Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Baseball Project -- Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails (2008)

The Baseball Project -- Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails (Yep Roc)

Years ago, I was at the Fireside Bowl to see the band Wax. Some of you may remember Wax, a pop-punk band that had a minor hit single "California", with the Spike Jonze video featuring a man on fire, in slow motion, running to catch a bus.

I used to work with Wax’s bass player, Dave Georgeff, at the Sound Warehouse Records. I dug the music and wanted to support my pal, and found it charming that a large contingent from Dave’s family was standing off to the side, while the area in front of the stage was teeming with teenage punkers.

Before Wax came on, a large bearded man strolled in, and was quickly surrounded by the men of the Georgeff clan. Who commanded the attention of these older gents? None other than former Chicago White Sox star pitcher Black Jack McDowell, who put out some credible rock records of his own back in the day.

Baseball may no longer be the most watched American sport, but it’s still the National Pastime. The rich history of the sport insures that it will always be a part of American folklore. And there have been some good rock songs about baseball, such as Jonathan Richman’s "Walter Johnson" and the Hoodoo Gurus "Where’s That Hit".

But there haven’t been enough good songs about baseball. The Baseball Project aims to right this wrong, and they do so with the control of Greg Maddux. Steve (Dream Syndicate) Wynn and Scott (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus Five) McCaughey are major fans who have written some swell baseball songs, and they get great support from Peter (R.E.M.) Buck and Linda Pittmon, who pounds the skins for Wynn’s current band.

I knew that Wynn was a baseball guy from his debut album’s terrific "Kerosene Man". I don’t know if McCaughey has any baseball songs in his past, but the two show a mastery of the history of the game. And since they are already bona fide songwriters, it’s no shock that this is an entertaining album.

Whether this will translate to folks who aren’t baseball fans, I’m not sure. But if you’ve pored over the works of Bill James, Roger Angell, Rob Neyer, Jim Bouton and Lawrence S. Ritter, you finally have a soundtrack.

The album has a bit everything. There’s the sentimental "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays", with McCaughey’s looking back at his first baseball game and the Say Hey Kid’s storied past and quiet career twilight. This warm song is contrasted by "The Yankee Flipper". This is another McCaughey tune, a slow jangler about the day Black Jack McDowell gave the finger to Yankee Stadium after a poor outing. McCaughey claims that McDowell had an excuse -- he spent a late night out with McCaughey and Mike Mills of R.E.M.

Wynn takes up the cause of Curt Flood, the man who took baseball to the United States Supreme Court, on "Gratitude (For Curt Flood)". Flood protested the reserve clause, which contractually bound players to a team for perpetuity. Less than a decade after his challenge, the reserve clause was ruled illegal, leading to free agency and the big money contracts of today. Wynn bitterly notes how today’s players don’t pay tribute to Flood over dramatic music.

I’ve already gotten too carried away with the lyrical content. What about the music? Well, it pretty much sounds like what you’d expect from Wynn and McCaughey, full of rootsy music, a bit of twang, some power chords, and full of sincerity. To put it another way -- if you scrubbed out the baseball lyrics and replaced them with love songs and political diatribes, it would still be a swell album. Just not quite as unique.

In keeping with a baseball tradition, I’m going to bestow two awards. First, the Cy Young Award for best song about a pitcher goes to "Harvey Haddix". This Pittsburgh hurler allowed no baserunners in 12 innings in a 1959 tilt against the Milwaukee Braves. Sadly, his fellow Bucs couldn’t scratch, and the Braves scored and won the game. The kicker -- because Haddix did not finish the game without allowing a baserunner, the official records don’t list the best pitching performance in history as a perfect game.

Wynn manages to lace a bit of indignation into this folk rock slice of story telling, stating Haddix’s case for immortality. He couldn’t have a better advocate.

The Most Valuable Player Award goes to "Ted Fucking Williams". This cut is simply awesome, with a glam rock beat laid down by Pittmon. Williams was arguably the greatest hitter of all-time, and would refer to himself as TFW when taking batting practice. Wynn looks at what Ted must have felt about other stars got more adulation, when he had more ability, despite his prickly personality. Wynn also offers this does of imagined wisdom from The Splendid Splinter: "But failure is not a sign of grace/it only means you don’t know what you’re doing." Fun head bopping music and insightful lyrics -- an unbeatable combo.

I won’t go so far to say that this is a great album, as there are a few songs that aren’t as interesting musically as they are lyrically. But the batting average here is extremely high, which should ensure that The Baseball Project is signed for another season.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Erykah Badu -- New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008)

Erykah Badu -- New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (Universal Motown)

On her first two albums, Badu showed off considerable talent as one of the wave of great performers of the neo-soul movement that started in the late-‘90s. She’s a beguiling vocalist, who doesn’t dazzle with her range, instead letting her phrasing and songwriting impress.

As good as her first two albums were, they provided no preparation for this ambitious, exciting effort, which was years in the making. Badu raises the stakes both musically and lyrically, making an album that perfectly melds the golden age of funk with modern hip-hop, while getting up on her soapbox to report what’s going on in the world around her.

At certain points, the politics border on strident, but the extremely compelling music, along with the justified anger that supports her commentary, keep this from merely being an exercise in polemics.

The album gets off to a thrilling start with a scintillating version of Roy Ayers’s “Amerykahn Promise”, produced by the veteran funkmeister himself. This song percolates with guitar and percussion accents, sounding like the theme from a cult blaxploitation flick, Badu singing up a storm (think back to the early, funky Natalie Cole of “Sophisticated Lady”) while Ramp, a deep voiced narrator, adds an array of interesting observations.

The album then shifts gears into low key finger snapping funk on “The Healer”, produced by Madlib (a known Roy Ayers sampler). Badu sings in a soft girlish voice, in a call-and-response with a distant children’s chorus. This song is about reconnecting with African roots and fighting back, and it entices rather than overwhelms.

The contrast between hot-and-cool sustains this album, as Madlib, producer Shafiq Husayn and others take turns helping Badu put together some terrific backing tracks, almost always topped off by smooth melodies that bring back the best of ‘70s soul.

The album reaches a high point right smack dab in the middle. “Soldier”, co-produced by Badu and Kariem Riggins, is simply an insistent drum beat and a stately keyboard line, with Badu doing her version of being a newspaper for the world (shades of The Clash and Boogie Down Productions). Badu tells the tragic tale of an honor student gunned down, but instead of wallowing in pity, her message is that you can’t give up: “To my folks on the picket line/don’t stop till you change they mind/I got love for my folks/baptized when the levy broke/we gone keep marchin’ on/till we hear that freedom song.”

On “The Cell”, Badu goes back into ‘70s retro-funk territory. Husayn and Badu aren’t satisfied with a mid-tempo funk rhythm track that grabs a hold and doesn’t let go. The song’s about living in a world of drugs and prostitution, with blunt, matter of fact lyrics. The chorus is addictive -- as addictive as a chorus with the lyric “shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang” can be. Which is pretty addictive (hmm...addictive might be a bad choice of words in this context).

Badu hits a high point thematically on “Master Teacher”. The song is a fever dream about staying awake and sending out a message to the African-American community about how good examples need to be set. This isn’t hooky, but it’s still memorable, as a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” (specifically, the line “a beautiful world, I’m trying to find”) weaves in and out. The key line of the song -- “what if there was no niggas only master teachers” is an angry plea for something better.

While funk is clearly what this album is all about, there are some songs here that have a bit more of a mellower Stevie Wonder/Rufus with Chaka Khan feel. That only adds to the quality of this album. Badu was already a considerable artist, but with this album, it appears that she’s capable of whatever she wants. I hope we don’t have to wait so long for Part Two.

Tony Low -- Time Across The Page (2007)

Tony Low -- Time Across The Page (Lowtunes)

Tony Low was one of the creative forces behind The Cheepskates, a garage rock band on Midnight Records. The ‘skates (who also included the talented Shane Faubert) played a folkier version of garage rock. If you were involved in the ‘80s college radio scene back in the day, The Cheepskates music would have drawn comparisons to acts like The Last and The Outnumbered.

Low has continued to record, and this solo effort shows that he’s a true blue jangly folk popper. This album balances more upbeat numbers with some genuinely lovely softer material. Low has a gentle voice that is achingly sincere. Perhaps for some, it might be a bit much at times, but I think it creates a real sense of intimacy. Better yet, Low composes material that fits his instrument perfectly.

The softer songs are some of the best songs on this LP. The delicate “Spiral” is one of Low’s best creations, with maybe a hint of Beach Boys sweetness and an undercurrent of sadness. The song floats with a bit of ‘70's singer-songwriter vibe, and the moodiness is broken briefly by a nice instrumental break, before heading back to more languid sounds.

“Brave Michael” sounds like another ‘70s refugee. This is pure folk-pop, there’s not much more to say about it. Low and fellow guitarist Benjy Johnson harmonize well, on a tale about a man who had stardom and lost it, literally wrestling with demons (at least that’s my take on it). Low augments the simple melody with light keyboards and strings, making this lush and pretty.

Low can still rock out a bit, though this album is much more backyard barbeque, rather than garage, rock. “Not the Lucky Ones” has a little fuzz guitar and later on the wah-wah pedal gets some use. And “This Old House” has a bit of that garage momentum, but instead of loud guitars, there are nifty touches like Virginia Keast’s trumpet part. The lead cut, “Winter of Black Ice”, has some great lead guitar work, which both ornaments and drives the tune at different points. This track has one of the best hooks on the record.

What I like about this album is that although it’s not in the same gear, so to speak, as The Cheepskates stuff, I can see how Low got from there to here. And he still knows how to put together a memorable, affecting tune.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Coldplay -- Viva La Viva Or Death And All His Friends (2008)

Coldplay -- Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends (Capitol)

Credibility is such a funny thing. Artists strive to get their music heard by as many people as possible. For some, that’s more than enough. For others, sales without acclaim falls short of what they want to accomplish.

After two ridiculously successful albums, and an utterly unnecessary live set, Coldplay has been casting about for critical props. Last album, the band made some minor musical modifications and nabbed a hook from an old Kraftwerk song. These things got some notice, but no one genuflected. Coldplay was a serviceable anthemic pop band -- Radiohead lite.

This time around, Coldplay decided to show the world that it was serious about being taken seriously. It was time to deploy the big guns. Brian Eno was signed on to co-produce the band’s latest effort.

And Eno does a fine job and the album certainly sounds good. But Coldplay has always sounded good. What has kept Coldplay from being more than enjoyable radio fodder is that there’s not much beyond the surface, though they excel at the superficial. They clearly want to show everyone that they have something to say. But they haven’t really found much of anything to say.

Which is a shame, because the band is certainly progressing. Chris Martin’s sweet voice may have its detractors, but he conveys a lot of emotion. On a few songs here, Martin shows that he doesn’t always have to sing near the top of his range. Guitarist John Buckland manages to retain his signature ringing sound, while playing both inventive leads and adding to the textures on the record.

One song where Eno’s job as sonic landscaper (it’s true -- he’s credited with “sonic landscapes” in the liners) is well done is “Lost”. This song relies on a great mix of percussion, layered keyboards and key contributions by Buckland. This song is Coldplay at its best, with the lyrics being fairly direct and not overreaching and an economical Buckland guitar solo that gives this moody number a bit more kick.

There is also some kick in “Yes”, a song that starts off with a Beatle-esque psych-pop vibe which is blended with some low key moody balladeering. Martin’s lower register is as inviting as his normal range, and the song builds well to the chorus, and after a second, more intense verse, Buckland uncorks a driving solo. Then the band goes quiet briefly, with a ringing riff takes this song into U2/Midnight Oil territory. By the end of the track, Buckland sounds like he’s giving props to The Edge, while Martin wails in the distance. This is the most thrilling track on the album.

Heartstrings are plucked on “42". Musically, this song sounds like it’s got two parts Elton John (circa “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”), one part John Lennon and one part XTC (circa “Your Dictionary”). Like “Yes”, the song goes from lush sounds to lacerating rock, with the jagged guitars evoking Radiohead (like that’s the first time it’s happened). But the “you thought you might be ghost/didn’t get to heaven/but you made it close” hook is, well, kinda dopey.

Meanwhile, the single, “Viva La Vida”, doesn’t have the greatest lyrics, as Martin’s words about a king who is now a commoner are adequate, but aren’t very compelling. However, the music is fantastic. This is wide screen pop with orch-pop overtones. As with other tracks on the album, the use of strings is very thoughtful. Here, they really define the track.

Basically, Coldplay plays big music, but doesn’t have big ideas to go with them. Let me clarify -- musically, Coldplay is becoming more inventive, which makes this album a fine listen. But the band just doesn’t have the lyrical flair to take this material all the way to the top. Instead of seeking out Brian Eno, maybe these guys need to find someone who could help them find the words that could make this music shine to maximum effect.

Stratocruiser -- Revolutions (Previously unpublished 2007 review)

Stratocruiser -- Revolutions (Just Plain Lucky)

This North Carolina band has shifted its emphasis from hard power pop to plain old fashioned hard rock. This doesn’t mean that melody is in short supply, but the songs are more rooted in blues and R & B structures than following in the Beatles/Raspberries/Cheap Trick mode. The band is limber and not plodding, giving this a nice ‘70s feel.

“Stuck to You” is an early winner, with its rhythm sounding Motown-ish and there’s some furious vamping, while Clay Howard’s husky vocals have the authority to carry across this intent number with a hooky chorus.

The band discovers the great lost Foghat song on “Rock and Roll City” which has an extremely catchy classic rock chorus -- as much as I like this track, I wish the guitars were even louder -- I can only imagine how this steamrolls when it’s performed in concert. “Saw Your Picture” is another bashing rocker that is rooted in ‘50s rock via the AOR sound of 30 years ago, with some nice Chuck Berry inspired lead guitar work.

I also like the moody mid-tempo “Shimmer & Fade”, which is designed to get the fans swaying. As a bonus, Stratocruiser tacks on a nice cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” (one of those ‘hidden’ tracks) with Howard doing a very nice faux-Plant. If these guys aren’t the new Foghat, they might be the next Ram Jam, and the world needs one of those.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Rock vs. Bedtime

There was a time, not too long ago, where I went to a ton of shows. At the beginning of the decade, I was probably catching at least four shows a month. It was mostly indie bands at small clubs, which is the way I like it. I was the envy of some of my friends, especially those of the married and with kids variety.

Nowadays, I just don't go see as much music. There are a few factors at work. First off, just because I went to and saw a lot of shows, it doesn't mean that I was seeing lots of great shows. While I rarely saw any duds, I went out a lot to see bands that were just a bit above average. Nothing against above average, but is that worth a late night out?

Second, as I get older, the number of people who are willing to go with me to a show has decreased markedly. I don't have to have a show buddy all of the time, as I will go see a band by myself, if I like the band enough. But normally, being a social creature, I'd like some company.

Third, over the years, I've gained more responsibilities. So late evenings on work nights are few and far between. It has to be a pretty special artist to get me out late on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Just because I've curtailed my showgoing doesn't mean I've ossified into someone unhip. Right? After all, I just made it through my second full Pitchfork Music Festival. And I saw them consecutively. Pretty amazing, huh?

But as of tonight, I realize that I'm getting increasingly lame. Tomorrow night, Oneida is playing in Chicago at The Empty Bottle. I'm a big fan of Oneida's mix of kraut rock, psychedelia and whatever else pops into the musical mix. Sounds like an easy call on a Saturday night.

However, looking at the listing on the Bottle's website discourages me. The show starts at 10. And there are three support acts: Jah Division Electric Sound System, Arriver and Dirty Faces. Even assuming that each of those artists plays 30 minutes apiece, it's doubtful that Oneida would start before midnight. Which guarantees a show until almost 2 a.m., and getting home after 2:30.

I don't know which bums me out more -- sitting through three opening acts, with the high likelihood of either hating or being bored to death by at least two, if not all three, of them; or staying up so late, getting home so late, and either getting little sleep and feeling like crap on Sunday, or sleeping in and wasting the day.

Maybe the cliche "If it's too loud, you're too old" should be modified to "If it's too late, you're too old." As much as I like the metronomic drone of Oneida to kick me in the ass, I'd much rather be asleep by midnight, give or take half an hour. I think this says more about me than how much I really like Oneida.

This realization isn't devastating. I have hundreds upon hundreds of shows under my belt. I've done my time, so to speak.

But I still love great live music. I just need to make a better effort to see artists who conform to my increasingly limited schedule.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Capstan Shafts -- Fixation Protocols (2008)

The Capstan Shafts -- Fixation Protocols (Rainbow Quartz)

The obvious first reaction upon hearing this record is to think that the Shafts could be called Guided By Guided By Voices. It’s the short songs, some that are fragmentary, and the oddball lyrics.

But the sound of this Vermont act is much more in keeping with loads of psych-pop eccentrics from the U.K. Think Beatnik Filmstars, The Orgone Box, The Orange Alabaster Mushroom and The Cleaners From Venus. Dean Wells has a bunch of ideas and runs through 22 songs in just over half and hour.

The tricky part about this approach is that no matter how appealing the sound -- and this definitely sounds appealing -- it’s hard for anything to stick. To a degree, this album doesn’t fully overcome this problem. But repeat plays allow some songs to really stand out and give the ears something definitive to latch onto.

The first song that stood out for me was “Eyeliner Skywriting etc.”, an endearing love song. As you can imagine, when the songs are so short, Wells wastes no time getting to the hook. The mix of the strumming guitar and the electric piano and the upbeat melody is a winner, as Wells waxes winningly about the “eyeliner skywriting poem that nobody gets.”

The longest song on the album, at a whole 121 seconds is one of the most rocking. “Her Novel ‘Canal Street Poetry’” is full of distorted guitars and the rhythm (it sounds like he’s drumming folks) is quite solid. The lyrics are hard to fully make out in the din, but snatches of words like “bestiality” certainly can bring any listener to attention.

On “The Stunted Kind”, Wells plays some swell low-fi folk pop, strumming a bouncy ditty with a great bass line and lead guitar touches. “Anthropecene Stealers” actually has a real Guided By Voices feel to it. And Wells finds a great riff to ride “Little World Saver” for a quick spin.

Wells has been doing this low-fi thing for quite a while, and suppose he won’t change his approach. But I wish that the songs sometimes had a bit more heft -- his one man band playing is fine, but most songs hint at rocking rather than reaching full force. And while I don’t want him to get rid of the quick hitters, I think he could build up some of these catchy numbers into something more. Then again, for his fans, this quick hitting approach is likely the whole appeal.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ron Sexsmith -- Exit Strategy For The Soul (2008)

Ron Sexsmith -- Exit Strategy For The Soul (Yep Roc)

I once got to meet Ron Sexsmith before a gig. He was hyper-polite and an all around nice guy. If he had been any different, I would have been shocked. He just reeks of empathy and humanity. I get the impression that when he breaks up with a girl, she apologizes for putting him through so much.

This makes his records and live performances so instantly comforting. But there’s more to him, of course. For one thing, he manages to be so nice and empathetic without being sickly sweet. And he is one of the most economical lyricists around, making interesting observations in a direct manner. These words are sung by a friendly tenor and set to low key melodic music.

About the music -- it’s kind of formulaic. The last time I saw Sexsmith live, I realized that very few artists are as locked into verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight than he is. He has a distinctive way with a melody. There’s not a whole lot of surprise anymore on a Ron Sexsmith album.

Yet his words and performing style are so appealing, that his records are pretty much guaranteed to be good. Perhaps the overwhelming consistency of his material may prevent the type of development that would lead to great albums in the future (and for the record, I think his one flat out great record is his sophomore effort, Other Songs). But every album is worthwhile.

The big wrinkle on this album is the horn backing on some of the songs. And not just any type of horns. Cuban horns. They provide color for one of the albums true highlights, “Brandy Alexander”. If you have the last Feist album, you already know this tune, as Leslie Feist co-wrote it with fellow Canadian Sexsmith.

The song is a simple metaphor -- a woman who is bad for him is like an addiction to the mixed drink. The song has a classic Sexsmith melody, and the piano that drives the song is augmented by horns and backing vocals from A Girl Called Eddy. It’s a real jaunty tune.

It’s followed by another song that is quintessentially Sexsmith, “Traveling Alone”. The simple combination of guitar and keyboard notes that opens the song leads into a creamy melody over light drumming. The premise of the song is as simple as can be -- no matter where we are or who we’re with, we are still in our own individual worlds: “though lives intermingle/our thoughts are left to roam/traveling alone.” This gets my vote for best use of the word “intermingle” in a pop song in 2008.

How does one cope with a world full of lonely people? Taking a cue from Todd Rundgren and Utopia, Sexsmith finds that love is the answer. This is the subject of “Ghost of a Chance”. It’s not just loneliness -- Sexsmith surveys all of the terrible things going on in the world, and surmises that without love “I just wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance.”

I read a quote attributed to George Orwell that said something to the effect that this world would be a better place is everyone just treated each other nicely. Sexsmith seems to operate under this philosophy, as shown by “Impossible World”. On this song, producer Martin Terefe puts Sexsmith’s voice a bit more up front, only letting the other instruments get more prominent later in the song. Meanwhile, Sexsmith sings about how awful things seem, yet he still has faith that things will get better, and that faith might be due to faith in a higher power.

Terefe also worked with Sexsmith on his Cobblestone Runway album. As on that album, Terefe tries different sonic textures and instrumental approaches, so that this isn’t just a guy with his acoustic guitar. This time around, the album has a certain gloss to it. This isn’t a bad thing, as it gives the songs some layers that are easily peeled away to reveal the heart of these songs. Songs with a lot of heart.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Midnight Juggernauts -- Dystopia (2008)

Midnight Juggernauts -- Dystopia (Astralwerks/Siberia)

If you could just throw in some cheesy crap sounding synth-drums, this album could be passed off as a lost album from the 1984 or so. This is lush, romantic pop in the vein of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Talk Talk and legions of bands that wore a little mascara from time to time. The mix of lush keyboard lines, lightly funky bass lines and soothing vocals still works after all of these years.

Let me talk about the vocals. Singer Vin Vendetta (whose also the keyboard wizard) has a Bowie-esque baritone that is perfect for this material. Sometimes it sounds a bit more like Andrew Eldritch of Sisters Of Mercy, like on “Twenty Thousand Leagues”. Part of that is because he sings in his lower register, with a throbbing bass line and little bits of keyboard sparkle dusting the edges. It all builds up to a soulful chorus. This is yet another band who understands the tugging sadness that electronic instruments can produce.

The band floats into psychedelic territory on the title track. This atmospheric tune, with more guitars, could easily be done by a band like Rockfour (or your psychedelic revivalist of choice). This is an avenue that should be explored more. “Tombstone” goes in a different direction, pushing the electronics to the hilt, with Vendetta singing through a vocoder, which sounds somewhere between Zapp and Neil Young in his Trans phase. The song has a great dance rhythm, but overstays its welcome a bit.

These tracks make the album interesting. What makes it good are the single worthy selections that start off the album. Vendetta’s keyboard lines are irresistible on “Ending of an Era”, as he mixes synthesizer surges with an insistent organ part while Daniel Stricken lays down a solid drum beat. The song builds the tension as Vendetta mumbles the lyrics, releasing in the chorus. Basically, this is an array of attractive sounds, really well arranged for maximum effect.

“Shadows” is as good or better. It follows a similar game plan sonically, but relies much more on ethereal synth sounds and a mid-tempo dance beat. The low key vocals remind me of latter day Duncan Browne (breathy and sensual), and the song verges on classic disco, and is simply suffused in cool. It’s one of those tracks that makes you move, even though the musicians don’t seem to sweat that much.

Like a lot of the ‘80s acts they remind me of, this album has its share of filler. But it’s more than outweighed by the strong pop sense and the overall appealing sound.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beck -- Modern Guilt (2008)

Beck -- Modern Guilt (DGC)

Generally, lyrics are not the first thing that grabs me when I listen to a song. Beyond a memorable phrase or line in the chorus, it’s the music that gets me first. Then the words follow. And depending upon the nature of the music, the lyrics either enhance the tunes or at least don’t interfere with them. In some instances, however, bad lyrics, or lyrics that don’t mesh with the music can ruin a song.

Beck is definitely a music first artist for me. His elaborate sonic constructions and haunting melodic sense usually work right away. As for his words, he’s one of the rare artists for whom I find a message or meaning to usually be more of a distraction than an enhancement. When he’s at his nuttiest, on albums like Midnight Vultures, he puts together oddball rhymes that are tailor made for his melange of rap, funk, rock and folk and whatever else he can think of.

When he goes for something more meaningful, it often doesn’t work for me. There are two reason for this: 1) when he’s tried to say something with his music, he often reveals himself to be a bit mundane in the ol’ observation department, and, 2) the tunes themselves sometimes suffer, since he wants the words to ground the tunes.

On Modern Guilt, Beck is trying to make some statements, but still keep the music more interesting. He teams up with Danger Mouse, who is extremely sympathetic to Beck’s musical notions. Arguably, he’s too sympathetic -- it could be said that the Mouse and Beck go together like peanut butter and peanut butter. They certainly have a lot in common.

This isn’t a bad thing, by any means, but it just means that the combination isn’t as mindblowing as one might think it would be. At times, I find myself identifying contributions that are clearly Danger Mouse’s, and there are a few. More often then not, their similar sensibilities are such that Danger Mouse’s sonic fingerprints are not obvious. You’d have to dust the master tapes for latent prints.

Meanwhile, Beck’s stabs at relevance prove to be a bit more effective than on albums like Sea Change. Instead of talking about the travails of the broken hearted, Beck is focusing on societal issues such as the environment. He’s no Joe Strummer, but the messages and the music seem to go together pretty well. Perhaps its because the messages lack specificity and get subsumed in the mood of the tunes. Or he’s content to allow indulge in some wordplay to keep things from getting too heavy.

So when he sings about the “icecaps melting down” in “Gamma Ray” over a rhythm track with some frugworthy ‘60-styled guitar, it goes down really easy. The with-it tuneage melds well with the wispy melody and Beck’s typically matter-of-fact vocals. Likewise, the lines “You got warheads stacked in the kitchen/you treat distraction like it’s a religion” are somewhat thought provoking, but also just sound good with the repetitive ‘60s faux jazz backing. Whatever commentary he is undertaking isn’t exactly coherent, but the lyrics flow like his more clever and jokey stuff.

The most Gnarls-like track? That’s debatable (and, I suppose, the same could be said for the most Gorrillaz-y tune). One nominee would be the title track. This is one of the purest pop songs, with a strong insistent keyboard line carrying the song. It’s a bit like Leon Russell’s “Tightrope”. Just a bit.

My favorite songs are the two prettiest songs on the record. The album closer “Volcano”, is built on a basic blues chord structure and it unfolds into a rising melody that is augmented by disembodied choral singing. It’s a haunting, contemplative number. Meanwhile, “Chemtrails” is soaring ethereal psychedelic tinged pop. Jason Falkner contributes bass and guitar and perhaps tips on what Air does (Jason’s played bass for them on tour), as this song hits a vibe that is similar to some of the best of that French duo. The song is fatalistic and comforting at the same time.

For some reason, although this album sounds good and there are certainly some great moments on it, it feels like it’s missing something. It’s rather short -- 10 tracks in just under 34 minutes -- which isn’t always a problem (aren’t most albums too long?). But in this case, maybe one or two more tunes may have helped. On the other hand, from the time I started thinking about this review until the time I’m finishing up here, I like the album more and more. Not essential, I guess, but worth having.

Kingsizemaybe -- Kingsizemaybe (2008)

Kingsizemaybe -- Kingsizemaybe (Brewery)

Is this country rock, country that rocks, or rock that is soaked through with twang? This can’t really be alt-country or insurgent country, as it doesn’t have that academic gloss or extreme retro vibe that would make the label stick. I do know that there is some shit kickin’ going on, and even a bit of ass kickin’.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, explaining everything while clarifying nothing, let me tell you more about Kingsizemaybe. The frontman is Gary Eaton, who has a nice lived in sort of voice. His wife Shelli plays bass, and she can sing too. As an added twist, you get Robbie Rist in a cowboy hat. Not only does Rist twiddle some production knobs with Mr. Eaton, but he plays guitar and sings some backing vox.

There seems to be one criteria for a Kingsizemaybe song -- it has to be fun. Even if the song is a lament, a song that might head towards Cry-in-your-beer Avenue, there’s a spark and energy here that keeps it from being depressing.

Songs like “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” are simply irresistible. Adam Maples lays down a speedy shuffle beat, while Robert Lloyd provides great color with an organ and a mandolin. The tune has a great lead guitar breakdown. This is just a breathless twangy rocker.

“Big Maybe”, which I suppose is the band’s theme song, is played at a much more relaxed tempo. This song has a loping feel like some of The Band’s jauntier outings. The basic message of this song is that you should stick with the ones you like and love, because who the hell knows what else is going to happen. That’s pretty good advice. And there’s other sorts of wisdom throughout the song: “Well I got your number on the palm of my hand/you can call me first I won’t feel like less of a man.”

These guys have good taste too. There are two covers here. One is a Hoyt Axton composition, “Sweet Misery”, which was once waxed by John Denver. I haven’t heard Mr. Rocky Mountain High’s version, but I can’t imagine it has the bluesy backporch treatment that Kingsizemaybe gives it. It’s good. The album leads off with “The Treasure of Love”, a George Jones tune. The song puts a bit of guitar charge into good old fashioned honky tonk. Buck Owens would have approved.

The band even nails a bit of a Southern rock feel on “Dallas”. Maybe 60 percent Southern rock and 20 percent Eagles and 20 percent Marah. The lyrics are heavy on specific details, but there are a lot of blanks to fill in. It’s an epic and a mystery. The swelling organ and the background vocals behind the passionate lead vocal are extremely compelling.

Too often roots rock is a designation that implies one defined sound, and only one. But Kingsizemaybe shows that you can find all sorts of roots all over the place, and they have the confidence and talent to pull off a relatively wide ranging slab of Americana.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Wire -- Object 47 (2008)

Wire -- Object 47 (Pink Flag)

Bruce Gilbert is no longer around, so Wire performs as a three piece on this effort. Didn’t they call themselves Wir the last time this happened?

Anyway, this album comes on the heels of last year’s solid Read and Burn 03 EP. On that EP, the band maintained its fascination with clipped melodic artiness, as some extended songs created a moody atmosphere.

However, on this album, it’s back to tighter song forms. Moreover, the dangerous bursts of industrial guitar found on Send, the last Wire album, are no longer present. To some extent, this is as close to a simple “pop” album as Wire has ever made. The band’s melodies have always been a part of its appeal, and here, they are the main attraction.

Perhaps this could be the start of a new genre -- sneer pop. After all, the opening track, “One Of Us”, has this inspirational lyric as a refrain: “One of us will live to rue the day we met each other.” Yes, Colin Newman was born a curmudgeon and he intends to stay that way. The song itself is sort of bouncy, with Robert Grey playing a rather jaunty beat. Anyone familiar with the melodic style of Wire will find this track instantly identifiable.

Newman drops the declamatory voice on the most appealing track, “Perspex Icon”. This is driven by stinging guitar from Newman and a great pulsing bass line from Graham Lewis. The guitars are doubled up, with fuzzy chords and a melodic lead gliding along with Newman’s singing. This song is practically 154-worthy.

Although not as hooky, “Mekon Headman” has almost as strong a melody, albeit one that sounds like it was borrowed from some older Wire tune. The song has a basic stentorian verse, singable chorus motif. On this song, the lyrics are spare and clipped, in keeping with the basic music.

One other striking track is the languid “Patient Flees”. This song is built on a lovely three note lead guitar figure. Here, the verse is melodic, and the refrain is gruff with Newman snidely intoning the rhymes: “Resurrection, insurrection, defection, disaffection/infection, imperfection, disinfection, rejection.” The more open construction of the song makes it a novel number in the band’s catalog. That being said, the guitar solo is no more than a repetitive pattern. So very Wire.

Although the album is rarely less than pleasant, it never catches fire. This even holds true on the one ‘in your face’ track, the album’s finale, “All Fours”. With Helmet’s Page Hamilton credited with providing a feedback storm, the guitar squalls seem to be deliberately muted by Newman, who produced, engineered and mixed the album. Sometimes the sense that the contents of a song are going to be explode can be very powerful. On this track, however, there is an explosion but it doesn’t fully come across.

This typifies what keeps this album from being really special. There’s just not much of a sense that Wire is really reaching for anything, instead merely content to make nice Wire songs. And who wants Wire songs to just be nice?

The Telepathic Butterflies -- Breakfast In Suburbia (2008)

The Telepathic Butterflies -- Breakfast In Suburbia (Rainbow Quartz)

On its third album, the Canadian psych-pop band led by Rejean Ricard sounds as good as ever. Musically, this album is pretty comparable to the last two, with perhaps just a bit more of a punchy mod aspect to a song or two.

Where the band has tried to grow is in the content department. Breakfast In Suburbia is a concept album. Ricard looks at the ‘burbs with a jaundiced eye. It makes for some pretty interesting songs. At times, he may have sacrificed some hooks to focus on the words. I think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff, because the music is consistently engaging and Ricard’s vigor for his commentary is obvious.

For example, “Gossip Trail” is a pithy look at how information travels around a neighborhood, people exchanging rumors for no other reason than it’s something to pass the time with. The song is a pleasant jangle popper that ends with this observation: “Now that we’re getting old and chronically sick and cold/it’s hard to face change/but I’m still quite aware of things going on right here/it’s hard to explain.”

Ricard is even more cutting on “A Scathing Report”. Musically, this song covers some of the same moony territory as former labelmates Rockfour. This is as hectoring as the most moralistic T Bone Burnett song, with Ricard indicting Americans for proclaiming such lofty goals and aspirations, but not realizing the facts that undermine these claims. This isn’t your typical psych-pop, with hippy dippy paisley dripping lyrics.

Ricard moves into Beatles and Hollies territory on the questioning “A Midlife Crisis”. This song is a laundry list of things that the protagonist should have done. The music is mid-tempo and melancholy as Ricard ruminates in the verses, and the tempo and melody pick up in the refrain, as he realizes how he can make up for it by doing something now. I love how the musical shifts compliment the lyrics.

“She Looks Good” is somewhere between The Kinks, Paul McCartney and a Mike Nesmith Monkees tune. This song might have the strongest hook on the record. This is a song about facades versus self-awareness, and Ricard makes his preference well known: “It’s the fact you are yourself that makes you great.”

And the Butterflies are themselves. What comparisons I make throughout this review are, for the most part, pretty general. Some ‘60s revivalists are much more explicit about their thefts. But this trio has melded its inspirations into a distinctive sound that evokes with sounding too derivative of any one artist.

This album, although instantly attractive on the surface, takes a bit longer to sink in. As I said near the beginning, the focus on the lyrics might come at the expense of a few hooks. And although I like the words, Ricard’s observations are sometimes more heartfelt than original. Still, I find myself going back to this album enough that there is definitely something to it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Richard X. Heyman -- Actual Sighs (Previously Unpublished 2007 review)

Richard X. Heyman -- Actual Sighs (Turn-Up)

If you believe Parke Puterbaugh’s liner notes, this new Heyman disc isn’t just the best thing since sliced bread, it’s miles better. And while I still thank the Parke-ster for his praiseful review of Sparks’ Angst In My Pants, which led me down the road of Mael worship, methinks that his hype goeth too far.

Yes, it’s cool that the Richard X-man went back to songs he wrote back in the days when he was merely a fledgling power pop cult figure. And sure, getting around to finally record them is a good idea, because there still aren’t enough Heyman tracks in the world. But after reading these liners, you’d think that Richard should be nominated for a Pulitzer or a Nobel or something.

Okay, enough about the liners. Here we have the fully grown up Richard, doing songs he wrote when he wanted to grow up to be the man that he is now today. What can we learn from this?

First, that from the get go, Heyman wrote great songs. Second, that he, much like contemporary Tommy Keene, has honed his style to perfection. So there are no revelations here. Only fun catchy songs, some of which cut more deeply than fodder for AM radio (were it still the driving force in music). This is melodic rock with lots of drive.

At times, Heyman plays with the fervor of Bruce Springsteen in the ‘70s. “RXH’s in the First Person Blues” may be based on a jangly blues chord progression, but the song is a real head rush, with Richard cheerfully admitting, “I’m a liar.” If you hadn’t read the liners, you might believe that Heyman recorded this when he was 18, as he is so spirited. Remember, Richard pretty much plays everything on his records, and this track is about as rocking as a one-man army can get.

Heyman’s drums and another great guitar line fire up “Stockpile”, which is not a song about his attic full of unrecorded songs. But it’s not too far away. It’s about staying home with books, movies, and music, while the world goes to shit. This comes from the same geeky side of Richard that spawned the fab “Civil War Buff” (from Hey Man!), but it’s laced with either paranoia or misanthropy -- you can take your pick. Despite the bitter lyrics, this is buoyant music that sounds like the Beau Brummels gone power pop. This is another song that makes me think of Springsteen, in the energy and attitude.

There is one song that is truly bluesy. “Twelve Bars And I Still Have the Blues” is barroom rock at its best. Heyman gets a groove going and holds onto it. He even sings a line and then repeats it, like all the best bluesmen do. There may be another straight blues rocker in Heyman’s catalog, but I can’t think of it right now. It’s a great change of pace, particularly when Richard takes off on an acrobatic guitar solo run.

Some of my favorite RXH songs are the slow numbers. On those songs, Heyman’s wistful, romantic side takes over, and washes me over in sweetness and sadness. There are a few of those on here, none better on “Winter Blue”. Heyman’s arranging skills are on full display here. The basic elements of the track are there from the beginning - the constant guitar part, the light percussion, but he subtly adds other things throughout the track. And the instrumental break, with its lovely synthesized strings and flute is so durned pretty it makes me all emotional and stuff.

As a bonus, Heyman redoes the songs from his debut EP. The re-recordings of the Actual Size material just make this bundle all the more wonderful. “I’m That Kind Of Man” is pretty much quintessential Richard, something that could have ended up on any of his albums. Then there’s another one of those achingly sweet ballads, “Hoosier”, which has a great opening line: “The girl I used to know/yes, you’d like to know her too.” It also has a buttery harmony filled chorus. Never has the word “hoosier” sounded so nice.

I wish this came with the lyrics. Heyman is one of the more interesting lyricists in power pop, because he not only is a word playa, if you know what I mean, but as songs like the aforementioned “Stockpile” show, he’s willing to think outside the genre box when it comes to subject matter. Just take it from me, there are a lot of cool words here to go with the cool music.

The only thing to do now is enjoy this and wonder what’s next? The undiscovered box set that Heyman absentmindedly left in a cupboard in his folks’ Winnebago in Port St. Lucie, Florida? A concept album about the Battle of Bull Run? Stay tuned, I’m sure it will be good.