Monthly Report: March 2014 Albums

Monday, March 31, 2014

1. YG - My Krazy Life
This is really how major label rap debuts should be -- dropping at the exact moment where radio has already bent towards what these guys have been doing for years, so all they have to do is be themselves, in a relatively presentable but not at all sanitized way. Mustard's sound has gotten a little repetitive on radio singles, but putting together a full-length project he arranges enough variety within the formula that every track is distinct. I love how there's a few songs that are only 2 minutes long, and feel kinda like vignettes within the album's narrative but still totally knock. I'm generally not a fan of the TeeFlii and Ty Dolla $ign ratchet R&B stuff, but their piano-driven tracks work in the context of the album and bring a little melody into the picture right at the point when the album could use it. YG has never been the strongest rapper but he holds the whole thing down better than I expected him to, his voice has settled into this affable, conversational croak. All of these that are on Spotify are in my constantly updated 2014 albums playlist, by the way. 

2. Pharrell Williams - G I R L
In my opinion, Pharrell's bad ideas have outnumbered his good ones pretty consistently for almost a decade now, even in 2013, as much as I liked his big comeback hits. And I didn't really care for "Happy," so I didn't know what to expect from this album. But man, it fucking works. The Hans Zimmer strings, the pure smile-inducing good vibes of songs like "Brand New," the relatively low number of the usual Pharrell lyric misfires (OK, "Hunter" is pretty bad), it's all so beatific and warm and enjoyable. "Freq," the hidden track with JoJo in the middle of the album, is a nice surprise, better than the listed song at the beginning of the track, "Lost Queen."

3. Carla Bozulich - Boy
It's funny that two of my favorite albums of the past month are called G I R L and Boy, huh. But anyway... Carla Bozulich is one of my all-time musical heroes, largely for her work in the '90s with The Geraldine Fibbers, as well as Mike Watt and Scarnella and Ethyl Meatplow (here is a career overview post I once wrote about her, which I once got a nice e-mail from Carla herself about). After those wide-ranging projects, she's settled into something of a late career groove, with the 2006 solo album Evangelista and three subsequent albums released under the group name Evangelista. So Boy is actually her first album presented outside the Evangelista 'brand' in over a decade, although it has a lot of the same sounds and collaborators as those albums, presented in a slightly more accessible package: 10 songs, all in the 3-5 minute range. Given the way some of the other recent albums were so unforgivingly dark and shapeless in parts that it's nice to hear this stuff in the form of concise, often rhythm-driven songs. "Gonna Stop Killing" is especially great, and the title's resemblance to her 2004 live release, the I'm Gonna Stop Killing EP, makes me wonder how long that song's been kicking around. 

4. Future Islands - Singles
My Wondering Sound feature on Future Islands was a lot of fun to put together and they were really good guys to interview, and I listened to the album a lot while working on it, but only now that the article done have I really gotten a chance to start just enjoying as an album and figuring out what I think of it. It's funny but before I just kinda took advantage of Future Islands as a band that everyone in Baltimore knew was good and I didn't feel much need to write about or advocate for them, but now that they're tipping into a wider level of fame it's pretty exciting to watch unfold. I think my favorite thing about this album, in relation to their other albums, is the increased guitar in the mix, the riffs on "Doves" and "A Dream Of You And Me" really make those songs pop and in a way make the basslines stand out more too. 

5. Kevin Gates - By Any Means
Gates released two of my favorite rap records of 2013, and I'm glad that he's back at it and releasing more consistently good music. The weird Atlantic Records offshoot APG that's released his last couple albums, however, recently got some light shed on it in this Young Thug story. And even though it's ostensibly refreshing to see a major label create an incubator imprint to regularly release music by a promising rapper with a relatively small but growing fanbase, I kinda wonder whether this is actually a good move for Gates or if it's keeping him in the kind of middling niche he's in when it'd be great to see him break out and become a major star. This is a strong record, though, "Stop Lyin'" and "Arm And Hammer" are dope and it's kinda cool to get guys like 2 Chainz and Plies to bounce off of Gates since he sometimes lacks in the kind of over-the-top personality they have.

6. King Los - Zero Gravity II
Los's rise over the last few years has been one of the most exciting stories in Baltimore hip hop that I've ever followed, and sometimes it's hard to separate the success of his career from the music. The last few tapes have been good, and he remains a breathtaking rapper on a technical level, but more than that it's just been fun to see what kind of numbers they do on the big mixtape sites. At the moment, it's hard to tell if this will surpass the last one, Becoming King, but between the guest list being less impressive than that one, and Los announcing just before the tape dropped that he's leaving Bad Boy Records again, I don't know, it feels like the buzz has deflated a little bit. Hopefully I'm wrong, maybe this is the beginning of a different phase of his career, still rooting for dude. The flows on "Don't Get In My Way" are great, cool to hear him still playing with his voice and finding new approaches. 

7. Spencer Owen - Blue Circle
Spencer is one of my internet homies from way back that I've reconnected with on Twitter more recently, I dug an album he put out last year and this one is even better, kind of a subtle, groove-driven pop/rock record with some goofy, playful moments here and there.

8. Marsha Ambrosius - Fvck & Love EP
Her first album was pretty huge on R&B radio, but like most non-superstar singers, Marsha Ambrosius seems to be caught in label limbo waiting for a single to pop off big before she can get a release date (and I really liked that recent single with Ne-Yo, shame it didn't do anything). So she went ahead and dropped a 6-song EP out of the sky recently, and it's really really solid, would love to have a whole album of this caliber right about now. Oak (of Oak & Pop) does a track, Eric Hudson does a track, Ambrosius self-produces some of it, it's all on that really airy moody sex music vibe she does pretty well.

9. Blaqstarr - Trinity EP Vol. 1
When I sat down with Blaqstarr for an interview late last year, we talked about a lot of projects in the works, but I'm still surprised by how much has been happening already so far in 2014. In January there was the first Blaq-Files EP with re-recorded old tracks, in February there was a single and video with Common that I didn't really care for, and then at the end of March he dropped this EP with 3 pretty dope new songs. It's in the kind of melodic midtempo style of a lot of stuff he's done since he's branched out from Baltimore club music, but I like it more. One reason I dig these songs is that they feature a lot of slowed down Baltimore club drums -- "YOU" is co-produced by Rod Lee and has the same slowed "Think" break that Rod did for Bossman's "Oh," and "Release Yourself" has a variation on some classic Blaqstarr club drums. 

10. Say Wut - Clarion Bang EP
Another one of my favorite Baltimore club producers from way back who just put out a few songs on a new EP. This is more in his traditional club sound, lots of synth horn riffs and high energy vocals, but he always manages to put some fresh sounds in there to distinguish it from his older stuff.

Worst Album of the Month: Young Money Entertainment - Young Money: Rise Of An Empire
Given the ridiculous star power of the YMCMB roster, it's really just hilarious to watch them try to leverage that over and over to try and give some shine to the dozen or so total losers on the label. One Drake song, one Nicki song (and to be honest, I don't really fuck with either), and then so so so many verses by Lil Twist, Gudda Gudda and somebody called Euro. I didn't think they could make a worse album than the Rich Gang record but shit, here it is.

Movie Diary

Sunday, March 30, 2014

a) Veronica Mars
My wife watched the first season of "Veronica Mars" in college with one of her friends, and then the next year we moved in together and she made me a convert to the great cult show. So when the crowdfunded movie came out, she went with her college friend to see it in the theater, and then she decided it was good enough to watch again and rented it on Amazon Prime to watch at home with me. Being aware of the pitfalls of translating episodic television into a one-off feature, I was really happy with this and thought they did a great job. The fan service aspect of the plotting and the dialogue was undeniable but it worked, and more often than not it really felt like they slipped right back into the old rhythms of the show. In fact, the way it ended really would set up a nice continuation of the series, which really just made me want them to go ahead and find a way to finally do a 4th season.

b) Frozen
My son stayed over at his grandmother's house recently, and when I went to pick him up, they were watching this, so I finally got to catch up on the movie with the funny snowman and the insipid song that had surprised me to somehow become one of the biggest and most profitable pop culture juggernauts in recent memory. And it was pretty good! I'm still a little mystified by its massive popularity, but it's not bad. I wanted to hate on the Josh Gad snowman but it was a really funny character. And as usual I appreciated the presence of Kristen Bell, I always figured she'd be a good voice actor since so much of what made "Veronica Mars" great was her delivery of the dialogue, so it's nice that she got to be in a really big animated film.

c) Monsters University
Now, Monsters, Inc. is a classic both in my personal canon of modern animated movies and in my son's own limited cinematic vocabulary. So I was pretty excited to sit down with him and watch this, which was announced right around the time the original was becoming one of his favorite movies. I like that instead of trying to repeat or revisit the original story, they just did a prequel, set the characters in college, and did a Pixar version of a college movie.

d) The Great Gatsby
I thought Baz Luhrmann's early movies worked with their audacious conceits pretty well, if you were able to buy into the premise, it was generally a fun, impressive ride. This just kinda felt stilted and silly, though. I don't know too much about the movie's relationship to the source material -- I started but never finished the novel as a teenager -- but it definitely felt like the directorial style dominated over the content. I thought the way Moulin Rouge was stuffed with songs written decades after when the story was set was playful and fun, but there's something kind of obnoxiously dumb about setting a roaring '20s party scene to the sound of Kanye West saying "this is something like the holocaust." The nice, thing, though, is that I'll never want to see this movie again and will quickly forget it, which means I can still read the book someday and hopefully not think about the film at all.

e) Byzantium
Sexy vampire movies are a dime a dozen these days, but this one at least had something of a unique premise and idea about how to depict vampires, and Gemma Arterton is, well, a ridiculous babe. Didn't find it super compelling overall but it was a pretty good flick.

f) Oblivion
I was surprised to find out that this was based on a graphic novel, because I'd never seen a movie where the direction seemed so plainly modeled on video games, I figured it had to be a game adaptation. The plot parts and the twist were pretty decent, it just looked kind of silly at times, even for a Tom Cruise sci-fi movie.

g) A Good Day To Die Hard
I had to stay in a hotel room for a few nights for work recently, and the TV in the room was really hard to operate or find anything so this was the movie on the movie channel I finally settled on as a default when I was trying to find something to watch. It took me a while to figure out if it was even a Die Hard movie, since I've never been that big a fan of the franchise and Bruce Willis is in so many other generic action movies. It was alright, though, the villain lady is super hot.

h) Searching For Sugar Man
My mom lent me the DVD of this after really raving about it. I'm surprised I never heard anything about the singer the movie is about, Rodriguez, through any of the music nerd circles I travel in, but I'm glad I didn't, because I got to just watch the story unfold and be surprised. It's really well made, one of those documentaries where they use some inventive visual style to tell a story for which there's not actually much existing footage of the original events. And I kind of liked how even after they solved the mystery of who this obscure American singer-songwriter was, there's still really no sense of how he became hugely popular in South Africa, which is where a lot of the story ends up taking place. Apparently they willfully omitted some stuff about how the guy was also popular in Australia and toured there ages before the South Africans tracked him down, but still, in terms of the narrative of the film it worked for whose perspective they were mostly telling the story from.

i) Ruby Sparks
I wasn't sure I wanted to see some kind of high concept, satirical indie rom com, even if it was taking aim at the whole 'manic pixie dream girl' paradigm, but I was pretty impressed by this movie -- even moreso after finding out after watching it that the lead actress, Zoe Kazan, wrote it. It really ends up being kind of a dark, scathing look at not just certain kinds of movies (movies that Kazan could easily be cast in), but certain kinds of relationships and the way men sometimes treat women. The climactic scene was almost a little over-the-top but I felt like the movie kinda needed that, to fully get away from it being a cute, silly parody of cute, silly movies.

j) 6 Month Rule
This is an indie rom com that pretty much plays by all of the rules of the genre, other than looking a little low budget and not having big name actors. In fact the male lead, who's the least recognizable or polished or likable of any of the actors on the screen, is somewhat unsurprisingly also the director and writer of the movie. It's not bad, though, and the supporting cast is packed with guys like Martin Starr and Dave Foley and John Michael Higgins who have some funny moments, and Patrick J. Adams from "Suits" gets to kinda show off his comedy chops and play a really over-the-top character.

k) Flawless
These days it's hard for me to turn down any opportunity to see a Philip Seymour Hoffman role I hadn't seen before, but in retrospect I could've skipped this one. He does a pretty admirable job of playing a drag queen without embarrassing himself or taking it too far in a bad direction, but there isn't much to the movie and it's pretty poorly directed (by Joel Schumacher, no less).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

This week, my friends at Mobtown Studios unveiled another installment in their Mobtown BSides series, and once again I wrote the text that accompanies the songs they recorded and the video of the recording process. And for the first time in the series, the featured band is from Baltimore: The Flying Eyes. I'd seen very early on when they started playing around town and have followed them since then, and interviewed one of the members a couple years ago, so I was really excited about this one and it came out great.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I wrote a few things in this week's Baltimore City Paper:

- An interview with Prodigy of Mobb Deep, who are performing at Baltimore Soundstage on Sunday and releasing their new album next week (funnily enough, last time Mobb Deep put out an album in 2006, I interview Havoc for The Hook-Up Magazine).

- A BPM dance music column with news about Say Wut, DJ Pierre, and the Club Mnemonic event this week at The Crown.

- The Short List, with a bunch of other good shows happening in Baltimore over the next week.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The new Future Islands album is out this week, and I interviewed the band for a big feature on eMusic's new site Wondering Sound (with photos by J.M. Giordano).

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 15: Steely Dan

Sunday, March 23, 2014

I wrote the other day about recently reading Donald Fagen's book Eminent Hipsters, and am currently putting together my ballot for a poll of Steely Dan's greatest songs. So lately my mind has been on the rich and rewarding catalog of one of my all-time favorite bands. They occupy an odd cultural space: in the '70s they made a string of gold and platinum albums, which all appeared on many critics' year-end lists. But in the decades since, a long period of inactivity, and a comeback in which they came to symbolize Baby Boomer lameness by taking a Grammy from peak period Eminem left them seeming very very unhip. And on the flipside of that uncoolness, the fanbase for their incredibly smartly written and densely fascinating music has becoming more cultish, more adoring.

The career arc of Steely Dan, from slightly off-kilter hitmakers to meticulous studio rats who stayed off the road for several years while recording endless takes of crack session men for their most successful albums, tends to push fans to take sides. And while Gaucho and the later albums do tend to get a bit austere and light on hooks for my taste, generally love it all -- the shaggy, groovy rock of the Can't Buy A Thrill era as well as the flashy, jazzy Royal Scam/Aja era.

Steely Dan Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist): 

1. Night By Night
2. Babylon Sisters
3. The Boston Rag
4. King Of The World
5. Through With Buzz
6. Jack Of Speed
7. Midnight Cruiser
8. The Caves Of Altamira
9. Aja
10. Godwhacker
11. Your Gold Teeth
12. Your Gold Teeth II
13. The Royal Scam
14. Kings
15. Home At Last
16. Any World (That I'm Welcome To)

Tracks 7 and 14 from Can't Buy A Thrill (1972)
Tracks 3, 4 and 11 from Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)
Tracks 1 and 5 from Pretzel Logic (1974)
Tracks 12 and 16 from Katy Lied (1975)
Tracks 8 and 13 from The Royal Scam (1976)
Tracks 9 and 15 from Aja (1977)
Track 2 from Gaucho (1980)
Track 6 from Two Against Nature (2000)
Track 10 from Everything Must Go (2003)

As I often do in this series, I found myself contemplating the gray areas in dividing a band's catalog into "singles" and "deep cuts." Certain songs that were never released as A-sides seemed simply too famous to include -- "Dirty Work," "Don't Take Me Alive," "Black Friday," I'd consider those among the band's biggest hits whether or not they were singles (likewise, some great Steely Dan singles never made much of a splash, like "Pretzel Logic," or "Haitian Divorce," which is relatively obscure in America but their biggest hit on the U.K. charts). Arguably some of these songs are also too famous to be truly deep cuts, but ultimately I went with my gut. And while there are some pretty well loved deep cuts that I didn't include, I really just like these songs more than "Doctor Wu" or "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" and wanted to reflect my taste.

You might remember my 2-disc Steely Dan megamix that I posted here years ago, which covered most of the same songs, plus some of the hits and several non-album rarities. I only included a couple album cuts here that weren't on those, most significantly "Aja," which any way you cut it is just a major work in the band's catalog. I was never that big on the song myself, regarding it as the low point of the amazing album of the same name. But a couple years ago I took my dad, who raised me to be a Steely Dan fan and who is currently not speaking to me, to see the band at Merriweather Post Pavilion and had a great night. And the rendition of "Aja" that night was so awesome that I finally understood the majesty of that song.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink
Vol. 14: Queen

Reading Diary

Friday, March 21, 2014

a) Willin': The Story of Little Feat, by Ben Fong-Torres
Little Feat are one of my all-time favorite bands, and one that I never thought would get a proper bio written by a big name rock critic, so I was pretty excited to read this. I've gotten so much of the band's story kinda secondhand from the many shorter things written about them (and also from my dad, who met them while they were in Baltimore recording Feats Don't Fail Me Now), it was great into the nitty gritty of these records I love from before I was born. A lot of it centers around the guy who wasn't around to tell his own story, Lowell George, but I feel like Fong-Torres and the band do a good job of being both affectionate and warts-and-all honest about his vices and shortcomings, as well as his incredible talent. The writing is sometimes a little flat, but all in all it's essential reading about a great band that not enough people know enough about.

b) Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin
This is a much thicker, more lavishly detailed bio of a much bigger act, and while Bruce Springsteen isn't quite as personally important to me, I do fucking love Bruce and this really feels like the complete story, the only Springsteen bio I'll ever want or need (although I'm not finished yet, only up to about The River era). It was interesting to get a clearer look at his youth and childhood than the usual Freehold platitudes, and at the various false starts he had with various bands before the solo career happened, but even in the more exhaustively well trodden territory there's some revealing stuff (my favorite trivia is that De Niro and Scorsese were in the audience one night in 1975 when Bruce did a "you talkin' to me?" routine and they decided to put it in Taxi Driver). Peter Ames Carlin does a good job of navigating all the Springsteen lore and mythology to find the more exact facts and first-person memories, while still engaging with that stuff and letting you really feel all stuff, and how you believe it as a listener because Bruce believes it.

a) Eminent Hipsters, by Donald Fagen
Instead of a bio of one of my '70s rock heroes, this book is by one of them. Donald Fagen is just as good a prose writer as you'd hope he'd be based on Steely Dan's lyrics. It's a very short book, and a lot of it is a tour diary that tips into gratuitous cranky old man territory, but it's still a great read. The idea of anybody having anything interesting to say about "hipsters" in this day and age is hard to believe, but that's mainly because most people who want to talk about such things have no cultural memory before The Strokes. But Fagen, in detailing his obsessions with jazz and beat poetry as a '60s teenager, is able to speak about the topic from a bird's eye perspective (without ever addressing it too directly, more circling around it from several angles). The Boswell Sisters chapter that opens the book is a really amazing piece of music writing, really worth the price of admission by itself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
This week's Short List.

Monthly Report: March 2014 Singles

Sunday, March 16, 2014

1. Eric Church - "Give Me Back My Hometown"
Most of the time, Eric Church seems like kind of a pompous tough guy, but in light of “Springsteen” and this song, I like him as a balladeer. His voice trembles beautifully on the high notes, he builds to the big singalong moments well, and even the goofy shoutout to Pizza Hut works (also -- "this year's team is stout"? Is that a real thing anyone would say about a football team?). And the song resonates with some experience I’ve had, watching someone feel like their hometown is being ruined by an ex who had the gall to stick around after the split. Here is my running Spotify playlist of favorite 2014 singles btw. 

2. Beyonce - "Partition"
Beyonce’s self-titled album was an experiment in, among other things, democracy. Which is to say, releasing an album all at once, with no advance single and a video for each song, puts pretty much every track on a level playing field to become a radio hit, even if certain songs were official singles from the jump. And one of the results already in evidence is that people have chosen the filthy sex songs: “Drunk In Love” instantly eclipsed “XO” between the two initial official singles, and “Partition” jumped out pretty quickly as the first single choice spurred by popular demand (and I’m pretty certain the two most likely future R&B radio hits are “Rocket” and “Blow,” the two other most sexually explicit tracks on the album). Much as I lament the failure of “XO,” this generally doesn’t strike me as a bad thing, especially in the case of “Partition,” which is a pretty amazing song. The beat, which B said reminded her of Too $hort in the making-of doc, falls into the current West coast rap radio zeitgeist without being an overly obvious DJ Mustard bandwagon jump, and the melodic twist on the chorus take it to an entirely different place. It's also pretty badass that some stations play it with the "Yonce" part of the track intact. 

3. Sevyn Streeter - "nEXt"
I've been a little annoyed at Sevyn Streeter only blanketing the airwaves with the Chris Brown remix of "It Won't Stop" for months on end when it was better as a solo track to begin with and the record it's on, only a piddly EP, is full of really good songs also deserving of airplay. So I was pretty excited when the standout track from Call Me Crazy, But... starting to get played on the radio in the last week or two. She really has a way with these kind of gentle, lilting melodies that are a little warmer and more luxurious than some of the less subtle or talented Aaliyah disciples out there right now. 

4. Ellie Goulding - "Burn"
Ellie Goulding seems to have these weird, inconveniently timed waves of success in America. After her first album was a success in the U.K. and was re-released as a deluxe edition with a new single, that song, "Lights," took an entire year to slowly climb the Hot 100 and become a huge U.S. hit, just before her second album was released. And when that second album didn't quite benefit from the momentum of "Lights" and none of the singles did well, it was re-released with a new single, "Burn," last summer, but at that time it got completely outshined by Goulding's Calvin Harris collaboration, "I Need Your Love," which was blowing up at the time. And now that "Burn" is over 6 months old, it's finally become a big hit, and has really grown on me in that time. The opening lyric is awful ("We, we don't have to worry 'bout nothing/ 'cause we got the fire, and we're burning one hell of a something") and someone with Goulding's weird old-timey British orphanage movie voice shouldn't be able to sing a vaguely dancehall-influenced fake Rihanna song with lyrics about "getting loco." But hey, it's a catchy song.

5. Yo Gotti f/ Meek Mill - "F-U"
I must acknowledge that it's totally weird, but pretty much accidental, that the #2 song here is Beyonce and the #5 song is Yo Gotti, just like last month. But I gotta say again, as totally unremarkable and permanently C-list as Yo Gotti is, I Am really is full of bangers. And it's annoying that after "Act Right," his label decided to push a weak J. Cole feature as the follow-up single -- reminds me of how somebody thought Juicy J needed Wale on his single. Meanwhile, DJs have been rightfully latching onto "I Know" and "F-U" instead. It's unfortunate that the other single right now with Meek and Yo Gotti, "Know No Better," totally sucks. 

6. DJ Snake & Lil Jon - "Turn Down For What"
Lil Jon's wave has been over for almost a decade. Even his little revival wave of songs with dance pop douches like LMFAO and 3OH!3 is a few years past now (although "Shots" is strangely one of his most enduring songs). And even having a song called "turn down for what" feels a little late and trend-hopping by now. But as stupid and semi-depressing at this song's very existence is, it kinda bangs, I can't say I don't enjoy it. 

7. Jason Derulo f/ 2 Chainz - "Talk Dirty"
Another totally ridiculous, stupid song that I totally enjoy, although "stupid but enjoyable" is pretty much the entire 2 Chainz m.o., so he's a big part of it working for me. I don't know much of anything about Balkan Beat Box other than that I've seen a couple members play with Firewater in a tiny club, so it's surprising that they're sampled on a gigantic pop hit. 

8. Miley Cyrus - "Adore You"
This was the only song on Bangerz that I enjoyed at all, so I'm glad that it's a single now. Although, since the video is only mildly obnoxious and not, like, her farting onto a Koopa Troopa while wearing a diamond-encrusted grill, it hasn't gotten her much attention and is pretty much the least successful thing out of this whole album cycle. 

9. Jason Aldean - "When She Says Baby"
I've always been pretty indifferent to Jason Aldean, aside from the Kelly Clarkson duet, but I like this song. And it amused me that it was out at the moment my paper had a little censorship controversy around another writer's review of his concert (funny, with all the unnecessarily mean crap I've written for them in hundreds of live reviews and concert listings, I would've expected something like this to happen to me, not this newer guy). 

10. Zendaya - "My Baby"
 I'm gonna pat myself on the back for being ahead of the curve on "Replay," a few months before it became a decent-sized sleeper hit on pop radio. Her album's got some jams, too, happy that she's getting a follow-up single out there. 

Worst Single of the Month: Chris Brown f/ Lil Wayne and French Montana - "Loyal (East Coast Version)"
So it was just announced the other day that Chris Brown got kicked out of rehab and is now going to jail (and also, what diagnosed with PTSD? Punching people is traumatic to your fists, I guess). And I was already thinking about writing about how awful this song is, and luckily, I have no problem with kicking that fucker while he's down. Funny how Mr. "is there such a thing as loving two people?" is now Mr. "these hoes ain't loyal," that's so weird. Don't get me wrong, this hateful misogynist invective has some cool keyboard sounds, but what a fucking awful record. And as a bonus, French Montana continues his shameless plundering of 1997 (note that he does a Life After Death hook and the "Luchini" hook on the new Rick Ross album), cobbling together his verse from lines from that Biggie verse that Jay quoted on a hit and that Ma$e verse that Drake quoted on a hit. Bites on bites on bites. 

TV Diary

Friday, March 14, 2014

a) "Believe" 
I'm a little over all the touchy-feely supernatural dramas the networks have been putting on the last few years, but I had to give this one a chance because it was co-created by Alfonso Cuaron, who also directed the pilot. And it is a pretty strong pilot -- there were two or three scenes that were about as gripping as parts of Children of Men or Gravity, he really lent his whole visual style to it. I'm assuming he can't direct every episode, but hopefully whoever else takes over is good.

b) "Resurrection"
Here's one of those other high concept supernatural network shows, minus the visual style or intriguing hook. It just has absolutely no personality or humor to it, which on some basic level makes it feel kind of lacking in the humanity to remotely care about the characters or what will happen to them, much less be intrigued by the premise. Watch the pilot, wash my hands and move on.

c) "About A Boy"
I continue to be fascinated by the way networks, especially NBC, will groom certain actors for stardom, and put them in series over and over, without actually putting them in a successful project that does anything to highlight their talent or charisma. David Walton, who was really funny the first time I saw him in the movie Fired Up, has been in 4 different NBC comedies in the last 4 years, and it's just getting kind of pathetic now (especially since his "New Girl" arc was probably watched by more people than all those shows combined). This isn't the worst of those shows (it's almost impossible to be worse than "100 Questions"), but it's also not as good as the mildly promising "Bent" and "Perfect Couples" and just feels like an unwanted adaptation of a book/movie that wasn't that great to begin with. There's just no chemistry with him and the kid and Minnie Driver, the premise doesn't quite work the way they're doing it, I even feel mildly disappointed in Jason Katims that he couldn't make this work like he did with "Parenthood."

d) "Growing Up Fisher"
I love J.K. Simmons, and he's way overdue to star in a network sitcom. This one ain't the one I was hoping for, though. It's alright though, at least way stronger than the other new narrated-reminisces-about-adolescence show, "The Goldbergs." The use of "Under Pressure" as the theme song feels very unearned, though.

e) "Mixology" 
Now this is a strong candidate for the worst new show of the season, it's just kind of pathetic what a hapless "young sexy single people in the city" sitcom it is. Everybody is good-looking and nobody is funny, in the classic missing-the-point post-"Friends" tradition. They try to be novel with the weird premise of every episode taking place on the same night, just zeroing in on different moments between different characters, but it feels kinda pointless with no real payoff.

f) "Review"
I like the whole premise of this show, after seeing all the different shit besides just restaurants on Yelp now it really is worth satirizing the whole idea of giving a star rating to every little piece of life. At the time, it's not quite an idea that can really fill out a weekly half hour series, much as Andy Daly gamely tries to wring everything he can out of it, stretching out each segment until it gets as ridiculous as possible. Maybe it'll find its footing and become something I actually do wanna watch consistently, but I'm not hooked yet.

g) "Lindsay" 
I only watched part of the first episode but it was just too much to bear even for the comedy value. Lohan is too crazy, too spoiled, too divorced from reality to even watch. I do think it's funny that they coined the term "docu-series" to attempt to market this as something other than a tawdry reality show, though.

h) "Carvers" 
I guess the SyFy shows like "Face-Off" and "Hot Set" that have to do with the production of visual effects for films have done well for them, because at this point they're just making random craft-y shows about stuff like guys who carve pumpkins or ice into sculptures for parties and corporate events. I'm pretty fascinated by sculpture in general, though, the idea of people taking a 3-dimensional object and cutting away at it into another shape, that's just an interesting medium to me. Not really exciting television, though.

i) "True Detective" 
Now that it's over, I have to say that this pretty much ruled. And as the season went on, it kinda felt like people were inventing reasons to be disappointed, or maybe admitting that they had their heart set on it being one kind of show and then wouldn't let themselves enjoy it for what it was. And honestly, I can understand being obsessed with the mythology of "LOST" and wanting that finale to address all of it, but how could you even expect an 8-episode show to actually get into all the crap people thought they were going to get into? But I thought the whole way it came together was pretty great, much as I wish it was 10 or 12 or 20 episodes and they had delved into the world a little deeper, the way they were able to give the big villain so little screentime and still be so memorable really played to the show's strengths.

j) "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon"
Of all of Jay Leno's crimes, his worst may be making it impossible for me to be justifiably outraged about Jimmy Fallon hosting the Tonight Show. Sometimes I just watch dude's monologue to be amazed at how bad he is at monologues. The rest of the show is fun, I guess, but still, I'm kind of a late night purist.

k) "Late Night with Seth Meyers"
Seth has been on TV for like 10 years and in a weird way I still don't really know how much I like him. He's funny sometimes, sometimes he isn't, he has kind of a smart-alecky dickish vibe but I don't actually think he is a dick. But compared to Fallon, I'm rooting for him. It was weird, though, to watch him stand up and tell jokes the first night and think "woah, Seth Meyers has legs?"

l) "The Pete Holmes Show" 
I'm glad this came back for new episodes recently, it really grew on me in its initial test run last year. Doing a semi-traditional late night talk show in a half hour feels weird, but then if I'm up after "Conan" I probably am not going to be staying up much longer anyway, so it works for me. I wish Pete did more interviews in front of the audience than the pre-taped deals, he seems to feed off the audience generally. The parts of the monologue where he seems to be just improvising, or at least not doing really topical stuff, are typically the funniest parts of the show. The skits are hit-and-miss, sometimes great, often just lame.

m) "Rick And Morty"
I've only watched this a couple times but I'm really on the fence about it. Dan Harmon's sense of humor and overall sensibility comes through, and it's made me laugh sometimes, but I'd like something about it to be stronger, even if visually it's gonna invariably be half-assed animation like most Adult Swim shows I dunno, I'd like the voice acting to be stronger or something.

n) "Kroll Show"
This show has been growing on me big time. I'm not crazy about all the recurring characters, but the one-off sketches, like the meal points soap opera, tend to be really hilarious.

o) "Girls"
This show has had as many flaws as it had virtues from the jump, and at this point the balance has just gotten further and further off. I'm a few episodes behind, wondering if it would just be aggravating to try and catch up. That beach house episode, yikes. Lena Dunham's "SNL" episode was actually pretty funny in parts, though.

p) "New Girl"
The Prince episode was about as anticlimactic as it had to be, but generally I think this show has been on a roll lately, last week was great. Kinda hoping Damon Wayans, Jr. never leaves, the show feels stronger with a bigger cast, more people bouncing off of each other, less repetitive Schmidt- or Nick-centric storylines.

q) "Workaholics"
Majorly lost interest in this show a while ago, but I caught a new episode recently that was hilarious, so it's not that they fell off. "Broad City" getting compared to "Workaholics" constantly just reminds me that "Broad City" is totally a better show, though.

r) "Suits"
This show is still great, although I feel like they've moved on from the initial premise and the show is kinda strained by still trying to wring drama out of Mike's secret being discovered. I have no idea how they could extinguish that fire and keep him at the firm or whatever, but they really need to stop leaning on the constant threat of exposure, it's just weak by now. Everything else, though, awesome show.

s) "Misfits" 
This is a British show that my wife got obsessed with for a few weeks and binge watched multiple seasons, at which point I sat down and watched the first episode with an eye on maybe catching up to watch some of the later episodes with her. Didn't really hook me enough to do that, although it was pretty good, and oh man, Antonia Thomas is awesome.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014
This week's Short List.

Monthly Report: February 2014 Albums

Sunday, March 09, 2014

1. Toni Braxton & Babyface - Love, Marriage & Divorce
There's something cool about these two, who sold millions of records together 20 years ago, coming back together, as middle-aged divorcees who no longer have blockbuster solo careers, to pool together their resources and make this wizened, wistful, weathered album of duets about everything they've been through. Babyface's aesthetic just continues to get more smooth and elegant with time, there are parts of this that are practically a Burt Bacharach record. And it really works well to foreground their voices and the melodies, the regretful ache of "Where Did We Go Wrong?" and the love/hate simmering of "Sweat." This and most of these other albums are on my running Spotify playlist of 2014 albums I've been listening to

2. ScHoolboy Q - Oxymoron
Q's last independent album, Habits & Contradictions, really annoyed me, and for a long time I kinda wondered why this scuzzy bucket hat-wearing Tony Yayo type dude was being treated as TDE's next big star in the making. But "Collard Greens" and "Man Of The Year" were really dope singles so I started to accept the possibility that I might dig this album, and I do. Maybe his persona comes across better on this album or I'm just more in tune with it now, but the whole thing holds together well, has that classic west coast gangsta rap coarseness mixed with pop polish, some really interesting production touches that build on the aesthetic of Kendrick's album. "Hoover Street" and "Break The Bank" feel like standouts to me.

3. Phantogram - Voices
I didn't hear Phantogram's first album and for years just thought of them as one of the groups that made Big Boi's last solo album kinda corny. But their current single "Fall In Love," as I already wrote, is pretty much the best thing on alt-rock radio so far this year, just a big ominous pop masterpiece of spiraling strings and blown out bass (my friend Jordan Sargent recently interviewed Ty Dolla $ign, who apparently called it "the hardest shit out"). The album doesn't entirely follow through on the promise of "Fall In Love," and the dude in the group sings on a few tracks that are below par, but it hits a nice mid-album groove with "Howling At The Moon" and "Bad Dreams," definitely one of the best neo synth pop groups on the current mainstream alternative wave, whatever that's worth.

4. Rickie Jacobs - Remember To Smile
I was the first blogger to post any music by Rickie Jacobs way back 7 years ago, and now he's on pretty much every site that posts rap music, so I gotta say I'm proud of dude. His music hasn't even changed that much in that time, he's just focused and stayed consistent with it, one of the best rappers coming out of Baltimore these days and really making a name for himself. This one is dope, up there with last year's Beautiful America EP as one of his best efforts to date. I don't really fuck with that dubstep interlude at the end of "Guy Code," though. Listen to Remember To Smile on

5. K. Michelle - Still No Fucks Given
A lot of people dropped new R&B on Valentine's Day, including pretty good EPs from Ne-Yo, JoJo and Mya, but the standout for me was K. Michelle's mixtape. Only six months after her big debut album, with its second single still on the radio, she just out of nowhere dropped a sequel to the 0 Fucks Given mixtape that really got her career rolling a couple years ago. It's kind of crazy, you think she'd be saving songs as good as "Put You On Game" and "Pain Killa" and "She Can Have You" for her next retail release, instead she's just tossing an album's worth of tracks like that for free along with some mixtape shit talk and versions of records like "I Love It" by August Alsina (which features the lyric "I love your dick, I talk to it/ I wipe it down, get a towel for it/ I'm crazy as shit/ my hot pocket loves music so conduct, pluck her strings/ so treat her like a mic and la la la la sing"). I love the album, but the fact that she just had this much music to put out right after is really impressive. She's over-the-top, but you can't say she's not talented. Check it out on DatPiff.

6. Shy Glizzy - Young Jefe
interviewed Glizzy a few months ago, and he was really hard to track down and didn't say all that much when we did finally sit down. But he seems like a good dude and his music is dope, really nice to see D.C. get guys like him and Fat Trel in the national spotlight right now. He sounds really at home rapping with Young Thug and Young Scooter or over Zaytoven and Cardo beats, really gives some context to where he could land in the game, although I dunno if this is the tape he really needs to put him over the top, but he's getting closer.

7. Neil Finn - Dizzy Heights
I've always loved Neil Finn's voice and sense of songcraft and haven't really listened to enough of the various records he's made over the years and always mean to spend more time with him. So hey, new album, good time to catch up. Dave Fridmann is kind of a corny choice of producer, but his 'signature sound' isn't too overbearing here, mostly just sounds like Finn being Finn with lightly modern touches. Also the song "Recluse" hit me pretty hard because there's someone in my life who's basically decided to shut out the entire world, including me.

8. The Caribbean - Moon Sickness
I've seen them live and heard their records here and there, but I've never quite been on the right wavelength with The Caribbean to totally get them the way I love a lot of the D.C. bands they're associated with -- Chad Clark (of Beauty Pill and Smart Went Crazy) often produces their records and is really their most enthusiastic champion, always writing things like this that make me give the band a second look. There's an interesting tension between the seemingly mundane pop/rock arrangements and the surreal lyrics and unexpected melodies, as well as Clark's otherworldly Beauty Pill-like production treatments, almost kind of a Steely Dan thing going on.

9. Cex - Manumit Me
After a few years of sticking his neck out as a singer and rapper, Rjyan has kinda retreated in recent years back into the dense instrumental IDM he started his career with, which is only a shame in the sense that most of the personality and ideas that used to spill out of his records are now basically limited to his Twitter account. Still makes pretty cool-sounding beats, though, and this one kinda goes back to basics with a bunch of old school synths and MPCs recorded straight to 4-track, gives the whole thing the kind of texture and tape hiss you rarely get with this kind of music anymore and that, honestly, I really enjoy hearing. 

10. Vertical Scratchers - Daughter of Everything
I was happy to hear that John Schmersal from Enon and Brainiac had a new band, since it'd been over 6 years since the last Enon album. Vertical Scratchers is a guitar/drums duo and kinda strips away all the synths and bells and whistles of Enon while still basically sounding like the jangly pop/rock half of that band's material. Enon's High Society always felt like it breezed through 15 songs pretty quickly, and this album also has 15 tracks but is a full ten minutes shorter, to give you an idea of how short all the songs are here. That also means things often kinda rush past you without getting a chance to leave an impression, and when "Someone" rips out this awesome guitar solo, it makes me wish more songs had moments like that instead of just rushing from verse to chorus and back and then ending.

Worst Album of the Month: Little Mix - Salute
I liked the first Little Mix album well enough, and it seemed like a good sign that they quickly released a follow-up (in the UK last year, and then here this year). I feel like whatever they did well with their retro R&B teen pop schtick to begin with has kind of lost its charm now, or just isn't being executed as well. And "Good Enough" has some of the most laughably over-the-top talent show vibrato I've ever heard.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Complex unveiled its list of the 50 Greatest Rap Albums of the '80s, and I contributed a few blurbs about Run DMC, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, 2 Live Crew and others.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014
The Short List in this week's Baltimore City Paper.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Last year, I was contacted by the Oxford University Press about authoring a reference article about Baltimore Club Music for the Oxford African American Studies Center, as part of a series of updates dealing with Baltimore.  The article was finally published in February, and although it's generally conceived as a reference work for students, they have made the article available to the public here (the link won't last forever, but if anyone ever wants it put back up after it expires, let me know). It was really an honor to be asked to do this and to try and bring my knowledge about this subject to an academic setting and put it in a larger cultural context.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 14: Queen

Sunday, March 02, 2014

It was recently announced that Queen's Greatest Hits had become the first album to sell 6 million copies in the United Kingdom (accounting for roughly 10 percent of the population). I was kind of happy to hear that, both because I love Queen, and because I grew up with the American edition of that compilation, which I consider the greatest "greatest hits" album of all time. 14 songs, all of which are five star classics (maybe a couple that you could say are merely four stars), including "Under Pressure," which appeared there before Hot Space, making it probably the best "new at the time of the compilation" greatest hits track ever.

Of course, I've always wanted to love the whole Queen catalog as much as the hits, and I have to admit it's sometimes hard to muster the same excitement for the albums. I remember as a teenager, I began trying buy bands' catalogs in chronological order, but those efforts often only lasted for a couple albums. When I got Queen's 1973 self-titled debut, I fell in love with "Liar," a lesser known single not featured on the hits compilations, but the actual deep cuts didn't wow me to the extent that I felt driven to buy the other albums, although I enjoyed my family's vinyl copy of A Night At The Opera a few times.

Queen Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist): 

1. Let Me Entertain You
2. Stone Cold Crazy
3. You And I
4. Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To...)
5. Don't Try Suicide
6. Get Down, Make Love
7. Modern Times Rock 'N' Roll
8. Misfire
9. Sheer Heart Attack
10. Funny How Love Is
11. Dancer
12. In Only Seven Days
13. '39
14. All Dead, All Dead
15. Leaving Home Ain't Easy
16. Dragon Attack
17. Fight From The Inside
18. If You Can't Beat Them
19. Tear It Up
20. One Year Of Love
21. My Baby Does Me
22. The Hitman
23. Made In Heaven

Track 7 from Queen (1973)
Track 10 from Queen II (1974)
Tracks 2 and 8 from Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
Tracks 4 and 13 from A Night At The Opera (1975)
Track 3 from A Day At The Races (1976)
Tracks 6, 9, 14 and 17 from News Of The World (1977)
Tracks 1, 12, 15 and 18 from Jazz (1978)
Tracks 5 and 16 from The Game (1980)
Track 11 from Hot Space (1982)
Track 19 from The Works (1984)
Track 20 from A Kind Of Magic (1986)
Track 21 from The Miracle (1989)
Track 22 from Innuendo (1991)
Track 23 from Made In Heaven (1995)

One of the reasons I consider Queen one of the greatest singles acts of all time is that there was never any sense that they were holding back on the songs they released as singles, which ran the gamut from outrageously ambitious 6-minute epics to rockers and ballads to chameleonic genre pastiches in which they remade a wide range of sounds in their own image (as one of my favorite tracks here says, "funny how love is every song in every key"). Every member of the band wrote songs, every member wrote hits, and given that Roger Taylor's contributions were more significant than Ringo's ever were, it's arguable that Queen was as impressive a collection of songwriting talents as the Beatles. Of course, only Freddie Mercury sang lead on the hits, but Roger Taylor has a couple of entertaining lead vocals in the band's catalog, and in making this playlist I found myself becoming a fan of Brian May's voice, and put a little block of songs with May on lead vocals on tracks 13-15 (are his solo projects worth checking out?).

A good number of these songs were live staples despite never being released as singles, and some were heard by the most people on the multi-platinum Live Killers and other concert recordings. The only aspect of the band that was arguably downplayed on the singles was their heavier side, and Queen were an amazing, fearless hard rock band who've influenced more metal than a lot of people would like to admit. Growing up I mostly knew "Stone Cold Crazy" for the Metallica cover and "Get Down, Make Love" for the Nine Inch Nails cover, but those are just flat out awesome songs in any incarnation. I had a funny conversation at a party recently about "Don't Try Suicide," which is just kind of a bizarre and disturbing satire if you listen to the lyrics.

Much like the first Greatest Hits comp ended at Hot Space and their commercial fortunes soon began to fade in America, my interest in the band dims a bit after that point, and so I covered their last 5 albums in just the last 5 tracks on the playlist. Their '80s decline was more respectable than that of a lot of their contemporaries, though, and there are still a good number of impressive songs from that era. One interesting thing is that I had no idea until I even started putting this thing together that Made In Heaven existed -- all the stories I'd heard and seen about Freddie recording as much as he could right up to the end seemed to be mostly about Innuendo, the last album completed before he died. I didn't realize that he'd actually left behind enough vocals for the band to assemble and release a posthumous album in 1995. Of course, in a sign of how much bigger Queen were outside the states, the album sold 20 million copies worldwide, but only half a million in America, so it's no wonder that I never heard of it at the time. The title track is kind of a monster, though.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink