Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sound ‘Round: Jamey Johnson / Diana Krall

Tributes. 

Jamey Johnson – Living For A Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran (Mercury Nashville)

James Johnson - LIving For A SongCochrans’ own recording career was never a total success because his voice couldn’t completely match the conviction of his lyrics, but, upon his death from cancer in 2010, he left behind a stronger songwriting catalog than many of the friends and contemporaries who sang his tunes. Jamey Johnson, whose grizzly beard and rugged appearance is undercut by a stunted purr of a voice, gets headliner status on these 16 tributes, but it’s his duet partners who shine. Merle Haggard’s aged croack on “I Fall to Pieces” adds to the song’s brittle yearn for love, while Alison Krauss and Emmy Lou Harris show their host the art of feeling heartache as opposed to merely expressing it. But it’s a surprise turn from Elvis Costello on “She’ll Be Back,” who turns an undiscovered gem into a lounge standard. Yet the biggest winner is Cochran, a country cult hero whose work remains as potent as ever thanks to the universal simplicity of a good story, and some catchy tunes. GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: “She’ll Be Back” feat. Elvis Costello / “A-11” featuring Ronnie Dunn / “Make the World Go Away” feat. Alison Krauss

Diana Krall – Glad Rag Doll (Verve)

diana krallA collection of ’20s and ’30s jazz numbers handpicked from her father’s library, this earnest batch of covers is slick, well produced and professionally performed, but Krall’s smokey hush of a voice doesn’t always mesh with the material. The love songs leave my flaccid while the ballads struggled to hold my attention. Although the album may find a niche with the right demographic, every one else will enjoy it as background music at Starbucks. GRADE: C

Key Tracks: “I’m A Little Mixed Up”

Sound ‘Round: Kendrick Lamar, Miguel

Bros before hoes and vice versa. 

Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (Interscope)

kendrick lamar - good kid, m.a.a.d. cityA concept album by the loosest of definitions, this emcee on the rise builds his major label debut around bittersweet memories of growing up in Compton. Supposedly one can find a narrative if they dig deep enough, but the lengthy skits at the end of each track reveal more about it than the songs do. So rather than search for a story arch which likely isn’t profound, focus on the smaller moments which dwell on larger themes; trying to stay moral in a neighborhood where crime reigns supreme, keeping artistic integrity (a silly but noble idea) when the big bad record company clamors for radio jingles or attempting to stay sober and levelheaded amid the trappings of fame. His flow and beats (provided by a team of 15 producers) are understated but rarely underwhelming, and the minuscule hooks eventually swim their way to the surface. But aside from the songs where he searches for truth, he perfectly executes a few about money, women and his penis. He knows jokes can sooth the soul just as well as sobriety. Guess he’s a man of his word when he says he’s real. In fact he’s “really really real.”  GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Backseat Freestyle” / “Swimming Pools” / “M.A.A.D City

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA)

Miguel - Kaleidscope DreamWhere Frank Ocean is a tortured soul who seems reluctant to interact on the most basic levels and The Weeknd is too stoned to function, let alone get an erection, it’s refreshing to come across this R&B crooner whose sex life is as healthy and robust as can be. He’s a master of the hookup culture and unapologetic in his pursuit of booty. If another drink is all it takes to get you to go home with him, then so be it. He comes off as a sleaze because he is one, but it’s hard to say no to his charasmatic voice and soft delivery which easily glides over slick synths and bass lines which emulate a headboard thumping against a wall. He lives fast and loves faster, but here’s hoping the man who asks “Where’s the Fun in Forever?” can follow his dick a little while longer before having to deal with the morning after.  GRADE: B

Key Tracks: Use Me” / “Where’s the Fun in Forever” / “Kaleidoscope Dream

Sound ‘Round: Wanda Jackson / Iris DeMent

Country strong enough. 

Wanda Jackson – Unfinished Business (Sugar Hill)

Wanda Jackson - Unfinished BusinessAfter Jack White failed to reupholster her career on last year’s The Party Ain’t Over, Justin Townes Earle steps in and replaces his predecessor’s neo-jazz-rock troubadour vibe with a no-nonsense, straight ahead tex mex record full of cheatin’ men, ol’ fashion love and The Almighty. A 50-50 collection of covers and new songs, only the most vigilant listeners will pick out the Etta James and Bobby Womack tunes, which speaks to the cohesiveness provided by Earle’s production. He also provides a great ballad, a duet which doubles as the album’s best track. But don’t think this 75-year-old sorta icon has time to go slow and soft. In fact, she’s just as spunky as she’s ever been on “I’m Tore Down,” and “Old Weakness,” two songs about a love that’s as fresh on day 1001 as it was from the get go. Still, I’d rather listen to the ones about Jesus and loneliness which prove that going slow and soft may not be such a bad idea either. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Am I Even A Memory” / “Two Hands” / “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome

Iris DeMent – Sing the Delta (Flairella)

iris dement - sing the delaEleven of these twelve songs are ballads as plain as the album cover. She relies on her piano as much as she does her nasally southern drawl, and with so much time spent on Dixieland traditions (mostly family and God) it’s no coincidence she ditches the ivory on the one about not praying. This being her first album proper in 16 years, she’s prone to going on too long as she’s “been livin’ on the inside too much,” but she’s a songwriter’s songwriter who lets her lyrics do the talking (four songs exceed five minutes while only three are under four). Her verbose nature makes this a tedious listen at times, but I’ll swear on the Bible when it comes to the tunes concerning her Mama and preach the good news about the opener where heaven is just another word for home on earth. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray” / “Go On Ahead and Go Home” / “Mama Was Always Tellin’ the Truth

Sound ‘Round: Titus Andronicus / Metz

Men articulating angst, boys simply feeling it.   

Titus Andronicus – Local Business (XL)

titus andronicus - local businessPatrick Stickles is as punky as he is wordy. He stacks on stacks on stacks his lyrics and writes journal entries as opposed to songs, which, along with the fact he’s not very tuneful, hinders his music’s memorability factor.  Despite his shortcomings, I keep coming back for his anecdotes which aren’t as mopey as his whiny voice would lead you to believe. “You know a life is laborious, but a minute’s manageable.” “I’m desperately addicted but functional.” “Don’t know why its’ so hard giving a shit when everybody’s telling him he’s full of it.” “It would be so easy to say it was my parents that destroyed my brain.” “Nobody answers for me now, nobody else’s job to figure out.” “From Jersey I come, but I pump my own gas / I’m a dirty bum, but I wipe my own ass.” “It’s not that I just forgot you / Also I forgot everything else.” Others might find such lines outright cynical, but they’re words from a down-and-out Jersey boy who is simply doing the best he can with what he’s been given. They’re also punchlines. Not very funny ones, but punchlines nonetheless. The fact Stickles goes out of his way to put such lines in his music lets me know he’ll do just fine when it comes to finding the stability (in life, women, his friends, his eating habits) he craves. Still not convinced? How about this line: “I heard ‘em say the white man created existential angst when he ran out of other problems / Because the thing about those problems was, usually, more money would solve them.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter” / “Ecce Homo” / “Tried to Quit Smoking”

Metz – Metz (Sub Pop)

METZ_typeAccording to one prognosticator, this Toronto trio is trailblazing their way through the underground and creating a post-hardcore revolution (whatever that means) one riff at a time. I’m admittedly not well-versed in such a scene and therefore under-qualified to agree with such a broad statement, but I’m smart enough to know when something sounds “revolutionary.” In short, this ain’t it. While they’re sound is engulfing, echoing and precise, they’re as vague and hollow as a majority of their sub genre peers. The aforementioned riffs are suitable, but bleed together over repeated listenings, and Alex Edkin’s vocals are buried beneath a rush of noise, with the only discernible words being nothing more than typical hardcore tropes (“GET OFF!” “I GOTTA GET AWAY!”). I’d be more inclined to forgive their shortcomings were it not for a production job which renders their chaotic aspirations too crisp around the edges. For an album designed to be pulverizing, I was just bored. The sad thing? It took them five years to make it. Don’t expect me to wait for the followup.  GRADE: C

Key Tracks: Headache

Sound ‘Round: “Who I Am” by Pete Townshend

A beggar. A hypocrite. Love Reign O’er Me. 

Pete Townshend – Who I Am (Harper Collins)

“My Generation,” The Who’s defining hit, is powerful for its visceral tenacity, the way it uses feedback, rattling bass and cascading drums to perfectly reflect a growing disconnect between regimental, war-tested parents and their children who would invent free love and drop acid. The song’s famous line about hoping to die before getting old has come to haunt Pete Townshend, who is now 67 and about to embark on his seventh tour with his band since their 1982 “farewell” outing.

Who I Am, his long in-the-works autobiography recounts the life of a man who got old anyways, and through a lifetime of rock star excess, spiritual longing and worldly pitfalls has come to find the inner peace he’d been seeking for decades. It only cost him his marriage, his hearing and the loss of his two dearest friends who couldn’t overcome the same ills he did.

While Townshend is often deemed pretentious, a side effect of being rock’s great lecturer, his writing is concise and unapologetic. Whether recounting abuse he suffered as a young child at the hands of his grandmother, his battle with liquor, the arduous task of babysitting Keith Moon or the infamous scandal involving child porn (he was never charged), his self portrait is unflinching, and plainly stated.

Die hard Who fans will be hard pressed to find anything new to add to the band’s lore (aside from a few paragraphs on Townshend’s supposed bisexuality, something he denies), but this is the best perspective they’ve been given since Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old (Plexus, 1983), the better read if you’re looking for an in depth account of the band’s music on an album-by-album basis. Townshend recounts much of the band’s early years through his various singles, while the era from Tommy onward tends to focus on the making of cohesive, ambitious albums – albeit briefly.

But for all the lofty ideals he is prone to preach about when it comes to rock’s higher calling and unifying power, Townshend’s greatest concern has always been his audience, and saw it his duty to reflect what they feel and experience. He recalls this realization after one of the Who’s early gigs, when a gang of pilled up boys stuttered their approval of the band’s first single, “I Can’t Explain.”

“So you want me to write more songs about how I can’t explain that you can’t explain and that none of us can explain?” he asked.

“Yes!” they said.

But wrestling artistic control of the band from founding member, and vocalist, Roger Daltrey would be Townshend’s central conflict at the outset of The Who. A sheet metal worker and high school drop out who used his iron clad fists to settle disputes, Daltrey would cling to the group’s R&B roots while Townshend was preaching the power of auto-destructive art, a term he learned at art school from Gustav Metzger.

While Daltrey relinquished part of his control as Townshend delivered the hits, and the money that followed, the central dilemma comes from the author’s conflicting spiritual beliefs and his full time gig as a member of rock aristocracy. His adherence to the teachings of Meher Baba kept him away from the hippie vice of LSD (he only tried it once, on purpose anyway), but the pressures of being in a band constantly on the verge of disintegrating from ego and drugs, as well as being held responsible for its successes and failings, drove Townshend to the bottle, a battle he would fight for two decades.

Townshend’s deceptively simple writing makes this book a brisk 500 page read. And while the final 100 have the liability of covering some of the least productive years of his career, perhaps no news is good news, especially for a man who for so long fought to balance his conflicting desires. He may have wanted to die before he got old, but he never would have known what it felt like to reach the happiness he’s been searching for all these years.

Sound ‘Round: Ty Segall / Death Grips

Lost in the dark side of alterna-nation.  

Ty Segall – Twins (Drag City)

ty segall twinsI’ve often found this bay side rocker’s take on Stooges revivalism to be nothing more than riffs shrouded in vagueness compared to actual songs, although I won’t lie and say I haven’t occasionally been smitten by his underground-chic vibe. This marks his third album of 2012, and is his career best (by no means an arduous task) in part because of its brevity. With each song averaging just 2:55 in length, he adds a bit of punch to his punk tendencies while reigning in his propensity to jam and wander. He’s condensed the musical side of the equation, but lyrically he’s as stunted as he ever was. You’ll remember a lick or a hook before you’ll ever remember a line of verse (many of which are buried in distortion and noise). Still, this is a step in the right direction for someone who has spent the majority of his career simply spinning his wheels. Next on the checklist? Finding himself some context.  GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Would You Be My Love” / “The Hill” / “There Is No Tomorrow

Death Grips – No Love Deep Web (self-released)

Death Grips - No Love Deep WebFront man Stefan Burnett will tell you he’s an artist, then use such terminology to justify his erratic, exhausting and challenging mix of anarchistic hip-hop. But listen closely to the song “Lock the Doors” as Burnett spills the beans on his master plan. “I’ve got some shit to say just for the fuck of it.” Turns out he’s just a troll, and a very good one as label execs at Epic know all too well. Setting fire to everything he touches, Burnett is an agent of chaos, as his unabashedly unconventional music and cock-laden album art (censored here) indicates. While there is something to be said for his ability to not give a shit about not giving a shit, there is also something to be said about writing music which doesn’t induce nausea. In the end, however, the only thing Burnett wants is the listener to exhibit any kind of response, be it repulsion or acceptance. He spills the beans again on album closer “Artificial Death in the West.” “I’m watchin’ them watch them watch me.” GRADE: C

Key Track: Pop

Sound ‘Round: Serengeti / Lupe Fiasco

Dilemmas from the individual and the world at large. 

Serengeti – C.A.R. (anticon)

Serengeti - C.A.R.From the Windy City and as prolific (17 albums in 10 years) as he is unpretentious, David Cohn would rather rap about personality profiles, as well as his anxieties and self doubt, than boast about his prowess as an emcee. But don’t let his dour disposition and seemingly aloof delivery trick you into thinking he’s not as smart as he knows he is. In these 11 songs, with deceptively intricate beats courtesy of Odd Nosdam, he leaves town on a Greyhound bus after burning his bridges at home, wishes he’d get amnesia so he wouldn’t have to break up with his girlfriend, asks his friend if he can borrow his life so he won’t have to wake up next to his spouse, goes dancin’ with someone I would assume is not his spouse and has his breathing tube removed after finding out his wife got shot in a drug deal while he was in the hospital. His subject matter may be puzzling or abstract, but this is a case of execution over premise. And at a brisk 28 minutes, these are some of the best vignettes you’ll hear (or see) all year. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Uncle Traum” / “Greyhound” / “Amnesia

Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 (Atlantic)

Lupe Fiasco“I know you’re sayin’ ‘Lupe rappin’ ‘bout the same shit’ / Well that’s cuz ain’t shit changed bitch.” Fair enough. It’s easy to be cynical in these precarious times, especially when you have the guts to call the sitting president a terrorist. A fiery and passionate rhymer who inserts purpose into each of his verses, Lupe’s conviction has always been admirable, even if his tunes haven’t been. Where his previous effort, LASERS, was divisive for its attempts at a Top 40 crossover (something Lupe blames Atlantic Records for), this album is more earnest in intention, if blander in results. The beats satisfy but don’t charm, while his potentially potent lyrics morph into empty pulp under the weight of the record’s punishing 68 minute run time. Yet it’s the soullessly dry production which inflicts the most damage. What should sound like a collection of army-sized rallying chants comes off as nothing more than small tirades from someone whose weighed down by his own cynicism. The exception? The one about the B word. GRADE: C

Key Tracks: Bitch Bad” / “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)