Monday, March 31, 2008

Gnarls Barkley, The Raconteurs, and Counting Crows

Last Tuesday (March 25), three albums came out that I was pretty excited about. So, instead of stringing them out over the course of a month (and missing other albums well-deserving of some time), I’ll give them all some time here. we go.

Gnarls BarkleyThe Odd Couple

It is no secret that I am a fan of Danger Mouse. It is also no secret that I loved the first Gnarls Barkley album (it was co-album of the year a couple of years ago). Suffice it to say, I was very excited about this, their new album.
The first track, “Charity Case” kicks off the album in grand fashion; a wicked bass line laced over a 60’s surfish-pop groove. When Cee-Lo starts singing, you’ve already forgotten what decade you’re currently living in. “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” also fits pretty nicely into this description; upbeat, complete with handclaps and a pretty cool organ hanging out in the back.
There are enough songs in this upbeat vein to make the soccer moms flock to buy this CD in the same way they bought St. Elsewhere in droves after hearing “Crazy” (“Run” is the first single), there are a number of songs that don’t fit that mold.
“Would Be Killer” sees Gnarls Barkley as dark as they have ever been (yes, even more so than on “Necrophilia”), both musically and lyrically. By the end of the song, I was looking over my shoulder, making sure this killer wasn’t lurking somewhere behind me (this could also be due to the large number of Dexter episodes I’ve watching lately).
Even with “Would Be Killer” on the album, “Open Book” is, far and away, the least accessible song on the album. It’s a song that, upon the first couple of listens, seems to have no formation whatsoever, save for a spot in the middle. It consists of a skittering beat, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Radiohead remix album.
“Whatever” is definitely the worst song on the album. It is sung from the perspective of a teenage outsider, whining about his life and yelling at his mom. It wouldn’t be so bad if Cee-Lo didn’t insist on singing in a whiny, teenage voice. It’s not terrible, just a little obnoxious.
The rest of the album stays pretty true to the soul singer singing 60’s pop side of things; some songs (“Surprise”, “No Time Soon”) stick to this a little closer than others (“Neighbors”, “A Little Better”).
While Cee-Lo has an amazing voice (he fits this style perfectly), this show belongs to the production talents of Danger Mouse. Without his creativeness, Gnarls Barkley wouldn’t be half the band that they are.

Rating: With more listens, this album could be better than the first one. A fantastic album if you’re looking for a creative, genre-bending album in the soul-pop vein.

Favorite Songs: “Charity Case”, “Going On”, “Surprise”, “Neighbors”

The RaconteursConsolers of the Lonely

I liked Broken Boy Soldiers (The Raconteur’s first album) at first. Even now, there are some songs I love on it. But, unfortunately, it didn’t really hold up all that well. I don’t know what it is, but I haven’t been able to listen to it straight through for a while now. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I listened to this, their new album (announced only a week before its release date).
And...I love it. Granted, it’s only been a little less than a week, but this album seems a lot more creative than the last album. On Broken Boy Soldiers, they were just putting feelers out there; seeing what they could do. On this album, they have really gone all out. They’re mixing Brendan Benson’s pop songwriting with the overall-creativeness of Jack White, and throwing in the blues of their Greenhorne rhythm section. I can hardly believe the massive strides they have made over the course of just one album.
The title track shows off Jack’s talent and influence, with the stop-and-start blues hitting overdrive rock for the verse, then kicking back into a blues breakdown for the chorus. “You Don’t Understand Me” and “Old Enough” show off the pop songwriting of Brendan Benson, who sounds a bit like McCartney at times.
Along with the obvious blues and pop influences, they also show off some bluegrass roots on “Top Yourself” and the beginning of “These Stones Will Shout”.
There are, of course, some pretty obvious Zepplin influences (“Rich Kid Blues”) to go along with some Stones (“Many Shades of Black”).
The stand-out track (to me, anyway) is the last track, “Carolina Drama”. It’s a story-song, which starts out sounding a bit like “Take Take Take”, but it eventually makes its way from a smoldering, slow-rock tale of a dysfunctional family to an explosive, violent climax. Words can’t explain how fantastic this song is; just listen to it a couple of times, and you’ll understand.
This album goes to show that rock music can still be creative and inventive; you just have to know what you’re doing.

Rating: Fantastic, creative, and epically relistenable. If you’re depressed about the state of rock music, this album is for you.

Favorite Songs: “Consolers of the Lonely”, “Salute Your Solution”, “Many Shades of Black”, “Carolina Drama”

Counting CrowsSaturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

I am a Counting Crow fan. I don’t apologize. There’s no need to. Over the years, they have made some great albums.
Counting Crows have been known for writing great pop-rock songs, as well as some gorgeous piano ballads. So what could be better than splitting an album down the middle? One half would consist of their upbeat side (Saturday Nights), while the other half would consist of their piano ballads (Sunday Mornings).
Well, as it turns out, a lot could be better than that.
It’s not that there aren’t good songs on here; there are. “Cowboys” is the best song on the album, and it brings to mind their rockers like “Angels of the Silences” (which is never a bad thing). “1492” also fits into this vein, as does “Insignificant”.
Then there’s the rest of the album. It’s not that the rest of the album is bad, there’s just nothing spectacular about any of the songs. “You Can’t Count on Me” is nice enough, but it’s just kind of there; nothing to love or hate about it.
Los Angeles” starts out almost exactly like Ryan Adams’ “Rescue Blues”...until Adam Duritz starts talking about streetwalking on Sunset Blvd. and saying how LA is a great place to find yourself a taco (I still have no idea why he says this). “Sundays” starts out suspiciously like a Sheryl Crow album.
I always enjoyed the slower songs and piano ballads on their previous albums, but none of these songs really stand out. Again, they’re nice enough, but none of them really stood out to me on this album.
And that’s the story of this album. It’s fine...but not there aren’t many songs that stand out and demand to be heard again.

Rating: It’s not a bad album. In fact, it may even be a good album. But, for now, it’s just a kind of blah album. There’s enough on here to warrant a purchase if you’re already a Counting Crows fan. But, if you’re not already a fan, I doubt this album will make you one.

Favorite Songs: “1492”, “Insignificant”, “Cowboys”

Monday, March 17, 2008

My Rating System

After much thought, I have decided to change my rating system.
Up until this point, I have been rating albums on a scale of 0 to 10...yet I never said what those numbers mean. Obviously, a 10 is better than a 0, but I never explored it. Also, I kind of lost track of how high to rank something. I really like does it get a 9.5? Is a 9.5 too high? Maybe I should give it an 8.7...but maybe that's too low. And why do I have these decimal points, anyway?
So, in an attempt to break away from a confusing rating system, I'm stripping it down to something basic.
No numbers.
I'll write a closing thought, in which I will talk about how much I liked it, and, I hope, how much you will like it.
I've also toyed with doing a "Requested If You Like" section, but I'm terrible at those. I've never been able to make comparisons all that well, unless they're fairly obvious. Plus, whenever I heard a comparison like, "They sound like if the Smashing Pumpkins went to a party, and got into a fight with The White Stripes and Abba, while Stevie Wonder threw punch on them. While this is happening, The Strokes and Iron & Wine are watching and laughing. It sounds like that," I just roll my eyes and walk away more confused than I was in the first place. I may do stuff like this occasionally, but it's not going to happen a ton.

I don't know if you care, but I thought I'd let you know what's up.

And now, here's a cool picture (just 'cuz).

iPod Roulette

Here we go for another round. I hit shuffle on my iPod, and list the first ten songs. Feel free to join your results in the comments.

1. "Most of Me" - Mandy Moore
Okay...this isn't as bad as you may think it is. She has really come a long way since her bubble-gum teen-pop days. Is it fantastic? Oh no...not by a long shot. But it's very listenable, and even fairly enjoyable. In short, I don't love it, but I do like it.

2. "If You Want Me To" - Abra Moore
Two folkish-chick singers in a row? Well...I don't care. I love Abra Moore...and that's even before I found out her name came from a character in East of Eden. This song shows off her stunning arrangements and her gorgeous voice. LOVE this album.

3. "Clampdown" - The Clash
Here we go. This song is perfect to sing to while driving in your car with the windows rolled down. God bless The Clash.

4. "Child You're the Revolution" - Angie Aparo
This song is dark and creepy and beautiful and epically sing-a-longable. But I have to admit that I get a little creeped out when The Village of the Damned singers show up at the end. I can't listen to this entire song if I'm by myself...I'm dead serious.

5. "A Film Called (Pimp)" - Common
J Dilla's production on this song is fantastic (not like I'm surprised). For all of you people out there who don't like Common, let me explain something to you: he's not a rapper as much as he is a poet. Listen to his flow on this song, and keep that simple fact in mind. You'll be fine.

6. "Novacaine for the Soul (Live)" - Eels
This is their big hit...I know. I still like this song, and I love this band. Their live stuff is amazing...they completely reimagine their songs. They took this one back to some sort of beat poet-type vibe. Gotta love it.

7. "Stone on the Water" - Badly Drawn Boy
In his prime, Badly Drawn Boy is kind of like a slightly happier-sounding Elliott Smith. This song, off The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, shows that side of him perfectly. He has a tremendous knack for writing good pop songs. You can't teach stuff like that.

8. "Oh! Darling" - The Beatles
I absolutely LOVE this song. Every time I hear it, I think about McCartney talking about trying to get his voice right for this song. He wanted to make it sound like he had been singing at a rock show all night, yet he still feels the need to sing his heart out to his woman...his voice all scratchy and gone from singing and screaming lyrics all night. Lennon's response? "I always had the better rock voice. I should have sung this one." He may be right, but McCartney nailed the vocals and feel of this song.

9. "Time Has Told Me" - Nick Drake
I love Nick Drake, but I've come to hate the mythology surrounding him. I get the feeling that a lot of people who "love" Nick Drake don't really listen to his music...they just say they love him because it's sort of cool these days to say you love him. This song is haunting and sad and short, everything I love about Nick Drake. I love the piano in this song.

10. "Flying Upside Down" - Griffin House
I'm a big Griffin House fan; I like his music, and I love his voice. However, this album was (sadly) his weakest release. This song (like the majority of the album) isn't's just sort of there. There's nothing special about this song. I could listen to it or not, and it really wouldn't make any difference to me at all.

Your turn.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

I felt compelled to listen to this album after reading a write-up about it in Paste. They compared his music to Iron & Wine and TV On the Radio.
This could not be accurate.
Still, I couldn't shake it. I had to hear it. "If someone sounds like a mix of those two artists, I need to hear it."
So I listened to it.
While I don't necessarily agree with their assessment, I can see where they came up with it.
Bon Iver is the band name for one man: Justin Vernon. This album is full of folksy songs, many times driven by nothing more than a guitar and vocals. Some other instrumentation finds its way in from time to time, but, for the most part, this is a pretty bare bones album. The story goes like this: Justin wanted to make a rustic-sounding album, so he locked himself in a remote cabin in Wisconsin for 4 months, and recorded this album.
As I said, musically, it's pretty bare bones. I suppose that's where the Iron & Wine comparison came from. But there's a different feel to Bon Iver's sense of folk than there is to Iron & Wine's sense of folk. There's a sense of creepiness that seeps into this album, like there was a ghost present during the recording of this album. It's a haunting album, even if I can't quite put it into words.
It's a sparse album, but it doesn't always feel that way. There's a depth to this album that almost seems unnatural given the lack of instrumentation that is used. A big part of that goes to the vocals, which are, at times, fairly similar to those of Tunde Adebimpe (thus the TV On the Radio reference). It seems that there is never just one vocal track. Throughout the album, he has double and triple-tracked his voice, and sometimes it feels like there's a chorus singing eerily in the background.
While I listened to this album because I was curious, I came away thinking that it didn't sound too much like the write-up said it did. Sure, the music is kind of folksy, but that doesn't mean it sounds like Iron & Wine. He has an interesting voice, but that doesn't mean it sounds anything like TV On the Radio. In fact, there are times when his voice and style echo artists like Bill Withers or Marvin Gaye more than they do either of those two artists. Still, the write-up got me to listen to the album, so I suppose it did what it was supposed to do.
For Emma, Forever Ago is an album that is simultaneously comforting and haunting. It is an album that is begging to be played on winter days and dark nights. Highly recommended.
Rating: 9.3
Favorite Songs: "Skinny Love", "The Wolves (Act I & II)", "re: Stacks"
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