Childish Gambino | ROYALTY | Album Review

Independence Day was commemorated in more than one way by comedian/writer/actor/rapper extraordinaire Donald Glover. With the release of his new mixtape, ROYALTY, Glover’s rap alter ego, Childish Gambino, celebrates an independence from his light-hearted jokester roots. ROYALTY declares a new Gambino that fans better digest quickly, lest they be left in his swag-laden wake.

The resulting release is short on tongue-in-cheek literary references but packed to the gills with guest lyricists, producers, and hard-edged, often hook-less material. Gambino is eager to demonstrate that hip hop is something he could pursue as a life path, should he so choose. Often derided for his choice of lyrical focus, Gambino keeps his audience at a distance, going as far as asking them abruptly, to turn off his records and/or shut the hell up. 

Gambino has solid rap chops — his verses often provide the oasis on a track full of lesser guests — but that doesn’t prevent him from suffering from building an entire track off of a weak premise (and to be frank, an awful rhyme scheme/central message to a track) in “Unnecessary.” It is not entirely clear where Gambino is headed by frivolously repeating the various unnecessary facets of being a comedian/rapper/television star, giving way to a frustrating level of aimless material. The track provides a deep valley for the record and is far below par for what is expected of Glover’s wit. 

Continuing with that theme, on preceding track “Black Faces” Gambino would like to insist “[he] and Nipsey [Hussle] [are] on some grown [up] shit” but really they simply come across as a couple of hungry kids playing hip hop. Glover has always been sensitive to what comes across his @mentions feed on twitter. Undoubtedly, it is this level of self-awareness and neuroticism that makes Glover who he is; both sensitive and nerdy while simultaneously acting overblown and braggadocios. In fact this theme is a rather common vein in modern hip hop. However, if Glover aspires to be like Jay-Z, ?uestlove or any of the other icons he references, Gambino needs to find a better middle ground. Act like you’ve been there before, man. 

A benefit the mixtape format offers Glover is to work out his various kinks (emotional or otherwise.) Many of these tracks would benefit from a singular vision, like the one prevalent throughout previous release CAMP, but not everything on ROYALTY belongs under this umbrella, allowing Glover to cut his teeth deeper into his rap aspirations. The best example of this is the almost scene-stealing potential of what I assume was intended to be the cornerstone of ROYALTY… but unfortunately for inexperienced producer-hat wearing Gambino, even a feature spot by Wu-Tang vet RZA couldn’t save  “American Gangster.” Coincidentally enough, it is RZA’s entrance that derails the track. Right off the bat his flow slams the brakes on an incredible instrumental build courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Orchestra. If Glover wants to keep his prized new “prod.” tag, he’ll have to learn to pull better performances out of his revolving door cast of guest spots.

Elsewhere on ROYALTY, simple fixes are all that are required to take the album the extra step, which again, is the point of a mixtape. That extra ten percent between good to great is always a challenge, and the point of Gambino’s hard touring and heavy output are to prove he has what it takes to survive in this game. A more involved touch is all that’s keeping “Shoulda Known” from a Top 10 Gambino track. “Doing sew sew, like a seamstress.” Really? That’s all you’ve got, Donald? Sample the Drive soundtrack all you want, no one believes you’re in the 1%.

As we continue through the album, extra kudos go to “Silk Pillow” a welcome cross-section of Childish Gambino’s talents if there has ever been one. Anyone who can draw that kind of performance out of Beck definitely deserves some quality attention. A little needed proof that when Gambino is present in a track, he can really bring it home. Perfectly placed to keep ROYALTY flowing, given previous track “Toxic” is predisposed to (purposely) weird sampling and some overly indulgent interplay between Gambino and manic comedy rapper Danny Brown. Fortunately, it is easy enough to scratch this one off the drawing board and head to greener pastures. 

It will be refreshing to CAMP enthusiasts knowing that Gambino is still at his best during prolonged moments of raw emotion. “Wonderful,” with choruses provided by the exquisite vocal talents of newcomer Josh Osha, (as opposed to the high, pitchy renditions from Glover that listeners have grown accustomed to) fits splendidly in the Childish catalog and will indeed be one of the singles with the most legs to come out of ROYALTY. 

The most important statement to take from ROYALTY is that we now have a more mature but not necessarily better-off Gambino. He is obviously struggling with his place in life. As he says on highlight track “We Ain’t Them” — “Back of my mind, I hope the show gets cancelled. Maybe then I can focus.” referring to his cult favorite sitcom Community — a line no fan of Glover’s is sure to take lightly. Through ROYALTY Gambino is at his most consistent, yet proving himself will always remain his (ultimately unattainable) goal. He attempts to match pace and style with each of his guests, not always successfully, but Gambino is an audibly more confident and progressive performer because of it.

Mitch McCann

Lana Del Rey | Album Review

In the wake of one of the most viral growth spurts in the history of alternative music, Lana Del Rey released her debut “Born to Die” despite having spent the past 6 months polarizing her audience with scandalous origin stories and painfully awkward live performances. Her deeply laden “hollywood sadcore” persona has both enchanted and infuriated the majority of her critics; it seems the only topic left undisclosed is the music. After a careful series of listens, “Born to Die” plays out like a dreamy train derailment. There’s an inexplicably mature handful of tunes scattered throughout the LP, starkly contrasting with some of the most asinine lyrical spectacles in songs like “This is What Makes Us Girls” and “National Anthem.” We want so badly to buy what Lana is selling, but the her efforts seem pushy and she eventually falls short of the myth set in place by last summer’s smash single “Video Games.”

The message constructed with “Born to Die” is clear; Lana plays the beautiful, young, and sadly misunderstood starlet-wannabe whose only desire is to drive top-down with the girls and close the evening with hard make-out sessions in the rain. There are kissing references in nearly every song, and frustratingly vapid party phrases are used and reused: “take your body downtown, baby.” Those who subscribe to her character will revel in her unabashed commitment to communicating this subculture of melancholy L.A. girls, longing to be abused and thrown away like their draggy cabaret-singing mothers before them. The arrangements are effectively atmospheric, and do little to discourage a complete listen. Lana has given herself a near-perfect backdrop to the orchestral pop landscape laid amidst her unique vocal style and pouty delivery.

Sung by almost anyone else, “Born to Die” would seem a laughable teen-throb disaster, but Lana’s intimidating loyalty to her character boldly separates her from other imitators. There’s obvious room for improvement in the structure of the album. Contrived and awkwardly positioned, some tracks are just plain throwaways, but others are delicately assembled and show promising potential. Early critics of Lana Del Rey weren’t completely wrong to label her as “one to watch,” because “Born to Die” showcases a satisfyingly confident new stream of ideas, despite the negativity and cat calls. Lana Del Rey has arrived on her own accord, and will continue to cater to the mysterious whether you come along or not.

Review by Dylan Bliss

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Justice | Audio, Video, Disco | Album Review

It’s hard to live up to a successful debut. The first time around there’s nothing to expect, once you have something to compare yourself to, there’s only one of two ways to go. It’s solely on the bands shoulders to energize the creative wherewithal to play against a stacked deck. That being said, of all the French electronic duos, Justice is by far the best suited to heave the modern scene into the future - and they do so by heading backwards.
As modern a rendition of the 70’s ideal of free love as possible, Justice skyrockets and plunges simultaneously. Through powerful arrangements and what I’m going to call “loose, cheeky sampling,” Gaspard Auge, Xavier de Rosnay, and Auge’s moustache detail yet another chapter of the Book of Justice. With all the gravitas of a sledgehammer but the artful wit of a master craftsman, no one’s derailing these gents.

Justice, as they are wont to do, bust down doors and get s**t started and don’t let up through the whole release. Sonically beautiful and certainly worth the price of admission “Audio, Video, Disco” is a keepsake that can’t wait to do all that is necessary to yank nay-sayers into the Justice way of thinking. After all is said and done, if there was an act that had to follow Rosnay and Auge’s showstopping debut “Cross,” it might has well have been Rosnay and Auge.

by Mitch McCann

Mayer Hawthorne | Album Review

Splashing onto the scene in 2009, Mayer Hawthorne eagerly shared their 50’s soul throwback tunes with whoever would listen, opening for acts such as Passion Pit and appearing in short films with Kayne West. Andrew Mayer Cohen is clearly at the heart of the creative process, and his crooning and swaying has his audience smiling, filled with an insatiable desire to return to the romantic melodies of yesterday. The band’s latest effort “How Do You Do” is no exception. It’s the same formula, but with new contributors and a refreshingly varied collection of sing-and-bop-alongs.

All twelve tracks breeze past as Cohen glides from heart-break ballads to upbeat love notes, all the while challenging the limits of his falsetto-to-”oooo” ratio. His heavily borrowed lyrics, rhythms, and themes are shamelessly implemented with modern stylings. He’s a bit more liberal with his cursing, and a bit more forward with his come-ons, but the flavor and authenticity of the first LP remains. “Get To Know You” starts with the familiar walking bass line, then Cohen does his sly Boyz II Men intro talk and swiftly drops in the hook. The album continues with endless dug-up cliches and extremely indulgent echo-backs.

“How Do You Do” is sure to churn out some infectiously catchy hits. Tunes like “Hooked” and “Stick Around” will have listeners snapping their fingers and tapping toes for days. Surprisingly, Cohen seems to be the only artist today cashing in on this sonic goldmine, though he does it with careful attention and style. If this sounds like your thing, Mayer Hawthorne definitely belongs in your collection, cuddled up to the rest of your Marvin Gaye records.

Review by Dylan Bliss

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Wilco | Album Review

Coming out of the other side of the controversy surrounding the release of their 2001 album,’Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, Wilco became more of a metaphor for the broken music industry and have since spent their career blossoming what could have easily been a short lived blaze of glory. Following a string of successful, but critically mixed set of albums, Wilco decided to do the only sensible decision left - form their own label. Now, on dBpm records, Wilco’s seems to have found that much needed “umph” and raw creativity critics couldn’t find for themselves on the last few.

Opener “Art of Almost” takes Wilco fans on a journey both backwards and forwards in time. Back to introspective, wandering punchline and forwards to strong rock presence and deeper arrangements. “Rising Red Lung’s” fluid guitar work paired with Tweedy’s new found (and diverse) vocals ache for more listens. The developed presence (like that on “Lung”) on the record bleeds out across almost the entire record, leaving a full impression seemingly lacking from previous efforts.

Across the ambling country croon tunes with electronic runs, broken, disjointed laments, and cross generational pure-blooded pop songs, ‘The Whole Love’  but all with a distinct Jeff Tweedy touch. A vibe that is all their own; by Wilco, for Wilco… but thankfully not ‘Wilco (The Album).’

Overall, ‘The Whole Love’ has less bark and more bite, which is something listeners haven’t seen from a Wilco album in quite awhile.

Certainly bending towards Tweedy’s strengths, ‘The Whole Love’ handles its weight well, with the stand outs (namely “Born Alone,” “Black Moon,” and “Whole Love”) performing well under any circumstances that even the kinks that come with them (“I Might,” “Standing O”) work themselves out along the way. As with most other Wilco efforts, the most gains are afforded to those who put in the most effort. Multiple listens aren’t necessary, but strongly recommended for those wishing to fully realize the newest product of Wilco being the only ones in charge of Wilco.

Review by Mitch McCann

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Warrior | Film Review

Almost everything about “Warrior” makes me want to hate it. First of all, seeing a film about two brothers who fight UFC, have an extremely troubled childhood separately, and finally become matched up against each other in the biggest MMA fight of all time didn’t excite me at all. However, despite innumerable recycled fight-movie cliches, “Warrior” tells a real story constructed with timeless and believable characters. It comes so scarily close to a self-parody that you can’t fathom why each predictable component is so compelling. I guess it’s the same reason the Super Bowl is watched every year. It’s simply made anew.

Nick Nolte delivers a scathing performance as the disowned alcoholic father and ex-trainer who’s making his way through the 12 steps with his estranged sons. Tom Hardy is continuing to make his presence known, fitting the profile of one of his most highly anticipated characters to come, playing Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Australian TV star Joel Edgerton pleasantly surprises as the underdog brother and father/physics teacher who’s just trying to pay the mortgage after struggling to finance his daughter’s heart surgery.

It’s all set up in such an obvious and heartbreaking way, but somehow “Warrior” grows into an emotional juggernaut, holding the audience’s breath hostage during every last bout in the cage. This film forces you to respect the real dangers of MMA, and offers a front row seat to the pain.

Beneath all these layered characters, it never becomes extremely clear whose side we should find ourselves on; each player carries a tragic burden that only seems manageable with that five million-dollar championship purse. Then suddenly, as if by some cliche-busting miracle, the audience shifts focus from a climax fueled by victory to one founded on compassion and true forgiveness. This gut-wrenching spectacle comes to a close leaving everyone involved visibly exhausted, albeit palpably exhilarated.

Review by Dylan Bliss

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St. Vincent | Album Review

With enormous eyes, fair skin, and an angelic thrust, St. Vincent’s arresting appearance feeds the fairy tale of sweeping self-examination offered in her newest LP, “Strange Mercy.” Not truly scrutinized until after her critical success with “Actor,” St. Vincent has finally dug deeply into her guitar-wielding, electro-blasting foundation with a exploration into what she’s always wanted to do with the deep stares and bombastic arrangements: communicate herself.

Straddling two or three separate genres, “Strange Mercy” showcases what the best part of St. Vincent’s live performances has kept secret for so long: the absolute destruction wrought by her performance on the guitar. Callous and aggressive in their dynamics, songs like “Surgeon” and “Hysterical Strength” are meant to be raucously jammed, and not used as the backdrop to anything but a strange music video. There are also moments to rest; Annie Clark’s crystal clear tone coos over the top of careful structures, and serves as a punctuation mark signaling the coming sonic storm.

“Strange Mercy” is a varied and saturated experience, and each tune lends itself to an ever-enriching theme about shouldering strengths and ignoring imperfection. The catchiest tracks reveal a loyalty to the instrument, rather than a compromise towards poppy hooks. It definitely warrants more than one listen to appreciate its layers, and will hopefully be in consideration for one of this year’s most complex and ambitious releases.

Review by Dylan Bliss

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Fade to Black: The ‘Slow Burn’ of Rescue Me

While critics doubted a masculine dramedy based around the events of September 11th could sustain itself, Allowing FX to put all their faith behind creators Denis Leary and Peter Tolan to deliver them their next big hit. For those who have stuck with the series (now one of FX’s longest) it has done just that. At the expense of more than a handful of characters and the occasional rehashed monologue, it has sustained the fire it began all the way back in 2004.

Unseen on almost any other series before it, Rescue Me featured a kind of ripcord drama that energized viewers, tugged at heart strings, and in its hay-day, delivered some seriously breathtaking television. A truly sobering series with subtle pay offs, Rescue Me never gave an inch - it took one. One step forward, three steps back.

As a serialized drama that not only grappled with, but frequented the subjects of loss, alcoholism, homophobia, racism, and the attacks of September 11th, Rescue Me followed Denis Leary as balls to the wall, daredevil firefighter Tommy Gavin as he tried to hold himself together against all odds, and then watched him slide when he couldn’t.

Perhaps what is most surprising about the show, is that despite the its physical presence being repeatedly shaken by tragedy, reconciliation, heartbreak and utter collapse, its emotional core never wavered. Rescue Me is ultimately about what it means to be connected to another human being and what happens when those lines are blurred and crossed.

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 drew closer, it became increasingly clear that the public had dealt with it in their own time, and what Rescue Me once considered its central tenet - the aftermath of the attacks and Tommy’s struggle with them - became a well they returned to too often. The creators, like the firefighters, used 9/11 as a mask for the problems underneath. Fine television is rarely able to be stretched out over seven seasons, and Rescue Me was no exception.

Following the lives of the Gavin family and 62 Truck from what is likely the most tumultuous start in any series’ history to an ultimately satisfying climax was one of the most rewarding and painful experiences of my life. Even after everything that Leary took from his viewers, emotionally or otherwise, he delivered in the end. Tommy Gavin came through for us all one final time.

By Mitch McCann

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Attack the Block | Film Review

“Attack the Block” joins a gang of South-London ruffians on a rather busy night for the British youth. As the boys attempt to mug a woman, a visitor rockets down from the sky and into a nearby car. With regard to not spoiling the relatively basic plot, it’s needless to say the boys dig themselves far deeper than they planned and find themselves at the center of an invasion of “big alien gorilla, wolf mothafuckas” - all seemingly intent on tearing this motley crew of British badasses with a bedtime limb from limb.

Joe Cornish (Shaun of the Dead), writes and directs this uniquely contemporary take on an the alien movie blueprint, blended with elements of elder cult films like ‘The Warriors.’ Through Cornish’s witty scripts, these characters (specifically lead John Boyega) leap off the page and into a somewhat believable world of alien invasions. Transforming the audience from skeptics into believers who cheer on a rag-tag band of lowly London hoodlums as they elevate themselves from scum to heroes.

I’m somewhat reluctant to call this an “alien movie,” because in this age of film with most extraterrestrial flicks being described as Spielberg-ian and lacking in variety, it’s hard to find an alien movie that can appease all the critics. So Cornish goes simpler, he focuses of the heart - his characters. There’s no way audiences could ever care about these kids; entitled brats who curse authority but listen to their mums, weed-addled Discovery Channel junkies, and snot-nosed punks with nothing but super-soakers and dumb ideas, if Cornish hadn’t let you care about them; root for them, even.

Armed with fireworks, scooters and whatever pointy thing was around at the time, Cornish’s delinquents take on the strangest adversary London’s ever faced (the big alien gorilla, wolf mothafuckas, in case you forgot.) “Attack the Block” is a well put together alien-movie-on-a-budget, and retains all the charm of that “B movie” mentality, with A+ execution. Regardless to the seemingly niche audience it seems geared towards, “Attack The Block” has a big heart and wide appeal that will certainly blossom on DVD once it gets in the right hands; it’s one of the finest films of the year.

Review by Mitch McCann

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Blitzen Trapper | Album Review

Eric Earley and the rest of Blitzen Trapper seem to harbor an extremely open-ended attitude towards making new music. Between albums “Wild Mountain Nation” and “Furr,” we started to hear softer, country-folk influences arise that prompted listeners to compare Earley to the likes of Bob Dylan and other seasoned story-tellers of the genre. “Destroyer of the Void” broadened the sonic landscape by introducing more electronic foundations and lengthier song structure. Now, with “American Goldwing,” we’re invited back to the “hometown” folk-rock barn party, a familiar setup with a much more polished execution.

The title track, “American Goldwing,” starts the album with a definite indication towards the tone of the rest of the LP. From romancing us with finger-picked stories about recognizing roots and celebrating every aspect of failed relationships, to shredding the electric guitar in two, Earley wisely puts the cosmic message on the back burner to tell us stories we all love to hear. The concept of “Destroyer of the Void” never seemed to congeal into the epic prose that Blitzen Trapper had assumed, and it seems clear they simply went back to jamming alongside one of the most proficient songwriters on the scene.

Blitzen has always wrapped listeners up with the reoccurring song-title-phrase: “You Might Find it Cheap” teaches us a lesson often learned the hard way, and “I Love the Way You Walk Away” is cataloged among many other love songs tinged with regret. The primary themes in “American Goldwing” aren’t new, but the sound and emotions evoked by this seasoned group of rockers remains as fresh and satisfying as ever. If you’ve ever enjoyed Blitzen Trapper, this effort should solidify their presence in your collection.

Review by Dylan Bliss

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