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October/November Album Reviews

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Mumford & Sons Babel


When U2 made the Rattle and Hum album and movie in 1988, they mistakenly thought that it was their duty to introduce the world to American music. They wrote songs about John Coltrane and Billie Holiday and played with B.B. King, with the smugness, condescension, and earnestness of spoiled rich kids showing off family photos taken on vacation to places where we’ve all already been.
Babel, Mumford & Sons’ second album, presents a collection of songs that are about as surprising and interesting as what U2 did back in the late-’80s. It’s as if the London quartet is unaware that we’ve heard all this before – that we’re all unaware of Billy Bragg and Fairpoint Convention, of the Byrds and the Dave Matthews Band.
Mumford & Sons don’t just lift this stuff and reintroduce it in an interesting way. Indeed, great bands from the Beatles to Radiohead, from Queen to U2 (remember Achtung Baby?), have taken their influences, blended them together, and made innovative music. They’ve brought newness into the world.  On Babel, Mumford & Sons most definitely haven’t done this.
Instead, these self-appointed inheritors of a folk rock tradition that exists, seemingly, only in their heads have relied on fashion (check out the threads that they don, as if they spent their off hours from recording Babel purchasing fashionable vintage clothing to make them look like The Band circa 1968), great haircuts, and forced earnestness to make their brand.
And that’s the problem: Mumford & Sons are a brand and not a band.  Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and group leader Marcus Mumford is perhaps the biggest culprit. With a voice that eerily combines Dave Matthews’ gruffness and tonality with every emo singer you’ve ever heard, he sings lyrics that are so over emotional and clichéd that they’re downright hilarious.
A smattering picked from random Babel tracks: “Press my nose up to the glass around your heart” (from Babel), “So give me hope in darkness that I will see the light” (from Ghosts That We Knew), and “But love the one you hold / And I’ll be your goal” (from Lover of the Light).  And the rest of the disc contains so much bad poetry such as the foregoing that by the time you get to the cover of The Boxer – a bonus track on some editions of the album – you want to hug Paul Simon for being such a super songwriter.
Musically, Mumford and the boys have one mode: the dramatic. But the problem is that their drama is so sustained and overwrought that it becomes flat and, to be blunt, ridiculous.  Frantic strumming and picking of acoustic instruments fill most of the tracks, as do melodies that are not so much sung but bludgeoned into your head.  This isn’t true emotion; rather, it’s emotional posturing.  It’s claustrophobic.
On Babel Mumford & Sons have committed the grievous sins of making emotions trite, thinking easy, and songwriting an exercise in emo.  As Chuck D might put it, don’t believe the hype. — Paul Gleason

Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Kiss Monster

Kiss Monster
KISS’ new album Monster takes a shocking turn: lyrics about lost love, pensive sentiment about making it in this crazy modern world, and even a song about global warming.
Just kidding.  Monster is like most KISS albums – it’s about nothing, and that’s just how it should always be.
The problem with Monster is that it sounds too much like a throwaway album; as if co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley gathered bits of B-sides and threw them together while liberally borrowing from other artists.
Does Monster lack spirit?  Not at all.

What sells the record is that the band performs as if they really believe that they’ve recorded a classic album.  KISS has always straddled that line between cocky and delusional.

Hell or Hallelujah kicks the album off, and has the KISS swagger we all know and love. Stanley has always had a gift for writing bombastic album-openers, and this is a good one. However, that verse guitar and vocal melody sound awfully similar to Sammy Hagar’s One Way to Rock.
These things happen when you record 20 albums, and they happen quite a bit on Monster.
The Simmons track Back to the Stone Age borrows from the MC5, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Eat Your Heart Out begins with some KISS a capella, a rarity.   Perhaps the best song on the album is Long Way Down.  A Goo Goo Dolls cover?  Nope.  But the track’s intro pretty much rips Led Zeppelin’s Out on the Tiles, and the verse has the same melody as Squeeze’s Tempted (by the Fruit of Another).  In other words, Stanley managed to mix the Goo Goo Dolls, Zeppelin and Squeeze in about 4 minutes.
On the plus side, guitarist Tommy Thayer’s solo on Hell or Hallelujah for once doesn’t sound like he’s ripping off original guitarist Ace Frehley, and Long Way Down features some excellent drum work from Eric Singer and a good groove that should work well live.
Another strong track is Freak – apparently alluding to naysayers from Stanley’s past:  “I’ve got streaks in my hair, people point at me and stare, if they ask me I say yeah, I’m a freak.”  Simmons adds powerful back-up vocals, and there is a nice acoustic guitar interlude during the bridge.
Singer’s one track on Monster is called All for the Love of Rock and Roll.  His track from 2009’s Sonic Boom was All for the Glory.  On KISS’ next album, Sonic Monster, will his signature tune be All for the Glory of Rock and Roll?  You gotta do better than that, man.
Overall though, Monster is solidly unsentimental and worth a listen.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Neil Young & Crazy Horse Psychedelic Pill


Ever fearless, Neil Young is now more confident than ever to do whatever he wants, with whomever he wants.  2010’s Le Noise found him collaborating with producer Daniel Lanois (of Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and U2 fame) on his noisiest, most atmospheric, and best album in years.
So expectations were sky-high when Neil regrouped with long-time co-conspirators Crazy Horse earlier this year.  When Americana, an experimental collection of traditional folk songs mostly arranged by Young, received mixed reviews, Neil complained that the critics didn’t understand the political currency of the record, which exposed America’s dark side in tunes by the likes of Stephen Foster and Woody Guthrie.
Regardless of what Neil and the critics said, however, Americana seemed like a half-baked appetizer for the full-course reunion with Crazy Horse: the 2-disc monster that is Psychedelic Pill.
Psychedelic Pill is a gigantic horse-pill of ambition, long songs, and of course, psychedelic jams.    Opening track Driftin’ Back clocks in at an album-side 27:37, beginning with acoustic guitar strumming that recalls 1979’s My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).  It then rides the sort of simple but effective chord progression and groove that rhythm guitarist Poncho Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina patented way back in 1975 on tracks like Cortez the Killer.
While Driftin’ Back doesn’t share the narrative interest of classics like Cortez and 1979’s Powderfinger, it gives Neil room to explore his current interests: his dislike of MP3s and Picasso, his desire to coax new sounds out of Old Black, and, most importantly, the writing of his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace.
The reference to Waging Heavy Peace establishes a nostalgic tone that pervades the first half of the record.  All about atmosphere, the sprawling Ramada Inn features some of the best extended guitar solos on the record, which Neil uses to add as much emotion as he can to his tale of a husband and wife from an American past – who do what they “have to” and “need to” for each other, despite the relentless passage of time and the husband’s descent into alcoholism.
On the short, country-tinged Born in Ontario, Neil discusses his own past, from his journalist father to his family’s continuous movements around Canada, while Twisted Road likewise simmers in nostalgia as Young spills his love for Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Roy Orbison, and a desire to “let the good times roll.”
With She’s Always Dancing, the second half of the record moves away from past, featuring a heroine who “has the fire” but is “burning out” as she futilely dances her life away in an attempt to regain her lost innocence.  Crazy Horse supply superb backing vocals here.  The autobiographical For the Love of Man continues along a similar dark path.  Strings swell as Neil sings with heartfelt resignation and love about “when the child is born to live but not like you or I” (his two sons are disabled).
Psychedelic Pill is the best record that Neil Young has made with Crazy Horse since 1990’s Ragged Glory.  But its heavier themes make it a stronger record, one that may one day vie with 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1975’s Zuma, and 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps as one of the band’s finest. –Paul Gleason

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Gary Clark Jr. Blak and Blu

Gary Clark Jr.’s major-label debut, Blak and Blu, should catapult him to A-list status.
Don’t let the horn-led stomp of album opener Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round confuse you – the 28-year old is a world-class blues guitarist, and this is a blues-rock album.
But, as it is his debut LP for Warner Brothers, GCJ flexes his muscle a bit, peppering in forays into r&b, soul (the aforementioned album opener  Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round), and hip-hop. The result is a blast to the face of expectation, which is both Blak and Blu’s strong suit and weakness.
Not that it’s a damaging weakness – it’s just that this album isn’t as gritty, raw and garage-rock as it could have been. Honestly speaking, though, that’s probably a good thing, considering GCJ’s brand of blues-rock would probably be tossed off as “Black Keys-lite” by those unfamiliar with Clark’s lengthy career in and around the Austin scene.
Among the strongest cuts here are the jammy When My Train Pulls In, the groove-laden title track (which adds some hip-hop flair to its guitars and horns), Bright Lights, the gritty garage rock of Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ for Nothin’), brooding single Numb, Things Are Changin’ and the combination Jimi Hendrix/Albert Collins cover Third Stone From the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say.
As far as ‘surprises’ go, The Life might confuse listeners expecting to hear only blues-rock, as it’s basically a straightforward r&b song. The same can be said for Please Come Home, which finds Clark donning a falsetto voice and leading a steady soul-pop tempo.
If you’re new to Gary Clark Jr., then Blak and Blu is a solid introduction – some of his older songs re-worked with a major label budget and some adventures into new musical territory.
It’s taken him a while to emerge onto the mainstream scene, but Blak and Blu should ensure that it happens very soon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Muse The 2nd Law

Muse have always been a ‘difficult’ band, and The 2nd Law is a challenging record.
Their early albums were brazenly original, vaguely electronic-tinged experimental rock led by Matthew Bellamy’s operatic vocals and blistering guitar work. As they grew in popularity, the band’s sound evolved accordingly, incorporating more U2 and Queen-sized theatrics and grandiosity.
The 2nd Law, their sixth record overall, is a pastiche of all these trends, but without any real sense of cohesion. It’s a schizophrenic album.
There’s some James Bond theme-like arrangements (the dynamic, twisty-turny opener Supremacy), forays into electro-pop (lead single Madness), funky ‘80s dance-rock (the INXS & Duran Duran-like Panic Station), sweeping, orchestral Olympic theme songs (Survival), and dabbles into a weird hybrid of dubstep and heavy electronica (Follow Me & The 2nd Law: Unsustainable).
The record’s strongest portion is at the end of the album – bassist Chris Wolstenholme mans vocal duties for the progressive, experimental Save Me and the hard-charging Liquid State with impressive results.
The album’s finale, The 2nd Law: Isolated System is another high point, a slow, brooding instrumental track with vocal samples peppered throughout. The orchestration and execution of the track makes it cap off the record with resonance, but ultimately acts to point out the uneven nature of Muse’s focus on this album.
The 2nd Law is a mixed bag, featuring some of their requisite “epic-ness”, some intriguing and rewarding ventures into experimental territory, and some questionable attempts at pop-radio domination. They’ve become a hard band to pin down in recent years, and this album is reflective of that.
This record probably won’t make you a fan if you weren’t one already, and if you’ve been around a while it might sway you in a particular direction once and for all (depending on whether or not you prefer “old Muse” to “new Muse”).
Still, there’s some good stuff here, so it’s worth a listen regardless.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Dinosaur Jr. I Bet on Sky


I Bet on Sky is the third album that the three original members of Dinosaur Jr. – singer-guitarist J Mascis, bassist-singer Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph – have released since 1988’s classic Bug.
Like Beyond (2007) and Farm (2009) before it, I Bet on Sky is an excellent but unsurprising offering from a band of former innovators who have settled into a solid groove that primarily serves as a reminder of all the great musicianship and cool songwriting that made them so exciting in the first place.
Despite what Barlow seems to think, Mascis always was and currently is Dinosaur.  On their best albums – 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me and Bug – Mascis gave rock ‘n’ roll a new sound by writing catchy songs that combined the poppy melodies of The Beatles and The Beach Boys and the distortion and feedback of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Sonic Youth, and a myriad punk bands.  He sang in an unprecedented, self-described “low-key drawl.” But, most of all, Mascis made the guitar solo rad again for the alternative generation.
Mascis’ songwriting chops, voice, and guitar soloing came to an exuberant head on Freak Scene, the song that led off Bug and is a hipper choice than Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit for “All-Time Best Alternative Anthem.”
Can Mascis ever top Freak Scene? Would we even want him to if he could?  Does the fact that the original members of Dinosaur Jr. reunited even matter?
The answer to all these questions, of course, is “no.”  But this “no” doesn’t alter the fact that I Bet on Sky, like Beyond and Farm, is a very strong record.  It won’t change the world, but is nonetheless compelling and will remind you of the sheer excitement you experienced when you first heard J explode into a guitar solo on You’re Living All Over Me and Bug.
Lead off track Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know possesses everything you need to know about what’s best about Dinosaur in its current incarnation.  Mascis, Barlow, and Murph lock into one of their patented grooves, which serves as strident backing for a poppy Mascis melody and first-rate but constrained (for J) fade solo.  The solos on songs such as I Know It Oh So Well and Pierce the Morning Rain, however, deliver the unpredictable and exciting guitar work that made you get all hot and bothered about Dinosaur in the first place.  And Almost Fare and What Was That are vocally so sweetly melodic and sad that you’ll want to make J your best homemade soup and put him to bed early.
But in the end, despite the above comments, it’s very hard to be thrilled with I Bet on Sky. True, the record is, for the most part, superb, but its workman-like qualities and professionalism tend to suck the unpredictability out of it.  And unpredictability was once Dinosaur’s bread and butter.
Pick up I Bet on Sky if you’re a true fan, a life-long J addict. But grab You’re Living All Over Me or Bug if you’re new to Dinosaur Jr. and in the mood for some of the most original rock ‘n’ roll ever made.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Aimee Mann Charmer


Longtime Aimee Mann Fans:  Go ahead right now and buy this record.
New Aimee Mann fans and non-fans:  Go ahead and buy I’m With Stupid, Whatever, Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Lost in Space, Bachelor #2, Forgotten Arm, @#%&*! Smilers, and then buy this record.
You see where we’re going with this. After 30 years of writing songs Aimee Mann has gotten to a place where her only competition is herself.  As we listen to the model of heartfelt, intelligent songwriting consistency, there is never a question of quality or whether this will be good.  It will be, period.
In her career (which began in the new wave band ‘Til Tuesday) Mann has tapped into a vast underground human common-consciousness stream where bitterness, denouncement, heartache, melancholy, satire and self-hatred flow…oh, and you can sing to it.  The songs Mann sing are so personal, yet seem to speak to many of us – young and old.
On Charmer there are no new explorations, no real surprises.  At 38 minutes it’s her shortest non-Christmas album and sometimes it seems to end before it starts.  The rock songs rock a little softer and Paul Bryan’s production is thinner and less complex (than say Jon Brion’s), and has less of an intimate presence.  Charmer seems to additionally have caught Aimee Mann on one of her “good days” as the music skips along more lightly on a number of the songs (recalling Superball and Sugarcoated off I’m With Stupid).  Her lyrical attacks are less biting and there are even hints of optimism and (gasp?) happiness amid the warm guitar & synth-pop.
So, in contrast to the dark acoustics and growling menace of her other albums Charmer evokes a bit of a nostalgic ‘70s feel – like a Blondie album.  (Well, if Blondie actually wrote thought-provoking lyrics.)
But to call Charmer “upbeat” is an overstatement.  Thankfully.   After all folks, this is a Real Aimee Mann Record.  The minor-key sentiments and understated first-person anguish draw you in like a drug, or better yet – Coca Cola – the kind of addictive sweetness that leaves you always craving  more.  But instead of empty calories you always get nourishing food for thought.  By now you’re asking yourselves “is he going to continue this annoying soft-drink metaphor?”
At any rate all of this is just comparing Aimee Mann to her only competition – Aimee Mann.
The pop-rock musical landscape is barren right now, so it’s full-out sparkling refreshment when Aimee Mann blesses us with another one of her effervescent, thirst-quenching, yet still-nourishing records (her first since 2008).  Charmer is a superfine album full of pop-rock hooks and pin-point human observations, and Aimee Mann continues to be the rarest musical treasures.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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