Archive for the ‘Album Review’ Category
Is that Chris Funk playing pedal steel, Colin Meloy blowing through a harmonica and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings providing backing vocals? Why, yes it is!
After 2009’s concept (rock opera, even) album The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists have taken a complete left-turn to their folk influences and beyond for The King Is Dead. Never before have The Decemberists so thoroughly embraced roots music, particular country. They’ve literally gone to a farm in Oregon to record the album, which plays like one giant breath of fresh air from start to finish.
From the opening notes of “Don’t Carry It All,” the album’s first cut, we know we’re in for something much different with The King Is Dead. John Moen’s drums don’t sound all that different from the ones Kenny Buttrey played on Neil Young’s Harvest, and we’re quickly given a blast of Meloy’s aforementioned harmonica. ”Calamity Song” is another early highlight, with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck offering up his distinctive 12-string electric guitar behind lyrics that are Colin Meloy through and through (“And the Andalusian tribes / Setting the lay of Nebraska alight/ ‘Til all that remain is the arms of the angels”).
Fans of Gillian Welch will be delighted to hear that she contributes backing vocals to 7 of the album’s 10 tracks (of these, 3 also feature Welch’s talented collaborator Dave Rawlings). These backing vocals are far from buried in the mix, as is evidenced on the upbeat “Rox In The Box” and “Down By The Water.” On these and other tracks, Welch is just as audible as Meloy, and the pair’s voices blend together wonderfully.
Some may argue that a reliance on guest appearances cheapens The Decemberists’ roles as individual contributors. However, we have never seen band members jump around on instruments like they do on this album. Guitarist Chris Funk primarily sticks to pedal steel, but also is credited on bouzouki, banjo and electric guitar. Keyboardist Jenny Conlee plays accordion on four tracks and does so with vigor and passion (her contribution to “Rox In The Box” is worth the price of admission). On “This Is Why We Fight,” we hear Colin Meloy shining most brightly as a musician, contributing several guitar parts layered together with great skill. I had never questioned his talents as a singer and songwriter, but this track proves to me that he is also a skilled guitarist to boot.
I’m hesitant to call The King Is Dead the best album The Decemberists have ever done, but it’s definitely my favourite, from the tender ballads to the country rave-ups.
Soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples has had the distinction of working with three performer/producers in the past decade. She contributed three songs to Joe Henry’s terrific 2005 compilation I Believe To My Soul, worked with Ry Cooder on 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, and now in 2010 finds herself paired with her most unlikely producer yet in Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
Indeed, when news first broke that Tweedy would be producing a new Mavis Staples record to be released on Anti-, fans of both artists were probably met either with excitement, intrigue or simple curiosity as to who (in Wilco fans’ case) Mavis Staples is and who (in Mavis Staples’ fans’ case) Jeff Tweedy is.
In reality, the pairing is actually not that unusual. Jeff Tweedy has long been a student and appreciator of roots music, and soul and gospel play an important part of music’s rich history. Perhaps even more obvious is a shared appreciation for the music of The Band. Mavis Staples may not have heard of Wilco or Jeff Tweedy, but when her manager sent her Sky Blue Sky, it had some very familiar qualities to her. Staples was a good friend to The Band, having participated in The Last Waltz’s glorious retelling of “The Weight,” which featured members of The Band as well as The Staple Singers trading verses.
Tweedy could have taken many approaches in his production of You Are Not Alone, but smartly avoided putting too much of his own stamp on the album. He even went so far as to let Staples’ touring band provide most of the musical accompaniment. The song selection is inspired, consisting of traditional gospel songs alongside songs that Tweedy undoubtedly brought to the table; some his own, others from artists who he clearly felt had a place on the album.
You Are Not Alone kicks off with a song written by Mavis Staples’ father Pops and popularized by The Staple Singers. ”Don’t Knock” is delivered in a similar arrangement to versions listeners may have heard before, and the track is highlighted by Mavis’ vocal delivery alongside backing vocals from Neko Case collaborators Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. Hogan and O’Connor do a marvelous job of complementing Staples’ deep, soulful voice with their bright, angelic accents.
From the old we move into the new. Jeff Tweedy wrote “You Are Not Alone” specifically for Staples to sing and the testament to how great a song it is, is that we can hear it both as a Mavis Staples song and a Jeff Tweedy song. Fun fact: Tweedy has put this into his live repertoire at recent solo/acoustic shows and his version sounds terrific. The perfect contrast to the upbeat “Don’t Knock,” “You Are Not Alone” is a slow ballad with a strong message.
Practically every track on You Are Not Alone is top-notch. Other highlights include the traditional “In Christ There Is No East or West,” which is arranged by Tweedy to be played very much in the style of something you might hear on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Listeners hungry for more gospel revivals will enjoy “Creep Along Moses” and “I Belong To The Band.” Tweedy delivers another original composition in “Only The Lord Knows,” more of an upbeat rocker with electric guitar peppered throughout. There’s also a fantastic version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone” that goes so far as to improve upon the original.
As a listener who appreciates both Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples’ contribution to music, I can say this is one of the best albums I’ve had the pleasure of hearing all year. Whether other Wilco or Staples fans will respond to the album as enthusiastically as I have remains to be seen. One thing is certain; we love Tweedy for having the courage and respect to give this project his all, and we love Staples for the very same reasons.
In a recent interview, Bob Dylan discredited the music Johnny Cash made towards the end of his life with producer Rick Rubin, calling it ”notorious low-grade stuff.”
For many, these comments couldn’t be further from the truth and border on the offensive. The music Johnny Cash made with Rick Rubin between 1994 and his death in 2003 are some of the most emotional, personal and earnest the country legend made in his nearly 50-year career.
Country fans and non-country fans alike embraced 1994’s American Recordings, which included solo acoustic renditions of songs by the expected (Kris Kristofferson and Jimmy Driftwood) and the unexpected (Nick Lowe, Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig). The album won Cash the highest critical acclaim he had received in decades, topped off by the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Following American Recordings, Cash released more albums with Rick Rubin at the helm – Unchained, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around. As the albums went on, so too did Cash’s deteriorating health. He was forced to quit live performance shortly after the release of Unchained and his voice became less boisterous and more strained. What didn’t waver was his determination, and Cash took solace making as much music as possible in the recording studio.
American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Johnny Cash album to be released during his lifetime. What many of us didn’t realize was that there would be a huge treasure trove of music left to share with fans after his passing. Fitting, then, that the album should close with “We’ll Meet Again.” Cash may no longer be with us, but his music still resonates.
The first posthumous gift from Johnny Cash came in form of Unearthed, a five-disc box set that collected a large number of outtakes from Cash’s recordings during his tenure with Rubin. These are hardly leftover scraps, but rather songs that simply did not fit on any of the released albums. Next came American V: A Hundred Highways, which was released in 2006 and consisted entirely of recordings Cash made after the release of American IV.
We thought that was it, but just as we thought the well of Johnny Cash’s American recordings had been tapped dry, Rubin has overseen the release of American VI: Ain’t No Grave.
Rather than a sequel to American V, American VI should be treated as a companion piece, as the music comes from the same sessions that yielded its predecessor. Nowhere to be found are the unusual sources like Soundgarden, Depeche Mode or Trent Reznor, whose songs had been featured on earlier American albums. Instead, this album sticks mostly to songs that are country through and through. Among the most successful renditions are “For The Good Times,” the last of many Kris Kristofferson songs recorded by Cash, and “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream,” a hymn to peace composed in the early 1950s by Ed McCurdy.
One of the more unusual song selections comes from Sheryl Crow. Her “Redemption Day” appeared on 1996’s Sheryl Crow and is performed here to great effect.
The album closes with “Aloha Oe,” an age-old Hawaiian folk song that many will recognize. Here it’s performed mostly acoustically with Johnny Cash delivering the Hawaiian and English lyrics in his distinctive baritone. It closes with the line “until we meet again,” closing the circle of farewells that began with American IV: The Man Comes Around. We miss you, Johnny.
If music could be mapped out on a temperature scale, Josh Rouse’s albums would be all over the place, with Under Cold Blue Stars and Nashville on the colder, more autumnal end and 1972 and Subtitulo bright and summery by comparison. If you had any doubts about where El Turista falls on the scale, look no further than the cover, which finds Rouse standing on a rocky coast, looking out at the sea while holding his hat to his head.
Josh Rouse’s career has found him slowly journeying from Nebraska to Tennessee and finally Spain. El Turista is his third album since the move abroad and the first one that really allows Spanish influences to take an active role in its overall sound. Of the album’s ten tracks, four are sung in Spanish, and even those that are in English draw on the influence of Rouse’s surroundings.
Just when Rouse was starting to fall into a pattern where much of his music sounded the same, he has managed to shake things up and diversify. The album opens with the bossa nova-tinged, orchestral “Bienvenido.” It is a short track that sounds like a remarkable piece of film music and flows perfectly into “Duerme.” Rouse keeps the laid-back feeling of the album going and sounds very comfortable singing in Spanish, as bright piano and percussion accompany him. Later, Rouse challenges himself even more on the uptempo “Valencia,” sung in the Catalan dialect (lisps and all).
“Lemon Tree,” which initially appeared on the fan only compilation Bedroom Classics, Vol. 3, appears here in a different arrangement with airy flutes and Spanish guitar. “I Will Live On Islands” is among the most upbeat of the album’s English language tracks, kicking off slowly with a jazzy electric guitar lead before breaking into a very danceable arrangement.
The temperature is warm and breezy on El Turista. That is, until you get the closing track “Don’t Act Tough,” which sounds like an outtake from the melancholy Nashville. Rouse has consistently been able to release solid albums that appease his fans. The difference with El Turista is that he’ll likely be able to attract new ones with a new approach.
Everyone’s favorite “virtual” band is back, and they’ve brought a huge slate of guest stars – from De La Soul and Snoop Dogg to Lou Reed and members of The Clash – along for the ride. I’m speaking, of course, of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s Gorillaz project. They’ve just released Plastic Beach, another wildly entertaining romp through hip-hop, R&B, electronic music, rock and pop.
The third Gorillaz album seems shrouded in this concept of a plastic reality. And while it’s arguable as to whether or not Plastic Beach is a concept album, it certainly starts like one. “Orchestral Intro” is a short piece that simply sets the mood, much like “I Am The Sea” on The Who’s Quadrophenia or “Overture” on Tommy. But unlike those albums, it doesn’t really offer the listener any hint of what’s to come. Gears are shifted completely for “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” with its funky horns, punchy bass, and the distinctive emceeing of Snoop Dogg.
The album really hits its stride with “Stylo,” which incidentally is also the album’s first single. The track perfectly illustrates the collaborative potential of the Gorillaz project, beginning with Mos Def’s distorted hip-hop riffing, into Damon Albarn’s melodic vocals and finally soul legend Bobby Womack, sounding every bit as good as he did on such hits as “Across 110th Street.” Supposedly Womack was encouraged to participate in this project by his daughter, and his flawless contribution to “Stylo” was supposedly improvised on the spot.
The next track, “Superfast Jellyfish,” starts with a 1960s-style breakfast commercial, a fantastic drum part… and De La Soul! In their classic, distinctive style, the hip-hop heroes excitedly tell us about the latest in unusual breakfast treats. Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals takes over for the catchy chorus.
A big part of what makes Plastic Beach such an interesting listen is the number of lead vocalists featured on the album. One of the most intriguing of these is Lou Reed, and his contribution – “Some Kind Of Nature” – doesn’t sound out of place at all, apart from a production style that is unusual for him. Another great voice in more of a conventional sense is Yukimi Nagano, who along with her band Little Dragon, are featured on “To Binge,” another album highlight.
Although most tracks on the album feature guest performers, Damon Albarn has plenty of room to shine. “On Melancholy Hill” is a gorgeous song and a great showcase for his talents as a singer.
Plastic Beach is available in a variety of formats, including a standard CD edition and an “experience” edition that comes with videos and exclusive online content. It’s also available on iTunes in a deluxe edition that includes content not available offline, including a storybook and “Making of Stylo” video.
Check out the official video for “Stylo” over at YouTube. Yes, that’s Bruce Willis.
The debut LP from Music Go Music is a collection of their three previously released EPs. This LA trio is able to capture what pop music does at its best: have fun. Borrowing heavily from disco, and infusing it with a sense of modern-pop, Music Go Music is addictively fun.
I first found them when Carrie Brownstein who writes NPR’s Monitor Mix blog posted a few of their videos.
The nine songs on this LP are all so upbeat, one cannot help but smile when singing along to these songs. “Explorers of the Heart” is the perfect example. If it had been released thirty years ago, this song would’ve been playing in all the dance clubs throughout North America.
“Just Me” is an unbeatable pop song, delivering everything one might want in a good pop song. An extremely catchy chorus, slower verses, allowing the song to build up once more for the chorus, a catchy riff and Gala Ball’s beautiful voice.
Expressions borrows heavily from the past, but Music Go Music add their distinct stamp making this album hugely enjoyable.
R.E.M. fans have had an uneasy decade. When Bill Berry left the band, we held our collective breath and wondered if they could make another great record. Something that could stand with Life’s Rich Pageant or Murmur. Or even Green for that matter. Even die-hard fans (and I’ll confess to being one) have to admit that the last ten years have been a mixed bag. In a series of diminishing returns starting with Up, it seems like Buck, Mills, and Stipe struggled for a long time to find their way. Don’t get me wrong. Up and Reveal, while uneven, both contain some classic tunes. But Around the Sun left most of us (R.E.M. included, evidently) scratching our heads, wondering if they had another great album left in them. Adding to the growing sense of dread was the fact that this once-prolific band had only released three albums of new material and had filled out the in-between years with two greatest hits packages and the first official live release of their career. And then came 2008 and Accelerate, an excellent record and the group’s best since Automatic for the People. It was the record we’d been waiting for since Berry’s departure, proving R.E.M. could still be a great band.
Which is why I was worried when I saw that their follow-up to this modern masterpiece would be… another live album. Coming only two years after the last (rather mediocre) live album felt like a bad omen. Live albums are tricky. There are a few great ones, but most feel like filler. So when I picked up Live at the Olympia, I’ll admit to being skeptical.
Then I saw the track listing and got happy. It’s an incredibly generous offering. The 39 songs are evenly spread out over two discs, and it’s a fantastic set list. Most of Accelerate is here, with the new material nestled among a couple of dozen tunes from the first few R.E.M. records. There are a few obvious choices (“Driver 8” and “So. Central Rain” are the closest things to “hits”), but the bulk of the songs are deep cuts drawn heavily from the IRS years, including several from Chronic Town. There are half a dozen tunes from Reckoning alone, with several songs taken from each of the other IRS records. There are songs taken from some of the Warner Brothers records as well, but these are fewer and farther between. Tellingly, there are no tracks from Green or Out of Time, perhaps signaling the band’s desire to get back to something more primordial in their sonic makeup. I would have been happy with this set list performed in a typical live album.
Then I read the liner notes and played the first disc and got even happier. Leave it to R.E.M. to do something completely new with a live album. Because Live at the Olympia, as the liner notes boldly state, is not a show. It is a live rehearsal, recorded before Accelerate was made, while the new songs were being written and finalized. Before an intimate gathering of fans at Dublin, Ireland’s historic Olympia Theater, R.E.M. held a five-night rehearsal. They fearlessly gave the crowd (and now us) a close-up view of their creative process. As Stipe puts it at one point in the performance, “This is what we do when you’re not around.” And in spite of repeated claims of being “terrified,” the band sounds looser, more confident, and tighter than they have in ages. It’s absolutely thrilling to hear “Wolves, Lower” and “Harborcoat” played with such vigor in 2008. The developing songs from Accelerate sound great, sonically fitting right in between the frantic jangle of early tunes and the powerchord-laden tracks from Monster. There are a couple of new, excellent songs that didn’t make it onto the then-upcoming record (“Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” and “On the Fly”) and an early, chorus-less version of “Supernatural Superserious” (here called “Disguise”). Even the lone representative from Around the Sun (“The Worst Joke Ever”) sounds pretty good when followed by “Welcome to the Occupation.” The big surprise overall is how consistent the songs are from ’80 to ’08 and how easy and natural the transitions are from song like “Disturbance at the Heron House” to “Mr. Richards.”
The liner notes consist primarily of Peter Buck’s comments on every track, which are very funny and insightful. The DVD (not included with every edition but worth the extra few dollars) contains a film with many of the songs. It wouldn’t be a great concert film on its own, but it’s a more than welcome bonus disc in this set. Live at the Olympia should be snatched up by fans of all eras of R.E.M. It’s part document of a work in progress, part great live show you desperately wish you had seen. Mostly it makes me want the next album (in the works and with the same producer at the helm as Accelerate) to come out as soon as possible. I haven’t felt that way about a new R.E.M. record in a long, long time.
One of my all-time favorite performances by Norah Jones is the version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” that she played at the end of her visit to KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic in the winter of 2002. Her debut album, Come Away With Me, had just been released on Blue Note Records two days prior and Jones seemed eager and excited to be sharing some of her new songs with Los Angeles-area listeners and those (like me) who were tuning in online.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it was about Jones’ performance that struck me. Certainly her sophisticated piano playing, rooted in jazz, was memorable, as was her distinctive voice – somehow shy and soulful at the same time. I think what appealed to me the most was the fact that she was a jazz artist who wasn’t afraid to push the envelope. This become clear when listening to Come Away With Me, which drew in jazz, soul and pop influences and expressed them with equal compassion. It also explained the choice of a Bob Dylan song that was more country or folk in its composition than anything else. (“Bessie Smith,” a track from Bob Dylan & The Band’s The Basement Tapes would later join Jones’ live repertoire). Jones could’ve given the song a completely different arrangement, but she retained a lot of the country soul sensibility of the original.
Although Come Away With Me took a few months to ascend the Billboard charts, it eventually led Norah Jones to receive six Grammy Awards. From there, she quickly became an international sensation.
In the years following her initial wave of success, Norah Jones released two additional albums – Feels Like Home (2004) and Not Too Late (2007). Both were commercially successful, though it quickly became clear that Jones was being pigeonholed into the Easy Rock/Adult Contemporary/MOR genres, labels that all overlooked a significant aspect of what the artist was all about.
It’s hard for us as listeners and casual observers to know if Norah Jones sought to shed some of her mainstream reputation with the release of The Fall, but it’s clear from the opening notes of “Chasing Pirates” that the album is a departure from her previous efforts. For one thing, it rocks harder – particularly on tracks like “Young Blood” and “It’s Gonna Be.” More often than not, Jones is playing guitar instead of piano.
The album also has a much darker sound, probably because Jones sought the involvement of Jacquire King, the engineer behind one of her favourite albums: Tom Waits’ Mule Variations. Other collaborators involved in the songwriting or performance of these songs include Ryan Adams, Will Sheff (of Okkervil River), drummer Joey Waronker and guitarist Marc Ribot.
Norah Jones manages to accomplish something new with The Fall without alienating her existing fanbase. Even if listeners are a bit jarred by the racious keyboards and drums of “It’s Gonna Be,” they’ll find familiar territory in tracks like “Light as a Feather,” “Back to Manhattan” and “December.” These ballads are as good as any that Norah has ever done.
It’s well worth the extra $1 or $2 to purchase the deluxe edition of The Fall, which includes six cuts recorded live at the Living Room in New York City, including “It’s Gonna Be,” “Waiting” and “You’ve Ruined Me” as well as covers of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” Johnny Cash’s “Cry Cry Cry” and The Kinks’ “Strangers.”
Toronto favourites Entire Cities just saw the release of their 2008 album, Deep River, on white vinyl. The eight song record wonderfully captures the excitement and raw energy that is an Entire Cities show. Listening to this record, the listener can easily see the large band cramped onto a tiny stage, filling the room with their sound easily.
What might seem at first glance to be a cacophony of instrumentation quickly reveals itself to be a carefully layered sound with each instrument complimenting the next. “Dancing With My Brother,” finds guitar, banjo, violin, bass, drum, and horns all fighting to capture their moment of sunshine, and in this entire mess emerges an incredible country-punk song.
Simon Borer’s gruff voice perfectly matches with Tamara Lindeman’s country-drawl, allowing for the perfect compliment to either the roughest of punk songs that grace side one or the beautiful folk songs that are featured on the second side.
The second side begins with the highlight of this record. The gentle, beautiful and yet heavy “Coffee,” sung by frontman and songwriter Borer along with banjo player Lindeman. The two narrators compete with one another as Borer insists on being there for Lindeman, as she resists any and all advances of Borer’s. “My heart cares not for reason, rhyme or length of time, or breadth of highway,” He sings as she responds “don’t let me catch you waiting, because I ain’t waiting for the likes of you, I pass through the likes of you like water through the grinds and come out the other side, strong but bitter.”
The two sides of Entire Cities seem to work much better on vinyl. With the original CD release, there was a bit of schizophrenia between their two sides of heavy-dancable punk and their beautiful folk songs. With the new vinyl release, there’s a clear-cut difference between the two.
Asthmatic Kitty, 2009
What do Hula-Hoops and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway have in common?
They both offer cheap thrills; they’ve got curves; traveling round and round those curves leads you to nowhere; and for decades they’ve been a muse for American hippies. Finally, one American hippy decided to use it for goodness.
These two, seemingly random items, found each other in Stevens’ mind, hooked up and had a magnificent music baby unlike any of his other spawns.
But there’s more. Open your copy of The BQE and you’ll find a comic book, DVD movie and a 3D slide show, all which succinctly, colourfully, puzzlingly and with plenty of kitsch communicate Stevens’ vision. The intention in this multi-media package is obviously politically heavy or a most enjoyable art history lesson; mixing genres from the second and third quarters of the 20th century like a Tetris game. The juxtapositions are bizarre enough to make metaphors effortless.
From classic to kitsch, clearly there is something for everyone! The BQE consists of enough found random pieces to stand alone as something unique.
From my perspective (someone who doesn’t get all the references, finds this type of art pretentious, and just wants to kick back and listen to some good music), I can only impart that the attached visuals make a great companion when you’ve set your headphones on and fired up a roach. They inspire me only enough to jump off of them like a springboard and create my own interpretation of the sounds.
This album can easily accompany you like the soundtrack to your life while you’re sitting in gridlock on your way to work, walking your dog in the park, and/or floating on a noodle at the local pool (just to name a few).
This transcendence into your soundtracked life is done without words. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the voices of woodwinds, brass and percussion leading me through my day – The Brooklyn Academy of Music joyfully performs on this album. There is much character in the stop-go marching, twist-turn shifting of melodies.
While refreshingly inspiring, please note all 13 tracks would act more favorable towards the day-dreamer on the go than the go-getter with a goal. The randomness of the sounds is enjoyable in background or riveting when focused on finding the common threads within.
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