Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed In Blood (Music Review)

Signed and Sealed In Blood cover

Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed In Blood

Maybe the best way to summarize Signed and Sealed In Blood is with “Jimmy Collins’ Wake”. A fun, life-affirming track that mixes the Dropkick Murphys’ love of Boston, punk, Irish culture, and sports, it’s definitely a good song. If you’d never heard the band before, you would probably be very impressed. But if you are already familiar with them, you’d know that they already have a couple superior songs about wakes, and at least one better one about baseball. That feeling persists throughout the album. In some ways, it’s to the band’s credit that their sound is so familiar now, but it’s still undeniable that Signed and Sealed is a consistently good album that just can’t escape the shadow of earlier songs.

It’s possible for the Murphys to escape this curse. 2011’s Going Out In Style was a rousing success, presenting punk as an inseparable part of their community-centered Irish roots. Signed and Sealed takes a turn to harder music, with less sincerity and more comfortable formulas. They have several compelling songs about hard drinking and fighting for what’s right, but their lifestyle seems less well-rounded without the expected ballads and traditional songs.

There are several high points: “Rose Tattoo” could have been the album’s slow ballad, but with the band unwilling to slow down, it becomes something new and surprising. “Out On The Town” experiments with a rawer punk sound than the Murphys have used in years, and “The Battle Rages On” is their most spirited call to battle since “The Gauntlet”. On the other hand, the gimmicky, mean-spirited Christmas song “The Season’s Upon Us” is a rare misfire from the band.

Don’t expect Signed and Sealed In Blood to be another Going Out In Style, but this band can’t fail to make good songs. Just ask yourself whether you’re excited about the prospect of hearing the Dropkick Murphys’ third-best song about a wake. If you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, then you’ll enjoy this. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, though, there are better albums to start with.

Grade: B-

 

Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat (Music Review)

Playin' in Time With the Deadbeat cover

Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat

Slug Guts performs sinister, testosterone-laden Australian post-punk in the vein of The Birthday Party. All their songs on Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat are deep and echoey, as if it were recorded from the far side of a cellar. Or maybe a better description of the sound is that of a man yelling across an alley, while an advancing gang of thugs tries to get you to leave by brandishing musical instruments at you.

The vocals sometimes recall early, self-destructive Iggy Pop as much as The Birthday Party, and the lyrics are decipherable with a little effort. However, it doesn’t take much time to realize that those details aren’t very important. Just take the impression given by the song’s name (such as “Stranglin’ You Too”, “Order of Death”, or “Glory Holes”) and let that guide your interpretation of the loud, bass-heavy wall of sound that washes over you.

That’s not to say that the production is haphazard or low-budget, though. I think that Slug Guts captured the songs exactly as they wanted here, with a very rich sound that has a slightly overwhelming impact on the listener. It’s enjoyable, if a bit of an acquired taste. With the vocals obscured, don’t expect to distinguish the songs by their lyrics. The tracks are legitimately different, with no skimping on the songwriting, but that feeling they give off just doesn’t vary. The first few times you listen to this, you’ll wonder why they didn’t just save some time by writing two songs and repeating them over and over.

Fortunately, those differences in the songs do matter eventually. This is a solid, consistent (if maybe too consistent) album. Slug Guts can be a hard band to listen to, both figuratively (that dark, oppressive atmosphere) and literally (they actually hurt my ears if I’m not careful), but the more I listen, the more interested I am. I’m not going to say that Deadbeat is a completely successful album, but it’s an impressive showcase for this band’s potential. I hope they decide on a better way to present the vocals in the future, but the talent and confidence is already there.

Grade: B-

 

Bloodshot Records Capsule Reviews

As with the past couple years, I like to take some time in January to review the albums I bought at Bloodshot Records’ holiday sale. (As of today, the sale is still going on, though their site doesn’t say how long it will last.)

I don’t know if I will keep doing this, though. I don’t want to wait until January to review the brand new albums (I went ahead and reviewed Justin Townes Earle’s latest right away, for example), and I may have reached my limit for older items from the Bloodshot catalog. This time, I found myself scrolling through the list of sale CDs, asking myself if I really needed another Wayne Hancock or Waco Brothers album. So I don’t know what I’ll decide next time.

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Three Country/Folk Tribute Albums

Today’s review looks at a few older tribute albums that I have. I’m interested not only in whether they are good, but what makes a tribute album worthwhile in itself.


Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows cover

Various Artists – Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows

For example, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows is a well-deserved tribute to John Prine. Its songs feature trendy-but-not-mainstream artists from the folk and country scenes, basically aiming this at the modern version of Prine’s audience. The covers are very faithful to the originals, but that actually speaks to the range and influence of those songs. Josh Ritter’s version of “Mexican Home” sounds exactly like a Josh Ritter song, and the slick country packaging of “Spanish Pipedream” is perfect for The Avett Brothers. (Justin Townes Earle’s “Far From Me” actually sounds like what Earle should be writing.) The only misfire is “Wedding Day In Funeralville”, in which Conor Oberst sounds like an eager kid begging to sit at the adults’ table.

These are excellent performances of powerful songs, but the album still can’t help but feel a bit slight. They basically are Prine’s songs, just polished up a bit for today’s audiences. But Prine’s originals hold up well, and are still well-regarded enough in the modern folk community that the people buying this have little reason not to just buy his albums. Broken Hearts is a good collection, but more in the sense of a greatest hits disc or a remastered update, not in the sense of something new.

There are tribute albums that recast the subject in a new light or bring an artist to a new audience’s attention. This doesn’t do either. Though it’s too well done to be thought of as a cash-in, it is obvious that these (very good) tracks will be forgotten before they are as old as the originals are now.

Grade: B-


Twistable, Turnable Man cover

Various Artists – Twistable, Turnable Man

Twistable, Turnable Man fills a very different role. Few people are aware that Shel Silverstein wrote songs, and many who do discover them are put off by his rough voice and joking delivery. He was a master songwriter, though, and a tribute like this is long overdue.

The performances here generally position Silverstein in the same folksy songwriter territory as Prine (he even appears here, in fact), though it has more variety than Broken Hearts did: Black Francis is a perfect choice for the exaggerated rock sleaze of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”, and Dr. Dog’s pastoral approach to “The Unicorn” captures the hippie vibe. The artists represent multiple generations, from Ray Price and Bobby Bare, Sr. to My Morning Jacket and Andrew bird. Plenty of Silverstein’s recognizable humor is here, though he came from a less ironic era, and had a surprising amount of sentimental songs as well. “The Giving Tree” and “Daddy What If” both appear here to represent that. I don’t find them worth the re-listens of Silverstein’s other work, though. (My favorite song in that vein is “Comin’ After Jinny”, but it’s not included.)

With those exceptions, there isn’t a bad song here. Even better, you have probably heard of almost none of them, even though they sound like folk classics here. The only other track that casual listeners are likely to recognize is “A Boy Named Sue”. Todd Snider does a good job with it, but Johnny Cash already sang the definitive cover. However, “The Winner” sung by Kris Kristofferson deserves its place in the pantheon right next to that song. (Seriously, you need “The Winner”. It is another humorous song about a tough brawler, and just as good as the song Cash made famous.)

Twistable, Turnable Man doesn’t just introduce Silverstein’s songs to a generation that had no idea they existed. It also makes an editorial decision to present him as a sober songwriter with the occasional joke. In reality, Silverstein had many facets, and was predominantly a counterculture prankster. Though the artist selections here are impeccable, I find myself wishing for some of today’s libertines and stoners to cover songs like “Polly In A Porny” and “I Got Stoned And I Missed It”. They wouldn’t fit in on this album, though. The style presented here is an intentional artistic decision.

The songs on Twistable, Turnable Man are great on their own terms, just like those on Broken Hearts. But this album also serves a larger purpose, both drawing attention to a little-known artist and providing its own bold take on the works. That turns the whole work into something essential.

Grade: A-


Hard-Headed Woman cover

Various Artists – Hard-Headed Woman

Song by song, Hard-Headed Woman generally doesn’t live up to the standard of quality set by the above albums. However, Wanda Jackson arguably needs a modern update more than John Prine does. Her recording career began a generation earlier, and so the songs feel a little more dated today. Also, despite being adored by her fans as the “First Lady of Rockabilly”, she’s not generally well-known. (This is less true today, since Jack White engineered Jackson’s comeback album, but she definitely deserved more recognition when this compilation was made in 2004.)

This Bloodshot Records tribute loses Jackson’s personality and doesn’t try to copy her vocal tricks, but it offers honest appreciation and modern production. Also, it avoids presenting only one of Jackson’s faces. I’m sure it would have been tempting for this label, still early in its “country-punk” days, to focus on the proto-riot-grrl of “Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad” and “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will”. But they gave equal time to her wholesome country side with, among other songs, the prayer of “One Day At A Time”.

The main problem with Hard-Headed Woman is that the best tribute albums sound like they’re coming from peers acknowledging their influences. Here, the performers are obviously still living under Jackson’s shadow. Several have since become moderately big names, including Robbie Fulks, The Asylum Street Spankers, and Wayne Hancock, but the only real star is Neko Case. (If you’re a fan of Case’s pure country days, though, her version of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is a must-have. Never mind that Jackson isn’t one of the first five people you’d associate the song with.) The bulk of the album, though, is filled out with the people best known for rounding out Bloodshot compilations: The Bottle Rockets, Rosie Flores, and others. Aside from Neko Case’s standout, though, I actually think most of the best performances here come from the lesser-known artists.

It should also be said that the Bloodshot crew seemed more willing to adapt the songs than the stars of John Prine’s tribute did: Trailer Bride’s drone gives “Fujiyama Mama” a foreign, threatening feel, and The Cornell Hurd Band provide a funkier, country trash version of “This Gun Don’t Care Who It Shoots”. It’s easy to dismiss this as a bunch of covers thrown off from a small label, but they made a lot of their own artistic choices without any real missteps.

This album is far from essential, but it’s surprisingly fun and heartfelt. Plenty of music fans today know little about Wanda Jackson, and this tribute makes an introduction to her. The original songs would work as well, but these ones document her influence in a way that isn’t obvious from the old recordings themselves. In that way, this provides a unique justification for its existence.

Grade: B-

 

People Take Warning! (Music Review)

People Take Warning! cover

Various Artists – People Take Warning!

People Take Warning! is a three-disc set of songs from the 1920s and 1930s that all commemorate disasters. Its seventy tracks include some classics (such as Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere”), but also a lot with unprepared backup singers and lyrics that don’t fit the meter. The liner notes explain that this is because some of the songs were quickly rushed out to capitalize on a tragedy while it was fresh in everyone’s mind. Unfortunately, this collection feels just as slipshod, and has no excuse about timeliness.

Most importantly, the recording quality is consistently poor. Flat, washed-out, and full of a record player’s static, most of them sound like the transfer to CD was done by just setting up a microphone ten feet from a turntable. It doesn’t seem like the creators searched very widely for material, either, with many artists represented repeatedly. Ernest Stoneman and Charlie Patton each have four tracks here, with Patton’s all on the same disc.

The material deserved better. The songs are an interesting snapshot of the concerns and fascinations of a lost time: The first disc is devoted to accidents on man-made devices, including the expected train crashes. But it also features seven songs about The Titanic, a common theme that has since been forgotten. (Until buying Dylan’s epic “Tempest” last year, I don’t think my collection had any Titanic songs.) The second disc, “Man V. Nature”, is full of floods and boll weevils, but also has a couple fires of the scope we don’t see today. Those tragedies have the same fascinating immediacy as murder ballads, which unsurprisingly are the focus of the final disc. Those are the best songs; There’s a reason murder songs remain more popular than the other themes. (The recording quality is also better here. Perhaps the producers had a better selection to pick from, or maybe it’s just easier to find well-preserved copies of these songs.) Even so, if you’re in this release’s target audience, you already have better renditions of “Stack O’ Lee”, “Pretty Polly”, and several others.

The liner notes include a decent, if short, essay by Tom Waits about the role of disaster songs in the culture. The rest of the booklet provides several interesting tidbits of information, but still feels as maddeningly rushed as the rest of the production. For example, it wouldn’t take much research to correct the assertion that we don’t know if “Frankie & Johnny” was a true story or not. Even the track listing is incredibly different between the CD case and the booklet. One song is alternately called “The Titanic” and “The Sinking of The Titanic”, while another is both “Mississippi Boweavil” and “Boll Weevil Blues”. Many backup artists are credited in only one of the locations , and neither source can consistently decide between “Alfred Reed” an “Blind Alfred Reed” (yet they disagree with each other in all three of his appearances). It doesn’t seem that much effort went into this at all.

People Take Warning! is a collection that I really wanted to like. Its compelling theme and ambitious scope are exactly what the project should have. However, the quality and attention to detail are lacking throughout.

Grade: C-

 

Best Albums of 2012

2012 may or may not have been a good year for music, but it certainly wasn’t a good year for my music reviews. I covered only 55 albums, and just 21 of them were released this year. (And 17 of those 21 were reviewed this month in a frantic attempt not to let the year slip by completely.)

This makes me glad for the precedent I set last year, in which I chose my best five albums of that year, as well as five older ones that I’d finally reviewed. I spent much of 2012 catching up on a backlog, and I’m obviously going into the new year with a lot of this year’s gems still undiscovered.

I was tempted to stick to last year’s format exactly, but I’m going to cut my count down to three in each category. While there were many good albums among the ones I reviewed, there are only a few that I’d actually be confident defending on a “year’s best” list. I’d still stand up for all the ones I listed last year, and I shouldn’t confuse things this time by including ones that are merely “very good” in a year-end wrap-up. My selections may be incomplete, but at least I expect that I will look back on them at this time next year and still feel that they deserved this.

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Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Music Review)

Celebration Rock cover

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

How did I somehow miss out on Japandroids until a few months ago? I was sure that I’d sampled them and found their electronic experiments lacking. Their name must have led me to mix them up with someone else, because this band is pure American flesh and blood bar-rock. (Yes, even though they’re actually Canadian.) Celebration Rock, their second release, is an uplifting album seemingly designed for shouting along with new best friends after a night of hard drinking.

The most impressive trick of Celebration Rock is that it does feel like a celebration of life, but not with the facile, blindly positive material that name might imply. The subjects are complex and varied. Far from a Pollyanna attitude, their clear view is that life is worth it despite, if not even because of, the struggles. Of course, you’ll want to have a group of friends to sing along with when the chorus gets to the loud “Whoa-oh” parts. Expect some realistic downer lyrics, though, as well as a cover of The Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”. It’s those portions that make the life-affirming songs relatable.

The standout track, and a great example of the band’s strengths in general, is “The House That Heaven Built”. An honest, clear-eyed assessment after the end of a long-term relationship, the song focuses on the bond the two will always have. “When they love you (and they will) tell them all they’ll love in my shadow”, sings the band. Rather than sounding creepy or controlling, it ends up being a testimonial to emotional growth. The next lines are, “And if they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell”.

Japandroids have a huge buzz, and their simple human rock is usually just what I want from my music. Despite that, I don’t enjoy this as much as you’d expect. The songs are powerful, and obviously meant for a live communal experience. (In fact, their live performances are a big part of their buzz.) The album doesn’t quite capture that, though. This is the sort of music that needs a producer like Steve Albini, and as it is the raw energy sounds packaged instead of natural. The recording is just slightly too muddy, and the joyous community they represent sounds like it’s on the wrong side of the security barrier from the listener.

All that makes Celebration Rock good instead of great. It’s still a group of powerful songs occupying a unique place in the modern music scene. Japandroids have convinced me that they deserve the hype, and I just hope the next album lives up to it.

Grade: B-

 

The Vaccines – Come of Age (Music Review)

Vaccines - Come of Age cover

The Vaccines – Come of Age

Don’t be fooled by the title of The Vaccines’ sophomore album, Come of Age. As the opening song explains, “When you’re young and bored and twenty-four and don’t know who you are no more, there’s no hope and it’s hard to come of age”. In fact, expect to hear sentiments like that frequently throughout the album. The band’s consistent message is that they’re confused, aimless, and are going to let you down.

Despite that, the songs actually sound too self-aware to be written by their callow narrator. The Vaccines sing about being young and stupid, rather than from the experience of being young and stupid. It’s a comfortable topic, and the songs flow by mostly inoffensively. The one exception is “I Wish I Was A Girl”, which definitely seems to come from an oblivious boy’s perception of what a girl’s life must be like. Depending on your perspective, it is either offensively ignorant of real people’s problems, or an accurate slice-of-life from their age group. For me, it splits the difference and ends up being an easily-forgettable track near the end.

Not much of the album is forgettable, though. This is Brit-pop at its catchiest. The band smoothed out the extremes of the last album, with none of the Ramones impersonations and much less of the slow “youth-soul”. In their place are much more consistent British guitar anthems. None of it is as startling or refreshing as the band’s initial hits, but it’s too slick and hook-filled to complain about.

I finished my review of that first album by worrying that their youthful burst of energy was going to burn out before they could put together a follow-up work. By that standard, Come of Age is a relief even if it doesn’t hit the same highs. The slick performance and winking lyrics of this new album feel a bit more smooth and calculated than what we had before, but they also give us some excellent pop anthems. The real test will be in what their next release sounds like. I could craft a narrative in which this is a natural progression of the band’s style, or one in which this is a cynical retreat to safe, test-marketed music. I’m not worrying about that too much at the moment, though; I just plan to enjoy Come of Age until the next album comes out.

Grade: B

 

Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense (Music Review)

The Plot Against Common Sense cover

Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense

Future of the Left, like Mclusky before it, is a vehicle for Andrew “Falco” Falkous’ absurdist rants. Whether doing a flat spoken-word delivery, staccato post-hardcore chants, or full-on electro-punk screaming, his sarcastic Welsh voice is a perfect match for the humorous, sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness, lyrics. The Plot Against Common Sense, Future of the Left’s latest release, is more of the same in many good ways. Musically, it is their strongest yet, especially if you liked Mclusky’s intense songs narrated by faux-tough guys. However, over this band’s three albums they have become increasingly serious, and their intended messages just aren’t as fun as the tongue-in-cheek nonsense they used to spew.

It isn’t necessarily bad to mix music with a message, but the two goals often conflict with each other. Whether the results work is a matter of personal opinion, and you can’t always predict whether I’ll like the result based on whether I agree with the point of view. In this case, there are some successes. I particularly like “Sheena Is A T-Shirt Salesman”, partly because the music industry always seems like fair game for musicians to criticize, and also because Falco’s blistering delivery doesn’t slow down to make sure you get the point. Other than a hilariously apt message at the end (“This song is dedicated to the merchandise manufacturers who made it possible”), it’s just two minutes of clever wordplay and verbal hooks (“autistic autistic autistic radio/artistic license (celebrate a bus pass!)”)

“Sorry Dad, I Was Late For The Riots” is the complete opposite of that. The theme (trust-fund kids who aren’t really devoted to their causes) is also a frequent target for punk rockers, but this just feels painfully strident. The only clever part is the inversion of children caring less than their parents. (Ok, excusing his absence with “I’m sure that Chumbawumba will understand” is pretty funny, too.) Otherwise, it feels generally boring and a little preachy.

Most other songs fall somewhere in between those two. Surprisingly, the band chooses a lot of easy targets, such as unnecessary movie sequels and idiotic advice in Cosmopolitan. These songs have Falco’s typically-clever delivery: “Robocop 4 – Fuck Off Robocop” includes an on-the-nose description of Pirates of the Caribbean 47’s plot, and he responds to Cosmo’s fear of aging by foretelling a future in which “everyone is slightly older”. But his songs work best when he presents gripping but hard-to-follow visions (“This is a song about breaking bread with enemies of fantasy”), and finding an obviously-mundane message in it ruins the message.

Fortunately, not all the songs on Common Sense are derailed by meaning. “I Am the Least of Your Problems” is cheeky, hard-rocking fun, “Beneath the Waves an Ocean” has more self-referential jokes (“Three men walk into a cafe, take a corner booth, and wait for context”), and “Polymers Are Forever” is just my favorite name for a song since Falco formed this band. Future of the Left is still improving in many ways, and they are sometimes figuring out how to handle political and cultural statements. Those statements still get in the way more often than on past albums, though. On balance, it’s definitely a worthwhile effort, though I can’t tell whether they are getting better or worse.

Grade: B

 

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues (Music Review)

 Kill My Blues cover

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues

The Corin Tucker Band’s debut established themselves as a distinct entity from Sleater-Kinney, but unfortunately that was the best thing that could be said about it. They returned this year with Kill My Blues, which apparently tries to correct course by front-loading all the energetic songs for maximum Sleater-Kinney nostalgia. It even seems intended as an introduction for people who missed the last album, with Tucker explaining at the start that she’s been gone a while but is returned. Despite all that, the band still hasn’t found itself.

That Sleater-Kinney nostalgia is a powerful force, of course. “Neskowin” and “I Don’t Wanna Go”, especially, build up a lot of goodwill. Energetic and letting Tucker’s voice go all-out, these could practically be outtakes from her old band. They cover difficult territory, with the former about discovering herself as a teen and the latter about a loved one’s illness. They may not provide many details, but it’s easy to ignore that for a time.

The songs are consistently vague, though. It’s usually good for an album to offer one or two like “Joey” and “None Like You”, containing a personal message that the listeners will not fully follow. Those help to flesh out the band’s overall personality by giving a glimpse into the full life that they live. Maybe the problem here is that almost all of those songs are like that: These are personal messages not aimed at the listener, and if you’re not part of Tucker’s life, there just isn’t enough here to make the rest of us feel invested in it.

Worse, the few times the songs get a little more specific, they feel generic. “Blood, Bones. and Sand” is all about the feeling of having a child, but it doesn’t find anything original to say about the subject. The first track, “Groundhog Day”, asks if we’re all still trying to move society forward and admits to some guilt over dropping out of the public eye for a few years instead of continuing the fight. It’s appropriate to that song that she doesn’t find a resolution, but it still feels like another incomplete idea because the rest of the album never tries to engage in those themes at all. That first song allows basically no excuse for ignoring those fights, but then she just sings about loved ones and writes borderline-nonsense lines like “You can rent me a burro we’ll live off of churros/Let’s freak like we’re pharaohs/I’ll be your sparrow tonight”.

The band still offers a variety of styles to back up Tucker. However, the faster songs actually make the band feel a bit less varied than they were before. Their technique on those tracks is generally a fast, unvaried beat with competent indie rock riffs echoing it closely.

Corin Tucker will always be a star to some of us. Even so, her new band can’t achieve more than intermittently interesting songs. Two albums in, they haven’t figured out how to make their style work.

Grade: C