Tag Archives: Reviewed

Alanis Morissette – The Collection

Alanis Morissette - The CollectionAlanis MorissetteThe Collection (Maverick)

I’m breaking up with Alanis. I’m serious, man. This time, it’s for good. I just can’t stand her fucking whining anymore.

Yeah, it was great, back when we first met. When I used to hear her on the radio on those shitty alternative stations when I was driving in the car. I’d always listen and maybe even sing along.

Yeah, I ought to have fucking known right then.

It was good after that too though. Like when I downloaded “Thank U” from Napster. When it would pop up on my iPod from time to time, I’d always smile.

I even liked “Dogma.” That’s how fucked up over her I was.

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People In Planes – As Far As the Eye Can See

People In Planes - As Far As the Eye Can SeePeople In PlanesAs Far As the Eye Can See (Wind-Up)

A major problem in entertainment today is the lack of originality. Such is the case with the Welsh group People In Planes. They come across as a new Muse or Snow Patrol, which of course begs the question: do we need a new Muse or Snow Patrol? Especially one with shamefully bad lyrics.

People In Planes’ debut, As Far As the Eye Can See, comes roaring in with the bad-ass, coked-out “Barracuda,” begging, “Don’t let me pull over / My senses rely on the finest wine / The quickest time.” Um…what? When they try to get deep, it’s even worse. “Falling by the Wayside” and “Penny” read like passages from a teenager’s poetry notebook. Here, even the music can’t pull it out of the realm of the mundane. Album closer, “Narcoleptic,” is a weak Incubus impression with the chorus: “Must be narcoleptic / Can’t help the way I am (I’m so tired).” Thanks for making us wade through the entire album for that.

The syncopated tonic scale that decorates “Rush” tries to hide lines such as, “Beware of the professional / You won’t get me on / My bicycle with you.” That’s pretty much how it goes with the whole album: raging, kick-ass rock (replete with time and key changes a la Muse) masking a lyrical quagmire. The album’s not all bad: “For Miles Around (Scratch To Void)” is a fine Muse rip-off, and the first single, “If You Talk Too Much (My Head Will Explode)” is interesting enough (mp3). The effort is there, but there are too many inane lyrics and overproduced choruses to make much of an impact. Maybe next time.

Prefuse 73 – Security Screenings

Prefuse 73 - Security ScreeningsPrefuse 73Security Screenings (Warp)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Scott Herren’s work as Prefuse 73 is his ability to get so much mileage out of such a specific sound. There is no denying a Prefuse track when you hear one, yet without wholesale turnover each of his albums has a different tone to it. His breakthrough One Word Extinguisher shot high on critical praise and word-of-mouth about its inspiration, a fractured relationship that led Herren to isolating himself in the studio to create what most consider his masterpiece. The general public seemed to be turned off by the Surrounded By Silence, the cameo-laden follow-up, which was loosely disjointed compared to the cohesive Extinguisher. The variety of guests and Herren’s choice to contextualize his sound within their respective worlds instead of making them adapt to his hurt the record’s strength overall, in the eyes of some (not me, Scott…I’ve been with you the whole way). Security Screenings, the un-follow-up to Silence (a full-length that is disguising itself as a companion disc) and perhaps last (?) Prefuse album, finds Herren for the most part keeping to himself—and he sounds more miserable here than on One Word Extinguisher.

There were signs of heartbreak throughout Extinguisher in the more textured tracks, but the album contained more than a few bangers to break the concept that otherwise earmarked the album. Screenings sounds sad, lonely, and defeated. Herren mostly eschews the hip-hop sensibilities that marked his former work in favor of gentler, more deliberate production. You might go so far as to call Security Screenings minimalist—at least as minimalist as the typically bombastic glitch-hop pioneer can get. Herren, who typically bombards soothing sampling with kitchen sink-style production techniques, turns down the backing chaos and allows ambience to take control.

“Creating Cyclical Headaches” is the lone noisy exception, the product of Prefuse and kindred soul Four Tet together. You can break the track in two and see who contributed what—an ornate synth melody (the type that would fit right in on Everything Ecstatic) bubbles at the surface before being buried under an avalanche of white noise and drones. The other guest is Tunde from TV on the Radio, who provides the type of appearance that most would have preferred on Silence. Tunde intonates various syllabic pitches which Herren, as has become custom, edits and layers into the rest of the mix, making Tunde’s presence completely unrecognizable without a glimpse of the liner notes.

If this is in fact the last Prefuse album—Herren has posted some pretty cryptic messages on his website regarding the end of the Prefuse era—the producer has chosen to go out with a sign instead of a bang. He no longer commands attention, which is a position I’d imagine Herren is more comfortable with. He’s never been impressed by his success, and doesn’t seem to need it either. After all, this is the man who moved to Spain, the apex of glitch-hop (sarcasm!), and put out a Spanish folk album after One Word Extinguisher blew up. He’s never been one to pander to the press, and he stood especially strong in the wake of negativity that followed Silence. However, one has to wonder if the reaction of releasing another album mostly devoid of guest appearances within a year of Silence was to satisfy some who weren’t happy with all of the outsiders clouding Herren’s last album. He even throws a brief clip of one of Silence‘s detractors questioning Herren about all of the albums guests. I’m unsure if this is an example of self-deprecating humor, an attempt to draw attention to the rectification of the supposed flaw of Herren’s last album, or a combination of both. Either way, it seems like something’s bugging Herren, as Screenings is the most plodding, isolated album in his career. Still, for anyone who has followed the career of Prefuse 73, it sounds familiar and serves as a reminder—despite the presence of Savath & Savalas, Piano Overlord, or any of Scott Herren’s other aliases, Prefuse 73 has built something from scratch.

Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit

Belle and Sebastian - The Life PursuitBelle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador)

For better or for worse, the Belle & Sebastian of your older sibling’s college days are long gone. The elegant lo-fi tweeisms have given way under an avalanche of sugary-sweet power pop. Take the blind test, and you could easily mistake The Life Pursuit for a New Pornographers album.

Not even the group’s previous release, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, can prepare listeners for what The Life Pursuit offers. Stuart Murdoch has proven his worth as a songwriter in the past, and on Waitress he began to adapt his skills into new terrain for the Scottish group.

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The Who – Tommy and Quadrophenia Live DVD

The WhoTommy and Quadrophenia Live (Rhino)

Rhino Records has just issued a triple-DVD set chronicling not only live performances of Tommy and Quadrophenia, but two very different configurations of the reunited Who touring band. Though the purpose of the set is to archive the live versions of the two famous rock operas, the DVDs inevitably show the right way for the Who to have reunited and toured, and the wrong way to have done it.

In 1989, the Who staged a full tour after a seven-year layoff. I was fortunate enough to catch them that year, and at the time, I was awestruck upon hearing them open the concert with a fully fleshed out overture from Tommy. Through the sheer joy of seeing the Who play during my lifetime, I was willing to overlook the excesses of that tour. And God were there excesses! Three background vocalists, a percussionist, a second guitarist, and a full horn section which strayed too often into Phil Collins territory, it was a lot to swallow for fans of a band who used to encapsulate the lean, mean, less-is-more theory of noisemaking.

The DVD has the Los Angeles “all-star” performance of Tommy, a Vegas-revue version of the Who that hasn?t aged well. The drummer at the time, Simon Phillips, was much more Neil Peart than Keith Moon; his over-drumming doesn?t serve the arrangements well. The guest stars for the most part turned in okay performances; they can?t be faulted for the bombast.

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Sun Kil Moon – Tiny Cities

Sun Kil MoonTiny Cities (Caldo Verde) iTunes

On paper, Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities may seem like a puzzling step for Mark Kozelek. Modest Mouse and Sun Kil Moon seemingly have nothing in common—one writes tense, anguished, often drug-fueled yelps while the other writes songs so gorgeous and accessible that frontman Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters famously got chosen for a Gap ad. Yet Tiny Cities, a carefully chosen album of Modest Mouse covers, succeeds beautifully in stripping down the anger and theatrics of the originals, turning them into a love letter to Modest Mouse. It’s all strictly acoustic guitars and string arrangements here, with the occasional brush drum thrown in. Only “Convenient Parking” comes close to the original’s tempo and melody.

It’s also worth noting that the only song from Modest Mouse’s breakout album, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (an album strangely beloved by indie kids, NPR and football stadiums alike) is “Ocean Breathes Salty.” In my mind, this highlights the only possible link between the two bands—with the exception of Good News, both bands have pretty much flown under the radar for their entire careers. “Ocean Breathes Salty” is the best illustration of how the songs change in Kozelek’s hands—while Isaac Brock practically sneers the refrain “You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?” When Kozelek sings it, it changes from an accusation to something bordering on elegy—his voice practically cracks on the word “why.”

In less capable hands, an acoustic album of Modest Mouse covers could have easily turned into a gimmick—dinner-party Muzak versions of the original material, dumbed-down versions for people who still think Modest Mouse is a bit too edgy for their tastes. Instead, the songs are taken on a strange and beautiful journey, turned into hushed, gorgeous campfire stories that still capture the urgency of the originals.

You should also check out Mark Kozelek’s collection of Bon Scott-era AC/DC reinterpretations on What’s Next to the Moon.

Dropsonic – Insects with Angel Wings

DropsonicInsects with Angel Wings (Rowdy)

Dropsonic is the perpetual band-on-the-verge. For over five years they’ve been called a band to watch, a promising newcomer, the next big thing – but nothing has materialized. Insects with Angel Wings, their fourth release through as many channels, probably won’t find them any closer to their goal.

That’s not to say they don’t deserve it. Dropsonic’s most recent effort is easily their best – a raw, edgy, hard-rocking blend of classic Led Zeppelin and early Radiohead that perfects the formula they’ve been working on since their self-released debut. But without major or even just steady label support, Dropsonic is again unlikely to reach an audience beyond critics and college radio DJs. While math-rock specialists 54-40 or Fight!, who released 2002’s Belle, seemed an appropriate home for the group, Dropsonic’s latest label is a big puzzler. Rowdy Records, based in the band’s hometown of Atlanta and owned by producer Dallas Austin, helped launch the city’s R&B/hip-hop scene in 1995 through the release of Monica’s Miss Thang. Today Austin is trying to revitalize Rowdy’s name through his latest find, rap group Da BackWudz. How Dropsonic fits into that scheme is anybody’s guess.

Besides being ever-nascent record company castaways, something else has remained consistent across Dropsonic’s career – comparisons to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. Rather than changing their somewhat derivative sound, Dropsonic has embraced and continually improved this approach. The union of the two styles is more forthright than you may imagine – Dan Dixon literally sings like Thom Yorke and plays guitar like Jimmy Page. Amazingly, it works. The result is riff- and groove-heavy rock and roll with an intelligent, angsty slant. On Insects with Angel Wings, Dropsonic’s sound is familiar enough to sound welcoming at first listen and distinctive enough to establish its own sound by the middle of the record. By the end, it’s clear they’ve released one excellent hard rock album.

A fat, plodding bassline runs through opener “Summer’s Gone,” giving way to a chorus with a ripped-up rhythm, then a breakdown, then back again. Coupled with Dixon’s guitar work, it’s unmistakably Led Zeppelin. Not until Dixon screams his way out of the song does a real Dropsonic touch appear. A Page-style guitar solo in “Spiders” falls between choruses that signal the second coming of Thom Yorke’s Pablo Honey rock phase. The distorted harmonica part that runs through “My Girl” calls to mind Robert Plant’s work with the instrument in “When The Levee Breaks.” “When You Die” places two guitar tracks front and center – frenzied riffs and rhythms tossing each other about, reckless and loud and sounding a lot less deliberate than they are. This is organic, jammy hard rock, something like what Led Zeppelin used to deliver live when they’d extend their already massive tunes. From one song to the next, Dropsonic matches the power of Led Zeppelin and the intensity of Radiohead in a blend that comes better through the ears than the eyes.

They aren’t afraid to deviate from this formula. Okay, “Rotten Luck” isn’t all that different, fusing instead Black Sabbath and Soundgarden. But the difference is notable – there’s more of a hard/soft dynamic, Dixon does his best Chris Cornell, and the guitar riffs are pure evil. Again, it really works. “The Big Nothing” is a calm, plaintive song that offers a break from the energy of their typical full-steam-ahead approach. “Insane” does the same, dropping the tempo to a near-crawl as the record comes to a close. Ghastly background vocals recall yet again – you guessed it – Radiohead. No matter; both cuts are hard-earned and well-appreciated.

Insects with Angel Wings is a fine record on all fronts – writing, performance, and production – leaning equally heavily on balls-out rock, instrumental precision, and independent, creative spirit. Dixon’s lyrics are strong in the mix but ultimately unobtrusive – not good, not bad, not worth mentioning. That notwithstanding, almost every song is good, and the whole is even better – proof that originality and innovation aren’t necessarily the best measuring sticks for good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. Dropsonic may be perpetual dwellers in the vast realm of underground rock, but they sound as energized and hopeful as ever.

Timber – The New Gentlemen’s Shuffle

TimberThe New Gentlemen’s Shuffle (Ships at Night)

The New Gentlemen’s Shuffle‘s melodic folk-pop opener, “Bloodhound,” is built upon beautiful male/female vocal harmonies and the rousingly precise picking of an acoustic guitar. The tune is six minutes of mournful folk bliss – a propitious beginning to this impressive debut from Timber. The sad, somber, mid-tempo folk of the next three songs are more of a deep breath than a lull, and the vocal harmonies and perfect guitar work graciously persist. Also quickly established is astute production that keeps the instruments sounding alive: present, and minimally mediated – especially the guitar, which is always picked and never strummed.

As with most folk music, it’s the subtler things that count. The whining Wurlitzer that winds through the second half of “Bloodhound” is a small effort that plays a big role in setting the song’s mood. A bass solo leads “Reckoning” to fade out, summoning the spirit of jazz in an odd, yet pleasing sort of way. Like the opener, “Classical” rides a quicker tempo, but the chiming of the 12-string solo in the center of the song is what’s left behind. “New Gentlemen’s Shuffle” stands out as a finely played country shuffle, but is remembered for its running background banjo, soulful vocal harmonies, and wispy trumpet.

The only cut that fails here is “Showtune” (mp3). Its vocals follow the exact same melody from chorus to verse to chorus to verse for five interminable minutes. The song is lazy and annoying, especially on such an idyllic album. But it would be a shame to dwell on a negative among positives.

“Now to the country I go / Just to take it slow,” from closer “To the Country,” could be the album’s motto – except as with most works of art, dualities confound such easy conclusions. At once vintage and contemporary, raw and sophisticated, Woody Guthrie and Mason Jennings, the record’s three best songs – “Bloodhound,” “New Gentleman’s Shuffle,” and “To the Country” – shape up as fine examples of modern Western folk music. No matter what they do in the future, Timber are already a band worth hearing.

The Life and Times – Suburban Hymns

The Life and TimesSuburban Hymns (De Soto)

For those familiar with earnest Midwest post-hardcore of the last decade, the Life and Times deliver just what’s expected: a heavy load of tightly packed rhythms, crushing guitar, and yearning vocals. But not much more. Ex-Shiner frontman Allen Epley teams with Someday I’s John Meredith on bass and the String and Return’s Mike Myers on drums to craft a sound that doesn’t achieve the promise of its DNA.

Suburban Hymns foregoes Shiner’s math rock complexities and restrains Someday I’s punk aggression while employing the String and Return’s dreamy patience only on select occasions. The album hits like a blunt object – a sense of force and weight is there, but the nature of the weapon is unclear.

Yet it has its moments: the bass solo in “Skateland,” the arching guitar lines of “My Last Hostage” (mov), Epley’s excellent vocals in “Coat of Arms” (mp3). “Thrill Ride” recalls Sunny Day Real Estate with a slow-building start that releases into a compelling crescendo and than fades off into silence. In “Muscle Cars,” the Life and Times finally lock into a good rhythm. It’s one of the few times they sound like the new band they are rather than three weary studio musicians banging out an album. Hallmarks of their genre like minor key tension, chiming guitars, and frequent drum fills are so rampant they appear forced.

While Epley may appreciate the chance to play something a little more straightforward than his work with Shiner, he must know that Suburban Hymns‘ novelty is probably lost on most of its audience before the first song is done. After 40 minutes, it shapes up as a heavy, nondescript rock album that is certainly listenable but doesn’t offer anything to hold on to. Math rock, no. But great background music for doing math homework.

Death Cab For Cutie – Plans

Death Cab For CutiePlans (Atlantic)

Who would’ve thought five years ago that Death Cab For Cutie, fresh off their minimalist breakthrough, We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, would have endured a stylistic change, survived a near break-up, watched Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service side project eclipse Death Cab’s success after only one album, experienced a boost in popularity themselves, and signed to a major label for their fifth album, Plans?

The band, who announced that they were jumping from birthplace Barsuk Records to Atlantic, were lucky to avoid a lot of the conjecture that comes about when an indie band signs to a major label. Their fans, notoriously loyal, stuck with the group after the announcement and decided to play the waiting game before they made up their minds on the move to Atlantic. Which only makes sense, really–there’s been no need to worry about the band becoming more television ready and accessible since Death Cab beat Atlantic to the punch, taking that leap themselves on their third full-length, The Photo Album.

Plans bears more in common with The Photo Album than its direct predecessor, Transatlanticism, which actually took a step backwards meeting the band’s other albums at their midway point. No need to compromise anymore, as Death Cab have officially dropped the other shoe, putting out their first official pop album.

The worst news first: Ben Gibbard’s lyrics suffer greatly. For the first time in Death Cab’s career, Gibbard’s lyrics are actually the album’s albatross, betraying the strong production from guitarist Chris Walla. The band offer a handful of hazy environments, above average indie pop songs, and Gibbard drops the ball with them. Of course, with his sense of melody he could sing entries from the phone book and it would sound beautiful, but you can’t help but notice the drop from earlier gems to faux-profound sentiments like “There are different names / For the same thing.” The song containing that lyric, titled “Different Names For The Same Thing,” blurs the boundaries between Death Cab and The Postal Service, opening with two verses of a seemingly inebriated Gibbard behind a piano before building into a cascading collage of vocal chops and beeps playfully interacting with digital clicks, a cut-and-paste display well worn by Jimmy Tamborello.

At this stage in their career, the growing reality of death has become prevalent. “What Sarah Said” and “I’ll Follow You Into The Dark” examine how relationships are altered by death in a way that bears parallels with the recently concluded Six Feet Under; “Soul Meets Body” desires a personal utopia where the spirit and body live harmoniously, a wish we’ve had for Death Cab since their first album. What they have since abandoned cerebrally, they’ve invested in the sentimentality of their melodies. Although Plans is mostly solid, it won’t make you forget that upstart band they once were, lulling us into hypnosis instead of soundtracking teen drama.