The Weekend Review: July 2011 Report

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.

Addendum to the March 2011 Report: The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

Well, I somehow missed a brand new album from one of my all-time favorite artists that was released in March.  And I also listened to Lupe Fiasco for the first time, specifically to his album that was released in March.

Thus, I give you the addendum to my March 2011 Weekend Review report.

FYI: The word online is that Beckley’s Unfortunate Casino is the precursor to a new America album to be released later this year or early in 2012.  As was the case with 2006’s Horizontal Fall and 2007’s Here and Now, it has been suggested that the songs that didn’t make the forthcoming America album are the ones that you’ll find on his solo disc.  If that is true, then we’re in for a real treat when the America record drops!

Unfortunate Casino
Gerry Beckley
Producer:

Released:
March 31, 2011

Rating:
4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Hello” & “Feel”

Despite mixed reviews by fans and critics alike, Unfortunate Casino – for all intents and purposes Gerry Beckley’s third studio album – retains some of the best qualities of Van Go Gan (1995) and Horizontal Fall (2006) in a more concise package while covering sonic ground not explored on the aforementioned discs.

How Unfortunate Casino received harsher criticism than 2000’s remix disc Go Man Go is beyond me.

Still, much of the criticism is understandable, as the relative brevity of Unfortunate Casino’s ten tracks fall short of the soaring electric solos and overall energy of Van Go Gan.  It would also be difficult to argue that this new release has the same expansive ambition and the track-by-track songwriting excellence that was evident on Horizontal Fall.  All in all, this album is strikingly different from its predecessors, if only for its reliance on stripped down, slower tracks to lead in the album.There is no individual song to match the power pop brilliance of “Emma.”  There are sparks in “Remembering” and the title track, yet in many ways, the album doesn’t really kick into high gear until the second half with the lively “Feel” and “Hello.”  Some have attacked the lyrics on this latest release as insipid, which is ridiculous, especially considering some of the nonsensical tracks Beckley has helped pen in the past.

For the careful listener, Unfortunate Casino explores the themes of chance and change, playing on the obvious casino metaphors with admirable restraint.  Nostalgia and regret are shirked in “Remembering,” just as the present and future are embraced in tracks like “Simpson Sky” and “Feel.”  What is expressed purely in “Always” is held up to question by the greyer lines of “Fortune Fells.”  Frustration is dealt with forebodingly in “Dark River,” which is balanced later by the positive levity of “Hello.”

Balance is perhaps the best modifier for Unfortunate Casino, along with concise – I’ll take its ten strong tracks over Van Go Gan’s eighteen of fluctuating quality.  It is not better or maybe even as strong as Horizontal Fall, but it is a good album and a worthy addition to Beckley’s catalog.

 

Lasers
Lupe FiascoProducer:
Lupe Fiasco, et alReleased:
March 8, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“State Run Radio” & “Words I Never Said”

Politically-charged and clearly driven by anger, or at least angst, Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers is enigmatic for its simultaneous endorsement of disengaging from the system.  As a whole, Lasers is the only album I’ve ever listened to that both protests and subscribes to apathy, though the former seems to win out in the end with Fiasco’s consistent call for change and carefully placed qualifiers like the “wanna” in “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now.”

Sonically, Lasers covers a range of sounds and draws textures from a variety of genres without resorting to the time-tested rap topics of drugs, hoes, and violence.  Fiasco’s modus operandi is to avoid the norm, to speak out against what he sees as the perpetuators and enablers of violence and corruption in society.  I have never understood listeners who bristle at the first sign of social commentary, and in fact, I’ve always found those who do so with artistry and a sense of balance to be the most interesting songwriters (i.e. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, George Harrison, Woody Guthrie, and the list goes on…).

Fiasco is successful on songs like “The Show Goes On” with its catchy melody and lyrical middle finger to abusive power or “All Black Everything,” a track that plays out like a blend between rap and Sinatra, imagining a world fundamentally changed as the conception of slavery is prevented; the effects resemble an exercise in imaginative butterfly effect theory.  Lyrically and sonically, “State Run Radio” is perhaps the strongest example of this type of song on the album, verging on being more of a pop/rock track than a rap song.  Still, with every politically-charged writer, there is the danger of going too far.

Even at the peak of the Dylan protest song era, on 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, there was one thoughtful, lyrically nuanced song for every blatantly political track.  This is, however, not necessarily the case on Lasers.  For those who have followed his recent interactions with the press, it is what can only be referred to as the quasi-extremism of his espoused methodologies that most profoundly weakens the overall impact of his message.  For instance, verbally bashing President Barack Obama – with one liners in songs like “Words I Never Said” and in interviews, such as the most recent and severe when he claimed that Obama is the “biggest terrorist” – is certainly not the way to motivate people like myself to listen more closely.  The fact that his comments appear to be directed at all American presidents and all branches of the government, past and present, does little to blunt the impact of such statements.

Even still, though Fiasco is far from being a poet, I have found his music compelling and catchy, and I continue to return for the core messages, such as the frustration with the seemingly unalterable trends in big business and government policies in “Words I Never Said.”  Even though I cannot support a non-voting stance, I can deeply feel and, to a degree, relate to such lines as those that follow his declaration that he will not participate in politics: “I’m a part of the problem; my problem is I’m peaceful.” 

Lasers will inspire questions and thoughts and perhaps even action; for this, in addition to the more important aspects of the music itself, Fiasco remains an artist worth listening to, whether you consistently agree with him or not.

 

“Glass King” (America Cover)

By Jeff Copperthite:
Welcome to Saturday’s edition of The Laptop Sessions, where I bring you another song by request. This song, while being an Itunes-only purchasable track, is easily one of the coolest songs by America.

The song is called “Glass King” and is written by Dewey Bunnell. It has a great bluesy guitar riff and sung in that classic Dewey style. It easily translates to acoustic since both Dewey & Gerry Beckley are on acoustic guitars when they play this song live. I became an instant fan of this song once I bought their album “Here & Now” on itunes.

Speaking of which, it is a great, great album. This song should really have been part of it, instead of as a bonus track. Don’t get me wrong – the songs that are part of the “official” album are all great in their own right. After all, it’s America – one of the greatest bands of all!

I hope you enjoy this song, as I am sure this will be added to my live song library for The Laptop Sessions Live Tour (remember, May 16 @ George’s II in Wallingford!)!

Be sure to come back tomorrow, where Jim will kick off another specialty week here at https://www.laptopsessions.com – #1 week! We’ll see you tomorrow for that!

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Jeff’s acoustic cover song music videos are no longer on YouTube, but we decided to keep his cover song blog posts up.  We figured these music blog entries would be good for posterity’s sake and because Jeff always gave such insightful posts each Session.  We hope to see Jeff’s impressive catalog of acoustic rock songs here on the Laptop Sessions cover songs and original music blog again in the future.  But, for now, please make sure to check-out hundreds of other acoustic cover songs from all of your favorite bands here on the Laptop Sessions music blog!

“Tin Man” (America Cover)

By Jeff Copperthite:

Thank you for coming by to check out today’s edition of The Laptop Sessions! I am pleased to bring another great cover song video to you today. And it’s a band we have happily covered before (this is my 3rd personally).

Going back to another America song, and another Dewey Bunnell written song, I bring you “Tin Man” from their album “Holiday”. This song was extremely popular (though not quite as much as “A Horse With No Name”) and it helped the album reach gold status. I love the catchy guitar riff and the simple, yet effective vocals to the song.

My fingers are in such pain after doing this song. The main progression is Gmaj7 and Cmaj7, and I decided I wanted to use the exact chord fingerings that Dewey uses. I’m happy it came out well, but i’m sure you’ll notice me having fun with the Gmaj7 chord. That particular fingering can give me some problems, but in this take I did a pretty good job with it.

I hope you enjoy today’s session, and come back tomorrow for another Original song from the one, the only, Jim Fusco! (EDIT: Sorry, was quite sleepy yesterday)

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Jeff’s acoustic cover song music videos are no longer on YouTube, but we decided to keep his cover song blog posts up.  We figured these music blog entries would be good for posterity’s sake and because Jeff always gave such insightful posts each Session.  We hope to see Jeff’s impressive catalog of acoustic rock songs here on the Laptop Sessions cover songs and original music blog again in the future.  But, for now, please make sure to check-out hundreds of other acoustic cover songs from all of your favorite bands here on the Laptop Sessions music blog!