Blink-182 is Stiff and Out of Touch on Ninth Album

Nine is an unfortunate and out of touch entry into a once legendary catalog.

Blink-182 is a pop/punk three-piece from Poway, California. Their debut, Cheshire Cat in 1995 and it’s follow up, Dude Ranch found significant success with the latter going platinum, but it was their 1999 classic, Enema of the State which placed the band at the very top of the rising pop/punk wave and remains to this day one of the most iconic rock albums of the late 90’s. The success continued through the turn of the century as 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and 2003’s self-titled LP sold over three million copies combined and solidified Blink’s legend status, despite the drop in quality as they turned from goofy, immature comedy to weak attempts at thoughtful lyricism. Since this successful trio, the band broke an eight year silence with 2011’s  Neighborhoods and another five year break with 2016’s California. Both records received middling reviews and commercial success. Now, they’ve returned with Nine.

The problems with this album are fairly apparent from the first track, “The First Time,” as Mark Hoppus struggles in vain to keep up, vocally, with the rest of the band. That carefree, whining lead that brought such a comedic layer to the band’s sound is just gone as cuts like “Hungover You,” sound completely out of touch.

Lyrically, the record also leaves quite a bit to be desired as well. Blink hasn’t had the juvenile edge in many years, but this album is especially bland. Tracks like “Happy Days,” and “On Some Emo Shit,” verge on meaningless and lack any of the snarky wit that fans have come to expect. There is genuinely not a single memorable line on the LP, and the pacing suffers greatly for it.

In fairness, there are a handful of interesting tracks. Travis Barker’s drumming is, as always, a highlight as cuts like “Pin the Grenade,” and “No Heart to Speak Of,” which make the second half of the record somewhat bearable, and “Blame It On My Youth,” which is maybe the most exciting track on the LP, hinge almost entirely on Barker’s lightning fast fills and creative rhythms. These are some of the few moments when the magic of the old Blink seems to be alive, but they’re quickly snuffed out.

The drums are often dragged down by atrocious production. Tracks like “Heaven,” and “Darkside,” are some of the worst as the vocals hiss almost to a painful extent and the drums and guitars are often soaked in an ill-advised comb-filter effect which makes them sound like they’re coming from a playstation game.

Additionally, the instrumentals themselves are often boring and uninspired. Cuts like “Run Away,” and the closer, “Remember to Forget Me,” feature almost nothing of note and feel almost like musical wallpaper. The mixture of lazy songwriting and repetitive arrangement seriously hurts the pacing and leaves none of the tracks with any lasting impact.

Some of the best tracks on the album are the two, “Generational Divide,” and “Ransom,” which come in with a runtime under 90 seconds. Oddly enough, this shorter format seems to ignite some songwriting fire in the band as Barker’s drums and even some of the vocal hooks are punchy and exciting. These tracks don’t overstay their welcome and, though the entire album couldn’t be made up of cuts like this, they’re some of the only exciting moments across the bloated runtime.

Perhaps the worst tracks on the album, though, fall in the middle where the band just seems to be desperately searching for a sound. “Black Rain,” sees a more metal approach with heavier instrumentation while “I Really Wish I Hated You,” attempts to use sharp vocal melodies and witty lyricism to tell a story. Unfortunately, both fail, not for lack of trying, but because the band is just far too stiff and out of touch to pull off these new sounds. At best, these tracks sound like an older band having fun trying out some new styles, and at worst they sound like cheap mimicry of the dynamism that made them legends in the first place. Add in the constant trap drums and hip-hop instrumental elements, and you have a recipe for a very out of touch LP.

Ultimately, I don’t know that I can call this album a disappointment. I haven’t cared much for anything Blink has done since their heyday in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. But this album is especially frustrating for a number of reasons. The bloated runtime and lack of creativity certainly spring to mind, but most of all, I have to wonder as to the purpose of the album in the first place. None of these tracks appear to have been worked on all that much and if you don’t feel like working hard on new music, why put out a new record at all?

Nine is an unfortunate and out of touch entry into a once legendary catalog.

3/10

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“Rap Isn’t Music,” and Other Nonsense

Ben Shapiro says Rap isn’t music. I firmly disagree.

Twitter exploded yesterday as clip made the rounds which featured conservative commentator Ben Shapiro taking aim at one of his favorite punching bags, rap music. During an episode of his new “Sunday Special,” Shapiro said the following: “In my view, and in the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody and there is rhythm. Rap only fulfills one of these, the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, effectively, it is basically spoken rhythm. It’s not actually a form of music. It’s a form of rhythmic speaking. Thus, beyond the objectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is that rap is not music.” Twitter did what Twitter does, memeing the statement to death and launching Ben to the top of the trending page, but was he right? No. No he wasn’t.

First of all, the claim that rap lacks melody and harmony is plainly false. Rapping is not purely speaking, as every single artist in the history of the genre has added some form of melody, though often rudimentary, to their vocal. But far more importantly, Shapiro is making the false implication that “melody,” and “harmony,” must come from the lead vocal, which is plainly false. Rap music often features some of the most intricate and creative instrumentals in the entire music industry, from the magnificent jazz influence on a record like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to the luscious beats of the 90’s West Coast scene.

That being said, if this was simply a story about Ben Shapiro’s failure to appreciate hip-hop instrumentals, it wouldn’t be worth writing about. I’m far more irritated by his rather dry definition of music itself. In fairness, what he’s referring to is an over simplified form of what many hardline music theorists and philosophers of music may claim as a definition of music itself, but one must distinguish between a purely intellectual definition of music and the colloquial form which Ben is attempting to appeal to. The intellectualized definition is essentially useful in narrowing one’s scope to that of Western classical music in order to study its form and style. On the other hand, the colloquial definition of what is and isn’t “music,” has far more to do with cultural influence and a seat at the table in the ongoing conversation that is modern music.

In this more useful definition, rap music is not only “music,” but perhaps the most lively and important genre in all of modern music. In contrast to a genre like country music, which has its own form of royalty in the form of long running musical families and grandiose events, rap is far more anarchic.

Rap has, from its earliest days, been an outlet for social and political statements, and because of its relatively small production cost compared to genres with full bands, nearly anyone could be a part of this conversation. Because of this, icons of the genre like Tupac Shakur and N.W.A. were able to rise to prominence with bold and often offensive statements from the very beginning of their careers. Thanks to this lower cost and the open minds of rap fans, artists like these and newer artists like Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike are able to boldly speak their minds without censorship from their label or fear of losing their income.

Most importantly, rap music has long been the most culturally recognized outlet for the conversations and opinions of an oppressed minority in America. Unlike the more personal focus of rock or pop music, rap has always been largely political and socially conscious, and it has provided a massively lucrative outlet for African Americans to assert their place in society and shine a light on their struggles. To hear this incredibly important social conversation play out over the airwaves is not only fascinating, but one of the brilliant examples imaginable of music’s power and prescience in modern society.

Still don’t believe me? I’d suggest anyone who is still skeptical about rap music and it’s magnificent cultural impact simple take a listen to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is a daring commentary on race in America with instrumentals which runs the gamut of traditionally black genres like jazz and soul, and lyrics that provide an unflinching picture of fame, discrimination, class, and family. It’s a brilliant work of art and it’s exactly the kind of album which could only be accomplished within the rap genre.

Death Cab for Cutie Drops Fantastic New EP

The Blue EP is a triumph for a band which is more than two decades out from their debut, and it’s one of their most exciting projects to date.

Death Cab for Cutie is a soft/indie-rock band from the Pacific Northwest. They debuted in 1998 with Something About Airplanes, and followed with two more records over the next three years. They finally reached prominence in 2003 with Transatlanticism, which went gold, and the platinum certified Plans in 2005. After Plans, the group slowly tapered in popularity over ten years and three more releases, leading up to their most recent project, Thank You For Today, which showed a few signs that the band may be stumbling onto a new, exciting style. With The Blue EP, Death Cab has hit a new high.

The EP opens with one of the most ambitious cuts in the band’s history in “To The Ground.” The slow, brooding opener and prominent bass guitar feels almost ripped from the pages of an art-rock act until Ben Gibbard’s luscious, calm vocal brings the track into its central groove, which covers the majority of the run time. Still, the lyrics about a brutal car crash and the Beatles influence which is even more pronounced here than it always is on Death Cab’s music, make for one of the more interesting tracks I’ve heard this year.

“Kids in ’99,” follows, and it’s one of Death Cab’s catchiest tunes in years. The vocal hook on the verses is simply infectious and the shoegazey guitars and danceable drum work makes for an extremely enjoyable listen. Only two tracks into this EP, and already the signs of life which appeared on last year’s Thank You For Today have developed into a full blown, noticeable energy.

“Man In Blue,” falls in the center of the project and it’s a classic, atmospheric Death Cab song. Dave Depper’s lead guitar, while simple, is absolutely perfect to set the mood and Gibbard brings yet another wonderful vocal performance. In classic Death Cab for Cutie style, the track never quite reaches an explosive climax, but is instead a beautiful atmosphere for a listener to just sit in for a moment.

“Before the Bombs,” is another strong showing, though I must take slight issue with the fairly cheesy lyrics on the hook which mar an otherwise strong piece of writing. It’s the harmonies, though, which really steal the spotlight hear as the strange effects and creative note choices bring a dynamic sound. Additionally, the electronic elements and fuzzy guitar effects are utilized extremely well.

The closer, “Blue Bloods,” may be my favorite track on the EP. Jason McGerr’s drums are slow and simple, yet perfectly thoughtful and beautifully played. Gibbard’s vocals and lyrics are fantastic with some really creative melodic moments on the first verse. Above all, though, it’s the band’s ability to pace the track’s five minute run-time which impresses me the most. Thanks to a roaring guitar solo from Depper and a well played bass line from Nick Harmer, the explosive instrumental passage in the last couple minutes is a tremendously effective closer.

As the EP finishes, I’m somewhat blown away. There was plenty to be happy about with last year’s album, but The Blue EP takes this to a new level. While they haven’t quite found the heights for their mid-2000’s peak, Death Cab has created a new, more mature sound which compliments Gibbard’s writing well.

The Blue EP is a triumph for a band which is more than two decades out from their debut, and it’s one of their most exciting projects to date.

5/5

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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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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My Top 5 Shows From Sonic Temple 2019!!

Here’s the highlights from a fantastic week of rock n’ roll!!

5. Badflower

After a tiring drive to Ohio and a long wait in line on day one, we found our seats just in time to kick off our weekend with Badflower. The group was one of many up and coming artists on the lineup and easily one of the best. Josh Katz is a fantastic frontman, bringing an infectious energy and powerful vocals to every track. The setlist was predictably packed with cuts from their latest LP, OK, I’M SICK, and when they closed with their recent mega-hit, “Heroin,” after announcing that it had just reached number one on the US rock charts, they felt like a headliner in the making. This was an excellent way to kick off the weekend and a strong showing for a promising young band.

4. Ghost

Leading up to Ghost’s performance, I was admittedly uninformed on the group’s discography, but I was quite familiar with their reputation for theatrical performances. After an extended intermission during which an elaborate stage was assembled, the band of nameless, masked instrumentalists appeared to roaring applause followed by front man, Tobias Forge clad in his newest character, Cardinal Copia. Though I didn’t know the songs nearly as well as other acts from the festival, the energy was simply undeniable. Their music is heavily inspired by golden age acts like Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath and by combining that sound with a dramatic flair and fantastically talented musicians, Ghost has crafted a truly unique experience.

3. Halestorm

Kicking off the top-billed lineup for day one was Halestorm, perhaps best known for their near constant touring over their very long career. That experience pays dividends in massive shows like this as they absolutely brought the house down. The set kicked off with a long drum solo from Arejay Hale and continued at a breakneck pace for its entirety. The setlist was nicely mixed between older classics like “I Miss the Misery,” and newer hits like “Uncomfortable,” which sounded much better in their live settings than on the record. Lizzy Hale’s show-stopping vocals were captivating and, combined with excellent performances from the rest of the band, allowed Halestorm to stand comfortably, toe to toe with the other legends on the bill with them.

2. System of a Down

Heading into this festival, no band had me quite as excited as did System of a Down and they certainly did not disappoint. While the show was somewhat held back by noticeable technical issues, I found myself in awe of the talent before me. One simply cannot overstate the vocal abilities of Serj Tankian who brought a manic energy and breathtaking vocal range which stretched from thunderous growls to screeching highs and was razor sharp everywhere in between. Song selection leaned heavily into Toxicity but touched on hits from every record including their debut. The true star of the set was lead guitarist Daron Malakian who brought intensity and style to every track. It was an excellent performance from a legendary band.

******** HONORABLE MENTIONS ********

  • Movements
  • Amigo the Devil
  • Parkway Drive
  • Killswitch Engage
  • The Struts
  • Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
  • Gojira
  • Lamb of God

******** HONORABLE MENTIONS ********

1. Foo Fighters

There is perhaps no band in modern rock music quite as renowned for their live performances as the Foo Fighters, and this was further solidified with their set which closed the festival. After extensive rain delays which closed down the stadium for a few hours, Dave Grohl took the stage shouting “You didn’t think we were gonna play, did you?” Which set off a deafening roar from the crowd. The set lasted for two hours, twice as long as any other band on the lineup, and every bit of it was fantastic. From powerful performances of the group’s endless collection of hits to Grohl taking over on drums so that drummer Taylor Hawkins and Luke Spiller of The Struts could cover Queen’s “Under Pressure,” this show was a blast from start to finish. In many ways, a Foo Fighters show feels like a celebration of rock and roll itself, and so naturally, they were the perfect closers for a star-studded weekend which brought some of the best rock music has to offer.

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