Popular Science (MGMT, Little Dark Age review)

We all have a little darkness inside of us, some of us embrace it, some of us run from it, and other find a way to little it simmer just under the surface. Adding some texture to life.

 

MGMT – Little Dark Age

released February 9, 2018
********* 9/10

MGMT is an American rock duo comprised of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser. They’ve been playing together since 2002, well before you would’ve expected from a band that hit the big time back in 2007, I remember because it was at the apex of indie electronic music. The singles Kids, Electric Feel, and Time to Pretend were everywhere that year, in movies, on the radio, and at most of the clubs I attended.

Yeah, this was back when I went to clubs, looking for loves.

And TBH, that music perfectly fit with the beautiful nihilism of the day, but I didn’t want to be part of it, so I ignored them, even though Ornacular Spectacular was clearly an amazing album. Then they followed it up with Congratulations in 2010, and it was even more experimental, but I had moved on and wasn’t really into that kind of music anymore. Around the time that the self-titled MGMT landed, the duo weren’t even on my radar, as in, I just discovered that Little Dark Age is their fourth studio album, and not their third one.

And thus, the history lesson concludes, because the boys appear to have some full circle. Older and wiser, fortunately for us, because Little Dark Age is their best album to-date and the sythn-pop was always their strong suit anyway, that and a subtle darkness, which is not unappreciated in the album title.

She Works Out Too Much is a perfect opener, capturing the challenges of dating in a smartphone app era, and later accented by TSLAMP. Then comes the big kahuna, the title track (Little Dark Age) which has been on everyone’s mind since it dropped as a single back in October of 2017. If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear Gary Numan, The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and a host of other emo progenitors. Geez, now that I think of it, I can even hear the Police in there – and that’s an incredible thing.

Me and Michael is perfect in it’s subject, a quant song about friendship. That pairs well with Days That Got Away and When You’re Small.

It’s the kind of album that I know will get better with repeated listens, and I can almost guarantee will find a place on my shelf in years to come. Dare I say it, this album might even have me aching for possession of their back catalogue.

And if you’re worried that the album slows down too much as you sink into it, One Thing Left to Try is just as upbeat as the opening songs.

I’m glad that we were able to get back on track with MGMT, and even though their third album should have been the point where they came back stronger and wiser, not every flower blooms at the same time, and we can’t fault a band which debuted on a high note, without understanding the intricacies of their relationship with music and popular culture.

Pros: Obviously the return to pop music is a welcome change. And inserting notes of psychedelic rock into the mix has proven to be a recipe for success.

Cons: I know that Ariel Pink had a hand in When You Die, but I find it difficult to separate his production from MGMT’s natural sound, and all it does is make me want to listen to his music instead.

Runtime: 44 minutes

Points of Interest: The record was conceived partly out of the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, and partly because of a desire to return back to their roots.

I guess all it took was some time for these two college friends to embrace their identity and make music which suits them. I’m personally thankful for the opportunity to revisit their music, and I truly do believe that they’ve matured into their sound finally.

theories Summarized

Do I think that you should give this album a listen? Absolutely. I didn’t really expect to like this record, as I had avoided MGMT for years, but as I sit in my office on a warm March evening, I can see fairly easily how this will become one of my favourite albums this year. Yes, I’m calling it a quarter of the way through.

And speaking of bands that got better with age. Brendon and I wanted to remind you of one of the greatest punk rock albums of the 1990s, The Offsprings SMASH. This is seriously one of my favourite albums ever, and if you’ve never heard it before, you are in for a treat. But if you have listened to it before, and you needed a reminder, give it solid listen, and appreciate their skillful guitar playing, choice lyrics, and exciting melodies.

Thanks for taking the time to read the review, watch the video review and hopefully you’ve left a comment or two. If you liked what you saw, click on the like button, and even better, subscribe to the channel! Come back tomorrow for a film review about Darkest Hour. There’ll be more theories!

Tim!

Suspended Animation (Asking Alexandria, Asking Alexandria review)

It’s evolution baby.

And if you think an old dog can’t perform new tricks, you haven’t seen what a day at home alone and the treat of steak will do as a motivating factor.

If you’re still confused what that means for this weeks Watch Culture review, maybe just ask?

 

 

Asking Alexandria – Asking Alexandria

released December 15, 2017
******* 7/10

Asking Alexandria are an English rock band, comprised of lead vocalist Danny Worsnop (returning after a short one album deparature), guitarists Ben Bruce and Cameron Liddell, drummer James Cassells and bassist Sam Bettley.

Initially formed in 2006 by Ben Bruce, the band evolved into a six piece in 2008 and then adjusted their lineup one more time before their debut album in 2009 – Stand Up and Scream. Asking Alexandria released two more full length albums Reckless & Relentless (2011) and From Death to Destiny (2013), before the departure of Worsnop in January 2015. At that time Denis Stoff and the rest of the band released The Black in 2016. But Stoff didn’t last very long and left the band within the year, with Worsnop returning to lead live performances before his official return. And so we arrive at the fifth album and what a doozy it is. It’s self-titled and a very hard turn away from previous efforts, but it feels oh so fresh.

For starters, the self-titled album is much less metalcore and much more melodic hard rock in sound. When you listen to track no. 2 Into the Fire, you’ll immediately notice how they’ve dialed back on the guitars, and tried to fill that void with more electronics. Yes I ignored the track opener, which I’ll get back to in a second, because Into the Fire is the first single, and a signal that these guys have converted to full on arena rock.

Alone in a Room is a hallmark of high end production, multi layered sonics, and thoughtful lyrics, a typical hype machine to get you started with the tone of the rest of the record. Under Denver follows similar notes at the midpoint, and is a welcome pick me up.

The third and fourth songs are a bit of a wash (Hopelessly Hopeful, Where Did It Go?), with Where Did It Go? being particularly self-congratulatory… but when we get past the ego stroking, the next rack, Rise Up, is a sobering moment and way more naturally motivating to listen to.

 

For all of the effort to move away from their original successes, Worsnop and the rest of Asking Alexandria do make a point to nod to their past. When The Lights Come On features a lyrics form Stand Up, and Room 138‘s chorus is the same melody as the bridge from another song on that first record. On top of that, Room 138 is an excellent unofficial closer with lots of emotions packed into 3 minutes and 44 seconds.

 

Pros: Later tracks seem to fit the bill and redeem this tonal shift. Vultures, When the Lights Come On and Room 138 are all very enjoyable to listen to, and Under Denver will also grow on you if you give it some time.

Cons: Eve should have been a demonstration that Asking Alexandria still ‘had it,’ but the vocal work and backing instrumentals don’t stand up (pun not intended) and comes across weakly. Ironic given that it was the first song recorded. And I love combining rap and rock as much as the next guy, but Empire is hokey at best and offensive at worst.

Runtime: 47 minutes

Points of Interest: This is their first album working with producer Matt Good, a staple in the post-hardcore community. And Taylor Larson mixed the record, which is excellent, because because he played with Good in the band From First to Last for a couple of years.

It’s obvious that these guys enjoy making music together, and their creativity is alive and well, even if not all of the new songs gel well together. This is not the renewal of a sound we’ve heard before, and that’s going to upset some purists. But I really enjoyed the anthemic tone set and the risks they’ve taken to make this record, even if it doesn’t all work together perfectly.

theories Summarized

A great album to celebrate the return of Worsnop and an opportunity for them to explore a direction to take in this next chapter, deciding to self-title the album was a symbolic move and I appreciate the thought. I have a theory that this isn’t the last we’ve heard from Asking Alexandria. But I won’t tell.

Tim!

The Ultimate Question (N.E.R.D., No_One Ever Really Dies review)

I love it when music gets you questioning the core of things.

If an album can instantaneously shift my thoughts elsewhere, I know that it is moving, effective, and worth my attention. But yet, when it comes from a source that isn’t expected.

 

 

N.E.R.D. – No_One Ever Really Dies

released December 15, 2017
******** 8/10

Pharell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shae Haley are lifelong friends and the members of the rock. funk and hip hop group N.E.R.D.. They formed back in 1999 as a side project for Williams and Hugo’s production team, The Neptunes; which had been producing songs for several artists throughout the late nineties and early 2000s, including another childhood friend, Timbaland. Their first album In Search Of… debuted at number 61 on the Billboard 200 in 2002, and sold 600K copies in the US, giving it gold status by the RIAA.

The second single, Rock Star, was what first drew my attention to the group.

Since that time N.E.R.D. have released four more studio albums with No_One Ever Really Dies showing up after a seven year absence from the public eye. Pharrell is probably the best known of the three members, having created two solo albums of his own (remember that single Happy that was part of the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack?), and also branching out into various media including film and clothing retail.

2017 will likely be remembered as the year of minority rights, especially as it relates to the first year of President Trump in the minds of American musicians. There were some great albums out there that reflected this from LCD Soundsystem, Sampha, Tyler, the Creator, Jay Z, Vince Staples, Common (technically over a year ago BUT STILL RELEVANT), and not surprisingly, Kendrick Lamar.

So why does this album work? Well believe it or not, conscious hip hop seems to be here to stay and N.E.R.D. were already diverse enough to take on the mantle without it hurting their street cred. Whereas someone like Eminem did make similar tone choices and even collaborated with similar artists on his own responsive album Revival, but his album just doesn’t stand up. And yea, Eminem was arguably the King of Hip Hop between 1995 and 2005, be he hasn’t really evolved in a constructive way in the past ten years, and the fact that he was a big deal with a distinct sound may be what hurt him this year.

I realize I’m almost four hundred words into this post and I still haven’t spoken about the songs on it. But the reason why I haven’t decided to focus on the songs themselves is because N.E.R.D. has always been a backburner to the genius of The Neptunes. All of their ideas and talent and creativity channelled into other artists, and the energy we got on In Search Of… and other albums was realistically a rougher and more exploratory sampling of what Williams and co. had left in their tanks at the end of a long journey. But that’s a good thing here.

It seems like no one really knows what to do about all of the problems going on in the world and America is so desperate to address all of it’s problems that music activism is in demand right now. N.E.R.D. have taken all of that energy and channeled it into a mix of feelings yet again. And that’s why this album is so appropriate for it’s time. We need rock, funk, R&B, soul, disco, pop, and hip hop all to work together for once, because if we don’t try to get along it’s only going to get worse out there.

Now is it innovative? No, because the musical themes are all ones that N.E.R.D. have been exploring for a decade, which is why it doesn’t get an A+. But improvement is still improvement folks.

 

Pros: Lemon and Don’t Don’t Do it are just amazing to listen to. Courtesy of Rihanna’s jaw-dropping rap and Kendrick Lamar’s choice verses, respectively. But the nervous energy and urgency of the whole record are cathartic to listen to, knowing that N.E.R.D. like to force weird shapes like prog-rock and soul together.

Cons: Some of these artist collaborations are a little too serious for the sweet mixture of silly and subversive that N.E.R.D. are tapping into. Ahem, Future.

Runtime: 51 minutes

Points of Interest: Don’t Don’t Do It!” features K. Dot and Frank Ocean, and is inspired by the police shooting death of North Carolina’s Keith Lamont Scott. Ed Sheeran features on the reggae closer Lifting You.

What I find most interesting about this album is that the quality of the music has greatly improved over the span of five studio length records. And whether the woke tone of this music sits well with you or not, N.E.R.D. have managed a way to weave it all together and get you questioning whether they are serious about the subject matter or simply exploiting it to move us forward another decade ahead of schedule, as per usual.

theories Summarized

Optimism is important in this day and age. Should you buy this album. Yes, I think you should. And my theory is that it was designed to elevate your mood, but also get you thinking about the reality of these atrocities we are all witness to on a daily basis. It’s almost impossible to have a full understanding of every angle, but N.E.R.D. have managed once again to provide us with yet another perspective on police brutality, transgender issues, black and minority rights, and the harshness of anti-immigration without ham-fisting everything. It’s a theory I’ll happily pack into explosive force of love.

Tim!

Off To The Slaughterhouse (Chase Rice, Lambs & Lions review)

I’ve been humbled once again. I bought a record on a whim, made some initial judgments based on the cover art and what I heard as I listened for the first time to a lean thirty seven minutes of modern country music, except that’s not what this is, at all.

It’s an escape plan marked all over with pencil and featuring focal points that are highlighted atop the map with black felt tip circles.

But is it a success?

 

 

Chase Rice – Lambs & Lions

released November 17, 2017
****** 6/10

Chase Rice is an American singer-songwriter that got his start in country music, and benefited heavily from the party anthems that have permeated this decade. Do you remember Florida Georgia Line’s song Cruise? Rice co-wrote it. Ever listen to the hit album, Ignite The Night? Rice is the artist behind the party anthems about drinking, pickup trucks, and young women. Ever watch Survivor? Rice was the runner-up on the Nicaragua season.

He is something of a relic at this time in music – Ironic, given that we have three more years before the twenties start up. Bro-country is finally on it’s way out, and artists like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Jake Owen have already felt the pressure of a dismissive public.

This is part of the reason why Rice decided to break from Columbia records and sign with Broken Bow Records for his fourth album, Lambs & Lions. The other reason being, that wanted to make a more emotionally honest and truly authentic record, when authenticity in country music should have meant sticking to the well-worn tracks established.

Lions kicks off the album, and Rice establishes early on that this is his break from his past, it has the same energy as his previous albums, but the tone is shifting towards rock, metal, power pop, and even some R&B. It’s especially evident that this album is stripped of a lot of the production that his previous music had when Unforgettable, Eyes On You, and Saved Me show up.

Three Chords & The Truth is the first single on the record, and trending on the music charts right now, but despite this popularity, it really is an interesting song with some subtle nods to the genre of country music, and funnily enough, while on a soul search, he has managed to connected with many other people looking for answers in country music too.

In the end, this is a collection of songs about someone who is letting go of an identity that they wore for a long time, self-imposed or no, and what shows up underneath is pretty interesting. It’s not my favourite record of the year by any means, but the hope it delivers is more important in some ways.

Pros: You can see throughout Lambs & Lions that Rice is putting more of himself into his music, and a personal favourite of mine is Amen, which is an ode to his father, revealing a lot of Rice’s personal code.

Cons: I wish that there was even more exploration on this album. It still feels a little bit safe reliant on what preceded. It might have been difficult for Chase Rice to break completely from his bro-country roots, but including Jack Daniel’s Showed Up is so unnecessary.

Runtime: 37 minutes

Points of Interest: The album debuted at No. 42 on the Billboard 200, and No. 6 on the Top Country Albums. Rice has said that the album is heavily influenced by rock artist Douglas Docker.

Changing your identity is a challenge, even moreso when there is a perception of you attached to it. Chase Rice has made some excellent strides into a new and exciting direction, with music that features more of his own ideas and less concern with sounding a specific way. And I like it.

theories Summarized

I’m not sure that you absolutely have to pick this up. But if you like your country music with a little rock n’ roll, you are sick of bro-country or you simply like to see progression in your artists, give this album a listen, you might just be inspired to show your fleece, while bearing your teeth. That’s my theory anyway.

Tim!

A Collection of Moments (Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Volume 2 review)

If you could name an up and coming country artist that’s done it all already, who do you think would fit that bill? I’ll give you two guesses for albums that have done that in 2017. But you only need one answer.

 

 

 

Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 2

released December 1, 2017
******** 8/10

Chris Stapleton is an American singer-songwriter, best known for his ability to perform rock, bluegrass, country, and a mixture thereof. He has been active in the music industry for over fifteen years now; he went solo back in 2013, released his debut album The Traveller in 2015, followed by From A Room: Volume 1 in May of 2017. If the velocity of his release schedule seems overwhelming, consider that that this is an artist who has contributed over 150 songs to albums by other popular artists like Adele, Tim McGraw, and Brad Paisley, among others.

Stapleton is a southern boy through and through, raised in Kentucky and active in Nashville since he officially began to focus on music in 2001. His wife Morgane has featured in harmonies on all three of his albums, and he often includes long-time friends in the band he records and travels with, citing the importance of chemistry when crafting a song.

This is incredibly apparent on From A Room: Volume 2. As you listen to the record, it is obvious that these are collection of vignettes, windows into characters that Stapleton has spent a lifetime crafting, and while it goes against my typical expectation for a good album, I appreciate that fact this collection of songs was further proven by the older sister album released not even six months ago – proof that each track can stand on it’s own and that Stapleton is an artist in it for the long haul. I’ll admit that it seemed like a commercial gimmick at first, a way to make cash off of his current success with CMA awards, but these humble albums are both strong, and in my opinion, Volume 2 is even stronger.

Album opener Millionaire is your standard country song about love overcoming financial difficulty, with Hard Livin’ coming shortly after – a song about outlaw living, and an excellent demonstration of Stapleton’s command over his chosen genre.

Scarecrow In The Garden is another notable addition to the queue, choosing to try something new in the form of a narrative about immigrant farmers living in West Virginia. It doesn’t have the typical fairytale ending of most popular country, and this is what separates Stapleton from his contemporaries. A natural evolution of sound.

Comparisons have been made to Tom Petty, and Stapleton even travelled with him on his final tour, but other greats like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson all come to mind. Just listen to the final four songs and you’ll get a better sense for it. A Simple Song has a folk feel, while Midnight Train to Memphis is rockabilly at heart. Drunkard’s Prayer is a somber ballad and album closer Friendship is full of soul and the blues.

 

 

 

Pros: Even though it comes early on in the album, Nobody’s Lonely Tonight is one of the strongest tracks on the record and a personal favourite of mine. An interesting take on overcoming heartbreak. Also, as previously mentioned, the harmonies of Morgane are much stronger on the album overall this time around.

Cons: It has a very short runtime, and while Tryin’ To Untangle My Mind is a thoughtful and catchy track on the ups and downs of drinking, it’s a little bit cliched in it’s structure. But I can’t quite place why this bothers me just yet.

Runtime: 32 minutes

Points of Interest: Millionaire is a cover of Kevin Welch’s and Friendship is a cover of gospel and R7B legend, Pops Staples.

If it hasn’t been made clear yet, this isn’t your garden variety country music, dear readers. It is an excellent mix of both traditional country and soul music that subverts your expectations of what something out of Nashville should sound like. And I like it.

theories Summarized

If I haven’t convinced you to pick up this album yet, I’ll leave you with one more piece of evidence to consider. He is BFF’s with Justin Timberlake and has performed with him at the CMAs once already. Yes, that Justin Timberlake. The one who basically took up the mantle of King of Pop after Michael Jackson died. And his debut album is already a classic. But that’s my theory on the matter.

Tim!