Meghan Trainor – Treat Myself (Epic)
I sat down with this record expecting, even hoping, for something to tear apart. I was not ready to actually enjoy (most of) a Meghan Trainor album. The lead single, “No Excuses”, is such a trainwreck of a song I was ready to launch into a tirade about faux-sincerity, narcissism, and banal pop tropes that are all embodied by a mush-mouthed blonde commercial puppet.
Sure, she switches between personalities from song to song, decrying the horrors of a relationship, then wanting him back. Sure, when she sings the phrase, “Love Yourself”, it somehow sounds like she’s saying “Out dog yourself”. Sure, every song is a repetitive, four-chord, easily-digestible melody.
Goddammit if it doesn’t work this time. Ignore the Nicki Minaj part of “Nice To Meet You” and the melody and beat are quite pleasing. Close your eyes and listen to “Funk” and you can almost hear Janet. “Working On It” might be the most honest a pop star has been recently about personal failings. Throw a Spanish verse into “Lie To Me” and it could be Shakira. And the best part is, she finally has a producer that nearly eliminated the overuse of handclaps and ‘60s pop basslines.
My favorite track on the album has to be “Here To Stay”, in which she basically says, “Yeah, I’m a piece of shit, but apparently you’re into that, so let’s do this.”
The problematic tendencies definitely still exist (“Babygirl”, “Genetics”, and the aforementioned “No Excuses”), but by and large, this is a huge step in the right direction.
FFO: Janet Jackson, Sabrina Carpenter
Oliver Tree – Ugly Is Beautiful (Atlantic)
If I told you that Blur, The Beastie Boys, and 21 Pilots formed a super-group, you’d be very confused and give me that look where one of your eyebrows completely lifts off your face. Yet, that’s exactly what happened, at least in this guy’s head.
Oliver Tree is a Santa Cruz-based comedian and musician, but this album leans considerably away from the comedy part of that job description. There’s plenty of sarcasm though, as he describes what it’s like to meet a jerk, seeing death in our nightmares, or being aware of our shortcomings.
Most of the songs are kind of a downer, but in the most fun way possible. The exception is “Alien Boy”, which is just plain fun. Oliver calls his material dance music influenced by indie-pop and hip-hop. I would add British garage rock and cerebral-pop to that list, but otherwise, his words are spot-on.
FFO: Aqueduct, Nada Surf, Blur
Ellie Goulding – Brightest Blue (Polydor)
Ellie has no problem with setting the tone for this record. She opens with a collaboration with serpentwithfeet, in her sweetest Ellie-est voice, declaring “You fuck with me, I’ll start a war”.
I don’t know anything about her personal life, but she’s going through something, because this record doesn’t really lighten up. As a lover of the dark side of pop music, I am absolutely floored by Brightest Blue. I can safely say that she hasn’t been this great since Halcyon. Every song is an anthem, every lyric an out-pouring. She testifies to the positives and the negatives (mostly negatives) of putting all of yourself into something and committing fully. This concept is most illustrated in “Woman”, “How Deep Is Too Deep”, and “Love I’m Given”, but is the primary theme of all 19 tracks. Well, that and rampant alcoholism.
Really, in several tracks she comments on using alcohol to cope. And with lines like, “Pouring whiskey in my apple juice”, it may indicate a problem of some kind. But since I was tied to the song like I was floating in open water and it was a tether from a raft, I supposed that she is hitting exactly the emotional soft spot that she was aiming for.
And as a bonus, she doesn’t do any of that terrible not-rap garbage that she tried in “On My Mind”.
FFO: There is no one like her.
Jhené Aiko – Chilombo (Def Jam)
After the most recent podcast, I gotta say that it’s nice to be listening to good stuff again. And Chilombo absolutely qualifies as “good stuff”.
Jhené Aiko is becoming a bit of a veteran, with a career spanning back to some featured spots in the 2000s, many of those with B2K. Then came two studio albums, Souled Out and Trip, and finally Chilombo marking her third album. Her full name is Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo, which explains the title of the album – as well as the theme. Chilombo serves as a decree that Jhené is gonna do her, exactly how she wants, at all times – and I respect the hell out of that.
The best track, in my opinion, is also the most interesting: “None of Your Concern”, which is an honest track about Jhené’s relationship with rapper Big Sean – and Sean actually features on the track. It seems very real and honest, which I dig. “One Way St.”, featuring Black Hippy alum Ab-Soul, joins stripped-down jam “Born Tired” and gorgeous John Legend duet “Lightning & Thunder” as a few more highlights on the album.
Jhené Aiko may have a softer voice than Megan Thee Stallion, but she’s no less of a savage. Her delivery is always fierce and on-point, with a very matter-of-fact sense to it. She’s not here to dilly-dally around: you can hear the DGAF in her voice. This is the story, either take it or leave it – she couldn’t care less either way.
Chilombo is a release that I’ve been excited about, as Jhené Aiko has yet to disappoint. She keeps getting better with every passing year, either on her own albums or as a featured artist. Her maturity and confidence are through the roof, and rightfully so. I would hope that she’s already being compared to the best R&B artists today, as she deserves to be toward the top of the list.
FFO: Kehlani, Chloe x Halle
Kansas – The Absence of Presence (Century Media Records)
The Absence of Presence marks Kansas’s 3rd release since 2000, and their first since 2016’s The Prelude Implicit. Considering that their first album dropped in 1974, some turnover was to be expected, and it’s perhaps those absences that hold this really good album back from being great.
If you look at the best-selling Kansas album, Leftoverture, and compare it to The Absence of Presence, you’ll notice a bit of overlap; namely guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart. But not having Kerry Livgren, Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, or even John Elefante hurts the current composition a bit. It’s not a knock against the album at all, but more of an “if only” sort of moment.
Stylistically, there’s no modernization here: from ballad “Memories Down the Line”, to the grandiose “Circus of Illusion”, this album could’ve easily dropped in 1974 alongside Leftoverture. That’s not a bad thing! Sometimes, I want to hear the “signature sound”, and Kansas achieves that here. The violin, the synth, the very 70s harmonies, the mathcore-esque time signature changes – it’s all here. The aforementioned “Memories Down the Line” and “Animals on the Roof” mark the high points here. Tracks like “Throwing Mountains” and “Jets Overhead”, while not bad, don’t really add much to the release.
Ultimately, The Absence of Presence is likely as good as it could be, considering the personnel. It’s still well worth a listen, especially if you enjoy Kansas’s previous releases, or other artists/albums from the same era.
FFO: Yes, Styx… I mean, Kansas themselves counts as a FFO IMO
Mickey Avalon – Speak of the Devil (Suburban Noize)
I earmarked Speak of the Devil as a possible review as soon as I saw that it had dropped. Certainly, a Mickey Avalon album, of all things, would be bad enough to warrant a review, right?
A little backstory for those who are unfamiliar: Mickey has had a very tough go of it, and I give him all the credit in the world. According to Wikipedia, he has had his own struggles with substance abuse, while also experiencing close family members going through similar issues. He was able to make it work, and is enjoying a level of success – which is awesome. No one can take that away from him. However, even with all that said, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t gonna be honest about how dogshit Speak of the Devil truly is.
We start off strong, in “Handyman”: “Who you gonna call when you need a hand?/Mickey Avalon, the handyman/And who the motherfucker with the tool in his pants?/Mickey Avalon, the handyman.” He also mentions a 17-year-old girl, which is gross on so many obvious levels, as well as the phone number “1-800-love-to-fuck.
There’s ten more songs, amigos, but there’s no way I will have the patience to review them all.
In “Woke AF”, Mickey makes fun of all sides of the political and social spectrum. He gleefully shits on everyone and anyone, I guess to make himself feel better? I honestly don’t know. There’s so much vitriol that I suppose it could have been building up too. But yeah, awful song.
“Bad Luck Billy” is really, truly, something to behold. I don’t think I could give it justice. “Let’s Go” is about robbing a bank, I think? “Johnny Come Lately” seems to just be Mickey talking about how amazing he is, without really adhering to a theme. Not that a theme would’ve saved this track, but…
Another gem is the track “End of My Line”, which is an extremely blasé look at a very difficult and painful subject to write about. Mickey, much like in previous tracks, just does not care; he is the ultimate troll, and that trolling is on full display throughout.
For Mickey’s sake, I hope Speak of the Devil is a smash, just so he can make some coin. But for my sake, please, please fire it directly into the Sun, just like so many tracks that we covered on the Fairly KickAss Podast this week. Suffice it to say, this one can be pretty safely skipped.
FFO: Fans? Hahaha, you make joke, joke is funny
BTS – Map of the Soul: 7 ~ The Journey ~ (Universal Music)
Unlike Kirsten Dunst, I do not know Japanese. Which does make listening to the latest BTS album, Map of the Soul: 7 ~ The Journey ~ (extra punctuation courtesy of BTS), both more challenging and more enjoyable. It’s a reminder that good music transcends language, and this falls into that category for sure.
“But wait!”, you cry out. “BTS is a South Korean group, not Japanese!! How dare you make fun of Kirsten and then make an even more egregious mistake, you hypocrite!!!”
To which I say that, first of all, I’m offended that you would imply that I’m making fun of Kristen Dunst… because I’m also making fun of the video’s director, McG. (You did We Are Marshall, for goodness sakes! You’re better than this!) Secondly, you’re absolutely correct – all seven members of BTS are indeed from South Korea. Which is what makes Map of the Soul: 7 ~ The Journey ~ so much more impressive: it’s not even performed in the band’s native language.
In fact, the album is made up of Japanese language versions of nine tracks from their albums Love Yourself: Answer and Map of the Soul: Persona, along with four new original Japanese language tracks. Most of us Americans can barely speak American real good; meanwhile, BTS is recording in two different languages – not to mention plenty of English peppered into the tracks. Americans are the worstest.
Part of what made BTS the global powerhouse that they are today was the tightly-choreographed and well-executed dance numbers. We don’t have that here, of course, but the underlying music ain’t half bad. It’s saccharin pop, don’t get me wrong, and there’s only so much distance that can be travelled there. The poppy beats are unobtrusive, which is the best you can hope for. The vocals are solid, and varied enough to not sound stale between the members. There are some rap spots that are a bit rough (“FAKE LOVE” is much better than “Dionysus” for example), but the singing parts are solid throughout. “Black Swan” could easily be a Top-40 hit here in the States, regardless of language – and very well may be already. “Your eyes tell” is one of the four new original Japanese language tracks, but it’s a seamless transition – and a lovely ballad-y song as well.
Overall, the Japanese language from BTS will still be a barrier for many to enjoy this album. And it’s not like you’d be missing a masterpiece if you took a pass on it. But if you’re looking for a nice, fun pop experience – and maybe to learn a few new words along the way! – then Map of the Soul: 7 ~ The Journey ~ is definitely worth your time.
FFO: I’ll let Spotify’s “Fans Also Like” section handle this one for me, because I’m clueless: SEVENTEEN, Stray Kids, NCT 127
Bush – The Kingdom (Zuma Rock Records)
Let’s be honest here. Bush has not been relevant since their sophomore effort, Razorblade Suitcase. They were the first British outfit to capitalize on the popularity of grunge, and depending on who you ask, were a part of why it ended. But talk about some chrome-plated undercarriage, Gavin has not changed a damn thing about the way he approaches music. His material is angsty, gritty, loud, and unapologetic. That is The Kingdom in a nutshell.
If you’re expecting something that makes an impression on the face of the modern rock mountain, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for someone to stick to what they know, do it well, and provide you with a killer expression of inner turmoil, then look no further.
A few of the songs on the record would easily have fit onto 1999’s The Science of Things. “Crossroads”, “Bullet Holes”, “Falling Away”, and “Quicksand” are quintessential Gavin Rossdale. The lyrics are in your face, with very little in the way of obscure imagery and only lyrical repetition to help you distinguish between verse and chorus. Other songs on the record signal a desire to do a little more on the musical side, which is an interesting development for his 8th release under the Bush moniker.
In the past, he relied on simple chord progressions, power chords, and the strength of his voice and lyrics to carry the songs. It worked. We ate that shit up. At a certain point, though, he must have realized that it wasn’t enough anymore. He is still playing around with electronic noises and guitar effects, but that isn’t what’s truly interesting here. For The Kingdom, he is playing with some heavy ass guitar riffing. The guitar work would be more expected on a Soundgarden or Velvet Revolver album, downtuned, fast moving, and loud as hell.
At times he sounds like a lazy Chevelle and at others, a lazy Godsmack. If that sounds like I’m being negative, I don’t really mean it to. The laziness seems to come from the fact that Gavin’s voice is effortless. Whether he is singing calmly or spitting viscera, he seems to expend the same amount of energy (read: not much). “Ghost In The Machine” could have been a throw away track from one of the Chevelle records that no one listened to (and has the worst lyrics on the album: “I gave you the best of me, 45-55”). The first two tracks on the album would be the best things Godsmack has done in years, but desperately need Sully Erna’s distinct bawling.
Nothing on the album is bad. If you are a fan of Bush or Gavin Rossdale, which I am, you will find yourself enjoying yourself immensely during this record.
FFO: Chevelle, Godsmack, Velvet Revolver