Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas Reissue (Music Review)

All Hail West Texas cover

The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

Unlike many bands, The Mountain Goats’ recent, semi-major label stuff clearly outdoes the songs from their years in indie obscurity. That makes their new reissue of All Hail West Texas fairly inessential. It’s a classic piece of Mountain Goats history, and has a couple great songs on it. But all their albums have great songs, and it’s a lot easier to find them on the more recent releases. The band hasn’t sold out, lost their focus, or run out of things to say, and John Darnielle has grown as a songwriter and performer since West Texas. The liner notes to West Texas do add some meaningful symbolism to the lo-fi recording, but still, this was sung into a boombox (not even a four-track) minutes after being written. The solo acoustic guitar is functional but little more. Even after being remastered for this release, the quality isn’t as good as the live versions that were already available on YouTube.

I don’t want to distract from the fact that this album was good enough to help launch Darnielle’s career – 4AD picked him up right after this. He has a gift for describing life for the young and marginalized (when the narrator in “Jenny” has a moment of freedom, he explains “we were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have His eyes on”), and really poured his soul into songs that he didn’t expect anyone else to pay attention to. This stripped-down style works best when it portrays righteous anger, as in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton”. But despite all that, there’s no reason to get lost in the Mountain Goats’ daunting discography until you have at least four great releases from after this point.

This reissue adds a few pages of interesting liner notes, as well as seven new tracks which weren’t preserved quite as well as the original album material. Most of those songs either sound like the lesser tracks on the album, or were never completely recorded. (The original recordings are used here, including abrupt stops when the tape runs out.) It does include one great addition to the Mountain Goats’ canon, though: “Indonesia”.

Are you a hardcore Mountain Goats fan who just happens to have a hole in your collection were All Hail West Texas should be? Then this was made just for you. Are you still a casual listener of the band? In that case, don’t worry about this yet. There’s a good chance you’ll become a hardcore fan at some point, and then this will be waiting.

Grade: C+

 
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Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy (Music Review)

Pura Vida Conspiracy cover

Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy

“Gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello is back with Pura Vida Conspiracy, their first album in three years. Once again, they celebrate their own culture with a world-spanning fusion that owes as much to New York City as to their actual roots. It’s  a powerful and liberating sound, though, jumping from raw folk to melodic punk as needed. Sometimes they cover both extremes in one song, as in “Malandrino”. That track demonstrates how a good, simple, heartfelt song can be used in so many ways.

The band is slowly incorporating more wide-ranging styles, especially from Latin America, but the music here is mostly comparable to 2010’s Trans-Continental Hustle. The band is slower and more thoughtful than in their early days, with time for storytelling and long diversions, but the wild heart is not gone. The band has always walked a thin line between parties and lectures, and while their more “mature” style may put them in danger of crossing that line someday, that hasn’t happened yet.

Gogol Bordello also usually strikes a balance between celebrating life and facing down tragedies. That’s where Conspiracy differs the most from Hustle. While the last album was aggressively angry and depressed, even going as far as to call most of their fanbase racist, this one is almost exclusively optimistic. Frontman Eugene Hütz spouts a lot of mystical feel-good lines (“every lifetime, we meet same circle of souls”). The impression is of an enlightened foreigner filled with the Zen-like secrets to a happy life. Of course, the very title of “Pura Vida Conspiracy” undercuts that literal reading, and Hütz is too adept at tweaking the settled mainstream audience that he is performing for. It’s hard to tell what to make of that, but it’s easy enough just to enjoy his charisma and good mood. If Hütz likes to tease you from time to time, that’s just the price of admission to his party.

Pura Vida Conspiracy continues the string of hits for Gogol Bordello. I find some of the mystical-but-not-actionable advice to be silly, but this makes a good counterbalance to some of the darker, more grounded, parts of their catalog. This band shows that it is possible to mature, and even soften your sound, without losing your edge.

Grade: B

 

Transplants – In a Warzone (Music Review)

In a Warzone cover

Transplants – In a Warzone

The Transplants’ debut album has aged much better than most of its pop punk contemporaries, more for its samples, dance hall sounds, and other experimentation than for the rap fusion that dominated it. A decade later, though, their third album is coming out in a very different world. If the envelope-pushing sounds and tough stories of street life were a reaction to the cookie-cutter pop punk of 2002, today the band is apparently reacting to the complete lack of punk culture with a much more straightforward album. In a Warzone is mostly standard songs, calling back to past sounds instead of trying out new ones. The rap rock is still there, though.

It’s amazing how often this album sounds like Rancid lite, with Tim Armstrong being the one member not noticeably weakened by the past decade. A few could easily be Rancid outtakes, right down to the shouts of “Go!” over opening guitar riffs. But while that may sound like an insult, even lesser Rancid albums are pretty great. (Admittedly, I’m a big fan of Armstrong, but I’m trying to ensure my review and grade takes out the less rational part of my fandom.) This album has some fun punk songs like “Back To You” and “Exit The Wasteland”. At first, I thought “Any of Them” was obnoxious and lazy, with its flat, repeated refrain of “No I don’t give a fuck about you or any of them”, but I’ve come to really appreciate the way it is stitched together with varied verses.

There are definitely times that I wish that the full Rancid band were performing a song, and some of the tough stories of street life sound posed and awkward coming from these middle-aged men (“I’ve seen the blood drain through the cracks in the sidewalk”). But the Transplants still let Armstrong try things that he couldn’t do in Rancid, including a wider range of guest artists. Rapper Paul Wall’s turn on “It’s A Problem” sounds as different as the band’s debut album.

It’s hard to say what the Transplants should be in 2013, and In a Warzone is easiest to appreciate if you don’t compare it to their other work. Considered on its own, though, it’s a strong album put out by veterans who know what they’re doing.

Grade: B-

 

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess (Music Review)

Bless This Mess cover

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess

When I reviewed Jayke Orvis’ first album, I said that he needed to find focus in order to make the masterpiece he was obviously capable of. Now he’s back as part of an official band, with a bit more focus, but I wish I hadn’t said that. It’s All Been Said took a long time to grow on me, but it’s an amazing work. Think of it as a stoner mix tape tied together with a strong country music focus, and you’ll have an idea of how it worked. Now, with Bless This Mess, Orvis and The Broken Band have deemphasized that side of him to focus on the country music.

I still believe that Orvis should be able to put out an absolutely stunning album. I see him releasing a work as disruptive and ground-breaking as Hank3’s Straight To Hell, but one that builds on country foundations instead of gleefully tearing at them. Just listen to the opening instrumental of Bless This Mess, which layers traditional country instrumentation in a rich, complex way. Unashamedly country, but intelligent and forward-thinking, this goes far beyond not only from soulless modern pop country, but also from the classics he’s building on.

But an opening instrumental, no matter how strong, needs to lead into another strong song. Instead, only two of the first five tracks on Bless This Mess are originals. As much as I love the culture of traditional songs in country, Orvis feels limited when he’s not doing his own thing. Even the classics generally were not very musically adventurous, and these excellent composers are held back. These tracks are still done well, but the band can’t be entirely themselves. “West Wind”, that other original, is a relief. Thematically similar to the covers around it, it nevertheless lets Orvis mix a confident slacker persona into the upbeat country. Once again, the album brings us something powerful and unique.

After another (great) instrumental, the second half slips plays to their strengths. The charismatic loner of “West Wind” returns on “Crooked Smile” and “Long Way Home”, while “Slow Down” brings some introspection to the album. “Lead Me Astray” touches on that Hank3-style rebelliousness, but with a B-movie ending that feels unique to Orvis’ own tastes. And the sea shanty of “Black Ship” closes it with the sort of experimentation that defined Orvis’ last album. (While an untitled bonus track goes too far out into weird territory, that’s actually reassuring after the more traditional songs that came earlier.)

Bless This Mess suffers as an album by putting an early focus on the things that do not define the band’s strengths. Looking past that, though, this is still a great collection of songs, and The Broken Band is capable of backing up Orvis’ wandering moods. I’m still waiting for that classic album, but releases like Bless This Mess will tide me over nicely.

Grade: B+

 

Tim Timebomb’s New Songs

One big piece of musical news last week was that ex-Operation Ivy bandmates Tim Armstrong and Jesse Michaels recorded a new song. But for me the big surprise was that Armstrong, under the name “Tim Timebomb“, has been been releasing new songs every day for almost a year. Every one is free on YouTube, though you can buy them as singles. I’d seen that name before (Armstrong used it for his half-successful “RockNRoll Theater” show a while back), but somehow this new project slipped under my radar.

I’m not going to formally review this collection, since it doesn’t fit into a standard album format, and I don’t think it’s intended to be bought as a whole package anyway. (It’s pretty scary to think about how much that $0.99/day would have added up to by now!) But I’m a huge fan of Armstrong, from his harder punk to his Joe Strummer-inspired musical fusion efforts. Even if a lot of these songs are unimpressive, it’s still a lot of fun to browse through them.

These are mainly in the vein of his laid-back solo effort a few years back, with a smooth voice and strong reggae/ska influence. If you listen to too many at once, they all start to run together pretty quickly, especially since the majority of them are covers or remakes of his older songs. But he does manage to include a very impressive variety in there, and you’ll find enough new songs and surprise guests to keep the search fun.

I’m sure that the daily schedule keeps the quality down and the production repetitive. His recent duet with Lindi Ortega, for example, should be incredible, but you can tell that their bands didn’t have enough time to figure out how to merge their sounds. And some songs are disappointing – I can’t believe he couldn’t do anything special with “Jockey Full of Bourbon” or “Summer of 69“. On the other hand, this is the only way he ever would have changed up “Django” and “Not to Regret” so much, or discussed his appreciation for classic country.

This may be uneven, but it’s a great project, and I’m glad to see a man like Armstrong experimenting with new distribution methods. It seems like a great creative project, too, with Armstrong planning new Rancid and Transplants albums this year. If he can release that much polished work, then all this dashed-off music is serving a great purpose. And meanwhile, I still have hours worth of new songs that I can’t wait to explore.

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway (Music Review)

The Low Highway cover

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway

Two years after the excellent I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle returns with a solid but unexciting album. The Low Highway does everything fans will want from Earle, but has no real standout songs.

This time performing with “The Dukes (& Duchesses)”, Earle’s band makes this his countriest album in years. Confident, polished, and sticking to a familiar style, this easily fits in with the pop-Americana resurgence of these post-Mumford years. But, while the album mixes his blues-rock with everything from harmonica to fiddle to jazz piano, it’s usually comfortable with slow ballads that fit Earle’s age and his pain. It’s a good choice, and one that stands out next to younger, less soulful bands. Again, it’s just missing those couple great songs that would define it.

So what songs are on this? Well, one of the highlights is “Invisible”, a heartfelt story of homelessness. Earle is one of the few people who still seem to remember that country has a tradition of sympathy for the downtrodden. He sometimes comes across as over-earnest, though, as on “Calico County”‘s description of a poor, meth-blighted town. It’s the rock track on this album, but his heart doesn’t seem in it. Somewhere in between is “The Low Highway”. His personal daydream of hitchhiking mixes in scenes of poor folk on the road and damaged veterans, but they sometimes feel shoehorned in.

Every Earle album has a duet with a woman, and “That All You Got?” is an energetic, swinging track that leads into the equally upbeat “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way”. It’s the most fun part of the album, but there are a couple other sections that come close. On the other hand, those stand out against a couple disappointments. “21st Century Blues” tries to rail against the injustices of today, but his complaints too often sound dated. Missing “flying cars”, “teletransporters”, and Kennedy’s promises, he overlooks the wonders that today does offer. The old promises of jetpacks and Dick Tracey watches have been completely outdone by the reality of smartphones and internet. Not that that is Earle’s main point – there are plenty of injustices around us as well – but his lighthearted comments serve to make him sound out of touch instead of humanizing his political complaints.

Overall, Earle is still refusing to settle down, and he’s a good songwriter who (usually) knows how to play to his strengths. The Low Highway is a nice change of pace, if not one of the albums that stand out over his career.

Grade: B-

 

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the City cover

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Like everyone, I found Vampire Weekend’s debut to be a surprise hit. Also like everyone, I intended to check out their follow-up, but never got around to it. It didn’t seem too important to buy another literate-but-light-on-meaning pop album with affected African vocal inflections. Now the band has a third album, and, like everyone, I was surprised to hear people talk about it in the same surprised, glowing terms they used for the original Vampire Weekend. So I come to this one without much expertise, not knowing how much of the growth I’m seeing would have been evident had I been paying attention a few years ago. However, I can say that Modern Vampires of the City is an incredible album.

Yes, you’ll have to get past an awful album title. And a drab cover photo of New York City in 1966. And the first track, “Obvious Bicycle”, is not going to grab your attention. But after those first five minutes, all of the album’s weak points are out of the way. What’s left is a masterfully crafted set of songs that make the band’s gimmicky sound and themes seem perfectly natural. If you don’t think you’re interested in pop albums, Modern Vampires may be especially for you. Vampire Weekend doesn’t seem to see any conflict between catchy, hook-filled songs and intelligent lyrics that reward attention. For example, “Ya Hey” is a fun track with a nonsensical-sounding refrain, but it’s actually about “Yahweh”. The band confronts the Hebrew god who wouldn’t even give His name clearly, faulting Him for the distance between Himself and His creation. The “Ya Hey” of the refrain is distorted in varied ways to play with the unpronounceable name.

Distortion also plays a center role in “Diane Young”, possibly the best pop song in years. It’s a mix of “baby baby baby”, lyrics about living fast, breaks in the tension that are practically a cappella, and sudden releases driven by an upbeat drum machine. In addition to all those blended aspects, the vocals are sometimes slowed down and run through cheap studio tricks that create a strong contrast to the otherwise-sugary song. Imagine a power-pop hit by Ween, and you’ll have a good idea of how this works.

It’s amazing to see the evolution from Vampire Weekend to Modern Vampires of the City. It’s obviously the same band, but where their early songs’ meanings were basically “Google what a ‘mansard roof’ is and you’ll understand”, these ones have a lot going on. (Atheism or discomfort with religion come up frequently, as in “Ya Hey”, but many songs are just general tales about life. Aging seems to be a secondary theme, as well.) The production and songcraft are excellent, with even the flow between songs feeling carefully engineered. It’s a varied but cohesive album with obvious care put into every moment. Whatever your past experiences with Vampire Weekend, this is a must-have.

Grade: A