Everclear Invisible Stars
Invisible Stars, the new album from Everclear, is better than it ought to be.
Yes, Art Alexakis is 50 years old now and his voice has seen better days, but this time around he and his current band mates (we’re now on the third official lineup) have created one of the more solid albums of the band’s tenure – and especially of the past decade or so.
Fans of Everclear’s first few albums (such as 1995’s Sparkle & Fade) will appreciate the one-two punch of opener Tiger in a Burning Tree and Falling in a Good Way. Both feature distorted guitars and a snarly attitude reminiscent of Alexakis’ early material.
In many ways, those two songs set the mood appropriately – on this record the guitars tend to be distorted, Alexakis tackles familiar subject matter (failed relationships, “peaking in high school”, and personal desperation), and racial issues (Jackie Robinson).
Alexakis’ new backing band, though, provides an additional touch – keyboards and percussion zip around on nearly every track, adding a glimmer of power-pop sheen to everything. It all works perfectly on lead single Be Careful What You Ask for, one of the better songs Art’s written in a while.
The aforementioned Jackie Robinson is one of the highlights of the album, a So Much for the Afterglow-era chord progression leading the way for Alexakis to recount the story of Luther Jackson Greene, an African-American gentleman dealing with a lifetime of racial turmoil, watching Jackie Robinson play as a kid and crying when Obama was elected President. It works exceedingly well.
Give this album a chance if you’re curious what Everclear sounds like now, and especially if you’ve been hoping Alexakis would finally create another consistent album – because this one’s pretty solid. — A.G.
Frank Ocean Channel Orange
Frank Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange is a stunning piece of work.
It’s rare to hear an album blend so many different styles this seamlessly. The record blasts through genres, showcasing incredibly high-quality R&B, soul, jazz, funk, and hip-hop, combining to form a masterful collection of deeply personal (and affecting) music.
Thinkin Bout You and Sierra Leone kick things off with some heart-on-sleeve R&B, while Sweet Life is one of the album’s strongest cuts. Noodly keyboards team up with a slow funk bass line before the song explodes into its chorus, showcasing Ocean’s vocal skills with a critical refrain: You’ve had a landscaper and a house keeper since you were born/The starshine always kept you warm/So why see the world, when you got the beach?
Three more high points are Pyramids (an enthralling 9-minute song boasting a great synth break), Lost (led by drums, guitars & a strong hook), and Bad Religion (about Ocean’s secret love affair with a man – this is one of the songs that started the media frenzy over his sexuality earlier this month).
The album’s gorgeous production and complex structures draw you in completely. Ocean is joined at times by some notable guests, too: Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt stops by on the rhythmic Super Rich Kids, John Mayer lays some instrumental guitar on the short but sweet White, and Andre 3000 of Outkast provides a verse in Pink Matter.
Channel Orange is something special. You won’t find a stronger debut album by a contemporary artist. It’s been called a “game-changer” for the hip-hop world and music in general, and rightly so: it’s astoundingly deep.
If you weren’t familiar with the name Frank Ocean, you will be after this album hits the mainstream. — A.G.
Joe Walsh Analog Man
Joe Walsh begins his latest album with the “out of touch old man” line Welcome to cyberspace/I’m lost in the fog/Everything’s digital/I’m still analog/When something goes wrong/I don’t have a clue/some 10-year old smartass has to show me what to do.
Analog Man’s title track was Walsh’s first solo single since the early 1990s, and it was definitely written with tongue planted firmly in cheek, although the lyrics are mighty cheesy.
Yes, at 64, Walsh is now a self-professed old man – but that doesn’t mean he should quit making records.
In fact, Analog Man is a mostly enjoyable collection of songs from the legendary guitarist, who employs the help of some marquee friends on a few tracks.
Wrecking Ball sounds like vintage Tom Petty territory, Walsh’s driving guitar propelling the song, while Lucky that Way and Band Played On feature none other than Ringo Starr on drums. Lucky that Way is somewhat of a sequel to his iconic hit Life’s Been Good – on it, Walsh discusses the good fortune he’s experienced in his life, living in California and such. Band Played On features some Middle Eastern flair, while Spanish Dancer (sans any special guests) is one of the album’s strongest moments, with Walsh pumping out some of his best guitar work on the disc.
Fun is the key here – the lighthearted Hi-Roller Baby features Rancid’s Tim Armstrong on guitars, while Family employs both Graham Nash and David Crosby on supporting vocals. Funk 50 is, well, an updated version of Funk 49.
Life’s been good to Joe Walsh, and on this album he comes across as thankful and grateful for everything he’s done and seen – and who can blame him? — A.G.
Matisyahu Spark Seeker
Matisyahu looks a lot different now than he did back in 2004.
No, the image above is not his new look, but the formerly staunchly religious Hasidic Jew did shave his beard, shed the robes and dye his hair blonde. The change didn’t affect his music, however – his new album Spark Seeker has the same vibe as his earlier material.
Opener Crossroads chronicles the switch, detailing his desire to search and reclaim himself, while a mesmerizing beat pulsates in the background. He’s always been skilled at rap-talking, and on this album he’s at his very best in that regard (particularly on Searchin and Tel Aviv’n). Lead single Sunshine is one of the catchier pop songs released this year, boasting a huge, sweeping inspirational chorus that deserves to land the song in the Top 40.
Searchin is led by some buoyant rhythms and keyboards, while Buffalo Soldier (not a Bob Marley cover) features rapper Shyne and some Middle Eastern accentuations. I Believe in Love, another inspirational tune, dabbles in electronic beats, exemplary of this album’s eclectic approach.
Throughout Spark Seeker, Matisyahu sounds confident, proud and on the top of his game – his raps flow smoothly, the hooks don’t let up, and the album’s layered and precise production help create one of his strongest albums to date.
Sure, his career may have taken off thanks to his early (some might say) gimmick, as the concept of “White Jewish reggae star” was provocative, but on this album he really shows that he’s much more than that. Reggae music has always been about positivity, inspiration and forward thinking, and these themes are driven home on the album’s 13 songs.
Sometimes, we all just need to listen to happy music, and Matisyahu is more than willing to provide it.
Soul Asylum Delayed Reaction
Delayed Reaction, the first new Soul Asylum since 2006 and first since the passing of bassist Karl Mueller, is appropriately titled.
It has been a while since these guys put out new music, and the result is surprising – they’ve shifted directions slightly, from straightforward alternative rock to something more unique and eclectic.
No, there isn’t a song likely to make an impact as powerful as Runaway Train or Misery did in the 1990s, although lead single Gravity does a good job announcing the band’s return. Dave Pirner’s vocals sound strong and emotive, while the driving guitar melodies add to the song’s power.
More than a few times on this album (including Gravity and Into the Light), songs veer close to the formula laid out by Bruce Springsteen – hopeful bells and background touches pop up frequently, giving the songs an added sheen of uplifting energy. Cruel Intentions even dabbles in piano-driven lounge-pop, exemplifying their creative shift.
There’s even a tongue-in-cheek song – the biting Let’s All Kill Each Other, a very catchy pop-rock anthem with sardonic lyrics reflecting on some of society’s day-to-day woes.
Soul Asylum’s audience in 2012 is vastly different than it must have been in 1993 – but it’s a testament to their resilience and inventiveness that this album is as enjoyable as it is, and that it was released at all. With Delayed Reaction, Soul Asylum have created a record that is solid enough to be added to their extensive back catalog.
They may be more than 30 years old, but this album shows that Soul Asylum won’t be slowing down anytime soon. — A.G.
Neil Young Americana
The great thing about Neil Young is that you know what you’re going to get: that you don’t know what you’re going to get.
Over 34-some albums ranging from the magnificent to the sounds refrigerators make, his fans bear with him because he’s earned it. There’s a reason why he’s the one most-cited by new bands as an influence: he represents singer-songwriter guitar rock that’s often easy to play, but hard to play good. And Young’s “I’m just going to toss it up against the wall” approach always comes off as eternal youthful rebellion rather than that he really doesn’t care what it sounds like.
Americana – like most of the albums Neil Young has turned out in the past 20 years – will not be a consensus pick for a great, or even a good addition to his legacy. What it does do is pull the Crazy Horse band back together, and for Neil’s old fans, that’s all that’s important.
Young started feeling nostalgic about a Crazy Horse reunion, but had no new songs for them. He remembered that back in the ‘60s a band called The Thorns led by Tim Rose who did a crazed version of Oh Susanna, and Young never forgot it. He copied the formula – rearranging traditional folk songs into minor keys – often completely messing with the melody – and brought these songs to his then-band The Squires. These are the songs on Americana.
Because these folk songs are now 45+ years older, there’s an eerie timeliness as the workingman themes of the lyrics resonate in these post-Occupy times. Standouts are the snarling numbers: High Flyin Bird, Gallow’s Pole, God Save the Queen (My Country ‘Tis of Thee). The creepy dark version of Clementine seriously works, as does the simple heart-wrenching Wayfarin’ Stranger.
There are a few stinkers, though. Young made an additional choice to construct Americana as nostalgic “sing-a-long” album, adding a chorus of schoolchildren to the traditional Crazy Horse back-ups and harmonies. On This Land is Your Land, it’s charming. But other times it comes off as juvenile/silly – as when Neil comes from Alabama with a spelled-out B.A.N.J.O. on his knee – sounding more like a campfire B.I.N.G.O. lark than a Woody Guthrie-ish indictment. Or the comically-operatic “WHEN SHE COMES!” back-ups to Jesus’ Chariot. (She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round The Mountain). Or the relentless “neener-neener-neener” chanting throughout Tom Dooley that completely undermines the song’s dark tone and bleak lyrics. And the 1950s doo-wop Get a Job is utterly, ridiculously out of place.
But it’s not the words that people come for it’s that guitar music: that grungy basement first-take shredding jam-fest that Crazy Horse fans can’t get enough of. When one hears Frank Sampedro’s growling instrument duet with Neil’s, it’s like a hot familiar wind blowin’ in. Bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina are as steady as ever, their harmonies taking us back to the classic ‘70s Neil Young rock records.
Despite its short-comings, Americana is a more-than-worthy warm-up record to the next Crazy Horse album full of original music. — J.C.