Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Video: "Super Soaker" by Wavves

I think the new Wavves album King of the Beach will be very good and surprisingly, a smooth and better transition from distortion-hoarding fuzz to smarter, cleaner punk.  Not sure if I'm sold on the live or studio versions being the better of the two (both available on youtube), but overall, infectious song in line with "Post-Acid".  Who knew after Wavvves that this band actually had legs?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Album Review: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Raising Sand

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Raising Sand
[Rounder 2007]

8.5/10

From the outset, something like this has got to sound interesting. On one hand you have Robert Plant, singer and songwriter for rock and roll gods Led Zeppelin. On the other hand, you have Alison Krauss, the queen of modern bluegrass and the winner of more Grammy Awards than any other female artist with 20. From two seemingly diametric backgrounds, a love of harmonic vocals and American roots music brought these legends together in the studio where they charted new territory and explored new sounds for their repertoires. With the monumental direction, influence, and guitar-playing of producer T-Bone Burnett, this experimental project presents Raising Sand. What is technically a duet album sounds more like a profound fusion of two exceptional voices that play off of each other to create a collection of incredible harmonies.

Fans of either artist should know that the style of Plant and Krauss’s middle ground lie in the fields of rockabilly, blues and folk rock. While perhaps Plant strays a bit more out of his comfort zone, especially with origins as a hard-hitting rock star, both musicians were unknowing and curious about what their collaboration would yield. As Krauss tells it, when she was going over the songs Burnett suggested for her to sing, Burnett said, “Well, you both are nervous… and that’s what I wanted.”

The core band involved in this project includes vocalists from Plant and Krauss, fiddle by Krauss, producer and guitarist Burnett, guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch, drummer Jay Bellerose, guitarist Norman Blake, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger.

The first track “Rich Woman” lays out very nicely what the rest of album has in store with an old-fashioned introduction of a wavering, almost haunting electric guitar rhythm and a crystal clear drum beat that really makes the song a fun toe-tapper. Before long, though, is what we have all come to hear: Plant and Krauss nail the mood of the song perfectly and strike a perfect balance between fragile harmony and the swagger of the melody. The next song, the country ballad “Killing the Blues,” however, more aptly characterizes the general speed of the album, which is very slow. That the album is too slow would be the main complaint with the album, but it is hard to deny that the songs that drag down the pace are also exceedingly beautiful. Furthermore, the second half of the album picks up in speed as well as in song diversity.

After two songs that feature Plant and Krauss together, Krauss takes the helm with “Sister Rosetta Comes Before Us,” a graceful, haunting song that is sung beautifully with Plant offering an occasional harmonization. “Polly Come Home” is very similar, except that Plant takes the spotlight. His voice is surprisingly gentle with each wavering note captured and amplified by Burnett’s expert production. A raw guitar riff by none other than Burnett himself dominates the rockabilly “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” which has been released as a single and nominated for the Grammy Award for “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.” Other songs, however, perhaps more deserve being released as a single, like the following track “Through the Morning, Through the Night.” This track is the album’s best example of Krauss and Plant using their gentle harmony to make the song into an especially potent emotional force. The song is nearly impossible to glaze over (or whatever is equivalent for the ear) as both voices are full of weight and inflection that responds wonderfully to the heaviness of the lyrics: “I dreamed just last night you were there by my side / Your sweet loving tenderness / Easing my pride / But then I awoke dear and found you not there / It was just my old memory of how much I care.”

More uplifting musically is “Please Read the Letter,” which in song length (almost six minutes), building verses and soaring chorus demands the most space on the album. The sorrowful “Trampled Rose” and the mainstream-sounding folk-pop of “Stick With Me Baby” keep the album tethered to a base of downtempo folk gems, but the album is nevertheless now in its more diversified second half. Between these songs is “Fortune Teller,” which is probably the most recorded and well-known song on the album. Originally recorded by R&B singer Benny Spellman in 1962, it has been covered by The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Hollies, and many more. Like many other songs here, the duo (well, trio including Burnett) almost make it their own with an extremely catchy breakdown that boasts the band’s instrumental finesse and shows Plant and Krauss having fun on the recording.

Some fantastic songs close out this fantastic album. “Nothin’” is a steady-going but powerful song led by electric guitar roars, Krauss’s fiddle work, and comparatively quieter breaks for Robert Plant’s eerie vocals that seem to harken back to Plant’s Led Zeppelin days. It is sure to be an album favorite for Plant and Led Zeppelin fans. “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” is the ultimate toe-tapper of the album that dares you to get up and start dancing. As Plant had his best vocal performance on the previous track, Krauss is at her best here with some impassioned singing. She is at her loudest and most aggressive on the verses here in a performance that must be even more electrifying live. Finally, “Your Long Journey,” with its high-tuned melody and warm mood, closes out the album as it began: with Krauss and Plant singing together in excellent harmony.

For all the credit given to Plant and Krauss on this project that is surely a landmark in both careers, the stripped-down, skeletal production of T-Bone Burnett, who brought the same style and influence to the award winning American roots soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, must not go unappreciated. In addition to his contribution as a guitarist, this collaboration would likely not have come into fruition or have been this astonishing without Burnett’s direction and production.

With rumors and speculation swirling over the future of Led Zeppelin (New album? Tour?), one sure thing is that Plant is going to be on tour with Krauss and Burnett supporting Raising Sand across Europe in June of 2008, demonstrating how close the project is to each of them. Furthermore, new material between them in the future is not out of the question. In this exciting new experiment, Plant ventures into the new realm of harmony singing that was never really an issue with Led Zeppelin, while Krauss strays from the confining bluegrass constructs that especially characterized her early career origins and finds space to breath with help from a blending of American roots genres. Together, this unexpected collaboration has yielded unexpected results from two accomplished musicians out of their comfort zones but nevertheless shining.

 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Album Briefs: The Raveonettes, jj, Iron & Wine


The Raveonettes: In and Out of Control
[Fierce Panda, Vice 2009]

6/10

The shoegaze-pop (heavier on the pop) of the Raveonettes bares strong resemblance to the Jesus and Mary Chain but with a more feminine aura courtesy of Sune Rose Wagner handling most of the vocals.  The duo certainly knows how to craft catchy and innocent melodies, but In and Out of Control is ultimately let down by its lyrics.  Unlike JMC's signature sound, Wagner's words are clear and often weighed down by awkward pretentiousness.  The band wants to be as suave and winking as the music, and ultimately comes up with cringing lines like "lick your lips and fuck suicide" and seeking base attention-getting with the spelled out "D.R.U.G.S".  Such attempts at street-cred don't pass as authentic, and instead suggest the hipper-than-thou duo are singing down to us about their fascinating urban lives in...um...Copenhagen.  But nevertheless, if you're not hung up on the words, the sinister plots/bubblegum pop hooks of songs like "Bang!", "Last Dance", and "Breaking Into Cars" are cool sounding tunes.


 jj: jj nº 3
[Sincerely Yours 2010]

5.5/10

jj's "winter" album, ay? Okay, but whatever you call it, it's very similar stuff to the mysterious Swedes' first album jj n° 2, just not as memorable.  They still embrace a lighter-than-air breeziness as Elin Kastlander sings pristine over soft Balearic beats, delicate guitar plucks and piano, and the occasionally hip hop beat and broadcast sound effects.  But the charm of their debut is missing here, particularly due to jj n°3's lack of graceful, memorable melodies.  As pleasantly as it flies by, jj n°3 has minimal lasting impact outside of the attention placed on the enigmatic duo that created it.

"My Life"
  
Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog
[Sub Pop 2007]

9/10

The Shepherd's Dog is an excellent success story of Sam Beam showing he could expand outside of his quiet bedroom guitar folk and incorporate true studio breadth with awe-inspiring results.  Our Endless Summer Days glistened with a lush production polish, but Shepherd's Dog brings in a plethora of new instruments that lend the tracks symphonic and yet still organic and intimate settings. The broader palette suits Iron & Wine incredibly well.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Video: "The Way You Make Me Feel" by Michael Jackson

I'm a day late.  Sure, I was in the "Michael Jackson is psycho" contingent during his child sex abuse trial period(s) and like plenty others, I was fairly creeped out enough by his changing appearance and what other kind of questionable acts were going on with him.  Without ever being found guilty though, time sort of moved on, and it was about three years ago that I started getting into his music rather than his public business.  'Bout time I get past "Thriller" and "Beat It" and really get at this "King of Pop." In delving into his music and influence, regardless of your fondness of it, it's indisputable his legendary impact on pop culture.  In listening to his music with friends and enjoying his music videos and albums on my own, particularly Off the Wall and Thriller, I saw him as a troubled man in his later years but, ultimately, one I would greatly admire for his pop music stardom.  Today I'm remembering him through the video of "The Way You Make Me Feel", which is a testament to his incredible talents, charisma, and star power.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Album Review: Nite Jewel - Good Evening

Nite Jewel: Good Evening
[Human Ear 2009]

6.5/10

On Good Evening, dance music has migrated off the dance floor and into hipster bedrooms. And this brand of it belongs there, because aside from its serious, avant-garde artist demeanor, Good Evening is radically divorced from the action-packed, body-moving efficiency of traditional dance music, be it top-40 dance remixes or variations of techno. Instead, Nite Jewel (L.A.’s Ramona Gonzalez) is an ethereal, often slow-motioned send up of ‘80s dance/synthpop.

Good Evening is dominated by keyboards, bass and neon. Every track rides a smooth wave of colorful synths that feel like samples plucked from two and a half decades back. Throbbing basslines lend tracks like “Suburbia” a forward-looking momentum. Looped drum beats vary from the smacking reverberations of “Weak For Me” to the tinny timekeeper on “Bottom Rung.”

Style is everything in Nite Jewel’s world. “Liquid cool,” the status on the band’s Myspace page, is an accurate self-characterization of the music. No matter the pace, songs on Good Evening would warrant music videos in slow motion, as they try to radiate a clubby sense of cool and sophisticated in-crowd-ness. “What Did He Say,” one of the record’s more enduring songs, occupies the same dark and smoky nightclub corners as Portishead’s Dummy. Conceptually, with its ever-present alluding to dance culture, Good Evening suggests that amidst the smoke and flashing lights, the club is full of lonely people seeking deeper connections than they are capable of and finding only false hope and emptiness under the neon lights.
 
But once again, the ability to set a specific aesthetic or mood is Nite Jewel’s primary currency. Her lyrics are seldom discernible, or likely important for that matter. Her submerged vocals feel far away and washed out with echo and saturation to the point where her voice becomes more of a sonic rather than narrative vessel. Through clearer lyrics, she is, however, trying to harder to say something on the moody pop song “Artificial Intelligence,” perhaps criticizing pretentious artistic license (“you’re not making a statement”).

While Gonzalez’s singing serves a purpose beyond lyrics, her usually high pitched vocals as part of Good Evening’s general aesthetic can grow bothersome. The adolescent sighs on “Weak For Me” are too naïve for her own good and elsewhere, her layered vocals feel like corny ‘80s relics, no matter how true to the decade’s aesthetic she may be reaching for. Additionally, while the album isn’t fit for a nightclub, some of the tracks unfortunately pick up the more uncomfortable traits of the venue: stale ambiance and the tedium of repetition. Despite how well Nite Jewel pegs this murky, 80’s synthpop sound (as her “statement”), many of the songs don’t have lasting power and melodic warmth.

It’s ultimately hard to appraise Good Evening as it has a very specific objective to hit a particular sonic niche. In honoring ‘80s dance and synthpop while infusing modern innovations, Gonzalez succeeds and captures a unique and interesting sound. But Nite Jewel would resonate more strongly if songs revealed more engaging personalities and melodic diversity. If she were to continue to hit the target established by Good Evening, on the other hand, at least she’d sound cool doing it.

Photo by dsbartholow.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Video: "Losing Feeling" by No Age

I'd probably be mesmerized enough if the swirling pools of rumbling electronics would build wordlessly to a zenith, but No Age's punk bent brings a striking immediacy to the calm of "Losing Feeling."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Album Review: O.A.R. - In Between Now and Then

O.A.R.: In Between Now and Then
[Lava 2003]

7.5/10

Besides being O.A.R.’s best album, In Between Now and Then is also their most appropriately named one. Now: O.A.R. is but a shell of their early reggae rock selves, releasing 2008’s soft rock bore-fest All Sides and offering little hope for redemption with new releases (youtube: “War Song”). Then: before 2003, O.A.R. and their everyman jams spread from campus to campus like wildfire, but in the studio, the band still lacked the composure and production to reach broader audiences convincingly. Recently, O.A.R. has been unable to muster a fraction of the charm of their early days (“That Was a Crazy Game of Poker” vs. “Shattered (Turn the Car Around)” is no contest), but it was only on In Between Now and Then that the pieces fell into place just right.

In Between Now and Then may not dispel the notion that O.A.R. in 2003 were a poor man’s Dave Matthew’s Band, with their similar affinity for brass, full-sounding choruses, and production non-coincidentally performed by John Alagia, who has done extensive production and mixing for DMB and John Mayer. But the album certainly established the group as the latest collegiate jam rock sensation since Dispatch a few years earlier. And listening to it now, you can tell why. A properly rich studio production and a long set of tight and catchy jam rock hooks make In Between Now and Then an excellent record. Despite peddling in mall rock clichés of smooth jazz accents and some corny lyrics, the melodies are honest and infectious.

While reggae only graces several tracks outright, the relaxed, backyard vibe extends across the album’s jam- and jazz-infused pop rock. Fan favorite “Hey Girl” and the huge guitars of “Right on Time” represent some of Now and Then’s rowdier moments, while smoother swaying numbers like “Old Man Time” and “Any Time Now” keep things grounded.

Besides treating the rich instrumentals to a deserving polish, the crisp production hugely benefits Marc Roberge’s vocals. Maybe it was an age thing, but prior albums like Soul’s Aflame showed Roberge as not a particularly great singer. In the context of O.A.R.’s sing-a-long catalog, perhaps all eyes aren’t on Roberge to deliver an especially remarkable delivery because fans will be singing along anyways. Nonetheless, he gets a welcome smoothing over on Now and Then.

In Between Now and Then isn’t for the wet blanket too stoic to come out on the dancefloor. The album has simple intentions of soundtracking summer barbecues and relishing in big youthful melodies, and in these respects it succeeds dramatically by capturing the laid-back charm of jam rock and emphasizing infectious pop hooks. If the O.A.R. of 2010 is down for the count, let’s at least be thankful for this moment of brilliance.

  

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Keep It Fascinating" by Major Lazer and La Roux

No picture here is more appropriate than this mixtape's epic cover.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Album Review: Liam Finn - I'll Be Lightning

Liam Finn: I'll Be Lightning
[Yep Roc 2008]

7/10

As a one-man-band in the studio, Liam Finn certainly doesn’t make things easy for himself. His dream pop debut album I’ll Be Lightning has Finn producing the work and playing most of the instruments himself, a task not eased by his esteem for packing diverse instrumentation into his sleekly polished songs. Nevertheless, Finn’s hard work is manifested in mostly airy pop numbers that never get too down lyrically or in mood.

Liam Finn’s accessible yet confident style as shown on I’ll Be Lightning to be a unique direction that he is charting for himself out of the shadows of famous musician relatives. Most notably his father Neil Finn is a music icon in their native New Zealand, as frontman of pop rock group Crowded House and new wave band Split Enz in ‘80s, ‘90s, and recent reunions of both bands in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Liam enlisted the help of his father on the album, recording it at Neil’s recording studio in Auckland. Furthermore, Liam’s uncle Tim has played alongside his father in both bands and has played alongside Neil as the Finn Brothers since the mid ‘90s. Refreshingly, as the latest product of this musical family, Liam borrows the fondness for Beatles-like pop melodies but largely finds his own musical bearings quite separately from his father’s and uncle’s, and his work stands on its own regardless of his last name.

Although the songs on I’ll Be Lightning sport highly accessible pop hooks and easily melodic song structures, the “experimental” moniker occasionally slapped on his work comes from his use of dense, intricate, and production-polished instrumentation and layering effects. For the high production value and seemingly exhausting task for Finn, the album maintains a light, dreamy air throughout. The songs maintain a guitar-centric quality, be it acoustic or electric, while a humble use of drums guides the action when Liam’s “alternative” sounds do not.

With each sleek and slanted pop song, it’s more and more difficult to imagine Finn not fully enjoying himself in the production room. The album’s opener “Better to Be,” with it’s easygoing vocals and melody-hugging chorus, include light backup vocal layers, a fat bass line, and light electronic beeps and looped whispers of sound. The follow-up “Second Chance” begins with what sounds like some non-musical mechanical apparatus that, surprisingly enough, serves as a colorful beat for the first third of the song. Finn further explores supplementary studio sounds, including electronic flourishes on the warm and lyrically memorable “Fire in Your Belly,” a chugging lo-fi drum beat on “Energy Spent,” and the childlike, layered chorus on “I’ll Be Lightning.” On all these songs and others, the unique extra instrumentation adds interesting accents to the compositions while never overwhelming them.

However, as enjoyable as the songs are, repetition sinks in as catchy tunes are separated by rather unmemorable ones. There really isn’t a flop among the tracks, as all of them are quite agreeable and tuneful, but due to firm song structures and a production polish that smooths out the entire record sonically, some songs certainly stand out more than others on their melodic merits. While the instrument-rich production doesn’t interfere with the easy pop melodies, it also doesn’t work to diversify the overall sound or tone of the record, particularly in the album’s second half, which is largely less interesting and memorable than the first.

Nevertheless, I’ll Be Lightning is a thoroughly satisfying album that establishes Liam Finn’s personal style and fun knack for instrument rich pop songs. Should Finn advance his songwriting to deeper depths, and turn more of his focus from sound density to melodic consistency, more tracks would stand out as warm, immediately rewarding indie pop hits. Given the confidence and technical skill shown on I’ll Be Lightning, Liam Finn clearly has the resources to improve upon this already enjoyable and impressive debut.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Video: "Aqueous Transmission" by Incubus

Can I be blamed for understanding innovation and mainstream "alternative" rock as divergent concepts? Or at the very least, the former concept applying to the latter far too rarely or slowly? We're way past Incubus' turn of the millenium heyday, but I feel like this problem existed then as it still does now, in that whenever I turn on rock radio, bands are lockstep into formulas of safety and broad appeal without stamps of interesting personalities (I'm lookin' at OneRepublic and the Fray among countless others). I would argue that Incubus did something different in that particularly between S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and Morning View, the band's music was widely approachable, and yet, through maturation and varied influences, reflected artistic decisions independent of radio play.  One such detour from the likes of "Drive" and "Wish You Were Here" is Morning View's gorgeous closer "Aqueous Transmission," a fluid, pipa-led meditation. In this context, it seems to say that while popular rock bands evidently don't have to innovate if their formula works on the charts, an artistically relevant rock band should be something more.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Album Review: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Tyranny of Distance

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: The Tyranny of Distance
[Lookout! 2001]

8/10

While the official beginnings of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are credited to the highly experimental album tej leo (?), Rx / pharmacists, which is actually the solo work of Ted Leo, the band originally out of D.C. that indie and especially political punk rockers know and love can first be heard on 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance. Not as political as the following albums Shake the Sheets and Living With the Living, The Tyranny of Distance still showcases the quite personal lyrics of Leo as well as the band’s uncanny skill in crafting smart, catchy choruses and hooks that always sound fresh and new. That said, behind the pop rock stylings of the band’s lyricism and melodies is the ever present force in their music, as is shown in the un-softened power of the electric guitar and Leo’s dynamic vocal styles.

Compared to later releases, The Tyranny of Distance tends to follow more mainstream rock melodies that hint at the faster, more punk oriented fierceness in Ted Leo’s future. Perhaps if it weren’t for the raw sounding production of James Canty and Leo’s rocking guitar work, their knack for extended guitar riffs, and the band’s independent record label, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists would be on the radio. Most of The Tyranny of Distance is quite radio friendly in that above all else, Ted Leo’s songs emphasize extremely catchy hooks that make songs, as individuals, stand out tremendously.

The first three songs here capture the band’s range of rock very well, starting out the very catchy “Biomusicology,” which is instantly one of the best songs on the album. Leo’s trademark falsetto vocals accentuate the wonderful meandering melody perfect as violins complement dynamic drumming (drumming duties are shared here by Brendan Canty, Danny Leo, and Seb Thompson). “Parallel or Together?” showcases an energetic, purely punk rock drumbeat that is tempered by Leo’s now-subdued, multi-layered vocals. “Under the Hedge” returns us to track one’s territory with a soaring chorus, galloping verses and probably the widest vocal range for Leo on the album. All three songs characterize the band as not quite fitting into mainstream rock, pop rock, and punk rock categories in-and-of-themselves.

Lyrically, Ted Leo is not quite at the agitated liberal punk stage that his Shake the Sheets-period songwriting will strongly convey. Nevertheless, when applicable, his passionate vocals reflect each song’s varying degree of angst and calm superbly. The songs here tend to describe personal observations: “Biomusicology” aims to praise the importance of music in life, “Timorous Me” notes the constant cycle of making new friends and moving apart from old ones, and “Squeaky Fingers” seems to describes how each town the band travels through takes on the kind of unnamed, identical character of the town before it.

Whether extending their sound with 6+ minute songs or crafting short and contained tunes, such as the beautiful acoustic guitar and cello of “The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree,” the band accomplishes to bring memorable choruses and melodies to each outing. On the downside, however, the longer songs tend to repeat what is already a clear musical idea and rather than take the song into unexplored depths, the repetition can at times come across as a tad boring and lazy.

Overall, the band should take pride in the fact that just about every song on the album has a potent sticking point in its memorable hooks and solid instrumentation, varying from light pop rock songs to punk-driven anthems. For the various influences shown in The Tyranny of Distance, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists create a truly unique brand of radio-friendly indie rock.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Currents: Dr. Dog, Beach Fossils, The Radio Dept., She & Him

Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame
[ANTI- 2010]

Not much is different for Dr. Dog since 2008's Fate, as the band is still glorifying their '60s pop rock idols, but the formula works better here.  The songs distinguish themselves much better and instrumentation is a  bit more varied, producing great tracks like "Where'd All the Time Go" and "Jackie Wants a Black Eye".  Whether it's something the band has never been able to accomplish after six albums or if it's just in their DNA (I think the latter), Dr. Dog still doesn't have the teeth to make them a breakthrough group. But Shame, Shame is an easy rock pleasure, and sometimes that's really all you need.

 

Beach Fossils: Beach Fossils
[Captured Tracks 2010]

It's more lo-fi, lazy summer music in the vein of Real Estate.  Guitars jangle and interweave, beach bum vocals echo, and the tambourine rattles with glee.  Unfortunately, Beach Fossils is so sun-bleached it virtually dissipates, as there's little substantial about the melodies, lyrics, or any insight on the band itself.  The album's psychedelic fog and easy aesthetic are certainly chill to the core (and for that lo-fi summer sound I'm absolutely a sucker) but as each melody meanders by in about the same fashion as the last, the album progresses by walking in place.


The Radio Dept.: Clinging to a Scheme
[Labrador 2010] 

"Heaven's on Fire" just floors me every time.  Now with that song hitting a perfect balance of the Radio Dept.'s shoegaze haze, catchy hook-reaching and symphonic punch, where does that leave the rest of Clinging to a Scheme?  Well, while never touching the success of "Heaven's on Fire," hooks abound, and the album's thoughtful indie pop is both tonally calming and instrumentally propulsive.  When the band settles for reflective mood-setting ("A Token of Gratitude", "Memory Loss") the mix can get a bit drab, but when they dish out poppier offerings ("Heaven's on Fire", "David"), their sonic beauty is breathtaking.


She & Him: Volume 2
[Merge 2010]

Zooey Deschanel & Him.  It's hard to separate her public celebrity as a beautiful actress/indie princess from what listeners really get out of She & Him (M. Ward being "Him").  But what helps is the fact that her voice is truly exceptional and fits beautifully in the pleasant, inoffensive folk pop scheme they have crafted for two albums.  When she sings "California is a great big nation of one" on "Home," the innocence resonates, and it's that feeling that makes She & Him a rewarding group. That said, She & Him don't throw any curveballs, and while Deschanel's impressive lyrics sound like they were written eons ago, this project has a limited range.  So while She & Him is not particularly innovative, if you take it for what it is, it's easy to like.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Album Review: Reel Big Fish - Monkeys for Nothin' and the Chimps for Free

Reel Big Fish: Monkeys for Nothin' and the Chimps for Free
[Rock Ridge 2007]

6/10

For more than 15 years, Reel Big Fish has endured the fall of ska punk’s mainstream popularity in the 90’s and now continues to sell out concert venues with a fun, exciting, and hilarious live act. All along the way, the band’s mainstay has been the use of adolescent satire, sarcasm and extensive humor in their lyrics and overall image. It is hard to keep such a reputation up, however, and through their string of quality hit ska albums and their pessimistic downturn We're Not Happy 'Til You're Not Happy, their 2007  effort does a decent job at keeping the band relevant. That said, Monkeys would probably rate in the bottom rung of RBF albums due to some particularly weak tracks and “party” songs that lack many true ska elements and come across as incredibly contrived and brainless by the band’s standards.

The first half of the album consists of new songs written over a three-week gap between tour dates. Unfortunately, despite the claim that the band described the process as relaxing and the fact that the band is now free from the conflicts of their old record company Jive Records, the short time period for composing the songs shows. While “My Imaginary Friend,” “Slow Down,” “Will the Revolution Come?”, and the clever cover of Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” sound great with catchy choruses and bouncy rhythms, other songs bring down the album by relying on bottom-barrel clichés.

The opener “Party Down” is, as the title suggests, the ultimate partying song on the album which becomes quite tiresome and annoying very quickly. The song incorporates musical snippets lampooning various genres like disco, country, reggae, and heavy metal, but the gag is performed far more humorously when the band plays “S.R.” (from their 1996 Turn the Radio Off album) in concert in various musical genres and styles. Alongside “Party Down,” the absolutely filthy “Another F.U. Song” and the trashy drinking anthem “Everybody’s Drunk” take the band’s foul sense of humor to embarrassing extremes, even for long-time fans.

The rest of the album consists of re-recordings of older tunes that overall make the second half of the album more ska-oriented than the first, but there are few standouts. RBF’s most produced and polished album to date includes four re-recordings from the band’s least produced and polished album, their 1995 debut Everything Sucks. Among these, “Hate You,” one of the best songs on Monkeys, and “Why Do All Girls Think They’re Fat?” characterize the vitriolic and farcical punk attitude that was most present in the band’s early releases. I wish the rest of the album sounded more like this, as these two songs in particular seem to reflect unique satires and joking adolescent observations from actual adolescents. Instead, the band, including lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Aaron Barrett at age 33, seems to be progressing by repeating the mantras and jokes of past albums while steering the band away from evident ska-influences into more straight-forward, upbeat party rock.

Besides the quality of the music, the fact that Reel Big Fish is still together after all these years, even with a revolving door of band members and record company battles, is very impressive. Now that the band has more creative freedom under an independent record company, future releases should be expected to more reflect the band’s current musical ambitions than other recent albums. Judging from their accomplished track record, this can yield excellent records. In Monkeys for Nothin' and the Chimps for Free, however, even in being an album of one-half new and one-half re-recorded material, the band comes dangerously close to becoming a caricature of themselves.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Video: "Turnover" by Fugazi

This doesn't happen anymore. Maybe I'm never in the right place at the right time, but I don't think so.  Local D.C. legends Fugazi playing Lafayette Park in 1991 (i.e. Bush 1's front yard across Pennsylvania Ave.) to protest the first gulf war.  Fugazi were all about cheap (if not free), all-ages shows and being all inclusive not just for D.C. kids but for everywhere around the world they played.  But really, modern punk legends playing an uncommercialized PROTEST gig at the seat of power. You don't see shows like this much anymore, and it brings to my mind notions of political authenticity in music and the state of music as a unsettled balance of craft, expression, and capitalism, and... yea other stuff.  Also, it rocks.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Album Review: Creedence Clearwater Revival - Green River

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Green River
[Fantasy 1969]

9/10 

Creedence Clearwater Revival is the sound of hot, humid summer nights in the south sitting (or should I say “sittin’”) on the front porch and basking in the moonlight. The music seems to reflect life in the deep country backwoods with chugging rhythms, rock-steady beats and the vocal howl of John Fogerty as wild and free as the great outdoors. CCR turned out a string of roots rock hits that steered clear of many of the psychedelic music influences prevalent in the late ‘60s, and 1969’s Green River is widely considered to be the band’s first classic album.

Clocking in at a mere 29 minutes, Green River shows the band moving away from the extended jam sessions of previous albums and focusing on the short, direct, radio-friendly hit without losing any of their roots rock steam. Opener “Green River” sets the scene for rural americana perfectly: “Walkin’ along the river road at night / Barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight.” Its infectious beats, rock-and-roll-meets-country-twang guitar riff and the celebration of country life over ruination in the big city are all prevalent throughout Green River. Namely, “Commotion” begins with a loud guitar riff and warm harmonica that make it one of the album’s best and a honky-tonk classic.

Not surprisingly, one of the best songs on the album is the radio-staple “Bad Moon Rising.” A short, upbeat, and energetic burst of country charm, Fogerty lets his voice echo with commanding power. But for perhaps the best technical work on the album, “Lodi,” the story of hitting rock bottom in a dead end town, features the most imaginative and memorable guitar riff on the album that brings pleasant melodicism to ease the impact of Fogerty’s melancholy. “Cross-Tie Walker” is another testament to the band’s technical skill, with a great prominent bass line courtesy of Stu Cook and the always steady drumming and rhythm guitar of Doug Clifford and Tom Fogerty, respectively.

The album closes on what are unfortunately two subpar (to CCR’s considerably high standards, that is) songs, the clichéd bad boy tune “Sinister Purpose” and “The Night Time is the Right time,” a cover of a 1954 blues song by Nappy Brown. While the former passes through with little fanfare and Fogerty’s least convincing vocal performance, the latter’s fragmented, sexual theme doesn’t really fit alongside Fogerty’s original, narrative portrayals of country life.

As the lead singer and creative force of the band, John Fogerty wrote songs whose often dark subject matters, including looming death, sin, and hopelessness were in part obscured by the steady rock rhythms that infused poppy guitar riffs and boogie grooves. In doing this, Fogerty and the rest of CCR became a smart, radio-ready hitmaker, and Green River is CCR’s first album to showcase this. For all the commercial and critical achievements of the album, in its most basic terms, it is an undeniably good time.