Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Rosie Thomas - These Friends of Mine

Rosie’s first album, When We Were Small, was as stark as it was beautiful. The instrumentation was slight and delicate, with Rosie’s fragile vocals draped over the top. The songs were mostly piano based, with some guitars and strings mixed in from time to time. The drums were virtually non-existent throughout the album. Even the “upbeat radio song” (“Wedding Day”) would’ve been a ballad on any other album.
Over the course of her next two albums, she used increasingly more instruments. The songs were still beautiful (with the exception of a couple), but there was more to them. And, while I always loved her albums, I always longed for another album full of her delicate songs.
And, with the release of These Friends of Mine, I finally got my wish. Only this time I got a little bonus. This time she was joined by her good friends (and some amazing musicians themselves), Sufjan Stevens and Denison Witmer.
The songs were recorded over a very short time, with most of them being written and recorded within hours (if not minutes) of each other.
The album is comprised of 10 songs…7 original songs and 3 covers. The covers are good, but are definitely the low points of the album. The covers are R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, Denison Witmer’s “Paper Doll” (complete with Denison backing her on vocals), and Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” (which has been covered by Denison Witmer, Eva Cassidy, and, most recently, Willie Nelson). They’re good songs, but they seems relatively uninspired…like they were thrown in as an afterthought.
There is really only one other part of the album that I don’t enjoy too much. The song “Say Hello” is a beautiful song, with Rosie and Sufjan trading vocals…but then it gets to the end, and there’s just a small, annoying bit of non-conversation at the tail end that just kills it for me. In fact, I’m very close to just editing that out myself just so it won’t bug me anymore.
There’s also a bit of conversation before “Why Waste More Time?” and at the end of “These Friends of Mine”, but it’s actually pretty cool. It’s the sound of 3 friends having fun recording an album, and it lets you into their world and process…if only for a couple of seconds.
The rest of the album is fun and gorgeous and exactly what I wanted. “If This City Never Sleeps” is a great way to kick of the album…a short song driven by a finger-picked guitar line. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, which is pretty much more of the same…but in a good way.
There are three songs that really stand out from the rest of the album. “Much Farther to Go” and “Kite Song” would’ve fit perfectly on When We Were Small; they’re small, stark songs that will break your heart if you’re not careful. “These Friends of Mine” closes out the album in grand fashion. The song starts with the rolling of tape and a loop of harmonies reminiscent of The Beach Boys. I was hooked before she even started singing. The song starts a bit slow, but, by the end of it, the harmonies are back in full throat as Rosie’s voice soars above them all in a huge sound of gorgeousness.
If you love Rosie’s previous albums you’ll love this one. If you’ve never listened to any of her music, this would be a pretty good place to start. It’s an intimate recording full of beautiful songs. What could be better than that?

Rating: 8.6

Essential Tracks: “If This City Never Sleeps”, “All The Way to New York City”

Favorite Tracks: “Much Farther to Go”, “Kite Song”, “These Friends of Mine”

This album was released on Rosie's own label, Sing a Long Records, and is available as a download only. You can download it at iTunes or at Emusic

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Dementia Cookie Box - The Truth About Life (As Told By The Dementia Cookie Box)

The Dementia Cookie Box has been around, in one incarnation or another, for 10 years or so. They’ve run through many different phases: rock, punk, acoustic, electronica, etc.
With the release of their new album, they have carved out a nice little niche for themselves by playing some good old fashioned mid-90s alterna-rock in the vein of The Smashing Pumpkins or Hum. With the music world currently hooked on “faux punk” (I believe the term is pop-punk) and the forced emotion of emo, it’s not a bad niche to have.
There are some good bits on here. The vocals are well done, and most of the songs have a pretty nice guitar hook, which makes it darn near impossible to get out of your head. “Rain” is a perfect example…no wonder it’s the song that kicks off the album. It feels a bit like summer with a sweet guitar lick and a verse that just begs you to sing along with it, but you don’t know whether you should feel happy or sad singing it.
“Two-Step” is, far and away, the best song on the album. Once you hear it you’ll be singing it for the next month, but not in that annoying Pussycat Dolls “Don’t Cha” kind of way. More in the I-really-want-to-hear-that-song-again kind of way. Even now as I sit here typing this, I’m wanting to hear it again (only I can’t, or it would interrupt my 100th viewing of Van Helsing).
All in all, it’s a good listen, with only one misstep or two along the way. The most glaring one would have to be “Stars”, a spoken-word poem set to music. It’s not that the song is bad…it’s actually pretty cool (I’m a big fan of the guitars in particular), but it seems a bit out of place within the context of the rest of the album.
The only other problem is the production, and only that is a problem in comparison with a major label release. As far as independent releases go, it’s not terrible production…just enough to where you’ll notice it. The drums aren’t all that snappy, and the guitars seem to get a little sludgy and fade into the mix from time to time. But, other than that, it seems fairly well done.
Is it an absolutely mind-blowing release? No…but it’s pretty stinkin’ good, especially if you’re looking for some good, self-produced, under-the-radar rock. I know that seems like a pretty small market, but I like to think that it isn’t. And, after listening to this album, I believe that market will begin to grow again.

Rating: 7.3

Essential Tracks: “Dream of a Million Colors”, “Sacred Bodies”, “Her Friend Paul”

Favorite Tracks: “Rain”, “Two-Step”

Check out the band here, their Myspace here, and download the entire album for free off of their website...just click on the Media tab (if you like the album, please support the group by purchasing the album off their site).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Tom Waits - Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

I will start out by saying this: if you are not already a Tom Waits fan, this set will not make you one. Even the casual fan may be a bit overwhelmed with this entire set. This set was released with two people in mind: the rabid fan (the one who can’t get enough of Tom Waits), and Tom himself. It is, essentially, a cleaning out of the ol’ closet. Out of the 56 tracks found here, 30 of them are brand new, and have never been released elsewhere. The other 26 are taken from compilations, soundtracks, tributes, and the like…but not even all of those are readily available anymore. He has even gone back and rerecorded some of the older songs, so, even though you may have heard a song on here previously, there’s no guarantee that you’ve heard this version of it. It’s a massive collection of one of the great songwriter/performers of our time, and it’s amazing.
There are 3 discs included in this set, and each one of them has a theme. Because of this, we’ll tackle each disc individually. The theme of each disc is fairly obvious, based on the title alone, so I’ll try not to spend too much time on that. We’ll start with…

Brawlers – (AKA, the upbeat disc…for the most part). This album kicks off with “Lie to Me”, a bluesy, 50s sounding rockish song, complete with faux-Elvis hiccup singing, handclaps, boom-chikka-boom drumming, and the like. The entire album doesn’t fit that same exact mold, but it gives a great intro to the collection. The rest of the disc is filled with lots of dirty blues (“LowDown”, a T. Rex-esque rocker, “2:19”, a train song set to a slow blues groove, and “Puttin’ On the Dog”), songs driven by vocal percussion (the, no doubt, Real Gone outtake, “Lucinda”), political songs (“Road to Peace”, a more political, and shorter version, of “Sins of My Father” off Real Gone) and, of course, a wonderful spiritual (“Lord I’ve Been Changed”). As with the other discs, this one has a few covers, as well (“The Return of Jackie Judy” was originally heard on a Ramones tribute album). I absolutely love the howling dog on “Buzz Fledderjohn”, and, by the end of the closing song, “Rains on Me”, you can hardly help but sing along with him. Lots of blues, lots of dirt, lots of story-songs, and lots of fun.

Bawlers – (AKA, the downer album, or, the beautiful album.) I have long since been in awe of Tom Waits’ ability to create some of the most terrifying music ever heard, only to have, in the middle of it all, a song of infinite beauty (perfect example: pick up Bone Machine. Listen to the frightening “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”, then listen to the gorgeous “Who Are You?”). There’s clutter, there’s clatter, there’s banging on stuff…then there’s the beautiful song. Think of this as the album full of those songs. The only problem with it is that it kind of drags by the end, which is a shame. It’s a great collection of beautiful songs, whether it’s his original versions of “Long Way Home” (covered by Norah Jones) or “Down There By the Train” (covered by Johnny Cash), “Little Drop of Poison” off the Shrek 2 soundtrack, or his covers of “Goodnight Irene”, “Young at Heart”, and “Danny Says”. If you’re not a Tom Waits fan already and you could pick only one disc from this collection to listen to, it would be this one.

Bastards – (AKA, the odd album) These are the songs that make you shake your head and wonder what the devil runs through his mind sometimes. In other words, this album is for the massive Tom Waits fan only. That being said, this album is a lot of fun. It’s a great collection of strange covers (“What Keeps Mankind Alive”, “King Kong”), captivating spoken word narrative, poetry, and stories (the disturbing “Children’s Story”, complete with his raspy laugh at the end, “Army Ants”, a collection of facts about ants read from The World Book Encyclopedia, “Nirvana”, a Bukowski poem set to a recorder, “The Pontiac”, which is just a recording of Tom talking to one of his kids about the cars that he and his wife owned, and “Dog Treat”, a story told while on tour), Waits gone hip-hop (“Dog Door”), and a demented Disney song thrown in for good measure (“Heigh Ho”). It’s a big, strange collection of various oddities. That seems like it would get old after a while, but it doesn’t really. Out of the 3 discs here, this one seems the loosest, like he was just messing around and happened to come up with some of this stuff. It’s strange and fun…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All in all, this is a great collection. And, surprisingly, there’s not really a bad song in the bunch. That’s pretty impressive, given the nature and scope of this collection. If you can release a 56 song set of b-sides, rarities, and oddities and not have a bad song included, I’d say you’ve done pretty well for yourself. Bravo Mr. Waits…bravo.
As I said at the beginning, this set is not for everyone. But, if you love Tom Waits, this is definitely something you’re going to want to pick up. Even if you’re just a casual fan, it’d be worth downloading some tracks from iTunes (or whatever you crazy kids are doing nowadays) and making a single-disc best of. There is some great stuff in this set.
In fact, I only have one major complaint. When I heard this was coming out, there was mention of including a 70 page book. In my mind, I was thinking it was going to be like Johnny Cash’s Unearthed set, in which every song in the collection was discussed by Johnny, Rick Rubin, and other people who had memories about the song and/or the recording process. This book doesn’t have any of that. The lyrics to every original song are included here, and there’s also some pretty cool pictures in the back of the book, but it doesn’t really say anything about the songs themselves. What were they recorded for originally? Where were they recorded? Why wasn’t it released on the album it was meant for? These are the questions that I would like to have answered. Oh well…I guess that’s why Gore invented the internet…

Rating: 9.3

Essential Tracks: “Lie to Me”, “LowDown”, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”, “Heigh Ho”, “Home I’ll Never Be”

Favorite Tracks: “Bottom of the World”, “Lord I’ve Been Changed”, “Rains on Me”, “Long Way Home”, “If I Have to Go”, “Army Ants”, “Missing My Son”

There’s not really an official Tom Waits website, but the best place to go for news is here

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sufjan Stevens - Songs For Christmas

I won’t bore you with the story…suffice it to say that, from 2001 until the present, Sufjan Stevens has been recording a Christmas EP per year (with the exception of 2004, when he was working hard on making Illinoise) within the comfort of his own home. He never meant to release them publicly (except for the 2006 recording); rather, they were recorded to give to his family and friends every Christmas. If you want to know the whole story, you’ll have to buy this collection and read the story “Christmas Tube Socks”, which was written by “Santa Sufjan”.
And that helps to sum up this wonderful collection. This is not just a music box set; a collection of Christmas songs new and old. This release is an event, a Christmas present in and of itself, from Sufjan to you. (It sounds cheesy, I know, but stay with me here).
We’ll get to the songs in a second. But first I’ll highlight what you get in the box itself.
You get 5 stickers…one for each cover of the EPs. You also get a fold-out, poster sized comic strip involving Santa (who declares Christmas Eve to be “Chocolate Santa Day”), Mrs. Claus, elves, Sufjan, The Danielson Famile, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and a villain named Evil Sister Winter. As if that weren’t enough, the back of this comic strip is a family picture of The Stevens Clan, complete with an inflatable Santa. Good times. There is also a book that is titled, “Songbook and other stuff”, with a picture of a Charlie Brown-esque tree on the front. The inside is chock full of stories, pictures, and, my favorite part, the lyrics and chords to every single song included in this set. Not only can you sing along with the CD, but you can also play along with them. Or, if you’d prefer, sitting around in a circle on Christmas, and singing them with your family (I think he’d like that).
And then there’s the music. Oh, the music. With Low’s Christmas album out there, it’d be tough to say that this is the best Christmas collection ever released…but it definitely comes close.
Being 5 CDs and 42 songs long, one can see how it might get old after a while. That’s a viable fear, but one that doesn’t really hold water. It drags a bit in places, but, for the most part, every song on here is gold (Jerry…Gold!). He does an amazing job of mixing Christmas classics (and the occasional hymn) with his own compositions. He also does a great job of placing instrumental songs throughout the collection…kind of like musical interludes. You know, just to mix it up.
The arrangements are pretty much what you’d expect from Sufjan at this point…definitely more along the fully orchestrated lines of Illinoise and less like the more stripped down Seven Swans, although those moments of quiet are still very much evidenced here (especially on tracks like the gorgeous, extremely lo-fi “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”). But, even though it seems predictable, most of the songs on here are anything but. His own songs range from silly and upbeat (“Get Behind Me, Santa!”) to low-key and gorgeous (“We’re Goin’ to the Country”). And his renditions of Christmas classics make them seem new and fresh when they could just as easily old and tired. Songs like “O Holy Night” have been done by countless artists (from Jessica Simpson to the crazy no-name fella who has recorded, quite possibly, the worst, and funniest, version ever heard), yet his version sounds like nothing I’d ever expect it to sound like.
I could go on and on, and pretty much say the same things over and over again. It’s tough to say much about a Christmas release, especially when there are so many out there. But I will say this…for a guy who doesn’t normally enjoy Christmas music (me), I very much love this album. Even if it was released in July, I would still listen to and love this album. I have a very short list of Christmas CDs that I enjoy, but this has definitely made the top 2 (and is possibly tied for first, but I have to give it a little more time).

Rating: 8.5 (9.8 for a Christmas album)

Essential Tracks: “We’re Goin’ to the Country”, “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!”, “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”, “Only at Christmas Time”, “O Come O Come Emmanuel”

Favorite Tracks: “Put the Lights on the Tree”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”, “We Three Kings”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Starflyer 59 - My Island

Jason Martin is nothing if not a student of rock music, and his catalog of albums (under the name Starflyer 59) is proof of that. If you wanted to, you could listen through each of their albums and point out specific influences. In fact, without many people noticing, Starflyer has consistently been making some of the best, most original albums over the past 13 years.
My Island is no different…and, by that I mean it is, yet again, another great chapter in an already amazing history of the band. On this album, Martin’s love of underground 80s rock is in full swing. Whether it’s the driving guitars and drums of the opener, “The Frontman”, or the bass driven, groove centric “Nice Guy”, or the stomping, clap-happy, Smiths influenced closer “Ideas For the Talented”, his admiration for the “overlooked” period of the 80s is definitely the driving force behind this album.
And that’s pretty cool. While the rest of the music world is focused on crafting their around new-wavers New Order, the Pet Shop Boys, and every other band who had a massive hit on the radio between ’82 and ’90, Starflyer is intent on bringing back those who were making music during that area, but whose music rarely graced the airwaves. Martin’s influence comes from The Smiths, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, The Sundays, and many others who were largely overlooked in their day.
This album can’t necessarily be seen as a mission to bring those artists back into the forefront, but, if that were the intention, one would have no choice but to sit up and take note. Even now, as I sit here listening to this album, I’m thinking to myself, “You know, I should probably pop in The Queen is Dead a little later.”
And that’s really the beauty of Starflyer. They can wear their influences boldly on their sleeve, but it never seems ripped-off or tired…rather, it becomes an homage to those artists who came before, and gives a glimpse into what makes pop music great now. Starflyer takes a lot from their influences, but they always put their own stamp on whatever they do.
It’s getting fairly late, and this may be getting a little rambling and incoherent, so I’ll end on this:
On the final song, “Ideas For the Talented”, Martin sings, “My ideas, they outweigh all the talent I own.” If that statement holds any truth at all, I have only one thought: if this album (or any Starflyer album, for that matter) represents only a fraction of what he’s capable of…well…if his talent ever catches up with his ideas, he won’t be able to be ignored any longer.
Starflyer is one of the greatest bands of my lifetime. If you’ve yet to check them out, I urge you to do so immediately. And, if you are going to check them out, this is not a bad place to get started.

Rating: 8.6

Essential Tracks: “The Frontman”, “Nice Guy”, “Pearl of Great Price”

Favorite Tracks: “I Win”, “Ideas For the Talented”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Damien Rice - 9

3 years.
That’s how long it has been since Damien Rice last graced us with his presence. That’s when he released his debut, O, a delicate (get it?), gorgeous album that had everyone calling him the next great folk singer.
Then he took some time off.
3 years, to be exact.
And now, finally, he’s back…and what were we to expect? What had he been doing with his music all that time? Would he come back completely remade as a rock singer? Would he trade in his acoustic guitar for a Flying V? What to expect, what to expect…
Well, to be honest, he doesn’t sound too much different on his new album than he did on his first one. There’s a bit more instrumentation in this album, which seems to be a fairly popular trend among the new folkies (Iron & Wine, Ray LaMontagne, etc.). He also sounds a bit angrier here than he did on his first album, but only a time or two (never more obvious than on “Rootless Tree”…the chorus of which is the sole reason this album is explicit lyrics).
But, for the most part, the fragile Damien Rice who we had met in the first album is still in full force here. The opening song, “9 Crimes”, kicks off the album with a haunting piano and the gorgeous vocals of Lisa Hannigan, which eventually leads to a duet with Damien over an ever-building musical section of percussion and strings. We’re reminded, instantly, of the thing we all loved about him in the first place: his ability to build a song perfectly, sometimes out of nothing. With a string section and more instrumentation to work with, he borders on unstoppable. Even on “Elephant”, a song comprised mainly of a guitar and Damien’s voice, you can just feel the emotion in his voice, lifting the song to higher heights than it really has any reason to go.
And that, much like on his last album, is really what drives this album and his entire sound: his voice. He can convey emotion in such a way that it is sometimes almost painful to listen to. Fragile and breakable, yet, at the same time, huge and otherworldly. Without his voice, he becomes nothing more than your everyday, run of the mill acoustic guitar toting coffee shop playing neo-folk singer…but with better lyrics.
That’s not to say that this album is perfect. There are some songs that don’t quite work on this album. The light “Dogs” seems a bit too light, with lyrics that include, “She lives with an orange tree and a girl who does yoga,”, with “girl who does yoga” repeated more than once throughout the course of the song. The previously discussed “Rootless Tree” seems like a song that he threw in just to say, “See…I’m not just depressed about stuff. I can get mad, too. Listen to this.” Not that it’s a terrible song…in fact, it’s a fairly good song in spite of itself. But that doesn’t stop it from sounding more than a bit forced. “Coconut Skins” is an upbeat folk song that seems to be more along the line of what I’d expect from Bright Eyes.
But there are also some absolutely great moments on this album. “9 Crimes” has already been talked about, but I just have to come back to it, because it is one of the best moments on the album. I was surprised by the huge, building, rock oriented “Me, My Yoke and I”, which kind of comes off as a full-length version of the last half of “I Remember”, but only because it’s much more electric than the rest of the album. “Accidental Babies” seems like it would drag a bit, being a slow, 6 minute song made up solely of a piano and his voice, but, somehow, he pulls it off.
All in all, I think of this album much like I think of O. When it’s on, it’s on. But when it’s off, it’s off. There are enough amazing moments on the album to keep you coming back, but there are also some dead spots that you keep listening to in the hopes that they’ll get better. The good moments are amazing. The bad moments aren’t terrible, but they certainly don’t live up to the great moments. There’s not much that fits in the middle of those moments.
But, thankfully for all of us, his good moments far outweigh the bad moments. Again. Welcome back, Damien.

Rating: 8.0

Essential Tracks: “The Animals Were Gone”, “Me, My Yoke and I”

Favorite Tracks: “9 Crimes”, “Elephant”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

I would like to start off by saying how astounding it is that a band can make an album with absolutely no new ideas and no creativity of their own. A lot of bands wear their influences on their sleeve (Jet = The Who, The Darkness = Queen, etc.), but very few rip off as many bands as blatantly as My Chemical Romance does on this album.
And it’s kind of hard to get mad at them about it. After all, it’s not as though they’re trying to hide anything. You’ll see what I’m talking about as you read this.
It’s been well documented that My Chemical Romance has gone through a massive image overhaul in promoting their new CD. Their entire image is mainly tied to their lead singer, Gerard Way. Up until this point, he was always seen as the stereotypical “emo” singer, all pasty skin and shaggy hair. But, leading up to this album, he has taken on a new look, and, along with it, a new persona. He says that, when he’s performing, he is no longer Gerard Way…he is “The Patient”, the focal point of the story of this new album. His once trademark long black hair (with bangs in his face) have been traded in in favor of short, bleach blonde hair. The entire band has also started dressing entirely different, all of them now adopting black marching band style uniforms, saying that they are no longer My Chemical Romance, but, rather, they are The Black Parade. This new persona is strangely similar to what The Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, although perhaps a bit more extreme.
Musically there’s not really a new idea on the entire album. We all know of rock’s love affair with the concept album. It normally has to be about something huge and epic. Usually, the band will pull out all the steps…try things they’ve never done before, all the while telling a story that may or may not be entirely clear. But, if you listen closely enough, you can normally make out the general idea…you know, kinda like reading Shakespeare. But with guitars.
Well, My Chemical Romance have definitely done their homework with this album…perhaps a little too well. Right from the start, about a minute into the first track (purposefully ironically titled “The End”) there’s a huge crashing of guitars and keyboards…you know, just like Pink Floyd did on The Wall. In fact, if it weren’t for the other obvious references to Queen (like the huge guitar riffs) and Green Day’s American Idiot (minus, you know, the half-cocked politics in order to sell records), or even the blatant T. Rex riff-stealing “Teenagers”, you could point to Pink Floyd (mainly The Wall) as the starting point for this album.
And that’s really where it suffers. I read an interview with Way, and he described how they made the album. It sounded something like, “We really laid ourselves bare and held nothing back in making this album. We tore out our insides and put ourselves back together.” One of the guitarists, when asked, on a scale of 1-10 how difficult making this album was responded, “45…this is really the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
I find that really hard to believe, and, if it is true, I feel kind of bad for the guy. So, you’re telling me that remaking The Wall (except replacing the crazy dictator guy with a guy dying of cancer) is the most challenging thing you’ve ever done in your life?
Even the vocals are Pink Floyd-esque in a number of places. From the almost cartoon background screams that make their way into a number of the songs (much like Pink Floyd would do with songs like “The Gunner’s Dream” on The Final Cut) to his Roger Waters impersonation towards the beginning of “The End” and towards the middle of “Mama” (which, although it sounds nothing like “Mother”, one can’t help but think they named it as a tribute, or some such nonsense).
The way I’m describing it makes it sound like I hate the album, and that’s not totally the case. I hate that they couldn’t come up with a single creative idea on their own. For a band “laying itself bare”, it sounds an awful lot like what a good cover band could accomplish on any given night. Is it “massive sounding”? You betcha. It sounds like it should be important, even if it doesn’t end up giving us anything new. It’s extremely well produced (as if you could expect anything less). Musically it’s a very well done album…and I don’t even hate the vocals as much as I thought I would.
It was my thought process going into it. I didn’t want to like the album. And now, as I sit here listening to it for roughly the 10th time over the past week and a half, I realize that there are parts of it that I like. It’s extremely tough to look past all the musical theft on this album though, mainly because it’s so in-your-face. There’s not a way to look past it, mostly because they didn’t care to hide it.
So maybe that gives me a reason to like it. “Yeah, we stole it. So what? That’s the music we love, and we’re going to give it the due it deserves.”
Either that or they’re just too lazy to try to cover it up.

Rating: 5.1

Fairly Good Tracks: “Dead” (even though it’s obvious that they were planning to make this the single from the get-go), “Cancer”

Favorite Track: “I Don’t Love You” (far and away the best song on the album, even though they stole the opening riff from Motel…whether they know it or not)

(I will say this, though...the cover looks pretty cool.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Beck - The Information

I’ve long been a fan of Beck. I can remember buying Odelay! when I was in high school and blasting it as I sat on the porch. I just loved that album…what with all the hip-hop beats and raspy country singing/rapping…who could resist that?
If that’s all he ever amounted to, I probably would’ve ditched him shortly after graduation. But, fortunately for all of us, he decided that it wasn’t worth being dubbed “The hip-hop Hank Williams” if that’s all he was ever known for. So, like all great artists, he evolved. And evolved. And evolved. With each new album he gave us a new sound…a new reason to love him.
I won’t give you a huge run through of his albums…perhaps that will come another time. Suffice it to say, though, that he is, without a doubt, one of the most consistently creative solo artists running around today (I’d put him around the level of Tom Waits in this respect). He doesn’t necessarily put out albums all that often, but, when he does, you can always be assured of one thing: that it will sound nothing like the last album.
I’m not quite sure if that’s 100% true with The Information or not. You can still hear hints of Guero here and there. For one, his trademark rap-singing is on full display here, after ditching it (pretty much) altogether for Sea Change. He also shows off the tight rhythm section/sampling that made Guero so much fun to listen to.
But, whereas Guero pulled a lot of its influence from Hispanic music, The Information is a bit broader in its influences…that is, it definitely keeps you on your toes. From the grooving, 70s bass line of “Elevator Music” (which kicks off the album in some serious style) to the 60s pop influence of “Think I’m in Love” to the quasi-bossa nova styling of “Cellphone’s Dead”, to the White Stripes sounding “Strange Apparition” (is that Jack White on the piano?) to the jangly, low-end heavy guitar of “Nausea” to the free-roaming, faux-folk of “New Round”, to the rap-disco of “We Dance Alone”, to…well, you get the picture. No two songs sound alike, and there’s really no song that sounds too much like anything he’s ever done up to this point.
That may sound confusing and jumbled, like he has a bunch of great ideas, but maybe they don’t belong on the same album. But the album sounds anything but jumbled and sprawling. Even though he has a lot of different ideas here, they all fit perfectly together on one album. There’s nothing jumbled or confusing about it. I honestly can’t see this album working as well as it does if even one song was missing from it. By the same token, I can’t see a single song off this album making sense on any other album he has ever done.
I hesitate to really make a grand statement about this album within the scope of his work. After all, with an artist as consistently creative as Beck, it’s a little tough to compare one album to another. How can you compare an oddball electro-rap-funk album (Midnite Vultures) with an Indian-influenced sonic-folk album (Mutations)? You can’t. It’s darn near impossible. But I will say this: this album ranks among the best albums that Beck has ever recorded. With every album he gets a little better. He is constantly coming up with new ideas, and, unlike some artists, he manages to mash all of his massive range of influences up into his music and still (somehow) make it work.
I already can’t wait for his next album.
(All of that, and I didn’t even mention the create-your-own-cover-art part of the CD, or the extra DVD containing ramshackle music videos for each and every song on the album. That’s the thing: the album itself is so good, that I don’t even have to resort to general gimmicky to try to sell anyone on it!)

Rating: 9.0

Essential Tracks: “Think I’m in Love”, “Cellphone’s Dead”, “We Dance Alone”

Favorite Tracks: “Elevator Music”, “Nausea”, “New Round”

Also, check out his AMAZING performance on SNL at (search “Beck SNL”)

And if that isn’t enough, make sure to pick up the latest issue of Paste magazine, with our boy on the cover. The story on him is extremely interesting.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Margot & The Nuclear So & Sos - The Dust of Retreat

It’s sort of a cliché to say, but this album grabbed me from the opening note. That eerie keyboard kicks it off, and I found myself saying, “Hey…this could be amazing.” And then Richard Edwards starts singing, and I was hooked. The opening track, “A Sea Chanty of Sorts” is an amazing song…slow, gorgeous and beautiful. Just how I like ‘em. The first time I heard this album I must’ve listened to that song at least 3 times before I let the second track start.
But, when I finally got past that first track, I found that the rest of the album is nothing to shake a stick at (unless it’s a good stick…in which case, shake away).
You can strip down the songs to next-to-nothing and you’ll find that, at heart, this is a folk group. The songs all sound like they were written alone on a guitar.
And that’s the beauty of this group. They take songs, simple little songs, and flesh them out wonderfully. None of the songs are suffering from too much going on, but, at the same time, you could strip them down to only a guitar and they would sound just as beautiful.
That’s not to say that all the songs are fleshed out. There are a couple of tracks on the album that are stripped down to their essence. “Jen is Bringing the Drugs” and “A Light on a Hill” both fit this description, and both of them are heartbreakingly gorgeous.
The majority of the album, however, has a bit more instrumentation. “Quiet as a Mouse” and “Talking in Code” show off their incredible musicianship, as they break out their entire arsenal of guitars, cellos, trumpets, percussion, keyboards, and more. The songs both seem at the point of bursting, and that’s when Richard transforms from the soft-singing front man into the strained-singing-to-the-point-of-almost-screaming.
However, like so many albums, there are a couple of missteps…but only a couple, and they’re tracked back-to-back, so it’s easy to skip them if you want to. “Paper Kitten Nightmare” isn’t actually that bad of a song…but it’s the chorus that kills it. Really, who wants to hear a grown man meowing repeatedly in a song? I never thought that was a good idea before, and I sure don’t think it’s a good idea now. But, take that out of the song, and it’s pretty good. “Barfight Revolution, Power Violence” isn’t really a bad song, either, it’s just…I don’t even know. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what my problem with that song on…maybe it’s just that it sounds like they’re trying to hard to play like “the kids” are playing these days…all driving, chunky guitars and a chorus of “C’mon c’mon/Get back together”. It’s like Jet or something…and I’m sorry, but I’m just not really digging on that when I’m listening to a fleshed-out folk-pop album. Maybe some other time, though.
All things considered, this is a really great album. Extremely catchy and easy to connect/listen to. The songwriting is amazing, the songs are’s just a great album. Plain and simple.

Rating: 8.7

Essential Tracks: “A Sea Chanty of Sorts”, “Quiet as a Mouse”

Favorite Tracks: “Jen is Bringing the Drugs”, “A Light on a Hill”, “Talking in Code”

(Added note: “Talking in Code” may well be the song of the year by the time all is said and done. It is, quite simply, stunning.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Roots - Game Theory

To say that The Roots are one of the best groups in hip-hop is a gross misunderstatement. There’s not a group in hip-hop right now that comes close to them, and there’s not really many others out at the moment in any style that can touch what The Roots are currently doing.
I’ve been a fan since 2002’s Phrenology, an amazing mix of hip-hop, pop, rock, punk, psychedelic, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It was a bit spotty, but, overall, I really enjoyed it. I fell in love half-way through the album, and I’ve yet to look back. I picked up all their previous work, and, when The Tipping Point dropped in 2004, I was all ears. At first, I was a bit disappointed. It seemed as though they weren’t pressing forward or experimenting as much. They stripped down their sound…much more basic. That one took me a bit more to get into. But, once I did, I couldn’t stop myself from listening to it every single day. It wasn’t long before I proclaimed it their best album.
That experience taught me this one thing: never put expectations on The Roots. Ever. There are few groups that I can actually say that about anymore, but, with The Roots, you never know what to expect from album to album.
So when I heard they had a new one coming out, I decided not to read anything about it until it actually came out. No need getting my hopes up, or setting up expectations that didn’t amount to anything. When it came out, I’d hear it and make up my own mind.
However, when I finally heard Game Theory for the first time, I still felt a little let down. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Did it not seem together? Did the songs not flow into each other? It was a bit darker than I was prepared for, so maybe that was a part of it.
Over the next couple of weeks, I listened to it about twice a week…just enough to feel it out. At the end of those 2 weeks, I was in. Fully and completely. Even now, months after it was released, I can’t stop listening to it.
The sound is fuller than on The Tipping Point. There are more guest appearances and samples on this album, but they never distract from the core group, and they never take anything away from the actual song (except for a brief moment on “Long Time”, but that’s only for about 1 second).
The group is tight. ?uestlove is an absolute master on the drums…I could listen to that dude play solo all day. Between his drumming and Hub’s impressive bass lines, there’s not really a better rhythm section around. Capt. Kirk Douglas’ guitar is on full display here, always in the background, but always worth listening for. And Kamal Gray is exceptional on the keyboards.
And Black Thought? Well…Black Thought continues to be one of the best (and, sadly, one of the most overlooked) MC’s in the business. Lyrically he can’t be beat, and his flow is second to none. It’s been said for a while now that he’s at his best when he’s angry, and you can certainly hear that here. He doesn’t just rap…he spits. And it’s incredible.
Every track on here is amazing. From the angry, political “False Media” and “Game Theory” to the great vocal hook on “Don’t Feel Right”, to the quasi-R&B of “Baby” to the driving, synth-heavy “Here I Come” to the dirge-esque, Radiohead-sampled “Atonement”, all the way down to the chilling finale, a tribute to their good friend (and hip-hop legend) J-Dilla. There’s not a single song on here that isn’t absolutely incredible.
And that’s the story of The Roots. They do what they do very well. Sometimes they play it a little closer to the vest than normal, but I think that’s just to prove to the world that they can beat the other hip-hop “artists” at their own game. Yet, when they decide to experiment a little, do things a little different…well, they’re the best in the game at that, too. And, hopefully, it’ll only be a short time before the rest of the world sees this, too.

Rating: 9.4

Essential Tracks: “Game Theory”, “Don’t Feel Right”, “In the Music”

Favorite Tracks: “Here I Come”, Atonement”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Thom Yorke - The Eraser

So, apparently, this guy Thom Yorke is in Radiohead. Who knew? And Radiohead are a group from England who, at the moment, are vying for “Greatest Rock Band in the World”, even though they haven’t released an album since 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Also, as anyone who reads Rolling Stone can tell you, Radiohead killed rock n’ roll sometime around the release of Kid A, so, obviously, there can be no “Greatest Rock Band in the World” anymore. Duh.
While Thom is, indeed, still gainfully employed by Radiohead, he decided that it was also time to step out on his own. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. After their extensive tour in support of Hail to the Thief, all of the members were completely wiped out, and they decided it was best if they just took a break for a while. After all, they all had their own lives, and Yorke had just recently welcomed his firstborn son into the world.
During this downtime, Yorke found himself messing around on his laptop. Chopping up bit of songs, looping them, setting them to beats…and so on and so forth. Pretty much no different from what half of the world is currently doing in their own spare time. But the difference between them and Thom Yorke is that he is Thom Yorke and they are not.
But even a genius needs help, so he called longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (who has also worked with Beck, Paul McCartney, Pavement, Travis…you know, pretty much everybody and their mother) to help him put his stuff together. They sat down together, messed around a bit more, got some direction, wrote song lyrics, and….boom. Solo album, finished.
At first listen, it comes off as a bit boring. All skittering beats, chord stabs, and the blips n’ bloops that turned a lot of people off to Kid A and Amnesiac…only there’s more of them here. Everywhere you look there's another slew of computer blips coming your way. There are also not many highs and lows here. Even on “boring old Kid A” (not my words) you had the crazy building horns and in-your-face-bass of “The National Anthem” right before the droning “How to Disappear Completely”. Mountains and valleys…of sound, anyway. And that’s not present on this album. Song to song pretty much stays the same. There are not even really any changes within the songs themselves. They start in a general direction, and they end in that same direction. A little bit of building here or there, but not enough to really give you the sense that he was trying anything different with the songs.
But then you listen to it again. And again. And again. I think it took me a grand total of 4 listens to get to like it and 7 listens before I really started to love it. Even now as I listen to it I find myself loving it more.
And I realize what it is. First of all, his voice is much more up in the mix here than it is on any Radiohead CD. He has such a unique and gorgeous voice that it’s nice to see it getting the recognition that it deserves. They also didn’t use any effects on his voice, which is also a huge difference from his work with Radiohead. Second of all, he does such a great job with the sound of this album. To borrow a term from Eno, Yorke definitely creates his own vast soundscapes on this album. Behind the blips n’ bloops there’s always something going on. Perhaps it’s just more blips n’ bloops…but they’re different. There’s an air of hugeness and sound to this album. To me, the best time to listen to this album is driving in the rain. As the rain beats down on the car, I turn this album up, and the sound fills up the entire car. There are very few albums that I can actually do that with, but I’m glad that I’ve found another one.
In short, if you’re looking for a Radiohead album, you’re going to be disappointed (although you will hear some of their work throughout the album in the form of various loops). This album was never meant to be another Radiohead album. But, if you’re looking for a great album from a great artist, definitely check this out.

Rating: 8.8

Essential Tracks: “The Eraser”, “The Clock”, “Skip Divided”

Favorite Tracks: “Atoms for Peace”, “Cymbal Rush”

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Killers - Sam's Town

I really wanted to hate this album. After all the press and praise surrounding their debut album, Hot Fuss, The Killers kind of blew up. They were everywhere. Suddenly, without warning, Brandon Flowersssss had become Bono. You couldn’t escape them. Even a year and a half after its release, there was still no slowing them down. Flowerssss starting talking smack to the emo bands and fellow nu-new-wavers, insulting them, their music, and, I assume, their mothers.
Then came talk of a new album. They changed their look. Instead of the made-up glam look we were used to, the new photo shoots had them unshaven with long hair. Instead of pink suits Flowerssss seemed more at home with jeans and a bolo tie over his western-style shirts. They name-checked Springsteen like it was going out of style. And they weren’t in the least bit likeable.
The Saturday before this album was released (that would be last Saturday, for you all keeping track), they played a set on SNL. New look. New music. And, apparently, they picked up Wayne and Garth’s cameraman to play guitar for them, which is pretty cool. And they weren’t really very good.
And yet, through all of this, I was still excited about the new album. Looking forward to it, no matter how much I didn’t want to be.
The album itself seems to be a feeble attempt at a concept album. You’re introduced into this world in the first song, “Sam’s Town”. There is then a short, less-than-a-minute track called “enterlude”, where Flowersss proclaims over a piano line, “We hope you enjoy your stay/It’s good to have you with us even if it’s just for the day”. Then it kicks into the album, or, I suppose, into the town. What follows are half (or full) narrative songs about, I suppose, Sam’s Town. At the very end of the album, they bid us farewell with “exitlude”, where they thank us for stopping by. The end. The only problem? None of the tracks are tied together at all, except, I suppose, by a very thin line. Someone forgot to tell them that, if you’re going to make a concept album, you actually have to have a concept.
Yet now, as I sit here listening to the album, I forget about all that stuff. I don’t care what they said, who they said it to, or how much they desperately tried to be different on this album, or tried to force it to be something it’s not. All I really care about, at this moment, is how good this album is.
Is there a misstep here or there? Oh…of course there is. Songs like “For Reasons Unknown”, “Read My Mind”, and “Uncle Jonny” are not the best of songs by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it sounds a bit too much like they’re trying to be Springsteen…caring more about that than actually writing a good song. But, even in those songs, there’s still something good.
But, for the most part, this is a very solid, extremely listenable album. The Killers are still very much stuck in the 80s, only they’re hitting the rock side of the spectrum on this album. Some of the synth lines are very much nods to that era (at least once I thought they were going to kick into The Dire Strait’s “Walk of Life”, but, unfortunately, they did not). And, with lyrics like “We're burning down the highway skyline/On the back of a hurricane” and references to running with the devil, it seems like they’re blatantly ripping off the imagery used so often by The Boss and The Coug. But, somehow, they have put their own stamp on it, making it seem like it was their idea and style all along.
The Killers themselves show how much they have grown as a band since their last album. Flowersss has shown much more vocal range on this album than their previous one, while guitarist Dave Keuning has helped them to pull out of their new-wave/glam-rock image with some very convincing guitar work.
I think my favorite part of this album is how often the chorus’ turn into sing-a-longs involving the entire group, and, I assume, everyone who listens to it. Songs like “Uncle Jonny”, “My List”, “Why Do I Keep Counting?” are among those that almost sound like they were recorded in a bar at happy hour, with the masses singing at the top of their lungs. There’s a sense of camaraderie in those songs, and also a sense of fun, which I suppose is what draws me to them. It’s nice to see a band not feeling the pressure on a highly anticipated second album. So many artists seem concerned with the sophomore slump, and they fold under that pressure. The Killers seemed to have bucked that pressure by changing a bit (but not too much), and having fun with it. I’m very excited to see what they do next. If this album is any indication, I think we should continue to see great things from The Killers with each release.

Rating: 7.8/10

Essential Tracks: “Sam’s Town”, “Bones”, “My List”

Favorite Tracks: “When You Were Young”, “Bling (Confessions of a King)”, “Why Do I Keep Counting?”

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Justin Timberlake - Futuresex/Lovesounds

Buck Fifty wanted a bad review…Buck Fifty will get a bad review.
So, from what I hear, Justin Timberlake is a big deal. How this happened I’ll never know. We never would’ve even known Nick Lachey’s name if he hadn’t screwed up his relationship with Jessica Simpson. The only reason we know that AJ guy from The Backstreet Boys is because he’s been in and out of rehab more times than Scott Weiland. So why should we know the curly-headed guy from ‘Nsync? We know Joey Fat-One because his name is great and accurate. Lance Bass is gay. Justin Timberlake…well, he’s dating Cameron Diaz. And he put out one album in which he pretty much told the world of his massive man-crush on Michael Jackson.
But this new album is supposed to be something else. A major artistic step forward. “I wanted to do something that isn’t what you normally hear on the radio.” His words. So what does he do? Hire Timbaland…a fantastic beat-maker, but someone that everyone and his mother has used at one point or another. There’s not much unique about using Timbaland for your artistic step forward.
Of course, by now, everyone has heard his single, “Sexyback”. Is it catchy? Yeah…I suppose. It’s basically a club song, with Justin half-singing half-talking his (distorted) way through a skittering beat with synth stabs everywhere you look. It’s fine, I suppose, for one song.
Here’s what kills the album. It’s the same song for the entire album. Okay, so I overexaggerated there. There’s a break or two with the needless prelude/interlude, and, of course, the all too predictable “aw-girl-you-know-I-love-you” slow ballads. You can almost hear him proclaim, “That’s right gentlemen. Now’s the time of night when you just find that special girl, hold her tight, and dance all night. And don’t stop…just keep dancing…here, on The Quiet Storm.”
I suppose it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. I mean, he did try something a little different. For him. It’s not like this hasn’t been done before by a thousand different artists. But, all the sudden, because it’s Justin Timberlake, we’re supposed to sit up and take notice of him. In fact, I think that Gunther album might be better than this.
It’s not terrible, and parts of it are extremely catchy and sound fairly cool. But it’s just another “roll up in the club” album, full of energy, beat, sex, drinks, and, I suppose, anything else that you can find in a club. This much I can guarantee you: if this was anyone other than Justin Timberlake, there is no way on earth that anyone would be talking about this album, let alone buying it in droves. Unless it was The Indigo Girls or something.
It’s Justin Timberlake gone quasi-crunk. Can you think of a single person that was asking for that?

Rating: 4.4

Fairly Decent Track: “Sexyback”

TV On The Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain

Cris had been telling me to listen to TV On The Radio for a number of months. I never really got around to it. Why? I'm going to blame it on all the music magazines that I read. Whenever I read anything about them, they were always described as "weird", "odd", or another word that means the same thing. There was talk of them bringing this music from their home planet...and so on, and so forth.
I don't like listening to music just because it's weird. In fact, that's one of the main reasons why I don't like The Flaming Lips. I want to like music because it's good, not because it's weird.
Here's a scenario that is basically the same thing as liking music because it's weird:
I go to an art museum. I see a piece of art. I don't really think it looks that good. I can't really tell what's going on in the painting. But it's displayed somewhere prominent, and a lot of people have been talking about it. There's not really anything that I like about it...but it's different. It's odd. That means it must be good. If I don't understand it, there must be something really good to it that I'm not getting. Why else would people like it? Why else would there be a special exhibit for that artist? So I'll pretend that I understand the deep meaning of the painting, when really there's nothing to get.
That's what I see happening more and more in music. A strange new band comes out. Screeching guitars over an out-of-tune bass over a completely out-of-rhythm drummer. 3 people are singing at the same time. They're not singing in the same key. Nothing about it sounds good. Yet people love them. Why? Because it's different. "If other people like it, so will I, even if I don't understand what's even close to tolerable about them."
(This rant is getting long, and I apologize.)
That's what I thought would happen with TV On The Radio. Just another band trying to be different to get some publicity.
Thankfully, that's not what they are, and that's not what they're about.
This album is one of the more creative albums to come out this year. There are an absolute ton of influences and instruments present here, and for them to be able to mix them all together as well as they have here...well, it's just astounding.
The atmosphere of this album is what really blew me away. I haven't really heard guitar like this since My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. There's a depth and beauty to the fullness of their guitars that seems almost other-worldly. It seems the most present on "Province", a gorgeous song that builds to a huge chorus, courtesy of those swelling guitars and the vocals of Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone, and David Bowie.
The quasi-hip-hop/dance of "I Was a Lover" gives way to the droning, almost tribal "Hours", which rolls into the skittering "Playhouses", which is followed by the drums-in-the-front rock approach of "Wolf Like Me" (one of the catchiest songs on the album), which flows into the minimalist "A Method"...and on and on we go.
The dual-vocal approach of the deeper voiced Tunde Adebimpe mixed with the high falsetto-ish voice of Kyp Malone works wonderfully. Creepy and beautiful at the same time.
If you're looking for something that is simultaneously creative and accessible, this is the album for you. It really is remarkable.

Rating: 9.2/10

Essential Tracks: "I Was a Lover", "Hours", "A Method"

Favorite Tracks: "Province", "Wolf Like Me"

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Anathallo - Floating World

I can't really say enough great things about Anathallo. I've said this time and again, but it always bears repeating: Anathallo is one of the most creative bands around today, and it's nothing short of criminal that more people are not aware of them and their music.
Hopefully, that is about to change.
For their latest album, Floating World, Anathallo dropped off Selah, their original label, and signed with Artist Friendship. And just like, they have nationwide distribution.
And it's about time. After years of toiling away in the underground, people are finally starting to sit up and take notice of this group from central Michigan. They've been touring the country for years, playing any and all shows that they can get their grubby little hands on. Everyone who has ever seen an Anathallo show can tell you it's an experience unlike any other. Anything and everything is an instrument. The horn section will throw down their horns in order to beat on massive bass drums, lead pipes, chains, or anything else currently on stage. Screaming, stomping, clapping, singing in unison...nothing is off limits for them.
And, for once, a band translates their live instensity to an album. Not completely, mind you (because that's close to impossible, even for an actual live album), but as close as you're ever apt to find (this side of The Hojos, that is).
And it works remarkably well.
You're never quite sure what to expect. A song can go from delicate singing over a beautiful finger-picked guitar park to a chaotic explosion of chains, horns and drums that would make Tom Waits proud...all in the span of a couple of seconds. Time signatures will change in the blink of an eye. And it all works. Not a single bit of it seems forced.
The album itself focuses on 4 songs: "Hanasakajiji" parts 1-4. These songs are a retelling of an old Japanese folktale. I won't go into a plot summary here...there's one printed in the liner notes. It's a beautiful, sad, and confusing story. I will say that much. Along with being the centerpieces of this album, these 4 songs are also the albums best moments. I guess it kind of makes sense if you think about it.
I can't begin to describe their overall sound to you. It's darn near impossible. You can't really peg them down to one particular descripter. They don't follow a standard musical path or songwriting structure. It's just one of those bands you have to check out for youself. And, if I were you, I would do so now rather than later.

Rating: 9.2/10

Essential Tracks: "Hoodwink", "Dokkoise House (With Face Covered)"

Favorite Tracks: "Hanasakajiji (Four: A Great Wind More Ash)", "Hanasakajiji (One: The Angry Neighbor)", "Hanasakajiji (Two: Floating World)", "Hanasakajiji (Three: The Man Who Made Dead Trees Bloom)"

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Griffin House - Homecoming

I fell in love with Griffin House (in a purely heterosexual way, of course) a couple of years ago. His major label debut album (Lost & Found) had just been released through Nettwerk. There was a sticker on the front - a short quote from a review of the album. The quote said something to the effect of, "The first lines of Griffin House's hushed debut sound like Bono quietly singing Johnny Cash." So, I thought to myself, "Hey, I like Bono. I like Johnny Cash. Yeah...I think I'll like this guy." As it turned out, he was coming to town to do a show in a couple of weeks, so I bought the album without listening to it.
And I loved it. I could definitely hear the Bono in his voice. He had such rich vocals, and, when he stretched his voice to "scream", it was still rich, but a little raspy, like you could tell he was only doing so out of necessity. I was also a huge fan of his songwriting. Between the two, I was telling everyone about this guy, the next great singer/songwriter, with great songwriting skills and a voice that'll knock you out. Not many people listened, which was sad. I even heard taunts of "Hey...Are you sure that isn't Ryan Adams?" upon playing his album for people. They'll learn...they'll all learn.
So just imagine how excited I was for new music from him. I downloaded it as soon as it was posted...And spent the next week trying to convince myself that it was good.
Once again, I had fallen into the LaMontagne trap of setting up expectations of what an album (or artist) should sound like. Outside of maybe 4-5 songs, there's not much on this album that sounds like his last one.
But that's good.
After about 5 listens, I started to get into the album a little more. After 7, I couldn't stop listening to it. Every song on here is great. Some sound a little out of place at first ("Czech Republic" was the main culprit), but, the more you listen to it, the more you really start to look forward to every song.
Griffin does a little bit of everything on this album. Epic 80s pop ("Live to Be Free"), rockabilly ("'Cause I Miss You"), ode to Cash train songs, ("Downtown Line"), upbeat love/breakup songs ("The Guy That Says Goodbye to You is Out of His Mind"), and a perfect closer ("Go Out on My Own").
That's not to say that the album sounds schizophrenic. Not once have I thought, "Man, I wish he would stick to one style," while listening to this album. It all seems to fit together as a whole, no matter how different some of the songs may be.
And it always good to see someone stretch themselves as an artist, especially this early on in their career. We should expect nothing less than excellence from Griffin in the future...And I know he'll produce.
One final thought. Last night Sharon and I were both in the living room. I was playing Madden while Sharon was studying for a test. I had this album playing in the background. During the first song, she turned to me and asked if this was Griffin House. I said yes. When "Czech Republic" came on a couple of tracks later, she stopped, looked at me, and we had this exchange:

Sharon: Who is this?
Me: Still Griffin House.
Sharon: Really?
Me: Yep.
Sharon: I like it. I just didn't think that he could do something this different.

Always stretching himself. Yeah...that's what I'm looking for in an artist.

Rating: 8.2/10

Essential Tracks: "Downtown Line", "Lead Me On", "Only if You Need Me", "Go Out on My Own"
Favorite Tracks: "Burning Up the Night", "The Guy That Says Goodbye to You is Out of His Mind"

(Afternote: This album is currently not available in stores, but you can purchase a copy of it through Griffin's website,, or you can download it from that same site or through iTunes.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Outkast - Idlewild

Apparently I was grossly misinformed when it came to this release. I was under the impression that this was the soundtrack to the movie. Since I've yet to see the movie, I had no way of double-checking this information, and it wasn't until 5 minutes ago that I found out that this is not the fact, only a couple of songs from this album are actually in the movie.
At first I was confused. But, the more I've processed this information in my head, the more it actually makes sense. The movie is set in the prohibition era, but, for the most part the songs on this album don't mirror that sound.
I guess, in the end, it doesn't really matter.
What we have here is another great installment from one of the consistently most creative groups in hip-hop...and, if we're to believe the rumors (and the hints from "The Train"), it may be the last. It's no secret that Big Boi and Andre 3000 haven't really been working together since their Stankonia album. Big Boi has been working on his record label and touring, while Dre has been working on his acting career.
But no matter. Whether or not this is their last album is irrelevant at the moment. They've done more for hip-hop in their time together than just about anyone else, and that's really saying something.
But enough of that. On to the album.
One thing you can always say about Outkast is that they're creative. Always experimenting with different sounds and styles in their music. It became blatantly obvious who was responsible for the bulk of this on The Love Below, Andre's half of their bestselling double-album Speakerboxx/The Love Below.
If it was obvious there, it becomes unavoidable here. This album is a wonderful mix of Big Boi's southern hip-hop and some of the big band/ragtime stylings that categorize the music of the prohibition era.
But the entire album isn't necessarily like that. About a third of the album (maybe more, maybe less) could pass for a regular Outkast album. Creative, to be sure, but devoid of the jazz influences that you find on other songs.
Songs like "Mighty O" (the album's first single) and "N2U" would not be out of place on a regular Outkast album. But other songs, like "Call the Law" and "PJ & Rooster" place more emphasis on the uptempo speakeasy-type atmosphere that the movie strived for. Still other songs, like "When I Look in Your Eyes" and "Dyin' to Live" are straight piano jazz songs with no hint of hip-hop whatsoever...just a man on stage, pouring his heart into his vocals and piano...and they wouldn't sound out of place on a Harry Connick, Jr. album.
(I realize this is a disjointed review, but, for some reason, I can't really focus and/or get my head around this album. I'll just go through a couple of songs that I really like off of this album, and then I'll probably end it.)

"Idlewild Blue" - Uptempo blues song featuring a pretty sweet harmonica lick and a nice little blues guitar lead.
"Morris Brown" - A cool, trippy rap song backed by a high school marching band (Tusk, anyone?)
"The Train" - One of the best tracks on this album. Leading off with the sound of a train, a voice proclaiming, "All aboard...or, are all y'all bored?", followed by a banjo lead. When the horns come in at the chorus, you're hooked, and you can't even help it. This song provides the most evidence of the inevitable split of Outkast. This song is irresistible. I always listen to this song at least twice every time it's on...I can't not press repeat. Catchy beyond belief.
"PJ & Rooster" - Uptempo, stomping jazz number. Impossible to get out of your head, and impossible not to stomp your foot to while listening to it. This was the song that was featured in the commercial for the movie, containing the line "Don't make me send a telegram to Rooster/He'll shoot ya." I can see this being played at swing dances sooner rather than later.
"Mutron Angel" - An absolutely gorgeous song sung by Big Boi protege Janelle Monae. It sounds almost dirge-like...right at home at a funeral. If this song is any indication, we should expect amazing things from her in the not-to-distant future.
"A Bad Note" - Quite possibly the last song we'll ever hear from this groundbreaking duo. 8 minutes of swirling psychedelic guitars and an ominous voice repeating "a bad note". Not their best song, but a fitting way to end a fruitful partnership.

In short: a pretty good album, with it's ups and downs. When it's up, it's really up, containing some of the best stuff Outkast has ever done. When it's's still better than 95% of the other hip-hop that's out there. If you're into Outkast at all, you'll love this album. If you're not, you'll probably like about half of it. If you don't like hip-hop at all, well, there's still about 4-6 songs on here that'll you'll probably like.

Rating: 7.4/10

Essential Tracks: "Idlewild Blue", "Mutron Angel", "Morris Brown"
Favorite Tracks: "The Train", "PJ & Rooster"

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere

So I have some time on my hands at the moment, so this review is coming a day early...with the possibility of another review, tomorrow. You think you can handle it? Yeah...I thought so.
So, apparently, Charles Barkley has quite a singing voice. I did not know this about him.
(Har har har)
I was excited about this album for months and months before it was actually released, before the lead single "Crazy" broke all sorts of records in Britain. Why was I excited? It was partly due to the pictures that were popping up on the internet (one with the duo dressed like characters from The Big Lebowski, another of them dressed like Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro, etc.), but it was mostly for the parties involved. Production from Danger Mouse (the underground hero who famously mashed together Jay-Z's Black Album and The Beatles' White Album, then was nominated for a Grammy for producing the Gorillaz brilliant second album, Demon Days, then working with MF Doom on the hugely overlooked Danger Doom project, The Mouse and The Mask...basically one of the best producers on the market) and vocals from Cee-Lo Green (neo-soul revivalist who was a member of the infamous Goodie Mobb, worked with Outkast, and launched a solo career comprised of 2 off-the-wall soul albums). Really, how could that go wrong?
Well...there was no chance of it going wrong. Not only did their single and their album rip through Britain like a tornado, it's doing about the same thing here (only on a slightly smaller scale). They tour with a full band (string section and all) and dress up differently for every show (Star Wars characters, military outfits, Wizard of Oz, etc.), making their live shows even more entertaining than the album itself (check out some live clips over at Type "Gnarls Barkley Live", and you'll find some cool stuff).
But is that really all they're going for? Visual stimulation?
Thankfully, that's not the case. The album itself makes a strong case for Album of the Year. It's as entertaining and creative as just about anything else currently on the market. The music is amazing: an eclectic mix of old-soul sound meets new-school samples...but still, there's a darkness to it. Some songs sound like a soundtrack to your nightmare: "Just a Thought", with its distorted drum loop, backwards cymbals and eerie Spanish guitar is definitely a frontrunner in that category, as is "Necromancer", a song about murder and sex that would be disturbing if it wasn't so stinkin' catchy.
Then there's Cee-Lo's voice, always at the forefront. He definitely has a throwback voice, like Al Green or Marvin Gaye. You can't help but think he'd have been better appreciated if he was singing in the 60s and 70s...but then, if he were, who'd be carrying the torch now? Who'd be at the forefront of this groundbreaking (yet still retro) album? I can't think of anyone at the moment who could do half of what Cee-Lo can do with it.
This album has a bit of everything: toe-tappin' schizo-gospel ("Go-Go Gadget Gospel"), old school Motown ("Smiley Faces"), short, catchy hip-hop songs about furniture arrangements ("Feng Shui"), a quasi-obscure 80s cover ("Gone Daddy Gone"), swamp-soul monster-rock ("The Boogie Monster"), and, last but not least, dancefloor funk ("The Last Time"). There's more, but I've run out of descriptive terms.
All in all, there's not a single down moment on this album, not a single track that should be skipped (unless, of course, the subject matter on a song or two disturbs you, then, by all means, skip). It's upbeat, catchy, and utterly original...a combination that doesn't normally translate into mass publicity, but these guys somehow managed to do it, anyway.
It's the perfect summer album. I can't imagine a better CD to have on while driving with the windows down on a sunny day.
I can't say enough good things about this album, so I suppose I'll end with this: buy buy buy!

Essential Tracks: "Go-Go Gadget Gospel", "Crazy", "Just a Thought"

Favorite Tracks: "Storm Coming", "The Last Time"

Final Rating: 9.2/10

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ray LaMontagne - Till The Sun Turns Black

I've been listening to this album quite a bit as of late. I didn't care much for it the first couple of times I'd heard it. I'm a pretty big fan of his first album, Trouble (you know, with the exception of "How Come", which sounded like he was trying to write a new Buffalo Springfield song or something). The reason I liked that album so much was because there were some absolutely gorgeous songs on it. The entire album was so stripped sounded like he recorded it in his bedroom (probably while crying, but who knows). Songs like "Narrow Escape" (Killed ourselves a woman, that's all), "Burn", "Hannah", and "Jolene" made me fall in love with this album. The songs were so heartbreaking, so soft...I couldn't help but love it. (Apparently I have a thing for sad songs and books. Sharon seems to think it's because I'm generally a happy person, so I need something to balance it out. That makes pretty good sense, I think.)
So imagine how happy I was when I heard he had a new one coming out. "Oh man", I said to myself, "if it's half as good as Trouble, this could be one of the best albums of the year."
Then I listened to it. Oh, how disappointed I was. An opening keyboard line? Electric guitar and bass? Guitar and flute solos in a 6 minute song? Drums everywhere you look? Am I listening to the new Ray LaMontagne or Devendra Banhart?
Alas, it was Ray LaMontagne...
A couple songs seemed promising to me. "Can I Stay?" and "Lesson Learned" reminded me of some of the songs off of Trouble. "Now, if he just do another album with songs like this, he'd be in business".
But still, I wasn't able to give up on it. "Maybe I'm missing something." So I kept listening. By the third or fourth time I forgot what I didn't like about it. Sure, it doesn't sound like Trouble...but isn't that a good thing? Do I want great artists to keep repeating their previous work instead of moving forward?
No. But wht I wanted was this: a progression from Trouble...but a slow one. Not a huge change all at once. I wanted a couple instruments at a time to be added...maybe by his 4th album he'd be ready to go all "hippie rock" (as I proclaimed as I listened to this album for the first time) on us.
The more I listen to this album, the more I love it. And the more I love it, the more I'm glad that, ultimately, artists have control of their work and not me. Because I can guarantee you that, had he released Trouble, Part 2, I would've loved it for about 2 weeks, then said to myself, "Man, I wish he would've done something different."
Long story short: this album is great (or, as the Mayor of the Altered State of Drugachussetts would say, "I declare this album to be...awesome!"). If you liked Trouble, it may take you a little bit to get into. But, if you've never listened to Trouble, or didn't care too much for it, give this album a shot. He has now added great muscianship to his already amazing songwriting. Keep up the good work, Ray...I'm sorry I ever doubted you.

Essential Tracks: "Empty", "Three More Days", "Can I Stay", "Till the Sun Turns Black"
Current Favorite Track: "Lesson Learned"

Rating: 8.3/10