Category Archives: Album Reviews

MALE by Natalie Imbruglia 

There’s no non-creepy way to admit this, but I find it sexy when a female artist covers a song written by a male and doesn’t change any of the gender stuff in the lyrics (a love song about a woman staying about a woman and the like). Conversely, I think it’s pretty cool when a male singer does the same thing and doesn’t change the lyrics, which is rarer, but always super-ballsy. I bring this weird quirk about myself up because I specifically sought out Natalie Imbruglia’s cover album MALE because the concept behind it was that she would be covering songs written exclusively by men/male-dominated bands. Sadly, upon listening to the album, I discovered that Imbruglia swapped all the gender-specific lyrics. So, the Zac Brown Band song “Goodbye In Her Eyes” becomes “Goodbye In His Eyes.” At first, this bummed me out, but as I listened to MALE more, I forgot all about my weird hang-up/fetish and found myself enjoying the shit out of this record.

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Normally cover songs don’t do it for me, usually because the originals are always better. The times that cover songs work are when something dramatic is done to change the way the song is presented. Except for one track (which I’ll get to in a moment), none of the songs on MALE are better than the original versions. The songs are slower, more acoustic versions of the originals, sung by a woman, but remain very faithful to the original artists. And yet, I found myself utterly charmed by Imbruglia’s covers. Part of what makes MALE such a treat, besides Imbruglia’s talent as a vocalist, are the diverse choice of songs. The songs run the gambit from the aforementioned Zac Brown Band (country) to Death Cab For Cutie (modern Indie Rock) to The Cure (classic goth rock). Some of the artists are no-brainers, like Neil Young and Cat Stevens, however, there’s enough oddball song choices to spice MALE up and keep it from becoming too cliche. Examples of song choices that surprised me:  a twinkling twee-like cover of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” Damien Rice’s “Cannonball,” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” and a cover of Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush.”

That last track is the one song on MALE that outdoes the original. I went back and listened to “Instant Crush” on Daft Punk’s 2013 album RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES. The song, sung by Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas, is a great track but Imbruglia’s version is vastly superior. For starters, the lyrics are ineligible. The famously mush-mouthed Strokes singer isn’t done any favors by the Daft Punk production which distorts (autotunes?) his vocals all to hell. And stripping the song down into an acoustic number adds a serious amount of weight/emotionality to the song.  That this song is the lead single of the album isn’t surprising, the quality of Imbruglia’s “Instant Crush” cover is pretty fantastic. “Instant Crush” opens the album, which probably isn’t the best idea in the world because the rest of the songs don’t measure up to its high-quality.

Don’t get me wrong, MALE is a great album as far as cover records go, but at the end of the day, it’s a curiosity. The concept behind the album, covering songs written by men, doesn’t break any new ground and most of the songs aren’t really about being men, per say. So the concept doesn’t hold as much water has I’d like, and the songs aren’t better than the originals (for the most part), so why am I writing about MALE? The album came out nearly two years ago and yet I still find myself listening to it. It’s a great last song of the night album, something I can put on when my kid is winding down to go to bed. Also, Imbruglia does have a beautiful voice, and her delicate touch adds a vulnerability to already heartbreaking songs like Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and the Iron & Wine track “Naked As We Came.”

Take a moment to check-out the “Instant Crush” cover, and if you dig that, check out the rest of MALE. I think if you go in with guarded expectations you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it is.

 

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My Top 10 Albums of 2016

Hard to believe that another year has come and gone. I won’t beat around the bush, 2016 was a hard year for me (and the world at large) and I’m not sad to see it go. That said, there was some fantastic music released this year. I haven’t done a Top 10 Albums list since 2012, the biggest reason for that being I am super-lazy and didn’t make much of an effort to listen to stuff as it came out. But this year I made a real effort to listen to as many new releases as I possibly could and I also kept a running list of what I heard and what tickled my fancy.

Please keep in my that this is a music blog, first and foremost, so even though it’s called Defending Axl Rose I listen to many genres of music. Meaning: all you racists fucks that want to complain that I have rap albums on this list can just stop reading now. I can (and do) approve pretty much every non-spam comment I receive on this website, including all sorts of hateful comments attacking myself (or my shitty writing) but if you leave a comment bashing me for including non-rock artists on this list I’m going to delete it.

Lastly, I feel the need to address what’s not on this list. Specifically, the album everyone seems to think was “the best” album of 2016: David Bowie’s final album BLACKSTAR. Just before he died, I remember a creepy music video was released to promote the album. I recall vividly pushing play with eager anticipation. I silently prayed that the Thin White Duke still had it. Then the video started and…I wasn’t impressed. It’s just not my cup of tea if I’m being honest.  BLACKSTAR, which is described by many as “jazzy” is just too avant-garde to me. I tried as recently as last month to make it all the way through the album in order to “get it” and include it on this list…but I just couldn’t. Sorry, Bowie. I love the glam-rock era stuff, but I just couldn’t connect with this final effort. I will say that the album now sounds terribly sad now that he’s dead. The album is riddled with allusions to death and passing which does change the way BLACKSTAR plays.  He truly was writing about the end of his life on that record. Anyway, I know some of my music loving firends are going to comment “Where is BLACKSTAR?” and I just wanted to address that now rather than later.

So without further ado…

 

 

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10. TEENS OF DENIAL by Car Seat Headrest. I kept hearing good things about a band called Car Seat Headrest, so I checked out TEENS OF DENIAL and was surprised the album lived up to the hype. What really piqued my curiosity was the band’s use of The Cars track “Just What I Needed,” however by the time I got around to listening to the album the song “Not What I Needed” had been gutted of The Cars lyrics following a massive recall on the album. Turns out The Cars (or whoever owns the rights to their music) hadn’t approved the use of their music. Bummer. Anyway, this band has been around for a while (Wikipedia states this is the 13th album!?) but these guys sound young. TEENS OF DENIAL reminded me of the early 2000’s garage rock revival with a dash of Moldy Peaches Adam Green thrown in for good measure. These songs tell little stories and are kinda funny/strange at times. “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” has a great riff and the lyrical hook to the semi-epic “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” reminds me of all the great indie music I was listening to in my early 20’s. A throwback album for sure, TEENS OF DENIAL is a fun one that gets better with each listen. Definetly check this one out if you’re still listening to the Juno soundtrack.

 

 

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9. SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME by Against Me! Though I don’t typically go for aging punks there’s something very charming about Against Me!’s latest record SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME. Part of what I find so appealing about this record is its unrepentant pop leanings. (Because aging popstars are fun, aging punks are sad, get it?) Songs like “Boyfriend” and “Crash” are damn good fine pop songs, the kind that stick in your head for days and make you wonder what the hell is wrong with pop culture that these things didn’t break through. Though many of the songs deal with the lead singer’s transition from male to female (which, what could be more punk than being true to yourself?) there’s something universal in the album’s awkward and angry-ish songs. So while SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME does have flourishes of aging-punkism, there’s a lot more going on throughout the album. The spooky “Dead Rats” is also a bitchin’ tune that, in addition to “Crash,” is what convinced me that I liked this band and loved this album.

 

 

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8. GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees. What a delightful surprise that a 2016 Monkees album is actually really, really good! Growing up, I was a Beatles-fan and always considered The Monkees to be lame imitations. But the concept behind this record was too intriguing for me to pass up: the reunited band (minus the deceased Davy Jones) would record songs written by their famous admirers. Admirers like Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), Andy Partridge (XTC), Paul Weller (The Jam), and Noel Gallagher (Oasis). The album works both as a modern album and as an artifact of classic 60’s pop. What’s more, there are even moments of real honest-to-god greatness on this record, such as the tearjerker “Me & Magdalena.” I think of all the albums on this list, GOOD TIMES! is the one that many people will be the most skeptical of, but give it a fair shake. Believe me, this lifelong Beatles fan wouldn’t have this album on his Best of 2016 list unless this was a legit, great record.  Read my original review here.

 

 

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7. WILD STAB by The I Don’t Cares. A fun, playful meeting of minds between singer-songwriters Juliana Hatfield (The Lemonheads) and Paul Westerberg (The Replacements) WILD STAB is great. I’m a big fan of Westerberg’s wryly earnest lyrics and WILD STAB has Westerberg playing off of the charming Hatfield quite nicely. In fact, the two go together so well one can’t help but wonder if songs like “Kissing Break” are even more intimate that they appear on the surface. Regardless of whether or not our two leads are an item, as The I Don’t Cares they make a great team. After Westerberg disbanded The Replacements (again) I didn’t expect to hear from him so soon. Thankfully, this stripped-down/laid-back album is the perfect capper to the ‘Mats reunion tour. The playful lyrics of songs like “Wear Me Out Loud” and “Sorry For Tomorrow Night” reminded me of how great a songwriter Westerberg can be. The single “King of America” is a fantastic example of classic-Westerbergian writing. The shimmering lyrical hook blended with the sneering, almost dashed-off disdain in the vocal delivery is everything I love about Paul Westerberg. I was so happy that this album came out, though it doesn’t appear to have made much of an impact, I could only find a few reviews of it online when researching WILD STAB in order to confirm it’s 2016 release date. Don’t sleep on this one, especially if you like The Replacements.

 

 

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6. COLORING BOOK by Chance The Rapper. A fusion of rap, pop, and gospel music, Chance The Rapper’s COLORING BOOK shares many similarities with another high-profile rap album released in 2016, Kanye West’s THE LIFE OF PABLO. But whereas Mr. West’s album is littered with the debris of hubris and unchecked ego, Chance’s album is more playful and has 99% less cringe-inducing moments. There are many parallels between the two albums, the opening “All We Got” (which features Kanye) is reminiscent of “Ultralight Beam” off LIFE OF PABLO. Both albums have a song about the transient nature of friendship (“Real Friends” vs. “Summer Friends”). But Chance’s song “No Problem” is the fun summer-jam  2005 Kanye used to make. In fact, despite tackling some heavy subjects (“Same Drugs”), COLORING BOOK is vibrant and makes you feel good as you listen. Had COLORING BOOK not been released the same year as Kanye’s latest opus, I can safely say it would have been my favorite rap album of the year. Hopefully, he’ll get that Grammy.

 

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5. iii by Middle Class Fashion. While not yet household names, Middle Class Fashion earned a spot on my Best Albums of 2016 by crafting clever, catchy songs. The band’s third album is a little darker than their previous effort, 2013’s JUNGLE (which is also fantastic), but still just as engaging and fun. These are songs that you’re almost instantly able to sing along with, this is most exemplified by the track “86.” It’s one of those songs you swear you’ve heard somewhere before because it’s immediately accessible/familiar. To me, that’s the hallmark of truly great songwriting. Middle Class Fashion sorta defy easy/neat categorization, but if I had to describe them I’d say they’re a piano-centric indie rock band that flirts with dance/electronic music. Some of the tracks on this album have a retro 80’s synth quality about them, but not in an annoying way (if that makes sense). Stand out tracks like “Runaway” and the aforementioned “86” were definitely in heavy rotation in my playlists this year. Even as I write this I keep thinking about how great the melancholic “Outer Space” is or how fun “Schoolboy” is…and how great is it that they appear back-to-back! I can’t recommend this album enough.

 

 

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4. HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT by Metallica.  It took me a long time to decide if Metallica’s latest album was worthy of this list. After issuing my final verdict on the album earlier this month, I went back and re-listened to HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT. Having removed myself from the sky-high expectations that haunted my first few listenings of the album, I can safely say that this is the best modern Metallica record. Overblown and overlong, but nonetheless a thrilling ride. There are very few massive album releases that impress me anymore, but Metallica has successfully pulled off a AAA-release in 2016 that’s actually worthy of all the attention. I recently learned that “Moth Into Flame” was written about the late singer Amy Winehouse, which adds a tragic dimension to the song. I’m not surprised that this album didn’t land on the Best of 2016 list for Heavy Metal Overload, this isn’t an album for hardcore metalheads but is instead for all of us filthy casuals. But at the end of the day, Metallica is keeping the torch of metal lit and that needs to be respected. The fact that they were able to put together such a solid album needs to be celebrated. I also still can’t get “Now That We’re Dead” out of my head. Read my original review here.

 

 

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3. BOY KING by Wild Beasts.  Though I didn’t cite them in my initial review, I think the specter of Queen haunts BOY KING. Sure, Wild Beasts’ latest album may sound more like Trent Reznor-meets-Stereophonics at first brush, but the confident strut and purring sexuality are 100% Queen. There’s a theatricality radiating throughout BOY KING that recalls A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. I went from having never heard of Wild Beasts to falling head over heels for them in 2016. This is a great record to run (or do other things) to and was my #2 most-listened to album top to bottom (see #1 for my most listened-to album). “Big Cat” and “Get My Bang” are essential tracks, but there’s something fantastic about “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis” and “Alpha Female.” If you like (dark) Brit-pop or just pop with flair, give BOY KING a listen. Read my original review here.

 

 

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2. WEEZER (The White Album) by Weezer. The first time I heard the latest Weezer album I had it on softly while I did other things. I only really gave it a shot out of habit. “Oh, the new Weezer album? Yeah, I heard it…” I remember being pretty unimpressed and wrote the band off as finally no longer worth the effort and moved on. Then something strange happened, I started seeing it pop up online and on a podcast or two that I listen to. Word on the street was that this new Weezer album was the real deal. So I sat down and gave WEEZER (The White Album) another shot. Boy, am I glad I did because this was one of the best albums I heard all year. As is the case with most modern Weezer albums, the singles are the worst songs on the record. “Thank God For Girls” is pretty cringe-worthy, no matter how big a fan you are. But 90% of this album is a pleasant return to form for the band. “Endless Bummer” the album’s final track, is a spooky campfire song that builds into a crescendo of awesomeness. I also really enjoyed the 60’s throwback “(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” which could have been a cut on the #8 album on this list. This is the sort of album that reinforces my belief that it’s never okay to write a band off.   Read my original review here.

 

And finally…

 

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1. THE LIFE OF PABLO by Kanye West.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s never been harder to be a Kanye West fan than it’s been in 2016. I was introduced to Kanye in the fall of 2005, and since that time he’s been the most consistently great artist of the past decade. Every new Kanye West album pushes forward–Kanye never back-peddles or plays it safe even when many in the record buying public would prefer if he stopped experimenting and just got back to writing summer jams like “The Good Life.” I take the good with the bad and largely ignore everything not music related when it comes to Mr. West. So no, I don’t want Keeping Up With The Kardashians and I don’t follow him on Twitter. Critics of Kanye West focus on the over-sized ego, but listening to his songs provides a clearer picture of just how fragile and insecure Kanye can be. Like many great artists, Kanye no doubt suffers from some form of mental illness and should be forgiven for some (but not all) of his transgressions. And as far as the out of control ego goes, if you take the time to study his catalog you’ll notice that the best parts of all his albums always go to his guest stars. Usually, these are up-and-coming rappers whose careers get a much-needed shot in the arm by appearing on a Kanye track. Chance the Rapper first appeared on my radar this year after his amazing turn on “Ultralight Beam,” the opening track of THE LIFE OF PABLO.

THE LIFE OF PABLO is tour de force, one that perfectly showcases the fragility and the bravado raging inside Kanye West. The album paints the picture of a man who is at war with himself and his shortcomings. Yes, there are some truly awful, cringe-worthy moments on this album, but there are also wonderfully sublime, beautiful moments, too. I won’t defend “Famous,” where Kanye continues to publicly harass Taylor Swift. I can’t claim that “Father Stretch My Hands” isn’t creepy as shit (a gospel song about fucking models? Okay, Yeezus). But these unflattering moments sit along tracks like “Ultralight Beam” which is about as divine as music can get. The brilliant “Highlights” feels like the old Kanye everyone’s also saying they miss, its celebratory message wouldn’t be out of place on any of the early, so-called classic Kanye albums. “Real Friends” and “Wolves” offer a glimpse beneath the bravado, showing us a lonely, isolated individual. One who can’t even rely on family. The capper, of course, is the now famous (infamous?) “I Love Kanye.” An a capella track, “I Love Kanye” is West at his most painfully self-aware. The first time one listens to the track it feels like a joke. A playful jab at his own public image. But upon repeat listens the song turns tragic, “I Love Kanye” is the work a man who knows he’s damaged but feels powerless to change.

This is the only album on this list I both bootlegged and purchased legally. LIFE OF PABLO is a strange and hyper-modern album, both finished and incomplete, with West becoming the rap equivalent of George Lucas. The album is full of interesting samples and arrangements and sounds completely alien from the majority of modern rap albums. THE LIFE OF PABLO feels as though it could be the beginning or end of Kanye West’s career. On one hand, the album’s undeniable brilliance and fluidity could be the first salvo in a series of released and then post-released altered albums. The next few albums from Kanye could be less finished product and more like evolving conversations with the listening public. But the recent spate of bizarre news items relating to Kanye West the man (not the artist) could also mean THE LIFE OF PABLO might be the last album we get from him. I don’t blindly put faith in Kanye West’s music, I’m sure he’s more than capable of crafting a shitty album. But I do have faith that Kanye won’t release anything less than his pure, unadulterated artistic vision, which is exactly what THE LIFE OF PABLO is. So in that sense, he’s the last true artist working in mainstream music. And we’re lucky to have him while we do. Read my original review here.

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HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT by Metallica

What’s that old saying, better late than never? I feel like at this point just about everyone and their mother has put forth their opinion of the new Metallica album, so why should I even bother writing a review? The delay in this review is mostly due to the Thanksgiving holiday and my own somewhat busy schedule. But, if I’m being honest, it’s also due in part to my mixed feelings towards HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT.

Let me begin by stating that I am far from the world’s biggest Metallica fan. And let me follow that confession up with another: I’m a pretty casual metal fan. I like the so-called classic metal bands like Sabbath and Iron Maiden. I enjoy some newer, hipster-ish metal bands like Mastodon and Ghost (ha! that just shows you what sort of metal fan I am, I consider Ghost metal). There are some small-ish indie metal bands that I also really like, such as Red Fang and Kvelertak. But I’ve only been to one metal concert (Motorhead, RIP Lemmy) and I only own a few Greatest Hits type collections of a few metal bands. I only really knew Metallica from their massive hits, like “Enter Sandman.”

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Look, we can all agree that this is a terrible album cover, right?

Prior to 2005, I had probably seen more Metallica t-shirts than I had heard Metallica songs. But then, around the release of ST. ANGER I started paying attention to Metallica, but for all the wrong reasons: I wanted to hear the shitty album that everyone said sounded so shitty. I was surprised to find that I didn’t think it sounded that bad! Emboldened, I checked out the band’s earlier albums and discovered a solid thrash metal band that seemed to evolve into the cartoonish stereotype I was familiar with over the course of their career (and tremendous success). So once I was steeped in the band’s classic output I understood why people were so down on the newer stuff, but because I’d been exposed to ST. ANGER first I still found qualities about it I liked. I also wasn’t terribly let down by ST. ANGER, because I had only just started to explore the band’s music. I guess I should just jump in with the review, rather than waste a bunch of (digital) ink on a rambling preamble.

HARDWIRED… is way better than ST. ANGER and DEATH MAGNETIC (the album the band put out after ST. ANGER). That right there makes HARDWIRED… a success, a win for a band sorely in need of a win. And leading up to the album’s release, every song the band put out seemed to indicate that that album was going to be fantastic. And when the album was released and I pushed play I thought “holy shit, these guys totally did it!” But then the album continued to play. And play. And play. And play. HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT starts strong, and I don’t just mean the first track “Hardwired.” The first 6 tracks are absolutely fantastic. The lead single/title track is a great return to thrash and works well for many reasons but mainly because it clocks in under 4 minutes. The dark and moody, Sabbath-like “Dream No More” is great (love metal songs about Cthulu). The Maiden-esque “Moth Into Flame” with its chugging riff is totally rad, I loved it. The aggressive, fist-pumping “Now That We’re Dead” has a great lyrical hook and makes me want to see this band perform live. The quieter, ballad-like “Halo On Fire” is also a solid track.

All of these tracks, it should be mentioned, have fantastic guitar solos. Kirk Hammett famously lost his iPhone in a taxi cab and with it all the songs he was writing for this album. Despite not having any song credits, Hammett is all over this album, his guitar playing  elevating the somewhat pedestrian lyrics, spinning the songs like straw into gold. None of these guitar solos sound alike and are all thrilling. James Hetfield’s voice, it should also be noted, sounds fantastic. Usually they old metal guys sound, frankly, like shit. Their voices get raw with smoking and overuse, but somehow Hetfield still sounds good. His familiar growl just as vital as it was when the band began.

So if I have no issue with the first 6 or so tracks, the vocal performance, and the guitar work…what’s the problem? The problem with HARDWIRED… is that other than the first track, all of the songs are over 5 minutes in length. “Halo On Fire” is over eight minutes long. As the album trudges along, the songs begin to sound samey and overstay their welcome by droning on and on. Honestly, had the band decided to put out 10 or 12 songs rather than a 16 track double-album, HARDWIRED….TO SELF-DESTRUCT might have dethroned THE LIFE OF PABLO for my #1 album of 2016. The beginning is really that good, really it is. The only track from the second half of the album that is worth mentioning is “Murder One” and that’s only because it’s a tribute to deceased Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister. The song isn’t particularly great and kinda embarrassingly name-checks a bunch of Motorhead songs…but it was clearly included because Metallica has great love for Lemmy. This bit of humanity really touched me and reinforced that despite their status as metal gods, Metallica, in the end, are just flesh and blood people.

HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT isn’t quite the home run I was hoping it would be, but it certainly isn’t a terrible album. I can put it on and go running and enjoy myself. The album whirls into a blur during the second half, but that first part is glorious and makes me want to catch the band’s tour. Better than average, but less than legendary. Faint praise, but praise nonetheless. At this point in their careers, after more than one disappointing release, Metallica fans can’t complain. Now if only they hadn’t gone with such dreadfully awful cover art…

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NEW SKIN by CRX

Led by Nick Valensi, the lead guitarist of The Strokes, CRX’s debut album NEW SKIN is an interesting mix of Strokes-ish indie rock and a blend of influences ranging from throwback classic rock, shimmering pop, desert rock (!) and even metal. I didn’t have CRX on my radar until the official Strokes Facebook page mentioned that Nick’s album was releasing at the end of October. I knew that this was going to be an album for me when I saw that the first comment on the post bemoaned the fact that NEW SKIN had such a strong pop sound.

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At this point in time, The Strokes are a bit like the UN: a good idea in theory that doesn’t ever seem to pan out in the real world. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but the last record produced by the band was really forgettable. It’s a shame, too, because they’re a talented bunch of lads. This has been proved time and again as the various band members have put out great solo records. Guitarist and keyboard player Albert Hammond Jr. has put a couple of jaw-droppingly good records over the years (seriously, go check them out) and lead singer Julian Casablancas put out an electronic-infused album a  few years ago that had a couple of great tracks I still listen to today. Valensi’s band CRX now joins the esteemed pantheon of Strokes-solo projects that  make me miss the glory days of the band.

When NEW SKIN opens, it sounds like The Strokes doing The Cars with a dash of Cheap Trick. Because I’m such a fan of power-pop I got really excited by the album’s first few tracks. In particular, the album’s opening track “Ways to Fake It” which, if I’m being honest, sounds like a lost cut off The Strokes FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF EARTH. Rather than mumble and moan like Casablancas, Valensi’s voice is refreshingly presented crystal clear and I think this is what saves the song from being a straight-up Strokes track. “Ways to Fake It” is the best track on the album and the perfect choice for a single to entice Strokes fans to listen to the rest of the album. The second track “Broken Bones”is a moody slow-burn with some great guitar work. I also really liked the loopy New Wave “Anything” and “Unnatural” which reminded me of early Queens of the Stone Age (of all things).

The second track “Broken Bones”is a moody slow-burn with some great guitar work. I also really liked the loopy New Wave “Anything” which reminded me of Albert Hammond Jr.’s first solo record YOURS TO KEEP. The out-of-left-field”Unnatural” also tickled my fancy, mostly because it reminded me of early Queens of the Stone Age (of all things). I wasn’t expecting the album to pivot as much as it did near the middle and end, but pivot it does. The last few tracks on the album lean heavily on hard rock and metal side of things. Particularly “On Edge” which definitely has a Motörhead vibe and the final track “Monkey Machine.” Despite these variations, CRX never really enters the metal genre proper the veneer of pop polish coats all of these songs. And this is my biggest criticism of NEW SKIN is that it plays things a little too safe, Valensi gets right up to the edge of doing stuff his fellow bandmates aren’t doing (either in The Strokes or solo) but doesn’t commit and cross that line. Valensi, who I think has a good voice, just isn’t up to the challenge of coloring outside the lines of the typical indie-rock vocal performance.

I think that NEW SKIN is a solid debut that I hope is the first of many records. I’d like to see the band explore more of their roots and influences a bit more and challenge themselves with a bit of experimentation. Hopefully by doing this CRX will be able to justify their existence as more than just a placeholder until Valensi’s other band gets back to work.

 

 

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LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL by The Beatles

I can’t think of a band I associate less with live performance than The Beatles. That’s partly because the group was long disbanded by the time I was born in the early 1980’s (thus no chance of me ever seeing them live). But for the most part, it’s because The Beatles so famously turned their back on touring and became the quintessential studio band. Over the years I’ve heard a handful of live Beatle recordings, mostly from the LIVE AT THE BBC double-album. I remember getting my hands on that set way back in my early Beatle-years and promptly tossing it aside. It’s not that the band was bad in concert, it’s just that live recordings from the era in which the Beatles performed live are spotty at best. So when it was announced that LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL would be coming out in conjunction with Ron Howard’s Beatle documentary THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK, I bookmarked the release date but didn’t hurry to get around to listening to it until recently.

LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL documents several concerts from August of 1965, near the very end of the groups touring life. Released originally in 1977, LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL has been remastered and remixed. I was pleasantly surprised at how good these recordings sound. I would say that this album is 100% absolutely the best live recordings of The Beatles I’ve ever heard. That said, the performances are solid but ultimately pale comparisons of their studio counterparts. It’s been argued that George Martin is the so-called fifth Beatle, these recordings help make that argument in my opinion. It’s not that the band is terrible live, it’s just that the songs are so damn good on the studio recordings.

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I may be a bit biased, as live albums really aren’t my thing. The only way a live recording can move beyond the good and into the essential is when they capture the intensity of their performance and bring something new to the table. Many songs recorded live differ from their studio versions, either because of technical limitations (no string section? no problem!) or because playing the same song over and over  gets boring for bands and they do something a little different. These live embellishments separate the hacks from the great artists. A decent song can become sublime when stretched out into an intense extended jam. Guitar heroics/wankery can also take a live recording to the next level.  Sadly, LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL was recorded before the 1970’s, arguably the heyday of the live album. Thus, The Beatles are just performing their songs as best as they can like they appear on the albums.

What LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL is missing is between-the-songs banter. The few times Lennon announces the next song with a goofy voice is a real treat. It’s a shame that there isn’t more of this sort of stuff on the album because it’s something the studio albums don’t have. What there is plenty of, however, is screaming girls. Famously one of the reasons the band quit touring, the girls are screaming on LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL. And. They. Don’t. Stop. It almost feels like a parody there’s so much crowd noise on the recording. Though it never goes away, the audience never really gets in the way, either. I chalk this up to an expert remastering. Ironically, those who’ve listened to LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL have probably heard the concert better than those who attended the show. One of the Beatles (I think it’s Lennon if I recall correctly) even asks the crowd at one point, “Can you hear us?”

Overall, LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL is a fantastic musical artifact. The album is a bubble of amber perfectly preserving a fly (or Beatle) for all time. I’ve listened to it all the way through three times and frankly can’t imagine putting it on again. I’d much rather listen to the albums. LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL is really just for completist and band scholars (such as myself) and not an essential recording. The album has made me want to see Howard’s documentary, which apparently a Hulu-exclusive (which bums me out because now I have to wrangle a Hulu account in order to see it).

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ROCK ‘N’ MAILBAG #4: Chris Mess

Welcome to the fourth installment of my semi-irregular series Rock ‘N Mailbag! For a few months now, I’ve been getting solicitations via email from independent artists wishing me to review their albums.  I’m not sure how these people are finding me, but rather than dismiss them, I’ve decided to listen to them and give them a little love.

It’s been awhile since I fired up the old rock ‘n’mailbag so I decided to dip in and see what was inside. Back in March, I got an email from Chris Niccoli who headlines a Seattle-based glam rock band Chris Mess. First off, this band gets immediate points for having a pun-band name. I thought that perhaps that Chris Mess was a person but once I said it out loud a few times I got the joke. The Chris Mess Bandcamp page describes the band as “A bit loud Cheap Trick strut, with a smattering of absurdity and vocal craziness a la Queen, The Darkness, Ziggy-era David Bowie, and The Sweet.” I’d agree with that assessment and say that band’s sound is definitely reminiscent of all the bands mentioned. There’s a fun throwback quality to the band’s sound that I dig.

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Chris’s vocals aren’t quite as wild and crazy as bands like The Darkness, but there’s some high-pitched wailing going on. The CHRIS MESS EP is seven songs, five originals, one cover (David Bowie’s “Suffragette City”), and an acapella version of the first track. The production is clean and modernizes the band’s sound enough so you can tell that Chris Mess is a modern artist and not of the era they’re repping. I really enjoyed “Bong for your Mom,” which has a groove and some sweet harmonies. According to the Bandcamp site, the track is about Seattle’s cannabis scene. I also really enjoyed the manic, unhinged “Vitamin D” though I wished it was just a smidge heavier. The same goes for “Don’t Make Me Hate,” which is an okay track that could have been an A+ effort with a little less Queen and a little more Black Sabbath.

The Bowie cover is a nice tribute, but I have disagree with the band’s description that the track is “revved up.” It’s a  serviceable effort but doesn’t strike me as a particularly juiced-up version of the song. I think Chris Mess would have been better served by paying tribute to The Thin White Duke by perhaps choosing a more obscure song. Again, there’s nothing bad about their version, it just didn’t do much new and (of course) pales in comparison to the original.

Overall, the CHRIS MESS EP is hands down one of the better things sent into the ROCK ‘N’ MAILBAG. The original songs show real promise and the band seems adept at blending their influences together. I’d be interested to see the band live and hear a proper album from this band.

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BOY KING by Wild Beasts

Imagine if Trent Reznor-penned a concept album about masculinity and recorded it with Muse as his backing band. That’s a fairly close description of what Wild Beasts album BOY KING sounds like. Whereas Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails records have a gritty, cold feeling to them Wild Beasts’ BOY KING has a crisp but cold feeling to them. NIN is chrome smeared with dirt while BOY KING is pink neon light reflected in a puddle of still rain water.

Unlike Reznor’s work, the precise tracks on BOY KING have a decidedly poppier, almost hip-hop-flavored feel to them. Certain songs, like “Get My Bang” even reminded me of Britpop bands like Stereophonics (remember them? They’re fantastic, but that’s a post for another day). For me, it’s the shimmering pop heart beating just under the grime that makes BOY KING an enjoyable listen, rather than a painful sit through. The band described the album’s third single “Celestial Creatures” via Twitter thusly: “Organic but digital, aggressive but tender, hallucinatory but clear-eyed.” I wouldn’t argue with that assessment, both of the song and of the totality of BOY KING which is rife with duality.

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The album swings between a kind of exaggerated pop star bravado and a gentler (but creepy) kind of feminism.  Lyrically, the songs are a mix of dark poetry and sexual innuendo, to the point where it becomes difficult to suss out what is sneering facade and what’s genuine. A good example is “Alpha Female,” a track that follows “Tough Guy” which is both a biting indictment of modern machismo. On the surface “Alpha Female” is a song about how men don’t know everything and how the song’s narrator isn’t going to hold his lady back. But the chorus “Alpha female, I’ll be right behind you” gets nastier and nastier every time it’s repeated.

There’s a real late 90’s U2-experimentalism on many of the tracks on BOY KING. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing or not is entirely up to you. There’s no denying that a track like “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis” sounds like something Bono could have crooned upon exiting a giant mechanical lemon. But whereas Bono and Co. played that phase of their careers a little too seriously, Wild Beasts appear to be in on the joke.  Also, the guitar solo at the end of the song is warmer than anything The Edge’s cold, cold heart produced during that period.

BOY KING ends on a soft, gentle ballad a stark contrast to the album opener “Big Cat.” I  absolutely love “Big Cat,” which might as well been titled “Alpha Male.” The song has a couple of double-entendre for sex and domination, and yet for all its big male bluster…the song is about comparing oneself to a big cat. That another name for cat is pussy can’t be overlooked amidst all the other sexual overtones. Just like the majority of BOY KING “Big Cat” has layers upon layers of complexity. And yet, it’s also just a damn fine pop album you can groove to.

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Spring/Early Summer 2016 Album Lightning Round: A Whole Lotta Love

My buddy Ovidiu Boar over at Tangle Up In Music has a really nice recurring column where he combines a bunch of short album reviews into one long post. I’ve got a pretty large backlog of albums to review that came out over the last few months so I’m adopting (read: stealing) his format in order to purge myself of these albums. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so go check out Ovidiu Boar and his fantastic website.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a couple of albums I’ve been meaning to review:

WEEZER (White Album) by Weezer

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Weezer are one of those bands that I sometimes wish would just stop recording and retire. But every time I completely write them off the band turns up with a decent album. The last time Weezer surprised me was back in 2008 when they released THE RED ALBUM, and that was nearly a decade ago. Since that time, the band has continued to tour and released albums. None of them were very good/memorable and when they came out, I didn’t hear anyone talk about them. I’m not sure what’s going on with Weezer, but when the best song your band’s put out in 8 years is a cover of “Unbreak My Heart,” it might be time to hang up your boots. Then last month, when I was listening to the new Monkees album, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my favorite track was written by Rivers Cuomo. Which got me excited about the new Weezer album, which is again self-titled and will henceforth be referred to by its color designation. THE WHITE ALBUM doesn’t have anything on it as good as his Monkee’s song “She Makes Me Laugh,” but the album isn’t a disaster. In fact, there’s some pretty good stuff on it. Before I praise the band, however, I have to acknowledge that once again the single is the worst part of a Weezer album. “Thank God For Girls” once again features Rivers embarrassing-as-hell rapping. I’m not sure who keeps telling him he can pull this off, but I wish they’d be honest with him. Rivers: you can’t rap, please stop.

“(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” should have been the single! It’s a great pop ballad that actually would have fit nicely on that Monkee’s album I keep mentioning. A fun, throwback pop song, it’s the kind of track the band’s marketing should be pushing. The album opener, “California Kids” is another track I really enjoy.  Both of these songs have a Beach Boys-by-way-of-The Cars sound that I really dig it.

“Do You Wanna Get High?” has a catchy chorus that (subject matter notwithstanding) also would have made a good choice for an album single. Near the end THE WHITE ALBUM loses steam, particularly on “L.A. Girlz” which is as dumb as the track’s spelling. Thankfully, the album redeems itself with the  fantastically sublime campfire singalong closing track “Endless Bummer.” This is hands-down my favorite track on the album, mostly because it’s the kind of sad sack song Weezer used to be really good at writing.  Any song (or album for that matter) with the lyrics “kumbaya makes me violent/I just want this summer to end” can’t be anything but awesome. Weezer, I’m glad you’re still out there plugging away. Hopefully it won’t be another 8 years before they put out another good album.

 

PAGING MR. PROUST by The Jayhawks

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The Jayhawks are one of those great 90’s college rock bands I don’t ever hear enough people talk about. I’m not exactly sure why they never reached the same legendary status of their peers R.E.M, but they really should have become household names. The last Jayhawks album I listened to was RAINY DAY MUSIC from 2003, which if you haven’t heard is fantastic and worth checking out. The Jayhawks are an Americana/Folk-Rock band that sometimes sound an awful lot like Neil Young & CSNY so if you’re a fan of that kind of music, The Jayhawks are probably your next favorite band.

PAGING MR. PROUST features the same brilliant harmonies and guitar playing one would expect to find on a Jayhawks album, but with an extra shade of darkness. I’m not sure how to explain it, but this music reminds me of autumnal sunset. There’s a cool edge bleeding into the band’s warmth and a lonely feeling permeates the album. PAGING MR. PROUST opens with “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” a song drenched in 60’s era folk. The harmonies kick in and I suddenly remembered why I love this band so much. “Lovers of the Sun” with it’s quiet melancholy is achingly beautiful and my favorite track on the record. My second favorite song is the harder edged “Comeback Kids,” which is a great love song that isn’t afraid to sound a little spooky. Another standout track, “The Devil In Her Eyes” features a stratospheric guitar solo at the end that recalls Mr. Young’s PSYCHEDELIC PILL record from a few years back.  “Dust of Long Dead Stars” with it’s Romantics-esque guitar riff is another standout track.

Not everything on the album fires on all cylinders, and there are sadly a few duds on the album. I have tried to love “Lost the Summer” but just can’t connect with it. The track’s intentionally cold, detached feel is no doubt the barrier preventing me from enjoying it. I can intellectually see that it’s great, with some fantastic guitar work, but it just doesn’t move me. Similarly, the scratchy/glitchy sounding “Ace” is more filler and less album track. I’m not sure why the band felt that this needed to be included on PAGING MR. PROUST. Still, these minor blemishes can’t distort the overall beauty of this Jayhawks album.

 

THE GETAWAY by Red Hot Chili Peppers

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I nearly copied and pasted my opening paragraph from my Weezer review. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are yet another 90’s band that I sometimes think should just give up the ghost and retire as legends. I found their last album, 2011’s I’M WITH YOU, to be pedestrian and highly forgettable. The band’s last truly great album was 1999’s CALIFORNICATION (I really liked parts of STADIUM ARCADIUM but being a bloated double-album take it down a few notches in my book), which if you’re keeping score was a really long time ago. I’ve never really been a real big Chili Peppers fan, but back in 2012 and 2013 the band released a bunch of songs recorded during the I’M WITH YOU sessions–songs that weren’t featured on the album. These songs, collected as I’M BESIDE YOU, are some of the best songs I’ve ever heard from the band. I actually need to sit down and do a write-up on these tracks because they are outstanding. So, these amazing b-sides are what piqued my interest for THE GETAWAY.

How is the album? It’s pretty good. Nothing on the album is as great as those b-sides from 2012/2013, but there are some good stuff on THE GETAWAY. The title track is a great, classic late-era Peppers-sounding track. With a funky beat and that distinct electric bass that’s come to define the band, it starts the album off right. Sadly the album can’t maintain this momentum and becomes a bit underwhelming, with one too many un-funky tracks for my liking. Besides the aforementioned “The Getaway,” I also enjoyed the equally good “Dark Necessities.”

And while the album never drops off, never to regain the heights of that one-two-punch, there are good tracks sprinkled throughout the rest of the album. For example, I enjoyed “Detroit” the band’s love letter to that hardscrabble Michigan city. The buoyant “We Turn Red” sounds like a single waiting to happen, it’s a great song that recalls the band’s earlier efforts. I wish the bulk of the album had been as energetic, the only other track on THE GETAWAY that comes close to being as interesting is the shimmering dance track”Go Robot.”And while I don’t think it’s fantastic, it’s worth checking out the album closer “Dreams of a Samurai” which besides being very strange, seems to reference the recent death of Scott Weiland.

Sadly, I don’t think I can recommend THE GETAWAY but there’s enough interesting stuff on the album that I also can’t outright dismiss it. If you’re a diehard fan you’ll probably be pleased enough with the record, everyone else should just stick to the singles. And, of course, stay tuned for that post on those amazing b-sides the band put out a few years ago.

 

That’s it for now. I imagine I’ll have to do one more of these to get myself fully caught up. Chime in below if you’ve heard any of these albums and agree/disagree with me (I love hearing how wrong I am).

 

 

 

 

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GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees

Can somebody please tell me when it was that nostalgia became such a huge commodity? I don’t remember there being so much reverence for the past when I was a wee lad. Sometime in the 1990’s when they started adapting shows like The Brady Bunch and Lost in Space into feature films is when I became aware of nostalgia for the first time. I used to think it was kinda sad/lame, but now that I’m turning into an old fart I’m beginning to see the appeal. Anyway, I bring all this up because when I first heard that The Monkees were going to put out a new album in 2016, I was pretty much nonplussed but I could smell the nostalgia in the air. These long lost reunions never yield anything close to good, so I wrote the whole concept of a new Monkees album off.

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The Monkees were never really my thing. Besides being too young to watch their television show, I was born in an era where they were considered a joke. A sad, pale corporate imitation of The Beatles. Growing up I was a Beatle-fan and had no time for The Monkees and their less-than serious 60’s shtick. It wasn’t until I got much older that I learned that while The Monkees weren’t exactly serious musicians, they had a ton of real talent backing them up. People like Carole King and Harry Nilsson were penning songs for the imaginary TV-band. It was around the time that Gorillaz came out that my attitude towards The Monkees started to change. Perhaps I’d judged them too harshly. Less of a band and more of a cultural happening, The Monkees occupy a very strange (very meta) part of 1960’s culture.

So what about this new 2016 album, GOOD TIMES? Well, I got interested in it a bit once I found out that Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne was going to produce the record. Then I found out The Monkees were tapping Andy Partridge of XTC and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer to write songs. Then I heard the album would feature new covers of Harry Nilsson and Carole King songs–and the deal was sealed for me: I had to hear this record. It’s a strange thing to log into your Spotify account and boot up a new album from The Monkees. But that’s the world that we live in now, so that’s what I did a few weeks ago when the album was released. To my shock, GOOD TIMES! is a fantastic pop album that’s a ton of fun to listen to. Is this groundbreaking, earth-shattering music? No. Is GOOD TIMES! a soul-lifting, life-inspiring album that reaffirmed my love of music? Not quite. Is it the best Monkees album of all time? Yeah, it is.

I realize that statement, “best Monkees album of all time,” might seem like faint praise…because it is…but remember this is band that put out “Last Train to Clarksville.” While not the greatest song of all time, “Last Train To Clarksville” is a one of the better bubblegum pop songs from any decade, not just the decade when Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney were at their pop zenith.

GOOD TIMES! opens with Nilsson’s “Good Time,” a soulful, sweaty party song. Lead singer Davy Jones has sadly left us, so Micky Dolenz does most of the singing (though Jones does appear posthumously on one track, the Neil Diamond-penned “Love to Love”).

“You Bring the Summer” is a lovely, charming pop ditty that recalls the quaint, innocent teenybopper party songs of the early 1960’s (read: before the drugs really hit). Written by Andy Partridge, the track sounds like it’d belong on the gentler-side of one of his Dukes of Stratosphere recordings. There are a couple of odd British phrases (i.e. “sun cream” rather than “sun screen”) that add a glaze of weirdness to an otherwise basic (albeit very proficient) pop song. Rivers Cuomo’s song “She Makes Me Laugh” is easily the best song on the album, a sunny song of love and devotion. The track artfully blends Beatle-esque rock with Beach Boys-like backing vocals. This is the sort of song you hear and when you get to the end you hit “repeat” so you can go again. The only part of “She Makes Me Laugh” that bums me out is the fact that Rivers isn’t able to conjure up a song like this for Weezer. Whatever happened to Mr. Cuomo and Co. can’t be blamed on a lack of talent–Cuomo can still write a really great song. I guess there’s always the next Weezer album, but I digress…

Another really great track is “Me & Magdalena,” a soft ballad written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. The song has a dreamy, twilight feel that’s very comforting…it took me a few listens before I picked up on the fact that the song is ostensibly about death/dying. It’s not the buzzkill that you’d think and is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the material on the album (i.e. it’s more than just a fun pop song). This song is so good, in fact, it’s got me thinking I need to revisit Death Cab (a band that I never really gave a fair shake to if I’m being honest).

“Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” the strangest track on the record, has the most interesting pedigree. Written by Oasis founder Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller of The Jam, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is weird. There are weird vocal effects and the song yo-yos between faux-psychedelia and campfire sing-a-long. The first time I heard it I was convince that it was the worst song on the record. Then I saw that it was written by two to of the best British songwriters of the last 30 years, so I gave the track another chance. Then I gave it another chance. And another. Eventually the song wove it’s magic on me and it’s one of my favorites on the record. But like “Me & Magdalena” it doesn’t feel like a Monkees track, it’s a bit of an outlier. But that’s a good thing.

“Wasn’t Born To Follow”is a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that was most famously covered by The Byrds. The song has a pastoral, Kinks-like quality that I really dig. Like the Harry Nilsson track that opens the album, this older song is less bubblegum than those written by the youngbloods. It would have been interesting to hear an album of just these type of songs. I found the tonal shifting with these more meaningful songs and the new bubblegum was a bit dizzying. GOOD TIMES! is front-loaded with new, sugary songs and ends on decidedly more adult fare.

Overall, GOOD TIMES! is…well…a really good time! A handful of these songs will probably haunt my playlists for years to come. I wouldn’t call this an all-timer by any means, but for a 2016 Monkees album, GOOD TIMES! is pretty outstanding. Worth noting, there a bunch of non-album tracks that one can hear depending on the venue by which they consume the record. On Spotify/digital streaming services, the bonus tracks are “Terrifying” written by Zach Rogue of Rouge Wave and an electric uptempo version of “Me & Magdalena.” I’m not a fan of the latter, but “Terrifying” is damn good and probably should have been included on the album proper. I’m half tempted to seek out the other bonus tracks just to see what other fantastic nuggets were omitted.

Put aside your preconceived notions and give GOOD TIMES! a shot if you’re a fan of any of the songwriters mentioned above and/or if you’re a fan of old-fashioned pop music.

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