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Chevelle – La Gargola
Record Label: Epic
Release Date: April 1 2014

You know, it shouldn’t be surprising that with the amount of bands and artists out there, some of them aren’t going to do anything for me. There are plenty of bands I love, especially across several genres, such as groups like The Beatles, Tides of Man, State Champs, Of Us Giants, Brand New, and many more. There are bands that I don’t necessarily love, but still enjoy. Post-hardcore act Dance Gavin Dance is one of them; I don’t really love the band as a whole, just specific albums from the group. But there are also bands that don’t quite do anything for me. I mean, they’re not terrible bands or artists, but their music just doesn’t connect with me in the same way that other people and other fans connect with it. One of those bands is Illinois hard-rock group Chevelle. Don’t get me wrong, I like the band; they have a hard-rock sound that melds alternative-metal and hints of prog-rock. A friend of mine is a pretty huge fan of them, and he sent me a record by them last year, 2009’s Sci-Fi Crimes. It was a very unique record, and was less metal and more progressive-rock, but didn’t quite make me fall in love with their sound. I do enjoy prog-rock somewhat, especially when it’s combined with post-hardcore, but Chevelle didn’t do it for me. I found a copy of 2011’s Hats of the Bulls months later, and especially with the announcement of seventh album La Gargola. To get fans excited for the album, the band held a contest for them to submit their own artwork and the best one would be chosen, but all of the finalists did not upload original pictures, instead using Google to aid them, and the band used a different cover. Sadly, however, Hats Off didn’t quite get me to enjoy the band any more than I did with Sci-Fi Crimes.

After listening to lead single, “Take Out the Gunman,” from La Gargola, I wasn’t too interested in taking a look at the album myself. For whatever reason, it didn’t do much for me, and I decided to pass on it. But iTunes Radio was streaming the whole record for a week before its release date, so I thought I’d give it a listen, just to see if I would want a copy. I did like the album, but I felt as though it had to grow on me a little. I didn’t know if I’ get a copy, but I came across it for a really nice price at my local Best Buy store and because I did at least like the record on first listen, it wouldn’t hurt to listen to it more. And I’m really glad I did, because La Gargola is the only record out of the three that I have that I do really enjoy, and dare I say even love, to some degree. There are a few slight problems that creep up in the record, at least for myself, but as a whole, La Gargola is best described as a grower. It’s not a record that totally blew me away on first listen, but with each passing listen, I started to enjoy it more and more. That hasn’t happened with them before and as that same friend put it, this band is an acquired taste. This might be the record that really makes me understand what he meant by that.

Vocalist and lyricist Pete Loeffler has always been something I like and dislike about Chevelle at the exact same time. He’s got a really unique voice, but for me, it just has never connected with me or really appealed to me that much. He’s a good singer and he has charisma and a unique identity, but it just never quite floored me. With La Gargola, however, I almost wrote off his vocals as being boring, lackluster, and flat. But with each listen, his vocals are fascinating. While I’m not in love with his voice suddenly, they’re really interesting on this album. Maybe it’s because Loeffler screams more on this album and so his range of vocals is showcased, or it’s because of a few different kinds of songs, like the heavy “Take Out the Gunman,” which has grown on me quite a bit since listening to the album, or the very soft and post-rock influenced “Twinge,” and ultimately, that track is one of my favorites on the LP. It’s when Loeffler is doing something different that really pleases me. When he’s doing something like a post-rock-esque song, or even just screaming a little bit, his vocals become more captivating. Lyrically, on the other hand, there’s not too much that I didn’t already expect from this group. Loeffler’s lyrics have always been decent, and I’ve never had a problem with them, but this record continues the same feelings. There’s nothing significantly great about them, but there’s nothing bad, either.

For me, what really sells this record is its instrumentation. It didn’t quite help that on Sci Fi Crimes and Hats Off to the Bull, the instrumentation wasn’t bad, but blended together for me and in the end, the record didn’t have too many memorable moments for me to go back to it. La Gargola breaks that trend by having plenty of moments that I look forward to hearing. Even on opening track “Ouija Board,” the heavy guitar tones and the aggressive nature makes me really excited for what’s to come. That song, and a few others are genuinely great, including “Take Out the Gunman,” “Hunter Eats Hunter,” and “Under the Knife.” The two standouts, however, are “One Ocean” and “Twinge.” The latter is a post-rock influenced track, and the former is a more alternative-rock track. Both tracks do work very well, and are two of the best songs on the album. What really works for this album is its variety; the album has its memorable moments, and there isn’t just one or two, there’s plenty to keep the album afloat.

The only slight problems I have with this album are still Loeffler’s voice and his lyrics. His vocals are still decent enough, especially when he screams at various points throughout the album. His lyrics aren’t bad, either, but they’re nothing that I couldn’t get on another album of theirs. Overall, though, La Gargola was a very surprising LP. It took some time to grow on me, most likely because I couldn’t get into their sound beforehand. This has a lot of variety, character, and charisma for me to somewhat get into it, at least. Even fans of the band seem to love this album, praising it for its variety and new sounds that the band was trying out. If the band worked on more of the post-rock influenced material, I could totally get into that stuff. Regardless, La Gargola is the first album by Chevelle that I can truly enjoy and get into. That’s a great thing, and this album will definitely show up on my album of the year list at the end of the year.

Overall rating: 9/10

-Bradley

Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Record Label: Vertigo
Release Date: Sept 18 1970

Fans of metal (and its various subgenres) seem to get up in arms whenever someone either calls something “metal” that’s not, or whenever someone who isn’t a metal fan likes something they do. I don’t understand the elitism that many fans of the genre have, and in a sense, that’s always pushed me away from it, to some degree. I used to listen to a lot of metalcore, post-hardcore, and things like that, but now my tastes are much more mellowed out. I listen to a lot of R&B, indie-rock, pop/pop-rock, and things of that nature. My tastes are much simpler and much more accessible than most other peoples’, but it’s still “good.” Metal has been a genre that’s never quite interested me, honestly, but if there were ever a band or record that came along, I wouldn’t mind taking a look at it. And well, a record finally came along. I’ve been getting into a lot of older music, from the 60s through 90s (even though the 90s aren’t very old), and I have wanted to take a look at something a little different. At a recent trip to Walmart a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of Black Sabbath’s sophomore LP Paranoid. I’ve seen a lot of their records for around $5 everywhere, so I thought it would be something worth picking up. Maybe it would open my eyes up to metal and how good it is, and why fans of the genre are so obsessed with their favorite bands and get so angry/overjoyed when people either hate or love what they do. Does Paranoid achieve that?

Well, the short answer is kind of, but the long answer requires more explanation. Paranoid really surprised me on first listen; I was expecting a very heavy and dark album, and in a sense, that is what I got, but at the same time, I didn’t expect something so memorable and accessible. Back in the early 70s, metal just beginning to form, and some critics consider Black Sabbath to be the first metal band. Their use of very aggressive guitar riffs, dark lyrics that were either nonsensical, or out of this world, and just the way they presented themselves were something totally new that not many people have seen or heard before. With sophomore album Paranoid, the group was beginning to acquire even more success than they did with their self-titled debut, and Paranoid shows why they got that success. To be completely honest, however, this album doesn’t make me want to listen to more metal. It does make me want to listen to Black Sabbath’s discography, but not the genre as a whole. Paranoid is a really good album. For being the first “metal” album that I’ve really immersed myself into, it did its job nicely. It introduced me to something new while still being accessible and interesting. However, it didn’t do as much to get me into the genre as a whole. Nonetheless, Paranoid is a good album and I really enjoyed it.

The only thing I’ve ever really known about Black Sabbath is that Ozzy Osbourne has been the frontman for many years, but hasn’t been their only frontman. And that the band released a new record last year entitled 13. I didn’t listen to it, because I was not a fan, nor quite interested in taking a look, but I did hear about it a lot. And was excited to hear Ozzy’s vocals. Well, they’re good, but not the best part of the album. For a lot of records, the vocals are my favorite part, but not Paranoid. Ozzy’s a good singer, but his delivery kind of bores me a little. He doesn’t sound all that into his own performance, so if he’s not invested, why should I be invested? He does have a nice range, and his voice is unique, but as a whole, his voice isn’t what makes this album for me. I will say, though, that songs like the title track and “Iron Man” (not about Tony Stark, as many believe) are the most memorable songs from the record and the most popular for a reason. These are the best tracks, and they take what works about Sabbath and compiles them into two songs. They’re heavy, but still catchy at the same time.

Well, if Ozzy’s voice isn’t all that interesting (even though it is good), are the lyrics any better? I wish I could say they were, and that they’re my favorite part of the LP, but again, they’re really not. They’re not bad, let me stress that, but they’re not really great, either. A song like “Iron Man” is really cool, because it tells a great story, but as a whole, the album doesn’t do that. If every song did that, I could get into them a ton more, but they don’t, and they just sound like fragments of ideas or nonsensical ideas.

“Okay, Bradley, if your favorite things about the record are not the vocals or lyrics, what is?” Well, reader that didn’t know they were just asking that question until I put the thought in your head, I’m glad you asked. My favorite about this record is the instrumentation. It feels a bit odd saying that, considering that most of my reviews say the opposite, where the instrumentation is either lackluster or just isn’t the best part of the album, but on Paranoid, the instrumentation is great. Guitarist Tony Iommi is a wonderful guitarist and the whole album is lovely instrumentally. On some songs, it gets really fast and loud, like “War Pigs,” and “Hand of Doom,” but a couple of songs are a bit quieter, including “Electric Funeral.” The instrumentation is insanely memorable throughout the LP, and that’s what I remember most about these songs, not necessarily the vocals or lyrics, but the music itself.

There’s only one real major problem I have with this LP, and it’s not necessarily about the music itself. It’s the production. I don’t know if it’s just my copy, or all of them, but the production is really odd. The volume is quite low, and so the record is rather “quiet,” and it’s a bit of an annoyance. It’s a nitpick, but it can be a problem. Aside from that, though, Paranoid is a solid record through and through. It’s not an album that’s converted me to metal, but I do enjoy how accessible and catchy the album manages to be, but still be heavy and dark. Then again, this is when metal had influences in psychedelic rock and blues, things that really show up in this record and others at the time. For being my first “metal” album, it was a great choice, and it’s an album I’d recommend to almost anyone, especially if you want a metal album that still has some accessibility to it if you aren’t familiar with the genre.

Overall rating: 8.8/10

-Bradley

Lionel Richie – Can’t Slow Down
Record Label: Motown Records
Release Date: October 11 1983

There’s a first time for everything, and this is the first time (and probably only time) I will mention the idea of songs being “memes,” which are basically things that spread within a culture, whether it’s an idea, behavior, or style. Internet memes are what most people associate the “meme” with, but there are a few songs that would be considered memes, to some degree. The main one is singer Rick Astley’s 1987 relationship anthem “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which is the song behind the “rick roll,” meaning that one thinks they’re clicking on a video with a relevant title, but that song plays instead. Another song, and probably a lesser known “meme” is Lionel Richie’s 1983 “Hello.” The song is essentially a stalker anthem, with Richie asking a woman if he’s the man that she’s been looking for her whole life and he thinks they’ll fall in love. There’s a picture that’s been making the rounds of the internet for quite some time with a picture of Richie saying “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” Under it, are little perforated strips that have the lyrics from the song on it. I always thought the picture was really funny and I like the song, so naturally, I’ve wanted to listen to the whole record. I ended up unexpectedly finding a copy at a local FYE for $5 a few weeks ago entitled Can’t Slow Down, which is Richie’s sophomore solo LP.

Richie got his start with funk/soul The Commodores, whom are most famous for songs like “Easy” and “Brick House,” the former of which being a Richie composition. Due to his stardom, it was imminent that Richie was going to have a solo career, but sophomore LP Can’t Slow Down is what propelled his solo career even further, which songs like “All Night Long (All Night)” and “Hello.” Little interesting factoid, the former track is player at my place of employment a lot, so I get to hear it every once in awhile. But with Can’t Slow Down being Richie’s most memorable record, how is it? To put it simply, well, it’s pretty good. Sadly, Can’t Slow Down isn’t a record that I can say that I really adore, but I do enjoy it, nonetheless. There aren’t necessarily many problems with it, but the problems it does have do really prevent me from absolutely loving it.

For starters, let’s talk about the good things, and there are plenty of those. The main thing that really is enjoyable about this album is Richie himself; within The Commodores, Richie was almost always the lead singer, and it’s pretty clear to hear why. He’s got a great voice, charisma, and charm that most singers don’t. And his voice range is really good, too; on a song like “Hello,” it’s a very intimate and quiet song, and he knows how much emotion to convey, but on songs like the title track, and “All Night Long (All Night),” they’re much poppier and more upbeat numbers, so his voice is much more energetic. His voice is consistently enjoyable throughout the LP, and he remains very likeable as well.

The lyrics on Can’t Slow Down are also quite enjoyable, too; they’re nothing fantastic, but for a pop record, Can’t Slow Down has decent lyrics. Most of the songs have lyrics one would find on a lot of 70s/80s funk and soul records, basically relationships, love, sex, etc, etc. While Richie doesn’t get either too sexual (here’s looking at you, Marvin Gaye), nor does he really get too energetic and talk about partying (here’s looking at you, Michael Jackson), but he does a mix of both. Most of the songs deal with love and relationships, but a couple deal with having fun and partying, mainly the title track, and “Running With the Night.” The rest of the tracks, however, do deal with basic love, and subjects that we’ve heard a lot before. The thing is, while the lyrics are written pretty well, other artists have done songs like this, and much better. In fact, The Commodores wrote a lot songs dealing with love and sex, and they did it a bit better. A few songs do stand out lyrically, like “Love With Find a Way,” “Running With the Night,” and “Hello,” but if you go into this record expecting something you’ve never heard before, you’ll be disappointed.

To be frank, I have rather mixed feelings on the instrumentation of this LP. One great thing about it is how catchy the hooks of the record are, and Richie does have a great way to using choruses and hooks to his advantage, with “All Night Long” being the perfect example, but at the same time, the record is a bit boring. That doesn’t make sense, doesn’t it? Well, there are some standout moments, including some tracks I mentioned earlier for their lyrics, but instrumentally and musically, again, it’s nothing I haven’t heard before, nor is it really interesting. There’s a reason why the only two songs to really get airplay were “All Night Long” and “Hello,” which is because those are the only two musically interesting songs. Granted, a song like “Running With the Night” does feature electric guitar and a solo within the track, but there are a lot of forgettable moments, too. The hooks, however, are what keep the songs afloat. And it’s this problem that really keeps me from going back to this album over and over, because there are many moments that seem to drag on and don’t really do anything for me.

This album is good as a whole, but it’s really lacks any staying power. This record isn’t anything “new,” but what could forgive that is if it were interesting, but it’s really not. Richie is a good singer and a solid songwriter, but he tends to come off as a poor man’s Michael Jackson than anything else. That is really evident with Can’t Slow Down, which came out a year after Thriller by MJ. Aside from a few choice cuts, Can’t Slow Down is a decent record, but nothing really interesting. It’s worth a listen if you’re a Lionel Richie/Commodores fan, or even a fan of R&B and/or pop music. But if you’re not a fan of any of those things, this is a record that you may not really enjoy. I like it just fine, but it’s not a record I’ll be spinning constantly.

Overall rating: 8/10

-Bradley

Jesse McCartney – In Technicolour, Pt I – EP
Record Label: EightOEight Records
Release Date: December 10 2013

Over the course of pop music, there have been many one hit wonders and the classic question of “Whatever happened to that person?” Well, one such person that I’m sure a lot of people have wondered about is Jesse McCartney. Throughout the 90s and early 00s, McCartney had a very big career, whether he was an actor on All My Children, and various other TV shows, or with his own music career later on in the early to mid 00s. After awhile, however, he kind of just disappeared. He released a few solo records, then kind of fell off the face of the Earth. Well, not quite. A friend of mine recently showed me his Twitter page and while the post was funny, I noticed that he released some new music very recently as well, due to a poster of it on his page. It turns out, the ad was for an EP, entitled In Technicolour, Pt 1, that came out in December.

I took a listen to the EP, and frankly, I regret not listening to it sooner. McCartney has grown up immensely, whether it’s in his voice, or sound overall. This EP is very short, only four songs in length, but it’s very impressive. It reminds me a lot of Justin Timberlake’s double album The 20/20 Experience, mainly because the EP is also a faux-retro homage to earlier styles of music prevalent in the mainstream. While JT went with more R&B and soul, JC on the other hands, takes disco and 70s/80s pop. Does this EP work as well as JT’s double album? Well, the short answer is yes, it does, for the most part. It’s not as ambitious or really as memorable, but it’s still done very well. The four songs on this EP are interesting enough and they’re all catchy and are different from one another. They’re all memorable on some level, and on they’re own, they are solid songs.

McCartney’s vocals are very impressive throughout the EP, even though it’s only about 13 minutes. He really pulls off this style, especially with second track, “Back Together.” That song is definitely an 80s disco track. But his vocals really fit with the moods of the other songs. The first track, the title track, is an R&B-styled intro and his voice is very smooth and quiet. The same goes for the last song, “Checkmate,” which is my favorite song off the EP, and the song also has a very smooth vibe to it, but it’s also very melancholy. And that’s where the lyrics come in. “Checkmate” is the best track lyrically on the EP, hands down. The song uses chess as a metaphor for a relationship and McCartney pretty much says that he has to call “checkmate” on the relationship, because he can’t make any more moves because of the way he’s being treated. As someone who knows how it feels to be stuck in a corner, this is a track that really hits home to me. And McCartney does not come off as happy he’s out of the relationship, either; there’s a whole point in the song where he stresses how he wants things to work out, but she’s not helping him in making that happen.

The other songs, however, are much more upbeat, including “Back Together,” and “Tie the Knot.” The former song is totally the opposite in terms of subject matter, where McCartney can’t get over someone and he wishes they would simply get back together. The latter song continues this idea somewhat by having McCartney and significant other get married. Even the intro song has really good lyrics, dealing with how people live life in “black and white” and he wants to find someone who makes his life feel as though he’s seeing in color, and it’s a clever little idea. But with that being said, “Tie the Knot” is my least favorite song lyrically. It’s kind of lackluster and McCartney sort of comes off as being a womanizer, talking about how up until her, he never wanted to settle down, which is a nitpick, but it’s an annoyance. The song is catchy as all hell, but the lyrics are a bit lackluster. The rest of the lyrics are just fine, especially with “Checkmate.”

The EP is basically an 80s disco-pop album with a couple tracks also having an R&B edge, so if you know that going in, you will either like or you won’t. If you like 80s pop/disco and/or R&B, give it a listen. The instrumentation is easily the weakest part of the EP, because nothing really stands out about it, but it’s produced very well. There’s nothing inherently bad about it, either, it’s just kind of middle of the road. But if this does sound interesting, give it a listen. After hearing “Back Together,” I was very intrigued at the whole EP. And it’s only 13 minutes, so there’s not much to sit through. If you ever wondered where Jesse McCartney disappeared to, look no further. He’s back and making music again and this time, he’s like a little Justin Timberlake.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

-Bradley

Lindsey Buckingham – Out of the Cradle
Record Label: Reprise
Release Date: June 16 1992

When artists leave very well established bands or groups, solo material almost always ends up being the subject of speculation. Most of the time, these artists aren’t done with music as a whole. Take the Beatles for example; despite breaking up in 1970, the group’s members were nowhere near done with music, and all of them had successful careers as either a solo artist or with other bands. For a different example, however, take vocalist/guitarist Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. He rose to prominence within the group during the late 70s, when he appeared with then-girlfriend Stevie Nicks on the band’s self-titled record and the following album, Rumours. The pair, along with the band themselves, became much more popular, with Buckingham and Nicks being part of it. Well, in 1987, Buckingham departed from the band, feeling his creativity was stifled being apart of the group, and before that, he had a couple of solo records, but third solo record, Out of the Cradle, isn’t just a reference to a poem by Walt Whitman, but it’s also a fitting description of where Buckingham was at the time in his career. The Rumours-era lineup of Fleetwood Mac would eventually get back together in the late 90s, but it was a pretty big deal at the time.

I found this record completely on accident at a local Goodwill store, but I had gotten Rumours a couple weeks before that, and really wanted to hear some solo material by one of their biggest members. It was 99 cents, it came out a year before I was born (in 1992, I was born in 1993), and it was from Lindsey Buckingham. How could I deny that combination? What I found, however, was Out of the Cradle is a very creative output from Buckingham, both as a vocalist and a guitarist. Rumours contained a lot of guitar “solos” and memorable guitar riffs from Buckingham, and he gave the band’s mellow sound a bit of a rock edge to it, which worked very well. Pop music fans could still really enjoy the group, and rock fans could get into the group without feeling “uncool” because they listened to something popular. The record specifically was one that could really appeal to anyone, but Out of the Cradle is definitely much more “rock” sounding. There’s a lot of guitar in this album, and it’s done very well. Buckingham’s vocals also get center stage, not having to share with his bandmates, so if you were always a fan of his vocals, this is definitely a record to look at. The record isn’t necessarily perfect, but this is a record that I do enjoy more than I, well, don’t. And I hardly dislike it, but there a couple of slight problems.

The best part of this record is Buckingham’s vocals. He’s not exactly a great singer, but he does have a lot of charm and charisma within his voice. Not only that, but he uses hooks and choruses to his advantage. A majority of the album is insanely catchy, and the parts that aren’t, well, are ballads and slower songs. The only thing is, his voice doesn’t have too much of a range, but the range he does have is great. And it’s forgivable, mainly because his voice is very distinct. Once you hear his voice, you won’t wonder who it is. There’s no other vocalist who sounds like him

Lyrically speaking, however, this album is a mixed bag. While the vocals really hold up throughout the album, it’s the lyrics that I have a hard time really connecting to and really enjoying. That’s not to say any song I can’t relate to personally I don’t like, but Buckingham’s lyrics were best when he talked about relationships and things of that nature. Sure, they were beaten to the death topics, but Buckingham and company really knew how to bring a unique edge to those ideas. On Out of the Cradle, he doesn’t quite do that. Some songs, such as “Don’t Look Down,” “This Is the Time,” and “Surrender the Rain” are really interesting, but others, like “Turn It Down,” “You Do Or You Don’t,” and “Say We’ll Meet Again” are boring lyrically. Musically, no, they aren’t boring, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but lyrically, this album has its highs and its lows, as a lot of albums do. The lyrics aren’t necessarily great, but when they’re good, they’re good. A song like “This Is the Time” is a very vague song, but it sounds so urgent and Buckingham sings it with such conviction that it works. But most of the album is decent enough, but doesn’t really hold up against what he did with Fleetwood Mac.

What saves the songs with boring lyrics is the instrumentation. There isn’t much to say about it, because there is somewhat of a problem with it that really affects the entire album, and it’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Simply put, the album is very consistent with how it sounds, minus a few little changeups here and there, and that’s a good thing because it flows very well together, but a bad thing because it can drag on after awhile. The album is 48 minutes long, and if you aren’t into this style or really unfamiliar with it, this may be an album could bore you. Out of the Cradle is full of a lot of energy, but it’s mostly midtempo numbers, akin to Fleetwood Mac compositions, with a few ballads (“Street of Dreams,” “All My Sorrows,” and “Surrender the Rain”). Some very poppy tracks do appear on the record as well, including “Soul Drifter,” and “Don’t Look Down.” But the one track that does stick out to me is “This Is the Time,” and it’s my favorite for a reason. This is the “rockiest” song of the record, which doesn’t make too much sense, but this song features a fantastic guitar riff and solo at the very end. Buckingham absolutely kills this song, and it’s the “heaviest” on the whole album, so to speak. There are also a few little interludes running throughout the LP as well, and I don’t know why these were added. They aren’t very long, but they do eat up a little bit of time that could be spent on the songs themselves. They’re very brief instrumental introductions, and one of them, the track “This Nearly Was Mine” is an instrumental track. It’s a nitpick, but they could have been maybe tossed or even added to the songs themselves, because they wouldn’t add much more time.

Regardless, however, Lindsey Buckingham’s Out of the Cradle is an album that was a very unexpected find, but also very rewarding. Buckingham is a very talented artist, and this record may not have been very popular, but it’s still very enjoyable. The problems it has are minimal, mainly being some lackluster lyrics and the album dragging on at times, but those are easily overlooked with how good everything sounds and how well the album is produced. Seriously, Buckingham produced the LP himself and he does a darn good job. If you are curious about the solo careers of Fleetwood Mac, give this record a spin if you can find it. I found it at Goodwill for 99 cents, and I don’t regret it one bit.

Overall rating: 9/10

-Bradley

This Wild Life – History – Single
Record Label: Epitaph
Release Date: April 7 2014

Every year, there a couple of bands who pop out of nowhere and really surprise me; they don’t necessarily blow me away, but they impress me quite a bit somehow, whether it’s their sound, or something in it. Last year, pop-punk/emo group Balance and Composure surprised me quite a bit with sophomore LP, The Things We Think We’re Missing. I found a copy of the album at my local Hot Topic, and decided to snag it, because I had nothing else I really wanted. It ended up being one of my favorite albums of the year. This year, however, it didn’t take too long for me to find a band that surprised me yet again. This time, it’s California acoustic/indie duo This Wild Life. They kind of appeared out of nowhere, first being announced for Warped Tour of 2014, so I decided to look into them. What I found was a nice, serene, acoustic band and while they don’t quite do anything unique or truly mindblowing, they’re still fantastic. And just recently, the duo put up pre-orders for their debut album, Clouded, and I ordered the album, which came with a new single, entitled “History.” Well, what do I think of the song?

It’s very damn impressive, for starters. It’s a simple acoustic track that’s very powerful vocally, and that’s easily the best part of the group. Vocalist Kevin Jordan has a lovely voice and really delivers in terms of both emotion and lyrical prowess. The song’s lyrics is where it really hits it for me; it’s a very relatable track, and part of why I love it so much is because it fits perfectly with my life at the moment. The song is about a man (or woman, since it’s not gender-specific) who, despite having a lot of history with someone, feels the need to give up on them, because they keep hurting him and mistreating him. And well, I can really relate to that song, since I’ve just gone through something very similar. The song itself is very good, though; Jordan’s very lush and soft vocals do compliment the quiet acoustic guitar riff that runs through the song. It’s not a complex or technical song, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s not what the song is trying to do. It’s telling a story and an emotional one at that. And not only that, it’s just an impressive track. Even if you aren’t into acoustic or indie music, it’s still an impressive song. And if anything, I’m glad I pre-ordered Clouded, since if it’s full of songs like this, I could heavily get into it. I’m gonna call it now, and say that Clouded will certainly be on my album of the year list come December.

Overall rating: 9/10

-Bradley

Pharrell – G I R L
Record Label: I Am Other / Columbia
Release Date: March 3 2014 

The songs “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky,” and “Happy,” are three of the biggest hits of 2013, had something in common; think about it, what were they? Well, they all had a similar sound, all channeling 1970s funk and soul. Secondly, they were basically about sex, but “Get Lucky” was subtle about it, and “Happy” is merely about being happy, but it can apply to that, I suppose. While those are good answers, but the third thing, and the thing that’s mainly on my mind, is that one musician was a part of all three songs. Who is it? Well, it’s Pharrell Williams. During last year, if anyone said his name, you’d most likely ask, “Who?” And that would have been rather typical, because he wasn’t a household name, despite having been a part of many projects and songs. He’s a very well known producer, but as a solo artist, he’s only released one album, 2006’s In My Mind. It’s been eight years since he’s released an album, but with the success of “Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines,” and “Happy,” Pharrell was asked to make a new solo record, and the news came up out of nowhere; the album was announced in February then came out just a few weeks later. The lead single, “Happy,” was out for a long time, being the theme of the film Despicable Me 2, but other than that, not much was known about the album. It was a given, however, that Williams would explore more of the funk/soul sounds in the songs he was a part of last year, so how does sophomore LP G I R L turn out?

Surprisingly, it’s a record that, well, took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it, but the album was streaming on iTunes the week before its release, so I decided to give it a listen. What I got was a very interesting blend of modern pop music and 1970s funk/soul/R&B. To put it simply, G I R L is one of the best pop records I’ve heard in quite a long time. One of the best records I’ve heard? No, not quite, but for being a pop record, it hits most of its marks. The best thing about it is how it tackles its faux-retro sound. The album features Justin Timberlake on second track “Brand New,” and JT released The 20/20 Experience a little more than a year ago to critical acclaim. The first part of the album does ultimately what G I R L is doing as well; taking retro influence and tweaking it with the artist’s own distinct pop style. JT went into a softer direction, with more R&B and soul direction, channeling his inner Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye at times, while Pharrell is channeling his inner MJ, but also adding more, including The Commodores and Earth Wind & Fire. His influences are more funk-based, and the album is much more energetic, but still just as hard hitting and catchy. The 20/20 Experience did a very successful job at taking those influences, but also adding JT’s own style to the record, going into a more “experimental” approach akin to Frank Ocean in some places. Williams just does what he does best – making catchy pop songs that will be stuck in your head for hours. “Happy” is the main example of that.
 
In all three songs that I mentioned at the beginning, Williams employs his very distinct falsetto, and most people either seem to love it or hate it. I’m in the middle with it, frankly; his voice is very unique and distinct, and he can certainly sing, but at some points, his voice gets really annoying. On tracks like “Hunter,” “Gush,” and even “Gust of Wind,” he almost wails. And aside from that, he also sort of raps and talk-sings as well in these songs. It’s rather strange, and it doesn’t really work for him. But on the plus side, songs like “Lost Queen,” “Happy,” and “Marilyn Monroe,” Williams is great. His voice is exactly what the songs need. Even if his voice doesn’t quite work on some songs, he’s still very charismatic, a ton of fun to listen to, and on a song like “Happy,” he sells it. He sounds like he’s having so much fun singing, it’s hard not to smile and be happy with him. His vocals are more enjoyable than they, well, aren’t. They’re not perfect, but the songs where he shines, he really shines. There are also a few guest spots, too, and they all do mildly well. JT, as I mentioned, has a spot on “Brand New,” Miley Cyrus has an uncredited guest spot on “Come Get It Bae,” and Daft Punk reunite with Williams on “Gust of Wind.” Alicia Keys also a guest spot on “Know Who You Are.” These are pretty decent artists to have on a record like this, with the exception of Cyrus, whom is merely in the background of her song, and isn’t obnoxiously or annoying.

That’s not the case of the lyrics, however; the nostalgia/retro factor is my favorite of this album, with the instrumentation being a part of that, and my least favorite part are the lyrics. The album is supposed to be about Williams’ appreciation and celebration of women, and most critics have said it works or it doesn’t. Again, with his vocals, I’m in the middle. It works in some places, but not in others. A song like “Lost Queen” is a perfect song to use if he’s celebrating women, because that’s exactly what the song does; Williams talks about a woman he’s dating as though she is essentially a “lost queen.” He compares her to an alien by wondering if there are other women where she comes from that are like her, and the song is definitely celebrating how wonderful this woman is to him. Other songs, however, like “Gush,” “Come Get It Bae,” and “Hunter,” don’t quite hit that mark. To be completely honest, “Gush” is my least favorite song on the LP; its sound is nice, but the lyrics just make me cringe. It attempts to be sensual and sexy, but it’s not. I’m sorry, Pharrell, but “gush” is not a sexy word. It sounds gross. “Come Get It Bae,” on the other hand, isn’t necessarily gross, but it’s still cringing, because it talks about having sex with motorcycle innuendos. As one critic that I follow quite a bit pointed out, Bruce Springsteen could make a song like this work (with more subtlety, however), but Pharrell really doesn’t. “Hunter” is a track that is just bizarre lyrically; Williams has said that the song is written in the perspective of a woman, but it doesn’t quite make sense, so just looking at the song, it’s about Williams metaphorically hunting down a woman.

Aside from the odd “story” of the song, this and couple of other songs, do have one of my slight nitpicks with the album, and that’s the insertion of pop culture references that don’t really make sense. In “Hunter,” Williams makes a Duck Dynasty reference, and while it fits in the song, it’s not timeless, it’s not clever, it’s not even worth a laugh. It’s odd, and cringing, to some degree. And in “Lost Queen,” he makes a Geico reference, which is sort of clever, but even then, the pop culture references take me out of the nostalgia and the retro vibes of the record. Other songs, however, like “Gust of Wind,” “It Girl,” and even “Brand New,” aren’t necessarily bad lyrically, but they’re just boring. They don’t feature pop culture references, but the lyrics are either bland or decent. Very few tracks have any worthwhile lyrics, aside from “Lost Queen,” and “Happy.”

Going along with the nostalgia the retro sound that this album has, the instrumentation plays an important part in that, and to put it simply, this does sound like a funk record from the 1970s in some places. But at the same time, Williams does add his own unique flavor to it. A song like “Gust of Wind,” which features Daft Punk on the chorus, has a very funk feel to it, and it sounds like it would be a song from the 1970s, but with Daft Punk sounding very robotic, it sticks out a little. Another song that really stuck out to me instrumentally was “Lost Queen,” because while it’s the only R&B song on the album, it has a very African texture to it, and it sounds really interesting to hear. There’s also a hidden track towards the second half, which continues the R&B trend, but is more simplistic. If there is one song, however, worth talking about, it’s “Happy.” This is the best song on the record, and it’s because it shows all of Williams’ strengths; his falsetto, his knack for a catchy chorus, and the instrumentation that sounds very retro, but still works in today’s market.

Pharrell Williams isn’t an artist I can say I love, and it’s partially because I’m not familiar with his work, but after this LP, I do feel the same way. It’s not a record I’m crazy about, like I was with The 20/20 Experience, but it’s still a fun and catchy record. It’s got nothing offensive, even if some lyrics are cringe-worthy. It’s worth a listen if you are a fan of R&B, soul, funk, or pop music. Pharrell’s one of the top producers in pop music right now, and one of the best things about it is the production. I’m quite happy that I gave this album a listen, and what a coincidence, “Happy” is my favorite song. Hopefully you’ll have the same reaction if and/or when you listen to it, too.

Overall rating: 8.3/10

-Bradley

Sly & The Family Stone - Life
Record Label: Epic / CBS
Release Date: September 1968

The third album for a band can either make, break, or halt a band’s career; in the case of California funk, soul, R&B, and rock group Sly & The Family Stone, third record 1968’s Life, was a rather interesting album. It’s mainly due to the fact that the group didn’t get their breakthrough until 1969’s Stand. The group had a bit of a hit with sophomore LP Dance to the Music, specifically the title track (you may remember it from the a karaoke sequence in the first Shrek film that has many different songs in it, and this song is one of them), but with Life, they faded a bit into obscurity again for a year or so. On debut, A Whole New Thing, it was just that. It was a fiery blend of soul, funk, and psychedelic rock. It was a very odd mix and people didn’t react well to it, but Clive Davis, their label executive, wanted the band to go into a more commercial direction, so that’s where Dance to the Music came in. Afterwards, the group released Life later on in the same year, 1968. This time around, the album was a rather nice mix of what A Whole New Thing and Dance to the Music were going for; the album hit a middle ground between these two sounds. On one hand, Life had a lot of hooks and very memorable parts, but also was still very unique. Granted, Dance to the Music was still very unique as well, but the catchier side of the band and more hooks and memorable moments really came out with that album. With Life, though, they hit that mix of the two records and it comes together perfectly. This album is not considered one of their most popular, but one of their best, nonetheless. It’s a perfect example of a record that has a band moving forward and in the best way.

As always, Sly Stone (real name Sylvester Stewart) is the frontman of the group, and is the lead vocalist, along with performing many other instruments, but there are a few other vocalists, which guitarist and brother Freddie Stone, sister and keyboardist/pianist Rose Stone, and bassist Larry Graham. The vocals, like on each records, are absolutely fantastic. The fact that this group has four vocalists is part of what makes them so great, because they have tons of character and charisma. Every vocalist really hits their mark and then some. Every vocalist is great, and there are no complaints with the vocals whatsoever.

The same can be said for the lyrics as well; they’re wonderful. They don’t really deal with anything truly deep or introspective, that happens on Stand and other releases thereafter, but before that, their lyrics mainly dealt with topics that were important in that time period, and if anything, during their heyday, Sly & The Family Stone was mainly a “hippy” band, talking about, love (“Love City”), peace, and unity (“Life” and “Harmony”), at least on this record they do. They do somewhat on A Whole New Thing and Dance to the Music, but A Whole New Thing was mainly more about relationships and things of that nature, while Dance to the Music was more about music and dancing. Life is at a middle ground again, talking about love, peace, unity, but also having songs about relationships and the dating scene, like “M’Lady,” “Dynamite,” and “Chicken.” And there are a couple songs just about enjoying yourself and having fun, including the track “Fun.” A pair of tracks that really stick out to me are “Plastic Jim” and closing track, “Jane Is a Groupee.” The former track deals with “fake people,” and even pays homage to The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which appears on Revolver. The latter track, on the other hand, deals with, well, groupies. The track doesn’t make the woman in question, named Jane here, seem like a bad person, but just explains she’s more into the band members than the music itself.  The

Lyrically, Life is a very fun time, and really is a product of the times, but it’s not dated or forgettable. The song themes are still relevant today, and some of the tracks about love and peace are really needed. Their naïve sense of optimism can be a bit too much to handle at times, but these are messages that should be heard and spoken about, especially within music. This album is a perfect example of how important music was in the late 60s and early 70s, because this record was released during the start of the Vietnam War and protest songs were everywhere. They were a big staple within our culture and this album doesn’t seem to be necessarily bandwagoning off that idea, but contributing to it. Not necessarily protesting (which is what Stand does, along with 1971’s There’s a Riot Going On), but just expressing some naïve optimism, hoping that things do work out.

It’s in the instrumentation and the overall songwriting itself that shows a nice mix between both A Whole New Thing and Dance to the Music; the former record was rather inaccessible, meaning that it lacked hooks and pop sensibility. The latter record is full of pop sensibility and the entire record is very catchy and memorable. There were some memorable moments on A Whole New Thing, but the record didn’t have any standout tracks or really memorable songs. The whole thing is great, and it’s really grown on me over time, but it’s not the best of the band’s catalogue, either. Life, on the other hand, is considered by some to be the band’s best album, and it shows. Right from the opening track, “Dynamite,” it’s a half hour of nonstop energy. A Whole New Thing was a very energetic album as well, but didn’t quite stick. Life sticks and won’t let go. Songs like “Chicken,” “Into My Own Thing,” “Plastic Jim,” and plenty of others are rather short, but still pack quite a punch and are very memorable. This album doesn’t really feature any slower songs, however; A Whole New Thing featured a few, and Dance to the Music didn’t have any, but there is one song that is a bit slow, and that’s the psychedelic leaning “I’m an Animal.” It’s not a really slow song, but midtempo and rather repetitive with a few slow parts in between. Other than that, though, this record is a very energetic affair, a and clocking in at about half an hour, it’s a lot of fun. There’s also a lot of memorable and interesting guitar riffs in this record as well; this album is a lot more rock oriented than their last two records, and that helps to its advantage.

Life by Sly & The Family Stone is a record that’s worth listening to at least once, especially if you want to hear how funk music started, essentially. This band really helped to pioneer the genre, as well as “psychedelic soul,” which is the combination of psych-rock and soul music. Because this record does have a middle ground between their first and second albums, this won’t be an album for everyone, especially if you aren’t a fan of funk of soul music. But it’s still worth a listen if you want to hear a piece of music history. In fact, that’s how I describe all of their records, but Life is a record that really stands out.

Overall rating: 9.8/10

-Bradley

The Commodores – The Commodores
Record Label: Motown Records
Release Date: March 30 1977 

For quite some time, songs have been used in films, whether they’re “original” songs, like a musical, or songs from other bands and artists to be put into a film, whether it’s a montage, a song that’s referenced or heard by the characters to be used in the plot, or just background music that the characters and whatnot listen to. Sometimes, those choices are really odd, and there’s one case of a song in a film that seemed very out of place. And that song is “Brick House” by The Commodores in the film Muppets In Space. And if you’re familiar with the Muppets, The Commodores, or both, you should realize immediately that these two things do not really go well together. The Muppets are a family friendly group of puppets/marionettes who have a very tongue-in-cheek, meta, and really odd sense of humor but they make people laugh and are really good characters for both children and adults alike, but The Commodores are a funk/soul group that’s been around almost as long as The Muppets, and the song “Brick House” is not an appropriate song, when you look at the lyrics anyway, to put into a Muppets film. The song is only in the beginning montage of the film where the audience is introduced to the characters, but it’s a bit off putting. I saw the film for the first time last year, and just a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of The Commodores album with “Brick House” on it, which is a self-titled record or named Zoom in the UK. I didn’t realize that “Brick House” was that song, let alone even a song that I knew very well, from being in other shows and movies, but nonetheless, I knew who they were and wanted to give the record a listen.

Well, knowing that The Commodores are a funk/soul/R&B group, I already had somewhat of an idea what to expect going into this record, but what I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy it. The Commodores are known for their sound and being one of the top bands/groups within that funk sound. It shows with this record. Like with a lot of albums, however, it’s not perfect and it has its problems, but they’re easily overlooked, because as a whole, this album is a lot of fun. And that’s really the point of it. The problems it does have are very forgivable, because the record is meant to be fun and laidback.

The lead vocalist of the band at the time was Lionel Richie, whom most people may know as either a solo artist or just the dad of Nicole Richie, who’s been famous for basically just being famous, but Richie got his start with The Commodores, and one of his most well known songs is on this LP, which is closing track “Easy.” Richie isn’t the only vocalist on the record, with various other members singing and whatnot, but Richie is the primary vocalist, and to be honest, he does a great job. Lionel Richie’s solo career boomed about five years later after this record was released, and this was the album that made him (along with the group in general) more popular in the public eye. The thing is, though, Richie’s vocals aren’t anything mindblowing or truly revolutionary, like Michael Jackson or Marvin Gaye, but he does try. In fact, songs like “Easy,” “Zoom,” and other tracks do show off his voice. He does a great job with the ballads, and even on tracks like “Won’t You Come Dance With Me,” his voice fits very well with the music.

The same can sort of be said for the lyrics; if you go into this record expecting something that will change the way you think about music, you’ll be disappointed. Lyrically, The Commodores self-titled album is a very straightforward 1970s funk affair, mainly talking about love, dancing, and sex. That’s basically it. Opening track “Squeeze the Fruit” definitely sounds like a sexual innuendo, and the song “Brick House” is another sexually charged track, but the thing is, these songs aren’t obnoxious or in your face about their sexual lyrics. They’re fun, groovy, and funky tunes that you can merely dance to, if you want to block out the lyrical content. But there are songs about love and relationships, too, including “Heaven Knows,” “Funny Feelings,” and “Won’t You Come Dance With Me,” which are all simple love songs that are genuinely sweet, but don’t quite add anything to the record, either. My favorite track, at least, lyrically, is definitely “Easy.” The song is a breakup song, but it’s not your average breakup track, though. The song doesn’t paint either Richie (who sings lead on the track) or the girl he’s talking about as terrible people. Richie paints a picture of a relationship gone sour and he needs to walk away. That’s what the song is about, and when he walks away, he “feels easy like Sunday morning.”

Remember what I said about this album being primarily fun and upbeat? Well, that’s mainly because of the instrumentation. It’s very upbeat, funky, fun, and just laidback. But the thing is, the instrumentation is easily the weakest part of the LP. A lot of the songs are catchy, and they’re a bunch of fun, but it’s pretty standard funk/R&B. There’s not too much that one can take from this record, but the fact that it is a ton of fun and the band don’t really lay on the ballads too thick (there are a few, but the upbeat funk jams are what this record is mainly composed of) makes it forgivable. It’s ultimately become one of my favorite records, and for good reason. It’s one of those records that is meant to just make you dance and have fun. The public surely took notice of that.

Really, the only problems with this album are simple: the lyrics aren’t anything to write home about, and the instrumentation can become rather boring if you’re not a fan of funk/soul/R&B music. I can’t lie and say I don’t see that, but even then, what keeps this record afloat for me is, well, how fun it is. And if you are looking for a fun 70s funk record, you can’t go wrong with The Commodores. “Brick House” is one of the best songs ever written, but on the opposite side, so is “Easy.” The way they are able to seamlessly have two different songs on the record is really interesting, and if you are curious to listen to this band, this is a good record to start off with, because two of their biggest hits are here.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

-Bradley

Neck Deep @ BackBooth in Orlando, FL

March 20, 2014

00:00 | A Part Of Me

01:57 | All Hype, No Heart

03:40 | Over And Over

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Aprilemade – Bright EP
Record Label: Self-released
Release Date: September 18 2012

Having musicians as friends is a very cool thing, but it can become rather awkward, depending on whether or not you like their work. I mean, what happens when they ask you to review their work? Well, the best thing would be to simply be honest and explain that if you don’t like the record or EP, talk about why, or you could take the easy route and just gush over the record, even if you don’t necessarily love it. Thankfully, in the case of my friend Michael, and one of his bands, Aprilemade (composed of himself, Michael Kanne and vocalist Annalise Bush), I really do enjoy them and their debut EP, Bright. Simply put, the EP is a pop-rock/indie-pop affair that doesn’t necessarily do anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but I’ve said before in other reviews, that’s not a bad thing. While Bright is an EP that doesn’t bring anything necessarily new to the world of music, it’s still good and worth listening to. What it does, it does well, essentially.

This reviewer isn’t too fond of female vocals most of the time, with few exceptions, including Hayley Williams (of Paramore), and Stevie Nicks (of Fleetwood Mac). Lately, I’ve been listening to some records by female artists, including Sara Evans, Shakira, St. Vincent, and Stevie Nicks (all artists whose names begin with S). But a while back, I did give Aprilemade’s Bright a few listens and I really enjoyed it. Bush’s vocals aren’t particularly great, but the girl can sing. She has enough personality to keep the songs afloat and the lush instrumentation really complements her voice. And her lyrics are just like her vocals – not bad, and very enjoyable, but nothing spectacular, either. Most of the songs deal with love and the many things that come with it (as many albums do), but they’re still done well here. The songs aren’t cheesy or forced, but they do sound genuine and sincere. A song like “Johnny” is all about how, well, a guy named Johnny that Bush is singing about and just how much she adores him and how she feels like he will be happy with her. It’s a nice track and doesn’t come off creepy or strange, as most songs like that usually do (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift). Another song, “Running In Deep In Love,” is easily the best song on the EP, in terms of vocals, lyrics, and just the overall sound. This is a song about two people in love and, well, it’s great. Honestly, it’s a really nice love song and could even make for a good wedding song. It also features singer songwriter Tim Halperin, and his vocals really complement Bush’s.

The problems with this EP are minimal; for being a cheerful indie-pop EP, it works nicely. If you like this kind of thing, you’ll be in for a treat, but if your tolerance for “generic” music is low, you might not find much to take from it. Granted, while Bright isn’t necessarily a unique piece of work, it’s still good on its own. Again, for what it is, it’s really enjoyable. The only problems it really has is that the instrumentation can be rather lackluster at times, not doing anything I haven’t heard before, even though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can just become a bit drab, considering there are many other albums and EPs in the genre to listen to, and Bright is an EP that doesn’t necessarily differentiate itself from many others. But it doesn’t have to. It’s a good EP on its own, and I don’t think that Kanne and Bush are trying to blow peoples’ minds, but play music they really enjoy and they think others will enjoy. They do have a very accessible sound that many people can enjoy, and this EP is proof of that. If you do want some straightforward indie-pop, give Bright a listen. It just may brighten your day.

Overall rating: 8/10