Thursday, February 20, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: The Cars "Door To Door"

Last Year's Model
2 Out Of 5 Stars

The 1987 swan song of the original Cars lineup delivered this album after their high watermark of "Heartbeat City" and after members had been establishing solo careers. That "Door To Door" sounds uninspired and not crackling with the imaginative songs that previous Cars albums did can be blamed on the separations or just the fatigue of being highly successful, but the material just doesn't measure up to previous standards. It makes "Door to Door" the Edsel of The Car's original six albums.

It's not for a lack of trying. The lead single "You Are The Girl" has all the trademarks of a cool Cars song; there are jangly synths from Greg Hawkes and the typical disjointed and enigmatic lyric from Ric Ocasek. The opening song, "Leave Or Stay" also promises better things, but the album starts falling apart afterwards. There aren't many memorable melodies or snap to the pop, making it even more noteworthy that two of the songs on "Door To Door" predate the 1978 debut ("Leave or Stay" and "Ta Ta Wayo Wayo"). Inspiration just wasn't coming. "Strap Me In" is the best of the rest, but "Door To Door" did not age well, the way other Cars albums have.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Bruce Springsteen "High Hopes"

The Boss Meets The Nightwatchman
4 Out Of 5 Stars

A mixed bag of Springsteen odds and ends that is a surprisingly full album. Bruce Springsteen's "High Hopes" dug into his backlog of songs that features new material cut with Rage Against The Machine (and soloman Nightwatchman) Tom Morello, at the same time uncovering material that the late Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici were party to. The sum total of your enjoyment will depend on your fandom of Springsteen; for me, this cherry picked set of odds and sods is a better album than "Magic" and "Working On A Dream."

The songs are all powerful, even if the album is a little disjointed. The much ballyhooed appearances of Morello seem limited to spurts of guitar firepower (the re-reording of "American Skin (41 Shots)") and a hotshot solo or two (the soulful "Raise Your Hand"). He makes his presence most felt on the reworking of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," adding both a sung verse and a steamy guitar solo to this song of lost souls that gets a much louder workout than Springsteen's original recording. It's one of the album's highlights.

Among the album's oddities, the reconstruction of minimalist synth-punk band Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" plays out remarkably well. Springsteen sings with particular longing as the song builds to a multi-layered conclusion. It's a far cry from the original's origins, but Springsteen makes it his own. The other cover comes from Australia's pioneer band The Saints, "Just Like Fire Would," but is nowhere near the revelation "Dream Baby Dream" turns into.

"High Hopes" works best when Springsteen plays to his usual strengths, a little bit of soul, some lost strangers epic ("Frankie Fell In Love") or terrific story songs (the gangster's hangout of "Harry's Place," which contains more of Morello's guitar work). I can recommend this to fans of Bruce, only slightly to folks thinking Morello would be more electric. Morello may have been Springsteen's muse on "High Hopes" (as he's suggested in interviews), but this is still Springsteen's record. And ultimately, a pretty good one.


Monday, February 10, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: The Anarchist Orchestra "EP"

The Rumbling Undertones of Folk Rock
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Tao Rodriguez Seeger is the grandson (in-law) of the late icon Pete Seeger, and has been serving as his Grandfather's musical director on Pete's latest tours. That was where I first heard Tao play, at Newport Folk Festival in 2009. About a year later, Tao performed a solo-band set at Philadelphia's World cafe, We enjoyed his work at Newport so much that I decided to check him out. As you would likely guess by his affiliations with Pete, Tao is a folk-lefty. What I (and I think, most of the other attendees) did not expect, is that Tao is a LOUD folk lefty. Where Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" covered Pete like it was a hootenanny, Tao makes Pete sound like The Clash. While he's not hitting the punk rock stills on "The Anarchist Orchestra," you can feel that he's ready to.

Rodríguez-Seeger and Jake Silver also perform together in The Mammals, here they team up with Laura Cortese and Robin McMillan. This 7 song EP melds folk and bluegrass with some hard rock undertones. "Fascist State Breakdown" sticks to the hootenanny, but don't be fooled. It comes just before a feedback and echo-laden "Roving Gambler." This is a record that likes its guitars as much as it digs those fiddles. It's a good introduction to what these somewhat radical folkies can do, although I'd recommend "Rise and Bloom," billed as the Tao Seeger Band, but is the same band line-up, and is a more enjoyable/focused album.


My Amazon Reviews: Various Artists "I'll Scratch Yours - A Tribute to Peter Gabriel"

Mutual Scratching Society
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Although it took him three years to pull it together, Peter Gabriel at last put his "Scratch My Back - And I'll Scratch Yours" out as a whole piece. Initially designed to be a collaborative project, Gabriel gets 10 of his "Scratch My Back" artists to add their voices to a select Gabriel song, with varying results. (You may also quibble about Bryan Eno subbing for David Bowie, but it does up the collabs; the missing links are Neil Young and Radiohead.) If you don't already have "Scratch My Back," I highly recommend getting the limited edition two CD issue.

One of the things that held my rating back of the initial album was that Gabriel had set all his choices to orchestral arrangements (he did the same to himslef on "New Blood"), which kept the album's pace to a crawl. Fortunately for "I'll Scratch Yours," the collaborators had no such imposition. It varies the album considerably and offers a few surprises. For starters is the realization that anything Randy Newman touches sounds like Randy Newman, from the dry wit of the vocals to the piano playing, and he turns "Big Time" from the ironically pop MTV hit into the biting commentary that the lyrics had posited all along.

My other favorite here is Lou Reed turning "Solisbury Hill" from Gabriel's gathering of courage in a pastoral setting into a dingy echo laden guitar look into the mean streets of New York City (and may be one of Reed's last recordings). The criminally underrated Elbow take one of my all-time favorite Gabriel songs, "Mercy Street," and do an uncanny sound-alike version. Stephin Merrit (Magnetic Fields) stamps the paranoia out from underneath "Not One Of Us" and makes it sound like a bubbly synth-pop record from the 80's. And finally, Paul Simon turns "Biko," a song I thought I was tired of, into an acoustic folk anthem.

Those are the hits. There are a couple of misses; Brian Eno doesn't do anything to make "Mother Of Violence" interesting. Bon Iver tries as hard as he can to sound interesting, but remains a bore to listen to. David Byrne uses his falsetto on "I Don't Remember" to make you remember what nails on chalkboard sounds like. But that's only three real duds. The remainder of the songs, from the likes of Feist, Arcade Fire and Regina Spektor at least show that Gabriel hasn't lost his taste for new artists and that his songwriting transcends formats. Taken together, "Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours" is a good pair of bookends and a fine tribute to Gabriel's multi-decade career.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Aerosmtih "Pump"

Pump Up The Volume
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Aerosmith continued their unlikely comeback with a second powerful album, "Pump." Working off the momentum supplied by "Permanent Vacation" and still collaborating with a few hired guns (Jim Vallance and Desmond Child snag a few songwriter credits), the Toxic Twins of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were back in a groove that rivaled their heyday. "I'm a .38 Special on a Saturday night," growls Tyler on "F.I.N.E." and he means every word of it.

Not only did they have their groove back, they were also now MTV darlings. It turned "Love In an Elevator," "Jamie's Got a Gone" "The Other Side" and the power ballad "What It Takes" into hit singles. But it's the unlikely turns that made "Pump" into a little extra. There's a Sgt Pepperish middle section on "Elevator" that comes from outside the band's usual meat grinder. And would you have ever expected Aerosmith to pick up a Dulcimer and rock out with it (as does the "Dulcimer Stomp" that precedes "The Other Side." Despite "Pump" being a through-and-through Aerosmith album, they were stepping outside their box.

"Pump" was the peak of Aerosmith's second act. The outside influences began to overrun the band come "Get a Grip" and soon after that, the usual rock and roll demons took control. However, for sheer song for song bang, "Pump" offered conclusive proof that Aerosmith were one of America's classic rock bands that had the goods to outlast many of their 70's peers.