Tuesday, December 16, 2008

8 Album Reviews (Published in The Reviewer, June 2008)

Bayadera, Rotation of the Earth

An unironic cover of the most overtly commercial song pop song in history (Wham!’s “Careless Whisper”) says it all: Bayadera want to make it, and make it big.

Their template has potential. Gina Bandy’s vocals are smooth as the synth sax in Wham’s original while the light, Latin-inflected guitarwork is technically solid.

But everything feels restrained. The choruses seem suppressed, Bandy’s suggestive lyrics are too coy, and the music is always a couple bombastic riffs short of head-bobbing. What could be fun radio rock ends up being indistinct, mid-tempo mush. (http://bayadera.ning.com)

Company Car, Collars

There is a branch of emo that is fun, noisy, and self-affirming. Company Car embraces that side of emo with abandon.

Collars is garagey romp chock full of sloppy, infectious guitars and workman-like drumming. In a lot of rock music, however, the most important instrument are the vocals and singer Dave Parker knows it. His wail is whipping hurricane of a hook and from “Couch Critics” to “Driving Star” it never relents.

The songs themselves are almost completely indistinguishable from one another but it doesn’t really matter. The sheer force of the music as a totality is what counts and that’s what makes Collars hugely entertaining. (http://www.companycarmusic.com/index.cfm)

Death on Mars, Tomorrow’s Today

Death on Mars scream prog-rock with their name and shout it even louder on the first track. “True” opens with a rapid drum intro, Mars Volta distorted guitars, and doomstruck lyrics about hell.

The album as a whole is much more eclectic though. Death disco (“In the End”), lush balladry (“Curve of the Earth”), and even chamber pop (“Doorways”) infuse Tomorrow’s Today.

If a particular genre dominates, though, it’s post-punk. It never exactly fails but often the band has a tough time reconciling this Ian Curtis-style rage with its compositional perfectionism.

Overall, though, the eleven tracks cohere fluidly due its heavily textured soundscapes, as Death on Mars announce they are one of San Diego’s most promising bands. (http://www.deathonmars.net)

Marya Roxx, 21?! the EP

With its straightforward crush of guitars, monotonal vocals, and calculated iconoclasm, 21?! the EP sounds like it’s fronted by someone whose knowledge of American rock music is severely limited.

This makes sense with Marya Roxx. The 21-year-old singer is from tiny Estonia, the former USSR country in Eastern Europe. And what she lacks in breadth she makes up in energy. Marya barks her way through her punk-metal debut with the ferocity of Axl Rose and in general it works. From the album’s opening chug on “21?!” to the death drone of “Nothing Going On” the rage of 21?! never relents.

Lyrically, though, the album needs a lot of work. The whole “rebel” angle is as authentically anti-establishment as Hot Topic (there is even a song titled “Rebel”) and the guitar racket needs some variety. But in general the album is immensely entertaining and strangely endearing. (http://www.myspace.com/maryaroxx)

Down and Away, “Reclaim the Radio”

Scandinavia has produced quite a few angsty left-wing rock groups given the area’s political stability and quasi-socialism. Sweden’s Down and Away is one of them and they announce it loudly on their fourth release, “Reclaim the Radio.”

Their proletarian punk is energetic as expected and recalls the pillars of the movement, like Against Me!, The Business, and Rancid. But unfortunately their revolutionary potential is drowned among interchangeable riffs, bland thrash, and derivative pop-punk choruses.

It’s too bad because some of the lyrics are excellent. In “You Can’t Break Me” lead singer brilliantly Marcus skewers corporate culture: “Am I a number? / A face in the line? / I am somebody / Accept or decline.” Unfortunately Down and Away's acute lyrical punch is meaningless behind indistinguishable blasts of sound that are as anonymous as the monoculture they assail. (http://www.uppsikt.nu/new/user/mainpage.asp)

Sorrow Town Choir, Espinas De La Vida

Even on the rocking opener “Simpleton” there is a latent sense of anguish. Excavate underneath Greg Dale’s growl and slashing guitarwork you’ll find a skeleton of moodiness and vulnerability.

That skeleton is revealed throughout Espinas De La Vida. Pitiless mediations on missed opportunities and self-doubt accompany every song.

Musically, meanwhile, Sorrow Town Choir borrows heavily from southern rock. But in tone it’s dominated by Robert Johnson blues music, with its understated, Biblical sense of dread.

The only problem is that it’s too understated. Beef up the Allman Brothers-style slide guitars and a major label might be calling for Sorrow Town Choir. (http://www.sorrowtownchoir.com)

The Press Project, Get Right

The Press Project are one eclectic band with their fusion of lite funk, soulful grooves, and lucid rapping. But eclecticism doesn’t guarantee good music. Look at 311.

Most of Get Right feels flatly uninspired. The injections of neo-soul and old school funk are flavorless and don’t enrich the LP’s hip-hop core. They just water it down.

There are some high points. The muscular lilt of “Moment pt. 4” evokes the jazzy pop of St. Germain and their lazy, mellow rhythms create a pleasant, chill-out whole to the album.

But few of the individual songs blossom out of their harmless, adult contemporary shell. If you want hip-hop to do laundry to buy this, otherwise stick with the Roots. (http://www.myspace.com/thepressproject)

Mary Knickle, Weave

Contemporary Celtic artist Mary Knickle’s third album presents an interesting problem. Is Weave merely an homage to Irish-Scottish folk music that has been around for hundreds of years? Or are the traditional arrangements and anachronistic lyrics an attempt to accentuate simple, everyday values that we tend to forget about in our busy world?

My guess is that Knickle aspires to put her own twist on Celtic music and make it relevant to today’s world. But instead Weave sounds like a facsimile from another century.

She doesn’t do a bad job either. “Tears of a Woman” is a great story and the stark, piano-driven “Grail” is plaintively beautiful. But most of the album is dominated by an expected stew of weepy fiddles, earnest harmonies, and “lost at sea” lyrics.

All pleasant songs, but nothing you wouldn’t hear at your local Irish pub for Tuesday night entertainment. (http://www.maryknickle.com)

Death Valley Pizza, From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Published in the San Diego Troubadour, June 2008)

Contrary to what you might think imaginary soundtracks can open the creative gates. Rather than restricting the musician to a particular story an imaginary soundtrack can serve as a catalyst for artistic innovation. By inventing a fictional narrative the artist can transgress musical boundaries they would otherwise be inhibited to explore as “themselves.”

This has been reinforced throughout rock history. Arguably the Flaming Lips’ best album is a faux-soundtrack. The hallmark of U2’s experimental era was Original Soundtracks 1. That album’s producer, Brian Eno, got into the act years earlier with his Music for Films series, a touchstone of his ambient work.

But their futuristic, grandiose textures are more cinematic in tone rather than theme. With Death Valley Pizza’s From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack the theme is more important.

They do a good job with it. Themes of desperation and loneliness blanket Soundtrack, while buttressing the overarching narrative of a western. The music is distinct, meanwhile, and the instruments carry their own personality. The cry of the violin could be the anxieties of an unfaithful spouse. The light pedal steel guitar could be the unfulfilled dreams of a prospector.

But what about singer Ian Zalewski. What character is he? Maybe he’s a hardscrabble oilman or a misread, small-town pariah. Beneath his stoic vocals lies a resigned alienation that sounds pretty authentic.

You can only make guesses, however, because his lyrics are generally incoherent. Often vocals can be powerfully used as nothing more than an instrument. But in a concept album the narrative is huge and the lyrics are crucial. The better part of Zalewski’s vocals are suspended deep in his esophagus and come out in a colorless, muffled rasp.

There are some problems with the music too. The straightforward folk tunes are a little bland and a couple of the most conventional songs like “Last Laugh” approach John Mellencamp-style generica.

But even these are always saved by an inspiring guitar or mandolin lick out of nowhere. And not only do they save the songs, but they’re a testament to the band’s sheer musical skill. From the ringing harmonicas of “Yodi” to the slow-burn psychedelia of “I’m a Nut” Death Valley Pizza demonstrate that they can alternate genres seamlessly.

Predictably Soundtracks best moments are on tunes that sound like they’re from movies. The big-band weirdness of “I*T*Y*L*Y” has a mythical edge to it and the ethereal instrumental “If Wishes Were Horses” works well as an interlude.

But the best song is “Drama,” which sounds like a cue straight out of a film score. Its sweeping, symphonic melody is densely elegant, gently drifting like a lonely gust of wind over the band’s Desert Valley milieu.

None of the album is as transcendentally emotional as this piece. But despite the inconsistencies to their debut, Death Valley Pizza have to be applauded for their courage. From old-time hootenanny to space travel instrumentals, Soundtracks proves to be a thoroughly interesting, if uneven, affair.

Private Domain, Great Leaders (April 2008)

Legend has it that by the early 80s punk and new wave killed bloated arena rock and revitalized popular music. But over-produced, mainstream rock didn’t die; it actually got bigger. Bands like Genesis, Jefferson Starship, and Journey that were on the cusp of success in 1976 roared through the new decade with a catalog of hits and millions of adoring fans. Their proteges, meanwhile, further deadened mainstream rock into a monotonous crunch of guitar noise. Private Domain, which released its first album in 1985, is a product of that movement.

On their fourth release, Great Leaders, Private Domain marries their corporate rock heritage with an anti-establishment ethos. On the titular opener lead singers Paul Shaffer asks: “Where are the saints and all the great leaders? Why do the good ones have to die so young?” On the third song, “Spiritual Warfare,” he asks, “Why does pleasure bring us pain?” By the middle of the album I’m asking, will this guy ever have anything original to say? Not even close. From “Politix” to “So Comfortable” Shaffers skewers political complacency, televangelists, and plutocracy with the insight you’d hear at an 8th grade current events class.

The corollary to the one-dimensional lyrics is the rudimentary song structure. Hyper-conventional in arrangement, cadence, and instrumentation, Private Domain makes Hootie & the Blowfish look like Kraftwerk. They follow the verse-chorus form religiously while the arc of every song is predictable and uncreative. Musical spontaneity isn’t encouraged either; there is no improvisation on the entire album and almost every song is between 3-4 minutes.

Touches of eclecticism are apparent, however. “Say No (to the Freedom Killers)” and “Two Hits” are reggae tunes. Shades of Widespread Panic-influenced jam band music pepper the LP too. But these qualities are only notable in their unusualness, as Great Leaders never comes close to the heights that their revolutionary message promises.

Todd Snider Concert Review @ The Belly Up (Published by The Reviewer, January 2008)

Walking on stage with a beaming smile and bizarre prisoner-theater garb it was clear that Todd Snider’s concert on January 19th would be an entertaining experience. And entertaining it was.

Snider opened with the novelty song “Statistician’s Blues,” a recitation of statistics that was fairly clever and thoroughly disarming. One would expect the concert to evolve in a serious direction, as Snider would gradually incorporate more substantive songs into his act.

He didn’t. And the show steadfastly followed the opening promise: it remained an act.

Not a bad act either. Snider’s between-song storytelling – both folksy and irreverent – was refreshingly original and evident in his songwriting, especially “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican” (where Snider celebrates his “porn watchin’ lazy-ass hippie lifestyle”). Snider also let some poignant moments in, including the elegiac “DB Cooper” and a Fred Eaglesmith cover.

But the deep moments were few and the joke got old. Almost the entire concert was driven by kitsch appeal, an aesthetic that can only remain fresh if used intermittently among weightier material. Unlike, say, Ben Folds, who balances this dynamic flawlessly, Snider’s homespun tales never achieved the off-kilter Americana that Folds masters.

Not that Snider doesn’t have substantive songs in his repertoire. “Feel Like Fallin’ in Love,” “Lonely Girl,” and the excellent George Bush satire “You Got Away With It” all showcase his artistic talents. But Snider eschewed these songs in favor of jocular ditties, playful tunes that aspire to anything more than mere entertainment.

Ween, La Cucaracha (Novemeber 2007)

Most musician-comedians are just that; musicians that happen to be funny (e.g. the Violent Femmes) or comedians that are musically inclined (e.g. Stephen Lynch).

Ween is one of those rare bands that jettisons those limitations. A genuinely alt-rock band that formed in the 80s, they integrate comedy and music fluidly, without getting the feeling that the music is a vehicle for their comedy (or vica versa).

The corollary to their original approach is their wild eclecticism. On La Cucaracha Ween effortlessly leap from country jams to Elton John ballads, prog rock to smooth jazz.

“Friends” is a faux-synth ditty that brilliantly captures the lyrical vacuousness of moronic dance club music not by aggressively satirizing it but by merely repeating lyrics you would hear on any DJ Sammy album (Examples include: "A friend is a friend who knows what being a friend is" and "Friends in life are special/ Do you want me as your special friend?").

The heavy metal song "My Own Bare Hands" reaches Spinal Tap heights of idiocy using the same template as "Friends" with a minor alteration: making the dumb a little dumber. (Fred Durst-like poetry include "She's gonna be my cock professor studying my dick/ She's gonna get her master's degree in fucking me.”)

“Spirit Walker” is the best prog-rock joke since Kiss recorded a concept album. The song is a hilariously affected sci-fi parable about finding emotional connection with a robot. Like many other songs throughout the album the music itself is integral to the humor, with the muted noises of space equipment complementing the hackneyed, grandiose lyrics.

“Your Party”, the last song on the album, employs the same techniques. The natural apogee to La Cucaracha, an exaggerated synth-sax wails in the background while an aging yuppie lists a series of bland anecdotes about the cocktail party he attended.

The song encapsulates the genius of Ween: the lack of hyperbole in their parody, acutely subtle observations that refreshingly skewer bad genres, and music that creates humor itself.

Raising Sand, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (November 2007)

The recent collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss surprised many due to the singers ostensible differences. Plant is the libidinous ex-Led Zeppelin showman with a volcanic growl; Krauss is the bluegrass singer/fiddler known for her tender, solemn harmonies.

I wasn't too surprised though. Zep's best songs were sophisticated semi-acoustic tunes ("Over the Hills and Far Away," "That's the Way") and Plant demonstrated in his solo career that he could mellow out without compromising his credibility. Krauss, meanwhile, is known for her wide-ranging vocal talents and genre-transcending skills, alternating from country to bluegrass to folk.

So naturally I thought this experiment would work. The laid-back mysticism of Plant would integrate seamlessly with the mildly haunting soprano of a southern siren like Krauss, the duo would luring you from the steps of a rustic, antebellum mansion.

My thesis failed.

First off Raising Sand appears lazy. There are no original songs on the album, meaning Plant's excellent, oblique lyrics would not be incorporated. Krauss, meanwhile, would not be forced to leave her comfort zone as the songs – mainly rootsy standards – suited her usual repertoire.

Now turn on the album and listen through. There is not one memorable riff, instrumental improv, or rhythmic transition. This may be the point – the album is about the singer not the song – but the stripped down effect just makes the album feel more watered-down rather than skeletal.

But this album is about the singers, right? It's not that the two fail to artistically gel; it's just that neither seems to be trying. Current single "Gone Gone Gone", a rare upbeat tune, never builds any authentic tension. "Please Read the Letter" typifies the entire album: Plant's uninspired muttering and Kruass wordlessly harmonizing against the insipid backdrop of aimless fiddle and guitar noodling.

Raising Sand isn't a total failure. The general inoffensiveness of the LP make it endurable and some songs (“Nothin’”, “Trampled Rose”) are at least pleasant-sounding. But the album's subtlety is overdone, making the songs feel more self-effacing than intimate.

Mason Jennings Concert Review @ The Belly Up (November 2007)

            Dressed in a drab t-shirt and blue jeans, Mason Jennings let his warm baritone and subtle guitar playing color November 5th’s concert at the Belly-Up.  “Adrien,” off the singer’s third LP Century Spring, began his performance.  The song’s solemn yet affirming mood set the tone for the remainder of the night: understated instrumentation and wistful lyrics of nature, God, and life that managed to sound distinctive.

            A cover of Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” bisected the set.  The fact that the tune was recorded before most Belly Up patrons were born was self-evident; it was the only song no one sang along to.  Nonetheless it provided one of the most poignant moments of the night.  The bucolic imagery, and plaintive delivery of Young’s tune morphed seamlessly with the minimalist aesthetic of Jenning’s performance.

            Young’s impulse to “buy a pick-up/ take it down to LA” also fit in with a surprising theme of the night: California.  Jennings’ (a Minnesotan) paeans to our state included “California” and “Big Sur,” luminous songs that drifted off into imagery-rich, pantheistic introspection.

            The concert was not an unadulterated triumph however.  Jennings was totally solo: just him, his guitar, and the occasional harmonica.  Although the asceticism of the night sometimes led to greater intimacy Jennings could have used backing musicians.  I saw him in Santa Cruz last June, complete with a bassist and keyboardist.  The additional musicians fleshed out his sparse sound, compelling the crowd to head-bob and even mosh-pit for one brief moment.

            At Solana Beach the crowd was certainly pleased with the performance but not enraptured.  The full spectrum of emotions displayed by the Santa Cruz audience was limited to one on Monday night: quiet admiration.

            Still, the show was certainly a success.  Stylistically Jennings does nothing remarkable, but his slurry, conversational vocals and unaffected poetry provide a refreshing antidote to the frat-folk of bores like Jack Johnson.

            Michael McDermott opened for Jennings.  His throaty, extremely emotive vocals reminded me of the anthemic roots-rock of early Bruce Springsteen, circa 1974.

Monday, December 15, 2008