Friday, March 21, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: David Bowie "Low"

When Bowie Met Brian in Berlin
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Executing a course change that was extreme even by David Bowie's madcap standards, the first of his trio of albums with Brian Eno turned Bowie into a cold man-machine working against often dissonant electronics and half the time without even singing a note. "Low" gave Bowie the space to swing as hard towards an avant-garde as he could, with Eno more than happy to pave the way.

Bowie, when he does sing, operates more as a song-speaker than his traditional rich singing. Only "Low's" single, "Sound and Vision," has the shimmer of music that matches the voice, other times, like "Warszawa," he's just chanting. (Is it any wonder Phillip Glass based a whole album around "Low" and this song in particular?) Even "Sound and Vision" tests the limits of Bowie's audiences, the jangle of the guitar hook goes on for about 90 seconds before Bowie chimes in.

"Low" is definitely a collaboration and, of the 'Berlin' period of albums with Eno, the one that weighs heaviest towards Eno's solo album soundscapes. The second half of the CD is mainly that sort of sculpting, until the very end when Bowie coos for Shirley briefly on "Subterraneans." It's a chilly underground Bowie was searching for, and although "Low" doesn't hit the heights the following "Heroes" did (and that album is an unabashed classic), it still has the ability to evoke a deep resonance among those divided on how Eno and Bowie propelled each other towards a creative apex.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Daft Punk "Random Access Memories"

The Tin Men Find Their Hearts
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Talk about a departure. "Random Access Memories" retros the old EDM sound of previous albums and plants its flag squarely in the heart of 70's disco. So much so that Giorgio Morodor and Nile Rodgers are here in the flesh. Modern popster Pharrell Williams and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes are on board for what is a pretty wild ride on the wayback machine. Turns out the Robots (as Pharrell kept calling Daft Punk as they racked up Grammy Awards) have a heartbeat that pulses to "Le Freak."

This is some sunny, happy poptunes. "Get Lucky" (featuring Rodgers and Pharrell) was one of the best summer jams this or any year, inescapably warm and funky. "Give Life Back To Music" rides the same kind of funkiness and uses the autotuned vocals that you'd probably expect from Daft Punk in the first place. Yet there are those cameos that reveal the true memories of the duo. "Giorgio By Morodor" has the legendary producer giving a brief biography of his creative life while Daft Punk recreates some old school Munich disco straight off of the "Midnight Express" soundtrack. (I'm of the mindset that this is one of the collabs that didn't quite work.)

But for pure seventies oddballishness, you get 70's syrup-meister Paul Williams on the crescendo-ing "Touch." Paul Who? You may ask? Williams is a 70+ songwriter who can count among his credits Barbra Streisand, Helen Reddy and Kermit the Frog among his clients. When Daft Punk went mining for that pure 70's sound that "Random Access Memories" obviously was looking for, the boys did their homework.

Pure DP fans will still find traces of their old heroes on "Memories." "Motherboard" is a strictly instrumental piece that jitters with some interesting drum lines. The "Contact" finale, a six and a half minute opus featuring DJ Falcon, uses found sound and newsbites to muse about UFO's and aliens among us. It's a rollicking space ride worthy of standing next to everything else on "Random Access Memories." Daft Punk may have done a massive shift for this album, but it's a satisfying one and may have made this their masterwork.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Passenger "All The Little Lights"

Who needs love when you've got silicon and strap ons?
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Passnger (aka Mike Rosenberg) are the latest entry it to the singer songwriter as unabashed folkie that has given us some stellar material of late, and "All The Little Lights" is his breakthrough fifth album. Rosenberg is a charming, heartfelt vocalist, albeit one with a wavery voice that all but labels itself as 'earnest.' His specialties are songs about fragile relationships, and the album is loaded with heartbreaks. The main single, "Let Her Go" hit the collective consciousness via the Budweiser commercial where the puppy and the Clydesdale are best friends, and it's kind of hard to miss out on a song as catchy as that one with a commercial as emotionally potent. It's what lead me to "All The Little Lights" to start with,

The remainder is almost as rewarding. While the songs are primarily about relationships and their trials, Rosenberg has a wicked sense of humor, as the lyrical line I pulled from the song "Staring At The Stars" to become the title of this review points out. "The Wrong Direction" is also a lighthearted romp with a nice horn solo (and reminded me a lot of Ed Sheeran). You also get a broader look at his humorous side in the bonus live track, "I Hate," which couples a sing along chorus with a list of things that Rosenberg, well, hates. These include porta-potties, teen-mags and The X Factor while the crowd sha-la-la's along.

"All The Little Lights" walks the balance well. A bit more solid than Sheeran's debut and less bombastic than the likes of Mumford and Sons, Passenger is equal parts delicate and powerful, and "Let her Go" is just a cherry on the top.


Friday, March 14, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Twenty One Pilots "Vessel"

Leaky Boat Of Fun
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Playing a curious mix of rap, folk and pop, Twenty One Pilots are a band that are impossible to pigeonhole. The opening track on "Vessel" bounces back and forth between the rap and the pop in a seamless fashion that is particularly tasty. "Ode To Sleep" sets the tone for the album as it's as eclectic a single as you'll hear from a new band.

I was lured to "Vessel" by the single "House of Gold," which sounds more like The Lumineers or Passengers than what comprises the bulk of the CD. Normally that would tick me off, as I'm not a fan of rapping, and had I listened to the samples of the rest of the songs first, I'd probably have skipped the disc. The vocoder heavy "Migraine" and the more downbeat "Car Radio" sink in enough to compensate for any shortcomings. Twenty One Pilots duo Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun know how to couch their way around the laptop rockers and the screamo-emo and make "Vessel" a fun listen. If it weren't for the fact that the lead vocals sometimes turn to screams (you're no Roger Daltry, guys), I'd like this a whole lot more.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Kiss "Creatures Of The Night"

Kiss Figure Out That Being Heavy is a Good Thing.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

The old school fans of Kiss had been drifting away for a period when Kiss reconvened for "Creatures of the Night." Bored by the pop metal of "Unmasked" and left confused by the weird concept album of "Music From The Elder," it was too much even for Peter Criss, who'd already bolted and was replaced by the terrific Eric Carr, and Ace Frehley, who still appeared on the album cover but was replaced on the disc by future Kiss members Vinnie Vincent and Bob Kulick. There's even a funnier story behind Ace's departure/cover shot; allegedly Kiss's contract stated that at least three of the original members had to be in the group or their contract could be renegotiated. Since Kiss's fortunes were on a decline, they faked Frehley's presence as long as they could in an attempt to avoid rewriting the conditions of their contract, ergo their royalty rate.

Even with that scenario in place, Kiss came on strong with "Creatures Of The Night." The title track was one of the heaviest tracks they'd ever recorded, and Carr pummels the drums in a way Criss could never manage. Simmons stops being a demon clown and goes for the jugular for "War Machine." Paul Stanley digs deep for a loverman blues rocker titled "I Still Love You," one he liked enough to include it when the MTV Unplugged reunion happened a few years down the road. Then there was a rock and roll stomper aimed at the same anthemic status as "Rock and Roll All Night" and "Shout It Out Loud," "I Love It Loud."In fact. there's only one true clinker in the batch and that's Simmons, who just couldn't resist one more cliche in "Rock and Roll Hell." But that's a solid 8 out of 9 songs.

Still, "Creatures of The Night" did not return Kiss to previous heights of glory. They'd have to radicalize their appearance (good-bye make up) and keep the tougher sound for "Lick It Up," the real comeback.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: The Velvet Underground and Nico "The Velvet Underground and Nico"

Life on the underside
5 Out Of 5 Stars

By taking all the romantic aspects out from the musical visions others may have had concerning New York City, the Velvet Underground upended the NY Art scene by recording an album about kinky sex, mad drug use, pimps and dealers and femme fatales. Andy Warhol attached himself to the band's skewed vision and began to shepherd them, bringing singer/model Nico along. In 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico was released, and during the Summer Of Love, nobody really got it. But as the famous quote (accredited to Brian Eno) goes, the Velvet Underground may not have sold many albums, but everyone who bought a copy formed a band.

Nowadays, the album is heralded as a seminal piece of the rock and roll puzzle, and listening to it years later will surprise you as to just how well the album has held up. The center of attentions were singer/songwriter Lou Reed and multi-instrumentalist and art-music fan John Cale. They teased and tormented conventional pop structures while still delivering hooky songs (like "Sunday Morning" or the haunting "All Tomorrow's Parties") before Cale would whip out a viola and draw his bow across some squealing noise ("Black Angel's Death Song"). There's even the fact that Nico's voice had just a mysterious quality to it that added to her allure. When she emotes on "Femme Fatale" that you're just a clown, it drawls out as "clowan."

But what attracted the bulk of the attention (and still does to this day) was the way the band cavalierly treated the dark underbelly of sex and drugs. Reed's "Venus In Furs" explicitly describes the trappings of an SM ritual with a mistress who wants you to "kiss the boots of shiny leather." The fixation of drugs in "Waiting For My Man" and the actual rush of using in "Heroin." There is the push-pull of addiction in an unromantic light that is positively brutal in its almost journalistic qualities. The Beatles were singing about a day in the life, Reed was saying "heroin be the death of me."

It's that kind of non-romantic bluntness that makes the best material on "The Velvet Underground and Nico" so compelling. While the group (it should be added that Maurene Tucker was the first great female rock drummer) rode the pulse of primitive and proto-punk music, they'd lose Nico by the next album and find their way to even more abrasive topics on "White Light White Heat." All the VU albums that featured the line up of Cale, Reed, Tucker and bassist Doug Yule are essential listening, this is the first step off a very steep cliff. Even today, it can be a difficult listen, but it is one of those kind of albums that bent the musical direction of bands to follow.


Monday, March 10, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Vince Neil "Tattoos & Tequila"

Platinum Roots
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Motley Crue started life as glam-metal before morphing into hard rocking, and "Tattoos and Tequila" is front-man Vince Neil's tribute to the bands and songs that helped formulate his contributions to the band, While it's not terribly inspiring or all that original, it is in good fun and Neil acquits himself just fine. It's also a pretty interesting look into the guy's pysche; just what was he listening to while he was dreaming little rock star dreams?

Some of the choices are obvious. I'd easily guessed Scorpions and Aerosmith, and perhaps Elton John's "The B---- is Back" given Elton's omnipresence on seventies radio. A bit more interesting are Sweet ("Ac/Dc") and a selection from the first Cheap Trick album, "He's a Whore." Then you get the oddballs. I wouldn't have pegged Vince for a fan of Elvis or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but they both turn up with "Viva Las Vegas" and "Who'll Stop The Rain," respectively. And how about them Sex Pistols?

As to the performances, they are spotty. He's got a basic three piece combo backing him for the bulk of the disc, and they bludgeon their way through just about everything here. Drums are pumped to arena boom levels and the drenching of reverb over everything (especially Vince's vocals) doesn't allow the songs much room to breathe. The couple moments of subtlety ("Who'll Stop The Rain" and new song - one of two fresh cuts - "Another Bad Day") unmask the fact that Vince isn't much of a singer these days, which is why he blasts his way through most of the CD. Frankly, the CCR track is painful to listen to.

But this is Vince Neil we're dealing with here. If you were expecting "Sgt Pepper," you were gonna get snookered anyway. "Tattoos and Tequila" is Neil have a good laugh with a night of oldies at the local pub. It's also tied into a book and Vince's own brand of Tequila, so it's just one prong in a three point marketing strategy. He's not taking it all that seriously (I have a hard time listening to him trying to snarl like Johnny Rotten on "No Feelings" without imagining him cracking up), so take "Tattoos and Tequila" for what it is; a bit of a lark and a savvy piece of salesmanship. To assume more would be exaggerating your expectations.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: John Grant "Pale Green Ghosts"

The Haunting of Pale Green Ghosts
5 Out Of 5 Stars

Blessed with a coffee-cream baritone and cursed by crashing relationships, "Pale Green Ghosts" finds John Grant striding an emotional chasm that keeps one foot on acerbic sarcasm and the other on a wit that turns both inward and outward. You're unlikely to hear any album more self confessional in this year. I've been listening for a couple of months and just can't shake the way Grant delivers a blow by blow account of both his break-up and the tiniest touch of optimism by the album's end.

And what an ending "Pale Green Ghosts" comes with. "Glaciers" comes to a conclusion that even with the slow motion pain driving through his life, in the aftermath of the agony will come "beautiful landscapes" and "precious metals." All of which follows recriminations about hypocrisy and theocracy. Or there's the wicked sense of humor of "GMF" (aka Greaest Mother Youknowwhat)

"Half of the time I think I'm in some movie.
I play the underdog of course.
I wonder who they'll get to play me.
Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton's corpse."

Add that the harmony is provided by perennial emotional depth charge Sinead O'Connor (who provides harmonies on three other songs) and it just adds to the bitter joke. There's also the deft confession of his HIV+ status on "Ernest Borgnine" where he wishes that 'Ernie' would call him up and offer him some life advice.

The album is carried by minimalist beats and synthed out production that accents Grant's whiplash lyricism, mainly directed at the ex in what must have been one of the all-time worst breakups in history. "You got a black belt in BS" he accuses over what could almost be a danceable single if it weren't so wickedly cruel and absurdly funny. "Pale Green Ghosts" may depend on its laptop underpinnings, but the man is not background music. It demands that you step into a place like "I Hate This Town" where everyone, including you, get to share his view of the world. Trust me, when the music is this good, you'll want to.