Lukas Graham Disappoints With Major Label Debut

The Purple Album is rarely unbearable, and often somewhat listenable, but it is, first and foremost, a disappointment.

     Lukas Graham is a pop/soul vocalist from Copenhagen. He catapulted into the American music scene in 2015 with the release of his breakout single, “7 Years.” This track hit number two on the US Billboard and currently sits at five times platinum according to the RIAA. Lukas rode this success to the relatively successful release of of his second LP, The Blue Album, which peaked at number three on the US charts and gained a gold certification.

   Graham’s sound, particularly as it was showcased on “7 Years,” was both unique and refreshing. His soulful performance, thoughtful lyrics, and minimal instrumentation broke virtually every rule for writing a summer pop hit, and yet succeeded massively. His large and seemingly effortless range, coupled with his clear hip-hop and R&B influences made him one of the most intriguing artists in the indy/pop scene, a status which didn’t fade with his LP. Unfortunately, The Purple Album sees Graham teaming with Warner Bros. record and flushing much of his unique sound down the drain.

   The vocal performances on this record are fairly impressive. Tracks like the opener, “Not a Damn Thing,” or “Promise,” find Lukas dancing around the upper reaches of his range with control and an excellent control. Even his lower register sounds fairly impressive on tracks like “Stick Around.” This album, as a whole, is a beast for any vocalist, featuring virtually no instrumental leads, and counting on Graham to carry every track, which he is, for the most part, able to do.

   Lyrically, this album is a mixed bag, though not without it’s highlights. “Everything That Isn’t Me,” is an interesting look at Graham’s shortcomings throughout his life, told in a series of apologies to those in life that he’s let down. “Say Yes,” my favorite track on the album, tells the tale of a man watching his wife walk down the aisle in the same church which held his father’s funeral. This juxtaposition provides a well written commentary on moving forward and finding happiness after loss.

   It’s in this same department, however, where I find my first major complaint. Virtually every track aside from the two I mentioned, are dripping in platitudes, repetitive topics, and few meaningless statements about love for good measure. “Love Someone,” for example, could’ve been written by a computer, and “You’re Not the Only One,” has an interesting message on the need for new artists like Bob Marley and other great, feel-good artists from the past, but it’s delivered with tactless, boring lyrics that rarely match the song’s original premise in creativity.

   The instrumentation is another quality of this record which varies across the relatively short run-time. There are tracks like “Unhappy,” which builds from a minimalistic, drum-heavy track effectively, or “Hold My Hand,” which benefits from the a more nocturnal beat and an organ with a lot of character. However, they are balanced on the other end by tracks like “Stick Around,” which is the musical equivalent of vanilla ice cream, and “Lullaby,” which features one of Graham’s best performances, vocally and lyrically, butchered by strange instrumental choices, decorating the chorus with a boring piano and the choruses with a terribly mixed string section which never appears again on the project.

   All of these issues are magnified tenfold by poor production. For some artists, signing to a major label deal improves the quality of their work and feels like a talented, indy voice finally being given the support they deserve. For others, it sucks the life and uniqueness from them, leaving a radio-ready but uninteresting final project. Lukas Graham falls firmly in the latter category. Overused trap drums, strange and random instrumentation, thin mixing, and a multitude of other problems plague this already flawed project, dealing quite a bit of damage to the final release.

   Lukas Graham showed a lot of promise with his breakout single in 2015, but three years and a Warner Bros. signing later, we’re given a bland pop record. The signs of life aren’t gone from the young artist, but they’re buried under weak lyricism, poor production, and boring instrumentation.

   The Purple Album is rarely unbearable, and often somewhat listenable, but it is, first and foremost, a disappointment.

4/10

HEAR THE PURPLE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/02gV87QEIFp2T9q7OqVBjj

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Twenty One Pilots Reemerge With Catchy but Deeply Flawed Fifth Album

With the increased maturity, the duo’s weaknesses shine more brightly than ever, and in some cases even cover up the many strengths that do exist on this album.

     Twenty One Pilots is an alternative hip-hop/pop/electronica duo from Columbus Ohio. They worked their way up through the music industry with an organic, grassroots fanbase eating up their self-titled debut and the follow up, Regional at Best in 2009 and 2011 respectively. They went on to sign a deal with Fueled by Ramen and release their breakout LP, Vessel in 2013, which still holds up to this day thanks to it’s youthful exuberance and experimental nature. Their 2015 follow up, Blurryface hasn’t aged nearly as well as it’s predecessor, though it was well received with the “Stressed Out” single netting them a grammy in 2016. Earlier this year, Blurryface became the first album in music history to have at least a gold certification for every track.

   Twenty One Pilots have been touring relentlessly since their last release until their recent and rather pretentious announcement that Trench would release later this year. Social media was abuzz and the first few singles showed quite a bit of promise. Though the once dominant Fueled By Ramen label has, in recent years, become a cesspool of thirty-something year old pop-rockers singing to twenty-something fans reliving their high school emo days, Twenty One Pilots showed a few signs of life and maturity in their lyricism and sound. I found myself excited to hear Trench, if a bit cautious, and now that it’s out, the record does pack a few surprises.

   The band’s best talent on this record is, as it always was, their ability to write hooks. Tracks like “Chlorine,” or “Morph,” are built around undeniable ear-worms that will bounce around in a listeners head for weeks to come. Even some of the records later cuts, “Bandito,” for example, are extremely catchy and feature very well written choruses.

   Beyond this, Josh Dunn’s drums are, of course, a treasure trove of fun fills and rhythms. “Legend” features a fun, easy rock beat which stands as one of the last remnants of the duo’s earlier sound. Much of the closer, “Leave This City,” on the other hand is driven by a fairly complex cymbal rhythm which all but makes up for the unremarkable nature of the track.

   Tyler Joseph’s contributions, however, are not as consistent. He gives an excellent, emotional performance on the opener and my favorite cut, “Jumpsuit,” and his quirky vocal is perfect for the upbeat tribute to his wife, “Smithereens.” His rapping, though, is not nearly as exciting on the trap influenced “Levitate,” or most anywhere else he raps on this project. Where Tyler’s screaming flow was once erratic and youthful, it comes off as awkward or uninteresting on much of Trench.

   The instrumentals are rarely memorable, but do provide a few highlights. The fuzzy guitar on the aforementioned opener are fantastic, and the discreet ukulele on “Nico and the Niners” is a nice touch. Furthermore, a few of the more electronic tracks like “My Blood,” or “The Hype,” are actually quite rich and mix in Joseph’s newfound love of bass guitar well.

   Lyrically we find an odd issue rearing its head. Songs like “Neon Gravestones,” or “Legend,” benefit from interesting choices in topic, especially the former which indicts our culture’s glorification of mental illness and suicide. The bulk of the lyricism is relatively inoffensive, though a bit repetitive.

   However, Trench is constantly plagued by an effort to develop an absurdly intricate concept following a dystopian future and some kind of rebellion against a theocratic government with so many characters and details that virtually no casual or even dedicated listener could unweave it without reading the loads of written material which the band uploaded along with the album. The vast majority of the storyline takes place in the writing with the album only casually mentioning it and many tracks completely forgoing the concept all together. This has the effect of interrupting otherwise interesting songs with ridiculous and meaningless lyrics which only exist to loosely tie in the plot of this external story. In short, Trench is a textbook example of how not to write a concept album.

   The only other complaint I have falls mainly over the second half of the album in that much of it is simply boring. Tracks like “Cut My Lip,” and “Pet Cheetah,” are messy and go nowhere, with the latter easily standing as the low point of the record. “Bandito,” though featuring a nice hook, doesn’t justify it’s five and a half minute runtime as none of the musical ideas really grow or develop in anyway.

   Trench is an odd album because it shines in many ways. Josh Dunn is as good as ever on drums, Paul Meany’s production leads to many interesting, small touches to be discovered on repeat plays, and Tyler Joseph clearly still has the ability to craft interesting musical ideas. This album could even pass as an alright addition to the Twenty One Pilots catalog, but after revisiting Vessel or even Blurryface, it becomes clear that Trench lacks a certain youthful energy which once glaze over the weaker elements of the band’s work.

   With the increased maturity, the duo’s weaknesses shine more brightly than ever, and in some cases even cover up the many strengths that do exist on this album.

5/10

HEAR TRENCH: https://open.spotify.com/album/621cXqrTSSJi1WqDMSLmbL

Death Cab for Cutie Shows New Signs of Life With 11th Studio Release

This is a very fun listen for fans of Death Cab for Cutie, or the soft/indie-rock sound in general, but it won’t be winning over unfamiliar listeners anytime soon, and certainly won’t hold up to as many revisits as the group’s earlier work.

     Death Cab for Cutie is a soft/indie-rock band from the Pacific Northwest. They debuted in 1998 with Something About Airplanes, and followed with two more records over the next three years. They finally reached prominence in 2003 with Transatlanticism, which went gold, and the platinum certified Plans in 2005. After Plans, the group slowly tapered in popularity over ten years and three more releases, leading up to their most recent project, Thank You For Today.

   Death Cab is haled for their unique, soft-rock sound, rhythmic drum work, and Ben Gibbard’s excellent vocals. Lyrically, their writing utilizes quirky metaphors and excellent visualization to craft infinitely singable tracks with catchy hooks and interesting ideas. There is no shortage of these good qualities on Thank You for Today, but the album comes in as a bit of a mixed bag.

   The band adopts an interesting drum-heavy style across the bulk of this record, most noticeably on tracks like the opener, “I Dreamt We Spoke Again,” and even more so on “Summer Years,” which follows. Jason McGerr’s percussion work on these tracks, as well as on the rest of the record, is solid and rhythmic, if a bit unadventurous.

   We’re even treated to a few moments of uncharacteristic excitement on the lead single, “Gold Rush,” as well as “Northern Lights” on the latter half of the track list. These songs feature faster tempos and driving rhythms, decorated by pulsing synth melodies and ringing guitar licks. The project, on the whole, is one of the band’s most energetic to date.

   “When We Drive,” or “60 & Punk” may be the closest we’re given to a hint of the group’s earlier style, though much of the sweet guitars are replaced by slowly developing synth swells. Gibbard’s vocals and lyricism on these tracks, however, are very much indicative of classic Death Cab, as he simply and confidently delivers line after line of extended metaphors and hanging melodies.

   It’s hard to point out specific songs in the record’s relatively short runtime which stand as weak links -though “Near/Far” and “Autumn Love,” do come to mind- but this doesn’t mean that the album is impervious to criticism. The biggest issue is that which persists throughout the entirety of Death Cab for Cutie’s discography, including Plans: a hanging air of boredom. Though the addition of a few more upbeat tracks helps add a bit of variety, this doesn’t account for the repetitive nature which eventually arises due to the band’s style.

   Thank You for Today is very far from perfect, and it’s not the best record in Death Cab’s fairly impressive career, but it is one of their better releases over the last decade. Many of the songs, taken individually, stand as thoughtful, slowly-unraveling art pieces which provide interesting, musical scavenger hunts for careful listeners. However, the insistence on synth instrumentation and relatively rigid production leaves TYfD feeling far less sonically dense than previous projects.

   This is a very fun listen for fans of Death Cab for Cutie, or the soft/indie-rock sound in general, but it won’t be winning over unfamiliar listeners anytime soon, and certainly won’t hold up to as many revisits as the group’s earlier work.

5/10

Ariana Grande Tops Charts With Impressive Fourth Release

Sweetener is as soulful and lively as we’ve ever heard from Ariana Grande, yet far more mature than any of her early work. She sounds as good as she ever has, and sets a high bar for pop music this year.

     Ariana Grande is a 25 year old singer and actress based in Florida. 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. On the show, she showcased her skills as a vocalist and left the role with quite a promising future ahead of her.

   She made her musical debut with 2013’s Your’s Truly, which debuted at number one and went platinum. She followed this success with 2014’s My Everything, and 2016’s Dangerous Woman, both of which achieved massive success, going double and platinum respectively. Grande established herself as a modern powerhouse of female vocals. She has an especially impressive whistle register and smoky tone which compliments her penchant for working with hip-hop artists and bass-heavy beats well. I’d had a generally positive experience with all of her previous work, and I was excited to hear her latest release, Sweetener, and I was, overall, impressed with the finished product.

   The album surprisingly diverse, a description not so apt for her earlier projects. Compare the tropical, steel drum-infused instrumental of “successful,” to the trap-flavored beat of “everytime,” which follows directly after. There is almost a sense of musical whiplash between them. The same is true for the gleeful, 80’s influences on “no tears left to cry,” and dreamy, but short love track, “Pete Davidson,” which even finds a home for a beautiful violin line.

   Ariana is at her best on this record when she taps into her more soulful side, allowing herself to indulge with tracks like the excellent lead single, “God is a woman,” or on the criminally short opener, “raindrops,” which may be the best track on the list. One can even hear hints of this on the title track, as well as the closer, “get well soon.”

   Her harmony work is also quite enjoyable. See the vocal layerings of tracks like “better off,” or “R.E.M.” Between the very impressive production work on her vocals and Grande’s impressive performances on multiple parts, these tracks are infinitely listenable, with several hidden runs and lines which may only be discovered upon repeat visits.

   Ariana does, unfortunately have a tendency to get lost in some of the more demanding beats on project. “the light is coming,” for example, bury’s her easily in addition to suffering from a characteristically atrocious Nicki Minaj feature, and is, without a doubt, the low point on the album. “breathin,” suffers a similar fate, not due to an overactive instrumental, but to Ariana’s uneventful performance. This does work quite well, however, on “blazed,” which combines an infectious, tropical beat and a fantastic Pharrell Williams feature to overlook Grande’s less than stellar vocals and the song’s general lack of direction.

   She even dips into an interesting mix of soul and disco with “borderline.” The track is a fun listen and, thanks to Missy Elliot’s braggadocios third verse, it stands as one of the highlights from an already packed album.

   There are, of course, a few weak spots. Ariana’s attempts at rapping, mercifully rare though they are, immediately butcher any sense of enjoyment of a track, the trap drum effects are atrociously overused, and the lyricism so rarely peaks its head above the mark of uneventful as to be unworthy of mention. These are small issues, for the most part, but they’re issues which should be ironed out by an artist’s third and fourth releases.

   However, I’m left with a relatively enjoyable experience. When looking at the modern landscape of female powerhouses, Grande seems to be situated at near the top of the field in terms of ability to craft an enjoyable record from start to finish. She has an entire, fully fleshed aesthetic, a smokey and enjoyable voice, and she uses her power with reserve.

   Sweetener is as soulful and lively as we’ve ever heard from Ariana Grande, yet far more mature than any of her early work. She sounds as good as she ever has, and sets a high bar for pop music this year.

6/10

Florence ± The Machine Adds to Intimate High as Hope

Check out my review for the new Florence and the Machine record, High as Hope.

     Florence and the Machine is one of the most recognizable names in all of modern rock music. The indie collective, which is currently listed as having nine members, was formed in 2007, and released their debut LP, Lungs, in the summer of the 2009.

   Lungs was an explosive hit, going five times platinum, and instantly made the band one of the biggest groups in the world. Their particular blend of experimental, arena rock and soft pop quickly captured the zeitgeist, thanks to the success of Florence, as well as groups like Coldplay, The xx, and Of Monsters and Men.

   Florence and the Machine would go on to release Ceremonials in 2011, and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful in 2015. Each of these were very well received by critics, but suffered somewhat diminishing commercial returns as their sound began to fade from the mainstream. The group had developed a very dedicated fan base, however, and their studio work continued to impress along with infamously impressive live shows. In late June, 2018, Florence released their fourth studio record, High as Hope.

   This album is surprisingly quiet, especially considering the large line up of musicians involved. Tracks like “Sky Full of Song,” and “No Choir,” verge on boring because of their simplicity, and would fall into this trap if not for the excellent vocal work of Florence Welch which highlights every song.

   Isabella Summers’ piano melodies carry the bulk of this album, especially on slower tracks like the opener, “June,” and the charismatic, “Big God.” Here, Welch’s vocals still take front and center, but Summers slides in behind her with one simple, but catchy piano hook after another.

   Not every song, however, is quiet and simple. “South London Forever,” utilizes rhythmic bass drums and a catchy violin groove to stand out early in the tracklist, while “100 Years,” uses sharper percussion and chaotic vocal layers to bob heads near the end.

   Vocally, Florence Welch puts on a clinic here. Tracks like “Grace,” and “The End of Love” are melodic and moving in their delivery, which sees Welch’s singing pushed far to the front of the mix as the undeniable lead, while she brings attitude and unique melodic lines with her to “Patricia,” which is far more upbeat and showcases yet another tool in her arsenal.

   By far the best track on this record is “Hunger.” It’s lyrically impressive, even more so than the rest of the album, Welch’s vocal melody is endlessly catchy, and the crescendoing instrumental,  broken at the choruses by well timed and well mixed cymbal crashes are almost overwhelming. This is a track that will have listeners humming for a few days after.

   High as Hope’s weak points are few and far between, but far from non-existent. Most notably, the pace is too quick. Clocking in at exactly 40 minutes, most of the tracks feel rushed and underdeveloped. The band clearly has the ability it build interesting layers over long form tracks, but choose not to for whatever reason.

   “Big God,” is also the weakest showing of the track list, as it is both lyrically and sonically repetitive. At times, a few of the songs tend to blend together, as they all sound similar, and “Big God,” is an example of a track that will completely disappear from memory in a few hours.

   In total, High as Hope is an excellent showing for the Indie Rock megastars, and adds yet another solid chapter to their strong discography. The album’s unique mix of baroque instrumentation, expressive lyrics, and powerhouse vocals makes for quite the finished product which can be enjoyed by all listeners, from die-hard fans to newcomers.

   With nearly all of the group’s contemporaries having fallen off in terms of popularity, and many scrambling to update their sound, its good to hear a band from the this baroque pop/rock movement hold strong and piece together an album they can and should be proud of.

8/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/0pKZJj9GzcKPCS8r4IaksA

Gorillaz Bounce Back With Excellent Sixth Album

This was a really fun album that I’ll likely be listening to for awhile! Let me know in the comments what you thought of this album, and what I should review next!

     Gorillaz is an electronic, garage-rock/hip-hop artist who got their start in 2001 with their self-titled, debut LP. Referring to Gorillaz in the singular may be surprising to even a few dedicated fans, as the artist is generally known by the animated band of ape-like humanoids, for which a vast and entertaining mythology has been created. The group was created by comic book artist, Jamie Hewlett, with the idea of creating an “Alvin and the Chipmunks for adults,” with musician and Blur frontman, Damon Albarn.

   The groups early work was truly ahead of its time. Albarn melded rap, hip-hop, electronica, and even jazz elements in a way that wouldn’t become anything resembling mainstream for another decade. Unlike their Nu-Metal and early EDM contemporaries, Gorillaz struck a reserved balance between these genres that made their sound feel totally new and unique, and their albums had clear direction and struck to their concepts.

Their 2017 release, Humanz was, in my opinion, the groups first misstep in a long and excellent career. The record was bloated, often directionless, and the features-Albarn is heralded for his ability to mold and fit the style of any and all featuring artists-felt like talented musicians being shoved into roles where they didn’t belong. It was quite a disappointment, but barely a year later, Gorillaz is back with the far more impressive, The Now Now.

This album, which is Gorillaz’ sixth studio effort, is far shorter, clocking in at exactly 40 minutes, and it uses its time well. The quick pace insures that no one track over stays its welcome, but that each idea is still fully fleshed out.

The album is also almost devoid of features, save two exceptions. The first of these is “Humility,” which features George Benson, the legendary jazz guitarist who has worked with acts like Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis on top of his tremendous solo career. The track opens the record, and Benson’s guitar compliments the dreamy instrumental well. The other is “Hollywood” which has an excellent feature from Snoop Dogg and a few ad libs from Jamie Principles that add a strong dose of attitude to the track.

The sweet, dreamy vibe continues on tracks like “Magic City,” and “Tranz.” These songs use heavy synth-pop influences and thickly layered vocals to create washes of sound that develop slowly before billowing over in sugar rush choruses.

Albarn strikes a distinctly darker tone, however, on “Kansas,” “Sorcererz,” and the closer, “Souk Eye.” Here, the synth elements are still front and center, but the chord progressions take darker turn and the vocals have a more spacey quality. This works well as a counterpoint to the dreamier tracks, though they’re a bit less enjoyable.

The highlight of the album is “Idaho.” Here, the tempo is slowed down drastically, and the heavily reverbed and layered vocals take center stage. Gorillaz is often called a “postmodern,” band for many reasons, not the least of which is their general detachment from emotion. This makes “Idaho” all the more special, as Albarn’s weaves his own heart into this track and it shows.

This is followed by the worst track on the record, “Lake Zurich.” There’s nothing particularly offensive about this song, but rather a general lack of anything interesting. There are no vocals, and the electronic melodies which take the lead are often repetitive and boring.

Overall, The Now Now is a large step in the right direction, and erases many of the flaws that plagued Humanz. Its runtime is wholly justified, the few features there are add a lot to the album while preserving the uniqueness of the featuring artist, the vocals are well layered and unique, and above all the electronic instrumentals are fantastic. Its an album with only a few bright spots, but nearly devoid of a weak link.

After one, singular stumble, it would appear that Gorillaz is back in full force.

Panic! Returns With an Average Sixth Record

Took me a bit longer than I would’ve liked, but here’s my review of Panic! At The Disco album, Pray for the Wicked.

     Panic! at the Disco is an emo-pop/punk band who rose to massive popularity with fans and critics in 2005 with their debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. It was an album dripping in attitude and urgency, featuring excellent lyricism and instrumentation, and highlighted by the incomparable vocal talents of frontman, Brendon Urie.

   The band would go on to an excellent career which is especially notable for their putting the “Fueled by Ramen” label on the map, their many tours with fellow emo-punk band Fall Out Boy, and above all, their penchant for delivering vastly different sounds from album to album.

   As the years went on, however, members came and went between records until, finally in 2016, Urie released Death of a Bachelor under the P!ATD monicker as the sole remaining member. It was an album with a lot of potential, but wholly lacking in direction as there was no balancing force to Brendon’s manic creativity. Just two years later, Urie returns with the sixth installment in the Panic!’s storied discography.

   In many ways, Pray for the Wicked feels like a continuation of ideas which its predecessor started. Tracks like “Say Amen” and “Silver Lining” could very easily have fallen on either album, and the synth-heavy instrumentation does leave much of the track listing feeling stale.

   The most obvious take away for even the most casual of listeners is Brendon Urie’s excellent vocal performance. Throughout the album, and especially on tracks like “Roaring 20’s” and “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” Urie puts on an absolute clinic. His range is particularly impressive, and his recent stint on Broadway in Kinky Boots has brought a brand new dimension to his already very full tool box.

   The strides which are made by the great vocal work are heavily undercut, though, by the dreadfully cheesy lyricism which plagues every track. While Death of a Bachelor was criticized for overusing themes of unrepentant party lifestyles and wild nights, Pray for the Wicked gleefully digs up that dead horse and beats it eleven more times. Tracks like “High Hopes,” and “Dancing’s Not a Crime” are simply unforgivable, while “The Overpass” and “One of the Drunks” would be enjoyable if there was any joy left to be found in this writing style.

   The album, as a whole, is paced quite well. Clocking in at just under forty minutes, most of the runtime flies by, and much of the repetitiveness can be forgiven for this reason. That being said, several tracks feel completely pointless. “King of the Clouds,” and “Old Fashioned” are completely forgettable, and only “Dying in LA,” is able to rescue the latter half of the project.

   Ultimately, Pray for the Wicked is very enjoyable, and works as a musical wallpaper. However, it utterly fails to hold up to any in depth exploration, and leaves much to be desired by way of story telling in instrumentation. P!ATD is certainly standing shoulders above the recent work of their pop/punk contemporaries, but even still, this album is a mere shadow of the urgency and potential which can still be heard in the groups debut.

4/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/6ApYSpXF8GxZAgBTHDzYge