Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Starz "Starz"

You say You Want Action?
4 Out Of 5 Stars

The 1976 debut album from Starz is one of those great bands that somehow came inside of inches before missing the great brass ring, even though this and the follow-up album, "Violation," were as good as or better than the bulk of hard rock in the period. And having recently noted the passing of seventies Hard Rock Guru/Manager extraordinaire Bill Aucoin, it's also worth mentioning that he and his partner/lover Sean Delaney were the ones who discovered and nurtured Starz (then The Fallen Angels).

They pulled in production legend Jack Douglas and the band set about recording the kind of album they wanted to play along with Aerosmith's "Get Your Wings." They had a pair of hard-riffing guitarists (Richie Ranno and Brendan Harken) a Charismatic lead singer in Michael Lee Smith, a mad-cap mustachioed drummer in Joe X Dube and a solid bassist in Pete Sweval. They already had honed their live act to a point where they were the object of a bidding war, so when it was time to lay the tracks down, the only difference between the album and the demos here as bonus tracks is more weight to the sound and some judicious editing.

Arena ready rockers like "Boys In Action," "Detroit Girls" and "Live Wire" still sound as catchy now as in 1976, and their first attempt at a hit with "She's Just a Fallen Angel" was their attempt at a "Dream On" ballad. "Pull The Plug" was a faux-controversy-bait song that fantasized what Micheal Lee Smith would do if he was Karen Ann Quinlan's boyfriend. (Which got the predicted response from rock haters and defenders of decency everywhere; more press for the group.)

And like so many bands from that stable, they sported a killer logo. Rumor even has it that Kiss pressured Aucion to not sign Starz to Casablanca because they were worried about the competition (and causing a rift between Kiss, Casablanca and Aucoin, but made Ranno and Gene Simmons into admirers of each other - Ranno is on Simmons' solo album). "Starz" is a minor gem of 70's hard rock that, if you have admiration for any of the parties mentioned in this review, should make you happy.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Motion City Soundtrack "Go"

Go Get Some Motion City Soundtrack
4 Out Of 5 Stars

I loved "My Dinosaur Life" by Motion City Soundtrack a few years back, enough to automatically grab "Go" the week of its release. MCS are one of a vanishing type of bands (with the demise of Panic at The Disco and Fall Out Boy) making highly melodic but energetic punky-pop with wit and verve. But "Go" finds the band in a sudden shift towards maturity. It's a move that suits the band well.

"Go" kicks off as you would expect, with a hyper and literary "Circuits and Wires" that complains about singer Justin Pierre's faulty brain and a temper addled tongue. It's properly cheeky and hooky, as is the obvious single and following song, "True Romance." But then you start to notice something; the guitars are more acoustic than electric and the pulse isn't as frantic. In fact, "Go" sounds downright adult. There's nothing here as snotty as "@!#?@!" from "My Dinosaur Life" and, in one case, the strings swell up and you might even get choked up.

"Everyone Will Die" strums a sad lyric that is also the CD's shortest song. "The cycle of intense retrospection before the curtain call...who you going to love in the meantime before it catches you?" pleads Justin just as the strings swell. It's as big a surprise and stunner as when Green Day recorded "Good Riddance/Time of Your Life." Even more pointed (but not as shocking in sounds) is "Timelines," where the band produces what could easily be a fan fave as they rattle off life events like

"Catholic school, my private hell
I stuttered till the age of 12
Discovered sex at 17
And soon thereafter, self-esteem,"

Which renders almost everything else on "Go" irrelevant. Motion City Soundtrack are a band that has been making remarkably constantly good albums for a long time, and this may be one of their best yet. After several weeks of listens, it continues to grow on me. Always a good sign.


Monday, August 27, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Soundtrack "The Hunger Games"

Songs to Kill People By 
4 Out Of 5 Stars

300 Years in the future and folk music is still high lonesome depression. Guess "The Hunger Games" thinks that - other than watching kids kill each other for sport - we won't be changing all that much. These songs (mostly inspired by the film/book as opposed to being featured in said film), stick mainly to acoustic guitars and the sad laments of the participants. I find it funny in the odd way that kids usually pounding their way to hip-hop and punk rock will be lapping up country waltzes ("Tomorrow Will be Kinder" by Secret Sisters) and Appalachian cries like The Carolina Chocolate Drops doing "Daughter's Lament."

T-Bone Burnette, as executive producer, allows for few curve balls. Kid Cudi gives the disc its heaviest and most ominous song with "The Ruler and The Killer," which sounds more like the oppressive state that would find a real life version of "The Hunger Games" to be a day's TV dinner. Adam Levine is pulled away from his comfort zone, as Maroon 5 pick up a mandolin and ditch the synths for "Come Away To The Water." Taylor Swift sounds all grown up as she teams with the Civil Wars for "Safe and Sound" then The CW gets their own chance to shine with "Kingdom Come" ("Don't cry my dear, it will all be over soon").

The Alt-Rock crowd gets two dollops from Arcade Fire and The Decemberists. AF pounds out a militaristic drum tattoo on the threatening lullabye "Abraham's Daughter," while Colin Meloy keeps the Decemberists in REM territory for "One Engine." It also happens to be the most propulsive song on the disc, so maybe life in District 12 won't be so sad after all. It used to be that you couldn't turn on the radio without being pummeled by songs from a film, be they good or bad. Since that has changed and the deluge slowed, good soundtracks are harder to come by. "The Hunger Games" is one of the better one and hits more than it doesn't.


Friday, August 24, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: The Nylons "Play On"

Play on, Sing on.
4 Out Of 5 Stars
The Nylons released "Play On" in 2002, but it didn't see an American release for quite some time. Like so many of their excellent albums, they blend pop and R'n'B into seamless harmonies with the accompaniment of a few rhythm machines and little else. They've been at this game since the mid-80's, and are one of the rare a Capella bands to even score a hit single. So they don't do much to alter the fun. "Play On" will please their long time fans and maybe lure a few newbies.

Claude Morrison is the sole original member (I had the joy of interviewing him in 1997 for the "Run For Cover" album), and long time member Garth Mosbaugh is coming into his own as a writer. Among the terrific covers are three of his originals, including the title song. But they really excel at turning contemporary songs and oldies into Nylons songs. Paul Simon and The Police get a regal working over, with Simon's "Late In The Evening" capturing the song's intent maybe better than Paul himself did. They roll Roberta Flack's chestnut "Feel Like Making Love" into a finger snapping tribute...and then sing "Good Enough" to nothing but the sounds of popping fingers.

In addition, there's very good makeovers of Kenny Loggins' "This Is It," James Taylor's "Only One" and more. The voices mix in such perfection that it's hard to pick out a standout soloist, and the same with the songs. Although if forced, I'd go for "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and "Late In the Evening." After all these years, The Nylons have worn well. You can also now check out their jazzy "Skin Tight" from 2011.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life Continues to Suck

Things are not going well here. Despite a promising series of interviews (two in person and one phone), I missed getting a job that I was well qualified for. So much for those lucky does in their parking lot.

My unemployment has run out, and I have had to turn to food assistance. I am doing a part time job at the Granite Run Mall's FYE Record store, but it only comes to 10 or less hours a week. I am getting very depressed.

My Amazon Reviews: Donna Summer "Gold"

The Best of the Available Donna Summer Collections
4 Out Of 5 Stars

The passing of Donna Summer has given her work a much needed critical review, with mention now of finally inducting her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after many years of snubs. This double CD "Gold" collection is a great overview of her multifaceted and multiple label career, hitting time with all three major labels as well as additional latter singles. The glory days of Casablanca take up all if disc one, the her resurgence on Geffen and comeback on Mercury, finalized by the surprising return to the top ten on Atlantic.

Granted, her pairing with Georgio Morodor gave her that first taste of success with the orgasmo-"Love To Love You Baby," but you can also see that she was on Casablanca's hit-making treadmill for the first few songs. Summer was blessed with a choirgirl voice, which makes the mediocrity of "Could This Be The Magic" or "Love's Unkind" bearable, yet it was when both Summer and Morodor made a quantum leap in style that the duo hit stride. Morodor's electronic pulse and Summer's coo made "I Feel Love" a song that was decades ahead of the curve, and from that point on, the hits kept coming.

Summer and Morodor tweaked the conventions of disco in ways that made Summer's diva-tendencies sparkle, like the ballad-intro to the dynamic "Last Dance," or the inventive recasting of McArthur Park" into a plaintive dance-floor wail. They were also among the first to fuse rock to their thumpes, with Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers Jeff Baxter laying down that burning solo that made "Bad Girls/Hit Stuff" irresistible. And how could anyone fight off the dynamic pairing of Summer and the other reigning 70's diva, Barbara Streisand on "No More Tears"?

However, this was about the time Casablanca collapsed under it's own weight, and Summer became one of the first artists to sign with the fledgling Geffen label (whose company at the time included John Lennon and Elton John). Disco was in its death throes, and Summer knew it. Disc Two begins with a turn towards danceable pop. It also marked a cold spell for Summer, as only "The Wanderer" and "Love Is In Control" made the top ten after a string of continuous big hits. Some of the material holds up quite well, like her version of "State of Independence" and the Quincy Jones helmed material. Still, things looked like Summer was going to fade like so many of the other 70's disco mavens.

However, Mercury Records claimed that a contract dispute following the collapse of Casablanca meant they were owed an album. Rather than phone in a quickie, Summer responded by turning in "She Works Hard For the Money," driving her back to the dance-floors and into the top ten once again. The follow-up single with one-hit Wonders Musical Youth ("Unconditional Love") is also a winner. Momentum back in her corner, she made another run at Adult Contemporary pop with Geffen that gave a great single (written by Brenda Russell) "Dinner With Gershwin" and a fine version of "There Goes My Baby." But it looked like diminishing returns were coming back to haunt her.

That is, until the pop production powerhouse of Stock Aitken Waterman convinced Summer to hook up. Having established a sound with hits by Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley, SAW set Summer up with "This Time I Know It's For Real," and lightning hit one more time. The titular album and the follow-up, "Mistaken Identity" are criminally out of print, as are the Geffen sets, which makes the second disc the best place to get some under appreciated songs. of the rest, "Carry On" is a deliciously retro-reteam with Morodor, while "You're So Beautiful" has a deep vibe to it. There's also "Dream-Alot's theme" recorded specially for "The Journey" but missing is "The Power Of One" from Pokemon. All around, though, this is as good as it will get until the inevitable reissue of the OOP albums with bonus tracks and remastering takes place.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Tommy Keene "Tommy Keene You Hear Me? A Retrospective"

Hearing is Believing 
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Tommy Keene is a power pop prince who so many folks have never heard of. Based out of DC, he spent two heavily hyped albums on the Geffen label, before taking his show to the indies, and this double disc, 41 song retrospective spans a quarter century of ace song-writing, killer vocals and jangling guitars that would make Dwight Twilley proud. While those two records for Geffen (Songs from The Film and Based on Happy Times) are widely considered power pop masterpieces, they only make up a fraction of this set. As per usual with brilliant failures, the Geffen stuff is long out of print and even the later albums are tough to locate without digging. That makes "Tommy Keene You Hear Me" as close to a must have collection as you're going to get from Keene. That even despite the doofy title.

Title or not, there's a power popper's knack for jangle-hooks, a rocker's passion for forceful playing, and the man is an ace guitarist and songwriter. You'll catch hints of The Replacements ("Back to Zero Now"), Cheap Trick ("Nothing Can Change You") and the ever memorable kings of American Power Pop, The Raspberries ("Places That Are Gone"). As eclectic as that is, nothing compares to the man's cover of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons," is which he pulls a rocking melody line out of Reed's NYC nihilism. He goes one step further with his own love letter to NYC, the acoustic kicker "Black and White New York." His recorded work has always been of a high level, which means that even his lesser albums always carried some kickers. They're all here.

My sole gripe is that the liner notes could be a bit more oriented towards discography information, but this album is laid out chronologically. That also means that disc one (Which leans heaviest on the original three albums and EP's) would be a five star record on it's own, with participation from the likes of Jules Shear and Peter Buck. "Tommy Keene You Hear Me" is a super strong set all together, and fans of power pop should get in line. As most of Keene's albums are OOP, you never know how long this CD will stay available.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Ed Sheeran "+"

Debut Of The Year
5 Out Of 5 Stars

I have not been this affected by a debut CD since I first heard Tracy Chapman's back in 1988. Like Chapman, Ed Sheeran takes the conventions of folk-music and the singer-songwriter genre and upends them for his own personal style. It's hard to pigeonhole "+" into any singular category, as this man is influenced by everyone from the Everly Brothers to Elton John to Eminem. I type that line without any irony whatsoever; it makes Ed's first full-length major label album both unclassifiable and unforgettable.

Like Chapman, he also has the knack for writing songs that suckerpunch you like "Small Bump" does, or in the way he machine-guns his way through his cult-hit "You Need Me, I Don't Need You." More often than not, he stays to the thoughtful singer-songwriter traditions of "The A Team" and "This," yet it is mashing of styles on the likes of "Lego House" or "U.N.I." (You And I) that makes him so fascinating. "+" is an intriguing and exceptional calling card by an artist to watch. (PS. Ed was the vocalist the closing night of the Olympics performing Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here").