Friday, November 23, 2018

Honey - EP - Crooked Teeth

When I interviewed Tyson of Crooked Teeth for my review of their rerelease of Pastel, he mentioned the influence that Fall Out Boy has had on the band, in terms of way they approach all aspects of the music biz and taking the risks that they have over the years.

As I was listening to the new EP, Honey, I found myself very much agreeing with that influence and seeing the way that Crooked Teeth is ready to take risks and make bold moves. With just five songs, the band really flexes their songwriting skills and showcases their wide-ranging influences, with elemtnts of hip-hop and pop smoothly mixing in with pop-punk and emo sounds. It's an ambitions venture, not trying to fit a single mold or set of expectations as the band lays it all out on the line. The whole EP only lasts for about 17 minutes, but each listen reveals the variety of sound spaces that the band chose to explore through. At it's heart, the band's pop-punk and rock sound holds true throughout. Each song of the release manages to incorporate an element or two that is not an obvious connection - the hip-hop beats of the title track, "Honey", and "You and Me (Whatever)", the synth/percussion melody line utilized in the intro and choruses of "Broken Bones", and the pop-leaning beat, synths, and echoing/super high vocals of "Absent" all reveal a much wider range of musical inspiration far beyond those of any one genre.

One of the most impressive elements of this release is the songwriting. It's incredibly strong, with all of the hooks for each song being both memorable and creative; tunes that get stuck in your head but still retain substance and intentionality. I think the song that sticks out to me the most is "You and Me (Whatever)" - the vocals and melody feel the strongest of the whole EP, showing pop-sensibility over both the synthetic beats and bass or the gritty guitars and crashing drums. The fact that they hold up so well over both sections, both of completely different directions and vibes, really is a testament to the band's songwriting and Tyson's vocal abilities.

The impressive nature of the songwriting goes far beyond the vocals; the instrumentals are all top notch as well. The flawless melding of the band's usual tools (guitar, bass, drums) with the synthetic and genre-crossing elements makes for an ever-deepening listening experience. Each time through leaves room for new discoveries, new a-ha moments. Not to mention there's just some kickass, jamming places that make your body want to move along. There's this place in "Absent" where the guitars hit these staccato, almost snarl-like notes, in sync with the drums that is just damn cool. The contrast of the verse in "Hate Me" between the muted guitar strums and drums and the full throttle wall of noise for Tyson to growl over. The drop into the first chorus of "Honey" where Tyson falls through a melody that conveys such anguish while Adam and Adam kick things into high gear to provide a ferocious wall of support. I could keep going, but the point is that the band knows what they're doing - these ain't no amateurs.

Lyrically, this release is a gold mine. Such well crafted songs about deep struggles and pain that life has brought and letting those responsible know what they've done. It's a very relationally-based set of songs, but one that feels very relatable and paints vivid pictures of the various situations. The chorus for "Honey is one such example:

"I think I might die
I feel the onset of this heart attack
While my hands are tied behind my back"

as well as part of the chorus of "Absent"

"It always happens, that I'm left hurting
Rather be absent, than feel like a burden
You draw me close, just enough to make me hang around"

The biggest stinger/call out, which I really appreciated the brutal honesty of the last few lines of the bridge for "Broken Bones":

"There's only so much you can buy
When there's just nothing left to hide behind
So smile big cause that's the only thing that's real".

Each song contains a number of lines that I imagine many people will grab onto and hold close to, capturing the different struggles of those with anxiety, depression, and heartbreak.

When I spoke with Tyson back in May,  he said this about the forthcoming EP (Honey): "I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised at the growth there." He got it right on the nose. I think this EP has a little bit of something for everyone. Not only does it have elements that drew fans to the band, but shows the scope of their vision for what the band can accomplish and their willingness to take risk along the way. The payoff was definitely worth it; this is 17 minutes of super solid music that you won't want to miss.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended:  "Honey", "You and Me (Whatever)", "Broken Bones"

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Folds in Your Clothes - EP - Laureline

The more I listen to this EP, the more I find myself in wonder.

As a disclaimer to start, I went to college with Ciera (vocals/guitar) and Marian (bass) of LA-based band Laureline, so I'm somewhat biased towards the work that they do.

Now, does that mean that I am going to promote or encourage you to listen to their music just because I know & like them as people? No.

I'm going to tell you to listen to this EP because it's damn good.

The comparison to The 1975 feels too obvious (as well as something I mentioned in my review of their first single "I Love You"). It's an influence, no doubt, but isn't a defining aspect. Sonically, yes, it's similar. But the direction, the vibes? Much, much different. There's a clear intentionality about the music of this EP, a purpose and a passion with each track. It's all very atmospheric, layers of sounds building together to create an experience with each listen, not to mention the lyrics and the stories the band tells with each track.

I love the dual vocals - I have said it time and time again when reviewing other artists that utilize this, and I will always go on about it. It provides so many more opportunities for a band, places and sonic spaces that other groups can't explore. The way in which Laureline chose to have songs where the vocalist work together ("I Love You" & "Nothing") and also songs where each vocalist gets to lead ("Restless" for Ciera" and "Hum" for Chris). Each song reveals the vocalists' own strengths or allows one to shine while the other provides support.

"Restless" starts with this beautiful set of piano lines, echoing into each other as the rest of the song unfolds (which the beat, to me, reminds me of "100 Letters" by Halsey off her latest album).  Ciera's vocals are really the highlight of the release though, floating over the track like a spirit with some real soul. The song has a little bit of fight, especially in the chorus and the last line: "when you say you want it back, you can have it"; clearly a relationship or friendship gone south is the fuel to this fire. I especially enjoy the saxophone solo, adding to the hearty and soulful sound of the track, despite the more modern instrumentation.

To me though, the highlight of the release is "Hum" and "Just Go Slow On Me", the last two songs that meld together to create a nearly eight minute long experience. They're softer, quieter songs; yet build in momentum and emotional weight as they progress.

The strongest, most pulling moment of "Hum" is the bridge, where Chris repeats the line, "Do you wanna love me now?", over and over, rising with the music as the intensity builds. It feels so vulnerable and heart-wrenching, and showcases the band's ability to craft such powerful pieces.

The follow up to that intensity, however, almost ends up overshadowing it. "Just Go Slow On Me" is shorter, but the second stanza of lyrics carries such weight despite it's brevity:

"But I can't
Hear you but you're talking to me
And I'm forgetting how you look already
And I told you please just go slow on me
When you told me that you like loving me
But I can't".

The two songs are certainly interconnected, and almost required together to fully experience the depth to which this band wants to bring the listener; cocooned in soft synths and warm bass tones as the sorrow washes over. That makes it sound a bit more emo than it is - but I promise, it's an experience worth going through.

What a phenomenal start for a group with such potential. Most definitely looking forward to future releases from one of LA's most promising young bands.

Rating: 4/5

Related: The 1975, Lany, Halsey

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Simulation Theory - Muse

If I'm being completely honest, I wasn't planning on listening to this album.

I've been listening to Muse for quite some time now; nearly a decade of following their work (and lucking out with seeing them in 2010 - if you get the chance, I absolutely recommend it). I entered into their realm during The Resistance era, exploring back through their discography and anticipating each new release with much enthusiasm.

That is, until their last album, Drones. While I wasn't as active with my blog between 2015-16, that was one of the few albums I did review, and it was not my taste. So I was skeptical of new music from the group when they started releasing singles nearly a year an a half ago. I definitely enjoyed "Dig Down", but found myself feeling less and less optimistic with "Thought Contagion", "The Void", and "Something Human" (the later two of which I listened to maybe twice). It felt, from initial impressions, that the band went from revisiting their edgier rock roots to falling in with the trends.

So, when I was the album released, I didn't even try listening to it. I was feeling fairly uninspired by the singles, and not wanting to invest my time into an album that I didn't think I was going to enjoy. I don't have as much time as I'd like to just listen to music and potentially review it, so I've been more selective and stingy about what I listen to. Which is not always fair to music and the artists, but I can't waste time on music that doesn't catch me and excite me.

Yesterday, however, I was driving to work and the opening track came up on my weekly suggested playlist from Apple Music. So I decided to give it a go and see how it sounded.

I'm quite glad that I did.

While I was right in my initial impression that this album plays more with current trends in music, I was wrong in the depth and musicality of it. Trap high-hats, dubstep wobbles, and pop-star falsettos all make their appearances, but alongside layering of electronic synths, live drums, gritty bass and guitar lines, and a smattering of orchestral instruments. The result is an album that feels like Muse at their peak - intentionality and experimentation coming together in a way that promotes exploration without compromising the band's integrity or character. Simulation Theory feels like the band took all the tools they've been playing with over the last decade and brought it all together - much like Linkin Park did with their Living Things album in 2012.

Some of the songs and moments feel very similar to Muse's past material. "Blockades" feels quite like it could be at home in a set list right between "Starlight" and "Knights of Cydonia", with the synth arpeggios, sweeping vocals, and guitar solo that reminds you of Matt Bellamy's shredding skills. The wobbles of "Dig Down" bring to mind "Madness" and the almost heartwarming, hopeful nature of the song feels like "Undisclosed Desires".  "The Void" could very easily fit in with the "Exogenesis Symphony" of The Resistance, with just a more modern/80's feel.

The band does make some moves in new and previously unexplored directions, however, and these ones pay off big time. "Propaganda" is probably the most obvious track in this case; produced by Timbaland, the song ends up feeling like a mash up between Muse and Justin Timberlake in the best way possible. While "Thought Contagion" felt like it was trying too hard, I think "Propaganda" manages to be this contemporary sounding song without feeling too weird or out of line. Timberland's touch was definitely helpful with this - but also was never a collaboration I would have dreamed of, which makes it all the better.

"Break it to Me" is similar in this sense, but with a much more gritty tone. This was the song that made me know I was going to review this album, that I was going to give it an honest chance. The bass and drum lines come together to give the song swagger, while the vocals give it a sensuality that I never, ever would have expected in a Muse song. It's been a long time since I heard a Muse song that got me excited, that got me dancing in my car. Not to mention the scratching (that I think is done on a guitar??) section in the bridge - I felt like I had been taken back to the Nu-metal days of the early 2000's. I want to write about every single moment of the track, but the bottom line is it's just a sick, cool-ass song.

"Get Up and Fight" is another one that caught my attention, drawing influence from alternative of the late 2000's and early 2010's. The chorus is the best part, shattering the minimalistic, calm verse with a wall of guitars, drums, and some of Bellamy's most earnest and honest sounding vocals in a while. I also discovered that the female vocals featured during the intro and transition from chorus to verse were recorded by To Love - someone I have listened to and appreciate, but an unexpected collaboration nonetheless.

All in all, this album is a job well done. Drawing from popular trends such as trap and 80's sounds, while working with new producers and pushing the boundaries for the band as a whole, has demonstrated that the band is working to create new areas to explore while still retaining their sense of self. Something this album does well that I noticed in the Apple Music description is the general sense of positivity in the songs. The band has delved into some darker and more cynical notions the last few albums, and hearing more hopeful and uplifting ideas from this album helps to make the album something I'm more likely to come back to for more. It's not perfect, but it's definitely a solid, exciting record. I'll gladly admit that I made a wrong assumption about this record, and I will be sure to keep that in mind as I listen to their music and that of others in the future.

Rating: 3.75/5

Recommended: "Break it to Me", "Get Up and Fight", "Pressure", "Blockade"