Category Archives: music blogs

ten years of this; I’m not sure if anybody understands

I’m sitting here at my favorite Jittery Joe’s on a bright Sunday morning, and my face is reflected in the screen of my laptop. I’m almost 30, and I look like it. I’m not the bright-eyed youth I was a decade ago, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes, I’m happier that I’m not. Other times, I want to be, if only for a moment. I know not everyone understands the appeal that the now mega-popular band fun. has to me, and I don’t fully understand it, either. But I think it’s that desire to feel younger without actually being younger that nags at me and many of us.

My fiancée and I saw fun. at The Tabernacle this past Friday night as part of a Valentine’s Day weekend in Atlanta. Between them and The Format, it was my tenth or fifteenth time at one of their shows…I’ve lost count. The reason I go back again and again is because they’ve never been on a slump. Each time I’ve seen them, it always seems like they’re preparing for another “big thing.” And they’ve always made me feel like I’m a part of it, too.

The first time I saw The Format, in 2004 (just before I went off to college), things were looking shaky with their record label, Elektra, as they were dropping bands left and right–another long-time favorite of mine, Third Eye Blind, was also among these bands. A decade ago, the aptly-named “The First Single” was supposed to be The Format’s breakthrough tune, the “We Are Young” of 2003, but without label support, it failed to go mainstream. However, their energy on stage was not at all fazed by any of these possible career-killers, because all of us in the crowd knew how good this band was. They were perfectly accessible to mainstream audiences (if they would only listen), but Sam Means’ musicianship, songwriting, and Nate Ruess’ incredible vocal prowess and lyrics took the music to a level that top 40 acts rarely reach. It was too damn fun to dislike without dumbing anything down. When I spoke to Nate after the show, he was genuinely gracious, and this attitude toward fans that would carry the band through tough times. Knowing how much those who had heard their music fell in love with it, The Format continued on, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the music industry and labels.

I spoke with Nate again briefly after a show a couple of years later, just before the release of Dog Problems. Once again, this band seemed to be on the verge of something big. They were playing new tunes, many of which were leagues better than anything on Interventions + Lullabies. Nate was excited for us to hear the results–the results of this band moving away from major labels to create their own “Vanity Label,” working with Roger Manning (Jellyfish) and producer Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), and above all, overcoming the anxiety that preceded the release of this album: what if they couldn’t do it on their own?

But their fears were unfounded. Dog Problems was released independently (with some help from distributor Nettwerk, who ensured that the album would be placed in as many stores as possible), and as with Radiohead’s In Rainbows and other post-Napster experiments in the last decade, it proved that major labels are irrelevant if the music is good enough. Dog Problems is The Format’s masterwork–a result of the depression that came with being dropped from a label, Nate’s relationship problems, relentless touring and traveling, and overcoming all of those things to be able to scream, “I’m doing alright; I’m doing just fine.”

In 2007, a year after Dog Problems, The Format was at the height of their career, and also nearing the end. I saw them at The Masquerade that year, as I had the very first time and countless other times, and the crowd was more enthusiastic than ever. And so were they. Each time since that first time three years ago, the show got bigger in every way. As they covered Van Morrison’s “Caravan” to close out their set, it seemed clear to me that they loved where they were, their company, and their fans. What could go wrong?

The circumstances still aren’t clear to the public, but The Format split in early 2008. Nate wrote a letter informing fans on their website that things were fine between Sam and himself, but that there was no future for The Format. I was heartbroken. This was a band whose music saw me through college, some major relationships, and through which I can say my sister and I bonded in our mutual love for the music. What would I do without them? It just seems like silly pop music, doesn’t it? It was more than that to me. I can’t fully explain why, but the songs and the memories they touched still mean so much to me.

Fun formed shortly after, in the fall of 2008. Yes: they were once Fun, capitalized, no period. (The change only came after Finnish noise rock band, also named Fun, sought exclusive rights to the name. Don’t worry–they’re reaping all the benefits though mistaken Spotify plays.) This was my first year teaching, and my first year out of college. I was lost in so many ways. I hated my life, I hated my town, I hated my job, and I was anxious and miserable on a daily basis. I don’t think I was being melodramatic at the time, because I still compare the shittier times of now to the nightmare that that year was to make myself feel better.

Fun’s music made that year better. Before Aim & Ignite, I could only know a few songs, including “Benson Hedges” and “Be Calm,” but they seemed all too anthemic for me at the time. I was once again excited and enthusiastic for the next “big thing” that this band had on the way. Also, as a fan of both Steel Train and Anathallo (I had bought Floating World at a Format show in Birmingham, and Trampoline was often paired with Dog Problems in my CD changer), I knew how talented Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost were, so I was not at all afraid that this project would let me down.

Aim & Ignite sounds simultaneously like starting over and picking up where you left off. I couldn’t help thinking that it mirrored my life. In 2009, I quit my first post-college job and moved to Athens, not really knowing what I was doing or where I was going. I was supposed to start a social work program at UGA, but my application was completed too late. I tried to “pick up where I left off,” but jobs were scarce, so I ended up substitute teaching and doing what I could to make ends meet for myself. I broke off an engagement in 2010; I had and have no regrets about that; I don’t want to be forgiven for all my big mistakes, I only want to be forgotten. I didn’t intend for those years to go the way that they did, but so many of those accidents and mistakes shaped my life as it is now, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. It was quite soon after that when I began a new relationship with my current fiancée, and things ignited from there.

I began the struggle that many mid-20s college graduates face. I was often unemployed or underemployed, making my way through unsatisfying jobs and trying to find who I am. However, the most important thing was that I loved my surroundings, and I loved the handful of people I spent my time with when I did spend time with people.

I can’t say I loved Some Nights at first; in fact, I didn’t like it very much at all. I began to feel that this may be it for me…while the songs themselves are quite honestly some of the best Nate Ruess and crew have written, the production felt targeted to the Fueled by Ramen crowd, whom the band signed with about a year after Aim & Ignite‘s release. My frustration with this album stems from the fact that I know how talented this band is, and I know how much they can accomplish with so little, so why do so much to the songs? On this record, producer Jeff Bhasker is essentially a member of the band, and his loud contributions often overshadow those of of Nate, Jack, Andrew, and other talented personnel on Some Nights. Still, the mainstream didn’t seem to care, and I don’t have to share anything about this band in 2013 that you don’t already love or hate. They are no longer anyone’s “best kept secret.” To those of you hearing fun. for the first time in 2012, it certainly seems at face value that they are another manufactured product of the industry, a band that couldn’t do what they do without the kind of production that exists on Some Nights, and again, that’s what’s so frustrating.

This weekend, the band was on the heels of two Grammy wins and a few other Grammy nominations. This time, then, there isn’t so much an anticipated “big thing,” but the feeling that this is the “big thing.” The Tabernacle is considered intimate in comparison to venues that they could have sold out right now. The show sold out in days, and ticket scalpers were outside the venue–not selling tickets, but essentially panhandling for extras. “I heard they were going for over $100 on Craigslist,” I overheard one of the scalpers say as we walked away. They followed us for a few seconds as we approached the line to enter The Tabernacle, “Hey, hey, any extra tickets? You got any extra tickets?”

Each time I’ve seen this band, the crowd has always been more enthusiastic. This time was no exception, but it was exponentially different. Everyone in attendance this time knew they were lucky to be there, with the cheering and screams between songs many decibles louder than the songs themselves. I was happy to see a little more diversity than I saw at Center Stage last year–I didn’t feel like the oldest person there; their demographic post-Grammy win has extended beyond the high school and college crowd, with no clear gender preference.

Next to us in the balcony was a young high school aged girl. She was singing at the top of her lungs, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was, too–more enthusiastically than her. Stephanie couldn’t stop laughing at how silly I must have looked. The key to enjoying this band is (and always has been) letting go of any pretentious attitude that may prevent you from enjoying the music, and to just have fun. (I’m trying to avoid this inevitable pun wherever possible.) When Nate sings, “tonight, we are young,” we are all young; tomorrow, we go back to being whoever we are…unless you really are young, in which case, I genuinely hope that this music affects your youth in the same way it did mine.

After the show, Stephanie told me, “I had a great time, but I still think they’re kinda lame.” Honestly–I couldn’t argue. I totally understand that opinion. But what does it matter? Like a good Disney movie, the appeal is universal if you allow it to be. And yes, there’s much about this music that sounds childish. But ignore your initial impression of Some Nights, as I have, because there is real substance and talent in this band. Allow yourself to indulge. Not everything sweet is bad for you.

Finally, enjoy this Some Nights-era set from DC’s 9:30 Club, originally broadcasted by NPR. Put aside your cynicism and see if you can’t have some fun.

fun. – Live at 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – 5/3/12
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1. One Foot
2. Walking the Dog
3. Why Am I the One
4. All the Pretty Girls (Intro)
5. All the Pretty Girls
6. All Alone
7. Barlights
8. Carry On
9. The Gambler (Intro)
10. The Gambler
11. Be Calm
12. At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be) (Intro)
13. At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)
14. We Are Young
15. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
16. Smooth (Intro)
17. Smooth
18. Some Nights
19. Take Your Time (Coming Home) (Intro)
20. Take Your Time (Coming Home)

the obligatory 2012 retrospective

I realize I’m about a month late on this. God forbid I take a couple of weeks to process the year. But new years never feel different than old ones, and although much changed in 2012, more stayed the same. I still measure my life in semesters and I still have the same goals, ambitions, insecurities, desires, and anxieties as I always have. Though my optimistic self does feel closer to where I ultimately want to be–even though that’s often changing. And it should.

When it comes to music, 2012 was pretty great. Definitely better than 2011. I had a hard time even coming up with 10 albums last year. Without further adieu, here are my top 10 favorite albums of 2012.

10. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension
A welcome return to form. They’re back with Josh Eppard and the producers of their first three albums. This is the sound I missed. Chris Pennie is a better drummer, but Josh fits this band’s style much better. It’s still missing the epic prog rock tunes that I know they’re capable of, like most of their last few records, but I still love this one. The title track is probably their best song in recent memory.

9. Kids These Days – Traphouse Rock
Rap/rock/R&B fusion done right. This record flows seamlessly between country, blues, indie rock, and hip-hop styles in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward at all.

8. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
This band seemed to come out of nowhere. Brittany Howard is the best frontwoman I’ve heard in a long time. Amazing live. They seem so seasoned, like something my parents would listen to, in a good way.

7. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Most creative R&B record I’ve heard in a long time. “Pyramids” might be the track of the year.

6. Poliça – Give Up the Ghost
Solid debut. I loved Channy with GAYNGS so I bought this record the day it came out.

5. Earlimart – System Preferences
I just discovered this band in 2012…one of my best finds. A lot of their songs have a very Elliott Smith vibe.

4. Kishi Bashi – 151a
of Montreal’s former violinist with a really impressive debut LP. I’m already hearing him in MTV shows and on commercials, which is a sign that he’ll be big this year.

3. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
I just love this band. This is a more back-to-basics record than the ambitious The Monitor, but that’s a good thing to me. They’ve done an epic already…no need to do it again.

2. The Viking Progress – Whistling While the End is Near
Excellent debut that you may not have heard much about outside of Athens. Very much influenced by In the Aeroplane Over the Sea all the way down to the album artwork, and including the fact that Scott Spillane plays on this record. But at the same time, it doesn’t sound like it’s ripping anything off. Patrick Morales wrote these songs while working on two fishing boats in Alaska named The Viking and The Progress. It’s a concept album about God deciding how to end the world. Between the concept and the ITAOTS influence, it sounds overly ambitious, but it’s really not. It’s just a really pretty record all the way through.

1. Reptar – Body Faucet
This album received an undeserved panning from Pitchfork. Honestly, many outlets would have this in a top 10 if it wasn’t for Pitchfork and their unwarranted influence on the indie zeitgeist. This was one of my most anticipated records this year and it doesn’t disappoint at all. I’ve also seen them live many times and each time was uniquely one of the most memorable shows I’ve been to. They’re basically WU LYF meets Animal Collective, but they’ve been around locally for a pretty good while, so I’ve been listening to them before I started listening to either of those bands.

Honorable Mention: Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Like Bon Iver last year, the new Japandroids is also good but overrated. Post-Nothing is the better record, and I felt like I had already heard too much of Celebration Rock on their 7″ releases over the past couple of years for me to consider it all that new.

Lastly, here are 5 songs from bands not mentioned above that I thoroughly enjoyed last year.

5. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Maniac”
This album didn’t get the attention it deserved. Almost made it in my top 10, but it was barely edged out. It has some really great moments. This is one of them.

4. The Antlers – “Drift Dive”
Burst Apart was my #1 of 2011. This was only an EP so it wasn’t in my consideration for albums of the year, but I love this band.

3. Sam Means – “Something in the Air”
Sam’s voice and the way he always sounds a little lo-fi reminds me of M. Ward with less folk, more pop.

2. fun. – “Some Nights”
Overplayed song and terrible production on most of this album. I trashed the album when it came out. To an extent, I don’t care. I’ve loved these guys too long and this song is irresistible. On the other hand, I really wish they had kept Steve McDonald, who produced Aim & Ignite and Dog Problems with The Format. He kept them from going too far into bubblegum territory, which is what this song is–aside from the lyrics, which are some of the best I’ve heard in a top 40 song in a long time.

1. CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
This band is going to blow up soon…this song is too good. No album or tour outside of the UK yet. You’ll know them well this time next year.

where we’re headed we have never been

I might as well call this a Format blog with the amount of posts dedicated to those dudes. Didn’t intend that, but this recent find is definitely worth posting. I must thank Brooke for pointing out in a comment that a studio version of this exists out there. Also thanks to this Tumblr for posting it in the first place.

My search on the interwebs turned up a few streams, but no MP3, so I made one myself. This is basically the holy grail of unreleased Format tunes. It’s a post-Dog Problems song called “Swans” recorded for a movie (it wasn’t a good movie, so I won’t even mention it), and The Format also played it live on their last couple of tours (including on the Mayan DVD).

So here you go; the full, uninterrupted studio version of “Swans” ready to drop in your iTunes and put on all of your mix CDs (do people still make those? I still do…)

MP3: The Format – Swans

tie the rope, tap the brake, cause a scene

I saw a request for this somewhere out there, and I needed an excuse to post something. I’m pretty sure this little acoustic session known as the “White Room Demos” was sent out to people on The Format’s email list back in the day. It contains what is probably my favorite version of the b-side “Your New Name.” It’s also got an early version of “Janet” with a lot of lyrical differences and a more upbeat tempo than the final version, which I first heard back in ’04, so this is definitely pre-Dog Problems by a few years. Enjoy.

The Format – White Room Demos
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1. Your New Name
2. Janet

you’re alive and it shows

Sam Means (the instrumental half of long-time favorite The Format) is set to release his new 7″ entitled Nona on Record Store Day (check the link for more RSD releases and events–this year is looking better than ever!) I received my copy of Nona in the mail today, and I’m happy to highly encourage you to pick it up on Saturday. To get an idea of what to expect from Means’ post-Format work, imagine that band’s mellow, upbeat pop tunes with the soft/lo-fi vocal style of M. Ward. It makes for some fun, subtle pop music that I really look forward to hearing on a full length album at some point.

For now, you can watch the newly released video for “Something in the Air.” Also worthy of note is that this EP features contributions by musicians from Dog Problems and The Format touring band (Mark Buzard, Don Raymond, Mike Schey). A good cure if you’re still reeling from the band’s breakup in 2008.

feeling free

Meanwhile, in Athens news, Reptar is poised to release their debut LP Body Faucet on May 1st. The record will be out on Vagrant and is produced by Atlanta’s Ben H. Allen, also known for his work with Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley, and more recently, Fanfarlo. This is a release I’ve personally anticipated for years, and is the culmination of three years of potential energy buildup unlike anything I’ve seen since I’ve lived in Athens. It’s definitely an exciting time to be an Athenian. For those outside of Athens, by the end of the year, you will be very familiar with these guys if you aren’t already. With a sound that brings together the gritty vocals and percussion of WU LYF with the catchy melodies of MGMT, they’re more than ready for mainstream and critical attention.

However, Reptar is not yet forsaking our small town for the big time, playing Ciné on Record Store Day (4/21), the 40 Watt for the Body Faucet release weekend (5/4), and they will also be headlining a night of AthFest along with Atlas Sound (6/22). Also, in what will go down as probably the coolest thing to happen in Athens this year, Reptar played an impromptu show at the Georgia Theatre back in February. The story is that the house show they were playing got shut down, so they just trekked over to the Georgia Theatre to finish up after Tom Green’s set that night. I wasn’t there (I caught them on New Year’s Eve), but judging by the videos, it was definitely ridiculous–any band with the ability to conjure such a crowd in a town where musical acts are a dime-a-dozen is one worth watching by the world. Look out for Reptar in 2012, for sure.

and at once I knew I was not magnificent

I’ve neglected this space yet again. No updates in almost two months. Well, here’s one I’ve been sitting on for a while. Bon Iver, though still evidently outside of mainstream consciousness, is a band that has recently blown up thanks to awards, TV appearances, Kanye, etc. I was lucky enough to see them last summer at what I consider to be a large venue, and this was before the Grammy win. On this summer’s tour, expect even larger arenas and amphitheaters to accommodate those fans who don’t listen to music that doesn’t win Grammy Awards. At any rate, one thing that’s especially evident to me in their live performances is that this is not one man–this is a band. Bon Iver may have been Justin on For Emma, but the project has gone far beyond that at this point.

In saying farewell to the club circuit for Bon Iver, enjoy this recording from their second night at DC’s 9:30 Club last summer. It was broadcasted by NPR, but here, it’s been split up, tagged, ribbed and lubricated for your iTunes importing pleasure.

[photo from Erica Bruce, Washington City Paper]

Bon Iver – Live at 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – 8/2/11
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1. Perth
2. Minnesota, WI
3. Towers
4. Holocene
5. Creature Fear
6. Flume
7. Hinnom, TX
8. Wash.
9. Brackett, WI
10. Blood Bank
11. Who Is It? (Björk Cover)
12. Re: Stacks
13. Calgary
14. Wolves (Acts I and II)
15. Skinny Love
16. Beth / Rest
17. For Emma

high octane

Reviewing this album is such a conundrum for me. You see, I loved The Format dearly. Their music carried me through college and all of the experiences, friendships, and relationships contained therein. I saw them live many times, and mourned their passing four years ago. fun. is a close sibling, and as such, my love carries over. It’s hard to keep these guys from winning you over. Regardless of your musical preferences, it seems so easy to let go of every pretension and enjoy this band, because their music lives up so well to its namesake. Even when it isn’t very good.

Some Nights is among the finest collections of songs Nate Ruess has ever written. His classic lyricism, hooks, and thematic elements are all present. Guitarist and Steel Train vocalist Jack Antonoff, along with ex-Anathallo multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost, fill out the trio, and they are two of the most fitting and capable musicians for a project such as this. fun. has brought all of the necessary ingredients to make a fantastic pop-rock record, one that could have easily been better than their debut, Aim and Ignite. Unfortunately, the final product is cheesy, overproduced, and at some points, unlistenable. What happened?

The blame for this album’s shortcomings lies with chosen producer Jeff Bhasker, who prior to working with fun., produced for the likes of Kanye West, Adam Lambert, Beyoncé, and Drake. fun. is the exact opposite of the acts that Bhasker has previously produced for: a band fully capable of making music–good, highly accessible pop music–with no help.

While listening to this album (which I have many times already), the question I can’t stop asking is “why?” With the talent contained among the three of them, why would this band allow these production choices? Dear God, are those synth horns? You have a proficient horn player in your band! Why? Why choose a producer who makes your record sound like no one in the band can play an instrument, when the exact opposite is true? That’s not to say you won’t hear Jack and Andrew on the album, but Bhasker’s contributions are far more evident, to the point where they might as well put him at the forefront of the band. That bothers me; when I know how capable a band is, I want to hear it on the record. I don’t want a producer to cover it up.

Neither The Format’s output nor Aim and Ignite were inaccessible in any way. Steve McDonald, producer on both Dog Problems and Aim and Ignite, helped create a sound that sat perfectly on the fence between gleeful pop and substantive rock. Not only was Nate’s prowess as a writer of catchy pop songs evident, but contributions from other band members could be heard loud and clear. Given the right marketing, this band could’ve made it just as big as they aim for without sacrificing themselves to the most base sound imaginable.

Truly, the songwriting is not the problem here. At their core, the songs are great. The album starts strong with the anthemic, Queen-esque intro and title track, both of which are almost good enough–regardless of overproduction–to forgive the rest of the album. “We Are Young,” the band’s first real breakout single, is enjoyable, despite some terrible clichés (“set the world on fire,” “brighter than the sun”) and repetitive chorus. The ballad “Carry On” is catchy and solid; probably the closest thing to Aim and Ignite you’ll find on this album. All three band members shine on this track, which is sadly a rare occurrence on this album. Melodically, “Carry On” reminds me a lot of the unreleased Format song “Swans,” which proves my belief that if The Format were still making music in 2012, they’d be writing very similar tunes.

“It Gets Better,” ironically, is where it gets worse. This song is the worst victim of production on this album; an assault on the ears from the first few seconds of the track. In the live setting, it’s a callback to Interventions + Lullabies‘ catchy power-pop. On Some Nights, it sounds like Cobra Starship. “It Gets Better” is the epitome of the problem with this album. Again, the song is fine; it’s solely the production choices that make it such a cacophonous clusterfuck.

“All Alone” and “All Alright” have the same problem to a lesser extent. Like almost every track on this album, they would be far more tolerable (and actually very good) if you could just hear the band playing their instruments. “All Alright” in particular would be much better if Andrew’s piano part was placed far above everything else in the jumbled mix. “One Foot” is just as loud and grating as “It Gets Better,” but worse, with its blaring, looping synth horns that sound like something Bhasker dug up from a rejected Ludacris beat.

“Why Am I The One” is the most straightforward pop-rock song, and it’s probably one of the better songs from this record. The contributions from the actual band members are far more evident in this song than most other places on the album. The Elton John influence is obvious here, particularly in the chorus. Finally, closer “Stars” demonstrates what I think the band had in mind when they hired Bhasker. Like the rest of the album, it’s big, with plenty of synths and vocoder (you’ll notice that I didn’t mention vocoder, aka autotune, anywhere else–I actually don’t have much of a problem with its use for effect), and the only song on which I think the production is fitting. I would have much preferred a less artificial sound, but it fits in some places. Although it doesn’t make up for all the bad choices on this album, it helps me see what they were going for.

I’d be more forgiving if Bhasker had only been chosen to work on one or two tracks, maybe “Stars” and/or “We Are Young,” but an album filled with this much butchering is tragic. I can hear the sound they were going for; it’s certainly different from past Ruess-lead projects, but it could have been so much more interesting. In my wildest dreams, Kevin Barnes (of Montreal) would have produced this album. I can envision some of the soundscapes that would’ve resulted in such a collaboration, and they would have been very fitting for this direction. Barnes has worked with collaborator Janelle Monáe, so he’s not too many degrees away from this band.

There’s an old story Nate used to tell about his dislike for label executives and bureaucracy (which is also recounted in “Dear Boy.”) When he brought the first Dog Problems demos to The Format’s label at the time, an executive complained that they weren’t “high octane.” Shortly afterwards, they were dropped from then-label Atlantic.

If there ever was such a Nate Ruess record, it’s this one. Somewhere, that label executive is listening to Some Nights and shouting, “YES! YES! NATE, THIS IS HIGH OCTANE!”

If I gave a numerical score to this album, which I won’t, it would be between 3 and 7. If I just listen for shits and giggles, I can enjoy it on the 7-level, but when I take it a little more seriously, I dislike it quite a bit. For that reason, I doubt I’m the target market here. This is for pop radio. Car speakers. Although die hard fans like myself will listen from time to time anyway. I used to recommend this band to people. I still will, but definitely with a caveat if they choose to start here. I doubt I’ll need to, anyway–it certainly seems that the sound they’ve chosen is working out well for their own popularity. Good for them.