Father John Misty Returns Barely a Year Later With Yet Another Classic

     Father John Misty, also known as Josh Tillman, has been a staple in the indie, singer/songwriter scene  since as early as 2003. For the first seven years and eight albums of his illustrious career, Tillman published music under his own name as well as two albums with Saxon Shore, before joining with Fleet Foxes for their 2011 release, Helplessness Blues. In 2012, however, Tillman took on the moniker of Father John Misty to release his Fear Fun album to success and much critical acclaim. Three years later, Misty returned with I Love You, Honeybear, which was, again, well received with a small group of followers and fans.

   His career took an important leap in 2017 with his sharp-witted, heavily conceptual opus of an album, Pure Comedy. In it, Tillman masterfully picked apart difficult topics like the human condition, American politics, technology addiction, and much more with his signature dark humor and soft rock instrumentation. The albums was a smash hit with critics and fans alike, finally bringing Josh the kind of mainstream success which he has deserved for so long, and almost in response to this, he followed up with uncharacteristic quickness, dropping God’s Favorite Customer just over a year after Pure Comedy.

   Surprisingly, God’s Favorite Customer is wholly unique in Misty’s discography. The lightheartedness which characterized much of his early work is nowhere to be found on this album. Lyrics, while holding to some of his classic wittiness, focus heavily on themes of death, mental instability, and desperation.

   This album can be very accurately described as the second half to Pure Comedy, because where it was an outward look at the absurdities of the modern wold, God’s Favorite Customer functions as the self-examination which should follow any such criticisms of the outside world.

   Tracks like my personal favorite, “Mr. Tillman,” and the title track dig deeply into Father John Misty’s psyche while still telling compelling narratives along the way. His lyrical abilities really shine here as he plays with points of view, one sided conversations, and mixes complex imagery with simple descriptions.

   Instrumentally, this album is a bit of a departure from its predecessors. While tracks like “Hangout at the Gallows,” and “Just Dumb Enough to Try” are built on familiar, orchestral swelling and piano driven melodies, the darker tone seems to have bled over into the music as the arrangement is far more bass-heavy and generally less sweet and whimsical than past projects.

   This album reaches its peak in its simplicity, though. Tracks like “Please Don’t Die,” “The Palace,” and “The Songwriter,” feature a very uncharacteristically stripped back set up. Relying mainly on rhythmic drum and piano work, these tracks serve to remind us all just what a treat we have in Tillman, truly one of the best writers in modern music, who is still in the prime of his career.

   Another highlight comes in the production. The vocal mix is simply fantastic. A quick listen to “Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of All,” or “Date Night,” would blow any careful listener away with the way that Tillman’s voice is stereo-imaged and doused in delay and reverb to create an almost ethereal sense about him. This plays especially well in these rare moments which feature much quicker tempos.

   If there are any complaints to be made here, there is a slight lack of catchy hooks to be found here. While I praise Misty for his ability to find unique vocal melodies which dance along half steps and often clash before resolving, this does bring with it a lack of catchiness. There isn’t much you’ll be singing around the house.

   Overall, though, this albums is simply inspired. Father John Misty pulls from a wide array of inspirations-a few obvious ones being The Beatles, Elton John, and Neil Diamond- to bring us an album that can somehow simultaneously feel removed from time, and yet so topical and relatable. The massive instrumentation pallet is played down and remains almost unnoticed, as each instrument has its part to play, and does it well. The lyricism is, predictably, fantastic, taking on dark themes and difficult topics with the delicate care and razor-tongued wit which only Josh Tillman has. Put simply, this record, like its predecessor, is not only one of the best albums of the year, but will likely be remembered as a bench-mark for this era.

9/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/0hMPUtgjezv7gUsmhztvPv

Kanye West Phones it in for Ninth Studio Album

     Kanye West is a man who needs little introduction. He debuted with his “Higher Education Trilogy,” which ran from 2004 to 2007 and featured three of the most revolutionary records in rap history. The career that followed was nothing short of incredible, seeing Kanye drop a total of nine studio albums, each radically different from each other and often more than a few years ahead of his contemporaries, conceptually. Throughout Ye’s decade and a half long career, genres and rappers have come and gone, but his quality content has always been a staple in the hip-hop world. So too, has his controversy.

   From his early entry to the game amidst near constant criticism and accusations that he was softening the genre too much, to his very public beef with 50 Cent. From his infamous TIME Magazine cover to his online pleads with Mark Zuckerberg for a multi-million dollar loan, and of course his constant stage storming impulse and subsequent Taylor Swift beef. Observant fans and music lovers have developed this general rule of thumb: as soon as Kanye does something ridiculous and lands in headlines, new music is following close behind. This rule proved exceptionally prophetic when West’s vocal support for Donald Trump and ensuing disagreements with fellow musicians was followed, not only by the newest Pusha T album, on which he worked heavily, but with another album of his own, simply titled: Ye.

   This record stands out in Kanye’s discography for a few key reasons. The first of these is its length. On the whole, the seven songs come in at just under 25 minutes, meaning Ye would easily qualify as an EP rather than an LP, had he chosen to market it differently. The second difference is the lack of a theme.

   Historically, each Kanye record is meant to move in a wildly new direction. This was true, even within his debut trilogy, with each albums sounding far different than its predecessor. On Ye, however, Kanye seems even less focused than normal, finding a few interesting beats and rhyme schemes, but never really stumbling upon one unifying theme. But, there is quite a bit to enjoy.

   The opening track, “I Thought About Killing You” is one such enjoyable moment. It finds Kanye speaking freely in a sort of stream of consciousness while manipulating the pitch of his voice and finding his way to a few repeated phrases, all over a simple but spacey beat. The vocal performance is reminiscent of some of Childish Gambino’s early work, but the lyricism is much more impressive. There’s no real word play or anything on this track, but it’s interesting to hear West just say the kinds of things that people aren’t supposed to. He doesn’t try to be clever, and even jokes about how he should probably sugar coat it, but he refuses to and when he finally breaks into a more fully formed outro, he’s putting a solid finish on my favorite track of the project.

   Sadly, its all downhill from there. “Yikes” comes off like a B-side from 2016’s The Life of Pablo with a few regressive statements about women tossed in for good measure and “All Mine” is an alright track ruined by terrible lyrics and a grating, falsetto hook.

   Of course, this is followed by the worst track on the whole album, “Wouldn’t Leave.” This functions, essentially, as a public love letter to Kim Kardashian. Kanye apologizes for the apparent stress that his recent political outbursts have brought upon his wife, as well as constantly affirming that he still loves her. While the track is somewhat listenable and the runtime is mercifully short, it’s still one of the worst tracks in Kanye’s career.

   “No Mistakes” is quite enjoyable and provides a brief respite from what we’ve just heard. The lyrics are, again, cringe-worthy, but the instrumental is sweet and soulful, and the beat is worth listening to.

   The record closes with “Ghost Town” and “Violent Crimes,” both of which are quite enjoyable and show off Kanye’s production skills well. Again, the lyrics are exceptionally poor, even for West, but tracks are smooth and very listenable. The texture of the backing vocals on “Violent Crimes” is very creative, and the Nicki Minaj feature is even worked in quite well, considering her usual ability to ruin any song she touches.

   Overall, Ye is undoubtedly the worst project in a long career, but its not completely without merit. A few of the tracks will certainly find their way into public favor, and the album as a whole sounds like seven very solid demo’s for a new, full length Kanye West LP. Sadly, this record needed at least another year worth of work, filling out the runtime, finding central lyrical and musical themes, and just generally improving the quality of the whole project. Instead, we were given an unfinished and uneventful half hour of music, which does little to excuse his recent erraticism and will likely be remembered as the first, and hopefully only blemish on an otherwise legendary career.

4/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/5EBGCvO6upi3GNknMVe9x9

Richard Edwards Releases Excellent Sophomore Project

     Richard Edwards has one of the most fascinating career trajectories in modern music. Getting his start in 2005 with Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s, Edwards was immediately the front man of an indie darling of a band. The group would go on to release seven records, ending with my personal favorite, “Tell Me More About Evil” in 2014. The also released a massive box set of B sides and live recordings in 2015 which sold well.

   Edwards, however, had gone off the grid. Aside from a few posts on his social media pages, the once charismatic leader of the soft rock outfit had all but disappeared. This changed, of course, in late 2016,  when he made a massive announcement through his Instagram page. Fans first learned that Edwards had been suffering from a debilitating stomach issue, and thus had been rendered unable to perform, or even leave his home for almost the entire three years.

   More importantly, though, he announced that he would release his first ever solo project in the March of 2017, leaving fans scratching heads as to how his sound would vary without the larger group. Luckily, 2017’s Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset was one of the best albums of the year, boasting a successful critical reception with the added bonus of excellent sells to fans. He went on to give a moving performance at the Gas, Feed, & Seed festival in Iowa as well as several excellent showings on various radio and tv in order to promote LCSS as well as another mystery record which would “Probably be out soon.” That record was Verdugo and it was worth the wait.

   The lyricism is, as one would expect, on full display here. Edwards has become infamous for his ability to write lyrics which may not tell a full story on paper, but that allow listeners to feel the emotions which Edwards himself must’ve felt while writing them. Tracks like “Howlin’ Heart” and “Something Wicked,” are masterpieces in this form of emotional writing.

Verdugo-Extra

   Sonically, highlights include “Minefield,” “Beekeeper,” and “A Woman Who Can’t Say No.” On each of these, as well as throughout the entire track list, Richard pulls from a myriad of genre’s and an obviously extensive knowledge of music to create one of the most eclectic collections of songs I’ve ever heard. The instrumentation is able to capture the sparse acoustic focusses of singer/songwriter music, while still finding time for overwhelming orchestral swells and vocal phrasing which bounces from obvious country influences to even pop and R&B.

   While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the vocal performance. He showcases the abilities of his full-bodied, chest voice on the opener, “Gene” while bringing out his wispy falsetto towards the end on “Strange.” Throughout, there is so much emotion in his voice that listeners can really feel every ounce of pain, victory, and reminiscence which coats this album.

   Even the production is impressive. While the more subtle examples can be found in each track by listening to the guitar work and endless, excellent vocal mixes. There are, however, a few more obvious examples of producer, Bob Schnapf’s abilities exist in his massive changes to “Pornographic Teens” from its single version, or even on the short but spacey, “Tornado Dreams” interlude.

   Above all, my favorite track is “Olive Oil,” as it perfectly incapsulates everything that is so amazing about this album. The lyrics are beautiful and emotional, Edwards’ vocal is varied, but always at the forefront. That is, until a fantastic acoustic guitar solo which makes up the bridge. The track even ends well, making it the best track on an already great record.

   In the end, this album checks every box for me. The writing is amazing, its aesthetically consistent and pleasing, and everyone involved really gave it their all. From the smallest bit of production to Edwards’ leading role and everything in between, this album is just incredible. Then again, I never expected anything less.

9/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/0ucWpdhnWdKLMgRYmzWCty

A$AP Rocky Returns With Bold New Sound

     A$AP Rocky burst onto the scene in the early part of this decade with a few very impressive mixtapes. From his earliest releases, Rocky carried with him a very distinct aesthetic which was impressively well developed for such an early point in his career. At the time of his 2013 major label debut, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, his rhythmic flow, cocky lyricism, and penchant for selecting spacey, progressive beats had put him and his A$AP mob at the very cutting edge of the rap game.

   His 2015 follow up, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, divided his fanbase, with some feeling that Rocky had sacrificed content for aesthetic, while others, myself included, felt that his sophomore project had served to further establish his the A$AP Rocky aesthetic. Dreamy instrumentals and heavy hitting flow combined on this project to build one of my favorite rap projects of all time. Thus, I was very excited for A$AP’s return, here in 2018.

   From the opening beat on “Distorted Records,” there is a clear shift. The sugary instrumentation is nowhere to be found, leaving listeners, instead, to a more Yeezus-esque experimentation that creates a much heavier sound when mixed with Rocky’s still hard and confident delivery.

   While this sound is quite jarring and interesting on early tracks like “Fukk Sleep” and “Buck Shots,” it begins to get old as the record drags on. Rocky could’ve avoided this had he done more with this experimentation, but instead, he provides little more than trap drums with heavy bass.

   The real highlights of this album come on tracks like my personal favorite, “CALLDROPS” and “Changes.” Here, Rocky croons a sort of stream of consciousness over long, dreamy instrumentals which, while being reminiscent of his earlier tracks, work in the albums overarching sound well. These tracks serve as an example of just how well this record could’ve worked.

   A$AP’s lyricism leaves something to be desired here. There may not be any lines that stick as poor, but nothing at all shines as being well written. He often contradicts himself, saying that he doesn’t care about lists, just after having said that if there is a list, he should be number one. The main themes of his writing center on his own vanity with a few comments on race and the A$AP mob as a whole sprinkled in. This is, of course, no different than past work, but there is such a lack of creativity here, that the vanity often comes across as totally unwarranted and even annoying.

   Feature wise, the record does well. The Kodak feature on “CALLDROPS” is somehow one of the best on the project, maybe only second Frank Ocean’s work on “Purity,” closes the track list on a high note. Even the more forgettable guests, Juicy J on “Gunz N Butter,” for example, do add something important and notable to the tracks while still finding their niche in the very new sound of this record.

   Ultimately, TESTING often falls short of the expectations set for it by Rocky’s past work, but it does succeed in forging a brand new path of its own. This path is wonderfully complex and inventive on some tracks, and yet barren and repetitive on others. While I find myself somewhat disappointed, I can’t say that I was unchallenged by this project, and that is quite a redeeming quality.

4/10

My Top 5 Shows From Rock on the Range 2018

5. Pray For SleepSunday

PFS   Skipping graduation to play your fourth show ever at the biggest rock festival in America is, to put it lightly, badass. On top of that, Pray for Sleep killed this set. Musically PFS was tight and heavy, yet often melodic, but the real highlight was the performance itself. The group was noticeably  ecstatic about the opportunity and made the most of it with one powerful song after another. Front man, Cameron Dickinson gave an especially energetic performance, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the pure excitement from the crowd, a few of whom were wearing their graduation robes.

4. Breaking BenjaminFriday

breaking_benjamin   Headed into this set, I was slightly wary of the “cock-rock” style, and what it may mean for a live performance, but Breaking Benjamin knew exactly what they were doing and how to work a massive crowd. The inescapability of their music actually played to their favor in this case, as every single member of the audience, including people like me, who have never cared for their work, new every word.They didn’t take themselves overly seriously and allowed everyone to have a good time singing along to one guilty pleasure hit after another.

3. Code OrangeSunday

 Code-Orange  This show opened with pure, distorted noise, bassist Joe Goldman climbing into the crowd and screaming in my face-I was in the front row, and drummer/vocalist Jami Morgan screaming “We are f**king Code Orange and this f**king place is mine!” This is all before they’ve played a single actual note. The group went on to give one of the heaviest performances I’ve ever heard, utilizing tight, slugging guitar riffs and near constant tempo changes to electrify a previously dull crowd and very nearly starting a full fledged riot in the mosh pit. When they finally ended their set with their best known hit, “Forever,” the crowd lost their minds, having seen, by far, the heaviest set of the festival. I would be shocked if Code Orange didn’t make the MainStage next year, where they just might be able to start an actual riot.

2. Greta Van FleetFriday

Greta   The surprise hit of the weekend, Greta came onto the MainStage with a strong enough word of mouth buzz to fill the main arena to almost headliner capacity at half-past-three, but without a single recognizable hit or well versed fan among the massive crowd. When young rockers took the stage, they seemed a bit shaken by the size of their audience, but from the first strum of the guitar, they held the massive crowd in the palm of their hand with a rockstar performance, catchy, Zeppelin-esque music, and Josh Kiszka’s other worldly voice. The band set a precedent early on in the week which wouldn’t be matched by anyone, including headliners. That is, until Sunday night.

******************************HONORABLE MENTIONS*******************************

Stone Temple PilotsSunday

Three Days GraceSaturday

Stone SourSaturday

A Perfect CircleFriday

Asking AlexandriaSaturday

*******************************HONORABLE MENTIONS******************************

1. ToolSunday

   With a set that mostly consisted of older hits and featured almost nothing newer than Ǽnima, one of the best rock bands of all time blew away a sold out crowd at the biggest rock festival in America. Tool opted not to allow ROTR to video them, so you likely won’t be able to find much of it online, but they also kept their own faces off of the larger screens, using them instead to show clips from their music videos cut in with newer videos which were presumably made for this show.Tool

   Musically, what is their to say? Maynard’s voice was fantastic, showing no signs of ware from his previous set with A Perfect Circle, Adam Jones wielded, by far, the loudest guitar I’ve ever heard with pure skill, Justin Chancellor’s bass work was excellent, and a bit more melodic than usual, and Danny Carey, one of the best drummers to ever live, was his usual self. The hits sounded as excellent as they always have, and the long instrumental passages seemed to be constantly evolving and left no downtime, as one would expect from a band who’s been writing together off and on for the last twelve years.

   I spent this whole weekend seeing fantastic bands play amazing sets, and each time the bar was raised, I thought to myself, “Wow, and Tool is going to be even better than that.” They, of course, didn’t disappoint.

Willie Pleases Yet Again With 67th Studio Album of 60 Year Career

     One of the greatest songwriters to ever live, and a certified icon of Country Music, Willie Nelson is certainly a man in need of no introduction. His career began with 1962’s And Then I Wrote, and Nelson would go on to release 67 studio albums, and find himself featured in some capacity on a total of 161 albums (yes, you read those numbers correctly.) In short, the man has few moments of his life doing anything aside from making music through his nearly 60 year career.

   Of course, this discography is populated by a plethora of hit songs. “Crazy,” “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind,” and “On the Road Again,” comprise just a tiny collection of the man’s hits over the year, leaving him in a league of his own, with few contemporaries, save maybe Cash, Dylan, or McCartney. He’s often credited as the father of Outlaw Country, a title which he bares with much pride, and which he addresses on the opening, title track.

   Calling himself “the last man standing,” before namedropping his many friends in the outlaw movement whom he has managed to outlive. Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings are mentioned by name in this song, which is notable as something of a reference to Willies many collaborations with both men. Even in songs with somewhat weighty topics, however, Nelson maintains levity with his infamous wit and writing skill.

   Songs like “Bad Breath” and “Heaven is Closed” make light of Willie’s old age and the passing of his friends as well, with the latter track containing lyrics like “Heaven’s closed and Hell’s overcrowded, so I think I’ll just stay where I am.”

Willie-2
Willie’s 1962 Debut Album

   Additionally, tracks like “Don’t Tell Noah” and “Ready to Roar” continue the trend of quotable, comedic lyrics, focusing on Willie being crazy for his entire life and his desire to have a good time on a Friday night, respectively.

   He even touches, briefly, on today’s political climate with “Me & You,” though he remains mostly lighthearted, without taking much of a strong side. In the end, the track may be my least favorite on the album, as Willie fails to say much, and though he creates yet another fun instrumental, this is the only set of lyrics which feel like a hindrance to the song they are in.

   The tone isn’t solely jovial, however. “I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time,” and my favorite song on the record, “Something You Get Through,” take more somber, classic country tones and focus on themes of regret and loss. The latter, especially, sees a long string of moving lyrics which deal quite wisely with the loss of love.

   Beyond the wide range of topics and lyrical muscles with Nelson flexes on nearly every track, the album is highlighted by excellent instrumentation, simple production, and a short runtime of just over half an hour, which will leave nearly everyone begging for more. The band is, of course, lead by Willie himself and his iconic, acoustic guitar. Behind him, though, is his long time harmonica player, Mickey Raphael giving yet another commanding performance in a discography which sees him credited on nearly 300 albums. The drum and bass work, while relatively uneventful, round out an excellent outing by Nelson’s band, and provide yet another piece of the puzzle when it comes to the great album.

   The highlight is, of course, Willie’s voice. While age may have robbed him of some smoothness and power, it has not stolen away his infamous tone and delivery. Nelson is cool, sharp, and energetic throughout, providing avid fans and passing enjoyers alike, yet another chance to marvel at one of most unique voices in history.

   Yet another great project from one of the all-time greats is in the books, and I find myself quite pleased. To say “he’s still got it,” may imply a bit more surprise than is actually present. Instead let me say, He’s always had it, and he always will.

7/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/59kwBSCOkQiV6L6tUxkNjU

YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBwsRdX_pEA

Arctic Monkeys Present Brave New Sound on Sixth Studio Album

     The Arctic Monkey’s have been blues rock darlings since their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which was certified gold and introduced the world to a kind of pure garage rock which had been missing for nearly a decade at that point. Their proceeding three releases in 2007, 2009, and 2011 each charted moderately well, and received platinum certifications in Britain, the band’s home country. However, the groups career trajectory changed forever with the massive success of 2013’s AM.

   The album was a 40 minute masterpiece which seemingly flaunted the band’s powerful sound and technical ability in the faces of anyone who would listen. Drawing on wide-ranging inspirations and utilizing fantastic production techniques, The Arctic Monkeys had created a rock album that truly felt like a classic from the first note. After a five year hiatus, the group is back with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, an album that simply refuses to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, but instead forges a fascinating new path.

   Lead vocalist, Alex Turner, referred to this record, as well as some of his personal favorite projects from other bands, as being “like places you can visit,” and this is certainly true for the majority of the album. Songs like “Star Treatment,” “She Looks Like Fun,” and the title track really do have a palpable energy to them, and instrumentals which listeners can swim in for many repeat listens.

   One important change which rears its head on this albums is the sharp turn away from the noisy nature of the groups earlier garage rock influence. Instead of multiple layers which listeners can slowly unpack through focus and replays, the Monkeys instead aim for a more minimalist style, using repetitive instrumentals to present new lead ideas on a silver platter for every listener. Guitar solos, like that of “One Point Perspective,” or Nick O’Malley’s excellent bass guitar work on tracks like “American Sports” are no longer consigned to the back of the mix, but instead rise to the top clearly.

   This style, of course, doesn’t always work. Namely, the two song run of my personal least favorite track, “Golden Trunks” followed by “Four Out of Five” fail to capture as effectively as the rest of the project because they present nothing of significance. Instead, we are left with two forgettable and repetitive instrumentals which play to unimportant lyrics. The midpoint lull on this record threatens to take the winds from the freshly opened sails, before they are saved by the eerie “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip,” which benefits from some of the best lyrics in the Arctic Monkeys discography.

   Above all else, this album is made by the absolutely fantastic vocal performance and lyricism of Alex Turner. One needs only listen to tracks like “Batphone” and “Science Fiction” to feel the importance of Turner’s presence. He instantly turns relatively uneventful songs into ear-perking hits with nothing but his smokey tone and commitment to the unique feel of the project. There is a clear resemblance and influence from the late, great David Bowie, and this record will almost definitely send listeners directly to revisitations of the legend’s work as well.

   Lyrically, Turner spends almost the entire runtime criticizing the role of social media and technology in our modern society, following the lose conceptual framework of post-apocalyptic human race, before closing the album with my favorite track, “Ultracheese.”

   The song is a swinging, reminiscent ode to what Turner calls, “America in the golden age.” Heavily inspired by the rat-pack, and jazz vocalists like them, it departs a bit from the style we’ve heard thus far, and delivers and effective and emotional send off to an all around fantastic record.

   The 40-ish minute runtime keeps the album from overstaying its welcome, and as Turner’s final, croon is delivered, a cappella, listeners are left wondering what they’ve just heard. This is an album that requires repeat listens and focus, and it would certainly function poorly as an introduction for new fans to this band. This is because unlike the Arctic Monkeys discography up until this point, it doesn’t force you to listen or beg for your attention, but instead offers something. A sobering contemplation of modern society, a minimalistic approach to instrumentation, creative and innovative melodies, and one incredible vocal performance after another await any listener willing to give this album a try, and if you ask me, it is well worth it.

8/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/1jeMiSeSnNS0Oys375qegp

YOUTUBE LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buqIXGleG2I&list=PLTgCbzV-FEabYmih60WIG-ZRBPcsUH08u