Wednesday, September 2, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Madness “Divine Madness”

Madness is all in the Mind
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Madness madness never quite caught on in the US, despite the success of "Our House." having a huge base overseas fueled the band for decades, with trippy hit after hit. "Divine Madness" catches the singles in all their glory. There are quite a few compilations of Madness out there, but this one is the keeper.

Yes, it does have "Our House," and the classic introduction of the band in "One Step Beyond," but also the goofy coming of age songs "House Of Fun" and "Baggy Trousers." There are the unique ska-ish instrumentals like " The Return of the Los Palmas 7" and "Night Boat To Cairo." But there's something else in the method that happened with the band. Lurking under the pop veneer is often a somber note. Even the big hit "Our House" has a caveat in the chorus; "something tells me that you've got to get away from it." Not all was goofy in Madness' world.

As the band soldiered on, so did the world view. "Tomorrow's Just Another Day" was so melancholy in its tone that Elvis Costello slowed it down for a remake that wound up darker than the original. The rebuke of "Embarrassment" wouldn't have been out of place on a Costello album. But the exuberance always shines through. When it came time to do a cover song as single, they chose "It Must Be Love," British singer Labi Siffre's 1972 hit. (It was also the band's second and last single to crack the American Top 40, creaking up to a #33 peak.) It's a cheery declaration of devotion, and maybe the lease 'mad' song here.

Working through the band's catalog chronologically helps, too, as the band had two distinct periods. There was the manic early days and then a mature period that left the ska behind and concentrated more on pop. "Our House" is probably the divining point, because what follows is less frantic and more measured. You have "Michael Caine," featuring a cameo from the man himself. Describing the onlooker's desire to get close to an idol, it's also about disappointment. The lounge like sounding "Yesterday's Men" postulates getting older, and "(Waiting For The) Ghost Train" contemplates death and what comes next.

But all that is part of the complete band package. Those early singles still carry a manic punch, while the later days are more layered in their approach. If there was any other complete Madness, I don't know of it. "Divine Madness" packs it all in with a 22 song salute.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Foo Fighters “Sonic Highways”

Headed On The Highway
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Doing a studio tour of various cities, (Chicago, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Washington, DC and New York) with the idea of catching the vibe of each studio seems like a cool concept. Hauling in guests from each location would also seem like a way to make each track sound distinctive (Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr, Zac Brown among others). It's also a tie-in to the HBO (and now BluRay) series of the same name. But there's something a little awry with the concept. The songs all have the same vibe. The Foos may have been sucking it all in while making "Sonic Highways," but the listener doesn't get to share that experience.

There are moments when you get some of the action, like when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band contributes their sound to "In The Clear" (recorded in New Orleans). But they are pretty much buried in the mix, so you just get a minor variation to the basic Foo Fighters' sound. Joe Walsh has a cool solo in "Outside," but it doesn't burn in your mind that it's Walsh. Same for Zac Brown's vocals on "Congregation" (recorded in Nashville). If you want to hear a real Brown Collaboration, dig his work with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell on "Heavy Is The Head" from Brown's own "Jekyll and Hide." The lone exception is Clark's solo in "What Did I Do? / God As My Witness" (recorded in Austin). It's the one guest star who really leaves an impression.

And that kind of sums up the experiments. What you're left with is a pretty good Foo Fighters album. The songs still roar like they should ("The Feast and The Famine" and "Congregation"). They even try a little sonic soul with "I Am A River," "Sonic Highways" climax (which splits the difference, strings recorded in Los Angeles, the meat of the song in NYC). If you weren't aware of the concept of the album, you'd probably just regard it as the Foo Fighters doing what they do best. That's probably all you really need to know about "Sonic Highways"'s Dave Grohl and the men in their element.


Monday, August 24, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Muse “Drones”

Gonna Make You, Gonna Break You.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

In all heir pompous glory, Muse are old fashioned prog-rock band, with the fat trimmed off and aspirations toward the big statement. With "Drones," that landed a live one. "Drones" is allegedly about the dehumanizing of men and the militarization of the world. Y'know, you're a drones, we fight with drones and don't you make me one. Packed with big guitars, flourishing keyboards and Queenly harmonies, it's just what a Muse fan would be looking for, The concept gets a little wavy at times, but it's all good music.

The best songs are where the band stretches out, like "Pyscho" or the sprawling "Aftermath," a 10-minute epic that starts with an Ennio Morricone whistle, plays into a Pink Floyd vibe before finally tearing into some muscular metal. And that's before Matt Bellamy even sings a note, which he does over another flourish of piano. It's not like Muse has not tread this turf before, there was the two-pronged title track to "The Second Law" and the three part "Exogenesis" off "The Resistance." Just this time, they crammed it all into one song and rock it into submission. Same for the album opener, "Dead Inside," which throbs like Queen's "We Will Rock You."

I'm all for bands making sloppy concept albums. Done well, the concept often takes a back seat to the songs (like "Drones") or overwhelms and makes the album fly along one big trajectory (think of the classic Jethro Tull album, "Thick as a Brick"). Either way, you'll get more bang for your buck, and Muse are such a great band that "Drones" is a big deal of fun, without the overwhelm. It's as much a concept album as a return to form. Top notch stuff.


My Amazon Reviews: Drake Jensen “Retro”

Full Speed Ahead In Reverse
5 Out Of 5 Stars

Everyone's favorite out Canadian Cowboy, Drake Jensen, has set the control of his Wayback Machine for his new "Retro" album. Doing a covers album is always a risky venture as you're just as likely to step on a sacred cow than give a song proper respect. Drake walks that balance really well here, making his retro-world a place where Cyndi Lauper cuddles up to George Strait as easily as Pam Tillis plays footsie with Billy Idol. The thread that ties it all together is Drake's honey sweet voice, which, at times does resemble Strait's. It's not a completely country album, but you'll be surprised at just how much Lauper's "I Drove All Night" sounds with just a hint of Texas. Ditto for Idol's "Eyes Without A Face."

That's part of the fun of "Retro." There are a couple of die-hard country standards here, including the late Dan Seals' heart-breaker, "Everything That Glitters is Not Gold" and Strait's "Amarillo By Morning." He's also unafraid about some gender switching covering Tillis and Reba McEntire ("You Lie"). He also steps up to the plate to do a duet (originally by Seals and Marie Osmond) with Tia McGraff for "Meet Me In Montana." There are other artists here that you may be familiar with, some maybe not, But the result is pure; "Retro" may be a collection of oldies, but Drake Jensen makes them sound just like you'd want them to.

I can also recommend Drake's other studio albums linked below. "Stand By Your Man" is a good kicker single.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Breaking Benjamin “Dark Before Dawn”

Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Six years and one messy public breakup later and Ben Burnley has recruited new members drummer Shaun Foist, bassist Aaron Bruch, guitarist Jasen Rauch, and guitarist Keith Wallen and leads this reconstructed version of Breaking Benjamin through "Dark Before Dawn." You could be forgiven for not noticing that the old band members are no longer around, but it also shows a minor flaw: the songs are little more than what you've heard on other BB albums.

So what does "Dark Before Dawn" have to offer? Well, you do have the fact that Burnley is the driving force (after all, the band name name-checks him), and his vocals still are as tough as ever. He does add melody to the well-hewn genre of hard rocking from the alternative zone. The push and pull between Burnley and the guitar licks are balanced nicely (although I will postulate that Aaron Fink was a hotter guitarist then either of the two newbies). There are the sharp, obvious singles ("Failure," "Defeated" and "Angels Fall") that stand out from the pack and a couple non-singles that sound just as good ("Hollow"). Then there is the moment where BB opts to provide a different sound altogether.

"Ashes Of Eden" has an atmospheric instrumental bed and gives Burnley the chance to drop the growling posture and actually sing. His natural voice is far more pleasant than you would have guessed. It's "Dark Before Dawn's" most original song and - by default - its best. It gives a fan hope that BB may have more hidden away in the trick bag than just worshiping Tool or Korn. So there you have it. There's little here to alienate longtime fans of "Phobia" or "Dear Agony" (still my favorite BB CD), but the new band doesn't break away from its sound after the long hiatus. It's just as you would expect it to sound in the scheme of things Breaking Benjamin-wise. That makes this review a minder for readers, if you like your alt-rock better than average, this CD will do just fine. Otherwise, you can take a pass.


My Amazon Reviews: Dawes “All Your Favorite Bands”

Your New Favorite Band Brings It All Together
4 Out Of 5 Stars

On the new "All Your Favorite Bands," Dawes maintain their infatuation with that 70's California sound. I guess all that time spent on the road with Jackson Browne helped mold the band's shape, but on this album, as on the previous albums, Dawes mine that vein successfully enough that they claim it as their own.

As much as this album harkens back to the LA heydays of yore, leader Taylor Goldsmith roots much of the album in modern heartache. The title song may seem like a fond farewell, but it's really a bitter kiss-off. Same with the opener, "Things Happen." Replace "Things" with a four letter word starting with the letter 'S' and you'll catch my drift. All this lyrical tension is buttressed by the band themselves. The playing has become more organic, and they went to a live in the studio recording method. ("Things Happen" was reported to have been nailed on the first take.) It leads to a few surprises, like the electric guitar solo in "I Can't Think About It Now." Or most obviously on the near 10 minute closer "Now That It's Too Late Maria."

Starting with just a hushed drum and low key bass, Goldsmith sings lightly, "Nothing sadder than a street light/shining on a stretch of empty sidewalk." Builds to a slow burn solo before the final verse, then eases into a jam session that winds up as the song continues. It captures perfectly how much the band's chops and trust in interplay has grown, even with the short span of time between "All Your Favorite Bands" and "Stories Don't End." Credit should be given to producer David Rawlings, who captures the band in their natural element, and to Dawes themselves for the leap in compositional acumen. "All Your Favorite Bands" is modern folk rock of the finest caliber and a contender for the best thing I've heard this year.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: James Taylor “Before This World”

Sweet Grown Man James
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Hard to believe we've waited 13 years for new James Taylor songs, but "Before This World" was well worth the wait. His voice, still pure and world-weary has changed little over the decades, even matured a bit, The songs are comfortable, like your old blue jeans. He waxes nostalgic on "Stretch Of The Highway," touches a political nerve on "Far Afghanistan," and lays claim to an oldie for "Wild Mountain Thyme."

This is aural comfort food, impeccably produced with some lush orchestrations and often offering breathing space between the singer and his songs (IMHO a lost art among many current artists). The harmonies are lovely and there's even a drop by from Sting (on the title track). I particularly like "Angels Of Fenway," a tribute both to his Grandmother and a salute to the 2004 World Series winning Boston Red Sox. As a fellow member of Red Sox Nation, I've been wanting to hear the studio version ever since he sang it live at Fenway Park in early May (broadcast on NESN). I was not disappointed.

"Somehow I haven't died," James croons over the opening mellow folksiness of "Today Today Today." "Before the World" often looks back at his life, and to our benefit, James sound confident enough that maybe the next album will come before a 13 year gap occurs. But for now, enjoy "Before This World." Where singer/songwriters are concerned, there just isn't anyone to compare to James Taylor.