Monday, May 24, 2010

Album Review: Stone Temple Pilots

I must preface this review by saying I was a big fan of Stone Temple Pilots back in their heyday. The fact that the critics hated them, writing them off as derivative and second-rate only made me more entrenched in my view. Rather than being a grunge band I always considered them a heavy pop band, and a good one at that. Having been on hiatus they have regrouped and released a self-titled album.

In my view, calling an album after the band itself is best done on the debut album. They will dress it up as ‘back to basics’ but as far as I’m concerned it just shows a lack of imagination. Some will say the music is more important but with the best bands it’s about the complete package, the title, the cover art and the music. The cover is pretty uninspiring really.

As for the album itself, first track Between the Lines shows an admirable energy, bursting out of the speakers with considerable oomph. The riff between chorus and verse has a kind of Nirvana feel to it. Take A Load Off is one of those midpaced rockers with a choppy Dean DeLeo riff, which the band excelled at back in their prime. This one is a little reminiscent of Interstate Love Song, though it’s let down somewhat by singer Scott Weiland’s bland vocals.

Weiland’s vocals are a little smoothed out over the course of the whole album, but worse are his lyrics which are really quite lazy (one example “yeah it’s alright as we mosey on into the night”, and later: “awright awright awright come awn”). The sound of the album is a little smooth, I would have liked a little fuzz, a little distortion on the guitars but this has all been smoothed away, leaving the album sounding a little generic. Indeed some songs are alarmingly throwaway, Cinnamon and Bagman being the worst offenders, the former being a little cringey with a cheesy riff and vocal, and the latter apeing the Batman theme tune.

Weiland’s vocal on Huckleberry Crumble has traces of Alice in Chains to it, and the song is an agreeable stomper, while Hickory Dichotomy sounds kind of like David Bowie speak-singing a Led Zeppelin-esque groove which threatens not to work but the band just about pull it off. Dare If You Dare has a decent verse and chorus structure, let down by the lyrics but it boasts a singalong poppy tune. It’s light years from 1992’s Core.

Fast As I Can is a definite improvement, sounding a bit like a sped up Tumble in the Rough (off Tiny Music), with a busy riff and a rasping vocal delivery from Weiland. First Kiss On Mars is a mid-paced chugalong but is a little unremarkable, while closer Maver is a fairly atypical song for Stone Temple Pilots with piano and banjo. I can’t quite place which American band it reminds me of.
If this album had been a little heavier it might have worked better. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the musicianship, and perhaps the songs will grow on me over time but at the moment this reformation falls short of expectations.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Album Review: Screaming Trees - Buzz Factory

On this album, their fourth released in 1989, Screaming Trees began to sound less like the somewhat shouty band they had been and started to become a little more melodic. Mark Lanegan had started to actually sing rather than roar, and the album shows the first signs of his undoubted vocal talents. The guitar attack of Gary Lee Conner became a little more refined here as classic rock influences became apparent. Indeed his guitar work is very disciplined and concise throughout, with very few wasted notes, almost like an extension of the rhythm section.

Where the Twain Shall Meet is a kind of sludgey, droney guitar anthem. The guitars are quite downtuned here and sound really good, smouldering away with the requisite slacker attitude. Black Sun Morning is a great early grunge anthem. Lanegan’s vocals here are all over the shop as he bawls his throat out, but the squalling guitars keep everything together, leading into an unashamedly big chorus. Van Conner’s basswork is particularly good in this one, and the whole thing finishes up with some unexpected piano work almost taking it into the realm of Roxy Music.

Too Far Away is about as classic rock as it gets. It kicks off with a repeating guitar riff which would be fairly unremarkable until Lanegan spreads his giant vocal chords over the proceedings. His vocal here is a million miles away from Black Sun Morning and he sounds great. The song closes with some fairly pleasing “ba ba bas” over more squalling guitars. The guitars get dirtier for Subtle Poison, before things calm down a bit for Yard Trip #7, a kind of Doors-y slowish song.

Before the next song, a clip of a radio appearance is played (“The question will be what kind of trees you are; the answer will be 'Screaming Trees'"), then the band kick into the jangly power-pop Flower Web, which features another great vocal from Lanegan.

Towards the end of the album the band come on a bit like a heavy version of the Doors, on tracks like Wish Bringer and especially End of the Universe, which definitely takes some influence from The End, especially Mark Pickerel’s drumming in the middle section, and some of Lanegan’s vocal ‘mannerisms’. But the band lock into a great heavy groove on this and other tracks.

This is the first real 'Lanegan as proper singer' record. The problem with the Screaming Trees is that they were too heavy for mainstream pop/rock in the late 80s, but not heavy enough for metal thus falling between two stools. They didn’t really sound like anything in the embryonic grunge scene either, and record companies therefore had no idea what to do with them. But quite simply, this is a really good hard rock album. Pretty meaningless title though.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Album Review: The National – High Violet

At last, a review of a current album! I’ve been looking forward to this album for some time as I am a big fan of The National. Yet there’s a tinge of sadness to this review. I have to accept by now that The National is no longer “my band”, my little secret. Recent reviews in other publications mentioned “the American Elbow” which kind of sums up my feelings. In short, they’ve been discovered by the discerning music fan. And, no doubt, the not so discerning.

I had been hoping they would follow up the wonderful Boxer with a ‘difficult’ album that would alienate people. They haven’t. It’s a really strong album, full of great songs, and easily as consistent as their last few albums. First track Terrible Love is a little atypical, starting off with some slightly rough spidery guitar (as he sings “it’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”), but it builds and builds into a sort of mini-anthem. It’s a little bit of a departure for them, singer Matt Berninger sings this one in a higher register than usual, as he does on a few tracks.

With Sorrow we’re back on home ground. It’s a classic mid-tempo National track, with a wonderful ringing bassline. Berninger sings “I don’t want to get over you” which is probably a Magnetic Fields reference. Anyone’s Ghost is also a strong song of theirs, with some cello and strong drumming, and sounds like it would have fit in well on Boxer. There’s a theme of getting out of the city in the lyrics in certain songs, as referenced in Little Faith, and later in Conversation 16.

He uses his higher register for one of the stronger songs, Afraid of Everyone, which is a kind of anxious, worried song which descends in on it self. Bloodbuzz Ohio is fine, though a little like The National on auto-pilot. Runaway is just lovely, with plucked guitar and another strong bassline. Plenty of goose-bump moments in the chorus, and some nice brass to boot. Conversation 16 is like Ada off their last album Boxer gone anthemic. He references Bret Easton Ellis on this one (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains”)

England features a ringing piano line, which starts with an uplifting pattern, and then, just before it changes and you think “oh wouldn’t be great if the music went there”, the music actually does go to just that place you anticipated! It's a marvellous moment on album full of such moments. There’s a wonderfully resonant chorus line (“you must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain”) which is a great image of loss and longing, and more brass towards the end of the song. It's got to be a Red House Painters reference, for anyone familiar with Katy Song. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks is the last song and Berninger is once again in his higher register, sounding a note of uncertainty. It’s a kind of awkward song and I have to commend them for finishing with this rather than the more obvious England.

Berninger is not the Mr. November of 5 years ago any more. He’s grown up, less angry but not necessarily happier, which informs his lyrics. The album itself is great, and is growing on me with each listen. When it finishes, you just want to put it on again. Definitely a strong contender for album of the year.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Album Review: Ryan Adams - 29

This is a relatively short album for Ryan Adams, featuring only 9 songs, though that’s not really a surprise given that it was his third release of 2005! It’s a sort of concept album about the end of his twenties and after the misfire of the chug-along title track we settle into acoustic territory with the Neil Young sounding Strawberry Wine. The song features some interesting lyrical musings: “can you still have any famous last words if you’re somebody nobody knows… she spent too much time on the other side and she forgot to let the daylight in” over a plain, simply strummed acoustic guitar.

Nightbirds is darker, a miserable yet soaring piano-led tune, with the downbeat observation in the chorus “we were supposed to rise above but with we sink into the ocean”. The playing on this song is quite lovely, particularly when a gentle electric guitar enters the mix, though towards the end the song descends into masses of echo and reverb, presumably for dramatic effect. Blue Sky Blues is in a similar vein, as Adams laments “cos I’m gonna lose what’s left of my mind” over piano, horns and a beautiful string part.

Carolina Rain provides welcome relief after the drama of the previous 2 tracks, where Adams is no longer sitting up in his bedroom looking out at the rain, but sitting in a diner. He’s back in country mode here, with a relaxed melody and a great achey vocal aided by steel guitar and subtle honky tonk piano (yes there is such a thing!) and humorous lyrics (“I should have told him that you were the one for me, but I lied… too weird I met your sister and I married her in July, but if only to be closer to you Caroline”).

After another piano ballad (Starlite Diner) we get the faux western sounding The Sadness which has a great over the top Spanish guitar and soaring vocals from Adams. The final two tracks, the wonderfully titled piano song Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part and the acoustic guitar led Voices return to the mood of the previous material, that is brooding and reflective, though Voices is not helped by a somewhat strangled vocal.

It’s a strange little album, not overtly country like his other 2 albums that year (Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights), and a lot shorter. It’s more concise and all the better for it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Album Review: Ryan Adams with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings – Destroyer Sessions

This album was recorded in 2000, before Ryan Adams’ debut but never released. Most of it was never released in any shape or form, which is understandable as it’s not very commercial, but it’s a shame, as it’s a lost gem.

Adams sounds really relaxed on most of the tracks here, and most of them sound like they just came accidentally into being. The backing music is largely himself plus Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and they conjure up a subtle backing on tracks like Dreaming’s Free, which is a relatively simple tune where Adams “thanks God dreaming’s free cos I spent all my money making make-believe”. Poison and the Pain has a classic acoustic country blues progression with a weather beaten vocal from Adams.

Rainy Days is a lovely gentle melody featuring some pretty xylophone, while Statuettes with Wounds is a barely there ditty where you can almost feel the warm breeze. Hey There, Mrs Lovely was later resurrected and retitled as “These Girls” on 2007’s Easy Tiger, but it sounds fully formed here. It’s a largely acoustic song, like a lot of the material here featuring a nice relaxed vocal from Adams.

The xylophone makes a welcome return on Nighttime Gals, and then later on the album In My Time of Need and Bartering Lines were salvaged for Heartbreaker. Neither differ particularly here from the released versions, though Bartering Lines is a little rawer, featuring a creeping acoustic guitar line and more prominent backing vocals from Rawlings.

Final track, Time (The Revelator) is a total change of pace. It’s completely different to the acoustic version which ended up on Gillian Welch’s Revelator. Here it’s a Neil Young / Crazy Horse style swampy where the band display an admiral grasp of dynamics, as the song lurches along with great guitar work. The unfortunate thing is it fades out all too quickly.

The problem with reviewing this is it hasn’t received a ‘proper’ release, but it’s another interesting sideline in Ryan Adams’ large back catalogue.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Album Review: Arab Strap - Philophobia

More tales from the gutter from Falkirk’s finest. The title apparently refers to a fear of loving, and if anything the lyrics on their 2nd album released in 1998 were even more blatant than their debut. Certainly opener Packs of Three’s first line leaves nothing to the imagination, in a sordid tale of infidelity. Which doesn’t exactly differentiate it from the rest of the album.

The album takes in idle afternoons with ‘singer’ Aidan Moffat watching TV (Soaps), drunken tiffs (Here We Go) and more infidelity (New Birds). All of this would be a bit ‘so what’ only for the wonderful music that soundtracks these tales, largely created by Malcolm Middleton’s army of guitar and synths.

Here We Go features a gentle guitar part as Moffat sings “how am I supposed to walk you home when you’re at least 50 feet ahead, cos you walked off in a huff”. It’s a visceral, bitingly real love song with the wonderfully resigned chorus detailing a vicious circle: “here we go, same time, same place, I don’t like the way you kiss his face, it’s not that there’s no trust as such, I’d love to make up but I’ve had too much.”

New Birds if anything is rawer. It details a chance meeting with an ex over a vaguely post-rocky backing, when our protagonist becomes tempted “she says she's been going out with him now for about two and a half years, but they don't live together so he'd never find out”. He is brought to the point of infidelity at the end of the night: “you can see her breath in the air between your faces as you stand in the leaves and she just asks you straight out if you want to come and stay at her flat.” The music dies away leaving merely the bass line… the suspense is awful, like a car crash, but you can’t help wanting to know the outcome. Our hero remains strong and loyal: “but you make sure you get separate taxis and you go home and there might be a slight regret and you might wonder what you missed but you have to remember the kiss you worked so hard on - and you'll know you've done the right thing.” The music then kicks into a fantastic gauzy rock guitar to close out the song.

The album continues in this vein, each song telling fairly dark tales. Getting through a whole album of this can be a bit of a drudge, but at its best it’s pretty vital. Is it poetry or drunken babble? Not sure I know the difference.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Album Review: Metallica - Ride the Lightning

I may have given the impression in a previous post that I don’t take heavy music seriously. Not so folks. True, I do enjoy it in a different way to the morose stuff I generally review round these parts, but at its best, heavy music can be vitalising and cathartic.

For those familiar with Metallica through their self-titled 1991 album, also known as the black album, their 2nd album, released in 1984 will sound a lot different. This was Metallica in their true thrash / speed metal days. It opens up with some gently plucked guitar before Kirk Hammett’s enormous bludgeoning guitar riff comes in, played at breakneck speed for opening track Fight Fire With Fire. James Hetfield bellows out the barely decipherable lyrics, frantically trying to keep up with the music.

The title track follows, with an exhilarating opening, a pounding drum beat from Lars Ulrich and a great guitar riff from Hetfield. He mostly sings about death here, like a lot of the best metal, notably in the bridge when he roars “I don’t want to DIIEEE!” The portentous atmosphere is added to by For Whom The Bell Tolls, which starts with spooky bells before the guitars come in. The opening riff changes a couple of times, each one better than the last before the vocals come in.

Fade to Black provides a bit of a breather. It’s Metallica’s first foray into slower music. Again it’s largely about death, but features some really nice sounding acoustic guitar and a great lead guitar, as Hetfield does a bit of proper singing, “I have lost the will to live, simply nothing more to give”. Things speed up a bit in the bridge as the heavy guitars come in as Hetfield returns to his metal roar.

Back to speed for Trapped Under Ice, with more frenzied guitars, while Escape is a bit more mid-paced, almost sounding like a good song from one of the rubbish metal bands that were around in the 80s (Def Leppard/Van Halen). Creeping Death has yet more breakneck speed and high intensity with yet more hammer horror atmosphere, while closing instrumental The Call of Ktulu opens with a pretty picked guitar part before the heavy guitars come in and riff away for 8 minutes or so before the pretty opening part returns, then the album closes in dramatic style with all guns (and guitars) blazing.

One criticism is that the production does not allow much of Cliff Burton’s bass in the mix. However, this album was a breath of fresh air for metal at the time in comparison to the aforementioned rubbish that was around. This music demands to be taken seriously, as my wardrobe full of black t-shirts will attest to.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Album Review: American Music Club - San Francisco

After the dispiriting experience (for the band at least) of Mercury, American Music Club went another direction for 1994’s San Francisco. Which is not to say it’s a mainstream album. Indeed as an album of 15 tracks, many of which are quite disparate, it’s nothing short of sprawling.

Fearless, the opening track, kicks off with Bruce Kaphan’s steel guitar prominent in the mix before Mark Eitzel’s moody vocals come in, singing “lost again…” in a lovelorn lament. It’s a lovely sounding song, though for my money the lyrics on this are a little obvious. In fact the lyrics on this album in my opinion are a little disappointing when compared with previous albums.

It’s Your Birthday appears to be a response to touring with Pearl Jam and the prevailing grunge sound of the time as it is a kind of self-consciously aggressive sounding song, while Can You Help Me? is a more pleasant sounding song. It sounds quite commercial, but it’s actually a really good song, with a ‘proper’ verse and chorus. It should have been a hit, but perhaps Eitzel and co weren’t wearing the right plaid shirts and goatees.

Love Doesn’t Belong to Anyone is another track featuring prominent steel guitar, and again it’s quite pretty, with delicate picked guitar. It does not, however, feel important, in the same way that some of their previous work does. After the fairly ordinary Wish the World Away we get a kind of left turn with the classicly titled How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw in a Light, which is a sort of quirky kind of song. Cape Canaveral which follows is a lot more downbeat as the bands instruments coalesce into a magnificently gloomy murk.

After Hello Amsterdam which is the requisite AMC ‘clunker’ on this album, the rest of the album features a great streak of really strong songs, musically in any case. The Revolving Door has a soaring melody and a great vocal performance from Mark Eitzel, The band sound quite polished on this one, whereas next track In The Shadow of the Valley is another slab of magnificently brooding, gloomy murk in the vein of Cape Canaveral.

What Holds The World Together is an acoustic led, almost torch song, slightly reminiscent of the Smiths but featuring a gloriously big chorus where Eitzel sings that “the world is held together by the wind that blows through Gena Rowlands’ hair.” Clearly. I Broke My Promise is another quite polished track which references muse Kathleen Burns. The Smiths are invoked again on sparse acoustic track The Thorn In My Side Is Gone, and I’ll Be Gone is a pleasing slab of melodrama.

It’s a curious collection which features some very strong songs, but not sure it ‘holds together’ that well as an album. There are a few mediocre moments, a bit like these blogposts.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Album Review: Red House Painters (bridge)

In 1993 Red House Painters confusingly released 2 self-titled albums, known anecdotally by their cover art – Rollercoaster and, a few months later, Bridge. While Rollercoaster was an epic 14 track album, Bridge felt at the time like an afterthought, like left over offcuts. The album is initially quite uninviting, starting with Mark Kozelek emitting a grunt or two over some faint guitar and then his heavily reverbed voice starts to sing. The opening track, Evil, is an odd-sounding, draggy, ponderous track which has the devastating chorus line “God do you look evil in the dark”. The song creeps up on you, particularly when the low, clean electric guitars come in. And it sounds great. It’s certainly not derivative.

Bubble which follows is more conventional, but I Am A Rock is Kozelek’s first foray into cover versions, or should I say, song reinventions. He takes the Simon & Garfunkel track and completely retools it as a gloom-rock anthem. A lot of the tracks on the album sound anguished and Helicopter is no exception. It starts off sounding quite relaxed yet the music builds to a climax as all the while Mark Kozelek’s vocals, drenched in reverb, sound more agonised.

New Jersey featured on the “Rollercoaster” album as a gentle folky track. Here it is reinvented here in a rockier format and sounds more fully realised with a full band treatment featuring buzzing electric guitar. Uncle Joe is a somewhat self-pitying misery by numbers track. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it’s just more conventional than the other tracks here.

Blindfold is the longest track here and is probably the most difficult to get into. It starts with a somewhat plodding verse, before speeding up with a guitar part that sounds like it is trying to catch up with itself all the time. The last 2 or 3 minutes of the song though are positively harrowing as Kozelek unleashes goose-bump inducing guttural howls which are both disturbing and devastating.

The album ends with a relatively calm treatment of Star Spangled Banner. I kid you not. It bears no resemblance to the Jimi Hendrix version, but instead is a rather grim two and a half minute march, which leaves the album sounding curiously unresolved at the end.

Definitely not one for newcomers to the bands work, as of all his albums it contains no immediate sounding tracks. This album doesn’t grow on you, it attaches like a leech, sucking away unpleasantly at first before you realise how good it sounds.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Album Review: Sun Kil Moon - April

Mark Kozelek’s first album of original material in nearly 5 years was released in April 2008. The album doesn’t break any new ground, Kozelek has been fairly single-minded in his vision since his Red House Painters days. The album starts somewhat underwhelmingly with 2 fairly mediocre tracks (for him), though The Light features a nice buzzing Neil Young-esque guitar tone. Lucky Man kicks the quality up a notch. It has Kozelek’s peerless finger-picking to the forefront with a very fine melody, backed up by his characteristically lazy vocals.

Unlit Hallway is a lighter track, evocative of lazy summer evenings with its languid stride. Again the guitar is quite fine, and the chorus features pleasant backing vocals here from Bonnie Prince Billy. Even better is the moment about halfway through when a banjo enters, merging perfectly with the rest of the music. Heron Blue is far more austere-sounding, with delicately picked classical guitar over Kozelek’s lower register vocals. The guitar in the bridge is devastatingly pretty.

Totally different is track 8, Tonight the Sky, which is 10 minutes of electric guitar heaven in the style of Crazy Horse with a great dirty distorted guitar riff. The track is undoubtedly self-indulgent but lopes along very pleasingly. The track doesn’t feel anything like as long as it is, indeed there air-guitar moments all over this track, particularly as the bridge reaches its thrilling climax. I was lucky enough to hear Kozelek play this track live with his band and it didn’t disappoint.

Tonight in Bilbao is another long track at over 9 minutes, and is basically a travelogue set to more lovely guitar work. Some gorgeous strings enter the song about halfway through which adds to an already great track.

One of the best is saved for last. Blue Orchids is another late summer evoking track set to beautiful classical guitar. The midsection of this is quite something to behold, while the closing few minutes is heartbreakingly beautiful as Kozelek laments a departed lover with some beautiful imagery, singing “soft light pours into the room, fingers glide over my face…. how could I walk these old dim halls again, how could I leave this room… piano music weeps quietly” over a magical addictive guitar part. It’s quite lovely and a great way to end the album.

One of the finest albums of the last few years, it won’t convert naysayers to Kozelek’s work but is one for his fans to embrace and enjoy.