Friday, June 7, 2013

Frayed Thoughts on “Touch,” Random Access Memories’ Centerpiece

I’m still puzzling together my thoughts on Random Access Memories. Already, a couple of my least favorite songs have been seriously reevaluated as ones I enjoy, and the battle for best track still rages between Giorgio and Williams. But Williams absolutely has the album’s “best moment” in Touch, a towering epic with more grandiosity and pomp than any Daft Punk track ought to have.

If you haven't heard the album yet, but you have heard "Get Lucky," you're okay to dive right into "Touch," Daft Punk's collaboration with songwriter Paul Williams.

Less so than Paul Williams’ desperate opening or closing vocals, the robotic coo of “Hold on, if love is the answer, you’re home…” is easily the most gorgeous melodic line on Random Access Memories, and probably in Daft Punk’s career. It shouldn’t be a surprise; it’s the same kind of simplistic, uncomplicated sentiment with which Williams asked us why there are so many songs about rainbows.

But the rest of Williams’ vocal is far more bitter, uncomfortably recalling human contact long past and the empty promises of relationship. It’s a weird song about alienation, performed with Isaac Hayes-like instrumentation until suddenly it isn’t. The trumpet section is emotionally confusing; the song’s shifts from funk to jazz to chorale are sudden. Maybe the joy of touch (portrayed as a danceable ragtime jazz sequence?) ultimately leads to comfort in the chorus?

“If love is the answer, you’re home…hold on.”

Why “hold on?” Are we worried the narrator is not wanting to hold on? Sorry, obvious rhetorical question; let's try again. Are we telling him to be patient, or just not to give up? Williams’ vocal is weak, not forceful, and the spare loneliness of its a capella is a stark contrast to the massive production on the rest. Are we worried our narrator is about to commit suicide? Emotional suicide?

It ends on a version of the refrain that claims touch has “given too much to feel,” a sentiment more reminiscent of The Wall than The Muppet Show, indicating self-isolation as the result. It’s a weird emotional centerpiece for this album to have about the emptiness of contact; RAM will end on a song very literally about contact with aliens, but more about the excitement of discovery.

I probably have more to say about Random Access Memories, but I’m not sure if it’ll come in the form of reviews or in more incomplete little posts like this. I really want to write something about my odyssey through the entire David Bowie discography a few months ago, and I really need to write about Modern Vampires Of The City. The pop charts are flooding with R&B, and it'll be fun to take that on. And, of course, the year’s third “event” album in Yeezus is just around the corner, and I pretty much can’t help but write about Kanye West.

I’m excited to be writing again; expect more soon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

good kid, m.A.A.d. city Review

Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope
Prod. by Dr. Dre, Anthony “TOPDAWG” Tiffith, et al.

This one’s been rattling around for a while. Not good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which released roughly a year after Kendrick’s independent album, Section.80, which I suppose probably merits a review of its own.  No, my review’s taken its sweet time because I’m extremely indecisive about my opinions on Kendrick’s sprawling narrative on the youthful pressures and fantasies inspired by living in Compton.

Kendrick has neatly wrapped these ideas into twelve official album tracks, although three more that I have not heard are included on the special editions. These form a filmic concept album, more similar to The Wall than The College Dropout in terms of construction; the events follow a linear narrative set in place by the lyrical content and the skits, following the late-night travels of Kendrick at seventeen and his violent, gang-banging friends. Kendrick resists many aspects of their lifestyle, but succumbs due to peer pressure.

Most of these ideas are presented without subtlety; Kendrick’s resistance to violence and drugs are pretty open on “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “m.A.A.d. City,” his lust for neighborhood girl Sherane is vocally present on “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “Poetic Justice,” and so on. This leads to some great moments; “Backseat Freestyle” is a storytelling highlight, explaining how young guys fall into the trap of saying stupid, offensive, and arrogant things in order to chest-beat at their friends. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is a nice reflection on the album’s themes that explicates the mission statement pretty openly over one of the album’s more pleasant beats. “m.A.A.d. City’s” partial criticism of violence comes with a fantastic “YAHK, YAHK, YAHK, YAHK,” which may be the album’s absolute highlight. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” directly follows and is by far the album’s best combination of music, rap delivery, and thematic content. It’s great stuff; to discuss everything that’s in “Pools” would be to ruin the surprises the album contains.

Unlike The Wall, where missing the film or the stage show can leave one completely baffled by the conclusion, good kid aspires to be very comprehensible through its runtime. And, in doing so, the album establishes a very strong sense of place; the tracks drip of a slightly grittier and “more realistic” version of Compton one can draw from N.W.A.’s classic albums. It all establishes a very strong sense of cohesiveness and verisimilitude.

Unfortunately, that may partially be its downfall. The album’s cover declares itself “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and this is true; characters flow in and out of the story and, when Kendrick switches from his young, hubristic teenage character, he switches to another believable youth figure in the story.

But in keeping to these characters, Kendrick loses the ability to write highly impressive lyrics. The lines are extremely conversational (with a couple of notable exceptions) and ultimately don’t stand out as “great rap lines.” It becomes especially apparent when Pharrell’s four-line opening to “good kid” halfway through the album is probably the most well-constructed lyric on the album. What’s more, these characters use gendered and homophobic insults regularly, and while these elements are in-character and don’t seem to be Kendrick’s strong opinions, they’re hardly a positive representation of where hip-hop needs to move to expand out of its limited demographic. On top of that, several of these characters have intentionally annoying or teenager-y voices, with “m.A.A.d. City” largely being rapped through mock voice cracks and a long sequence of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is rapped in a voice given a heightened helium effect.

This would be helped by the album’s beats or hooks, were any especially notable. However, the hooks largely have to be sung by Kendrick, who is decidedly not a good singer. Ultimately, the compromise is inoffensive, but it’s unfortunate that some of these hooks might have been musically interesting. The beats are generally neo-soul samples a la Kanye West and Dr. Dre, which should be unsurprising; while Dre supplies no beats of his own, he has executively produced the album, probably pulling the twelve individual track producers to work together. None of these beats stand out as much as even the middle-ground of Kanye’s oeuvre, though; to not be overly comparative, the best beats belong to “Poetic Justice,” “Swimming Pools (Drank,)” and “Compton,” the best of which inevitably goes to “Compton,” a saved Just Blaze beat with a hook that recalls “California Love.”

But “Compton” doesn’t even compete with “Heart of the City,” let alone “California Love,” and it makes one question whether or not good kid, m.A.A.d. city was best told as an album. It makes me wonder if it would have made a better short film, or maybe it should be a book in the vein of the works of Richard Wright and his ilk. Still, hip-hop is the language that good kid speaks, reads, lives, and breathes, and no version of this story could be told without Kendrick’s indelible sense of storytelling. I refuse to refer to this as a masterpiece or a magnum opus; I believe this idea can be greatly improved upon, and I believe Kendrick himself can do better. But, as it stands, it’s a great thought.

HIGHLIGHTS: “m.A.A.d. city,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Real (feat. Anna Wise)”
NEXT STOP: Nas, “Illmatic”
AFTER THAT: Dr. Dre, “The Chronic”

Sunday, February 10, 2013


So, the Grammys are tonight. I’m probably not going to watch them. That’s not because I have no interest; on the contrary, I’d love to see Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, and Adele perform, and the performances by Chuck D and Sting/Bruno Mars sound magnificently weird. But I’d be watching them alone online (if I can watch them at all) as I don’t have a TV in my room right now. I’m not clear on whether or not they’re actually going to stream the broadcast; they are, however, streaming the Red Carpet and the pre-telecast awards. If I can watch, I might, but the energy will largely be gone from watching with a room full of people who feel like yelling at the screen when Kelly Clarkson inevitably wins Song of the Year.

But the Grammys convinced me that it was worth releasing my (extremely late) 2012 pop music write-up. In case you didn’t already know, I really do like pop music. Quite a bit, it turns out. While I’ve been working on listening to albums for review, I’ve been going back to the pop music of 2012 to pick me up when I’m driving or walking from class to class.

2012 has been a pretty strange year for pop music. Two of the top three Billboard hits of the year were not even definitively “pop songs,” with the indie rock of Gotye and fun. reshaping the way we think about pop music. Their efforts would have been ineffective without the work Adele performed last year, but their style has supplanted Adele’s somewhat, with groups like Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, and The Lumineers all netting Top 100 hits. To be clear, this is a year where Rick Ross has officially been chased off the charts, while Lil Wayne doesn’t have a single song to call his own. This is kind of crazy.

But let’s hit it. I’m gonna write about my favorite and least favorite songs and trends of 2012 in regards to pop music. I’m going to mostly be focusing on songs that released as singles in 2012 that achieved year-end Hot 100 status. Why “released as singles in 2012?” Well, so I don’t use this as an opportunity to tell you how glad I am that Rolling in the Deep is still playing, or that I’m glad songs from Watch The Throne made the year-end charts. And why “year-end charters?” Also so that I make it clear that I’m covering “hit” songs, which is more relevant in terms of worst songs than best. Obviously, there will be more incompetent music released in 2012 than some of my listed “worsties.” But I can easily cover 100 songs, and so I’m going to do so.

But, first, a quick look back at 2011.


I…well, I goofed in my treatment of Adele. Sorry, guys. I’ve come to recognize that “Someone Like You” is a pretty brilliant piece, even if Adele’s voice on the chorus has issues. Dropped an octave or two, it’s drop-dead gorgeous from the first note. And Rolling in the Deep should probably sneak up the list at a pretty rapid rate.

The rest of those best songs? I still like them, but they haven’t stayed powerful throughout the year. Blow and All of the Lights are still great songs, but my top two picks have fallen in esteem for me. We Found Love simply doesn’t have the staying power of “Rude Boy,” and I haven’t had an itch to listen to “You & I” in almost a year. “Party Rock Anthem” is a song I’ve grown numb to as well.

I’m glad “The One That Got Away,” and Watch The Throne eventually saw hit status. That’s already happened for some of the songs that didn’t make the year-end charts for me, and that’s exciting too. 

Ultimately, most of the trends I posted saw major responses in 2012, too. Let’s get into it for real.


5. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift

There was a time where this spot was held by Philip Phillips’ “Home,” which is a pretty song. But something about the catchy and goofy “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is an absolutely fun party song. It’s also Taylor Swift’s best song construction on a single yet, perhaps only surpassed by “I Knew You Were Trouble.” She’s getting better as she gets older, and while her singles reflect a pop focus, she’s doing some interesting things on her albums, too. There’ll probably be a review at some point.

4. “Die Young” by Ke$ha

I maintain that Ke$ha is the standard bearer for pop music. “Tik Tok” became a pop-defining smash, creating a song format used in Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” and P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass” before also setting a tone for the sing-talk revolution. “Blow” served as a refreshing blast of synthpop during a period dominated by “Rolling in the Deep” and “The Lazy Song,” while also laying down the volume required for “Party Rock Anthem.” It helps that it also carries the first half of the beat for PSY’s dominant “Gangnam Style” throughout its runtime. Now, with “Die Young,” Ke$ha’s abandoned the auto-tune, added the kind of drums fun. and Imagine Dragons banged so hard upon throughout the year, and combined those things with the basic chord structure of “Levels”/”Good Feeling” while still crafting one of the best hooks of the year. This is a song that has led to me hearing a different person declare Ke$ha “a guilty pleasure” once per day for almost a week straight, and for plenty of the time since its release. But, if we’re being honest, there’s nothing to be guilty about.

3. “Some Nights” by fun.

Pop music critic Todd in the Shadows probably already put it best, but I’ll paraphrase; if fun. desperately wants to be Queen, then “Some Nights” is probably their “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And, if I’m being completely honest with myself, it actually holds up against some of Queen’s better songs. Sure, it’s not quite “Somebody to Love,” but it’s a gorgeous and brilliant piece of pop experimentation. The elements I adore from Kanye’s “Lost in the World” recur here thanks to the shared DNA of producer Jeff Bhasker.

Anyways, this song is a spot lower than it probably could be because I really dislike the campy spoken monologue in the song’s center.

2. “Climax” by Usher

This one’s probably 90% Usher’s gorgeous voice, and I have no issue with that. While there’s lots of smart songwriting (creating a song about a drawn-out declining relationship named “Climax” that fails to ever really climax while still containing plenty of sexual moaning is pretty much the best use of Usher I can imagine) Usher’s voice simply floats throughout. Diplo’s beat is a great backdrop, too, but I didn’t hear a vocal that came even close.

1. “Take Care” by Drake & Rihanna

I could probably write on this one for days, and at some point probably will. Rihanna sounds absolutely smoldering here, and Drake swings between joyful, loving, melancholy, apologetic, and tortured with absolute alacrity. His voice, while not a gorgeous voice, is emotional throughout, and the delivery is pitch-perfect. Jamie xx’s beat sets a great, energetic backdrop for the performances, and the breakdown after the second verse is absolutely the best moment for pop music this year. I would go so far as to say I’m already confident that “Take Care” is one of the best songs ever to show up on the charts.


5. “Fifty Ways To Say Goodbye” by Train

Can we let Train go? Please? This song has little redeeming musical value (some goofy mariachi horns are its buoy,) and its lyrics are absolutely beyond absurd. It’s nonsense. It doesn’t help that it’s a song about how, after a non-mutual break-up, the narrator tells all his friends that his ex-girlfriend is dead because he can’t admit she dumped him. It’s supposed to be funny, but the jokes don’t play, and Pat Monahan is too old to sell the comedy anyways. You’re forty three, Pat, and you’re no Jeff Foxworthy, let alone a Jim Gaffigan or Louis C.K. Try something else.

4. “Drunk On You” by Luke Bryan

Luke Bryan seeks to write a love song, but its lyrics are just too hammy to sell his superficial lusting. I don’t like coming after country; it’s full of easy jokes and traps tied to ignorance of the genre. But I like some country, and this falls well below the standards. The music is very mediocre, but the lyrics are absolutely crazy bad. Non-rhymes, mhmms, the absurd “We’ll take it off on out in the water,” it’s just poorly constructed. Smart songwriting could pull it from the brink, but it’s nowhere to be found.

3. “Work Hard Play Hard” by Wiz Khalifa

This is mostly here as punishment for the second-worst hook of the year. I have no problem with luxury rap, though nothing here is especially good. I just never want to hear the “WORK HARD PLAY HARD” part of it ever again.

2. “Want U Back” by Cher Lloyd

Okay, now, here’s the first song I have trouble actually sitting through top-to-bottom. Yes, Cher Lloyd is attractive. No, she’s definitely not cute. She’s obnoxious and immediately reminds me of everything men think about the women that want to continue a relationship after a break-up. She can’t sing well enough to carry the song, and the beat is a muddled rehash of the significantly better “Party in the USA.”


1. “Birthday Cake (Remix)” by Rihanna & Chris Brown

It really speaks for itself. When I reviewed Rihanna’s “Talk That Talk,” I said I’d be okay with almost any song from the album becoming a hit single. This was the exception, a lame fragment of a joke track that, it turns out, would set up for the full single featuring Chris Brown. The Rihanna/Chris Brown collaboration would be questionable all the same, but Turn Up The Music is, at least, a semi-decent song. This is not close. It’s truly, truly awful. Please, please, please take it away.

WISH YOU WERE HERE: Seven songs that might have made my list, were they hits. Obviously, “Thrift Shop” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” have decent shots at being 2013 hits, but they absolutely belong. Videos linked by song title.
-“Skyfall” Easily would have snuck up the list.
-“Bom Bom” Not a popular song in the States, but has had small crossover thanks to Sirius XM. It’s fantastic.
-“Share My Love” R. Kelly's best song in years. An absolute contender, at least. So damn good.
-“Sweet Life” Also would have taken “Thinkin’ About You,” but “Sweet Life” is preferred.

WILL BE SAD TO SEE YOU GO: Five songs that were hits in 2012, but released in 2011.
-“Somebody That I Used To Know”
-“Ni**as in Paris” Pretty much the Django Unchained of pop music. I presumed it could never be a hit, and I was wrong.
-“We Are Young”
-“Lights” Apparently, this song is nearly three years old. Who knew?
-“Young, Wild, And Free” This, along with “Locked Out Of Heaven,” have reversed my “Bruno Mars as Worst Trend” statement. So, yay!

-“I Can Listen To All Of This!”
Except for the completely awful “Birthday Cake (Remix,)” I can at least sit along to almost everything on the radio lately, and I’m enjoying a ridiculous amount. Searching through the Hot 100 for songs this year was little work because I’d already heard and enjoyed most of my choices, and whittling my worsties down was far, far easier than reducing myself to only five besties.

-“The Singers are Back!”
Last year, I complained that Adele and Lady GaGa were the only people showing off vocal chops on pop tracks. Now, we have Usher’s most beautiful vocal yet, Bieber’s voice has come into its own, the indie rock stars generally have great voices, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift have only gotten better, and even our new folks like Carly Rae Jepsen and Ellie Goulding were pretty darn great. Let’s keep this trend up, please.


Guys, it’s weird having R&B vocals, rap songs, dubstep drops, light country, indie rock, synth pop, and whatever we want to call Drake and Alex Clare all showing up on the radio as a happy family. We even had a foreign language hit in Gangnam Style. Trends have gone insane.

-“Hard Rap On A Rise!”
“Mercy” is a top 40 year-end hit. Along with “Young, Wild, & Free” and “Ni**as in Paris.” This is incredible. And inexplicable. I love it. Let’s keep it up.

-“Death of Empires”
The first hit by an established artist on the top 100 year-end billboard chart is #4, with Maroon 5’s “Payphone.” After that, it’s #8, with Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” which was a hit last year. Of the top 10 songs, only three are by megafranchise artists.  That’s 30%. Taylor Swift’s highest charter is #33; Adele’s only brand-new song didn’t even make the list. Usher’s only charting song is at #72 on the charts. We’re finally allowing in new artists en masse, and it’s fantastic.

-“Radio Just Not Getting It”
Okay, this is the first of two complaints about radio stations. The radio doesn’t know what to do with all the indie rock and R&B they’re getting asked to play.
This remix of “Somebody That I Used To Know” says it more accurately than anything else could.

-“Radio Pushing Junk On Us”
While there’s mostly listenable stuff on the radio right now and loads of variety, the radio stations themselves worked hard to sell perceived franchises that have never really been all that huge. I feel like I was hearing Pitbull and Kelly Clarkson non-stop, only nobody seems to care.

-“2 Chainz”
Look, guys. I don’t care what you guys do in your own time, but don’t make me listen to 2 Chainz, please? He’s on two hit singles this year, and that’s not even close to the only 2 Chainz that’s getting radio play. Unlike other rappers getting play, he’s enthusiastic; he’s also really, really bad. I can’t imagine he makes the charts often, but I just don’t think he’s cut out to be a radio staple.

-“Rihanna’s Fall”
What happened, Rih? First she dropped “You Da One” and “Where Have You Been” at the very start of the year when “We Found Love” was still massive. Drake also dropped “Take Care” at the same time. Then, she followed with the awful “Birthday Cake (Remix)” and “Turn Up The Music (Remix.)” That’s six songs on the radio at once. By the summer, everyone I talked to was completely sick of Rihanna, and I wasn’t any of her songs other than “Take Care” on the radio. “Diamonds” came out to almost no fanfare. Mismanagement of her potential (and legitimately interesting songs!) led everyone to be completely sick of Rihanna at year’s end. I’ve still got her poster hanging in my room, but that might not maintain forever.

-“Chris Brown’s Rise”
Chris Brown is on three hit singles this year. He’s still not good, he’s still a terrible person, and if we’re going to continue to berate Yeezy for taking a microphone at an awards show and dating/impregnating Kim Kardashian, we had better continue to berate Chris Brown for his extreme rage-fueled violence. The worst person in show business.

That, my friends, marks the end of my reflections on 2012 pop music. What’s up for 2013? Lady GaGa is set to release artPOP, which should definitely be interesting. I’d be shocked if new Drake, Adele, and Katy Perry albums don’t happen in 2013 as well. Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting to see how we follow up the revolution that was 2012. Thanks for reading, everybody.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Channel Orange Review

Def Jam Recordings
Prod. by Frank Ocean, Malay, Om’mas Keith, Pharrell

The sensation that is Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange seems to have somewhat come and gone. While there was an extreme amount of excitement for the album at the time of its release, the lasting musical contribution from July has been PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” a possible “classic” that deserves its own write-up. It’s refreshing to be able to review the album without evangelists shouting about how it’s saving the world of pop and R&B music.

It’s also extremely helpful, because I really like it.

Channel Orange is an album that displays some huge potential, should Frank Ocean succeed at combining his best features regularly enough to make an entire album as strong as the best songs on Orange. There are some smart lyrics, some gorgeous melodies, some really high-quality instrumentations and beats to back them up, and then there’s some absolutely fantastic singing to soar through it all. And while the stars don’t really align often enough to combine all of those things, the majority of the work on Channel Orange is compelling.

Attempting to apply any hard and fast rules beyond the quality of Ocean’s voice is facile, as every single one of them has an exception. But, generally speaking, the album does follow a structure. The first seven or eight songs are more hip-hop styled songs focusing primarily on young kids who have everything and waste it on apathy, drug use, frivolous sex, and suicidal thoughts. After that, the album primarily explores the ideas of unfulfilling relationships through guitar-fusion and Drake-style R&B.

While a reading of the album as an exploration of the last twenty years or so of hip-hop is entirely possible as well, it probably makes the most sense to see the album as the personal accounts of Frank Ocean. Ocean wrote the lyrics while his friend Malay wrote the majority of the music, and both will hopefully have a storied continuous career together. The beats on the first half of the album are generally rather fun and upbeat, with “Sweet Life” being the most fun one can find on the album.

But, in many ways, the album would benefit from having about 5 or 6 less songs than it currently has. For one thing, the first seven songs pretty much all focus on the same ideas, and the shorter interludes (apart from the fascinating intro) fail to add much thematic definition. They’re not “bad,” just distracting, and they artificially add to the ridiculous track count on the album. The ten-minute “Pyramids” is the bridge between the two halves, and it’s probably five minutes too long. The latter half of the album is intentionally slow, and while it contains my absolute vocal highlight (“Bad Religion”,) it fails to captivate like the first half. One song, “Pink Matter,” has received a remix since release featuring a verse from Big Boi leading into Andre 3000’s, and Andre’s delivery makes far more sense when his old OutKast compatriot sets the tone for delivery. Apparently, Big Boi’s verse was originally recorded for the album, but Andre requested Ocean remove it from the official release. This was a mistake.

In terms of establishing itself as an album to be heard, these issues will vary from mildly frustrating to niggling details. Fans of falsetto singers, especially in R&B and pop, should absolutely check out Channel Orange. While my issues keep it from entering my permanent lexicon, it’s an album I enjoy quite a bit, and will probably never object to listening through with a partner.


HIGHLIGHTS: “Sweet Life,” “Bad Religion”
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: “Pyramids,” “Pink Matter”
NEXT STOP: Drake, “Take Care”
AFTER THAT: R. Kelly, “Write Me Back”

Sunday, October 28, 2012

2112 Review

Prod. by Rush and Terry Brown

It’s obviously worth noting that I come into these Rush reviews with a slightly predetermined mindset. In any review of the band Rush’s music, I will do my best to displace my previous distaste for the band, but I will repeatedly make it clear that, in the past, Rush has most certainly not been my thing, and I am here to challenge that idea and try to enjoy a band millions around the world revere.

Well, I did it. I finally finished my guided tour through Rush’s highlights. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve made it to the other end. Some probably expected I’d learn something really edifying or vindicating in listening through Rush’s albums.

But, ultimately, all I’ve come to discover is that this band is not for me. At least, not in the 70’s. Maybe one day I’ll check out their later material, but none of the three albums impressed me far beyond my expectations.

2112, the half-concept album of Rush’s early years, is by far the album I liked least in my experience with the band. It’s ultimately just the 2112 suite coupled with a pretty significant list of filler that refuses to fit into the concept. Everything on the album other than the suite is lower in innovation and quality than anything on Fly By Night or Moving Pictures, including the kind-of-terrible-but-still-endearing “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” There’s nothing to point out as especially notable on the back half. It’s all just completely bland. The only piece worthy of any kind of note is 2112.

Alone, as an album, that ultimately dictates the kind of score I’m going to give it. So, I’m going to tell you, absolutely don’t buy the album unless you’re a hardcore fan of the kind of music Rush releases on their 20-or-so other albums. But, I’m going to tell you that you should absolutely listen to “2112.” It’s at times a beautiful acoustic piece that showcases the best Geddy Lee vocals I’ve yet witnessed by Rush. At other times, it’s a relatively high-energy but ultimately boring prog anthem, but these sequences move without consequence. And, last but certainly not least, it’s a master-class in displaying when singing “in-character” can go too far.

It’s kind of amazing, really. The ultimate obstacle to me enjoying Rush has been Geddy Lee’s voice, and yet his singing in the “discovery” sequences of 2112 is actually quite pretty, so far as rock singers are concerned. And they also destroy the piece, as the sections in which he sings as the “monks” scared me away years ago with their extremely shrill screaming. I refuse to believe someone can enjoy the sound of Lee’s screech on “2112.” It’s believably in character, helping to establish that the monks are oppressive and nobody should like them. But it’s absolutely too much, and the fact that it gets equal share with the discovery sequences causes the song to fall apart.

The prog sections make up most of the transitions between the “monk” sequences and the “discovery” sequences, and they’re mostly bland. There’s some more really great technical guitar work by Alex Lifeson, but these sequences just don’t add much to the soul or thematic content of the piece. As a result, the 2112 suite is ultimately as flawed as the record it sits upon in my eyes, but it’s a musically solid song with some absolute highs.

Listen to 2112. But skip the album.

NEXT STOP: Pink Floyd, “Animals”
AFTER THAT: The Who, “Tommy”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fly By Night Review

Prod. by Rush and Terry Brown

It’s obviously worth noting that I come into these Rush reviews with a slightly predetermined mindset. In any review of the band Rush’s music, I will do my best to displace my previous distaste for the band, but I will repeatedly make it clear that, in the past, Rush has most certainly not been my thing, and I am here to challenge that idea and try to enjoy a band millions around the world revere.

Sound the alarm; I really, really like parts of Fly By Night. As an album, it’s as deeply flawed as Moving Pictures, and the highs aren’t quite as high as “Tom Sawyer.” But Fly By Night exposes a Rush that is more interested in other people’s music than their own; only a couple of the songs on Fly By Night sound like definitive Rush anthems, while the rest seem to be Rush taking on other people’s sounds. Some of these experiments turn out really, really awesome; others work less well.

First, what works; “Anthem” and “Best I Can” are a rollicking force that is undeniable. “Anthem” is more mathematical than most of what appears on this album, but like “Limelight,” the band mostly stays together, letting guitarist Alex Lifeson take the lead instrumentation on the song. Geddy Lee and Neil Peart keep their rhythm in check, but the vocal by Lee is still grating on “Anthem.” It’s not enough to ruin the slick, somewhat blues-y ride, but a performance with a better vocalist would be highly engaging. Peart, in particular, manages to produce a drum beat that is fun to listen to without being overwhelming, a task Peart can find difficulty accomplishing. It’s moments like “Anthem” that let me remember Peart’s talent rather than find myself aggravated with his arrogance.

Honestly, though, I don’t think there’s a band that would top Rush’s performance of “Best I Can,” a song that is so non-definitively Rush that I wish, wish, WISH this had been their direction all along. “Best I Can” absolutely reeks of a fusion of blues-driven hard rock and pop rock at the same time; think the world’s best fusion of AC/DC and Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back,” however anachronistic that may be. Lee is singing a harder, deeper vocal than usual as well, with a voice echoing Bon Scott and Brian Johnson on their best days. In case you can’t tell, I’m absolutely floored by how much I like “Best I Can,” down to its very Joe Perry riffs, its absolutely killer instrumentation on the hook, and a sweet guitar solo by Lifeson. While I can understand that it’s lacking in iconic moments (see “Tom Sawyer” drum fills, “Spirit of Radio” opening, etc.) it’s a fun, fun song.

There are a couple other songs that work, though not nearly as well as “Best I Can.” The third track, “Between, Beneath, and Behind,” is a fun (if overly mathematical) high-tempo jam. Moments of it remind me of “Ballroom Blitz,” but I would definitely rather listen to the Sweet classic every time; the hook’s attack is repetitive very, very quickly, leaving me indifferent every time. And “Making Memories” contains some quality guitar work as an attempt to take on the style of southern rock outfits like Lynyrd Skynyrd; Lifeson really nails that impression in the solo, which is highly technical and filled with twang. The rest of the song is a pretty fun acoustic jam with some great bass work by Lee.

Now, while half the impressions work shockingly well, the rest struggles to excite or entice me. “By-Tor And The Snow Dog” begins with a relatively unimpressive and standard Rush jam, which is too calculated and mathematical for my tastes; Lee’s vocal is shakier on this song than any other, as well. The second half of the song contains a long psychedelic jam, perhaps an attempt to capture what fellow “prog” outfit Pink Floyd had been up to on Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon, but it fails miserably to sound like anything other than aimless noodling. Considering there’s plenty of Pink Floyd that sounds the same way, I can’t blame them for failing, but it is still a failed experiment. Unlike some of these other songs, no member manages to do anything especially memorable or impressive, leaving “By-Tor” bloated and flaccid. These same words, bloated and flaccid, would probably describe my feelings on the rest of the album.

Of course, most people are probably surprised I’m not very into “Fly By Night,” the album’s lead single and title track. And it’s not bad, it’s just very, very boring. It’s distasteful to me for many of the same reasons I didn’t like “Vital Signs” or “Witch Hunt”; the song is aimless math gone awry, never really letting itself find an identity or escape the confines of its prison. The guitar solo is fine, but it fails to impress much more than your average Journey guitar solo, a comparison that is not complimentary.

“Rivendell” intrigues me, though. Now that there’s Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings to define that saga, perhaps it’s impossible for me to truly sift back into the world of Tolkein’s imagination, but “Rivendell” does momentarily evoke a very small amount of the energy I remember feeling towards The Hobbit. That said, it’s miserably performed by Lee’s weak vocal, it’s excessively long at almost 5 minutes, and nothing changes after the first chorus is reached. But if “Rivendell” were one of the few windows into Tolkein’s world, I could imagine that it’s a relatively decent success in that department.

Overall, Fly By Night is an interesting sonic collection, especially for fans of Rush. It’s this moment in musical history when Rush didn’t really know who they wanted to be. This is the moment just before Rush became one of the most ego-centric, sonically self-feeding bands in the world; this is when they were listening to everyone else and putting together anything that stuck. It’s exciting for the same reason Rubber Soul is a fascinating hinge in the career of The Beatles, or for the same reason we should all be excited for Green Day’s ¡Uno!/ ¡Dos!/ ¡Tres! trilogy, or Muse’s electro-heavy The 2nd Law. And while Rush’s impressions mostly pale in comparison to the originators of the style, some of these impressions are worth hearing on their own merits.

HIGHLIGHTS: “Anthem,” “Best I Can,” “Making Memories”
By-Tor And The Snow Dog,” “Fly By Night,” “Rivendell”
Aerosmith, “Toys In The Attic”
Elton John, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Pause

I’m in the midst of preparing my Rush “Fly By Night” review. It’s in pure stream-of-consciousness notes mode. That’s not a process I normally uphold, but within the first moments of Fly By Night, I knew that kind of attention would be required. So, I have two pages of notes on the album. They total to about 1200 words, which I’d probably reduce to 600-800 and then expand to 800-1000. I know what score I’d give the album, and I’m already pretty happy with my write-up process thus far.

However, I’m feeling very ambivalent about the process of reviews. And, in some small way, it’s because of Tony Scott. Very long read after the jump, but I'd very much appreciate your readership.