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Evolve – An Album Review

imagine-dragons-evolveImagine Dragons delivers their new album to us and I’m disappointed by the results. Titled Evolve, it feels like one step forward, two steps back for the band. While there are songs I enjoy from the album, especially the singles that were released leading up to Evolve, the general vibe is underwhelming.

I’m under no illusions that the previous Imagine Dragons albums were conceptual masterpieces. But they felt stronger as a whole, even if they could be a bit bloated. Here, there’s too few songs that stand out and not enough to hold the rest of the album up.

Maybe it’s the 80s vibe that’s throughout the album (and cover), that never seems to do much but season the songs with synth. Maybe it’s an overuse of effects, warping Dan Reynolds’ vocals for little benefits. The self-doubt of the previous albums that created “Shots” and “Polaroid” is gone, replaced with a much healthier outlook on life and self. And I always find that harder to relate to.

“I Don’t Know Why” starts off the album, without the oomph of “Radioactive” or self-destructiveness of “Shots”. It’s a fine song, one that might have been better suited as a middle track but it fails as the curtain riser. I suppose it does introduce the eighties synths we’ll be hearing throughout, but it doesn’t really have a hook of its own.

“Whatever It Takes” would have worked much better as an opener. Reynolds feels more at home and at speed with this song. Lyrics like “Whip, whip, run me like a racehorse” are catchy and the chorus is the kind you want to sing loud to inspire others around you, even if the protest. The bridge is smooth, slowing Reynolds’ rapping down to more of a conversation. It’s a strong track and a standout.

I’m sure I don’t need to talk about “Believer” that much. The song has been playing for months, the Dolph Lundgren-starring music video racking up the views. This one feels like Imagine Dragons 101. Put this on right after “Radioactive” and they would fit perfectly. Its the most bombastic song on the album, for sure. While it’s not a new favorite for me, it feels right at home with the band.

“Walking the Wire” is a return to the 80s. The chorus is catchy and and reminds me of a song Michael Jackson never wrote. The echo and layers have come straight out of 1987. Unfortunately, the rest of the song is forgettable, leaving little impression. “Rise Up” fairs a little better, even if it feels like the non-identical twin of “Walking the Wire”.

Then there’s the Huey Lewis and the News inspired, “I’ll Make It Up To You”. From the opening notes, to the chord choices and lyrics of the chorus, this reminds me of “If This Is It”.. Reynolds even sounds like he’s doing an impression of Lewis. I’d be surprised if Imagine Dragons didn’t do this on purpose, because the imitation is spot on. Maybe that’s why I like the song, cheese and all.

And maybe that’s why I don’t love “Yesterday”. If the previous song is a spot on impression of the News, than this track is a bad take on Queen, from the layered shouts to the guitar solo, to the hopefully-not-intended Freddie Mercury inflections. And while I tend not to mind Imagine Dragons love for effects stacking on one another, there’s too much going on in this song. Others might disagree, but this is a track that’s most likely to be skipped in the future.

“Mouth OF The River” has a pretty unattractive guitar during the verses, but the chorus is fine. A bit U2, but fine. Actually, there’s U2 sprinkled all around this album, mainly in the chords progressions inside most choruses. Take from that what you will.

If I’ve seemed harsh, let me admit, “Thunder” has been playing non-stop on my work computer. There’s nothing complicated about this song, the lyrics are almost criminally simple. But the story of the song is sly and snarky and when that chorus comes in, it’s got me hooked. The drum’s “boom boom boom” thunder, the repetition of the one word finding a surprising rhythm, that high pitch voice, it all works. It’s short and it hasn’t left the loop inside my brain. And the music video is weird as heck.

“Start Over” is too much cheese, even for me. The chorus, again sounding like a reject from Genesis or Belinda Carlisle, isn’t anything special. But the rest feels like a chore. And, fair warning, “Dancing In The Dark, is not a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song. It’s also a weak ending for the album. Reynolds’ voice is auto tuned the whole track and nothing about feels inspired. It’s too much, especially over a fairly relaxed beat.

Over the past year, I’ve seen a lot of critics complain about Imagine Dragons, complaining about pointless layering and meaningless sounds. I’ve never understood that, as I really enjoy the band and their previous albums. And I still don’t agree with them. Even though I don’t love Evolve, the band has a unique sounds and can be a lot of fun. I find a lot of their songs reflective, exciting and just plain catchy. Evolve has less of that, but it’s not a total loss. As someone still using cds in his car, I doubt I’ll be picking this one over Smoke + Mirrors, but I would want some of Evolve on a playlist. The album seems like it came easy to the band, but it doesn’t make for compelling music.

Humanz – An Album Review

humanzgorillazI know the album came out at the end of March and maybe I should have reviewed it then, but that method seems so strange to me. I like having read reviews for new albums when they’re released, but I can’t do it myself. For me, your perception of an album, you’re true feelings for it, develop over time. I didn’t actually like the Postal Service’s Give Up until owning it for two years and then one day it just clicked and now it’s one of my five favorites of all time. But if I had reviewed it the day I got it, I’d look like a darn fool!

That’s the way it has worked all my life. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By the Way, the Gorillaz’ Demon Days, even David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars all took sometime to become favorites and for me to really understand what the album was saying. It’s why I’ll probably be reviewing the Chili Peppers’ The Getaway soon, even though it’s a year old. Music, maybe more than books and movies, needs time to grow.

But let’s talk about Humanz, the fifth Gorillaz album and first since 2010’s The Fall. The first thing I want to say is that it definitely feels like a Gorillaz album. In the seven years it’s taken for this album to happen, the sound, while still varied, is in the vein of the band. Yes, they’re eclectic, but the hip-hop electronic vibes still rule over traditional rock. This album is more “Dare” than “Clint Eastwood”.

Humanz is a political album that saw the worst coming and decided to throw a party. The first song proper, after one-of-many interludes, “Ascension” is a very raw and in-your-face introduction. Featured artist Vince Staples is a doorman with a doomsday sign and some angry words to share. I’ll admit, I didn’t like this song at first, but it slowly grew on me and now it feels like the only song that could start the album.

Next is “Strobelite”, a refugee from the 70s, featuring a very soulful Peven Everett. After that, we have “Saturnz Barz”. This is the first song on the album that sounds like classic Gorillaz and that’s mostly attributed to Damon Albarn finally showing up with his signature nasally whine. The song features Popcaan and has the right spooky galactic soundscape to make you feel lonely while you nod your head.

“Momentz” with De La Soul is a song that, again, didn’t click with me when I first heard it. There’s something so weird about the song, the music is heavy and and the bridge seems not to fit. But De La Soul brings so much charisma and confidence to his rap that when the bridge ends and the song kicks it up a notch, you’re jamming harder than you have throughout the album.

“Submission”, featuring Danny Brown and Kelela is a fun, relaxed tune that works because Kelela has a great voice and adds real emotion to the track. “Charger”, with  Grace Jones, is the most rock song on Humanz. With that repeated, distorted alarm, it stands out as an aggressive tune that grabs you by the ears.

I’ve mentioned before that I think the Gorillaz have a classic sound, one that if I hear it, I think of their work on Demon Days. “Andromeda” has that, though it’s not necessarily a track that would have fit on that album. It’s probably the most relaxing track, while still creating that cosmic soundscape “Saturnz Barz” started.

“Busted and Blue” is solo Albarn and it’s my least favorite track,, due to it’s also the dullest. It’s a slow, mournful song, but it’s a bit too plodding to get the job done. Luckily, “Carnival” brings in the weird, with a heartbeat drum and Anthony Hamilton’s creepy lyrics that create the image of a dilapidated waterfront park brought back to life, Frankenstein style.

One of the most charged, claustrophobic tracks is “Let Me Out”. From the opening keys, there’s something stressful here. To describe it, I’m going to just post my favorite lyrics from the song,”

Look into my eyes, mama, tell me what you see
Tell me there’s a chance for me to make it off the streets
Tell me that I won’t die at the hands of the police
Promise me I won’t outlive my nephew and my niece
Promise me my pastor isn’t lyin’ as he preach
Tell me that they’ll listen if it’s lessons that I teach
Tell me there’s a heaven in the sky where there is peace
But until then, I keep my piece in arm’s reach”

The hopelessness is potent, the wide-eyed hope for anything better is heartbreaking. Pusha T, the featured artist on the track, just wants to hear you promise him these things he know won’t be real. Even if you look him in the eye and say, “I promise”, he knows the hand has already been dealt. The music in the song is killer and it’s the lyrics should hit you like a bullet. It’s a standout track.

Changing the tone, you have “Sex Murder Party”. It’s wacky and sorrowful, with Albarn’s haunting chorus. It has a haunted house vibe with spirits stuck in an unending party. It’s hedonism at its worst, sucking you in because the world outside just got worse on November 2016. What else can we do but celebrate the end of the world?

We can dance, that’s what we can do. Especially to “She’s My Collar”, in which Albarn coyly raps about the girl who’s driving him crazy. It’s 80s cheese for sure, but it’s groovy and  Kali Uchis’ vocals are so off-center you can’t help but smirk. It’s all neon lights down this street.

“Hallelujah Money” was the first track released January 19, 2017, the day before the inauguration and, boy howdy, does it feel like many of us did on that day. Featuring Benjamin Clementine’s smooth and deep vocals, which croon poetry against a choir reciting the title of the track, the song is haunting. It’s a eulogy asking, “How will we know, when the morning comes, we are still human?” How will we know?

It’s not all the doom and gloom. I mean, there’s a lot of that, yes. But there’s hope at the end of the tunnel. “We Got the Power”, featuring Jehnny Beth and choir that includes Noel Gallagher, is an anthem of choice. No matter how bad things get, no matter what the Powers That Be choose, “We got the power to be loving each other, no matter what happens.” It’s a much needed adrenaline shot after “Hallelujah Money” and ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note. Maybe, after the passive-aggressive party, we can get over the hangover and do something to delay the apocalypse.

Take out the interludes and you have a fourteen track album that moves at a brisk pace. It doesn’t reach the heights of Demon Days, but that’s because it lacks the focus. While all the songs belong on the same album, they don’t connect and compliment each other the way the Gorillaz’ sophomore record did. I’ve seen Humanz compared to a mix-tape and that’s not far off, but it’s an extremely focused mix, impressing everyone who finds it in their car.

b7b8c7e9I don’t like saying albums are better or worse than previous works of artists I love. It seems pointless. Albums are good or bad in different ways, but they don’t need to compete. Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is better or worse because of the quality of Houses of the Holy. And I can’t say Humanz is better than what’s come before but it does feel like a real comeback. My taste tends to run closer to Demon Days, which should be evident by now considering how much I’ve mentioned that album as opposed to the others. It’s that taste that digs Humanz and your mileage might vary. There’s a lot of great thoughts and messages in these songs, but if you don’t care for hip-hop, electronica, sampling and after parties, you might not get far enough in to taste the meat. For the rest, it’s a timely, strobe light filled house party.

Let’s just agree to not have to wait another seven years.