Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Hank3’s 2013 Releases (Music Review)

Two years ago, Hank3 released four albums from very different genres. Some were much better than others. Now he’s back with two albums (one a double) that total almost two and a half hours of playtime. It’s not surprising that one of them is country (Brothers of the 4×4) and the other punk (A Fiendish Threat), but it is interesting to see that neither is very similar to what he was doing in 2011. Love him or hate him, it’s obvious that he’s always pushing himself and unwilling to play it safe.

A Fiendish Threat cover

Hank3 – A Fiendish Threat

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The punk album is disappointing. It’s not bad, but it rarely feels like his heart is in it, either. It became obvious with his last crop of releases that Hank3 has only a passing interest in lyrics and mostly focuses on constructing soundscapes. But punk has to be a lot more about the lyrics and less about the “construction”, so it mainly sounds like an imitation of a genre he’s interested in. Some songs use sped-up country instruments and rhythms, which add a unique twist, but otherwise this doesn’t stand out. Hank3 needs to find a producer and editor he can trust, rather than running everything himself, because someone else would have made this leaner and shorter. More importantly, Hank3 needs to figure out what he wants to say when he does this. It’s a good sound, but it’s not compelling punk.

Brothers of the 4x4 cover

Hank3 – Brothers of the 4×4

Brothers of the 4×4, on the other hand, is one of his best albums. He obviously isn’t beholden to the over-the-top rebellion he pioneered in the last decade, but he isn’t necessarily interested in returning to his early traditional music, either. That rebel is still part of him, but he doesn’t feel the need to press the issue. Songs here are more likely to be about complex relationships or his love of nature as partying and fighting. In fact, “Farthest Away” is a surprisingly introspective song about a relationship growing cold, and in “The Outdoor Plan” he sounds more excited about finding bear tracks than he used to be about drugs. He even talks about wanting to find a woman to settle down with. There’s no doubt that this is an honest slice of life from someone who refuses to be pigeonholed by anything in his past.

The songs are long, though. Almost half of them cross the six-minute mark, and album-opener “Nearly Gone” is eight and a half. The first time I listened to it, I was saying “this sounds good, but it’s a bit long” by four minutes. Long, repetitive refrains and instrumental breaks are used in almost every song.

They sound good, though, and I enjoy it now that I’m over the initial shock. Hank3 has written good songs, and he takes the time to play with each one’s sound. I wouldn’t quite call this his “jam band album”, but if I wanted to convince someone from that scene to try country music, this wouldn’t be a bad album to start with. Each song does have a distinct sound, from the electric riffs in “Hurtin For Certin” to the clawhammer banjo in “Possum In A Tree”.

The lyrics are still sometimes weak. I can ignore the repeated “Losing like a loser who’s got nothing to lose” in the otherwise-good “Deep Scars”, but “Held Up” is nothing but bad repetitive rhymes about visiting each southern state. (“Ain’t nothin’ like the feel of Virginia’s vagine.” Seriously?) Hank3 isn’t stuck in the trap of repeating themes from old albums, though, as he seemed to be in 2011, and so they are almost always new and interesting enough to carry the songs.

The 89-minute running time gives me plenty of chances to enjoy it and then to get bored. As with A Fiendish Threat, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone else to force Hank3 to pare this down sometimes. However, most of it is very good, and I think that almost every song on here will be someone’s favorite. Personally, I keep coming back to the catchy “Hurtin for Certin”, the freewheeling groove of “Dread Full Drive” and “Toothpickin”, and the depressed, human groove of “Deep Scars” and “Farthest Away”. “Looky Yonder Commin” is also a great song full of personality and confidence, which surprised me because the odes to his coon-hunting dog were the weakest part of his last country albums.

A lot of baggage and expectations always come along with Hank3’s new albums, but if you set all that aside and just look at the music, Brothers of the 4×4 may be his strongest country effort ever. He’s confident and experienced, and that rebel energy that could have driven him to an early grave has instead been harnessed to keep him experimenting with new sounds. This one has a couple songs that just need to go, and several more that should have been cut back, but there’s still more than one full album of great stuff here.

A Fiendish Threat: C

Brothers of the 4×4: B+

 
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Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Music Review)

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You cover

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case has covered a wide variety of styles in her career, from sedate to swinging and from honest to impenetrable. Since finding success, though, she has stayed fairly settled: Simple symphonic music sets off her clear voice, letting her seem simultaneously exposed and in control. Her lyrics are compelling, but usually impossible to interpret clearly, and even the songs that sound personal are not. This paradoxical mix has won her acclaim, but honestly it’s been a few albums since I really enjoyed her songs. They seem to promise a lot, but aren’t very satisfying.

That changes with her new release, which has the attention-grabbing title The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It is similar to those last few, with very little sign of the Case who used to sing with Maow, The New Pornographers, or on solo country albums. But this finally has a strong personal feeling to it. Maybe it’s as much an act as the old albums, but for once I feel like I’m listening to a person, not to a brand carefully test-marketed to hipsters.

That makes a huge difference, because Case’s power and confidence is incredible when I can accept it. These songs are beautiful, and while there are still some inscrutable lyrics, there are also entire songs that are straightforward. If the only frequent theme in the last few albums was cheering on nature and animals against mankind, this one has her taking a place among humanity. The repeated theme here is of woman standing up for themselves and reaching their potential. There is also “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”, a message to an abused child which contains too many details not to feel true. That song has no musical accompaniment and feels emotionally naked. In less confident hands, it would seem like a cynical attention-grab, but here it’s an honest attempt to struggle with a difficult topic.

Not that everything on The Worse Things Get is straightforward. There are plenty of lines like “I’m a Friday night girl bracing for Sunday to come”, and those messages of female empowerment come from unexpected angles (“hey little girl, would you like to be the King’s pet or the King?”) This is an album that feels both complex and simple at the same time. Of course, that sort of dichotomy has always been a part of Case’s appeal, but this time it’s finally working for me. If you’ve spent the past several years wishing you appreciated Case’s songs, this may be the album you’re waiting for.

Grade: B+

 

Lindi Ortega – Tin Star

Tin Star cover

Lindi Ortega – Tin Star

I can’t believe I only discovered the incredible Lindi Ortega at the start of this year. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I picked up her new album as soon as I heard about it. Tin Star is different than Cigarettes & Truckstops in a lot of ways. Where that last album incorporated a goth-tinged blues and lounge sound, this one is pure country. Also, Cigarettes usually sounded like a performance, while Tin Star seems like a view directly into Ortega’s soul. Possibly because of that, it feels like the younger work of a person who would grow up to sing Cigarettes. Don’t think that means this is worse, though. Tin Star is the rare gem that reminds us why country is considered timeless. The entire genre is justified by the way it produces things like this.

Ortega’s voice is clear and soulful, with just a touch of smokiness that she can call on when needed. Her band sounds like, and may be, a collection of Nashville’s better sessions players who are thrilled to be finally working on the kind of music that drew them into the business. The tracks include a few songs about love and loss, but the dominant theme is Ortega’s career and love of music. The title track is a sad (and hopefully mistaken) acceptance that she’ll never become successful, while “All These Cats” is the ass-kicking answer to that: Ortega adopts a rockabilly style and tells the haters that they’ll never stop her. “Gypsy Child” and “Songs About” are also about the way she could never take music out of her life, and she sounds very happy despite the sadness in the title track.

I unironically and unthinkingly love this album. Ortega’s beautiful voice and personal-but-polished style makes it seem wrong to examine this critically. Part of me does know that absent her style, most of the songs would be generic country standbys. But how could I subtract the artist’s unique style from my calculations? Besides, she does have a dark sensibility that makes her unique in Nashville. That only shows up once here, on “Lived and Died Alone”, but that song is a stunner. It’s a disarmingly beautiful tale of necrophilia as metaphor for a lonely, overly-empathetic life. It’s not off-putting or gimmicky at all, and it gives Tin Star the twist that protects it from any claim of being filled with “standard country songs”,

I also can’t bring myself to proclaim this a classic, because I hope to hear about more than just her love of music, and also songs like “Lived And Died Alone” show us how much more Ortega is capable of. Every track on Tin Star deserved to make the cut, but I still expect to see a day when she’s gone even beyond those. I may wish that I’d discovered Ortega years ago in her fully independent days, but I can at least be glad that I found her while she was still on the rise.

Grade: A-

 

Future of the Left – Human Death (Music Review)

Human Death cover

Future of the Left – Human Death

As a quick follow-up to last week’s Future of the Left review, I want to mention that in addition to How To Stop Your Brain In an Accident and Love Songs for Our Husbands, they released an additional “sessions EP” to people who backed their crowdfunding project. Human Death shows that the band definitely has a firm grasp on its strengths; This is twenty minutes of perfectly fine songs that, with one exception, would never have any chance of making it to a full album.

That’s not to say it’s bad. In some ways, there’s something very relaxing about listening to B-sides from a band you like and knowing that none of them need to very good. Future of the Left’s albums always distract me with worries about whether the band is living up to my expectations. For a side project like this, I don’t have any expectations.

This also seems like it was a place to put songs that didn’t sound quite like the rest of them. Where the band usually relies on heavy percussion to underscore Falco’s staccato delivery, these songs are softer and actually more melodic. It’s a nice change of pace, and I’m not sure what to make of the decision to keep songs like this out of the way. Not that these tracks specifically should have gone on another album – the lyrics don’t live up to the standards of the A-sides – but I hope to hear more like this from the band in the future.

As a good sessions EP should have, there’s one standout track that fans need to track down. “Not Entirely Present” is a catchy, off-kilter pop song that features a simple folk-rock backing while Falco spits out inscrutable lines.

That one track doesn’t make me recommend the EP. Human Death is a pleasant but definitely inessential companion to Future of the Left’s main release this year. I’m strangely happy with it, thanks to the way it manages expectations, and I hope that this experimentation leads the band down new paths in the future, but I don’t have any illusions about the actual quality of it either.

Grade: C+

 

Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident (Music Review)

How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident cover

Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident

I guess I didn’t have to worry about Future of the Left after all. Last year’s The Plot Against Common Sense was musically strong but lyrically weak, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Falco’s brilliant sarcasm was wasted on its easy targets, and it lacked the truly weird choices of words that define this band and Mclusky before it. This year, the band shook off the traditional record industry connections and crowdfunded a crazy, wide-ranging album that finally lives up to my expectations. How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident, which is officially released today, is what I want from post-hardcore absurdism.

Falco will never stop having things to say, but this time around he manages to convey a general disdain for society and popular culture without dumbing it down to make specific statements. Compare this album’s “Singing of the Bonesaws” to the last one’s “Robocop 4 – Fuck Off Robocop”. Both are bitter, semi-spoken word complaints about the entertainment industry, but last year’s take was more like a comedy routine worth listening to once. “Bonesaws” is a legitimate song, and possibly the high point of the album, with a hard-to-follow logic that makes it worth returning to over and over. Halfway through, it becomes a shaggy dog tale about his family being killed by the psychic blow of wasted lives on MTV. It’s catchy and quirky enough to feel nothing like a lecture, and it has the weirdest verbal hook you’ll hear all year. (“It bursts from the screen and into their eyes and their hearts and their minds and their tits and their pits”.)

There are some weak points. Songs like “Things To Say To Friendly Policemen” and “Future Child Embarrassment Matrix” feel like lists without much inspiration behind them (though “Policemen” has the best electro-rock riffs of the album”), and there are a few spots like the opening of “How To Spot A Record Company” where both the music and vocals feel too fractured for me to care. But the more I listen to it, the harder it is for me to find parts to complain about. Initially boring songs like “French Lessons” turn out to have interesting messages. In fact, Future of the Left is becoming more adept at a wide variety of sounds, with that and “Why Aren’t I Going To Hell?” filling out the “tender” side of the equation. Falco is probably tired of hearing his new band compared to Mclusky, but with this album I think it’s fair to say that Future of the Left is a multi-faceted band with their “post-Mclusky” sound being only part of their charm. They haven’t hit Mclusky’s high points yet, but they’re still making great music.

Backers of their crowd-funding effort also received the EP Love Songs for Our Husbands, and it focuses the things I most want from this band into four short, brutal tracks. True, it’s only nine minutes long, and one of the songs (“The Male Gaze”) is also on How To Stop Your Brain, so it’s hard to call this essential. But this is the band unhinged, free to turn up the volume and yell out inanities. I really wish “The Bisexuality of Distance” were on the main album, with its unrelenting guitars and unhinged lyrics that are too clever to have been written as quickly as they seem. They follow that up with “An Idiot’s Idea of Ireland”, which is one of their most successful efforts at making a point without watering down the song (“I’ve been there twice/once in a dream state that lasted for most of my youth/Two years ago/we stopped off in Dublin/and wondered if Warsaw had moved”).

I still approach every Future of the Left album with unfair expectations, and I’m always disappointed that they have to include some filler. But How To Stop Your Brain moves closer to my hope of what this band can be.

How To Stop Your Brain in an Accident: B+

Love Songs For Our Husbands: A-

 

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward (Music Review)

Gone Away Backward cover

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward

Robbie Fulks held an interesting position in the early days of alt country: He was justly regarded as a genius, but never quite fit into the scene. Fulks was just a little too authentic, and could be as dismissive of elitist alt-country poseurs as he was of brainless pop country culture. In context, it’s not too surprising that he would return from a years-long semi-hiatus with an album like Gone Away Backwards. This is a set of no-frills country songs that could be mistaken for a time capsule from half a century ago. Full of slow, mournful ballads and an old man’s sensibility, it has little of the commercial appeal that was peppered through his old albums. All his past releases mixed things up with a few gimmicky songs or sarcastic attacks on tradition, but there’s no change of pace here.

That’s not to say that Gone Away Backwards is disappointing. On the contrary, it may be Fulks’ masterwork. “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” opens the album with one of the most philosophical drunkards I’ve heard in song, and the winding narration of “The Many Disguises of God” starts with a new father’s thoughts and proceeds through the world’s atrocities and sorrows. The dominant theme is that of an old man looking back at life with regret, and I hope that’s not entirely autobiographical. But the prevailing atmosphere is that of “the country”, and this album seems to be Fulks’ thesis on that oft-maligned concept. With deep lyrics and strong emotion, Fulks describes a culture that’s nothing like the one that the music industry wants to commoditize for us.

The themes of regretful life and country culture mix frequently, including “That’s Where I’m From”, the spiritual heart of the album. It sounds at first like one of those “country checklist” songs that pop stars like to sing to let you know exactly how to be like them, with lines like “that’s where I’m from, where time passes slower, that’s where I’m from, where it’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir’”. But how many songs like that would close with “some place I can’t go home to, that’s where I’m from”? The song contains a real look at the things that may make someone try to leave the culture, and faces the fact that remaining “country” in the city is a mixed blessing. In contrast to songs that say “everyone should be this way”, Fulks sees his roots as a personal thing and only wants to explain, not convert.

This album was produced by Steve Albini, and he was a perfect choice. His gift for making musicians sound “like themselves” was exactly what this stripped-down performance needed. Fulks and his music are clear and crisp, with both the skill and imperfections laid out for the world. After this, it’s difficult to listen to Fulks’ last big album, Georgia Hard, without hearing heavy-handed studio effects. In fact, Gone Away Backward is Fulks’ return to Bloodshot Records, and I can’t help but wonder if even a label like Merge was too “big” to let him do something as simple and authentic as this. I’ve expressed conflicted feelings about Bloodshot on this blog before, but their (very light) fingerprint on works like this shows how beneficial they can be.

This may not be an immediately accessible album. The complex lyrics reward multiple listens, though, and without betraying the simple hillbilly sound that Fulks has embraced. Most importantly, though, this is exactly the album that he wanted to make. Gone Away Backward is a strong vision from an underappreciated artist, and there were no compromises in its creation.

Grade: A

Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing (Music Review)

The Value of Nothing cover

Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing

The last time I reviewed one of Eddie Spaghetti’s solo albums, I suggested that he stop doing so many covers and focus on original material. Well, he wrote all the songs on The Value of Nothing, but it doesn’t help as much as I’d hoped. He partially moves away from the country style he had been using, splitting the difference with the mature rock of Get It Together, Spaghetti’s most recent record with The Supersuckers. Get It Together was an excellent, underrated album, and Spaghetti just can’t duplicate that when playing with just a couple band members and straddling the line between country and rock. If his previous solo work suffered in comparison to the classic songs he was covering, this one can’t help but be compared to Get It Together.

This certainly isn’t all bad. Most notably, “Waste of Time” is a really fun swinging country song about being a lazy slacker. “You Get To Be My Age” is a love song with an unusual perspective, and the personal nature of songs like this make it easier to overlook some of the album’s flaws. “When I Go, I’m Gone” is a quieter version of a song that originally appeared in Get It Together. It’s arguable which is better, and they’re different enough to each stand alone, though this one isn’t exactly essential given that you should already own Get It Together.

Most of the other tracks are nothing special. With the added rock element on this album, it finally makes sense to see Spaghetti on Bloodshot Records. He sounds like yet another aging rock star playing with country sounds and unafraid to experiment, but also not necessarily aware of which experiments worked. He needed someone around to point out that the accordion on “People Are Shit” makes it sound like a bad polka song, instead of another interesting love story. And “If Anyone’s Got The Balls” is a weird, misguided attempt at bragging and some mild obscenity that sounds out of place. (On the other hand, “Fuckin’ With My Head” is a mostly successful use of over-the-top swearing. This is something that The Supersuckers have done well in the past. It may not compare to highlights like “Pretty Fucked Up” from Motherfuckers Be Trippin’, but it’s a decent song.)

Disappointingly, The Value of Nothing continues Spaghetti’s recent trend of fans-only albums that even the fans will enjoy sporadically. There are some good tracks here, but overall, this is the sort of album he can only get away with because he’s capable of doing much better things.

Grade: C