Album Review

Paradise – Con Brio

 

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

I learned about this funky band when I went to Lollapalooza this year and caught their set. I’ve been singing their praises ever since. Based out of California, Con Brio, which means “with spirit” in Spanish, is a funk/R&B/soul band that are all about loving life and having a good time. They channel this feeling into their funky debut album Paradise. From start to finish the album keeps you going and leaves you with a big smile on your face. After hearing the record, you’ll be convinced Con Brio is the next great band in music.

The album is a funky jam from start to finish. Each song is filled with brassy horns, groovy bass, and hot guitar licks. “Paradise” kicks things off on a slow note. The guitar riff rips into the track inviting listeners on this musical journey. The horns come in one by one to beef up the sound completing the bluesy vibe. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any hotter, Ziek McCarter’s passionate vocals hit you. After one verse you’re ready to fly with him to what he calls paradise. From there, everything is a party. “Liftoff” is the epitome of funky. As soon as the opening note plays, it gets you grooving. It’s so upbeat and energetic, you’re ready to party like it’s a Friday night. And you can’t help but smile as McCarter here sings “Because nothing here can hold our spirits down.”

Even though most of the songs are funky, “You Think This is a Game?” is a bit different. It still has that funky groove and bluesy mood, but McCarter has a spoken word style. The way he raps over the music makes it seem like he’s at a slam poetry contest. It’s a bit jarring, especially when all the music clashes at the end, but it’s an interesting sonic experiment. Aside from getting down and grooving to the beat, Con Brio’s music is uplifting. Many of their songs spout positive messages about loving yourself and loving each other, something that’s easy to forget during these times.

Free & Brave” offers a comment on society and the Black Lives Matter movement. The opening verse references the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Martin Luther King, making you think it’s going to be a negative outlook on the world. Instead, Con Brio uses the song to say people have to keep going despite these tragic events. The message of the entire song is though the world gets shitty, we’re still free and in control of our destiny. We still have to believe that things will get better. The band gets harder and heavier on “Hard Times.” This fusion of rock and funk has a message of sticking together and reaching out to one another to get through hard times. It’s a great reminder that we still need each other even when everything looks bleak. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to go through this alone.

Another song with an optimistic message and my personal favorite is “Money.” Not only is it upbeat, funky, and made for dancing, it’s about not letting money rule you. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in work and focusing on making money to live. With this song McCarter reminds us it’s not all about work; we need play time too. He also sings “When you’re stretched out, all stressed out/Knowin somethin ain’t right, and you’re left out/Can’t let that 9-5, put a seatbelt on my mind.” It’s a great message to those who aren’t satisfied with working any old job and want to follow their dreams for the career they really want. Money is necessary, but we don’t have to let it take us over as Con Brio reminds us.

When they’re not grooving or spouting good life messages, Con Brio are romancing listeners with their sexy slow jams. “My Love” is a soulful gem made for romantic nights. Though it’s a little too slow for my tastes, it’s a good song and doesn’t hold back on the funky music. The same goes for the mid-tempo “No Limits,” which is slinky and slick. Both songs do a great job showing off McCarter’s vocals. There’s no doubt he’ll bring up comparisons to Michael Jackson, but his voice is still powerful enough to give you chills. And when he busts out the falsetto, it’s enough to make you swoon. He has one of those voices where when he’s feeling a song, he goes all the way making you screaming “Sing it, baby!” “Honey” is another soft, mid-tempo jam where McCarter spreads the love. The acoustic guitar and McCarter’s gentles vocals make the song relaxing and soothing. Some lyrics like “You can be such a busy bee, but save a little honey for me/I can be such a busy bee, but I’ll save my honey for thee/We can both be the busy bee and save a lil honey while we,” are kind of cheesy, but they’re forgivable. It’s still a sweet, sentimental track.

If you need an album to kick up your feet and unwind to, then this is it. Every one of Con Brio’s songs are filled with positive messages about loving life, yourself, and not letting the small stuff get you down. The entire album is full of optimistic messages, which we all need every now and then. The music is fun, upbeat, and will keep you dancing. Something about their music is so infectious even if you’re not the biggest fan of funk and soul. With their passionate playing and Ziek McCarter’s seductive, soaring vocals the band stand out as one of a kind. Put on Paradise when you need a pick me up or just want to dance. Let the music wash over you and let Con Brio’s songs take you to your own version of paradise.

Dangerous – Michael Jackson

Release Year: 1991

Rating: 8.5/10

There’s no question whether or not Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad are amazing albums. The former is still the best selling album of all time. Many people have come close to beating the record, but no one has done it yet. Even though his follow up, Dangerous, was another top seller, it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as the previous two. There could be several reasons for this: plastic surgery, drugs, and allegations the media chose to focus on. The album represents an era of change for the singer. He experimented with a new sound and took on themes that went beyond gushy love songs.

At the time, this album was unlike any Jackson had done before. One of the biggest changes is the prominence of New Jack Swing sound on just about all of the songs. This can be heard on tracks “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” “Jam,” and “She Drives Me Wild.” Elements of pop still exist, but there’s also a heavy influence of funk, rap, and R&B. Jackson further expanded his rap influences by having Heavy D and Wrex N Effect do a verse on a few songs. This sound, while can be dated at times, gives the music a more aggressive, harder hitting vibe than before. It even changed his vocals a bit which were in a lower register and sounded harsher than on past releases. With this album, Jackson also takes on more mature themes.

Jackson’s music has always had messages about changing the world through peace and love, but here he tackles heavier issues like societal ills and racism. “Why You Wanna Trip On Me?” is two-fold; it’s aimed at critics who are obsessed with the singer’s personal life, but also wonders why they aren’t focusing on bigger problems at hand like the homeless or disease. “Jam” also finds Jackson lamenting the world’s problems and how being good to one another seems to be disappearing. But the song where these themes ring out the most is the ballad “Heal the World.” The somber track has a simple message: make the world a better place for our children. He even drives the point home with samples of kids playing and singing the hook at the end. It’s a thoughtful song and one of Jackson’s greatest ballads that still rings true today.

Jackson addresses racial issues on the infectious and popular “Black or White.” The single finds the pop icon delving into rock again with Slash doing the opening riff even though he’s credited with playing on the entire song. Either way, the guitar on this track is killer. As soon as you hear it, it makes you want to bust out your best air guitar moves. Jackson sings sweetly about equality and how the color of your skin doesn’t matter. It’s not until the hard hitting bridge that his anger comes out. The song does a 180 and gets aggressive with Jackson yelling “I ain’t ‘fraid of no sheets.” Then there’s the rap by one of his producers, which is kind of cheesy and dated, but forgivable since the rest of the song is so good. It’s an amazing song that addresses racial issues without beating listeners over the head with its message.

Just like his other releases, this album is made up of successful and classic Jackson hits. “In the Closet” finds the singer being more sexual as he talks about lovers keeping their relationship secret. The music has a cool, slinky groove and he sings in a hushed manner amping up the sexual nature of the song. It’s still weird to think of him as a sexual person, but the song proves irresistible especially when he sings “She wants to get it/aw, she wants to get it.” “Remember the Time” is a slick, exotic sounding track where Jackson sounds playful as he reflects on a relationship. It’s more in line with his pop nature, but still has the New Jack Swing influence all over it. Just like most of his songs, it’s catchy, great to dance to, and fun. A standout single from the album.

Give In To Me” and “Who is It” are the most underrated singles to come from the record. The former finds the singer hooking up with Slash for a rock ballad. Jackson’s vocals come off as more aggressive and fiery, while the sad droning guitar riff sways listeners. It’s often been compared to “Dirty Diana” with its rock feel and subject matter. The two do have seductive vibes with the blazing guitar riffs, but the singer seems more somber on this track. He also takes the rock sound further offering up some diversity on the primarily New Jack Swing album. With the latter song, there’s something cool and sleek about it.

Who Is It” opens with eerie singing denoting something epic followed by a thudding, booming bass that hits you right in the gut. Jackson’s singing sounds more emotional as his start/stop style makes it seem like he was in the middle of crying. Though it’s been compared to “Billie Jean” for its woman-done-him-wrong subject, it’s a stellar song that explores the singer’s darker side.

It wouldn’t be a Michael Jackson album without ballads and there are a good handful here. The best out of the bunch is the beautiful and heartfelt “Will You Be There?” With the soft music and the choir humming at the beginning, it sounds like a religious hymn as Jackson sings about finding someone or something to lean on and make him stronger. The bridge seems tied to the singer’s personal life as he sings “Everyone’s Taking Control Of Me/Seems That The World’s/Got A Role For Me/I’m So Confused/Will You Show To Me.” At the end, the choir makes a return completing the religious feel as Jackson adlibs sounding like he’s going to church. It’s one of those songs with the ability to make you cry if played at the right moment.

While the other ballads are good, they don’t compare to this one. “Keep the Faith” is actually the most dated and weakest song the album. The music makes it sound like a dated gospel track. The music is so obviously 90s ensuring the song hasn’t aged well. And if you’re not a fan of gospel music the song won’t be all that appealing. The message is thoughtful, but it’s the most forgettable track on the record. “Gone too Soon” is a heartbreaking track dedicated to Jackson’s friend Ryan White, who was ostracized at a young age due to his AIDS diagnosis. He later died at the age of 18. It’s a simple, bare bones song with Jackson’s soft singing and light music. But the song is only harder to listen to now since it can be easily applied to the singer’s death. Usher actually sang the tune at Jackson’s memorial and broke out in tears. Even though it’s beautiful, it can be hard to hear.

The album closes with “Dangerous” another underrated track from Jackson’s catalog. Similar to other songs, it represents a new sound for the singer. It begins with mechanical noises before the punchy upbeat music comes on. The entire track is slick especially with Jackson singing in a lower register to complete the seductive mood going on. The vibe is perfect since it feels like the music actually has an air of danger to it. It’s one of his most proactive songs and a stand out from an already stellar album.

Dangerous represents a new era for Michael Jackson. He not only experimented with different sounds to fit with the trend of the time, he tackled heavier themes such as racism. The New Jack Swing sound is dated at times but otherwise shows Jackson was ahead of the curve. This album is another hit in Jackson’s catalog, yet doesn’t receive as much praise as his other work. The record isn’t flawless and some of the songs run together, but it’s still has songs that are now considered classics. It shows a different side of the singer, one that was more aggressive and harsh. No matter how you see it, the album is another stand out hit for Jackson.

Above – Mad Season

Release Year: 1995

Rating: 8.5/10

Sometimes an artist gets the urge to do something different that doesn’t necessarily fit in with their established work. This is where side bands come in. Some are amazing. Others are questionable. Layne Staley and members of Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees felt the urge and formed the supergroup Mad Season in 1994. Supergroups pose their own problems, like sounding too much like their main bands. Mad Season ensured this wasn’t an issue with their stellar, diverse debut album Above.

What makes this album remarkable during an era where grunge infiltrated everything is its diversity. Some results are better than others, but this project allowed everyone involved to play with different genres. We hear this right from the beginning with “Wake Up.” It starts with a low, muted bass like its rumbling in your stomach. The rest of the music slowly builds up with a jazzy vibe. As the song gets more intense, the guitar grows bluesy, especially the solo that adds fire to the song. Layne’s vocals are outstanding here. He switches between a haunting croon to intense screaming. Surprisingly, the result is beautiful.

River of Deceit” has a country/folk sound with the prominent acoustic guitar taking over the track. The song is mellow with Layne singing sweetly, but it has some dark connotations. One of the heaviest lines is “My pain is self chosen,” which can be linked to his struggle with drugs. The song is inspired by his personal life and The Prophet by Khalil Graban. It shows how fragile Layne could be at times. “Long Gone Day” is one of the odder moments on the album. The opening bongos, twinkling music, and occasional saxophone makes it sound like a lounge song from the 70s. As the song goes on, the band continues to mix different genres and sounds making it hard to pinpoint. It’s unexpected, even on this album, but it stands out from the other tracks for an unexpected, great song.

The band may play around with sound on the album, but there are more straightforward rock tracks as well. Several of the songs stem from psychedelic rock, like the smug “I’m Above.” Everything here is louder, heavier, and more intense than the previous songs. The most notable element is the thick guitar riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath. “Lifeless Dead” has a similar mood with dirty fuzzy guitars blasting throughout the song. Again, it has that 70’s rock vibe; everything is bigger and better. The dizzying “I Don’t Know Anything” follows a similar vibe as the aforementioned tracks. What makes this song different from the others are Layne’s trance-like vocals and the mechanical pounding near the end. All of these songs are heavy and aggressive enough to fit in on an Alice in Chains record. It serves as a break from the experimentation on the record. It also lets listeners know there were no plans for abandoning their roots.

The last two songs, “November Hotel” and “All Alone,” are atmospheric experiences. The former is completely instrumental. It has soft, mellow music with thumping percussion adding a rumbling beat. This is broken up with ambient noises that sound like a cold wind blowing. Midway through everything explodes and turns into a psychedelic jam session. It constantly shifts moods and sounds before coming back to its mellow music. It’s a strange musical roller coaster. “All Alone” has very few vocals and what sounds like a pulsing organ. The light, ethereal structure of the song and Layne crooning “We’re all alone” makes it sound like an otherworldly hymn. It’s a fitting, yet somber way to end the album.

Above is a great record because of its diversity. These are all musicians known for their work in grunge music. This band gave them the opportunity to go outside of their comfort zone and do something else. And it showed they could do more than play fuzzy guitars and scream. The integration of blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock make for an album that’s exciting, but mellow. There are times when they let aggression through, but for the most part, it’s a slower, emotional record. Staley also shows immense talent both as a songwriter and a vocalist. Though his work has seen more appreciation over the years, he still seems to be overshadowed by a certain grunge artist. The album is a gem from the 90s you should check out, especially if you’re an Alice in Chains fan.

We Don’t Need to Whisper – Angels & Airwaves

Release Year: 2006

Rating: 7/10

Being a Blink-182 fan since Enema of the State, there’s no question I was heartbroken about the band’s 2005 breakup. But each member would continue making their own music. Me being the supportive fan cheered for Mark, Tom, and Travis even if they were doing things separately. Though I was a fan of +44, I never got into Angels & Airwaves. I loved the debut single, but after that, I grew disinterested. With the recent Blink-182 drama, it made me think back to the initial break up and when I actually listened to AvA. So I decided to give their debut album another shot to see if my opinion of the band changed.

When AvA first debuted, I never believed Tom’s claims about the band changing the face of rock music or starting a revolution. But I still gave it a chance since he was my favorite Blink member. I never really got into the entire album, but I loved the first single “The Adventure.” It’s a song I haven’t listened to in recent years, but revisiting it I discovered I still actually like it. It’s catchy, upbeat, and has a cool spacey guitar riff reminiscent of The Cure. The mechanical noises in the background even sound like early Depeche Mode. It also has a positive message about no matter how much pain you’re in everything will be fine in the end. It’s one of the strongest songs on the album and the most interesting.

Another surprisingly strong track is “The War.” What makes this song so refreshing is the energy behind it. As soon as the track opens with thudding percussion and somewhat corny handclaps it grabs your attention, something most of the other songs fail to do. The music, which features DeLonge’s classic guitar playing, is more intense and aggressive. It wakes listeners up after so many mellow, slower moving songs. I also didn’t mind “The Gift.” It’s pretty catchy, the music perks you up, and it’s pretty engaging even if Tom’s singing isn’t the best here.

Aside from these songs, the rest of the album is just okay. Songs like “Distraction,” “Do it For Me Now,” and “A Little’s Enough” don’t really have anything notable about them. I didn’t find them exciting, energetic, or upbeat. A lot of them were too slow for my taste and grew old really fast. A big part of is is AvA is more prog rock, a genre I’m not heavily into. While I didn’t think the songs were terrible, I could only stomach them for a little while. There’s just nothing drastically unique about these songs. Very little about the album is memorable aside from the one song I knew about before I listened to it.

The most I can say is a handful of songs have positive messages. Though it’s kind of cheesy “Good Day” is exactly what the title says, finding the good in everyday life while “Start the Machine” is about leaving a city in flames and discovering a utopia. There are also several songs looking at the bad battles can bring like “The War.” It’s fine that DeLonge wanted to expand his horizons and tackle different subjects, but they’re not the best written songs. Rather he sounds like a high school student who’s too optimistic about changing the world. Then again he never was the strongest songwriter. It’s clear DeLonge has larger than life ambitions as he shows with these songs and it’s great that he wanted to pen them. Even if you don’t like the songs, you can admire them for the issues they try to discuss.

So do I hate the album? Not really, but it’s not something I would listen to whole again. While there are a few interesting songs most of the album was just okay to me. Some of the songs were too slow for my taste while others were so easy to forget. It’s not a record that holds my attention for very long. After listening to it once I was bored with it and didn’t want to hear it again. But that’s just me. I’m just not an AvA fan. And it has nothing to do with DeLonge’s involvement with recent Blink drama. It just wasn’t my style.

H2O – Hall and Oates

Release Year: 1982

Rating: 7.5/10

Hall and Oates are a musical act I’ve grown to love over the years. I’ve always liked their hit singles, but I’ve grown to respect their contributions to music. And lately, I’ve been in a Hall and Oates mood. In the past two weeks, I watched all their videos online, saw countless interviews, and watched their Behind the Music special. I’ve covered Big Bam Boom, probably their biggest album, already so I wanted to look at another one of their successful records. This time, let’s look at the duo’s eleventh album H2O.

The album opens with one of their best singles “Maneater.” That slick opening beat, hot sax riff, and lyrics about a woman whose dangerous yet tempting, makes this one of their coolest songs. It’s dangerous yet sensual as the music slowly builds up and Hall begins singing about this “maneater.” It’s pop meshed with soul for that “Motown groove” making it so irresistible. Though the song sounds like it’s about a vicious woman, the duo said it was inspired by the greed and lust of New York in the 80’s. Years later, it’s still one of their best songs and a great example of what makes the duo so talented.

The next track “Crime Pays” is kind of weird, but fun to listen to. It’s pretty much their disco song. It has a funky groove, glistening keys, and an upbeat dance vibe that’s meant to get you moving. The music is the most notable thing about the song. It’s not as memorable or as interesting as the other tracks, but it still puts you in a good mood. It’s a quirky moment from the duo before they go back to laying out the catchy, ear worm jams. While “Guessing Games” and “Delayed Reaction” aren’t bad, they’re kind of typical for the band. Both are pretty straightforward pop songs, with the latter having a catchier, if not, simpler hook. The former is kind of dull. These songs don’t cause much of a reaction; maybe just a subtle nod of the head at times.

Daryl Hall constantly talks about growing up in Philadelphia and being influenced by soul and R&B music. These influences come out best on this album, especially on tracks like “Art of Heartbreak.” Though the song is about being a heartbreaker, the song sounds sleek and sexy with the opening dirty blues riff and Hall’s crooning vocals. For an extra air of cool, the hot sax makes a return for a sensuous groove. It’s an underrated Hall and Oates gem that lets them get in touch with the soul sound that launched their career. The R&B sound returns on the lukewarm “Open All Night.” It’s not a terrible song, but compared to the other tracks it doesn’t stand out. It’s a slow song about finding out a lover’s infidelity. It’s not bad, just a bit generic.

The album also includes hits “One on One” and “Family Man.” The former takes a bit to grow on you, but once it does, it never lets go. The soothing opening keys and Hall’s falsetto makes it sound like a lounge song from the 70s. And if you’re not used to Hall hitting those high notes, it comes off a little weird, but soon enough you’ll be singing “Whoooa, one on one/I wanna play that game tonight/One on one I know” with him. It’s a slow jam about getting some face time with your lover. To make sure you get in the mood, the sax comes in during the bridge adding a suave vibe to the song. It’s a Hall and Oates classic that never seems to get much attention.

Family Man” is actually a Mike Oldfield cover about a man being proposition by a prostitute. He resists by screaming “Leave me alone/I’m a family man!” The song has a rock vibe with beefy guitars with some weird muted music making it sound like they’re in the middle of a jungle for a moment of the song. What makes the Hall and Oates version stand out is how Hall’s vocals get more intense near the end, showing how this “family man” is about to lose it. And it has a hook that lodges itself in your head. I woke up one day with the hook repeating in my head. No joke.

Though the album is mostly solid, there are some real stinkers. And unfortunately, they’re both written by John Oates. “Italian Girls” is a throwaway track filled with Italian stereotypes while Oates sings “Where are the Italian girls?” It’s so upbeat and generic it almost plays like a comedy song from the 80s. Instead, it’s stuck on the tail end of the album bringing down the second half. The following track “At Tension” doesn’t sound cheesy, but it’s so unfitting. Oates’ back on vocals singing about war and the military. It’s out of place because most of the songs are about relationships. It’s also drawn out, slow, and boring making it a song you can’t wait to be over. Luckily, the end of the album is saved by the catchy slow jam, “Go Solo,” which finds Hall rightfully back on vocal duty.

H2O is just one of the numerous hit albums for this duo. Though it’s not as upbeat and fun as Big Bam Boom, it’s a solid record. Most of the songs are memorable and have that classic Hall and Oates touch that makes their music so irresistible. What I appreciate about the record is how it shows off more of their soul and R&B influences, which isn’t always easy to hear on tracks like “Out of Touch.” And if you needed proof that Daryl Hall is a stellar vocalist look no further than this album. He has an impressive range and his soulful crooning is like no other. There’s some filler along with flat out bad songs, but the album is enjoyable. If you have a Hall and Oates that needs scratching, this album will be your satisfaction.