Category Archives: Album Reviews

The Life of Pablo by Kanye West

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I love Kanye West. Both the music and the man. This is a rock blog but over the past 10 years or so I’ve warmed to hip-hop, thanks largely in part to the works of Mr. West. I totally get why most people don’t like the persona of Kanye West: he’s brash, arrogant, and sexist. Defending Axl Rose has never been about Axl Rose, but instead about the artists like Rose who operate on a completely different level than 99.999% of the rest of us. These exceptional artists have a vision and spend their lives struggling to bring that vision in its pure, uncompromised, form to the masses. They push boundaries in genre and offer us a window into both the artist and ourselves. Kanye West is a genius on the same level as Brian Wilson. Do I cringe when he belittles Taylor Swift or goes on Twitter and proclaims Bill Cosby “innocent”? Hell yes I do. But Kanye doesn’t really hurt anyone but himself so I forgive him. The music is so good I can overlook his faults.

THE LIFE OF PABLO has been on my must-listen list back when it was called SWISH and WAVES.  When it came out last month, on the Jay-Z backed music streaming service Tidal, I downloaded the Tidal app and contemplated canceling my beloved Spotify subscription just so I could hear the record. I waited, with bated-fanboy breath, for Yeezus to announce when the non-Tidal world would get an opportunity to hear his latest masterpiece. Then the confusion began: the album’s physical sale was delayed and then it was scrapped. West proclaimed his album would never be fore sale on Twitter, despite the fact that he’d already given it away sort of by issuing download codes to the people who attended his NYC fashion show where the album debuted. Now there’s word that Kanye is still editing/changing the album, thus making THE LIFE OF PABLO the Star Wars of rap albums (Kanye = George Lucas).

This review has two paragraphs defending the man and giving context to the release of the album because that’s the only way to interface with Kanye’s music. One can’t like or dislike these tracks without taking the performance art piece that is Kanye West in as a whole. He’s worked (famously) with Paul McCartney and no doubt sees himself as a modern-day John Lennon, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Kanye West is really the modern-day Yoko Ono (Ono the artist not the Beatle girlfriend).

THE LIFE OF PABLO opens with gospel “Ultralight Beam.” An epic, beautiful track that begins with West’s 4 year old daughter praising Jesus and then builds to a rapturous choir. This song, about as unconventional as a pop song could be, works on a pure emotional level. I’m 100% agnostic but by the time Chance the Rapper comes in near the end I feel like a true Believer. The album descends from the opener’s lofty heights rollercoasting up and down a few times and bottoms out on “FML.” Here is what all the Kanye haters seem to miss about him: he’s not only his own worst enemy, he’s also his biggest critic. “FML” is about how he fucks up his own life. The song is about West’s troubles with infidelity, which is also touched on in “30 Hours” where West feels jealous because he finds himself on the wrong end of an open-relationship (one that he admits he insisted on having). “Real Friends” continues the tradition of “Runaway” and paints West as a workaholic loner who lives in a cold, friendless world. “Wolves” is another somber track where West gives insight into what it’s like to be a solitary figure against the whole of the world. You can’t help but feel sorry for they guy, even when later he compares himself and Kim to Mary and Joseph (yes, that Mary and Joseph).

Of course no review of THE LIFE OF PABLO would be complete without discussing “Famous,” the song where he throws gasoline on his feud with Taylor Swift. I don’t believe Kanye’s assertion that he “made that bitch famous,” but I do think that Swift has greatly benefited from her association with West. Just like Batman needs the Joker, Swift provides the perfect heroic foil to West’s exaggerated douchebag persona. That West has chosen to rag on America’s sweetheart and the music world’s biggest, most popular modern artist isn’t surprising. He’s jealous of her and like the third grade boy tugging his classmates ponytails; he’s picking on her because he likes her. It’s a shame West mars an otherwise perfect song with such a cringeworthy verse. Rihanna and the Sister Nancy sample are such a killer combo and balance West’s tough guy rapping.

My current favorite track, however, is probably the most-Kanye track of all-time. Title “I Love Kanye,” the song is a 43 second song that is just West with no musical accompaniment. The lyrics speak for themselves:

“I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta to say at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye, I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye
Called “I Miss The Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye
That’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye
And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”

The track ends with West laughing, and it’s a pretty good punchline, but there’s a lot of naked, personal honesty in this song. I don’t see Kanye as the arrogant asshole he’d like us to believe he his. Nor do I view him as the villain his detractors make him out to be. For me, Kanye West is a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. If he was an oblvious asshole even his biggest fans couldn’t forgive him (myself included). But Kanye is acutely aware of his failings and I think would genuinely like to be the good guy.

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There are no big radio-friendly tracks on THE LIFE OF PABLO. There is no “Gold Digger” or “Touch the Sky” on this record. Even if you hate Kanye and despise rap if you’re a music fan you have to respect that he’s one of the only (if not the only) mainstream artist who make albums. The album as a cohesive, artistic whole has been absent from the modern music scene for nearly 10 years (give or take). But the fact that Kanye agonizes over things like track sequences on his records makes this music fan happy. Don’t listen haphazardly to THE LIFE OF PABLO, instead take it track by track as God…I mean Kanye intended. Then when you’re done go online and seek out the endless stream of “I Love Kanye” remixes that have mushroomed all over the Internet.

I had to torrent this album, which is a real bummer. Hopefully something will change and THE LIFE OF PABLO will become commercially available in a wider-release. Though his mental state may be deteriorating, West’s ability to create intricate, interesting music is only getting stronger.

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THE LAST OF OUR KIND by The Darkness

Let me get this out of the way: THE LAST OF OUR KIND is hands-down my favorite album to come out so far in 2015. Not that there’s been much really good rock music released this year. Still, even if there had a few more notable releases this year, I’m confident this album would still be a beacon of hope. The Darkness are back and better than they’ve ever been.If you like boisterous, 1970’s-style rock full of cocky-swagger that’s fun/catchy as hell…then The Darkness is your band. Many people, most people I’d wager, really only remember the band from their hit “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” from 2003’s PERMISSION TO LAND. To those people I say: get bigger record collections. Seriously. The band’s second album ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL…AND BACK was a staggeringly leap forward in my opinion. The songs were better, the hooks were way catchier than the first record, and lead singer Justin Hawkins amazing vocal prowess truly shined. The band then went through a period of darkness (pun intended) when Hawkins left the band and went into rehab.

This baby pilot has permission to land.

This baby pilot has permission to land.

But The Darkness returned in 2012 with their third album HOT CAKES. That record (you can read my review here) was another homerun for the band.  That they’ve never really let me down is both kind of amazing and little scary every time the band releases a new record. The turmoil surrounding them this go-round involved their drummer (I call this AC/DC Syndrome). First, long time drummer Ed Graham left the band in September 2014 and was replaced by Emily Dolan Davies (whom you can read about/ogle here). A lady drummer in The Darkness? How positively progressive! Alas, it wasn’t meant to be…and Emily left the band in April of this year citing a desire to work on “other projects.” So while Davies is on THE LAST OF OUR KIND, The Darkness have a new drummer in the form of Rufus Taylor. That’s right, the band that sound more than a little like Queen went out and got the son of Queen’s drummer to be in their band. So there was definitely some rock star shenanigans and/or drama surrounding the band while they were recording THE LAST OF OUR KIND. Does any of that make it onto the record? Nope, not in the slightest.

THE LAST OF OUR KIND opens with the sounds of the ocean and an old man reciting a poem about Vikings before the opening guitar riff of “Barbarian” hits. This is important because the album has a very strong Norse/Viking theme running throughout. Now while I wouldn’t go so far as to call THE LAST OF OUR KIND a concept album, there is a definite thread tying all the songs together. And that thread is kick-ass Norse warriors.“Barbarian” is pretty much The Darkness’ version of “The Immigrant Song.” Though whereas Led Zeppelin’s song is an ethereal chant, “Barbarian” is the rowing song of bloodthirsty men on their way to plunder foreign shores. While the first track conjures the spirit of the mighty Zep, the second track “Open Fire” definitely calls forth The Cult. It’s really just the guitar effect the band is using, but this has torpedoed many fans’ opinion of the song (which is the album’s second single). I’ll admit to being less-than-enthusiastic about the track the first few times I heard it, but it’s been growing on me (pun intended) the more I listen to it.

After this pic was snapped both the lady drummer AND the bird quit the band.

After this pic was snapped both the lady drummer AND the bird quit the band.

The album’s title track is probably the most Darkness-y track on the album. “The Last of Our Kind” is jam packed with Hawkin’s trademark faux-falsetto* and lyrical bravado. On the surface, the song is both a celebration and a lamentation about Norse warriors—but we all know that the song is also about The Darkness and their place in the modern rock scene. The track features some really great use of guitar harmonies that reminds me of Thin Lizzy. Not to let the ladies down, THE LAST OF OUR KIND also has a couple of really good love songs. For example,“Wheels of the Machine” which is a very cock-rock style love song featuring a lot of tough fire/burning imagery (tough love).  The song is notable for mentioning the object of Hawkins affections is named Sarah. This is important because the most kick-ass song on the entire record is “Sarah O’Sarah.” That song opens with some of the most propulsive guitar I’ve ever heard. I love big sloppy love songs and “Sarah O’Sarah” is pretty great. Lyrically it’s dopey (and again features lots of burning/fire references) but I like how vulnerable and straightforward the words are. Similarly, “Hammer & Tongs**” has a joyful we’re-back-together-and-that’s-how-it-should-be vibe that’s a refreshing change from most love songs in the arena rock genre/wheelhouse. Also, let me point out that this song again features really heavy usage of fire and burning imagery. Weird***.

Other tracks worth mentioning are the arena-ready anthem “Conquerors”  and “Mudslide.” The former closes out the album and features bass player Frankie Poullian on lead vocals.“Conquerors” surprised me and makes me wonder what great albums we’re missing out on from a Poullain-fronted band. Meanwhile, “Mudslide” which is the only track co-written by Emily Dolan Davies,  has a nice Bonham-esque quality (read: steady, thumping drums). Man, it’s a bummer that Davies ended up leaving the band.

THE LAST OF OUR KIND is definitely a throwback to a bygone era. Back when rock bands (and their album sales) were much, much bigger. Though they aren’t nearly as popular as they were at the height of PERMISSION TO LAND’s initial success, The Darkness continue to bravely churn out records that are top-to-bottom fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I actually purchased an album—after hearing THE LAST OF OUR KIND I immediately hopped online and bought a physical copy. I also can’t recall the last time a band put out a record that I could listen to multiple times without skipping a track. And that brings me to my only complaint/quibble about THE LAST OF OUR KIND: it’s way to short. With only ten songs and a total running time of 41 minutes, the album feels like it’s over too quickly. So while there’s no fat on the album and I praise it for not having any skip-able tracks, I do feel bummed every time the final song “Conquerors” comes to a close. I guess if I had to pick between a good album that’s long and great one that’s a bit on the short-side, I’d pick the short one every time. So, here I am in June with my pick for album of the year: THE LAST OF OUR KIND.

 

 

 

 

 

 
*The first draft of this review (yes, I know could you imagine how terrible these posts are BEFORE I edit them?) referred to Hawkins’ vocal style as a “falsetto.” This apparently isn’t true. Though I really don’t understand why it isn’t, here is a tweet from the man himself:

Feel free to explain this to me in the comments.

Feel free to explain this to me in the comments.

**Hammer & Tongs is a euphemism generally meaning “energetically, enthusiastically, or with great vehemence.” So there ya go, you learn something new every day.

***I really didn’t notice just how much fire/burning/flame imagery THE LAST OF OUR KIND had until I sat down to write this review. Seriously: “Open Fire,””Wheels of the Machine,” “Sarah O’Sarah,” and “Hammer & Tongs” all do this. It’s almost like a lyrical tic. 

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CALIFORNIA NIGHTS by Best Coast

Five years have passed since Best Coast’s debut album, CRAZY FOR YOU, came out and lead singer-songwriter Bethany Cosentino is still bummed out. While nowhere close to approaching a Morrissey-level of depression, Best Coast’s songs are all pretty much about doomed love, unrequited love, broken relationships, and self-doubt. So why the hell do I love Best Coast so much? While the songs are sad, they’re catchy and sung in such a way that they come across as genuine without being embarrassingly earnest. Cosentino exudes so much hutzpah that even though she sounds sad, you feel like she’ll get over it and become a stronger person.

Now, don’t for a moment think that Best Coast is break-up music, because that’s not it at all. The songs are usually wistful with a don’t look back in anger kind of mindset. Best Coast is tragic love music that sometimes drifts into upbeat moments in the sun. Though Best Coast wears their California love on their sleeves, this music is the audio equivalent of Seattle or Portland. Dark, gloomy, but also filled with a strange Pacific optimism.

I really dig this album cover, but where's Snacks the Cat?

I really dig this album cover, but where’s Snacks the Cat?

The band’s first album was a blend of early 1960’s girl groups and lo-fi shoegaze. Two years later, Best Coast released THE ONLY PLACE, the troubled second album that every band must struggle through. And while I wouldn’t call THE ONLY PLACE a disaster, I remember finding it a bit of a disappointment. There were a handful of standout songs like Beach Boys-esque title track and the solemn closing track “Up All Night.” But for the most part, THE ONLY PLACE was a bit of a step back for Best Coast. Indulgent and a bit too self-referential, there were songs on that second album that teetered dangerously close to parody (I’m looking at you “Why I Cry”).

When CALIFORNIA NIGHTS came out earlier this month, I was looking forward to listening to it but I was cautious about it’s quality. I really wanted CALIFORNIA NIGHTS to be great. I didn’t want CRAZY FOR YOU to be the band’s nadir, and luckily (for everyone) CALIFORNIA NIGHTS is the band’s best album. The band took a little more time recording their third album and it seems to have paid off. The songs are super-catchy like CRAZY FOR YOU but more polished/better produced like on THE ONLY PLACE.

There it is, the actual "best coast."

There it is, the actual “best coast.”

The songs are still sad, but they sound so fun. The best example of this is on the track “In My Eyes.” The track is bouncy and upbeat musically while being about the loss of a relationship. “In My Eyes” has a catchy, fun to sing along chorus…that’s absolutely devastating lyrically. I really like doubt-filled “Jealousy” with its classic girl group sha-la-la’s. I also dig the moody title track “California Nights” which continues in the group’s grand tradition of extolling the virtues of the Golden State.

The single “Heaven Sent” is the albums happy love song, something the band always tries to sneak onto each record. I’m grateful that its there. Special mention should be made for guitarist Bobb Bruno, who continues to provide interesting, lush guitar riffs for Cosentino’s beautiful grief. Though Cosentino gets the bulk of the praise for Best Coast’s music, Bruno is a key ingredient in what gives the band it’s wonderful happy/sad sound. CALIFORNIA NIGHTS is a great record and is going to be the perfect soundtrack to the summer. If you haven’t yet dipped your toes into Best Coast, CALIFORNIA NIGHTS is a good place to start. So next month, when you’re hosting your Lonely Hearts BBQ, throw on little CALIFORNIA NIGHTS. Don’t forget the sunscreen.

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1984 by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is a super-talented artist whose music always feels a bit like homework to me. I recognize that Adams is super-talented, probably a genius even…but listening to most of his albums always feels like work. And just like that dog-eared copy of Infinite Jest I keep trying to read, I never throw the towel in completely with Adams because intellectually I know I should love his music. He’s ferocious, highly literate, and sincere to a fault–all qualities I respect in an artist. So what’s my problem with him? I think the problem might be tempo. I love when Adams gets loud.

In 2003, Ryan Adams knocked my socks off with him solo album ROCK ‘N ROLL. A joyous, unabashed love letter to the gritty rock albums that Adams (and me) grew up listening to, ROCK ‘N ROLL was largely ignored by the press and music fans in general. But I connected with this record in a big, big way. This is the album that convinced me that I had something in common with Adams, whom I’d otherwise considered to be a bit on the stuffy side. It seems as though with Adams the less he tries, the more I dig his music.

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ROCK ‘N ROLL always felt as though it was a bit of a “goof” and not something Adams would repeat. Apparently the album was recorded after his label rejected his album LOVE IS HELL for not being commercial enough. ROCK ‘N ROLL was recorded to fulfill contractual obligation, a blatant attempt to create something modern rock fans would approve of but ended up biting Adams in the ass. ROCK ‘N ROLL wasn’t a smash success.  But when LOVE IS HELL eventually came out, it’s darker more indie-rock focus garnered Adams immense critical praise. I’ve always thought that this rejection of ROCK ‘N ROLL and the praise LOVE IS HELL received served as a watershed moment for Adams. This was the moment when his fate was sealed and a his status as an indie rock troubadour was cemented for good.  I never thought he’d put out another dirty and gritty rock album. And for the most part, I was correct…however last August he did release a very fine 11 song EP titled simply 1984.

1984. The title tips Adams hand, this (very short) collection of songs is an even bigger homage to the hard edge rock bands of yesterday. Clocking in at 14 minutes, the songs fly by and bleed together in an angry torrent of slightly fuzzy guitars and reverbed soaked vocals. This is 100% nostalgia, pure and simple. Anyone expecting a thoughtful, contemplative indie rock album should look elsewhere. 1984 is hard charging and visceral. All the tracks seem hurriedly dashed off, never quite lazy but with a sort of “fuck it” vibe. The snarly vocals and primal guitars reminded me of very early Replacements, a band who always got to the point simply and quickly.

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1884 is wall-to-wall badassery. That old cliché “don’t bore us/get to the chorus” is in full effect here, with nearly all the song existing as fast guitars and million dollar choruses. “When The Summer Ends” has an almost Ramones-esque level of beautiful, brutal simplicity. Essentially the song is a just a vocal hook and sloppy guitar riff repeated over and over. This sort of thing should be annoying or stupid or come across as sloppy, but Adams is clearly putting his heart into this music and it shows. The tracks minute and forty-eight second run time also prevents the song from overstaying its welcome or becoming tiresome.

In fact, all of the songs on 1984 tumble out quickly, as though Adams is afraid he won’t remember them or he’ll run out of tape. This gives the EP a kinetic, some might even say exhausting quality. The best song, the true diamond in the rough is “Change Your Mind.” Full of both angst and yearning, the song is a quick minute and a half that captures the beautiful futility of a love that cannot be: “If I could change it, I’d change your mind.” Sometimes an aggressive power chord and a clever line shouted over the noise says more than a thousand carefully crafted lines. That’s 1984.

I also really love the loopy guitar that opens “Wolves” a song that sounds like something The Strokes would have recorded circa 2001. And the somewhat quieter ballad “Look in the Mirror” closes 1984 in a surprisingly restrained note.

Finishing up the EP, one gets the distinct feeling they’ve just finished hearing a bunch of really kickass demos.  Like flipping through a painters sketch book, you get the feeling Adams could really flesh these songs out and make an incredible album. Instead, these songs exist as brief glimpses of the past where Adams was young and angry. There’s a time to think and there’s a time to damn the torpedoes and charge ahead—1984 is very much a head-down, ballsy charge. Take fifteen minutes out of your day and listen to 1984. Enjoy the nostalgia.

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ROCK ‘N MAILBAG #2: What, Really?

Welcome to the second 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.

Pop-rockers What, Really? hail from Italy, that magical boot-shaped wonderland of vino and pasta. Though their email described the band as a “power pop” band, I really don’t think that fits.  The band has a pleasant, low key, indie rock vibe.  They’ve apparently played the International Pop Overthrow Festival in Liverpool and have crafted a nice little EP titled simply WHAT, REALLY?

What, Really? EP

The EP opens with “Ophelia (Among the flowers)” which clocks in just under 3 minutes.  And while it’s not a barn-burner by any means, it grooves fast enough.  The melody is catchy and the vocals are nice and clean. Next is “Dandy Hobo” which is darker and sounds a bit like The Shins with a hint of Jason Falkner.  It’s a good song

“Ninja Expert” has a goofy title but is probably my favorite song on the EP.  This is the band’s best, most fun song.  It reminded me of Canadian indie-rockers Tokyo Police Club with it’s angular guitar riff and shouty vocals. As good as the song is, it feels a bit restrained.  I’ll wager that when playing “Ninja Expert” live, the band really lets it rip. And really, that’s the biggest issue I have with these songs, they feel like a band operating at 90%.  Just a little extra oomph would have pushed these songs into fantastic instead of really good.

The last track “Clouds” is as good as everything else on the EP but is a bit too short and again feels like a restrained effort.  As far as EP’s go from unknown bands, What, Really? have something really good on their hands.  If this was mine, I’d be really proud of it.  That said, for the full album the band really needs to step up with the energy (or hire a producer capable of capturing their energy better, or both). I think they should stop marketing themselves as power-pop and embrace the indie-rock sound that they cultivate.  And honestly, if I were them, I’d buddy up with some Italian Film School kids and let them use their music in their independent film–because I could totally see these songs as the backdrop to some awesome black and white art house flick made by some newbie filmmaker.

As you can imagine, I get sent a TON of crap from all over the globe. What, Really? have a good foot forward, I genuinely hope they pool their resources together and put together a full length album. Based on their EP alone, I would buy an album from these guys.  If you’re interested in checking out WHAT, REALLY? you can go here and download the whole EP for free. 

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USE YOUR WEAPONS by Valley Lodge

Valley Lodge Band Use Your WeaponsValley lodge came to my attention last week via podcaster Dave Slusher.  Prior to that, I’d never heard of the band but was quickly impressed with their song “Go.” I looked them up online, and it turns out Valley Lodge has a pretty impressive pedigree. The band formed in 2005 and features members from such diverse acts as Satanicide, Sense Field, Sons of Elvis, Cobra Verde, and Walk Mink.  The Cobra Verde connection really piqued my interested because that’s a band that has ties to Guided By Voices, one of my all-time favorite bands.  So how had they escaped my Sauron-like gaze for so long?  Well Valley Lodge, like most power-poppers today, is more famous in Japan than they are here in the States.

I love a really catchy, stupidly simple song.  For me that’s the essence of power-pop: taking something pretty basic and making it infectious.  Valley Lodge has crafted one heck of an earworm with their song “Go.”  It’s goofy but incredibly catchy and I’ve been unable to go a day without listening to it at least once this past week.  Once I got over the initial sugar rush of “Go,” I decided to check out the rest of the band’s latest album.  Would the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS manage to live up to that first song?  Being a “glass half empty” guy, I was certain the rest of the album would be downhill after such a stellar opening track.

Thankfully I was wrong, USE YOUR WEAPONS is a solid album.  Less syrupy than you’d expect after hearing “Go,” USE YOUR WEAPONS pays tribute to British invasion-era pop but with a dash of snarky-grit.  The band compares favorably to California rockers TSAR, who also inject a whole lotta fun into their hooky, sometimes-dark songs.  Valley Lodge, like all great power-pop bands, owes a lot to Big Star whose influence can be felt throughout the record, especially on “Make Up Your Mind.”

Lead singer Dave Hill is a comedian as well as writer/blogger, so it’s unsurprising that Valley Lodge’s songs are funny, but don’t mistake the mistake of writing the band off as a joke—these songs seriously rock.  Even though USE YOUR WEAPONS is fun, there’s a darkness peaking out from the corners on a few of the albums tracks, especially on “Pretty Thing” and “Waiting in the Rain.”

Not everything on USE YOUR WEAPONS is perfect; I didn’t care for the semi-grating bubblegum of “Gimmie Gimmie” which is a shame because it has some great guitar work.   I also think that the band’s sound feels only partially formed, and that the songs have a disjointed quality, as though they were cobbled together from a couple of different bands rather than one.  That said, I’m really glad I found this band and look forward to exploring their back catalogue.  I’d say if you were intrigued by “Go” you should definitely check out the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS.

A fun throwback, I’d definitely recommend Valley Lodge’s USE YOUR WEAPONS for fans of Big Star, The Raspberries, and Fountains of Wayne.

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Rock ‘N Mailbag! #1: PRIMAL RUMBLE by Gretchen Lohse

Welcome to the first installment of a new series titled 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.

This first installment of the Rock ‘N Mailbag! will be devoted to Philadelphia singer-songstress Gretchen Lohse’s latest album PRIMAL RUMBLE.  A little research shows that Gretchen was in a band called Yellow Humphrey prior to striking out as a solo artist.  Right away I was determined to review this album based solely on the David Bowie-ish album artwork.  Depicting Lohse as a medicine cabinet/astronaut, I was prepared for freaky stuff.  To my surprise, PRIMAL RUMBLE is a gentle folk and jazz tinged album full of quiet reflection.  The album is understated and tastefully produced with interesting, but not overbearing keyboards and a glockenspiel.  

GretchenInASpaceSuit

Gretchen’s voice is soft, but strong throughout PRIMAL RUMBLE and reminds me a bit of She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel.  But whereas Deschanel is at times annoyingly twee and indie, Lohse retains artistic credibility by avoiding clichés and staying interesting (read: slightly strange). Stand out tracks for me were the lopping, gentle ballad “Rings” and the flute-filled “The Cuckoo.” Both of these songs, like the rest of the album, seem both really sad while at the same time being upbeat.  The whole album feels this way, confusing but in a pleasant ethereal sort of way.

Really I only have one quibble with PRIMAL RUMBLE: for album with such a strong title, this album is way too low-key.  All the songs seem to float along at the same temp: slow.  I’m okay with albums having consistent moods, but I would have liked for a little bit more pep.  Just one or two perkier songs would have livened things up.   “The Cuckoo” and “Spider At The Gate” feature unique and interesting musical flourishes, but even these make it difficult to set these tracks apart from one another.  Remember, I’m a guy who has a Guns N’ Roses-themed blog, so take this complaint with a grain of (rock) salt.  I am interested in what Yellow Humphrey sounds like, only to see how Gretchen’s voice works in a larger band setting.

This sort of dreamy folk-pop isn’t my usual cup of tea, but I enjoyed PRIMAL RUMBLE enough to recommend it for people who like She & Him or Joni Mitchell.  PRIMAL RUMBLE is available on Spotify and you can download the album at Gretchen’s Bandcamp website for $6.00.

 

 

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Classic Albums Revisited: GORILLAZ

The brainchild of Brit-pop wunderkind Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz appeared to be a side-project wrapped in a marketing gimmick.  A fake band of anime monkey-kids, are you joking? I distinctly remember thinking Gorillaz was all flash and no substance when the band’s music video for “Clint Eastwood” was all over MTV.  Eventually I sat down and listened to GORILLAZ and to my surprise, the music was stranger than I’d been lead to believe from that first single.  The songs skewed heavily towards electronica and hip-hop, two genres I wasn’t particularly fond of at the time.  I gave up on the album after only one listen and didn’t return to it again until after the band’s second album came out.  I think my biggest gripe with the record was a matter of expectation.  I’d been sold an album by the dude from Blur…but GORILLAZ turned out to be far removed from the classic Brit-pop mold.

Since that first listen I’ve decided that the album’s fusion of genres, the thing that initially turned me off, is ultimately what makes GORILLAZ such a monumental masterwork.  In addition, the first Gorillaz album was my gateway to hip-hop/rap: this album literally expanded my horizons.

Gorillaz Album Art

While the fake band aspect of Gorillaz might seem like just a ploy, I think it’s an integral part of how GORILLAZ  ended up being so special.   Free from the shackles of Blur, Albarn’s little side-project was a ticket to artistic freedom.  Surrounded by a small army of producers, musicians, and rappers, Albarn  felt more comfortable operating in a skin that wasn’t his own.  The goofy cartoon facade allowed him to let his freak flag fly.  It also expanded the very definition of who “the band” was, allowing for more people to participate in the recording of the album than a typical four piece band.  GORILLAZ opens with “Re-Hash,” a song that sends up the notion of pursuing fame and money.  I find it no coincidence that of all the songs on the album, “Re-Hash” is the one that sounds the most like Blur.    From the beginning of the album, Albarn is casting aside his former artistic identity.  After this opening the album descends into Trip-Hop, a fusion of hip-hop and electronica.

The mournful “Tomorrow Comes Today” reflects the loneliness and frustration of being constantly in the public eye, as well as dissatisfaction with the digital age.  Like “Re-Hash,” this song is seems to be a commentary on Albarn’s time in Blur.  Next, the solemn “New Genius (Brother)” fuses a mixture of soul and hip-hop with an ethereal production.  The mysteriously misanthropic lyrics add to the song’s creepy feeling.   Listening to “New Genius” is like taking a slow boat ride with a quiet, angry ghost.  This ghostly quality is carried over into the next song, the single “Clint Eastwood.”

“Clint Eastwood” works as a great single because the band was able to distill the band’s cross-cultural fusion into a tasty pop treat.  With Albarn’s indie-rock hook and Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s rapping how could the song not have been a massive hit? Add a visually striking music video and you have the makings of a monster.  When the video premiered I remember having great difficulty going more than a few hours without seeing it on TV.  And while not as daring or genre bending as some of GORILLAZ’s other tracks, “Clint Eastwood” gently lowers your defenses while at the same time serving as fair warning for what the rest of the album would contain.

“Man Research (Clapper)” comes next, and for me this is where the album truly starts to get interesting.   This droning dance track is lyrically very dark (“to kill the model from my front door”) but features an upbeat tempo and a screeching “yeah!” refrain that belies the song’s violent purpose.  The quick, but effective “Punk” follows, blasting the listener out of the techno trance of “Man Research (Clapper”)”.  A surprisingly straightforward punk song, “Punk” adds yet another genre to an already complex album.

Once again the album quickly changes gears:  “Sound Check (Gravity)” opens with Albarn softly lamenting gravity before descending into a cold, electronica groove of looping samples and record scratches.  The effect is disarming, especially when Albarn sings with himself near the end of song—his depressed lower register doing a duet with his falsetto.  The song ends and GORILLAZ offers up “Double Bass,” the album’s only instrumental.  Like the title suggests, the song is a spacey, bass heavy little ditty.  And while it’s the closest thing to filler on the album, this song is also one of my favorite tracks.  In fact, I wish that there were more short instrumental interludes like “Double Bass” on GORILLAZ.

“Double Bass” makes a great transition into “Rock The House,”  the second rap-heavy track that features Del tha Funkee Homosapien.  The repeated horn loop, taken from a jazz song called “Modesty Blaise,” and the carefree lyrics make “Rock The House” the first truly fun song on the album.  This lightness remains for several more tracks, such as the dubbed out “19-2000″ and the Spanish(?) “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo).”  The second single off the album, “19-2000” is notable for featuring Japanese singer/guitarist Miho Hatori.  Her presences adds yet another cultural touch to an already global album.

GORILLAZ then begins to descend back into darkness, first with the moody “Starshine” and then with the up-beat sounding but depressing “Slow Country.”  The album then goes full-on dark with the aggressive “M1 A1,” a punky companion to the earlier “Punk.”   It is here that album officially ends, however different regions got different bonus tracks tacked onto the end.  The U.S. version of the album continues with the reggae/ska-tinged “Dracula” which full of both funk and gloom.  The album then wraps up with the East-meets-West mash-up “Left Hand Suzuki Method.” The song’s title, a reference to a famous Japanese method of Violin instruction, echoes the philosophy of GORILLAZ: taking the usual manner of making music and doing it just a little different.  The album’s emotional shape, a parabola of dark to light and back again to dark, gives the album more concept than many so-called concept albums.

What could have been a goofy one-off ended up being the most artistic album of Albarn’s career.  Gorillaz liquid line-up allowed the band to grow and morph several times over on both the album and on subsequent records.  Always keen on staying one step ahead of mass-market appeal, Albarn’s first Gorillaz  record succeeded in being edgy, diverse, and fun.  The album is weird without being weird for the sake of being weird, something that future Gorillaz records would wind up becoming.  I think the level of innovation and artistic daring on display on the album is somewhat lost to history.  Compare GORILLAZ to the top two best selling albums of 2001, HYBRID THEORY by Linkin Park or HOT SHOT by Shaggy, and suddenly the fearless daring of Albarn’s album becomes apparent.

The legacy of GORILLAZ is a world in which genres such as rap, rock, and world music flourish and feed off each other’s creativity in the mainstream.  I’m not suggesting that GORILLAZ was the first time all of these styles commingled, but I do think it was the first successful commercial and artistic fusion of so many different styles and cultures.   And while the lines of genre weren’t forever torn asunder, they were moved to brilliant effect.

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