Archive | February, 2014

Eminem – Album by Album

25 Feb

In this column, we continue looking at established artists by going through their career, album by album. Last time it was Foo Fighters. Today it’s the turn of one of the most widely sold and critically acclaimed artists of all time – Marshall Mathers, better known as Slim Shady or Eminem.

Note – due to space, I’m sticking to his ‘official’ studio albums and missing out his demo album, Infinity, as well as side projects like 8 Mile and Bad Meets Evil. If you’d rather read more about more obscure records next time, let me know in the comments.

 

Debate has raged for years over Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers): was he successful mainly because he was white? The answer’s yes – but not for the reason you think. His skin colour locked him out of the profitable gangsta rap market, and rapping about crime or drug dealing would have caused many listeners to accuse him of being inauthentic. He couldn’t even drop the ‘n word’ which most rappers throw around like sweets. Instead, he was forced to invent new ways to shock and outrage middle America. Enter Slim Shady.

The twisted alter ego of his stage name Eminem, Slim Shady said and did everything controversial you ever thought about. He baited politicians, outraged parents, made kids laugh and brought in a whole new demographic to rap music. Marshall Mathers also had another trick up his sleeve so not to alienate more hardcore listeners: his ferocious wordplay and rhyming. Casually dropping multi-syllable rhymes into the middle of lines were nothing to him. When his music first came out, they began describing him as one of the greatest white rappers ever. They quickly dropped the ‘white’.

 

The Slim Shady LP (1999) – The Blueprint

The story behind Eminem’s first album reads like a movie script: an unknown Detroit rapper gets his break by getting producer Dr Dre to hear his tape, and in a matter of months becomes a superstar. However if the Slim Shady LP is any genre, it’s a horror. While playing Slim Shady, Eminem wasn’t afraid to get cynical, provocative and very, very violent. It’s difficult to know what are scarier – the over-the-top gruesome fantasies, or vivid descriptions of being down and out. Nowhere is his dark persona better show than on Guilty Conscience, where Eminem and Dre trade verses as a devil and angel respectively. In the final verse, Em manages to provoke Dre – the former bad boy of rap – into losing his cool, effectively passing the torch onto his protégée.

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The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) – The Masterpiece

This is without a doubt his darkest album. With a front cover of him huddled near the fireplace of his abandoned home, it dealt with subjects like his many family problems, drug use and his ‘corruption’ of teenage youth. He was accused of homophobia and misogyny, and did little to convince people otherwise. Even on his poppier tracks, he set out to offend as many celebrities as possible for the enjoyment of his listeners. However, he proved impossible to pin down. Whenever critics were prepare to write him off after his harrowing song about murdering his wife, he would release something like Stan, a touching and tragic tale of a deranged fan. His incredible wordplay and rhyming abilities were almost a footnote after his song topics. Nevertheless, it remains the best album of his career.

The Eminem Show (2002) – The Political One

After the madness of his last album, Eminem decided he had some growing up to do. That’s not to say it had no sense of humour – far from it – but Eminem was keener than ever to satirise the world at large. He was always a joker, and like Batman’s nemesis, he was skilled at holding up a mirror to society and saying: “You think I’m crazy? You made me this way!” There were still zany moments like Without Me, but the tone on a whole was more mature. He even confronted his troubled relationship with his mother and how rap music can save troubled kids. For most fans, it’s his most personal and powerful album, even if a few weaker songs kept it off the top spot.

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Encore (2004) – The Disappointment

Perhaps based on expectations, Encore received rave reviews as usual when it was released, yet listening to it today, it’s hard not to wonder what went wrong. The highlights were his reflective songs – Like Toy Soldiers and Mockingbird – and his anti-Bush rant also deserves a few listens, but everything else verges on terrible. His lead singles still had a juvenile sense of humour but no meaning or purpose. His usually dexterous, quick-witting flow sounded stumbling and amateurish. Most of this was down to his increasing pill addiction which meant he was barely getting two hours sleep a night. If it had been a true encore, it would have been a terrible way to end his career.

Relapse (2009) – The Pretend Comeback

Eminem may have never been subtle, but it was a little on-the-nose to call a record Relapse while as in rehab. Thematically, he resurrected his Slim Shady character and tried to imitate the darker content that had launched his career. However, most songs sounded insincere compared to the passion of his earlier work. Many fans also complained about his constant use of accents. Eminem would later say the last two albums didn’t count as ‘Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing ‘em out.’ Either way, a slight improvement was good enough for fans after a long break from music.

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Recovery (2010) – The Real Comeback

His true resurrection came in 2010 when, finally clean, he set out to work out what a ‘grown up’ Eminem album would sound like. The violent skits and songs poking fun at pop culture were gone – in their place were inspirational songs with positive messages. Both Not Afraid and Won’t Back Down were well received and showed how Eminem had changed his outlook. The lyrics were much tighter, although his duet with Rhianna showed he could still put himself in a dark place when needed.  It was more earnest than his earlier work, and he still had the technical skills and wordplay to deliver his message well.

The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013) – The Legacy

Sequels usually suggest creative bankruptcy. Nevertheless, with some of biggest producers in music (including Dr Dre and Rick Rubin) behind him, Eminem could hardly fail. He managed to create an organic-feeling continuation of his most acclaimed song, Stan. He also produced some of the fastest, most intricate rapping of his career in Rap God. At one point, he was rapping an astonishing 10 syllables per second – not good for casual listeners, but music to the ears of his core audience. After seven albums and 16 years, he had reached the point where he could legitimately call himself a Rap God. 

 

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Song of the Day – Working Class Hero

20 Feb

Working_Class_Hero_by_vhm_cain

OK. I’m here. I’m typing. This is a good sign. I have been immersed in a lot of work lately, and thus have not had the opportunity to post to my beloved Music Court in a few weeks. I do very much hate falling into long posting droughts, and for more than four years I have prided myself on posting at least once a week (every week). Unfortunately, as they say with going to the gym, when you fall beyond 3-4 days of not posting (going), it is hard to pick back up again. You see, one of my main tenets on the Music Court is not dreck content. Meaning, I will not post for the sake of posting. I’m afraid today’s post falls into that blasphemous category. But, I had to prove to you all that I am alive and well!

Although this post is rather impromptu (and I promise I will be back posting regular content soon), I figured I might feature some John Lennon. This song came up on shuffle the other day as I was driving home from Connecticut, and I just spent the few minutes of mindless driving listening to the lyrics of the piece. Yes, I have heard it several times before, but often times you hear a song and do not truly listen intently to the lyrics. I am continually struck by two elements of this piece. One, this is one of Lennon’s angriest songs – perhaps his angriest. His use of imprecation is at an all-time high and once you get past the fact that he once sang “Love Me Do,” you realize just how incredibly diverse he was as an artist. While the song may seem a bit strange coming from the deep pockets of John Lennon, he accurately represents the utter droll of middle class monotony and subtle, tortuous mayhem. Look, Lennon was a tremendous song writer. Tremendous is an understatement. But this song is perhaps the apex of his melancholy look at the machinery of the “working class hero.”

Foo Fighters – Album by Album

9 Feb

This is going to be a new regular feature I’ll be trying out, looking at veteran bands through their albums. Any feedback – positive or negative – would be appreciated! I’ll leave you to your reading now.

Q. What was the last thing the drummer said before he got fired?

A. “Hey guys, let’s try these songs I wrote!”

Drummers have a reputation as being the least appreciated members of a band. Their job isn’t as glamorous as the singer or as awe inspiring as the guitarist. Even their own fans often don’t know their names. They’re the butt of countless jokes – for example, John Lennon was once asked whether Ringo was the best drummer in the world. John replied he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.

However, if there’s one drummer who can be said to have made it big, it’s Dave Grohl. He went from playing in Kurt Cobain’s shadow to the driving force of one of the biggest bands in the world, the Foo Fighters. For nearly 20 years now, they’ve represented alternative rock on the world stage. Their winning combination of quiet, melodic verses followed by thrashing choruses owes a fair bit to Nirvana, but they’ve matured over the years and showed they can deliver a range of different styles.

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Foo Fighters (1995) – The Solo One

Dave Grohl had spent his time in Nirvana (working on their classic Nevermind and In Utero albums) in awe of Kurt Cobain. He had recorded some demos in his own time, but after the singer’s tragic death, he decided to take the plunge and record an entire album. Foo Fighters was basically a one-man band at this point; Grohl did all vocals, guitar, bass and drums himself. Although it was only meant to be an experiment, it quickly attracted interest. Songs like ‘This is a Call’ showed Grohl already had a good idea what the band would be about. It was cleaner than Nirvana’s grunge, and more willing to embrace rousing, upbeat choruses. The only part that marks it out as from their early career is the nonsense lyrics. With this success under his belt, Grohl quickly assembled a band to play live and set about recording a follow-up.

The Colour and the Shape (1997) – The One Everyone’s Heard

The Colour and the Shape was almost an embarrassment of riches as far as singles went. It includes Monkey Wrench, My Hero and Everlong, all of which went on to become instantly-recognisable rock anthems. It resisted the temptation to mine the profitable garage-rock genre and created hard yet melodic rock. The lyrics were more focused too, based around Grohl’s recent divorce. “And I wonder, when I sing along with you, if anything will ever be this real forever; if anything could ever be this good again,” he sings on Everlong, longing for something even as it slips away. It wasn’t just the singles that were hits though; delve deeper into it and songs like February Stars and Walking after You show the band’s more tender side. It’s truly one of the most influential albums in modern rock, and one that you’ll never be afraid to stick in the CD player at parties.

There Is Nothing Left to Lose (1999) – The One That’s More of the Same

For most albums, ‘more of the same’ would be an insult, but effectively making The Colour and the Shape Part II is no mean feat. After leaving their label, the band retired to Grohl’s house in Virginia and simply recorded whenever they felt like it. Without studio pressure, they were free to strip songs down even more, giving it a looser, poppier feel. The track list contains gems like Learn to Fly and Generator. It was also their most consistent effort, and the first one that sounds like a cohesive album.

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One by One – (2002) – The One that Nearly Wasn’t

Soon after finishing the touring, the band went back to the studio. They nearly finished an album but discarded it instead, and went on side-projects. (Grohl toured with Queens of the Stone Age, which is probably the coolest thing anyone’s ever done to get away from work.) They returned reinvigorated and recorded their darkest, yet most polished album yet. Grohl was still improving as a song writer, and the constantly shifting roster band members led to a constant infusion of new ideas. Strangely, the album is best known for Times Like These, a wistful, emotionally honest pop song with killer riffs, a big departure from the rest of the album.

In Your Honour (2005) – The Schizophrenic One

What do you do when you run out of ways to reconcile two conflicting parts of something? The answer, if you’re Dave Grohl, is to separate them and push them both to the extreme. Like oil and water, In Your Honour separated the band’s garage rock side and its softer acoustic one onto different sides of a double album. The trouble was their music was made by contrasting the two, keeping the listener off-guard. (Just listen to Everlong for a perfect example.) The first disc managed to conjure up a few good melodies and channel their rage, but the second was extremely one-dimensional. If you don’t like Grohl crooning over an acoustic guitar, you might as well toss it away. The best song, Resolve, manages to marry both sides well. So full marks for an interesting concept, but being obliged to record ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ songs to fill out the track list doesn’t lead to the most inspired music.

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007) – The One That Started Well…

After the last album’s experimental structure, the Foo Fighters wisely decided to reunite both halves of their musical repertoire, but something was still missing. The first couple of songs are as lively as ever, particularly the slow build up to screaming on both the Pretender and Let it Die. However, after the halfway mark (or track five if you want to be picky), the usual precision and passion takes a nose dive. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s missing as none of the songs besides a sense of enjoying themselves. The only actually bad song is Home, a song so cold and detatched, the lyrics could have been written by a computer. It won a Grammy just because it was the Foo Fighters, but you’ll be hard pressed to listen to it all the way through.

Wasting Light (2011) – The Comeback One

With the longest gap yet between, many Foo Fighters fans began questioning themselves. Is this the end? Do we even want them to continue? Is Nirvana relevant anymore? However, the only question the band asked themselves was Do we care what anyone thinks? Concluding the answer was no, they recruited producer Butch Vig of Nevermind fame and Nirvana’s old guitarist, Krist Novoselic, then proceeded to not give a fuck and have as much fun as they could in the studio. It was rawer, heavier, and wilder than anything they’d done before. It was deliberately recorded with older equipment in garages and computer-free studios, then tested on crackly speakers. Some fans complained they had pushed the heavy sound too far; stadium audiences disagree as soon as Walk or Rope came on.

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TBC (2014) – The Next One

All we know about the next album so far is that they are well into recording it and that Grohl has said it’s different to anything the band’s done before. Butch Vig is rumoured to be back, suggesting it will be another heavy album. By this stage, the band can’t have much left to prove. Grohl has come from being ‘the second drummer in Nirvana’ to one of the most respected names in rock with a world-class band at his back. Whatever direction they choose, it’ll be because they want to make the best album possible rather than chasing sales, and that’s an exciting position to be in.

Acoustic Basement Tour

7 Feb

Transit

Transit

Vinnie Caruana and Brian Marquis

Vinnie Caruana

Front Porch Step

Travis Alexander

(All photos from the show can be found here.)

On Friday, 1/31/14, I attended the Acoustic Basement Tour at Santos Party House at their first stop in New York City. The lineup originally comprised of Front Porch Step, Brian Marquis, Hit The Lights, and Transit, but Hit The Lights was unable to perform due to a family emergency. Instead, Travis Alexander of Ghost Thrower, along with Vinnie Caruana of I Am the Avalanche, were both there to fill in. The small, intimate venue was full for the stripped down acoustic tour, and the crowd was eager to sing along, shouting out song requests and lyrics during all of the sets. All of the solo artists stood on stage, with nothing but an acoustic guitar and their heartfelt lyrics, while Transit headlined the show with a full band setup. Overall a great show, with talented musicians who proved their talents were not exclusive to studio recordings, keeping the crowd going in the middle of the brutal winter just outside the venue.

Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die! Tour

6 Feb

Panic! At The Disco

Panic! At The Disco

Panic! At The Disco

Panic! At The Disco

On 2/4/14, I had the chance to see Panic! At the Disco for the second time in my life, at the soon to be closed Roseland Ballroom. I was armed with an iPhone instead of a camera for this concert, but I was excited to have general admission pit tickets, instead of nosebleeds at the Barclays Center that I had when they toured with Fall Out Boy on their arena tour. After waiting in line in the cold for about two hours, the show opened with the band X Ambassadors, a local New York band whose lead singer made creative use of a loop machine and a saxophone. Next was The Colourist, a four-piece group with a male-female dual vocal combination who brought a lively set, slowing it down near the end with an acoustic number. At long last Panic! At the Disco were on, the lineup consisting of only one original member, lead singer Brendon Urie. They played several crowd favorites from the classic A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, along with several tracks from their two newer albums, Vices & Virtues, and Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die!. The stage setup and lighting were phenomenal, and Urie brought his signature dynamic stage performance, never staying in one place for very long, playing piano, drums, and guitar throughout the set. Veterans and new fans alike all left thoroughly content, eager and awaiting their next return to the city. 

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