Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Shazam -- Meteor

The Shazam -- Meteor (Not Lame)

The long awaited follow up to Tomorrow The World finds The Shazam somehow pulling off the feat of sounding more classic and more weird, all on the same LP. This album is a bit more in the vein of Godspeed The Shazam, with some eccentric tunes serving as change ups for the band’s drawling take on power pop a la Cheap Trick, The Move and The Who. The difference is that there’s a bit more weirdness, some of it musical and some of it in the lyrics.

What this means is that the album is not as immediate as prior efforts, as it has an odd flow. But the hooks start to come through and the effort to provide more than cookie cutter rock lyrics is greatly appreciated.

Some of this is apparent just by looking at the titles. There is no hidden meaning behind “Latherman Shaves the World”. That’s just what the song is about. The song starts with a burst of harmony vocals shouting “Latherman,” then moving into a power jangle with Scott Ballew powering the attack with his drumming. Hans Rotenberry then works every shaving reference that he can think of into the lyrics. Whether it’s singing about things getting “hairy” or of “standing in the five o’clock shadow,” Rotenberry maintains a straight face. Meanwhile, the music isn’t jokey in the slightest. Indeed, the song moves to a spacey middle eight before really building to near anthem proportions. These guys take shaving more seriously than Gillette.

They also tell interesting stories. “NFU” is a slice of ‘70s style hard rock whimsy, about a night out that went badly because everyone but the narrator was wasted. Hans helpfully explains, “I drove -- because I was not fucked up enough.” This song bounces along like a more sped up cousin of Aerosmith’s “Last Child”, sly and clever, yet still suitable for your 8-track player.

Rotenberry’s skewed perspective further comes across on “Hey Mom I Got The Bomb”. This is The Shazam in its dixie fried Cheap Trick mode, as Hans gleefully lets everyone know that he may be “dumb and ugly and the whole world hates me,” but no one is going to pick on him anymore. The title can be taken literally. The chorus is made for shouting along at Shazam shows, the middle eight allows things to slow down before one last rocking rush, the lyrics are a gas (“going to use it with particular aplomb;” “all I ever wanted/cost me everything I had”) -- yep, this is a hell of a song.

Not everything is so silly. The band can still crank out inspiring hookfests. One of the best here is “Let It Fly”. It’s a tune that starts quietly and builds up to soaring chorus. The whole song is about just going for it and doing your best, and the music fits the encouraging lyrics perfectly. Then there’s the killer ballad, a la “Stranded Stars” from Godspeed The Shazam. Here, the killer ballad is “Don’t Look Down”. The song is a melange of sounds from The Beatles to Cheap Trick to Electric Light Orchestra to Mott The Hoople with everything leading to the mega-gigantic chorus. This track really makes me realize how Rotenberry’s vocal skills are truly underrated. He isn’t a powerhouse singer, but he has deceptive range and he is very expressive.

There are other highlights, including “Disco at the Fairgrounds”, which is on par with The Eagles Of Death Metal until the goofy chorus (and dig the ultra-high harmony vocals out of the Sweet playbook), which shouldn’t work, yet it does, and the big guitar riff fest that is “Dreamcrusher Machine”.

It’s been my view that The Shazam is the best band of the crop of great talents that spurred an indie power pop revival in the late-‘90s. This album not only solidifies that status but shows that they still have what it takes.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ian Hunter -- Man Overboard

Ian Hunter -- Man Overboard (New West): Hunter’s Dylanesque warble has aged quite gracefully (more gracefully than Zimmy’s voice has) and he still has stories to tell and wisdom to impart. So it’s no wonder that he continues to make worthwhile records. This isn’t a classic, but it’s full of enjoyable songs infused with Hunter’s wit and wisdom. The album starts off strong, with two really good mid-tempo rockers near the front. “The Great Escape” offers advice similar to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps”: that it’s important to flee “especially if the other guy is bigger than you.” This is a spirited band performance in the tradition of The Faces (as opposed to Mott The Hoople), with James (ex-Bongos) Mastro’s mandolin part really standing out. Meanwhile, “Up and Running” is in the tradition of Hunter rockers like “Just Another Night”, with a nifty piano line hook in the verses and a driving chorus that shows Hunter is still full of piss and vinegar. There are a few killer ballads, a Hunter specialty for over three decades. The best is the title track, a heartbreaking tale of an alcoholic who can’t kick his habit. The song has a brooding yet defiant vibe and Hunter’s voice is a mix of desperation and resignation tinged with the defiance of a survivor who believes that “they ain’t found a cure yet for me.” The light hearted “Girl From the Office” is a swell contrast, with Hunter lamenting that his dalliance with the hottest gal in his workplace makes him the target of everyone’s salacious questions -- “What’s she like...what’s she like in bed?” While not all of the tracks are uniformly strong, Hunter and his band tear into everything, and there are no clunkers here. I hope the Mott reunion doesn’t prevent Hunter from mounting a tour supporting this album in 2010, as this material will shine in a live setting.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Chris Hickey -- Razzmatazz

Chris Hickey -- Razzmatazz (Work-Fire)

Hickey’s fourth solo release is the result of a personal challenge. Hickey wrote a song every day and recorded it on a hand-held digital recorder. The 16 songs that ended up on this disc show that Hickey was up to the task.

Hickey’s music is best described as folk-pop. Generally, the basic structures of his songs adhere to folk music tenets, and that’s even more apparent on these short and sharp songs. But he has always had an ear for a strong melody, giving most of his tunes an indelible catchiness.

But what puts his music over the top are his concise and revealing lyrics and his plaintive, matter-of-fact vocals. Hickey’s range is limited, but he coaxes a lot of nuance out of his voice. Some of his songs are strictly observational, and his voice is great for conveying warmth and intelligence. When things move into more emotional territory, he can sound really vulnerable, doing so in a subtle manner. [NOTE: Since Hickey doesn't release music much, some of this is kind of a repeat of a review I wrote of his last album about six years ago or so]

Initially, this album sounds a bit fragmentary, as the songs are, understandably, pretty minimal in both the sound and arrangements. With each spin, however, more songs come into focus, and the variety of lyrical themes gives this album a distinctive character.

Two striking songs find Hickey becoming an advocate, once for a poet and once for mom-and-pop businesses. On “Keuroac”, Hickey goes Wiki, rhythmically listing details of Jack’s too short, so famous life. Each recitation of facts ends with Hickey singing, “I salute you/I am grateful.” This is affectionate and compelling.

On “Places to Go”, Hickey extols the virtues of his unnamed town, talk-singing over a bouncy strum about “shop keepers, the owners/not the greedy ones, the exploiters” but the ones who give you a place to hang out. It’s a nice sentiment, well expressed.

He also tells stories. It’s a delusional story on “Salty Tears”. Over a simple melody with minimal guitar, Hickey sings from the perspective of a guy who has found a sure thing at the track, and he explains to his wife all the great things they’ll do with the money. But Salty Tears places instead of winning, so the poor bastard rationalizes “at least it wasn’t close.”

Some songs are quite hooky, despite the spartan format. It’s hard to resist the pleasures of “Run”. The song starts with the chorus, which has a nice ebb-and-flow melody. Hickey sings with a mix of urgency and weariness, appropriate for a guy who thinks he has to bolt because “the law is banging on the door/that’s my love who’s bleeding on the floor.” The hook on “The Heat The Light” is the little melodic wrinkle which has Hickey singing near the top of his range. With the static guitar playing underneath, this quick moving up the scale is really memorable.

Another memorable track is the haunting “Nothing is Real”, a song about questioning things (“Will you still love me at 64?”, for example). Here, on the refrain, Hickey plays his guitar at a measured pace and sings accordingly, but in the verses, he moves up the scale (not being a musician, I’m not sure it’s an octave or half-octave or whatever), playing more urgently, and he sings faster to keep up. The refrain already creates tension, so to move into an even more intense part and then head back makes the tune all the more gripping.

A few songs kind of blend in, but after five spins or so, I had latched onto about half of the tracks and I’m still getting into it. Keeping things basic is no impediment for a performer who relies so much on his voice and has never been ornate. Hickey is a very special artist, who combines intellectual depth with emotional resonance and well-crafted music to accompany his lyrics. If you want something new in the folk pop vein, please check this out.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Alla -- (digs)

Alla -- (digs)(Crammed): Although this is a Latino trio, this Chicago band doesn’t fit the classic rock en espanol mold. This is made quite evident on this cool EP, wherein the band kicks off with an original and then goes the esoteric cover route, before finishing with a Kanye West tune. In between, they interpret The Residents, Terry Riley & John Cale, Los Dug Dugs and Faust. With the slightly raspy vocals of Lupe Martinez (who reminds me a bit of Marianne Faithful, at times) leading the way, the core band members, Jorge and Angel Ledezma do some real musical exploring. The Riley & Cale composition “Church of Anthrax” is a chance for the musicians to stretch out, with the song sounding like a cross between kraut rock and free jazz. Logically, the Faust tune, “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl”, is just plain ol’ kraut rock and the band gives it a good work out. Martinez gets in on the action on “Smog” (a Los Dug Dugs tune), which is a concise proggy rock tune in the vein of Phil Manzanera’s 801. Her rasp is insinuating on the Velvet Underground meets Wire strum-a-thon “Si Se Puede”, the original that kicks off the album. While she intones the title phrase over and over, she sings more angelically on top. Meanwhile, she gives West’s “Love Lockdown” the soulfulness and sexiness that he could never give it with his Autotuned mechanized vocals. This EP is alternately challenging and entertaining and never boring. [NOTE: I apologize that I don't have an accent on the last 'a' of Alla and no tilde on the 'n' in 'espanol.' I tried everything on Microsoft Word and couldn't get anything to work.]

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Kingsbury Manx -- Ascenseur Ouvert!

The Kingsbury Manx -- Ascenseur Ouvert! (Odessa): The Manx are a perfect Sunday morning with a cup of coffee band. They concoct mellow, melodic creations that manage to exude warmth even though the precise arrangements could lead to a more sterile sound. If I could pull out a comparison, they stake out a sound that is somewhere between the softer pop side of Pernice Brothers and the college radio perfection of Dumptruck. Or perhaps they are the J.J. Cale(s) of the 21st Century. Regardless, this is album full of subtle pleasures that unfold with repeat plays. The characteristically gentle “If You’re on the Mend, I’m on the Move” is a sublime slice of folk-pop that has roots in Simon & Garfunkel and The Kinks. In a similar vein, “The Whip & The World” has slightly strummed guitars, crisp drumming, a pillow of keyboards and a banjo making the most friendly sounds. “Minos Maze” is something else altogether, a delicate construction that features a breathtaking harmony vocal section, something the band should explore more often. And “Well Whatever” lopes along with some nifty lead guitar ornamentation and a wistful violin in the background. With the ascendancy of groups like Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, the Manx are probably more relevant now than ever. And this album is up to their high standard.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Duckworth Lewis Method -- The Duckworth Lewis Method

The Duckworth Lewis Method -- The Duckworth Lewis Method (Divine Comedy):

Roger Ebert often states in his movie reviews that it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. In other words, the subject matter isn’t as important as the treatment of the subject matter. Watching paint dry may be boring, but theoretically one could make a fascinating movie about watching paint dry.

With games that can take forever and a day, some have found cricket to be the sporting equivalent of watching paint dry. Yet The Duckworth Lewis Method have concocted a splendid album, with all of the songs centered around the sport loved throughout the British Empire, and nowhere else. How is this possible?

It starts with the talents involved. First, there is the ever-witty Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy. He is joined by Thomas Walsh, the man behind Pugwash. It is nearly impossible for these two to team up and not come up with clever and catchy pop songs. And the cleverness matters, since these guys have to dig cricket to make this album, but they also appreciate the absurdity of the enterprise. Thus, the two perform these songs in the most tongue-in-cheek manner possible.

Early on, the album simply espouses the joy of cricket for all people. On “The Age of Revolution”, Hannon and Walsh are speaking of people from all over taking up cricket: “kids in the valleys/bats bound together with string.” This call to bats rides over a looped horn part (that sounds like it’s from an old jazz record) and a mild funk-groove. It’s darned catchy.

But remember, this is an outdoor game and that comes through on the Village Green-ish “Gentlemen and Players”. Ray Davies would be proud of this paean to a Sunday spent playing cricket, and breaking for tea in an English garden. Hannon’s harpsichord (!) adds to the stately flavor, as he shows where he stands in this class war...or rather, match: “to enhance the gentry’s chances/they were granted the advantage of an extra stump/but they still couldn’t hit a barn door.”

Once the boys establish the democratic nature of their favorite sport, it’s time to get down to more arcane matters. Whether it’s the bouncy ‘70s rock vibe of “Test Match Special”, an ode to cricket matches between two countries (and only a handful can play test matches) that go on for days, or the Brit-pop perfection of “Meeting Mr. Miandad”, where they fantasize about meeting the Pakistani cricket legend (“it’s our historical phantasmagorical destiny”), they are spot on.

They are especially spot on with “Sweet Spot”. Over a cracking good glam rock drum beat, Hannon and Walsh concoct what is likely the best ever ‘cricket as a metaphor for performing oral sex on a woman’ song ever made. Or at least one of the top five: “I’m down on my knees just to please you all the time/when I hit the sweet spot I see it in your eyes.” Yes, it’s juvenile, but juvenile + cricket = fun!

These are just some of the highlights. There’s also veddy proper piano hi-jinx of “Jiggery Pokery” and appropriately pastoral “Flatten the Hay”. There’s not a googly in the bunch.

For some reason, this album has taken a beating in the British press. Yes, there are no musical breakthroughs here, but the popcraft is exceptional. Maybe they just don’t like cricket. So what. If love cricket, you should dig this. If you don’t care or can’t stand it, it is way more fun.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wilco -- Wilco (the album)

Wilco -- Wilco (the album) (Nonesuch)

The follow up to Sky Blue Sky finds Wilco maturing into a comfortable sound, with Jeff Tweedy continuing to spin out excellent retro-‘70s FM rock and pop, played with expertise. A song here or there gives a nod to the band’s experimental bent, but more often, the muso tendency is subjugated to serve the songs.

While somewhat underwhelming on the first couple of spins, further plays reveal that Wilco has come up with a darned good album, a mix of whimsy, experimentation and heartfelt sentiments. It breaks no new ground, but has plenty of songs that are hard to shake.

One of those songs is a tune that requires careful listening to the lyrics. “I’ll Fight” is a mid-tempo acoustic driven song with a simple, passionate refrain, as Tweedy declares how he’ll go, fight, kill and die for someone. On the surface, the song sounds like a love song of extreme devotion. But listen more carefully, and you realize that Tweedy is literally fighting and killing -- he’s a soldier who is taking the place of someone else. He notes he “won’t regret the fairness of our trade....for you to live, I took your place.” This was a common practice back in the day, where someone with enough money could pay for someone else to go to war for them (President Grover Cleveland did so to avoid serving in the Civil War). This is a powerful track.

“Bull Black Nova” is equally powerful, but more direct, yet artier. This is prog Wilco, a song centering on a tense lockstep rhythm which periodically releases into some jazzy guitar riffing. The band plays with intensity and precision, building tension and releasing while Tweedy sings of a fugitive, with blood on his hands and everywhere else. The music perfectly fits the atmosphere and confusion of someone on the run. This is an instant classic.

Elsewhere, the band is more tender and playful. For a good example of the band’s playful side, just hit play and listen to “Wilco (the song)”. The song is driven by Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards as Tweedy stretches a winsome melody over a tight and vibrant rhythm that bounces up and down. Meanwhile, Tweedy assures listeners that no matter how bad things get, that they can put on their headphones and “Wilco will love you baby.” This is a 21st Century update of Lou Reed’s “Turn to Me”.

Meanwhile, the band gets sly on what seems to be a romantic romp on “You And I”. With Leslie Feist providing supporting vocals, the acoustic music is aw-shucks ‘70s pop love. But Tweedy is effectively declaring intimacy unnecessary: “Oh, I don’t want you to know/and you don’t need to know/that much about me.” I don’t know if therapists will approve of this.

This stands in contrast to the powerful album closer, “Everlasting Everything”. Tweedy’s voice is front and center, backed by just a piano. Tweedy simply observes that everything must die or fall apart. But his love will last forever, “or nothing could mean anything at all.” The languid verses are offset by the quick rush of the chorus, which is extremely effective.

The worst that can be said about this album is that it doesn’t have any unifying musical or lyrical theme. Putting that aside, Tweedy is still writing exceptional songs and this band is by far the best vehicle to put them across. Wilco = essential.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Micachu -- Jewellery

Micachu -- Jewellery (Rough Trade)

For a youngster, Mica Levi has mastered both simplicity and complexity. Her debut album, featuring back up on some tracks from her band, The Shapes, is a terrific collection of post-punk pop. Her androgynous boyish vocals navigate through oddball rhythms, her own guitar scratchings and some surprisingly compelling melodies.

What I like most about this album is that I don’t think Mica ever slavishly rips off any particularly artist. It’s almost like she transfused Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again into her bloodstream and found a way to reconfigure a slew of old but not overused ideas.

Her quirky guitar playing and strong sense of rhythm drive most of her compositions. That sense of rhythm can be naughty or nice.

It’s quite nice on the single “Golden Phone”, which thrums along on a skipping beat with melodic harmony vocals and Casio beeps easing the groove along. This is a quirky summer song with a few wrinkles.

But the rhythms get a bit trickier on “Lips”, a full band effort which sounds like a twinkier version of The Fall’s psychobilly workouts. Mica plays some skittering guitar leads, while the Shapes pound out an infectious quirkbeat.

On “Just on Case”, the song is structured around a cacophony of strumming guitars, the ebb and flow of the rhythm giving the song a sense of rushing from out of nowhere. Mica uses dynamics effectively, with the music quieting down in spots for her to toss off some phrases like “I won’t have sex/’cos of STDs” that really grab the ear. There’s even a bit of a funk work out that crops up, sounding like a cuddlier Minutemen caught in a loop.

This is followed by perhaps the catchiest number on the album, “Calculator”. A Mica strum opens up into a playful tune. The simple melody is again enhanced by dynamics -- the band stops, the band kicks in, stops, kicks in and so forth. There’s a nifty middle eight where Mica’s guitar almost sounds like a ukelele.

Mica keeps the album moving, and the songs don’t overstay their welcome. In the tradition of Wire, every song has about all it needs and when the basic ideas have been exploited to maximum effect, the song ends.

This is simply a dazzling debut from an exciting new talent. I can hear bits of early XTC, The Cure, Scritti Politti, The Fall and others, but never to the point where the reference points overwhelm the tunes. This is because Mica, with her voice and guitar playing, keeps her personality front and center.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey -- Here And Now

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey -- Here And Now (Bar None)

It was a few years ago that The dB’s reunited and played a smattering of shows, promising an album in the future. That promise has yet to be realized, but the appearance of this album from the band’s two songwriters, is a pretty nice stop gap.

The first Holsapple & Stamey album, 1990's Mavericks, is a minor pop classic, and this album can’t quite approach that standard. But with two pop masters like these guys, there are some real gems.

One of those gems is a cover. The duo takes on Family’s “My Friend the Sun” on the first track, and it sets the tone for the album. Holsapple’s reedy voice radiates optimism on an album that is distinguished by its general good cheer. The whole point of the song is that even though the sun is “well on the run/he’s there in the distance/if you care to see,” i.e., things will get better, just keep your head up.

The songs whipped up by Stamey and Holsapple generally follow this theme, celebrating the big and little things in life. For example, Holsapple sings an ode to the dynamics of a loving relationship on “Early in the Morning”. Over a gentle mid-tempo jangle, Holsapple expresses his devotion by promising to make coffee for his love, letting her sleep in. After all, he can’t sleep well, so why not? I’m not sure if Branford Marsalis’ saxophone accompaniment adds much, but this is a sweet (and perhaps, for some, too cute) love song.

Stamey goes even further with “Broken Record”, a song of incredible beauty. This song is a slow burner with Stamey providing jazz guitar undertones in spots. Stamey, in his signature warble, sings, “Let me be your broken record/let me be your favorite song/let me be your broken record/the one we play all night long.” This song is achingly romantic, with Stamey cataloging the different songs or artists who might provide that special song. It’s a simple metaphor, executed to perfection.

Devotion is one of the primary topics on this record, as further illustrated by “Broken Record”’s companion, “Santa Monica”. Here, Stamey expresses his desire to “hang around with you/until my life is through.” The music here has a real weight to it, as both Stamey and Holsapple are clearly emotionally connected to the sentiments expressed therein.

Holsapple’s take on true love is bouncier and more clever, though no less heartfelt. On “Some Other Part”, a strummy acoustic number with just a hint of twang, Holsapple tries to create a love equation: “Half of me/is also carbon based/then there is that other half/since I’m so good at math/that means you owed me/some other parts.” This song comes from the same place as dB’s classics like “Love Is For Lovers” with just a little bit more of a laid back vibe.

In addition to the unity of mood and theme, these songs are better suited for the duo format than The dB’s. To put it another way, this doesn’t rock or power pop too much. And I don’t have a problem with that.

This album is not quite as strong as Mavericks, as it simply isn’t quite as good song for song. There’s one clunker, Holsapple’s “Widescreen World”, a lightweight mix of power pop and The Rascals that is just a bit too trifling, and a few other songs that aren’t too memorable.

But the album ends really strong. “To Be Loved” is a lovely ballad, with Stamey and Holsapple harmonizing over spare backing, including a pedal steel guitar that provides just the right amount of color. Stamey takes the lead in the verses and the simple lyrics give this the sound of a standard from decades ago.

Meanwhile, Stamey’s “Tape Op Blues” is a chuckle-worthy account of a recording session. Stamey tells the familiar story of an up-and-coming band who blow their advance and confidence while getting their first album done: “The first few weeks went swimmingly/we fired the drummer/and drank coffee/the basic tracks went like a knife through butter.”

It’s a light note on which to end an album that radiates so many good vibrations.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Doves -- Kingdom Of Rust

Doves -- Kingdom Of Rust (Astralwerks/Heavenly)

It’s starting to sound like Doves are making a box set of wonderful pop albums, one disc at a time. The band mixes melancholy tunes that have the grandeur of romantic predecessors like The Blue Nile with lessons the members learned in getting people out on the dance floor. The result isn’t dance music, but classic pop with a modern edge and some groove. This is well illustrated on “Compulsion”, which melds a prominent slowed down disco bass line with prettily strummed guitars and a haunting shoegazer chorus to make something both familiar and unique. At times the band verges on anthemic, as on “The Greatest Denier”. However, the big music here never goes over the top, only threatening to do so, adding to the excitement. The two best songs are the title cut, which has an uncharacteristic loping Western shuffle rhythm over the usual beautiful melody, and “Spellbound”, a breathtaking mid-tempo ballad with lovely lead guitar work over a cascade of acoustic guitars, with a typically soulful and engaged lead vocal. This is probably just a shade below the band’s last effort, Some Cities, but that’s just the difference between classic and merely great.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Resonars -- That Evil Drone

The Resonars -- That Evil Drone (Burger)

Matt Rendon has a voice that sounds a fair amount like Allan Clarke of The Hollies. He also is a capable one man (in the studio) band, layering on harmony vocals that sound swell. So The Hollies loom large when listening to The Resonars.

But Rendon does not write pure British Invasion style pop songs. There are no “Bus Stop”’s here. Rendon’s songs cover somewhat different ‘60s turf. He is a master composer of psych-pop and rock. His songs are consistently melodic, but they also really rock.

Without going back to past Resonars releases (primarily due to the stack of other things I need to review), the latest plate seems just a bit tougher and forceful. I don’t mean that this is raving Blue Cheer acid metal. It’s just a bit more pointed. Of course, it could mean it's been a wild that I've listened to The Resonars, other than when a track comes up on shuffle on my iPod.

Beyond that distinction, this album is blessed with hooks galore. What I find interesting is that Rendon isn’t so much about the indelible chorus as he is about striking instrumental passages. The catchiest aspects of these songs are usually little guitar figures or riffs that lock a song into the brain for good.

The best example of this is the amazing “Here’s the Frenzy”. Rendon seemingly deconstructed a few different songs to come up with this five layer cake of retro psych bliss. Where to begin? How about the beginning?

The song fades in with jangly lead guitar, before slamming into power chords, leading to rock that sounds like a freakbeat train in danger of running off the rails. Rendon adds some twanging Dick Dale/Link Wray guitarage underneath, creating a mix of rumble and lovely Townshend-like licks. Throw in some crisp drumming with crashing cymbals and this is a song that keeps soaring and riffing, with the pretty parts providing a welcome release.

If you want something in more of a Merseybeat vein, head back to Track 2, the breezy “No Black Clouds Float By”. This might have the strongest chorus on the record, as this is pure pop pleasure, augmented by some stinging lead guitar lines.

This is followed by the dramatic, sweeping “One Part Moan”. Here, the lead guitar gets things going right away, but the verses are carried by the urgency of Rendon’s work on the bass guitar, all to set up more lead guitar wonder. Throw in the terrific vocals and a grabbing melody and this song is pure excitement.

Indeed, The Resonars specialize in these keyed up numbers, with “World Apart” and “Black Breath” providing similar thrills. But Rendon adds a vaguely countryish number in “Sister Sally” (sounding like The Hollies meet A Quick One era Who), a pretty acoustic ballad (“Yes Grosvenor”) and really nifty mid-tempo instrumental (“Run Kodiak Run”).

Yep, this is another winner from The Resonars. The band may take its cues from the past, but the music sounds as fresh as can be.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Maximo Park -- Quicken The Heart

Maximo Park -- Quicken The Heart (Warp)

At first, the title of the third Maximo Park album seemed like a cruel joke. This album sounded like a band going through the motions, regurgitating the same old pop songs with slightly slicker production, courtesy of veteran knob twiddler Nick Launay.

And you know what? Despite the fact that my reaction to this album has gone from meh to yay, I’ll admit that Maximo Park hasn’t made major changes since its debut album managed to stand out amongst a crowd of British post-punk inspired acts.

So why does this work? Because Maximo Park is really good at what it does. The band has a sharp sound, with texture and tone. And Paul Smith makes his tales of romance sound of the utmost importance, while he alternatively buys into the melodrama and deflates it, depending on his mood. Moreover, in going back to the band’s debut, I realized just how much tighter and more powerful the band sounds now -- and they sounded pretty sharp back then.

Rubbery bass lines, biting guitars, rock solid drumming and keyboards augmenting melodies are all in place. The killer hooks of songs like “Apply Some Pressure” aren’t in abundant supply, but the hooks do reveal themselves over repeated plays.

The twitchy music fits the fitful mood swinging of Smith. He doesn’t just play the loser in the game of love, as evidenced by songs like “Questing, Not Coasting”, where he shags a gal while they watch a thunderstorm outside a window. But he’s a thinker, hence, when he tries to get sexy, he gets all analytical.

This is reflected in “Let’s Get Clincal”, a cool mid-tempo track with snappy drums and percolating bass and keyboards. Smith puts his cards on the table, crooning “I’d like to map your body out/inch by inch/North to South/and I’m free for circumnavigation.” The band contrasts the jocular verses with some chilly synths and rapid fire drumming in spots, to add the necessary pulp novel atmosphere.

That sense of drama is anticipated by the title of “A Cloud of Mystery”. Here, Duncan Lloyd’s guitar keys the proceedings, with a hint of a ska rhythm in the verses as Smith sings of a girl who is “dressed up/it’s her duty to the town.” Here, Smith is going after the haughty gal that everyone wants, getting a fleeting chance before she took off: “I threw myself into your world/only to come up short.” The song builds to crashing choruses that sound like a mid-point between The Cars and Gene. At least it sounds that way to me.

The callow yet knowing youth that has been at the center of Maximo Park’s songs is growing up, as shown on “I Haven’t Seen Her in Ages (An Opening)”. This uncharacteristically wistful song finds Smith reminiscing about a love that never found its footing and how it still haunts him. As we so often do when dumped, Smith focuses on the best moments of the relationship, while acknowledging that “she ripped me to shreds” and that she is “my ailment.” Again, the music is pleasant mid-tempo pop, with just a hint of post-punk sharpness.

Perhaps the main reason this album didn’t grab me at first is because the band is just a little bit less frenzied, a bit less herky-jerk, even though the general approach is the same. There are still some true rockers in the mix, but the slightly more mature point of view seems to require more reflective settings.

Whatever the case, Maximo Park has won me over again, primarily on the strength of Smith’s personality and lyrics. Because the front man truly drives the band, I’m curious if the band’s music can go much further. I’ll find out in a year or two.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cheap Trick -- The Latest

Cheap Trick -- The Latest (Cheap Trick Unlimited)

I suppose any band that’s made it through three decades is going to engender the inevitable “This is the best album since _____________” hype. That’s certainly happened with the new Cheap Trick album, the third Trick effort since the 1997 eponymous effort that proved to the world the band’s continued vitality.

Sadly, this album does not live up to the hype. But The Latest, like its predecessor, Rockford, shows that Cheap Trick is still more than capable. The musical excellence of Cheap Trick can’t be disputed. Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos are all superior instrumentalists. As good as those three are, the best of the bunch might be Robin Zander, who is simply one of the greatest vocalists of the rock era. It’s not just Zander’s range and power, it’s the fact that he is a true interpreter who tailors his vocals to what a song needs.

This album is a particularly good showcase for Zander, as it is dominated by mid-tempo ballads of varying degrees of quality. However, this surfeit of mid-tempo songs makes the album somewhat monochromatic.

There are only a smattering of rock numbers here, and even those get in and out a bit too quickly for my taste. The album kicks off with a cover of an obscure (i.e., not one of the band’s 15 UK Top 10 hits) Slade tune, “When the Lights Are Out”. The band arranges the tune to fit into the arrangement of the lead cut of the first Cheap Trick album, “Elo Kiddies”, from Bun E. Carlos’s distinct drum beat to some of Rick Nielsen’s guitar leads. The song is light hearted fun, which is how Slade intended it in the first place.

The band moves into “Way of the World” territory on “Alive”. And familiar territory it is, but when the chorus explodes with guitars and keyboards and Zander riding on top of the whole thing, it’s fairly irresistible.

“California Girl” is a glam-boogie rocker that passes by nicely, but if it took more than two minutes to write the lyrics, everyone in the band should be shamed. Actually, the band should be ashamed anyway. But the track cooks. So does “Sick Man of Europe”, which also has the benefit of not being stunningly juvenile. This is nagging and nasty rock, with a beefy Petersson bass line. It’s a shame that the track, which takes its name from a precursor band to Cheap Trick, is barely over two minutes long. It’s also too bad that there aren’t more stinging numbers like this to balance out the numerous softer numbers.

Now some of those soft numbers are pretty good. In fact, “Everybody Knows” may be the best song on the album, a yearning, pleading number in the vein of The Beatles and Electric Light Orchestra that is just a notch below Cheap Trick classics like “Voices” and “World’s Greatest Lover”. Inspired stuff. “Miracle” is a more subdued variation on the same theme, and shows that being subdued might not be the best way to go, though it’s a nice track.

The same can be said of the psych-pop “Closer, The Ballad of Burt and Linda”. But “Miss Tomorrow” and “These Days” hit the well a bit too often and verge a bit more into power ballad territory, especially the latter tune.

I think that this album emphasizes the soppy side of Cheap Trick just a bit too much and the rockers don’t often go into darker territory to provide some balance. So this album slots in a notch below Next Position Please and Rockford in my personal Cheap Trick rankings (Also ranking ahead -- the first four studio albums, the first live album, One On One, All Shook Up, the 1997 album). That makes it a nice record that gives me hope that the next one might be great.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tommy Keene -- In The Late Bright

Tommy Keene -- In The Late Bright (Second Motion)

Tommy Keene’s melancholy shimmer jangles eternally. At this point in his career, artistic progress is, for the most part, best measured with a microscope. Here, the big change between this and other Keene albums is the presence of his first instrumental.

That instrumental, “Elevated”, may be the highlight of the album. It’s not just that it provides a fitting showcase for Keene’s fantastic guitar work, but it’s also that the spacey, reverb filled piece takes Keene’s sound in a wholly different direction. It’s pretty and atmospheric, with the same majesty found in so many of Keene’s power pop classics.

And those classics are best found on prior albums. This may be the first Keene album not to have a couple easy to identify, out-of-the-box stand outs. The consistent Keene sound is there, and everything is lovingly crafted, but the choruses just don’t stick that often.

It really pains me to say it, but it’s hard for an artist to mine the same vein for over two decades and not finally succumb to sameiness. The songs simply aren’t as good as on prior efforts. That being said, there is still a reassuring mood set by Keene that still makes this quite listenable.

The reediness of Keene’s voice, the sparkle of his guitar playing and the wistful melody that suddenly swoops in an unexpected place make “Realize Your Mind” a keeper. And it’s hard to resist “A Secret Life of Stories”, a mid-tempo song that has DNA that dates back to Big Star, infused with the natural empathy that Keene brings to everything.

That empathetic quality is even more in evidence on the pretty “Nighttime Crime Scene”. On this song, Keene starts off with just an acoustic guitar, letting his voice center the track. Even when the rest of the instruments come into play, what makes this such an affecting song is how Keene rides along the inviting melodies, which he effortlessly stitches together.

One other fine track is “Please Don’t Come Around”, which showcases the more dramatic side of Keene (think of past classics like “Before the Lights Go Down”). The drama is created by the distinctive lead guitar figure that keys the verses, which build tension until the relative rush of the chorus. Giving this song an extra boost is a cool brief bit of guitar chord dissonance before a killer Keene solo.

As you may discern, I’m conflicted about this album. It doesn’t excite me, and it won’t be the first Keene album I’ll pull out. But since no one else does what Tommy Keene does, the best moments on the disc certainly justified my purchase. This wouldn’t be where to start your Keene collection, but it is a worthwhile part of any such collection.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Deena -- Somewhere In Blue

Deena -- Somewhere In Blue (self-released)

The third listen is the charm with the first solo album from Deena Shoshkes, the lead singer of The Cucumbers. Or should I say the third listen is where the charming really begins?

Deena still has the same sweet girlish voice that has made The Cucumbers a distinctive pop band since the ‘80s. And on this album, she shows that she is very well suited to sing country tinged numbers.

This platter isn’t all country (or alt-country for that matter) but blends in some twang with Deena’s stock-in-trade perky pop numbers. So if you dug The Cucumbers, you’ll have fun with the bopping “Gemini Guy” or “Science Fiction”, a nice jangly number.

But the heart of this album consists of winsome country-rock numbers like “That Moon’s Got It Made”, which spotlight her voice and her slightly offbeat world view (she’s not weird enough to be quirky -- she’s sweetly clever, without being a showoff) and “Why Do Hearts Go Cold?”. Deena even shows off a torch singer side on the title cut, which opens the album and helps set the tone. All in all, this is a very successful solo debut, with Deena expanding her artistic horizons while still playing to her strengths.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Site update (i.e., the lack of updated posts)

Due to a host of reasons, I have not been posting as much lately. I hope to change that to an extent in the next few weeks.

One way I'm going to do so is to go back to doing some capsule reviews, like I did at Part of the reason for fewer reviews is that I struggle to write expanded reviews for every album. Sometimes, I just don't need that much space. For example, I've been trying to expand upon the first solo record from Deena of The Cucumbers for weeks. But I can put together a long paragraph and tell you why I think it's a darned good pop record (which it is). So that's what I'm going to do.

Most of what I review is comprised of things I've bought. But folks do send me discs, and artists like Chris Hickey, Dipsomaniacs, Michael Carpenter and The Resonars deserve reviews a bit sooner than I've been able to kick them out. And I intend to correct that (and look for reviews of those artists and more, soon).

On a related note, I have to apologize to artists who have e-mailed me about reviews and received no response. I've been hesitant to take in more music when I feel so behind. But that's no excuse for not sending a polite reply. That will change as of today.

I plan to get a review or two up tomorrow and get back to two or three reviews per week. Ciao!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Consumer Alert --'s Cheap Trick selling The Latest

(NOTE: Since posting this, I received the disc and read consumer posts which indicated that the disc sounded fine and the package was acceptable. This turned out to be the case. That being said, I think that Amazon still should have been more upfront about things.)

When Cheap Trick announced that it was initially selling its new album, The Latest, exclusively on, I wasn't really keen on the idea. But after hearing a clip of the track "Sick Man Of Europe", I didn't care. I had to have the album.

So I signed in to and ordered the album. The price: $12.99 plus the $2.98 shipping cost. Not a bargain, but I had demand and they had the supply.

To get to that point, I entered the appropriate search terms: Cheap Trick The Latest. This took me to this page. As you can see, after offering the album as download for $8.99, there is a listing for an audio CD.

I clicked on that link, which took me to this page. Scroll down to Product Details, and Amazon again refers to this as an "Audio CD."

This would lead most people to believe that one would be buying an ordinary audio CD. You know, like the one that you can buy in a store.

However, that's not the case. Keep scrolling down the page. Past the sample clips, down to Editorial Reviews and the product description. This is where Amazon advises that "This product is manufactured on demand using CD-R recordable media.'s standard return policy will apply."

And apparently, according to one reviewer (the one who gives the disc one star, only due to this deception) the packaging is also substandard. This reviewer gets a lot of grief from Cheap Trick fans, many who ask if this guy could read.

Well, I think he can read. And I think he is perfectly justified to complain, being that Amazon represented in the first two places a person would look, that this was a CD and then squirreled away the truth about what it was selling more than halfway down the main page. I certainly didn't look this far down -- I thought I was buying a CD.

Had they priced this at a price more commensurate with a budget CD-R, I probably wouldn't be ticked off. But $16 for a half-assed package and product? No way.

Moreover, Amazon also blew the release date. The release date was Tuesday June 24, 2009. Considering that Amazon was cheaply pressing up the CD-Rs themselves, they certainly could have found a way to get those CDs in the hands of those who preordered it on that date. Instead, Amazon shipped it on that date. This means folks who bought it from the only website selling it (other than Cheap Trick's website) won't get it until the weekend, at the earliest.

Now Cheap Trick shouldn't be let off the hook either. I would think that the band (or its representatives) would have known about this arrangement. This is based in part on the fact that it has been reported that those who ordered directly from Cheap Trick's website received the actual CD, not a CD-R. If the band did know, then fans should have been alerted to this distinction on the website. But there would be a disincentive to do so -- ordering from Amazon drives up the CD's sales ranks.

As a consumer, I like, even though I realize it has an unfair competitive advantage on retailers, and pretty much does zilch in the way of philanthropy. Jeff Bezos is no Bill Gates in the doing anything good for society department. But this leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

And I'm a big fan of Cheap Trick. I hope that there is a sufficient outcry that the band realizes that you have to be more upfront to your fans. I'm going to return the inferior version of The Latest I'm getting any day now. I can wait until the July release of the proper CD. But I'll be a bit bummed out until then, and that may color my ability to enjoy what many are touting to be the band's best release in decades.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Madness -- The Liberty Of Norton Folgate

Madness -- The Liberty Of Norton Folgate (Lucky Seven)

The first album of original Madness material in almost a decade finds the Nutty Boys tackling a concept album. Here, the band looks at the Norton Folgate neighborhood. Quite frankly, as concepts go, this doesn’t force the band to stretch itself too much, as Madness has always excelled at chronicling life in London in small slices. But the concept inspires Madness to do what it does best -- chronicle life in London in small slices.

The only concession to the level of pretentiousness that should accompany a concept album is the title track, which a series of tiny songs strung together. As discussed further below, not only does Madness earn the right to a bit of Brian Wilson level ambitiousness, the number is a complete success.

It should be no surprise that Madness could age well, since the band’s last few albums were dominated by mid-tempo songs that were inspired equally by music hall sounds, The Kinks and ska. This album proves that they can continue to take this approach for as long as they want.

This means hooky pop songs galore. Just between you and me, most of these songs aren’t really part of the concept. What I mean by that is that observational pop is observational pop, no matter how you couch it.

Two stellar examples of this are “Dust Devil” and “Sugar and Spice”. The former is the first single off the album. The song is keyed by a supple reggae based rhythm with winning lyrics about a twenty-something gal who is burning the candle at both ends: “On top of the day break/and the last one to bed.” The song has two insidious hooks -- Mike Barson’s keyboard line that snakes through the verses and the superb singalong chorus. Brilliant.

“Sugar and Spice” shows that Madness has retained its mastery over the bittersweet that was typified on songs like “Grey Day”. Musically, this is Madness at its Britpoppiest, the type of song that launched a thousand Blurs. The jauntiness of the melody of the chorus is undercut by the portent of the piano and the resignation in Suggs’ voice as he chronicles the rise and fall of a couple for whom everything seemed possible when they were in high school. This is basically the response to The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.

Oddly enough, one of the most affecting tracks on the album is about escaping from London. “Africa” is simply a beautiful piece of music, with the band turning to some light percussion, creating a languid groove with a melody that meshes music hall with a bit of Brazilian flair. In this song, Suggs is a guy who has woken up from a bender who “couldn’t get to work if I wanted to,” who just wants to go back to sleep and dream of going to Africa. This is just plain lovely.

I’m just scratching the surface, as there are so many other strong songs, such as “Rainbows”, “Idiot Child”, “On the Town” and “Forever Young”. But, as I noted earlier, it all leads up to the title cut.

In the liner notes, Suggs describes the literary inspirations for this album, William Taylor’s This Bright Field and Peter Ackroyd’s A Biography Of London. That’s what Madness aims to equal on “The Liberty of Norton Fulgate”.

The song winds through ska and klezmer and Eastern European sounds, among others, while walking through the neighborhood and chronicling its history. Africans, Chinese, Malaysians, Welsh, Irish and others find their way to “Shadwell’s Tiger Bay.” They all end up there selling their wares by day and dancing in the streets by night.

While moving from style to style, the band keeps coming back to a definable chorus that centers the whole epic. This is Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and Randy Newman rolled up into one, with the liberal spirit that fueled the whole Two-Tone movement coming through loud and clear.

The song reaches a thematic climax near the end with the simple refrain, “In the beginning was/the fear of the immigrant.” But they all moved by the Thames and look at what we have now. As this song reveals, not only were the fears unfounded, they should give anyone all the more reason to cherish London, or any place where the whole world lives in one city.

With this song, and the whole album, Madness has put an exclamation point on its career, releasing a definitive statement (even though it wasn’t absolutely necessary). If they weren’t already considered pop royalty, this album should tip the balance in their favor.

[NOTE: This album is apparently coming out in the U.S. on Yep Roc. Also, there is a deluxe version with more tunes that did not make the final release. Based on this, I'm hoping Yep Roc gets that out so I can buy it at a reasonable price.]

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jarvis Cocker -- Further Complications

Jarvis Cocker -- Further Complications (Rough Trade)

If Bryan Ferry was the ultimate lounge lizard, Jarvis Cocker is becoming his sleazy alter ego, just a lizard coming onto 20-something year old girls. Call him Buddy Lust.

Don’t believe me? Check out the opening lines of “Leftovers”: “I met her in the Museum of Paleontology/and I make no bones about it/I said, “If you wish to study dinosaurs/I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted.” Musically, “Leftovers” is a bluesy take on early-‘60s pop, allowing Cocker to persistently try to bed the young lady he is singing to, whether he’s putting down her boyfriend (“He says he wants to make love to you/But instead of ‘to’ shouldn’t that be ‘with’") or being brutally honest (“This is no ‘mouth-watering proposition’/make no mistake: you’re in big trouble little lady.”). The romantic spell of the music seems like wishful thinking as it doesn’t seem that Jarvis is going to get the girl.

He’s more aggressive on the buzzing rocker “Angela”. Cocker is all unbridled lust waxing ecstatically over a modified glam rock stomp: “She is mobile poetry/and she’s nearly 23.” This is one song where the stamp of Steve Albini (who, as always, recorded -- not produced -- this plate) is apparent, as this has a sleazy live rock feel through and through.

Cocker was wise to tab Albini to work on this record with him, as the performances are really crisp and immediate and the record is not overly slick. Musically, this album covers the same territory that Cocker has been mining for years, especially since the final Pulp album, We Love Life. It's a mix of dramatic R & B fueled balladry with some forays into actual rock music. The biggest departures, other than “Angela”, come on “Homewreckers”, which sounds a lot like the old Batman TV show theme and “Fuckingsong”, which is a brute rocker that could have come off an early PJ Harvey record.

The lyrical conceit of “Fuckingsong” is fairly clever too. Cocker wants to seduce everyone and this song is the vehicle. He can touch women with the song, and there’s a big advantage to this method: “Always eager, always ready, always in tune & always primed/& I’m always there for you -- I’m always on time/unlike in real life.” But in the end this substitute isn’t quite what he would like it to be.

Cocker is really on his game, as the lyrics are witty, his performances are consistently engaging and his core band is up to the task of performing what is sometimes fairly layered music in what is essentially a live setting. Whether it’s the soft-disco on the epic length finale “You’re in My Eyes (Discosong)” or the atmospheric and romantic “Slush” (“My heart melted at your touch/turned into slush”) or the show stopping “I Never Said I Was Deep” (where Cocker proclaims “I am profoundly shallow”), Cocker is ably supported.

I think that Cocker’s days riding the UK charts are well past him, but he is still making intelligent pop records. I already made a Bryan Ferry comparison, which is somewhat on target, and he mixes that suave approach with the ability to play characters and skewer pomposity on par with Randy Newman. I think that’s a great combo. But will the little girls understand?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bat For Lashes -- Two Suns

Bat For Lashes -- Two Suns (Astralwerks)

It’s pretty hard to write about Natasha Khan without mentioning Kate Bush. Khan is not an imitator of Bush so much as she is following the trail blazed by the queen of British art pop. Other artists, from Tori Amos to Sarah McLachlan, have garnered comparisons to Ms. Bush, but no one comes quite as close to putting together the package of music and imagery the way Ms. Khan does.

Khan’s music often sounds like The Dreaming/Hounds Of Love-era Bush if it were melded with some more modern sounds, such as trip-hop. And while Khan doesn’t have the pipes of Bush, she certainly has a winning voice.

This sophomore effort shows no signs of a slump. There is beauty and mystery lurking around almost every bend. And some hooks too.

This album starts strong and peaks in the middle with two songs that show Khan’s musical mastery. The dramatic “Pearl’s Dream” is an exquisite piano driven piece. Apparently, Pearl is an alter ego that allows Khan to express a different point of view. Whatever. The song starts with Khan accompanied only by a piano. The song turns from melodic to more percussive, with tympanies and drums and more keyboards building up in the refrain as reverb is added to Khan’s voice. She climbs up to the top of her range...and then things quiet down again. This is a very affecting song.

This is followed by “Good Love”, which is slinky and sexy. With keyboard lines on the top and an insinuating rhythm below, Khan is given room to narrate and emote. All of this leads into a delectable chorus, Khan multi-tracking her voice to great effect. As the song moves along, there are some creative arranging tricks that make it all the more interesting.

Khan has a wide array of colors on her palette. “Sleep Alone” manages to sound like a collaboration between Clinic and Annie Lennox, with a tense electronic drum beat mixing with angelic singing. Again, Khan takes a very captivating foundation and then embellishes with various instruments to give the track texture. This is topped off with another memorable chorus.

It should be no surprise that the first single from the album, “Daniel”, is also pretty memorable. This is a mid-tempo slow build song and despite all of the keyboards and other modern trappings, this is really just a good folk-pop song without any of the instrumentation that one would associate with that type of song. It’s as if Beth Orton went a couple steps further with her approach.

The only song that isn’t fully realized is the closing track, “The Big Sleep”, which features guest vocals from the legendary Scott Walker. Although his spectral crooning melds well with Khan’s pretty voice, the song itself doesn’t go much further than the main piano figure that defines it. It’s not a bad song by any means, but in the wake of what proceeded it, it’s a bit unsatisfying.

This exemplifies how strong the rest of the album is. The next step for Khan is stronger lyrics and to continue to grow and challenge herself. I look forward to following her on her journey.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Brakesbrakesbrakes -- Touchdown

Brakesbrakesbrakes -- Touchdown (Fatcat)

There’s nothing particularly original about the sound of Brakesbrakesbrakes (who I will refer to for the rest of the review simply as Brakes). This is British guitar pop that is capable of pleasing fans of Oasis, Cast, Nada Surf (not British, but sounds close enough for me) and others of that ilk. In fact, capable is putting it mildly.

These boys got some songs. And they know how to play them. Good songs well executed. That’s an unbeatable combination.

This is apparent from the get go. “Two Shocks” is a swell opener. It starts slowly, with singer Eamon Hamilton intoning gently in a manner of fact manner over percussion dominated backing, as the guitars reinforce the drums and the vibes. The music breaks down a couple of times for Hamilton to sing, “All I grow is disillusioned”. The intensity subtly builds until the guitars explode in the manner of classic shoegazer rock. This is a heck of a way to start.

The best song on the disc is so simply constructed and relies to a degree on the same slow build. “Crush on You” matches pithy unrelated lyrics (proper names, catch phrases and what not: “Vampire/snake eyes/snake face/ooh I got a crush on you.”) to a basic rhythm guitar pattern. As with “Two Shocks” the intensity of the playing builds to what the constitutes the chorus, a true release with a great lead guitar figure. In a better world, this would be a big hit.

Fans of Nada Surf would really enjoy “Ancient Mysteries”, a punchy pop tune that mixes verses that smack of ‘72 era Bowie and Roxy Music, into a guitar fueled chorus. The song is barely shy of two minutes and does what it needs to in that time.

“Worry About it Later” is equally brief. It’s a playful jangle pop song that would have sounded great between The Hummingbirds and The Housemartins on a 1987 college radio show.

That late ‘80s college radio era is also evoked on “Oh! Forever”, which rumbles with the majesty of The Jesus And Mary Chain, but with the dignity of Darklands (as opposed to the squalling feedback of Psychocandy). Like “Crush on You”, the Brakes have confidence in the strength of their melodies and rhythms, allowing them to build and build. This time the release doesn’t come in the form of a chorus, but in an extra layer of a strummed electric guitar. The song becomes a mantra of devotion.

There is nothing on this album that is less than listenable and there are a few more highlights that I'll let you discover. This is just a rock solid enjoyable record and there can never be enough of those.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Pansy Division -- That's So Gay

Pansy Division -- That’s So Gay (Alternative Tentacles)

“I’ve had 20 years of cock/and I’m never gonna stop.” Yep, Pansy Division has been with us for two decades, continuing to provide good humored pro-gay power pop. As an ultra liberal straight guy, I laugh along, and just think it’s cool that Jon Ginoli and his mates are so up front in celebrating their sexuality. It’s possible that Pansy Division can help demystify homosexuality for some younger folks and give confidence to others. It’s also likely that there are some factions within the gay community who don’t like songs like “Ride Baby” (which is about sex, not bike riding) or “Twinkie Twinkie Little Star” (which starts off with these great lyrics: “He’s in his PJs giving BJs to the DJs/who play what he’s likes.”)

In the end (oh, that’s could be interpreted as a pun!), none of this would matter if the music wasn’t any good. But Ginoli and Chris Freeman write strong hooky rock songs that never overstay their welcome. Moreover, the frivolity is always leavened with a few more sober songs.

Two songs that fit the bill on this effort are “Life Lovers” and “Some of My Best Friends”. The latter song is billed as the first Pansy Division song penned by a breeder -- lead guitarist Joel Reader. Okay, this isn’t the most serious political commentary, but Reader succinctly lets the world know that homophobia sucks: “I may not be gay, but I know this much is true/I’d rather fuck an asshole than be one just like you.” Way to go, Joel!

“Life Lovers” is the final track on the album and it’s an impassioned song about two guys living on the down low (well, at least one of them is). In characteristic Pansy Division fashion, the music here is less bouncy and more dramatic. Okay, maybe this song promotes cuckolding, but the larger point is that you can have feeling for someone of the same sex that go beyond friendship and act on them without messing up the rest of your life (which may or may not be true). Regardless, this song has a real edge to it and might provoke some thinking. Yep, thinking.

I should also mention the rip on folks whose anti-gay feeling run too high, “Obsessed With Me”. “Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, getting caught getting laid/there’s a price to be paid when you’re obsessed with me.” Point well taken.

Of course, there is plenty of fun to be had. I giggle every time I hear “Pat Me on the Ass”, a modified Bo Diddley beat pop tune. Ginoli extols the virtues of high school sports, as it provides so many opportunities for ass patting (see how direct the title is?). Meanwhile, “What’s In It For Me” is Freeman’s best tune on the collection. It’s about a relationship where they are either fucking or fighting. The music is somewhere between Fountains Of Wayne and Too Much Joy, and this might have the strongest hook on the album.

While probably not the best Pansy Division record, after 20 years, they are still full of spunk (yes, pun intended) and making good records. Here’s to 20 more years.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jim Basnight -- We Rocked And Rolled

Jim Basnight -- We Rocked And Rolled (Disclosed)

When I was in high school, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were considered a new wave band (though that designation quickly faded away) and some folks classified Elvis Costello and The Boomtown Rats as punk. Yes, that seems hard to believe.

But those artists all represented a fresh take on classic rock and roll moves. Around 1977, that’s what rock really needed. There were others fighting this good fight, including The Nerves, The Scruffs and out in the Pacific Northwest, Jim Basnight.

Unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, Basnight has never stopped fighting. While he’s never hit the big time, whether as the leader of The Moberlys (a band that got deserved props from Trouser Press), The Rockinghams, or as a solo artist, this is a big time compilation, brimming with vibrant hooky rock and pop. Perhaps because he’s never gone beyond his core audience, Basnight has never felt compelled to make any ill-advised artistic statements. Instead, he has stayed true to playing catchy rock tunes that mine from the past without aping it.

So let me hit the highlights of the highlights. I’ll start with the first song I ever heard from Basnight, a Moberlys song which was credited to Basnight individually on the first Yellow Pills compilation. Who cares who gets the credit, just enjoy a song that is top notch power pop in the vein of The Plimsouls’ “Million Miles Away”. It relies on powered up jangly guitars and a general restless urgent vibe, created by the combo of the guitars and the intent rhythm section. This track is a classic.

I’d say the same about the gentler “Last Night”, old school power pop that showcases Basnight’s personality filled vocals. His singing is rough around the edges, and the contrast between his pent up (sexual?) frustration and the light mid-tempo pop (somewhere between Marshall Crenshaw and The Scruffs) is compelling. This frustration boils over in a raucous guitar solo. This is followed by another gem, “Sexteen”, which is comparable to Paul Collins’ Beat.

Some of Basnight’s material is really classic rock that not enough people have heard. “Tonight”, another Moberlys’ song, would fit in well with anything on the first two albums by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, while the solo cut “Opportunity Knocks” is a fun bluesy romp in the tradition of J. Geils Band.

The CD is arranged chronologically, which illustrates that Basnight has always been capable of knocking out a great song. For example, his second band, The Rockinghams, kicked out “Space”. As Basnight sets forth in his informative liner notes, this is a take on the cliched need that guys have for space from their girlfriends. This song starts out simmering and reaches a full burn in the chorus, Basnight’s vocals moving from a modulated tone in the verses to full mania in the chorus.

There are occasional respites. For example, The Jim Basnight Thing scores a winner with “Summertime Again”, in which our pal Jim takes a cruise down Rascals Road. While he doesn’t try to do the whole blue eyed soul, this track has a nice laid back R & B foundation. This is mixed with Jim Knodle’s trumpet and Jeff Castle’s violin, giving the song a distinctive sound.

I could go on and on. There are 23 tracks on this disc, which begs the question: will there be a Volume Two?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Telekinesis -- Telekinesis!

Telekinesis -- Telekinesis! (Merge)

This is one of best indie pop albums to come down the pike in a long time. Moreover, it’s one of the poppiest indie pop albums to come down the pike in a long time.

The man behind Telekinesis is Michael Benjamin Lerner, a one-man band who is ably guided by producer Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie. This album sounds like a midpoint between Elliot Smith and Emitt Rhodes, which in an indicator of how strong Lerner’s melodies are.

I also think, though this is purely speculation, that Lerner is more mentally stable than Smith and Rhodes, though basing that on an album is pretty ridiculous. But I’m not a health professional. I’m a part-time music critic -- I can speculate to my heart’s content.

Now my speculation may be undermined by “Imaginary Friends”. The opening lines are humorous and sad at the same time: “When I was young I had imaginary friend/and boy did we have fun/one day my mother told me they were just pretend/and then I had no one.” Lerner sings this over an inviting bed of strummed guitars (one artist who comes to mind as a point of comparison is Mull Historical Society). The verses alone are catchy, but there’s a nice counterpoint lead guitar hook and a telling middle eight: “Look at me, I’m getting older/look at me I know.”

Lerner has mastered a big pop sound, as some of the best tracks on this album burst with life and momentum. Combined with Walla’s production, which is spacious and full, this leads to irresistible tracks like “Coast of Carolina”. The song is grounded in a simple guitar riff that Matthew Sweet would like to borrow, which gives way to a soaring chorus.

These sounds wouldn’t mean much if Lerner didn’t have oodles of great melodies to work with. This is illustrated by affecting songs like “I Saw Lightning”. This is a quiet, intimate number that is the primary basis for the Elliot Smith comparison I made. But Lerner has an extra sweetness that I don’t find with Smith. Here, a rainstorm isn’t a metaphor, instead the rain is an excuse to “sit inside our house and unplug all our phones” and get really intimate.

Lerner also scores with the cool pop of “Great Lakes”. This song sounds like a collaboration between Elliot Smith and Lindsey Buckingham or some other denizen of ‘70s AM radio. The melody is so smooth and there is another great lead guitar driven interlude that really resonates.

I can’t speak highly enough of this terrific album. Lerner is a great talent and he’s found the right collaborator in Walla. This is a team that needs to stay together to see what further magic it can produce.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 -- Goodnight Oslo

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 -- Goodnight Oslo (Yep Roc)

The second Hitchcock outing with The Venus 3 proves that this ensemble (Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin) is turning into a suitable substitute for The Egyptians. This relaxed effort is on par with the second tier efforts of Robyn and the Egyptians. There are no revelations on the album, but this is an enjoyable collection of Robyn being Robyn, which he is still quite good at.

The album starts with a Hitchcockian spin on swamp rock, “What You Is”. I say that due to the bayou feel of the band, especially Robyn’s lead guitar fills. He lays his basic Dylan-meets-Barrett whimsy over this, colliding two types of ‘60s sounds into something vaguely spooky yet frivolous.

The album really gets good about midway through. “Hurry For the Sky” is a wonderful loping folky number. The gentle chorus is so soothing and cuts against the restless feel of the verses. This is followed by “Sixteen Years”, a song that would have fit as well on Queen Elvis as it does here. This song is all furtive glances and accusatory gestures, with a simple acoustic guitar part grounding the tune, and Hitchcock grafting a couple of melodies that add a late-‘60s Beatles vibe to the proceedings. Yet this really doesn’t sound like The Beatles at all.

This is followed by the ultra poppy “Up to Our Nex”. With a light Bo Diddley beat, some rustic instrumentation (banjos and mandolins) and some horns, Hitchcock taps into the place that produced such gems as “So You Think You’re in Love”. The playfulness continues on “Intricate Thing”, where Hitchcock gives a typically cockeyed look at “love between a woman and a man.” You see, “you’re not just bodies on the sofa” and the key question is “can you trust me?” You get the feeling that Robyn is gently trying to tell us all relationships are ultimately doomed.

The album ends on a high note with the title cut, a swirling, hypnotic number that ranks up there with the best tracks off of albums like Fegmania and Element Of Light. Yet again, the jangling guitars and the pulsing of the bass and drums creates tension which never seems to release, which makes the song all the more compelling.

Some are claiming that this is peak Hitchcock. I can’t go quite that far. But this is more quality stuff, and I understand why someone might feel that way.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Strand -- Another Season Passes

The Strand -- Another Season Passes (Kool Kat)

The old saying is that it takes a lifetime to record your debut album and a year to write the follow up. The Strand have found a way around this cliche by taking a lifetime to record the follow up to the band’s 1984 bow, Seconds Waiting, on the old Wasp label.

The Strand were a band clearly inspired by ‘60s rock, with the best songs being about two parts garage for every one part power pop. Seconds Waiting isn’t a classic, but I picked up the CD reissue just last year, and it certainly has its share of gems.

This tardy follow up is comprised of songs that date back to the mid-‘80s and songs that were written in 2007, when The Strand got back together. The liner notes say “[t]ry to guess whether the tunes were written in 1982 or 2007.” With good reason, as the songs steadfastly adhere to The Strand's basic style.

In face, this is a better album than the debut. The band sounds just a bit tighter and the musicianship has improved just enough (on the songs that were recorded recently, there’s an old recording or two here) -- not too much, as that would take away from the band’s style. Furthermore, the songs are just a bit more consistent. While there isn’t one track as awesome as the should-have-been-on-Children-Of-Nuggets minor garage-pop classic “I Understand You”, there are simply more hooks. And, to paraphrase the scary Six Flags old guy, more hooks means more fun.

The song that comes closest to that high standard is the so nice, they recorded it twice “Scared Streets”. The first version on the album is actually entitled “Scared Streets 2". The song has a sinister feel to it, an urgency that is not typical of the band’s generally more jocular approach. It’s a bit of rant, and I mean that in the best way, with great lead guitar work by Bill Lasley. The other version is a bit rawer and the choppy rhythm guitar has even more of a ska feel than on the other version. The lead vocal isn’t quite as strong, but this song may be the scarier of the two. It was a good (in)decision to keep them both on the album.

Even rawer, recording-wise, is “On Her Own”, a nice mid-tempo pop track with a guitar line (which is complimented by a keyboard part) that sounds like something off a Nothing Painted Blue album (for you two Nothing Painted Blue fans reading this). The dodgy sound makes this sound almost like a demo, but the arrangement is too developed. This song is really charming and has a very ‘they don’t play ‘em like that anymore' vibe.

Though I’m nearing the end of this review, I should mention the strong start to the album. “Rising Tide” is a swell song that is consistent with debut album Strand, but has a certain weightiness. The more innocent vibe of the ‘80s has been replaced by experience, maturity and the hard knocks that came along the way. Meanwhile, “Why’d You Call” is dumb (yet smart) pop fun, with a simple bouncing rhythm and a clever lyric about a guy who’s been dumped getting a call from an ex: “You knew that I’d return your call/and take a chance however small/that I could hear you say it’s not the end.” Anyone who’s wanted one more chance, regardless of how foolish that would be, will relate to this tune.

It’s probably asking too much for a third Strand album, but if it’s in the cards, I hope they work a little bit faster this time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pet Shop Boys -- Yes

Pet Shop Boys -- Yes (Astralwerks)

(Phone ringing -- the way it sounds in Britain, not the U.S.)

Neil Tennant: (sounding slightly groggy, as if he just woke up): Uhh...hello?

Chris Lowe: Neil, where have you been?

Neil: Bloody hell, what time is it? (Pause) What day is it?

Chris: It’s Tuesday and we’ve got the studio booked for two weeks, starting tomorrow. Haven’t you got my voice mails and texts?

Neil: I’m sorry, I’ve been a bit...out of...what day is it again?

Chris: (getting slightly indignant) Tuesday, you nattering fool. Tomorrow, we start recording the new album. Have you finished the lyrics?

Neil: (sounding baffled) Lyrics to what?

Chris: To all of those music tracks I e-mailed to you a month ago! When I didn’t hear from you the past few weeks, I thought you were locked up getting the lyrics together.

Neil: I was...I was staring to get them together. I jotted some down, but I think the maid threw out that envelope. (Pause) Look, can’t we just reschedule the studio time? I can be ready next month.

Chris: (agitated) Neil, the economy is crap. We have a bloody small advance and if we cancel, we’ll have spent almost all of it before we even start production. Do you want to pay for the studio time out of your pocket?

Neil: Calm down, calm down! Okay, I’ll get something together. Maybe working under the gun will make it sound fresher.

Chris: (sighing) Whatever. Just get it done, and I’ll see you tomorrow.

Neil: And where is the studio again?

(Sound of dial tone, as Chris has already hung up).

The above dramatization is based solely on conjecture.

But there may be a grain of truth to it. Musically, this is a pretty good album. The Pet Shop Boys can still conjure up some poppy danceable tracks, mixed in with slower numbers that are alternatively wistful and melancholy. The lyrics, however, are comparatively weak, and that's a real disappointment.

For the most part, Neil Tennant has strayed away from specificity. The songs take on generic themes that, quite frankly, ol' Neil doesn't seem to be into.

This may be best exemplified by "Beautiful People". The music sets the wan mood with majestic yet muted keyboards playing over '60s girl group style drums. "Buy the latest magazines/and aspire to the dream/perfect home and perfect kids/not a life lived on the skids," Tennant sings, a wind up for the bland observation that he wants to "live like beautiful people." Lyrics this dull don't deserve such ornate pop backing.

Throughout the album, Tennant just doesn't seem to have his heart, or brain, into saying anything. There's "Pandemonium", an ode to paranoia. He sings about "building a wall." Why? Because "not so much what men are doing/much more what they're not." So could you explain what it is we're not doing? But when he gets to the part about "Jesus and the Man from U.N.C.L.E./Caesar conquered Gaul" I've got to think he's just filling time.

This album gets by on the innate pop sense of Lowe and Tennant. "Love etc.", the first single, is a good pompy synth variation on "All You Need Is Love" with a superficially more cynical edge. There's a frothy dance feel to "Did You See Me Coming?". And the closing track, "Legacy", has a chilling sadness to it, with a dramatic flair nearly on par with classics like "Dreaming of the Queen" and "It Couldn't Happen Here". So at least the music is up to standard.

Ultimately, what you get with Yes is all of the Pet Shop Boys style. There's just none of the substance.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Charlie Pickett -- Bar Band Americanus: The Best Of Charlie Pickett And

Charlie Pickett -- Bar Band Americanus The Best of Charlie Pickett And (Bloodshot)

Peter Buck of R.E.M. is quoted as saying that Charlie Pickett and his band “were one of the undiscovered giants of the late eighties.” As much as I would hate to disagree with Mr. Buck, if this compilation is Exhibit A in support of the Pickett legend, I hope he has more convincing evidence elsewhere.

When I was in college, Pickett’s reputation floated around, with his various bands, and he was touted as this amazing rock and roller. At least that’s what the press release said that accompanied Route 33, Pickett’s sole release for Twin/Tone. At the time, I found that Pickett purveyed a tough brand of roots rock with a low key sense of humor. But the best I could say about the music was a bit above average, at best.

More than 20 years later, I’m hearing some songs from that album and other sundry recordings on this collection. And my reaction has changed only a bit.

There are some standouts amongst the 18 songs on this collection, but many of the songs are merely okay. I will say that Pickett’s mix of twangy country and more Stones-y blues rock is distinctive. And Pickett has some personality -- he often sings the lines like he’s tossing them off out of the side of his mouth, a cigarette dangling off his lip. He was also one heck of a guitar player.

The best song on this album first appeared on his Twin/Tone album. “A. on Horseback” begins with a circular guitar line that is prominent through the song, and with a chugging rhythm track, this is a great tune for hurtling down the highway. “I wish that I could see/America on horseback” Pickett sings while Jim Duckworth keeps those leads coming. As the song goes on, Pickett adds some nifty slide guitar counterpoint.

Another top track is “All Love All Gone”, a great look at the battle of the sexes which indicates that men are doomed to lose: “She was woman/and I was boy.” Although this song is more mid-tempo, it also centers on the steady rhythm section work, allowing Pickett to rue the busted romance, while Duckworth goes nuts on lead guitar.

Pickett recorded an album with Buck as producer in 1987, and it yielded a magic moment with "On the River in '59". This track has the burning intensity of Neil Young. It's a showcase for Pickett's slide guitar, as he reels off some bluesy runs, and he is uncharacteristically uninhibited vocally, really cutting loose.

This is a contrast to his more usual jokey self, on display on "If This Is Love, Can I Get My Money Back?". Here, he warbles the witty lyrics of a tune originally waxed by his cousin Mark Markham back in 1966: "Baby, I tell you/one thing is true/I'm not getting younger/but neither are you/let's not squander our time." Rev this up a little bit, and I could easily hear Jason and the Scorchers rocking out to this.

The disc concludes with four live tracks that show Pickett in his element, back in 1982, finishing off with a passionate version of The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action".

While I don't think that Pickett's material was consistently strong, I have a greater appreciation as to his appeal as a performer. No, he wasn't a legend. But he was probably the best performer in town on any given night about 90% of the time. And while this isn't great, his career merited this retrospective.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Franz Ferdinand, April 30, 2009, Riviera Theatre, Chicago

One thing that struck me while watching Franz Ferdinand play a searing set at the Riviera to close out a cruddy Chicago April: where do they fit in? Here's a Scottish band that plays the most delightful blend of dance music spiked with bits of '70s glam and post-punk goodness, has a charismatic front man and one of the best rhythm sections in the biz. Moreover, they know how to write a great single. Yet their audience is shrinking. After all, where do they get radio play or some other means of getting across to a mass audience?

It's a shame, because the 2,500 or so folks who packed the Riv knew what they were seeing. They were seeing a band at the peak of its powers. Playing in front of a cool multi-paneled video screen, model-thin frontman Alex Kapronos was flanked, as usual, by guitarist-keyboardist Nick McCarthy who, unusually, was on crutches and helped to a stool. This did not prevent him from dressing smartly (as usual). Paul Thomson manned the traps, with an unfortunate neck tattoo and Bob Hardy (bass) still seems the eager kid brother.

The band opened with a three song burst -- "Jacqueline", the thrilling opener of the band's classic debut; "No You Girls", the sexy second single off the current Tonight album; and the awesome "Do You Want To", the first single from the second album. The band tore into each of them with vigor and Kapronos' baritone was spot on.

From there, the set leaned mostly on the new album and the debut, with a smattering of second album songs. The first half of the set focused on tight versions of songs like "Twilight Omens" and "Dark of the Matinee", one of the best pop songs of the decade.

The set hit a peak going into the second half, with a ferocious run through the must-dance "Take Me Out", which had the crowd moving in a frenzy. I've never seen folks dance at a rock show they way they do at a Franz Ferdinand show. They followed this with the lead track from Tonight, "Ulysses". It's not as aggressive of a groove, starting out chilly and building up in intensity. So it provided a brief cool down before sweeping the crowd up in a similar frenzy and when Thomson finished it with a drum roll flourish, folks went nuts.

Following this one-two punch with the more laid back "40"" was a great decision. This was a brief respite as the intensity crept back up for an extended run through "Outsiders" from You Could Have It So Much Better.

The encore built on that, with a nice "What She Came For" followed by an intense work out on one of the gems from the new album, "Lucid Dreams". Members of the promising support act, Born Ruffians, came out to provide extra percussion, and the when the song hit the lengthy electronic synth-dominated breakdown, the Riv became a Rave for about five minutes.

Most bands would have considered that to be a fine finish, but most bands don't have a song like "This Fire" to end the night with. The soft-hard dynamics of this song never fail to get folks going, and it was no exception on this night.

The one thing I want to convey is just how Franz Ferdinand: a) tore into its material with such relish and passion, b) did some rock star posing, which is okay, it's fun to see rock stars once in a while, and c) did so with smiles on the band members faces. From the first time I saw them at the 250 capacity Empty Bottle until now, these guys know they're good and take pleasure in it, giving the people what they want to hear and feeding off the enthusiasm they get back. It's why Franz Ferdinand is a must see live act.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tinted Windows -- Tinted Windows

Tinted Windows -- Tinted Windows (S-Curve)

Ear candy. Junk food. Disposable. Bun E. Carlos is so dreamy. Taylor Hanson is so dreamy. These are at least four, if not five, common reactions to the debut album of power pop supergroup Tinted Windows.

Some of you might be asking, “Supergroup?” Well, Hanson was a big band for a while and still has a fervent audience. And Cheap Trick and Smashing Pumpkins (James Iha) both held the title of Biggest Band in the World at one time or the other. Maybe Fountains Of Wayne (Adam Schlesinger) only had one top 40 hit, but not many bands have had the pedigree of the Windows.

Unfortunately, the sum is less than the parts. It’s not that the record doesn’t sound good. Au contraire -- this is sparkling power pop with a great vocalist singing his ass off. Where this falls short is in the songwriting department. Schlesinger is a master craftsman, but many of these songs only offer craft. This is the musical equivalent of a big slugging home run hitter settling for singles up the middle.

Repeat plays reveal some really nice songs. “Can’t Get a Read On You” is a galloping rocker, with Hanson singing urgently over the brisk backing track which is punctuated by Iha’s staccato lead guitar lines. This is a breathless rush of a tune.

Iha’s sole songwriting credit is the most stylized song on the album, the bubblegummy “Cha Cha”. This song is the missing midpoint between T. Rex and Tommy Roe, with Hanson taking the right approach to this dopey yet fun tune -- utter sincerity. And just when you think there should be handclaps, the handclaps kick in.

There’s a ‘70s pop vibe, with added muscle, on “Without Love”. This is one song where Bun E. Carlos is able to embellish with his trademark drumming style. Iha and Schlesinger add some enthusiastic backing vocals and Iha rips off a nice little solo.

And there is one good power ballad, "Dead Serious", which sounds like something out of the Cheap Trick or E’Nuff Z’Nuff songbook, with a more soulful and coltish lead singer. This song may have the strongest chorus on the record, with a great melody and excellent lead guitar accompaniment by Iha.

One thing that hurts this record is how banal the lyrics are. I think Schlesinger was shooting for archetypical powerpop but ended up with generic words. Material Issue’s Jim Ellison was particularly good at dressing up classic themes with little tweaks that gave them personality and a bit of substance. But one of the reasons the songs here don’t have as much staying power as they could is because they don’t seem to be about anything in particular, certainly nothing worth singing along to.

Even worse, someone decided to print the lyrics. This is almost as great a waste of paper as the entire Ann Coulter ouvre.

As with all supergroups, who knows if this is a one off. I would like them to take another crack at it, as this record makes me wonder how great Tinted Windows could be if the boys could just take it up another level or two.