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Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, Hank Williams III, David Cross, Hawthorne Heights and Far

By Brian Baker · June 17th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

Holy crap on a communion cracker, the ahead-er I try to get, the behind-er I wind up.

I finally got my schedule twisted into position to have some time over the past weekend to get caught up on reviews so that I could post two weeks’ worth of material and begin work on next week’s list. Then I’m pulling into our driveway, and when I get out I see that we have a flat tire in the front.

No biggie, get the tools and put on the spare. Except that we’ve got custom wheels and locking lug nuts to prevent our tires from being stolen. And apparently the last time we had tire work done someone at our local Firestone-and-more emporium must have used an impact wrench to tighten the locking lug nuts, which stripped the key (note to all budding tire jockeys: Locking lug nuts should always be tightened with a tire iron by hand, otherwise you STRIP THE KEY), leaving me with no way to remove the flat from the car.

And after two hours of trying to outthink the locking lug nuts (guess who won?), all tire stores and dealer service centers were closed, a state they remained in all day Sunday. Which was the day we woke up to find that our Boston Terrier was suffering from some kind of nasty ear infection; every time he shook his head, he screamed like a banshee.

Bottom line is that all of this has conspired to put me off my writing schedule and back into a holding pattern that's bumped my posts yet another week. I promise you will have your reviews, come hell or water high, and as God is my witness you’ll never go review-hungry again (with apologies to Margaret Mitchell).

For the record, this post covers releases from May 25 and June 1. We’ll be back on schedule soon. Until then, read hearty, me buckos.

Just when Courtney Love resurrects Hole and you think the comeback story of the year has been written, along comes Scott Weiland and the DeLeo brothers to give a seminar on exactly how this reunion business should be managed. When Stone Temple Pilots went on a less than harmonious hiatus seven years ago, no one could have guessed that they still had one of their best albums ever ahead of them. But the band’s new eponymous album not only represents STP’s personal best — it could very well be one of this year’s defining releases.

The album’s opening track, “Between the Lines,” shows STP’s expansion during their time apart. Between Weiland’s various sonic exploits with his solo work and Velvet Revolver and the DeLeos’ and drummer Eric Kretz’s Pop/Rock tenure with Army of Anyone, it’s clear that they’ve added new colors to their palette. More importantly, they haven’t forgotten what made STP great in the first place: thunderous Led Zeppelin riffage, sweet Beatlesque melodicism and a whipsmart contemporary attitude to update and translate their classic influences.

“Between the Lines” is full-bore psychedelic Grunge Pop in the service of one of STP’s most twisted love songs ever, as Weiland sings without a trace of irony, “I like it when we talk about love/ You always were my favorite drug/ Even when we used to take drugs,” roaring above a soundtrack that’s part Nirvana, part Spiders from Mars and all STP. “Take a Load Off” roars with Zep-like majesty, “Huckleberry Crumble” swaggers like the earliest and best Aerosmith and “First Kiss on Mars” and “Hickory Dichotomy” even work a Country angle into the Hard Rock proceedings.

One of the album’s great facets, and perhaps one of STP’s greatest gifts, is the tension between the effervescent music crafted by the DeLeos and the dark, deeply felt lyrics and amazing melodies woven into it by Weiland, particularly on “Hazy Days,” a peppy soundtrack that Weiland uses as a platform to address his stormy relationship with his father, and “Bagman,” a Beatles-drenched Pop fest featuring Weiland’s Bowiesque vocals in a tale about dysfunctional drug acquaintances.

It could all implode tomorrow, but what matters today is that Stone Temple Pilots have cranked out a bona fide classic.

The long and almost ridiculously documented journey of the Smashing Pumpkins has gotten stranger and more convoluted in recent years, if such a state is even possible. Two years ago, Pumpkins frontman/creative sparkplug Billy Corgan announced that the band would no longer record full-length albums, concentrating instead on singles. Since then, Corgan and whoever passes for a band member these days (longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlin split amicably early last year, replaced by 19-year-old Mike Byrne, and there have been four bassists since then, including current pick Nichole Fiorentino) have been releasing songs over the Internet in intervals toward an eventual massive 44-track collection titled Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, a song cycle based on the Tarot and a ‘60s interpretation called "The Fool’s Journey."

Every fourth song will result in the release of a limited edition physical CD. Songs for a Sailor is the first of 11 of these EPs, which will culminate in an elaborate box set with unique graphics and exclusive content.

If 2007’s Zeitgeist was a return to the Pumpkins’ more elemental creative output, Teargarden is clearly the pendulum swinging wildly in the opposite direction, as Corgan appears ready to unleash his most ambitious and conceptually complex work to date.

Perhaps these first four songs — “A Song for a Son,” “Astral Planes,” “Widow Wakes My Mind” and “A Stitch in Time” — will require the context of the music to follow in order to make sense, but as stand-alone tracks the quartet that comprises Songs for a Sailor are almost maddeningly redundant, as Corgan tends to revisit lyrical bits over and over across all four songs.

The good news is that the music underpinning Corgan’s somewhat circuitous wordplay is among the best he’s ever written: majestic, delicate, epic and intimate, as if he was tapping into a vein of the best Prog ever imagined and translating it beautifully in the most contemporary fashion.

Teargarden by Kaleidyscope could well turn out to be Corgan’s crowning achievement, but experiencing it four songs at a time over the next three or more years might not be the best venue for its presentation.

We should do a little theoretical extrapolation to set up this review. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Frances Bean Cobain grows up and has a child who turns out to be a musician. Would it then be considered bad form for Kurt Cobain’s grandchild to sing songs celebrating heroin abuse and the distinctive taste of gun oil?

That's a version of the conundrum found on Hank III’s latest Country album, Rebel Within.

Clearly, the grandson of one of the greatest and most original Country singers in history deserves the latitude to blaze his own career trail, and Hank III has been granted that leeway, from his Punk and Metal excursions to his liberal interpretations of Country tradition. His singular diversity has been lauded and encouraged by fans and the media, if not the narrow genre puritans at his longtime label, Curb Records, with whom he's had a combative relationship from the start.

But for all his righteous and understandable defiance in the face of being told what and how to play in order to preserve the sanctity of his grandfather’s legacy, there is still something slightly off-putting about the new album’s lead track, “Gettin’ Drunk and Fallin’ Down,” a tribute to the liquor swilling lifestyle that converted his father’s father’s Cadillac into a coffin.

The title track follows with a slightly different tack, as Hank III weaves demon-fired Death Metal background shrieks into the mix and defends his tactics on “Lookin’ for a Mountain” and “Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard to Do” and pretty much every song on the album. In typical Hank III fashion, Rebel Within is completely unapologetic, perhaps most pointedly on the raw Garage Psychobilly Rock of “Tore Up,” where the album’s true intention is revealed. This is Hank III’s middle finger salute to Curb on the occasion of the end of his decade and a half of indentured servitude.

That fact doesn’t always make Hank III’s drink-until-I-die anthems any more palatable, but it certainly casts them in a more contextually sympathetic light.

There’s a fair case to be made that David Cross helped pave the way for a lot of today’s snarkiest and most inventive comics. Cross’ work on The Ben Stiller Show (which won him an Emmy) and his outrageously funny Mr. Show (with the equally influential Bob Odenkirk), along with tons of incredibly inventive film and TV appearances, have cemented his reputation as the king of caustic comedy.

His series-long work as Tobias Funke on Arrested Development, in a role that was supposed to be small and limited, was singularly amazing, but his one-episode turn in Just Shoot Me as Elliott’s head-injured brother, Slow Donnie, who, it turns out, is really of normal facility and is merely pretending to be a feeb in order to coast through life, should have won him another Emmy. He’s said on many occasions people still come up to him and recite Donnie’s signature line: “Chicken pot, chicken pot, chicken pot pie...”

Sadly, Cross has been noticeably absent from the stand-up circuit for close to five years. He intended to return to the stage after the 2009 publication of his book, I Drink for a Reason, but it didn’t come together. Finally, Cross assembled all of the disparate bits he’d been working on and hit the road last fall. His new CD and DVD, Bigger and Blackerer, were recorded in Boston on that tour. The hook here is that, although there are some minor duplications, the material on the CD is unique from the material on the DVD.

The CD is classically brilliant Cross; he begins with a Vegas-style rave-up number that sounds like Tom Jones on a crank binge as he sings about the subjects he’ll be addressing in the impending show, into which he inserts a cosmonaut joke that's really just a recycled Polish joke, which is of course what makes it funny. Cross riffs on how much fun it is to watch Intervention after a couple of Vicodin, as well as the downside of his lifetime of alcohol and substance abuse (namely, a couple of unfortunate incidents of shitting himself, one of which he hilariously blames on his dog, Ollie Red Sox); his proposed vanity message for the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Foundation charity license plate; the health care yellings (as opposed to debates); the effects of global warming on Orthodox Jews; and so much more.

Cross isn’t necessarily drop-to-your-knees gaspingly funny, as he tends to use stealth humor that's way more subversive and cool and ultimately funnier than just being funny (which he happens to be). I haven’t yet experienced the DVD, but based on the audio portion of Bigger and Blackerer it won’t be long.

Hawthorne Heights
has nearly hit for the cycle in its decade-long career. The Dayton band released a demo and EP as A Day in the Life before lineup shifts inspired founding lead vocalist/guitarist J.T. Woodruff to change the band’s name to Hawthorne Heights. Signing with Victory Records seemed a good fit; 2004’s The Silence in Black and White and 2006’s If Only You Were Lonely were certified platinum and gold, respectively.

An ill-conceived sales stunt by Victory led band and label to sue and countersue, resulting in HH earning the legal right to record for other labels. Then, in 2007, guitarist Casey Calvert died from a tragic and non-abusive interaction of prescription drugs. Rather than replace him, HH remained a quartet (Woodruff, guitarist/screamer Micah Carli, bassist Matt Ridenour, drummer Eron Bucciarelli), memorializing their fallen friend on 2008’s Fragile Future.

For Skeletons, Hawthorne Heights’ Wind-Up Records debut, the foursome has added an Electronic element to at least some of their Power Pop Punk repertoire. But HH’s evolution, which began with Fragile Future, might further alienate some of the band’s rabid fan base who view any departure from the band’s Screamo roots as a capitulation to Modern Rock trends.

It’s not hard to see their point. The ’80s-toned “Nervous Breakdown” (the album’s first single), “End of the Underground” and the anthemic “Bring You Back” all sport a rather generic sound, a tactic HH has already proven they don’t need to sell albums. There are quirks, notably the synth-driven “Drive,” the Western-themed “Gravestones” and the expansive “Boy,” but blogs are already lit up with pros and cons over Skeletons, which might require a few months and a couple of tours to connect with the old HH audience or attract a new one.

The only thing crazier than the ignorance and neglect that caused Far to break up a dozen years ago is the circumstances that brought them back together to do At Night We Live, the band’s first album since 1998’s Water & Solutions. After releasing a quartet of albums that defined the band as a seminal influence on the likes of My Chemical Romance, blink-182 and Deftones and having Water & Solutions cited as one of the most influential Post-Hardcore albums of all time, Far dissolved in relative ignominy while a good many of their peers exalted them as one of the late, great bands of the ‘90s.

Frontman Jonah Matranga made his mark with his solo project Onelinedrawing and a couple of bands, New End Original and Gratitude. Guitarist Shaun Lopez formed the Revolution Smile and did production work, while bassist John Gutenberger played with Two Sheds and Jackpot and drummer Chris Robyn did session work and was a tour drummer for hire.

Somewhere along the line, Matranga and Lopez reconnected and determined that the time might be right to do a handful of live dates, which they planned under the nom du rocque of Hot Little Pony. After whipping up a fake MySpace page, the quartet laid down a cover of Gnuwine’s hit “Pony” to post on the page’s player. The track made its way to radio and promptly blew up big; it was the No. 1 most requested track at L.A.’s KROQ and has been downloaded millions of times through MySpace and iTunes.

The response was too big to ignore, so Far, the band that lived up to its name by being freakishly ahead of its time, returns with the triumphant At Night We Live. Even with the time elapsed since Water & Solutions, Far remains something of an anomaly: too melodic for Metal, too frenetic for Pop, too many things to be any one thing. It was that inability to be pigeonholed that derailed the band in the late ‘90s, but the subsequent endorsements Far received in the wake of their break-up, combined with the new freedoms of satellite broadcasting and the more open formats of some FM stations, might be just enough to gain them the audience that eluded them in the mid- to late-’90s.

The album starts with the potent one-two punch of “Deafening” and “If You Cared Enough,” the former a slamfest that wouldn’t be out of place on the new Stone Temple Pilots disc, the latter a slow burning Emo/Pop gem that sounds like a collaboration between Jimmy Eat World and Cheap Trick. “Give Me a Reason” has the kind of full-throttle anthemics that could make it the song of the summer given the right exposure, and the title track, written by Matranga about a dream he had concerning comatose Deftones bassist Chi Cheng, may be one of the most powerful musical sentiments about life and living on any album this year.

At Night We Live is a testament to the brilliance Far exhibited a decade and a half ago when no one was paying attention and evidence that they haven’t lost a step during their long hiatus. So Far, so good.



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