The Listening Post: May 2009

For those interested, brief reviews of what’s been in heavy rotation lately:

  • Parallel PlaySloan. The Canadian power poppers album took a little while to sink in, mainly because it was in competition with Rooney’s instantly likable debut album. However, this is the deeper, richer collection of songs. Very catchy melodies matched with lyrics that are clever without being “cute.” The song “I’m Not A Kid Anymore” is particularly heartbreaking when you hear it while waiting for the train to work on a cold and rainy morning. Grade: B+
  • RooneyRooney. From 2003, the debut album by Rooney has more great hooks than a tackle box. Beach Boys-inspired harmonies (dig “Blue Side”) and Beatles-inspired music make a great combination. The album is, however, somewhat insubstantial. Unlike the Sloan album, the lyrics here go for “cute” in a style very reminiscent of Fountains Of Wayne. It’s good for a band to have a sense of humor. It’s not so good when you feel like they’re cracking jokes. Putting that aside, it’s a fine album. Grade: B
  • Modern GuiltBeck. Maybe Beck’s strongest album. The production by Danger Mouse adds a very cold feel to the overall sound of the album, but it’s mixed with some of Beck’s warmest melodies. It’s like standing in the middle of an ice cold rainforest, or perhaps a blazing hot Arctic tundra. The lyrics are unrelentingly dark, but the music is bright. The result is an album that holds up very well to repeated listens. Grade: A
  • Attack And ReleaseThe Black Keys. Speaking of Danger Mouse, he also produced this extraordinary collection of molten blues-based tunes. There’s just enough Danger Mouse weirdness throughout the album to give the songs a little more color than you’d expect from a Keys album, but all the strengths of the Keys are plainly evident: crunching guitar, gutbucket drums, bluesy vocals, and great, great songs. Grade: A+
  • RocksAerosmith. More than 30 years after this album was released, I feel like I’m arriving a little, erm, late to the party. But the truth is that I was never that much of an Aerosmith fan. I liked their 70s singles, and hated their 80s and 90s comeback. But I finally succumbed to pressure and put Rocks in heavy rotation. I don’t quite take back all the negative things I’ve said about Aerosmith over the years, but jeez, this album is great. But then, you probably already knew that. Grade: A+
  • CommunionThe Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Due to the enormous glut of music I’ve gotten my hands on lately, combined with various iPod and computer problems that seem to have finally ironed out, my opinion may change as I catch up. But Soundtrack’s latest is my favorite album of 2009…even if it did come out at the tail end of 2008. This is their most consistently great album since Behind The Music, and maintains that consistency over a sprawling 2 CDs. Soundtrack sound kind of like every great band you’ve ever heard all rolled into one package, and this is their finest album. Hopefully it won’t be years before the next album. Grade: A+
  • Deaf PriscillaBeauregard Ajax. Talk about arriving late to the party. The sole album by Beauregard Ajax was recorded in 1968, but never released until 2006. The master tapes had been damaged so there are a couple of sonic glitches on the album, but overall this is a surprisingly good collection of psychedelic pop. Less avant garde than early Floyd, less frightening than Jefferson Airplane, it’s fairly safe with a twist of odd. There’s nothing spectacular here, but there’s nothing really bad, either. Grade: B-
  • WarpaintThe Black Crowes. For their reunion album, the Crowes managed to pull off something the Smashing Pumpkins could not: deliver a strong album that ranks with their best. It sounds like no time at all has passed since the Crowes broke up (which is understandable, because when the Crowes debuted it sounded like no time had passed since 1972). The bluesy tunes, strong guitar work (dig the great slide on “Whoa Mule”) and Chris Robinson’s weathered vocals are finally matched to a set of songs that deserve them. I’m in a tiny minority when I claim that Three Snakes And One Charm is a great album, but this is their best since then. If you’re one of the many who weren’t partial to that album, then this is their strongest since The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion. Following this with a live version of the album was really lame, though. Grade: B+
  • Turn OnThe Music Machine. From 1966, the sole album from the original lineup of The Music Machine is a fuzzed-out, garage rock classic. While it can’t compare to any of the real classic albums of the 1960s, Turn On is a strong collection of originals and covers (including a blistering “Taxman” and a pre-Hendrix bluesy version of “Hey Joe”). There’s nothing on the album that stands shoulder to shoulder with the Machine’s one moment of sheer brilliance, the incomparably raunchy “Talk Talk,” but the rest of the album holds up pretty well. Grade: B
  • Bridge Of SighsRobin Trower. I don’t know how this album got past me when I was a young, guitar-besotted music geek with a Hendrix fixation. It’s not like I’d never heard of Robin Trower. In fact, I nearly ran to the record store to buy the two albums he did with Jack Bruce in the early 80s, and I loved them. All that time I heard from people who told me to listen to Bridge Of Sighs, but I never listened until the last few months. Well, you were right. It is an excellent album full of soulful vocals and Hendrix-ish guitar playing. It sounds like Trower spent most of his time listening to the post-Electric Ladyland Hendrix, because it’s that very heavy string distortion that he picks up on. The cat can play, but the limits are also evident here. Trower may be a great guitar player, but he’s always going to make you think of Hendrix. On this album he’s got really strong material, but without strong songs it’s evident he’d be just a slightly better Frank Marino. Grade: A
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