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.