Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sloan -- Parallel Play (2008)

Sloan -- Parallel Play (Yep Roc/Murder)

2006's Never Hear The End Of It represented a milestone in Sloan’s career. Arguably the band’s best album (though I’ll still give the nod to Navy Blues), the quartet of quality songwriters doled out 30 songs steeped in hooks and melodies and reference points with just the right amount of variety to turn the band into the world’s coolest jukebox.

The new album simply continues this approach, this time with only 13 songs. The last song is a reggae inflected number called “Too Many”, to which many Sloan fans will respond, “No, it’s not enough.”

I consider myself one of those fans. I have all of the band’s studio sets, including the Peppermint EP, and have seen them live a couple of times. I’ve listen to Sloan regularly. But I’m not a hardcore fan, in that I can’t match the names of the songwriters to their songs. Yes, if I called them A, B, C and D, I could slot the songs, but I’ve never taken the time to figure out who is who.

I just know that all four of these guys write great stuff, making Sloan one of the rare bands that can pull off so many cooks without spoiling things. As a result, the alchemy of the band is such a strength, as the collective sensibility of the members means that the band never has to worry about sounding too samey, while always sounding like Sloan.

So in 37 minutes, the band pumps out the pop like nobody else. They bring the rock on the skittish “Emergency 911". It’s paranoid power pop, with handclaps. The band adds some classic Motown/R & B elements on the bittersweet “If I Could Change Your Mind”. “Cheap Champagne” is bopping (with “bop bop” backing vocals) ‘70s styled pop in the vein of Emitt Rhodes, Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren. Just simply superb.

My favorite change of pace is the Dylan-ish “Down in the Basement”. This shambling talking blues about do-it-yourself recording is a real kick. This song has a bit more resonance than the typical Sloan song, as there’s a real defiance and sincerity. It’s a manifesto about making music because you believe in it: “All my sisters convinced me I should keep it up/because it was embedded in my blood type - O.”

“I’m Not a Kid Anymore” is different musically, offering up some hard rock riffs with the usual strong melodies, and looks at the other perspective -- instead of living the rock life, giving it up and working 9 to 5. In addition to giving the world these lines: “I relied heavily on Styx and Stones/not so much Styx when I heard the Ramones,” this is a bratty yet mature look at life, on par with fellow countrymen The Pursuit Of Happiness.

These are just some of the highlights of yet another strong Sloan album. The fact that they can keep cranking out such terrific music is something that we all need to appreciate.

Blondie, Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, June 27, 2008

It's been 30 years since the release of Blondie's breakthrough album, Parallel Lines. The band is on tour now, and, to my pleasant surprise, playing the album in its entirety. However, the overall set encapsulated all that is good and bad about Blondie.

First off, the support act was an L.A. band called Pedestrian. It was either that or The Adequates. This was "modern" rock music lacking passion and character. Oh well.

Blondie took the stage at 9 p.m. They are still a six-piece, with the core of Debbie Harry, hubby Chris Stein and the amazing drummer, Clem Burke, joined by three cats, including a second guitarist who was apparently recruited from a Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute band.

This unit did a really nice job on the Lines material. Of course, it helps when you can start a set with the one-two punch of "Hangin' on the Telephone" (the great Nerves cover) and "One Way Or Another". Harry looked great from a few hundred feet back, as she's relatively svelte for a 63 year old (!).

Harry is a fascinating singer. Her voice is nice, but isn't the greatest instrument. What makes her special is the character and attitude she puts into songs. She acts out songs in a way few do (The Monkees' Mickey Dolenz comes to mind) and still sounds quite good.

Once past those two stone cold classics, the band settled into the sleek pop sounds that dominate the album, alternating from classic rock 'n' roll forms to chillier modern territory. As much of a trip as it was to actually hear "Fade Away and Radiate" live, the best part of the set was the run from the jagged "I Know But I Don't Know", the poppy "11:59", through "Will Anything Happen?".

Soon thereafter the band went into an extended workout on "Heart of Glass", with Harry encouraging audience participation and still sounding sexy and angelic every time she cooed, "Oooooh boy." This was followed by my other fave tune off of the album, the ultra-peppy run through of Buddy Holly's "I'm Gonna Love You Too". Great stuff.

But after the completion of the final Lines tune, "Just Go Away", things took a turn for the worse. Somewhere there is a parallel universe where "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture" stiffed and a cowed Chris Stein went back to writing cool pop-rock tunes, instead of becoming the homeless man's David Byrne. Stein's forced eclecticisism (if that's a word) ruined both Auto-American and The Hunter, and the reunited Blondie has continued to labor under the impression that this diversity plays to its strengthes. But it doesn't.

The band played four recent songs, a couple of which were positively dreadful. This ended with "Maria", the pleasant hit from the band's No Exit album. However, although the chorus reminds me of better days, the song is otherwise undernourished -- it's all chorus and not much else.

After this, the band launched into an extended version of "Rapture" that had more endings than Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple, and included a brief Bo Diddley tribute (which was nice) and a shameful blues vamp. Odd. This was followed by a version of "Call Me" that was done in a lower key, for reasons I can't fathom (Deb's voice the rest of the night made it sound like she could handle it). Harry gave a disinterested reading, not even bothering with the lyrics for the brilliant middle-eight that makes the song special. Feh.

The band did a two song encore, ending with a so-so version of "The Tide Is High". And "Dreaming", Blondie's best song, was not heard at all. So this was great for 50 minutes and frustrating the rest of the evening.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

T Bone Burnett -- Tooth Of The Crime (2008)

T Bone Burnett -- Tooth Of The Crime (Nonesuch)

This is somewhat of a stop gap album for Burnett, although it’s not like T Bone has been particularly prolific over the years. The songs here were written to accompany a 1996 production of the Sam Shepard play of the same name. Some songs may work better in the context of the work (seven of the ten songs actually appeared in the 1996 adaptation), but there’s a definite mood that permeates this album, giving it cohesiveness.

While not a great Burnett album, it is unmistakably his work. His style has become very defined and it really works well throughout the disc. If you’re not familiar with Burnett, he combines his distinctive Texas accent to an erudite Dylan-inspired talk-singing style. Musically, he now has created a sound that is part Tom Waits, part desert rock (think Calexico and Los Lobos’ “Kiko”). Odd percussion meets arid twanging guitars.

This style gives a cockeyed cocktail jazz feel to the opener “Anything I Say Can And Will Be Used Against You”, which seems like it could have been written after 9/11. The wobbling rhythm, reverberating guitars and the woozy horn section provide an unsettling background for T Bone to settle into a cynical declamation of the overreaction to terrorism: “Somebody has got to monitor all this/darkness darkness darkness/somebody’s got to locate the bomb dot com.”

Edgy blues and tough guy lyrics are the order of the day on “Swizzle Stick”. For a guy who used to be tied to Christian lyrical themes (though it was really moralism informed by his beliefs), this is bleak stuff. Burnett is the tough guy, explaining all the ways he can kill you with a cocktail stirrer and then going further to explain how powerful he really is: “I can infiltrate your pride...and lace your faith with cyanide.” Jim Keltner lays down a fat drum part, Marc Ribot adds rhythmic lead guitar ornamentation while a horn section syncopates to all of the surrounding parts. This is a hypnotic track.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around “Rat Age”, a previously released track that was co-written by Bob Neuwirth and Roy Orbison; it’s allegedly the last track ol’ Roy ever helped pen. And if you can find a speck of Orbison in the track, than please let me know where it is. This is simply another moody piece with odd impressionistic lyrics, where Ribot’s desert rock guitar and creative horn arrangements carry the day.

While most of this album is music for bleak times, moments of beauty shine through. “Dope Island” is a duet with T Bone’s ex, the always wonderful Sam Phillips. Now the beauty is in the lovely melody, as the lyrics are perhaps the most depressing of the set: “Where yellow orchids bloomed/the land is scorched and doomed.” This would be the perfect song to play to commemorate a divorce. Phillips takes the lead on the pithy “Blind Man”, a short torch song with laconic lyrics. It’s quite affecting for a such a brief number.

I think I’ve established that this is not a party album. But the songs are gripping and I think the production and arrangements are more effective than the similarly styled True False Identity (Burnett’s 2006 LP). Thus, this is yet another worthy addition to Burnett’s fine catalog.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ken Stringfellow -- The Sellout Cover Sessions, Vol. 1 (2008)

Ken Stringfellow -- The Sellout Cover Sessions, Vol. 1 (Sellout!)

This is a fun little EP, with Ken Stringfellow of The Posies having a bash at some eclectic cover material. Five songs, with more to come. Why else would it be Volume 1?

Stringfellow starts off with a version of Judee Sill’s “Crayon Angel”, from her debut album. Stringfellow wisely doesn’t mess around with the arrangement, as Sill’s unique compositional sense had to be kept intact. In fact, this version couldn’t be more faithful and respectful, with Stringfellow singing in his highest range, sounding pretty feminine, actually.

The recording is absolutely mid-fi, with some nice touches, like what sounds to me like a mandolin during one instrumental break. And there’s a melodica part that gives this a feel like it should be played in church. A lot of Sill’s music had a spiritual quality, so it’s appropriate. A very nice performance.

Even better is Stringfellow’s take on “Girls It Ain’t Easy”, which was originally waxed by Honey Cone in 1969. A trivia aside: Honey Cone had a big hit with “Want Ads” and recorded for a label run by the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland team, although “It Ain’t Easy” was not composed by HDH.

Anyway, Stringfellow has always had a soulful quality in his voice (I remember an inebriated Stringfellow and Jon Auer doing a bang up version of The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” at a Nashville gig) and he totally gets into the track. The mid-fi production really helps here as this sounds like a distant AM radio feed.

Stringfellow sets his time machine for 2003, with a plaintive version of The Long Winters’ “It’ll Be a Breeze”. Stringfellow is self-deprecating when he states in the liner notes, “I’m at the point where I have to admit I could never write a song this good.” Well, Ken can think that, but I’ll say that this John Roderick composition sounds like something that Stringfellow could have whipped up himself. So it’s pretty darned good.

Next up, it’s a country duet. Ken teams up with wife Dominique Sassi on Loretta Lynn’s “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”, Ken singing Conway Twitty’s part and Sassi adding a French accent to the proceedings. This is the most C-sideish track on the disc, as they obviously had fun making it, but this makes it merely spirited, not special.

Finally, Stringfellow goes ultra-obscure, remaking “‘Til the Christ Come Back” by Bill Fay, a British ‘70s artist whom Scott (Young Fresh Fellows) McCaughey turned him onto. This is heavy psychedelic folk, with some strong lead guitar. Stringfellow establishes an ominous tone and it’s quite effective.

I enjoyed this enough that I’ll definitely plunk down another ten bucks for Volume 2. Hearing a great singer shine a light on some deserving songs is always worth hearing.

Dora Flood -- We Live Now (2007) (Previously unpublished review)

Dora Flood -- We Live Now (Elephant Stone)

This stalwart California (Bay Area/Berkely) band slots somewhere between Guided By Voices and The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, two somewhat similar bands who put an original spin on ‘60s rock influences and don’t let the fact that rock and roll is purportedly a young man’s game stop them from consistently releasing strong albums. The Flood is a top notch psychedelic outfit who follows conventions, but isn’t afraid to play around with them.

I’m no Pink Floyd expert, but when I hear Dora Flood, the band’s sound often reminds me of Pink Floyd. Or rather, Pink Floyd if Roger Waters sang for the band while he and Syd Barrett worked together on the music. Of course, there’s more to the sound than that, but it’s a good starting point.

One of the songs that really gives off this vibe is “Daydream”, which has one of the strongest hooks on the album. In addition to Floyd, The Church is another band who could have pulled off this slice of paisley pop. The song introduces itself with a majestic riff, with a harmonica and acoustic guitars ornamenting the big electric guitar. The song then swirls around in the verses, before the riff comes in to set up the drawling chorus, which is punctuated by a classic Eastern lead guitar figure. It’s pretty uplifting.

On “Atlantis”, Dora Flood connects the dots between Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Of course, this is an old comparison, but the band here mixes its retro-songwriting chops with keyboard and guitar bits that could have come off The Bends or OK Computer. Frontman Michael Padilla adds to the flavor, singing at the top of his range. This song alternates between sadness and defiance and oozes feeling. And with its mix of sounds, it might be able to bring two generations of music fans together.

“Faith and Deviation” has a grandeur about it that gives it the sound of ‘70s AOR staple. The effects laden guitar leads and echoing keyboards provide a foundation to float over in the verses. The chorus clangs in on another hard guitar part. The song winds its way to nice extended instrumental break, with a cool spacey reverberating guitar solo, followed by a more stinging one. This is one song where I found myself wishing I could see these guys live, as the power is so evident.

They hit the ground running on “Everywhere You Go”. From ten paces away, this sounds a bit like fellow Michigan-ers Outrageous Cherry. The song chugs along and has a poppy sheen. Or maybe I’m thinking Gumball. Anyway, it’s a percolating piece of psych-pop. Meanwhile, “Humble High” is light and languid, with some nice chord changes that hit in just the right places. Until about the three minute mark, when a sinister guitar comes in an tears a hole in the flower power veneer and then checks out almost as quickly as it checked in.

If you’re a fan of some of the bands I’ve listed above, or Donovan’s Brain or Rockfour or The Dipsomaniacs (Norwegian, not New Jersey), you really owe it to yourself to check out Dora Flood. The band never disappoints, as this album is the most recent proof of that.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Free psych-pop music, courtesy of Valis

When it comes to music in the psychedelic and garage rock vein, Valis knows his stuff. He has a blog called Trip Inside This House, and has gotten some mp3's from some of his favorite artists, such as Doleful Lions, Dora Flood, The Squires of the Subterranean and Anton Barbeau, creating a summertime compilation.

Here's the link:

Scroll down to the bottom of the post, and there's a link to Rapidshare, where you can download the whole thing.

If you don't have a way of opening rar files, you should be able to get a trial download of WinRAR
It's what I use for rar and zip files.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Smoking Popes -- Stay Down (2008)

Smoking Popes -- Stay Down (Appeal)

A funny thing happened to the Smoking Popes while frontman Josh Caterer found Jesus, removed himself from music, got back into it with his fine Christian rock band Duvall, and finally reunited with brothers Eli (guitar) and Matt (bass) to get the Popes back together. They developed a whole new audience, due to a stray comment by Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba.

Carrabba noted in an interview that the Popes’ tune “Pretty Pathetic”, a reflective, and dare I say it, confessional ballad inspired his band’s music like no other song. Suddenly, emo kids picked up copies of the Popes second and final album for Capitol Records, the seemingly accurately titled Destination Failure.

Those kids not only got to hear that now classic song, they also got to hear how the Popes had gone from suburban pop-punkers with a singer who crooned so achingly, to a first class power pop band that incorporated classic song forms dating all the way back to Tin Pan Alley. Still with a singer who crooned so achingly.

This reunion album continues down Failure’s path. Josh’s vocals and timeless songwriting are the focus, as always. But let’s not discount the other things that make the Popes so special. The band has a sound, particularly a distinctive guitar tone, that puts a stamp on the Popes’ music and makes it easily identifiable, without even hearing Josh sing. This puts the Popes on par with great guitar pop bands like Cheap Trick (whom the band comes close to at times) and The Undertones.

Unlike those two bands, I’m not sure if the Popes have put out a dead on classic album. This effort doesn’t quite reach the loftiest heights, but listening to it, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before the Caterers (and drummer) come up with a masterpiece.

For the first six or seven songs, it seems like the band will get there. The album gets off to a cracking good start on the galloping “Welcome to Janesville”. While the song is full of rock vim and vigor, it has a bounce and loping stride that makes me think of a Michael Nesmith Monkees tune. Not a bad start at all.

The next song, “If You Don’t Care”, should assure everyone that Josh Caterer can still craft a massive hook. In fact, the song starts out with the ultra-melodic chorus, the guitars providing strong support to Josh’s singing, his voice relaxed and mildly intense at the same time. The song then contrasts that great hook with sweet mid-tempo verses. But it’s all about the hook and this song simply kills.

Speaking of killing, “The Corner” is a somber change-of-pace, with Josh singing the tale of man who’s haunted by his past. The ominous tone and the muted tempo are quite familiar. This is a genre piece and what makes it work is the absolute conviction of Josh’s voice.

Which is also why “First Time”, which is cut from the same cloth as “Pretty Pathetic”, is such an effective track. On this song, Josh strums an acoustic guitar and laments over the loss of his first true love. Much like “Pathetic”, the lyrics are so direct and innocent, this will either induce cringing or, particularly if you’re a teenager, be instantly be relatable: “she’ll probably never be again/as happy as I made her then/but then I’ll never really know for sure/will I?” The song is a combination of bitterness and that lost feeling one gets after being dumped by someone really special, and it’s well captured here.

This song stands in stark contrast with the joyful “Little Jane-Marie”, a paean to a baby girl. Here, Josh indulges in some childish lyrics, which is perfect for a song to a kid: “Perhaps we could split 1,000 Cheerios/or just sit around and suck our thumbs.” The song is so simple and so lovingly rendered. It’s the pop-punk “Isn’t She Lovely”, not that I’m aware of a lot of competition.

The songwriting flags just a bit on the second half of the disc, but not drastically. But this album holds it own with Destination Failure. Which means it’s truly a success.

Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes (2008)

Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)

Fleet Foxes fits in quite well with contemporary indie rockers who give off a strong ‘70s country, folk or pop vibe. If you’re into the more trad side of My Morning Jacket, or Midlake, or wish The Shins and Band Of Horses were more rustic, then Fleet Foxes are for you.

Of all of the aforementioned artists, the Foxes probably come closest to the sensibility of Midlake. Like Midlake, Fleet Foxes don’t just mine old sounds, they seek to create their own world, both through the music and fleeting aspects in the lyrics. While not as impressionistic as Midlake, the Foxes try to authentically sound like they came from a few decades back.

Some songs mix joyful melodies with echoey vocals and blissful stacked harmonies, such as “Ragged Wood”. This track is somehow hopeful and haunted, loping its way to wherever the music seems to need to go. The playing is superb, with subtly effective bass playing and beautiful guitar lines. This pastoral track is intimate yet also has a spaciousness to it that makes it feel very large. Robin Pecknold’s vocals are treated with just a little bit of reverb, adding a mystical, spiritual quality to the sound.

There are some pop qualities to this band. This comes through strongly on “Quiet Houses”. The song is keyed by the excellent harmony vocals and great lead guitar playing. The primary hook of the song is a great neo-Byrds twangy guitar line. The instrumental break out of the second refrain is very Pet Sounds, as if The Beach Boys became the Deep In The Woods Boys.

And you can’t escape the gospel feel to the group vocals. This is explicit on the aptly titled “White Winter Hymnal”. Pecknold melds the ‘70s pastoral music he likes so much with a touch of the church. This is one song that sounds like it’s a traditional number.

At times, I’m in awe of the sheer beauty of the music. “Meadowlark” is breathtaking, Pecknold’s strong voice singing over sparse guitar accompaniment. The lyrics are old-fashioned and when the band comes in to hum a melody after the second verse, it’s shiver inducing.

This alone would be great, but the Foxes also are capable of anthemic power. The dramatic build of “Your Protector” shows off a side of the band that’s not so much explosive as smoldering. This isn’t the rousing, fist in the air sound of The Arcade Fire. It’s the sound of a band that doesn’t need to rock out to floor you, creating mood and tension.

What I find most interesting is that for all the feelings this album stirs up in me, most of the lyrics just pass by me, but for a snatch here or there. This is probably the one thing that keeps this album from rising to the highest heights. Whatever this music stirs up, it’s pay off is more in the style than anything else. But that’s about the only thing about this album that isn’t superb.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Foxboro Hot Tubs -- Stop Drop And Roll!!!

Foxboro Hot Tubs -- Stop Drop And Roll!!! (Jingle Town)

How does Green Day follow up American Idiot, the album that cemented its status as true artists, and not just pop-punk hitmakers? If you have any idea, tell it to Billie Joe, Mike and Tre, since they decided to punt rather than come out with another ‘statement’ record.

The Hot Tubs are to Green Day what the Dukes Of Stratosphear are to XTC (and I hope this comes up as an SAT answer someday). You remember "Warning", the Green Day song that was a craven re-write of The Kinks’ "Picture Book"? The boys apply that approach to all twelve tracks on this breezy platter, having a blast while challenging fans to play spot the influence. Or rather their older fans, as the younger, less historically inclined can simply sit back and enjoy these small slices of British Invasion and Nuggets inspired pop-rock. And perhaps, if the younger fans aren't careful, they just might learn something.

As to be expected, The Kinks loom large as an inspiration. "Red Tide" is a finger snapping ditty in the vein of "Tired Of Waiting For You". Billie Joe Armstrong shows off the higher end of his range, and some other ‘60s melodic ideas that I can’t quite identify (which pisses me off, I should know these) crop up on a song that exudes coolness. The band later reworks the basic riff that fueled "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" on "Alligator". This isn’t as deft as "Red Tide", but it’s really hard to do anything but let the riff rock for itself.

The band delves into classic territory on "She’s Saint Not a Celebrity", retooling The Who’s famed live arrangement of Eddie Cochran’s "Summertime Blues". Once you get past the monster riff, the band really puts its own spin on the tune, adding a Ramones-ish "gimme gimme gimme" at the end.

The next track for revamping is The Monkees’ "(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone", which gets the Hot Tubs treatment on "Sally", complete with cheesy organ. The verses are hand clappin’, leading into the accelerated break down. The only thing that would make this track better is if Mickey Dolenz made a guest appearance.

This isn’t all rock and roll. Motown gets its props on the bouncy "Mother Mary", with the millionth use of the "You Can’t Hurry Love" bassline. And Neil Diamond’s "Solitary Man" is evoked on the dramatic ballad "Dark Side of Night".

This album doesn’t quite climb the heights of the Dukes Of Stratosphear, because Green Day doesn’t add a wacky lyrical element to give this project a bit more of a distinctive stamp. But these guys didn’t treat this like a joke. This whole album stands as a passionate tribute to the best music of the ‘60s from one of the top rock acts of the past 10 years. If you love rock and roll too, you very well might have much fun listening to this album as Green Day had making it.

The Sleepers -- Comeback Special (2008)

The Sleepers -- Comeback Special (Pravda)

"Loaded". "Filthy Ways". "Jailbait". "Dirty Cop". These are the titles of four consecutive songs on the new album from this Chicago band. They should give you a pretty good idea where The Sleepers are coming from.

As cool as it would be if the songs behind these titles were arcane twee pop a la Sufjan Stevens and Belle And Sebastian, it’s even cooler that The Sleepers play the type of sleazy, blues based rock and roll that is never out of style, even when it’s not in style. The Sleepers come from the land of the New York Dolls, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Dogs D’Amour, Alice Cooper and every band that has a little early Rolling Stones and Pretty Things in its D.N.A.

Lead singer Tommy Richied almost blows it with the CD booklet photo, as the sweater clad smiling dude doesn’t match the weather beaten, attitude laden voice. A sweater? Isn’t that Vampire Weekend’s thing? But then I remember that a lot of great rockers donned sweaters (Exhibit A -- Gerry Rosalie of the The Sonics), and all is forgiven.

The band has an inexhaustible supply of rocking guitar riffs, like the one that fuels the careening "Detroit Ride". Drummer Johnny Action lives up to his name, keeping the song moving, as Richied sings out the mantra, "Detroit’s gonna save my soul," with the requisite conviction. Things are a bit greasier on "Filthy Ways", which has the gusto of prime Jason and the Scorchers, with the twang removed.

It’s not all slam and bam, no siree. The title track is a mid-tempo rocker in the tradition of songs like The Angels’ (a/k/a Angel City) "Marseilles" and a number of Aerosmith tunes, mixing hard riffs with a great melodic chorus. There are also some clever lyrics: "I’m sorry people/no autographs please/you know I’m huge with the Japanese." It’s a fun look on has been rockers trying to keep it going.

The best of the bunch is the rocket fueled "Abby Stone". This is just more accelerated blues rock, with a simple and effective chorus. What more do you need?

The biggest knock on this album is that there’s not loads of variety here, and so a few of the songs jumble together. But that never stopped AC/DC, did it?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sparks -- Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (2008)

Sparks -- Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (Lil’ Beethoven)

On 2006's excellent Hello Young Lovers, Sparks built on the use of stacked choral vocals, classical music motifs and repetition that made 2002's Lil’ Beethoven such a groundbreaking release. Two tracks, in particular, took the concept perhaps as far as it could be taken.

Lead single “Dick Around” invoked so many different tempos and utilized dynamics superbly. Ron and Russell Mael had said that they wanted to break free from the predictability of modern pop music, and boy did they ever with that song. Meanwhile, the album closer, “As I Sit Down to Play My Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral” was an entire musical in seven minutes, with a number of distinct musical ideas, perfectly blended to a thrilling conclusion.

Exotic Creatures Of The Deep continues in the style of its two predecessors. But instead of trying to push the envelope further, the Maels now act like what they are playing is conventional pop. I don’t know if Sparks has ever had so much direct songwriting on one album; at least, not since Big Beat in 1976. Whatever opulent trappings fill these tracks, these songs are focused on simple ideas and big hooks.

Songs don’t get much simpler than “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song”. Well, the title isn’t simple, but the track itself is. It’s grounded on an oscillating synth line and steady beat (akin to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”). Russell mouths generic love platitudes (like “I want you” and “I need you” -- y’know, the basics), and then a chorus of Russells intones the title in a sing-song melodic fashion. The only thing that keeps this from being wholly primitive are the bits of pretty piano from Ron Mael. The Maels clearly dig the contrast between modern sounds and classical styled piano. Rightly so, as it sounds great.

This contrast is just part of what makes “Strange Animal” such a winning effort. It’s a song that takes a little while to fully grasp. It starts off with Russell in jaunty mode, the melody and singing sounding like something from a classic ‘40s vocal group. This eventually runs smack dab into Dean Menta’s metallic guitar and quicker tempos, while maintaining the main melody line. There’s a real cool interlude with Menta’s jagged riffing alongside Ron’s stately keyboard work.

This song is one of two that are cut more from the complex cloth of the past two Sparks albums. The lyrics are odd, even by Sparks’ standards. A guy on the lam (“with blood on his hands”) takes up residence inside a song. At times, Ron’s words are a bit awkward because Russell has to sing from both the viewpoint of the man and the others living in the song. Eventually, the bad guy asserts himself. Let’s just say that this track proves that everybody’s a critic.

The other song that is more in line with the past albums is “Likeable”, a song the Maels liked so much they threaded a couple bits of it earlier in the album. It’s a swell set closer with a classic Sparks concept -- a guy who everyone likes to be around, but has never been loved by anyone. This is a song that is chock full of ideas. Movements really, threaded together expertly. Here, the harmony vocal arrangements by Russell are simply brilliant. This is true throughout the album.

For example, “The Director Never Yelled ‘Cut’” has some vocal breaks where Russell sounds like he was touched by the wisdom of Brian Wilson. It’s lovely. I also love the pomp pop tuneage and the demented lyric, that, if I’m interpreting it correctly, is about a guy who’s new lover demands that he bring her to orgasm: “She could not articulate exactly what she wanted/what she wanted was a feeling that I tried so hard to find.” This is a companion to the 1979 Number One In Heaven track “La Dolce Vita”, which deals with role playing and faking orgasm. Those darned Maels!

The characteristic Ron Mael wit is in greater supply on this less rigidly conceptual album. My favorite lyric might be “Music’s gone wild/no Gregorian here/Contrapuntal music is the music that your parent’s fear” from “This Is the Renaissance”. But I also crack up after Russell ruminates tenderly about the “lurid” things he hasn’t done in his life before another multi-Russell chorus shouts out the title: “I’ve never been high”. Or the whole concept of “Lighten Up, Morrissey”, where the protagonist can’t get anywhere with his girl because he can’t live up to the high standards set by Moz: “”She won’t hang out with me, no, she won’t hang out/‘til my biting wit bites like his.”

And the ability to come up with a sterling single is still there too. “Good Morning” has a bouncy synthesizer line, with Ron coloring in the gaps on piano, and Russell, showing off his still youthful falsetto, tells the story of a guy who had a one night stand and can’t believe the babe with whom he just woke up. The song has it all, from the verse where Russell starts saying “good morning” in other languages because he doesn’t know where this strange beauty came from, to the sublime middle eights where he thanks God for taking some time for him, and the wise observation that “I hope it’s just your laugh that is infectious.”

One can’t help but marvel that Sparks, 37 years removed from its first album, has put out some of its best work in the past six years. At one level, I grade this album a notch below Lil’ Beethoven and Hello Young Lovers, because it’s not nearly as audacious. But at another level, this is so much more fun. Moreover, it’s quintessentially Sparks. That’s about as high a compliment as I can give.

Portishead -- 3 (2008)

Portishead -- 3 (Mercury)

When Portishead first came on the scene, they were innovators, and arguably the inventors, of the sound known as trip-hop. The music was the embodiment of spy movies and thrillers, with a muted but powerful beat and the incredible vocals of Beth Gibbons. She is the embodiment of hurt and anguish.

The second Portishead album, released 11 years ago, was interesting, because the band didn’t sample tracks. Rather, the band created music and then deconstructed it and sampled it. The efforts didn’t really change the sound. After releasing a live album, it seemed that the band had called it a day.

Yet here is Portishead, back and more exciting than ever. The essential sensibility of the music is unchanged. This is film noir pop at its best.

What has changed is the addition of dissonant elements that make Portishead’s music more challenging than ever. These elements also make the music more compelling then ever, as the dramatic aspects of its songs are heightened. Portishead music is built on creating tension and by using jarring percussion or hard edged guitars or amelodic music concrete, the resulting disorientation only adds to that delicious uneasiness that makes this sound work.

Sometimes the jarring elements hit right away, sometimes they come from nowhere. On “The Rip”, Gibbons sings over a distant blues guitar. The melody is simple, Gibbons wavers and sounds wonderful. A keyboard wends its way underneath. It then gets a bit louder, and finally a new synthesized percussion track comes in and the guitar is suddenly no longer there. Gibbons continues. The transition from organic to synthetic does not break the mood, but enhances it.

The thrilling opener “Silence” mixes the elements differently. The song begins with a repetitive hard percussion break, with a squealing synth and dramatic guitar chords. This goes on for two minutes, and the drums drop out, with Gibbons singing with quiet accompaniment, pleading “Did you know what I lost?/Did you know what I wanted?”. The drums finally kick in again, with Gibbons singing the same melody. Her desperation is powerful with spare instrumentation and become more poignant when the drums pick up the pace, raising the temperature.

The album is full of audacious tracks like “Silence”. The single “Machine Gun” is built on a percussion track that replicates rapid gunfire. The melody of the song is lovely, yet it is in the midst of such harsh sounds. And the track never lets up. “We Carry On” is even more intense, with more strong percussion and a variety of keyboard sounds designed to quicken the pulse. The song has one sublime snatch of melody that leads into a jagged guitar break. This song sounds like its hurtling down the Autobahn at 120 miles per hour, with someone bad in hot pursuit.

Dynamics are an important part of the equation, and Portishead uses them in odd and effective ways. Gibbons voice reverberates on “Plastic” when a loud helicopter noise rises up, turning into a crisp electronic drum roll, then it’s just back to Gibbons and a guitar. Eventually, an electric guitar comes in and it gets louder and louder. Then its just Gibbons again.

It’s all about beauty and tragedy co-existing in the same place. This wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the fact that there are some hooks. Perhaps not traditional pop hooks, but every song has something in it that makes it memorable. Mixed in with the atmosphere and enveloping always shifting sounds, and this record demands multiple plays.

Very few records truly excite me anymore. This is one of those very few records. It might be the best album I’ll hear in 2008.

The Goldbergs -- Under The Radar (2008)

The Goldbergs -- Under The Radar (Kool Kat)

Andy Goldberg is back with more sunshiney power pop. I mean that literally. When he sings “come outside and feel the sun/it’ll take you away” he captures the wonderfulness of a summer day. “Feel the Sun” is ridiculously catchy, with its simple melody and a swell arrangement with just enough backing vocals, and the added bonus of Goldberg’s ace lead guitar playing.

Even on his slower tracks, Goldberg can’t help but be bubbly. He comes from that corner of Power Pop Land that has spawned artists like Marshall Crenshaw, Dwight Twilley and The Lackloves. This means that there’s a bit of power while the pop spills over everywhere, with reference points from The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and scads of ‘60s acts.

And a contemporary act, from time to time. The energetic “I’m a Hero (Waiting to Happen)” hits me a little bit like some of Richard X. Heyman’s work. I think it’s something about the spirited playing and the way the chorus hits so hard. The instrumental break with its innocent and endearing guitar solo with sweet backing vocal harmonies is just so darned nice.

The nicest cut of all is the finale, “A Hand to Hold”. It’s not the best song, which is “Feel the Sun”. But “Hand” allows Andy to show off his ukelele skills and it’s simply charming and has one line that I just love: “seems I just can’t escape without you.” Aw shucks. The only possible flaw is that he didn’t croon this ditty through a megaphone.

But let me harp on that word ‘innocent’ one more time. The Goldbergs’ brand of pop really is a throwback to a time of penny loafers and letterman’s sweaters, in the best possible way. No wonder it’s under the radar.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Smoking Popes/The Mannequin Men -- Metro, June 7, 2008

It was a humid night in Chicago, and that meant the environs of Metro were very steamy. Hey guys, spring for some AC!

This gig was a record release show for the Smoking Popes. Stay Down is the band's first studio set since Destination Failure. I missed the first support act, Sundowner, but came right on time to see The Mannequin Men.

The Men are a true rock and roll band, mixing sleazy garage rock with influences like Television and The Velvet Underground, and a wild front man in Kevin Richards. The band's 2007 release, Fresh Rot, was one of my favorite albums of last year (see my review of that album by clicking here.

In a 40 minute or so set, the band played a few Rot songs, mixed with some new things, and maybe a old one or two (yeah, I need to get the band's first album). The new songs were consistent with the last album's material -- strong drumming, stabbing guitars and strong choruses. Other highlights were the melodic "22nd Century" and the fierce "Private School".

The band seemed to deliberately overmodulate its sound, the guitars buzzing and feeding back throughout. This seemed to enhance the music. I'm not sure if the youngish crowd was really into such a great molten hot rock performance.

Youngish? Yes, while the Popes were broken up as Josh Caterer found Jesus, the lead singer of Dashboard Confessional, Chris Whineypants, mentioned that "Pretty Pathetic", a track from the Popes' Destination Failure album, was the foundation for his material. Which it obviously is. A sweet chronicle of a guy handling a break up poorly, this song perfectly captures a teenage perspective. The mention by Mr. Whineypants spurred sales of the album and made it a beloved Popes track.

During the band's performance, which actually starts with just Josh singing and playing guitar, he acknowledged the hundreds of kids singing out loud, letting them carry the song at points. At the end, the whole band kicked in and the crowd was sated.

Leading up to "Pathetic", the penultimate song in the regular set, was a mix of various Popes songs, proving the band to be the closest thing in pop-punk to Cheap Trick. Caterer's sweet crooner's voice is made for classic melodies, and he has penned a slew of them over the years. "Writing a Letter", "Just Broke Up", "Gotta Know Right Now" and "I Know You Love Me" are just some of the five-star songs that are staples of the Popes' set. These tunes belong in the pop-punk panthenon with best work of The Undertones, Descendents, Pointed Sticks and Buzzcocks.

The "I Want You To Want Me" of the Popes' repetoire is "Need You Around", which was the one number where Josh shed the guitar while brother Eli wailed away on his six-string, brother Matt rocked on the bass (he's the animated Caterer, bouncing around all of the time) and new drummer Neil Hennessey (who packs quite a wallop) kept thing moving. Josh then could really play the crooner, emoting every word and gesturing to the crowd. The band then added a Cheap Trick-ish ending to the classic.

This song was preceded by the best new song of the set, the title cut from Stay Down. This is a very traditional slow rock number, suitable for slow dancing at prom.

The crowd loved every minute of it. To hear such happy pop songs played with such buzzing energy is a real treat.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The General Store -- "Mountain Rescue"

The General Store -- “Mountain Rescue” (Brewery)

It’s was hard figuring out how to begin this review. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad album. It’s quite the opposite. Tam Johnstone took a few years to follow up the first General Store album, but that’s because he clearly wanted to not just avoid the sophomore slump, he wanted to obliterate it. The problem has been the songs are so consistently good, I had a hard time figuring out where to start. Hence, this somewhat weak introductory paragraph.

“Mountain Rescue” is primarily grounded in ‘70s country rock, with Johnstone taking inspiration from Neil Young and The Eagles, among others, on a collection of perfectly rendered songs. If you thought the Cosmic Rough Riders did some great things with this sound, which they most certainly did, this is an album you must have.

What is remarkable is how effortless this all sounds, when I’m pretty sure that he spent tons of time getting it just right. The result is songs that sound like they’ve been around for forever, old friends who you just haven’t heard from in a while.

For example, take “Desert Weathered Hiway”. The song starts with a weepy pedal steel (which is somewhat redundant) from Nick Zala, who can really play that thing, and then the light strumming guitar begins. The verses are simply homilies using driving as a metaphor for life. Johnstone’s friendly voice is captivating. This all sets up a great chorus, which has a terrific melody and is augmented by more of that tasty pedal steel and gentle backing vocals. It takes an expert to build a hook like this.

That song tilts more in The Eagles’ direction, a la “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Tequila Sunrise”. The Neil Young-ish tracks are a delight. “The Wonder” is a soulful piece of country pop, with Johnstone showing off a little more range than he does on some songs. The secret of the song is the simple soft-loud juxtaposition (i.e., dynamics), though it’s really more of a contrast between the introspective verses and the stirring chorus. This is one hell of a love song.

On “Come Around”, Johnstone seems to meld the two artists I’ve referenced above. The verses are in line with “Heart Of Gold”, but the chorus rises with harmony vocals in a swell Laurel Canyon fashion.

But if you want to hear some great harmonies, skip over to “Girls From the Mall”. This is Johnstone’s splendid Beach Boys homage. It’s not a 100 percent Brian Wilson ripoff, but his inspiration is all over this track. This track also shows off a biting wit, with Johnstone slyly commenting on the emptiness of high school popularity, sung with an overly romantic enthusiasm that is similar to the narrator in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides. Pretty and pretty funny.

All-in-all, this is simply an extremely well-crafted effort that exudes warmth. It may be even more impressive than the Store’s outstanding debut.

The Pretty Things -- Balboa Island (Unpublished 2007 review)

The Pretty Things -- Balboa Island (Zoho)

This album is somewhat of a surprise. Yes, the Pretties had put out one album since getting back together after the rediscovery and celebration of the band’s masterful rock opera S.F. Sorrow. But the one-off post-reunion album is as much a staple of rock reunions as the reunions themselves. Who would have thought that these guys had another album in them? Let alone an album steeped in the blues that inspired the band in the first place, and an album that shows that The Pretty Things still are vital and rocking?

The band gets a shot in the arm with neophyte Pretty Frank Holland writing or co-writing (primarily with lead singer Phil May) a lion’s share of the material. What follows is a mix of blues-inflected rockers, straight blues, and ‘70s-styled rock that is more evocative of The Who rather than the mild material that The Pretty Things kicked out during its tenure on Swan Song Records.

The band is conscious of how this new stuff fits in with its legacy, and makes sure that it doesn’t diminish it. If you’re expecting a return to the 1966-70 period, when The Pretty Things were one of the best psych-rock bands, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want a good old school British rock album, this will satisfy your appetite much more than the recent Rolling Stones and Who efforts (which both had their moments, just not as many as this puppy).

The band takes a look back and forward at the same time on the insistent “The Beat Goes On”. This song is just a building blues vamp, as May looks back at how things were back in the ‘60s, and he makes it clear that rock and roll is still rock and roll in this day and age. Drummer Skip Allan makes sure the beat goes on, while the song is an exercise in building and building, with guest trumpeter Rupert Cobb adding a nice triumphant touch at the end.

This big rock sound is portent of things to come. May notes in “Beat” that the Pretties and others were stealing the blues, and songs like “Livin’ in My Skin” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” show that they still know what to do with them. The latter song is truly a ballad (an old Bob Dylan track), with blues picking and a mystical feeling. May truly shines on this track, as one could certainly make a good case that he is probably singing better than ever.

The Pretty Things go even further on “(Blues for) Robert Johnson”. Here, the band locks into the blues groove and doesn’t let go. Again, May’s vocal is expressive -- the wear on his voice works perfectly. This sounds similar to Robert Plant’s bluesier efforts, and Plant, if you didn’t know it, is a big fan of the Pretties (they were signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label in the ‘70s).

The Pretties do a modern update on its patented ‘60s brand of rock on “Mimi”, the only song on the album penned by lead guitarist Dick Taylor. This song could have been done as a burning garage rock tune, and there’s enough evidence on here that the band could do it that way. Instead, it’s more of a loping rocker, with May sounding quite playful. This song sounds like an outtake from Pete Townshend’s classic collaboration with Ronnie Lane, *Rough Mix*.

Speaking of Towser, “Buried Alive” sounds like a page from his playbook. The power chords sound made for windmilling, and the drumming is prominent and busy, with a modified blues rock melody. Yes, this is very Who-like, circa 1973. And it’s really good, better than most of the stuff on the last Who album.

There’s even one catchy-as-all-hell number. “All Light Up” wafts in with a mellotron and then gets into a lockstep beat with what sounds like a bunch of English schoolkids chanting the title. The song is a percussive stomper and another look back at the tumult of the ‘60s, with the harmony vocals and melody in the chorus sounding like the Pretties during its prime psych-pop years. It neatly brings the blues and the psych sides of the band together in a real radio ready fashion.

It’s great to hear that this overlooked band can still make fine music. While I wouldn’t say this is on par with the band’s ‘60s brilliance, I’d rather listen to this than the band’s solid but unspectacular ‘70s releases.

Maple Mars -- Beautiful Mess (Unpublished 2007 review)

Maple Mars -- Beautiful Mess (Kool Kat)

Rick Hromadka keeps rolling. His layered bright power pop sounds are married to strong songwriting on a wonderful third album that pretty much picks up where his last disc left off. For all of the gloss and flash and pristine harmonies, many of Hromadka’s songs have real emotional weight. So it’s not just about catchy hooks as there are real feelings coming from almost every track.

Hromadka believes in the power of music (wasn’t that a Triumph or Rush lyric...never mind...), which comes through on track after track. He makes this belief blindly obvious on the lush “Listen”, where a pillow of acoustic guitars lulls the ears, preparing them for the cotton candy melody that carries the verses. It has a bit of a psych-pop feel, with a bass part that anchors the song and keeps it from floating away in the ether. This song is comparable to the best of Cloud Eleven.

One other song, “Between Two Worlds”, merits comparison to Cloud Eleven (another great contemporary pop group led by a man named Rick -- are we at the forefront of the Rick Rock movement?), this time, by way of The Beach Boys. Certainly, the desolate piano intro, with Hromadka singing in the wilderness, has a certain Brian Wilson quality to it. As the other instruments join in, this heads into Todd Rundgren-spiked-with-a-bit-of-Jellyfish territory. The song then moves into guitar land, with a beautiful extended guitar solo (and the above referenced Rick Gallego adding some pedal steel). This song is calculated to give the listener a melty feeling. Right before the fade, a piercing synth part comes in, as if Hromadka is showing you that he had even more icing for this cake.

This track follows his ace cover of a stone cold classic, 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love”. It’s a pretty daring choice, since the song is so distinctive, both as a composition and as a production. Hromadka doesn’t mess with the basic arrangement -- how could he, as it is perfect. Instead, he focuses on smaller details. This is almost like remix, as he finds different places to put in angelic backing vocals. On the whole, this is more restrained, allowing for focus on the elegance of the melody. I should also note how spot on Hromadka is on the lead vocals. As with his own compositions, Hromadka is fully engaged with the material. This doesn’t top the original, but it is pretty swell on its own.

Hromadka still rocks, by the way. “Butterfly Effect” is another thoughtful piece of riffy power pop. Hromadka surveys the damage caused by a relationship that apparently just can’t work, although there has been a lot of hard work to keep it going. I can’t suss out if this is a battle between love and lust (“getting caught up was so exotic/until it all became so chaotic” may be a hint). But he hits the nail on the head when he sings “love will never come painless.” Truer words were never sung. Even with the big flash guitar, the melody has an emotional pull, and that tension works well.

Speaking of flashy guitar, you get a big dose of that on the hyper poppy title cut. If Queen came from California, and didn’t become Jellyfish, this is a song they would have waxed. This song sounds like a sunnier “Killer Queen”, a fact made apparent when Hromadka lays down some Brian May guitar, and borrows some production tricks from that Queen classic. Throw in some Beach Boys styled backing vocals and a head bopping chorus, and we have yet another winner.

Three albums down the line, Hromadka shows no signs of stopping. This album is as good, if not better, than the first two. Buy it now and it’s likely there will be a fourth one just as good.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley, R.I.P.

When I was in my early teen years, I "inherited" a few LPs from Dad. The ones his sisters hadn't gouged to death. One of those albums was Bo Diddley's Have Guitar, Will Travel, pictured here. I was very lucky that my three aunts didn't destroy this album.

I was a bit aware of Bo, more through cover tunes, especially those of everyone's favorite flat-voiced guitar whiz from Delaware, George Thorogood. But the Have Guitar album didn't have any songs that I was familiar with. Still, I quickly grew to love the album.

Unlike his contemporary legends, Berry, Jerry Lee, Buddy, Elvis and Little Richard, Bo Diddley's songs weren't that well known. Sure, if you were a hard core rock fan, but he never had one big signature hit.

He was known for a sound. The Bo Diddley beat is simply one of the most effective rock rhythms ever, and yet it was only part of his sound.

First and foremost, Bo Diddley was a incredible guitar player. Like Les Paul did as a teen, Bo made his first electric guitar. He was clearly interested in the sounds you could get out of a six string. Case in point, two of my favorite songs off of Have Guitar, "Mumblin' Guitar" and "Run Diddley Daddy".

The former song is a spectacular instrumental. Bo starts of by playing an angular distorted lead that cuts across the rhythm of the drums and Jerome Green's maracas. Throughout the song he deviates, seemingly playing every part of the guitar. At no point is the soloing melodic. It's all variations on the main rhythm. It's so inventive.

Then there's the breathless "Run Diddley Daddy". The song has more distorted guitar, and in the breaks after the chorus he furiously strums out chords in a dissonant fashion. He even finds time to throw in a speedy guitar solo. Technically, I'm sure purists of the time cringed. But the feel of this was so right.

Because Bo clearly didn't give a shit what other people thought. He was trying new sounds, coming up with bizarre lyrics (really, think of how "Who Do You Love" sounded when it was released -- that was as punk as you could get back then), and writing in any style he felt like. Whether it was the beautiful ballad "Mona" or the gospel inflected rock of "She's Alright" or the talking blues story of "Cops And Robbers", Bo could do it all. And those are just songs from one album.

His influence on the guitar sounds of the British Invasion is pervasive. He was also a powerhouse performer. And, if you've ever read any interviews with him, totally nuts.

I was fortunate to see him once at the Chicago Blues Fest. That night, Mr. Diddley decided to go with the flow and turned in a traditional electrified blues set. At one level I was disappointed, as I would have loved to hear all of the hits, but it sounded great and he was totally committed to what he played.

Bo Diddley was an original, even stacked against his larger than life contemporaries. While at one level, his recordings are dated, the spark of true originality makes them exciting to this day.