Addendum to the March 2011 Report: The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2011-07-16 04:30:59. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Well, I somehow missed a brand new album from one of my all-time favorite artists that was released in March.  And I also listened to Lupe Fiasco for the first time, specifically to his album that was released in March.

Thus, I give you the addendum to my March 2011 Weekend Review report.

FYI: The word online is that Beckley’s Unfortunate Casino is the precursor to a new America album to be released later this year or early in 2012.  As was the case with 2006’s Horizontal Fall and 2007’s Here and Now, it has been suggested that the songs that didn’t make the forthcoming America album are the ones that you’ll find on his solo disc.  If that is true, then we’re in for a real treat when the America record drops!

Unfortunate Casino
Gerry Beckley
Producer:

Released:
March 31, 2011

Rating:
4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Hello” & “Feel”

Despite mixed reviews by fans and critics alike, Unfortunate Casino – for all intents and purposes Gerry Beckley’s third studio album – retains some of the best qualities of Van Go Gan (1995) and Horizontal Fall (2006) in a more concise package while covering sonic ground not explored on the aforementioned discs.

How Unfortunate Casino received harsher criticism than 2000’s remix disc Go Man Go is beyond me.

Still, much of the criticism is understandable, as the relative brevity of Unfortunate Casino’s ten tracks fall short of the soaring electric solos and overall energy of Van Go Gan.  It would also be difficult to argue that this new release has the same expansive ambition and the track-by-track songwriting excellence that was evident on Horizontal Fall.  All in all, this album is strikingly different from its predecessors, if only for its reliance on stripped down, slower tracks to lead in the album.There is no individual song to match the power pop brilliance of “Emma.”  There are sparks in “Remembering” and the title track, yet in many ways, the album doesn’t really kick into high gear until the second half with the lively “Feel” and “Hello.”  Some have attacked the lyrics on this latest release as insipid, which is ridiculous, especially considering some of the nonsensical tracks Beckley has helped pen in the past.

For the careful listener, Unfortunate Casino explores the themes of chance and change, playing on the obvious casino metaphors with admirable restraint.  Nostalgia and regret are shirked in “Remembering,” just as the present and future are embraced in tracks like “Simpson Sky” and “Feel.”  What is expressed purely in “Always” is held up to question by the greyer lines of “Fortune Fells.”  Frustration is dealt with forebodingly in “Dark River,” which is balanced later by the positive levity of “Hello.”

Balance is perhaps the best modifier for Unfortunate Casino, along with concise – I’ll take its ten strong tracks over Van Go Gan’s eighteen of fluctuating quality.  It is not better or maybe even as strong as Horizontal Fall, but it is a good album and a worthy addition to Beckley’s catalog.

 

Lasers
Lupe FiascoProducer:
Lupe Fiasco, et alReleased:
March 8, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“State Run Radio” & “Words I Never Said”

Politically-charged and clearly driven by anger, or at least angst, Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers is enigmatic for its simultaneous endorsement of disengaging from the system.  As a whole, Lasers is the only album I’ve ever listened to that both protests and subscribes to apathy, though the former seems to win out in the end with Fiasco’s consistent call for change and carefully placed qualifiers like the “wanna” in “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now.”

Sonically, Lasers covers a range of sounds and draws textures from a variety of genres without resorting to the time-tested rap topics of drugs, hoes, and violence.  Fiasco’s modus operandi is to avoid the norm, to speak out against what he sees as the perpetuators and enablers of violence and corruption in society.  I have never understood listeners who bristle at the first sign of social commentary, and in fact, I’ve always found those who do so with artistry and a sense of balance to be the most interesting songwriters (i.e. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, George Harrison, Woody Guthrie, and the list goes on…).

Fiasco is successful on songs like “The Show Goes On” with its catchy melody and lyrical middle finger to abusive power or “All Black Everything,” a track that plays out like a blend between rap and Sinatra, imagining a world fundamentally changed as the conception of slavery is prevented; the effects resemble an exercise in imaginative butterfly effect theory.  Lyrically and sonically, “State Run Radio” is perhaps the strongest example of this type of song on the album, verging on being more of a pop/rock track than a rap song.  Still, with every politically-charged writer, there is the danger of going too far.

Even at the peak of the Dylan protest song era, on 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, there was one thoughtful, lyrically nuanced song for every blatantly political track.  This is, however, not necessarily the case on Lasers.  For those who have followed his recent interactions with the press, it is what can only be referred to as the quasi-extremism of his espoused methodologies that most profoundly weakens the overall impact of his message.  For instance, verbally bashing President Barack Obama – with one liners in songs like “Words I Never Said” and in interviews, such as the most recent and severe when he claimed that Obama is the “biggest terrorist” – is certainly not the way to motivate people like myself to listen more closely.  The fact that his comments appear to be directed at all American presidents and all branches of the government, past and present, does little to blunt the impact of such statements.

Even still, though Fiasco is far from being a poet, I have found his music compelling and catchy, and I continue to return for the core messages, such as the frustration with the seemingly unalterable trends in big business and government policies in “Words I Never Said.”  Even though I cannot support a non-voting stance, I can deeply feel and, to a degree, relate to such lines as those that follow his declaration that he will not participate in politics: “I’m a part of the problem; my problem is I’m peaceful.” 

Lasers will inspire questions and thoughts and perhaps even action; for this, in addition to the more important aspects of the music itself, Fiasco remains an artist worth listening to, whether you consistently agree with him or not.

 

The Weekend Review: May 2011 Report

Originally posted 2011-12-29 13:51:59. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

It has recently come to my attention that the “box” format I’ve used on all my Weekend Review posts thus far this year is somewhat incompatible with at least the iPhone Safari browser, possibly with other smart phone interfaces as well.  What was intended to provide organization and aesthetic pleasure actually ended up cutting off my words from clear view on many devices.  So, my thanks to those who pointed that out, and rest assured I’m already brainstorming a format for next year.

As it is, my Weekend Reviews have fallen by the wayside in a year that has seen a significant format change — a blending, as it were, of my full-length reviews (which were, admittedly, perhaps too long) and my “Yes, No, Maybe So” one-sentence reviews (which started out simpler, but ended up having much of the complexity of my five star scale in the full-length reviews; I also pushed the definition of “one-sentence” to the extreme).

I’m excited for the new year to come for me to rededicate myself to the new music reviews in a more manageable manner and on a more regular schedule, yet I couldn’t let the latter two-thirds of the year’s new music slip by without comment.  So, without further ado, here’s my reviews (and many they are!) for May 2011, and I’ll be back soon to squeeze in the remaining months before the end of 2011.  As you can tell, brevity is a virtue as I rush to meet the 1/1/2012 deadline, and I am all the more excited for my end-of-the-year lists, which will be unveiled throughout the first weeks of January 2012.

 

The Schnozzle Sessions (Mike Fusco)

Producer: Mike Fusco

Released: (limited edition)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “I Adore You” & “Do You Have a Sister”

Simply put, The Schnozzle Sessions oozes potential and makes a listener anxious for the blend of catchy tunes, clever and poetic lyricism, and passionate vocalizing that will surely be highlighted on Fusco’s next full studio album, a promise already made good on the “Modern-Day Pocahontas” single released this summer.

 

Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)

Producer: Phil Ek and Fleet Foxes

Released: May 3, 2011

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Helplessness Blues” & “Blue Spotted Tail”

I don’t think the Fleet Foxes are bad, I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about.  I don’t understand the Beach Boys comparisons they’ve been drawing since their breakthrough to the mainstream, a likeness clearly supportable in their lush, gorgeous multi-layered vocals, yet undeserved on the level of the song as a whole.  Fleet Foxes, like many recent bands, seem content to develop sections and lines – what Brian Wilson might have referred to as “feels” in the mid-sixties – and yet to develop no further.  There seems to be little of the creativity in composition that Wilson demonstrated early.  Of course, it was this quest for artistic development and perhaps even perfection that likely drove Wilson off the deep end, so Fleet Foxes are probably smart to keep to their formula, breaking out here and there in standouts like the poetic urgency of the title track and the understated, emotive beauty of songs like “Blue Spotted Tail.”  One might take “The Shrine / An Argument” as sign of greater aspirations, so there is indeed reason to pay hopeful attention for future developments…

I Am Very Far (Okkervil River)

Producer: Will Sheff

Released: May 10, 2011

Rating: 2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “The Rise” & “Piratess”

There is something about the overall composition of I Am Very Far that smacks of two sticks struck together only a bit too slowly or at a slightly incorrect angle to achieve a spark.  Okkervil River is unsurprisingly strong in their lyricism here, very ambitious and coherent in their instrumentation, and yet something falls flat.  There is passion, but it fails to translate.  In too many places, the album falls into a march and trudges forward, having failed to achieve authentic momentum.  Still, the haunting aura of the album closer “The Rise” hangs over the whole as it fades, leaving an echo of what is possible.

 

Move Like This (The Cars)

Producer: Jacknife Lee & the Cars

Released: May 10, 2011

Rating: 4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Too Late” & “Sad Song”

Having picked up this album as a passing fancy, feeling badly for how few units seemed to have moved before I found it on the CD store racks, the consistent quality of Move Like This was a pleasant surprise, a shock even.  In an odd way, the synthetic soundscape that the Cars not only rode but also helped to define over two decades ago has resurfaced and provided for this album to be released years after the band’s prime yet still sound remarkably fresh and modern.  The production quality is clear and crisp, the band keeps a fast pace, and Ric Ocasek (returning for the first time since 1988) sounds as vital as ever.

 

Give Till It’s Gone (Ben Harper)

Released: May 10, 2011

Rating: 2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Don’t Give Up on Me Now” & “I Will Not Be Broken”

If anyone has been guilty of dragging out too little for too long, it is Ben Harper on this album.  Following his significant contribution to last year’s masterful Fistful of Mercy debut, Harper opens with “Don’t Give Up on Me Now,” easily the top track of the release.  However, much of the music that follows is emotive yet more than one track suffers from not knowing when to quit (“Get There From Here,” “Dirty Little Lover”), others from a whiff of autopilot (“Rock N’ Roll is Free,” “Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn”), most from a feeling of drifting between the patterns of blues and its close relatives and an urge to be more.

 

Rome: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi)

Producer: Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi

Released: May 16, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Season’s Trees” & “Two Against One”

As a soundtrack, this album is held to a slightly different standard, one which is frankly difficult for me to calibrate, particularly without having seen the film for which it was designed.  As I had hoped for and expected, Danger Mouse’s presence is clearly felt and the songs with vocals are true gems, particularly “Season’s Trees” and “Two Against One.”  The choice of collaborators is ideal, Norah Jones taking lead on the former and ex-White Strip Jack White on the latter – both provide their unique vocal sound and distinct presence to their respective tracks, which serve to elevate Rome above background music — wonderfully quirky though that background music may otherwise be.

 

The Graduation Ceremony (Joseph Arthur)

Producer: John Alagia & Joseph Arthur

Released: May 23, 2011

Rating: 4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Face in the Crowd” & “This is Still My World”

Particularly in this solo release, it becomes clear just how much Joseph Arthur’s presence was felt on last year’s excellent Fistful of Mercy debut release.  Unlike his bandmate Ben Harper, who seems to delight in a mixture of electric distortion and melancholia, Arthur captures an even deeper sense of loss on this album with a much more finely wrought sense of layering that results in an apparent mastery of mood.  There is a warm, personal atmosphere about this record, one not often achieved outside a live venue, and one that benefits from a multi-layered manipulation of the studio.  The ultimate result, on superbly rendered tracks like “Horses,” is of some pleasing middle ground being achieved between the simple and the overproduced.  Adding a quasi-rock romp like “Midwest” three quarters of the way in is just one of the many winks Arthur makes, hinting at his potential while remaining in the bounds of his project, his sound.

 

Demolished Thoughts (Thurston Moore)

Producer: Beck

Released: May 24, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Benediction” & “Illuminine”

Beck’s presence in the producer’s slot should come as no surprise given the feel and sound of Demolished Thoughts, though leading off with what are arguably the two strongest tracks somehow seems a frantic, freshman move.  Still, on these two tracks alone, and certainly throughout the record, Moore makes good on the laurels he has earned as guitarist for Sonic Youth, among other side projects.  His use of orchestration to accompany him throughout creates a beautifully murky mood and often works as an intricate counterpoint to his acoustic guitar.  Still, the brilliance of “Benediction” and Illuminine” are rarely achieved again, perhaps only fully in “Mina Loy” and “January” at the close of the album.

 

Codes and Keys (Death Cab for Cutie)

Producer: Chris Walla

Released: May 31, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “You Are A Tourist” & “Stay Young, Go Dancing”

While it is pretty much par for the course for me to hate on Death Cab for Cutie, most often via less than cleverly concealed observations of their mediocrity with relation to the praise they invariably receive, and while I initially lumped Codes and Keys in with the bulk of their catalog, I would be remiss if I did not admit that this latest album has softened my typical stance.  There is a certain mastery of atmosphere, a blend of guitars, still prominent in the mixes, with the other, more typical keyboard-based instrumentation of experimentation.  Perhaps their strongest product since Transatlanticism, Codes and Keys consistently maintains a clarity of purpose that is admirable, each track contributing to a sort of unity of effect.  You won’t find me helping to hoist it onto the “Best Album” bandwagon, but I won’t be kicking it off into the ditch either.

 

Ukulele Songs (Eddie Vedder)

Producer: Adam Kasper & Eddie Vedder

Released: May 31, 2011

Rating: 3/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:

Allow me to begin by expounding on my respect for Eddie Vedder both as a performer and as a presence.  If anyone can pull off an album of solo ukulele songs, it is Eddie Vedder.  Of course, had anyone predicted twenty years ago that he would actually put out such a record, most would have laughed.  Or spat.  However, here we are two decades post-Ten and scanning through a 16-track, one-man-ukulele-band album heavily weighted with Vedder-penned tracks, and hardly a Pearl Jam cover among them.  While there was a sort of artistry to the Into the Wild soundtrack, Vedder’s first solo release, that is lacking here, there is also a sense of ownership lacking from that effort that oozes forth here.  It’s hardly the first disc that comes to mind when I get in the car, Ukulele Songs is a stark yet striking effort that fits in just right in the fading twilight of a weekend evening.

The Weekend Review: November 2011

Originally posted 2012-01-02 14:00:52. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

The SMiLE Sessions (The Beach Boys)

Producer: Brian Wilson, Mark Linett, Alan Boyd, and Dennis Wolfe

Released: November 1, 2011

Rating: 5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Surf’s Up” & “Our Prayer ‘Dialog’”

I’ll keep this one brief, as there’s already been so, so, so much written about SMiLE, that infamous, legendary album that almost was, then wasn’t, then in 2004 pretty much was, and finally in 2011 finally is.  Well, it “is” in the best, closest manner it could ever have been, as The SMiLE Sessions are compiled from what Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys managed to finish before it all fell apart, nothing new added.  So, the Sessions lack the polish and finality of 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents… SMiLE!, afforded it by modern recording equipment and, no less significantly, Wilson’s healthier state of mind.  Inversely, the 2004 version lacked the spark, the elusive x factor presented by the Beach Boys’ voices.  When blended, there simply has never been another group quite like Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston.  Accordingly, I would first recommend you hear Pet Sounds (1966).  If you’ve already heard that, you might be ready for SMiLE.  If you are, judge the version of the Sessions you’ll buy relative to how hardcore a fan you are (I had to go for the full 5-disc boxset, but you might not).  If you’re not, try out Sunflower (1970) or The Beach Boys Today! (1965) first.  But don’t forget to make it back to the greatest album that never was.  And also don’t forget to check back for more Beach Boys cover songs here on the music blog!

 

Camp (Childish Gambino)

Producer: Donald Glover & Ludwig Goransson

Released: November 15, 2011

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Fire Fly” & “Hold You Down”

Camp is an imperfect album, with flares of talent and inspiration tempered with stretches of less notable work.  Being that this is Childish Gambino’s first studio album proper, this is all to be expected, particularly of an up and coming talent, and there is much evidence here to suggest that he is.  His attitude toward achieving success, especially in light of past experiences being ignored by girls and others, is explored across multiple tracks, the best of which is “Fire Fly,” truly the standout track for its incisive catchiness.  Childish Gambino has all the necessary bravado, as well as a unique personality and willingness to let his guard down; although I’ve heard it argued that his beats are derivative (I’m far from an authority on this front), his lyrics have an interesting blend between those typical of contemporary rap and those drastically different from the normal.

The Weekend Review: January 2011 Report

Originally posted 2011-05-15 23:30:36. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Hello and welcome to the first Weekend Review of the new year.  I hope you’ll enjoy our new monthly format, optimized for ease of use with the hope that you’ll be able to turn to LaptopSessions.com for new music news in 2011.  Hurry back next weekend for the February report!

The King is Dead
The DecemberistsProducer:
Tucker Martine

Released:
January 14, 2011

Rating:
4.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Rox in the Box” & “Rise to Me”

After the impressive – and yet distracting – complexity of 2009’s The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists return to kick off 2011 with what may very possibly be the best album of the year.  The King is Dead, referred to as a “barn album” by band members in the deluxe edition doc Pendarvia, is an album of simple and yet profound beauty.While, to be fair, it lacks the mind-blowing scale of recent previous efforts, there is something to be said for a cohesive and eminently listenable collection of tracks.

Think of it as an acoustic rock masterpiece, headlined by the soaring “Rox in the Box” and the sing-along anthem waiting to happen “This is Why We Fight.”  Even the fully acoustic, balladic tracks like “Dear Avery” are gorgeous to such an extent that you won’t be able to skip the track, even if you’re on the road looking for a rock song.  Although the lead single, “Down By the Water,” lacks something of the “x factor” that makes songs truly great, it is still a tightly packaged, catchy tune indicative of the best of the King is Dead sound.  Oh, and if you think “Calamity Song” sounds like an aural love-child of R.E.M., you won’t be surprised to learn that it actually features Peter Buck on lead guitar.

Good, good stuff, and a high bar to be set this early in the year.

 

Mine is Yours
Cold War KidsProducer:
Jacquire King

Released:
January 25, 2011

Rating:
2.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Royal Blue” & “Flying Upside Down”

2008’s Loyalty to Loyaltywas the album that introduced me to and left me in awe of the Cold War Kids.  Their unique sound and keen sense for mixing the slow and off-center with the straightforward and single-worthy led me to high expectations for their next release.Well, as is often the case with high expectations, the reality rarely compares.

Whether my reaction is due to what I had expected to find on Mine is Yours is honestly too early to say, but what I’ve heard here is a collection of underwhelming tracks, many of which seem to promise more than they deliver and are often longer than they deserve to be.  Tracks like “Royal Blue,” “Sensitive Kid,” and “Flying Upside Down” stand out as excellent without need of qualification, but others like “Broken Open,” “Louder Than Ever,” and “Cold Toes on the Cold Floor” beg for more consideration, more development, in order to reach the heights established on the previous record.

This is not to say that it should be like a sequel to Loyalty to Loyalty, but the songs of Mine is Yours should at least be as interesting.  While I was initially turned off by the slicker production values, I’ve entirely come around on that, which makes me wish that more attention to detail had been paid.

 

The Party
Ain’t Over

Wanda JacksonProducer:
Jack White

Released:
January 25, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Shakin’ All Over” & “Nervous Breakdown”

Slogans like “The Queen of Rockabilly” don’t typically entice me to purchase music, but in this case, it was bookended by Jack White’s name in the production credits and a nod to Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain.”In short, I couldn’t resist at least one listen.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Party Ain’t Over holds up to repeated listens, fronted by the outstanding “Shakin’ All Over,” a track that aptly blends the gritty alternative sound for which White is so well known with the sonic signature of 50s rock and, I suppose, rockabilly.  Here, as on the rest of the record, riffs abound and Jackson’s ragged voice establishes her in my mind as the female equivalent of a contemporary Dylan, in vocal delivery if not in lyricism, craftsmanship, etc.  In the area of originality, it is clear she doesn’t hold a candle to aforementioned Bard, but her choice of covers is impeccably fitting: a devastating take on “Busted” (see: Johnny Cash), the closest anyone has come to covering a 2000s Dylan track without earning a sneer from me, and a redefining arrangement of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know That I’m No Good.”

Even the latter half tracks are enjoyable, foot-tappers like “Nervous Breakdown” and “Dust on the Bible,” as well as slower tunes such as “Blue Yodel #6” (not to be confused with #4, or my personal favorite, #9).  All in all, for an impulse purchase out of raw curiosity, The Party Ain’t Over is a testament to Jack White’s capabilities as producer and studio musician; it may not be the best album of 2011, but it bears a certain quality and strength of arrangement (both within tracks and across the album) that it deserves to be noticed.