Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Alejandro Escovedo -- Real Animal (2008)

Alejandro Escovedo -- Real Animal (Back Porch/Manhattan)

This album has flown a bit under the radar after Escovedo’s last effort, The Boxing Mirror. That album was Escovedo’s first since he nearly died from a fatal bout of hepatitis. Getting together with producer John Cale of the Velvet Underground worked wonders, and Escovedo showed he was back and as good as ever.

Escovedo hooks up with another legendary producer for this effort. This time it’s David Bowie’s former right hand man, Tony Visconti. This combination works even better than Cale and Escovedo did.

Both Cale and Visconti are skillful string arrangers, and Escovedo has dabbled with strings for years. If anything, Visconti probably aces Cale in that department. The arrangements on this album are fantastic (and Visconti shares credit with violinist Susan Voelz and cellist Brian Standefer).

Not that this is all about arrangements. Escovedo’s songwriting is seemingly at its peak. His mix of blues, country and rock and roll, and the many influences that span those genres, is wholly his own. The music is inviting and he backs it up with smart lyrics, some big hooks, and his passionate plaintive vocals.

Even better, Escovedo has a lot to say. This album is warm, human and empathetic. His past plays a part in two tracks on the album. The words of his former Rank And File bandmates Chip and Tony Kinman spur “Chip ‘n’ Tony”. The song is rather impressionistic, with Escovedo talking about feeling like Juan Marichal and ruing the election of Ronald Reagan, with the repeated refrain of “Chip and Tony said it was against the law” weaving in and out of this clattering rocker.

“Nuns Song” is much more straightforward, as Alejandro chronicles life in the venerated Bay Area punk band the Nuns. This is a mid-tempo burner, a talking folk blues with bite and some cool string accompaniment. There are so many good lines in this song, like these which start it off: “We don’t want your approval/it’s 1978/we know we’re not in tune/we know we’ll never be great.” This song has a hard edge like Garland Jeffreys’ “Wild in the Streets”, and as good as it sounds here, it should be a real corker live.

The album strikes the right balance between the rocking material and more melodic fair. “Sister Lost Soul” is full of strumming and a little jangle and Escovedo reflects on estrangement. It’s not necessarily romantic -- this could be about a friend or a sibling. But he really keys in on the emptiness that can come from a rift. This is a very mature song.

On “Golden Bear”, a little bit of Bowie influence creeps in, in the form of a ghostly keyboard part that has a hint of “Ashes to Ashes”. The song itself is a pretty typical Escovedo number and the little touches, like the keyboard part and the ensemble vocals on the chorus (again, sounding a bit like apparitions), might have come from Visconti. Regardless, those touches make this a bit more special.

For all of the great tunes on the album, the best two are probably the first two. Track number two is “Chelsea Hotel ‘78", which features biting twangy guitars and a fuzzy bass, with Escovedo telling another story of how tough things were 30 years ago. The strings weave in and out of the smoky rock backing. And the use of backing vocals is very creative, as the backing singers sing the opposite of what Escovedo is singing in the chorus. When he sings “it makes no sense” they sing “it makes perfect sense”, and vice versa. Trust me on this -- it’s really cool.

The album opener, “Always a Friend”, is just so damned happy. This song is about taking the good with the bad in a relationship and the melody is bright and big and the performances convey a sense of joy, tempered with wisdom. This is a song designed for anniversary celebrations: “Wherever I go/you go with me/but if I do wrong/take the master suite/I’ll take the floor/sleep in late, get your rest/I’ll catch up on mine.”

It’s interesting that some of these songs focus on happenings in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, because the virtues of this album are pretty timeless. In other words, this album almost sounds like it could have come from that time period. But, of course, Escovedo was younger and not nearly so wise. The passion that has stamped his music since those early days still remains. It’s now part of a complete artistic package.

Kylie Auldist -- Just Say (2008)

Kylie Auldist -- Just Say (Tru Thoughts)

The success of Amy Winehouse and Duffy, and to a lesser extent, Adele, has shown that there is still a market for classic soul singing. It’s nice to know that a classic sound remains contemporary.

Auldist is an Australian soul singer, who works with one heck of a backing band, The Bamboos. She simply has a strong voice and doesn’t feel the need to show off. She co-writes her material with Bamboos guitarist Lance Ferguson, and acquits herself well.

But the song that convinced me that she is a real talent is a cover. Auldist takes on Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You”. The arrangement is terrific, building on the R & B foundation of Buckley’s original, adding horns and other appropriate touches. Auldist gives one hell of a performance, and, dare I say it, I think I prefer it to Buckley’s. While I wouldn’t put her interpretive abilities up there with Bettye Lavette’s, she really puts herself into this tune. Her phrasing is creative and she really tears into key phrases like “I’m only here for this moment.” She exudes the confidence that the lyrics demand.

This song is the centerpiece of the record, which spans various moods. The title cut, which is also the single, is pure Motown style joy. Here, Auldist is the big sister, telling a friend that if she isn’t getting the attention she deserves, then break it off. Everything is in place on this song, from Ella Thompson’s sympathetic backing vocals, to the string section, and Ferguson’s extra contribution on glockenspiel. This is motivating music!

As friendly as she can be, don’t piss Auldist off. “Cut You Loose” is a kiss off anthem, where Auldist cuts loose a bit more than normal vocally. But how can she hold back, with music that harkens back to the funk shuffles of James Brown in the ‘60s. And her attitude evokes the free spirit of Aretha Franklin (Auldist’s voice isn’t as good -- who’s is? -- but she sounds great). This track is also a great example of how tight The Bamboos are. A much lesser vocalist would sound alright with these guys backing him or her.

Kylie has her needs too, and she makes that clear on the New Orleans funk of “Gotsta Get Me Some”. She sounds really sexy on this track, as the rougher edges of her voice come to the fore. She pulls out all of the stops, whether racing through the internal rhymes, or breaking into her higher range for a sensual sigh. A tip of the cap to drummer Daniel Farrugia, who really nails the groove and swings.

This is one heck of an entertaining record. While Auldist is not the lyricist that Amy Winehouse is, her songs work. And while I like Duffy, I think Auldist is a better singer and with this band, it’s hard to go wrong. So who’s going to start the marketing campaign for her?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive (2008)

The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive (Vagrant)

This could have just as well been titled Test Positive, knowing The Hold Steady’s penchant for singing songs about people who live to get high and drunk. Indeed, the opening song, “Construction Summer” is a rousing anthem. Craig Finn proudly states how he and his buddies are going to “build something this summer.” Build what? A home for Habitat for Humanity? A space rocket? Nope -- a ladder so they can get drunk on the town water tower.

Finn explores the world of fuck ups and the fucked up with wit and empathy. I don’t know how much time he’s spent with these folks, but he clearly finds them fascinating. Once in a while there’s a bit of “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect to these songs.

The music sounds like what some of these barflies and stoners would listen to. Springsteen again dominates the recognized influences, and Thin Lizzy is still there, along with any ‘70s band that mastered the big dumb riff, from Bachman Turner Overdrive to Cheap Trick. In fact, the opening bit of “Construction Summer” is an homage to the Trick’s “Hello There”. Very cool.

Meanwhile, the literary quality of Finn’s lyrics, which came to the fore on Separation Sunday (the band’s second album -- this is the fourth), which I didn’t think developed on the good but not great Boys And Girls In America, seems to have gone up a notch on some of these songs.

As a result, The Hold Steady now gets accused of being pretentious. Finn does have pretensions, but he earns them. Part of the way he does that is writing simple fun story songs like the single, “Sequestered in Memphis”. It’s a singalong song about that classic topic - being interviewed in a murder case. In the verses, Finn details what he did with the victim, to the apparent skepticism of Johnny Law, as each verse ends with “I’ll tell the story again.” Finn’s hangdog speak-singing makes this poor bastard seem sympathetic, but as Finn intones over and over at the end of the song, “I went there on business,” I wonder if the cops found their man.

Death and biblical references snake their way through some of the songs. Others just focus on those who’ve gotten a raw deal.

In “Navy Sheets”, Finn takes a step or two in James Ellroy territory, detailing a lurid accident scene where “we’re trying to match the mouths to the screams.” The song is built on a typical razor sharp guitar riff from Tad Kubler, with Franz Nicolay adding some odd prog rock synth color. This is high drama hard rock, with Finn shifting from omniscent perspective to first person, with one of the victims of this crash thinking “We’re either dead or really tired.”

Meanwhile, “Both Crosses” (with guest banjo by J. Mascis!) plays like a slow track from Bob Seger’s salad days (think “Sunburst”). Here, Finn sings of a girl who has visions of the crucifixion. Or is it a murder? As the song goes on, the answer becomes obvious. This is a track that shows how The Hold Steady is adding dimensions to its sound, as the tune is grounded in atmosphere and narrative, rather than a big hook.

Another good slow number is “One for the Cutters” about a gal who makes a lot of bad choices. Nicolay mixes in some high falutin’ piano parts with a faux harpsichord. In this song, the woman at the center of the song parties with some townies, and ends up hooking up with a guy in a heap of trouble: “He didn’t seem that different/except for the blood on his jacket.” Again, things only get worse from there. She may be more than a witness in this case.

Don’t worry that this is getting too sophisticated. There are plenty of fine rockers, like the rousing title cut and the Cassavettes referencing “Slapped Actress”, and fun lyrics like the Led Zeppelin title laced “Joke About Jamaica”. This band has managed the difficult trick of adding more polish and adding more grit at the same time. It sounds as good if not better than anything The Hold Steady has done to date.

Julie Ocean -- Long Gone And Nearly There (2008)

Julie Ocean -- Long Gone And Nearly There (Transit Of Venus)

There are four perfect songs on this record. Well, near perfect, at least. No duds either. But this is only a good, not great album, at least in my view. And I, of course, shall explain what I mean.

Julie Ocean is led by Velocity Girl’s Jim Spellman. The music is crisp and clean power pop, with a gigantic sound. So I suppose it’s Power Pop. It really rocks, in the sunshineiest way possible. Reference points? If you were a Velocity Girl fan, the song “Audrey’s Eyes” is a template, but with a bigger guitar sound. Other bands that come to mind: Lolas, Bram Tchiakovsky, The Records, and Teenage Fanclub.

In the tradition of classic power pop tunes like the aforementioned Bram Tchiakovsky’s “Girl of My Dreams”, “#1 Song” has an instantly memorably guitar part and a monolithic melody. The conceit of the song is wonderful -- comparing the throes of love in the early stages to a song. The ambition is to turn the love into a number one song, but, of course, “it won’t be for long.” Maybe the relationship is ephemeral, but I can hit the repeat button as often as I like to cue up this 3:34 slice of nirvana as often as I like.

Two other songs are shorter and sharper shots. Album closer “Looking at Me/Looking at You” mixes a Buzzcocks/Undertones fast tempo with the splendor of Teenage Fanclub and Silver Sun. Again, the band mixes giddy happy chords with a tinge of sadness, which makes the happy parts all the more significant. Also, Spellman does something he did a lot in Velocity Girl -- constantly playing leads throughout the song.

The opener, “Ten Lonely Words”, is mid-tempo and has a sing-song melody. It wastes no time in getting to the hook, but getting there is pretty fun. The middle eight is concise and leads to a great harmony vocal interlude.

As great as these songs are, they have a lot of nice but lesser cousins strewn throughout the disc. This is the only drawback to the album. While it’s nice to have a defined sonic template, the numbers on the middle of the disc blur together a bit. This is exacerbated by the lead vocals which are pleasant, but not infused with a whole lot of personality.

The one song that breaks this mold is the other stand out. “Here Comes Danny” clocks in at a bit over 5 minutes (!) and as much as I like hearing a chorus right away, taking one’s time isn’t always a bad approach. This disc could stand more breathers like this, particularly with a killer chorus. Next to “# 1 Song”, this is the most instantly memorable song on the collection.

The whole thing takes 25:09 to get through and very few albums this year will have four songs as good as the ones I discussed here. If Julie Ocean can find a way to mix up its material as well as The Undertones, who provided the band’s name (a song from the ‘tones’ Positive Touch album), it will go from being a band who has some great singles (well, in the past they would have been) to a great album band.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Diplomats Of Solid Sound -- Featuring The Diplomettes (2008)

The Diplomats Of Solid Sound -- Featuring The Diplomettes (Pravda)

The Iowa City R & B revivalists are no longer a crack instrumental outfit. They now have added vocals, and let me tell you, the five Diplomats found three great Diplomettes. Sarah Cram, Katharine Ruestow and Abbie Sawyer are more than solid, and certainly soulful.

The album opens with “Plenty Nasty”, a wonderful instrumental showcase for saxophonists David Basinger (baritone) and Eddie McKinley (tenor). While drummer Jim Viner lays down a fat beat, and Nate “Count” Basinger’s Hammond B3 Organ provides the funk, Basinger and McKinely simply swing.

Having shown what they can do as instrumentalists, the rest of the album is earthy and swinging (I gotta keep saying it) R & B music. “Come in My Kitchen” has a tough lead vocal and the backing of the other Diplomettes is sassy. There is a light dose of funk on this song, with the guitar figures from Doug Roberson sounding like they came from a Sly and the Family Stone record.

A lighter touch is required for the cover of Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y”. I’d be concerned if the Diplomats and ‘mettes didn’t knock this out of the park. Not to worry. This version has yet another strong Diplomette vocal and Viner showing a lighter touch that allows the melody to flourish without dulling the momentum of the tune.

The choral vocal skills of the Diplomettes get showcased on “Smokey Places”. This is pure Ikettes territory, except even sexier. The bass part is played on the organ (as there is no bass player), while Roberson chicken scratches and Viner fills the space with subtle percussion. The heart of this song is the ensemble vocals, the gals get a prime opportunity to strut their stuff, and strut they do.

My favorite song has a jazzy undercurrent that makes this sound like a more retro Brand New Heavies side. Cool is the best description of “Hurt Me So”, a pulsing mid-tempo number. This is so smooth. A remix of the song is the last track on the disc, and it adds a ska rhythm to the proceedings. I usually find remixes to be pointless, but the reggae vibe adds an extra dimension to this already wonderful track. Adding more Jamaica and other outside influences to this band’s arsenal would be great, as the Diplomats can groove in an R & B style so effortlessly.

In the meantime, I hope the Diplomats and Diplomettes stick together. They make a great team.

Superdrag -- Changin' Tires On The Road To Ruin (Previously unpublished 2007 review)

Superdrag -- Changin’ Tires On The Road To Ruin (Arena Rock)

This is an odd and sods album from the pride of Knoxville, Tennessee, who recently reunited for a concert tour. John Davis and the crew stood out because they found a way to uphold power pop standards (i.e., evoking The Beatles, Big Star, The Raspberries, Cheap Trick, et al.) while having a contemporary rock sound.

Much like Cheap Trick, Superdrag was at its best when it balanced its pop instincts with a darker vibe, best spotlighted on its watershed second album, Headtrip In Every Key. After that album, the band’s subsequent releases were solid, but perhaps a bit too consistent.

This collection could almost be passed off as the band’s fifth album, but for the variance in sound quality on the different tracks. So while this isn’t a great record, there are a number of top shelf tunes, making this the rare demos/outtakes collections that stands up very favorably to the band’s other work. You get a little bit of everything here.

“She Says” is sugar sweet pop, tinged with sadder emotions. “The Rest of the World” is a heartwrenching slow number, with a distinctive lead guitar figure and the great line: “I was cursing my heart for being broken.” There’s lush pop on the languid “Doctors Are Dead”, which has a melody that is distinctively Superdrag.

There are rockers too. From In The Valley Of The Dying Stars, the demo for “Keep It Close to Me” is pretty close to the original. Davis knew what he was doing from the get go. From the same album, there are swell live versions of “Lighting the Way” and “True Believer”. It’s too bad the band couldn’t have added a couple of live tracks from their earlier albums, but that’s about the only complaint I have with the disc.

Star -- Devastator (Previously unpublished 2007 review)

Star -- Devastator (Lovely Rebel)

This is fuzzy shoegazing music in the vein of The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. Star leans more towards the Chain, as the song structures are 100 percent pop, awash in swirling distorted guitars.

What makes the band striking is the lead vocalist, Shannon Roberts. She usually sings in her mid-range, but she can get way up there, evidenced on “Acting So Tough”. Her wailing voice and the dirty guitars make for a major textural contrast that is very enticing.

Star learned a big lesson from its predecessors -- while the texture is important, you still have to have the songs. Thus, strong melodies abound.

One prime example is on “Exploding Order”, which may have more in common with The Primitives then the shoegazers, but for one droning guitar part. A syncopated drumbeat pushes the swaying “No More Party” along -- the band throws a bit of glam into the reverb and ghostly, pretty vocals.

Roberts’s vocals not only contrast the music, but often are at odds with the bizarre insinuations of violence and doom she sings about, best exemplified on the track “Various Gun Designs”. In a couple of other spots, the band just wallows in the muck, and seems to enjoy it. I enjoy it too.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pitchfork Festival, July 20, 2008

I made it for only half of the day, but I managed to come right on time for King Khan and The Shrines. I had only heard of the King by reputation, and boy, did he earn it on stage. Decked out in a cape and a glittery turban-esque piece of headgear, he and his band (complete with horn section) dove headfirst into some gutbucket garage R & B,

Khan is a shouter, who at times reminds me of Peter Zaremba of The Fleshtones. In fact, the 'tones are a good comparision overall, as they, like Khan and his mates, can go from primitive rock to fairly bouncy R & B, with a bit of swing. Khan parodies soul moves, but in a way only someone who loves them can. And his between song patter was bizarre and funny.

The highlight? Maybe it was the self-described gospel song which ends up with Khan going down on his woman, and then getting his arms inside her...then his legs...but he takes off his shoes first because "I'm Indian, and that's what we do." Khan is boatloads of fun and a more-than-credible garage rocker. Great stuff.

I've somehow never listened to M. Ward. His sandpapery voice, which has a bit of both Dylan and Joe Strummer is very appealing. The music draws from rustic country and modern folk rock, with some plain old rock and roll somewhere in the mix too. One song propelled on one of those freight train rhythms that always grabs me. I can't say he was great, but it was a good set, and I need to investigate his recorded work.

Due to overlap, I could only catch the first 10 minutes or so of Spiritualized, but the band's powerful brand of psychedelia and blues, turbocharged, sounded fantastic. Matt Berlyant of the Big Takeover's website (check out my links) gave it a thumbs up, so I'm sure the rest was just as good.

I had to ditch Spiritualized for Bon Iver. Justin Vernon has found a way to flesh out some of the songs on the brilliant debut album without diminishing their intimacy or power. His band is drums, bass and guitar, and the drummer was exceptional, really adding drive where necessary and holding back otherwise. The drummer also did a swell lead vocal on a cover of Talk Talk's "I Believe in You".

In fact, the other three all sang, recreating the multi-tracked vocals of Vernon on the album. Vernon dropped in register in a couple of places (while his falsetto was swell) and showed that he can sing well in a lower range. I have a review up of the Bon Iver album and wish it could do justice to the album. I don't know if I'm doing much better in describing the live experience.

Came back from Bon Iver to find Dinosaur Jr. in the midst of a long jam, with two lengthy solos by J. Mascis. The band sounded great and evoked Neil Young and Crazy Horse as successfully as anyone could. A version of "Freak Scene" hit the spot. A good half a set, even if half of that half was the jam.

I left during Spoon. Britt Daniel, Jim Eno and Co. were crisp and sleek. But they opened with "Small Stakes" and another song (knew the song, can't recall the title) which beat a nagging chord pattern into the ground.

From there, Spoon went into its more recent R & B laced material. The tension between Spoon's Cars-like detachment and the fluid soul grooves should work better for me than they do. But it's all so "clincal" (to quote Mr. Berlyant) that I was simply left cold. So I left.

The only other thing I can say about the festival is that it was better run then last year, as food lines weren't as bad and the extra porta-potties were a help. And the relocated third stage was much better situated, making for a much better experience (it's where King Khan and Bon Iver played). The fest was truly a bargain.

Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago (2007/2008 reissue)

Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

Acoustic log cabin indie soul. I think that might be the best approximation of this highly acclaimed album by Justin Vernon. Vernon has received a lot of publicity for how he recorded this disc. He recorded the album in upstate Wisconsin, conjuring up visions of Ed Gein. However, unlike Ed Gein, who did not like to hunt animals, at least non-human ones, Vernon used his father’s hunting cabin as a studio. Vernon even lived off the land, a la Ted Nugent.

This setting did not spur Vernon to record songs about killing people, boiling their entrails and eating them, and using their skin to make costumes and furniture. Nor did hunting inspire Vernon to record proto-heavy metal rock songs about buffalos and poontang.

Instead, Vernon used his time in isolation to wallow and brood, which is about fuck all that you can do in northern Wisconsin during the winter. Vernon was a veteran of a band or two or three back in North Carolina and knows a thing or two about songwriting. His solitude got him a’thinking. And he started writing extremely expressionistic songs about the woman who dumped him and being dumped.

Expressionistic is the key. At times, these lyrics make as much sense as the early ramblings of Mr. Michael Stipe. Some of them actually look a little silly, in spare sets of two or three lines of typeface set forth on the CD booklet. They manage to make a lot more sense when Vernon sings them in his tender falsetto, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. Not to convey meaning, of course, but to convey feeling.

Perhaps the only misstep that Vernon made on this album was to not record some of these songs with a fire going in the background. Not that these are campfire singalongs. But crackling coming from the hearth would only heighten the intimacy of these recordings. Maybe he thought that would be a tad too obvious.

The pain of rejection radiates throughout, though not all of it is mournful. At times, it’s harrowing, as on “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, which has Vernon creating some skillful harmonies that give the song an old time feel in a manner similar to Fleet Foxes, though the approach is different. The song turns into a somber folk-blues kiss off, Vernon starting of the song by tell his ex that “someday my pain will mark you”

The bitterness is more hidden by the poppiest music on the album on “For Emma”. Reverberating slide guitar lines and horns give this acoustic strum a full sound, the guitar evoking a twinge of sadness, the horns a vaguely hopeful majesty. The song is an imagined dialogue, with a man and woman not connecting on any level. The woman says, “Go find another lover; to bring string along!” and the man replies, “with all your lies, you’re still loveable.” Ouch. On this song, Vernon creates a mood that is akin to Midlake, though the sound is not as polished or stately.

Other songs just evince confusion and bewilderment (the title “Blindsided” makes it pretty obvious), while Vernon displays the ability to create indelible melodies that don’t leap out immediately because of the intimacy of the recording. And those melodies sometimes have a classic feel -- on “Skinny Love” there are bits that remind me of Adrian Belew’s solo work, and there are other spots where the beauty of Lindsey Buckingham is evident. Another decent comparison might be a more rustic version of Doleful Lions.

The album ends on a real high note with the contemplative “Re: Stacks”, which has an utterly winning chorus. It will be interesting to see if Vernon can follow up an album that came from such a specific place, both geographically and emotionally. He clearly has talent, and we’ll see if the inspiration will be as high.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pitchfork Festival, July 18 and 19, 2008

There have been changes to this fourth installment of the Pitchfork Music Festival. More food stands! More Porta-a-Potties! The Balance Stage, for somewhat lesser known acts (but a few are pretty known), has been moved, for safety reasons.

But the most important change was that the organizers upgraded the sound system, after being plagued with problems last year. This was evident when the first band, Mission Of Burma, took the stage on Friday night.

Mission Of Burma has to be loud. And man, were they ever on Friday night! The sound system was clearly upgraded.

The band played the entirety of its sole pre-reunion album Vs. (plus a few other songs at the top of the set -- it's a short album!). I'm a big fan of Burma, but I'm not an expert on the band's back catalog. In college, I played "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" and "Academy Fight Song", and I used to see Roger Miller solo back in day, and he'd do an old Burma tune or two (such as "This Is Not A Photograph"). I know Burma's albums in retrospect, unlike the band's two post-reunion albums, which I could live with from day one, and which I really dig.

The point I'm making is that I came into this set loving the band but not having memorized the material. The big highlight for me was "Einstein's Day", a song that Tommy Keene did a great cover of on his Isolation Party album. But there were no lowlights. Ever since Miller, Peter Prescott and Clint Conley have comeback, they sound great.

Prescott is such the anchor with a controlled fury to his drumming. Conley plays with a lot of melody, yet still manages to sound heavy. And Miller is one of my all-time favorite guitarists. He isn't a master of technique, but he gets sounds and noises and emotions and ideas out of his six string.

I just love hearing them play together. While I may not know Vs. by heart, but I know great post-punk music when I hear it, and the Burma was great.

I didn't pay much attention to Sebadoh, and the music from Bubble And Scrape didn't give me much reason to. It just doesn't do anything for me.

The main event was Public Enemy. Hank and Keith Shocklee, the amazing production team know as The Bomb Squad, did a DJ set that had some of the deepest bass I've ever heard. Or felt. My chest was reverberating from the deep bass sounds.

Eventually, the DJ came out (Terminator X is retired; now it's DJ Loud), a band played along, a ragtag group of S1Ws took the stage, and then the audience was treated to the hip-hop classic It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. As PE kicked into "Bring the Noise", it was so great, Chuck D.'s booming voice negotiating his percussive rhymes. But Flavor Flav was sampled -- what the fuck was going on?

It turns out that he was late. The reality TV star apologized and then they kicked into "Don't Believe the Hype" and all was well. Flav isn't the constant crazy dancer that he used to be, but he's still crazy. Chuck D. is still commanding, and the beats and grooves still sound fresh and demanded dancing.

Chuck D. noted how doing a full album is not Public Enemy's style, especially since some of the songs had never been performed live before. I couldn't tell you which ones, as everything sounded, for the most part, really good. Combined with the energy of everyone on stage (even Chuck, who moved around a bit) and a crowd that was totally into it, this was about as good a hip-hip set as I have ever seen, even if the S1W's weren't as good as back in the day.

It's just amazing how many great songs there are on Millions, from "She Watch Channel Zero" to "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" to the fantastic "Rebel Without a Pause" and more. I would have been pleased with just that.

But PE played a handful of other songs from throughout the group's career, including "Public Enemy Number One" and "Fight the Power" (a great set closer). In spots, the band was a help, especially the extra kick of real drums. I think Flav, despite words to the contrary, did some lip syncing, but Chuck D. was simply on. And from their banter to the way they moved around on stage, you could tell the two principles were having a blast. A great night.

Saturday, there was some rain to deal with. But I saw some more great stuff. Jay Reatard was a fury. He leads a true power trio, playing with total abandon. This was garage rock as old school metal, in some respects. The Cramps, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Didjits and other fury mongers came to mind. More than a dozen songs in 30 minutes. I don't know if it could have gone any longer.

Fleet Foxes showed that the harmonies on the band's debut album were not studio sweetened. The band opened with a capella harmonies that dazzled. From there, the band played a good portion of the debut album. I was impressed by how well everything was pulled off. Not much deviation from the album. But hearing the songs live and breathe was wonderful. I also detected something I hadn't thought while listening to the album -- some of the songs have the sophistication of Judee Sill in the melodies.

The band also had a nice low key stage demeanor, bantering with fans up front. I especially liked it when they considered themselves on one of the large video screens on the grounds.

!!! didn't impress me the first two songs of the band's set. The third song, however, had the just the right rock-funk groove. Everyone locked in and I was hooked. I loved the interplay between the bass and the drummer (or at times, drummers) and how the dorky lead singer, in the too short shorts, was somehow a dipwad and cool at the same time, and how a couple songs went about seven or eight minutes and were too short. It was the right set at the right time.

The Hold Steady then took the stage. Craig Finn and company played the first fest. Now, about three times as many people were watching. The set was tight and confident, with great lead guitar work throughout. The Hold Steady are simply a terrific rock and roll band, and the renditions of songs off the new Stay Positive album showed that it stands up as well as any in its catalog. Can't go wrong with Thin Lizzy homages, right?

My night concluded with a set from Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. He's still tall and skinny, with lots of odd stage moves. He played some of the best songs off of his first solo album (such as "Fat Children" and "Black Magic") with some non-LP material. One song was a bit of a blues number, while others had the usual bits of glam or dramatic '60s-styled pop. A couple songs didn't quite work, but overall, he was very compelling.

Two days down -- one to go.

Fred Prellberg -- Ten Pennies Make A Dime (2008)

Fred Prellberg -- Ten Pennies Make A Dime (Denmark Street)

This Chicago singer-songwriter is back and working with producer Ellis Clark, of the psych-pop band Epicycle. This proves to be, yet again, a winning combination.

Prellberg’s bread-and-butter is wry and smart observational songs. He has a folkie, friendly voice. Working with a creative and sympathetic producer, he makes albums that are a lot more musically diverse than many of his contemporaries.

He is certainly lyrically diverse. Early on, he reels off “Mari Tamed the Mountain Lion”. This song is happy and jangly, and if the lyrics weren’t a bit adult, you’d almost think that it was a children’s song. After telling the story behind the title in the first verse, Prellberg looks at the routine and spectacular things we do. I think the point is that we all do what we have to do, and sometimes that involves rising to the occasion.

This is contrasted by the witty and cynical “Lie”, which will never make any children’s album. This is an edgy folk rocker about a bad kid who gets a piece of advice from his dad that carries him through life: “Lie/say what you must to get by/don’t think about it/just lie/I know you can if you try.” Yes, it’s funny, but it’s firmly grounded in human nature. With a swell soaring melody in the chorus too.

Then there’s the outright comedy of “Real Real Wild”. This is a boppin’ blues number where Fred sings about what happens when he drinks gin. This track has the good time cheer of artists like NRBQ and The Morells.

Prellberg also shows an affinity for sweeping roots rock songs. “The Hands of God” has a meaty guitar, an insistent organ part and a sad harmonica part -- the perfect setting for Fred’s storytelling abilities. It’s a good dramatic number with a solid hook. He comes up with a low key anthem on “A Sense Of Home”, which has the type of guitar chords that have served The Byrds, Tom Petty, and others so well. It’s a classic song structure and sound and Prellberg does well by it.

But the best track is the first track. “No Man’s Land” is a smoker. This song stomps with nearly the fury of the best of rockers by Neil Young and Steve Wynn. The song starts with Prellberg talking to the devil and then a preacher and discovering that he’s pretty darned well damned. This is a story of redemption with sharp lyrics and great guitar work throughout. This may open the disc but it sounds like a set closer to me.

Fred Prellberg has really found where he needs to be musically. This is a good mix of folk and roots rock, with a great attention to detail.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Supergrass -- Diamond Hoo Ha (2008)

Supergrass -- Diamond Hoo Ha (Astralwerks)

After two spins of this album, I was concerned that Supergrass had become obsolete. This album, the band’s sixth, was certainly peppy, and certainly Supergrass. Yet it was making no impression on me.

At least the last album, Road To Rouen, got my attention. It was a laudable but failed attempt to move in a more contemplative direction, something that had been hinted on all the way back on the band’s In It For The Money album. Unfortunately, the music was a bit too ponderous and Gaz Coombes’s lyrics just aren’t as well suited to deeper tuneage.

Since Supergrass will always have a place in my heart, I gave this album more of a chance, and I’m glad I did. This album sounds like the more logical follow up to Life On Other Planets. This is Supergrass back to doing what it does best -- to-the-point pop songs that have happy surfaces which are tempered by Gaz’s ability to come up with melancholy counterpoint melodies.

It doesn’t hurt that the band nails a song that Slade would have been proud to come up with back in the day. "When I Needed You" is a great mid-tempo number in the tradition of Slade toonz like "Far Far Away" and "Cos I Love You". This is a song of regret and longing, with a melody that fits the bill. What makes this stand out, beyond the pull of the music, is the contrast between the verses, which ponder how we deal with problems, and the chorus: "in the back of a stolen car/doing 80 with the headlights off/that’s when I needed you." It sounds like someone is in big trouble.

So the appearance of introspection is really just part of a larger story. Ever since "Caught By the Fuzz", a lot of the best Supergrass music involves stories and larger themes, not looking inward. This is exemplified by the title cut, which starts out with a Deep Purple-esque blues rawk guitar line that Jack White hadn’t gotten around to recording, and tells the tale of a con man: "all I got/is all I need/but what I really want/is in my dreams." This is one of the most convincing pure rock songs Supergrass has ever done.

Most of the album is breezier. "Rebel In You" has a bouncy mix of jangling guitars, a bit of an R & B rhythm in the verses, and a typical monster hook in the chorus. Even more creative is "The Return of...", which has little low end, dominated by jaunty lead guitar fills from Gaz and keyboard support from Danny Coombes. This song has such an unusual arrangement, and its catchiness obscures that at first. Nick Launay’s production is particularly wonderful on this track, as he gets the right place in the mix for every instrument, making the spare instrumentation sound just full enough.

Launay also makes the horns sound great, whether it’s the solo on "The Return of...", or the more unconventional use of horns, which lurch throughout the pumping "Whiskey & Green Tea". But any producer would be able to make the closer "Butterfly" sound grand. It’s a stirring track with a melody that is both inspiring and heart-tugging at the same time, and a cracking good closer.

One thing that Supergrass has accomplished is that the band not only has a very distinctive compositional style, with sublime melodic dips and rises that are immediately identifiable, but the band’s influences have been so well absorbed, that I can find so many reference points, but more by era rather than artist.

I can hear ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s sounds, without any obvious nicking of bits. Everything from The Beatles to Bowie to The La’s, and so much in between, is encapsulated here. Which is why I keep coming back to there guys.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Githead -- Art Pop (Previously Unpublished 2007 Review)

Githead -- Art Pop (Swim)

The second Githead album finds the band adhering to recent Federal Trade Commission Truth-in-Album-Titling guidelines. It also makes it more clear that Githead makes a fine clearing house for Colin Newman’s surplus tunes. That is, tunes that could have made it onto a Wire album, but hadn’t, for whatever reasons. This isn’t to slight the contributions of Newman’s fellow Githeaders, Max Franken and Malka (Colin’s wife) Spigel of Minimal Compact and Robin Rimbaud as the Beaver. But the best songs here are on par with tunes from the ‘80s and 21st century editions of Newman’s off-and-on main gig.

The album gets off to a great start with “On Your Own”. It’s has a lilting melody with a steady rhythm, in the vein of Wire tunes like “Eardrum Buzz” and “Ahead”. This is the gentle, sensitive Newman. Well, maybe not sensitive: “what gives me indigestion/is your suggestions/of misdirection.” So he’s angry, yet he sounds calm while offering Devoto-esque put downs, with the chorus: “Could you make it on your own?/I don’t believe you’re barely able” registering as the final word.

As grooving and sleek as that was, the band moves more towards the most recent Wire sound on “Drive By”. Here, the bass is popping, the guitars serrated and edgy, and Newman sings like he really has indigestion. He’s in maximum harangue mode, spitting out the words, not letting one syllable escape his lips without a coating of venom. For the fury on the surface, the rhythm section is deft and swinging, keeping the stridency from actual sounding strident.

If you want to hear a hook out of the 154 playbook, skip on over to “All Set Up”. The song percolates along in a blend of Newman’s declamations and reliable tick-tock rhythm. This just sets up the chorus, which is highly reminiscent of “Outdoor Miner”. It’s very, very close, as a matter of fact. This is far from a bad thing. While I love Spoon, I find the constant Wire comparisons to be irksome, because Britt Daniel and Jim Eno have never managed one of these flowing, circular, can’t get it out of your head melodies. Maybe they should just ask Newman to come down to Austin.

Spigel sings on a couple of tracks that fit the Githead sensibility, yet they are definitely change of pace tracks. “Space Life” sounds like a retro look at the future, as the mid-tempo track is accompanied by echoing guitars and lots of keyboards swooshes fading in and out all over the mix, as if a ‘50s vision of space was dug up for this album. The track has a certain swarthy cool to it, and Spigel’s accented vocals add to the allure. She is at the center of the chilly acoustic “Lifeloops”, which has her singing over a repetitive acoustic guitar figure. Even in this slow down mode, the application of a choppy rhythm to a melody is there -- Newman invented it and his missus does it well too.

The biggest difference between Newman pop with Githead and Newman pop with Wire is that there’s a bit more warmth here. Whereas Wire songs are often infused with drama and mystery, here, the melodies are just as likely to convey far nicer feelings and emotions. If you don’t believe me, take a listen to “These Days”. It’s a song you might be able to take home to mother. Yet it still has a signature sound that won’t hurt the ‘head’s indie cred.

This album is, I hope, a portent of more Githead projects. The band has a great frontman and sounds great as a unit. This isn’t just a cheap Wire substitute.

Travis Morrison Hellfighters -- All Y'All (Previously unpublished 2007 review)

Travis Morrison Hellfighters -- All Y’All (Barsuk)

Some folks lambasted the first solo record from the former Dismemberment Plan front man. I thought a couple of songs were precious in spots, but that’s just something that Morrison risks with his up front style. Morrison’s combo of driving music, kind of an old school emo update of Talking Heads and The Police, among others, and his straightforward lyrics can sometimes lead to cutesy masquerading as deep. That’s fine with me, since Morrison’s musical structures really get me going, and it’s nice to hear someone who is as direct as he is.

The new album, with more of a band structure, finds that Morrison is back near the top of his game, with busy percussion and unexpected hooks all over the place. He starts off the album with a reassuring tune, “I’m Not Supposed to Like You (But)”, which sounds like a typical Dismemberment Plan track, and a few others songs fall in this bag. It’s a good beginning.

Things really get interesting with the slightly funkier edge on some tracks. “I Do” is a keyboard oriented track, as an electric piano and a synth or clavinet duke it out with some fluid lead guitar work. The song mixes funk rock chords with indie pop grandeur, giving equal time to both, the melody seamlessly flowing into the Steely Dan-gone-Stevie Wonder instrumental breaks.

“Catch Up” rides a bubbling, rolling rhythm, with Morrison stretching the melody to fit the odd foundation. The song turns on a dime into a rousing chorus, with classic funk rock (think “Get the Funk Outta My Face” or “I’ve Got My Mind Made Up”) backing vocals.

Morrison shows off his wit on “Hawkins’ Rock”: “Someday I’ll sell all my money/99 cents on the dollar/buy a black dog named Apollo/that we’ll rename Zeus.” Yes, it’s an odd start, but the song combines a lot of ensemble drive with another sweet melodic hook.

The album ends on a song that sums up a lot of what’s special about Morrison’s music. On “Saturday Night”, he imbues the social swirl with a lot of importance (“the coast is clear/for one more beer”), mixing keyboard oriented early-‘80s rock with more trad guitar stuff that soars and excites.

Morrison may no longer front The Plan, but he has a plan, and it’s a very good one.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dennis Wilson -- Pacific Ocean Blue (Deluxe Edition) (2008 reissue)

Dennis Wilson -- Pacific Ocean Blue (Deluxe Edition) (Epic/Caribou/Legacy)

The only solo release from the Beach Boys’ drummer had only briefly appeared on CD, and has been out of circulation for more than a decade. Its reputation has only grown in the interim.

I’m here to tell you that this album lives up to the hype. Dennis Wilson composed music that mixed earthy R & B with some stately piano melodies. You can certainly hear The Beach Boys in some of the harmonies and atmosphere surrounding these tracks. But Dennis had his own vision.

The deluxe version of this disc is well worth getting. It includes a whole disc of songs intended for a second album that never came to be, Bambu. Not everything on the second disc lives up to Blue, but there are some gems on there that confirm what a shame it was that Dennis Wilson and his messed up life prevented him from making more music.

The first four songs of Pacific Ocean Blue really encapsulate the breadth of his talents. The first track, “River Song”, combines great harmony vocals in a Beach Boys style with a gospel chorus, with a combination of a strong piano line and solid drumming propelling things. The song is about getting away from the congested city. The first two verses lead to a spectacular choral vocal interlude which builds and builds, finally receding to angelic female harmonies, while Wilson ruminates further. It’s a killer.

It’s followed by “What’s Wrong”, which is a silly, fun rock ‘n’ roll number. How fun? This song, tested under scientific conditions, narrowly edges out brother Brian’s giddy “Honking Down the Highway (from The Beach Boys’ Love You), as the silliest, funnest Beach Boys associated track of the ‘70s. The lyrics are pretty simplistic, but what good would complexity do on this song? The horns add so much to this track. Throughout the album, the horns are cleverly deployed.

This is followed by the lush “Moonshine”. This is a swooping majestic ballad, with Wilson lamenting a lost love. Here, the melody is basic and stately, and the harmonies are again superb. The song is romantic and fatalistic, with the line “you said you love me now in another way” cutting to the quick.

“Friday Night” starts off with a dramatic piano crescendo, something that could have come off The Who’s Quadrophenia. It sets a real tone, rising up and then fading out, as the song settles into a pointed mid-tempo piano piece with some R & B undertones. Wilson’s singing is very raw here, fitting the slightly bitter and angry tone of the lyrics.

The breadth is not just in the variety of things Wilson incorporated into his music. There are a lot of emotions at play here. Like Brian, although Dennis’ lyrics were very simple, both the music and the performance gave them substance. This gives the album even more pull, whether it’s the bopping “Pacific Ocean Blues” or the wistful “Time”, which is almost Sinatra-esque in capturing loneliness and longing, with an out-of-nowhere instrumental break which ups the energy and provides a needed release.

Once the main album is over, there are other delights to be had. The final bonus cut on the Pacific Ocean Blue disc is an instrumental called “Mexico”. It’s a haunting piano piece, where Wilson plays a few different simple, elegant piano lines. When the piano is doubled up by horn accompaniment, the piece takes on a whole new world of emotion. This song is so fucking beautiful.

Listening to the Bambu tracks, I’m struck by how, had Wilson been able to devote full attention to them, rather than (ahem) other pursuits, he might have equaled Pacific Ocean Blue. No, there aren’t as many top notch songs amongst these tracks, but there are some. With more focus on a cohesive collection, Wilson could have had another winner.

My favorite track is “Constant Companion”, which seems to be a mix of Wilson’s own style with the influence of Stevie Wonder and maybe even a little Steely Dan. This is a really creative ‘70s album rock type song, with great horn work. “School Girl” is a fine rock number that could have been a great Beach Boys track, with an aggressive vocal. On “Are You Real”, a self-indulgent streak rises up, with an instrumental break where the keyboards and drums suggest that Dennis had just seen Genesis in concert. Oh, I like it by the way. Meanwhile, “He’s a Bum” is nearly a dead ringer for Randy Newman.

And there are more of those superb ballads. But the best on Disc 2 is saved for last. And I’d never figure that a Foo Fighter would be involved. The instrumental track “Holy Man”, featured on the first disc, ends the second disc with lyrics and vocals from Taylor Hawkins of the Foos. I was skeptical, but this is one of Wilson’s most beautiful musical compositions, and Hawkins comes up with a credible set of lyrics and turns in a vocal performance that doesn’t ape Dennis, but isn’t far off from his vocal quality. It’s one last classic from a great performer who discovered his true talents too late in his short life.

The M's -- Real Close Ones (2008)

The M’s -- Real Close Ones (Polyvinyl)

Slow and steady wins the race. That adage may very well apply to this talented Chicago quartet. Over the course of an EP and three albums, The M’s have continued to sharpen its songwriting skills, giving the band’s music more resonance.

The band still stakes out a sound that is heavily inspired by the pastoral Kinks and T. Rex (two artists of a similar bent), occasionally showing off some rock and roll muscle, which is much more on display in the live setting. The production on the band’s records puts The M’s squarely in the indie rock bin, unlike the comparable, more poppy The 88.

A great example of this is soulful “Papers”. This integrates a typically glam kissed melody with an insinuating R & B groove. A supple bass line and slinky shuffle drums set the tone, with unusual keyboard sounds that counterpoint the sensual rhythm. The band pushes the limit with odd sounds here, knowing that this groove allows for everything from what sounds like a guitar solo run through a keyboard and bent out of shape to general fuzziness all over. This is akin to some of Beck’s work, but not remotely derivative of him.

Although this is a good album all the way through, the best songs are definitely the first three. “Big Sound” kicks things off in fine fashion, mixing the playful creativity of Lilys with the sturdy rock drive of Sloan, with a wobbly feel that things might fall apart at any time that is totally the domain of The M’s. A horn section adds some drive while an organ swells, a piano plinks and the band heads to the finish line.

On “Breakfast Score”, the band is fey and cute. The oompah rhythm is one favored by Candian singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman, with a ‘70s folk-pop flavor mixed in (think Stealer’s Wheel). This song induces swaying and asks the pertinent questions: “What are you doing with your life/but just being around/what are you doing with your life/but just being a clown?” This is light fun.

It’s followed by a brilliant track, “Pigs Fly”. This sound has a languid lazy summer sound, with a gently strummed electric guitar, a loping bass line and light drumming. Here, the falsetto vocals of Josh Chicoine sound as sweet as the melody, and there is a lot of feeling in this song. The lovely music is a foundation for lyrics about being in dire straits. The vibe of the classic Move is all over this track, but it’s as if The M’s filtered the Roy Wood led band’s sound through early-‘70s Philly soul. Yes, it’s that sublime.

“Pigs Fly” was, along with the slacker-motivational “Get Your Shit Together”, one of the tracks that immediately grabbed me on this disc. Overall, the album is a grower. And while the first half is the stronger one, there is swell fare on the second half, and the closer, “How Could You?” is a rustic ballad that is classic, in that Kinksy way I alluded to earlier, but shows how The M’s have developed a specific personality, and its own type of soul. Yep, this band is getting better and better.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

American Music Club -- The Golden Age (2008)

American Music Club -- The Golden Age (Merge)

The second AMC album for Merge is another winner. Songwriter extraordinaire Mark Eitzel and guitarist Vudi are on their game as usual, for an album that is a bit more subdued than the last one (Love Songs For Patriots), but is full of interesting stories and observations.

This is an album that slowly reveals itself. The initial songs are inviting and languid, mellow and gently played. Vudi’s guitar fills abet Eitzel’s controlled vocals. Things are as decadent as ever, with Eitzel noting that “no one here will ever save you” on “Decibels and Little Pills” and opening the album with the line “I wish we were always high”. That could be the opening line to a Hold Steady album!

Actually, there is a common thread between the bands. Both use fairly accessible rock music to support lyrics that look at the seamier side of life. The aforementioned “Little Pills” is a gentle, loping track. If you removed the vocals, a lot of people would find it to be an exceedingly pleasant piece of light California rock. But it’s the tension between the lyrics and the soothing music that makes American Music Club what it is.

San Francisco is integral to two tracks on the album. I’m not sure if Mayor Newsom will adopt “All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Franscisco” as a tourism anthem, as Eitzel notes that it’s a city built for “firetrucks/and skeletons who grin and grin/pimps and thieves who can’t believe their luck.” Nevertheless, this is mellow magic with a bit of a ‘70s jazz-rock vibe, from the insistent electric piano part to the light horn accompaniment.

“The Grand Duchess of San Francisco” is a whole ‘nother animal. This is a poignant character study about a woman who is trapped in a lifestyle, holding court at a dance club every night. The life of the party, certainly, but with not much going on at the center. Eitzel’s empathy comes through loud and clear.

Eitzel has plenty of stories to tell. My favorite is “The Windows to the World”. This track is the ultimate in world weariness. Eitzel starts off at a party in New York City getting high, looking at the world from the top of a tall building. In this song, hedonism collides with true depth, leaving Eitzel contemplating the contradiction. Something is wrong with us if we intoxicate ourselves and overlook the splendor around us, captured by the lines, “Mark, if you’re so goddamn smart/why do tourists always wanna get so high?”

Yeah, some of this sounds depressing. But the music and Eitzel’s voice convey emotions that keep things from getting too hopeless. If rock music is about taking your problems and dancing all over them, as Pete Townshend once posited, American Music Club allows you to dance with them and perhaps see them in a different light. Or at least realize that your problems aren’t as bad as the folks Mark Eitzel is singing about.

Tammany Hall Machine -- Amateur Saw (previously unpublished 2007 review)

Tammany Hall Machine -- Amateur Saw (self-released)

I’m going to start this review by doing something that I simply shouldn’t do -- compare this Austin band to two bands who most of you probably haven’t heard of. But I can’t avoid it, since these two bands came to mind while listening to this disc. Tammany Hall Machine reminds me a great deal of The 88, and, to a lesser extent, Novillero. This is superb keyboard driven pop, and the music often shows a sweet melodic sense, a la The Kinks during the ‘60s, with a good measure of glammy rhythms.

This is flashy and clever without being cute. These guys can rock and rollick with the best of them. Listen to Jonathan Kollar lay down the big beat on the drums to drive “Big Position” keeping pace with the frantic fingers of singer Joel Mullins on the piano. The urgency builds to the chorus, which is forceful and augmented by the guitars and some melodic bass playing. The instrumental break is a frenzy of trebly lead guitar and MVP Nick Warrenchuk’s horns. This song is rooted in the rock of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and sounds fresher than a daisy, if that’s possible (and presuming the daisy in question is fresh).

The same get up and go infects “Anti-Gospel (It Turns Me On)”. Fans of the more upbeat material of Ben Folds Five and especially the aforementioned Novillero will find a lot to like here. Again, the horns come into play, adding extra drive to a song that is already hurtling along well above the speed limit for most piano pop. The instrumental break is even more thrilling, as the guitars, horns, and piano seem to be competing for which instrument can get more out of control.

The Kinks side of the band comes out on some of the mid-tempo material, where the melodies get all sunny and jaunty. “The Jesus Chrysler” (which was “so unaffordable to own”) is chock full of clever lyrics relating to a dispute about religion. Mullins navigates the rises and falls of the melody while the lead guitar parts follow around. There’s even a great horn-driven bridge (will “ba ba” backing vocals) that folds into what is the closest thing to a chorus. The sharpness of the words (which I’m having a hard time deciding which should be snipped to quote) gives this song an edge like early Sparks. Can you dig it?

The Hall also pulls off a couple of swell slower tracks. While “Words” is not a Bee Gees cover, it swells up (hence, it’s a swell track) in a wonderful way. The song has a number of melodic ideas, which are stitched together seamlessly. Freddy Mercury would respect how these parts are put together to make a song that is 3:34 sound like an epic. And the horns help in that respect (there he is, going on again about the horns). This song sucks me in every time. Likewise with the pretty closer “There I Begin”, which earns more Freddy Mercury points for the way that Mullins sings the title phrase.

Though any of these songs could be my favorite track, the song that I keep hitting the repeat button on is the THM’s trip to Scissor Sisters Land, “Farrah”. The song is named after a ‘70s icon, and the music fits, with some R & B underpinnings, and even a little disco section. Meanwhile, Mullins finds his falsetto and it’s insinuating. For all of the glitzy trappings, there is something sad in the melody. You see this song is about a girl who wants to save herself until she gets married, and Mullins has other ideas: “She’s got her own lips of gray/I’ve got a black and white french kiss/she’s always walking far away/saying I don’t want to lose this.” Farrah is quite the sympathetic figure in this song, no matter how lustworthy she is.

This is simply one of the best power pop albums of the year. These guys have firmly established a style and write great songs. The band then finda a way to stuff the tracks full of sounds and ideas without ever bogging down. Great stuff.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Elvis Costello and the Imposters -- Momofuku (2008)

Elvis Costello And The Imposters -- Monofuku (Lost Highway)

This is bash it out craftsmanship from Elvis C. Recorded in two weeks, this album does have a nice energy to it. I wouldn’t call it a comeback, as When I Was Cruel was a darned good album and The Delivery Man wasn’t shabby either.

This disc shows that Costello can still write them like he used to. On “American Gangster Time”, long time co-conspirator Steve Nieve breaks out the Vox Continental Organ and pumps it up, bringing back memories of those early Attractions records. The fact that the song has one of the better hooks on the record doesn’t hurt at all.

There is no doubt that this collection has a great deal of surface appeal. This is Elvis sounding like the Elvis we grew up with. That is good. But it also sets up comparisons that are almost assured to be unfavorable.

Still, when he can roll out a middle eight on the music hall “Mr. Feathers” that is Beatlesque to the extreme, or a mid-tempo country rock charmer like “My Three Sons” (which is not about Ernie, Chip and Robbie), why quibble? This isn’t nostalgia; it’s classicism.

This is where the album succeeds, as Elvis is as playful as he’s been in a long time. “Drum & Bone” is slinky with rhythmic lyrics and a steady bass line contrasting Costello’s strummed acoustic, as he notes that he’s a “limited, primitive kind of man.” But for Jenny (Rilo Kiley) Lewis’s harmony vocals, you’d swear this was some newly unearthed 1981 rarity.

Another Trust-worthy song is the blue-eyed soul ballad “Flutter & Wow”. Nieve plays an Elton John-like piano part, while Costello emotes “you make the motor in me/flutter and wow.” An unusual romantic metaphor, but it works quite well.

Where the album falters is when Elvis’s versatility gets the best of him. The jazzy “Harry Worth” is lacking in with and is too serious to take seriously. And there are a couple of tracks that are tackled with gusto, but just aren’t too strong.

Moreover, Costello is not in peak form lyrically. As much as this album evokes his grand past, and sounds pretty good on its own, I still don’t remember many phrases from these songs. And back in the day, Elvis could reel off enough great couplets to fill a page or two of Bartlett’s Quotations.

So this isn’t essential, and might not even be quite as good as the last two albums. But to hear a punchy rock romp like the closer “Go Away”, which shows that Elvis can still pen a wicked mid-tempo rocker with an indelible chorus, it makes me realize that “only” a good Elvis Costello album is still quite a statement.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Parlor Mob -- And You Were A Crow (2008)

The Parlor Mob -- And You Were A Crow (Roadrunner)

I saw The Parlor Mob earlier this year, opening for Nicole Atkins and the Sea. They are fellow New Jerseyites, but that’s about the only thing the two acts have in common. The Mob took the audience on a 45-minute tour through early-‘70s blues based hard rock. The Mob had it all, from the stalwart rhythm section to the stinging duel lead guitars to the piercing wail of lead singer Mark Melicia, which is very much in the vein of Robert Plant.

If anything, the new album shows off even more Led Zeppelin influence than I saw live. So this isn’t breaking much new ground. Yet I like it. So what separates the Mob from the many Zep clones of the past (do you remember Kingdom Come)?

I think part of it is that these guys have an understanding of the blues underpinnings of these songs. Not that these guys are ready to roll out Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf songs on stage, but they have a better feel than the Zep wannabes of the ‘80s. The other part is that these guys just really rock. Okay, that’s a pretty subjective reason, but it’s my review, not yours.

The songs have the right amount of guts and the right amount of flash. Mixing melodic lead guitar with bashing chords in the chorus, “Everything You’re Breathing For” actually verges on the exact midpoint between Free and Bad Company, with enough of a hook a la the Company, but not as meatheaded. I love the brief guitar solo/instrumental break that seems to come from another song.

If you want vamping and anguished vocals (okay, Melicia is always amped up) with big power chords and big drum rolls, go right to “Bullet”. When the guitars drop out and Melicia squeals out over just the hi hat, “Woman I try, try, try,” it’s 1971 again. The Mob finds a groove here and plays around with it without wearing it out.

The band also can dash off an epic song, showing a bit of dazedness and confusion on the eight-minute plus “Tide of Tears”, while doing the acoustic blues singalong thing at the end of the disc, where such songs belong, on “Can’t Keep No Good Boy Down”, which is an ‘ol’ away from being a Charlie Daniels Band song. Wait, it sounds nothing like CDB, it’s a kiss off song, about a man who’s tired of being with a mean mistreater, but is nice about it: “Hope one day you find a man that will keep you satisfied/have yourself a mess of kids and a real comfortable life.” How diplomatic.

If there is an air of mystery about this band, it’s the obsession with crows. The album title is referenced in the lyrics of the mystic acoustic babbling “When I Was a Orphan” (good acoustic babbling by the way), in the mystic blues shuffle “Angry Young Girl”, Melicia sings, “You’re an eagle but you’re a crow” a dichotomy that is too much for me to comprehend, and this is followed by the choogling “Carnival of Crows”. Better this than Sheryl or Counting.

This is a bit too derivative and the songs not consistently memorable to be great. But it’s a great time. I have no clue where they are going to go. There are worse things than being the best ‘70s hard rock band of 2008. And few better.