Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Matisyahu "Akeda"

He's your "Hasidic reggae superstar"
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Matisyahu knows who he wants to be, and as your "Hasidic reggae superstar" (as he refers to himself on the song "Watch The Walls Melt Down" and "Confidence"), he's out to deliver his upbeat and spiritual message by hip-hop, reggae and rap beats and singing. At least he's aware that he's got that market cornered. That's not a bad thing. In a musical genre that usually depends on telling you just what a piece of crap the world is, Matisyau wants you to listen to him cheer you on until you become a "Champion." (One of a few very poppy songs on "Akeda.")

Between the soul searching ("Surrender") and the dancehall party songs (the excellent first single "Watch The Walls Melt Down"), Matisyahu is happy to mix styles and emotions into a coherent album. You can pick the messenger, be it you or God as defined by Matisyahu's Jewish roots, just as long as you feel it. I think his previous album, "Spark Seeker," was a bit more adventurous, but "Akeda" still shows Matisyahu in control of his message and image, and refusing to be pigeon-holed.


Monday, July 28, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Passenger "Whispers"

From a Whisper
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Mike Rosenberg (a.k.a. Passenger) hit the jackpot last year when the whispery break-up ballad, "Let Her Go," hit escape velocity (thanks in no small part to being used in an emotional beer advert showing a bond between a dog and a Clydesdale), towing his two year old "All The Little Lights" to stardom along with it. Passenger had already spent a few years before this success playing and writing, so there isn't much worry about a sophomore slump when it comes to "Whispers," his fourth album over all. If success has given him anything, it's a bit more of a kick to his step, as many of the new CD's songs give that whispery voice of his some more uptempo backing to play around.

There's a more percussive bent to the opener, "Coins In The Fountain," with a sinuous beat trundling under happy lyrics that proclaim that "Love is the only song I'll sing." It's a far cry from the heartbreak of "Let Her Go," but by all means there's plenty of sad goodbyes to be found throughout "Whispers." "Heart's On Fire" even addresses it from his role as singer-songwriter; "you know those love songs will always break your heart." All done to a tasteful folk accompaniment, of course. And then there's Rosenberg telling everyone that he doesn't care what you think, because at "27," he feels no need to just churn out songs that will put him on "a video screen."

What has set Passenger apart from most of the singer songwriters popping out of the woodwork of late is that he really can turn out an ace story. No where on "Whispers" is this more evident than the emotionally touching "Riding to New York," allegedly based on a real encounter Rosenberg had on tour. In it, he meets an old man dying of cancer who just wants to get closure.

"I wanna see my grand-daughter one last time,
Wanna hold her close and feel her tiny heartbeat next to mine.
Wanna see my son and the man he's become,
Tell him I'm sorry for the things I've done,"

It's his most moving and poignant song to date, and the best thing about "Whispers." After four albums and a move into the spotlight, Passenger shows that he's got the goods to make his career more than a break-up ballad from a sappy commercial.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Morrissey "Vauxhall And I"

I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges (remastered version review)
5 Out Of 5 Stars

After the glitter bomb that was "Your Arsenal," Morrissey decided to slow the pace a bit. "Vauxhall and I" was a much more languid and consistently paced album than any other solo albums. In fact, the guitars frequently hide in the background to allow more more Morrissey's ironic and witty lyrics to come to the fore. This was also one of Morrissey's most successful American albums, even managing to have a scrape of the top 40 with the single " The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get."

Just because the tempo had slowed down, that certainly didn't mean that Morrissey was showing any signs of mellowing out. His literate wit and self depreciating personality frequently shine through. He even dips a toe into progressive rock with a whispered "Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning." His literary references, be they "Billy Budd" or the World War II denial of the "Lazy Sunbathers," again offer proof that the 80s had a few wordsmiths as clever as Morrissey was. This 20th anniversary edition of "Vauxhall and I" reminds us just how potent Morrissey is at his very best.

The bonus live concert from the period shows just how reinvigorated Morrissey was at the time of this album. Energetic and buoyant, the guitars that had been relegated to the background moved to the foreground. Morrisey gives a delicious, more playful reading to a variety of songs, giving "Billy Budd" more force and making "The More You Ignore Me" into jangle pop. It's a fine complement to "Vauxhall and I's" seemingly mature attitude. The remastering itself is one of those that actually highlights passages you may have missed in the original version. As such this nearly flawless album has a version that is a must own.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: The Motels "Little Robbers"

It's a Steal
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Having suddenly discovered what success tasted like, The Motels were more than willing to re-mine the same vein. "Little Robbers" kicked off just like its predecessor; "Where Do We Go From Here" is all but carbon copied from All Four One's "Mission of Mercy." But where "Only The Lonely" was the breakthrough ballad, this time, "Suddenly Last Summer" was the stunner and upped the ante of that first hit. Much like The Police's "Every Breath You Take," "Suddenly Last Summer" was a pitch perfect slice of radio pop. Martha Davis' sultry vocals work their magic on the hook-laden melody. It deservedly became The Motels' second (and final) top 10 hit.

The album also knocked off a second solid single with "Remember The Nights." Problem was, after the singles, "Little Robbers" was not as solid as "All Four One." There was even a groaner with "Isle of You," and some generic AOR stuff that hasn't held up so well. The best of the album can be found on The Essential Collection, much like their final album, Shock. Some really good stuff here, with Martha Davis remaining one of the 80's more charismatic female vocalists.

As for the remaster, like many of the Culture Factory re-issues, it leans toward loud and over-compressed. So if you have that old One-Way reissue from the early 2000's, don't let go of it just yet.


Monday, July 21, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: The Motels "All Four One"

Checking In at The Five Star Motels
5 Out of 5 Stars

It is one of those stories that became all too prevalent in the 80's; decent band is forced to compromise for mega-success. Martha Davis and The Motels suddenly found themselves on the brink of stardom, and their record company didn't like the album they had prepared. An ultimatum was issued - go back into the studio with a producer of Capitol's choosing and his session hacks for a redo or no deal. The band swallowed hard (and nearly disintegrated). Val Garay (who had worked on the original sessions) delivered the keyboard dominated new sessions and "All Four One" was the result.

The final album treads a very fine line between arena rock and the edgy, arty new-wave the first two Motels albums were focused on. Only "Art Fails" and "Apocalypso" (the original album titles) sound like they came from that period. But the polished up Motels also brought lead singer Martha Davis into an even sharper focus, making the torchy "Only The Lonely" into the band's signature hit. The other two radio draws here; "Mission of Mercy" and "Take The L," pulled down radio play and established not only the Motels, but the crossover sound of safe New Wave. As such, "All Four One" is a classic album from the early 80's, helping to usher in a new sound.

There were also a pair of surprises here. Martha turned jazzy for the haunting "Change Your Mind," a major departure for The Motels' albums. The second was the inclusion of an obscure but controversial Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that Phil Spector produced for The Crystals, "He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss." An ambiguously angry song about relationship abuse (or a cheeky ode to SM, take your pick), the original song was released as a single and subsequently blacklisted from radio. It makes its selection as a cover on "All Four One" all the odder, seeing as the band was fighting Capitol to record an album that would be commercially more viable than the "Apocalypso" sessions had yielded. As such, it was pretty much a backhand to the suits and helped The Motels maintain a semblance of edge.

Granted, the sudden success made the band all the more eager to stay safe (Little Robbers is almost a carbon copy of this and even cleaner). However, there are still plenty of reasons to like "All Four One." The remaster will drive audiophiles nuts as the compression really flattens and over compresses the percussion in particular, but I'm glad just to finally have this CD back in my library.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: R.E.M. "Unplugged: The Complete Sessions"

In their element
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Given that, even in their earliest days, R.E.M. depended heavily on acoustic coloring for their finest material, it's not a surprise that MTV Unplugged would fit them like a glove. These two Unplugged Sessions, which include 11 performances not featured on either of the original broadcasts, offer both empirical evidence that - in both of their decades - R.E.M. could evoke all that was good about indie bands in the 80's on.

Split between a 1991 show behind "Out Of Time" and a 2001 show behind "Reveal," they augmented their sound with guests like Peter Holsapple (the 1991 set in particular) and Scott McCaughey (who played in the pick-up band The Minus Five with Peter Buck). It also showcases how important Mike Mills' harmony vocals were with Michael Stipe's idiosyncratic leads. Given the time between the two sets (long enough to include the R.E.M. post Bill Berry), there's a lot of ground to cover. It actually makes the 2001 disc a more satisfying listen, as they include favorites like "South Central Rain," "The One That I Love" and the oddness of "Country Feedback" sitting next to songs like "Imitation Of Life" and "Sad Professor," which are improved in this setting. They also went for the lesser known songs, like "Belong" and "Rotary Eleven" at the expense of some more obvious selections ("Radio Free Europe" doesn't show up on either disc, although "Losing My Religion" made both shows).

Fans made distraught by the band's break-up can now content themselves with vintage material such as "Unplugged: The Complete Sessions" and the online clear-out of B-Sides and outtakes for the real devout. However, as dual snapshots in the R.E.M. timeline, "Unplugged: The Complete Sessions" is a feast in a drought. I am willing to bet that there's still more in the vaults that will arrive over time. One can only hope.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: The Civil Wars "The Civil Wars"

A Civil End
5 Out Of 5 Stars

It's enough to make you wonder what was going on in the studio during the recording sessions. Joy Williams and John Paul White recorded "The Civil Wars," this delightful sophomore album, then announced they were breaking up just as the album was being released. An “irreconcilable difference of ambition,” the statement reads. Williams even went as far as saying that she and John Paul weren't even on speaking terms. Which is a darn shame because "The Civil Wars" is a graceful, mournful album that gave light to the idea that this duo could have been capable of even greater things.

I also think this was a huge leap forward from the debut, "Barton Hollow." I found that album to be too homogenous. "The Civil Wars" tries several new things (although I could have done without the programmed drums) and the harmonies, like the peaking voices on "From This Valley" are spun gold. They effortlessly mixed Appalachian folk, Smashing Pumpkins and Etta James unto one seamless whole. I never thought of Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" as something that could be considered a high lonesome folk song, but they pull it off. It's easier to think of Etta James' "Tell Mama" would work in this setting, and it really is a beautiful reclamation.

The originals are quite good, as well. "I Had Me a Girl" uses a slightly distorted guitar and John Paul's voice to open up a can of worms about the one that got away. Which happens to be the title of the opening song on "The Civil Wars." There's a lot of that to go around on this album. The album closes out with a crystalline "D'arline," which was recorded "on Joy's porch" directly into an I-Phone. It's a farewell song ("if I only knew/where to send this letter to") and a fitting end to a band whose final act was to pull the curtain on such promise.

One can hope that Joy and John Paul can mend the burnt bridges over time, but the breakup sounded pretty acrimonious. Which is probably one of the reasons "The Civil Wars" debuted at number one. Everyone loves a good drama, but the music here carries the day. Combine the two and you have an album that will carry clout over budding folkies everywhere for a long time.