Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

joruney
In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

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AWOLNATION – Megalithic Symphony

megalith
What’s originality, anyway?

Artists make breakthroughs all the time. People mix genres for the first time, all the time. It’s not so much that we invent stuff, but we discover it. Ideas are bones buried in the ground and we’re all digging. Every idea will be discovered someday. The original artist is the one that collects a few bones and constructs something unique to them. Their construction is something no one will ever be able to replicate.

It bogs down to ‘personality’ and that’s something an artist cannot copy. You can copy techniques or sounds, but you can’t copy the demeanor, the attitude in the singer or their overall approach. People who criticized Manson for ripping off Ministry missed their radically different approaches. The reason Mechanical Animals renders Ziggy Stardust irrelevant is because the latter is, at the end, mostly a melodic rock album. Its approach was easily replicated.

I doubt anyone will be able to replicate Awolnation’s approach. Some bands come close. Twenty One Pilots specifically sound like a more personal and sincere version of this. A lot of modern Pop bands now don’t see the lines between genres, but none blur them so explicitly and effortlessly like Awolnation.

A lot of genre-bending artists make a conscious effort to be weird. They’ll produce huge albums with long titles. Sometimes they’ll even inform you of the genre they’re imitating and will send the most obvious cues. That approach is far from bad, since their mere excitement of what you can do with music is engrossing. Bruno doesn’t sound like he’s experimental on purpose. It comes naturally to him.

You can hear traces of many genres in this music. Any attempt to put it in a single genre is misleading. Although the vocals are rough like a Hard Rock record, the backdrop is mostly electronic. It’s not all pleasant synths there, too. There is plenty of static, Industrial noise.

The center of attention is never the experimentation. By the time “Wake Up” arrives and Bruno starts rapping, he already experimented with screaming, aggressive singing and soulful singing. It’s hard to notice it, though. He’s so focused on the songwriting.

While the effortlessness is impressive, it also sounds like Bruno is holding himself back. If he’s capable of putting “Burn It Down”, “Sail” and “Kill Your Heroes” in the same album, what is he capable when he has ambitions? Only “Guilty Filthy Soul” is annoying with the pausing in the hooks, but until then the hooks are killer. “Sail” doesn’t dominate the album like it should. It’s the weirdest experiment, but the aggressive “Burn It Down” and the Pop masterpiece “Kill Your Heroes” rival it for attention.

The closing track is the heart of the album, and should’ve been one of the most talked about tracks of 2011. It’s a ten-minute Dance song with ten different hooks and a Rap verse. It’s a behemoth that’s hard to dislike unless you consider noise a necessary element in music. Music nerds will fall for its experimental nature, but anyone else has great hooks and a bassline to groove to.

It’s a clear attempt to make something important and attention-grabbing, but the rest of the album is casual. The approaches are both similar and different. It’s as if the whole album is a collection of B-Side for “Knights of Shame”. Until halfway through it, Bruno doesn’t even sound capable of such a song. He’s a great Pop songwriter but he’s too scared to go full-on weird.

The last track may be confusing, but it’s the perfect closer. Megalithic Symphony is a genreless, ear-friendly album. Bruno should be capable of bigger things. A person who can mix genres without even trying deserves to drop a classic. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine people finding this completely worthless.

4 knights of shame out of 5