13 Jul 2013

Album Reviews: 4th Editions

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The Mountain Goats — We Shall All Be HealedJohn Darnielle is like a geek noir reporter. The Jonathan Lethem of indie rock. He peers into the darkness and shoots back reports of its inhabitants with a sharp nasal bray of a voice and fiercely strummed guitar generally with minimal backing. He usually writes in the first person and his songs are intricately detailed and innately intelligent. You have to be pretty smart to really realize the gravity of the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. This is his drug album. It’s about meth addicts so the songs take place in hotel rooms and hospitals and are full of paranoia and self loathing. Most of the songs barreling at breakneck speed to the conclusions. It is harrowing and brilliant with one liners and stunning images all over the place. It is timely and essential.
Howie Day — Stop All the World NowYes, this is Gray’s Anatomy music. Midtempo, lush, emotional with a swooning singer perfectly suited for soft focus montage as all the characters at Seattle Grace go through their emotional crisis’ in slow motion. But this is GOOD Grey’s Anatomy music. The production is detailed, the musicianship excellent. The album flows like an album and not a TV soundtrack and the songs, most importantly, have heft. The hit, of course, is “Collide” which is catchy as fuck and really fun to sing but there’s also “Numbness for Sound,” which captures a young man falling into homelessness in an unforgiving city. There’s “I’ll take you on” with the killer line ‘Be my illusion and I’ll be your distraction”. He released another record that sounds like BAD Grey’s Anatomy music about five years later so this may be the only thing you need to own by him.
The Somnabulants — ElocutionWay back in the early eighties when we were afraid of computers and being dehumanized by a mechanical future society (if we only knew), a bunch of bands came up with the idea of writing beautiful love songs using nothing but synthesizers. . .and wouldn’t it be cool if you could dance to it too? Thus, Depeche Mode, OMD and their ilk were born. The Somnabulants are a contemporary band that party like it’s 1985 and boy do they get it right. This is supercatchy, with blips and bleeps and syndrums and a Peter Murphy acolyte tagteaming with an Alison Moyet soundalike. They write and sing catchy tunes about love and alienation in modern times that sound simultaneously modern and retro. This is probably hard to find. Even I haven’t heard of their record label, but if they have it on iTunes, download it, put on your capris and black and white polka dot shirt, tease your hair up to look like that dude from A Flock of Seagulls and enjoy.

St. Etienne — So Tough

I personally think this is one of the best albums of the electronica era in Britian (which ran from the late 80’s to mid 90’s). Electronica was huge in Britian and poised to overtake good old guitar based rock and roll until a little band called Oasis came along and humbled all those turntablists and keyboard geeks. That being said, St. Etienne represent electronica’s cuddly side. This isn’t the Orb with their hard techno or Aphex Twin, who I’ve dubbed King Mindfuck, or the Prodigy, who are pretty equivalent to the Sex Pistols or Public Enemy. These are the kind of Brits who invite strangers in for a spot of tea. They offer encouragement in “You’re in a Bad Way”, sample Rush on “Conchita Martinez” and air out the gorgeous ballad “Hobart Paving.” All of it is inspired by swinging 60’s London with sound bites to match. As warm and fuzzy as a Scottish cardigan.

Various — Roots of Rock and Roll

Why, oh why, would anyone want a compilation CD in the age of iTunes. What’s the point? Well, probably because there are people in the world that have better and smarter musical taste than you and it’s always good to learn something about history and sequencing. This is a collection of tunes from 1947-1954 that capture the spirit of rock and roll before Elvis and Sun records existed. You have country, jump R&B, straight R&B, big band, blues, the whole shebang. With artists like Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, Sonny Terry and titles like “I Got Loaded,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and the original “That’s Alright Mama.” It’s a nicely packaged 3 CD set with extensive liner notes and music that doesn’t let up. So, sure you can probably download it. . .but that wouldn’t be very rock and roll now, would it?

The Mountain Goats — We Shall All Be Healed

John Darnielle is like a geek noir reporter. The Jonathan Lethem of indie rock. He peers into the darkness and shoots back reports of its inhabitants with a sharp nasal bray of a voice and fiercely strummed guitar generally with minimal backing. He usually writes in the first person and his songs are intricately detailed and innately intelligent. You have to be pretty smart to really realize the gravity of the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. This is his drug album. It’s about meth addicts so the songs take place in hotel rooms and hospitals and are full of paranoia and self loathing. Most of the songs barreling at breakneck speed to the conclusions. It is harrowing and brilliant with one liners and stunning images all over the place. It is timely and essential.

Faith No More — Angel Dust

There would be no System of a Down without Faith No Moore. There would be no Tool, no Rage, no blazingly intelligent, alternative metal without Faith No More. And Angel Dust is what you need by them. It’s a rip snorting patchwork of rap, metal, funk, hard rock and chutzpah all held together by Michael Patton, the man of a thousand voices, all of them sarcastic. This is music for the true outsider who has no intention of coming in from the cold. They take on conformity, egotism and hypocrisy without sounding smug and self satisfied. . .oh, and they take on the smug and self satisfied.

Suzanne Vega — Suzanne Vega

Stunning debut from the leader of a mid-80’s New York folk renaissance. Her style is arch and coolly observant. This isn’t Melissa Etheridge we’re talking about her. Songs about domestic violence, depression, and the cruelty of war are calmly related with staccato guitar and clipped phrasing. Yet all of it cuts hard. Because, like most New Yorkers, the heart behind the arch, dispassionate attitude feels deeply and passionately. This juxtaposition creates the tension that makes the music great. And “The Queen and the Soldier” may be one of the most heartrending songs ever written.

Joan Osborne — Relish

What a wonderful record. Bluesy, gutsy, completely modern (at least way back in 1992, it was). You know the big song “One of Us” as in ‘what if God was’ written by the guy who worked on Cyndi Lauper big breakthrough. Well, he’s here along with some downtown luminaries like Marc Ribot. But this isn’t their record. It completely belongs to Ms. Osborne. Her sultry, blues mama delivery is perfect for “Right Hand Man” praising her lover and the art-skronk of “Spiderwebs,” imagining a sighted Ray Charles. And a killer cover of Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat.” Great record start to finish.

Neil Young — After the Gold Rush

What can I say? Stone cold classic Neil Young.

Bob Dylan– Love and Theft

Lots of critics dig this record. Bob’s comeback, yadda, yadda, yadda. Well, they’re right. Mr. D half-assed for the better part of twenty years. Something got a fire lit under him for this one. I think he just wanted to tell stories again. And this is what all of this is. Story after story of riverboat gamblers, and poor folk wandering about the Deep South, all set to walloping swamp blues with the dual guitar of Tony Ganier and the indispensable Charlie Sexton. It’s long with a lot of talk, but it’s good to have Bob back with songs you want to actually hum.

America — History: Greatest Hits

America is not a band you’re supposed to like. They were kind of the lite rock Journey or Neil Young on ‘ludes. All true. But they write them some catchy tunes. So they pass, because damn, are those tunes catchy. “Sister Golden Hair,” “Tin Man,” “Lonely People” and when they decide to cover a horrible song like “Muskrat Love,” they triple the tempo so you don’t recognize how bad the song is cause you’re grooving to it. Greatest hits is what you need. Nothing more.

Bruce Springsteen — Born in the U.S.A.

Not much to say since anyone over 30 owns this. Springsteen at his most populist. He’s moved well past wordy Dylan tributes and detailed descriptions of cars and really digs into what the average American feels (or felt) in mid-80’s America. At loose ends but even at the most downtrodden ready to kick life in the ass. Most of the songs are classics. No duds. I’m On Fire may be the sexiest creepy song you’ll ever hear. And yes, the title track is patriotic, but not in the sense that most people think of.

The Rolling Stones — A Bigger Bang

I’ve reviewed this before. Best Stones since Some Girls. Which everyone has said with every record they released SINCE Some Girls. But this time, they are right. They’ve stopped chasing the latest sound, they just lean back and rely on their groove. And their groove is on. Mick is simultaneous pissed and regretful. Keith knocks a ballad out of the park. Everyone is in sync. It’s a long record. About seventeen songs. But when you’ve been holding the good ones back for upwards of twenty years, it’s forgivable. Essential for Stones fans.

Jesus & Mary Chain — Darklands

The Jesus & Mary Chain are some unholy combination of The Hollies and the Velvet Underground. They write tremendous pop songs and slather them in feedback and echo. Their debut, Psychocandy influenced countless bands, some of which you even heard of. That one is loud, obnoxiously loud. This is their hangover record. They’re happy when it rains, they visit the darklands to talk with their chaotic soul . . . it goes on. But their melodies are remarkable. Both vocally and guitar wise. And after the feedback onslaught of their debut, they’ve discovered space. The world they are in is way too big and desolate for the tortured souls that they are. So they sing love songs, sweet and twisted to work their way out of it.

The Police — Ghost in the Machine

The Police were, for a while, the perfect mix of highbrow and lowbrow music. There were tremendously accomplished musicians who loved the three minute pop format. Andy Summer’s and Stewart Copeland’s sense of humor complemented Sting’s somewhat pompous faux-intellectualism. All their albums are very good and worth owning. Ghost in the Machine is up at the head because it was their last release that revealed their inherent scrappiness. They stretched with a sense of fun. It has great pop songs that everyone knows, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”, “Spirits in the Material World” but it also includes Sting’s least pretentious bid for we-are-the-worldism, the haunting “Invisible Sun,” he also sings almost an entire song in French without sounding remotely pretentious cause the damn thing rock so hard,. Andy Summers contributes “Omegaman,” a future tale about conformity and Stewart Copeland, the happiest member of the group, clearly closes out the album with “Darkness,” one of the most depressing songs about, well, depression you’ll ever hear. After this, they veered into full on pretension land with Synchronicity (which I also love) but this is the high water mark for this alternately loveable, cantankerous, pompous, naïve rock band.

Wilco –AM

Another somewhat pretentious, scrappy, lovable band. The difference being, American Midwestern pretension tends to come with a touch of modesty whilst the British variety’s main component is ego. This is Wilco’s first record after Jeff Tweedy jumped Uncle Tupelo’s ship. There is nary a hint of what’s to come. With AM, you get crunchy AM radio inspired country-rock. Deceptively simple, emotionally affecting, it contains some of Tweedy’s most direct songs. Personal faves include “Passenger Side,” the lament of the alcoholic who’s license is suspended, “Box Full of Letters.” about a dude who has his ex’s stuff in his house but really doesn’t want to give it back, and “I Should Have Held You,” a simple, affecting ballad.

Nils Petter Molvaer– Solid Ether

Said it before, I’ll say it again. You want to find out where jazz is headed, go the Swedes and the Norse and ECM. Nils is a Norwegian trumpet player who mixes a warm style with chilly electronics and breakbeats. And as opposed to the acid jazz of the 90’s, none of it sounds trite and it’s just uncomfortable enough not to be played in hip New York loungeraunts, thank the Lord. Solid Ether is quintessential Molvaer in that sense. It’s not quite danceable but you will nod your head (in the good, non-sleepy) way as he brings you to a narcotic, lull with warm trumpet lines and keyboards and then slaps you open with sharp, staccato blasts and jungle drums. All of it done with heart and soul.

The Hives — Tyrannosaurus Hives

More Swedes. These guys are garage rockers of the modern age. No horny declarations of teenage lust with sloppy, barely passable guitar. The Hives are sleek, tight and hard. They are professionals. And they rock. Boy, do they rock. The lyrics are nothing more than a series of clever putdowns but they bore into your brain. This is seriously fun, deadly efficient music.

Mercury Rev — Deserter’s Songs

Mercury Rev are what would have happened if Brian Wilson got through the tail end of his acid years with his brain relatively intact. Grand, orchestral woozy chamber music. This is some of the most sonically gorgeous I’ve ever heard. These guys are from upstate New York and it absolutely captures the sense of the stoned, hazy beauty of summer in the mountains. Not all trips are good, of course, and even the bad ones still overcome the paranoid lyrics with just stunningly beautiful music. Take “Holes” for example, starts off simply enough with piano and voice talking about time flowing from your dreams into the ocean, basic hippie stuff, fine, but as the music swells and complements this simple three chord song, we get this: “Holes, dug by little moles, angry jealous spies, got telephones for eyes” all the while the music is even more stately and beautiful, reminiscent of Golden Slumbers. So, its sweet music for sweet trips that sometimes sour. But, don’t worry, they’ll get you through it.

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