It’s week 23 of ’19 and as we hit the summer months, we’re hitting prime time for new releases. I’m downloading records on Tidal based on name recognition or album covers that intrigue me, only. Some artists I have a history with and some I’ve never heard of. This is how I discover as I trek through the new music landscape.
- Album: Madonna – Madame X (Deluxe)
- Previous knowledge: Bitch, she’s Madonna (Tidal catalog #4)
- Review: Oh, my lord. Let’s just start off with the only statement you might need. You will not find another record quite like this in 2019, or maybe on Earth. Nothing I can say or do will make you listen or not listen to a Madonna record at this point in her career but I’m still going to spoil your fun and tell you to be prepared for some of the weirdest shit you’ve heard in a long time.
Madame X is influenced by her recent years living in Portugal and thus there’s a Latin vibe throughout the record. If you’ve heard the lead single, “Medellin” with Colombian singer Maluma, you’ll get that same feeling on multiple tracks spread across the disc. You’ll also get one of the most scattershot, bold, odd and daring albums of the year. There’s tracks on this album that are just absolutely terrible. The awkwardly titled “Killers Who Are Partying” is one of those tunes. With equally awkward lyrics like “I will be gay if the gay are burned / I’ll be Africa if Africa is shut down / I will be poor if the poor are humiliated / I’ll be a child if the children are exploited” I think she’s trying to take a human rights stance here but it comes across as odd statements by an entitled old white lady. And then there’s “Extreme Occident” which is really just her walking us through some multi-million dollar trip she likely took (without us.)
Along the way, you get the “1-2 cha-cha-cha” of Madonna singing in Portuguese and the mind blowingly different, “Dark Ballet” which begins with a slow hip-hop beat over a piano and then manages to combine auto-tuned vocals and the line “can’t you hear over your Supreme hoodie” over a passage from the Nutcracker.” So there’s actual ballet in “Dark Ballet.” You have never heard a song quite like this one, guaranteed.
That’s followed up by “God Control” (a song that appears to be about gun control) which begins with Madonna singing with her mouth shut, another rap with terrible fucking lyrics like: “People think that I’m insane / the only gun is in my brain / each new birth, it gives me hope / that’s why I don’t smoke that dope,” and a disco beat like you heard on Confessions on a Dance Floor. By the way, we’re only on track 3 right and already my mind has been blown.
Madonna also continues with what I’ll call, “The Bitch Series” as “Bitch, I’m Loca” shows up after both “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch, I’m Madonna” on her last record. I’m hoping that she closes it out on her next record with “Bitch, I’m a Bitch.” I’ll give that record a 10/10 no matter what it sounds like.
There are some easy listens too – stuff that you’d possibly expect from Madonna, like the poppy “Come Alive” and the dance number, “I Don’t Search, I Find” but you really need to focus hard to get to them with your thoughts in one piece. Maybe what I should be expecting is some crazy ass shit every time out and then it will hit me right from the start. You need to give this multiple listens. This is not an album you sit with once and get it. You may never get it or you may find it so unique that it’s great right off the bat. Honestly, I’m not sure at this point. She’s either way ahead of everyone else with this album or just gone completely off the deep end. I’ve listened to it three times and once it didn’t catch me off guard, I was able to formulate an actual rank but it’s going to have to sink in a bit longer for me to be able to answer my statement above.
- Ranking: First listen 6.5/10, Second listen 7.5/10, Third and final listen 7/10.
- Album: ZZ Top – Goin’ 50 (Digital Deluxe)
- Previous knowledge: Everything
- Review: For their 50th(!) year in existence, we’ve got a 50-track ZZ Top retrospective here. There’s actually a single disc version which is simply a greatest hits record and then there’s a 3-disc version. According to the track list, disc one are hits from the 60’s and 70’s, disc two features the 80s-present day and disc three covers the entire range and picks select non-hits to round out the 50. That said, the digital version on Tidal is unlike any version I’ve seen on the web. The first portion plays out a bit like a standard mixed greatest hits album, not the 1-disc version or the first disc of the deluxe set. And then the rest of the tracks are a mixture of early to present day material – so I guess it depends on where you listen as to what you get.
For me, the order here doesn’t matter all that much as this has to be one of the best road trip releases in history. It’s 80 degrees out right now here in sunny Pennsylvania and I was driving with all the windows and sun roof open and ZZ Top blaring. If I had to drive 500 miles on the highway, I’m sure I would be pulled over for speeding, as it was impossible not to get caught up in the adrenaline here.
The material here is remastered for 2019 and while the 70’s analog recordings can’t really be brought up to 2019 standards, they are surely better sounding than the originals and once they started digital recordings in the 80’s, the remasters sound absolutely stellar. My favorite remaster of all time is The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, which brought out so many nuances in the music when it was remastered two decades after the initial release. Listening to “Legs” again on this release, I got that same excited feeling as I did when I listened to the NIN record. It was produced well to begin with but the remastered version sounds absolutely stunning. And to give you a better reason to listen, this remastering makes “Velcro Fly” actually worth listening to. That’s how you do it, my friends. It can’t make the material from the last few albums sound any better though, because the songs themselves really aren’t that great to begin with but by the time they roll around forty tracks in, who the fuck cares. There’s no Goin’ 50 here. Put the top down and do 90 on the highway.
- Rating: 9.5/10
- Album: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
- Previous knowledge: The Boss! (Tidal catalog #23)
- Review: It’s been five years since the Boss’ last record and seven since the last one with all new material. I was expecting a bit of a political record here as it seems like Bruce would be the guy to address the issues with the country right now, but this isn’t that. This is a subdued, yet sweeping orchestral solo record with character driven songs, like Bruce does best. The galloping steed on the front cover makes me happy and actually tells a bit of the story of the record. Homeland, journeys, deserts, loneliness, searching for something higher etc… all themes that you likely recognize from Bruce. He claims he was trying to channel Burt Bacharach and Glen Campbell and he’s done that almost perfectly. This is a beautifully smooth album of classic country with orchestral pop touches that really raise some of these tunes to classic Springsteen level.
- Ranking: 9/10
- Album: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real – Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)
- Previous knowledge: Backing band for Neil Young
- Review: While I have never heard any actual original music by Promise of the Real, they have made two studio records, a soundtrack and a live album as the backing band for Neil Young and made him sound as good as he has in years. So I was curious as hell if I would hear Neil’s influence in here. Alternately, since Lukas Nelson is the son of Willie, I figured Daddy’s influence would be here as well. But while this is a country record, Lukas and Promise of the Real have really carved out their own sound. Yes, it’s a country record but more of a laid back roots rock album, full of chill grooves and extremely well written tunes. I don’t know a lot of Willie’s material (he’s releasing a new album next week too!) but I don’t picture him sounding like this and they’ve done a really nice job separating themselves from Neil’s sound as well. Don’t be shocked at all, if this wins a Grammy for best country record next year.
- Ranking: 10/10
- Album: Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Servants of the Sun
- Previous knowledge: Only his work in the Black Crowes
- Review: Chris Robinson Brotherhood was formed in 2011 while the Black Crowes were on hiatus and they’ve cranked out six studio records and four live recordings in eight years since that point! I have no idea what anything else from these guys sounds like but I’m going to find out now. I suppose they are likely all a little similar to this one but I did read that Robinson created these songs so they could play them live as opposed to his previous album, so maybe these are simplified tunes. That said, this is blues rock at the core, which shouldn’t be surprising based on knowing the Black Crowes. Take their sound, smooth it out, add lots of keyboards and then tack on 3-4 minutes at the end of every song to make it jammy and you have this. Servants of the Sun is supremely catchy, filled with hook after hook and ultimately an absolute joy.
- Ranking: 10/10
- Album: Justina Valentine – Favorite Vibe
- Previous knowledge: None
- Review: I’m not going to lie. I chose this album to review because she’s on the cover in her bra. But that’s not really that unusual for Valentine. She’s been scantily clad for quite a while as part of the case of Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘N Out. So that makes her a white, female, scantily clad rapper. It’s hard to get the picture of Fergie or Iggy Azalea out of my mind when encountering any rapper that fits this profile. It’s not like the white female rapper has been represented well over the years with most material sounding remarkably inauthentic. Lyrics like these in “Eyes” – “I fucked him on the first date, he’s from outta state / I love that accent and we don’t have no time to waste / in that motel room you told me it was written / the bedbugs left but my love for you didn’t.” Yes, it sounds as awkward as it reads. This is a mixture of hip-hop, trap and pop and based on “Lifestyles of the Sick & Brainless” and the name of her last mixtape (FEMINEM) – it seems like she’s got this idea that she can be the female version of Eminem. Well, she’s got a long way to go then.
- Ranking: 5/10
- Album: This Gift is A Curse – A Throne of Ash
- Previous knowledge: Their two previous full lengths
- Review: This is easily the loudest and most insane record I’ve reviewed this year. This Gift is a Curse is a blackened hardcore band, with elements of sludge sliding in-and-out of their albums. A Throne of Ash immediately recalls a group like Anaal Nathrakh, who play a chaotic brand of industrial blackened grindcore. These guys have been sludgier in the past but after their last record, they added a second guitarist. The second guitar has taken the ferociousness up 10 notches from where they were previously. This ends up being a vicious, insanely chaotic record. Not quite the wall of noise that Anaal Nathrakh usually is but very close. This surely won’t appeal to non-metal fans and even those that like metal kind of need to be in the right mood to be able to cope with this severe level of noise but if you’re in that mindset, it’s a very solid record.
- Ranking: 8/10
Albums ranked 10/10 so far in 2019 (ranking in release date order)
- Terror Jr. – Unfortunately, Terror Jr
- Emily King – Scenery
- Good Fuck – Good Fuck
- The Claypool Lennon Delirium – South of Reality
- UB40 – For the Many
- Griz – Ride Waves
- Pup – Morbid Stuff
- Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
- Howard Jones – Transform
- Mavis Staples – We Get By
- Prince – Originals
- Yeasayer – Erotic Returns
- Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real – Turn off the News (Build a Garden)
- Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Servants of the Sun