Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Michael Jackson "Bad 25"

When he's Bad, he's very, very Bad
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Michael Jackson had the inevitable and unenviable task come 1987 of releasing a follow-up to not just one of the biggest selling albums of all time, but one of the most beloved, "Thriller." "Bad" is the result, and it couldn't help but pale in comparison. That's not to say the album lacks for terrific material, in fact, punch for punch, it is very nearly "Thriller's" equal, and it certainly is better than "Off The Wall." It once again racked up multiple chart hits, with five singles hitting number one from '87 to '89. Thanks to Quincy Jones, the production is immaculate, and between Jones and Jackson, the songs not written by Jackson were cherry picked to magnify Jackson's strengths.

"Bad" also was formulaic in its pursuit of Thrillermania. The big dance number is the title track. The bad girl of "Billie Jean" is replaced by "Dirty Diana." That's also where the star rock guitar solo comes from, with Billy Idol's Steve Stevens takes the place of Eddie VanHalen. The superstar duet came from Stevie Wonder instead of Paul McCartney, on "Just Good Friends." And the happy-time dance song was "The Way You Make Me Feel" in the same vein as "Pretty Young Thing." While Jackson hinted at his personal paranoia on "Billie Jean," this time it comes out fully formed as "Leave Me Alone" (which was not on the original album but basically is considered part of it after it was released as a video).

But everyone from the 80's already knows that. The man reason to bother picking up the 25th Anniversary of "Bad" is the second disc of bonus tracks. Three of them were on an earlier reissue, "Streetwalker," "Fly Away" and a Spanish version of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." Now we get the later in French, plus six previously unreleased demos. I'm no fan of modernized remixes, so I'll refrain from commenting on the likes of Pitbull hanging out on "Bad." Of the new tracks, the Latin feel of "Don't Be Messing Around" is the most intriguing, and shows what a perfectionist Jackson was. It sounds like a finished song, yet Micheal gave it a pass and never went back to it for future CD's. "Song Groove (Abortion Papers)" would have been controversial on many levels, yet it has a wicked groove. "Price of Fame" is another complaint about fame and even references "Billie Jean," and "Al Capone" milks the "Wanna Be Something" groove needlessly. Both are no big deal.

Bottom line, if you bought the 2001 reissue, there's not much of a reason to go after "Bad25."


Monday, August 26, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: John Mellencamp "No Better Than This"

No Better, Really
2 Out Of 5 Stars

Back in 2008, I gave John Mellencamp's "Life Death Love and Freedom" a four star rating. He mixed up his styles enough to keep the disc from becoming flat, and added a few hopeful songs like "My Sweet Love." A few years later and that hope is sucked clean out of "No Better Than This." Recorded in mono at several classic locations (mainly Sun Studios in Memphis), Mellencamp is going for a starker sound than before, even more bare bones that "Life Death" or his madly underrated "Big Daddy." It's just that, as spartan as the CD is, the songs aren't all that memorable or inspiring. He may want to be a classical folkie, but it just isn't there. You can record in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936, but that doesn't mean you've been to the crossroads.

The idea of the CD is interesting enough; Mellencamp recorded "No Better Than This" while touring with one microphone, directly onto a vintage Ampex 601 tape recorder, no remixing or overdubs. It does give the album a sense of immediacy, but not warmth. Just because you're making an album the way Johnny Cash or the rest of the Sun studio cats, he's still Mellencamp. Some of the songs are vintage lyrical Mellencamp, like "No One Cares About Me," the closing "Clumsy Ol' World" and the bar brawl that he narrates in "Easter Eve." It's just me, but I really yearned to hear Mellencamp do "Clumsy Ol' World" and maybe "Save Some Time For Me" with a full band and in a modern setting.

As it is, "No Better Than This" can't elevate itself to more than a curiosity in Mellencamp's storied discography, and you have to hand it to the man, he's long ago decided he's going to follow his muse to any place it leads him. Having pretty much given up on rock and roll, "No Better Than This" will likely only please die-hard Mellencamp followers, extreme folkies, or lovers of what T-Bone Burnette does to artists when he turns his producer's cap towards stripping his subjects musically naked.


My Amazon Reviews: Iain Matthews "Pure and Crooked"

In a voice both pure and crooked
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Ian Matthews got a surge of creativity after the success of his Jules Shear tribute album Walking a Changing Line. Shortly after, this album of mostly new folkish material was released, and it is, in my estimation, one of his best solo albums. "Pure and Crooked" (which happens to be a line from one of Shears' songs on the prior album) is a richer sounding set that WaCL, in as much as the instrumentation no longer favors the keyboards that dominated. "Dominoes" kicks the CD off with a poppy number, something also missing beforehand.

He also sounds deeply entwined to the material, be it the nostalgic mourning of "Busby's Babes," the snarling lyric of "New Shirt" or even a terrific cover of Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." I even thought he outdid Gabriel's original. Given that Matthews was usually heavy on outside songwriting in the past, it makes the eight self-penned numbers here all the more exciting. This is great stuff, lost when the Gold Castle label went out of business. While Amazon only offers downloads at this page, used CD copies are going cheap. I can recommend putting "Pure and Crooked" in your library.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Jethro Tull "Songs From The Wood"

Roots Rocking of a Different Kind
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Ian Anderson always had a minstrel's soul, yet in all of Jethro Tull's discography, it wasn't laid bare until "Songs From The Wood." Martin Barre's electric guitar is turned off or down with the exception of one song, while Anderson conducts the ceremonies with his ever present lilting flute and eclectic lyrics.

"Let me bring you songs from the wood,
to make you feel much better than you could know."

Calling listeners into a quite countryside with this a Capella couplet, and then sing wistfully about getting back to the countryside. Come with them and visit such characters as "Jack In The Green," they cheerfully beckon. Follow "The Whistler," who might was well be Anderson himself, as he plays his fife while strolling through the fields. Join in the sense of medieval England, with songs that are as far away from the proggy world of "Thick as a Brick" or the rocking semi-autobiographical "Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die!" as possible. The band sounds looser and less yoked in than they have since the earlier albums sported their side-long spunky epics.

The one time that the electric guitar rings out is on "Pibroch (Cap In Hand)," which begins and ends with Barre's echo-laden guitars before Anderson assumes control with his flute. It's also "Songs From the Wood's" longest song and most reminiscent of past work, slipping in and out of folk, jazzy passages and the rock of Barre and Anderson's dueling solos. It's a little out of place, but hardly a misstep. That honor goes to "Ring Out Solstice Bells," which stumbles over its lightweight lyrics. Oddly enough, this song became an unlikely hit in the UK.

Those songs not withstanding, "Songs From The Wood" is a delightful mix of fields and forest, and one of Tull's most enjoyable albums. They must have thought so as well, as the follow-up "Heavy Horses" and much of "Storm Watch" would stay on the same pathway.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Five For Fighting "Two Lights"

What's a Flag to a Pawn Shop
4 Out Of 5 Stars

When John Ondrasik embarked on the fourth album as Five For Fighting, he made his most obvious move into piano soft pop to that date. "Two Lights" follows in the path of Billy Joel and Elton John. and ay his quirkiest, Ben Folds. It's also the first album he recorded after the birth of his son. So gone are the rocking instincts and in come the falsetto-ed songs to fatherhood. The top 40 single, "The Riddle," epitomizes these emotions, as he imagines his son growing up with the questions every parent must answer, backed with string and John's ever-so-sincere singing.

Not that any of this should surprise previous followers of Five For Fighting. He's been getting mellower and mellower as each album passes, and "Two Lights" is a continuation of that path. What makes his albums consistently is how much of an ear for earnestness and production he's got. Strings swell at just the perfect moment, and there's still plenty of populist lyrics like the kind that made him a star with "Superman" in 2001. It's all very sweet, with the occasional tip of the hat to Americana.

That lineage is explored by the lead track, "Freedom Never Cries." Using the metaphoric imagery that starts with taking a flag to a pawnshop, John tracks that flag's path along the road where "I only talk to God when somebody's about to die" before ultimately hoping for a world of peace for his newborn and the thought that he "never loved a soldier until there was a war." It's a moving (if obvious pull at the heartstrings) song, and among his best. Yet he doesn't forget about the not so distant past, as he longingly recalls his "65 Mustang." The only time this point of view falls flat in "Johnny America," which overworks its premise.

Then there's "Policeman's Xmas Party," a total fiasco. Since John signs mostly in a high register, here he intentionally sings above his range and phrases the song in a grating way. If there was any song that cleaves to the Ben Folds analogy, this is one of them. Too clever and overtly annoying, it makes one wonder why it made the final cut. Better, however, is "California Justice," a road trip gone wrong. The combinations on "Two Lights" don't always work, but John is a strong enough singer/songwriter to skate above the lesser of the numbers here (except "Policeman's Party"). making "Two Lights" land in the middling area of Five For Fighting's discography.


My Amazon Reviews: Drake Jensen "Outlaw"

The Return of Outlaw Country
5 Out Of 5 Stars

"Every cowboy's got a story and a secret he's learned to hide/Maybe he's tough in chaps and leather with a different kind of pride."

So says Canadian Cowboy Drake Jensen on his second full length studio album, "Outlaw." Comprised of 11 songs, including three of which Drake wrote or co-wrote, "Outlaw" reminds me alot of the the new country acts I was writing about and giving radio play to in the early 90's, before the "kids in cowboy hats" phenomenon kicked in. Drake has a full, rich voice that is often reminiscent of Randy Travis or George Strait, and his band plays full-bore modern country. Touching on topics from good lovin', fine livin' and not backing down from a challenge.

Nowhere on "Outlaw" is that fight more plaintive than its emotional centerpiece, "Scars." Drake has said in interviews that the abuse he suffered as a school student was so severe that he dropped out by 8th grade. He channels every bit of emotion he's got into this powerful song, and its corresponding video will throw you for a loop. Too many country singers are afraid of anything remotely controversial, but Drake walks into the fray till he's boot deep in it. In my opinion, the best message song of the past several years.

Even with something that serious to tent-pole the CD, Drake is not afraid of some good timing. "Fast Enough For Me" (one of the songs Drake shares writing credit on) requests that love takes its easy to be certain, but having a good time along the way is just fine. Then there's my other favorite on the CD, "Midnight Forest Cricket Chorus." It had me by the title alone, but then contemplates how a peaceful night where getting away from the noise and flashing neon could be one of life's sweetest experiences.

There's plenty to love on "Outlaw," from the wish to slow the world down in "I Don't Want To Know" to the strong "When It Hurts Like That," which kicks the album off with confidence. Drake Jensen may still be flying under the radar at the moment, however, that's no reason he should be off of yours.



Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Blue Oyster Cult "Fire Of Unknown Origin"

Death Comes Driving Down The Highway: RIP Allen Lanier: 1946-2013
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Today, I heard that Allen Lanier died. It kind of hit hard as Blue Oyster Cult were one of my gateway bands into hard rock and heavy metal. Having an Aunt who gave me Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath albums helped, too. But BOC, they were pushing buttons with songs like "Dominance and Submission" and "Don't Fear The Reaper." So I became a fan. Loyal even through the albums like "Mirrors" and "Cultosaurus Erectus." Then, in the summer of 1981, "Fire Of Unknown Origin" arrived at my college radio station. All the detractors could then officially go to hell. "Fire Of Unknown Origin" kicked as hard as "Spectres" and "Agents of Fortune." And oddly enough, this may have been one of Lanier's finest moments with the band, as many of these songs are heavily keyboard and synth driven.

Take the lead-off of the title track. On top of one of Buck Dharma's fiery lead guitar solos, Lanier lays down a keyboard bed that was worthy of The Cars. This was, after all, 1981 and plenty of bands were playing catch up with the music of the times. But Blue Oyster Cult did so on a minimal level, relying mostly on Lanier's keys and tighter song compositions. It was those qualities that made "Burning For You," the second of only two singles to ever break the Top 40 for the band, such a marvel. Tightly wound up with a great Dharma lick to open it up, it was set up as a standard pop construction but with bigger sound.

There was an additional incentive for the band on "Fire Of Unknown Origin." They were approached by the producers of the upcoming "Heavy Metal" animated feature to contribute a couple of new songs. They responded with one of the band's best, "Veteran Of The Psychic Wars." A pounding martial drum gives marching orders to a soldier who has seen so many battles that "wounds are all I'm made of." It's a haunting and inescapable rocker, one of several compositions that band co-wrote with science fiction author Michael Moorecock (including another favorite of mine, "Black Blade" from "Cultosaurus"). The other was "Heavy Metal (The Black and The Silver)." Riding in on a squalling guitar feedback, it's a shame it wasn't in the movie, as it encompasses what the band was about from the beginning. (Although in my humble opinion, "Psychic Wars" is the better song.)

There's still more ominous story telling, like on "Vengeance (The Pact)," again a candidate for "Heavy Metal," or in the bizarrely funny and again, piano heavy "Joan Crawford" (...has risen from the grave!). "Fire of Unknown Origin" was a mighty comeback album, which was a shame as the band would start to fragment soon after, and the next album would be the generic "Revolution By Night."

RIP Allen Lanier: 1946-2013. Thanks for adding so much music to the soundtrack of my life.