Mellon Collie and the Infinite Dadness: Rating Various Winter Wonderland Activities – Part One

I’m not sure whether or not this has been explicitly mentioned on this blog, but at some point over the last few years, my wife and I got extremely loaded one night and decided that it would be a good idea to relocate to North Bay, Ontario.

All joking aside, though, we moved to North Bay in order to be in closer proximity to family, to avoid the increasing costs of living in Toronto, and to pursue a new career opportunity that was presented to me. It has been great in many ways and not so great in other ways, but I’m not going to dive too deeply into the subject here. Perhaps in a future non-dad-related post, I will break down what it is like to move from a big smelly city to a small smelly town. (Spoiler: No matter what you choose to do, you will find a smell to complain about)

One of the benefits and drawbacks of living in North Bay? More snow than I have ever seen in my life. There’s, like, a lot of snow here. If snow were decent Japanese restaurants, we would be all set.

Snow is not a decent Japanese restaurant, though. It is a bunch of cold puffy water. Which sucks for getting around and leads to a lot of shoveling and shivering. But also kids love the stuff and it is apparently very good for children to go run around outside and fill the world with their laughter and all of that stuff.

So, when it is not -30C (which is not a typo, but a real thing that happens here), we have enjoyed taking my daughter outdoors and exposing her to some of winter’s great bounty of fun activities. Here are my thoughts on a few of them.

Building a Snowperson

This is the act of creating a snow being in three segmented parts like some kind of big freaky white ant with facial features that approximate those of a human. It is a classic winter activity that holds up pretty well. You have to have the right kind of snow to make this work, but when it works, it can keep everybody busy for like a half hour.

For the kids, there’s the chance to get a little artistic and a chance to dictate just what kind of a person the snowperson gets to be. It gives them the chance to play God, which I’m sure has some kind of a developmental benefit. I don’t know. This isn’t a psychology blog. This isn’t really even a parenting blog, what do you want from me?

For the adults, there’s the chance to get a little artistic, as you will have to interpret your child’s wishes and translate them into something that makes a single lick of sense. There’s also the chance to push something around until it gets heavy and your back hurts.

Pros:

  • Fun lawn ornaments!
  • You can make a bunch of them and create little stories for yourself about what those people are doing in your yard.
  • You can make a sad one and look at them whenever life gets you down in a “Hey, at least I’m not that guy” way.
  • If you build them just right and the weather cooperates, you’ll get to watch them slowly and painfully melt away like that guy from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Looooolololol

Cons:

  • Sore arms and back if you’re building a whole family of them.
  • Getting asked to make one when the snow is powdery is like getting asked to eat soup out of a spaghetti strainer.
  • Finding sticks that make good arms: Surprisingly difficult.
  • You won’t be able to use the hat/scarf/gloves that the snowperson is wearing until it naturally falls to the ground at the weather’s behest.
  • There is a chance that your child will temporarily consider the snowpeople to be their actual parents. (This could also be a pro, maybe)

Verdict: In my opinion, building snowpeople is a pretty good idea. It gets everybody doing something and you’re left with a reminder in your yard that you went outside at some point, which gives you an excuse to try to get out of going outside again later. 7/10 Flake Points

Creating a Snow-Based Play Structure

This one requires some work off the top, there’s no two ways about it. If you do it right and your kid cooperates, though, you’ll soon be laughing all the way to the snowbank. Given that last joke, it is totally cool if you want to navigate away from this blog and never return. I would!

So, you can use an existing snowbank for this or create your own pile/structure out of sticky snow, whatever’s easy and readily available. You’ll want to use this (preferably pretty big) pile of snow to create a slide or a tunnel or a house or a castle or anything that inspires you, I guess. People might want to steer clear of the tunnel idea if they’re going to leave their kids alone to play, as cave-ins are not fun.

We have tended to build slides because they have the most favourable work-to-fun ratio. It doesn’t take very long to build a pretty great slide out of a pile of snow. Kids go bonkers for it. You can just build it and then get them sliding on it, and you don’t have to lift a finger. You can just stand there and watch them slide again and again and then you’re on a one-way trip to that great zone-out state that tired parents can call up whenever they have a free minute.

This can keep a kid busy for a really long time. It rules.

Pros:

  • It seems like most kids don’t really get sick of sliding down a thing. Like, you might have to drag your kid away from it.
  • Once the upfront work is done, there’s a little maintenance, but really this activity mostly takes care of itself.
  • Fun lessons about gravity?

Cons:

  • If you’re building the pile yourself, this can take a long time to get going.
  • Requires the good kind of snow.
  • Dragging your kid away from the slide kicking and screaming can be painful and embarrassing.
  • You can make the slide big enough to slide on yourself, which you’ll do once and then get snow all up your back and be forced to confront the fact that the joy and whimsy of childhood no longer exists within your desiccated parental husk.

Verdict: This is a really great thing to go for if you’ve got big snowbanks around your place. Kid enjoyment levels can reach extreme heights, and it’s free as hell. You don’t even have to spring for a carrot or anything. Great times! 9/10 Flake Points

Riding in a Little Sled

Although the above sled looks like some kind of space age tongue monster, this activity is a real classic. A bit of a qualifier here, though: I am specifically writing about getting pulled around on a sled, not about sledding or tobogganing down a hill under the influence of gravity. For the purposes of these rankings, those are separate activities.

Pulling a kid around a snowy area by a string attached to some kind of a sled is about as winter wonderland as a winter wonderland gets. It’s a little bit thrilling for kids, and completely exhausting and painful for parents. The kid gets a pretty fun ride. The parent gets to drag dead weight while also trudging through knee-deep snow and throwing their gaze backward every thirty seconds to make sure that the kid hasn’t fallen out again.

The weight distribution is never quite right and you need to pull the thing with the string held really low, or else the whole front of the sled just flies up and dumps the kid off the back of the sled. Speaking of backs, your back is in for a treat if you spend an afternoon pulling a kid around on one of these. Occasionally you might come to a little hill that will give you a break and give the kid a little thrill. It can’t be too steep of a hill, though, because then the kid will just bail and you’ll have to pick them up.

I should mention that I’m writing this from experiences with this activity involving a toddler. If you’re still doing this with an older kid, I don’t even know what to tell you.

Pros:

  • Your child will have the time of their goddamned life.
  • Your lifelong dreams of feeling like a pack mule have borne fruit. (note: this may not be a universal pro)

Cons:

  • This one is like getting kicked down a flight of stairs.
  • You actually have to own a piece of equipment for this one.

Verdict: Given the level of glee experienced by the child, I must recommend this activity. Every aching chamber of my weary body wishes to warn you against it, but my addled parental brain wants me to tell you that it is very fun and that you will love it. 8/10 Flake Points

In Closing

Playing out in the snow with your kid hurts like hell, but it gets them active out in the open air, and they go absolutely bonkers for it. There are many more activities that I would love to tell you about, and I’m open for suggestions. Can a 2 1/2 year old skate? I’m terrified to find out!

As much as they all hurt, they’re all way better than my typical winter pass time of digging my car out from under about a foot of snow and then white-knuckle driving to work in terrible conditions. Adult activities are the absolute pits and do not deserve a blog series.

Not even on a blog as terrible as this one.

Enjoying Your Life by Being the Recipient of a Beer Advent Calendar: Parts 22 – 24 (The Final Chapter)

And just like that, the dream is over.

The magical mystery box has been depleted. It has been collapsed and bundled up with the other many holiday-related boxes that had piled up in our basement. The gifts have been opened. The house is a disaster. Truly, the Christmas ritual has been completed.

This has been a very strange holiday season. I don’t really think that I am going out on a limb to call this holiday season probably the biggest bummer Christmas that I’ve ever had, given our shared circumstance of being unable to celebrate together. We have really been missing our families during this time.

There have been things keeping our spirits bright, though. We have been making the best of things, putting in more effort for our daughter and for ourselves to make our situation feel more special. I really have to hand it to my wife, who has been a creative dynamo through it all, and has ensured that this will be a Christmas season that we will remember for reasons other than just marked by the isolation that results from a global crisis. Her great planning and my daughter’s excitement have given me things to look forward to and have made up for the unavoidable darkness that abounds. In a moment of sincerity that is rare for this blog, I must acknowledge my great fortune and my gratitude to my wife and our lil’ stinker.

Also, the beer really helps to keep the mood light. Here are some beers!

December 22: Strongbow Original Dry Apple Cider

Lol. Alright. You got me again, you wiseass.

The second cider in a row had me worrying that the tail end of this mystery box was going to be all troll gags and non-beers.

Strongbow is fine. A lot better than the flavoured monstrosity from Pommies that preceded it. I’ve had a bunch of this in my day and you probably have too. It’s a sweet, but not too sweet and kind of nice on a hot day kind of beverage. I’m not a regular cider drinker, but this went down without complaints.

Jollymeter score: 6/10
Chantal sip-rating: I didn’t give her any.

December 23: Railway City Black Coal Stout

I was happy to receive another stout. Not just because it wasn’t a cider, but also because I’ve recently been pretty into drinking stouts and I believe there had only been one other proper stout in the box.

This is a solid entry from Railway City. Very rich bitter flavour, leaning more to the black coffee end of things than the dark chocolate end of things. Looks great poured, as it is absolutely pitch black and opaque.

I enjoyed my time with this beer, gang.

Jollymeter score: 8/10
Chantal sip-rating: Three-sipper

December 24: Refined Fool Brewing Co. Pinky Brewster Raspberry Wheat Ale

Here it is. The final beer. And it’s a flavoured wheat beer. Ah well.

I have had this beer before and I am familiar with Refined Fool, a brewery out of Sarnia, Ontario. I’ve had the pleasure of drinking the stuff while executing my duties at the South Western International Film Festival, which is great and you should check it out if you’re ever in Sarnia in November (lol?).

This raspberry wheat ale is not the best raspberry wheat beer that I have had, nor is it the best beer from Refined Fool that I have had. Both their Troll Toll Cream Ale and Pouch Envy IPA are better beers than this. They are both quite good. Perusing their website now, I’m seeing lots of beer that I would be excited to try.

Pinky Brewster has a bit of a pinkish hue when poured, but not to the extent that it seems as though it has been artificially coloured. The strange thing is that something about the raspberry flavour tastes slightly artificial to me, although the can indicates that they’ve used actual raspberry puree to make it. It must be something about the way that the fruit flavours are playing with the wheat ale flavours that has it landing in a place that I’m not totally stoked about.

It is still quite drinkable and would be better suited to a summer’s day. There are other raspberry beers that I would seek out before heading back to this one. It is okay, though.

Jollymeter rating: 6/10
Chantal sip-rating: Two-sipper.

Final Thoughts

Writing this series (and drinking the beer) has been a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. I must again thank Chantal for her very thoughtful gift. I also have been very happy to chat beer with a few of you through the course of the series. It’s no “getting a beer in person”, but it has still been appreciated.

I hope that you have all had an enjoyable and safe holiday season. With any luck, I will be gifted another one of these next year and also I will have shut down this blog so that I don’t have the ability to clog up your feeds all month with these posts.

To start reading this series from the beginning, go ahead and click here!

Re-evaluating Pearl Jam – Part Twelve: Gigaton

Well, as a bad band that probably wouldn’t have existed without Pearl Jam once said… it’s been awhile.

I’ve been blogging along at a pace so steady over the last few weeks, this website may actually be more active than it’s ever been (this coming after a couple of years of basically no activity). It seems appropriate to me that we revisit one of the series that arguably kicked the whole thing off in the first place, and that means that we’re going to talk about some Pearl Jam.

We were actually graced with a new Pearl Jam record at around the same time that everything was shutting down in North America (for the first time) in March. COVID-19 conditions actually wound up preventing the North American tour that the band were planning to coincide with the new albums release.

The craziest thing? I was excitedly looking into tickets for the tour. I thought that it would be really funny to go see a Pearl Jam show and write a blog about it. That didn’t happen, but I think that I need to admit that my series of blogposts intended to make fun of Pearl Jam has led to me actually becoming kind of a fan of Pearl Jam. I’ll never stop making fun of them, but now I do so lovingly.

It is in this spirit that I will finally listen to Gigaton, which was released to moderate fanfare in March 2020.

Who Ever Said

PJ opens up their seven-hundredth studio album with some of their distinctive fuckin’ around noise, before opening up to a steadily bopping but rote garage rock riff. The kings of modern dad-rock have shuffled off of the couch, gang. Get ready to cross your arms and nod your head.

This song is totally fine. There are some pretty neat chord progressions in the pre-chorus and chorus proper. I prefer my PJ opening tracks to rage and roil, but this is more just… competent rocking. The bridge is a little long and feels kind of directionless, which winds up making the song feel a lot longer than it needs to be.

Vedley sounds great, though!

Superblood Wolfmoon

When this track opens, I’m instantly struck by the contrast of a pretty fun garage-pop guitar strut and Eddie Vedder stumbling through a lyrical hook that is too moronic to have been an ad-lib. It’s really dumb. I actually enjoy it, that’s how dumb it is.

This song seems a little confused on whether it’s playful and poppy or full-throttle rock stuff. It never really successfully nails the latter, but it’s a fun enough slice of rock ‘n roll. Some of the gang vocals are hooky and satisfying, and there’s a very daffy but great guitar solo bit.

It is absolute nonsense, though. Yow! Very dumb.

Dance of the Clairvoyants

I remember when this song got released as a teaser for the album and I got very, very excited. To be clear, I got excited because I thought that it was a very embarrassing direction for the band to take and I couldn’t wait to make lots and lots of fun of them.

I like it a little more now, but the overall vibe of the verses is still… pretty hilarious. The toot-toot synths are ridiculous and Edward is just barking like crazy over what can only be described as an old man’s interpretation of danceable music. Eddie also just sounds like he’s just spitting off the dome, throwing out lines about knowing that girls want to dance and boys want to grow.

A classic Pearl Jam experimental misfire! I’m secretly thrilled by it!

Quick Escape

The band wrote this song after listening to Led Zepplin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, I think. The drum opening is practically lifted. That being said, the bass groove fucking rocks and sounds like it is very fun to play.

“Quick Escape” is from a pretty standard rock mold, but I kinda dig it. The vocal yelps in the chorus are peak unhinged Edwin Veddleston. The bridge/guitar solo is also extremely great. More of that, please.

This is maybe my favourite track so far.

Alright

…alright. It’s ballad time.

“Alright” has some experimental tones and textures at play, but they work a little better than the goofy shit in “Dance of the Clairvoyants”. It does just kind of sound like a standard Eddie acoustic song with unique production flourishes pasted in. Later on it sounds like they grabbed the 12-string guitar that Alice In Chains used on “I Stay Away”, which seems like a brave choice, considering the fact that it’s been over 25 years since anyone has dared pick up a 12-string guitar.

Overall, this song’s title is very appropriate. Meh.

Seven O’Clock

You can sing “Hunger Strike” over this track, so it’s got that going for it. It is nowhere near as good as “Hunger Strike”.

The chorus underwhelms. There’s a lot of kinda subpar keyboard work on this album so far. Wonky tones that don’t work and boring/clumsy lines. It’s kinda weird.

The song has a big outro, but it doesn’t add up to much. Totally would hit skip on this track if I were to spin this record again.

Never Destination

I was going to say that this was another standard dad-rocker, but then Eddo starts singing and it sounds like when the Spin Doctors sang “liddlemissliddlemiss can’t be wrong” and I laughed, so there’s that.

Very straightforward rock song. You could hear this song 100 times and not remember a thing about it. It sounds like they’re having fun, though, so it would probably be fun to go hang in the garage with these dads and crack a Carlsberg or something.

Is growing up and becoming like their own fathers the “Never Destination”? Because mission accomplished, dudes! You’re probably all the “cool dads”!

Take The Long Way

This rocks a little harder and features some off-kilter change ups that have been mostly absent from the other songs. I like songs like this because there’s a bit of a nervous energy happening, whereas so many of the modern PJ songs sound like a band that could just write a sluggish garage rock song in their sleep.

Some nice background vocals bolster the chorus and bridge, and the bridge switches up the rhythm nicely. This tune is decent enough! Guitar solo is a bit shit, though.

Buckle Up

Buckle Up… for a piece of shit!

“Buckle Up” is a No Code level bummer of a craptrack. I hate it, guys!

Comes Then Goes

This one sounds like it’s an Eddie joint and it carries the preferred presentation of being just an acoustic guitar and that rich, deep baritone that we all hear as we fall asleep each night. We all hear that, right? Eddie Vedder crooning us to sleep?

This song is a nice enough slab of folky balladry. I do not mind it. It does not, however, justify its over six-minute length. Eddie Vedder? More like Edit-me Better!

Have I already used that one? If not, I’ve still got it. That’s one of the best ones I’ve ever come up with.

Retrograde

Oh shit, the 12-string is back!

This song makes virtually no impression on me beyond that. A five-plus minute mid-tempo slog. Not a single memorable hook or riff. I dunno, this one is a bummer. The production on the big “epic” outro does sound appropriately big, but it’s in service of a pretty flat tune.

Nah, dudes.

River Cross

Pretty glad that they chose this as the album closer over “Retrograde”, as I find this to be a more effective and meditative track. It isn’t tremendous, but it is a decent vibe track with an interesting central chord progression performed on organ and an emphasis on the lead vocal.

On a record with a few more gems, this could have been a nice capper. It’s still nice, but it’s low energy following about three or four low-energy tracks, so I’m already feeling a little bored.

The song builds to yet another “big outro”, but I think that this one manages to work by feeling a little more stripped-down to a central idea than just a dog’s breakfast of ideas.

The Verdict

I’ll have to update my ULTIMATE PEARL JAM ALBUM RANKING POST with this new album.

Gigaton is a decidedly middle-of-the-road rock album with a few mildly amusing gems and lots of duds. Attempts at experimentation are largely more humorous than successful. A few quite good rockers (“Who Ever Said”, “Quick Escape”) can’t elevate this release beyond the lower-middle of the pack. 

It’s a good thing that they’ve already sort of won me over, because this record isn’t going to net them any new fans, I don’t think. Mega-fans will probably like it fine.

For me, it’s not even that hilarious. Luckily, though, so many things are bad right now, a mediocre PJ record coming out actually feels pretty comforting!

I have missed these rock daddies and I still hope that live events happen again one day so that I can go laugh at them in person.

Reviewing 31 Versions of Silent Night

Typical studio Diva.

Our kiddo has started to get really into Christmas music. It is wonderful to hear her hilarious renditions of all of the classics and I hope so, so deeply that she will lose all interest at 11:59pm on December 25th. But for the time being, there are a lot of holiday tunes happening at our house.

Recently, she’s been all about “Silent Night”. She calls it “Silent at Night”. In fact, for her, the lyrics go “Silent at night, Holy at night”, which is actually a lot cooler than the real lyrics because it sounds like a tagline from a movie poster or something. We were putting on different versions of this song and it got me wondering. How many version of “Silent Night” are there, even?

Turns out there’s… uh… a lot. More than we need! More than anyone needs!

Given that this was always a favourite of mine growing up, and it really felt like the Christmas Eve song when we were going to Christmas Eve night mass, I thought that it would be nice to take today to do my best to find the greatest version of “Silent Night” that I could possibly find. On YouTube.

A quick search yielded way too many hits to cover, so I picked the first 31 of them that I thought might be worth taking a look at.

Happy Holidays!

Kelly Clarkson ft. Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire

Kelly Clarkson has a great and great-big voice and it is put to pretty good use here. The performance is a little showy, but I guess that’s the kind of the style of this kind of thing. Then Trisha Yearwood comes out and they start to kind of duet, and it doesn’t really work for me. Yearwood is fine, but we just heard Clarkson nail the exact same melody with way more balls, so… yeah. But then Reba McEntire comes out and watching her swagger her way through her verse is kind of fucking thrilling. Partially because it seems like she’s not going to hit the notes every time, but then she guides her voice to the notes using her head as a joystick somehow, and partially because Reba was in Tremors and that movie fucking owns.

The three of them do a final verse in full harmony and it is truthfully very solid work. The audience applauds them and I probably would have clapped too.

Version Verdict: A heavenly piece that you don’t want to sleep on.

Michael Bubbles

I want to tap out on this immediately. I can’t believe a word this guy is singing. His shtick is laid on so thick, all I can think about while listening how much it sounds like he’s trying to make everybody hear that he’s had singing lessons. Then a choir comes in and they only sound so-so. I think this track has both harp and bells in it, which is like… uh… pick a lane, Bubbles.

There are at least three key changes in this version, which… Okay, I guess if you’re trying to stretch out a song where every verse is basically the same and there’s no chorus, you’ve gotta do something, but… I’m not into it.

Version Verdict: Jesus lord, it’s the wooooOOOOOooorst. Jesus lord, it’s the worst.

Ramin Karimloo

Probably the only banjo and voice version of this song that I’ll cover, so points awarded here for original arrangement. This is also pretty clearly a live and relatively unvarnished performance, which I find refreshing. Both vocalists are a little off here and there and it actually works to the piece’s benefit overall.

The band is nice. I feel like you could see this at a small club or something and be reasonably happy about it. But then you’d be like “Oh wait, it’s Christmas Eve and I’m out at this Christmas Coffee House with these banjo people instead of at home wrapping gifts very badly at the last minute” and you’d try to leave and the music is so quiet and delicate that everybody hears you trying to leave and they all look at you with angry expressions and it ruins your whole Christmas. So… I don’t know, you’ve gotta take your chances with this one.

Version Verdict: Tender… AND mild.

Bing Crosby

Jesus Christ, this is a sleepy song. Why did I do this to myself?

I’m not sure that I can slag Der Bingle’s version of Silent Night. I’ll bet he nailed this in one take. While getting fitted for a suit.

It’s classic and it sounds classic. The arrangement is very nice. The background vocals are spectacular. The would be on the shortlist for my “Desert Island ‘Silent Night’s”, if there were such a thing.

Version Verdict: Radiant beams from Bing’s holy face.

Mariah Carey

Each one of these seems to be starting at a slower tempo than the last and I am fucking cursing myself right now.

Mariah Carey is amazing, so this should be good. She’s got a full choir and this choir doesn’t just sound like a bunch of lame kids. There’s also an organ player taking a fucking walk on the thing throughout, which is fun as hell. This version also goes refreshingly off-book in its back half, which is most appreciated by me at this point.

This one is the current winner for “most sway-inducing version”. It’s pretty great!

Version Verdict: Makes me sing “Hallelujah”.

Winchester Cathedral Choir

I… do not want to look at these kids for three minutes.

The thing I like about this one is that it’s the version that would get used in a movie over a montage of a bunch of gangsters getting revenge-killed over the holidays in slow motion for three minutes (ten in a Scorsese movie). It’s got that church creepiness going for it. Some of the harmonies going on here are downright terrifying.

I just keep thinking that these kids probably all think that they’re a pretty big deal right now, but the gravy train screeches to a halt when you grow some armpit hair and your voices start to crack, dudes.

Version Verdict: Shepherd’s… uh… I’m running out of lyric puns, guys.

Super Simple Songs

I’m not sure that this is a “super simple song”. There’s a lot to unpack here, especially if you don’t know the whole Jesus backstory. Also, this is the churchiest church song you can find and 100% of the animated activities here feature non-denominational non-religious pro-Santa activities. What are these people trying to pull?

The animation is hilarious and the song version is pretty boring and mediocre. This is probably just more evidence that kids shouldn’t be allowed to watch YouTube.

Version Verdict: No redeeming grace here.

Coffin Fuck

Strong contender for best version.

From the forward-thinking lyrical changes (“Silent night, gory night”) to the evocative art work, this is a winner. I also like that Coffin Fuck seem to be just competent enough to be the funniest death metal band I have ever heard. Honestly, this is just terrific.

Version Verdict: This one deserves its own grading scheme, so I’m actually disqualifying it altogether.

Andrea Bocelli

This video contains helpful lyrics, in case you were in need of those. Maybe I should have led off with it.

Bocelli has a remarkable voice, which is news to nobody. This version also has some really interesting piano work. You could do a lot worse than this. It’s… it’s no Coffin Fuck, but it’ll do.

Version Verdict: This has only one key change, so it is pretty good.

Tom Waits

Very satisfying to hear Tom Waits slur his way though this tune. And then he seamlessly blends it into a song about a letter-writing prostitutes. It feels pretty festive. Drunk folks playing the piano might feel the most like Christmas to some.

I enjoyed this, but it is barely a version of “Silent Night”.

Version Verdict: The crowd laughing at all of the gags makes this clip 10x better.

Guitar Zoom

This is a very nice, if fairly simple solo guitar version of “Silent Night”. This is probably the most educational video that we will cover. I will be honest, I’m not going to watch this whole thing. It is very long and I already play this song differently than this guy.

Wait, maybe this guy sucks.

Wait.. maybe I suck? This is worrisome.

Version Verdict: You could impress your friends and family with this, but not this year because there’s a pandemic and you shouldn’t see anybody. 0 stars.

Stevie Nicks

This sounds cynical, but this version delivers exactly what I was expecting. This is Stevie Nicks singing “Silent Night”. She really, really sounds like Stevie Nicks. Which makes sense, I guess.

They do a very off-book little change-up after each verse that doesn’t work for me at all. I think that I am reaching my threshold for listening to versions of “Silent Night” in a row and actually giving them a fair shake, because I’m just not digging this.

If you like any two of the following things, you may like it: Stevie Nicks, baby Jesus, very slow songs.

Version Verdict: Christ our savior, I’m boooooooored.

Teddy Swims

This excited me because it said “Claymation video”, but I see now that it is the same 15 second clip of claymation looped and I just wanna punch something.

I am not willing to give further thought to Teddy Swims.

Version Verdict: This video technically is a claymation video, but it still seems like a sneaky lie to me. This sucks.

The Petersens

Just a wholesome gang of Pertersens dressing up like they’re going to go to farmprom and belting out the classics. I wasn’t into this until it panned over to the Mom slappin’ away on the stand-up bass. Then I was all in. Get it, Mom!

Version Verdict: The best version of this song recorded in front of a fireplace that I have seen so far today.

David Archuleta and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

This one wins major points for the introduction, which sounds like something you might put on to get in the mood for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It’s pretty standard after that. The orchestral arrangement is pretty gorgeous, though. These fuckin’ Mormons can jam.

I don’t know who David Archuleta, but he has an adequate “pretty boy voice” to handle this rendition of “Silent Night”. They’re all laying it on pretty thick by the end, but let’s face it – it’s a super melodramatic story in the first place. Sure, kid. You were born in a barn. We get it.

The Dickies

This is more like it! The Dickies fart out a punk version of “Silent Night” that sounds delightfully snotty, just like a punk version of “Silent Night” should. Subverting the song’s title and making an awful racket instead might seem like an obvious joke, but it lands for me.

I may be a sucker, but this does it for me.

Thomas Gabriel

I selected this one because I wanted to see what a “raw and uncut” version of “Silent Night” would sound like. It’s really no more sloppy than any of the other versions. Gabriel’s voice is pretty rough and hasn’t been pitch corrected or anything, but that strikes me as his vibe. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Apparently this is Johnny Cash’s eldest grandchild? Makes sense. He seems really bummed out in this video. Again, that might just be his vibe.

I don’t hate this, but this might be the version of “Silent Night” I would put on after getting fired from my job just before Christmas and telling my family that things are going to be tight but we’ll make it through somehow.

All Good Things

Uhh… this isn’t “Silent Night”. This is some shlubs playing terrible four-chord buttrock in a barn-shaped garage with bad lighting. The singer looks like Chris D’Elia, so while I’m listening to this I’m just imagining the singer’s shocked face when he realizes that Snapchats can be saved.

This song is really bad and this band’s name is hysterically ironic. Boooooooo!

NEEDTOBREATHE

Beware of any band name that doesn’t have time for the spacebar. I was actually expecting this to be emo or pop punk, but it’s really more straightforward vocal pop. Instrumentation is pretty tame.

Actually a competent version of the tune, but at this point you don’t really need another okay version of “Silent Night”. You need either a great or a hilariously awful version. Pass.

Oh, there’s a harmonica solo. If that’s your thing.

Sinead O’Connor

Fifteen seconds in and this is already the best video that I’ve seen. These costumes rule.

I like the whispery version that she’s doing. This is the version that gets used in a horror movie trailer for sure. Just this version over silent shots of people screaming and aerial shots of the forest. Great stuff.

Creepiest version. Only accompaniment seems to be one bass synth pad. I love this one.

Silent Night Deadly Night 2 Best Lines

This isn’t actually the song at all, but it is by far the most entertaining video in this entire post. This guy is the greatest actor of all time. Ricky is the best.

Bon Jovi

Yes! This rocks.

It’s the wrong song. But all hail the Jov’! Honestly, I’m just sick of the real song, this might not actually be any good.

It sounds like they borrowed Paul McCartney’s “Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time” synth, which is somehow simultaneously a miracle and a crime against humanity. Double-necked guitars for us all! Merry Xmas!

Christopher Lee

Oh, this one is going to be hard to beat. You’ve got GODKING Christopher Lee crooning over a massively detuned double-time chunk-metal version of “Silent Night”? Everything about this just screams winner to me. The fact that it kind of sounds like they recorded the music AFTER the vocals makes it even funnier/more fun.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lee. You probably got a very good room in Heaven for recording this piece of glorious art.

LeBaron Family

Ahhh, no. Another family.

These people are dressed like regular people and there are kids yelling in the background, so I feel like the gang is more “normal” than that last family. As normal as a bunch of people who record themselves singing “Silent Night” can be, I guess.

The soloist isn’t amazing, but the harmonies when the whole gang comes in are pretty solid! And Dad can really shred the piano. Actually, ditch the lead singer (seriously, take away her mic) and this isn’t bad at all.

I would have a beer with this family. Not those uptight Petersens.

Puddles The Clown

…I don’t know what to say about this one. It’s confusing and vaguely terrifying, but Puddles can really wail. This might be as close we ever get to a Clown Core Xmas song, and I’ll take it.

This is a totally respectable version of “Silent Night” in its own right!

The Wiggles

Not only do you guy a version of “Silent Night” done by everyone’s favourite creepy dead-eyed Australian Children’s performers, it’s also a version in German. Also the video keeps cutting to some kids posing as The Wiggles.

This is like a video that they show people trapped in a reprogramming facility every morning.

Chilling.

Boyz II Men

What am I going to do? Make fun of Boyz II Men? Fat chance.

This is impeccable.

Jim Reeves

This somehow really sounds like going to Christmas dinner at one’s grandparents’ house. There’s something very comforting about it. It definitely sounds like something that was made in a simpler time when people just repressed and ignored all of mankind’s ills.

This makes me wanna sit on a red shag carpet in front of a fireplace, waiting for my turn to open a present that turns out to be socks.

I’m very tired of this song.

Manowar

More like Man-o-BORE. This only turns metal-ish at the very last minute and it isn’t very heavy. The vocalist is kind of a low-rent Bruce Dickinson. Iron Maiden would have done a better job with this for sure.

Yawn, dudes.

Erlosung

This is billed as “Black Metal Silent Night” and it delivers on what it sells itself to be. The imagery leads me to believe that this is just a couple of skinny young guys hanging out in the forest wearing t-shirts and corpse paint and swinging an axe around. Very entertaining material and very much in the spirit of the season, as perhaps they are trying to find a Christmas tree.

Bad Religion

This live bootleg recording of Bad Religion covering “Silent Night” seems like as good a place to call it a day as any. The band sounds loose and sloppy and this recording is a lot of fun. The group is clearly having fun, throwing in a little “My Sharona” interlude to mix things up.

This makes me really miss live music, guys. Maybe next Christmas we can all get together and play sloppy covers of all of our favourite Christmas songs.

…Not “Silent Night”, though. I’m good on “Silent Night” for awhile.

Happy Holidays, you filthy animals!

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Dadness: PEPPA PIG

There are many excuses I could give for not having updated this blog in over a year, but the most reasonable excuse of all is the fact that I now have a kid and I am happily getting whatever remains of my lifeforce sucked out of me little by little, day by day. Please feel free to send your congratulations, sympathies, or money orders to mark.meeks@gmail.com.

My daughter is now two years old and she is a marvel of a human being. She’s the reason we get up every morning and she’s the reason we can’t wait until it’s time to go to bed every night. I know that you’re not supposed to show your kid television these days, but also: shut up, you sanctimonious pile of shit and go parent your own fucking kids.

My daughter adores Peppa Pig. She has Peppa Pig books and Peppa Pig toys. Peppa Pig sticker albums and Peppa Pig clothes. She can call out even the show’s most inconsequential characters by name. She is maybe starting to speak some with a British accent because of this show. I hated this show when it started to appear in our home. I have since come to love it.

This is Peppa Pig. She is the lead player in this program, and is an anti-hero in the vein of a Don Draper or Tony Soprano. She is a self-obsessed megalomaniac who is always on the lookout for the easiest way to win at anything. She (like everyone on the show) has an unyielding urge to jump up and down in every muddy puddle that presents itself. She never stops talking and she is probably the worst thing about her own show.

Peppa has a little brother named George. George can only say the word “Dinosaur”. He also cries a lot, but this is actually good and realistic writing. I have a two-year old and they really do cry a lot. George and Peppa go on adventures where they learn important lessons like how their Dad is too out of shape to exercise and how you can teach a parrot to say nasty things to your grandparents.

George and Peppa’s parents are only known as Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig. Here they are in sexy beach clothes. Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig are fairly realistic approximations of human, non-pig parents, because Mummy Pig is a generally very competent parent and Daddy Pig thinks he knows everything but is always falling down and trying to find ways to be lazy. Daddy Pig is a sucker.

Peppa and her family live in a town full of other families of animals, but it seems as though every other animal family is actually a different species of animal from every other family. The Mum and the Dad and the kids are always the same species within each family, though. I don’t know what kind of a statement the show is trying to make with this. There are cases where there are other families of pigs, but they are either out of town relatives or they are, like, the Grandma and Grandpa pig. Daddy Pig does not have parents (or they are dead?) but he does have a brother. I do not know where these animal people are finding partners, and I find the whole thing to be extremely problematic and distressing. I have argued about this at length with my wife, who is sure that there are just other animal people in town that we’re not privy to seeing. I dunno! Seems far fetched!

This show makes some (intentional?) statements about class divisions through its running joke that one poor rabbit lady basically has like fifty jobs. I don’t know what’s funny about that. Everybody else has a big and nice house and seems to just be able to get by with one job. Ms Rabbit works at like twenty different stores, flies a helicopter, is a nurse, and also a flight attendant. Give this poor woman a break. Everyone else in this town should be ashamed of themselves.

At one point there’s an episode where you realize that there’s more than one rabbit lady, and you think “Oh, well at least all of those jobs must be split between two rabbit ladies”. Then you find out that they’re sisters and one of them is a stay-at-home Mum, The underclass Ms Rabbit has to deliver her sister’s baby, probably for minimum wage or something.

I realize now that I could write a lot about Peppa Pig, which has me feeling that my brain has been very addled by parenting, or maybe that it’s a great show. I could talk about how all of the animal people have a speech tick where they make their respective animal sounds before speaking and while they do so, their eyes go kind of slack and lifeless, like the actual animal inside of them is staging a tiny rebellion against the walking-upright and human-acting manner in which they’re forced to live out their lives… but I will save that for another day.

In conclusion, Peppa Pig is a very nice and occasionally very funny show for kids and parents to enjoy. I am only a feeling a little bit (entirely) sick of the five seasons that live on Netflix that I have seen no less than twenty times each.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

I must mention, though… The series finale where they reveal that all of Peppa’s adventures were actually just synapses firing for the last time in the dying brain of a mortally wounded Tim Robbins was a bold narrative choice, but may have missed the mark in terms of age-appropriate storytelling.

Just my opinion.

Enjoying Your Life by Being the Recipient of a Beer Advent Calendar: Parts 1 – 3

When I was a kid, there were few things that felt as exciting as getting up each December morning and popping a waxy piece of low-grade chocolate out of a numbered compartment on an advent calendar. It was a more effective way of building holiday anticipation and anxiety than any ol’ tree or song or elaborate Catholic school candle-lighting ceremony could ever hope to be. Junk candy. In the morning. Every day. So exciting!

From my late teens to my late thirties, I had a roughly twenty year stretch of feeling fairly ambivalent about the holidays. It became a time to visit family. It became a time to drink a lot of beer with family. Something to look forward to, sure. Something that inspired wonder and glee? Certainly not.

Things are turning around, though. Having a young kid around the house and watching them experience the holidays for the first time goes a long way in rekindling some vicarious excitement that we may have forgotten how to access on our own. Holidays are all becoming fun again, and not just because I’m having one or two extra “fun drinks”. It is great.

This year, in a gesture of true holiday kindness and glorious synergy, my wife presented me with a gift that combined the childhood excitement of an advent calendar with the joys of low-grade adult alcohol dependency: A Beer Advent Calendar!

Every morning until Christmas, I get to pop a beer out of this thing. I’ll put it in the fridge and drink it in the evening. Each beer is a mystery and each mystery bring me one step closer to the true meaning of the season, which I’m sure I will figure out and inform you of when I get to the 24th beer.

For now, I’m going to document my haul in a series of posts and say a few words about each festive beer I consume. Here we go!

December 1: Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale

When I popped a can of Keith’s out of the #1 compartment, I felt slightly underwhelmed. But upon thinking about it, Keith’s is a pretty comforting opening selection. This is a beer that I know very well and have gotten to know even better since moving to North Bay, Ontario. It is my Father-in-Law’s go-to beer and although I used to be a little dismissive of it, I quite like it now. It’s super drinkable and refreshing, and is probably the best out of the group of Canadian beers that you can find on tap basically anywhere.

I don’t know what qualifies this beer as an IPA, though. What’s the deal? What does Wikipedia say?

Archived recipes for beer made by the Alexander Keith’s Brewery in the early 1900s show high levels of hopping, with large all-maltmash ingredients and no use of corn, typical for beers of that time.[4] In contrast, the modern beer marketed as Alexander Keith’s IPA is only 5% alcohol by volume and lightly hopped, which does not meet the accepted criteria for an India pale ale.[5] At the 2016 Canadian Brewing Awards, Alexander Keith’s IPA won third place, not in the IPA category, but in the “North American Style Blonde or Golden Ale” category.

Well, there you have it. Anyway, I drank it and it was good.

Jollymeter score: 6/10

December 2: Wasaga Beach Brewing Company – Beach One Cerveza

A can of summer vibes on a day that was snowy as fuck. I’m not going to lie and say that I was mad about it.

Compartment #2 held this Mexican-style lager from Wasaga Beach. Very light and easy-drinking, this beer does a reasonably good job of mimicking the beach-ready beers made by Modelo or Dos Equis. While drinking it, I commented that the beer might feel more at home in a bottle w/ a lime wedge. Very refreshing choice. I drank this and I enjoyed it.

Jollymeter score: 7/10

December 3: Bud Light

Lol. Okay.

This was a Bud Light.

Jollymeter score: 4/10

Parting Thoughts

Well, so far so beer. I’m truly enjoying this beer journey. Even the Bud Light was like, a free beer. So… it was great. If the remaining 21 days are all also Bud Light, maybe my tune will change. So far, though, Beer Advent calendar is a 10/10 on the PARUMPAFUNFUN scale!

Check back soon for another update!

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.


 

Reevaluating NINE INCH NAILS: Part 8 – The Slip

r-1327658-1209973759-jpeg

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.

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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.

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