Friday, November 20, 2020

ALBUM REVIEW: Chris Stapleton - Starting Over

Is this really the first country review I've done on here? Interesting. 

I hate to sound like an old man yelling at clouds to start this review off but whether you love or hate modern country music, it's hard to argue that the genre has strayed away from what made it super popular in the 80s and 90s. When George Strait himself says "I don't see a lot of my influence out there in country music today, out there being played on the radio," it's kind of hard to disagree. And even as someone who has spent almost all of my life listening to country radio (just up until about 4-5 years ago I exclusively listened to country radio), it does get tiring hearing the same Florida Georgia Line songs and the same Luke Bryan songs. However, when I started branching out and finding more music outside of the country genre, I eventually came back to it and found artists that I'd been missing that had been killing it but weren't getting the airplay or recognition that they deserved. Artists like Sturgill Simpson, American Aquarium, Tyler Childers, and Kacey Musgraves. I still remember watching the 2015 CMA Awards and like many people, I was surprised to see this guy I had never heard of win every award he was nominated for. So, confused, I went to Spotify and pulled up Traveller and I haven't looked back since. I was so excited that real country music was getting recognized and winning awards. The album is 14 songs, no BS, just honest songwriting and Stapleton's massive voice over some traditional country instrumentation. Songs like Fire Away and Nobody To Blame still hit me in the sweet spots when they need to. 

Stapleton in a promotional image for the new album, Starting Over. (Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone.)

Now that all eyes were on Stapleton to really deliver with his second full-length project? Did he crumble under the weight? Absolutely not, in fact, he put out two albums to really ease any doubts with From A Room, Vol. 1 and 2. Both albums are 9 songs long and once again, Stapleton came through with a lot of passionate performances, solid songwriting, and a sound that had a little more blues-rock and southern rock influence to it. Songs like Second One to Know and Midnight Train To Memphis of the first and second albums, respectively, both have these killer riffs and have great energy behind them, while songs like I Was Wrong show Chris really flexing his vocal range to the point where I'm lowkey jealous. 

Now with a fourth Stapleton album, I knew what to expect. I was ready to hear a fresh batch of Stapleton songwriting and storytelling, some more fantastic vocal performances, and more than anything, another solid country album in 2020. But when the singles for this album started dropping, I was starting to get a little worried that I might have set my expectations a bit too low. The lead single and title track kick off the album and I can't think of a better song to start the album off with. The song is led by these strummed acoustic guitar chords and the chorus have the super subtle synth chords leading the tune not in a way to where they're overbearing. They're just sort of keeping the song in tune. And while we're on the topic, the chorus is absolutely beautiful with Stapleton and his wife harmonizing while they sing:

And it don't matter to me
Wherever we are is where I wanna be
And Honey, for once in our life
Let's take our chances and roll the dice
I can be your lucky penny, you can be my four-leaf clover
Starting over

The other two singles were equally as great. The song Cold might be one of the best songs Chris has ever recorded. The song is really dramatic with these amazing spotlit vocals. It starts off sort of slow and quaint but once those huge string sections come in, it really picks up. I also love the moments on the back half of the song where the guitar solo and the strings sync up to create this really awesome harmony. I love this song so much. The final single, Arkansas was a nice serving of that southern rock influence with a lot of energy and a catchy chorus but in my opinion, I think the lyrics leave a little bit to be desired. It almost comes off like an Arkansas Tourism Ad but I won't go too hard on it, the song still slaps. So as I said, with these singles, I had my hopes set high and my fears were confirmed, I still had my expectations too low. 

The song Devil Always Made Me Think Twice is a song about how Chris was raised to be on the right path, saying his mom set a good example, his dad always gave good advice, but that the devil is always making him stray from that path. I love the guitar work on this song and it should be a fun sing-a-long when concerts get their footing back. When I'm With You a slow burner with Chris doing some self-reflection while also counting his blessings for his wife. Singing about how at 40 he thinks he's at the end of his rainbow and there's not a pot of gold anywhere near him. He also sings about his relevancy and how not a lot of people will remember what he's done when he's gone and how most nights he honestly feels like he's just fading away into obscurity. The chorus is a bright spot though as he sings about when he's with his wife, he feels like a dreamer that's having all of his dreams come true and all of his skies are blue. Expect to see a lot of dancefloors packing in to this song in the near future.  

Joy of My Life is another super sweet love song with Chris pretty bluntly in the chorus:

She takes me by the hand
I am the luckiest man alive
Did I tell you, baby
You are the joy of my life

The instrumental is pretty bare, some acoustic and electric guitars lead the way with some soft snare drum in the mix too. The song doesn't really need a crazy instrumental though. It's great how it is. Hillbilly Blood is an ode to his Kentucky upbringing, singing about white lightning crossing his lips and how a "Pike County sheriff trackin' my scent." It starts off pretty soft with some cymbal taps and some guitar chords, it sounds super familiar but I don't know where from. I also love the distorted guitar bits the come up right before the third verse. It really adds to the vibe of the song, almost like I'm driving through the woods. I really love the contrast between the lyrics and the music of the song Whiskey Sunrise. I love the guitar solo on this song and the blues-rock vibes are strong as hell, but like I said, the lyrics are sad as hell. Chris sings in the chorus:

So I drink all night
But the hurtin' won't stop
And every shot I take just turns into teardrops
And I lay down to sleep
And I pray I don't open my eyes
To a whiskey sunrise

When I first heard the song Worry B Gone I couldn't shake the 50s/60s rock groove it had, part of why I love it so much. The song is a Guy Clark cover and it feels almost more appropriate today than it did when it was released almost 15 years ago with lyrics about how everywhere he looks, there's trouble and how he can't listen to the radio or watch TV because it'll just bring him down even more. I love the hook though, "gimme just one more puff of that worry B gone." The next song, Old Friends, is another Guy Clark cover. The instrumental almost reminds me of the title track of Mac Miller's posthumous album, Circles. His performance of the song is kind of soft, lowkey, but this isn't a song where he needs to be belting out. In fact, I think the spoken word delivery during the verses works out super well. 

The album ends on a super strong note with the songs You Should Probably Leave and Nashville, TN. The former is a song that I hope gets pushed to radio soon because it's great single material. It's another song that will probably pack in the dance floors in the future even though the song is about Chris trying to get rid of this girl that he just can't resist. Constantly telling her, "yeah, you're cool, but you should probably leave to benefit both of us," even though the songs end with the two of them waking up in bed next to each other. The latter is another reflection of Stapleton's career but this time focusing on his time in the city. Pretty much thanking the city for all it's done for him, teaching him how to write songs and blooming his career, but he's done with it. There's a line I really like where he says "Maybe years from now you'll be the one I think about / But I just can't imagine that 'cause I'm not one for looking back."

Now there are two songs that I've been waiting to talk about because I felt that they deserved their own spotlight. I didn't want to lump them in with the rest of the songs because they need this recognition as they're not only my favorite songs on the album but the best songs too. The first is Maggie's Song which hits me like a bag of bricks every time I hear it. I'm getting emotional just thinking of it. The song is about Chris and his wife finding a "fuzzy black pup" in a shopping cart on the side of the road and taking her home. Stapleton sings about Maggie growing up with the kids, how she loves chasing squirrels, and how she could take off like a bullet. But the last verse is just heart wrenching if you've ever lost a family pet with Stapleton singing about how on the day she passed she woke up and couldn't use her legs so he laid down by her side and she puts her head in his hand and it's just so sad to listen to. His storytelling on the song is A1 and I hate that it starts and ends so quickly because as soon as I get invested in it, she passes away. The last song I need to talk about is hands down the best song of the album to me, Watch You Burn. 

The song is Stapleton singing about the Route 91 Harvest Festival Shooting in a way that I don't think anyone else has sung about it yet. (I could be mistaken though, let me know if I am.) The song isn't Stapleton trying to relate to the audience or the artists on stage, instead, he quite literally calls the shooter a b*tch. Starting off the song by saying "Only a coward would pick up a gun and shoot up a crowd just to have fun." The chorus is pretty much Stapleton telling to the shooter to rot in hell. There's a line in the second verse that I absolutely love where Stapleton sings:

If I could snap my fingers, if I could flip a switch
I'd make that last bullet first, you son of a b*tch

The production on the song and instrumental is angry, pissed off, super fiery. I absolutely adore the call and response with the choir in the last chorus before they all harmonize in unison for the outro. They just hit higher and higher notes and the higher the notes go, the higher I float above the clouds. I wish it didn't end as abruptly but the song we got was incredible.

Stapleton performing at the 2020 CMA Awards. 

I've been honestly surprised at how many great country albums we've gotten this year. This album is just another one to add to the list. The production is phenomenal, Stapleton's voice and his writing once again steal the show, even though I feel like there are some points where I feel like he could've tried harder (namely Arkansas) but besides that, I don't really have any more gripes. I don't care if you like country music or not, give this album a try.

I would rate
Starting Over
by Chris Stapleton


Sunday, November 8, 2020

ALBUM REVIEW: Ariana Grande - Positions

2018 and 2019 were big years for Ariana Grande. Dropping two fantastic and cutting edge pop albums with sweetener and thank u, next. Along with this, there were massive arena tours, headlining slots of Coachella and Lollapalooza, and a lot of success in general. So given how big those years were, it would make sense for Ariana to take some time off, take a little break, maybe take a year or two off and try to not just enjoy her successes, but to try and cultivate another great album but instead, here we are, a little over a year and a half later, with a brand new Ariana Grande album. The rollout for this album happened really quick with Ariana tweeting about how we were getting a new album in October, dropping a single the next week, then dropping the album the week after that. Now given how personal her previous albums were, I was curious to hear if she would go down the personal road once again or if we were gonna have another fun pop album in the style of Dangerous Woman. Also given those previous albums, I was expecting another strong set of songs with solid production, and it's safe to say, I got at least some of that. 

Grande in a promotional image for the album.

The album is 14 songs, runs 41 minutes long, and it's a pretty obvious step down in quality, but to be fair, almost anything would be a step down after having Pharrell produce one of your albums then dropping your best album a year and a half prior. And that's not me saying I don't like this album, I do, I just don't think it's anything groundbreaking or experimental, just a solid set of songs tied together by great production that you can't really love or hate.

That being said though, this album gets off to a really rough start. The opening song shut up has these really sweet plucked string lines and some great harmonies but, let's not kid ourselves, the lyrics are merely here because they have to be. Ariana is literally singing nothing of substance on this song. She's just telling me in 4 different octaves that I sound dumb and I need to shut up. Very compelling stuff here. The song 34 + 35 is know. The production on here is great with these smooth trap drums pairing nicely with a strong bassline and some more strings. The lyrics on this song are downright hilarious, with Ariana singing in the pre-chorus:

I've been drinking coffee
And I've been eating healthy
You know I keep it squeaky, yeah

and asking in the chorus, "can you stay up all night? / f*ck me 'til the daylight?" The third verse is a wild ride that I can't even begin to explain, just, go google it. I think I might have to call the Horny Police on Ms. Grande because we haven't seen her like this since Side to Side dropped. Then there's the song motive which again, great production, there's great energy to it, but any momentum the song had going for is brought to a screeching halt when Doja Cat comes in because she sounds god awful over this beat. She sounds like she's been sucking down cigarettes ever since quarantine started like it's going out of style. 

Things start looking up after those songs though as the song just like magic is already an improvement. Ariana's lyrics see her in a more braggadocious way, singing about she gets everything she wants because she attracts it, and how she has to "keep a slim ego for a thick wallet." It's a really sweet tune. Then there's off the table featuring none other than The Weeknd who's been dominating the music world this year. The song starts off with this sort of dark energy that resolves as Ariana starts singing with these synth swells and some subtle guitar plucking. The production on this song is insanely good. I just feel myself floating higher and higher above the clouds while I listen to it. The song shows Ariana questioning whether she's ready to dive back into another relationship while Abel tells her "don't worry, I'm here for you, if you're not ready, I can wait." Both of them really shine vocally with Ariana reaching these crazy high notes in the back half of the song. It's in the running for the best song on this album. But almost immediately after this, we take two steps back with the song six thirty which might be one of the corniest songs I've heard this year with Ariana singing about how this lover can only stay mad for a minute "so come here and give me some kisses," or even worse later on when she says "I'm the release, you the dopamine." But perhaps the worst offender is the hook on this song with Ariana asking this lover if he'll be "down like 6:30," because you know, hands on the clock are...yep. How did this get on here?

Luckily six thirty is the last of the speedbumps on this album. Not surprising is that the song safety net featuring Ty Dolla $ign is fire. There's a really great guitar lead and the chorus on this song is to die for. I also really love the moments when Ariana and Ty are duetting on the second half of the song because their voices pair together so well. The song my hair is a cute song about Ariana letting her hair down for her lover before...Does anyone have the horny police's number? I might have to call them before this review ends. The beat is great with this really neat drum loop, some percussion, and some strings hanging around in the background of the choruses. I also really like the trumpet solo in between the chorus and verses. Ariana also pulls off these absolutely crazy high notes during the last chorus. I don't even know how hitting a note like that is even possible. nasty has this really spacey beat and once again shows Ari's raunchiness in full display singing about how she wants to make time for her man because "this p*ssy designed for ya," she also says this hilarious double entendre where she goes: "Switch from the bed to the couch / And get to know how I'm feelin' inside." It's hilarious.

The song west side almost feels like an interlude. It comes and goes before it even really presents itself and it doesn't even bow out well, just kind of fading out after the last chorus. love language is an absolute banger with a beat that makes you just want to jump up and bust a move. I don't know but it almost reminds me of the song Watch Me While I Bloom from Hayley William's solo album, Petals for Armor. I love how the strings just keep building up and up as the song progresses and Ariana's performance on this song is great. There's another hilarious one-liner in here where she says "pardon my French, but can you speak in tongues?" The title track is a song I knew I enjoyed from before since it was the lead single for this album. There's another great plucked string lead and some really nice acoustic guitar chords throughout the chorus that really give this song a summer vibe...even though it's now November. I love the line in the chorus where she says "I'm in the Olympics, way I'm jumping through hoops." The album ends on a really high note with the songs obvious and pov. obvious shows Ariana confessing that she's starting to believe in love again, singing in the pre-chorus:

Others that I've had had to impress me before
But I knew you were the real thing
When you walked through the door
I didn't think that I would have to spell it out

pov is an amazing close to this record with Ariana showing off her vocal chops one more time before the album closes out with a really heartfelt and passionate performance. The message of the song is super sweet as well with Ariana singing about how she wants to see herself from her lover's point of view just to understand why he loves her so much. The way the instrumental builds as the track progresses as well is also amazing with these strings just building up more and more reaching this great climax at the end of the last chorus. 

Grande performing at the 2019 Coachella Music and Arts Festival.

So overall, I enjoyed this album, but this album is very easy to like. While I do like Ariana getting more introspective and taking more risks production-wise, it makes sense for her to want to put out just a fun, pop album to help through a few more months of lockdowns and quarantines. My problem with this album mainly stems from how rough it starts off. There's also a lot of one-liners that don't really hit and a lot of songs with lyrics that are either half baked or just plain dumb. I guess the easiest way to wrap this up is by saying, is it enjoyable? Yes. Is it fun? Of course! But is it anything we've come to expect from Ari over these past few years? No, not really, but it's never gonna be a boring listen. 

I would rate
By Ariana Grande


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

ALBUM REVIEW: I Don't Know How But They Found Me - Razzmatazz

Coming from two opposite ends of the music spectrum, the pairing of Dallon Weekes and Ryan Seaman musically shouldn't make sense. Weekes formerly played bass for Brendon Urie's declining pop-rock project Panic! at the Disco, while Seaman holds the title for the longest-tenured drummer in the post-hardcore outfit, Falling in Reverse. Together, the two make I Don't Know How But They Found Me, and make new wave music? See why I said this shouldn't make sense. The band first came together in 2018 with the release of their 1981 EP. A collection of 6 songs that showed a lot of promise in Dallon's songwriting and the music the band was going to make in the future. There are songs like Choke that start with this super grimey bass and creepy vocal samples that give way to a huge chorus, to Bleed Magic which wouldn't sound too out of place on a Portugal, The Man album, to Do It All The Time with this sick synth-bass line and a lot of 80s pop energy. So with Dallon promising an album on Twitter ever since that EP, it's safe to say that there's quite a bit of expectation for this, but the band put all of my doubts to rest with the lead single Leave Me Alone. It's super funky, almost sounds like a dance song at times. I absolutely love the hook on this song with Dallon singing, "Now I want you to leave me alone / They say the devil that you know is better than the devil that you don't." It's a really strong first song. The second single was the title track which closes the album. It's a truly grand song with this driving piano beat and these huge choir backed choruses, there's also a really really cool sax solo that closes the song out. And while the band did release two more singles in the lead up to the album I decided to wait until the album released to hear them and I think that paid off. 

Weekes (left) and Seamen (right) in a promotional image for the album.

Weekes has really improved as a songwriter ever since his time with Panic! ended and the production on here is a lot grander and robust than their debut EP. A lot of these songs have solid 80s pop influence or a new wave vibe going on and it's fantastic. The energy remains high for most of the album with it only dropping down a few times throughout the albums 12 songs and 37 minutes of run time. The song MAD IQS almost kind of reminds me of the Cold War Kids song that ruled the radio last year, Complainer. Dallon's vocal performance sounds kind of similar and the song is structured in almost the same way but you won't notice it unless you're looking for it. I do still like it a lot though, I love the bits of fuzzy guitar and bass that pop up throughout the chorus. I also love the jazzy guitar chords in the chorus, they're a really nice touch. There's also that one line that gets stuck in my head, "come inside, twist the knife like it's something to do." Then there's the song Nobody Likes The Opening Band which has been around since the band's inception. It's a hilarious song about being the opening band which, if you are a musician, is bound to happen. Dallon sings about how this opening band "looks so tired, sounds uninspired," and that "chances are they won't go far, career is sure to end." However, the funniest line is right at the end where Dallon sings "Take pity on the opening bands / 'Cause no one came to see them, except their mom and dad."

The song New Invention sounds almost like a cross between Royal Blood and Simulation Theory era Muse, which I know sounds weird on paper but it works out super well. I like the delayed synths in the intro and the chorus on this song is incredible. It's so grand in presentations and it's catchy to sing along to as well. From The Gallows is the only song I would say is a miss. It's just so unfocused and disjointed that it's almost tough to listen to. Going from almost lounge music, to this super compressed hook, back to the lounge music with a spoken word from a text to speech bot? There's also a random trumpet solo for some reason. It's a mess on all fronts. Luckily things pick up almost immediately again with the song Clusterhug which I think might be the best song on this album. It almost sounds like what would happen if Brandon Flowers from The Killers and Win Butler from Arcade Fire wrote a song together. I absolutely adore the drums on this song because Seaman comes through with his best performance on the album. The drums are compressed very tastefully and they sound amazing on this song. Dallon also really shines on this song with a solid performance, a whole lot of passion in his voice. This song is honestly just beautiful and I'm happy it finally got released in it's full glory since it's apparently been kicking around since Panic! At The Disco's Too Weird, Too Rare era. 

The song Sugar Pills has this absolutely monstrous bass line paired with these quirky synths in the background. Dallon's falsetto on the pre-chorus is honestly insane, I did not expect him to pull that off. Kiss Goodnight might be one of the sweetest sounding songs on the album. There's these really sick programmed drums underneath some cool synth bass. The choruses are this really sweet blend of guitar and more programmed drums. The lyrics on the song are super sweet with Dallon singing about how much he loves this love interest of his. Singing about how he'll stop anything he's doing to answer her calls, or how she can invite him to sleep on the floor and he'll be a gentleman about, and even saying in the last chorus that he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life without her kiss goodnight. It's a really really sweet song. Lights Go Down has this cool disco type beat going on with synth swells pairing well with these twinkly piano notes. These a really cool sax solo about halfway through it that I didn't expect to hear anymore of on this album but hey, I'm not complaining. 

The album bows out on a softer note. Need You Here is a piano driven song with these weird vocal harmonies throughout it that I don't love but don't hate. The chorus is once again very grand, distorted bass, louder piano, some cool synthesizer. But in my opinion, the only thing that makes this song stand out on this album is the fact that Dallon's daughter Amelie contributes her voice to the song. Door almost reminds me of Get Behind Me Satan era White Stripes for some reason, I can't really pin down why, just a vibe I get. It's a stripped back acoustic guitar and piano based song with Dallon singing his heart out before we get the closing title track, which does do a great job of wrapping things up and in the context of the album, I like this song even more than I originally did. 

All in all, I was very happy with this album. Dallon and Ryan really rose to the occasion and met all of the expectations I had set for this album. The production on here is really slick, Dallon's songwriting just keeps improving, and in my opinion, I think the duo is only going to go up from here. As long as they stay on this track, I don't see them ever dropping in quality. 

I would rate
by I Don't Know How But They Found Me