Category Archives: CD reviews

‘Tramp’, or The Reason I Don’t Have a Top 10 List This Year

There are two more weeks of 2012, and the Internet is teeming with year-end countdowns of newsworthy moments, reality TV highlights, and – of course – music. While every other college radio DJ/music blogger out there has published a list of what they think was worth listening to this year, I’ve come to an unsettling realization, one that I hope to God does not discredit me in the field I want to enter. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s something I feel the need to share, nonetheless.

I could give a damn about the vast majority of the music released in 2012.

As I examine the iTunes playlist of music I’ve acquired this year, I see 1561 songs – 4.4 full days of music – that have been added in 2012. I’ve listened to half of those songs, but listened to only half of those more than once. A compulsive critic of the tracks in my iTunes library, I find that I considered only 6% of my music added in 2012 worthy of four or five stars.

Thinking about this, I’m ashamed. I started AMPlify in July and wrote a similar column for a student newspaper this semester. I even wrote a piece about what music I did and didn’t like this year, a sort of modified list of top albums. I’ll be frank, though – I was in a time crunch and did not give the full weight (or non-weight, as it were) to the music I wrote about. If I could go back a few weeks in time, this is the column I would have submitted.

I’ve heard Japandroids and Ty Segall and and most of the other artists with whom every music critic seems to have been enraptured this year. The simple truth is that I almost always ignored the new releases after a listen or two and returned to Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp instead. It was virtually the only music that mattered to me this year, with maybe a slight exception for Miriam Makeba and some electronic music given to me by friends. Admittedly my love for this record comes partly from the emotional connection I have with it, but even musically, it’s something I have come to know so well that I don’t think I’ve gone a day without listening to at least one Sharon song since a friend gave it to me ten months ago. Addicted may be too strong a word, though I haven’t been this into to an album in a long, long time. It has officially entered the ranks of The Reminder, Lungs, and Rabbit Fur Coat, all albums by other female artists, all albums that came out three or more years ago.

From cmj.com

Sharon Van Etten’s music was given to me when I was in a dramatic relationship that eventually disintegrated. I resisted Tramp at first; I listened to “Warsaw” and heard what sounded like Alanis Morrissette. I thought about throwing the CD in the trash. I was not going to be an angry woman who listened to angry woman music. But then a couple months later, I was under what can be described as nothing less than true emotional duress, and I credit Tramp for getting me through that. I’m mostly a happy camper now, but I remain attached to this album. Luckily it’s mostly because of the music at this point. That was true before I saw (and met!) SVE at the 9:30 Club in October, but it became even truer after.

It’s the details that make this album such a gem. It’s the perfect harmonies in every song. It’s the lines like “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/you’re why I’ll need to leave,” from “Give Out,” and the reassuringly simple lyrics of “We Are Fine” sung with Beirut’s Zach Condon. It’s the moment at 3:40 in “All I Can” when the song absolutely blooms. It’s the percussive, purposeful way Sharon sings “I am search-ing for your crimes,” in “Serpents” around 1:46. It’s both the hopelessness of “I’m Wrong” and the way it somehow doesn’t sound entirely unhappy. I could much more easily make a list of my top ten favorite moments on Tramp than I could make a list of my top ten favorite albums this year. There really are no other contenders.

If there’s one thing I’ve been reminded of after being a complete and utter failure at keeping up with the music of 2012, it is this – music is a deeply personal experience. You don’t need to keep up with all the blogs or charts or even your friends’ musical tastes if you’re just not into them. Give it a shot if that’s your thing, but if not, don’t let people give you crap for it. I’ve been told by a music journalist or two that my musical tastes are not diverse enough, which left me heartbroken at first, but today I’m quite all right with that.

If this post makes you want to go fall in love with Sharon Van Etten, please, give me a call, and I will be your guru – I’m sure we will have lots to talk about. But if it sounds massively unappealing, that’s cool too. Go find your soulmate of an album, and I only hope you fall for it as hard as I’ve fallen for this one.

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“The Reminder” – Sometimes decisions are tough.

Today I did something for the first time in my college career – I dropped a class. I was getting hardly anything out of the course, and I knew I had room left in coming semesters to make up this one last gen ed requirement. On the surface, it might seem like an easy choice.

Yet this felt like a huge, life-changing decision, and ever since I’d seriously started considering dropping the class, I tried to be logical, weighing pros and cons. More than that, though, I found myself feeling prematurely guilty for dropping the class, trying to convince myself that if I just worked really hard, the class would become enjoyable, and I would maybe learn a thing or two from it. I became really damn emotional about the whole thing. Blame the mysteries of the female psyche or whatever you want to blame, but I was having way too many feelings about dropping a class I despised.

Still riding the emotional roller coaster, immediately after turning in the withdrawal form, I had an “oh-shit-what-have-I-done” moment. It was brief, but it was there. It was the kind of regret that told me I was wasting my parents’ hard-earned college savings, that I was taking the easy way out, that I should just suck it up and keep going.

But then I had another moment. It was a huge sigh of relief, the thought that I could now do things with my newly-free blocks of time on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30-7:45 PM. It was the realization that I could focus on my other four courses and my music classes without having to worry about this buzzkill of a class. It was the fact that I could now work evening shifts some days a week either at my internship or job. It was freedom. And more than anything, it was a feeling of pure fun. I became that weird person who smiles at anyone and everyone in public. I was practically jumping for joy. I’d made the right decision after a bit too much deliberation.

– – – – – – – – – – –

You’re probably wondering why I spent 300+ words discussing an overly emotional experience that appears to have nothing to do with music. It’s a stretch of a connection, but I think I know of an album that describes similar emotions, though maybe out of order. I thought about this today as I got home after my trip to the dean’s office – I had no idea what to listen to. I settled for the piece I’m playing with my chamber group, but the question of what album could represent this jumble of emotions bugged me all day.

image from centripetalnotion.com/

Feist’s The Reminder (2007) is all at once complex, intelligent, well-thought-out, honest, straightforward, and fun. Obviously Feist’s album is a masterpiece and my emotional experience a farce, but as for an album that represents the whole process, this is the best example that comes to mind.

The Reminder is full of tracks that are so deeply personal and so deeply Feist without being weak or off-putting in a way that I think some female-driven music can be. “So Sorry” is about regret and a sense of the unknown – We’re slaves to our own forces/we’re afraid of our emotions. “I Feel It All,” (because I really did feel it all) “My Moon My Man,” and “Sea Lion Woman” are upbeat and fun, all with an air of mystery. “The Park” is at once emotional and feminine and strikingly logical in the saddest of ways. “Past in Present” carries a lyrical and relative musical simplicity while portraying the great gift of knowledge from past experiences. Relevant comments are admittedly failing to come to me on the topics of “1234” and a few of the other tracks, but “Intuition” has an obvious link, perhaps more than any other track.

Even if my connections are too simplistic and my story uninteresting, I hope you still try to listen to The Reminder. Not only does it happen to convey my recent experiences, but it is an absolute gem of an album and is hands-down one of the best of the 21st century. Additionally, a friend of mine once told me that this album would be the perfect soundtrack to that complex process known as falling in love.

So go find it on Spotify, or Youtube, or iTunes, or whatever- just listen to this. Give it time, and you might also find yourself smiling shamelessly.

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COMING UP

I’m going to see Sharon Van Etten at the 9:30 Club on Thursday evening. Expect a review sometime this weekend.

The AMPlify column will run in the guide this week. I’m really excited about it, so check back on Friday for that.

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First Impressions – Ellie Goulding’s “Halcyon”

from songlyrics.com

The weather today has made me remarkably unproductive in terms of homework. The first day of the worst kind of fall weather has a way of doing that. My few accomplishments include dragging myself to the gym and reviewing Ellie Goulding’s new album, Halcyon. 

As a little challenge to myself, I decided that for this review, I could listen to each track only once and use at most ten words to describe each of the thirteen songs on the standard version of the album. So for real, these are my true first impressions, written as I listened.

1. “Don’t Say a Word” – Boring at first, then semi-good, but forgettable.

2. “My Blood” – Awkward tempo. Can’t dance, yet it’s not slow. Fantastic production.

3. “Anything Could Happen” – First single, nothing new. Vocal sampling. Catchy beat. Standout track.

4. “Only You” – Messy sampling. This song has an identity crisis. Chipmunk voice?!

5. “Halcyon” – Interesting concept, but too much contrast between verses and chorus.

6. “Figure 8” – Ditto. Manages to pull it off slightly better.

7. “Joy” – Generally snore-inducing. Somewhat impressive vocal range. Pathetic lyrics. Weak.

8. “Hanging On (Edit)” – Another musical identity crisis. Vocals go way too high.

9. “Explosions” – Weird electronic sample-driven piano ballad…it doesn’t work.

10. “I Know You Care” – Piano ballad 2.0. Warning: may cause estrogen overload. Clumsy.

11. “Atlantis” – Trying to be Coldplay or something? But the vocals=WEAK.

12. “Dead in the Water” –  My dad thinks Ellie sounds constipated. This song = prime example.

13. “I Need Your Love” (Calvin Harris feat. Ellie Goulding) – Video gamey, but a stronger dance track because of Harris.

Finally, here’s my 100 word overall impression. (Let’s compare notes, though – take a listen to the album yourself.)

This album throws in everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to hide the weak vocals and lyrics. Some tracks are good for sampling, but on its own, Halcyon is weak sauce. I say this as a long-time Ellie fan who has listened to all of Lights over 30 times, with some tracks in my iTunes library having play counts in the 80s. My love for her debut album is not enough for me to keep Ellie’s sad sophomore slump in my library, so I will promptly be moving this mess of estrogen-inspired electro-pop confusion into my trash bin.

AMPlifiability level: 3. I listened to this once. Once was enough.

UPDATE 10/9 – Looks like Billboard totally disagrees with me. Not surprising. Or maybe she just has really good promoters. http://www.billboard.com/features/ellie-goulding-s-halcyon-track-by-track-1007974762.story#/features/ellie-goulding-s-halcyon-track-by-track-1007974762.story

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Rediscovering Rubber Soul

My favorite Beatles album has always been Rubber Soul. It used to be because my dad told me my middle name came from “Michelle” (which was a mean, mean lie). I’m sorry to say that most of my feelings for the album had been, until today, on just as superficial a level.

image from wikipedia.org

I liked “In My Life” because I once read when I was 13 that Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day wanted it played at his funeral. “I’m Looking Through You” was the soundtrack I turned to when any friend changed, or even when I’d changed. In short, my feelings for this album were formed in middle school and hadn’t grown into anything deeper.

That all changed today as I was packing to move back to campus. I had Rubber Soul on, and I know it’s cliché, but it really spoke to me. “Drive My Car” starts the album with just bit of provocativeness; I don’t know how anyone could stop listening after that song. “Norwegian Wood” tells the story of an affair not quite gone as planned, and with “You Won’t See Me,” whose lyrics I’d previously ignored in favor of the tune, has a pretty clear message of frustration. It blows my mind that Taylor Swift’s atrocious new song about never ever ever ever getting back together rose to the top so quickly, when songs like this and “Think For Yourself” have already existed for decades and are so much more direct and precise. “Though your mind’s opaque/try thinking more if just for your own sake.” I dunno, to me it sends a better message than literally saying, “We are never ever ever getting back together.” But I digress.

My favorites are still the songs I mentioned first in this post. “Michelle” because it’s such a thoughtful, direct love song. “I’m Looking Through You” for the lightness of the music, like cautiously approaching a friend you haven’t seen in a while, then that riff thats ever so passive-aggressive. What a clever pairing of lyrics and music. “In My Life” is one of those songs whose meaning is easy to understand, but I imagine it’s evocative in a different way to each person, so I’ll let you rework your way through that one yourselves.

“Run for Your Life” gets a bit weird and possessive, but then again, we all know love does some crazy stuff to people. I think that’s probably the general theme of this album, if I had to pick just one. Love messes with your head. And just as love messes with your head, the songs on Rubber Soul mess with my head in the best of ways. What a killer combination of love songs that sound sad and sad songs that are so cleverly disguised.

What do you think, readers? Do you hear what I hear in Rubber Soul? Or should I be focusing more of my time on another Beatles album?

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tUnE-yArDs – A Pain to Type, A Pain to My Ears

Today I learned that at least one person at my internship had previously thought that I listen to classical music all day. That’s a funny joke. I love Mendelssohn and Bach and Chopin as much as your next classical programming intern, but come on, sometimes you just have to spice it up.

This morning I kept it pretty comfortable with Beyoncé’s 4. Not the best, but “Love on Top” makes up for all the album’s flaws. After that, though, I decided to be adventurous. I made myself listen once again to an album I’ve been struggling to like for over a year- w h o k i l l  by tUnE-yArDs. NPR Music and Pitchfork and all the other coolest of the cool will not shut up about them. In my unending quest for coolness, I tried once again to understand the reasons for the stellar reviews.

To begin, let me just share a conversation I had via text with my good friend and musical guru, ironically nicknamed Chatty.

Me: Can you explain to me the hype over tune-yards? This sounds like the soundtrack to an abortion.

Chatty: Whaaaaat I adore her.

Chatty: Listen to powa

Me: It’s a her?????

Chatty: Yes!!!!

Me: What the f*cking shit stop no it’s not

Chatty: Yes it is, it’s Merrill. I love her she rules

Me: Are you serious? This isn’t music. What do you like about it?

Chatty: Girl you crazy. I like how different she is, she just gets down to her own bad weird self. And everything about it is really powerful and doesn’t give a shit

Me: I mean I guess that’s true but it’s awfullll

Chatty: I think it rocks. Are you listening to w h o k i l l or the old one? The old one sucks.

Me: I’m listening to whokill. And it sucks.

Chatty: It’s so gooooood!

Me: You’re f*cking kidding me. The music is basically atonal and literally sounds like the singer is coughing up hairballs or being chased

Chatty; Nooooo

Me: Yes. Yes it is. Convince me otherwise.

And Chatty hasn’t responded, so I have the last say for now.

If you are so fortunate enough to have never heard Tune-Yards, try to keep it that way. First off, I thought this Merrill person was a man. Never a good start when you can’t determine the sex of the vocalist. Look, [s]he has a good voice when she tries to, but the classical music nerd in me can’t help but thinking of Schoenberg’s atonality and Sprechstimme when I listen to Tune-yards. And there are few things I understand less and hate more than everything Schoenberg has ever composed.

Even 16 months after its release, this album hasn’t grown on me. I hated it the first time, loathed it the second time, yet today I was actually hopeful upon hearing “My Country.” It’s a relatively palatable beginning to the album. I could see myself jamming to this, red cup in hand, on July 4th in a weird, twisted act of patriotism. But then came “Es-So.” Other than the headache onset by the constant switch between right and left audio output, my biggest concern with this song became that I couldn’t tell whether it was even in English. I gave up on trying to understand and focused on the music, but no surprise, that also sounded like my cats getting their tails pulled.

I could go on and on finding metaphors and similes for the pain inflicted by each of the songs on w h o k i l l, but there’s no need since the rest of the album is just more of the same. I could almost see the appeal in “Powa,” the song Chatty mentioned. Almost. But I would never listen to this music for enjoyment. This is music that I will never, ever give to my parents or any other older person. Even the thought is embarrassing. I am embarrassed to be of the same generation as the person who produces this so-called music. I would rather have my parents listen to the explicit lyrics of the rap and pop out there than to have them literally question whether this is music, as I’m sure they will.

At the end of the day, I want to give Tune-yards credit for originality, but considering Merrill just stole an idea that’s been around for ages, torture, and translated it to a musical medium, I don’t think her music is deserving of much except a swift transfer to my computer’s trash bin.

AMPlifiability – 2. This could be used as music torture. 

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