Tag Archives: 4 Stars (of 5)

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Crown and Treaty

Sweet Billy PilgrimCrown And Treaty (EMI)

Occasionally, an album arrives and upon first listen you get the sense that the music jumping out of the grooves wasn’t created in a sterile studio with too little daylight and too much attention to detail. With Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s third release, Crown and Treaty, you get the sense that the recording studio is nothing more than a few rooms in a house with wires littering the floor and dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen sink.

Fuck those chores, particularly if the end results command a record as eloquently crafted as this. Crown and Treaty doesn’t suffer from any poor fidelity sonics resulting from this homespun approach. It’s as detailed as anything as you’d expect from a band with a recording budget that matches the muse that they’ve set out to scale. This muse is in full, beautiful array throughout Crown and Treaty, in what is certainly one of the best albums that you’ll hear all year.

Crown and Treaty incorporates delicate organic instrumentation (clean guitars, banjos, pianos, whatever’s lying around) with some great harmonies, initiated by Tim Elsenburg’s gentle voice. With the recent addition of Jana Carpenter to the fold, Sweet Billy Pilgrim has now found a wider range of vocal emotion, which only begins to take off during the album’s second half.

Prior to those moments, Crown and Treaty offers a wide range of expression through its original arrangements and Elsenburg’s own imaginative lyrics.  There’s a sense of maturity throughout his study on melancholia, suggesting that the existential crisis that we all experience is preordained from day one. Or, as Elsenburg himself details more succinctly in one track, “Life is a place we arrive at upside down.”

If it’s not his own demons he’s documenting, he uses other source material for the task. “Kracklite” appends Brian Dennehy’s character in the 1987 The Belly of an Architect and uses it as a discussion of the folly of trying to overcome our own mortality. “Monuments we build  tumble to the ground,” Elsenburg sings, accurately pointing out that even the most majestic of structures we place on this earth are “just another way to be forgotten.”

With Crown and Treaty, Sweet Billy Pilgrim have delivered their homespun masterstroke, an album that only begs the question of what other gems do they have hidden in their house of creativity and enviable sense of arrangements. Here’s hoping that this musical monument never gets forgotten.

Video: Sweet Billy Pilgrim – “Archaeology”

Video: Sweet Billy Pilgrim – “Kracklite” (acoustic version)

Video: Sweet Billy Pilgrim – “Blue Sky Falls” (acoustic version)

Swans – The Seer

SwansThe Seer (Young God)

The cover art to Swans’ 12th album–like the record itself–makes a credible argument that The Seer is probably better suited for a vinyl format.

It features a painting of a dog, presumably a Yorkshire Terrier, a small breed of canine that is small in stature and originally bred to kill rats in the clothing mills of England. They bark a lot, which makes them excellent alarmist and they have a tendency to have dental problems throughout their life.

The Yorkie on the cover of The Seer features Swans’ leader Michael Gira’s teeth drawn in the dog’s mouth. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the dog’s anus in full view. I’m giving the artist (Simon Henwood) the benefit of the doubt by assuming that it is merely representative of the dog’s backside, not Gira’s.

How this particular breed relates to Gira is another matter for discussion. I don’t know the relevance or if it even if there is one. I just know that it’s disturbing and compelling at the same time, the same feelings you get from listening to The Seer. It’s a record that not only serves as the culmination of Gira’s thirty year career as a provocative noise monger, but one that qualifies as perhaps the best album you’ll hear this year.

That praise comes with the condition that you’ll have an open mind to tolerate epic lengths of sonic torture. The Seer isn’t for everyone, but the reality that Gira has accomplished something very special here needs to be relayed to every music lover, including the ones that will never enjoy endless moments of sonic drones and skull crushing accentuation.

This, perhaps, is the other reason The Seer is better suited for the vinyl format.  At two hours in length, and with some songs running near the half-hour mark, you’ll need that simple act of taking the needle off the record to take a breath and compose yourself. This isn’t to suggest that all 120 minutes aren’t worth their weight, but to suggest that Gira’s dread is often the equivalent of enduring repeated blows to your optimism.

The Seer is not comprised entirely of his bag of confrontational brutality; there are moments of incredible beauty paced throughout this monolithic creature, and some of those moments come at the hand (or voice) of the album’s long cast of characters.

The most notable is “Song For A Warrior” featuring Karen O in a strategically placed spot, kicking off the record’s second half and providing a reprieve from the record’s primal first disc.

But perhaps the most beautiful is the “A Piece Of The Sky,” a nineteen-minute suite that begins with a crackling fire, develops into a nightmare chorale (featuring former member Jarobe scratching out the polyphonic drone), transforms into post-rock stomp before brilliantly segueing into a languid poetry shuffle where Gira delivers some of the best prose of the album.

It alternates, like most of the Swans most notable material, between the profane and profound. Gira points out the beauty in even the most conflicting of environments (“In the wind of my lung/In methane and in love/In petroleum plumes/There’s a floating slice of moon”).

The Seer is as abrasive as life itself, and how you chose to relate to its harsh realities is a matter of both taste and tolerance.  

But If you’re familiar with Michael Gira’s past 30 years, and are willing to believe that he’s able to deliver the most complete and compelling work at nearly 60 years of age, then The Seer will show how this old dog’s bark is just as vicious as it has ever been.

Rush – Clockwork Angels

RushClockwork Angels (Anthem)

Prior to the release of Rush’s twentieth album, Clockwork Angels, the band had an opportunity to visit with Pete Townshend after receiving the Governor-General Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts.

The formal gathering provided the Canadian trio with some face time with one of their acknowledged heroes after the event, and the conversation eventually led to the “What’s next?” question. When Rush responded that they were putting the finishing touches on a new album, Townshend scoffed, hinting that the format that he helped secure as a legitimate art form with Tommy has evolved into a seemingly extinct outlet.

“Waste of time, making albums these days.” He pointed out rather correctly, and even the band was forced to admit that maybe so, but they had to.

You could look at their response as yet another example of a band from a different era failing to acknowledge modern realities. Or you could accept the fact that Rush has operated exclusively in their own reality for four decades now, navigating trends and genres in a silo of loyal fans who appreciate the independent spirit of this band’s history.

A big part of that history happened with their 1974 release, 2112, a record that found them at the end of a record deal after three consecutive commercial failures to their resume. By all means, 2112 should have been the band’s clear bend towards their label’s desire to have a hit record. Instead, it’s a record in which half of it is devoted to a concept corny enough to alienate the placid record buyers it was trying to capture.

As we know now, 2112 became an enormous record for the band, inexplicably connecting them with an audience who appreciated their excessive tendencies and geeky excursions. It also became the record that fueled their fans’ future expectations, the benchmark for new conceptual meanderings.

With Clockwork Angels, they’ve returned to idea of a concept album once again, even coyly putting the hands of a clock on the album’s cover, that–if you consider the hands in military time–clearly spell out 21:12.

To be honest, I don’t have the patience to figure out what the concept is, exactly; all I know is that I think I heard a few songs reference timepieces and that the performances within the record’s hour-long running time are probably the best thing they’ve done since Signals.

It’s also the most varied, alternating between complex arrangements and textures that effectively demonstrate a wide pallet of sounds that could only come from a band that’s spent a great deal of their existence continually trying to move forward.

Whether or not you’ve personally been a part of this journey isn’t relevant. Those of us who’ve had a relationship with Rush at some point in our life will find Clockwork Angels to be not only a continuation of the band’s recent upswing, but one of the premier entries in what’s not only been a long, storied career, but a somewhat choppy one at that.

The band wisely chose to work with producer Nick Raskulinecz again after giving the band a flattering mix for Snakes & Arrows. His role is vastly expanded here, giving Clockwork Angels a perfect blend of the band’s progressive background with their more recognizable synthesizer years, all while making sure that the material has a distinctively modern sound, capable of scaring off any younger contenders trying to surpass these elder statesmen.

They do it by not just focusing on the complexities of their craft, but in casting a wide net over its very definitions. Guitarist Alex Lifeson channels his best Robert Fripp at points where atmosphere and texture rule over guitar worship soloing. The acoustic moments are compelling, and when the material calls for a bit of big power chords, Lifeson responds with memorable attacks and distinctive tones.

Geddy Lee’s vocals are more palatable than they’ve ever been, with hints of emotional qualities that were not present when his voice was more of a distraction than an instrument. And speaking of, his bass duties are pushed up high in the mix, suggesting that he’s never stopped building his low-end craft even when his hands left the fretboard for the keyboard.

Drummer and lyricist Neil Peart also deliver some of the best work of his career, with the words providing evidence of added focus and his drumming showing signs of intentional spontaneity. Credit Raskulinecz here too, as the pair purposely avoided unnecessary exposure to the songs so that when the time came for Peart to perform the rhythm tracks, he was only familiar with the song’s outline, approaching it with only a basic notion of how he would address each fill or tempo change.

Clockwork Angels‘ most telling moment may come with its title track, beginning with progressive layer of atmospheres before turning into churning bit of double-timed frenzy. The trick goes back and forth, until it turns into an acoustic Zeppelin shuffle right around the five-minute mark. It’s well thought-out, expertly delivered, and it suggests that not only are Rush still trying to deliver career triumph to us, they may still be able to accomplish it.

“All the journeys of this great adventure,” Geddy sings, looking back on the band’s history and noting the struggles of their early years with “It didn’t always feel that way.” As the track progresses, Lee finally admits, “I wish that I could live it all again,” while the band performs as if the last four decades haven’t slowed them down a bit.

Waste of time? Judging from Townshend’s twilight output, maybe. But for the members of Rush, Clockwork Angels is a late career triumph that sounds like the band’s time was put to excellent use.

Video: Rush – “Headlong Flight”

Saint Vitus – Lillie F-65

Saint Vitus – Lillie: F-65 (Season of Mist)

The running joke with Saint Vitus’ 1986 record Born Too Late was that it confirmed what everyone already knew about the band. It’s like someone stumbled across a lost tribe of the Sons of Silence motorcycle club where downers was part of their food pyramid and the only music they had was an 8-track of Masters Of Reality that played on an endless loop.

Life got mundane for these Earthmovers, so they picked up some instruments and proceeded to break down those Sabbath riffs into their most basic elements, slowing down the tempo until the entire thing sounds like it’s in death throes.

There was no such thing as “doom metal” back then. Instead, Saint Vitus looked like an out-of-touch bunch of stoners who perfected a faithful reproduction of drop D horrorshow and blatant Sabbath worship.

Their records–wonderfully out of place on the hugely influential SST label–all sounded like they were recorded on barely working studio equipment with anything above 10 kHz not even registering because of the primordial ooze of guitarist Dave Chandler selfishly taking over everything else in the mix with motor oil cans of fuzz.

As you can probably guess, Saint Vitus were never appreciated as much as they should have been during their original tenure.

By the time of their second decade, the fruits of their labors began to show in the work of their young admirers, but with Saint Vitus’ sonic quicksand being a decidedly acquired taste, they limped through changes in vocalists while remaining embedding in their underground status.

It’s been seventeen years since their last album, Die Healing, a swan song featuring the band’s original vocalist Scott Reagers that seemed to end the band’s legacy on a high note.

We’ve seen a reunion of the original members since that time, and we’ve witnessed the tragic passing of original drummer Armando Acosta. What we haven’t seen is a return of vocalist Scott “Wino” Weinrich, and the line-up that some fans consider to be the band’s peak.

In fact, you’d have to go back even farther than the last album since we last heard Wino front Vitus. It was a series of live shows and the addition of new drummer Henry Vasquez that prompted the creative spark that brings us Lillie: F-65

The curious title comes from a particular downer that guitarist Dave Chandler enjoyed back in the day, no doubt fueling the incredible slow tempo that is at vital to this band as the sludge it hermetically seals inside each measure.

For me to instruct novices to begin with Saint Vitus’ earlier catalog would be a disservice to how good Lillie: F-65 really is. Within seconds, Chandler’s guitar picks up exactly where it left off nearly two decades ago, still as primordial as ever.

New drummer Vasquez speaks the same language as the late Armando, but he beats the skins in such a way that it’s tough to gauge if he’s paying tribute to his predecessor or trying to hammer nails into the coffin of his legacy. He’s heavier than Armando while unmistakably fitting into the line-up better than anyone else who may have applied for the position.

Add these two forces together and you’ve got an album of such stunning aggression that you’d be forgiven if you view Sabbath’s own reunion with ambivalence. With nothing to gain, Saint Vitus seems to pride itself on proving how little they’ve moved their metal glacier from its original placement and how even the most rudimentary arrangements can reign as the heaviest element on metal’s periodic table.

The album’s last two selections serve as the highlight of this wonderfully brief effort. At only a hair over a half-hour, “Dependence” is a seven-minute cautionary tale of excess, complete with over two minutes of ear-damaging feedback to drive back anyone hoping for a bit of compromise.

The next song takes it even further, doing away with any resemblance of melody and ignoring any need for lyrics. “Withdrawal” is nothing more than two of layers of Chandler’s feedback, one of which pans back and forth between channels like a turret gun aiming for survivors.

There aren’t any, when it comes down to it, except for the members of Saint Vitus themselves who not only survive, but add to their legacy with Lillie: F-65. What is remarkable is how they do it: tapping into the fountain of youth of the same formula that once had them labeled as born too late.

Video: Saint Vitus – “Let Them Fall”

Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick

Jethro TullThick As A Brick (Chrysalis)

It was a task that was easily avoided, this decision to review Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick on the sheer fact that I wasn’t quick enough with my hand to review the sequel.

In retrospect, I should have started with the original anyway. I really had no business to jump ahead in line and taint my first foray into Brick without doing the heavy lifting of listening to the original album’s lone song, split into two twenty minute sections that must have been too massive for me to consider previously.

Aside from being familiar with the refrain of Thick As A Brick’s introductory notes, my only other experience had been reading the mock newspaper cover art from someone else’s record collection. The kid on the cover looked like Cousin Oliver, but I had no idea that inside this long player was a haphazard concept record about a fictional kid named Gerald Bostock.

I began with the intention of learning all about this character, but a few miles of interstate driving as I took the kids to an area museum proved to be too intense for me to follow along with the album’s insidious plot. With the kids knee deep in some shitty Chipmunks movie in the back seat of the mini-van and my wife consumed in her Kindle, it was just me and Ian Anderson’s heavy mettle for an hour-long drive.

By the end of side one, it was me that was asking, “Are we there yet?”

Let me be square with you about the girth of Thick As A Brick and my relationship with the band in general. Even though I wasn’t familiar with the record prior to this review, I am very familiar with the record’s follow up release, A Passion Play. For reasons not entirely clear, A Passion Play was a recurring favorite as a kid, and that record too is a hefty one-song album, with a brief interlude in between side A and B that plays like an A.A. Milne children’s story.

What I’m saying is that I’m not intimidated by the idea of the long song format and I understand why this band is often used as the punch line to any serious music snob. It’s completely logical that the mere suggestion of a band presenting an album-length song to its audience reeks of complete pretension.

And if creating not one, but two sequential records that both use this kind of arrangement  doesn’t confirm this perception, then consider that it’s performed by a group of hairy British dudes that look like they’ve rolled right out of the Middle Ages, or the local Medieval Times performance staff.

Trust me, I get it.

What I don’t get is how much work they put into it. This is not easy stuff to learn and play, and as a result, not an easy thing to appreciate in the open-air acoustics of a Japanese minivan Sienna.

No, progressive rock is best heard within the independence of headphones or earbuds. They put the massive schlock into perspective, and they do the good deed of sparing others from the nerdy glee of impossible soloing, pointless tempo changes, and frequent measures of flute accents.

There is plenty of all three of these throughout Thick As A Brick, which begins to reveal itself as being culled from bits of random parts that may have started life with other song titles. It’s here where Ian Anderson’s first words of “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out” begin to serve as a warning to anyone who isn’t down with the notion of stringing bits and pieces of short segments into one horrifically long piece.

I soldiered on until I began to discover that there’s less pretense in Tull’s intent and more wry English humor instead. If you take the origin of the album as gospel, you’d believe that the album itself is nothing more than a fuck-you to music critics who kept telling them that they were a progressive rock band, no matter how hard the band’s creative forces spoke to the contrary.

Once you’re in on the joke of Brick the more enjoyable it becomes.

It was there in my basement, secluded with those aforementioned headphones and a second playing of Thick As A Brick when I first began to appreciate its awesomeness of its grandeur.

The new setup did nothing to help figure out how the story of Gerald Bostock’s poem, but the incredible musicianship on display throughout the record’s total time created an environment where I didn’t miss the story arc one bit.

I’m still giving the nod to Passion Play, as it seems to throw caution to the wind a bit more with even more complex arrangements and such inexcusable lyrics like “And your little sister’s immaculate virginity wings away on the bony shoulder of a young horse named George.”

Thick As A Brick is Tull’s coy tiptoe into the progressive realm compared to Passion Play, but it is a bold move forward nonetheless. And if they can be scolded for working on rock music’s outer margins, can’t they be forgiven for bringing such challenging ideas to paper to begin with?

Personal favorites aside, Thick As A Brick plays like nothing you’ve heard before or since. It’s easy to understand why devotees often refer to it as the band’s crowning achievement and why its excess isn’t palatable with some listeners.

What isn’t so easy to understand is how such bold arrangements and ideas that tested the boundaries of their own creativity as well as the very notion of what constituted rock music could disintegrate into such lazy output like A or Under Wraps later on.

And it certainly doesn’t point to the need to even attempt a sequel, particularly when they crammed so much into one tune that the original l.p. couldn’t even support a second song.

Dr. John – Locked Down

Dr. JohnLocked Down (Nonesuch Records)

I first read about the new Dr. John record in Rolling Stone a few months back. I’ve always been a fan of Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John), so I was intrigued. Rebennack has been on the scene since the late 60s, and with over 20 albums under his belt his influence is widespread.

With Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys producing, I knew it was going to be interesting. Then NPR Music streamed the first single from the album, “Bigshot”. Rolling Stone streamed “Revolution” soon after.  Both these songs opened my ears to what an Auerbach/Rebennack pairing could produce. All of this got me pretty excited about the album.

Fortune had it that my copy arrived at lunch on a sunny, early spring afternoon. I took it for a spin in the car, listening to the first half of the record on my way back to the office. It was swampy, funky, and gritty, and it rocked. It’s the most rock and roll album I’ve heard from Dr. John. Auerbach’s music nerd sensibility combined with Dr. John’s New Orleans gumbo makes for an amazing listen.

You can get a sense of why by checking out the promo video for the album, “Dr. John – Locked Down [Teaser].” It shows Rebennack in the studio, working with Auerbach and the rest of the band at the heart of Locked Down – another guitar player, Ben Olive, plus a drummer and a bass player.  Just a small, tight band working closely together in a small studio environment. Bringing a brilliant batch of Dr. John songs to life in a way that I haven’t heard before.

I don’t think the rock and roll edge to the record would be there if Dan Auerbach didn’t produce the record, and if he didn’t have Rebennack’s complete trust. It’s an example of how a great producer can really help pull great musical ideas out of the artist and present the artist’s work in a fresh and vital way.

Rebennack is playing vintage equipment throughout – real, old school electric pianos and organs. You can hear an electric piano power “Getaway”, a big rocker with a huge guitar solo in the middle of the album. “Kingdom of Izzness” has a Farfisa combo organ. The band steps through a range of other genres, too. “Ice Age” starts with an Afrobeat guitar riff, and keeps the theme going through the song. “Eleggua” is straight up Funkadelic-style funk with a hint of that voodoo flair you hear in early Dr. John material. “God’s Sure Good” is a big, joyous gospel tune that ends the album, a sort of thank you from Dr. John for the good fortune he has had as a musician and songwriter.

So when I first started reviewing albums for Glorious Noise, I asked myself, what would constitute a perfect rating of five out of five stars for a record? I decided that the first criteria for me would be that each song on the album must be good, meaning that it could stand up under repeated listening and still remain enjoyable. And some of them would have to be great – songs that somehow just got better after repeated listenings, and beg to be played loudly. The second criteria is that the album has to retain that luster over time. If it’s five star worthy, it can’t sound dated in five years.

Which means any brand new album isn’t going to attain five star status from me upon initial release. But Locked Down does meet the first criterion. All the songs are good, and a whole bunch of them are great. I can’t say if it will stand the test of time and move from four to five, but I can say this: Locked Down will be getting a lot of airplay in my car and at my barbecues this summer. I think you’ll like it.

Stream: Dr. John – “Revolution”

Video: Dr. John – Locked Down [Teaser]
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxAmqxTyxe4&w=560&h=315]

Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls

Alabama ShakesBoys and Girls (ATO)

By now, everyone reading this review has heard about Alabama Shakes, or to be more direct, everyone has heard the hype of Alabama Shakes rather than hearing a goddamn note.

I’ll admit to sneaking a peek at them just to get an idea of who the hell we’re contending with, because everything on paper looked a little too good to be true and we really shouldn’t get too hot and bothered about shit that was done as good as it could get generations ago.

That’s the draw of American music. We have short attention spans here in the United States, so forgive us if we’re shooting our wads at some bullshit new flavor while we’re completely ignoring how good Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin were back in the day.

Then, some upstart devotes their entire existence to those records, reminding us that while we were all discussing Lana Del Rey’s SNL appearance, the band Alabama Shakes were sweating in some dump of a rehearsal space, channeling all of those good American influences before becoming darlings at whatever hipster music festivals their managers could get them booked on.

So we’re finally provided with the debut, and yes, it’s awesome. Better yet, it’s recorded just like those old records you’re forgiven for forgetting.

However, Boys & Girls won’t be remembered in twenty years for its adherence to the past. Instead, it will be remembered for what it should be: a brief shot of American music that’s been appropriately rehearsed and impressively executed thanks to the talents of vocalist Brittany Howard.

The backing band–and that’s exactly what they are–should be commending for coming to the realization that their role is one of support, laying off as needed and bringing it back home when it’s time to. They’re not too tight, not too loose, and they know that just hearing Howard sigh, moan, or fucking breathe is more powerful than any bit of solo spotlight or professional chops.

Because they’re gonna get better with age, and they may even face a moment where Howard leaves for greener pastures just like Janis Joplin did with Big Brother. Why waste more time building on the nuances of their dynamics and synchronize their routines more than when they’re as good as we need them to be right now?

Spring echo guitars pluck out rhythms before drummer Steve Johnson even picks up the sticks. A plain background piano adds appropriate colors to several songs. And kudos to guitarist Heath Fogg–my nominee for best rock name of the year–who deserves an award for keeping on the restraint when he could have easily fell into the Sam Andrew trip of trying to outdo who’s obviously the star of this outfit.

I keep bringing up these Joplin references when I should clarify something: Alabama Shakes are better than Big Brother, and that includes when Janis was their frontman.

Howard can wail just as good as Joplin, but she uses the tool sparingly. She possesses a much wider range, and when she pulls out a showstopper like “Be Mine,” it’s a myriad of emotions. In one instance you can hear an exuberant “Whoo hoo!” after a particularly soaring declaration, only to be followed by a terse “If they want a fight, then they started fuckin’ with the wrong heart” that could scare the bejezus out of the biggest of troublemakers.

Joplin had a stunning jab, but Brittany Howard has a better sucker punch.

That’s the beauty of Boys & Girls. It’s a record that’s easy to dismiss based on what you’ve read, but it will land a righteous blow after your first listen. And hopefully the intimidation Ms. Howard and associates provide on their debut will be enough to remind us all how we should always have a band like the Alabama Shakes somewhere on our radar, and not just when some publicist’s pen reminds us of the power of American music.

Video: Alabama Shakes – “Hold On”

Video: Alabama Shakes – “I Found You” (Live)

Van Halen – A Different Kind Of Truth

Van HalenA Different Kind of Truth (Interscope)

“Told you I was coming back,” deadpans David Lee Roth on “Blood And Fire,” one of the thirteen new tracks from A Different Kind of Truth, the band’s first album in 28 years. Thank God, Van Halen fans deserve this moment for all they have been through. And more importantly, they deserve a decent moment, not something slopped together as icing for the cash cow that will be their 2012 tour.

And decent it is. In fact, it is better than anyone expected, even those of little faith who spoke disparagingly of the leadoff single “Tattoo.”

In fact, “Tattoo” is the worst song on the album, and if you can make it through “Stay Frosty” without smiling — the improbably awesome reprise to “Ice Cream Man” — then there is no saving you from your own jaded pretense. The reality is that something special happens when the atomic explosion of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work and Diamond David Lee Roth’s front man jive collide. It is a thing of beauty and A Different Kind Of Truth only confirms that.

For me, it is clear that all the closet cleaning that people were so freaked out about served as a benchmark for this reunion. The selections they chose were a reminder of those club days before they became successful. They represent a time when they were hungry, before the drama set in and they could all agree on working together for one common goal.

A Different Kind Of Truth finds every member doing their fucking job. Each one of ‘em — including Wolfie — seems intent on making sure they weren’t to blame if this whole idea ended up in the shitter. Every member delivers, and the venue they chose to display their hard work is an aggressive one. There are few moments that I remember hearing a keyboard, and there is no room in their arrangements that allow for an “I’ll Wait” power ballad. It’s unadulterated hard rock music, and every one seems nimble, chomping at the bit to knock the chip off our collective shoulders.

If you want comparisons, A Different Kind Of Truth tries hard to reach the punchy deep tracks of Women and Children First while delivering more consistent winners than II or Diver Down. It’s about three songs too many from ranking alongside their classics, but one of the only things preventing them from reaching that plateau is that our heads are no longer blown away like they were when Eddie was fingertapping his way through our earholes the very first time around.

Yeah, you miss the high harmonies of Michael Anthony and, yeah, Diamond Dave’s lost a high note or two, but if you approach this album expecting an embarrassing money grab you will immediately discover that Van Halen is actually trying to add something to their catalog.

Roth sounds a bit more humbled, older and wiser at times. He uses that low gruff voice a bit too much, something that he started with “Me Wise Magic” during the brief mid-90s reunion, and Eddie carries his ass when it gets a tad bit creepy on “Honeybabysweetiedoll.”  But in the end, there’s an exuberance in his performance that hasn’t been heard in years.

Same with Eddie, who seems hell-bent throughout A Different Kind Of Truth on getting back on top of those guitar magazine polls by pulling out mind-blowing solos in every nook and cranny available.

Even Alex, particularly on the intro to “As Is,” channels the best Ginger Baker his old balls can muster and even gives nephew more cowbell while he unleashes some nice fuzz bass guitar on the terrific closer “Beats Workin’”

As a matter of fact, the last three tracks on A Different Kind Of Truth are just as good as anything in the band’s original cannon, and it’s totally obvious that some of these songs actually are part of the original black powder.

They’ve done something very impressive with it, namely adding to the band’s winning streak instead of further tarnishing the band’s legacy. Equally important, it validates the fact that this band has chemistry with this particular vocalist and that we now have a chance to look forward to watching Van Halen fulfill their unrealized potential.

Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow

Until recently, we’ve had a mild winter in the Midwest. There’s been very few days where temperatures fell below freezing and it was the first time in years when there wasn’t snow on the ground during Christmas.

It was a challenge not to buy Kate Bush’s new album 50 Words For Snow when it was released last November, but I had to wait. I knew that someone would probably place it under the Christmas tree as a gift for me, as it’s well known around these parts that my love for all things Kate is quite pronounced.

Indeed, when that morning came, I found two copies of the record from different sources.

How strange then that when the moment arrived to finally dive into it, I felt restrained. Within the first few chords of the opener “Snowflake,” I began to consider that I might not be drawn to it in the same way that I was with other Kate releases. That feeling continued when I heard the first voice of the record.

It wasn’t Kate, but her son Bertie.

I tucked away 50 Words For Snow for a few weeks, and then in mid January we received our first snowfall. Suddenly, the fields transformed from dead blacks and browns into mysterious white. The snow dampened the sounds outside to the point where you felt like you could be the only living thing for miles around. The crunch of my boots became a cacophony of rhythm while the cold, blowing wind through the trees became an orchestra of strings.

It was at that moment when I felt ready to give 50 Words For Snow another listen.

I’m not suggesting that there needs to be snow on the ground before you can appreciate Kate’s 10th record, but for me it provided the necessary motivation. Like those cold and silent evenings where the elements force everyone inside, Kate has created an album of such minimalism that it can force listeners into their own isolation as the music does not bode well in social settings.

The intimacy requires your patience, and with time, you begin to notice the flourishes with every quiet pause, each piano chord, and every twisted tale.

Suddenly, Albert’s voice becomes as high as the snowflake that’s forming in the clouds, Steve Gadd’s drumming swings with the slow pace of footsteps on snow-covered sidewalks, and Kate’s voice–deeper with age–becomes the focal point of arrangements that go past the ten-minute mark with intense and precise intent.

With so much time on your hands, you begin to notice things. For example, you discover that one of the album’s highlights (“Misty”) is about a woman who melts a snowman during a night of lovemaking. The following track (“Wild Man”) seems to be about Bigfoot, and the title track finds Stephen Fry reciting things like “avalanche,” “shovel crusted” and “ankle breaker” from Kate’s own personal thesaurus for the word snow.

“Snowed In At Wheeler Street” features Kate’s idol Elton John as her duet partner, a love song complete with melodrama and Elton’s penchant for throwing his back into the delivery without providing any honest emotional weight. It’s the album’s lowest point, which is expected when you consider the melodramatic garbage that Elton’s been releasing for decades.

The closer “Among Angels” is another disappointment, mainly for how out of place it sounds. It carries the same piano arrangement as the rest of the album, but thematically it’s off course considering the lack of a wintery theme and from the fact that the aforementioned title track seems like such a perfect ending.

In some respects, 50 Words For Snow is just as strange as The Dreaming, albeit for entirely different reasons. While The Dreaming relied on weird arrangements and challenging lyrical content, Snow lets the deceivingly strange themes stand right out in front of some very organic structures.

It’s a record that will definitely stand the test of time and it may rank as one her best pieces of work for some fans. But for me, 50 Words For Snow works best when the season that inspired it contains the right amount of wintery details to perfectly accentuate its primitive arrangements.

Video: Kate Bush – “Eider Falls at Lake Tahoe”

Video: Kate Bush – “Mistraldespair”

Video: Kate Bush – “Wild Man”

Kate Bush: Web, Amazon, Facebook, Wikipedia.

Wooden Wand & The Briarwood Virgins – Briarwood

Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth has traversed some rough country—or at least the characters in his songs have—and there’s a jagged edge around his songs that belie the often tender lyrics at the heart of them.  The remnants of those journeys are sprinkled throughout the new album Briarwood with the “patches on my jacket and stickers on my car” the most literal and the weary drawl of Toth’s voice the most poignant. You can believe him when he says “nothing else will do.”

Of course, journeys mean movement, which can leave trails of interrupted relationships and missed opportunities. Toth’s ability to detail in almost journalistic fashion the ramifications of the emotional wreckage left behind helps navigate troubled waters without coming off schmaltzy. In the end, “we’re all just passing through.”

Just as Briarwood is a deft balance of lyrical emotionalism and storytelling, the music is equally tasty. Dollops of keyboard and swells of slide guitar carry the songs and take you to the edge of breakdown without ever taking the easy way out. If the beauty of jazz is what’s left unplayed, then Wooden Wand has picked up a thing or two from their smoky colleagues.

Wooden Wand & the Briarwood Virgins – Big Mouth, U.S.A.