The Weekend Review: February 2012 Report

Originally posted 2012-05-28 12:24:57. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Go Fly A Kite (Ben Kweller)

Released: February 7, 2012

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Jealous Girl” & “Mean to Me”

When I saw Ben Kweller open for the Barenaked Ladies a couple years ago, I was floored by this performer who managed to blend a wide variety of influences and crossed the genre lines while maintaining a coherent, high adrenaline rock show.  For months afterward, as I picked up his albums, I struggled and largely failed to find anything to match what I had experienced live.  Now, with Go Fly A Kite, Kweller has finally recorded an album that properly expresses all his strengths, alternating between electric rockers and softer acoustic tracks, all the while maintaining a power pop energy that works to his strengths.  Mainstream music critics will largely ignore this album.  Nicholas Moffitt of VZ Magazine went so far as to call it “likeable,” but not before qualifying even this statement with “fans of Kweller and power pop.”  Is Go Fly A Kite the next great rock album?  I’m not arguing that, but it is one of the few albums in recent memory that relies only upon instrumentation and vocals for its energy.  There are no computer tricks employed here: only good, old-fashioned human performance.  There isn’t a clunker in the bunch, and the track listing steadily unfolds larger ideas and themes (not to mention the diorama-style CD packaging, which is one of the most imaginative I’ve seen).  Forget Moffitt’s qualification: if you’re a fan of rock and upbeat, energetic music, Ben Kweller’s latest is a must-hear.

 

 

 

Kisses on the Bottom (Paul McCartney)

Producer: Tommy LiPuma

Released: February 7, 2012

Rating: 2 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “My Valentine” & “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”

A confession before I commence: I’m admittedly predisposed to a bad taste in the mouth upon hearing a well-established artist has decided to record an album of covers.  (I know, I know: I write reviews predominantly for a cover songs music video blog.  But, to be fair, we post them for free and for practice in between our regularly-scheduled albums of originals.)  A brief history of just a few of the cover albums that should compel a roll of the eyes: Michael McDonald’s Motown (2003) and the following year’s oh-so-creatively titled Motown Two, all five volumes of Rod Stewart’s The Great American Songbook series (2002-2005, 2010), and perhaps the most disappointing fall into the valley of covers: Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson, a follow-up to 2001’s excellent Reptile album, followed in 2010 by a disappointing album of covers – Clapton – masquerading as his latest solo album.  So, when it comes to albums of this ilk, I approach with caution.  In this case, it is not so much that McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom is a bad album.  It clearly is a very well-thought-out, passionately rendered record.  And yet, on the heels of a string of masterful solo releases – Chaos & Creation in the Backyard (2005) and Memory Almost Full (2007) being probably the best of his career – this collection of traditional pop could do little else than fall short after five years without a new McCartney album.  For what they are, the songs are really done quite well.  It is clear from interviews with McCartney and his producer Tommy LiPuma that this was a labor of love, and it was even revealed that he held off on this project out of desire to avoid any allegations of jumping on the covers train (he even referenced Stewart’s Songbook series).  In the end, the clear standout is “My Valentine,” which just so happens to be one of two McCartney originals on the record.  Coincidence?  I think not.  He has referenced his next album as being along the same vein as the Foo Fighters’ analog, garage rock Wasting Light (2011), so I and others like me can rest easy on that.

 

 

 

Deep Space [EP] (Eisley)

Producer: Eisley

Released: February 14, 2012

Rating:  2.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Lights Out” & “Laugh It Off”

This pretty much fits the archetype of the EP: not bad, not great, just a little something to fill the silence between records.  If you enjoyed last year’s outstanding The Valley, then you’ll most likely enjoy Deep Space [EP].  Or, you could save yourself the five bucks and return to The Valley for more songs and a more fulfilling experience.

 

 

 

 

Sounds from Nowheresville (The Ting Tings)

Producer: Jules De Martino

Released: February 24, 2012

Rating:  4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Hang It Up” & “Guggenheim”

Don’t let the modern production qualities fool you: there is more here than the extensive list of “engineers” and “mixers” in the credits would have you believe.  The critics have called the Ting Tings out for this and any number of other criticisms: the album is too short, too frivolous, inane, etc.  What they have missed – and what most tracks on Sounds from Nowheresville have to offer – is energy and ambition, subtle touches in the harmonies beyond what is more readily apparent in the synthesized sounds, not to mention the centrality of Katie White’s guitar (yes, that is a real instrument in the mix and it is the female lead singer playing it; if only for that, I have reason to respect this album).  “Hit Me Down Sonny” and “Hang It Up” are as bright, cool, and catchy as you would expect, and yet other tracks like the passionately delivered “Guggenheim” and the tender, acoustic-based “Day to Day” and “Help” express the range the band has to offer.  While this is definitely not a development I would have expected, I have to admit that the Ting Tings have put out one of what will probably be the best albums of the year.

 

 

 

Rooms Filled With Light (Fanfarlo)

Released: February 28, 2012

Rating:  3.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Shiny Things” & “Lenslife”

On Rooms Filled With Light, Fanfarlo have done a nice job of bringing a certain bright quality to the domain of oft-introspective synthesized music.  Aside from channeling a bit too much Ric Ocasek in his vocals at times, Simon Balthazar and company have recorded and sequenced a cohesive and purposeful record that boasts elements of artistic intention while maintaining pop-ready hooks, riffs, and overall production quality.

The Weekend Review: March 2011 Report

Originally posted 2011-06-05 23:45:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

March 2011 was one of those months (at least in new music news) that make other months pale in comparison.  As you flip through the albums highlighted below, I hope you’ll find something to catch your attention.  With a couple notable exceptions, there were more quality releases unveiled in March than probably will be unveiled for the rest of the year.  This is not to suggest that there aren’t more positive reviews coming — because there are a couple of very positive ones — but it should be taken to suggest that there are mediocre reviews coming in more than equal ratio to what you’ll find below.  So, enjoy, and I’ll hope to see you back soon!

The Baseball Project, Vol. 2
The Baseball Project  

Producer:

 

Released:
March 1, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Buckner’s Bolero” & “Don’t Call Them Twinkies”

For the follow-up to a low-key, sports-themed side project, High and Inside is an entertaining and educational album that demonstrates an impressive range, musically as well as in terms of baseball trivia.  Thus, the Baseball Project lives up to its name, a largely straight-up rock album heavy on lyrics and smooth, lush harmonies.

The bouncy brightness of tracks like “Chin Music” (the song which contains the title in its lyrics, celebrating the use of “chin music” as a strategy) contrasts with the contemplative, sober feel of such songs as “Here Lies Carl Mays” and “Buckner’s Bolero” (a brilliant study in the art of the what-if).  Meanwhile, songs like “1976” sound like they could have been ripped off a jangly sixties LP, while others like “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” provide clear signposts that this is a modern record.  Guest vocalist Craig Finn’s lead performance on the latter track is a highlight of the album.  Bringing every bit of the lyricism and nearly-spat-out vocal delivery of his Hold Steady recordings, Finn unrolls a passionate appeal via an intimately thorough review of Twins’ history.  This is perhaps what works so well on the record, what translates so well: each member is clearly fervently invested in a baseball team.

The range of teams, time periods, and perspectives represented across Volume 2: High and Inside is impressive, and along with the range of styles employed, ensures the success of the collection as a complete thought.  All told, the songs cover a broad array while also driving home the suggestion that there is simply too much trivia, too many stories, to ever be told in one or two volumes.  There is something here for everyone, whether you enjoy the subtly tongue-in-cheek romp “Panda and the Freak,” the gorgeous acoustic balladry in “Pete Rose Way,” the intimate sing-along “Fair Weather Fans,” the overly serious tone of “Tony (Boston’s Chosen Son),” the hero celebration of “Ichiro Goes to the Moon,” the cocky strut of “The Straw that Stirs the Drink” (balanced brilliantly with the background singers), or the quasi-humorous warning “Look Out Mom.”

All told, High and Inside defies expectations for this sort of side project, and  is in fact one of the strongest efforts of the year.

 

The Valley
Eisley  

Producer:
Gary Leach, Austin Deptula, Eisley

 

Released:
March 1, 2011

Rating:
4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Ambulance” & “I Wish”

Apparently, for both Eisley and Noah and the Whale, the third time around is the charm.  Both bands have delivered strongly defined, carefully developed #3 efforts, Eisley’s being marked for its seamless integration of pensive vocals and foundational piano textures with electric guitar and drums that elevate The Valley to the full status of rock album.

There are slower songs to be certain, “Kind” being perhaps the most subdued, but most songs have sort of edge.  There is “Mr. Moon,” a song that starts out quietly but soon builds into a full pace multi-vocal attack, or the gorgeously moody closer “Ambulance,” which builds from solo piano ballad into a full-on arena rock-worthy epic chorus.

Overall, The Valley is more than listener-friendly, offering catchy choruses and upbeat verses, yet also very ambitious, particularly on songs like the title track where strings are added and vocals are layered upon vocals.  Sara Barreilles-worthy piano tracks like “Watch It Die” are juxtaposed with riff-ridden songs like “Sad.”  Just when the mood drops, as on “Better Love,” Eisley returns with a beautiful, charged song like “I Wish.”

All in all, the attention to production and arrangement makes The Valley one of the year’s strongest releases and yet another reason why March was such an impressive new music month.

 

Collapse Into Now
R.E.M. 

Producer:
Jacknife Lee & R.E.M.

Released:
March 7, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Uberlin” & “All the Best”

When, prior to March 7, I read several headlines referring to Collapse Into Now as a return to R.E.M.’s “classic” sound, I was less than enthusiastic.  After all, I have yet to find an album from anywhere remotely near to their aforementioned classic period that I would unflinchingly award with five stars. 

There can be no denying that they created a sound that one might argue – without exaggeration – created a standard for and perhaps pioneered the alternative rock genre: crunchy guitars, interesting but not overly complicated bass and drums, and stark vocals only ever lightly supported.  In short, they stripped away the frills, riffs, and accents that had edged toward being overvalued in popular music before they entered the scene.  However, 2008’s Accelerate was a return to life from their mid-nineties to early-2000s wasteland of often spineless adult contemporary “rock,” a period that was peppered with some incredible songs and yet few strong albums.  Accelerate truly rocked with raw vocals and riffs and didn’t stop for a breath across eleven tracks.

To lose all that sounded less like a slogan in support of the record and more like an ominous warning to lower my expectations.

Not so.

Collapse Into Now somehow manages to combine the defining features of their earlier sound with the vitality they had regained in 2008.  As is always impressive in a band that has spanned three decades with recognizable music, this latest release offers up songs for the ages, such as “Uberlin,” a track that will surely be included on any decent R.E.M. essential collection going forward from here.  Their sense of rawness and humor is still very much intact, as evidenced on “Mine Smell Like Honey,” while tracks like the adjacent “Walk It Back” recall the most tender moments of their career.

What restricts Collapse Into Now, what limits its ultimate appeal, can be heard in the flatness of the repetition in the lead single, “Discoverer.”  Additionally, there are the moments of experimentation, particularly in the latter half, as in “Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter” and the closer “Blue.”  These moments of divergence from the model established earlier on the record waver occasionally in their entertainment value (read: lack of attention to attention spans) and, less often, their intellectual value, and yet this is also one of the more promising aspects of the release.  After all, it would be all too easy to fall into the “classic” groove and churn out a predictable release without much risk involved, without vigor required.  Instead, we have the living, breathing Collapse Into Now.

 

No Color
The Dodos
 

Producer:
John Askew

Released:
March 15, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Companions” & “Don’t Try and Hide It”

The Dodos, on their new disc No Color, cleverly walk the line between instrumental immediacy and more predictable riffing.  The ultimate result is a potentially trance-inducing nine-track sequence of acoustic music that creates mood through a responsive attention to subtleties and an elusive lyrical approach. 

As evidenced by tracks like “Good,” the Dodos are comfortable leaping from restrained to frenzied, sometimes without much warning prior to the transition.  This is good, as all but two of the nine tracks on No Color stretch past the four minute mark, the second and third songs clocking in at six minutes each.  This sort of time commitment to songs that lack clear, catchy choruses to act as anchors must needs be balanced by some other factor; in this case, it is a sensitivity to mood that modulates several times per song, adjusted with the introduction of keys and strings, as in tracks like “Sleep.”

I’m not certain whether they released a single, but if they did, it should certainly have been “Don’t Try and Hide It,” the closest they come to a song that will get stuck in your head.  Still, it is “Companions” that easily springs to the fore when deciding on the most textured, instrumentally impressive, and, frankly, beautiful track.

Overall, No Color is a finely sequenced and intelligently balanced disc that will spin and spin (or digital album that will… play and play?) without triggering a desire for more: my vote for best pleasant-trance-inducing music of the year.

 

Last Night on Earth
Noah & the Whale
 

Producer:
Charlie Fink & Jason Lader

Released:
March 7, 2011

Rating:
4.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Tonight’s the Kind of Night” & “Give It All Back”

Every so often, an album comes along that I didn’t expect, one like Noah and the Whale’s third album Last Night on Earth, and blows me away.  Before March 7, I didn’t even know they were a band.  Truth be told, I was drawn in by their album cover: retro to be certain, yet just artful enough to be eye-catching.

Sonically, listening to Last Night on Earth is like jumping in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and getting off circa the first Back to the Future film when rock still ruled, though it was synthesizer-drenched and put a premium on experimenting with new technologies over the basic set of real instruments.  Vocally, Charlie Fink sounds like the latest “new Dylan,” or perhaps a “new Petty,” and the overall aura of the album might draw “new Springsteen” references, as well.

Regardless of these throwback references, Noah and the Whale is a truly authentic force, lyrically a product of no other time but our own.  The figure in “Life is Life” may throw “his back onto the back” of an “eighties car,” but it is “run down,” and ultimately, it is a bus that transports the boy in “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” to a land of opportunity “where everything could change.”

As on “Old Joy,” the past is celebrated in some ways, though the point is less nostalgia than a warning to “Forget the things that get away / Don’t dream of yesterday.”  Photos kept in drawers reveal “bad hair cuts” and cigarettes, poor decisions from past lives, along with memories of being “a lustless romantic trying hard to impress.”  In putting this latter sentiment into words and song, as in so many ways, this album is, as Fink would say, a “victory for the kids who believe in rock and roll.”

Some might write off the more buoyant tracks like “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.,” but if they do they will miss Joey’s “black and blue body” and brandy-drinking “rock and roll survivor” Lisa going “down on almost anyone.”  In a very dark – and perhaps a very real – way, this track is about cutting ties with regret and being at peace with life as it is.  Fink adeptly slips in a note that “to a writer / the truth is no big deal,” as if inviting us to reimagine our own pasts, or at least to believe in the “the kind of night where everything could change.”

If only for the 33 minutes across which this feels possible, Last Night on Earth achieves something special through well-written tracks aptly performed and carefully arranged: all through rock and roll, albeit rock that conjures the tones of a lost time.  It may not be large-scale enough to reach the heights of last year’s eighties homage (Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs), but in my book Noah and the Whale have twice the imact in half the time.

 

Meyrin Fields
Broken Bells
 

Producer:
Danger Mouse

Released:
March 29, 2011

Rating:
2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Windows” & “An Easy Life”

I’ve been interested in the Broken Bells sound ever since a friend played me the lead single to their debut release.  My respect has climbed with every listen to that album, particularly the ones when I was writing my review last year, picking out the nuances and influence-blending that make Broken Bells such a subdued yet brilliant project. 

This being said, although I was clearly one of the first to be excited by the prospect of four new songs from Danger Mouse and James Mercer, sometimes it pays to wait until an album’s worth of top-notch tracks are prepared.  And, as much as I detest the perpetuators of this repackaging ploy, the four tracks on the Meyrin Fields EP would have made for very strong bonus tracks attached to Broken Bells.

As a work unto themselves, they fall short of highly listenable.  And, clocking in at under twelve minutes, this “EP” plays more like a two-for-one single release.  (Or, to more precisely represent the price point, a two-for-two single release.)  The title track begins with grit and attitude, yet relaxes into essentially the same groove for three minutes.  “Windows,” easily the standout, adds a funky bass line to the usual mix and several segments.  “An Easy Life” is perhaps the most reminiscent of Broken Bells (2010), which is a good thing indeed, while “Heartless Empire” clearly deserves its place, last on this release.

 

Rolling Papers
Wiz Khalifa
 

Producers:
Stargate, Jim Jonsin, Benny Blanco, I.D. Labs, Papa Justifi, Oak, King David, Bei Maejor, Noel “Detail” Fisher, Lex Luger

Released:
March 29, 2011

Rating:
2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Black and Yellow” & “Fly Solo”

Rarely has an album with such a well-attuned balance between inventive sounds and pop mentalities been layered with such regularly insipid lyrics.  While I still tread lightly in my reviews of the hip hop genre – understanding that I, in my suburban white-breadedness, may never truly relate to the timeless themes of “bitches and champagne,” as Khalifa sings – I simply refuse to believe that an album like Rolling Papers, with its beautiful backing vocals, ambitious arrangements, and hints at more insightful commentary, is not shooting for the lowest common denominator with its constant topical return to hos, weed, and partying.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good song about hos, weed, and partying just as much as the next listener, but when nearly every song is layered thickly with misogynistic, drug-soaked lyricism, I begin to feel numbed to the insensitivity. 

Clearly, Wiz Khalifa has more potential than he is capitalizing on, evidenced by the big, bad swagger of the gorgeously catchy “Black and Yellow” and the acoustic framework of the surprisingly bright power pop track “Fly Solo.”  Of course, he makes good on the double entendre implicit in the title, played out in “Roll Up,” and more fully explicated in a recent Rolling Stone magazine review.

The middle of the album truly dips in quality, though the tracks are musically inventive, including interesting usage of electric guitar and synthesizers on what is perhaps the worst track, “Hopes and Dreams,” second only perhaps to “Star of the Show” and third to “Top Floor.”  “Wake Up” is more likely to induce the opposite reaction, though the middle shows off a vocal sensitivity not present elsewhere.  “The Race” is hardly excellent yet prominently displays Khalifa’s mastery of beats and catchy tunesmithing.

It is, however, the penultimate track, “Rooftops,” that perhaps best hints at Khalifa’s potential when he juggles bald-faced materialism and misogyny with social commentary, listing off his conquests, affecting cocky, yet singing, “Used to not be allowed in the building, now we on the rooftops, rooftops.”

For all the issue I take with the uneven quality of the album, it is bookended well, “When I’m Gone” serving well as the opener and “Cameras” aptly closing the disc.  All in all, Khalifa has my attention, and I can only hope that his next record contains lyrics that are as thoughtful as his musical arrangements.

 

All Eternals Deck
The Mountain Goats
 

Producer:
Brandon Eggleston, John Congleton, Scott Solter, Erik Rutan

Released:
March 29, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Estate Sale Sign” & “Prowl Great Cain”

This album resets the standard for me when I hear terms like “minimalist” and “lo-fi.”  For a professional full-band recording, it is as stripped down as they come, essentially an acoustic guitar, bass, keyboard, and light drums on most tracks.  Rarely do they play at full speed, and when they do, it is rarely all at once.

This understandably “cultivates a space,” opens a gap that, in this case, is filled admirably: lyrically.  In a manner that is rare of modern music, All Eternals Deck places a premium on the words so much as to subjugate the music to them.

As a result, the new Mountain Goats disc is not as eminently listenable and reliably re-listenable as, say, the Decemberists, but the words are clear and strong.  From the vampire metaphor in the opener (that is a metaphor, right?…) to the numerous references which range from Biblical to pop-cultural, the tracks are consistently intellectually engaging, though the minimalism does feel… well, a bit minimal at times.  This is frustrating, as the band is clearly very capable of balancing high-octane performance with engaging communication (see: “Estate Sale Sign”).

Regardless of its shortcomings, All Eternals Deck is a clever, winning collection of performances, and they continue to assert themselves as a thoughtful band.  Having been first introduced to the Mountain Goats via Steven Page’s cover of “Lion’s Teeth,” these tracks have made me all the more interested to find and hear the MG original sooner rather than later.