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Posts Tagged ‘album review’

ALBUM REVIEW — TREY ANASTASIO

In album review on 10/16/2012 at 2:41 pm

Trey Anastasio

Traveler

(Rubber Jungle/ATO)

Being pigeonholed as a noodling jam-band guitarist has got to take a toll on a well-rounded guy like Trey Anastasio. He’s fronted Phish for almost 30 years; for more than half of that time they’ve been the leaders of the Hacky Sack pack. Anastasio has tried more than once to put everything Phish behind him, but — like the exasperated Michael Corleone of The Godfather: Part III — just when he thinks he’s out, he’s pulled back in.

No matter what he does, Anastasio can’t seem to shake Phish or their legacy. Even without his three longtime musical partners, his solo albums sound like Phish records. That probably explains why he recruited members of Mates of State and the National (among other indie-rock notables) to help shape his eighth solo LP, Traveler, a slight indie-pop detour that trades stretched-out showpieces for (mostly) compact songs.

It’s not always the snuggest fit. Anastasio has never been much of a singer; his limited range really isn’t suited for much more than the jam-based music he’s played with Phish for all these years and, like on most of Traveler undemanding indie rock. There’s a good reason he’s best known for his guitar playing.

But on ‘Traveler, he’s not so much a prodigious instrumentalist as a multitasking frontman. Occasionally it all falls together like he plans: The opening ‘Corona’ serves as a breezy gateway to a world that sounds less uptight than the one he usually kicks around in. ‘Pigtail’ is pure pop gold with handclaps and blaring brass. And ‘Scabbard’’s polyrhythmic percussion is constructed around music-school time shifts that make it sound like a cross between Animal Collective and Frank Zappa.

Still, Anastasio can’t quite keep his adventurous flights at safe cruising altitudes. ‘The Land of Nod’ is basically three and a half minutes of farting horns, woozy theremin and nonsense lyrics about sleeping. In other words, it’s a Phish song. And the cover of Gorillaz’s ‘Clint Eastwood’ is totally pointless. Yet even with its bumps, Traveler may be Anastasio’s most likable solo record. But those turbulent spots prevent it from being anything other than just another album by that guy in Phish.

http://diffuser.fm/trey-anastasio-traveler-album-review/

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Album Review — Donald Fagen

In album review on 10/15/2012 at 11:36 am

Donald Fagen

Sunken Condos

Warner Bros.

It took Donald Fagen nearly a quarter century to release his Nightfly Trilogy, which started with 1982’s The Nightfly and wrapped up with 2006’s Morph the Cat. Sunken Condos, the fourth solo album by the Steely Dan singer, is a slightly looser record than its predecessors, with more emphasis on groove this time around. And it sounds like it could be the next chapter in the solo odyssey Fagen started 30 years ago.

Maybe it has something to do with his recent tour with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, which included soulful old friends Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs, or maybe it has to do with the 64-year-old Fagen settling into his AARP years, but he doesn’t sound so uptight here. And let’s face it: Steely Dan were one of the ‘70s fussiest bands, so obsessed with getting every single detail right in their songs that they quit touring in the middle of their peak decade (they finally hit the road again in support of Fagen’s 1993 album Kamakiriad and Steely Dan’s 2000 comeback LP Two Against Nature).

Either way, Sunken Condos is jazzy, bluesy and as musically precise as anything Fagen has recorded, with or without Steely Dan. No surprise, since many of the musicians have played with him in one form or another over the years. And he still doesn’t take the short way around. Most of the nine songs make room for efficient solos, tasteful backing vocals and the cleanest production this side of the late 1970s.

The aptly titled ‘Slinky Thing’ serves as both album opener and mission statement. ‘I’m Not the Same Without You’ packs a slithering disco beat straight outta Fagen’s best years. And the cover of Isaac Hayes’ ‘Out of the Ghetto,’ while sort of an odd choice, manages to be funky in a Los-Angeles-session-musicians kinda way.

Still, Fagen sounds distanced from Sunken Condos, which isn’t so surprising given Steely Dan’s sardonic treatment of everything from the coked-out L.A. music scene they helped forge to their own faceless fame. It would be nice if his view of the people and places he observes here wasn’t so telescopic. Making a connection once in a while actually might do this perpetual smartass some good. But that’s never been Fagen’s thing. Just because he’s getting older doesn’t mean he has to brighten his outlook.

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/donald-fagen-sunken-condos-album-review/

ALBUM REVIEW — THE VACCINES

In album review on 10/03/2012 at 8:36 am

THE VACCINES

The Vaccines Come of Age

(Columbia)

History is littered with forgotten British indie-rock bands. Anyone remember the Farm? How about Space Monkeys? Or the Dylans? Exactly. For every Blur or Oasis that manages to make some sort of dent in the collective consciousness of music fans, there are dozens of groups that everyone talks about for about six months before they’re completely erased from memory, presumably to make room for the next buzz band.

You might remember the Vaccines from their debut album that came out last year, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? Or maybe not. While the album reached the Top 5 in England and spit out a handful of singles, it barely cracked the Top 200 in the U.S. The London quartet’s second album, The Vaccines Come of Age, has already hit No. 1 overseas, prolonging the band’s life expectancy for at least another six months. Don’t count on the same results here.

More than anything else, the Vaccines are, simply, forgettable. Not a single song on Come of Age stands out. With buzzing guitars anchoring most of the tracks – cleaned up a bit this time around, thanks to veteran producer Ethan Johns – the album plays up the band’s overseas reputation as purveyors of ‘90s-style indie rock. But unlike the classic groups that the Vaccines occasionally nod to (the Pixies, the Strokes, the Libertines), there’s nothing to distinguish them from the countless other British bands that are endlessly touted as the Next Big Thing.

It starts with a distorted blast of noise that gives way to the album’s best song, ‘No Hope,’ which is filled with enough teen angst to fuel a ‘90s alt-rock revival: “I wish I was comfortable in my own skin,” sings frontman Justin Young. “But the whole thing feels like an exercise in trying to be someone I’d rather not be.” It’s like the era of ‘Creep’ and ‘Loser’ all over again. But hope fades from there, as song after song checks in with the same sentiment, the same spazzy guitar riffs and the impression that the Vaccines are spinning in place.

From time to time, they ride the surf-rock wave of American indie rock (‘I Always Knew’) and hook on to a catchy chorus (‘Teenage Icon’), but by the time ‘Lonely World’ approaches the five-minute mark at the end of the album, you’ll probably forget those little early victories. Just as you’ll forget the Vaccines five or so years from now.

http://diffuser.fm/the-vaccines-come-of-age-album-review/

In album review on 09/28/2012 at 4:26 pm

VAN MORRISON
BORN TO SING: NO PLAN B

(BLUE NOTE)

There was a time when a seven-minute Van Morrison song didn’t sound like an eternity. ‘Madame George,’ ‘Tupelo Honey,’ ‘Listen to the Lion,’ the live version of ‘Caravan’ – all classics that push the typical radio song length. But three tracks on his 34th album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, crawl over the seven-minute mark – and two of them actually make it past eight minutes. You’ll be checking the clock about halfway through all of them.

When Morrison keeps the songs below four minutes (which is only four times on the album’s 10 tracks), Born to Sing: No Plan B comes close to being his tightest album in a decade. But the loose, feel-free-to-roam structure never quite settles into the songs – grown-up versions of the jazzy-bluesy R&B Morrison has played since the ‘60s but has focused almost exclusively on for the past 20 or so years.

Still, the opening ‘Open the Door (To Your Heart)’ is his most engaging song in years, a soulful and near-spiritual love song underlined by humming horns and rolling keyboards. But like so much of Born to Sing: No Plan B, it doesn’t know when to cut itself loose. There’s at least one verse too many, an overlong instrumental interlude and a jazz-vamp ending that may work in concert but just drags here.

Perhaps Morrison’s last album, a live recreation of his 1968 masterpiece Astral Weeks, influenced his decision to wander a bit this time. On 2008’s Keep It Simple, he basically did just that, with a set of compact songs that didn’t overstay their welcome. But even the best cuts on Born to Sing: No Plan B – ‘Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo,’ ‘Mystic of the East,’ ‘Retreat and View’ — could use some editing.

But that’s always been Morrison’s bag, so maybe we shouldn’t come down too hard on the album. Yet with some trimming here and there, ‘Born to Sing: No Plan B’ would rank among Morrison’s best-sung, best-played and best-written works of the past two decades. But the political messages in a few of the songs and even the occasional subtle musical notes become blurred as they go on and on and on …

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/van-morrison-born-to-sing-no-plan-b-album-review/

ALBUM REVIEW — PAUL SIMON

In album review on 09/21/2012 at 3:59 pm

 

PAUL SIMON

Paul Simon Live in New York City

(Hear/Concord)

‘So Beautiful or So What,’ the album Paul Simon released last year, was his best in two decades. It’s funny, smart, tuneful and, most of all, personal. Simon has never shied away from revealing too much. Going all the way back to Simon and Garfunkel’s earliest recordings, and continuing throughout his solo albums, the singer-songwriter finds universal truths through his own relationships.

That he still found much to say about love, life and death at age 70 says a lot about Simon. That he can make a 2011 concert in his hometown of New York City sound like an intimate performance for just a few friends says even more. The 20 songs on the 90-minute ‘Paul Simon Live in New York City’ (which comes with a DVD of the show) span his career – from ‘The Sound of Silence’ to ‘So Beautiful or So What’ – and most of them still sound remarkably fresh.

Part of the credit goes to Simon’s eight-piece band, which holds back on the quieter tracks (‘Hearts and Bones’) and cuts loose on the celebratory ‘Graceland’ songs (there are five of them here). But this is mostly Simon’s show, from the nimble opener ‘The Obvious Child’ (from the underrated ‘Graceland’ follow-up LP ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’) to the closing ‘Still Crazy After All These Years,’ a fitting cap to both the concert and the album.

In between, Simon covers the expected (‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,’ ‘The Sound of Silence’), the unexpected (‘Slip Slidin’ Away,’ ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’) and a few that never pick up much momentum in the setting (’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,’ ‘Late in the Evening’).

Better are the handful of songs that Simon hasn’t performed onstage in years, including ‘The Obvious Child,’ ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ and ‘Kodachrome.’ And even though the ‘Live in New York City’ versions of the ‘Graceland’ songs aren’t as glorious as they were back when Simon toured with South African musicians in 1987, they’re highlights of the set, with both band and audience connecting with the grooves. And somehow even these moments don’t get away from Simon, who lords over them with a deft, subtle touch. It’s like he’s playing them just for you.

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/paul-simon-live-in-new-york-city-album-review/

ALBUM REVIEW — BEN FOLDS FIVE

In album review on 09/20/2012 at 12:19 pm

Since the breakup of Ben Folds Five a dozen years ago, the trio’s piano-pounding frontman has balanced his time making overly earnest solo records, producing Kickstarter millionaire/cheap boss Amanda Palmer, collaborating with High Fidelity author Nick Hornby, serving as a judge on the TV show The Sing Off and hanging out on Chatroulette, making up songs for people in their underwear. This long list of achievements goes a long way in explaining Folds’ ups and downs, his ambitions and comfort zones, and, most importantly, his quirks and seriousness.

The Sound of the Life of the Mind’ the first Ben Folds Five album since 1999’s underwhelming The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, is a little bit of all these things: smart, stupid, serious, goofy, fast, slow, cheesy and occasionally spot-on. With bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee once again backing him, Folds sounds musically freer to roam than he did during most of his solo career, especially in the opening “Erase Me,” which begins with 15 seconds of heavy, distorted minor-chord stalking before giving way to piano-lounge musings about one of Folds’ favorite post-band subjects, the passage of time.

But if The Sound of the Life of the Mind never finds its way in the same company of the group’s first two, terrific albums – 1995’s self-titled debut and Whatever and Ever Amen from 1997 – it’s more easygoing and looser than almost anything in Folds’ solo catalog. “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” skips along a ‘70s AM Gold melody, cloudy melancholy haunts the Sinatra-nodding “On Being Frank” and the throwing-caution-to-the-wind “Do It Anyway” charges forward with locomotive piano fills. And the sweeping “Away When You Were Here” is one of Folds’ grandest musical statements.

Still, at 46 Folds’ priorities are more reflective than skewering the underground he and his bandmates came out of in the mid ‘90s, which pushes The Sound of the Life of the Mind overboard on the sentimental stuff at times. “Draw a Crowd”’s self-aware has-been narrator clearly knows he’s out of the game and makes the most of it – “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall,” he says – but you can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy. The album is like that: It’s more Sing Off sincere than Chatroulette toss-off. But growing up does that to you.

http://diffuser.fm/ben-folds-five-the-sound-of-the-life-of-the-mind/

ALBUM REVIEW — BOB DYLAN

In album review on 09/17/2012 at 8:06 am

BOB DYLAN

TEMPEST

(Columbia)

It happens every few years, whenever Bob Dylan releases a new album: Critics and fans fall over themselves praising the singer-songwriter for his unwavering genius and dedication to traditional music forms. From 1997’s spiritual rebirth Time Out of Mind to Tempest, his 35th album, Dylan’s late-career arc is one of rock’s most storied tales.

But it’s a lie. Time Out of Mind isn’t Highway 61 Revisited. Love and Theft isn’t Blonde on Blonde. And Tempest isn’t even Blood on the Tracks. It’s a good record, no doubt about it. But it’s not a great one. It’s musically lazy at times, overlong, and often lyrically obtuse, never connecting on the most primal level, rock’s most primal level, the way Dylan’s timeless ‘60s albums do. And like those other overpraised works of the past 15 years, Tempest is a reflection of a past that Dylan doesn’t want to shake, unlike his repeated attempts to demolish his own legend over the decades.

The opening “Duquesne Whistle” is an old-timer’s train song, complete with a locomotive carrying a metaphorical load of loneliness and death, played out over a bluesy shuffle straight out of the 1940s. “Scarlet Town” is a ghostly folk song of love and death plucked out on banjo and violin that actually borrows a few words from a 19th century poem. And the closing “Roll on John” is a tribute to John Lennon – 30 years late and not as revealing as you’d hope (though Dylan’s frayed, sad voice suits the song’s somber mood). Tempest might as well be called “Remembrance of Things Dead.”

If the rest of the LP continually flirts with this classification, the album’s title track earns it. At a sprawling 14 minutes, “Tempest” is one of those chorus-free epics Dylan hauls out from time to time (see “Desolation Row” and Time Out of Mind’s “Highlands”). This one relates the story of the Titanic, and like the 1997 Oscar-hogging movie about the fateful boat, it seems to go on forever. Rich and poor are divided, an iceberg shows up, bodies float in flooded corridors, and Leonardo DiCaprio makes an appearance, because why not? There’s a bigger picture here, of course, as there always is with Dylan. But don’t mistake it for a grand statement à la Highway 61 Revisited or Blood on the Tracks. Tempest is no better than a really, really good John Hiatt album. Let’s stop acting like it is.  http://ultimateclassicrock.com/bob-dylan-tempest-album-review/

ALBUM REVIEWS

In album review on 08/13/2012 at 8:00 am

Alanis Morissette

Havoc and Bright Lights

(Collective Sounds/Sony RED)

Alanis Morissette doesn’t really sound like she’s into giving blowjobs in public places these days. In fact, she sounds content to just stay home and enjoy her relative serenity. On her seventh album, and first in four years, she’s fully recovered from the breakup that fueled most of 2008’s Flavors of Entanglement. She’s married and a mom now, and those new life roles inform Havoc and Bright Lights. On the opening “Guardian,” Morissette sings “I’ll be your warrior of care/I’ll be your angel on call” like she’s her family’s knight in shining armour. And on the ballad “’Til You,” she’s the swooning princess: “I’ve been taking notes, nursing the thought of you.” Morissette and producer Guy Sigsworth mostly keep the music on the tougher side, with crunchy-guitar choruses pushed to the red. They stumble a little, but Havoc is filled with some jagged little thrills.

 

Dierks Bentley

Country & Cold Cans

(iTunes)

Appropriately, the four new songs on this five-track EP were fueled by a couple cases of beer in the studio. The titles say it all: “Cold Cans,” “Grab a Beer,” “Tip It on Back” (which originally appeared on the Home album earlier this year). Country & Cold Cans is Bentley’s loosest record, a collection of songs about drinking away long summer days. There’s nothing essential here, but the country star makes you pine for hot Friday nights.

Dan Deacon

America

(Domino)

The centerpiece of electronic-music freak Dan Deacon’s first album in three years is a four-song, 22-minute “USA” suite that employs nearly two dozen classical-music players who travel the landscape, sonic and otherwise, with the Baltimore multi-instrumentalist. But first Deacon checks in with smaller-scale, but no less panoramic, snapshots like “True Thrush” and “Lots.” America is deep, dark, and abundantly ambitious.

Art Garfunkel

The Singer

(Columbia/Legacy)

Paul Simon’s erstwhile partner didn’t have much of a solo career once the duo broke up. And for good reason: Simon wrote all of their greatest songs and provided grounded harmony to Garfunkel’s angelic choirboy voice. That’s not to say that the 34 songs on this two-disc career overview are bad; they just don’t have much force without Simon. The handful of Simon & Garfunkel hits on The Singer are the highlights.

Swans

The Seer

(Young God)

Two years ago, these NYC post-punk heroes returned after a 14-year break with one of their all-time greatest albums, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. This follow-up is a bigger, more expansive undertaking. Eleven songs spread out over two discs, with two reaching the 20-minute mark and one even clocking in at more than half an hour. But frontman Michael Gira (with help from Karen O) keeps it all under control, gloriously.

ALBUM REVIEW — FRANK OCEAN

In album review on 07/10/2012 at 3:54 pm

Frank Ocean

Channel Orange

(Island Def Jam)

Coming out a few weeks ago may have doubled as one-of-a-kind, mass-market publicity for the Odd Future singer’s debut album, but Channel Orange doesn’t need the push. The LP packs enough great songs (the epic “Pyramids” and the stormy ballad “Bad Religion” are highlights) to sell itself. Ocean sounds a little like Stevie Wonder here, a little like Prince there, and like the future of R&B all over. One of the year’s best.

ALBUM REVIEWS

In Uncategorized on 06/27/2012 at 2:05 pm

Zac Brown Band

Uncaged

(Atlantic)

Ever since his 2008 hit “Chicken Fried,” Atlanta hell-raiser Zac Brown has led his Skynyrd-with-fiddles group down a path paved with country-radio riffs, smokey barroom tones, and a jam-band-style looseness. He’s referred to his third album as a “country-Southern-rock-bluegrass-reggae-jam record,” which is part of Uncaged‘s problem. By not nailing down what kind of band he wants to lead, Brown steers off course at times by mapping out a few too many roads for them to cross. From the faux-island vibe that fuels “Jump Right In” to the heartbreak ballad “Goodbye in Her Eyes” to the horned-up and horn-blasted “Overnight,” Uncaged sounds a little unfocused. But Brown is an engaging singer, and there’s no denying his six-member band’s proficiency. And the shit-hot front-porch jam “The Wind” is made for boozy Saturday-night troublemaking.

Chris Brown

Fortune

(RCA)

Brown has done little over the past year to dispel popular opinion that he’s one of the decade’s biggest douches. No surprise then that his fifth album aims for pure escapism, starting with the LP’s opening track “Turn Up the Music” (which is all about losing yourself on the dance floor) and running through the penultimate cut “Don’t Wake Me Up” (which loses itself in dreamland). In reality, the songs are boring, and he’s still a dick.

Dirty Projectors

Swing Lo Magellan

(Domino)

The revolving-door Brooklyn band’s follow-up to 2010’s breakthrough Ascending Melody sharpens the focus, spearheading their downtown indie rock into more soulful territory. But ringleader David Longstreth still can’t walk a straight line: Songs like “About to Die” and “Gun Has No Trigger” open the door to hazy vocals, rolling percussive fills, and off-course handclaps that can clear a room as easily as they can bring it together.

The English Beat

The Complete Beat

(Shout! Factory)

The English Beat were one of the very few ska bands worth giving a shit about … ever. The key to their success: songs. Instead of just layering horns on top of proto-reggae rhythms, Dave Wakeling and crew incorporated actual melodies into tracks like “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Save It for Later.” This terrific five-disc box includes their three albums along with a bunch of rarities like dub remixes, live cuts, and radio sessions.

Serj Tankian

Harakiri

(Reprise)

The System of a Down frontman’s third solo album places more emphasis on his band’s fractured metal and less on the artsy-fartsy stuff found on his other two records. The straightforward rock of “Cornucopia” and “Figure It Out” certainly make this the most accessible record Tankian has made since SOAD’s 2005 double play. It’s still pretty political (see “Uneducated Democracy”), but at least you can shake your head to it.