One of the ways I offset some of my podcasting overhead is by freelance reviewing music for a small publication. Since I’ve had this job for over a year now I have a hearty backlog of reviews from my listening to at least four new albums per month. Let’s dive into the backlog and look at the worst examples, be they downright offensive or just bland wasted potential.
It’s difficult to review a solo album from a giant on thes houlders of which the majority of pop music today stands on. On the one hand, it’s unfair to compare Paul McCartney’s 2018 music to anything The Beatles did. On the other, I’ve only heard three not-Beatles songs of his, so I’m more likely to pull from that as a reference point. In the end I didn’t have that problem because Egypt Station isn’t really an album. It’s an astronomically rich old man noodling around for the fun of it.
Egypt Station is an unashamed playlist-padder of an album. Nothing particularly offensive with a couple of toe-tappers that you might suddenly recall in a few years and not remember who wrote the song. The music video for McCartney’s Dance Tonight, featuring Mackenzie Crook and Natalie Portman is more musically engaging and memorable than this entire album.
McCartney’s not saying much or trying to do anything musically, preferring to run cloyingly sweet with occasional sparks of that McCartney/Lennon era creativity. There’s also the one song about certain massively unpopular politicians that tries to both be critical and keep it vague in that coy 1960s way. With today’s level of political discourse in music it feels like McCartney playing things too safe. If you want a good stretch of songs that nobody in the car will particularly hate, Egypt Station has got you covered.
Origins – Imagine Dragons
Imagine Dragons is the Burger King of bands. The sales numbers show they’re incredibly popular yet for the life of me I can’t figure out why, and I’ve yet to meet a single person who prefers them over a similar competitor.
Origins is a monument to how being a titan in the streaming music world doesn’t necessarily mean you have to bring anything particularly impactful or talented to the music world. Dan Reynolds seems to have been keeping up his lessons at Eminem School of Shouting. He’s of the unfortunate impression shouting a lyric Chester Bennington-style will be powerful no matter what situation.
Spoiler alert: the late great Bennington shouted lyrics that needed shouting. Between the shouting and a lot of bush-league mixing techniques (including an egregious abuse of layering two tracks of Reynolds’ vocals over each other to give the illusion his voice is fuller and he has good pipes) it feels like if music were a videogame he dumped all of Imagine Dragon’s skill points into leveling up beats and mastering, leaving the rest of the band woefully weak. There are a few cool punchy beats and a throwaway song for Wreck It Ralph 2, that’s about it for this album.
Cinematic – Owl City
Cinematic is the audio version of eating a ton of one’s favorite candy in a short amount of time. Perhaps fun-sounding on paper, cloyingly sweet and regrettable in its execution. Cinematic feels like it’s trying to trade on pre-existing ideas at every turn. The album art looks someone with three hours of Photoshop under their belt decided to make fan-art of Owl City in the style of Drew Struzan’s “a bunch of head shovering over the title” poster style made famous by Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The top songs are so saccharine they feel like someone was hired to parody an early Owl City single.
I’ve heard soundtracks from made-for-television Disney movies that have more complexity and variety than Cinematic. I’ve not checked in on Owl City since Ocean Eyes when it was physically impossible to escape the monolithic figure that was Fireflies, and I gotta say this is sorely disappointing. It feels like Young has spent the last decade doing nothing to expand creatively. Cinematic’s songs are so similar to Ocean Eyes the two albums are interchangeable. The sad truth is there are people out there who would rather an artist stayed exactly the same, and I’m here to tell them Cinematic is just what they’ve been looking for.
I get a strong album-by-committee vibe from this as an overall package. The most interesting thing about Liberation is the detailed Wikipedia breakdown of who worked on which songs. In addition to the usual handful of celebrity musicians guesting on tracks there’s a laundry list of producers and behind-the-scenes folk attached. Some individual songs have more people involved than most artists need to produce an entire album. Kanye West produced a couple, the excellent Anderson Paak worked on two of the better songs of the album, 2Chainz shows up at some point for some reason.
Too many moving parts come together to create a monumentally meh album. I accidentally left my Spotify stream on album repeat and didn’t notice I was re-listening to songs until I’d looped through the first half again. Aguilera isn’t a bad singer, far from it, but there’s nothing particularly exciting going on here. For all the narrative of this being her big come-back album that’s just “her truth” put into music… there’s a hell of a lot of other people working on said truth.Too many cooks in the kitchen creates a middling-quality album, in the end.
Beautiful Life – Rick Astley
Processed over-pasturized cheese is to actual cheese as Beautiful Life is to a good Rick Astley album. This is the musical version of a bad big-budget movie: A studio threw money and a big name at a half-assed product and expected it to succeed of its own merit. Astley’s pipes are wasted on bland, boring lyrics and beats that sound like they slipped Maroon 5 a $50 Subway gift card in exchange for any backing tracks they ended up not using on Songs for Jane.
There are glimpses of quality in the album. All tired memes aside, one of the reasons Never Gonna Give You Up has remained such a powerhouse internet gag is Astley’s talent as a singer. The guy is a snapshot of 80s pop and this album could have been that: a 2018 take on Astley’s 1980s music. Songs like Every Corner are a treat to listen to, but they’re buried beneath bland fluff like the titular Beautiful Life. Hell, Every Corner could have been the title track and the album might have been better off. As it stands it opens weak, the only reason I finished the album was this review.Wasted potential.
Every Third Thought
I was surprised to find out The X-Files’ David Duchovny had recently released a rock album, let alone to find out it’s his sophomore effort. Then I learned the album came not from a long-time desire to make music, but from him simply picking up a guitar and learning it a few years ago.
Every Third Thought feels like a first draft, something placeholder. It reminds me of whenever a movie has a father figure character who also has a band “with the guys” that performs every now and then to pad out time. The songs are simplistic, easy to remember,and are dangerously close to William Shatner-styled talk-singing for fear of hurting the actor’s voice during long recording sessions.
To call what Duchovny is doing “singing” is to stretch the definition of the art. He’s rhythmically talking over music. Considering the fact this album doesn’t even have a cursory Wikipedia page and it’s published under a boutique label created by Duchovny himself (named after his son Kyd), it’s quickly apparent Every Third Thought is the musical equivalent of a self-published novel: it’s more for the person who created it than for public consumption.
Man of the Woods
Justin Timberlake may have brought sexy back, but he’s not bringing much to the table with Man of the Woods. Pulling from a childhood spent growing up in Tennessee, this album seeks to be Timberlake’s more southern-influenced work. With no real breakout popular singles or celebrity guests beyond Alicia Keys, this album is more focused on becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
My main issue with Man of the Woods is the same issue that comes up with a lot of big-name artists: a good chunk of the songs are just blah Justin Timberlake songs. One could randomly insert them into any other album of his career and they wouldn’t sound out of place, even with Timberlake’s supposed southern thesis that spans the whole album.
The music does show some nice influence from classic county and R&B, but in the end it’s an album of Timberlake bein’ Timberlake but with occasional mention of rural things. Simply talking about being outside a lot and plopping Chris Stapleton onto a song does not a compelling “southern” album make.
Ember – Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin has always been “that one band with the song in Halo 2” to me. They exist,people seem to buy their albums, yet I can’t name a single song they’ve produced besides that one song they wrote for Halo 2 back in 2004 (A cursory Google search informs me it was Blow Me Away). The band has been on ice for a few years and is back with, if I’m not mistaken, an entirely new band except for the titular Benjamin Burnley.
Now the band has three guitars instead of two.
Tone-wise Ember feels like that same 2004 BB but for the high school freshman wearing a heavy metal t-shirt who wishes they were a little more “metal.” Take an old album of theirs, dip it in cheesy early-90s heavy metal tropes (heavy on the drums,screaming every couple of lines, light intros followed by heavy drops) you’ve got this weird assemblage of music that’s scarily easy to tune out to. If one was a fan of the band in their formative years and wanted a new album that leans a smidge darker… Ember is a serviceable album.
The Rick and Morty Soundtrack
Rick and Morty
For all of the goofy memes and songs the show created, what really elevated Rick and Morty among its Adult Swim peers was a talented writing staff, talented in-house composer Ryan Elder, and strategic use of licensed music.
Given the show’s history of good music and Adult Swim regularly associating the IP with popular artists (including producing an R&M music video for Run the Jewels) this soundtrack was primed to be a wonderful mix of indie pop, hip-hop, and a handful of goofy songs that have been memed to death ten times over. Unfortunately this album is mostly the latter.
Of the 21 songs only three are by not R&M voice actors/Elder (and of the three one uses R&M samples and one is a Chaos Chaos song that isn’t Terryfolds or Do You Feel It). It’s mainly Justin Roiland singing intentionally stupid songs that break any sense of mood from the licensed music and show composer Ryan Elder’s amazing original pieces.
One could almost sue Adult Swim from the whiplash that occurs going from the powerful electronica of Unity Says Goodbye to friggin’ Get Schwifty. This isn’t an album, it’s a garbage playlist Adult Swim published because they know fans will buy it. The fact that natural resources are being used to print physical copies of this saddens me deeply.