Album Review — John Moreland’s ‘LP5’

You would be hard-pressed to find many songwriters in music today better than John Moreland. His albums over the last decade contain some of the rawest and realest lyrics you’ll hear and his new album LP5 is no different. “Harder Dreams” opens the album, serving as a commentary on modern media, ads and the difficulty of realizing individuality in a world where everybody wants you to be something else. Right away you get to hear the new production approach Moreland and his producer Matt Pence take with this album, incorporating airy synths and drum machines. Just like Moreland’s last album Big Bad Luv, I love the different approach he takes with the production. And rest assured this isn’t the first time on this album I come away impressed by the instrumentation.

“A Thought is Just a Passing Train” has a catchy and bouncy feel thanks to some well-deployed drum loops throughout. The song though reflects on how dark thoughts can pass through your mind, but Moreland ultimately telling the listener to let their shame of this darkness go and to be easier on oneself. I enjoy the vocal effects used by Moreland too, as it gives the song a more ominous and serious tone. “East October” is another song focused on darkness, this time on what appears to be a fallout of a relationship and leaving the man questioning how he can continue on alone. Atmospheric guitars, drum loops and melodic pianos blend together to create a lush, sobering, mellow sound that set the perfect background to the lyrics.

“I’m Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth” is about a man recognizing the lies each person in the relationship is telling themselves. He then comes to the conclusion that he just wants to “move her” and seeing things more clearly than what he has been seeing. It’s a moving and honest song about…well honesty. But what makes this song so good is how Moreland’s lyrics dance around kind of vaguely throughout and at the end they all add up, leaving me as the listener with a sort of “a ha” moment of realizing what this song is all about. A lot of songwriters who use abstract lyrics fail to make them work because most listeners aren’t able to derive the message, but Moreland excellently deploys subtlety to tell this song’s story.

“Two Stars” is a peaceful and easy-feeling instrumental that shows another side to Moreland I’m happy to see. So many songwriters get hung up in the lyrics and don’t pay attention to the production, but Moreland is clearly not one of these songwriters. “Terrestrial” explores each sides of a relationship, the joyful beginnings and the sorrowful end. This might be my favorite on the album, as the lyrics are beautifully descriptive of each side of the relationship coin and the production is rich and textured. The mix of instrumentation in the bridge, largely driven by delicate plinking of the piano, gives me chills with it’s serene sound. My only complaint is I wish it was longer. Well done to Moreland and Pence.

Moreland once again does a great job of using abstract lyrics to tell a story on “In Times Between.” This one is about the crushing and lingering heartbreak after breaking up. The last lines in particular are so devastating, yet just drive the point of the song home so well: “But lately I’ve been feelin’ like I’ll never sleep again/I sit up in a satellite and watch the cold world spin/But damn it all to hell, but don’t it mean a thing?/The love we knew so well was barely hangin’ on a string.” After that dark note, Moreland lightens things up with “When My Fever Breaks.” It’s a heartwarming love song, a side I’m glad that Moreland opened up thanks to his newfound marriage on his last album Big Bad Luv. While it may not quite punch the gut likes his dark songs for many, I think he can write the love songs just as well too.

“I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground” once again sees Moreland and Pence find a good balance of drum loops and synths to create an interesting and vibrant sound. It’s another love song that features solid songwriting, but doesn’t quite stick as well emotionally for me as “When My Fever Breaks.” Moreland delivers another enjoyable instrumental with “For Ichiro,” which I thought would be about the legendary outfielder. But Moreland said it was basically just a random shoutout. Damn. Still a funny little story behind the song though. The album closes with “Let Me Be Understood,” which features some well-placed, warm harmonica licks throughout. The song itself is about being accepted and understood for who you are, not who you once were. It’s a nice choice to end that album, as Moreland clearly seems to be drawing from his experiences of growth and change, reflecting on the man he once was and the man he is now.

LP5 is another fantastic album from John Moreland. He’s always been a great songwriter since his first album, but it’s the recognition to grow and experiment with his sound starting with his last album that’s taken him to a whole new level in my mind. Too many singer-songwriter artists think they have to stick to a stripped-down, folk-y sound for their lyrics to be taken seriously. At the same time, drum machines are dismissed as “not real instruments” used by pop stars. Well with LP5, Moreland proves both these claims to be moot.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Tame Impala’s ‘The Slow Rush’

When it comes to Tame Impala, there can be a split amongst it’s fans and it all centers around the last album Currents. And it’s understandable, as the sound of Tame Impala is decidedly different pre-Currents and post-Currents. Personally, I prefer post-Currents, as I find the production to be the big reason I prefer this era of Tame Impala. Currents is in fact one of my favorite albums of the 2010s and I’ll most certainly be talking about it more when I conduct my best albums of the 2010s list. Tame Impala’s new album The Slow Rush picks up right where it left off.

Now one thing to know right up front about Tame Impala if you’re not familiar with the act is it’s only one man who’s writing, producing and making the music on the albums: multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker. And it’s easy to see he’s a perfectionist when it comes to his production, hence why it’s been five years since Currents. So when it comes to listening to Tame Impala, it’s immediately the first thing you notice and therefore must be the first thing that has to be discussed. It absolutely dominates and smothers every other aspect of Tame Impala’s music. It’s both good and bad. It’s good in the sense because there’s just so much attention to detail and it’s so grandiose and over-the-top that it overwhelms your senses in a good way. It’s bad in a way though too because it’s so hard to focus on everything else, most notably the lyrics. So one big recommendation I would make when listening to Tame Impala and this album is to wear headphones.

The ethereal and echoing “One More Year” opens the album and the song (and the whole album) explores a relationship one year into it. It reflects on how the relationship came to be, the joy of being in it still the same, but also the doubt and fear of the commitment aspect creeps in too. This seems to be fully fleshed out throughout the album. But I have to point out these particular lyrics towards the latter half of the song come off as lazy: “We got a whole year (One more year)/Fifty-two weeks/Seven days each/(One more year) Four seasons/one reason/one way.” It feels like filler. And as I said above the production drowns out the lyrics so that for many listeners that this just glazes over, but once you start closely examining the lyrics you see there are a few moments on this album where the lyrics feel phoned in.

“Instant Destiny” is an instantly catchy song with one of the stronger hooks on the album. This song is about letting the love in a relationship dominate your emotions and essentially letting all the problems come off as trivial (such as traffic). It’s a fun and groovy love song. “Borderline” is a great modern take on disco that avoids the cheese of the genre and focuses more on a funky bass-line that draws you right in. This honestly feels more like a song from The Weeknd with it’s club feeling and Parker’s voice delivery, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a great song, but I would remiss if I didn’t point out the canniness.

“Posthumous Forgiveness” is a perfect example when Parker puts an equally great amount of effort into both the lyrics and production, as he explores the complicated feelings he has towards his now deceased-father. He’s angry at the lies his father told him and how feels betrayed by them, watching his father go to the grave without it ever being addressed. But at the same time he forgives him and wishes he was still alive to share all of the things happening in his life now. It’s a beautifully tragic look into a complicated relationship and shows how fantastic of a songwriter Parker can be. I also love how the beat changes from dreary and dark when Parker is expressing anger, but then shifts to a more shining and upbeat sound when he pleads that he wishes his father was still alive.

The tropical funk of “Breathe Deeper” is instantly infectious and I love the shimmering effect the keys give the song as they interlude throughout. It comes off a prove it song to me, as Parker professes to his love that he can handle the relationship. The infectious groove with the commanding lyrics make for a great song, except it feels so unnecessary for it to be six minutes long. It becomes meandering by the end, as this song could have easily just been four minutes and gotten across the message. The beat change at the end feels like overkill too, showing the cons of taking a perfectionist attitude with production.

“Tomorrow’s Dust” should have been left on the cutting room floor, as it has both the least memorable beats and lyrics. The song is about finding it wrong to connect with an old soul and seeing wrongness in others and quite frankly it’s all an unfocused mess. There’s just no direction or purpose in this song, as it ultimately says nothing to me. It’s too abstract in it’s approach, not to mention the song feels longer as a result. Thankfully the album gets back on track with “On Track.” It’s an upbeat and optimistic song about reassuring one’s self that you’re on the right path and overcoming the mistakes of the past while acknowledging there will still be more mistakes and failures to come. It’s staying focused and not letting the past nor future bring you down. The drums and the airy synths give the song an appropriately reflecting yet hopeful feeling.

The bounciness of “Lost in Yesterday” makes it one of the funnest moments on the album. The song is about facing the memories and demons of the past, facing fears and shedding the things that feel like that hold you back. Once again Parker shares a genuinely heartfelt and healthy message of building off mistakes and making yourself into a better, happier person. It’s also yet another example of Tame Impala at it’s best because the songwriting feels like it’s given the same amount of attention as the production. “Is It True” brings more funky and groovy goodness on an album already full of it. Once again the bass liner is killer from Parker. The lyrics are strong here too, as Parker’s love questions if it’s true when he says he loves her. I thoroughly enjoy and am amazed at how Parker captures in the lyrics the simultaneously contradicting feelings of being head over heels with someone while also being absolutely terrified of expressing it (along with the doubt of both with Parker saying he loves her).

“It Might Be Time” is about grappling with that doubt from both internally and externally, looking for all the excuses of why the relationship can’t work. At the same time it’s acknowledging the change happening around you and in your own relationship, causing more fear and doubt. Ultimately Parker realizes he has to embrace it all and not run from it. I love the frenetic nature of the drums and guitars, lending well to the nature and theme of the song. “Glimmer” sounds like it’s song title, a glimmer of hope and resolve in the face of this fear and doubt. The short song (well more of an interlude) consists of Parker repeating over and over “I just wanna let it all go,” referring to the doubt.

This gives way to the final track “One More Hour,” where Parker finally sheds all the past doubts and demons. He fully embraces the changing dynamics of his life and the love he has, using it to center him as he faces the future head on. The concluding absolute resolve and growth that is demonstrated in this song (and whole album) is fantastic. The production is also once again amazing with the soaring and space-y sounds of the synths, guitar and drums crashing together.

The Slow Rush is another great album from Tame Impala without a doubt. But it’s also hard not to see this album is a few missteps away from equaling the brilliance of Currents. It lacks focus in a few spots and there’s one song that just isn’t needed. But this is also a bit nitpicking admittedly. The production from Parker is once again deeply rich and textured, engulfing you with it’s fantastic details. And the songwriting mostly hits. So ultimately I can say this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Tennis’ ‘Swimmer’

I have to admit I wasn’t that familiar with the husband-wife duo of Tennis before hearing their new album Swimmer. I had heard of Tennis in passing and a few songs here and there. And man I wish I had listened to the music of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley sooner. But I picked a great album to start with, as Swimmer is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard on love in the modern era. I like to think of this album as a more grown-up version of Country Perspective’s top album of 2020, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated. Swimmer though is very much in the dream pop lane, taking influences from twee pop, soft rock and yacht rock too.

Soft and rolling piano plays in opener “I’ll Haunt You.” It’s a song about confessional, professing love. The instrumentation gives it an appropriately hypnotic feel and is a good introduction of what you can expect through this album. I really enjoy the bouncy snare drum that interplays throughout “Need Your Love.” Tennis makes an excellent choice in speeding up the pace when Moore is protesting her lover, yet the melody immediately slows down once she admits she needs his love. This really gives a good sense into the divided mindset of someone who loves someone but is also living in doubt with them at the same time, as both the words and sounds play perfectly off each other.

“How to Forgive” is about disguising how you feel around the person you love and being consumed by the questions in your head about the relationship. “How could I disguise the way that I’m feeling?/I’ve got my reasons, I could give you a million/I’d move on if I could only remember/All that it takes is just an act of surrender” are the money lines that really drive home the mood of this song. That very last line in particular gives such an insightful glimpse into the fear of giving one’s self up to another in a relationship and letting go of that control. Moore’s delivery of these lines really drives the emotion of them across.

“Runner” focuses on the raw passion of the relationship, going down to the beads of sweat that are running down their necks. Once again I have to praise how the production shifts so appropriately with the changing moods within the song, going more methodical and relaxing when Moore is reflecting on the passion, and then the pace shifts to a more frenetic, escalating excitement when she starts to exclaim over the sweat that pours out of her. With this kind of synchronization between the words and production of the song, it makes it instantly connectable with such a vivid picture being painted in my head.

“Echoes” and “Swimmer” are two songs that need to be discussed together for two reasons. For one I couldn’t really discern what exactly they were about, but I’m glad it forced me to actually read what Moore said about writing these songs because the inspiration behind them are the kind of stories I like to hear about from songwriters. That leads me to the second point of why these two songs should be discussed together and that’s because they each center around death.

“Echoes” is about Moore suffering a seizure in a grocery store, leading her husband Riley to believe she was dead at first. Moore also described the ordeal as an out of body experience and how after she came to later that it strengthened their bond even more. “Swimmer” is about the couple spreading the ashes of Riley’s father in the ocean and Moore observing the dichotomy of the sadness of them spreading his ashes versus looking back at the shore and seeing people laughing and having a good time. The message ultimately both songs convey is how reflecting on mortality can cause one to have greater appreciation for your loved ones; out of sadness can come happiness, strength and a greater awareness. It is death that gives life such meaning and therefore love too. You can’t get any stronger songwriting than this.

“Tender as a Tomb” immediately invites you in with it’s warm and tropical sound. It’s a song that gets lost in the overwhelming joy one can experience when in love, engulfing themselves in the emotion, casting away all reason and doubt in the process. “Late Night” features some really clever songwriting around a biblical reference: “Like Mary Magdalene, I’m on my knees again/But if you see me as a saint/You’d be mistaken/Late night turning into morning blue/It took such a long time to make up my own mind about you.” It not only describes her surrendering herself to the sexual pleasure of this relationship, but the emotional aspect too. She’s both literally and figuratively giving herself up to her love. It’s gripping and fantastic songwriting by Moore and Riley.

The album closes with “Matrimony II,” an excellent choice to end with, as it kind of reflects on everything that this album covers, leading to the ultimate act of love: marriage. It goes over the vows and how she changed her name for him, how all these little acts and feelings slowly built up to this moment of true love. What impresses me how well this is expressed in the lyrics without “going Hallmark” or overly cliché. Matched with an equally happy sounding melody, this song makes you leave the album with a smile. I know I did.

With Swimmer, Tennis delivers an excellent album about love. It’s quickly became one of my favorite love albums. And this isn’t rash hyperbole on my end. I’m being serious when I say that this album truly delivers a heartfelt, genuine and truly touching take on true love. Love albums and love song are an absolute dime-a-dozen. They’re churned out every day. Most only focus on the surface level of love and the flip-side with heartbreak. What they don’t ever seem to focus on are the little things, the nitty gritty of relationships that aren’t easy to convey in an informative and interesting way. But that takes brilliant songwriting with equally high-quality production that aids it. Tennis delivers this.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats’ ‘UNLOCKED’

This was a project I heard about and got immediately excited and then I completely forgot about it. But I’m glad I was paying enough attention to still catch it when it dropped, as seeing Denzel Curry, one of the best rappers in the game today, teaming up with producer Kenny Beats, one of the most promising up and coming producers in hip-hop, had me excited at the potential of this team-up. And after listening to UNLOCKED, the duo definitely lives up to the hype.

Two things I have to point out before getting to the music: the album art is fantastic and a perfect reflection of what you can expect when listening to this project. It also has a heavy CZARFACE influence, as it looks like something you would expect for album art on one of his records. The other thing I have to point out is this was allegedly made in just 24 hours by Curry and Beats, which makes what they create on this short project even more impressive. 

Opening track “Track 01” serves more as an intro, as it features a sample of a PSA and some beats before giving way to “Take_it_Back_v2.” And right away Curry’s furious and forceful delivery takes control, spitting off bars with authority. The beat is sinister and modern, but you can also hear the boom bap influences that permeate throughout this song and the entire album, making for a captivatingly grimy appeal. The bars are humorous and flow together really well, as I especially enjoy the word interplay in the line “You fell in love with kali ma, but now it’s time to take your heart.” 

“Lay_Up.m4a” continues with the hard and funny bars. The most memorable line: “Surfboard body ass boy with your fish tits.” It’s such a fun, shit-talking flex song with some appropriately eerie, ominous beats lurking in the background. “Pyro (leak 2019)” is very much along the same lines, featuring some clever bars around Cee Lo Green. It’s a pretty short song though and that’s probably the biggest complaint I have with songs on this album. This is definitely an album where you need to hear it all together and not broken up to get the full effect of each song.

“DIET_” sees Curry brilliantly channeling Busta Rhymes, sure to bring a smile to anyone who enjoys this style of rapping. This is also the best and most complete song on the album, as everything just ties together perfectly. Curry attacks the beat and it has the best bars on the album too: “One man, ichiban, fresh outta Japan/Do as I command” and “And I don’t like Pixar, mist-er/I am the master, I came through like a (wait a minute).” The latter bar in particularly highlights how great Curry’s flow and approach to bars makes what looks awkward on paper, work so easily and smoothly in execution.

“So.Incredible.pkg” and “Track07” feature my favorite beats on the album, as they’re both smooth and surrealistic. It’s why I enjoy hearing Kenny Beats project: you’re going to get some sounds that you don’t normally hear in a lot of hip-hop projects nowadays. This different and fresh approach, while also drawing from previous influences in hip-hop, is why he’s quickly become one of my favorite producers in the genre today, as I wish more producers would “go out there” with their sound like Kenny Beats.

The album closes with “’Cosmic’ .m4a,” another song where Curry’s rapid delivery is right on point with memorable, hard-hitting bars. I harp on Curry’s delivery once again because it’s so key to what makes this album great. The songs themselves don’t have any big messages and are essentially bangers that focus on delivering fun bars. So many hip-hop albums are like this today and many are largely forgotten because the delivery just flat-out sucks. But Curry brings so much aggressive passion and rawness in his voice, along with his choice of diction in his delivery makes what would be an average banger into something that’s truly memorable. And this big reason is why UNLOCKED is the first great hip-hop album I’ve heard in 2020. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ZUU (an album I’m ashamed I omitted from my best of 2019 list), this is yet another high-quality project from Denzel Curry (and another great one from Kenny Beats too).

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — The Cadillac Three’s ‘COUNTRY FUZZ’

The Cadillac Three is a group I haven’t exactly embraced in the past. They were an easy target when they arrived on the scene amid the bro country era, especially being on a label like Big Machine that really pushed the sub-genre. But in hindsight I realized I was probably way too harsh on Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason, and Kelby Ray. I feel looking back that I didn’t view them objectively enough. So, I looked back through their discography and while they won’t be competing with Blackberry Smoke for the best modern country rock, I’ve realized this is a fun group that hits more than they miss. And on their newest album COUNTRY FUZZ, I think they’ve managed to put out their best album yet.

Opening track “Bar Round Here” is a feel-good bar anthem that’s easy to singalong with. It’s a fun song that hits just right at the end of a long work week. Also, it’s surprising to see Lori McKenna as a co-writer on this track, as this isn’t the type of song you’re used to seeing her pen. “The Jam” is another fun song that is a blast to both sing to and move to. It also shows off a funkier side of the group and it actually suits them well. The rhythmic guitars in juxtaposition with the bouncy drums helps this song easily live up to its name.

“Hard Out Here for a Country Boy” is a song on paper I wouldn’t enjoy, as the whole “I’m a country boy” theme is done to death in the genre. But the charisma of the trio along with guests Travis Tritt and Chris Janson makes the song instantly likeable and makes this common theme surprisingly work for me. It also helps that the sound is decidedly country with some well-placed crunchy harmonicas in the bridge. “Slow Rollin’” can feel a bit “butt rock-ish” at first, but upon repeat listens it’s really grown on me thanks to the song’s heavy guitar tones and it’s catchy lyrics.

“All the Makin’s of a Saturday Night” is one of my least favorite tracks on the album, as the group fails this time to make a well-worn theme work for me. The instrumentation just isn’t fun enough nor does it stand out. The lyrics aren’t really catchy either and the song is just too thin to really sink your teeth into. “Crackin’ Cold Ones with the Boys” is one of my favorites, as the group once again nails those heavy guitar tones that give the song both a head-bobbing quality and a sense of excitement. The hook is memorable too.

“Labels” is one of the more serious moments on the album, as the song is about not judging people by their looks and how there’s always more than meets the eye. While I would have liked for them to go a little bit deeper within the topic, it’s still an admirable message and they also still manage to put in some enjoyable guitar licks. “Raise Hell” is about coming to the realization of being a troublemaker, but also learning lessons from the years of raising hell. I particularly enjoy the funny line of “If me and the big man are on the outs then I guess I understand.” This song really highlights what I’ve realized is the secret sauce of this group and that’s their presentation and delivery. Their lyrics aren’t competing with Isbell anytime soon and their country rock sound isn’t unique. But they present it in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is ultimately trying to just create a good time for the listener.

“Back Home” is about yearning to return to the sights and sounds of home. Again, this is a well-trodden theme of country music that I think The Cadillac Three manage to present as catchy, authentic and relatable to the average listener. Although I wouldn’t begrudge you for finding it a bit repetitive either. “Dirt Road Nights” is a slow, R&B-influenced jam about a couple getting nostalgic about cruising the backroads in their younger years. I like the theme, but I would have liked a little more “meat” to the story of the song to feel more connected to it. A little less repetitive and a little more background on the relationship the song focuses on.

“Blue El Camino” is everything you want in a country rock song: loud, in-your-face guitars that get you moving and an instantly catchy hook you’ll find humming to yourself long after listening to it. When I say want to hear more fun songs in country music again, this is it. “Jack Daniels’ Heart” is another song that’s a blast with it’s clever premise of pondering who was the girl who broke the heart of the famous whiskey maker. But it doesn’t matter as the song explains because the whiskey makes you forget. Throw in some great drumming from Mason that gives the song a beat with a real kick and this is again what I want out of a fun country song.

“Why Ya Gotta Go Out Like That” is a breakup song that gets a bit repetitive for my taste and at this point in the album the choice of making it 16 songs long is proving to be a stretch. I think this album would have benefitted more from knocking a few songs off it and staying closer to 12 songs in length, especially when a lot of the themes can get repetitive for some listeners. “Heat” is one of my favorites on this album with its swampy and smoky feel. I also love how Johnston delivers the hook with passion and authority, inviting the listener to want to shout along.

“Whiskey and Smoke” falls in the same category of “Why Ya Gotta Go Out Like That”; not necessarily a bad song, but unnecessary on an album at 16 songs that has other songs that cover the topic at hand much better. “Long After Last Call” is a softer love ballad that closes out the album. It’s a great choice for a closer due to its reflective, easy nature. It’s also a fitting conclusion that after all the fun and party throughout the album it ends with finding and cherishing that meaningful connection you want to keep going long after the party ends.

Fun is a word I repeat over and over in this review. And it’s for good reason: that’s the ultimate appeal of The Cadillac Three and their album COUNTRY FUZZ. It’s entertaining country rock that aims to help you have a good time and forget your worries. The lyrics aren’t deep, and they aren’t meant to be; they’re meant to singalong with and have fun. So while this album may not be one for the record books or album of the year lists, it is an album that entertains and it’s exactly what you’re looking for when you just want to listen to something with loud guitars and big hooks.

Grade: 8/10