Monday, May 28, 2018

I Love You (Single) - Laureline

Laureline is a LA-based band consisting of members Ciera Bardowell (Vocals/Guitar), Marian Nutley (Bass), Chris Rasmussen (Vocals/Guitar), & Nico Hernandez (Drums). I knew Ciera and Marian during my time at Azusa Pacific University, and was able to witness their talent long before they came together with Chris and Nico to form this alternative-pop group.

The song, titled "I Love You", draws considerably from a similar sound pallet to The 1975 (which I confirmed was a definitely an inspiration for the band); a sort of dreamy sound, full of soft, echoing tones and smooth lines. It sounds like something you might listen to while driving by a nearly deserted beach; a place full of life yet peaceful, slowly moving, waves ebbing and flowing and creating a natural rhythm. It soars a bit, flowing from one part to the next, with each instrument adding their part without taking hold of the spotlight.

I'm always a fan of contrast, and the vocals do an excellent job of creating just that. The separation and coming together of Chris & Ciera's vocals is really beautiful, in an almost haunting manner. The harmonies on the chorus are absolutely stunning; their voices plus the ever so slight vocal distortion create a beauty tinged with sadness. The back and forth nature with Chris doing the first verse and Ciera doing the second verse adds more contrast, with the two verses feeling quite different just with the difference in their voices and styles. Their vocal interplay reminds me a bit of Of Monsters & Men; obviously in a different setting, but similar in the way that their voices work fantastically together and apart. The contrast doesn't end with there - the way in which the vocals and lyrics contrast with the instrumental is quite surprising. The track has a definite upbeat vibe to it, but the lyrics have a more wistful tone, a definite sadness that permeates the vocals and ever so slightly seeps into the instrumental. It's a contrast of a high and low, of love and sadness, that comes together in a really exceptional way.

The song clocks in at a little over 3:20 seconds, but feels like it's gone in a flash. The music draws you in, making you want more but finishing just before you feel like you're ready for it to end. Even as I listened to it, I found myself at the end of the song much quicker than I anticipated, not having made enough notes before the song comes to a close, and having to start it over again. It's fleeting, like a ghost, which I think fits perfectly with the ever so slight haunting vibe the song creates.

For a first single, this song feels incredibly well done. This is not a band still trying to form their identity or still trying to get their feet of the ground. This feels like radio-ready music, a band waiting for the right moment to burst forth and ride a wave into big spotlights. If you enjoy The 1975 or The Japanese House, you'll for sure want to check out this up & coming, very talented group of individuals.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino - Arctic Monkeys

It's always interesting when a band takes an extended time to put out a new record. With a gap of two or three years, most shifts and changes in musical sound are expected and predictable. When you start to get into the five years or more mark, things become a little less clear. People can change a lot in a year, so five years between one release and another can see a band or artist go through multiple changes. When the Arctic Monkeys released their last album, AM, in 2013, they were on top of the alternative rock world. With huge singles like "Do I Wanna Know?" & "R U Mine?", the band sat atop the charts and received much critical acclaim for a little while before taking a two year hiatus.

When the band finally came back together and recorded, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was the result; and boy, was it across the galaxy in terms of differences from their previous sound. Gone the gritty guitars and crashing drums, gone the rock n' roll and alternative swagger, replaced with echoing piano chords, brooding bass lines, and Alex Turner's vocals switching for high & soaring to a low, almost talking-tone of a weary storyteller. You can easily hear the influences of David Bowie & Leonard Cohen in different aspects of the music.

Not only is this album light-years away from it's predecessors, it transports the listener to a place and time far from the modern world. I find myself flying to a bar, smoky and dimly lit, located on the edge of an astroid field where characters from all over the galaxy come to trade stories and have a quiet drink with a view of the stars. It creates an atmosphere that is totally it's own, with a history waiting to be discovered.

I'll be totally honest and say that this album took a few listens. With a shift in sound and direction like this, it was bound to be polarizing amongst listeners, and I was almost confused upon my first listen through the album. I was expecting a follow up to match the intensity and energy of AM, and found the band had moved in the opposite direction. But the more I listened to the album, the more I found myself coming back again and again and again. Since it's release, I've listened to it at least once a day from start to finish, if not two or three or more times. It's so unique in the scope and concept, I can't get enough of it.

It's difficult to talk about the songs individually - it feels like looking at just one part of a larger picture. Obviously they each differ and have their own specific sound, but at the same time they all work off of a similar sound pallet, creating a seamless experience from start to finish. When I listen to it, I have a hard time shuffling it or hearing songs by themselves in a playlist. It feels like it's meant to be together, it's meant to be experienced in a manner which is not as common anymore. Labels market singles, they want that smash song that people will get sick of on the radio. People buy songs individually more often than by the album, so to create a piece of art that demands to be listened to in it's entirety is a bold move.

The theme reminds me a lot of retro science fiction; stories from the era of Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury where the future teetered between the sides of glimmering, shiny hope and the dark, brooding pessimism. It's not quite as serious and dystopian as sci-fi has generally become, but it clearly reveals that something is not quite right - an inkling of a suspicion, a hint that someone or something is lurking, waiting for the right moment to be revealed. This is a galaxy of opportunity, both reputable and not, probably riding closer to the science side than the fiction. There isn't as much myth to this place, nothing like Star Wars; closer to Star Trek, but a tad bit darker and less optimistic. 

Lyrically, it feels a bit more abstract than AM. For me, that might have been an issue years ago - I liked it when I could decipher what I was listening to and find a meaning. With time, I'm sure I'll be able to grasp some of what Turner is crooning about. But for now, I'm just fine without knowing - it feels as though I don't have to focus on the words and let the overall sound wash over me, taking me to this unknown world I have yet to fully discover. There definitely are lines that I thoroughly enjoy - take this one from "Star Treatment":

"So who you gonna call?
The Martini Police"

Something about the way Turner delivers the line makes it so amusing & mocking of the intended target - someone who seems to be snobby or uptight about ridiculous things.

Another fun set of lines lies farther along in the song:

"I just wanted to be one of those ghosts
You thought that you could forget
And then I haunt you via the rear view mirror
On a long drive from the back seat".

It's a strangely relatable line - at least for those of us who are perhaps a little more paranoid or fearful of that which lurks in the dark. The imagery of a lingering lover as a ghost somewhat out of reach, but on the edge of awareness.

This album truly is a masterpiece - a well crafted work of art that manages to acknowledge the past while looking forward. The way in which the music creates it's own physically manifestation is the most remarkable aspect; something that I know will keep me coming back for more and inspiring me in my own work.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended: "Star Treatment", "Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino", and "She Looks Like Fun"

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Pastel (Single) - Crooked Teeth

While this is not necessarily a new release, LA-based Crooked Teeth have rereleased their EP Pastel through Rude Records, the label that the band signed with back in March. The band consists of Tyson Evans on vocals/bass, Adam Miranda on guitar, and Adam Galindo on drums. The tracks have all been re-mixed and re-mastered by Matt Lang and Kris Crummett respectively. I asked the band about what it's been like to be on a label now, and Tyson shared his excitement, talking about how being "part of an established label/band relationship like this so to make that happen with a team who genuinely want to see us do great things and maintain our artistic integrity is such a win".

Within the span of three songs, LA natives Crooked Teeth demonstrate their wide range and musical abilities. “Crawl” reminds me ever so briefly of “In Too Deep” by Sum 41, specifically the guitar part in the beginning, but quickly drifts away from that sound and takes on a more serious tone, as the band's vocalist and bassist Tyson sings about a broken relationship and trying to take the high road in the toxic aftermath of pain and heartbreak. The emotional turmoil is very evident, in the ways in which Tyson switches between the soft & gentle side and the intense and gritty higher vocals and the strength of the instrumental crashing behind his voice and lyrics. This release sees the addition of Bonnie Fraser from Stand Atlantic, which creates another layer of depth as well as providing some excellent contrast to Tyson's vocals. She soars when he goes low and provides another octave of emotional intensity.

"Out of Place" is probably the most upbeat song of the release, and delves into the topic of belonging and struggling with feeling like you should be here. The chorus especially exemplifies that:

"When you start to feel like running away
To another time, to a different place
When you start to feel yourself slipping away
Do you feel anything, do you feel out of place?".

It's always an interesting concept to me, when a band or artist is able to discuss something that's not necessarily happy or cheerful over an instrumental that's upbeat and gets the listener going. This song is a great example of that, with a solid instrumental (Adam G's drums are tight and driving, and Adam M's guitar really helps lead the melody in the moments where Tyson's vocals fade away) that makes you want to rock out while the lyrics make you think and (perhaps) get emotional. The message behind the song is very relatable, especially for those of you who identify strongly with the emo music scene (no wonder these guys played Emo Nite in LA last year).

"Helpless" finishes out the EP on a darker, heavier note. This song is part of what helps distance the band a bit from the pop-punk crowd and shows some rock & alternative-rock influences (Tyson mentioned that some of their influences include Slayer and Slipnot among the likes of Jimmy Eat World, The Maine, and Fall Out Boy), and shows their ability to synthesize their influences into one, unique sound. The drum work on this song is especially notable, between the clean verses and the almost breakdown moment of the pre-chorus; creating contrast in rhythm alone is impressive. The lyrics and vocals really drew me to this song as well, such as the chorus:

"I could fake this pain
Keep my thoughts at bay
I could whisper all my fears or keep it down when you're around
If I fake this pain".

The song talks about dealing with internal pain, fear, and anxiety, and the struggles with trying to cope and keep your composure for those around you. It's a hard thing to deal with, especially when you feel as though you can't talk about what's going on inside and trying to pretend like everything is okay. Tyson's vocals reflect this turmoil, showing us his ability to yell and scream on the bridge, repeating the line "when I feel helpless" over and over. It's a heavy song, but a well crafted and passionate tune that really resonates with the listener.

This release really shows the strength and passion of the band, a group that feels ready to explode and, as Tyson put it, "preparing to take over the damn world". When asked about some of their influences and role-models in terms of other bands and artists, Tyson mentioned that Fall Out Boy "has influenced our outlook on how to approach our art and the avenues we want it to travel down. We really dig how they've just played the whole spectrum. They kill it in artwork, collaborations, songwriting and most importantly they take risks and there's something really inspiring about that".
I appreciated that notion of taking risks and expanding a group's sound and influence, something I can already hear in Crooked Teeth's current sound and expect to hear more of in future releases.

Speaking of that, the band will be heading out on tour with Belmont and Young Culture later this month and Sundressed and Tiny Stills after that. Stay tuned this fall for their follow up EP on Rude Records that the band is really excited for; the band says they thin fans will "be pleasantly surprised at the growth there". Check out all their information for tour dates and music on their website here, and watch their latest music video for "Crawl" here!

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Little Awkward Body - Death & His Couch Band

I’m pleased to again be reviewing a new release from my friend Charles Crowley through his passion project, Death & His Couch Band. I previously reviewed the single “Sunpools”, and really enjoyed the work Charles put into the music. This new release continues that sense of vulnerability and honesty that marked “Sunpools”.

With “My Little Awkward Body”, Charles uses the track to open up about his struggles with self-image and the ways in which that has impacted his life thus far. What’s really cool is the companion piece he wrote up for the song (read it here), which I’ll reference as well. In terms of the instrumental, it moves in a bit of a different direction than “Sunpools”, being more upbeat and with a more intense sound. The drums are much different, giving the song a sense of urgency and adding to the prominent shoegaze/dreamo sound found throughout. The bright synths add some contrast to instrumental, soaring and echoing while the guitars and drums are more precise and gritty.

The song is mostly instrumental until the vocals/lyrics kick in at the 1:20 mark, which is more than halfway through the two and a half minutes of the track. I really enjoy the lower and higher vocals playing on each other, adding further depth to an alread well layered track. It almost gives the sense of two vocalists, two voices conveying different emotions and emphasizing different points. The lower obviously is more reserved, a sense of brooding contrasted by the louder, almost screaming nature of the higher vocals. Even when the vocals show up, they don’t exactly feel like the focal point - the mixing blends them into the track in a way that forces you to be attentive while also allowing for the listener to let the track wash over them in a wave of sound.

Now, the lyrics. It's only two almost identical stanzas, which I'll post below:

"don't wanna feel like I've lost myself
today's the only day I have left
today's the only day I have left
today's the only day I have left
in my awkward body
my little awkward body

don't wanna feel like I've lost myself
today's the only day I have left
always the only day I have left
always the only day I have left
in my awkward body
my little awkward body
my little awkward body
my little awkward body".

I think these lines, combined with the companion piece I mentioned/linked to earlier,  really present an honest and open portrayal of a struggle that many people can relate to. I especially like that Charles is talking about it as a man; while it is more well known for women to struggle with body image and the pressures of societal norms and expectations, it also falls on men as well. I myself have struggled with this (and still do on occasion), and I know many others do. Not only that, but with the notion of how connected we as people with our bodies and that they are simultaneously a vessel in which we reside and also a part of who we are. No wonder what we think of our body can affect us so deeply. It's this conversation, this part of our humanity that I am really glad Charles was able to bring up and share his experience with so as to create conversation and be vulnerable. Vulnerability is obviously a difficult thing to do, but often helps bring about the changes that humanity needs.

While I think I prefer "Sunpools" as a track, "My Little Awkward Body" has such depth and meaning behind it that I know I'll be listening to it and sharing it with people around me. I'm grateful to Charles for taking the time to put forth this work (which he mentioned was due in part to encouragement from a friend and bandmate of his from his other group, Gardenside, "Robby Craig, who also mixed & mastered the tracks"), and for sharing his thoughts with me. He will be working with a director on a music video for the track, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Modern Wild - EP - The Modern Wild

This release comes from a group I have reviewed before - but under a different name. Bay Area natives The Modern Wild, formerly known as Brave City (see my review of their first release nearly four years ago - wow!), have rebranded themselves and released a new EP to showcase the change in sound and direction. Mike, who plays guitar and keys, is a friend of mine from high school and asked me to check out the latest release. Having enjoyed the last release at the time, I was glad to oblige.

The first song, "White Rope", kicks things off in a more intense, aggressive manner than the rest of the EP. Feeling somewhat similar to their earlier material, The Modern Wild shows that they have grown up a bit - as well as their increased musical talent. Tighter guitars and drum riffs are exemplified through both the evident skill and the higher production and recording quality. Mike told me that the band built their own studio to record in, and the production was handled entirely by himself and Brian Matthews, one of the other guitarists (they have four in total!). That fact alone is impressive, as well as being evident in the sound - it's still got a bit of the homegrown feel to it, but also being good quality sound. "White Rope" has a bit of a early 2000's emo feeling to it; it leans more towards the alternative-rock side, but you can feel the influence of that era the strongest on this track. There's even a moment at around the 2:15 mark that feels a bit like System Of a Down, in the way that harmonies come together over a bit of a stripped down instrumental. The song is a perfect way to start the EP.

"Seattle, CA" pulls back the aggressive-nature of the previous track, but maintains the intensity in a different manner. Channeling a bit of Manchester Orchestra, the band slowly builds up from the quiet beginning into a wall of sound, not moving in the way that a song is typically structured but just constantly building the power behind the song. Especially looking at the lyrics by themselves, it feels more like a poem than the verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern most songs move through. I especially like this set of lyrics, which are during the climax of the song, and feel particularly intense:

"The rain will come and wash me
Into the sea
As winter takes its hold
Come wrap yourself around me
Come breathe me in
Come save me from this cold
I feel you rise above me
You're sinking in
Your hands were mine to hold".

Speaking of lyrics, the next song, "Speak of the Devil", feels like it's got a heavy focus on the lyrics, a bit more than the previous songs. With lines like

"Is the view from your nest worth the depth of the fall?"


"'Ashes to ashes we’ll all burn away'
All of the fauna now gathered around you
Singing 'Fire, Fire, Fire'",

it's easy to see why the band wanted to words to really be the focus, and how they built an instrumental to both keep the attention vocally but still add to it. It doesn't quite reach the same intensity as "Seattle, CA", but it definitely has a fire of it's own.

"The Sound and the Fury" is a bit more of a subdued number - a bit slowed down, yet not without it's own spark. It's got some of that Manchester Orchestra vibe to it, but with their own twist - the two vocalist aspect is always a unique feature, and makes it's mark on this song especially. I especially liked one lyric line from this number:

"Wrapped in the kiss of twilight
Your glow is green, soft amber, and golden
And your gravity pulls me in"

it's got a poetic feel to it, yet also draws a bit on space imagery - as the rest of the song does. Two things I very much enjoy in one tune? Sign me up.

The album finishes out with "All That Needs to be Done", which moves away from the rest of the EP in its soft, acoustic sound and layered vocals. It's a very pretty, beautiful sound - calming, soothing, and relaxing. It's a great choice to finish the release out with, as it reveals a different layer to the band, a new dimension of their capabilities as a group.

Overall, this release really shows the strength and potential this band. 4 years of playing and growing has shown itself in this release, and I'm very curious to see what comes next. The band plans on following up this release with a full length album soon, so be sure to look out for that! Check out their Facebook page here for music and news from the band.

Great job guys!

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended: "Seattle, CA", "All That Needs to Be Done"

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

KOD - J. Cole

I'll be totally honest - after reviewing J. Cole's last album, 4 Your Eyez Only, I didn't listen to it a whole lot. While it was a solid album, it wasn't the type of album I wanted to throw on repeat and listen to every day. Despite that, when I saw J. Cole was teasing a new release, I was definitely excited and eager to hear what the man had been quietly creating.

I was not prepared.

KOD did what 4 Your Eyez Only tried to do, and improved upon it immensely. Each song carries such weight lyrically, moving from subject to subject with fluidity while still hitting each heavily and leaving a long-lasting impression. He covers money, fame, scandal, and the problems that come with them (with drug abuse and addiction being a theme threading itself through all these subjects).

The two videos Cole has put out so far, "ATM" & "Kevin's Heart", both cover different subjects in very different manners. "ATM" talks about the harsh reality of obsessing over money and the way in which it dictates and destroys peoples lives. The video complements it so well by utilizing very dreamy and distorted art, with lots of visual effects and bright colors to offset the way in which money and the people around J. Cole are using him for the dollar. And even just looking at the hook, in it's profound simplicity:

"Count it up, count it up, count it up, count it
Can't take it when you die, but you can't live without it"

"Kevin's Heart" is much more somber, utilizing very muted and realistic scenes (with Kevin Hart himself) that explore the polarization of being a celebrity and doing something morally wrong in the public eye. Seeing that it was inspired by Kevin Hart's cheating scandal from last year gives the video and song even more depth and weight in considering the ways in which people discuss celebrities - who themselves are still imperfect people.

Something that helps the album have such an impact is the overall simplicity of the instrumentals - none of them are these huge productions, relying instead on tight beats to lay the groundwork for the incredible lyrical work happening on each track. "Motiv8", for example, is a very simple instrumental, but contains heavy lyrical content, such as:

"Too many times I swallowed my pride
I'm crackin' a smile, I'm dyin' inside
My demons are close, I'm tryin' to hide
I'm poppin' a pill, I'm feelin' alive"

demonstrating the way in which looks are deceiving, and how easily we turn to something else to try and ignore our pain, our problems, and just try to feel good.

"BRACKETS" looks at a very different topic, seeing Cole go off about the ways in which his tax dollars are used over a slowed down, jazzy instrumental:

"But my niggas barely graduate, they ain't got the tools
Maybe 'cause the tax dollars that I make sure I send
Get spent hirin' some teachers that don't look like them
And the curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend
Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin
One thing about the men that's controlling the pen
That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins".

He's able to bridge the song from there to briefly touching on gun violence to it's impact on people, specifically a black woman losing her son, and ultimately bringing the song full circle by having the woman "remember that she gotta file her taxes, damn" on her way back from the funeral for her son. It's heavy material, but incredibly moving.

"Once An Addict (Interlude)" has Cole pulling back the curtain of vulnerability and delve deep into his relationship with his mom when he was a teenager, recounting the ways in which she abused drugs and alcohol and how that affected her and him and their relationship, and the regrets he has for how he dealt with it at the time.

"Something's got a hold on me
I can't let it go
Out of fear I won't be free"

The outro shows how much of an impact it had on him, affecting him even now as he struggles to move past that part of his life.

"Photograph" was initially one of the stand outs from my first listen, with the chorus being an incredibly relevant take on the culture that social media has created today:

"Fell in love through photograph
I don't even know your name
Wonder if you'd follow back
I hope to see you one day
I won't show my niggas now
I'II keep this one for myself
Love today's gone digital
And it's messing with my health"

The focus on the physical and what can be seen creates unhealthy expectations and obsessions for people who spend a lot of time on various social media sites, and is something that is so common and harmful to relationships and even just a general sense of enjoying life.

I could keep going in depth with the lyrics of each song off the album. "FRIENDS (feat. kiLL edward)" has Cole speaking to the friends he has left behind along his road to fame and success, and the addiction that he feels they struggle with (most likely being the reason he had to leave them behind). "The Cut Off (feat. kiLL edward)" talks about the people that Cole had to cut off due to them using him for his money or connections, and his struggle with wanting to help them despite that and wanting to be generous with what he had been given. "1985 (Intro to "The Fall Off")" sees Cole speaking to the young up and coming rappers, specifically those like Lil' Pump (of whom I am not a fan), and offering them advice about how to use their platform and influence to create change for good (which Lil' Pump did not take well, and ignored the advice while making fun of Cole).

Even trying to keep things to a minimum, I couldn't help going on about the different subjects. The amount of material in this album is incredible. Lyrically, this is easily the best rap album I've heard in a while, if not in general. Cole delved into so many heavy subjects, but didn't let any of them weigh him down, showing fire and passion like a man 10 years younger but with the knowledge of someone who has lived much, much longer. But then, the instrumentals are all so spot on for the specific lyrical content. Ranging from trap to jazz, fast to slow, there's a little bit of everything here and it flows together with ease. This is where 4 Your Eyez Only didn't succeed - trying for too many things at once and without the sense of finesse and flow that Cole was able to capture on KOD. The stories and perspectives are his own, and that is reflected in the brutal honestly expressed. You learn a lot about J. Cole, listening to this album, and it shows you a man who has come from a broken place, taken his fear and pain and struggles, and turned them into success and influence. He can relate to those who are in similar situations, who are living through the things he faced in his childhood and beyond. You see that he's not a perfect being; his honesty paints a picture of clarity into the life of a celebrity.

Vulnerability, compassion, wisdom; this is an absolutely essential album for 2018.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended: "ATM", "KOD", "Photograph", "The Cut Off (feat. kiLL edward)"