Music Review: Pearl Jam’s “Backspacer”

Originally posted 2009-09-21 22:41:46. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

This most recent Pearl Jam release is aptly titled; in many ways, Backspacer is closer in focus and energy to Ten than any of their more recent efforts.

Most reviews have wasted little time in pointing out that this album holds the band’s record for brevity — 37 minutes from the first guitar strum to the final vocal fade.  This can, of course, be interpreted in one of two ways, the worst case scenario being that the album was hurriedly prepared and produced.

This could not be further from the truth.

Backspacer is a strong, purposeful album comprised of eleven very upbeat, very direct tracks that leave little room for the listener to catch his breath over the record’s half hour span.  For the most part, these tight, three minute tracks are energizing and satisfying, catchier and cooler than anything Eddie Vedder and company have turned out in a long time.

This is, of course, a mixed bag.  After all, short, to-the-point pop rock is fun when done properly — which, by the way, it certainly is here.  Still, the electric soundscapes of 2000’s Binaural and the distortion-drenched protest of 2002’s Riot Act were excellent installments in the Pearl Jam catalog, even if their respective values have been minimized by critics who seemed more concerned with comparing them to early releases like Ten and Vs.

It should be noted that 2006’s Pearl Jam lacked cohesiveness as an album, although several songs on that release are among the best of their career (“World Wide Suicide” or “Marker in the Sand,” anyone?).  This eponymous release is an album of wild energy and abandon, which works particularly well in the first half of the track listing.  That being said, Vedder rips his vocal chords to shreds in his effort to sing without holding any emotion or effort in reserve.  This works well in some places, and yet crackles to pieces in others.

Pearl Jam's "Backspacer" (2009)

On Backspacer, Vedder has somehow been able to amp up his emotions and energy, and yet his vocals stand out as some of the best of any Pearl Jam recording to date.  Some songs, like the opener “Gonna See My Friend,” harken back to the roughly shouted vocals of Pearl Jam.  Most, however, feature Vedder at his best.

The opening track is also notable for a strumming pattern that is evocative of some mid-1950s Chuck Berry-esque riffing — with a decidedly grunge rock twist to it, of course.  “Gonna See My Friend” is a catchy track but certainly does not stand out among the other excellent album starters of their career.

From the first millisecond of “Got Some,” there is suddenly evidence that this might be an excellent album.  Jeff Ament’s collaboration with Vedder is a nice addition to the other outstanding Ament contributions — think: “God’s Dice,” “Ghost,” and “Low Light;”  if you’re really kind, forget “Pilate.”  The best part of “Got Some” is that, by the time it has finished, you haven’t even heard the single yet.

“The Fixer” comes next, a tour-de-force taken on very convincingly by Vedder.  I have vacillated about three or four times a day since I picked up the album on Sunday, and I’m still not certain whether I like “Got Some” or “The Fixer” better.  I suppose I’ll just have to keep listening…

As the album continues, there are other rockers performed at breakneck speed (“Johnny Guitar,” “Supersonic”), as well as considerably slower, more instrospective numbers (“Just Breathe,” “The End”).  These latter tracks were clearly influenced by Vedder’s recent solo project, writing and recording the soundtrack for the Sean Penn film Into the Wild.  The fingerpicking patterns that open these songs are reminiscent of his solo tracks, yet these songs clearly show the progress Vedder has made in such a short time, particularly in terms of structure.

For once, I am forced to agree with Rolling Stone‘s assessment of this album.  Their four star rating is a simple means of stating that Backspacer is an excellent album, but not a masterpiece.  From track 6 to “The End,” the album takes some repeated listening to really be appreciated.  At first, I felt that some of these tracks were too tight and traditional to ever truly stand out.  As I’ve listened, more and more of these songs have stood out, like the soaring “Amongst the Waves” and the excellent “Speed of Sound” (listen to Vedder’s vocals in the first few lines as he momentarily invokes Leonard Cohen).

Backspacer may not be the next Ten, but it is silly to even entertain that desire.  (If you read music reviews in the major magazines, you wouldn’t know it though!)  What this release does offer is an energetic, cohesive Pearl Jam album — and that, for me, has always been more than enough.

The Weekend Review New Music Report: 2010 Edition

Originally posted 2011-01-17 10:00:06. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

In the past, before the Weekend Review was officially a segment on the Laptop Sessions blog and my articles had the oh-so-clever title of “Music Review” — and I know, I know, “the Weekend Review” isn’t all that much more clever — I have been accused of writing reviews that were positive to a fault.

This may well be true, as I have found it challenging these past couple years to define and refine my voice as a music critic who is also a singer/songwriter.  After all, it has been difficult to find a comfortable middle ground between praising music simply because someone labored over it and pointing out flaws to bring others down a notch.

Being an “amateur” has allowed me the opportunity and relative privacy to hone my craft.

I’ve come a long way from the every-so-often, knee-jerk nature of my early “CD Reviews,” articles that I typed and saved on my computer long before the Fusco-Moore Productions blog — now known as the Laptop Sessions blog — was launched.  I’ve also come a significant way since the aforementioned “Music Reviews.”  And, I’d like to think that I’ve progressed as a writer over the past year of “Weekend Reviews.”

So, this being my fifty-second and final Weekend Review of 2010, I decided to dedicate it to laying out a table of contents of sorts for the fifty-four reviews I’ve written this year (including “Yes, No, Maybe So?” one-sentence reviews).  They’re arranged below in descending order from my one five-star rating down to my handful of one-star reviews.

What it all amounts to is a lot of music from a diverse range of artists that run the genre gamut.  The one common denominator here, the one solid link between all subjects of the Weekend Review, is the presence of the singer/songwriter.  With the exception of a couple of cover song albums, these are albums of original music released in 2010.

The best I can offer as an overall statement for the year’s music is that this was, overall, an excellent year for new music.  The range tended to follow the bell curve (1 five star, 14 four stars, 23 three stars, 13 two stars, and 3 one stars), but this should not undercut the fact that there were fourteen very strong, interesting, entertaining albums released this year.

In all fairness, what the year was lacking was any albums that really blew everything else out of the water.  Although several have argued this point with me, I do not hesitate a moment to give All in Good Time (BnL) the full five-star nod.  That being said, I do not consider it their best album, not by a long shot.

So, where does that leave us?

In my opinion, it leaves 2010 as a very strong year with at least fifteen strong reasons to buy new albums, but it also leaves a gap for those attuned to and awaiting the next, best classic albums for the ages.

I hope you’ll check back for my final post (at least for a while) on the blog tomorrow and that you’ll consider checking some of these albums out while they’re still available on the ever-increasingly trend- and contempo-centric CD shelves.

54 New Albums, 2010: Arranged in descending order of star ranking (out of 5).

All in Good Time (Barenaked Ladies) – 5 stars
Bad Books (Bad Books) – 4.5 stars
Be in Love (Locksley) – 4 stars
Broken Bells (Broken Bells) – 4 stars
Heaven is Whenever (The Hold Steady) – 4 stars
Kaleidoscope Heart (Sara Bareilles) – 4 stars
Lonely Avenue (Ben Folds & Nick Hornby) – 4 stars
Mines (Menomena) – 4 stars
Mojo (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) – 4 stars (4.5 w/o “Candy” & “Takin’ My Time”)
Night Work – (Scissor Sisters) – 4 stars
Sea of Cowards (The Dead Weather) – 4 stars
Suburba – House of Heroes – 4 stars
The Grand Theatre Volume One (Old 97’s) – 4 stars
The Suburbs (Arcade Fire) – 4 stars
Volume Two (She & Him) – 4 stars
A Postcard from California (Al Jardine) – 3.5 stars
A Singer Must Die (Steven Page with the Art of Time Ensemble) – 3.5 stars
American Slang (The Gaslight Anthem) – 3 stars
American VI: Ain’t No Grave (Johnny Cash) – 3 stars
As I Call You Down (Fistful of Mercy) – 3.5 stars
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (Brian Wilson) – 3.5 stars
Brothers (The Black Keys) – 3.5 stars
Dark Night of the Soul (Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse) – 3.5 stars
Death to False Metal (Weezer) – 3 stars
Destroyer of the Void – (Blitzen Trapper) – 3.5 stars
Easy Wonderful (Guster) – 3 stars
Everything Under the Sun (Jukebox the Ghost) – 3.5 stars
High Violet (The National) – 3.5 stars
How to Destroy Angels (How to Destroy Angels) – 3 stars
Hurley (Weezer) – 3.5 stars
Light You Up (Shawn Mullins) – 3 stars
Lo-Fi for the Dividing Nights (Broken Social Scene) – 3 stars
Page One (Steven Page) – 3.5 stars
Sigh No More (Mumford & Sons) – 3.5 stars
Something for the Rest of Us (Goo Goo Dolls) – 3.5 stars
Stone Temple Pilots (Stone Temple Pilots) – 3.5 stars
To The Sea (Jack Johnson) – 3 stars
Transference (Spoon) – 3.5 stars
Court Yard Hounds (Court Yard Hounds) – 2.5 stars
Crazy for You (Best Coast) – 2.5 stars
Eureka (Rooney) – 2 stars
Everything Comes and Goes (Michelle Branch) – 2 stars
Familial (Philip Selway) – 2.5 stars
Forgiveness Rock Record (Broken Social Scene) – 2 stars
Heligoland (Massive Attack) – 2 stars
Infinite Arms (Band of Horses) – 2 stars
National Ransom (Elvis Costello) – 2 stars
Realism (Magnetic Fields) – 2.5 stars
Women & Country (Jakob Dylan) – 2.5 stars
Write About Love (Belle & Sebastian) – 2.5 stars
Y Not (Ringo Starr) – 2.5 stars
100 Miles from Memphis (Sheryl Crow) – 1.5 stars
Clapton (Eric Clapton) – 1 star
Interpol (Interpol) – 1 star

CD Review: Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust”

Originally posted 2008-06-26 13:34:57. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

RATING:  2 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

I had read many reviews of this album long before I ever listened to it, and they were all good. They weren’t simply good reviews. Rather, Rolling Stone among others made this out to be the most incredible Springsteen album in years, if ever. Thus, my expectations were high when I bought Devils and Dust late one night and eagerly cranked it up for my half hour drive home.

The first track—the title track—is a nice start to a dark album, but I found myself disappointed quickly. Perhaps it was because I expected more upbeat songs, a la The Rising. Or perhaps it was because I was driving home with the windows open, cool breeze in my face, and I was having trouble hearing what Springsteen was singing. Whatever the reason, I quickly became disappointed with the release and told my friends why I thought it was overrated.

While I have not decided to declare this a veritable masterpiece that I initially overlooked, I must admit that my opinion of the album has softened with time. What helped to change my mind was viewing the DVD side of this DualDisc release. While the stripped-down nature of the studio recordings initially turned me off—and I usually have nothing against bare bones recordings—his live, solo acoustic performances allowed me to hear the songs for themselves, independent of my initial expectations. Springsteen appeared Dylan-esque, complete with acoustic guitar and harmonica rack. I loved “Devils and Dust” all the more here for its directness, for its simplicity. Suddenly, it was as though he was singing an old folk song—a well-written, dark yet catchy number. “Long Time Comin’” stood out to me again, having been one of my favorite album tracks.

There was something in Springsteen’s commentary in between songs that captured my interest and sparked my respect for the man. He seemed to be legitimately interested in writing minimalist songs as personal narratives both autobiographical and fictional. “Reno” is the perfect example of this captivating and revolting blend between the real and the conjured, the noble and the pitiful that he is able to weave together so well. In the best songs on this album, Springsteen exposes a subtle poetic sensibility that lends credibility and interest to his work. In subsequent listenings, I have found myself most taken in by these occasionally vivid and descriptive turns of phrase.

Still, I don’t quite understand some of the choices he made for the songs on this album. For instance, why did he sing the penultimate track, “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” in the odd, cracked voice manner that he did? Furthermore, why did he choose some of the subject matter that he did? What are the Matamoros Banks and would it make a difference if we knew? After all, I wonder why he would sing such a pretty song about a place that I have difficulty relating to, even after he has described it through his song. These are the moments — hearing him sing in unusual manners for no apparent reason and memorializing specific places that I have difficulty understanding the importance of — that I wonder what is so masterful about this album. It is a decent album, to be sure, and contains some good songs, but it is more of a return to roots than a step forward.

For all that I am impressed with the earthiness of the songs, the fervent attention to immortalizing the devils and the dust, I am still most in awe of a song like “Jesus Was An Only Son.” For its interesting depiction of an oft-discussed historical figure/son of God/son of man, for its flowing tune, and for its haunting organ riffing in the background, I wonder what the album would have been like if as much attention had been paid to the other tracks.

While its slow, gritty ballads pay homage to its namesake, I can’t help but note that if the album had been comprised of “Devils and Dust”’s and “Jesus Was An Only Son”’s, I may have called it masterful.

2005