Anderson .Paak’s Quick Turnaround Yields Fun but Not Quite Stellar Results

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

Anderson .Paak is a hip-hop/R&B artist from Oxnard, California. He debuted with a few notable underground projects in the early 2010’s, including the Cover Art EP which aimed to reclaim blues and R&B tracks written by black artists which were better known for being covered by white artists in the 1950’s. His breakthrough came first with 2014’s Venice, and then with his 2016 smash hit, Miami. The latter is a far more impressive release and brought to life the grooving, soul-funk style which set .Paak apart from the other members of his 2016 XXL Freshman Class. With his 2018 follow up, Oxnard, Anderson was launched into the stratosphere of modern music with what was largely regarded as one of the best albums of the year. Now, just a year later, he’s returned with Ventura, yet another groovy piece of Neo-soul mastery.

Eagle-eyed music fans will notice before they even hear a sound that the record has a fantastic lineup of features on nearly every track. While the vast majority of these are quite impressive, two stand about above the heap. Namely, the one and only André 3000’s tongue-twisting verse on the opener, “Come Home,” and Smokey Robinson’s silky presence on the follow up, “Make It Better.” In both instances, the features elevate the tracks to incredible heights.

Despite an incredible ensemble, Anderson still commands a leading presence across the project, and carries a few of the tracks alone. “Yada Yada,” is an absolute clinic in soul and funk vocals with .Paak’s rough sweetness burning through every line. “Chosen One,” however, would be entirely forgettable if not for the fantastic rap verse near the end with a few eye popping name drops and a fascinating flow. He’s really come into his own, and his work on this record is extremely exciting for longtime fans.

Beyond vocal performances, Ventura’s instrumentals are electrifying. Each cut features a massive pallet from an interesting mix of organic and electronic sources. “Reachin’ 2 Much” sees a foundation of thick bass guitar and thumping kick drums supporting howling synths and bombastic horn sections. “Winner’s Circle,” on the other hand pulls elements like skat singing and woodwind melodies and a hilarious opening sample.

The record is at it’s best however, when the entire band finds the somewhat intangible groove they seem to be searching for at all times. This happens to great effect on “Jet Black,” a track which is essentially carried by the groove and lacks the bells and whistles of other cuts. The album’s highlight, however, is the lead single “King James,” which is built on an undeniable beat and adorned with thoughtful, politically charged lyrics and a luscious saxophone. It’s here where Anderson is at his best.

I do, however, have a handful of complaints. The most consistent issue throughout is pacing. More than a few tracks drag on far longer than necessary and seem to go nowhere for the last half. “Good Heals,” on the other hand, is criminally short and feels extremely half baked.

The most frustrating shortcoming, though, is the way that Ventura absolutely limps through the finish line. The closing tracks, “Twilight,” and “What Can We Do?” Are both completely lifeless and unnecessary. The Nate Dogg feature on the latter is a nice touch, but the track itself feels like a lost, Nate Dogg B-side and is totally out of step with the rest of the record. It’s a shame, because the rest of the project is quite strong, and could’ve been brought home well.

That being said, Ventura is a success, overall. Once again, Anderson .Paak has come through with a unique brand of Neo-soul and funk that has the ability to excite fans young and old. His respect for the masters like Smokey and James Brown is palpable, but his rap background bring a unique spin.

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

6/10

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

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Five Easy Tips for Becoming a Better Music Listener

Virtually every genre of music is thriving in an exciting way today, and sitting out on this exciting era is simply not an option for true lovers of music.

5. Learn an Instrument

     To start off, learning an instrument has numerous benefits. It’s shown to help younger children in school, it can serve as a creative outlet and relieve stress, and let’s not forget, ladies love a guitarist! In addition to this, learning to play an instrument for yourself can infinitely increase your enjoyment of music that you’ve always loved.

   This can be done relatively cheap, and I would recommend guitar as a cheap guitar can run under $100. Understanding chord structures, basic music theory, and the skill that goes into playing an instrument opens a new window through which to view some of your favorite tunes.

4. Listen with Intention

   This is one of the most important and most ignored pieces when it comes to enjoying music thoroughly. If you start a movie and let it play in the background as you clean the house, do homework, etc., you couldn’t truly say that you’ve “seen” the movie. In the same way, music, at least good music, isn’t made to be wallpaper, but to be the focus of your time with it.

   If I could set up the perfect listening environment, I’d start with a comfortable room and a closed door. Add a nice pair of headphones or speakers, and even a paper to take notes, and you’ve got yourself a perfect environment to experience a great album. Of course, driving, jogging, cleaning, and other activities provide excellent time to revisit old favorites, but to intently listen, especially to a new record, the music needs to be the primary focus of your time.

3. Listen to Full Albums/Discographies

   This may seem obvious to a lot of people, but many music fans, particularly younger, still view an album as nothing more than a collection of songs independent of one another. This couldn’t be a worse understanding of an album’s purpose. A great record functions much like a great film, with each song acting as a scene. Each informs the next, either through direct storyline in the case of a concept album, or through tone and pacing in the case of a traditional album. Experiencing the piece as a whole allows you to place each song in context of the album and gives a fuller understanding of how each track is meant to function.

   Beyond this, albums are far better appreciated when viewed in the larger scope of a band’s entire discography. To take a group like The Beatles for example, their discography tells the story of a young boy band developing into an experimental, psychedelic powerhouse, and similar growth can be seen in several bands of the same era. Placing the album you’re hearing into the larger context of the group’s full catalog makes the listening experience vastly better.

2. Read the Lyrics

   It’s shocking how few avid music listeners actually do this, especially considering what an important factor it is, but to truly appreciate a great album, you simply have to read and know the lyrics. Lyricism is especially important in folk and rap music, but across all genre’s, it’s one of the most important aspects of a track. Every word is placed in a song for a reason, and a good listener understands the purpose of each line.

   Finding lyrics is very easy. Nearly every song ever recorded can be found on genius.com, often with accompanying discussion on the meanings of each line. In addition, physical copies of music generally come with liner notes or a book which will contain the album’s full lyrics and maybe even a few illustrations. Developing the skills to pick apart lyrics and understand their meaning is a remarkably important skill to a music listener, and it will radically change your experience of some of your favorite records.

1. Listen to New Music!!

   This is, without a doubt, the most important part of being a good listener. The most uninformed statement I hear and read on a daily basis is some form of “there’s no good music these days.” The modern music industry faces several issues, mainly dealing with artist pay and copyright questions, but the one problem it absolutely does not have is scarcity! It’s impossible to adequately enjoy the work of someone like Tupac without hearing his heavy influence on an artist like Kendrick Lamar, you can’t fully appreciate the violent intensity of Pantera without hearing the way modern hardcore groups like Code Orange have brought their sound roaring into the 21st century, and ignoring changes in current music leaves you alienated as a listener and removed from the world of music as a whole.

   Finding new music is a question I get often, and so let me list a few suggestions. The most obvious and affordable may be Spotify, which takes your weekly listening habits into account to create a 30-song playlist for you every Monday, made up of songs you haven’t heard. Spotify also has playlists like “new releases,” which can give you a taste of what’s coming out now. On top of this, websites like nme.com or billboard.com have yearly lists of upcoming albums. If you have certain bands you enjoy, follow their social media accounts to keep updated on upcoming work and the work of their label-mates. As a reviewer, I also sign up for mailing lists for several labels I enjoy, which means I get weekly emails with updates about upcoming music from their rosters. Virtually every genre of music is thriving in an exciting way today, and sitting out on this exciting era is simply not an option for true lovers of music.

Coheed and Cambria Drop Epic Album, Keeping the Fire Alive on Ninth Release

The Unheavenly Creatures is a blast to listen to, and a must hear for fans of Coheed and Cambria or fans of good rock music in general.

     Coheed and Cambria is a progressive/emo rock group from Nyack, New York. They’ve been working fairly steadily since 2002, though they’ve achieved little commercial success save two gold records in 2003 and 2005. Regardless, they’ve begun to amass a substantial fanbase over the long run, many of whom are willing to follow the group down the conceptual rabbit hole that is the Coheed and Cambria discography.

   On top of the intricate, longwinded concepts that are riddled throughout their work, the band has built quite a unique sound. They blend elements of progressive and arena rock with a heavy dose of 1970’s rock influence. The guitars are screaching, the drums groove, and most importantly, Claudio Sanchez’ lead vocals and frontman presence is powerful and commanding. Today, the sound comes off as a bit indulgent, especially for listeners like myself who grew up enjoying the massive wave of loud, metal influenced, emo-rock of the mid 2000’s. Thankfully, The Unheavenly Creatures is more of the same.

   The key to this record is tightness. Coheed and Cambria move across this 70-minute runtime as one perfectly cohesive unit, swelling and falling together, in a way that’s rarely seen in rock today. Even on the less listenable tracks like “Love Protocol,” or “Old Flames,” listeners have little trouble following them because the instrumentals are so well crafted and each member plays off of each other so well.

   Tugging the band apart for a bit, Travis Stever’s guitar is the closest to a lead instrumental voice. His leads on “True Ugly,” or “All on Fire,” color the tracks well and make them some of the best cuts on the album, but his best contribution is in the rhythm department. His hooks on “The Dark Sentencer,” or “Pavilion,” for example, are thick and driving, mixing a great tone with excellent play.

   Zach Cooper and Josh Eppard helm the bass and drums respectively and their parts are hard to separate because of an interesting technique they use. Cooper’s bass is, among other things, used primarily to color the kick drums and tom grooves throughout the album. This is perhaps most apparent on a tracks like “Black Sunday,” and “Queen of the Dark,” where a prominent bass part follows the lower pitched drums, giving another layer to Eppard’s work.

   None of this, however, is as meaningful to this album as Claudio Sanchez’ vocals. He sings with an epic power but an expert touch, never overpowering a track but finding perfect ear worm hooks and blasting them to the forefront. This applies to nearly every second of the record but to name a few, the title track, “Toys,” “It Walks Among Us,” and especially “Night-Time Walkers,” benefit from this in a massive way. There is just no way around saying that Sanchez is the best part of The Unheavenly. Creatures by a mile.

   The best track on this album is so good, I thought it would deserve its own paragraph. “The Gutter,” is one of the funnest, most indulgent rock songs I’ve heard since the days of My Chemical Romance. It’s a sugar rush of power chords, grooving drums, and an undeniable performance from Claudio Sanchez. The production is excellent here as well, maybe the only time it’s really noticeable, as the the vocal harmonies are well placed in the mix and pushing the stereo image is especially rich near the end.

   My complaints with this record are far from substantial, but they are nagging. Several of the intros feature odd pianos or synth instrumentation which rarely works at all and often only serves to kill any momentum gained by the soaring moments of the previous tracks. In addition, the two worst tracks on the album, and the only ones I genuinely can’t imagine myself ever revisiting, are the opener “Prologue,” and the closer “Lucky Stars.” The former runs far too long with little to offer and is the only track to focus so heavily on the concept, a storyline which has run across nearly every release of the band’s decade and a half career, to be enjoyable for the uninitiated. The latter does feature some solid acoustic guitar work and a fun guitar solo from Stever, but it just doesn’t mesh with the overall sound of the record, and so doesn’t feel like a satisfying conclusion to such an epic project.

   If I could choose one word to describe The Unheavenly Creatures, It would be indulgent. For fans of the epic, emo-rock of the mid 2000s, this album hits the spot in a major way. There are some issues, but those flaws, for the most part, are small and forgettable, quickly blasted from our ears by the next soaring chorus or powerful guitar riff.

   The Unheavenly Creatures is a blast to listen to, and a must hear for fans of Coheed and Cambria or fans of good rock music in general.

8/10

HEAR THE UNHEAVENLY CREATUREShttps://open.spotify.com/album/42S0lDJT9wHKCVaMGgqKdm