Me. I am Mariah: Mariah Carey

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Review by Janeal Downs

Yes you, you are Mariah. We know that. Mariah Carey started off her 2014 album with a song titled “Cry”. Until she started hitting her notes, it sounded a little boring and resembled a gospel song that never had the beat drop. However, as it is only the intro, I did not want to jump to conclusions. For her next song “Dedicated” I believed it was an ode to the past of hip hop and I did enjoy the sound bites of her talking with someone in between. The song was cute and I did like the fact Nas was featured.

Following this song was “Beautiful” with Miguel which is very radio friendly and I enjoy the song overall. Miguel and Mariah’s voices harmonized together very well. By this time in the album I began thinking perhaps she just started off slow, and the album still had some potential.

However, my spirits dropped once I heard “Thirsty.” This song was Mariah’s attempt to please the new generation and what I am assuming she wanted to serve as another radio hit for the mainstream music lovers. It was not bad, but I would not download it if it was a free ringtone. The song made me imagine a mother who is trying to prove to her teenage children that she is still “hip” using words like ‘thirsty, ‘boss’ and ‘Instagram.’ However, Mariah, your kids are not teens yet so you did not have to do that song. I did get discouraged after “Thirsty,” but then came “Make it Look Good.” I liked this one! It was a fun song and I absolutely love the instrumentals in the back. The song was kind of a combination of R & B with some hip hop and some country elements and it was just shy of being lovely.

“You’re Mine (Eternal)” was an okay song but I just felt like I wanted more. I needed a real love song and I feel like Mariah is, or was, married with children and I thought it should be easier to convey the love she had for her family into a song. So I was just left hoping a real love song would come later. The next song “You Don’t Know What To Do” however was not a love song. But all I have to say is “You betta sing, sang it sang it sang it!” Is that the lovely Mariah I hear? Is that Wale I hear? Now we have got a song. This song took me back to the 90’s and I loved it.

I will admit, for some reason I really do not like songs titled supernatural, but “Supernatural” finally gave me the love song I wanted to hear. It was a love song for her children and I hope that was really their voices. I could just imagine her singing this to her twins and them giggling with glee. Whose baby voice was that at the end though? It was painfully adorable. The next couple of songs “Meteorite” and “Camouflage” had a tough act to follow, and they failed. They were okay, but nothing was too great or too bad about them. Then came “Money” with Fabolous. How many songs is he in with the word money in the title? The song was okay but I just did not like the fifty “showty’s” Fabulous put in the song.

For the next song “One More Try,” I cannot remember much but I surely will not forgert “Heavenly,” one of my favorites from the album. Mariah when did you go to church? Yes! I loved her version of the gospel song “Can’t Give Up Now.” It gave me goose bumps imagining a Mariah Carey gospel album. She hit all of her notes and made me want to raise my hands to Heaven myself. I absolutely loved the acapella ending with the choir.

After I heard “It’s a Wrap,” Mary plus Mariah, no one would dare say this is not a great combination. However, the lyrics of the song were talking about leaving a man. Although I know it was probably just for entertainment reasons, I hope this song was not Mary trying to convince Mariah to leave Nick.

Anyway, I would love to see a video for this song and “Heavenly.” While I am just loving these two songs up next comes “Betcha Gon’ Know” with none other than R. Kelly. It was great. This is when I realized, excluding Fabulous, the best songs of the album are when she is not singing alone. She had Wale, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, even her kids. It is concerning for a woman with such a strong voice to have to rely on others to make her songs good.

“The Art of Letting Go” was decent though it had some weird mixing of beats toward the end. The album ended with “Me. I am Mariah” and I will admit the song was cute. “The elusive chanteuse.” I have no idea what that means or who is the “they” who have been calling her that, but I like it and the picture which went with the song was adorable.

Once the album ended I am left wondering, where are the love songs about your husband who is soon to be her ex-husband. This album came out before the divorce, but were there issues during the creation of this album? The only love I could hear was to her children. This album definitely did not top “The Emancipation of Mimi.” Because I had mixed feelings throughout the whole album, I would give “Me. I am Mariah” a 5 out of 10.

5/10

Alvvays – Alvvays

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Review by Jamal Stone

An album’s true test comes once it’s burned to a CD-R, branded with a Sharpie, and added to the driving collection. On a whim, I burned Alvvays’ self-titled debut in 5 AM stillness. I’d had a two-hour drive ahead of me, a round trip from Richmond to Emporia, and I needed something to sing along to. Alvvays certainly has the it factor, although its hard to place. It is not structural. The songs are framed innocuously enough – 8 bar intro, refrain, breakdown, refrain. Nor is it strictly melodic. The hooks here are catchy, but they demand a few listens to take hold. It isn’t rhythmical, either. The drumming is misplaced, falling flat next to the deep bass guitar and tangy guitars. It wasn’t found behind the boards. Chad VanGaalen’s production on the album is notable for its invisibility. The mastering is subtle; this album could conceivably be a pristine live recording found on a tape deck. In a sea of contenders, Alvvays doesn’t necessarily stand out. Alvvays’ closest peers, bands like Beach House, or Dum Dum Girls, similarly approximate the 80s through a modern lens. And yet, it was there. I was belting Alvvays up and down the beltway.

If anything in Alvvays’ repertoire feels especially contemporary, it’s front woman Molly Rankin’s lyricism. Her insights squirt established pop tropes with a wedge of cynicism. The commanding “Archie, Marry Me” seems like a straight-forward love song, but Rankin lends voice to the financially bent, post-adolescents that drew headlines during the Occupy Movement. “You’ve expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony/You’ve student loans to pay and will not risk the alimony,” she considers, before buckling and yelling out, “Hey!/Marry me, Archie!” Clocking in at less than 35 minutes, the album addresses issues such as alcoholism, abandonment, and drowning with a wink and a nod, while staying within the framework of indie rock.

Alvvays is an album that will rest comfortably in my sun visor’s CD pouch, ready to mourn summers past – to discover what Rankin calls the “comfort in debauchery”. “We never get it on the first try,” Rankin later admits on the track “Dives”. Her humility might be unwarranted – Alvvays oozes confidence from every pore, and stands as one of the defining indie pop albums of 2014.

8/10

Review: Next to Nothing – Rittz

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By Dylan Reddick

Just a year after releasing his debut album, The Life and Times of Johnny Valiant, Rittz has returned with his sophomore effort, Next to Nothing.  After a debut that garnered significant buzz thanks in part to some high profile endorsements from the likes of Yelawolf and Mike Posner, and being signed to Tech N9ne’s independent label, Strange Music, the pressure is on to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”. After a short intro track Rittz launches into what he does best; a machine gun paced vocal assault. The track, aptly titled “Explode”, features a slick chorus, a bass heavy beat, and verses delivered in a rapid-fire style reminiscent of his mentor, Tech N9ne. However, that’s not to say Rittz’s style isn’t unique, it builds upon the speed, developing a signature bounce that separates Rittz from other motor-mouthed MC’s.

The rest of the record features several stellar moments. “Turn Down” offers a rebuttal to the popular party anthem with Rittz while “Crown Royal”, a tribute to the popular liquor, serves as one of the album’s primary party anthems. Mike Posner lends his lackadaisical style to two tracks, “In My Zone” and “Going through Hell”, complimenting Rittz’s staccato lyrics brilliantly. The production on the album is polished and straightforward, allowing more room for Rittz’s lyrical wizardry. Some tracks feature bluesy embellishments and guitar solos, giving the album a darker, grittier vibe.

Unfortunately a few songs in the middle of the album, such as “Call 911” or “Blow”, drag on a bit and failed to garner the amount of replays as some of the album’s highlights. Despite this, the record finishes strong. The second to last track, “White Rapper”, is an emotionally charged track featuring one of the album’s strongest performances and lyrics concerning Rittz’s struggle to prove his musical legitimacy. The album wraps up with “Turning Up The Bottle” a song that showcases Rittz’s storytelling ability as he deftly weaves a tale of alcohol abuse around a somber chorus.

Next to Nothing improves much upon Rittz’s debut, tightening up some of the slack and featuring some of his best songs thus far in his career. As the buzz grows, perhaps this will be the release that catapults Rittz into mainstream, perhaps even some radio play. Only time will tell but with such a solid performance and growing hype it’s unlikely Rittz will stay Next to Nothing for long.

9/10

In the Lonely Hour: Sam Smith

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By Janeal Downs

Artists either want you to think they are in the music industry because it is their passion or because they want money and the fame. Sam Smith tries to convince listeners that he is in it because he loves it, with the first song of his 2014 album “Money on My Mind.” This radio friendly song with its upbeat tempo and repeated phrase of “money on my mind,” does not make his idea too believable. However, with his gloriously fantastic voice, I will pretend to believe anything Sam Smith sings. If nothing good lasts forever, I hope at least great things do. With his song “Good Thing,” I am convinced Smith is a great thing. If you have not heard “Stay With Me” yet then I highly recommend you crawl from under your rock and listen to this man’s song. This album is proof that Sam Smith cannot be a one hit or few hit wonder, and I’d put money on that.

I absolutely loved the song “Leave Your Lover,” though it did remind me of Frank Ocean’s song, “Thinking Bout You.” It was similar not because they sound the same, but because both songs do a great job of not saying if it is directed to a man or a woman (not that it matters.) “I’m Not the Only One” is a song that unfortunately many people can relate to. A song of an unfaithful partner is not something new, but Smith’s beautiful vocal range makes him versatile in a way that is new in today’s pop culture. Smith’s album could put the most insomnia racked bitter old man to sleep and I mean that in the best way possible. With his voice songs like “I’ve Told You Now,” “Like I Can” and “Life Support” can truly relax the soul. Smith is the kind of artist who does not need music in the background, as his voice is all of the music. Recall when Whitney Houston sang “I Will Always Love You” acapella at the beginning of her music video. Sam Smith could definitely achieve the same effect.

Another relatable song on the album is “Not in That Way,” which is about loving someone who does not love you back. With his otherworldly voice, I cannot imagine why someone would not love Sam Smith back.  I hope his personality matches the loveliness of his voice. Smith ended “In the Lonely Hour” with “Lay Me Down.” As I listened to this song I felt a sense of sadness overcome me because I knew it was at the end, and I would have to wait for a new album. I then began to imagine all of the people I would love to see Smith collaborate with while waiting for his next album. This is how a great album ends. It is like a show. You do not want to be waiting impatiently for the season to end, but almost crying when you have to wait for new episodes.

I do not know how old Sam Smith is but I cannot possibly imagine the reason for why it has taken him so long to honor the world with his voice. If you have listened to him, you will know I am not over exaggerating. Whether Sam Smith belongs in the R&B, hip-hop or pop genre, I’m not sure. One thing I do know is that the world has been waiting on some new and true talent for way too long.

7/10

Blonde Redhead – Barragán (2014)

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By Jamal Stone

2014 marks Blonde Redhead’s 20th anniversary, but Barragán is no retrospective. The album’s title alludes to the clean lines and colors of Modernist Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Barragán’s monoliths invigorated the industrialized bustle of Mexico, standing tall like sand-brushed Lego pieces. But without a noisy backdrop, Blonde Redhead’s minimalist approach to songwriting feels oddly sterile – a step backwards for a band with a history in noise rock and shoegaze.

Even vocalist Kazu Makino’s breathy singing, Blonde Redhead’s established fulcrum, is damaged by the ineffectual production. “Cat on a Tin Roof” strips Makino of her ethereality; we encounter her in the corner of a dingy karaoke bar instead of some floating echo chamber. Here, minimalism is confused for cleanliness. The very next track, “The One I Love” is a standout because it’s unafraid to disrupt the melody, with stabs of noise and reverb forcing the listener to take heed. Unfortunately, these driving songs are too few. For the most part, Barragán seems unsure of its foundation – a strange cocktail of Italian discofox, ambient noise, minimalist pop rock, and improvisational electronica.

Barragán includes plenty of other Modernist-era references – “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “To Kill A Mockingbird”, for example – but none of the historical context. Modernism is reactionary. Barragán, by and large, feels lazy. It’s a sad thought, but, after the innocuousness of Blonde Redhead’s last album, Penny Sparkle, it’s hard to shake the notion that the band has found themselves in their third act. I’d love to hear an album where Makino and company find their venom again – slithering melancholia and windswept guitars. Comparatively, Barragán is an album defanged, best fit for the internal monologues found while waiting in a Starbucks queue.

5/10

Review: Pale Communion – Opeth

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By  Dylan Reddick

Change has always been a concept of varying distinction when it comes to music. Be it a change in form, aesthetic or composition such adjustments are often met with bi-polar reactions both critically and sales-wise. Opeth is a band quite familiar with the concept of change. After a career of albums infusing death metal with progressive rock they took a radical new direction with their 2011 album, Heritage. The death metal element of their music was subtracted entirely in favor of warmer guitar tones, crooning vocals and focusing on the progressive rock aspect of their music. The new direction was met with a divided reaction, some enjoying it as a new, fresher musical direction and others finding it to be a dull tribute to the progressive rock bands of the seventies.

Their new album, Pale Communion, makes no attempt to return to the band’s old death metal formula, opting instead to advance upon the sound established on Heritage. The album begins with a bombastic introduction as “Eternal Rains Will Come” sets the stage with dramatic organ riffs and jazzy drums. The song finds its groove with chorus-like vocals and smooth bass rumbling in the background. The next track, “Cusp Of Eternity”, kicks the album into gear as Opeth turns the distortion up for the song’s crunchy, dramatic main riff. Lead vocalist and guitarist, Mikael Akerfeldt, trades solos with lead guitarist, Fredrik Akesson, over the song’s haunting riffs in spectacular fashion. The album’s next two tracks “Moon Above, Sun Below” and “Elysian Woes” both feature large amounts of acoustic sections, the first using them to cut between various segments of the song and the latter being comprised nearly entirely of acoustic guitar and vocals. However, unfortunately, “Elysian Fields” ends up dragging on a bit, and ends up feeling rather bland. However the album finds its stride again on the next track “Goblin”, a track hinted at by Akerfeldt as having been a tribute to the Italian progressive rock band of the same name. It’s a fitting tribute, bearing many similarities to Goblin’s own music and providing an entertaining and sinister bridge to the album’s second half.

I mistook the next track, “River”, as an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song at first. It sounds strikingly similar for the first three minutes, beginning with arpeggiated chords upon a twelve-string guitar, lackadaisical guitar solos and soft vocals. Following the three minute mark the song begins to spiral out into a crazed exchange of guitar solos, haunting repeated vocals forming a crazed jam, a crescendo of sorts. It sets the stage fittingly for “Voice of Treason”, a dramatic track featuring a bold main riff comprised of a section of symphonic strings. The strings were a fabulous choice as they add an element of suspense and almost cinematic drama to the song that distorted guitars could not have pulled off. The song continues guided by a jazzy drum presence provided by Martin Axenrot that grows into a short clamor before fading out into the album’s final track, “Faith in Others”. This song moves slowly and deliberately, one pace at a time, mimicking a funeral dirge in its gait and mood. Akerfeldt sings along to a slow, trudging riff in the middle and delivers the best vocal line of the album in glorious fashion, grabbing the listener one last time.

“The blood of departure in our tracks
Drifting from our empty left home
Your hand reached out to hold mine
But you’re grasping the thin ice”

It’s a haunting ending to the album before it slowly fades out once again with the strings. In the end, Pale Communion is a great effort on Opeth’s part, triumphing where Heritage failed. There’s a renewed energy and purpose to the music that solidifies Opeth’s ability to make quality music, death metal or not. Will all of their fans enjoy it? Probably not, but they’d be missing out, as this is a lovely album regardless. It shines on its ability to create tension and a sinister atmosphere while still providing a sense of delicacy with the softer sections. Listening to it would be preferable, as many of the songs float into each other to create a sort of narrative to the music. It’s probably the most accessible of their albums yet as well, with no death growls whatsoever, but contains some of their most dramatic and memorable moments since 2005’s Ghost Reveries. There are a few missteps, a few moments of the songs felt as if they dragged on and some of the vocals don’t sound as strong as others but overall it’s a fantastic release. Pale Communion may not be a return to Opeth’s trademark sound but it’s quite enjoyable nonetheless, providing listeners with a new side of the band instead of taking the easy route. Often bands change to accrue popularity that otherwise would have been unattainable with their old sound but Pale Communion seems to be more of a labor of love on Opeth’s part, paying tribute to the progressive rock that inspired them while expanding upon the style in new ways.

8/10