My friend asthenia* (Ethan) and I love to talk about music. We thought it'd be fun to each choose an album every week that neither of us had heard, listen to it, and post our thoughts in a blog for (probably) no one to read. There's really no criteria for what we choose other than that it's something new for the both of us. So here it goes, enjoy!
* Author’s note: the following is but a skeleton of a body that would require pages and chapters to be fleshed out. This is neither the time nor place for that.
It is no secret that the music industry is in a transitional period. The major label business model, the foundation of how music is distributed and consumed, has essentially collapsed. More and more majors are folding, or forming conglomerates amongst themselves. These conglomerates are but a mere shadow of the fallen powerhouses of which they consist. Labels that used to house five or ten multi-million dollar artists now seemingly rely on one to three big names. Interscope records, for instance, houses LMFAO, Lady Gaga, the recently reunited blink-182 and U2. Capitol Records, on the other hand, have a guaranteed payday in Katy Perry and Coldplay. That’s it. The company’s worth subsides in two acts. They have many other talented bands, but the roster is fractured. Seemingly big name draws like the Beastie Boys don’t draw across demographics like they used to, and Radiohead (also on Capitol, apparently) have seemingly given up on major labels entirely. Now, you may be wondering the significance in all this.
The significance lies in the priorities of the major label in our current day. Gaga, Perry, Coldplay and to a lesser extent LMFAO are currently carrying the future of major labels on their backs. They are the ones dominating the Billboard and iTunes single charts, as well as radio. This is success is part of a feed back loop. The acts produce enough initial talent/success to earn some label attention. This success is then furthered by the aforementioned label assistance. The cycle continues and the bands get more and more attention, from both the label and general public.
Finally, the record label is essentially forced to focus on promoting these artists because they rely on their income to stay afloat. Smaller bands, being supported by majors, also rely on this revenue for their own promotion. But the major labels need to prioritize their superstars, again because they bring the profit. So Katy Perry gets to release 6 singles, consume billboard ads and present stadium tours where she makes the venue smell like cotton candy. Meanwhile, band X finds themselves no better off, or in some cases worse off, than band Z who is signed to a so called ‘indie’. It becomes harder and harder for small bands to get the support they need in order to become big draws, and eventually the defect either to an indie, or to their own recording space to find career satisfaction.
The ‘indie’ label is one of the few facets of the industry benefiting from this forced transition. Though there are plenty of benefits and costs to this growth, one interesting quagmire has emerged. Many of the notable bands, especially from our scene, are housed on ‘indie’ labels. Weezer and New Found Glory are housed on Epitaph. Jimmy Eat World announced today that they have no record label. Hell, even Nickleback is signed to Roadrunner, which is a subsidiary of WMG. In a way, the indie label is the new major label, at least for our scene. As well, it should be considered that there are a dwindling number of purely independent ‘indie’ labels. Many are now subsidiaries of larger entertainment conglomerates.
Now, none of this really applies to us. As listeners, we don’t really have to care about music labels as much as we have to care about the artists. But we use labels to define music. More and more we use the term ‘mainstream’ music or suggest that a new album is bad because an artist ‘sold out’. These terms are antiquated in the modern scene. Until we know what the ‘mainstream’ is, the term is subjective. If you want to critique music, don’t use the term. We need to become more thoughtful about how we describe sound. It’s hard. As well, let go of your stigmatisms concerning ‘mainstream’ music, or ‘pop’ music. Things can be terrible and still be popular (Nickleback). Or they can be good and popular (too many artists to mention). This week Dan and I chose to spin Passion Pit and Wale. Though both records contain a certain mainstream appeal, they are good records and worth hearing. Are they mainstream? I’m not sure. They’re good artists with occasional moments of brilliance. Nothing else matters.
Wale - Ambition [Ethan's Choice]
Dan: Okay I’m just going to put this out there right away: I didn’t really like this album. The 15 songs run at just over an hour, which is too much for any album in my opinion. Also, with great albums from Kanye/Jay-Z and Childish Gambino holding my attention in the hip-hop department, I’ve found it pretty hard to get into Wale’s Ambition.
With that being said, there are a few really great songs to be found on the album. “Don’t Hold Your Applause” opens the album in a good (if not slightly predictable) fashion. It’s the typical ‘I’m just trying to be the best rapper there is’ type of stuff. It’s a good song, but nothing particularly memorable. “Miami Nights” is probably my favorite song. For some reason it reminded me of “Roc Boys” by Jay-Z. It’s got impeccable production and just sounds like a fun track. “Double M Genius,” which comes before, is another standout. It gives me a Childish Gambino vibe, which is a good thing. However, a weird pet peeve I have with rappers is when they repeat their names in songs. ‘Wale’ is basically the chorus of the song, and it kind of irks me the wrong way.
After that the album is a total mixed bag. “Lotus Flower Bomb” features some guy named Miguel, and his hook is one of my favorites on the album. The song is a pretty effective mid-tempo jam but Wale’s verses didn’t really keep my attention. “Chain Music” opens with cliché hand snaps and quickly becomes forgettable. I was looking forward to getting to “Focused” featuring Kid Cudi because I’m quite a fan of his. I was left sorely disappointed. It’s a super boring song that doesn’t really go anywhere. “Sabotage” is another one of my favorites songs on the album; however, once again, it’s not due to Wale. Lloyd is featured on the track and he really owns the chorus. It’s a song that I can actually see myself coming back to voluntarily, and that’s a lot more than I can say for most of the album.
One of the songs that left me conflicted was “Illest Bitch.” I think he’s trying to go for a nice mid-tempo song about strong women, but the chorus of ‘Illest Bitch alive’ is the most annoying part of the whole album. There’s also an embarrassing spoken-word bridge set behind some piano that had me cringing. Immediately following that, however, was an awesome synth/sax instrumental sendoff that I absolutely loved. It was very fitting with the vibe he was trying to give off through the lyrics, but it was unfortunate that there were other parts of the song that were so weak.
Favorite tracks: Miami Nights, Sabotage, Double M Genius
Ethan: I first heard Wale on his acclaimed Mixtape About Nothing, which despite containing some filler, was a lyrical powerhouse. I still consider some of Wale’s verses/themes on Mixtape to be extremely inspired. Also, the use of Seinfeld as an overarching theme was fantastic and extremely creative. However, I didn’t follow Wale’s career after that. I downloaded Attention Defecit but I never listened to it. As such, I approached Ambition hoping Wale hadn’t lost his swag or ingenuity.
Unfortunately, it seems he as. At least, to some extent.
Wale is a lyrical powerhouse. I made sure to read his lyrics on RapGenius so I didn’t miss anything. In doing so, it became apparent what a talented wordsmith Wale is. His use of double entendre’s is superb. However, this talent is wasted because he rarely discusses anything inspired. Where Mixtape approached issues of race and the treatment of women (amongst other topics), on Ambition Wale’s three concerns seem to be Wale, Wale’s money and Wale’s overall success. So while his talent keeps me interested I can’t help but feel this album is Wale’s attempt at commercial expansion. I don’t hold it against him, but Kanye found popularity with ‘Jesus Walks’ proving it possible to be commercial while also discussing more thought provoking subject matter.
Normally I focus on a track-by-track breakdown but in this case, I’ll simply discuss the songs that work. “Double M Genius” is a huge track, with Wale oozing swag over a sweet horn based production. I’d be interested to see if this song translated live. This same horn production is found in ‘Miami Nights’ and while I enjoy the flow of the verses very much, the chorus kind of ruins it for me. It’s not as catchy as it thinks it is. ‘Legendary’ is one of a handful of Ambitions 15 tracks akin to Wale’s previous work. Though the subject of the song is, again, how great Wale is or wants to be, the hook is catchy and also shows some insight to fame in the present day. Though Wale wants to be successful, his definition of it is of grander scope than your average dime a dozen rapper. It’s refreshing. ‘Chain Music’ is also a great track despite it’s seemingly shallow subject matter. Though Wale is rapping about chains, he’s actually taking aim at the flashy, commerciality of rap and the type of fickle girls it attracts. Yes, that is the whitest possible way to describe the song, but don’t let it phase you. The chorus is catchy, and its minimalist beat works extremely well. Along with ‘Slight Work’ and the title track, ‘Chain Music’ is one of the album’s highlights. Where ‘Chain Music’ offers a simple production, ‘Slight Work’s’ production is extremely intricate. Interestingly Big Sean’s verse is arguably better than Wale’s on the track but both perform well and the song is begging to be a single. Interestingly, this track precedes ‘Ambition’ which is the grandest statement made by Wale on this output. This track deserves to be the title track, listen to it. ‘That Way’ closes the album and while it’s not a great way to close Ambition, its one of the few relationship oriented songs that works.
Overall, Wale’s 15 tracks cover a spectrum of great to mediocre. The mediocrity results from production, which at times can be off putting (Illest Bitch), subject matter (Lotus Flower Bomb), or Kid Cudi (fuck Kid Cudi). However, when Wale hits his stride, he is great. Furthermore, you can’t say the man isn’t talented. If he finds a way to trim the fat and avoid the thematic pitfalls of mainstream hip-hop, his legend may very well someday match his ambition.
Listen: Ambition, Chain Music, Slight Work
Passion Pit - Manners [My Choice]
Dan: I was really finding it hard to find a good new album that I was interested in choosing this week, so I chose an album from a couple years back. My girlfriend recommended Passion Pit to me, and after she showed me “Little Secrets” I was sold. With the recent popularity of bands like Foster The People or Young The Giant, I feel like this band has the potential to really blow up with their eventual follow-up.
“Make Light” opens the album on a very upbeat and energetic note. It sounds like exactly what you’d find if you were to walk into some sort of weird, hipster infested dance party. I love it and it sets the tone for the album perfectly. “Little Secrets” is the obvious single with its catchy synth riff, pounding drums and memorable back-and-forth chorus. It’s a song that you’re going to want to come back to many times over. The next song, “Moth’s Wings,” is another standout. I was at the movies last week and noticed that it was playing during the trailer to some ‘inspirational’ Disney movie about saving some whales. Imagine the type of song that would play over a trailer like that – something reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” but with a more dance-y feel to it. Very epic and catchy, it’s a great song.
What follows these first three songs is somewhat of a mixed bag. “The Reeling” continues with the fast pace set by the prior tracks and is another fun song, but it doesn’t quite live up to the extremely high quality of what comes before it. “To Kingdom Come” is more moderately paced, and it has some nice parts (notably the last minute of the song and the ‘na na na’s in the chorus) but is not especially memorable. “Swimming in the Flood” is quite slow and is one of the low points on the album. The album picks up in quality again with “Folds in Your Hands.” It’s another very upbeat song with some fun instrumentation. “Eyes As Candles” comes next and it is another mid-tempo track; however, this one fares a lot better than the other slower songs on the album. The vocalist really carries this song and the chorus is one that will stay ingrained in your mind for quite some time.
“Sleepyhead” follows. This is the one song I had heard by Passion Pit prior to being recommended them, and it’s definitely one of the highlights. It has handclaps, and any song with handclaps gets instant awesome-points from me. It sounds like rock and disco and techno all jumbled up into one short song – and it all works perfectly. The last two songs are really just more of the same. “Let Your Love Grow Tall” is a pretty good song and the last one is pretty average. As a whole, I was rather pleased with Manners. It’s not an album that I would come back to all the time but it’s definitely an entertaining listen.
My favorite tracks: Moth’s Wings, Little Secrets, Sleepyhead, Make Light
Ethan: This week was an experimental one. Dan and I both chose records that in many ways were outside of our normal taste. This record in particular was an extremely interesting choice. Neither Dan nor I had ever really listened to Passion Pit. I’m still not sure how he even came across them. I had heard about them through my cousin but I had never heard more than Sleepyhead, and even then it was in a Hood Internet mash-up. I had liked what I heard, but it was out of context. I found myself approaching Manners with no expectations.
What I found was for the most part enjoyable, though at times this record can be trying.
‘Make Light’ is unfortunately not a great way to start the record. Mikael Angelakos’ vocals are an acquired taste. Like Anthony Green on Juturna, Angelakos has a tendency to sound quite feminine at times. While his voice is interesting, it is hit or miss. ‘Make Light’ is one of those misses. His voice is too whiney for my taste and while the track is solid musically, with a great bass line and ‘ba ba ba’s sprinkled through out, Angelakos brings the track down. I often skip this track in favor of starting the record with ‘Little Secrets’, which contains hints of everything I would come to love about Passion Pit. The opening synth, bass and drum groove is begging to be sampled again and again. Then the verses start and Angelakos’ finds his niche. His vocals seem less prominent in the mix, so while still in the upper register they are less in your face. Like much of the album, this song makes me want to both dance and learn how to remix dance music. ‘Moth’s Wings’ is akin to newer Coldplay in many ways, hosting an athematic piano line in the chorus, bells in the verse and big drums throughout. Like new Coldplay, it’s okay but kind of flavorless ‘The Reeling’ is a return to the electronic indie-dance sound of ‘Secrets’ but it’s got a serious 80’s vibe. While 80’s influences are hit or miss, the song works and the chorus is catchy if you ignore the lyrics, which I find terribly annoying. However, ‘To Kingdom Come’s” prechorus exemplifies the Pit’s knack for writing melodies. Though I originally though the song to be a highlight, with repeated listens I found I really only liked the prechorus. I hate ‘Swimming in the Flood’, although musically it’s interesting. However, the content is sappy and this is a track where Angelakos’ s is a hinderance. ‘Fold Your Hands’ and ‘Seaweed Song’ are not particularly memorable. Despite this, though, the album’s second half is it’s strongest. ‘Eyes as Candles’ ‘Sleepyhead’ and ‘Let Your Love Grow Tall’ are inspired songs and perfect examples of what works for Passion Pit. A lot of this strength comes synth lines. The former hosts a Japanese synth line that would make Rivers Cuomo hard and Sleepyhead builds perfectly to the chorus synth line. ‘Let Your Love..’ is another great example of P.P’s way to build. Nate Donmoyer’s drumming in particular makes ‘Let Your Love Grow Tall’ the best song on the album, though it was hard to pick between the three.
Overall, Manners is a fun album. Though lyrically it’s really not worth discussing, it doesn’t try to be something it can’t. This album is trying to make you dance, and it quite often succeeds.
Listen: Eyes as Candles, Sleepyhead, Let Your Love Grow Tall