The Listening Post: September 2009

What’s new on the iPod this month.

  • BackspacerPearl Jam. Nobody’s ever accused Pearl Jam of loosening up and rocking just for the sake of rocking, but they might start after this album. It’s a brief collection (less than 40 minutes) and has the loose feel of a band just having some fun in the studio. It’s not as powerful as their last, eponymous album (their best, to my reckoning), but it’s a consistently good listen. There are two tracks (“Just Breathe” and “The End”) that sound like leftovers from Eddie Vedder’s solo soundtrack to the movie Into The Wild, but the rest of the songs are solid rock. On the album opener “Gonna See My Friend” the band surges with a Who-like riff rocker powered by Matt Cameron’s fluid rolls. “The Fixer” is a killer single and one of the standout tracks on the album, along with the anthemic “Amongst the Waves” and the pensive “Unthought Known.” On “Johnny Guitar,” inspired by the cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s album What The Hell Is This?, Vedder even discovers sex, right down to the tried and true rock lyric playing on the double meaning of the word “come.” Saucy Eddie! It’s good to hear these guys lightening up and playing Rock without trying to save the world. Grade: B+
  • Fear Of MusicTalking Heads. I’m really just getting around to Talking Heads. I know they haven’t been a band in about 20 years, but if you’ve never heard it before it’s still new music, okay? The Heads were always a band I never cared all that much for. I liked several of their early singles, but that was about it. Last year I finally gave a listen to, and fell in love with, their debut album ’77. I’ve just taken Fear Of Music out of heavy rotation. It’s a good album, with several songs that are just flat out brilliant. The triad of “Cities,” “Life During Wartime” and “Memories Can’t Wait” are so good that it’s kind of a shame the rest of the album falls far short of their mark. An early foray into world music (“I Zimbra”) is good, as is “Paper” and “Heaven.” “Air” comes closest to the high-water marks of the album but still falls short. After “Air” the album falls apart, the slide beginning with “Heaven” and accelerating with the dead weight of “Animals,” “Electric Guitars” and “Drugs.” Ending your album with three consecutive bummers is not the way to do it. Overall, a mediocre album, but “Cities,” “Wartime” and “Memories” are essential listening. Grade: B (on the strength of those three songs alone).
  • Deserter’s SongsMercury Rev. Brings “shoegazing” to a new level. This is considered Mercury Rev’s best album by critics in the know. If that’s true, I’ll pass on the rest of their discography. There are several odd pop gems on this album, like the opener “Holes,” “Opus 40,” “Hudson Line,” and “Goddess On The Hiway.” The rest of the album ranges from decent (“The Funny Bird,” “Endlessly,” “Tonite It Shows”) to unlistenable “avant pop” soundscapes (“I Collect Coins,” “The Happy End,” “Pick Up If You’re There,” and the final couple of minutes of the otherwise very good “Delta Sun Bottleneck”). Overall, despite the occasional gems, the high-pitched vocals and excess noodling make this a hard album to like. Grade: C-.
  • Sun Giant EPFleet Foxes. The first recorded effort (for Seattle label Sub Pop) by the harmony masters. This is my first exposure to the band and it’s a winner. There are only five songs on the EP, including the opening piece, a mostly a capella tune called “Sun Giant” that barely crosses the two-minute mark. While sung beautifully, it’s a slight tune, as is the EP closer, “Innocent Son.” It is the three songs in-between, “Drops In The River,” “English House,” and “Mykonos” that make this collection so good. The writing on all three songs push up against the wall of brilliance, and the performances of those songs, with their intricate harmony vocals and swirling, psych-folk musicianship, breach that wall. Grade: A-
  • My Old Familiar FriendBrendan Benson. The latest effort from songwriter/singer/Raconteur Benson is another fine collection of solidly written and performed tunes. The guy knows how to write a song, that’s for certain. Like all the Benson solo albums, there’s a bit of chaff in the fields of wheat. In particular, the album sags not too long after it begins. While it gets off to a great start with the ecstatic “A Whole Lot Better,” the paranoid “Eyes On The Horizon” and the ELO-inspired “Garbage Day,” the album falters with “Gonowhere,” the turgid “Feel Like Taking You Home,” and “You Make A Fool Out Of Me.” Fortunately, that’s the only bad patch on the album and, as bad patches go, it’s considerably better than a bad patch on an album by, say, My Chemical Romance. Even at his worst, Benson’s catchy and likable. The album gets back into high gear with the excellent “Poised and Ready” and “Don’t Wanna Talk About It,” and maintains that excellent standard through the closing “Borrow” which sounds like Wings rocking out on a level that old band rarely approached. Not a classic album, but a thoroughly solid and enjoyable one. Grade: B+
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