Showing posts with label Album Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Album Review. Show all posts

Friday, August 01, 2014

I Need to Be Myself, Can’t Be No One Else

Definitely Maybe - Oasis

The early to mid-nineties was a depressing time where there was not a less credible than actually caring. Which is what makes Oasis’s rise so remarkable. They wanted to be the biggest band in the world. They had the attitude of eighties Sunset Strip, riffs from the classic rock era of the sixties, mixes with a dash of the weirdness that alt-rock craze of the nineties. The first song off their debut album Rock ‘n’ Roll Star was a shot across the bow of the shoe gazers of the time. Hard partying, heavy drinking, and massive group infighting was back and for a brief moment, it was glorious. The band became so big, even a single of the brothers Gallagher charted in their native England.

Though the band did not become the global superstars until their second album, Definitely Maybe, this month’s induction into the Scooter Hall of Fame, was a great start with a few singles that should have broke the band stateside. There was plenty of cocksure in the rock anthem Supersonic which should have had a crossover with the Shawn Kemp led Seattle basketball team at the time. Second single Live Forever was more melancholy but still managed to rock hard. Though those two track stood out, there was not a skippable song on the album.

Oasis’s love of The Beatles is well documented and the influence is heard the most on Shakemaker which could have fit in their trippy period. And where the band showed they could rock hard (Bring it on Down actually would not have sounded out of place on the eighties Sunset Strip) the album is just as interested when the band slowed down; Digsy's Dinner is a fun jaunt though the British countryside. And while the Beatles influences are so abundant one can argue plagiarism at time, album closer Married with Children sounds like the best ballad the Davies Brothers of The Kinks never wrote.

Stuck between those two slower tracks is one of the great hidden gems of the nineties Slide Away, the most vulnerable the band is on the album but still exudes some English attitude on the track. There was plenty of hype surrounded Oasis when they came out, mostly created by the band itself, and the was finally realized with the release of the second album, most specifically Wonderwall, but you have to wonder if their hubris was also their downfall as went away Stateside as quickly as the conquered (though for those who stopped paying attention to the around the release of Be Here Now I highly recommend checking out Stop Crying Your Heart Out, the closest they got to recreating Wonderwall)but for one deleting moment everyone agreed with the Gallagher Bothers that Oasis, indeed, was the biggest and best band in the world.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

There’s a Little Bit of Magic, Everyone Has It

The Voyager - Jenny Lewis

Recently Jenny Lewis gave an interview with Grantland but the star of the podcast was not Lewis herself or even the interviewer Andy Greenwald, it was instead Ryan Adams who produced most of her new album The Voyager (you can download it on on iTunes). The interview started off in earnest with Lewis uncomfortably recounting the demise of her band Riley Kilo and her struggles with insomnia (ironically one of the better curse for insomnia may actually be hearing other people talking about insomnia) but the interview really picked up when Lewis started talking about working with Ryan at it Pax Am studio in Los Angeles.

As a long time fan of Adams I know the guy can be eccentric, this is a guy who started off his first solo album with an “argument with David Rawlings concerning Morrisey” and famously stopped a concert and would not continue until a fan who requested Summer Of '69 was removed from the building. In her interview told tales of how Adams refused to listen to playback (nor would let Lewis do the same) and when he told her to scream like John Lennon as he was leaving the studio for the day. This culminated with Adams adamantly telling Lewis to go home and write Wonderwall. The thing is I came away from the interview much more excited for Ryan’s upcoming self titled album coming out next month than the new Lewis album which came out this week.

That is not to say there is nothing worth checking out on The Voyager and it is hard not to see if Adams’ unorthodox recording techniques paid off. At first listen, The Voyager sound more upbeat and less folksy than her two previous solo albums and subsequent listens you can definitely tell the tracks where Adams contributes guitar like at the end of She’s Not Me. Slippery Stone even sounds like it could be an opening riff to an Adams song. It may actually be easier to pick out the non-Adams tracks for instance Just One of the Guys produced by Beck (yes that is him on backing vocals, the most overt indie-pop song which veers into annoyingly catchy with the oo-oo’s punctuated throughout the song. The better pop song may actually be the album opener Head Underwater.

The album closes with the title track which is also the song that came out of the Wonderwall request. It is an acoustic based ballad with strings, but that is as close to Wonderwall as her song gets (Lewis does point out in the interview if she could have written a Wonderwall she already would have done it). Nor does she find a way to scream like Lennon on the song as requested. It is the most different song on the album and actually does a good job wrapping up the album. Now I need to turn my attention for the release of the Ryan Adams album to see if there are any Wonderwalls or John Lennon screams. Okay, thinking about it, that would kin of make it li9ke every Ryan Adams album, one of which actually had a Wonderwall cover.

Song to Download – Head Underwater

The Voyager gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Musings from the Back 9: Music Edition XIX

Back in the early days of music, five years after a One Hit Wonder last made the charts they would be teachers, insurance salesmen, or other “real world” jobs. Thanks to the internet it is easy to prolong your fifteen minutes of fame as long as that one hit garnered you enough passionate fans. For those of us that did not become passionate fans, it is fun to give each new single a listen before going, nope; you are staying in One Hit Wonder land (Foster the People are on their seventh post Pumped Up Kicks single). It has been five years since La Roux notched their only hit Bulletproof (to be fair, In for the Kill was a hit in most of Europe) and lost half the group since then and now is essential a one person band, singer Elly Jackson. The result is a more danceable but not as interesting Trouble in Paradise. The album is more sexual with titles like Kiss and Not Tell, Cruel Sexuality, and Sexotheque. This continues on the albums best track Tropical Chaser which sounds like it heavily borrows that weird synth sound from Gorge Michael’s I Want Your Sex. Nothing on Trouble in Paradise makes me think La Roux will graduate to a two hit wonder, but will probably garner enough fans for her to try again on a third album.

Trouble in Paradise gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Common has been one of the most respected rappers in his two decade plus career but even when he aims for the pop charts like with his Be album he falls short never landing in the top 40. He is not trying on his tenth album Nobody's Smiling and as you can tell by the album title, this one is dark. This one hits hard, well as hard as an album that features Big Sean on a track. Nobody’s Smiling is reminiscent of the types of albums you would here blaring out of the windows of cars rolling urban areas around the time Common got his start of the game. The album may continue his Top 40 drought but the tenth installment fits nicely into his catalogue, Big Sean guest spot notwithstanding.

Nobody’s Smiling gets a Terror Alert Level: High [ORANGE] on my Terror Alert Scale.

It is a tale as old as pop culture; indie actress recruits a musician to make an album of indie pop songs. Mary Elizabeth Winstead met producer Dan the Automator (Gorillaz) during the making of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (she was Ramona Flowers, he helped with the score) and decided to start a group Got A Girl. Their debut album I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now is heavily by French 60’s pop music which is why it has a very cinematic feel to it. Winstead’s soft and soothing yet unmemorable voice is well suited for the mellow song which would play more on an easy Sunday morning. But the best tracks are when the duo goes more upbeat like on tracks There’s a Revolution. In terms of indie actresses / indie musicians collaborations, Got a Girl falls in between Zooey Deshanel and M. Ward’s She and Him project and the album Scarlett Johansson made with Pete Yorn.

I Love You but I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

How Long Shall They Kill Our Prophets While We Stand Aside and Look?

Legend - Bob Marley and the Wailers
There comes a time in every person’s life that there is music that is made that is never played on the radio and even more surprisingly there was music made before you were made and some of it great. Actually there is too much good music so it was much easier to pick up a greatest hit package than buy an artist’s entire catalogue (at least it was when I discover music older than me; today’s children can access almost all music ever recorded on Spotify or other nefarious means for little to no money). One album that seemed like it was handed out at freshmen orientation in high school because everyone had was Legend, the greatest hit package from Bob Marley and The Wailers, this month’s induction into the Scooter Hall of Fame.

Legend was released thirty years ago, three years after the untimely death of Bob Marley and a year after his final album was released. But in the ten years prior, Bob Marley and the Wailers released eight albums for Island Records. The set spanned a career that dabbled in political (Get Up, Stand Up), partying (Jamming), romantic (Could You Be Love), retrospective (No Woman, No Cry), storytelling (I Shot the Sheriff) the guy even wrote songs that could easily double as children’s songs (Three Little Birds) all the while presenting the reggae genre with pop sensibilities.

For my money, the best song on an impeccable album is just the best song on Legend, but one of the finest songs ever written, is Redemption Song. The simplest song on the album, just Bob and an acoustic guitar, is also the most impactful. It was also the last song on the last album Marley released while he was alive and a fitting epilogue to a great career.

Today also sees the release of Legend 30th Anniversary Edition with a new 5.1 mix including newly discovered early studio tracks. These tracks include the original, early studio version of No Woman No Cry, in lieu of the previous live version. Also featured are two, previously unheard alternate takes of Easy Skanking and Punky Reggae Party recently discovered in the Marley vault. Legend 30th Anniversary Edition will also be made available on tri-color vinyl (yellow, green and red) and pressed as a double gatefold LP allowing for a higher fidelity sound quality that is closer to the original source.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I Listen to Sad Songs, Singing About Love and Where it Goes Wrong

dx - Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran is one of the rare popular new artists this decade than managed to get his sizable fan base by pure hard work and not having a massive radio hit. His first album went Gold here and despite the lack of massive radio hits, three years after the release of that album most everyone is now familiar with The A-Team, Lego House, and Give Me Love. Making Sheeran’s success more surprising is that the singer / songwriter era of the early 00’s that he would have fit very well into is long over. The last massive hit from a member of The Mellow Show was Jason Mraz’s 2008 I'm Yours.

With his sensitive singer / songwriter image, it was jarring that the first single off his sophomore album x (pronounced “multiply”, not the letter) was the ultra poppy Sing. It may have been the most jarring first single since U2 spent the early nineties getting weirder and weirder only to close the decade out with the Pop opus Discotheque. The song is instantly Sheeran’s most (really only) danceable and inexplicably borrowing an acoustic guitar from The Doobie Brothers Listen to the Music (much like when the heavily Got to Give It Up sounding Pharrell produced track Blurred Lines last year, The Doobie Brothers are not credited). Of course the song went on to be Ed’s first instant hit and biggest to date stateside.

Unlike Pop, x is not a complete sea change. Most of the rest comes straight out of the + playbook of mainly simple acoustic tracks with confessional lyrics. The other overtly pop song follows Sing on the album and this time Don't is co-produced by Benny Blanco (who has produced ultra-bland pop songs for Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and Maroon 5) and Rick Rubin. Another small block of hip-hop influenced songs appears later on the album which include another Pharrell assisted track Runaway which is followed by the early nineties inspire hip-hop beat The Man which unfortunately features Sheeran fake rapping which were the worst parts of + too. There is probably a reason why there has not been a successful rapper with a British accent since Slick Rick.

The best of x remains when Ed sticks to his bread and butter of confessional acoustic based tracks. Instead of evolving with an in your face pop song like Sing, a better evolution would have probably been a smaller tweak to his sound like Bloodstream (also produced by Rubin) where he adds a subtle bass sound to the existing acoustic sound. But there is plenty of good here that maybe Ed Sheeran will eventually get to his seventh album: .

Song to download - Bloodstream

x gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Every Single Bone in My Brain Is Electric

Lazaretto - Jack White

The nineties were a great time for rock feuds: Nirvana vs. Guns n Roses, when the Gallagher brothers were not fighting with themselves, Oasis would take aim at Blur, there were bizarre feuds like Coolio vs. Weird Al, Metallica vs. Napster, Sinead O’Conner vs. Frank Sinatra and the pope, and in rap, there was even a huge East coast vs. West coast feud. All those feuds were organic and came from places of pure hatred. Today’s feuds seemed to calculated fueled more for promotional reasons than hatred. And whenever someone is caught hating someone or something else, a quick press release apology that sounds like it was edited by multiple public relations representatives is released. Most of those do not even need to be released it is just that the media routinely takes quotes out of context in hopes of firing up a feud.

That is what makes Jack White so refreshing, he has not problem starting up a good old fashion feud. He (reportedly) banned The Black Keys guitarist from his studio and does not even want his kids at the same school. The band kind of took the high road in Rolling Stone blaming more faults at the people that leaked the information, but still thinking White is not the best guy in the world. But Jack could not find common ground at hating leakers furthered his hatred at that other two-piece in the very next issue of Rolling Stone claiming they blatantly ripped them off and would be nothing without him. Of course the media would blow his rational out of proportion with his comparison that Amy Winehouse is the reason Adele was able to have success. (I agree with Jack that there is always some who opens the door for other artist to walk through, granted the first is not always the best.)

Next came the inevitable apology but Jack White certainly did not employ a PR firm to compose it as it was dripping in sarcasm in between the line and filled with back handed comments, I find it hardly coincidently that White brought up Danger Mouse in the apology out of nowhere as basically to say, The Black Keys need a co-writer and producer to make hit records. If there is one take away from the Rolling Stone article and the subsequent apology is Jack White really likes to complain which he freely admits he does quite frequently in the article.

Jack White’s hatred of The Black Keys stems from their similar sound to his former band The White Stripes but the biggest White Stripes plagiarist may actually be Jack himself. Each of his band have a very distinctive sound, The Raconteurs were power pop, The Dead Weather were hard rock, but when it came to his solo album it was a blues rock album in the vein of The White Stripes just with more musicians (the Stripes famously only recorded songs that the duo could perform live by themselves).

White’s second solo album Lazaretto is more the same, simply good blues mixed with rock and roll with most of the songs sounding liked more fleshed out versions of The White Stripes songs. But just like the first solo album, I have to wonder if Jack White is more entertaining when he puts constraints on himself like he did with the White Stripes because when he has everything at his disposal, it somehow manages not to be as interesting. There are bits and pieces as interesting material on Lazaretto like the instrumental High Ball Stepper but nothing that makes me not wish he would patch things up with Meg White. Really the only truly interesting part of listening to Lazaretto I had was trying to figure out which bands is backing him on which songs, his all-male band The Buzzards or the all female one, The Peacocks.

Song to Download – Lazaretto

Lazeretto gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

I'm Not Just Some Face You Used to Know

Fire Within - Birdy

Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters in music in pop history, of course you will never see him on a greatest singers list. So it is no surprised that many of his songs went on to be hits for other artists (and in some cases becoming the definitive version) like Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel; Adele even did one of his songs on her debut album. Bon Iver's Justin Vernon is another great songwriter who singing is not as good, and the annoying vocoder does not help, most notably on Skinny Love.

Enter YouTube: an acoustic version of Skinny Love has been done by every wannabe singer with an account. Seriously, simple YouTube search will land you “about 851,000 results.” Of the hundreds of thousands of versions out there, the unequivocal winner of the Best Skinny Love cover came from Birdy. The fifteenyear old British singer gave a classical sound to the song while singing over a sparse piano accompaniment reminiscent to Adele’s Someone Like You.

Her debut album had more of the same, sparse versions of songs that deserved more acknowledgements to mixed results. Songs like White Winter Hymnal (Fleet Foxes) and Shelter (The xx) were almost as beautifully as Skinny Love but it was a complete fail when she tried to slow down and class up Young Blood (The Naked and Famous) and managed to strip the song of all its youthful energy. Something you would never think an actually teenage would do.

At age seventeen, Birdy released her sophomore album Fire Within filled with her own material, some co-written with the biggest producers of the past decade incusing Ryan Tedder, Sia, Dan Wilson, and Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett. The US release finally came out this week and is basically the Bristish version with Skinny Love tacked on first and another song from the first album added as the final track.

Predictably Tedder gives Birdy a pop star makeover on Wings and Words as Weapons, the former is as loud and boring as you would expect from a Tedder assisted track. The latter starts out more acoustic, almost Mumford, before overproducing the song making it sound like one of the cheap Mumford style dance songs that are starting to get annoying. The Sia produced song Strange Birds is also predictably Sia in that it turns into the weirdest, darkest song on the album. It sours so high that all it needs is some more strings and it could pass as a Bond theme.

Also playing his part is Wilson, who actually wrote Someone Like You, who helps out on the piano ballad All You Never Say. His other contribution is Maybe, a bouncy acoustic track where for the first (and really only time) in two albums Birdy actually sounds like a teenager and ends up being a much better pop song than the two that Ryan Tedder overproduced. The third track Wilson helped out on, All About You, another sweet and stripped out mid temp song and another album standout. If her first album was showing the world she has a beautiful voice, the second album was trying to fit it within the current pop landscape. Hopefully by the third she find its but she is heading in the right direction when not working with Ryan Tedder.

Song to Download – Maybe

Fire Within gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Like Ma Bell I Got the Ill Communication

Ill Communication - Beastie Boys

It seems like every other week this year there has been another twentieth anniversary retrospective of a landmark album (compared to this year where so far, unless The Black Keys album ages well, there really has not been one yet). The most recent much ballyhooed anniversary was for Ill Communication. With Check Your Head, these were the two “weird albums” from the Beastie Boys that fit in very well with the early nineties explosion of hip-hop and alternative rock. After Ill Communication, which is this month’s induction into the Scooter Hall of Fame, the trio went back to mostly straight hip-hop for their (presumably) last three lyrical based albums.

Even though the Beastie Boys started out as a punk band and there was plenty of live instrumentations on Check Your Head, no one was expecting Sabotage as the first single off the album. The song managed to rock harder than most songs it shared time with on alt-rock radio stations. Ad Rock just let go of all his anger in three short minutes while the highlight of the song was the MCA bass breakdown which was the highlight of any of their live shows (their performance remains one of the greatest in VMA history). The song sat right in the middle of the album with similar, short, punk songs Tough Guy and Heart Attack Man at the beginning and end o the album.

Of course you cannot talk Sabotage without mentioning the awesome Spike Jones. Lampooning seventies cop shows, the Beastie Boys were game to put on silly wigs and mustaches while sliding across car hoods and tackle each other into pools. I sure there were many people twenty years ago hoping that a real Sabotage television show would air right after Beavis and Butt-Head.

Though in the middle of their live music phase, there are still plenty of great songs on Ill Communication that was closer to the hip-hop end of their musical spectrum. The best is the Q-Tip assisted (one of only two guest verses in the Beastie catalogue, Nas being the other) Get it Together where Tip effortlessly plays off the boys in an old school pass the mic type song. The album also features the rare flute-infused rap track, not just on the album opener Sure Shot but a flute sample also naturally showed up on Flute Loop. Root Down split the difference, a heavy funky bassline with some tight lyrics over them.

After Ill Communication the Beastie Boys stuck to their hip-hop roots with their next three lyrics based albums with the instrumental The Mix-Up, which was more funk based than the punk sounds of Ill Communication. Unfortunately with the death of MCA, this is probably all we will get to hear from the Beastie Boys unless they clean out the vaults. But with albums like Ill Communication, their legacy is more than set as one of the greats of any genre.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

You Breathing to the Choir That Prayer's the Drug Game

Having a day job apparently has upped the productivity of The Roots. Since becoming Jimmy Fallon’s house band five years ago, the group has released six albums which includes duet albums with John Legend, Betty Wright, and last year’s Wise Up Ghost with Elvis Costello (and people that the Lou Reed / Metallica pairing was odd). More surprising than the output is that spending their days with the annoyingly chipper Fallon has gotten increasingly moody.

The Roots never were a party group, always focusing on the underbelly of hip-hop but 2010’s How I Got Over saw them collaborate with indie artists like Dirty Projectors, Joanna Newsom and repurposed the Monsters of Folk song Dear God. That was followed by undun, a concept album about the life of an urban youth told in reverse chronological. Now the band is back with ...and then you shoot your cousin and with a tite like that, you can guess no one will ever pick one of these songs in a lip sync battle with Fallon anytime soon.

The new album is another concept album, but much looser than the last but still touching on recurring themes like urban plight and thoughts on God with a soundtrack more foreboding than the previous album. After a Nina Simone song plays, the album starts up with a haunting choir on Never setting mood very well for what is to come. That is followed by When the People Cheer which sounds like old school The Roots. Black Rock hit like classic nineties rap, taking back the genre from the hip-pop that has littered the radio over the past decade.

Understand follows Dear God to church, this time with gospel type organs that shakes the pew and features the chorus, “People ask for God, 'till the day he comes. See God’s face; turn around and run. God sees the face of a man. Shaking his head, says ‘he'll never understand’” As moody as the album gets, it does end with the hopeful Tomorrow which even open up with some whistling which you can also find yourself smiling during. The song is a satisfying ending to maybe the tightest album the band has produced yet.

Song to Download - Understand

...and then you shoot your cousin gets a Terror Alert Level: High [ORANGE] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Though I Try My Heart Stays Still, it Never Moves

Ghost Stories - Coldplay

In the post Beyoncé world, I have become fascinated with album rollouts. Sure there are only a small handful of artists that could also pull off a surprise album (Kid Cudi, the only recognizable artist who has tried since turned out to not be one). Coldplay is probably one of them. Much like Beyoncé they were the biggest act in their respective genre about a decade ago but each successive album was selling less and less while younger act stole their crowns.

But that did not happen. Instead they released they released Midnight with nothing more than a weird video at midnight in Ulan Bator, Mongolia of all places. After being considered the pop version of Radiohead, Midnight sounded like actual Radiohead if they were fronted by Bon Iver. Was this a new direction for the band? Nope. A week later the band released Magic, a more traditionally sounding pop song even if it sounded like the least Coldplay single they had ever released with a bouncing bass and Chris Martin not singing in his traditional falsetto voice.

With the release of Magic came a traditional album rollout, the album Ghost Stories would be released two months later. In the meanwhile the typical promotional campaign would happen, talk show appearances, NBC special, Target ads. Then came a non-traditional, and probably inadvertent bit of promotion for the album: Chris Martin announced a “conscious uncoupling” from his wife Gwyneth Paltrow.

Duran Duran lead singer Simon LeBon was once asked why rock stars date supermodels to which he replied, because they can. The only problem is dating the most beautiful women sometime makes for bad music especially in the hands of singer-songwriters. John Mayer worst album Battle Studies was the concept album about dating and then breaking up with Jennifer Aniston. So it is hard to listen to Ghost Stories without looking through the prism of the conscious uncoupling. It is the most evident on the opening track Always in My Head. It seems pretty clear with this and the subsequent songs, that the conscious uncoupling may not have been his idea and there will be no spiteful breakup songs here. The song is even followed up my Magic with its chorus, “I don’t want anybody else but you.”

Those songs also set a musical mood that is much more moody and airy compared to their grand stadium anthems of the past. Magic is not the only song where Martin opts not to go in his signature falsetto which leads to more honest song. And the drum machine sound from that sound also permeates the whole album. The only song that sounds out of place is A Sky Full of Stars. The song, produced by Avicii, sounds it would have been a better fit on their more dance leaning album Mylo Xyloto. But then again it may sound way too much like that album’s Every Teardrop I a Waterfall to the point you have to wonder if A Sky Full of Stars is just the Avicii remix of Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall.

Song to Download – Magic

Ghost Stories gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Acting Right Is So Routine, Fever Let Me Live a Dream

Turn Blue - The Black Keys

Not that long ago I was talking to someone about who the biggest rock band in the country was. After morning the slow decline of the genre we decided that The Black Keys held that titled depending on if you consider Mumford and Sons a rock band or not. It is amazing to think that considering that when they started they were either considered a more pure version of The White Stripes or a complete rip-off (I was in the former camp).

But with their past three albums, the Keys sounded like they were actively looking for rock stardom making short and compact rock songs like a modern day Creedence Clearwater Revival. And they achieved just that with back to back platinum album, an increasingly rare feat these days, with instant earworm guitar riff like on Lonely Boy. They even managed to cram a Led Zeppelin song into three minutes on Little Black Submarines.

So what you do when you are not the biggest band in the country? You go weird just like U2 did on Achtung Baby or Metallica with Load. After all the great riffs the duo came up with on previous albums, the first single off of Turn Blue, Fever featured a fuzzed out bass and keyboards that sound like they came from a sixties garage band. And Fever ended up just being a transition song to ease you into the new Keys, the rest of Turn Blue gets much weirder.

The album starts off with Weight of Love where the nice compact songs the duo has been crafted built around tight riffs turns into an extended near seven minute jam with multiple and lengthy guitar solos. You do not even hear Dan Auerbach’s voice until the two minute, the then the mood it set. Danger Mouse has co-produced two of the last three albums by the band, but Turn Blue is the first time his influence is truly felt as Turn Blue (I have a feeling the multiple bass grooves that populate the album are by his design) feels more like Mouse’s Broken Bells project, moody and psychedelic that seems influenced by early Pink Floyd, but the Black Keys sound is much more complete than either of the Broken Bells albums.

The best parts of Turn Blue is actually when the goes in near ballad mode. Bullet to the Brain sounds like a moodier version of Never Gonna Give You Up from Brothers. And where Broken Bells tried for a hippie version of the Bee-Gees on Holding on For Life, the Keys do a much better job at that with back to back songs Waiting on the Words and 10 Lovers.

The album closer Gotta Get Away reminded me a lot of Bound 2. No, not that I could envision Dan and drummer Patrick Carney recreate the video Seth Rogan / James Franco style, but after such a sound departure of Yeezus, it seem like Kanye West put the song at the end of the album as to say, “yeah this album may have been rough, but here is one for the long time fans who were with me back when all my songs had sped up soul samples.” For the Black Keys, after an album filly with trippy psychedelic sounds and lengthy guitar solos (the longest coming at the end of the second to last song In Our Prime), it ends with a song for those who jumped on the band’s bandwagon on the previous three albums as Gotta Get Away is their most Creedence sounding song yet. Turn Blue may not be the band’s best (and it certainly will not be its most successful), but it is definitely an album where you cannot wait to hear where the band goes next. Keep in mind Achtung Baby and Load were followed up by ever weirder Zooropa and Reload. Unfortunately both of those were followed by Pop and St. Anger.

Song to Download - Weight of Love

Turn Blue gets a Terror Alert Level: High [ORANGE] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

And if You Can’t Detect the Sarcasm You’re Misunderstood

Sheezus - Lily Allen

When Beyoncé dropped her album late in December, I was hoping she would chance the promotional game. Promotional cycles have started so early, by the time an album is released; most people have already moved only the next big new thing. But realistically only about five artists these days could airdrop their album out of nowhere and be as successful as Beyoncé. Unfortunately Lily Allen is not one of them. Depressingly her biggest hit stateside is being sampled by T-Pain. None of her solo music has even cracked the top forty in America.

So her rollout has been a more traditional as she has released a new song every month since November. That is six of the fourteen songs that appear on Sheezus. And with only one song being released at a time it is easy to pick the songs apart. When she released Hard Out Here I was just so happy to have Lily Allen back in my life that I initially ignored its shortcomings. But after a couple weeks, I realized that the song just was not as good as the tongue and cheek music video. The auto-tune was annoying, the lyrics about the double standards have done much better and the bridge trying to reclaim the derogatory word for women by just repeating it again and again for the bridge just did not work.

The follow up Air Balloon worked better as it was a true return to form for Allen. It was a bouncy track was reminiscent of her first album but much more fun than snarky and was good despite a weird lyric about Kurt Cobain and Elvis. Then came L8 CMMR which was originally on the Girls Soundtrack. At the time it was released I was just hoping it was just something she gave to the television show because it was not good enough for the album but unfortunately popped up on the track list to Sheezus too when it was released.

Our Time continued the trend of one good, one lackluster song. It is a more chill song than she has ever done, a just kick back and relax type of song. Then we got to hear the title track and to call it lackluster would be nice. Sure the M.I.A. type track sounded cool, but the lyrics about having a period was just embarrassing while the chorus was clunky where it is unclear if she is praising the likes of Rihanna and Lorde or burying Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (which she rhymes with LOLO ha ha). Maybe worst of all, Yeezus himself Kanye West gets nary a mention on the track.

The rest of Sheezus follows the trend of switching between good and uninspiring. You can really split the songs into the two camps with the songs where she tries to be her old snarky self not living up to her previous work while the more “grown up” tracks are much better. On former side there are songs like URL Badman (which is a worse title than L8 CMMR) and its pseudo dubstep breakdown that just do not work. While on the flip side a song like Take My Place and Close Your Eyes (which may be the most awkward slow jam ever… and I mean that in a good way) are dreamy throwbacks to mellower seventies. Insincerely Yours actually splits the difference with more boring snarky comments with a backing track that would not have been out of place on Solid Gold. Then As Long as I Got You is a more uplifting version of Not Fair but this time she co-opts zydeco music instead of country.

Lily Allen stormed the public consciousness on a wave of retro music that still managed to sound modern, which was copied by Amy Winehouse and Adele, and lyrics dipped in a heavy dose of, which was copied by every female rapper since. Three albums in and that stark it getting a little stale. Yet the highlights of Sheezus show Allen at her most mature or most vulnerable like on the very sweet cover of Somewhere Only We Know. Hopefully on future albums, Lily does not force the snark because that was her claim to fame in her early years because her growth on this album can sustain a full album down the line.

Song to Download – Our Time

Sheezus gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I Wanna Be the Guy Who Breaks All the Rules

Supernova - Ray LaMontagne

Before Mumford and Sons ushered in the folk rock earlier this decade, Ray LaMontagne was having modest success with his straight from a log cabin in New Hampshire esthetic. And he managed to find that success with minimal promotion. It seemed like Ray would release an album, go on tour, perform on the occasional late night talk show, and then go back to the woodland of New Hampshire until the next album. The only other promotion I have ever seen him do was VH1 Storytellers during his last album cycle.

For his fourth album, it seems like Lamontagne is gunning for the mainstream as he just released his first music video and brought in a big name producer for Supernova in Dan Aurbach who won the Producer of the Year, Non-Classical Grammy last year (if 2013 was the year of Pharrell, hopefully 2014 turns into the year of Auebach between this, Lana Del Rey, and his own The Black Keys album). The first single and title track was his poppiest song to date. But the thing is, it is pop in seventy’s pop rock radio from the seventies kind of was. It sounds like it would fit in between Steve Miller Band and Bob Seger on seventies AM radio, not between Adele and The Lumineers today. Ojai follows that trend sounding like it was heavily influenced by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Lodi.

As a whole Supernova is Ray’s weirdest album to date. Sure there are those seventies pop rock ditties, but he also goes psychedelic many other tracks. The album opens with Lavender which sounds like something out of Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties. And that hippie vive continues on songs like Airwaves, Pick Up Gun, and No Other Way with its lyrics about flowers will inspire images of the ultimate hippie ode: San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair) while Smashing sounds like less adventurous Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd.

But the best track on Supernova is probably the most contemporary. She’s the One is a pure modern day rock song which sounds like what it may sound like if Ray did front The Black Keys as a trio. The song has the same dirty blues the duo is known for and it goes really well with Ray’s gritty voice. The closest Lamontagne gets to his folk rock is Drive-In Movies which closes out the album, and just like the subject, it is hard to reminiscence over his old sound after sitting through a mostly psychedelic album.

Song to Download – She's the One

Supernova gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

They’ve Been Telling Me to Come of Age, I’ve Been Going Through an Awkward Phase

Pop Psychology - Neon Trees

There comes a time in every guy’s life when a friend announces to you that they are gay. Then you have to decide whether you should be honored that he trusts you with something so personal or slap then upside the head for not coming out earlier because you pretty much already knew because he had done everything to convey he was gay except actually hit on you (then there is the uncomfortable situation of deciding if you should be relieved or offended they never hit on you). That was what was going through my head when the lead singer of Neon Trees Tyler Glenn recently came out as gay in Rolling Stone. Seriously dude, I think pretty much everyone already assumed that because you did everything short of making out with dudes in your videos. I would have been much more surprised if he announced his engagement to his female drummer.

Neon Trees were creative in the wake of The Killers, both with ties to Las Vegas playing pop rock, new wave infused music with a modern twist. For their second album, The Killers decided they want to be more rock than pop and tried to write Bruce Springsteen epics. Neon Trees went the other way going further down the new wave rabbit whole. Forget that the first two tracks off the their third album have titles like Love in the 21st Century and Text Me in the Morning, as you can tell from the album cover, Pop Psychology is straight out of the early eighties.

The first two Neon Trees albums followed the template, one extremely catchy first single, a couple good songs, and a bunch of filler. They have two multiplatinum songs and two albums that have even gone gold. Pop Psychology breaks that trend. But not in a good way. Those two previously mentioned songs with embarrassing titles go right up the cheesy like then leaps right by it. Sleeping with a Friend is the first single and best hope to catch lightning three times, but only ends up being mildly catchy and easily forgettable.

As overtly cheesy the first couple songs are, things do get a little more interesting in the second half starting with Unavoidable. The song is dreamy a duet with female where the syths finally get toned down. This song probably could have been a radio hit back into 1983, but thirty-one years later it probably too boring to get play. So Pop Psychology has no great songs, a couple good ones and a bunch of filler. It looks like Neon Trees may be resigned to two-hit wonderdom which is too back for the band because it is not enough to have a lengthy career and too many hits to be a much more celebrated one hit wonder. Thirty years later, more people remember Dexy's Midnight Runners than Level 42.

Song to Download – Unavoidable

Pop Psychology gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

This Time I’ve Got no Hesitation and I’ll Be Moving on to Where I Belong

A Dotted Line - Nickel Creek

I finally got into Nickel Creek when they released their fifth album Why Should This Fire Die? I had an irrational hatred of country music in my youth, and once that thawed I was ready to look at artists pushing the conventions of the genre like Nickel Creek who drew on a heavy influence of folk too but still hung out on the outskirts of country music. Of course once I finally discovered the band, they went on an indefinite hiatus. Well at least I had the previous four albums to go back and check out and despite the hiatus, the individual members continued to make music by themselves, with the Punch Brothers, Fiction Family, and many other side projects.

In the nine years since their album, Mumford and Sons brought folk to the mainstream opening up the door of other likeminded artists to breakthrough, including The Lumineers who basically took the Nickel Creek esthetic and created a huge pop success out of it. Now Nickel Creek is back and ready to take back the folk crown. Where most groups reunite and put out a new album as an excuse to tour behind it, the first song Nickel Creek released in almost a decade, Destination, stands with everything already in their catalogue. The upbeat song features everything you loved about Nickel Creek, Sara Watkins beautiful voice, tight harmonies, and a great interplay of mandolin and fiddle.

The rest of A Dotted Line proves the trio has not lost a step. It sounds as if they spend the last nine years just saving their best song ideas for the inevitable reunion album. The rest of the album I mostly what you would expect from the group, nice folk ballads and of course there is a beautiful instrumental track Elsie. But they also push their sound further with Hayloft which is the most danceable song ever in the traditional, non-hoedown kind of way as well as their least Nickel Creek sounding song ever. It seems like we will not be getting a Christmas album from the group anytime soon because there is the beautiful Christmas Eve which could be another of those rare holiday track.

When bands have been away for almost a decade or more, the comeback album is just put out to promote the comeback tour and then play the hits on that tour with one or two new songs which are used as bathroom breaks for fans. Nickel Creek bucks that trend with one of their best albums yet. If you go and see them, make sure your bladder is empty before they start because you definitely do not want to miss these new songs live. Hopefully we do not have to wait another nine years for the next one.

Song to Download – Destination

A Dotted Line gets a Terror Alert Level: Severe [RED] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Long, Long, Long, Long Time Ago, Before the Wind, Before the Snow

Blood Sugar Sex Magik - Red Hot Chili Peppers

A year after the release of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, this month's induction into the Scooter Hall of Fame, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’s prior record label released a greatest Hits package entitled What Hits!? (the second most self aware greatest hit package after Jimmy Buffett's Song(s) You Know By Heart). It was a sly nod to the fact that their first four albums could at best be considered a modest success and a cheap way to cash in on the band’s new found stardom on a different label. Back during those eighties albums, the Peppers were lucky to get played during 120 Minutes but in the post-Nirvana world, videos from Blood Sugar Sex Magic were in heavy rotation on MTV and alternative radio that popped up in the early nineties.

Unlike some grunge coattail-riders like Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, the Chili Peppers may gave benefited from the music that came out of the Pacific Northwest, but they were something entirely different, a mix of rock, funk, and rap, with three musicians that pushed every boundary and a lyricist that poured his whole heart on the page. John Frusciante created some of the most inventive riffs of all time which played off well with Flea’s funky bass and his rhythm section partner, the underappreciated Chad Smith.

Even though Frusciante and Smith were on their second album with the band, but the missing ingredient may have been producer Rick Rubin. As he tends to do, Rick took the other the top, hyperactive group and focused them leading to a more cohesive and more easily accessible sound. Rubin also famously found Anthony Kiedis’ poetry book and convinced him to take one entitled Under the Bridge to the band. Of course that song ended up being the album’s breakout hit and remains one of the biggest in the band’s history.

Under the Bridge may have broke the band in a big way, but first single Give it Away opened the door. The song was just pure focused energy, punk rock mixed with a funky bass line which makes it danceable if mosh pits are not your thing. Then there was the Anton Corbin music video, filmed in black in white in the desert with each band member with an increasingly epic hairdo.

And the album is not just pure funk with the random power ballad in the middle; the Peppers pushed their sound with songs like Breaking the Girl. An acoustic track with weird percussion and other instrumentation that sounds like it came from a medieval fair, and somehow it worked completely. The album concludes with Sir Psycho Sexy (not counting quick hidden Robert Johnson cover), weird song that sounds like it was built around a pig inspired syth patch where Kiedis goes on for over eight minutes about a freak in the Garden of Eden and being stopped by lady cops in an explicit fashion.

A decade after the first greatest hits, the Red Hot Chili Pepper released a new best of album that is actually worthy of the title with many legitimate hits from subsequent albums. Well many legitimate hits and one song from the Dave Navarro era that most people would like to forget.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I go Back Again, Fall off the Train, Land in His Bed, Repeat Yesterday's Mistakes

Poor Shakira, during her first season on The Voice no one wanted to join her team and ended up with arguably the worst team in the history of the show (though Christina Aguilera’s first and third season teams were just as bad). Though better this season, she is still looking at a last place finish. More importantly, the first single off her new album did not really set radio on fire despite having the biggest radio star of the last five years Rihanna on the track. But other than Maroon 5, none of the coaches on The Voice have gotten much of a bump from the show (at least in terms of pop radio, Blake Shelton is still ruling country radio but still lacks a crossover hit). Christina’s album bombed, Cee-Lo’s Goodie Mob comeback was met with a resounding yawn. Ironically many of the guest performers get a good boost after appearing on the show; Robin Thicke shot to number, and Christina, despite not being able to kick start her own career on the show, managed another hit via guest spot on the show with A Great Big World. Granted it is possible Shakira will get the big break when she performs the song on the show (but will Rihanna show up for anything short of the finale which is still two months away).

Granted the reason why Can’t Remember to Forget You is not a hit is most likely has less to do with some sort of The Voice coach curse and more with pop radio itself. If you listen to a top radio station you will hear mostly watered down EDM or folk rock songs (or in the case of Wake Me Up, both). Soul is making some inroads thanks to Aloe Blacc (getting some Wake Me Up rub) and Pharrell Williams (who has been placed in multiple advertisements in the last couple month). But it is very hard for different sounds making it on to pop radio. Case in point Lorde released Royal in March of last year but it did not become a hit until the fall. So it is not very surprising, even with Rihanna’s name attached, that the ska-rock from the nineties vibe of Can’t Remember to Forget You is having a hard time breaking through even with a music video that could have passed for softcore porn when ska last had a moment.

But at least you can easily classify Can’t Remember to Forget You, second single Empire is much harder to pin down. It definitely has an epic, rock tinged power ballad feel to it, but more Céline Dion nineties type power ballad than eighties Bon Jovi type with weird auto-tune in the chorus. And there may be the problem with Shakira. (yes, the album title has a period in it) it tries to be everything at once. She tries to cram Latin, pop, rock and many other sub genres into the same song. Instead of the songs sounding eclectic, they just come out sounding jumbled. The worst case is the duet with Black Shelton which adds country to her musical jumbo which finds Shelton singing lines like “p-p-p-p-popping the pills.” Blake duet with Christina Aguilera was significantly better.

But these genre mash-ups are not all jumbled messes, when she infuses some reggae into Cut Me Deep which features some Canadian reggae band named MAGIC! (yes their band has an exclamation point and all caps and no I will not be making a Snow joke), it turns into one of the better tracks on the album. Another standout is the new wave meets rock sounding Spotlight (which was actually written with the same Nashville based team that also co-wrote the Shelton assisted song but not nearly as embarrassing). And showing that less is sometimes more, the acoustic 22 is better than most of the overproduced songs on the album.

Song to Download – Cut Me Deep

Shakira. gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I’m So Tired of Being Along These Penitent Wall Are All I’ve Known

Morning Phase - Beck

The nineties were all about keeping it real, from the rappers to the rockers, you had to be serious to be taken seriously. That was probably why Beck was written off as a one hit wonder when his irreverent song about shaving your face with some mace in the dark became an MTV staple and had teenagers racing to their Spanish to English dictionaries. Beck ended up becoming weirder and more irreverent with his next album Odelay with help from The Dust Brothers (who helped the Beastie Boys get weird on their second album Paul’s Boutique) and ended up becoming one of the most respected artists of the era after its release. He then closed out the slacker decade by defying the logic of our nation’s sexx laws the only way Beck can.

Then came the new millennium and a quite literal Sea Change where all the fun was sucked from Beck’s music. The 2002 album was in result of a failed nine year relationship and was as depressing as you would expect. Was it good? Yes. But did the world need an album full of sad bastard, mostly acoustic tracks from Beck? Probably not.

Twelve years and three albums later (four if you count the sheet music only album), Beck is back with another batch of sad bastard songs. Morning Phase is dubbed a “companion piece” to Sea Change and is filled with the same acoustic based folk that is still manages to wrap itself in a wall of a sound. Much like Sea Change, Morning Phase is haunting and beautiful, but I still prefer my Beck to be weird and irreverent. Leave the mopey acoustic folk to Ray LaMontagne.

Song to Download – Blue Moon

Morning Phase gets a Terror Alert Level: Elevated [YELLOW] on my Terror Alert Scale.

Friday, February 28, 2014

We’re All Self Conscious, I’m Just the First to Admit It

The College Dropout - Kanye West

It took me a minute to get into Kanye West. His first single was a mublecore track Through the Wire that he quite literally recorded with his mouth wired shut (hence the title of the song). He second single was a song called Slow Jamz and I am against rap slow jams (Bonita Applebum being the lone exception). Then I heard All Falls Down. That was a sit up and take notice moment. Base around an obscure Lauryn Hill hook (he could not clear the sample so that is Syleena Johnson singing) that loops throughout the whole song a self conscious Kanye debates himself on what he thinks other people want him to do and what he knows he should do.

By the time Jesus Walks dropped I was all in. The song is the rare rap song that sounds epic and timeless, something that could fill U2 type stadiums. Again, Kanye was rapping about an internal battle, but this time it was a war for his soul with faith on one side and the almighty dollar, through any means necessary on the other shoulder. Ten years later and it is still a tossup of which side won, but it was at that time I had to check out the whole album.

The College Dropout, March’s induction into the Scooter Hall of Fame, almost plays out like a concept album on the doldrums of working your way through college. Starting off with We Don’t Care about the mid-twenties with not much to look forward to because “we weren’t supposed to make it past twenty-five.” That concept then end with School Spirit which stand tall amongst the other great tracks on the album. On the track Kanye says goodbye to school without the paper saying he is finished to a piano bounce (which is only enhanced by the like, “I got a Jones like Norah.”) It is a shame the song never got a video treatment or was released by a single.

Even on the first album, you could see Kanye push the boundaries; who else could get Jay-Z to appear on the same track as a spoken word artist (Never Let Me Down). Or get two of the deeper thinking rappers, Talib Kweli and Common, get down and a pick up chicks song (Get Em High). The guy even closed out the album recounting the road to the first album by having everyone involve give an oral history to a beat (Last Call). And right before that, it may be one of the sweetest rap song that managed to not come across as extremely corny (Family Business).

The College Dropout was a game changer that topped my list of The 100 Greatest Albums of the 00’s. It set up a long career. In a genre that has one of the smallest shelf lives, Kanye is still very relevant a decade later and even a bigger lightning rod for better or worse. I would argue that Yeezus would be for worst, but this still does not keep me from hoping a new Kanye West album drops this year, be it solo, another Watch the Throne, an uneven G.O.O.D. compilation, or something completely different that we will never see coming.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Let’s Take it Back to the Way it Was

Love, Marriage, and Divorce - Toni Braxton and Babyface

Nobody shaped the sound of the nineties more than Babyface. The guy first reached number one with a song he wrote and produced in 1990 with I’m Your Baby Tonight by Whitney Houston. Those number ones kept mounting throughout the decade including two of the biggest songs of the decade from Boyz II Men (End of the Road and I’ll Make Love to You) before moving into other genres writing and producing hit songs for Madonna and Eric Clapton. He even won three straight Producer of the Year Grammy’s from 95-97. But when the new millennium hit, RnB music that we knew in the nineties was changing quickly and every RnB singer either went heavy in hip-hop or dance beats and the baby-making music that Babyface specialize seemed as old as the decade and he has not been to the top of the charts since, be it his own music or the songs he produced.

One of the artists that befitted most from Babyface’s pen was Toni Braxton, he wrote and produced her first four top ten songs. He did the bulk of the writing and production on her first two albums, both of which sold over five million copies each. Is it a coincidence that her last three albums, which featured a total of two songs written by Babyface never reached even a million sold? Maybe, but has sunk from the spotlight much like Babyface has over the past decade.

Not only has Toni Braxton brought Babyface back into the fold for her latest album, it is billed as a duet album between the two. Love, Marriage‎ and Divorce captures what was great about the duo back when the music they made was being played in the background in the conception of many of teenagers walking around today. Like the duo says halfway through the album, “Reunited, back to the business of love.” This may be the album nineties RnB fans have been waiting for since hip-hop and dance beats ruined the genre. Okay, there is one “dance” track, Heart Attack, but it is more disco than today’s annoying electronic variation.

Though hope takes up two thirds of the title, the break up makes the best music and those are the best tracks on the album. Both singers bring their best to the epic Hurt You where both lovers cheat on each other that starts off as a piano ballad before transforming into something bigger. If there were any justice, this song and album kicks off a new retro era in RnB. The genre is definite need of some reinvention, even if its back words. Maybe Babyface can produce a full Boyz II Men album next.

Song to Download – Hurt You

Love, Marriage, and Divorce gets a Terror Alert Level: High [ORANGE] on my Terror Alert Scale.