back to my very good and reasonable theories about the album’s thematic content later. I’ve gotta say that this instrumental track was very enjoyable. It simmers and burbles for several minutes before boiling over in a way that seems more restrained and composed than I feel a younger act would have gone for. Working together as pieces of a whole, the last three tracks have taken the very fun front half of this record and given depth and gravity to the album. This is a good one!

Demon Seed
It’s drum-time again! The album closes with “Demon Seed”, which sounds like a classic Nine Inch Nails outro repetition spiral for its entire duration. Plenty of great sounds on display and fun to listen to, but it feels rather minor compared to some of the other tracks on this album. I almost wonder if the album should have ended with the three songs that immediately precede “Demon Seed”.

This isn’t a deal breaker for me, though. This song is solid enough without sounding like the epic conclusion that I feel like it should have.

The Verdict
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I’m pretty surprised right now, guys!

I thought that Year Zero and With Teeth were both okay and I was expecting The Slip to continue the trend(reznor) of NIN records that are just fine but mediocre when compared with the high water mark of The Downward Spiral. It seems impossible, but I found so much to enjoy on The Slip… is this the best Nine Inch Nails record since TDS? That feels ridiculous to say for some reason.

If The Fragile were cut down to one LP of just its best material, I don’t think that I would bother considering The Slip as its superior. I’m just struck by how consistent and enjoyable the album is. It rarely knocks any track completely out of the park, but I don’t think that I would skip any tracks either.

Prior to this, I would have considered With Teeth to be the “fun” Nine Inch Nails record. The Slip trumps WT in the fun department pretty handily, though, and features a great ballad and two great instrumentals to boot.

I’ll need to do some calculations at the end of this series to determine where all of the albums truly rank, but I expect that The Slip will rank far higher on my list than any latter-day Nine Inch Nails record has any right to.

This record bangs!

 

Album Review: Thrice – Palms

As I may or may not have ever mentioned before on this blog, Thrice is and has been my all-time favourite band for years. I first discovered the Orange County four-piece in 2002 when I was in my last year of high school, around the release of their second record The Illusion of Safety. At the time, I was taken not just by the band’s energetic buzz-saw riffs and the way they married punk and metal, but by the emotional and thematic depth of Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics, full of evocative imagery and metaphors, a treasure trove of allusions to literature, philosophy, and politics.

It wasn’t until their breakout 2005 record, VHEISSU, that they really began to grow in their sound, abandoning much of the metal influences for more measured, mature song structures and diverse, experimental influences from shoegaze and grunge to arena and blues rock, but that nevertheless retained all the qualities that I had loved from the start.

Thrice took a hiatus in 2012, after the release of their eighth album, Major/Minor, and a double live album, Anthology, which chronicled their farewell tour. I didn’t know at that point whether I would ever get new music from them, but they reformed a few years later and put out what would end up being my number seven record of 2016To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. Now, they’re back with a new record, and since I’m pretty much genetically predisposed to give it a perfect score, I thought in the interest of fairness to the reader, it would be a good idea to enlist the help of my illustrious colleague to render a more even-handed verdict.

Image result for thrice palms

Palms is the tenth full-length studio album from American rock band Thrice. It was released on September 14th, 2018, and is their first album to be released via Epitaph Records. Palms was produced by the band with Eric Palmquist, who previously produced their 2016 album, To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. It was promoted in advance of its release with two singles: The Grey, on July 10th, and Only Us, on August 14th, as well as a sneak preview of the song The Dark, two days before the album’s release.

Mark, let’s break this down track by track.

1. “Only Us”

Josh: This synth stuff isn’t entirely new for Thrice, if you’ve listened to the Water EP and songs like “Digital Sea,” but it is a bit of a departure for them to rely on it so heavily outside of a concept record like that. This has a cool, 80s vibe I dig, but it breaks down into a more traditional post-hardcore bridge that chugs along with a nice energy. Big vocal hooks here right out of the gate, and I dig the humanist lyrical themes of the song (“Finally when will it be enough / to find there’s no them / There is only us”) in lines like “the system that terrifies you should terrify me.”

Mark: I actually love the backing track to this song. It sounds like the opening of a John Carpenter movie. I’m a little less sold on the way that the vocal approach weaves into it, as it is very “rock dude” in its vibe and delivery. Strongly melodic, though, and it builds to a pretty satisfying anthemic back half. This is such a strange combination of being totally up my alley and something that I think is a little cringe-worthy. I have no idea where to fall on this!

2. “The Grey”

Josh: This is the album’s first single. Back to the guitars here, with some of those classic Thrice licks. This is just an all-around great song of the kind you expect from this band. It’s got a tight rhythm section with an emphasis on big sound and interplay between all the band members. Everything is coordinated really well in that there is a lot going on but the instrumental parts all make space for each other. There are some nice bluesy undertones and a proper build up to that huge chorus. Really dig the subtle background vocals that come in during the later iteration of the chorus.

This is also a good time to point out what feels like an emerging lyrical theme on this album. With the opener’s emphasis on coming together, and lyrics here like “find another way to fight,” it feels like Dustin is recalibrating his perspective on the world and looking for common ground. But that will come up more later.

Mark: Really fun riffin’ and rhythm opening up this track. By the time we reach the chorus, things start to feel a little rote to me. The bridge bring back some interest for me, involving a few twists and turns that I was missing from the more calculated-feeling four chord chorus. It’s big, there’s no doubt about it… but it feels very familiar in a way that this track’s better moments manage to avoid. This song is okay. It sounds like the closing credits song from a modern action adventure film.

3. “The Dark”

Josh: This one’s moody. I like the rather spare way it opens with just the drums and guitar and then gives way to a big anthemic chorus. Months ago when they were planning this song, Thrice put out a call for fan submissions to be part of a choir that they would mix together for this song. I sent one in, and while you can’t make out individual voices, I have no reason to believe I’m not one of them that appears at the end of the song. It’s a really cool touch because the decision to include hundreds of fan voices on the record adds to the inclusive feel of the record generally, but especially this song, which focuses on standing up and refusing to be ignored. That’s a sentiment that a lot of people can relate to for a lot of reasons, and it’s also something that feels easier to do with people in your corner.

Mark: I love the guitar work that opens this track. It’s also nicely arranged, the bass hits coming in with a dramatic flourish accompanied by a great-sounding organ. The inclusion of a big fat sawtooth bass synth during the chorus doesn’t hurt at all either. I like this song okay! Great work on the chorus, Josh! I think I can hear you the most!

4. “Just Breathe”

Josh: Damn if this isn’t one of the band’s best songs ever. It has a lot of that punk energy from their older stuff, with a big emphasis on bass—Eddie Breckenridge gets a lot of room to shine all throughout this album. But hooboy that pre-chorus/chorus comes out of left field, and it rules. Set aside for a second the absolute uplifting spirit of this song, which asks you to “stay deep in the moment … just breathe” and instead notice it as an example of how good a vocalist Dustin Kensrue has become. Light years from the kind of whiney screaming he did on the first couple Thrice records, his vocals here are so controlled and beautiful. The addition of guest vocalist Emma Ruth Rundle was a great touch, as the pair mesh so well together. The closing section of the song in which the instruments mostly drop out to make room for just their voices is *chef’s kiss emoji.*

Mark: Yeah, this one is pretty good. The bass guitar sounds particularly terrific and the songwriting in general is busy in a way that feels lively but never obnoxious. The vocal work in the chorus also has a little bit less of the “rocker dude” vibe that I’m not huge into. Probably the best song on the album thus far.

5. “Everything Belongs”

Josh: I’m fairly sure Mark will hate this one, as it’s this album’s version of “Stay with Me” from TBEITBN, a much poppier sound than much of the band’s work. “Everything Belongs” is an arena ballad that relies heavily on piano and sounds as close to Coldplay as any Thrice song you’ll hear, which means your mileage may vary. I think, though, if you removed the vocals completely, this would sound closer to Explosions in the Sky. It’s a song about learning to see how we’re all connected, and that’s earnest in the way It’s a Wonderful Life is. I can see how that won’t be everyone’s jam, but it works for me as an album track consistent with a theme. The line about how “the spaces make the songs” is very apt for this album, which is full of knowing restraint. But, yeah…this song is the clearest giveaway that Dustin spent time during the hiatus playing in a megachurch.

Mark: Hahaha. You’re right. This sucks.

6. “My Soul”

Josh: Really nice guitar tones here, and more of those really clean, controlled melodies from Dustin. I think guitarist Teppei Teranishi might be playing a wurlitzer at points on this one.  This is one of those Thrice songs like “Words in the Water” that you can only describe as beautiful. It’s soulful and melodic, with incredible production and vibes of Sade and Chris Cornell. It’s a love song that balances the desire to be loved with anxieties of being unlovable. There hasn’t been a lyric this year more relatable to me than “What if I’m broken from the start / and what if I never heal?” But like everything on this album, it’s deeply-infused with hope, as demonstrated on the frequent refrain “What if I open up my heart / and somehow we stumble into something real?”

Mark: This one is nice. Good production, nice use of keys, a pretty swell moody-sounding guitar. It totally does sound like Chris Cornell covering Sade or something, actually. I wonder how they’ll pull off these album tracks live. This album is produced-as-hell so far. I think this one includes a stand-up bass. Somehow I doubt they’ll cart one of those out when they play a show.

…don’t mind me, I’m just typing my thoughts.

7. “A Branch in the River”

Josh: Another song that feels more like traditional Thrice, with a chunky bassline and Dustin’s more wailing vocal style. It reminds me of “Backdraft” from the Fire EP, but with very similar imagery to “Words in the Water.” This is a band used to playing mid-sized clubs, but so far every song on Palms sounds like it would be suitable for an arena. The breakdown at 3:19 is a lot of fun, but really brothers Eddie and Riley Breckenridge—on bass and drums, respectively—bring the house down on this entire song.

Mark: I really like the bass tone that they’re using on this record, and the guy’s work is typically pretty good. I think that the chorus to this song is very fun! A good rock tune overall and it does indeed have a breakdown that will totally make your day. This is good stuff.

8. “Hold Up a Light”

Josh: This is a pretty straightforward rock song, but one that I imagine will be an absolute barn-burner live. It’s another one where Dustin lets loose and his voice feels less controlled, more gravelly. Dustin’s fascination with the elements has gone way back, most notably on the series of element-themed EPs, The Alchemy Index, and he’s going back to that well for the lyrics of “Hold Up a Light.” I’ve often thought of putting together playlists from across the band’s catalogue based on times they cover similar thematic territory. Here, fire represents hope and the will to live and to keep fighting. The line “cities are claimed by the smallest spark” feels like it’s straight out of The Last Jedi, which naturally means a lot of douchebags hate this song.

Mark: I can sing “About A Girl” to this, kind of, so for that reason I like it. Beyond that, this song seems like a good song to point to if you’re ever trying to explain to someone what an “album track” is. Unless I’m wrong and they make this one a single, but surely they wouldn’t. Would they?

“Hold Up A Light” sounds kind of tossed-off, but also includes probably the heaviest metal-inspired flourishes on the record so far. That makes it perfect for getting licensed by some pro wrestler somewhere!

9. “Blood on Blood”

Josh: There’s been a heavy Radiohead influence on Thrice since at least Beggars. That comes through most clearly on this album in “Blood on Blood.” This one would have felt very on brand for the band’s last album, as it’s the song here with the most overt political references, here to foreign policy, refugees, and war. The line, “Don’t have to look in the devil’s eyes or see his infant son / Just like a bolt from the bluest skies, but it’s still blood on blood” makes it feel like a sequel to “Death from Above,” an evocative song about drone bombing. “Blood on Blood” more generally questions the various ways we justify violence, and wonders if peace is possible. Important questions for our time. This song is all-around tight, and the whole band is on point. My only gripe with the album in general comes in this song, and it’s in how the weird little harp breakdown part-way through feels like it’s gearing up for a much heavier section like you get in “For Miles” (from VHEISSU) but instead goes back to more of the same. You do get a really nice vocal bridge towards the end here, where Dustin goes full crooning wail. It’s great.

Mark: When the band kicks in proper on this song, it reminds me a lot of Minus The Bear. Which isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. Just a thing.

Something about this song has me thinking again about the way that this guy’s vocals sometimes clash with the way that I think that the song ought to sound. I’m not necessarily saying that this would work better with a Thom Yorke croak on top of it, but there’s something incongruous about the sound of this song for me.

The harp section is ridiculous.

10. “Beyond the Pines”

Josh: Thrice has always been solid with choosing album closers, and this is no exception. This is a fucking gorgeous composition, musically and lyrically. This makes a great companion to “Just Breathe,” as it imagines a place to feel at peace, but also in the company of others. Minor spoilers for the second season of Westworld, but the imagery in this song really evokes the scenes of ‘digital heaven’ that were featured in the finale. There’s so much joy in the image—taken from Rumi—of a place “beyond the pines … a field where we can walk / leaving all our names behind.” The phrasing of the lyrics throughout this song is really great, and I love the way it holds back in the first verse and chorus before the second guitar comes in with that airy, emotional sound Teppei is so good at. The whole song feels vulnerable, down to the near-whispered bridge section. This is one of those songs you can put on headphones and lie on the floor and just get lost in.

Mark: One thing about this band that I’ve appreciated since their mid-2000s records is their very good use of baritone guitars. The solitary baritone guitar work that opens up this song sounds just terrific and makes me want to buy a baritone guitar.

As Josh mentioned, this song is an appropriately grand closer. The vocals line up a little better for me here than on some of the other tracks. As a point of personal preference, I feel as though this track kind of peters out in a way that underwhelms me, but its a minor quibble. If they had returned for another huge chorus, I’m sure that I would have found a way to complain about that too.

THE VERDICT

Josh: I said that To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere was the perfect album to capture the tumult of the Trump campaign, a record that fixated on the apocalyptic and the violence of the state, but sought comfort in those we love even as we feared losing them. Palms, written deep into the presidency and a seemingly endless parade of hatred and division, is absent any of its predecessor’s cynicism, leaning instead into the optimism of an idea of utopia, even if that’s in the Undiscovered Country, or the place “beyond the pines.” There was that one great vocal melody on TBEITBN‘s “The Long Defeat,” but Palms is absolutely chock full of moments like that. It’s a record that feels like a balm to a wounded heart, a record brimming with hope that I know I’ll put on regularly when I’m feeling down. It’s a radical departure from their heavier sound, a direction they’ve gone increasingly over the years. But the songwriting continues to be inspired and take chances, even as it feels more focused. I think this is Thrice’s best record since 2009’s Beggars, and I can’t envision a scenario where it’s not in my top ten for the year. Five predictable stars.

Mark: I’m not sure that Thrice will ever be one of my favourite bands. Their early work was a pretty competent take on music that sounds absolutely laughable to modern ears, and what has followed always involves elements that I can really dig into and appreciate, but contains some element that turns me off enough that I keep them at arm’s length. This album is no exception. The tracks that I enjoy the most are, I think, much better than all of their last album, which I did not enjoy very much. There are songs on Palms that might be up there with my favourites from the group, which means that they might wind up living in my Apple Music shuffle list for awhile.

For all of my misgivings, though, I do think that this is a very good Thrice record. The production is largely terrific and there are some tremendous performances. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already heard it. If you’re just a fan of modern rock, Palms is worth your time for at least one spin. Three predictable Markstars.

Alice in Chains — Rainier Fog

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The following is true: I just hit a deer. I just totalled my car. I’m stuck in a little town alone and every hotel room in this town is booked up. The midnight-shift dude at the Comfort Inn is into grungy guitar rock and he’s nice enough to let me hide in the lounge, hidden out of sight from the main doors, so long as I don’t fall asleep. He gave me some coffee pucks to run through the coffee-puck machine, to keep me awake. Nice guy. He’s rocking out to some awful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout”.

So stay up I will, and listen to grunge rock I will. Which got me thinking of the fact that Alice in Chains has a new record.

Alice in Chains, if you don’t know, were one of the big grunge rock acts of the ’90s. In order of their reverence, there was Kurd Cobain and Nirvana, there was Veddie and Pearl Jam, and—before Soundgarden captured all our attentions and took their rightful place with the near-perfect Superunknown—there was Layne and Alice in Chains. Gifted with a singular voice and a plainness in his lyrics that made Kurdtdtdt and Veddie’s words seem opaque and avoidant, Layne Staley sang frankly about his use of hard drugs and the lifestyle that came with it. He wasn’t asking for pity or for judgement, only putting words to what he saw in front of him. Combined with a soaring vocal range, a strange mix of growl and whine, and most importantly for teenaged-me, constant interesting harmonies with band-leader Jerry Cantrell, Layne’s singing always stood out to me in my formative years. In retrospect, many 90s bands were kind of shit, but Cobain and Vedder and Staley were all objectively excellent singers.

But when you sing about heroin and you live a life of using heroin, eventually the heroin wins. Alice in Chains recorded three LPs, two EPs, and an MTV Unplugged before the band decided, for reasons never I’ve never seen discussed, to go on an indefinite hiatus. A few years after that Layne died from a speedball overdose.

Jerry Cantrell, the primary songwriter and guitarist and melody-writer and general brains behind the Alice in Chains operation, toured as a solo act for a while. But eventually, the band wanted to play together again, to have fun, to keep going. They brought in a new guy, another very good singer, but everything I’ve heard from their output, he is always in the background, second always to Cantrell, the founding member. Cantrell’s voice is thoroughly fine but no standout; it’s a perfect harmonizing voice, but maybe not meant to take the lead.

So in a different configuration with a different band member and a different singing arrangement, Alice in Chains started making music again. Unlike other revival acts, they kept putting out records, touring, treating themselves as a real band and not some reunion or celebration-of-what-was. But it wasn’t for me anymore. I had loved their weird scales and punishing guitars and amazing harmonies as a kid, but as an adult I found their songs unnecessarily long (so many third verses and choruses!) and without any interesting movement. So I lost the thread on my teenage-favourite band and let them do their thing without my judgement.

But then I hit a deer and totalled my car and stranded myself in a town until the first ferry arrives at 6:30am. It’s 2:06am. I’ve been thinking about doing a review for Fraudsters (Mark’s got a bunch coming up and so I want to at least try to keep up). So let’s listen to the new Alice in Chains record, Rainier Fog, for the first time!

The One You Know — Starting on an ugly chord, working their way to an ugly-chord riff. The rhythm section is lively but boy it’s plain so far. Jerry’s got much more bite to his vocals than he used to, which is to his credit. He sounds a lot more like leading-man material, but still not quite there. The chorus is actually kind of great in a pop-rock way, in a way that reminds me of AiC’s third, interesting-but-kind-of-weak record (“Tripod”, the dog-cover record). But back we go to this weak riff. There’s a wah-wah solo, always Mark’s favourite, but it’s pretty interesting and would probably be amazing if there was more going on with that stupid riff. To AiC’s credit, this song actually has a nice, subdued bridge with some interesting harmonies, but this is very much Jerry’s show, and the new singing gent (William DuVall) is unfortunately sidelined even though his voice is strong. Overall, this is exactly the single you would expect Alice in Chains to release in 2018, for better and for worse.

Rainier Fog — A much more interesting riff this time. Rainier, if you don’t know, is the name of a mountain in Washington. The vocals are, again, far improved from old Cantrell, but the absence of Layne Staley and the weird quirks, the strange wrong-but-right melodic ideas he added, is still obvious to me. … A whole verse and chorus has passed with nothing new happening, so that I almost didn’t notice it passing. Another really interesting breakdown in this song, though, with a clear 80s influence (chorus bass, spacey drums), and it makes me wonder if Alice in Chains is getting tired of being Alice in Chains. There’s some interesting lead work in this bridge that sounds unfamiliar, but ultimately the good will is spent on an unnecessary third verse and chorus.

Red Giant — This sounds like a riff from their earlier era, filtered through a 2018-pop-metal lens. There’s something weak to the way the drums are recorded. It’s too bad. Sean Kinney is a superb drummer who has always been playing down, mostly keeping his noodley inclinations in check for this grunge band. Here, he’s much more lively, but it’s undercut by a soft production touch. Hah, I’m not sure if I’ve even heard the bass yet on this record. Not a good sign. Between the loud guitars, endless riffs, extended solos, and vocals, this record feels very much like the Cantrell show. Mostly that’s for worse, but there’s some good solo work here. Boy this pre-chorus and chorus is dreck, though. Too long! All of these songs would be better songs if they dropped the last verse and chorus, or the verse at least, or the chorus. Instead, they go on and on.

Fly — We’ve reached the acoustic song on the record. Sort of. Still lots of lead guitar. Still lots of rock drumming. Boy, this is bad. What is this about? What is he talking about? “Fill up on love when you’re hungry”? This isn’t great. It’s definitely leaning somewhere between Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”… but more optimistic! “Waiting out the storm until the skies are clear to fly.” This is what boring dad music used to be, before boring dad music became the National. And guess what? Third verse and third chorus that is exactly the same as the two that preceded it. The shortest song so far has was 4:49.

Drone — Riff riff riff. One of the thing I used to love about Alice in Chains’ riffs is that they sounded weird. Yes, they leaned on rock and metal standards, but they were chromatic, or in odd scales, or strangely musical. Here, instead, it’s all blues rock and none of the weird. Again, some interesting drums. Again, wah-wah mini-solo. Again, bland vocals (albeit one or two interesting harmonies). There’s an interesting tempo/acoustic transition here, but the part that follows is mostly interesting because it’s different from what came before it.

I can’t believe I hit a fucking deer. What an awful waste.

Jesus, this song is still going. There is a second wah-wah solo in. They’re back to the original rhythm for—yes—a third verse and chorus. After the punishing repetition of these songs, I can’t help but consider that maybe Alice in Chains was always just sort of bad and that I’m only being so critical because I’m hearing this for the first time in 2018. What would younger me have thought of this? … I hope I would have found the vocals dull, at least. But I bet I would have loved this. I was terrible. I am terrible still.

This song is still going.

Deaf Ears Blind Eyes — Not exactly an auspicious start, with a song title like that. But there’s some interesting stuff in the opening riff. The verse seems to promptly quash any hopes, BUT then the chorus comes in and it’s legitimately a little weird and interesting and actually evokes an uneasy mood/feeling. It’s no great track, but at least it’s doing something? God, I’m reaching here. This is really-well-produced nonsense.

There’s not even a Denny’s in this town. I was told that “the Tim Horton’s might be open all night if they have anybody to staff it.”

OK, a couple of interesting parts in this song, and as I was writing this sentence, the third verse began.

It was more that the deer hit me. But still. God it sucks.

Some interesting riffing at the end here.

Maybe — Maybe not, amiright? Some questionable vocal choices, into our Jovi acoustic rock again. So many harmonies but they… I don’t know, jive too well, don’t interact but act as one boring organism. God these chord progressions are killing me. Bad choice of words, all things considered tonight. “Let it die.” If they had ended the song here, it might have been an interesting choice. Instead, the song is only one third done, another five and a half minute ride through lines like “Maybe you should know I’m feeling lonely and I’m tired… Maybe this will show I’m feeling empty, uninspired.” It’s showing, Jerry. “Let it die” he says again right before a beautifully recorded solo that has none of the movement and inspiration that I remember when I was a kid. Maybe I imagined it all? No third verse, but we get the full third chorus. “Let it die.” Yeah. OK.

So Far Under — I once played with Mark and some other dear friends at a place that had a name like Jimmy’s Wing Shack or something. They had one of those punching bag machines and a drunk woman sat on our friend’s/drummer’s lap. This riff is exactly what I imagine a band playing Jimmy’s Wing Shack would play. From there, we go into a pre-chorus and a chorus that are mostly just more riff. And repeat. “No one gets off of this ride alive.” Some of these lines make me think Alice in Chains is screwing with me. I think maybe DuVall is singing some of the leads here? It’s hard to tell. The choruses sound different. Some interesting solo work here.

Never Fade — I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in some time. I’m fading.

Again, this sounds like DuVall might be taking over some of the singing duties. The verses are kind of weak, but the choruses are well sung. And the trading off between Cantrell and DuVall livens up the listening experience, hearing DuVall do two lines, and Cantrell follow with two more. It suggests what this band could be. That said, DuVall really is sort of squandering these verses. When the chorus repeats a second time, I’m just as excited and interested to hear them trade lines as the first time. Extended solo time. Boy, Mike Inez (their bass player) is just barely on this record. He’s like one or two steps from being Fieldy on a Korn record. This is not a timeless song, but for me, this chorus is as interesting as the record has been so far. “Never faaaaade!” I’m trying, man.

All I Am — The closer. Starting on a Jovi-acoustic-rock meets “Hotel California” vibe. OK, I’m being a little cruel, but it does evoke that a little. It’s almost 3am. All of these songs are longer than they need to be. This has an interesting mood, and not an abjectly bad vocal delivery in the chorus, but whenever the singing is good, it reminds me that the lyrics are bad. … OK, fuck it, I’m into this fake Hotel California nonsense. I think if they took a song like this and built some more dynamics into it, they might be able to make it interesting. As it stands, the whole thing essentially feels the same volume; you can feel it’s supposed to get louder during the choruses, but the song has no extra headroom. Some interesting time-signature stuff here. “I don’t recognize the face before me. It’s unfamiliar.” That’s the last line on the record. OK.

200

Verdict — Alice in Chains have managed to make me question my confidence in my memory. Was it always this mediocre? Was I? Why couldn’t the deer have jumped the other way instead of into my lane? The album sounds wonderfully recorded and produced but simultaneously gutless, with a nearly absent bass on standard headphones, and with drums that feel thin and uniform. The guitars sound ripping and have a few inspired moments, but the vocals are just a smear of uninteresting choral work rather than the interplay between two vocalists. The Jovi-esque moments were unfortunate too.

So the verdict? I should leave Alice in Chains be. They’re not for me anymore. This is probably awesome music for somebody, but even for that somebody, I wonder if they should maybe trim off more third verses, at the very least.

3:08am. I wish I hadn’t left my toothbrush in the busted-up car. I wish I hadn’t killed a deer.

Reevaluating SMASHING PUMPKINS: Part 2 – Siamese Dream

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Smashing Pumpkins’ second studio album, Siamese Dream was released in July of 1993. It debuted at #10 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell over 6 million copies worldwide. It has been certified four times Platinum in the both the United States and Canada.

Mark: I’m on the record as being a person who isn’t especially fond of Billiam Corgan’s music. I didn’t own any Smashing Pumpkins albums when I was younger and I don’t currently have any of the music bookmarked on streaming services. When I witness the devotion that this band has garnered from some of its more fervent fans, I find myself at a bit of a loss. The fact of the matter is, though, that this band was (and is) a big, big deal. There’s a good chance that I’ve perhaps been missing something, which makes a good case for reevaluating the Pumpkins’ material in the first place.

When I reviewed Gish, I found it to be a relatively solid but very generic early 90s alt-rock album. I was impressed that I didn’t absolutely hate it, but I wasn’t exactly moved to listen to it again. Now I’m facing down the prospect of having to take a listen to what may be BCorg’s most revered work (perhaps only surpassed by the double album that was released a few years later). When I was a teenager, it seemed as though everybody had this album except for me. It seemed to be a totally ubiquitous album cover to come across while flipping through a stack of CDs at just about anyone’s house. Surely all of those folks just bought it for the singles, though. Right?

I’d like to give Siamese Dream a fair shake and I’ll do my best to be open-minded about what Rolling Stone considers to be the 362nd best album of all time. Truthfully, though, I’m prone to knee-jerk dismissals and I may miss out on what makes this such a beloved album. This being the case, I’ve decided to reach outside of the Fraudster’s Almanac and seek the assistance of one of the experts.

Shaunna Quin collects her excellent writings over at dietcoke4breakfast.com and is the creator and host of the Pop & Down podcast. She also knows more about Smashing Pumpkins than anyone I have ever met in my life. If anybody is going to help me understand this band, it’s her.

Thank you for agreeing to act as my tour guide through Pumpkinville, Shaunna!

Shaunna: Hey, Mark! Thanks for letting me in on your re-evaluation of SP!

To give a bit of background, I’m was (am?) a “fan is short for fanatic” type for the Pumpkins, and Siamese Dream changed everything for me. Once Siamese Dream was in my hands, it was goodbye to Color Me Badd, En Vogue and Mariah Carey! I traded my Digable Planets CD for the Singles soundtrack. Nowadays, I still enjoy all of the music I mentioned, but Siamese Dream remains my favorite album of all-time.

Look, I was a pretty emo tween. The songs spoke to me; the themes of not belonging, fraught parental relationships, being heartbroken, and just wanting to be yourself in a world that tells you that you suck. Billy Corgan wrote lyrics with flowery, pretentious language that made it seem all that more “deep” and “meaningful” and therefore, special to this young gal.

Billco sang with a feminine vulnerability, which contrasted to the sausage party that alt-rock seemed to represent (my town was too small for me to know what a riot grrl was and Hole hadn’t yet released Live Through This). I loved that there was a woman in the band. Bassist, D’Arcy, was a trendsetter. She was all red lips, platinum hair and overplucked eyebrows, sparkly shirts, horizontal stripes and ripped jeans. And in the music video for “Today,” guitarist, James Iha, was wearing a dress. His willingness to play up his androgyny made me feel less alone, too. As a burgeoning young queer, SP had a queer sensibility that I gravitated towards. James and D’Arcy were my immediate fashion icons and crushes.

Anyways, mayonaise (see what I did there?), I feel like 362 is an incredibly low position for Siamese Dream, but who cares about arbitrary listicles?! I was one of the many who bought it after liking “Today” and “Disarm.” Sure, lots of folks liked those two songs and skipped the rest. But for me, Siamese Dream was my first real album that I loved from front-to-back and resonated with me on an emotional level. And still does!

Let’s do this, Mark!

Cherub Rock
Mark: Alright, this is a rock solid jammer and I love it. The central guitar riff is terrific and doesn’t sound like anything that the other big alt bands of the time were doing. I feel as though the style became aped to the point of ubiquity just a few years later. The guitar solo is also just a huge pile of discordant gold.

The video is early 90s to the point where I start smelling a mildew-y old thrift store just by watching it.

This song is crunchy and catchy in the way that the best 90s rock music dreams of being. A tremendous way to start and album and probably one of their best songs (that I’ve heard). Great job, Punpins!

Shaunna: That opening snare roll is iconic. It clearly states, “This is not a grunge song,” the same way Gish’s opener, “I Am One,” does. But while “I Am One” is “Welcome To the Jungle”-via-Jane’s-Addiction, “Cherub Rock” is Cheap Trick’s “Oo La La La” and Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” with a sprinkle of shoegaze and, well, actual pop perfection! I thought becoming a Pumpkinhead was me saying goodbye to pop for my teenhood, but this is a great pop song, as well as a great rock song, and one of my favorites of their singles . It’s my favorite all-time opening track. I promise I won’t slobber this much over every song, but c’mon! Cherub Rock rules!

Quiet
Mark: “Quiet” feels a lot more like a boilerplate “grunge rock” song than the song that precedes it. A fairly tuneless procession of riffs that is brightened up only by a pretty bonkers guitar solo and a change-up in the time signature late in the track. I can’t believe that this is the second track on this album. It isn’t great!

Shaunna: Now, this one I won’t slobber over. I like how the prettiness of Billy’s voice contrasts the “rockin’ness,” and the solo is kickass. But “Quiet” has never been a favorite. I never saw it live, and I feel like if I had, I’d be excited at first but if I was seeing multiple shows, I’d get real sick of it. It’s probably for the best that I don’t think they played it much outside the Siamese Dream tour.

Today
Mark: Everybody knows this song and most people who know it love it. Including me. So there’s not much point in talking about it. Let’s talk about the video instead!

Am I alone in feeling like Barney Coriander from the early 90s when he had hair is a completely different person from cartoon supervillain DarkLord Billy Corgan that exists today? It’s like the hair humanizes him or something. Which is really bad news for me!

This video just radiates the kind of weird nostalgic pining for innocence that seemed to underpin so much of Gen X’s artistic expression. It feels like an independent film of the era and there’s something really comforting about it. The costumes and the colours are just terrific.

I like this!

Shaunna: Okay Mark, the differences in Cilly Borgan can definitely be categorized by his hair (or lack thereof). Gish = long hair = DRUGS. Siamese Dream = short hair = … I guess human is a good word! Again, this song is pop perfection, and it’s pretty wild that this song came out of his suicidal ideation at the time.

Like I mentioned before, “Today” was my first time seeing or hearing SP and I was immediately struck. The four of them, painting an ice cream truck and their faces seemed so damn cool. And then all of the horny teenagers making out in the desert. I couldn’t wait to do both of those things. I’ve never painted an ice cream truck, though, and I can live with that.

Hummer
Mark: The disintegrating guitar figure into bass groove into smooth guitar buzz works really well in “Hummer”. The central jam riff and the quiet-loud-quiet formula work for me as well. I find the chorus to be a somewhat lifeless string of chords without a great hook, but this seems like a solid album track to me overall. This album has a number of really great guitar solo sections so far!

The mellowed-out closing section is nicely performed but makes the track a little too lengthy for my tastes. Tighten up, Bill!

Shaunna: Mark, I was worried about this one! I’ve had at least three different favorite SP songs, and “Hummer” has been at the top for awhile. In fact… its appearance on the setlist for the last tour is what convinced me to purchase (secondary market, less than face value) tickets for the Toronto show! Being too young for Lollapalooza 1994 (I was in Toronto that weekend and begged my parents to drive me to Barrie, but that was a hard no), I’d never had the chance to experience “Hummer” or “Soma” live!

This song is fucking pretty in a luxurious way, with the solos and the glittery strums and Belly’s angelic-to-growly voice all working hand in hand.  I’m too old to really care about lyrics, but “when you/decide/that your live/is a prize/renew/revive/it’s all right, honey” and “happiness will make you wonder/will I feel okay?” still resonate (and might even more so with live experience).

I’m glad you like it, cuz this is a great example of SP at their best.

Rocket
Mark: Unlike “Today” which featured a song and video that were roughly equivalent in greatness, “Rocket” is a very great video that has been created to accompany a song that I find mostly very boring. The four-chord chorus churns along sounding like a much less inspired version of “Cherub Rock”. Outside of a few neat guitar noodles, this song is kind of a stinker.

But the video’s colourful suburban portrayal of kids playing make-believe and the pumpkins turning into old people at the end (roughly what they look like now, tbh), is completely charming and well-made.

Shaunna: Wow, my first “How dare you!” If “Rocket” stinks, then call me Pepe LePew! I never get tired of “Rocket!” The guitars are crunchy, it’s got a funky bassline and it’s got some cool imagery in the lyrics. Speaking of imagery, “Rocket” was the Pumpkins’ first music video collaboration with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who’d go on to direct some multiple MTV VMA-winning videos for them, as well as films like Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes. The video is cool, the kids are cute, I love the glittery space suits, they’re all wearing eye makeup and D’Arcy’s hair looks cool.

And, wow! That last sentence is rude to Jimmy and James, they both look great! And it’s too kind to Bill!

Disarm
Mark: I’m sure that “Disarm” was an effective ballad when it was released, but I’ve spent 20 years or so making fun of it and shouting “THE KILLER IN MEEEEE IS THE KILLER IN YOUUUUUUU” at people when I’m being drunk and obnoxious. So I have a very hard time taking this one seriously, and I get the impression that Bilbo expects that this song be taken very seriously.

Or maybe not. I find it really hard to believe that anyone would put over-the-top bells into their song and not be doing it for jokes. Maybe this song is just for lulz!

Regardless, we all know this song and you probably know whether or not you like it already. I think that it is a very silly song, but it is a very silly song that I will never change the channel on when it comes on satellite radio in a rental car. Whatever that’s worth.

Shaunna: I can’t bother to “how dare you!” you on this, but I’ll just smashsplain “Disarm,” from my point of view!

“Disarm” came on the radio in spring of 1994, and was on Rick Dees’ top 40 and everything. It was orchestral and over the top and pretty. It was a ballad, but it didn’t make me roll my eyes like Boyz II Men and All-4-One did.

I feel like with “Disarm,” the Pumpkins were able to showcase something that no other pop, R&B, hip hop or rock band was able to on the radio at the time; male sensitivity and vulnerability on a song that isn’t a love song. Billy was open about his childhood trauma before it was something men in rock really did, and I’ll give him props for that.

Soma
Mark: This song is based around a perfect chord progression and I could listen to the intro section looped for hours without getting tired of it. The band gets absurd mileage out of the progression, as it simmers and builds toward its inevitable rock-out climax. “Soma” is certainly one of my favourite Smushy Punkins songs and if you don’t think that it’s one of the best tracks on this album, I don’t even know what to say to you.

Shaunna: “Soma” is one of the greatest classic SP tracks of all-time. It’s E*MO*TION, pre-Carly Rae. It’s pretty and sad, angry and petty. It’s spacey, hypnotic and dreamy and the old quiet-loud-quiet thing is masterful. The guitar solo on this one is, like, a total mood. The vocals are crystalline. And my favorite R.E.M. member, Mike Mills, plays piano on it!

James Iha co-wrote “Soma,” so that should tell you something about the dude’s skillz in creating the best of the Pumpkins’ sound.

Geek USA
Mark: “Geek USA” has the sound of a song that was written by a band jamming out in their practice space. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it leads the vibe of the track to be more memorable than any individual turn of songwriting on display. It just chugs and chugs until the very silly tempo shift into the bridge and subsequent shift back up to “fastest song at the high school battle of the bands” territory. Props are deserved for the half-time breakdown that caps the song off, though.

I feel like Silverchair ripped this song off in at least a half-dozen was and did a shittier job of it. So… good job, Punkins?

Shaunna: We’re kind of opposites here on why we like this song. For me, the tempo change is the best part, as well as the breakdown. “Geek USA” is the first instance of loud-quiet-loud, as opposed to quiet-loud-quiet on SD, so that’s probably why I’d put it down a few pegs after “Hummer” and “Soma.” Its sensitive bits are in the middle, with its cock-rock tendencies front and center.

Also I bet B0lly would hate to know that I’ve parodied a lyric from this. “Emojis can’t define what I feel inside who needs them?”

Mayonaise
Mark: You can sing “Apparitions” by Matthew Good to the intro of this song! Give it a try.

“Mayonaise” is a tuneful little slice of alt-rock that edges close to shoegaze territory. It’s a mode that suits the band pretty well, and results in a very listenable tune. The guitars fuzz and feedback in a really pleasing way. This is a great track. Of all of the songs on this record that I hadn’t heard before, this may be the best.

Shaunna: Wow, rude to bring Matt Good into this, Mark!

“Mayonaise” is not just a fan favorite among hardcore fans, but for casual fans, too! Why is it called “Mayonaise”? Bill used to have this analogy about writing a song about a chandelier which emits red which you can’t wear around bulls so you name the song cow. IDK about that, but the song has always just sounded so creamy and dreamy to me. This song is just so… pure to me? It’s just such singalong goodness, and I’ve had those everywhere with “Mayonaise” from bible camp to the last show I went to in August. Also, I prefer mayonnaise on my french fries to ketchup, so mayon(n)aise rules!

James Iha also co-wrote “Mayonaise,” which proves that Billy and him should’ve co-written together a lot more often, but of course they couldn’t because of Billy’s narcissism.

Spaceboy
Mark: I’m not going to say “no” to any track that wants to heavily feature a mellotron, although I do find the solo-Billy sections to be fairly cringe-worthy. The fully arranged sections are okay, but I find them to be kind of unremarkable. “Spaceboy” being buried in the back half of the record makes a lot of sense to me.

Shaunna: I love the mellotron and strings on this one. And the “I want to go home” refrain has stuck with me from then on, whether I was at school, at work, at a family gathering, whatever I wanted to escape! “Spaceboy” is a cute song and there’s a sweet melancholy to the closing strings. Billy wrote this one for his little brother, Jesse, whom he’s described as “he’s like a Rain Man type of character. He’s got certain things probably greater than someone else and he’s lacking in a few things that most of us just take for granted.”

Silverfuck
Mark: The beat that this tune arrives on wasn’t something that I was expecting and has a fun off-kilter churn to it. This is the first time that I’ve thought that this drummer hasn’t been completely mediocre and a minute or so in, “Silverfuck” has a good, spirited bop going on.

Wait… this song is almost nine minutes long? Fuck you, Smarching Pungiuns.

My interested waned entirely by minute four. You’re not The Doors, Billy Corgan. (The Doors are also terrible)

Shaunna: Okay, first off JIMMY MF’IN CHAMBERLIN IS A TRAINED JAZZ DRUMMER HOW DARE YOU!

“Silverfuck” is a loud-quiet-loud rock epic that a lot of SPeeps herald as the gold standard and want all of their shows to end with 30-minute extended jams of it. For me, I only really have the patience for it because of history. I’m less enthusiastic about this one than most fans, but I still have love for it.

Sweet Sweet
Mark: This minute and a half long tune almost makes up for “Silverfuck” being so completely and pointlessly bloated. It kind of lives up to its name in a way that feels a little too on the nose, but it’s a nice little ditty. I… I’m getting pretty tired of Billy’s voice.

Shaunna: “Sweet, Sweet” is absolutely nobody’s favorite Smashing Pumpkins song, and probably no one’s favorite on Siamese Dream, but I’ve never encountered anyone who actively disliked it. Like Mark said, it’s a nice little ditty and it’s the perfect little transition between “Silverfuck” and “Luna.”

Luna
Mark: I think that “Luna” is a legitimately well-constructed song and works very well as an album-closer. It brings strings back into the mix in a way that feels a little more effective and a little less overwrought than “Disarm”. The guitars sound pretty terrific as they shimmer and plunk away at genuinely pretty chord progressions, and this is one of the songs where Billy’s breathy vocal delivery actually works with the song instead of kind of clashing with it. No complaints about “Luna”.

Shaunna: If “Silverfuck” is the gold standard of “rawk” SP, “Luna” is the gold standard of ballad SP. This was my favorite song when I was a teenager and the one that made me fall in love with them forever. This song is special. The strings and guitar are lush and the sitar is the magic ingredient for making “Luna” the stellar ballad that it is.  It’s a love song, and it’s a relatively happy one about head-in-the-clouds love. You don’t get much of these from Billco. Perfect album closer. Try singing this moon song to your new baby sometime, Mark!

The Verdict
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Mark: Well, surprisingly enough, we found a lot of common ground on this record. Perhaps it is unsurprising, given how generally well thought of Siamese Dream is. I really can’t argue with the fact that this is a pretty solid album and a great example of alternative rock in the early 90s. You can see this album’s fingerprints all over the place in the work of other artists.

As I’d never heard the whole record, I was even able to find a few songs on here that I had never heard before that I liked quite a bit. Loads of great guitar work on this album as well. There are really only a few total stinkers to be found, which is a pretty good hit-miss ratio even for bands that I truly love.

One thing that bothers me though: One of my favourite moments on Gish came when Billy ceded lead vocal duties to D’arcy for a track. That doesn’t happen here and I think that’s a bummer.

Good album, though. I’d be preeeeetty surprised to find out that they’ve got a better one, especially given that the next album is a… (*gag*)… double-album.

Shaunna! I appreciate your smashsplaining and good delivery of context to help me wrap my head around the Billyverse! There were really only a few “How dare you!” moments, and for that I am very glad. Thank you!

Shaunna: It’s pretty neat to me how polarizing ol’ SP are, even within the fan community. Most folks prefer the rawk, folks like me prefer the soft and lush and then there’s a whole group of sycophants who’d call BC’s belly rumbles brilliant and demand them on limited-edition chartreuse vinyl. Since I consider Mark to be a metal guy and I’m a pop gal, I figured we’d have a lot less in common than we do with Siamese Dream!

IMHO, Siamese Dream’s influence is best represented on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s second album, Belong (2011), which was recorded at Stratosphere Sound (formerly co-owned by James Iha) and, funny enough, produced by Flood and Alan Moulder– who actually produced Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness! We haven’t yet mentioned that SD was produced by King Butch Vig, and I think it’s his greatest achievement, don’t @ me, Nirvana fans!

I like your point about the D’Arcy vocals, Mark! She provides backup, but maybe if “Sweet, Sweet” was sung by her, or a duet, that would’ve added a little something extra special to the album.

Mark, it’s been genuinely fun to read your perspective and give my “expert” two cents. I’m sorry to say that the Pumpkins don’t have a better album than Siamese Dream! Nevertheless, I can’t wait to sludge through Mellon Collie with you and I wonder if the songs we love/don’t love will match up!

Reevaluating BLUR: Part 1 – Leisure

This blog has been operating (on and off) for around two years. While there are a handful of people who enjoy reading it, my wife only tends to take a look when I write a long post that includes our vacation photos. I’ve determined that this is because I almost never write about anything that interests her in the slightest. It seems that it would be good of me to correct this.

During the 1990s, when I was waist-deep in the swamps of grunge, punk and metal music, my wife was spending much of her time enjoying Britpop. Britpop is a music scene that I loathed during its heyday. I couldn’t fathom wanting to listen to anything catchy or upbeat or uplifting, and the dearth of British music featuring distorted power chords struck me as some kind of UK-centred deficiency.

One of my wife’s favourite groups of the era, Blur, were exactly that to me. I have no memory of anything that this group released until “Song 2” came out and I said “finally a British band has learned how to use a guitar properly”. Anything prior to that must have caused me to quickly change the channel to something more interesting.

I can recognize that I’m capable of knee-jerk reactions that are often later proven to be poorly reasoned. I’m only human. It is possible that 90s Britpop contains gems that my life has been missing. I will take a look at Blur’s discography for the sake of my marriage, and will perhaps then move on to rethink my stance on other British bands of this era. Blurst things blurst, though.

She’s So High
I’ll start off by saying that Damon Albarn is wearing an absolutely tremendous t-shirt in this video. Boy, that’s a great shirt.

The first impression that I get from “She’s So High” is that it sounds like these guys just discovered reverb and are very, very in love with it. Good lord, is there ever a mountain of reverb on the vocals and drums. The lyrics become mostly unintelligible and the snare drum rings out like it’s in the middle of an empty coliseum. That said, it kind of works for the tune in an early college-rock sort of way.

The verses of this song are pretty underwhelming, but the chorus holds some hooky satisfaction. The reverse-guitar bridge/solo section actually holds the most interest for me, as the bass & drums lock into a pretty tasty groove. It all sounds very of its time, but I wind up liking this tune well enough.

Bang
“Bang” opens with a pretty solid application of a stereo-panned tremolo/snipping pedal that hearkens back to fellow British guitar guy Johnny Marr’s work in The Smiths. The groove that the band settles into when the song properly begins sounds a little stock and uninspired to me. The drum beat is essentially just the drum beat that a competent high school drummer will kick out as soon as they get behind a drum kit.

This song is a little lackluster, the chorus again faring better than the verses overall. As rote as “Bang” seems, it feels like a good opportunity to single out the fact that Blur is one of those British bands with a singer who sounds unapologetic British. The snotty and vaguely punk-tinged vocal delivery works in the band’s favour and gives them the edge that their sometimes rather flat-sounding weaker material desperately needs.

Slow Down
Although this song was not a single, it bangs harder than the two songs that precede it. The crunchiness of this song is satisfying, although it for the most part continues the lolling, sing-song feel of the album so far. The song kicks into high-gear for a rather inspired bridge section that rocks in an off-kilter sort of way that I deeply appreciate. This is the good 90s, everybody.

Except for the lyrics, which seem to be fairly weak across the board on this album.

Repetition
“Repetition” sees the band toying with a sluggish dub-inspired rhythm that erupts into a fuzzed-out but also draggy chorus. The production and performance allow the track to line up with it’s overall vibe, so it isn’t entirely unsuccessful, but it winds up being kind of a drag to listen to. It’s evidence of the band’s willingness to experiment, even on their debut album.

Bad Day
The melodica-driven musical hook that opens “Bad Day” is pretty delightful. The rhythm section shines throughout the tune, and I’m willing to forgive the gratuitous use of wah-wah effects on the heavily-layered guitar. Vocally, the song feels rather low-energy and is not their greatest showing. Decent enough album track, but not great.

On this song, one can really see the shared musical DNA between Blur and Radiohead’s earliest work. This is perhaps unsurprising given that both acts are full of silly British men.

Sing
“Sing” is built around great repeated piano figure and I kind of love it. A song this long would usually bore me and bum me out, but there’s something about the constant bop of of the piano riff and the great bassline that works well for me. The guitar atmospherics are lovely and the vocals have been wisely pulled back from the forefront to blend with the rest of the band.

Given my relative ignorance in terms of what Blur songs are regarded as “the good ones” by Blur fans, I’m not sure if I’m missing the mark by considering this to be a pretty interesting outlier on this album so far. But I dig it.

There’s No Other Way
It seems as though all of this album’s singles are the album’s worst songs. This one is a very 90s-ass 90s song that sounds like it was thrown together by a bunch of teens fresh from a class that teaches kids to rock weakly. To be fair, they were probably kids when they wrote this, but I don’t enjoy it. It sounds like a mid-90s commercial for fun deodorant.

Check out this fuckin’ 90s-ass video, though! Wow! Nice bowl-cut, Emo!

Fool
The definition of an album track, this song kinda blows. The band rocks pretty hard in the chorus, but the whole affair is largely uninteresting. Some reasonable drum work on the bridge doesn’t save it. Yawn, buds. Yawn!

Come Together
This is not a Beatles cover, thank god. Probably because it’s not an Oasis album. Thank god.

The running theme of this album seems to be that the songs have choruses that are way stronger than their verses. I suppose that this is how music is supposed to work, but I really just works out seeming like every song has shitty verse sections.

The chorus of “Come Together” rocks reasonably hard and although I think that the bass player plays his ass off to try to save the rest of it, the song is otherwise uneven. It seems like this drummer is proficient at roughly one beat, played at slightly different tempos. This song also outstays its welcome by at least 60 seconds.

Still better than a Beatles cover, though.

High Cool
This song has the “squeedly bop” kind of groove that was completely rampant through the 90s and went unnoticed by me at the time. I now see it as kind of a plague. It’s the kind of sound that bands like Phish made their whole careers on. Luckily it only pops up in some spots on the records of bands that are actually worth listening to.

Let me also say: I’m glad that we hear a lot less of guitarists just kind of doing simple pentatonic solo noodles as an additional guitar layer on every goddamned song like they used to so often in the 90s. It’s never good and it’s all over this track.

Birthday
This guitarist loves effects pedals! The sounds are actually pretty neat, and they lead to a terrific chord progression. After Damon complains about his birthday for a while and the song simmers, the band erupts into a pretty satisfying rock ‘n roll outro noise jam. There’s not a lot going on with “Birthday”, but I like it.

Wear Me Down
“Wear Me Down” sounds chunky and heavy in a way that I hadn’t really associated with Britpop in the 1990s (save the aforementioned “Song 2”). The band lays it down nice and thick in the verses, for a change, and switches it up with a more sparsely arranged chorus. Despite the fairly ballsy riff that the song is centred around, it’s on the long side and feels a little monotonous overall. The tune isn’t embarrassing or anything, but it is far from what I would consider an inspired closing number.

The Verdict
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Leisure is definitely more of an early 1990s alt-rock record than my initial expectation of Brit-pop semi-glam excess. It’s quite listenable and has a handful of inspired moments, but – as with many debut LPs – one gets the feeling listening to this that it’s the work of a band not yet fully formed. The tracks that attempt to reach outside of the stock alt-rock toolkit are actually the ones that point to the possibility that this group might have more than just a one-note career ahead of them.

Bizarrely, I came into this review with my Blur-related knowledge being primarily focused on Damon Albarn, his work on Blur’s biggest songs, and his work on the Gorillaz records. On Leisure, Albarn is possibly the least remarkable element. Having heard a sampling of more interesting work from later in their career and beyond, it’s very apparent that Albarn has seen a lot of growth as an artist.

Leisure is a fine early alt-rock record, but fails to stand out against the glut of early alternative rock from the dawn of that era. It does, however, involve some t-shirts that I think are very impressive. The t-shirts remain impressive to this very day!

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