Tag Archives: Album Review

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.

the-monkees-good-times-album-rivers-cuomo

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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METAL MONDAY: Zombies & Venezuelan Thrash Metal

This week marks the return of METAL MONDAY. I’ve got a lengthy list of bands I plan on featuring in upcoming METAL MONDAY posts, but today I want to spotlight Kraptor.

Hailing from Venezuela, Kraptor are an awesome thrash metal band. What I like about Kraptor is the band’s above-average musicianship and sense of humor.  Kraptor know how to play their instruments but avoid that cold, sterile sound many wanna-be-virtuosos usually crank out.  The band has a tight, professional sound but don’t take themselves too seriously.  I love a metal band that can play their instruments but are also unafraid to be fun.  

Kraptor, don't they look fun?

Kraptor, don’t they look fun?

The band’s sense of humor is refreshing in a genre filled with deathly serious/super angry bands.  Kraptor’s album, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, is a thrash metal concept album that spoofs B-movie horror movies but still manages to knock you socks off.  The killer cuts are interspersed with short newsbreaks reporting on the chaos caused by a plague of zombies.

While this ain’t Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Kraptor’s album works for me thanks in large part to the juxtaposition of the melodic yet muscular tunes and hilarious zombie-outbreak story.

The album as a whole is strong, but I highly recommend “Civil Disobedience” and “Damage Brain.”  There’s a particularly propulsive guitar solo near the end of “Civil Disobedience” that made me sit up and take notice.  Kraptor is a great little band that deserve more attention here in the States, and while the the band doesn’t seem to have an official website,  you can follow them on Twitter.  I recommend you do so.

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TSAR Returns with THE DARK STUFF Ep!

If there’s one thing that I love, it’s finding out that a band I really love has put out new music.  But what I love even more is when a band I’ve completely written off as “disbanded” returns with new music. LA rockers TSAR put out two phenomenal albums that really didn’t get the attention they deserved.

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Their self-titled debut album is more than worthy of a CLASSIC ALBUMS REVISITED post and their last record, BAND GIRLS MONEY was worthy follow-up that proved the band wasn’t a fluke.  But then something happened, I don’t know because I’m not in LA and I don’t follow that scene…but TSAR went away.  Then, a few days ago, I was prepping my iPhone for a trip and what do I see on Spotify? Brand-spanking new TSAR music.

THE DARK STUFF is an Ep of five songs; all killer, no filler power-pop perfection.  Upon first listen, I was surprised at how dark THE DARK STUFF really is.  Sure, the music is still sugary and fun; but TSAR aren’t pulling any punches–these songs have a real bite to them.  The first song, “Punctual Alcoholic” is a demented, spooky song that appropriately name-checks Stephen King.  The phrase punctual alcoholic  is one of those really good TSAR-isms that I’ve been missing over the last few years.  

Despite being really well-produced, the song was a bit of shock in that it wasn’t as hyper-produced as the songs from BAND GIRLS MONEY.  It’s a really good, really catchy song that instantly reminded me why I love this band.

The second track, “Police Station” is a more straight-forward rocker and sounded more akin to the songs from the band’s last album, but toned down and more thoughtful.  I especially like the reference’s to “Teen Wizards,” another of the band’s songs.  “Little Woman” returns to the darker, melodic quality that gives the Ep it’s name.

The best song on THE DARK STUFF is the last track, “Something Bad Happened To Me.”  Like “Punctual Alcoholic,” it’s more restrained than the band’s previous album but edgier.  It’s like a haunted-house where the music is provided by Cheap Trick by way of George Harrison, The Cars, and Steely Dan.  It’s a very cool, multi-faceted song that seamlessly morphs from acoustic noodle to electric monster.

TSAR is still a great power pop band, but with THE DARK STUFF the band seems to be moving away from the endless-partyrock sensability and more textured, mature rock.  I didn’t think it would be possible for TSAR to come back and actually be more interesting than they already were, but with THE DARK STUFF the band has proven that not only are they back but they’re better than ever.  I only hope that we don’t have to wait long for the full album.

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NO LINE ON THE HORIZON Revisited: Part II The Review

For such a mega-successful band, U2 has had a shockingly uneven quality in their albums.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that of all the mainstream rock acts of the last 25 years, their release record is the most checkered. When U2 is good, they’re fantastic.  But when U2 goes off the deep-end, they crash and burn spectacularly.  Bono has said in interviews that had 2000’s ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND not been a commercial success, the plan was for U2 to break-up.  Feeling a little starved for success after spending the 1990’s experimenting, U2 stripped down their sound and went back to basics.  The move paid off big time, but it came at a price.  The band’s ATYCLB follow up, HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB, was a pretty much a rehash of what they’d done before.  So much so that I’d say that the album should have been called ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND Part II.

But a confident U2 is an experimental U2, and as such, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON finds the band sliding back into something a bit more interesting. 

The album opens with “No Line on the Horizon,” which flirts between being spacey and down-to-earth.  Bono’s voice seems to be getting better with age; it’s as vibrant and strong as it was back in the 80’s.   One of my favorite tracks, “Magnificent,” blends early 90’s electronica-U2 with the more restrained rock elements that made U2 famous.  The song’s main guitar riff is memorable but not overwhelming.  I think that behind George Harrison, The Edge is probably one of the most understated guitarists off all time.  The Edge’s riffs can be bombastic but on NO LINE ON THE HORIZON he seems content to hang back and noodle on the peripherals of the songs, taking center stage only a few times. When he does it’s incredible (see the end of “Breathe”).

Like all modern mainstream rock records, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON opens strong and reaches it’s peak at the mid-point with the twin singles “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Get On Your Boots.”  The later being the freakiest thing on record, as well as the catchiest.  “I’ll Go Crazy” is a decent song but of the two singles, “Get On Your Boots” is the more interesting.  To be honest, “I’ll Go Crazy” seems like a leftover from ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND.  That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not very memorable.

The last half of the album is a more subdue affair, but it’s also where the best tracks are hidden.  In fact, I would say that the last two tracks “Breathe” and “Cedars of Lebanon” are probably my favorites on the entire album.  “Breathe” especially evokes the fire and spirit of the classics found on THE JOSHUA TREE.  Near the end there’s a fantastic cello-solo that leads right into the best Edge guitar solo I’ve ever heard, it’s so warm and lovely that you can almost hear the cracking as the ice finally melts off his guitar.  The song almost seems like an answer to the critics who say The Edge is all technique and no heart.

NO LINE ON THE HORIZON does have a few duds, the worst being “Unknown Caller.” The song uses modern technology as a metaphor and listening to Bono croon about “ATM Machines,” “rebooting,” and “having no signal” (as in cellphone signal) is pretty cringe-worthy.  It’s almost like hearing your grandparent talk about “The Facebook,” it comes off as forced and makes U2 seems shockingly un-hip (even the song title is ridiculous in today’s world of caller-ID).   I found “White As Snow” to be dull and overly sentimental, while “Fez-Being Born” was just downright boring to sit thorough, coming in just a little over five minutes in length.

Overall though, NO LINE ON THE HORZION is a good album and I’m glad I made the effort to dust it off and give it another chance.  I don’t think it’s strong enough to convert anyone who’s not already a fan, but I think it’s got enough strong tracks to merit a listen.  I’m going to chalk up my initial reaction to this record to my health issues I was dealing with back in 2009.  There’s been a couple times I’ve gone back and listened to something that had underwhelmed me initially and been pleasantly surprised. I think we bring more of our baggage to art than we realize. Obviously hearing problems are going to affect one’s opinion of a new CD, but there was more than that going on.  NO LINE ON THE HORIZON didn’t change, I did.  My life has completely changed since 2009: my relationships, my job, where I live.   I don’t think NO LINE ON THE HORIZON is a landmark record in terms of the “musical world” but I do think it’s important in my life.  I think revisiting albums at different points in life are key to understanding both them and ourselves.

NO LINE ON THE HORIZON gets a (belated) “B+”

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NO LINE ON THE HORIZON Revisited: Part I The Back Story

This is story about inexplicably losing something very precious and then inexplicably getting it back.  The year was 2009 and my life wasn’t really going the way I’d wanted it to go.  I was stuck in a really bad job, the kind of job that was soul crushing and hazardous to your health.  I was working in a really dirty environment—there was a lot of dirt, dust, and wood particulate in the air I was breathing and I developed allergies.  One morning I woke up and discovered, to my horror, that I had diminished hearing in my right ear. 

Before jumping to any conclusions, I decided to try cleaning my ear out.  So I used an over-the-counter-ear-douche-thingy and proceeded to mindlessly clean my ear.  In the meantime, I lived a strange sort of half-life.  I wasn’t able to enjoy many of the things I normally loved.  Not only was it frustrating to not be able to hear songs, television, and phone calls—but having trouble hearing these things also served as an unpleasant reminder that something was wrong with me.

When the problem didn’t sort itself out and go away, like I’d hoped it would, I decided to break down and see a doctor.  After a quick check of my ear, which I was told were immaculately clean after my many ear-douchings, I was told that it was probably just my clogged sinuses.  I was given some medicine and within a few weeks I was mostly all better.  I still occasionally have hearing issues in my right ear, especially during “allergy season” which is pretty much all the time in my part of the country.   But it could be worse; my flirtation with deafness could have been permanent.  As a music nerd and rock geek, I can’t imagine a life without music.

When my ear was really bad,  U2’s album NO LINE ON THE HORIZON came out.  Despite my diminished hearing, I went out and bought the album.  I popped it into the CD player of my car and struggled to get into the songs, but I wasn’t in the mood and I couldn’t really enjoy it.  Later on, when my hearing problems pretty much went away, I heard a few of the songs—mostly used in advertising.  I didn’t think they were horrible, but I didn’t have much enthusiasm for listening to the album.  I tossed NO LINE ON THE HORIZION aside and life moved on.

I got to thinking about all of this because I bought a new computer at the end of last year and I’m in the process of putting all my music into my new computer’s library.  I’ve been doing it slowly, piece-by-piece.  At first I thought I wasn’t going to try and replicate my old iTunes library, but I’m pretty moody when it comes to music.  Albums and songs I didn’t miss or need last week are suddenly giant, embarrassing holes in my computer’s collection.   So I said “the hell with it” and have started piling it all onto my hard drive—and during the project I happened upon NO LINE ON THE HORIZON.  I still have it, because years ago I forever gave up on the notion of selling my CD’s.

Once, during a very dark period of my life, I was unemployed and forced to liquidate a rather substantial portion of my CD collection.  I only sold things that I was certain I would never miss, but alas, I’ve spent the better part of a decade re-buying many classic, essential albums. Of course, I didn’t re-purchase that Shaggy album and a few other dodgy musical choices I’d made in my youth.

Between the years of 2001 and 2007 U2 was a very big influence on me.  Prior to that time I’d had THE JOSHUA TREE for many years but was otherwise a pretty casual fan.   But their surprising return-to-form on 2000’s ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND really made me a U2 fan.  That album and those songs were everywhere in late 2000 and early 2001.  I saw the band perform in November of 2001, and to this day it’s one of the best large-arena rock shows I’ve ever attended.  Bono and the band were a soothing, positive influence during a really scary time.  The 9/11 attacks in New York and my newly acquired draft card weighed heavily on my mind, and U2’s music helped calm me down and put things into the proper perspective.

I was so inspired by the band, and Bono’s philanthropy, that I joined Amnesty International after spotting the organization’s name in the liner notes for ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND.  I also dove back into U2’s back catalogue and became an even greater admirer.  Of course, doing this put the band’s next album, HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB, into greater perspective.  Still, though the band’s previous output might have put their new music to shame, it was better than most what was being played on the radio.

My super-fandom of U2 ended around the time I moved out of my parent’s house and went to college.  U2 was replaced by newer bands, most of whom I will admit have very little to say.  Or have very little they’re willing to do to help make the world a better place, which is one thing U2 can never be faulted for doing.  I think we grew apart, like high school sweethearts who mature in opposite directions.  I quit Amnesty International after I heard one of their mouthpieces say some foolish things on CNN.  I rejected a lot of classic rocks bands I’d loved when I was growing up.

I was willing to give U2 my time and money when NO LINE ON THE HORIZON was released, however I think the purchase was mostly made to honor a band I’d once loved very dearly.  The bottom line is that I’m not sure I’d have given it much consideration if my hearing had been perfect.  Sometimes things fall through the cracks, and NO LINE ON THE HORIZON definitely fell through the cracks.

I’ve decided that tomorrow I’m going to get up, put on headphones, and listen to NO LINE ON THE HORIZON in its entirety.   I’m not sure if this is a worthy exercise, but I do feel like I owe it myself and to U2.  I’m curious to see how I’ll react to it.  The last time I thought about or listened to U2 was back in the autumn of 2009 when I saw the fantastic documentary, IT MIGHT GET LOUD, which featured The Edge.   After seeing that film I immediately had a hankering for classic, 1980’s U2—a hankering I satiated with the astoundingly dense OCTOBER record.

What will I find, and how will I feel when NO LINE ON THE HORIZON ends?  I will report back in Part II The Review.

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH

It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong:  I have been wrong.  I thought this new Van Halen album was going to be another run-of-the-mill, Dinosaurs of Rock Ca$h grab.  I thought Van Halen were leveraging the last bit of goodwill the band had in order to pay for second (or third, or fourth) wives and grand babies (!).  In my defense, the band’s choice of “Tattoo” as the lead single was pretty bonehead (unless you think putting your worst foot-first is a good idea).

How's this for a different kind of truth: this band's new album isn't a horrendous mistake.

So I downloaded A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH on Friday, mostly because I have deep psychological problems/I hate myself.  To my shock, once you get past the floating turd that is “Tattoo,” the album is pretty damn good.  A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH is not so different from classic, late 1970s-era Van Halen.  The reason for this is because all these songs were written 30+ years ago by the band.  Yes, the “new” Van Halen album is full of cast-offs and throw aways (the B-sides, “b-sides” if you will) and while that might sound like a bad thing, it turns out it’s not.

Think about it terms of money: back in the day the young, kickass Van Halen wrote some songs and put them into a rock ‘n roll savings account.  You know, for when they were older and wanted to retire.  This “song savings plan” has paid Van Halen Corp. huge dividends in form of modern songs with a classic feel.  

But enough bullshit, let’s talk about the songs.

So like I said, the boys put their worst foot-forward with “Tattoo.”  It’s not only the lead single, but it’s also the first track of the record.  I’m not sure who it is in the Van Halen camp that has the massive hardon for this song, but I’m pretty sure it’s that fat-fuck Wolfgang.  Just kidding, I know Wolfgang’s opinons don’t matter (except to this daddy), I’m sure the whole organization thinks “Tattoo” is a “hip” modern-taken on Van Halen. But it sucks.

The rest of the album, however, is solid as a rock. The second track, “She’s A Woman” is, for me, the album’s true opener.  The lyrics are a bit much, with David Lee Roth howling about how normal he is….you know, he drives a Chevy and…lives in his car (?).  While I’m usually annoyed when millionaires wail about how blue collar they are, I decided to not bitch because the guitar work on this song is phenomenal.  In fact, Eddie Van Halen is on fire the whole record.  It’s pretty awesome to see that the dude can still shred.  And beyond that,  the playing isn’t contrived or robotic–nor is it a parody of his younger-self.  Diamond Dave’s voice is lower and rougher, but Eddie’s guitar playing is exactly as awesome as it was back in the day.

“You and Your Blues” should have been the first single, in my opinion.  It’s more understated than the dunderheaded “Tattoo,” but that’s why I like it.  The song has a great, chuggy-sounding guitar tone and a really awesome Rolling Stones reference in the lyrical hook.

My favorite track on A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH is “Blood and Fire.”  This was, you might recall, one of the tracks the band released partially leading up to the album’s release. It’s a great song and the lyrics fit an older, more mature Van Halen.  The band has “come through blood and fire” so to speak and the fact that they’re still standing should be a source of pride for them.  The car/racing metaphors are classic Van Halen and reminded me of “Panama.”  This is definitely one that they’re going to be playing live on the new tour.

Other standouts on the album include  the super-heavy “As Is” and the cheeky-as-hell “Stay Frosty.”  The latter being a spiritual sequel to “Ice Cream Man” off of Van Halen’s first record.  It’s worth noting that “Stay Frosty” with it’s acoustic guiar opening, is probably the only track to not come kicking and screaming out of the gate.  This is a hard-charing Van Halen record (which is probably why the album art is an old train, get it?  Old train).

Are there problems other than “Tattoo”? Of course.  David Lee Roth’s voice is rougher and his “raps” aren’t as funny as they used to be. There’s a particularly embarrassing one in the middle of “The Trouble With Never.”  The songs themselves are pretty good, but let’s face it–nothing on A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH is going to become a classic Van Halen song.  They aren’t going to play “Outta Space” or “Big River” at a ballgame.  These are leftover tracks and the only reason we’re accepting them is because we’ve lowered our collective expectations for Van Halen.

On the other hand, this album does not tarnish the Van Halen brand in any way.  I can crank it up in the summer time and not be embarrassed when I hit a stop light, which is nice. I think all parties involved have lucked out.  Having a backlog of songs to pull from has probably spared us all from a truly awful, gut-wrenching experience.  Our heroes didn’t fall, and for me that’s good enough. 

A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH gets a “B.”

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