Album Review — Caitlyn Smith’s ‘Supernova’

I gave high praise to Caitlyn Smith’s last album Starfire. Hence why I had such high hopes for the follow-up and put it as an album to watch out for in my inaugural Spinning All The Records feature. Unfortunately this album does not live up to the hopes I had for it. It would be hard to call this album anything other a disappointment from my eyes and that’s hard to say considering the immense talent of Caitlyn Smith. But that’s just it: Smith has an amazing voice and even better songwriting skills. And it results in Supernova. She’s just capable of so much more.

The album begins well enough with “Long Time Coming.” It’s a dramatic song about overcoming darkness to reach the light. Smith sings her ass off and delivers a belting performance that impresses. The production has an immediate gravitas about it and grips the listener. While the production works really well in in this song and other moments on the album, this extra emphasis on the production is the ultimate detriment of the album. “Damn You For Breaking My Heart” is another highlight on the album, a cutting track about having a hard time getting over a breakup. Smith adds so many nice little details to give the story texture, such as trying to hook up with a stranger and then feeling the instant guilt because she can’t get over her ex.

“Put Me Back Together” feels like a mainstream play, but it’s an enjoyable enough song, as I find it easy to sing-a-long with. Smith delivers a fun vocal performance. I think this song would be easier to enjoy if the rest of the album was better though. “All Over Again” is another song that contemplates lost love and the what ifs of the relationship. It’s just fine. Neither good nor bad, as nothing about the production nor the vocal performance stands out. It feels like playlist filler and this certainly isn’t the last instance of this on the album. “I Don’t Want to Love You Anymore” is great with it’s stripped down, airy production that allows Smith’s voice to carry the story of the song. Despite this being another song about not wanting to love someone anymore, it’s Smith’s vocal performance that really sells the emotions of the song and makes it connectable.

The album’s title track centers around the concept of time, how things can change so fast and trying to enjoy the moment. I really enjoy the songwriting and Smith’s eloquent, yet nuanced approach to time. But man do I find the sound of the clock hands in the background to be annoying and distracting. I get the inclusion of it, but as soon as I hear this the first time it bugs me every time I hear it the rest of the song. It’s just not necessary and it takes away from what should be a great song. To make matters worse this leads right into the playlist filler portion of Supernova. “I Can’t” sounds like a generic B-cut from a (insert pop star from the 2010s) album. “Rare Bird” feels like it drags on and on, as Smith has nothing interesting to say in this love song. “Midnight in New York City” has a cool aesthetic, but the lyrics are completely forgettable.

The monotony gets broken up on “Fly Away,” which is a fun love song. It’s catchy and the bounciness of the production gives it a lightness and carefree feel that fits the lyrics well. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this feels like a lesser version of “Contact High.” I really enjoy “Feel That Way” at first. It’s soulful, swelling with emotion and utilizes Smith’s vocals perfectly. But it goes too long, as at about the three minute mark Smith’s repetition of the hook makes it a frustrating listen. It’s very similar to how in hip-hop when an artist repeats the hook one too many times, crossing from fun and catchy into terrible ear worm territory. The album concludes with “Lonely Together,” an admirable attempt at a heartfelt love song. The soft piano play sets the mood for this type of song exactly the way you would want it. But just like so many other songs on the album, the lyrics don’t stand out enough for me.

The tale of the tape for Supernova is quite simple: this album focuses too much on flash and not enough on substance. Smith seemingly forgets about her greatest strength on this album and that’s her songwriting. It soared and impressed on Starfire. On this album the songwriting is so lifeless and it feels like so many themes are used multiple times and recycled. There are some bright spots on this album, but they’re dominated by what I would describe as run-of-the-mill pop rock moments for the most part. I never thought I would levy this kind of criticism toward a Caitlyn Smith album, but the songwriting just isn’t good enough. Supernova is ultimately just an okay album.

Grade: 5/10

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 — Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Hotspot’

The Pet Shop Boys have been around for decades and when it comes to this duo you know exactly what kind of music you’re going to get: catchy synth pop. It’s no different on the 14th album from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The in-your-face “Will-o-the-wisp” opens the album with it’s pulsing synths. The song is about coming across someone from the past you considered a will-o-the-wisp (an unobtainable person that you feel compelled to pursue), but has now become a boring and normal person. Yet despite this new reality, the old allure still remains. It tells a good story and I guarantee you will have the hook of this song stuck in your head (in a good way of course).

“You are the one” is a dreamy love song with satisfying lo-fi synths that make you feel like you’re floating in the clouds. I imagine this song will be a love it or hate it type, as I can see how some might find the soft sound to be a bit boring and dragging. Personally I find it relaxing and soothing. The duo gets back to that louder sound on “Happy people.” It’s sound is pure 80s, with the thin synths, hints of snare drum crashing throughout and thumping bass. And I love it, as this is a fist-pumping anthem that puts a smile on my face. The Pet Shops Boys go for an even bigger and bolder sound on “Dreamland.” With surrealistic lyrics about finding solace and comfort in dreams and the grand horns throughout, this song is just fantastic. It’s so much fun to dance to and is easily my top moment on Hotspot.

“Hoping for a miracle” is about the lifelong struggle one can go through to find acceptance and success. While I applaud the theme being explored, I find this song is too meandering for my taste, as it really never goes anywhere in terms of the theme or the sound, which is kind of meh considering the expectations one has with the Pet Shop Boys. “I don’t wanna” is essentially an introvert’s anthem, as it’s about not wanting to go out to the club and be around people. By the end the introvert finds his courage and heads out into the night. I like this hopeful message the song ultimately ends up at. I also enjoy the sound and feel of this song a lot more, as the pounding drum loops and skipping synths gives it a catchy and smooth melody.

“Monkey business” is a funky, heavily disco-influenced track about going out on the town to find “monkey business” (I think you can figure this out). It’s a simple and fun song that is unsurprisingly great for dancing. “Only the dark” is right along the lines of “Hoping for a miracle” for me. It’s too slow, boring and has nothing interesting to say. “Burning the heather” is a song that just outright confused me upon first listen with it’s reflective and ambiguous lyrics. But then I looked up what it means to burn the heather: it’s a common shrub in Europe that has to be periodically burned to help regenerate it, often in the fall. As for the rest of the song, it seems to be about a man who is misunderstood. Personally I find the song to be too complicated to enjoy and quite frankly doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the album.

The album closes with “Wedding in Berlin,” another song that quite frankly sticks out like a sore thumb with the rest of the album. It’s a mashup of electro-dance beats and the traditional wedding march, essentially a modern take on the latter. Most of the song consists of “We’re getting married” being repeated over and over. If you’re getting married and you want it to also feel like the club, this is your song. For the rest, it’s a neat listen once or twice and after that I have no desire to hear it again. It just comes off as a novelty song.

The highs the Pet Shop Boys deliver on Hotspot are really fun and are definitely memorable, while the lows are completely forgettable. It’s a bit of a roller coaster listen, but if you’re a fan of synth pop it’s worth listening to it a few times and picking out your favorite songs to go back to. But the album taken as a whole is just decent and leaves more consistency and cohesiveness to be desired.

Grade: 6/10

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