Tag Archives: Music

Shan Fowler’s Pitchfork Review of Jason Falkner’s CAN YOU STILL FEEL Makes Me So Angry

First off, this is all my fault. I should have known better than to go to Pitchfork to read about an album that I enjoy. I gave up on Pitchfork ages ago as it’s just a bunch of hipster douchebags ragging on everything that 99.999% of people find good. And yet, for whatever reason, I ventured onto Pitchfork and searched for Jason Falkner. I recently finished reading the excellent Jellyfish biography Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story and have been re-listening to Falkner’s last two solo efforts, I’M OK…YOU’RE OK from 2007 and ALL QUIET ON THE NOISE FLOOR from 2009. I don’t remember either of these albums being terrible, but they didn’t make much of an impact on me. Revisiting them 10+ years later, I’m finding them to be top-notch efforts that I want to hear over and over again. Seriously, these are great albums, so great I will probably be writing about them soon.

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Anyway, I went to Pitchfork to see if perhaps they had evaluated either of these records. Of course, they hadn’t. Pitchfork is too cool to review awesome indie records with little/no buzz. The only Falkner albums they have reviews on are a compilation of tracks called NECESSITY: THE FOUR TRACK YEARS and a “review” of Jason’s second album CAN YOU STILL FEEL? I put the word review in quotes because despite giving the album 5.8 out of 10, the article written on Pitchfork isn’t a review of the album. Instead, it’s a lame-ass bit of creative writing from some hipster jagoff named Shan Fowler. Rather than write a review that explains the 5.8 score (what’s good about the album, what’s bad about the album, what thoughts does Fowler have about CAN YOU STILL FEEL?) instead the reader is treated to an imaginary conversation wherein Jason Falkner goes to a front-man self-help/AA-style meeting and confesses that “the people aren’t coming.” The punchline of this “review” is that the “people” are never coming and that Falkner should just give up and move back home with his mother. Hilarious. So thought provoking. So insightful. Fowler is a fucking genius and should write for Saturday Night Live. Although, as funny as this review is, Fowler may very well write for the current season of SNL…it’s really that amusing.

This kind of shite is the reason I quit Pitchfork years ago. I’m okay that their gimmick is that they hate everything mainstream/you love and that they only champion obscure bands no one in their right mind actually enjoys. I think there’s a place for that sort of website/critical opinion. But this lame “creative” anti-review just pisses me off and makes real critics look bad. This is coming from a guy that wrote a positive and negative review of the same Lana Del Rey song. I was going to include a link to the review on Pitchfork, but frankly I do not want to give this “review” any extra clicks today. Here is a screen shot:

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The second album review on Pitchfork begins with the sentence, “Jason Falkner is a wuss of considerable talent.” I literally stopped reading and hit the back-button on my browser. Shan Fowler, wherever you are, I challenge you to write an actual review of this album. One that actually, you know, talks about the content of the music. Email it to me at DefendingAxlRose@gmail.com and I’ll post it for you and everything. 

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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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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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“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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NEW SKIN by CRX

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL by The Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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METAL MONDAY: Mac Sabbath Is The Fast-Food Themed Black Sabbath Cover Band You Never Knew You Needed

Have you ever gotten something and wondered how you lived your life without it? I know I existed prior to getting an iPhone, but it’s changed how I live so fundamentally that I honestly can’t imagine going to back to a life without it. Well buckle-up kids, because you’re about to have a life-altering experience. Seriously, you’ll never be the same once you see and hear Mac Sabbath.

Well buckle-up kids, because you’re about to have a life-altering experience. Seriously, you’ll never be the same once you see and hear Mac Sabbath. What is Mac Sabbath? It’s a fast-food themed Black Sabbath tribute band. Well, I guess they’re kinda/sorta a tribute band. See, they don’t just dress up like McDonald’s characters and sing Black Sabbath songs, they change the lyrics in order to attack and expose the evils of the fast-food industry. The band is equal parts metal band, post-modern art, and political satire. Mac Sabbath is definitely one of those things that’s too good to be true.

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Take for example “Frying Pan” which is the band’s take on the classic Sabbath song “Iron Man.” Mac Sabbath turns the song into a (humorous) indictment of the fast-food industry from the perspective of the poor wage-slave making our pink slime-infused meals.

“I once burned your meal
My old job was cooking veal
Now it’s a culinary crime
All our future is pink slime”

And of course they’re able to work in a gluten reference:

“Everybody wants it
On gluten bleached flour bread
Everybody needs it
Till they’re fat and dead”

I can’t image writing lyrics to songs, let alone writing lyrics all around a single theme and making them fit into the framework of an established song. A lot of people try their hand at this, and while there are a few standouts who really do a good job, I feel like most comedic attempts at parody songs are just that: attempts. Mac Sabbath really hit it out of the park on their songs. I listened to six of their songs and all six were well-done (pun intended).

While the members of Mac Sabbath are talented satirists, it’s worth noting that they could also pass as a pretty decent Black Sabbath cover band. The music sounds remarkably good for something so batshit crazy. You can tell that besides really hating the fast-food industry, the members of Mac Sabbath really love Black Sabbath.  Sure, the drummer is dressed just like the Hamburgler, but he’s also a damn good drummer.

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Drive-Thru Metal is Finger Lickin’ Good

These guys are based in L.A. but apparently tour just like any other rock band. And just like Kiss or Ghost (B.C.) they stay in character most of the time and always appear on stage in full regalia. The band even has hilarious metal/McDonald’s mash-up stage names like Ronald Osbourne, Slayer McCheeze, Grimalice, and Catburgler.

Considering such how detrimental to our bodies and the environment fast-food is, making them the fodder of a metal band makes 100% perfect sense. McDonald’s is far more nefarious and scarier than say, popular metal villain, Satan. I would love to know what the good folks at McDonald’s think about this band (though I can guess) and I’d also like to know what Black Sabbath thinks about them as well. Considering that band plays with the intellectual property of two mega-corporations (McDonald’s being a tad bigger than Black Sabbath) I’m kinda shocked these guys are able to exist.

I’m probably late to the Mac Sabbath party, but I had to write about this band because it’s one of the more creative things I’ve seen this year. And, hilariously enough, they’re the most balls-out metal thing I’ve encountered in years (thanks to Cartoon Network canceling Metalacolypse). 

 

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Collins, Phil

A few years ago, I wrote about some of my musical guilty pleasures. Included on that list was the band Genesis. I’ve had Phil Collins on the brain for a few weeks now, and I’m not sure why. Then last week I read an article about how he’s planning on playing at the opening ceremonies of the US Open at the end of this month. It’s a big deal because Collins has all but dropped off the face of the Earth these past few years. The reason for this has varied, depending on who you ask: Collins can’t hold drumsticks anymore due to a crippling back/nerve issue, he wants to spend more time with his family, he’s near death after years of substance abuse, and he’s so rich he doesn’t need to perform or record music anymore. But the biggest reason given for his extended absence from the spotlight–he got sick and tired of all the criticism.

This leads me back to my post from 2012 on my Top 5 Guiltiest Musical Pleasures. Genesis made the list, but why? It’s wasn’t because of their bizarre and sometimes beautiful early prog-records with Peter Gabriel. It was because of Phil Collins. I grew up on classic rock radio and Collins’ work with Genesis and his first few solo albums were in heavy rotation back in the 1990’s. Even today, his biggest songs like “In The Air Tonight” are played almost as often as FM staples like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hotel California.” Growing up, Collins and Genesis never struck me as particularly cool nor did they strike me as uncool. This was not the case among my peers. I had a friend in Junior High who used to get teased mercilessly because his mother was a very, very big Phil Collins fan. I liked this guy a lot, but there were so many other things about him people could make fun of, so why was his mom being a Phil Collins fan such an issue?

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Is this the face of the most hated man in popular music?

I have two theories about why people hate Phil Collins so much. The first is that Collins was simply just too damn successful. The ubiquitous nature of his music during the 1980’s and early 1990’s made people sick of him. The same reasoning can be applied to The Eagles, who also have gone from beloved to hated by the culture at large. Getting over-played on the radio isn’t the band’s fault, but the listening public can only take so much before a backlash begins. Modern radio with its limited song rotation certainly did nothing to help either Collins or The Eagles. By playing “Life In The Fast Lane” 50 to 100 times a day, people got sick of The Eagles. Likewise, Collins was overplayed both as a successful solo artist and as a member of Genesis. Collins was a double-threat releasing hit songs by himself and with Genesis, though many people might have trouble telling them apart, especially near the end of both his solo career and his life with the band. Collins became a symbol of the old guard, his success was so great he became locked in an ivory tower. This made him the perfect target for the younger bands emerging in the 1990’s who showed real disdain for him (specifically Oasis, who were merciless in their public criticism of Collins).

The second reason Collins has become so hated has to do with Collins the artist. Phil Collins has two modes: mindless pop and painfully earnest sincerity. People can handle one or the other, but when an artist tries to exist in both worlds people start having problems. A good example of this is “Another Day In Paradise.” The song was written by Collins at the end of the 1980’s and tackles the issue of homelessness. It’s a serious subject, one that is undercut by the fact that it’s being done by a millionaire who made his fortune off of bubblegum pop like “Sussudio.” Collins tried to make both serious art and product, essentially trying to exist in two different boxes. This was something that people simply couldn’t reconcile. Making matters worse, a large swath of the listening public finds earnest sincerity fake when it’s attached to a smarmy-looking millionaire.

But none of this is very fair to Collins, is it? After all, it’s not his fault that he was so successful. And it’s not his fault that he’s able to make simple pop music and music with a bit more weight behind it. I don’t think the man’s career is unblemished (it isn’t) or that he hasn’t recorded more than a few stinkers (he has), but I do think the level of hate for Collins is simply disproportionate to his contribution to popular culture. Even if you don’t particularly like him or his music, you can’t help but admit that “In The Air Tonight” is an interesting, cool, song. In fact, I can’t think of another song that’s like “In The Air Tonight” that became a massive hit.

So I’m removing both Genesis and Phil Collins from my list of Guilty Pleasures and instead owning the fact that I like a large portion of the music he’s created. There’s been a sort of ironic appreciation of his career over the past few years, but I want it to be known that there is not a drop of irony in my love for Phil Collins. Human beings are petty, sometimes jealous creatures, and my guess is we needed a whipping boy. I’m sorry that person had to be Collins, but at least he seems to have been able to take it. Imagine someone like poor Morrissey saddled with a Phil Collins-level of public malice! He’d have thrown himself under a bus or train decades ago. I suspect that there are more than a few people placed in that awkward situation of secretly liking something that’s seemingly universally despised. If you’re such a person, my recommendation to you is to cast off the shackles of conformity and own your opinion. Unless you like Nickelback, in which case you’re not right in the head.

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