In the Lonely Hour – Sam Smith

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Most every romantic comedy has this in common: a minute-long segment, deep into the storyline, when everything is falling apart between the protagonist and his/her primary love interest. Both are sad and lonely but don’t if know if that sadness is reciprocated. So they flounder for a bit while they figure out their emotions.

You know the section I’m talking about – the movie cuts back and forth from one side of the broken relationship to another checking in on how each individual’s life is progressing without their other half.

It goes like this: First, she’s reading a book at a coffee shop but can’t concentrate. Cut to him distractedly working in his office glancing periodically out the window at…something. Cut to her walking a dog in the park. Cut to him shooting hoops at the gym. Then cut to her teaching preschoolers or something. Cut to him sitting in his apartment typing her 555 number into his phone, but he can’t bring himself to hit the “Call” button. He’s probably listening to Boyz II Men too. Meanwhile, she’s staring at her old corded phone on her bedside table wondering if it’s going to ring or not. And it doesn’t. Because he won’t call. It hurts too much.

And that is what we have here. That is this Sam Smith album in a nutshell. This album is angsty and melancholy and emotional and whiney…

…and it never resolves anything.

From start to finish of In the Lonely Hour – from “Money on my Mind” to “Lay Me Down” – Smith pours out his soul. It’s vulnerable. It’s gut-wrenching. It takes some serious guts to bare your soul so publicly, and admire Smith’s openness and honesty on this album. Bravo on stepping out with authenticity and boldness. Unfortunately, this album just doesn’t go anywhere. It starts bleak and ends in bleak. It’s flat. One dimensional.

As many of you know, I spend my weekends sitting in seminary classes discussing God, Church, Scripture, etc. I’m currently in a class on Worship – what is it? how do we do and why? – and part of what we have been learning is how a worship gathering is constructed. What is the goal of each element in the order of events and how does it move/lead the worshiper from normal life and into something that transcends the normal? Do the elements of worship – songs, prayers, sacraments, sermons, etc. – take the congregation somewhere religious/spiritual?

I often look for a similar movement in music: does an album move or lead the listener into something that transcends their norm? Do the songs progress and take the listener on a journey somewhere?

Good albums do this well. Past “Album of the Year” winners have done this well. Last year’s Random Access Memories by Daft Punk does this. Adele’s 21 – the 2012 winner – does this. Arcade Fire did this in 2011. Taylor Swift did this in 2010. OutKast did this with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. Norah Jones did this in 2003.

D’Angelo’s Black Messiah does this, which is one of the bazillion reasons it will win everything in 2015.

Fellow AOTY nominees Beck and Beyoncé and Pharrell do this.

But In the Lonely Hour does not do this. It’s deep and emotional, sure. But that’s kind of it. It never goes anywhere. It’s one long plateau of emotion and it gets old really quick. Drop the needle at any moment on this record and you’re going to hear basically the same thing.

That said, Sam Smith has quite the pipes. His range is incredible. He’s got the range of Whitney Houston and the emotion of Norah Jones. The only gripe I have on his voice is that it sounds like he has a perpetual glottal bubble. I just want him to clear his throat or swallow.

It’s hard to find tracks that are favorites among an album that doesn’t really go anywhere. Most have the same feel to them. I guess I’ll just highlight the ones that are most popular and move along.

These are the top tracks from In the Lonely Hour

Stay with Me Sam would rather hold hands than have a one night stand, but mostly because he’s the most emotional being on the planet. This is a real heartbreaker…and so are all the others.

Lay Me Down The last song on the album. It’s basically the same song as “Stay with Me” lyrically. More heartbreak. More desire to lay next to someone. Work through your emotions, please. ZzzzZZzzz.

Money on my Mind – This is the first track on the album and probably the high point for me. It’s fun and snappy. Meh sings about doing music for the love of it…he’s not in it for the money. I could say the same thing about youth ministry.

I’m Not the Only One Wah-wahhhh. Sam knows he’s not the only one his lover (who is a dude, by the way) is with. But rather than tell it to his face, he’d rather just let it eat him up inside and sing a song about it.

***

So where does In the Lonely Hour rank among the other four albums up for the top Grammy? Probably in lower half. Beyoncé and Beck are the top options. Pharrell’s album is very strong but people won’t look past the success and annoyance of “Happy.” Ed Sheeran is fun and poppy, but gets old quick – plus I’m not into the slow stuff at all. It’s all subjective at some point, but Sam Smith probably slides in between Pharrell and Ed. I’d put him last.

Don’t get me wrong – Sam Smith is talented, has a wild voice and puts out good music, which is why it’s up for Album of the Year. Just not my jam.

Looking forward to the Grammy’s on Sunday night. Hope these posts come in handy for at least one person when the big night gets here.

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

Shuffle Lessons, Volume 3.

It’s been a long time since I posted a Shuffle Lessons. My last SL post came on August 18, 2012 – back when I still wrote in lowercase letters and the Royals hadn’t made the playoffs in my lifetime. A few nights ago I got into a conversation about various artists from my teenage and college years – Green Day, Simple Plan, The Rocket Summer, Linkin Park to name a few – and I got a hankering to do a quick shuffle through my iTunes.

Plus I have a LOT of other writing to get done today, and things like this always provide a nice way to break through the writer’s block and get the blood flowing in the fingers a bit.

A refresher on how this works: I open iTunes, select my “Top 2000 Most Played” playlist, click “shuffle songs” and write a paragraph on the first five songs that come up. It’s very random, but with a few caveats. If another song off the same album comes up, I’m skipping it and going on to the next one. If the song provides nothing substantial out of context, I’m skipping it. Example: the track “The Library (Intro)” opens the new Childish Gambino album – It’s a 5 seconds long snippet of some spinning machinery…I’m not writing a paragraph about that despite it having 11 plays and breaking in near the bottom of my Top 2000 Most Plays playlist.

If you want to listen to the songs, the titles are all linked to each of them.

Okay. That’s all the caveats. I’m giving myself 20 minutes here so lets get started, shall we? Lettuce.

Say You Will – Kanye West

In the wake of his sample heavy and insanely popular third album, Graduation, Kanye’s mom passed away from a botched surgery and his long-time fiancé broke off their engagement. This was around 2008. We all wanted another installment of the academic-themed College Dropout/Late Registration/Graduation albums, but instead we got 808s and Heartbreaks – a stripped down emotional auto-tuned album that was mostly disappointing. I guess I should’ve expected Kanye to trek into new territory after he “graduated” from his first three works, but this was too different and not remotely revolutionary. Although, looking back on this album after Dark Fantasy and Yeezus makes me realize that 808s was simply a stepping stone toward what the sound would eventually become.

“Say You Will” is the opening track to the album. Subtle piano and choir-esque “ahhs” accompanies the “beep…boop” and drum cadence that loops throughout the track. The song is fine – a perfect example of what is to come on the album.

Related: I prefer this Dido/Kanye mashup of the song…

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? – Amy Winehouse

Continuing the “preceding album is one of my all-time favorites but this album was forced in another direction” theme with this one – Back to Black was one of my all-time favorites and a death caused the followup to drastically move in another direction. It was the death of Kanye’s mother that changed his direction, but the death between these albums was Amy’s own. I was on vacation in Europe in the summer of 2009 when I found out Amy Winehouse had died from drug use in Camdentown. I had been in Camdentown just two days earlier exploring the shops and pubs of the London neighborhood. It was shocking and breaks my heart still.

Thus, this track comes on her posthumous work, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. She had been recording and working on another album at the time of her death, but it’s obvious she didn’t have much work done on it because this album feels far from complete. The album is mostly covers and remixes of her old stuff with a couple new tracks. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” is a cover of a track by the same name by The Shirelles from 1961. Here’s that song…

It’s a good cover – true to the original, so nothing really earth-shatteringly special. But it’s still beautiful. “WYSLMT?” has horns and backup Dreamgirls-esque vocals. I just love Amy’s voice. I can picture her in a smokey lounge sitting on a stool with a spotlight on her while she melts the hearts of everyone present. If only. RIP Amy.

Necromancer – Gnarls Barkley

Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo made a wonderful team their three years of making music – way too short. They put out two albums. I love them both.

In the past, I’ve asked myself this question: which Gnarls Barkley album do I like more, St. Elsewhere (2006) or The Odd Couple (2008)? St. Elsewhere has some of my favorite Gnarls tracks – “Crazy” and “Smiley Face” and “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” and “The Last Time” – but The Odd Couple is a better album from start to finish. It lacks the real stinkers that St. Elsewhere has. About 75% of the time I think I like The Odd Couple more. But then “Crazy” comes on and I get thrown back to the summer of 2006 and it’s St. Elsewhere instead.

“Necromancer” is one of those stinkers. Tracks 7-12 make up the desert portion of the album, and it’s track 12. Honestly, the only time I listen to this track is when I fail 6 consecutive times to skip these tracks and go straight to track 13, “Storm Coming.” The song features distorted static vocals with a ominous dark feel to them. There’s no chorus. Just a few verses with synth solos between verses. Danger Mouse really kills it with these solos, but they’re lost between Cee-Lo’s weird verses. Moving on.

Daria – Cake

“Man, why don’t I listen to more Cake?!” – me, this past Saturday morning when I woke up and listened to two and a half of their albums – Fashion Nugget (which this song comes from), Prolonging the Magic and some Pressure Chief since I didn’t have class.

John McCrae is the vocalist for Cake. I only know his name because Ben Folds announces him following McCrae’s backup vocals on the live album version of “Fred Jones, Part II.” As you probably know, his style is unlike anything else around. Is he singing, or is he just talking? Hard to say, but I really enjoy it.

I always assumed that “Daria” was about the MTV show by the same name – Daria was a spinoff of Beavis and Butthead, which I was never allowed to watch as a kid but nevertheless quoted at the lunch table with the kids who did. But upon further research I discovered that Daria first aired in 1997 and Fashion Nugget came out in 1996. Maybe they were singing about her before she had her own show. The show featured the Cake song a couple times though, so maybe MTV and Cake were in talks about it? I sure don’t know. Anyone out there have the answer to this conundrum?

This isn’t my favorite song on the album, but only because Fashion Nugget is so strong. It’s good fun just like the rest of Cake’s stuff though. Big fan of Cake.

Pusher Love Girl – Justin Timberlake

Rounding out this Shuffle Lesson is the ultimate Vacation Track – the strings that open “Pusher Love Girl” and the entire 20/20 Experience immediately transport me to a boat in the middle of the Miami intercostal waterway. I just can’t help it. The memories this song triggers are just way too strong.

Justin is singing about Mary Camden (aka Jessica Biel, his wife) being his drug that takes makes him “so high [he’s] on the ceiling, babe” and “all [he] want[s] is [her].” The strings guide this song along with Justin’s falsetto, backup horns and a snappy cadence that immediately forces a strange and uncontrolled response of weightless arms. It’s light and airy and somehow the arms just start floating away from the sides of my body. Is it a dance? Hard to say. Again, I can’t help it. This song just gets into my bloodstream like Jessica gets into Justin’s.

I will say – this song is three minutes too long. Justin loves his extended tracks these days and this song just goes on and on about being a “junkie” for her love. I can do without part two of this track.

But now I’m turning off this vacation track so I can be productive. This was fun. On to writing some papers and some book.

-apc.

Beyoncé – Beyoncé

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Look. This is Beyoncé’s world and we ought to just be thankful we get to breathe the same air she does. Beyoncé – the album and the artist – is going to win Album of the Year, and it’s not really close.

First thing I need to bring up about this album is it’s release. Sometime in the middle of the night on December 13, 2013, it just appeared on iTunes. There was no build up. No pre-release single. No rumors or leaks. One moment it wasn’t there, and then the next moment it was. After 3 days, 800 thousand people had downloaded the album. In 10 days: 1.3 million downloads.

Apparently writing and recording had begun as far back as 2012. It’s a visual album, with 14 songs and 17 videos, and the collaborator list extends to something like 50+ individuals – from big names like Pharrell, Drake, Sia and Justin Timberlake to relatively unknown names like Boots, who produced the bulk of the tracks. And obviously her husband, Jay-Z.

How is it even possible for 50 different people to stay completely silent on the project for well over a year?! How does no one say anything for that long?! What kind of power must an individual possess in order to keep a group that large so silent for so long?

Somehow, Beyonce has risen to that level of power. This is NOT the girl from Destiny’s Child. This is not even Sasha Fierce. This is NOT the leotard wearing, hand waving diva from Single Ladies. She and her husband have managed to transcend all others on this planet. I have no hesitation in dubbing them the most powerful couple in the world.

I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking, then, to imagine that Queen Bey is capable of such a release. It really sparks the conspiracy theorist in me – what sort of power are we dealing with when it comes to Beyonce? Does she know whether the Apollo 11 mission actually landed on the moon? Does she know the truth behind the Denver Airport construction conspiracy? I mean, in the same year that her husband released an album with “Holy Grail” in the title, Beyonce manages to sneak a complete visual album on to the internet without anyone noticing or anyone saying a word? This is some serious Illuminati ish, if you ask me.

I mean? Who is she even competing with for Queen at this point? Taylor Swift? Lady Gaga? Next to Bey, these two seem off-brand. At one point on the album, Bey tells us all to “bow down, bitches,” and we basically respond, “yeah, sure…I mean, yes, ma’am.”

But here’s the other thing about the surprise release: it only worked because this album was so daggum good.

“But Adam, it’s dirty! Have you listened to the lyrics? It’s like super sexual and dark and graphic in places.”

Isn’t it though?! Yep, this isn’t the Beyonce we’re all familiar with. This Beyonce is deeper and darker and harsher than ever before. This isn’t Bootylicious or Jumpin’ Jumpin’. This isn’t Irreplaceable or even Crazy in Love. This album is hot and heavy and borderline voyeuristic in spots. This album gives us a peak inside Beyoncé’s marriage that we probably shouldn’t be allowed to see.

Beyonce is trying to say something about marriage. In a culture where the sanctity of marriage is rare, the divorce rate is skyrocketing and promiscuity is borderline applauded, suddenly there’s Beyonce and Jay-Z. She’s telling us that marriage can be ultra sexy and desirable. Sex isn’t only attractive when it’s promiscuous – marriage can be steamy too. This isn’t a message we receive often in our culture.

It’s actually refreshing to listen to an album and know exactly who the artist is singing about. When she sings about how she’s “Drunk in Love” and the last thing she remembers is “our beautiful bodies grinding up in that club” – you know exactly who she’s dancing with. Jay-Z is the focus of every love interest-focused lyric. It’s an interesting twist we don’t see often in music these days. This is like John Lennon and Yoko Ono only instead of breaking up the Beatles they basically rule the entire planet.

But its not just about Bey and Jay – it’s also about motherhood. The last track on the album is called “Blue” after her daughter and future destroyer of worlds, Blue Ivy Carter. Blue undoubtedly has achieved genetic superiority over the rest of mankind. (It’s also been rumored that Beyonce is pregnant with #2. Or, should I say, they’ve hired another surrogate for round two.) Blue even gets her first vocal spot at the end of the album: “Hold on to me! Hold on!” Beyonce is positioning herself as a wife and mother – and one with all sorts of power.

This whole album exudes power. There’s even a track titled “Superpower” with Frank Ocean (naturally, my favorite track on the album since I’m a sucker for anything Frank does). It’s a feminist album. Women are powerful, and Beyonce the most powerful of them all.

Flawless” incorporates a spoken feminist speech from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that questions how we have taught women to view themselves – as lesser, smaller, less powerful and less free to be sexual and ambitious as men. There’s no mistaking the agenda here. Beyonce ought to be applauded for her willingness to unabashedly fight for how her gender is represented. The album reframes multiple aspects of womanhood – marriage and kids, sure, but power and influence and sexuality too.

The album took a risk and moved Beyonce away from being a poppy, Top 40 artist and toward the heart of the hip-hop/rap genre.

The tracks are occasionally disjointed – longer tracks, seemingly two song in one at times – and there are a half dozen jarring moments into audio clips of musical competitions from Beyoncé’s childhood or paparazzi crowds. The tracks are structured in completely different ways. It’s tough to find a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure on this album. “Haunted” – for example – incorporates multiple movements: an intro audio clip, an opening verse and a spoken section all lead up to the actual track which doesn’t really begin until 3 minutes into the song. It’s a journey from movement to movement rather than a typical pop album from track to track. The exceptions are “XO” and “Drunk in Love” – the first two singles for the album – which are probably the most well known tracks but the ones I’m the least jazzed about.

Let’s take a quick track-by-track look at the album and wrap this thing up…

Pretty Hurts – Written by Sia. It’s a song about beauty and self worth. Not my favorite. Also, I can’t stand that the open to the whole album is some guy asking Beyonce (aka Miss Third Ward) what her aspiration in life is at some beauty pagent. Meh.

Haunted Already mentioned the structure of this song, but it’s one of my favorites. Eerie and ominous.

Drunk in Love – Surfbort.

Blow – An upbeat Pharrell and JT track. It’s basically the same lyrical content as Justin Timberlake’s “Strawberry Bubblegum” and just as awkward in spots.

No Angel – Least favorite song on the album. I usually skip it. It’s the only one I can say that about. Lots of breathy vocals from Bey. Just not a fan.

Partition – The most explicit track on the album, hands down. Things get hot in the back of a limo and “we ain’t even gonna make it to this club.” The intro percussion was conceived by JT.

Jealous – Interesting conflict in the marriage conversation. The wife is home cooking dinner for her man in the buff…”so where the hell you at!?” But seriously, Beyonce gets jealous? Doubtful.

Rocket – Oooooo a slow jam?!? Smooth and sultry. Beyonce has even said it reminds her of D’Angelo’s “Untitled.”

Mine – This song features Drake. I’m not a big Drake fan, but this song is beautiful. “I just wanna say, you’re mine all mine” the chorus croons.

XO – The single. If this was all you heard off this album, you might think this is the same ole Beyonce.

Flawless – The feminist track. Coined the phrase “I woke up like this.”

Superpower – In a world starved for more Frank Ocean, this track feels like a Godsend. Amazing how similar their voices are – nailing the insanely low end of the register but able to go high too. I’m praying for a new Frank Ocean album in 2015.

Heaven – A song about death?! Woah. Sad and dark, but freeing at the same time.

Blue – A song for and about her daughter, Blue. But don’t be fooled by the sappy subject matter – this song is legit.

There you go. The album that I believe is a no brainer for Album of the Year. And deservedly so. When someone inevitably makes some comment about how the Grammys just give awards to the biggest names, I’ll be here to remind you that the biggest names are huge for a reason.

This album is insane, and deserves any award it receives.

My Top Tracks: Superpower, Haunted, Flawless, Mine

-apc.

The other albums up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

Morning Phase – Beck

81coqLBpCWL._SL1400_Beck is up for Album of the Year at the Grammys? File that one under, “didn’t even know he made an album in 2014.”

My scope for Beck is admittedly narrow. I know his biggest hits – namely “Loser” and “Where It’s At” – as well as anyone, but the rest of his catalogue is basically foreign. I know two of his albums, really: I got into Guero (the songs “E-Pro” and “Girl” specifically) back in college for a few months, and his fifth studio album, Odelay, is more of a word I’ve heard before than an album I’ve listened to at all. Overall, I’d say I’m clued into about 4% of the music Beck has put out. Why so low? Mostly because his discography includes TWELVE STUDIO ALBUMS. He’s putting out music like he’s U2, only instead of forcing it upon anybody with an iTunes account, he never told anyone.

It’s pretty amazing a guy who was worried about becoming a one-hit-wonder back in the early 90’s has suddenly had three different albums nominated at the Grammys for Album of the Year (Odelay, 1997; Midnite Vultures, 2001; Morning Phase, 2015). Beck keeps making music and it keeps getting critically high praise.

Beck’s real name is Bek Hansen. He was born Bek Campbell but his parents divorced and he took his mom’s name. He dropped out of school after 8th grade. At 19 he moved to New York with a guitar and eight dollars. He was basically homeless on both coasts for many years, living on friends couches that he met in NYC. His transient upbringing led to a variety of influences. Sometimes he would play gigs at bars or coffee shops and people wouldn’t really be paying attention so he’d start making up ridiculous lyrics to see if anyone would notice.

Beck wrote “Loser” as a goofy side project that he didn’t really think much of. When he moved back to LA it got released as a single and blew up on the radio. Still essentially homeless, he thought it was a mediocre song, but suddenly record companies were in a crazy bidding war over him. He signed with Greffen Records which basically just told him to do whatever he wanted – probably why he picked them over others.

I can’t figure out who Beck really is. I get the vibe he’s an anxious songwriter who fears getting labeled as…anything really, but especially a one-hit-wonder. It seems like any time Beck begins to get pigeon-holed as some sort of genre or “type” of artist, he pushes back and becomes anti-that. His time in New York found him heavily involved in the anti-folk movement, and he seems to have adopted the “anti-” mindset all the time.

Name a music genre and I bet he’s associated with it. Most of the awards he has won or been nominated for are in the “alternative” or “rock” categories – which basically means nothing anymore – but he sites hip-hop as a major influence as well as Latin music. Both are likely due to the neighborhoods where he grew up in poorer areas of LA. He’s electronica. He’s folk. He’s anti-folk. He’s funk, and soul, and blues. He studied R. Kelly (insert Trapped in the Closet reference here) and his R&B style. Pitchfork said his album Midnight Vultures “wonderfully blends Prince, Talking Heads, Paul’s Boutique [by the Beastie Boys], ‘Shake your Bon-Bon’ [by Ricky Martin], and Mathlete.”

Beck seems to have much higher standards for himself than the rest of the public does for him. He thought Loser was average, but the public loved it. He writes dozens of songs and then scraps them all and only uses 1 for the final record. There’s a story of Beck writing something like 40 songs, recording them on to cassettes and then leaving a briefcase full of said cassettes backstage at a show and losing them forever. Seemingly every record is a hodgepodge of old songs he’s recorded that he throws together when he feels it’s time to release more content. It’s like he’s Apple or something – he has everything everyone wants already locked and loaded, it’s just a matter of the rest of the world reaching the point where they’re asking for it.

All that to say, Beck’s all over the place. His transformation album to album is insane. Even back to back releases are can be night and day. His last album, Modern Guilt was produced by Danger Mouse (!!!) and sounds like it was produced by Danger Mouse. It’s funky and electronic. It’ll make you bump and groove.

That was 2008 and it’s been 6 years. So I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Morning Phase for a listen and a review. Only 29 more days til Grammy night. Gotta toughen up.

But wait – this isn’t the quirky, all-over-the-place Beck I was expecting. This is mellow. Chill. Subdued. This album is more like Iron and Wine or Sigur Ros or Guster than it is any of those bands Pitchfork mentioned back in 1999. Morning Phase is deep strings and sustained piano chords. It doesn’t jump around like Beck’s early records do, this one is cohesive throughout. It’s easy listening – an acoustic record you might put on after you wake up while you work on a sudoku or read the sports page and sip on coffee – especially if the temperature is in the single digits. It feels like a sunrise over a chilly pasture. I bet the directors of Pride and Prejudice wish they could go back in time and use this album for that juicy emotional scene when Darcy tells Elizabeth that his affections have not changed. (“You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I luh…I luff…“)

Apparently the foundational tracks for Morning Phase were written in 2005 – that’s nearly a decade ago, by the way – but Beck tabled them until 2012 when he began to expand on “Blackbird Chain” and “Country Down” (featuring a harmonica solo) and “Waking Light” which hold down the back half of the album, the latter coming at the end. Interesting that the songs that drive the whole album would end up on the B-Side. Here’s “Waking Light” the song that concludes the record…

Beck kinda looks like Michael Cera.

It’s hard to pick out other favorite tracks off an album that is so solid from start to finish (I’m having the same problem with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah too – love em all). I suppose “Blue Moon” is the single for a reason, so I should probably share it next.

It’s a sad and melancholy album, but there’s no denying that this album is beautiful and deserves to be nominated for a Grammy. If history has anything to say about it, Beck will probably lose out to a more mainstream album (read: Beyonce), but should take home other categorial honors instead. Morning Phase is up for Best Rock Album, Song and Performance (for “Blue Moon”) against the likes of Ryan Adams, Jack White, The Black Keys and Utoo.

If I were voting, I’d pick it for Best Rock Album of the year and give Song/Performance to Ryan Adams/Jack White for “Gimme Something Good” and “Lazaretto.” This album ought to be critiqued as a unit and not as an individual song. Blue Moon is nice, but the entire 47 minute album is where its at (see what i did there?).

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

x – Ed Sheeran

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I’m not a musician.

I took piano lessons for something like eight or ten years when I was a kid. I started when I was 7 and quit sometime in high school. I never learned how to read sheet music without counting “Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine,” so at a certain point (high school) the music got too difficult to play by ear. I don’t have many regrets in life, but dropping the piano instead of finding a jazz piano teacher who can teach playing by ear could be considered a regret. Maybe there’s still time. Life after seminary.

Today, I can play most piano chords – C, F#, D7, Asus2, G, Emaj7, etc. – throw it at me and I can look at the keys and play it. I understand chord progressions. I can sit down at a piano and play through most any song as long as I’m given the chord progression. I can even figure out the melody if I’ve listened to a song enough times. But I’m not a musician, and I don’t review albums as if I am.

I do, however, know how to groove.

I like percussion, cadence, chord progressions, samples and lyrical flow among other things. Strings are gorgeous. Gimme a dirty bassline (see: “Don’t” on this album) and I can’t get enough. The tone of an artist’s voice is more important to me than what they’re singing about. I don’t care much for actual lyrical content – songwriting is impressive and creative, absolutely, but for some reason my ear doesn’t hear the words themselves. I don’t know the words to some of my all time favorite songs.

When I listen to music, my mind is not tuned into the meaning or language in songs. I’m in it to experience the groove. I feel music more than I listen to it.

Friends who know me well will respond: “Whatever. You know all the words to all the songs we listened to on that road trip we went on that one time.” True. And some artists are easy for me to actually hear and internalize lyrical content – hip hop, boy bands, pretty much anything I digested between 1998 and 2004 – these are exceptions. When I take in an album for the first time (Ed Sheeran’s x, for example) I don’t hear the words themselves as much as I hear their sound and flow (both areas where Ed excels greatly).

I say all this to make sure we’re all on the same page for where these album reviews come from: I am a consumer. My angle is not remotely “expert” on anything besides my own personal experience of music.

If you’re purely a consumer like me, then these reviews are for you.

Disclaimer over. On to the review.

***

It’s pronounced “multiply,” which is an extremely annoying album title, but follows up nicely to Ed Sheeran’s debut album + (pronounced “plus”) which is equally goofy.

But that’s pretty much where my negativity ends with this album. Ed Sheeran is fantastic. x is predominantly acoustic guitar centered with strong percussion/piano parts, but what truly drives the sound Ed Sheeran’s work is his vocal cadence. He’s quick and clever with his flow. His crooning quickly gets into my shoulders and neck area and gets me bobbing around.

The only song I really knew off this album prior to my first listen this week was “Sing,” and I was already a big fan. It came across Justin Timbelake-ish. It’s the high range vocals that do it – every time he goes up, he sounds like JT. Turns out, that track is produced by Pharrell Williams and while I was doing some research I literally read, “Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified, was a favourite of Sheeran’s, which he consciously tried to channel for ‘Sing,'” on Wikipedia. Well, boom. Talk about stroking my listening ego.

Take a listen here…(warning: video contains puppets)…

Caveat here: Sheeran wanted to keep “Sing” off the album and work more exclusively with Pharrell and put it on a future album. It’s the only Pharrell track on the album, so it’s naturally one of my favorites. But let’s be honest: if Ed puts out a full album with Skateboard P he’ll win multiple Grammys. You heard it here first. We’ll revisit it in a couple or three years. #Grammys2017?

Also, I’m not sure everyone realizes just how impressive Pharrell Williams is. I mentioned this in my review of G I R L earlier this year, but everything the dude touches turns to gold. But this isn’t a Pharrell post, so moving on.

This album keeps me bringing me back to Adele. Not necessarily in the sound, but in the content. This whole album is about Sheeran’s heart being broken and drinking/drugging his sorrows away. He’s not happy with this chick, and it’s entirely to our benefit. I’ve often thought if Adele falls in love and gets married we’re going to lose out on a lot of quality music. I might feel the same way here. Nobody wants to hear cute love songs (okay some people do, but I don’t) – we want tales of heartbreak and anger and frustration. WE want songs that get under our skin and make us feel something strong. That’s how Ed is like Adele – okay, they’re both British too.

Sheeran clearly has a bent toward self-medication. The entire focus of “Bloodstream” is feeling the chemicals kicking in as he tries to recover from broken heart. Those are his words, not mine. He mentions drinking away his sadness in multiple songs – which ALWAYS reminds me of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Elton and Jamie Foxx get the most mentions on how Ed Sheeran hit it big. Now I’m picturing the three of them hanging out at the booth from Horrible Bosses drinking cider – Elton and Ed on one side of the booth and Motherf*cker Jones drinking from a straw on the other. I digress.

While the core of the album is groovy and fast-paced, “One” is an odd choice for an opener upon first take. It’s directed toward the same love interest from +, which feels opposite from the rest of the album. However, it makes sense when partnered with track 2, “I’m a Mess.” By opening the album with love, it actually manages to pull the listener into the heartbreak deeper. Ed’s like, “here’s this love that I had, and now I’m going tell you how I jacked everything up and now I’m broken hearted.” And I’m like, “thanks, but no thanks, Ed. I wish I’d never met this girl so I wouldn’t have to feel your heartbreak as much.” It’s better for it though. “One” is a cute lead track that I’m sure the sentimental ladies really swoon over.

Apparently “One” was the first track recorded too, which makes me believe the track layout is less about the ebb and flow of the album as much as mirroring the story of Ed Sheeran’s own life. I wonder…is the track list simply in order of when he wrote them? Hmmm.

I should also mention this nugget: Ed Sheeran can rap. “The Man” and “Take It Back” are both straight rap. Don’t let his lyrics convince you otherwise: “I’m not a rapper/I’m a singer with a flow,” he says in the latter track. Malarky, I say. This is acoustic rap and it’s so good. It is a bit strange to hear someone with an English accent rapping – just different. The sound has a subtle enough difference that it sounds like something fresh and new.

There’s a balance between up-tempo grooves and stripped down acoustic ballads here. I’m a huge fan of the former and kinda meh about the latter – shocker, I know. Overall, it’s a very strong album. Henceforth, I’ll proudly claim to be an Ed Sheeran fan.

Top Tracks (no particular order):
– Sing
– Take it Back
– The Man
– Don’t
– Bloodstream

x is up for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2015 Grammys. His competition for AOTY: Beyonce, Sam Smith, Pharrell and Beck. His competition for BPVA: Coldplay, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Sam Smith.

As of this post, I think he’s the front runner for BPVA, but will lose out to Queen Bey in AOTY.

One last thing before I go: I’m planning reviews for all 5 albums up for Album of the Year. Potentially more than that if I really get into this. You can find the other links here (will update links as posts are released).

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

-apc.

G I R L – Pharrell Williams

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Note: I wrote this track by track review prior to knowing it would be nominated for Album of the Year. So this may not follow the same pattern as the other 4 posts in this Grammys series.

There at least three possible arguments for why I completely missed on this album two months ago.

The first is the typical excuse: I was too busy and wasn’t paying attention to music enough in the wake of Grammy season and was focusing more on class, my book project and my impending pilgrimage to Burma. This sounds good, but it’s mostly just an excuse.

Second, where was the promotion for this album?! I never heard anything about it – heck, Billboard announced it’s release date less than two weeks before it dropped on March 3. It seems like it blindsided the whole industry: “Happy” was majorly circulated with Despicable Me 2 coming out in the fall, and his heavy collaborations with Daft Punk on R.A.M. and with Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke/T.I. on “Blurred Lines” didn’t really leave the possibility for a solo record. Besides, last time he put out any solo work – In My Mind, in 2006 – it didn’t necessarily dominate my iTunes.

The third reason is the most interesting. About two years ago, I started wondering if N*E*R*D – Pharrell’s band along with The Neptunes co-producer Chad Hugo and Shay Haley – would put out a new record to follow up their disappointing Nothing from 2010.

So I set up a Google Alert for any news on N*E*R*D’s new record.

I got weekly updates for about a year, but nothing substantial on the record front. Then, in 2013, I finally started seeing some stuff circulating about how they were working on a new record, but that it wouldn’t be released for a while because of Pharrell’s side work. I guess I just assumed that if N*E*R*D wasn’t putting out something new anytime soon, then Pharrell certainly wouldn’t put out something on his own. Just didn’t compute.

Then in late March someone, I forget who, asked me what I thought of Pharrell’s new album that I didn’t even know existed at that point. And then I got caught up in my excuses again and forgot to download it.

All that to say – and it’s a lot, in retrospect – I finally picked up the album last week and haven’t stopped to listen to anything else. All last week on The West Coast, this was my jam.

It’s been referred to as a “pseudo-feminist” concept album, seemingly in response to his affiliation with the controversial “Blurred Lines” performance from the 2013 VMAs. It’s clear that he wanted to rebrand himself as…something else.

These days, it seems like anything Pharrell touches turns to gold. “Blurred Lines” was huge. I don’t think I’ve spent a day anywhere in this country over the past month without hearing “Happy” two or three times. And “Get Lucky” was the hugest of them all taking home top Grammy nods this year on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

And yet, I did not expect this solo album to be as good as it is. Here’s a track by track look at G I R L.

1. Marilyn Monroe

First of all, Hans Zimmer did all the strings on this album, and this one is the stringiest there is. A gorgeous orchestral arrangement opens the album and is coupled with some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riffs a la “Get Lucky”. The track opens the feminist theme, questioning why he would ever want to lose the girl that even Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra or Joan of Arc can compare to.

2. Brand New (Duet with Justin Timberlake)

One of the perks of completely missing on an album is that you don’t build up any expectation for should-be killer collaborations. This track is a little cheesy, especially the bridge, but I guess that’s what we should expect from a song about how a woman makes a man a better person – a “brand new” man, if you will. And a little Timbaland beatbox intro really, because JT can’t go anywhere without him apparently. Also, did you know: Pharrell and Timbaland were friends as kids?

3. Hunter

Not my favorite track, which is surprising because it has a heavy N*E*R*D sound to it. Goofy lyrics. Simple looped guitar riff. The occasional heavy breathing in the background. It’s Pharrell doing his best impression of himself sans Hugo and Haley.

4. Gush

A transition song, but a strong one. Sure, Pharrell wants to respect and not abuse the woman that makes him better, but that doesn’t mean he’s doesn’t want to get a little dirty. The chorus here is strong. Zimmer returns with the orchestra.

5. Happy (From “Despicable Me 2”)

We all know this song. Not really necessary to write about it other than to say that it’s a super fun doo-wop that I still catch myself snapping my fingers along with. But c’mon man. Track 5? This song startles me every time I’m listening to the album. I skip it about 75% of the time.

6. Come Get It Bae (Feat. Miley Cyrus)

This song has the feel of a group drumming on 5 gallon plastic buckets on a street corner. Lots of claps. A hint of strings and guitar. But mostly a stomp-style groove. This song is all about riding a motorcycle. But it’s a metaphor, you guys. Surprisingly, I actually like what Miley adds to this song – although, the “hey!” that runs throughout the song gets really old really fast.

7. Gust of Wind (Feat. Daft Punk)

Not shocking, but this is in the conversation for my favorite track. Marilyn Monroe is the front runner, but this one is right there too. Those robot vocoder voices are just so mesmerizing. I can’t help myself.

8. Lost Queen

The album takes a turn here. This song feels like it should be the last track. It brings us back to the “taking care of you is my number one thing” theme. Tribal hums and bongos drums give the first half of this song a raw human quality, and it’s reflected in the lyrics. Earth is so messed up, but this “Lost Queen” is so perfect it has to be from some other planet. This track is 8 minutes long. The middle minute is nothing but the sound of crashing waves. The second half feels like we’ve moved off Earth and into outer space. Probably Pharrell trying to communicate where this woman takes him.

9. Know Who You Are (Duet with Alicia Keys)

Alicia Keys!? Woah. This feels surprising for some reason. They seem to be from different edges of the hip hop spectrum for some reason. Pharrell gets me moving and pumps me up. Alicia’s voice just melts everything. It’s a decent song, but I can’t get over that dichotomy when I listen to it.

10. It Girl

This song is a short lyrical wrap up with an extended outro to close the album. It also has one of the best moments on the album when Pharrell takes his voice as high as it’ll go – so high that I don’t really know what he says. It’s a song with a bunch of nautical terms in relation to how this “It Girl” just does it for Pharrell: seasick without her, she’s got his compass spinnin’, her waves crash over him and and her tide pulls him in. It’s a metaphor, you guys.

Overall, it’s a very strong album, and Pharrell’s gold-touch apparently works with his solo stuff too. He even makes that goofy Arby’s hat look good.

Side note: I’ve been told on two separate occasions that I look like Pharrell. I don’t see it, but maybe you do.

Another side note: nearly all these track titles would make terrific horse names for next year’s Kentucky Derby.

Top Tracks: Marilyn Monroe, Gust of Wind, Gush

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

The 2014 Grammys in Review

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So the Grammys were Sunday night. I chose to watch them over the Pro Bowl. I probably should have been interested in the TEN Chiefs players involved in the game. Rumor has it that Tony Gonzalez’s last catch of his career was from the Chiefs’ Alex Smith. Pretty poetic stuff right there.

But no, I was watching the Grammys, which are usually a January highlight for me. And this year’s did not disappoint. Daft Punk won big and performed, so basically anything else that took place was icing. Here are a few takeaways from what I saw on Sunday night.

Daft Punk + Stevie Wonder = Instant Greatness

Daft Punk teams up with Pharrell, Nile Rogers from Chic and Stevie Wonder for a Get Lucky/Another Star mash-up (with a little “Freak Out” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” in there too). So amazing.

I really hope the robots are working on a 2015 version of Alive 2007. One of my first takeaways from Random Access Memories was that parts of it seemed like a set-up for something bigger. Much like parts of Homework did. This time they managed to weave the whole record together in a way that hides the pieces within the whole, but I fully anticipate an epic mash-up album sometime in the next couple years.

All that to say, I’ll be listening to Stevie Wonder constantly this week. I might even dabble in Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (which i found on vinyl for $3, and couldn’t help myself).

I should also note that Pharrell’s hat was ridiculous and Stevie came off a little creepy early on. But the whole thing seemed to mesh once Guy & Tom showed up in those robot suits that looked nothing like Stormtroopers. More like Dr. Evil, really.

Check out the performance here.

I continue to be perplexed by country music.

First of all, I don’t even know what the genre means anymore. You’re telling me that Willie Nelson, Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, recent John Mayer, Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban and Kasey Musgraves (whoever that is?) are all in the same genre?

The way I’ve heard country music defined in the past is that it is all about storytelling. And I can respect that. But when the story is the same in all the songs – mostly goofy cliches and quips about trucks and whiskey and dirt and parent-child relationships – it all runs together into one lame story that I’ve heard a million times.

Plus, it just sounds terrible. You’re telling me that girl Kasey Musgraves had the best country album this year? What, did no one else release anything? She wouldn’t even make it past the battle rounds on The Voice, no matter how liquored up Blake Shelton gets.

The country performances happen, tons of people go nuts in person and on twitter. Martina McBride comes out and mentions how amazing that performance was, and I’m like…it was? I don’t understand.

There is some country music that I love – Garth Brooks is awesome, John Mayer’s new album is great. I even understand the draw of the Dixie Chicks and Rascall Flatts and other bands I find obnoxious. That stuff makes sense, but it’s just not for me. Usually I leave those performances perplexed and searching for answers. Just doesn’t make sense.

Paul McCartney is one of my favorite people ever.

Did you guys see him snapping his fingers and dancing around to the Daft Punk performance? Has anyone made a GIF of that yet? I don’t know how to do it, otherwise I would. Watch the performance video I linked up above and jump to 3:32. Hilarious.

Paul always seems like he’s having a blast, but doesn’t have a care in the world. His reunion performance with Ringo was hilarious in that light – Ringo was thrilled to be there, and Paul seemed like it was just another day at the office. It’s whatever. Just one of the most influential musicians ever.

Anyway, in his nonchalance, he took home 5 Grammys last night.

UPDATE: I have found it. Look at all those snaps. I love you, Internet.

How did Random Access Memories win Album of the Year?

I mean, I loved the album. It was one of my favorites of this past year, and I haven’t done any serious thought as to which albums trump it, but it certainly didn’t seem like it should have won Album of the Year. It’s not even Daft Punk’s best album (Discovery), and it’s not even the best album ever called RAM (what’s up Paul McCartney?), but somehow it beat out Sara Bareilles, Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar and MacLemore/Ryan Lewis.

Oh, that’s why it won. Not much competition there.

No offense to the other four – especially to Sara B., who I think it phenomenal – but they’re just not going to win that category. If Drake or Jay-Z or Beyonce or Kanye or some indie band, then Daft Punk may have been in trouble. But those four don’t have the clout to take home the top spot. Maybe Taylor Swift was the biggest competition, but it just didn’t feel right. Just my opinion.

Even still, it’s surprising to see a French robot electronica duo step into the Grammys and clean up. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen at the Grammys, I think. It sorta felt like they were being rewarded for past greatness. I mean, RAM was pretty good, but it wasn’t THAT good. I think they really rode the wave of one giant hit – Get Lucky – and that was enough to take home both Record and Album of the Year.

The only other song that has even made it to the public is Doing it Right…which is terrible. Felt like a weird category this year.

Wait…Bobby Bland died?!

Today, Bobby “Blue” Bland is probably best recognized for being sampled by Kanye on my favorite track off Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)“. The audio is also huge in car commercials.

5017261200631-2The album the the sampled track comes off of is called Dreamer, and it is wonderful. It’s one of my favorite albums ever. He’s looking at you, in this gorgeous shirt, with the smoke from his cigarette swirling all around him.

Bobby does this crazy thing with his voice that makes it sound like one of those fish-shaped percussion instruments that you played in music class in elementary school. It’s called a “guiro”, and his voice somehow breaks into it randomly and makes this bizarre vibrato/loogie hocking sounds that, if i’m honest, disgusts me just a little bit. But it’s so fascinating and unlike anything I’ve ever heard, I still have to give him props for it.

Anyway. When the Grammys was running through it’s “who died this year” montage, his name was the biggest one to jump out to me. I didn’t know he had passed away. Maybe I’ll have to put on Dreamer whenever I’ve had enough of Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

And lastly, Jamie Foxx is the worst.

He was high, right? Or at least drunk? Or is that what he is like all the time? His was the presenter for best Rock/Rap Collaboration. Here’s a sampling of what he did during his short and awkward time on stage…

1. got lost trying to find the podium
2. he hit on Beyonce.
3. he did a horrendous Ringo Starr impression
4. he apologized to Jay-Z about hitting on Beyonce
5. proceeded to claim that he “had his way” with her backstage
6. lost track of where he was while he was listing the nominees
7. just quit talking at one point when he didn’t have anything interesting to say about Kendrick Lamar
8. then mumbled another gibberish comment about Beyonce

Then, lo and behold, Jay-Z wins the award and comes up on stage and saves the whole thing. He whispers something in Beyonce’s ear, hugs Jamie Foxx, and calls out to his daughter, “Hey Blue! Daddy just won you a new gold sippy cup!”

Way to go Jay. Take the high road and save the day.

Just a few thoughts. I have more, but I set a 30 minute limit on writing this post. So that will have to do.

-apc.