John Mayer – Born and Raised
In The Age of Worry, a reflective John Mayer offers some advice: Don’t be scared to walk alone, don’t be scared to like it.
That’s an effective theme for Born and Raised, Mayer’s fifth studio album, which was released this week.
Produced by Don Was and Mayer himself, this album is collection of tender, self-reflective songs that reveal Mayer’s personal side. His infamous 2010 Playboy interview seems to have instilled in him a desire to look inward, and it resulted in one of his strongest albums to date.
Album opener Queen of California’s road-trip rhythm and old-timey feel set the perfect tone for the rest of the album, and those adjectives can be used to describe the rest of the songs as well.
A note to fans: 2009’s Battle Studies was a bit…louder, with elaborate instrumentation and musical bells and whistles. This time around, though, it’s evident that Mayer has chosen to embrace his bluesy roots, and it pays off overall, especially on the relaxing title track (which features David Crosby and Graham Nash on backup vocals) and the elegant If I Ever Get Around to Living.
The affecting Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967 may be one of Mayer’s finest compositions to date. Its story-telling structure, gentle acoustic guitar and subtle military drums cast the perfect tone for its tale of an individualist who chases his dreams. It’s a near-flawless song, and features one of the album’s most memorable refrains.
The change in direction has its down points, however. This album is very mellow. It’s similar in feel to Mayer’s 2006 LP Continuum, which found him going down some low-key musical paths. It’s also not really a “guitar album”, instead stepping back and allowing the songs’ atmospherics to be on full display. This allows songs like the harmonica-laden Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey and the album-closing A Face to Call Home to stand out. The closing track in particular concludes with cascading guitar chords and echoing vocals, capping off a pretty solid collection of some of Mayer’s most solid work thus far in his career. — AG
Various Artists: Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International
Yes, this is a “Bob Dylan Tribute Album” – it’s a tribute to Bob Dylan that after 50 years nobody can do a better job of performing his songs than Bob Dylan can.
Chimes of Freedom is definitely still worth purchasing – Nobel Peace Prize-winning Amnesty International is one of the most powerfully effective human rights organizations active today – fighting injustice on a global scale. And heck – this gigantic 4 CD 73-song paperweight is under 20 bucks!
The problem with covering Bob Dylan is he made his protests – both personal and societal – so…well, so personalized. Like John Malkovich’s characterization of Lee in Sam Shepard’s True West, anyone who comes afterwards sounds like a parody, and to reinterpret seems pointless and silly. That’s just how good Bob Dylan’s songs are. But again, Chimes of Freedom celebrates A Cause – and there is no questioning the sincerity of the participating musicians.
As is the nature of most multi-genre, catch-all compilations insures that you will dislike almost as many songs as you love, and this one is no exception. Miley Cyrus’s croaky, bland You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go hasn’t a shred of vocal truth. Neil Finn & Pajama Club’s version of She Belongs to Me sounds like it’s read from cue cards. Carly Simon’s jazzy Just Like a Woman is an awkward, even cringe-worthy misfire, and Mick Hucknall (Simply Red)’s copycat impersonation is exactly what tributes like this should avoid. Jeff Beck and Seal phone it in on Like a Rolling Stone. My Chemical Romance (Desolation Row) and Silverstein (Song to Woody) try to modernize, but only trivialize their versions. Even Ziggy Marley’s tremendous voice and clever musical rearrangement of Blowin’ in the Wind somehow misses the soul of the song.
But there are certainly plenty enough babies in the bathwater to bring a smile to the most devout of Dylanophile: The Johnny Cash/Avett Brothers digital mash-up somehow works – evoking a rural earlier time on their One Too Many Mornings. Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Political World is a protest song you can dance to. Anjelique Kidjo’s African-influenced sex-spin on Lay Lady Lay oddly works. Flogging Molly has just the right amount of bite to The Times They Are a Changin’ – making it fully their own, and the same can be said for Rise Against’s charging Ballad of Hollis Brown. My Morning Jacket’s stripped You’re a Big Girl Now preserves the song’s precious heart, while Billy Bragg (Lay Down Your Weary Tune) and Tom Morello (Blind Willie McTell) have always understood how to interpret Dylan powerfully and faithfully. For every poopy song on Chimes of Freedom there are two worthwhile re-recordings that remind us of what we love most about Bob Dylan songs.
What ultimately matters – even more than even supporting a great cause – is that Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, Airborne Toxic Event, Silverstein, Evan Rachel Wood and the other younger musicians on Chimes of Freedom will bring their fan bases to the root – to Bob Dylan and his incredible reservoir of masterpieces. — JC
Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods
With Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups have fully embraced the shoe-gaze/experimental sound that was hinted at on their first two records with great results. This record sounds BIG.
Veering away from straightforward song structures, the shortest track on the album (The Pit) has a running length of 4:41. The longest (Simmer) – 6:50.
Don’t think that means this album will drag on, though – it’s a captivating blend of gorgeous harmonies, shape-shifting guitar work and Brian Aubert’s distinctive vocals.
Skin Graph opens things with a 6-minute burst of atmospherics, accentuated with a dreamlike middle portion that grants the song “highlight” designation. Make Believe’s challenging time signature casts a different musical shadow than the album opener, and boasts one of the album’s strongest vocal melodies.
Lead single Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings) is starkly different from past SSPU singles like Panic Switch and Lazy Eye, and it’s demonstrative of this album’s shift – it’s more ethereal and experimental, while still retaining the band’s signature sound.
Busy Bee’s Radiohead-like percussion and somber guitar tone make it a standout, and it combines with Here We Are (Chancer)’s trance-inducing rhythms to form a very solid two-song combination. Mean Spirits should find its way to FM radio domination, its urgent synth joining forces with buzzy guitars impressively.
We’ll eschew more track-by-track descriptions in favor of a wrap-up: Neck of the Woods will be one of the year’s best albums. With it, Silversun Pickups have perfected their sound – 2009’s Swoon was excellent, but this album expands upon their sound even more. Fully embracing their influences and moving forward, they’ve created their finest album to date, one that you should definitely check out. — AG
The Dandy Warhols – This Machine
Sad Vacation, the opening track on The Dandy Warhols’ new album This Machine, sets the tone appropriately: twisty-turny rhythms, vague, ominous guitar tones and Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s breathy vocals make the song’s title ring true.
The rest of the album follows suit. This Machine, the band’s eighth studio record overall, is a solidly-crafted exercise in buzzy, almost-psychedelic indie/rock with a slightly downbeat feel.
Just listen to the background vocals and folky guitars on The Autumn Carnival (with its great 1990s ish chorus melody), the eccentric harmonies swirling around Enjoy Yourself, the deliberate pace and eerie instrumentation of single Well They’re Gone, the subtle homage to the Crash Test Dummies in Rest Your Head, and the overall tone and ambient nature of many of the remaining tracks, and you’re left with one of the Dandies’ best albums to date.
The band’s Capitol Records days are behind them, the 2004 documentary DiG! nearly a decade old, but the Dandy Warhols are still doing their thing – and doing it exceedingly well. This Machine doesn’t have any radio-ready jams like Bohemian Like You, Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth, or We Used to be Friends, but at this point who cares? The Dandies do what the Dandies do, and they do it as only the Dandies can.
By now, you’re either a fan or you aren’t (and if you aren’t, you should be).
Give it a shot if you’ve ever liked anything they’ve done, and prepare for a mind-bending trip into indie-rock psychedelia. — AG
Jack White – Blunderbuss
Jack White can do no wrong.
The former White Stripe released his solo debut, Blunderbuss, recently, and it’s one hell of a record.
It should even appeal to non-White Stripes fans out there – only a handful of tracks have the same straightforward, aggressive (and sometimes abrasive) tone that exemplified much of Jack’s output with Meg.
Rather, Blunderbuss is highlighted by its variety. Slower paces, atmospherics, clarinets (such as on lead single Love Interruption), slide guitar, keyboards, they’re all here, and they all help White spread his creative wings, so to speak.
It’s logical to assume Mr. Third Man Records sought to carve himself a new musical identity with his first foray into “solo artist” territory, and if that was his intention he definitely passed the test. Missing Pieces kicks things off with a keyboard & bass groove, Freedom at 21 features some of White’s most engaging lead vocals to date, and pianos and slide guitar pepper both the title track and On and On and On (one of the album’s best songs).
Weep Themselves to Sleep is another gem, with Jack snarl-shouting his lyrics alongside a grabbing piano melody. Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy, with its sing-song melody and gentle acoustic strumming matched with Jack’s matching vocals, is a folksy jam that sounds like an updated, classier take on an early White Stripes tune.
With Blunderbuss, Jack White shows off his true genius. There’s a reason Third Man Records has revitalized vinyl and why the Internet explodes whenever he does anything – the man is a musical mastermind.
Pick it up (or stream it) if you haven’t yet, especially those of you who weren’t big fans of Jack & Meg together – you might be surprised. — AG
Garbage – Not Your Kind of People
Not Your Kind of People, Garbage’s first new album since 2005, features the same quality of electronic-tinged alternative rock that shot them into the public consciousness in the 1990s. Unlike most “reunion albums”, it stands up well to their older material.
Opener Automatic Systematic Habit is led by the marriage of Butch Vig’s stellar production and industrial flair and Shirley Manson’s mechanized vocals. It’s a great introduction to the album, a dynamic blast of defiance that dramatically announces their return.
This is an album of precision – Manson and Vig, along with Duke Erikson and Steve Marker sound better than ever here, as a sense of rejuvenation abounds. On Big Bright World, Manson sings of raging against the dying light, which can be interpreted metaphorically, as the band rose out of the ashes of their own self-imposed hiatus following 2005’s Bleed Like Me.
Lead single Blood for Poppies is vintage Garbage, a groovy guitar riff and Manson’s sing-talk leading the way – but it’s the following song, Control, that stands out as one of the album’s best due to its atmospherics and melancholy feel. The world might end/The night might fall/Raining down and cover us all/And drown us with the burdens of our sins, Shirley sings while a hushed soundscape builds in the background, eventually giving way to a harmonica-led refrain.
Other high points: the title track (a slow, lullaby-ish number), the up-tempo Battle in Me and Man on a Wire, the shoegaze-y Felt, I Hate Love, and Sugar (led by Manson’s whispered vocals).
By the time Beloved Freak closes things out with elegance, one thing is obvious: Garbage are happy to be back. This album is as cohesive and solid as any they’ve released, and indicates that the time off served them well. — AG
Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts
Norah Jones doesn’t need a rave review from Rock Cellar Magazine.
The several-times-over Grammy winner is a top-shelf known commodity, and unlike many of the artists we love, gets to have her cds stare out at you as you order your White Mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks.
That’s why it’s so darned gratifying to tell you that Little Broken Hearts is a phenomenal record – arguably her best – and just the type of album that merits paying for, instead of stealing.
Let there be no doubt – this record is a departure – one that Norah Jones had no record-selling need to create, but that all important artists find a creative need to make.
Jones’ producer for this album is Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Beck, Gorillaz, Sparklehorse, U2, Black Keys), and it’s a match made in musical heaven: Jones’ aching songs of heartbreak are set against a twangy spaghetti-western backdrop that brings a cinematic quality to her story-telling – it’s “Morricone for the Modern Chick.”
Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) is not only one of the best producers of the past decade, he’s one of few who actually “produces” – matching an artist with musical elements to create a memorable synergistic sound. With heavy substitution of twangy guitars and moody busted-up retro orchestration in place of piano, Danger Mouse helps move Norah Jones from a sultry jazz-pop chanteuse to a tough and independent growly musical movie star. — JC
Jay Farrar/Will Johnson/Anders Parker/Yim Yames -New Multitudes
In case you missed it, 2012 is The Year of Woody – the celebration of what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. All across the country old and new musicians alike are taking time to honor the visionary folk singer with special evenings and singular performances live and on record.
So far, the best thing to come from the Year of Woody is New Multitudes – a fresh collaboration between 4 established roots-rock musicians – Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt) Anders Parker (Varnaline) Will Johnson (Centro-Matic) and Jim James/Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket).
Individually, each of these musicians have forged bands that have made important contributions to Americana music. Together on this album this superband honors one of our greatest American songwriters, but moreover, melds to create a really interesting, rocking new band.
If you’re expecting a folky, 2-chord stripped-down preachy paean to mine strikes, communism and revolution, you might be a little disappointed – or perhaps, pleasantly surprised. With the blessing and encouragement of Woody Guthrie’s daughter Norah Guthrie, Farrar and Parker dug deeply through 3,000 hand-written manuscripts from Woody’s dusty archives and decided to focus on a prolific 1940s California period, specifically when Guthrie lived in Los Angeles.
On New Multitudes, the Woody Guthrie we see is far more intensely personal – openly examining love, health, and his own mortality, as well as some untraditional song topics. Would you be surprised, for example, to know that Woody Guthrie was enlisted to write a series of anti-venereal disease songs for a post-WW11 public health campaign? Just read the fury of the lyrics to V.D City and you’ll almost picture Charles Bukowski rather than the man whose guitar said “This Machine Kills Fascists:”
Well you’ve seen your bright visions of glory
where love built your cities on high
I’ve just seen the cold dark dungeons
where the victims of syphilis cry
They’re called to the cities of sorrow
to confess all the wrong things they done
Their teardrops are meet weep much louder
than the cities blown down by the bombs
There’s a street named for every disease here
Syph Alley and Clap Avenue
And the whores and the pimps and their victims
all pass on the curb from our view
Once young once healthy and happy
now a whirlpool of raving insane
Cause here in this wild VD City
nobody knows you by name
Your eyes are too festered to see here
Your body is rotten by sores
Every wind stands full of lost faces
Human wrecks pile the stairs and the doors
Must you pay your way to this city
with an hour of passion and vice
I pray that I’ll not see your face here
where the millions now burn in this fire
What makes this album New Multitudes ultimately great, though, is not just these lyrics. Recorded over a 4-year period, Parker, Farrar, Johnson and James have taken their time to form a tight band that rocks with passion and allows each front-man to state his case without destroying the whole of the unit. In addition to sparse, haunting folk ballad stylings, we’re treated to a happy cacophony of guitars, drums and reverb, bordering on a psychedelic jam. And when they break out the harmonies, well there is no sweeter sound.
It is critical to mention that the original New Multitudes is only 12 songs – lyrics by Guthrie, music divided equally among the 4 songwriters. But there is a special 23-track package in which the band stretch out to perform Farrar/Parker songs which at times sound like they could have been co-written by Guthrie himself. Be sure to get this version. — JC