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