Wednesday, May 22, 2013

One of the Great 70's Live Albums
4 Out Of 5 Stars

During the great live album glut of the 70's, it seemed every band had a double live set in their back pocket. Thanks to Peter Frampton and Kiss proving that not only could you break a not quite successful band to commercial success, but you could sell these records in tonnage, everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Tubes were putting their act on disc for all the world to listen to. For the really good ones, it could help define the band. "Live and Dangerous" did just that for Thin Lizzy.

Having broken in the states thanks to "Jailbreak," there was a lot of talk that Lizzy's studio work just didn't measure up to the band's, and especially the late, charismatic frontman Phil Lynott's stage presence. Recorded in London (1976) and Toronto (1977) for the tours supporting "Johnny The Fox" and "Bad Reputation" respectively (and like many other 70's live acts, heavily touched up in the studio), the band was at their creative peak. That means you get stunning versions of "Jailbreak" and "Don't Believe a Word," you also get songs like Bob Seger's "Rosalie" and some should have been hits like "Dancing In The Moonlight" and the lighter "Still In Love With You," where Lynott's presence shines through.

This was also the prime Lizzy lineup: Lynott, Brian Downey, Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham. Thin Lizzy knocks these songs out with the kind of energy fanatics knew was missing from the regular albums. The twin guitars are set for stun, and Lynott's underrated bass playing pins it all together. Interband troubles would start after this release in 1978, so this marks the close of a chapter in the band's history, covering many of the major songs from the band's catalog. If all you know of Thin Lizzy is "The Boys Are Back In Town," then "Live and Dangerous" is a great introduction to a great rock band whose career was ultimately cut short too soon.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: The Flaming Lips "The Terror"

In our hearts there is evil that wants out
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Engrossing. That's one of the few ways I can describe The Flaming Lips' psychedelic downer of "The Terror." Weaving synthesizers and electronic sounds back and forth into a soundscape that will not let you escape its trauma, this is an album that has an equal only in the likes of Pink Floyd or Radiohead's "Kid A." But where Radiohead broke their minimalism into separate songs, "The Terror" plays all the way through like a whole piece, and a black hole of a piece it is.

It's hard to believe the Flaming Lips have been around for almost 30 years and are still capable of surprising their devout audience. The fuzzy fun of "At War With The Mystics" or the space opera of "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots" were adventures that were often punctuated with oddball pop, but you'll find nothing like that on "The Terror." "Love is always something, something you should fear" is one of the first lines on the album, and things get even more despairing from there. Pain and unhappiness are the major themes of this bleak album, with death and anger at almost every corner.

Yet, despite that anger, the music never rises beyond anything but a meandering riff here and there (like on the ear snagging "You Lust") and lead Lip Wayne Coyne's falsetto repeating hypnotically sad choruses like "you're not alone, you are alone." "The Terror" is not an album for the seriously depressed, or someone looking for the dizzy bliss you'll find on other Flaming Lips CD's. It's a great headphone album, because of all the mixed texturing, but that only draws out the overall unhappiness of hearing a disembodied voice telling you "you will see how long it takes to die." Bordering on a masterpiece. "The Terror" is a depressant that, once you listen to it, you'll have a hard time escaping.


Monday, May 20, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Stardog Champion "Exhale EP"

There's a Stardog waiting in the sky
3 Out Of 5 Stars

When hard rockers Breaking Benjamin went through a very ugly breakup and set guitarist Aaron Fink and bassist Mark James loose, they hooked back up with old bandmate and vocalist Nick Coyle (who served time with Fink and James in a band called Lifer - one album in 2000) from the critically acclaimed Drama Club, then found drummer Josh Karis. Laying low during the legal wrangling that was Breaking Benjamin's crash, the foursome started wood-shedding on new material. Taking their name from a Mother Love Bone song, they finally surface with this self released EP. "Exhale."

The album starts of promisingly enough with "Aphrodite," which plays to the band's strengths. I've always thought Fink to be an underrated guitarist who can create the heavy riffs but can also deliver atmosphere. Turns out Coyle is a pretty enthusiastic singer. There's also a very strong single contender with "When We Fall." Producer Grammy-nominated Neal Avron understands this kind of polished thump, and Stardog Champion follow through with the kind of high polished radio ready rock that would fit nicely on current AOR radio, especially anyone would take a shot at "When We Fall."

Unfortunately though, something is missing to my ears. Stardog Champion are certainly above the regular competence of plenty of bands mining this genre at the moment, but they seems to lack a certain sizzle that made Breaking Benjamin stand out over the crowd. I'm not sure if Stardog Champion needs to take themselves out on the road to gain that grittier feel, but the songs here come off as too polished, too eager to please. There's enough promise on "Exhale" to make me want to see where they go next, I just guess that I'll have to see where they head to as they continue onward.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Judas Priest "The Chosen Few"

Cool Idea, OK Compilation
3 Out Of 5 Stars

This compilation of 17 Judas Priest songs is probably more interesting for its liner notes than the music. Which is pretty amazing, since Judas Priest are one of the top metal groups of all time. However, what sets "The Chosen Few" apart from most collections is the concept. Other hard rockers were invited to select a favorite Priest song and then contribute a brief word or two about why this song, above all the others Judas Priest have recorded, was the choice cut among the hundreds Priest have released.

It makes for some interesting insights. Who would think that David Coverdale of 80's hair band and Randy Blythe of thrash metal band Lamb of God would have something in common? Well, it seems they both have an affinity for Priest's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Green Manalishi With The Two Pronged Crown." Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper both favor "Living After Midnight." Or who would have thought that one of the more maligned Priest albums, "Turbo," would find a champion in Korn's Jonathan Davis, who liked it because of the synths, not despite them.

Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard and others pull out their fandom hats and pitch in. It makes for some fun reading, as the participants are about as agog at the idea of contributing to a Judas Priest compilation as the rest of us mere mortals. It also helps that some otherwise passed-over songs, like "Dissident Aggressor," "Beyond The Realms of Death" or "Turbo Lover" make the cut. If you're already a fan of Rob Halford's operatic metal yowls or the twin guitar leads that characterize any great Priest selection, then this CD will probably be unnecessary, a collectable at best. However, if you're a newbie into this legendary band's decades long discography, "The Chosen Few" makes for an interesting gateway drug.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: 10cc "The Original Soundtrack"

A True Original
5 Out Of 5 Stars

10cc, prior to "The Original Soundtrack," were something of a novelty act. They came up with arty songs with humorous twists, like "Donna," "The Dean and I," and (their biggest US single before this album) "Rubber Bullets." The album before "Soundtrack," "Sheet Music," hinted that the band had some great things potentially in store with songs like "Clockwork Creep" and "Old Wild Men." It was also beginning to show that Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme were becoming formidable songwriters.

"The Original Soundtrack" blew all their previous efforts out of the water. Opening with a cinematic suite titled "Une Nuit In Paris," it was eight minutes of mini-opera complete with Gendarmes and ladies of the evening. It took all the smart-arse confections of the past and turned it into artiness, a couple years before Queen would do roughly the same thing with "Bohemian Rhapsody." Then came knockout punch number two, "I'm Not In Love." Richly multi-tracked vocals buoy the lamenting singer's defense of a break-up, all while being utterly unconvincing about his non-nonchalance. It was simple but extremely effective, and hit number 2 on the US Pop Charts.

Nothing else here matches the brilliance of those opening tracks, but 10cc sure did try. The satirical quirks return on "Blackmail" and "Life is a Minestrone," while "The Film of My Love" ended the album with another nod to the cinema. The topical "Second Sitting For The Last Supper" is notable for its questioning of religion ("2,000 years and he ain't come yet, we've kept his seat warm and a table set...") These were salad days for 10cc, as the band worked in two halves. Gouldman and Stewart were more conventional, Godley and Creme the artier. While it all worked on this album and the follow-up ("How Dare You"), upcoming frictions would make 10cc's albums lesser efforts. "The Original Soundtrack" was the highpoint.


Monday, May 13, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Iron And Wine "Ghost On Ghost"

Spirits in The Material World
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Sam Beam must be a very restless person. With each album, he presses himself towards new musical idioms, sometimes working, sometimes not. On "Ghost on Ghost," his sixth album, he decides he wants to be in the same jazzy realm as a Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, infusing the songs with horns, piano and blues. This is one of those times where it doesn't work.

Beam, as Iron and Wine, has one of the most pleasing voices in popular music. He rarely lifted himself above a whisper on classic folk albums like "The Shepherd's Dog" and "Our Endless Numbered Days," so I was surprised the first time I saw him live; he sang with a full throated tenor. He leapt to that level of singing on "Kiss Each Other Clean," an album whose sonic excursions reminded me of Lindsey Buckingham at his weirdest. "Ghost on Ghost" pulls in the reigns on that experimental project and returns to the musical. But where "Kiss" was produced in extremes, "Ghost" is over produced in a poppy-lite fashion.

Beam writes songs that are strong on melody and often strong on message. He can deliver a story-song like few men working in today's music scene. Nowhere is this more evident than "Ghost's" "Winter Prayers." Unencumbered by the dense production of much of the album, it's Beam, guitar and piano with some light percussion. It delivers its message without hindrance from the bulk of the album's near easy listening style. I still love Iron and Wine, however, I never expected Sam Beam to deliver an album so extraordinarily average. "Ghost on Ghost" is a disappointment in an otherwise stellar discography.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: The Ocean Blue "Ultramarine"

Waves Crashing
4 Out Of 5 Stars

After hiding out for nearly a decade, The Ocean Blue make a confident comeback on "Ultramarine." As impressionistic and dreamy as ever, they make the kind of lush new wave pop that carries its weight on memorable melodies. Given that the band debuted their first album just months after the members graduated high school, it says a lot that the only real change in the band's sound is that lead singer David Schelzel's voice has matured and deepened a little, and he's a much stronger singer than the teenager who first trotted out songs like "Ballerina Out Of Control" way back in the 80's. Heck, he even sounds a little like Paul Simon on "New York 6AM."

Don't expect that to mean "Ultramarine" will have a cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." There are still more references to The Smiths and Echo and The Bunnymen (or at their most artsy, Cocteau Twins). Schelzel favors jangle guitars wafting over airy synthesizers while casting about his poetic lyrics. It's just that he's become better at them. "Ultramarine" is actually a better album than "See" and maybe even on a par with "Cerulean." The band seems to know, and revel in the past as they sing "drifting, fall again, but it's different this time" at the beginning of "Latin Blues." Or when they play a little with more sounds of the moment on "A Rose is a Rose."

Given that The Ocean Blue never received much commercial success outside a fanatical cult (only the debut made the Billboard album charts at a measly #155), "Ultramarine" will likely have limited appeal outside that group of devotees. However, this Hershey Pennsylvania combo have proven that you can take your obscurity and make something positive out of it. For a fan like me (only the CD "See" has ever escaped my CD collection), it's heartening to hear what still sounds like a band in their prime, with further glories possibly to arrive.