June 19, 2020

Phantom Planet – Devastator (Gong Records)

If you’re like me and you were a huge closet fan (because you were way too old to be an “out” fan) of the teen drama the O.C. in the early 2000s, then you are already familiar with at least one song by Phantom Planet, “California”. This little band actually had 4 studio albums between 1994-2008, but haven’t played together or released anything since. Even though Jason Schwartzman is no longer a band member (fun fact, he was the drummer for the band from 1994-2003), I am still a fan of this band that I have heard dubbed as the kings of “wholesome American Indie”.

It’s always tricky for bands with long spanning careers to release new albums, especially when they have fallen into a strict genre of music. On the one hand, fans expect a sound that they can recognize. We want to be able to turn on the radio and say “Hey, that’s Phantom Planet!” On the other hand, we want something fresh and new, something that doesn’t sound exactly like the previous album from 2018. Devastator does a great job of this on both accounts. Their unnecessary teenage angst is gone (come on guys, you live in California), but what remains is an album of heartfelt melodies, exceptional instrumentals, and an album that I have not been able to stop playing on repeat.

My favorite song on the album also happens to be the first single released: “Time Moves On”. This is a bit of a sad and angsty song (albeit more grown up level angst) about time passing us by and the constant hope for things to change, all the while they just stay the same. “BALISONG” and “Party Animal” both play like upbeat rock anthems, and “Through the Trees” is a tale of accepting heartbreak from a “gated community turf”. “Torture Me”, “Waiting for the Lights to Change”, and “Gold Body Spray” are all also break up songs, presumably about the “devastator” who seems to have done just that.

Overall, Devastator is a no-skip playthrough, an album that will remind you of your emo days while remaining modern and relevant.

FFO: Rooney, Augustana, Neon Trees

Michael Franti & Spearhead – Work Hard and Be Nice (Thirty Tigers)

The first time I saw Michael Franti & Spearhead in concert was in Asheville North Carolina in 2007, opening for Counting Crows. Here was Franti, dancing barefoot on stage and spreading positivity through lyrics and amazing energy. Every song and album since then have been a bright spot on dark days. You simply cannot remain sad or angry with Michael Franti & Spearhead in rotation. Work Hard and Be Nice is no exception.

Fans of “Say Hey (I Love You)” will immediately recognize “I Got You”, the first song on WHBN. My favorite song on this album is “Good Shit Happens”. Seems like Franti was having a really bad day when he woke up tired and wanted to go back to bed but remembered he had bills to pay, his car broke down AAA didn’t show up, and his phone got run over by a car. But not to worry, because “bad shit happens, but good shit happens too.” “I Can Still Feel You” is a bit of a sadder song about the loss of someone you love, but somehow still has a beat that you wanna dance to and remains positive and cheerful. The Friends Song could and should be everyone’s barbecue anthem, assuming we ever get to have those again.

It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, and this album definitely acknowledges the individual and collective struggles occurring right now (“Is It Worth a Penny to You” and my favorite “I’m on your Side”), but Franti urges us to “Lay it All Down” and lean on each other. Other must listen-to songs are “P.S. I Love You”, “Daycation” and of course, “Work Hard and Be Nice”. If you need some hope, positivity, or just a nice beat to dance to while self-quarantining alone in your backyard, this album is the one for you.

FFO: Bob Marley, Wyclef Jean

Jason Mraz – Look For The Good (Interrabang, Inc)

…and while we’re chatting about reggae…

Jason Mraz is a walking cultural appropriation, but that isn’t news. He makes reggae so white that it’s translucent. We’re talking Larry Bird white, Bob Saget white, and Steve Gutenberg white. 

Look For The Good is next level, though. It sounds like what would happen if Blues Clues got political: an image reinforced by his uncanny resemblance to Steve.

The one saving grace for the record is his voice. For whatever else we can say about him, dude can sing. If this was a folk album, a country album, or a pop album, it would make perfect sense. Yeah, the lyrics are mostly leftover protest banners (“Make Love, Not War”), but his voice is so clean and nice, you almost don’t care. 

But I can’t get over the style choices. It’s reminiscent of Pat Boone doing Little Richard songs. It just feels wrong. 

FFO: borderline offensive, easily digestible pop-reggae

New Found Glory – Forever + Ever x Infinity (Hopeless)

What can I say about this album? For me, it has very little wow factor. If it’s even possible, I was actually bored while listening to it. It was kind of like listening to a watered down version of Sticks and Stones. Speaking of which, I went back and re-listened to Sticks and Stones, which I consider to be New Found Glory’s best album, so that I could make a proper comparison. It was as if the only way that I could distinguish between the two albums was that Forever + Ever x Infinity is worse.

My issue with it is this. This album sounds like it could be from any of the pop-punk bands…in 2001. Good Charlotte, Sum 41, Simple Plan…who can actually tell? There is no maturity, no progression, nothing different or unique at all. Now it’s just a bunch of old guys singing 2001-themed anthems.

It’s not a complete wash, though. “Stay Awhile” is a fun pick up song for when you meet a girl at a party who is on her way out, and “Slipping Away” is actually a pretty deep and heartfelt song that has been an excellent addition to my Break-up playlist. Can’t go wrong with lyrics like “When you’ve done all you can do, you can’t make someone love you…who doesn’t want to”.

Overall this isn’t the worst album of all time, but it is certainly not the best. For a band as consistent and instrumental in the pop-punk genre as New Found Glory has been, I just expected a lot more.

FFO: Good Charlotte, Sum 41, Simple Plan (who can actually tell?)

Jockstrap – Wicked City (Warp)

Have you ever gotten a haircut where the work with the clippers really sang, but the scissor-work was uneven? Then later, you were getting ice cream and some guy in a Rush t-shirt was like, “Hey, nice haircut,” and you weren’t sure how to respond? That ever happen?

This EP is that exact experience. 

London-based duo, Jockstrap, is singer/songwriter/violinist, Georgia Ellery and producer/presumed-madman, Taylor Skye. Ellery’s piano-ballad, Regina Spektor-esque pop songs are beautiful. Unfortunately, I am not sure how to listen to them, due to Skye’s explosive-at-weird-times, intrusive-always, unpredictable style of production. 

If those two elements were separated, we’d probably have two amazing records; one a gorgeous pop record and the other a brilliantly hectic electronic hip-hop album. With their powers combined, they are a schizophrenic migraine. The best track on the album is “The City”, which begins as a conversation with the city sky, a beautiful image and a heartfelt sentiment. Then at 2:12, a drunk R2D2 bursts into the room and punches you right in the solar plexus, followed by broken holographic messages from unknown British poets.

Have Fun.

FFO: Regina Spektor, The Avalanches, meth

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (Dead Oceans)

Let me tell you what I’m not gonna do right now: I’m not gonna sit here and tell you about Phoebe Bridgers.  Everyone in the entire world has done that to you over the past few months, and especially over the past week or two.  She’s about as much of a superstar as an awkward and anxious 25-year-old can possibly be, and you’re sick of it.

Which is why you shouldn’t listen to this album.  At least not in the usual way.

What will happen if you try to listen to Punisher in the usual way, if you’re anything like me, is this: you’ll hear the intro track, “DVD Menu”, and that will be whatever.  Then you’ll adore the next two tracks, “Garden Song” and “Kyoto”.  And then you’ll get to the stretch from “Punisher” to “Savior Complex”, including “Halloween”, “Chinese Satellite” (where the above lyric came from), and “Moon Song”, and you’ll get drowsy.  You’ll think “man, was Phoebe Bridgers ever really that good anyway?  And who cares about Conor Oberst?  There are way better Conors in the world.”

So instead of all that, once you get to “Punisher”, forget the music.  Forget the vocals.  Just listen to the lyrics, and tune everything else out.

The lyrics will become implanted in your brain, and you’ll latch back onto the vocals and music.  And then you’ll get to the end of the album, your reward for sticking it out: the delightfully-weird “ICU”, the folk-country-tinged “Graceland Too” (featuring Phoebe’s boygenius partners-in-crime, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus), and the end-of-the-album but also end-of-the-world ode, “I Know The End”.

As a fellow awkward and anxious human, Punisher really resonated with me, and I’d imagine the same will be true for many people navigating the rough seas of existence right now.  It’s as much entertainment as it is therapy, as much sadness as it is beauty, and it excels in every area.

FFO: Soccer Mommy, Sharon Van Etten, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia Records)

Bob Dylan is 79, and his latest release, Rough and Rowdy Ways, represents his 39th studio album.  That’s it.  That’s the review.

Did I do it right, Kids of the Internet?  I’m not sure what the current Thing That the Kids Are Doing is.  But I bet Bob knows.

Bob Dylan has known all about the times and all of their changes since he hit the scene with his debut album at the ripe old age of… 20.  By age 35, he had already amassed 16 studio albums, and that number has increased to 39, including Rough and Rowdy Ways.  But Dylan’s not on some emeritus paycheck shit here, Dear Reader: this is a fantastic album for any artist of any age with any resume.  That it’s Bob Dylan just adds to the allure.

Something about it seems unfair, y’know?  For someone to have so much talent for so long, and for that talent to continue until they’re a Damn-Near Octogenarian (and probably beyond that), is patently unfair.  But here we are.  His voice has changed a little, and he may have a LOT more experience, but make no mistake: this is the same kid from 1962.  Take out who the artist is, and tracks like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”, “Black Rider”, and “Mother of Muses” are just good songs.

As it stands, it’s Bob Freakin’ Dylan, and we’ve had nearly 50 years to get with it.  I can think of no better way to jump into his world than by queueing up Rough and Rowdy Ways.  The lyrics are thoughtful, and Dylan’s signature delivery fails to disappoint at every juncture  With all that said, over the course of 39 albums, I can say pretty confidently that he has put out some bad albums over his career.

I can also say pretty confidently that this isn’t one of them.

FFO: https://www.ranker.com/list/americana-bands-and-musicians/reference

Dead Posey – Malfunction (Position Music)

We usually tend to review longer releases, but the short stuff deserves a nod too.  And rock duo Dead Posey’s Malfunction definitely qualifies as “short”, clocking in at four tracks and a paltry 13:47 runtime.  But that takes nothing away from how good this EP is.

Dead Posey is composed of vocalist Danyell Souza and multi-instrumentalist Tony Fagenson, or Tony F, with both sharing production duties.  Tony was the drummer for Eve 6 once upon a time, and Danyell is the granddaughter of a retired LAPD homicide detective.  Both facts make perfect sense when you hear the sinister, percussive sound that pervades each track.  The result is still accessible, but not without edge… and the album is better for it.

With only four tracks to choose from, it can be hard to compare/contrast.  While the tracks have plenty in common, there is a clear clubhouse leader: the closing track, “Holy Roller”, strikes the perfect balance between rock and soul.  It would be impossible to pull off, if not for Danyell’s vocals, always straddling the line between too-hard and too-soft, but never straying too far either way.  That balance can produce a sound that may seem a bit forced, but I’m not detecting any of that here.

Can sandpaper be enjoyable?  Because that’s the best way I can describe Malfunction: gritty, but effective.  Able to produce something great after a few iterations.  Widely available, if you know right where to look for it.  Not hidden inside your local hardware store, but rather nestled snugly into your favorite streaming service.  Definitely worth a spin, as is Dead Posey’s debut EP, Freak Show.

FFO: Halestorm, Meg Myers, The Pretty Reckless

Baauer – PLANET’S MAD (LuckyMe)

Yeah, I think I know why the planet’s mad… excuse me, I meant to say why the PLANET’S MAD.

Calling Baauer’s latest release “music” is like calling me an “Adonis”. (Spoiler: I’m far more “ice cream” than “ice cold”.) This, Dear Readers, is an out-and-out assault on your ears.  At times aggressive (“PIZZAWALA”, yes that’s the actual name of an actual song), overly-persistent (“REACHUPDONTSTOP”), and somehow accidentally played at 0.25x speed (“REMINA”), PLANET’S MAD is consistent in its destruction of a once-great artform..

I’m nothing if not an eternal optimist, though, and this album isn’t all bad.  The opening track, “PLANCK”, is exactly what I would’ve wanted the rest of the album to be.  “HOME” (featuring Bipolar Sunshine) has a fun George Michael feel to it.  Besides that though?  Doo-doo.

If you liked “Harlem Shake” (and yes I will die on the hill that the corresponding dance is NOT the actual Harlem Shake), then you’ll probably like this too.  I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that you also like to chew on carpenter nails for fun.  Enjoy your album.

FFO: Pain, torture, general + specific regrets

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