Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Eagles "On The Border"

Eagles Rock
4 Out Of 5 Stars

In the documentary, "History Of The Eagles," band members repeatedly griped that their first two albums, produced by Brit Glyn Johns, were being held back from the band's desire to rock. That lead to the ditching of Johns after two songs for "On The Border," and bringing in Joe Walsh's producer, Bill Szymczyk for the rest. Then came the real magic touch when the band gained Don Felder as an additional guitarist. The chemistry clicked and "On The Border" became Eagles' first album to convincingly rock.

When I say that, I believe that the band may have wanted to think of themselves as rockers, but up to "On The Border," had yet to write a convincing rock song. Say what you want about Glyn Johns, but "Chug All Night" and "Out Of Control" from the first two albums were songs so generic that any bar band in America could've written them. "James Dean" (written by Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey, Don Henley and J.D. Souther) and "Already Gone" (which the band did not write) changed that completely. With the addition of Felder, they had a new twin guitar attack that kicked the songs into a higher gear than before. So yes, Eagles finally got their wish. They rocked.

They rocked for exactly two songs. The rest of "On The Border" still captured the country rock leanings of the first two albums, with Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon turning in a banjo powered bluegrass rocker for "Midnight Flyer" and Leadon's "My Man" (alleged to be written about the late Graham Parsons) is pure country. They also made the interesting choice to cover Tom Waits' "Ol' 55." Then, even with their slagging of Johns, the album's biggest hit and the band's first number one single was countrified ballad "The Best of My Love," one of the two songs John's produced. Then, as a precursor to both "One Of These Nights" and "Hotel California," the title track uses a funky bassline and a political lyric to set itself apart from any prior Eagles' song.

All of this makes "On The Border" a transitional album for the Eagles. The new line-up and producer partnership would yield serious fruit a year later when "One Of These Nights" made its debut. But for now, "On The Border" stepped one up from the "Desperado" concept and made the Eagles feel more like a band than ever before.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: No Doubt "Icon; Greatest Hits"

A great collection of 90's singles!
4 Out Of 5 Stars

This entry into the budget priced "Icon" series features the same track listing as No Doubt's "Singles Collection - 1992 - 2003." So if you already have that set, you can pass on buying this CD and from reading the accompanying review. Otherwise, read on, gentle rocker.

Remember around 1996 and 1997, the period of the great third wave ska revival? All these southern California bands that were aping two-tone bands from the eighties - like Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris? Like most trends, it was over pretty fast. But it was also the breakthrough of "Tragic Kingdom" by No Doubt. And while the ska influenced pop of "Spiderwebs" and "Just A Girl" may have been the initial attention getters, it was the ballad that took them to the top of the charts. "Don't Speak" was a perfect slice of teenage heartbreak and sounded sweet on the radio. Quite frankly, I wasn't expecting them to go much farther after that.

Was I wrong there! While I have yet to really enjoy any of No Doubt's full length albums, their singles were guilty pleasures on the radio. So while the other one hit wonders from the same period faded away, it was No Doubt that continued to grow and create. In many ways, Gwen Stefani reminds me a lot of that other great girl rock band icon, Debbie Harry. Where No Doubt is undoubtedly a band (like Blondie), it is their front person on whom the attention is primarily focused. And like Blondie, No Doubt kept their punky ethos intact while exploring other sounds (dancehall, new wave, etc.). It made for such sublime singles like "Hella Good" and the inescapable "Hey Baby."

The inclusion of the newly recorded version of Talk Talk's "It's My Life" is a perfect match for No Doubt. It utilizes the band's melding of sounds to a pouty song that's tailor made for Gwen's voice. It puts a strong crown on No Doubt's first decade, and with the Grammy for "Underneath It All," and the successful comeback of "Push and Shove," my guess is there will be plenty of material for the inevitable second Icon of hits.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: 30 Seconds To Mars "Love Lust Faith And Dreams."

Oh, The Drama
3 Out Of 5 Stars

If anyone should know a thing or two about the dynamics of drama, it would be an actor. Jared Leto and 30 Seconds To Mars pour it one thick with their "Love Lust Faith And Dreams." After all, he's one of the very few to cross his acting career with an ongoing successful rock band, and a couple listens to "LLF&D" prove that Leto takes his musical craft as seriously as he does his acting. Pairing up again with producer and fellow dramatist Steve Lillywhite (U2, among many others) and plow forward.

If "This Is War" found the band edging away from grunge and screaming while turning towards prog rock, "Love Lust Faith And Dreams" takes it even further. Bubbling synths underscore many of the tracks here, especially the anthems like "City of Angels," which you can be excused for comparing the piano here to U2's "City of Blinding Lights." Since Jared Leto takes songwriter credit fir every song here, you may find it surprising that he does offer plenty of variety. While there's no Kanye West cameos, the dance beat of "The Race" heads straight for the dance floor while the final song, "Depuis Le D├ębut," is more raw and dramatic, building its use of an orchestra until it pops...into a wind-up music box.

It's that feeling of diversity that keeps "Love Lust Faith And Dreams" from congealing into a more generic sound. That's not saying it's great, but I'd rather hear a band that can jump from poppy prog to the mystery of "Northern Lights" and still keeping their independent sound intact. "This Is War" is, IMHO, the better album, but LLF&D takes more chances.


Monday, November 18, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Avett Brothers "Magpie And The Dandelion"

Peace, Love and Banjos
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Barely a year after releasing the acclaimed "The Carpenter," The Avett Brothers make a quick turnaround and issue "Magpie and The Dandelion." Along with producer Rick Rubin, The Avetts have mastered a style of folk-rock that many other bands of this ilk are just trying to grasp. Other than Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers have no one else that even come close to matching their own kind of American Roots rock, which makes it all the more interesting that Mumford and Sons are Irish, while the brothers hail from North Carolina.

That's not the only difference. Where the Mumfords typically strive for the bombastic crescendo, the Avetts deal in a more gentle style. Piano melodies intermingle with the banjos, and they have long ago learned that a silence can speak more than an amp turned up to 11. They're also not as preachy, even if the music speaks to universal love and faith. They sing of having an "Open Ended Life" and delicately contemplate "Souls With Wheels" (a live version of the song originally from the EP "The Second Gleam"). Sometimes doubt creeps in, like the long distance affair "Apart From Me," where Scott and Seth Avett question if they can keep love alive while out on the road. Same with "Skin and Bones," but this time with more spunk.

If I have any grumps about "Magpie And The Dandelion," it's that there doesn't seem to be much of a growth in the band. The songs here sound like they were very good, but not so good as to end up on "The Carpenter." Why else tease everyone with an older live song in the middle than to be a song or two short of a totally new album? But then, you'll hear the piano copping from The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" on the midtempo ballad "Good To You," and you can forgive them the lateral move. Also, as previously stated, no other band can keep up with the new folk movement the way The Avett Brothers do. If you prefer, think of "Magpie" and "The Carpenter" as a double album. Play them in tandem. Together, they're a delight, and even with my few misgivings, "Magpie and The Dandelion" is an excellent album.


Friday, November 15, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: A Fine Frenzy "Bomb In A Birdcage"

Short Fuse
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I picked up on A Fine Frenzy after seeing her open a Rufus Wainwright concert a few years back. "Bomb In a Birdcage" is their (or her, since the band is basically a backdrop for Alison Sudol's piano musings) second album, and a bit of a shock after seeing her perform warm, meandering piano pop onstage. "Bomb In A Birdcage" is a band album, with electronic drumming, gleeful Regina Spektor pop, and a few of those moments that won me over in concert.

Sudol likes to mix her happiest music to her saddest moments, which make a song like "Happier" such an exquisite break-up song. She also keeps some of her folksier elements in place for "What I Wouldn't Do" and "Bird of Summer." Some of these songs not just reflect Spektor, but also make one wonder if there were a bunch of Tori Amos CD's on her bedstand. Sudol has that knack for fairy tale poetry in her music, as found in the tale of the lonely lighthouse keeper residing in "The Beacon," which also happens to be "Bomb In A Birdcage's" most beautiful songs. What's lacking here are memorable songs, even at most of them being in the pop range of three and a half minutes, little sticks. The only song with a real kick to it is "Electric Twist," which has a slippery bass line and a vocal that sounds less affected than most of the bulk of "Bomb In A Birdcage."

If you count the couple of songs I've mentioned and the fact that, when she's not trying too hard, Sudol has an expressive voice, "Bomb In a Birdcage" is an OK album. But I can't get past the fact that the sweetness of the voice I heard in concert is trying to rock ("We Stood Up") or just sounds like she's over-singing the material. What I saw and heard A Fine Frenzy do on stage suggests better is possible.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Train "Save Me San Fransisco"

Back On Track
4 Out Of 5 Stars

"Save Me San Fransisco" was a somewhat prophetic title for Train. For many, the band had been written off, even the members themselves were in the throes of doubt. What's a band in trouble to do? Get back to their roots. The reward was one of the biggest singles of 2010, a million selling album, and a band that suddenly were everyone's golden boys.

"Save Me San Fransisco" is a journeyman's effort, filled with breezy melodies and a free spirited sound. They even lift a few lines of another San Fransisco band, The Doobie Brothers' "Black Water" to reference their home city one more time (on "I Got You"). In fact, pop cultrure references are all over the album: Winger, Madonna, Mr.Mister, the Fillmore, Sonny and Cher (yeah, check your cool-meter at the door, folks) that come off as catchy as they are corny. After all, if they can pull off the rhyme of "Hey Soul Sister, ain't that Mr Mister on the radio?" and get you to believe they mean it, then Train has got more going on than most bands who want you to take them ever so seriously.

Lead singer Pat Monahan delivers the goods vocally, too. He's just earnest enough to make "Marry Me" transcend its sappy wedding bells tale, yet can make the travelogue of the title track feel like both a confessional and a plea to Train's old fans to remember the band and the good times that the likes of "Drops Of Jupiter" did in the early 2000's. "Save Ne San Francisco" does that and more. It's not only a great return to form for Train, it's one of the better pop albums you're likely to hear from this decade.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Katy Perry "Prism"

Girl Powerless
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Katy Perry had her taste of fluffy pop success with "Teenage Dream," which was an insubstantial album, but loaded with inescapable pop hooks. It was a flirty, teasing album filled with songs of coming into your own ("Firework," the title track) and goofy songs about being teenaged and irresponsible ("Last Friday Night"). There was also obvious filler ("E.T."). but enough good material to compensate. Not so "Prism." Every song is synth laden and seems to ditch the goofy fun of "Teenage Dream" for songs about empowerment and being more grown-up about life.

Someone should have warned her. The girl who danced around with fruit bowls on her head is not the lady making "Prism." Only "Roar," "Walking On Air" and the lovely "By The Grace Of God" pull this CD out from the ranks of a total dud. Perry is still a gifted enough songwriter that even the filler is catchy, but unlike "Teenage Dream," the filler is quickly forgettable. Perry is holding back here. Where is the personality? She sounds restrained, the kind of pop that plenty of other pop-tarts come up with on a regular basis, where "Teenage Dream" and her debut "One of The Boys" often came of as flirty and fiery, now she just sounds like she wants to be taken seriously. "Unconditionally" calls out for love that lasts forever, but not with any spark.

The obligatory guest shot comes from Juicy J, who doesn't have the spike of Snoop Dog on the summer anthem "California Gurls." "Dark Horse" again suffers from a lack of a sense of fun. Perry just isn't a gifted enough singer to convey the kind of emotional depth that "Prism" demands of the songs. "Roar" made for high expectations, but "Prism" just doesn't measure up. It's an average album from a woman who suggested that she may have had more to offer than platitudes and easy cliches. It just sounds like she's not trying very hard.


Monday, November 11, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Arcade Fire "Reflektor"

Arcade Fire Loosen Up
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Arcade Fire find themselves stirring up emotions and dance floor beats on their double CD, "Reflektor." As the most famous band of their beloved Indie scene, they have to contend with being the little band that could, as in could win a Grammy for Album of The Year ("The Suburbs"). Their answer? To invoke Orpheus and the failed love to Eurydice (she's the image of the cover art), bring in Haitian musicians to lay down some serious grooves, let David Bowie sing back up (the title track) and make what feels like their least densely produced album of their career. If anything, it frequently reminds me of how Talking Heads sounded when they used "Speaking In Tongues" to open up their overall sound.

"If there is no music in Heaven, then what's it for?" bemoans Win Butler on "Here Comes the Night Time" (the first part, the second opens disc two as a dirge), and he's here to celebrate. That means giving "Reflektor" over to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to make the grooves pop. Granted, this isn't Saturday Night Fever, but the percussion and bass drive better than half the album. Eurydice and Orpheus tangle again on twin songs "Awful Sound" and "It's Not Over" to again invoke their tragic love before moving onto other topics. Like "Porno." Not as bad as the title implies, it's a slower tune that contemplates the simplistic ways that men misinterpret love, like "little boys with their porno." Yes, Arcade Fire may be loosening up, but that doesn't mean their lyrics have gone soft.

Which is what makes "Reflektor" a pretty good album. Arcade Fire are still finding ways to get their sound to new places without losing their identity. If I have any gripes, it's that the expansive grooves seem to often come at the expense of over-lenghty songs (some judicious editing - like the 5 minutes of drivel at the end of "Supersymmetry" - could have made this a single disc), and the album packaging comes with lyric sheets that tore as soon as they got caught on the CD's. But that's hardly a fault to Arcade Fire. I'd gladly take a two CD set of music this ambitious than a single disc of poorly thought through laptop pop. So go ahead, dance to a song about dying (the New Order-ish "Afterlife") till "we work it out."