Springsteen’s Western Stars Is a Soaring Masterpiece

Put simply Western Stars is yet another example of why Bruce Springsteen is known as The Boss.

Bruce Springsteen is an undeniable legend of rock and roll from Long Branch, New Jersey. His reputation precedes him as one of the greatest songwriters of all time and the man who carried the blue collar Americana style through the 1980’s when the majority of rock music had turned toward a cocaine fueled, long haired style of metal which didn’t carry nearly the lyrical substance of the earlier days of the genre. Springsteen found breakthrough success in 1975 with his third LP, Born to Run and landed his first number one with 1980’s double album, The River. In total, The Boss has now released 19 studio albums nine of which have peaked at number one and 15 of which have gone platinum or better. As he approaches his 70’s, he shows no signs of slowing down, dropping his newest record, Western Stars over the weekend.

From the first moments of the album, it becomes abundantly clear that Springsteen’s ear for melody is still absolutely in tact. Cuts like the opener, “Hitch Hiker,” and “Tucson Train,” feature fantastic hooks and instrumental passages that are absolutely infectious. It’s nothing short of astounding that, after a nearly fifty year career, the boss can still write a melody that feels fresh and sticks in the mind, but he does it over and over again on this album.

Beyond this, the lyrics on this project are also quite impressive. He makes quite an effort here to tell very unique stories and, for the most part, he succeeds. The title track follows an aging actor as he longs for his younger days and meets with fans everywhere he goes, also playing cleverly with the title of the track and album as referring to both the night sky in the West and the main character on the track who once stared in Western films. “Somewhere North of Nashville,” is also excellent, examining the cost of pouring one’s heart and soul into a song and the feeling of loneliness that comes with its success.

In terms of his vocal performance, Bruce’s age does show, but he uses the gruff tone to his advantage. His voice has always been rather strained, but on the softer cuts like the closer, “Moonlight Motel,” there’s a soft tenderness that has rarely been seen in his earlier work. He also brings extraordinary power to perhaps my favorite track on the album, “There Goes My Miracle.”

Despite all this hard work from the boss, the record’s true highlight comes in the instrumentation. This begins with a daring variety of chord progressions which pop up all over the tracklist. Songs like “Drive Fast,” and “Sundown,” while genuinely enjoyable in their own rights, stand out all the more thanks to surprising and dynamic chord changes that keep a listener guessing throughout.

Additionally, there are a handful of interesting percussion choices that are made on some of the more upbeat tracks. “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” which is essentially a throwback to Springsteen’s 80’s prime, has an almost tropical feel while a later song like “Hello Sunshine,” benefits from a less noticeable but still well performed and mixed drum kit.

Without a doubt, however, this album lives and dies by the simply tremendous instrumental pallet which graces every single cut. A few of my favorites include the bombastic horn section on “Wayfarer,” and the heartbreaking strings on “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” but nearly every track is driven by a massive collection of instruments, each with fascinating melodies to follow.

It seems obvious that Western Stars’ purpose is to borrow sentimentally from the sweeping, orchestral soundtracks of American Westerns and golden age country music, and to that end, it succeeds in nearly every way possible. Each song is a new adventure and the fifty minute runtime flies by fast enough to leave you wanting more. It’s one of my favorite Springsteen projects, not only in recent years, but of all time.

Put simply Western Stars is yet another example of why Bruce Springsteen is known as The Boss.

9/10

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CLASSIX REVIEW: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling”

Once More With Feeling is a remarkable accomplishment, a well written musical, and an excellent dramatic episode of one of the greatest shows of all time.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a supernatural teen drama that ran from 1997 to 2003. Launching impressive careers for TV veterans like Alyson Hannigan and David Boreanaz and bolstering the profiles of late 90’s superstars like Sarah Michelle Gellar, the show became a cult classic almost immediately. Most notably, the show was created by future Avengers director, Joss Whedon, who is still one of the most interesting and creative directors in the world. The season six episode, Once More With Feeling is one of the most beloved episodes in the series, telling the story of a demon coming to Buffy’s home of Sunnydale with the power to make everyone in the city burst into song, singing and dancing until they spontaneously combust. The premise is, of course, as silly as they come, but Whedon’s remarkable ability to toe the line between self-referential sarcasm and genuine heart makes this one of the best episode’s in television history.

The soundtrack begins with the very strong “Going Through the Motions,” and immediately, expectations are defied. Sarah Michelle Gellar, though she has very little experience in music of any kind, gives an excellent performance on this opener as well as climaxing number, “Something to Sing About,” near the end of the record. Her voice is simple and clean and quite emotive to boot.

However, she’s not the only cast member who showcases impressive vocal skill on this album. Amber Benson brings a soft sentimentality to Tara’s parts in “Under Your Spell,” and later in her duet with Anthony Stewart Head as Giles. Movie musical veteran Hinton Battle is brought on to pay the antagonist, a well dressed, lounge singing demon named Sweet who’s smooth baritone on “What You Feel,” is infectious. Perhaps the best performance of all is James Marsters’ work as Spike on “Rest In Peace,” which channels his gruff voice and Spike’s rock and roll personality into one of the most genuinely enjoyable moments on the soundtrack.

Even when tracks lack excellent lead vocalists, or even a vocalist at all, the campy but well performed instrumentals are extremely impressive. “Dawn’s Lament,” and “Dawn’s Ballet,” are much better when watching the episode as Michelle Trachtenberg’s ballet background makes for some captivating choreography, but the instrumentation itself allows these songs to stand on their own as well.

There are also a handful of hilarious skit songs littered throughout. Tracks like “The Mustard,” and “The Parking Ticket,” are generally used within the context of the episode to expand the world, but they don’t loose their witty qualities when the visual is lost. They’re also very well performed by talented vocalists.

When the lyrics aren’t sardonically comical, they’re genuinely heartfelt. This is one of the most interesting decisions made by the creative team as this episode is not treated as a through away. Instead, the musical format allows characters to break into emotional soliloquies which are quite important to the show’s overarching narrative. “I’ll Never Tell,” finds Xander and Anya singing very frankly about their hesitation to get married and foreshadows more issues to come, while “Standing,” performed beautifully by Anthony Stewart Head, sees Giles admitting to himself and the audience that he must eventually leave Buffy on her own and abandon her for her own good. And of course, “Coda,” closes the episode with Buffy and Spike romantically locking lips for the first time.

This is all outweighed however by the handful of ensemble pieces which are nothing short of sheer perfection. From the quirky comedy of “I’ve Got a Theory,” to the reflective drama of “Walk Through the Fire,” and of course the triumphant finish of “Where Do We Go From Here,” these tracks are this episode’s bread and butter. The show is packed with so many beloved and relatable characters and having worked together for six years by this point, their chemistry is palpable, bubbling over in every line. When fans remember this episode fondly, while most enjoy the heart and talent on display in other cuts, its these feel good ensemble pieces that steal the show.

Once More With Feeling is still celebrated to this day as an achievement in modern television, and for good reason. The episode took an astounding amount of work from every member of the cast, crew, and creative team. Writing, learning, and executing a fully fledged musical in the short time frame allotted to record an episode of network television is no easy task, but it was accomplished because every single person involved, but behind the scenes and even including the fans, loved this show just that much.

Once More With Feeling is a remarkable accomplishment, a well written musical, and an excellent dramatic episode of one of the greatest shows of all time.

AURORA Drops Starkly Gorgeous and Well Executed LP

A Different Kind Of Human is breathtaking take on pop music with a colder, more alienating tone which contrasts well with the undeniably catchy songwriting and mainstream sensibilities.

AURORA is an indie/electropop artist from Stavanger, Norway. She debuted with her 2015 EP, Running with the Wolves which slipped almost entirely under the radar but built something of an underground fan base. It was her full length follow up, All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend, which put her on the radar of the indie pop world, topping the charts in her native Norway and even breaking onto the US charts for a moment after she performed on a few American late night programs. This success kicked off a massive tour which ended with the release of her second EP, Infections of a Different Kind, which landed her a spot in festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella, as well as serving as the first part or “step,” as she called it, in a longterm series of releases. The second “step,” A Different Kind of Human released earlier this week and on it, Aurora is as entrancing as ever.

The album opens with one of AURORA’s fantastic songwriting on full display in the form of irresistible hooks. Tracks like “The River,” and “The Seed,” feature choruses which will catch the ear of even the most casual music listener and stick in their heads for quite awhile. She ties in clear inspirations from artists like David Bowie, for whom she’s expressed much admiration in the past, in putting together some truly fantastic hooks.

Beyond this, her lyricism is even more impressive. On cuts like “Daydreamer,” and “Hunger,” AURORA simultaneously uses a few interesting techniques. On the one hand, she consistently goes against the thematic grain of modern pop music, criticizing our tendencies to live only in the moment and speaking to the importance of living for the future as well. Additionally, she writes with haunting and almost alien imagery that makes for a fascinating experience when trying to dissect her storytelling.

Vocally, AURORA is also quite strong. While she doesn’t quite have the power of an average pop star, she makes up for this in spades with impressive control and an excellent range. Tracks like “Animal,” and “Soulless Creatures,” benefit tremendously from her excellent work as the front woman, her gentle tone providing an intimacy which acts as a strong counterpoint to the bewildering instrumentals.

All this being said, A Different Kind Of Human, as with most great pop music, leans heavily on its production and instrumentation. Most of the instrumentals feature heavy synths and quite a few unique tones but this is nothing compared to the extremely inventive percussion, most of which was performed by AURORA herself. Songs like “In Bottles,” and “Apple Tree,” while already listenable and interesting in their own right, are elevated to entirely new heights by the quirky and unpredictable percussion that drives their rhythms.

The album as a whole, however, just wouldn’t be what it is without some of the most genuinely impressive production of the year. From the intoxicating simplicity of “Dance On The Moon,” to the otherworldly experimentation of the title track, and even the gorgeous but criminally short closer, “Mothership,” the production team gets it right in every way possible on this one. Technically, their mixing and vocal tuning is spot on and creatively, nearly every second of the album is daring and unique, yet still listenable and accessible for all listeners.

Ultimately, A Different Kind Of Human is yet another breathtaking accomplishment for the Norwegian pop superstar. She’s somehow able to blend fearless experimentation with wonderfully accessible elements to create something truly special. The record is cold and distant, yet starkly beautiful in almost every way. If you’re a fan of great, well executed pop music, this is a must listen.

A Different Kind Of Human is breathtaking take on pop music with a colder, more alienating tone which contrasts well with the undeniably catchy songwriting and mainstream sensibilities.

8/10

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Dinosaur Pile-Up Signs With a New Label and Drops Enjoyable Fourth LP

Celebrity Mansions is an enjoyable project, but falls short of being anything more.

Dinosaur Pile-Up is an alt-rock band from Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. They debuted with three well received EPs in the late 2000’s before dropping their first full length album, Growing Pains, in 2010 with charted in the UK. They quickly signed with SO Records and releasing the follow up, Nature Nurture just three years later and supporting it with a tour that brought them to the United States for the first time. Eleven Eleven dropped in 2015, their third full length studio effort and final partnering with SO before landing a massive signing with Parlophone Records. With the much larger label, Dinosaur Pile-Up has access to the highest budget they’ve ever had for an album, a massive growth from their debut which was recorded in at home. With this budget, they’ve recently dropped their fourth studio LP and, for the most part, it’s a blast.

Like any good rock album, one strong feature of the record comes in the form of its lead guitar. Matt Bigland brings a handful of creative ideas to tracks like “Back Foot,” and “Black Limousine,” meshing noticeable, smooth melodies with chaotic, garage rock tendencies to make for quite a few impressive moments. For many listeners, this detail may fall by the wayside because of louder, more commanding elements, but no rock record is complete without strong guitar work.

That being said, Bigland is far more impressive in his duties as the band’s lead vocalist. His range and energy make cuts like the opener, “Thrash Metal Cassette,” and the title track infinitely listenable. He’s so clearly having a great time and it comes through in virtually every second of music. Not to mention, his screams are quite impressive, especially for the genre.

Even more addictive than Matt’s work as the frontman are Mike Shells’ fantastic drums. Virtually every track is impressive, but a few of my favorites include “Stupid Heavy Metal Broken Hearted Loser Punk,” and “Black Limousine.” Throughout the LP, Mike is exactly the kind of drummer this genre demands as none of his rhythms are particularly eye-popping but all of them bring an explosive style that takes each track to a whole new level. The drum kit is also particularly well mixed, which brings me to the true highlight of the album.

The production on this album is excellent. The new label’s money is well spent hear as the album carries a perfect balance between the sharp, tight mix and the messy, ringing instrumentation. The sharp cut off on “Pouring Gasoline,” is a fantastic example of this. On the other hand, there are a few creative moments like the surprising use of radio effects on “Round The Bend.” It’s this strong production throughout which elevates every track and even saves a few poor ones.

However, unfortunately, I do have quite a few complaints with this LP. Perhaps the worst quality comes in a few cringe-worthy lyrics on later cuts like “K West,” and “Professional Freak.” This is especially disappointing as lyrics on earlier tracks are quite strong. Additionally, several tracks on the latter half of the album just don’t carry their weight and seem to drag a bit. 

All in all, Celebrity Mansions is a fun listen. It brings back much of the alt-rock and pop punk styles of the early 2000’s with a bit more precision and maturity as well as some very strong production. However, several lyrical and melodic moments don’t quite live up, causing the album with a runtime of only just over half an hour to feel bloated.

Celebrity Mansions is an enjoyable project, but falls short of being anything more.

4/10

Luke Combs’ Fourth EP Is Fun but Underwhelming

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

Luke Combs is a country singer/songwriter from Charlotte, North Carolina. He debuted in 2014 with a pair of self-released EPs which found some underground success and landed him a signing with Columbia Records in Nashville. His powerhouse voice and outlaw sensibilities made him a perfect fit for the rising tide of alt-country which has overtaken much of the industry and he road that wave to a very well received third EP, This One’s for You which was later expanded to become his first full length album. The expanded version went double platinum, topped the US Country chart, and Combs was named one of Sounds Like Nashville’s “Artists to Watch,” and won the CMA award for “New Artist of the Year.” To date, he’s one of the biggest artists in country music and he’s once again returning to the EP format for The Prequel.

The project opens with the raucous, twangy lead single, “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” The track is simply drenched in country twang but Combs’ strong vocal sells it with every word and the explosive instrumental helps quite a bit as well. There are a few production decisions which hold the song back from being truly fantastic, but it’s still an impressive, unapologetic opener that sets the tone extremely well.

This is followed by “Refrigerator Door,” which is a bit of a mixed back. Yet again, the twanging vocal and crashing instrumentals are pure country and the guitar solo is far more impressive than that of the opener. Additionally, the concept of using the refrigerator door as a window to larger reflection on life is quite an interesting idea, but unfortunately, most of the writing and rhyme scheme feels lazy. What’s worse, the photos that are described are fairly run of the mill and universal. It’s still a strong track, but it would’ve been much stronger if filled with well written lines and more personal details.

“Even Though I’m Leaving,” falls in the middle of the EP and once again, Luke brings a very classic country sound. Unlike the last cut, however, this track tells an interesting and heartfelt story of a father and son which feels much more personal. The more organic instruments are a welcome touch, especially with the inclusion of brighter tones like mandolins and acoustic guitars which offset the blues heavy sound thus far. All in all, it’s still a bit cheesy, but Luke sells it with a lead vocal that runs the gamut of emotions and has a genuinely vulnerable moment on the third verse.

“Lovin’ On You,” comes next and this track crosses the line just a bit for me. Combs’ accent is exaggerated to the point of being difficult to understand and the lyrics are entirely thoughtless. It’s not without its bright points as the saloon piano is a great touch and a handful of rhymes are somewhat impressive, but it just tries way too hard to lean into the country sound while lacking the storytelling and melodic writing that any great country song should have. 

“Moon Over Mexico,” closes out the project quite well. It’s a bit nondescript and doesn’t stand out amid the tracklist in any noticeable way, but it is quite well written and tells something of an interesting story. Once again, the song is plagued by a handful of strange and unnecessary production choices, mostly in terms of vocal effects, but a strong performance shines through those issues and makes for a much appreciated final track.

All in all, the EP certainly isn’t bad. For most listeners, I’d imagine the enjoyment of this project will come down to how much they enjoy country music on the whole. This is fairly well written and performed country music of the very twangy variety, but it fails to be anything more than that. Combs has the potential to be a crossover success on the level of Stapleton or Isbell later in his career, but to do that, his storytelling and lyrical chops will need to improve.

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

3/5

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The Jonas Brothers’ Comeback is a Decade in the Making

Happiness Begins is simply frustrating because of a strong start and a heap of potential, but lazy writing and terrible production and instrumentation drag the album down every step of the way.

The Jonas Brothers are a power pop trio from Wyckoff, New Jersey. While their debut was fairly nondescript and unimpressive, their self-titled sophomore release in 2007 went double platinum and netted them a Grammy nomination for best new artist. They landed roles in the 2008 Disney Channel smash hit Camp Rock, becoming Disney Royalty. They dropped another double platinum record that year and another platinum album in 2009. Their last two records peaked at number one on Billboard charts and they’d had a multitude of massively successful EPs, tours, movies, and music videos. In 2012, however, after several delays plagued work on a new project, the brothers announced that they were leaving Hollywood Records, their tie to Disney, and began a messy, drawn out process of splitting up. Nick Jonas found considerable success as a solo act with a handful of platinum singles while Joe Jonas fronted the group DNCE, honing his power pop chops and dropping a few hits himself. Now, a decade after their last release, the brothers have returned with Happiness Begins which is, unfortunately, disappointing.

The opener and lead single, “Sucker,” raised my hopes quite a bit even before the record has released. Unfortunately, aside from a handful moments on songs like “Trust,” these hooks just don’t appear as much as they need to. While a few choruses here and there are strong, singable earworms, just as many are poorly written and half baked. This is, to be sure, the strongest quality of the album and could make it sound better than it really is when played as wallpaper music. However, the singable sections of these tracks often don’t hold up to closer listening.

Beyond this, the Brothers do show some fairly impressive chops in the harmony department. Songs like “Used to Be,” and “Strangers,” feature tight, three part harmonies which, though they aren’t nearly as prevalent as they should be, are very welcome additions to the sound. Sadly, this is pretty well the end of the line in terms of positive comments on the album.

One bizarrely poor choice comes early in the record with nearly unlistenable, “Only Human,” and reappears only a few tracks later with “Every Single Time.” Here, the Jonas Brothers take their best swing at a reggae style and whiff entirely. Virtually every aspect of these tracks-the poorly mixed horns, the strange inclusion of synthesized steel drums, the awkward vocal performances-is hamfisted and irredeemable.

Lyrically speaking, the entire LP is essentially filler. Songs like “Love Her,” and the closer, “Comeback,” are especially egregious, but I don’t know that I heard one single memorable lyric in the more than 40 minute runtime. Nothing is noticeably bad, but it all feels somewhat lazy and cliche’d.

The instrumentals also leave quite a bit to be desired. The main reasoning for this stems from terrible choices of tone for the synths that drench every track. There’s certainly nothing wrong with using synths for the majority of the record, and in fact I was expecting this in keeping with their more power pop roots, but the tones range from abrasive and odd to just thoughtless and ignorable on a song like “I Believe. On the other hand, later songs like “Rollercoaster,” use terribly outdated acoustic guitars that seem ripped from a Philip Philips album.

Perhaps the first hint that I was headed for a disappointment came with the very poorly mixed drums on the second single, “Cool,” as well as later cuts like “Happy When I’m Sad.” The percussion generally uses boring, nondescript trap drums which simply don’t fit with the tracks what soever, though when a more organic kit is present, it’s devoid of any body or thickness.

This brings me to the most overarching and inescapable critique of this project which comes down to simply awful production. “Don’t Throw It Away,” is unbearably mixed while “Hesitate,” uses a multitude of irritating effects and poorly tuned vocals. I save this issue for last because it is certainly the cause of the majority of the album’s weakness. There does seem to be at least a passable album hidden in here somewhere, but it’s just buried by one awful decision after another and what’s left is unlistenable. I genuinely wanted to enjoy this record, but there just isn’t much there to enjoy.

Happiness Begins is simply frustrating because of a strong start and a heap of potential, but lazy writing and terrible production and instrumentation drag the album down every step of the way.

3/10

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Carly Rae Jepson’s Fourth LP Is a Blast!!

Dedicated oozes passion and creativity from every note, and makes up for any missteps with thick, indulgent pop sensibilities.

Carly Rae Jepsen is a pop singer/songwriter from Mission, British Columbia. She debuted in 2008 with Tug of War, released on local, Canadian labels and selling just over 10,000 copies in her home country. She went on to build a respectable local following before signing to Interscope and releasing the mega-hit “Call Me Maybe,” in 2011, which reached diamond certification. From here, her next album, Kiss found strong success in 2012 and Jepsen was set on a path for teen pop stardom. However, with a simple life of one-hit-wonder success laid out, she instead made the admirable decision to challenge herself and her listeners with 2015’s Emotion. The record was a tour de force, jam packed with some of the most danceable pop music in years. This was aided by Jepsen’s decision to make a hard turn toward the indulgent, synth-pop of the 1980’s which had been an obvious inspiration on her earlier work. Dedicated largely picks up where Emotion left off.

From the opening moments, its clear that Carly continues to wear her influences on her sleeve in the classiest way. One of my favorite tracks, “I Want You In My Room,” captures the fearless style of the 80’s pop scene while a later cut like “The Sound,” seems to draw from 90’s artists like Alanis Morissette, particularly in her vocal melodies. Throughout the album, she manages to perfectly toe the line between heavy influence and intentional tribute, never quite settling on either.

Additionally, the production is heavily lifted from the same era, especially in its shimmering synths and start drums. The opener, “Julien,” uses this to fantastic effect and will have even the most heartless listener dancing by the half way point, while “Everything He Needs,” dabbles in spacey, psychedelic elements which I hope to see further explored on a later LP. The mix is so bright and the decisions so daring that every song is a treat.

That being said, the record does fall down a bit when it comes to instrumentation. Simply put, the entirety of this album’s instrumental pallet is made up of synths and drums. While I can generally forgive a narrow pallet on a pop album, Dedicated takes it a bit far. It can often be ignored, but on tracks like “Happy Not Knowing,” and “Right Words Wrong Time,” when the hooks are a bit less impressive or no vocal lines are jumping out, it becomes clear that the instrumentals are actually quite uniform.

On the other hand, the percussion is excellent on this album. The slicing snare on “Automatically In Love,” and the quiet but intricate and heavily effected drums on “For Sure,” are just a few of my favorites, but nearly ever cut on the record carries a strong rhythm section which is both well mixed and lively, despite being obviously recorded on a drum machine of some kind.

Like many pop albums, Dedicated lives and dies by its hooks. This is one of the most singable albums I’ve heard all year, driven by songs like “No Drug Like Me,” “Feels Right,” and “Real Love,” which are genuinely impossible to stop humming throughout the day. This is one element which Carly has had in spades from the beginning of her career and its only gotten better with time.

When all else fails, the album can simply fall back on Jepsen herself and one strong, energetic performance after another. The way she lays it all out on a “Now That I Found You,” or “Too Much,” is just infectiously fun. She’s truly a talent in the world of pop songwriting and performance, evidenced by her ability to elevate every track she touches to an entirely new level.

All this aside, there are a few weak points. As I mentioned, much of the instrumentation is repetitive. Additionally, the lyrics leave quite a bit to be desired and the pacing drags now and then on tracks like “I’ll Be Your Girl,” leaving just a few minutes to feel like rehashed elements from earlier in the album.

Nevertheless, Dedicated is a blast to listen to. Carly Rae Jepsen takes the 80’s-esque style from Emotion and develops it fully on this follow up. While it isn’t perfect, any weak moments are quite effectively painted over by shimmering production, powerful vocals, and screaming synthesizers.

Dedicated oozes passion and creativity from every note, and makes up for any missteps with thick, indulgent pop sensibilities.

7/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB