Two bands, opposite directions.
Paramore – Paramore
In a publicized dispute December 2010, Josh and Zac Farro left Paramore and didn’t go quietly. From their viewpoint, the entity that is “Paramore” is a crooked mess. Summing up Josh’s post, it’s Hayley Williams – and those guiding her – using the band as a mere vessel for her own solo project. Which is odd, because I’d argue that the band has been to her detriment, at least musically.
With a handful of exceptions, Paramore suffers from “Lady Gaga syndrome”: addictive choruses (“YOU TREAT ME JUST LIKE…”) and dull verses that make dryer lint seem thrilling. This is because Williams, who has a shimmering set of pipes, and the band’s style of music doesn’t always fit. Remember “Airplanes”? That’s some good stuff. She needs to be more of a singer, not a rocker, so that our eardrums have time to recover from that incessant piercing. Despite the band showing some growth on each album, the same conundrums persist: Is Paramore a synthetic product of the industry who’s sole purpose is to promote Hayley? And, how can Hayley’s voice exist in the confines of a “rock” band?
We have one answer. The self-titled Paramore was named as such because the band felt born-anew after the recording process and this is their “reintroduction.” Yeah right. We all know that this is the ultimate slap in the face to the Farro brothers. This is the first album without them, and they were the ones who founded the band in the first place. You may call it a coincidence, I call it irony. But even with all this squabbling, we don’t really know the truth. All we know is Hayley took some time to herself in LA and got a new producer for this album. But it’s not like you care about that anyway. Music is music. As long as a record gets put out, why bother with the semantics of its creation? So, as painful as it might be to hear, this is Paramore’s best album.
Paramore speaks to angsty young-adults coming of age in a tumultuous world (there’s a song called “Grow Up” and an interlude titled “I’m Not Angry Anymore”). They are on every Twilight soundtrack for a reason. But there are 17 tracks here that add up to more than an hour of ambitious songwriting, so we’ll focus on the new Paramore rather than the handful of throwbacks.
When the first interlude came on, I about lost my mind. THIS is what Hayley Williams should be doing all the time. Strip the instruments around her to bare essentials and let her voice carry those songs to the moon. Use Ingrid Michaelson as a template for how heavenly that could sound. Luckily, we get more than that little sample in the three short-but-sweet interludes.
“Ain’t it Fun.” Listen to it, seriously. It’s not a “Paramore” sound by any means, but that song exemplifies how far they can deviate from the cookie-cutter sound of their past. I can’t imagine how much Chaka Khan listening it took to inspire this. Oh, that gospel chorus. “Part II” bridges this new sound and the former sound: catchy chorus and enthralling verses, keeping the skip button at bay. The ballads smell a lot less cheesy this time around, too. “Last Hope” and “Hate to See Your Heart Break” show an emotional maturity anyone can tolerate.
And that is sort of how this album breaks down. Chances are, unless you are a true Paramore fan, you won’t like the entire album but there will be something playlist-worthy for your music taste. Evolving bands can alienate fans in the process, but this one seems to do more of the opposite. Hayley Williams can thrive in this band when they step out of that punk-rock quagmire and when the need for screaming is at a minimum. Even so, whether the industry is pulling the strings or not, this album retains what Paramore has always been about: Hayley.
Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll
Pete Wentz said that he and Patrick Stump started writing songs just for the heck of it and one of them gave him chills. That just about says it all. They reunited the band and started recording this album in secret. No song in recent memory has made me want to run head-first into a brick wall more than Fall Out Boy’s comeback single, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.” But there is a whole album to account for now. Please, please, don’t be a one-track wonder. When the group disbanded in 2009, who mourned? By that time, Fall Out Boy had eroded into an odd semi-hit pop-rock concoction. And though their music evolved, it was kind of bleh. I listened to Folie à Deux in preparation for this album, thinking my ear-buds had changed and there would be a hint of what was to come. Wrong on both accounts.
The Save Rock and Roll claim is a bit of a stretch, but this record may have saved the band. That “secret” album Stump and the boys created is full of SICK BEATZ and arena-caliber explosives. Big Sean, Courtney Love, Foxes and, yes, Elton John all make appearances but they are merely afterthoughts. From the get-go, “The Phoenix” reintroduces the band by knocking you flat on your rear. “Just One Yesterday” and “Death Valley” all have that “MSKWYDITD” ferocity, which is perfect. The album can’t be all crazy, but you can’t leave us hanging after that first single either. Old school fans can find vintage FOB in “Young Volcanoes,” an anthem for the adolescents, just like the good ol’ days.
The hiatus and side projects have seemed to do wonders, but perhaps the best change for Fall Out Boy was creating an album solely on its own accord. They had fun making this album and it shows. We might not have missed them when they left the first time, but it’s feels good that they’re back.
First off, watch the video below then “Like” the band as quickly as possible:
Done that? Good … bring on the 90s nostalgia!
Afew repeats and I’m wanting to dig out my copy of the Blue Album along with my other favorites from the era, including some Marcy Playground, Harvey Danger and … nah, I’ll just go to Bandcamp and rock out to the rest of Unmacho, which includes the blisteringly good two-minute track “Van Man,” which deserves a video as ridiculously cool as the one they’ve made for the title track. That and the album’s opener, “Bonehead,” which showcases there’s more under the hood than just aping Rivers Cuomo. A quick stream suggests there’s not a dud in the bunch, which is more than a good reason to like them on Facebook and then buy a copy to blast with your windows down all summer.
Blindly soldiering on, Josh Krajcik produces a solid post X-Factor album with Blindly, Lonely, Lovely
He finished second in a reality show, but let’s face the facts: Josh Krajcik has talent which didn’t need a Simon Cowell-led talent show to showcase it. So it doesn’t come as a surprise to hear Blindly, Lonely, Lovely showcasing his blues-tinged growl over larger-than-life arrangements which accentuate his ability to merge blues, rock and pop, all within a slick package.
“Back Where We Belong” brings “big” to the forefront, with its massive arrangement of piano, thundering drums and Krajcik’s lung-deflating vocals, and at times the song itself becomes overwhelmed by that top-heavy heft. Sometimes less is more, which “Nothing” illustrates as the album’s opener. That’s the song which needs to be spread around the internet as the reason this guy needs to be heard. That or the southern-blues keeper “The Remedy,” which could have fitted itself nicely into any Ray Lamontagne album yet released, or at the least as a John Mayer Continuum b-side. Steep yourself in those vocals at the chorus, along with that rising tide of horns, and try not to get swept up in the mood.
This isn’t an album he’ll be able to build a whole career on, but clearly reality success didn’t spoil him — he’s used the time in the Fox spotlight to build an audience and then released an album perfectly in line with what those fans wanted to hear, free from obsessive studio interference. With album tracks like “Don’t Make Me Hopeful” and the album-closing stunner “Let Me Hold You” anchoring this mix, there’s plenty to hope for in this songwriter’s future. If you weren’t already sucked in by the solid craft illuminated by his first two independent albums (try “Atavistic” on for size if you don’t believe me), I can’t think of a better mainstream introduction to his sound than what Blindly, Lonely, Lovely delivers.
This week we’ve got new music to talk about, but first I need to get something off my chest. I attended my brother’s local rock music awards show last weekend and, through all the performances and drunken acceptance speeches, goodness gracious, the profanity.
Though I don’t frequently resort to cussing, I have a high tolerance for it. But this was outrageous. These young adults would interrupt their own set to give a soliloquy about how “effing cool” it was to play in front of us and how they couldn’t “effing hear us effers” when met with a smattering of applause. They forced it so much that when you broke down the parts of speech, it turned out to be a useless glob of babble.
It was awful. Subjects and predicates of the same sentence were some conjugation of “eff.” My family members were offended, and you should hear them watching KU basketball games.
To put it simply, something about being on “the stage” makes people strive to be cooler than they need to be.
My advice: “Do your show.”
You can work the crowd and use any word you want to, but let it flow like a normal human being. The mic isn’t a magic wand that takes your flurry of f-bombs and turns them into something daring or groundbreaking. [Editor's Note: "Unless you're the reincarnation of Lenny Bruce. Then work blue all you want."] As I was sober that night, perhaps I wasn’t the target audience. But I’m a civilized human being who enjoys good, clean fun. Treat me like one.
Back to business, though … here are your reviews, presented in full without the Parental Advisory sticker.
OneRepublic – Native
Despite being a mainstream pop band, One Republic remains vastly underrated despite the fact that lyrically gifted frontman Ryan Tedder has had his hand in the creation of so many gold-plated pop hits — everything from Beyonce to Backstreet Boys and Adele — it’s astounding. And within the confines of the soulfully beat-driven OneRepublic, we have a band who actually plays and writes their own music in such a way that listening seems guiltless no matter your musical preference.
Native, the band’s third album, is their most complete and definitive to date. Today’s pop music industry is saturated with the same equipment and same writers recording for the same dozens of artists, so it’s truly a spectacle to come out of it as “original.”
The first single, “Feel Again,” is infectious while retaining that “Good Life” vibe (Another track, “Burning Bridges,” though a mellower song, has the exact same beat as “Good Life”). There’s a Jason Mraz-like feel on Native, buzzing with about positive vibes (“Preacher”, “Something I Need”) and the affirmation anthem, “I Lived.” I want to post so many amazing one-liners, but the delivery wouldn’t do them justice. Let’s just make it clear; Their songs are more vibrant than ever, turning OneRepublic from an occasional hit into a feel-good band whose albums play like a greatest hits record from start to finish.
You can’t go wrong there.
The Strokes – Comedown Machine
Angles came out in 2011 and I still wasn’t ready for a new Strokes album. But it worked out because halfway through Comedown Machine, I had forgotten to whom I was listening. If you are a Strokes fan, you may still be trying to decipher what this is exactly. It’s not necessarily a “fun” album, which is kind of how this band has thrived over the years. It’s more outlandish and definitely experimental. A little too much of Julian Casablancas’ solo influence, maybe?
Nonetheless, let’s tackle Comedown Machine without any preconceived notions about what this band should sound like and determine it’s true musical merit. The album starts off with “Tap Out,” which is a groovy tune to dance to if you don’t like expending a ton of energy. Next is “All the Time,” which is as close to vintage Strokes we get. Let’s get back to that lack of energy. The rest of the album has some appealing pop beats but it’s like each song is masked in a sepia filter, void of true color. It’s really odd. Tracks such as “Welcome to Japan” and “Happy Ending” have the hook to deliver a serious butt-kicking, except you’re met with an inflated Socker Bopper to the face. The true value of this album comes in the droney riff-tracks, where the Strokes’ vast instrumental spectrum is explored in full. “Chances” is a winner.
Some people would prefer a pillow fight over a boxing match, and that’s perfectly OK. But this is a deviation from the Strokes’ usual throwback rock-and-roll style, so temper expectations accordingly. There’s an experience to be had here, but it’s going to be with headphones, not Phil Spector’s wall of speakers.
New Kids on the Block – 10
Imagine my bewilderment when I first saw this. It’s like a live-action Evil Dead, and be warned that Nick Lachey and the boys might be coming to your backyard, too. No disrespect, but the Backstreet Boys are the boy band supreme (with another album on the way!) and Justin Timberlake is doing his thing. I don’t even consider those One Direction tweeners part of the discussion.
My calendar says it’s 2013 and Joey McIntyre is 40 years old. But if you even think about calling NKOTB an “man band,” not so fast. This is a boy band in every sense of the term and even though they’ve been around for DECADES, they have transitioned seamlessly into today’s top-40 scene. If you enjoy streamlining pure pop music into your veins like myself, this album is pretty good stuff.
Hearing that “Remix (I Like The)” song for the first time felt like a caffeine rush. So exhilarating. Tragically, Donnie Wahlberg only waved his pen around during “Miss You More.” Listen long enough and you’ll get that sultry emo-rap. Luckily, Joey has a couple writing credits. ALWAYS look for a McIntyre credit. Those are usually gold. In this case, it’s album’s ultimate ballad “Back to Life,” and I expected nothing less. He helped write “Now or Never,” too? Not as good, but solid.
Bands like this should never die. With all the garbage we have to endure by a premeditated “next-best-thing,” it’s nice to have the presence of something that was the next-best-thing. NKOTB is lightyears away from the “Hangin’ Tough” boys from yesteryear (because, hey, the industry has different needs). I pray this reemergence puts an end to the tween poppers, but it might give rise to even more phonies. Hopefully, New “Kids” on the Block will continue to slay them.
Kacey Musgraves catches lightning in a bottle — “Same Trailer Different Park” is country’s best album of the year so far
If you ain’t got two kids by 21
You’re probably gonna die alone
At least that’s what tradition told you
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe
Come Sunday morning you best be there
In the front row like you’re supposed to
Same hurt in every heart
Same trailer different park
Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane
And daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
We get bored so we get married
And just like dust we settle in this town
On this broken merry-go-
Round and round and round we go
Where it stops nobody knows
And it ain’t slowing down
Talk about a shot to the gut. This is one of those songs which could apply to just about everyone I’ve known in small-town Indiana at some point in our lives. It’s a touch of downwardly mobile Americana as we settle for less than we’re worth because we don’t believe we deserve anything better than just a chance at treading water.
Kacey Musgraves doesn’t have the thundering “shoot for the high notes” vocals of a Carrie Underwood, and though she could out-hustle Taylor Swift in any songwriting competition, you’ll be unlikely to find her drawing the same kind of frantic, obsessed crowd. All the better, because we can take in the wonderful songwriting on Same Trailer Different Park, 2013′s first flat-out fantastic country album, without having to worry she’ll be overexposed by September.
“Merry Go Round” may be the strongest introduction to her sound, but “Dandelion”, “Stupid” and “It Is What It Is” reiterate that this young woman is Nashville’s best lyrical hope, suggesting that country can mean a hell of a lot more than just by-the-numbers button pushing. This is the real America … it is what is is ’til it ain’t anymore. Here’s hoping listeners aren’t too stubborn to give her the chance she so richly deserves, because there’s nowhere better you could be than listening to this album a few times through.
David Bowie – “The Next Day” (2013, Columbia)
Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin
“Where are we now? The moment you know, you know.”
Many decades ago, a man who was not merely a man gave music some of its most odd and memorable pop moments. His career was a literal roller-coaster – He reinvented himself album to album, like a chameleon moving from tree to tree. He didn’t just blend – He redefined his surroundings to fit his own work, and he did it routinely, like a beautiful bad habit.
After many lackluster attempts to regain his former glory, the man went into a sort of hiding. No one heard from him for several years, and he appeared to have disappeared altogether.
Just when hope of the man returning was all but gone, he came back. He didn’t just name-drop his own name to make a profit or to hold his place in line. He reminded the world that he, David Bowie, was the very same man who crafted Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He was the David Bowie who pioneered pop music and brought the worlds of music, art, fashion, and ideology into an avant-garde stew, with originality exuding from every nook and cranny.
He tears into his latest creation, The Next Day, with vigor and unparalleled fervor – The title track proclaiming zealously, “Here I am! Not quite dying! My body left to rot in a hollow tree / Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me.” He then pushes forward, with a controlled confidence, little embers of fizzing jazz trumpets lighting the walkway behind him. “I will buy a feather hat / I will steal a cricket bat,” he growls, grinning slyly. “Smash some windows, make a noise / We will run with Dirty Boys.”
He recounts stories, new ones, like he used to in the golden era. He tells of an “icy heart” on Valentine’s Day, he tells of “a love of violence, and a dread of sighs.” He loudly condemns the violence and greed of shallow religions, and incites riots with his hatred for war. He howls, he hisses, his bark still has a bite.
He then takes a momentary break, a brief sabbatical. He reminisces about younger years and about the path he’s taken to bring him to where he is today. “Who’d have ever thought of it? / Who’d have ever dreamed? / That a small town girl like you / Could be the boss of me,” he muses with a knowing smile, an immediate groove hooking musically around his statements.
He then retreats back into his solitude; but this time, he invites us with him into his lonesome world. He takes us dancing in space. “You’ve got stars upon your head / You’ve got my name and number / You’ve got to take the floor,” he says. Further into the depths of his world we go — “I’ll bet you’ll feel so lonely, you could die,” he diagnoses keenly.
And then, at the absolute core of his universe, he openly and abruptly breaks the fourth wall. He’s shown you his world, he’s given you the tour of his home — and then he passes the key to you. His self-doubt, his insecurities, they are now fully present and utterly public. With a tear escaping down his cheek, he confesses — “And I tell myself, ‘I don’t know who I am’ … And I tell myself, ‘I don’t know who I am.’” He continues. “My father ran the prison / My father ran the prison / I can only love you by hating him more / That’s not the truth, it’s too big a word.” His innermost grief and sorrow pouring out now, streaming through — “But I am a seer / I am a liar / I am a seer / but I am a liar.” He says it twice more. “My father ran the prison. My father ran the prison.”
And then, this perfectly long voyage comes to a close. The man who reappeared so suddenly disappears just as quickly. But he leaves behind a modern treasure, a piece of dark art that speaks on many levels and reestablishes his valuable name. Today, tomorrow, and The Next Day – David Bowie will be this man. As long as there’s fire, as long as there’s rain. As long as there’s you, as long as there’s me.
Long live David Bowie!
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Foals burst into Holy Fire vs. new music from the Virginmarys and Atoms for Peace
When “NOW 45″ is the third highest-selling album, you know it’s been a slow week for music. You’re telling me I can play “Die Young” more than once every half hour? SOLD.
I’m constantly looking at upcoming releases and the only ones that remotely pop out are Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” on March 19 then The Strokes’ new one a week later. It’s a torturous time for new-music fiends.
But hey, this is also a time for discovery. New band/listener alliances are formed everyday, so may you find one as we wait for the ol’ faithfuls to wrap up production. Recovering from the absurd snowstorm, here are select albums from the past few Tuesdays. There are some new bands here, so it’s been an adventure.
Foals – Holy Fire
This is the third album by Foals and I cannot speak on behalf of the first two. But after the first few tracks, Holy Fire left an impression. Apparently, those songs are now singles, but the clicky-groove in “Inhaler” and the infectious pop anthem “My Number” are the highlights of the album.
Because the first half of the album is so catchy, the rest of it just fades away. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it parties a little too hard, too fast. You might even be satisfied with playing “My Number” on repeat.
That said, there’s an energy throughout that is never in-your-face. The guitar is more plucky instead of grungy and it helps push tracks like “Out of the Woods” into more of a ballad category. It’s not a fair comparison, but I feel the same way listening to this as I do when I listen to the John Butler Trio. Some strange balance between rocking out and chilling out.
The Virginmarys – King of Conflict
Free downloads can be like digital pamphlets, destined for the closest trashcan. But sometimes, you get a gem that opens a gateway to spectacular musical avenues. Here’s such a case.
Sitting on my iPod since (scrolls through iTunes purchase history) 2010 (!) was “Bang Bang Bang,” a hard-hitting free download of the week that spewed out an unforgettable hook: “Take that gun, girl, and blow my mind.” Ooh man, this was a keeper. The band had nothing else out there, so their relevance was short lived. That single became buried and eventually forgotten.
Well now, three years later, The Virginmarys has surrounded that bombshell with an arsenal full of explosive tracks. These British rockers are not unlike the era of Jet and Wolfmother, Australians who sent music to the states to say, “This is how it’s done. Remember?” Mainstream rock music can get bogged down in the meaningless muck of sex, drugs and alcohol. It should be kicking down doors and pillaging all the awesome out of life. OK, maybe there is some mention of the three taboos of rock on this album, but it at least has meaning behind it. “Lost Weekend,” being the prime example, is more a cry for help: “And my body aches and my head it hurts. I’ve long found out that drugs don’t work. Will someone save me from myself tonight.”
“Just a Ride” barrels through the grieving process of a failed relationship while tracks like “Dressed to Kill” are almost the opposite, claiming “She’s my world.” Does King of Conflict bring anything new? Not quite. But sometimes the new can get so nauseating it takes nostalgia to cure it. This isn’t the dawning of another British rock invasion like we had in the early 2000s, but if it were, The Virginmarys would be at the forefront.
Atoms for Peace – Amok
So, this is Thom Yorke.
Atoms for Peace is merely an alternate label, but we can all assume that one Yorke incarnation sounds like the rest. Listen to Amok followed by The Eraser, his solo album, and for good measure, give The King of Limbs another whirl. The atmosphere is static. Compare that to a, let’s say, Tom DeLonge from Blink 182 and Angels and Airwaves. I never have to wonder what I’m listening to because those two bands are vastly different and serve different emotional purposes. Yorke, as unique as he is, is all under one bracket.
With the addition of Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, drummer Joey Waronker, who has worked with everyone from REM to Norah Jones to Beck, and percussionist Mauro Refosco, this could have been something a “fun” album. It’s not as dark as Yorke’s other work, but you won’t be craving this on a sunny day.
“Unless” feels like a car revving up in snow and going nowhere. Just once I’d like to see Yorke vocally detonate in the middle of a song. It’s a fine track, but it would have pushed this song into elite territory if it had some sort of climax. It’s like Radiohead’s cerebral and experimental style. All brain, not enough brawn. Do you work out to a Radiohead song? Can you? If this qualifies as exercise, I’m all in:
“Before Your Very Eyes…” and “Stuck Together Pieces” have prevalent bass-lines and that Flea/RHCP funk is trying so hard to get out. This album sounds as if it were produced with the utmost care and precision, but with the weapons at his disposal, this was a perfect time for Yorke to let loose. When you focus on what the band does well – smooth synth with a multitude of unconventional layers on top of it – the album is exceptional. Like deep-meaning lyrics, there are sounds on this album that require multiple listens to discover, and that’s most of the fun. But the minimalist approach and lack of diversity kept Amok from being something truly special. Oddly, this album is yet to reach Spotify.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “II” (2013, Jagjaguwar)
Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin
There are albums that can be and should be played at maximum volume on loud speakers for full appreciation. Other albums are the quiet-but-lush type, and need a great set of headphones for complete understanding. And then there are albums that are just great no matter how you listen to them.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s highly-anticipated second album (II), is somehow both a “car stereo” album and a “headphones” album at the same time. The album starts off quite quietly, like an entry from a hippie’s diary (“From the Sun”) – Hushed harmonies melt naturally over gentle acoustic guitar picking, and little bass bubbles and drum gusts float by as the song progresses. This, of course, is the subdued side.
And then there are tracks like “No Need for a Leader.” The metallic electric guitar scratches steadily build a violet and red undercurrent, and the punky drums and serious bass bleed black and blue. And then, about 4 and a half minutes in, the band shifts comfortably into a brief jam session, chugging ferociously like a psychedelic Clash.
The band’s appetite for blending savory blues chords and 60′s rock rhythmic structures is the main key to their success on II. Influences as far-reaching as George Harrison, Pink Floyd, and even Jimi Hendrix marinate the already flavorful, lo-fi sound-scape with fitting synths or fuzzy electric guitar tones.
If “magical” wasn’t an already-overused (and often humorously-applied) adjective, I’d be tempted to deem II as such. Whatever word fits best, it is dreamy, layered, and absolutely entrancing. This is without a doubt one of the year’s best albums thus far. Try “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” and “Faded in the Morning,” and let the rest follow from there.
Mumford and Sons’ The Road To Red Rocks joins the ever-burgeoning ranks of unnecessary, indistinct live albums
I can understand the band’s interest in releasing The Road To Red Rocks — the idea three years ago that Mumford and Sons would have a US fan-base capable of filling the legendary outdoor venue would have seemed laughable, before their blend of Euro-folk traditionalism became pop via “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave.” But there’s nothing unique about the recordings here, little which bends the songs and makes them any different live than they were on the albums we already own. It’s one thing for the band to take a victory lap, but don’t be surprised if most fans choose to let this one pass them by, for if you weren’t there to actually experience this show, the audio portion of The Road To Red Rocks is the definition of expendable.
The video portion of the album, on the other hand, showcases the oddity of an Arena Folk band in all its glory, which at least warrants a second look. That, and the fact that the band opened up the path for bands like the Lumineers to achieve radio success, at least gives room for hope as we leap into 2013.
Check out the live album below via Spotify, and get a glimpse of the DVD portion via a YouTube clip of “Little Lion Man” from the concert:
- – - – -
She may not want to go back to the 90′s, but on No Fairy Tale Lisa Loeb fits right in with her hits.
Lisa Loeb states early on her latest album that she’s not particularly eager to go back to the 90′s, while managing to straddle the line between Fountains of Wayne-esque eighties nostalgia and Mike Doughty’s longing to put the past behind him and get ears to focus on his latest output. Funny thing is, No Fairy Tale may not pick up right where we heard her on the Reality Bites soundtrack, but these songs still have the crisp fly-on-the-wall hooks that brought fans in the first place, proving that when a singer has pop smarts, they don’t necessarily fade with age.
The title track in particular could be a long-lost Rilo Kiley out-take, daring fans to hit repeat and “share” on Facebook:
It’s no fairy tale
There’s no bread-crumb trail
To lead you back but it’s just as well
You can close the book
And curse the turn it took
It told the true story of how you fell
And that’s a better one to tell
This is one of those brisk pop albums which plays it straight, casting just the right spell to keep you listening from start to finish. I’m not going to say there’s a ton of potential hits here, because what constitutes a “hit” is such an oblique term these days. But when a songwriter can follow something as poppy as “The 90s” with the equally impressive “A Hot Minute,” it becomes clear why she’s continued to put out singable pop nuggets for twenty years while we’ve yet to hear anything new from a flash-in-the-pan like Anna Nalick.
Nothing on No Fairy Tale suggests Loeb needs to take as long between albums as she has since 2004′s The Way It Really Is, her last album aimed at adult pop audiences. No, it’s not as relentlessly catchy as her ubiquitous hit, “Stay,” but you’ll only require a few listens to the new album to prove we really don’t miss that slick sound. Resist the urge to live in the past, relying on false nostalgia to suggest there’s nothing worth hearing in today’s pop world. These dozen tracks prove Loeb still has pop smarts and hook-filled songs written in the now which capably fill the space between our headphones, just waiting for that moment when the chorus leaves our lips.
That’s more than enough for me.
“Play It Loud, Ray!” — Jacob Jones teams up with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard on the perfect throwback single for any Music City Sweetheart
Jacob Jones’ Good Timin’ In Waynestown doesn’t come out until next week, but that’s no reason not to play his single loudly a few times in celebration of Jones’ throwback rock-a-boogie vibes, which blends the sounds of New Orleans jazz with fifties-era rockabilly and hints of Motown soul. Adding the vocals of Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard to “Play It Loud, Ray” was an inspired touch, adding to the singalong chorus’s unstoppable hook. The rest of the album more than sustains the hype, with “Now That I Found You,” “Lost on the Ohio” and “Don’t Turn Me Loose” proving in particular that Jones has an ear for making these throwbacks fit in a modern pop context. If you too are ready to, as his website proclaims, “Honky Tonk yourself to death,” play this album loud and proud. Nothing else comes close to putting Chuck Berry into the same company as Ryan Adams or Alabama Shakes, which for this critic is more than enough reason to listen.
Dawn Richard gets to the heart of contemporary R&B on Goldenheart while proving her mettle as a pop songwriter
Dawn Richard, formerly the lead singer of Danity Kane and one-time collaborator with Sean Combs’ Diddy-Dirty Money, jump-starts 2013 with her latest solo LP Goldenheart, which stands out as an affirmation of what good modern pop R&B can do when it gives real music a fighting chance. “Return of a Queen,” “Golliath” and “Riot” launch this album with a sense that everyone involved simply wanted to make a great pop album, letting the music speak more than the usually requisite hype. The result is a song-cycle which showcases the depth of Richard’s craft, filled with hooks which should lure people onto the dance-floor and then back home to those headphones, where they can pore over the intricate details.
“I’m searching to find my way back to the throne, and I know if I could climb back through these walls maybe I’d get home,” Richard sings as “Return of a Queen,” and she sounds perfectly within her element as she lifts the track far beyond easy comparisons. As the album progresses, we get drawn into the tempos and movements she requires for us to fully let our guard down, and the reward is an album of contemporary pop R&B which transcends the triple-filtered sludge radio wants to force down all our throats.
She even saves the best for last, with “Goldenheart” tying everything together via a beautifully evocative piano melody coupled with her fluid vocals to form a hybrid of classical pop. The result forces you to hit repeat to hear how everything fits into the whole of the album’s concept, making this album ultimately a rewarding listening experience beyond what anyone would expect from a mere pop showpiece. From start to finish Goldenheart is sequenced to be a memorable listening experience which changes minds as to what R&B can accomplish.
Brooklyn’s Aly Tadros spent the last decade traveling across Egypt, Turkey, Mexico and Europe, adding surprising depth to the jazzy alt-country vocals she brings to sophomore album The Fits. Tadros’ ability to wring each note for all its potential nuance makes songs like “Silence and the Truth” and “Sweet on Me” instantly stand apart from the crowd, putting her in the same realm as Norah Jones or Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist. The Fits is one of those rare well-rounded albums which covers so much ground it can’t possibly soak in on just a cursory listen Like Come Away With Me, which Norah Jones turned into a diamond-selling juggernaut, this album delivers the musical goods piece by piece over extended listens, so by the time she’s had her way, these songs will have listeners tied up in knots as they try to grasp the moment when Aly Tadros won them over as fans for life.
Fans of brit-pop inspired modern psychedelic rock, Elephant Stone is your new music savior with single “Heavy Moon”
Music like this virtually reviews itself. From the opening note, a long sustained organ hit with the gut-punch of Harvey Danger’s “Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” the hook of “Heavy Moon” is immediate, as the band builds steadily upon a meaty layering of Kula Shaker, Oasis-inspired vocals, and the brilliantly elemental melodic structures of Elliott Smith.
The Montreal band, formed in 2009 by sitarist / bassist Rishi Dhir, won the Polaris music prize for debut-album The Seven Seas, and fans have long awaited the proper follow-up, which finally will see the light of day on February 5th. They picked a great opening single, as the video below will attest. But having heard the entire album through a few times now, I can attest the remainder of the album is chock full of keepers, including “Setting Sun,” which blends the hook of Kula Shaker’s “Tatva” with a jangle-pop melody the Gin Blossoms would have killed for in 1996. And “The Sea of Your Mind” is exactly the nine-minute progressive pop jam your mp3 player’s been begging for.
Plug your headphones in, hold on tight and get ready for the ride … but music this good is worth every second. Spread the word!
- – - – -
All you need in music is a good song, and Vancouver’s the Shilohs showcase that in stunning 16-megapixel glory on their upcoming new album So Wild. From the opening ninety seconds of “This Is Vancouver Music,” a wonderous hunk of McCartney-esque horn-soaked glory, to “You Don’t Call Me Darling Anymore,” the album’s low-key closer, this album positively soaks up the bare-bones elements which made the Beatles into masters of their craft.
The Shilohs strip away all the hype usually associated with modern garage rock and contemporary pop, letting the songs do the talking. Whether you listen to So Wild as a master-class in how to create a true album-lover’s album in the era of iTunes, or as a Greatest Hits in the making, the result is the same. Listen to the chorus of “Get Ready Now” or the stripped-down Dylan-soaked melancholy of “The Place Where Nobody Knows I Go” and dare not to stop dead in your tracks, in pure awe of the sheer audacity of this band’s retro pop recreations. In an era where so many believe meaningful pop music is an oxymoron, So Wild is an album fully capable of changing minds, from a band you’ll want to rabidly follow from the ground floor.
Based on his early press material, Alex Vans might be mistaken for a pretentious cynic who wants to overload his pop music with observational criticism. Even a casual listen to DJ Booth disproves that theory, however, as Vans confidently illustrates his ability to craft a winning pop hook. “Chase the Night” will have fans dancing in the aisles even if they choose to ignore his Ke$ha-baiting lyrics. “Financial Crisis Blues”, meanwhile, comes close to overplaying its hand lyrically, but the slow-burn blues stomp proves itself a winner upon repeat listens. And “Hide Away,” the album’s biggest surprise, saves the best for last, with a guitar, piano and percussion blast-off which echoes the best of 90′s alternative, as though reviving a long-lost Nirvana staple. The perfect album for a January release, Alex Vans’ DJ Booth may strain too hard to be culturally relevant, but he hits the mark more often than not musically, making the entire album worth the effort.
Signed and Sealed in Blood proves Dropkick Murphys Boston-cum-Ireland punk aesthetic still runs deep
You’ll always be here with me
Even if you’re gone
You’ll always have my love
Your memory will live on
Though they once tried to whitewash the Irish music of their childhood from their blend of Boston-bred punk-rock fury, the stamp of their heritage remains indelible as the rose tattoo of which they sing on the third track off Signed and Sealed in Blood. “It dawned on us that Irish music was a bigger influence on all of us than we’d realized,” Ken Casey told the Houston Chronicle in 2011. “Growing up in Boston, every time you went to a wedding or a wake or your grandparents’ house, you heard that music. I went through a phase of hating it just because it’s what my (folks) listened to.”
Thank God the band figured out that building upon one’s influences isn’t the same as simply wallowing in them. They’ve built upon the raw furious edges of classic Irish barroom singalongs, merging them with the blistering pace and unmistakeable brashness of the UK punk scene in the mid-70′s. And while previous albums have gone to that well with varying levels of success, Signed and Sealed in Blood brings the intensity of a live show to the recordings, making this a listening experience as fresh as if we’re lifting a pint as they laid tracks in the recording studio.
“Jimmy Collins’ Wake” serves as the album’s central rave-up, a brash, bold and twisted example of what their brand of “Celtic punk” can accomplish in three minutes of baseball-obsessed glory. Around its core they build their own story through an album of songs which celebrate their heritage and that of the listeners who brought them long-term success in the first place, creating an album which bears all the marks their youthful rebellion tried and failed to extinguish.
These songs are the strongest the band has brought to one place since their earliest work for Hellcat Records, proving that being on a major label hasn’t dulled their willingness to push their listeners to the limit. “The Battle Rages On” and “Rose Tattoo” have pop-worthy hooks which stand up even better now that radio audiences have proven receptive to bands like Mumford and Sons. Though this is no folk revival, there’s a great deal to be said for Dropkick Murphys’ ability to blend traditional Irish folk structures with the punk-rock aesthetic of bands as varied as the Pogues, AC/DC or the Clash, through it all maintaining their own well-earned reputation as Boston’s most challenging working band.
Fans already on the bandwagon will love this album, chock full of songs ready to become classics in their own right. Those who haven’t already been won over will find this album to be a revelation. That the band could finally achieve its mainstream breakthrough, via their best songs and without sacrificing any of their hard-fought credibility, is worth loudly cheering. This is the exciting shot across the bow for which we’ve all been praying. Let the imitators struggle to keep up.
There’s nothing “Artificial” about the love the Local Strangers show for all things folk on Left for Better
Nothing puts insomnia in its place better than the discovery of a post-worthy track. Something about the Local Strangers’ “Artificial Love” jumped out at me after their album Left for Better had accidentally slipped to the back-burner. But this Seattle duo brings the Midwestern charm of Over the Rhine to this bare-bones piano and vocal showcase, as Aubrey Zoli channels Karin Bergquist even as she adds her own smoky charm to the recording.
And though this is the album’s sedate closing number, the rest of the album is equally worthy of praise. “Uptown,” featuring Matt Hart on vocals, is a cross between Glassjaw Boxer-era Stephen Kellogg with slight touches of modern Mumford folk, with a hook which won’t quit. And “Daniel” lets Zoli shine yet again, making believers out of all of us as her voice melts over the carefully paced bluegrass melody and harmonies which would make Fleetwood Mac melt in their prime. “Can’t you make it look easy?” Hart sings over a hand-clap march of percussion and banjo, slyly answering their own question as the harmonies soar.
This is a keeper you’ll hopefully still be praising well into the new year.Left for Better is an assured album from a duo ultimately comfortable enough in their own skin to produce a album deftly merging varied tastes into one of the year’s best intimate listening experiences.
A little over a year ago I took on a challenge I dubbed “the year of the album” — review everything that came across my desk which had inspired more than a cursory listen. In the end I knew that goal was a lofty one — too lofty, really — and in the end I managed to publish 89 album reviews under the “Year of the Album” banner, and had I reviewed every album I listened to more than a few times, that list would have been at least doubled. But the music I did write about in 2011 was definitely enough to disprove the theory that there’s nothing good to listen to in the pop music world. Far from it, I head into 2012 inspired to continue to ferret out as much independent pop music as I can, to show you dedicated “Hear! Hear!” readers that there’s always plenty to listen to when we’re willing to take charge and dig for it. That’s really the lesson to take from 2011 — there’s no longer a gatekeeper, so without radio to blame we have to blame only ourselves if we can’t find enough music outside the mainstream to keep our blood pumping.
For those of you who missed a review or two, here’s a one-stop shop of album reviews from the “Year of the Album” project:
01. Todd Alsup – “Todd Alsup”
02. Plain White T’s – “The Wonders of the Younger”
03. Blood Red Shoes – “Fire Like This”
04. SIMS – “Bad Time Zoo”
05. Phoenix – “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”
06/07. Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin” / Darius Rucker – “Charleston, SC 1966″
14. Art of Dying – “Vices and Virtues”
15. The Wailin’ Jennys – “Bright Morning Stars”
16. Alexander – “Alexander”
17. Noah and the Whale – “Last Night On Earth”
18. The Mountain Goats – “All Eternals Deck”
19. Steve Earle – “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”
20. Danny Schmidt – “Man of Many Moons”
21. Hyland – “Weights and Measures”
22. Augustana – “Augustana”
23. Lawrence & Leigh – “Odyssey Vol. III – Hills and Masts”
24. The Cars – “Move Like This”
25. The Morning Birds – “The QUICKENING”
26. The Lonely Island – “Turtleneck and Chain”
27. Vanessa Carlton – “Rabbits on the Run”
28. L’Altra – “Telepathic”
29. Eddie Vedder – “Ukelele Songs”
30. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
31. Hugh Laurie – “Let Them Talk”
32. Death Cab for Cutie – “Codes and Keys”
33. Only Son – “Searchlight”
34. Kate Bush – “Director’s Cut”
35. Roxette – “Charm School”
36. Christina Perri – “Lovestrong”
37. Randi Russo – “Fragile Animal”
38. The Vaccines – “What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?”
39. Stornoway – “Beachcomber’s Windowsill”
40. Silverstein – “Rescue”
41. The Wombats – “This Modern Glitch”
42. Sunday Lane – “Bring Me Sunshine EP”
43. Egypt Central – “White Rabbit”
44. Peter Bradley Adams – “Between Us”
45. Weird Al Yankovic – “Alpocalypse”
46. Graham Colton – “Pacific Coast Eyes”
47. Lonesome City Travelers – “Lonesome City Travelers”
48. Johnny Mainstream – “Shipwrecked”
49. Girls Guns and Glory – “Sweet Nothings”
50. The Fair Weathered – “Last Year”
51. Ian Lawler – “Future Nostalgia”
52. Condition Oakland – “Find Home Friend EP”
53. Amanda Shires – “Carrying Lightning”
54. Chris Thile and Michael Daves – “Sleep With One Eye Open”
58. Fitz and the Tantrums – “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”
59. Committed – “Committed”
60. Chthonic – “Takasago Army”
61. Matthew Sweet – “Modern Art”
62. Matthew Good – “Lights of Endangered Species”
63. This Old Ghost – “Island of Violent Lovers”
64. We’re All Just Passing Through – “Bedroom Recordings, Vol. 2 (EP)”
65. Ronnie Milsap – “Country Again”
66. The May Bees – “Saint Denis”
67. Zucchero – “Chocabeck”
68. The Bandana Splits – “Mr. Sam Presents the Bandana Splits”
69. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers – “Gift Horse”
70. Jasmina Maschina – “Alphabet Dream Noise”
71. The Darcys – “The Darcys”
72. Sister City – “Carbon Footprint”
73. The Perms – “Sofia Nights”
74. Brown Bird – “Salt For Salt”
75. Kasey Chambers – “Little Bird”
76. Matt Lowell – “Drop Your Guns EP”
77. Deer Tick – “Divine Providence”
78. Foster The People – “Torches”
79. Vince Gill – “Guitar Slinger”
80. The Golden Seals – “Increase The Sweetness”
81. Mandolin Orange – “Haste Make / Hard Hearted Stranger”
82. Mac Miller – “Blue Slide Park”
83. Needle – “Saint Timothy’s EP”
84. Coldplay – “Mylo Xyloto”
85. The Trophy Fire – “Modern Hearts”
86. Grand & Noble – “Grand & Noble”
87/88. Dolly Parton – “Better Day” and Pistol Annies – “Hell On Heels”
89. Will Currie and the Country French – “Awake, You Sleepers!”
Year of the Album — #049
Girls Guns and Glory – “Sweet Nothings” (2011, Lonesome Day Records)
Girls Guns and Glory’s Sweet Nothings showcases an alt-country band coming firmly into its own at long last, a worthy album to push the band closer to mainstream acceptance. Read the review I wrote of the album on July 23, 2011 here at “Hear! Hear!”
Year of the Album — #087
Dolly Parton – “Better Day” (2011, Dolly Records)
Better Day isn’t a comeback, because Dolly Parton’s never gone anywhere and she’s not apologizing for that. Rather, this is a statement that she’s heading into her sixth decade as a recording artist while showing no signs of falling off artistically. That’s more than enough reason to stand up and cheer.
Year of the Album — #088
Pistol Annies – “Hell On Heels” (2011, Sony Nashville)
This auspicious debut for the country supergroup proves wholeheartedly that this trio, and in particular Lambert, have the talent, drive, and darkness-tinged wit to completely own the country scene in 2011 and beyond. This is country music like nothing else recorded this year.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to take part in the voting, and then writing, for the PopMatters Top 10 Country Albums of 2011 list, and the music — despite a downturn in “major tier” country releases, proved to be exceptional. It’s nice to see a band like Girls Guns and Glory make the list among country legends like Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell. To read the full article, click the link above and check it out at its source … I don’t want to reprint the whole thing here, since a quick visit to PopMatters is liable to get you hooked on the rest of their end of year coverage and the constant stream of new reviews and commentary. Enjoy!
If you’re still one of the naysayers who believes there’s no good music out there simply because radio doesn’t play good music, or because MTV doesn’t play videos, then 2011’s music probably hasn’t changed your mind if only for the simple reason that you won’t have heard it.
Face it, in this modern era of self-publishing, indie releases on the internet, and a general decentralization of the pop music world, you’ve got to go out and find the best music – it’s not going to knock on your door and hit you over the head. And if you think corporate radio has any interest in helping you find good music, think again: they just want to help spread lowest common denominator music, so they can line their own pockets and keep the “old system” alive.
So what, you might ask, is a listener supposed to do? There’s so much music out there, how do you wade through the junk to find yourself the good bits? Well, you could start by subscribing to this blog. And if you are new to reading here, you may have missed all the great music being discussed so far this year.
Since end of year lists are often arbitrary, and they tend to miss great albums from the first half of the year, here are some mid-year crib-notes to catch you all up and show you the good which 2011 has, so far, had to offer fans of what matters in pop music.
- – - – -
POP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Augustana – “Augustana”
Eponymous albums are supposed to be statements of a band’s new direction, and Augustana’s third album for Epic is definitely that; like an unholy vocal alliance between Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Bruce Springsteen, Don Layus’s powerhouse vocals anchor this album’s ten tracks with an incredible barrage of hooks the likes of which I haven’t heard on a pop album in years, if even in the last decade. With music this brazenly addictive, Augustana deserves to be 2011’s version of 2006-era Snow Patrol, lighting up the radio with hit after hit and selling millions. But if they’re simply destined to remain 2011’s best working band, putting out great music for a loyal audience of converts, maybe that’s just as good.
ALTERNATIVE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Vaccines – “What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?”
From the opening eighty seconds of the album, the blistering “Wrecking Bar,” its immediately clear that anything this band writes is going to be fully capable of rocking at Clash-like levels. All my expectations were instantly blown out of the water. From that point it’s a steady succession of radio-ready singles – almost enough to set your mind to reeling. There’s not a weak track in the bunch. It’s clear from the first listen that the Vaccines are destined to become a household name; if radio won’t play them here in the States, it’s time to load up a car with friends, stick the album in the CD player and blast these brilliant pop confections for everyone to hear.
HIPSTER ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album follows a very classically folk-oriented formula, recorded very much in the moment — Pecknold aimed for Astral Weeks’ timeless quality, and while only time will tell whether the album holds up as well, the resulting depth and quality of Helplessness Blues speaks for itself. That much of the album’s vocals were recorded in one take (“even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there,” Pecknold told the Guardian) it’s impressive just how many layers there are in these songs to slowly peel away on repeated listens. This is the kind of album you’d hope Simon and Garfunkel could be producing had the duo ever reunited in this modern musical age.
HIP-HOP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
SIMS – “Bad Time Zoo”
There may be something in the water in Minneapolis, considering the amazing underground hip-hop scene which has developed there over the last decade. Whatever it is, Sims’ Bad Time Zoo has something to say and gets its points across with beats that blend jazz and world-beat with modern flair that would set radio on fire if anyone had the balls to play these songs. Regardless, Bad Time Zoo is the first must-hear hip-hop album of 2011, and it’s an early contender for my year-end top ten. Here’s hoping Doomtree Records has the push to get this album out to the wide audience it deserves.
COUNTRY ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin”
The 9513 wrote of a potential 2011 revival of traditional country on the radio airwaves, and if they’re right, true country fans have a ton to rejoice about when listening to Easton Corbin, which is the best traditional meets modern country album I’ve heard since Eric Church’s Carolina. “I’m A Little More Country Than That” is one of the most straightforward, honest country top tens I’ve heard in years, and it sounds like the new traditional country I grew up on in the eighties and early nineties, when artists like George Strait, Keith Whitley and Steve Earle were tearing up country radio. Several cuts on this effort even sound like Corbin spent time in the room with Earle while he put together Guitar Town, the best album to come out of that era. Listen to “Leavin’ A Lonely Town” or “This Far From Memphis” and tell me you disagree.
- – - – -
And now a few honorable mentions:
Hey Rosetta! – “Seeds” — Like Arcade Fire on Neon Bible and Sufjan Stevens with Illinois, Hey Rosetta builds their melodies with garage rock ferocity which is consistently punctuated with stunning bursts of fiery orchestral bliss.
Baby Teardrops – “X Is For Love” — They’ve definitely got the hooks to be successful on radio. “Smooth Sailing Ahead” could have been a top ten hit for the Gin Blossoms in the mid-90s, but here it has a more grunge-oriented sound which is both out of place and wlecome in today’s rock landscape.
The Wailin’ Jennys – “Bright Morning Stars” — In a world where Taylor Swift is a worldwide superstar bringing pop music to so called “traditional” country stations, it’s about time real roots music made a comeback. This album is the most deserving so far of 2011 to get that shot.
Noah and the Whale – “Last Night On Earth” — Fink and his band Noah and the Whale have managed to create the perfect tribute to Springsteen with this album because they’re willing to build on the sounds that came before with a story that is at once their own, while also being one we’ve all experienced. Meanwhile, they’ve taken such a magnificent leap forward that this sound is suddenly new again, and all their own.
Stornoway – “Beachcomber’s Windowsill” – Yes, it came out in 2010, but I didn’t hear it until 2011, so it counts. The bottom line is that even a cursory examination of “Zorbing,” the opening track from Beachcomber’s Windowsill, showcases the band’s incredibly dextrous, multi-layered arrangement, a mindblowing combination of subtle folk and alternative influences that is purely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in pop music in recent years. And that’s definitely worth checking out.