The Weekend Review: March 2011 Report

By Chris Moore:

March 2011 was one of those months (at least in new music news) that make other months pale in comparison.  As you flip through the albums highlighted below, I hope you’ll find something to catch your attention.  With a couple notable exceptions, there were more quality releases unveiled in March than probably will be unveiled for the rest of the year.  This is not to suggest that there aren’t more positive reviews coming — because there are a couple of very positive ones — but it should be taken to suggest that there are mediocre reviews coming in more than equal ratio to what you’ll find below.  So, enjoy, and I’ll hope to see you back soon!

The Baseball Project, Vol. 2
The Baseball Project  



March 1, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Buckner’s Bolero” & “Don’t Call Them Twinkies”

For the follow-up to a low-key, sports-themed side project, High and Inside is an entertaining and educational album that demonstrates an impressive range, musically as well as in terms of baseball trivia.  Thus, the Baseball Project lives up to its name, a largely straight-up rock album heavy on lyrics and smooth, lush harmonies.

The bouncy brightness of tracks like “Chin Music” (the song which contains the title in its lyrics, celebrating the use of “chin music” as a strategy) contrasts with the contemplative, sober feel of such songs as “Here Lies Carl Mays” and “Buckner’s Bolero” (a brilliant study in the art of the what-if).  Meanwhile, songs like “1976” sound like they could have been ripped off a jangly sixties LP, while others like “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” provide clear signposts that this is a modern record.  Guest vocalist Craig Finn’s lead performance on the latter track is a highlight of the album.  Bringing every bit of the lyricism and nearly-spat-out vocal delivery of his Hold Steady recordings, Finn unrolls a passionate appeal via an intimately thorough review of Twins’ history.  This is perhaps what works so well on the record, what translates so well: each member is clearly fervently invested in a baseball team.

The range of teams, time periods, and perspectives represented across Volume 2: High and Inside is impressive, and along with the range of styles employed, ensures the success of the collection as a complete thought.  All told, the songs cover a broad array while also driving home the suggestion that there is simply too much trivia, too many stories, to ever be told in one or two volumes.  There is something here for everyone, whether you enjoy the subtly tongue-in-cheek romp “Panda and the Freak,” the gorgeous acoustic balladry in “Pete Rose Way,” the intimate sing-along “Fair Weather Fans,” the overly serious tone of “Tony (Boston’s Chosen Son),” the hero celebration of “Ichiro Goes to the Moon,” the cocky strut of “The Straw that Stirs the Drink” (balanced brilliantly with the background singers), or the quasi-humorous warning “Look Out Mom.”

All told, High and Inside defies expectations for this sort of side project, and  is in fact one of the strongest efforts of the year.


The Valley

Gary Leach, Austin Deptula, Eisley


March 1, 2011

4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Ambulance” & “I Wish”

Apparently, for both Eisley and Noah and the Whale, the third time around is the charm.  Both bands have delivered strongly defined, carefully developed #3 efforts, Eisley’s being marked for its seamless integration of pensive vocals and foundational piano textures with electric guitar and drums that elevate The Valley to the full status of rock album.

There are slower songs to be certain, “Kind” being perhaps the most subdued, but most songs have sort of edge.  There is “Mr. Moon,” a song that starts out quietly but soon builds into a full pace multi-vocal attack, or the gorgeously moody closer “Ambulance,” which builds from solo piano ballad into a full-on arena rock-worthy epic chorus.

Overall, The Valley is more than listener-friendly, offering catchy choruses and upbeat verses, yet also very ambitious, particularly on songs like the title track where strings are added and vocals are layered upon vocals.  Sara Barreilles-worthy piano tracks like “Watch It Die” are juxtaposed with riff-ridden songs like “Sad.”  Just when the mood drops, as on “Better Love,” Eisley returns with a beautiful, charged song like “I Wish.”

All in all, the attention to production and arrangement makes The Valley one of the year’s strongest releases and yet another reason why March was such an impressive new music month.


Collapse Into Now

Jacknife Lee & R.E.M.

March 7, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Uberlin” & “All the Best”

When, prior to March 7, I read several headlines referring to Collapse Into Now as a return to R.E.M.’s “classic” sound, I was less than enthusiastic.  After all, I have yet to find an album from anywhere remotely near to their aforementioned classic period that I would unflinchingly award with five stars. 

There can be no denying that they created a sound that one might argue – without exaggeration – created a standard for and perhaps pioneered the alternative rock genre: crunchy guitars, interesting but not overly complicated bass and drums, and stark vocals only ever lightly supported.  In short, they stripped away the frills, riffs, and accents that had edged toward being overvalued in popular music before they entered the scene.  However, 2008’s Accelerate was a return to life from their mid-nineties to early-2000s wasteland of often spineless adult contemporary “rock,” a period that was peppered with some incredible songs and yet few strong albums.  Accelerate truly rocked with raw vocals and riffs and didn’t stop for a breath across eleven tracks.

To lose all that sounded less like a slogan in support of the record and more like an ominous warning to lower my expectations.

Not so.

Collapse Into Now somehow manages to combine the defining features of their earlier sound with the vitality they had regained in 2008.  As is always impressive in a band that has spanned three decades with recognizable music, this latest release offers up songs for the ages, such as “Uberlin,” a track that will surely be included on any decent R.E.M. essential collection going forward from here.  Their sense of rawness and humor is still very much intact, as evidenced on “Mine Smell Like Honey,” while tracks like the adjacent “Walk It Back” recall the most tender moments of their career.

What restricts Collapse Into Now, what limits its ultimate appeal, can be heard in the flatness of the repetition in the lead single, “Discoverer.”  Additionally, there are the moments of experimentation, particularly in the latter half, as in “Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter” and the closer “Blue.”  These moments of divergence from the model established earlier on the record waver occasionally in their entertainment value (read: lack of attention to attention spans) and, less often, their intellectual value, and yet this is also one of the more promising aspects of the release.  After all, it would be all too easy to fall into the “classic” groove and churn out a predictable release without much risk involved, without vigor required.  Instead, we have the living, breathing Collapse Into Now.


No Color
The Dodos

John Askew

March 15, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Companions” & “Don’t Try and Hide It”

The Dodos, on their new disc No Color, cleverly walk the line between instrumental immediacy and more predictable riffing.  The ultimate result is a potentially trance-inducing nine-track sequence of acoustic music that creates mood through a responsive attention to subtleties and an elusive lyrical approach. 

As evidenced by tracks like “Good,” the Dodos are comfortable leaping from restrained to frenzied, sometimes without much warning prior to the transition.  This is good, as all but two of the nine tracks on No Color stretch past the four minute mark, the second and third songs clocking in at six minutes each.  This sort of time commitment to songs that lack clear, catchy choruses to act as anchors must needs be balanced by some other factor; in this case, it is a sensitivity to mood that modulates several times per song, adjusted with the introduction of keys and strings, as in tracks like “Sleep.”

I’m not certain whether they released a single, but if they did, it should certainly have been “Don’t Try and Hide It,” the closest they come to a song that will get stuck in your head.  Still, it is “Companions” that easily springs to the fore when deciding on the most textured, instrumentally impressive, and, frankly, beautiful track.

Overall, No Color is a finely sequenced and intelligently balanced disc that will spin and spin (or digital album that will… play and play?) without triggering a desire for more: my vote for best pleasant-trance-inducing music of the year.


Last Night on Earth
Noah & the Whale

Charlie Fink & Jason Lader

March 7, 2011

4.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Tonight’s the Kind of Night” & “Give It All Back”

Every so often, an album comes along that I didn’t expect, one like Noah and the Whale’s third album Last Night on Earth, and blows me away.  Before March 7, I didn’t even know they were a band.  Truth be told, I was drawn in by their album cover: retro to be certain, yet just artful enough to be eye-catching.

Sonically, listening to Last Night on Earth is like jumping in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and getting off circa the first Back to the Future film when rock still ruled, though it was synthesizer-drenched and put a premium on experimenting with new technologies over the basic set of real instruments.  Vocally, Charlie Fink sounds like the latest “new Dylan,” or perhaps a “new Petty,” and the overall aura of the album might draw “new Springsteen” references, as well.

Regardless of these throwback references, Noah and the Whale is a truly authentic force, lyrically a product of no other time but our own.  The figure in “Life is Life” may throw “his back onto the back” of an “eighties car,” but it is “run down,” and ultimately, it is a bus that transports the boy in “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” to a land of opportunity “where everything could change.”

As on “Old Joy,” the past is celebrated in some ways, though the point is less nostalgia than a warning to “Forget the things that get away / Don’t dream of yesterday.”  Photos kept in drawers reveal “bad hair cuts” and cigarettes, poor decisions from past lives, along with memories of being “a lustless romantic trying hard to impress.”  In putting this latter sentiment into words and song, as in so many ways, this album is, as Fink would say, a “victory for the kids who believe in rock and roll.”

Some might write off the more buoyant tracks like “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.,” but if they do they will miss Joey’s “black and blue body” and brandy-drinking “rock and roll survivor” Lisa going “down on almost anyone.”  In a very dark – and perhaps a very real – way, this track is about cutting ties with regret and being at peace with life as it is.  Fink adeptly slips in a note that “to a writer / the truth is no big deal,” as if inviting us to reimagine our own pasts, or at least to believe in the “the kind of night where everything could change.”

If only for the 33 minutes across which this feels possible, Last Night on Earth achieves something special through well-written tracks aptly performed and carefully arranged: all through rock and roll, albeit rock that conjures the tones of a lost time.  It may not be large-scale enough to reach the heights of last year’s eighties homage (Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs), but in my book Noah and the Whale have twice the imact in half the time.


Meyrin Fields
Broken Bells

Danger Mouse

March 29, 2011

2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Windows” & “An Easy Life”

I’ve been interested in the Broken Bells sound ever since a friend played me the lead single to their debut release.  My respect has climbed with every listen to that album, particularly the ones when I was writing my review last year, picking out the nuances and influence-blending that make Broken Bells such a subdued yet brilliant project. 

This being said, although I was clearly one of the first to be excited by the prospect of four new songs from Danger Mouse and James Mercer, sometimes it pays to wait until an album’s worth of top-notch tracks are prepared.  And, as much as I detest the perpetuators of this repackaging ploy, the four tracks on the Meyrin Fields EP would have made for very strong bonus tracks attached to Broken Bells.

As a work unto themselves, they fall short of highly listenable.  And, clocking in at under twelve minutes, this “EP” plays more like a two-for-one single release.  (Or, to more precisely represent the price point, a two-for-two single release.)  The title track begins with grit and attitude, yet relaxes into essentially the same groove for three minutes.  “Windows,” easily the standout, adds a funky bass line to the usual mix and several segments.  “An Easy Life” is perhaps the most reminiscent of Broken Bells (2010), which is a good thing indeed, while “Heartless Empire” clearly deserves its place, last on this release.


Rolling Papers
Wiz Khalifa

Stargate, Jim Jonsin, Benny Blanco, I.D. Labs, Papa Justifi, Oak, King David, Bei Maejor, Noel “Detail” Fisher, Lex Luger

March 29, 2011

2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Black and Yellow” & “Fly Solo”

Rarely has an album with such a well-attuned balance between inventive sounds and pop mentalities been layered with such regularly insipid lyrics.  While I still tread lightly in my reviews of the hip hop genre – understanding that I, in my suburban white-breadedness, may never truly relate to the timeless themes of “bitches and champagne,” as Khalifa sings – I simply refuse to believe that an album like Rolling Papers, with its beautiful backing vocals, ambitious arrangements, and hints at more insightful commentary, is not shooting for the lowest common denominator with its constant topical return to hos, weed, and partying.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good song about hos, weed, and partying just as much as the next listener, but when nearly every song is layered thickly with misogynistic, drug-soaked lyricism, I begin to feel numbed to the insensitivity. 

Clearly, Wiz Khalifa has more potential than he is capitalizing on, evidenced by the big, bad swagger of the gorgeously catchy “Black and Yellow” and the acoustic framework of the surprisingly bright power pop track “Fly Solo.”  Of course, he makes good on the double entendre implicit in the title, played out in “Roll Up,” and more fully explicated in a recent Rolling Stone magazine review.

The middle of the album truly dips in quality, though the tracks are musically inventive, including interesting usage of electric guitar and synthesizers on what is perhaps the worst track, “Hopes and Dreams,” second only perhaps to “Star of the Show” and third to “Top Floor.”  “Wake Up” is more likely to induce the opposite reaction, though the middle shows off a vocal sensitivity not present elsewhere.  “The Race” is hardly excellent yet prominently displays Khalifa’s mastery of beats and catchy tunesmithing.

It is, however, the penultimate track, “Rooftops,” that perhaps best hints at Khalifa’s potential when he juggles bald-faced materialism and misogyny with social commentary, listing off his conquests, affecting cocky, yet singing, “Used to not be allowed in the building, now we on the rooftops, rooftops.”

For all the issue I take with the uneven quality of the album, it is bookended well, “When I’m Gone” serving well as the opener and “Cameras” aptly closing the disc.  All in all, Khalifa has my attention, and I can only hope that his next record contains lyrics that are as thoughtful as his musical arrangements.


All Eternals Deck
The Mountain Goats

Brandon Eggleston, John Congleton, Scott Solter, Erik Rutan

March 29, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Estate Sale Sign” & “Prowl Great Cain”

This album resets the standard for me when I hear terms like “minimalist” and “lo-fi.”  For a professional full-band recording, it is as stripped down as they come, essentially an acoustic guitar, bass, keyboard, and light drums on most tracks.  Rarely do they play at full speed, and when they do, it is rarely all at once.

This understandably “cultivates a space,” opens a gap that, in this case, is filled admirably: lyrically.  In a manner that is rare of modern music, All Eternals Deck places a premium on the words so much as to subjugate the music to them.

As a result, the new Mountain Goats disc is not as eminently listenable and reliably re-listenable as, say, the Decemberists, but the words are clear and strong.  From the vampire metaphor in the opener (that is a metaphor, right?…) to the numerous references which range from Biblical to pop-cultural, the tracks are consistently intellectually engaging, though the minimalism does feel… well, a bit minimal at times.  This is frustrating, as the band is clearly very capable of balancing high-octane performance with engaging communication (see: “Estate Sale Sign”).

Regardless of its shortcomings, All Eternals Deck is a clever, winning collection of performances, and they continue to assert themselves as a thoughtful band.  Having been first introduced to the Mountain Goats via Steven Page’s cover of “Lion’s Teeth,” these tracks have made me all the more interested to find and hear the MG original sooner rather than later.


The BEST MUSIC VIDEOS of 2011 (The Year-End Awards)

By Chris Moore:

Although the music video may have slid significantly farther down in relevance since its heyday in the eighties and nineties, there are still artists making them.  In fact, it seems to be fairly standard procedure, and the venue of choice appears to have become YouTube’s VEVO provider.  I spent a long time watching more videos than I’m willing to admit here.  The result, below, is a streamlined list of only the best.  To be truthful, I have recognized more than I believe are truly notable, if only because I felt they were worth mentioning after I had taken the time to watch them.

If you like music videos and miss them, I encourage you to take the time to watch those listed below, especially the top ten, all of which are available via YouTube.

1) “Give It All Back” – Noah and the Whale

2) “Calamity Song” – The Decemberists (Inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest)

3) “Perform This Way” – “Weird Al“ Yankovic

4) “This is Why We Fight” – The Decemberists (Directed by Aaron Stewart-Ahn)

5) “Call” – Joseph Arthur (Directed by Joseph Arthur)

6) “Stay Young, Go Dancing” – Death Cab for Cutie

7) “Born Alone” – Wilco (Directed by Mark Greenberg)

8) “Monarchy of Roses” – Red Hot Chili Peppers (Directed by Marc Klasfeld; inspired by the work of Raymond Pettibon)

9) “Wake and Be Fine” – Okkervil River (Directed by Daniel Gibb)

10) “Thunder on the Mountain” – Wanda Jackson (Directed by thirtytwo)

11) “Jejune Stars” – Bright Eyes (Directed by Lance Acord)

12) “Suck It and See” – Arctic Monkeys

13) “Rope” – Foo Fighters

14) “Get Away” – Yuck (Directed by Michael)

15) “Lotus Flower” – Radiohead (Directed by Garth Jennings)

16) “CNR” – “Weird Al” Yankovic

17) “White Limo” – Foo Fighters

18) “Casting Lines” – Jack’s Mannequin (Directed by Claire Marie Vogel)

19) “Monsters Anonymous” – Kevin Hearn (Directed by Dr. Minz)

20) “Words I Never Said” – Lupe Fiasco

21) “Louder than Ever” – Cold War Kids

22) “Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog)” – Brett Dennen (Directed by Ben Moon)

23) “Paradise” – Coldplay (Directed by Mat Whitecross)

24) “Summer Place” – Fountains of Wayne

25) “Longing to Belong” – Eddie Vedder

26) “You and Me” – Parachute

27) “Amy, I” – Jack’s Mannequin (Directed by Chloe Fleury)

28) “Waiting for My Chance to Come” – Noah and the Whale

29) “What I Know” – Parachute

30) “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” – Red Hot Chili Peppers (Directed by Marc Klasfeld)


Honorable Mention:

“Satisfied” – Tom Waits (Directed by Jesse Dylan)

“Blue Tip” – The Cars

“Royal Blue” – Cold War Kids (Live at Third Man Records)


Also of Note:

Nine Types of Light – TV on the Radio (60 minute feature)


The TOP TWENTY ALBUMS of 2011 (The Year-End Awards)

By Chris Moore:

It is the best and truest mark of artistry in the music industry, and sales are no indication of significance.  Sequencing and thematic continuity, sonic experimentation within a basic set of familiar parameters, a healthy range of types and topics: these are the standards by which to judge an album.

The album.

It ascended into an art form in the mid-sixties under the careful work of artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys.  It was taken to new heights with the experimentation of later bands, from the concept albums of the Moody Blues to the spin-off success of artists like Bruce Springsteen.  The album – and rock in general – saw a rebirth in the nineties, with the work of those like Weezer, the Wallflowers, the Barenaked Ladies, and a slew of others who led a surge of excellent rock music.

These days, the album has faced a crossroads.  Specifically, with the advent and surge of digital sales, the physical formats of music are on the chopping block.  Still, with the rise of vinyl sales even as CD sales continue to decline, there is hope yet.  And, contrary to an army of naysayers, there are still excellent albums being made.  This year, as with the past several years that I have been tuned into a vast array of albums, I would say there are about five albums that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and compete for top spots when I eventually get around to my Best Albums of All Time list.  Which, at this point, might have to wait until I hit retirement.

But, for the moment, you have my Best Albums of 2011 list, and if you’re interested in reading more about any of these albums, you can access my Weekend Review report (including star rating, production info, and a full review) by simply searching the album title and band name in the search bar above.  And, of course, if you see reason for disagreement or any gaps in my list, it’s up to you to leave comments below.

1)  The Whole Love (Wilco)

2)  The King is Dead (The Decemberists)

3)  Last Night on Earth (Noah & the Whale)

4)  Wasting Light (Foo Fighters)

5)  Bad As Me (Tom Waits)

6)  Unfortunate Casino (Gerry Beckley)

7)  The King of Limbs (Radiohead)

8)  Yuck (Yuck)

9)  Lasers (Lupe Fiasco)

10) W H O K I L L (The Tune-Yards)

11) The Graduation Ceremony (Joseph Arthur)

12) Vol. 2: High and Inside (The Baseball Project)

13) Collapse Into Now (R.E.M.)

14) Move Like This (The Cars)

15) The Valley (Eisley)

16) Cloud Maintenance (Kevin Hearn)

17) I’m With You (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

18) Alpocalypse (Weird Al Yankovic)

19) No Color (The Dodos)

20) Nighty Night (8in8)


Honorable Mention:

The Way It Was (Parachute)

The Dreamer, The Believer (Common)