Halsey – Badlands

halsey

We seem to live in the comedown from Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. A few years ago, a lot of women got on TV with weird outfits and bragged about how much sex they have and how much they drink. The parties didn’t have to look fun. Mostly, it looked like a bunch of cool people trying hard to impress you. What’s important is that you’ll find them profound, strong, going against the norm. As we know, nothing is more rebellious than drinking alcohol and having sex.

Only your mom is actually against partying, and even that population of anti-partying moms is dwindling. Pretty soon a new type of female Pop rose, one that was still about lots of sex and partying but acknowledged the fact that made your Mom despise those parties. Where there are people, there are feelings and getting hurt. People sometimes get hurt before, during or after the party. Sex is fine and all, but it’s not as easy doing vocal acrobatics and calling it a song.

Halsey is a latecomer to this scene, and it shows. Lana Del Rey may have kicked it off, but singers who came later didn’t stick to the formula. For all of the ‘alt girl’ posing on Tumblr, these singers did show there was room for personal expression in Pop music. Compared to what came before, these singers gave a voice to all the kinds of experiences you go through when young.

Halsey may be considered ‘generic’ in that movement, but it’s a movement that’s defined by not sticking only to bragging about sex. In fact, her personality is actually more solid than it first seems. If she seems like a stereotype of the dyed hair, feminist teenager that’s on Tumblr posting better content than you it’s only because she throws herself fully at it.

True enough, we need it. I’m not one to complain about how there aren’t enough Black people in a certain field, or how there are too many males in a different one (As we know, all males are exactly the same). There is something different about these lyrics of youth though, something that’s far from the rage and angst of the male-dominated rock genre.

Instead of tales of hatred, rage, and heartbreak we get tales of confused and confusing sexuality, of drugs that are fun and wrecking at the same. Overall, life is a huge set of contradictions. Now that’s emotional depth for you. In contrast to bands where sex was always a bad thing, where romance lead directly to agony here it’s unclear and blurry. “Strange Love” is about a relationship so messy we don’t even bother to define it. On “Hurricane” she manages to overcome the guy all the girls can’t overcome. All that confidence is gone on “Drive”, a contemplative, atmospheric song that’s soaked in the amorphous and somewhat profound thoughts of an over-intelligent youth.

I know it’s fun to assume young people are idiots – that’s why we got such a moronic educational system. They experience things, though. The best music of youth captures this spark and more. Halsey is at once a young girl who lets herself get carried away by her sexuality, is totally in control of it, utterly confused by it and has the wisdom of a sage – sometimes in the same song. “Hurricane” isn’t the best song here, but it’s the best example of when it all collides at once.

Can these lyrics be anything less than ridiculous? Actually, they’re quite excellent. They aren’t a bunch of vague lines about sex and pain strung together, but there’s a coherent idea connecting them each. The distinct subject matter is what helps the songs stand out. True, “New Americana” is awful, but that’s because it’s the only song where Halsey pretends to be important. Name-dropping Nirvana and Biggie especially sounds stupid. Isn’t she younger than me? Did she feel comfortable listening to “One More Chance”? Statement-making was far more convincing in “Castle”, a slow-grinding song where Halsey sounds like an overconfident youth with all the good that it implies.

She’s actually at her best when she throws herself at an idea. The more contemplative songs, where she sounds too grown for her age can blur together – “Hurricane” and “Roman Holiday” are cute, but “Gasoline” contains lyrics that in any other context would stupid. “Are you deranged like me?” is as attention-wanting as it gets, but it nails the feeling of being misunderstood with others on the internet. “Colors” is the big highlight about loving a guy who’s on the road to self-destruction. The lyrics may be sappy, but being young is about being sappy. If you got the bonus tracks then “Control” is another highlight. I have no idea how it didn’t end up on the album.

People talked about how Halsey is constructed, artificial and is ‘not real’. Is Lady Gaga real? Sure, she flaunted how her imagery was fake but we were supposed to take seriously the idea she’s not real – or whatever postmodern hullabaloo went over there. Music is performance, and what matters is how the performance goes. Halsey is dead-on in what she’s trying to achieve. I met the type of girls who are into this music and heard their stories. Halsey’s lyrics match their stories, if not in precise details but in vibe. In the end music is more about capturing a certain essence of feeling or of experience, rather than the exact details. While it’s true Halsey doesn’t have too many quotables – her peers are much better than her, as a whole her lyrics are fantastic. Few songs get what loving a dangerous and self-destructive guy is like “Colors”.

Badlands is overall a fantastic Pop albm with everything you’d want – great hooks, great production and enough personality to make it memorable. That personality can annoy people, especially if you’re too busy with authenticity or getting angry over weirdos on Tumblr. It’s also possible you’re too busy looking for things to make fun of rathe than experiencing the world. Irony culture has yet to produce something as fun as “Colors”.

3.5 sexy boys out of 5

 

Linkin Park – One More Light

onemore
Anyone who was born when Hybrid Theory first came out is 17-years-old now. If they’re lucky, they have experienced heartbreak, romance, sex, drugs, fighting with parents, have a solid group of friends and are thinking of what to do with their lives. I say this so you’ll realized how long these guys exist. We still live in the fallout of their first two albums which captured the anxiety of youth so well. So now we’re listening to Mike’s half-apology to his kids and wonder what the hell happened.

It’s the same question a parent will ask themselves when they realize their baby is now as big as them and discovered sexuality. These guys are old. Moreover, they always hopped from genre to genre, each album a clear response to what was before. Minutes to Midnight was their attempt to break away from Nu Metal, experimenting with different kinds of structures and isolating the Hip-Hop elements so they’ll become their own. On A Thousand Suns they said goodbye to everything and to every audience, jumping headfirst to experimental electronica, themes of nuclear warfare, emphasizing their Hip-Hop elements and producing such a wide-eyed vision that nobody could keep up with them.

After that, things made a bit more sense – but only a little more. Just when you thought they went full artistic, they dropped Living Things, a simple punchy albums that combine all their previous elements. Yet that album wasn’t a regression, since it had “Victimized” and “Until It Breaks”, the band refusing to settle to a genre and to a single structue. After everyone got used to blippy electronics and with a new fanbase, The Hunting Party threw it all away for huge, angry Rock that still included their experimental elements – see “A Line in the Sand”.

So how is the direction they took on this album a surprise? This album is the complete opposite of The Hunting Party without going ambient, not just in sound but in vibe. Linkin Park have always been quite angry. One More Light isn’t just a move to a new sound – you heard some of these ideas back in “Breaking The Habit” but to a whole new emotional dimension. 3 years ago they were angry adults, now they’re content adults.

It’s amazing people still react to this band with the surprise. As an attempt to go commercial, this is the complete opposite of their essence. When it does sound like ‘what’s on the radio’, it’s a drastic improvement. For the first time Linkin Park are allowed to be happy. The main shock behind “Battle Symphony” was how joyous it was, how it was so full of hope it didn’t have to to be bombastic but ride a glitchy, funny riff. Chester sounds content, not stretching his vocals but keeping the fun, careless spirit. This, along with “Nobody Can Save Me” are songs for an easy summer and we all could use such a summer.

Even when the songs are more serious, there’s a grown-up attitude of contentment, of looking back at your past and coming to terms with it. So you get “Halfway Right”, where Chester pours out his troubled with past with the happiness that it’s all behind him. Or there’s “Sharp Edges”, a move to Country which would’ve been cliched – and is – but check the ending. It’s been so long since the “What doesn’t kill you…” line sounded good, but the song explodes with life-affirming energy.

There’s a problem in music where artists ‘grow up’ and lose vitality. Many artists don’t know how to grow up, and what passes for lack of restraint is actually losing the energy and desire to make music. Linkin Park doesn’t fall into that. They enjoy keeping the songs low-key. It’s the kind of happiness where you don’t have to prove anything, and that’s why the ending to “Sharp Edges” or the ‘na na na’ thing in “Halfway Right” works. The band isn’t a spent force and their adulthood didn’t drain them of energy. Instead, they found joy. Nothing in “Sharp Edges” is particularly new if you listened to Mumford & Sons, but with such a joyous ending there’s no need to get lost in the dictionary in search of profound words.

The most important tracks are the title-track and “Sorry For Now”. They’re so good that they deserve their own paragraphs. Why “Sorry For Now” wasn’t released as a lead single is mystifying. No song grabs the listener and is full of surprises like that one. First off, we hear Mike directly addressing his kids and nothing shows us how old these guys are like this. Then there’s the chorus, which is beautiful and odd in its dismissal of angry children – a ‘someday you’ll understand’ that’s almost flippant but not too much. Right before the final chorus Chester comes to sing-rap, and it makes a happy song already more happier. At this point, they believe they can do anything – so they combine personal lyrics, a bass drop, a happy melody along with switching roles. By far it’s one of the most joyous song I heard, a band sounding so happy where they are so they just go with whatever.

Then there’s the title-track, which is harrowing. Linkin Park made few ballads, but this is the best of them. It’s not just about losing someone. The driving line – “Who cares if one more light goes out/in a sky of a million stars?” expresses how small we are in the face of death. It’s a song that should change the world. We hear about people dying everyday, and we can’t care about it all but goddamn it matters. It’s a hushed, warm ballad that, again, never explodes to vocal acrobatics. Brad’s guitar in the background is just as fragile as any of us. This is a song we all need to take in, to affirm our importance and our fragility at the same. No surprise they decided the song was so important they should title the album after it.

Releasing “Heavy” as the first single was such a stupid move. It remains the worst song here, although it’s only bad for the first minute where Chester sounds too whiny. As soon as Kiiara joins it becomes a decent ballad, updating the existential angst to adulthood. The album sounds nothing like that song. Actually, this album doesn’t sound like anything. Glitch is a big element, but just when you think you captured the sound of the album something slips. “Good Goodbye” is an aggressive Trap song. “Sorry For Now” is too big. The last two tracks drop the electronica for acoustic guitars. Comparisons to Twenty One Pilots are a good idea, but that’s because Twenty One Pilots are another band who refuses to stay in one place. So everyone calls them ‘unoriginal’.

Some have said this is a good Pop album but a bad Linkin Park album. Actually, when you look at it in the context of the band’s discography it becomes better. It’s another adventure, another evidence of how creative this band is. It’s not just the exploration of sound – there’s plenty of beautiful melodies and song progression. Add “Sorry For Now” and “One More Light” which are masterpieces, and this is another success. Of course, people who grew up on guitars will hate this. That’s less fun for you.

4 battle symphonies out of 5

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

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

Panic! At the Disco – Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die

tooweird
Did Panic even want to make this album?

Every Panic album makes some kind of statement. Even Vices & Virtues had a clear aim, which was to deliver a straightforward Hard Rock record. When Panic have a target to aim for, they’re unstoppable. “Vegas Lights” is your ordinary dance song about partying until you drop. It’s not original and Urie adds nothing of his own, but it still bangs and the chorus is great.

Everything else is confusing. What’s the purpose of this record? Is it mean to be some record inspired by Vegas? Then Vegas isn’t such a fun place. “Girl That You Love” is very serious and it’s a huge downfall from the fantastic “Vegas Lights” which comes before. “This is Gospel” is okay, but a weird opener. All the whoa-whoa in the chorus and it still feels too serious, like partying is for shallow stupid people. Urie comes off like he’s hoping to pick up girls in a dance party by looking serious.

If this is supposed to be cliched 80’s, it’s the bad stuff. It’s not the weird party music that Oingo Boing or early Underworld made. Rather, it’s Rock music with a little noise, a little dance backing and vague sexuality. It’s so toothless you wonder whether the cool kids will prefer this over the weirdos who tried to combine Industrial with Synthpop.

In fact, Urie doesn’t commit to the concept. “Casual Affair” is a Space Rock rock, and a decent one. The weird wobbles leap out, sounding like they’re inspired by Brostep without actually attempting it. The ballad “Far Too Young to Die” have no room in here. While it’s nice to see Urie trying to bend genres, he doesn’t throw himself into these ideas like he should. The boring melodies overpower the sound, instead of the sound inspiring the melodies.

Then again, perhaps it’s good that he doesn’t try too much to make party music. Aside from “Vegas Lights”, “Nicotine” and “Girls/Girls/Boys” are very uninspired. The former is a joke. Urie stretches his voice in some way to convince me or you that the party is on with serious lyrics. The horns in the chorus aren’t new, but they were better a few years later in “Crazy=Genius”. The latter is another joke, a rewrite of “Somebody Told Me” about gender confusion that’s not sexy or stupid. A rock band just wrote a song about sex that doesn’t even have macho bullshit.

What went wrong here? Panic’s strength is how traditionally ROCKSTAR! Urie is. He always sounded full of bravado, sneering at everyone while having a party. Making party rock should be the ideal for him. It should allow him to brag and boast about how cool he is.

Here, he sounds and unsure and desperate to appeal to people. So he puts a semi-dance beat behind a weak chorus with lyrics that aren’t too serious and not too light. I’m sure some people are impressed by generic sentiments like ‘show me your love’ over muted guitars and drums, but all I hear is a band who doesn’t want to make this kind of music. “Vegas Lights” and “Miss Jackson” sounds so bizarre in context. Urie actually sounds like he wanted to make those songs. They have a specific sound and as generic as “Vegas Lights” is, at least Urie sounds passionate about a simple dance song.

Panic moved on from this and made the excellent Death of a Bachelor. That one shares similarities with this one, only it’s good. Whether it’s soft or tough, Urie throws himself into his ideas fully. This album sounds like a band at its beginning that’s afraid of drawing criticism. If you’re afraid of drawing criticism, you’re not worth anyone’s attention.

2 girls out of 5 boys