Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally

Advertisements

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Light Tunnels,” “White Privilege II”

Man, a couple years ago I really hated Macklemore. I watched two straight dudes rip off Le1f, a struggling queer, black rapper, and win a bunch of Grammy’s for it and get lauded as LGBT icons. When Macklemore Instragrammed his Grammy saying Kendrick should’ve won, I didn’t believe his sincerity. But I will say he’s won me over into at least neutral ground. He was noticeably absent from the public eye after that Grammy’s ceremony, and in that time, he’s been evaluating his own stance as a sudden, important voice in a community normally reserved for black performers. His second collaborative album with Ryan Lewis sees him tossing and turning internally, struggling with his own white identity. Unfortunately, he throws us along for the process – and This Unruly Mess I’ve Madehits high highs and low lows.

Macklemore is at his strongest when he is serious, checking himself. The opening track “Light Tunnels” is also the best, with Macklemore directly addressing the media bias for both controversy and white performers. He namechecks the Britney and Madonna kiss, and mentions media egging Kanye on for controversy. He also raps about not preparing a speech for the Grammy’s, being unprepared to win. “St. Ides,” the mid-point and the only track without a guest, is an honest look into Macklemore’s history with addiction (which he has allegedly slipped back into). The album also finishes with three great, serious songs. “Bolo Tie” is further musings on his stance, with his best flow on the album, “The Train” is a more gentle song, with some great Spanish background vocals courtesy of Carla Morrison, and there’s second single “White Privilege II.” Reviews of the track have been mixed, understandably. It’s possible that Macklemore shouldn’t have related the song to his own career, or that he shouldn’t have made the song at all. I can believe all viewpoints. To me though (as a white person), it was a burning in him that had to come out. It’s radically different than the rest of the album, with soundclips and sudden breaks in sound and tone. He calls out white media, as well as Miley, Elvis, Iggy Azalea and himself for appropriating black culture. He also calls out people who say they don’t listen to rap except for him. It’s misguided at times, but there’s a brutal truth at the bottom of the song that needs to come from a very specific white person. I don’t know if Macklemore is that person, but so far he’s the best option.

“Mess” is at it’s worst when Macklemore takes a step back and makes jokey-rap, which unfortunately is about 75% of the album’s runtime. The great, ranting opener is followed immediately with lead single “Downtown.” While the song itself is fun, and Macklemore surprisingly fits right in with legends Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee, it’s a dopey song that represents the total opposite end of the spectrum from “Light Tunnels.” There’s “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” where he makes fun of his appearance, “Let’s Eat,” where he jokes about failing a diet, and “Buckshot,” where he insults Seattle’s music legacy. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” has a Deez Nuts joke and a guest appearance from his cat. “Let’s Eat,” maybe the worst of the bunch, makes reference to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The lyrics almost throughout are just hokey and terrible, with lame pseudo-boasts and jokes that fall immediately flat.

Ryan Lewis doesn’t have as immediate of a presence on this album. “Can’t Stop Us” and “Thrift Shop” – beats decidedly unoriginal – had huge, bumping rhythms deadset on radio. There’s more of a subdued nature on this album, possibly coming from Macklemore using his personally elevated platform for discussions on his stance. “Downtown” swipes a great old-school beat, which works well. Elsewhere, there are surprising guest contributions. As mentioned, some legends pop up on “Downtown.” YG makes a surprise guest on “Bolo Tie,” Chance the Rapper shows up on “Need to Know,” and Leon Bridges owns a soulful outro to “Kevin.” Ed Sheeran also pops up on a cheesy ode to Macklemore’s daughter, “Growing Up.” Most surprisingly is a guest contribution from 2016 Oscar nominee (really??) Idris Elba, who has enjoyed a small, private music career.

The album’s title, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” comes from the opening track and refers to Macklemore’s accidental messing around with the state of race in rap. But it refers to the album as well, and I think they know this. There’s two distinct albums here, and they cannot blend at all. Serious songs bookend and occasionally permeate an album of otherwise goofy, cringeworthy songs. It’s obvious that Macklemore is weighing his own platform, and that he’s struggling with it. We’re forced to struggle with him, his music and direction changing on a dime. The result is an incredibly inconsistent and mismatched album that’s occasionally great, but often embarrassing. Macklemore is trying to find his exact voice. On “St. Ides,” he raps “We gon’ be alright,” just like Kendrick’s “Alright.” It is symbolic; one of the album’s best moments came from another rapper.

-By Andrew McNally

Wiz Khalifa – “Khalifa”

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “BTS,” “Zoney”

Wiz Khalifa’s new, half-eponymous release is his sixth studio album, and it comes out right in the middle of a stacked month for him. Khalifa was, now infamously, involved in a quick Twitter feud with Kanye, in which the only real winner was Amber Rose. West – rightfully – attacked Khalifa for a career’s worth of mediocre music, and then – not rightfully – brought his ex-wife and son into the mix. Brushing that aside, Khalifa is up for a major Grammy nomination, for Song of the Year for the Furious 7 song “See You Again,” with Charlie Puth. Perhaps unexpectedly, this was an apropos time for him to drop a studio album.

And it’s okay. Khalifa has never been interested in being a truly innovative rapper, nor has he ever gotten political. Those are critiques in 2016 – the rap scene is getting more and more bloated, with seemingly hundreds of famous rappers trying to find their unique voice (and many of them doing it through rough, political tracks). This is, much like his previous album “Blacc Hollywood,” just a passable rap album.

There’s more interesting things going on from a musical standpoint than on “Hollywood,” which was just boring all-around. The more energetic songs have some oomph that was missing before, and there’s decent use of piano lines throughout that complement trap beats. And “Call Waiting” sits at the midpoint, breaking up monotony with some reggae that ends just before wearing out it’s welcome (although the Fugees reference at the beginning – undeserved). A tender moment happens at the end of “Zoney,” when he brings his young son into the recording (which comes off as a Win, given Kanye’s recent and incredibly inappropriate comments towards the child). There’s also a general lack of the empty ballads that divided “Blacc Hollywood,” with Khalifa sticking more closely to bangers and weed songs.

And weed songs aplenty. All but one, I think. There’s at least three songs that start with the sound of Khalifa smoking. He raps about buying weed, smoking weed, listening to songs he can smoke weed to, you know, diversity. The 6+ minute track “Lit” seems like it might be something innovative for Wiz, given it’s length, but it’s just him (and Ty Dolla $ign) rapping about weed for six minutes instead of four. Lead single “Bake Sale” is a corny joke, some of the corniest lyrics on the album. Every single song disappoints, lyrically, and although Khalifa’s flow has improved, he just sounds uninspired. He wanted to be known as a “weed rapper,” and he pummels us with that so much that he has become his own parody; his own walking advertisement for a product that cannot actually exist. In a world where rap is changing by the week, Khalifa is throwing himself into the heyday of three years ago – and he’s being left behind.

-By Andrew McNally

Rihanna – “ANTI”

(Photo courtesy of Roc Nation Records)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” “Higher”

After months of teasing, delays (and rumored Adele delays), fights over the rights to the songs, and non-album singles, Rihanna’s long-awaited 8th album “ANTI” is finally here. It’s her first album since 2012 – by far the longest break in her career. Her first seven came out between ’05 and ’12, with ’08 the only year without a release. Even if it was delayed, the launch was haphazard; she dropped the Drake-duet “Work” as a single, and someone at Tidal accidentally put the whole album up. So this afternoon she released the whole thing for free. It was the same mistake that Kendrick Lamar went through with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” except that this album more relates to the haphazard way it was released.

The disparity between “FourFiveSeconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” hinted that “ANTI” might have a mixed feel to it. The former song was a somewhat tender and unexpected triplet with Kanye and Sir Paul McCartney. The latter was minimalistic, but brutal and throne-grabbing (and made our list of the ten best songs of 2015). And indeed, “ANTI” bathes itself in ideas, never fully committing to any of them. The album’s midsection is the weak point. “Desperado,” “Needed Me” and “Yeah, I Said It,” are all tracks that meander through basic rhythms, feeling unfinished and unrelated to anything else going on. Likewise, Rihanna’s lyrics don’t always complement her changing musical styles. They’re also relatively inconsistent, although she can still make simple drug songs sound exciting.

There are glimmers of greatness on “ANTI.” “Consideration” and “Woo” are both great scratchy, dancehall tracks. And the 6:37 “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” an unexpected cover of the Tame Impala song from last year, is a fully-realized, dreamy journey that improves on its source material. After that track, the album closes on four songs closer to ballads, most of which could have fit on earlier Rihanna albums, but all of which are great. Closer “Close to You” has a particularly affecting piano line.

There’s only two guests on the album, both effective. Rihanna plays off of SZA very well in opener “Consideration,” and “Work” is another notch in the Rihanna/Drake collab canon. Another note is standout “Higher,” which clicks in at just one second past two minutes, but is one of the best vocal songs she’s ever delivered. It’s a moment, a quick one, of sheer vulnerability from the normally zipped-up singer.

The problem with “ANTI” is that her intentions are unclear. At times, she wants to go in new directions and at others, she’s content doing what she’s been doing. The album would be stronger if it committed more fully to any of its ideas, but instead it meanders and becomes very inconsistent. The scratchy tracks are my personal favorites, but there are different takeaways from the album. It is as inconsistent in quality as it is tone, and although the production is great (with a long producer list), it feels like a partially-finished puzzle. Rihanna is trying to change her musical path, I think that’s been obvious for a little while, so whatever comes next could be more complete. But this album, her first without any real bangers, feels like a bad idea with many good, small ideas inside of it.

-By Andrew McNally

Megadeth – “Dystopia”

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Dystopia,” “Death From Within”

I don’t think there’s very many people, at least besides Dave Mustaine, who would argue for present-day Megadeth. Their releases have been inconsistent, and none in many years have matched the band’s late 80’s to early 90’s heyday. I was barely a month old when “Rust in Peace” came out, but I was probably rocking out to it already. So Megadeth are past their prime, and they showed it on 2013’s “Super Collider,” which was, frankly, awful. They had lost that lovin’ feelin,’ and by that I mean the music had been drained of energy in an ill-fated attempt at reclaiming a wide audience. Then the band members suffered a bunch of personal and professional turmoils, resulting in the departure of the drummer and the non-Mustaine guitarist. Armed with half of a new line-up, Megadeth kick it back into high gear on their 15th album, “Dystopia.”

Much of the album, and especially the opening tracks, mimic 80’s thrash metal surprisingly well. It’s sweaty, massive, and makes you want to punch someone in the face. This trend follows across nearly every track, with only small instances where they give way to a different form. The only real departure is “The Emperor,” which is less sustained, although it could just be seen as a point to stop and breath. Mustaine’s riffs are gigantic, and the dual-guitar solos come up strong. The title track is the only one that’s very guitar-heavy, this album’s “Hangar 18,” but the electric crunch throughout runs deep. The addition of Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler is a nice pick-up as well, his drumming can switch from chaotic to restrained to pummeling based on whatever calls. There’s also a two-song set in the album’s middle that, although two separate songs, act as an inspired mini-suite. “Poisonous Shadows” takes a decrescendoing break from thrash, and builds back up into the instrumental “Conquer or Die.” From a musical standpoint, this is one of Megadeth’s best albums in a long, long time.

And that’s where it stops. Megadeth’s lyrics have rarely been Pulitzer-ready, but they’ve gotten worse over time. Megadeth has a Dave Mustaine problem. His awful, corny and racist lyrics ruin all the goodwill “Dystopia” otherwise builds up. “The Threat is Real” is about enemies attacking from within, and sure as hell seems to be pretty anti-Islamic in that belief. It’s also got lines about “vultures coming home to nest.” He sings about American triumph, and the emperor’s new clothes. The theme of dystopia is clearly important to the album, but the super-conservative Mustaine vaguely presents a dystopia that’s really an American utopia. America is the strongest country, join or get out. Which, okay buddy, maybe it’s time to let some other guys do the writing.

Thankfully, when the music is as strong as it is on “Dystopia,” Megadeth becomes like a themed roller-coaster. It’s all about the ride, and the theme (in this case, the lyrics), only serves to feed into the brand. It’s a Superman roller coaster because the track is painted blue and red, and that’s easy to ignore. The real thrill comes in the mechanics, and that’s the music. A new and improved Megadeth bring the ferocity back, even with the consistently garbage lyrics.

If you like this, try: Slayer’s passable 2015 album “Repentless,” although if you like this, you’ve already listened to that album. Also try turning off the Xbox and going outside for a bit.

Snoop Dogg – “BUSH”

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Peaches N Cream” “Run Away”

There’s a question I’ve had about ridiculously famous rappers for a while – what path do they follow, when they grow older? Classic rock singers like Rod Stewart and even Bob Dylan have been going the route of covers albums, so I’ve been wondering where a rapper like Snoop might go. Turns out, he doesn’t really know either. “BUSH,” his thirteenth album, meanders around basic funky rhythms with the aura of a man who hasn’t given up, but just doesn’t feel he has anything new to say.

It’s safe to say that the music that Snoop has put out in this millennium hasn’t tried to be revolutionary. “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” even as a potential candidate for one of hip-hop’s greatest songs, doesn’t try to prove anything. His Snoop Lion phase didn’t prove anything we didn’t already know (nor was it taken very seriously). So now that we’re 15 years into this century and Snoop Dogg is ever-increasingly just a family man, his music has taken a natural progression towards the fun and breezy. It often is, but it begs to wonder why it exists in the first place.

After a midtempo intro with Stevie Wonder, the next four songs on “BUSH” are all Snoop solo, and they could all really use the kick of someone else. “This City” serves as the best, centered around a hypnotic vibraphone rhythm, going on only slightly too long. The weakest of the four is “R U A Freak?,” with some groan-worthy punny lyrics and an uncredited appearance from Charlie Wilson so prevalent that I’m honestly not sure Snoop even shows up on the track.

There are brighter points later on the album. At the sixth of ten tracks, “Peaches N Cream” is the first one that really feels inspired. It’s the only song that credits Charlie Wilson, although he shows up on four tracks. “Run Away” features a surprising collaboration with Gwen Stefani, who channels her No Doubt years instead of her solo pop career. She adds a late spark to the album that’s missing elsewhere. And the album’s finale, “I’m Ya Dogg,” has guest verses from Rick Ross and Kendrick “some of ya’ll share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell” Lamar, who called it himself – although the song is great, and really the album’s only true rap track, Snoop takes a vocal backseat and gets lost in the mix.

The funk revival of 2015 doesn’t seem like something planned, more coincidental. Snoop, Lamar, and Mark Ronson have all released funk-heavy albums, but each with a foundation coming from a different place. It’s going strong nonetheless, and the music is at least funky. Wonder is wasted in a lifeless opener, but “BUSH” does have it’s funky moments at times. It’s fun, and I think that’s all that Snoop’s going for now. If so, then it’s a minor success. But even so, he seems too content to be releasing placeholder, schlocky albums. This is the man who was vaguely involved in murder charges; the man with a drug rap sheet longer than Willie Nelson’s. It doesn’t seem right that he has settled into such a steady and easy life that he can release self-serving, basic funk. From reggae on “Reincarnated” to funk on “BUSH,” it seems like Snoop is closer to forfeiting the rap game rather than leaving it behind. But, it answers my question. When a successful rap artist can make enough and settle down, provided they didn’t marry Beyonce, then what are they to do? Keep it easy.

-By Andrew McNally

Death Grips – “The Powers That B” (n****s on the moon/jenny death)

Grade: C, B+

Key Tracks: “Black Quarterback” / “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States” “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie”

Let’s get this out of the way – this double album is two different albums. There’s no narrative or connecting piece. Disc 1, “n****s in the moon,” was released last year, while “jenny death” has just come out. So for this review, they’re being judged separately. And boy, are they different.

Disc 1 of this double album suffers from every problem that you can imagine noise-rap group Death Grips having – over-production, vocals too far lost in the mix, too choppy, and too sampled. Alt-avant-garde legend Bjork was excited to announce that her vocals were lent to every track on this album. But, they serve little purpose than to add to the noise. Often, like on the album’s best track, “Black Quarterback,” MC Ride’s scream-rapping is lost in the mix, almost hidden under Bjork’s unnecessary samples.

I do have to hand it to Death Grips for trying to incorporate Bjork on every track. Death Grips are essentially a novelty act with a political motive – the loudest, most boisterous and disruptive rap group in music. In this case, Bjork makes sense. And Death Grips have always suffered from the potentiality of repeating themselves, so to include the Norwegian legend on every track is something tonally new. But what results is an album similar to 2014’s “Government Plates” – musically interesting, but severely lacking in MC Ride’s frontman presence.

“jenny death” is a wholly separate album from “n****s on the moon.” The first disc, as problematic as it was, flowed from every song into the next. “jenny death” focuses on the songwriting on an individual level. There’s no constant flow between songs, as the band lets each develop on it’s own. On this disc, we get excellent amounts of MC Ride, permeating every track with his whisper-to-a-scream rapping. “jenny death” proves that for Death Grips, the parts are greater than the sum. Ride is on full force, leading the group fearlessly through every track. It’s significantly better, because of his presence. It’s heavy without being overbearing, and everyone involved is simply in sync with each other.

Death Grips’ legacy is one marked by experimentation. They’ve been a band of two, three, one, occasionally none. Last year, they broke up, during a string of dates opening for Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Then they released “Fashion Weak,” and announced a string of tour dates. In Chicago, they didn’t show for Lollapalooza, and didn’t show for the headlining after-show, instead putting up a fan’s suicide note as a backdrop. They weren’t even in Illinois. On a major label, they signed, got a bunch of money, and then released their album for free (“No Love Deep Web”) without the label’s knowledge. The band’s public stunts and antics range from comical, to political, to deeply questionable. Their discography is similar – it starts great, only to quickly move into waves. “the powers that b” is both waves – the band at it’s worst, and the band at it’s best. This is supposedly their last album, and if it is, it’s a questionably memorable and definitely fitting way to go out. But there’s nothing that makes me think they’re done. They’re touring and releasing instrumentals, “breaking up” was just another stunt. I, like many fans, have learned to take these things in stride. They’re a great band; they’re not as great as they think they are. Still, the second disc of this album proves the band still has the energy, anger, and experimentation as they did in their beginnings a few years back.

-By Andrew McNally