Calibraska EP (2015) Review

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“Calibraska” is the new EP from Jack & Jack.
Score: 4/5

The cover of Jack & Jack’s EP “Calibraska” pushes the name even further with two young men in their prime sitting in lawn chairs in the middle of a palm tree lined road – because California – while wearing dungarees and straw hats – because Nebraska. They toast each other with ears of illustrated corn – because Nebraska – using arms that are tatted with illustrated designs (I’m assuming that’s because of California).

Jack & Jack is made up of Jack Gilinsky and Jack Johnson, who both found their way to fame the same way as Shawn Mendes and Nash Grier: through vine. But as I did with Mendes’s album (Handwritten), I refuse to speak further about how they became famous. Here is a track by track review of the “Calibraska” EP.

“California”: I’ll admit, the first track is fun. But it’s fun in the way that waterslides are fun: a great way to be entertained, but there’s this deep knowing that they’re all the same.

“Shallow Love”: This ballad about someone trying to figure out if their significant other’s love is true or “shallow” is a thoughtful addition to the EP. “Shallow Love” is fun and does it job to demonstrate the group’s ability.

“How We Livin”: I find myself asking often how such a hedonistic film like “The Wolf of Wall Street” is so popular amongst my generation; how the message of “The Great Gatsby” is fogged by the parties of the new money of West Egg. Then I hear “How We Livin” and I realize how old fashioned I am. It’s a celebration of the glamorous life of being young, a man and living in LA. Even when there’s the occasional Los Angeles traffic, it’s a playground.

“Wong One”: By far the best track on this EP. There’s a little more substance to it and at times it feels a bit old school. Of course, both Jacks are still young men and it is an unwritten obligation for young men to have a song about having their hearts broken. I’ve heard these kinds of litanies too many times but it is refreshing to hear one that is straight forward. You are right, Jacks, it’s fucked up.

Final Thoughts:

This being their first EP, it’s a good start. When an EP comes out from a new artist(s), it’s allowed to be fun and light. But I’m relieved to see that the lightness has been toned down in “Calibraska.” More on the title. Perhaps what “Calibraska” means is not how different people from Nebraska and California are, but how similar. Look at them:

Jack Johnson (left) and Jack Gilinsky (right) make up Jack & Jack.
Jack Johnson (left) and Jack Gilinsky (right) make up Jack & Jack.
I would never had guessed that they weren’t from California. They look like a couple of guys I’d see walking around State Street in Santa Barbara, or in Midtown in Sacramento. I wouldn’t call them specifically Californian or Nebraskan artists; they’re just fitting into the narrative of the kids that come to California. They want to make it big in LA. So who am I to stop them?

Handwritten Album (2015) Review

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UPDATED: 24-8-2015

Score: 4/5

Shawn Mendes is a 16-year-old musician from Canada. He is a sensation with 3.9 million followers on the social media app Vine. Through this novice platform, he was able to catch the attention of important figures within the music industry. With all of that said, it’s time to stop pretending like social media personalities finding their way on both screen and stage is such a new thing. The two schools of thought (those against social media celebrities and those for) are biased and unreliable. It is time to accept that they’re coming and that they deserve a fair review of their work by this world.

On April 14, Mendes’s first album “Handwritten” was released by Island Records. This is a track-by-track review of the album:

“Life of the Party” – When it was first released as a single, “Life of the Party” was what made Shawn Mendes the Viner into Shawn Mendes the musician. It garnered acclaim by critics and fans alike. But it’s old. The message is in the lyrics, “We don’t have to be ordinary… ‘cause we don’t have the time to be sorry, so baby be the life of the party.” Although sentimentalize, there is a weakness to it. At first, it’s catchy but after listening to the rest of the album, the authenticity seems to be missing.

“Stitches” – “Life of the Party” was Mendes experimenting with what is his “sound.” This is clear in the second track “Stitches.” Mendes has found his footing and style. Instead of a pop sensations he is a sensitive, thoughtful and aware member of society. Perhaps it is the harshness of the percussion that gives this the quality of a story told around a bond fire. The kind of bond fire that always has “that guy” who always brought his guitar with him. I have to wonder if he would be that guy.

“Never be Alone” – After hearing this track, it is clear that my theory on “Life of the Party” is at least plausible. The whistling is a nice touch in that the influence of new folk bands are clear. The “that guy” feel is still there but this time the fire has been reduced to a heap of red coals, the warmth still ever so present. It leaves the listener wanting more.

“Kid in Love” – I imagine this being what Kit Marlowe would have written if he were to live today as a young man. Shawn Mendes’s age is clear in this song but it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s called “Kid in Love.” It plays like the true teenage boy anthem. Mendes only being 16, he’s still going through that rough patch of wanting to find “the one.” “Kid in Love” is playful and it sounds like something that would play over the final scene of a coming-of-age sitcom. On the other hand, Mendes is an informed teenager. He knows that there is some farce in teenage love. Kevin Arnold probably looks back at his love for Winnie Cooper and understands the comedy in it; I suppose it’s best for Mendes to know now that few will marry someone from high school and the rest will be glad they didn’t.

“I Don’t Even Know Your Name” – I have a story: When I was 17, I was in the Haight at a bookstore. I reached for a copy of — appropriately enough — Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and at that moment another hand did the same. I looked over and saw that it was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I made some small talk with her and found that we had similar interests — especially 19th century Russian literature. For two hours we talked and then she left. Two seconds after she walked out the door, I said to myself, “Dammit! I don’t even know your name!” The title says it all. There is a universe that exists where Shawn Mendes saw someone that might have been “the one” and did not heed the warning to cease the day. It was a good move to make the song upbeat. Soon that person that got away will slip form our memories and find a home in our stream of unconscious thoughts. The frustration will be gone and all that is left is a story that can be told to a few buddies at the bar.

“Something Big” – “Something Big” is also an earlier single and like “Life of the Party” is from the experimental phase of Shawn Mendes’ career. The two together on this album are so out of place. They almost feel as if they are of a different artist altogether.

“Strings” – It’s time to accept that the rest of the album is going to consist of love songs. “Strings” is the weaker of the tracks that define Mendes’s style. It’s about how he wants to be in a relationship with all of the strings attached because he is so head-over-heals in love with this girl. At times, it can be repetitive and the rapping is a representation of that passion that is found in all young songwriters.

“Aftertaste” – At some point, Shawn Mendes had a girl who broke his heart and then wanted him back. He made the decision to not accept her, whether it was a smart or dumb decision is still up to the tests of time. Perhaps this is therapy for this experience and so it must be comforting that she will never find a guy like him.

“Air (feat. Astrid)” – I was hooked when he skipped that note in the beginning. Any songwriter would have taken out the pause and it would have been a mediocre song from the beginning. The female vocal, Astrid, has that voice that I’ve heard too many times in too many auditions for female roles in musicals, but I can get over that because her voice compliments Mendes’s perfectly. I want to hear more duets.

“Crazy” – We’re finally slowing down. I imagine Mendes sitting on his bed contemplating everything that has happened in his short life. It’s the “what am I doing” moment in every sickening Rom-Com that happens late in the third act where the guy runs to the (insert dramatic location such as rain or airport terminal) to tell the girl how he truly feels about her. But the simplicity gives off the feeling that these are the kinds of songs that Shawn Mendes wants to make.

“A Little Too Much” – The music video is in black and white. There’s no production value and all that’s there is Shawn Mendes with a guitar onstage in an empty theater. What gets a little too much? Fame? Touring the country? Being in a constant “will they/won’t they” relationship? “A Little Too Much” is just pure emotion. Emotion that can only be felt when you’re young.

“This is What it Takes” – The final track is like waking up in the morning. It’s soft and the freshness has transformed into a tired kind of youth. This journey that is “Handwritten” has finished with Shawn Mendes ending up with… hang on a minute!

Final Thoughts:
So vividly, the images moved in my head as track after track played. So far the story is about young love and young loss and young love again. These themes are so universal because there will never be a person who lives that will not experience them firsthand. Shawn Mendes isn’t in this for the fame and fortune.He’s that voice that needed to exist. Every grown man talks about love — young or otherwise, but there are not many who are going through it in real time.

Overall, the album was a good starting point. I cannot reiterate enough  As time passes, Shawn Mendes’s content will become more mature and it will (hopefully) improve. But that’s all up to him.