Most Anticipated of 2016: #9 Taylor Swift Comes Back in Style

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Filling the Blank Space

Just over 14 months after the release of the most successful album of her career, coupled with numerous award nominations and a massive world tour, we’re already anticipating what’s next for Taylor Swift. In doing so, we recognize that it’s wholly possible (even likely) that Ms. Swift rides the continuous waves of 1989 all the way through 2016. But we hope that isn’t the case.

Swift has a history of proclaiming her need for “time off” shortly after the release and support of her albums, only to resurface sooner than expected with another offering. Now six singles into the lauded pop tour de force that is 1989, it’s hard to believe that Swift isn’t thinking about what comes next.

Her place atop today’s pop music mountain alongside the likes of Adele and Beyoncé is in no danger of crumbling, but in a world driven by the moment, there’s a constant clamor for something new. While Swift could easily coast through 2016 in relative silence without missing a beat, here’s hoping she’s ready to make some more noise.

Swift’s career trajectory has been astonishing to watch – from innocent pop princess to pop culture’s biggest action hero, there’s no denying her ability for sonic and personal growth. Wherever she goes next, our collective attention is sure to follow. Pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist? Nah, T-Swift holds it in the palm of her hand.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

The Story of Us: How Taylor Swift Won Me Over

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It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and I’m standing outside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, frantically refreshing StubHub on my phone while bartering with a scalper for his final two tickets to the event inside. Before I can talk him down to the amount of cash I have on hand, an excited couple swoops in and buys the tickets. They head inside, where Taylor Swift is taking the stage.

The clock has struck midnight on my hopes to see one of my most anticipated events of the year and I must walk home in the dark, defeated. How in the hell did we get here?

***

My first job out of college in 2006 was as a disk jockey at a country music radio station in Enid, Oklahoma. I had no familiarity with the genre, other than to know it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. During my time at the station, I became quite familiar with the format, and while most of the music failed to win me over, there was one artist that stood out to me. Her name was Taylor Swift.

Swift was 16 years old at the time and had just released her debut self-titled album. Her first single, “Tim McGraw”, was named after one of the genre’s biggest stars, and while she was far from our most requested artist at the station, she certainly felt like an artist on the brink of something big.

I remember being taken aback by her maturity as a songwriter. Was a 16 year old really singing these songs? Many of her tracks were stripped down acoustic ballads and they felt like the songs from someone scarred, yet still content after years of pain. She seemed to capture the essence of country music in its simplest form. There was no flash, only the songs of a young girl who seemed seasoned beyond her years.

I still feel that sense of strength when I listen to “Teardrops on My Guitar”. The song feels familiar, and it has the unique ability to connect with listeners both young and old. We know that “Drew” is a teenage boy, but without context, he could be anyone, especially since we’ve all felt the need to laugh “’cause it’s so damn funny”. What that song captures in terms of emotion and experience is something many artists spend a career trying to achieve.

By the time Taylor released Fearless, her 2008 sophomore record, I was no longer working at a country music station – but no matter. Fearless would prove to be Swift’s true breakthrough, generating five singles, two of which were undeniable international hits. Taylor was officially here to stay, and frankly, unavoidable.

However, my respect for her craft vaporized quickly. On Fearless, Swift harnessed a number of big name co-writers and added pop elements to the mix, creating a blend that caught on quickly with a mass of listeners and blurred genre lines. Gone were the genuine, stripped down moments and in were bouncy teen-bop anthems about boy trouble. Increased radio play and MTV appearances bolstered Swift’s fame, and once Kanye rushed the stage during her VMA acceptance speech, Taylor was a bonafide superstar.

Much more than the sudden fame, I was troubled by what I interpreted as an artistic regression. It seemed as though Swift had sacrificed maturity and authenticity for dumbed-down radio hits that sounded as though they were written by a focus group. It doesn’t help when your most famous song’s chorus features the profound line, “You be the prince and I’ll be the princess / It’s a love story, baby just say, ‘yes’”. In my mind, Swift had gone from the next great country prodigy to the soundtrack to the worst knock-off Disney movie ever made.

When the just-as-successful Speak Now released in 2010, I had already made up my mind. I was the guy that used to like Taylor Swift before she sold her soul to be America’s teen idol. Even when the singles from 2012’s Red tickled my ear, I continued to write Swift off as childish and immature. I was stubborn and I was wrong.

***

So had Taylor Swift really become less mature as an artist, or was I just missing the point? The answer to that question didn’t become clear until last fall, when Swift released 1989. As one of the few who didn’t immediately fall in love with lead single “Shake it Off”, I’m still not quite sure why I decided to listen to the whole album upon its release. Even so, I distinctly remember listening to it. And then listening to it again. And again. That afternoon, I bought the album from iTunes. A week later, I bought the album on vinyl.

1989 was Taylor’s first official pop record – and it is a doozy. The album is a coming of age story and depicts the journey of a young woman who finally feels comfortable in her own skin. It’s wonderful pop music, but it’s also a bold artistic statement from someone who isn’t afraid to change her voice and redefine herself. Both thematically and sonically, it’s actually kind of brave.

As I wrestled through the emotional baggage that comes with falling in love with the music of the person that you once condemned, I started searching for why I felt that way in the first place. What I failed to realize (or simply just ignored) during Swift’s journey to stardom was that this was the actual journey of a real human being.

Put on the map at the tender age of 16, Swift has spent the better part of a decade growing up and finding her voice while standing in the brightest of spotlights. During that time, she also became the voice for a new generation of music lovers who hung on her every word. I just lacked the grace to see the situation for what it was.

Songs that once made my eyes roll, like “You Belong with Me”, now sound full of innocence. Tracks that once made me guffaw, like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, now make me remember my younger days and the confusion I felt. Of course, all of this fails to acknowledge the simple fact that during the majority of Swift’s career, I wasn’t her target audience, which is totally acceptable.

To put it simply – it wasn’t you, Taylor. It was me.

***

In the months since the release of 1989, I’ve come to love the record more than when I reviewed it last year. I’ve even come to enjoy Red (which I also purchased on vinyl), perhaps even more than 1989. Although my end-of-the-year Spotify stats won’t show it, I’ve probably listened to Taylor Swift more than any other artist in 2015. That’s a sentence I never in my life imagined that I would be typing at the age of 32. But there it is, and here we are.

When tickets went on sale late last year for the 1989 World Tour, I was still in a state of confusion about my feelings toward Taylor Swift. By the time I came to terms with the truth, tickets were selling on the secondary market for arms and legs. Alas, there would be no exorcizing of demons by crossing the threshold of Bankers Life Fieldhouse to witness Taylor Swift in person. For now, spinning those vinyl records will have to do.

It’s safe to say, her next record is already my most anticipated album of 2016. Funny how things work out.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: The Dead Armadillos – The Dead Armadillos EP

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The Dead Armadillos are the type of band you always wished you and your friends would be; authentic, relaxed and writing about what you love. There are few folk-alternative bands out there that don’t feel forced, and even fewer that make me want to visit the band’s native Oklahoma to see what it was that inspired this EP.

The Dead Armadillos EP is something that feels familiar and comforting while maintaining a sense of identity. There is a loving mixture of Death Cab For Cutie and The Early November circa The Mother, The Mechanic, and the Path (mostly The Mother). The sound is recognizable, but it still feels distinctive from most anything else out there.

One of the most redemptive qualities is that each instrument is given its due. The bass isn’t under-produced, the vocals aren’t hidden beneath layers of music, and the guitars aren’t the focal point of the EP. Mark Hine’s drumming thunders through on “The Only Thing” and leads the band before knowing when to settle and provide only a ghost of strength during the EP’s slower moments.

Travis Lyon’s bass is a highlight as it bounces the album along at a crisp pace, even as the guitars take their time. As such, Lyon never stagnates too much on a single chord progression and provides a strong melody to boost the song. There is a slight tint of Chicago’s Lucky Boys Confusion and The Insecurities to the melodic structure that makes the songs sound local and birthed next door.

As lead guitarist, Bert Hughlett knows when to steal the show and when to lay in wait. The music itself seems to flow smoothly until Hughlett jumps to add a bluesy burst of energy before hiding again for the next opportunity (“I Can Change Your Life”). Nick Lyon, the group’s vocalist, guitarist and resident harmonica player avoids being drowned out by the music and finds the exact spots where he can pull to the forefront. While his guitar might be a bit stifled by Hughlett, the harmonica and vocals take center stage when the chance calls for it.

Lyon’s vocals are deep for a folk inspired group, but he manages to keep the lyrics on task. He also has a knack for bursting out harmonica solos that sounds absolutely necessary to each song. The only downside to his vocals is that they sound a bit monochromatic after a while, but this band is focused on the power of the vocals as opposed tracing as many notes on the scales as possible.

Lyrically, the EP focuses on relatable and down to earth tones that base themselves in Oklahoma. “Boston” is a prime example, as Lyon sings, “I know that I’ve got to leave / But I don’t want to go / Boston, I miss you / But Oklahoma, I’m heading home”. The country influences are few but strong; it is Oklahoma after all. “My Hometown” has Lyon singing about the double standard of remembering where you grew up – a mixture of wanting to leave and wondering how anyone could ever want to. “Everyone drives the roads / That seem to lead to nowhere / They follow everyone / In hopes they’ll lead out of here / In my hometown, my hometown / If you find the road in / You’ll have trouble leaving”.

The Dead Armadillos are a hypnotic mixture of country influence, blues, folk and rock. That’s not to pin anything against them; they’re not afraid to test the bounds of genre and blend a healthy mix of sounds together to create what they want. Each song feels home-grown, down to Earth and fleshed out. Unlike many bands’ initial EPs, The Dead Armadillos know who they are and aren’t trying to feign genre and inspiration to impress. The biggest gripe about this EP is that I am so curious about what their first LP will entail that The Dead Armadillos EP feels like a tease.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and actually put Oklahoma on the map of places to visit because of this EP. Although to be fair, he’s easily influenced and susceptible to propaganda. PROPAGANDA!

Review: Merriment – Sway

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Being the youngest in the family can be a real downer. Rarely getting to take part in games with the older siblings, being perpetually confined to the backseat, having to fight for attention. In the case of the youngest DuPree siblings, Christie and Collin, the age gap resulted in living in the shadow of indie pop act Eisley, featuring sisters Sherri, Stacy and Chauntelle and brother Weston.

No longer must they wait their turn. The Tyler, Texas, brother-sister duo, better known as Merriment, began touring in 2012 before releasing the Through the Rough EP that same year. They have since signed with Equal Vision imprint Rory Records and have released one of the most remarkable debut albums of the year in the form of Sway.

You wouldn’t have been remiss to think of Merriment as a sort of Eisley Jr. in their earlier form. Christie’s vocals share a familiarity with her sisters’ and her dream-like songwriting over the top of the duo’s stripped-down acoustic sound lent itself well to comparisons. With Sway, the band hasn’t been completely reborn from their roots, but they’ve certainly distanced themselves far enough to be considered much more than a carbon copy.

Indeed, Sway leans much more in the direction of indie-folk and even alt-country than it does indie pop or rock. The duo’s songwriting has grown bounds since Through the Rough and their melodies now shine brightly.

While the album’s first two tracks, “Take Heart” and “Tremendous Love” wouldn’t feel too out of place on Eisley’s 2013 release Currents, the real progression begins with “Somehow”. The song holds a distinct country twang that surprisingly fits the band quite well – Christie’s vocals swoop up and down over the strum of her guitar as she prepares the listener for her story with the line, “I would tell you but I don’t think / You wanna hear these words I’m ‘bout to sing”.

Along with the sonic shift, much of the album’s content takes a turn for the personal, with Christie sharing stories that hint at youthful pain, confusion and hope. Even the mysterious lyrics of album standout “Backwards” seem to point at something deeper, especially with the line “Take it from someone who sees both sides of the story”. The track’s infectious chorus is driven forward by appropriately controlled percussion, showing its hand as a folk song while remaining covertly pop.

It’s these sorts of transitions and meshings of genre that keep the listener maddeningly engaged. “Patterns” once again displays the band’s poppier side with a cute, catchy chorus that finds Christie emulating the vocal stylings of elder sister Stacy, while “Right Again” swings the band back in a slower, folkier direction with the sounds of a plucking banjo. Album closer “Unhinged” utilizes a string arrangement to push the song to a crescendo.

In truth, Sway is all about motion, whether it be in terms of the figurative heart or in reference to the band’s shifting musical stylings. If this collection of songs seems at all scattered, chalk it up to experimentation from a young duo with a whole lot of talent at their disposal. One could hope that the band bends in the direction of their country/folk sound in future releases, but to nitpick at the details would be to ignore the promise and downright infectiousness of this fresh debut.

Merriment are no longer the cute little siblings of the Eisley circle. With Sway, they have established themselves as their own separate and unique entity – one that is sure to improve and grow even more in the years to come. For now, Sway is an astounding starting point.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.