Review: Suffer On by Wicca Phase Springs Eternal

Adam Mcllwee is a surprisingly influential artist.  He is the founding member of Scranton, PA’s emo-revival flagship, Tigers Jaw, a band known for their uniquely harmonic and heartfelt rock songs that always evoked a strangely otherworldly feeling, both in terms of lyricism and tone.  When Mcllwee left Tigers Jaw in 2013, his intent was to release music as a solo project, experimenting with electronic sounds that were not part of the Tigers Jaw musical pallet.  He ended up getting connected with alternative hip-hop collective THRAXXHOUSE, and then founded the Goth Boi Clique collective, which was brought into the mainstream eye by the pop-punk influenced hip-hop of the late Lil Peep.  Now, aided by Run For Cover Records, he has released his second full length album under the moniker Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, a name bestowed upon him by a tumblr artist (in case you didn’t think this could get more 2009).

Suffer On is a startling return-to-form for Mcllwee.  Although his melodic style never changed drastically from Tigers Jaw to Wicca Phase, the parallels are even more apartment on the new record.  This is largely due to the acoustic nature of many of the tracks.  Previous Wicca Phase releases have featured production from a variety of artists in the emo hip-hop sphere, including Doves, Fishnarc, Nedarb, and the like.  On this record, Mcllwee takes production largely into his own hands, and the result is a more minimalistic sonic world than many fans will be used to.  There are no obvious samples, and very few fully electronic sounds.  Instead, the music is mainly driven by acoustic guitar chords that call to mind the emo music of the Tigers Jaw days.  The song “Crushed” doesn’t even have a beat, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2013’s Charmer.  It offers a strong connection to Mcllwee’s emo-rock past.  Fans of Wicca Phase’s acoustic EP, Raw and Declawed, will most definitely be pleased here. 

Lyrically, the album also feels even more personal than past releases.  It deals starkly with the isolation that many with clinical anxiety and depression feel on a daily basis.  Stand out track “Just One Thing” captures this poignantly, “In the darkest of ways I go to sleep / wrapped in a death bag / alone in a death bed / with no one to talk to / still trapped in my own head.”  There is no hiding behind mythology as on 2018’s Corinthiax EP.  Nowhere is this more blatant on “Does Your Head Stop” where he sings, “It’s depression and it takes over totally / I think I’m a fake in mind and body.”  There is not any hope offered here, but a strong focus on the darkness brought on by mental illness. 

Suffer On is one of the stronger albums in Mcllwee’s career.  The consistency of sound and theme are its most powerful traits, as he latches on to one topic and really delves headfirst into it.  Fans of his debut Secret Boy might be a tad disappointed if they were hoping for a more sample-based, electronic sound, but the record serves as a fitting new chapter to a groundbreaking artist who will surely grow in popularity as time goes on. 

Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Run For Cover Records

Release Date: Feb. 15, 2019

Review: thank u, next by Ariana Grande

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

Ariana Grande’s rise from teeny-bopper Nickelodeon star to pop icon has felt fast and slow at the same time.  Initially, her music career was aimed to market towards the tween audience that watched her on TV, but she rejected this after releasing only one single.  Instead, we got her excellent 2013 debut, the Babyface-produced Yours Truly, which effortlessly blends the styles of the R&B/pop legends of the 80’s and 90’s with production updates and tweaks that kept it fresh but not trendy.  The beats and R&B aesthetic meshed well with rappers, allowing her singles to cross over from pop to urban charts.  The records that followed saw greater success, as producers used her natural talent and charisma (not to mention that voice) to mold the Ariana brand into a variety of different styles, ranging from EDM to pop-ballads to reggae.  

Although this brought on great success in the charts, there was no clear picture of who Ariana actually was through her music.  In interviews she would clap the label “honest” on all of her songs, but there was always a personal aspect that seemed to be lacking in her music.  Although she had writing credits on many tracks, it was unclear whether or not she was an artist or a puppet, another pretty face and big voice that was in the right moment or the right time. 

This all changed with 2018’s Sweetener, released last August.  The album was a huge step forward from her previous work, lyrically and sonically.  Many of the songs on the first half of the album were structurally progressive, as Pharrell helped her tap deeper into her hip-hop influences and broke her out of the usual pop tropes.  Lyrically, the album delves into more personal territory; many of the songs openly discuss her engagement to comedian/actor Pete Davidson, and also healing from the bombing that famously took place at her concert in Manchester.  It seemed that she had finally found her voice as an artist; her music sounded more her’s than her producer’s. 

Then just when things were going well, her ex-boyfriend, Pittsburgh’s own Mac Miller, died suddenly from a drug overdose.  Her relationship with Davidson fell apart in the wake of this tragedy, and her relationships and life were so analyzed by the media that people started to get sick of her, when in the previous months she had been untouchable.  It is with this context that she released thank u, next a mere six months after her last record. 

The quick turn-around does not disappoint.  The songs sound raw and blunt.  Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality.  Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible.  The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago.  

The second track, “needy,” whips her back into reality.  Over a melancholy chord progression she sings, “And I’ma scream and shout for what I love / passionate but I don’t give no fucks / I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up / I’m obsessive and I love too hard / Good at overthinking with my heart / how you think it even got this far, this far?”  It’s easily the most vulnerable and authentic she’s ever been on a track.  These lyrics feel real and the simplicity of the instrumentation emphasizes the raw place that these songs came from. 

Ariana does not stay on the sad-girl train the whole album though.  Immediately following “needy” is the bouncy “NASA,” which might be her catchiest song ever.  It’s an ode to being alone, to wanting space rather than being forced into it.  The hook is so addictive that I’ve actively listened to it ten-plus times in a row; it’s the perfect example of what a pop song should be. 

If the entire album was as good as the first three tracks, we would probably have a modern classic on our hands, but unfortunately that’s not the case.  She dips into the faux-Latin trend on “bloodline” which lacks the authenticity of the previous songs, and seems clearly geared for air play and streams.  “bad idea” takes a darker turn, with heavy bass blasts and an ominous guitar hook.  This track features one of the more experimental productions choices, with a brief instrumental orchestra break just when you think the track is ending.  It sounds cinematic and dark, and as it swells, an altered beat kicks on with Ariana’s vocals pitched several octaves down, making it sound almost like a Future track for a few seconds. 

The record has quite a bit of variety stylistically, but sonically all the songs fit in the same world.  It rarely slows down except on the airy ballad “ghostin” which speaks vulnerably about her own faults in her high-profile relationships.  “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again,” she sings over whooshing synths and sparse strings.  It reinforces that this is a truly personal record, even more so than Sweetener.  Whereas Sweetener felt like a calculated reaction and intentionally big statement, thank u, next has a flash-in-a-pan quality that brings the messages home much more strongly; it showcases Ariana as a songwriter and as a somewhat hardened celebrity.  She sings (and at points, actually raps) with more conviction, more force, more confidence. 

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.  Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years.  For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Republic Records

Release Date: Feb. 8, 2019

Vampire Weekend and “Album-As-Installments”

In a faster and faster paced world, people have less tolerance for listening longer.

Indie pop icons Vampire Weekend made headlines last month by releasing two new tracks, their first since 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City.  For fans, this was exciting news, throwing them into a frenzy of anticipation.  As a casual listener, I was interested in hearing the songs, and marked the band’s return as something I would want to review later in the year when the full album dropped.  But, the release of the new tracks also came with the news that they would not be releasing their album by traditional means, opting instead to release two new songs every month until the album drops, which will result in six tracks being pre-released total. 

Singles are nothing new.  Since music first became distributable, artists have been releasing single tracks as promotion for their LPs.  With the advent of digital music, this became an even more popular promotional method, as musicians began putting out singles on iTunes and now Spotify and other streaming platforms.  And, with the digital world geared so much towards playlists, singles make more sense than ever, whether they appear on “curated” playlists by streaming moguls and algorithms, or in your own personal library. 

Although the move towards an album-as-installments-based plan on Vampire Weekend’s part is relatively unsurprising, it does make one think about how the art of the album is evolving in the digital age.  Because of the mass availability of an endless supply of music, artists are having to find new ways to make themselves stand out, especially when it comes to releases.  Beyoncé set the trend of the “surprise album” with her self-titled record in 2013 by simply posting the full track-list online with no prior warning or promotion.  This has become a popular method among BIG artists since, and hence has somewhat lost its shock value, but the surprise effect is one that many still opt for. 

When a band as big as Vampire Weekend chooses to release a record in installments, it causes me to wonder whether this will become the new norm sooner or later.  In a faster and faster paced world, people have less tolerance for listening longer.  Perhaps Vampire Weekend understands this, and are capitalizing on this awareness.  It causes me to pause and wonder how many other artists will follow suit. 

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned and over reacting, but as an editor of a blog dedicated to showcasing the album as an art form, I was a bit disappointed by their decision.  The power of the album is to create a world that is experiential, a feat that is not possible in two songs.  I did listen to the two tracks, and did enjoy them.  But, I think I’ve made the decision to save the others until the full release.  To me, the power of the album has always lied more in the full experience, not in the song-by-song consumable rush of things.  As the music industry continues to shift and change, I hope that the album format remains a medium that artists continue to give their listeners, allowing them to partake in a brief escape from their daily lives that is longer than a few moments. 

However . . . if you just want to listen to the singles . . . here they are, free of charge.

Review: “Everything’s For Sale” by Boogie

“Everything’s For Sale does not sound like a typical west coast album.”

FFO: Saba, Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar

“I’m tired of working at myself, I wanna be perfect already / I’m tired of the dating process, I wanna know what’s certain already / I’m tired of questioning if God real, I wanna get murdered already,” Boogie raps on album opener “Tired/Reflections.”  It’s a startling string of statements for a rapper who is relatively early in his career; the release of Everything’s For Sale marks his first commercial album, although his first mixtape debuted in 2014.  It sets the introspective tone that remains for the course of the rest of the album, as the Compton native raps, and at times almost sings, about depression and lost love. 

Although the transparent and hardened nature of Boogie’s lyrics share a lot of commonalities with his Compton predecessors and peers, Everything’s For Sale does not sound like a typical west coast album.  The jazz chords and luxurious, natural sounding-beats call to mind the hip-hop that has been coming out of Chicago, with huge influences of soul and jazz.  And, when Boogie gets more melodious with his bars, the notes he hits end up sounding more than a little like Chance The Rapper, with all the endearing raspy-pitchyness (for example, listen to the hook on “Silent Ride”).  This combination of west coast and Chicago sensibilities helps the album stand out, taking influence from two different worlds. 

The record is most enjoyable when Boogie locks into a groove and runs with it, as on album highlight “Lolsmh (Interlude).”  The first half of the track features one of the sweetest instrumentals on the album as Boogie delivers some vulnerable bars, “It’s hard for me to be happy / Wish my girl would just dump me / I done showed you all my ugly, but why the fuck you ain’t judge me? / No, my skin ain’t thick, it’s thin, it probably bleed soon as you touch me / I love it if you hate me, I hate that you fucking love me.”  His flow is flawless and delivery sincere (calling to mind Saba’s incredible CARE FOR ME); on tracks when he is on, he is a very captivating and believable. 

Some of the more misguided moments on the record come in the back half.  Eminem is allowed to spit more “legacy-defending” trash all over the second half of “Rainy Days,” which feels unnecessary, especially as Boogie was holding down the first half of the track fine all on his own.  At points the album bops back and forth thematically, making for a slightly disjointed listen.  This is something that will likely come with time, as he finds his niche and perfects his craft as an MC. 

If you’re looking for bangers, Everything’s For Sale is not the place to go (except for the hilarious “Self Destruction”), but if you’re fan of diaristic rap albums, this is definitely one to give a listen.  At 38 minutes, it hits the right amount of breadth without dragging on and asking for too much.  It’s a solid beginning to what could be a promising career. 

Score: 6.8 (Solid)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Release Date: Feb. 1, 2019

Label: Shady Records/Interscope Records

Review: “Oliver Appropriate” by Say Anything

“With 2024 fast approaching, the record provides a moment to stop and reflect on how long ago that “glam-era” moment really is.”

FFO: Motion City Soundtrack, The Front Bottoms, PUP

Say Anything has always held a unique place in the emo-cannon.  They are most often associated with the 2000’s “glam-era,” in which the genre reached its peak of mainstream popularity with the success of bands like blink-182, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and Paramore, to name a few.  Although their debut, the excellent Is A Real Boy, came out in 2004, it stood out from the others because it wasn’t . . . cool.  Front-man and mastermind Max Bemis’ voice was a bit too over the top, a bit too musical-theater to fall into the cool, sexy sad boi sweet spot that Pete Wentz ruled over.  On top of that, he literally said anything, with lyrics riddled with sarcasm and irony that cut deeper into genuine self-criticism and existential doubt then most glam-era bands.  Bemis also chose to model his lyrics around characters, speaking from multiple personalities throughout his work, making for more nuanced, interesting listens. 

Oliver Appropriate, Say Anything’s self-proclaimed last album, is a bit of a return to form.  Their previous few releases (I Don’t Think It is, and Hebrews) played off as experiments, and lacked a certain something, maybe passion, that their previous work had.  Oliver Appropriate finds Bemis returning to the guitar, but this time, it’s an acoustic.  The songs have an acoustic-but-not quality to them; nearly every track is based around Bemis’ strumming, but there is plenty of instrumentation surrounding it.  It would be inaccurate to call this the record unplugged.  There are drums on most tracks, distorted guitar leads, and backing vocals that flesh out the sound, making it anything but hushed. 

Bemis’ classic, snarling delivery is also back in full.  The hooks are there, the poppy melodies, the sarcasm.  On this album he embodies the character of a washed-up rock star, and uses this perspective (suspiciously like his own) to offer an insider’s critique of the scene, years down the road from where he was in 2004.  “I know a lot of men in hardcore bands / collectively funding the Columbians / straight edge guys who turn to weed and beer / ‘til they all got divorced and they all grew beards,” he belts in his ironic sing-song voice on “Pink Snot.”  He addresses it even more directly on highlight “Ew Jersey,” “Tonight I’ll meet my friends, we were once the greatest / a band that’s coming back from a fake hiatus / hoping that the girls clinging to the bar / know who we are.”  It is partly a critique and partly admission.  The album is a reckoning with the past, a reflection on a band who’s moment has gone, for better or for worse. 

This album is not likely to gain Say Anything any new fans, which is okay because it’s their last.  Instead, it’s a return to everything they have always done best.  At its core Oliver Appropriate is a pop-punk album, done in the theatrical style that their fanbase has always loved.  And with 2024 fast approaching, it provides a moment to stop and reflect on how long ago that “glam-era” moment really is.

Rating: 6.9 (Solid)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Dine Alone Music Inc.

Release Date: Jan 25, 2019

Review: Better Oblivion Community Center (Self-Titled)

“Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.”

FFO: Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes, Folk-Rock

Apparently, Phoebe Bridgers really likes working with other people.  After releasing last year’s excellent boygenius EP in October with fellow indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, she has returned with another collaborative album, with virtually no prior warning.  This past Thursday, our ears were blessed by the self-titled debut from Better Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration between Bridgers and emo-folk veteran Conor Oberst (most famous for his work with Bright Eyes). 

Although the album was a surprise to everyone, it is not the first time that the two have collaborated.  Bridgers’ excellent debut Stranger In The Alps (2017) features a duet with Oberst on the back half of the record called “Would You Rather.”  The collaboration made sense on the album; Bridgers’ blend of haunting lyrics and folk-rock melodies bears obvious influence from Oberst’s work, which she likely would’ve listened to while growing up.  It was a point of connection on the record to a previous generation of songwriters, showing the progression of the genre over time. 

While “Would You Rather” is a duet and sounds like one, none of the songs on Better Oblivion Community Center play off as duets.  It definitively sounds like a band effort.  Although some songs have a more hushed, acoustic environment, most have some sort of full-band arrangement.  And, while Bridgers and Oberst do take turns on lead-vocal duties, they are more often singing at the same time.  Although side-by-side their voices can sound like an odd pairing (to me, Oberst’s nasally, cracked voice always sounded kind of funny next to Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), when they sing together the contrast works quite well.  Sometimes Bridgers is mixed louder and sometimes Oberst is, but it is done in a way that spreads the tonal emphasis perfectly, helping their two distinct voices to blend and compliment one another. 

The album also showcases both singers’ abilities as lyricists.  The haunting opener “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” is a Phoebe lead track where she, in her detailed style, takes the listener down the road of an existential crisis in the form of cosmic helplessness, “I didn’t know what I was in for / when I signed up for that run / there’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud for all the good I’ve done.”  Conor joins her on the chorus, and although you can surmise that this is a Phoebe song, he sounds perfectly natural singing along with her. 

Although Oberst does not disappoint at all as a lyricist, his writing voice is so unique that Bridgers occasionally has a hard time keeping up in the same way that he does on her songs.  The Oberst songs are the ones that, while strong, sound less like a band, and more like a Conor Oberst project.  Again, this is not necessarily bad, but it makes the record slightly uneven at points.  This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the album.  Having more than one fantastic songwriter on the project is a dream, but as a result, it lacks the cohesion and emotional tension of both artists’ previous work at some points. 

Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year.  Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.  This record sounds like it was a joy to make and collaborate on; it comes through in every performance.  While it may not be as emotionally gripping as their solo work, it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great record.  Also, I’ve got to say, I really, really hope they tour together. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Label: Dead Oceans

Release Date: Jan 24, 2019

Review: “Phoenix” by Pedro The Lion

“Phoenix” successfully places the listener into the world of Pedro The Lion, memorializing a past with an urgency to be remembered.

FFO: Jeremy Enigk, Mineral, 90’s Alt. Rock

“But I remember what it was like / astride my yellow bike / first freedom, second life / all the places I could ride / Leaving early, packing light / that little ache inside / my kingdom for someone to ride with.” 

I knew very little about Pedro The Lion when I first heard these lines over the weekend.  My only experience with the late 90’s legend was a casual listen of 2004’s Achilles Heel, which I listened to with a good friend who loves the band.  My interest was piqued enough that when I discovered that indie-rock mastermind David Bazan was releasing his first album in fifteen years under the his old moniker “Pedro The Lion” (he has released under his own name since then), I decided to give Phoenix a listen with very little context for the projects’ long life span.

Jumping in on a new album from an artist decades into their career can feel like a daunting venture, but as it turns out, the album requires little-to-no context to enjoy.  I was instantly hooked on the first full song, “Yellow Bike.”  Everything about it instantly felt nostalgic to me . . . the guitar chords, thudding drums, Bazan’s worn, passionate voice that somehow calls to mind the bluesy tones of Randy Newman.  Through the image of his childhood bike, Bazan beautifully and simply ties his six-year-old self to his present day, forty-three-year-old self; it is an ode to freedom, and a yearning for companionship and belonging within it.  The closing chorus subtly changes the last line from “my kingdom for someone to ride with,” to “I’d trade my kingdom for someone to ride with,” exemplifying masterful songwriting, showing how the simple addition of two words can powerfully change the direction and meaning of a song. 

The album continues this reflective thread on later tracks, painting vivid images of childhood and connecting them firmly to the present moment.  In the song “Model Homes,” Bazan turns memories of house shopping with his parents to the adult longing for change, “Tired of where we live / hoping that it’s not if, but when / when will the wait be over?”  This motif is accomplished perhaps most memorably on “Circle K,” where Bazan reminisces on childhood overspending at the convenience store as if it were a prophesy, with a simplicity that denies heavy-handedness, “I spent it all at Circle K / and the good Lord smiled and looked the other way.” 

Sonically, Phoenix is a pretty standard rock album, which suits the ballad-like story telling very well.  On “Black Canyon,” the haunting tale of a man’s gruesome death under an eighteen-wheeler is punctuated by dissonant guitar chords as pounding toms underline the track, while the chorus jumps out like a stadium rock song.  The album’s big guitars and gritty bass could be played in massive arenas or small rock clubs; it does not sound underground, but not so produced that it feels phony. 

For as strong as the highlights are, there are some duller moments that don’t stick out as readily, making the album feel slightly uneven.  Songs like “All Seeing Eye” towards the end of the record (while brief) drags on a bit, as does the repetition of the simplistic chorus in “My Phoenix.”  They are not bad songs, but compared to the richness of the others, play out as obvious weaker-links. 

 The title Phoenix carries not only the mythical imagery of rebirth but also the name of the city where Bazan grew up.  This feels appropriate in both senses, as it seems to signify a new era in Bazan’s career that is firmly rooted in memories of the past with time-worn songwriting that pulls the two together quite well.  It successfully places the listener into the world of Pedro The Lion, memorializing a past with an urgency to be remembered.

“We could write me some reminders, I’d memorize them / I could sing them to myself and whoever’s listening / I could put them on a record about my hometown / sitting here with pen and paper, I’m listening now.” – “Quietest Friend”

Rating: 7.7 (Stand Out)

For info on how we rate albums, see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Polyvinyl Records