Tag Archives: Album Reviews

NEW SKIN by CRX

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

WEEZER (White Album) by Weezer

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

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

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

 

PAGING MR. PROUST by The Jayhawks

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

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

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

 

THE GETAWAY by Red Hot Chili Peppers

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.  

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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.

 

 

HAVE A HOT TIP? WANT ME TO REVIEW YOUR BAND’S SONG/ALBUM? HIT ME UP AT DEFENDINGAXLROSE@GMAIL.COM

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FERAL II: WILDLIFE by New Fad Zoo

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Barbeques, pool parties, hot chicks, cool dudes and everything in between: welcome to the world of New Fad Zoo.  The Atlanta-based rap group’s second album, FERAL II: WILDLIFE, is another trip down the rabbit hole of expertly crafted music.  Just like on their 2011 debut record, New Fad Zoo blur the lines of genre.  The band expertly marries thoughtful, sometimes funny, lyrics with top-notch musicality.  These guys can do it all: write catchy hooks, pivot from jesting to serious philosophical musing, and create a musically diverse album. 

I was initially skeptical when I saw that band had chosen to name their second album FERAL II.  The idea of sequels, in any media, usually conjures thoughts of desperate cash-ins and creative bankruptcy. Fortunately, FERAL II: WILDLIFE takes the focus and energy of FERAL and expands upon what New Fad Zoo has already done.  Not only did the band avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, but they managed to surpass their first record in every respect.

The delightfully cheeky album opener “Party Animals” asserts dominance over the listener with its funky groove and big cat growl.  New Fad Zoo tosses this goodtime party song off effortlessly, as if writing a fun song were breathing.  The moody “Strobe Lights” explores the darker side of love and the desire for fame and has a hauntingly cold, electronic sound that recalls Kanye West’s 808s AND HEARTBREAKS. Meanwhile the album closer “You Are Loved” is a tender ballad that manages to combine late 1980’s Billy Joel and Outcast (and that’s a good thing).  Any band would be lucky to master one style, New Fad Zoo is adept at all three: modern party song, moody electronic rap, and classic R&B.

FERAL II presents the listener with the complicated worldview of talented young men.  The band’s attitude towards drugs, alcohol, and women schizophrenically seesaws over the course of the album.  Like all good heroes, the boys of New Fad Zoo are complicated–sometimes falling into the trap of objectifying women yet also acknowledging on the track “Triangle” that: “if I had a daughter, I’d surely be pissed if a nigga dared harmed her, but that’s the world we be living in.” The song interestingly asserts that there are three groups in the battle of the sexes: Men, Women, and Bitches.  The song’s hook is sung by the angelic Melanie Annabelle who proclaims, “Women hate bitches, bitches hate men, men want the bitches, and women want men.” New Fad Zoo don’t pass judgment other than to point out that “it’s a fucked up world.” Indeed.

Will Rap 4 Food

New Fad Zoo’s first album had what I proclaimed to be a billion dollar single with “Love Is Wild.”  That song sadly failed to get snatched up by Madison Avenue ad executives or the numbskulls at Clear Channel.  I foolishly didn’t think they boys had it in them to craft another perfect single, but once again they surprised me and minted another $1B song: “Luv Is.”   The hauntingly beautiful hook, provided by Melanie Annabelle, and the awesome Beatles shout-out sold me on the song.  After listening to “Luv Is” a dozen times I’m confident in saying that this is the best song not on the radio today.

It’s easy to gush about FERAL II: WILDLIFE because like its predecessor, the album is the clear result of what happens when talent people pour their hearts out into their work.  There isn’t a single track that feels dashed off or undercooked.  New Fad Zoo clearly loves crafting, not just making, music and it shows.  No track sums this up like “Want It So Bad.” Part inspirational anthem, part pep-talk to themselves, “Want It So Bad” is the answer to the question of whether or not there will be a third New Fad Zoo album–and I can’t wait.

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BE by Beady Eye

BE

Beady Eye, the gutted remains of what used to be the Brit-Pop band Oasis, put out their second album this week.  Beady Eye’s first record, DIFFERENT GEAR, STILL SPEEDING was Liam Gallagher’s confident blast of bravado and proof that he could hold his own without his brother Noel.   Back in 2012 I proclaimed 2011 to be “The Year of The Battling Gallagher Brothers.”  Liam was the first of the Gallagher brothers to release a post-Oasis record and ultimately I felt his Beady Eye record was better than Noel’s strangely titled High Flying Birds record.

Fast forward to 2013, and my expectations were high as I fired up BE.  Would Liam be able to deliver another stellar album or would Noel’s absence be more fully felt?  My first impression was that BE was closer to the denser, mid-period Oasis albums like HEATHEN CHEMISTRY and STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS.   I love both of those records, but they took a couple of listens before I found myself singing along.  Similarly, BE lacks the big hooks of early Oasis.  Also toned-down is the usual Beatles-influence.

BE has a spacey, almost distant quality that frankly took me by surprise.  There are definite tempo changes throughout the record, but everything sounds quieter and more subdued that DIFFERENT GEAR , STILL SPEEDING.  Standout tracks include the Lennon-esque “Iz Rite” and the quiet, dare I say introspective “Soon Come Tomorrow.”

The album has songs that should be rockers, like the third track “Face The Crowd,” but nothing on BE takes off like on Beady Eye’s first album.  So initially I was a bit underwhelmed by BE’s low-key shift, but after a few spins I warmed to the album. BE feels like a transitional album for Beady Eye.  On one hand, I’m a little sad Liam isn’t just doing Oasis 2.0 music…but on the other hand I’m glad he’s branching out into new territory—even if he that means we don’t get a few less raucous rockers.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t address BE’s most interesting song: “Don’t Brother Me.”  This is the song all of us Oasis fans have been waiting for—the one in which one of the Gallagher brother’s waves a white flag.  With lyrics like, “In the morning/I’ve been calling, I’m hoping you understand/All and nothing, I’ll keep pushing/Come on now, give peace a chance, take my hand, be a man” this is song is 100% aimed at Noel.  I know what it’s like to have a tempestuous relationship with a sibling, someone who you can both deeply love and feel tremendous anger towards.  “Don’t Brother Me” probably isn’t going to mend any Gallagher family fences (Liam sings about being sick of  “your lying, skimming, and you crying”) but it’s a start.

The worst thing I could say about BE (and actually I did this during much of Noel’s HIGH FLYING BIRDS) is that during most of the songs I found myself singing the chorus of “Fade Away” that ultimate-classic of an Oasis song: “While we’re living, the dreams we had as children fade away…”

BE gets an (un-ironic) “B”.

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Robin Zander’s Secret Country Album: COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.

I’ve been on a roll with the country-themed posts, so I decided to do one more.  I’ve been meaning to reviewing COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.,  Robin Zander’s long-gestating (country) solo album with a complicated release history.  The record was supposed to come out a few years ago but has been stalled for reasons no one seems to know.  Apparently it was for sale on the Zune music service for two days before the record label spontaneously removed it. Since this is 2012, I of course have a bootleg copy of the album which I have been enjoying…

Robin Zander, a real rhinestone cowboy.

So why the delays? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that, on paper at least, a country album from the lead singer of Cheap Trick would be a train-wreck–an utter mess of twang and vanity, fit only for the most fervent Cheap Trick/Zander fan.  I adore Cheap Trick and think Zander can (almost) do no wrong, but even I was skeptical when I first heard about COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  But after giving it a few listens I can honestly say that it’s really good.

The key to COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. not being an epic pile of shite is this: the album isn’t really hard-core country.  It’s a rock album with country overtones and twangy guitars (and some fiddling).  Robin Zander did not record a Garth Brooks record by any stretch.  Like many solo albums of those involved in major bands, there are many songs that sound as though they could have easily fit onto the next Cheap Trick record.  If like me, you’re starved for Cheap Trick, then this is a very good thing.  If Cheap Trick ain’t your bag, then you’re probably not going to find much to like on COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.

The album opens with “Every Dog,” which sounds like a weaker Traveling Wilbury’s number.  It’s not quite rock, not quite country  and right away there are Hare Krishna references.  It’s a good song and pretty representative of what lies ahead: Wilburys-esque rockers with an eccentric-lyrical bent. I’m sure Zander’s vocals have been touched up, but damn does he still sound good.  Even if it is a special effect, one can’t help but admire how great he still sounds.  I especially was impressed with his cooing on “Love Comes*.”  It might seem like a silly thing, but I don’t think it’s easy for most singers to belt it out one minute then come all the way down to a gentle coo.

Standouts on the album include the gentle ballad “Heart of Glass” and the barn-burner “Say You Will.”  The former being a countrified version of the epic tender-jams Cheap Trick are famous (notorious?) for.  “Say You Will” is a solid rave-up that finds Zander wailing á la Little Richard.

The best song, though, on COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. is “Pamela Jean.”  However, the first time I heard it I thought that my iTunes had skipped, or that the album was over, and I was hearing Cheap Trick.  “Pamela Jean” really stands out as a great song, but it doesn’t have much in common with the more countrified-songs on the record.   So here I am, saying that the best song on the record is the one that seems to fit-in the least.  I guess that’s a crappy backhanded compliment to both the song and the record, and perhaps this is the fatal flaw that’s doomed COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. from ever being properly released.

And so, while COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  is a mind-blowing revelation,  it’s by no means the terrible album many have inferred it to be.  Hell, with all the hoop-la surrounding the album’s release (or lack thereof), the fact that it’s not an embarrassment comes as a relief.  I think this would be an awesome album to take along on a long, moonlight drive.  It’s a shame we all cant’ go to the store/iTunes and buy COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  but in the meantime take a listen to “Pamela Jean”.  Just don’t tell the label.

Zander and his two best friends: his dog Buddha and the hat that hides his receding hairline.

*Which, all you hard-core Cheap Trick fans know is from the band’s 1985 album STANDING ON THE EDGE.

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Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

It’s almost 2012 and I’m sitting here listening to a kick ass Beastie Boys album, how is this possible? Well it seems that the Beasties can’t, won’t, and don’t stop. Longevity in music is rare and among those still standing those who are able to stand tall are even rarer.  The Beastie Boys are standing tall.

Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock are still coming up with impressive songs that are both literate and funny.  The singles are just as strong as they were back in the ’80s.  The album opener, “Make Some Noise” is a party-anthem that manages to seamlessly name-check Ted Danson and Willy Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting drink.  While I don’t think doing that is impossible, the Beasties real talent lies in the effortlessness of it all.

Some commotion was stirred online when the band released a star-studded, 30+ minute video for “Make Some Noise.”  If you haven’t seen it I urge you to go watch it on Youtube.  The music video, which helped launched the Beasties career, may be dead but they band managed to revive it by bringing their A-list talent and some A-list friends.

The album features a few obligatory rap-cameos from Nas (who appears on the albums other single “Too Many Rappers”) and newbie it-girl Santigold on the dub-tastic “Don’t Play No Games That I Can’t Win.”  The former being a call to arms against the seemingly endless tide of pedestrian rappers clogging up the airwaves. The song, done by anyone else, would seem like another bragging session but the Beasties Boys can actually back up the fact that they’re the best because they are.  And the sentiment that the majority of the rap game is full of posers may not be exactly new, but it’s extra damming coming from the Godfathers of rap.  To all young rappers: you’ve been put on notice.

“Don’t Play No Games That I Can’t Win” meanwhile sounds like something from a later-period Gorillaz album.  Thick with horns and a thumping reggae-like beat it follows a recent trend in rap music where a guest-star takes center stage.   The song is good, but I mention it because it’s a very modern track, suggesting that the Beasties haven’t been just sitting on their laurels but have actually been paying attention to modern music.  I also think it’s interesting that they’d give so much space on their album to someone not in the band.

In general, I’d say that HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO is fantastically textured, and it’s songs like “Don’t Play No Games That I Can’t Win” that help give the album that varied feel.  The instrumental track, “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament” is another stand out that adds a nice bit of “otherness” to the album that elevates HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE to a higher plane of awesome.

My favorite track, “Lee Majors Comes Again” appears toward the end of the album and kills me every time I hear it. It’s vintage Beastie Boys with a killer guitar riff played over a nice synth bed topped with a frothy vocal hook.  For me, the song really showcases what’s so great about the Beastie Boys in that, it’s the perfect blend of genres rock and rap.

HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO came about back in April and I’m still listening to it.  In 2011 that’s a pretty powerful statement.  Aging like a fine wine is a bit of a cliche, but that’s just what the Beastie Boys are doing. The fact that I want “Make Some Noise” my ringtone is pretty telling.  My personal theory on why the band is still good has to do with their sense of humor.  The Beasties have cultivated a foot-loose-and-fancy-free “party” attitude, but more than that they’ve never taken themselves too seriously.  I think a strong work ethic and immense pool of talent certainly helps, but I also think simply having fun is important.  HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO is  “fun” to listen to.  As I think back on all the songs I’ve listened to this year, I can’t think of very many that were fun.  With war, recession, and unemployment dominating the headlines this year it’s nice that the Beastie Boys have provided us with an escape.

HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO gets a (belated) “A-“

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