Monday, May 16, 2016

Revisiting "Blonde On Blonde" On It's 50th Anniversary

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I was twenty years old when I first listened to the album. Dylan was a name I had heard before but never paid much attention to or gave him a listen. When you grow up in the 90s you don’t feel you need an artist like Dylan in your life because you already have so much to listen to as it is. So, when the 90s faded, along with the great music that came with it, I figured it was time to dive into the music of the 60s to see what the fuss was all about, and The Beatles and Dylan were the first artists to check out.

As a guide, I used VH1’s list of “100 Greatest Albums of Rock & Roll” to point me in the right direction. Before you roll your eyes I will tell you that it was and still is the best list on the subject I’ve seen. Sixteen years later and I still find myself agreeing with the albums listed, even though we can always quibble on placement. Of course, The Beatles and Dylan were littered all over it and so it seemed to be the most logical place to start. The Beatles were easy to listen to since my dad had many of their albums. Dylan, I had to go to the music store and buy his albums to hear them.

So, I bought Blonde On Blonde along with Blood On The Tracks, two works that many deem to be his best. I went to my car, popped in Blonde On Blonde and went driving around the back roads of Hampton Roads in Virginia and listened, preparing to be blown away.

I didn’t prepare myself enough. How could anyone?

The first track, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” I dismissed as being a playful little jam session where it seemed as if no one knew how to play their instruments. I still sung it out loud because I had heard it before off the Forrest Gump soundtrack. I began settling into the album on the second track “Pledging My Time”, a muddy, bluesy stomper with a soaring harmonica intro. My foot kept tapping, my head bobbing back and forth and my fingers drumming along. I was into it.

The clincher came when “Visions Of Johanna” came on and opened with one of the greatest opening lyrics I’ve ever heard, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.” Mother. Fucker. What a line! I was instantly sold, not just on the album but with Dylan himself. I heard he was a great lyricist, the “poet of rock ‘n’ roll”, but you’re never prepared for when you realize it or when you believe it. That lyric was the one that sold me on that notion. He was the greatest lyricist in rock history.

At the time, I had just fallen out of a relationship (or two) and was still trying to figure things out, about what went wrong and why. There was quite a bit of drama happening between me and a woman who didn’t have the best of intentions and I was working my way through all of it. So, when the 4th track "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" came on I instantly felt connected to the song. I related to the notion that there were things I messed up when it came to past relationships and while singing along with the song, felt as if I too was confessing some sins or transgressions. There was a relief to the song I felt with the chorus and still feel to this day.

After I got through the jovial “I Want You” I fixated on the steady rhythm of “Stuck Inside Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and then fell into the swampy blues sound of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” which for a while was a favorite of mine.

But it was the groaning tired kiss off of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” that had me screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs, again falling back on past relationships and just being tired of the games that are played while dating. This song was one of many that helped me figure out my own feelings on certain things pertaining to life, love and friendships. It felt Dylan had no more time for bullshit drama in his life, and I was tired of all that shit too. This song became an anthem of sorts.

“Temporary Like Achilles” is still one of my favorite songs to sing out loud. “You know I want your lovin’/Honey why are you so hard?” is such a great, laid back and subtle chorus. Followed up with the endless journey with “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, the album continued to carry me off to a place I hadn’t experienced before as a music fan. I was losing myself in the album, among all these crazy images and characters and scenarios the lyrics perpetrated in my head. Before I knew it, I was involved in the love triangle and quarrel that was described in “4th Time Around”. How’d I end up here and when? Who are these people? More importantly, who am I with these people? The questions were racking up in my head from these exaggerated situations that Dylan created for me, the listener, yet they were real and really happening in my life. In the many subsequent listens (about 4 billion or so) of this album these questions remained and I fell back on them when I found myself in real life situations that resembled those described in these songs. Dylan was giving me the Cliff’s Notes on my life. I knew that if I couldn't relate to those things at the time, I would soon enough so I better take notes.

I was brought out of the emotional doldrums by “Obviously 5 Believers” with Robbie Robertson’s seething guitar and Charlie McCoy’s bluesy harmonica playing. Once again, the lyrics fell to the wayside and I was enthralled with the music. My foot was tapping, my head bobbing back and forth and I was drumming on the steering wheel.

The album finished up with the epic list of characteristics of a woman named “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” that lasted for almost twelve minutes. It felt as if Dylan knew me and was singing about a particular woman in my life. A part of me didn’t doubt it. We all seem to fall for the same woman and get dealt a wrong hand along the way. The song tied up the album perfectly. This heartbreaking journey Dylan brought me on was over.

As the music went silent and my mini road trip was ending at my house, I felt sad and bothered, even restless. The album stirred up many thoughts and emotions and soon I was evaluating my life and its direction. It was so weird. Who takes their cues from a rock album?

As a music fan, the album raised the bar of expectations I had when listening to music, especially from singer songwriters and artists alike. There was a risk to Blonde On Blonde and it made me believe there should always be a risk involved with music. Those who weren’t willing to take that risk weren’t completely worthy of my time.

The album also kick started my love affair with Dylan’s music. Shortly after listening to Blonde On Blonde I turned to his 1975 masterpiece Blood On The Tracks before falling back into his 60s output. I got lost in Dylan. I bought the documentary Don’t Look Back and bought books on his lyrics. I parsed his lyrics trying to find some definition or meaning to them, only to give up and be satisfied with my own interpretations. His music took up three years of my life. I was the better for it.

Blonde On Blonde remains as one of my all time favorite Dylan albums, next to Blood On The Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. When I hear the songs now I’m instantly brought back to that time in my life and am surprised to hear new things in the songs I didn’t hear before. More nooks and crannies for me to discover. There’s a reason this album is constantly named THE greatest of all time. If you haven’t already, you should discover that reason for yourself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Where Is The Criticism For Drake's "Views"?

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Full disclosure: I am not a Drake fan. I don't hate the man as an artist, or think his music is un-listenable by any measure. His last album If You're Reading This It's Too Late I thought was a pretty good album and most of his singles over the years I've enjoyed, however I always feel as if I'm wanting more from him as an MC and as an artist, as if there's something lacking in his lyrics, rhyme schemes and music, whether its aggressiveness, lyrical dexterity, more intricate word play. I don't know, Drake simply doesn't do it for me. However, what I find perplexing, from both fans and critics alike, is the lack of recognizing what he lacks as an MC and not calling him out on his weak rhymes and lyrics. In fact, they continue to call him one of this generation's best.

His latest album Views is probably the most egregious example of this. In a time when social and political commentary is needed from artists who have a platform to speak on such things, it feels like a waste for Drake to continue with the same old themes that can easily be found on his previous albums, or any other artist's albums for that matter. If he doesn't want to be that kind of artist, fine. If he wants to continue rapping about his exes, his money and fame, and how he feels so alone and betrayed, him against the world kind of thing, that's fine too. However, as an artist (an artist who is regarded as one of today's best, no less) he has to find new ways to approach this kind of subject matter instead of resting on his laurels (along with his easily accepting and forever devoted fan base) and making the same songs that we've all heard before.

Drake is an artist caught in a very interesting time for hip hop, a post To Pimp A Butterfly era, or a time for albums like Beyonce's Lemonade, where artists are seeking out different and creative ideas for their music, challenging their audience or whomever will listen. If Drake wants to continue making the same old Drake album, that's fine, and he'll probably still be successful with it, but if you're weighing the greatest artists of this generation, Drake's complacency should knock him down a few pegs. If anybody should demand more out of Drake, it's his fans but Drake is saved only by the production of his albums, not his lyrical ability as an MC and isn't that what has mattered most in hip hop? Isn't there a responsibility to call out MCs who are not up to snuff, especially those that are capable of giving more?

So why aren't critics calling him out on this? Hasn't the standards of hip hop been raised at all to be dissatisfied by Drake's progression as an artist and MC? Spin Magazine's review of Views is as perplexing as it is frustrating. The reviewer, Rebecca Haithcoat, starts off her review by actually nailing all of the flaws stretched across the album saying,"his fourth studio album is overly dramatic, too braggy, so bloated, and a little delusional." and yet, she only casually touches upon the blandness of his lyrics and rhymes, and gives the album a seven out of ten based, what seems like, solely on the production, as if the skills of being an MC on a hip hop album are so unimportant these days that they take a backseat to the producer. Your production will save you and make people overlook what you're clearly lacking, substance and skills. What we praise about MCs like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples, J. Cole and even Earl Sweatshirt, with their lyrical ability and storytelling prowess, somehow doesn't matter when it comes to Drake. Why is that?

The Observer claimed that "the detail--both lyrical and producerly [is that a word?]--is pin-sharp" and XXL boldly stated "In fact, crafting standout lines and quotables is what Drake nails on this album." Really XXL? Really? So you would classify lines like "I could GPS you if you need addressin'" ("Hype"), "Momma hit my phone and said rap's no good/Better than her telling me the check's no good/Now they wanna act like I do no good/Funny cause I really did more than I should" ("9"), or "Yeah, how's that for real?/You toyin' with it like Happy Meal" ("U With Me?"), as standout lines? Time to up your critical game everybody because there are plenty of horrible lines throughout this album, these were just a few examples. As much as I'm not a fan of his, I don't ever recall him having lines THIS bad on previous albums, making the claims of enlisting ghostwriters all the more curious to me.

Look, I don't want to bag on Drake simply for the sake of criticizing him. I just want him to do better. I want all artists in all genres to do better. Artists become boring when they're not pushing or challenging themselves to be better than their contemporaries. Shouldn't critics and fans alike want the same? In order for Drake to get better and for fans to want to demand more out of him as an artist, we need to start calling a spade a spade. Otherwise, what the hell are we all doing here and what else are we expecting?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Stuff I'm Listening To...

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Adia Victoria

Man, its really difficult to turn away from this woman, her voice and the style of music she plays. One song sounds like a haunted, ghostly version of country ("Stuck in the South") that sounds like Loretta Lynn singing on a White Stripes track. Then you find another song that is a rocking, free spirited number that won't allow you to sit still. This combination, along with a great New Orleans blues type song ("Howlin' Shame"), has her debut album one that I'm really excited about. (Being released May 13th on Atlantic Records) Highly recommend giving her a listen.


I stumbled onto Seratones a couple of weeks ago when their performance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert was posted to YouTube and was immediately hooked on to vocalist/guitarist's A.J. Haynes' lovely voice and the sweet rhythms and melodies of their songs. They're carving out a space for themselves with a new and refreshing sound that is a great mix of soul, grunge and classic rock. Really looking forward to catching them on tour and get a taste of their sound live. Their debut album Get Down comes out May 6th.


The Suffers

South By Southwest is a great outlet for artists trying to get noticed and create a buzz. The 2015 SXSW had a noticeable buzz around the 10 piece Houston band The Suffers. Fronted by the awesome vocals of Kam Franklin, this band blends soul, pop, jazz and blues so well that it makes their self titled debut album a whole lot of fun. Also, if you think their album sounds fun, see them live. Their live shows are interactive and such a joy to watch. They are a band that loves playing with each other and are one of the tightest sounding bands you'll ever see live. Bet on it!

Anderson Paak.

Anderson Paak came into my life after watching his stellar interview with Nardwuar during this past SXSW. Then, I kept hearing crazy good reviews of his album Malibu and gave in and listened to it and was sold. The album covers all the bases of his influences, from hip hop soul and r&b. It's far and away the smoothest sounding album out now, with the production and instrumentation sounding so on point. This guy has been around for a few years now and its a shame I'm only stumbling upon his work now. Better late than never right? Well, whatever. I'm glad I've arrived and am looking forward to future releases.

Lera Lynn

Once again, NPR for the win! The site introduced me to singer/songwriter Lera Lynn with her latest album Resistor, released on April 29th. Known for her work for HBO's True Detective, Lynn started out in the Americana genre until she integrated more pop, instrumentation and electronic sounds into her new album. The songs carry a dark approach and feel to them, in some cases haunting. Her voice is incredible and lyrics evocative and powerful. Really happy to have learned about her and hope to grab the album soon.

Sundy Best

I've never been someone that signs on to the bro-country style and most times its an immediate turn off when hearing it. However, there is something very appealing about Sundy Best that I cannot seem to shake for whatever reason. Maybe its their easy to sing melodies, upbeat rhythms or maybe it's the pleasure of seeing two elementary school friends have a whole lot of fun playing together. Either way, I enjoy what I've heard so far and hope to hear more from them soon. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

So, the time had finally come for me to watch the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. What took me so long? It wasn't as if I didn't have the opportunity to see this movie, but it's that I didn't trust it enough to see it in theaters. Instead, I waited until it was on demand at $1.99 before I was comfortable enough seeing it. Now that I've watched it, I'm glad I did. It was a really good biopic and interesting story.

Biopics on musical artists make me nervous because they always tend to focus on the negative aspects of their career so much so that it becomes the main focus of the story and the film, pushing the musical accomplishments to the background. The Ray Charles biopic, Ray is the perfect example of this. They beat you over the head with his drug use and infidelity that it was almost unwatchable for me, and when it was finished, I didn't learn anything about Ray Charles the artist or any insight to how created his music. All learned was that he used drugs and slept with a lot of women. I didn't need a movie to tell me a music star uses drugs and likes to sleep with women. Thanks though.

However, I wasn't really worried so much about those things with Straight Outta Compton as I was more worried about the actual story, ever since I learned that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were producers on the film. That immediately raised a warning flag for me. When artists have control over their own biopic it, at more times than not, becomes the story they want to tell as opposed to what actually happened. When the trailers for the film were released, that's exactly what the movie looked like to me. It looked like a film that was padding the egos of the two main characters of the movie, Cube and Dre. But after watching it, I stand corrected. Thank God I was.

Here's what I liked about the movie. The story was sound, the characters well casted and nothing seemed over the top and outlandish. The story line was fluid and the timeline made sense. There wasn't a lot of jumping around, no flash backs or flash forwards. It was easy to follow and fairly accurate, aside from the highly publicized omission of Dre's violence against women. It kept the group the center of the film's focus and promoted the music and its impact justly, proving once again that you don't need to focus on the negative aspects of a musician to carry the film. N.W.A. was an aggressive hip hop outfit that got in its fair share of trouble and the film portrayed that, but it never overtook the film or overshadowed the musical side of things. It never overtook Dre's motivation to become successful, or Cube's insistence on a fair shot at success or his credit as a formidable MC. It showed the rift that occurred within the group, the sides that were taken and it seemed to be fair with Eazy E, creating him as the one undercutting his group mates only to show him apologetic and sincere later in the film.

The film showed the before and after N.W.A. pretty well too, with Cube embarking on his solo career and how his success bothered the rest of the group. I loved how the film highlighted Cube's diss track "No Vaseline" (one of the greatest diss tracks of all time) and how even N.W.A. knew Cube got 'em with that track. It showed the beginnings of Death Row Records with Dre collaborating with Suge Knight and the makings of his seminal work The Chronic, along with Dre getting tired of all the shenanigans surrounding Death Row and him being pulled to start his own label, Aftermath. It mentioned Eazy's work with Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony.

What I didn't like about the film was how in depth they went with Dre's experience at Death Row records. That was where I saw the film padding Dre's ego and legacy. Also, I didn't think it was necessary in telling the story of N.W.A. I'm not suggesting omitting it entirely but you didn't need the side characters of Snoop Dog or Tupac being introduced into the film. We didn't need to actually see all the craziness at Death Row, the parties, the drugs, the violence. We didn't need to see Dre take the police on a high speed chase. This extra "stuff" directly contributed to the film being two and a half hours long. It didn't add anything to the story of N.W.A, it just simply showed what Dre did after he left.

Also, after watching the movie it didn't tell me anything more about MC Ren and DJ Yella. It portrayed them as less important members of the group, and after Cube and Dre left and Eazy was losing control of Ruthless Records, you were never given an opportunity to learn how they felt about things. You got a sense they remained loyal to Eazy during this time, especially when he was diagnosed with HIV, but there was no insight into how they viewed Dre or Cube's leaving the group. Would've been nice to learn a little more about the less recognizable members of N.W.A. for those who might not know much about them.

Overall, it was a really good and well made film and I'm glad I watched it. It exceeded my expectations as far as biopics are concerned. The film makers didn't fall into the usual trappings of biopics and kept the music and the group the main focus of the film and didn't stray too far. I would recommend seeing this film if you haven't already.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Remembering Prince

I was never much into Prince. Some of it had to do with the timing of his career to when I was born, but most of it had to do with the music I was into it at the different highlights of his career. I was born in 1980, which pretty much wipes out his first six albums for me because I was too young and it was before I took any interest in music. My first realization of Prince came when I was seven when he released Sign o' The Times, but at the time my interest was solely into rock music and the burgeoning hip hop genre. Certain music has a way of introducing itself to you at certain, specific times in your life which causes you to miss other music as its also happening.

Prince came much more into my interests when he made the Batman soundtrack and followed it up with his early '90s work Graffiti Bridge, Diamonds and Pearls, and "The Love Symbol" album. Even though my attention and focus at the time was centered around Metallica and the explosion of grunge music, it was difficult to ignore the noise Prince was making with his music, his name, and his standoff with his record label. I was captivated by Prince, but maintained a distance from his music because I wasn't sure what he and his work were all about. He was a mystery to me and, years later I realized, that was kind of the point.

There are a few artists throughout the history of popular music that I might not have been interested in, for one reason or another, but understood their greatness and genius. Pink Floyd is one of those artists. I never got into Pink Floyd, even after multiple attempts, but I knew they were great simply because I had ears and listened to how they played and how their songs were structured. Prince was that same kind of artist for me. I could enjoy his songs all day everyday and some I knew the words to, but for whatever reason, I just couldn't get into Prince.

But man, did I love watching him perform! Even when the attention was centered around him writing the word "slave" on his cheeks during his battle with his label, his performances were events and they kept you on the edge of your seat, waiting for something to happen. You never knew what you were going to see when watching a Prince performance. The assless outfit he wore during his 1991 performance on the MTV VMAs is the lead example here. Then you have his 2007 Super Bowl Halftime Show, his 2008 Coachella performance when he covered Radiohead's "Creep" and, the mother of all performances, his guitar solo at the 2004 Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony while performing George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", which should go down as one of the greatest solos in the history of pop music. (Dhani Harrison's smile during Prince's solo is everything!)

Prince was a visionary, an innovator, and a flat out musical genius and activist. He stood up for control of his work and advised younger artists getting into the business to be careful of the industry's sly tactics. He secretly gave money to the family of Trayvon Martin and was deeply concerned about human rights. Some people, myself included, didn't quite know what to make of Prince and his music because he was ahead of his time. He knew how to be one step ahead while still maintaining relevance in the present.

What was the greatest thing about Prince? His sense of humor. Yeah, he had a sense of humor! Dave Chappelle's famous re-enactment in "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories" depicted Prince in such a comical way that even the man himself was a fan of the bit. Remember the cover of his single "Breakfast Can Wait" that made the world drop to it's knees, doubled over with laughter? How about his appearance on the television show The New Girl, when he asked Jess if she liked pancakes? Dude, I died.

It was all Prince. He embodied the unexpected, hit you with the punchline without even telling you the joke. He moved and lived in his way. He was creating sounds in his music that was untouchable and unattainable to anyone else. During this time while mourning the loss of this truly great musical icon and legend, I can take solace in knowing that I didn't miss recognizing a legend while he was still here with us, even though I missed the boat on being a Prince fan. Again, some music enters your life at certain, specific times causing you to miss other music. Thankfully, Prince's music is different. It doesn't wait on you. It sticks around forever waiting on you to enter it's life.

Rest in peace legend. You will forever be missed.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thoughts On Babymetal

Babymetal is a Japanese product that fuses metal with J-pop idol music. The group is fronted by three teenage girls dressed in goth-like dresses, who sing pop melodies and hooks, dance choreographed routines all while being backed by a metal band. When you first see a video of the group, "what the fuck is this?" is an appropriate first reaction, especially to anything that fuses two genres and styles from the exact opposite ends of the music spectrum. You only begin to decide whether you hate it or like it only after multiple views and listens.

Babymetal has begun to take the world by storm. They released their eponymous debut album in 2014 and, on April 1st (might be fitting), have released their second album Metal Resistance. The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at #39, making them the highest ranking Japanese artist since 1963. They made their U.S. television debut on April 5th, performing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to thunderous applause and excitement and are about to embark on a world tour.

I first learned of the group last year and ever since I'm still wondering what the hell its all about, which could be me overthinking it or it could be valid. All I know is that its simply not for me and that's fine. However, a few things have crossed my mind when it comes to considering Babymetal.

Upon first seeing them in videos, I was instantly reminded of the dominant pop acts of the late '90s: The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, 'NSYNC, Christina Aguilera. These artists overtook the mainstream music scene from rock music that was slowly slipping into the background of everyone's minds, and rock fans were not happy about it. The biggest arguments against these kind of acts were "They don't write their own music!" and "They don't play any instruments!" They were called manufactured, pre-packaged and, to put it more bluntly, fake.

So fast forward almost 20 years later and looking at Babymetal, can't the same be said about them? Also, why aren't those same arguments being applied by rock fans? Babymetal don't write their own songs and the three teenage girls who front the band have admitted they've never even heard metal before being recruited into the group. Sure, there's a band who play instruments in Babymetal, but no one knows who they are. They are referred to as the Kami Band and that's it. You rarely see their faces in any of their videos and when they perform live they're covered in face paint. The attention is fixed squarely on the girls. Are metal fans okay with that kind of commercialized appeal? If so, for how long can they hold on to the band with that being the main draw?

I'm unsure of the make-up of the group's fan base, whether the majority leans more metal or pop. I find it hard to believe that a lot of pop fans would be drawn to the band given their metal instrumentation, but I really don't know. I'd be interested in learning that.

Being a music fan, I'm always interested in hearing new and different things, and Babymetal is certainly both of those. However, the problem with fusing two genres together is the limitations it can bring. Its reminiscent of how I felt about the whole rap-rock...thing, of the late '90s as well. It fused together two popular genres of music but you couldn't really do anything with it. It had its boundaries and limitations and, after being around for a few years, it inevitably became stale and boring. Limp Bizkit went down with the ship and Kid Rock switched to a more mainstream country/rock sound.

To say that Babymetal faces the same fate isn't an outrageous thought. Becoming boring and stale is the most common disease infecting regular everyday pop music. The genre is known for having a short shelf life. Also, metal is a genre that too often finds itself complacent and recycled, staying true to certain "norms" that end up preventing the style from growing and expanding. Sure, Babymetal can toy with time signatures and meters and that's all great, but the everyday music consumer isn't going to know the difference. They're going to be considering what they hear, and if what they hear continues to be the same kind of thing without any noticeable difference, then they're on to something else.

Now, with all that said, I do see benefits on the flip side of the Babymetal coin and it starts with the group's metal foundation. Again, metal is a genre that repeats itself into complacency and what better way to get out of the tried and true groove than to have something completely different and weird to consider? Babymetal is exactly that. It gives metal fans and other metal bands something else to look at musically. They are, metaphorically speaking, throwing a wrench into things, gumming up the works. In essence, they're giving metal a kick in the ass.

Babymetal is also making fans re-evaluate certain closely held beliefs or ideologies of metal. You can find comments on any of their YouTube videos that declare how "this isn't what metal is about" or "this isn't what metal is supposed to be." This group could be upending certain "truths" to the metal genre altogether by forcing people to ask themselves what it means to be "metal", similar to the generic question of what is to be "punk"? I've learned throughout the years of being a music fan that defining genres in those terms is horseshit and reduces the intelligence of a fan base rather than promoting the individuality of the people who are a part of it. If Babymetal can make people re-evaluate how they listen to music, whatever the genre, then music as a whole benefits.

Personally, I don't give a shit about who likes Babymetal and for what reason. You like what you like. Even though the group's music isn't for me, I'm interested to see the ripple effect of their success. If nothing else, I'm glad they have guitar solos. I miss guitar solos.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Album Review: Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth

The leading figure in modern country music is back! Sturgill Simpson has just released (Friday, April 15th) his new album A Sailor's Guide to Earth, a sort of open letter to his newly born son. If you're someone like me, you're excited to hear this album after hearing the formidable country classic Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and this album does not disappoint making it a great follow up. With this new release, Simpson continues to stretch the boundaries of country music, infusing other sounds and genres into the country twang foundation of his songs and combining it with subject matter that is personal, emotive and easily relatable.

The first track "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" is a really good album opener in the sense that it slowly slips you into the mood of the record. It starts with the sounds of the shore, the waves of the ocean, a ringing bell, seagulls in the background, all metaphors for the life his son is beginning to embark on (these sounds are a recurring theme throughout the album), until the piano comes in and settles you in to the environment that Sturgill creates. Then the second half of the song explodes into a fiery groove of soul with the horn section of The Dap Kings providing the joyful celebration of this new life Simpson is introducing to the world.

The Dap Kings are on five of the tracks, and their domination continues with "Keep It Between The Lines", a  song that resembles a kind of street education for his son, with a "you can have fun but don't go crazy and lose yourself" message that is backed by a groove that will commandeer your senses and body, forcing you to move to its infectious swing.

All of this isn't to say Simpson abandons his Kentucky bred sound either. "Sea Stories" really brings the slow, thick southern drawl and adds to it with "Brace For Impact (Live A Little)", a barroom stomper if I've ever heard one. The country blues sound is even adopted for a tender and reflective cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom" which caused me, someone who immersed himself in Nirvana's music during the early 90's as a teenager, to give it multiple listens just to confirm it was the same song. Its a rendition that speaks to the soul and is equally haunting as it is comforting. Its clear when listening to it that Sturgill cares about the song, its delivery and performance.

There's an imaginative construction to these songs, something that is hard to find in country music as a whole. Simpson didn't create these songs or build this album on a straight line allowing an easy listen for his audience. His country voice is the only constant reminder that this is in fact a country artist playing country songs, everything else about the album makes you question if you're really listening to a country album and I can't begin to tell you how refreshing it is to have a country artist make country sound a little different.

In my review of Margo Price's fantastic album Midwest Farmer's Daughter, I made mention that my only problem with it is that it recycles the usual themes constantly found in country music. Yeah, there's none of those same old country themes on this album. Sturgill is looking around, finding inspiration in different things and its what makes him such an interesting, cutting and dynamic figure in country music. He's not following the norm, not taking the road constantly traveled. He's forged his own path. This album, along with his previous release, is a blatant contradiction to all those "country music only sings about beer, losing your wife, girls in cutoff jeans, pickup trucks and dogs" accusations that I've rolled my eyes at since I was in middle school.

All of this is a credit to Simpson, who with this album is making it clear he isn't afraid to challenge himself or country music's loyal fans. He produced this album himself instead of Dave Cobb. He creates a unique sonic landscape while keeping the songs rooted in traditional country fashion. He proceeds to carry us through different story lines, scenarios and lessons while bucking some traditional country music trends as well. None more so than with the album's closer, the kick ass rocker "Call to Arms", with a theme synonymous with Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.", with a support our troops but not the war and policies mantra. "I done Syria Afganistan Iraq and Iran/North Korea tell me where does it end/Well the bodies keep piling up with every day/How many more of 'em they gonna send?". A Navy man himself, Sturgill isn't questioning his service and sacrifice, as well as the many others who have served, but is wondering if the powers that be actual know the answer to that final question. He follows that up with what is the lesson for his son, "Well son I hope you don't grow up/Believing that you've got to be a puppet to be a man."

With his last album, Simpson made a name for himself. On his new release, with lyrics and subject matter that wanders away from the standard mainstream country fare, he's separated himself as an artist and as a visionary musician. Sturgill Simpson is not a yes man, willing to give in easily to anything that is simply placed in front of him. He's searching beyond that for a song with a purpose. A Sailor's Guide To Earth is an album meant for his son, with a purpose we all can learn something from.

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