Halfway Report September 2018

Due to a severe arm injury I wrote this entire post with my non-dominant hand, so…appreciate.

* “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

A quote from Christopher Nolan’s now decade-old movie The Dark Knight, which even removed from the context of that film makes a salient point about the entertainment industry. Less is often more, and trying to consistently stay in the spotlight can not only ruin your career but tarnish your entire legacy. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have both been playing parodies of their iconic characters longer than they played those characters. When it comes to alternative rock, U2 and Weezer are both now caricatures of themselves as well, capitalizing on a brand rather than a sound. Jay Z‘s mogul mania has yielded little in the way of quality content post-retirement. And now we’ve got Eminem, who seems aggressively determined to destroy all the goodwill he’s built up over the years. Is this all an elaborate act, where releasing bad music for 10+ years is part of the “script”? Judging by the aptly titled new album Kamikaze, it could very well be.

Eminem proved early on the be one of the most technically-skilled rappers of all time, a fact that’s impressive considering that not only is he white, but boldly so. Ironically enough, he also may very well be the only white rapper without any stigma attached to his name. He built this reputation while being gleefully and unapologetically problematic™ for his entire early career and succeeded in spite of it. Compare that to the endlessly prostrating Macklemore, whose constant need for validation has scored him precisely zero points with the woke scene. Em is a lucky son of a gun, an Academy Award winner who put mom’s spaghetti on the map (not the mention on his sweater) and has been both commercially and critically successful in the face of huge (and often self-imposed) odds. 

So why is Kamikaze so confrontational? Eminem spends a large chunk of the record being an old man yelling at kids, his mile-a-minute delivery hamstrung by that annoying pinched timbre he gets when he goes into a higher register. And it’s true, he could still rap circles around most contemporary rappers. But that’s understood, and he himself already knows this; his constant harping about this fact means little when there are no memorable moments to be found behind the disses. It’s like he wants to be taken down a peg and humbled.

A guest appearance from Justin Vernon on “Fall” is totally wasted with a flat, one-note melody. Elsewhere, Eminem recruits Jessie Reyez, who is one notch above former feature Skylar Grey in terms of credibility. “Good Guy” is average, if slight; the only really discernible hook on the entire record is on the cornball “Venom”. Written for the upcoming movie of the same name, the track is about as artisanal as the film itself. Both seem like relics from the mid-2000s, ignoring all developments in their respective industries in the decade since. The jury’s still out on the movie, but the track sounds like Eminem’s supergroup D12; it’s nearly in so-bad-it’s-good territory. The hook is incredibly silly- but at least there is a hook, a lone reminder of classic Slim Shady.


* I’ve always loved the diversity of music, specifically the concept of sub-genres. The fact that two different artists can be considered “electro-pop” yet positioned at opposite ends of a spectrum is absolutely fascinating. On the surface, Middle Class Rut and Royal Blood are both “hard alternative rock duos”, and both embody that term in full effect – but in vastly different ways. A combination of influence and execution has led each band to carve out a distinct sound. There’s no mistaking one for the other despite the two sharing an umbrella. MC Rut’s new album Gutters keeps their version of the sub-genre intact, with all the scorched earth imagery both lyrically and sonically represented. “Long Way Home” and “Desert Road” come five years after the band’s last effort Pick Up Your Head but could fit just as comfortably on that record.


* Rummaging around in the same sonic toolbox might lead to artists that sound the same, but songwriting will always, always be the most important part of music. That’s why GrimesArt Angels was a wildly eclectic pop masterpiece and Ariana Grande‘s Sweetener is a bland, forgettable affair. Both dove into the 90s to assemble their records, but Grande’s production team used the spare parts of TLC, Mariah Carey, and house beats to create a regrettably boring pastiche of that era. There’s no “Into You” on here, but there is “breathin”, which is a shameless rewrite of the former. The multi-million dollar production team can recognize showstopping pop hits, but it can’t recreate them. However Grande’s got the momentum of being arguably the most relevant pop star on the planet right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a deluxe version drops before year’s end to rectify this mistake.


* Another alternative rock band content to keep doling out the tunes they built their brand on are grunge veterans Alice in Chains. Despite losing their original lead singer the band has chugged along without any significant drama, staying out of the spotlight so often shone on other 90s titans desperate to stay relevant. New record Rainier Fog is another collection of their trademark sludge-metal, goblin choir backing vocals and all. “Red Giant” could have been written back in 1992; the same can be said for “Never Fade”‘…even if its polished choruses allow the band to invite ShineDown as potential openers on a tour.


* Death Cab‘s Thank You For Today didn’t prove to be the same late-summer juggernaut Plans was 13 years ago, but it’s a perfectly acceptable latter day effort from the band. There are a lot of strangely uptempo tracks here, from the straightforward “Northern Lights” and “Near/Far” to the math rock-y “Summer Years”, and these prove to be the winners this time around. The drab “When We Drive” has Ben Gibbard drawling syllables to fill space, while the almost-great “Your Hurricane” has him doing the same and effectively derailing what could have been a new classic.


* It’s time to call it: Muse are a legacy band. Three singles from their new record Simulation Theory have now been released, and none have shown any attempt at rejuvenation. Latest track “The Dark Side” is actually pretty palatable- certainly a step up from the already forgotten “Something Human”, and about on par with lead single “Thought Contagion”. But it shows that the band is tired, joyless, and going through the motions. The visions of the future they’re showing now are not of some technological dystopia or robot squadrons, but of Matt Bellamy turning into an operatic Axl Rose.


* I’ve long used Young the Giant as shorthand for everything wrong with modern alternative, with only their Gatorade commercial of a debut single “My Body” being worth a listen. The band’s decided to spite me and release a second tolerable song eight years after they appeared on the radio landscape, and I must acknowledged that yes “Superposition” is pretty OK. A well-structured mandolin lead shows how underutilized and underappreciated instrumental hooks are nowadays, and even the song’s less necessary parts don’t diminish it. Those parts being a bland melodic hook buried in the chorus and an embarrassing smooth funk bridge; both could have been easily excised and left the song all the better.


* Another band I frequently use as a bad example are Milo Greene, who are a band I like to call “eternal openers”, because their interchangeable facelessness leads them to perpetually be kicking off shows for third-tier indie pop acts. They may in fact graduate to being one of those third-tier pop acts and get someone opening for them after this new record, which includes a good – but not great – single in the way of “Move”. It’s well-written and concise, with the same kind of winding hook that made MAGIC!‘s “Rude” endlessly catchy. Too bad then, that it’s laid over an inert chord progression that relies on the same root note for a huge portion of the song.


* Jonny Greenwood‘s been the Radiohead member best known for movie soundtracks thus far, and it looks like Thom Yorke got a little jealous. He’s taken the reins for the score to upcoming horror flick Suspiria, and the first taste of that score is the similarly titled track “Suspirium”. A lilting waltz of a tune, it is unmistakably a Yorke work, very delicate and reed-thin like a ghostly ballerina. It’s decent, even if it would have been stronger had it relied solely on the cyclical verse chords instead of the extraneous chorus jammed in haphazardly. That pointless detour leads it to be outclassed in every aspect by previous Radiohead/Thom Yorke songs.

Looking for a devastatingly bleak piano ballad? Go with “Videotape” or “Codex”. A non-conventional chord progression? “Karma Police”. A haunting soundtrack contribution? “Hearing Damage” – Yorke’s generous addition to the Twilight: New Moon OST (yes, that really happened)