Friday, January 22, 2016

In Which I Buy New Music

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine was lamenting the fact that bands don’t use the word monstrosity in songs any more.

I had to think about it.  She was referencing the 80s, because was talking about a local radio station that was doing a marathon of songs from 1986.

I thought about it for a while, trying to come up with an 80s song that used that word.  Finally, I said, “Um, Bohemian Rhapsody came out in 1975.”

It was a shot in the dark, but it turns out I was thinking of the right song.  Where things fell apart was that she didn’t know if the station screwed up, or she remembered the year incorrectly, or… well, we basically shrugged it off.

It was what she said in light of the discussion that bothered me – that she didn’t listen to or buy any new music.

And I sighed, and realized that, yes, I am getting to that age where there is a definite dividing line between “our” music and “their” music.  People my age are writing articles and posting memes about how modern music is too musically simple, and too lyrically dumb, and why can’t we have musical artists that are as talented and smart as when WE were kids.

Of course, maybe six months ago I read that people pretty much give up on new music starting around age 32 or 33.

I’m 39.  That freaks me right out.

I debated going off on a long-ish rant about how people my age need to at least try out some new music from time to time, but I can’t say that it felt like it would be worth it.  If my friend wants to be trapped in 1986, where the New Kids on the Block are about to come to prominence, well, that’s her right.

I think it just saddens me, because there are literally dozens of records coming out every week.  And while I don’t pick up something new all THAT often, over the last few months I’ve picked up no less than 12 albums.  That might be a record for such a short period of time.

And you know what?  I really liked some of them.  And was not very wowed by some of them.

So – capsule reviews!

Pentatonix – Pentatonix:

There’s a rant to be written about multiple versions of the same record coming out.  With this one, there was the regular edition, a deluxe edition, and a Target edition that had three extra songs.


Don’t do that, folks.  If you want to cram some songs on there as a bonus, note them as bonus songs.  That’s fine.  But hopping from store to store to store to get a handful of extra songs… it’s maddening.

But in this case, it’s almost worth it.  Pentatonix has put out three pop music EPS, a Christmas EP, and a Christmas record.  This one was “the big one” because it was going to be ALL original songs.  Unless you get the extended version, because there are extra covers on there, and… you know what?

It’s a great record.  The gang got together with a handful of accomplished songwriters and made a fun pop record that uses five voices to sound like what’s on the radio today.  Back when they won The Sing-Off, one of the judges said he felt these guys were sent back from the future to save A Cappella.

And this year, they had the number one record in the country for a week.  It’s a well eared accomplishment.  All I hope is that they take all future records as seriously as this one.  There are no bad songs, so weak arrangements.  It’s fun and impressive from end-to-end.

How good is it?  Kirstie Maldonado, the sole female in the group, often regulated to background vocals and a verse here and there?  She writes and sings and just SLAYS a little R and B number called Water.  She’s been in the background so long I’ve kind of taken her for granted, and this is me saying I was wrong.

I want a whole record like that someday. 

Ultimately, it’s a dance/pop record, designed to recreate the forms and fashions of what’s on the radio today.  That might not be your kind of thing.  But they’re well worth a listen for the level of singing talent alone.

Prince - HITnRUN phase one

Much was made of this record because Prince shared producing duties.  It would seem that he, like Pentatonix, wants to sound like the radio today.

Reviews were… interesting, basically saying Prince needed someone he couldn’t push around to really make the experiment work.

But truthfully, I realized years ago that there’s not going to be another great Prince record – or at least not one I love end to end, like I did Purple Rain, or The Gold Experience.

But there’s still good stuff here.  "1000 X's & 0's" is a great little song, for example. 

But I once heard Prince say he wrote a song every day.  And this felt like he took a random sampling and put it out there.  There’s nothing bad here, but nothing that makes me excited for what comes next.

But I’ve felt that way for something like two decades now.  So that’s on me.  (Side note: I started writing this before Phase 2 came out.  I still haven’t heard it.  But I’m weak, and I’ll probably pick it up, because Prince.  I really wish that impulse would pay off in a bigger way.)

Demi Lovato – Confident:

I’ll admit – this one actually made me a little sad.

I got Demi’s last record for free, thanks to Google offering it at no cost, and I really grew to love it. Heart Attack was an awesome vocal over a solid pop hook.  In Case was just heart-rending.

But Confident…

It seems there’s this thing where former kiddo pop princesses suddenly need to prove themselves, and it happens to ALL of them.  In one record, they go from making fun songs you can sing along to, to dropping F bombs and talking about doing it, more often than not with someone of the same sex.

I think I’d feel better about it if I really enjoyed anything on here, but it feels… broken.  Confident, as a song, is fun, but the fake horns don’t really work for me.  Cool for the Summer was a big hit, but there’s a buildup to the chorus that stops the song dead, and I can’t play it in front of my kid, which is sad, because she loves Demi.

As for the rest of it?  I spent a week listening to it and sitting here now I can barely recall any of the songs.

Sorry Demi.  Maybe next time.

Ben Folds – So There

So There is, now that I think about it, an odd title for a record with a Piano Concerto on it.  It gives of the air of refusing to grow up, while having music only a grown-up would want.

And it’s… okay.

I love Ben’s first couple of records, and Rockin’ the Suburbs, but his work has been hit or miss for me since then.  He has a gift for melody, is an amazing pianist (the concerto really shows this off), but he seems… stuck.

Supposedly a lot of these songs came out of recent breakup, and, well, he’s DONE that before.  This is a man who’s been married and divorced four times.

I mean, there’s good stuff here.  I liked the Concerto, though I question how often I’ll listen to it.  The songs are mostly pleasant, except when they’re basically a goof.

I dunno.  Maybe Ben has said most of what he’s needed to say?  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.

Come to think of it, the last full record of his I really loved was Lonely Avenue.  Maybe he just needs another collaborator…

Ed Sheeran – 5

A while back, I picked up copies of both of Ed Sheeran’s records, thanks to various American Idol and Glee and soundtrack work that my wife and I dug.

And what I learned about Ed is he either write’s an amazing song you can’t ever forget and can’t not love, or… he writes a song you forget the second it’s over.

My wife loved the records, and asked if he had anything else.  I said he had some EPS, but they were hard to come by and often ran you $25 or more for five or six songs.

So we shrugged it off.

I’m guessing Ed or his label realized they were leaving money on the table, so they put the five EPS into a box, called it 5, and slung it out into the world.

And I’m glad they did, because there’s some great stuff here.  Songs I Wrote with Amy is an entire EP of stuff from the team that gave you Thinking Out Loud, the new big wedding song everyone will be using for the next ten or fifteen years.  It’s delightful.  The live record is fun. 
Some of his better songs pop up on the EPs in earlier versions, and it’s interesting to hear them stripped down or rearranged. 

If I wasn’t fan, I’m not sure this collection would make me one.  And while I like having the artwork, putting all the EPs into little sleeves makes listening to them in the car way more complicated than it needed to be.  I think I’d prefer to have these fives discs on two discs, perhaps with some liner notes from Ed talking about the process of making them.

But for a fan, they’re well worth a listen.

The Silent War – Introducing

I was reminded to finish this article by Facebook, which informed me that this band was putting out their first record TOMORROW.

Introducing was the free online EP they offered for download.  Six songs, four of them fully produced, and two demo/acoustic numbers, and all of the songs are delightful.  I discovered them months ago when one of their songs ended up in a movie I was watching and I ended up spending hours trying to track it down.  It wasn’t available for sale OR for free at the time, which was maddening.

But, then I got this EP for free, and really, all was forgiven.

I’ve described the band as being The Indigo Girls laced with 80s pop, and I think that best describes their work.  Lovely harmonies, bright keyboard work, catchy melodies, it’s all there.

Honestly, I rate them as my favorite musical discovery of 2015, and I hope their record leads to bigger and better things.

Twenty One Pilots – Twenty One Pilots, Regional at Best, Vessel, Blurryface

I’m trying to remember the last time I felt compelled to pick up the entire back catalogue of a band or artist after getting an initial taste, and it might go back to my college days.  I do recall getting both of the Ben Folds Five records back then.  And grabbing everything Elliot Smith had done up to that point, which ended up being a five record binge.

I first heard of 21P thanks to a friend linking to their performance of I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, which is a cute video that someone with an iPhone and some free time clearly edited together and turned into a video made of pure fun.

Mostly I thought it was interesting that the lead singer was holding a ukulele.  So I hit up their YouTube channel and learned they used both the uke and the piano on a regular basis.

It wasn’t until I picked up their records at the library that I realized their videos kind of… reduced them.

21P will, I think, be written off by people who only hear a couple of their songs as decent pop songsmiths who occasionally tip into the hipster world by adding ukulele to the mix. 

In reality, they’re a lot more eclectic than that.  The opening song of Blurryface, their most recent record, starts with heavy dance music drums, has rap verses, and then adds a piano lick and sung hook that…

I mean, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

And that sums up the rest of the record nicely.  There’s some rapping on there.  Tear In My Heart is a wonderful piece of piano-pounding pop until it moves into an oddball, loping bridge.  Songs change time signatures, often at a whim.

It’s a second-listen record, where it works just a little better once you know what you’re getting.

From there, I went backwards.  Vessel is more of the same, though the songs are a little more straightforward here and there.  Regional at Best is now out of print, but pulls it back to songwriting basics even more.

And their debut, Twenty One Pilots, really is their infancy.  The songs are straightforward, but they also suffer a bit for being too repetitive.  They’ll find a lovely musical phrase and repeat it just a few too many times.  There’s good stuff there, but it isn’t the record I’d start with.

Adele – 25

I’m not sure I could convince anyone to listen to or not listen to this record.  Right now there are maybe five musical artists in the world who can sell a million records, no questions asked.  If you wanted this, you already bought it, and if you hate Adele, this will not change your mind.

Me?  I like it fine.  But it comes on the heels of 21, which was, I felt, just about a perfect record, a collection of songs so good they can just retitle it “The Best of Adele” and call it good.

25 experiments a bit more with musical textures, but in the end you’re listening because Adele sounds like she’s willing to scoop her emotions out of her soul and place them directly in your hear via your eat canals.

The more I listen to this record, the more I find things to like, but 21 was pretty much perfect.