Panda Bear’s Fifth LP is Daring and Unique

Buoys is an exciting journey through a creative process with far more hits than misses.

Panda Bear is an American singer/songwriter from Baltimore, Maryland. He’s best known as a co-founder of the experimental pop group Animal Collective along with longtime friend Avey Tare. The group has found quite a bit of success since their debut in the early 2000’s and all the while, Panda Bear has kept a fairly solid output of solo work. As far as recent releases, 2011’s Tomboy was his first effort to make it on the the Billboard charts, peaking at 29. He signed with Domino Recording Company and released his follow up, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper in 2015. The record performed slightly worse on the general charts, it made it to number two on the US Indie charts.

He and Animal Collective have spent several years on the cutting edge of psychedelic and experimental pop music, utilizing unique instrumentation, lo-fi production, and creative song structure to build records that are truly exciting and interesting. After such a long career, a strong fire and fanbase remains behind the collective and their independent members. Panda Bear has had a rather prolific career, allowing insight for fans into nearly every aspect of his creative evolution. Buoys is one more daring chapter in that catalog.

The album’s best quality comes in its massive pallet of sounds. From the lasers on “Cranked,” to the abrasive fuzz of the title track, the album leaves one guessing as to what will come next. Nearly every track features more atmospheric samples, which range from natural and pleasing to artificial and grating, than actual instrumentation and it makes for a very unique experience.

Despite the almost whimsical nature of these samples, he’s actually able to strike some surprising tones. Tracks like the opener, “Dolphin,” and the record’s best track, “Inner Monologue,” use subtle production choices to build a haunting overall style. The latter uses a harrowing sample of a woman laughing and crying in the background as the latter uses dripping water and unexpected mixing, but both achieve a cold and distant feeling, which is when this album is at its best.

Subtlety is yet another selling point of this record. A track like “Crescendo,” while benefiting from intriguing leads in the forefront and a jarring intro, is also colored in with a multitude of hidden details that only become apparent on repeat listens. The entire album is full of these, from hidden bass lines to quiet atmospherics, the sonic landscape of the album is extremely layered and detailed.

Beyond all of this, the percussion is also incredibly creative and unique. From the despondent rhythms set by the ever present acoustic guitar to the youthful samples on a track like “I Know I Don’t Know.” Anything and everything is used as percussion at some point on this record, which adds to the otherworldly aura of the project as much as the complex and often hard to parse time signatures.

There are, unfortunately, weak spots. These mostly rear their heads on the slower, more laid back tracks. “Master,” though full of interesting ideas, is far too simple and is ultimately just underwhelming in the face of the rest of the tracklist. The closer and weakest track, “Home Free,” may be the only piece of the puzzle that just legitimately doesn’t work as it seems to be seriously lacking in direction or creative energy.

Beyond this, my complaints are mostly minor. The lyrics and vocal performances are only passible and a few of the melodies feel a bit repetitive, but these aren’t the focal points of the album, and the strengths far outweigh the missteps.

In its very modest runtime, Buoys accomplishes quite a bit. With tight songwriting and a great stereo image, Panda Bear presents his listeners with a project that is equal parts daring experimentation, manic creativity, and accessible songwriting.

Buoys is an exciting journey through a creative process with far more hits than misses.

7/10

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Valentines Day Special: My Five Favorite Love Songs

DISCLAIMER: These are my favorite love songs, not “the best love songs of all time.” There’s been hundreds of thousands of love songs written, and I won’t even attempt to rank them.

Journey“Faithfully”

One of the most famous rock bands of all time, Journey brought stadium rock roaring into the mainstream in the late 1970’s. Their eighth studio album, Frontiers went six times platinum in 1983 and is considered a rock n’ roll classic. Of the many fantastic cuts on the album is the grade school dance anthem of the early 80’s, “Faithfully.”

Rumored to have been written on a paper napkin while riding in a tour bus, the track chronicles the struggles of being on the road and leaving a significant other at home. The lyrics are simple, but well written but it’s Steve Perry’s iconic lead vocal and the anthemic instrumentation that makes the track what it is. It’s one of the most singable rock songs of all time and an undeniable classic.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit“If We Were Vampires”

Leave it to Jason Isbell to take something like love and use it to make us all sad. “If We Were Vampires,” comes from his third and best studio album with his 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. He’s joined by his wife and fellow americana songwriter, Amanda Shires, on harmony and Jason’s simple guitar is the song’s only instrumentation.

Lyrically, the track is a brilliant exploration of love as an idea, what it means, and what gives it that meaning. He speaks on the sadness of knowing that his life will one day end, as will his wife’s, and yet he understands that it is this very fact, that of having an end in sight, that gives love its meaning. Jason has chosen to spend what limited time he has here loving his wife. It’s one of the best pieces of lyricism of all time and a starkly beautiful message on the meaning of love.

Adam Sandler“Grow Old with You”

In contrast to the unique and nuanced lyricism of many tracks on this list, “Grow Old with You,” is nothing if not simple. The musical climax of Sandler’s 1998 rom-com classic, the short and sweet track features only an acoustic guitar and Sandler’s surprisingly heartfelt vocals. In the movie, the song is sung to Drew Barrymore on a plane and features an enjoyable cameo from Billy Idol, but much of the appeal of the song comes from its universality.

At its core, the song is meant to be a promise of a good life. One by one, Adam Sandler rattles off all the little things he can do to make a life spent with him even better, from “let me do the dishes in our kitchen sink,” to “even let you hold the remote control.” Its simple but meaningful in the sense that it recognizes something about love that other songs don’t. While tracks like Journey’s “Faithfully,” wax poetic about the power of love, “Grow Old with You,” understands that a relationship is a collection of little moments and it sweetly promises to make each one of those little moments joyful.

Extreme“More Than Words”

One of the most underrated bands of the early 1990’s, Extreme is traditionally a hard rock/hair metal band from Boston. While the entirety of their early catalog is excellent, their 1990 sophomore release, Pornographiti is an absolute classic. In the center of a glamorous, thrashing record, guitarist Nuno Bettencourt switches to an acoustic guitar and out comes the band’s biggest hit, “More Than Words.”

The song is fairly simple, focusing on the inability of the classic three words to express the complexities of love itself. Instead, our protagonist asks his love to express her feelings physically rather than through words alone. While the concept is rather cliche’d, it’s the smooth performance from vocalist Gary Cherone and Bettencourt’s incredible guitar abilities that set this song apart and make it one of my favorite love songs of all time.

Cast of Moulin Rouge“Your Song”

A massive hit from Elton John’s self-titled second album, “Your Song,” was already engrained in American culture as a great love song when it was chosen as a centerpiece track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 jukebox musical, Moulin Rouge. Elton’s version is a classic as is, but for my personal taste, I think the Moulin Rouge ensemble adds a certain breadth to what was a very stripped back song in the beginning.

The full orchestra backing this version helps quite bit as the string section is plays sweetly and gently and the overwhelming power of a full orchestra is able to bring the track to an almost overwhelming climax. Over this very impressive instrumental, Ewan McGregor give a shockingly powerful performance with his lack of musical experience aiding him in finding a clean and very technical sound which expresses his character quite well. Ultimately, Moulin Rouge is a wonderfully indulgent film and this track is one of it’s most enjoyable moments.

Lucky Daye Serves Up Bombastic, Funk Inspired EP

With a strong cocktail of Motown, funk, R&B, and more, Lucky Daye has crafted another dynamic project and focuses all ears on his upcoming LP.

Lucky Daye is a singer, songwriter, and rapper from New Orleans, Louisiana. He signed to RCA and Keep Cool late last year and released his debut EP, I, which was fairly well received.  It was heavily R&B centered while pulling in elements of funk and Motown to make for a dynamic and enjoyable listen. He’s announced a full LP for sometime in 2019, but he strikes again in February with yet another exciting EP, fittingly entitled II.

The project opens with “Karma,” which features the strongest funk influences thus far in his career. The lyrics are fun, the slap bass is nasty in the best way, and the kick drum is absolutely thunderous. The vocal melodies on the verse are addicting and the spoken section at the end is hilarious. The overall track is a perfect opener that leaves a listener anxious to hear the rest.

“Paint It,” follows and keeps every bit of the momentum rolling. The balanced, harmonized vocals are an excellent touch, not to mention the infectious and exciting performance from the lead vocalist. The drums and synth lines feel ripped directly from an 80’s synth-pop hit, and the spacier bridge is a nice change of pace. The closing rap has an excellent flow and though the lyrics are somewhat comedic, they fit the song very well.

The third cut, “Real Games,” is the best cut on the album. The heavily effected guitar lead sets a danceable grove over relatively simple drums. The more psychedelic choruses provide a dynamic change up and the bombastic horns bring the powerful Motown influence screaming to the forefront. The strong vocals and songwriting continue here, but they’re made even better by the explosive instrumentation and unpredictable changes including the excellent, slower final verse.

“Misunderstood,” closes the record and is, unfortunately, the weakest of the bunch. The drums are at their best here and the piano and lo-fi production is a nice choice. However, much of the funk and Motown influences are pulled back in favor of what is, essentially, an R&B track with a few jazz elements. It’s by no means a weak track, but it kills the momentum for a thoughtful piece that never reaches it’s goals lyrically, and so feels like a bit of a mood killer.

Overall, II is an extremely exciting EP from a very young new artist. He has a versatile sound and a bold aesthetic vision.

With a strong cocktail of Motown, funk, R&B, and more, Lucky Daye has crafted another dynamic project and focuses all ears on his upcoming LP.

Henry Jamison’s Sophomore Effort is Lyrically Strong but Musically Weak

Gloria Duplex is extremely well written, but a lack of care on the instrumental and production side leaves it feeling like just a catchy poetry collection and robs it of enormous potential.

Henry Jamison is a folk singer songwriter from Vermont. Jamison comes from a very long line of storytellers, his father a successful classical composer and his mother an English Professor. Even further back, his lineage can be traced to people like George Fredrick Root, the successful Civil War Era songwriter. It’s a family tree of which Henry is rightfully proud, and he considers himself yet another in this long line of story tellers. He debuted with his breakout EP, The Rains in 2016, but really hit his stride with 2017’s The Wilds.

His blend of acoustic instrumentation and vivid lyricism is not uncommon in the folk world, though Jamison is especially good at it. The Wilds touches on several interesting topics and his brand of visual lyrics brings these ideas to life with a pleasing sound. Though his songwriting is excellent, his melodies and instrumentation tends to suffer from a lack of attention which is mostly given to the lyrics. Because of this, his earlier work strikes something of a niche market of lyrically focused folk fans and lacks some of the wide-ranging appeal that can be found in the best of the genre. With Gloria Duplex, however, he aims to rectify this while continuing to build on what made his earlier work great. For the most part, he succeeds.

First and foremost, Henry’s lyricism is still the key focus for his music, and for good reason. Tracks like “Boys,” and “Ether Garden,” tell fantastic stories with clever turns of phrase and some beautiful, descriptive poetry. This is, by far, the highlight of what the album does and for lyrically focussed folk fans, this an excellent project.

His vocals, while not overly impressive, get the job done just fine for a folk record. The closer, “Darkly,” actually features a very emotive performance and some strong harmonies and “Reading Days,” is decorated with a few thoughtful melodies. The majority of his vocals are just well done enough so as not to be distracting, but he does show a few hints of putting more effort into these leads.

Additionally, there are moments of strong production here and there. The vocal effects on the “Beauty Sleep,” interview, for example, is exciting and creative and the atmospheric decorations of “True North,” add a lot to an otherwise uneventful track

There’s even the stray moment of instrumental brilliance. The warm violins on the album’s best track, “Florence Nightingale,” the playful guitar of “The Magic Lantern,” or the unique chord progression of “Stars,” are proof that Jamison has the ability to arrange some excellent instrumentation when he puts in the effort. Unfortunately, it’s also in here where I find the majority of my complaints.

A large portion of this album is drug down by cheesy and uninventive instrumentals. The very cliched guitars of the opener, “Gloria,” set the record off on a bad note that it struggles to recover from until a strong run in the middle. In the final third, however, we’re thrown into the weakest track on the album, “American Babes,” which sounds like a stock folk track completely buries its admittedly strong lyrics. This leads us straight onto “In March,” which, while a bit more daring, never seems to bring any of the ideas it contains to any kind of satisfying fruition. Aside from a few notable exceptions, nearly all of this album suffers from this same weak link and isn’t helped by fairly run-of-the-mill mixing.

All in all, this is a solid sophomore effort. Henry’s poetic writing style will be a hit with a lot of folk fans, as it should be. He clearly puts a lot of time and effort into his lyricism. One can only wish, however, that he put the same time and care into the other facets of his music, namely the instrumentation and production.

  Gloria Duplex is extremely well written, but a lack of care on the instrumental and production side leaves it feeling like just a catchy poetry collection and robs it of enormous potential.

5/10

Reward Rewind: 61st Grammy Awards

The 61st Grammys are in the books! Let’s take a look at some of the most memorable parts of the night!

Best Performance: Natural Woman – Yolanda Adams, Fantasia, and Andra Day

There were many excellent performances at the 61st Grammy awards, from Jennifer Lopez’ Motown medley to a perfectly choreographed piece from Janelle Monet, but none of the were quite as powerful as the tribute to the queen of soul herself, Aretha Franklin. All three women gave heartfelt and moving performances of one of Aretha’s most infamous tracks. The harmonies were air tight and the solos were remarkable. A fitting tribute to the queen.

Worst Performance: Shallow – Lady Gaga

Let me preface this by saying that I not only love this song, but the soundtrack from which it came as well. It’s a strong centerpiece to a great album and I also generally like Lady Gaga. That being said, her performance here was jarring to say the least. Her decision to sing Bradley Cooper’s part as well as her own was strange and hurt the conversational aspect of the track, her pronunciation and vocal inflections were manic and distracting, and worst of all, her dancing was simply bizarre. It’s a shame as she’s very talented and the track is excellent, but this performance was a big missed opportunity.

Most Surprising Win: Invasion Of Privacy – Cardi B (Best Rap Album)

Cardi B became the first solo woman to win a Best Rap Album Grammy last night and I certainly couldn’t have guessed this before it happened. Judging by Cardi’s nervous but endearing acceptance speech, neither could she. While Invasion of Privacy was one of the better records in the lineup, it was up against several juggernauts. Drake’s Scorpion and Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD would have been infinitely less surprising as both featured their fair share of radio hits and name recognition. Ultimately, however, Cardi B took home a much deserved win for her studio debut.

Worst Win: Pharrell Williams (Producer of the Year, Non-Classical)

I went back and forth on whether I should mention this one as the only reference to it came from a quick mention by Alicia Keys. However, it’s just too egregious to ignore. Kanye West produced five albums this year, each of which was not only extremely successful, but found much of their success thanks to Kanye’s production. His decision to cut the albums’ runtime below 30 minutes and his more raw style has been incredibly influential this year. While I haven’t loved all of his output this year, there is simply no way to deny the impact he’s had on the industry this year.

Best Win: Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves (Album of the Year)

This was another of the most surprising choices by the committee. I would’ve ranked Golden Hour as the single least likely winner as country music gets very little recognition in this category and other records offered more of a cultural importance and diversity factor. That being said, this was an extremely fun listen with great instrumentation and really heartfelt lyrics and vocals from Kacey. It’s nice to see some reward for an album that made an attempt to step out of the box and though it wasn’t the most experimental piece of work to come out this year, it was daring and unique in it’s own right. It’s an exciting win for very talented young woman with a bright future.

Calling All Captains Drops Energetic Label Debut

Nothing Grows Here is an bombastic EP from an exciting young band.

Calling All Captains is a emo/pop-punk five-piece from St. Albert, Canada. They formed in early 2014 and released their debut EP, A Way With Words later that year, which followed many of the tropes of pop-punk of the era with a fair share of catchy songwriting. They went on to release a follow up in 2016 entitled, Disconnect. This project was noticeably heavier, especially in the instrumentation which featured much more active and intricate drum work, though there was a bit of screaming incorporated into the vocals. Their underground success lead to a signing with indie label, Equal Vision, best known for alums like Coheed and Cambria and We Came as Romans. With a studio budget and a couple releases under their belt, Calling All Captains has dropped their Equal Vision debut in the form of Nothing Grows Here.

The EP opens with the band’s recent hit single, “Chasing Ghosts.” It’s a strong single and an even better opener as it really sets the tone for the entire track list. There’s an excellent tone coming out of the rhythm guitar and the group is extremely tight, rhythmically. Best of all, Luc Gauthier’s lyrics have matured quite a bit between releases as he know writes fairly thoughtfully, avoiding some of the pop-punk tropes that acted as pitfalls on the last two EP’s.

They continue with the more low-key title track. Above all else, the song is highlighted by yet another powerful rhythm guitar performance.While the verses leave something to be desired melodically, the chorus makes up for the short coming in spades as one of the most catchy moments on the entire EP. The dropout is very well done, and the track closes out strong.

“Fools Gold,” follows and is perhaps the best of the five tracks. Gauthier’s vocals are emotional and dynamic with quite a bit of power filling out yet another extremely catchy verse. The track is, not unlike the rest of the EP, driven by Tim Wilson’s active and creative drum work, using cymbal crashes to accent explosive moments and lightning fast tom fills in between. Nick Malychuk’s bass also comes through much stronger here, anchoring the track very well.

Another of the lead singles is next, this time “Disconnected.” Here, the drums do tend to be a bit overwhelming, though they’re still expertly played. The bass is well placed once again, and this is yet another song with an excellent chorus and hook. The screams are at there best on this track, and the build out of bridge carries a lot of momentum into the outro.

The record closes with “Out of My Head,” which is simply fantastic. Maybe the only time when the verses hold up to the quality of the chorus, the track also features a the best bridge on the EP. The breakdown at the end is absolutely thunderous, drumming near the end is at a creative peak. It’s a strong close to a solid EP.

Overall, Nothing Grows Here accomplishes it’s goals with admirable precision. It’s an energetic label debut for Calling All Captains, and it shows off their instrumental prowess perhaps better than any previous work. I do have my complaints, however. 

The production is extremely stiff, leaving no room to breath for many of the instruments. The bass is often lost in the mix, a shame as it’s played so well by Malychuk. The lead guitars, though solid when they appear, are rarely heard despite the fact that almost every track is crying out for a strong lead riff. Finally, the pacing could use some attention, as the middle of the EP does seem to drag thanks to similar tempos and styles on each track. Most of these are minor issues here, but may present themselves more glaringly on a full length LP.

Nonetheless, Nothing Grows Here is an bombastic EP from an exciting young band.

4/5

Ariana Grande Raises the Bar on Pop Music with Fifth LP

Thank u, next is perfectly paced, expertly produced, and packed to the brim with fantastic performances, setting a new measurement for what we can expect from Ariana and the pop genre as a whole.

Ariana Grande is an R&B/Pop singer and actress based in New York City. She began her career in the Broadway Musical 13, but found her footing on the national stage with the role of Cat Valentine on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. After showcasing her vocal abilities on the show, she would go on to break into the world of pop music, taking it by storm with 2013’s Your’s Truly, which debuted at number one and went platinum. After 2014’s My Everything went double platinum and 2016’s Dangerous Woman went platinum, she seemed to have established dominance as one of the most successful pop acts of the day.

She’s notable for remarkable control over her whistle notes, an impressive range, and a smokey tone that has worked especially well as she’s continued to incorporate hip-hop elements into her production. She dropped Sweetener in 2018 to very positive reviews, including from myself, and quickly announced that we could expect a second record within just a few months. Over that time and shortly before the 2018 release, her public image seemed to carry some baggage as her long time boyfriend and recent ex, Mac Miller tragically passed away in 2018, and Grande also split with then fiancé, Pete Davidson on less than amicable grounds. While I’d be more than happy to leave all of this information out of a review of her music, she seems more than happy to leave it in as this and more is addressed on her newest release, thank u, next.

First and foremost, Ariana’s vocal performance on this record is absolutely fantastic. Just listen to tracks like the opener, “imagine,” where she even reaches well up into her whistle tones or “bad idea,” where her belt and ability to switch between chest and head voice characterize an excellent chorus. She’s already well known as one of the more vocally talented pop stars in the industry today, and her performances on thank u, next do nothing but showcase that further.

The songwriting on the album is also quite impressive. Songs like “NASA,” and “makeup,” take fairly basic ideas from pop music and write about them from really unique angles. This is a lyrical trick she uses over the entire record, not to mention extremely personal lyrics on “ghostin” where she sings about her remaining love for the late Mac Miller and the effect it has on her other relationships, or the title track where she speaks to her many past relationships, boldly calling them all out by name, and speaks to her need to focus on her self in the future.

Even beyond lyrics, Grande has an incredible talent for writing incredibly catchy hooks and choruses. On the track “fake smile,” for example, her flow and melody is remarkably singable, as is the hook on the surprisingly sexual “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” She’s got such an ear for writing these choruses that keep listeners dancing through the entire runtime.

Best of all, though, is the production. There are specific examples like the layered vocals on “needy,” or the creative stereo image on “in my head,” but the entire album is a pure masterpiece of pop production. The attention to detail on vocal tuning and the overall mix is perfect and allows the producers to craft lush and dynamic instrumentals that surround the listener with a mix of organic instrumentation and well placed, nocturnal trap influences.

Admittedly, there are issues. “7 rings,” while benefiting from a great Sound of Music reference, suffers from the odd, Soulja Boy-inspired flow on the verses which pulls a lot of the momentum out of the track. Additionally, “bloodline,” is probably the weakest track on the record as the instrumental never seems to find its footing and features an awkward horn section. Luckily, these problems are extremely singular, and have virtually no effect on the rest of the album.

With her fifth release, Ariana Grande has not only established herself as the best of the mainstream, pop acts but raised the bar on pop music as a whole. While artists like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have tried to incorporate trap and hip-hop influences with abysmal results, Grande has succeeded with flying colors and piled on further layers which her contemporaries simply can’t match.

Thank u, next is perfectly paced, expertly produced, and packed to the brim with fantastic performances, setting a new measurement for what we can expect from Ariana and the pop genre as a whole.

8/10