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

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Best of 2006

Happy New Year!
On top of the wonderful performances of Fergie and the like (from what I understand, she’s Fergalicious), I now invite you to read my Best of the Year review. Sure, Buck Fifty has his worst of lists, so now read my best of lists…

Album of the Year
This was a tough year to pick just one, because there were so many great albums that I absolutely loved. So, no matter what Sharon says, I have chosen 3. That’s right…this year is a three-way tie for album of the year. And they are:

Gnarls Barkley St. Elsewhere: You know what? I don’t even care that everyone and their mother is picking this album for album of the year. I don’t care that they have magazine covers everywhere, or that they had a song plastered all over the radio for months on end. I don’t care about any of that. Sometimes a great album is a great album even if it has been plastered everywhere and has been overexposed. I absolutely love this album. Pretty much anything Danger Mouse touches at this point is sheer gold. He just has an ear for great music. And it’s nice for Cee-Lo to finally get some recognition among the general public…everyone loves a little crazy.

The Roots Game Theory: Hands down the best hip-hop group on the planet. Sure, everyone knows ?uestlove…he has the most recognizable afro this side of Nate X. But people tend to forget about the wicked bass lines of Hub, or the intelligent, well-placed rhymes of Black Thought (quite possibly the best MC currently working). They don’t steal headlines like 50 Cent…they just make great music. This is their best album to date…and that’s really saying something.

TV On the Radio Return to Cookie Mountain: Odd. Creative. Catchy. All of these words describe TV On the Radio and their outstanding new album. They’re finally getting out there (cover of Spin, playing on Letterman, etc.), and that’s absolutely mind-blowing to me. They’re not really all that “accessible”, but it’s wonderful that greatness can be recognized no matter how strange they appear to be. If, in fact, Radiohead killed rock n’ roll with the release of Kid A (they had to in order to save themselves, apparently), then TV On the Radio has revived it with this album. Seriously, have you ever heard guitars sound like that? (Shut up, My Bloody Valentine)

And, of course, some honorable mentions:

Johnny Cash American V: A Hundred Highways: It’s not just because it’s a posthumous release…it actually is a great album. Full of beautiful, heartbreaking songs. If you don’t love this album, I’m pretty sure you don’t have a soul.

The Killers Sam’s Town: I don’t care what you say…I like it.

AnathalloFloating World: One of these days, Anathallo will get their break. They’re one of the most creative and energetic bands I’ve ever seen. Keep it up, fellas…you’re almost there.

Margot & The Nuclear So & SosThe Dust of Retreat: I’ll be forever perplexed why this album isn’t tearing up the college charts. Catchy, tricked-out folk music…it’s better than you think it is.

Thom Yorke The Eraser: Would I still like this album if it was released by anyone else? Yeah, probably. Great beats and Thom’s amazing (yet slightly strange) voice made this album amazing (no matter what anyone else tells you).

Ryan Adams – Wait…you mean he didn’t release an album this year? OK, I’m confused…

Box Set of the Year:

Tom Waits Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards: You knew this would win. Of course you did. It’s full of new and unreleased Tom Waits songs/stories, not to mention it has some amazing pictures. There is absolutely nothing not to love about this set.

Compilation of the Year:

The Beatles Love: Sounds like a made-up category, right? Well…it kind of is, except it’s worth it (also, I make this stuff up, so I can do whatever I want). An amazing collection of Beatles songs as reimagined by George and Giles Martin. Here’s the amazing thing about this: it had to be absolutely perfect. If it wasn’t the entire world would riot, George Martin or no. But they really came through. From the time that the drum solo from “The End” kicks right into “Get Back”, you know the entire album will work. Plus, the sound quality is astounding. It was quite a task, but it was worth it. Bravo fellas.

EP of the Year
(I’ll make this disclaimer: I just ordered the new EP from Gary Murray, which may end up making this list. But, seeing as how it didn’t come before the year ended, it didn’t really have a chance. Sorry Gary.)

MapSan Francisco in the 90s: These guys have been making great pop music for years, and now, with the release of the single “Breakfast at Ikea” getting played on NPR, it looks like people may start to sit up and take notice of this incredible band.

Honorable mention goes to The Hojos for their EP entitled Demo. Its four songs of pure rock energy. If you haven’t heard The Hojos, you really need to fix that soon.

That’s it…my end of the year list. Did I forget to mention something? It’s quite possible that I did…it is fairly late. Leave me a comment or something. Oh yeah…if you’re looking a great “Worst Of” list, check out Matthew’s movie list here…I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.