ROCK ‘N READ: Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story

One of the most influential pop bands of the last thirty years, Jellyfish is one of those bands that barely registered a blip but has a massive cult following. I’ve been saying for years that someone should write a book about them, well now someone has! Craig Dorfman’s book Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story is a slim, but not unsubstantial, volume that records the band’s history. From the humble childhood beginnings of Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Andy Sturmer to the dizzying production of the band’s seminal album SPILT MILK all the way to the present with a “where are they now?” segment that ties up the narrative of this legendary pop band.

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The band only recorded two albums, 1990’s BELLYBUTTON, and 1993’s SPILT MILK, but the band’s legacy lives on. When I started Dorfman’s book, I was looking forward to finally discovering three things: 1. What happened/why did they break up? 2. What are the band members doing today? And 3. How did an overlooked 90’s act wind up being so influential? Dorfman, who interviewed all the major players in the Jellyfish story, does a good job answering my first two questions (mostly, I’ll get that my beef with #2 in a moment). But as I finished Brighter Day I found myself still unable wrap my mind around their lasting legacy. By all rights, Jellyfish should be household names and expect for a few bright spots on the Internet; they aren’t. Dorfman’s book doesn’t shed any light onto how Jellyfish ended up influencing so many fantastic pop bands that came after them. I thought perhaps that it was music critics who kept the band’s memory alive, but Dorfman’s book details the numerous brutal reviews of contemporary publications for the band. While there were some positive reviews, my take away from Brighter Day was that critical reception to the band during their active years was mixed at best.

I often sit and wonder about what happens to members of bands I love after the band calls it quits. I had hoped to get a nice accounting of what the members of Jellyfish had been up to. I’ve done research over the years (and have all the solo albums that there are) but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how these Gods of pop music had, for the most part, just quietly slipped into obscurity. I knew that a band like Jellyfish hadn’t made millionaires out of them, so how were they supporting themselves? Dorfman’s book provides answers to this question: they work behind-the-scenes in the music industry or as hired guns for more popular artists. Brighter Day gives the answers I was seeking, but I wished more details were given about the post-Jellyfish careers of the various band members. Only because I know we’re never going to get a Jason Falkner book (sadly).

Brighter Day is written in a way that presents many pivotal moments and conversations like a novel would. Dorfman acknowledges at the beginning of the book that these conversations are not to to be taken literally and that some creative license was taken. This bothered me a bit at first, and I found myself wishing that Dorfman’s book was an oral history like The Beatles Anthology, but when I reached the end and read the acknowledgments page, I realized that getting all the parties involved in Jellyfish to talk must have been a massive undertaking. The idea of recording them and then parsing out a narrative would have been too great an undertaking. Still, the book’s central conceit, which Jellyfish was a vehicle for Sturmer and Manning’s songs and that meant the contributions of the other band members was very limited, thus creating a great source of tension, is somewhat underplayed. Dorfman repeats over and over that Manning refused to stick up for the various guitarists the band went through because he didn’t want to betray Sturmer as he had by writing commercial jingles when they were just starting out. This idea is tirelessly repeated throughout the book, and while I’m sure it’s not an incorrect assertion, I find it hard to believe that Manning’s motives were so simple. Andy Sturmer’s personality quirks are also mentioned, but it feels as though there’s more to the story than what Dorfman presents. Sturmer sounds like a bit of an asshole and perhaps on the spectrum maybe? None of this is explored. I suppose that is the price one has to pay to get official input from the band.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great book, and I’m so glad that it exists. Dorfman should be praised for doing what so many of us thought about and recognized should be done but did not have the will to do ourselves. Dorfman should be forever blessed for getting this story written before any of the principal players died. And considering how short the life of Jellyfish was, it’s amazing that Brighter Day has so much content. This book has got me seriously thinking about Jellyfish again, which in a way is like having Jellyfish back. I’m also re-listening to the last few Jason Falkner albums and trying to hunt up my copy of Manning’s CATNIP DYNAMITE. Sturmer’s lack of solo material isn’t explained in the book either, which is disappointing (though he hints that the singer does record at home and that perhaps some of this material will see the light of day). Brighter Day is a book for hardcore “Jellyheads” who’ve listened to every outtake and b-side, who’ve bought the boxset and the live albums, the ones who’ve listened to the arty solo albums and studied the music videos for decades. Everyone else should seek out the band’s seminal dual albums to join the rest of us in pop nirvana.

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Where Have I Been? & 2017 Concert Updates

 

Hello Everyone,

It’s been three months since I’ve been active here at Defending Axl Rose, though I’m trying to get “back on the horse” as they say. I’ve been busy working…like a lot of working. I didn’t mean for so much time to pass, but here we are with so much time having passed since my last substantial update. Last year I didn’t attend very many concerts, but already 2017 is shaping up to be a HUGE concert-going year for me. On the horizon: I’m attending a Metallica show in June and a Guns ‘N Roses show in August. I kinda gave up on seeing GnR for a little while, but after the initial rush of ticket sales, the prices for decent seats at the Denver show dropped to where I was comfortable plunking down my hard earned coinage. I know that for a guy running an Axl Rose-themed blog this will sound like heresy: but I’m more excited to see Metallica at this point.

I have a couple of albums that dropped over the past few months that I want to review, I also have a book I need to finish and review on Jellyfish, and I have a couple of classic albums I want to revisit. There are things we have to do, and then there are important things we should do but don’t always have the time–and this website has always been in the second category, but sometimes life gets in the way.

Lastly, I didn’t write it up, but last month I attended an Against Me! concert up in Fort Collins and was totally blown away by them! If you happen to live in a city where they’re rolling through I highly recommend you check them out, they are so good live. Also, it’s not music-related, but I would like to take a moment to plug my friend’s blog Trope & Dagger where I sometimes write about pop culture stuff that doesn’t fit with DAR’s mission statement. I plan on writing something over there really soon, too.
I still check my email for this website, but it’s been a while since anybody has sent me anything cool. If you have a band or know a band that you want me to check out shoot me an email: defendingaxlrose@gmail.com. And if you want a positive review I can tell you where to send the check…

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Beach Slang at the Summit Music Hall 03/12/2017

Last night, bone tired after a 10-hour shift at my second job, I mustered the will to check out Beach Slang. They were opening for Minus the Bear, a band I still haven’t heard (yeah, I left once Beach Slang finished their set, don’t give me that look…I’m old). As some of you will recall, I got into Beach Slang in January 2016 after I discovered their first record a few months behind everybody else. You’ll remember I wrote that had I heard it on time; it easily would have been my #1 album of 2015. Beach Slang put out a second album, A LOUD BASH OF TEENAGE FEELINGS, last year that I was somewhat lukewarm about. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t ambush me the same way that first record did. While the songs were all great and the passion was still there, there was very much a “been there, done that” feeling to the proceedings. Before seeing the band last night I was a little worried that perhaps the band wasn’t as good as I thought they were and that maybe that first album was a bit of a fluke. Well, maybe fluke is too strong a word as music fans we all know about the “one hit wonder” phenomenon. Sometimes artists only have one really good album in them; there’s no shame in that. Well, there’s also the “sophomore slump,” which also explains why so many second albums aren’t quite as good as the first ones. Anyway, I don’t think either of these conditions applies to Beach Slang, especially after last night.

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The night began when the Californian three-piece band Sand took to the stage. They were a strange band, mixing indie rock with prog flourishes and doom metal-ish riffs. The (very young) audience seemed to titter every time the paunchy, balding bassists banged his head and slapped his bass. I thought they were cool in an unconventional sort of way. The drummer was goofy and did most of the singing (love those singing drummers), and the guitarist was technically great, but a bit lacking on the stage presence. The songs they played were pretty strange, and as I said tended to have heavy riffs and progressive structures. None of the songs they played stood out or were particularly catchy, per say, but I wouldn’t be opposed to hearing more of their music. Once Sand finished their set, the venue (or someone) had a “rock and roll comedian” come out and do 5 minutes. I’ve heard of comedy at rock shows but had never witnessed this phenomenon first hand. I was nervous for the guy (whose name escapes me), but he held his own with the standard druggie material. After he had finished his bit about secretly liking Crocs, Beach Slang hit the stage.

The first thing I noticed was just how odd lead singer James Alex looks. He’s a pretty tall dude, with a huge mop of shaggy hair. He was wearing a blue blazer with a heart patch sewn onto it. The band came out carrying plastic cups, Alex’s had a red liquid that he proclaimed was vodka and cranberry juice. Immediately I noticed the band’s guitarist was a chick. Beach Slang’s last tour imploded last year when their former guitarist Ruben Gallego was accused of sexual assault. Ultimately, both Gallego and drummer JP Flexner were let go from the band following an explosive concert in Salt Lake City. James Alex comes across as a pretty thoughtful, caring guy and when the news of the assault allegations hit he seemed genuinely upset. The fact that he replaced Gallego with Aurore Ounjian, a woman, surprised me–though I shouldn’t have been surprised Alex’s way more progressive in his thinking than the typical indie rocker. I expected the band to give a dashed off, slightly crappy performance if I’m honest. Not because Beach Slang come across as though they’d be shitty live, but because Alex seems to worship Paul Westerberg and The Replacements. The Replacements were extremely notorious for the quality of their live gigs, which often devolved into drunk messes.

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Much to my surprise, and delight, Beach Slang put on a stellar performance. Despite being the evenings middle act, Beach Slang came out and acted as though they were headlining. There were friendly chats with the audience, an impromptu cover of the Oasis classic “Wonderwall,” and zany stage antics (falling to the floor and spewing vodka cranberry juice all over the stage, playing the opening riff of “Smooth” whenever Alex said “it’s a hot one”). Alex was manic and full of playful energy as the band blasted through their best songs. I really enjoyed hearing “Porno Love” and “Ride the Wild Haze” from the first album live. Songs from the new album also came off really well including the Replacements-like “Spin the Dial.” They closed their set with “Atom Bomb” a song I didn’t really care for very much when I heard it on the new album. Played live, however, the track’s furious energy clicked with me and I came away with a new found sense of respect for the song. Besides the before mentioned cover of “Wonderwall,” the band also did a killer cover on The Pixies classic “Where is my Mind?”

Not only did Beach Slang sound about as good live as they do on their albums, but they managed to successfully walk the tightrope between super-fun and while singing gut-wrenchingly earnest rock songs. Alex wears his heart on his sleeve (besides on his blazer) and his music touches on serious topics like isolation and confusion. He writes music that comforts his fans and speaks to them in ways I haven’t seen an artist do in a long time. There’s something tragic in the music of Beach Slang, and I fully expected this concert to be a bit of a self-serious bummer. I was glad to see how goofy and cheerful Alex was, but I can’t help but think the silly ruffled shirt and mop of sweaty rocker hair is hiding some incredibly dark stuff. I was ultra tired when I went to the venue but left floating on a cloud of optimism fueled from seeing a passionate artist connect with his fans. I can’t wait to re-listen to both albums this week and hope I get a chance to see Beach Slang again–perhaps even in a headlining slot.

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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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I Might Actually, Maybe, Possibly, Perhaps, Get to See GnR Live!

I’m still smarting from the whole Kanye West concert debacle, but news came a few days ago that Guns N’ Roses were going to hit-up a bunch of US cities not on the original leg of their Not In This Lifetime reunion tour. I remain cautiously optimistic about my chances of seeing the band, even though my native St. Louis and current home Denver are on the list of cities blessed with a tour stop. I mean, Axl Rose is no Kanye West, but he does have a reputation…if I buy a ticket for one of these shows will I be dooming my fellow concert goers?

I missed the first leg of the tour, though my parents (of all people) saw the band in Kansas City and apparently had a good time. This year has been on of many crushing defeats and moments of terrible disappointment…but I’m going to tempt fate one more time and buy a ticket to the Denver show this Friday when they go on sale.

The new tour dates are:

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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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Denied by Kanye: Mr. West Uncharacteristically Spazzes out and Cancels Remaining LIFE OF PABLO Tour Dates

File this under Shitty News That Actually Doesn’t Surprise Me: Kanye West has canceled the remaining dates of his LIFE OF PABLO tour. This comes on the heels of Yeezus losing his mind over the weekend in California while “performing.” I put that in quotes because Mr. West, after making the crowd wait over an hour for the show to begin, only performed three songs before storming off stage. He apparently went on a long jag attacking Jay Z and Beyonce while at the same time praising president-elect Donald Trump. People were, understandably, confused and little pissed. For their part, Ticketmaster decided to do the right thing and refund people the money they spent on tickets to the concert.

Then this morning I awoke to find that many friends and family on social media were directing me to news articles stating that Kanye had canceled the rest of the tour. I checked my email but as of writing this post, I’ve received no correspondence from the ticket company who sold me my upcoming (next Monday!!!) concert ticket. For the briefest of moments, I thought that maybe this was a hoax or had been blown out of proportion. I went on Kanye’s website and everything seemed normal. However, when I clicked through to see if tickets could be purchased for upcoming concert dates I was greeted with this bit of cold reality:

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So that’s it then. What a whirlwind. You’ll recall that my journey to Yeezus-ticketdom has been fraught with much pain and sorrow. There was my failed attempt to raise money online in order to see Mr. West perform in Vegas. Then, just as my soul had accepted that I wouldn’t be seeing him perform, he surprisingly announced another leg of THE LIFE OF PABLO TOUR that would come to my town! I eagerly waited for tickets to go on sale and plunked down $69 (giggity) to see my idol (and the person who will probably feature at top of my Best Albums of 2016 list) perform live. I must say, it’s not easy being a Kanye West fan. The media circus the man cultivates detracts so much from his music that when I tell people I love his music they almost always look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. The disgust that they exhibit is no doubt for Kanye the Media Personality, who is both irritating and at this point controversial for the sake of being controversial.

At this point, I still love Kanye, but as he said on LIFE OF PABLO: “I miss the old Kanye.” If I could offer Mr. West some advice it would be this: give up the hype train and the constant need to be in the news. Downsize your life and follow the example of The Beatles–give up touring and appearing in public and retreat to the studio. Focus on making your complex, amazing music and stop messing around with politics, shoes, fashion shows, and the Kardashian soap opera. There is still time to salvage your career and your reputation as a serious artists, but only if you get back to doing what got you famous in the first place.

UPDATE: Just as I was about to post this I got an email about my refund:

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Controversial Opinion: “St. Anger” is better than “Fuel”

With a new Metallica album nearly upon us, I’ve been spending the past few days revisiting the metal giant’s previous works. I write about metal every now and then, mostly because I’m a pretty casual metal fan. A real n00b if you will. I tend to like the classic metal acts like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Motorhead, and Metallica. But that said, I really only played through Guitar Hero Metallica once and that was strictly for the achievements. My favorite Metallica album is their 1983 debut record KILL ‘EM ALL which is an economical, no-thrills thrash metal classic that stands as one the best examples of the genre. Love or hate Metallica today, there is no denying that in 1983 the band was simply amazing.

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Complex, insightful lyrics.

Anyway, as we all know, times change and bands develop. Metal fans are some of the worse when it comes to accepting the passage of time. And I don’t really blame them, after all when you begin your career with KILL ‘EM ALL why change things? Prior to 2003’s ST. ANGER, I think the band’s worst album is RELOAD from 1996. RELOAD is pretty pompous and finds the band doing sequel songs which I can’t believe is even a thing (“The Unforgiven II”). The album is also much longer than KILL ‘EM ALL…longer by a staggering 20 minutes. That’s a lot of fluff and filler to sit through. The worst song on the album, in my opinion, is the ridiculous first track/single “Fuel.” I remember when this song came out and I wasn’t even listening to metal at the time. The song was everywhere and from what I remember people liked it at the time. But boy does “Fuel” sound stupid today. Basically a Nike or Gatorade jingle, “Fuel” is a dunder-headed faux-tough guy anthem. It’s weightlifter music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but the idea of “Fuel” and the reality are two separate things. On paper, the masculine word salad appears hyper-masculine and aggressive. Listening to the song just makes me giggle. And I’m not giggling with Metallic I’m giggling at Metallica.

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Remember that time Spider-Man punched Metallica? That was so cool.

Compare that to ST. ANGER’s title track “St. Anger.” The song deals with similar tough-guy themes and has a schizophrenic fast/slow thing going on but I don’t crack a smile listening to it. I pick “St. Anger” because I feel like it best encapsulates the album, which prior to 2011’s LULU, was considered to be the band’s weakest album.  I don’t even know what to think about that mess of an album and frankly can only fall asleep most nights by pretending that it never happened. ST. ANGER is all about well…anger and mental issues and stuff. I know this because the band had a documentary come out (Some Kind of Monster) that explained all this to me. I think the frantic yoyoing of “St. Anger” fits with that theme and even though it was recorded in the crappiest way possible (modern metal production usually sucks) I think “St. Anger” actually accomplishes what it sets out to do. I’m also not embarrassed to get caught listening to “St. Anger.” When “Fuel” is on and somebody enters the room, I turn that shit down and hang my head.

I still feel like many people hate ST. ANGER so much they’d do or say anything rather than admit that parts of it aren’t all that bad. I know that I will lose what little metal credibility I have by writing this but: I don’t actually mind ST. ANGER that much. It’s far from the heights of KILL ‘EM ALL, but then again I think most of the band’s output falls into that category. Regardless, neither “Fuel” nor “St. Anger” are the worst Metallica songs…that would be “I Disappear” from the Mission Impossible II soundtrack. Holy crap is that a bad song.

So how clickbait-y is my click-bait title? Have you any opinions about either song? Let me know down in the comments. And stay tuned for my shitty, uninformed review of the new Metallica album later this week!

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Countdown to YEEZUS: Ticket Secured, MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY Re-visited, and Thoughts on a Live Kanye Performace

As promised, I’m going to write a few posts about my impending Kanye West concert. When I last wrote about this concert, I explained that a Denver show had been announced and that I was dusting off my credit card  so I could attend. Luckily for me, I didn’t really need to use the Defending Axl Rose Master Card! I was able to get a pretty good seat for $69. Since that time, I’ve kept an eye on the tickets and for the most part, the prices have remained stable and as of this posting tickets are still available.

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As long as there’s Kanye, there is hope.

During the fantastic World Series, which I watch every year, I muted my TV and revisited MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY. Mr. West’s 2010 album has been severely underplayed in my household, which made me decide to revisit it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the album holds up 6 years later. The singles “Power” and “Runaway” remain solid classics, but I was really blown away by the John Legend track “Blame Game.” I’m not sure why this poignant song failed to connect with me in previous listening sessions, but man is this an almost perfect song (the closing outro with comedian Chris Rock is probably the most cringe-inducing K. West album skit). The star-studded “Monster” also still holds up really well, though I must say the star-making performance from Niki Minaj bums me out when I hear now. Who could have guessed that her fierce performance on “Monster” would be an almost one-off thing and she’d become one of the most disappointing new rap artists of the 2010’s?

Listening to “Monster” got me thinking about what a Kanye West concert would be like. Despite being well-known as an egomaniac, Kanye’s albums are so brilliant because he doesn’t hog the spotlight on his releases. In fact, Kanye the album maker is generous with the limelight and often appears as second banana on the best tracks. How do I know that Kanye isn’t his troubling, problematic public persona? I listen to his albums and hear him give the best moments away to other, usually up-and-coming artists. The first time I heard Chance the Rapper was this summer when he stole the show on the opening track of THE LIFE OF PABLO. With so many of his best songs featuring A-list and AAA-list artists, how does a live Kanye performance work? Obviously a track like “Monster” doesn’t work unless Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Niki Manaj, and Bon Iver are in attendance and thus doesn’t get performed. But because so many of Kanye’s songs feature really great artists that I’m not sure Kanye can avoid doing a solo-only concert. I’m guessing that the verses done by guest rappers are just omitted, but as someone that’s never been to a rap concert before, I’m interested to see how it’s handled.

 

Look for a few more Kanye-centric posts to appear before my November 28th concert. I’m still trying to decide the best way to document the concert itself, so if you have any thoughts on the best way to do that chime-in below in the comments section.

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“Crash” by Against Me!

I’d pretty much written off fun pop-punk as something that only existed in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Punk is one of those genres that really belongs to young people, and when a new crop of artists didn’t spring up to replace the old guard…well we ended up with old punks. Nothing is more depressing to me than old punks. I’m not going to hijack this post, which is about a great new Against Me! song, by bashing Green Day. But boy is it difficult for me to not bash Green Day.

 

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Young and old punks appreciate clean boots. 

 

Anyway, I was vaguely aware of Against Me! but hadn’t really heard them until a few months ago when a podcast I listen to turned me onto their latest single “Crash.”I was blown away not just because the song is catchy as hell, but because it seemed to reinvigorate my interest in the pop-punk genre. Leaning more pop than punk, this track has a nice buoyant quality to it. The lyrics, while pretty straightforward, do a good job of reflecting on getting older without getting bogged down in the typical old-punk lameness. This song impressed me so much, that I wound up listening to all of SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME, the band’s new album. It’s a great record, one that will definitely end up on Best of 2016 end of year list. I thought about reviewing it now but decided to focus on this song because it’s so damn good.

It’s been a tough week, take a moment to check out “Crash” and forget about your troubles for a while. The band released an awesome KISS-inspired music video for the song, check it out:

 

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