Reviewing the Decade in Music: Entry #5

Some things in life are immaculate for what they tell us. Others are immortalized for what they keep secret.

The Mountain Goats' All Hail West Texas fulfills this mantra with emphatic honesty. Lyrics craftily engineered by front man  John Darnielle encompass the emotions, lifestyles and ever-present sentiment of nothingness that permeates the warm, empty expanse of otherworldliness that is West Texas. While this concept album follows the lives of West Texas residents, it never reveals the absolute truth behind their stories, leaving a Brewster County-sized gap for the listener to reflect on.

Released in early 2001, All Hail West Texas was the last lo-fi album recorded on Darnielle's legendary Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. For those unfamiliar with The Mountain Goats' work, Darnielle  literally huddles around a boombox and records albums such as All Hails West Texas and The Hound Chronicles in real time.

All Hail West Texas is best defined as a loose concept album. While the cover of the album states "fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys." a true dialectical pathway is difficult to identify and follow.

The influence of West Texas on the album is immeasurable, so much so that the charm of the album may be difficult to adopt for listeners that have never had the... pleasure?.. to "switch to 285 in Pecos and head up to Red Bluff" however anyone who has ever found themselves lost in the West Texas desert with sweat trickling down their forehead and tumbleweed rolling alongside the highway will be able to imagine what Darnielle sees as he wrote songs like "Jeff Davis County Blues."

Beside the West Texas geographical setting, the album also touches on the realities of life commonly found among West Texas residents, including depression, alcohol dependency and hopelessness. "Fault Lines" exposes the superficial existence of the young couple that seem to be the lead characters of the album as they find themselves with "the house, the jewels, the italian race car/but they don't make us feel better about who we are."

A key theme of All Hail West Texas is the quasi-freedom of youthful rebellion. William Stanaforth Donahue discovers the monetary allure of dealing drugs after his former glory as a football star is squashed after his knee buckles during an out of town game, only to end up facing federal drug charges. Jenny and her lover roar throughout lonely West Texas highways when she "points her head lamp towards the horizon/we were the one thing in the galaxy god didn't have his eye on" however they fail to find purpose in life and in each other, and slowly fall out of love. Jeff and Cyrus manifest ambitions of becoming the next stars of metal, using satanism and shock value as a springboard, only to have their dreams stifled by teachers and administrators from a school where they told Cyrus "he'd never be famous." The corrosive emptiness of the West Texas environment only packs on to the feelings of despair the characters in All Hail West Texas feel as they struggle with the harshness of life.

The lo-fi acoustics of All Hail West Texas is a perfect medium for the hopeless desolation present in Darnielle's lyrics. The soft treble and whispery static feedback makes the album feel like it is being transmitted through a distant FM radio station, perhaps the meaning behind the track titled "Distant Stations." The acoustics perfectly fit the lyrics, which perfectly fit the music, which perfectly fits the concept. All Hail West Texas strikes a chord with a sublime majesty that tumbles through crisp summer winds outside of Stockdale, Texas and creeps up to the New Mexican border, culminating in a big, orange sun that lights up magnificent silhouettes and brings night time to Texas.

"The Mess Inside"


Wale- Attention Deficit

After a decade long romp in the underground mixtape scene, Wale has finally released his first full length album, Attention Deficit on Interscope Records. A star-studded affair, Wale's freshman release is a promising hip hop album, carefully balancing smooth beats with poetic lyrics. The hip hop industry really came to Wale's support on the album, as Attention Deficit features collaboration from Bun B, Lady Gaga, J. Cole, Knaan, Gucci Mane, Pharrell and several other prominent artists.

"Chillin", the first single from the album, has already seen considerable play time on pop radio stations, a sure-fire byproduct of having the ever-controversial Lady Gaga on background vocals. Sampling "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" by Steam, Cool & Dre cooked up a catchy beat that fits the dynamic of Wale's flow and Lady Gaga's serene voice.

Wale is at his best on the most up-tempo songs on Attention Deficit. His go-go roots and subtle South African accent lend themselves to crafting a nifty hook on tracks like "TV on the Radio" and "Mirrors." While most artists use tiring gimmicks to make their music catchy, Wale's songs never come off as manufactured or soulless.

As a self-professed J. Cole fan, it comes as no surprise that "Beautiful Bliss" has quickly become my favorite track on Attention Deficit. According to his Twitter account, Wale wrote the song on the DC metro after he signed the mortgage to buy his first house. Composed around the uplifting vocals of Melanie Fiona, "Beautiful Bliss" radiates both Wale and J.Cole's passion for hip hop and personal expression. These two, along with former Degrassi star Drake, have been heralded as the "future of hip hop" for some time now, and this track may make many skeptics believers. J. Cole's verse is one of the best of 2009 as he ferociously spits "kick back and watch the sun set/kick back and know your son set/forever I ain't run yet/and never will/Nas told me life's a bitch/Pac told me fuck the world/And I ain't cum yet/You up yet?/My punchlines like gut-checks/I'm raw dog/I'm rough sex/I'm on deck/I'm up next/I'm God-blessed/I'm success/so fuck stress/You can get the fuck from round me/And if you're listening I know you're wondering where the fuck they found me/I'm from the Ville boy"

While the album does contain an endearing catchiness, there are several underwhelming songs on Attention Deficit. "Prescription" is an inherently boring listen, saved only by a Common-esque spoken word performance at the end of the track. "Shades" lacks the cunning play on words usually present in Wale tracks, consequently losing quite a bit of charm in the process. When I first found out Wale's first break out hit, "W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E." was not going to be included on Attention Deficit I wasn't too upset, however since several of the songs on the album are relatively disappointing, it's a shame that Wale's most recognizable song is missing on the track list.

Overall, Attention Deficit is a unique, creative expression of self and society, firmly influenced by the artist's roots. I'm personally looking forward to a prolific Wale career. Wale is currently on tour with Jay-Z, N.E.R.D., and J.Cole.

Review Score: 7.1/10

"Beautiful Bliss"

"Mirrors ft. Bun B"


Reviewing the Decade in Music: Entry #4

Coupled with the rise of indie rock in the 2000s, folk music has made a forceful resurgance. Leading the way in this rennaisance is Omaha, NE native Conor Oberst. Oberst, best known for his most succesful band, Bright Eyes, refueled mainstream interest in folk by reiterating the traits that led to the folk explosion of the 1960s-beautifully crafted lyrics and unabashed political activism.

Bright Eyes' commercial and critical acclaim reached a pinnacle point in 2002 with the release of Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. With 13 tracks, most of which weigh in at over six minutes, Lifted is an arduous, yet rewarding listen. Oberst is quoted as saying he sought to create a "grandiose" sound on Lifted that he couldn't really put in to words. Several tracks include a grainy noise layer, giving the songs a warm and comforting feel that sharply contrast with Oberst's painfully woeful lyrics. Lively guitar licks and raspy snare hits keep songs like "Method Acting" bursting with energy, while more passive tracks such as "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come" and "Nothing Gets Crossed Out" rely on merely a stripped down acoustic guitar chord pattern or methodical piano section to underlie Oberst's vocals.

The brilliance of Lifted comes upon inspection of Oberst's heartfelt lyrics. Whether it be the cognative stream of conciousness on "The Big Picture" or the narrative driven "Bowl of Oranges," every song paints its own intrinsicly beautiful picture. The lust on "Lover I Don't Have to Love" is very tangible while we can all identify with the sentiments of impermanence in "Method Acting." In retrospect, it's very easy to see that Oberst aptly described the Bush era in the United States with "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)."

I should stop pointing fingers; reserve my judgment of all those public action figures, the cowboy presidents. So loud behind the bullhorn so proud they can't admit when they've made a mistake. While poison ink spews from a speechwriter's pen, he knows he don't have to say it, so it, it don't bother him. "Honesty" "Accuracy" is just "Popular Opinion." And the approval rating is high, and so someone's gonna die. Well, ABC, NBC, CBS: Bullshit. They give us fact or fiction? I guess an even split. And each new act of war is tonight's entertainment. We're still the pawns in their game. As they take eye for an eye until no one can see, we must stumble blindly forward, repeating history. Well, I guess we all fit into your slogan on that fast food marquee: Red blooded, White skinned oh and the Blues.

There are no weak tracks on Lifted, however some may find the methodically slow tracks like "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come" to be off-putting. Even when the tempo is lethargic, the emotional and intellectual intensity of the album never wavers, and this is where Lifted excels as an indie folk record. It is a harrowing inspection of self and environment that refuses to pacify its fervor.

"Method Acting"

"Lover I Don't Have to Love"


Reviewing the Decade in Music: Entry #3

High on my list of top albums from the decade is Anberlin's Cities. Following up Anberlin's Blueprints for the Black Market and Never Take Friendship Personal, Cities was an uncharacteristically dark album, lush with powerful imagery and mature themes. Released on February 20, 2007, Cities saw relativly strong sales for an alternative rock release on a mid-sized record label (Tooth and Nail, Seattle) as the album debuted at  #19 on the US Billboard sales chart and reached number seven in top album sales on iTunes. Music critics fell in love with Cities, as a negative review is difficult to find.

Cities soaring success can be contributed to its sparkling polish. Every note on the album was careful recorded, and producer Aaron Sprinkle did an excellent job molding Anberlin's sound to lead singer Stephen Christian's progressively introspective lyrics. In comparison to the band's sophomore release, Never Take Friendship Personal, the sound on Cities is bigger, distinct, and more full. Drummer Nathan Young provides strong, driving beats that allow the songs on Cities to retain the catchiness of Anberlin's previous releases, while abandoning the light hearted pop style of BPFTBM and NTFP.

Highlights from Cities include the anthem-esque "Godspeed." Led by blazing guitar riffs, Christian's vocal performance is top-notch as he hauntingly whispers "they lied when they said that the good die young" in the bridge between choruses.

"Dismantle. Repair" is structured around a spacey guitar rhythm that leads into a hard-hitting chorus that features some of Christian's best vocal presentation on the album. The real head turner on Cities is the brilliant, nine minute opera, "Fin." A very low tempo melody provides a strong backing for Christian's powerful lyrics at the beginning of the track, while building up to a loud guitar section and a stifling performance from Christian. The rest of the track basks in the emotional remains of the first four minutes of the song,  including backing vocals from a children's choir.

Cities is an album that should not be praised for its vision or creativity, but rather for the pure excellence of its recording. Every track is distinct and powerful, wrapped in a neat package that pays perfect tribute to Anberlin's strengths. Stephen Christian's lyrics and vocal performance on Cities are among the best of the decade in alternative rock.




Reviewing the Decade in Music: Entry #2

On October 23, 2001, the face of music changed profoundly. The computer hardware company Apple unveiled a new line of pocket-sized music players, capable of carrying over 1,000 .mp3 or ACC files stored on a mini hard drive. While the iPod was not the first .mp3 player on the market, its sleek user interface and trendy complexion led to an explosion in the electronics market, spelling out death for personal CD and cassette players.

The birth and success of the iPod is significant because it encouraged the music industry to move away from the CD format in favor of digital media. The ease and relative inexpensiveness of buying music via iTunes and other mp3 electronic warehouses in the 21st century has boosted music sales by over 37% per year, regardless of what anti-piracy gurus at the MIAA would like you to believe.

One drawback to digital media is the decrease in audio quality. Modern recording studios compose tracks in huge, lossless files that are then burned to physical CDs. No drop in audio quality occurs in this process, however as soon as the CD is deposited into a computer to rip the music into .mp3 files there is a huge drop in quality as the analog data on the CD is converted to bytes of 1's and 0's. This drop is only amplified once the .mp3 files are dumped on to an iPod and listened to through low grade ear buds. This decrease in quality is hardly noticed by the average listener and definitely is not a drastic enough shortcoming to threaten digital music's throne in the industry.

The impact of the digitalization of music has led to increased sales, thanks to the proliferation of music piracy. That's right. The ease at which music can be bought also mirrors to the ease at which music can be stolen. While music piracy is soaring through the roof, so are sales. Surely there is a correlation between the two. While there are indeed countless scum bags that are more than willing to take any product with out paying, music piracy introduces consumers to new groups, albums and artists that they will be inclined to support financially through purchasing future releases, attending concert dates, and spurring merchandise sales. Personally, it would be fiscally impossible for me to purchase music from every artist and band I am interested in. While I do pirate music, I also buy more than my fair share of albums and .mp3s. My music piracy impels me to purchase more music because I sincerely strive to support quality art.

As I stated on my first entry in this series on the decade in music, the music industry finds itself at a crossroad in 2009. Certainly digital media provides music consumers with many advantages, however the industry needs to solidify its stances. Should physical recordings be abandoned? Should the music industry continue its vicious crusade on piracy? Do record label CEOs even care to address these issues as they witness record profits? As the questions pile up, it is apparent that the next decade of music will be just as controversial as the last.


Reviewing the Decade in Music: Entry #1

With there being only two lone months left in the 2000's I have decided to trek back and pay tribute to some of the best releases we've seen since the infamous Y2K scare.

This decade has been a transitional period for music. Fueled by the advancement of technology and social networking, the inner workings of the music industry have been fundamentally shifted. New inventions like the 808 drum machine, auto tune vocal processing and computer-controlled synthesizers have musicians struggling to find a balance between the ease and financial advantage of composing their music electronically while juggling with the authenticity needed to keep artists' work justifiable in regards to artistic integrity. In the 70's Bob Dylan was ripped for moving from acoustic to electronic guitar. This decade saw similar controversies arise in countless scenarios such as hip hop artist experimenting with "techno" beats, automated drum machines in recording studios, and exponentially active producers injecting layer upon layer of samplings into tracks.

Please note that the albums that I will be featuring in this series are NOT ranked in any way, shape or form. They all deserve equal respect in their own fashion due to their intrinsic quality and the impact they left on the music scene. These albums will NOT be graded on a scale.

Kanye West- The College Dropout

The first album, and perhaps the only debut release, is Kanye West's The College Dropout. Released on February 10, 2004, Dropout signaled a shift away from gang banging themes and profanity-laden lyrics in hip hop. While his counterparts were occupied with lines about pushing crack and peddling dope, West rapped about religion, self resilience, the nature of art and even the horrors of the inner-city education system.

Both a commercial and critical success, Dropout made Kanye West a house hold name, standing right alongside the heavy weights of the rap game such as Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Most notably, Dropout solidified West's position as the most creative producer in hip hop, a consensus that began to form after his work on Jay-Z's The Blueprint album.

Dropout spawned many hits, including "Jesus Walks" (11 on U.S. Billboard) "All Falls Down" feat. Syleena Johnson (7 on U.S. Billboard) "Through the Wire" (15 on U.S. Billboard) and "Slow Jamz" feat. Twista, Jamie Foxx (1 on U.S. Billboard.)

West's lyrical prowress is evident on Dropout. The paradoxical contrasts Kanye draws between his underground rapper and star producer dual identities is aptly portrayed in the track "Breath in, Breathe out," where West rambles the lines "First nigga with a Benz and a backpack/ Ice chain, Cardi lens and a knapsack." Some of West's best lyrics come to fruitation on "Never Let Me Down" when he addresses the social image of African Americans that worship rap stars and put forth nothing more than political apathy while living immersed in an Anglo-Saxon dominated culture.

College Dropout is a hip hop classic not because of the hit singles it contains, but rather the pure quality of the album. Well produced, well written, and well marketed, Kanye West single handedly took on the hip hop industry with his first release and consequently altered the previously accepted notions of a genre that was slipping into stagnation.


Attica! Attica! "Napalm & Nitrogen"

Often in music the age-old adage "You get what you pay for" is routinely rebutted by outstanding free releases. Taking a look at bands like Bomb the Music Industry! Cheap Girls, and O'Pioneers! proves my point. Unfortunately, folk band Attica! Attica!'s latest release leaves listeners feeling like they were ripped off, even if the album was free.

"Napalm & Nitrogen" runs at 31 minutes, with 11 songs about an aging punk rocker bitching and whining about how the world has left him behind. Attica! Attica! consist of Aaron Scott (formerly of De La Hoya and Marathon) and a couple of washed up punk rockers he could scrounge up to accompany him on tour for a week or two.

Aaron's songs are very catchy and sing along friendly, however the lyrics are elementary and off putting. Countless music aficionados accuse younger folk song writers like Conor Oberst of being "too whiney, bordering on emo," but when an older guy like Aaron relates the popularity of the President among songwriters to "the death of art" without being scolded forces me to raise the hypocrisy card.

Without exaggerating, every single track on "Napalm & Nitrogen" somehow relates to Aaron's depression, loneliness, or angst for happy teenagers. It's repetitive, annoying, and overall frustrating.

Don’t bother with TV
The networks never show the Broncos, it’s regional coverage
They do it to spite me
Why go out to the street?  I hate the neighbors
How am I supposed to act like Elway if they won’t let me play QB
Believe it

Yep, those are actual lyrics from this album. If you can get past the lyrics, 'Napalm & Nitrogen" is a pretty fun listen. Several songs have gang vocals and string sections making Attica! Attica! a great band to listen to with friends around. If shallow lyrics don't phase you, you may very well enjoy "Napalm & Nitrogen." And hey, it's free so you might as well give it a shot.

Review Score: 5.1/10

Download "Napalm & Nitrogen" here- http://atticaattica.org/download/