Lil Nas X’s Debut EP Is a Fun and Unique Listen

7 is a fun listen which, while it won’t be winning any awards, is certainly a must-listen for fans of the young, genre bending front man.

Lil Nas X is a hip-hop/rap artist from Atlanta, Georgia. He was almost entirely obscure before the release of his debut single, “Old Town Road,” in December of 2018, which catapulted him to the very top of the music world. The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 and was eying the top of the country charts before Billboard chose, in a relatively controversial decision, that the track would no longer be listed as country because of its “musical composition.” Regardless, the single has topped the charts in at least seven countries including the US and is certified as triple platinum at the time of this review. Now, with the world watching, the 20 year old artist is attempting to bring his genre bending style to a longer form with his first studio EP, 7.

The project opens and closes with Lil Nas X’s titular smash hit, “Old Town Road.” The recent remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus opens the album and it’s far better than the original, aided  by its placement on this album. There isn’t much left to be said about this track that hasn’t been said already, but it is worth pointing out that this is one of the most genuinely fun tracks I’ve heard in years. Every element is relatively simple, and combining trap and country is far from a brand new idea, but every attempt thus far has felt like a cynical cash grab. Lil Nas X is the first artist who’s attempt at this sound feels genuine, and I do believe that to be the key factor in this song’s success.

“Panini,” follows and as this EP’s second official single, it’s quite a track in its own right. Once again, Lil Nas X isn’t reinventing the wheel, but he does have a handful of interestingly diverse inspirations which find their way into the finish product. Probably the most obvious example is the chorus hook on this track which is a direct allusion to Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” All told, the track isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as that which proceeds it, but its another feel good cut that will have listeners dancing even after repeated listens.

The next track is “F9mily,” and it’s here where we start to see some of the cracks in Lil Nas X’s abilities. He’s aiming to put his own spin on the kind of bright, garage rock that has been popular for the past several years, but he falls short in almost every way. The instrumental is rather bland and aside from some nice choral background vocals, offers very little of substance. Even worse, though, is Lil Nas X’s vocals which are just sleepy and boring, completely failing to live up to the energy brought by the instrumentation. Ultimately, it’s just a misstep and it’s easily the worst track on the EP.

“Kick It,” is up next, and he starts to bring the project back on the rails fairly quickly. The instrumental is still a bit weak and none of the bars are particularly impressive, but the horns are a nice addition to the instrumental pallet and and it does feature a handful of fairly funny lyrical moments.

“Rodeo,” sees a return to the country rap stylings which brought him to prominence and it’s probably one of the best tracks on the project. It’s lyrically hilarious, the guitar riff at the center of the instrumental is fantastic, and the Cardi B feature near the end works far better than it has any right to. The song is certainly no “Old Town Road,” and I respect X’s decision not to fill the EP with country/rap mashes like this, but I must say that I enjoyed this cut quite a bit.

Unfortunately, “Bring U Down,” derails the record a bit once again. The guitar solo is enjoyable and quite unexpected, and the bass guitar riff that guides the track is fairly catchy. I don’t even mind the simplistic lyrics, but again, X just doesn’t have the energy in his voice that’s needed to carry an upbeat rock tune like this. His lethargic lead holds this album back in a quite a few places.

“C7osure,” is the final track on the EP, ignoring the gratuitous reappearance of “Old Town Road,” and it’s relatively inoffensive. This is definitely the most forgettable track on the project and could have been left off without complaint, but there are a few bright moments, most notably the layered vocals on the chorus and the intriguing piano sample.

All together, I must say the Lil Nas X has been fairly successful in staving off accusations of being a “one hit wonder,” with this EP. There aren’t all that many complex elements to the EP, but he is breaking new ground in the sense that he combines the auto-crooning, trap style with country, rock, and a few other smaller inspirations in a way that feels far more genuine and listenable than other acts who have the same aim.

7 is a fun listen which, while it won’t be winning any awards, is certainly a must-listen for fans of the young, genre bending front man.

4/5

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Top Ten Albums of 2019, So Far…

2019 is halfway over! Let’s take a look back at some of the best music we’ve already heard this year!

10. Little SimzGREY Area

With the endorsement of genre icons like Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar, Little Simz has long been one of the most exciting up and comers in all of rap music. On GREY Area, she finally finds her potential in a very real way. Tracks like “Boss,” and “Selfish,” defy the gender stereotypes inherent in much rap music by bringing explosive attitude and bombastic flow to every bar. Her complex schemes and enthralling storytelling give this album a ton of replay value beyond the initial punch each cut delivers.

Beyond Simz herself, the instrumentals carry on much the jazzy influences of her earlier work, but filtered through elements of trap and East Coast boom-bap. GREY Area fixes nearly every short coming of earlier albums while diving into new, more daring sounds. Perhaps most importantly, this LP will leave listeners with a growing since of excitement for the upcoming career of one of the most the impressive artists in all of rap music.

9. Billie EilishWHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Yet another promising young star who hadn’t quite found her stride yet, Billie Eilish was finally able to merge her dark, unnerving reputation with a genuinely strong sound on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Cuts like “Bad Guy,” and “Bury a Friend,” have been smash hits and catapulted Eilish into the cultural zeitgeist. This newfound attention is entirely deserved too, as this is one of the more unique and groundbreaking releases in modern pop music.

Her vocal performances are quite strong, as are her lyrics, but the true breakthrough here comes in the instrumentation and production. The bass-heavy mixes broke with current trends of bright, upbeat styles. Instead, several tracks are nocturnal and daring to the point of being scary with bizarre vocal layering and effects building on this quite effectively. I do have my complaints, particularly on the technical side of the production, but this album is nearly as groundbreaking as the artist behind it, and for that, it must be mentioned among the best of the year.

8. American FootballLP 3

American Football has one of the strangest histories in all of music. The math rock/shoegaze four piece debuted in 1999 with a self-titled LP that is, to this day, one of the most respected works in all of the midwestern emo scene. They then disappeared for 17 years before returning in 2016. This year saw the release of their third LP, a much more matured version of the swirling, technical style which made their debut such a classic. Tracks like “Uncomfortably Numb,” and “Doom In Full Bloom,” have been regular listens since I first heard them and nearly every cut has something to offer.

With LP 3, American Football revisited much of the sound that brought them to prominence in the first place. Spacey guitars are layered five and six times over and they use the simple bones of their songs to build a truly engrossing experience on nearly every song. The album has been criticized as bland by many, and while I understand where that comes from, I would say that it rather gives a listener the opportunity to find the bright points themselves. LP 3 is a gentle storm of complex guitars and vocals and a must hear for fans of the once great midwestern emo scene.

7. DefeaterDefeater

Defeater is a hardcore band from New Jersey who’s every release since 2008 has followed the same storyline of a struggling family in 1940’s America. This self-titled entry is the fifth in the saga and it is just as brutal and heartfelt as ever. The band’s ability to find compelling melody among constant, crushing instrumentation sets them apart from many of their hardcore contemporaries and makes what would normally be a difficult listen quite palatable even to casual fans.

Defeater doesn’t bring anything groundbreaking on this album and, in fact,  retreads the sound that was much more popular about a decade ago, but the charm comes in the tight, thrashing performances from every single member. The drums on a track like “Atheists in Foxholes,” or the vocals on “List & Heel,” are absolutely fantastic but they still stand on overall well written parts from every member. All in all, Defeater is a brutal but perfectly paced entry into a fascinating storyline which continues to deliver excellent moments.

6. Tyler, the CreatorIgor

A long time rap star and founding member of the rap group, Loiter Squad, Tyler has been known as a fowl mouthed, punk rapper since his debut 2011. That all changed with 2017’s Flower Boy in which Tyler came out as bisexual in addition to crafting a genuinely impressive exploration of sexuality, masculinity, and the culture around him. IGOR continues many of these themes, telling the story of Tyler learning to get over a bad relationship and grow as a person.

Sonically, IGOR is bizarre to say the least. In my review, I referred to this style as “industrial Motown,” and to some extent, I think that’s still the best way to describe it. Songs like “EARFQUAKE,” and “RUNNING OUT OF TIME,” are groovy and danceable, but also feature a bass-heavy, abrasive production style that is just fascinating. This, paired with excellent lyricism and a manic pacing that never lets a listener stop to breath, makes for one of the most interesting projects of the year thus far.

5. HozierWasteland, Baby!

After his 2014, self-titled debut, Hozier was one of the most beloved artists in the music industry. Unfortunately, his DIY style and insistence on keeping a small circle of influence meant that this LP was followed by relative silence for half a decade. Finally, Wasteland, Baby! Arrived and it was largely perfect. His lyrical work on “Almost,” and the softness of a track like “Shrike,” were everything fans had hoped for and more, but there were also some interesting changes.

Percussion, which had been mostly ignored on the debut, took a front seat on this album with constantly creative decisions and a tendency toward more natural percussion sounds. This also saw a much harder turn toward political writing on cuts like the opener, “Nina Cried Power.” All told, Wasteland, Baby! Doesn’t quite top the excellence of its predecessor but it is still, without a doubt, fantastic. Hozier has a power in his voice that is almost breathtaking and combined with his instrumental talents and creative arrangements, I’m left very excited for future releases.

4. Bruce SpringsteenWestern Stars

An undeniable legend of rock music, Springsteen has always been somewhat hit or miss for me. His sound generally rotates between the indulgent style of records like Born in the USA and more somber storytelling of albums like Ghost of Tom Joad. I’ve always much preferred the latter, but Western Stars finds a way to synthesize these two like few previous Springsteen efforts have. “The Wayfarer,” and “There Goes My Miracle,” are some of my favorites, but every track on this album is impressive in its own right.

The ethos of this LP is Bruce’s attempt to recreate the sweeping, stringy sound of 70’s country music, specifically that of Western soundtracks and, in this, he absolutely succeeds. The massive instrumental pallet means that there’s a surprise waiting around every corner, making the relatively slow pacing much more bearable. Beyond this, Springsteen’s voice is aged perfectly and his lyricism is both moving and clever. Western Stars is yet another masterpiece from The Boss himself.

3. Ariana Grandethank u, next

Ariana Grande has long been considered one of the queens of modern pop music and thank u, next is her best work to date. This is her second release in a six month period and though sweetener was impressive, this record takes her sound to brand new heights. Following a string of personal tragedies, Ariana writes heartfelt lyrics and performs them with show-stopping power. Tracks like “imagine,” and “ghostin,” are simply breathtaking while other tracks like “needy,” and “break up with your girlfriend, im bored,” are just a blast.

The production on the album is certainly a highlight, sporting wonderfully placed harmonies, simple but effective beats, and a nocturnal fog drenched over everything. Easily the highlight, however, is Grande’s fantastic vocal performance across every second of this album. She has an awe-inspiring power which is mixed perfectly with soft, emotional moments and she even reaches up into a few whistle tones from time to time. All in all, thank u, next is just a masterclass in great pop music lead by one of the most impressive vocalists in the world today.

2. Todd SniderCash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

Todd Snider was an early progenitor of the lyrically focused, folk inspired style of country which has overtaken much of the genre today. While he had a handful of strong live albums, he’d always struggled to find his stride in studio releases. That changed this year when he partnered with John Carter Cash, the single most exciting producer in country music today, and dropped this brilliant LP. Tracks like “Workin’ On a Song,” and “Like a Force of Nature,” are certainly highlights, but its just an overall enjoyable listen from front to back.

As I said, John Carter Cash is the best producer in country music today and he lives up to that title on this project as he brings a warm simplicity to every cut. Snider’s vocals certainly won’t knock a listener off their feet, and neither will his instrumentals, but the record is really more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, Cash Cabin Sessions feels like a relaxed night with friends, which also happens to sneak some genuinely brilliant commentary on life from a true troubadour in Todd Snider.

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

  • Cuz I Love You – Lizzo
  • ZUU – Denzel Curry
  • Front Porch – Joy Williams
  • Social Cues – Cage the Elephant
  • Dedicated – Carly Rae Jepsen

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

1. Xiu XiuGirl with Basket of Fruit

At first, I wasn’t sold on placing this album at number one. Admittedly, I haven’t found myself revisiting this record nearly as much as others on this list, but, on the other hand, there isn’t one single album on this list and very few albums in my life that have left the kind of lasting impact on me that was left by Xiu Xiu’s Girl With Basket of Fruit. In terms of highlights, if you listen to nothing else on this album, I must suggest that you hear “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” provided you have the strong stomach to handle its violent subject matter.

Simply put, this project is horrifying. Xiu Xiu is an experimental group and this album pushes music to its outer most limits in the most brutal way possible. The sound pallet is gut wrenching, frontman Jamie Stewart’s vocals are often nightmarish, and the album itself seems to be influenced by everything from grindcore and death metal to traditional reggae and samba. To listen to Girl with Basket of Fruit in one sitting is to be bombarded with an unflinching look at existential horror. It may not have the most replay value of any album this year and it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with an album this year, but Xiu Xiu’s hellish masterpiece is the most daring, the most challenging, and above all the most memorable record I’ve heard thus far this year.

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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

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

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

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