Album Review: A Deeper Understanding

Impossible to categorize, The War on Drugs have carved out a niche as rock’s alchemists drawing effortlessly on Springsteen and Dylan on one hand and Sonic Young and My Bloody Valentine on the other. Do we have an Alternative Heartland Rock genre, yet?

The Philadelphia band’s latest LP, A Deeper Understanding, is not the most indispensable in their catalog, but it’s certainly a enjoyable listen that highlights the band’s capable songwriting and musicianship.

The inventive guitar-scapes that have been a signature of The War on Drugs sound are more subdued here, but nevertheless bring textural interest to songs like “Strangest Thing” and “Thinking of a Place”. Adam Granduciel’s vocals produce a wide range of effective emotions, but his lyricism sometimes doesn’t match up to the lofty influences (Bob Dylan, Neil Young) suggested by his delivery.

However, A Deeper Understanding is ultimately a profoundly enjoyable experience. It feels less pioneering and daring than previous The War on Drugs releases, so no wonder this is the one that got nominated for a Grammy!


Album Review: How Did We Get So Dark?

U.K. duo Royal Blood have been one of the most successful and explosive rock bands in recent memory. Their eponymous debut catapulted them to international success. Their sophomore record How Did We Get So Dark? has been out for some time now and brings more of the same fuzzy, Muse-inspired bass lines, cacophonous drums, and shouted refrains. There are some new textures here and there mostly in the form of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, but it’s mostly the same sounds as Royal Blood’s first LP. This is undoubtedly a great thing for rock fans as the band has been one of the most vital acts in the genre over the last half-decade.

Artistically; however, How Did We Get So Dark? suffers for the repetition. There is little in the way of dynamics or tonal variation. It can make the back half of the record into a bit of an aural slog. But when the tunes hit, as on “Lights Out” or “I Only Lie When I Love You”, it’s epic and revelatory stuff. Singer Mike Kerr’s vocals are nuanced and commanding and the hooks created by unique pitch effects on his bass come in unrelenting succession. It’s a worthy record, but given Royal Blood’s de facto role as rock standard bearers, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there isn’t more variation or exploration on display here. Still, How Did We Get So Dark? is a polished and impressive distillation of everything the band has produced thus far.


Album Review – Boarding House Reach

Gibson and Guitar Center are approaching bankruptcy. Fender isn’t fairing much better. The days of Rock’s commercial supremacy are well and truly behind us. So where does that leave latter-day stars like Jack White, a bona fide guitar hero that built his career on old-school, blues-rock revivalism? Perhaps ironically, it leaves him with his most adventurous and vital record yet: Boarding House Reach. This 3rd solo release is an album that showcases the still-untapped potential in guitar-based music.

Unlike Greta Van Fleet, who conspicuously shelter in the past, or Coldplay and Imagine Dragons on the opposite end, on Boarding House Reach Jack White finds a fruitful balance of past and present. He melds together the unmistakable characteristics of his previous releases (fuzzy riffs, analog production, searing solos) with more modern forms. There’s heavy use of sampling, drum breaks, several skits divide up the record, and on “Ice Station Zebra” White even tries his hand at rapping.

If you clutched your pearls at that last statement, fret not. Classic Jack White is still on full display here, only weirder and more unpredictable. It’s almost as if Jack White is to the 20-teens as Beck was to the 90’s. Indeed, “Over and Over and Over” sounds like a cut from Lazaretto by way of Odelay, interjected with latin rhythms and sampled vocals. “Connected By Love” is a psychedelic ballad with a synthy bass groove out of early 00’s EDM. And “Walk the Dog” is one of White’s darkest tunes ever with lyrics concerning emotional exhaustion underpinned by escalating organ chords ripped from the Arctic Monkey’s Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Elsewhere, Jack White incorporates elements of hip-hop, country, and folk. The result is a purposefully disjointed record that defies criticism. The point of Boarding House Reach, it seems, is not to pursue aural beauty, but rather to reclaim the sense of freedom that alternative music has lacked for the better part of a decade. In that regard, Boarding House Reach is a fantastic success and one that consistently rewards bold listeners.


Album Review: Ogilala

William Patrick Corgan. Or Billy Corgan as most of us would know him. He’s enigmatic bordering on confounding. He’s nearly single-handedly crafted some of the most important rock records of all time with Siamese Dream and  Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness alone.

However, Corgan’s sojourn into professional wrestling management, the revolving carousel of disgruntled band-mates, and his bizarre indulgence of Alex Jones stand in stark contrast to the thoughtful construction of these masterpieces.

So, while the name has changed, William Patrick Corgan’s new record Ogilala is undeniably a more honest reflection of the Billy Corgan that we came to know precisely because it emphasizes his vulnerability, introspection, and optimism rather than his eccentricities. Think of classic tracks like “Today” or “1979”. The success of this hits was rooted in their ability to suffuse deep sadness with bright, hopeful riffs. Ogilala accomplishes just this feat, but with a reserved and understated arrangement rather than multi-layer Big Muff guitars.

Legendary producer, Rick Rubin, elicits achingly sparse renditions of these tracks that could easily have been envisioned in the symphonic vein of “Tonight, Tonight” or “Disarm”. Songs like “The Spaniards” and “Aeronaut” twinkle with youthful hope and experienced insight. Delicate pianos under gird, but never overwhelm the grand melodies that blanket this whole record.

Corgan’s voice, an object of much analysis and fascination, is better here with the gruffness of decades of use. This new resonance could favorably be compared to latter-day Johnny Cash.

Admittedly, there are moments of trademark overindulgence despite the compositional restraint. Corgan’s lyrics, a common point of criticism, due slip into oddity and cliché at various points. And there are a few emotional beats throughout the record that feel as if they would have been better served with a fuller arrangement.

But in the end, Ogilala proves that, behind the mercurial relationships and public image, Corgan is a songwriter for the ages; equally capable of producing menace, tenderness, and heartache.


Album Review: Songs of Experience

It’s apparently impossible to be neutral on U2. The Dublin megastars are either canonized saints or insufferable whiners depending on whom you ask. And it’s not hard to see arguments for both sides. On the one hand, U2 has produced staggering, era-defining works such as Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. On the other, Bono and the boys frequently bombard audiences with self-righteous sermons and overwrought melodrama.

Personally, I adore U2 and have so for many years. Though I cringe at many of the painfully earnest lyrics, the melodies and performances more than outweigh any dewy-eyed pseudo-solemnity. If you need proof of my conviction, I even defended their previous LP, Songs of Innocence, in the wake of U2’s, let’s say, “controversial” release strategy.

Yet, it’s truly difficult to defend 2017’s Songs of Experience. The staggering irony of the name given to this naive and innocuous hodgepodge of tracks is glaring. Unlike its companion and predecessor, Songs of Experience contains little in the way of challenging musical or lyrical ideas. Indeed, sonically the band has never been more mundane. Songs of Experience strays listlessly into contemporary pop with hard-tuned vocals and synthesized drums which entirely undermines the richness of the band’s typical palette. What elevated the tracks on Songs of Innocence was The Edge’s inventive textures and Bono’s probing lyrics that examined terrorism, warfare, and longing with effortless intimacy.

On Songs of Experience, though, Bono muses blithely about love while Edge stumbles back into familiar patterns of cascading delays and reverb. It’s not bad, per se, just utterly boring. The best tracks on this record, like “American Soul” and “The Blackout”, are the ones which bring new textures to the U2 catalog. Kendrick Lamar’s introduction to the former track is a standout moment that creates an unlikely synergy between Lamar’s 2017 standout Damn. and Songs of Experience. The latter showcases U2 as a modern alt-rock band (in the vein of Nothing But Thieves) with overdriven riffs and a four-on-the-floor chorus.

But as an overall package, Songs of Experience, is not the thoughtful meditation on greed and power that the Trump era needs and that U2 is so capable of delivering. Instead, the band seems to fall back on well-trod themes of redemptive love that feel not only naïve, but potentially destructive in the face of such a time of social division. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” worked because the message of the Civil Rights movement was enfranchisement, but in the face of Nazi’s and White Supremacists, U2 should be able to offer more insight than ignorance; especially for a record entitled Songs of Experience.


My 60th Grammy Awards Picks

My picks for the top awards in 2018:

Record Of The Year:
“Redbone” — Childish Gambino
“Despacito” — Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber
“The Story Of O.J.” — Jay-Z
“HUMBLE.” — Kendrick Lamar
“24K Magic” — Bruno Mars

Who should win: Childish Gambino

Who will win: Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber

 Album Of The Year:
“Awaken, My Love!” — Childish Gambino
4:44 — Jay-Z
DAMN. — Kendrick Lamar
Melodrama — Lorde
24K Magic — Bruno Mars

Who should win: Kendrick Lamar

Who will win: Lorde

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