A celebration of the queer and black icons who largely pioneered house music, RENAISSANCE is multi-faceted, genre-hopping, transcendental, and incredibly genuine. Though she is not a queer woman herself, as far as we know, Beyoncé’s ability to infuse important cultural references and language from the LGBTQ+ community, especially ball culture, into nearly every song shows her passion and reverence for the topic.
From track to track, she slips in and out of 70s soul, funk, hip-hop and rap, house/dance, and Latin-afro beats all in one album (sometimes in one track), which shows her versatility and creativity. It’s a marvel of performance art and production alike.
Before I jump into the songs themselves, I want to acknowledge that I’ll be ignorant about certain topics and their significance or impact. I’m not qualified to speak about the cultural importance about such things (there are better sources for that), but I wanted to emphasize up front that a knowledge gap exists. I’ve done my best to educate myself, but something will slip through the cracks.
Though this album is truly an experience to be played front to back, I want to talk about each song, ranked from my least favorite to most favorite. The first song on the list is my least favorite, while the next song up is one I like better than that, and so forth until the end (my favorite track).
However, the album is hard to contain and define this way. That’s why I am also putting the songs into 3 tiers. The tiers serve to show that everything in that category is on the same playing field, even if I might prefer one track over another.
Enough pointless disclaimers! Let’s break down some songs.
B Tier – B is for “Because they just don’t do it for me”
“ALL UP IN YOUR MIND” – I like the hook, but it just kind of sounds like an interlude–half-baked, building up to nothing, repetitive. I guess I’m not alone in this because it’s by-far the least-streamed song on the album, as of the time of writing this, at 834,000 streams.
“AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM” – I’m guessing I just don’t really get this one, but regardless of whatever there is to “get”, it’s not my cup of tea. Beyoncé’s rapping is good though, as always. I do find myself getting this part stuck in my head: “Tony Montana with the racks; Double C’s on my bag, double Gs on my dash; N***a, I’m bad, I’m bad.”
“HEATED” – I like the beat and rhythm, and generally everything about the song, except for one thing. Beyoncé fans are divided into two camps on this song: those who stan her rap verse at the end and those who think it’s campy, with first-draft lyrics, and a persona that seems so affected that it’s hard to enjoy. Okay, maybe I’m the only one in that second camp. I respect what that verse is and wants to be, but it is not for me.
“SUMMER RENAISSANCE” – Caught between a dance track and a soulful, breathy R&B song, this song pulls off neither for me satisfyingly. It has some nice moments and is certainly enjoyable while you listen to it, but it overall doesn’t excel at anything.
A Tier – A is for “Always Going Hard”
“I’M THAT GIRL” – This makes for a great album mantra/hype song with the whole “please, motherfuckers ain’t stoppin’ me” sample and lyrics about knowing you’re the shit. It’s a whole mood that I want to embrace more.
“THIQUE” – This might be the most hip-hop song on the album and it goes pretty hard with themes of celebrating one’s body, revenue, and status. I want to embody Beyoncé’s “bad bitch energy”. This couplet early in the song is my favorite: “He thought he was lovin’ me good, I told him go harder/ She thought she was killin’ that shit, I told her go harder.”
“PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA” – The closest thing to a ballad on the album, this song slows things down a bit, gets a little softer, a little more vulnerable. For what it’s worth, Beyoncé pulls this off effortlessly in the middle of a tribute to queer people and house/dance music icons. It’s a beautiful, 70’s-style jam that has Justin Timberlake in shambles.
“MOVE” – I hope you all have a group of girls that you go out to the dance floor and command attention with. While I personally don’t see myself hitting many dance floors in the near future, I so appreciate the energy. The Grace Jones and Tems features are a nice complement to the track. The music video in my head sure goes off.
“COZY” – I am living for the groove on this one. She celebrates her body for all it is capable of, scars and stretch marks included. Of course, many of the lyrics are about embracing one’s blackness, too, but I think it’s incredible that she chose to make it a universal anthem for body positivity and loving yourself the way you are.
S Tier – S is for “So Fucking Perfect”
“VIRGO GROOVE” – When people say something is a “vibe”, I think we all sort of collectively have an idea of what that means. This song is a vibe for me in that I am cruising in a 1960s red convertible on some back road in California with my friends, while we jam to summer tunes and pretend we don’t have any problems. It doesn’t make me want to dance, it makes me want to sway back and forth in my seat and say, “waiter, can I get some more of this shit?”.
“ALIEN SUPERSTAR” – After seeing someone at The Ringer describe this as “Prince being resurrected for 3:35”, my whole opinion on this song changed. “Category: bad bitch. I’m the bar – Alien Superstar” is so dope, first of all. Second, of all, I know this song (and album) aren’t for or about me, but that speaks to how powerful the songs are that I resonate with them all the same.
“CUFF IT” – Despite the absolute retro, creamy-goodness of this song that is right up my alley, as a lover of 70s and 80s funk and soul, I took longer to come around on this song than I should have. Not to worry though, I have seen the light, “CUFF IT” stans! The black light, you might say.
“CHURCH GIRL” – I love the gospel intro that lulls you into a false sense of security before dropping that Triggerman beat. I’m just waiting on the Megan Thee Stallion remix because this song has Megan written all over it. While using “thotty” liberally, as well as the phrase “tig ole bitties”, is a bit cringe, the song is so good and so fun, I can’t help but not care.
“BREAK MY SOUL” – I loved this song instantly. Again, the queer and black icons who pioneered house music were lost on me as a little girl when I heard extended club remixes on the radio Friday nights. Regardless, “Break My Soul” evoked that 90’s nostalgia all the same because of its flawless execution and pure passion. I don’t give a shit if Beyoncé is relatable in this song or not. She did work hard to get here and the lyrics are still relatable to someone. You know someone gonna be screaming those lyrics about “I just fell in love, I just quit my job”. Or, “they work my nerve, that’s why I cannot sleep at night”.
“ENERGY” – I just love this fucking song, especially as a transition from “CUFF IT”. You know I love me a good transition. And also shout out to my favorite lyric, “cuz them Karens just turned into terrorists”. Everything about this song is iconic–the Latin American influence in the middle, the contributions from BEAM, the beat, the high-energy (no pun intended).
“PURE/HONEY” – What do I even say about this behemoth of a song that couldn’t even be contained in one song? I’m a big fan of songs that transform and change, morphing into something else over time. Part house track, part Soul Train-esque soul number, “PURE/HONEY” is more than a song; it’s an experience in of itself. Yes, I want to strut a runway and dance all night even though I would actually never be caught dead doing either. Yes, I want to embrace my inner goddess and not care what anyone thinks. This song makes me feel like I can do anything.
Some iconic lines: “4, 3, 2 fuckin’ busy.” “Check my technique/comin’ for my technique/study my technique.” “It should cost a billion to look this good.” “Bad bitches to the left, money bitches to the right. You can be both, meet in the middle, dance all night.” “Get your money money, cunty hunty/Don’t be funny with my money, honey.”
I found Peter Sandberg on the Dislyte XHz Official OST playlist. More on that in a moment. His moody, nostalgic vibes mixed with jazz fusion soul was exactly what my heart needed, I just didn’t know it. Naturally this lead into me diving into his entire work on Spotify. But just a word of caution: best listened to when you’re already feeling a bit melancholy or wanting to lean into your bad day a bit more.
4. DJ KABOO
Another one discovered on a playlist (do you sense the theme yet?), I found DJ KABOO by way of the Moon Knight Soundtrack. Lots of good Arab music on the soundtrack, but this artist stood out for his arab trap sound, which I really dig. I have always enjoyed Arabian and Middle Eastern music, especially modern music that mixes in the traditional influences.
Discovered on an Egyptian metal playlist, Septicflesh is actually a Grecian metal band. The album in question though has lots of Ancient Egyptian references, including a song about about my favorite god–Anubis, the god of funerary services and embalming. They rock pretty hard, too, along with their songs’ cool imagery and sense of ceremony.
So, I’m currently obsessed with the turn-based, gacha game Dislyte. It uses urban mythology characters from many different cultures as its central heroes (Anubis is their flagship character, which is what caught my eye). Not only are the artwork and characters visually appealing, but the music is captivating and infectious. Generally, the songs are EDM/hip-hop–the type of songs you might hear to hype you up before an event or while at a club. The soundtrack doesn’t make me want to go out and party, but it does make me want to play more Dislyte. COINCIDENCE?
I’m way late to the party, but I finally gave Genshin (another gacha game) a shot and fell in love with the soundtrack nearly instantly. It’s at times whimsical and cute, other times warm and inviting. Sometimes all of these things at once. It makes me feel cozy and happy inside. It surpasses being simply “chill” or “relaxing” and completely transforms my mood, like a drug. There aren’t many songs out there that can elicit total, pure, wholesome happiness from me–especially without lyrics. But whatever magic they infused this soundtrack with, it’s worth listening to over and over.
“First Impressions” is the quick version of an album review. I’m not focused here on diving into meaning and lyrics, beyond what is superficial. I’m not going to chew on the album for weeks, months, or years. What you see is what you get–my first impressions. I guess it’s kind of self-explanatory. Whether my thoughts stand the test of time or not remains to be seen. We’re all about living in the moment here on “First Impressions”.
My actual, unedited first impression of Fear of the Dawn was: this is good. Jack’s best solo work so far, actually. Yeah, I said it. Undeniably rock and roll, with classic guitar shredding and memorable riffs, but fused with other genres and compositional elements that Jack loves to imbue his work with.
This is definitely a Jack White album, but every song feels fresh and innovative, not the forced result of a lab experiment, not formulaic. We get all of the good with Fear of the Dawn–spicy solos, solid riffs, tons of instrumentation, strong lyrics. It feels like he really struck gold in a way he hasn’t in his solo work before. Instead of trying to shoehorn his ideas and sounds into a certain construct, he followed them to their weird, eccentric ends, experimenting and fusing and creating something that sounds like a completely genuine effort. I have enjoyed his other solo work for the most part, but often it has felt contrived and censored in a way that’s hard to put into words without diving into a whole other article.
Now, I don’t research and intensely scrutinize these posts the way I do regular reviews or analysis, but I couldn’t help but try to peek at some notes, some insight, a fucking Wikipedia article–anything–to try to glean what some of these instruments are since I am an idiot when it comes to music (readers who have been here before know this already; new readers are wondering why I have a music blog then). When I do any type of research for these pieces, I try to avoid other music reviews because I don’t want them to influence me. However, I couldn’t help but read the first few lines in the Google search results of various reviews. I saw that the album is incredibly panned, much to my surprise. One such review called it a “hodgepodge” with “good intentions” and gave it 3 stars. I won’t cite who said that, but it’s a respectable publication. So now I have to second-guess my opinions.
I’ve listened to the album more than once or twice. Not my usual regimen for the quick and dirty approach of “First Impressions”. I made an exception for Fear of the Dawn and have given it several thorough listens. The reason for this, and for why it’s taken me a couple weeks to write this, instead of a few days, is because I don’t know how to put into words how I feel about each of the songs. I was going to do a track rankings, but I am so clueless with how to make any sense of my notes. I forget the songs, save for a few standouts, unless I’m hearing them in the moment. I can’t put my finger on why. The album is weird, but a good weird. It’s focused weird. It’s telling a story. It’s whatever’s going on at night, while some pseudo-werewolf guy is making rock music. It’s good. But I have a hard time describing WHY. And this whole blog is about the why.
You’ll really just have to hear it for yourself
In lieu of that, you can read my track-by-track breakdown. I’ve bolded my top 5 favorites. It’s never going to perfectly articulate how I really feel, but I’ve done my best (also, how do I really feel? That was part of the problem.) It’s “First Impressions”, not “First Coherent Thought”.
“Taking Me Back” – Classic Jack riff. Full of energy. The most mainstream thing on the album. Makes a good single because of this.
“Fear of the Dawn” – Spooky-adjacent. Fast, nearly frenetic, almost panicked. I like Jack’s aggression and delivery on this song, along with the solos. It is about time someone filled the demand for spooky, eerie songs that the world has been craving.
“The White Raven” – synthwave, Bowie-esque electronica-inspired madness. Is that a synthesizer or is it just a distorted guitar? Who cares (I care. Why would I say that?). Electronic, glitchy, fuzzy sounds. Yes, please. That description makes it sound like the original garage rock revival, but this is futuristic, and yet timeless. Tight rhymes, good imagery. “A white machine gun, a white machine gun / Baby blue grenade, a shade of kelly green machine gun” – “My uniform is invisible; My camouflage is invisiblе.” Definitely top 2 material here.
“Hi-De-Ho” – Is Hi-De-Ho a drug? I think it’s definitely a drug. And I badly want to get high on it. Expect the unexpected when you hear this, but I’ll try to prepare you: Spanish wailing, sick bassline, catchy as goddamn fuck, rap. WHAT. Seriously, what is this song and why is it so good? Easily my favorite.
“Eosophobia” – riff-oriented, but jumping between several different riffs and motifs to service the story. The song takes you through the different sections of the story, each with their own riff and hook. I love songs that feel like several different, but cohesive, elements woven together. At first I didn’t “get it” and thought this was a disjointed, albeit well-made and impressive, song. It’s become one of my favorites since then. This probably wouldn’t have normally happened during “First Impressions”, but I’m better off for it this way.
“Into the Twilight” – 60s-inspired backup singers, but otherwise genre-less and era-less with its fusion of guitar riffs and piano notes and weird, glitchy vocals. Give me weird and unsettling, but make it catchy. I vibe with it. Lot of instruments, lots of twists and turns. It’s fun to listen to where the song will go next. Similar to how I felt about “Eosophobia”, actually.
“Dusk” – Interlude.
“What’s the Trick” – Guitar picking vs the steady rhythm guitar dueling it out in the background. Jack’s near-rap/sing-talk in the foreground with some memorable lyrics. Here’s a few of them:
“Two gentleman of elegant appearance; In a state of bustitude. I give them coffee colored crystals. That should change their attitude.”
“If I die tomorrow What did I do today?”
“Quit bolting your food; Don’t be rude. Plus one and minus one equals zero; That’s a defeatist attitude.”
Sounds like he really tapped into something. I absolutely love the stream of consciousness verses. Probably my favorite writing on the album. It reminds me ever so slightly of Beck’s “Loser”. I was debating what to choose as my 5th favorite song on the album and finally went with this because of how much I enjoy the lyrics and his delivery of them. He is bringing a different tone to his voice that makes him sound like the wise, old, crazy man who lives down the block and that everyone avoids. I’m here for it.
The one thing holding me back is the hook: “what’s the trick? In making my love stick?” It just sounds unnatural and really lame compared to the rest of the lyrics. Also, either the vocal delivery or the editing on the vocals sounds electronic or something. It just sticks out to me in a grating way.
“That Was Then, This Is Now” – simple riff, child-like melody. It’s very White Stripes-esque. If that’s your thing, you’ll love this. The contrast against more aggressive parts/transition is cool and redeems the song for me. Not bad at all, once it gets room to breathe a bit.
“Eosophobia (Reprise)” – Cacophony of overlapping notes is really cool–like a little flurry of guitar butterflies. I like that Jack kind of lets loose and meanders around, like he’s just jamming on stage. I bet this would be a fun song to explore in concert, i.e. how The Raconteurs would just turn “Blue Veins” into this 10 minute jam on stage.
I don’t normally look up anything about the songs for “First Impressions”, but the name “Eosophobia” piqued my interest. It means “a morbid fear of dawn or daylight”. I actually bust out laughing when I read that. Of course that’s what it means. Why would I think that Jack fucking White wouldn’t piece all of this together somehow? “You think that the sun answers to no one. But you’re wrong. It listens to me,” he says. Contrast that line to the original “Eosophobia”, which basically tells us the definition of the word: “I don’t fear you; I fear the dawn. I fear the sun coming on.”
“Morning, Noon, and Night” – Okay, this actually is a fucking White Stripes song. Was this cut from Elephant? 60’s reminiscent keyboard (or is it a clavichord???). It’s not one of my favorites, but I think that’s because it sticks out like a sore thumb on the album. It’s cute and catchy, but the album is not. Get out of here.
“Shedding My Velvet” – The slowest song on the album. Talks about “the real me”. Musically it’s somewhat jazzy? Is that the genre I want to go with? I’m too concerned with labels. What is this rhythm section doing? Interesting lyrics, seems revealing, but music is suspenseful in a bad way. It sounds like it’s building up and creating tension for nothing.
It’s about time. I’m finally writing about one of my favorite artists of all-time. Much like with Prince, I am not starting with my favorite album of MJ’s, but rather, one I never gave much of a chance. I have recently gone on a binge on MJ’s discography, which included a deep dive of the studio albums. I stopped when I landed on HIStory recently because I was intrigued. Wait, is it history? His story? I’m leaning toward “his story”.
The long-winded, full title, HIStory – PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE – Book 1 is what you’ll see on Spotify or Google. The second disc, in particular, originally released under the name HIStory Continues. I’m just going to call it HIStory, for brevity, but this review is going to specifically cover the second disc, which is all new material. The first disc functions as a greatest hits compilation.
What I found when giving the album my full attention, top to bottom, is that I had really underestimated it as a whole. To be honest, I had never given it my full respect and attention compared to who other albums, which I hold in much higher regard. But why? There are some absolute gems and great tracks on this album.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I’ve always hand-waved this album away because it’s lumped in with the greatest hits disc, and I wrongly assumed that the new material would be full of rejected material from far superior albums, like Bad, and Dangerous. I already liked the songs “Scream”, “They Don’t Really Care About Us”, and “2 Bad,” but I figured those were outliers and thus, mostly ignored the rest. So I’m here to educate myself, sing the album’s praises, and also offer a few critiques along the way.
Written in the wake of his sexual abuse scandal, this album largely focuses on how Michael felt like his back was against the wall. In his words, he was the target of media hate and lies. That’s a theme that you will see a lot in the lyrics for these songs. Much of the album is him working through those feelings, whether they’re sadness, anger, frustration, pain, or learning to smile no matter what. Those are universal concepts though, and while I may not know what it’s like to have the media talk about me, or face incredibly serious legal charges, I can relate to anger and hurt.
I’m not here to comment on the legal troubles he faced, whether or not he was guilty, or any of my personal feelings on the matter. This isn’t the space for that. While an artist’s personal life is intrinsically linked to their music, because they often put so much of themselves and their story into their writing and performance, I am only here to evaluate the musical aspect. Writing, composition, melody, production. That’s not to dodge what he did or didn’t do, but because I simply can’t do that topic justice AND talk about his music, as a fan.
What I can say is that he made a fantastic piece of music here that may often get overlooked in the grand scheme of his discography.
Let’s break down all the new tracks that were released on this album and see if Michael Jackson made HIStory with any of them.
The Tracks of HIStory
The iconic music video has a pretty cool song attached to it. Sis Janet with the assist, the track tackles media slander and and social injustice. The video was ahead of its time and still looks incredible. The song is pretty damn good, too, with plenty of powerful moments and a good, upbeat tempo.
They Don’t Really Care About Us
Unfortunately, this is still relevant with the mistreatment and police brutality toward people of color. The song is also kind of a banger. Another song that sounds ahead of its time, it’s hard to place this as mid-90s. I do wonder if he intended a double-meaning with lines like, “I’m tired of being the victim of hate,” in regards to his legal troubles a couple of years prior. Either way, this song isn’t trying to make nice, it’s just pure, raw emotion.
Stranger in Moscow
Slow on tempo, but fast on themes about anti-media and the isolation of being a target. The snare, whether manufactured by a computer or not, creates an interesting beat that makes you forget it’s actually a slow song.
This Time Around
Another “fuck around and find out” song that goes balls to the wall, MJ’s vocals are seething, as he does a restrained, but angry, takedown of those who prosecuted him during the sexual abuse allegations and trial. The harmonies on the chorus are beautiful. Biggie’s verse feels like it should be out of place because it’s so abrupt, but it fits well with the song thematically. I have to be honest–I thought this was a posthumous guest verse, lifted from an existing Bigge track, or maybe even unreleased material. But no, I just misremembered when Biggie passed. It was 1997, by the way. So this was fresh, new verse for Michael.
This is a million times better than “Heal The World”, the other popular MJ song about saving the planet and being a better person. That one is slow, olive branch-y, sunshine and rainbows. “Earth Song” is mad. You don’t give a fuck about the planet you live on? What the fuck is wrong with you? His pleading vocals implore us to care about a number of things, including the forest, the sea, animals, and crying children, while a Gospel choir answers him with their own poignant question: “What about us?”
Jackson’s rock song, featuring a solo by Slash, harbors a lot of anger and hatred for “Dom Sheldon”. The lyrics say Dom Sheldon for legal reasons, but the titular character is pretty clearly Thomas Sneddon, the DA who prosecuted him in the 1993 child abuse case. The lyrics are rife with personal accusations and speculations, like “You think he brother with the KKK? I know his mother never taught him right anyway.” It’s an okay song, but the vocals are nearly indecipherable, and it sounds like Michael was holding back a lot of what he really felt, probably for those aforementioned legal reasons.
The most Prince-sounding song that Michael has ever done in my opinion. The low, staccato vocals; breathy harmonies; cool rhythm and slinky bass. The chorus is super catchy and the theme about the corruptive power of money is a timeless topic. Though it’s likely about his accusers, or at the least, exploitative friends, lines like “you don’t care, you just do it for the money” is pretty universal in painting greed as a villain.
I have my opinions about cover songs, and the TL;DR of that opinion is I generally don’t like them. I like this one, but I wouldn’t say it’s better than the original. Definitely different though and worth a listen. Changing the tempo and adding that sick beat was a good decision. Since I’m not a musical expert, I have no idea if that’s a real snare or a digitally replicated one, but either way, it’s quite ear-catching.
You Are Not Alone
The standard, sappy, pop, love ballad with uninspiring music production. I don’t know why they decided to play it so safe and boring on this one. I guess just for the radio-friendly aspect. Though Jackson gives a flawless vocal performance, the song itself does nothing for me. Clearly it does something for other people though because it is the 3rd most-streamed song from this album on Spotify (behind “Earth Song”, strangely enough, and “They Don’t Really Care About Us”, with a whopping 210 million streams. “Earth Song” and “You Are Not Alone” each currently have around 83 million.)
This is an extremely personal song for MJ and doubled as the Free Willy 2 theme song (you may not remember that, but you definitely remember his other hit “Will You Be There?” from the other, more famous Free Willy theme a few years prior). A gorgeous orchestral arrangement complements Michael, as he explains–and one could say, defends–his love of “elementary things”. He asks the listener to not judge him and instead love him. I don’t really care for the song itself much, but I don’t skip it when it comes on. I do feel bad for what Michael had to go through in his childhood. He suffered pretty regular abuse and never got to really have a childhood.
Another scathing takedown about media scandalization, slander, and hate directed at him, Jackson is doing a near-rap on the verses and singing on the chorus. It’s a catchy song despite being angry–something he pulls of quite well on the album. He’s singing through clenched teeth, practically.
On paper, it doesn’t feel like this song should be this good. Sounds like a lame sequel/spiritual successor to “Bad”. Features a guest rap from basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, of all people. It’s as close to hip-hop as MJ will get on a track. The squeaky clean singer (at least, the image he presented), who hardly ever cursed or talked about lewd topics, actually pulls it off. Shaq’s verse is pretty decent. The whole song is fun and catchy and pretty damn awesome.
Once you get past the 1:07 intro of historical audio clips, the song is basically two songs in one. It goes from bad ass, sing-talking verses to this patriotic-sounding pre-chorus and chorus combo. It doesn’t vibe for me. It’s way too much theatrics with the archive clips, the rap bars, then back to the pageantry of the chorus, with a Gospel choir thrown in at the end. It’s not the worst. In fact, I enjoy the individual pieces and the message. It just feels pieced together, disjointed, and lacks a cohesive purpose. I expected more from the title song that talks about legacy and “creating your history”.
Little Susie / Pie Jesu
This song is weird and stands out against the other songs. It’s a creepy, haunting, but wildly theatrical song, like it was made for a movie or music video. The sound design elements (winding up a musical box, girl humming, footsteps) lend to the storytelling, as much as the accompanying symphony, gentle harp, and Jackson’s storytelling. The song does a good job painting a picture and evoking emotion, making me think we really were robbed of an iconic video. However, I’m not a big fan of the song overall, especially when fan accounts across the internet tell you the song is based on a true story– but there is no evidence of that from a reputable source.
The saccharine-sweet Charlie Chaplin cover is a sunshine and rainbows song about how smiling can change your perspective. It would be toward the bottom of track rankings, but I still have to give Michael credit for a flawless vocal performance, while dreamy keyboard notes and strings back him up. The whistling toward the end drives me crazy, but it’s a nice song otherwise, if not a tad forgettable and unworthy of standing up to the giants of his discography.
Probably my favorite Alice in Chains song, I don’t necessarily think this is indicative of their signature sound, nor is it the best representation of grunge. But this is the direction that post-grunge started going around 1994 and beyond. More melodic, not afraid to be haunting or complex. The production is a lot cleaner, the distortion is less prominent, if existent at all. The main riff sounds bluesy and rootsy. It’s not in your face punk rock metal sludge; instead, it becomes grunge-influenced, instead of the products that influenced grunge into existence. I think this song in particular helps the transition along really well, the passing of the grunge era into a world of Seether, Nickelback, Staind, and Puddle of Mudd that was forthcoming.
I first heard this on the radio when I was 16. I hadn’t had my license very long, and I was driving around town for something. I didn’t know who Nirvana was yet, but I was about to be launched into a 2-year-long obsession with them that would involve buying rare items on eBay and every piece of music the band ever released. This song really struck an angsty, apathetic chord with me in my teenage years. The “yeah” chorus/non-chorus felt sarcastic. The bassline was dope. Cobain’s vocals sounded subdued, but then full of tension and grit on the chorus and bridge. The soft and loud dynamic of the song was really interesting to me. I thought the lyrics were silly. It was that moment that my love-affair with Nirvana began. They’re no longer my favorite grunge band–I relinquished that title to Soundgarden eventually–but I’m still very fond of this song, and it’s easily one of my favorite from the band. Nirvana will always rule. We have them to thank for a lot of what happened in the grunge scene, if not the majority of it.
Early grunge with bluesy notes and 80s glam rock bombastic drums and vocals–could you imagine that combo working based on that description? Of course not. But hear and you shall believe. Flamboyant vocalist Andrew Wood does his best Axl Rose impression on most of MLB’s songs, which adds to anthemic, bigger-than-life sound the band was going for. Almost more at home with arena rock of the 80s, the band was still one of the formative grunge bands, before grunge even really had a name. They incorporated some sludgy, distorted guitar, as well as blues elements. Whether you see Mother Love Bone as an 80s glam rock act that’s trying to go heavier and darker, or a grunge band trying to infuse their sound with big 80s hair metal, I don’t think you’re wrong.
Honestly, I should just do a review and track rankings on STP’s iconic album Core because I love it so much. I surely had my choice of songs from that album to put here, but I chose this one instead, from Purple, because of the famous riff and the nostalgic feeling the melody gives me. I was not cognizant of grunge when this song was popular in 1994/1995 because I was 5. However, it still got radio play as I got older, and there’s something evocative about the riff and presentation of the song that makes you wistful and a little sad.
Formed as a one-off project in the wake of Andrew Wood’s death, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell wrote this song as a tribute to the former Mother Love Bone singer. If you skipped over that link, you should definitely click it and take a look at the terribly old-fashioned, almost unworkable, totally unreadable website. But back to the song. It very directly confronts death, grief, and missing someone set to the backdrop of a soaring rock ballad. This song definitely came to mind and rang mournfully true for me, and many others I’m sure, when Chris Cornell met his own untimely death in 2017 (holy shit, it’s been 5 years). Hearing his vocals on this track can summon a demon army from the flames of hell, and I mean that in the best way.
Also known as “Rat in a Cage” to people who have probably never cared to find out the real title. It’s me. I’m people. Easily my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song, though I guess that’s not saying much since I don’t care for their songs in general. It’s still a behemoth of a grunge track. Holy shit, the Mellon Collie album came out in 1995? Forget everything I said in the “Heaven Beside You” entry. I don’t know anything. This track sounds like it was much earlier in the grunge movement though because of all the raw power and emotion it utilizes, in both the production style and the musical composition.
The song opens with this fantastic lyrical couplet: “The world is a vampire, sent to drain / Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames”. No music intro, just jumps right in, and the music kicks in shortly after. The verse builds up to the powerful chorus with Billy Corgan screaming about his helplessness, and the murky, indistinguishable guitar notes blending together in the main riff. The bridge is Corgan screaming “I still believe that I cannot be saved”, and yeah, I feel that. The whole grunge movement did, or what was left of it by 1995.
I haven’t posted nearly enough about my favorite grunge music on here, but I did write this Ode to Soundgarden in the infancy of this blog. It’s a little outdated in its format, and my writing has gotten somewhat better since then, but a lot of my key points still stand.
Introducing a new segment! I hated my previous idea of just sharing a post about specific songs because it felt like a never-ending task for very little payoff. Besides, how much can you talk about one song on a written format? It was too much work for too little reward. But a list of my most played songs in a given week? That’s more doable and makes more sense.
What makes the most sense of all is moving to YouTube, but I have neither the time, energy, or knowledge for that right now, so you’ll have to continue using your reading skills.
I don’t know what the parameters will be going forward. I’m sure this segment will evolve, like everything on this site has. For now, I’m going to highlight my most-played songs of the past two weeks
2. Surface Pressure – from Encanto. A bit more annoying than the other famous song from this soundtrack (whoooaaaa-ohh, oh oh oh oh), I still enjoy the music and lyrics quite a bit. I always get chills at “Underneath the surface, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.” Not that I can relate or anything.
1. We Don’t Talk about Bruno – from Encanto. Yeah, that’s right, two songs from a movie I have only seen part of and have no idea what it’s actually about. If you haven’t heard the song, it’s the “Let It Go” of 2022, a massive Disney soundtrack bop. Mixing Latino fare with rap, it’s devastatingly catchy, yet never annoying. Annnnnd now it’s in my head for the rest of the day.
Here at Music Morphine, I aim to provide new, not-so-new, and retro reviews. My goal is talk about music I love on a dying format that makes me no money and consistently makes me wonder if I should just switch to YouTube. If that’s your thing, check out similar reviews!
The Purple One deserves his own op-ed, but in absence of that, I decided to focus on one album.
It’s something I’ve been planning since this blog’s inception. But it’s fucking Prince. Where do you start? The man has a massive career spanning decades. His albums are an exercise in genre-jumping. He doesn’t have just one style, though the classic hits radio stations would have you believing otherwise. The songs he’s known for–“Purple Rain”, “Raspberry Beret”, “Little Red Corvette”, “Kiss”–don’t even scrape the surface of Prince as an artist. I figured an album review would be the best place to start though.
Why on Earth would I start with PLECTRUMELECTRUM for an album review or analysis of any kind? Not Diamonds and Pearls,Purple Rain, 1999, or my personal favorite, [Love Symbol]?
It’s simple: why not start with PLECTRUMELECTRUM?
I’m here to spread the Gospel of Prince. That means hailing his later work that many fans may have cast aside and casual listeners may not even know about. Besides, this album has all the hallmarks of a typical Prince album: genre-fusing, mixing funk and rock with jazz and some soul; spine-tingling melodies and solos; an approach to song composition that sometimes leaves you slack-jawed in amazement that, yes, he can keep doing this.
By 2014, when this album was released, we couldn’t have known that Prince would meet an untimely death just 2 years later. By that point, the only single I remember him releasing in his “twilight years” was “Black Sweat”. I put “twilight years” in quotes like that because Prince was a relic of the 80s to me at this point, having known him for just his pop hits at that time. I don’t remember this album, or its sister ART OFFICIAL, being released, nor do I recall any of the singles. That was my loss. It wasn’t until his death though that I was able to explore his discography fully and realize the breadth of his work. The topic of today’s blog becoming a shining star in his library for me.
PLECTRUMELECTRUM is a special to me because of how deep its rock roots go. Donna Grantis is an animal on guitar and a great complement to Prince. 3RDEYEGIRL, the 3-piece girl group she was part of at the time, was Prince’s flavor of the year for band collaborations, i.e. New Power Generation or The Revolution. The infusion of talent is a breath of fresh air with the sexy riffs, rhythms, and lyrics abounding. Okay, the lyrics aren’t anything to write home about. But that’s because I don’t care about those. At least not on this record.
I’d like to help further your education of the Prince of Funk with this track-by-track review of PLECTRUMELECTRUM.
The rollicking rhythm, almost hypnotic, is like a pendulum going back and forth and hits you in the face with each snare hit. The way the beat lands on each measure is impactful and definitely adds to the WOW factor.
The titillating, psychedelic guitar work in the last third of the song mixed with some spicy 90s-esque bass thumping gives this song so much personality. The driving riff will make sweet love to your wife and you will thank it for that.
Another monster riff that is so simple in its execution. Then, morphing to a Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”-esque tempo shift, it admonishes “maybe the hand that you’re looking for is at the end of your arms”. Finally, it turns into another grungy, sludgy tempo shift before ripping another solo through your ear space and descending into a discordant, cult-sounding message. So, there’s that.
One of my favorite tracks proves why I don’t care about the lyrics on this album. It has none. One of the most compositionally-complex, and more importantly, interesting songs on the album. Like a lot of my favorite songs, it has many layers. Building up to the song’s climax is a journey to be enjoyed along teh way. The lead guitar serves as our vocal melody and shines in front of another monster riff.
The first time this album slows down is for this reflective, jazzy number. Hannah Ford’s vocals are not the most inspiring, but she gets the job done. It’s nothing personal though. I think I would prefer this song as an instrumental because the vocals don’t seem to fit quite right with the melody, perhaps being written as an afterthought. The guitar notes and bass line compete for your attention in between the verses and that’s what makes the song for me.
I’ll forgive that the intro sounds exactly like “Just What I Needed” by The Cars and makes me think a Toyota ad is about to play. “Another brick in the misogynistic wall” is the most memorable lyric of the album because I always think it’s a reference to Pink Floyd. No idea if it is. This song is perhaps the weakest of all the tracks simply because it doesn’t offer much, which is surprising to me on an album full of songs that seem to push their own limits.
This funky, spicy, girl-centric song evokes a very 90s attitude of “hey, we’re fly, and we know it, but whatever.” You wouldn’t know it by the song credits (or lackthereof), but Lizzo is on this song. Sophia Eris makes an appearance on the intro rap, too. Usually, I find guest rap verses on non-rap albums gratuitous, but I find these two to be a rather good addition to the song. I also enjoy the main female vocals on here by Claire de Lune.
A self-indulgent R&B jam with a beat that slaps and tip-toeing, guitar picking that contrasts with conspicuous bass lines. While timeless in a sense, it can’t help but call upon 80s and 90s R&B a little bit. It’s entrancing, either way, and undeniably sexy.
My absolute favorite song of the album is this gorgeous cover of indie artist Alice Smith’s song. Prince’s seething interpretation of the lyrics is the most emotional performance of the album, and it wrecks me. I’m happily in a relationship now, but my heart aches with familiar rejection when I hear this. He is absolutely dripping with bitterness, which builds exponentially with each line. The rock elements set to a more soulful time signature is another great mark on the metaphorical score card. The cherry on top is the incredible solo (by Donna Grantis!).
The placid track after ANOTHERLOVE feels like a lullaby in comparison. I’m not a fan of the harmonies on this song because of how they’re mixed–so blended that they’re indistinguishable from one another. There’s never a lead singer, and the guitars are too subdued. It’s going for dreamy and soft, but lands somewhere between unmemorable and boring.
Second-favorite album lyric “Lost my job at Mickey D’s / for giving away too much food for free”. It’s a rapid-paced, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it track about how bizarre the the world is today, especially regarding racial injustice.
Honestly they could have just named the whole album FUNKNROLL. The song certainly lives up to its name with a funky groove and infectious keyboard melody. It takes a slight detour into Gospel toward the end, which feels like a natural progression.
If you liked what you read here, you can check out another one of my posts! I write album reviews, like the above, track rankings of my favorite albums, First Impressions, which are quick reviews, and You Should Listen To, where I pick some favorite tracks by one artist.
I never thought I would write something like this. Especially not about one of my presumed favorite bands. For years, I have called myself a Black Keys fan. After listening to El Camino again in 2021, I had an existential crisis as a fan and asked myself–are they still a good band? Everything I thought I knew and felt about the band seemed to be a lie. I listened to some of their older albums to confirm my original bias that they were indeed a good band. Instead, I walked away, confused, asking myself, “Were they ever good?”
Let’s go on a journey, my friends, to see if we can answer that question.
I’ve never claimed to be objective, but I try my best to not let my experience and taste color my analysis and critique. Inevitably, we listen to music with a bias though. I don’t know how real music critics or professionals can be un-biased. Sure, you can describe something technically or grade it against a rubric. Ultimately, when judging something good or bad, you’re going to use your own personal influence, even if you use objective criteria to back it up.
Welcome to commentary and reviews! Using objective criteria to backup opinions!
I’ll give some context for the ensuing op-ed you’re about to read: I became a fan of the Black Keys many years ago when I heard the song “Thickfreakness” , but had no idea who sang it, or even the name of it. It got stuck in my head, or at least, the lyrics I made up to it were stuck in my head–“There’s no cure for you”. I couldn’t find it on Google or YouTube, although they were far less than the powerhouses they are today at searching lyric fragments. (The correct lyric is “and I’ll care for you”, by the way. I liked my interpretation better.) Eventually, I found the song one day by mere chance, while working in the music department at Barnes and Noble. I was so happy, I bought the whole album.
The problem with becoming a Black Keys fan this way was 1) I was 18 and inexperienced and only liked fuzzy, distorted, crunchy alt-rock, bluesy-tinged music, and 2) none of the other Black Keys albums sounded like this.
I’m exaggerating, but only a little.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Casey burst onto the scene at the peak of the early-2000s garage rock revival. Thickfreakness was their second album and it hit all the right gritty, grungy, guitar-pickin’, big riff lickin’ spots. Though I liked their other early releases, The Big Come Up, Rubber Factory, and Chulahoma, none of them connected with me quite like Thickfreakness. Maybe that’s where the curse started. I was never going to find anything in their discography that hit me quite the way that album did.
Nonetheless, with each subsequent album release, I kept waiting for them to return to form. “Form”, in this sense, meant back to the blues/alt rock I knew them for. I may not have loved The Big Come Up or Rubber Factory as much as Thickfreakness, but they were definitively blues. After I became a fan, all their releases were still labeled as alt rock, but I saw the Keys as mostly genre-less. It wasn’t a good thing. Wandering melodies, ugly instrumentation composition, awful hooks–a lot of poor decisions, even on good songs. I don’t even know what they were going for besides quirky indie/alt-rock band uses a bunch of different instruments and gimmicks to create an uninspired mess with some cool moments.
I should be fair though: the Keys have had some downright bangers in the past 15 years. “She’s Long Gone”, “Gold on the Ceiling”, “I Got Mine”–just a few of their best ones off the top of my head. In fact, maybe I am being entirely too hard on them and expecting them to be the 2003 Black Keys in 2021.
The only way I know how to definitely arrive at any conclusion though is intense, methodical analysis that is ultimately overkill and completely unnecessary. But, that’s what this blog is for! So, to find out if the Black Keys are actually good, I’m going to go through, album-by-album, and dissect them to see what went right (or wrong). Starting with where I personally noticed the shift, Magic Potion…
Magic Potion (2006)
Best songs: “Your Touch”…that’s it.
Worst songs: “Just a Little Heat”, “Give Your Heart Away”
Overall: Make no mistake. Just because every other song besides “Your Touch” isn’t listed on “Worst Songs” doesn’t mean they’re not awful. I just picked the two most skippable songs. This album plods along, like it just hates having to be made the way you hate having to listen to it. What used to be dirty, crunchy guitar riffs now just sound like sludge. Dan’s wailing vocals are hard to enjoy a generous 80% of the time. The album also suffers from weak melodies, weird rhythmic choices, and just overall poor musical construction. I can’t believe they listened to this and thought, “yeah, this is good enough to release to the public”.
Attack & Release (2008)
Best songs: “All You Ever Wanted”, “I Got Mine”, “Psychotic Girl”, “Lies”
Worst songs: “Remember When” (Side A), “So He Won’t Break”
Overall: It’s not the return to bluesy-rock form I wanted when it came out, but the album is far more palatable than its predecessor. In fact, the album is pretty good as a whole. The melodies and riffs are mostly fantastic. The songs sound like professional musicians composed them. It does what their previous albums never tried to do: have some depth and variety. Some of the tracks are moody and dark; others are catchy and happy. It has so many good things about it, so it must be a great album, right? But then I still had to ask myself: is this album actually great or is it great in the context of the Black Keys’ discography? Oof. If you have to ask, you already know.
Best songs: “She’s Long Gone”, “Howlin’ For You”, “Black Mud”, “Sinister Kid”
Worst songs: “Everlasting Light”, “Next Girl”, “The Only One”, “Too Afraid to Love You”
Overall: The best songs on this album are some of the Black Keys best songs of all-time. Even some of the A-Tier songs (the great, not perfect, tier), like “Tighten Up” and “Go Getter” are incredibly strong. Crunchy, fuzzy retro garage rock makes a comeback. It’s not as bluesy, but it’s undeniably alt rock, retro, creamy goodness. This is may be their best album since Thickfreakness. That was my first impression in listening specifically for this article. The lows are really low though, and it makes me wonder how they are the same band.
El Camino (2011)
Best songs: “Lonely Boy”, “Gold on the Ceiling”, “Little Black Submarine”, “Run Right Back”
Worst songs: “Dead and Gone”, “Nova Baby”
Overall: I guess the Keys still had something left in the tank after Brothers’ release, so they made El Camino the next year. It’s a good thing they did. From a technical standpoint, I would say this album is even better than Brothers because the low points are not very low at all. I may not love “Dead and Gone” or “Nova Baby”, but they’re at least 2 tiers above any of the garbage that I hated on Brothers. I like the overall sound and experience of Brothers better as a unit, but El Camino is more evenly good. It’s great songs are also some of the band’s greatest . Plus, songs like “Sister” and “Little Black Submarine” seem to at least try to be about something.
Turn Blue (2014)
Best songs: “Weight of Love”, “Fever”, “It’s Up to You Now” (for the solo), “10 Lovers”, “In Our Prime”
Worst songs: “In Time”, “Year in Review”
Overall: This is like the Magic Potion of the band’s modern era. It’s fairly experimental-sounding compared to their usual blues rock-tinged, gritty brand of alt rock. It’s miles better than Magic Potion, but I think a fresh turd is better than fucking Magic Potion. I appreciate that it’s different and takes risks, plus a lot of fresh, funky bass lines keep it grounded in familiar Black Keys territory. However, these “best” songs are only the best on the album. They’re mostly just good for what they are and can be easily forgotten in the grand scheme of things, except for the exceptional “Weight of Love”.
“Let’s Rock” (2019)
Best songs: “Shine A Little Light”, “Eagle Birds”, “Tell Me Lies”, “Every Little Thing”, “Go”
Worst songs: “Sit Around and Miss You”, “Walk Across the Water”
Overall: In many ways, this album reminds me a lot of Thickfreakness. It has a clear motif throughout, sharing musical themes and stylings. This uniformity functions as a “rising tide lifts all boats” kind of thing, so that even the worst two songs are redeemable. Calling them the worst is really just relative for a frame of reference. Dan’s voice is subdued and distorted so much that it barely sounds like him (and that is a compliment, make no mistake). By all technical standards, it’s a tightly produced record and makes for a pretty good soundtrack for driving around. So why don’t I love it? I don’t fucking know. That’s my entire problem with this band, and this album sums it up perfectly–they walk the line between gods of alt rock and inoffensive, unmemorable bullshit a little too well.
As an aside…
I have to add a whole two additional paragraphs to say this album in particular nearly broke me. I had to walk away from this for a few months because I listened to it so much that I got sick of it and this article. I listened to this album more than any other this year, by far. I’m mad at what my Spotify Wrapped will look like (the Year in Review stats about what you listened to). I just couldn’t figure out how I felt about it. An obviously good record in so many technical, tangible categories, yet I couldn’t love it or fully say that it was great without feeling like I was lying.
Then, something weird happened. I got a few of the songs stuck in my head after coming back to it. I willingly chose to listen to it in the car, not to study it for the blog, and it was way more fun and enjoyable. It sucks that it took this long, this much space, and a near musical mental breakdown for me to figure out that I do like the album. I don’t think that’s what they were going for and I don’t think it should take that long to sort out your feelings for an album. It undeniably has grown on me to the point where I have positive, warm feelings for many of the tracks, if not most of them. For the new Keys’ sound, I think it sets a good standard. She said, finally, after 3 months away from this article and being driven to the brink of insanity.
I have listened to this, but in the essence of getting this behemoth of a post done, I am not analyzing it. It’s a bunch of cover songs, i.e. Chulahoma. Like that album and many of their others, Delta Kream is okay, but not mindblowing or breaking any new ground.
Re-Visiting the Golden Era (The Big Come Up, Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory)
Was the definitive (in my opinion) Black Keys album actually that great? Or was I blinded by my own one-dimensional tastes at the time, thus cementing its status in my memory, with Nostalgia as witness?
And for perspective, I also want to do a quick look at the other two albums from this early Black Keys era before they went and Magic Potioned themselves.
The Big Come Up (2002)
Best songs: “Do The Rump”, “Heavy Soul”, “She Said, She Said”
Worst songs: “Yearnin”, “240 Years After Your Time” (not even a song)
Overall: I feel like their early albums were just them impersonating their favorite blues musicians but with a distorted guitar and punchier drums. I see nothing wrong with this, either. It’s just hard to keep up for so long, and I don’t blame them for going another direction. It was fun and refreshing for the time, which was in a garage rock revival period, but re-listening in 2021 is worth doing once. I’m starting to think 18-year-old me was the problem.
Best songs: “Thickfreakness”, “Hard Row”, “Midnight in Her Eyes”, “Have Love Will Travel”, “Hurt Like Mine” “If You See Me” — okay, so, basically the whole album.
Worst songs: “I Cry Alone”
Overall: My first impression upon re-listening after so long was that I forgot how similar all the songs were. Gritty, distorted, retro garage rock was still young and this album embraced it. Dan’s voice sounds like gravel, which is an incredible improvement compared to the other ones we’ve dissected in the later era of the Keys. The riffs, melodies, and song structures are similar to one another and lyrics are indecipherable and meaningless, as always.
In some senses, it’s a one-note album that does one thing incredibly well. In another, perhaps more important sense, it’s way fucking better than anything they’ve ever done. Maybe 33-year-old me is the problem. I will die on this hill, but I’m afraid I’m the only one standing up here. Eh, I guess I don’t have to die then? What the fuck. I’m terrible at metaphors. Anyway, they sound earnest and raw, even on songs that aren’t my favorites, like “Everywhere I Go” and “No Trust”. It makes it impossible to dislike those songs because I hear how eager and intentional and passionate it sounds.
There’s something familiar and comforting about each track having a similar theme and setup. It doesn’t feel tired or boring or right on the brink of being forgettable and great, like many other albums. This one has gusto and moxie–and the whole album clocks in at a tight 38 minutes and 44 seconds. There don’t seem to be any wasted moments. If it’s one-dimensional, it’s doing that single dimension really well.
Rubber Factory (2004)
Best songs: “When the Lights Go Out”, “10 AM Automatic”, “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down”, “Grown So Ugly”, “Stackshot Billy”
Worst songs: “The Lengths”
Overall: Listening to this again after so long reminded me just how amazing it is. Back then, I listened to it a lot and did enjoy it, but Thickfreakness was always my favorite and I never understood why Rubber Factory got more accolades and attention. Now I understand. I may even go as far to say that this is their best ever album and dare I suggest, my new personal favorite. It’s retro rock, glorious blues alt goodness, but it’s varied and has depth. Not that it’s predecessors had none, but The Big Come Up is incredibly one-dimensional in a bad way and Thickfreakness is one-dimensional in a good way. The depth, enthusiasm, variety, and overall pure strength that Rubber Factory harnesses puts it well above most of the band’s discography. Maybe at the very top.
So, Are The Black Keys Good or Not?
I have listened to all their albums multiple times. In the case of “Let’s Rock“, I listened to it until it broke me and stalled this article
I have listened to this band in the background, while I work.
I have listened to this band more actively, with a discerning ear.
I’ve consulted a shaman, a priest, and a therapist. I read the stars and the cards.
And I definitely don’t want to know how many damn hours I put into listening to them overall.
I’ve asked into the void: Are the Black Keys any fucking good?
The void answered back a resounding… “yeah, kinda”.
All my favorite songs have some punch to them. They’re fun, with a clear and straightforward melody, beat, and function. They’re not necessarily about anything, but they’re memorable and great on their own. Some of those songs put me in a great mood or make for good “hype up” music. They excel in playlists.
I find myself disliking them from album-to-album though, when I listen to all their songs at once. Listening to multiple albums a day, multiple times was not a good way to approach a magnum opus of this nature. I had to space it out the writing/listening sessions, come back to it, and figure this all out over the course of months. Seriously, I started this in May 2021.
Ultimately, it is simple as this: I find the band way more likable in small doses. When I can pepper their songs into a playlist, I love the Black Keys. When I listen to an entire album, I am less sure that I even like the band at all. I find myself often bored with this genre though and listen to it in bursts anyway. Perhaps no band could escape that sort of sentencing.
Except, that’s not true. The Raconteurs, another band I am quite familiar with, is listed as one of the Top 5 similar artists on the Black Keys’ Spotify page. The Raconteurs absolutely escape the sentence of being boring in the alt-rock/blues-rock/retro genre. I’ve never questioned their passion, artistic vision, or ability.
The Black Keys lack passion. They lack vision. They’re not untalented, but they sure channel their skills in weird ways that don’t translate for me in their post Rubber Factory days, except for the odd exception here and there. Listening to them often feels like an exercise in patience.
To dive a bit deeper, another big complaint I have is, generally speaking, their lyrics are not good. That’s quite an accusation, but it’s strange that they don’t even accidentally write anything really good or interesting. Just the occasional well-written phrase or okay story. It’s not that I think all music needs to say something though. The difference is that if you’re not going to say anything, at least make it worth listening to. See “Sunday Driver” on this review for a prime example. Plus, I love vapid pop music. I’m not above a meaningless, fun song. But the Black Keys just aren’t fun most of the time.
After all these years, I am also coming to terms with the long-denied opinion that I’m just not a fan of Dan’s voice. This surprises me more than anyone. I realized that on all my favorite songs, his vocals are either heavily distorted behind a gritty, muddy filter or he sounds subdued and unintrusive to the track. Without this buffer, he becomes obnoxious and grating. Is that a goat bleating? No, that’s just Dan’s insufferable warble trying to do a vocal run. I found in my album dissections that all the worst, trash-tier songs were the ones where Dan’s wail and warble were just downright oppressive. On a side note, Wail & Warble would make a great Keys’ album title.
So, yeah, the verdict stands. The Black Keys are sometimes good. They need playlists and buffers to be their best. Vocal filters and distortion are a must. Besides the few great songs they crank out each album (and let’s be honest, those songs all follow the same formula), they’re mostly just a tolerable, middle-of-the-road band in the alt-rock genre. They’re an acceptable, high-priced, craft IPA that all your friends rave about, but doesn’t taste that good. You drink it to seem cultured. It’s okay, not great. It’ll get the job done and get you wasted, but it’s not going to be your favorite. I would honestly rather listen to Nickelback–and that’s not a dig at Nickelback. They make fun, catchy music. They know who they are, and they have fun doing it.
There’s something to be said about knowing who you are.
Before this album, Blackberry Smoke had been on my radar for their chip-on-the-shoulder brand of rock, tinged with the rebel attitude of old school outlaw country. I liked a lot of their songs, but didn’t pay them a whole lot of the attention outside of the tracks I heard on playlists.
That is until now. You Hear Georgia has made me a full-time fan. And it’s about time. They have been making music for two decades.
This ode to southern rock riffs and catchy melodies is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end. While it does stand up to scrutiny of lyrics and storytelling for the mos tpart, it’s also great background music for anything. Most prominently, I can see it as the perfect soundtrack to driving an old pickup on the backroads with an open beer in the console. I wouldn’t know, but I can pretend in my Mazda 6 on busy city roads with my refillable water bottle.
My first thoughts when hearing this album were that it sounds an awful lot like one of my all-time favorite bands, The Black Crowes. In fact, why have I never written anything about them? They’re easily a top 3 favorite bands of mine–but, I digress. Even though the southern rock genre is not the Crowes to claim, I admit that my love for them clouded my view of You Hear Georgia.
Am I going to try to be objective and review this album on its own merit? Absolutely. Will I succeed? Absolutely not. Inevitably, our own perceptions and bias will always seep into our opinions. But I tried. It’s a win for everybody though. Blackberry Smoke made a great album. I got to listen to it and enjoy it. I hope you do, too.
Track By Track Breakdown
“Live It Down” – Great way to start off the album. Rockin’, upbeat, hype. One of those “forget your problems and just party” songs that we need today. But haven’t we always needed them? A definite standout on the album, regardless of meaning.
Favorite moment: that juicy riff–also, peep the little solo toward the end.
“You Hear Georgia” – Paging the Black Crowes. From the wordplay, to vocal delivery (I kept checking to see if Chris Robinson was featured), to melody–the Black Crowes could do this song and it would sound almost identical. But the genre isn’t the Crowes’ alone. Blackberry Smoke has been in the game for a long time and they aren’t derivative of anyone. They do their own thing, and this song is fantastic.
Favorite moment: “You can’t see nothin’ past a shadow of a doubt.” Love this line.
“Hey Delilah” – Another southern rock gem, this song only gets better the longer you listen. The interesting guitar melodies and riffs distract from whatever the lyrics are saying. It’s about a strong-willed woman. But who cares? It’s good.
Favorite moment: A lot of the rhyming couplets: “She brings me the medicine; disposes of the evidence.” “You know I do what she wants, and not a thing that she don’t.” “She sold me out a time or two; I begged her, honey, how could you? She got a hand on her hip, and a finger to her lip, said, ‘hush, baby, that’ll do’.” “I’ll buy anything she’s got to sell; Man, that woman she really can give ’em hell.”
“Ain’t the Same” – A tiny bit more melancholy and a tiny bit slower, this song still tramples you. It could be the nostalgic themes and wistful longing, or it could be the driving drum tempo and sexy guitar riffs.
Favorite moment: “Nothing’s really changed, it just ain’t the same.” Yeah. I feel that.
“Lonesome for a Living (feat. Jamey Johnson)” – This jumped out to me as the most country track on the album, with the twangy, slide guitar and rollicking rhythm. I’m really fond of the way the vocal melodies marry the musical melody. It’s brilliant composition. The harmonies, and duet performances in general, are fucking great. Easily one of my favorites.
Favorite moment: just the whole vibe, man. You know?
“All Rise Again (feat. Warren Hayes)” – Very “south will rise again”, probably on purpose, knowing the theme of the album. Even if it’s not espousing southern values, the song is fairly generic rock fodder compared to the rest of the album. It’s an okay song though.
Favorite moment: that slide gee-tar is doing work.
“Old Enough to Know” – This song is the grandpa who pulls up a chair next to you and teaches you the ways of the world. You can see it in his wrinkles, in his white hair, in his worn clothing–he’s world-weary and whip-smart. It’s a folksy, rootsy song that I really enjoy. The change of pace is a nice detour, too.
Favorite moment: the vulnerability and rawness of the vocal performance and stripped down musical setup.
“Morningside” – I always forget what “Morningside” is. Not just because that’s a made up word for this song, but because it’s a perfectly fine song that doesn’t really stick out or do anything particularly great. It’s an okay rock song about going through tough times. The verses are stronger than the chorus.
Favorite moment: that it vaguely reminds me of a Black Crowes song, but I can’t put my finger on which one.
“All Over the Road” – A manic song about driving fast and living fast, this is absolutely a companion song to “Kickin’ My Heart Again”, the lead-off song for The Black Crowe’s 1998 By Your Side. You can’t convince me otherwise. The BC song is superior, but I still really like “All Over the Road” a whole bunch. I bet it would be great to crank on the interstate, while going 90.
Favorite moment: the idgaf attitude!
“Old Scarecrow” – This is so vague. What do you want to be “livin’ and let livin'” about? What “opinion” do you not care about? Are we talking about having different views on the economy or are you wanting people to leave you alone when you make racist comments? There’s a big difference. It’s also just a lazily written song, lyrically.
I mentioned this band in my 2020 anthems post about the songs that summed up my 2020. I had already discovered their song “Making Do” late in the year and thought it would be a contender for 2021 anthems. Since then, I heard Lake Street Dive’s latest single “Hypothetical” and fell in love with the entire album–nay, the entire band.
Lake Street Dive calls upon jazz, blues, the faintest tinge of Americana, and a general retro pop/old school sound to create chill vibes, fun songs, and down-to-earth lyrics. Their songs across past albums deal with a multitude of interesting concepts and novelty themes, like “Side Pony”, “Bad Self-Portraits”, and “Good Kisser” to name a few. Lead singer Rachael Price was trained as a jazz and blues singer, which lends a breath of fresh air in this band setting that often skews toward blues-rock or roots-rock. It gives all their songs a neo-soul and retro feel, even in the most modern of arrangements.
More than being any one particular genre, you should know Lake Street Dive is just a fun and easy band to listen to. The songs tell all, as they always do. Obviously, their 2020 release, is no different. I’m going to rank all the tracks on the album, from least favorite to most favorite, and talk a bit about each one–including its most memorable moment, for better or for worse.
11. “Sarah” – I’ve never really liked this song for a few reasons. First, it’s really vague and cryptic. “This is the last time that I say your name, that I play your game. Sarah, you can be sure.” My second problem with it is that the song melody and arrangement don’t match the tone and content of the song at all. Not in a fun, ironic way either. Rachael Price’s vocals are filtered through a vocoder, giving her an alien-like voice, while acapella, doo wop-style harmonies back her up. It’s an odd choice to say the least.
Most Memorable Moment: the odd, alien effect on the vocals.
10. “Feels Like the Last Time” – If you want, you could see this as the final arc in a story told on “Lackluster Lover”, “Anymore” and now “Feels Like the Last Time”. I don’t think that’s what they intended at all, but from a storytelling perspective you could make that case. It’s about how hot and cold a relationship can be sometimes, even one you’ve been in awhile. Melodically, it calls upon a bluesy-rootsy schtick, including some cool little harmonica parts. It’s good when you’re listening to it, but it sticks with you about as long as a deep-fried novelty treat from the fair. You’re going to forget you even had it after about an hour.
Most Memorable Moment: if I’m being totally honest, the way I remember this song is that it’s nothing like Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time”. But wouldn’t that be fun? If it were a satirical, “other side of the coin” to that song? Yeah, too bad.
9. “Being a Woman” – I generally support songs about social issues, like feminism. It brings awareness, has a little fun, and expresses unabashedly the feelings of the writers. However, it’s a little on the nose sometimes and a little bit forced. Some aspects of it make me cringe, i.e. “if I complain, they’ll blame my feelings; but look at the view from my glass ceiling.” It means well and it’s all true, but it could have used a little more time in the oven.
Most Memorable Moment: “when we stand up and protest, we’re called an angry mob, while another lone gunman loads up his shot”. Hitting a little too close to home there, but true.
8. “Lackluster Lover” – Jazzy and whimsical, this song somehow makes mediocrity and apathy in a relationship seem upbeat and bubbly. The melody and performance are good, even great. I really like the description of it as “poking sly fun at a hapless Lothario”. It has grown on me significantly as I listen for the nuance in the composition though.
Most Memorable Moment: vocal performance by Price is elegant and emotive. She is truly such a beautiful and fantastic performer.
7. “Hush Money” – Jazzy and poppy, this song is even more entertaining if you try to think of it as a true story, where the band is being paid off to be quiet about some secret. In fact, that’s exactly what the song is positing, but I wonder what specific “flame” they saw being “fanned”? Fun, neat song using a concept you don’t see often, if ever, in mainstream music.
Most Memorable Moment: the vocalization improvs. Price killing it, as usual.
6.“Don’t You Know That I Know” – A cute novelty song about two well-matched lovers, this track is almost entirely made out of silly or fun pairings to compare to the couple, i.e. “we’re like baseball and hotdogs; you’re Ferris Bueller and I’m your day off”. I’m not really sure what the chorus is doing with the overly wordy phrasing, “don’t you know that I know that you know that I know that you want me”, but it’s a cute, fun song that I can’t help but love.
Most Memorable Moment: The lyrical pairings to describe the couple in love, of course. Some of my favorites are: “the E Street band and the Boss”, “you’re happy hour and I’m 5 o’clock”, and “you’re the Captain Kirk to my Spock”.
5.“Anymore” – I think of this as the other side of the coin to “Lackluster Lover”. A neo-soul trek through realizing that your relationship is coming to an end, that you say you’re doing fine, but you’re “not really sure, anymore”. If it’s the 5 stages of grief, this is depression. I like how the song approaches the “chorus”. There isn’t really one. When the word “anymore” comes up in the stanza, it is emphasized and repeated, with an embellishment in the music. It goes to the next verse though, without much fuss or force.
Most Memorable Moment: I could pull out nearly any lyric and put it here. The whole song builds really well on top of each phrase, each line. You need them all, in context, sequentially, for maximum impact. But this whole stanza below is one I will highlight here.
Cause it’s just another battle Seems you’re still having fun So I say that you have won But I’m not keeping score anymore Anymore
4.“Making Do” – Here it is! The song that put the band on my radar. From it’s chill vibes, to the vocals, to the relevant lyrics about “making do with what you got”, it really just did it for me all around. Of course, in the pandemic era, the lyrics hit different. But the song was written pre-pandemic about climate change. Still, a lot of the lines could be applicable to dealing with any disaster or looming stress.
Most Memorable Moment: I struggled to come up with just one thing to put here. The whole vibe and chill approach is what made it so memorable for me.
3. “Hypotheticals” – Love this mellow, jazz/soul/indie rock fusion. I appreciate that the first word is “obviously”, which is the name of the album…Obviously. A song about new love, planning out your potential future. The excitement and uncertainty feels palpable, and my god, it’s so fun.
Most Memorable Moment: the chorus is absolutely infectious.
2. “Nobody’s Stopping You Now” – Absolutely fantastic song, in my professional and expert opinion (note: I am neither a professional nor an expert). This is damn near the best song on the album. I love the message of just letting go, being free, and allowing the real you to show through. I think every woman could probably relate to this. Price said she and bassist Bridget Kearny co-wrote this as a letter to her teenage self.
Most Memorable Moment: My favorite couplet: “don’t try to be a woman anymore; nobody’s taught you how. Skin your knees and throw punches in the air; nobody’s stopping you now”
1. “Same Old News” – This Marvin Gaye-esque love song is even more inspired and beautiful because it’s a duet. Originally written by keyboardist Akie Bermiss, Rachael Price heard the song and insisted on it being a duet with him. I am glad she did. This was an instant classic for me. Every second of it is a joy.
Most Memorable Moment: the give and take of verse 2, when Akie says, “I would change my name–” and Price interrupts and says “What would you change it to?”, and he responds, “to anything, for what it’s worth”. It’s just a fun little improv moment that feels real and sweet.
What happened to Justin Bieber? As I’ve mentioned before, we are all just holding our breath waiting for Justin Bieber to return to his 2015 Purpose form. His entire comeback (coming back from being a douchebag) was marked with great collaborations and singles alike. It was finally not uncool to like Bieber. No longer a punchline, he actually made music you could enjoy in public.
So what’s happened since then? I don’t want to Yoko Ono him, but he got married. That’s not her fault. Love has made him a worse artist, apparently.
While I didn’t exactly give rave reviews to “Anyone”, it is still a likable, cute love song. Maybe not groundbreaking or perfect, but good enough. Apparently, that was just a preview for more of the same on Justice.
The only definitively non-love song is “Lonely”, where he at least tried to sing about something else, even if it wasn’t good. He would do well to try to channel this kind of pain and conflict into more songs, preferably with better lyrics and delivery, but I won’t be that picky.
My biggest problem with Justice, though, is that it lacks a lot of passion and meaning for an album that has such a clear motive for both. Musically, it’s a well-produced piece of pop music, but it lacks a lot substance. Most of the songs are well-made, palatable, but forgettable, pop songs. There’s nothing really wrong with that. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees, when the trees are just unremarkable trees. Let’s talk about the trees though, so you can see what I mean.
Here are my track-by-track First Impression thoughts (or as close to them as possible). Keep in mind that these thoughts would absolutely change…if I bothered to listen to this album more.
“2 Much” – Really weird that it starts with the Martin Luther King line about a “threat to injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. What the fuck does that have to do with the rest of this half-made song/prelude?
Best part: it’s short.
“Deserve You” – With flashy production and a hot 80s vibe, this track is one of the better on the albums. That being said, I still don’t feel compelled to listen to it outside of the album.
Best part: that juicy synth bassline.
“As I Am” Feat. Khalid – I really expected more for a song that scored a feature from Khalid.
Best part: Khalid
“Off My Face” – Oh hey, did you hear? Justin really loves his fucking wife. It’s actually a pretty good song though that diverges from the usual pop and r&b. Though the lyrics are over-the-top corny, they’re still wholesome and vividly imagined.
Best part: the acoustic guitar and Justin’s vocals synergize really well.
“Holy” Feat. Chance The Rapper – I already know this song from it being a single. It’s a great song, despite my dislike for Chance the Rapper’s style and voice. It’s probably not a great song, but I enjoy it all the same.
Best part: an actual beat, plus some organ. Unlike the shitty acoustic version, which should not be allowed anywhere near Chance’s rap part about Joe Pesci.
“Unstable” – Feat. The Kid LAROI – Whatever. This isn’t nearly as fleshed out or as good as they thought it was. Put it back in the oven. It’s not done.
Best part: ??
MLK Interlude – What the fuck is this? How does this relate to the rest of the album’s message? Unless he’s saying that the thing he would die for now (as opposed to when he’s 90) is his wife… which is just a horrible misuse of MLK. Oh, actually, what’s the next song?
“Die for You” Feat. Dominic Fike – Yeah. That’s exactly what the MLK Interlude was for. Cringe. Too bad because this song’s a banger. At least the verses anyway. I would have loved to hear Dua Lipa on this, by the way.
Best part: that sexy beat
“Hold On” – This is my favorite song on the album. It’s the only one that really stuck with me after I listened to the whole thing, deservedly so.
Best part: infectious beat, catchy hook
“Somebody” – If you listen closely, this song kind of sucks. But if you don’t, this song is pretty good.
Best part: another great beat
“Ghost” – Another song good from a technical standpoint, like “Somebody”, that is perfectly good and inoffensive until you actually listen to it. Put it on life support; maybe that will save it.
Best part: acoustic guitar choruses. Actually the song would be better with this stripped down approach for the whole thing.
“Peaches” Feat. Daniel Caesar & Giveon – This is a love song masquerading as something else. The something else is really good. One of my favorites, “Peaches” just screams summer single. DROP THE SINGLE, BIEBS.
Best part: just the whole vibe, man.
“Love You Different” Feat. BEAM – Melody straight up stolen from an arcade video game. I don’t really like it. No, I won’t elaborate.
Best part: that it reminds me of “What Do U Mean?”
“Loved By You” Feat. Burna Boy – With this generic title, I expected to hate this song. I don’t! This song wants to be loved by me, but instead I just like it as a friend.
Best part: the lyrics. Yes, I like a Bieber song for the lyrics, for once. The beat is pretty fat, and Burna Boy is a nice addition, too.
Best part: the “In The Air Tonight” transition to a more upbeat, 80s Contemporary Christian concert at the end.
“Lonely” – A song about something! Too bad it’s about as deep as a puddle lyrically. I appreciate the attempt and concept though.
Best part: meaningful lyrics about an actual source of pain.
TRIPLE CHUCKS DELUXE
Surprise! Bieber released a deluxe version of the album with some new tracks! I had already written the rest of this post and was polishing it for release when I realized these songs existed. So here are my thoughts on them as well:
“There She Go” Feat. Lil Uzi Vert – This song was clearly made to be a Tik Tok song and go viral with the youth. I’m not gonna lie though–it’s actually quite the jam, even though I’m not a fan of Lil Uzi Vert’s contribution.
Best part: beat and melody; harmonies
“I Can’t Be Myself” Feat Jaden – Today I learned Jaden Smith goes by just Jaden. I also learned that a “Circles” rip-off can be an amazing song that gives you a shot of dopamine with every bar. This is now my favorite song on the album. Period. It took me about 12 seconds to “like” it on Spotify. It has re-listening value out the wazoo. It’s poppy, dreamy, and even though it’s imitating another very famous song, it pulls off that imitation without sounding like a soulless carbon copy.
Best part: everything. The only flaw it has is that I can’t inject it directly into my veins.
“Lifetime” – Been there, done that. Boring. Next!
Best part: if you’re a teen or someone new to love, life, or lyrics, then the lyrics seem incredibly deep and meaningful. That’s not even a jab. It’s that I think this song is good for someone else, but it ain’t me.
“Wish You Would” Feat Quavo – This reminds me of poppier “No Sense” from Purpose, but Quavo is no Travis Scott.
Best part: that it reminds me of “No Sense”
“Know No Better” Feat. DaBaby – Okay. Yep. Listened to this. Then I forgot it.
Best part: DaBaby can sing????
“Name” Feat. Tori Kelly – Beautiful song about missing an old flame. I could listen to this again for sure.
Best part: lyrics, simplicity, Tori’s voice mixes well with Justin’s
Officially listed as county music on Wikapedia, the Pistol Annies are much more than what “country” might conjure up in your mind. They’re sometimes southern rock, sometimes blues, sometimes more Roots/Americana. Other times, they’re undeniably nothing else: invoking twang and tempo reminiscent of old school country tunes. Their storytelling ranges from heartbreakingly real to just plain fun, all with whip-smart lyrics and well-crafted melodies. There’s never an issue with balancing the spotlight, either, between Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley.
While I may not like most of what’s on the country charts these days, I do have a soft spot in my heart for country music. The Pistol Annies found that spot and burrowed in comfortably with three endearing studio albums.
To sum up the vibe and characters the band plays (assuming they’re not entirely autobiographical songs): bleach blonde white trash glam heartbreaking sugar baby wine mom house wife. And I am here for it. Even if I cannot relate to the antics being described, the ladies of Pistol Annies make it accessible. Being a heartbreaker has never sounded more fun. A dead-end marriage sounds tragically normal. Bad decisions sound like the beginning of good friendships.
If you want to hear a fan’s perspective on the best songs to listen to as an introduction to the band, you’ve come to the right place! Here are my Top 10 Pistol Annies songs. Unlike last time, I’m putting them in my personal favorite order.
10.“Lemon Drop“ – “Sucking on the bitter to get to the sweet part”, this little ditty is about all the minutia and struggles of every day life. Paying off your junky car, being elbow-deep in laundry all the time, racking up debt just to get by–all of this but still grinning and bearing it to get to the otherside some day. I’d say a lot of us can relate to this.
Standout lyric: “I got thrift store curtains in the windows of my home; I’m payin’ for a house that the landlord owns. Bought a TV on a credit card; it’ll take me ten years to pay if off.”
9.“Got My Name Changed Back” – A fun, upbeat tune about changing your name back after a divorce, this song is middle-aged, divorcee glam. Hell yeah, girl, get your name back.
Standout lyric: “I played to win, lookin’ back it’s funny; I broke his heart and I took his money!”
8. “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” – Sultry and sexy in delivery and melody, this song is what you’d hear on an old West drama as the local brothel’s Madam seduces the county sheriff to gain his trust, and then betray him.
Standout lyric: “Give me tall, dark, and handsome, mix it up with something strong. I feel a sin coming on.”
7. “Sugar Daddy”– This blues-tinged number is another sultry and confident number that absolutely makes being a gold digger seem like a desirable trait. I really want a show about three women charming every man in Dallas and going on extravagant adventures and living in luxury without paying a dime of their own money.
Standout lyric: “My sugar daddy’s got a pool in the back, got a rifle in the rack of his Cadillac. Drivin’ me crazy.”
6. “Best Years of My Life”– A song about settling but accepting it, this song is sad, but somehow not incredibly depressing. It’s a sad situation, but the main character is just rolling with it. You know it’s mediocre but what else are you gonna do about it? Yeah, can you imagine, that’s actually not a super depressing song!
Standout lyric: “I was looking forward to, staying here forever cuz you asked me to. Didn’t think that I could do better so I settled down, in this ten cent town. It’s about to break me.”
5. “Hell on Heels” – Maybe THE quintessential Pistol Annies song, since it was their first single. It sums up their vibe pretty well. Seducing men, getting what you want, spending money, bluesy-rootsy music that makes you want to walk through a bar while wearing your best high heels. Even if you’re a guy, listen to this and tell me you don’t want to strut around downtown dressed to the nines.
Standout lyric: “I got a pink guitar, Lincoln Towncar from ole what’s-his-name I met at a bar. Got a high rise flat in Hollywood from a married man, wasn’t up to no good.”
4. “Unhappily Married” – This one is also about settling and accepting it but makes it sound so much fun. I love the rhythm and cadence of the chorus when the drums come crashing in. Delivery of the verses is so subdued, too, which makes the chorus that much more explosive. The bridge is the big payoff with a crescendo-ing guitar, almost as if to represent the escalating fights between the couple’s story.
Standout lyric: “We’ll both play our parts in this disaster; I’ll be the bitch and you’ll be the bastard.”
3. “Housewife’s Prayer”– Unlike “Best Years”, “Housewife’s Prayer” is depressing as fuck. I’m not one for being a housewife, or praying for that matter, but I relate to my core with the frustration and desperation here. It has always struck a chord with me.
Standout lyric: “I’ve been thinkin’ about settin’ this house on fire. Can’t see a way out of the mess I’m in and the bills keep getting higher.”
2. “Milkman” – With a title like “Milkman”, I expected it to be about a child’s questionable paternity or having a sordid affair. Instead, this song posits what would the singer’s mother be like if she had loved the milkman. She might have been happier, a little less uptight, and developed interests and passions of her own. As it stands, the mother has nothing going on in her life besides housework and loving her daughter and husband. In a lot of ways this song is my favorite because it’s such an interesting concept with great lyrics.
Standout lyric: “If mama woulda smoked her a cigarette, maybe she wouldn’t judge me. If she’d a done more than the dishes, untied those apron strings. She’d be sitting in her sundress on the back porch mixing whiskey and sweet tea. Mama never did think twice about feelin’ this free.”
1. “Stop Drop and Roll One” – This song will be stuck in my head for the rest of time just from writing it here. It’s not only catchy (a lot of their songs are catchy), but it’s catchy in a really specific way. The verses give and the chorus takes, but they flow into each other seamlessly. The song is always building and growing into the next line, the next bar, but it never reaches a peak. Normally that is a bad, annoying thing, but it works in this song and I don’t know why. Someone smarter than me please explain. The stream-of-conscious lyrics are reminiscent of partying and good times, while also going with the flow.
Standout lyric: “Sometimes the drifters are daisies; Sometimes the sane ones are crazies. One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall, one’s got a drink in her hand.”
First Impressions is a segment where I give my first (minimally edited) thoughts on an album that’s new (or new to me), without research, months of listening, or the benefit of letting it “ruminate”. It’s a way to get out my thoughts much faster than the time and effort I would put into real album reviews, thoughts, and track rankings.
Oh, bet you didn’t see this coming. The lady who writes about The Weeknd and Miley Cyrus also likes Icon for Hire.
Actually, Amorphous, and IFH’s discography in general, isn’t too far removed from The Weeknd’s slick production and Miley’s flair for catchy hooks and genre-hopping.
On this record, the band continues with their themes of recovery, mental illness, addictions–and the struggles and triumphs that are entailed within. I have always connected with them because of the rawness and candor of Ariel Bloomer’s lyrics, paired with in-your-face, head-bangin’ rock. While the band is predominantly alternative hard rock, they have always incorporated plenty of EDM elements to some degree. You can add rap to the list now, too. Sort of.
The rap works, except when it doesn’t. Ariel is talented, but the aggressive yell-singing she has done in the past is a much better fit. On another note, I really like the production and mixing on this album. They’ve managed to stay true to their core style and sound, but I can definitely tell a difference in the way they mix together the electronica and rock parts together. The lyrics are also very good on Amorphus. There are a lot of incredibly poignant, well-crafted, and even, clever moments, showing Ariel’s growth as a songwriter. I’ve always enjoyed the way she paints a picture, but she stepped it up a few notches in several places here.
Highlights: Songwriting, good production, well-mixed electronica with rock.
Lowlights: some really bad rhymes that should have never made it past first draft, and the rapping is sometimes cringe.
Favorite track: “Brittle”. It’s not even close. The album is quite good, but “Brittle” is Icon for Hire pulling out all the stops. There are lot of good songs, even great ones, on this album, but if I made a tiered track listing, “Brittle” would be in its own tier. Probably. This is First Impressions. I shouldn’t make bold statements. Least favorite: If “Impossibles & Obstacles” weren’t an interlude, it would be the worst track. But it’s actually “Warrior”. Empowering though it may be in content, I cannot abide the rap verse, or…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Read the track thoughts below.
Grade: My completely meaningless grade based on an arbitrary rubric and bias is 88/100 (B). That feels about right. Or it’s way off. Who knows!
Track-By-Track Thoughts on Amorphous
My real-time thoughts that were later re-edited, or largely left alone. It depends on the song. You’ll be able to tell which one is which. I can’t wait to facepalm when reading these later!
“Brittle (Prelude)” – I love the strings, but are preludes necessary? Especially when they’re this short.
“Brittle” – Liked this song almost immediately, but went from loving it on the first chorus to worshipping it on the second one. Setting the bar this high on the first song is a bold move. They pulled out their absolute best moves on this song from the writing to the song structure and composition to the theme and message. It brought me to tears the first time I listened. And the second, for what it’s worth.
“Curse or Cure” – The hard rock, anthemic chorus will probably do well in concerts. you know, if we ever get them back.
“Enemies” – This one sounds like a Nightmare Before Christmas reject remix. It slaps.
“Panic Attacks” – Part of me hates that this is a “rap”. But honestly, Ariel kind of kills it. Plus, it sounds like it’s from the POV of the panic attack, or at least the source of it, and I think that’s really interesting and unique. The lyrics are really good, too.
“Seeds” – Is this annoying or cool? Maybe both. Rhyming “flames” with “history” is the real crime.
“Thirteen (interlude)” – felt this way since you were 13? yeah, I feel that. But stream of consciousness about how you “play in A minor because it feels like me”–ugh, I hate when songs talk about being songs. I just don’t like interludes, actually. They usually feel like they weren’t good enough to be a full song, but the band obviously liked it enough to want it on the album. Make a full song, you cowards. Oh they did already; it was called “The Grey” and it was fantastic. That’s what this is.
“Background Sad” – a change of pace, this ballad talks about how maybe she won’t get any better. I really relate to this. Is this as good as it gets? Am I always going to be background sad?
“Last One Standing” – Sort of a “rise up” from the lows of “Background Sad”, this song is another anthemic, sing-a-long, gather the misfits, fight the good fight kind of song. Should I add some more descriptors?
“Waste My Hate” – Another anthemic one, this one has a bitter bite to it. Love the marriage of hard rock and electronica. Very well-blended on this song. Classic IFH. Another one that would rank highly, maybe even 2nd, if this were a ranked list
“Impossibles & Obstacles (interlude)” – It’s not that this isn’t well-written or well-rapped, it’s just that it’s bad and I hate it.
“Sticks & Stones”– This feels like the sister to “Waste My Hate”. Another anthemic, vengeful, hateful song. Not sure what makes this song different from “WMH”. Oh, yeah, it’s this: “hell hath no fury like me; don’t mess with her majesty. Well-behaved women rarely make an empire.” The empire line rhymes with nothing and feels really out of place at first, though I admit the echoing of “empire” after that makes it sit in the air and imprint on your brain, so maybe it does work.
My real problem is this: the lyrics “hell hath no fury like me; don’t mess with her majesty” are good on paper. But Ariel insists on pronouncing “me” like “may”, so it sounds like she’s rhyming “may” with “majesty”. It made me cringe and recoil so hard the first time I heard it that I stopped and rewound it trying to figure out what she was saying, and dear god, WHY pronounce it this way? It ruins an otherwise impactful bridge.
“Warrior” – The chorus rocks hard, but the way it all slows down so she can say “damn it feels good to be a warrior” with a very Kesha vibe is just not doing it for me. By this point in the album, this song sounds a little formulaic and doesn’t stand out much. It’s still an empowering message, and I can’t hate on that too much. But I can hate on the rap attempts and how half-done the song feels. Come on guys! Did you waste all your best moves on “Brittle”? These things should come from an authentic place, not a half-hearted, try to make it a rap/rock anthem place. That’s not a good place. You remember 2002.
“Only Be A Story” – a reflective song that has Ariel wondering about her legacy after her death. It builds up into a big rock number, but starts with just a simple, beautiful piano. Maybe “Thirteen” could have been worked into this somehow. They’re different melodically, but simplistic, introspective piano ballads can find a way to coexist together, I imagine.
You Should Listen To is a new segment I will be doing in place of the song spotlight-type posts I’ve made where I write about a song I love. This space will now be for multiple songs that I want to showcase featuring a common theme. In most cases, the theme will be the artist or the genre.Lacking the research and overall fuller story that my other posts provide, this feature will be focused specifically on the songs.
I thought the modern R&B slow jam wasn’t my thing. It’s not a genre I’ve really gotten into much, besides an occasional toe-dip here and there. I’ve always enjoyed singers who lean more into the neo-soul, hip-hop, or pop elements. There’s something so intimate about R&B, and I guess it’s never really filled a need within me. If I want to listen to someone croon about sex, love, and heartbreak, I much prefer the classic soul singers of old, like Marvin Gaye or Bill Withers.
However, I’ve found that I definitely have a place in my heart for modern R&B singers who want to sing about relationships in a silky smooth voice. I heard Jhené Aiko on a best of 2020 list and decided to give her other stuff a listen (besides just the features I know her from). I love her vibe and her voice so much I knew she had to debut my You Should Listen To segment.
Here’s an unbiased, high-level look at some tracks* I’d like to showcase by Jhené Aiko. I’m no expert, nor do I claim this to be a comprehensive or “best-of” list. This is a new fan’s perspective on what I think her standout tracks are. I put them in reverse chronological order, just for some semblance of organization that wasn’t a ranking. Yeah, for once, I didn’t want to do track rankings.
*This will only include songs that she released, not her features on someone else’s track.
None of Your Concern (feat. Big Sean) – A good tandem with “Triggered”, especially considering that “Triggered” and “None of Your Concern” are about, at least in part, ex-boyfriend Big Sean. Not only does she remain friends with him though, he’s FEATURED ON THIS DAMN SONG. That’s iconic.
BS (feat. H.E.R.) – Beautiful, chill R&B jam that has quickly become one of my favorite songs by Jhené. H.E.R. kills it, too, and combined with her singing of “America the Beautiful” before the Super Bowl, I am definitely going to check out her music.
P*$$Y Fairy (OTW) – This absolute killer sex jam was the song on a YouTuber’s year-end countdown list that made me look her up.
Party for Me(feat. Ty Dolla $ign)– Her rap part is kind of cringe, but the rest of it is “24K Magic” Bruno Mars, retro goodness (which itself is inspired by late 80s and early 90s funk and soul).
Ascension (feat. Brandy) – Hey, remember Brandy? No idea if she’s making music anymore, but she’s a good addition on this hopeful lullaby that turns into a soulful mantra.
WTH (feat. Ab-Soul) – I usually don’t like songs about getting high, but–. Okay, I’ll write something different. Honestly, this song was saved by Ab-Soul’s verse. Otherwise, it would have been a good song, but ultimately left off the list.
The Worst – “Don’t take this personally, but you’re the worst.” Wow. She does know how to synthesize her heartbreak into a good song, doesn’t she?
Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle) – Amazing that this made the list despite having no discernable beat or melody. I love her fun, breezy jams, but her songs about heartbreak and pain are amazing.
First Impressions is a segment I started for giving quick, minimally-edited thoughts on an album. Without the benefit of research, multiple listens, or letting it “ruminate”, I try to just give my first impressions of the album based on just a couple of listens. It’s fun to look back on and see what all has changed, a few months, to a year, down the line.This is the third installment.
Wasting Light is my clear favorite Foo album. I’m not saying it’s their best. It’s probably not. But it’s my favorite. Very closely followed by the former favorite, One by One. I also liked, and maybe even loved, Concrete and Gold (despite what this review makes it sound like). In Your Honor holds its own, despite not really having the material for a double album. Saint Cecilia is completely overlooked and underrated, probably because it didn’t receive much hype (and is “only”an EP). There Is Nothing Left to Lose is completely overrated because it has “Learn to Fly”, and a lot of filler crap. The Colour and the Shape is as exactly as good as it was when it came out–no better, no worse.
And rightfully so, I forgot Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace when I first wrote the above paragraph. I usually do, though it’s probably much better than I remember. I also didn’t mention their self-titled debut album because that was basically just demos and hastily-written written lyrics that were fashioned into a solo project that Dave put under the name Foo Fighters. There’s also one other album that I didn’t mention; we’ll get to that.
So where does Medicine At Midnight rank among these? It’s too early to tell if it’s my new favorite. First Impressions are not where favorites are made. No, real favorites are forged in the fire of a thousand listens. A slow burn over real time, real emotions, real situations. Wasting Light became my favorite not because it was a perfect album, but because of the memories I had while listening–how applicable certain songs and lyrics felt to my life. It became the soundtrack to my life. I listened to it nonstop for months.
Remember how Sonic Highways was supposed to be inspired by a different city for each song? That was hilarious. But, it feels like Medicine at Midnight took inspiration from a different genre or artist for each track. It doesn’t feel like a ripoff or a cheap imitation, either. Each track feels like a very intentional, well-written, hashed out, fucking real song. And all 9 of them deserve to be on the album. Each song truly feels unique and discrete from one another, while firmly having the mark of Foo Fighters on them.
I wasn’t going to do this initially, but I think First Impressions would be even more fun with some preliminary track rankings. I love lists. I love order. I love categorizing shit. If you don’t, feel free to not read this or care about it. I will also include my very-early, very little edited first draft thoughts on these songs. I hesitate to do so because many listens will definitely change how I feel and what I hear. But it’s SUPPOSED to. This bit is called FIRST IMPRESSIONS though. Not Final Impressions. Not Eventual Impressions.
Even if this is just for me to look back on and make fun of myself for putting one song above another, or laugh at my hilariously bad takes, it will be good for posterity. I’m not going to number them though because it’s not that serious. You can get the general idea that the favorites are at the end, while least favorites are listed first.
“Waiting on a War” – Oh, a song about something. I’m ready to cringe. It sounds like they missed doing stuff from the second half of In Your Honor. Why can’t you make your soft, acoustic little bullshit songs as intentional and good as your other songs? Did different people write this vs “Cloudspotter”? I just do not feel this at all. It eventually quickens the pace and turns into a faster, punkier rock song. Much too late though. And it completely lacks any passion. The vocal melody sucks ass.
“Love Dies Young” – uptempo, punk-type rock song. It sounds like they definitely wrote the music first, coming up with a cool riff, but not knowing what to put with it. This isn’t a bad topic at all, but is it a love song or an anti-love song? It’s not the worst song. It’s not the best song. I like a lot of things about it, for instance, if this is a filler song, then we’re doing pretty good.
“Chasing Birds” – This was the obvious Taylor Hawkins song, guys, come on. It’s a little repetitive, but it’s a nice, pretty song. Kind of like what “Happy Ever After” was trying to be from Concrete and Gold. But better.
“No Son of Mine” – The other song I didn’t realize I’d heard already. Good ole fashioned rock song poking fun at religious zealots. I think of Motorhead and the song “Barricuda” when I hear this one. I am not saying that’s RIGHT of me, but I’m saying that’s what I think of.
“Shame Shame” – I only heard this song once before this album. It’s good. Hearing it again, I think it’s probably great. But I’m not sure. I don’t even know what to call this genre mashup. I’m confused, but I like it. It’s very controlled confusion. I have a hard time remembering it after I’ve heard it, but when I DO hear it, I always think, “wow, this is really good.”
“Making A Fire” – Who is this, The Black Crowes? Background singers that vaguely sound gospel-influenced. Rock that has a 90s alt rock leaning. Southern rock chorus (or one that very badly wants to be). It’s like if The Black Crowes wanted to make “Bridges Burning”, but in their style, and not too obvious that they copied it.
“Holding Poison” – I’m definitely sure this position will change, but I do like it a lot. Then I hear it all the way through, and I’m like, yes, this is top tier shit. It’s like if “Rope” and “Dear Rosemary” had a baby. OMG. It’s Rosemary’s baby. I don’t know how to describe this song. It’s spunky and punchy, but there’s an air of despair. I mean, poison is in the name. That probably helps.
“Medicine At Midnight” – This is the exact opposite of the previous song in the track listing (“Waiting on a War”). It hooks you in right away. Imagine, having a melody and beat on all your songs. Imagine. This sounds like Grohl trying to do Bowie during his glam rock phase? Best I can do. There’s probably a better comparison. But it was a compliment either way. This has so many good elements going for it.
“Cloudspotter” – This would be very at home in 90s alt rock for the soft, subdued verses and then louder chorus. Kind of the Foo Fighters’ specialty. This is better than pretty much anything they actually released in the 90s though. I have no idea what this is about, but it sounds like it knows what it’s talking about. The rhymes are tight. It absolutely goes off in all of its weird, perfect glory. This could easily still be my favorite 6 months from now.
2020 should have been Justin Bieber’s year. He released so much music, whether it was his own singles, an entire album, or a feature. But he’s not Drake. He can’t just obtain good-faith clout by slapping his name on something mediocre. While he had success commercially on singles with Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, and Chance The Rapper, his album Changes was panned. Lead-off single “Yummy” in particular has received a lot of flak from critics and fans alike as being…oh, what’s the technical term? Not good.
I personally don’t think “Yummy” is really that bad. In fact, “Intentions” annoys me more. But neither of them are that bad, as far as pop song fodder goes. Are they good though? Of fucking course not. But this is the top 40; not the damn hall of fame. I give pop music a wide berth when it comes to being mediocre or disappointing. Does it have a good beat? I’ll vibe to it. I guess after Purpose and so many successful collaborations in the more recent years, we’ve given Bieber a high bar.
So did he get back to that high bar with his 2021 single “Anyone”?
He did not.
The thing though is it’s not a bad song at all. In fact, it has a lot of likable things about it. For example, since getting married, Bieber’s songs about love are like 100x more sappy and romantic, which feels completely genuine. This is a wholesome, sweet song, as far as content and lyrics go. I also like the subdued retro touches, like the reverb and double tracks. The “In the Air Tonight” drum transition leads us into a much more “loud and proud” display of the late-80s/early-90s vibe, injecting much needed energy and life into the song.
The problem with this is that it comes across as less Peter Gabriel and more contemporary Christian concert. This last chorus with the most energy lasts for about 30 seconds before it just ends. Why tease us with this at all? And why does it sound exactly like something you’d hear at some Youth Ministries Summer Jam for Jesus thing? The chorus, for all its attempts at being positive and uplifting, feels flat and empty, with only Justin’s soaring vocals to carry us through. They’re not bad vocals, but it’s just like, where is the rest of the song? It’s a weak-ass chorus.
Also, isn’t it weird that he tried to make an R&B album (key word: “tried”), and then made an 80s pop song? I am not saying I don’t like this direction (I do love this trend in current pop music) but most of Bieber’s career has been pretty much the exact opposite of this. Even when he was first starting out on the scene, he’d rather be caught with Ludacris than Phil Collins. Is he an ever-changing chameleon and student of music, like our friend Miley Cyrus, or does he just use black culture and black music like the latest outfit he wears… also like our friend Miley? Either way, it reminds me of another Justin that I know.
This isn’t the song from Justin Bieber that we needed and wanted. But maybe it’s what we deserve after expecting so much more from him. His best songs this past year were with other people: “Monster”, “Holy”, and “Stuck with U”. I don’t know if Team Bieber knows what they’re doing, but he still seems to find success no matter what he does. So, I guess he’s more like Drake than I thought.
My dad forwarded this song to me after these two performed at the Inauguration of Joe Biden. However, this review is about the studio version, since it’s the one I was introduced to and have listened to in preparation for writing this. I tried to listen to a version with Kirk Franklin on it, but we won’t talk about that.
My first thought upon first listen was that Justin knocked this out of the park. His performance is essentially flawless. My second thought upon second listen is that they needed Justin to prop up this song because 1) who is Ant Clemons? And 2) why is his voice autotuned to hell? Is that his style?
This review is about “Better Days” though, so I’m not going to stray too far from that, including listening to the rest of Ant Clemons’ work. Maybe this is his style. Maybe I should listen to his other work. Maybe I’m an asshole for not knowing who he is. Regardless of the reason, Clemons’ stylized voice really sounds out of place on a stripped-down song.
This song was written by Clemons and Timberlake in lockdown, in response to “frustrations and challenges”. That is completely unsurprising because it sounds exactly like a song that was written in response to the pandemic and the political climate of the past 4 years. In fact, my biggest gripe is that it’s a little bit weak lyrically. I feel like it wants my attention. It wants to say something meaningful. It feels a little flat. Like they wrote it purposely to be this contrived pandering during difficult times.
Speaking of contrived pandering, I don’t officially like Justin Timberlake’s “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING”, a title in all-caps for some reason for the Trolls movie he co-starred in. I thought it was obviously trying to be another summer feel-good song that was also attached to a movie. It felt like a cash grab. I could practically hear the songwriters discussing it in a conference room as they tried to write it. “What if we made another song like ‘Happy’?” Yeah, guys, that would be great.
As obvious as that is to me, I still cannot help but sing along to that song and feel even a tiny bit happier when I hear it. Damnit. Their plan worked. Whoever is on the Dreamworks music production team knows how to make hits–or, at least gather together people who do.
Similarly, I find myself wanting to like the gospel elements of “Better Days”, the hopefulness, the smooth croonings of my man, JT, who I am a big fan of. When I first heard this song, I thought it might even become a contender for “Song of 2021”. This year’s anthem.
The song certainly wants to be this year’s anthem. It certainly wants you to like it and see it as this optimistic, reassuring, gospel-tinged R&B jam. I want to see it that way, too.
Unfortunately, it’s just not. It has its moments, but it fails to really reach its full potential. It builds up to nothing and ends abruptly, instead of capitalizing on all the momentum it created.
It’s a perfectly fine, non-intrusive song that has a positive message and some pretty-sounding moments. But it’s just not going to change my life. I’m happy that they released something like this because of its intentions. I’m happy to hear Justin still serenading us with his beautiful voice. Also, the man will be 40 in 2 days. FORTY. He looks too good at 40. I’m kind of mad.
I don’t know why I say “we”. It’s just me. All my multiple personalities don’t really count as different people.
When I originally did a “First Impressions” segment on After Hours, I knew it was good. Even great. Some things have changed since then, some have stayed the same (see official track rankings below). My biggest takeaway is that it’s so much deeper and more nuanced of an album than I could have been expected to realize on a couple of superficial listens.
I was going to make a long intro and talk broadly about the album, but this is all that needs to be said: After Hours is a goddamn masterpiece. I already thought it was great, but after dissecting the lyrics and piecing together the story it tells, I’m ready to praise it as the work of art it is. This album is more than just a technical and musical masterpiece, which you can easily tell it is from one listen; it’s one of brilliant and beautiful storytelling, stitched together so masterfully into a cohesive, but discrete, narrative. I’m even more angry now that The Weeknd was snubbed at the Grammy’s. ZERO nominations for this dude? GTFOH. More like the Shammy’s.
One other note: because of the awkward nature of referring to him as “The Weeknd” (or, worse, just “Weeknd”), I call him Abel a lot in this post, which is his real name.
Alright, the heart and soul of this review and this segment is track rankings–so let’s get to them!
F Tier – The F Were You Thinking?
D-Tier – D stands for Did You Even Try?
13. Save Your Tears – Yes, this has a cool 80s vibe to it, but so does half the album. This is the only case of a song truly revealing how awful it is over the course of researching and listening for this album review. I originally had it in C-Tier, but I am so fucking sick of it, especially since it’s come out as a single now.
It’s my least favorite song because it’s likely about Abel’s longtime on-again-off-again ex, Bella Hadid, but I don’t know why she would need to “save her tears for another day”, when the WHOLE SONG is about him feeling sad because she’s ignoring him at the club. The chorus alludes to getting back together and that’s why she should save her tears. But he broke her heart, and even admits it in the song. Why should she “love you for a second time”? It’s just a selfish song. I guess I’ve been there myself, but even with that understanding in mind, I can’t really get behind anything about this contrived, ugly song, except the synth bassline.
C-Tier – Songs that “See Tears” Because They Aren’t Better
12. Hardest To Love – While I’ve always thought it was off-putting how this song pairs lyrics about being a terrible boyfriend with a sick beat, that’s just The Weeknd Special ’round here. The song is more about how he can’t believe she (probably Bella) still wants to be together after all they’ve been through. I can’t believe it either. He’s clearly hurt her a lot, by his own admission, and even he can’t understand why she still trusts him and wants to take him back.
All of that being said, I like “Hardest to Love” quite a bit more than “Save Your Tears”. The production team somehow pulls off mixing 80s keyboard and electronica, borderline dubstep, beats. This is a small detail, but I like the voice distortion they do in the second verse. It could be for narrative reasons, like emphasizing that he’s full of shit. But even if it’s not, I like it anyway for breaking up the monotony. I also like the outro that fades perfectly into “Scared to Live”. I’m a slut for great song-to-song transitions you can only get from listening to the album in order. More on that later.
11. Snowchild – This one has actually grown on me quite a lot. From least favorite to 11 isn’t much of a bump, but my mentality toward it has changed more than that leap would suggest. I do really like the mood, the melody, and the theme. The main problem I had with it upon first listen is the same problem I have now: I just cannot stand the barrage of wordplay and puns: “Walking in the snow before I ever made my wrist freeze/I was blowing smoke, had me dizzy like Gillespie.”
This couplet comes early in the song but is indicative of the whole problem. First of all, try harder. This sounds like a first draft. Second of all, less is more; there are far too many “ayyy, check out this cool reference” double entendre. Third, there is a way to make slick rhymes and turns of phrases on a reflective, nostalgic song, but this ain’t it. You know what song of his did this well? “The Morning”, from his compilation of remastered mixtapes, Trilogy. These are basically cousin songs, born 9 years apart.
This part is my favorite though, both musically and lyrically:
20 mil mansion never lived in it, zero edge pool never dipped in it Super star neighbor in my business, paparazzi trying to catch me slippin’ Goin’ on tour is my vacation Every month, another accusation Only thing I’m phobic of is failing I was never blessed with any patience
It’s also a really nice transition to “Escape from LA” where he wants to escape both memories of his ex and the general LA lifestyle. He ends by repeating that he’s “leaving, leaving into the night”. Both are really nice parts of the song that I wish were more front and center, instead of the goofy wordplay.
B-Tier – Songs That Are Good
10. Scared to Live – We’ve reached the 80s ballad portion of the album. I can totally see awkward middle schoolers dancing to this at prom. The main melody on keyboard reminds me of the intro to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”, just a little bit. Any connection to Prince is a positive for me.
At first, I thought this was just a filler song of sorts, until I delved into the lyrics and the connection to Abel’s ex-girlfriend. The whole story is about him admitting, “I’m the reason you forgot to love”, but “don’t be scared to live again.” It’s kind of an olive branch, wishing her well and hoping she can recover and move on. It’s a glimpse at a more mature, more emotionally stable version of Abel. Don’t get used to it.
9. In Your Eyes – And here I thought Abel left behind his MJ impression. I’m a huge fan of the King of Pop, but we don’t need another “I Feel It Coming”, where he clearly just impersonates Michael Jackson the whole time. Thankfully, “In Your Eyes” has a much more toned down MJ influence. The 80s, however, are very strong with this track–serving up a catchy beat, beautiful synth bassline, and a little bit of sax at the end. It’s a perfectly good song that’s easy to listen to without much scrutiny. Therefore, I won’t give it any.
8. Heartless – Alright, I’m rewriting this entry entirely AND bumping it to B-Tier. This is why:
I lost my heart and my mind I try to always do right I thought I lost you this time You just came back in my life You never gave up on me I’ll never know what you see I don’t do well when alone You hear it clear in my tone
Why would this bump the song up the rankings? These aren’t the best lyrics ever, or anything. No, they’re not. But, they are a mirror to the bridge from “Faith”, the song that comes after “Heartless”. It’s very similar–like intentionally similar–in melody, and delivery to the one on “Faith”. When I recognized this, embarrassingly far into my listening and writing for this album review, I stopped cold. I had already recognized the parallels in both songs talking about “being a better man” and going “back to my ways”. But the bridge similarities gave me chills. I’m a big fan of sister song synergy (see “Cabaret”/”TKO”).
This song has taken awhile to climb into my good graces, starting in C-Tier, at number 11. In fact, since I’ve heard the single, I’ve never really given this song a full chance, I guess. Why? Because I’m heartless.
No, really, though. I’ve always thought this song was trying a little too hard to be something it’s not. The production and beat are practically begging to be a hardass rap song, but Abel is no hardass and certainly no rapper. I’m just not buying it, even though the song tells me how heartless he is, numerous times. Speaking of the title, I always thought “heartless” was a pretty poor word to describe what he’s doing in the song: getting laid, driving expensive cars, doing drugs. Those things do not make you heartless.
There could be many reasons why they’re making this (tenuous) connection. Like, he’ll never be able to love and care for someone because he’s too busy living that crazy, rich bachelor life. I guess “heartless” is a pithier way to get there. It could also be about doing all those things in response to your ex wanting to get back together, which would definitely be a heartless thing to do to someone who loves you. And a confusing thing to do, since half the album is him obsessing over her and missing her, but hey, he’s human–humans have their ups and downs. Maybe he’s heartless because he doesn’t care who he steps on or who he hurts while he’s partying and living it up? I don’t know. But when you have three different explanations, it’s probably because none of them are good enough on their own.
In spite ofALL of that nonsense, I bumped this song up to number 8 because first of all, have you heard that got dang beat? It really does forgive a lot of flaws. Second, once I made that mental leap for WHY he’s heartless (pick a reason; any reason), I started to sort of get behind the narrative a little. Sure, Abel isn’t a hardass rapper, but I don’t for one second think he’s making up any of this. I do believe he’s trying to have the time of his life in Vegas, covering up the pain, pretending he doesn’t care. He’s trying to do all of this and brag about it, when really he’s inflicting more pain on himself. If you don’t believe that, listen to “Faith”, which is basically the comedown of “Heartless”. Hell, listen to the bridge of THIS song.
I’m all about narrative–and the beat. That helped significantly.
A-Tier – Songs That Are Great
7. Alone Again – As the album opener, this track’s job is to set the tone for the whole experience. It’s not going to be your go-to song for anything, with no discernable beat or riff to dance to, but it’s stylistic, full of ethereal sounds, and beautiful synthesizers.
The reason it’s in the Great Tier is because of its incredible production, especially the transition from the drawn-out synth note in the bridge to Abel’s autotuned vocals in the latter half of the track. It’s a dreamy, hazy bit that holds your hand gently, at first but slowly becomes more ominous. The whole mood of the song slowly changes here. Now, you’re in a different song. He repeats a lot of previous lyrics with this heavy auto tune, but now they feel more detached and surreal. It’s not a detail that will jump out at you as being spectacular, at first, but it’s so well-executed. The album is full of stuff like this.
The chorus says: “I don’t know if I can be alone again”. That line right there says a lot. Whether you’ve been in a codependent relationship yourself, been obsessed with someone who broke your heart, or just miss being in a relationship, this line can work on many levels. He says it a lot, too, which reinforces its importance. This song could have had nonsense lyrics and it would still be great, but it still has a plot to it, and I love that.
6. Escape from LA – This is classic Weeknd-fare–pulling back on the synthpop/80s-retro drip, in favor of a more moody and dreamy R&B style. There are a lot of things that work really well here: the lyrics, the vulnerability in Abel’s voice, the mood. He makes me feel exactly what he’s going through–dejection, melancholy, missing his ex, memories that now feel sad, hating the LA scene. I also really enjoyed this reference: “Keanu Reeves, the way a n**** Speed/Diamond cross hangin’ off of me; I’m fighting for my soul, Constantine”. That is how you do wordplay and pop culture references in a reflective song.
Another reason I love this song is its three distinct phases of storytelling and musical composition. I love how verses 1 and 2 are different stylistically, but do their part to move the story along and add a new texture to the song. The bridge completely changes direction, in favor of a vibe-y, dreamy number that leads us into Abel reminiscing about a visit from his ex, while he was in the studio recording. I feel every bit of this song, especially the bridge. The Weeknd’s production team and Abel’s vocals know how to sell a song and its story.
S-Tier – Songs That Are Flawless
5. Until I Bleed Out – This is such a good song in theme, lyrics, and execution. I originally had it as high as number 1, but had to drop it because it’s such an intense and heavy song.
There’s no quirkiness, i.e. “Hardest to Love”, to hide behind. There’s no bitterness or missing her like in “After Hours”. There’s not even the glimpse of acceptance and well-wishes from “Scared to Live”. It’s just pure pain and agony. “I don’t even want to get high anymore,” “I want to cut you out of my dreams.” I feel nothing but pain. There’s nothing I can do. I messed this up. I’m the worst. It’s a lot to deal with emotionally and doesn’t make for the best standalone listen. It’s at it’s best as the album closer–the story ender–with all the other songs before it to give it the most context and significance. It’s a fantastic song in concept and execution.
4. Too Late – There is something about the auto tuned vocals, crisp percussion, and sugary 80s pop vibe that hits that special spot in my brain. It’s almost like cheating. When that part of my brain gets tickled, it overrides all logic and reason. I automatically shot “Too Late” to S-Tier without any contemplation or debate from myself when I started putting the songs into categories. The problem with that is all the other songs on here received scrutiny, critical thinking, analysis. I don’t have anything else good or bad to say about this. It’s a fun track. I love it. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t make it “deeper”. I wouldn’t write it any better. I think it’s perfect as is. I don’t have 3 paragraphs to write about it, and that’s okay.
3. After Hours – I’m going to use this opening paragraph to talk about the Interlude right before “After Hours”. “Repeat After Me” is a Bruno Mars-style track that’s pretty clearly about Abel desperately trying to convince a woman into believing she’s still in love with him, even though she’s with someone else. I’m not the only one who interpreted it that way. I didn’t give it an official ranking because it’s hard to judge this song too much on its own merit, as an interlude. I did want to talk mention it though because it is good and helps the narrative.
Now, let’s talk about “After Hours”, which is both a banger and a heartfelt song about pain and affliction. So, basically, “The Weeknd Special” strikes again. This track has risen up the ranks over the course of my writing this article, where it originally started in A-Tier. There’s a lot going on lyrically, from dealing with his sadness and pain about hurting someone (my money is on Bella, even though this interpretation thinks parts of it are about Selena Gomez), to missing her, to apologizing for his behavior. It sounds bitter and remorseful in the same chorus: “Baby, where are you now when I need you most?” and “Sorry that I broke your heart”. This stream-of-conscious in the lyrics shows the cycle of emotions we go through during painful breakups.
It starts out slow and plodding, building up to a beat drop that comes a robust 2 minutes in. Before that moment, we are treated to a lot of expositional foreplay: haunting, echoing vocals; a lyrical foundation to help paint a vivid scene; and sound effects. The inclusion of crackling film and clinking glass suggests two things to me: a) analog recording, b) smoking crack. But since my knowledge of both is limited, I’ll just say I like the aesthetic choice, regardless of their meaning. (Also, side note, it’s way more likely that it’s just alcohol bottles clinking, by the way. But you never know with Abel). This is a really well-crafted song from a musical standpoint. Every beat, every reverb, every second feels intentional, yet effortlessly executed. I love the way this song flows together and creates a big, tragic, touching story in one song. It essentially sums up the entire story and themes of the album.
2. Faith – I called this my favorite song on First Impressions because of the way it stood out from the other songs in both tone and style. Now I’m finding even more reasons to love it. I already talked in a previous entry about its synergy with “Heartless” and how this is the aftermath of everything that happened in that song.
Besides all the gripes I have about “Heartless”, there’s another reason that “Faith” is so much higher in the rankings. It’s the exact same concept, but executed miles better. He’s still doing drugs, he’s still numbing the pain, he’s still a “low life”. But I don’t get this false bravado from it. He’s not hiding anything. He’s self-destructive, past the point where he should stop. It’s not fun anymore. It’s not glamorous. It’s just pain. He still can’t stop. He compulsively
What always captured my attention about this song was the bridge that begins with this line: “I lost my faith; I’m losing my religion every day”. That’s the same bridge that “Heartless” mimics. The bridge on “Faith” is a great contrast to the rest of the song’s musical composition. The other part that bumped this so high was the dreamy, ethereal part toward the end where it sounds like he’s singing through a drug-induced haze, lying on the sidewalk, waiting for the police to arrive. All his bad behavior leads to him being in “the back of a flashing car”, facing the consequences of his actions. All his antics are catching up to him.
It’s an absolutely perfect segue into “Blinding Lights”, especially with this lyric: “With the city shining on my face; The lights are blinding me again.” A song that clearly conjures up images of being obsessed with your ex, while you’re on a bender in Las Vegas, straight out of prison (I mean, clearly, right?). The same ex, who you’re so obsessed with that you say this about her on “Faith”: “if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me; I want you to follow right behind me. I want you to hold me while I’m smiling, while I’m dying”. Can I get a “YIKES” in the comments? Holy shit. That’s fucking intense. It’s a great story about a tragically co-dependent and unhealthy relationship paired with brilliant-as-always production.
1. Blinding Lights – Unclutch your pearls for a second and listen.
I really didn’t want to put this at number 1 because first of all: it’s the song that I’ve listened to the most on its own (it was my number 1 song of 2020 on Spotify — future me edit: and also 2021), so I feel it’s a biased choice. Second of all: it’s generally considered lame when you’re a fan of an artist to love a hit single of theirs, much less consider it your favorite track from an album! Gasp!
I originally had “Too Late” as number one, but it didn’t feel right, despite that it’s a fun and awesome song. “Until I Bleed Out” was number 1 at one point because of the themes and writing, but it didn’t “feel” like number 1, either. I could have even put “Faith” here and it would have hit a lot of the same points that each of these songs hit. It was my favorite on “First Impressions”, after all.
But I decided to put “Blinding Lights” as number 1 because the true mark of a favorite song is that you do want to listen to it over and over again, outside of the album. I mean, I just made that up, but I’m going with it because it does feel right in this case. Hit or not, “Blinding Lights” is my favorite. It fits perfectly within the narrative of the album, but it’s also a killer standalone song.
And sure, it’s about codependency and an unhealthy relationship, but boy, is it disguised under an unbelievably catchy beat and infectious riff! Just like how “Can’t Feel My Face” was a song about doing blow, disguised as a fun, danceable song. I really do not care. It’s fun. I need fun. I’ll listen to it a hundred more times this year. It was my feel-good song a lot of the times, and my god, do I love bopping along to it. I don’t have much to say in the way of a technical breakdown, but if I did I’d talk about the perfect riff, the god-tier percussion, the gorgeous mix of vocals seamlessly between the melody. Those things make a good song from an engineering standpoint, but my connection to it is what made it great. Perfect. Favorite.
I have noticed an increase in my usage of the word “vibe” or “vibey” in the past year. I can’t help but describe this song as vibey though. What do I mean by that? I mean that it’s chill and sounds like you could “vibe” to it. Just hang out and let it message your brain. It’s like a sugar rush in musical form.
I know this band for the song “Sweater Weather”, which I am lukewarm on. “Pretty Boy”, however, is red hot.
Enchanting melody, beautifully eerie harmonies, a vocal performance that gently picks you up and soothes your aches and pains. That’s all there is to it. Doesn’t have to be much.
Despite being a 90s kid and a fan of music from that era, The Cardigans somehow flew completely under my radar. Besides that one hit that I thought was a No Doubt song until I was well into my 20s, I couldn’t have told you who they were. That’s probably because they were Swedish and didn’t make much of a splash on the US charts.
Before hearing “My Favourite Game” pop up on a playlist, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what it was called. But there’s something so familiar about it. I went searching online for where else I might have heard that hook, maybe sampled somewhere. But I couldn’t find any evidence. The lyrics don’t conjure up any memories, but the riff is infectious and lights up the nostalgic part of my brain.
It doesn’t matter where it’s from though because this is another 90s pop-rock treasure. The melody is catchy; the vocalist, Nina Persson, has a nondescript singing voice that works as a perfect vehicle for the song; the vibe is sort of whimsical and happy.
I honestly don’t care what the song is about, and I won’t bother with the lyrics. The song is a perfect way to encapsulate songs from the 90s. This wasn’t a “serious” rock song. It wasn’t trying to say something with the lyrics, like some from other genres. It was just a fun pop song.
We have those today. We’ve always had them, really. There’s nothing remarkable or incredibly special about this song. But it’s nostalgic, and that’s enough to bring it to your attention so that we don’t forget The Cardigans’ other contribution to our musical history.
First Impressions is a segment where I give my first, minimally edited thoughts on an album that’s new (or new to me), without research, multiple listens, or the benefit of letting it “percolate”. It’s a way to get out my thoughts much faster than the time and effort I would put into real album reviews, thoughts, and track rankings.
I’ve never been a Miley Cyrus fan. I’m not saying that to be better than you. I like Nickelback, okay? I’m not better than anyone. There’s something about her persona and musical style that has always seemed fake and forced. She’s a little obnoxious, has no real musical identity, and seems to do most things for attention. I guess that’s just what pop stars do (and teenagers/young adults), but I’ve never connected with any of her music. However, as Ashley O for “Black Mirror”? I’m all in on that.
So why am I doing a First Impressions about her? I heard that this album was more in her wheelhouse as far as her vocal talents go, and really, she does have a nice voice–she’s just never paired it with a song I would call “good”. Let’s see what Plastic Hearts has to offer.
Overall impression: There’s a lot to like here, but it feels like Miley is just cashing in on the retro, 80s synthpop sound that was trendy in 2020. I love that we’re going back to that corner of the 80s, but this feels like she’s trying on the genre the way she’s “tried on” rap and hip-hop. On my first listen, I thought it was a cheap imitation of new wave with some great moments. On my second listen, I thought it held up much better. I don’t think Miley will be a synthwave Queen going forward though. This is just another experimentation for her. Isn’t that pop stars, though? Maybe I’m being too hard on her because 1) experimentation is her thing, and 2) it’s ALL pop singers’ thing!
That being said, her voice is definitely suited to this type of pop music–passionate, yelling, everything sounding purposeful. In general, it was a pretty likeable album with a lot of fun moments and a lot of earnest moments. Her voice really makes me yearn for a country/roots album, or something more bluesy, even. My heart can dare to dream. Maybe when she’s experimented with every other genre she’ll get bored and go back to what she grew up on–because everything she’s done so far seems like a rebellion against country and roots-style music.
After her SHE IS COMING EP, which I definitely didn’t just look up and listen to after hearing Plastic Hearts, maybe the themes and sound of the new album shouldn’t be such a surprise or a change in direction. She didn’t even give up on rap music like I thought! That’s to say nothing of the weird Dead Petz album that was all over the place and gave us that very weird video of her in a diaper. With these two, uh, musical releases in mind, Plastic Hearts hits a lot different–and is MUCH tamer and palatable.
Miley strikes me on Plastic Hearts as an evolving and growing artist, who learned about some cool 80s icons. She’s retained a lot of her “it’s our party, so we’ll do what we want to” vibe. I guess that’s okay. It just looks like dumb fun when you’re in your early 20s, albeit a little immature, but when you’re *checks notes* 28– She’s 28? Jesus Christ. Okay, I guess as you get older, the whole “We Can’t Stop” thing is just who you are. In fact, it’s considered rather punk rock to not care what others think of you.
I can’t help but admire people who don’t care what others think and like to “stick it to the man”, but newsflash, Miley: the punk rockers and new wave alternative icons you wanted to imitate on this record actually rebelled against things that mattered. It wasn’t just about getting high, getting drunk, and fucking everyone. It was about rebelling against an archaic, unmalleable society–AND it was about getting high, getting drunk, and fucking everyone.
Still, it’s the best thing she’s ever released in my opinion, and I’m kind of here for it.
Favorite Song: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I had trouble deciding between like 4 songs. I’m going with “Bad Karma”. “High” is up there, too, as well as “WTF Do I Know”, “Never Be Me” and definitely, “Gimme What I Want”. Hmm, that’s 5!
Least Favorite song: “Golden G String”. She tried to do something heartfelt and sincere here. But her and her producers paired it with the worst possible music.
Grade based on my arbitrary rubric that’s entirely subjective and mostly based on my feelings: 85/100 B
While partly arbitrary because I “go with my gut”, my general rules are that S-rated albums or songs are perfect and could not be improved upon; “A” grades are fantastic and nearly perfect, with just some minor, nitpicky problems; “B” grades show a lot of promise and good material, but have a few subpar or unpleasant elements; “C” is the opposite of B, in that it has a few good bits, but it is mostly subpar or unpleasant; “D” means you barely tried; “F” means the F were you thinking.
If you want to see how the sausage was made, here were my real-time thoughts (mostly) for each track as I listened:
WTF Do I Know – Is this…is this rock and roll Miley? Sort of? It’s the Miley attitude we’ve all grown indifferent to, but with more likeable music behind it. I like that she sounds aggressive on this track. I don’t know many of her other songs, but they’ve always rubbed me the wrong way. This one does a good job to reverse that.
Plastic Hearts – another boppy song with a juicy bassline. She does have a nice voice for this style. It’s very good, great even, until after the first chorus. I can’t help but think this song wanted to be a modern version of Hall and Oates’ “Maneater”. We already have “Maneater”; do your own thing.
Angels Like You – a ballad, sort of. It’s okay. Later songs will prove she does this slower style much better.
Prisoner – This is a pretty good pop song, but it feels like it’s lacking something. Dua Lipa didn’t help much. I forgot it right after, both times I listened to it.
Gimme What I Want – What in the 90s boyband shit is this? I love it. Very short, but I really dig the sound.
Night Crawling – You thought putting Billy Idol on here would give you some credit? It does. I’m actually really impressed. The song could use a little bit more of that punk/rebellious punch that Idol’s songs had. It’s still a danceable song, but it’s lacking in personality.
Midnight Sky: I’m somewhat familiar with this song, but had never heard it all the way. I don’t know what the hell this song is about or why it’s called Midnight Sky. Like many songs on here, the’y have snippets of interesting or cool-sounding lyrics that are ultimately meaningless when you piece them all together. Who cares? The synth and bass are just absolutely fantastic. But like with “Plastic Hearts, this reminds me of a far superior song: Edge of Seventeen. In this case though, I think they pull off being influenced without sounding like just a cheap discount of it. –Oh, there’s a remix with Edge of Seventeen at the end of the album. That’s…something.
High – Okay, this makes me feel something. It’s not just her raspy voice struggling to hit the notes that feel a little high for her. This is the first song that sounds like it’s really her trying to be herself and not shoved into the mold of today’s trends. I am telling you. Miley needs to do a real country album. Not country pop. Not hiding behind other styles. Just straight country and roots. But the whole point is for her to do a style that resonates with her, and I don’t know what her style actually is. This is still really good though.
Hate Me – Another track that diverges from the 80s synth, but it still retains that raspy growl and the belting high notes that she’s been fond of on this album. This is another song also that alludes to something that I still associate her with: getting drunk and high. So maybe she’s not trying to shed her old image after all. She’s just trying to repurpose it a little. This song isn’t too bad, but she can’t pull off the waling punk vocals as well as she thinks she can. It’s grown on me quite a lot with a second listen though.
Bad Karma – Oh, I was stoked for this when I saw Joan Jett is on it. If there’s any doubt that Miley’s embracing the attitude, as well as the sound, of the 80s alternative/new wave scene, this should erase it. Maybe she’s just trying on new sounds, but keeping the old attitude she had, which was “fuck everyone else”. I have to say, I respect it more and more through the album. She’s not necessarily trying to be something she’s not, though I don’t know if synthpop is her thing (or anyone’s after this phase dies out). But she’s wearing it well. This almost wants to have a country vibe to it. Yes, I know. I desperately want her to do country. So this is maybe as close as we’ll get, but it’s shrouded in those background vocal moans and the minimalist riff in the background so that everyone can be happy.
Never Be Me – This is another one that has made me feel things. It’s really beautiful. Instead of belting it and pushing her voice, she goes for a softer tone and staying in her register. It’s no less impactful than the yelling she does on other tracks. This is also one of the only ones that make me think the lyrics are actually about something.
Golden G String – Oh god. Is this…Miley trying to give us her version of “Sorry” by Justin Bieber? She’s explaining her past a little bit, but make us sympathize with her and feel sorry for her. It kind of works. But the song is dull and has no real melody or discernable tune.
This one is new to me, even though it’s Tracy Bonham’s most famous song and it’s from 1996. I’m a fan of 90s music, especially alt rock, so I’m surprised I never came across this. But I’m glad I did, thanks to a Spotify playlist full of female rock artists.
Bonham mixes soft, acoustic guitar verses with a raging chorus that builds to her screaming, “Everything’s fine”. Something makes me think she’s not fine. Coupled with her deft songwriting that contrasts what she tells her mother about her life with what is actually happening, “Mother Mother” is a nuanced and layered song both musically and lyrically.
I really feel her struggle as an adult who maybe doesn’t feel like an adult when talking to her parents. It also highlights how we make small talk, tell our parents what they want to hear, but face a different reality. I’m always going to connect with good songwriting. It helps though that the song kicks ass and melds the acoustic and louder rock together in one song.
I really do miss the alt rock and adult contemporary singer/songwriter combos of the 90s. We could use a revival of this type of music on today’s charts. The modern iteration of “adult contemporary” is basically just regular pop music. It’s not that we don’t have artists who emphasize writing and create minimalist songs; it’s just that those people don’t have their own category or genre, besides maybe indie or folk.
Oh, did you want more than that to go on? Okay. Well, it’s on my “Hyped Up/Workout Motivation” playlist on Spotify because it’s good for both getting you psyched up to work out or to just punch the air wildly in your kitchen, while you yell, “Fuck yeah”. It’s impossible to listen to this song and not headbang, even just a tiny little bit.
How do I describe this song? Let’s see… if you know Tom Morello, you know he can make a guitar sound like it’s not a guitar. However, it’s hard to tell what his influence is in that sphere exactly, when Gramatik is there doing Gramatik things. Which, according to his website I just linked, is being a music producer and DJ of electronic music.
If you know Gary Clark Jr, you know he’s a modern blues and rock guitarist who dabbles in a little soul and pop, too. He does a little bit of everything, but my favorites of his are the blues-iest or rock-iest. This one relies heavily on his rock prowess, both on guitar and on vocals. Don’t think I didn’t notice how they tried to sneak in some little blues licks in there in between bars. I’m no fool. Well, I am, but my ears still work.
If you know this blog, you know that I’m not one for being musically educated or knowing actual terms for things. I just know this song = good. It mixes rock and roll with electronica. As a fan of both, I thought it was well-mixed. Sometimes crossover genres like this try to do too much. This is a proper approach, with the guitars and vocals being very forefront in the mix. The EDM aspect is very understated until the bridge, adding mostly just a percussive element. The bridge brings in some dubstep hallmarks, which may be offputting to some.
Like I said though, I’m either working out when I listen to this, or I’m vibing in my kitchen or jamming along to it in the car. Dubstep don’t bother me none.
I am still reflecting on 2020 and the best way to do that, for me, is musically. These two songs in two different genres with opposite intentions somehow summed up my 2020 perfectly. Both with the name “Sunday Best”. I love this contrast and how it helps comprise a full picture of 2020 for me.
Neither of these songs are directly about dealing with the mental effects of the pandemic. Not directly, but you might be able to draw some implications. I think these two songs could apply to my life regardless of that though. I don’t want to imply I wasn’t affected by the pandemic. Far from that. But these two songs stuck out above all else and transcended the pandemic to help me through all the ups and downs of 2020.
If you skip to the end, you’ll get a glimpse at the song I heard at the end of 2020 that I think could easily sum up last year, as well. But I didn’t hear it until late in the year and I think it would be equally suited as a “recovering and surviving” vibe that I hope 2021 is about.
I’m no snob; I enjoy lots of pop songs, especially in 2020, my God (“Blinding Lights”, every Dua Lipa song, “Stupid Love”, “Supalonely”, I could go on and on). And this song pop song is no stranger to the Top 40. This one stuck out to me because of the infectious beat, gospel-tinged piano, and positive lyrics. The song is about having a good attitude, no matter circumstances, aka wearing your Sunday Best.
I’ve been in need of a good vibe a time or two, and this song has been my pick-me-up many times. I try my best to handle bad situations and unfortunate circumstances, but so much is out of my control. This is true even in years without a massive, deadly virus sweeping the globe. The only thing we can focus on is our responses, our behaviors. Our feelings might be valid, but our reactions aren’t always appropriate. So I’m learning to process my feelings, however negative, in an effective way.
This song speaks to me about making the best of things, inspiring me not to give up and be defeated. In a world full of so many bad things happening, both internationally and right in our own homes, we would do well to hold on to the moments that make our lives a little brighter. This song is one of them.
If I were reviewing the song for some reason, I’d point out that the vocals are uninspired and monotone and the lyrics aren’t winning any songwriting awards, despite their positivity. I’m well aware of these traits of the song. But since this is about 2020 anthems and what they mean to me, I’m not going to hold that against “Sunday Best”. It’s a 2020 anthem because of the message behind it: doing your best, overcoming challenges, living your best life no matter what. I want more of that in my life.
Here are the verses and chorus to Surfaces’ take on “Sunday Best”:
Everyday can be a better day despite the challenge All you gotta do is leave it better than you found it It’s gonna get difficult to stand but hold your balance I just say whatever ’cause there is no way around it’
Everyone falls down sometimes But you just gotta know it’ll all be fine It’s okay It’s okay, it’s okay
Feeling good, like I should Went and took a walk around the neighbourhood Feeling blessed, never stressed Got that sunshine on my Sunday best
Somedays you wake up And nothing works, you feel surrounded Gotta give your feet some gravity to get you grounded Keep good things inside your ears Just like the waves and sound did And just say whatever ’cause there is no way around it
Even though it’s a mere 2:39, Surfaces’ “Sunday Best” has had a big impact on me in 2020.
On the other side is the roots-y and blues-y Lainey Wilson take on what “Sunday Best” means. This one packs a punch lyrically and musically. I actually completely misunderstood the meaning to be about a morally conflicted person who feels like they’re broken and “bad”, juxtaposed with going to church and being a “good person”.
However, it’s actually about getting cheated on and wanting to pull up to the church for revenge…possibly? Or perhaps just wanting a refuge after getting your heart broken but being too hungover and not wanting to run into your ex. It’s definitely very different than Surfaces’ version of “Sunday Best”, but I love to acknowledge that life is not always sunshine and rainbows. Bad stuff happens, too. This song isn’t about making the best of it. It’s about how things just kind of suck. You can still see my original interpretation though of looking good on the outside, but feeling like you’re “bad”.
Here are the lyrics to Lainey Wilson’s “Sunday Best”:
I pulled up to that Church of Christ With a broken heart and bloodshot eyes
Too hungover to go inside So I hung my head And drove on by
I don’t feel like Hallelujah With this aching in my chest So here I sit on some backroad with a paper sack and Marlboro reds Drinking in my Sunday Best
Thought I really Really knew him well He was the one, far as I could tell But last night I caught him with somebody else And that preacher’s son can go to hell
I know that I’ll get over him in time But right now forgiveness ain’t something I can find
It’s a really well-composed song that has great guitar pickin’ and good vocals from Lainey. While it’s structurally and musically a great song, that’s not why it’s here–it’s on the 2020 anthems list because I relate to the original message of feeling not good enough, of feeling like you don’t fit in. That might not be the core message of the song, but the contrast of smoking and drinking in your Sunday best clothing is a metaphor that I’m sure many of us can relate to. It’s a concept I’ve related to my whole life.
My early contender for 2021’s song is “Making Do” by Lake Street Dive. I heard this song late last year, but it might be on repeat quite a lot this year. I’ll save my breakdown of it for a year later, if it ends up being my anthem of 2021. Either way, it deserves its own post at some point.
Stay safe, my fellow students of music. Go put on your Sunday Best!
I’m a simple gal. I like simple things like good, ole fashioned rock and roll. While I do enjoy a wide variety of genres and styles (like most people), my favorites tend to skew pretty main stream. What I mean by that is my favorite artists aren’t going to be underground artists you’ve never heard of.
One of those favorites has been, and always will be, the Foo Fighters. Their songs, and often times entire albums, have been the soundtrack to personal experiences and tragedies in my life. Dave Grohl is my personal Jesus. They’re rock gods to me. Their MO is to just keep evolving, putting out good tunes, and being the absolute coolest dudes to get a beer with.
One day I’m sure I’ll write about my favorite album, Wasting Light. Before that came out in 2011, One by One was firmly in the number one spot since I had been a fan. But, as you can tell from the title, this article isn’t about either of those albums. Why not?
Because on a road trip recently, I got a song stuck in my head that I had to find and listen to. It was “No Way Back”. So I listened to the whole double album for In Your Honor, reminiscing, rocking out, and pondering.
Made after their 2004 tour in support of One by One, the double album was born out of Dave Grohl’s desire to not censor himself, and instead make acoustic songs and rock songs on the same album. Why limit yourself to just big rock songs? Or having to do a different project for something like acoustic songs?
It’s an ambitious effort, but the production value is weak compared to most of their other albums. Loud mixes are prevalent. Sometimes the instruments are just a distracting mess. Other times, the voices are quiet compared to the guitar, and especially, the drums. I know they wanted the first half to be loud, but you can do loud without being indecipherable. The slow half of the album feels, to this day, pretty boring overall. In Your Honor was really pushed as this loud vs. soft double album at the time of its release, but it doesn’t have two albums worth of material. Do all double albums fall victim to this? Who’s to say. (Me. And I say, yeah, that’s a problem.)
All of that to say though: the album is still really fucking good.
I’ve always been a rock fan, so the rock half especially still holds up pretty well. It’s such a strong set, top to bottom. The Foo’s classic sound, devoid of fads or overt trends of the era, still gets me pumped up. There’s nothing to overly date this as being from 2005–cementing the Foo Fighters as a timeless rock act. I personally may be biased by my own nostalgia for the album, but being as objective as possible, there’s still a lot of good content here.
The acoustic half is the weaker half, but it’s certainly not as bad as I used to think. My problem with it is that it seems to lack a clear identity, besides being the “soft” side. Dave said it didn’t have a specific genre or style, for a reason, but it could have used a bit more direction. There are some gems in there, and to be fair, it’s not a poor effort by any means. Trying something new is always commendable and they definitely pulled it off. But is it some amazing acoustic masterpiece? No. I don’t know that it needs to be though.
My favorite way to retro review albums though is to rank the songs! So let’s do that. Splitting up the discs into separate rankings, of course. Let’s get to ranking In Your Honor! Disc 1 – The Rock Side
10. “Resolve” – Easily my least favorite, and it always has been. It’s not a skippable offense, by any means. But I don’t think it’s particularly good, and that’s because of the melody and vocal performance. Love you, Dave, but what were you doing? “A little bit of reSALVE–is what I need noooOOOOOOOoooowwww”. Also, this could have easily been reworked for the soft side. I think that was always my complaint. It’s put on the “rock” half that’s loud and in your face, but this song is more chill and dances on the border of being a country song.
9. “Deepest Blues are the Blacks” – I’m already finding it hard to rank these. This song is such a jam. Ultimately, I put it here because the lyrics feel kind of “fake deep”, at times. I know Dave is a passionate dude. I know that a lot of their songs come from the heart. I also know that sometimes words are just words. That’s fine. This song still hits hard and feels really passionate and raw at times.
8. “Hell” – This is only so low because it’s short. But it sure packs a punch in a short time.
7. “End Over End” – This is a great closer song: it’s got good lyrics, kick ass riffs, and a catchy hook. In fact, it’s too catchy. The end gets a little monotonous and the obnoxious feedback that goes on for like a minute straight at the end is enough to drive someone insane. The rest of the song is so good though. I love the emotion Grohl sings with in the verses and chorus. It has a good composition the way the verses and choruses flow into one another. Lyrics like “end over end, I’m circling” do lend itself for a loop-style structure, I suppose.
6. “The Last Song” – Hey, it’s a list ranking bingo! This is also Track 6 on the album. Love how this sounds like a fight song. Plus, it’s a spiteful song about an ex, which is something we can all relate to. It always gets me hyped up to kick some ass, or go to a pep rally, or a homecoming game (something feels distinctly high school about it). There’s some pop punk vibes that I’m definitely digging.
5. “Free Me” – This was my favorite song for awhile. Wrought with emotion and packed with all the loud, crunchy guitars that a grunge girl could dream of. And Grohl screams his lungs out, too. Great for when you’re feeling angsty and moody and your parents won’t leave you alone. I don’t know if Grohl was inspired by anything in particular, or if he channeled someone else’s story to write this, but he’s always been good at conveying emotion. My favorite part is when he asks with such conviction, “Can you free what’s keeping you?” Which leads right into him belting, “Well I need somebody to….Free me.” Except he screams it. And it’s great. And it’s impossible not to feel things.
4. “In Your Honor” – I’ve never really liked this as a song because it feels like your standard intro song: a glorified trailer for the album introducing tones and themes to come, but ultimately not being a great standalone song. So why put it so high? Because it’s an experience. I picture a whole music video when I hear this song. I go to another place in my mind when I hear this song. I can’t not start my In Your Honor listen without the title track, come on, now.
The beginning of the track sound like a plane gearing up to take flight. There’s a palpable tension as the song builds with guitar riffs. Then, Grohl’s voice breaks through:
“Can you hear me? Hear me screamin’? Breaking in the muted skies. This thunder heart, like bombs beating, Echoing a thousand miles”
It doesn’t mean much when you look at it, but when you hear it. It does sound like his scream is breaking in the muted skies, like god damn. As I hear this and the song continues to unfold before me, I think about beginnings. Events, and people, and moments that signal new beginnings. Changes. Birth. Rebirth. Renaissance. I think about people who sacrifice for others, for the greater good. I think about those who sacrifice for themselves. I think about achieving dreams. About a world of harmony and synergy. About purpose and meaning and what we’re all doing here. How we all have some common ground, part of a story we share with someone.
As the music continues to build, with the guitars climbing toward a climax, the drums adding a powerful backdrop and Grohl’s screams over top, I see all these visuals unfold: people conquering their fears and achieving their dreams; coming from different cultural, societal, and economic backgrounds; highlighting their personal sacrifice for a greater gain; giving their all for various important reasons. I get chills every time.
That’s why it’s more than a trailer song. And more than a song, in general, really. At least, to me.
3. “DOA” – Okay, this probably isn’t a top 3 song. If I were a real song critic, I’d call it a “fluff” song and rank it much lower. But I’m not a real critic and I don’t know shit. I do love music, and this song has always been a favorite. It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s cool. I also really dig the lyrics. Here are my two favorite lines:
Never say forever, ’cause nothing lasts Dancing with the bones of my buried past
I’m finished, I’m getting you off my chest Made you come clean in a dirty dress
I don’t have any good, justifiable reasons to rank it at 3 except I like it a lot. And in the courthouse of the Queen, that’s enough.
2. “No Way Back” – This song fluctuates around the top for me a lot. It’s never far from number 1 though and for good reason: it’s a kick ass, pump-me-up kind of rock song that always makes me feel like I can do anything. But are there more qualities needed to be number one? A lot of this album gets me hype. What makes this one special? Well, you see, dear reader who didn’t actually ask, it’s because of something called nostalgia. I’m not going to try to dance around it. The solo is weak sauce shit on the studio version. The guitars themselves sound watered down, either due to production or because of the type of guitar they’re using, maybe? I honestly have no idea. But what I do know is that I used to rock out to this song a lot and we bonded. Me and the song. So, there you go. No one ever called me objective.
1: “Best of You” – This song did commercially well and is still considered by fans to be one of their best. And it’s understandable why: many, if not most, of Dave’s songs come off so incredibly sincere because of the raw emotion he puts into his voice. This is one of my favorite examples of how he enhances the story in the lyrics through his vocal performance. He sells it so well I’m convinced it’s autobiographical. I have been moved to tears on some occasions, when I’m going through something, and I hear this song at the reprise/bridge part (I don’t know the musical terminology well enough): “I’ve got another confession, my friend. I’m no fool. I’m getting tired of starting again, somewhere new.” The way his voice changes from hard and aggressive to soft and vulnerable, sounding like it might break at one point. Fantastic. I don’t care if it’s not cool to like hit songs or singles from the album. Mark it down! “Best of You” is my favorite!!!
Disc 2 – The Acoustic Side
10. “Miracle” – The composition and melody are okay, but there’s something very dull and unappealing about the lyrics and vocal delivery. This one was a total miss for me. Similar to “Resolve”, I just can’t get over, “hands on a MIRAACCCCUUUULLLLLLLEEEE OOHHHUUHHHH.” It’s…not good.
9. “Friend of a Friend” – Though it was written in the 90s, Grohl chose 2005 to release this song about Kurt Cobain. I can see why he waited. Maybe the melody and approach didn’t fit in with other records, or maybe the lyrics just weren’t super strong. I know I’m supposed to revel this as a rare glimpse into Cobain and Grohl’s friendship, but it sounds like he kept his first draft lyrics, for one. It also lacks the emotional depth and vulnerability that I’d expect a true story to have.
8. “Cold Day in the Sun” – If you’ve read my review and rankings of Concrete and Gold, you would already know that the other Taylor Hawkins-led song the Foo Fighters have in their catalog fared significantly better than this one. “Cold Day in the Sun” sticks out like a sore thumb on this side of the album. It’s trying to do a lot of things at once and not really succeeding at any of them. There are some nice moments, but just enough to land it here.
7. “On the Mend” – On the one hand, this is an unremarkable song that leaves you with no memory of it on your first listen (or 2nd, or 10th) of the album. But if I could offer two things in its favor, it’s these two : 1) the lyrics are pretty nice, and 2) the song lulls you into a false sense of security, repeating the verse-chorus-verse structure, before breaking into a total left-field turn with the lines, “Was it you? Sat alone. Here we go.” I don’t know what the fuck that means, but it sounds really nice with the shift in melody and tone. It’s my favorite part.
6. “Still” – The riff seems to constantly build up to something that never comes, with its lack of chord progression. It just repeats, making you think there’s a big breakdown or shift just around the corner. But somehow, despite how infuriating I find the unfulfilled anticipation of the melody, it somehow crept its way up this list. There are a lot of really beautiful and nuanced moments in it: the piano notes sprinkled throughout, the guitar notes that sound really similar to “Let It Die” (2 years before its release), Grohl’s vocals, the harmony in the background. Just sucks that it’s taken me years and multiple close listens to notice that over the unresolved tension in the song.
5. “Virginia Moon” – This is a pretty song, especially with Norah Jones’ contribution. Honestly, big props to the Foo for doing an actual bossa nova song on this album. Grohl’s voice sounds really soft and nice, too, which is not the voice he puts on for all these songs. I really like the approach, vibe, and structure of this one. Unfortunately, I find it a little boring though, which feels bad to say, seeing how much effort went into it. Great job doing something new, but it lands here for mostly technical reasons and not emotional ones.
4. “What If I Do?” – My favorite thing about this song is the folksy-sounding lyrics and gorgeous verses. My least favorite thing is the chorus kind of negates all of that. It just doesn’t match the energy and earnestness that the rest of the song has. Grohl really wants to go to those howling-like, rock vocals, and it doesn’t fit here. The problem is: I’m annoyed enough to want to drop this down the list, but I really don’t like anything else enough to raise it to 4. At least the verses in “What If I Do?” make me feel something. So it stays.
3. “Another Round” – This folksy song doesn’t let simplicity deprive it of character or feeling, with a harmonica solo, sparing violin, and John Paul Jones on mandolin. It’s a really good song that has somehow flown under my radar over the years. I’ve come to really love “Another Round” and would put this firmly in S-Tier, if this had been a graded list. I enjoy the melody and minimalism–it sounds like someone singing from their porch about their estranged lover.
2. “Over and Out” – I really wrestled with this and “Another Round” for number 2. Both of them grew on me immensely while writing this list. “Over and Out” quickly gained my favor because it’s the darkest song on the acoustic half (maybe the whole double album), but beyond that, I’ve struggled to write something that legitimizes why it’s number 2. But, let’s not pretend I’ve always loved this song or knew it was this great. In fact, I have to credit a song that came out two years later, “Stranger Things Have Happened”, for why it’s actually this high on the list.
The riff of “Over and Out” always makes me think of “Stranger Things”. Plus, they share a similar tone and content. But “Stranger Things” came out later? If anything, I should consider the latter to be somewhat of a rip-off! Except, “Stranger Things” is far superior. Since it took so long for me to dissect and properly review this half of the album, I can’t help what I’m influenced by. I’m not saying that Dave took this song and inspired himself to create “Stranger Things Have Happened”. But what I AM saying is that my thinking of them as sister songs only helps “Over and Out”. They’re both dark, sullen, pained; have good composition and structure; and make me feel things. That’s nothing but a compliment.
1. “Razor” – I never had a favorite on this side of the album until I became an adult. It was never close, either. This one is the clear standout, and the only one whose position I knew immediately when I made this list. It’s melody is based around a repeating riff of beauty and optimism that climbs and falls effortlessly. It’s neverending–everlong, if you will. Absolutely makes the track. I don’t usually pay much attention to the lyrics on this one, and I don’t know if it matters. It could be an instrumental and I would be moved by it. Josh Homme plays rhythm guitar on this, and it’s the crescendo of guitars, almost dueling one another toward the end, that elevates this song to otherworldly. I don’t know if the other two great songs of this half would make it to my personal Greatest Foo Fighter Songs Ever List, but no doubt in my mind that “Razor” would be there.
Well, that’ll do it!
This blog is all about music. Retro reviews, tracklist rankings, sometimes new reviews, first impressions, and song highlights. I post when I want about what I want. It’s my wonderful world of music, after all.