Oct 31, 2007

Recent Release Round-Up

I hope you are all having a delightfully spooky Halloween. Mine was spent in a state of relative normalcy, no trick or treating for me tonight, just some great pizza and a nice glass of wine. I didn't really have any particular topic in mind for today's post, so I thought it might be a good time to look back on some of the recent releases of the past few week.

Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II (Reprise)
I've been a long time fan of this great Canadian, so I was really looking forward to checking this one out. This misleadingly titled disc is a sequel of sorts to one of Neil's many, many notorious "lost" albums; featuring ten tracks of recently re-recorded songs written at various points over the last twenty years or so. The album's centerpiece, and definite highpoint, is the eighteen minute "Ordinary People" - a rousing epic about the real people that make the world go round. Surprisingly it never overstays its welcome, mostly thanks to the rousing workout by the Blue Note Horns. There a couple clunkers (as seems to be the case with any recent Young release), but the Crazy Horse stomp and swagger of "Spirit Road" and "Dirty Old Man" make this well worth checking out.

check out: "Spirit Road"

Avenged Sevenfold - Avenged Sevenfold (Warner Bros.)
There really isn't any gentle way to say this, but this album completely sucks. I (rather stupidly) had high expectations for this one after really enjoying the exciting City of Evil, but I was not prepared for this big of a turkey. I suppose I should have been prepared by the underwhelming, right-wing ranting "Critical Acclaim", but I was hoping it wouldn't be representative of the rest of the disc. I'm not sure what these guys were thinking, but their reach most definitely exceeded their grasp this time around. Gone is most of the punk swagger and metal workouts of the last album, in favor of bloated "epics" that try way too hard to be Use Your Illusion rejects. Quite possibly one of the biggest letdowns of the year.

check out: "Almost Easy"

Shooter Jennings - The Wolf (Universal)
Holy shit was this unexpected. I didn't even realize Shooter had another album coming out until the day of its release, so this took me completely by surprise in more ways than one. I've long been a fan of Waylon's kid, but this is most definitely his strongest release yet. His cover of Dire Straits' "Walk of Life", the album's first single, is an inspired choice - as is his team-up with the Oak Ridge Boys on "Slow Train". I feel like Shooter's always had a little trouble balancing his many moods (country outlaw, traditional country crooner, rock rebel) resulting in patchy albums when taken as a whole, but The Wolf strikes the perfect balance of all three. Definitely worth checking out, even if you might not be a typical country fan.

check out: "Walk of Life"

Oct 18, 2007

"I like Kid Rock..."

There, I've said it. I do. I like Kid Rock, always have. Well, since 1998 anyway. I wouldn't call myself a rabid fan, but I have followed all his albums since the multi-platinum breakthrough and I've even seen him in concert. He was good, very entertaining in an old school, big, loud, and dumb RAWK show kind of way. It wasn't the early singles off Devil Without A Cause that hooked me, nah... I really wasn't feeling "I Am the Bullgod" or "Bawitdaba". But holy trailer park savior, did "Only God Knows Why" hit me in the right kind of way. Sappy drama, pseudo sweeping grandeur, and over sentimentality combined in the right kind of way to sock me right in the gut. I could never really explain why I liked it so much, still really can't, but it's a great fucking song. That little break towards the end, where his voice switches from smooth balladeer to impassioned victim as he belts out "you get what you put in / and people get what they deserve", that's a great moment in pop history right there. That was enough to get me to buy the album, and I really dug his attitude of, "fuck you, this is the music I love, and I'll do exactly what I want". He gained momentum thanks to the rise of rap-rock, but it was his talents as a genuinely great songwriter that helped him sell 12 million copies of that record.

The follow-up, 2001's Cocky, wasn't nearly as successful ("only" 5 mil this time around) but I think its the much better album. Rock let his love of Southern Rock shine through, veering from Skynyrd namechecks and samples to back-porch ballads that worked surprisingly well. I loved the new turn he was making, my favorite songs ended up being the sappy "Lonely Road of Faith" and "Midnight Train to Memphis", not to mention the hugely successful duet with Sheryl Crow, "Picture". It was a fun, shameless album. Unfortunately it was also marked the point where Rock started to lose the plot.

Thanks to "Picture", he'd been co-opted by mainstream country, going so far as to re-record that song with the slightly more country Allison Moorer. From that point on he was all over VH1 and CMT, rocking out with a wide variety of country superstars and classic rockers. It got to the point where he was the default "edgy" guy for slightly past their prime rockers to drag out when they needed to get back in touch with the "kids". His next album, 2003's self-titled effort, found him milking his new reputation for all it was worth - alternating between the country courtin' ballads and the southern rockers. He even tapped Hank Williams Jr. and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top for guest spots. There were a few decent songs ("Jackson, Mississippi" and "Son of Detroit" come immediately to mind) but it was fairly obvious that Kid wasn't doing these songs because he loved them - he was just trying to keep his new audience. I mean, how much more blatant can you get than doing another sappy duet with Sheryl Crow? It had a few moments, but overall I thought it was a minor disappointment.

Which brings us to his latest release, the horrifically titled Rock N Roll Jesus. And I think its safe to say that not only has he completely lost direction, he can't even find the room that contains the fucking map. As much as I didn't want it to, this album completely sucks. Kid isn't even trying anymore, he's just reheating stale leftovers. "So Hott" is a misguided attempt at resurrecting his hard rockin' rap lovin' persona, but it feels completely phoned in. Meanwhile he tries to recapture the glory of "Only God Knows Why" and "Lonely Road of Faith" with the Bob Seger inspired "Roll On", except that he forgot the part about writing a good song. The lyrics are just horrible and naming songs like he's Prince all of the sudden ("When U Love Someone", "Don't Tell Me U Love Me") just makes it all sound even more stupid. It says something when the most enjoyable song on the whole disc is a bonus track live recoding of a cut from the last album ("Jackson, Mississippi"). Beyond that, I'd keep maybe two songs. Probably the sweet in spite of itself "All Summer Long" and the David Allan Coe assisted redneck rocker "Half Your Age", that's about it.

I didn't want to write a scathing review of his new album, I really wanted to be able to talk about how he put out another surprisingly strong one. I just can't though, this thing is awful. Just so awful, apparently, that the American people bought enough copies to make it Rock's first ever number one album. I guess that shows what I know.

Oct 10, 2007

Radiohead - In Rainbows

I decided that tonight would be a good time to try a little something new here at via//chicago... liveblogging, sort of anyway. I'm going to spend the next forty-five or so minutes listening to the hugely anticipated new album by Radiohead and blogging my thoughts as I go along. I won't be constantly updating it though, so it won't be exactly like a liveblog. But hopefully it will retain that free-form sort of feel as you read it. But enough of that, let's just get right down to it....

1. "15 Step"
Nice little shuffling Radiokraut beat to start this thing off, almost a reggaeton feel to the beat. Thom's vocals seem to be completely contradicting the beat, but wait... here comes some melody. I really like this guitar line snaking through the song, counteracts the rigid beat. Sounds like a really cool amalgamation of the more pop side of Radiohead and the more avant side. Oooh, cool little sample snippets right there... was that children cheering? Beat is becoming a little more insistent and frenzied, swallowing that organ(?) drone. Great start to the album.

2. "Bodysnatchers"
Dirty, grungy guitar and Thom's vocals right up front in the mix. Another rather harried and frenzied track, Thom slowly slides down to the background before piping back up with some tortured wails. Lyrics are a little hard to make out through this middle portion. I like that little breakdown! This must be the guitar-heavy type of thing that some old school fans have been waiting for, but its no retread... thats for sure. The intensity towards the end of the track is really nice, before the quick fade.

3. "Nude"
A classic of sorts that has been floating around the band for years, this will be interesting to hear how a final recorded version sounds. Starts off with some ethereal moaning before some really low-end bass kicks in. Thom's vocals are pushed even further to the forefront here. There's almost a sexy sort of soul to Thom's vocals here, really sort of sultry sound to this dirge-like ballad. This is really unlike anything Radiohead has done in a long, long time. Its atmospheric like "Pyramid Song", but there exists a much more human soul this time around. Really a fantastic vocal performance by Thom this time around. Back to the ethereal moaning. The drums and bass really give this a jazzy kind of vibe.

4. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"
Quick count off and away we go... drums set the motorik tempo early on, propelling Thom's lyrics and the side-winding guitar line. "I'd be crazy not to fall / fall when you leap", Thom is singing (I think). Lots of great guitar and vocal performances all over this album so far. "I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes", Thom's paranoia certainly hasn't gone away. This will be a great record to really delve into the lyrics on. Drums continue pushing us on, past the schools of weird fishes that are pulsing and fading around our ears. This feels like a rapid descent into a dark ocean, with a vague sense of all the wonders just around you that you can't see.

5. "All I Need"
Whoa, this is almost a hip-hop beat right here. You know, a hip-hop beat in some alternate universe peopled by Jonny Greenwoods and Thom Yorkes.... but still! Thom sings about being a trapped animal and all the things you choose to ignore over squelchy bass hits and that languid hip-hop beat. Bells and flourishes and keys all over the chorus portion. "You are all I need / you're all I need / I'm in the middle of your picture", a Radiohead love song? Some piano kicks in just before the track kicks into overdrive, like a hundred layers of sound washing over my ears right now - piano, cymbal crashes, keys, bass, Thom. And then, its over, just like that.
6. "Faust Arp"
"Wakey wakey / rise and shine", welcomes Thom. Acoustic guitar and Thom's vocals over a stirring string section. Thom's vocals are rapidly delivered, a neat counter to the swelling strings and acoustic guitar. Some more pretty great guitar playing here. Interesting little interlude, I'm really curious to learn all the lyrics to this one over time.

7. "Reckoner"
Multi-layered percussion here, almost a trip-hop sort of feel to things. Another of those snakey guitar lines weaves its way between the beats. Thom's vocals kick in ever so slightly more high-pitched than usual, a little bit of Yorkian falsetto? "You are not to blame", Thom insists. "Dedicated to all you", he also tells us. Beat drops out, leaving just Thom, an acoustic guitar, and some backing ooohs and ahhhs. Another string section swells to life as Thom continues to croon. The beat drops back in as the strings continue. Again here the drums sound a little jazzy, but this isn't a bad thing at all. Suits the song rather well. Long, slow fade on this one.

8. "House of Cards"
Distinct, washed-out fuzz guitar opens this one up with Thom's disembodied wails floating in the distant background somewhere. "I don't wanna be your friend / I just wanna be your lover", not the expected lyrics from a Radiohead song... but Thom pulls them off quite convincingly. It sounds like Thom is encouraging someone to give up the trapping of an average life and allow themselves to be swept off the table. "The infrastructure will collapse", definitely another Thom against the modern world type of song. Almost sounds like a love song to the disillusioned and disenchanted. Thom wants you to embrace something different. Is this sort of a thematic continuation of the ideas explored in "How to Disappear Completely"? Despite the love song sounding lyrics that kick it off, this quickly takes a haunting detour. Maybe this is an ode to the dying human soul in the 21st Century. Then again, Radiohead is never that easy to figure out at first blush.

9. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place"
A gentle acoustic intro quickly leads to a more insistent beat, leading up to Thom humming his way into our ears. This is also a very rhythmic album, further evidenced here. "They got a Chesire cat grin, blending into one", starts to sound like another Thom paranoia song. But, really, who cares when the music behind him is this damn good? Thom starts to sing very passionately as the song goes on. Another nice example of the balance between Radiohead's pop sensibility and their more avant leaning. Vocally, Thom is all over the place on this album, reminding me a little of his singing on OK Computer. Nice, clean ending to the song.

10. "Videotape"
Lone piano accompanies Thom as he sings about his arrival at the Pearly Gates. Is he singing about reviewing the tape of his life with St. Peter? Interesting turn for this band, but maybe I'm reading the wrong things into these lyrics. Some really cool, minimal rhythmic accompaniment pops up. Another rhythm line pops up to mirror and slightly echo the first, sounding almost like a very short, clipped sample of a train rolling down the tracks. The echo starts to stretch out as the train gathers speed. Then the echo starts to outpace the original drumbeat, leaving it far behind. Some very, very cool percussion and programming work on this one. But really, its this piano that is holding everything together. We are left with just the echoing percussion and piano as we near the end, dropping out to just the piano to finish things off. Terrific way to end the album.

Initial Thoughts:
I am very, very impressed. This is such a focused album, a big improvement on the scattershot approach they took with Hail to the Thief. I'm only one listen in, but I really feel like this is just the strong kind of statement the band needed to make at this point in their career. No giant leaps foward, no misfiring detours, just forty-five minutes or so of great, great music. It reads like the perfect distillation of their career to this point, everything that has gone towards making this band so well-loved seems to be in here. We'll see how this stands up to repeated listens, but as of right now I can see this thing contending strongly for being one of my favorite albums of the year. Kudos Radiohead, you've done it again.

(thanks to Hicks Design for the fan created cover art above)

Oct 9, 2007


Pretty simple... five songs from iTunes shuffle and a few random thoughts on each.

UGK f. Big Daddy Kane & Kool G Rap - "Next Up" (taken from Underground Kingz)
Another strong track on the surprisingly solid comeback album of sorts. This one features a pair of old school rhyme spitters and production by the legendary Marley Marl, keeping the second disc of this lengthy double-album from weighing things down. It's sort of amazing to realize just how fresh these old dudes can sound in new surroundings.

Naledge - "Fuck the World" (taken from Will Rap For Food: The Mixtape)
Decent little track from this Chicago native's mixtape from a few years back. It's unlikely that this college grad will ever blow up like Kanye, but he definitely has a decent enough flow and charisma to boot. Another in the line of Chicago's recent rap talents, check out the Kidz in the Hall mixtape on Rawkus for more hotness.

Broken Social Scene - "Canada Vs. America" (taken from EP To Be You and Me)
Another noisy BSS epic, unfortunately squirreled away on the limited bonus EP that came with copies of the Canadian collective's self-titled second album. Lots of swirling guitars and squirming feedback, just the way I like 'em.

Neil Young - "Ambulance Blues" (taken from On The Beach)
Oh man, one of my most favorite Neil Young tracks ever. Of course, that may not be saying much, because last time I checked my list of "favorite Neil Young tracks ever" had about sixty-seven songs on it. Neil is just that damn good, you know? This is a deliberately paced dirge, full of plaintive harmonica wails and some outstanding bass work. Plus, one of my favorite Neil lines ever... "And there ain't nothin' like a friend, who can tell you you're just pissin' in the wind". A classic song on a classic album from a classic artist.

Billy Corgan - "The CameraEye" (taken from TheFutureEmbrace)
So we go from a classic song from a classic album by one of my favorite artists to a crappy song from a crappy album by another one of my favorite artists. I've tried and tried to pull something out of Corgan's ill-advised electronic-tinged solo album, but its a difficult, thankless task. Depeche Mode did this kind of thing earlier and much, much better.

Oct 8, 2007

"They're standing outside / And they're looking in..."

It's been over two months without an update, I've been pretty pathetic as of late. At least as far as updating this blog is concerned. Outside of that I've been busy as hell at work while trying to plan for a wedding and making the preparations to move into a new house. To say I've had little time for writing about music would be a massive understatement. But of course I've had time to listen to it, that's for sure. And lately I've been spending more time with a band that I was originally going crazy over back in June. There debut album had been growing on me by leaps and bounds, but they're excellent set at Pitchfork Fest cemented it. The Twilight Sad is one of my new favorite bands. I was reminded their greatness thanks to another in the outstanding series of KEXP Live Performance podcasts, which you can check out for yourself right here. I've heard comparisons to Arab Strap, Arcade Fire, and U2 in the past - but I don't think any of those do justice to this band. Check out my favorite two songs for yourself. And dig that Stand By Me referencing song title!

The Twilight Sad - "That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy"
(taken from Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters)
The Twilight Sad - "And She Would Darken the Memory" (taken from Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters)