Random Song Reviews – 1/25-1/31/2022

OLD MUSIC

The Heights – How Do You Talk To An Angel?

I had no idea. I mean, I knew about Aaron Spelling, the dude is a TV legend. And I certainly knew about the teen soap phenomenons that were Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. I was pretty young, sure, but of course I had a faint idea of those shows and what they were about, and that I was not allowed to watch them, and if I did watch them (which eventually happened one night in my room when my parents were asleep) I wouldn’t like them anyway.

But until today, I had never heard of The Heights. I was not aware of this early-90s show on Fox about a fictional rock band, that had one single go all the way to #1 (IRL) and then was promptly canceled. I had no idea about Jamie Walters and his (seemingly) big break and unceremonious fall from stardom. (I guess Spelling felt bad and gave Walters another shot at playing a musician on 90210 a couple years later. Talk about being typecast.)

The Heights is the kind of show that should be lost to time, like a thousand other shows from the 90s that didn’t last past their first season. Probably the only reason it’s remembered at all is because of the name behind it and the hit song from it. But folks, I gotta tell ya: the song should be left in the past too. I’m not sure how you talk to an angel, but my first word of advice would be, don’t play them this song. They’ll hate it.

As far as 90s hits, the song is pretty generic. Those are the worst kinds of songs to write about. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of nothing. But I will attempt to assess what it is about this song that induces the strongest kind of boredom inside me. Now, I’ve never seen the show The Heights, so I’m not going into this having done my due diligence. I don’t know what kind of band The Heights were supposed to me. My hunch, based on the photos of demin-clad cast mates, and the fact that this was the summer of 1992, is that they’re supposed to represent some loose Hollywood interpretation of the “alternative” or “grunge” sound that was taking over the zeitgeist at the time. But “How Do You Talk To An Angel” makes me think I might have that wrong. Maybe they should have gone that route instead. The show would have lasted until 1997 at least.

Alas, based on the saxophone wails and Walters’ Bryan Adams-y rasp, it sounds like The Heights were supposed to be a band your adult-contemporary-loving Mom would hear on her commute. One listen to the album made to promote the show (currently available to stream on Spotify, which is wild) confirms that assumption. This music just washes over me like a wet fart – it’s there, it stinks, and then it’s gone and forgotten. Sorry for the visual.

Initially, the saxophone made me think of other TV show themes that are more fondly remembered, like Full House or something (RIP Bob Saget). But you can place that song. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge and uncles Joey and Jessie and the Olsen twins. “How Do You Talk To An Angel” can’t be placed anywhere. The plaintive strumming guitar, Walters’ brooding delivery, the sax fills, the guitar solo – when I hear it all, I close my eyes and see a guy without a face, long hair, in a long coat, walking down the sidewalk under street lights contemplatively. Maybe it’s just rained and there’s puddles he’s walking through. You see it, right? It belongs nowhere. It’s a scene we’ve seen a million times, soundtracked by a song like this. Stock footage with stock music.

There have been a few songs from TV shows to reach the top of the Hot 100. They are usually well-remembered, as are the shows they’re from (Miami Vice, Welcome Back Kotter). “How Do You Talk To An Angel,” from the band and show The Heights, is not. And upon further research, I can hear why.

Score: 2/10

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – The Impression That I Get

In honor of the recent announcement that The Mighty Mighty Bosstones have decided to call it quits via an unceremonious press release, I have decided to review their biggest hit. When “The Impression That I Get” skanked its way onto the charts in 1997, I was an impressionable 11-year-old who didn’t realize I was getting my first ever taste of ska music (along with Goldfinger’s “Superman,” which was on the X-Games soundtrack).

The mid-to-late 90s were a fun wilderness period for alternative rock, and even Top 40 radio. Grunge was dead, and the boy bands, nu metal mooks, and Carson Daly weren’t quite shutting down sidewalks in Times Square just yet, so MTV and radio programmers were throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall. Pop-punk was a big thing. The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers were supposed to usher in the “electronica” wave. And America was flirting around with third wave ska (and its little brother ska punk), giving bands like No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and The Toasters their fifteen minutes (Gwen Stefani, of course, strategically pivoted away from the trend and became a full-on pop star).

Riding the wave of exposure from being the house band on Clueless, MMB stood out from the pack with punchy hooks, loud guitars, a well-timed horn section, and that one guy up in front who just danced all the time. They made a minor splash with “Where’d You Go” and “Rascal King” but they got the most exposure from “Impression,” which hit #1 on modern rock airplay and crossed over to pop radio, which is where I first heard it.

The song is a bouncy one, with guitar strums that maintain the tempo while the horns deliver an earworm-y melody, until the distortion pedals kick on for a very satisfying chorus about being lucky in life and general apprehension about taking risks. Vocalist Dicky Barrett’s rasp is the signature element that made MMB stand out from the pack of ska-punk rockers in this short era.

I’m not sure that I’m necessarily mourning the breakup of the Bosstones, as my interest in ska waned once Limp Bizkit and Blink 182 started moving units. The genre, at least in its third wave, quickly earned a reputation for being kind of cheesy, and my teenage brain soon derisively associated it with “Disney Channel music.” But the Bosstones went beyond the generic sounds of 90s ska; their songs were more distinct, and their style was more refined. And “The Impression That I Get” is not only the band’s signature track, but one of the crown jewels of the genre’s short time in the spotlight.

Score: 9/10

Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

Longtime friends and readers will know that I’m not a big ballads guy. I’ve spoken privately and publicly of my annoyance when sappy, melismatic classics come on the radio. I respect the craft, but these songs bore me to tears. The whole American Idol experience just induced eye-rolls from me more often than it blew me away. Adele’s record-breaking popularity confounds me. Celine Dion’s only enjoyable when I put my Ironic Hat on. So yeah, I’m a monster with an ice cold heart. But Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is my kryptonite.

I’d probably venture to say that Dolly Parton’s soft-spoken, intimate original, which she penned for duet partner Porter Wagoner, is more in my lane. That’s just a matter of personal taste, however, and it’s not really fair, because Whitney’s version is something completely different. It’s not even in the same category. Whitney Houston is a gigantic pop star with a ferocious voice, and the biggest hit from her film debut The Bodyguard is a fireworks display of power and emotion. By the third chorus, when that thundering drum hits and Houston gives it to us one more time, it’s the auditory equivalent of being hit by a train, and I mean that in the best way possible.

So yeah, even my cold, icy heart can’t resist what was the biggest song in the history of the planet at the time, from the biggest movie soundtrack of all time (a record The Bodyguard still holds). Sung by almost anyone, the song is beautiful, but Whitney’s cover is a force all its own. Her voice will stop you dead in your tracks. That final chorus, the part everyone remembers, still sends chills down my spine. It’s the eighth wonder of the world. It’s immortal.

The music behind Houston is really the only thing unremarkable about the song. David Foster’s arrangement is all early 90s adult-contemporary gloop, and the sax solo is pretty corny. But honestly, who cares? In any other artist’s hands, all I would be able to talk about would be how lightweight the song feels. But because it’s Whitney Houston, and she’s moving mountains with her voice, the music isn’t even secondary. It’s not even a factor at all. Nobody remembers that sax solo. Until recently, I forgot it was even in there. It’s all about Whitney Houston, and how she will always love you. She belts it to the heavens, and we are taken to another planet.

So yeah, I don’t really like ballads. But there are exceptions. This is one of them. And it’s a big one.

Score: 9/10

Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle – A Whole New World

I watched Aladdin probably more than any other animated Disney movie. When it was released in 1992 I was just the right age, and I thought Robin Williams was one of the funniest people on the planet. (I was right, and he always will be.) My favorite songs were from his blue Genie character, particularly “Friend Like Me.” My mom even got me the soundtrack, which consisted of songs from the film, the entire score from the film when the characters weren’t singing, and, at the very end, the studio version of “A Whole New World,” by two professional R&B singers whose names I didn’t know.

Of course, the version of “A Whole New World” in the actual film (sung in character by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga) is on the soundtrack too; it’s a duet from Aladdin and his love interest Princess Jasmine as they take a magic carpet ride. It’s a pretty important, and romantic (at least for a kid’s movie, anyway) moment in the film. The studio version from Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle plays during the end credits, and since I watched the movie from start to finish probably a thousand times, I knew this version pretty well too.

“A Whole New World” is the centerpiece of the film Aladdin, but as I’ve already mentioned, I was six years old, so I was more interested in what characters like the antagonist parrot Iago and Genie were up to. The song was wallpaper for me, the transition from Act 1 to Act 2. It was the song my mom liked, not me. But as an adult, I can safely say, it holds up, particularly the studio version in question.

Nowadays, as with modern Disney successes like Frozen and, most recently, Encanto, the charting versions of these songs are the ones sung by the cast and heard in the movies. They are more theatrical show tunes, not produced and designed to follow the pop trends of the moment. As I’m writing this, Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the #2 song in the country, and it’s the version from the actual film, not some glossy remake from a professional singer. In Disney’s Renaissance era, that just wasn’t the practice, for better or worse.

The version of “A Whole New World” in the movie is more youthful and idealistic, precisely because the two singers of that version are young. It works well in the context of the film; Aladdin and Jasmine are two teens trapped by poverty and societal expectations, respectively, and they both yearn for a change of scenery and a new adventure. Grand orchestral sweeps accompany their journey on a magic carpet.

For their part in the studio version, Bryson and Belle, both by this time established R&B stars, hold nothing back on their vocal takes, and by the end, when they’re trading impassioned lines back and forth, the song takes a true cinematic turn. Lyrically, the song works as a song for young lovers, but the more mature studio version is effective in its own way if taken out of the context of the film. Bryson and Belle do exactly that, giving the song a different tone and perspective, while retaining the passion of the film version.

The production is a bit dated; strings are replaced with plinky piano and keyboard chimes, and that canned guitar solo in the middle is clearly inserted to appeal to adult contemporary radio programmers of the early 90s. But the melody is what gives the song its staying power, regardless of what version you’re hearing. When I was six years old, I wasn’t interested in any of it, but as an adult I can appreciate both interpretations separately, even if one was purely designed for commercial interests. The song works as an expression of yearning, young love, and it works for a couple recommitting to each other after seeing so many worlds together, ready for what comes next.

Score: 7/10

NEW MUSIC

Jessica Darrow – Surface Pressure

The smash Disney animated feature Encanto continues its dominance with another song from the film landing in the Top Ten. “Surface Pressure” is a pretty important statement song for Jessica Darrow’s character in the film Luisa, an older sister who takes on many burdens for her family with her gift of superhuman strength and never complains. Internally, however, she harbors extreme anxiety about failing. Lyrically the song works as a character study for Luisa, and by extension it becomes incredibly relatable to those of us who others are dependent on. Songwriter Lin Manuel-Miranda’s humor shines through in moments (“Was Hercules ever like ‘Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus’?”), and Darrow’s effective delivery convincingly evokes anxious tension, even if it goes a bit overboard with the (admittedly necessary) Disney Song histrionics. As for the beat, it’s a pleasant reggaet├│n and Latin pop hybrid that would fit nicely on a late-career Daddy Yankee album.

Score: 6/10

Partner – Time Is a Car

Canadian indie duo Partner find the right balance between driving verses and effective, loping choruses on this new one. Great for a road trip.

Score: 7/10

Sofia Kourtesis & Manu Chao – Estacion Esperanza

With Fresia Magdalena, Sofia Kourtesis had one of the best albums of 2021, and she returns with five minutes of euphoria on this club-ready track, featuring chanting crowds and a very satisfying buildup.

Score: 8/10

Jenny Hval – Year of Love

The latest track from the forthcoming Classic Objects finds Hval coming to terms with her music inspiring others to take part in the “normcore institution” that is marriage. An understated, folksy number from the talented Norwegian singer.

Score: 6/10

PUP – Robot Writes a Love Song

Canadian punks PUP are probably the loudest band in their lane, at least in terms of live performance. But this new one draws the band away from pummeling guitars and into something more midtempo; the trademark energy and shout-along vocals, however, are still intact.

Score: 7/10

Ibibio Sound Machine – All That You Want

The Sound Machine return with a synth-heavy, soulful jam designed for handclaps and singalongs. If only the chorus were just a bit stronger…

Score: 6/10

Raveena – Rush

A Bollywood-tinged slice of pop bliss from this New York singer, who previously dabbled in more R&B-flavored styles. The pivot is welcome if it delivers more of this.

Score: 8/10

Yot Club – Alive

Contemplative guitar lines blend with slightly canned vocals and a meandering “lalala” hook that doesn’t leave much of an impression. The song is pleasant enough bedroom pop, but unmemorable.

Score: 6/10

Girlpool – Lie Love Lullaby

Less shoegazey, more… trip-hop I guess? Girlpool’s newest is an ominous, sensual electro-indie track, and the vibe is consistently enjoyable.

Score: 7/10

Animal Collective – Strung With Everything

Their last few advance tracks have leaned into the swaying Beach Boys-esque pop of Panda Bear, but on this new one Animal Collective go the other way with a 7-minute soundscape that gets everybody in the band actively involved and hearkens ever so slightly to their weirder freak-folk days.

Score: 6/10

Big Thief – Simulation Swarm

Big Thief continue the album rollout with Adrianne Lenker’s typically ornate lyrics that speak of nature, love, and birth. The song is a bit of plod compared to previous singles, with overuse of the primary melodic line from Lenker; the instrumental breaks give the song a much-needed reprieve.

Score: 6/10

Hatchie – Quicksand

Harriette Pilbeam’s vocals float above a Cure-esque guitar line and hazy synths until a CHVRCHES-like chorus lifts the song up to cathartic satisfaction.

Score: 7/10

Nilufer Yanya – midnight sun

Yanya’s brand of brilliant sophisti-pop continues to evolve incrementally with positive results. This new track builds the suspense with each repeated guitar line to an explosive chorus.

Score: 8/10

GAYLE – ur just horny

A marked improvement from the viral “abcdefu” – the strong pop hook here proves GAYLE has staying power as a songwriter once she gets past the gimmicky teen-targeted kiss-off lyrics.

Score: 6/10

Band of Horses – Lights

Band of Horses have grown into a respectable, if somewhat banal, country-tinged indie group. “Lights” has a sturdy, jangly melodic line that reminds me of a more consistent peer group from Florida: Surfer Blood.

Score: 6/10

Beach House – Only You Know

A highlight from the new batch of tracks from the staggered Once Twice Melody release. This one has a steady backbeat and an echo-y “oh oh ohs” anchoring the wave of guitars and dreamy synths. Another winner.

Score: 7/10

Pussy Riot – PUNISH

With one of their members recently labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government, the iconic, political band celebrate with a Tove Lo co-write that gives the middle finger to shitty dudes.

Score: 7/10

Fred again… – Lights Out

With help from Romy and HAAi, Fred Gibson follows up two introspective, acclaimed 2021 albums with something more club-friendly and upbeat, though not without Gibson’s precise attention to detail. Not as rewarding as the best tracks he conjured up last year, but still a good one.

Score: 7/10

Melody’s Echo Chamber – Looking Backward

A refreshing wave of psych pop from the reliable Melody Prochet. Nothing new to hear on this one, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, that won’t be a problem at all.

Score: 7/10

PLOSIVS – Broken Eyes

Fans of Against Me!, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Water Music, and especially Pinback will be excited for this newly-formed punk-adjacent supergroup with Rob Crow on lead vocals. Warms my hipster heart, even if the hook here isn’t exactly “Penelope.”

Score: 8/10

Shenseea w/ Megan Thee Stallion – Lick

Dancehall artist Shenseea hooks up with Houston’s finest for some Real Hot Girl Shit, with Murda On the Beat (so it’s not nice), and the results are predictably excellent.

Score: 8/10

BlocBoy JB – Home Alone

Few new rappers are as consistent as BlocBoy. From the ad-libs to the steady flow, if you’ve been wanting to hear “Look Alive” in slightly different variations since it dropped, JB is your boy.

Score: 6/10

aldn – tellmewhatuwant

Hyperpop slowly but surely continues to find its footing in a more accessible form. This new track from aldn is a great example of that, which substitutes glitch for keyboard and woozy synth lines.

Score: 8/10

Lane 8 – Survive

With Channy Leaneagh on vocals, deep house producer Lane 8 builds to attempted euphoria on “Survive,” the opener from their new album Reviver, and it’s mostly successful, though it doesn’t transport me as much as I want it to.

Score: 6/10

umru w/ Petal Supply & Rebecca Black – heart2

Rebecca Black continues to transform her association from meme to hyperpop standout, with another impressive vocal take alongside a suitable (but samey) umru production.

Score: 6/10

Papa Roach – Stand Up

We’re starting to come full circle, as all these nu-metal bands that survived by pivoting to post-grunge have eased back into rapping. Jacoby Shaddix is not immune, as is evidenced on this bland new track (featuring an “echo echo echo” hook that directly steals from cringey peers Trapt). For more fun results, see their previous single “Swerve” with newcomers FEVER 333 and Sueco.

Score: 4/10

Ecco2k w/ Bladee – Amygdala

Glitchy masters Ecco2k and Bladee could have come up with something a bit more inventive, I think. Instead, this collab just washes over me alongside the same digi-heavy sounds that are already overused in this subgenre. Bladee, in particular, continues to disappoint, overall; I’m not sure why he gets so much attention.

Score: 5/10

rouri404 w/ vaeo – driving with my eyes closed

This one is much better – big hip-hop beats and a AutoTune flow give way to a woozy break that makes the returning beat drop even more satisfying. I’ve heard stronger hyperpop hooks with this style, but it’s still effective regardless.

Score: 7/10

Brendan Kush w/ Edacity & AViT – urgent

I was low-key wanting this to be a hyperpop Foreigner cover, but this original will suffice. The “sorry” in the chorus here is especially great, as it’s a great example of a vocal approach from most hyperpop artists that tow the line between casual, give-no-fucks delivery and straight-up anxiety. Pretty fitting for the times we live in. Not as strong as “twitterloser” from AViT but still a great track.

Score: 7/10

Bad Boy Chiller Crew – BMW

The West Yorkshire crew continue their mixture of drum-n-bass aided raps, though sadly no female refrain guiding us through the bedlam this time, as on “Don’t You Worry About Me.” A lesser leak from the upcoming Disrespectful.

Score: 6/10

death’s dynamic shroud – Judgment Bolt

The Philly-based glitch pop trio will rattle your eardrums with this one. Pitched and warped vocal runs accompany a Zhu-like bass crunch and in-the-red whooshes that sound like a spaceship crashing.

Score: 8/10

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