Papa Roach – Crooked Teeth


While Papa Roach’s previous album was decent, it also put the band at a crucial point. The songs lacked emotional punch, were nothing but decent stadium anthems but had nothing going to them besides things to sing along to at shows. It didn’t even sound like the band could pretend to have emotions. They didn’t even try to make tools for venting your frustration. So while pretty melodies like “Falling Apart” are nice, they had to give us something more or quit music. It’s been this way for a few albums now, but F.E.A.R. was their driest record yet.

And Crooked Teeth is exactly the kind of album I wanted from them, yet I never thought they were capable of making it. Sure, I believed they could crack an earworm or too. So when “Help” dropped, it was a good sign. It was ordinary mid-tempo rock, but there were subtle differences that hinted at a sense of purpose. Acoustic guitars were quite prominent and the vocals weren’t as explosive, adding a layer of vulnerability. It’s still an anthem, but it now had a bit of that shallow emotional sentiment that makes it work outside stadiums.

Then there was “Crooked Teeth”, which of course was praised because it was loud and we all know Pop music is bad. It’s not just the noise, though – it was truly chaotic, opting for a half-screamed verse and the band just hammering on their instruments. Most weird as the short Hip-Hop break in the middle. In the past I said “Gravity” was a brilliant career highlight but I wrote it off as a fluke. Most of this record builds from there.

You can’t escape how Hip-Hop-driven this record is, as if Papa Roach looked to the controversy surrounding Linkin Park and decided to replace them. Papa Roach were some of the worse genre-benders in Nu Metal and their rapping didn’t add much back then. Here, though, the rapping is far more focused and smooth.

Shaddix sounds like an actual rapper, having an actual flow and adopting the right tone for rapping. Even for someone used to Rap-Rock, these songs are confusing at first. “Break the Fall” and “My Medication” might as well be Hip-Hop with some guitars. Later they even adopt the genre’s bragging antics for “Born for Greatness”, where they also use their guitars for a bass drop. Add the cheery, easy vocals and you have a fantastic, chest-beating anthem that sounds confident and huge.

This rediscovery of Hip-Hop either causes, or a symptom of rediscovery of purpose in their music. Each song has its unique vibe now, nothing sounds like just another anthem. The aforementioned “Help” would sound generic in any other album, but here it’s one of a kind. Its subtle unique traits, like letting the acoustic guitars stay prominent rise to the surface. On “My Medication” and “Break the Fall”, they re-capture the spirit of teen angst that made their old music so good. What was lacking in their latest album was that.

Teen angst may be shallow, generic and too general for any depth. It can be effective though, especially with good hooks. “My Medication” has a manic energy in how the guitars roar and Shaddix sounds like he cares about this subject matter, like he is a drugged-up rockstar living a reckless life. The anthemic nature of the songs is secondary to their purpose. Even their ballads improved. “Periscope” lets the guitarists try something else for a change, a pseudo-underwater riff while Shaddix along with Grey keep the vocals low. It’s a song you’d expect from Deftones if they tried to go Pop. If this sounds like ripping off, it might – but Papa Roach throw themselves with full conviction that people in YouTube got worried over that track.

The highlight of the album is easily its oddest track – “Sunrise Trailer Park”. In a way it’s a spiritual successor to “Gravity”, only it pushes so far into Hip-Hop that it has no business being on Rock radio. True, it’s not as harrowing emotionally was it wanted to me. Lyrical imagination was never one of their strong points and the subject matter of losing a friend from drunk driving – and being guilty – has no depth here. Still, the band is sincere enough, letting the emotions rise out without forcing them. It might be obvious, but it’s never overt and there is something quite haunting and damaged in the line “I’m still haunted by the best years of my life”. At the end of the songs these lines just float with the beat. Such decisions can only come from a focused band who knows what their songs is about.

What I wanted from Papa Roach was focused songwriting and capturing the old energy of frustration rock. In some cases – like in the title-track or “Help” this is what I get and it’s enough. The addition of rapping, exploring new sounds and territories, having “Sunrise Trailer Park” suddenly hints that maybe this band has something in them more than just venting tools. Maybe that’s what happens when you grow up. You may not have emotional depth, but you realize you’re free to try whatever you can. Hopefully this is a rebirth and maybe they’ll become genre-benders like Linkin Park.

3.5 crooked teeth out of 5

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(hed) pe – Blackout

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I was no naive at the time. I wanted desperately to like this. The album cover was beautiful. The word ‘blackout’ is pretty cool. The band’s name was badass and made no sense. Best of all, there were supposed to be one of the more Hip-Hop orientated Nu Metal. My previous experience with them was with Only in Amerika, which was good if you ignore how it treated women like the Japanese treated their specimen in Unit 731.

Something about this record felt off, though. Sure, the opening song was great and bizarre with its melodic-yet-aggressive vocals. Everything else lacked the punch, that Nu Metal chutzpah that (hed) pe did better than anyone else. After following them further into their career, the position of this album became clearer. It also explained why Only in Amerika was such a hateful record towards women.

This was their normal record. Apparently, the label pushed them to make this. Making a more radio-friendly record means less profanity, less lyrics about partying and more straight-up rock about the general gloom of life. The fact the record still sounds at home in the Nu Metal speaks volumes about the band’s talent. The label couldn’t crush the party. Even while playing straight, the band is weirder than their peers.

The key to this is the band’s natural talent. On previous albums, it could be said the genre pushed them to great moments. Here, they’re dealing with a duller sound that only talent can lift up. Check that ominous riff in “Dangerous”, that jerky guitar line in “Bury Me” or the frantic bassline in “Flesh and Bone”. Whenever a Nu Metal band normalized their sound, they had no such moments. They kicked ordinary riffs. (hed) pe can still finds unique sounds even when making generic gloom rock.

Jahred’s vocals are, of course, an integral part of the charm. His vocals are just as versatile as last time. He raps a little less, but he still jumps freely from style to style. It sometimes even sounds like there are two vocalists in the band. On “Suck It Up”, his singing voice goes ridiculously low. I talk a lot about the balance between melody and aggression which Nu Metal bands are great at capturing. That song is another perfect example of how it works.

He does sound defanged. The title-track should be an anthem against conformity, about trying to fit in. Jahred doesn’t have the same bravado and conviction that made “Crazy Legs” so thrilling. He just sings. His voice is pretty, but is that what people call ‘inauthentic’? In the previous records, his personality dominated. Here, he’s just an extremely talented vocalist. The only time he sounds like the old times is in “Crazy Life”. That’s no coincidence, since it’s the one song that relies more on rapping and some hedonistic lyrics.

At least he has a beautiful singing voice. On the acoustic, Everlast-esque “Other Side” his voice is so pretty it doesn’t really matter that it must be insincere. If we learned anything from the Lostprophets fiasco is that music’s an act. Jahred’s act may not be the most convincing, but his natural charisma lifts up the already excellent melodies. No one else should perform “Revelations” or “Get Away”. Then again, who really cares about authenticity in Nu Metal? It’s a genre about partying and vague complains about life. Blackout may more serious than their previous album, but the title-track is still a banger.

There’s actually a good side to removing the band’s personality. In later records Jahred came off like a misogynistic rapist. How he didn’t get involved a sex scandal is a mystery to me. In fact, I’m sure he did his sure of sex crimes that just weren’t reported yet. Blackout is unique in the band’s discography. It has all the band’s main talents – the crushing riffs, odd sounds, genre-hopping, versatile vocals – without the obnoxious “Women are evil and I love sex” lyrics. It’s the one (hed) pe album I can listen to without squirming.

Despite defanging and normalizing the sound, the natural talent of this band lead to a strong set of songs. It may lack their unique personality, but then again their personality sometimes got in the way. Everything you need in a Nu Metal record – hooks, loudness, variety are here. Not every record can be as brilliant as (hed) pe’s self-titled, but each of these 13 songs should be on a playlist for a rock party.

3.5 crazy lives out of 5

Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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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

Ed Sheeran – X

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There is a brilliant message buried in X. It shouldn’t be too hard to unearth. All you have to do is listen to “Tenerife Sea” after remembering Sheeran brags about how girls ask him to fuck in “Don’t”. There are women who are certain all British men are hot guys in suits, that they’re very romantic, nice and will never break your heart. Ed Sheeran is that hot guy, only he’s aware that the image of a romantic man can be another way to have sex with as much women as possible.

Or maybe there is no message. Maybe Ed Sheeran believes his own bullshit.

Kid Rock also believes his own bullshit, but it took him some time to start. That’s also about the time he lost it. Before that, he tried really hard to convince himself he’s a brilliant musician. He did that by drawing from various American music styles – the loud guitars, the aggressive rapping, the country twang and figuring out why these tropes work. Kid Rock never sounded genuine on “Picture” but it didn’t sound like he tried. His inspiration for that ballad was not heartbreak but other ballads, but he listened to enough to make it work.

Ed Sheeran is like the British version of Kid Rock, with acoustic guitars instead of distortion and a Unthreatening Nice Guy image instead of redneck-ness. There must be a way to connect bragging tracks with acoustic ballads about love. The underrated Everlast made a career of this and Jason Mraz also had a brief time in the limelight.

Everlast and Mraz had a more focused image, though. Everlast’s ballads weren’t meant to sound like a Nice Guy. They were meant to sound like the chink in the macho man’s armor. Jason Mraz was always an average dude. Ed Sheeran, in one has a lot of sex and in the other is a hopeless romantic.

This isn’t the result of expressing a wide range of emotions. Sheeran sounds comfortable in “Sing” and “Don’t”. After all, he’s a famous singer so he must have first-hang accounts of girls asking him upstairs. The problem is that he brings this sexual confidence to his ballads.

Love songs that come from a place of sexual confidence sound either insincere, or pointless. If you’re so confident in your ability at wooing, why are aiming for catharsis? The best love songs are those where the singer sounds like he has to get it off his chest. On Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, the singer sounds like he’s exploding from happiness. On Cure’s “Lovesong”, Smith sounds like he will fall apart if the woman in question won’t marry him.

Sheeran doesn’t sound happy, sad, confused or any emotion that can lift a love song. He sounds like he’s trying to pick up girls. The songs sound no different than any song where a rapper waves his dollar bills and offers expensive drinks for sex. The difference between Sheeran and TI is that Sheeran sounds like he’s trying to have one night stands with girls who are dying for romance. TI knows his girls just want a sugar daddy.

This isn’t an image that exists outside of the record. Every artist creates an image inside the record that helps connect the songs and bring personality. Some play the same character on every album – Dave Wyndorf is a sexy nerd pretty much all the time. Some change – Marilyn Manson went from being Antichrist Superstar to an old man. If “One” and “I’m a Mess” were sincere enough, they could stand sitting next to “Sing”. “Picture” could stand next to a song about how we never meet a motherfucker quite like Kid Rock because Kid tried really, really hard to sound vulnerable.

It may be the set up of just guitar and vocals, which meant to sound intimate but isn’t. It can’t even count as a rip-off of Nick Drake, because any Nick Drake rip-off would sound a little more sincere. On “Photograph”, he rips off the lyrics of Incubus “Love Hurts” and doesn’t even bother to add anything. On “Thinking Out Loud”, he asks the woman if she will remember the taste of his love. Facebook news feeds moved on, but Sheeran is still stuck somewhere in time. I can’t even remember a time these lines meant something.

He’s a little better in the other tracks. There are good hooks in “Sing”, “Don’t” and “Runaway”. They would’ve worked much better in different hands. The toughness in “Don’t” would’ve added a lot to Jason Mraz. Everlast would’ve dealt with the alcoholism in “Runaway” much better.

Afire Love” is the track that best sums up the record, the good and the bad. Sheeran is at once convincing, but reveals how weak a songwriter he is. The subject of Alzheimer’s is pretty touching, and the melody is beautiful. The lyrics are so anticlimatic, though. The first verse is just a dull chronicle of how a person started losing his memory and that it made people feel bad, with a mentions of the devil and heaven which add nothing to the tone. Imagine how beautiful the song could be if Patterson Hood or Frank Turner – lyricists whose whole point is intimacy – handled them. Look at the song title. Such a serious subject deserves a song that’s not titled like another cheap love song.

Maroon 5 are another apt comparison, but they handled their fame better. They were into love songs for the sake of singing love songs, so even with their new sexual confidence their love songs weren’t obnoxious. Ed Sheeran never, for one moment, sound sincere. He’s full of confidence and arrogance but sings of weakness. Imagine if Snoop Dogg sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. It’s not a clever contrast. Sheeran doesn’t play with these personalities, so they end up working against each other.At best, it’s decent pop but until he does something with his image it’ll be a glass ceiling. Even the best tracks sound weaker because they’re performed by him.

2 cups of ginger ales out of 5