By Chris Moore:
Fallen Empires (Snow Patrol)
Producer: Jacknife Lee
Released: January 10, 2012
Rating: 2.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Called Out in the Dark” & “The Symphony”
With an overall sound and feel crossing entirely too closely to that of 2006’s Eyes Open for my taste, Fallen Empires is no match for the best work in Snow Patrol’s catalog. Since the departure of Mark McClelland, their approach has veered away from the feel of 2003’s excellent Final Straw, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the achievements of A Hundred Million Suns (2008) as an album. Already, Fallen Empires has risen above this immediate predecessor in chart rankings in most countries. Though it is clearly an inferior, less artful, less fully rendered effort than A Hundred Million Suns, this album does have its moments: it kicks off strongly, and “Called Out in the Dark” is an excellent track. The next several tracks hold their weight until a fade is taken on the title track. From the middle to the end of the album, it is a hit or miss affair with some songs sounding half-baked, others coming across as masterful (see: the lively, catchy “The Symphony” or the aptly chosen – albeit fourth – single “In the End”).
Those Around Us (Jim Fusco)
Producer: Jim Fusco
Released: January 13, 2012
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Chameleon” & “Opportunities”
For several records now, Jim Fusco’s advertising rhetoric has focused on the theme of continuous improvement, on the idea that the album in question is at least one step forward from the previous one. While That’s All Jim (2003) will forever stand higher in my estimation than What About Today? (2005), I had to admit that the technical expertise, songwriting, production quality, and concept of the latter were indeed a step forward from the former. Then, when Halfway There was released in 2009, it would have been difficult to argue that it was not Fusco’s best record. Now, with the arrival of Those Around Us, it is time again to weight the question: does this most recent release truly outshine the previous record? More on that after the review… The brighter, crisper sound of Those Around Us is the logical progression from the clean, sharp innovations that were immediately apparent on Halfway There, though it is less a progression than an extension of that sound, with the single greatest difference being the addition of crunchy distortion on the electric guitars throughout, in addition to the new instruments introduced this time around. Several songs would have fit seamlessly into Halfway, most notably the live, tuning-up feel of “Run My Way” kicking of the album much like “A Night Away” revved up Halfway’s “b-side” and the upbeat, vocally driven rock track “Opportunities.” And yet it would not be fair to suggest that Those Around Us is some sort of Halfway There, Part Two (or would it be called All the Way There?). This album offers some unique tracks heretofore unequaled in the Jim Fusco catalog. The standout track is clearly “Chameleon” which, as was the case with Halfway’s “I Got You,” showcases an impressive leap forward in terms of lead vocal, instrumentation, and overall songwriting quality. The brilliance of “Chameleon” lies in its use of the high and low ranges, mixing the bright guitar and keys with the dull throb of a disappointed-sounding bass line. Other standouts include “In Your Head,” one of the most naturally fast-paced Fusco songs to date, and “Helpless,” if not as much for its overall quality then for its out-of-time feel and for featuring what is perhaps the least recognizable, least predictable guitar part on the record. Elsewhere, the sequencing of the album is typically thoughtful, as in “Chameleon” – a song about appearances, adaptation, blending in and thus fading away – being followed by an extension of the visual/appearances theme in “Look Around,” which is also notable for being Fusco’s first recorded performance on lap steel, unless you count his part on the May 2009 Laptop Sessions cover of the Wilco / Woody Guthrie song “Jolly Banker.” Elsewhere on the album, there are several aspects that either confuse previous sentiments from Fusco’s music or demonstrate maturation. Take, for instance, “Choose Your Words (Carefully)” – which, for the record, seems less a referendum than a lecture – and its track two advice; seven years ago, he used the second track to instead assert that you “can’t count on words to fill the space between.” This is an interesting modification of that original suggestion. Another notable difference comes in the closing track. “How Are You Feeling Tonight?” marks the first time Fusco has ended an album with an interrogative song since 2003 (That’s All Jim’s “Where Do We Go From Here?; before that, he ended side one of 2002’s My Other Half with “Why Do You?” and side three with “What Did I Expect?”). This most recent question track is a departure in the sense that it closes with the refrain: “Try to live just for today, hey…,” whereas the other three end by fading out with the question still unanswered (though, to be fair, “What Did I Expect?” offers syntactical challenges that would easily merit a ten page paper to fully deconstruct, and that’s a task for another day…). What this structural difference suggests is not entirely clear, though it is in keeping with the declarative nature of the record’s other songs, which taken as a whole constitute a series of observations and, ultimately, recommendations: Fusco sings “Choose Your Words (Carefully),” “Don’t Give Up,” “if she’s the one, believe in me, you would know,” “just don’t put off what you can take right now,” “Look Around,” and “in your head, it always comes out the way you choose it; in your head, you live at the top until you lose it,” in addition to reminding us – in a slight variation on “Follow You Home” – of that classic theme “you can never go home again.” Ultimately, the technical achievements of Those Around Us cannot be denied, particularly in Fusco’s nice overall use of reverb, distinct instrumentation, and (as the bonus tracks further prove) vocal arrangement. However, there are several facets of Halfway There which, I would argue, serve to maintain its position as the best Jim Fusco album to date: namely, there is a certain longing, a sense of innocent questioning, exploration and discovery, and raw displeasure that surge through the 2009 album that simply isn’t present here. This is not to undermine the strengths of Those Around Us, but rather to put them in relative perspective. To my thinking, and I’ve often seemed alone in this critical stance, My Other Half still stands as the second best album in Fusco’s catalog (for its conceptual sequencing, ambitious strides in songwriting and packaging, and for its raw, unsettled emotion), placing Those Around Us in a smack down with That’s All Jim. As must as I love the latter, I’m pretty certain the former would triumph in the end.
A Different Sort of Solitude [Mini-EP/Single] (Steven Page)
Producer: Steven Page
Released: January 17, 2012
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “A Different Sort of Solitude” & “Manchild”
While I find it difficult to be excited about a mere two song EP two years after Page’s first album was released, I suppose we can’t expect more than for him to “make art when inspiration blows [his way],” as he sings in “Manchild.” In that sense, this “mini-EP” – aka glorified single – is a tease, as both songs are clearly not throwaways from Page One but new, fully realized compositions with a tendency toward the expansive and epic in their soundscapes. If anything, the theme of separation and recreation of one’s identity is stronger and more focused here than it was on his debut album, a thread that’s made clear up front in a title like “A Different Sort of Solitude.” One has to wonder if “Manchild” is a significant title given Page’s long tenure as a Lady, but perhaps that’s just the BnL fan in me stretching things a bit…
Clear Heart Full Eyes (Craig Finn)
Producer: Mike McCarthy
Released: January 24, 2012
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “”Honolulu Blues” & “Not Much Left of Us”
There is something truly beautiful about a solo project from the front man for a rock band that redefines his sound while retaining his core attributes and maintaining the interest and edge of a full band effort. Craig Finn has achieved this sort of stark, perhaps even raw beauty on his solo debut Clear Heart Full Eyes. As soon as the opening chords of the first track, “Apollo Baby,” there is just a hint of a gorgeous sort of menacing snarl that pervades the record. The instrumentation on Clear Heart is stripped down in comparison to the Hold Steady’s typical arrangements of Finn’s songs, but it is far from minimalist; on most tracks, there are one or two guitar parts with distinct parts, unique bass tracks that add cohesion, and a drum beat to drive the progression. Even though Finn’s themes here are as serious as ever and perhaps a little more so in some places, there is an unmistakable sense that he is having the time of his life. It may be written off as a side effect of his lead vocals being stronger, higher in the mix than usual, but it is difficult not to feel the smile – or is it a smirk? – in “New Friend Jesus” or not to sense the general lyrical force and vocal conviction offered up by Finn throughout. There’s not a clunker in the bunch, and tracks like the character tale “Jackson,” the rootsy romp “Honolulu Blues,” the sparse, devastating “Rented Room,” and the heartbreakingly perfect closer “Not Much Left of Us” will stand among the best songs in his catalog. While I hope this solo detour doesn’t extend the time between Hold Steady records too much, I also hope that he’ll find his way back to a solo record in the not-so-distant future.
iTunes Session (Wilco)
Released: January 24, 2012
Rating: 3 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “War on War” & “Cruel to Be Kind”
I’ll preface this by admitting that if Wilco wasn’t one of my favorite bands of all time (top ten, if not top five), then I would never have considered spending money for what is essentially a live-in-the-studio rehash of tracks from last year’s The Whole Love, with the lead single from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and a deep track from A.M. (1995) thrown in, topped off with a cover of Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” with the man himself taking lead vocal duties. This being said, while there’s nothing really new here, there is the tremendous take on YHF-alum “War on War” and a general sense of vitality in their performances. While I can’t in good faith rate this iTunes Session higher than three stars, I do recommend it for diehard Wilco fans. Others should download The Whole Love in its entirety, as it was the best album from 2011 and perhaps the second best Wilco album of all time.
Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International (Various Artists)
Producers: Jeff Ayeroff & Julie Yannatta
Released: January 24, 2012
Rating: 1.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Ring Them Bells” (Natasha Bedingfield) & “One Too Many Mornings” (Johnny Cash, [Bob Dylan,] and the Avett Brothers)
What a mess. One would think that, what with nearly eighty tracks assembled from a widely varied and not-so-untested array of artists, a compilation of this depth and breadth – referring to both artist and song choice – would have enough gems to make its purchase worthwhile. Instead, Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International largely function as a reminder that there is no replacement for artistry and, often, perfection the first time around. The only truly great track here is the only one previously released: the title track, from Dylan’s 1964 acoustic album Another Side of Bob Dylan. There are standouts, of course, in the efforts of artists like Natasha Bedingfield, Brett Dennen, Patti Smith, Jack’s Mannequin, Elvis Costello, and others. There is remarkably strong work from artists that surprised me – most notably Rise Against’s take on “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and Raphael Saadiq’s better-than-competent cover of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” (though none will ever top Beck’s version). And then there are the other sixty-something songs, less than half of which are bearable enough to be termed mediocre. The majority are simply uninspired, and an uncomfortably high number are utter garbage. The only truly surprising jewel is a reworking of The Times They Are A-Changin’ alum “One Too Many Mornings” by the Avett Brothers, who were granted access to the session held with both Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan early in the 1970’s, when Dylan was still in the heart of his “Lay, Lady, Lay” voice phase. I have yearned to hear fully rendered songs from this reportedly spotty (in terms of quality) session, and the Avett Brothers have done this track justice. At the end of the day, my consolation arrives in the knowledge that the proceeds here go to Amnesty International, and I wish I could recommend more than a handful of – maybe ten at best – tracks.
Ringo 2012 (Ringo Starr)
Producer: Ringo Starr
Released: January 31, 2012
Rating: 3.5 / 5 starrs
Top Two Tracks: “Wonderful” & “In Liverpool”
Ringo Starr returns to rock after but a brief absence – a mere two weeks more than two years since Y Not was released – and this time without an embarrassing title and without the song quality falling apart at the end. It would be disingenuous to suggest Ringo 2012 is a return to pre-Y Not form, as it is no less a hodgepodge than its predecessor, an album on which Ringo collaborated with someone different to write every track, as well as returning to a previously recorded track. Ringo 2012 follows the same pattern, including a cover of a thirties folk song (“Rock Island Line”), a Buddy Holly cover (“Think It Over,” first released last year on the Listen To Me: Buddy Holly tribute album), and two re-recorded songs (“Wings” from 1977’s Ringo the 4th and “Step Lightly” from 1973’s Ringo). This leaves a mere five wholly original tracks. Even still, this latest Ringo album bears the marks of an artist who has worked to make a cohesive compilation of songs. They are smartly sequenced, the best being saved for (almost) last, namely the beautifully arranged, heartfelt “Wonderful” and “In Liverpool,” which somehow manages to transcend being the token “remember when I was a boy on the verge of becoming a Beatle” track. The rest fall in line well: despite its brevity, “Think It Over” is fun and well arranged, of all the tracks to revisit, “Wings” fits well here as the single, and “Slow Down,” despite bearing the oh-so-obvious songwriting influence of Joe Walsh (see: Y Not’s “Fill in the Blanks for comparison), is an excellent, upbeat closing track whose energy defies its title. In the end, Ringo 2012 won’t change the world, but it will make you want to tap your feet, dance and sing, or play along, not to mention crossing your fingers that Ringo continues to be so prolific.
Old Ideas (Leonard Cohen)
Producer: Ed Sanders
Released: January 31, 2012
Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Darkness” & “Different Sides”
In a fast-paced world, Leonard Cohen refuses to hasten his step to draw us in. Listening to a Leonard Cohen album requires attention and patience to fully appreciate its lyrical and musical nuances, and Old Ideas is no exception. There is a timeless quality to this album, a sense throughout that the songs could have been written at any time during the past one hundred years. Yet they weren’t written long ago and they are not covers; these are brand new tracks, and clearly driven by Cohen’s passion. What I find most intriguing about Old Ideas is the manner in which Cohen manages to interweave elements of the sad and the sensual, taking the gruffness of turn-of-the-century Dylan vocals and flavoring it with a subtle array of inflections that make it inextricable from the casual beauty of the instrumental arrangements. “Darkness” is as close as the album gets to an up-tempo track, and it is driven along by some of the strongest lyrics on the album; as the song continues, so the darkness spreads as though it were a contagion whisking away pleasures both present and past. Likewise, “Different Sides” kicks off with one of the best opening lines: “We find ourselves on different sides of a line nobody drew.” This closing track incorporates all the best elements from the nine that precede it: crisp, grumbling Cohen vocals, silky smooth female background vocals, an organ hovering somewhere between lilting and mournful, and percussion that holds the piece together. In short, Old Ideas is a strong effort with consistently arranged and strongly poetic tracks, and though some do fade into the mix there are several that stand out as more, elements able to stand apart from the rest and yet encapsulate the beauty and sorrow of the overall record.