Katy Perry – Smile (Capitol Records)
Since joining the Fairly KickAss Familia (I’ll explain later), I’ve developed a greater appreciation for pop music, in all its glorious forms. I’ve reviewed several great pop albums, including some that thoroughly surprised me in how good they were, most notably Carly Rae Jespen’s Dedicated Side B. I’ve reviewed some pop albums that weren’t all that great. But, Dear Readers, I must tell you that I have not reviewed a pop album with as much disdain as I will be reviewing Katy Perry’s latest release Smile with.
This isn’t one of those situations where feelings about an artist permeate to all of their works. With Katy, I’ve enjoyed several tracks off of a wide range of her albums: from the early days of “Hot N Cold”, “The One That Got Away” and “E.T.”, to the later hits in “Roar” and “Dark Horse”. But Smile is just… it’s just bad, y’all!
Most of Katy’s work on Smile is lifeless, listless, and phoned in, like a generic “My First Pop Album” kit that I’m surprised Walmart doesn’t already sell. This album has everything: shoehorned electronic bits and Auto-Tuning (“Teary Eyes”), awful lyrics (“Never Really Over”: “Just because it’s over doesn’t mean it’s really over/And if I think it over, maybe you’ll be coming over again/And I’ll have to get over you all over again”), shitty hooks (“Smile”), and whatever the golden fuck “Champagne Problems” is.
Now, Momma taught me to say something nice if I’m saying anything, so here’s my nice thing: island-y romance bop “Harleys In Hawaii” is a very solid, catchy track, and love letter to love “Only Love” is decent. Listen to those tracks, and spin some of Katy’s earlier albums if you gotta get your fix… but you can leave the rest of Smile on the shelf.
FFO: Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato
The Atomic Bitchwax – Scorpio (Tee Pee)
The Atomic Bitchwax was founded sometime in the mid-’90s as a side project of the New Jersey stoner rock scene by members of Monster Magnet and Godspeed. They released a fairly kickass (#shamelessselfplug #anarttonamedropping) self-titled album in 1999, then became a disappointment for the next 3 or 4 records. And while, Gravitron, Force Field, and TAB4 had some solid material, they didn’t quite live up to that initial promise.
Scorpio erases past sins. I can find no fault anywhere on the record. It is everything you could want or expect of ‘70s-minded hard-rock psychedelia. The music is loud, fast, and more fun than almost any other ‘metal’ band has. I would go so far as to claim this as a go-to for highway driving from this point forward.
The instrumental tracks, “Ninja”, “Crash”, and “Instant Death” are some of the most impressive orchestrations since Edgar Winter. The lyrical content may sound angry, but always tinted with a sordid humor that keeps the songs light. The album opener, “Hope You Die”, is laced with non-threatening, side-eye trash tall like, “I hope you hate this shit / I hope your clothes don’t fit.” Most of the time, when music is this loud, it has a hostile, violent current of content. The Atomic Bitchwax’s Scorpio is the opposite of that. And now I need to start telling people to “rock on”…again.
FFO: Halfway to Gone, Alabama Thunderpussy, Clutch, Local H (but also: Kiss, Nazareth, Black Sabbath)
Toni Braxton – Spell My Name (Island)
Did anyone else know that Toni B. has been consistently releasing records this whole time? I am in the camp that stopped listening after the incredibly disappointing 2000 drop, The Heat. There was a period of time when ‘90s-style R&B tunes went very out of fashion for me. I am [somewhat] shamefaced.
A timeless sound from a sexy, sultry, soulful siren with a gorgeous voice should never go out of style. Sure, her last 6 albums underperformed, despite the insurgence of divas in the 2000s. Spell My Name is Toni telling us that she is that diva that’s worth waiting for.
Her voice is as strong as it ever was, soaring alongside slow, downbeat, R&B jams that call back to her work with Babyface. The featured artists are really what send this one over the top, though. Missy Elliot is a triumph on “Do It”, and the guitar work on “Gotta Move On” done by H.E.R. are true highlights. But the best track on Spell My Name is all Toni. The melodramatic piano and string opus, “Saturday Night”, shows off her range, pop prowess, and broadway musical theatricality.
Break-up/make-up songs are a staple of her chosen genre, and every song on the album falls into that category. So, if you’re hoping for a surprising twist, you’re out of luck. But within her sphere of influence, Toni is a princess.
FFO: J.Lo, Brandy
Bettye LaVette – Blackbirds (UMG Recordings)
Once upon a time (probably around 2005-ish), I had a co-worker who was very much into soul singer Bettye LaVette. I didn’t get the appeal, nor did I care to figure it out. There were a few reasons for this brushing-off: 1) Spotify didn’t exist yet; 2) I was lazy and didn’t care to seek out the music any other way; 3) even if I wanted to seek it out, CDs cost $$$, man; and 4) I knew good music already! Which, by now, you know means that I was an insufferable music snob. It’s good to know that some things haven’t changed, at least.
But It’s time to remedy that, by way of Bettye’s latest release, Blackbirds. Being late to the party is better than not showing up at all. And this is a party you want to be at, y’all.
Bettye LaVette strikes me as one of those “best-kept secrets” in the music world, one that folks way smarter than I – such as my ex co-worker! – have been on for years now. (Or possibly decades, since she released her first album in 1982, and recorded her first single twenty years prior to that.) Soul is usually not my bag, but this album transcends that label to reach another level. Many fans of many diverse genres can appreciate and enjoy this album.
Clearly, Bettye’s voice is the star of the show – and what a voice it is. Distinctive, powerful, emotive, beautiful… I could go on. This is the voice of someone who has seen some shit, someone who has lived a dozen lives and survived to tell the tale. The instruments play a vital role in setting the scene, from the 70s-inspired ambiance on “Blues for the Weepers”, to the soft piano backing up Bettye’s desperate pleas on “Save Your Love for Me”. She even tucked in an absolutely delightful cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.
If you’re like me, Dear Readers, and you have an artist that you haven’t gotten around to listening to yet, do yourself a favor. Fire them up on Spotify, or Tidal, or YouTube – wherever. Give them a listen. If you don’t like it, then at least you won’t have to spend brain cycles wondering about them. And if you do like it, much like I felt when finally discovering Bettye LaVette’s Blackbirds? Then you can add another piece of awesomeness to your list of music that you dig.
It’s a win either way.
FFO: Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Janis Joplin (vocally)
Seether – Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (Fantasy Rec)
There are a lot of modern radio rock artists. They’re a dime a dozen, and most of them have a very similar sound, nearly indistinguishable from each other. There was a time that I lumped Seether into that gelatinous, amorphous landmass.
True, they fit the criteria on many levels. Angsty lyrics with no real purpose, a typical song format with little to no variation, and clean, ear-friendly production make them accessible to a high percentage of rock music listeners. Octane, ‘00s, ‘10s, and any other “loud rock” format station would (and does) eat this up without hesitation.
So what sets Seether apart?
Honestly, it’s hard to say why they get a pass from me. Everything I said above is for real, and generally reasons for dismissing an album with varying degrees of contempt. Part of it is that I like angsty lyrics when they’re sold well. The plastic production of most modern rock masks a lot of the emotion in the delivery, and that is not the case with these guys.
There is plenty of believable angst being sold Seether Goes Latin (this is sarcastic, because I cannot be bothered to look up a translation). Most of their songs focus on an internal inferiority, an inability to move on from…something, or feeling the pain of everything around him. Sometimes all of those things at once.
I’m not going to gush over the album. It’s ok. The most interesting tracks on it are either bass-driven (“Bruised and Bloodied”) or on the mellow side (“Written In Stone”). However, the most epic sounding, impressive song is “Liar”. Everything lines up on the track to engage your senses and get you to feel as much as he’s feeling. This album probably won’t change your mind about Seether, but if you are on the fence, it’s worth a shot.
FFO: Chevelle, 10 Years, Stone Sour
Knot – Knot (Exploding In Sound)
5 years ago, Boston-based indie outfit, Krill, stopped making music. But then they didn’t. They added another dude to the already full-sounding mix, changed the name to Knot, and announced another release. And it isn’t for everyone.
Some people feel like great music doesn’t need a trained vocalist with perfect melodies, greatly intuitive structures, and mass appeal.
It’s me. I’m people.
Knot plays with erratic structures, dissonant riffs and chords, and an unpolished (but clean) instrument sound and production. It. Is. Perfect.
Imagine that you’re sitting at a hole-in-the-wall bar that’s about 6 steps from the ‘popular’ place in town. You’re drinking a domestic draught that could be a little colder, if you’re being honest. There’s 4 dudes who look a little sweaty, and maybe a lot drunk, setting up old-looking instruments on the “stage”. You’re already expecting some trite, emo-come-lately vibe, when, without a soundcheck, they launch into the most abrasively beautiful indie riffage you’ve heard since the early 90s. His voice is far from perfect, but displays a sort of meek strength as it brays, “Power is you in my arms” (“Justice”).
In case you were wondering, you left that bar with a Knot t-shirt and 2 copies of their debut album, because your friend Zack would absolutely love it, too. But he’s gonna have to owe you for it, because his dumb ass should have been at the bar with you.
They also said that the first $1,000 in proceeds on Bandcamp are going to Survived and Punished, a coalition of defense campaigns committed to ending the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. So listen to the record and get your copy there. Here is the link: https://absolutelyknot.bandcamp.com/.
Metallica & San Francisco Symphony – S&M2 (Blackened Recordings)
Rock band Metallica was formed in… you know what? I’m gonna skip that part for this review. If you don’t know who Metallica is by now, then I would like to come live with you under your rock. As long as you have good wifi.
The first S&M (Symphony & Metallica) collaboration between Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony came out in 1999, and it was stellar. The orchestral backing didn’t just add to the 21 tracks on the album; rather, the San Francisco Symphony was an equal partner with Metallica in making some beautiful music. Every track was improved, from the rockin’ “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Wherever I May Roam”, to the softer “Nothing Else Matters”. The intros to “One” and “Battery” were especially delightful.
So why go back to the well when it was so great the first time? I wish I knew.
Let’s start with this: less than a third of the songs on the album are Metallica tracks that weren’t on the first S&M album. 7 out of 22. That’s it. Most of the remainder of the album is littered with the same stuff you heard on the first S&M, but worse. The orchestral partnership I mentioned above? Gone for some reason, replaced with a barely-there smattering of noises from the symphony. Listen to any of the tracks on both albums side-by-side, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. It’s especially notable in “No Leaf Clover”, which was created specifically for the collaboration.
It’s not just the San Francisco Symphony side: the Metallica side feels a bit lacking throughout too. James Hetfield’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but I’ll never criticize someone for losing the battle to Father Time. It’s not bad, but it does sound a bit like going through the motions.
Now, if you’ll remember up above where I said “most of the remainder of the album is littered with the same stuff…”? I said “most” there because there’s another aspect to this album: two standalone pieces by the San Francisco Symphony, complete with introductions of each one. 14:15 of non-Metallica content. I have nothing but respect for someone who can play an instrument, and the San Francisco Symphony members can do that exceptionally well. But the inclusion of those pieces seems a bit contrived in the album.
As one of the biggest Metallica stans, I came away from S&M2 feeling disappointed. If the first S&M didn’t exist, this might get higher marks from me… but considering they knocked it out of the park the first time, I will pass on the dribbler down the 3rd base line.
FFO: For Metallica proper: Megadeth, Judas Priest. For the symphonic tie-in: Epica, Nightwish
My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall II (ATO Records)
My Morning Jacket is rooted in folk tradition, but sending out exploratory tendrils into pop, soul, and rock subgenres. From the playful, Byrds-like songs, “Beautiful Love” and “Climbing the Ladder” to the bluesy psychedelia of The Moody Blues on “Feel You”, Jim James and company don’t fail to live up to their reputation of great, reflective tunes that stretch the boundaries of what Americana can be.
Start with: “Feel You”, “Run It”, “Climbing the Ladder”
FFO: Wilco, Tiara, Uncle Tupelo
The Score – Carry On (Republic)
It takes something special to take all the worst aspects of Fall Out Boy, 21 Pilots, and Pop Evil…and not make me retch into the nearest appropriate receptacle. Yet, here we are, puke free and nursing only the mildest of irritation headaches.
This is polished fluff, with an emphasis on polish. There is pretty much no substance here. It’s simple progressions, simple lyrics, showmanship, and a mendicant’s cloak.
Start with: “Fire”, “Can You Hear Me Now”
FFO: Imagine Dragons, 21 Pilots
Diesel – Sunset Suburbia (Bloodlines)
Apparently he’s one of the biggest selling Australian artists in the 80s and 90s. Who knew? It makes sense. His brand of pop-rock would do well alongside Bryan Adams, Richard Marx, or Eagle Eye Cherry. While there’s nothing edgy or innovative here, it is truly a pleasant listen, filled with catchy hooks, thoughtful lyrics, and an unoffensive, accessible style. This is 1995-1997 rock ‘n roll, all grow’d up.
Start with: “Come Back”, “Wake Up With An Angel”, “Sunset Suburbia”
FFO: New Radicals, Wallflowers
The LOX – Living Off Xperience (D-Block)
They’re men! They’re 40!! (Well, 45, 45 and 43, but you get the idea.) The game has not passed Styles P, Jadakiss and Sheek Louch by. They may have lost a bit of a step, but they still put in some really good work on this album. Plus, the sheer fact that they’re continuing to get after it – with both Styles P and Jadakiss on the downhill slope running into 50 – is quite impressive.
The beats aren’t remarkable, but they’re good enough. Same can be said about the featured artists – for example, T-Pain and DMX are slightly above average, while Jeremih is slightly below average – but none stand out. I don’t mind this sort of release though. It’s one that won’t win any awards, but still serves to remind you that an artist or group is still around and doing the thing. Kudos to The LOX for staying relevant and putting out a solid release.
FFO: Memphis Bleek, N.O.R.E.
Gyða Valtýsdóttir – Epicycle II (Sono Luminus)
As mentioned above, I’m a Metallica stan. I also happen to be an Iceland stan, and when I saw Gyða Valtýsdóttir’s name, I knew it would get a review. Valtýsdóttir is a part of Icelandic experimental group Múm (of which the delightful Ólöf Arnalds was also a member), but Epicycle II marks her third solo studio album. The tracks are very ambient, mostly instrumental, and entirely unsettling. Think something that you would hear while walking around a graveyard at night – in a good way! “Morphogenesis” and “Liquidity” were personal favorites, yet I enjoyed everything I heard.
Highly recommended for listening while inside tight crawl spaces, dank cellars, or dimly-lit attics.
FFO: Kira Kira, Frakkur
Toots & the Maytals – Got To Be Tough (Trojan Jamaica)
I spun the latest album from Jamaican band Toots & the Maytals, Got To Be Tough, based on Jeremy’s recommendation. He was familiar, but I was not – I’m liking what I’m hearing though! Originally just called The Maytals, the band have been around since the 1960s, and were pivotal in bringing more awareness and love to the reggae and ska genres. Frontman Toots Hibbert has a funky, soulful, upbeat delivery that just makes me smile during every track.
Unfortunately, Toots needs some really good vibes right now, after being admitted to the ICU in Jamaica in early September. Here’s to hoping he can recover and get well soon.
FFO: The Wailers, The Melodians