Albums That Slipped Through The Cracks: Space Camp by Audio Karate, A Track By Track Review

FFO: WAVVES, Lagwagon, The Starting Line, Alkaline Trio

For much of the underground scene, Audio Karate has been of interest to many fans of punk rock, skate punk & pop punk genres alike. They had their moments of fame like when making it on MTV(UK) and playing with bands such as the descendants… But were always on the cusp of becoming something bigger & better, their freshman album “Space Camp” showcases this with full force. The first track off of the album “Rosemead” had ballad-like potential, the drums and guitar in the track are reminiscent of its time in the pop punk sphere. The lyrical content in this song may make you feel like you are reading a love letter to your valentine, while at the same time, the nostalgia may also make you feel a sense of longing and belonging somehow. There are very few albums I can listen to nowadays for the first time without stopping and this track caused me to do so. Much of this album has a track that is as infectious as the track prior in one way or another.

It starts to become melodic with the track “Drama Club Romance”… Here, we notice the signature guitar parts that stand out from many similar bands at the time. It’s like going to the beach and listening to pop punk, the waves pull me in more and more. This song is one of my favorites and more visited tracks for me personally. “Nintendo 89”, the first track I and many others first heard by this band, could have reached ballad status as well. To me, though, it was just that and more. Arguably the track has a My Chemical Romance-like entrance but eventually demanded that I mosh in the comfort of my own home.

The attitude of the album takes a turn from hopeful to heavy in the song “Hello St. Louis”, which could be considered the most surprising song as well. The sporadic and punch-filled bass solo turned into guitar solo parts jumped out at me as something that stood out on this record. It’s a good turning point for the album and could peak your interest(like it did mine) at what is to come in following songs. “Monster In Disguise” plays off of the previous track and adds even more fuel to the fire as the most emotional track on this release. The song seems to be about a bad relationship, though the lyrical content itself could also provide solace to some one feeling isolation and lonliness.

The songs to come may be surprising as the emotion suddenly changes to a more mellow vibe. “Car Ride Home” returns to the punk rock summer vibe that “Drama Club Romance” had, and also is debatably the most poetic song on this record. The music here yells 90’s skate punk and reciprocates that it’s still alive even in the early 2000’s while still being the most surprising track on this album(in my opinion). “Senior Year” continues this fashion and the nostalgia here is so infectious as it is the most child-like song here. “One Day” and “San Jose” were the least exciting tracks to me, they don’t offer much of anything too different but are still fun and catchy nonetheless.

However, the song “Jason” takes a turn in the album holding the place of the last song before the closer on the album. For me, in albums this is where I never know what to expect going into the last two songs. Although, this track specifically serves as the most raw version of the band at their time as frontman Arturo Barrios sings “can’t do this anymore”. The song as a whole is alluring and holds an explosiveness to it that is broad in the best of ways. Finally, we’re at the closing track “T-San”… Here, Arturo sings “so I say goodbye to you”, and to me this serves as a great closer for the album. It became a tearjerker after reading the lyrics in depth considering the heaviness that is so present here.

Overall, this album is one that constantly serves as inspiring and interesting. This record is so fun at any time of the year to me, I can throw it on almost anytime. It’s a gem as well as underground staple that has stood the tests of time, aging very well. Today the album turns 18 years old… So, happy anniversary/birthday to Audio Karate on the album(if you all read this), and congratulations on the more recent release of the incredible album “Malo” ! I am looking forward to whatever this band has up their sleeves next.

7.6 (Stand-Out)



Release date: March 14, 2002

Label: Kung Fu Records

Review: Random Desire, by Greg Dulli

The new Greg Dulli solo album is the creative culmination of a 30-plus year career.

FFO: Greg Dulli, Greg Dulli, and Greg Dulli

Random Desire is billed as Greg Dulli’s first solo project. Even if you ignore the fact that Dulli already had a solo debut in 2005 (possibly a technically , since it was released as quote Greg Dulli’s Amber Headlights end quote), Dulli’s bands—the Afghan Whigs, the Gutter Twins, and the Twilight Singers—were always driven by his singular creative vision. His bandmates played important roles, but they were always in service to whatever muse Dulli was following at the time. If Dulli is fronting a band, it’s going to sound like his project, period.

After “reuniting”* the Afghan Whigs in 2011 and releasing two albums (2014’s good Do to the Beast and 2017’s excellent In Spades), Dulli found himself in need of a creative outlet as the band again went on hiatus.  Random Desire is that outlet; inspired by Prince, Todd Rundgren, and other one-man-bands, Dulli wrote, played, and recorded the whole album himself (save for some guest spots from his pals). While there’s a slapdash quality here as a result, the album is still the most diverse release in Dulli’s career, revisiting almost every creative detour he’s taken while venturing down the occasional new path.

*more like adding an original Whig member to the Twilight Singers line-up

One of the most fascinating things about Dulli’s creative output over the years is that as his songwriting accumulated new wrinkles, he’d take those elements to his next project and continue building. So while the Whigs started off as a loud college rock bar band with serious ’60s R&B/soul undertones, they kept expending, ladling in more and more nuances. And then the Twilight Singers added a dollop of electronica and sunny indie rock. And the Gutter Twins folded in some late ’80s Nick Cave vibes. Random Desire keeps with this trend, as all of these elements swirl and slosh around. Some songs, like the glorious “The Tide,” revisit touchstone points (in this case, Black Love-era Afghan Whigs, with a huge upswell of guitars, piano, and Dulli’s howl). Other tunes try some new tricks, like opener “Pantomima”—it’s maybe the single most joyous-sounding thing Dulli has released. And “Scorpio” slinks along with a sexy vibe that’s carried by a trip-hop backbeat and some impressively syncopated verse vocals from Dulli.

If Random Desire suffers, it’s mainly from the limitations of keeping this to a one-man affair. I’ve always found Dulli an underappreciated musician, a true jack of all trades whose musicianship was always eclipsed by his huge on-stage persona. But while a more-than-capable multi-instrumentalist, Dulli’s playing never strays far from what he’s done before. The same can’t be said for his vocal performance—Dulli’s raspy yowl aims for some sultry low notes that are far out of his range. It’s endearing, but still a bad fit for the album. And it’s also not helped by the thin-sounding production; Dulli might’ve been shooting for this early Prince aesthetic, but it doesn’t mesh well with the anthemic swells that frequent his songs.

Random Desire is also the most lyrically diverse of Dulli’s career. Dulli’s songs have always been about the brooding and self-destruction that comes with passion. But here, he seems to take a step back and look at the sadness, joy, and peace that comes from relationships (or, like in the album’s standout “Marry Me,” broken relationships). It’s still Dulli, but this is the most mature he’s ever sounded (or, his persona has sounded, if there’s any actual difference between the two).

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, Random Desire covers a lot of ground in a little time. Even with its limitations, the it’s the most true sounding recording Greg Dulli has ever released. Maybe that’s why it’s being billed as his first solo album.

Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand Out)

Random Desire is out now on Royal Cream/BMG.

Review: The Better Way Home by Stalgic

FFO: Pianos Become the Teeth, The Receiving End of Sirens, Tiny Moving Parts, The Republic of Wolves, Sorority Noise

Green Bay-based Stalgic may have been around for only a few years now, but they’ve certainly been a staple in the scene, playing alongside fellow emo/post-hardcore act Bottom of the Lake, regular frequenting Jambalaya, and releasing EPs and splits in various shapes. Needless to say, they’ve keep an indomitable pace and assimilated well into the larger scene for alternative and emo. They’ve managed to outgrow a local audience and even get national, and international, attention via playlists like Dreambound.

While Stalgic has been known for their high-energy shows and somber lyrics, they’ve typically been on the “lighter” side of punk-adjacent genres. Not so on The Better Way Home, a release that feels appropriately encapsulated in the description of melodic hardcore. The classic chunky basslines and spiraling The Receiving End of Sirens-esque guitar lines are back in full force, but there are pockets of screaming and spoken word that add some more depth to Stalgic’s sound.

Tom Zwicker’s voice is eerily familiar to that of The Republic of Wolves’ Mason Maggio, though certainly of a deeper timbre. This isn’t to detriment whatsoever; in a genre that thrives off good cop-bad cop vocals of high tenors and the low growls of chain smokers, this down-to-earth baritone tone is refreshing and sits well in the overall mix. It feels genuine and earnestly carries the lyrical content across.

Kristian Pearson and Brent Harkonen are in full force, interweaving dual guitar parts with the utmost intricacy. Stalgic thrives on melodic integrity, and that’s certainly in no short supply on this release. Of course, there’s a bit of dropped-tuning chugs as well. Imagine 2006-era post-hardcore and you’ll get the idea. It’s a sound that is somewhat retired at this point but isn’t quite ready to hang up the hat.

Cooper Miller’s drumming is non-intrusive, providing a solid glue for the rest of the band. It’d appropriately dynamic, with plenty of tight tom work throughout the album.

The Better Way Home is undeniably a brief release – its nine tracks sit shy of half an hour, with two interlude-type tracks sprinkled in. Even so, there’s a lot packed into each of these tracks. Fans of Pianos Become the Teeth and So Soon, The Truth will immediately feel at home, those this is just a particular subset of would-be comparisons. Case and point, it’s fast, emotive, perhaps even dizzying.

The band is unfortunately challenged by an oversaturated genre that has stagnated somewhat for almost two decades. It’s evident they’re trying to break the mold, especially with some of the heavier portions or mathier types riffs. However, it’s a task that feels so insurmountable – it’s hard not to feel like Sorority Noise, The Hotelier, and similar acts have already marked their initials over this sonic space to some degree. And even if a band manages to expand on this sound in one way or another, it’s bound to feel derivative to some degree.

Even so, they make good use of their resources. Again, Tom Zwicker’s voice is a key defining element. The guitars, at their most melodic points, are beyond impressive. The stripped-down “Where I Stand” is a nice change of pace, even if it’s a bit more forgettable than some of its counterparts. Overlaying vocal parts and harmonies here and there are a nice touch. For the most part, Stalgic makes strong use of dynamic elements.

The Better Way Home shows a pretty neat advancement in Stalgic’s sound and the fact they’ve managed to garner a larger audience is admirable. This is a not release without some of the clichés of emo and adjacent forms of punk, and things do feel a bit too homogenous at times – but the discerning ear will appreciate some of the intricate details that set Stalgic apart from their peers. This band is still young and they’re progressing as they shape their sound. Only time will tell what they’ll do next.

Our Rating: 6.8 (Solid)

Learn more about our rating system here.

The Better Way Home by Stalgic

Review: Weathering With You by RADWIMPS

One of the reasons that I listen to music is for an escape, an experience that the Japanese create masterfully.

Makota Shinkai is currently one of Japan’s premier film directors.  He rose to international fame with 2016’s Your Name, which was the highest grossing anime film at the time of its release.  Although I am no film critic, I can say that Your Name lives up to the hype.  The characters are loveable, the story is gripping, the visuals are stunning, with the over-all effect of causing an emotional reaction in the viewer.  Shinkai followed up Your Name last year with Weathering With You, which debuted in U.S. theaters last month.  I went to go see it by myself on a whim one weekend after watching a trailer.  Although I have only seen it once, it instantly became one of my favorite films, anime or not, in recent memory due to its visual beauty and touching story. 

Although I am stuck waiting for the film’s home-release, one of my favorite aspects of it is widely available for consumption: the soundtrack.  Both Your Name and Weathering With You were scored by the same artist, Japanese pop-rock band, RADWIMPS.  The band’s first release was through a Japanese indie label back in 2003; since then, they have signed to a major label and have enjoyed great success domestically.  The soundtrack of Your Name helped them reach more international listeners due to the film’s popularity.  Although most consider Your Name to be the stronger film, Weathering With You definitely features the stronger soundtrack. 

The way the album Weathering With You plays, one would think that RADWIMPS has been scoring movies for their whole career.  Many soundtracks do not merit listening outside of the film context besides a few isolated tracks, unless the listener is a big fan of the movie the music goes with.  Weathering flows like an album.  At about one hour in length, it swells and hushes, changing tone and instrumentation just enough to stay interested while also remaining sonically consistent.  The music is mainly piano-driven, with lush instrumentation supporting it.  There are acoustic guitars, woodwinds, and soaring string arrangements flying in at all the right times.  It is possible to be emotionally moved by the soundtrack alone; it hits all the right sentimental chords to bring out goosebumps.

The initial draw of the soundtrack is the lyrical songs.  Although the film is not a musical, it wouldn’t be an anime if someone didn’t at least belt out an opening nnumber.  The five non-score songs are all either beautiful, catchy, or both.  “Voice of Wind,” is an addicting piece of guitar pop that I have found myself, somewhat embarrassingly, playing on repeat in the car.  Two cuts, “Celebration” and “Grand Escape,” feature vocalist Toko Miura, who’s pitch-perfect voice adds a dramatic flair to the anthemic choruses.  Due to these songs’ popularity, RADWIMPS have released an EP featuring them in their un edited versions, plus an English version of the closer, “Is There Still Anything That Love Can Do?”  This will be linked below the full album. 

Although I started out listening to the EP so that I could hear the full songs, I gradually found myself transitioning to listening to the full album.  The greatest benefit of listening to the whole soundtrack together is getting to hear how these songs fit into the score.  Tracks such as, “Sky Clearing Up,” “First Part-Time Job As Sunshine Girl,” and “Running With Hina,” feature the same melody as the full-band closer, “Is There Still Anything That Love Can Do?”  Each time the melody appears it does so with a slightly different arrangement or emotional tone, keeping it from becoming repetitive.  This, to me, is one of the hallmarks of a great soundtrack because it gives the listener something to grasp on to.  The soft, nostalgic notes feel like a reward that is hard to put into words. 

As East-Asian influence continues to seep its way into Western pop-culture, I hope that more American/European audiences discover music like this.  One of the reasons that I listen to music is for an escape, an experience that the Japanese create masterfully.  Putting on a record, especially a good soundtrack, allows me to be transported to another world.  Because these songs are mostly instrumental, and I don’t speak Japanese . . . yet, not having the distraction of lyrics allows me to sink into the world of the music and let it seep into my own world.  It makes me reflect on the film, but also see my surroundings in the magical way that RADWIMPS brings to me through their work. 

Our Rating: 7.7 (Standout)

Weathering With You is out now via voque ting co., ltd.

Review: Honeymoon by Beach Bunny

FFO: early Best Coast, Diet Cig, surfing and crying

It may be late February, and we may be in the throes of winter (certainly here in New York, where upstate we got into the lovely sub-zero fahrenheit zone this month, fun!), but Chicago power-poppers Beach Bunny want you to feel like it’s the worst summer of your baby-adult life and you’re hitting the ice cream stand in Venice Beach for what was originally supposed to be a date, maybe getting a good bit of your vanilla soft-serve all over your face as you gaze blankly into the ocean because you forgot napkins. Then again, perhaps this summer-bummer pop serving is a timely release (they’re not an LA band, after all, so it’s not like everything has to be on script), as it dropped (intentionally?) on Valentine’s Day and could potentially fit the mood for you sad singles out there who spent the holiday sinking into the couch as you consumed cheap chocolate. That works too. Either way, Beach Bunny’s debut full-lenght, ironically dubbed Honeymoon, will hit that sweet tooth craving sugary melodies and songs of wistful heartbreak.

Forming in 2015, Beach Bunny has a genesis like many other projects by talented young songwriters these days, in the comfort of a bedroom, and perhaps in the discomfort of a broken heart, too. Lili Trifilio, a student at DePaul University at the time, solidified her project into a full-fledged rock band two years (and two EPs) later, and brought in the buzz with their 2018 EP, Prom Queen. Hitting all the right “sad-girl” notes, Trifilio’s songwriting on these early releases exhibited a sharp ear for pop melody that married the sweet and sunny with the melancholy, applying it to familiar post-Weezer power-pop dynamics. 

Soundwise, Honeymoon doesn’t stray too far from the pack. It’s simply an expanded version of what Trifilio has already established with her non-album releases. Opening with the breezy bubble-grunge of “Promises,” we find Trifilio wondering something we’ve all wondered before while in the depth of post-heartbreak: “When you’re all alone in your bedroom, do you ever think of me?” she sings in an honest alto that sounds a little bit like the singer she has perhaps drawn the most comparison to, Bethany Cosentino, while dipping ever so slightly into a subtle vibrato that sounds a little bit like a more subdued Marissa Paternoster. “Cuffing Season” follows faster punk dynamics. There’s a mindset that seems to define the romantic lives of the two generations that Trifilio straddles the line of, the self-embracing of introversion clashing with the desire for intimacy, a feeling she touches on here: “Maybe we are getting too close/Paranoid permanence is just an empty promise/Sometimes I like being on my own/I’m afraid of winding up alone.”

The highs of this brief album really hit in the middle. “April” brings in a janglier spin to Trifilio’s crying-fest. “I’m sick of counting tears, wishing you were here,” she sings over classically chipper Johnny Marr extract. It subsides with a noisy jam and is followed by the wonderful ballad “Rearview,” a quieter moment where the stripped back arrangement makes the heartbreak in Trifilio’s voice all the more noticable; there are moments you hear her voice shake, as if she’s about to cry (and kind of wants to). A quiet-to-loud outro a la grunge leads us into “Ms. California”. Trifilio dishes out all the envious angst a midwesterner might ideally have over someone from the Golden State, all through the use, ironically, of a chorus that should make any indie songwriter from Los Angeles green. It’s the kind of singalong chorus that hits all the sweet-spots for this melody-addicted reviewer, albeit couching a very common and tropey subject. Towards the second half of the album is a sprinkling of more diverse dynamics. “Colorblind” pulls a book from the Hop Along book of balancing an emo-punk flavour with a funky, almost danceable groove, and “Racetrack” keeps the mood of the music in pace with the mood of the lyrics, slowing things down and trading the four-piece rock band for a lone electric piano before the garage pop comes back twice more to close off the album.

This album is certainly nothing groundbreaking, nor even all that dynamic, but like Charly Bliss’s Guppy before it, it fulfills its promise of delivering a wonderful debut LP from an artist that had years ago announced their arrival through a string of online EPs and singles. It may lack variance specifically in lyrical subject matter, but it still speaks to very real feelings and insecurities. And as long as we have hearts for someone to break and pillows to cry in (and ice-cream to cry over), having those insecurities voiced back at us through a noisy wave of guitars and sun-kissed tunes will always be welcome.

7.1 (Stand-Out)

Release date: February 14, 2020

Label: Mom+Pop

Review: Never Not Together by Nada Surf

FFO: Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, The Rentals

Compared to other 1990s one-hit wonders, Nada Surf’s career trajectory has been an interesting one. They came in big in the summer of 1996 with their Ric Ocasek-produced MTV hit “Popular,” an acerbic song with a big chorus that found the New York City trio (now a four-piece) raking in a good bit of money for their major-label, Elektra. The song’s success was ultimately at the expense of their sophomore album, 1998’s The Proximity Effect, which, despite having enough palatable Replacements-lite power-pop cuts in hindsight, did not contain a track that scratched Elektra’s itch for another college radio hit. The label’s nixing of the band opened the door for a few years of day jobs and, eventually, Barsuk Records, home to indie up-and-comers like Death Cab For Cutie and Rilo Kiley. Starting with 2002’s exceptional Let Go, things have been fairly consistent for the band. Their sound developed in a direction away from the caustic, feedback-drunk irony that was the calling-card of 1990s rock into sincere, lush, jangly pop music, a sound which they have more or less stuck with since.

In that regard, their latest album Never Not Together is not entirely different from anything they’ve released in the past 15 years; it is not a massive stylistic jump or sonic experiment, nor a defining opus from a band that has been at it for 25 years. Certain lyrical adjustments aside, it could have been released in the place of Let Go and fit in quite nicely in the milieu of 2002. Nada Surf’s gift has never laid in sonic excursions, but in tightening their craft as songwriters, performers of rich power-pop that matures with the band and their audience. Never Not Together triumphs in that area in spades, giving us an album that is somehow both their most compact and their most full-bodied collection of songs in a good while.

The opening track, and first single, “So Much Love,” fades in with pretty acoustic guitars and a sprinkle of piano; this sweet, delicate pop rock track is somewhat par for the course for Nada Surf at this point, and begins the album nicely with a safe air of familiarity before taking off with “Come Get Me,” a good dash of floaty jangle pop a la Jayhawks, interspersed with lines of moog synth that plays like something from Summerteeth-era Wilco. “Just Wait” finds its infectiousness in a more straightforward, hooky fashion, almost fitted perfectly for radio with its four-chord opening over swelling keyboard and strings. Despite being the most simple, straightforward track on the album, “Just Wait” also feels like the turning point on the album, as the tracks that fill the second half are filled with a wider variance in arrangement and style. “Something I Should Do” is an upbeat rocker that employs spoken word in a way that might be enough to hook those who are looking for another “Popular”; what’s missing is the caustic tone, as Matthew Caws says “And we have to hold onto that hippie point harder/Empathy is good, lack of empathy is bad,” going for the post-Elektra sincerity he has taken to. “Looking For You” opens with a children’s choir that seems to be singing about insomnia before working itself towards a fantastic build with the hopeful message that “what you’re looking for’s looking for you, too.”

The strongest moment on the album comes with “Mathilda”, a 6 minute track that is almost broken down in 3 different suites. “They used to call me Mathilda,” Caws sings over a simple folksy melody. “My mama kept my hair long. I was more pretty than handsome, and I was not very strong.” This exploration of self-hatred learned from societal standards forays from reverb-washed arpeggio to overdriven power chords before settling into a Paul Simonesque folk-pop outro movement. “There’s a special hell that we build for ourselves, and it’s handed down in homes and playgrounds,” he sings. Within most of the lyricism lies this desire to love others, a sort of humanistic vision of neighbourliness. Nada Surf have always taken a more direct approach to lyricism whether that be in the overt sarcasm of “Popular,” the vitriolic damnation of toxic masculinity in “Mothers Day,” or the wistful longing of “Inside Of Love.” Caws and company channel this more towards sharing wisdom, altruism and acceptance in these woefully, absurdly divisive times. People looking for more extended metaphors, witty wordplay or crypticism may want to wait for the next Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks album. Otherwise, the marriage of honesty and innocence is refreshing in its own way.

Seeing Nada Surf in concert these days, you’ll never see them wince when they play “Popular” the way Radiohead might when dusting off “Creep”. There is no desire from the band to divorce themselves from their novice work. But while other 90s one-hit wonders may also attempt to recreate their biggest hits, Nada Surf continues to strive to mature; not through sweeping experiments, but through small steps towards crafting perfect songs. Never Not Together has the feeling of meeting up with an old friend over coffee. There is always that familiarity that doesn’t preclude the growth from being noticed. And in a world that seems to get noisier as time goes on, that might be the kind of detoxing we’ve been looking for.

7.6 (Stand-Out)

Released: February 7, 2020

Label: Barsuk Records

The Unconventional Genius of Bubba Sparxxx

Hint: It’s not “Ms. New Booty”

I’ll start with this: I’ve spent my entire life in suburban Wisconsin. I grew up listening to punk rock and metalcore. I spent much of my time on creative endeavors rather than physical ones. All this to say, I might be one of the last people you’d expect to talk about Bubba Sparxxx.

Indeed, there probably is not much that Bub and I have in common by any stretch, what with his primary focus on Southern and rural culture. Thematically, it’s completely foreign to me. But the powerful thing about art is it’s able to transcend some of these barriers.

You may know Bubba Sparxxx for his hit, “Ms. New Booty”. The track dropped in 2005, and it took off pretty well. Perhaps the inclusion of the Ying Yang Twins on the song had something to do with this.

However, that’s probably where most people’s knowledge of Bubba Sparxxx ends. To the uninitiated, he dropped a song about hitting the club, looking at butts, and “rockin’ everywhere”. And that alone fails to impress the critic in me. It’s a base effort with a fairly commercial slant to it. The music video attempts to impress some added meaning about body positivity, but let’s be honest: it’s at a best a party track, and at worst, a song for thirsty dudes to bump-n-grind to. To distill Sparxxx’s identity to the content of the track is remiss.

Here are a few quick facts. Sparxxx’s real name is Warren Anderson Mathis. He was born in the late 70s in LaGrange, GA (about an hour southwest of Atlanta). LaGrange’s population is in the mid 20,000s, so it’s not completely rural, those it certainly has a plurality of staple Southern restaurants like Chick-Fil-A (bless up). It is unlikely that Sparxxx has access to “playa’s clubs” in LaGrange.

But one thing he did have access to was hip-hop. His start was mostly with west coast acts. And let’s not overlook the fact that there was already hip-hop in the South; Outkast was from nearby Atlanta. This ended up being foundational for his later life.

Sparxxx moved several times throughout the South and eventually found success in Athens. This may seemed drawn-out or regurgitation of a Wikipedia article (which, let’s be honest, it kind of is) but there is a point to all of this. Sparxxx’s Southern roots are undeniably authentic, his interest in hip-hop had deep roots back before trap-type beats even existed, but it’s hard to discern just how rural his actual experience was. We’ll dive into why this is important shortly.

Sparxxx’s career was largely contingent on Timbaland’s production, and even his earliest releases don’t feel entirely estranged from the larger hip-hop scene. Sure, his lyrics have been referential to his Southern surroundings at times, but these were woven authentically into albums that were, frankly, just rap. It wasn’t until the 2010s where his music started to deviate a bit, incorporating banjo and other country and bluegrass instrumentation fully. This is also around the time where new country-rap artists where on the rise, and Sparxxx was no enemy of collaboration.

Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert released “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2008, but it wasn’t until Jason Aldean’s version surfaced in 2010 that it really found success in the mainstream. And this is perhaps the most pivotal point of this entire conversation – bro-country has been scorned for being generic, disingenuous, inhumane. This is only augmented by a dude in a cowboy hat and tight jeans attempting to rap about the most cliché Southern things. It’s catchy to the point that most listeners won’t even process the absurdity of what’s happening here. But, as mainstream country loves to do, appropriating yet another genre isn’t surprising – there are plenty of great small and independent country acts out in the world, but most of what you’ll hear on the radio is just “pop with twang”.

Now, the original song is perhaps less egregious to some degree since Colt Ford is known for his country-rap elements. But at this point, Bubba Sparxx has almost a decade of rap cred cemented in several albums of material. The country-rap premise had arguably been tried and tested for years now, and it did fine with what it had. It’s akin to the popification of worship music; the substance was inherent but it needed to be repurposed for commercial means.

Most genres seem to come in waves, and the early 2010s was a second wave of country-rap; arguably, this is when it shifted to what many know as hick-hop. And that name alone should tell us something.

While Sparxxx’s music has not always taken itself too seriously, these following waves read more like parody. It’s founded on self-deprecation. It feels like a Mad Libs sheet filled in with country clichés stolen from Luke Bryan songs. Ultimately, it’s no longer rap with country elements. It’s country songs in rap form.

I’m not arguing that Bubba Sparxxx is one of the greatest modern rappers, but he certainly was a forerunner in his own right. His music is certainly not perfect and it’s not without its own clichés, but it’s also the kind of music he loved. It’s not on par with the bastardization that is Zac Brown Band’s The Owl, a terrifying frankenstein of country and the indescribable ingredients of a hotdog. Rather, Sparxxx crafted songs that, while quirky at times, are arguably no stranger than what we’ve seen from some of rap’s most popular icons. They just happened to have Southern influence. And while Sparxxx may have done a bit of pandering in the recent years as well, in his most unobserved stage of his career, things never felt gimmicky.

So, the genius of Bubba Sparxxx really isn’t built on some secret ingredient. He managed to stand out in the scene because of his background, connections, and authenticity. Hip-hop is a genre with a lot of history and ethnic roots and it’s counter-cultural for white, Southern men (the unfortunate stereotype of racism and prejudice) to participate in this verbal ceremony. There’s a tradition to be respected, an art to be honored. And seeing country musicians shameless twist this into music that is often antithetical to the cultures which created propagated hip-hop to begin with is uncomfortable.

Bubba Sparxxx ultimately managed to help bring forth a whole wave of Southern artists who were eager to put their own take on hip-hop, and it probably wasn’t even intentional. Whether or not you actually like Sparxxx’s music, his approach is noteworthy. It’s certainly more organic than what has come to pass in recent years.

Review: Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.

Much has been said about Mark Kozelek, good and bad.  From his slow-core days as front man of the Red House Painters in the 90s, to his rebranding as a folk-rock singer song-writer with Sun Kil Moon in the early 00s, to his resurgence of popularity with the release of his 2014 masterpiece Benji, there has been much artistic evolution and a fair amount of personal controversy.  Kozelek is one of the few artists whose evolution has been almost totally transparent through his art, while still being almost entirely reclusive from the media and interconnected cyber-world.  The lyrical content of his work has always been intensely personal, whether in the sparse poetry of his early work or his new, diary entry, sing-songy-spoken-word that he has adopted over the past five years.  During this time his musical output has nearly doubled, often releasing two or more projects every year, whether as Sun Kil Moon or solo collaborations with other artists. 

His latest release is Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2.  As the title implies, Kozelek has collaborated with these musicians before; this is the sequel to their first collaborative album from 2017.  On the surface, this record is no different from any of his releases since 2015.  The songs are long; all of the seven tracks are over eight minutes, with the full track list running to an hour and eighteen.  There are no choruses or hooks, and little in the way of conventional song structure at all. 

Instead, Kozelek and co. present an immersive, hypnotic world of lush piano parts, uneasy drum patterns, and harmonic guitars, all featuring Kozelek’s voice floating masterfully overtop.  It is feels appropriate to describe this album as a short-story collection in musical form.  Although he delves into spoken-word passages occasionally, the vocals are always subtly melodic, flowing easily along with the music.  The amount of detail and care that was put into the arrangements makes it clear that these are not simply backing-tracks made to be played in the underneath someone talking; these are songs that double as stories.  Kozelek has gone so far as to publish the complete lyrics to every song he has released from 1992-2019 in two volumes via his label Caldo Verde, demonstrating the importance of the lyrics to his art as being significant enough to form a body of work on their own.  It is clear that the music and lyrics are of equal importance here and in his whole discography, intermingling to form a mesmerizing world of sound and unfiltered thought. 

 What makes this album stand out from others in Kozelek’s discography is the musical world it presents.  Unlike the muddy This Is My Dinner or relatively sparse I Also Want To Die In New Orleans, the level of detail makes it possible to pay attention and be intrigued the whole way through.  Each song features multiple movements that are tied together by musical and lyrical motifs that appear throughout, keeping them from feeling like directionless experiments and free-association exercises.  Koz often breaks the fourth wall by talking about his own song-writing process, with lines like, “I find poetry in everything,” which typed out here out of context sounds incredibly pretentious, but comes across as sincere and true within the album. 

There are moments of hilarious instrumental and lyrical quirks as well.  On the middle track, “Chard Enchilada,” Kozelek spends each verse talking about underdogs who have to work harder to get ahead in life than others.  One such person is the bassoonist, who’s supremely un-cool instrument makes it difficult to find success in the music industry (spoiler: there is a bassoon solo right after the verse).  During the last track, he abruptly stops his musings to ask someone in the studio if he thinks the album is over eighty minutes yet, to which he replies, “um, I’ll have to check . . .”  It’s a comical moment of self-awareness. 

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.  For me, there is usually one take-away that I get from these records, one phrase or verse that sticks with me when it’s all over.  This record’s moment comes at the end of the closing track as Kozelek narrates the experience of answering the studio door to find some evangelists from The Church Of Latter-day Saints.  He tells them, “Hey, this ain’t my cup of tea, but you showed up at my door to talk to me.  I know all about the angel Morona and Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates.  But you came here to talk with me, and I respect that.  You’re brave.  You showed up.” 

Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand-Out)

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 is out now via Caldo Verde Records.

Albums That Slipped Through The Cracks: Killing Us Is Easy by Operatic

FFO: Jimmy Eat World, At The Drive In, As Cities Burn

If you’re looking for a great alternative album but also something new and not average in this genre, then look no further. In their debut, the members of Operatic prove they have potential, and a lot of it. As the music progresses, it could throw you off guard some times but, I feel, it keeps you interested the whole way through in one way or another. In a lot of ways, you understand clearly the message the lyrics are trying to convey… In other ways they can be cryptic and almost eery, and because of this, leaves room for interpretation. If you have ever been in an unhealthy relationship of any kind or have felt lost in life, then this EP may be a cathartic listen for you. Other themes involved can be repetitive but only for the sake of putting emphasis on what this record is trying to accomplish.

Killing Us Is Easy, as a whole, takes on a style of a melodically driven progression while throwing you small surprises along the way. Some may not find this EP as interesting, but for me, when first hearing this release, I was blown away with the lead guitar work… It is impressive, fresh and leaves you wanting more similar sounds to grace your ears. The vocals and instrument dichotomies are genuine and polished, making this a crisp listen, one of which tugs at the emotions of the listener’s soul. Most have found out about this band from the demo version of the first track titled “Interested In Madness”, which was featured on Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, and, this is how I found them as well. The demo version is a little bit different at some points and gives off almost a completely different feel for the song with small subtleties.

“Forget + Think + Tell” may be my favorite track on this just because of every aspect involved and how the song moves as compared to the others. The chorus screams what rock and roll at the time could look like, while you almost feel like you’re taking a small step through this path in the dark with rhythm guitarist & frontman Jesse Fritsch as he walks on it. The song “Fiona”, however, takes place right after and is possibly the most progressive and explosive track here… It is a great place to have this track with how the songs flow. Here, Jesse, sings “with this we’ve become, not so interested“… But to me, this record is nothing short of interesting. In fact, at the time of this release, it breaks the mold and can be considered a bold statement as well as a staple.

Our Rating: 7.2 (Stand Out)

Release Date: December 31, 2004

Label: Self-Released

Apple Music link: https://music.apple.com/ca/album/killing-us-is-easy/132828102

Review: Start A Fire That Sings You A Song by Social Caterpillar

FFO: folk punk, chamber pop, post-rock

“Experimental” has become a blanket term for describing music that deviates even so slightly from the norm. It’s a term that manages to equivocate musique concrète, field recordings, ambient noise, and avant-garde with the likes of prog rock, metal, and indie pop alike. That’s not to say that there’s nothing of substance to the creative elements of those genres. Rather, the level of experimentation sits at a palatable level where they’re largely conducive of a song’s pop appeal. True experimentation is typically less digestible on a first take – it’s accompanied by a certain uneasiness; it conjures questions of the very things the listeners is experiencing. Experimentation certainly exists in music, but it’s not always easy to find artists who (intentionally) play with this part of the human psyche as a way to enhance their performances.

Milwaukee, WI-based Social Caterpillar find their place in an enigmatic intersection of a variety of styles. Chamber-style string arrangements? Check. Walls of noise and static? Check. Samples and voiceovers? Check. Six-minute songs? Check. It’s a sound that seems to borrow from early emo, interject some of the angular elements of Slint, and paint things over with a multitude of electro-acoustic arrangements that feel simultaneously psychedelic and vaudeville. It’s dark, cinematic, raw, and beautiful.

The group’s latest release, Start A Fire That Sings You A Song, reads like a narrative that charts this dense landscape of sounds and mood. It’s a mere eight tracks long, with almost half being interludes, but it’s certainly not light on content. The shortest non-interlude is over four minutes long, and several tracks top six minutes.

As for the music itself, the album wastes no time showing its experimental side. The aptly-named “Cult Chant” begins with a dissonant guitar line and a distorted voice overlay. Warped synthesizer sounds ultimately render the voice inaudible, and after the voice overlay fades, we’re presented with a repetition of “I don’t like what I’ve become”, progressively adding in harmonies. It’s a striking first taste of the album that resolves to a somewhat-normal state shortly after as the strings come in. Slowcore-esque segments weave in and out as they pass by passages of acoustic pop.

Just when things start to feel comfortable, the track fades out into the noisy “Interlude A”. This interlude feels intentionally alien in all respects – whereas “Cult Chant” featured a strong core of acoustic instrumentation, there is nothing organic to be found on its successor.

“Caught a Fly” returns us to a more concrete listening experience, this time opting for a more upbeat approach on things. A mid-tempo guitar line with occasional harmonics serves as the backbone, while intense, staccato vocals drift over top. Of course, this veneer of bliss dissolves into dissonance before long. The fury seems further augmented by brooding string arrangements. And while there are a couple rays of light throughout the later half of the track, the end is accompanied by a chaotic crescendo that would even make The Chariot proud.

“Interlude B” is much like the previous interlude – otherworldly, digital, foreign. There are even hints of explosions hidden under the otherwise-synthetic noise. It’s not something you’d want to loop, but it certainly does add some emotional context to the album.

“Bad Electricity” starts off with a folk/alt-country type guitar line paired with warm, layered vocals. It feels like a campfire song of sorts that juggles a bit of emo influence as well. It’s admittedly one of the simpler songs to some degree, but this is largely a positive. As to be expected at this point, things don’t stay in one place too long and the track shifts gears. The second half is fuller, more vibrant, laced with intermittent falsetto and a faster past.

The abrupt end of “Bad Electricity” feeds into “Interlude C”, the shortest and most barren of the three interludes. It’s far less layered that its counterparts, and it balances some organic elements against synth backdrops. There’s a bit of a melodic segment, though it doesn’t have time to develop too far.

With the interludes out of the way, “New New Year” bursts forth with full force. It’s a drum-heavy track that scales back on guitar a bit. The resounding chant of “Life is just playgrounds for vibrations” is a highlight, and it’s followed by captivating string motif. Ultimately, it’s reminiscent of another Wisconsin band – Appleton’s Cave Paintings. For the typical reader, it boils down to this: thoughtful and poetic art-rock with tight drums and mid-tempo melodies.

The album ends much the way it began – a guitar part and voiceover. However, it’s no issue making out the words this time. It’s a punk ethos, a call to stand up for the value of the lives of others and ourselves. These socio-political overtones are met with some of the most abrasive instrumentation on the album so far. Without vocals, the song would be at home on a horror movie soundtrack. Lyrics are fitting, with an air of protest and a dose of “Eat the rich”. A minute-or-so outro leads to yet another abrupt end, this time for the album as a whole

So, what’s there to make of this release? It’s authentic, balancing raw segments with production that is ultimately professional. It’s adventurous and takes plenty of risks. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also some tension as well. Again, it’s hard to place this album in one exact genre but there’s a level of folk-punk commentary at play at times which seems to be part of the main theme of the album.

However, there are a couple points of contention. Firstly, the political commentary feels a bit trite – it’s not to say that there aren’t real issues in the world that need to be fixed, but it feels like many artists and civilians are regurgitating the same lines (like the aforementioned “Eat the rich”). This comes across as a bit cliché or perhaps even pandering, especially since I can’t imagine anyone in office to pull up an obscure experimental indie folk album for casual listening – the audience likely already agrees with these sentiments and that bit doesn’t add much to the existing conversation. That’s not a summary of the lyrics of the entire album, which, for the most part, are a bit more abstract and poetic.

Secondly, I’m not sure where I stand on the interludes. I appreciate the subtle nod between the opening track (where the voice over is muffled) and final track (where the voice over is easy to understand) and how the interludes also get less chaotic over time. They’re not overly-long, either – which is nice. However, the transitions between regular songs and interludes isn’t smooth and it would have been interesting to hear the interludes engulf the ends and starts of songs to truly make the album feel seamless.

Thirdly, and this is minor, it’d be nice to hear some of the compositions built out a bit more. There are a lot of instrumental layers to the album, but they’re rarely all seen in the same space. Drums shine every now and then; synths are largely constrained to the interludes. It’d be cool to hear some of the minimalist arrangements paired with more wall-of-sound, post-rock-esque builds. The band does a great job of what they do use throughout the album, but sometimes it feels a little too bare.

Ultimately, Social Caterpillar has managed to lace Start A Fire That Sings You A Song with true experimentation – and like any good experiment, there’s risk involved. Ultimately, the flaws are pretty limited and the end result is a musical cocktail made of ingredients of unknown origin. Its flavor is at times sweet and at times bitter – but when all is said and done, you’ll ask the bartender for another one.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand-Out)