Album Review — Marcus King’s ‘El Dorado’

If you’re expecting the same rocking sounds of The Marcus King Band in Marcus King’s debut solo album, you’re going to be a little disappointed. After all when an artist steps away from their band to release a solo record, I think it would be unrealistic to expect the same sound. Otherwise what’s the point of going solo? And while different can sometimes be bad (see Zac Brown with Sir Rosevelt), in this case it actually turns out quite good with Marcus King’s El Dorado.

The album doesn’t get off to the best start with “Young Man’s Dream” as the opener. Choosing such a mellow song to open the album doesn’t exactly invite you in to want to hear more. The theme makes sense with King looking back on the dream he set out to conquer when he left home years ago and realizing he’s still chasing it. But I’m a big believer in a higher tempo song as an opener. So I would have switched the second song “The Well” into the opening spot with it’s loud, guitar-driven sound, which is also more familiar to listeners who have followed The Marcus King Band. The bluesy and smooth rifts are instantly infectious and pair perfectly with the dynamic voice of King’s.

King really pours the soul on in “Wildflowers & Wine.” The heavy soul influence on this album is really what makes this album shine in my eyes, as King is just as comfortable with soul as he is with rock. The lyrics in this song, written by King, producer Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, do a fantastic job of describing the love and passion in a relationship and King delivers them with the kind of fire needed to really drive them across to the listener.

“One Day She’s Here” is about ruminating over an on and off love. Lyrically this is fine, albeit one of the weaker moments on the album regarding this aspect. It’s just a bit too repetitive for my liking. “Sweet Mariona” sounds like something The Eagles would cut with it’s easy-going country rock sound. The instrumentation is what makes this really shine with the shimmering pedal steel guitar and light acoustic touch, as it gives the song an appropriate reflecting feeling.

One of my favorite moments on the album is “Beautiful Stranger,” as it shows off King’s great falsetto voice. The lyrics sets the scene well of a man approaching a woman in a bar and wondering of the possibilities they could have if they’re no longer strangers. The secret sauce though of this song and really this album is the subtle country sensibilities that permeate it. This song after all was written by King, Auberbach and longtime country writer Paul Overstreet. While this isn’t a country album of course, El Dorado does take a lot of influence from the genre, as it’s molded with the sounds of rock, soul and blues throughout.

“Break” reminds me of the Michael McDonald era of The Doobie Brothers with it’s theme of heartbreak combined with it’s smooth sound and King’s falsetto. I’m glad that this song doesn’t go overboard with the production though (it avoids over-polishing the sound), instead allowing King’s voice to be more front and center. “Say You Will” is this album’s only other guitar-driven rock sound that is more in line with The Marcus King Band and of course it sounds great. While I enjoy the more soulful, bluesy detour of this solo album, King really does thrive within the more rock driven sound on songs like this one.

“Turn It Up” is great driving music. It helps of course with it’s chorus (“Driving 90 miles an hour down a dead end street/Cold steel under my feet” and “Testing my nerves, taking the curves”), but most importantly it’s swanky, swaggering funk-influenced sound makes me picture myself driving down the highway. I guess when it comes to driving music you know it when you hear it would be the best way to describe it. I said before this album has subtle country sensibilities. Well it’s not so subtle on “Too Much Whiskey,” with it’s honkytonk sound and name-dropping Willie Nelson’s iconic album Shotgun Willie (and the “Whiskey River” reference). King nails the classic country drinking song and I love the harmonica that pops up throughout.

I feel like “Love Song” is very much a love it or hate it type song, as I can see why some might find this song to be too saccharine for their taste. But I fall in the enjoy it camp, as I feel the lyrics have genuine heart behind them. And I think it’s King’s passionate delivery that makes this song work for me. The album closes out strong with another high point in “No Pain.” Written by King, Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin, it’s a short and simple song about what I perceive to be about acceptance in the face of death. It’s possible it was at the hands of alcohol addiction as the lines “I fall off of that wagon/Won’t be no last call” allude to. There’s not that many lyrics, yet it’s able to get across a clear and impactful story to the listener. It’s excellent songwriting and shows less is more can be a highly effective approach to storytelling.

El Dorado may not be the album you expected from Marcus King, but it’s without a doubt a great album. It shows another side of King and the range he has as an artist, being able to draw so effectively from a wide variety of genres. King and Auerbach not only craft this intriguing mix of sounds, but the songwriting is quite solid too. El Dorado is an album that can be appreciated by fans of several genres and most importantly shows Marcus King is a promising young artist who is poised to become even better with time.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Little Big Town’s ‘Nightfall’

When it comes to taking a risk and failing or playing it safe, I would rather see an artist/act choose the former every single time. But sometimes you can take risks and if you don’t fully commit to it, you can end up with a safe sounding album. This is what I unfortunately see for Little Big Town on their new album Nightfall, as it doesn’t live up to what it aspires to be.

Opening song “Next To You” showcases the band harmonizing well. But then you listen to the rest of the album and it feels like most of this album stays in this same slow pace/mood. There’s just no variety, as it stagnates over this same sounding type of song. It’s not that these songs are bad. But you put them all next to each other and they blend together. And it would make sense if a common theme threaded these songs together, but there isn’t.

The album’s title track flirts with a surrealistic, disco-influenced country sound, but doesn’t fully commit to the sound for it to really stand out. And that’s a shame considering Daniel Tashian’s involvement with the song. The lyrics are your standard, generic tropes about falling in love under the night sky. “Forever and a Night” is an appropriately named song because that’s how long it feels listening to it. It’s an overwrought love ballad that tries too hard to come off as seriously romantic and quite frankly the song never goes beyond second gear in terms of storytelling/messaging.

“Throw Your Love Away” is a throwaway love song. And you know it won’t be a single since Karen Fairchild isn’t on lead vocals. “Over Drinking” is a decent get-over-you drinking song since it has a bit more of a pulse than the rest of the album. The hook isn’t half-bad, but I would have liked to have heard a little bit more lyrically to give the song more meat.

“Wine, Beer, Whiskey” puts me of two minds. On one hand, the lyrics are your standard alcohol name-dropping, modern country song. It’s nothing special. On the other hand, Little Big Town actually do something different, which I love. It has a distinctively Tejano-influence with the vibrant horns, giving it a fun and memorable sound. Why this isn’t utilized more in country music stupefies me. Ultimately “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” is a highlight of Nightfall.

Unfortunately the album falls right back into a lull with “Questions.” For a ballad trying to come off as serious and dealing with the doubts in the fallout of a relationship, why are there snap tracks and clap tracks? This is a guaranteed way to get me not to take this song seriously. But in pop country music today I guess this is a requirement for some asinine reason. I love the message that “The Daughters” is trying to deliver about unfair expectations that get placed on women and unifying through this struggle. It’s a worthy and admirable message. But the ways its delivered is clunky and the religious overtones feel forced and not really necessary.

“River of Stars” would be a good song on an album with more variety. But when you already have how many slow to mid-tempo songs on the album, it quickly becomes another one on the track list. At this point I’m bored and just waiting for something to change in terms of sound to wake me up.

“Sugar Coat” is a song on paper that I should enjoy. It’s a story of a woman who always has to grin and bear it with a husband that’s never there for her and her family enough. But then there’s the chorus, which comes off as sanctimonious to me: “Sometimes I wish I liked drinking/Sometimes I wish I liked pills/Wish I could sleep with a stranger/But someone like me never will.” It paints the picture of someone who views themselves as never making mistakes nor standing up for themselves as also alluded to in the lyrics. This isn’t someone I really want to empathize or connect with as the listener.

“Problem Child” is a ballad about acknowledging we all have problems, whether it being lonely or not being accepted in someone else’s eyes. I would have liked to heard this fleshed out a bit more, as I do like it’s unifying message and the anthemic feel in the delivery. But the message comes off as half-baked, as I’m waiting for it to say something greater.

“Bluebird” sees the groups best embracing of the Tashian/Ian Fitchuk country sound and it makes for arguably the best song on the album. I enjoy the breezy, laid-back feel in this dreamy love ballad. The hook is also memorable and stands out with it’s emphasis on both the harmonies and the melody. “Trouble With Forever” is another sleepy ballad that has nothing interesting to say. It’s yet another case on this album of an interesting topic not being explored enough to deliver something memorable.

Nightfall is an album that shows hints of potential and interesting wrinkles, but Little Big Town for the most part don’t take enough chances and spend enough time on the lyrics. It’s a shame because this group has excellent music sense and can be quite creative when they want to be. The biggest criticism that brings Nightfall down is it’s failure to execute on its idea, as this had potential to be great.

Grade: 5/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkZdKLLmpcY&list=OLAK5uy_mGwUMXyRYP3Mz2Ok2s73iVhZ0uFc-EjpA

Album Review — Eminem’s ‘Music To Be Murdered By’

I can’t recall the last time I’ve listened to an album and upon the very first listen getting more annoyed with each passing song. But this new surprise album from Eminem fits the bill. At 20 songs long and over an hour long, it’s an absolute pain in the ass to listen to this album. It’s not fun nor interesting. The themes on this album are so cringy, corny and off-putting that I could barely muster a few listens. Eminem’s Music To Be Murdered By is an album so terrible that I’m not really sure where to begin with all of the things I hate about it.

Keep in mind I enjoyed his previous album (which was also a surprise) Kamikaze. Perhaps I should also preface that maybe I’ve just reached a point where I’m just tired of Eminem and his schtick because he does things on this album that at this point in his career he’s already done a million times. He takes beating a dead horse to a new extreme. For example, songs like “Leaving Heaven” and “Stepdad.” Both songs see him complaining about his dad and stepdad respectively (the latter also features a horribly clunky and forced hook). And I understand that it must have been difficult to have such a rough upbringing. But Eminem has already done tons of songs about these issues. He says nothing new about these subjects that we haven’t already heard from him. Complaining about his family, critics and life in general feel like the only three topics he can rap about. There’s just no adapting or growth; he’s complaining about the same things at nearly 50 as he was in his 20s.

Then we get to the bars on this album. Now Eminem has always had issues creep up of dropping corny and just nonsensical bars that make no sense (see Revival). But this feels even worse at moments on this album. And again maybe this is just me reaching an age where Eminem’s humor and bars no longer appeal to me. But please tell me with a straight face that these are “fire” bars:

“Game ov-over, Thanos on you H-Os/On my petty shit but I don’t paint toes/Get the plunger ’cause Marshall and MA go plumb crazy/Call us Liquid Plumber ’cause even Dre know.”

And yes I’m well aware of the wordplay at the end with the Dre line, but it’s not clever. Why do I want to hear bars about toilets too? I could spend hundreds of words going over all the bad lyrics that plague this album, but I’m not in the mood for this painful exercise as listening to this album was enough of a chore. What makes these lyrics stand out even worse is having features from artists that never fail to deliver clever wordplay and lyrics like Black Thought, Royce da 5’9″ and Q-Tip.

But I haven’t even covered the worst thing about this album. The worst moment on this album is “Darkness,” a song that you think starts out as your typical song from Eminem about being depressed about fame. But then it reveals itself to be an exact recounting of the night of the Las Vegas shooter at the country festival, with Eminem imagining himself as the shooter. Now here’s why this song fails on so many levels: For one, it’s incredibly disturbing and tasteless (not to mention exploiting tragedy for profit). Secondly, Eminem fails to make any point with this song. He just does an exact recounting of the incident and then at the end raps some vague lyrics about gun control and clips of the media play. No point of substance is made. It feels shallow and tries way too hard to get across a message, even though it fails to do this while also failing to be a quality song.

This is my big problem with the political and message songs in general nowadays. Modern artists want to tell us and preach to us these messages, instead of focusing making a quality song that shows us the message. Messages are just so ham-fisted with no regard to the quality of the song and begs the questions of why someone would want to willing listen to a song like this. It’s also pretty hard to get a serious message across about shootings when throughout the rest of the album and in previous albums Eminem would make light of these incidents and casually drop references to them to craft “clever” wordplay. It comes off as fake, insincere and trying to have your cake while eating it too. And Eminem wonders why people don’t take his message songs seriously.

What’s even more bizarre is while parts of this album is Eminem being your woke Twitter friend, the other is him being a callous, edgy teenager who surfs the dark web all day and thinks dead baby jokes are hilarious. As I said before it makes it hard to take anything he raps about seriously on this album, but also makes for a weird and disorienting listen. It’s almost as if Eminem wants to keep his old crowd while also trying to desperately win over socially conscious young people. He bitches about the critics and some listeners not liking him and his music, yet he tries to win them over too. Eminem can’t pick a lane and make up his mind.

It’s not like this album is completely devoid of any quality, as the production is good to decent in most spots and there’s not a bad feature, as each of his features brought much needed quality to the table. “Godzilla” with the late Juice WRLD is a solid song that shows off Eminem’s impressive rapid delivery and both men contribute some great bars. I like the Alfred Hitchcock inspiration behind it too. But the lingering and large issues that permeate nearly every aspect of this album make it hard to appreciate what little this album gets right. I didn’t even get into him doing yet another bad song with Ed Sheeran or his awkward romantic relationship songs that he never pulls off. Music To Be Murdered By is way too long and sees Eminem indulging in his worst tendencies, making for an album that left me highly annoyed and having no desire to listen to it again.

Grade: 2/10

https://open.spotify.com/album/4otkd9As6YaxxEkIjXPiZ6

Album Review – Harry Styles’ ‘Fine Line’

Harry Styles made a promising debut with his self-titled album, showing at times he has the ear and vision to pull off classic sounds of rock past. But the biggest criticism I had for his first album was that the songwriting needed to get better, as it was completely forgettable at times. Two years later he’s back with the follow-up album, Fine Line. And unfortunately I find myself uttering the same criticism as I listen to it.

Opening song “Golden” sounds very pretty and fun, like something you would hear from Fleetwood Mac in their heyday of the 70s. But then you listen to the lyrics and they couldn’t be more basic and paint-by-the-numbers. For crying out loud the hook is Styles dryly singing “You’re so golden.” There’s just no creativity, true emotion and weight behind these lyrics. This is basically the running theme of a lot of songs on this album: great sound, ho-hum lyrics. “Watermelon Sugar” is easily the worst song on this album from a songwriting viewpoint, as the lyrics are so saccharine I want to gag as I listen to them. What the hell is watermelon sugar high? It sounds like something a 12-year-old would come up with.

“Adore You” is a solid song about begging for someone to let them love you. It does a good job of describing the sights and sounds of the woman Styles is pining for and getting across how much he wants her. The sound is bouncy and fun too with the electric slide guitars. “Lights Up” would work much better if it had more energy in the production and from Styles’ vocals. It comes off boring as it is, making it easy to skip over. “Cherry” sees Styles confronting his selfish attitude toward his ex and their breakup, struggling to accept she’s better now while trying to suppress his feelings of wanting her to come back to him. It’s a good song because the songwriting tells a relatable and interesting story, which I wish was more present on this album. The twangy, folk pop sound compliments the lyrics and mood of the song well too.

“Falling” continues the theme of Styles doubting himself and questioning his words and actions towards his ex. Once again, when Styles digs deep and incorporates emotion into his lyrics, he does a great job. Styles does especially good on piano ballads like this, as it suits his throwback style and voice. But he just can’t maintain a consistent level of high quality songwriting throughout an entire album, as “To Be So Lonely” and “She” go back to the bland and unmemorable songwriting that kicks off this album. The former is run-of-the-mill coffee shop pop, while the latter just rambles and rambles without anything to say.

“Sunflower, Vol. 6” is fantastic sound-wise, melding classic and modern to create a trippy and fun beat. Credit to producer Greg Kurstin. But these lyrics would fall under the category of what John Lennon would call Paul McCartney “granny shit.” Just like “Golden,” these are meandering mediocre lyrics that would fit nicely in a commercial for Tide. “Canyon Moon” perfects that 70s, Laurel Canyon sound and I hope Styles continues to pursue this sound. I also enjoy the lyrics, as a man recalls the times he spent with his love under a canyon moon. It’s light, fun and one of my favorites on Fine Line.

“Treat People With Kindness” is another highlight on the album. I love how the song opens with a backing choir and how they continue to interlude throughout. While the theme is a bit heavy handed in it’s delivery, it doesn’t cross the line and most importantly lets the piano and backing choir drive the rhythm and mood of the song. And unlike a lot of dance songs today, it doesn’t smack you over the head with overproduction. It’s smooth, easy-going music that’s quite likable. The album’s title track closes out the album, as Styles concludes there’s a fine line in his emotions towards his ex, even though he seems to be leaning more towards moving on from her. I wish this song would be fleshed out a bit more, as there’s a lot of repetition of “We’ll be a fine line.” But I guess it’s fitting the album closes like this.

Harry Styles’ sophomore album Fine Line is such a frustrating listen because you can hear the glimpses of greatness, but they get muddled by sub-par songwriting and half-built ideas. Styles clear has a knack for finding great sounds, but the songwriting still leaves something to be desired. I really wanted to like this album more, as I believe it’s going to take an artist like Styles to re-birth rock into the mainstream realm. This is certainly not a bad album. But it’s definitely a discontenting decent album, as I just can’t help but wonder how this album could have turned out if it was more complete.

Grade: 6/10