Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Miss Ko – Till Next Time

And thus ends what I guess is Increasingly Biographical Wednesday…


[Video][Website]
[5.83]

Ryo Miyauchi: For a eulogy of her best friend, Miss Ko turns to rap — a style historically full of them. Some of the private specifics open up the song for others to feel, like her update of her friendship circle. But understandably, it’s not a conversation for me to get anything from — I can only admire it from a certain distance.
[5]

Jessica Doyle: Inviting an audience into private mourning is damned hard. There’s a reason why every culture has its own funeral rituals: so that even those who didn’t know the diseased know what role to play. But even those can feel, to those who know specifically what they lost, a little empty. How can you say, This is what we lost, the quotidian and therefore unrecoverable? How do you sum up a person’s essence? You can’t. So Miss Ko creates the act of public mourning in song, but addresses not the public audience (who cannot possibly grasp how special her friend was) but the friend himself, in a tone of simultaneous sorrow and strength. It’s textured and hopeful, acknowledging the magnitude of the loss without letting it stop her. It’s inadequate, which is an unsolvable problem; she does the next best thing, by giving us an idea of how inadequate it is.
[6]

Iain Mew: The “See You Again” template benefits not just from the lack of Charlie Puth but also from an all round scaling down. The austere modesty of “Till Next Time,” in Miss Ko’s rapping and singing alike as much as everything else, at least feels about right for a certain kind of mourning.
[6]

Adaora Ede: “Till Next Time” falls into that category of Neither Good or Particularly Listenable but an Admirable Attempt. Inspo hop’s undeniable attraction to passé adult contemporary instrumentals, while still trying to maintain a visage of swag, is probably the second worst thing to come out of the 2010s. The worst thing is definitely the gauche lyrics. I want to hate on the stock uplifting violin riffs, the Vanessa Carlton telephone voice echoes in the sung verses, and even the Biggie and Tupac references, yet I feel defeated. Ko is a rapper, and she does no justice to the subject of this song with her ramble, but by marginal means the sentiment flickers through her warbly hook.
[5]

Ramzi Awn: Miss Ko’s chorus smooths out her streetwise lyrics well on “Till Next Time.” The beat flows nicely and there’s something unimpeachably new to the sound, giving it an easy, breezy feel best suited for cars on the beach.    
[7]

Will Adams: “Till Next Time” has more interesting choices than your standard song-as-eulogy; the drum loop has some heft for once, the sparing use of the harp from “The Boy Is Mine” is effective, and Miss Ko handles both the rap and the hook, adding a more personal touch. But, as with many songs like this, the problem is mourning so specific that, despite having familiarity with the subject matter, it’s hard for me to fully connect with it.
[6]

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Sam Hunt – Drinkin’ Too Much

What’ve we got here? Why, it’s a CONTROVERSYBOMB!


[Video][Website]
[5.33]

Ramzi Awn: A bold experiment with a few good ideas, “Drinkin’ Too Much” employs dark moments of candor to highlight a muddled mix.
[5]

Olivia Rafferty: The heart and soul of country music is storytelling, which is why this track works so well. “Drinkin’ Too Much” shifts the typical country subject of alcohol abuse to the context of sad man R&B, aka Drake’s genre. The spoken verses contain a rawness that could only be conveyed with that style of delivery, and the lyrics themselves are so vivid. Lay this over a subtle blend of 808s and slide guitars, and you have a solid attempt to influence the direction of country music. Let the genre-mashing begin.
[8]

Anthony Easton: John Prine, in a recent Rolling Stone cover story, spoke about how Dylan’s Nashville Skyline broke apart country music for him (he was a folkie at the time): “Man, there’s something there where their two paths crossed. My stuff belongs right in the middle.” This is also in the middle: between soul and hip-hop, between the drinking and heartbreak of Nashville and the fame-wasted ennui of Kanye and Drake. But it’s also at the bottom: the bottomed-out production, how Hunt trips over details, how he extends stories, how he never quite brags about his money, how his self-loathing bubbles up like swamp gas. It’s the opposite of all those party songs, the opposite of Moore and Eldredge and Gilbert. It has a singular voice — a songwriting voice, but also how he sings, a gravelly push that reinforces his production choices. It is the smartest thing he has done, and maybe the most heartfelt.
[10]

Alfred Soto: I’m no country corn pone. I like electronic whooshes and the kind of manipulation of space more common on Drake or “Climax”-era Usher, but Sam Hunt can’t even talk-sing without his sockless boat shoes tripping on his ill-lettered cadences. He comes off like a lunkier Chainsmoker, in the market for any hook that’ll get him on the radio and laid — two of his more admirable virtues. Find better songs, dude, and don’t try so damn hard.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: This non-single posted on SoundCloud is the audio equivalent of a viral video, and like many viral videos, it’s also essentially a journal entry set to music. Frankly, it’s not up to snuff: this is him doing his rhyming couplets (he loves rhyming couplets) with a woozy rhythm track from Pro Tools or whatever. It also sounds a lot like a demo for Justin Bieber. Most of all, this is slightly creepy oversharing; I want a Silkwood shower after listening to it.
[0]

Elisabeth Sanders: Everything about this is deeply embarrassing, and that’s why I love it. While I can’t pretend I like this as much as anything off Montevallo, it makes up for it with “I wish you’d let me pay your student loans,” and I’d like to submit this as a great entry into a music category I’d like to call “voice-memo pathetic-wave.” (The other artist in this genre is Mike Posner with his great, deeply pathetic album At Night, Alone.) The song approximates, sonically and with almost nauseating accuracy, the feeling of being just too drunk enough that the room is spinning a little, being very sad about something that might be your fault in a crowded place at 2 in the morning. BEEN THERE, SAM.
[7]

Jonathan Bradley: In which Sam Hunt pens a letter to Montevallo‘s Courtney From Hooters On Peachtree and proves himself to not be country music’s Drake, but rather its Mike Skinner. The hook is the weakest part; it doesn’t resolve Hunt’s thoughts but elides them. (The austere “8pm” take works better and is worth a point or two more.) There is frisson in a lyric that pushes too far past the fourth wall, threatening to combust as it reaches the event horizon — for the non-country, non-rap examples to which “Drinkin’ Too Much” draws nearest, look to emo acts like Cursive’s The Ugly Organ or Say Anything’s “Every Man Has a Molly.” “Hope you know I’m still in love,” Hunt closes, except it’s a correspondence that is only intimate the way a performance is, and so his words are combustible as well as heartfelt. The sour sense that this song bears too much truth is its most compelling point but also its most repellent; Hunt is too casual in his exhibitionism.
[5]

Will Adams: It feels right; we’ve reached the level of bleakness in our pop music that songs can now just be actual shitposts with first draft choruses tucked in.
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: Did we need another country “Marvin’s Room”? In every country review I keep harping on artists telling the same generic story addressed to the same imaginary sorority girl, but here’s a lyric and addressee that are certainly not generic or imaginary, and I’m not sure what to think. If Sam Hunt’s byline didn’t scare off the traditionalists, the first vocoded note is almost deliberately scheduled to shoo away the rest (none of the subsequent vocal is so blatant), leaving a smaller audience of fans and an explicit audience of one specific, named girl. There’s something inescapably creepy — voyeuristically creepy for the listener, manipulatively creepy for the artist — about this, this couple chords and a tirade. Most of his target demographic will hear this as romantic, but for those unfortunate enough to have been stalked, the details are so familiar as to be textbook: presenting her with his un-rebuttable imagination of her life, in which she stages the Everytime video every time she wants to cry, in which there’s nowhere else in Georgia she can buy peaches, in which everything reminds her of him, or at least does now; reminding her of her debt while holding Montevallo money over her head; apologizing for boosting her profile while writing her name into a huge triumphant chorus; pondering “whether it’s OK to lie” while careful to mention none of the indiscretions that got him there — merely their consequences, which now seem unreasonable. Better to address this as fiction, then — like most “autobiographical” songs by celebrities, somewhere between songwriting exercise and publicity stunt, because you don’t cross over into pop and stay without some dating drama. What’s left is slapdash: accurate-sounding candor spewed over a couple identikit country choruses, each piece well-crafted but only assemblable by a real-life happy ending. Which is the point, and the problem.
[5]

Megan Harrington: Too much of my instant dislike of “Drinkin’ Too Much” hinged on the preposterous way Sam Hunt apologized for (more or less) doxing his then ex-girlfriend, now fiancé Hannah Lee Fowler on his debut album Montevallo, only to turn around and close the song by singing her name. In case there were any straggler fans out there who hadn’t quite put her identity together, I guess. It was incongruous in a way that grated on me until I realized that it was the perfect synecdoche for the song, one that indulges overwrought production as 40 as it was country and several different singing styles, including plain old talking. It’s right there in the way he names her his first fan and then cheats on her, the way he dismisses her sisters as “matchmakers” but hopes her dad still prays for him. Real life is messy and filled with leaps forward followed by half-steps back, relationships are chaotic and confusing, and Hunt captures all of it, ending hopefully with a (sort of, he hopes) romantic pledge to win her back. And it (sort of, I think) worked? 
[7]

Crystal Leww: The first time I heard “Drinkin’ Too Much,” I did not like it. I did not like the 40-esque production, the sad sap lyrics, the way that Hunt called out his ex-girlfriend. Then I listened to the 8pm version, stripped of the production flourishes, and figured that it was just the production that was bugging me. The lyrics were sad, but they were so specific: peaches in Pelham, a hotel room in Arizona, and that devastating, heartbreaking “hope your dad still prays for me,” a reminder that breakups are the deaths of families, too. I’ve never liked the comparisons to Drake — Drake is someone who has clearly never been in an adult relationship with a real woman rather than a built-up image of a woman, but Montevallo and “Drinkin’ Too Much” feel like they’re about real adults who have genuinely loved each other and created lives together. I still like the 8pm version more, but I’ve come around on the full version. It’s dramatic, but I appreciate the attempt to appeal to a broader audience, and it highlights that Hunt’s lyricism shines through anything, even snaps and strings.
[7]

Josh Langhoff: A prof used to tell us, “People who are sorry weep bitter tears.” I don’t buy Sam Hunt’s sorrow. Nor do I buy that this song has a melody or a beat, that it has any connection to country or R&B, that this is the same Sam Hunt who did “House Party,” or that picking peaches is anything but the pits. More schnapps!
[3]

Katie Gill: Look, I’m sorry, I can’t hate this. With the exception of that “I hope your dad still prays for me” bit, the verses are awful, not singing but the Sam Hunt Spoken Word Poetry Hour. They swing between endearingly hokey and the awful Nice Guy sort of patronizing that was the entirety of “Take Your Time.” But the chorus is AMAZING. It’s so silky and smooth, perfectly mixed, and Hunt shows that he has a halfway decent R&B(ish) voice. But the two never really meet. The transition between verse and chorus is awkward every time, as the buttery-smooth chorus butts up against the not very smooth speaking voice of Sam Hunt. 
[6]

Joshua Copperman: I keep singing this title to the tune of Twenty One Pilots’ “Ride”, attempting to remember what little melody this song has (“I’ve been drinking too much, help me…”). Until the bridge — which would make a better chorus — nothing is worth remembering: not the strings, not the drum machine, and especially not the single strum of guitar to signify that it’s still country. What made “Marvin’s Room” work was the honesty and subtextual self-loathing that Drake would spend the rest of his career distilling. This seems less stream-of-consciousness and more trying to write stream-of-consciousness, which rarely works as well and results in lines like “I wish you’d let me pay off your student loans.” The dramatic piano ending makes clear Sam Hunt’s lack of shame in copying Aubrey, but that just makes him sound even less authentic, even though the backstory contains more than enough drama for something genuine.
[3]

Edward Okulicz: The first time I misheard the line as as “I’m sorry for making the album Montevallo,” but this sketch wouldn’t be a repudiation even if he were sorry for that. And it’s really not that much more than a series of lyrical fragments and a chorus, but I find myself nodding along at some parts, and being frustrated at the lack of detail in others, and going to the “Personal life” details of his Wikipedia article to see the resolution. So that means it’s fairly compelling for its limitations.
[7]

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Brett Eldredge – Wanna Be That Song

JUKEBOX TRIVIA TIME: The first nu-Jukebox mention of He Who I Still Can’t Bring Myself to Name was this horrifying image from 2010


[Video][Website]
[4.30]

Thomas Inskeep: A grand, “inspiring” love song made of generic lyrics and music, sung equally as generically. Eldredge has yet to particularly distinguish himself from the current slew of country men, and this does nothing in that regard. 
[3]

Juana Giaimo: Someone should tell him that this generic song can’t be the one that “gets you high, makes you dance, makes you fall.”
[5]

Crystal Leww: The verses feel like filler until we get to that swell of a chorus, which isn’t even all that good. Eldredge’s voice is warm and inviting enough but doesn’t quite get to his peers’ swoonworthy quality, which is necessary for songs like this.
[4]

Megan Harrington: Eldredge, who is very publicly and inconspicuously campaigning for his place among the Bill Murrays and Eddie Vedders in celebrity Cubs fan legend, de-personifies himself here in a way that is nothing short of mystifying. He could aspire to be someone’s partner, their confidant, their shoulder to cry on, or the love of their life. Instead he aims lower — favorite song. Does he mean he wants to make that song? There’s nothing here to suggest that’s a question worth puzzling over. Good luck, man, hope you get a seventh inning stretch. 
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: What this gains in applicability — holy shit, a girl in a country song who’s not explicitly blonde! Nix the sundress and the blithering barefoot “carefree”-ness, and you’re almost describing a real woman! — it inevitably loses in distinctiveness. It’s the country-songwriting version of a cover letter: read the formula, replicated the formula, insists anyway with anodyne assurance that it’s the one.
[4]

Josh Langhoff: As nakedly careerist manifestos go, not bad! It’s like Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” without the nobility, or Sherwin Williams’ “Cover the Earth” without the environmental impact statements. Kind of surprising that this song has reached people who aren’t the singer’s dependents; but then, so did Donald Trump’s “I Alone Can Fix It.”
[4]

Alfred Soto: The frog in Eldredge’s larynx croaks ever louder, and the guitars got prettier, but his yearning doesn’t stray from the pro forma. Does Eldredge himself wanna be that song?
[4]

David Sheffieck: This could stand to borrow some of Bob Seger’s grit, if not in Eldredge’s vocal then at least in the overly tasteful production. But in the lyric, the universal specificity of the scenarios Eldredge details — the bar window booths and the whispered conversations in church pews — he manages to make this work. Maybe he can’t yet be that song, but I absolutely believe that he wants to.
[7]

Ramzi Awn: Eldredge wields the fundamentals of country with skill, and his lo-fi take on a vision in a sundress will break your heart. The hook is a leap, but it doesn’t do too much damage.
[6]

Anthony Easton: Dull and static, like most other ballads we have heard a dozen times before. Eldredge is always better than his material, but this is a nadir. 
[3]

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Yelle – Ici & Maintenant (Here & Now)

Comme ci (comme ça)


[Video][Website]
[5.14]

Iain Mew: Cool, calming, recognisable especially when it slows down, but it’s like “Bouquet Finale” with the edges sanded off, pleasurable but newly disposable.
[6]

Maxwell Cavaseno: The problem with being an electronic act that attracts attention when one deliberately goes backwards is, when you inevitably want the career to keep going and maintain success, you then move forward and chase after everything that’s already happened. Everything here production-wise is the kind of tricks that’ve been done to death in the last decade and now just feel like someone desperately out of step, hurrying to catch up to things most of the world have already left behind.
[3]

Alfred Soto: Its precision impressed me, its callback to Adamski’s “Killer” pleasant. The vocal is innocuously coy. More like hier et puis.
[4]

Ryo Miyauchi: The glassy synth is a very tactile one, delightfully prickly as it pokes the wonkier sound. It refuses to explore a grander path — something I initially wanted from what I think could’ve been more showy — but maintaining shape seems to be the point. Focus is key here as Yelle reminds herself again and again to cut the noise and stop thinking ahead. Stillness is harder to achieve than it looks these days.
[6]

Anthony Easton: Buoyant enough to remind me of the best summers in Montreal, with a nice break away chorus near the end, but could do with a bit more energy. 
[6]

Ramzi Awn: There’s nothing wrong with cutesy, but in this case, a little editing could have turned less into much more.  
[4]

Will Adams: A recurring theme in Yelle’s work is the passage of time — specifically, its end — and while “Ici et Maintenant” doesn’t have the gravitas of “S’éteint le soleil” or “Dire qu’on va tous mourir,” it makes sense given its desire to be in the moment. Where their last album went for shiny, Dr. Luke pop, “Ici et Maintenant” revives the playfulness of sound from Safari Disco Club. Most effective is how, amidst all the cute Fisher Price synths, the song itself takes the time to slow down and take in the present, as if knowing it won’t last forever.
[7]

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Noah Cyrus ft. Labrinth – Make Me (Cry)

:,(


[Video][Website]
[3.77]

Katherine St Asaph: The pop industry, ever innovative in the wrong ways, has figured out how to work aural emoji. There’s a very easy critique — maybe too easy — about literal sound cues standing in for complex emotions, but I’m more concerned with the Bieber horrors that await us later in Noah’s career if this becomes a hit.
[3]

Iain Mew: It’s nice that she looks back happily enough on her time on Ponyo to pick up a tribute to giant Studio Ghibli tears. Unfortunately the song mostly serves as evidence that Labrinth has taken the success of “Beneath Your Beautiful” as licence to indulge all his worst tendecies — all-conquering sentimentality, needlessly inserting himself, and putting in every conceptual idea he has without consideration. In both songs, the result with their title lines is grindingly irritating.
[2]

Jonathan Bradley: There might have been pathos in this emotive EDM, but it was surrendered to the goofiest sound effect bestowed upon a tune since Craig David was all over your…
[2]

A.J. Cohn: I’m delighted by the ridiculousness of the line “Lovin’ you would make Jesus cry” being followed by the plip-plop of two drops of water. While Noah Cyrus was so clearly aiming for a Bangerz-esque “banger” — part “Adore You,” part “Wrecking Ball” — Labrinth was obviously just playing around with the production with a whole arsenal of silly sound effects at his disposal.
[5]

Ryo Miyauchi: I could do without the kitchen-sink sound effects; if I had to only pick one, I’d definitely nix the train horn. They act as placeholders to feelings the two don’t quite have the strength to hit. Clever, but silence would’ve been the better choice if they were truly at a loss for words. Subtraction already seems like the goal anyway, so why not go all in?
[5]

David Sheffieck: One of the better duets — and featuring the best gimmick — in recent memory. And beyond functioning as a ear-catching metonymy, that teardrop plink allows the moment when Labrinth wails “cry” over and over to land with the force of an EDM drop, and Cyrus’s “keep on making me cry” to work as soaring catharsis. It’s clever songwriting, given emotional heft by the total commitment of both singers.
[8]

Megan Harrington: One of the better qualities of “Closer” by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey was its obviousness. Every feeling, every tumultuous run-in was right there on the surface in the plainest, most evident way. “Make Me (Cry)” develops that obviousness, embracing it in clever ways. There’s plinking (tear) droplets and surging strings which allow the production to overwrite the lyrics, but the song’s greatest strength is its titular double entendre. Whether it’s hated you or needed you, whichever act of romance the two narrators are involved in, the result is always wetness. In this way, all the watery sound effects and general wooze surpass their too-cuteness and, in fact, temper the thematic excess by making it non-verbal. “Make Me (Cry)” is a standout in the ongoing season of duets. 
[8]

Ramzi Awn: In trying to set itself apart, “Make Me (Cry)” sounds rather plain. The bad ideas competing with each other make for an embarrassment of quirks. And nothing can quite top the droplet sample. Noah Cyrus and Labrinth seem to have comprehensively misappropriated a Lady Antebellum demo.   
[2]

Will Adams: Cyrus shows some potential here, especially in drawing out the forlorn prettiness of the chorus. Too bad she’s been saddled with perpetual fountain of bad ideas Labrinth. There are so many awful choices here: the film reel opening (so authentic!!), that sonic jump scare, the tinny snare in the chorus, those piano swipes in the second verse, sloppy vocal doubling, reverb doused over everything. “Make Me (Cry)” aims for the woozy, numbed pop of Bridgit Mendler’s “Atlantis” but misses the mark completely. I can’t not give at least a few points, though, because “all you ever do is make me… *PLOINK*” is the hardest I’ve laughed at a song in a while.
[2]

Thomas Inskeep: The chorus makes me hate it: “cuz all you ever do is make me [synthesized water drop].” To be fair, it’s not all that otherwise, either: Cyrus’s voice is nowhere near as distinctive as her sibling’s (or father’s), and Labrinth’s voice isn’t distinctive at all.
[3]

Leonel Manzanares: Sure, that teardrop sound is kind of a buzzkill, yet it’s a mild objection in an otherwise strong, cloud-drenched R&B track. The hook is effective in its simplicity — minus that annoying teardrop, of course — but the way they changed the harmonic feel in the bridge is the true highlight. That Bb-F-Fm-C chord progression was such a pleasant surprise.
[6]

Joshua Copperman: I listened to the XX’s great new album I See You over the weekend, and the sparseness of “Make Me (Cry)” sounds a lot like that at first — funny how Noah Cyrus and Labrinth trying to go “indie” and the XX going “pop” arrive at the same place. Most of it is at least musically interesting, the bizarre lyrics about Jesus and Muhammad Ali ignorable, even as the teardrop sound effects remind me of Melanie Martinez’s “Soap” and the gated snare is misplaced. But that bridge is where it falls apart in an awful, unintentionally squirm-inducing way, where the emptiness of the song catches up with Cyrus and Labrinth. They try their best to cover up the underproduction — Labrinth’s own making — with dramatic ad-libs (this is the part where I say “Ponyo still loves ham”), but they’re both too weak to save it. While it’s no secret that everyone borrows from the XX now, this song picks the wrong things from their sound — just the empty space and the dual vocalists, without the intimacy and particularity that elevates them beyond most other groups. Even when “Make Me” works, when a sound effect actually jumps out or a line registers, there really is nothing here that Jamie, Romy, and Oliver didn’t do much better on I See You and earlier albums.
[2]

Alfred Soto: Let’s get these truths out of the way: only Miguel can get away with the water drop effect, only Miley Cyrus can get away with singing, and Labrinth misspelled his name.
[1]

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Elbow – Magnificent (She Says)

Kinda average (we say)


[Video][Website]
[5.00]

Katie Gill: Insert your own joke about how it’s really not that magnificent here. Elbow give us a halfway decent song perfect for closing ceremonies and slow dance montages, where the most interesting things are the strings and that stunning build around the three minute mark.
[5]

Iain Mew: Elbow’s tally of paternal-ish songs with parentheses titles reaches three, and it tracks their career quite nicely to go from 2001’s “Presuming Ed (Rest Easy),” with its eerie amniotic ambience and mix of wonder and “chill your fucking bones,” to this. There’s a clear line of both realism and sentimentality right through, but the proportions have swapped and been more throughly mixed into music and lyrics alike. Now the complexity supporting the depth of feeling is just there in the small touches in Craig Potter’s production and things like the string section lurch, over- and understated in the best Elbow way. It’s a shame there isn’t a single image as striking as “talking your way to the heart of the citadel” from “Real Life (Angel),” but how the story spools outwards and backwards from a single moment still gives something for repeated listens to draw out.
[7]

A.J. Cohn: Handled well, a tender yet knowing adult take on the unbridled, naïve optimism of a child could be moving. But this track, from Garvey’s drippy vocals to the mushy orchestral backing, is a maudlin mess.
[3]

Will Adams: The verses set a great mood, with seemingly laid-back noodle-y rock with undercurrents of agitated guitar and bass lines; the chorus goes overboard with the strings and things get maudlin.
[5]

Jonathan Bradley: I feel I should applaud the way Elbow’s florid orchestration lends this tempered Brit-rock a dainty splendor — it is arresting and memorable — but it sounds too much like art-pap: starch smothered in goop.
[4]

Tim de Reuse: Guy Garvey’s theatrical, honey-thick voice is just about the only voice I can imagine pulling off lyrics as syrupy as these, but he doesn’t quite pass with flying colors; the whole thing teeters dangerously between a pleasant nostalgia (the driving, circular chord progressions, the bare verses) and an oversaturated melodrama (the dramatic cadences, the stifling string sections). Neither side really wins out — there are just about as many moments that feel breathtaking as there are moments that feel trite.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Theoretically this combination of scratch guitar and strings sounds okeedokee with me, but the singer’s chalky histrionics require Mark Hollis more than Chris Martin in a rabbit burrow. 
[5]

Thomas Inskeep: Dear Brits: just because Coldplay are such a global phenom doesn’t mean that all UK rock has to be “inspirational” bullshit like this. And if you want to hear a great song titled “Magnificent,” go for this.
[2]

Ramzi Awn: I don’t want to like the word “magnificent” but Elbow get away with it, and the strings in the second verse sweep like the best. I too always get a little wistful when I think of my mother’s cigarettes, and how magnificent she looked smoking them. Overall, the sound is derivative, but stately as well.
[4]

Joshua Copperman: This has all of my indie rock-related weaknesses — drum loops, muted guitar riffs, heavily reverberated vocals, and wide string arrangements. The chorus, when those strings become staccato, and Guy Garvey somehow becomes even more prominent and reverberated, does me in further. Elbow have always been a very solid band, but my problem with them is usually their overt earnestness and inability to not go as big as possible (exhibit A: having the entirety of Glastonbury singing “we still believe in love so fuck you”). “Magnificent” has a shitload of earnestness, but with a surprising amount of restraint, and the way Elbow do so much with just those elements, all my Achilles heels, makes the moments like the string swell at 3:38 induce a smile rather than sensory overload.
[7]

Megan Harrington: All the pomp and pomposity, the keyboards and string flourishes, and a baroque word like “magnificent” anchoring the chorus makes this song sound like it’s really about something. I’m not sure it is, but that ambiguity gives the listener space to hear anything they want. 
[7]

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Rachael Yamagata – Let Me Be Your Girl

Ed Sheeran Monday veers in a surprising direction by examining a song that has nothing to do with Ed Sheeran…


[Video][Website]
[6.22]

Rebecca A. Gowns: Simmering want that builds up and boils over. Yamagata could sell the feeling with her voice alone, yet the instrumental adds to it tremendously, pushing the song to new heights with every iteration of the chorus. On one level, it’s raw and vulnerable, down-on-your-knees begging; on another, it’s dangerous, a siren call that pulls you in to her thrall. Is this supplication or manipulation? While you’re trying to figure it out, the song sweeps you along, and you’re pushed under the waves, spinning and reaching out for a surface that does not appear.
[9]

Joshua Copperman: Overcompressed, bright mixes can often suck the joy out of perfectly good music; this is the kind of song that requires one — where the instruments maniacally push against each other, and where everything feels on the edge of collapsing into an amorphous, overdone mush, but somehow holds together. Over the course of five minutes, this builds to a crescendo that sounds like “Gimmie All Your Love,” “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” and even fucking “Debra” rolled into one, complete with psychedelic mixing courtesy of Shawn Everett (who actually also mixed “Gimmie All Your Love”) and Rachael Yamagata screaming the title amidst the wave of horns and gospel choirs crashing behind her. A soulful, grandiose gem.
[10]

Alfred Soto: The guitar tugs at Yamagata’s smoky delivery and boilerplate lyrics. The horns aren’t Muscle Shoals so much as Venice — California, that is, with Jenny Lewis in their rear view. But it works because Yamagata, in character, conveys a genuine sensual abandon while keeping her poise. The guitar solo is shit-hot too.
[6]

Olivia Rafferty: Driven by a soulful yearning which Yamagata’s vocals effortlessly brush through: A quiet, colloquial accompaniment that grows with each iteration of “let me be your girl.” The wonderful thing is that the muted brass, gospel organ and easy tempo all lend to this comfortable Sunday morning vibe, but as the song progresses to the climax, it becomes clear that this longing that lies behind the song is almost unbearable.
[7]

Iain Mew: One of those songs where someone takes a decent idea, even if it isn’t a new one, and has the confidence to give it the space it needs to work. Nothing spectacular, but Rachael Yamagata turns every repetition of the title line into a new twist on the feelings.
[6]

Jonathan Bradley: I admire Rachael Yamagata’s faculty with texture: the way her bluesy jam unfurls its horn swells and guitar licks as she allows her ombré vocal to pour over it with measured precision. What “Let Me Be Your Girl” lacks, however, is impetus: it hangs in place with neither crisis nor chorus to clarify its purpose.
[5]

Jessica Doyle: She sings with expression and charisma, but I’m the wrong audience: I’m too loyal to “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” to be able to sit with a simplified version thereof.
[4]

Ramzi Awn: There are all sorts of reasons to resist this throwback, but Rachael Yamagata does everything she can to pay it forward. And the payoff isn’t an entire waste of time.  
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: Folk-rock is so deeply unfashionable these days as to be a punchline — unless you’re a man, in which case it morphs into blues-rock and credible. There are more interesting examples of the form, but I’m still unduly pleased this exists.
[5]

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Ed Sheeran – Castle on the Hill

Get you an award-winning pop singer-songwriter who can do both…


[Video][Website]
[5.15]

Olivia Rafferty: In my opinion, Sheeran has written one of the biggest songs of his career right here. It’s Springsteen-esque in it’s driving rhythm and exclamatory choruses, and taps into so many wells of nostalgia that we all have around our childhood and teenage years. In my hometown I had friends I would drive with through the countryside at 1 a.m., the boys would push too fast on the pedal so my stomach would be left several yards behind us at all times. We’d traipse through fields and over rocky river banks, vandalise golf courses, buy pizza at midnight, make out in hedges and feel absolutely untouchable. We didn’t have a castle on the hill, but I know exactly what it meant to watch that sun setting over it and feel jolted with a thrill of life, not knowing where I’d end up in the future, but electrified with the prospect of writing my own path. 
[10]

A.J. Cohn: While I can’t easily relate to anyone for whom going home isn’t at least a little fraught, I found this track to be surprisingly affecting. What is genuinely moving about this is that the memories he wistfully recollects — breaking a leg while playing with friends, drinking too much and throwing up — are often not the most pleasant ones, suggesting that he is nostalgic not so much for the halcyon days of youth but for the full array of experiences which were formative for him.
[6]

Mo Kim: I have little use for childhood nostalgia, but even I can’t deny that middle eight its quiet power, as Sheeran steps back and grounds his remembrance in an acknowledgement of the struggles his young friends face as adults. It feels like a call back to reality in the midst of a song that otherwise seems blissfully unaware of the world outside its “country lanes.”
[5]

Scott Mildenhall: There’s something viscerally annoying about the romanticisation of speeding down country lanes, but that’s the least of this song’s problems. “Castle on the Hill” comes over as a quite self-serving and ineffectual attempt at romanticism all round. These, overpoweringly, feel like the lyrics of someone who’s spent almost his entire adult life in showbiz. There’s nothing amazing about knowing someone who sells clothes, Ed. It’s bad enough, as well, to attempt to use others’ more personal and serious stories to provide pathos your own superstar life can’t, but don’t make it worse with the addition of “but” — “but these people raised me,” as if they were otherwise somehow pitiable. It’s all presumably sincere — if anything making that worse — but he’s going a long way to make it sound like it’s not, and that’s partly by virtue of going only a short way to rip off “Where the Streets Have No Name”; itself the only saving grace. “Freelove Freeway” this isn’t.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: Well, Snow Patrol aren’t writing Snow Patrol songs to accompany trailers for TV shows teasing their EXPLOSIVE CLIMAXES, so Ed Sheeran has stepped into the fold. He’s not terrible at it, and boy does he sing the crap out of this would-be uplifting chorus until it works. The verses are a bit bland, but in five years time, Ed could be a one-man U2 ca. “Where The Streets Have No Name.” That’s a compliment, honest!
[6]

Alfred Soto: For listeners who were starved for Ed Sheeran’s “Being Boring.” Instead of murmuring his commonplace high school memories, he can’t resist the ego trip: he wants listeners to know he has pondered the Big Questions. The guitars and percussion rise to meet him, as heartfelt as a Rotarian chant.
[3]

Jonathan Bradley: Where “Shape of You” has a badly needed liveliness with which Ed Sheeran grapples uncertainly, “Castle on the Hill” is unassuming and plebian and fits him like an old woolly jumper. A not particularly interesting ballad, it rewrites R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming” as Nickelback’s “Photograph,” imbuing luminous nostalgia with details that attain specificity through blandness: these hand-rolled cigarettes and boyhood broken legs are so particular and unremarkable that they defy universality and gain an embarrassed authenticity, like a bad conversationalist conveying a personal anecdote that doesn’t go anywhere. In its fond accounting of life’s transformation into memory, it could be a country song, but Eric Church or Tim McGraw would tell many people’s stories in their own; Sheeran barely executes autobiography. He might be a Nick Hornby character. “Castle on the Hill” is a song he wants to sing much more than I want to hear it, but I like how lived he makes it sound. I would like it so much more were I to hear it in a stadium, amidst twinkling cell phone lights and thousands of his fans who treasure the stories he tells here.
[6]

Joshua Copperman: The opening lines made me think of John Darnielle’s clipped, near-spoken delivery in songs like “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero.” What follows is essentially a superior second draft of 7 Years, set to a U2 pastiche, with a chorus as vaguely, broadly nostalgic as Daughtry’s “Home” or, worringly, Nickelback’s “Photograph.” The missteps here go beyond the chorus, though, especially with those lines involving not having thrown up in so long. Sheeran nonetheless gives the most passionate, powerful vocal performance of his career, even pulling off growling during the bridge pretty well. His earnestness makes the reaches for poignancy hit hard. The best example comes in the middle of the bridge; “One’s brother overdosed” is a ridiculous line — did you mention the brother earlier? where did that detail come from? — but coupled with the ensuing swell, as well as the rest of that bridge (the most well-crafted part of the song), it doesn’t matter. In fact, a lot of the lines here have the right idea; it all amounts to a pretty great second draft, but with another revision, Sheeran’s words could have matched his performance and arrangement.
[7]

Ramzi Awn: The authenticity behind Sheeran’s voice is admirable, but an anthem needs more than transparency to succeed. While coming of age with hand-rolled cigarettes is a nice attempt at nostalgia, it sounds more pretentious than sad. And don’t fuck with “Tiny Dancer.”   
[3]

Will Adams: It’s only now occurring to me that Ed Sheeran would make a great trance vocalist.
[6]

Anthony Easton: Hating his voice is one thing, but this car crash of clichés, and toxic nostalgia is dully offensive. The arrogance that Sheeran has, assuming that he is the only one who has survived out of a very large community. 
[0]

Katie Gill: “Shape of You” wins the Ed Sheeran Singles-Off for me, mostly because this sounds like it was exclusively written to score movie trailers and exceedingly specific nostalgia references bore me to tears. Major points deducted for the jaunty way the music pipes along in the background as Sheeran sings about his friends overdosing and getting divorced, minor points deducted because food poisoning makes you vomit as well — that’s not a sign of adulthood, that just means you stayed away from the calzones.
[4]

Lauren Gilbert: I want to say something cynical about how Ed Sheeran has surely mined his past enough; surely there’s only so much you can write about your first kiss and your secondary school loves, only so much Nice Guy rationalization of how much you miss your exes.  But this works — it reminds me of my own rose-tinted memories, of coming home to a town that will never quite be home again, of promising old friends that of course you’ll stay in touch (and never quite following through).  It feels like a Polaroid of a life now lost to time; a life you don’t quite regret outgrowing, but one you can still mourn. brb, going to call some old friends.
[7]

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Ed Sheeran – Shape of You

We’re still a bit grouchy…


[Video][Website]
[4.60]

Elisabeth Sanders: The fact that this is a decent-ish bop at its core can in no way outweigh the total, full-body revulsion I feel when hearing Ed Sheeran — a still-damp bridge troll who seems to have made some kind of unholy deal with a dark force (Taylor Swift?) for fame — say “that body on me.” I’d write more but I have to go boil myself.
[2]

Anthony Easton: I cannot get my mind around Sheeran as a sexual being, and this sung-spoken ode to fucking is the least erotic, mostly because it does not move substantially. There’s just a kind of spitty mumble stumbling over a rudimentary beat — and not rudimentary in a four-on-the-floor sense. 
[2]

Ramzi Awn: I’m not sure what this is, which is usually a good thing, but I do know that I don’t need to hear about Ed Sheeran’s bedsheets. Like at all. 
[2]

Lilly Gray: This is an inoffensive “let’s fuck” song if there ever was one, but of the two Sheeranisms on offer today I prefer this version. His voice is fine; he sings solidly and a little plainly, rather than yanking that tortured scratchy indie boy voice up and down the register, which makes his false duet in the pre-chorus stand out more. I also like that his earnest In Love™ brand, prefect for undanceable songs at a wedding reception, is side-stepped for a mildly saucy pick-up narrative. That said, “your love was handmade/for someone like me” clunks so profoundly I’m elbowed out of the song. The frankness and emptiness of his appraisal of her body and their sex is not going to light any fires in amorous listeners, and the oh-I chorus is dressing for the job it wants as a club banger rather than the job it has, as a weird, passionless chant. “Come on be my baby” is on the same lo-cal, lo-lust diet. 
[4]

Tim de Reuse: You can look for something cute and flirtatious in the little things — songs like this have worked on less narrative material than we get here — but you don’t have to be so damn literal. Better to be explicit or corny or overenthusiastic than go through the laundry list of mundane generalities we get here; boring is surely close to the polar opposite of sexy. It has a decent groove, I guess, even if it feels like it’s grooving purely because it’s obliged to.
[4]

Jonathan Bradley: Sheeran expects the tropical house rhythm to do a lot of the work on “Shape of You,” its burbles nudging his multi-tracked smolders forward. It works for a while, but he runs into a familiar dilemma: a stiff R&B presence, he sorely needs the energy of a dance beat but is most believable in his poisonous acoustic mode, lacing pretty guitar figures with incongruous malice (“Little Things,” “Love Yourself”). “Shape of You” tries to let its hair down, but from the vividly bland date narrative — Van Morrison on the jukebox, a cheap meal, taxicab petting — to a hook far too dependent on harmonies, it feels detached. Where on “Sing,” Sheeran found a puckish taste for adventure, here he sounds too much like a schlub trying to play smooth.
[5]

Alfred Soto: I was gonna say, “God, another ‘Love Yourself'” until I remembered this dude co-wrote it, although lines like “We were talking about sweet and sour” suggest he hasn’t used the royalties for songwriting workshops. Double tracking his voice high and low — how very Justin Timberlake. The pseudo-warmth of the title hook and the fake winks at body sensitivity are all Sheeran’s.
[3]

Mo Kim: If “Shape of You” fails as love song, it works much better as meta-commentary; in his writing or his performance, Sheeran gives little indication of his stakes in the relationship beyond his (and by extension, our) own investment in the idea of the relationship, of eating at unnamed rundown buffets and knowing what bed sheets smell like the morning after and having a song to share on the jukebox or the taxicab radio. Even the separation of heart from body (or the ultimate privileging of body, in the most literal sense) suggests an inability to commit himself fully in the mutual knowing of a lover, one he himself recognizes and deliberately enforces. But damned if he doesn’t make it easy to fall in love with the shape of this: the twinkling marimba, the rousing string plucks, the crackle of those dance room snaps and thumps. And where is it, for many of us pop fans, that those fantasies began? The radio, of course, where at sixteen I was losing myself in music like this, one of the few spaces I had in which I could be young and unapologetically queer and, maybe someday, loved. “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover,” he admits, but there’s room in its cramped halls to project expansive imaginations; this song was handmade for somebody like us.
[8]

Juana Giaimo: Ed Sheeran can’t avoid being tender and cute and honest and deep. That’s why “Shape of You” is about bodies, but also about the idealized vision you have of a new person in your first moments shared together. The upbeat singles of X (“Don’t,” “Sing”) suddenly sound quite dull compared to the warmness of  “Shape Of You,” especially because of that subtle reggaeton beat that can be so physical. There is no need for a big chorus when there are so many catchy moments — even his rapping is easier to follow now. But it isn’t needed either when you rely on looping, creating a pattern than is slowly completed with layers, just like the relationship told in the lyrics: it starts with a conversation at a bar, but he soon can identify all those details that make her unique. 
[8]

Joshua Copperman: One thing amusing about both this and “Castle On The Hill” is how he shouts out different artifacts of the generation before his own — “Born To Run”/”Tiny Dancer” in “Castle,” and Van Morrison here. Lazy trope or tribute to the music he was raised on? Who knows! Like “Castle,” this wants to be a slow-burner, but it also wants to get in on the tropical-house trend that’s been everywhere for a while now. This results in the first couple of minutes feeling too empty, but the last two minutes providing energy that the song should have had by the first chorus. The most memorable parts of any Ed Sheeran song are usually the looping vocalizations, whether it’s the “all the voices in my mind/calling out across the line” bridge in “Bloodstream” or the chants in “Give Me Love,” and the “Come on be my baby, come on” counter-melody is no exception. It’s not bad at all, but the way Ed stretches himself too thin here lyrically, melodically, and production-wise means it doesn’t sound like the smash hit he and Benny Blanco wanted it to be. One last thing: swiping from “Cheap Thrills” and “No Scrubs” at the same time is hilariously contradictory.
[5]

Scott Mildenhall: Sheeran generally survives his own lyricism here by not overstretching it, but still: the hedging is feeble. “Although my heart is falling too” followed by “I’m in love with your body” is laughable. It’s almost as if he wants this song to be a palpably physical thing, but can’t quite bring himself to do it. That’s wise, because it’s about as vibrant as porridge, but he should still be more careful where he treads — the levelling of “does” to “do” is best written off as being for the sake of a rhyme rather than any performative reason (partly because it makes him sound daft). It all bobs around affably though, so there’s something to be thankful for.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: Knowing this was intended for Rihanna, I played it back to back with her “Te Amo” and have concluded that this is exactly 50 per cent of the way to being a jam.
[6]

Olivia Rafferty: It’s really interesting to contemplate how this song was originally destined for Rihanna, because I bet the production wouldn’t be as sparse as it is for Sheeran here. But this is what makes the song really charming, it’s dancehall through a music box. This reductiveness also leaks into the lyrics: short, sweet lines that effortlessly rhyme and almost seem like they end too soon. This song will deceive you with its simplicity, then determinedly burrow it’s way into your head.
[8]

Will Adams: The funny thing about this and “Cheap Thrills” — songs seemingly intended for Rihanna — is that they sound like nothing Rihanna would do. The plucky synths evoke a vague tropicalia, sure, but Anti was exciting, daring, and never as concerned with radio ubiquity as “Shape of You” is. Like Sia’s song, the problem is that giving the song to its writer doesn’t fit at all. Ed Sheeran didn’t work as a smooth bar pick-up, and he sure as hell doesn’t work when singing, “my bedsheets smell like you.”
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: Ever want to hear about sex from a guy who thinks it’s a mark of distinction to pick girls up at a bar? Fancy hearing Ed Sheeran’s take on “Work”? If so, you baffle me entirely.
[3]

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Mac Miller ft. Ariana Grande – My Favorite Part

Anyway, back to songs we don’t like!


[Video][Website]
[3.60]

Maxwell Cavaseno: The same way former mentor/career model Wiz Khalifa’s amorphous nature tends to frustrate his fans, Mac Miller’s absolute blank slate nature is downright baffling. For many, his perpetual dumbfoundedness and laconic frat-rap past seem to undermine any strides he makes, of which there are many! That said, his ever conscious desires to improve as a producer, rapper and now singer are often scorned just due to who Mac Miller is. For what it’s worth, there is little to nothing here on “My Favorite Part” that is worse than say, anything on a Q-Tip solo album or Pharoahe Monch’s Desire. Maybe Mac’s grating, back of the throat grinding tone is certainly shit, but we’ve let other rappers get away with worse. And at least we get Ariana, right?
[4]

A.J. Cohn: Given the fizzy, silly delight that is Ariana Grande and Mac Miller’s previous duet “The Way,” I had high expectations for this track. And in theory, this song, which is like a stoned, slow jammed “What Makes You Beautiful”, is something that I would like. But that Grande is stuck harmonizing, while Miller’s strained attempts at singing are foregrounded is honestly offensive. Also offensive–to my sensibilities, at least–is the idea that occurred to me while listening to this: that “Side to Side” might be about Miller.
[4]

Crystal Leww: “The Way” is one of my favorite pop songs of the last decade. This is like if you got Zack Snyder to direct the sequel: let’s make everything serious and moody and arty and devoid of the joy that made the original so good. 
[3]

Will Adams: Every problem from “The Way” exacerbated: more Mac Miller (here singing like he’s hungover), more throwback simulacrum, more mistaking smoothness with lethargy, and all for a sweet nothings song that seems fine until you realize its core just another take on that old “you don’t know you’re beautiful and that’s what makes you beautiful” chestnut.
[4]

Alfred Soto: While the keyboard doodles and worries like J. Dilla-era Tribe, Mac Miller and Ariana Grande sing as if they were in the same room; better yet, Grande’s part is bigger than the “ft.” deserves. I’m not sure what they’re singing about, though, and I doubt they are either.
[6]

Elisabeth Sanders: Every time this song ends I immediately and completely forget what it sounds like.
[2]

Will Rivitz: Mac tries to be Anderson .Paak and gets about halfway there; Ariana tries to tone down her slow-jam-destroying warble and gets about halfway there; this song tries to be a sublimely sultry, funky love jam and gets about halfway there.
[6]

Scott Mildenhall: Mac Miller sounds like someone has stuck a pin in Phil Mitchell and got him to try and sing the verses of “Got To Have Your Love”. Phil Mitchell is not a well man! Whereas “Dang!” had a surprising vitality, this is so inert that it could be argon. It’s “Sensual Seduction” as reimagined by someone whose imagination should be confiscated, contained and scientifically tested for its lack of vividness.
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: I guess this is the secret to getting Ariana Grande to not oversing on a track: pair her with a vocalist so lazily awful that Ari barely has to open her mouth to outsing him. There’s an obvious flaw here.
[1]

Megan Harrington: It’s impossible to settle on the worst part of “My Favorite Part.” It might be Mac Miller’s congested, mumbled singing. It might be the conceit that Ariana Grande, tv and pop star, isn’t aware of how beautiful she is. It might be the lukewarm vinyl crackles and burnt out lightbulbs masquerading as mood lighting. The best part is easy: in a landscape overrun with contract couples and showmances, this pairing is just rank enough to feel real. Their flirtatiousness is stomach churning but it’s the song’s only appeal. 
[2]