The 184.108.40.206′s subvert pop, punk, surf and rockabilly expectations with Bomb The Twist, the best EP of 2012 you didn’t hear
Play this EP straight through and you’ll feel like you’ve just taken a time-warp back into the classic era of pop singles. “Three Coolchicks” may be the best mock-Beatles track I’ve heard to really hit on the sound the band made famous, while distilling how that sound must have sounded to these three Japanese women coming up in the era of Quentin Tarantino “aural re-evaluation.”
Yoshiko “Ronnie” Fujiyama, Sachiko Fujii and Akiko Omo formed the 220.127.116.11′s in Tokyo back in 1992, achieving a modicum of underground fame when they briefly appeared in Kill Bill Volume 1 performing “Woo Hoo” by the Rock-A-Teens, but their music has yet to catch fire. That boggles my mind in this era of retro-pop nostalgia — the EP’s title track sounds like a long-lost Bill Haley smash as though filtered through the Ramones with a touch of surf-rock Beach Party mix thrown in for good measure. This is the essence of “fun” and “rock” distilled into 18 minutes of furiously twisted pop. Like Tarantino the music ably steals from an era long past, but the key is that filter which is applied liberally to the music to make it distinctly theirs. That alone makes this worth a listen. I dare you not to start singing along with “Dream Boy” as though it truly was the logical follow-up to the Chordettes or Leslie Gore.
Let it all be a reminder of how surely David Draiman rocks — Device’s self-titled debut delivers, “Vilify” leading the charge
There’s something about David Draiman’s inspired take on hard rock, tinged with all which is both invigorating and frustrating about the millennial hybrid fusion of rap and metal, that simply can’t be purged from my ears. For many of the same reasons I can’t stop listening to new Meatloaf records despite the fact that for every genius hook there’s an equally disappointing plummet, I find myself salivating whenever I hear any new track with that distinctive sing-song growl. “Arrrrrrrrrraughhhhhh!” It must be a product of my frenetic rock upbringing throughout the nineties which simply destroys all denial.
Draiman’s latest outlet, Device, has a self-titled debut coming out April 9th via the Warner label, and it arrives at once as addictive as anything Disturbed’s yet released, yet with more of an 80′s-inspired twist, particularly the incredible duet with Lizzy Hale on Device’s brilliant cover of Ozzy Osborne and Lita Ford’s 1988 “Close My Eyes Forever” which manages to blend pop hooks with Draiman’s typically uncompromising vocal energy. More on that in a moment.
First things first, however, as “You Think You Know” opens the album with typical Draimanesque bluster, including classic lines like “Get off me, you don’t know where I’ve been,” sung before he abruptly calls the mystery female a whore while referring to the monsters inside him. He’s like the opposite of Meat Loaf’s usual protagonist, the one constantly in arrested-development teenage lust, searching for desperate sexual release. Instead, Draiman’s songs come from that utterly opposite position where it’s all about living on a razor’s edge between fear, lust and ultimate insanity, a world rotting to its core.
You think you know, but it’s all in your mind. The sickness is everywhere, and we’re losing the battle.
What’s great about Device is the band’s willingness to twist the knife even as they merge Disturbed’s typical hard rock pastiche with backdrops built on layer after layer of Nine Inch Nails industrial and New Order inspired pop gloss. The opening triptych that is “You Think You Know,” ‘Penance” and the album’s first single, “Vilify,” unite everything fans will have come to expect from Draiman and Disturbed, but the new band seems more willing to play with those conventional expectations. “You’ve never had control from the onset,” he tells us. “Go find another lapdog, fucker!” He’s got this roiling tide of bile, distrust and confusion about the past, present and future, and the only way to get anywhere is to subvert every demand placed on the music.
Fuck you all!
Let every minute be a reminder
Of how it all came crashing down
Can’t believe this is happening
Don’t want to start over again!
How can this all keep happening
Over and over and over again?”
At that moment we finally come to a fork in the road — that aforementioned incredible cover of “Close My Eyes Forever” which should be the next single and the album’s ultimate mainstream breakthrough. Call it “Draiman Unchained” — apart from our demands for repeated past glories, the singer becomes a man willing to finally take the album to a new level. “If I close my eyes forever will it all remain unchanged?” Draiman and Hale sing back and forth, and while the answer in the end has to be “no,” we understand where they’re coming from.
It is easy to understand why Draiman has gone to such trouble to tell fans this isn’t an outlet to replace Disturbed — clearly he’s after a chance to redefine what’s come before, look toward the future and rediscover why he’s here to rock in the first place. The remainder of the album continues Device’s experimentation with hard rock and industrial, proving to be way more than a vanity side project while Disturbed takes a hiatus. “Out Of Line,” “Hunted” and “War Of Lies” won’t win over everyone who may have left Disturbed and David Draiman behind them a decade ago, but these songs (and in particular the album’s first four tracks) showcase a performer who knows his voice and is ready to get out there and dominate yet again, blending elements of the last three decades of hard rock into something perfectly shaped for our modern alternative landscape.
It’s not indispensable, but there’s something refreshingly invigorating about this album. Let it all be a reminder of how surely David Draiman rocks, and why we all could stand to take ourselves a little less seriously.
I never cared about your bucks
So if I run up with a mask on
Probably got a gas can too
And I’m not here to fill her up, no
We came here to riot, here to incite
We don’t want any of your stuff
Keep sticking to the script, mane, we never seen that shit
We knew the secret before they went ahead and Wiki leaked it
- – - – -
P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here got at least a taste of wide exposure, peaking inside the top fifty of Billboard’s album chart upon its debut, but the album deserves greater reach, limited by the Doomtree member’s need of a kidney transplant. Unable to tour the nation’s hip hop clubs and win fans over one by one live, the album’s material has to speak for itself.
Trust me — this is the kind of album Rhymesayers has built its name on, lyrically incisive and sonically diverse, ready to dominate the speakers of anyone who plays it for the indefinite future. AV Club called the album:
… a solid, confident step forward for the Minneapolis rapper, taking his confrontational punk-rap style and injecting it with a dark, danceable energy that sacrifices none of his signature hardcore edge.
But don’t take their, or my, word for it: give the album a listen, from the raw confrontational blitz of “Fuck Your Stuff” to the ominous keyboards and taut vocals of “They Can’t Come,” the album never lets up the intensity. It’s flame through both headphones, a frantic assault on weak-willed radio hip-hop, ultimately indispensable as 2012 stumbles to a close.
Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave pushes the boundaries of audacious art-rock, the year’s first outright stunner
When I first heard Alt-J’s genre-slaughtering blend of dubstep, alternative pop and infectious art-rock, I didn’t believe my ears. I searched for these songs in as many iterations as possible, reaching for what made them so damned explosive. Clearly there’s a reason the album An Awesome Wave is a front-runner for England’s prestigious Mercury Prize — these college students turned alt-music saviors don’t care about the lines they’re about to obliterate. They’re simply out to make music that makes you feel something.
The album plays best as a whole, letting the art-rock through-line electrify the circuit. Still, for such a high-concept piece of experimentation, An Awesome Wave brims full of staggeringly infectious melodies. “Fitzpleasure” on its own serves as their ultimate example, almost Jethro Tull-ish in its ability to morph through countless genres and mini-songs in the course of a four minute pop jam. It also benefits from the dirtiest lyric ever to sneak its way into an otherwise radio-worthy hook. This is Dark Side of the Moon meets Hot Chip, and the mad juxtapositions stack the deck. You cannot listen to this and not want to move! It’s an unimpeachable imperative.
Music fans willing to subvert their expectations and delve into an album which is as much pop as artful, daring genre exploration will find much to savor about Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave. By decimating the line between art-rock and the mainstream, the band creates new horizons for every listener who confesses to give a shit about music as a creative art-form. Google around every corner, layers upon layers make this the year’s most surprising outright stunner.
The last time I wrote about Skipp Whitman he just wanted to be famous, and knew he meant it. Now he’s got the confidence of ten men and he’s ready to take the rap life by storm. 5AM is a rare sophomore effort which exceeds its predecessor without changing what made the first album work. These songs flow together and showcase Whitman’s laid-back Jay-Z inspired grooves even as he further stylizes his own flow.
“Strangers told me I should be patient / angels sitting on both my shoulders / telling me ‘don’t go changing’ / just to try to please anybody at all’ / but I told them I was having a ball!” he raps on “Won’t Change,” marking a template for the rest of the album. It isn’t that he’s changed, it’s that he’s built on what came first and improved it, making for a fresh listening experience. “LA in the Rain” speaks of what pressure there is to “make it” in an industry where you have to be confident enough to say no to the hangers-on who will ditch you surely for every next big thing. The thundering repetitive drone of the backing track makes the song stand out as claustrophobic like a traffic jam, echoing the restlessness Whitman’s experienced coming up in the world of hip-hop, fighting for every opportunity.
The album’s clincher, however, is its most radi0-ready track, “The Upgrade,” which features the best of Whitman’s rhyming coupled with a sung chorus featuring Louie Bello that brings the hook times ten. “Here’s to the people who said it would be years / before I got any music-related bread,” Whitman sneers, making cracks about hangers-on who want to get a taste after even the slightest success. The melody of the beat will stick in your head, and you’ll be singing Bello’s chorus long after the song’s come to an end.
Skipp Whitman’s building his reputation as a brashly fearless rapper who understands his skills and is willing to work to get to the top even if it has to be one album sold at a time building a fanbase on the ground. 5AM stands tall as a sophomore album which avoids the slump frequently plaguing hip-hop artists who experience sudden fame and can’t handle it. He’s not rapping about making millions and getting a stable of bitches. It’s a matter of his smaller goals being reached, or at least becoming attainable. “I told you that I couldn’t straighten up and sitting on the sidelines ain’t enough,” he raps on “When I Let Go.” “Just being a spectator ain’t on par with how I see my life going.” This is the hip-hop album for those of us who first dream big, then do bigger — no apologies.
I’m always glad I follow so many bands on Facebook, because it has helped target the site’s recommendations on my behalf. Case in point: this excellent Oakland band which I never would have discovered had I not seen a note advising me to check out their debut EP via a “pay what you can” promotion on Bandcamp. The music I found upon first listen is a perfect blend of Americana and hints of soulful southern-rock gospel, an excellent way to spend a Sunday morning listening.
“At the End of the Day,” the album’s opener, introduces the band in a subtle way, letting the song’s confident grooves speak for themselves. The Hammond B3 in the background brought to mind Counting Crows, though Erik Yates’ vocals don’t necessarily draw such easy comparisons. But the band really shines on “Let It Fall,” building their strongest groove around a hook which would have sounded at home on a seventies-era Neil Young album. This is just their debut EP, but the nucleus is there — with time spent developing their road show and additional material, this could be the genesis of 2013′s first great album.
Nope, nothing sleepy about it!
ALBUM REVIEW: Bebo Norman’s “Lights of Distant Cities” features songwriter’s strongest material since “Ten Thousand Days”
Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Bebo Norman’s songwriting since I first discovered it more than a decade ago via Napster after reading an insightful interview with the contemporary Christian songwriter. I was immediately won over by his detail-oriented songwriting, on “Deeper Still” and “The Hammer Holds” from Ten Thousand Days, which radiated the depth of his faith without resorting to beating listeners over the head with theology or empty praise. Since then, he’s proven to be Christian music’s most consistently underrated songwriters, putting out album after album of heartfelt music of intense honesty.
Nothing he’s done since Ten Thousand Days has resonated quite as much as the songs on his latest album, Lights of Distant Cities, out October 22nd on BEC Recordings. “Daylight Breaking” is his most stunning single track since “Deeper Still,” raw in its multi-sensory presentation of every detail. “I can still see the daylight breaking,” he sings of an experience of true earthly beauty, backed by a propulsive melody of interwoven guitar and bass. “At The End of Me” opens the album with a surprisingly radio-worthy example of his elemental songwriting: “I’m like a promise broken every time I open my mouth,” he sings. “Under the surface, sometimes I want to slip right out of my skin and tell all my secrets.” The theme building just below the surface is of terrestrial experiences juxtaposed against the heavenly. “Do you remember when I was young and knew everything about everything?” he asks, hinting that we have to get over that sense of knowing it all before we can come to grips with what true celestial beauty is.
The great thing about Lights of Distant Cities is how, while writing songs about real people living honest lives in search of Christ, Norman continues to subvert expectations from a pop music perspective. “Outside Her Window Was The World” channels Coldplay through Third Day to create a sound truly his own. The element which propels these songs beyond his peers is the ability Norman has of cutting right to the core lyrically as he chronicles the lives of his subjects. “Come on, come on, set fire — burn through the pain, set it on fire,” he sings of a woman trying to cover up a “broken piece of love as sharp as a razor blade,” mourning the loss of of everything in her life which has fallen apart, as she’s left with nothing but the world outside her window. No one else in contemporary Christian music comes even close to this level of mastery.
For long-time fans of Bebo Norman’s work, Lights of Distant Cities is a stunning masterpiece which reveals more and more upon repeated listens. Those who haven’t heard him before, likewise, will discover an album of intimate depth and raw beauty which transcends its genre to become a pop album about which all lovers of meaningful music can rejoice. It is his strongest work yet, managing to stand out even in a discography as solid as any contemporary Christian songwriter has produced. In other words, get ready: this album is soon destined to rule the space between your ears, as one of the best albums of 2012.
Unless we’re all expected to grade future OLP albums on a curve, this effort by the venerable Canadian band can only be seen as a bitterly disappointing pill to swallow.
Our Lady Peace – “Curve” (2012, Warner)
As a long-time fan of Raine Maida’s music, I give him a lot of credit for being willing to push his band in varied directions over the years even when they were internationally dismissed as being just another Nickelback — alt-rock by the numbers. The band’s early albums from 1994′s Naveed through 2000′s Spiritual Machines stand among the best of the genre. They’ve simply lost their way somewhat in the current decade, as their shifting sounds frequently take a back seat to Maida’s off-kilter political diatribes.
Having interviewed both Maida and the other members of the band separately, I have the distinct impression that the two sides don’t necessarily always work in concert, which may explain albums like Burn Burn and Curve, which suffer from overblown lyrics and a sense that the musicians involved are treading water. The more control Maida has wrestled away from the band’s record companies, the freer he’s been to bog down these albums in sanctimonious bloat and lyrical nonsense, leaving the other members to simply come along for the ride. Maida has said Curve was an attempt to go back to the sounds they’ve mined on Clumsy and Spiritual Machines, but the music lacks the strong concept of the latter, and the hooks never come close to the former.
“Fire In The Henhouse” and “Heavyweight” provide the closest thing the album has to a decent pop-rock hook, and both are bogged down by indecipherable lyrical bloat: “Fire in the hen-house, protests in the deep south … it’s Shangri-La in reverse, time to call the wet-nurse,” Maida sings on “Henhouse,” before bogging us down in the chorus, rhyming change with accelerate, hesitate and calculate in an oddly syncopated stutter-step of banality. No one’s going to sing along with this, or likely even remember it beyond a casual listen.
And “Heavyweight” collapses beneath the forced metaphors of boxing and a world on fire, never really gelling around a concept listeners can fall behind. The chorus, where all should fall together, is a mess of babble: “When all these stars hit the ground, they’ll wake us; we fight not to be weightless.” Even a veteran of Raine-speak has to be baffled hearing him compare this to the depth and experimentalism of Spiritual Machines when there’s nothing to the bulk of the album to back up that comparison. It’s depressing to think he’s so far from reality, imagining this work is even close to on par with the albums which supposedly inspired it.
From there, Curve never finds its footing. These ten songs try to say something worthy of a repeat listen, but continually flop around as they struggle to suck air. “As Fast As You Can” tries to combine TV on the Radio with Arcade Fire with a stunningly toothless hook. “I’ve got a girl got a long snake moan,” he sings. “Got the voodoo in her hips and a God-shaped hole. I’ve got a feeling that the kids don’t know. What the kids don’t know the kids don’t mind, we all work on borrowed time.” Ugh, what a hot mess. If this is the best he can muster maybe it is time for Maida to hang up his pen for a bit and let someone else in the band a try. It can’t get much worse.
“I could be the greatest accident,” Maida sings on “If This Is It,” the album’s closest thing to a “Car Crash” or “4 AM” moment. “I just want to breathe you in.” Those of us who have followed the band for years, we have to hope the band still has something more to say, looking to the future more than they look so depressingly at their past, unable to recreate what made them tick in the first place. Unless we’re all expected to grade future OLP albums on a curve, this effort by the venerable Canadian band can only be seen as a bitterly disappointing pill to swallow.
These five tracks showcase a band fully focused on crafting songs which resonate, and they’re doing it fully on their own terms. All this makes for a Daniel and the Lion half-album worthy of some serious goddamned exposure.
Daniel and the Lion – “Death Head (Side A)” (2012, Independent)
I wrote about these guys back in September when they were promoting their last album, Sweet Teeth, which featured “The Chase” and “Horses,” two of my favorite alt-country tracks of the last year. Now they’re back and the five songs on Side A of Death Head up the ante something fierce. This is Adam Duritz meeting up with a more sonically adventurous version of the Fray, with the radiating pop-rock hooks of early John Mayer. In other words, nothing to be messed with!
“Death Head” opens with two minutes of hand-clap infused folk-pop with touches of Ryan Adams as Daniel Pingrey sings: “Lately he sleeps with us at night with his scythe in my mind. She says it’s nothing, go to bed — but there’s no sleeping with death head.” But it’s with “Flash Flood” that Pingrey and Company lay it all on the line. The melody is a deliciously delicate acoustic and drums combo echoing Will Hoge at his best. “The good sinks to the bottom and the lies come floating back,” Pingrey sings. “Everything is nothing, and we’re somewhere in between.”
These five tracks showcase a band fully focused on crafting songs which resonate, and they’re doing it fully on their own terms. All this makes for a Daniel and the Lion half-album worthy of some serious goddamned exposure. September can’t come soon enough for this listener, who’s already dreaming of Side B. One can rest assured, however, that the wait will be worth it. I called them Artists to Watch in Sepember, and they’ve more than lived up to the billing. Death Head (Side A) is an indie alt-folk keeper!
My Arcadia, particularly on their single “Sail On,” brings to the table a particularly fresh blend of alternative pop which bridges the gap expertly between melodic punk and vocal elements as far-flung as rock and alt-country. In short, this is an EP which will surprise first, then convert instant fans.
My Arcadia – “Stay EP” (2012, Independent)
New York’s My Arcadia hasn’t wasted a lot of time fighting for major-label deals or other outside bullshit. Their latest EP, Stay, establishes the band as one focused fully on the music itself, dedicated to pushing their sound in a direction few of their peers have attempted. Led by the fearless, peerless vocals of Jacqui Sandell, the band merges hard-hitting melodies with vocals of surprising depth and variance. My Arcadia, particularly on their single “Sail On,” brings to the table a particularly fresh blend of alternative pop which bridges the gap expertly between melodic punk and vocal elements as far-flung as rock and alt-country.
In short, this an EP which will surprise first, then convert instant fans. “Sail On” is the immediate highlight, but the title track allows the band, and Sandell in particular, to put an immediate stamp on what their music can be when everything comes together at one place and time. “Dreamer, keep on dreaming,” she sings. “I swear we’ll press on.” This is music for a generation weaned on alternative rock, still looking for bands willing to take a risk and write music they believe in rather than playing to current trends. When the band finally gets the exposure they deserve, it’ll be for this anthem. Here’s hoping Stay is just a glimpse of what My Arcadia still has up its sleeve.
“In the cracks there’s beauty,” sings Vance Kotrla, and taken in context with the rest of Sci-Fi Romance‘s latest album that’s quite the apt statement. This band isn’t the most fine-tuned machine you’ll ever hear. But this is honest folk-pop music in its rawest glory, and there’s a lot to be said for being willing to present the music in this version rather than polish away everything interesting in a studio setting.
I’ve been following this band since their last album, And Surrender My Body To The Flames, and their upcoming album The Ghost of John Henry continues to push the envelope creatively. The musicians fight to keep up with the concept, and at times the individual songs, divorced from the remainder of the album, don’t have the same impact as they have when heard as a complete song cycle.
Still, even if Sci-Fi Romance falls short of giving John Henry’s legend a deep emotional core through folk music, at least they’re out there swinging that hammer for all its worth. When John Henry beat the steam-drill it killed him. They’ll be around for another go, and there’s plenty to be glad for about that.
Don’t let the radio-baiting pop of “Buy Me” discourage you from giving Barefoot in Your Kitchen a close headphone listen. To ignore this album would be a major error. A stunning alliance of Norah Jones jazz-pop excusions meeting Amy Winehouse retro-cool nostalgia-diving, Bev Lee Harling deserves to be 2012′s next big thing.
Bev Lee Harling – “Barefoot in Your Kitchen” (2012, Wah Wah 45s)
I was ready to dismiss this album unheard when “Buy Me” hit my speakers and I focused on the lyrics of the chorus: “Give me your money / I just want to get onto the radio / I’d be so grateful if you could help me / I’ve been singing too long for free.” The song played as a crass cash-grab masked as mock honesty from a musician hoping to cash in on hipsterism’s love of irony, even if it is masked by a stunningly catchy bass-heavy dose of retro-40s meets 2012-pop gloss.
Thank God I kept listening.
Don’t let the radio-baiting pop of “Buy Me” discourage you from giving Barefoot in Your Kitchen a close headphone listen. To ignore this album would be a major error as the remainder of the album steps up the challenge, hitting a home-run in the process. A stunning alliance of Norah Jones jazz-pop excusions meeting Amy Winehouse retro-cool nostalgia-diving, Bev Lee Harling deserves to be 2012′s next big thing.
This is one of those albums where you can’t listen to the singles on their own and fully follow the songwriter’s aural muse. That’s not to say some of the songs don’t stand well on their own. My favorite being the sultry jazz-pop swing of “Robots and Angels” and her spectacular picked ukelele cover of Sting’s “Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which showcases Harling’s magnificent vocals — something the single does not remotely accomplish. The key grab, however, of Barefoot in Your Kitchen is that these songs merge as a suite, creating a debut no current American pop songwriters have come close to matching.
What stuns upon repeated listens is how deftly Harling takes her retro inspirations and twists them into modern pop. She does so without sacrificing what makes us nostalgic in the first place, while imprinting the songs with her own sense of original flair. Others who have attempted to merge the past with the present have fallen short of their goal, living in the past rather than probing toward the future. Not here: Barefoot in Your Kitchen is an album which reveals more on each listen, making it a valuable pop contribution in a year which has been devoid of many truly inspiring releases.
Just a few hours ago Rolling Stone launched a free stream of Peter Gabriel’s latest, Live Blood, which doesn’t officially come out until next week. The album, recorded live at London’s Hammersmith Apollo last March, is a sprawling double-disc opportunity for the legendary songwriter to preen in front of a live audience. These arrangements of songs from 2011′s New Blood and 2010′s Scratch My Back, with the added “benefit” of a 46-piece orchestra, prove to be a case-study in overindulgence.
Do you think Peter Gabriel is coasting? Read the rest at PJ Media.
Counting Crows – “Underwater Sunshine” (2012, Collective Sounds)
Counting Crows completed their deal with Geffen Records in 2010 with the release of Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, which revitalized their career and featured the band sounding as good as ever. Two years later – which is an incredibly quick turnaround for the band, all things considered – they’re back with Underwater Sunshine, a live album which manges to sound as good as any album of original material the band has produced thus far as they enter a third decade of recording.
The secret? Adam Duritz has been unleashed to cover his favorite songs, but with only a few exceptions he’s chosen to focus on hidden gems. The songs on Underwater Sunshine are, for the most part, songs you probably haven’t heard a lot in recent years. Hearing them together in one extended listening session, however, reveals instantly just how brilliant Duritz is at taking any song and cutting right to the quick. Whether he’s doing a relatively by-the-numbers version of Pure Prairie League’s “Amie” (the most recognizable song on the album by a long shot) or rocking the hell out of “Untitled (Love Song”) by relatively unknown act Romany Rye, he’s immediately able to become part of the song through his unique vocals. And the band picks up the pace right behind him, developing this song cycle of covers into a cohesive Crows album on par with the best work the band has produced.
In today’s musical climate the important thing is the music. If the music is good, fans will spread the word and even a band like Counting Crows can survive as independents, free of the constraints a label places on what music eventually is released. In Duritz’s case, leaving Geffen and setting his own course could be the best thing to happen to the band since Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings brought their music full circle back to the rock of Recovering The Satellites and the roots-inspired sound of their debut August and Everything After. Here’s hoping the band’s next album of original material keeps going in this same direction, because for one happy moment it sounds like Duritz has put aside his fear of mainstream success and simply started having fun for a change.
Above: Counting Crows perform “Like Teenage Gravity” by Kasey Anderson, featured on Underwater Sunshine.
Brian Jarvis – “Beautifully Broken” (2012, Soundwave)
Brian Jarvis has a singer-songwriter pop sound which instantly reminds one of bands like Vertical Horizon back during the late 90s alternative pop heyday. Yet there’s a distinct soul-searching touch to these songs which is deftly handled — “Beautifully Broken,” was written barely a day after the loss of his father, but the melody builds on a bouncing keyboard backdrop, with frantic stuttering percussion and background vocals One Republic would kill for. The result is a song about loss which looks forward more than it dwells in the past.
There’s nothing vague here; Jarvis paints vivid pictures, but does so with pop music in mind – the hooks, therefore, propel the songs. “Some days I want to run away, some days I want to stand right in place,” he sings on “Runaway,” hitting the nail on the head. “You can’t look back …” is the theme of these eleven songs which make up Beautifully Broken. The result is an album which plays brilliantly as an exploration of loss which dares to be upbeat and honest. The thundering percussion touches on “Tidal Wave,” as the song breaks down into a full-on celebration of living life while we can, showcases Jarvis’s ability to carry us away in song. “I’m in the wake of a tidal wave, brings me back around again and I will make it through …” he sings, and in this moment we believe.
Take his advice: start by letting go of your preconceptions. The music will speak fully for itself. That’s the mark of a songwriter worth paying attention to.
She Makes War – “Little Battles” (2012, Independent)
Laura Kidd, otherwise known as She Makes War, lives up to her name with this tightly wound example of exceptional alternative rock. Like a cross between Juliette Lewis and Juliana Hatfield, Kidd loads the 15 tracks on Little Battles with delicate vocals which anchor the crunching edge of the fully-loaded aural backdrops
“Exit Strategy” is the album’s brooding center: “Sometimes I’m only talking to myself,” she sings as thundering percussion, guitars and dueling synth effects create a wall of ear candy. “So I face my pretty tragedies; I contrive, survive little battles in my mind. I make my exit strategy — I deny I don’t try!” The album lives up to the battle-cry, each song building upon the last through shifting dynamics and edgy, confident songwriting, to create an album worthy of close headphone listening.
If you go into the album, however, expecting 15 variations on the theme of “Exit Strategy,” all with the same thundering punch and similar dynamic expressions, you’re going to be disappointed.Little Battles wins the musical war by dancing around expectations, building an album which stands strong because it’s so varied and adventurous.
“Magpie Heart” is a perfect example. The song initially sounds like a brooding singer-songwriter acoustic track, but builds its tightly-controlled fury through shifting highs and lows; by the time we reach the chorus and are then gently pulled back, the song has me thinking Smashing Pumpkins for all its twists and turns. This isn’t music for the lazy, but the rewards for those who dig deep are more than worth the effort. “Delete” then immediately twists expectations, providing an oddly structured, mind-bendingly addictive purely vocal example of what Madonna could be doing in the modern musical landscape if she was as willing to not repeat herself as Laura Kidd seems to be.
She Makes War’s Little Battles is already the most innovative rock record of the year, an album which plays well from front to back because of the artist’s intense commitment to tying each of these tiny masterpieces together into a cohesive whole. Each song works well on its own, but they rise to fuller heights as the individual pieces of a bigger puzzle. This album deserves to be the topic of every conversation about amazing, genre-bending music this summer. Here’s hoping She Makes War finds the audience it richly deserves.
Serena Matthews – “2012″ (2012, Independent)
The rain, it talks to me
When no one else can tolerate
My words that don’t make sense
To anyone except for me and my old friend the rain
- Serena Matthews – “Rain Song”
This album should come with the subtitle Greatest Hits, because even if you’ve never heard a word sung by Serena Matthews prior to pressing play on these, you’ll be won over and a lifelong fan once you do. Full disclosure: I’ve been addicted to Serena’s beautifully elemental folk songs since I first found her music on mp3.com close to a decade ago. Because she does not seek the limelight, her music never made a wider splash than it did on that site and various others around the Internet where she’s posted her continued creative musings over the ensuing years. Rest assured, however, that these are among the best bare-bones acoustic folk songs you’re liable to find.
The 21 songs on 2012 are each delicate aural paintings of raw depth and beauty which stand up to repeated listening because of their elemental nature. Whether she’s singing about a man going to his death (“Crow Song”) or observing the rare transcendent grace of the world around us (“Blackbird Fly Away”), Serena doesn’t mince words. Hearing these compositions all in one place after all these years simply accentuates what makes them so memorable and indispensable. Serena doesn’t want fame, but she’ll continue to have a rapt audience as long as she continues to release such stunning music. 2012 is a stirring example of Americana at its finest, and it deserves to be savored.
Meat Loaf – “Hell in a Handbasket” (2012, Sony Legacy)
Meat Loaf has always had a mixed-bag track record when it comes to his studio albums. Without Jim Steinman to contribute anything to his latest album, due out in March, the result is less than mixed; these songs, weighed down by Meat’s advancing age and decreasing ability to push himself to the vocal limit these over-the-top songs demand, sink rapidly under the pressure. There’s little about Hell in a Handbasket which merits more than a qualified “meh.”
The highlight, “All of Me,” is the album’s opening salvo, and it features an aging musician trying to relive his glory years with lyrics of young love and broken hearts: “This is my anger, this is my shame,” he sings. “These are my insecurities which I can’t explain.” Unfortunately the album showcases his insecurities in all their glory, as he refuses to choose songs which his voice can handle, and he’s living in the past, unwilling to admit he’s simply unable to do bombastic much justice.But the song itself is at least catchy — the remainder of the album plummets in quality from there. “The Giving Tree” is just plain lame from every angle, as Meat carries on a conversation with money, attempting to rationalizing “selling this old soul for whatever you can get,” giving “one pound of gold for ten pounds of flesh.”
A cover of Tom Cochrane’s “Mad Mad World” brings in Chuck D to try and liven things up, and his rap (given the parenthetical “Good God Is A Woman And She Don’t Like Ugly”) does just that, adding some juice to the proceedings. But the guest spot simply shows how vastly Meat’s been overshadowed, and that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. “Live or Die” brings some serious guitar crunch, but the songs builds up to a lame chorus: “there’s only two choices in life: live or die.” We’ve already heard the “get busy living or get busy dying” trope ten thousand times in rock. There’s nothing about this which demands listeners to put down their money in support of new material which pales in comparison with the work he’s done before. At least his getting back with Patti Russo on an oddly hip-hop infused version of “California Dreaming” makes up for a portion of the disappointment built up by listening to this album’s slow steady letdown. This is the music he could be making as he rides into the sunset of old age, putting his twist on music he can vocally handle. Unfortunately what works on that song tends to point out more openly how much he’s overreached on the rest of the album.
Fans of Meat Loaf will assuredly dig through the mess which is Hell in a Handbasket and find their handfuls of good things to say about what is assuredly a disappointing effort. There’s nothing here to win him new fans, and those of us who have stuck around are more likely to come out of this with a new-found determination to stick with the stellar back catalog rather than remind ourselves every few years how average his music has become.
Scotty McCreery – “Clear As Day” (2011, Mercury Nashville)
You can throw money at a project in the hope of receiving short term notice, but once a singer like McCreery steps off the Idol reservation, giving him material this weak leaves him to swim with the sharks while having no real talent to defend himself with.
I’m going to get a lot of hate mail for this one. But hear me out … unlike the Supreme Dicks review, in Scotty’s case he’s a genuinely likeable guy who has simply been screwed over by Idol’s powers which be, who gave him material which was so sub-par there was no way he’d build a career. Already disadvantaged by the fact that he’d won a national talent competition without the ability to actually write his own material, he was at the mercy of whatever songwriters 19 Entertainment would choose to craft material on his behalf. And when the best thing they can do is get Keith Urban to write drivel about how he needs to “loosen his tie and escape the rat race” on “Walk in the Country,” a song which also references hating “all of them TV shows.” If they wanted him to have a lasting career, they should have given him much better material to work with along with the support to develop his own songwriting abilities, writing about things he really believes. You can read the rest of the review at PopMatters, if I haven’t already sufficiently pissed you off.
Supreme Dicks – “Breathing and Not Breathing” (2011, Jagjaguwar)
As much as we want to think every underground band in the 1990s was producing quality just because no one was listening, the truth is sometimes underground bands are unknown for a reason. This is the kind of alternative music indie snobs drool over.
Of all the albums I listened to last year but didn’t manage to get published ahead of the “Year of the Album” banner, this was among the worst, if not that very thing. Bad albums are one thing, but this is a four-disc set which brings back to life a long-dead indie-alternative band which, from the sound of the material herein, should have been left mouldering beneath the ground. Deep beneath, if I had my way. You can read the full review at PopMatters, But after digging through the mess which is Breathing and Not Breathing, it’s hard to fathom there’s a significant audience out there featuring listeners who both haven’t already heard the Supreme Dicks and who are clamoring for the music they offer here. If a band existed on the fringes of a scene and then fell into obscurity, I see no inherent reason we should think their limited output is somehow suddenly relevant to rock music today. The idea that these guys from Amherst who made chaotic, inscrutable music are somehow ready for the rock canon seems, in itself, to be the height of pretension.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – “The Magic Of Youth” (2011, Big Rig)
The first impression that I get upon hearing The Magic of Youth, the ninth album from the Bosstones – okay, forgive the bad pun, will you? – is that, for a band nearing its thirtieth anniversary, these guys do sound remarkably youthful. Even as their blend of ska and punk exists in an alternate reality where third-wave ska never died and horns remained an integral part of alternative music, the Bosstones continue to put out albums which don’t waste time on superfluous fluff. Since getting back together in 2007, the band’s mission has been clear: save preppie indie fans from their own pretentious leanings. “They will need music to uplift; It will be a godsend, it’ll be a gift!” Dicky Barrett growls on “They Will Need Music,” a call-to-arms for those of us who still give a shit about music that inspires us to get up and prosthelytize. The rest of the album lives up to that call, giving the album significant momentum many of their peers consistently lack. While this won’t be among the best albums you’ll hear in 2012, it’s sure to be among the most honest and invigorating.
Not An Airplane – “It Could Just Be This Place” (2012, Indpendent)
A twisted, tasty morsel of what alternative country should always strive to reach, Not An Airplane, led by the balls by Nick Shattell, shows that music doesn’t need to be distilled to the barest common denominator to have something worth saying. A Kentucky-fried bluegrass-pop opera consisting of two single-song fifteen-minute acts (“Speak In” and “Speak Out”), the album distills a relationship from start to finish in all its gory glory (or as Rolling Stone puts it: “operettas of heartbreak autopsy” — take that, CSI!). It’s a whirlwind of frantic bare-bones introspection. Imagine the Drive-By Truckers pairing up with Drag The River with a libretto written by Jack White and you’ll go into the listening experience at least mildly prepared. Beyond that it’s impossible to put into mere words how much fun will come from repeating this pair of brilliantly conceived songs until your speakers break or your neighbors break the door down demanding just who the hell you’re listening to. It Could Just Be This Place is daring songwriting from a band not content with the status quo, and if there’s a more fitting way to start 2012 from a musical standpoint, I sure haven’t found it yet!