Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  3.5 / 5 stars

For over a decade, Brian Burton has made it his business to strike up some of the most unique alliances between artists and genres, and the results have, to a surprising degree, been both fascinating and entertaining.

Anyone who knows music knows that one or the other is fairly simple to achieve; any project able to be described by both modifiers is impressive.

You will likely have heard of Burton by his nom de plume Danger Mouse — or perhaps, more anonymously, as one half of Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, or Danger Doom.  If you are one of the few who read liner notes, then you would also recognize him as the producer of recent albums by Beck and the Black Keys, among others.

If you are reading about him here for the first time, then you will most certainly recognize him as an artist who revels in the blending of elements that otherwise wouldn’t overlap under normal circumstances.  It is his affinity for such ventures, an attribute that would, in the hands of most artists, result in a disconnected collection of tracks, that drives and distinguishes Dark Night of the Soul.

First, it should be established that this record is defined by the “Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present” formula (i.e. Danger Mouse on synthesizers and other instruments and Sparklehorse’s multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous on guitars among other analog instruments).  Each track was co-written with a guest artist or band, who then sang the lead vocals.  Film maker David Lynch, who collaborated on the album as a whole, is the only guest to sing lead on more than one track.

By all rights, this should be an effort incapable of cohesion.

Instead, Dark Night of the Soul hinges not on the strength of individual tracks, but rather on the effect achieved by the whole.

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

The record is a multi-faceted exploration of the darker sides of humanity and the human psyche.  The first line of the opener, “Revenge,” refers to pain as “a matter of sensation,” the singer directing his lyrics at someone who has “ways of avoiding it all.”  Several tracks later, “Pain” explores the flip side from the perspective of a man — voiced fittingly by Iggy Pop — who “must always feel pain.”

Other songs cover similar ground, notably the latter half’s “Daddy’s Gone” that serves as a thematically relevant flip-side of sorts to “Little Girl,” which came six tracks earlier.  “Insane Lullaby” asserts that “A good life will never be enough,” echoing and extending the sentiment begun earlier in “Angel’s Harp” that “Though you might be walkin’ tall, everybody got a lot to grow.”  Both of these aforementioned track titles draw on the language of soothing religious and children’s music, diction that is belied by the gloomy content of the lyrics.

The final pairing of the album, “Grim Augury” and the title track (tracks 12 and 13), present the final descent into darkness.  Vic Chesnutt’s voicing of the former is additionally haunting following the news of his suicide shortly after recording the song.  His request, then, that his “sweetie” not sing “this sad song, grim augury” seems a moot point, being as it’s an augury after-the-fact for listeners who waited until the recent official release of the album following EMI’s inter-label nonsense.

Still, Chesnutt’s song is perhaps the most dramatic track on the album, lyrically speaking, as he sings: “I was peering in through the picture window.  It was a heart-warming tableau like a Norman Rockwell painting until I zoomed in.”  The haunting scene which he sees is a bloody one and is imbued with portents of violence; up to this point there had only been emotional turmoil and less physical notions of pain.  Even “Just War” could easily be argued in a metaphoric rather than literal sense.

With Chesnutt, there is no question about the “horrible dream” and the true darkness expressed by the track.

In March of this year, four months before the official release of Dark Night of the Soul, Linkous took his own life as well, reportedly by a rifle blast to the chest.  As much as one might accept on an intellectual level that music should be taken for what it is, separate from context, it is difficult to separate the tragic deaths of Linkous and Chesnutt from their performances on this haunting release. (They are, after all, dedicated to the memory of the two artists.)

It is difficult not to listen to these recordings with a renewed sense of their depth.  To be sure, they are not all depressing, but the closest the album comes to upbeat is the reckless tone of “Everytime I’m With You” or the melancholy of “Jaykub.”

So, in the end, you get what you’re promised from the outset, from the title.  It is a bit more serious, a bit more real than most music is able to manage, and it comes at a high price.

Jakob Dylan’s “Women & Country” (2010) – Yes, No, or Maybe So

Jakob Dylan’s Women & Country (2010) – MAYBE NOT

Jakob Dylan's "Women & Country" (2010)

Jakob Dylan's "Women & Country" (2010)


With the most compelling lyrics since his last Wallflowers album, Jakob Dylan continues to putter along with his return-to-roots approach; there are some flashes of brilliance here, yet I simply have to expect more from a man I consider to be one of the most outstanding songwriters of all time.

Top Two Tracks:

“Holy Rollers for Love” & “Standing Eight Count”

Sheryl Crow’s “100 Miles From Memphis” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  1.5 / 5 stars

The sticker on the cover reads: “This album marks a long-awaited return by the 9x Grammy winner to the classic soul sounds that first drew her to making music.”

That may be, but the music she is making now — nearly two decades into her solo recording career — doesn’t hold a candle to the music she was making on her debut effort, never mind the albums that followed.

My criticism is not only that 100 Miles From Memphis has a decidedly retro sound, embracing the “classic soul sounds” for which Crow has such apparent respect.  And the record does have a pervasive retro quality, from the minimalist cover that conjures the vinyl pressings of the past to the background singers that sound like they were hand-picked from the 1950’s and 60’s.

No, my criticism falls upon what should be expected from a songwriter of Crow’s caliber.  Even within the general sound that she clearly had in mind, she could have found room to work creatively and intelligently.  Instead, many tracks, particularly in the first half of the album, suffer from vapid lyricism, the twice-too-long bug, and a serious case of the forgettables:  forgettable instrumentation, forgettable choruses, and even more forgettable background components, both vocals and horns.

The reason that Tuesday Night Music Club soared on the charts and sparked explosive sales (7x platinum and counting) is because it is an excellent album as a whole, composed of individually strong songs.  You must remember them: “Run Baby Run” with its rich reverb and allusive lyrics, “Leaving Las Vegas” replete with murky instrumentation and wonderfully ragged vocals, “All I Wanna Do” and all its various components — distinctive opening, great bass hooks, fun lyrics, catchy chorus, cool solo — that combine to make it one of the premier singles of the nineties (all three songs earn each moment of their respective five minute spans), and “Strong Enough” with sense enough to slow it down and take it acoustically for a while.

Oh, and I almost forgot “The Na-Na Song,” a track whose use of the na-na refrain is balanced by edgy, intelligent lyrics.

Read on for my “Na-Na Watch,” as well as my “Bawk Bawk Ba-bawk Alert.”

Sheryl Crow's "100 Miles From Memphis" (2010)

Sheryl Crow's "100 Miles From Memphis" (2010)

Now, I must go on record here that I do not — repeat NOT — subscribe to the “I wish Sheryl Crow still made music exactly like she did in the nineties” school of thought.

If you read through this album’s reviews on iTunes, you’ll find plenty of them.

I am, rather, a proponent of music that is clearly written in a given songwriter’s own style, whatever that may be at any given time.  If that style is a “return to roots” approach, then the resulting tracks should not simply be imitative of a time period or genre that sparks the songwriter’s interest.  This is the realm of the young artist, experimenting in covers to formulate his/her own style, or of the old and/or lost artist seeking to return to his/her precursors in order to get on a path that will lead to new endeavors.

And I certainly can’t get behind artists who only record acoustic covers and post them online for no profit.

Well, maybe I can get behind that.

The point is that 100 Miles From Memphis is composed of tracks that blend into a fairly homogeneous sound: of guitars, of vocals, etc.  The life in “Our Love is Fading” is lost after about three minutes — and that’s only half way through!  “Eye to Eye” could easily be mistaken for a lost B-side from some forgotten, unsuccessful Motown band.

Then there is “Summer Day,” an upbeat, single-worthy song that indulges in not only the sound of the sixties, but, surprisingly for an artist like Crow, the standard bow to chauvinism embraced in music of the time period, not to mention now.  She sings, “I just wanna be what you want me to.  That summer day changed it all; you came into my life, and you let me fall in love with you.”  The singer wants to conform, and is excited that someone “let” her fall in love?  To be fair, she most likely intends to capture the simplicity of early love, calling on the imagery of summer, but it is just one more reason to treat 100 Miles From Memphis with hesitation.

It should be noted that by “Summer Day,” a mere four songs into the record, there have been two songs that rely heavily on the “na-na” background vocals.

Just saying.

Elsewhere, Crow is concerned about politics and society.  The most obvious example of this is “Say What You Want,” a track on which she unfolds her concerns, yet seems to have confused actual indifference with her typical, at times tongue-in-cheek nonchalance.

There are some standout tracks.  “Peaceful Feeling” almost makes the cut, but for the “ba-ba” backgrounds that sound decidedly like her bandmates are mimicking chickens.  And she joins them before it’s over.  (If someone can formulate a way to listen to this track without hearing “bawk bawk ba-bawk”drowning out the other components, please let me know by commenting below.)

The redeeming songs on this album — and the reason I elevated my review from less than one star to one and a half — are tracks 8, 9, and 10.  “Stop” is perhaps the slowest song on the album, but the lyrics and emotion of her vocals converge and are aptly backed by subdued background vocals and instrumentation.  “Sideways” offers a standout Citizen Cope cover, featuring a beautiful duet with the man himself; the song stretches on a bit, but the length is largely managed by the progressive build-up of the arrangement.

The title track is the one song on the entire album that is imbued with not only a sense of Crow’s mastery of retro sounds but also the incorporation of her own songwriting style.  The background vocals are beautifully reminiscent of the best Motown has to offer.  The band sounds like a Motown studio band, yet they paint the corners with subtle, creative flecks of modernity.  And, above all, Crow’s lead vocal is crisp, a blend between gritty and silky that only she can pull off.

If all the songs on 100 Miles From Memphis were as engaging as “100 Miles From Memphis,” this review would have taken on an entirely different tone.  Indeed, this reviewer wouldn’t have spent so much time the past few days reminiscing about how truly outstanding some of her previous albums have been — Tuesday Night Music Club (1993), The Globe Sessions (1998), & Wildflower (2005).  And I certainly wouldn’t have spent so much time worried that Crow will never quite recapture her creative spirit.  (I’m not exactly having nightmares to the tune of the terrible C’mon C’mon (2002) and the hit-and-miss Detours (2008), but I’m not listening to those albums in the daytime, either.)

Bottom line: I’ll keep buying Crow’s albums, but after two decades, it appears she’s fallen back into the realm of having to prove her viability as an artist.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Mojo” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4 / 5 stars (with “Candy” & “Takin’ My Time”);  4.5 / 5 stars (without)

There is simply no mistaking a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song.

When you hear a single like “Refugee” or “Free Fallin'” on the radio, or in shuffle mode, or in a fast food restaurant, or wherever you may be, the band is recognizable.  Even if something more obscure comes on, say a recent track like “You and Me,” there is no need to call up your Shazam app; there is no mistaking Petty’s distinct nasal twang or Mike Campbell’s hook-laced, jangly guitars.  At worst, they sound like a Byrds cover band fronted by a Bob Dylan impersonator.

At best — and, most often — they are one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.

What does all this have to do with Mojo?

Simply put, Mojo represents a purposeful breakdown (pun intended) of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers formula.  This record finds the band more concerned with experimentation via these blues influenced performances, and as such, the individual members of the band, more than on any other release, serve integral roles in the instrumental soundscapes.  Even on “U.S. 41,” perhaps the most stripped down of tracks, each band member has an interesting, shifting role as the song unfolds.  Campbell’s Kay Jimmy Reed Model guitar joins forces with Scott Thurston’s harmonica to rip schizophrenically through the rhythm section.  Benmont Tench switches temporarily to his Tremolo Steinway, relegating himself largely to the background and yet playing a key role in advancing the serious undertones of the words.

Here, as on all the tracks, Petty’s lead vocal is an instrument unto itself, alternating between creaking and crooning where appropriate.

Later, Campbell’s lead guitar on the standout “Running Man’s Bible” acts more as a backup vocal, answering each of Petty’s lines with a lick here, a riff there.  This is one of their best duets, and their energy on the choruses calls to mind the fact that this pair has been on the proverbial road for what is rapidly approaching four decades.

When I read in one article that Mojo was being recorded with a jam band mentality, I faltered in my enthusiasm.  When another article name-dropped the Allman brothers, I outright grimaced.  The Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers I love have always, regardless of what phase they were in, stood for purposeful rock music.  What I mean by this is that they have consistently eschewed the instrumental self-indulgence that regularly pushes tracks by bands like the Allman brothers into the double digit minute range.  The songs on their debut self-titled release rarely cracked the three minute mark; on the first half, only one track did: “The Wild One, Forever,” clocking in at a whopping 3:01.

In short, I feared that looming self-indulgence, a bug that has bitten many a great band.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "Mojo" (2010)

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "Mojo" (2010)

Instead of a collection of lengthy, live band jams, Mojo instead turned out to be a cohesive trek through a myriad of American milieu.  In many ways, this new record has more to do with their first two records than their most recent ones.  This is not at all to say that they’ve regressed to the simpler arrangements of You’re Gonna Get It! that earned them initial success; this is less a return than a romp through stomping grounds as a more mature, honed group of artists.

Certainly, even the most upbeat tracks on Mojo lack that in-your-face, eager-to-impress youthful energy that characterized their early songs, numbers like “When the Time Comes,” “Listen to Her Heart,” and “American Girl.”

Yet, at the same time, those early tracks lacked the electric mayhem of “Good Enough,” the sinister sneers and downbeats of songs like “I Should Have Known It,” and the beautiful nuances of tracks such as “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove.”

The two songs that leave me aweless are “Candy” and “Takin’ My Time,” the former a snoozer of a blues standard and the latter a lyrically boring, tiring exercise in marching across the speakers.  Each exceeds four minutes in length, and my patience in less than half that.  (Now, the iTunes bonus track “Little Girl Blues,” that’s a song I can get behind, perhaps even as an addition to the album proper.)

Nix these two tracks and this becomes a tightly sequenced thirteen track album.

Despite stretching out instrumentally, many tracks hint at riffs in all the right places, as if to remind the listener that this format is a conscious decision, as opposed to a lack of ability to write songs like they once did.  The lyrics certainly don’t suffer in this venture, “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” being one of the best ballads the band has ever released and “Good Enough” being one of the best vignettes in their catalog, saying so little yet so much.

Thematically, Mojo is a loose but thoughtfully assembled exploration of American society, particularly the ethics and mores that have shaped our nation over the past hundred years.  The concept is not nearly as clearly defined as on The Last DJ, but it is present all the same: in the “mouths to feed” and preferred isolation of “Don’t Pull Me Over,” the “boss man” and the “wages” and the “food on the table” in “U.S. 41”, and, of course, the sin, glory, and freedom in “First Flash of Freedom.”

“Jefferson Jericho Blues” places us at the precipice, in the mind of a man who knows what is right yet “just can’t let go” of what feels better.  This conflict recurs in “High in the Morning,” with a bottle that belongs to the devil and a woman who belongs to the captain.  If these songs can’t be applied as metaphors for individuals in our society, as well as our nation as a whole, then what can?

In these and so many other ways, Mojo is a success.  It may not be comprised of the tightly packaged pop gems we’ve come to expect of the band, but it is still very much a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, and, after eight long years, a strong addition to their considerable catalog.