By Chris Moore:
The Grand Theatre: Volume 2 (Old 97’s)
Producer: Salim Nourallah
Released: July 5, 2011
Rating: 3 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Manhattan (I’m Done)” & “Brown Haired Daughter”
Oddly enough, it is my pleasure to report on the rockin’ mediocrity of The Grand Theatre: Volume 2. I do, though, need to revise a previous statement. In my Weekend Review of Volume 1, I posited two questions: “Are the best songs being split between both records? If so, then why not make some difficult decisions on the chopping block and release one album that will be the best possible Old 97′s record? If not, then will Volume Two emerge as a sort of b-sides and unreleased tracks compilation that is destined to disappoint in the shadow of Volume One?” In retrospect, I should have added a third question to account for another possibility: that Volume 2 would be an enjoyable record, but with an entirely different feel than Volume 1. Unlike the Barenaked Ladies double-album Are Me/Are Men (which had a united feel throughout both records and the best recordings split between the volumes), the Old 97’s recorded this music during the same set of sessions yet clearly divvied up between two distinct categories: songs that are polished, more artistically rendered and songs that are fun, with a “live” sound. For my personal preference, Volume 1 will always stand out, but Volume 2 is a solid record. I, thus, go on the record as saying that this was the perfect release strategy for this body of music.
All of You (Colbie Caillat)
Producer: Greg Wells, Ken Caillat, Ryan Tedder, Toby Gad, Jason Reeves, & Rick Nowels
Released: July 11, 2011
Rating: 2.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Shadow” & “What If”
In All of You, we find yet another case of Wings syndrome, a condition found predominantly in singer/songwriters who are exceedingly happy in their personal lives. These artists seem to have lost the link to the real world, floating into the blissful ether of cheesy lines and upbeat music untempered by frustration, disappointment, or any other clues to suggest the music is being written by a human being. I have nothing against a good happy song, but for any album to be nothing but pleasant — and simply so – can be oddly grating. It leads an average person to wonder about the writer vaguely burying trouble in “Think Good Thoughts” and optimistically addressing existence in “Dream Life, Life.” What boundaries are there to the dream life? Without some fleshing out of those details, the overall effect falls short. After being introduced to outstanding previous Caillat work, notably “Fallin’ For You,” I was disappointed in the quality of All of You. The trick to beautiful, happy music has always seemed to lie in the subtle artistry. The best, happiest Jack Johnson music, for instance, has always suggested a wink around the corner, a clever grin waiting to happen, sometimes even a regret or an irritation. In much of Caillat’s previous work, there has been a sense of beautiful possibilities on the verge of coming true; on All of You, it seems the fairy tale has taken over. (Though, to be fair, the closing track “Make It Rain” serves as a reminder of her emotional range.)
Sky Full of Holes (Fountains of Wayne)
Released: July 20, 2011
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” & “Acela”
For the first time in eight years, since 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, I can honestly return to Fountains of Wayne without shaking my head. It is a testament to the backsliding inherent in Traffic & Weather (2007) that I haven’t been excited about anything from Fountains of Wayne since I heard it. When I have returned to Welcome Interstate Managers, I’ve been instantly drawn back into its dynamic magnetism. That being said, I’ve all but ignored their back catalog, haven’t even heard Traffic & Weather all the way through, and was not excited about this year’s Sky Full of Holes in the least. For some reason, though, I did buy it. (I’ll go on record here, though, as saying I don’t and have never owned a copy of Traffic.) So strong was this distaste for their previous record that I’ve only recently grown to fully appreciate Sky Full of Holes: the folksy charm, the range apparent in the instrumentation and even the lyricism. The same characteristic Fountains of Wayne wit and voice are maintained throughout, yet there is a sense of returning to roots and to rock here in the best sense: embracing the acoustic guitar, lacing the best tracks with guitar solos and lush vocals. In short, Sky Full of Holes isn’t so much a return to form as it is a step forward in their career. Does it match the peaks of their 2003 masterpiece? Not quite. But it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Rabbits on the Run (Vanessa Carlton)
Producer: Steve Osborne
Released: July 26, 2011
Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “I Don’t Want to Be a Bride” & “Dear California”
Though she can probably best be described, from the public view at least, as a one-hit wonder, Vanessa Carlton continues to labor artistically, successfully in relative obscurity. To be certain, there are echoes of her previous work here on Rabbits on the Run, but there is also a vitality, an authenticity to her delivery that was probably lacking on her early work. As the cover would suggest, her new album is simple effort: ten tracks that rely most heavily on the gorgeous triad of vocals, piano (and other real instruments), and lyrics. Guitars are used to great effect throughout, particularly on a standout like “Dear California,” a track that cleverly employs the “Surfin’” lineup of guitar, bass, and simple drums, with some Carlton-tinged piano thrown in to color the recording to fit her work, immediately flowing back into her characteristic cross between upbeat and murky, soaring and haunting, in “Tall Tales for Spring.” The pinnacle, though, comes early in “I Don’t Want to Be a Bride,” a sparsely arranged statement of standing apart from societal and family expectations in confidence of one’s self and one’s relationship, expressing an independence from institutions and documents in favor of the abstract concepts purportedly expressed in the aforementioned conventions.
Back Pages (America)
Released: July 26, 2011
Rating: 2 / 5 stars
Top Two Tracks: “Caroline No” & “A Road Song”
Nothing smells quite so stale as an album of covers billed as a “new studio album,” released over four and a half years after the previous studio album. In America’s case, Back Pages is hardly a quality follow-up to the heights of 2007’s excellent, modern-feeling Here & Now or their album before that, 1998’s Human Nature. I suppose, considering their previous two releases, it should come as no surprise that any album would have a difficult time living up to recent memory. But a covers album? Back Pages didn’t stand a chance. For the true fan, there are obvious high points: particularly on their sweet, sublime rendition of Pet Sounds alum “Caroline No” and in the obligatory “America” cover, which was truly a nice touch. Probably the best track on the album is “A Road Song,” in the sense that it sounds vital, new… probably because it is: America released this Fountains of Wayne cover a matter of days before they released their recording. That is what is perhaps most disappointing about Back Pages: it only serves as a reminder of the uniquely excellent work that has come before and the promise of what might be yet to come. If I wanted to hear an excellent New Radicals cover, I would’ve turned to Hall and Oates. However, I expect more from an America release.