Tag Archives: 2 Stars (of 5)

John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – This Christmas

Olivia Newton-John Travolta - This ChristmasJohn Travolta & Olivia Newton-JohnThis Christmas (Universal)

The pairing is complete nostalgia. There is no other reason that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are together for a Christmas album aside from the fact that they were both cast together in a small little movie musical called Grease over thirty years ago.

Grease has flourished since its first run on charm alone. How else can you explain the impossible plot of an Australian immigrant–who is hot off an innocent summer fling with a local gearhead–as she navigates the social landscape of high school with a collective of sexually active girls, headed by a 34-year old Stockard Channing?

As the main characters in the film, Olivia and Travolta aren’t particularly compatible on screen and their voices don’t blend together all that notably during their duets. Regardless, they have managed to become the biggest selling duet in pop history and their presence in Grease completes the film’s campy homage to 50s B-movies, giving all of that aforementioned improbability a free pass.

How these characters have managed to ride Greased Lightening up through the skies and endured for so long is pretty remarkable, so the idea of them returning together to perform Christmas music isn’t completely out of the realm. Unfortunately, when one doesn’t properly attend to the execution of such a reunion, what you get is a record that’s more acknowledged for its weird aftertaste than musical flavor.

I won’t even mention the cover, because it’d be like bitching about how Kraft Macaroni and Cheese tastes nothing like a homemade batch of the gooey comfort food. This is truth in advertising, and the only thing that would make the cover of This Christmas more awesome is if Travolta sported a cheesy seasonal sweater.

As hard as it is to be polite about the cover art, I simply cannot get away from all of the tabloid overtones when Travolta takes over the resistant role of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” We’re all accustomed to Olivia’s occasional glimpses as the sexual aggressor (Shake Shack, anyone?), but to hear Danny Zuko put up a fight to Sandy’s advances thirty years after the fact makes for a perfect hushed whisper of “Beard!”

There are other laugh-out-loud moments within This Christmas that are much less juvenile, but equally surreal. Like the part during “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” when Barbara Streisand pops in for a verse for absolutely no reason at all.

Speaking of guest cameos, there are tons of ‘em. From another brake-slamming appearance (this time with James Taylor on “Deck The Halls”) to a not-so-subtle nod to the Scientology folks with some ivory-tickling from Chick Corea, John and Olivia bring a whole slew of friends to join in their Christmas spirit and it’s as sincere as you pretending to think the gag gift you get at work during your department’s holiday party is funny.

There’s octogenarian Tony Bennett who drops in for “Winter Wonderland,” if you count having your verses recorded at a completely different studio during a completely different session as “dropping in.”

ONJ brings out longtime musical partner John Farrar for the record’s lone original track “I Think You Might Like It.” Farrar was responsible for many of Olivia’s biggest hits, and he served as both the writer and producer for “You’re The One That I Want,” the hit single that propelled the pair into the record books.

Farrar’s latest tune is being called the sequel to that Grease classic, and it’s hard to dispute that claim since it follows nearly the same chord progression under the guise of some light country swag.

Clearly, I’m not the man who should be reviewing This Christmas because I’m overflowing with cynicism at every turn.

So I ask my wife, who often fills the house with a bit of Christmas singing of her own during the holidays, to offer her opinion of the pairing. Suddenly, I find her singing along with This Christmas, causing me to consider that maybe it is my jaded outlook that’s causing me to be so dismissive of this holiday collection.

When I ask her if This Christmas has caused her spontaneous outburst of seasonal caroling, she admitted that it wasn’t the quality of the songs that prompted her singing, but just the familiarity of the material.

Indeed, the selection doesn’t stray far from the obligatory set list that every holiday record seems to cull from. Case in point: ONJ has now selected “Silent Night” for every Christmas album she has released.

This Christmas is the perfect holiday record for anyone who has been waiting since Two Of A Kind for the return of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Beyond that, This Christmas is another run-of-the-mill collection of uninspired holiday classics featuring a bunch of questionable guest appearances and two longstanding friends who can’t seem to get away from those hallowed halls of Rydell High.

An extra star has been added for this release as all proceeds from the sale of This Christmas go to the artist’s charitable foundations.

Video: John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – “I Think You Might Like It”

Cat Power – Sun

Cat PowerSun (Matador)

The story goes that when Chan Marshall set off to begin the follow up to the very hard to follow up The Greatest, she presented her progress to a friend. She could tell that the new material didn’t grab her friend in quite the manner that she hoped, and after some additional probing, the friend declared that the new songs sounded pretty much like any other Car Power song.

And Chan Marshall was tired of sounding like the “old” Cat Power.

More power to her–pun intended–as the process of avoiding stagnation has given rock and roll some of its best moments.

It has also given it some of its worst, and the risk for epic failure gets greater when artists begin to incorporate other styles and genres that are way beyond their limits. For example: Bob Mould may be a fine dj on the weekends, but that doesn’t mean he makes a mean EDM record.

More to the point, it doesn’t mean that I want to hear a Bob Mould EDM album either. I want my musical heroes to be brave enough to listen to that bit of self-doubt in their heads that says, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Chan Marshall shouldn’t be making records like Sun, plain and simple. That’s my opinion, and it comes from the same one that thinks The Greatest was a risky album on its own. It, and to a lesser extent Jukebox, positioned Chan into promising new direction. Instead, she has now squandered that promise into a half-baked record of songs that seem to insinuate that the recording session for Sun was nothing more than one big distraction.

There are beats, rhythms, vocoders, beeps, and other creations that seem to be the result of a shopping spree in the electronics area of Guitar Center. There’s no rhyme or reason to when and why these sounds are introduced in a song, so you’re left to assume that shit just kept getting added on until Chan finally had the empathy to say “Stick a fork in it. It’s done.”

The nonsense starts early. The opener, “Cherokee,” gradually brings the listeners into Chan’s left turn, starting with a shimmering guitar before the manufactured beats make their entrance.

And you know what? It’s ok for a moment. When Chan mutters “Never knew love like this,” she sounds like she’s on the other end of a dial-up internet connection. Big beats come in and things get a little shaky, but again, Marshall hides it with a great chorus of repeated “Marry me to the sky,” bringing a bit of a lyrical connection with the song title.

Then, at exactly 3:05 into “Cherokee,” the sound of a fucking hawk or some other bird comes in. Immediately, I was like “What the fuck was that?!”

I quickly rewound and discovered the truth, and it was at that moment that I decided that I didn’t like the new Cat Power album.

The title track is just an overloaded mess of processed vocals and I’ve even started to lose interest into the briefly infectious lead-off single, “Ruin.”

My wife, who owns quite a large collection of Glee product, declares “3, 6, 9” as “strangely good” while it only makes me say, “I see what you did there!” What Marshall comes up with is a hooky bit of prose that repeats ad infinitum.

The darker moments are the best, and they will be the only moments that I’ll end up leaving in my playlist after this review posts. “Always On My Own” and “Human Being” are harrowing tales, but it’s “Manhattan” that serves as the best interpretation of Marshall’s desire to be different.

With it’s cheesy drum machine and simple, four-step piano phrase, Marshall double-tracks her voice with an emotive lead over her trademarked low-end mumble. “Don’t look at the moon tonight,” she warns “It will never be Manhattan.”

How can I stay mad at a line like that? I can’t, but I can leave off a good chunk of Sun and wonder if this is the work of a woman who’s heart isn’t in it anymore. Because Sun sounds more like an obligation, if you ask me, with each and every electronic addition seemingly introduced to cover up the fact that the album has very little heart behind it.

It is a record that began with a notion that it needed to be different, when it should have been looked at as a record that needed to be better than The Greatest.

Video: Cat Power – “Cherokee”

MP3: Cat Power – “Ruin”

Joyce Manor – Of All The Things I Will Soon Grow Tired

Joyce ManorOf All The Things I Will Soon Grow Tired (Asian Man)

I guess I’m supposed to ignore the fact that Joyce Manor do little more than deliver a very competent blend of late 20th Century punk rock and praise them for their “honesty” and “DIY ethos.” There’s a place for that, particularly when it’s been years since you’ve been away from such things, but to be completely honest, I’m having a hard time giving such a recommendation for something that I literally forgot about reviewing three weeks after I originally listened to it for said purpose.

Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired is a swift 9-track e.p. of punchy angst that alternates between straight-up lo-fi acoustic barks to garage blasts, rehashing the same chords that others have traveled and done so more memorably.

Christ, even the cover of “Video Killed The Radio Star” sounds like it’s in the line-up as nothing more than a novelty cut, ignoring the obvious that Joyce Manor’s generation has no fucking clue what a video even is, let alone believe the death rattle that they originally portended to channel.

While The Buggles were far from being groundbreakers and even farther from becoming legitimate prophets, there was at least a sense of believable dialogue when that song originally aired. For Joyce Manor, there is little evidence throughout Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired that they possess even the slightest hint of looking forward, never mind attempting to make sure the title of their e.p. is anything but a reflection of what’s exactly inside the package.

Video: Joyce Manor – “Drainage / If I Needed You There”

Husky – Forever So

HuskyForever So (Sub Pop)

Our favorite Seattle label is now making its way down under to find the next big thing up here. Husky represents their first signing from Melbourne, with the moniker actually the first name of the band’s guitar and vocalist.

The only “Husky” I knew growing up was the name of a JC Penny clothing line for fat kids. It didn’t last; who wants a tag on your jeans that scream “Feel free to bully my fat ass.”

I don’t know Husky Gawenda’s waist size, but I do know the kind of music he creates because it’s the same kind of music that Sub Pop has been pushing ever since they banked on Fleet Foxes. Maybe Poneman related to such lines as “I went walking in the woods today/I found a path/It led me astray.” (“The Woods”), imagining the big continent of Australia resembled the redwoods of the Northwest.

It’s not that I don’t subscribe to this kind of music. In fact, I’ve got a soft spot for anything remotely beautiful and sensitive within the confines of a folk-rock structure. Which is exactly what Husky delivers on Forever So. And depending on how cold and hard your own heart is, the results of Gawenda’s breathy croon can be a hit or miss affair.

“Hey man, do you want to hear a story about me?” begins “Animals & Freaks,” and before you’re given a chance to respond with the affirmative, Gawenda has already declared “Fuck you, I’m telling you my story anyway.” He’s assumed the role of an old man, telling you the tale of a chance encounter with a woman who he’s spent “three weeks in a cheap motel” before watching her depart with an eagle to go catch snakes in Mexico.

I swear to God I’m not making this up.

Yes, it’s the endlessly romantic and utterly unbelievable lyrics that make Forever So such an acquired taste. If only there were more moments like the wonderful opening “Tidal Wave,” which paints an account of a relationship within the claustrophobic cityscapes while Gawenda dreams of the day when it will all come tumbling down, leaving only him and his beau to enjoy the serenity of their love within the uncluttered landscape of natural beauty.

Now that’s more like it!

Sure, it’s a dynamic that may work better with members of the fairer sex, but it also demonstrates that there’s still a large proportion of empathetic types in this world that can relate to the sticky-sweet feelings that love provides. Forever So also shows that we’re still struggling to come up with the words to adequately describe those feelings.

Video: Husky – “The Woods”

MP3: Husky – “Tidal Wave”

MP3: Husky – “History’s Door”

Audio: Husky – Forever So [FULL ALBUM STREAM]

Testament – Dark Roots Of Earth

TestamentDark Roots Of Earth (Nuclear Blast)

To be honest, I would rather see Testament included in the “Big 4” line-up than Anthrax. The lineage is there and, most importantly, the band has parlayed its third decade into an example that even headliners Metallica should have considered well before the submission that was Death Magnetic.

But as much as I liked Testament’s The Formation Of Damnation, there’s very little on the band’s newest album in four years–Dark Roots Of Earth— that would indicate that the time in between was spent on forging ahead on lyrical matters to match the top-notch thrash delivery.

The theme of war is packed within Dark Roots Of Earth, but good luck finding anything beyond clichés like “sea of rage,” “crimson rain,” and “raining seas of crimson rage.” Ok, I made the last one up, but just watch Billy use it for a line in Testament’s next release.

“True American Hate” sounds nothing more than a ready-made soundtrack for aggro meatsticks who view war as nothing more than video games with little consequence. The inspiration, claims vocalist Chuck Billy, came after seeing video of Middle Easterners burning the American Flag.

It would take Billy just a few seconds of research to discover the similarities between our endless occupation and that of his own well-documented Native American heritage. It’s not a matter of being on the right side of politics either, but to sum up a gut-check reaction to a video specifically choreographed to rile up Americans is just plain lazy.

Almost as embarrassing is the ballad “Cold Embrace,” which was evidently included as some kind of way to break up the record’s non-stop brutal delivery. It certainly wasn’t included to feature Billy’s thin vocal style and he sings some bullshit about a mythical sleeping beauty.

If there’s anything, or anyone, that can save Darks Roots Of Earth from the weight of its hokey hawkish celebration of war, it’s guitarist Alex Skolnick’s incredible soloing. It manages to save the record during points where you become absolutely numb to the countless mentions of “hate,” dim-witted references to “liberty” and “freedom,” and confusing allusions to the American war-machine, which seem to support and criticize it simultaneously.

Dark Roots Of Earth is a lowest common denominator metal record that places fans in the unfortunate position of having to defend Testament’s narrow-minded jingoism instead of celebrating their unquestionable abilities as one of thrash’s elder statesmen.

On second thought, let’s put Overkill on the Big 4 line-up instead.

Video: Testament – “Native Blood”

Video: Testament – “True American Hate”

Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold

Beachwood SparksThe Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)

After a decade long hiatus between studio albums, Beachwood Sparks returns with The Tarnished Gold, their latest attempt at channeling the ghosts of Laurel Canyon. Their country rock is tightly packaged through campfire picked guitars and a slue of pedal steels, just the way it should be. The arrangements are stacked on a wide pallet of psychedelic parlor tricks to make everything sound like it’s passed through a lysergic filter. The Tarnished Gold also features Beachwood Sparks’ most endearing feature: highly articulate harmonies that are a welcome addition when they’re presented.

It’s intriguing enough to warrant another listen, but the longer I spent in the band’s high altitude, the more I kept wondering if there was anything more to Beachwood Sparks than feeling lightheaded.

Those aforementioned harmonies are plenty nifty, but with lines like “A honeybee in a field of flower/Came to me in my darkest hour” (“Talk About Lonesome”) you have to wonder, “It took a decade to come up with that?” The lazy songwriting gets to the point where there are moments of unintentional parody, and it’s at this point that I gave up on trying to piece together anything more than “talented musicians” to Beachwood Sparks’ redeeming values.

Beyond the musical chops, I can’t tell you many other reasons why we needed to wait ten years for this understated yawner or why this band’s reunion is anything beyond the kick of confidence that came from having one of their songs featured on the cult hit, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

“Forget the song/That I’ve been singing” they sing on the opening track, and before the end of The Tarnished Gold, you’ve done exactly that.

Video: Beachwood Sparks – “Forget The Song”

MP3: Beachwood Sparks – “Forget The Song”

MP3: Beachwood Sparks – “Sparks Fly Again”

The Fall – Ersatz GB

The Fall – Ersatz GB (Cherry Red)

Featuring the same band found on Your Future Our Clutter, The Fall’s twenty-ninth album sonically mirrors the previous effort with Mark E. Smith incorporating even more marbles in his mouth.

And since Clutter was such a winner, Ersatz GB is more of the same, with the only disappointment being that it’s exactly that: more of the same. The line-up has become so adept at following M.E.S.’ phlegm that they sound a bit safe at times. There’s little evidence that the whole thing could go off the rails, and because Smith sometimes works best when he’s his own worst enemy, it’s an odd feeling.

Make no mistake, Ersatz GB is not accessible enough to finally make The Fall a household name, but it is the first Fall record in quite a while that appeals exclusively to longtime fans like myself while giving novices little reason to seek out the previous 28 efforts.

Closer “Age Of Chang” does hint of a little chaos thanks to bullhorn vocals and lo-fi recording strategies that make Smith sound like some propaganda minister preaching over the airwaves while the band suddenly returns to proper fidelity. The problem is, they’ve used this strategy before, or better put Mark has used this strategy before during another lineup, decades ago.

If it was challenging then, what does that make it now?

It makes it an effort reeking of going through the motions, lazily coming to fruition because it was about that time to release another Fall record.

Ersatz GB will be the record known for giving Smith’s spouse her own entry, “Happi Song,” perhaps the most memorable tune only for the fact that it sounds nothing like the rest of the album. This isn’t to suggest that Eleni Poulou has finally reached the status of ex-wife Brix in terms of influence or talent; it merely means that one song on the album give M.E.S. time to cough up a few bits of lung and for us, a brief reprieve from the atonal monotony of The Fall’s latest document.

The BoDeans – Indigo Dreams

The BoDeans
Indigo Dreams

At the time of this writing, BoDeans’ founders Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas have stopped working with each other after being together for over a quarter-century. For reasons not entirely known-except between Neumann and Llanas-tension had been building to the point where Llanas failed to show up to a gig back in August. Neumann went chugging right along like nothing really happened by hiring a replacement while Llanas used the opportunity to announce plans for an upcoming solo record.

So it looks like Indigo Dreams-released just weeks before the falling out-might be the last Bo Deans album featuring Kurt and Sammy.

Does Indigo Dreams hint at any discourse?

Not really.

It sounds like another middle-of-the road release that places the band comfortably in adult contemporary territory without ruffling any feathers with adjectives like “challenging” or “new direction.”

It’s pleasingly consistent with well-rehearsed harmonies, capable arrangements and everything you’d expect from a band who’s already proven to be fully capable with this stuff, and maybe that was Llanas’ problem all along.

With each big gesture chorus, every vintage organ and obligatory accordion, the band falls bootstep into a formula perfected with decades of routine and endless gigging. There’s no hint of inner turmoil because the BoDeans probably had Indigo Dreams cleaned and gutted before the record button was even pressed.

The animosity then, may come with having to trudge across the country once more with someone where the spontaneity died years before. The familiarity and ease in which the two fall into place is both reassuring and the album’s only complaint.

The opening track “Blowing My Mind” brings up some overly familiar Stones’ riff while “Rock ’N Roll Overdrive” barely gains traction with its embarrassingly clichéd of an up and coming band fightin the man, describing it as feeling “like a power train in rock and roll overdrive”

“Father’s Day” actually sounds good enough to qualify as Neumann having a point for trying it alone and “Way Down” has Llanas mirroring a decent Tom Petty tune.

But there’s nothing that’s required listening for anyone who’s not already a BoDeans fan or someone who’d like to navigate beyond the comfortable soft underbelly of white, middle age.

And while the idea of a BoDeans without Sammy aboard doesn’t sound right before a note has been recorded, Indigo Dreams suggest that he and Kurt may have been sleepwalking through their final record together anyway.

Gang Of Four – Content

Gang Of Four - ContentGang Of FourContent (Yep Rock)

Part of the problem when a band like Gang of Four releases a record as life changing as 1979’s Entertainment! is that everything that follows in its wake runs a greater risk of disappointment.

Keeping that in mind, it’s not hard to balance the time and distance between a new Gang of Four record and that acknowledged classic. In the three decades since, we’ve seen the band fall out of fashion somewhat, while giving birth to a few, easily identifiable youngsters who replace communist Cliffs Notes ideals with tailored suits and Xbox deals.

Continue reading Gang Of Four – Content

The Lonely Forest – E.P.

The Lonely Forest - E.P.The Lonely ForestE.P. (Trans)

“Nashville you’re much too safe,” advises Lonely Forest vocalist John Van Deusen on “Live There,” one of the songs on the Anacortes, Washington digital-only e.p. “Quit weighing the pro’s and con’s, just create,” he admonishes, like he’s been around the block enough times that he’s got the answer to Music City’s creativity problems.

You should know that Van Deusen is in his early twenties and he hasn’t strayed far from his small-town hometown in the Pacific Northwest. Hardly the epitome of the school of hard knocks, and with barely more than a couple of records under his band’s belt, he’s not a deep source of catalog experience.

But Van Deusen and company do have the benefit of one Chris Walla, the Death Cab For Cutie sound architect who has a boutique label arrangement with Atlantic Records and a pretty impressive resume of knob twiddling.

Continue reading The Lonely Forest – E.P.