Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Matisyahu "Light"

LightNo Longer Just a Novelty
4 Out Of 5 Stars

YouthThe trail of Matisyahu is one of an unlikely pop star. Highschool dropout cum jam band devotee cum reggae/hip-hop devotee, his stage antics made him something of a flavor of the month. I have to admit, the press made me want to find out more about him, and his albums filled the bill. This generously bearded kid sounded like the real deal, but he also had the potential to become yesterday's news.

"Light" aims to break beyond the back story to make Matisyahu into a music force to be reckoned with. Musically, it succeeds. Sadly, his hipster cred appears to have vaporized; while "Youth" debuted in the Top 5, "Light" barely made the Top 20 and fell off the charts quickly after.

Which is to point at the crappy tastes of hipsters. "Light" is a huge major leap from "Youth" in that Matisyahu stretches out from the reggae/Hip-Hop and pushes into rock and roll ("Motivate") and blends genres throughout the album. The simple and solemn "Silence" closes the album with a soft and tender ballad. Producer David Kahne - who has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Fishbone - gives an able assist to "Light's" skimming of styles. But it all comes down to Matisyahu himself. On "Light," he proves he is here for keeps. The winter Olympics made his best song here, the spiritual call to arms of "One Day," unavoidable. If the release of the album managed to slip under your radar, rest assured that "Light" is worth a few spins on your disc player.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Seal "Human Being"

Human BeingHis Twisted Psyche  
4 Out of 5 Stars

Seal is one of those deeply confessional singers who pours his pain and emotions into each of his songs. On his third album (and the first with a proper title), "Human Being" digs even deeper into those wounds and reveals himself as a full fledged singer songwriter on a par with his idols Joni Mitchell or Marvin Gaye. And like the distorted cover portrait, Seal stretches himself into a man that makes you look and listen to his pleas and crooning.

Those who thought Seal might turn to obvious commercial patter after the success of singles "Fly Like an Eagle" and "Kiss From a Rose" were probably soothed by the easy groove of the title track. But underneath that was a lyric that cried for a desperate understanding in the face of murder (allegedly he wrote the song after the killing of Tupac and Notorious BIG). "We're mere human beings, we die. It's destined" Seal sighs.

If that doesn't get your party started, "Lost My Faith" finds our spiritual wanderer Seal admitting that the lack of a lover's touch has left him lost and adrift. It may be the closest in sound to his biggest hit ballad, it's light years away thematically. There's little on "Human Being" that connects as immediately as "Killer" or "Crazy," or offers the hope of his second album. It's Seal's most dramatic album and his most weighty. As you can guess, it is also his least commercially successful. But if you give it more than a few extra spins, it may be the Seal album that makes the most lasting emotional impression.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Pearl Jam "Backspacer"

BackspacerMeet Eddie Ramone  
4 Out of 5 Stars

I guess getting Bush out of the White House has calmed Eddie Vedder down a little. "Backspacer" is an open and airy slice of rocking - dare I say it - fun from Pearl Jam, whose righteous rage has clouded many of their albums for the last ten years or so. This time, they take a cue from one of their influences by making a short (barely 35 minutes) album with tightly wound songs, the longest of which sprints to the four minute mark. Just call it "Rocket To Seattle."

The lead single, "The Fixer," sounds like "Wishlist" on speed-dial. Complete with an "Uh huh huh huh" intro and some super power chords, Eddie enunciates (!!) the manners in which he'd like to save a little love in his life. (Curiously, it is also one of the numbers Vedder didn't write.) Like much of their self-titled 2006 album, "The Fixer" and songs like "Got Some" and "Supersonic" are the sound of Pearl Jam openly embracing classic and classicist rock, with guitarist Stone Gossard banging out muscular riffs in almost gleeful abandon.Vedder has also broken into a sensitive place. With songs like "Just Breathe," which sounds like a leftover from his soundtrack for "Into The Wild," he and the band touch a nerve that their younger selves would have only been able to stab a claw hammer into. It's their best ballad to date.

Their age is kind of showing on "Backspacer." "Ten" has reached its 20th anniversary, and "Backspacer" reunites the band with producer Brendan O'Brien to excellent results. The difference is that all parties are now OK with just being a terrific rock band without forcing embellishments or drawing out the proceedings. The band still treats Rock as the means to deliver a message (as "Got Some" and "Unknown Thought" still show); just now the message is delivered with a firm handshake instead of the shaken fist.

Monday, April 26, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Todd Rundgren "No World Order"

No World OrderRapping and Ranting with Rundgren
3 Out of 5 Stars

In the early 90's, the ever inventive Todd Rundgren took a stab at a new technology, the Interactive Musical CD. Rechristening himself TR-I, the unique "No World Order" appeared. While the original CD-I's were playable in a now obsolete format/technology, the CD's themselves are still available - and cheap, too - for play on a standard CD player.

This is one of Todd's oddest recordings. Comprised of 10 songs that are fractured into snippets across "No World Order's" duration, the album is all Todd playing all the music. He cross-cuts bridges, lyrics and choruses from each song (plus a quick drop-in from "The Twilight Zone" and a sample pulled over from his own "A Capella"), bouncing from one theme to another. Instead of the lyrical exercise of writing lyrics, cutting them apart and reassembling them at random, Todd did the same to his musical fragments. It makes for a very interesting cycle.

There are some superb individual songs here, with Todd singing (or more often, rapping) over the synthesized beats. This also perhaps Todd's angriest album, with the scathing "Fascist Christ" mincing no words when it comes to religious fundamentalists and "World Wide Epiphany" encouraging his listeners to "send a message to the government, pack it in cement." But it wouldn't be a complete Todd album without that one soul searching ballad, and on "NWO," it's "Time Stood Still."

That is the odd song out here, with rapid-fire rants like "Day Job" setting the primary tone of the CD. Todd kept the TR-I moniker for two more releases, "The Individualist" and a remixed soft-sounding version of this album called "No World Order Lite." This original "No World Order" remains as a testament to Todd's ongoing fascination with new technologies and his constant ability to leap from style to style at will.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: The Kings "Amazon Beach"

Amazon BeachThe Rulers of Amazon Beach
3 Out of 5 Stars

The Kings were a Canadian band that had exactly one moment of pure genius, then faded rapidly into the new-wave dustbin. That moment (or technically, two) was "This Beat Goes On/Switching To Glide" was a Cars/Queen first pumper with a 60's styled organ line and chunky guitar hooks. However, that song appears on The Kings' debut album, "The Kings Are Here." "Amazon Beach" was the 1981 follow-up, and despite the rascally fantasy cover art, it's no vacation.

The problem is twofold. First, producer Bob Ezrin should have encouraged the band to get some of that bar-band mojo from the first album and apply it to this one. The arrangements are bland and lack in power. The second is in the songs. Other than "I Got Two Girlfriends," very little of "Amazon Beach" approaches the new-wave fun of the debut. "All The Way" and "Fools Are In Love" come close (with Fools being an admirable Joe Jackson clone). The obligatory ballad "Why Don't Love Do" apes Billy Joel Adult Contemporary piano pop, but singer David Diamond lacks the vocal chops.

Diamond is a much better party barker than singer, like a lot of 80's bands. (Think The Rings, Hoodoo Gurus.) Had they not been tagged with the new wave mantel, they would have been a one-hit garage band. The muddled sounding averageness of "Amazon Beach" was where The Kings were beached for good; despite some reformations in the late 90's, the band never recovered from this.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Paul Simon "There Goes Rymin' Simon"

There Goes Rhymin' SimonWe Come in The Age's Most Uncertain Hour
 5 Out of 5 Stars

For his second solo album after breaking up Simon and Garfunkel, "There Goes Rhymin' Simon" hit a peak that Paul was unable to attain until many years later. Freed from the compositional restraints of the old duo's expected style, Simon takes a full sheaf of musical styles and just throws them into the air. This album was recorded in various studios across the country with assorted bands (primarily the powerhouse Muscle Shoals band), allowing Simon free reign to experiment with styles.

The result was a grab-bag of songs that were all terrific, three top 40 singles and a solo Grammy. But even with the mix of styles, the sound is still distinctly Simon. The perky pop of "Kodachrome," the gospel of "Loves Me Like a Rock" and the jazzy "Take Me To The Mardi Gras" all intermingle. Two of his best love songs are here with the lullaby to his son ("St Judy's Comet") and the beautiful "Something So Right" (much later covered by Annie Lennox).

Then there is the classic "American Tune." Maybe the only song on the album that makes you wish Art was still around, Simon makes a declarative statement about his state of mind circa 1973. Watergate was beginning to bubble up from the pits, Nixon was still dragging out the VietNam War after his re-election and Simon was singing "I don't know a soul who's not been battered." Prescient even now, it's a song for the ages, even if Simon that 1973 was the most uncertain hour.

Keeping America (White and) Stupid: Arizona Divison

It's nice to know an appointed female Governor (as opposed to one anybody actually voted for) has used her suppressed penis envy to prove she can be as big a redneck clod of cow dung as her male compadres. Or is compadre a word that would signal illegal alien status? Lest you think she was glib about placing her pen to this piece of idiocracy in action, rest assured; she prayed for guidance. However, I don't think the plastic Jesus she keeps in her drawer next to the steroids usually responds to "Dear Fascist Christ."

"Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the nation's toughest legislation against illegal immigration Friday, a sweeping measure that supporters said would take handcuffs off police but which President Barack Obama said could violate people's civil rights. The bill, sent to the Republican governor by the GOP-led Legislature, would make it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. It would also require local police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants. Brewer, who faces a tough election battle and growing anger in the state over illegal immigrants, said the law "protects every Arizona citizen," and said the state must act because the federal government has failed" 

Yes, that's right. You can (as was recently pointed out on MSNBC's Hardball by a California legilanus) be stopped on the street because of your non-murrican appearing shoes and asked for your papers.  I am certain that this will lead to a sudden purging of all Canadian Snowbirds from their illegal Flagstaff vacation cabins. Or at least John McCain being forced to hire some new people to wash his toilets. Sheriff Joe (the old loon who makes road crews wear pink pajamas)  is ordering brown shirts and cattle trucks as we speak.

Friday, April 23, 2010

New Job, New Devo

In the past few weeks, I interviewed for a job to commercial voice overs. They called this week to offer me the position and I accepted. It is a significant increase in pay for me, plus benefits. I will be adding my vocal talents to a staff that creates online advertisements for YellAds (the Internet division of Yellowbook) at their King Of Prussia location (actually, Gulph Mills). I start a week from Monday.

The only drawback? It's an overnight (11:30 PM to 7:30 AM) shift.

Joel finished his Penn State classes tonight and is officially a grad-ee-ate! He officially joins the segment of the family clan as a Nittany Lion with a brand new Masters degree. We will be going out Saturday for an official New Job/New Degree ribs dinner.

Even more exciting? There's a new Devo single in advance of their coming album "Something for Everyone." As a dedicated Devo-tee, I can't wait for the whole thing.

My Amazon Reviews: Regina Spektor "Begin To Hope"

Begin to HopeHope and Change
4 Out of 5 Stars

Regina Spektor takes the old fashioned piano-pop vibe and twists it to her will on her 2006 album "Begin to Hope." She keeps the sound spare and often fragile, with her overwhelming personality conquering the limitations of her voice. She reveals as much about herself as any old-time confessional folkie ever did, at the same time she lets her friendship with bands like The Strokes or Kings of Leon mashup her songs like "That Time."

One of the fun things about Spektor is that she is obviously nobody's girl-toy. While her piano styles might bring to mind Tori Amos or Fiona Apple, if only because these are two of the more eclectic of our modern female singer songwriters. But more often that not, I am reminded of Joni Mitchel, who was happy to torque style with albums like "Court and Spark" and was all about courting the unconverted. A beautiful love song like "Fidelity" (my introduction to Spektor via an anti-Prop 8 advert) is varied not only by the beautiful melody, but also by Spektor's chirpy singing.

"Begin To Hope" is Spektor's most conventional album, with veteran producer David Kahne framing her voice and songs in various ways but allowing the general atmosphere of the CD to stay cohesive. She plays with traditions (quoting the oldie "Just One Look" in her own "Hotel Song") while planting her own futures...making her albums unique in a world auto-tune and cookie-cutters are the norm.  

Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: James Taylor "Greatest Hits"

Greatest HitsRock-a-bye, Sweet Baby James
4 Out Of 5 Stars

When James Taylor wrapped up his years with Warner Brothers records in 1976, that label promptly issued a greatest hits CD that remains one of the label's biggest sellers. Issued one of the RIAA's earliest "Diamond" certifications, this album has sold over ten million copies and remains available to this day. It's a time-capsule of Taylor's early work, spotlighting the years of sensitive singer-songwriters and his calm, soothing voice.

Staring with re-recorded versions of his Apple Records songs "Carolina In My Mind" and "Something In The Way She Moves" and a previously unreleased live version of "Steamroller Blues," this was Taylor before he became a staple on the summer festival circuit and a cover-er of oldies (although his version of "How Sweet It Is" is included here). There's a lot to be said for the simple pleasures of this collection, be it the warm reading of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" (with Joni Mitchell on back-up vocals, it won Taylor his first Grammy) or the confessional "Fire and Rain." After this, Taylor would be come more the studious professional that intimate singer-songwriter, continuing to make solid, if predictable soft-rock albums for CBS.

There are two best of's since this one, a Columbia round-up on James Taylor's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 and a full on retrospective on The Best of James Taylor (both labels represented, but heavy on the Warners years). The biggest gripe is that this CD has yet to receive a proper remastering, but for the money, it's James Taylor at his best.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Simon and Garfunkel "Old Friends Live On Stage"

Old Friends Live on Stage (Deluxe Edition) (2 CD/1 DVD)Frenemies Live on Stage
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I was fortunate enough to have seen this concert trek in Philadelphia in the fall of 2003. It was a beautiful night of music, preformed beautifully and filled with songs that have strong memories attached to them. I was also of the good luck to see Paul Simon on a late 90's solo tour in support of his "Rhythm Of The Saints" CD. I bring this up because of an important difference between that night and this tour disc.

Simon was touring with a support band that, at times, measured twenty plus musicians sharing the stage. At a certain point, however, they all left to allow Simon to play a few songs solo. Simon than began to strum the opening notes to "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and as each verse concluded, a few more musicians would return to the stage. Slowly, the sound built up towards the final verse, and a gospel choir stepped on board to just overwhelm the crowd the audience. I can still get gooseflesh thinking about just how magnificent the moment was. On the other hand, on "Old Friends Live" CD, Simon and Garfunkel sing a lovely version of the same song, perfectly performed and done with the same wonderful vocals you remember.

The difference is that I saw and heard a moment of musical transcendence in the 90's, whereas in 2003 I saw a concert of terrific musical professionalism. Throughout the two discs that comprise "Old Friends Live On Stage," you get to hear the greatest hits recreated immaculately, minus the fact that our heroes are now in their 60's and sound thusly aged.

What gives the album its finest moments are things like hearing Simon and Garfunkel singing Simon's solo "American Tune" together, with its still poignant lyrics. "Hazy Shade of Winter" provides a much needed kick (thanks, Bangles!). And The Everly Brothers' number with S&G ("Bye Bye Love") is the album's sole surprise. (However, I would have been happier if the CD would have left the other songs that the four played in the course of the show, including "Wake Up Little Susie.")

This live disc is a pretty good representative of Simon and Garfunkel live. The Central Park reunion album is a better bet

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Bob Seger "Gearest Hits Vol 1"

Bob Seger - Greatest HitsJust take those old records off the shelf,
4 Out of 5 Stars

For a true comprehensive overview of Bob Seger's best work, you need both volumes of his greatest hits. That way, you can get the solo/soundtrack singles (like the number one "Shakedown"). However, for a single disc set, there's plenty of steak here. Starting with Live Bullet and the road classic "Turn The Page" and ending with a pair of new recordings, the 14 songs here define Seger's successful singles.

Since his big three are "Night Moves," "Stranger in Town" and "Against The Wind," the lion's portion of this disc is drawn from those CD's. And any aficionado of classic rock radio is going to know most of these by heart. In Seger's own notes, he comments that "Old Time Rock And Roll" is the second most played jukebox record of all time, beaten out only by Patsy Cline's "Crazy."

Seger knew how to lay down solid rocking/driving sounds, with "Hollywood Nights" being a terrific example. he also became a first class balladeer as time went on, evidenced here by "We Got Tonight" or "Mainstreet." However, you still need "Her Strut," "Katmandu," "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" and others to get the complete set. So while I can fully recommend this first volume of Bob Seger's best, you really need to get this and Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 along with it.

Volcanic Lightning

This awesome photograph was taking above Iceland, where the volcanic eruptions have sent enough debris into the ait to cause lightning to flare.