Since my last post, the 2011 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards have come and gone, and what a show it was. Some stellar performances from Ma Crow and the Lady Slippers, Pomegranates, the spectacular Los Honchos, the thundering Two Headed Dog and the always jaw-dropping Wussy, slinging out bits of brilliance from their new and best Strawberry set and lots of deserving wins, highlighted by Walk the Moon’s win for Artist of the Year, accepted by the band’s moms in their touring absence. All in all, a most excellent night of honoring one of the best, classiest and most diverse music scenes in the country.
Okay, back on the review chain gang. New stuff up front, older stuff toward the end, and all of it worth your time and attention.
Dave Mustaine has recovered from every calamity that has beset him over the past three decades — from drug rehab to nerve damage that forced him to relearn guitar to almost constant turmoil in his professional and personal life — with the relentless frequency and ferocity of a future-dispatched terminator. Most notably, Mustaine’s potent response to his ejection from Metallica in 1983 was to form the heralded-and-maligned Megadeth, which has survived creative valleys (poor press, a revolving membership of nearly two dozen players) by capitalizing on amazing peaks (a loyal audience, credit as an originator of Thrash Metal, numerous Grammy nominations, over 30 million albums sold).
On the aptly titled Th1rt3en (13 tracks on the 13th album), Mustaine and Megadeth (featuring original bassist Dave Ellefson) vacillate between the Thrash Metal that defined their earliest work and the Hard Rock typical of their later efforts. “Public Enemy No. 1” sounds like Mustaine channeling Alice Cooper in his more extreme Metal phases, while “Deadly Nightshade” rumbles like vintage Judas Priest and “Black Swan” aims for the stratosphere occupied by the late Ronnie James Dio. Much of Th1rt3en finds Mustaine with a foot in both camps, wailing with Hard Rock authority and joining guitarist Chris Broderick to present a united front of Metal speed and brutality.
The title track, a nearly six minute retelling of Mustaine’s travails, is a prime example, starting with Led Zeppelin-like Folk gentility before exploding into a combination of thundering Rock volume and lightning hot Metal velocity. Mustaine hasn’t tried to cater to non-believers since 1999’s Risk; while Th1rt3en may not convert the undecided, Megadeth’s hardcore loyalists will be thrilled with the multi-textured set.
Attempting to critique Lulu, the new Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, is a little like taste testing a vodka-flavored breakfast cereal; comparing it to either vodka or breakfast cereal is unbalanced because the combination is so mismatched. Both artists come from extreme backgrounds — Reed as an avant garde sonic artist, Metallica as Thrash Metal welders — and because of that Reed and Metallica open themselves up to criticism from the mainstream for going too far afield and from their respective fan bases for weakening their purity with an outside element. Both camps would have a point.
Lulu opens promisingly enough with “Brandenburg Gate,” featuring Reed’s spoken/half sung vocal stylings and a muscular Metallica soundtrack that vibrates with familiar intensity, while “The View” offers a similar groove, this time weighted more toward Metallica’s end of the spectrum. The formula wears thin fairly quickly, as Metallica’s speed riffage outstrips Reed’s poisonously somnabulistic poetry readings, and when it gets arty and quiet (or arty and loud), the flaws of the pairing come into even sharper relief (“Cheat on Me,” “Little Dog,” “Dragon”),
“Junior’s Dad” seems to come closest to paying off the concept until it drones its way into a 20-minute exercise in artless meandering that makes Fripp/Eno’s ’70s experiment seem like a Cars single.
Reed’s lyrical inspiration for Lulu comes from late 19th/early 20th century German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind, whose work was dismissed as the amoral ramblings of a syphilitic gutter snipe, so Lulu’s message follows a dark path (“lexicon of hate” indeed).
Lulu clearly shows flickers of the potential for Reed and Metallica to create something exciting, but this one-spin-for-the-experience hate-fuck is not it.
When the members of You Can Be a Wesley take a hiatus, they don’t mess around. After the Boston University students recorded their initial demo in 2008, vocalist/guitarist Saara Untracht-Oakner and bassist Nick Curran finished up their degrees in Australia and guitarist Winston Macdonald went for an Ecuadorian walkabout. When they reunited, they recorded their debut full-length, Heard Like Us, and hit the road. YCBW’s initial plan was to work on a new full-length this year, but the band’s interim EP, Nightosphere, is a satisfying appetizer until the main course is ready.
YCBW is one of those rare bands that absorbs, reconfigures and transcends its influences, subsequently sporting a sound that is at once subliminally familiar and oddly unique. On the textured and atmospheric Nightosphere, YCBW works a vibe that suggests The Sundays if they’d been raised on Curve, with the Velvet Underground influences filtered through their REM influences, with flecks of Broken Social Scene, The Shins and My Bloody Valentine thrown over the proceedings like organic glitter.
Untracht-Oakner, who has described the band’s sound as “fuzzy fun sex Pop,” sings with an Indie Pop brightness reminiscent of Suddenly, Tammy!’s Beth Sorrentino and an odd squeak that could be a reined-in Björk with a Boston accent, while the band, including new drummer Dylan Ramsey, folds their disparate influences into a compelling, complimentary Grunge/Pop hybrid that is deceptively forceful and quirkily poppy. Do the full-length already.
It’s been two years since the battling Gallagher brothers called an end to Oasis, their sprawling, brawling musical partnership that spawned seven consecutive No. 1 studio albums, worldwide sales of 70 million units and a thousand dead-even fistfights. Given the very tangible gifts that Liam and Noel Gallagher brought to Oasis, there was a very real danger that their split and division of labor would find them each taking something away that the other desperately needed, from Noel’s songwriting and production genius to Liam’s charismatic presence at the front of the stage.
Both Gallaghers reference the Walrusy/Peppery Beatles in their post-Oasis outings, Liam in Beady Eye and Noel in his High Flying Birds collective. On his eponymous solo debut, Noel Gallagher shows off his acclaimed songwriting skills on the Kinks-like dancehall swing/’60s spy theme of “Soldier Boys,” the carnival/vaudeville Pop of “The Death of You and Me,” the anthemic church of Rock hymn of “Stop the Clocks” and the horn-drenched, melancholic sunshine melodicism of “Dream On.”
It’s all very appealing and completely listenable, if sometimes slightly reliant on mid-tempo rhythms with occasional surges in passion and pacing, like the slow-burning but swaggering “The Wrong Beach” and the towering Prog touches of “Everybody’s on the Run” and “Record Machine.” Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds will certainly tweak the pleasure centers of Oasis fans everywhere, but more than a few of them may find themselves with a subconscious yearning for a little unhinged brotherly argy-bargy sprinkled judiciously throughout it all.
In his films, paintings, photographs and drawings, David Lynch is an unrepentant surrealist, a fascinating and compelling storyteller who explores both the horrors and banalities that exist on the fringes of culture. As a result, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the self-taught and self-described “non-musician” brings a similar vision to his first actual album of music, Crazy Clown Time. As opposed to the atmospheric score work that Lynch has provided for his jarringly dissociative films, Crazy Clown Time is a set of songs fashioned from jams into discernible structures which then suggested lyrics as only Lynch can imagine.
Although Lynch has described Crazy Clown Time as a Blues album, that description triggers the same qualifiers necessary as when he presents his films as “mysteries.” There may be a bluesy pacing and solemnity to the album, but the Ambient sonic textures and disorienting song constructions seem more like a high stakes poker game between T Bone Burnett and Brian Eno, using a marked edition of the latter’s Oblique Strategies deck.
Crazy Clown Time opens with the menacing throb of “Pinky’s Dream,” a hallucinogenic reverb tribal chant featuring Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist Karen O, which gives way to the Kraftwerk pulse of “Good Day Today,” the 21st century Blues dirge of “So Glad” and the dark Eno/John Cale meditation of “Noah’s Ark.” True to form, Lynch experiments within the context of his experimentation, from the Tom Waits-channels-Kraftwerk techno boho stream of consciousness rap of “Strange and Unproductive Thinking” to the Primus-sings-the-lysergic-Blues of the title track.
Like David Lynch’s entire body of work, Crazy Clown Time refracts expectations through a cracked and flawed prism to create a weirdly perfect outcome that can only be measured against itself.
In her two-decade career, Meshell Ndgeocello has rarely done anything even remotely by the book.
Ndegeocello’s ninth album, Weather, teams her with producer Joe Henry and together the pair craft a quietly organic album that exudes a moody calm while bristling with a spartan energy. Weather opens with the loping title track, moving into “Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear,” both of which weave and bob with the seductive Pop appeal of Sade and Joan Armatrading. Much of Weather follows a similar path, particularly her sweetly aching take on Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel,” the funky swing Pop of “Dirty World,” the melancholy love murmur of “Crazy and Wild” and the insistent Folk pulse of “Dead End.”
Whether she’s working a Soul-pumped groove or floating on the current of a lilting piano ballad, Meshell Ndgeocello explores love’s dark corners with a passionate intimacy throughout Weather, proving once again that no stylistic pigeonhole can contain her wide-ranging talent.
Florence and the Machine became pop sensations with the release of their 2009 debut album, Lungs, and its ubiquitous singles, “Kiss with a Fist” and “Dog Days Are Over,” which peppered the soundtracks of films and television shows over the next two years. Lungs was such a hit in F+M’s native Britain (60 consecutive weeks in the Top 40), as well as here in the States, that Florence Welch had little free time to work on their sophomore album, which she planned on making darker, heavier and denser. Ceremonials is the divine result of that proposed blueprint.
Welch sings and writes with the power and elegance of any number of brilliant predecessors; “Only If For a Night” quivers like a baroque Pop spin on Joan Armatrading, “Shake It Out” raises the church roof with the gale force vocals of Annie Lennox, “Seven Devils” soars with the delicately towering presence of Kate Bush and “No Light, No Light” pierces with the vulnerable strength of Sinead O’Connor. Welch’s particular talent lies in assimilating all of those amazing musical forces as conceptual elements and crafting her own unique identity from the raw ingredients.
Ceremonials is exactly as Welch intended it in the ideation phase; lyrically and musically darker, rhythmically tribal and orchestrally more grand, a Pop hymnal for now parishioners. While it is clearly a bumpier, more problematic ride than Lungs, Ceremonials is also more artfully intricate, inherently soulful, appropriately bombastic and singularly focused, qualities that most sophomore albums do not embody.
Florence Welch and her well-oiled Machine are two for two and headed for a glorious string of beloved albums.
Sometimes side projects take on a slightly greater significance because of the clear differences that effectively distance the new unit from the other bands that contribute members to its ranks. Angels & Airwaves is one such project. The group began as a half dozen years ago as guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge’s Pop/Punk resurrection after the demise of Blink-182, but it became something of a busman’s holiday from Blink-182 when the trio reunited in 2009. Amazingly, over the course of a trio of unexpectedly cool albums, A&A has evolved into an incredibly distinct musical entity with an intriguing conceptual streak and a broad musical and artistic vision.
Over the course of their first three albums — 2006’s We Don’t Need to Whisper, 2007’s I-Empire and last year’s Love — A&A shifted from a muscular Pop/Punk stance to a more mature and studied approach that featured a Prog-like component. DeLonge has defined A&A as more art project than Rock band. As proof, Love and the just-released Love II serve as the basis for a science fiction film, aptly titled Love, the story of an astronaut abandoned in the International Space Station who witnesses the collapse of civilization. It’s not necessary to see the film or even know all of this to appreciate the grandiose expanse of Love II, which easily stands on its own beyond the film’s context (although you can follow the story without too much trouble).
“Saturday Love” starts with an ominous orchestral fog, breaking into anthemic guitars, tribal drums and swelling synths that find the unlikely intersection of Pop/Punk and Prog, followed by the even more anthemic “Surrender,” where DeLonge’s astronaut sees the triumph of youth in troubled times (“When God falls fast asleep, the kids still move to a steady beat/Even if it’s bombs falling at their feet, or all around I’m just saying that this time I feel it now”). DeLonge and A&A have long claimed Pink Floyd as an influence and it shows up more obviously on Love II — in the ambient texturalism on “Heroine (It’s Not Over)” and “Moon As My Witness” — although it’s always tempered by A&A’s clearly contemporary translation of the influence.
The knucklehead contingent of the Pop/Punk audience might find Love II and a good deal of Angels & Airwaves’ output to be too thoughtful and deep for their tastes, but for the adventurous and patient listener, A&A in general and Love II specifically offer a story and musical accompaniment that is compelling and satisfying. Angels & Airwaves is reportedly working on two new albums and two more films, so they’re obviously in this for a Rush-like long haul; strap in and get ready for an interesting trip.
When Incubus began two decades ago, they pumped out a funky Groove Metal vibe indicative of the sonic steroids that juiced high-schoolers at the time. Given that the quintet formed while they were in the tenth grade, it certainly made sense. Although Incubus’ sound mutated to include beats and scratches via turntabling, it remained grounded in Hard Rock textures with sinewy streaks of Funk, a hybridization that attracted the jam scene, headbangers, the Dance mob and the fringe Indie Rock crowd.
On 2006’s Light Grenades, Incubus muted the volume and ramped up their melodic Pop approach on a set steeped in hushed melancholy and restraint. Since then, the band’s members retreated to concentrate on family, education and everyday life and that obvious maturation process is exhibited in every note of If Not Now, When?, Incubus’ seventh and most diverse album to date.
If Not Now finds Incubus relying even less on volume as a good many tracks could pass for enhanced demos (“Defiance,” “Friends and Lovers”). At the same time, vocalist/lyricist Brandon Boyd strikes a romantic poet pose on the album and the band answers with the most expansive and understated soundtrack they’ve ever crafted, from the Radiohead/U2 epic suite “In the Company of Wolves” to the John Mayer-channels-Crowded House Pop swell of “Isadore” to the Modern Rock balladry of “Promises, Promises.” There are adrenalized moments here — the melodic thump of “Switchblade,” the quietly moving “Adolescents,” the remarkable crescendo of the largely unremarkable “The Original” — but they flow and crest without disturbing their surroundings.
If Not Now, When? is undeniably a bold, ambitious album, but the question is whether Incubus’ longtime fan base will accept the band’s subtle new direction or jump ship for the next big Nu Metal thing. They’d be well advised to give If Not Now, When? a few serious listens, as it’s an album that reveals its charm through repeated and focused exposure.
Last year, venerable Chicago Pop/Punk outfit Alkaline Trio ditched their major-label contract and crafted the brilliant This Addiction, which perfectly balanced their early bristling intensity and latter effervescent Pop verve.
That process continues in a different vein on Damnesia, as the Trio reimagines tracks from their lauded catalog in a semi-unplugged setting. Some, like “We’ve Had Enough,” feel like the acoustic guitar demos that teed up the original electric tracks, while others, like the melancholy piano balladry of “The American Scream” and the anthemic acoustic reading of “Radio,” are powerfully rearranged spins on songs that already benefited from a surplus of passion and intensity. Damnesia also features three new tracks, a Dropkick Murphys-flavored cover of the Violent Femmes “I Held Her in My Arms,” the tossed-off malt liquor paean “Olde English 800” and the wistful love-gone-wrongery of “I Remember a Rooftop.”
Alkaline Trio’s reexaminations on Damnesia are an interesting alternate past but you can bet they’ll be plugged in and face forward soon enough.
David Bromberg has done just about everything in his Folk/Blues career, which stretches back nearly half a century, from playing for tips in Greenwich Village in the mid-’60s (where he took guitar lessons from Reverend Gary Davis) to FM radio stardom (with staples like “Suffer to Sing the Blues” and the iconic “Sharon”) and ubiquitous session guitar work in the ’70s (for the likes of Bob Dylan, Link Wray, The Eagles, Willie Nelson and dozens of others) before turning his back on the industry in order to study violin making in the ’80s and ’90s. After a 17-year studio break, Bromberg came back in 2007 with the Grammy-nominated Try Me One More Time, a welcome return from a guy who should never have gone in the first place.
For Use Me, the fabulous follow-up to One More Time, Bromberg front-loads the tracklist with a tribute album’s worth of star power, including John Hiatt, Dr. John, Linda Ronstadt, Levon Helm, Los Lobos, The Butcher Brothers, Los Lobos, Widespread Panic, Keb Mo, Vince Gill and Tim O’Brien, some of whom contributed new original songs to the project.
Bromberg’s greatest gift during his session days was his uncanny ability to provide a guitar personality that was unique without overpowering the name above the title, but on Use Me, he flips that gift on its head. Here he collaborates with some of the most distinctive musicians in the business and maintains his own signature sound, from his brilliantly fluid guitar style, which draws equally on shambling Blues and rhythmic Folk, to his unmistakable vocal croon. And whether he’s laying down a Funk groove with the Butchers on the Bill Withers classic that serves as the title track or getting jammy with the Panic on “Old Neighborhood” or romanticizing Roots Blues with John Hiatt on “Ride On Out a Ways” or swaying with Ronstadt on the Brook Benton ballad “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” the quality that stands out on Use Me is David Bromberg’s musical relevance four full decades after his unexpected and compelling debut.
Eleanor Friedberger has accomplished plenty with brother Matthew in their well-regarded Indie Pop collective The Fiery Furnaces. With Matthew occupied with his series of solo releases, Eleanor decided to test the waters with her own lone contribution, the patently wonderful and gently quirky Last Summer. As a debut, Last Summer distills and expands the sonic elements that Eleanor provides to The Fiery Furnaces, allowing her to inhabit and reimagine the spaces generally filled by her brother’s contributions.
As a result, ‘My Mistakes” jerks along like Neko Case writing in Art Pop tribute to Brian Eno‘s Here Come the Warm Jets, “Inn of the Seventh Ray” and “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight” sound like a lower registered Kate Bush being produced by the Mael brothers, “One-Month Marathon” is a Folk/Pop dirge envisioned by Kath Bloom, Donovan and Eno, and “Owl’s Head Park” glides along like one of Bush’s jazzy noir Pop excursions.
Not everything on Last Summer is a blazing success, but it shows conclusively that Eleanor Freidberger isn’t the least bit afraid to drift beyond the comfort zone of The Fiery Furnaces completely under her own loony, lovely power.
John Wetton stands with Paul Rodgers, Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury and a handful of other vocalists in the Rock age whose voices could legitimately be considered an extra instrument in the band context. Wetton’s vocals and bass guitar proficiency for Family, King Crimson, Jack-Knife, Asia, UKZ and a host of others have consistently elevated sometimes merely good material to an increased critical and commercial respectability. The same paradigm has held true for Wetton’s solo career, which has been marked by releases that have ranged from very good to mediocre at best, but each has been improved by his passionately honeyed baritone.
On his sixth solo release, Raised in Captivity, Wetton collaborates with a veritable who’s who of marquee British Prog artists and a good many of his former and current bandmates to create an album that crosses Prog classicism with current Rock vitality. There is a contemporary energy and edge to Raised in Captivity, from the frenetic Pop/Prog of the album’s opener “Lost for Words,” featuring journeyman Prog guitarist Steve Morse, to the equally charged title track, which reunites Wetton with King Crimson guitar freak Robert Fripp.
“The Last Night of My Life” combines Wetton’s Prog sensibilities with UKZ guitarist Alex Machacek’s Fusion explorations, while “The Devil and the Opera House” offers a Genesis-like B-side ballad and an electric violin solo from Wetton’s UK/Roxy Music cohort Eddie Jobson. In terms of songwriting, the album might not be in the upper echelon of Wetton’s best work, but overall it’s a more than enjoyable listen. And while Wetton’s voice is showing its age, like all ’80s arena rattlers of a similar vintage, Raised in Captivity succeeds largely because of his incredible likeability quotient and the pure energy that he exudes on the material.