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

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 — Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Dedicated’

I never thought Carly Rae Jepsen could top the brilliance of Emotion, but somehow she does with Dedicated. She kicks it off right with “Julien,” a lustful and fun track about pining for someone you love. Oh and it’s quite catchy, but you can say that about pretty much every track on this album. I also enjoy the buildup of the synth in the bridge into the final part of the song, as it gives it that swelling effect that really punches the song home.

“No Drug Like Me” elevates itself above other songs about comparing love to drugs with its electronic influenced production and the emotion which Jepsen delivers it in. “Now That I Found You” is one of my favorite songs ever from Jepsen. The chorus is instantly catchy and maybe one of the most lip syncable songs I’ve heard in recent memory. And it’s just flat out a blast, as it’s impossible to not want to move to it as you’re listening. And then Jepsen follows this with an even better song in “Want You in My Room.” It’s the most overtly sexual song Jepsen has done, where she describes all the places she wants to have sex in her house. The Daft Punk-esque vocoders in the chorus are the perfect finishing touch along with the intertwining horns to cap it off. You cannot craft a better pop song than this, as it can hold its weight against any of the best pop songs.

“Everything He Needs” is a plea of assurance that the person you love needs you as much as you need them. It almost borderlines on obsessive, as Jepsen exudes all the ways he satisfies her in the bridge, with her voice getting creepier with each detail. But it fits perfectly with the theme of the album and the bouncy sound makes this song blow by (in a good way, of course).

“Happy Not Knowing” perfectly describes that feeling we’ve all felt when we pine for someone and imagine being with them, but you haven’t had the guts to tell them yet and you’re fine with it because you’re enjoying the excitement of the anticipation. It’s a testament to Jepsen’s songwriting ability to be able to capture such a complicated feeling so well. “I’ll Be Your Girl” makes you want to tear up the dance floor and bust out your best moves. The frenetic urgency of the song is so infectious and wraps itself right around you. And of course it wouldn’t be a Jepsen album without some timely saxophones that leave you wanting more.

Once again Jepsen does a great job of capturing a feeling on “Too Much.” This time she accurately describes the feeling of rushing thoughts and being overwhelmed with overthinking. In an album full of bangers this song is a nice cool down that allows for some introspection and builds on the overarching theme of the album. “The Sound” is my least favorite on the album, as it feels like it never reaches a crescendo moment. But it’s still a really enjoyable song, which speaks to the incredible strength of this album.

Just like “Want You in My Room”, “Automatically in Love” utilizes it’s electronic driven sound perfectly and gives a punch to every syllable uttered. The chorus especially pops over this sound and the smooth vocal delivery from Jepsen. “Feels Right” is a great blend of drums, piano, horns and claps and is perhaps the most underrated production moment on the album.

“Right Words Wrong Time” is another all-time best song from Carly Rae Jepsen. The mid-tempo sound that slowly builds, along with the exasperated delivery from Jepsen combine to make one of the most satisfying peaks you’ll ever hear in a song. Maybe it’s just me, but I just love how the song closes with a greater intensity. The final track “Real Love” sees Jepsen putting aside all of the sides of love explored on the album and comes to the sobering conclusion that she just wants real love after chasing it for so long. It’s a moment of honesty and clarity, with the album ending in Jepsen appropriately quietly crying out for love.

Carly Rae Jepsen further proves with Dedicated that she just gets pop music: the over-the-top production, the overwhelming emotions, the catchy hooks, exciting themes and everything in-between. While hyperbole is rampant throughout this review, I can seriously tell you that Dedicated may just be one of the albums of this past decade for me.

Grade: 10/10