Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Radiohead - In Rainbows

I hesitate to even write anything about this album. It seems like I can’t even walk by a magazine (or newspaper) anymore without people talking about it. I won’t get into anything in this space other than the music itself…you know, how it’s supposed to be.
I’ve talked to some of you about this already, so I apologize if this entire review sounds like I’m repeating myself. I probably am.
As with many albums that I have grown to love, I didn’t really love this album right off the bat. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. My feelings on this album pretty much follow how I felt about every new Radiohead album. Perhaps my expectations are always too high. It’s alright, though…by the end, those expectations have normally been exceeded.
The first song of the album, “15 Step”, begins with a glitchy, stop-and-start computer beat…pretty much exactly what you would expect after listening to Thom Yorke’s “solo” album. When his voice comes in, it’s, well…a bit odd. It almost sounds like an alien. I don’t really know how else to explain it. As the song progresses, we see some more instrumentation added to the mix…Phil Selway’s masterfully precise drumming, and some excellent guitar work from Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. Colin Greenwood’s bass is always in the background, driving the song along. In fact, as I listen to this song, I am reminded once again at how well Colin and Phil work together. They really make quite an amazing rhythm section. And still the song evolves: a slightly startling children’s choir, some record scratches. I wasn’t in love with this song on first listen, but it did make me glad to have Radiohead back.
“Bodysnatchers” is a straight rock song. It sounds like it could’ve come from either The Bends or Hail to the Thief…it actually reminds me a bit of “2+2=5”. At about the two-minute mark, they briefly take a break from the “rock”, while Thom sings, “Has the light gone out for you? Because the light’s gone out for me,” over a eerie guitar line. It isn’t too long, though, before they kick it back into high gear, ending with Thom singing franticly while Jonny makes noises on his guitar like it was 1995.
“Reckoner” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” are two songs, that, while upbeat, I can’t necessarily bill them as full-out “rock songs”. I’m constantly amazed, though, at how Radiohead can write a song that can have moments of such intensity, without really getting too loud. “Jigsaw” starts out steady enough, but eventually explodes into a flood of music, vocals, and awesomeness. “Reckoner” starts out with some fantastic sounding drums and a soothing, bordering on neo-jazz guitar line. Thom’s voice comes in, and everything else seems to fade into the background for a little bit. The more I listened to it, though, the more instrumentation I heard. It really is a song that gets better with every listen.
There are a number of slower songs, as well. “Faust Arp” is a gorgeous little song, featuring a folkish guitar line backed with a building string section (courtesy of Jonny). “Nude” is a lush, soothing song with an ending reminiscent of a scene from The Little Mermaid (I know…I know. Just listen to it, though, and you’ll see what I mean). I’ve heard “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” described as a jazz song, and I just don’t get it. Perhaps some of the guitar work could possibly described as jazz-ish, but I would not classify it as a jazz song. There may be a bit of jazz (as well as classical) influence in the song, but to call it a jazz song is not really accurate. “House of Cards” is the one song that I may have cut out of the album if it were up to me. It’s not that the song is bad, it just isn’t nearly as good as the rest of the album.
“All I Need” is probably my favorite song on the album. It’s a low, synth-driven, eerie song, backed with drums that may one day be sampled into a hip-hop song. It almost feels like a song that Bjork would have recorded for an earlier album (Vespertine, most likely).
The album comes to a perfect close with “Videotape”, a song that starts with a solo piano, slowly begins to build (behind Thom’s voice and some erratic percussion), but never really takes off. It sounds boring, but I can assure you that it is not.
If I were to sum up this album in one word, it would be this: unprocessed. It has been a mark of Radiohead albums since OK Computer that they are extremely processed. The instruments, as well as Thom’s voice. On this album, they pretty much stripped all of that away. Everything is out there, unbound by the shackles of “studio magic”. After listening to this album, I don’t think they could have made it any better if they had processed to their heart’s content.
This is a masterful album that only gets better with each listen. Watch out, kids… Radiohead is back, and it doesn’t look like they’re going away.

Rating: 9.7

Favorite Tracks: “All I Need”, “Reckoner”, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”

Check out their website, or preorder the CD from The Rooftop.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

iPod Roulette

I know I know...I'm sorry for not keeping up with this better. I've been fairly busy with school and all that...but I suppose that's not much of an excuse. I apologize. I'm working on a couple of reviews that should show up within the next couple of days. I'm pretty backlogged, so they won't necessarily be brand new releases.

That being said, I hope this round of iPod Roulette will be something nice to read while you wait. If you want to join in on the fun, you can post your own results in the comment section.

Here we go:

1. "A Killer Idea" - Bill Hicks
This is actually the first time I've ever listened to Bill Hicks. You know what? This is a fantastic introduction. Tasteless? You betcha. But the idea of using terminally ill patients for better stunts in movies is pretty funny.

2. "A Quiet Little Place" - Seven and Seven Is
It's not a bad song. In fact, it might even be a good song. But, after the kind of music the 77's used to put out, I just expect something better from them. I suppose you could say it disappoints me a little bit, which is sad, because I think that, if you have never listened to the 77's before this, you might actually really enjoy this song.

3. "Mountain Halo" - The Appleseed Cast
How can anyone hate these guys? They have been releasing solid album after solid album over their (going on) 10 year career. This song can pretty much sum up what I love about them: noisy and delicate and huge, all at once. (If anyone is still calling these guys "emo", I will kick their heads off of their bodies.)

4. "You Will, You Won't" - The Zutons
This sounds like a song that The Zombies or The Animals would've recorded. I can definitely seeing myself stomping around to this in a club somewhere.

5. "Golly Sandra" - Eisley
This song just so happens to be my least favorite song from this album (Room Noises, their first). That's not to say that I hate's just that the rest of the album is full of such amazing songs, that this one, less-than-amazing song doesn't sound quite as good. Still a fairly good song, though.

6. "A Better Song/Daughter" - Rilo Kiley
The more I listen to Rilo Kiley, the more I realize that I think I really like them. I can't put my finger on what it is about them that I like, but, apparently, that thing I like is the same exact thing that made me not like them at first (if that makes any sense at all). This song is fantastic, but I can't necessarily put my finger on what makes it fantastic.

7. "Soul Power" - The Smashing Pumpkins
This song is like some sort of metal-funk. It sounds like an old James Brown song that they remade...only they threw a whole bunch of huge, nasty guitars on top. Does it makes me want to shake my rump? You betcha.

8. "Martha" - Tom Waits
One of my all-time favorite songs. No one sings a song about lost love as perfectly as Tom can. If you think Tom Waits is nothing but a growling, snarling maniac, listen to this song five times in a row. This song is perfect.

9. "Mantra Slider" - Soundtrack of Our Lives
I think if this group was around in the '70s, they'd be a lot more popular than they currently are, and this song is a perfect example of that. A slow-starting rock song, that grows and grows into a borderline psychedelic/rock bloodbath by the end.

10. "Waiting" - The Rentals
One of my favorite synth/fuzz-pop bands. This song reminds me of driving on a sunny afternoon with the windows down.

Okay, now it's your turn...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

I know there have been over a thousand reviews written on this album, each of them pretty much saying the same thing. I’ll try not to rehash everything you’ve already read, but I can’t promise anything.
Iron & Wine has been a fascinating band to track through their career. It has not been a long career, but they have come a long way in such a short time. Iron & Wine has shown more musical growth in five years than Nickelback would be able to show in a million years. Over the course of their albums, they have steadily added more instruments and have spent more time with production.
That growth certainly shows on The Shepherd’s Dog, their latest album. No longer are Sam Beam’s vocals sung in barely a whisper over a quiet guitar. This evolution was hinted at on the Woman King EP, and further explored on In the Reins (this release could easily be written off as a collaboration, and, therefore, not a real Iron & Wine album).
If you were asked to pick out a trademark characteristic of a previous Iron & Wine album, most people would point out the whispered vocals and soft, gorgeous guitar lines. They wouldn’t be wrong. But those are not the first things that spring to mind when thinking about this album. If I could sum this album up in one word, it would be this: percussion. There is an amazing amount of varied percussion on this album, all of it adding to the songs and overall feel of the album. Songs like “Lovesong of the Buzzard”, “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”, and “Boy With a Coin” (to name three) are extremely heavy with percussion. It never detracts from the songs, though, which is quite amazing, seeing as how there is so much going on.
He can still have his tender moments, too. Songs like “Resurrection Fern” and “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” sound like they could have been recorded for Our Endless Numbered Days.
More than anything, this album shows off Iron & Wine’s range. No longer are they a band to put on the background. This album demands your full attention…and, after a listen or two, you’ll be happy to give it.

Rating: 9.3

Favorite Tracks: “Innocent Bones”, “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”, “Boy With a Coin”, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”

Check our their website here, or buy it here

Sunday, September 30, 2007

New Radiohead Album Out on Oct. 10

This is insane.
After a bunch of release date questions (will it be in 2007? 2008? 2012?), Radiohead have suddenly decided to release their new album on October 10. No record label. No promotion. In fact, it is only available as a Discbox set (vinyl, CD, and download code) and as a digital download.
It is titled In Rainbows.
The best part?
The download is of the "pick your price" variety.
No...seriously. You pick how much you want to pay for it, and then you pay it.
It sounds too good to be true...but it's not.
You can find this information at their website and their blog, as well as places like Green Plastic, At Ease Web, Stereogum, and, I'm sure, many other sources.
I can't tell you how excited I am for this.
And I'm expected to go to sleep tonight...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

What is it you look for in an album? Catchy melodies? Great songwriting? Stellar musicianship? Originality? Relistenability?
It doesn’t really matter if you’re listening for all of those things are just one of those things…this album has it all.
At this point I would hope that you all would at least be familiar with the name Josh Ritter. He’s been around for quite some time, and overlooked for most of it. His name started showing up after the release of Hello Starling in 2003. It’s a nice little folk album. It doesn’t really separate itself too much from a lot of other artists in that same vein, but it’s still pretty good. There are a number of fantastic tracks on it. Then, last year he released The Animal Years, which is an absolutely magnificent album, filled with gorgeous songs of love, war, and other related topics. He gained a lot of attention for that album, and rightly so.
And so it was with much anticipation that he released The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Early reports said that it was going to be a lot different than his previous albums. That can be either extremely good or extremely bad.
After 15+ listens, I can say that it is extremely good.
The first track (“To the Dogs or Whoever”) is definitely different from anything he’s released up until this point. It begins with a strumming guitar and an erratically plunked piano, followed by some highly distorted vocals. In short, it sounds like an outtake from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot…in a good way. The rapid-fire verses give way to the big, can’t-help-but-sing-a-long chorus (which will get stuck in your head for weeks if you’re not careful). A great start.
The next track (“Mind’s Eye”) starts out with a very Clash-esque guitar line (it’s almost like he took the opening chords to “London Calling” and copied them into his song). It’s a herky-jerky song and takes a while to get used to, but, once you do, you’ll love it.
The high point of the album (and, quite possibly, of Josh’s young career) is “The Temptation of Adam”. The story/song is about two people living in a silo, guarding the button that would send atomic missiles on the world in the days before World War III. Mere words can’t describe the beauty of this song, so it’s definitely worth your time to listen to it again and again. It gets better with each listen.
“Empty Hearts” sounds like a song that Grant Lee-Phillips had written once upon a time, but never got around to recording. That’s not to say that this song (or this entire album) is one big musical rip-off, because that’s not what it is at all. Some of his influences are fairly obvious to pick up on, but that doesn’t take away anything from this album.
I could really go track by track and sing the praises of each one, but I’ll spare you that. Josh tries a number of different things musically on this album, and it’s amazing how he makes them all work. And, not only does he make them all work, he makes them all work within the context of the album. On the first listen or two, you may find yourself saying, “Why would he put this song after the last one?” But, after a number of listens, it all begins to come together. Even the delicate instrumental “Edge of the World” seems to fit perfectly after the big, instrument heavy “Rumors”. I can’t really explain why it works, I just know that it does, in fact, work, and it makes more and more sense every time I listen to it.
Do yourself a favor and check out this album. Just do one thing for me: don’t give up on it after one or two listens. Give it at least five listens before making a judgment. You’ll be glad that you did.

Rating: 9.5

Favorite Tracks: “Right Moves”, “The Temptation of Adam”, “Rumors”, “Still Beating”, “Empty Hearts”

Check out his website here, and buy it here

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Manchester Orchestra - I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child

Let’s get this out of the way as soon as possible: Manchester Orchestra is not an actual orchestra, nor are they a symphonic rock group in the mold of ELO or Moody Blues. Rather, they are a relatively new, relatively young pop-rock group with all sorts of potential.
The phrase “all sorts of potential” usually indicates that they’re not really all that good now. It’s like proclaiming a decent basketball player has “tremendous upside”: they may not be good now, but they will be eventually (or so we think). However, that is not what I mean at all. With this album, Manchester Orchestra show that, while they may have huge potential in front of them, they’re also ready for prime time right now.
The album kicks off in grand fashion. The opening to “Wolves at Night” may be the best moment on the entire album. It’s an absolute explosion of sound, with a nice, huge organ right in the foreground, while a distorted, slightly muffled drum set thunders on in the background. It is at that precise moment that you have been introduced to Manchester Orchestra…and now you know what they’re fully capable of.
Unfortunately, the entire album is not filled with songs laced with this kind of intensity and beauty. That’s not to say that the rest of the album is bad, but, after this initial display, it’s hard to not feel like the rest of the album is a bit of a letdown. Don’t worry…after 2 or 3 listens, this feeling will pass, and you’ll grow to love the rest of it, as well.
Their influences are sometimes painfully obvious, sometimes quasi-obvious, and sometimes not even close to obvious at all. There are moments in the course of the album when you can swear you’re listening to Death Cab for Cutie (“The Neighborhood is Bleeding”, “Golden Ticket”), and other times when a band’s name seems to be on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite articulate it (“Don’t Let Them See You Cry”, “Now That You’re Home”). Then there’s “Where Have You Been?”, which sounds like a song that Paloma would’ve/should’ve recorded.
One of the many stand-outs on this album is “Sleeper 1972”, a quiet song dominated by a slow organ line. It’s easy to dismiss during the first couple of listens, but be sure to give it a shot. The opening lyric of “When my dad died/The worms ate out both his eyes,” seems a bit odd, and that’s what turned me off originally. It just seemed to be strange for the sake of strange…perhaps a bit of shock value. Repeated listens, however, turn the song into one of the saddest, most genuinely heartfelt songs about the death of a loved one in a long, long time. By the time he sings, “I still see you/Inside of this God-awful house,” you can swear that you can almost see him, too. It is an absolutely gorgeous song, and begs for repeated listens.
This would be a fairly easy album to miss. It is put out by their own label, A Favorite Gentlemen Recording, and is not readily available in a lot of stores. There hasn’t been much publicity, and I very much doubt you’ll ever hear one of these songs on the radio. But this is an album that cries out, begging you to please track it down and buy it. And, if the album doesn’t cry out, then I am. Please check out this album. It is, without a doubt, one of the top ten albums of the year.
Check out this album. Check out this album. Check out this album.

Rating: 8.3

Essential Tracks: “Wolves at Night”, “Now That You’re Home”

Favorite Tracks: “Where Have You Been?”, “Sleeper 1972”, “Golden Ticket”

Check out their website here

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Super Review #1

In an effort to clean out my box of albums to review, I have decided to post a couple of super this case, you get 4 reviews. They're shorter than normal, but, if you put them all together, they're longer than an average review.

That being said, let's get this thing started.

Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha

People rave about Andrew Bird’s lyrics. “He’s brilliant,” and so on. I picked up his previous album (Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs), and I immediately didn’t get it. So he uses a dictionary and fits big words into his songs. Big deal. I’m not really that impressed.
So it was with slightly less enthusiasm that I listened to Armchair Apocrypha. And, much to my surprise, I liked it. A lot. And why do I like it? Because it’s a great album, filled with great songs. Forget the “brilliant lyricist” tag and just listen to the album. He could be singing the praises of the toilet bug and I would still like it. Songs like “Fiery Crash”, “Imitosis”, “The Supine”, and “Scythian Empire” showcase his tremendous instrumental talents, while “Armchairs” showcases his amazing voice (it sounds like a lost Jeff Buckley track).
The last track (“Yawny at the Apocalypse”), a dark, instrumental track that features some not-so-beautiful violin noises, could be cut off, but that’s just me. I’m also a bit confused by the music of “Heretics”, which seems a bit too similar to that of “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” (from his previous album) for my liking. Apparently he’s a bright young man, and I’m sure he did this for a reason.
Those (slight) missteps aside, it’s a very solid album that I highly recommend.

Rating: 8.6

Favorite Tracks: “Imitosis”, “Dark Matter”, “Armchairs”

The White Stripes - Icky Thump

How ridiculous are The White Stripes? So ridiculous that they can make an album called Icky Thump, record a song by the same name that includes a crazy bagpipe “solo”…and they can still make it awesome. Is it strange? You bet your sweet bippy it’s strange…but it’s also so awesome you can’t help but fall in love with it.
The backbone of virtually every White Stripes album has been Jack’s guitar work, and it is no different on this album. His talents are in full swing on this album, especially on the riff-driven “Bone Broke”, the opening of which sounds like it is being played by the great Nigel Tufnel.
There is some experimentation on this album, but not nearly as much as there was on their previous album (Get Behind Me, Satan). So those of you who were wanting them to get back to their guitar driven sound…well, your wish has been granted…so long as you don’t mind the occasional nod to traditional Irish instruments.
I’m not a huge fan of “Conquest”, their huge, guitar-raging, trumpet-driven tribute to Patti Page, but that’s one slight misstep on an otherwise stellar album. They try so many different things on this album that it’s amazing that more of their ideas don’t work. I’m a big fan of their oh-so-close to rockabilly “Rag & Bone”, which follows Jack & Meg as they dig through other people’s unwanted items. It’s a kind of strange idea, but they pull it off perfectly, as very few others would be able to.
It’s not perfect, but it may be the best White Stripes album to date.

Rating: 8.8

Favorite Tracks: “Icky Thump”, “Little Cream Soda”, “Rag & Bone”

Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger

Ryan Adams is well-known for releasing virtually everything he records. I make fun of him for this just about every chance I get, and yet every time he releases a new album I get really excited about it. Here’s what happens with every single album: I listen to the album once or twice and declare my love for the album…the more I listen to the album, the more I realize that the album itself is fairly mediocre, and that I have been tricked once again. On every album he releases, there always seems to be 2-4 absolutely amazing tracks, while the rest of the songs are mediocre at best. And this happens to me every single time he releases an album (which can be up to three times a year).
Guess what? I did the same thing with this album. I got excited about a new release, listened through the album a couple of times and decided that I loved it. But then something amazing happened. The more I listened to this album, the more I realized that this actually is a good album all the way through. Those 2-4 amazing tracks? They’re just the icing on the cake. The only track that really fits into the fairly mediocre category is “Halloweenhead”, and it’s not even that bad of a song. In fact, it’s kind of catchy in its own way. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album. (To be fair, I pegged this song as a bad song before I even heard it, just based on the name, so maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake.)
Musically this album seems to fit right along with Heartbreaker and Jacksonville City Nights as being a generally “old country” album.
If you even kinda-sorta like the whole alt-country genre, give this album a shot, even if you’ve been burned by Ryan Adams before. It is definitely his most cohesive (and, therefore, best) album to date.

Rating: 8.8

Favorite Tracks: “Two”, “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.”, “These Girls”

Bright Eyes - Cassadaga

Do you remember the Bright Eyes of old? The anger and musical rawness of Letting Off the Happiness? The more mature (yet still angry and raw) Fevers and Mirrors? The orchestration and extreme musical growth of Lifted…? Well, you can (apparently) kiss that group good-bye.
I know I know…people grow up and music evolves and yadda yadda yadda. And I’d be fine with that, if that’s what I thought happened. It appears as though young Conor Oberst has taken his “new Dylan” label – a label thrown on him by a ton of musicians and critics alike – a bit too seriously. (I won’t get into the extreme misuse of that label here, but perhaps I will at a later moment) He went from a passionate musician to “just another folk-rock” singer in the span of a couple of years…and that’s really sad to me. Did I like I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning? Yes…yes I did. But I was kind of hoping that his foray into the folk-rock genre would be short-lived, that he would reinvent himself again. Maybe take elements from the genre and mix that with some of his older work?
I know this seems like a “I really liked him until he got big” review, but that’s not it at all. If this was a good album, I’d be just as excited as the next guy. But this is not a good album…and it makes me sad.
There are some good moments. I really like “Four Winds”, “If the Brakeman Turns My Way” and “I Must Belong Somewhere”. Even “No One Would Riot for Less” ends well, but the extremely boring beginning makes it fairly impossible to make it to the end. “Soul Singer in a Session Band” is such a terrible song that I can’t even bring myself to listen to it. I can’t tell you what’s wrong with it, but I know that it’s terrible, and that’s enough for me. I feel the same way about “Classic Cars”. It just feels contrived. Then there are songs like “Make a Plan to Love Me” and “Middleman” that aren’t terrible…they’re just kind of boring. They could be playing (or not), and I really couldn’t care one way or another.
So, to summarize. There are a couple of good songs, a couple of bad ones, and the rest are just kind of boring. Let’s just hope that this trend doesn’t continue. If it does, then we can all mourn a great young talent that is going to waste.

Rating: 4.7

Favorite Songs: “Four Winds”, “If the Brakeman Turns My Way”, “I Must Belong Somewhere”

Visit the websites!
Andrew Bird, The White Stripes, Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes

Make sure to check back next week. Hopefully I'll have another Super Review (or, at the very least, a regular review) up by next Thursday.
Leave comments!

Monday, August 13, 2007

iPod Roulette

Here we go again. I'll hit "Shuffle" on my iPod, tell you the first 10 songs that come up, and then write about each one. When I'm done, you do the same thing and post your results in the comments. Come on, we go.

1. I'd Hate to Leave You - Will Stratton
A nice little neo-folk song. Think Sufjan Stevens' Seven Swans album, without all the overt Christian references. Soothing vocals, a nicely picked guitar line, soft strings, and an appearance from the banjo. More people need to listen to Will Stratton.

2. The End of Medicine - The New Pornographers
I absolutely love the organ line that laces this song. An extremely well-done pop-rock song that could've been recorded in the late 70s. Is there a reason that this band is not huge?

3. Morning Bell (Live) - Radiohead
There are not a whole lot of live recordings that I listen to on a regular basis, but Radiohead's I Might Be Wrong album is an absolutely amazing live album, and this song is no exception. You can just feel the live energy oozing from this song.

4. Create-a-Monster - Monarch
It's a shame to me that Coldplay is so massive (especially seeing as how not good X&Y is), and yet a group like Monarch is still flying very low under the radar. These guys make wonderful pop music. This song features everything I love about this group: the soaring (and yet oh-so-delicate) vocals, the gorgeous piano line, the up-front drumming, the perfect guitar lines...and, of course, all of it coming together at the perfect moment. What a wonderful song.

5. Sleeping Beauty - A Perfect Circle
Perhaps not the best song on the album, but it's still pretty good. I really like how A Perfect Circle doesn't need the intensity (and complexity) of Tool in order to make a good song. This is a fairly simple rock song, and it works. Good job, fellas.

6. The Monkeygoround - The Kinks
A goofy little song that will get stuck in your head for a week straight if you're not careful.

7. Brompton Oratory - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
There's really nothing about this song that should work...but it does. I have a sneaking suspicion that Nick Cave can pretty much do anything he wants and still make it work.

8. Sweet N Sour - Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
I think Ben once referred to Plastic Fang as "a perfect album to listen to if you're a truck driver". This song does nothing but reinforce that thought. Just a straight rock/blues song...and there's nothing wrong with that.

9. When You Buy a Humvee - Patton Oswalt
I love this piece. "When you buy a Humvee, you should be hit in the back of a neck with a roll of quarters in a sock, and then wake up in Iraq with a gun...'Oh yeah, you have to get the oil yourself.'" My thoughts exactly, my little thoughts exactly.

10. Speedway - Counting Crows
I am still not ashamed of my love for the Counting Crows. Even though my least favorite album is This Desert Life, it's still a good album, and I really like this song a lot. I love the organ and how it kind of haunts the a ghost wrapped in an organ wrapped in a song.

Now it's your turn.

(Make sure to check back within the next couple of days. I'll be posting a Super Review, with 5+ albums. They won't be full reviews, but I've been getting so backed up with albums to review that I need to do something to clear some of them out.)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist

(I've been slacking. I know. I'm sorry. But I'm back, and hopefully I can catch up with all the great [and some of the not-so-great] stuff that has come out recently.)

The Smashing Pumpkins (read: Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin) announce their comeback in grand fashion from the opening riff of this album. “Doomsday Clock” opens with Chamberlin’s amazing drumming, followed by a nasty-heavy Pumpkins riff. By the 2 minute mark of the first song, you’re hooked, and you’ve already forgotten that they ever broke up in the first place.
The massive guitars and drums. The unmistakable nasal vocals. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Pumpkins are back. And, while I can’t say they’re better than ever, I can say that it appears as though they’ve never missed a beat. They could have released this album directly after Machina, and it would sound every bit as good as it does now.
It never quite matches the brilliance of their earlier albums, but it definitely matches the intensity of anything they’ve ever released before. And, after all this time, Billy still has an impeccable sense of timing and melody.
True, half of the original band is missing from this current incarnation (so long, James Iha and D’arcy), and that’s kind of a shame, but who are we kidding? Everyone knows that the Pumpkins have always revolved around Billy Corgan. Do I miss Iha and D’arcy? I’d be lying if I said no…but I don’t miss them as much as I thought. With Corgan at the helm, this sounds as much like a Pumpkins album as anything they’ve done. Some of the song titles conjure up memories of Zwan (most notably “That’s the Way (My Love Is)” and “(Come On) Let’s Go!”), but the songs themselves have a definite Pumpkins sound. So, for all of you who didn’t like the Zwan album (I do not include myself in that group), have no fear.
The one “down moment” on this album is the overly long “United States”. While it is not necessarily a bad song, it does run a bit long. Granted, the Pumpkins have had a number of long songs in the past (“Starla” and “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” are my two favorites), but this one almost just seems long for the sake of long. Let me put it this way: by the time the song ends, you’re pretty ready for it to be over.
But that’s only one down moment. The rest of the album is nothing less than stellar. Songs like “Bleeding the Orchid”, “Tarantula”, “Starz”, and the aforementioned “That’s the Way (My Love Is)” and “Doomsday Clock” stand up against just about anything the Pumpkins have ever done.
This entire album really shows the Pumpkins at the top of their game, which is really very impressive, considering they haven’t recorded an album since 2000. Is it the best album of their career? Of course not. But it’s a very impressive comeback, and one that leaves me hoping they keep this thing going.

Rating: 7.8

Essential Tracks: “Bleeding the Orchid”, “Starz”, “Neverlost”

Favorite Tracks: “Doomsday Clock”, “That’s the Way (My Love Is)”, “Tarantula”

Visit their website here

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Red Button - She's About to Cross My Mind

The Red Button have found a nice little niche with this album. Just about everyone loves 60s pop music, but, of course, none of the original artists are around to record new albums anymore. Sure, Paul McCartney is still recording on a semi-regular basis, but his music doesn’t really recall the heyday of British Invasion pop. He’s past that point.
But The Red Button are not past that point. Or, rather, they’re choosing to go back to that point. It doesn’t feel nostalgic, and it doesn’t feel gimmicky. Rather, it feels like these two guys really love that era of music and will try their darndest to recreate the magic and feel of that music.
On this album, they try to recall the spirits of The Beatles (early stuff, of course), The Kinks, The Byrds, and other 60s pop bands.
The problem is, they come off feeling more like clones than anything. Perhaps it’s the slick production, but listening to this album does not make me feel like I’m listening to the height of the British Pop Invasion; I feel like I’m listening to a couple of guys who want to make me think that I’m listening to music in the height of the British Pop Invasion.
I suppose they’re going for a “fun, summer” vibe, and perhaps it works as that. Roll your windows down on a summer day and blast this album.
I still can’t shake the overall annoyingness of some of the songs, though. It seems fun. I feel like I should like it, but something is holding me back. It’s not the lyrics, even though they aren’t the best (who are we kidding? The majority of lyrics in pop music of the 60s wasn’t exactly amazing, either). The musicianship is spot-on. The harmonies are good. But there’s just something about the songs that holds me back from loving them.
I can’t put it into words, unfortunately. So I’ll end with this. It’s not a bad album. It’s not a good album. It’s just kind of…blah. If you’re looking for nothing more than a fun summer album, well, you may just dig this. If you’re looking for anything more, well, you’re probably out of luck.

Rating: 5.0

Good Tracks: “Cruel Girl”, “Free”

Visit their website here

Saturday, June 23, 2007

iPod Roulette

It's been a busy week, with me starting back to class on Wednesday and everything, so I haven't had time to write a review yet. Sorry. Hopefully I'll have one posted by tomorrow.
In the meantime, we'll play a little game called iPod Roulette (which I took from the guy at Silly Pipe Dreams).
The rules are simple: hit "Shuffle" on your iPod, and write down the first 10 songs that come up. I'll end up writing something about every song.
If you want to play along, post your songs in the "Comments" area.
I think this will be fun.
Here we go.

1. Have You Ever - Brandi Carlile
Not a bad way to start. I like her...don't love her...but this is a pretty good song.

2. Cheatin' - Gin Blossoms
I have been a fan of the Gin Blossoms since their first album...where this song is found. However, I have always (ALWAYS) hated this song. The entire album is a nice little pop/rock album with a slight nod to country every now and then. And then, all of a sudden, they decide, "Hey, for this last track, let's go full out country." C'mon fellas, you can do better than that.

3. I Don't Ever Give Up - Patty Griffin
I'm not a huge Patty Griffin fan, but her latest album was pretty good. I give this one a thumbs up.

4. Sail to the Moon - Radiohead
Kind of fitting, what with Evan Almighty hitting theaters this weekend and whatnot. A beautiful song about Thom Yorke's son growing up to be president and sending people to the moon to save them...kind of like a modern-day Noah...but with a spaceship and people. Beautiful, beautiful song.

5. Tell it to Me - Tom Waits
BIG fan of this song, which comes off of his "Orphans" set. There's not a whole lot that Tom Waits has done that I'm not a big fan of.

6. Jesus Christ - Big Star
Gotta love Big Star. This song is a really upbeat, super-poppy song with "Jesus Christ is born today" for the chorus, which rocks over horns. It amounts to one of the least Christmasy Christmas songs in existence.

7. Whatever (Some Folk Song in C) - Elliott Smith
A while ago I found a website called Elliott Smith B-Sides, which contains a massive amount of free, unreleased Elliott Smith b-sides, outtakes and the like. This song is taken off of an album I found there called "From a Basement on a Hill 2". When he was recording his last album, he recorded over 40 songs. 15 of them made it to the album, and these are the leftovers. There's some pretty wicked stuff in here.

8. DVNO - Justice
I still haven't listened to this yet. By all accounts it is a mixture of techno beats and metal guitars. It will either be amazing or completely frightening...perhaps a mixture of the two.

9. Lucky Town - Bruce Springsteen
This is taken from his MTV Unplugged album. Not my favorite of his, but I could do a lot worse.

10. Who At My Door is Standing - Johnny Cash
From the collection "Personal File", which came out last year. If you haven't checked it out, definitely do it. It's a great collection of recently discovered tapes from Cash's "vault". They're basically performances with Cash and his guitar that were recorded in the 70s.

Well...that wasn't too bad. I didn't have a single embarrassing song on here.
Now it's your turn.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The National - Boxer

I can’t remember the last time I changed my opinion of an album so quickly. I went from thinking, “This is nothing special,” on my first listen, to being head-over-heels in love with it halfway through my second listen. I’m happy to say that it has only gotten better with each listen (and there have been many repeated listens).
They jump right out with “Fake Empire”, a slow burning song that starts with an infectious piano line and the opening lyric of “Stay out super late tonight/Picking apples, making pies/Put a little something in our lemonade/And take it with us/We’re half awake in a fake empire”, delivered in full Leonard Cohen mode. It isn’t too much longer before more instruments make their way into the song, and you find yourself bopping your head and grooving to the music, which is now in full swing, complete with some wicked horns (compliments of The Clogs’ Padma Newsome).
For a second you may be confused. “Is this the new Interpol?” That’s a perfectly normal thought, and it may take a couple of listens to get over this feeling completely. I can tell you right now what is throwing you off: it’s the voice of Matt Berninger, who sounds an awful lot like Paul Banks (who sounds an awful lot like Ian Curtis). Both have the baritone voice often associated with new-wave groups like Duran Duran or Depeche Mode. But The National are not a new-wave group, so don’t let the voice throw you off.
This is especially evident on the very next song, “Mistaken for Strangers”, which starts off with guitars that sound like they came directly from Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. By the time the nasty-huge drums kick in, your mind should be out of the new-wave gutter.
One of the things that really stands out in this album is the instrumentation. You may not recognize it at first, but give it a couple of listens. There are all sorts of things going on at any given time. A wandering guitar line. A string section playing lightly (or perhaps not-so-lightly) in the background. A keyboard/piano line that you don’t hear until the 4th time through. All of this, of course, is on top of the thundering drums of Bryan Devendorf, the apparent centerpiece of this album the more you listen to it.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. This album isn’t entirely about rockers and thunder: there is an underlying beauty to the entire album, which becomes more obvious with each listen.
It is, of course, more obvious with some songs than with others. “Green Gloves”, “Racing Like a Pro”, and “Gospel” are prime examples that The National don’t have to play hard to make a song huge.
Most importantly, this is, without a doubt, a cohesive album. There are, of course, some tracks that stand taller than others, but that is inevitable. But, by the time everything is said and done, this is one of the most cohesive albums I’ve heard in a long time. There is not a single flaw on this album. Not one.
There are shades of Interpol, Joy Division, Bloc Party, and others on this album. But, at the end of the day, The National are their own band.
Thank God for that.

Rating: 9.7

Essential Tracks: “Fake Empire”, “Racing Like a Pro”, “Gospel”

Favorite Tracks: “Green Gloves”, “Slow Show”, “Apartment Story”
Check out their website here

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

William Fitzsimmons - Goodnight

If you were to only listen to the first three-and-a-half minutes of William Fitzsimmons’ second album, you might be under the impression that he is nothing more than another neo-folk, singer-songwriter type along the lines of Iron & Wine. Sure, there are hints of electronic beats (or “drum stuff”, as Mr. Fitzsimmons calls them), but those dwell below the surface…sporadic at best.
Right around the 3:30 mark, however, things take a bit of a turn. The beat becomes a bit more pronounced…but the song ends shortly afterwards. You’re left wondering what’s next.
“Hold On With My Open Hands” is what’s next, and it just so happens to be one of the best songs on the album. It starts with a simple guitar and William’s hushed voice. Then comes the banjo. Then the melodica. Then the faint sounds of an electric guitar in the background (if you’re not listening, you won’t be able to hear it). By the end of the song, we’re treated to a smorgasbord of instrumentation, all making for something so beautiful you really have to hear it to “get it”.
“Please Don’t Go” is another highlight, chock full of “drum stuff” that really help to drive the song. The instrumentation over top of it is great as well, but, were it not for the imaginative “drum stuff” on this song, it would just be “another song”. With the “drum stuff”, well…quite frankly, it “thumps”.
My favorite lyric on the entire album is found on “Body For My Bed”, where he sings, “My mother warned me of people that would take advantage of my money and my grace/But she forgot to tell me I’m the same.”
There are some great songs on here, some along the lines of Sufjan Stevens or Margot & The Nuclear So & So’s (simple folk songs at heart, but fleshed out with lots of instrumentation), while others make their way into Paper Route territory (pop songs fleshed out with lots of “drum stuff”, and other wonderful noises). It doesn’t matter which style he chooses…it all sounds great. And, in addition to sounding great, it all fits together as a cohesive album. Seeing as how it’s a concept album, being able to fit together as a cohesive album is a pretty big deal.
Look past the songs and you’ll find a story. It’s a gorgeously heartbreaking story of a family broken apart, as seen from the perspective of all the parties involved. I don’t want to say too much about this, as listening to the lyrics for yourself is far more rewarding than hearing someone talk about them. Although the titles of the songs are much like a movie score, in that if you read the titles in order, you can kind of figure out what happens. However, if you’re just listening (or reading) to “figure out what happens”, then you’ll miss the beauty of the story itself. My advice: pick up this album and support a great (if relatively unknown) storyteller.

Rating: 8.9

Essential Tracks: “Everything Has Changed”, “Body For My Bed”, “Afterall”

Favorite Tracks: “Hold On With My Open Hands”, “Please Don’t Go”, “Find My Way Home”

Visit his website here

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Lost Art of the Protest Song

There is nothing quite like a good protest song. Something that says, "I'm taking a stand," without having to actually force anything down your throat. You never actually had to say, "I think war is terrible," but it was there for someone to interpret through lyrics. Bob Dylan was the master at this. Songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Blowin' in the Wind" are perfect examples of this. He had something to say, and he said it...but he said it with a sense of poetry.
It seems as though that art has been lost somewhere along the way. Artists still feel the need to voice their opinions on war and government (now more than ever, it seems like), but they're not quite sure how to do it.
So, instead of getting beautifully written songs, we get garbage like Bright Eyes' "When the President Talks to God", Over the Rhine's "If A Song Could Be President", or Neil Young's entire Living With War album. They know that they have something to say - namely, that they think the President is doing a terrible job - but there's nothing beautiful or poetic about it. They have basically written a "song", but have given no thought whatsoever to the accompaning music, or even the way the words flow together. Songs like these seem to be written more to get a reaction out of the crowd...not so much to actually write a good song.
You can stand on stage these days and say something like, "Yeah, the President is really stupid/I don't like the way he runs this country/I don't even like his hair/And he talks like a moron", and, as long as you're holding a guitar, people will clap and scream their approval from all corners of the room. There doesn't have to be any poetry in the lyrics, there doesn't have to be any cohesiveness in the music...just say exactly how much you hate the government and you have fans. I chalk this up to everyone at the moment feeling like they have strong political views. I also chalk it up to lazy songwriting. If you can get a reaction from people by writing the most basic of words, why should you even try to make it sound good? It's just lazy.
There are still some people who know how it's done. The last great protest song that I remember hearing was Tom Wait's "The Day After Tomorrow", off his 2004 album, Real Gone. It's a song like that that really makes you feel something. If you haven't heard it yet, do yourself a favor and listen to it as soon as possible.
Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I've missed a massive amount of great protest songs. For all of our sakes, I hope that I have.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky

You never really know what you’re going to get when you hear a new Wilco album for the first time. Their first couple of albums could fit nicely under the umbrella of alt-country, but they’ve since made a career out of trying to get as far away from that category as possible.
I guess you could call them a rock band, but they’re still not what you think of when you think of a stereotypical rock band. Experimental rock band doesn’t work, either, because that brings to mind bands like Sonic Youth, and that’s not who they are.
When most people talk about Wilco, they start off by talking about their creative musicianship…then launch straight into what a genius songwriter Jeff Tweedy is. Let me say right now that I have never been firmly entrenched in the “Tweedy as a genius” camp. Don’t get me wrong…I normally like his lyrics, and he’s always done interesting stuff with his music. I just can’t call anyone a genius who thinks that “She fell in love with a drummer/She fell in love with a drummer” over and over again is an acceptable lyric. That’d be like calling the guy from The Georgia Satellite’s a genius for writing “I got a little change in my pocket/Going jingle lingle ling.” Let’s just move on. (I’ll grant you that even someone like Dylan was known to make a lyrical mistake from time to time, most notably in the song “Wiggle Wiggle” off Under the Red Sky, but at least he knows it was a mistake, and doesn’t play it at concerts anymore.)
All the fanboys (and girls) have built Wilco (and Tweedy) up so much that it’s impossible for them to live up to the genius-level hype that they get.
But forget for a second about all the hype. Forget that people think this band is the second coming of The Beatles. Forget about all of it, and listen to this album with no preconceived notions of what it should sound like. Try to pretend you’re listening to an album by a brand new band.
And what do you get?
You get a great album. Plain and simple. Oh, it may take you a couple of listens to get to that point (it took me about 4 listens to really get into it), but, if you’re really listening, you’ll end up at that point eventually.
I’m not really sure how to describe it, but there is definitely a very strong 70s vibe going on in this album. There are some fantastic Hammond organ lines (most notably the strong groove of “Shake it Off”, which ventures into Al Green territory before making a sharp turn into faux-Pink Floyd land), as well as some erratic guitar solos that seem to fit right in with the mood of the song/album. They toyed with this a bit on their previous album (especially in the opener for that album, “At Least That’s What You Said”), but they take it to new heights with the songs on this album.
There are a couple of songs on here that venture into the adult contemporary realm of faux-folk music that would be terrible if they weren’t so good (just listen and you’ll hear it). Songs like “Either Way” and “Please Be Patient With Me” are perfect examples of those songs…songs that, if anyone else did them would probably sound like terrible America rip-offs, but Wilco somehow pull a great song out of it (instead of something you may hear while shopping at Sears).
I could go on and talk about every song on here, but I’ll stop and leave you with a little bit of surprise for yourselves. I will say that this is their most solid album since Summer Teeth, and is one of the best albums they’ve ever released.

Rating: 9.0

Essential Tracks: “Either Way”, “What Light”

Favorite Tracks: “Shake it Off”, “Hate it Here”
Visit the band's website here, or preorder your copy at The Rooftop

Friday, April 27, 2007

Elvis Perkins - Ash Wednesday

(I would like to start out by apologizing for the lack of reviews lately. For those of you who don't know, I recently opened an online record store. There's some really cool stuff up there. If you have a chance, head on over and check it out. I'm very proud of it. It's called The Rooftop. Let me know what you think of it.)

And now, on with the review...

I had read something about this guy in Paste at one point or another, and, from their short description, I thought he sounded like something that I would like. I downloaded this album from Emusic, and was in love with it by the first minute.
The first song, “While You Were Sleeping”, is probably the best song on the album. It starts off as a happy little folk song, with a guitar and a voice and not much else. Over the course of the 6+ minutes, it grows into something amazing and beautiful. Instruments are added slowly, so that, by the end, you’re in an ocean of sound, with drums, strings, bass, horns, and other such gorgeousness to keep you company.
“May Day!” stands out as a down track. Maybe it’s because it sounds nothing like the rest of the album…almost like he was striving for a radio track with it, or something of that nature. It’s not a terrible song…in fact, it’s actually a pretty cool song…but it just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the album, and it throws me off every single time.
“The Night and the Liquor” also seems a bit long in spots, with his faux-yodeling and everything, but, other than those moments, it’s a pretty good song.
Those are really the only couple of tracks I don’t care for a ton. And it’s not even that I dislike those songs…I just love the rest of the album so much that anything less than stellar stands out as a disappointment.
“All the Night Without Love” is a great song…a song that would not be out of place being played at a French cafĂ©.
“Ash Wednesday” (a reference to the day after 9/11) and “Good Friday” are beautiful to the point of heartbreaking. When listening to either of these songs I find it very difficult not to drop whatever I’m doing at the moment and just listening. There’s a pain in his voice during these songs that really isn’t present in any of the other songs.
Speaking of which…
The musicianship and songwriting on this album is really great. However, his voice is the best part of this album. He is somehow able to mix the uniqueness of Thom Yorke with the world-weary groan-and-gravel of mid-60s Bob Dylan.
Granted, there’s nothing really too groundbreaking on this album. It’s not like listening to Revolver for the first time or anything like that. But, all the same, it’s a great album with a number of amazing moments. It’s also (along with The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Neon Bible) one of the best releases so far this year.

Rating: 9.3

Essential Tracks: “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky”, “Sleep Sandwich”

Favorite Tracks: “While You Were Sleeping”, “Ash Wednesday”, “Good Friday”

Check out his website here

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

With their previous album, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse got their name out there more than they ever had before. Nevermind that they’ve been around for forever and a day…no one really cared about that. Hearing the yelping, fist-pumping, stomp-rock of “Float On” was enough for most people to declare their undying love for all things Mouse.
And why not? That song (along with “Ocean Breathes Salty”, “The View”, “Black Cadillacs”, and perhaps a couple others) was a perfect summer song…something that worked on mainstream radio (and late-night talk-show stages), yet was just different enough so that you could say things like, “Yeah, I listen to the radio from time to time…but I don’t like Kelly Clarkson or anything like that.”
But the album itself was not necessarily what you would call “radio friendly”. Along with those poppier songs, you got a steady dose of angry Pixies rock (“Bury Me With It”), plodding, horn-driven Waitsian funeral music (“The Devil’s Workday”), herky-jerky banjo-dirge (“Satin in a Coffin”), and other instances of strange music. If it weren’t for a massive single, there’s no way that album would’ve caught on like it did.
Of course, we were all waiting for their next album. What direction would they go in? Would they make an entire album of fist-pumping, “arena-ready” songs? Would they steer more towards their darker, odder side?
The answer came months before the album was even recorded, when the report came in that Johnny Marr (a member of British rock royalty) would be joining the band. Nevermind that Modest Mouse had always kind of been a “redneck-and-proud-of-it-but-not-in-a-Toby-Keith-kinda-way” band, and that throwing the guitarist for The Smiths in the mix might throw that off. More than anything it signaled a move towards a more straight-ahead rock sound…and that’s exactly what we got.
There’s still a moment or two of oddness on it…they didn’t completely get away from that side. “Parting of the Sensory” is Modest Mouse at their darkness, complete with hand claps, raspy voices in the background (think Nilsson’s “I’d Rather Be Dead”, but with crazy people instead of old people), and a military-esque, foot-rockin’ (but not in the happy way) breakdown to end it.
The rest of the album, however, is much what I expected…a straight-ahead rock album. Some songs, “Missed the Boat” in particular, could really be more accurately described as a pop song…just listen to the harmony and instrumentation in the chorus for proof.
There does seem to be more songs fitting the mold of the “Float On” in this bunch…high-energy rock songs with a catchy hook. “Dashboard” is in that group (released as the first single), as is “We’ve Got Everything” (this one actually feels more like “The View”, but that’s neither here nor there). “Steam Engenius”, with its funky guitar line, and “whoo-hoo whoo-hoo” in the chorus, is destined to be blasted out of many a car window this summer.
I really enjoyed “Spitting Venom”, but, at 8+ minutes, it seems to be a bit too long for its own good. The electric guitar line also seems to be a bit too close to “Trailer Trash”, but perhaps that’s just me.
All in all, I can say that I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the outcome of this album. There’s still a form of strangeness to some of the songs, so you can’t really say that they’ve gone all “radio rock”…I don’t think they’ll ever be able to be classified as that. This is, however, their most accessible album to date, and should win them more fans than their last album did. It’s an enjoyable album…nothing I would call spectacular, but it’s pretty solid. There’s not a single song on here that I skip, so that’s good.

Rating: 7.9

Essential Tracks: “Florida”, “We’ve Got Everything”, “Invisible”

Favorite Tracks: “Parting of the Sensory”, “People as Places as People”

Check out their website here

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

“Sophomore slump.”
It’s a phrase that seems to be used too much in music.
Make an album too much like your first one, and everyone hates it because you’re “afraid to try something different”.
Make an album too different and you’re “bucking against the popularity of your first album…only doing something different for the sake of being different”.
You really can’t win.
Except that you can.
The Arcade Fire prove this on their fantastic new album, Neon Bible.
Their first widely circulated release, Funeral, was an amazing orchestrated pop masterpiece, featuring instrumentation that is not necessarily synonymous with pop music. But they pulled it off in grand fashion.
How do you follow something that was so different yet so popular?
Stick with the same basic formula, but tweak it a little bit. That seems to be the thought process in recording this album. If you liked Funeral, chances are you’ll like this one. There aren’t a ton of surprises here…just a great collection of songs.
I will say this: this is a much better album than Funeral, and that’s saying something. The songs that are amazing on this album are better than the amazing songs on their last one.
“Intervention” is the easiest one to talk about first, seeing as how they’ve released it as their first single. It starts off with a huge pipe organ, accompanied by the strumming of a beat-up old guitar that seems to have made the recording by accident (but in a good way). The song takes a minute or so to take off, but from the beginning of the song you know that something is going to happen…the suspense can almost kill you. It gets kicked up a notch or two along the way, but, by the end they’re in full-fledged huge orchestral rock mode.
“Ocean of Noise” is another song that immediately jumps out. It’s a slow, almost sinister song that sounds as if it was recorded in a basement somewhere. A dark piano appears from time to time…just enough to let you know that it’s really there. A storm makes some noise in the background. As the song continues, more sounds and instruments are added. In about the third minute, it erupts into a psychedelic wall of sound (or, “Ocean of Noise”, if you will), complete with Spanish horns wailing away in the background. Just an amazing ending to a great song. I would have to say that it’s the best two minutes on the album.
“Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” starts as a seemingly happy-go-luck, chick fronted pop song. Well, that’s the “Black Wave” half. Halfway through, “Bad Vibrations” comes in, and it seems to be about the darkest thing on the album (but that may be because it’s paired with the sunniest sounding recording in the bunch).
The closer, “My Body is a Cage” follows about the same formula as “Ocean of Noise”…a dark, slow moving song that explodes into a darker, psychedelic wall of infinite noise (it can fill the entire room if you let it). It’s an almost surreal experience to listen to it…like you’ve been transported to another world.
No matter how many times I listen to this album, the term “dark” seems to come up a lot. I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely an overarching feeling of dread and doom while listening to this album. But, at the same time, I can listen to this album on a nice warm day with the windows rolled down and still enjoy it. It’s odd, but, when you listen to it, it makes perfect sense. It has something to do with the production of it. It’s a muddy sound. I can’t describe it any further than to say that. Whatever they did, it works perfectly for the feel of this album.
Please, listen to this album. I don’t ask much of you all. Even if you didn’t get into Funeral that much, or never really saw what the fuss was about. Listen to this album at least 4 times. It’s darn near impossible to stop listening to once you start.

Rating: 9.4

Essential Tracks: “Black Mirror”, “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, “My Body is a Cage”

Favorite Tracks: “Intervention”, “Ocean of Noise”
Check out their website here

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Richard Swift - Dressed Up For The Letdown

I am 90% sure that time travel never has been (and never will be) true. The 10% that believes it will happen some day is split as such:
1. That someday, someone will actually build a working flux capacitor.
2. How else can you explain the music of Richard Swift?
It’s not just his influences. Everyone has influences…some people just make them a bit more obvious than others. Just by listening to this album you can pick out a number of influences, mainly The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and a little bit of Tin Pan Alley/vaudeville thrown in for good measure.
Yet Swift’s music seems a little different, as if he didn’t record these today. Listening to this album makes me think that he actually was an artist from the ‘20s that was completely ahead of his time. His music has that timeless feeling to it.
Perhaps that’s what draws me to him, the fact that he’s so difficult to pin down. This album could’ve been recorded anytime in the 1900s and it wouldn’t have really felt that out of place.
This album actually a feels a bit like a combination of his previous two. The Novelist was a short (less than 20 minutes) album comprised of songs that sounded like they came straight out of the ‘20s. It was a stripped down album that seemed to have been recorded alone in his apartment (more than likely by the light of a sole, oil burning lamp in the corner) late at night, while the rest of the neighborhood slept, his window overlooking a deserted cobblestone street.
His second album, Walking Without Effort had a bit more to it. More instrumentation, more orchestration, more modern sounding (even that “modern” tag only took it as far as 1987). The sound of the ‘20s was all but gone.
On this, his third album, he seems to have found a great mixture of past and present. The album kicks off with “Dressed Up For The Letdown”, a song that starts in a fashion eerily similar to Tom Waits’ Bone Machine…a severely slowed down skiffle beat, with a chorus of ghosts in the background. It’s a simple, bare-bones song, propelled only by a guitar and that beat. Somewhere around the two-and-a-half minute mark a trumpet comes in. Not much else in the song changes at that point, but you can almost feel a change in the mood, like something better is coming along.
And it does, with the very next track, “The Songs of National Freedom”, which starts out with a bright, upbeat piano line (reminiscent of “Martha My Dear”) and the opening lines of “We’ve seen the rain we’ve seen the sunshine/Darlin’ you and I could never be wrong”. It’s a hopeful, summery song, and really sounds almost directly taken from the Lennon/McCartney songbook.
“Kisses for the Misses” is pop music at its finest. A big, vaudeville piano opens the song, which is promptly backed with a simple drum beat and hand claps.
“P.S. It All Falls Down” is probably my favorite track on the album. It’s an upbeat, piano-driven pop song, culminating in one of the catchiest choruses in recent memory.
There are precious few missteps on the album, and even those aren’t of the “I need to skip that track NOW” variety. The most obvious (to me, anyway) is the song “Most Of What I Know”. The song itself is actually pretty good, up until the repeating line “Your love will keep my heart alive”. Now, this line, in and of itself, isn’t really all that bad. In fact, it’s backed with a pretty cool drum breakdown. It’s the fact that every time this line comes up in the song he repeats it roughly 500 times. It just gets a bit old after a while.
The same rule applies to “The Million Dollar Baby”, only it’s not quite as over the top. He just keeps repeating, “I wish I was dead most of the time/But I don’t really mean it.” Again, it’s not as over the top as the previously mentioned song, but, by the end of it, you just kind of want to tell him to stop.
Aside from those couple of moments, though, this really is quite a good album. It proves, once again, that Richard Swift is helping to keep the art of the pop song alive and well in an age where that talent seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Rating: 8.3

Essential Tracks: “Kisses for the Misses”, “Artist & Repertoire”

Favorite Tracks: “The Songs of National Freedom”, “P.S. It All Falls Down”

Check out Mr. Swift's website here

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bob Dylan - Modern Times

Everyone salivates when Dylan puts out a new album. When Time Out of Mind came out in 1997, everyone called it one the best recordings in his catalog (which is saying a lot). Then, when he released Love and Theft in 2001, they said the same thing. “Amazing, amazing stuff.” (If I remember correctly, both of those albums got a perfect 5 star review from Rolling Stone…an honor only a handful of albums through the years have received.)
Now, I’m a pretty big Dylan fan, and I didn’t really think either of those albums were anything special. Sure, they had their moments, but I wouldn’t classify them as great albums. If anyone else would’ve recorded those albums, no one would’ve given them a second glance, much less a Grammy for album of the year (which he received for Time Out of Mind).
So you can just imagine what I thought when, just last year, he released a new album, immediately heralded by critics as one of the best albums he’s ever released. “Here we go again.”
But, when I finally listened to it, I fell in love with it…from the very first blues lick. Musically I guess it’s not too far from what he was doing with the previous couple of albums, but it seems to work a little better on this album. Perhaps it’s a little more cohesive. Perhaps it’s a little more spontaneous…like he was recording just for the heck of it. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about this album makes it better than those other two.
At first look (and even getting through the album the first couple of times), it seems like a rambling, meandering album. Only one song clocks in less than 5 minutes (“Someday Baby”), and even that one just barely makes it at 4:55. The upbeat blues songs are long…the slower ballads are long. But, once you get into it, you don’t really notice the length of the songs…you just know that you love what’s coming through your speakers. I can’t really imagine these songs being any shorter and still make sense.
This album shows that Dylan still has it. He’s not some washed-up, used-to-be-great artist. This is the work of someone who, after all these years, still has a number of things in his creative and musical tank. For all of us music lovers, that’s a pretty exciting thought.

Rating: 8.6

Essential Tracks: “Thunder on the Mountain”, “Spirit on the Water”

Favorite Tracks: “When the Deal Goes Down”, “Someday Baby”, “Workingman’s Blues #2”
Check out Dylan's website here

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

For those of you who are unaware, The Decemberists are an intellectual band. The lead singer (Colin Meloy) has a degree in creative writing. But, if you didn’t know that already, you’d find out soon enough. It seems that it’s all the band talks about.
That’s one reason why I’ve never been able to get into them, even though the cool kids, or those-in-the-know have always (ALWAYS) touted them as the band. The band that transcends other bands. The band that is more about crafting difficult to understand lyrics than they are about making a good song…like Dylan, except a little more self-conscious. That’s not to say that their music isn’t good. In fact, their music is one of the high points…even if it does seem as though they’re trying too hard.
While previous albums seemed to be based around old English music (sea chanteys and whatnot) and traditional Celtic music, they seem to have gone the route of 70s prog-rockers on this album. Their older musical sensibilities are still there, but there’s more of a sheen around it this time. The second track (the epic, 12-minute-plus, 3 part “The Island”) weaves all of this together. Listen. Can you hear the members of Yes telling each other that they’re still relevant? Do you see the members of Emerson, Lake and Palmer nodding silently in the background? If you can’t, you’re just not trying hard enough. But still, beneath that heavy 70s sound, you can hear the sound of a traditional Celtic group kicking it. Celtic prog-rock? It’s not just a dream anymore…it’s a reality.
“Yankee Bayonet” is a nice little acoustic-driven pop song…but it seems like an outtake from a recent R.E.M. album…except without Stipe’s vocal range.
“The Perfect Crime No. 2” is a completely unabashed, keyboard-driven 70s rock song. You could really pick any group from that era you want…it sounds like all of them. That’s not to say that it’s a poorly done song or anything…there’s just not an original note in it (I think they stole the bass line and guitar solo from a Pink Floyd session).
“O Valencia!” is definitely the high point of the album…and there’s not even anything that amazing about it. It’s a cool rock song with a great chorus (that I can’t get out of my head, no matter how hard I try).
Despite everything I’ve said, I don’t hate it…I just don’t like it very much. I think I figured out my problem with them though. I really wouldn’t care so much that Colin has a degree in creative writing if he just wrote good songs with that background. My problem is that he writes songs with the intent of drawing attention to the fact that he has a degree in creative writing. He writes intellectual songs for the sake of writing intellectual songs, as opposed to writing a song for the sake of writing a song.
Oh yeah…I’m not a big fan of his voice, either.

Rating: 4.2

Favorite Song: “O Valencia!”

Check out their website here

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mos Def - True Magic

Unless you were earnestly searching out this album, chances are you missed its release altogether. The release date was pushed back roughly 8 times. And then, when it finally seemed set for January 9, it appeared, out of nowhere, on Friday, December 29. There was no press behind it. Even after its release, many places had the release still listed at January 9.
And then there’s the packaging. A CD in a clear plastic case. The track listing was on the CD. The only stuff on the case itself was an explicit lyrics sticker, and an anti-piracy sticker on the back, along with a message saying that credits were available at his website (which they weren’t, until 2 weeks after the album released).
So much has been made of the case. Some say he wanted to let the music speak for itself, with nothing else to look at while you were listening to it. Some said that he didn’t want to re-up his contract with Geffen, and this was his way of screwing them for money (seeing as how he’s a movie star now, and doesn’t really need their money). Some said that Geffen was mad that he didn’t re-up with them, so this is their way of screwing him out of money. Others have said that, since the album was leaked early, they wanted to get a version out to sell, and that they were planning on releasing an actual album with artwork and everything later in the year.
Well…whatever the reason, this album was released, sans artwork. So now we can get to the music.
Apparently I’m in the minority with my thoughts on this album. Aside from a track or two, I really like it. Perhaps I’m just a massive Mos Def apologist, but I really think that this is a much better album than most people are giving it credit for.
Mos really changed up his sound between his first album (Black on Both Sides, an instant hip-hop classic…very creative while, at the same time, paying homage to his “old school heritage”) and his second album (The New Danger, more on the progressive side of things, with some definite rap/blues-rock influences). He lost some fans between those 2, and some people started to wonder if his heart was in it anymore.
With this album, it really seems like he started getting back into old school mode. It’s not a complete throwback album or anything, but it’s definitely more along the lines of a straight-up hip-hop release, as opposed to an experimental journey.
As I said, there is a track here and there that I’m not too fond of. “U R the One” starts as a sweet, soul-backed song, then takes a quick turn to a profoundly angry break-up song. While it’s okay to listen to from time to time, it’s usually a song that I skip.
“Thug Is a Drug” starts out fine enough, but the chorus kills it. Mos starts singing, and it almost sounds like he’s singing off-key on purpose. I’ve heard him sing before, and he usually sounds pretty good, but, unfortunately, that’s not the case here.
Those are the only two songs I’m not too keen on. The rest of it I really dig. Some of the highlights are “Napoleon Dynamite” (for the record, it has nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with a funky soul, organ heavy backing…definitely the funkiest thing on the album), “Sun, Moon, Stars” (an acoustic jazzy track that kicks into one of the greatest horn samples in recent memory…you can’t help but nod your head to this one), “Dollar Day” (an angry song about the response to Katrina…he calls out everyone from The President to Bono), “True Magic” (a perfect opener…you can’t help but be drawn in), and “A Ha” (a total old-school hip-hop jam, complete with heavy scratching and the sound of a cocking gun in the background).
Is it the best release of his career? No…but it’s a solid release. In fact, it’s better than solid. I would say that it’s a top 3 hip-hop release from last year. It’s a shame that so many people missed this…please don’t be one of them.

Rating: 8.1

Essential Tracks: “True Magic”, “Undeniable”, “Crime & Medicine”, “A Ha”

Favorite Tracks: “Dollar Day”, “Napoleon Dynamite”, “Sun, Moon, Stars”

Check it out here

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Gary Murray - The Revenant Waltz

Since 1996, Gary Murray has recorded 8 beautifully haunting albums under the moniker LN. His band members have fluctuated, but he remained the one constant, holding it all together. His stark musicianship and indescribable voice have categorized them as a folk band, and maybe they were. The term I always used when talking about LN was “sonically-enhanced folk music”. The songs were folk songs in essence, but they piled so many amazing effects on top of them, it was tough to really nail them down into a single category.
This EP marks the first time that he has recorded under his actual name. It’s hard to see too much difference between this album and his work with LN, mainly because he was the lead singer and main songwriter of LN. Of course there are going to be similarities. The songs on this EP are generally more stripped down than his work in LN, but his releases of Dirt Floor Hotel, parts 1 & 2, were kind of leaning towards a more stripped down feel, anyway. I guess you could say that, if you’d been following LN for more than a year you could probably see this coming.
Within 2 seconds of the first song (“Revenant Waltz”) you can tell what you’re in for. It’s a gorgeously heartbreaking song about lost love, with the lines, “There’s a slow moving train singing low refrains of I’m sorry/That I’m not the man who could give you everything.” It’s backed musically by a beautiful piano line, an electric guitar line drenched in tremolo and sadness in the foreground, while an acoustic guitar strums ever so lightly in the background…unless you’re listening hard, you can’t even hear it until the end.
“Whiskey” is a throwback to Hank Williams, Sr. (you know…the good one). Murray’s voice backed only by a slow acoustic guitar…you can almost see him recording this song in a rundown motel room somewhere off a deserted highway.
“Goodbye Eleanor Blue” took a while for me to like…at least 4 listens. The piano (the only instrumentation in the song) seems a bit erratic. It starts and stops in odd places, almost as if he has forgotten that he was playing in the first place. It doesn’t seem to go with his voice at all. It’s only after repeated listens that it actually starts to make sense. And even now I can’t tell you why it makes sense…just that it does.
“Billy” closes out the album in fitting fashion. It’s not just anyone who can cover a Dylan song and get away with it, but Murray pulls it off. He not only pulls it off, but (dare I say it) his version is actually better than Dylan’s. It’s a stark and beautiful song that makes you darn near weep for Billy the Kid.
Only one song, “Queen of the Freight Train”, really has a whole lot of instrumentation in it, being the only track featuring drums. It doesn’t necessarily seem out of character, but it does stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the album. It actually reminds me of something 10,000 Maniacs would’ve done, but that could be just me.
Gary has created a great album…not that there’s any surprise to those of us who have loved LN for years. I just hope that, with this release, he will finally get the credit he deserves.
For anyone who loves stripped-down folk music with heart and feeling, this is for you.

Rating: 9.1

Favorite Tracks: “The Revenant Waltz”, “Billy”

Buy this album, and check out Gary's work with LN, here

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Good, The Bad and The Queen - The Good, The Bad and The Queen

A super group of sorts, The Good, The Bad and The Queen is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be. The group consists of main songwriter Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), bassist Paul Simonon (The Clash), guitarist Simon Tong (The Verve), drummer Tony Allen (Fela Kuti), and producer/general noise-maker Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Danger Doom). In short, some of my favorite people in music right now, sitting down and making an album together.
The first thing that jumped out at me is the un-Gorillaz-ness of the majority of the album. Sure, the voice is there…that can’t really be helped. But, whereas the Gorillaz generally feasted upon big beats and huge soundscapes, The Good, The Bad and The Queen seem to rely on much less than that. It can’t be called minimalist, as there are still a number of things going on, but most of those things are a bit more subtle. Also, most of the Gorillaz influences seemed to come from hip-hop or dance sources, but The Good, The Bad and The Queen draw from much different influences. Sure, there’s the occasional Gorillaz sounding track (like “Northern Whale”), but there’s also a doo wop feel to a track or two (most notably “80s Life”).
“History Song” kicks off the album with a nice acoustic guitar lick, followed by Damon’s very distinct voice, which leads nicely into the first Paul Simonon bass line heard in quite some time (it’s good to have you back, Paul). From there we’re fed a steady diet of organ and background noises. All in all a great starter.
I have to admit, though, that the first time I heard it I was less than thrilled. I don’t know if I was just expecting something different (possibly a fuller sound?), but it took a couple times to suck me in. Now? I can’t stop listening to it. The songs are so catchy and interesting, I can’t help but be addicted to it.
Judging from the sound, I don’t really think that this album is going to catch on in the same way that Gnarls Barkley or the latest Gorillaz album did…it’s just not that kind of album. I can see this staying closer to the ground than those two. For all I know, that’s what they’re looking for. At this point in their career, none of these members have to worry about sales or anything. They can just make the music they want to make and let the rest take care of itself.
Fortunately for all of us, they all realize this. In making the album they wanted, they may just have made the album of the year.

Rating: 9.4

Essential Tracks: “Northern Whale”, “Nature Springs”, “Three Changes”

Favorite Tracks: “History Song”, “80s Life”

Check out their website here

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Shins - Wincing the Night Away

There is not really an album in recent memory that I have flip-flopped over more than this one. Initially I loved it. I was ready to proclaim it the pop album of the year, and the year had just begun. The opening song (“Sleeping Lessons”) is amazing…it grabbed me from the very first note.
Then I started listening to it more. I started to dislike it more and more every time I heard it. Every song except “Sleeping Lessons”, “Phantom Limb” and “Sea Legs” sounded annoying and ridiculous. “How could they seriously record a song like this?”
I went back and forth. One day I loved it. One day I hated it. And yet I couldn’t stop listening to it. I decided I had to keep listening to it until I actually decided how I felt about it.
This time around, I really like it, and I think I know why I didn’t like it. It’s a combination of their lead singer’s voice and the entire band’s persona.
The Lead Singer’s Voice: Is it just me, or does the guy always sound like he’s joking about something? This is really a problem for me. I know that they don’t really have jokey lyrics or anything, but it always sounds like he’s on the verge of laughter. It probably shouldn’t bother me that much…but it does. And it’s probably because of…
The Entire Band’s Persona: I know it’s their thing, but every picture of these guys shows them laughing and posing like retarded hyenas. That is, of course, when they’re not dressed up like superheroes, or some such thing. Their interviews are mainly filled with jokes and stories that don’t go anywhere but seem to be meant to be funny. That is, of course, when Hollywood actors aren’t interviewing/fawning all over them. Again, this probably shouldn’t bother me, but I suppose it does…to a bigger degree than I would hope it would. Sorry…it’s just me.
But then I got past all that. I tried to forget about all the pictures, the interviews, the joking lead singer…everything that held me back.
And here’s what I found out: I really like this album. A lot. More than I probably should, considering all the problems I’ve had with it.
The instrumentation is amazing, the songwriting is good, and the singer is actually much better than I’ve ever given him credit for. It’s a great pop album in a world where there are far too few anymore (sadly).
My highlights remain the same. “Sleeping Lessons” is the perfect opener. A bubbling keyboard (or is that a guitar?) line floats underneath a nice vocal line. More instruments are subtly added, until the entire thing blows up into some sort of faux-punk space rock.
“Phantom Limb” is the first single, which I normally buck against, but it’s actually very good. Not much to say about it, other than it’s a very good pop song with great instrumentation…you know, just like how it’s supposed to be done.
I’ve heard a lot made of “Sea Legs” so far, claiming to have a hip-hop backing. Let me squelch that right here. Just because they used programmed drums and used an 808 to kick up the plastic bag sample (they used a plastic bag sample as the bass hit) does not make it a hip-hop beat. Between the beat and the heavy keyboard/string backing, it comes off more as a dark 80s new wave beat than anything (take that, music magazines).
All in all, this is a great album…it just may take you 4 weeks or more to decide that.

Rating: 8.6

Essential Tracks: “Australia”, “Turn On Me”, “Split Needles”

Favorite Tracks: “Sleeping Lessons”, “Phantom Limb”, “Sea Legs”

Check out the band here, or buy their album here