Sunday, September 29, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Train "California 37"

When You Move Me, Everything Is Groovy
5 Out of 5 Stars

Proving that "Save Me San Francisco" was no fluke, Train roll on with their career's second act with "California 37." They've matured into a first class pop band, wielding hooks alongside an often bizarre sense of humor. Kind of like Maroon 5, but without the teen-idol thing going on. They're even smart enough to self-reference their surprising comeback on the opening song by giving lead singer Pat Monahan the opportunity to give both a history of his life and the evolution of Train in under four minutes, but to thank the band's fans and then do it all without the least bit of irony. "This'll Be My Year" alone would put the album at 4 stars just for compositional value alone.

However, "California 37" has plenty of other charms. There's the twisted "50 Ways to Say Goodbye," in which Monahan cuts down an ex-lover by singing "How could you leave me on Yom Kippur?" The mariachi inspired horns on "Drive By" (a great single, by the way), lift that song into a fun and unusual direction, and the title track again turns to Train's fans and thanks them for being there when the band wasn't in the spotlight.

Relationships are also put to the test, song-wise, including "You Can Finally Meet My Mom," sung as a plaintive love song with a straight face. Country singer Ashley Monroe sings along in a duet about old flames getting back together in "Bruises," made ironic by the fact that both parties are coming down from bad relationships. Train keeps making these very standard sounding pop songs that have crispy tops, so the temptation to call "Highway 37" perfect is awfully close. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. At the very least it's a 4.5 just on the unconventionality of the lyrics and the fact that I've been listening to it for over a year without getting tired of it.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Fountains of Wayne "Utopia Parkway"

Head Out On The Highway
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I'm one of the fans of Fountains of Wayne that grew into the band backwards, tricked into loving them by the fact that "Stacy's Mom" was such a ridiculous earworm that I had to have "Welcome Interstate Managers." Then I went to "Traffic and Weather," which I loved just about as much. Then it was time to go to the beginning and get albums one and two. Adam Schlesinger, Chris Collingwood and company have what almost every power pop wannanbe band in the world aspires to, and that is an uncanny ability to craft songs that sound recognizable on the first listen, even if you think it was by somebody else originally.

So why only three stars for "Utopia Parkway?" Well, despite the fact that the debut was classic almost from the first note, here FoW fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump. You know the one where you have all your life to write the first album and 8 months to come up with the second? That's what "Utopia Parkway" sounds like to me. The influences are just a bit too obvious, the jokes a little too insider, and the songs just short of flawless. They still had more hooks that the proverbial tackle box, but there are themes on "Parkway" that they'd perfect in later albums. "Denise" sounds like it was the blueprint for "Traffic and Weather's" "Someone to Love," and "The Senator's Daughter" a warm-up for "Hackensack."

The band's penchant for checking off ironic references also doesn't make it past the obvious, like mentioning 38 Special in "Red Dragon Tattoo" or a certain contempt for the denizens of "The Valley Of Malls" (even with the killer guitar lick). I think this was the only time I listened to a Fountains Of Wayne album where I didn't instantly fall in love with everything there. Be that as it may, These guys love their pop conventions more than they sneer at them, which makes even the lesser of their records treats for power pop geeks like me. Even the mellow pop groove of "Sky Full Of Holes" 12 years later confirmed at just how brilliant Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood can be even when they coast. ("Sky Full Of Holes" was one of my favorite albums for 2011, I should add.) "Utopia Parkway" was just a minor pothole in a career that has seen more than its share of genius moments.


Friday, September 27, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Josh Zuckerman "Got Love?"

Got Love If You Want It
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Philadelphia Singer/Songwriter Josh Zuckerman tries a bit more rocking for his third CD, "Got Love?" It seems to be a pretty good fit. Even more fun is that Josh also gets into the funk. Add some solid social messaging, and you've got "Got Love?".

Josh is a confident singer and he aligns his songs to his voice, making the album fit the artist. He's punchy without meriting a migraine, so the buzzing lead guitars of "I Thought You Love Me" convince you that they belong and aren't an annoyance. He even does the love ballads well, as the string saturated "Fall In Love Again" (shades of Five for Fighting here) prove.

My favorite though is the title track. Asking why anyone's love should be considered different from another's, "Got Love" lifts a bass-line from Cameo's "Word Up" and asks the always pertinent question...why isn't all love equal? It's among the best songs here, and given that he's working on a follow-up (this was released in 2009), I am eager to hear more about love from Josh Zuckerman.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: John Mellencamp "Mr. Happy Go Lucky"

Mellencamp Transitions Yet Again
3 Out Of 5 Stars

John Mellencamp has never been one to allow his muse any slack. Be the disputes he's had over his name, his image and even his sound, Mellencamp has been kicking at the prickles since he started out. For 1996's "Mr Happy Go Lucky," Mellencamp again threw a spanner into the public's expectations and hired noted dance producer Junior Vasquez to man the production booth. Purists immediately cried foul over the album's dependence on drum loops, samples and other gimmicks, but they missed the point. Mellencamp, who had just recovered from a major heart attack, was compelled more than ever to explore his music on his terms and "Mr Happy Go Lucky" succeeds more than it fails.

Even with the touches added by Vasquez, the album still depends mainly on the kind of rootsy/folkish rock Mellencamp had been coaxing out of his songs sine "Big Daddy." The big hit, "Key West Intermezzo," glides atop a shuffling groove, but has the traditional drum clap and home-baked electric piano moving things along under Mellencamp's usual gruff melodic singing. Even with a dance producer, Mellencamp sounds more like Springsteen than Madonna. In fact, the one or two times that Mellencamp seems to be letting Vasquez push him, like "This May Not Be The End Of The World," sound forced.

You'll still be getting plenty of the patented Mellencamp sounds (I count "Key West Intermezzo" among them), like "Just Another Day" and "Circling The Moon," plus his deepening love of roots rock, like "Jackamo Road" and "The Full Catastrophe." Never one to sit on his laurels or cater to anyone's expectations, John Mellencamp was still capable of bending genres and confounding expectations. "Mr Happy Go Lucky" was another one of those albums and a worthy disc out of Mellencamp's library.


My Amazon Reviews: Steve Earle "Copperhead Road"

The D.E.A.'s Got a Chopper in The Air
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Steve Earle had two well received and critically acclaimed country albums under his belt, but he had been saying all along that he didn't consider himself a country singer. Being a big lefty liberal wasn't endearing him to the staid conservatism of the Music Row establishment. With these worlds colliding, Earle went all in for his third album, 1988's "Copperhead Road." MCA Nashville and MCA Los Angeles were so befuddled by it that they resurrected the old UNI Records imprint to try and find a bridge between the two worlds. And for his part, Earle hit a park on "Copperhead Road" that took him almost a decade to recover from.

The album is, at its absolute best, a perfect ahead of its time blend of rockin' with the new country crew that Earle was initially batched in with. Rock as hard as he wanted to, but he couldn't escape that southern drawl and many of the lyrical tropes of the genre. At the same time, the guitars, drums and overall sound were closer to John Mellencamp than George Strait. The epic title song is all but a Mellencamp record with a tougher lyrical punch; a story about a moonshiner's son who comes back from Vietnam with a bag of pot plants and post traumatic stress disorder. With that kind of content, it's no wonder that the Suits in Nashville didn't know what the fox to do with him. The same with the unknown soldier who is angry about how his Grandfather came home a hero, but he's disabled, standing alone on a runway in San Diego and "there's nobody here, maybe know body knows" (in "Johnny Come Lately").

Earle could still do convincing country, like the gunslinger's lament "Devil's Right Hand" and the pedal steel ballad "Once You Love." All the same, Earle had reached a crossroads, personally and musically. "Copperhead Road" remains his commercial apex and is among his best albums, but his decline into addiction and his overall distrust of the music industry left him stranded until 1995 and "Train a'Comin'." But for the sheer raw power of a battle waged and won, Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" remains a must listen.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Judas Priest "Turbo"

Your won't hear me, but you'll fear me
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Probably the most misunderstood of the Judas Priest albums featuring frontman Rob Halford, "Turbo" was 1986 Priest trying to march to the pop metal success if the likes of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. It also started life as a double album, with half being regular Priest and the other the revised Priest. The record label nixed that idea, and this version of "Turbo" was the end result. Fans did a serious freak out when the synthesized drums and dance beat of "Turbo Lover" opened the album, and the CD soon went platinum all the same, but stalled the momentum of the band for a brief spell.

I have a secret fondness for this CD. Despite the dance leanings, I love "Turbo Lover." It's the mist successful of the album's attempts to meld the twin personalities on "Turbo." For classic Priest, Halford lets loose on the heavy "Rock You Around The World." However, you can't escape that some of the songs here seem confused and schizophonic, like "Wild Nights and Hot Crazy Days," which sounds like just about every hair metal band of the 80's. Purist Priest never sounded generic before, and this time did, as "Parental Guidance" which was just a trendy slap at the rock hating Congressional hearings of that moment.

Still, this is Judas Priest. Even at their most off kilter, they still could kick the poo out of about any other rock band. "Turbo" may be the most average album of their 80's recordings, but it took them till 1990's "Painkiller" to right them back on the metal line. Seriously, I found "Ram It Down" to be a lesser album than "Turbo," so here's to playing with expectations.


Friday, September 20, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Soft Cell "20th Century Masters Collection"

Soft selling Soft Cell
3 Out 5 Stars

David Ball and Mark Almond came from the school of synthesizer does that came of age in the 80's. That was a category that encompassed everything from the avant-garde Suicide to the easy listening of Naked Eyes. Soft Cell, on that sliding scale was closet to Suicide than any of the others, as Almond's sleazy vocal delivery and Ball's penchant for gothic keys made Soft Cell on of the darker sounding bands of the time.

As the first track on this "20th Century Masters" set, if they'd just made their cover of "Tainted Love" a hit and quit there, they'd have a spot in the history books. But they couldn't stop there. Adding camp to the creepy, they made a dance single of the hit by attaching a breathy cover of the Supremes' hit "Where Did Our Love Go?" of top of it. They may have been trolling the gutter for some of their original songs (like "Sex Dwarf" and Memorabilia"), but they also did so with a wink. It was all a fa├žade, but a really fun one. Thus, with the aforementioned songs, you get another cover attempt at a hit ("What!"), the sweet "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" which was ironic enough that David Grey did a cover if it. Or the controversial "Numbers," which was banned on the BBC for its depiction of gay hustlers.

Ball pretty much went underground when the duo split, but Almond still cuts the occasional solo disc, and they're often very good. The sound here is better than the original albums, and since all most of folks want is "Tainted Love," this is all the Soft Cell you'll likely need.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Five For Fighting "Bookmarks"

Saving Pages, Saving Graces
4 Out Of 5 Stars

John Ondrasik and his alter-ego, Five For Fighting return with the follow-up to the excellent "Slice." Utilizing his special brand of piano based pop, "Bookmarks" is another set of catchy melancholy, with John's voice riding his piano lines and breaking into an occasional beautiful falsetto. He runs down a road between Elton John (the terrific "Symphony Lane") and Ben Folds, without the snark. I also felt a lot like I was hearing "Coldplay" in the poppy "Your Man."

It's hard to believe that it's been almost 13 years since the quavering voice that sang "Superman" has matured into a singer of relationships and family values (as in, he's got kids and likes to sing about them). First single "What If" explores all those themes at once, or the opening call to strength for "Stand Up." I also found it kind of cool that John would lytic check Hank Williams' "Hey Good Looking" at the beginning of "Down." Always good to know that the man has a sense of history.

That may also be true about both the beautiful if elegiac "The Day I Died" and the Dylan-esque (yes, really) lyrics in "I Don't Want Your Love," which sounds like a direct lineage to "Make You Feel My Love." "The Day I Died" is positively gorgeous, with just John and his piano singing a torch song. Despite my enjoying all the pop conventions and confections on "Bookmarks" (or the whole of Five For Fighting's albums), I think this may be the crowning song of a career. Again, reaching back to Elton John's best work, it's an emotionally packed song that needs nothing else than John's piano and voice. It's the kind of naked honestly that singers who feel they must rely on over-production or of-the-moment sounds could take a lesson or two from.

It brings "Bookmarks" to a moving and satisfying conclusion. While early listening make me think "Slice" may have been the better album, "The Day I Died" is all the reason you'll need to listen to "Bookmarks."