Rapid Fire Reviews (2 Chainz, Maren Morris, Juice WRLD)

Image result for 2 chainz rap or go to the league2 Chainz – Rap Or Go To The League

Usually one of the most cartoonish and comedic faces in rap, 2 Chainz’s fifth studio album Rap Or Go To The League – apparently executive produced by basketball star LeBron James – sees him dial the punchline bars back and address some more serious issues, all while maintaining the vibrant personality we know him for. A lot of Chainz’s recent work has been seriously inconsistent, but this project is a huge improvement, showing sides of him that we’ve never seen before and varying his instrumentals a lot more. With the addition of a litany of great guests, there’s always something surprising around the corner on this project. It’s definitely his most well-rounded work yet, even if there are a couple moments where we’re reminded that 2 Chainz is far from the most technically gifted rapper out there.

The project opens with the lengthy and contemplative slow burner “Forgiven” which emphasizes the themes behind the album’s title, signifying to the listener that this isn’t exactly the same 2 Chainz we’ve gotten in the past. It opens with a recording of Chainz being announced in a basketball starting lineup before speaking from the perspective of his younger self reflecting on gun violence in his neighbourhood, even calling out multiple friends he’s lost by name, and thinking that the only way to make it out is to become a rapper or a basketball star. A spoken word piece emphasizes the way others view the value of black people before the track ends with a police siren and a gunshot. It’s an incredibly heavy start to a 2 Chainz album, and it’s certainly some very compelling material especially coming from the less rhythmic, more confessional delivery Chainz is known for. Chainz’s heavier material is concealed by some fun instrumentals as the project goes on, transitioning to the beautiful soul sample of “Threat 2 Society” that continues retelling his upbringing.

The opening run of 4 tracks is very strong, especially the celebratory “Money In The Way” that combines trap hi-hats with an OutKast-esque horn section. It’s essentially a giant flex that exists outside the more mature themes of the project, but the unbridled joy that can creep into 2 Chainz’s delivery at times is one of the greatest things about him – it’s great to hear him on these more soulful instrumentals after going full minimalist trap recently. Young Thug and Travis Scott actually show up on the next two tracks, but they’re easily some of the weakest here because 2 Chainz’s personality should never be restrained by a basic trap framework – “High Top Versace” and “Whip” fit in most with what’s going on at the moment, and I had been enjoying Chainz switching it up more until that point.

2 Chainz seriously went all-out with his guests on this project, and most of them seriously elevate these tracks. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for Kendrick Lamar’s lower-key appearance on the experimental and quirky trap banger “Momma I Hit a Lick”, but this has become my most played track on this project by far. I absolutely love how much these two switch up their flows and voices as the track goes on, it fits with just how weird that instrumental is. The track is such an exhilarating, trippy experience … when that unsettling extra synth comes in halfway through Lamar’s verse? Perfect. “Rule The World” with Ariana Grande is another excellent track, dropping right into Grande’s wheelhouse with a throwback 90s piano jam. Grande knocks the chorus out of the park and paves the way for Chainz to come in and complete the picture with some smooth bars as he dedicates the track to his wife, who he married last year. It’s great that these two have connected so well after the whole “7 Rings” controversy too – Chainz even introduces the track “I Said Me” with a sample of the original Sound of Music tune. We get a couple more great verses at the end from Lil Wayne and E-40 on the retro track “2 Dollar Bill” and even the odd combination of Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black on the track “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is” – even if that hook from Chainz drones on a bit.

Even with all the features, my favourite track of all on this project might be the solo track “NCAA”, which is essentially the perfect storm of goofy 2 Chainz lines, the themes of the album, and a huge adrenaline shot of an instrumental. “Who me?” 2 Chainz grins at the beginning. “I take this open beat”. Then it drops, and each line is more ridiculous – in a good way – than the last. The gang vocals of the chorus roar in, serving as both a criticism of the mentality Chainz introduces on the first track and the most genuinely thrilling moment on the whole project.

Rap Or Go To The League essentially brings together all the best things about 2 Chainz, and then adds a surprising degree of poignant political commentary on top of it all. There are certainly quite a few moments where his weaknesses as an actual rapper are exposed, but this is one of the most simultaneously fun and important rap projects in a while.

Favourite Tracks: NCAA, Momma I Hit A Lick, Money In The Way, Rule The World, Threat 2 Society

Least Favourite Track: High Top Versace

Score: 8/10

An image of Morris lying down on a bed of leaves while holding a pink flower, wearing a pink bikini top and yellow fur coat.Maren Morris – GIRL

The latest female country star to embrace her pop crossover potential, Maren Morris’ sophomore album GIRL is here after breaking through to the mainstream with a Zedd collaboration. If Morris was going to pop, there were a lot of worse ways she could have done it. Superproducer Greg Kurstin shows up sporadically across this project, and someone like him knows exactly how to maximize the potential of Morris’ powerhouse vocals. She doesn’t abandon her country roots entirely either, with a couple of tracks still fully in that lane, but honestly Morris is most exciting here going in a pop/soul direction. Despite a few awkward lyrical shortcomings, GIRL for the most part evades the sophomore curse.

The opening title track is one of Kurstin’s, and it’s certainly a strong way to kick it off. Most of Morris’ instrumentation is still slightly twangy and guitar-driven, but the vocals on top of it are undeniably pop. We get a couple of pretty standard chord progressions here, but what we’re really being introduced here is the soulfulness in Morris’ vocals as she attacks some high notes and harmonies before dropping into an anthemic and uplifting chorus. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there’s not a lot that voice couldn’t carry. The real crossover fun starts on the next track, “The Feels”, featuring an old-school bouncy country guitar riff and an electric finger-snap pattern that’s used perfectly when the instrumental drops out for a full two counts, Morris storming back to hit a huge note that kicks off the chorus with a rapid-fire swung delivery. It’s about as perfect of a marriage between her two styles while keeping her infectious and playful spirit that I could have imagined. “Gold Love” is another one that does it pretty well, mostly a catchy, somewhat soulful pop track, but it features a brief country breakdown where Morris drops her vocals down for a quick break that keeps it interesting.

Most of the greatest tracks here are actually Morris going full soulful R&B diva, however. She’s got the vocals to flit through some seriously impressive vocal runs and a full range that not a lot of her country contemporaries do, and when they’re applied to something as direct as a track like the doo-wop inspired “Make Out With Me”, it’s pretty moving. Morris is out here to take exactly what she wants, and you can hear it through the power and conviction in her vocals – she attacks her biggest notes with some country gravel! The best track of all is “RSVP”, hiding in the back half of the album. The track also plays into the more sensual side of Morris’ vocal tone, simultaneously assertive and inviting, but the energy provided by the trap hi-hats and that layered, harmonized chorus that shows off the best parts of her high range make it an easy standout.

Some of the most overtly country tracks on here do fit in well with Morris’ energy, but I can’t help agreeing with the pop producers who initiated this change in feeling that the tone of her voice was meant more for another style. Of course, as the “yeehaw agenda” creeps further and further into pop culture, it’s a lot of fun to hear Morris collaborate with the Brothers Osborne, who have just about the most traditional country vocals going right now, but their juxtaposition feels a little too far removed, and when Morris is given huge vocal moments that require the heavier country instrumentation to stop it feels like they’re trying to hard to mix genres – it works better just hearing her natural accent on a melody more suited to her vocal style.

There are quite a few tracks where Morris and her collaborators are embracing a more country-based singer-songwriter storytelling style of lyrics as well that feels somewhat inauthentic. Morris clearly has a lot of fun portraying the disruptive, flirtatious party girl, and hearing her sing something like the starry-eyed, acoustic “A Song for Everything” makes my eyes roll just a bit. Although “Common”, her duet with Brandi Carlile, is pretty fantastic! Their harmonies together give me goosebumps, Carlile’s natural ruggedness and emotion anchoring Morris’ cleaner high notes. On the other hand as well, a track like “Great Ones” is a nice track with more poetic lyrical content as well – for whatever reason, I always love when country artists take a lyrical concept that’s typical to their genre, usually religion for Morris, and use it in an entirely different context. The last couple tracks on the project are a nice calm-down, especially “To Hell & Back”, a well-written country pop melody that once again frames some great areas of Morris’ voice.

I’d love to see Morris work with an even wider range of more pop-oriented producers in the future, because this crossover is a pretty solid effort that could easily be expanded upon – I hope something from this project eventually catches on at pop radio! Morris’ soulful vocals are the shining centerpiece, with a couple outstanding tracks I’ll be returning to a lot.

Favourite Tracks: RSVP, The Feels, Make Out With Me, Common, To Hell & Back

Least Favourite Track: A Song For Everything

Score: 7/10

Image result for death race for loveJuice WRLD – Death Race For Love

Juice WRLD, and the movement that he takes up de facto leadership of in the wake of some unfortunate losses, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical phenomena going on right now. His brand of melodic emo-trap, taking the energy and spirit of mid-2000s pop punk and funneling it into a modern hip-hop context, is a combination that I never could have anticipated having such a profound impact on so many listeners. After exploding into the mainstream with “Lucid Dreams”, Juice’s sophomore project is here – and apparently, he made it in only 4 days. With a length running well over an hour, I was dreading going into this project – more often than not, the melodramatics of the genre aren’t really for me – but Juice WRLD honestly pulls things off pretty well here. The album is still way too long and loaded with filler tracks and questionable lyrics, but Juice’s ear for melody and refreshing musical presence fills out Death Race for Love with more hits than misses.

The project opens with one of its strongest, “Empty” – Juice is honestly at his best when he leans furthest into the pop-punk direction his delivery is so clearly lovingly inspired by, rather than coming at it trying to make a hip-hop or a trap song first and foremost. We get this somber piano loop and a rather subdued section of hi-hats as Juice drops this catchy but overwhelmingly dark chorus on top, nailing that emo inflection in the process and just making me marvel at how well this collision of genres works. “I was put here to lead the lost souls”, he sings, and judging by the way people have received his work, he’s not too far off. These young artists who drop lyrics like Juice does have found a unique way to connect with people and open up about depression in an eye-opening and vivid way. The only track that does this pop-punk-with-a-trap-beat thing better might be the single “Robbery”, where Juice drops his catchiest and most heart-wrenchingly emotional delivery chorus yet over a legitimately beautiful twinkling piano instrumental. This genuinely could have been something like a Simple Plan song from the early 2000s, and it’s so fascinating to hear.

“Fast” is another one that people immediately gravitated to when this dropped, and it absolutely sounds like a smash hit. There’s a kind of glossy sheen on it that makes it sound like an inescapable Post Malone track, but Juice’s softer singing voice is honestly really nice to hear. I also really appreciate how Juice opts to switch things up a bit, it would have been easy to fall into one sound across a long and boring hour and 12 minutes, but there are a couple surprises like the tracks “Syphilis” and “Ring Ring” along the way. The former sounds like an XXXTENTACION tribute, Juice pulling off the hyper-aggressive scream-rap style a lot better than I would have expected, while the latter teams up with electronic artist Rvssian for a bass-heavy and filtered track with crunchy guitars and another great hook.

There’s a lot about Juice that might be a bit of an acquired taste, but I think I’ve listened to “Lucid Dreams” enough at this point to get it. Quite a few of these songs open and seem a little disjointed and messy, but then something about the melody Juice sings, or his cadence, or just how earnest about it he is, clicks together and sticks in your brain. A song like “HeMotions” (awful title aside) seems like an obvious skip at the start with his spacey and awkward “muddy emotions” hook that features an emoji reference in the first of a line of pretty bad lyrics across the whole project, but it seriously sneaks up on you as the beat adapts to fit it by the end of the track.

With a largely improvisational and overlong hip-hop album, there was bound to be quite a lot that falls completely flat. “Big” is the first huge miss on the project, and really makes it clear that a lot of this project was improvised on the spot while not completely sober. There are a lot of videos where Juice makes it clear just how impressive of a freestyler he is, but on these looser tracks his melodies go out the window, killing his biggest strength of all. He essentially becomes a below-average Auto-Tuned mumble rapper with a couple awkward moments trying to shoehorn too many words into a bar. Juice sometimes has a tendency to put some of his most off-putting lyrics directly in his choruses, and elongating that “gorgeous” in “Flaws & Sins” so much he sounds almost country is probably the worst offender here. Most of the 2nd half of the album is considerably weaker, with more than a few tracks where the charm that’s barely holding things together finally gives out and Juice’s lack of musical ability is really revealed – tracks like “Desire”, “10 Feet” and “Rider” are pretty headache-inducing and could easily have been cut.

Juice is a young and inconsistent artist still trying to find his footing, but its undeniable how many people he’s able to genuinely reach out to and comfort. It’s really looking like his is the next major wave in music going forward, and I’m sure he’ll only improve with time.

Favourite Tracks: Robbery, Empty, Fast, Ring Ring

Least Favourite Track: 10 Feet

Score: 6/10

Advertisements

gnash – we

Officially back for the new year – this should hopefully be the first of three new posts this week.

Image result for gnash weGenreless artist gnash finally puts together a debut studio album after dropping a flurry of singles over the past couple of years – some of which made it onto this project, alongside the now-ancient smash hit “I hate u, I love u”. Difficult to pin down, gnash both sings and raps over the duration of the project with a sort of distinctive, almost pop-punk inflection to his voice. While his introspective lyrics surrounding struggles with self-worth and dealing with loneliness often border on eye-rollingly melodramatic, there are certainly a few instances here where he strikes a genuinely moving emotional nerve. The instrumentals are similarly inconsistent, some more exciting upbeat, electronic material breaking up the safer acoustic patterns, but we shows sparks of potential in gnash that I wasn’t sure were there.

After the shorter intro track “happy never after” that awkwardly combines some near-spoken word rapping, minimal acoustic chords, and some badly mixed harmonies on one of the poppiest choruses here, the project drops into its clear best song “imagine if”. Featuring some soulful piano chords supporting a chorus where gnash’s singing is at its best, they mute in favor of a more electronic segment in the verse that better fits his speedier delivery. Good luck getting that ay-oh-ay segment that shows up with the slightest of trap beats out of your head – along with gnash’s more subdued vocal performance, not leaning into his more obnoxious nasal tone, the various segments of the track from decidedly disparate musical worlds are added and subtracted at perfect times.

Image result for gnash

There are a couple tracks across the rest of the project that sound just as good as “imagine if” in theory, but gnash’s execution brings me out of it. “nobody’s home” is another smartly composed pop track featuring a tried-and-true chord progression that’s augmented in the chorus in a satisfying way, but the 25-year-old gnash’s lyrics make him sound like an overly dramatic teenager going through his first breakup and the nonchalant delivery of his raps doesn’t sound like he’s taking it seriously, just using the form due to its popularity.

There are quite a few times where gnash’s lyrics really bring me out of the whole experience, like he’s going way too far to describe his pain in melodramatic and sensational terms rather than hitting something more poignant through a less-is-more approach – especially on a track like “insane”, which concludes with a spoken-word segment explaining that he no longer agrees with its sentiment, the joy with which he gets oddly morbid seems out-of-place. “the broken hearts club” is another one that seems almost like it’s trying to manipulative the listener into feeling something, inviting the listener to join him in a community wallowing in sadness – “it’s easier than love”, he sings at the conclusion.

“dear insecurity”, on the other hand, sees gnash’s songwriting at its best. His approach is really not all that different, but there’s something a lot more believable in his words, listing his various anxieties but then flipping his verses at the end to be more embracing of himself for a more complex analysis of the issue. The deep-voiced and soulful Ben Abraham makes you really feel the hook, and The Broken Hearts Clubgnash singing it himself at the end over some more minimal chords is a genuinely affecting moment. gnash embraces the more guitar-driven style his vocals seem more suited for on the track “t-shirt”, featuring some live drums and a genuinely pop-punk chord progression as he reaches up into his upper register, his emotional delivery actually matching up to some of his more dramatic claims. Again, despite some pretty laughable songwriting (“karma tends to be a b-word”…??), the track functions pretty well as an homage to a sound of the past that gnash should explore more rather than his hip-hop acoustics.

Image result for gnash live

“pajamas” and “feel better” are fun enough pop tracks that has me wondering if gnash would be more effective as a producer on other people’s material – the latter especially is a welcome change from the dark clouds that colour the rest of the tracklisting as he sings about that one person’s ability to bring him out of the dumps with a more hopeful, upbeat vocal performance.

Despite some of the better aspects of the tracklisting here, we is weighed down by some more confusing choices that are too prominent to fully ignore – mostly on the lyrical side of things. While his combination of genres and ear for catchy pop hooks have the potential to be exciting, gnash’s debut is inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: imagine if, dear insecurity, t-shirt

Least Favourite Track: insane

Score: 4/10

 

Trippie Redd – Life’s A Trip

Image result for life's a tripSteadily becoming one of the leaders rising to the top of the new class of alternative rock and pop punk-influenced emo rap artists, Trippie Redd’s debut studio album is a melancholy, raw project framed by Redd’s unique, strained and distressed vocal delivery. He references Lil Wayne’s music on the project, and he comes across here as the most obvious offspring of Wayne’s ill-conceived but undoubtedly influential 2010 rock album, Rebirth. Ultimately, Redd’s vocal delivery verges on painful to listen to, and his ridiculous lyricism and meandering, directionless moody emo-trap song structures greatly let down the novelty of the act that he is.

Trippie Redd is often lauded for his lack of Auto-Tune usage, unlike his contemporaries in the genre, simply presenting his raw, unfiltered vocals that supposedly better express the darker thoughts that pop up in the new landscape of hip-hop. This would be a perfectly appropriate comment if Redd’s vocals weren’t so hard to listen to – Redd seems to take this too far, straining his vocals and every so often extending a note too far with a garbled scream. Young Thug’s worst tendencies are right at home on this album, appearing on the track “Forever Ever”. The two each throw their voice around with reckless abandon, forgetting that a concrete musical rhythm and structure exists for a reason. The songs on the project that extend past the usual 2 or so minutes that most Soundcloud rapper adhere to feel completely self-indulgent, Redd repeating the same refrains without a hint of a memorable, catchy melody as he runs up and down the scales completely off-key.

Image result for trippie redd

It really does feel like all of these songs are freestyles at times, like he goes into the booth without an idea of what’s going to happen. The track “Bird Sh*t” sees him suddenly latching onto a single musical phrase in the middle of a verse and repeating it, seemingly just because it fit his liking in the moment regardless of how it worked with the rest of the song. Longer tracks “BANG!” and “How You Feel” are even more excruciating, Redd singing the entire chorus with his strained, yelling vocal on a song that extends to nearly 5 minutes on the former and sounding completely out of place on the guitar instrumental on the latter. It’s a few guitar chords that simply loop for 4 and a half minutes, accompanied by a higher-pitched wail in the background and Trippie repeating the title in his often pitchier higher register seemingly emulating a rock n roll frontman, occasionally breaking the cycle to offer a ridiculous lyrical simile or absurd melodramatic proclamation. Travis Scott-featuring single “Dark Knight Dummo” goes the other way, the beat a complete sensory overload that tries to do too much, and the only thing that could draw attention from the instrumental is of course the same strained vocal on top of all of the background mess.

Redd does attract some great collaborators to this project, and at times you can see some good songs hiding underneath all of the mess coming from Redd himself – the legendary Scott Storch lends a catchy, poppier instrumental to the track “Taking A Walk”, which is over too quickly and is let down by Redd’s vocals, for example. Sometimes, the good song is literally hiding underneath – Redd adds the Diplo collaboration “Wish” to the tracklist with a new “Trippie Mix”, after he expressed his disdain with the changes Diplo made to the song on his own project. Turns out, Diplo simply removed all of Redd’s terrible ideas and turned it into an enjoyable song. Redd reinserts a delayed echo affect that throws off the melody and some awful harmonized vocals completely out of sync with the rest of the song that left me shaking my head in disbelief at how passionately he felt about such incompetence.

Image result for trippie redd live

Redd’s rap tracks do fare slightly better, especially “Oomps Revenge”, where he clears up his voice and raps over a great chopped up soul sample – he kind of sounds like Chance the Rapper. “Missing My Idols” had potential, but his apparent thought process that an obnoxious vocal delivery means clearer expression of self reappears even here and he loses the rhythm a bit in the second half of the song extending his words too far and raising his voice.

After pioneer XXXTENTACION’s death, I can only see this style continuing to grow and prosper – there’s evidently something about it that does succeed at drawing people in. Whatever it is, I personally have no idea how to relate to or understand it.

Favourite Tracks: Oomps Revenge, Taking A Walk

Least Favourite Track: Gore

Score: 2/10

Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

Veteran pop-rock “band” Panic! at the Disco, down to its final member in multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Brendon Urie, releases its second studio album as a solo act which greatly improves on predecessor “Death of a Bachelor”. Fresh from a stint on Broadway, Urie elevates his usual flair for the dramatic here and delivers some impressively dynamic vocal lines. Most importantly though, Panic! pulls somewhat of a Paramore here and modernizes their sound, joining the current musical conversation without losing what made them unique in the first place. Their sixth studio album is potentially their poppiest, but roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s theatricality remains to ground these triumphant pop hooks in the darker, baroque atmosphere that’s always coloured their work. There are a few awkward moments of transition here and there, but Pray for the Wicked is one of their best.

Image result for brendon urie

Urie immediately floors the gas pedal on his huge voice when the first anthemic chorus of opening track “(F**k A) Silver Lining” explodes in listeners’ earphones, and he doesn’t let go for the rest of the project. He’s a true rock-and-roll frontman delivering some of the most pop-oriented and melodic hooks of his career, and the result is unique and refreshing. The singles across the board are some of the strongest in their career, carried by a constant, driving energy and smartly written melodies. The fast-paced and frenetic “Silver Lining” sees Urie hitting some seriously impressive high notes over a blaring horn section and a sample from a 1950s R&B track before leading into “Say Amen (Saturday Night)”, which is quintessential Panic! material with a modern update. The guitars in the background are accompanied by a chopped-up vocal sample and clacking percussion verging on a hip-hop sound, providing the perfect backdrop of crackling energy for the chorus, delivered through layered vocals and a deafening guitar pattern that Urie somehow manages to overpower.

“High Hopes” is another great single choice – I love the melody in the pre-chorus that builds up to the marching-band percussion and yet another immediately catchy chorus from Urie, which shows just how effective it is near the end of the track when the instrumental starts to strategically drop out. Urie sells all of this perfectly – his voice is built for Broadway – it’s one of the most capable male vocals in mainstream music right now. The very strong first half continues with “Roaring 20s”, which belongs in a legitimate rock musical (that half-time breakdown!) and “Dancing’s Not A Crime”, which wraps the listener in a very full sound with some warm, old-school funk pop chords. Quite a few of these tracks are great for similar reasons: an energetic horn section, music that cuts out at just the right time, a shouted anthemic chorus, but Urie sounds like he’s having so much fun, and it’s such a welcome change from the band, that it really doesn’t matter. He nods to a personal shift in character on “Old Fashioned”, believing to have been stuck in the persona of the 17-year old who initially formed the band until this album.

Image result for brendon urie live

Panic!’s journey crossing over into the more culturally relevant styles of pop, hip-hop and EDM production doesn’t come without a few hitches, one of which is their team-up with electronic DJ Dillon Francis on “Hey Look Ma, I Made It”. Like most featured vocalists in modern EDM tracks, Francis buries Urie’s vocals in the mix a little bit more than usual, his chopped-up horn samples dominating the poppiest song on the whole project. Urie’s voice is not something that should ever be restrained. By the time a trap beat drops near the end of the project and the chanting group vocals are at their peak, it feels like we’re listening to an average Galantis track. The second half of the album is noticeably weaker than the frenetic opening 6-track run. On an album full of spectacular choruses, “One Of The Drunks” feels like it falls short, something about the sample in the back not quite clicking with the melody line. Urie’s lyrics can be periodically distracting as well, sometimes not maturing alongside the musical direction. “The Overpass” falls into clichés: we’ve heard about the “sketchy girls and lipstick boys, troubled love and high-speed noise” before. Panic! returns to familiar tropes that the audience who grew up on their pop-punk material will recognize a few times.

Pray for the Wicked is still a great return to form for a Brendon Urie who seems to be sitting comfortably on top of the world at the moment. His many successes continue with his most cohesive project yet, delivering 11 slick choruses that will be sung in arenas for years to come.

Favourite Tracks: Dancing’s Not A Crime, Say Amen (Saturday Night), Roaring 20s, (F**k A) Silver Lining, High Hopes

Least Favourite Track: The Overpass

Score: 8/10

5 Seconds of Summer – Youngblood

Image result for youngblood cover 5sosI really gotta listen to this huh? Look at those sales! These 5SOS fans are ridiculously loyal. Anyway, pop-punk band 5 Seconds of Summer release their third studio album and first since the disbanding of OneDirection, a major component of their rise to prominence. Working more closely with major producers and writers in the realm of pure pop, as the band grows older they grow out of the cringeworthy edge that coloured their earlier work, making some more polished and modern pop music. Even so, most of these tracks feel like they’re missing the soul and energy, as if they went too far in the new direction of sanitization. A few of these tracks connect surprisingly well, but for the most part they stand just on the edge of being good, each falling victim to an overused trope or a melody line that doesn’t quite line up.

Image result for 5 seconds of summer

5SOS are less reliant on their unique status as a more abrasive punk band setting them apart from others here, making some pretty by-the-numbers pop music. Of course, some of the people they’re working with are absolute pros and manage to craft some pretty catchy tunes, but there isn’t much about the delivery of frontman Luke Hemmings to keep me wanting to return. The opening title track “Youngblood” is a strange juxtaposition of energy, the chorus dropping down to a minimalistic rhythmic bassline while Hemmings’ distorted vocal screams the words. Fellow single “Want You Back”, written by superproducer Steve Mac (who recently stuck “Shape Of You” in our heads permanently), fares slightly better, integrating the louder lead guitars of the band into the bouncy pop mix well with a decent falsetto chorus melody, but as the tracks go on, the repetition makes you realize that initial head nod wasn’t deserved – there are other people doing this kind of thing in a much more lasting and engaging way.

This is the issue with most of these tracks – they open in a promising way, and the logistics of the track slowly diminish its value to the end. A track like “Valentine” throws away its promising doo-wop intro immediately and becomes something completely different, the darker vocal tones not meshing with the bright synths and modern percussion. “Lie To Me” is a legitimately great track that shows that there is some potential here – this is classic boy band material, using the other members to create some genuinely stunning harmonies, the chorus melody line sounding like the kind of simple yet heartbreakingly expressive pop melodies of the 90s. The band’s two-track team-up with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and their frequent producer Jacob Sinclair on “Why Won’t You Love Me” and “Woke Up In Japan” yields some pretty fun results as well, Cuomo embracing the inherently cheesy nature of the band in the perfect way that only he could on the former, contributing some hilarious self-deprecating lyrics about rejection in a soaring chorus.

Image result for 5 seconds of summer live

The songs already start to feel obnoxiously derivative of each other around “Better Man”, track 8, which lifts the same syncopated rhythm in the main riff from most of the trop-pop hit songs that dominated the radio waves in 2017 – most of the album’s ending few tracks feel like diet versions of Ed Sheeran songs, not written as expressively as Sheeran can. The previous track “If Walls Could Talk” can’t be saved by Julia Michaels’ songwriting, falling into yet another build-up into a distorted singalong chorus as they attempt to display some kind of unique identity that can’t coordinate itself with the new sheen placed on the surrounding production. The most awkward tonal collision might come on “More”, however, a driving, buzzy and almost EDM synth line dominating most of the space of the track before a drop, also structured like an EDM song, stumbles clumsily into the most directly rock n’ roll guitars at the forefront of the mix.

Youngblood certainly sees the band grow up and better attempt to integrate themselves into the current musical landscape and conversation, but end up playing it far too safe, failing to place a distinctive mark on most of these songs. Quite a few of them could easily have been recorded by anyone else. The lyrics and Hemmings’ delivery frequently sell these mostly well-structured pop melodies just short.

Favourite Tracks: Lie To Me, Moving Along, Woke Up In Japan

Least Favourite Track: More

Score: 3/10

Fall Out Boy – M A N I A

Fall Out Boy - Mania.pngVeteran rock band Fall Out Boy’s seventh studio album, delayed for four months after their bassist Pete Wentz explicitly admitted the songs weren’t good enough in an interview, is certainly a lot more impressive than I’m sure most people expected. However, as evidenced by opening EDM misfire “Young & Menace” remaining on the project, M A N I A is still inconsistent and directionless at times. But standing at only 10 tracks, there is not much room for filler, and Patrick Stump’s trademark vocals and the band’s dedication to heavier instrumentals are still as powerful as they’ve ever been.

Image result for fall out boy

It appears that Fall Out Boy was at least partially inspired by labelmate Paramore’s transition into retro-pop on their fantastic After Laughter, offering some similar tropical pop chords infused with their trademark style of guitar riffs on “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. The effect of someone with a voice as commanding as Stump’s transitioning to a more modern instrumental is quite powerful – he hits some huge notes in the chorus, bringing the stadium rock anthem into a new era. As the tribal drums hit in the track’s bridge and he holds that note on the final “knife” to his voice’s breaking point, I can already picture the scores of crowds singing along to that final chorus.

“The Last Of The Real Ones” brings frequent Weeknd collaborator Illangelo on board, and the track evokes the same kind of indescribable dark energy that a song like “The Hills” has. I give credit to the band for still sticking fast to emphasis on the musicality of the band, actual instruments (especially that impressive drum work!) prominent on every song here where most rock bands turn to more produced pop beats and synths – where this would frequently sound dated, Fall Out Boy bring just enough modern elements in to keep the classic idea of the heavier rock band at the forefront of pop culture alive.

The back to back tracks “Church” and “Heaven’s Gate” might be the band’s best work in years, Stump channelling every ounce of soul in his voice for some more R&B influenced tracks. The latter especially features a beautiful doo-wop instrumental and Stump harmonizing with himself on some seriously impressive high notes before giving the chorus everything he has, showing restraint and emotional vulnerability at just the right moments.

Image result for fall out boy live 2017

There are certainly some lyrical shortcomings on the project that bring you out of the songs for a second – especially when comparing the group to the work of some fellow surviving bands lumped together under that “emo” umbrella from the mid-2000s. Where many have grown up in their lyrical themes, there’s something a little weird about hearing a 33-year old structure a chorus around the lyric “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker colour” on “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)”. Adding a few awkwardly shoehorned pop-cultural references into the mix only exacerbates this – especially when they’re as poorly timed as their villainizing of Tonya Harding on “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea”.

The juxtaposition of that track with preceding “Champion” is noticeable for the repetition of the same tired tropes of self-empowerment they already had a big hit with in “Centuries”. They do know what they’re doing though – “Champion” is much less contrived than the former, and when everything collides together at the end it is legitimately an electrifying experience despite being derivative. Stump still possesses a live wire of a voice that can break through the mediocrity. The project can’t seem to settle on a concrete direction either, jumping between dance-inspired electronic guitar effects, finger-snap poppier tracks, and even a strange feature from Nigerian artist Burna Boy that attempts to jump on the dancehall trend.

The project is at its best when Fall Out Boy adhere to what got them here in the first place, making it less blatantly obvious that they’re trying to fit in when they incorporate some more modern pop trends on tracks like “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. Still, even on such an inconsistent project, you have to give the band credit for sticking to their guns as much as they do, still capable of making some pretty great music even as the modern pop landscape starts to pass them by.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven’s Gate, Church, HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T, The Last Of The Real Ones

Least Favourite Track: Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea

Score: 6/10

Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – Zombies On Broadway

Image result for andrew mcmahon in the wilderness zombies on broadwayVersatile artist Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, fresh off a career-boosting spot opening for veteran rock bands Weezer and Panic! At The Disco on their monumental summer tour, unleashes his second studio album under this moniker after jumping around between different musical projects. He continues to settle into a nice of pop-punk vocals covering melodies that sound like they were meant more for an indie-pop audience to great effect. Zombies On Broadway frequently shows that McMahon has an excellent penchant for catchy hooks despite frequently falling into similar-sounding territory. The album is brief and to the point, and contains 10 upbeat, sugary microcosms of the unique mix of sounds McMahon is trying to put together here.

What we’re going to get from this project is a surprise from the very start, as opening track “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me” actually features a very simple chorus that accompanies the track’s main draw: Twenty One Pilots-emulating rap verses from McMahon that work a lot better than they should due to the speedy and energetic live drumbeat which buoys the track. For the most part, however, McMahon presents an intersection of pure bubblegum pop melodies and lyrics, and guitar-driven instrumentals that harken back to the days when bands like the All-American Rejects dominated pop radio. The vocalist accompanying this combination falls more on the latter side of the scale. The overall feel of the project seems to be an attempt to overload listeners with happiness, so much so that it almost becomes annoying in its excess. But in small doses, this is incredible feel-good music. I want to sing along to every one of these hooks in the crowd at a music festival.

Image result for andrew mcmahon in the wilderness

The main takeaway from having this many extremely catchy hooks on this project is this – this man needs to start writing for some pop music superstars and the musical landscape of the radio might get a lot better. The contrast between his almost whiny voice and the joyful words he sings regarding the rushes of life and love are engaging. “Don’t Speak For Me (True)” is the clear jewel of the album, featuring a more musically complex melody in the structure of a pop song that reminds me a lot of Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent work on tracks like “All That”. The quick syllables in the pre-chorus and pounding synth piano all assist in building up and exploding into a huge falsetto chorus.

McMahon is frequently overtly cheesy, but he is an expert in selling the cheese. “Shot Out Of A Cannon” is another song which is obnoxiously positive on the surface, but the passionate delivery eventually makes you submit to the sugar rush – McMahon knows how to play to his strengths. As one might infer from the great song titles, the lyrics’ pop sensibilities don’t mean they conform to the meaningless cliches the radio throws at us either – when taking a break from speaking about just how great he feels, McMahon is able to paint vivid pictures of places and situations. “Love and Great Buildings” is a good example, beginning “My heart is an apartment building on the verge” and spending most of the track describing the room and its state of disarray in detail.

Image result for andrew mcmahon in the wilderness

Despite standing at only 10 tracks in length and not even reaching the 40-minute barrier, the album becomes way too similar as it reaches its end. I can only take so much four-on-the-floor and saccharine hooks at one time – these songs are all actually quite good, but were not really made to listen to one after another. To continue the Jepsen comparison, I think McMahon could be a lot better if he ascends to fame further and accrues a more established team of writers and producers to assist – almost every Jepsen song is a polished pop masterpiece, but there are some clearly weaker tracks here. A song like “Walking In My Sleep” is painfully underwritten and relies on drawing out the word “sleep” repeatedly to an unbearable degree.

While its safe to say that McMahon successfully avoided the sophomore curse, I think there is still a lot of room for improvement – which is saying something, as most of these tracks are so fun that I almost can’t help but to get up and dance. Having a unique and fully-fleshed out niche sound is important in today’s ever-evolving musical world, and McMahon has this in spades. Further diversification of individual tracks is the main thing which will continue to help down the road.

Favourite Tracks: Don’t Speak For Me (True), Shot Out Of A Cannon, Dead Man’s Dollar, Fire Escape, Love And Great Buildings

Least Favourite Track: Walking In My Sleep

Score: 7/10