Rag’n’Bone Man – Wolves

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It seems fans of Soul music have annoying purists. I know, it sounds weird. Soul music at its best is so warm and welcoming. Whether you’re bumping the aimless, hook-free stuff of Marvine Gaye or Stevie’s more melodic works, Soul is never high brow, never patronizing the listener. In complete opposition to the rock of the 70’s, Soul music is just an ordinary man with a prettier voice. Clearly, in listening to it nothing should matter much besides having good melodies, a good voice and an all-around charm.

This is too much to ask apparently, so we’re back to questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘real Soul’. Since Rag’n’Bone Man – the most Bluesy name you can come up with since Seasick Steve – doesn’t have a Funk track going on for 10 minutes and endless falsetto without a tune, this is ‘bland Soul’. Come to think of it, Marvin Gaye was just showing off his vocal acrobatics over lightweight Funk. If that is ‘real Soul’, I’ll take Rag’n’Bone’s version any day. He has better hooks and his music is something more besides beating you over the head with how wonderful the world is because you’re a singer with a pretty voice.

Speaking of beautiful voice, writing off Rag’n’Bone as generic is odd. The last time such a gloomy, pessimistic artist hit the chart was, well, the Weeknd or Melanie Martinez. His music is actually not that close to Charlie Puth. He’s not a revivalist, churning out the old love songs with some horns and a more coherent song structure. His roots go way back, to the earliest of Folk music back when all there was to sing about was death.

This album is such a gloomy, death-obsessed thing. Rag’n’Bone sounds either at a funeral, on the verge of dying, after killing someone or before killing someone. Of course his low voice is the main attraction but it’s also how he uses it. His style of singing is the opposite of vocal acrobatics. That’s why comparing him to Soul singers is a bit odd, since he rarely takes those flights Marvin Gaye is famous for. Althoug falsetto occasionally leaks, it’s never dominant. What is dominant is how low his voice is, so low it might as well be buried.

The best expression of that is in the title track where he truly sounds dangerous. On the verses he’s frantic and almost loses the melody, but on the chorus the voice is so low you can imagine him trying really, really hard to contain himself form whatever danger is inside of him. It’s obviously about something inside of him that’s he’s scared of. The da-da-da voices in the backgrounds aren’t helpful. They are the voices in your head encouraging you to hurt or to cause mayhem. To think such a song will top the charts is uncanny. Such a song is too gloomy, too dangerous and too scared of itself to be comfortable. All the brutal screams Death Metal bands come up with, and they can’t reach the fear of the self in that song.

On the other side you get “Guilty”, which is a breakbeat-laden Blues thing where Rag’n’Bone claims he’s not guilty for feeling about hurting the lover he just woke up next to. Already in the opening lines we get death, because somewhere in this ‘million ways to hurt’ there must be an element of violence. Two lines later he writes the lover off completely. Although the rest of the song is simply about leaving a person, the first lines and those hard drums did their thing. Again, his low voice contributes a lot. It adds a layer of toughness and darkness to it all. Any other singer couldn’t evoke the image of death.

Death includes the loss of others, and “Life in Her Yet” is a more subdued number where he tries desperately to cling to someone who’s dead or lost all their memory. The repetition of the title is him trying desperately to convince himself you can defeat death, but saying that he ‘can’t let go’ isn’t a sign of strength but of weakness. He needs her. He cannot live with someone dying. In this song there is no incredibly low voice, but soft and defeated singing.

These are the main attratctions, but every song has the spectre of death hunting them. After all there’s a song called “Lay My Body Down”. Whatever “Reuben’s Train” is about, he sings it like a dirge at a funeral. From the singing alone, low and stretching into infinity you can deduce that the subject of the song must be dead. “No Mother” transforms the stomping work songs (that were all about death) with bass wobbles. Despite the EDM influence, it doens’t add any joy to the song.

He achieves this atmosphere successfuly because he understands how old Folk music works. He’s closer to Dock Boggs than anyone contemporary. The brand of ‘serious music’ he’s been grouped with, the bland wailing of Adele and Ed Sheeran are nowhere to be found. Always he’s a slave to the melody, but in the old days where all you had was a pickaxe and a banjo you couldn’t wail like you’re on the X-Factor. Sure, his voice is more polished and he has a greater variety in tone. Most Folk singers couldn’t pull off both “Guilty” and “Life in Her Yet” since they’re completely opposite characters. Now this may seem inauthentic, but by being aware of the overall theme of death he connects these two. They become two different expressions of the same theme.

3.5 wolves out of 5

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Ed Sheeran – Divide

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Reviewing an Ed Sheeran album only takes two sentences. Any song where isn’t trying to lure a girl to sex disguised as a romance is excellent. Any song where he pretends to feel deep, serious emotions is obviously bad. Of course, two sentences isn’t a review and there’s more going on here. Ed Sheeran is a star and his love songs are especially popular, so we need to figure out how exactly this crap works and why cheesyy love songs are still pumping out when he should be putting a backwards baseball cap and collaborate with Eminem.

I said this a thousand times before and it dawned me. It’s hypocritical to claim Ed Sheeran comes off like an asshole, even a dangerous one when Lostprophets is one of my favorite. These guys are a classic case of music as acting, when the front is completely different than the real person. Solution to this conflict is easy. Fist off, acting is all that’s important when judging music. Ed Sheeran can be a fantastic person for all I know, but I review his character here. Second, Watkins never broke character. Sheeran does.

“Shape of You” is the most interesting song here since it merges Sheeran’s two sides, and reveals all I said about him. He courts a lady with soft, sensual singing and sounds romantic. Yet listen to the chorus. It’s all about the girl’s body. Imagine if the song was sung by a heroin junkie homeless in the street or an overly obese dude with glasses and anime dakimakuras. The song is quite creepy in how it goes on and on about how Sheeran desires a body and not the person.

There have been countless songs about sex, but the key is that they sound authentic. When 50 Cent made “Candy Shop”, it was all about having fun sex. He never tried to sound romantic – only more into sex as having fun instead of status symbol. “Shape of You” has a fantastic melody, but it’s equivalent of a hot guy going on a date with a girl and only telling her how beautiful she is. Something about its bluntness and how Sheeran still sings romantically makes him sound like a person trying to lure girls desperate for romance to easy sex.

Everything else here is easy to digest. There are the ballads, and they’re all quite bad. Sheeran can’t seemt to find a bit of vulnerability in him. Every ballad is sung with confidence. A slightly low voice doesn’t equal vulnerability, especially when “Dive” and “Perfect” explodes into choruses. The latter actually has a decent melody that would be good in the hands of a different singer. He can’t even fake sincerity like Coldplay.

It’s too clean. When he sings that hearts don’t break around here, it’s more believable – only it must be Sheeran’s heart since women come back to him anyway (See “New Man”). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is it about him that makes his ballads sucks so much. Wisely, he doesn’t do any vocal acrobatics like Adele and his voice is quite beautiful. In style, he’s closer to the Weeknd, who is the model when you want to be both a sex icon and a mess. I guess it’s because Weeknd always lets darkness in, even when he brags. “Perfect” never touches on the possibility of heartbreak. It’s music for the end credits of a bad romantic comedy, as if once a romance starts it never ends and the story’s over.

Previously, he could sound more sincere (if unimaginative) when talking about things other than love and how awesome he is. “Happier” should be his moment to show heartbreak. The guitar strums in a defeated way, not trying to produce a melody and it aims for the warmth of an early Dashboard Confessional. Everything is hushed, the singing is lower and the piano is pushed back. Yet it doesn’t work. You can still see the stage behind him. Where is the bitterness of heartbreak he is so good at showing at “New Man”? The falsetto at the end is a joke, a gorilla beating on its chest, sounding more macho and confident than a Groove Metal band who are hell-bent on beating Pantera.

Then again, even with better acting these songs will most likely suck. They don’t contain a melody, but all lead to an explosion, like Coldplay that’s more readily available to stadiums. It’s not the source of the bad acting since it was present in his earlier songs. When he gets personal, the only reaction to it is ‘why the fuck should I care?’. Many artists wrote songs like “Eraser” (quite good) and “Castle on the Hill” (awful), but none of them sounded so self-centered as he is. Why should anyone of us care about Sheeran’s life, considering he made so much money singing pretty ballads?

‘Privilege’ is a word I didn’t want to use. After all, a lot of my favorite rappers are white dudes whose albums are psychotherapies with the listener. Grieves and Atmosphere come off as humble, sharing their stories with the listener with hopes of relating. “Eraser” has a toughness in it, Sheeran trying to convince us he’s tough because he survives the pain of being famous. Considering on later songs he brags about fucking – and sounds happy about it – I’d say it’s another attempt to impress us. The song is good, though. As for “Castle on the Hill”, it has the same idea as Adema’s “All These Years” without the darkness. Nostalgia is a painful thing. I know that since I spent 3 years in a military home and seeing a distance growing between me and my old self, me and my friends and all I’ve known is quite hard. “Castle on the Hill” paints it like it’s all happy and nice, taking a trip down memory lane. Don’t say ‘privilege’, don’t say ‘privilege’.

So it’s all crap so long as Ed serious. Smack in the middle of the album you get “New Man” and “Galway Girl”, two brilliant songs that will easily rank as among the best of the year. Switching up his demeanor, now he’s a playboy who fucks women and women call him up – despite having boyfriends – to fuck. It’s believable for once, actually has spirits and Sheeran is into it. The latter is about picking up a girl at the club but there’s none of the creepiness of the lead single. Instead, it’s just about how she fell in love and they had sex. The former is a bitter break-up song about how the ex-lover’s new man isn’t that good. The confidence, the venom in that song is fantastic. It’s not a rant or a plea for the lover to return. Condescension is the dominant emotion, with Sheeran sneering all the way to next ¬†one night stand. It’s not a song to sing to convince yourself you’re over the break up, but to celebrate how you moved on. No coincidence that both of these are Hip-Hop driven.

Nothing here is too different than previous albums by him. His sound is expanding a bit and there is more than acoustic balladry now, but overall the man remains the same. He cannot break free of being a performer, he cannot get into the act. The difference between him and the horrible Watkins is that Watkins remained in character. Having “New Man” and “Happier” in the same album is jarring, since they’re opposites but there’s nothing to connect them. Eventually, one side takes over and the most convincing one is the braggadio and macho bullshit. It’s funny how that song take shots an ultramacho new boyfriend, because that’s exactly how Sheeran sounds like. I have no problem with that, since “New Man” is actually brillaint. I only wish he would let go already. “Galway Girl” has more spirit than any song here.

2 new men out of 5

Sia – This Is Acting

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The role of songwriting is a long-winded debate in music communities. Do artists have to write their own songs to be talented? Do they have to mean what they say to be good? If a rapper writes a convincing song about robbin’ and killin’ and then it’s revealed he’s a cop, does it ruin the song?

This Is Acting somehow must be important to this debate, but I’m not sure how. It’s a collection of rejected songs Sia wrote for others. It’s supposed to reveal, perhaps, something about the singer and the songwriter. Imagine “Alive” if it was sung by Adele or “Space Between” if it was sung by Lana Del Rey.

I can’t imagine anything profound. All I can imagine is that these songs would be far more bearable if Sia didn’t sing them, especially “Space Between”. Sia’s main shtick is that she’s a ‘serious’ Pop star in an age full of Carly Rae Jepsen’s. She stretches her voice. She has huge arrangements and her tone is always grave. There are no “Call Me Maybe”‘s here.

Yes, there’s “Cheap Thrills” and “Sweet Design” but they still sound serious. Sia is that terrible of a singer. She may have technical chops, but like Adele she sucks out the life out of every song. She’s using every song as a vehicle to impress. It’s like a guitarist who can’t stick to a killer riff and has to shred over everything.

Some of it is not entirely Sia’s fault. She has an ugly, unbearable voice. Insulting a female voice as ‘muscular’ in the age where feminism is a hot topic must sound wrong, but there’s no better way to put it. It’s not ‘muscular’ in a way that makes it aggressive or tough or resilient. It’s ‘muscular’ in the fact it removes every sign of femininity. All that’s left are signs Sia had great vocal training and could hold notes.

You can still make a decent record with good hooks if you use your voice right. Sia is always sure she’s on American Idol and that she needs to sing it like the world depends on it. So you get “Move Your Body”, a song hilarious song that would’ve been a B-Side if Rihanna sang it. In the hands of Sia, it’s more serious than any ballad Adele sings.

Adele is an important point of comparison since both have the same annoying technique of being overly serious. At least Adele sings songs that are serious. She may overdo the vocal acrobatics but she has the right tone. Sia thinks songs like “Cheap Thrills” should be sung like they’re about stopping hunger and poverty. “Sweet Design” is the only song that’s somehow fun.

Sia has been terrible since “Titanium” but at least she sounded like she meant what she sung. She sounded like she really believed that the song is the most important thing to happen on earth since the Great Oxygenation Event. Here, it’s so obvious she’s acting.

In truth, authenticity doesn’t matter. Actors and authors write/act things they haven’t experienced all the time. The most important thing to do is to convince the listener you mean what you say. That’s why a lot of musicians can sound thoughtful while being horrible criminals.

Sia is a horrible actor. She’s so detached from the material. Instead of sounding like she believes in the importance, she only does it because the script says so. She follows the formula of a typical Sia song all the way, but the formula is too obvious to ignore. It’s not a grand concept that unites the songs. These are merely serious Pop songs about not being defeated.

If Sia believed in this material, maybe the overblown nature of the music could’ve had some charm. Dream Theater are often fun because they’re oblivious to how ridiculous they are. Sia doesn’t sound like it. She sounds like she knows what sells, that people will gobble it up because it’s more serious than Carly Rae Jepsen.

It can be interesting for a while to guess what song was meant for what artist. In the end, it’s just a collection of overly-serious ’empowering’ anthems. “Titanium” and “Diamonds” were crappy songs. Anthems are supposed to fun. They need a lightness to them. Sia sounds both overly serious and counting her money for all those who wanted copies of “Titanium”. Sia may reveal Pop music is all an act, but she also reveals she’s a horrible actor. I really don’t care if Rihanna doesn’t write her own songs. She’s convincing at least.

The chorus of “Reaper” is horrible. Sia sounds so moronic holding the note as if the world depends on it while the song doesn’t demand it. “Move Your Body” is so serious I can’t listen to it with a straight face. It’s appallingly bad. “Alive” is somehow decent.

1 chandeliers out of 5

Adele – 25

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There are people who think Adele saves the music industry. Unlike othe singers, she has technical abiliy and can sing live. People like this are actually what is wrong with music, not Pop singers who don’t strain their voice. 25 has the tricks that can dazzle an ignorant person. Adele’s voice never remains still. She always pushes it. Building a shelf that can reach outer space is also impressive, but not meaningful or practical.

What’s the point of these vocal acrobatics, anyway? Vocal acrobatics are the anti-thesis of being expressive. A person who’s broken wouldn’t have thr strength to make sure they hit all the right notes. Of course, music is artificial and I’m not sure if Pulambo was as angry as he seemed to be on Glassjaw’s debut. You put an act, but it has to be convincing.

“Hello” is a really good song wrecked by horrible singing. Your average person can sing it better if they switched the style. When the chorus hits Adele hits such notes that makes you wonder whether she’s so broken. When SR-71 made “Hello Hello”, the singer never stretched his voice like this. He was restrained, the knowing the relationship is doomed but by showing some warmth maybe things will improve.

There’s no warmth in “Hello” because of how technically proficient Adele is. She cannot create an intimacy with the audience because she sounds like an American Idol contesntant trying to impress the judges.

The sparse arrangement doesn’t help at all. Instead of creating intimacy, it actually ruins it by pushing Adele’s voice forward. It only emphasizes how the focus should be on Adele’s vocal skills.

Things improve so much when Adele tones it down. “River Lea” is the best track and not just because it doesn’t drill into your head how technical Adele’s vocals are. Toned down, Adele sounds more sincere and soul-searching. The marching drums are also a break from the boring arrangement of piano and strings (which was redundant the first time, anyway).

The idea that technical ability equals good music is a common fallacy of the ignorant. It’s easier to judge it, it takes less thought and it’s not as challenging. The (beautiful) lyrics behind “Hello” or the melody don’t matter. You don’t have to go through much comparing-and-contrasting. If the singer hits the notes or the guitarist can shred for hours, then it’s good music.

Music is good because it’s good for something, and I’m not sure what 25 is good for. It’s supposed to be a heartbreak album, but you can’t sound heartbroken when your vocals are so perfect.

The uber-serious image of Adele also has something to do with the popularity, but it’s the type of seriousness artists have because they have nothing else. It’s like that anime, Texhnolyze, where everyone looks tough and don’t express emotions, which makes it more emotionally shallow than a Michael Bay film.

Don’t wear a serious cover unless you can back it up. Most artists aren’t good enough to do that, and even those who are don’t tend to try to be so important. Adele clearly thinks this is an important record. If she didn’t, then “Hello” wouldn’t have been a Michael Bay version of a ballad. But how is the set-up of just vocals and piano more artistically valid than electronics or guitars? There’s more loneliness in Skream’s “Where You Should Be” than in any other track here. That song has a cold feeling to it, like the detachment you feel. There’s a reason Drake’s vocals are always lower.

But all Adele has to tell us is trite things about heartbreak and love. In “When We Were Young” she recommends taking a photograph because youth doesn’t last. On “All I Ask”, she gives up on having any melody at all. That track is the worst offender. It’s just an obvious show-off, having nothing but a voice and a piano. It’s perhaps the most stripped-down song and the most pretentious.

Besides “River Lea”, the only deviation is “Send My Love”. It’s a bit of a fuck-you-I’m-over-it song and it’s another one where Adele doesn’t stretch her voice. Instead of sounding defiant though, she sounds bored and tired. Instead of throwing herself at a different type of song, she sounds out of confidence. It feels more like she put it on the album so it won’t be all ballads. I don’t see how a tired upbeat song is any better to a tired ballad.

25 was a big event and if you’re into Adele ballads you’ll love it. After listening to so much music though, I need more than just vocal acrobatics. YouTube is full of such acrobats, who can sing popular songs technically better but with much less personality. Adele isn’t any different from them besides the fact she writes her own songs. That’s not a good thing, considering only “Hello” sounds salavageable too. Melanie Martinez did an emotionally-wrecking album without showing off any technical ability. I wonder if Adele will ever learn.

1.5 hello’s out of 5 outside’s.

Knife Party – Trigger Warning

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Famous artists disappear up their own ass, but Rob Swire’s disappearance is unique. When artists’ ambitions get to their heads, we get things that are plain weird. Maybe it’s the whole Advanced Genius Theory. Whatever they do, though, they never sound like they’re trying to avoid being something.

These are artists who were ‘underground’ not because they wanted to avoid the mainstream, but they don’t care about appealing to their core fanbase. That’s why Skrillex has no problem producing a song for Justin Bieber. He also a little later drops a loud, wobble-heavy banger with JAUZ. He cares for neither fan base.

If Skrillex always looked for new things and tried to make the best of them, Rob Swire is the opposite. He’s been moving away from the loud Bass Music for some time, but he used to have things to replace it with. It’s not the lack of wobbles or even heaviness that’s the problem. “Begin Again” was actually good. Their experiment with Disco was great. The problem is that they sound like they care more about sounding the opposite of their past, rather than making good music.

It wasn’t like this on their LP. It had the old heaviness with “404” and “Give It Up”. It found new way to sound like a siezure with “Micropenis” and that deep house track had a sick bassline. Knife Party were always derivative, but they knew how to take every style they jacked and make it work. This time, they’re not jumping into any particular. It’s your typical, faceless Electro House that has some Big Room and some Melbourne Bounce, but is generally afraid of being fun.

I know that most parties are filled with people who hate music. They came to hear the drums banging, take drugs and hopefully fuck someone. I don’t see how catering to these people leads to good music. I’m not even sure it’s a good startergy to get people to come in your shows. No one is going to spread these faceless tracks. Nothing here is as catchy as “Internet Friends” or sounds like the perfection of its style like “LRAD”.

For two tracks, Knife Party just give us the ordinary horn stabs for the drops. I’m serious. “PLUR Police” and “Kraken” have a very similar sound and don’t do anything with it. These horn stabs always sounded bad. They’re a less rhythmic version of the typical Big Room popcorn. They create a half-assed melody that can also pass for rhythm if you’re high on drugs at a rave.

There’s no rhythm to them, any inventiveness, anything catchy. Even when wobbles had no direction they at least constantly changed to catch your attention. It’s astounding that it took Knife Party around a year to produce these tracks. Get a random compilation from Spinnin’ Records, and you’ll fine at least 5 tracks that sound like “PLUR Police”.

It’s sad to see how far down they went. Inventive moments are still here. “Kraken” has some cool sounds that would’ve been easier to hear if Tom Staar didn’t shit on it. “PLUR Police” has good build-ups, both of them. As for the other track, it’s fantastic. “Parliament Funk” is everything you’d want in a Knife Party song. It has the same aggression, it’s focused more on aggression and the guitars in the build up give it some structure. For a change, it sounds like Knife Party borrowed ideas from all kinds of genres to create a catchy banger.

The JAUZ remix is fantastic. This guy has been making waves and hopefully he’ll re-ignite the scene. He doesn’t add anything but it’s been a while since I heard wobbles these powerful. The wobbles sound unhinged and organic. It’s like they happen on their own. Why is it here, though? I thought Knife Party weren’t into this style anymore. Maybe JAUZ will wake them up.

I love this band and I don’t want to see them jump the shark this way. I didn’t mind the lack of Brostep in their LP because they had enough to make up for it. They could still experiment and they still knew how to distort every style to make it their own. Here, they jump on a tired bandwagon and don’t sound so ethusiastic themselves. If Rob Swire isn’t into EDM anymore it’s best to call it quits now. Let them be remembered for their classic EP’s. If only the Tom Morello collaboration was released here.

Also, I can’t believe these guys didn’t release Zoology. It’s their best track and one of Skrillex’s bests, too.

2.5 dubstep remixes out of 5