Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Frankie and Johnny (Music Review)

Frankie and Johnny cover

Various Artists - Frankie and Johnny

I’ve seen quite a few albums dedicated to murder ballads, but a CD filled with different renditions of a single one is a bold new idea. “Frankie and Johnny”, the chosen song, is unusual in that it’s about a wronged woman killing her man. It’s one of the classic murder ballads, but not nearly as well-known these days as “Stagger Lee” or “Long Black Veil”, so the tracks still feel fresh. I’d never heard of Righteous Records before this, but I’m intrigued now. Unfortunately, my impression of them after this is mixed.

To begin with, the songs are excellent. All from the first half of the 20th century, the sound and production quality is uniformly clear and rich. That’s unusual for recordings from this era, and many classic, well-written songs are done an injustice by the muddy, washed-out versions we have today. Whether Righteous was responsible for the remastering of these, or if they were just very discriminating in their selection, they deserve congratulations for putting together a compilation that retains the feeling the music must have had at the time it was performed.

Unfortunately, Righteous skimps in other ways. The same heavily-pixelated art is used repeatedly across the CD and booklet, despite having nothing obvious to do with the story, and there is at least one typo in the track list. In place of the rich, fascinating liner notes a project like this could have yielded, all we have is a short essay apparently cribbed from the internet. (Its saving grace is referring readers to Planet Slade, possibly the best website for the history of murder ballads.) There aren’t even any details about when the songs were recorded, or what makes each version notable.

Fortunately, the songs are more important than the album they came in. Despite telling the same story, they are not simply copies of each other. The elements of the songs, both musically and lyrically, are recognizable from track to track, but with constant variations. Across blues, jazz, and country roots styles, it flows together into one long but interesting performance, much like something that today’s culture of remixes might provide. The songs generally agree on some details (when Frankie found out Johnny was “doing her wrong”, she shot him three times with a .44), but constantly change up where the events occurred, what they were wearing, and who the focus should be on. (Ironically, the parts they agree on differ from the actual historical event that inspired the song: Johnny, whose real name was Albert, was shot a single time from a .38 pistol. All the songs gloss over the fact that Frankie was a prostitute and Albert her pimp.) Only Champion Jack Dupree drastically changes the story, turning Johnny into a murderous robber who survives to be captured by the law.

The frustrating part is that, out of the fifteen renditions provided here, seven are instrumentals. A few music-only tracks would add some enjoyable variety, as well as emphasizing the way a recognizable melody is adapted across multiple artists’ styles. But it borders on false advertising that almost half of the songs on this “murder ballad” compilation have no murder in them.

My ideal version of this would replace a few of those with other, more varied recordings of the songs. The perfunctory essay in the CD booklet even mentions that this has been performed by Elvis, Steve Wonder, Gene Simmons and others, but presumably those were too difficult to license. Still, it’s disappointing that they don’t include any of the seven artists they list to demonstrate that the song is a classic.

I do have some misgivings about this compilation, but it is an important document of a little-remembered song. The target audience is probably not very large, but those who like murder ballads or classic recordings will find a lot to like here.

Grade: B-

Woven Bones – In And Out And Back Again (Music Review)

In And Out And Back Again cover

Woven Bones - In And Out And Back Again

Woven Bones have a strong ear for catchy pop hooks, but they bury these under layers of droning guitar and fuzzed-out garage vocals. The small fraction of pop aficionados who will appreciate that combination will find In And Out And Back Again enjoyable and light. That grainy, minimalistic bubble gum picture on the cover is accurate.

Despite the sloppy garage sound, Woven Bones are a tightly knit outfit. Not a beat is out of place, and the confident vocal snarl maintains a constant forward momentum. In And Out demonstrates that Woven Bones has already crafted a more distinctive sound than most bands ever achieve.

This “Woven Bones sound” is both a blessing and a curse. The songs are consistently good, without a single bad moment, but neither does any track work as an obvious standout. And though there is definite variety from track to track (check out the hooky “Your Way With My Life” followed immediately by slow, sinister “Creepy Bone”), it would wear out its welcome if it went past the album’s short 26 minutes. However, it is to the album’s credit that it doesn’t even feel like 26 minutes. It flies by with a constant succession of earworms, and no breaks at which the listener might notice the passage of time. Album-closer “Blind Conscience” does take a minute too long to fade out, but it isn’t until this wind-down that anyone would check their watch.

From what little I can find online, it looks like Woven Bones have released a series of under-the-radar EPs along with this (barely) full-length. I don’t see them breaking through to popular appeal any time soon, but I fully expect them to gain new devoted fans with each release. Their enthusiastic, high-energy twist on a slacker sound remains compelling even after the newness has worn off.

Grade: B

Andrew Jackson Jihad – Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such (Music Review)

Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such cover

Andrew Jackson Jihad - Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such

What makes some jokes worth repeating, but not others? Many people will enjoy watching a funny movie over and over, but it can be almost painful to sit through the act of a comedian you’ve seen before. Funny songs can work either way. Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such, a reissue of Andrew Jackson Jihad’s early releases, shows examples of both extremes.

The songs are stripped-down anti-folk, often nothing more than drums, an acoustic guitar, and Sean Bonnette’s high off-key voice. The music ranges from sweet and folky to an aggressive sound reminiscent of a high-school Modest Mouse cover band. The lyrics are tend towards irreverent, and often obscene, humor. And that’s where my questions about the nature of jokes arise.

Most humor comes from some element of surprise or subverted expectations. If you know what to expect, the joke doesn’t seem as funny any more. I think that comedic movies work so well because they are structured around a plot structure that could just as easily be serious. We rarely enjoy a contextless joke more than once, which is why comedians have such trouble. But when the jokes are mixed with something else, such as a plot arc, they can remain fresh. Perhaps this is because these other elements don’t grow old, so we aren’t bored even when we remember the punchlines. Or perhaps we still enjoy jokes as long as we can share them with someone new, and the unwitting characters in the movie are new to the joke each time.

Andrew Jackson Jihad’s songs work best when they are songs. A few of them are nothing more than funny lyrics, so there is no reason to listen more than once. “Little Brother” is the best example of this, as a musically-deficient song about how the narrator gave his brother fetal alcohol syndrome, but made up for it by buying him a crack whore in grade school. There’s no reason to listen to it a second time. (And without a tolerance for sick humor, many people wouldn’t even want to listen to that one once.) “Smokin'” (a song about cigarettes and being cool) and “Daddy” (about someone whose success is all due to his abusive father) just barely survive on further listens.

However, “Ladykiller” is a wonderful song to listen to over and over again, despite the horrible pun at its core. (Women are attracted to the narrator because he’s such a “lady killer”, but, you know, he also kills ladies.) This is partly because the music is so catchy and upbeat that it could work as a fun pop-folk song if it had different lyrics. But there is also an intriguing character hinted at between the lines of the song: The narrator doesn’t like to kill ladies; he just does it because that’s who he is. It’s the kind of gimmick that falls apart if examined directly, but stays funny when the singer just refers to it obliquely.

Later songs in Candy Cigarettes show a band that has gained a little more subtlety. When the songs stop telling a funny story, and instead focus on amusing but difficult to interpret lyrics, they extend their life quite a bit. As a sort of folk-punk They Might Be Giants, but with the geeky references replaced by stoner concerns, Andrew Jackson Jihad works quite well. “Survival” is an excellent song, throwing out a bunch of conflicting one-liners about “how I learned how to survive”. (Of course, that works as part of the joke, as the song specifically lists screwing with the listeners as a survival tactic. And the excellent Woody Guthrie reference is fun as well.) These elements were still there in their early days (“God Made Dirt” channels their anger very effectively), but improved as time went on.

The other tricky thing about telling jokes is that it is difficult to be serious at the same time. It is fun to hear the thoughts of a mass-murderer in “Bad Stuff” (though it’s another song that wears thin quickly) because we know the singer is not serious. But there are a couple innocently good-natured songs on the album as well, and one of them (“People”) follows “Bad Stuff” immediately. Taking the murderous lyrics with a grain of salt means that the earnest ones sound off. At least in the context of this early work, the band hadn’t yet learned how to make their points mix with the humor.

Candy Cigarettes is a very uneven album. A few songs aren’t very good, and several others only work as one-time novelties. But some of them truly are fun, and I’d even call a few of them excellent. This was my first exposure to the band (on the recommendation of a friend), and I am curious to see where they went from here.

Grade: B-

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard – Old Devils (Music Review)

Old Devils cover

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard - Old Devils

What the hell is Jon Langford thinking? Admittedly, that’s a question I’ve asked myself before. Usually, though, it’s because his latest experiment didn’t work out right. His effort Old Devils, with a band called Skull Orchard, just sticks safely to the aging-rock-star-makes-mature-songs formula. The last time I reviewed an album of his, I gave it a C- for its poor performances of very good songs. This one, with its competent, nearly enjoyable renditions of mediocre songs, earns the same grade for the exact opposite reasons. This isn’t the Jon Langford I’m used to.

Lyrically, the songs are pretty standard fare. “Book of Your Life” is that “I wish I could be more important to you” song that everyone writes at least once, and “Luxury” portrays the expected old rock star’s concern for our materialistic world. Admittedly, the lyrics remain more oblique than we would expect from most people who go the Phil Collins route, though they rarely hide anything too useful below the surface. (Sample lines from “Luxury”: “I’d do anything to please her/ So I bought that brand new freezer/ And I climbed inside”.) Langford almost seems to be inviting the comparison to washed up performers on songs such as “Getting Used To Uselessness” and “Self Portrait” (a dismissive look back on the life of someone much like Langford).

If you’re looking for standout tracks, “1234 Ever” is a fairly catchy opener. “Pieces of the Past” has the most interesting lyrics on the album, looking at the way our history becomes safe and sanitized even as its evils are perpetuated, but you’ll need to overlook a scenery-chewing voiceover and a slightly stilted delivery from Langford in order to appreciate it. And “Strange Ways to Win Wars” works because it communicates its pacifist message in simple, clean terms that seem a lot less self-important than the typical political song.

Throughout the album, Skull Orchard supports Langford with strong, though not showy, arrangements. I don’t think this album is going to leave anyone excited about the band, but it does seem that they have the skill to help any song reach its full potential. As a backing band that leaves the spotlight on the singer-songwriter, though, they don’t have any tricks that can raise these particular songs above their current level.

Grade: C-

Ida Maria – Fortress ’round My Heart (Music Review)

Fortress 'round My Heart cover

Ida Maria - Fortress 'round My Heart

Ida Maria had one of the best pop songs of 2009 with “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked”. Bratty and fun on the surface, it actually revealed a deep insecurity: “I like you so much better when you’re naked/I like me so much better when you’re naked” was a brilliantly simple depiction of a pained, desperate search for validation. Though the song was excellent, I didn’t expect that the music was aimed at me, and I moved on. But encouraged by a friend who described Ida Maria as his favorite guilty pleasure of the year, I finally tried out a used copy of it.

Fortress ’round My Heart is much like “Better When You’re Naked” leads one to expect. Straightforward, punk-lite songs about youth sung by someone just old enough to offer a mature perspective on it, they never reach the highs of that single, but don’t disappoint either. The songs don’t have any great revelations (“it made me realize how much you wanna give away just to feel loved”), but are never embarrassing, either. The tinge of self-awareness and adult knowledge is subtle enough not to bother the teenagers, but makes the songs accessible to their parents as well.

Singer Ida Maria Sivertsen has a voice that manages to sound vulnerable even when it rises to a punk sneer, and is emotional and introspective when she slips into slower ballads. This goes a long way to making the songs successful, though it must also be said that her singing isn’t very strong. The shouts seem as if they’re struggling to be heard over the music, and the quieter stuff is so breathy as to almost fade away. Sivertsen’s voice defines the personality of the songs, but it would be nice if it grows stronger in future albums.

At just over 30 minutes, Fortress ’round My Heart is a little short, but never has time to wear out its welcome. While the songs are light, they are pleasantly varied enough to support that length: The Regina Spektor-esque meandering on “Queen of the World”, the 80’s-tinged dance beat on “Louie”, and the sparse, mournful singing on “Keep Me Warm” all add dimensions to a narrator who seemed simpler on “Better When You’re Naked”. That could be the thing that keeps Ida Maria from being a one-hit wonder. Whether autobiographical or not, the album does build up a consistent narrative personality, and it is one that fans could happily follow through later releases.

Grade: B-

Jaguar Love – Hologram Jams (Music Review)

Hologram Jams cover

Jaguar Love - Hologram Jams

Spinning out of art-punk bands Blood Brothers and Pretty Girls Make Graves, Jaguar Love seemed to be an attempt to bring a more accessible element to their distinctive sound. Given that it took me a full year to hear that they had released a second album, though, they apparently fell short of any popular appeal. On Hologram Jams, the band is reduced to just ex-Blood Brothers members, with Jay Clark replaced by a drum machine. Most of the Blood Brothers’ original spark is gone, as well.

Hologram Jams ups the ante on both the accessible and off-putting parts of Jaguar Love’s debut, opening up with a heavily electronic beat and a disco bombast. The Blood Brothers’ distinctively aggressive, stream of consciousness lyrics are largely replaced with simple celebrations of partying and youth. If these are meant to be parodies of vapid dance music, the band rarely lets on. A joke played straight for too long can cease to be a joke.

This approach shows some potential on the surprising “Cherry Soda”, which builds up through Whitney’s yowling “jaguar” vocals to a sudden white-guy-club rap: “Sugar-coated cherry soda/puking on the lawn./It’s six AM the party’s over./Everybody’s gone./Rode a motherfucking mastodon to my highschool prom/It’s on it’s on it’s on it’s on like Immigrant Song.” That glorious celebration of ridiculousness in a perversion of mainstream music is the album’s highlight, inviting the listener to laugh at and with the band at the same time. Otherwise, though, the album mainly features high-pitched yowling vocals on top of uninspired drum machine-and-synthesizer compositions.

Towards the end, the focus shifts to a couple slow, angsty songs, which are as embarrassing as the names (“Sad Parade” and “A Prostitute An Angel”) imply. These are the kinds of poems that most highschoolers have the sense to throw away a few years later. What possessed artists who used to be known for their challenging, non-traditional lyrics to publish this stuff? (Fans desperate for a Blood Brothers fix will find some relief in “Up All Night”, “Jaguar Warriors”, and “Evaline”, but they’ll need to pretend that those are just the throwaway tracks from a better album.)

Hologram Jams is dominated by obstinate attempts to insist that Jaguar Love and their music are awesome, despite all evidence to the contrary. The rare times that the curtain is lifted and we see beyond that shallow surface, nothing is there.

Grade: D

Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre, Volume One (Music Review)

The Grand Theatre, Volume One cover

Old 97's - The Grand Theatre, Volume One

I have to admit that I’ve only paid attention to the Old 97’s sporadically. While Wreck Your Life is one of the classic albums of the alt-country era (it’s one of the first CDs I’ll point someone to if they’re curious about what country offers beyond the radio), most of their output is a lot more hit-and-miss. I’ve learned that a typical Old 97’s album has one or two great songs and a bunch of throwaway fluff. But I’m glad I decided to check out their 2010 album, The Grand Theatre, Volume One.

Grand Theatre finds the band with a much broader range than they did in their Bloodshot Records days. A couple of excellent country songs are found in the middle, and honestly, they’re still the highlight. Many of the tracks focus much more on the rock side of their “country-rock” formula, with mixed results. Overall, they have a Wilco-meets-Fountains of Wayne simplicity that speaks of older men confidently stepping into territory normally reserved for the young. When they focus on more complex musical arrangements that show off their country roots, such as the last half of “The Magician”, they give a rarely-heard depth to pop-rock. When the music takes a backstage to the sometimes pointless singing, such as the first half of “The Magician”, the only saving grace is that frontman Rhett Miller seems to be in a hurry to get the song over with.

Both for good and ill, those aren’t the only styles that the Old 97’s experiment with. A couple songs slip almost into a stoner vibe, but from very different directions: “You Were Born To Be In Battle” features Miller singing over a smooth, dark country groove, while the slow-building “Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving” could almost be a trippy Cracker outtake. Both are good, but per the usual Old 97’s rule, the country song is the memorable one.

The only complete failures on the album are the two attempts at smooth ballads, which are as insipid as their names imply (“Love Is What You Are” and “The Beauty Marks”). But the highlights are worth waiting for. “A State Of Texas” demonstrates just what the band was aiming for through the country-rock songs on the album, and succeeds enough to justify any missteps elsewhere. And “Champaign, Illinois” puts a brash, confident twist on the music from “Desolation Row” but provides completely new lyrics which, while maybe not Dylan-level, are still good enough to justify that bold move.

It appears that any Old 97’s album will be marked by highs and lows. However, The Grand Theatre’s highs are especially memorable, and most of the lesser tracks are still strong enough to add to the experience. This isn’t the sort of classic that I used to want from each Old 97’s release, but it’s a polished work from a band that sounds like they could keep doing this forever. After this album, I’ve accepted that that’s still a good thing.

Grade: B

Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years (Music Review)

1,000 Years cover

Corin Tucker Band - 1,000 Years

Corin Tucker hasn’t been heard from much since Sleater-Kinney ended. Her long-awaited reappearance, now at the head of The Corin Tucker Band, is sure to thrill some fans and disappoint others. Sleater-Kinney’s final album, The Woods, showed that they didn’t feel beholden to anyone else’s expectations, and so it’s no surprise that the new 1,000 Years rarely sounds like Sleater-Kinney.

Tucker’s voice is still unmistakeable, of course. But she is much more restrained now, usually singing in a low-key, relaxed croon. Occasionally, she slips comfortably into her old hooky vocal catches (in “Half A World Away”) or full-throated rock mode (most notably in the refrainof “Doubt”), but she usually sounds like she expects to be singing for a quiet coffee shop than a raucous crowd.

The band, which includes both a dedicated cellist and violinist, is similarly restrained most of the time. They’re content to try out different sounds on almost every song, starting with a familiar folk-rock but rarely staying there. “Handed Love” builds a bluesy, slightly electronic riff through two quiet minutes before releasing the tension with a half-minute of energy. “1,000 Years” uses a quiet but sinister grinding bass track to give weight to the light acoustic guitar that drives the song, And “Doubt” is simply a balls-out rocker, though its abrupt stop and re-start in the middle makes it less radio-friendly than it seems.

There are a few problems, though. The quiet singing and slow, frequently hesitant music often result in things that feel more like song snippets than complete works. Tucker’s lyrics add to this, with a recurring theme of separation (whether in time or distance) and loss. The narrators grasp for something, but their satisfaction remains as stubbornly out-of-reach as the listener’s. When the lyrics do resolve to specifics, they often go too far to the other extreme. (The last verse of “Half A World Away” explains that it’s literally about a lover gone to deliver aid in Africa. After the bulk of the song is so vague, these eager specifics create an artless contrast.) Overall, Tucker makes an honest attempt at varied, personal topics, but never finds the memorable turns of phrase, revealing lyrics, or hooky sounds that make personal songs successful.

It’s also frustrating that the band can be a little more eager to go loud than Tucker is. Even when they both raise the volume, the music has a tendency to drown out the vocals. Whether this is poor production or an intentional distancing from Sleater-Kinney, it sounds unnatural and draws the attention away from one of the group’s biggest assets.

A lot of talent is evident here, both in Tucker’s solo songwriting and her band’s versatile support. The decision to release this album as “The Corin Tucker Band” rather than simply as a solo “Corin Tucker” was the right one. However, they haven’t yet figured out how to best reach the potential that they show.

Grade: C

OFF! – First Four EPs (Music Review)

First Four EPs cover

OFF! - First Four EPs

Who would’ve expected that the most vital-sounding supergroup in years would be a bunch of middle-aged hardcore musicians? OFF!, whose members come from bands such as Circle Jerks and Rocket From The Crypt, appeared out of nowhere in 2010 to release four EPs, each one squeezing four brutal songs into less than five minutes of playing time. Those are all collected on First Four EPs, which feels like a complete, satisfying album despite its 18-minute length. This approach seems more than a little gimmicky, given that all four EPs and the collection were released in a matter of months, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

The songs are, of course, uniformly short and intense. Though the band only has one speed, they manage to keep each song sounding different. Most manage to squeeze chord changes or a verse-chorus-verse structure in despite their short length, and all of them are distinct musically and lyrically. These are sixteen fleshed out songs, not just throwaway clips. The songs also cover an impressive range of topics, from confrontational political songs to a eulogy for punk singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Quite a few of them address depression and social anxiety. That’s a topic that I’m not used to hearing in punk music, but the band’s honest, straightforward approach makes it seem like the most natural idea in the world. “Blast” is a rare uplifting track, with singer Keith Morris unapologetically celebrating that he “slashed and burned through my fifteen minutes of fame.”

One good thing about the EP format is that there isn’t any space for dead wood, especially with such a short length. There’s not a single disappointing track on this CD. However, the full collection also feels like it lacks standout tracks. One or two longer, meatier songs could have gone a long way towards fleshing this out as an album. That’s the only complaint I can come up with, though. First Four EPs is a stunning argument for the relevance of fierce, vicious hardcore in today’s world.

Grade: A-

Agnostic Front – My Life My Way (Music Review)

My Life My Way cover

Agnostic Front - My Life My Way

When I reviewed the new album from Roger Miret And The Disasters a few weeks ago, I didn’t realize that Miret also had a new release with his original band, Agnostic Front. It’s been four years since their last release, making it the longest gap in the group’s two decades of existence. Maybe that’s to be expected. All these years removed from the youthful energy that pushed them to the top of the New York hardcore scene, what does the band still have to sing about?

In some ways, My Life My Way is a very safe take on what Agnostic Front should be in 2011. The music is almost as intense as ever, though the songs are now consistently two minutes long instead of one. The lyrics focus once again on the punk scene and Miret’s life on the streets, with the difference that his stories are now in the past tense instead of the present.

So is this a retread, or a return to form? Given that Agnostic Front had evolved to cover other topics in the past decade, and that The Disasters seemed to be Miret’s outlet for stories about his youth, one could be forgiven for assuming that it’s the former. The music supports that cynical position: Music has never been Agnostic Front’s strong point, but this album takes their sludgy, undifferentiated metal riffs to a new extreme. After 15-20 listens, I don’t think there’s a single song I could identify with the vocal track removed. (Take out the drums as well, and I don’t know that I’d ever learn to tell them apart, except for the extra-intense “That’s Life” that sounds lifted from their defining Victim In Pain era.)

On a closer listen, though, the lyrics do justify this album. Miret seems to have grown into a more contemplative, adult outlook on life, and his takeaway from a violent youth turns out to be a heartwarming philosophy of self-determination and the power of friendship. True, songs like “Self Pride” and “More Than A Memory” (an ode to a fallen friend) would have fit in at any point in Agnostic Front’s career, but Miret hits those points more than ever in this album. Then he goes a step farther, with life lessons like “sometimes you have to walk away from everything to get a new start” and the acknowledgment on “The Sacrifice” that he hasn’t lived up to the standards set by his heroes. It’s not deep, but it’s heartfelt, and more introspective than you can usually expect from hardcore. The songs are honest, enjoyable, and keep the band moving forward rather than treading water.

It seems that Miret is trying to impart some fatherly wisdom to the next generation of punks. He has enough credibility, and couches the message in vicious enough music, that he may get his message through where actual fathers are failing. If so, good for him. There aren’t many elder statesmen of punk, and Miret’s one of the few possible contenders.

Grade: B-