Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘SOUND & FURY’

For an artist that tries his damndest to avoid the public eye, Sturgill Simpson certainly generates a lot of discussion and opinions when he does show his face. Coming into his fourth album SOUND & FURY, it was to be expected after a long wait and his announcing that it wouldn’t be a country album. And this comes after he’s been living under a rock the last two and a half years.  A polarizing artist in a polarizing society causing reactions on both extremes of the spectrum. A real shocker, huh? With this review I hope to bring a different view of why I think this album is brilliant, but also try to make sense of the mischaracterizations being put forth too.

“Ronin” opens with the sounds of a speeding car and Joe Rogan doing a spot-on Alex Jones impersonation over the radio. This gives way to the cinematic and grooving sounds of Simpson on lead guitar and Chuck Bartels shredding on the bass (Bartels really breaks out on this record). It all sets the tone and lets you know you’re in for a rock and roll album. This segues right into “Remember to Breathe,” which intimately details an assassin getting ready to make a kill and then doing so. It’s one of the more sinister and dark songs from Simpson and the excellent drum play of Miles Miller provides that ominous, rumbling feel with Bobby Emmert on the synth giving it that “samurai showdown” feel.

Lead single “Sing Along” is probably the most “accessible” song, as it’s about a man watching the woman in his life walk away and leaving him feeling helpless. This features one of the most badass sounding lines I’ve heard from Simpson: “Tell em’ to carve my name in the barstool baby/You know I’m going to be here a while.” The imagery of this line and the way Simpson delivers it gives it a real jolt and makes for a memorable moment.

“A Good Look” is a funky and rocking tune where Simpson cautions other artists to stop worry about looking good and worry more about crafting a good hook. Simpson solely wrote every song on the album, except for this one, which he wrote with John Prine. As soon as I found this out, I tried to figure out which parts Prine wrote and in my opinion I think he wrote the opening biblical verse, along with the chorus. It just screams Prine. Not to mention, this is the first song Simpson has made you can actually dance to. But it’s still packed with the classic imagery and depth Simpson brings with his lyrics, from the descriptive second verse to him delivering the dismissive lines I imagine are from someone at the label said to him at some point (“How you gonna eat when you’re bitin’ the hand?”). It’s a really fun song that I imagine will be a big hit live.

“Make Art Not Friends” is one of the most revealing moments on this album. Simpson appears to be drawing inspiration from his exhaustion and anger on the road touring in 2017. Now a lot of people are focusing on the lyrics in this song slamming the industry and I can see how some view this as him being kind of ungrateful. But I see this more as Simpson showing regret in his actions, as the chorus details his ragged state. He sings “Never again, rather be alone,” which I interpret as him realizing the mistake he made in saying yes to touring in 2017 after he said he wouldn’t do so. Shortly after this he sings “I love saying no to all the yes men,” which seems to refer to his state post-2017 and coming to the realization that in his compromise to “play the game” with the music industry, he ultimately was the one who lost and now he’s swearing it off completely.

Simpson is conveying that he just wants to focus on music and not the people in the industry who think they have his best interests. It’s a fascinating look into his psyche after the Grammys and how it changed him. I think this song is more about growth and realization, not the “taking it to the man” anthem nor the grumpy asshole complaining about success many are interpreting it to be. Not to mention I really enjoy the timing and placement of the synths in this song, as they come in at just the right moments to add some gravity and emotion to the lyrics.

“Best Clockmaker on Mars” is one of the hardest rockers on the album and also Simpson’s obligatory love ode to his wife that he’s had on every album. It’s also a fun singalong with head-banging guitar licks throughout, but don’t overlook one of the most heartfelt verses: “Some days I hate everything I am/But your love holds a mirror to me/Show me a love I can understand/Make sense of the world I see.” I really enjoy the sci-fi synths, as it feels appropriate on a song with Mars in the title.

The next song “All Said and Done” is another glimpse into Simpson’s mind in 2017. Again I see this as Simpson accepting blame for the anger and sense of resignation he has towards the world and his career. This is about a battle playing out in his own head, yet he doesn’t even know why and acknowledges that he’s willfully letting his career slip through his own actions. It’s funny how this is the second time Simpson has said an album will destroy his career (he said the same thing with Metamodern), yet I think much to his chagrin this is only going to make him more popular. Simpson said this album is “going to hell” (step four of the five steps of the journey of the soul in Christian mysticism) and this feels like his lowest point during this span.

“Last Man Standing” sees Simpson beating his chest and proclaiming himself to be the last one standing, even though his hermit mentality seems to suggest otherwise. Now this song has prompted what I believe to be an unjustified criticism of this song and Simpson’s vocals on this album: people blaming the production for not being able to understand what Simpson is singing. And here’s my counterpoint: Was it easy to understand him on his other albums? I say no.

I had trouble understanding him on every single album upon initial listens and this one is no different, which shows to me that blaming production is misplaced. The production was clear as day on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it took me longer to figure out all the lyrics on that one compared to this album. When Simpson sings sometimes he turns into a mumbling marble mouth with an even thicker accent. To quote an old Skyrim meme: It’s a feature, not a bug. In other words, it’s completely fair to criticize not being able to understand the lyrics, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the production is to blame for it.

“Mercury in Retrograde” is the grand slam on this album: Simpson’s songwriting at it’s best and the sound at it’s most fun and catchy. It also reminds me of something that would have fit in perfectly on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, with it’s disco-influenced sound, the dour observation in the chorus and the biting honesty. At first I jumped to the conclusion that Simpson was taking shots other artists on this song, but I realized that’s never been his thing. Many seem to also think he’s taking aim at fans on not just this song, but other moments on this album. But again this is not consistent with his history. So I don’t know why some are interpreting the lyrics as such. No, instead it’s a boring answer: suits at labels and award shows, which George Strait to AC/DC have taken their shots at. It just ultimately makes for scathingly fun lyrics you want to jam out along with.

The closing song “Fastest Horse in Town” is that blazing, get the fuck out of town anthem to perfectly cap off SOUND & FURY. It’s Simpson’s fiery proclamation that he’s no longer going to neglect the things that matter most to him: his family and his craft. On top of that he throws in that Eminem influence he hinted at before the album, declaring himself as not the “next someone,” but the “first something.” It doesn’t touch any of the braggadocios lines on Eminem’s Kamikaze, but it’s an appropriate closing statement that recaps the hell Simpson went through to reach the conclusion he’s arrived at and who he wants to be moving forward.

SOUND & FURY from start to finish feels like one long song, as it’s both cohesive in sound and lyrics, telling several stories that tie into overarching theme of Simpson being angry at a lot of things in the world, but when it comes down to it he’s most angry at himself and what he let himself become. Each track explores the flawed thoughts and actions of a flawed man. I see a lot of people constantly saying it reminds them of ZZ Top or 80s rock, but I don’t hear this. Instead I think this sounds closer to early to mid 70s music and sounds like the eccentric, frenetic sounds of Jeff Lyne and Electric Light Orchestra meets the in-your-face, sneering lyrics of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Love or hate this album, love or hate Simpson, it’s undeniable that a lot of thought and emotions went into this album. The amount of care and detail given to every aspect makes this one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2019 and yet another excellent album from Sturgill Simpson.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Zac Brown Band’s ‘The Owl’

(Warning: Long review! I don’t like writing them, but this is what happens when this band releases divisive music because I did the same thing two albums ago for this group.)

It’s confounding to many what Zac Brown Band have become. But I actually don’t think the band has changed and I’ll explain throughout this review. I think one big problem this band is running into is they continue to label their albums as country and send singles to country radio, yet in interviews they (and by they, it’s really Zac Brown) say they don’t limit themselves to one genre. Do they not understand how this confuses people? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. People don’t like to be bullshitted and they just want it given to them straight (see Sturgill Simpson on his new album, yet for some reason Billboard still put him on the country albums chart). Instead this band didn’t give it to fans straight and now they’re pissed. As a result this album is being put through the ringer and it’s justified for the band’s confusing signals, but at the same time the most egregious moments on the album are overshadowing what I believe to be some promising signs.

Sorry for this little rant, but it had to be said before I could finally talk about the music on this band’s new album The Owl.

Opening track “The Woods” is pretty fun and upbeat, making it a good choice for an opening track. It’s basically about doing your own thing and acknowledging that we all have different things that make us tick. This is a great song and approach for a band that wants to bend genres and do something different. I think even if you don’t like this song, you can at least respect the sentiment. “Need This” is supposed to be an island getaway song, but I have to tell you I’m not feeling the tropical, beach vibes on this. And when I think of a song like this, I think of a more relaxing tone and not the frenetic sound of this song. It’s just really odd and off-putting considering the theme.

Then we get to “OMW,” which is super catchy. And in this case, it’s not good. It’s not good at all. Because then you get this annoying song about getting a text saying OMW from a significant other stuck in your head. It’s one of the worst ear worms I’ve ever had stuck in my head because the lyrics are so vapid, dumb and not fun. So naturally this will end up a single. “Someone I Used To Know” is one of the better songs on the album, as it’s about someone looking back on their former selves and letting go of it for the person they are now. It’s a great song about growing as a person and one of the few moments on the album where the lyrics go beyond a base level. The sound is even fun and has flashes of country.

The most fun track on the album though is “Me and the Boys in the Band.” That’s because this track plays into this band’s strength of jam band, roots influenced rock with fun, singalong lyrics. The fiddle play of Jimmy de Martini can actually be heard, which has felt missing in this band’s music. You can also hear the band in Zac Brown Band on this song, which is no surprise as it’s one of the few songs on this album that doesn’t have outside writers that Brown brought in (this one is written by Brown, Clay Cook and Luke Laird). If you look at the songwriters on each song of this album, it’s quite telling of how each song turned out.

“Finish What We Started” is about a couple trying to reconcile and keep their relationship intact. Brandi Carlile sounds great as usual as the guest artist on this song, but the song itself doesn’t really do much for me. It lacks the heart and passion needed to really get the lyrics across, which I put on a weak vocal performance from Brown. This was a decent song that could have been great.

“God Given” is…I’m not quite sure how to best describe it. Basically I imagine Zac Brown (this has his finger prints all over it and I refuse to believe this was the band’s idea) was listening to the Rap Caviar playlist on Spotify one day and he thought to himself, “I could do something like this.” But he never thought if he should do it. You’re not a rapper! And hearing Zac Brown sing about Gucci bags and Vera whips is one of the most awkward and clumsy things you’ll hear this year. The lyrics aren’t even bad, but they fit someone like Bruno Mars or Justin Timberlake, not Zac Brown Band. Give this song to Timberlake and it would sound great. This song is the equivalent of someone knowingly putting on leather pants that are five sizes too small and then walking around like everything is fine. It’s not fine, it’s weird and we all feel second-hand embarrassment.

“Warrior” is about the strength and resiliency of people who serve in the armed forces and the struggles they deal with. On an album with multiple bad lyrical moments, this is certainly not one of them and I applaud the songwriters for actually crafting a great song about an important issue around soldiers that isn’t full of the usual clichés you hear in patriotic songs. “Shoofly Pie” has a roots-y and funky sound that I enjoy, similar in the vein of “Me and the Boys in the Band,” as it fits this band really well. The lyrics are fine (they don’t employ a sexual euphemism in a tacky or sophomoric way), but the hook gets repetitive so quickly. This song could have easily been like a minute shorter. “Already On Fire” is another track where I really enjoy the sound. It’s more on the rock side, which this band has demonstrated many times they’re great at, but for some reason they refuse to make a full-blown rock album. The lyrical imagery fits the sound well too, as it gives the song a sinister mood I enjoy.

Closing song “Leaving Love Behind” is the classic sound and song many grew accustom to with this group. It’s about looking back at a relationship that’s ended and trying to let go of the love that was once shared. I imagine Brown drew from his separation from his wife for this song, as you can feel the emotion from the opening note. Most importantly this song feels like the group made it and not Zac Brown with a bunch of outside writers and producers. It proves my point too about the songwriters, as this was written by Brown, Cook, Coy Bowles, de Martini, and Tim and Phil Hanseroth. This song shows this band can still be brilliant when they choose to be.

While many have taken their shots at this album and have come away from it more concerned for the Zac Brown Band than ever before, I actually take away from The Owl that this band is still great. The problem is not the band in Zac Brown Band, but Zac Brown himself. If you remove the three worst songs on this album, the remaining songs are overall pretty good. But the three worst songs are so bad that for many it just completely dominates the rest of The Owl. And it’s clear that the worst moments on this album are of Brown’s doing (see that terrible solo pop album he released as further proof). When Zac Brown Band is allowed to be a tight and cohesive band for a full album, they’re great. But does Zac Brown really want to be in a band anymore? Or is he more interested in his own vanity projects and ideas?

Grade: 6/10

Album Review — Jon Pardi’s ‘Heartache Medication’

On Jon Pardi’s last album California Sunrise, he made traditional country feel accessible and fun at times. On his new album Heartache Medication, he delivers an album that is very country, but leaves me a lot of the time saying to myself, “eh, it’s fine.” Opening track “Old Hat” is a song I’m very familiar with, as I covered it when I reviewed Jeff Hyde’s 2018 album Norman Rockwell World. It’s a great song about hanging onto some of the old traditions of being a gentleman and I love that Pardi kept that clean guitar sound to open the song. But I must admit I prefer the Hyde version of the song because it just fits Hyde’s voice better than Pardi’s, as it feels like Pardi is stretching it at times.

The album’s title track is your classic heartbreak drinking song, turning to the bar to heal a broken heart. It’s a solid song with nice production and a catchy hook. On an album full of these songs, it’s one of the better ones for sure. “Nobody Leaves a Girl Like That” is another well-trodden theme in country music: a man looking back in regret at leaving a woman who he realized was great. This is the first of many moments on the album where I say, “eh it’s fine,” because Pardi does nothing to make the song stand out. I’ve heard this done better so many times in country music and I’m left expecting more. It’s not bad, but it’s not something I find myself clamoring to hear again.

In fact, let’s just get this out of the way now about all the songs on the album that fit this description because I don’t feel like repeating myself paragraph after paragraph. Here’s all the songs on this album that cover an over-covered theme in country music that are fine, but Pardi does nothing to make standout amongst the best versions of these songs: “Ain’t Always the Cowboy,” “Me and Jack,” “Tied One On,” “Oughta Know That,” “Buy That Man a Beer,” “Call Me Country” and “Love Her Like She’s Leaving.” So that’s 8 out of 14 tracks on this album. 14 tracks are already too long for most albums, but when you have nearly 60% of the album of songs that are just fine it feels even longer to get through.

As for the rest of this album: “Don’t Blame It On Whiskey” sees Pardi joined by Lauren Alaina and these two just don’t sound good together. Their voices are like oil and water, as Alaina’s voice pairs better with a deeper male voice and Pardi’s voice would be better suited with someone like Ashley McBryde or Brandi Carlile. “Tequila Little Time” is without a doubt the best moment on this album for me and that’s because this is one of the few moments Pardi puts a fresh taste on an old theme. I love both the horns playing the song in and the play on words in the hook of the song, as it’s both catchy and clever. This is right out of the Midland playbook and why I like their new album. This is what Pardi needs to have more of on his next album.

“Love Her Like She’s Leaving” is another moment that works well on this album because of the production. The fiddle and steel guitar give the song a smooth and pleasing sound, while complimenting the feel of the lyrics too. Closing song “Starlight” is about feeling the presence of higher powers like angels and God. I enjoy this because the lyrics avoid the typical pitfalls of these type of songs and feels like a genuine proclamation from Pardi. The electric guitar and steel guitar also compliment each other well.

Ultimately, Heartache Medication is an album that lacks standout moments and plays it too safe in regards to the themes. The traditional sound is great, but most of the songwriting on this album leaves a lot to desire. It was my biggest issue on his last album too. While this album is by no means bad, I wouldn’t call it good either, as I think Jon Pardi is capable of delivering something better.

Grade: 6/10

Album Review — Kishi Bashi’s ‘Omoiyari’

One of the best kept secrets in music today is Kishi Bashi. I stumbled upon him by accident with his last album Sonderlust, an album that grabbed my attention and refused to let go. With his new album Omoiyari, he does just the same. Opening track “Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear” feels so sweet and summery, as Bashi shows off his amazing violin skills. Yet the song is about lovers separated by the ocean and war. You see the album centers around the stories of the Japanese-Americans who were unfairly placed in internment camps in the United States when WWII broke out. And this song is really a microcosm of the songs on this album: so happy sounding, yet the subjects of the song are the exact opposite.

“F Delano” is what you think it is when you listen to it closely: it’s saying fuck President Franklin Roosevelt, who ordered the Japanese-Americans into internment camps. It’s pretty funny to hear a song centered around dissing a dead president, but in this case there’s a justified level of seriousness. Bashi appropriately ends the song asking you the listener to be the final judge of Roosevelt’s actions: “Was he right?/Innocence without a proper fight?”

“Marigolds” has one of the beautiful openings to a song I’ve heard in some time. The plucky and smooth sounds of the string section gives the song a heavenly, floating-like feeling that you really just need to hear for yourself. I can’t do it justice. The song is about a man yearning to know the woman he loves years before the war, when times were simpler and happier and they could live the life together he envisions in his dreams. I particularly love the delivery from Bashi on the line “I want to fall off the edge with you,” as it show that urgency and passion of the love expressed in the song.

“A Song for You” is about a man vowing that all the fighting he’s doing in the war is for his love. But it’s implied that she passed before he could reunite, as he could never send that photograph that was always meant for her. I really enjoy the guitar licks in the bridge, as they’re well-placed and gives the song a nice punch. ”

“Angeline” features some of the best lyrics on the album, as they not only do a great job of telling the story, but the emotions of despair and wanting of a man who was basically arrested for being a Japanese-American and sentenced to work in a mine for seven years. All the while he’s separated from his woman, Angeline. The best lines of this song make you not only picture, but feel what this man is suffering: “Seven year until I’m free, workin’ off this prison fee/My fingers smell like kerosene in a mine in Tennessee/Every day I hold my breath, every hour I wish for death/Angeline, she’s settled west away from Tennessee.”

“Summer of ’42” once again showcases how great of a violinist Kishi Bashi is, with the epic, rising sounds of the violin constantly building through the song. It’s a song recalling the lost love of a past summer and the passion shared by the couple. It’s probably the happiest track on the album, as I find it impossible to not feel happy listening to it. The lyrics and the sound just come together so satisfyingly well. What a beautiful song, but then again I feel like a broken record saying that with the songs on this album.

“Theme from Jerome (Forgotten Words)” has a dark and menacing open that gives way to a subdued and somber tone. Bashi sings part of this song in Japanese (also part of “Violin Tsunami”) and it’s a nice and fitting moment on this album. “A Meal for Leaves” is an instrumental track, so I really don’t have anything to say other than it fits the rest of the album in terms of sound.  “Violin Tsumani” is what the name implies: Kishi Bashi gives us a shit ton of violin on this song and with his skills on the violin, this makes for a fantastic song. No offense to Bashi’s songwriting on this track, but I kind of ignore it and get lost in the violin play. This song shows why he’s one of the best violinists you’ll hear in music today.

The final song on the album is “Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea” and it’s basically a folk country song. I could easily picture Old Crow Medicine Show singing this. The song is about a man finally being free after the war, but his heart his broken because his wife has long been dead and now she’s forever taken his heart as a result. It’s a catchy and fun to singalong with, but also a tragic, yet beautiful profession of love that tugs at the heart strings. It’s a fantastic song that encapsulates the album and the artistry of Bashi.

Omoiyari is a wonderful album full of beautiful lyrics and sounds that cover an important topic in American history that more people show know about. Why Kishi Bashi is not more covered by music journalists I’ll never know, but this music reviewer is telling you that if you have not heard the music of Kishi Bashi, you need to do so.

Grade: 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6QgbhA8sNM&list=PLoB11Z8A5Nz9DOAiKaVqnJ3RlHDfHy8om

Album Review — Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s ‘Bandana’

The last time Freddie Gibbs and Madlib teamed up for an album, they delivered a stone-cold classic in Piñata. So expectations were sky high for Bandana and while it’s not quite as great as Piñata, it comes pretty damn close. From front to back this album is full of bangers, bars and beats that constantly leave you coming back for more.

Opening tracks “Obrigado” and “Freestyle Shit” establish the humor and grittiness that you’re accustomed to hearing in a Gibbs album. “Half Manne Half Cocaine” is a bit of a departure from the usual for Gibbs and Madlib with its heavily trap influenced sound, but you wouldn’t know it with Gibbs’ flawless flow over the beat.

“Crime Pays” is more in line from what you expect from the duo and it’s definitely one of the standouts on the album. Everything about this track is smooth and it’s one of many moments on the album that shows how Gibbs just continues to improve both his technical rapping skills and his bars. “Massage Seats” is a fun banger that features some of my favorite bars (“Golden State, the roster, my garage deep” and “Big baller, father, you my son like Lonzo”).

When looking at the track list, “Palmolive” immediately stands out with its A-list features of Pusha T and Killer Mike. And it goes just as hard you expect with these three on a song, with a perfectly nasty sound. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say there are two disappointments with this song: Freddie’s unfortunate anti-vax bar and Killer Mike not getting a verse. Pusha T however absolutely destroys his verse and it continues a year in which he’s delivered some of the best features in hip hop. I also love the stand-up interlude at the end, as it’s classic Gibbs humor.

“Fake Names” goes into the dark and gritty details of Gibbs’ experience of dealing cocaine and the relationships and the greed of the parties involved. While it’s most definitely a banger, Gibbs also does an excellent job displaying his storytelling chops with all of the intricacies the songs covers. It’s Gibbs at this best at what he raps about best. “Flat Tummy Tea” is another fun song and it sounds so much better within the album compared to when it was first released as a standalone single.

“Situations” is my favorite of the album and it’s because of the smooth, yet frenetic delivery from Gibbs and the grimy production from Madlib. Everything just goes together so well on this track and you just get slapped in the face with bars (my favorite being “Motherfuck Jeff Sessions, I’m sellin’ dope with a weapon”). Gibbs comes through with another great interlude on this song too, this time the funny and insightful cussing pastor.

“Giannis” sees Gibbs dropping great bars about everything, from watching Dora the Explorer with his daughter and then getting right back to making dope to calling out rappers getting screwed on 360 deals. Anderson .Paak comes through with a really nice feature and fits over the production well with his delivery. “Practice” is one of the most introspective songs Gibbs has ever done, as it examines how he treats his loved ones and having to change his ways for them. It’s really nice to see and further proof to those who unfairly dismiss him as just a coke bar rapper.

“Cataracts” is an awesome banger and another standout on the album. “I’m chillin’ in my old school, Chevy thang, Cadillac/Smokin’ on that good, good/Good for my cataracts” is one of the best bars on the album, with its catchy wordplay and flawless delivery from Gibbs. “Gat Damn” is one of the more overlooked tracks, but it’s grown on me with more listens and I’m enjoying it more. I think a lot of people will overlook that the song revolves around Gibbs reflecting on his time in jail for being falsely accused of rape and gets more introspective than you realize. It’s also a different flow from a lot of the album and showcases yet another side of Gibbs’ abilities.

“Education” is a song I feel I can’t really do justice because it not only covers so many important topics, but the amount of amazing lyricism from Yasiin Bey, Black Thought and Gibbs is something you just have to hear for yourself. To me this is the type of song you play for people who thumb their nose down on hip hop and say hip hop artists can’t pen serious lyrics like other genres.

The album’s closing song “Soul Right” is Gibbs reflecting on his lifestyle and his choices, and while he realizes he’s made mistakes, he still hopes for forgiveness from God and to get his soul right with him. The dichotomy of the immorality of his actions and the justification of them in the name of injustice and making ends meet is explored throughout the album and so it’s perfect that it ends with him striving for an inner peace after years of grinding to where he’s at now.

Once again Freddie Gibbs and Madlib deliver big, as Bandana is probably not only the best album you’ll hear in hip hop this year, but one of the best albums you’ll hear out of all genres.

Grade: 10/10