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

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5