Album Reviews, Featured, Music

Review: Brad Paisley – Wheelhouse

There is an unspoken idea that country music artists can’t be relevant or aware in music’s often self-indulgent meta-isms of today. That someone wearing cowboy boots or a stetson is somehow unqualified to talk about pop culture and the ‘in and now’ the way someone in shades and a designer leather jacket is. Somewhere along the line, our trust in understanding the world through music shifted from the endless plains to urban hooliganism and hipster clubs. While some country music can be hokey, the bad kind is not any less irrelevant than “musicians” who use computer programs instead of guitars.

Brad Paisley, now on his ninth studio album, is as relevant and eloquent as any musician who uses their music to express the world’s trials and tribulations through notes and lyrics. Wheelhouse, 17 tracks in all, is a lesson on how country music can be as smartly written and urgent as anything written from the underbelly of London or New York. While strongly rooted in Southern traditions, the album makes it a priority to stretch far past the borders of Nashville. The album’s first single “Southern Comfort Zone”, sets this tone early on, making the earnest concern that country stereotypes are just as poorly formed as any other. It waxes lyrical about how you don’t have to be country to be country, set to the backdrop of uptempo guitar-driven country rock and easy-to-digest lines; “Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race / Not everybody knows the words to “Ring Of Fire” or “Amazing Grace””. It’s perfect for the radio- any radio- replete with just the right amount of melodic resonance. The song’s message is something that permeates through the rest of the album too, that a good ol’ Southern country boy can be as worldly as just about anyone else.

In “Pressing On A Bruise”, Paisley shares the song with singer/songwriter Mat Kearney, resulting in the album’s most alterna-ready tune. Kearney’s vocal imposition and contrasting beat leaves the song somewhere between Paisley’s more traditional numbers and Third Eye Blind. The song’s accessible nature isn’t far from opening credit music for everything that was on the old WB channel (ie. Teen dramas and young adult shows).

The distinctly country-heavy tunes of the album, “Harvey Bodine” and “Outstanding in the Field”, bounce with enough country fervor but avoid the hokey Billy Ray Cyrus-ness trap. Interestingly, some of the album’s most memorable songs are when Paisley slows down the tempo- like the quietly somber “I Can’t Change The World”. In it, Paisley’s melancholic tone is a little defeatist, surrendering to the idea that we cannot affect change on a grand scale, but when it comes to the matters of the heart, we are in fact in control of that destiny; “I can’t change the world / maybe that’s for sure / but if you let me girl / I can change yours”.

He tightropes blasphemy (in the piano-clad “Those Crazy Christians”) with humor and aplomb, while doing the old-fashioned romance with style (“Beat This Summer”), but the one time Wheelhouse stumbles, is in the LL Cool J featuring “Accidental Racist”. It’s a well meaning song, about Paisley’s awareness of the sometimes ugly side of being Southern, but the LL rap verse/bridge come off as clunky. It’s not that LL can’t do his thing, it’s just that on here, he comes across as “rap for mainstream country folk” (LL actually uses the lines “I wish you understood what the world is like livin’ in the hood / just because my pants are saggin’ it doesn’t mean I’m up to no good”).

The album however, ends on a terrific note. The closer, “Officially Alive”, is everything great about Wheelhouse. Guitar soaked, upbeat and uptempo, it is a song about feeling alive while being aware that you’re alive- spreading the gospel of being happy, being in love, and being aware of impending mortality. It’s all parts Southern soul coated with the shine of radio friendly country rock and good time vibes.

It is unfortunate that country, great country especially, isn’t perceived to be as culturally relevant and/or powerful as something written by Jay-Z or Thom Yorke or whatever it is that is being pushed as the new wave of significance. The truth is, like his country contemporaries, Paisley is as in-tune with the world around him as he is the world in which he calls home. It just seems that the majority of country artists aren’t always concerned with reminding us constantly. Tastemakers are quick to push country aside, away from the lens of indie trends, flashy hip hop and schizophrenic dance music. It’s too bad because Wheelhouse is modern reflection with great conviction; clarity amongst the distortion and noise found in our current surrounds. (Arista Nashville)

Album Reviews, Music

Review: Radiohead – Hail to the Thief

hailThe curtain has risen for the next act in Radiohead’s inscrutable rock opera. And like one filled with heavyset women with Viking horns, “Hail to the Thief” leaves the ears and minds with a palpable sense of unconscious design. Since the release of ‘Kid A’, Radiohead have been beating their drum to a distinctly different beat. These rock savants are the front-runners of musical experimentation on an opulent scale and their latest work seems like natural progression. Splicing in elements of both ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ and then sprinkling an inkling of their earlier progressive rock, this 14 track assemblage holds true to the dictionary definition of the word “opus”. An artistic work on multiple plateaus, the only element they seem unable to outdo is themselves; a boundary they cast when they unleashed the masterful dexterity of ‘Kid A’.

Pushing musical extremities has been the silver lining to decades worth of industrial common ground but perhaps, in this time where fashion and business so clearly bombard the general buying public, an act that does so (push these boundaries) with genuine panache is heralded as music’s savior. Radiohead are traveling down paths carved before by the likes of Pink Floyd and The Doors of yesteryear and the Flaming Lips of today, and like these aforementioned artists – their long lasting creative appeal will win out in the end, even in a “less than astute” society.

For all the electronic tinkering and jangled instrumental workings of their previous two LPs, it seems Yorke and company are finally comfortable with their new visage. They are no longer breaking conceptions, but rather creating their own – a pretentious ode to themselves; self created gods of music purveying a craft in the genre previously known as ‘rock’.

Thankfully, they are unafraid to trace back to their earlier sounds, “Hail to the Thief” comfortably flaunts morsels of more traditional sounding compositions. Take the tracks “Go to Sleep” (a concoction of guitar twiddling and fringe percussion work) and “Sail to the Moon” (an aural, picturesque piano led number with acerbic lyrics – “maybe you’ll be president / but know right from wrong / or in the flood / you’ll build an Ark” – compounding it’s sense of hopelessness) as examples how they turn the accepted norms of rock arrangements into a seemingly effortless task.

In “Where I End and You Begin”, they seem to beg the question, “can anyone out there keep up with us?” This evocative bass frenzy of engine drumming and wavering vocal toil is adherently simple – but attempted by any other outfit and the result is guaranteed to end in musical miscarriage.

Trust Radiohead to continue their quest to shatter all previously formed ideas of music as art. In “Sit Down. Stand Up”, they once again utilize seeds of ambience and electronic hobnobbing before embarking on a trip of cacophonous delight. Replete with the vestiges of “Idioteque”, the pulsating bounce of the track “Backdrifts” is remarkable soundscaping of tune and dissonance; leaving the mind with lasting inhuman relapse; a textural tumble into digital euphoria.

The first single “There There” is a triumphant balance between this cacophonous delight and artistic cadence. Yorke’s falsetto hum is its operator while the scenic, earthy backdrop is provided by the ancestral sounding instrumental collaboration that is unafraid to be traditional in aesthetic, but eloquently inspired nonetheless. It’s unending sense of confusion, affirmed by the words; “In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape / broken branches trip me as I speak / just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” are it’s acting thoughts of loneliness and prevailing sadness.

Radiohead are no longer simply out-dueling their musical counterparts. Their latest effort is testament to that notion. They have no equal. Their only antagonism emanates from any inner struggle that may confound them. The political wranglings of the title “Hail to the Thief” aside (a virulent stab at stolen elections), this progression of the Radiohead opera continues to set precedence among its kind (or lack thereof). It is a wonder where they could possibly go from here – do they continue on this jaunt, moving on to the next act, or do they pull another discerning audio/visual contradiction that will leave not only the listener, but the rest of the industry’s hopefuls countless worlds behind.