Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Ray Wylie Hubbard – A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) (Music Review)

A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) cover

Ray Wylie Hubbard - A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)

Ray Wylie Hubbard has been around for decades, but his country-blues style has never found popular appeal. On 2010’s A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), he seems perfectly comfortable with his place in the industry. This is the sound of an experienced, confident artist making the music he wants.

Hubbard’s sound is calm and even, singing over rhythmic, bass-heavy music that recalls the days before country and blues evolved into separate genres. His voice betrays his age, but in this genre, trading energy for soul is always worthwhile. His attitude feels perfectly authentic to his Texas home and blues influence, though it is rarely found in mainstream country. Hubbard is as likely to sing about drugs and wayward women as everyday country life, and these two sides to his persona keep the songs varied and interesting. Bridging the gap are the occasional songs celebrating the music itself (“Down Home Country Blues”) and religious tracks that go beyond the lazy cliches of the genre (“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”).

Hubbard maybe gets a little too slow when he channels the quiet country life (“Tornado Ripe” goes nowhere, and “Wasp’s Nest” is frankly boring), but that’s as close as the album comes to a misstep. It’s an easy one to forgive when he’s willing to go just as far in the opposite direction, with a couple experiments (such as a guest vocalist groaning “Cada día es la Día de los Muertos” over halting drums and electric guitar) that only work due to his laid-back attitude and the wide ground he covers.

Among the most notable songs: The title track’s dreamlike lyrics fit its name and set the tone for the album. “Loose” is an upbeat story reminiscent of John Prine that examines the word “loose” and turns it into an empowering description for a woman. “Black Wings” is a mournful dirge that hints at how important music is to Hubbard when he mixes references to specific instruments and songs in with the emotional lyrics.

A. Enlightenment shows Hubbard arguably at his peak, and makes his lifetime out of the spotlight seem like a crime. Music, life, religion and sin coexist in a string of honest songs that celebrate what country music should be.

Grade: A-

Obits – Moody, Standard and Poor (Music Review)

Moody, Standard and Poor cover

Obits - Moody, Standard and Poor

When the Obits’ first album I Blame You appeared in 2009, it was a breath of fresh air. Two years later, their follow-up Moody, Standard and Poor is much like a second breath of that exact same fresh air. It’s as good as the first one in many ways, but just doesn’t feel nearly as vital.

It’s kind of strange to complain about the album sounding too similar to anything, given how unique the band’s sound is. A bass-heavy, blues-informed garage band, they have a punk energy but the clean sound and slightly abstract lyrics of an indie blues band. Singer Rick Froberg has an intense scream that demands attention, but the taut, frequently-evolving music is what sticks in the listener’s mind. The Obits deserve comparisons to Boston in their accomplishment of creating a distinctive, immediately recognizable sound on their debut.

If anything, Moody, Standard and Poor dials down the musical intensity slightly and explores slightly wider ground lyrically, but this is so subtle that it’s hard to tell if it was intentional. That may be a fertile direction for future Obits albums, but in this one, it just sounds like a collection of second-best songs from the same session as I Blame You. It’s even shorter than that album, at a slim 35 minutes.

The similarities mean that the sound is still great, at least. There isn’t a single minute of filler, and the new songs are welcome. They range from the introspective and (slightly) slow-paced “New August”, which takes time to build a groove, to the angry “No Fly List”, which proves that the band can incorporate punk rock intensity when they want. The mostly instrumental “Spot the Pikey”, with surf riffs leading up to an almost-bored group reciting the song title, has a sense of humor not previously shown.

There are definitely multiple possibilities for evolution in the group’s future. Obviously, it will still sound reminiscent of these past albums, and in some ways it’s unfair to punish them for having developed such an original sound already. But it will be necessary for the Obits to recapture the thrill of discovery and claim the excitement that their style deserves.

Grade: B-

Hank3’s Four September Releases (Music Review)

Though Hank Williams III, or Hank3, revitalized the country music scene with his metal-influenced outlaw approach, he’s seemed to be on a slow decline ever since the seminal Straight To Hell. Though even his lesser output was still notable, everyone has been wondering what would happen once his contract with Curb Records finally ended and their legal and creative feuds would finally be done. As 2011 began and Hank3 was free, though, there were several months of no news at all. When news finally did come, it made up for the long silence: Hank3 released four new albums on the same day in early September, showcasing the variety of directions he was now free to go in.

The albums are out now, and they definitely do have an impressive variety and dedication. They sometimes make an argument that his corporate controllers had kept him from embarrassing mistakes, but they also have some pretty amazing moments that could never have been accomplished as long as he was forced to play it safe and worry about commercial concerns. These may not be the best albums of 2011, but it is the biggest musical event of the year.

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Blitzen Trapper – Wild Mountain Jam and Destroyer of the Void (Music Review)

Like most people, I discovered Blitzen Trapper with their 2008 album Furr. I was impressed enough to check out two more of their releases: Wild Mountain Nation and Destroyer of the Void. This creates a tricky situation for this blog, though: Since I only review works that are new to me, I’m in the position of examining one that pre-dates Furr and one that is more recent, while my main point of reference for Blitzen Trapper’s work is not being reviewed. Hopefully that doesn’t make things too confusing.

Wild Mountain Nation cover

Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation

It’s amazing to see how different Wild Mountain Nation is from the breakout album that came a year later. The elements that would eventually make Furr are all there, from Eric Earley’s simple, high-pitched voice to the weird folk approach of the music. But while Blitzen Trapper now seems like a pretty straightforward indie-rock band with folk and classic rock trappings, Wild Mountain Nation sounds much more like the work of a stoner band.

In some ways, this helps to explain the band’s songs a lot. The hard-to-parse lyrics and meandering styles of Furr make a lot more sense if you imagine a bunch of stoners playing around instead of taking them at face value. Of course, Wild Mountain Nation is much further more out there, with lyrics that don’t seem to be concealing any deeper meanings (“She had a sweet tooth: Kiss-and-tell phone booth”). The music is much rougher, but there is actually more variety throughout the album. “Woof & Warp of the Quiet Giant’s Hem” revolves around a simple synth line with lyrics of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”, while “Summer Town” is a heartfelt ballad whose harmonies and guitar-plucking could have come from any time in the past forty years. “Wild Mtn. Jam” sounds more like a country version of Ween than Ween’s actual country album, but “Murder Babe” could be a testosterone-filled hard rock song if the singer dropped an octave and the band slowed down by about 1/3.

The songs vary from pleasant to jarring, without ever delivering something that truly stands out. It’s not always successful (“The Green King Sings” occasionally sounds like a passive-aggressive band trying to drown out their oblivious singer), but the skill is definitely there. Blitzen Trapper just hadn’t nailed down their sound yet. The only surprise is how suddenly the then-four-year-old band was able to find the right mix for Furr the following year. The experimental, unserious nature is a welcome change from the styles that dominate the indie scene these days, but by coating it in a more staid, folk sound, the band managed to fit in with the modern scene without losing the subversive edge.

Destroyer of the Void cover

Blitzen Trapper - Destroyer of the Void

Once they found that mix, Blitzen Trapper apparently liked it. 2010’s Destroyer of the Void goes further along the path of rich folk-pop with a classic rock influence. The abrasive sounds and occasional yelps are gone, and the epic 6 minute opener makes a sharp contrast to Wild Mountain Nation’s OCD. The strange perspective is still present, along with lyrics that seem to make sense until you try to parse the specifics. It seems like the best way to explain it might be that they have changed from a “stoner band” to one with “psychedelic influences”.

Destroyer doesn’t have any tracks to match Furr’s standouts. Really, Furr’s first half had a more energetic edge that made it immediately appealing and earned some radio play. Destroyer takes its cues from the softer songs. Fortunately, though, it gives them more appeal: Furr seemed to lose its direction whenever the band calmed down, but this new album avoids the lows even if it doesn’t have the highs. It’s consistently good, even if it wouldn’t serve as the catchiest introduction for a new listener.

The sound might be more consistent now, but Blitzen Trapper continues to write interesting new songs instead of revisiting specifics of the past. The only exception is the strange “The Man Who Would Speak True”, a close cousin to Furr‘s “Black River Killer”. Both are murder ballads whose narrator is undeniably evil, but references a moral code that doesn’t quite make sense. The soulful vocals and soft music would normally be used for songs about introspective heroes, putting them at odds with the song’s actual theme. It’s a clever trick, but it mainly works because it is so rare for the band to revisit past styles.

I’m glad Furr led me to try out these two albums. They provided a lot more variety than I expected, and also gave me a new perspective of the album I already knew. Neither were quite as good as Furr had been, but Destroyer did manage to come close. It’s only a few weeks until this band’s next release, and I’m looking forward to it now that I know both how skilled and how experimental they can be.

Wild Mountain Nation: C+

Destroyer of the Void: B

Bob Wayne – Outlaw Carnie (Music Review)

Outlaw Carnie cover

Bob Wayne – Outlaw Carnie

One of the big debates in modern underground country is whether the “outlaw” style revitalized by Hank III has run its course. If you aren’t tired of it yet, then check out Bob Wayne’s Outlaw Carnie album. It may very well be the one that pushes you over the edge.

That’s not to say you won’t enjoy it. A lot of the songs on this album are simple fun, with a real understanding of how to strip a story down to the bare essence of music and lyrics. Wayne’s songwriting is outstanding. But the life depicted here seems almost like a parody of outlaw country: Drinking, fighting, robbing banks, and shooting the cheaters at the card table. Even the songs that start out with some vulnerability are feints, such as the lament about a cheating woman that turns into a claim that he won by cheating on her more. The music is similarly over the top, clearly showing Wayne’s metal roots. Though their country performance is serious, the unsubtle, loud music is at least as far from the country styles of a generation ago as modern pop country is.

The songs are a little better individually than they are as a whole. Apparently Wayne’s vision of a country outlaw involves stubbornly giving himself the victory in almost every story. Whether bragging that his band will back him up in any fight, somehow winning a blind five-against-one gunfight, or even having the ghost of Johnny Cash literally come down from the sky to save him, Wayne doesn’t seem aware of the power of songs about loss. Just look at “Mack”, the story of a “truck-drivin’, gun totin’, meth snorting, blue collar, true American hero”. Wayne never explains what makes this murderous drug smuggler a hero, other than the fact that he’s the protagonist of the song, and that the dealer he kills happens to be worse.

You would never guess much about the real Wayne – a recovering addict who has had experience fighting off demons – from the mask he puts on here. Only “Driven By Demons” shows how a song can be rowdy and rebellious while still acknowledging the cost of that lifestyle. I’m not saying that every one needs to end with the narrator paying a price, but a few more like that would have made the album feel a lot more fleshed out.

Wayne lets the bravado slip for a single song, “Blood to Dust,” which has the most fascinating story and is apparently true. Despite some amateur lyrics (“I was born in 1977, the year that Elvis died and went to Heaven”), it builds up to one of the best country music refrains of the past few years:

They say some things in our lives are best forgotten,

I say those are things that make you who you are.

So be proud of what you got, and where you come from,

‘Cause from blood to dust well it ain’t very far.

This would be a standout track on almost any album.

But for every bright point, Outlaw Carnie has something to counter it. “2012” is an embarrassing spoken-word album closer, mixing junk science with bigotry to argue that an apocalypse would be a blessing. (Did you know the fact that “them Muslims, they’re all multiplying” is one of the reasons that we’d all be better off dead?)

Outlaw Country is an incredibly uneven work. Bob Wayne can write excellent and incisive lyrics, but has no vision for combining them into a cohesive whole. When the quality keeps up for an entire song, the results are great. At his worst, though, he manages to bring down the good songs by association. I enjoy a lot of this, but don’t have much desire to listen to to half of the songs on it any more. It will be fascinating to see how Wayne grows as an artist from here. At least, I sincerely hope that he grows.

Grade: C+

Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (Music Review)

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive cover

Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

“Was a time I would of said them days was gone, but I’m givin’ it another whirl”, sings Steve Earle at the opening of I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. And he is – this album is a return to form for a singer-songwriter who has been frustratingly unfocused of late. The sticker on the CD cover emphasizes this, announcing it as the “first album of new songs in four years”, glossing over the recent live and cover albums. (You’d need to go back seven years, to The Revolution Starts Now, to find his last truly good album.)

As is tradition for Earle, that title track is one of the album standouts and sets the theme for the songs that follow. In this case, “Waitin’ On The Sky” is a personal look back on his life, and introduces a collection of songs loosely about mortality and endings. This is a turn from the more overtly political songs that made up his strongest output in the past decade. Earle only approaches politics in a couple songs: “The Gulf of Mexico” portrays the recent oil spill through the eyes of blue-collar oil workers who know no other way of life, and “God Is God” explains that only a fool would claim to speak for God or know His intent. They seem perfectly harmless and self-evident, but it’s part of Earle’s genius that he can make the claims he does in the conservative language of traditional songs. Most songwriters would have stumbled horribly when hinting at the way large corporations destroy traditions or implying that God is distant from our daily life.

Those political songs are few, though, and the everyman folksiness pervades the entire album. Earle is a countrified version of Springsteen, with a raspy, blues-infused edge that producer T. Bone Burnett brings to the surface here. As a reassuring, traditional Steve Earle album, the review could easily be lifted from one of his past albums: Murder ballad “Molly-O” is an original, but sounds like it must have been a traditional song that was somehow overlooked before. The storytelling songs (“I Am A Wanderer” and “Lonely Are The Free”, along with the opener) showcase Earle’s strengths, while the love songs (like “Every Part Of Me”) are decent but never the highlights. The expected male-female duet, “Heaven or Hell”, is a little weaker than normal – the song needs a little more emotion to sell the claim “I just can’t tell [if] this kinda love comes from Heaven or Hell”. Then there is a half-successful experiment, in this case “Meet Me In the Alleyway”. It’s got a great sound reminiscent of Tom Waits doing Louisiana blues, but its story about dark New Orleans magic is uninteresting.

No songs are bad, though, and every one feels like it has a place on this album. The lesser ones only earn that description next to the frankly stunning standouts. Don’t worry about Steve Earle’s recent missteps; After a 25-year career, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive still sounds like the work of a musician in his prime.

Grade: B+

Enter The Haggis – Gutter Anthems (Music Review)

Gutter Anthems cover

Enter The Haggis - Gutter Anthems

Perhaps it was unfair of me to introduce myself to Enter The Haggis at the same time that I was listening to the Dropkick Murphys’ latest album. Though the band isn’t bad, there is a reason that they have such a small fanbase compared to the Murphys. On the other hand, it might be unfair to make that comparison at all: They may both be American bands with Irish influences, but while the Dropkick Murphys combined that with blue-collar punk, Enter The Haggis dabbles in more straightforward pop.

That’s not to say that the Irish-punk movement has passed by the band completely. Gutter Anthem’s first song (after the instrumental opener) is a hard-rocking ode to alcohol and overindulgence. But, while it’s a good song, it just doesn’t sound natural coming from lead singer Brian Buchanan. His declaration that “we’ll sing a gutter anthem till the day we die!” sounds less like honest self-destruction and more like the stubborn partying of a fresh-faced student who knows that once the hangover subsides, he’ll need to start studying for those finals. The band sounds much more natural singing earnest pop songs about the importance of raising children right (“DNA”) or the way people need to face up to their responsibilities (“Real Life/Alibis”).

That’s not to say that any of the songs are bad. In fact, most of them are well-written. It’s just that the more rocking tracks sound like play-acting (The liner notes for “Noseworthy and Piercy” actually take the time to inform us that 19th-century fishermen had dangerous lives, in case anyone doesn’t understand that from the song), and the poppier ones feel somewhat mundane. The band deserves a small, devoted following, probably near a college somewhere, but it’s only the popularity of Irish fusion that has brought them to national attention. (Also, those aforementioned liner notes do help. Not all of them are necessary, but when they explain inside jokes or tie into the songwriter’s life, I’m sure it helps to turn casual listeners into fans.)

Gutter Anthems also features three instrumentals that testify to the band’s composition and performance skills. Two of them are too short to work as more than glue for the album, but “Murphy’s Ashes” shows how interesting Enter The Haggis can be. Adapting a band-member’s industrial experiment into a legitimate-sounding Irish instrumental was a bold and tricky move, but it turns out that the bagpipes make an effective replacement for synthesizers. It shows that while the band may need some more time to figure out what kind of music they do best, they definitely have the skill to write interesting songs if they figure that out.

Grade: C+

Dropkick Murphys – Going Out In Style (Music Review)

Going Out In Style cover

Dropkick Murphys - Going Out In Style

Don’t let the Dropkick Murphys fool you. Though they named their latest album Going Out In Style, they have no plan to disband anytime soon. They’re an institution now, so much so that their Wikipedia page needs a chart to record the members who have come and gone over the years, and they know exactly how to please their fans with every new album. (It helps that they wait a few years between each release, so there’s never a glut of Murphys music.)

That’s not to say that the Dropkick Murphys sound exactly the same from year to year. Interestingly, Going Out In Style is possibly the Irish punk band’s hardest album yet, but the standard punk signifiers are almost missing. Bagpipes and flutes, which used to appear sporadically for flavor, are now as prominent as the guitars, and a new listener could easily interpret this as an especially raucous Irish band.

Despite this change, the band’s strength is still in how naturally they connect Irish and punk culture. The wild party in Going Out In Style’s title track is a punker’s dream, but the specifics draw from hard-drinking Irish culture. “Sunday Hardcore Matinee” is about going to concerts as a kid, but describes punk shows as a character-building experience that their community-oriented fanbase will embrace. And of course, the Murphys’ rocking renditions of traditional songs (here “Peg of My Heart” and “The Irish Rover”) still sound like they should have been the definitive versions of the songs all along.

Even more than the Irish elements, the thing that really sets the Dropkick Murphys apart from other punk bands is their perspective as mature adults. It’s a traditionally youthful genre, but they manage to sound perfectly natural looking back at a hard-fought life (“Cruel”) or giving life lessons to those around them (“Deeds Not Words”). This element features even more strongly than normal here, with Going Out In Style being billed as a tribute to a (fictional) 78-year-old veteran and longshoreman named Connie Larkin.

In short, the Dropkick Murphys have once again released one of the best legitimate punk albums of the year, while also writing songs that will appeal to a lot of people who would normally even never give punk music a chance.

Grade: A-

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo (Music Review)

Smoke Ring For My Halo cover

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo

The first time I heard Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, my reaction was to try to remember what else he had done. His casual, assured style immediately made me think of Stephen Malkmus or recent Sonic Youth, practiced 90’s slackers who are still recording music. It was actually a surprise when I realized that Vile is someone new to the music scene.

Vile sings in an almost-spoken, laid-back style, which seems like it could become a sneer if he put a little more energy into it. Instead, it comes across as a half-whine, half-stoned sound. His backing band provides simple guitar-based pop with a lazy feel that calls to mind the “smoke rings” of the album’s title: It is fun and relaxing, with no real intention of going anywhere or trying something new.

When this style works, it can be excellent. The first few tracks give off a confident stoner-pop vibe that I really want to like, especially “Jesus Fever” (a perfect song to get lost in, with its folksy guitar and a downer-hook in the repeated line “I’m already gone”). Unfortunately, Vile front-loads the album with his best music, and it starts to wear thin by the end. On a second listen, even the early standouts have started to lose their luster.

The problem is that the lazy slacker sound actually takes a lot of experience to pull off. Bands like Sonic Youth had a full decade to figure out what worked and what didn’t (and at a time when the audience was more forgiving of experimentation). Vile skips over that long career of self-discovery, and tries to start out in the same territory that the masters are currently inhabiting. This quiet, laid-back style only works when it sounds completely effortless, but it paradoxically demands perfectection. A single note or line out of place stands out in these simple, clear songs, and they easily destroy the illusion.

The line between “mesmerizing” and “boring” is very thin for this music, and is mainly determined by whether it supports appropriately compelling vocals. Unfortunately, Vile doesn’t seem to have a grasp on what sounds good or bad coming from his mouth, and lines like “Don’t know if you really came but I feel dumb in asking” cause the entire composition to come crashing down. The slow pace of a song like “Baby’s Arms” is appropriately relaxing, but in a song like “Peeping Tomboy”, it just sounds like Vile is stalling for time.

Smoke Ring For My Halo is the work of some very skilled artists who haven’t yet figured out how to use their talents. I hope that they aren’t quite the slackers that they appear to be, because if they aren’t satisfied with the work here, they could still learn to record a real masterpiece. This album doesn’t seem to have a place now, but it would work well if it could become the occasionally-satisfying introduction to someone who got a lot better.

Grade: C

The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck (Music Review)

All Eternals Deck cover

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck

Ever notice that fantasy and science fiction themes are common in movies and books, but most music is strictly limited to realistic stories? What is it that gives us such different expectations in different genres? The Mountain Goats stand alone as a “serious” indie folk band that is as comfortable with monsters and cultists as with personal, realistic characters.

The trick is to treat both extremes with the same seriousness: Deep, often inscrutable lyrics and three-dimensional characters dominate all the songs. The band’s style, with simple instrumentation putting the focus on John Darnielle’s reedy but earnest voice, makes both the complex and the emotional lyrics succeed. Their latest, All Eternals Deck, is a perfect example of this. The liner notes go into detail about the apparently-fictional Tarot deck that the album takes its name from, and the songs feature vampires and cultists prominently. A first-time listener could easily assume that the entire album dealt with the magical, but in fact quite a few songs (such as the obvious “For Charles Bronson” and “Liza Forever Minnelli”) stay firmly rooted in the real world.

Of course, the stories are deep and interesting in both cases. “Prowl Great Cain” and “Sourdoire Valley Song” provide back-to-back examples, with the first examining the guilty conscience of a grave robber who betrayed a friend, and the second expressing fascination with Neanderthal culture.

“Estate Sale Sign” is arguably an improvement on Jonathan Coulton’s formula, with an intensely nostalgic look through the eyes of an aged cultist selling off his worn-out relics and sacrificial alter. “Damn These Vampires” opens the album with possibly the perfect Mountain Goats song: Featuring a narrator recently turned to vampirism, Darnielle’s voice and the building piano perfectly convey a stark, pained character with only occasional bouts of intense passion to break up a lonely, emotionless existence. But “Never Quite Free” provides a counterpoint to this, with a simple message of hope for a better life despite past tragedies.

If All Eternals Deck has a flaw, it is the inconsistent feel throughout. It’s normal for a Mountain Goats album to feature such wide variety, but so many early songs feature a sense of building doom that it is disappointing for the second half not to offer any pay-off. Despite the hints at a theme, this ends up being a standard collection of Mountain Goats songs. I don’t want to sound ungrateful about that – there are no bad songs here, and the band continues its musical growth from the early lo-fi days, but it often feels on the edge of true greatness, and this is never quite achieved.

Grade: B