Monday, April 21, 2008

A Review of "When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold" by Atmosphere

Slug and Ant return to form with one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade

Indie hip-hop duo Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is an album that has no business being as good as it actually is. Yes, this is still the same group that released that superb Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly early in their career, but their last few albums have been far less consistent than what fans have come to expect from Atmosphere. The highlights on the group’s early albums not only touched on topics that are often overlooked in hip-hop, but also contained some of the most genuinely real lyrics in the genre. Contrary to most rap acts, even in the underground, there was very little self promotion in Slug’s rhymes, but instead storytelling that focused on genuine lyrics that provoke thought and sympathy as opposed to quick rhyme schemes and complicated flow. Because of this, Slug became one of the easiest rap lyricists to relate to, as well as an emcee that had achieved the all too underappreciated art of genuinely expressing himself through his music and personal reflections. Couple that with Ant’s outstanding production, and you have the formula for one of the finest and most accessible groups in hip-hop. 2003’s Seven’s Travels saw Slug improving on his flow and a style of rhyming that was often too raw for its own good, but other than a few awe-inspiring standouts, replaced many of the genuine moments that Atmosphere fans fell in love with on Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly with an unfortunate amount of filler. Two years later, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having completed Atmosphere’s transformation into a group that silenced anyone who doubted Slug’s rapping ability, but Slug’s improved flow came at the expense of the masterful storytelling of the group’s finest moments.

In retrospect, the group’s sixth album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is a make or break album. Either Atmosphere can return to top form or disappoint longtime fans of the group with another mixed record. Thankfully, Atmosphere fans can stop holding their breath. When Life Gives You Lemons is here, and despite its arguably immature and ridiculous title, it’s the group’s most mature, focused, and overall best album to date.

When Life Gives You Lemons is filled with 15 intelligent and well-written songs and absolutely no filler to speak of. The album isn’t a return to Atmosphere’s early style, nor is it a continuation of the group’s more recent albums. Instead, Slug presents himself as no longer the young rapper trying to express himself through his rhymes, but a mature adult who has refined his stories and message into something that has the potential to leave the listener speechless.

The songwriting on When Life Gives You Lemons is nothing short of superb, and it marks the peak of Slug’s lyrical talents to date. The stories that Slug tells are not as literal as they have been in the past, as the lyrics are littered with subtleties and thought provoking twists. As one would expect from Atmosphere, the topics of the lyrics are often personal and almost always rare for hip-hop. Many of the songs focus on darker subject matter than what is found on even the darkest of rap songs, but Slug’s lyrics aren’t delivered in a way that is especially dark, and his often depressing stories aren’t there for anyone to pity him or themselves. Atmosphere’s lyrics have always been that way they are because they are real. There is darkness in reality, and the darkness in Atmosphere’s music comes from Slug’s mastery of expressing his perspective of reality through his aforementioned storytelling. Only this time around, the playfulness of the group has been restricted and replaced with mature lyrical substance that has the same sincerity of even the most genuine reflections and stories Slug has told through his music. Now, however, Slug has both the skills as a rapper and maturity as a lyricist to write an album full of songs that both meet and surpass Atmosphere’s already phenomenal achievements in songwriting.

However, Slug is not the only member of Atmosphere, just as he is not the only reason that the album is as phenomenal as it is. Even during Atmosphere’s more inconsistent years, Ant’s beats have continued to improve, and that trend continues on When Life Gives You Lemons. The samples Ant uses are a more significant part of Atmosphere’s music than the beats of most other hip-hop acts, and there are few producers who can match the atmosphere that Ant’s samples create for Slug’s stories. The variety in the samples is just as varied as the songs themselves, and Slug’s rhymes and Ant’s beats connect throughout the entire album. Both Slug and Ant have improved in their distinct own ways as Atmosphere has grown, and for the first time since 2002’s God Loves Ugly, they appear to be on the same page on a consistent basis. That essentially means that When Life Gives You Lemons has the same musical atmosphere, both in terms of lyrics and beats, as Atmosphere’s early records, but the improvements in Ant’s production is just as clear as Slug’s improvement as a rapper. Both have matured, refined their skills as musicians, and are once again able to connect musically.

When Life Gives You Lemons opens with “Like the Rest of Us,” a song that contains one of Ant’s most beautiful samples to date. Although the song itself is actually one of the weaker songs on the album, that’s more to do with the phenomenal tracks the album presents the listener with later on than the song itself being weak. On first listen, it immediately renders one common complaint with Atmosphere in the past null and void. Slug has often been criticized for his sometimes overly aggressive delivery, but “Like the Rest of Us” shows a much more controlled Slug, both in terms of delivery and lyrics. Unlike many past Atmosphere songs, Slug doesn’t force the listener into his story with aggressive passion, which can either incite the same amount of passion from the listener as a reaction or repulse them, but on this and many other songs on When Life Gives You Lemons, Slug is more passive. He still has the same amount of passion as he’s always had, but it’s his improved focus and maturity as a rapper that allows him to constrain his passion into more focused story and song. It still incites passion from the listener, but anyone who found Slug to be too aggressive on his first few albums should be pleased to find that he has improved dramatically, but still has the same passion that fans identified with.

The album then moves into another slower starting song, and one with just as superb of a beat as the last. “Puppets” is the name of the track, and Slug’s famous singer-songwriter style of rapping is once again found here. Initially, it’s a reminder that Slug is just as unique of a rapper has ever. He’s improved his flow, but he hasn’t conformed stylistically, lyrically, or otherwise. About halfway through the song, the beat kicks in, and it’s at that point where When Life Gives You Lemons grabs the listener and never lets them go. The female vocals found on the song are a perfect contrast to Slug’s vocal style, and the lyrics are simply top notch. “Puppets” is not only one of the album’s highlights, but it’s one of the best songs the group has ever recorded. At that point, Atmosphere has officially matured, and one of the best albums of the decade, rap or otherwise, kicks into gear.

The album continues with a couple of lyrical gems in “The Skinny” and “Dreamer.” Both of which contain a more passive approach by Slug, and two very different but equally great samples by Ant. “The Skinny,” in particular, tackles a familiar topic, but the perspective and maturity that Atmosphere provide make it standout. This is once again due in part to Slug’s impressive storytelling, but also because of the sincerity of the duo’s lyrics. The theme of “The Skinny” is one that is often glorified in rap music, but Slug’s passionate yet passive delivery puts a truthful perspective on it, and makes the song a rather unique one. “Dreamer” is another gem, both in terms of lyrics and beat. The chorus of the song is one of best connections between Ant and Slug, and it provides a hook for the song. However, the hook isn’t one that makes it catchy so much as it draws the listener into the story of the song. The upbeat sample combined with a more positive delivery from Slug nails the message in ways that Atmosphere had only shown the potential of doing in the past. It's also is a song that can be shown to anyone who calls Atmosphere “emo” or “too depressing.” Yes, they deal with dark subject matter, but their commentary is real and maintains an optimistic perspective. Now more than ever that is reflected in Atmosphere’s music, and with that comes a new realm of subtleties that add father depth to lyrics that are already full of substance on literal level.

Quite possibly the weakest track on the album is the first single, “Shoulda Known.” Granted, it’s a quality song, but it’s a more typical rap song than most of the other tracks on the album. It’s on this track and only this track where Slug’s more passive style doesn’t work because this particular song lacks the passion that is found on the most memorable tracks on the album. The beat, although solid, is also forgettable, and despite being unique enough to separate itself from the rest of tracks in context with the album, it’s the closest thing to filler on When Life Gives You Lemons.

Thankfully, the album regains its momentum with the upbeat and bass driven “You,” the subtle and somewhat beautiful “Painting,” and the fantastic “Your Glasshouse.” All three of these songs are different from the anything else on the album, as well as anything Atmosphere has done in the past, yet once again show the variation and maturity that can be found on this record. “Your Glasshouse” is one of the darker and almost intentionally sluggish songs on the album, but just like one would expect from Atmosphere that isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It just is, and it continues the dark but real perspective that Atmosphere’s music has always had. However, it’s the type of focused excellence that fans have been longing for since Atmosphere first turned heads with their Overcast EP.

One of the most personal songs on the album is “Yesterday,” which is yet another wonderfully produced and passionately written highlight that has the power to make anyone who’s lost a loved one sit and think about what they've just heard. Like the best of Atmosphere’s music, it has the power to stay with the listener, and that’s something that is an element of art that is not easy to achieve. On a similar note, the acoustic blues-rap of “Guarantees” is another standout that has similar staying power. The simple acoustic riff that Slug passionately raps over is yet another beat that does an outstanding job of complimenting the lyrics and creating the dark and powerful atmosphere of the song.

The first ten tracks on When Life Gives You Lemons are almost entirely outstanding, but the album somehow improves in its final five tracks. Arguably the two best songs on the album are “Me” and “The Waitress,” two powerful stories that rank as not only two of the greatest songs Atmosphere has recorded, but also two of the most moving rap songs this critic has ever heard. The final line of “The Waitress” is absolutely mesmerizing, and it is guaranteed to make some sort of emotional impact on the listener. There really isn’t anything that can be said for the song other than it will send chills down your spine and that it must be heard to be believed. There are many underground rap songs that exemplify the power of hip-hop, but “The Waitress,” among other songs on When Life Gives You Lemons, exemplifies the power of music and lyricism as a whole.

Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is not only the group best album since Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly, but it’s also one of the most intelligent, mature, and poetic albums to come out in some time. This is not only a crowning achievement of an album that is an example of just how great underground rap can be, but it’s an accessible and unique masterpiece that isn’t constrained by its genre. Regardless of how much or how little you enjoy rap, buy this album immediately. It’s spectacular from start to finish, and it has earned my highest recommendation.

Key tracks: Puppets, Me, The Waitress

Grade: A

Sunday, April 13, 2008

10 New Albums You Should Buy...Part 2/5

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks- Real Emotional Trash

Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus isn't exactly the greatest vocalist in the world, nor is he the greatest guitarist out there. For what it's worth, Malkmus isn't even among the greatest lyricists in the indie rock genre. However, you'd be hard pressed to find a more creative songwriter, just as there may not be a more influential underground musician than Stephen Malkmus. Even though his latest solo album, Real Emotional Trash, isn't exactly the indie rock masterpiece that Pavement's debut was, Malkmus deserves a lot of credit for not only continuing to play some of the finest indie rock in the genre today, but also for continuing to innovate more than 15 years after his band helped established indie rock as a genre of music. The Jicks are a very different band than Pavement, and anyone still holding out for the same raw sound of Malkmus' early days are going to be disappointed. However, fans should know by now that The Jicks are not Pavement, and that Stephen has gone in a completely different direction since his Pavement days. The problem is that it's still hard to tell what exactly that direction is. Real Emotional Trash is the fourth album by Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, and the band's biggest issue remains identity. Many of the songs feature moments of overly catchy indie pop ("Gardenia" and "Dragonfly Pie" to name two of the catchiest), while just as many songs venture into moments of prolonged jam sessions that sound like something out of a progressive rock record. In a way, that's both the beauty and flaw of the album, as it shows that Malkmus is an incredibly varied musician who can pull off a number of different sounds, but the band as a whole has still yet to piece the different styles together into a coherent mixture. It still provides for an interesting listen, and the creativity of the record is certainly worthy of praise, but it's more than somewhat disappointing that the band still sounds like an experiment four records in. Still, everything Malkmus presents on this album works to some degree, and anyone who doesn't mind that the Jicks are still essentially a hodgepodge of everything Malkmus didn't do with Pavement should give Real Emotional Trash a listen. It's also worth noting that former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss does a fantastic job behind the kit (especially on the wonderfully progressive title track), and continues to prove that she is one of the most underrated drummers in all of music.

Key tracks: Hopscotch Willie, Real Emotional Trash, Out of Reaches

Grade: B

Meshuggah- ObZen

Prior to ObZen's release, one could certainly make the case that Meshuggah have been great. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Meshuggah one of the greatest bands in all of metal. Unfortunately, the band has yet to release that one great album that encompasses the band's sound into something consistently great from start to finish. Granted, Meshuggah have had great songs on all of their albums, and their sound has a whole has been one of the most brutal and influential in the genre for a number of years. Still, they've lacked that one definitive album that every great band has. Now, in 2008, Meshuggah have finally made that great record. ObZen is the first Meshuggah album to be able to sustain their unique and brutal blend of thrash, death, and progressive metal through the length of an entire album. The result is an absolutely brilliant metal offering that is guaranteed to make the hairs on your neck stand up. Aside from the band's impressive combination of brutality, melody, and progression, the thing that separates Meshuggah from both their influences and the numerous bands they themselves have influenced throughout their career is that the band's music is driven not by guitar, but instead by some simply phenomenal bass and drum combinations. In fact, the guitar is used as nothing more than a way of keeping the beat on a number of tracks, while the drums run wild. This makes for not only a unique metal sound, but also a brutal force that is both raw and punishing. Like many technical metal albums, ObZen does start to develop a common formula near the end, but that's a small flaw considering that the highs of this album far exceed what is usually found in the genre, as well as that the album has numerous moments of progression. The absolutely phenomenal "Bleed" is an example of that, as the song is a nearly flawless mixture of Meshuggah's uncanny brutality and the band's integration of melodic elements. Not every song on the album mixes those elements at such a high level of success, but the number of tracks that come close (the title track, "Combustion," "Electric Red," and "Pravus" for example) are simply staggering. ObZen is a brutal album from start to finish, but it's not brutal for the sake of being brutal. The album still has enough melody, progression, and varied songwriting to make it a great album period, not just a great extreme metal album. That, in essence, is what metal should be, and ObZen, for better or for worse, is about as metal of a record as there is.

Key tracks: Bleed, ObZen, Pravus

Grade: A-

Part 3 coming tomorrow

The 10 Best Albums of 2007

I was holding out on posting this because I was hoping that I could do an "Ebert and Roeper" style video blog with a friend of mine to count down our picks for the 10 best albums of the year. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's going to happen, so here are the albums I picked backed in January in a basic list form. Since I already wrote about each of these albums in my Holiday Buyer's Guide, I feel it would be a bit redundant to write another nearly identical paragraph of analysis for each album (especially when I'm so behind on my writing), but I would still like to collaborate with a guest critic and do a video blog for this list eventually. Either way, here are my picks for the 10 best albums of last year:

10. Rush- Snakes & Arrows
9. Iron & Wine- The Shepherd's Dog
8. Caribou- Andorra
7. Epica- The Divine Conspiracy
6. Porcupine Tree- Fear of a Blank Planet
5. Dark Tranquillity- Fiction
4. Nightwish- Dark Passion Play
3. Symphony X- Paradise Lost
2. Radiohead- In Rainbows
1. Lupe Fiasco- The Cool

I will have part 2 of the "10 New Albums You Should Buy" series up today, and my goal is to post daily updates until I get caught up. I also have full reviews of Ayreon's "01011001" and Avantasia's "The Scarecrow" to post, as well some sort of short review for 50 or so other albums I've listened to from this year. On top of that, I'll continue posting my Top 100 list, which has gotten delayed to the point where I'm just going to post it when I can and not make any more promises. Thanks to all of you once again for continuing to read this blog. Due to events outside of my control, I've had to make school and family an overwhelming priority so far this year, but I would love nothing more than to make this blog active, and I feel optimistic that I will soon be able to succeed in doing that.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

10 New Albums You Should Buy...Part 1/5

R.E.M.- Accelerate

R.E.M.'s first album since 2004 is a rather short and familiar affair, but the album's 35 minutes of deep lyrics, catchy riffs, and intelligent songwriting is a welcome return to form for one of the finest lyrical bands to ever receive mainstream success. Compared to the band's phenomenal first 8 albums from the 80s through mid-90s, Accelerate isn't exactly a revelation, but the album is a triumph compared to nearly every other album the band has released since. There are a numbers of reasons for this, most notably the return of the band's original heavier sound, but the most significant aspect of R.E.M.'s music has always been lyrics. Using recent political events as motivation, the lyrics on Accelerate are some of the band's best and most aggressive in over a decade. Whether or not you agree with their politics, the sheer intelligence of the band comes through in their lyrics, and the album can be recommended purely on that alone. Granted, there isn't much on this album that R.E.M. hasn't done better on past records, but the intelligent songwriting of the band is in fine form. When Accelerate is at its best (such as on the album's fantastic opener "Living Well is the Best Revenge" and the single "Supernatural Superserious"), this is the best R.E.M.'s has sounded in years. This is partly because the band seems to once again be less concerned with their sound and more concerned with the intelligent lyrics that made the band great to begin with, but also in part because this is the first R.E.M. in far too long to sound like it was made for a reason bigger than simply for the sake of making an album. Accelerate isn't exactly a masterpiece, but it a step in the right direction for a band that once again seems capable of making another masterpiece.

Key tracks: Living Well is the Best Revenge, Supernatural Superserious, Accelerate

Grade: B

Apocalyptica- Worlds Collide

Released last September in Europe, it's taken a long 7 months for Apocalyptica's latest album to reach American soil. Thankfully, the album will finally be available this Tuesday, and it is highly recommended to both longtime fans and newcomers to Apocalyptica's unique sound. For those aforementioned newcomers, Apoclayptica's brand of "cello metal" may seems like an odd idea at first, and you would be correct in assuming that. However, the extraordinary talent of the band's three cellists not only proves that "cello metal" is workable, but also that Apocalyptica is one of the most unique and talented band in the metal scene today. The band has made a name for itself with fantastic covers of classic hard rock and metal songs (most notably by Metallica), but Worlds Collide is an entirely original album that ranks as both the band's most prolific original effort and as their most accessible offering to date. The band's uncanny ability to replace lead, rhythm, and bass guitar parts with cellos and still be able to create an authentic metal sound is just as strikingly beautiful and impressive today as it was when Plays Metallica by Four Cellos was released in 1996, but the band has only improved since then. Now, with the help of guests vocalists such as Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), and Till Lindermann (Rammstein), the band has evolved into a project that is not only unlike anything else in music today, but also represents career highlights for many of the guest musicians featured. Regardless of what you think of their original bands, each vocalist provides a unique sound that couples with Apocalyptica's increasingly impressive and varied songwriting to create songs that iare every bit as good, if not better, than the best the guests' respective bands have recorded. Longtime fans of Apocalyptica's classical approach may be disappointed to find a more pop-like structure to many of the songs (especially the radio friendly "I'm Not Jesus" with Corey Taylor and "I Don't Care" featuring Adam Gontier of Three Days Grace), but there's still enough beautiful instrumental pieces to please all but the most unforgiving of fans. The album's highlight is the absolutely beautiful "S.O.S. (Anything But Love)," which features Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia on vocals. Much like the album's other vocal tracks, the structure is more pop-like and radio friendly, but the sheer beauty of the lyrics and contrast between the band's three cellists and Scabbia's beautiful vocals make this one of the finest tracks released last year. Now, it's finally available in the United States, and even though the album may not entirely satisfy every Apocalyptica fan as a whole, it does an exceptional job of making one of the best and purest sounds in metal accessible to the masses without entirely changing what made the band great in the first place. Worlds Collide may not be on many top 10 lists come the end of the year, but it's more than deserving of a place in any music fan's collection.

Key tracks: Helden, Last Hope, S.O.S. (Anything But Love)

Grade: B+

Part 2 coming tomorrow.