John Paul Ficenec John Paul Ficenec

Writing

Album Reviews:

Freedom by Amen Dunes

Amen Dunes’s latest album —Freedom— is a tact and purposeful artistic statement. The album’s forward-thinking, nostalgia-mining nature gives it room to flirt with the knotty lyrical passages of past releases while forging ahead with a sleek, coquettish songwriting style.

What Damon McMahon (the man behind the Amen Dunes moniker) may have lacked in clarity and “conciseness” on his previous releases, he more than made up for in worthwhile and sprawling epics that shone through his discography’s collective haziness (e.g. the title track from his previous album; Love, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” from 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw, which is not to be confused as a Beatles cover). Freedom finds McMahon swimmingly marrying his previous penchant for rustic, psychedelic folk with assertive and direct pop music. A match made in heaven.

At multiple points, this record is an amazing exercise in build and restraint. Tracks like “Skipping School”, “Miki Dora”, and many more continuously pulsate and expand throughout their run-times. The effect is one of nail-biting suspense. McMahon leaves you on the edge of your seat, waiting for some sort of climax. Yet said climax never appears to fully come. Now let it be known, that previous sentence is meant to be interpreted in the most positive manner. These quasi-payoffs may not be concrete or discernible to some, but the reward that comes along with the act of totally letting go and giving yourself to these living, breathing tracks is tremendous.

In that regard, a lot of these songs are undoubtedly more sexy than D’Angelo in the music video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel?)”. Jokes aside, the reason this album is more sensual than, say, a Miguel or The Weeknd album lies exactly in the aforementioned build-ups these tracks employ and the subsequent restraint that McMahon takes in not allowing himself to indulge or wade in any sort of bombastic, Wagner-esque territory.

The subtle sensuality that runs throughout the mere sounds of McMahon’s songwriting is the perfect new backdrop for his often cryptic, spiritual words — numerous interviews for this album as well as his for his past works have found McMahon mentioning his belief in having a past life. Here, he leaves little morsels for us to chew upon in regards to what navigates his world view, while never giving us a firm answer on its content. In fact, in a recent Reddit AMA, whenever McMahon was asked about his lyrical process, he would refer to the narrators and characters in his songs as separate entities from himself, while conversely saying that he could also be the narrator. This detachment that McMahon allows himself from the songs’s content is exactly what allows them to be so universal and one-size-fits all. It’s what will allow these songs to become refuges for listeners for many years to come.

A quote that has always floated around in my mind since I first discovered it goes something like this: “Good art answers questions. Great art asks questions.” That was probably a terrible butchering and a disservice to the original author, but the point still stands: “Freedom” is a stunning, generous work of art that shape-shifts its experience to the listener — whoever that may be — and believes in their autonomy and ability to dig deeper. And if you don’t have time or simply don’t want to investigate this record’s “mythopoetic depth” (as Reddit user jokula said) and just want some bangin’, off-kilter pop tunes, “Freedom” has got ya covered my friend.

☆☆☆☆


Atlas by Real Estate

Welcome, world, to a review of Real Estate's second disappointing album in a row, Atlas.

Atlas, the third album from New Jersey band Real Estate, shows the band at their most tight and accessible, yet at the same time, their most bland and uninspired.

With their debut eponymous album, Real Estate showed off a homespun and “earthy” (for lack of a better word) knack for creating catchy and off-kilter indie pop tunes. Songs like “Beach Comber” and “Fake Blues” dug their way into the inner-most canals of your ears and comfortably set up shop there for many days after that first listening.

Then came Days, Real Estate’s sophomore album.

Days saw the band move from smaller indie label Woodsist, to the big boys over at Domino (home of Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, etc.). With this move, Real Estate gained the ability to have their album available at stores like Best Buy, but lost the ability to keep the most pressing and attentive listeners interested. Sure, to the casual listener, adjectives such as “chill” and “breezy” could easily be used to describe this album, but to the overly-analytical listener, “boring” and “middle of the road” could be used in the same breath. Real Estate seemed to lose on Days what they genuinely had all over their debut album; inspiration. But, in the midst of the disappointment that came with Days, singles “It’s Real” and “Green Aisles” were easily admirable. And even closing track “All the Same," the longest Real Estate song to date, can be admired for its grandiose attempt at combining “chill” with “epic."

But now, Real Estate has unleashed the smoldering heap that is Atlas.

How I hate this album.

Granted, my first listening experience wasn’t all that great. I now hate iTunes Radio as much as I hate this album. Yeah, go ahead iTunes Radio, please, play an advertisement between EVERY SONG. Heck, why don’t you play me advertisements that tell me exactly what artist and album I’m listening to, you know, just in case I forgot. Silly me, I accidentally clicked on the “First Play - Real Estate, Atlas” button thinking it was going to be Bangerz.

Out of all the songs on Atlas, I could really only find one to truly admire, that being “Talking Backwards," the first song to drop in advance of the album. “Talking Backwards” appeals to just enough pop sensibilities, yet is sung by some facial-hair clad hipster from New Jersey (Bruce, is that you?) with a voice that’s just wimpy enough, that if The OC were on today, it would probably be featured on an episode.

I just am simply not affected by this music. It has no real depth, nor will it be remembered ten, twenty, even thirty years down the road. No old, aged hipster is going to say, "Remember the day Atlas leaked? Man, that was an incredible day." But then again, it's probably just me expecting too much from the music I listen to. I should probably just be happy that I have ears and am able to listen to music. Silly me.

So, at this point in their career, Real Estate is no longer singing “Budweiser, Sprite / Do you feel alright?”, but instead “My mind is drawing a blank / Don’t know if I can go back.”

To end with a quote on Atlas from Rate Your Music member lalalandon:

“This record reminds me of earlier today when i was drinking a glass of water and not listening to music."

☆☆1/2


AM by Arctic Monkeys

Arctic Monkeys are never going to make another Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.

That's a simple fact. While their debut album and sophomore follow-up Favourite Worst Nightmare were rooted in Strokes-inspired garage rock revival with their own Sheffield touch, they threw a massive curve-ball with their third album, Humbug. Abandoning the fast and rigid sounds of their first two albums, Humbug was a darker, slower, and heavier record. The heavier sounds of Humbug can be attributed to stoner-rock pioneer and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme co-producing the record (along with Arctic Monkey’s frequent collaborator James Ford) and removing themselves from England entirely and recording the album in the California dessert.

Following Humbug, Arctic Monkeys continued their “Americanization” with Suck It and See. Their fourth album, while in the same vein as Humbug, brought a lighter side to things, containing some of lead singer Alex Turner’s most humorous lyrics and song titles (“That’s not a skirt, girl, that’s a sawn-off shotgun / And I can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me”). Recorded once again in California, and featuring Josh Homme providing backing vocals to the track “All My Own Stunts”, Suck It and See was living proof that Turner and company had ditched the Adidas tracksuits once and for all, opting for the sleek coolness of leather jackets.

Fashion statements aside, on AM, Arctic Monkeys have managed to truly find themselves and the sound they’ve been working towards since Humbug.

As you can probably guess by this point, Arctic Monkeys headed back to California to record their fifth album, which features guest spots from Bill Ryder-Jones, Pete Thomas (whom played drums on “Mad Sounds” when the band’s drummer Matt Helders broke his arm), and (you guessed it) Josh Homme.

When asked by NME about how AM sounds, Turner replied by saying “It sounds like a Dr. Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.”

Now while I can’t say that any of this record sounds particularly influenced by The Chronic, or 2001, the sleek and sturdy thumps and handclaps found on “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” bring to mind the intoxicating groove found on “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”. And “Fireside” certainly gallops its way across the desert in three minutes.

Elsewhere on the album, we find the Monkeys crafting unapologetic, piano-driven pop songs (“Snap Out of It”), ballads with misleading titles (“No. 1 Party Anthem”), and, well, a song that really sounds like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (“Arabella”).

I’ve given every Arctic Monkeys studio album the same rating as I have this one, so if Arctic Monkeys continue to produce a new album of this same quality every other year, they’ll be the second most consistent band (behind Spoon) in indie music. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think Turner and the boys should take some time off from their intense tour schedule, hole back up in England for a while, and take a well-deserved sabbatical (or, better yet, have Turner and Miles Kane release another record as The Last Shadow Puppets).

☆☆☆1/2


Paracosm by Washed Out

Is chillwave dead?

Many seem to think so. The made-for-humor genre and name rose to prominence back in the summer of 2009, when satirical music blog Hipster Runoff coined the term. Chillwave music mostly consists of lo-fi aesthetics (i.e. many of the artists who first became associated with the genre recorded solely on their laptops, using samplers etc.) and reverb, all with pop-like hooks. But at the core of chillwave is a summery, hazy feel in the music that can invoke nostalgia as well as bright tomorrows.

If one thing is for sure though, it’s that the artists who rose to prominence by being lumped into this genre are not dead. Chillwave-tagged artists such as Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi, and Memory House are still very alive and kicking, with all of these acts having released new material in the past year. If anything is dead, it’s the need people have to immediately slap the word “chillwave” on to something and dismiss it as such. And because of the people who dismissed chillwave as a silly made-up blog genre, as well as natural musical evolvement, many of the pioneering chillwave acts have moved further and further away from their bedrooms, laptops, and samplers and into full-band arrangements, with more live instrumentation. And this is exactly Washed Out’s frontman Ernest Greene’s modus operandi on his sophomore studio album.

With Paracosm, Greene moves further and further away from his blissful but shy early EPs and even from his synth-heavy debut album Within and Without, and into something more “orchestral”, as Greene says himself in a video detailing the instruments and work that went into making Paracosm. Now sure, while the harp sounds you hear on the title track may not be from an actual harp, Greene made a point of using “interesting sounds” on this record that made him stray away from his old MIDI keyboards and synths. Instead, he uses old and peculiar instruments such as the Chamberlin, Mellotron, Novatron, and Optigan. Another instrument that is more prominent on this record than any other Washed Out record is the acoustic guitar, which makes sense, as Greene started developing most of the tracks on this record with that instrument alone. The faint and fast strums of Greene’s new instrumental inclusion blend well with the rest of the “orchestral” sounds Greene was aiming for on Paracosm, especially on the track “All I Know”.

Now while “All I Know” may be an exception, the sad part about this record is after the first three tracks (yes, I count the instrumental opener “Entrance” as a song), the quality slowly starts to drop off. The album’s first two singles “It All Feels Right” and “Don’t Give Up” are beautiful pieces of slow-burning summertime music for those late nights that you’ll remember better when you look back on them rather than when you’re living them in the present moment. On the other hand, tracks like “Weightless” and the title track fall victim to chillwave’s most common blunder, being boring. But when you put the most stellar track(s) at the very beginning of the album, the rest of it can’t help but to seem lightweight in comparison (looking at you, Movement). I will say that with this album, it’s nice that Greene is starting to move away from the same old doldrums of sampling and synths that inhibited his earlier work and into more live-friendly and varied instrumentation that give his songs more room to flesh themselves out and breathe.

The word paracosm is defined as “a detailed imaginary or fantasy world”, and if that’s what Greene was trying to create on Paracosm, then he succeeds. With its warm and rich sounds that fill every corner of your ear, Paracosm is truly an album’s album that deserves to be listened to in whole to experience all of the tracks blending seamlessly together. But, while the album starts off strong, it can’t help but to lose strength as it progresses, turning a detailed imaginary world, into a nice but forgettable daydream.

☆☆☆


Prose:

The lengths he would go in order to cheat on his exams without raising any eyebrows was honestly pretty commendable. I imagine that if any of his professors would have actually caught him in the act or found out afterwards, their reaction would have been the same as Ron Burgundy’s when he found out that his beloved pooch had pooped in the refrigerator AND ate a whole wheel of cheese (i.e. “Actually I’m not even mad, that’s amazing!”).

It started out for him innocently enough: Gently, and with stealth-like precision, he would pull down the sleeve of his oversized Disneyland sweater in order to consult his graffitied wrist of answers. But as he grew older and the exams became more onerous, his methods increased in their madness.

Whispers would float and bounce around in the air before class, or rather, before he walked in. Fellow classmates would hypothesize, compare theories, and discuss his legendary status. Philosophy majors would question his ethics (or if he even contained a set thereof). Budding statisticians would calculate the probability of whether or not he would eventually get caught. But the man responsible for all this hoopla? He never once thought twice about his sacrilegious nature. Instead, he opted to keep his head down and maintain as low of a profile as he possibly could. However, during the second semester of his junior year, his under-the-radar persona soon become more detectable thanks to the world’s worst typeface.

You see, when a scrawny and pasty-looking boy - who in the past never showed any interest whatsoever in changing the dermis layer of his skin with a potpourri of pigments - started showing up to class with a fresh, new tattoo every fortnight, suspicions were raised on general principle. Of course, the first two or three were not that big of a deal. His classmates and professors alike barely noticed them, and even if they did, they figured they were just the initials of loved ones, or at least something forgivably stupid. But soon, his small assortment of knuckle and wrist displays blossomed into a full-blown sleeve on his left arm, and it looked weird as hell.

Each new set of answers were separated by a boorish, mangled depiction of barbed wire. And of course every set of answers were differentiated furthermore by their different typefaces, that way he wouldn’t confuse himself (as if that was even possible).

I regret to tell you this, but he even went so far as to tell the tattoo artist to use (and again, pardon me for the cringe I’m about to induce) Comic. Fucking. Sans on one set of answers. And for a freaking typography class exam nonetheless!

The irony wasn’t lost on him, nor his typography class’s professor, who came to humorously notice the alphabetical set the Tuesday before that Thursday’s exam.

“I see all the principles I’ve talked about have gone in one ear and out the other!” she jokingly remarked.

He paused, nervously laughed as to return the social favor, and pretended she hadn’t noticed its existence.

But how could she not notice it? The new ink was so distractingly loud and bombastic it was the equivalent of the scene in Vampire’s Kiss where Nicolas Cage runs around screaming “I’M A VAMPIRE!” at everybody and nobody.

On the Wednesday before the exam, she sat in her office, sipping her iced caramel macchiato, the ridiculous idea ruminating around in her head that, just maybe, these new tattoos of his were all part of a bigger scheme to flawlessly subvert the basic integrity of academia (quite the oxymoron, she thought).

As close as she got to truly believing in this farfetched theory of hers, she knew that she’d be alone in her thinking. Absolutely nobody else would believe her. The entire faculty would question her faculties (and she was only an adjunct anyway, so she knew her words wouldn’t hold any weight without that precious tenure), and she was sure that even her friends and parents would tell her to lighten up and sweep it under the rug.

She didn’t fall asleep until 3 A.M. that night, and even when she did, the knot in her stomach could not be untangled.

Thursday came and went. The test was taken, but not proctored by her. Instead, a fellow adjunct in the college filled in at the very last minute that day. In fact, she never showed up for class again, and the college was uncharacteristically hush-hush about her absence. Everyone in the class was left scratching their heads.

Except for him. He still showed up to class as usual, like nothing was awry. All the while with a gradual decline in the advertising space left available on his precious skin.

One would understandably wonder what the newest addition was to his canvas of flesh the week following the exam, and here’s the answer: One single teardrop next to his right eye, not outlined, but colored in all the way with piercing, black ink.


~

How her brother could even manage himself on vacation was beyond her realm of knowledge. Now now, don’t get me wrong here. He, like most of us, needed his particular dosage of vices to begin the day, but this was no classic case of “I need my cup of coffee before I can even speak to anyone”. This one was of a more rare, peculiar breed.

The rope you often find yourself at the end of tends to extend a lot further for family, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a definable, finite ending. She found the end of hers one fateful Sunday morning inside of the Ozark forests.

Mother, father, older brother and younger sister all gathered around the skillet that was able to fully function due to the fire that was admirably puttering along beneath it. Apparently old issues of the National Enquirer (which were only read ironically whilst inebriated) don’t burn as well as one might think.

Pancakes were on the menu, and their overzealous and eager to please parents actually carved the menu into a nearby tree. It wasn’t until they finished carving the “P” that they realized their action of familial love may not fly well with Greenpeace. Thus, they removed the all vowels and the kids had their choice of “Pncks” and “Bcn”. In spite of all this, she knew that none of it would not fly with her older brother.

Luckily, a debacle of biblical proportions was avoided due to their mother smartly planning ahead and remembering to pack the coveted Hello Kitty-shaped dough cutter. But just because said debacle was now no longer of a holy nature, the pending outburst that was festering in her big brother’s brain would still be worthy of its own footnote if it were to be found in the pages of book.

You see, in addition to his pancakes needing to resemble everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic cat, he needed his favorite beverage to wash it down with. For this, he did not need a Doctor of the table spice persuasion, nor did he need the condensation of an entire Mountain. Her brother was a simple man, and that was exactly who he needed to stand alongside him and his kawaii ‘cakes every morning. That man he so steadfastly slurped down was none other than the spicy, seductive, scintillating, Mr. Pibb. But on this morning, he was nowhere to be found.

She didn’t think the hour-long drive into the nearest town that carried his tried and true thirst-quenching partner would send her over the edge. In fact, for the first thirty minutes, she was resolutely calm. Unfortunately, a series of events that could only be described as “persnickety” unfolded in those last thirty minutes: Three potholes (in a row), two dead AirPods, and a one accidental kick from her brother later, it truly dawned on her: Where she wanted to be and where she was going now were both out of sync. She could almost feel her tongue doing deadlifts in preparation for the lashing it was about to hand out.

But once they parked and shimmied themselves out of the car, nothing came out. She remained mute, almost stoic. Why wasn’t she saying anything? Surely there was no better time than now to give her brother - the one man whom describing as “anal” would be a disservice to ISTJ’s and ISFJ’s everywhere- the dressing down of a lifetime.

Why wasn’t it happening, then?”

“Hey sis, look! They have Martinelli’s in that cute little chubby bottle you like, did you want me to grab you one?”

At that moment, all she could do was stare and nod her head.