Monday, September 27, 2010

Album Review: Streetlight Manifesto - Somewhere in the Between

Streetlight Manifesto: Somewhere in the Between
[Victory 2007]


In 1007, original material had been a long four years in the making for Streetlight Manifesto, who have arisen to become one of the preeminent ska punk bands today. While the 90’s had the original Keasbey Nights, a landmark recording by Tomas Kalnoky’s old outfit Catch 22 in that decade’s third-wave ska boom, the 2000’s brings us Somewhere in the Between, Streetlight’s best work yet and a new pinnacle in this decade’s ska scene. This record is exciting, smart, aggressive, and fun. There are good things to be said about pretty much every aspect of this album and altogether, Somewhere in the Between is brilliant.

First and foremost, as is critical to the reputation of a ska band, is the instrumentation, especially in the horns department. Like in their 2003 debut Everything Goes Numb but perhaps even more so, Somewhere in the Between is sonically pristine and very polished. The great saxophone work, especially, contrast nicely with the hard and angry guitar, like on the album’s opener “We Will Fall Together.”

Elsewhere, Kalnoky brings the pace of action down to delicate melodies complemented beautifully with electric guitar plucking and occasionally soft backing vocals. Speaking of backing vocals, they play a huge role in this album, as they always have in Streetlight’s music, increasing the force and energy of each chorus, which has been one of the band’s best qualities.

While thematically darker than it’s predecessor, Somewhere in the Between continues in the style of Streetlight’s knack for peril-minded melodies in that the songs are often musically of an epic quality, which are supported completely by Kalnoky’s excellent lyrical work. The album does, however, have plenty of light moments, like on the extremely catchy “Down, Down, Down to Mephisto’s Café” and “The Blonde Lead the Blind,” which sounds the most like fellow kings of ska Reel Big Fish. The big divergence here, however, is that while RBF thrives on sarcasm and self-deprecating humor to launch into commentaries of adolescent life, Streetlight Manifesto seem to take themselves quite seriously, but with Kalnoky’s lyrics to support, the album feels smart and sophisticated while still being fun.

Despite the dark themes, the message delivered by the dynamic lyricist and leadman Tomas Kalnoky is thought provoking and inspiring. Kalnoky’s ear for catchy, satisfying rhymes extends to the larger scale of emotionally abrasive yet inquisitive narratives and snippets from life. Somewhere in the Between sounds like a commentary on mankind’s battles between good and evil and heaven and hell. We are, as the title suggests, in the middle of this eternal struggle. This idea also seems to be reflected in the album’s stylish cover art.

It is hard to find many flaws in this album, let alone any glaring ones. The final two tracks, while being strong and passable respectively, seem to step on each other’s toes in similarity. What is perhaps most disappointing however, is the length. Given the time Streetlight has had to record it, one would hope that for their sophomoric release they could muster up more than 10 songs over 44 minutes, which is about 10 minutes shorter than Everything Goes Numb. At least, however, they have put quality over quantity.

For Streetlight fans, they can rest assured that Somewhere in the Between does not break from the formula that produced their critically hailed debut from 2003, and it in fact exceeds that effort. New listeners to Streetlight Manifesto and even to ska itself will find much to enjoy hear as well, as the album’s plethora of catchy hooks and infectious energy make it the band’s most broadly appealing release yet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Album Review: My Bloody Valentine - You Made Me Realise

My Bloody Valentine: You Made Me Realise
[Creation 1988]


Outside of 1988's Isn’t Anything and 1991's landmark Loveless, the work of shoegazing kings My Bloody Valentine is spread out over a string of almost a dozen EPs, many of them documenting the band’s earlier gothic rock style. As the band moved into shoegazing, a genre My Bloody Valentine could pretty much be credited with as creating, one of the earliest examples of their later style is in the EP You Made Me Realise from 1988 and just prior to Isn’t Anything. It is uniquely more instrumentally upbeat than Loveless and more lyrically clear while still captivating with the “wall of sound” that is the band’s hallmark.

You Made Me Realise begins with the namesake of the EP and one of the strongest tracks in MBV’s catalog “You Made Me Realise,” a powerful song featuring soaring vocals from Kevin Shields and Belinda Butcher and a simmering guitar riff. As opposed to the use of vocals as sounds more than anything in Loveless, the lyrics are quite clear even amid distortion and carry out the frenzied pace of the song. A little past the minute and a half mark, the song begins to descend into a very thick layer of guitar distortion, almost seeming to showcase the use of ambiance to deliver the surrealistic sensations of their music, before the standard guitar riff reappears to close out the forceful opener.

More relaxed and dreamy is “Slow,” which seems to make little effort in trying to conceal that it is about a blowjob. Shields’s groaning vocals encapsulate the quite explicit nature of the song, which fits under the intimate themes in much of MBV’s music. Evident here is a consistent ambient melody through the entire song that is indicative of Loveless. More sunny and pleasant images come to mind in the next song “Thorn,” which showcases MBV at one of their lightest moments. The strongly pop-oriented melody is only restrained by the distorted ambiance that carries on in the background.

“Cigarette in Your Bed” brings the EP back into a darker, dreamier landscape that is complemented by cryptic lyrics (“Arms untied / Scratching your eyes out / With a smile”). Be it some description of S&M or something else, while the song is perhaps a bit off-putting, the band keeps the song from reaching any more morose with the familiar fast strumming of an acoustic guitar and more innocent vocalized melody from Butcher.

The EP’s conclusion with “Drive It All Over Me,” the only song here given joint-writing credits between band members (the others written by Shields), shows that each band member was right on the same page. Back into “Thorn” territory, “Drive It All Over Me” is another uplifting daydream, spearheaded by the once-again innocent vocals of Butcher backed by a wall of distortion and powerful drumming from Colm O'Ciosoig.

Alongside the popularity of Loveless, You Made Me Realise showcases the band’s ability to apply the same shoegazing innovations to a more down-to-earth release that could even be considered more accessible.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Video: "Coffee & TV" by Blur

Behold: my absolute favorite music video! Fantastic song, thoughtful plot, and most of all, an iconic and utterly adorable protagonist in Milky the Milk Carton. Check your pulse if you don't at least crack a huge smile while watching this.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Video: "Mmmhmm (feat. Thundercat)" by Flying Lotus

As much as I hear technical skill, wide-eyed imagination and obsessive experimentation overflowing from Flying Lotus's Cosmogramma, it's a maddening work that I feel like I'll never figure out.  The lush sonic textures warrant a headphone listen, and yet the abrasive tones have me at a distance now matter how low I turn down the volume.  It's certainly the most challenging album I've heard all year, but amid the jungle  is the superb space odyssey of "Mmmhmm" featuring Thundercat.  The music video is exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to go along with this song.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Album Review: Cut Chemist - The Audience's Listening

Cut Chemist: The Audience's Listening
[Warner Bros 2006]


The wikki-wikki scratch from a DJ’s turntable is, in essence, a musical surprise. A steady melody is stopped abruptly and a most unnatural scratching fuzz takes over. The DJ freezes the original piece in place, goes forward and backward in time, makes it do his bidding. It can be exciting, it can be as fun as hell, but standing in front of a huge apparatus of musical control, it’s understandable that a DJ is susceptible to letting all that power go to his head in a bad way. What might an over stimulated DJ sound like? Perhaps something like The Audience’s Listening, the first solo, full-length album of Cut Chemist, who is off-stage known is Lucas McFadden. While certainly enjoyable and interesting for several key tracks, Cut Chemist’s time to shine on his own suffers from the symptoms of a DJ just trying to do too much with his resources without a coherent plan.

Cut Chemist’s first solo album comes off of a long history of affiliations, compilations and contributions to other artists. In addition to his work with Latin fusion band Ozomatli, alternative hip hop group Jurassic 5, and a diverse list of other artists in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Cut Chemist conspired with sampling legend DJ Shadow on several DJ mix albums that more closely characterized the alternative club/dance/hip hop of Cut Chemist’s The Audience’s Listening. This latest collaborative duo opens the door for what could be some largely harsh comparisons between the two. However, with the comparative successes of DJ Shadow’s sampling work, as on the colossal critical hit Endtroducing from 1996, and Cut Chemist’s respected but less acclaimed behind-the-scenes engineering, the duo hints at a master-apprentice relationship between DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. Regardless, Cut Chemist’s solo album is his opportunity to chart his own artistic direction independent of DJ Shadow’s. To give McFadden a fair shake, let’s table the DJ Shadow comparisons for now.

That said, Cut Chemist’s hybrid of club genres on The Audience’s Listening doesn’t quite play to the club scene, nor does it cater perfectly to an earphones listen or radio. In whatever environs, the album falls short of being an engaging listening from start to finish. The songs, which seldom break from a sense of repetition, feature promising, often electronica-influenced beats that aren’t employed to their full potential. Examples include “Metrorail Thru Space,” which unsurprisingly evokes thoughts of futuristic space missions but with vocal accenting that wears off the novelty quick, and “2266 Cambridge,” whose brooding beats and cityscape atmosphere end up not going anywhere. The reverse, in which Cut Chemist’s techno stylings mar an interesting vocal layer, occurs with “Storm,” where the abrasive rapping of Edan and Mr. Lif is dulled by an obnoxious, spacey beat of honks and beeps that leaps too far out of the background and into the foreground of the song.

What should instead be a major asset to the DJ, Cut Chemist’s scratching does little to advance the drama or excitement of the pieces. As if filling a quota, Cut Chemist’s scratches focus on already dull sections of songs, particularly the clichéd children’s screams on “(My 1st) Big Break” that are not enlivened by scratching. All in all, the scratching just doesn’t “ooh” and “aah” like it should, and the more times it fails to illicit a response, the more irksome it gets. However, the one ironically shining moment of Cut Chemist’s scratching here is on “Spat,” in which a clever use of scratches take center stage over a lounge piano and bass groove to create a humorous sketch.

Back to “(My 1st) Big Break” the song is a jumbled, annoying mess (save for a cool glass shattering effect) that epitomizes the excessiveness of Cut Chemist’s tweaking with his resources. The song further suffers from an atrocious overuse of blank vocal samples that creeps into other songs as well and is rarely interesting until the opening of “Spoon.” When it’s not a vocal sample that lets Cut Chemist down, it’s usually an actual singer or rapper. Aside from the moronic “The Audience is Listening Theme Song,” “What’s the Altitude” is the worst vocal culprit and probably the album’s worst song. In addition to inconsequential scratching and sampling, the hip hop tinged singing of Hymnal sounds horribly laid-back, mailed-in, and silly on top of atrocious lyrics.

Amid the dullness that permeates most of the album, the few bright spots on The Audience’s Listening are worth a listen. Despite a fierce non-message, “Spoon” features an almost Gorillaz-esque groove of a prominent bassline and funky guitar and is one of the few organic-sounding parts of the album. Another such moment of brilliance is the Brazilian bossa nova journey of “The Garden,” which is far and away the best song here. The song is a mysterious and dramatic piece with interesting scratching and appropriate vocal samples. At center stage, Cut Chemist resurrects the angelic “Berimbau” by Astrud Gilberto (of “The Girl from Impanema” fame) to give the “The Garden” a natural gracefulness and quality the rest of the album doesn’t touch.

Whether due to uninteresting scratches, thoughtless vocal sampling or poor basic song design, The Audience’s Listening simply lacks life. Except for on a few choice tracks, the songs come and go with nothing learned, nothing felt, and not even a particularly fun beat to dance to. Cut Chemist’s future works would be best served by a better control of his own DJing tools; perhaps turning down the bells and whistles, bringing back the surprise to the record scratch and injecting some more heart and soul into his compositions. Ultimately, in Cut Chemist’s moment in the spotlight, he throws a plethora of techno beats, random voice samples and plenty of scratching onto the album’s musical palette, but very little sticks.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Album Review: George Strait - 50 Number Ones

George Strait: 50 Number Ones
[MCA Nashville 2004]


He isn’t an early singing-songwriting pioneer of the early country music sound, as that was Hank Williams. He has never quite gained the cross-genre celebrity, and certainly not the rebel image, of the legendary Johnny Cash. To those who have not grown up with and enjoyed his music for so many years, the pretense for George Strait’s position as the king of modern country music is in the numbers.

Strait has sold 65 million recordings, has a record 42 #1 songs on the Billboard country charts, the third most gold or platinum-certified albums ever behind Elvis and the Beatles, and he has had a record 55 #1 songs on all country charts. When Strait hit the big 50th #1 hit with “She’ll Leave You With a Smile” in 2002, it came as no surprise that two years later his top hits would be compiled into one album. Perhaps needless to say, it is a masterful collection from a living legend.

The 2-disc 50 Number Ones tracks Strait’s string of hits over 20 years starting in 1982. It starts with the first release of Strait’s new single (at the time) “I Hate Everything,” which turned out to be his 51st #1 hit. Following this, without any further ado, are all the #1 hits in chronological order. While more than a handful of these songs are instantly recognizable as modern country radio staples, others may be familiar only to the at least 40-somethings who have enjoyed Strait’s music from the beginning. This makes the album accessible for newcomers to Strait’s music as well as long-time fans young and old.

It’s nearly impossible for George Strait fans to have any qualms with this record. There are several great hit songs that, by the rigid technicality of the lack of a #1 ranking, are not here, most notably “Amarillo By Morning,” which despite becoming one of Strait’s most popular songs in his entire catalog, never became a top hit. Otherwise, this album is sure to satisfy, from the heartbreak songs like “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together,” to the impossibly cute “Check Yes or No” and the powerfully optimistic “Blue Clear Sky.”

Listening chronologically, you understand why Strait’s music has made him one of, if not the, most esteemed and worshipped men in country music: the formula. While the development of Strait’s career are marked by the inching up song lengths and the incorporation of better song production and more pop-friendly choruses, he remains true to his western honky tonk roots throughout. Strait’s often-subtle adaptations to the changing country music scene have let him court new era country fans as well as older country mainstays.

If you are just not a country music fan, then this album is not for you; for George Strait is the best embodiment of traditional country music. On the other hand, if you consider yourself a country fan, the greatest hits collection from country’s greatest hit-maker is an essential.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Album Briefs: Smith Westerns, Jack Johnson, Weezer

Smith Westerns: Smith Westerns
[HoZac 2009]


The guys of Smith Westerns are all under 21 and yet they have lo-fi figured out a whole lot better than the likes of Vivian Girls and Christmas Island.  The Chicago garage-rockers have an accomplished set of scuzzy tracks propelled by a hearkening back to classic teen pop of the 70s and 60s.  Their ages and reference materials seem to naturally point to their content: love is on their mind.  And that ranges from innocent yearning ("Be My Girl") to a winking you-thinkin'-what-I'm-thinkin'? ("Girl In Love").  It's impressive how cohesive and compelling the melodies are throughout this debut, as frayed guitars  and clattering drums fill in a joyful romp between composure and release.  The fuzzy recording quality is wisely not the centerpiece here, but seems to reflect the band as a scrappy upstart with wide eyes, towards both girls and musical success.  Such beginnings seldom sound this assured.

Jack Johnson: In Between Dreams
[Brushfire 2005]


How's about that new Jack Johnson album? What album? Yea exactly.  Apparently it briefly topped the Billboard chart, but really, I can't recall a less buzzed-about Johnson release.  I'm an intermediate listener of Johnson and I didn't know a new LP had dropped til July! What seems more universally clear, however, is that the man-with-a-guitar thing has gotten a bit stale, a bit old, not producing enough lovely downtempo radio earworms.  It's more reason to believe that In Between Dreams will go down as the definitive Jack Johnson album.  It's this supremely smile-inducing album that won the most new converts, soundtracked more first kisses, sported the most catalog favorites that Johnson will be remembered for.  Chillness has always been and probably will forever be Johnson's MO, which serves a purpose even when the melodies aren't as memorable.  But on In Between Dreams, we could have it all: catchy choruses, infinitely repeatable singles, cohesive songcraft, and vibes as chill as the ocean is blue.

 Weezer: Weezer (Red Album)
[DCG/Interscope 2008]


Rivers Cuomo has, after almost 15 years, become a "cool" kid, the center of attention, the life of the party.  To look back on where Weezer has been, it's obvious how poorly this suits him musically.  Not to get into the whole shpeel about the blue album, Pinkerton, and Weezer's early prime, but back then they were pioneering nerd-rock, an inspired power pop that charmed because they were the underdog freshmen we could all relate to.  Whatever has gotten to them (fame? fortune? all just a joke?), they're the jocks now.  So nowadays we get "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)", which is just as gaudy as it sounds, a ham-fisted ode to Cuomo's musical heroes and "heart songs", and half an album of songs that are instantly forgettable.  "Troublemaker" and "Pork and Beans" get by on heavy hooks, but they still aren't exceptions to the red album's rule: big, dumb rock.  A sloppy frat party would naturally blast these empty anthems, but if you're looking for the substantive, special, lovingly awkward Weezer, you'll have to go back to '94.