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Posts tagged “album reviews

Eddie Brnabic’s Subtle Realms a fantastically trippy excursion into instrumental rock

For those among us who appreciate the incendiary goodness of an electric guitar soloist fully unleashed, what Eddie Brnabic does with his album Subtle Realms is positively buzzworthy, particularly on “Transcendental Wine,” an intense throwdown which illustrates his ability to trip with ease between full-throttle rock and raw oozing funk. This is instrumental music built custom for the headphone treatment, and it’s worth every effort to listen to while avoiding all other distractions. Keep an ear toward this kid — you’ll hear much more from him when this album takes off. You can stream the entire album via his Bandcamp page.

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Freakin’ Out The Squares by Clouder is the reason the Internet murdered gatekeepers

They came. They saw. They clouded. And while they were at it, this Brooklyn psych-rock outfit crafted Freakin’ Out The Squares, an album of supremely addictive tracks that showcase their sound, one immediately awash in jangling guitars, slightly fogged vocals and all the melodic hooks you can handle. Don’t believe me? Play “Broadcast Victim” and you’ll be a fan for life. This is the music we murdered the gatekeepers for hiding it from us! Hear all their music at http://clouder.bandcamp.com.

Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons’ “Hurricane” hits with the full force of a band worth knowing

With the pop kick of Rilo Kiley coupled with the hooks of Kasey Musgraves and Lindi Ortega,l Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons hit like a full-on tropical wave with Hey Kid and lead single “Hurricane.” This is the music you should play to friends who say there’s nothing country music can offer, while also bolstering the hooks which could fuel pop-country radio if they focused on musicians with the chops to play to classic and modern influences. Clearly these tracks showcase an artist who’s at home as a cultural observer:

Growing up in small town Ohio, Perley spent years as an observant wallflower engrossing herself in poetry, literature, people, and films. “I am a storyteller at heart, always have been. I get a lot of inspiration from relationships, surroundings, poetry, and old movies. Music for me is a way to express feelings I can’t get out any other way, and when I hit the stage with the band I can turn up and let go.”

The album officially comes out January 21st, and features more than just the single, including “Athens” and “George Stone” which help front-load the listening experience with material worthy of consistent repetition. But “Hurricane” definitely sums up the band’s sound, giving the “something real” she seems to honestly feel straight down to the bone. “You and I you know we are the same,” she howls early in the proceedings as crunchy lead guitar and thundering percussion provide a backdrop as intense as the storm in her heart. The chorus of “whoah whoahs” and stacatto “ha”s further showcases the Rilo Kiley influence, reiterating just how much of an earworm this song is.

Check it out below and then visit the band’s official website to ensure you get your copy the day of release. This isn’t an album you’ll want to miss, as these Howlin’ Moons are ones you’ll want to revel beneath well into 2014.

MELLOW GOLD: Slippertails’ There’s A Disturbing Trend sludge-rocks its way into your soul


Si, soy un perdedor, but I’m loving how much fun Slippertails are making out of my eternal nostalgia for early-90s alt-sludge.

These New Jersey-ites have soaked in everything that made Beck’s Mellow Gold and Nirvana’s Bleach so mind-bendingly addictive and they’ve put it through a punk-rock blender, creating a photocopy of their own “Garden State of Mind.” However you look at it, songs like “Hip New Jerk” require one to immediately forego the headphone treatment, instead blasting these sludgy, instantly deep-grooving tracks to the masses, demanding they pay attention.

You can stream the entire album now on the band’s Bandcamp page, and you should do so quickly, for There’s A Disturbing Trend serves to showcase just how good modern alternative music can be when you forget about trends altogether and simply rock. Now that’s a novel idea!

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.

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.

“HEAR! HEAR!” EXCLUSIVE: Rebel Revive’s debut EP XI

Matthew Lindblad definitely has plenty of experience as part of the Orange County music scene. A multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, Lindblad played guitar with the band New Years Day, which gave him a taste of mainstream success including Warped Tour experience. Now he’s teamed up with Gus Flaig (drums) and Chris Chavez (guitars, vocals) to form Rebel Revive, a band which is able to draw on Lindblad’s experiences with rock influences both old and new, to create a sound they can call their own.

rebelxi-300x300The result is XI, a hybrid of pop, rock and punk influences named for the eleven years Lindblad has spent performing his music in the area. “The Voices,” the EP’s standout single, features a fresh musical backdrop which reminds this critic of Blink 182 or Cartel if they were filtered through the Slip (must hear: “Even Rats”), with the band singing a chorus of “whooooah-oh-oh!”s as Lindblad claims they have the voices, silent for too long, which will now speak for a generation. While that may be an overreaching statement, the chorus itself is incredibly ear-catching and repeatable.

The rest of the EP builds on that hook to create songs which are memorable and instantly accessible. With “Better Days” and “Stars” standing out as potential future singles, there’s no reason to expect this album to fade away anytime soon. If anything, expect your appetite to be barely whetted. You’ll have to settle for repeating the six songs and hoping it won’t be too long before the band puts together the epic full-length this hints lies just over the horizon.

XI officially drops tomorrow, but if you’re ready to go for a musical ride, “Hear! Hear!” has the entire album streaming exclusively today! So strap on your headphones and press play, then make sure you share this music with everyone you know with good taste. You may have heard it first, but they’ll all want to ride your coattails.

Lucas Jack’s Sun City brings the piano-rock troubadour a new breath of life

Texas-based songwriter Lucas Jack has made no bones about his desire to bring back the glory days of the piano-pop songwriter, whether that singer be Billy Joel or Elton John. But his attempt to reinvent that tradition, while maintaining the familiar beats listeners will have come to expect, does a surprisingly solid job expanding it as well.

Sun City, a concept album which follows a couple through their journey toward the American Dream, though the detours are numerous and their success rarely assured. These songs are often Joel’s Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” as they travel through the darker edges of modern suburban life. Midway through the album, “Hope” takes on a darker view of Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman,” in particular:

There’s a distance in her eyes
Every time she starts to lie
And she’s far away tonight
And she always offers hope
That she wraps around your throat
Like a hangman selling rope
The war is only words you never say
The score you keep just counting down the days
Keep singing with the chorus in the bar
To blacken out the dark
And keep on coming back just as you are

But it’s not just an exercise in cheap misogyny like Joel’s hit, taking cheap shots. The song illustrates the buying of time which takes place in a marriage collapsing despite everything both spouses try to do. Both sides want to keep things together, so she lies and he accepts the hope she provides, even as he lies by saying the marriage still has a chance and that he’s not strangling against the metaphorical noose. The song’s haunting tone echoes the futility both must feel in the situation, with little they can do but keep living lie after bitter lie.

We witness the same couple earlier in the album on “Paralyzed,” as the husband debates just walking away from everything, even though he knows he never will. Lyrically this is where Lucas Jack shines, laying everything on the line in brutally cutting prose as his piano echoes the hopeful tone which will obviously keep this man in the marriage past its breaking point.

Once a month with our t-shirts on
That’s how far our love has gone
Our friends all tell us we should both move on
But we’re tangled up too tight
We’re paralyzed in our separate ways
We’ve both got kids of our own these days
And they’re making it harder to walk away
But we’re both long gone inside
How’d we get so old at 35?

I don’t want to give you the perspective that this album is nothing but bitter pills to swallow, backed by sunny piano pop which belies the devastation within. Lucas Jack is a talented songwriter who echoes Billy Joel in his delivery as often as he does solo-era Ben Folds and (on “Don’t Get Carried Away” in particular) even a touch of contemporary Randy Newman. These are songs crafted from the ground up to focus on all angles of the song, and it makes for an album full of vignettes which each deserve to be single candidates.

“You Belong To The City Now” stands tall as the album’s best individual track, and it’s rightly been named as the album’s lead single. It opens with piano, bass and guitar as Jack’s vocals sing of “living it up until it’s way too late to live it down,” his characters’ first glimpse of the city life which, while it eventually will consume them, still holds an alluring aura. I was reminded immediately of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the Tom Hanks character who thinks he’s the master of the universe, making loads of money so he can live what he thinks is the perfect life, but we know he’s just a few steps away from being destroyed by that lifestyle. On the fourteen songs which follow this introduction, these two characters will take a serious beating — by the end, will they still believe in that dream? Does that upward mobility to the middle class mean anything, or are we all struggling to get past the moments which in the end would really matter the most?

In the end, Sun City is a remarkably astute debut from a songwriter who has crafted a song suite which plays well from the first hit, building in intensity as we listen more and more, sifting through all the lyrical details. It’s like watching a film where we’ve known these characters in varied forms all our lives, so we’re invested in seeing that they come out in the end with at least a semblance of dignity. This is modern American life, and like the troubadours he so admires, Lucas Jack has potential here to have produced a contemporary pop classic. For fans of the genre, missing this album would be a misstep you don’t want to make.

XY Unlimited’s Omega proves even a boy band has potential to surprise

I’ll admit to not having high expectations when I downloaded Omega, an album from a band billed as “an evolution of the classic 90’s boy band for the modern ear.” But even a boy band can surprise, particularly when said band’s album packs as many twists and turns as this one. There’s the requisite radio single in “Put Your Hands Up,” which encourages all of us with inner nerds to put our hands up and pray for the day we can “turn the other cheek when [we're] their boss,” but that thankfully comes at the end of the album. “Carmen” fares much better, as the band channels all the Bowling for Soup they can handle as they swoon over a beautiful latin grocer who quite likely remains out of their league to this day. Get that to radio and maybe we’ll be hearing these guys get the kind of airplay formerly reserved for songs called “Hey There, Delilah.”

But don’t overlook the album’s deeper tracks. “”They All Fall Down”, “Three Times” and “Gravity” showcase XY Unlimited’s lyrical range, and all three tracks also highlight their greatest advantage — these guys can SING! The harmonies on this album would make Ben Folds nod in approval (and I’m talking Reinhold Messner-era Folds) and seem perfectly tailored to a generation which made Glee the most popular pop ensemble ever. Everything culminates in a Donny Darko fanboy’s wet dream, as the band takes on “Mad World” in its Gary Jules incarnation, stripping it down to bare voices and autotune, creating a hybrid which is impeccably arranged and would give Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” a run for its money.

While this isn’t an album which is going to blow your mind and turn the sanest of listeners into mad XY Unlimited groupies, it is a solidly crafted pop album which is more than the sum of any boy band parts. Billing this band as such is a limitation they don’t deserve. Call it pop-punk with the heart of Death Cab for Cutie and the arrangements of Ben Folds, and give Omega the fair shake it deserves. Maybe you’ll even decide to award it “guilty pleasure” status as you listen to their voices swell.

ALBUM REVIEW: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Album Review
Vampire Weekend – “Modern Vampires of the City” (2013, XL)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

(Available now on iTunes/Amazon)

A third album can really define a band’s past, present, and future. U2’s War. The Smith’s The Queen is Dead. Radiohead’s OK Computer. The third album really can make a case for a band, revealing if they are truly “in it” for the long run.

On Vampire Weekend’s third album, the band fully and finally realizes and defines themselves. While the quirky, afro-pop nature of their sound is still largely present, a newfound seriousness abounds. In stark contrast to previous and frivolous frolics like “Oxford Comma” and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” Ezra Koenig and his companions build much darker soundscapes and overall tones. Lyrically, Koenig reveals his religious distaste in “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey,” shocking the system of fans who are used to hearing him sing about more obscure matters, like mansard roofs and diplomat’s sons. This maturity is actually quite natural and fitting, and showcases Koenig’s versatility and eagerness to grow.

Musically, the band experiments readily. Even from the first sounds of the opening track (“Obvious Bicycle”), the listener is showered with striking and intriguing sounds that perfectly texture the memorable melodies and fitting lyrics. “Everlasting Arms,” one of the many highlights of the album, displays this same experimental mindset by filtering the vocals through expansive reverb, creating vivid sonic washes and a colorful sound palette.

In all, Modern Vampires of the City is a great victory for a still-young band, and one of the year’s greatest accomplishments. If you didn’t care for the band’s work on Vampire Weekend and Contra, give this album a chance – You’ll be more than pleasantly surprised.

(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.

“Weez” On! Rozwell Kid’s “Unmacho” puts us squarely back in ’94 with a soon-to-be-classic hook

First off, watch the video below then “Like” the band as quickly as possible:


Done that? Good … bring on the 90s nostalgia!

Afew repeats and I’m wanting to dig out my copy of the Blue Album along with my other favorites from the era, including some Marcy Playground, Harvey Danger and … nah, I’ll just go to Bandcamp and rock out to the rest of Unmacho, which includes the blisteringly good two-minute track “Van Man,” which deserves a video as ridiculously cool as the one they’ve made for the title track. That and the album’s opener, “Bonehead,” which showcases there’s more under the hood than just aping Rivers Cuomo. A quick stream suggests there’s not a dud in the bunch, which is more than a good reason to like them on Facebook and then buy a copy to blast with your windows down all summer.

Blindly soldiering on, Josh Krajcik produces a solid post X-Factor album with Blindly, Lonely, Lovely

He finished second in a reality show, but let’s face the facts: Josh Krajcik has talent which didn’t need a Simon Cowell-led talent show to showcase it. So it doesn’t come as a surprise to hear Blindly, Lonely, Lovely showcasing his blues-tinged growl over larger-than-life arrangements which accentuate his ability to merge blues, rock and pop, all within a slick package.

“Back Where We Belong” brings “big” to the forefront, with its massive arrangement of piano, thundering drums and Krajcik’s lung-deflating vocals, and at times the song itself becomes overwhelmed by that top-heavy heft. Sometimes less is more, which “Nothing” illustrates as the album’s opener. That’s the song which needs to be spread around the internet as the reason this guy needs to be heard. That or the southern-blues keeper “The Remedy,” which could have fitted itself nicely into any Ray Lamontagne album yet released, or at the least as a John Mayer Continuum b-side. Steep yourself in those vocals at the chorus, along with that rising tide of horns, and try not to get swept up in the mood.

This isn’t an album he’ll be able to build a whole career on, but clearly reality success didn’t spoil him — he’s used the time in the Fox spotlight to build an audience and then released an album perfectly in line with what those fans wanted to hear, free from obsessive studio interference. With album tracks like “Don’t Make Me Hopeful” and the album-closing stunner “Let Me Hold You” anchoring this mix, there’s plenty to hope for in this songwriter’s future. If you weren’t already sucked in by the solid craft illuminated by his first two independent albums (try “Atavistic” on for size if you don’t believe me), I can’t think of a better mainstream introduction to his sound than what Blindly, Lonely, Lovely delivers.

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.

Kacey Musgraves catches lightning in a bottle — “Same Trailer Different Park” is country’s best album of the year so far

If you ain’t got two kids by 21
You’re probably gonna die alone
At least that’s what tradition told you
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe
Come Sunday morning you best be there
In the front row like you’re supposed to
Same hurt in every heart
Same trailer different park

Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane
And daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
We get bored so we get married
And just like dust we settle in this town
On this broken merry-go-
Round and round and round we go
Where it stops nobody knows
And it ain’t slowing down
This merry-go-round

Talk about a shot to the gut. This is one of those songs which could apply to just about everyone I’ve known in small-town Indiana at some point in our lives. It’s a touch of downwardly mobile Americana as we settle for less than we’re worth because we don’t believe we deserve anything better than just a chance at treading water.

Kacey Musgraves doesn’t have the thundering “shoot for the high notes” vocals of a Carrie Underwood, and though she could out-hustle Taylor Swift in any songwriting competition, you’ll be unlikely to find her drawing the same kind of frantic, obsessed crowd. All the better, because we can take in the wonderful songwriting on Same Trailer Different Park, 2013’s first flat-out fantastic country album, without having to worry she’ll be overexposed by September.

“Merry Go Round” may be the strongest introduction to her sound, but “Dandelion”, “Stupid” and “It Is What It Is” reiterate that this young woman is Nashville’s best lyrical hope, suggesting that country can mean a hell of a lot more than just by-the-numbers button pushing. This is the real America … it is what is is ’til it ain’t anymore. Here’s hoping listeners aren’t too stubborn to give her the chance she so richly deserves, because there’s nowhere better you could be than listening to this album a few times through.

“Every Second Soaked In Sadness” — Bring Me The Horizon unites grindcore, indie pop and death metal in perfect unholy mix

If you can’t soar with the eagles
Then don’t fly with the flock!
Are you still getting by?
Was I your knight in shining armor,
The apple of your eye,
Or just another step to climb?

Nothing about Bring Me The Horizon sounds like it should work, at least on paper. This is an unholy alliance between death metal vocals, emo-inspired lyrics, punk-pop hooks and enough EDM-fueled radio edge to keep radio programmers salivating — at least on “Can You Feel My Heart?” which opens the album. “I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim,” Oliver Sykes sings. “I’m scared to get close, I hate being alone … I long for that feeling to not feel at home. The higher I get the lower I sink.” This isn’t your typical death-metal vocal, but bringing the genre together with elements of grindcore and indie pop helps give heft to a remarkably sturdy album.

Sempiternal kicks up a notch with “The House of Wolves,” which lets their metal leanings shine brighter over the poppier hooks, though there’s still a lot more melody anchoring this music than you’d likely expect. “Go To Hell, For Heaven’s Sake” proves to be another keeper, leading into a stretch on the album with a series of great tracks managing to bring deathcore imagery into songs you’ll want to sing along with incessantly, even as your throat aches. “I want to choke on the hurt you bring,” he screams. “I’m burning down every bridge we made … I’m bleeding out every word you say.” Then “Shadow Moses” brings Dropkick Murphys and Linkin Park together into an earworm you won’t escape alive, leading perfectly into the languid intro of “And The Snakes Start To Sing,” which showcases some of Sykes’ best vocals amid the strongest instrumental chops the rest of the band brings to bear.

Call this an accidental favorite, but once you give this band a shot, you’ll find plenty worth devouring.

ALBUM REVIEW: David Bowie – The Next Day


Album Review
David Bowie – “The Next Day” (2013, Columbia)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

“Where are we now? The moment you know, you know.”

Many decades ago, a man who was not merely a man gave music some of its most odd and memorable pop moments. His career was a literal roller-coaster – He reinvented himself album to album, like a chameleon moving from tree to tree. He didn’t just blend – He redefined his surroundings to fit his own work, and he did it routinely, like a beautiful bad habit.

After many lackluster attempts to regain his former glory, the man went into a sort of hiding. No one heard from him for several years, and he appeared to have disappeared altogether.

Just when hope of the man returning was all but gone, he came back. He didn’t just name-drop his own name to make a profit or to hold his place in line. He reminded the world that he, David Bowie, was the very same man who crafted Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He was the David Bowie who pioneered pop music and brought the worlds of music, art, fashion, and ideology into an avant-garde stew, with originality exuding from every nook and cranny.

He tears into his latest creation, The Next Day, with vigor and unparalleled fervor – The title track proclaiming zealously, “Here I am! Not quite dying! My body left to rot in a hollow tree / Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me.” He then pushes forward, with a controlled confidence, little embers of fizzing jazz trumpets lighting the walkway behind him. “I will buy a feather hat / I will steal a cricket bat,” he growls, grinning slyly. “Smash some windows, make a noise / We will run with Dirty Boys.”

He recounts stories, new ones, like he used to in the golden era. He tells of an “icy heart” on Valentine’s Day, he tells of “a love of violence, and a dread of sighs.” He loudly condemns the violence and greed of shallow religions, and incites riots with his hatred for war. He howls, he hisses, his bark still has a bite.

He then takes a momentary break, a brief sabbatical. He reminisces about younger years and about the path he’s taken to bring him to where he is today. “Who’d have ever thought of it? / Who’d have ever dreamed? / That a small town girl like you / Could be the boss of me,” he muses with a knowing smile, an immediate groove hooking musically around his statements.

He then retreats back into his solitude; but this time, he invites us with him into his lonesome world. He takes us dancing in space. “You’ve got stars upon your head / You’ve got my name and number / You’ve got to take the floor,” he says. Further into the depths of his world we go — “I’ll bet you’ll feel so lonely, you could die,” he diagnoses keenly.

And then, at the absolute core of his universe, he openly and abruptly breaks the fourth wall. He’s shown you his world, he’s given you the tour of his home — and then he passes the key to you. His self-doubt, his insecurities, they are now fully present and utterly public. With a tear escaping down his cheek, he confesses — “And I tell myself, ‘I don’t know who I am’ … And I tell myself, ‘I don’t know who I am.'” He continues. “My father ran the prison / My father ran the prison / I can only love you by hating him more / That’s not the truth, it’s too big a word.” His innermost grief and sorrow pouring out now, streaming through — “But I am a seer / I am a liar / I am a seer / but I am a liar.” He says it twice more. “My father ran the prison. My father ran the prison.”

And then, this perfectly long voyage comes to a close. The man who reappeared so suddenly disappears just as quickly. But he leaves behind a modern treasure, a piece of dark art that speaks on many levels and reestablishes his valuable name. Today, tomorrow, and The Next Day – David Bowie will be this man. As long as there’s fire, as long as there’s rain. As long as there’s you, as long as there’s me.

Long live David Bowie!

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.

ALBUM REVIEW: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II


Album Review
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “II” (2013, Jagjaguwar)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

There are albums that can be and should be played at maximum volume on loud speakers for full appreciation. Other albums are the quiet-but-lush type, and need a great set of headphones for complete understanding. And then there are albums that are just great no matter how you listen to them.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s highly-anticipated second album (II), is somehow both a “car stereo” album and a “headphones” album at the same time. The album starts off quite quietly, like an entry from a hippie’s diary (“From the Sun”) – Hushed harmonies melt naturally over gentle acoustic guitar picking, and little bass bubbles and drum gusts float by as the song progresses. This, of course, is the subdued side.

And then there are tracks like “No Need for a Leader.” The metallic electric guitar scratches steadily build a violet and red undercurrent, and the punky drums and serious bass bleed black and blue. And then, about 4 and a half minutes in, the band shifts comfortably into a brief jam session, chugging ferociously like a psychedelic Clash.

The band’s appetite for blending savory blues chords and 60’s rock rhythmic structures is the main key to their success on II. Influences as far-reaching as George Harrison, Pink Floyd, and even Jimi Hendrix marinate the already flavorful, lo-fi sound-scape with fitting synths or fuzzy electric guitar tones.

If “magical” wasn’t an already-overused (and often humorously-applied) adjective, I’d be tempted to deem II as such. Whatever word fits best, it is dreamy, layered, and absolutely entrancing. This is without a doubt one of the year’s best albums thus far. Try “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” and “Faded in the Morning,” and let the rest follow from there.

Mumford and Sons’ The Road To Red Rocks joins the ever-burgeoning ranks of unnecessary, indistinct live albums

I can understand the band’s interest in releasing The Road To Red Rocks — the idea three years ago that Mumford and Sons would have a US fan-base capable of filling the legendary outdoor venue would have seemed laughable, before their blend of Euro-folk traditionalism became pop via “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave.” But there’s nothing unique about the recordings here, little which bends the songs and makes them any different live than they were on the albums we already own. It’s one thing for the band to take a victory lap, but don’t be surprised if most fans choose to let this one pass them by, for if you weren’t there to actually experience this show, the audio portion of The Road To Red Rocks is the definition of expendable.

The video portion of the album, on the other hand, showcases the oddity of an Arena Folk band in all its glory, which at least warrants a second look. That, and the fact that the band opened up the path for bands like the Lumineers to achieve radio success, at least gives room for hope as we leap into 2013.

Check out the live album below via Spotify, and get a glimpse of the DVD portion via a YouTube clip of “Little Lion Man” from the concert:

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She may not want to go back to the 90’s, but on No Fairy Tale Lisa Loeb fits right in with her hits.

Lisa Loeb states early on her latest album that she’s not particularly eager to go back to the 90’s, while managing to straddle the line between Fountains of Wayne-esque eighties nostalgia and Mike Doughty’s longing to put the past behind him and get ears to focus on his latest output. Funny thing is, No Fairy Tale may not pick up right where we heard her on the Reality Bites soundtrack, but these songs still have the crisp fly-on-the-wall hooks that brought fans in the first place, proving that when a singer has pop smarts, they don’t necessarily fade with age.

The title track in particular could be a long-lost Rilo Kiley out-take, daring fans to hit repeat and “share” on Facebook:

It’s no fairy tale
There’s no bread-crumb trail
To lead you back but it’s just as well
You can close the book
And curse the turn it took
It told the true story of how you fell
And that’s a better one to tell

This is one of those brisk pop albums which plays it straight, casting just the right spell to keep you listening from start to finish. I’m not going to say there’s a ton of potential hits here, because what constitutes a “hit” is such an oblique term these days. But when a songwriter can follow something as poppy as “The 90s” with the equally impressive “A Hot Minute,” it becomes clear why she’s continued to put out singable pop nuggets for twenty years while we’ve yet to hear anything new from a flash-in-the-pan like Anna Nalick.

Nothing on No Fairy Tale suggests Loeb needs to take as long between albums as she has since 2004’s The Way It Really Is, her last album aimed at adult pop audiences. No, it’s not as relentlessly catchy as her ubiquitous hit, “Stay,” but you’ll only require a few listens to the new album to prove we really don’t miss that slick sound. Resist the urge to live in the past, relying on false nostalgia to suggest there’s nothing worth hearing in today’s pop world. These dozen tracks prove Loeb still has pop smarts and hook-filled songs written in the now which capably fill the space between our headphones, just waiting for that moment when the chorus leaves our lips.

That’s more than enough for me.

“Play It Loud, Ray!” — Jacob Jones teams up with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard on the perfect throwback single for any Music City Sweetheart

Jacob Jones’ Good Timin’ In Waynestown doesn’t come out until next week, but that’s no reason not to play his single loudly a few times in celebration of Jones’ throwback rock-a-boogie vibes, which blends the sounds of New Orleans jazz with fifties-era rockabilly and hints of Motown soul. Adding the vocals of Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard to “Play It Loud, Ray” was an inspired touch, adding to the singalong chorus’s unstoppable hook. The rest of the album more than sustains the hype, with “Now That I Found You,” “Lost on the Ohio” and “Don’t Turn Me Loose” proving in particular that Jones has an ear for making these throwbacks fit in a modern pop context. If you too are ready to, as his website proclaims, “Honky Tonk yourself to death,” play this album loud and proud. Nothing else comes close to putting Chuck Berry into the same company as Ryan Adams or Alabama Shakes, which for this critic is more than enough reason to listen.

Twenty | One | Pilots fly high with genre-defying debut Vessel

Like a cocaine-fueled amalgamation of the Hoosiers and Linkin Park, with hints of Panic! At The Disco thrown in for good measure, Columbus (Ohio)’s Twenty | One | Pilots own flat-out the most infectious pop sound of the new year, and they’re ready to take your brain hostage at the slightest provocation. “”Holding On To You,” the album’s lead-off single, makes the mission clear from the start — they’re the kaleidoscope through which we should be viewing our music from here on, and the only rule is there are no rules.

Freewheeling between eighties-inspired glam-pop backdrops, hip-hop fueled fire-breathing and pop-punk inspired radio hooks from the Gods, this is music for those who want their music to continually twist the knife. “Migraine” opens with a burst of Imogen Heap-esque vocorder bliss, then bursts back and forth from a singable chorus to hip-hop verses like a feast for that space between your ears celebrating a tidal wave of creativity with hooks to spare. “Car Radio,” meanwhile, opens with a quiet instrumental interlude which is overlaid by a spoken-word burst of poetry bemoaning a life without music — the suffering of one who had his car radio stolen. “Sometimes quiet is violent,” he sings, before hinting that a life without music could be so terrifying death might actually be better than enduring the silence.

But the album’s biggest success is that lead single, and “Holding On To You” deserves to be the vehicle which introduces fans to this band certain to become their new favorite. The beginning is perfectly executed Wombats-inspired pop, building to rapped crescendos on the verses and a pop chorus Fall Out Boy would have killed for in their heyday. But it’s the breakdown three minutes in which burns the place down with a rapid-fire singalong sure to stick to your brain like glue:

Lean with it, rock with it
When we gonna stop with it?
Lyrics that mean nothing
We were gifted with thought
Is it time to move our feet
To an introspective beat
It ain’t the speakers that bump hard
It’s our hearts that make the beat

Doing what Alt-J did for fans of art rock last year, these two Midwestern purveyors of “schizoid pop” make mini-symphonies of genre blasting experimentation, making it fun to be a fan of pop music again. Come out of the closet, friends — if proof was needed, this is it, that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. When you’re flying with Twenty | One | Pilots, it’s all good!

Dawn Richard gets to the heart of contemporary R&B on Goldenheart while proving her mettle as a pop songwriter

Dawn Richard, formerly the lead singer of Danity Kane and one-time collaborator with Sean Combs’ Diddy-Dirty Money, jump-starts 2013 with her latest solo LP Goldenheart, which stands out as an affirmation of what good modern pop R&B can do when it gives real music a fighting chance. “Return of a Queen,” “Golliath” and “Riot” launch this album with a sense that everyone involved simply wanted to make a great pop album, letting the music speak more than the usually requisite hype. The result is a song-cycle which showcases the depth of Richard’s  craft, filled with hooks which should lure people onto the dance-floor and then back home to those headphones, where they can pore over the intricate details.

“I’m searching to find my way back to the throne, and I know if I could climb back through these walls maybe I’d get home,” Richard sings as “Return of a Queen,” and she sounds perfectly within her element as she lifts the track far beyond easy comparisons. As the album progresses, we get drawn into the tempos and movements she requires for us to fully let our guard down, and the reward is an album of contemporary pop R&B which transcends the triple-filtered sludge radio wants to force down all our throats.

She even saves the best for last, with “Goldenheart” tying everything together via a beautifully evocative piano melody coupled with her fluid vocals to form a hybrid of classical pop. The result forces you to hit repeat to hear how everything fits into the whole of the album’s concept, making this album ultimately a rewarding listening experience beyond what anyone would expect from a  mere pop showpiece. From start to finish Goldenheart is sequenced to be a memorable listening experience which changes minds as to what R&B can accomplish.