REVIEW: CALM

5 Seconds of Summer released their new album, CALM, on Friday. 5SOS organized a worldwide listening party for the release, which I thought was really cool. On Instagram, they posted a list of times to start listening to the album based off fans’ location, and then went live on their account to listen along with their fans around the world. I’ve listened to the entire album multiple times since then. At first, I couldn’t decide if I liked CALM or not, but it’s really grown on me since then.

Overall, the album plays around with vocal layering and harmonies, something that 5SOS has not done much of before. According to the Apple Music, the album is an homage to their early twenties. Luke Hemmings, the band’s singer, breaks down each track in the album description on Apple Music. Because of this, I could understand many of the songs a little better, and I felt the emotion and passion behind each song. I’m going to go track by track to review this album, since each song deserves its own moment.

Red Desert: The track begins with a vocal chorus, all layered on top of each other, and the result is a haunting sound. The beat picks up as instruments get introduced, and to me, the sound feels like I’m driving a classic convertible car down a long stretch of highway through the desert. It’s not one of my favorite songs, but I can connect with it. The lyrics are about running away from something and hoping that escaping to the “desert” will heal the wounds. The song is a solid opening to the rest of the album, both thematically and musically.

No Shame: This is probably one of my favorite songs on the album. It speaks to being in the spotlight, and the media culture surrounding a band with the type of mass-following that 5SOS has. For some reason, it reminds me of The Police, but if The Police were a pop group in 2020.

Old Me: A big part of adulthood and growing up is making mistakes and learning from them. This song reflects that, with the mindset that the speaker is grateful for his “old me” for getting him to where he is today. I really relate and connect to it, since I’ve been thinking about my past and the choices the got me to where I am today. It’s easily another favorite of mine from the album.

Easier: This track is bass and percussion heavy, giving the music a playful contrast from the higher vocal range that the song is sung in. The song is about being stuck at a crossroads, and having to make a decision between staying with someone or leaving them. It’s one of the strongest sounds on the album, and the first single released from the album.

Teeth: To be honest, I don’t like this song. I feel like this song would be better suited for a fun rock musical. Or a TV show that’s also a musical. When I listen to it, I imagine it being performed on a stage, with the band in full costume. I wish the album had more acoustic confessional songs, and I think these lyrics would be much better for one of those. The music and the lyrics just don’t work well together. The sound is reminiscent of 80s bands like The Police, which is one of the things about this song that I do like.

Wildflower: If the first ten seconds of this song didn’t exist, I would love it. It’s a fun, upbeat, “hey, I like you” song, except the dramatic vocal layering in the first few seconds just don’t match the vibe of the song. Luke Hemmings described it as “big stadium vocal” that has the ability to be “a big, positive, euphoric anthem and not be lame”. I could honestly see this song fitting perfectly as the opener to a stadium set on their next tour.

Best Years: A confessional about recognizing mistakes and wanting to be better for a loved one. It’s not my favorite, but not one of my least-favorites either.

Not in the Same Way: This song is amazing. The harmonies paired with the beat in the pre-chorus is just an audible treasure. The song itself is about a relationship in which two people are trying to figure out what they are to each other. As a result, the music is fast-paced and chaotic, but it works so well. 5SOS found their stride, and this song proves that. 10/10.

Lover of Mine: Hemmings wrote this song with his girlfriend, so of course it’s a love song. The music makes the song seem darker than it actually is. It reminds me of rain, in a way. The best way I can describe this song is that it encapsulates the feeling of lounging on the couch with a lover on a rainy day.

Thin White Lies: The lyrics grapple with the internal conflict of white lies building up until you don’t recognize yourself anymore: “I don’t think I like me anymore / Will someone tell me who I was before?”. I don’t love the song as a whole, but I love the lyrics.

Lonely Heart: I wanted this love this song. The intro and chorus are hauntingly beautiful: just Hemmings singing with a guitar. The chorus picks up and gives the song more of a pop vibe. I wanted the whole song to stay like the beginning, and was disappointed that it did not. It’s still a pretty good song overall.

High: This is finally the acoustic track I’ve been craving from 5SOS. The lyrics are self-indulgent, but in a way that really works: “I hope you think of me high / I hope you think of me highly / When you’re with someone else”. While it’s not an upbeat album, it’s the perfect end to an album about the toils of being a twenty-something year old. It wrestles with the question, what impression do we leave on others?

5 Seconds of Summer, from their Instagram page (@5sos). From left to right: Michael Clifford, Luke Hemmings, Ashton Irwin, Calum Hood.

REVIEW: Brett Dennen at the Blind Pig

Seeing any show at the Blind Pig, known for bringing relatively famous acts to Ann Arbor, is bound to be an experience.

Even before the opening act took the stage, the place was filled with people ranging from the minors on one side of me to the thirty/forty something couple on the other side. There were no fans running and little ventilation, so people were shedding outer layers like crazy as we waited.

Then Lily & Madeleine took the stage. As the couple next to me put it so well:

“Are they sisters?”

“I don’t know, but they’re cute as pie”

lily-madeleine

A quick Google search for this blog confirmed that they are in fact sisters hailing from Indiana, and they are definitely Midwestern–from “almost went to U of M” to writing a song about the city of Chicago.

The announcer mistakenly announced the venue as the Ark, and Lily & Madeleine’s music would have been a much better fit for that more relaxed atmosphere. I enjoyed listening to their music–I’m downloading a couple albums Flume as I write this–but the acoustic and piano-heavy set was probably not the way to go opening for Brett Dennen at the Blind Pig.

The audience was one of rudest I’ve ever experienced. As you can probably hear in this video, it was hard to hear the music over the sound of everything talking and making noise. Most people weren’t paying attention to Lily & Madeleine, and one woman next to me kept texting in a phone that was on full brightness. It would have been one thing if the music was bad, but Lily & Madeleine proved themselves to be talented artists that didn’t deserve such a treatment.

Luckily the crowd calmed down by the time Brett took the stage.

Somehow Brett Dennen turned 36 the day of the concert, even though he looks like he stopped aging after 25. Brett’s boyish looks and figure make his music all the more endearing. Switching between two acoustic guitars, his crooned slower favorites like “Ain’t No Reason” and “Where We Left Off.” For the faster numbers, he brought out the electric guitar and shredded the heck out of it.

brett-dennen-jams

The crowd sang along to hits like “Wild Child,” “Comeback Kid,” and my personal favorite “Make You Crazy.” Singers like Brett Dennen make it impossible to stand in the crowd and not shake your head or shake your hips along to the music. Performers like Brett know when to point the microphone out to the audience, when to stand at the very front of the stage and jam with his tongue out, and when to take a break and ask the audience for their birthdays.

I freely admit that I am only a casual Brett Dennen fan, but I could easily become of the devoted fans that sang along to every one of his songs at the concert if I let myself. If you get a chance to see Brett in concert, I highly recommend it.

REVIEW: Green Day’s American Idiot

Cast of American Idiot

On Sunday afternoon, I walked into the Mendelssohn Theatre ready to be dazzled by the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s performance of American Idiot. When I left, I’m not sure if dazzled is the right word for what I felt…it was closer to disappointment. Not quite disappointment, but pretty dang close.

I’ve been anticipating this show since the summer when it was announced, so perhaps my expectations were to blame for this feeling. But it was something more tangible than that. But let’s start with the good first.

From the moment I walked into the theatre, I knew this was yet again the work of masters of their craft. The set design was amazing – two television sets on the side, one burbling with static before the show began, a rickety looking staircase looking like it was lifted straight from a NYC fire escape, leading up to the walkway, with two doors cut into the massively graffitied wall. It was gorgeous, a perfectly fitting for the edgy American Idiot. The only complaint I had was that the action on stage turned insular. After seeing masterpieces such as Stupid Fucking Bird and Cabaret where the whole theatre and stage was used, I was surprised that all the main action happened on stage or on the walkway – the only time the TVs on the sides were used was the very beginning of the show. But overall, the set was amazing and perfectly set the mood for the show, the graffitied American flag large but covered by the drum kit.

The other highlight was definitely the actors. Of course they were amazing – this is an SMTD show we’re talking about. I really felt like I had been transported to early-2000s suburbia/city/America, not to mention the emotional intensity (or lack of, in some character’s cases), was perfect and real. I was also thoroughly impressed with the singing. The danger of doing a musical like American Idiot is how it twists genres. Sure, it’s a musical, but there’s nothing explicitly musical about the songs off of the critically acclaimed album. These are rock songs, and what’s more is that their famous rock songs – it’d be hard to find someone that’s never heard “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Even though it’s been adapted to the stage brilliantly, with so many lovely harmonies, the songs still have the spine of a rock song – not an easy thing to sing, when you come from a musical theatre background.

The actors went above and beyond all my expectations, especially the lead, James Kilmeade playing Johnny. There were times when I could tell their training kicked in (especially any time St. Jimmy was on stage – fantastic, but not quite hitting the rock spectrum), but overall, I loved the music – it was all perfect.

What surprised me was the fact that I wasn’t a fan of a lot of the choreography. At times it was brilliant – “Give Me Novocaine” in particular, when Johnny and Whatshername do some floor work, so to speak. There was also a lot of creative use of staging along with the choreography – that stairway in particular got a lot of use around the stage. But a lot of it felt very normal and safe to me. Lots of headbanging – at one point I wondered if any of them were suffering the effects of it after four straight shows – lots of stomping, lots of angst.

What bothered me wasn’t the headbanging; I guess in my heart I expected it. But that’s exactly why I cringed a bit – it was exactly what I expected from a performance of American Idiot. In short? It was safe. I’ve seen SMTD shows that branch out, doing new, unexpected things, like their entire production of the quasi-experimental Stupid Fucking Bird. Headbanging around the stage didn’t feel new or creative or unique to me. Sure, it made sense, when you have high energy songs like “American Idiot” opening the musical, or crowd favorite “Holiday.” But with the large cast and the general formula of slow song-fast song-slow song, the headbanging got old really quickly. It also felt really out of place in a musical working against the cookie-cutter version of suburban America, calling for freedom. Where’s the freedom in being perfectly lined up to headbang in sync? I’m not saying choreography should be thrown out the door – the structure was perfect when Tunny went off to war in “Are We The Waiting” (which was another highlight of mine). But overall, the choreography constantly took me out of the action, reminding me that it was a musical and not just the lives of these three characters.

Even so, I still highly recommend seeing it. The music alone is enough, and it is a certain kind of spectacle. However, it definitely doesn’t top some of the other productions I’ve seen the school do. Also, don’t see it if you’re expecting a straight musical with an easily defined plot – there’s very little dialogue, and is written to be intensely symbolic. Think Across the Universe minus Jim Sturgess and with less dialogue.

American Idiot runs for one more weekend, Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and the last performance is the Sunday matinee at 2pm. You can buy tickets here or in person at the League Ticket Office.

REVIEW: Knox Hamilton at the Blind Pig

What do you get when you bring a band from Little Rock to the Blind Pig on a Tuesday night? Catchy music and a great excuse to avoid the week’s workload.

Knox Hamilton is rare in two cases: not only are they a three man alternative rock band with a full sound, they also toured on the strength of a single song “Work it Out.” That is correct, you can only listen to and/or buy one of their songs.

For some bands, you might shrug and move on to the next Taylor Swift single, but Knox is one of the best bands I’ve seen at the Blind Pig. Not only did they joke around with the confidence of a more mature band, but their music was downright full of energy. Their EP should be dropping sometime in March and this is one collection of music I highly recommend purchasing.

Knox HamiltonUnder the trippy blue-red glow of the Blind Pig’s lights, we stood for a little less than an hour as the band played through its entire set. It was disappointing because their sound was infectious, and even better, there was only 1 filler song for the entire hour.

Knox Hamilton said they would return to Ann Arbor in the future and I fully recommend seeing them in concert.

Even better, they are active Twitter users: @KnoxHamilton

 

 

PREVIEW: The Avett Brothers at Hill Auditorium

The Avett Brothers are looking to conquer a college town, where folk music thrives just as well as hip-hop, and avid music fans search actively for gorgeous storytelling via guitars, pianos, and graceful lyrics.

So, it’s fitting that Hill Auditorium will showcase the four-piece band on February 12.

With brothers Scott and Seth Avett fronting the band holding a banjo and guitar, the passion for genuine, heartfelt music lies very visibly in its band make-up. A band of siblings hasn’t seemed particularly cool since the Jackson 5 or the Kinks, and the Avett Brothers present themselves with a similar sincerity and grassroots wholesomeness. Their songs are particularly hopeful and earnest, typically casting a balladic piano at the forefront, and guitar, banjo, cello, and drums accompanying vocals.

Leaving an outstanding 2012 including a Grammy nomination and a top-10 album, the band is touring until July 2013, playing alongside bands like Matt and Kim, Old Crow Medicine Show, Portugal. The Man, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Their show at Hill Auditorium will beautifully highlight the band’s sound described by the San Francisco Chronicle as having the “heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, the raw energy of the Ramones.” This is the Avett Brother’s third time performing in Ann Arbor after headlining the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last year and playing at the Michigan Theater in 2010.

The Avett Brothers will play at 7:30pm at Hill Auditorium on February 12, 2013. Tickets start at $33.

REVIEW: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

With his hair piled atop his head, an unkempt beard, and 12 other band members, Alex Ebert bounded on stage; his hands drew unknown figures in the air as the drum beat for “40 Day Dream” reverberated off the walls of Royal Oak Music Theatre. The whole band then launched into the heart of the song with such inexorable thirst for music, the entire audience was dancing whether they were aware of it or not. The band, even recorded, makes clear what audience they aim to speak to. But on stage, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros made clear that Tuesday night was for the dreamers and the lovers.

After their first four songs knocked down the majority of their hits (“40 Day Dream,” “Man on Fire,” “Jangling,” and “That’s What’s Up”), ESM0s quickly mellowed. The feeling of a festival or circus didn’t necessarily leave the venue; rather it was suppressed for a few songs until “I Don’t Wanna Pray.” The Magnetic Zeros consisted of a sprawling 13 members, led by Ebert and Castrinos, and featured a wide array of instruments from accordion to trumpet to upright bass. Playing unmistakably buoyant music full of hopeful messages (as well as transcendentalist images), it seemed hard for the band members not to have a blast on stage – Ebert admitted, “I want to…but I have to be a rock star. I can’t smile.”

What seemed most impressive on Ebert’s part was his interaction with the audience. Whether he was dancing or bouncing or singing, he made an effort to connect with those in the front of the crowd by holding hands, hugging, and during “Home,” offering the microphone to those who had something to say. Whatever physical or social barrier there was between audience and band quickly melted away so that we were less spectators than a bunch of people enjoying love-filled songs.

Perhaps the band received such positive energy because the opener, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, failed to deliver anything more creative than lyrics such as, “Satan, Satan, Satan/Satan, Satan, Satan.” Their driving bass line and high-pitched synths proved less than impressive after several songs obeyed the same form. Plus, for an audience expecting fun folk-rock, we struggled to warm up to a heavy electronic-based indie band.

Thankfully, the hippie gypsy-crew of the Magnetic Zeros saved the night by reminding us of the pure joy of music. Ask anyone – the old man sitting next to me who claimed he loved Edward Sharpe and Pitbull, the countless men sporting wild beards, or the couple who ballroom-danced the whole night – if they could stop themselves from singing, dancing, or smiling throughout the two-hour show. I’ll bet their response will be something in the vein of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ lyrics: “Only one desire/that’s left in me/I want the whole damn world/to come dance with me.”