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.

Belle and Sebastian’s “Write About Love” (2010) – YES, NO, MAYBE SO?

Originally posted 2011-01-03 22:12:44. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Belle and Sebastian’s Write About Love (2010) – MAYBE NOT

Write About Love (Belle and Sebastian, 2010)

Write About Love (Belle and Sebastian, 2010)

(October 11, 2010)

Review:

Belle and Sebastian have certainly made their niche in the middle ground between indie pop quirkiness and sixties quasi-nostalgia — and no one should dispute that they make beautiful music on Write About Love — but too much of it simply fails to get off the ground.

Top Two Tracks:

“Come On Sister” & “I Can See Your Future”

R.E.M.’s “Accelerate” (2008) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-07-11 23:30:34. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  5 / 5 stars

Raw energy, often the domain of a young band, is that elusive intangible that surges and passes and that, even when it is present, cannot always be tamed.  Sadly, it can be lost in veteran bands, and replaced though it may be with the polished products that come with years of practice, it is a poignant loss.

On Accelerate, R.E.M. recaptures this element for the first time in years with some of the most engaging recordings of their career.  Considering that their discography stretches a quarter of a century across fifteen studio albums, it is significant to claim Accelerate as one of the strongest albums in the R.E.M. catalog.

And it is.

Barely passing a half an hour in length, Accelerate — true to its name — attacks numerous focal points in politics and society with distortion guitars and biting lyricism.  Somehow, the band manages to strike a balance across the eleven tracks, including slower, more introspective tracks like “Until the Day is Done” and “Hollow Man” in what is otherwise a full-on alternative rock assault.

A less seasoned band might have forgotten to take the time to breathe.

The aforementioned tracks are not the standouts, but they are the pillars of the album.  “Until the Day is Done” is a thinly veiled protest song, thumping out the thematic pulse of the album as a whole.  Michael Stipe sings of “an addled republic, a bitter refund” and warns that “the verdict is dire, the country’s in ruins.”

Written near the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, Stipe’s references are crystal clear.  How have we responded to our state of affairs?  “We’ve written our stories to entertain these notions of glory and bull market gain.”  He goes on to conjure an Orwellian society as he sings, “An easyspeak message falls into routine.”

This is a stark vision, punctuated as it is with the self-doubt of questions like “What have I done?” and “Where are we left to carry on until the day is done?”

Lest this album be represented as preachy or whiny, it stands to be noted that there is just as much self-reflection woven into these tracks.  Consider “Hollow Man,” a song which finds Stipe reflecting on “saying things I didn’t mean and don’t believe.”

The voice that Stipe takes on here is one quite familiar to many individuals in a modern age driven by so-called ideals of productivity and consumerism: “I’m overwhelmed, I’m on repeat.  I’m emptied out, I’m incomplete.  You trusted me, I want to show you I don’t want to be the hollow man.”  It might be easy to overlook the reflective aspects in Stipe’s lyrics amidst the more scathing remarks, yet the album’s greatest strength is its balance between pointing out external as well as internal inconsistencies and failings.

Taking this heart on one’s sleeve approach into consideration, these two tracks in particular, may serve to bring the remaining nine tracks even more sharply into focus.

R.E.M.'s "Accelerate" (2008)

R.E.M.'s "Accelerate" (2008)

“Living Well is the Best Revenge” is an excellent opening track; the instrumental components are reason enough to set this song on repeat, driven as it is by Peter Buck’s gritty guitar parts, Mike Mills’ frenetic bass line, and Bill Rieflin’s breakneck pacing on drums.  Stipe’s vocals set the tone for the other songs to come, spewing out lines about poison spinning into “the life you’d hoped to live” and lashing out with epithets like “you weakened shill.”  Likewise, “Living Well is the Best Revenge” serves up the first round of religious allusions, Stipe singing of lambs to slaughter, “sad and lost apostles,” and asking “the gospel according to…who?”

This is followed up by “Man-Sized Wreath,” which boasts lyrics on par with the best Stipe has ever written.  The song opens with a continued reference to the media (think: “camera three” from the previous track, in addition to numerous later lines), “Turn on the TV, what do I see?  A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me, wow.”  It would seem from these lines that the “man-sized wreath” is the metaphor for those news anchors and other television personalities who contribute their “empty gestures” to the “pageantry” of the boob tube.

Later, Stipe sings that our “judgement [is] clouded with fearful thoughts,” but by the end of the song, he asserts that “I am not deceived by pomp and odious conceit.”  This song could be a call to buck the system – “Throw it on the fire, throw it in the air; kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care” — or a tongue in cheek request to join in the “festivities” that so many seem so comfortable to be a part of — “Give me some…”

Either way, there is something quite sad about the way in which Stipe states, “I’d have thought by now we would be ready to proceed.”

It doesn’t get much darker than three tracks later on “Houston,” as they kick off the song with an opening organ barrage that sounds like a cross between industrial noise and a funeral dirge.  Stipe fires off with “If the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will,” although he quickly adds, “Gotta get that out of my head.”  For all his harsh words, there is still hope and beauty in the places that Stipe sings of — Texan cities: coincidence? — as he clarifies that the “meaning has not been erased.”

By “Mr. Richards,” the frustration lurking underneath “Houston” is directed at one man, to whom Stipe asserts, “You can thump your chest and rattle, stand in front of your piano, but we know what’s going on… we’re the children of the choir.”  This is a shift from the perspective of “Man-Sized Wreath” — whereas before it was Stipe against the world, now it seems that there is a sense of unity with his audience.  Mr. Richard’s “camp moved on” and “the public’s got opinions,” “we’ve begun to bridge the schism.”

Progress is being made.

Stipe is practically cheery by the next track, “Sing for the Submarine,” reassuring that “It’s all a lot less frightening than we would’ve had it be.”  Here, “lift[ing] up your voice” is the way to fight the machine: “we’ll pick it all up and start again.”  Still, the instruments and even Stipe’s vocal delivery belies the hope expressed in his words:  the drums plodding, the bass playing ominous, and the guitar haunting.

In “Horse to Water,” Stipe notes, “I could have kept my head down.  I might have kept my mouth shut…  You lead a horse to water and you watch him drown.”  This firmly establishes “Horse to Water” as a statement on the album as a whole, particularly with Stipe following up in the chorus by singing, “It’s not that easy.  I am not your horse to water.  I hold my breath, I come around, round, round.”

In the special edition lyric booklet, a full two page spread is devoted to the final line of the song: “this run around… IS BOUND TO POUND THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU.”  Bottom line?  The state of affairs that Stipe and company have cut a path through to expose and expound on are very real.  Earlier, on the title track, Stipe sings, “I’m not alone, a thousand others dropping faster than me,” so Accelerate is clearly an album that calls for community.

It is primarily an album that digs into the uglier aspects of our private lives and the least sunny undercurrents of our society, and yet does so with a sense of unabashed honesty and even, at times, levity.  Take the single “Supernatural Superserious,” which deals with identity via the metaphor of the “humiliation of your teenage station.”  “I’m Gonna DJ” is only the second outstanding end-of-the-world rocker that R.E.M. has cooked up, and it’s perfectly placed as the closing track.

It’s saying something when a song about the end of the world is a welcome, light respite from the topic matter of the first ten tracks.

Throughout, R.E.M. succeeds in handling the topic matter with the perfect sound and a fitting sense of the greater scheme of things.  Even the booklet is branded with the caption “This book will fall apart.”  Aside from the fact that they’re not kidding (seriously: it’s tied together loosely with some thin thread), this is a nuanced manner of adding to the overall theme of decay.

The chorus of the title track, itself situated at the heart of the album, says it best:  “Where is the rip chord, the trap door, the key?  Where is the cartoon escape hatch?  No time to question the choices I make.  I’ve got to fall in another direction.  Accelerate.”  The message seems clear enough, a call for change that is desperately needed.  Read this as you will, either as a personal statement or as an indictment of the nation.  Regardless, the determination to be realistic and forthcoming is a quality we all too often lack when faced when crises come creeping into our lives.

It is human to see “the future turned upside down” and it is oh so very Prufrockian to “hesitate.”

If I read Stipe right, hesitation simply is no longer an option.  The solution seems to be to change direction and… you guessed it: accelerate.

Bob Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” (2009) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-11-29 02:28:00. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Throughout Christmas in the Heart, Bob Dylan and his band are clearly enjoying themselves, embracing the timelessness of the Christmas music genre.  More specifically, Dylan and company are transporting themselves and their listeners back to a simpler time of deceptively simple songs and sentiments.

Still, not every nostalgia-inducing feature is practiced or purposeful.  For instance, that’s not static you hear on your compact disc or mp3 copy — that’s just Dylan’s voice.

Over the fifteen songs that comprise this new album, Dylan moves fluidly between the religious and the imaginative, from solemn, sacred hymns describing the birth of Jesus Christ to classic tunes about jolly old Saint Nicholas himself, Santa Claus.

Interestingly, this is the first time Dylan has included more than thirteen tracks on a studio release since 1970’s Self Portrait, the runner up being 1992’s Good As I Been To You, clocking in at thirteen tracks.  Granted, these are not the most positive comparisons in his considerable catalog, but fortunately, the comparisons end at the track count.

Christmas in the Heart is a unified collection of songs that are unlike anything Dylan has recorded before, and yet they somehow fit perfectly with the material he has released in the past decade or so.  Ever since the two albums of covers he released in 1992 and 1993, Dylan has seemingly been drawn to the sounds and styles of the past.  2001’s Love and Theft saw a wide variety of styles, and the songs on both Modern Times (2006) and this year’s Together Through Life have progressively relied on mid-20th century styles and arrangements.

In many ways, this is the most logical time for Dylan to contribute to the very American tradition of popular Christmas music.

Bob Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart" (2009)

Bob Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart" (2009)

I will admit that, upon a first listen, I was unimpressed.  Bob Dylan fanatic that I am, the deterioration of his voice initially alienated me and I felt distanced from these classic compositions, most of which I had heard before in at least one or more arrangements.

“The Christmas Blues” is perhaps the most Dylan-esque of the tracks, especially when considering the predominance of recent Dylan tunes with blues structures, the harmonica solo, and the more serious, even downtrodden tone.  In this song, his vocals are stretched and utilized to heartfelt effect.

As I listened a second and third time, the subtlety of these tracks began to set in.  The lead guitar in “Do You Hear What I Hear?” that more than adequately takes the place of the typical “answer” vocal components, the choral background singers with spot-on, traditional harmonies, and the variations in Dylan’s vocals — the rough edges in “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the softened edges in “Christmas Island” — all contribute to what is largely a relaxing and entertaining record.

Is there a better description for a Christmas album?

What strikes me about Christmas in the Heart is the proof which it provides for the argument that this time of year is a special season, one which captivates the hearts and souls of men and women and inspires us to be better people.  Certainly, if Bob Dylan put this much effort into not only a holiday album, but also a specifically Christmas-themed release, then there must be something to be said about the power of music influenced by the Christmas spirit.

Dylan, known for turning around and surprising even his most loyal fanbase, has done it again.  It may not be as revolutionary as going electric, or as polarizing as songwriting from an explicitly born-again Christian perspective, but it is at least as dramatic a development in his career.  Rarely has Dylan prepared such well-known cover songs for a studio release, much less songs with such a concrete set of lyrics and straightforward message.

If nothing else, this album will provide some interesting fodder for the ongoing “Is he Christian?/Is he Jewish?” debate that continues to rage on…

For me, Christmas in the Heart is a clear reminder of the universal qualities of the Christmas spirit.  It is an album that further diversifies Dylan’s hand in American popular music, and likewise carries the torch for another generation to hear and appreciate a style that originated almost six decades ago.

All in all, Christmas in the Heart would make for a strong addition to any pop/rock music fan’s Christmas album collection.