Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Mumford and Sons "Wilder Mind"

With nary a banjo in sight.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

In what must feel as divisive as the day Bob Dylan plugged his electric guitar in at the Newport Folk Festival, Mumford and Sons put away all their acoustical instruments and jack in the electrics. I don't see how this album could do anything but divide those fans who listened to "Sigh No More" and "Babel," then come to this. "Wilder Mind" says so long to the banjos and hello to the amplifiers. Is this a good thing? How does the band deal with wanting to step into the shoes of U2?

I don't think it's any secret that Mumford and Sons always wanted to sound big. After all, even with the acoustic guitars, the songs were often all about the bombast. Think of how potent "Lover Of The Light" or "The Cave" are, even behind the sound. They are anthems meant to shake the rafters. A friend of mine even referred to "Babel" as "God and Bombast." Turning the amps up is kind of a natural progression for the band. But I still doubt anyone would have predicted the pounding that comes from "The Wolf" or "Ditmas."

What remains is Marcus Mumford's voice and his way around a lyric. The songs are credited to the entire band, which likely meant that each member designated his volume to the instrumentation, as the lyrics remain as soul searching as ever, and a little less on the God Quest side of things. And when the sonics aren't overwhelming, the songs sound as brightly as they might have on the band's earlier albums ("Believe" and "Hot Gates").

This may still come as a bitter pill to swallow for the fans expecting more of what the first two albums represent. I would suggest that you test the samples first or think about what U2 (or a heavier version of Coldplay) might sound like. The songs themselves are good enough for me to forgive the amplification, but "Wilder Mind" takes a little getting used to. Be prepared.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Walk The Moon "Talking Is Hard"

Pop is Easy
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Walk The Moon are a band that makes the kind of effortless pop that can make a power popper go green with envy. Almost every song here is perky, danceable and anchored with a mighty hook. You've likely heard the invincible single, "Shut Up and Dance." But fair warning; it's the best song on the CD. Like a lot of bands enamored by 80's new wave and synth pop, much of "Talking Is Hard" is very derivative, even though it's a lot of fun. It's jellybean music, all sugar and chewy.

As a genre album, you can't do much better. Walk The Moon remind me more than a little of Neon Trees, who also specialize in this sort of dynamo pop. Even when they try and scream one out ("Up 2 U"), you're still playing spot the influence, even though you're still digging the hook. "Work The Body" has a hand clapping goodness about it - it could easily be the follow-up single. The overall effect of the album is one of effervescence and cheeriness. When they ask "What do you spend your money on?" and respond in kind, "I hope it's something of value," they could easily be describing "Talking Is Hard." There's nothing heavyweight here, but it's all in good fun. "Shut Up and Dance," indeed.


Monday, June 22, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: My Morning Jacket "The Waterfall"

Chasing Waterfalls.
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Cleaning their sound up a bit while still maintaining their status as one of our best jam bands, "The Waterfall" finds My Morning Jacket relaxing into a great groove. There are plenty of Jim James' soaring falsetto and guitar hero chops, like on "Spring (Among The Living)." (I've seen MMJ three times now and can attest that he's a monster live.) From the bubbly synth that opens "Believe (Nobody Knows)" to the extended play out of "Only Memories Remain," this is the My Morning Jacket album that takes the experiments aside and concentrates on the band's strengths, much like "Circuital" did. And since they decided to stretch out of their comfort zone and record in the sunny spaces of California instead of the hallowed grain silo, it seems like a little California sunshine and polish made its mark on the boys.

They ponder nature ("In Its Infancy"), flirt with folk rock ("Tropics") and even commit to a relatively straightforward break up song ("Get The Point"). There is still a wall of sound aspect to the band, yet this time their seems to be a buffing away of some of the rougher edges. But it's always been the cascades of sound that has been the main attraction of My Morning Jacket. Their combination of folk, psychedelia, and instrumental prowess is one of many reasons that MMJ are one of the most interesting American bands currently making music. It's also soulful; the inspiring "Thin Line" and "Only Memories Remain" are cases in point. The band still keeps to their path of eclecticism and we're all the richer for it.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Alabama Shakes "Sound And Color"

Flashing lights and blinding colors
4 Out Of 5 Stars

First of all, there is that voice. Brittany Howard is a force of nature, one to be reckoned with, and she makes it count on Alabama Shakes' second album, "Sound and Color." Now that they've established themselves with their still awesome debut, they used the time wisely to both road test the new songs and use the studio as an instrument. The opening vibes on the title track are your first clue. There's a touch of psychedelics there, but don't fret. "Don't Wanna Fight No More" is one of those songs where Brittany just cuts loose. It's a hot vamp for guitarist Heath Fogg to work over. Or take in the primitive stomp on "Gemini."

There's a lot of that going on for "Sound and Color." The band is mixing it up, the way the album's title would suggest. They still have that dirty south feel to the sound of it all, but they also want to expand their range. They're painting with a much broader palette than before. Be it the garage band pulse of "The Greatest" or the blues wail of "Gimme All Your Love," "Sound and Color" is a huge leap forward from "Boys and Girls." Once again, this band is a force of nature. Raw and roots, soul and rock, it all comes together.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Death Cab For Cutie "Kintsugi"

Make Up For The Breakup
4 Out Of 5 Stars

"Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?" So asks Ben Gibbard, on what feels like a break-up album. He went through a tabloid-y divorce from actress-singer Zooey Deschanel and lost Death Cab Co-founder Chris Walla as the album was being recorded. That's a pretty big pair of voids to fill. Death Cab For Cutie's rise to that challenge is "Kintsugi," maybe their sparsest album yet. The title itself refers to the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, the repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. The literal definition of making up for the breaking up.

These potent messages abound on "Kitsugi," be it the new wave-ish "The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive" to the bare bones "You've Haunted Me All My Life." But for the most part, Gibbard sings above spare guitars and lightly brushed drums. Then he gulps down a line like “You’ll never have to hear the word ‘no’/If you keep all your friends on the payroll” and you can't help but wonder if the electro-pop of "Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)" is directed towards his actress ex. There's more ex-angst here than on a Taylor Swift album, and the album revels in it.

"Kintsugi" is a varied album stylistically, if not emotionally. It harkens back to "Transatlanticism" more than the chipper "Codes and Keys," Even with the despair and emotional disrepair, the album ends on one line of hope from "Binary Sea." "There's something brilliant about to happen here," Ben croons. It's a crack in his heart that he finds a way to repair, and signs "Kistsugi" off with a glimmer of goodness yet to come. It's smooth sailing, one hopes, and Death Cab finds a way to negotiate the twists and turns like masters. All breakups should be fodder for art this good.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

My Amazon Reviews: Hozier "Hozier"

That's a Fine Looking High Horse.
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Hozier hit the jackpot with his first pull of the lever. "Take Me To Church" is haunting, daunting and almost painful to listen to, which makes it virtually impossible to get it out of your head. It warranted the purchase of "Hozier," the self titles debut CD. He's got a decent voice for the near blues of the bulk of the album, and he's an OK songwriter, but one problem. None of the other songs catches fire the way "Take Me To Church" does. I'll give points to "Jackie and Wilson," it's a fairly clever bit of singer-songwriter workout. There's also the duet "In A Week" (with Karen Cowley), which offers some variety from Hozier's vocal angst. The lack of more memorable songs is exacerbated by the album's length; there's 13 songs that drag into each other. That's a shame, because "Take Me To Church" is a five star song, but the rest of "Hozier" just doesn't measure up.