Month: September 2014

Pop Song Review: Ariana Grande feat. Zedd – “Break Free”

I’ve been trying to avoid Ariana Grande as much as I can recently – well, except for reviewing a song she featured in. She had promise when she first emerged on the scene, but now that the marketing team’s had their way with her she just gets on my nerves. Her cutesy diva image feels so manufactured and phony it comes off as a parody of itself, while the sheer ubiquity of her marketing is making my internet travails that little bit more irritable – I do not need to see this woman everywhere I go, internet, so lay off already. Apparently she’s not a very nice person, either, so that’s a shame.

But with the dry well of fresh new pop singles to review that are the charts being what they are (dry, that is), I’m forced to revisit this human poodle in one of my posts: therefore today’s pop song review is “Break Free” by Ariana Grande featuring Zedd.

NOTE: Skip to about thirty seconds in to save yourself a whole heap of nonsense.

First impressions: You’re kidding me, surely – now they’ve got her making mindless club-pop? I could tolerate her when she was making half-decent music, but this? I wanted to stop writing about these sorts of songs as well – how am I back here? Why won’t this torment end?!!

The music: This is just cruel. Look, I’ve already reviewed three club-pop songs in the past three weeks – I have nothing left to say on the subject, so permit me to skim over certain details here. Is the music generic and the structure simple? Yes. Is it something I’ve heard before in another club song? Undoubtedly. Is any of it good? Not on your life, and that’s where songs like this really fall flat.

Look, I can put up with generic music: I don’t mind when a song re-uses ideas that have been used a thousand times before because I know it can work if done right, but the song still has to be catchy, interesting and at least show some hint of original thinking and effort if it wants to be entertaining or memorable. “Break Free” sucks because none of its overused ideas are any good: its dance-pop production is atrocious and abrasive, its songwriting is laughably pedestrian and its melody is so bereft of energy it sounds like the song is actually yawning into my ears.

As for Grande, yes, technically she is an excellent singer, but even amazing singers need something decent to work with. Vocal gymnastics are only impressive if the song itself is at least solid. Showing off powerhouse vocals on an absolute dud of a song like this is like amazing brushwork on a painting of a toilet cistern.

The worst part of this, though, is that none of it matters. “Break Free” is not a good song by any margin but it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares about writing good music for Grande because she’s all marketing at this point. It’s the same reason they’re making a third Cars movie: so many stupid kids are buying the merchandising, all Disney have to do is secrete some semblance of a film and sling it into cinemas so there’s some sort of backdrop to all the new toys coming out. Ariana Grande could be responsible for making classy, interesting, emotionally and musically complex songs that excite the imagination and ignite the soul in glorious passions, but what would be the point in that?

The lyrics: Grande has been stuck in an unpleasant relationship, but now it’s over and she’s about to, you guessed it, break free: “This is the part where I say I don’t need you / I’m stronger than I’ve been before.” Yep, it’s one of those songs, apparently because there’s a mandate requiring every female pop singer to touch on this subject at some point. What do you want to bet her next single is about how she can’t live without you or something, just to underscore the point that nobody cares about consistency in pop songwriting anymore?

“You were better, deeper / I was under your spell / like a deadly fever, yeah babe / on the highway to Hell”. Seriously, it’s like the Live Aid of pop lyric clichés, except there’s no good cause to be seen. Also, “highway to Hell”? You’re not seriously trying to score points with the classic rock crowd, are you, Grande? As if Miley Cyrus’ overwrought stab at covering Zeppelin wasn’t enough.

“Don’t want to hear you lie tonight / now that I’ve become who I really are.” Okay, let’s talk about this lyric: according to Grande herself she fought co-producer Max Martin to exclude this grammatically incorrect line from the song, but Martin insisted on putting it in there because he thought it would be funny. Yeah, heh heh… is it me or does this cutesy argument of theirs sound far more sinister than advertised? What are the odds they actually got into screaming matches over this in the recording booth? I could see it happening.

As for the line, yeah, it’s intentionally stupid, but intentional stupidity is still stupidity so… I don’t really know what to say. If this somehow becomes acceptable grammatical usage as a result of this song’s popularity, though, we really should consider just nuking ourselves and getting this whole “decline of Western civilisation” thing wrapped up for good.

Verdict: 1 out of 5. I’m not even coming up with a joke or some sarky add-on to put here – just get this song away from me.

Today’s double-up is – don’t say you didn’t see it coming -“I Want to Break Free” by Queen. If Freddie Mercury in a dress can’t cleanse you of this song then nothing can.

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Pop Song Review: Lilly Wood & The Prick & Robin Schulz – “Prayer in C” (Robin Schulz Remix)

This week in pop song reviews it’s Theme Week, the theme being “Pop Songs I Didn’t Really Want to Review But There’s So Little Else in the Charts to Talk About I Kinda Have To”. Today’s entry is the Robin Schulz remix of “Prayer in C” by Lilly Wood & The Prick & Robin Schulz, which–wait, so Schulz gets an equal artist credit and a mention that it’s his remix? Yeesh, guy, why don’t you just rename the song “Robin Schulz in RS” while you’re at it?

First impressions: Well, I like the lady’s voice – Lilly Wood, you said her name was? I like her. It’s quite a nice melody, too, so she’s winning as far as I’m concerned. Everything else feels a little too relaxed for my liking – I feel like something’s going to go wrong at any second.

The music: To make this a little easier for myself, here’s the original:

Now I realise we’re not here to talk about the original folk version, which is a pleasant if unremarkable acoustic ballad (but it has a flute line!). However, given that the core musical elements of the original “Prayer in C” are effectively the same as those in the remix, I think it’s a good idea to use it as a base point for my analysis. The song itself is a very simple arrangement, as is common in folk music: Lilly Wood warbles a sweet, emotional melody set to a clear, simple guitar line with an occasional dash of flute… and that’s about it. No chorus, just verse after verse until it trundles to a halt. While that might be unthinkable in pop music, it’s a structure that lends itself to the casual, anything-goes attitude of folk quite nicely.

With the remix, Robin Schulz takes the song and asks, “wouldn’t this simple, homely, wistful acoustic ballad work better with processed beats and clomping, fizzing synths? Then drunk people could enjoy it too!” So inevitably “Prayer in C” is turned into another generic, blissed-out club jam to dance and get your drink on to. Admittedly it’s a lot gentler than most club-pop with a crisp yet soft production that I find quite lovely, and I like that it leaves what worked about the original largely intact (though I notice the flute is gone – shame on you, Schulz), but it still hits all the same beats as any of its contemporaries. Is the remix successful? Yeah, I guess it’s all right. Was it necessary? Nope.

As for that name: now, usually composers indicate the key of their piece in the title because… well, I guess to give anyone wanting to conduct and perform it a head start, but also because it just sounds impressive, if a little brag-y. Symphony in D Minor – classy stuff. “Prayer in C”, though? “C”? What’s the point in mentioning that you wrote your song in the simplest and most commonly-used scale to work in, particularly in pop music? Can we even call that a brag? It’s like me boasting that I’ve got two eyes and can spell my own name.

The lyrics: From my understanding of the lyrics it seems to be a condemnation of God (or whatever higher power the artists are directing their frustration at) for supposedly abandoning the Earth and its people, not believing that anyone could forgive Him. “See the children are starving / And their houses were destroyed / Don’t think they could forgive you.” Obviously here Wood is alluding to famine and natural disasters, even positing that God couldn’t even forgive Himself: “don’t think you could forgive you.” It’s powerful stuff, if a little shallow – really? You don’t think the disenfranchised can forgive God for their Earthly suffering? You really don’t get faith, do you? Also, some of it’s a little too vague and confusing to really hit home: “you never said a word / you never sent me no letter.” Was God ever one for sending letters in the Bible? Anybody want to find that verse for me? Mighty appreciate it.

So yeah, as far as theological discussion goes it’s pretty lame, but it’s certainly more interesting stuff than the usual club-pop bangers you hear on the radio – probably because it wasn’t written as a club-pop banger. How much of that powerful spiritual message do you reckon will make its way through to the drunken punters on the night club dance-floor while the DJ waits for the right moment to segue into “Boom Clap”? Again, disconnect between the music and the lyrics is a seriously jarring… I’m the only one who cares about this, aren’t I? Screw my life.

Verdict: Er… well, I guess it’s a more pleasant and amicable listen than most club bangers, but most of that charm comes from the original music: all Schulz does it Euro-popify it for duh clerb. That said, I think I can find it in myself to give it a 3 out of 5. High praise indeed.

Today’s double-up is “God Am” by Alice in Chains, written by a man who was pretty much dying when he wrote it. Take that, “Prayer in C”.

On a serious note (or as serious as it gets around here), with this review and the next I’m kinda wiped for relevant pop singles I can review. I only really focus on the top twenty of both the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart – y’know, the big hitters – and I try not to cover pop songs that have already been reviewed by critics I follow so I don’t subconsciously steal any of their jokes or observations. I also try and avoid writing about pop songs that I can tell are going to peak in popularity early on, only to drop out of the charts completely within a fortnight or so (of course, sometimes I fail – thanks a lot, Duke Dumont). These little rules have done me well so far but it means I’ve pretty much run out of songs to talk about for the time being. I’m sure more will come in as the charts change, but I still think I’d better cut these reviews down to one per week so I don’t run out of material. Also, I think I’m done with reviewing club-pop songs: there’s just nothing to say about them anymore that I haven’t already said and I’m worried that I’m going to start repeating myself if I carry on trying to review them. So that’s that – bye for now.

Red Dwarf II, episode 1: “Kryten”

Well, it was nice to finally get back into the swing of writing about pop music and stuff, but now it’s time to return to what this blog started out with: talking ’bout Red Dwarf.

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Red Dwarf II, episode 1: “Kryten”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 6th September 1988.

The first episode of the second series starts on a strange note: no sign of Lister, Rimmer or Cat, we’re instead greeted with the sight of a stranded ship. Inside, a strange android with very human features watches a dodgy old television screen in wonder. As far as I’m aware this is the first genuine affirmation, on Red Dwarf‘s part, of any sort of life, artificial or otherwise, in the universe apart from the crew and the various AI that exists on the ship. As we get further into this series and the show, you’ll start to notice this bleak, isolated universe getting a little more crowded, presumably because Grant and Naylor were running out of things to do with just the three leads. Some have complained about this, particularly in regards to the rather-crowded universe of Red Dwarf X, but I think it adds a touch of warmth to the coldness and emptiness of deep space to just have a few more heads to bash against.

We then head back to Red Dwarf, where Rimmer is once again learning Esperanto with the help of a rather fetching educational programme. As is common with much of early Red Dwarf the episode (and the comedy) is dominated by long scenes of bickering between Lister and Rimmer, and later Holly. Art college and a new musical scale are added to the list of rambling conversations that have no relevance to the plot, but are funny to listen to regardless. That said, plot-wise there’s surprisingly little to say about “Kryten” – which is fine, because it means the situation doesn’t get in the way of the comedy (unlike in later series, but we’ll get there in due time).

It does mean I’m going to speed-run through the plot for a moment, though: they soon get a distress call from the stranded ship, the Nova 5. The android, announcing himself as Kryten, pleads for help, stating that the ship has had an accident, the male officers have died and the female officers are injured but stable. Of course, the randy boys from the Dwarf hear “female officers” and jump to the rescue. They board the Nova 5, only to be met with this:

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Of course, we already know the crewmates are dead thanks to an earlier scene, so there’s a lovely, albeit brief dramatic irony to be had watching these guys still dressed to impressed. Of course, they eventually do find out and… well, I just have to say, this scene is absolutely wonderful and one of my personal all-time favourites, in spite of – no, actually, because of its macabre nature. Red Dwarf has always had a flippant attitude towards death and this scene might be the pinnacle of it. Everything clicks together so well: the look on Rimmer’s faceas he comes out of his bow, Lister keeping his promise to big up “Ace”, Kryten’s complete lack of awareness of his mistresses’ fates… not to mention some wonderful lines for Chris Barrie to spit out. I have to add, too, that as iconic as Robert Llewelyn’s Kryten is, David Ross does a tremendous job of setting up the little quirks that Llewelyn would run with, particularly that jittery C-3PO walk.

It’s quite late into the episode that the plot starts to tackle Kryten’s existential angst: with his owners dead, Kryten has nobody left to serve and, as serving others is his sole purpose, he finds himself lost. For an episode focused on a robot, “Kryten” has some wonderful moments of human despair: the moment where he asks “what am I going to do” as the scene simply fades into the next, without a joke or quip from the Red Dwarf crew, is really moving and perfectly delivered by David Ross. But the question stands: who will he serve now his old crew are gone?

Enter Rimmer. Because of course.

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So Kryten takes on the new role of Rimmer’s… maid, I guess. Rimmer, being the narky rankophile he is, naturally sees this as Kryten doing what he was built to do, but Lister isn’t impressed. Kryten starts discussing his dreams about one day escaping his servitude and having a garden to himself that he can look after and watch grow – something he did. This is quite a nice, tender moment (and rendered utterly sad by how he eventually ended up) that provokes Lister to encourage him to rebel against Rimmer. A scene later it seems Kryten has ignored Lister’s advice and is still pandering to Rimmer’s every need, even painting a portrait of the man. Of course, in a not-unexpected twist that I’m still not going to spoil too much, Kryten does turn his back on his serving ways. Although there is a carthasis to be felt on the mechanoid’s part the real pleasure of this scene comes, as usual, from watching Rimmer’s micro-tyranny being thoroughly up-ended. His prim bedsheets stained and the portrait he sat for revealed to be nothing more than a simple mockery, Rimmer is left humiliated and paralysed with quiet, hilarious rage as Kryten rides off into the sun, never to be seen again.

Or so we thought. But that’s another story.

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Admittedly the pace to this episode is strange: the theme of rebellion is a bit rushed and probably should have been hinted at earlier on. Overall it’s a bit of a strange opener, introducing a new character instead of reintroducing the key dynamic by focusing on Lister and Rimmer, but the comedy is classic Red Dwarf: dark, irreverent and goofy. Also, maybe this is hindsight talking, but it seems as if the writers already knew they weren’t quite done with this character yet, so they don’t go as far as they could have with him while leaving his fate deliberately ambiguous – we never do see him ride off. Of course, he did, and later on they find him… but again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Kryten”, then – a flawed episode, but one that serves to introduce a classic character and brings with it some terrific laughs to boot. That’ll do to kick off the series, methinks. Back to the tri viroj next week, though.

SOME OTHER SMEG

  • This episode, as I mentioned above, was first transmitted 6th September 1988, less than six months after the first broadcast of “Me2”. That is an impressive turnaround on Grant & Naylor’s part. Beat that, Mrs Brown’s Boys.
  • Nice send-up of Neighbours with Androids. I wonder if Futurama took any influence from this for their own robot soap opera, All My Circuits?
  • It’s interesting that Lister picks up on Esperanto quicker than Rimmer does. Obvious this means Rimmer is not as clever as he thinks – which would be impossible – but it also subtly indicates that there’s more going on in Lister’s mind than he or anyone else would think. A lesser sitcom would probably have dredged an entire episode out of that premise.
  • Rimmer’s pronunciation of “purchase.”
  • Anyone else notice that Holly’s new and revised musical scale misses out “I”?
  • More on Rimmer’s obsession with aliens.
  • Again, Cat gets next to nothing to do in this episode – but you knew that already.
  • Don’t touch the milk. Also, probably my favourite bit in the episode.
  • Did the female officers all die at the table, then, or did Kryten move them there? Given the way he attempts to make them eat their soup, I’d guess the latter.
  • Some great physical comedy from Craig Charles with Lister getting dressed.
  • I never realised this before, but doesn’t David Ross’ Kryten sound an awful lot like Freddie Mercury when he speaks?
  • Quite the gesture there from Kryten at the end. What time did this air again?

Pop Song Review: 5 Seconds of Summer – “Amnesia”

Today I’m reviewing “Amnesia” by 5 Seconds of Summer. If I give this a negative rating and then don’t post here for a while, contact the authorities.

First impressions: 5 Seconds of Summer are sad now, I guess. Maybe they’re still down from seeing that girl in her underwear?

The music: I’ve already had some words to say about 5 Seconds of Summer and their “pop-punk” sound here, so I won’t go over that again. Needless to say I don’t care for it (well, if it was actually needless to say I wouldn’t have had to say it just now, but whatever), but I will add this: if you remember that whole thing a few months back and were, at any point, tricked into thinking that this band might actually have elements of punk or rock or anything approaching rebelliousness in its sound, fear not because “Amnesia” is about as dangerous and threatening as an episode of Open All Hours.

For this song the band have gone for a softer, supposedly more mature approach, because the Seventh Law of Pop Music dictates that every second or third single from a pop artist has to be a ballad. If it isn’t, well, the consequences are far too disturbing to be listed here. I’d describe the sound as a thin layer of acoustic guitar supporting the vocal performances that dominate the melody. In fact, the instrumentation overall is pretty thin: some strings join the mix here and there, but the vocals are clearly the main focus here. Trouble is, they’re not very good. As in, these guys aren’t great singers – and we’re talking post-production here, so imagine how much work had to be done to get them to this. This is why there are Grammy awards for producers and engineers.

I’d like to say more, but this is another song where I’ve had to throw up my hands and admit that there’s really not a lot to say about the music. I wish I could because it reflects badly on my writing and my judgement when I skim over details, but come on, it’s a pop ballad: just think of any teeny breakup song with acoustic guitars and you’ll know what “Amnesia” sounds like without even having heard it. It wants to be sentimental and heartfelt but the whole thing feels too calculated and too perfect – the simple structure, the twee melody, the polished production work – to be the lovelorn musings of a desperate man deprived of his sweetheart. I get that they’re a boy band, so everything is going to be calculated and carefully managed about them, but…

Okay, I’m going to lay some truth on you guys here today: I have a huge soft spot for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys and “Let’s Dance” by 5ive. I know it’s a bit of a false equivalency I’m working with here, because “Amnesia” is a ballad and those two songs aren’t, but there’s something so much better about those songs – a slicker groove, sharper hooks, a bit more snap to the beat… just a little something extra here and there that takes them beyond their cynical, money-making premise. They’re still calculated, contrived and uncomfortably dorky but they sound fresh and enjoyable because you can clearly hear the little bit of effort that went into making them stand out. It just proves that even though you don’t have to put much thought into writing pop songs, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I have a hard time believing that anything approaching “unexpected effort” went into crafting “Amnesia” – the label needed a song about lost love, so it came into being.

The lyrics: 5 Seconds of Summer – or whichever member it is that’s singing at any given time – are directly addressing a girl they used to date who is no longer with them and is now far away with someone else. This other man is mean and says mean things to her to be all mean and stuff, which makes you wonder why she’s even with him at all, and although she’s not with our protagonist he still loves her and she still loves him. Probably. Maybe. I mean, he loves her… well, they love her, or… anyway, it’s a song about lost love that the protagonist wishes to forget – although if that is, in fact, his goal, maybe writing an entire song about this woman wasn’t such a great idea.

“Are you somewhere feeling lonely even though he’s right beside you? / When he says those words that hurt you, do you read the ones I wrote you?” So he’s a bit of a git, this other bloke, and–wait, how do they know what this guy says to her? They had to hear she was fine through her friends – what’s this other channel of information they have?

“I drove by all the places we used to hang out getting wasted.” Sorry, you guys are how old again? Okay, maybe they’re of legal age to both drive and “get wasted”, but they’re still writing music for teenagers who can’t. Who exactly is this song for: younger, less mature people who aren’t legally allowed to drink; or older, more experienced people who can but who really shouldn’t be listening to 5 Seconds of Summer? It doesn’t feel like they have the life experience to be singing about these big emotions – it feels more like a kid trying on his dad’s suit – and it feels even weirder when it’s mixed in with blatantly immature songs about girls in underwear. You know how we bash bands like Nickelback for mixing upbeat, raucous songs about sex and partying with softer, more emotional ballads about love and the strange, uneven concoction of emotions it creates? Why exactly do we not do the same with popstars?

“I remember the day you told me you were leaving / I remember the make-up running down your face / and the dreams you left behind, you didn’t need them.” That’s… a weirdly specific set of images to keep in mind. You know, the girl is pretty disempowered in this song, isn’t she? She’s miserable, stuck in an emotionally distant, even abusive relationship that she apparently abandoned her life ambitions to be part of, and all we hear is this guy moaning about how sad he feels that she’s gone. What a gent.

“It hurts to hear you’re happy / it hurts to hear that you’ve moved on.” Aw, you poor thi–wait, she actually is happy? I thought you were implying she was lonely and being called hurtful things. Fancy making up your mind, song? Also, like most bands of this teeny-charmer genre they use the second-person narrative to direct their lyrics to the listener, so it’s as if the singer’s pouring his lovelorn heart out to YOU, OMG LOLZ!!1!1 It couldn’t just be that he’s playing to your fantastical teenage notions about romance and love, right? (And by “he” I mean the five credited songwriters, none of whom are members of the band.)

“Sometimes I start to wonder, was it just a lie? / If what we had was real, how could you be fine?” Maybe because it wasn’t real? Maybe because you’re both teenagers who were simply infatuated with each other? I get this song is written for little girls to satiate their pre-adolescent fantasies about romance, but why does it keep tripping over its messages like this? Is the girl happy? Is she not happy? Were they in love? Weren’t they? It’s not like I’m asking you to pick a college, song, just a direction you can take for this to all make sense. No, stop looking at your phone while I’m talking to you – this is important. Are you even listening to me? You’re not, are you? Right, go to your room – no TV for a week.

“I wish I could wake up with amnesia / and forget about the stupid little things / like the way it felt to fall asleep next to you / and the memories I never can escape.” Also, your entire identity, including your name, your family, your friends and everything you’ve ever done or learned, because amnesia isn’t a selective process where you can just cherry-pick certain experiences to erase. Now you’re just being silly.

Verdict: If you aren’t a little girl with a crush on these guys, I couldn’t recommend this song to you as something you might enjoy: it’s cloying, sentimental, teenage gibberish set to dull, simplistic music taken straight out of Ballads for Dummies. Sorry lads, but it’s a 2 out of 5 from me: if you’d actually been through the experience you detail in the song I’m sure this’d be a lot to pile on, but since you clearly haven’t, take it mit gusto, Kinder.

Today’s double-up is Rainbow’s “Since You Been Gone”. Imagine “Amnesia” with a catchier melody, better vocals, better lyrics, stronger instrumentation… just an overall better song.

So, About That New Queen Album…

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I always stuck up for Queen. I first got into them when I was in school a few years back. Everyone else I knew pretty much hated them, viewing them as a dorky, outdated pop band for old people, but I knew better than them. I owned every single album and DVD I could get my hands on; I spent my evenings researching the band, finding out everything I could about their history; I’d watch the live shows again and again – I even watched Queen Rock Montreal with Brian May and Roger Taylor’s commentary multiple times.

I was a Queen nut; and through everything they went through – the Paul Rodgers era, the compilation albums, The X Factor performances, every little appearance they made to plug whatever product it was they were shifting at any given time – I always stood up for them. The critics might have seen the band in their current state as little more than a cash cow pulled along by two old men who couldn’t let the past die, but I always believed in them and I always thought they were doing the right thing.

Now I’m starting to wonder if the critics had a point.

If you haven’t heard already, Queen (i.e. the aforementioned May and Taylor) announced a while back that they were working on a new album of material that would feature unused vocals from Freddie Mercury, tentatively titled Queen Forever. Great, I thought. This should be cool. Finally, all those demos and rare tracks I caught on YouTube years ago might finally get reworked and put out as an official release: “Dog with a Bone”, “Self Made Man”, “I Guess We’re Falling Out”, “A New Life is Born”, “Face It Alone”, “State of Shock” with Michael Jackson, et al. This was going to be great: a final clearing of the vaults as a send-off to the career of one of the greatest bands of all time. I was excited. I was intrigued.

Then there were reports that it would actually contain some previously-released material. I was nervous, but I retained hope as long as we could get that unreleased stuff. Then May himself admitted that they probably didn’t have enough leftover material to work into a full album. That’s strange, I thought, thinking about all those widely-accessible demos on YouTube. There were problems with the Jackson estate holding back on the recordings he was featured on and, for a while, it seemed like the album might never come out.

Then I received an email from Queen Online: a press release announcing that Queen Forever would in fact be released on November 10th 2014. At once my excitement and intrigue rushed back to me. I skimmed through all the press guff about Queen’s legacy or whatever and hit the track listing. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

If you don’t twig from the track listing (read it here), Queen Forever is not a new studio album as originally promised. It’s another compilation of previously released material, just as Absolute Greatest was back in 2009, just as the Singles Collection box sets were and just as the Deep Cuts and re-released Greatest Hits I and II albums were back in 2011. Apart from the inclusion of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” this new compilation is basically Best of the Ballads, like Aerosmith did with the Tough Love collection a few years back, while the number of new stuff has been reduced from what I initially assumed to be an album’s worth of material (my bad) to a meagre three songs.

Two of them are actually Freddie Mercury solo tracks that Queen have “reworked” – a ballad version of “Love Kills” (woo-hoo?) and the much-touted “There Must Be More to Life Than This” with Michael Jackson doing a duet with Mercury – which are interesting but not enough to push this collection; while the other is “Let Me In Your Heart Again” which I can’t say I’ve ever heard of but should be worth at least a listen… and that’s about it. There’s also a deluxe edition available if you want, er, more ballads. (Don’t be tricked into thinking “Forever” at the end of disc two is a new item, either: it’s just a piano instrumental of “Who Wants to Live Forever” that was first made available on the CD version of A Kind of Magic back in 1986.)

So why did this need to exist? Even now I don’t want to say “money”, so I’ll give May and Taylor the benefit of the doubt and posit that they did initially set out to create something closer to the idea I had in my head – a sort of rarities collection – but couldn’t come up with the material in time. So why did it have to be all ballads? Well, May describes the album in the press release as “things that we have collected together that are representative of our growth rather than the big hits“.

Even putting aside the fact that there are numerous big hits here, this quote bugs me. Look, Queen had some amazing ballads (“Somebody to Love”, “Play the Game”); they had some good-to-okay ones (“It’s a Hard Life”; “One Year of Love”); and they had some downright terrible ones (“Drowse”). But Queen were never just about the ballads: they covered a wide range of genres in their music, from progressive rock to funk to metal to blues to disco to… well, I could carry on, but regardless it’s their variety and their influences that made them compelling as a band and as individual musicians. This variety was only really felt, though, in their heavier, “rockier” (urgh) songs, while their ballads were often pretty generic and samey. What I’m saying is that lumping together all of Queen’s ballads does not do justice to the band they were. (Also, how does the album represent their growth if the tracks are out of chronological order?)

So yeah, I’m disappointed, maybe even a little angry, but if you’re in the highly-specific percentage of people who a) only like Queen’s ballads; b) don’t own any of their greatest hits albums; and c) fancy hearing something new, then this should appeal to you. If not, then just download the three new songs and be done with it. Frankly I’m not even sure if this will be their last compilation album – but how much longer can they keep releasing them?

Queen Forever: seems more like a cruel taunt now, doesn’t it?

Pop Song Review: Calvin Harris feat. John Newman – “Blame”

Today I’m reviewing the new Calvin Harris single “Blame”, which came right out of nowhere to debut at no. 1 on the UK Singles Chart. Wow, so this must be really good, right? …Right?

First impressions: So it sounds like Harris has released another breezy summer jam for people to kick back to with a cold drink as they soak in the sun, and it would have been perfect if it hadn’t been released in September. Actually, given the lyrics maybe it isn’t all that summery after all? Ah, disconnect between the music and the words: always a sure sign of a winner.

The music: I really don’t think Calvin Harris is trying anymore. Remember “Acceptable in the 80’s”? Remember how fun, fresh and vibrant the sound of that song was? Remember how different it sounded to everything else in the charts? Also, have you noticed how he hasn’t put out anything that interesting or remarkable since?  It’s kinda sad, really, because knowing what he’s capable of I don’t understand why he insists on making music that just blends in with everything else in the charts. I mean, I touched on why DJs need songs that can easily blend together in my Duke Dumont review, but we all know Harris is better than this. Why is he so content to tread water? Is it because pandering to the lowest common denominator is where the money lies? Could be.

I mean, listen to the music. Haven’t you heard that beat before? Those bubbling synths? The whole summery, shiny, everything’s great vibe? Calvin Harris recycles musical ideas more than Disney did animation in the Sixties. Didn’t Harris kinda pioneer this sound early on in the decade as well? I mean, Eurodance isn’t exactly a recent trend, but I seem to recall him being one of the first DJs to really start feeding it into Western pop music; and now the copycats who followed in his wake have better ideas and are taking more risks than he is. It’s like the ouroboros of modern dance music or something. This isn’t Newman’s magnum opus either – just listen to the way he mangles that extended syllable in “night.” Do they not teach melisma at singing lessons anymore? (Yeah, yeah, I can’t sing like he can, blah blah, whatever, but before you start hammering out a fallacious appeal to accomplishment, I should point out that just because someone is a good singer, it doesn’t mean their singing is always good.)

At the same time, though, I can’t say I dislike it particularly. I don’t really like it either, but for a club-banger, at least, it has a certain smoothness to it (although the post-chorus instrumental is as head-pounding as ever) and it does make an attempt to incorporate some gentle soul into the melody, which I appreciate. Sure, the beat is tedious, but it could have easily been more tedious, and I think that’s what we need to take away from this: it could have been worse. It can always be worse.

The lyrics: “Can’t be sleepin’ / keep on wakin’ / is that the woman next to me?” Hey, morning-after guilt (sort of)! Now there’s a new and fresh subject matter for dance music to explore: feeling bad about drunken, meaningless sex. That’s what people want to think about in a club on a night out, right? Nah, you know I’m just kidding – people in clubs don’t think about what they’re doing.

But I can’t say I care for songs like this, you know: these weird humble-brag songs where somebody complains about the awful, depraved, hot, sweaty, nasty, morally-troubling night of skin diving they just took part in, designed to be played to a club full of people looking for just that. Conflict of interest, know what I’m saying? Also, for a country that’s so liberal-minded when it comes to casual sex, we sure know how to take the fun out of it. Who’s really getting blamed here? These people just want a night out, Harris – leave ’em be.

The main hook is this puzzler of a line: “Blame it on the night / don’t blame it on me.” That’s, er, that’s quite the buck-pass you’re trying to pull off here, mate. Don’t worry, though he defends his excuse: “can’t you see? / I was manipulated by it.” Oh I see, you were tricked into having sex with this woman… by the night. As in, the state of not being day. You, ah, you really want to roll with that, pal? You don’t just want to admit that you were both a little tipsy and she looked really good so you made a move? ‘Cos that would be perfectly acceptable, you know – I’m no prude. (Well I am, kinda, but I try not to be. It’s really more a result of environmental circumstances than–look, we’re getting away from the point.)

But blaming it on the night? That’s not just a bad excuse, it’s a weird one. I mean, the night? I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Did an owl pressure this guy into porking this lass? Was it the moon? Was he affected by the moon? Is John Newman a werewolf? Also, wouldn’t it be funny to see how far he’d run with this excuse? Like if the woman got pregnant by accident and asked him for a little financial assistance, just to help with furniture for the child and stuff, and he just dug his heels in and kept saying, “but it wasn’t me, I tell you – it was the night! I was manipulated by the night! Why will no-one believe me on this?!”

“I was a friend she missed / she needed me to talk.” And now he’s trying to pass the buck to her. What a gentleman. I honestly think the inverse, “don’t blame it on the night / blame it on me”, would have worked better here. For one, he’d be manning up and admitting that the drunken liaison was at least somebody’s fault. He’d also be taking the bullet for it which, even if it wasn’t true, would at least be the honourable thing to do. Instead he pins his problems and his errors on the machinations of someone or, in this case, something else, which is the sort of blame culture the Daily Mail have made a career on.

“I’ll be better this time / I will be better this time.” And of course he’s going to go do it again. Well, you can hardly blame the night for it this time – this is premeditated stuff now.

Verdict: I really don’t understand this kind of music and I don’t think I ever will: the disconnect between the music and the lyrics is just too bizarre for me to fully comprehend. It’s also another tedious club-pop banger, the sort of which I can’t fathom anyone truly enjoying unless they were actually in a club. That said, I don’t mind the melody too much, and the club-pop sound isn’t as grating as it usually is… you know what, I’m feeling nice today – a 3 out of 5 it is.

Today’s double-up is Dio’s “Shame on the Night.” It’s just as confused about its subject matter as “Blame” is (Dio songs usually are), but listen to the passion he puts into it. And that imagery… marvellous.

Rock Song Review: Orange Goblin – “The Devil’s Whip”

It’s about time I reviewed another rock song, isn’t it? Today I’m reviewing “The Devil’s Whip,” the new single from Orange Goblin.

First impressions: Liked that. Can’t say it was particularly complex or original, but I liked it. Fast, loud, heavy – why can’t pop music be more like this? My job here would be so much easier.

The music: This might be a shorter review than the usual 1,000+ word leviathans I usually put out because there isn’t a terrible amount to talk about with “The Devil’s Whip”: pounding drums, a raucous, raging riff, all set to Ben Ward’s beer-soaked bark… typical Orange Goblin, for the most part. That said, there’s something refreshing about this new song: the arrangements seem a little looser, the production has more punch, the guitars have more bite – it’s like Orange Goblin on turbo drive. When was the last time the band had this much energy in them? For that matter, when was the last time the band had this much fun? I’ll just put it out there now: this is the most fun Orange Goblin song in quite some time, and that makes me happy.

There’s an obvious Motörhead influence on here, most notable in that simple, galloping riff, the relentless rhythm and the grizzled vocals (Ward even drops an “iron horse” reference at one point). Now, Orange Goblin have always had a little Motörhead in them, going back at least to 2002’s Coup de Grace album, so this isn’t a new coat of paint they’re using here. That said, the sound on “The Devil’s Whip” is darker and more menacing than previous attempts at this sound – hear that bridge where Ward sings “let’s ride, let it loose, let rip? Them’s some mighty nasty chords right there – which gives it a greater sense of danger. This is a song that’s tight and loose at once, reckless and fully in control, where the wheels could fly off at any moment but you don’t care because the ride is so exhilarating. This is a long-winded way of me saying that I quite enjoyed this song.

The lyrics: “That’s right / you can’t escape the devil’s whip.” Anyone else thinking of the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings? Well, actually, a little internet research tells us (read: me) that the Devil’s Whip is actually a road in North America  renowned for its popularity with motorcycle and sports car drivers. Given the speed and ferocity of the song the subject matter makes sense, though in typical OG fashion they dramatise and metalise it quite a bit, referring to a “dead planet growing old” and mentioning how “the devil’s whip will eat your heart and take your soul” (are we talking about an actual whip now?). It’s all lovely and violent and fun – the sort of stuff great heavy metal is made of. Admittedly lines like”it’s far too late to run / the devil’s at your door” don’t quite make sense given the context, but you know what? It’s such a great ride I’m not even going to pick on the lyrics too much this time.

Verdict: I suppose really I should give this a 3 because it’s essentially a Motörhead pastiche, but the sheer fun of it all warrants it a good 4 out of 5 from me. It’s simple but direct, lean but aggressive, heavy but fast – in short, a great rock and roll song, nowt more, nowt less.

Today’s double-up is “Devil’s Road” by Hughes Turner Project. It’s not as violent or energetic as “The Devil’s Whip”, but it does have Glenn Hughes and Joe Lynn Turner on vocals. You can thank me later.