Monday, June 9, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: American Authors "Oh, What A Life"

Writing Their Own Story
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I first caught American Authors via a commercial for the MLB Fan Cave which used "Best Day Of My Life" as the background music. It was so happy and infectious that I had to Shazam the commercial to find out the artist. That, in turn, lead me to the American Authors and their debut CD "Oh, What a Life."

As seems to be the trend these days, folk tendencies are the next big thing and American Authors lean in that direction. "Luck" (as in 'I make my own...') is pretty good pop, as well. In fact, if you take away the acoustics and factor in their creamy harmonies ("Think About It," "Love"), these guys could easily pass as a boy band. That's meant as a compliment, as the hooks are catchy and the melodies exude pure pop instincts. You'll get that on the playful (and more electric) "Hit It."

Just as a warning, "Best Day of My Life" is the best thing here, and if you bought their debut EP, all 5 of those songs are there so you'll be paying for half of "Oh, What a Life" twice. But for the moment, I'll indulge in "Best Days" and eagerly await the follow-up to see where American Authors head next.


My Amazon Reviews: The Fray "Helios"

God Of The Sun
3 Out Of 5 Stars

If you were wondering what "Helios" is, the Ancient Greeks worshiped the dude. The Fray seek to harness that power on their fourth album, and it's a dramatic change of pace for the band. Their stock in trade before this was piano-driven adult pop, but they've pushed the pianos to the back of the stage for this album. Only the opener, "Hold My Hand," will sound familiar with The Fray via their biggest hit, "How To Save a Life." The rest vary from another Ryan Tedder insta-hit (actually, the excellent "Love Don't Die") to danceable pop ("Give It Away").

Lead singer Isaac Slade is pretty decent at making accessible soft rock tunes, and even with attempts at breaking the mold, like the drumbeat stomp of "Wherever This Goes" strain at the bit for the band to just cut loose a bit more, which is why the outside sourced "Love Don't Die" stands out so much. If Coldplay is watered down U2, then The Fray is Coldplay filtered to a pop essence. They even channel The Cure at one point, on "Closer To Me." You can tell that The Fray are more ambitious than they can actually accomplish, which makes "Helios" at least enjoyable. If middle of the road but capably produced pop (think Coldplay, Maroon 5 and OneRepublic) turns your motor, "Helios" will set your sun dial.


Friday, June 6, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Beck "Morning Phase"

Oceans and Diamonds
4 Out Of 5 Stars

When Beck released his masterstroke of moodiness, "Sea Change," it was lauded as a real downer of a break-up album...and one of his best. It's ground he's studiously avoided since - until now. Like that album's older and wiser brother, "Morning Phase" finds Beck picking up the acoustic guitar and moody atmospherics. It's not the cathartic bummer uplift that "Sea Change" was, but it is a darn good California folk-rock album.

In addition, you can also add Nick Drake, one of the few masters of the art of dark folk, as one of the influences. Beautifully ethereal and strong on melody, "Blackbird Chain" and "Blue Moon" fall into this realm, with "Blue Moon" starting off with a brooding ""I'm so tired of being alone, these penitent walls are all I've known." The choruses are layered with echoed spaciness, while Beck keeps trying to call his beloved back. The string heavy "Wave" (which he performed on SNL) leans heavily on atmospherics. Without the use of any percussion, it's just Beck's voice and plenty of sonic watercolors. It's really quite lovely, even as its ending finds Beck crying "Isolation, isolation..."

"Morning Phase" shows just how much Beck can get away with. It took him six years from the lukewarm "Modern Guilt" to do the soul searching he's doing here. Like "Sea Change," the impact is not immediate, but it is one that sinks in and leaves a lasting impression. He's long moved beyond the hipster cache of "Loser" and can now find the beauty old fashioned sounds of banjos and ukeleles. It's a good thing, because after all these years and plenty of maturity, "Morning Phase," with all of its private mellow gold, shows that Beck is still capable of throwing a wonderful curve ball.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Suzanne Vega "Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentangles"

To That Land Uncharted
4 Out Of 5 Stars

After revisiting her career through the four volumes of "Close Up" albums, Suzanne Vega cleaves close to that feel on her "Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentangles." Which, despite its unwieldy title, feels like her earlier titles in that the folkish elements are more forward and her poetry is again enigmatic and enchanting.

"I don't know about happiness but virtue's overrated" she sweetly sings on "Laying On The Hands." To that end, Vega sings about the disparity between the rich and poor ("Fools Complaint"), being careful of what you wish for ("Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain," which samples 50 Cent of all people) and the excellent "Portrait of the Knight Of The Wands." The gentleness of "Portrait," which uses minimal effects under an acoustic guitar, recalls one of Vega's greatest moments, "The Queen and The Soldier." Once again, a soldier wearily ponders his mission all while obeying with a heavy heart. Great stuff.

Given that Vega's brand of Greenwich Village folk is enjoying a kind of vogue (think Mumford and Sons or better still, the Avett Brothers), "Tales From The Realm" could come off as elder stateswoman for those whippersnappers bringing the style back. There may not be anything of a revelation here, but her seven year break has served her well, and Suzanne Vega's "Tales From The Realm" is storytelling music at its best.


Monday, June 2, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Judas Priest "Point Of Entry"

I Wanna Go Hot Rockin'
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Sandwiched as it is between two five star metal classics, "Point Of Entry" suffers from being buffered by "British Steel" and "Screaming for Vengeance." There's plenty of high energy rocking coming of the disc, but it's only average high energy as opposed to classic stuff like "Breaking The Law" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming" from opposite sides of this release. There are a couple of tracks here that just feel like filler, which was rare for a Priest album.

But when the going is good, Rob Halford and crew were still delivering the goods. "Heading Out On The Highway," "Hot Rocking" and "Desert Plains" are as good as Judas Priest gets, but then you're saddled with the iffy stuff, like "Don't Go." There were some other inconsistencies, like the lack of the trademarked twin-guitar attack that is a huge part of the band's signature sound. It's also worth noting that most of the songs clock in at under four minutes, which means the band was given no room to stretch out. Perhaps it is because of the "large quantities of alcohol" the band admits to using in the liner notes or the fact that the songs were written in the studio without some road-testing to see what would or would not work.

Be that as it may, "Point Of Entry" lacks the drive and inspiration of most of the Priest albums in their discography and especially in the fertile period between "Hell Bent for Leather" and "Defenders Of The Faith." What makes Judas Priest so inspirational is simply missing, and there are many other better albums to pick up on.