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FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Robin Thicke and Backstreet Boys find their calling

It’s been a few weeks, so the dust has had time to settle on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s latest albums. For the sake of reviewing, I did not want to touch them because EVERYONE has to analyze and dissect these things for the real underlying message and what it means for us as a generation. That is, we the sophisticated music listeners.

It’s pretentious for someone to think they can listen to Yeezus and come away with a well-formulated analysis of society. We cannot relate to this music. Anyone who “get’s it” is lying. Here’s a random lyric: “Okay, I smashed your Corolla, I’m hanging on a hangover. Five years we been over, ask me why I came over. One more hit and I can own ya, one more **** and I can own ya.” It’s like a deleted scene from Project X. Even though some of his earlier work had this sort of late-night masquerade material, it was real. He had fought through incredible odds and was able to achieve his ultimate dream and share it with the common man in his first three albums. Then he poured his personal emotional struggles into 808s and Heartbreak, while My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was more on the artsy side. Now we’re far past that. He is so far beyond the normal lifestyle that he can’t possibly reach us from his galactic pedestal. Aesthetically, Yeezus is superb. But, like Kanye’s persona, the album’s glossy and appealing exterior can only do so much to cover up a hollow interior. And his ego, which I find rather charming, won’t allow him to see this. There is but one other man who can relate…

Magna Carta…Holy Grail is easier to ingest. If you put “JAY Z BLUE” aside, there are two themes to the album: ‘Fame is hard’ and ‘I am famous.’ I like Jay-Z, at least I think I do, but I don’t see his need to make music right now. Judging by the Samsung marketing, this album was merely proving a point that he is better at life than you: “I can have a platinum album by GIVING it away, you bums! AND I’ll still have enough money to sign Clark Kent to play for the Nets!” It’s sickening. I still haven’t deleted that app from my phone yet, so there might be an air strike heading my way before I can hit “Send.” But in the aforementioned “JAY Z BLUE,” there’s a real heart of a man trying to be a better father than his own. Great moment. Also, note that every rapper has a daughter and a corresponding song dedicated to her. Seriously, everyone I could think of does.

I realize that those are quasi-reviews,  but here are the real ones:

Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines

It has come to my attention that until recently, Robin Thicke has not been very popular with music listeners. Ever since his A Beautiful World debuted in 2003, he’s only seen a significant uptick in popularity in his seductive “Lost Without U.” Other than that, it’s been five albums of relative silence, but I only thought that was because of the content. He cranks out some of the best modern bedroom albums out there, which isn’t a big sell for the radio. Still, I thought people were paying attention while being too ashamed to talk about it. Then this “Blurred Lines” nonsense came out and he’s back to relevance with his sixth album by the same name. It’s genius, really. Instead of the usual slow jam, Thicke took the Timberlake/Usher route and started cranking out more upbeat hits while keeping the provocative material. Justin Timberlake went a different direction with his The 20/20 Experience, so Blurred Lines is here to take it’s place with some endearing funky-smooth beats. No bedtime songs for you.

“Take it Easy on Me” sounds like it came off of FutureSex/LoveSounds, right down to Timbaland’s signature interruptions. “Get in My Way” is a throwback boogie-jam, but I’m not sure if that or “Give It to U” is the next over-played single. Regardless, we were in a mega-hit dry spell, now we have our artist of the moment. Let’s just see how long it’ll last.

Backstreet Boys - In a World Like This

In case you haven’t been keeping up, here’s a quick run-down of what BSB has been up to the past few years:

  • 2006 – Kevin leaves the band; the Boys soldier on.
  • 2007 – Release album six, Unbreakable. (One of their best albums though not widely recognized as such.)
  • 2009 – Release album seven, This is Us. (This is not them. Tried to fit into the Lady Gaga/Justin Bieber pop landscape with super-bubbly hits, which is not how BSB does business.)
  • 2011 – Leave Jive Records. (Later created an independent label called K-BAHN – an anagram of the first letters of each member’s name.)
  • 2012 – Kevin returns, legacy restored.

With full creative control on In a World Like This, this eighth studio album is what makes the Backstreet Boys the greatest boy band that will ever walk this earth. I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t think their status atop the pop Pantheon can even be questioned at this point, no disrespect to NKOTB. They have the longevity, the talent and the integrity of a dynasty. But incidentally, I can’t imagine these songs popping up all over the radio like the BSB of yesteryear. This isn’t a record for adolescents. Much like Hanson’s new album, the mature quality of In a World Like This might be to it’s detriment, at least commercially. You get this vision in your head that a boy band is supposed to appeal to young girls with their catchy, guilt-ridden songs you can’t seem to escape. And because of who they were, it’s hard to embrace who they are, even when they have tolerable hits for a more or less universal audience. Their updated “Similar Artist” page should include Lifehouse and maybe The Calling, not so much N*Sync and 98 Degrees.

I hate it when the title track/lead single is the best song on the album, but that’s the case here. “In a World Like This” has a youthful edge while retaining BSB’s adult-alternative sophistication. So is this any kind of groundbreaking display of musicianship? Not at all. Only “Permanent Stain” and “Make Believe” stood out on first listen and the rest faded into background noise. But it was pleasant, which is more than I can say about a One Direction album. That’s how it should be for the Backstreet Boys in 2013: wholesome and sincere. They had their time to release hit after hit and do extensive touring, but being 40-years-old ruins those ambitions. The members probably prefer it this way because they have families, kids, and reasons to come home.

Reasons to sing.

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The Lonely Island keep it “Wack,” while Jimmy Eat World strips down

We are in a golden age lucky streak of music right now.

No addicting singles by a inadequate artists being jammed down our esophagus. “Radioactive” is finally becoming inactive. Pink is only played 13,256 times per day, down from the usual 24,890. We can breathe. Our precious air supply is, for the moment, untainted.

But something is coming. It always does, and it’s terrifying. The next time you hear a song with an “Ooohh,” “Lalalala” or any other wordless chant you can memorize after one listen, run. These are the demon seeds that take root into our society and grow to ostentatious heights. I guarantee that the next radio addiction will prominently feature this. [Editor's note -- unless it's by Adam Duritz ... then bring on the "Lalalala's"]

The catchy, mindless little sounds create havoc on our ears and we don’t even need to pay attention before we are singing along to Lady Gaga, whether we like it or not: “Ro ma, ro ma ma, ga ga, ooh lala, WHATCHUPA ROMANCE.” Maroon 5 has mastered this technique with the whistles in “Moves Like Jagger,” the “ooh-ooh” sequence in “One More Night” and countless other songs. The Biebs does it, as does Taylor Swift (Oooh-woo-ooh-ooh-ooh/We-eeeee). I’m sure the pop industry hooked onto this formula years ago and now cranks those hooks out like worthless iPhone apps. The list goes on, but put on a top-40 station and you’ll take notice.

I can’t find research to back up these findings, but how else do you explain Nickelback’s rise to power? I once saw an interview with Chad Kroeger where he talked about the reason “How You Remind Me” was so popular. It was the “Yeah, yeah” part. It’s so simple, but they found out how to stick in our ears in an effective way. “When We Stand Together” might be their catchiest song and the chorus is perforated with “yeah”s. It’s no coincidence. Say what you want about that band, but they rode a wave of success off that nugget of information, as have many others. It’s clever marketing.

And there’s nothing really wrong with it. There’s nothing wrong with us liking it, either, because sometimes music is a release, not a cryptic message. If we don’t know the words to the song on every station, at least we can get the easy part. Still, it’s sort of degrading harmonizing to Selena Gomez on the drive home. But the main problem is that as long as you live like a normal human being, there’s no way to avoid them. And another one’s coming.


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The Lonely Island  – The Wack Album

Analyzing music can get immensely draining, mostly because there’s a lot of garbage to sift through. Also, the music industry can be downright evil (see above).

Before you dismiss The Lonely Island as the musical equivalent to the spitball-firing class clown, remember that we all have our role to play. Andy Samburg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s faux-rap trio has yet to take itself seriously, even on this, their third album. That’s important. The Lonely Island may represent musical satire, but the content tells you the exact state we are in as a society. It’s smart enough to know how to make fun of common trends and self-aware enough to present it with charm. This includes the mindless way we dance to absurd songs, the ridiculousness of the “YOLO” meme and strutting as a not-so-tough rapper. Oh, and there are songs about hugs, the semicolon and compliments, because of course.

And they actually make pretty good music, which gets lost in the buffoonery. But for TLI, it’s not all about comedians making jokes through song. It’s what their musical purity brings out in their guests by representing caricatures of themselves.

As with the previous two albums, The Wack Album is an A-list bonanza. Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell and Too $hort have some ironically comical rapping cameos, which is a standard Lonely Island shtick. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong shines in “I Run NY” and it’s unlike anything he has ever released. Best hook on the album. Sick beats and punk rock seem to pair well with each other. And coming off of his Le Miserables success, Hugh Jackman wails as this album’s Michael Bolton. Only TLI could take a classy, dignified Oscar-winner and feature him singing about breasts in “You’ve Got the Look.” Kristen Wiig also kind of sings in that track, surprise. Solange gets some exposure in “Semicolon,” and we already know the chemistry Justin Timberlake has with these guys.

I’d imagine each guest star welcomes the opportunity to be on these tracks because there are no rules holding them down. I have so much respect for all of the artists listed above. Being an entertainer is a serious business and there needs to be a liaison to show us that not everyone is a bland square. There are plenty of victims at the expense of dirty jokes, but if Diddy can handle it, so can we.

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Jimmy Eat World – Damage

One day while creating an iPod playlist, I had to do a double-take in the Jimmy Eat World section. I’ve never thought of the band as a favorite; it’s merely an acquaintance with which I don’t have a problem, but I don’t . But there were a shocking number of 5-star rated songs on there. Like, way more than most bands I LOVE. So I began to give them more of a listen and became a supporter, if only out of my own guilty neglect.

I was ready for Damage to release. So I listened to it. Then I had to check to see if this was a B-side collection or something. This is so typical. Whenever you start liking something years after it has been around, the new stuff is a letdown. And now I’m blinded by my own tastes and disappointment to give this the positive review it probably deserves. Here’s why: That collection of 5-Star songs included singles like “Pain,” “My Best Theory,” “A Praise Chorus,” along with some lesser-known tracks. But it all had ENERGY. I could crank a homerun at Yankee Stadium from the adrenaline pumping through those songs.

Damage is not that. It’s a love/breakup album from the same bracket as a Dashboard Confessional or Yellowcard. And for the most part, this album is heavy on the acoustic sound, which goes back to their earlier work. It’s like they took their big sound they built up over the years and stripped it down for a more intimate feel. But it was the best way to convey these emotions and that counts for everything. The final two tracks, “Byebyelove” and “You Were Good,” got to me, capping a bit of a gloomy ride. To someone who isn’t in that state of mind, this album and I just didn’t sync up. But it wouldn’t be fair to them or you to say that this was a “bad” album. If you are going through some kind of heartache, Damage could make for decent pain relief this summer. 

“I Will Steal You Back” is the lead single and probably the best song here. And for energy, “How’d You Have Me” has the biggest serving. There are beneficial takeaways from a rather somber album, but I wasn’t ready and I had a bad experience. I hope that you find them just as I hope that this album finds those who need it.

30 Seconds to Mars leaving Earth, plus Great Gatsby on the go

If you music lovers aren’t on Last.fm, GO THERE. It’s a music social networking site, and too many people aren’t using it. Discover, share and socialize about music and you can even scrobble what you listen to on any music device. It’s the best digital community out there.

That’s my pitch, now here are the reviews.

The Great Gatsby Soundtrack

This review was supposed to come after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s film, packaged  in some profound synthesis of Jay Gatsby as the archetype of American wealth and despair. I just have no desire to see this movie, even before the reviews. Weeks later, it’s just not going to happen. Thanks to this soundtrack, though, I don’t think I have to. It’s got Leo’s and Tobey’s best quotes conveniently laced between something resembling the playlist to a Louis Vuitton gala in Paris. Just like in the trailers!

There are mostly two types of songs here: dollar-chain $WAG and divas aiming straight for the chest cavity. There were chills during the following:

  •  Jay-Z, “100$ Bill” – Sentimental Leo DiCaprio monologue transitions into Jay-Z coming in SMOKIN’.
  • Beyonce & Andre 3000, “Back to Black” – Bey’s sultry voice does the vocal equivalent of entering a stage in mystical smoke and spotlight.
  • Lana Del Rey, “Young and Beautiful” – Still mopping up the tears.
  • Emeli Sande, “Crazy in Love” – Wait, Beyonce is on this album and you have another singer doing a Vaudeville rendition of her classic hit?
  • Florence and the Maching , “Over the Love” – That green light. Such agony: “And I sing from the piano, tear my yellow dress, and cry and cry and cry over the love of you.”
  • Nero, “Into the Past” – There’s a visceral soundscape here without the need for much singing.

The xx, Gotye, Jack White and Coco O. all had solid contributions as well, so this is a recommended listen. The beginning starts off with some of the more party-driven anthems (Wil.i.am is a cyborg), but a good three-fourths of the album is heavy on the tragedy aspect of this story.

You never know what you’re going to get with soundtracks. It could be a greatest hits list of overplayed 80s songs or something with theme-oriented originals as we have here. This is one of the best soundtracks you’ll hear this year, fundamentally planted in the story it represents while placing some of  Jay Gatsby’s definitive quotes around for easy consumption. It’s shorter, too.

30 Seconds to Mars – Love Lust Faith + Dreams

To understand this album and the essence of 30 Seconds to Mars, remember that the band has the world record for the longest concert tour. And this album’s first single, “Up In the Air,” debuted from SPACE. This band would be considered totally “epic” if that word hadn’t eroded into a punishable offense.

Because of these outlandish gimmicks, expansive music videos and putting their fans’ chants on its albums, 30STM might be the best fan-band out there. They exist solely for them, not for the record label and certainly not for the waves of haters. Shockingly, I’ve met maybe one member of this “Echelon,” the rabid fan-base for Jared Leto groupies. Those people scare me, but they’re EVERYWHERE. Every city of every country of every continent. This is why they played 300 concerts in 600 days. Oh, and the average age of the three band members is 39 years. That’s astounding.

If you referred to 30 Seconds to Mars as something other than a band, such as the living embodiment of neon splatter painting, I wouldn’t argue. Surely Jared and the boys want to mean something beyond the music. To some, it’s art. To the Echelon, I’m sure it’s truth. Love Lust Faith + Dreams is pure energy. Those little polka dots on the album cover are misleading because this thing will cause seizures if you aren’t prepared.

“Birth” kicks the album off calmly enough, but that string section let’s you know that a storm’s a-brewin’.  “Conquistador,” “Up In the Air,” and “The Race” are ripe for any galactic workout playlist. Most of the other songs seem more grounded for the romantics out there because that’s the audience. You’ll notice a little voice orating the current section of the album you are on, which, surprise, are Love Lust Faith + Dreams (the album booklet has a cool little chart about this). These overarching themes explain why your girlfriend will love “City of Angels” and “Bright Lights.”

The album turns a bit dark on “End of All Days” and “Northern Lights,” in a dystopian This is War style, but they stuck with me above the rest because of their novelty (Confession: I LOVED This is War, which is why I can’t call this their best album. Most complete? Yes). Also, wasn’t the end of “Pyres of Varanasi” in the Iron Man 3 trailer?

I’ve discussed this album with peers and some say it’s too energetic. It’s rave-pace and some people prefer to operate at a civilized wine-and-cheese speed. That’s OK. But we’re dealing with a band whose past few years have been nothing but strobe lights, ballistic crowds and absolutely crushing it on stage. The new album isn’t going to be about silence and being alone. Musicians write what they know and 30 Seconds to Mars has been adored by its own lifeline. The long tours, these Echelon summits and releasing singles in space aren’t meant to be extreme just for show. They’ve just raised the bar too high for Earth’s atmosphere.

(Re)Defining Paramore, Fall Out Boy reunites for the sake of Rock and Roll

Two bands, opposite directions.

Paramore – Paramore

In a publicized dispute December 2010, Josh and Zac Farro left Paramore and didn’t go quietly. From their viewpoint, the entity that is “Paramore” is a crooked mess. Summing up Josh’s post, it’s Hayley Williams – and those guiding her – using the band as a mere vessel for her own solo project. Which is odd, because I’d argue that the band has been to her detriment, at least musically.

With a handful of exceptions, Paramore suffers from “Lady Gaga syndrome”: addictive choruses (“YOU TREAT ME JUST LIKE…”) and dull verses that make dryer lint seem thrilling. This is because Williams, who has a shimmering set of pipes, and the band’s style of music doesn’t always fit. Remember “Airplanes”? That’s some good stuff. She needs to be more of a singer, not a rocker, so that our eardrums have time to recover from that incessant piercing. Despite the band showing some growth on each album, the same conundrums persist: Is Paramore a synthetic product of the industry who’s sole purpose is to promote Hayley? And, how can Hayley’s voice exist in the confines of a “rock” band?

We have one answer. The self-titled Paramore was named as such because the band felt born-anew after the recording process and this is their “reintroduction.” Yeah right. We all know that this is the ultimate slap in the face to the Farro brothers. This is the first album without them, and they were the ones who founded the band in the first place. You may call it a coincidence, I call it irony. But even with all this squabbling, we don’t really know the truth. All we know is Hayley took some time to herself in LA and got a new producer for this album. But it’s not like you care about that anyway. Music is music. As long as a record gets put out, why bother with the semantics of its creation? So, as painful as it might be to hear, this is Paramore’s best album.

Paramore speaks to angsty young-adults coming of age in a tumultuous world (there’s a song called “Grow Up” and an interlude titled “I’m Not Angry Anymore”). They are on every Twilight soundtrack for a reason. But there are 17 tracks here that add up to more than an hour of ambitious songwriting, so we’ll focus on the new Paramore rather than the handful of throwbacks.

When the first interlude came on, I about lost my mind. THIS is what Hayley Williams should be doing all the time. Strip the instruments around her to bare essentials and let her voice carry those songs to the moon. Use Ingrid Michaelson as a template for how heavenly that could sound. Luckily, we get more than that little sample in the three short-but-sweet interludes.

“Ain’t it Fun.” Listen to it, seriously. It’s not a “Paramore” sound by any means, but that song exemplifies how far they can deviate from the cookie-cutter sound of their past. I can’t imagine how much Chaka Khan listening it took to inspire this. Oh, that gospel chorus. “Part II” bridges this new sound and the former sound: catchy chorus and enthralling verses, keeping the skip button at bay. The ballads smell a lot less cheesy this time around, too. “Last Hope” and “Hate to See Your Heart Break” show an emotional maturity anyone can tolerate.

And that is sort of how this album breaks down. Chances are, unless you are a true Paramore fan, you won’t like the entire album but there will be something playlist-worthy for your music taste. Evolving bands can alienate fans in the process, but this one seems to do more of the opposite. Hayley Williams can thrive in this band when they step out of that punk-rock quagmire and when the need for screaming is at a minimum. Even so, whether the industry is pulling the strings or not, this album retains what Paramore has always been about: Hayley.

Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll

Pete Wentz said that he and Patrick Stump started writing songs just for the heck of it and one of them gave him chills. That just about says it all. They reunited the band and started recording this album in secret. No song in recent memory has made me want to run head-first into a brick wall more than Fall Out Boy’s comeback single, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.” But there is a whole album to account for now. Please, please, don’t be a one-track wonder. When the group disbanded in 2009, who mourned? By that time, Fall Out Boy had eroded into an odd semi-hit pop-rock concoction. And though their music evolved, it was kind of bleh. I listened to Folie à Deux in preparation for this album, thinking my ear-buds had changed and there would be a hint of what was to come. Wrong on both accounts.

The Save Rock and Roll claim is a bit of a stretch, but this record may have saved the band. That “secret” album Stump and the boys created is full of SICK BEATZ and arena-caliber explosives. Big Sean, Courtney Love, Foxes and, yes, Elton John all make appearances but they are merely afterthoughts. From the get-go, “The Phoenix” reintroduces the band by knocking you flat on your rear. “Just One Yesterday” and “Death Valley” all have that “MSKWYDITD” ferocity, which is perfect. The album can’t be all crazy, but you can’t leave us hanging after that first single either. Old school fans can find vintage FOB in “Young Volcanoes,” an anthem for the adolescents, just like the good ol’ days.

The hiatus and side projects have seemed to do wonders, but perhaps the best change for Fall Out Boy was creating an album solely on its own accord. They had fun making this album and it shows. We might not have missed them when they left the first time, but it’s feels good that they’re back.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: One Republic goes Native, plus the Strokes and New Kids on the Block

This week we’ve got new music to talk about, but first I need to get something off my chest. I attended my brother’s local rock music awards show last weekend and, through all the performances and drunken acceptance speeches, goodness gracious, the profanity.

Though I don’t frequently resort to cussing, I have a high tolerance for it. But this was outrageous. These young adults would interrupt their own set to give a soliloquy about how “effing cool” it was to play in front of us and how they couldn’t “effing hear us effers” when met with a smattering of applause. They forced it so much that when you broke down the parts of speech, it turned out to be a useless glob of babble.

It was awful. Subjects and predicates of the same sentence were some conjugation of “eff.” My family members were offended, and you should hear them watching KU basketball games.

To put it simply, something about being on “the stage” makes people strive to be cooler than they need to be.

My advice: “Do your show.”

You can work the crowd and use any word you want to, but let it flow like a normal human being. The mic isn’t a magic wand that takes your flurry of f-bombs and turns them into something daring or groundbreaking. [Editor's Note: "Unless you're the reincarnation of Lenny Bruce. Then work blue all you want."] As I was sober that night, perhaps I wasn’t the target audience. But I’m a civilized human being who enjoys good, clean fun. Treat me like one.

Back to business, though … here are your reviews, presented in full without the Parental Advisory sticker.

OneRepublic – Native

Despite being a mainstream pop band, One Republic remains vastly underrated despite the fact that lyrically gifted frontman Ryan Tedder has had his hand in the creation of so many gold-plated pop hits — everything from Beyonce to Backstreet Boys and Adele — it’s astounding. And within the confines of the soulfully beat-driven OneRepublic, we have a band who actually plays and writes their own music in such a way that listening seems guiltless no matter your musical preference.

Native, the band’s third album, is their most complete and definitive to date. Today’s pop music industry is saturated with the same equipment and same writers recording for the same dozens of artists, so it’s truly a spectacle to come out of it as “original.”

The first single, “Feel Again,” is infectious while retaining that “Good Life” vibe (Another track, “Burning Bridges,” though a mellower song, has the exact same beat as “Good Life”). There’s a Jason Mraz-like feel on Native, buzzing with about positive vibes (“Preacher”, “Something I Need”) and the affirmation anthem, “I Lived.” I want to post so many amazing one-liners, but the delivery wouldn’t do them justice. Let’s just make it clear; Their songs are more vibrant than ever, turning OneRepublic from an occasional hit into a feel-good band whose albums play like a greatest hits record from start to finish.

You can’t go wrong there.

The Strokes – Comedown Machine

Angles came out in 2011 and I still wasn’t ready for a new Strokes album. But it worked out because halfway through Comedown Machine, I had forgotten to whom I was listening. If you are a Strokes fan, you may still be trying to decipher what this is exactly. It’s not necessarily a “fun” album, which is kind of how this band has thrived over the years. It’s more outlandish and definitely experimental. A little too much of Julian Casablancas’ solo influence, maybe?

Nonetheless, let’s tackle Comedown Machine without any preconceived notions about what this band should sound like and determine it’s true musical merit. The album starts off with “Tap Out,” which is a groovy tune to dance to if you don’t like expending a ton of energy. Next is “All the Time,” which is as close to vintage Strokes we get. Let’s get back to that lack of energy. The rest of the album has some appealing pop beats but it’s like each song is masked in a sepia filter, void of true color. It’s really odd. Tracks such as “Welcome to Japan” and “Happy Ending” have the hook to deliver a serious butt-kicking, except you’re met with an inflated Socker Bopper to the face. The true value of this album comes in the droney riff-tracks, where the Strokes’ vast instrumental spectrum is explored in full. “Chances” is a winner.

Some people would prefer a pillow fight over a boxing match, and that’s perfectly OK. But this is a deviation from the Strokes’ usual throwback rock-and-roll style, so temper expectations accordingly. There’s an experience to be had here, but it’s going to be with headphones, not Phil Spector’s wall of speakers.

New Kids on the Block – 10

Imagine my bewilderment when I first saw this. It’s like a live-action Evil Dead, and be warned that Nick Lachey and the boys might be coming to your backyard, too. No disrespect, but the Backstreet Boys are the boy band supreme (with another album on the way!) and Justin Timberlake is doing his thing. I don’t even consider those One Direction tweeners part of the discussion.

My calendar says it’s 2013 and Joey McIntyre is 40 years old. But if you even think about calling NKOTB an “man band,” not so fast. This is a boy band in every sense of the term and even though they’ve been around for DECADES, they have transitioned seamlessly into today’s top-40 scene. If you enjoy streamlining pure pop music into your veins like myself, this album is pretty good stuff.

Hearing that “Remix (I Like The)” song for the first time felt like a caffeine rush. So exhilarating. Tragically, Donnie Wahlberg only waved his pen around during “Miss You More.” Listen long enough and you’ll get that sultry emo-rap. Luckily, Joey has a couple writing credits. ALWAYS look for a McIntyre credit. Those are usually gold. In this case, it’s album’s ultimate ballad “Back to Life,” and I expected nothing less. He helped write “Now or Never,” too? Not as good, but solid.

Bands like this should never die. With all the garbage we have to endure by a premeditated “next-best-thing,” it’s nice to have  the presence of something that was the next-best-thing. NKOTB is lightyears away from the “Hangin’ Tough” boys from yesteryear (because, hey, the industry has different needs). I pray this reemergence puts an end to the tween poppers, but it might give rise to even more phonies. Hopefully, New “Kids” on the Block will continue to slay them.

20/20 Hindsight regarding Timberlake’s album, plus new Bon Jovi should please his fans

Before we start, what do people think of the updated Spotify? Why does it suggest bands to follow (all country artists, no less) and why to I have to follow people to see what they listen to? I’m already following the likes of Justin Bieber and Tenacious D against my will. And the lags. Outrage.

At least there’s still the music. This week I take on new albums from Justin Timberlake and Bon Jovi. Should you buy either? Let’s discuss.

Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience

The important thing here, if you can, is to temper expectations. No matter what you envisioned in Timberlake’s third trek, just know that this album probably won’t fit that paradigm. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

We aren’t dealing with a Futuresex/Lovesounds or an NSync reprise here. This is a stylish re-branding of pop music that is unlike anything on the radio. That might not sit well at first with some listeners. Then consider the 10 tracks comprising the album’s hour and 10 minutes. That’s seven minutes per song in an age where 3-minute downloads are packaged for individual purchase.

With so much emphasis on so few tracks, these are more than just simple songs and each one deserves some exploration. Spoilers ahead.

“Pusher Love Girl” – Silky smooth crooning meets some trippy “I’m just a j-j-j-junkie for your love.” Note that starting an album with an eight minute track is usually taboo.

“Suit and Tie” – I can see why people don’t like this song. It has been polished profusely because it represents a lifestyle reserved for Illuminati meetings and NBA postgame press conferences.

“Don’t Hold the Wall” – Has an weird Arabian vibe with Timbaland adding some vocals. Not really the makings of a single.

“Strawberry Bubblegum” – I could have sworn this was Robin Thicke. There has to be some kind of sexual innuendo here.

“Tunnel Vision” – Personal fave. It’s got energy, adorable one-liners and indecipherable squeaks. It’s the album’s “My Love.”

“Spaceship Coupe” – If we’re comparing this to FS/LS, this is the “Until the End of Time” of the album. Only “Meh” track.

“That Girl” – Clocking in at 4:49, we have the shortest track on the album. Great southern blues with the assistance from the Tennessee Kids (whom you saw on SNL). Classy.

“Let the Groove In” – This song is basically a conga line waiting to happen. Avoid putting on party playlists at all costs. Great dance song for personal use, though.

“Mirrors” – We’ve been over this. Vintage JT.

“Blue Ocean Floor” – At first, this song sounded like a transitional/dream sequence filler, a la “Set the Mood Prelude.” After a few minutes, this becomes perhaps the most alluring track on the album, a vulnerable tranquility Timberlake has never done before. It ends and I want more.

Yes, The 20/20 Eperience is all over the place. And yet, even though it most likely doesn’t fit our mold of what we think a Justin Timberlake album should be, it has all the charm to bypass those predispositions and come out refreshing. No other pop artists would dare construct an album like this. But when you have the hype that snowballed during JT’s musical abstinence, you can do anything you want. Let’s hope those rumors that he was forced to make this album weren’t true and call it what it is: Art.

Bon Jovi – What About Now

This band has shared the stage with Metallica.

No one expected Bon Jovi to be “metal,” be we could have had another Foreigner or Journey keeping 80s synth alive. They used to ROCK:

Instead, something happened to them in the 90s and it was never the same. I blame These Days.

If you’ve kept up with this band for the past few albums, nothing has changed. Bon Jovi has taken that “Livin’ on a Prayer” mantra and applied into every song since, fighting for the everyman. I can’t really knock them for that, as stagnant as the music has become. It’s much like those blue-collar anthems that Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp have been churning out for years: You are worth it because you work hard; let nothing stand in your way. “Because We Can,” “What About Now” and “Beautiful World” should be enough to get you through a mid-life crisis. “Amen” is the love-it-by-default ballad and boy does Jon Bon still have pipes. It just won’t win over any new fans.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Foals burst into Holy Fire vs. new music from the Virginmarys and Atoms for Peace

When “NOW 45″ is the third highest-selling album, you know it’s been a slow week for music. You’re telling me I can play “Die Young” more than once every half hour? SOLD.

I’m constantly looking at upcoming releases and the only ones that remotely pop out are Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” on March 19 then The Strokes’ new one a week later. It’s a torturous time for new-music fiends.

But hey, this is also a time for discovery. New band/listener alliances are formed everyday, so may you find one as we wait for the ol’ faithfuls to wrap up production. Recovering from the absurd snowstorm, here are select albums from the past few Tuesdays. There are some new bands here, so it’s been an adventure.

Foals – Holy Fire

This is the third album by Foals and I cannot speak on behalf of the first two. But after the first few tracks, Holy Fire left an impression. Apparently, those songs are now singles, but the clicky-groove in “Inhaler” and the infectious pop anthem “My Number” are the highlights of the album.

Because the first half of the album is so catchy, the rest of it just fades away. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it parties a little too hard, too fast. You might even be satisfied with playing “My Number” on repeat.

That said, there’s an energy throughout that is never in-your-face. The guitar is more plucky instead of grungy and it helps push tracks like “Out of the Woods” into more of a ballad category. It’s not a fair comparison, but I feel the same way listening to this as I do when I listen to the John Butler Trio. Some strange balance between rocking out and chilling out.

The Virginmarys – King of Conflict

Free downloads can be like digital pamphlets, destined for the closest trashcan. But sometimes, you get a gem that opens a gateway to spectacular musical avenues. Here’s such a case.

Sitting on my iPod since (scrolls through iTunes purchase history) 2010 (!) was “Bang Bang Bang,” a hard-hitting free download of the week that spewed out an unforgettable hook: “Take that gun, girl, and blow my mind.” Ooh man, this was a keeper. The band had nothing else out there, so their relevance was short lived. That single became buried and eventually forgotten.

Well now, three years later, The Virginmarys has surrounded that bombshell with an arsenal full of explosive tracks. These British rockers are not unlike the era of Jet and Wolfmother, Australians who sent music to the states to say, “This is how it’s done. Remember?” Mainstream rock music can get bogged down in the meaningless muck of sex, drugs and alcohol. It should be kicking down doors and pillaging all the awesome out of life. OK, maybe there is some mention of the three taboos of rock on this album, but it at least has meaning behind it. “Lost Weekend,” being the prime example, is more a cry for help: “And my body aches and my head it hurts. I’ve long found out that drugs don’t work. Will someone save me from myself tonight.”

“Just a Ride” barrels through the grieving process of a failed relationship while tracks like “Dressed to Kill” are almost the opposite, claiming “She’s my world.” Does King of Conflict bring anything new? Not quite. But sometimes the new can get so nauseating it takes nostalgia to cure it. This isn’t the dawning of another British rock invasion like we had in the early 2000s, but if it were, The Virginmarys would be at the forefront.

Atoms for Peace – Amok

So, this is Thom Yorke.

Atoms for Peace is merely an alternate label, but we can all assume that one Yorke incarnation sounds like the rest. Listen to Amok followed by The Eraser, his solo album, and for good measure, give The King of Limbs another whirl. The atmosphere is static. Compare that to a, let’s say, Tom DeLonge from Blink 182 and Angels and Airwaves. I never have to wonder what I’m listening to because those two bands are vastly different and serve different emotional purposes. Yorke, as unique as he is, is all under one bracket.

With the addition of Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, drummer Joey Waronker, who has worked with everyone from REM to Norah Jones to Beck, and percussionist Mauro Refosco, this could have been something a “fun” album. It’s not as dark as Yorke’s other work, but you won’t be craving this on a sunny day.

“Unless” feels like a car revving up in snow and going nowhere. Just once I’d like to see Yorke vocally detonate in the middle of a song. It’s a fine track, but it would have pushed this song into elite territory if it had some sort of climax. It’s like Radiohead’s cerebral and experimental style. All brain, not enough brawn. Do you work out to a Radiohead song? Can you? If this qualifies as exercise, I’m all in:

“Before Your Very Eyes…” and “Stuck Together Pieces” have prevalent bass-lines and that Flea/RHCP funk is trying so hard to get out. This album sounds as if it were produced with the utmost care and precision, but with the weapons at his disposal, this was a perfect time for Yorke to let loose. When you focus on what the band does well – smooth synth with a multitude of unconventional layers on top of it  – the album is exceptional. Like deep-meaning lyrics, there are sounds on this album that require multiple listens to discover, and that’s most of the fun. But the minimalist approach and lack of diversity kept Amok from being something truly special. Oddly, this album is yet to reach Spotify.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Josh Groban, Coheed & Cambria lead the pack, while RED’s Release The Panic falls short

First Impressions

Welcome to “First Impressions,” a new weekly feature where we do a quick rundown of Tuesday’s most popular new releases. We’ll focus on mainstream artists and the good/bad they may bring to our ears and the music industry.

At the dawn of a new year, music fans eagerly await spring and beyond for artists to crank out new albums. That post-Christmas lull can be hard to overcome, but we have to start somewhere. February seems to have a bit more substance (all apologies to A$ap Rocky and Tegan and Sara, but January was quite lackluster). Still, it took some digging to find anything moderately popular to challenge a solid album by Josh Groban. As always, some release weeks will be better than others. In a perfect world, musicians like Kanye and Mumford and Sons would release albums every week. But instead, I have to wonder if the band Foals is popular enough to write about. (Editor’s Note: “Yes, it is.”) But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it (next week!).

- – – – -

Josh Groban - All That Echoes

Is there anything left to be said of Josh Groban which hasn’t been written elsewhere?

On his latest album, almost nothing has changed. His vocal chords were forged from the same mystical realm as Adele’s. Lucky for Groban, the male version came without perpetual heartache. All That Echoes holds no surprise for Groban followers, yet talking about him will get old before his music does. It starts off with “Brave,” just another stalwart track in his ever-growing melodic masterpieces. Throw in the emotionally conflicting “Happy in My Heartache,” songs in foreign languages (“E ti Prometterò,” “Un Alma Más”) and covers (“I Believe When I Fall in Love” by Stevie Wonder), and you have a textbook Groban album.

But, oh that “Hollow Talk.” Originally by the Choir of Young Believers, Groban does a haunting croon on top of little plucks and hums for three minutes then … MAGIC. Those strings in the middle might be the single best moment of the album. It’s as dramatic as the man has ever been and a drop-the-mic moment. Josh Groban is only 31 years old and you have to assume that he has long since reached his vocal peak. He could make this album a million more times and I couldn’t knock it if I tried.

Coheed & Cambria – The Afterman: Descension

It’s 2013 and Coheed & Cambria remains an underground band few have hearddespite being the most unique and underrated rock band of the past decade. They create free-range rock deviating from diabolical themes to benign harmonies, while standing tall as one of the few remaining bands to consistently incorporate six-plus minute epics (“Gravity’s Union”) within each album. That is especially refreshing given that guitar solos have become an abandoned novelty among rock bands. Lead vocalist Claudio Sanchez’s distinctive voice, though a potential turn-off for some, puts Coheed within its own realm — neither above or below, just apart from their competition.

The Afterman: Descension is the second piece of a two-part album, following October’s The Afterman: Ascension. The albums comes with it’s own graphic novel, part of Sanchez’s Armory Wars, the story which the band’s music is based. Honestly, you don’t need to know what’s going on to enjoy what’s going on. Descension picks right up where it’s predecessor left off, staving off the staleness of Coheed’s previous two albums, Year of the Black Rainbow and No World for Tomorrow.

They thrive on bipolar album structures and with the funk-shred blend in “The Hard the Sell” and the odd jazz/cyberpunk “Number City,” Coheed is once again at it’s creative best. The album slowly tones down in the back half, putting a bright seal on a complicated double-disc journey. But by that point, the message was sold: they still rock.

RED – Release the Panic

RED is a rock band, and I’m leaving out the word “Christian” because, even though the band is labeled as one, it doesn’t matter. That term leads to misguided impressions, whether positive or negative. They play normal songs about human emotions based upon personal experiences. RED’s members just so happen to share a Christian background, which shouldn’t define them. At the end of it all, music is music.

This is the band’s fourth album and, as a long-time listener since their first effort, this was the first time a track failed to register chills on the first listen. RED relies on electric power with the grace of a strings ensemble, and Release the Panic sunk somewhere in a quagmire of all that. I have no idea if it was an effort to become “radio friendly,” but I hope that isn’t the case.

It starts off with the title track, which sets an oddly aggressive tone. It’s a different vibe than the rage-filled “Feed the Machines” intro from Until We Have Faces. Even behind the growls and semi-dark theme, “Feed the Machines” had an elegance to it and the rest of the album followed suit. “Release the Panic” sets the album ablaze from the start, sending everything that follows running for cover.

Salvaged from the destruction is the uplifting “Hold Me Now”, the straight-forward “Perfect Life” and the standout, “Glass House”, making this a decent album despite its flaws. Most of the intros are pretty sick. But coming from a band who has a reputation of making music with such precision, there sure is a lot of chaos. Fans who go into the album expecting a repeat of their first three albums may wind up disappointed, but enough quality songs remain to make this worth a listen for those hearing the band for the first time.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Cab – “Symphony Soldier”

The Cab Symphony Soldier
Album Review
The Cab – “Symphony Soldier” (2011, Z Entertainment)

Reviewer: Corey Thibodeaux

This album wasn’t supposed to happen.

When The Cab released its first album, Whisper War, in 2007 and earned moderate success with the bumping hit “Bounce.” There was enough exposure and talent in that debut to assume that the band would jump to some form of stardom. Before that jump ever happened, members of the band left to pursue other ventures, pushing lead singer Alex DeLeon to ask for a new guitarist on Twitter. Adding to the hardships, earlier this year the group left Fueled by Ramen, the label who produces  similar bands such as Paramore,  Panic! at the Disco and Cobra Starship. So without a couple founding members and a label, The Cab funded Symphony Soldier all on its own. And what they created is nothing short of amazing.

For those who don’t know, The Cab is a pop-rock band with an emo edge playing Warped Tour though they can easily fit into top-40 radio (Bruno Mars and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine contributed to the album). It’s like listening to a Jonas Brothers/ Fall Out Boy hybrid without any of the guilt. But even that’s not a fair comparison because they have defined themselves as a unique entity and its only a matter of time until the masses get a hold of them.

The vocals need no enhancing and it’s a shame DeLeon’s voice hasn’t been more recognized. And in what is now the trademark of this band, the upbeat melodies are a simple yet complex delight to hear. Noted by the album title and the first track, “Angel With a Shotgun”, The Cab fought all of its struggles in recent years with music while keeping their identity as a refreshingly innocent bunch with an occasional act of lust or cold-heartedness. There are so many good things going on this album yet it all meshes well together. From the adorable “Endlessly” to the raunchy “Animal”, the one consistency is the absolute catchy and feel-good tone no matter what the content of the song is.

Symphony Soldier is more representative of the band than the album, fighting through hardships for the sake of music in a diluted industry and coming out ahead. And they have plenty of ammo left.

ALBUM REVIEW: Incubus – “If Not Now, When?”

Incubus If Not Now When

Album Review
Incubus – “If Not Now, When?” (2011, Epic Records)

Reviewer:  Corey Thibodeaux

A tour bus is no place to find inspiration for a new album. Amidst all of Incubus’ success as a band, the momentum of sustaining the hype was taking its toll on the music writing process.

After touring in 2006 to promote Light Grenades, Incubus took a much needed break. Some band members needed to explore new musical dimensions, like lead singer Brandon Boyd releasing his solo album, The Wild Trapeze. Some needed to go to school. Some needed to have kids and spend time with family. It was Incubus’ longest layoff between albums so they could experience life.

From the first track of If Not Now, When?, it’s obvious the band is in a different place, laid out in it’s loving lyrics and gentle sound. The album opens up with the title track showing off their new, simplistic atmospheric approach. It is by far the softest album the band has ever released but it tends to reach new depths musically, culminating in the seven and a half minute wonderment of  “In the Company of Wolves”.

If Not Now, When? has more warmth than even the lighter tracks on2001’s Morning View, the closest comparison you can make between albums. In other words, it makes for a great summer evening soundtrack. “Switchblade” is the only song that could be considered “aggressive,” probably to show that they can still go that direction.

Incubus is one of the few bands where you can say that each album sounds completely different than all the others, which makes comparing them awfully difficult. But does it really matter? You’ve got to appreciate a band of this caliber taking time off to experience what we all take for granted and then do what they do best: making another solid album.

ALBUM REVIEW: Crossfade – “We All Bleed”


Album Review
Crossfade – “We All Bleed” (2011, Eleven Seven Music)

Reviewer: Corey Thibodeaux

It seemed that after Crossfade released their second album, Falling Away, in 2006, the band thought it would ride this success for the rest of their lives.

Reality hit them hard in 2008 when Columbia Records dropped them from the label because of the album’s disappointment. This spiraled lead singer Ed Sloan into depression, wondering where the band went wrong after the platinum success of their self-titled debut in 2004.

Now, five years since their last release and with the freedom of a smaller record label, Crossfade has rebounded and tapped into the darkest parts of their past and put out a redefining rock album.

We All Bleed is a throttling ride through despair that goes beyond the simple head-banging formula for hard rock albums. While some traditional rock-sounding songs find their way onto the album, tracks such as “Prove You Wrong” and “Open Up Your Eyes” add keyboards and orchestras to the mix, attaining an even deeper level of emotion. Layering the instruments and vocals helped push this We All Bleed to become one that you feel, not just hear.

The album is properly sent off with the 10-minute epic “Make Me a Believer,” where those words echo throughout the track while the singer tries to find a way out of his miserable state.

We All Bleed isn’t getting the hype it once would have gotten from a band with such commercial success. After being out of the industry for so long and a forgettable second album, Crossfade has some redeeming to do. Whatever happens, We All Bleed is a great way to start.

ALBUM REVIEW: Black Veil Brides – “Set the World on Fire”

Black Veil Brides

Album review
The Black Veil Brides – “Set The World On Fire” (2011, Lava Records)

Reviewer: Corey Thibodeaux

With the hard rock industry as saturated as it is, anything that steers away from the norm seems like a blessing.

The Black Veil Brides used their modernistic Kiss-inspired act to make an album that alienated them from today’s leading rock bands. They succeeded on their new release, Set the World on Fire, but not enough to be considered a novelty.

But give it to the band for being confident with this being their sophomore record. Frontman and founder Andy Six was ubiquitously quoted as saying this would be the greatest record ever made. There’s more. They titled the 11-track demo CD for the new album Black Veil Brides’ Greatest Hits because they thought it was so much better than everything they have ever done.

You can’t get a good grasp of them just by their appearance. They aren’t some glam-rock or Hot Topic band like they are advertised, rather they fall more in the line of a Hinder or even a tiny bit Avenged Sevenfold. The title track is the most indicative representation of how the band uses the grand approach of classic rock bands, yet has an aggressive edge for the modern age. “Fallen Angels” is an anthem for the unappreciated youth and is the stand-out track on the album. They even show a soft side with “Saviour.”

Is it the greatest record ever? Not by a long shot. But for a general fan of energetic arena-type rock with solid performances from the vocals down, it is a bold effort.

ALBUM REVIEW: Tech N9ne – “All 6’s and 7’s”

Tech N9ne

Album Review
Tech N9ne – “All 6’s and 7’s” (2011, Strange Music Records)

Reviewer:  Corey Thibodeaux

OK, let’s get one thing straight. Despite contributions from several A-list rappers – including Lil Wayne, B.o.B., Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, T-Pain – Tech N9ne does not aim to be recognized to the degree of those rappers: “Tech will never go mainstream. Mainstream will go Tech,” he says in the track “Love Me Tomorrow.”

Still, the psycho-trip of All 6’s and 7’s is bound to be Tech’s most commercially successful album, and rightfully so. While his success as an independent rapper is admirable, he kneads a schizophrenic feel into the album so you don’t know whether to be sympathetic or scared.

A couple tracks – “So Lonely” and “If I Could” – deal with Tech’s struggle for maintaining a family while on the road touring. Then he takes you to a darker corner of his head in tracks like “Am I a Psycho” where he explores that very question.

With 24 tracks, there are about 24 different styles of rap here with dozens of contributions from rappers and singers. In all honesty, Tech himself is still the highlight, orchestrating a compulsive array of soundscapes that reflects the inner struggles of his own head. You’ll need a lyric sheet to keep up to what he spits, but you don’t even need to listen word for word. Most of the time, you can feel it in the masterfully crafted beats and in the passion of his delivery.

Tech N9ne has remained level-headed and talented through 12 albums and has yet to explode into the mainstream. But after listen to this album you’ll realize the recurring line in “Worldwide Choppers” is true: “I’m light years ahead of my peers.”