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Archive for the ‘album review’ Category

ALBUM REVIEW – DAWES

In album review on 04/25/2013 at 8:33 am

dawes

Dawes

Stories Don’t End

(HUB)

It’s gotten to the point where all of the new-millennium folk rockers are hard to tell apart. Who has time to sift through the small differences that separate the Low Anthem from Fleet Foxes from Blitzen Trapper from Middle Brother (a side project formed by members of Dawes, Deer Tick, and Delta Spirit, who all belong here too)? Any one of these bands pretty much fits all of your new-millennium folk-rock needs. They all sound like they’d be right at home snorting coke off a bearskin rug in some Laurel Canyon cabin circa 1975. And they all sound like the past 30-plus years of music passed them by.

Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith even pals around with Jackson Browne (who showed up on their second album), giving his Los Angeles-based band a leg up over their peers. But Goldsmith isn’t too fond of the retro label, so he packed his band, headed to North Carolina, and enlisted producer Jacquire King–who’s worked with Kings of Leon, Norah Jones, and Tom Waits–to catapult Dawes into the future … or at least into the early ‘80s.

But Kings of Leon, Norah Jones, and even Tom Waits these days aren’t exactly on the cutting edge of new music. And Stories Don’t End isn’t exactly a big leap forward for Dawes. In fact, the warm smell of weed and the laid-back vibe of pre-Reagan tranquility permeate the record. There’s nothing urgent, groundbreaking, or remotely exciting about it.

If anything, King’s stifled production gives Stories Don’t End a stale aftertaste. He mutes rather than warms the band’s cozy tones and rarely encourages Dawes to stray outside of their comfort zone. The opening track, “Just Beneath The Surface,” sounds so much like one of Browne’s forgettable songs from Lawyers In Love that it too becomes instantly forgettable. Things don’t pick up much from there. “From A Window Seat” coasts along a shuffling rhythm that recalls Laurel Canyon’s definition of “funky,” “Someone Will” is all finger-picking acoustic blandness, and the title track makes five minutes seem like 15.

Stories Don’t End picks up the pace a couple of times, most notably in the piercing guitar riff that stabs throughout the otherwise blah “Most People” and in “From The Right Angle,” which features rolling organ, pathfinder piano, and Goldsmith’s snuggest, most soulful vocal. But Laurel Canyon soul is a relative and rare thing. Finding it in Dawes’ nostalgia trip is even rarer.

EELS – ALBUM REVIEW

In album review on 02/05/2013 at 2:06 pm

Eels

Eels

Wonderful, Glorious

(E Works/Vagrant)

Now that Mark Oliver Everett has put Eels’ trilogy of concept albums about lust, love, and loss behind him, he can get back to what he’s done best over the past 20 years: air out his messed-up life for the whole world to hear.

“I guess you could say that I had issues,” Everett sings on “New Alphabet.” “But it’s looking good, I dug my way out / I’m changing up what the story’s about.” That pretty much sums up Wonderful, Glorious’ worldview. Having documented nearly every aspect of his childhood and troubled-artist years on record, as well as in an autobiography, Everett turns the corner on this relatively rosy, but no less ambitious, record that plays like a soundtrack of his post-trilogy life.

The 2009-10 triple play of Hombre Loco, End Times, and Tomorrow Morning hit like a torrent of pent-up emotions. Between the sex and heartbreak, Everett seemed to have found some sort of balance in his often-twisted existence. For all of his bleak discourses on suicide, self-doubt, and mental illness over the years, he barely had time for life’s simpler and more carnal pleasures. The trilogy was a long time coming.

Wonderful, Glorious once again chronicles the everyday struggles of Everett, who’s written about everything from family deaths to his bouts with depression to the long and occasionally bumpy road to recovery. But he sounds more at peace this time. As he sings on the distorted, bulldozing blues ditty “Peach Blossom,” “You gotta love what’s happening here.”

Still, Eels’ 10th album doesn’t sound all that different than the ones that preceded it. Everett and his band mix jagged alt-rock and murky swamp-pop with bluesy shuffles and fractured art-rock. The opening “Bombs Away,” which comes off like Tom Waits heading into one hell of a reckless weekend, contrasts with “I Am Building A Shrine,” a dirge-like meditation on his inevitable death. Total recklessness gives way to cautious reflection. It’s all part of Everett’s wonderful, glorious plan to reboot, one small step at a time. He gets it just about right.

A.V. Club

JIM JAMES – ALBUM REVIEW

In album review on 02/05/2013 at 2:04 pm

jim-james

Jim James

Regions of Light and Sound of God

(ATO)

Who’s to say where a My Morning Jacket album ends and a Jim James solo album begins? The 34-year-old frontman for the Kentucky rockers has piloted the increasingly spaced-out band since their 1999 debut. He’s recorded a few projects outside of the group (most notably, a George Harrison tribute EP under the name Yim Yames), but his proper solo debut, ‘Regions of Light and Sound of God,’ does everything a solo album is supposed to — including giving the artist an opportunity to roam outside of his natural bounds.

Thing is, James already roams quite a bit in My Morning Jacket. He’s tried on everything from weepy alt-country to guitar-powered indie rock to time-warping psychedelia to cowboy funk. And with each passing album, he’s gotten more ambitious. On ‘Regions of Light and Sound of God,’ he scales back, stripping down arrangements and playing all of the instruments himself. But it’s still weird and epic in its own way.

The intro to the album’s opening track, ‘State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U),’ sounds like an outtake from My Morning Jacket’s 2011 album ‘Circuital.’ But the intergalactic symphony soon yields spare piano notes and James’ hushed vocal slinking over rumbling bass and live, vaguely hip-hop drums. That genre-jumping formula is used throughout ‘Regions of Light and Sound of God,’ from the globetrotting AM Gold of ‘Of the Mother Again’ to ‘A New Life,’ which starts as a finger-plucked ballad before veering into 1950s radio pop.

Best is ‘Know Til Now,’ which features ‘70s disco drums, ghostly backing vocals that double back on themselves and synths that can’t even be bothered to sound like real horns. It’s like a mid-tempo Curtis Mayfield jam updated for post-millennium stoners.

Even with James’ hazy visions of old-school R&B, ‘Regions of Light and Sound of God’ plays like a more intimate version of My Morning Jacket — warmer, closer and cuddlier. The band’s full-throttle guitar freak-outs are missed, and some of the LP’s less-ambitious tracks (like the John Lennon-cribbing ‘Actress’) feel empty. But the lone-wolf howls come through loud and clear.

Diffuser.fm

ALBUM REVIEW – TEGAN AND SARA

In album review on 01/29/2013 at 10:58 am

tegan-sara

Tegan and Sara

Heartthrob

(Warner Bros.)

Beneath all the fizzy synths and sugarcoated hooks in a typical Tegan and Sara song are some serious observations about modern love. On their seventh album, ‘Heartthrob,’ the Canadian twins go through all the ups and downs of love just as you’d expect any levelheaded person to: with self-doubt, some hurt, some anger and a whole mess of insecurity and neuroses.

You just have to dig a little to get there. ‘Heartthrob’ is the Quin sibs’ most polished album, a shiny pop record that borrows as much from ‘80s New Wave giants as it does from ‘10s Top 40 radio. Producers Greg Kurstin (Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha, Pink) and Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Eminem, Maroon 5) pile on the sturdy beats as Tegan and Sara supply the fragile introspection.

A wave of beeping, burping synths rushes over the opening ‘Closer’ like they’re hoping to meet Robyn at the other end. Or at least someone they can have sex with. “All you think of lately is getting underneath me / All I dream of lately is how to get you underneath me,” Tegan and Sara sing. “I’m the type who will get oh-so critical / So let’s make things physical.”

It doesn’t stop there. When Tegan and Sara aren’t hooking up (‘Drove Me Wild,’ ‘Shock to Your System’), they’re lamenting the decisions that made them fall too deep (‘I Was a Fool,’ ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’). But through it all, the huge, sticky hooks remain buoyant – they’re the biggest of the duo’s decade-plus career. Even the ballads manage to slip under your skin this time.

But all of these glossy hooks come at a price. Kurstin and Elizondo tailor few of the songs to Tegan and Sara’s indie-pop pedigree. Their chugging Top 40 beats would not sound out of place backing almost any of the artists they usually work with. Only a handful of ‘Heartthrob’’s songs carve out an identity the way the best songs on 2009’s ‘Sainthood’ did. Still, this is top-shelf pop music about sex and all the messy, sticky feelings that go with it. Who can’t get behind, or underneath, that?

Diffuser.fm

ALBUM REVIEW – FLEETWOOD MAC

In album review on 01/29/2013 at 10:55 am

Fleetwood-Mac-Rumours

Fleetwood Mac

Rumours (Expanded Edition)

(Warner Bros.)

Breakup albums don’t get much better than ‘Rumours,’ Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 blockbuster that was recorded as band members went through various stages of relationship adjustment. When they made their breakthrough self-titled album in 1975, Fleetwood Mac included two couples, one married; by the time ‘Rumours’ was released, they were broken up. Listen to the record, and you’ll get an idea what happened.

The ‘Expanded Edition’ of ‘Rumours’ – which includes a disc of live tracks and a CD of outtakes and alternate versions – makes things even more clear. In an early take of Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘Go Your Own Way,’ he sings “You can roll like thunder,” a direct reference to former girlfriend Stevie Nicks’ lyric in ‘Dreams’ — “Thunder only happens when it’s raining.” The additional line makes a bitchy breakup song even bitchier.

And that’s where this ‘Expanded Edition,’ which tacks on 29 songs to the original ‘Rumours,’ earns its price tag (there’s also a new deluxe that includes a DVD, vinyl copy of ‘Rumours’ and a CD of outtakes that was included in the 2004 reissue). The early, sometimes raw versions of these familiar tracks are occasionally revealing, especially Buckingham’s sketchier cuts, like early takes of ‘Second Hand News’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Know,’ where he’s finding universal footing on deeply personal songs.

Nicks’ tracks, on the other hand, are mostly fully formed here. In fact, an early take of ‘Silver Springs’ – one of her best songs, initially left off ‘Rumours’ but reinstated here and on the 2004 reissue as part of the original album – is better than the released version. A handful of other leftovers (including one from the band’s other singer-songwriter, Christine McVie) were wisely left off the 1977 masterpiece.

The live cuts, taken from a few different shows on the 1977 tour, don’t stray far from the studio versions. Most are ‘Rumours’ songs, with a few from ‘Fleetwood Mac’ (‘Monday Morning,’ ‘Rhiannon’ and a rumbling ‘World Turning’) tossed in. The heart of the reissue – besides the original album, of course, which still sounds like one of the most perfect records ever made – is the new sides of old favorites. They’re the scars that ‘Rumours’ tried to cover.

Ultimate Classic Rock

ALBUM REVIEW — THE JOY FORMIDABLE

In album review on 01/23/2013 at 10:53 am

joy-formidable

The Joy Formidable

Wolf’s Law

(Canvasback/Atlantic)

The Welsh trio the Joy Formidable opened their 2011 debut album with a nearly eight-minute guitar eruption that fell somewhere between an assault and a seduction. ‘The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie’ was the highlight of ‘The Big Roar,’ but it certainly wasn’t the album’s only killer track. Between the dream-pop haze and frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s sweet coos mixed with her sour guitar fits, the LP deftly somersaulted through eras of indie rock.

The band sounds no less charged on the follow-up album, ‘Wolf’s Law,’ which pretty much just amps up everything you liked about ‘The Big Roar’ and filters it through an endless swirl of aggressive guitar noise and peachy pop. Nothing here strikes as hard or as immediate as ‘The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,’ but ‘Wolf’s Law’ is a more consistent album, rolling through its dozen songs with an organized chaos that borders on grace.

The opening ‘This Ladder Is Ours’ begins with an orchestra of synths that heralds something grand approaching, before it takes a brief menacing turn. And then the guitars bust through the pretense like a ray of sunshine, illuminating the song with hope, electricity and a sense that the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘10s are all connected by some sort of post-rock current.

The rest of the album shuffles similar guitar workouts (like on the pulsating ‘Cholla’) with naked ballads (‘Silent Treatment’). It’s not always a seamless mix – the Joy Formidable are better at guitar dissonance than tuned-down meditation. And Bryan is better at howling over the barrage of distorted sonic wreckage than playing pretty with pop delicacy.

But on songs like ‘Tendons’ and the spray-painting ‘Little Blimp,’ they pull it all together for a record that splatters the landscape with distorted beauty and discreetly tricky pop riffs. It’s occasionally epic (see ‘Maw Maw Song’ and ‘The Leopard and the Lung’); it’s occasionally lazy (‘Bats’). But throughout, the Joy Formidable spill ‘Wolf’s Law’’s guitar guts for their, and our, pleasure.

Diffuser.fm

ALBUM REVIEW – FREE ENERGY

In album review on 01/15/2013 at 8:31 am

free-energy-love-sign

Free Energy

Love Sign

(Free People)

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, every small town in America had a band like Free Energy. They typically were made up of four or five guys, knew three or four chords, and played music that sounded best blasting out of a Trans-Am’s cassette deck on its way to a beer run. And if they were lucky, they scrounged up enough money to buy a cowbell.

Free Energy’s 2010 debut album, Stuck On Nothing, was produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who gave it a warm, retro sheen and instant hipster cred. The follow-up, Love Sign, is overseen by John Agnello, who’s worked with Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth—so the guitars are more prominent this time, and so are the hooks. If the Philadelphia quintet wanted to be The Cars on Stuck On Nothing, it’s aiming for Cheap Trick on Love Sign.

Unlike other modern bands that play around with ’70s sounds, Free Energy is totally sincere about its facial hair and Thin Lizzy-style double-guitar lines. Singer Paul Sprangers doesn’t have a particularly strong or distinctive voice; he’s as faceless as any vocalist who fronted a barely famous group back when Cheap Trick At Budokan topped the charts. And the band doesn’t have pricey studio tools at its disposal. But it has plenty of meaty hooks.

From the cowbell-powered opener “Electric Fever” to the handclap frenzy of “Girls Want Rock” to the dance shuffle of “Street Survivor,” Love Sign is a power-pop throwback that’s entertaining as well as indistinctive. Where else could listeners find multiple “whoa-oh” group sing-alongs alongside chunky guitar riffs straight out of the Jimmy Carter era delivered with such earnestness? Besides the Jimmy Carter era, that is.

But it’s not all sticky fun and games. The Springsteen-sized epic piano ballad “Dance All Night” sounds way too ambitious and out of place among the album’s other bite-size nuggets, and a handful of songs haul out the cowbell and two-guitar attack when they don’t have much else to say or do. Love Sign isn’t all that different than what shaggy-haired kids were playing at their local live-music clubs circa 1979. The indie-rock buzz is just added perspective.

A-V Club

ALBUM REVIEW – YO LA TENGO

In album review on 01/15/2013 at 8:31 am

Yo-La-Tengo

Yo La Tengo

Fade

(Matador)

There’s always been a mournful quality to Yo La Tengo’s music. For more than 25 years, the New Jersey trio – led by the husband-and-wife team of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley – has found sadness in beauty, and vice versa. More so than the two bands that they’re frequently compared to – the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth – Yo La Tengo strike a balance of dragged-out improvisation and focused pop splendor that borders on unapologetic grandeur.

On ‘Fade,’ their 13th album and first in four years, they get even more reflective about life, death and growing old. It probably has something to do with the members approaching 60. And possibly Kaplan’s 2011 health scare. Or maybe it just has to do with life itself. Either way, ‘Fade’ is one of Yo La Tengo’s prettiest and most controlled works, a 10-song rumination on the past, trust, fidelity, uncertainty and helplessness.

As always, Kaplan and Hubley share singing and songwriting duties. The opening ‘Ohm’ (at almost seven minutes, it’s ‘Fade’’s longest song) features the couple gliding over a droning instrumental buzz that eventually gives way to handclaps and fuzzy guitars. “Nothing ever stays the same,” they sing. “Nothing’s explained.” And that pretty much sums up the big question mark that hangs over the entire album.

But there’s also a sense of complacency with where life has taken them. ‘Is That Enough’ is a straightforward love song (complete with orchestral strings) that ranks among the most gorgeous cuts in the band’s long career. ‘Well You Better’ is an elder’s word of advice set to indie-rock’s version of soul music. And the acoustic ballad ‘I’ll Be Around’ offers a shoulder of support.

Still, ‘Fade’ is at its best when Yo La Tengo cast a little sorrow over the songs. Kaplan delivers a hushed requiem over stripped-down krautrock on ‘Stupid Things,’ a reflection of past regrets met with a new-morning shrug. And horns and strings punctuate one last look back on the closing ‘Before We Run.’ It’s a lovely, elegant moment, and a fitting ending to Yo La Tengo’s best work since their late-‘90s/early-‘00s masterpieces.

Diffuser.fm

ALBUM REVIEW – CHRISTOPHER OWENS

In album review on 01/15/2013 at 8:24 am

Christopher-Owens-Lysandre

Christopher Owens

Lysandre

(Fat Possum)

 Christopher Owens’ backstory always comes dangerously close to trumping his front one. The former singer and songwriter of the San Francisco indie duo Girls was raised in a fundamentalist religious cult until he broke free when he was 16. So it makes sense that his band’s music—a combination of lo-fi garage rock and graceful nostalgic pop—sounded a little naïve, like it was made by someone whose formative teenage years didn’t transpire until he was well into in his 20s.

On his debut solo album, Lysandre, the 33-year-old Owens (who quit Girls in mid-2012) tells the story of his band’s rise and some of the heartbreak found on Girls’ second and final album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. A year before they released their 2009 debut, Album, Girls’ first tour took them to a festival in France, where Owens met the girl he named his solo LP after. He quickly fell in love—and just as quickly he returned home.

The narrative song cycle is bookended by brief opening and closing instrumental themes (complete with flutes and Renaissance-era acoustic guitars), with an epilogue tacked on for literary heft. But the middle chapters offer the most revealing peek into Owens’ somewhat fractured mind. “If your heart is broken, you will find fellowship with me / And if your ears are open, you will hear honestly from me,” he sings on “Here We Go,” a chronicle of Girls’ whirlwind first year and Lysandre’s statement of purpose.

While some of the songs head for friskier territory (“New York City” is fueled by a saxophone straight out of Ziggy Stardust, and listen closely for the wah-wah guitar in “Here We Go Again”), they’re mostly layered in the AM Gold sounds of the soft-rock ’70s: wistful harmonica, breezy flute, plucked acoustic guitars, and softly brushed drums. And they perfectly fit the sadness in Owens’ hushed voice on songs like “A Broken Heart” and the truly heartbreaking “Part Of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue).”

But even with the thematic ties running throughout Lysandre, it isn’t overly ambitious: The 11 songs clock in at less than half an hour, and the main musical theme that shows up in nearly every one of them becomes a wearisome prop by the end of the album. Still, Owens has one of the most intriguing stories in music these days, and Lysandre is his firsthand account of the neuroses, insecurities, and self-doubt that result from it.

A.V. Club

ALBUM REVIEW — DROPKICK MURPHYS

In album review on 01/07/2013 at 11:52 am

dropkick-murphys

Dropkick Murphys

Signed and Sealed in Blood

(Born & Bred)

The last time Dropkick Murphys made an album, the scrappy Boston-bred Irish punks crawled out of the pub and into headier, heavier territory. The seven-member band got super-ambitious on 2011’s ‘Going Out in Style,’ a concept record about the life and death of a working-class Irish-American. The narrative was strong, the music was stronger and Bruce Springsteen even showed up for a song.

The band’s eighth album, ‘Signed and Sealed in Blood,’ drops the narrative aspirations but retains the expansive musical set pieces that made ‘Going Out in Style’ one of Dropkick Murphys’ best albums. Even without a single unifying theme running through the LP, ‘Signed and Sealed in Blood’’s 12 songs sound like a dozen different chapters to the same story. And they’re almost as grand as those found on ‘Going Out in Style.’

Dropkick Murphys didn’t need Martin Scorsese to give their songs a cinematic edge, but ever since the director included the band’s marching ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ as a centerpiece in ‘The Departed,’ their basement punk – played on bagpipes, whistles, banjos and accordions, as well as traditional rock instruments – has taken on extra resonance. So ‘Signed and Sealed in Blood’’s shout-along opening cut, ‘The Boys Are Back,’ isn’t just a welcome-home party. It’s a declaration of purpose.

And the festivities continue with the incendiary ‘Burn,’ the teary-eyed boozer ‘Jimmy Collins’ Wake’ and the group sprint ‘The Battle Rages On,’ all of which would sound right at home at a particularly raucous morning parade as they would at a drunken night at the bar. And the whole family is invited.

As on ‘Going Out in Style,’ ‘Signed and Sealed in Blood’’s best songs find deliverance in reflection, whether it’s in ‘Rose Tattoo’’s body ink or the family-dysfunction Christmas of ‘The Season’s Upon Us.’ (“My sisters are whack jobs, I wish I had none,” they sing. “Their husbands are losers and so are their sons.”) The album doesn’t always pack the emotional weight of the last one, but the songs – played loud, fast and hard and with a blue-collar sense of pride – find their own significance, somewhere between the first and final pints.

Diffuser.fm