Justin Timberlake – “Man of the Woods”

(Photo Credit: That Grape Juice)Grade: D+

Key Tracks: “Supplies,” “Breeze off the Pond”

Let’s be perfectly clear here – this iteration of Renaissance Man Justin Timberlake is different than the one we saw on 2013’s double “The 20/20 Experience.” We know this because of the cover, where a picture of him in a suit is cut by him(/someone) in jeans and flannel, and also because he told us. In reality, our “Renaissance Man” doesn’t have many hats on his rack. This album (somehow only his fourth solo work) proves that he is incapable of stretching out of pop’s limitations, even if he stretches those limitations in multiple directions. He’s a great singer, better dancer and one-time denim enthusiast, but he’s only a decent songwriter and remains vapidly unaware of both boundaries and genre authenticity.

This album actually has some great moments – at 16 songs and 66 minutes, it has to. But we need to dive into the album’s most egregious moments, most of which work to actively discredit the title and premise. Timberlake is a Memphis native – a city within state lines of the country’s best music city. And he attempts to use that heritage to prove that he has a woodsy background; a background that rarely shows its face throughout the album. This should be an easy sell for an ambitious and malleable artist who could cherrypick collaborators. I mean, the guy has “timber” and “lake” in his name. Instead, tracks like opener “Filthy” and “Morning Light” fall back on pop conventions, which are decidedly un-woodsy. The latter features Alicia Keys, who had a massive hit about her home city of New York, a city so decisively un-woodsy that a salsa company ran a whole ad campaign about it. The album’s front half features some songs that are pure pop and, even though he grows into the image more as it transpires, it starts the album off with a joltingly off-brand start.

Also, I have to talk about the filthy lyrics. I’m not even referring to the song “Filthy.” I’m referring to the back-to-back genital-drying lyrics of “Sauce” and “Man of the Woods.” Early on in “Sauce,” Timberlake sings “I love your pink, you like my purple / The color right between those, that’s where I worship.” Ewwwwwwww. And it only gets worse, a whole lot worse on the following track. The song is about the mutual love he has for his wife Jessica Biel, but lyrically it sure doesn’t sound that way – “So tonight, if I take it too far, that’s okay because you know … I hear the making up’s fun.” This is uhhhhhhh this is a song by a man currently in a Woody Allen film. I would like to revert you to the pic of Timberlake wearing a #TimesUp pin. And the chorus is just awful: “But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs / There’s the faucet,” he sings. Please take your sexy back. Here’s a fun fact to leave you with: he named this filthy song after his infant son.

Major authenticity issues and gross lyrics aside, this album does have some enjoyable tracks. Country sensation Chris Stapleton helps actually ground “Say Something” in the vague indie-country-folk world Timberlake thinks he’s invading. Other tracks like “Supplies” and “Breeze Off the Pond” are pleasantly enjoyable songs, the former mashing flamenco-inspired guitar with trap beats, one of the album’s most interesting ideas. The latter is the best example of the acoustic-driven vocal songs that dominate the album’s back half. Even some early tracks like the Pharrell-co-authored “Midnight Summer Jam,” are delightful if not empty tracks. Even the pre-release ridicule of “Flannel” is a little deflated, as the track is frustratingly enjoyable.

Still, there’s far too many faults on this album. Ugly missteps run hand-in-hand through the city, and any escapes into the woods are mere digressions. What is essentially the opening line on this album is “haters gonna say it’s fake.” When’s the last time you heard Justin Vernon say that? Merle Haggard? Just being from an area does not make you an automatic herald of the culture. I’m from Boston but I’m not gonna jump into a perfect street-punk career at 27. I mean, there’s a damn reggae song on this album. So while there are some surprisingly pleasant moments, and Timberlake may remain an annoyingly pleasant celebrity figure, I have to end this with a question: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one’s around to care, should you bother listening for it?

-By Andrew McNally

Muse – “Drones”

Grade: D+

Key Track: “Reapers”

When you’re a band that’s been making the same album over and over again for 15 years, you should know better than to call it “Drones.” I won’t even touch the easy joke, nor will I say anything about the art-rocity on the cover. Let’s just not even spend time there.

Muse makes music for teenagers. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but they do. I was 14 when “Absolution” came out, and it rocked my world for a while. “Drones” takes a predictable anti-war stance, and man, if this had come out a decade ago, I would’ve fallen in love with it like it was any girl I talked to. Certain songs from “Drones” have Hot Topic-primed lyrics, down to a concept that’s confusing and inconsistent.

“Drones” supposedly follows someone as they join a military and become a human drone, or something Muse-y like that. It’s not always coherent, and it leads to very Muse-y songs like “Defector,” that has a chorus of “I’m free from society / You can’t control me,” or “Revolt,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The album’s second track is an interlude, of a drill sergeant prepping a soldier to be a “killing machine,” which is pretty much the equivalent to Kevin James starring in “Apocalypse Now.”

Musically, Muse looked to get back to basics on “Drones.” It doesn’t always work, but they have stripped themselves down a bit compared to the past few albums. Given that “The 2nd Law” had a literal dubstep song, hearing just the guitar-bass-piano-drums combo of the “Origin of Symmetry” days is a relief. It’s not enough – the strength of Muse’s early albums lies in their restlessness, as they clearly had ambitions that they couldn’t yet meet. But it is still an improvement. “Reapers” is the closest to classic Muse (note: to me classic Muse is “Newborn”). 10+ minute penultimate track “The Globalist” also hits old Muse for a while, before falling into terrible ballad territory (and giving way to the closer, “Drones,” which is Matt Bellamy a capella layered over himself – yikes).

Compared to the slough they’ve been slinging at us for a few years, “Drones” isn’t so bad. But there’s a second interlude on the album that’s part of a speech from JFK and it’s just like, come on guys. You’re British. This album is about drones. None of it makes any sense. Muse revel in their corniness, and it affects their songwriting. There’s some generally good Muse songs on this album, but they’re too few and far between to make you think they’re a band worth paying attention to again. 15 year-olds are probably going to pick this album up, and it might inspire them – that’s good. “Absolution” inspired me. It made me more political, and more musical. But it also advanced me past self-serving bands like Muse. Ten years from now, when Muse hits 31 years as a band, the kids that picked up “Drones” are going to smirk at themselves, at how far they’ve come since those teenage days.

-By Andrew McNally

Mumford & Sons – “Wilder Mind”

Grade: D

Default Key Track: “Tompkins Square Park”

There was a time when vagueness was a part of rock music. It was big in classic rock – Springsteen and AC/DC alike told stories of everymen that resonated, even though they’re details were ripped out of entry level creative writing classes. Think about Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” – it describes a very specific girl, but an everygirl. Mumford & Sons harken back to the days of classic rock storytellers on their first electric album, “Wilder Mind.” But then isn’t now. Mumford & Sons going electric doesn’t resonate like when Dylan did it – hell, they’re probably quieter here. And in an incredibly overpopulated music scene, with artists like FKA twigs, Grimes, Viet Cong and TWIABPAIANLATD melting and reforming hybrid genres, and artists crafting increasingly more specific lyrics – see “Groin Twerk,” “Sometimes,” “King Kunta” – vagueness isn’t going to get you anywhere.

“Monster.” That was my choice for the first ballad of the album, when I first looked at the tracklist. Not because of the title, far from it – just because it was the sixth track. I was right. The album was predictable from the get-go; what you expect is presented almost exactly. The band sounds like any myriad of guitar-driven indie bands that’s existed from ’91 – present. There’s almost nothing memorable here. “Wilder Mind” stands equal with any of the non-“Hot Fuss” Killers albums, and any Coldplay album, as that album that most dads hold on to as a last grasp at trying to bond with their kids over music.

The album’s worst quality is that it isn’t worse than it is. If this album were actually worse, it could be fun-bad, like an ironic listen that you listen to for a laugh. But it’s just bland. It’s tepid, totally drained of life. There’s almost nothing enjoyable, and it’s forgotten before it’s even over. There are highlights, at least – the band sounds engaged on the opener “Tompkins Square Park,” a song that could stand as a Death Cab ripoff. And they do bring an energy to the table late on the album, on “Ditmas.” But the two Brooklyn-named songs notwithstanding, nothing else works here.

Mumford & Sons came out of the gates swinging a few years ago, armed with banjos, a new sound that rivaled acoustic dubstep, and a ridiculous personae that couldn’t be ignored. It got old fast, as they played themselves out, but they rode the world for a few years. Why they’d follow up a Grammy-pummeling album with this light-hearted, dull mess is beyond comprehension. Credit to a band trying to reinvent themselves, but “Wilder Mind” is just an old grenade, hissing with it’s pin pulled, and a crowd standing, slowly moving their fingers from their ears.

There aren’t even any songs about Gene Wilder. Should’ve been called “Whiter Mind.”

If you like this, try: catching up with the times

Imagine Dragons – “Smoke + Mirrors”

Grade: D

Key Songs: “Gold” “Trouble”

Imagine Dragons are what I like to call a “placeholder” band. They’re a band that comes out, plays a few selections of music that’s popular right now for a while, and disappears. They’re like a lounge singer who’s actually got some talent and creates original music. Problem is, there’s no point to the music. The gold medal placeholder band has been Muse, for years, but it’s been a few years since that last album, and that last album was bad even by the most forgiving of objective standards, so America turned to someone else. Along came Imagine Dragons – loud, bland, talented, unoriginal, (white,) and willing to play whatever will get them on the radio. Their sophomore album, “Smoke + Mirrors,” is just that. I mean, exactly what you expect.

Imagine Dragons have built themselves a weird, contradictory niche. They exist in a world where they’re both daring – for going outside of any one genre – and not daring whatsoever. They try a whole number of things on this album, but they’re all things that have been done before. And no, bands don’t always have to be original to be successful; if that were the case, AC/DC would’ve been out of business in 1976. But Imagine Dragons are too exciting to be repetitive; too repetitive to be exciting. It’s a weird discord, and I honestly don’t know if I’ve seen any band fall into this rhythm before.

The result, from someone who isn’t a fan, is that it sounds like Imagine Dragons are pulling songs straight from the oven and feeding them directly to the radio. That’s not entirely true, of course, they weren’t planning on 13 singles. But every song on this album – regardless of genre – is dead-set on radio. There’s nothing challenging, nothing that isn’t self-serving, not a single thing you don’t expect from Imagine Dragons.

“Smoke + Mirrors” has to be reviewed on a track-by-track basis, because there are some surprisingly good tracks. Second track and second single “Gold” really isn’t a bad song; it follows a hip-hop beat, possibly inspired by their great Grammy’s performance with Kendrick Lamar last year. And once the band flows through all the loud stuff they want to do and settle into toned-down tracks, we get two more good songs – “Trouble,” a somewhat fun and rhythmic song with no declarations, and “Summer,” a decent ballad. There’s also “Friction,” at the halfway point. “Friction” is centered around an Eastern stringed instrument and has an urgent feeling to it that no other song on the album does. It’s Imagine Dragons at their heaviest and most inclusive, but that’s still not overly impressive.

And when this album is bad, it’s bad. The lyrics throughout the whole album sound like words picked out of a radio rock lyric generator. The album’s opening line is “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done,” and it’s done in a way that makes it sound like an ‘edgy’ way to start an album. But it’s not (may I direct you to these opening lines?), and they almost never work. They never turn the volume up enough to be interesting, they never fully commit to hip-hop beats, and they don’t fully adhere to their ballads. They’re trying many things, and if they spent time expanding one sound, it could be strong. They’re clearly talented musicians, but it almost always sounds like they’re restraining themselves for fans.

There’s also the issue of ripoffs. I found three, without actively looking. The most subtle (and likely accidental) is in “Trouble,” which shares too many similarities to Linkin Park’s (yep) “Nobody’s Listening.” The less accidental are vocal and lyrical nods to the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” in “Polaroid,” and to Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” in “Smoke and Mirrors.” They’re surely done in appreciation, but they don’t sound like it.

“Smoke + Mirrors” is sure to delight fans of placeholder bands, and probably won’t win anyone over. Imagine Dragons grabbed fans early, whomever would jump on, and don’t want to let go of them. So they’re exploring the boundaries of popular music from the inside, never straying out of sight of the listener. Don’t like the way this one’s done? Don’t worry, it’s over in four minutes. It’s a dull album, lacking in almost every component, with only a few redeeming songs.

So, More like UNImagined Dragons, amirite?!?!

If you like this, try: Don’t worry, teenage years are tough on everyone, it’s not just you.

Prince’s “Art Official Age” and 3RDEYEGIRL’s “Plectrumelectrum” – A Review From the Uninitiated

Grades: Art Official Age: B+

Plectrumelectrum: D+

As a music critic, there’s been plenty of times where I’ve faked knowledge of an artist to give some insight into the recording of an album. I’ll admit it, I can’t say I’m on an equal playing field when I talk about both Ariana Grande and Foxygen, I have to look up information on someone like Grande because I’m much more inclined to listen to Foxygen in my own time. But I can’t fake Prince. Not admitting that I don’t know the first thing about Prince’s back catalog and topsy-turvy history would be unfair to him. Prince is a legend; a hero of pop music, and trying to fake my way through a review would not do him any justice. I know that he and Warner Bros. got into a bitter, bitter feud in the ’90’s, partially the reason for him to change his name to a symbol – so Warner would have to find a way to market it. And I know that he’s both feminine and seductive, yet legendary and encompassing enough for the NFL to pick him to play a Super Bowl halftime show (and one of the better ones). What I do know about Prince is that his music has jumped all around, and that’s exactly what his solo album, “Art Official Age,” does. So if you’re not familiar with his music, know that the album is inconsistent but often fun and honest. And if you are familiar, then you probably made up your mind before it even came out. Okay? Okay.

“Art Official Age” starts with a track titled “Art Official Cage,” and it’s a song that would have never existed in the “Purple Rain” years. It couldn’t have. It’s ripped from hip-hop and EDM, with big beats and air horns. It’s fun, and there’s way too much going on, but that’s part of the joy. The album jumps across fun, funky songs and big ballads, all of which are distinctly Prince and neither of which are aligned with any other pop artist. It’s the album’s best and worst quality, that it jumps so frequently and unexpectedly. Luckily, it’s good far more often than it’s bad.

The ballads come early, with the third track “Breakdown.” Prince hits some cringingly high notes, and pulls them off, obviously. “U Know” is a pseudo-ballad two tracks later, but one that has Prince rapping a bit. The hip-hop element is palpable on “U Know,” and is throughout the album. Prince constantly feeds off of genres that fed off him thirty years ago. Ballads aside, the album is a lot of fun, and Prince sounds like he’s truly enjoying it. Late album track “Funknroll” is exactly what it sounds like, a huge disco bash that’s a ton of fun and could easily be thrown on repeat for an hour without getting old. Second track “Clouds” is a strange track, with a strong spoken word that sets up the album’s loose premise of waking up in a world without gender pronouns. And leadoff single “Breakfast Can Wait” is an oddly specific, sexual song that’s exactly what you’d expect from Prince.

“Art Official Age” isn’t all great. The theme of waking up without gender pronouns are neat (and Prince to the max), but it never shows up outside of spoken word bits that are great on “Clouds” and finale “affirmation iii,” but are weak on the other tracks. And Prince seems to be borrowing just a tad too heavily from Daft Punk’s disco playbook – in that he tries lengthy, funky songs, but doesn’t pull them off as well as the duo. There are two tracks, “The Gold Standard,” and “Time,” that are far too long. The former is almost six minutes, the latter almost seven, and there isn’t much of a reason. They just inflate the album’s 53 minute runtime. But it starts strong and it ends strong, and it’s fun in between. People hanging out under rocks like myself should find a lot to groove to on this record, and find a lot of originality in it’s melting of both genres and themes.

On the inverse of that is the debut album from Prince’s backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album, “Plectrumelectrum,” flows through different genres and influences just as “Art Official Age,” but does so in a much more murkier and standard way. The band, who Prince is proudly touting as being all-female, gets off on the wrong foot with the lackluster “Wow,” a song that lacks the energy to be a true leadoff song, but has enough energy to not be a cop-out slow intro. After that, the album is a topsy-turvy ride, hitting high highs and low lows.

A low low is “Boytrouble,” an overlong and inane pop song that’s stylistically similar to far too many songs that have come before. Another low low is that the album appears to start off with a classic rock vibe for the first four or five songs, before slowly diverging into funk and hip-hop, without seeming to have any real reason. It flows well at the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more it becomes a collection of songs instead of a fluid album. The album never seems to come to having any point, other than Prince showing off his (talented) backing band. Likewise, on “Fixurlifeup,” he sings lead, and he sings about misogyny in music and how bands shouldn’t be called “female” bands, yet he prides himself on showcasing his handpicked female backing band, contributing to the problem himself. (Not that he shouldn’t have an all-female band, just that he’s being pretty hypocritical about it).

The album isn’t all bad, though. There’s some great, exploratory songs. The title track (and longest on the album) is an instrumental classic rock jam that shows just how talented the band is. And the follow-up, “Whitecaps,” is a pleasant vocal-based pseudo-ballad. And the album has a better pacing, clocking in at a tighter 42 minutes, with some fat trimmed. The album certainly has it’s moments, it’s just very inconsistent and never has a sense of purpose. Perhaps the thing that summarizes it best is that the album’s final track is a different version of “Funknroll,” from “Art Official Age.” It’s a slightly different version that’s still good, but just not as much.

Not knowing anything about Prince didn’t harm me in listening to 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album is more direct, even if it hits different genres. It isn’t a great album and I give only a reserved recommendation for Prince fans only, but it still has some fun moments. And, they’re talented. they’re extremely talented. Non-Prince people like myself can at least enjoy it just as much (probably more) than Prince fans. As for “Art Official Age,” it’s also inconsistent, but it’s fun and energetic, and it might be a refresher for his fans. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me.

-By Andrew McNally

Robin Thicke – “Paula”

Grade: D

Acceptable track: “Living in New York City”

Let’s get this out of the way. This isn’t about the music. I don’t yet know if I’m referring to the album, or this review. But it’s a rare occasion when I can review an album where the music plays such an afterthought to the context behind it. Because this is barely an album. It has songs, sure, songs that have choruses and rhythms. But it’s all a thin veil for an attempt at a passionate, public apology. Occasionally, it works. Often, it doesn’t. Thicke dives too deeply into their relationship, even when he’s criticizing himself, giving us information we really didn’t need to know.

So let’s talk about the music a bit. The music does take a backseat, but when he’s prepping a quote-unquote ‘concept’ album like this, it’s not really the focus. Still, it’s all simple R&B, never elevating itself beyond some basic beats and unchanging soul rhythms that sound more in place in 90′s clubs. Sometimes it’s fun :) Sometimes it’s sad :( But from a music standpoint, there’s few highlights. “Living in New York City” has a fun, optimistic beat, and follow-up “Love Can Grow Back” has a big horn section and a jazzy, soulful vibe. But those are rare highlights. The album starts off with two slow-burners that musically are, frankly, boring. And although they set the album’s largely remorseful tone, they also stumble out of the gate with 9 minutes of dull music.

So where does Robin Thicke stand? “Paula” is a love letter, a deep apology for the way he acted as a husband. For the most part, he’s earnest in what he’s singing. In some of the more enthusiastic songs, he sounds like his heart just isn’t in it. (Only exception: “Living in New York,” where he sings about how she’s moved to NY and how pretty all the women there are). Some lines throughout the album I caught are, “All that she needs is another try,” “If you ever need a friend, baby / I can be the one that you want” (vomit emoji) and “There’s something bad in me” (understatement!) His lyrics get pretty intricate, so it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s genuinely grieving and it’s possible he actually feels bad for the stuff he’s done.

But, don’t let that deceive you. Thicke is a singer, it’s what he does, but there’s no reason for this be as public as it is. Even if he believes his own lyrics, this album is a power play. I was watching a World Cup game on ABC the other day and I saw an ad for Thicke on Kimmel’s dumb show and the voiceover said, “Robin Thicke concludes his ABC takeover!” He’s riding a storm of buzz over this album, capitalizing on his own deep emotions. And it’s important not to look at Thicke as some kind of hero here. Everything that happened between him and Paula was his fault, and he’s starting to be made out as a victim. He isn’t. “Paula” is usually pretty creepy, with too many details about their relationship growing more abusive. He just falls short of singing her social security number and where she sleeps at night. It honestly sounds unintentional, a side effect of him baring his true emotions, but it’s weird nonetheless. “Paula” is, at it’s best, forgettable. It is, at it’s worst, gross and shady. It isn’t good. Don’t listen to it and don’t acknowledge it, you’ll just be feeding into the Robin Thicke machine.

Oh also burn in hell for literally always.

(This review was originally posted at thefilteredlens.com, and since the time of publishing it has been released that “Paula” sold a whopping 530 copies in the UK. I wasn’t sure what the public’s perceptio of Thicke was nowadays, but it seems like we’re on the same page)

If you like this album, try: reading a different blog

Pixies – “Indie Cindy”


(Photo Credit: http://www.juno.co.uk)

Grade: D

Key Tracks: “Bagboy” “Magdalena 318”

Surviving Nirvana members Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear recently played at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction with some rotating singers – Joan Jett, St. Vincent, Kim Gordon and, unpredictably, Lorde (and J. Mascis in an afterparty). It was only the third time they had performed together after Kurt Cobain’s death, the first two times being with Sir Paul McCartney. In that time, they only recorded one new song (with Sir Paul). The men have been very careful not to alter the band’s legacy in any way, and the only performances have honored both their own music and Cobain’s life.

Pixies, sadly, have gone the way of almost every other early 90′s band – Alice in Chains, Sublime, Smashing Pumpkins, Bush, Hole, Blind Melon – in reforming with a different lineup in a move that seems just shamelessly capitalistic. (Exceptions, of course – Soundgarden kept the same lineup, Pearl Jam and Radiohead are still going strong). Their first album in 23 years, “Indie Cindy” captures almost none of their perverse magic of the past. While it isn’t a horrendous album, it’s wildly, wildly inconsistent and is usually content being just a footnote to the band’s career rather than trying to expand on it.

There’s a lot to pick apart on the album. The most obvious, and most painful thing to note is that none of these 12 songs are necessarily new. Pixies released three EP’s, four songs each, from the end of last year to just last month. “Indie Cindy” is simply those 12 songs put together and reordered. At the tail end of an era where bands are reforming in the name of capitalism, this seems like the biggest moneygrab of them all.

For the most part, the music itself isn’t bad. It just isn’t Pixies. Pixies made a name for themselves (and influenced a whole decade of music that followed them) by creating wholly unpredictable music that was both melodic and noisy, with lyrics often about violence and mutilation. Yet there was a radio-friendly quality to the music that bridged the gap between radio alternative and underground bands. Here, most of the songs are closer to straight radio rock, ranging anywhere from decent to totally forgettable.

The album’s best songs are the ones were there are many things going on. “Bagboy” is a prime example – it’s partially spoken word, with heavy guitar rhythms and a few different percussion things going on. And “Magdalena 318,” which has a more industrial and grungier feel to it, easily the album’s best song. Too many of the songs are too straightforward, lacking energy and any real creativity. “Greens and Blues,” “Silver Snails” and “Snakes,” as just three examples, are three melodic and rounded alternative songs, but ones that are instantly forgettable. The good tracks on this album are diamonds in the rough, and there’s a lot of sifting to go through.

Besides the music, Black Francis’ vocals are inconsistent, too. There’s none of the screaming and unpredictability, but he hits some classic Pixies vocals – at points. On “Magdalena 318″ and “Blue Eyed Hexe,” his voice sounds just like it used to. Yet elsewhere his vocals are pretty average, contributing to the very average quality of the music. And on “Andro Queen,” his vocals are downright bad, with the song sounding like some cut track from a trippy 60′s band.

From the time that the Pixies first reunited to the time they actually put out “Indie Cindy,” two things happened – they lost Kim Deal, the equally creative force behind their earlier music (and have yet to find a permanent replacement), and they surpassed the amount of time in which they were a band in their first run. That should be indicative of the album – the time it took to put out one album in 2014 is longer than the time it took them to put out four studio albums and an EP in the early 90′s. “Indie Cindy” is passable as an alternative album, but it never has any idea what it wants to be. Occasionally, the band tries to grasp at their amazing legacy. But usually, they’re comfortable with sorely unremarkable alternative/”butt-rock” songs, and there’s simply no reason for this album to exist. It takes their legacy down a notch; adds an asterisk onto the ends of some legendary albums. “Indie Cindy,” to put it honestly, will please the local alternative radio DJ’s, but not the station’s listeners.

If you like this, try: I don’t exactly know what to recommend here, but if you’re into this album then you’re probably really into 90’s music rebirthed so I’d recommend Soundgarden’s surprisingly passable 2012 album “King Animal” or Smashing Pumpkins’ great 2007 album “Zeitgeist.”

-By Andrew McNally

Black Flag – “What The…”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: D+

Key tracks: “My Heart’s Pumping” “The Chase”

Do you remember Metallica’s “St. Anger” album? Of course you do, it’s unforgettable. If their career was a cup of fine Italian coffee, “St. Anger” was the small bit of unfiltered grounds at the bottom that you accidentally swallowed. And for a while, it’s what you remembered about that otherwise great cup. “What The…” is the “St. Anger” of 2013 – a long-awaited album that has all the elements of the original band, but is just remarkably bad and with a cover so grotesquely stupid that it actually drives down the quality. People waited six years for “St. Anger,” and it sounded like it was recorded inside a trashcan. While the production is better on “What The…,” people that have been waiting for twenty-eight years deserve something better than this.

Much like those in “Some Kind of Monster,” the documentary that accompanied “St. Anger,” public troubles with the band have hurt their image recently. Guitarist Greg Ginn is the only original member left. Two of the other original members are currently touring as FLAG, also playing Black Flag’s music (having lost a court battle to use the name). It’s a mess. Famous skateboarder and early 2000’s video-game star Mike Vallely is currently in the band, and singer Ron Reyes, who sings lead in every song on this album, is no longer a member despite this album just coming out yesterday. It’s really a mess.

It’s got all the components of a Black Flag album – the only two songs over three minutes are the second and last songs. Every song is fast and heavy; urgent as always. It’s really coincidental that I always pick two key tracks, though, because there’s only two stand-outs: opener “My Heart is Pounding” and “The Chase,” which sits exactly in the middle. These two songs are the only two that really capture the band’s original hardcore sound. “The Chase” really captures the power chord brutality that made early Black Flag so great. Otherwise, I’d skip the other twenty songs. They’re all practically identical, and they’re okay at best.

Not to be mean or anything, but it’s probably not a bad thing that Vallely replaced Reyes, because Reyes voice just isn’t that good. Obviously, hardcore punk isn’t demanding a sultry, smooth lounge voice, but Reyes’ vocals just aren’t very powerful, and eventually it kind of drowns into the music. And the music itself is a weird tempo – it isn’t hardcore, but it’s faster than what I’d describe as “mid-tempo.” It’s almost like they’re restraining themselves, or are attempting to do an imitation of what they used to be. Although it sounds much more like the former, some of the song titles suggest the latter: “Get Out Of My Way” and “Go Away,” “This Is Hell” and “To Hell And Back,” “Slow Your Ass Down,” “It’s Not My Time To Go-go,” “Wallow in Despair” and the painful “Give Me All Your Dough.”

And then there’s the cover. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ album “Mosquito” was going to get two year-end awards: Most Disappointing Album, and Worst Cover. But man, we should’ve seen this coming. It looks like a school assignment that was made in ten minutes by some 14 year-old who paused his Call of Duty game when he remembered he had to do it. (That said: it’s still an undecided competition). With a cover like that, you really expect the album to be atrocious. It’s not atrocious, it’s just not very good. There’s plenty of worse albums, and plenty of more boring and unoriginal hardcore punk releases. This just shouldn’t be labeled as Black Flag, both thematically and factually.

If you like this, try: Any other Black Flag album. This is already the asterisk on their career.

-By Andrew McNally


Lady Gaga – “ARTPOP”

(Photo Credit: wallpaperswala)

Grade: D+

Key Tracks: “Venus” “Swine”

There’s a piece in some corner of the MoMA that’s a light, plugged in and emitting a low strobe, on top of a piece of wood and a tire. Some people might call it a true artistic endeavor. Some, including my normally artsy self, will just call it stupid and self-indulgent. That’s what Gaga’s third album intends to be – something to take in on both a superficial and an artistic level. But it’s really only enjoyable at the most superficial basis. Sure, it’s an alright listen, but to try and analyze any merit would just be a waste of time.

Gaga said she was inspired by the word “Artpop,” and felt it reflected what the project is. She also said it’s a “reverse Warhol” formula and a “celebration and poetic musical journey” with “a lack of maturity and responsibility.” I don’t exactly know what “reverse Warhol” is supposed to mean, but this isn’t it. Warhol’s work is full of immaturity. For “Empire,” he filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours, as it did nothing. “ARTPOP” is actually an embracing of everything Warhol was about – fame, loose caricatures, controversy, and a disconnect with the general audience. Except there’s no art here.

The first track, “Aura,” is one of the album’s more interesting songs. It’s about taunting the audience by promising them looks into the artist beyond the work. But it’s an EDM track, simply. Zedd and Infected Mushroom collaborated with her on it, and while they’re great at what they do, there isn’t exactly much artistic merit in it. It’s club beats. The album’s first half is full of this frustration – songs that think they’re experimental but are just club-ready doses of EDM, electronic and pop. Most of the earlier tracks are great listens. They’re booming jams, even bigger than what she’s done previously. Somewhere along the way, the music loses it’s touch. The album’s second half is almost totally forgettable. It’s not as catchy, and although it’s more the faults of the vocals, it’s completely ineffective pop. “Swine” has a spine-tingling keyboard rupture, and R. Kelly duet “Do What U Want” has some sweet R&B. But those aren’t enough to save the album’s dragging second half.

Lyrically, Gaga has fallen under whatever caused Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” to be so irrepressibly bad. There’s a total disconnect to the audience. Gaga’s two previous albums have been so, so good because she created huge club songs while still sounding like someone you could call up to have lunch with. She was easy to relate to. Here, though, she’s not. Two straight songs are called “Donatella” (as in Versace) and “Fashion!” She’s fallen prey to Jay-Z’s ‘If I sing about luxury, people will respect me’ train of thought. Nearly every song is just basic club lyrics. The R. Kelly duet, an intended sexy song, is made creepy by the presence of R. Kelly. Only two songs explore any sort of topic – the decent “G.U.Y.” looks at male submission in sex, and “Mary Jane Holland” is a cliche and trite look at marijuana. “Venus,” the album’s best song, is the only really poetic track. Everything else is just simple rhymes.

I didn’t find anywhere to work this in but I still want to mention it – there’s one track called “Jewels N’ Drugs” that has a few notable rap guest spots. The last is from Twista, and I’m just really glad to see him still popping up in places; I don’t think I’ve seen him on a track in years. He hasn’t lost anything – he still raps at a world record speed.

So “ARTPOP” is really a total misstep. Not artsy, sometimes not even catchy, and unintentionally alienating. This is why I chose the image that I did for the review.  It feels experimental, but there’s nothing artistic about the album, it’s really just Gaga. Any experimentation has no real basis or reason. Some of the songs work, a lot are at least enjoyable, and some are just bland and useless. Diehards will eat it up, those looking for a dance record will be more than pleased, but those looking for the promised experimentation will only find a light on top of a stick and a tire.

-By Andrew McNally

Yuck – “Glow and Behold”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: D

Key Tracks: “Middle Sea,” “Rebirth”

I have to praise Yuck for sticking around and even releasing a follow-up to their fuzz-drenched 2011 debut. Daniel Blumberg, the frontman for the band, left earlier this year. So the remaining members promoted Max Bloom to lead vocals, but the magic of their debut just isn’t here. They sound more conventional, and for a throwback band, that isn’t at all a good thing.

2011 was a good year for 90’s throwbacks – Cage The Elephant’s “Thank You Happy Birthday” channeled the Pixies and the Meat Puppets, and Yuck’s debut channeled Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. Their debut was so drenched in feedback and reverb that it resembled shoegaze, even though the songs were too rhythmic and catchy. “Get Away” has always and will always be in my personal top 20. “Glow and Behold” turns down the reverb and fuzz. It doesn’t completely do away with it, but the focus here is much more on the songs themselves. What we get is some largely unremarkable indie-rock with a touch of distortion. The opening track, “Sunrise in Maple Shade” is a lighter instrumental track that sounds like a calm before a storm – but the storm never really comes. Only “Middle Sea,” at the album’s midpoint, can match volume with distortion properly.

Blumberg was a great frontman, because he brought a certain magic to the band. The songs seem uninspired now. Titles like “Out of Time” and “Somewhere” just sound so much more dull than 2011’s “Suicide Policeman” and “Holing Out.” And Bloom’s vocals don’t seem to fit the band’s sound. This is unfortunate, because of the circumstances (and I think promoting within shows a real sense of unity and confidence amongst members), but Blumberg’s nasally snare sounded far better in 90’s jams than Bloom’s lower, clearer vocals do. They’re channeling some more unremarkable 90’s bands now. The intentions are there, but “Glow and Behold” is both musically and vocally a disappointment to their legendary debut.

-By Andrew McNally