Wolf Alice — “Visions of A Life”

London alt-rock band, Wolf Alice, arm themselves with punk power-chords and epic vocal arrangements continuing their streak of solid professionally recorded projects. Ever since the band’s EP “Blush,” Wolf Alice has remained a favorite within the oversaturated genre of alt-rock due to their tasteful use of folk, electronica, and grunge elements in the creation of their expansive soundscapes. “Visions of a Life” maintains this signature style by creating a complex fusion of dreamy shoegaze imbued with grunge’s off-kilter delivery creating a volatile mix; one moment cool and captivating but the next thrilling and gnarly.

 The band’s frontwoman, Ellie Rowsell is only 25-years-old but she sings about feelings most people have during their tumultuous years of high school. Roswell is not too far removed from this age group: much of the lyrics on the record compel the listener to believe she is currently facing these struggles because of her sheer intensity. The band’s intricate layering of sounds over her grandeur vocals emulate her state of mind so vividly I forget I’m just listening to a dumb, gushy love-song, like on “Don’t Delete the Kisses.”

Roswell simulates the moody teenager fumbling through an assortment of emotions, balancing rage and gentleness; anxiety and comfort. The best illustration of this is the album’s first two tracks. It starts with “Heavenward,” a mellow, spacey and angelic ballad celebrating friends the band has lost over the years, immortalizing them in a “small heaven,” a song to remember them with. However, Roswell quickly turns-a-corner on the second track, “Yuk Foo,” expelling a frenzy of teenage frustrations, boldly flicking-off the world and changing the tone of the entire record unexpectedly. “Yuk Foo” is an awkward inclusion no matter how you organize the album but Roswell seemed aware of how self-destructive the song and her attitude were on the track and just doesn’t seem to care as long as you go down with her. It has its charm but is ultimately off-putting.

The track “Sky Musings,” delves into the crippling effects of anxiety by plunging the listener into Roswell’s mind during a freak-out on a commercial plane. By narrating the attack with hushed spoken-word and a steady, synth-beat mimicking an erratic heartbeat, Roswell creates a simple yet tense scenario accurately capturing the psychological damage caused by over-thinking.

Followed shortly afterward is “Space & Time,” a track about the uncertainty the future holds and a desire to travel ahead in time just to know for sure it will all be okay in the end. Although Roswell is anxious about this, she is not having a panic attack on the same level as “Sky Musings,” and in fact, finds comfort in the idea that if she were to just travel into the future she would likely see exactly what she wants.

It’s interesting to see how different her attitude and the tone of the songs are from one another. “Sky Musings” worries so much about the present and is ultimately irrational while “Space & Time” worries so little about the future presenting an upbeat and optimistic view of a very rational fear. I find comfort in this idea as well, that our minds and the way we approach things ultimately decide how we feel about something.

Although this album isn’t entirely a sophomore slump, it feels weaker overall in comparison to the band’s previous works. The chaotic mix of singles early in the record seemed forced, especially with “Yuk Foo.” The front-loaded singles stir things up some but the album ties itself together nicely as it goes on. However, I’m not sure how often I’ll be replaying this album into the future due to the nature of its cliched theme. I give Wolf Alice’s “Vision of A Life” a 6.5/10 but recommend their previous works along with some of the singles from this record.



What I’m looking for. Score (0-10) Examples of Scoring
Innovation 4 10- Creates entire genre.

8- Creates a new niche or sub-genre

6-pushes current genres limits

4- pushes their own limits

2-little change

Uniqueness (of either artist or album) 7 10-Never before seen (has influences still)

8-More than 3 unique qualities including sound, person, story, ect.

6- 2 unique qualities

4-1 unique qualities

2-Lowest possible score because everyone is unique :^)

Songwriting 7
Lyrics 8
Artist’s technical ability 9
Production 7 10- Perfect Balance

5- Over-produced more than not (or even under produced)

0- Sounds horrible

Theme 7 10-powerful theme throughout

5-theme but kinda sucks

0-no theme or organization

Length/Flow of Album 5 10-Songs reinforce each other, album isn’t hard to listen to, and the transitions are smooth/appropriate

5- 2 of those things

0-none of these things

Longevity 5 How relevant will it be in 5, 10, 25 years.
Personal Enjoyment 7 10-peak enjoyment

5-indifferent

1-Couldn’t hate album more

65 100 max

Smarter Playlists: Curating Your Spotify

Every time a new year rolls around, I look forward to Spotify’s “Your Top Songs of Whatever Year.” I have my pet artists I can listen to everyday and having all of my favorite songs in one place is a real treat. It never made sense to me why Spotify didn’t have a simple way to track your listening like this Top Songs playlist did. They obviously keep track of these statistics around so why don’t we have access?

Well, Smarter Playlists doesn’t give you those statistics but it does give you tools to make these playlists and download them directly on your account. Just like “Boil the Frog,” this program was made by Spotify Programmer Paul Lamere and it’s a program made specifically for non-programmers. The commands are separated into different components neatly coming together into a circuit of awesomeness.

It’s all fairly simple and you can import circuits other users have created if you don’t want to make your own. As far as “Your Top Songs” go, there is a specific component for this that can be decided based off how far back you’d like to go, like best of the month, the year or all-time.COOOL STUFFOne of the circuits I threw together took my largest playlist containing pretty much everything I listen to and filtered in down by BPM and “danceability.” The skill-ceiling for this site is higher than what I can demonstrate but it’s a simple way to create and customize playlists. I suggest playing around with it some and share what you create!

 

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How to Write an Album Review Part. 2

This is a continuation from a tutorial last week where I wrote about the kinds of preparation that goes into writing an album review. Part two was supposed to be about my process and the some other processes I’ve observed other critics using in their review writing but I realized that explaining my writing process will be long winded enough so I decided to cut-down from there.

Prepare your review by writing an outline and a thesis.

Write a thesis statement of your opinion.

Condense your thoughts into a succinct, one-sentence thesis explaining your thoughts, the album’s strengths or weaknesses, or the context of the record. The thesis does not have to be your lead but should be apart of your introduction.

Create an outline of your review.

Strategize how the review will look through an outline. Doing this will help you jump into the writing process and keep your thoughts in order. No outline should be the same as the last. Here are three outlines I sometimes use interchangeably based on my opinion of the quality of the album:

Good album:

  1. Context.
  2. Sum up the record and it’s place within the context. Explain your reasoning and touch on the major arts of the album i.e. Tone, Theme, instrumentals, lyrics, features, song structure.
  3. Go into the tracks- standout stories/lyrics/controversy, beats/music, any criticisms. Weak tracks.
  4. Recap.

In-between album:

  1. Context.
  2. Sum up the record or your opinion with an in-depth explanation of your reasoning. Reinforce your own tastes and stress that other people’s opinions are just as valid.
  3. Tracks that illustrate your gripes with album.
  4. Tracks you may have enjoyed.
  5. Propose what could’ve been done better with your own reasoning.
  6. Recap.

Bad album:

  1. Let the reader know it sucks and why right away.
  2. Context.
  3. Find a critical voice demonstrating what good may have been in the record.
  4. Explain your views and opinions with reason.
  5. Recap.

Begin writing the review by constructing a narrative and an argument.

Introduce the artist and the context of the record by making a narrative.

Creating a narrative for an album is not easy and requires you have done your homework i.e. spending time reading up on the artist’s history, interviews and listening to their discography. Understanding the circumstances of the artist and the world around them during the creation of the album will help you develop and bolster your opinion with an informed impression of the artist’s narrative. If the reader believes you have the wrong idea about the artist than why should they continue reading? Having a legible and accurate story will help make the review be more readable while demonstrating your knowledge of the subject.  

Propose your opinion and argue by demonstration.

This should be the largest chunk of review and will require the most work. A good way to begin is by checking your notes to remember what you thought of the album initially. A recording of your gut-instinct may help you decide what direction to take with the review or understand why your opinion may have changed. For example, some albums take several listens before you really start to enjoy and understand it. Telling your reader about how long it took for the album to grow on you and why it did will make the review more personal and give the reader an understanding of what to expect from the album.  

a.) Creating the argument.

The most important part of writing a well-written argument is backing up your claims with examples. If you decide the lyrics are what makes an album powerful than quoting lyrics that moved you will help illustrate this point. Even if the lyrics are great and the reader knows that it’s great, an example should be given in order for you and the reader to understand why it’s great. Knowing why something is will give you deeper understanding of your own tastes as well as inform your reader of your personal biases or tastes.

b.) Write about the music in way that your reader can “hear” it.

Writing about music is one of the hardest skills to learn and is often the skill most neglected by music critics. As previously mentioned, examples are important to establishing a strong argument but not all examples can be done by quoting or paraphrasing. You want to review the music as well the message and lyrics (I know this may seem obvious but many “music” reviews don’t have anything about the music at all). Because most music reviews will be done via blog or print, literal examples of the music can’t be played for the reader. The goal of illustrating the music through words is to give the reader that “sound-bite” example without the sound. The reader must “hear” something through your writing in order for them to understand the argument you are proposing. This is challenging because everyone experiences music differently. Your goal as the writer should be finding the “gist” or meaning of your interpretation of the sound and not the actual sound itself. Many writers will try and be too literal, writing every detail verbatim and trying to explain every little sound. It’s too much. Nails scratching slowly across a chalkboard is a illustration that everyone will understand as a literal, horrible shrieking noise but because of the imagery it’s much more interesting and compelling than the verbatim and literal description, “horrible shrieking noise.”

Recap the album and your thoughts.

Our goal as a music critic is to act as curators to this niche of information for those without the time or means to do it themselves. Now that a critic can be anybody with a blog and a critic likely won’t have access to an album before their target audience, many people don’t need critics to tell them what is good or bad anymore before they go to the record store and buy a copy. People now can just go listen for themselves or even check social media and forums for people’s opinions the moment something is leaked or released. Editor’s will push you to write quickly and put your voice into the choir of opinions before the conversation isn’t relevant anymore. Your goal should be to add to that conversation some understanding and critical thinking. Your conclusion will help you measure yourself and whether or not you achieved that goal. Ask yourself this: Does the reader now know why you think the album is amazing or terrible? Does the reader know the context of the album and it’s creation? Does the reader know why you think something is wrong or why the beat sounds like a broken washing machine? Anyone can give their opinion but as critics we must wrap-our-heads-around that opinion.

That’s how I do it! I’m deciding on when to continue this chain or maybe start something new entirely. For now, I plan on writing about some other processes and why those don’t work for me.

Boiling the Frog: Asking what a cross between Taylor Swift and Kanye West would sound like?

A frog thrown into a pot of boiling water will jump right back out, but if it’s heated gradually the frog will have no idea it’s boiling alive. This is what the Spotify program, “Boil the Frog” aims to achieve by boiling the listener from artist to artist, genre to genre in a seamless stew of discovery. What it does is generate a playlist between two artists you select and runs you through a chain of artists with snippets of tracks from each one.


“If I took artist X and combined them with artist Y, what would it sound like?”


What “Boil the Frog” does better than most other generic programs powered by Spotify is it gives you control over new music you’d like to find. It’s like asking the question, “If I took artist X and combined them with artist Y, what would it sound like?” Fulfill your heart’s greatest desires by finding abominations of music like Miley Cyrus/Miles Davis crossovers or explore your favorite controversy by tracking Taylor Swift all the way to her career-maker, Kanye West (JK, DON’T HATE ME). Sometimes, it’ll find the perfect go-between artist but at its worst it may give you new music related to your favorite artists. It’s fun to play-around on and if you build a chain you like you can save the playlist directly to your Spotify by logging in, free of charge.

The program curates a diverse selection between artists with the lengths of the chain varying. I’ve found that if you select artists from separate genres, it will be a much longer chain than if you select artists from the same genre. Also, playlists between artists of differing genres seem to require the most manual polishing, like the in between of Frank Ocean (R&B) and The Flaming Lips (psychedelic rock) which was very awkward and polarizing. It took a couple toggles with the bypass button to make it work, sort of.

But between artists of different sub-genres it’s much more palatable on the first go, like between Jeff Rosenstock (punk) and Brand New (emo). Punk and emo are very different but have many similar characteristics making them sister genres. However, Brand New is much more popular and the results around the band were also much more popular. The more obscure the artist or genre the more obscure the in between, which can be important if you are looking for new music. If you’re bored at work and need a new kick-ass playlist for your road trip, try curating your own playlist with “Boil the Frog!”21908823_1850190718626873_244509029_o

How to Write an Album Review Part. 1

How to Review an Album Part. 1

If you have a serious commitment to music and like to listen with awareness and analysis of what you are hearing, than you have the potential to be a music critic. In this day and age, published critique has transformed from a privilege to a few to an opportunity for any intelligent and motivated listener. These instructions will explain how to write an album review and begin competing in the industry.

Pick an Album and Research: When deciding on what album you’d like to review, the most important factor to consider is how much you know about the artist(s) who made the album and the genre of music the album falls under. An expert in a particular genre or artist will have a very different opinion than someone who’s unfamiliar with the genre or artist. How much knowledge you have about the topic will limit your writing. To become an expert, you must do the research. Listen to artists and genres you aren’t familiar with and gain deep understandings of as many artists as you can, not just your favorites. Here are two steps that will engross you in the music and give you the insight to begin writing. 

  1. Listen, Re-listen and Listen Again. Sounds simple enough but listening to an album is something that should not be taken lightly as it is the most important part of the making of the review. Listen to the album as much as you can and as often as you can and in as many circumstances as possible. Music is a fluid that runs through every part of our lives and an album should be experienced the same way. Listen alone and take notes, listen on the daily commute, listen to it as background music, and listen to it with other people too. Ask a person who you respect what they think about the album and understand their opinion. Music is a social medium and your readers may not have the same opinion as you. Understanding other points of view will help you engage with those readers of differing opinions. 
  2. Take Notes and Ask Questions. Be sure to write down your initial thoughts to the album when you first start listening. A large majority of publications want reviews the moment an album comes out so you may have to rely on gut instinct to get you by. If you do have the time to really sit down and digest a record, a recording of your gut instinct will help you stay on track to your true opinion without being swayed by outside forces like other reviews or popularity. Ask questions like “What do I like or dislike?” and “What stands out to me?” to understand your own opinion. Don’t stop asking questions. Ask things like: “How does this album compare and contrast to the artist’s last album?”, “What is the album’s influences?” and “How does this album fit in it’s larger genres and subgenres?.” One method is taking notes track-by-track, recording all the different elements you notice throughout. This is a good strategy but don’t forget to look at the album as whole and not as just a collection of tracks you are reviewing individually.

Note: A common mistake many new critics make is being too negative or too positive. Above everything, an album review is meant to be critical so either completely shutting down an artist or blowing smoke in the artist’s face won’t accomplish anything. If you can’t find anything to like or there are just a few small problems in an amazing record, make suggestions on how the album or a part could have been done differently.

A lot of writing a review requires work before the actual act of pen meeting paper.. or fingers hitting keys. Next Monday, I will have a detailed instructional on this process and some of the other processes out there and why some work for me while others don’t. Stay tuned and start listening to an album you want to review today!

Suggestion Sunday: XTC — “Dear God”

I saw the new “It” remake today and was pleasantly surprised when I heard XTC in a short montage. The song fit so seamlessly into one of the most hopeless parts of the movie, especially since it only used the intro-cut sung by an eight-year-old girl. If you haven’t guessed already — the song was “Dear God,” a single inspired by the exploitation of children in christian media and a direct challenge to God’s existence arguing that a benevolent divinity wouldn’t be capable of creating meaningless suffering.

It was one of the most punk tracks XTC ever released because they didn’t write it to become rich or to become famous, they wrote it because they sincerely were struggling with the idea and this was their way of figuring it all out. “Dear God” challenged the status quo of popular music of the time, managing to chart in the UK and be ranked #62 in VH1’s “Best One Hit Wonder of the 80s” in 2009, which is a good signal that a piece of music has some value. The best music can still move people with it’s intended message outside the world and culture it was created in. It’s message still hits home with many, becoming an instant include in the humanist playlist while also not being a directly atheistic song. XTC was just brave enough to push their struggle with faith into the open in a non-apologetic way.


 

Brand New — “Science Fiction”

   Not much in pop-culture produces enough long-standing hype to reach mythical status. Off the top of my head, the most notable example is a video game, “Half-Life 3,” which never came to fruition due to a multitude of reasons and has become such a legendary disappointment that even people who have never played the games have heard about the disaster. For some time, Brand New’s fifth LP looked as though it would face a similar fate.
    After their last release some eight years ago, the band took a hiatus until 2014 before they announced the beginning of recording for their next LP. After several delays, a single and an EP — the fabled “Science Fiction” album has finally become fact, bringing with it the harsh truth of the band’s not-too-distant retirement.
    “Science Fiction” greatly focuses on the struggles the band went through during the album’s creation, specifically Frontman Jesse Lacey, and his fight through writer’s block and his role as the prophetic figurehead for zealous fans looking for the next “Deja Vu” or “Raging Inside.” Brand New feels as though it has run its course and has left us with a worthy deathrattle to echo the band’s legacy.
    “Science Fiction” is not like any other Brand New LP we’ve heard before. The most important distinction, the reserved and moody vocal delivery, makes Lacey’s depressing worldview even more bleak and apocalyptic.
    The album opens with a tape recording from a therapy session where a woman “recounting her dream” explains her relationship with her mental illness. Lacey explores the freeing feeling of learning to cope with who you are, our own ailments and lighting up the darkest part of the human condition like a “rag soaked in gasoline in the neck of a bottle.”
    Lacey jumps from the introspective to the existential frequently, layering droning guitars through a touch of analog delay and feedback during the more disturbing and climatic moments. The tracks “Same Logic/Teeth” and “137” illustrates this dance between ideas and sound.
    “Same Logic/Teeth” builds momentum through each agonizing cry of the guitar creating a glittery sound, like each pluck imitates a drone shooting across the night’s sky. Lacey is diagnosing his current coping strategies for his personality disorder as toxic to those around him. He feels guilty for his inability to control himself and for relying on therapy or substances for clarity. “Same Logic/Teeth” invites the listener into Lacey’s psyche. “137” turns the listener around lets you stare out Lacey’s eyes across the desolation.
    “137” critiques the idea of mutually-assured destruction and explains it as a cruel “inside joke” between God and the atom. At its worst, the theme of the song is done to death but at its best, it’s a clever allusion to the philosophical discussion.
    Lacey is trying to garner an understanding of man’s own ability for self-destruction, much like how he is trying to understand his own self-destructive behavior. Lyrically his references can be blunt like when he sings, “Let’s all go play Nagasaki,” but beneath the chorus is an oriental sounding tune. Some fans hypothesize this tune is pentatonic scale commonly used by Japanese folk artists called the Min’yo-scale or the “nuclear tones.” Lacey pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the nuclear attack on Nagasaki by employing their art in a thoughtful way.
    “Science Fiction” has an expert grasp of song structure and theme throughout, adding a tasteful variety of instruments like groaning synth lines, haunting wind-chimes, a bluesy harmonica and gospel organ. What holds this album back is Lacey’s overly mellow vocal delivery. Overall, I think his reserved style is a healthy change-in-pace but on “Waste,” Lacey’s already somewhat generic singing voice bores me to death especially in combination with the tracks slow pace, hurting the flow of the album.
    There’s not a single track on the album to hate but the occasional dull moment like on “Waste” can crawl in. “Science Fiction” provides a satisfying end to the band’s career if it really is the end. I rate this album as a 7.6 out of 10.



What I’m looking for. Score (0-10) Examples of Scoring
Innovation 4 10- Creates entire genre.

8- Creates a new niche or sub-genre

6-pushes current genres limits

4- pushes their own limits

2-little change

Uniqueness (of either artist or album) 6 10-Never before seen (has influences still)

8-More than 3 unique qualities including sound, person, story, ect.

6- 2 unique qualities

4-1 unique qualities

2-Lowest possible score because everyone is unique :^)

Songwriting 9
Lyrics 9
Artist’s technical ability 9
Production 10 10- Perfect Balance

5- Over-produced more than not (or even under produced)

0- Sounds horrible

Theme 7 10-powerful theme throughout

5-theme but kinda sucks

0-no theme or organization

Length/Flow of Album 7 10-Songs reinforce each other, album isn’t hard to listen to, and the transitions are smooth/appropriate

5- 2 of those things

0-none of these things

Longevity 7 How relevant will it be in 5, 10, 25 years.
Personal Enjoyment 8 10-peak enjoyment

5-indifferent

1-Couldn’t hate album more

76 100 max