The Weekend Review: October 2012 Report

By Chris Moore:

II (Bad Books)

Released: October 9, 2012

Rating:  3.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “It Never Stops” & “Forest Whitaker”

The second album is always an interesting experiment for any band.  In the case of Bad Books’ II, some of the raw energy has been left behind in favor of refinement in both sound and content.  The benefit of this shift clearly goes to the continuity of the record, as the tracks feel more united than on their freshman effort.  Lyrically, Bad Books is as sharp as ever, and if anything, they have raised the quality.  Finally, in terms of the soundscape, II offers up a lush and gorgeous sequence of arrangements, masterfully orchestrating the mood and pacing.  Still, something has been lost in favor of refinement, but that may simply be the difference between the average first and second releases in a band’s timeline.  Peaking with the gems “It Never Stops” and “Forest Whitaker,” each fronting Bad Books’ signature simple-but-packed-full, low-key-but-rockin’ sound, II has a lot to offer, even if it does lack some of that unmined potential and dynamic appeal of the first record.




Glad All Over (The Wallflowers)

Producer: Jay Joyce

Released: October 9, 2012

Rating:  4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “First One in the Car” & “Constellation Blues”

Perhaps owing something to Jakob Dylan’s folksy hiatus, the Wallflowers have returned on Glad All Over intent on rocking as hard as they have in their career.  With the return of Rami Jaffee, the band has their signature keyboard/organ sounds firmly in place, and with the addition of Jack Irons on drums, they have implicitly stated their desire to return to rock ‘n’ roll proper, what with his resume as a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and history of backing such bands as Pearl Jam.  After seven years had passed since their last album (2005’s Rebel, Sweetheart), Glad All Over is precisely the type of return effort that will remind fans why the Wallflowers are one of the most underrated bands of the nineties, often written off as one-hit wonders following the chart-topping success of “One Headlight” (which, ironically enough, was only the second single off 1996’s Bringing Down the Horse).  What is clear here is that the band has reinvigorated and perhaps even re-envisioned their sound, evidenced by the sharper, harder guitar effects, additional reverb on the keyboard parts, and most notably by the presence of the Clash’s Mick Jones playing guitar and singing on the album’s lead single, as well as another track.  Still, after opening with the pulse-pounding, eerily rocking “Hospital for Sinners” and following up with the borderline funky, gloriously electrified “Misfits and Lovers,” they follow up with “First One in the Car,” a track that sounds like it was set aside from the Bringing Down the Horse sessions, only to be revealed now.  This has the effect of a nod, or perhaps even a wink, to the sound that earned them their fame, though it admittedly fits fully into the flow of this record.  “Reboot the Mission,” the lead single, takes a turn and revs up the band to create a unique sound that pushes the bass to the front of the mix and toys with atmospherics.  It serves as a thesis of sorts for Glad All Over, as the refrain features the band chorally singing, “Eyes on the prize, reboot the mission: I lost my sight but not the vision.”  “It’s A Dream” continues the rock sound they’ve unveiled on the opening tracks before moving into “Love is a Country,” a gorgeous, rolling track that was handled nicely in the official “lyric video” released by their YouTube channel.  The guitars take the fore on the following tracks, in solos on “Have Mercy On Him Now” and in riffs on “The Devil’s Waltz,” flowing back to a track reminiscent of the Rebel, Sweetheart sound on “It Won’t Be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore)” before hitting the pinnacle of the second half in “Constellation Blues,” a track that is arguably the amalgamation of all that has come before.  This may seem counterintuitive at first, as the guitars are lower in the mix, yet they’re more subtle than soft, playing an integral role even as the rhythm section takes the lead and the keyboards add layer upon layer of shimmering atmosphere.  True to the mission statement of this album, “One Set of Wings” closes the album on a strong note, offering the full spectrum of instrumentation – distorted guitars riffing and soloing, haunting organ tones, flowing bass lines, and heavy-hitting drums – as well as a vocal delivery of the lyrics that walks the line between gloomy and hopeful.  Perhaps the line of most interest here is when Dylan sings, “I have been lost, and I’m ready to be found.”  With all that this band has to offer particularly on this most recent release, one would hope that it’s time they be found for what they are: a band of career musicians capable of greatness far beyond a solitary single in the late nineties.

Bad Books’ “Bad Books” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4.5 / 5 stars

Some of my favorite bands kicked off their careers with mediocre debuts (think: Bob Dylan) — some overrated at that (like August and Everything After & Horehound) — and others with terrible and/or terribly ho-hum debuts that betrayed little of the excellent work that was to follow (cough, nudge… The Wallflowers).

While some have accomplished it (the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pearl Jam, and Barenaked Ladies come to mind), it is not often that a new band hits a home run on their first attempt.

The time has come to add another to that brief, auspicious list: namely, Bad Books.

As with the Thorns’ excellent debut, Bad Books has experience and range working in its favor.  The band is comprised of solo artist Kevin Devine and (what is essentially all of) the band Manchester Orchestra.  The resulting album tempers the band’s all-out indie/alternative rock sound with Devine’s folk-influenced style.

With any such collaboration, the danger is that the whole will either sound too similar to the work that the members have produced previously or that it will come across as a forced attempt to cover new ground.

Bad Books manages to avoid both extremes.

Bad Books feels cozy, simple even.  Nothing here that will challenge your previously held opinions about what good music should sound like.  Yet, simultaneously, Bad Books is expansive, spanning from the spacey ambiance of “How This All Ends” to the stripped down acoustic “The Easy Mark & The Old Maid” to the crunchy guitar-driven rocker “Baby Shoes.”

And that’s only the first three tracks.

Bad Books (Bad Books, 2010)

Bad Books (Bad Books, 2010)

The pinnacle of the album is indisputably at the beginning of “Side B,” or track six for all you downloaders and the handful of you CD buyers out there.  “You Wouldn’t Have to Ask” clocks in at under two minutes, but, in its short span, it accomplishes much.  There is no intro: the song kick-starts with lush harmonies, clean, subtle guitar work, and a steady drumbeat.  This builds up to a more driving beat with excellent drum fills, crunchier electric guitars at the front of the mix, and what amounts to a duet between Devine and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull.  (The music video, based on the Everly Brothers’ 1964 Shindig! performance of “Gone, Gone, Gone,” aptly sets the band’s contemporary indie sound against a black and white backdrop of a bygone era.)

This partnership is what seems to propel the album, each contributing half of the songs to this joint effort.  There is the nearly unhinged emotion of “Please Move,” transitioned to smoothly from the broken-down vulnerability of “I Begged You Everything.”  Extremes are placed back-to-back, and yet it works.  The arrangement is brilliant, not only on the song level but also on the level of the album as a whole.

And to be certain, lyrically, Devine and Hall have composed some of the strongest songs of the year, seemingly simple songs like “You’re a Mirror I Cannot Avoid” and “Mesa, AZ” that reject the concept of background music.  These songs, as it often is with the good ones, require multiple listens to comfortably ascribe meaning.  The allusions, when made, are not always readily apparent, the most notable probably being a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry V.  This is original, fluid writing.  I dare say this is poetry.

It is thus shocking — and unforgivable — that the packaging is less than minimalist.  A lackluster cover (my apologies to the band members who created these sketches, images that would have made for fascinating insets within the packaging) is about all there is.  A dismal one-fold covering for this CD with no booklet and no lyrics and no more than these ten brief songs: this is all there is.

Bad Books is one of the premier albums of the year — top three material — and yet the packaging is non-existent.  The lyrics are unacknowledged.  This I will never understand, because — I’m sorry — if a band like Jukebox the Ghost can mass-produce a colorful, three-fold digipack with a thoughtful design and complete lyrics, then seasoned folks like these either deserve more options from the higher-ups or we deserve more effort from them.

If we as listeners don’t “deserve” it, then certainly this beautiful music deserves more.