Panda Bear’s Fifth LP is Daring and Unique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

Calling All Captains Drops Energetic Label Debut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5

Ariana Grande Raises the Bar on Pop Music with Fifth LP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

G Herbo Stumbles on Third Studio Album

While Still Swervin’ features more than its fair share of strong moments, it’s G Herbo’s weakest effort to date and the first to sound like he just didn’t try.

G Herbo is a rapper and producer from Chicago, Illinois. He debuted in 2014 with the Welcome to Fazoland and Pistol P Project mixtapes. He quickly became a key part of the later years of the Chicago drill movement, long after the successes of genre staples like Chief Keef and Lil Durk. Nevertheless, he found substantial success and eventually found his way onto charts and released his first LP, Humble Beast in 2017. Shortly after, he signed with 808 Mafia and released his sophomore record, Swervo, which received mild acclaim from critics, including this website.

His success hinges on a few things but none more than his flow. His style is hard-hitting and violent, perfectly in line with the sound that put drill rap on the map. He also writes with quite a bit of raw passion, refusing to turn away from the harsh realities of life in downtown Chicago. His rough voice plays well against the classically hectic instrumentals of trap music and makes for a tight package that is extremely enjoyable for fans of his style of music. He doesn’t aim to reinvent the wheel, but he does what he does very well. He aims to continue that style with Still Swervin’ which is his most mixed effort to date.

Much of what we’ve come to appreciate from Herbo is here on the record. His flow is hard hitting on tracks like the opener, “Sacrifice,” and “Do Yo Sh!t.” Several tracks, including these two, have no chorus or hook and instead consist of one long verse from Herbo that feels almost like a freestyle. While the flows can often feel repetitive, they hit hard enough to keep a listener entertained.

His lyrics are fairly impressive on more than a few occasions as well. Tracks like “Yerk 30,” and “Wilt Chamberlin” are some of the best on the project because of Herbo’s braggadocios lyricism and creative imagery. He’s at his best when he’s writing about his money and street cred, though his rare attempt at telling a more vulnerable story on the closer, “Hood Cycle,” feels surprisingly genuine.

The few features that do appear on the record run the gamut from the fantastic work of Pretty Savage on the album’s best track, “Bug,” and the very funny “Shakey Skit,” to the sleepy performances from Gunna on “Trained to Kill,” or Juice WRLD on “Never Scared,” both of which suck the life out of otherwise enjoyable tracks. Aside from Pretty Savage, however, none of the features feel necessary or even helpful, especially since Herbo has such a dynamic voice as he shows on tracks like “Ok.”

This is still more than I can say for the production, however. Nearly every instrumental on the album is either boring or unlistenable. The manic energy of old school drill rap is gone in favor of nothing beats like “Up It,” and “Visionary.” Virtually the entire album is drenched in uninventive trap cymbals and the occasional accent which is generally abrasively mixed and completely out of place.

The worst quality of the record, however, and one that plagues the entirety of the nearly 50 minute runtime, is G Herbo’s inability to stay on beat. It’s especially bad in the first half, with tracks like “Scratchy & Itchy,” and “Bought a Tool,” sounding as if the vocals were recorded totally separately and just layered over the existing beat. Not to be outdone, however, the latter half contains “Boww,” which is easily one of the worst rap songs I’ve heard in many years and the worst on the album by a mile.

The album is an odd outing for Herbo and disappointing to say the least. With a solid debut and an even better sophomore effort under his belt, this record would’ve been the perfect opportunity for his sound to pierce the mainstream bubble. Unfortunately, even its best moments are pulled down by structural problems like weak instrumentals and off-beat rapping that are so severe that the LP never does quite find its footing.

While Still Swervin’ features more than its fair share of strong moments, it’s G Herbo’s weakest effort to date and the first to sound like he just didn’t try.

3/10

Nina Nesbitt Shows Promise With Sophomore LP

While The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change may suffer from quite a few noticeable defects, it’s a fun listen that hints toward the possibility of an impressive catalog to come.

Nina Nesbitt is a pop singer/songwriter from Livingston, Scotland. She first found fame opening for Ed Sheeran on the European leg of his 2012 world tour. She signed with Universal Records and dropped five EP’s from 2011 to 2013, gaining substantial notoriety and a strong following, particularly back home in Scotland. Her first full length LP, Peroxide released in early 2014 and though it found some success charting at number 11 worldwide and number one in Scotland, it was met with middling to negative reception by critics. While Nesbitt’s lyricism and voice was impressive, any promise seemed to drown in a pool of trendy folk-pop instrumentation and melody. Her subsequent EP releases received similarly mixed reviews until she left Universal and signed with Cooked Vinyl, an indie outfit from London, in 2016.

While her early sound was, admittedly, a bit immature, especially in the prominence of her Sheeran and Swift influences, there was still a bit of promise. She wrote with an interestingly sardonic sense of humor and had a skill for witty turn of phrase, which played well over her acoustic guitar heavy style. With The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change, however, she has wholly revolutionized her sound for the better.

Much of her best qualities are still here, including her voice. Tracks like the opener, “Sacred,” and “Chloe,” are made infinitely better by Nesbitt’s excellent vocal talents. Even on a few of the weaker tracks in the runtime, her voice is able to act as a shining center point thanks to a soft and controlled falsetto combined with a powerful lower register. This is a difficult album to front, and Nina handles the burden extremely well.

She also has an incredible ear for melody. The choruses on tracks like “The Best You Had,” and my personal favorite track, “Things I Say When You Sleep,” are undeniable ear-worms that listeners will be singing for days to come. It’s a rare skill to have, but it’s one which Nesbitt uses to her advantage across the entire project.

Her ear isn’t just well tuned melodically, however, but also rhythmically. Her flow on “The Moments I’m Missing,” and “Colder,” fits perfectly, and is rare to hear in the pop world today. Thanks to this, she’s able to keep her audience entertained through her verses as well as her choruses, creating a fully enthralling track when it works well.

The album is at it’s best when all these elements combine on top of the its greatest strength of creative and unique instrumentals. From the soft piano and atmospheric accents on “Is It Really Me You’re Missing?” to the intriguing latin guitar on “Love Letter,” when the beats work, they work. Even the old school, almost Abdul-esque track on “Loyal To Me,” is extremely enjoyable thanks to a few creative touches. Virtually every track is accented with a few subtle and unique sounds that add quite a bit to the songs themselves.

Unfortunately, the instrumentation is also a source of annoyance at times. Tracks like “Somebody Special,” and “Last December,” are all but butchered by abusing the acoustic guitar as a lead, calling back to the cheesy, folk-pop of her early career.

Additionally, the production has a few persistent issues. From beats that don’t seem to fully develop like the weakest track on the track list, “Empire,” to the near constant use of trap drums which takes some life out of nearly every track, especially the closer and title track.

Worst of all, Nina’s vocal is constantly EQ’d extremely poorly, pushing the high end to the point of an irritating hissing noise accompanying much of her performance. It’s a testament to her talent that she still sounds quite impressive despite this, but never really goes away and actually becomes quite noticeable and annoying at a few points on the album.

Regardless of shortcomings, however, The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change is a massive step forward for Nina Nesbitt. Having left Universal for a smaller, indie label, it seems she’s finally being given the freedom to step out from the pop-folk shadow and take part in the wild and exciting world of modern pop music.

While The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change may suffer from quite a few noticeable defects, it’s a fun listen that hints toward the possibility of an impressive catalog to come.

5/10

Classics Review: Tom T. Hall’s “In Search of a Song”

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.

Tom T. Hall is a country and bluegrass icon from Olive Hill, Kentucky. He debuted with two albums in 1969 and two more in 1970, all released on Mercury Records, who’m he’d work with all the way through the mid-90’s. He was known as “the Storyteller,” among fans because of his ability to weave narratives throughout each of his songs, and by the early 70’s, he was a staple in the country music world. 

He was also known for what he called “song hunting” trips, where he would travel through rural areas not unlike his small hometown. On these trips, he’d take notes and have conversations with locals in order to get a feel for the area he was visiting. Later, he’d reopen his notes and begin to write music, attempting to capture the spirit of the towns he’d just visited. This became a common practice in Hall’s music, certainly playing a role in the continually high quality of his output over his many years, but his skill as an author and story teller simply can’t be ignored. He would go on to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in late 2018, but before all of that, the year was 1971 when Tom T. Hall would release In Search of a Song. It’s the first full album to have resulted from one of his song-hunting trips and hailed as one of the best country and bluegrass records of all time, but is it all that good? Let’s discuss.

The album’s best quality comes in Hall’s lyricism, particularly when he’s telling a story. Tracks like “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” and “The Little Lady Preacher,” carry direct narratives, one of which is quite moving and the latter a bit comical. The ability to weave a storyline across verses is somewhat lost in modern country music, but Hall was one of the best to ever do it. His rhyme schemes are simple and his stories are remarkably descriptive, not to mention inthralling.

While the traditional narrative structures are interesting, he also has a talent for what I would call descriptive narrative. On tracks like my favorite on the album, “Trip to Hyden,” “A Million Miles to the City,” or “Kentucky, February 27, 1971,” Hall uses storylines to provide description of and commentary on the area he writes about. The story becomes cursory to the experience, and thanks to the fantastically visual writing, listeners are able to experience the towns and people first themselves.

In addition to these two styles, each track is decorated with Tom’s unique sense of humor. The most obvious and well known example of this comes on “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs,” but tracks like “Ramona’s Revenge,” and “Tulsa Telephone Book,” are colored with subtle jokes and comedy throughout. His real skill as a lyricist shows in the way his humor and personality permeate every aspect of every track. Hall is always able to use himself as a sympathetic main character, or at least narrator, thanks to the many jokes and relatable thoughts he expresses throughout.

On top of all this, the instrumentation is fantastic. From the howling harmonica on “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines,” to the sweet guitar on “Second Hand Flowers,” and even the surprising rock influences on “L.A. Blues,” each track is perfectly played by a talented cast of musicians, many of whom are Nashville legends in their own right and fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s a veritable who’s who of 70’s Nashville studio musicians and each of them does fantastic work on In Search of a Song.

Ultimately, In Search of a Song is one of the best country/bluegrass records of all time. Thanks to talented instrumentalists and an uncanny talent for lyricism, Tom T. Hall was able to craft a truly unique piece of country music that is still hailed to this day for it’s storytelling qualities.

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.