Micro-Review: Childish Gambino’s ROYALTY

Donald Glover has had a great year. After years of experimenting with acting, rapping and writing, it seems like every aspect of his multifaceted talent have culminated all at once: he’s won a WGA award for writing on 30 ROCK, a TV Guide Award for acting on COMMUNITY, and his one-two musical punch of last year’s EP and his debut studio album CAMP finally gave him the musical recognition he (also) deserves.  Now, Glover is back under his Childish Gambino moniker for a television-off-season mixtape, ROYALTY.

And while ROYALTY is less polished, personal and unique than the amazing CAMP was, the mixtape has its own distinct and wonderful flavor, and still happens to be a fantastic release from the young star.  Peppered with star cameos – everybody from Beck to RZA; even Tina Fey(!?) makes an appearance – the mixtape is a much more straightforward hip-hop offering than the stylistically diverse CAMP, which should please fans of the genre. Most of the beats are memorable – did I really hear the theme song to SIGNS on “Arrangement”? – and the production is handled mostly by Gambino himself. There are a few outside producers, though; like Beck, who helms two tracks, including the excellent “Silk Pillow”, where he even throws in a verse or two.

In true mixtape fashion, ROYALTY reuses certain cues and motifs that pop up over and over again throughout the tape, to convincing effect. The result is a very cohesive offering that plays like a singular, unified entity, for better or worse; unfortunately, this also has the undesired effect of having all of the songs bleed together in a way that makes the middle of the disc (download?) sort of forgettable after the absolutely stellar opening. Luckily, the album rebounds beautifully in the final quarter, pulling out wonderful beats, verses and hooks (even despite Gambino’s lamentation about them not being hooks on “Bronchitis”), especially on the lush “Wonderful” and “Make it Go Right”.

There are a few real gems in here that Gambino fans will definitely latch onto , specifically the opening track, “We Ain’t Them” and the familiar-sounding “Won’t Stop”. And despite a middle section that drags, it’s still another excellent offering from the ridiculously talented Glover.

Download: http://childishgambino.com/iamdonald/mixtape/ROYALTY.zip

Standout tracks: “We Ain’t Them”, “Wonderful” and “Silk Pillow”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

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Micro-Review: Delicate Steve’s POSITIVE FORCE

Delicate Steve is one of those un-categorizable groups that defy almost everything that seems safe and easy about music. Hailing from the Garden State, the band’s instrumental music is composed entirely by the titular guitarist / songwriter, Steve Marion, whose only musical consistency seems to be his bizarre but instantly recognizable guitar tone: equal parts MIDI track, pipe organ and electric guitar, there’s just nothing else quite like it out there. After releasing a debut album (WONDERVISIONS) and taking to the road with fellow genre-defiant, post-rock(?) allies Fang Island (along with backing band Mike Duncan, Adam Pumilia, Christian Peslak and Mickey Sanchez), Marion returns here with his sophomore offering: POSITIVE FORCE.

At a brisk 37-minutes, POSITIVE FORCE is as good a gateway into Delicate Steve’s music as any; it’s as eccentric, scatterbrained and oddly comforting as anything else that the musician has released thus far. Though the sonic texture seems on par with his debut, it’s hard to accurately judge just what “consistent” might be when your textures are as impossible to nail down as they are here. Still, it goes without saying that there is a general air of maturity that makes this a far more compelling release than the debut. There is an overall atmosphere that is generally less in-your-face about its eccentricities and more about creating a singular, oddly soothing tone that permeates the entirety of the record.

What Marion creates here that was missing from WONDERVISIONS is a sense of space -and there is certainly a lot of it. Almost space-rock-esque in its airy, electronic sensibilities, Marion injects POSITIVE FORCE with an irresistible, calming sensation that replaces the bouncing, bubbling absurdity of the last release. He’s certainly improved on his overall songwriting abilities, as well; screeching guitar lines make way to a far more meticulous compositional palette, and the instrumentation, as a result, tends to be far more interesting and balanced here. He even throws in a few instances of vocal texturing – something new for the project – on tracks like “Two Lovers”, “Love” and “Redeemer”, the latter of which bears an unmistakable, vocal aesthetic similarity to the equally experimental “Trembling Hands” off of Explosions in the Sky’s latest offering.

Whereas WONDERVISIONS was delightfully over-the-top and peculiarly refreshing, POSITIVE FORCE is breezy, looser and far more aesthetically pleasing – the mark of a maturing musician, no doubt. And with such a long career ahead of him, there’s no reason why Marion won’t continue to grow and impress from here on out.

Standout tracks: “Two Lovers”, “Positive Force”, “Africa Talks to You”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

And For Once in His Life, It was Quiet: John Mayer’s BORN AND RAISED

It’s safe to say that John Mayer is in the middle of some kind of midlife crisis. His recent personal life aside (which features all manner of public outbursts, including talking about his sex life and more than his fair share of questionably racial comments), he seems to continue to move his musical career laterally instead of forwards. After releasing a handful of poppy albums, Mayer’s career culminated in the one-two punch of TRY! (provided by his blues side project, the John Mayer Trio) and CONTINUUM (his third full-length effort). Indeed, it could be argued that his 2008 live album, WHERE THE LIGHT IS, is the creative peak of the musician’s career thus far; featuring a three-part set that focused on the three main pillars of Mayer’s creative output – his poppier, acoustic side, his Trio set and his full, eight-piece band – the album demonstrated the versatility and range of his incredible talent. There was nothing that the singer-songwriter could not do: his melodies were as impeccable and universally accessible as his guitar playing was endlessly impressive. There seemed to be no limit to his musical prowess.

Then, something happened. Whatever it was that happened to Mayer in his personal life – discussions of his break up with Taylor Swift and various other unimportant-to-his-craft stories furiously circulated – it had a notable impact on his creative output: if WHERE THE LIGHT IS was the peak of his breadth of his musical ambition, BATTLE STUDIES was the sound of the balloon finally popping, a reactionary record that aimed to strip things back to their intimate essence. And to that end, the album was successful, even if the more musically inclined shook their heads and wondered where the incredible soloing, phrasing and blues influence had gone; the album reverted back to Mayer’s early days, when he was merely a heartthrob for mother’s and their daughters alike rather than the musical icon that was heralded as the most promising up-and-comer in the blues genre. But there was very little to be concerned about, in the end; this was a reactionary record, after all, and most reactionary records do not mark a permanent stylistic reversion.

Enter BORN AND RAISED.

Co-produced by Don Was and Mayer himself, BORN AND RAISED does what every good follow-up to a reactionary record does: it shifts the style and tone violently in a different direction. For many aficionados who had their fingers crossed for a return to the bombastic and excellent blues stylings of CONTINUUM, the album will undoubtedly have them scratching their heads rawer than BATTLE STUDIES did – many may even throw in the towel on the man altogether. It seems that instead of reverting back to his former style, Mayer has opted rather to take a jarring (but appropriate) left turn into the territory of folk; and, god forbid, a touch of country. Though we still get fleeting glimpses of the John Mayer that we all once knew and loved – particularly on the restrained but undoubtedly bluesy “Something Like Olivia” and the elegant “Love is a Verb” – and even some of the John Mayer that most found themselves entirely indifferent towards – “Speak For Me” and “If I Ever Get Around to Living” both would have fit nicely alongside the rest of the STUDIES sessions – what we ultimately wind up with is an album that favours acoustics to electrics, harmonica solos to guitar solos and an overall tone of Americana to anything else.

Somewhere in the midst of the first three tracks, it becomes increasingly obvious that this is an entirely different John Mayer to the one that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past decade: countrified melodies, organs and a bigger reliance on pianos than ever before. It’s almost as if, somewhere along the way, Mayer took a leaf out of Matt Bellamy’s book and decided to focus on the arrangements instead of any one instrument, to the (unfortunate) detriment of his incredible skills on the guitar. The result, however, is a refreshingly intimate and powerful listen that melds Mayer’s love of dense, stringed arrangements with his romantic, ballad-based tendencies. And though one laments the loss of one of his six-minute guitar solos that so deftly weaves amongst the progressions, it’s hard to argue with the results: this is one fantastic album, through and through.

It also happens to feature one of the finest tracks that Mayer has committed to record post-CONTINUUM: the brilliantly-titled “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”. A beautiful and tragic story, the song follows the titular Walt Grace as he dies trying to reach the ocean floor with a contraption that he built in his basement. Opening with a haunting trumpet solo over a lightly-picked guitar line that somehow calls to mind both a solitary, undersea adventure and a funeral procession, “Walt Grace” is the poster-child for BORN AND RAISED: a folky, storytelling track that perfectly encapsulates Mayer’s current instrumental and spiritual state-of-mind. It may be Mayer’s greatest lyrical achievement, to boot, shaking him from his romantic comfort zone and pushing him into a narrative perspective that would make the classic folk artists of old nod in approval: “And for once in his life, it was quiet / As he learned how to turn in the tide / And the sky was a flare, when he came up for air / In his homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride”, he croons, seeming all too familiar with the idea of burying one’s self alive and finding life again on the other side, even if it’s only for a moment.

BORN AND RAISED is peppered with other gems, too (such as the song that immediately follows “Walt Grace”, “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”, another earnest folk track that ends with Mayer pulling out a legitimate harmonica solo) and has the added benefit of starting strong and ending stronger: the final song – a reprise of the title track that appears earlier on the album – is one of the few unabashedly country-esque songs on the album, and it’s a refreshing and bold way to close the record.

Fans who miss the John Mayer of his CONTINUUM days may not be particularly happy with his latest outing, but those with an open mind will find a lot to love here. Mayer not be back to what he’s does best, but it turns out that he’s just as effective a folk musician as he is a blues one. And it doesn’t hurt matters that this album conveniently drops just as summer is about to arrive; this may be the best cruising album of the year so far, and it should be in constant circulation in your car for the next few months.

Standout tracks: “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”, “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” and “Something Like Olivia”. (And “Queen of California”. And “A Face to Call Home”. And all of it.)

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: The Fuck Off and Dies’ SONGS IN THE KEY OF FUCK

That’s a whole lot of fuck for just the title.

The brilliantly-named Fuck Off and Dies are unapologetic punk in the grandest fashion. With a 17-track debut that clocks in at only 34-minutes, this band is all about getting in fast, hitting them hard and getting out even faster: at an average track length of two minutes and with a third of the total number of songs coming in at under a minute, SONGS IN THE KEY OF FUCK is unrelenting from start to finish.

Fronted by Story of the Year vocalist Dan Marsala, there is something delightfully and hilariously ironic about the thematic content of The Fuck Off and Dies – as a branded straight-edge musician up until fairly recently, it’s positively exhilarating hearing Marsala croon so passionately about beer. Because, in the end, that’s all this album really is – a party-fuelled ode to sex, booze and skateboarding – and it’s a refreshing, fun listen for that reason alone. Seeing as Marsala’s vocabulary here consists almost entirely of the words “fuck”, “beer” and, well, “fuck” again, the album is digestible and, quite frankly, a fucking blast. With songs titles like “WTF (There’s No Beef Left)” and “F.U.C.K. We’re Going On a Holiday”, and featuring lyrics that could be memorized and repeated back before the first listen is over – I’ll give you a hint: most of the lyrics are contained entirely within the songs’ titles – there is a lot to love here, and I expect it’d be a hit at just about any rager you could find yourself in.

As a punk record, the songs are stripped, simple and energetic in the best way possible: straightforward rhythms behind palm-muted power chords dominate the entire running time, interrupted occasionally by a few arpeggiated riffs. Which, of course, gives Marsala – and the bassist / backup vocalist known only as Mark Attack – a chance to scream and swear and wax existential on running out of beer after the store closes for the night, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Luckily, Marsala isn’t afraid to also pull from his impressively deep pool of melodic talent, and several of the tracks, including “I Fucking Love Her” and “Last Fucking Call” feature some legitimately excellent hooks that help balance out the sheer madness.

SONGS IN THE KEY OF FUCK is a terrific contemporary punk album. It’s simple and concise, but, most importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Here’s hoping that they keep this project going for a long time while the rest of the Story of the Year boys are off on their various side-projects.

“You better wise up / And open up your eyes / If your favorite band is not / The Fuck Off and Dies.”

Standout tracks: “I Fucking Love Her”, “Last Fucking Call” and “WTF (There’s No Beer Left)”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

A Chance to Live For More: Lostprophets’ WEAPONS

Now officially five albums and over a decade into their professional careers, Welsh rockers Lostprophets (or, once upon a time, lostprophets) don’t seem to be going anywhere; indeed, despite their lack of notable, Stateside relevance in the wake of their breakthrough, sophomore effort, the band just seems to keep chugging away with admirable precision and ferocity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their latest outing, WEAPONS (which won’t see an official North American release until mid-June): this is the release of a band that has settled in nicely, with a sound that’s had sufficient time to be honed and refined into something inarticulably specific. And although there are a myriad of diehard fans out there who will begrudge the following assessment – there are still those out there that lament the loss of the band’s initial style, as heard almost exclusively on debut THEFAKESOUNDOFPROGRESS – WEAPONS is truly the culmination of the band’s last three albums – a perfect cross-section of START SOMETHING (their aforementioned sophomore), LIBERATION TRANSMISSION and the oft-overlooked-by-casual-listeners-due-to-a-confusing-American-release THE BETRAYED. It may not quite reach the heights of that latter release – a nearly-perfect, brooding effort that allowed for cracks of light more than embraced them – but WEAPONS is one of those rare shadow albums that manages to transcend its limitations by choosing to embrace all facets of the group’s past rather than just mirroring the last album.

Released a mere two years after their last album, it’s unsurprising to hear how little has changed between then and now: WEAPONS succeeds more in the steps that it takes backwards than in the ones it takes forwards. That isn’t to say that the album is a regression by any means. Instead, it represents a summation of the band’s career, drawing from the various styles that they’ve experimented with over the years: the rap-esque vocal techniques of “Better Off Dead” are certainly as reminiscent of the band’s early years as “Heart On Loan” is of their first foray into poppier melodies on LIBERATION TRANSMISSION, and new fan-favorite “Jesus Walks” might as well have been titled “Where We Belong, Part II”, which is far from a bad thing. In fact, each track on the album is so era-specific in its songwriting approach that one gets the unmistakable suspicion that this album might be a well-above-average packaging of career-spanning b-sides; even the cover looks like rejected artwork for the eerily similar one found on LIBERATION, and “Somedays” is so obviously a START SOMETHING holdout that it must have been written almost a decade ago. If nothing else, then, WEAPONS might as well be exhibit A for the case that Lostprophets’ sound has actually shifted very little over the course of the last four albums, naysayers be damned.

Yet one extremely notable shift from the last album to this one is the rawness of the production, atmosphere and general songwriting approach. While the timespan between LIBERATION and BETRAYED was four years, the turnover rate for this album was only two. The result is an unpolished, visceral album that many fans – at least, the ones who think the band has gone in a far too polished, poppy direction in the wake of their sophomore effort – will likely celebrate: the melodies are indistinct and imperfect in spite of all their catchiness, the instrumentation is far more stripped than the densely layered BETRAYED and, at a brisk 40 minutes, the energy is focused and deliberate instead of sprawling and epic. This is the definition of a reactionary record, and that should absolutely not shine a negative light on either this release or the one that preceded it – it’s just an antithetic album.

In spite of the presentation, this is still a shadow album in a variety of ways: the melodies, the riffs, the rhythms and everything in between will be distinctly and unavoidably familiar to those who have heard even one song that this band has produced in the last few years. Which is, of course, not a bad thing – by avoiding a re-creation of THE BETRAYED, it will almost certainly appease fans of the group’s catalog, both the old and the new. But the downside of sticking to the formula (even if it is a broad, career-spanning formula) is that the album will inevitably reek of “more-of-the-same syndrome” in a way that previous Lostprophets’ albums didn’t. Whether you agreed with the direction that the band took or not, each past release pushed things a bit further along that trajectory. Not so much here, and the album suffers for it.

Still, there’s no arguing with the cohesiveness of the results, nor the fact that this is nothing more than a comfortable release. After all – when you’re five albums in, you start to get a general feel for what your fans are expecting, and WEAPONS certainly delivers on that front. Though I’m not wholly convinced that it’s going to talk any original fans back from denouncing the band’s current sound, it’s certainly worth a listen from those who have found themselves enjoying the last two albums.

Standout tracks: “Jesus Walks”, “A Song For Where I’m From” and “Better Off Dead”.

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Jack White’s BLUNDERBUSS

A year has passed since The White Stripes announced that they were calling it quits, and the typically over-active Jack White has been suspiciously idle. Known for juggling multiple acts, including the Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather (a lot of the” bands), White took off most of last year to work on yet another project: his first ever solo album. BLUNDERBUSS is the result, and regardless of what he’s calling it this time around, it’s irrefutably Jack White. Fans of the Stripes who have mourned their disbanding should find a lot to love here, as this release solidifies the suspicion that his first band was really just the Jack White show (though how anybody could possibly think otherwise is strange, considering they were a duo, and he handled all songwriting duties).

That isn’t to say that this is completely familiar territory for White. Despite the vague similarities to his previous work, White certainly explores new sonic territories: there is an abundance of low-tempo blues work here, not to mention an array of stylistic flourishes that are less reminiscent of the more rock ‘n’ roll Stripes. The piano is of more use here than it ever has been in White’s past, and the guitar seems to take a backseat to overall composition. Freed from the confines of guitar-oriented songwriting, BLUNDERBUSS seems to revel in its sonic and structural diversity: song lengths are generally short and to the point, and give the impression that they were written almost entirely on piano with all extra instrumentation treated as an afterthought. The White-esque guitar solo on “Weep Themselves to Sleep” is a rare occurrence, and the bass-driven “I’m Shakin'” is one of the few obvious throwbacks to old-school Stripes.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to be surprised by BLUNDERBUSS. This album is exactly what you would expect from Jack White: his signature vocals set against the backdrop of blues-rock meanderings. And even though I would have loved to have seen White experiment a bit further with his formidable musical talents, it’s difficult to argue with the results – even Jack White playing it safe is a force to be reckoned with, and this release should be everything that White fans have been clamouring for. Hopefully it signals the beginning of a new chapter in White’s creative output.

Standout tracks: “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”, “Weep Themselves to Sleep”, “On and On and On”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: DragonForce’s THE POWER WITHIN

After four years and a new vocalist, DragonForce are back with their fifth studio album, THE POWER WITHIN. Despite the loss of frontman ZP Theart – and the subsequent addition of Marc Hudson – almost nothing has changed in the world of DragonForce: they’re the same band that they always were, for better or worse, and if you weren’t a fan before, not much on this latest release is going to change your mind. This is power metal to the nth degree – the second track on the record, which guitarist Herman Li describes as the “fastest, most intense DragonForce track to date”, clocks in at a ridiculous 220 bpm – so unless you’re in the mood for blistering (apparently un-reproducable-in-a-live-setting) guitar solos and drumming, you’ll likely want to steer well clear of this one.

Still, the band’s technical virtuosity can’t be denied, even if it’s debatable as to whether or not what they’re producing is creative or just stilted and masturbatory. The group does occasionally stray from their blistering velocities on rare moments like the intros to “Wings of Liberty” and (apparent) closer, “Last Man Stands”, but they’re always fleeting. In a surprise move, however, the band includes an acoustic rendition of “Seasons” as a bonus track / album closer, and it’s an absolutely fascinating arrangement. Cutting out all of the bullshit that makes DragonForce the band that they are, “Seasons [Acoustic]” is a compelling and legitimately well-constructed song that belies the group’s trademark flamboyance. And without all of the bells, whistles and compression, the track’s guitar solo is a refreshing change of pace. It seems odd to say it, but this acoustic rendition really is a highlight of the record, and the band would be wise to pursue more work in this vein in the future.

But what THE POWER WITHIN represents, in the end, is the dreaded “shadow album”: a release that’s so similar to those that came before it that it suffers from being a pale copy of that which came before it. Regardless of the quality of what’s being produced, it’s just more of the same – it never strives to be anything more than what precedent has dictated, and winds up coming across like an album of b-sides from a previous release as a result. This review becomes something of a moot point, then: if you’ve found yourself enjoying a DragonForce song in the past and felt like you wanted nine more just like it, you’ll like THE POWER WITHIN. If not, then there isn’t much for you to sink your teeth into here.

Nothing new to see here.

Standout tracks: “Wings of Liberty”, “Give Me the Night”, “Seasons [Acoustic]”.

7/10

d.a. garabedian