Music Review: Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown”

Originally posted 2009-06-15 23:43:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

For the acoustic cover music video of “Peacemaker,” CLICK HERE!

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

Try as I might, I just couldn’t get into American Idiot. (I know, I know… send your complaints care of Chris at the Laptop Sessions.)  What possessed me to buy 21st Century Breakdown?  I’m not entirely sure.

But, I’m glad I did.

Green Day has followed up their 2004 rock epic/concept album American Idiot with an even more ambitious concept album, aiming this time at the realities and challenges presented to the next generation at the turn of the century.  If I read the lyrics of the title track properly (“We are, we are the class of ’13), Billie Joe Armstrong refers to the first decade of the 20th century as an incubation period and 2013 as a graduation year of sorts.  Interestingly this is the year that we will inaugurate our next president.  Considering the subject matter of their previous album, Armstrong seems to be holding 2013 up as a test of what we as a nation and a society have learned over the past couple decades.

Will we — as “graduates” — demonstrate tangible, calculable progress, or will we recede back into the mentalities and mistakes of our forefathers?

As Armstrong sings, “I was made of poison and blood; condemnation is what I understood.”  And, of course, he doesn’t forget the government on this most recent release, noting that “Homeland Security could kill us all.”  Indeed, he traces the “class of ’13” back to — and suggests that we have been raised by — “the bastards of 1969.”

In this sense, 21st Century Breakdown is connected at its heart to the era and perhaps the first year that Americans lost an innocence and faith in their government that at least appeared to exist previously.  Consider the difference between the lighter, folk-inspired protest music of the civil rights movement and the heavier protest material of the late sixties and early seventies.  Indeed, 1969 began in January with the inauguration of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States who was most infamous for the Watergate scandal.  In March, Assistant Attorney General Richard Kleindienst spoke out against what he called “ideological criminals,” referring perhaps to the the alternative opinions being expressed by college students among others.  In May, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas resigned following a financial controversy.  In the final months of the year, mass protests were staged against the war, including what came to be known as “Vietnam Moratorium Day” and a march on Washington, DC.

Throughout 21st Century Breakdown, there are repeated references to an entire generation of people whose confusion and “anguish” has been spawned from having inherited this legacy.  Certainly, there is a positive underlying message somewhere on this album, a suggestion that 2013 could indeed be a graduation year of sorts and a chance to move on to a new and different generational mindset than the one that has preoccupied us particularly over the past eight years.

Of course, we must remember that 1969 also saw Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and the Woodstock music festival.  Although the album is angsty and even angry throughout — and ends with tracks like “21 Guns” and “American Eulogy” — Armstrong and company depart with a message of hope in the final track, “See the Light” — he sings, “I want to see the light… I want to learn what’s worth the fight.”  To be certain, there is a positive energy and hesitant hopefulness that simply did not come through on American Idiot.

Under normal circumstances, it is probably not advisable to apply all that much scrutiny to Armstrong’s lyrics.  “It’s punk,” I have been told.  And that is true.  Indeed, this is perhaps why I have had a mental block of sorts that has prevented me from getting into, appreciating, and enjoying their previous work.  But anyone, myself included, who has so much as thumbed through the lyric booklet for American Idiot knows the effort and forethought that went into that album.

On 21st Century Breakdown, it all seems to come together.

As with Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream (released earlier this year — CLICK HERE for a full review), this is an album written and recorded by a group that has worked hard over a lengthy career and is now able to put together the pieces — in Green Day’s case, there is straightforward, all-out punk rock but there are also more subtle acoustic guitar and piano-driven tracks.  There is screaming and there is crooning.  There are power chords pounded out on electric guitar, but there are also carefully constructed (if fairly simple) harmonies.

For my money, this is Green Day’s most ambitious — and perhaps most fully realized — album yet.

Breakdown opens with “Song of the Century,” emerging from the hiss of radio static as a simple, a cappella introduction to the concept of this album.

The title track follows immediately with several stabs at the piano before a heavy drum beat picks up and kicks in.  This song lays out the premise of the album to come, referencing the aforementioned “class of ’13” and the “bastards of 1969.”  This is a song presented in movements, reminiscent of a more mainstream take on the progressive format embraced by Weezer’s “I Am the Greatest Man (That Ever Lived)” from last year’s Red Album.  The closing line — “Scream, America, scream.  Believe what you see from heroes and cons” — is not only a call to the people of this society, but also evokes Brian Wilson with the reference to “heroes and cons” (think: “Heroes and Villains”, the multi-movement second track of Brian Wilson’s legendary SMiLE).

Next comes “Know Your Enemy,” a punk tour-de-force.  As many have noted, its roots are planted firmly in the Clash.  Boneheaded? Yup.  Bound to get stuck in your head? Yup.

Part one continues in a roller coaster ride: starting deceptively slow with “Viva La Gloria!” and “Before the Labotomy” (which introduce the recurring characters of young Gloria and Christian) and throttling back with “Christian’s Inferno” before coming to a melancholy conclusion with “Last Night On Earth.”

Part two, titled “Charlatans and Saints,” delivers more of the same.  The standout tracks are the electric rocker “East Jesus Nowhere” — a scathing commentary — and the acoustic rocker “Peacemaker” — another scathing, sarcastic commentary on its oxymoronic title.

This section ends with “Restless Heart Syndrome,” a song boasting perhaps the worst lyrical pun of the year, but a strong track nonetheless.

The third, final, and perhaps strongest section is “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” the title track employing these handheld items — one thrown by the well to do and the relaxed, the other thrown by soldiers engaged in mortal combat — as part of a rhetorical device.  As Armstrong sings, ” ‘Almost’ only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades.”  A unique way to put it, but I suppose that’s true…

The final four tracks are at the thematic heart of the album: “The Static Age” rails against the confusion of the modern age, “21 Guns” asks the important and sadly relevant question “Do you know what’s worth fighting for?”, “American Eulogy” begins with a reprise/continuation of “Song of the Century” and unrolls a two-part attack (“Mass Hysteria” / “Modern Age”), and “See the Light” eases the album into its final phase, reinforcing the desire to “know what’s worth the fight” and, of course, to “see the light.”

**                                                   **                                                   **

Two years after the American Idiot tour ended, it was reported that Armstrong had finished writing 45 new songs.  Oddly enough, though, this album was released after the longest gap between releases in the band’s history.

Or, perhaps not so odd.  The album is proof positive that Green Day took their time not only with the writing, but also the recording and sequencing of the tracks for 21st Century Breakdown.

The result?

An entertaining but thoughtful album that is more than worth your time.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland” (1968) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-02-14 23:30:59. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  2.5 / 5 stars

Let me begin by saying I love and have the utmost respect for Jimi Hendrix’s music, as much if not more than the average music fan.  Although many simply know a couple hits (and are, even from that sampling, able to acknowledge the fact that he was a guitar legend), I have heard all of his albums multiple times — hits, misses, deep tracks, and all.

Although Electric Ladyland is widely considered the pinnacle of his recording career, I must adamantly argue that it is not.

There is no denying the mastery that Hendrix demonstrates on the third and final studio release of his brief career.  Even on a track like “Little Miss Strange,” his guitarwork is intricate, interesting, and unsurpassed.  “Voodoo Chile” is a testament to his mastery (and his justification for moving beyond) the blues.  And his production on “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” is nothing short of expansive and impressive.

And yet, great songs do not in and of themselves a great album make.

To be fair, there are some excellent tracks on this album.  In addition to those aforementioned gems, the highlights of Electric Ladyland are certainly to be found in the brilliant rock’n’roll of “Crosstown Traffic” and their electrified take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a version that redefined the way Dylan himself approached the song in concert.

On Electric Ladyland, the Jimi Hendrix Experience is tighter and yet more relaxed than on any previous release.  Hendrix is more experimental stylistically and vocally, Noel Redding’s bass parts are even more manically masterful, and Mitch Mitchell’s drums are both an anchor and a vivid instrument unto themselves.  There’s something compelling about a band that can run through a fourteen minute blazing blues epic like “Voodoo Chile” and go on to construct such a melancholy opening as you find on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Electric Ladyland" (1968)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Electric Ladyland" (1968)

Where this album begins to fall short is in all the nooks and crannies, all the self-indulgent jams that stretch some wonderful tracks out beyond a reasonable length, all the inferior, overly-simplistic tracks that never would have found their way onto a previous Experience release.

From the opening, Electric Ladyland is a unique and exciting album.  “…And the Gods Made Love” is a forgettable, albeit tone-setting album opener.  “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” is a warm, inviting, and promising number.  “Crosstown Traffic” and “Voodoo Chile” make good on that invitation, putting an outstandingly tight, single-worthy track back to back with a jam-based track that takes its time — a quarter of an hour, to be more precise.

After this is where the album loses some of its focus.

The Redding-penned “Little Miss Strange” suffers from the same assessment as Axis: Bold As Love‘s “She’s So Fine”:  it’s okay.  Nothing more, nothing less — neither the track you’ll run to first, nor the track you’ll skip.

Then comes a trio of tunes that are not terribly impressive.  “Long Hot Summer Night” is good, “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)” is an excellent, unique take on this cover, and “Gypsy Eyes” has its moments.  If this is the best that can be said about these tracks, then they have no business being at the heart of a Jimi Hendrix Experience album.

I can even look beyond the ho-hum nature of “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” if only for its thematic, lyrical tie-in three tracks later on “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” but it never ceases to amaze me how, depending on the artist and on the general trends in music criticism at the time, an album that has strong ties to what has come before can either be a masterful sampling of genres or a derivative romp in mediocrity.  In this case, the former was decided upon, as evidenced by the slew of five-star ratings the album has accrued.  Still, I find it difficult to view some of these reviews as unbiased.  Is Electric Ladyland a breakthrough effort, an album that took the ways we view genres and recordings and turned them upside down?  Yes.  But is that to say it should overshadow the cohesion, uniqueness, and beautifully tight arrangements of Are You Experienced? Should it cause us to set Axis: Bold As Love aside as a sophomoric, somewhat forgettable effort?

No!

Let us not forget that this is an album with a track like “Moon, Turn the Tides… gently gently away,” a song with no content and with no discernible purpose as anything more than a transition between tracks, perhaps a tone setting device.

By the time “House Burning Down” comes, I often find myself suffering from jam fatigue.  This is an excellent track, and yet I have a hard time getting fired up for it, or for the album-closing “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).”

I do find myself seeking sweet refuge in the track that comes between them… “All Along the Watchtower.”

This is what Electric Ladyland lacks — others may praise the jazz mentality of this record, but I find myself yearning for the rock’n’roll mentality that Jimi Hendrix practically created on his first two releases.  Others see the expansive and the interpretive as mastery, but I long for the tightness and originality of those early Jimi Hendrix recordings — hits like “Purple Haze,” “Stone Free,” and “Bold As Love” and deep tracks like “Love or Confusion,” “51st Anniversary,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and “Little Wing.”

It is no wonder that John Mayer has gone to the Hendrix well thrice for covers — an excellent version of “Wait Until Tomorrow” for the Experience-imitating John Mayer Trio, an okay take on “Bold As Love” on Continuum, and “The Wind Cries Mary” live in concert.  After all, his career has generally followed the patterns I see in Hendrix’s: a mind-blowing debut, a strong follow-up, and a critically acclaimed, if inferior third release.  Say what you will about Mayer — channeling Hendrix, however criticized a move it may be in some circles, has worked as planned.

So, I will continue listening to Electric Ladyland and loving it at times.  For me, it can’t compare to what came before, and to what may have come after…

Jimi Hendrix’s “First Rays of the New Rising Sun” (1970/1, 1997) – Yes, No, or Maybe So, Retro

Originally posted 2010-02-17 22:30:45. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

First Rays of the New Rising Sun (Jimi Hendrix) – MAYBE

Jimi Hendrix's "First Rays of the New Rising Sun" (1970/1, 1997)

Jimi Hendrix's "First Rays of the New Rising Sun" (1970/1, 1997)

(intended for 1970/1, released April 22, 1997))

Review:

Listening to First Rays of the New Rising Sun — this composite of what Hendrix’s fourth studio album may have sounded like — is a bittersweet experience:  it is clearly incomplete, but there is evidence here — tight, upbeat, brilliant evidence — that this could have approached the quality of Are You Experienced!

Top Two Tracks:

“Freedom” & “Night Bird Flying”

Bob Dylan’s “Bob Dylan” (1962) – Yes, No, or Maybe So

Originally posted 2010-05-03 22:30:24. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Bob Dylan’s Bob Dylan (1962) – MAYBE

Bob Dylan's self-titled debut (1962)

Bob Dylan's self-titled debut (1962

(March 19, 1962)

Review:

It is difficult to imagine a time when Bob Dylan was not revered as a songwriter, but here is one of the true documents of that time; it is an album that exemplifies young Dylan’s early sound, as he experimented with his influences on some of his first cover song recordings  and presented the first two originals he committed to an album (the early, touching gem “Song to Woody” and the raw, poetically humorous “Talkin’ New York”).

Top Two Tracks:

“Song to Woody” & “House of the Risin’ Sun”