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by Brian Baker 04.06.2012
Posted In: New Releases, Reviews at 02:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Joan Osborne - 'Bring It On Home'

When Joan Osborne vaulted into the public consciousness with Relish, her 1995 major label debut, she had already established a loyal fan base that was well aware of her estimable Jazz and Soul skills. With Soul Show in 1991 and the Blue Million Miles EP in 1993, Osborne displayed her smoldering vocal chops and her unerring ability to write to her own strengths as well as inhabit another writer’s song (her take on Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” was a marvel). Largely a collaboration with producer Rick Chertoff, Hooters frontmen Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman and Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, Relish rightly pushed Osborne into Rock/Pop territory and the well-deserved spotlight, but it was only marginally indicative of her loves and influences.

For the past decade and a half, Osborne has made no secret of her musical passions as she’s fleshed out her catalog with a string of soulful original albums, covers albums (2002’s How Sweet It Is) and blends of the two (2007’s excellent Breakfast in Bed).

With her latest, Bring It On Home, Osborne heads directly into the Blues/R&B camp with predictably great results, from the opening swing of Ray Charles’ version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and a blistering spin through “Roll Like a Big Wheel” from obscure Blues shaker Olive Brown to a down and dirty take on James Moore’s iconic “Shake Your Hips” (nailed by the Stones on Exile on Main Street) and a shivering R&B tailfeather shake of Clarence Carter’s “I’m Qualified.”

As usual, Osborne’s gift in covering other songwriters’ works lies in her innate talent in melding the spirit and intent of the original song with her own singular approach to come up with a version that is both tribute and appropriate reinvention, and Bring It On Home finds Osborne at the peak of her abilities.


 
 
by Mike Breen 04.04.2012
Posted In: Reviews at 09:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Justin Townes Earle

'Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now'

Just like his famously troubled father, Justin Townes Earle has often generated as much press for his substance-fueled escapades as his musical prowess. Thankfully, that genetic predeliction has been tempered with a similarly potent gift for songcraft and creative evolution, two elements that have distinguished Earle’s catalog to date, particularly his last album, the sacred-meets-secular traditional modernism of 2010’s Harlem River Blues.

With his fifth and latest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Earle once again expands his musical parameters and explores the wide range of music that has defined Memphis, from lushly arranged horn-and-sweat Soul (the rousing Dr. Johnesque boogie Blues of “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea”) to spartan singer/songwriter folk (the dry Country balladeering of “Won’t Be the Last Time”) to varying combinations of it all (the sorry-baby sway of the title track). On the album’s mournful opener, “Am I That Lonely Tonight,” Earle seems to address his acorn-oak issues with touches of Van Morrison and Jeff Tweedy (“Hear my father on the radio, singing, ‘Take me home again’/300 miles from the Carolina coast, I’m skin and bones again/Sometimes I wish that I could get away, sometimes I wish that he’d just call/Am I that lonely tonight, I don’t know”).

There is an air of immediacy on Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, a direct result of the whirlwind four-day, all-live/no-overdub sessions that produced the album, but that recording frenzy is perfectly counterbalanced by Earle’s laconic delivery, even on the album’s most energetic songs.

Nothing’s Gonna Change is yet another dusty jewel in Justin Towne Earle’s beautiful and slightly askew crown.


 
 
by Deirdre Kaye 04.02.2012
Posted In: Live Music, Reviews at 09:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)
 
 
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Review: Alison Krauss at Taft Theatre

Some musicians get jaded and cynical when they become mostly known for only a handful of songs that aren’t even necessarily the best examples of their work. When this happens, bands sometimes fall entirely on their most popular songs and use them as a crutch. Or they shy away from playing them at all. 

Alison Krauss and Union Station may have earned their biggest media coverage and added the most fans when they were featured on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, but they’ve released far more music than just that handful of songs.

After being in the music business for over 20 years, the gang know how best to handle appealing to their most faithful fans as well as their soundtrack buddies. At the Taft Theatre March 31, the ensemble played the best songs from its newest album, Paper Airplane, and quite a few older favorites. Because so many members of Union Station have careers outside the band, the night also featured a few solo performances. Alison sang “Let Me Touch You for Awhile” and Dan Tyminski played the “singing voice of George Clooney” when he revived “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Dobro legend Jerry Douglas even played a little bit of Paul Simon – a sneak peek at his forthcoming album, perhaps?

The group also had to appease concert goers who may only know Alison and the boys from the O Brother songs or her duet with Brad Paisley. They did this with an encore full of those well-known hits. Included in that mix were two verses of “Down to the River to Pray” and the last verse of “Whiskey Lullaby” (with just Krauss backed up by her bassist). All of those songs, by the way, were played with instruments unplugged as the members leaned in around one vintage microphone.

The night was enjoyable for fans on any part of the dedication spectrum. The band members teased each other and had fun together on the stage and their smiles were, as cliché as it sounds, contagious. The music Saturday night couldn’t have sounded any better if you were listening to the group's albums through a sweet-assed Bose system. They performed flawlessly.

 
 
by Brian Baker 03.30.2012
Posted In: Reviews, New Releases at 12:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Margot and the Nuclear So & So's - 'Rot Gut, Domestic'

Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s frontman Richard Edwards may be the most tenacious man in rock. In 2009, the band’s Indianapolis home base was heavily damaged by fire, they were dropped by Epic after the controversy over Animal/Not Animal and the majority of the band quit.

That would have been the end of Margot for most guys, but Edwards resurrected his outfit with bassist Tyler Watkins and multi-instrumentalist Erik Kang and, with an impressive guest list, assembled and self-released 2010’s spectacular Buzzard, a clattering bit of Indie Rock brilliance that diverged from Margot’s early Chamber Pop explorations.

Last year, Edwards and a completely reconstituted MATNSAS generated their recording budget through the Pledge Music website and began tracking their fourth album, the noisily majestic Rot Gut, Domestic.

Much like Buzzard, Rot Gut seems more shambolic and scattered than it really is; like a pointilist painting, it pays to stand back in order to appreciate the work. On Rot Gut, Edwards and MATNSAS have crafted an amazing amalgam of Wilco’s artful squall (“Disease and Tobacco Free,” “Fisher of Men”) and Ryan Adams’ buzzy indie evocation of ’70s Rock (“Books About Trains,” “Arvydas Sabonis,” “Ludlow Junk Hustle”) while simultaneously managing to reference the atmospheric Pop that marked their first two albums. After 10 tracks of that, MATNSAS finish up with an amazing one-two punch; the dissonant and fuzzed out “The Devil” is followed, logically enough, by the exquisite balladry of “Christ,” a Randy Newman-meets-Paul Westerberg piano-and-ethereal-frippery hymn (“Jesus breaks your heart every night when He doesn’t come”).

The scariest thing about Rot Gut, Domestic is that Richard Edwards and Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s might have an even better album than this minor masterpiece in them.


 
 
by Brian Baker 03.29.2012
Posted In: New Releases, Reviews at 03:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Paul Weller - 'Sonik Kicks'

Paul Weller has traveled a fascinating trend-bucking career arc since his debut with The Jam during Punk’s heyday in the late ’70s. When every other band was pursuing a gobsmacked, adrenaline-soaked and barely coherent version of Rock, Weller and The Jam were turning out their highly stylized spin on The Who’s Mod period.

When The Jam’s influence turned out pale imitators, Weller moved on to Style Council, a loungey R&B/Pop outfit that inspired a whole genre of similarly subdued purveyors. Weller’s subsequent solo career has been a pastiche of Brit Folk flavored Baroque Rock flecked with bits of the sonic personae that he’s championed over the past three decades, from the brilliant Traffic/Small Faces direction of his solo debut, 1992’s Wild Wood, to the Soul reflection of 2002’s Illumination to the edgy Punk Pop buzz of 2005’s As Is Now.

It seems hard to imagine but Weller is on a hot streak at the back end of a 35-year career; 2008’s 22 Dreams was on a fair number of critics’ year-end lists and 2010’s Wake Up the Nation was nominated for Britian’s Mercury Music Prize. To his credit, Weller’s approach to a new album resembles the first rule of Italian driving — what’s behind you doesn’t matter anymore.

So it is with his latest set, the diverse and energetic Sonik Kicks. The album lurches to life with the insistent and atmospheric “Green,” a squalling, blipping gene splice of The Buzzcocks and Muse, which leads into the tropical Pop bounce of “The Attic” and Weller’s Pop/Punk homage to Kurt Weill, the noisily melodic “Kling I Klang.” Weller returns to his acoustic direction on the gentle (and gently orchestrated) “By the Waters,” which he follows with “That Dangerous Age,” a track that Peter Gabriel would be amazed to find had nothing to do with him, and the six-and-a-half minute smoky Pop/Soul workout of “Study in Blue,” which deftly blends a lot of what has come before it.

Given the amazing breadth of Weller’s creative palette, perhaps his consistent versatility shouldn’t be such a surprise, but the incredible range and vitality of Sonik Kicks has the snap and spirit of an artist in the middle of his career, not nearing its 40th anniversary.

 
 
by Brian Baker 03.28.2012
Posted In: Music Video, Reviews at 01:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: The Mars Volta - 'Noctourniquet'

From the moment Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala left At the Drive-In to form The Mars Volta over a decade ago, the duo and their co-conspirators have made a conscious effort to challenge even their staunchest fans and completely confound their easily befuddled critics.

Finding their general direction somewhere in the floating nexus of Neo Prog, Metal, Math Rock, Fusion, Psychedelia, Electronica, Space Rock and Latin American music, The Mars Volta has applied their dizzyingly complex genre formula to straightforward album structures, song cycles and full blown concept albums with a constant eye towards disrupting music’s status quo, whatever that happens to be at any given moment.

The Mars Volta’s sixth full length, Noctourniquet, comes after a somewhat fractious period in the band’s history. Rodriguez-Lopez reportedly finished the music three years ago and argued with Bixler-Zavala about the time he was taking on lyrics and vocals; Rodriguez-Lopez eventually concentrated on his solo work as an alternative.

Noctourniquet finds The Mars Volta pursuing a sound they’ve characterized as Future Punk, a simplified (for them, anyway) version of their standard musical calculus. “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” is nearly a gorgeous Pop ballad with Pearl Jam’s heart and Metallica’s verve, while the album’s first single, “The Malkin Jewel” (listen below), has the reeling barroom swagger of Nick Cave covering Kurt Weill. Like 2009’s Octahedron, Noctourniquet offers moments of relative reflection (“Lapochka,” “Trinkets Pale of Moon”), serious intent (“In Absentia”), head spinning polyrhythms (“Molochwalker”) and blistering intensity (“Zed and Two Naughts”).

If Nocturniquet represents any kind of compromise for the Mars Volta, it has clearly been accomplished on their own singular terms.



 
 
by Brian Baker 03.27.2012
Posted In: Reviews, Music Video at 12:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)
 
 
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Review: The Shins - 'Port of Morrow'

No one could have imagined a more appropriate outcome for James Mercer when the creatively obscure rags of Flake Music led to the everyman populist Indie Rock riches of The Shins. Strangely, but perhaps predictably, Mercer’s recent career moves seem more indicative of diva behavior, signing with Columbia Records, dismissing his longtime bandmates and making The Shins something of a solo venture while exploring a new and admittedly fascinating aesthetic with Danger Mouse in their Broken Bells collaboration.

All of this has transpired in the long gap since The Shins’ last album, 2007’s largely brilliant Wincing the Night Away, and the hiatus, coupled with Mercer’s oddly twisting creative path, have served to intensify the scrutiny on the long-awaited fifth album from The Shins, Port of Morrow.

At first blush, there is a clear difference between the wide-eyed cryptic wonder of 2001’s Oh Inverted World and the more calculated and plainly spoken weariness of Port of Morrow. Perhaps the most marked difference between the old collective Shins and the new solo-centric Shins is Mercer’s place in the mix. On the first three albums, his keening voice and hallucinogenic lyrical constructs were sublimated into the music, while Wincing the Night Away found him rising above the music’s sonic profile (Michael Stipe followed a similar path on REM’s upward spiral). Mercer’s process is complete on Port of Morrow, as his vocals ring with confidence and clarity even as his lyrics still inspire some allusory head scratching.

The album’s first single, “Simple Song” (see the video for it below), lives up to its title by stripping The Shins’ melodic and lyrical complexity to its basic elements, with the chorus serving as a possible manifesto for the newly liberated Mercer (“I know that things can really get rough, when you go it alone/Don’t go thinking you gotta be tough, and play like a stone/Could be there’s nothing else in our lives so critical, as this little home”). There are moments that hearken back to The Shins of old with the obvious new tweaks (“It’s Only Life,” “40 Mark Strasse”) and a few new wrinkles (the Samba-flecked “Bait and Switch,” the straightforward Indie Pop bristle of “No Way Down,” the rootsy reverb of “For a Fool”).

For fans who have fallen helplessly in love with the Shins’ sonic atmospherics and delightfully indecipherable wordplay, Port of Morrow may be confoundingly understandable. Still, like every Shins album to date, Port of Morrow’s greatest rewards are revealed through prolonged exposure.


 
 
by Brian Baker 03.06.2012
Posted In: Reviews at 04:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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BackBlog: Music You May Have Missed

Horrible Crowes, Shiny and the Spoon, Hank III and more

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Because it's so good, we've decided to spread around the music reviews from our Brian Baker's regular I Shall Be Released column, so keep a look out for regular reviews of recent releases throughout the week. Brian's reviews of older titles released in the past several months that readers may have missed will be its own separate blog feature now, BackBlog. Welcome to the first installment.)

Last year, Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon and longtime cohort/GA guitar tech Ian Perkins translated their old school habit of enlightening each other to new and different music into a new and different side project which they dubbed The Horrible Crowes. Looking to explore completely unique aspects of their sonic identity, Fallon and Perkins dug into fairly esoteric sections of their record collections to find the inspirations and influences that sparked their creative cores on Elsie, their debut Horrible Crowes release.

Although Fallon is the first to admit his devotion to Bruce Springsteen and his desire to translate the Boss’ epic populist Rock into a punkier context with Gaslight Anthem, one of his avowed second line influences isTthe Afghan Whigs. It is that twisted soul mutation that informs the dark, mysterious core of the Horrible Crowes, from the quiet dread of “Last Rites” to the seductive Greg Dulli croon of “Sugar” to the soft Whigsian explosion of “Go Tell Everybody.” There are other melancholy textures on Elsie, as well; shades of Nick Cave and Tom Waits tint the backgrounds (“Go Tell Everybody,” “Mary Ann,” “Cherry Blossoms”) and the hushed tumult of the National and Paul Westerberg bubbles up through the mix (“Cherry Blossoms,” “Ladykiller,” “Blood Loss”), while Fallon’s lyrics paint a somber scene. There are even slight returns to Fallon’s Springsteen altar (“Behold the Hurricane,” “Crush”) but even when he and Perkins lean toward Gaslight Anthem territory, they work to maintain a clear distance between GA and the Crowes.

Like Dulli, Fallon can go from a tortured whisper to a visceral shriek in a matter of seconds, and his and Perkins’ guitar work and arrangements mirror that ability on the music side. In some ways, the Horrible Crowes’ Elsie is like Fallon’s take on Nebraska, a stripped back testament that’s too dark to take out with any frequency but is just right for an occasional cathartic howl.

Amber Nash and Jordan Neff met at an Oktoberfest party four years ago and within weeks were personally involved and professionally linked in a ukelele-centric Folk/Bluegrass duo that they dubbed Shiny and the Spoon (which one is Shiny and which is the Spoon has long been a matter of debate, and one gets the impression it’s a shifting definition between the two). For a spell, both Nash and Neff were roll-called as members of Magnolia Mountain, but they broke ranks last year to concentrate on SATS and the most immediate result of that increase in time and energy is Ferris Wheel, the duo’s debut full-length.

At first blush, Nash and Neff seem like a standard issue Folk duo, but SATS is far from typical. “Snowflake,” the lead-off track on Ferris Wheel, is a good example of what sets them apart. Although a strummed acoustic guitar intro and lightly touched upright bass suggest a familiar structure, Nash’s tremulous upper register vocal is more reminiscent of ’60s AM radio Pop chicks and contemporary Indie Folk/Rock chanteuses. But the pair quickly slides into a swirling atmospheric soundscape and “Snowflake” begins to breathe with a compelling and melancholy sigh that transcends their chosen genre.

Of course, not every song on Ferris Wheel follows this template, but it stakes a sonic claim that exponentially expands Shiny and the Spoon’s parameters. It happens again at Ferris Wheel’s midpoint when Nash and Neff offer their spectacular Indie Folk version of a-ha’s Synth Pop hit “Take On Me,” and continues on “Run,” which mixes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and a mariachi interlude. On “Killin’ the Flower,” Nash croons with the traditional modernism of k.d. lang while the pair constructs a Country soundtrack that swings its legs from Charlie Rich’s piano bench, while the title track glitters subtly as panned gold with an electric undercurrent to accompany the moody Folk/Pop that floats just above the counterpoint.

Ferris Wheel is a magnificent benchmark for Shiny and the Spoon, establishing the duo as acolytes of the dusty past and visionaries of a bright future.

Lana Del Rey’s often somnambulist performance on Saturday Night Live recently was her introduction to most of the country and if the bloggers and commentators are to be believed, it was a poor first impression to say the least. Del Rey has become a lightning rod for criticism and Born to Die, her quasi-debut album (she released an album in 2010 under her given name, Lizzy Grant) has been unflatteringly painted with an equally broad brush as a result.

Del Rey has been denigrated as a passionless huckster in a lot of reviews that cite her less than dynamic SNL performance and that’s a shame because Born to Die is a slinky Indie Electro Lounge exercise in sonic seduction.
Musically, Del Rey offers jazzy melodies that pulse with an Indie Rock edge and girl group snap, underscored by sampled orchestrations, beatbox rhythms and Tom Waitsian tool-shed atmospherics, while her vocal presence is a suggestive approximation of Kate Bush’s kooky swoop, Julee Cruise’s sultry whisper, Cyndi Lauper’s babydoll chirp and Marianne Faithfull’s youthful rasp.

She has referred to herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” which seems like a fair assessment. Sonically, there is a hypnotic continuity of tempo on Born to Die, a turn-off to some but an interesting counterpoint to the diversity of Del Rey’s song subjects, from the disturbing sexual dysfunction of “Off to the Races” and the hymnal Pop of “Video Games” to the Britney Spears thump and bump of “National Anthem” and the gauzy Angelo Badalamenti/Lee Hazelwood/Neptunes lost love moan of “Blue Jeans.”

Del Rey might not have been ready for SNL’s prime time performance but Born to Die is clear evidence that she is most assuredly a musical force to be reckoned with going forward, regardless of the haters’ poisonous opinions to the contrary.

Click on for reviews of releases by Hank III, Lindsey Buckingham and Mike Doughty.

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by Deirdre Kaye 03.05.2012
Posted In: Live Music, Reviews at 09:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)
 
 
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Review: The Black Keys/Arctic Monkeys at US Bank Arena

There are concerts that are fun and there are concerts that kick your ass. If you were at the sold-out U.S. Bank Arena Friday night for the opening date of The Black Keys first headlining arena tour, you probably got your ass kicked.
 
First up, Arctic Monkeys caused a ruckus on the floor. Most (but not all) of the folks in the seats wandered around aimlessly or sat there, watching listlessly. There was certainly uproar in front of the stage, though. But as the English boys played, sang and sassed, the crowd in the arena filled in and loosened up. It helped that their lighting guys strobed the shit out of them, too. The seizure-inducing lights may have been Morse code for “Love Arctic Monkeys. Swoon over our accents.” If so, it worked. By the time Arctic Monkeys closed with “When the Sun Goes Down,” the crowd on the floor had nearly doubled and, at the very least, those in their seats were nodding their heads and smiling. Those boys put on a fun show.
 
After spending the entire intermission only getting halfway through the beer line, nearly everyone gave up and fled to their seats when The Black Keys began. Not that anyone sat, though — they were all too busy dancing and freaking out. Strictly speaking, The Black Keys may not be from Cincinnati but it’s safe to say we treat them like hometown boys, anyway. Dan Auerbach (singing/guitar) even recalled playing Southgate House a few years ago. Upstairs. In the small room.

From a titanic disco ball that lowered from the rafters (for only one song) to the graphics on the screens behind them, the show was far different from their days playing tiny rooms. With each beginning there was an outburst of recognition. The middles of songs gave way to dancing, flailing and air guitar (or drums) and each ending note was drowned out by thousands of shrieks, whistles and catcalls.
 
Two things were learned last night. First, if you have any doubt about the amount of noise that one guitar and a set of drums can make, go see The Black Keys. Their albums don’t do justice to the sheer volume Auerbach and Partrick Carney (drums) are capable of producing. Second, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard an entire arena try to whistle.
 
If you weren’t there, you missed the best kind of Friday night possible. If you were, you’re probably already making plans for the next time The Black Keys come to town.

 
 
by Brian Baker 03.02.2012
Posted In: Reviews at 01:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Review: Ben Kweller - 'Go Fly a Kite'

In a discussion of lives spent making music, Ben Kweller’s name has to warrant a prominent mention. His father, a doctor who counted Nils Lofgren as a friend and former neighbor, taught Kweller how to play drums at age 8, which led to his first band, Radish, at 12, his first major label contract at 16, appearances on Conan O’Brien and David Letterman at 17 and the launch of his solo career at 19.

Since then, Kweller has released a quartet of acclaimed albums, collaborated with Ben Folds and Ben Lee (as The Bens, naturally) and Guster and toured with Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, Jeff Tweedy and Faith No More, among many others, a testament to Kweller’s musical adaptability and diverse appeal.

Kweller was talking about his fifth album, Go Fly a Kite, as long ago as fall 2010, describing it as nearly finished and ready to go. But a break from his longtime label, Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, caused Kweller to rethink Kite’s release date, pushing it close to a year beyond his original timing. Kweller must have used the time to set up his own label, Noise Company, because Go Fly a Kite sounds exactly as he outlined it a year and a half ago, namely a stripped down Power Pop/electric Folk hybrid that channels his early direction and perhaps signposts where he’s heading down the line.

Like Matthew Sweet or Fountains of Wayne, Kweller possesses an uncanny knack for setting relatively serious subjects to an infectiously catchy soundtrack. Kite is loaded with that bittersweet Pop ethic, particularly on simple but effective Pop/Rock fist pumpers like “Mean to Me” and the punchy “Justify Me.” Kweller’s early schooling in The Beatles and Hollies is woven into Kite’s 11 tracks, from the powerfully angsty “Jealous Girl” to the piano balladry and lilting orchestration of “The Rainbow,” but at the same time, he’s fully aware of his own creative identity and never gets lost in the forest of his influences.


 
 

 

 

 
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