By Chris Moore:
North (Matchbox Twenty)
Producer: Matt Serletic
Released: September 4, 2012
Rating: 3 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Parade” & “She’s So Mean”
When a band rises to the heights that Matchbox Twenty did, putting out one quality album after another across six years, then takes a ten year break from recording albums, it should go without saying that the expectations are high for a return effort. To be fair, the band did punch out an EP as an incentive to push sales of their greatest hits album in 2007, but aside from that, there has been no true album-level effort from them since 2002’s chart-topping More Than You Think You Are. And even the EP, offering the first full-band collaborations on songwriting credits, suggested the new and dynamic paths of which they were capable. So, again, expectations for a new album would have to be high. Then North arrived in 2012. The cover (with its minimalist, plain white design) and packaging (a digipack lacking artistic direction and a booklet offering nearly all text: legal credits and thank you’s) are indicative of a sense of autopilot being engaged throughout the record, particularly after the dynamite opening trio of songs. “Parade” is a gorgeous opener and probably the best track on the album, though it would probably have been a mid-album deep track on their previous efforts. Then, “She’s So Mean,” the single, powers out of the gate, and it is a fun track, if a bit more two dimensional than one has come to expect from a Matchbox Twenty song. “Overjoyed” follows up with a slow, acoustic opening and a build to a lush, catchy refrain. The next two tracks are solid, though again nothing that would have made it higher than midway on previous releases. The remainder of the album (with the sole exceptions of “This Way” and perhaps “How Long”) fails to capture the spirit of anything more than a predictable series of songs. There are attempts at dynamism, but they largely fall flat, as though the songwriting ended one minute into the composition and the “repeat” button was stamped down. If mine is too harsh a criticism, then so be it, but if the band wasn’t ready to top or at least meet their previous records, each of which offered something new while clearly being in line with previous efforts, then perhaps they should have waited several more years to return.
Tempest (Bob Dylan)
Producer: Bob Dylan
Released: September 10, 2012
Rating: 5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Pay in Blood” & “Long and Wasted Years”
I’d have a hard time giving any album of newly written and recorded Bob Dylan music less than a positive review. That being said, as my review of 2009’s Together Through Life exemplifies, I will not hesitate to assign his work a critical score. (For the written record, looking back now, I would give the album at least 4 if not 4.5 stars, but I’ve had three years to listen repeatedly and pick up on all the wonderful nuances that are available on most Dylan records.) My point in bringing this up is to reinforce the fact that, for me, a 5 star review is no trivial matter. Tempest, Bob Dylan’s latest, is truly an achievement. If Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2005) have been referred to by critics as a trilogy of sorts, then Tempest feels like the second installment in what we can only hope will be another trilogy. As in most great three-part series, the second is often the best for so many reasons. In this case, speculation and externally imposed organizational systems aside, Tempest has all the makings of a great album. In some ways, the sound is clearly an extension of Together’s, particularly with the inclusion of the accordion. However, there is something darker, deeper about Tempest, and there is more looming here than on the previous record. The sequencing, particularly in the upper half of the order, is brilliant: opening with an instrumental at partial volume for “Duquesne Whistle” that begs to be played on a record player, yet quickly livening the pace as the true song unfolds; following with the brief (especially for Dylan, but also by normal standards) but beautiful, touching “Soon After Midnight;” rolling into the riff-driven “Narrow Way” that conjures the spirit of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” without sounding like a retread; transitioning to “Long and Wasted Years,” which presents an aura of (good) eighties Dylan and some of the best lyrics he has presented in years (which is saying something!); and amping it up with “Pay in Blood,” surely the best rocker since 2001’s “Honest With Me,” though why George Receli wasn’t directed to be more heavy hitting on the drums, I’ll never understand (thanks to Mike Fusco, songwriter and drummer extraordinaire for pointing this out to me). The second half of the album is dedicated to longer and, in a few cases, story-driven tracks. “Scarlet Town” drips with details and fully comes to life in a haunting manner. “Early Roman Kings” is perhaps the sonic standout here, running along an accordion-driven riff with lyrical content that could only be properly conveyed via Dylan’s ragged vocals with his uniquely devastating yet wry delivery. A winding tale of murder and darkly shadowed honor is the topic for “Tin Angel,” and as it spans over nine minutes at a ponderous pace, it is almost as though Dylan is daring his listener to follow each detail without fail – a difficult task for anyone with a modern day attention span – which only further strengthens the theme of the track. The penultimate track, the title track, is the one song here that I have skipped regularly after repeated lessons. It fits superbly here, thematically at least, as it chronicles the historical epitome of hubris and imminent tragedy across nearly fourteen minutes: epic length for an epic topic. Perhaps it is my generation’s experience with the film version of Titanic that weakens my interest here, but Dylan incorporates even that retelling of the tale in a way only he ever could. As a final track, Dylan does something he has not often done (“Song to Woody” and “Lenny Bruce” comes to mind, but not many others): presents a direct tribute naming the honoree without obfuscation or metaphorical distortion. “Roll On, John” offers an interesting new take on a form that Ringo Starr has experimented with (typically to perfection) yet this comes from an outside perspective that is also somehow an insider’s point of view. All in all, Tempest has it all: artful lyrics that beg interpretation and admiration delivered by a singular voice in modern music, as Dylan’s has always been, presented on a foundation of strong, intricate, and subtle instrumentation that runs, walks, and breathes in all the right places, belying a band the core of which has been together, more or less, for well over a decade. The tracks work together as parts of a greater whole, and when “Roll On, John” fades out, it should be the rare listener who is not drawn back in by the jazzy lap steel, piano, and acoustic guitar that herald the return of “Duquesne Whistle.”
The Sound of the Life of the Mind (Ben Folds Five)
Producer: Joe Pisapia
Released: September 18, 2012
Rating: 5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” & “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”
Ben Folds Five were always a dynamic group, from the very first bars of “Jackson Cannery” on their self-titled 1995 debut. Whatever and Ever Amen (1997) is probably one of the best albums of all time, and 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner deserves to be one of the best-remembered concept albums of the past few decades. This all being established, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is something different than they have ever produced. In terms of great albums, it is the truly complete package, presenting as it does the perfect blends and ranges: between anger, sadness, nostalgia, and self-empowerment; between personal, introspective songs and biting social commentary tracks; and between high octane rockers and tear-your-heart-out ballads, though strongly inclined toward the former. The album clearly bears the mark of band members who mastered their craft and perfected their chemistry yet haven’t had the opportunity to exercise that expertise in well over a decade (with the exception of their Unauthorized Bio live concert on the internet several years back). On The Sound of the Life of the Mind, Darren Jessee’s drumming is lively, energizing, and inventive, Robert Sledge’s bass is delivered at such breakneck rates that the intricacy he accomplishes shouldn’t be possible, and Ben Fold’s piano elements are brilliant as ever and then some (for someone who doesn’t play beyond chords on the keyboard, I lack the words to properly convey what it is that makes Folds’ method on the piano quite so captivating and clearly skillful, but that does not diminish my ability to at least detect it). More to the point, this album deserves a five star rating for the fact that a breakdown of the standout tracks would include just about every song on the record. “Erase Me” sets the tone for sequence to come, firing through a series of imperatives that, like much of Ben Folds’ best work, borders on the autobiographical. “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” introduces a new individual into the vast community of Ben Folds Five characters, aligning Michael’s persona with the very relatable topic of people who come into and out of one’s life over the years. As Folds sings, “Who knows why some satellites come by and by while others disappear into the sky?” Michael Praytor is the quintessential satellite personality. The next track follows the question into the sky, presenting the only BF5 song – Jessee’s “Sky High” – other than his 1999 song “Magic” to be written exclusively by someone other than Folds. The title track again introduces a new individual into the BF5 cast of characters, another named Sara (intentionally or otherwise conjuring 2001’s solo Folds track “Zak and Sara”). I could check the spelling, of course, assuming that a lyric booklet were included with the CD packaging; unfortunately, the otherwise gorgeous and well-executed artistic vision for the package does not include the words, a serious deficiency for an album that features such interesting, well-written lyrics. A leftover from the Nick Hornby/Ben Folds writing sessions for Lonely Avenue (2010) follows in “On Being Frank” (Sinatra), a solid track that fits in seamlessly here and highlights the possibilities for orchestration that weren’t explored before Unauthorized Bio. The next two tracks – the supremely catchy and wittily biting “Draw A Crowd” and the uplifting, quasi-Emersonian “Do It Anyway” – accomplish the unusual: they bring album opening power and quality to the second half of the record. The sequence continues with the strong “Hold That Thought” before winding down to the emotionally hard-hitting “Away When You Were Here” and “Thank You for Breaking My Heart.” From start to finish, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a serious accomplishment and is just the sort of magnificent reunion release one would expect from a band of Ben Folds Five’s caliber after over ten years on hiatus. Any time they are capable of this sort of artistic vision and production, they need to put it all together: if that takes another ten plus years, it will be well worth the wait.
Released: September 18, 2012
Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Plumage” & “Pique”
After 2010’s Mines, going back to the studio to prepare a follow-up must have been an intimidating task. And yet, Menomena has returned a brief two years later with another masterful release in Moms. True to their signature, the band continues to experiment with new sounds, both vocal and instrumental, and mostly with conventional means. This is the rare band I have listened to that seems to possess an instinctive understanding of the line between too weird and too conventional. Particularly here on Moms, the best songs (i.e., most songs on the album) are catchy, adrenaline-fueled rockers that consistently defy conventions of the form. It is the playing with percussion on “Plumage,” the use of horns and general ambience on “Capsule,” and the perfect convergence of staccato brilliance on “Pique” that propel the opening of this album. The songs that follow are never quite as concisely perfect as the first three, but “Skintercourse” is brilliant work and tracks like “Baton,” “Heavy Is As Heavy Does,” and “Don’t Mess with Latexas” are energetic, fascinating experiences in soundscaping. And all this is not even to mention the artfulness of the lyrics throughout, a close reading of which would merit (deservingly) much more space than I’ve given myself for this review. This is one of those albums that I wouldn’t have given a second thought to even five or six years ago, and I would have been missing out on something truly exciting. Although it won’t make the rounds at mainstream awards shows and top ten lists at the end of the year, you should do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.
¡Uno! (Green Day)
Producer: Rob Cavallo and Green Day
Released: September 21, 2012
Rating: 2.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Stay the Night” & “Nuclear Family”
The way that Rolling Stone and other mainstream critics have praised this first in a trio of albums from Green Day, you would thing they equaled the artistry and intention of the past coupld Green Day concept albums. And no one can accuse the songs on Uno! of being less than energetic, but no one should really be praising them for their quality, either. After the first two tracks, not much rises above the line of predictability, and if this is any indication of how the next two albums will be, then perhaps someone should have told the band to take the best songs from their sessions to release one strong album and save the rest for rareties releases. Instead, they receive all the praise in the (mainstream music) world for pumping out tracks that fall far short of the artistry we’ve come to expect on recent work over the past decade and beyond, and one can only hope they won’t take this as a sign that plateauing is okay.
Babel (Mumford & Sons)
Producer: Markus Dravs
Released: September 21, 2012
Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “I Will Wait” & “Lover of the Light”
What can I say? The signature sound that Mumford and Sons have established works for a reason: they’re passionate and strike a balance between throwback/folksy and in-your-face/high energy. On Babel, “I Will Wait” is a fantastic track, and “Holland Road” and “Lover of the Light” are pretty freakin’ great. Even the title track ain’t half bad. And yet, after that, the rest of the album falls into line and blends together. How their fame has become so infectious, I’ll never understand. They are clearly a passionate band and make some good music, at least one truly great track per release, but I can’t explain or join the bandwagon following they’ve developed.