The Listening Post: March-June 2014

Music to fade out the long, cold winter, slide through spring, and crash into summer.

  • Morning PhaseBeck. The most instantly noticeable thing about the latest offering from Beck is the sound. It is crystalline in its clarity, with a precise separation among instruments; each individual note can be heard clearly, as if the band was playing in your living room through the world’s greatest sound system. In other words, it sounds almost exactly like Beck’s 2002 masterwork Sea Change. In fact, the similarity in the sound is so striking a casual listener could easily believe that both albums were recorded at the same time, in the same studio, by the same producer. But Morning Phase is Beck’s album, even if the production borrows very heavily from Sea Change producer Nigel Godrich’s sonic palette. Beck has described this album as his “1970s California-sound, singer-songwriter” album, but it’s definitely not that. There are barely any trace elements of Jackson Browne, the Eagles, James Taylor, or any of the other artists associated with that state and that decade. There is a hint of Byrds in the vocals, especially in the the layered voices of songs like “Heart Is A Drum”, and the prominent acoustic guitar that provides the musical accompaniment for the songs was the weapon of choice for the sensitive songwriters. But this is Beck, so there are all sorts of odd elements thrown into the mix. Synthesizers swish in like wind, chimes ring, understated piano fills gaps. It’s a very laid back album, perfect for early Sunday mornings, but it also takes a few listens to get into. At first listen, the songs blend together in a sleepy, indistinguishable mélange. The deeper the listener goes, the more treasures the album reveals. Beck’s vocals are stunning throughout, and the instrumentation is lush and layered. Morning Phase contains nothing as strikingly brilliant as Sea Change‘s best moments, but it is never less than a warm and beautiful listening experience.
    Grade: B+
  • Flip Yer WigHüsker Dü. The first album that proved Hüsker Dü was more than just noisy thrash punk rockers was the sweeping double album rock opera Zen Arcade, but it was the two albums that followed that really set the band apart. The second of these albums, Flip Yer Wig, is a loud, in-your-face, distorted punk album that further explores the territory the band was staking out on Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. That territory was pure pop music. Long before Nirvana became famous for doing the same thing, Bob Mould and Grant Hart were writing songs that combined chainsaw guitars and wall of noise production with Beatles melodies, and the effect is thrilling. Hüsker Dü had put aside the sheer noise of their earliest recordings and had fully embraced the idea that punk rock could be bracing and loud but also tuneful. At first listen, Flip Yer Wig can be very disorienting and alienating, but if given the chance the melodies start to rise from the distortion. Despite the ferocity of its attack, Flip Yer Wig is one of the catchiest albums of the 1980s. The band would go even further in this direction on subsequent albums, though they never lost that punk edge. At this stage there are still a few songs here that serve as reminders of the band’s origins in the hardcore punk scene. “The Wit and the Wisdom” is an instrumental noisefest that’s a throwback to the Zen Arcade-era, and the less said about the mercifully brief “The Baby Song” the better. But those flaws are no match for the pop music perfection of “Makes No Sense At All”, “Games”, “Green Eyes”, and “Flexible Flyer”, or the pummeling “Hate Paper Doll”, “Every Everything”, and “Divide and Conquer”. There’s even the quasi-psychedelic closer “Don’t Know Yet” to strengthen the band’s ties to 1960s pop music. Hüsker Dü was never music for the faint of heart: this is loud and very aggressive music. But they were blessed by having two superior songwriters in Bob Mould and Grant Hart, who were on the same page and who shared the same love of pop. At a time when it was frowned on in punk circles, Hüsker Dü proved that punk could be as melodic as pop without sacrificing one ounce of edge. In doing so, they were one of the bands that made the world safe for the alternative rock explosion of the early-90s.
    Grade: A
  • You Were RightBrendan Benson. Jack White has talked about how in the Detroit rock scene of the late 1990s, a scene that included the White Stripes, all of the songwriters on the scene wanted to be Brendan Benson. With good reason. Jack White has gone on to prove himself the (far) superior talent, but Benson’s innate tunefulness and songwriting savvy are so well-honed that he’s nearly incapable of writing a truly awful song. You Were Right, his latest album, is another collection of the power pop gems that Benson seems to have in unending supply. The biggest criticism of Benson (similar to Paul McCartney) is that the lesser songs in his canon are the ones where it seems like he rushed or failed to put on the finishing touches. His worst songs have half-baked lyrics or lackluster melodies, both problems that could be fixed if he put in a little more effort. There are a few of these songs on each of his solo albums, but they’re easily overwhelmed by the good stuff. You Were Right is not as strong as his previous album, What Kind Of World, but it’s still a success. The biggest problem with this album is that many of the performances seem uninspired. All of Benson’s hallmarks are on display here: catchy choruses, dark and funny lyrics, harmonies, melodies, strong vocals. But the production seems somehow thin, as if the album was a collection of professionally recorded demos. Benson’s power pop was always more closely aligned with the early Who singles or Badfinger’s harder rocking moments, but on this album he sounds more like bands like the Shoes or Pezband. That’s not a bad thing at all; these are solid, catchy tunes. What’s missing is the fire that drove the best of his earlier work. Some of You Were Right is truly great, especially the first three songs (“It’s Your Choice”, “Rejuvenate Me”, and “As Of Tonight”) and all of it is an easy and pleasurable listening experience. But Benson is suffering from the curse of high expectations. His fans expect a home run almost every time, so it can’t help but be a bit of a disappointment when he only hits a double.
    Grade: B
  • Dig Out Your SoulOasis. The final album by Britain’s most tuneful yobs is a return to form, yet retains striking differences from the Oasis of Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? fame. What’s mostly gone are the giant, stadium-sized hooks that made the earlier albums the best that Britpop had to offer. There’s no “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Champagne Supernova” here. This has the curious effect of making Dig Out Your Soul sound more like a lost album by The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Of course, TSOOL was a great band in their own right, so that doesn’t mean the album’s bad. In fact, the first half of it is extraordinarily good. The first five songs are probably the best sustained chunk of music Oasis released after their stunning odds-and-sods compilation The Masterplan. “Bag It Up”, “The Turning”, and especially “Waiting For The Rapture” and “The Shock Of The Lightning” are all excellent songs, and “I’m Outta Time” is nearly that good. It’s the second half of the album that disappoints. None of it is bad, but the second half simply doesn’t equal the first. There are some fine moments here: “Ain’t Got Nothing” rises to the peak of the first songs, and “Falling Down” and “To Be Where There’s Life” are also very good. But “(Get Off Your) High Horse, Lady” is mediocre, and the two songs that end the album do so on a low note: “The Nature of Reality” and “Soldier On” are listless and uninspired. It’s a shame that the Gallagher brothers weren’t able to sustain the quality of those first songs. Had they done so, Dig Out Your Soul would sit nicely alongside Definitely Maybe.
    Grade: B+
  • Fables of the Reconstruction: The Athens DemosR.E.M. In 1985, R.E.M. issued a direct challenge to their fans. After two brilliant albums of muted music and indecipherable, elliptical lyrics, the mighty Murmur and Reckoning, their third album sounded like it came from another band. This other band shared some of R.E.M.’s tendencies (mumbled vocals, inscrutable lyrics) but Fables Of The Reconstruction was a collection of often bizarre folk tales, layered with odd sounds and effects. At the time some were calling it R.E.M.’s “psychedelic” album, though that’s not anywhere close to the mark. That’s what makes this disc so interesting. Packaged as part of the 25th anniversary release of Fables, The Athens Demos collects rough versions of the songs from Fables, plus demos of B-sides and songs that turned up on later albums. What’s surprising here is that so many of the songs that appeared on Fables already have the stranger elements in place: the weird sonic textures that sounded like they were dreamed up in the studio with producer Joe Boyd are mostly present and accounted for in these rough studio recordings. In some cases the lyrics are not complete, or are slightly different, but most of the music is right there in the early stages. Yet the remarkable thing here is that the songs sound like the band that recorded Reckoning playing the songs from Fables. The feel and overall sound of the demos is far closer to the earliest R.E.M. material. Joe Boyd kept the weirdness of the songs, but applied a lot of polish to the recordings. Fables sounded clean, but the demos sound more like Murmur than the finished product. None of the recordings here are as good as those on the final album: lyrics are flubbed or not there, and the quality of the recordings themselves is rushed and sloppy. But The Athens Demos gives insight to the growth and songwriting process of the best band of the 1980s. This is most evident on “Throw Those Trolls Away”, a genuinely terrible song with really bad lyrics that one year later would emerge, significantly altered, as the ferocious “I Believe” on Lifes Rich Pageant. The Athens Demos are not essential listening, and won’t make anyone forget the spectacular Fables, but for those fans who are interested in the process of writing and recording, or who always wanted to hear what Fables might have sounded like if Mitch Easter had been kept as their producer, it’s worth a few spins.
    Grade: B
  • Sunday At Devil DirtIsobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. The co-founder of Belle & Sebastian, the lovely Isobel Campbell is a dark, dark lady. To look at her is to see a stunning blonde beauty, but to hear her music is to dive deeply into a modern folk blues. For a series of albums she’s turned over the main vocal duties to former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan. His voice, gruff and soaked in whiskey and cigarettes, provides the perfect vehicle for Campbell’s tales. It would be easy to mistake these albums for Lanegan’s solo work. Lightly picked acoustic guitars, throbbing bass, strings, and barely there drums provide the majority of the musical accompaniment, but it is the vocals that carry the album. Lanegan’s voice is deep and resonant, the sound of a man haunted by his past even as he tries desperately to escape it. Campbell is the ghost that haunts him. She sings like a memory feels. Her voice is ethereal, whispering, seeming to come from nowhere but the farthest reaches of the listener’s mind. She’s not so much partnering with Lanegan here as she is providing a balance: she is his opposite vocally, even if both draw their lyrical inspiration from the same dark places. She is the sole writer of these songs, but takes the lead vocal only on one song (the terrifying “Shotgun Blues”). But it’s not fair to say that she is merely a backing singer or a harmony vocal. She may not be as prominent as Lanegan, but it’s Campbell that drives the album. Sunday At Devil Dirt is a fine collection of modern folk ballads, complete with tales of wandering, loneliness, infidelity, murder, and death. Campbell even goes to the source of all dark literature by rewriting Edgar Allan Poe on “The Raven”. This is about as far away from “commercial” music as you can get; it won’t be playing on the radio any time soon. The songs here tap into something much older, and much more satisfying. It can be a challenging listen, and isn’t the sort of thing you put on at the family barbecue. This is music for the night, when the ghosts come out.
    Grade: A
  • The Golden Age Of GlitterSweet Apple. The indie/alternative rock “supergroup” Sweet Apple is to 1970s arena rock as the Rutles are to the Beatles: both a loving tribute and a band that can stand on their own material, however derivative it may be. Their second album plows the same field as the first, though the accent here is more on power pop; there’s nothing as gargantuan as the first album’s “Blindfold” or “Do You Remember?”, but all of the elements are still firmly in place. Heavy guitars? Check. Catchy choruses? Got ’em. The obligatory acoustic number to show your sensitive side? Right there at track 4. Arena-shaking vocals? Of course. “Wish You Could Stay”, featuring a cameo from Mark Lanegan, starts the album on a very high note. It may be the best song the band has ever done, a near perfect combination of heavy guitar and pop sensibilities. Of course this means the rest of the album falls short of that intro. The band wears their influences on their sleeves, but the influence is one of sound. They don’t sound like Zeppelin or the Who or Queen or Grand Funk Railroad. They sound like all of them at the same time. The one exception, oddly enough, is “We Are Ruins” which practically channels the Brian Jonestown Massacre. As side projects go, Sweet Apple is a good one. The band is clearly having a lot of fun playing in the style of the music they grew up listening to and, while The Golden Age of Glitter may fall a bit short of their first album Love & Desperation, it’s still a nice reminder of just how good the 1970s could be when it came to rock and roll excess. There are no Golden Gods in Sweet Apple, but there are clearly four guys who spent their childhoods kneeling at that altar.
    Grade: B
  • Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete SessionsR.E.M. Way back in 1984, R.E.M. appeared on an MTV show called The Cutting Edge, which focused on underground bands. They were interviewed and performed a few songs acoustically. In 1991, R.E.M. was one of the most popular bands in the world, riding very high with the success of “Losing My Religion” and, unfortunately, “Shiny Happy People”. They once again took their acoustic instruments to MTV, this time appearing on the show Unplugged. In 2001, R.E.M. was past their peak and had assumed the role of elder statesmen, but once again took to Unplugged. Now that they are no longer a working band, they have released a complete compilation of both of these later performances, and the album serves as a reminder of just how potent R.E.M. could be. The 1991 performance with the original band is better. The band is loose, the songs are powerful, and there’s a very intimate feel to it. Not everything works (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” falls flat when stripped down) but some things work unexpectedly well (“Radio Song”). The rest is a trip through then-recent R.E.M. history. The accent is on the newer material; with the exception of a shimmering “Perfect Circle”, a cover of the Troggs hit “Love Is All Around” and the obscure B-side “Fretless”, all of the songs came from their four most recent albums. This is the band in the middle of their glory years, and they knew it. In the 2001 performance, drummer Bill Berry is gone and the new material is not as strong. Still, there are six songs from their then-current album Reveal, plus another three from the previous album, Up, and all nine of those performances prove what I’ve long suspected: R.E.M. was writing very good songs, and losing their way during the recording process. The songs from Reveal and Up benefit greatly from these performances. The album versions sound sterile and cold, but in these performances it’s possible to hear the same band that had appeared on Unplugged ten years earlier. But the heart of the 2001 set is the classic R.E.M. in the middle: “Losing My Religion” (the only song to appear in both performances), “The One I Love”, “South Central Rain”, “Country Feedback” (which works beautifully), “Cuyahoga”, and the indescribably gorgeous “Find The River”. These songs simply outshine everything that surrounds them, but the important thing is that the newer songs sound like they fit in, even if they’re not quite as good. This is not true of the album versions. Oddly, the most organic song on Up, “At My Most Beautiful”, lies limply and sucks the air out of the room, but the heavily electronic “Sad Professor” shines in the stripped down format. R.E.M. lost a lot when Bill Berry left, but Unplugged reveals that the songs they were writing in the wake of his departure were still of an exceptionally high caliber, and deserving of better treatment than what they got in the recording studio.
    Grade: A+ (1991 show)
    Grade: B+ (2001 show)

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The Listening Post: May 2012

A remarkably good month for listening.

  • BlunderbussJack White. It’s as simple as this: Jack White’s first solo album is so good we should all buy him a gift this Christmas. The leadoff single, “Love Interruption”, was so uncharacteristic of White’s career that questions were immediately raised about what the sound of a White solo album would be. Despite that he was the guiding power of the White Stripes, that was clearly a sound that contained him. It was a punk version of blues, and Meg White’s primitive drumming was as much a part of the sound as White’s guitar. The Raconteurs, with their neo-classic rock leanings, allowed White to embrace the pure rock/pop side of his career. The Dead Weather were different yet again: industrial, Goth, techno blues rock. Will the real Jack White please stand up? On Blunderbuss, he does, and the result is the best album I’ve heard since 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely, or maybe even 2003’s landmark Elephant…both of which featured two different sides of Jack White. As rock performers go in the 21st century, there’s Jack White and everybody else. Nowhere is this more clear than on Blunderbuss, which is White’s Revolver. That’s a comparison I don’t make lightly and it deserves some explanation. Like Revolver, Blunderbuss touches on many styles: the Stripes-ish guitar skronk of “Sixteen Saltines”, the acoustic loveliness that underpins the devastating lyrics of “Love Interruption”, the melancholy dirge of “On And On And On”, souped up R&B in the Little Willie John cover “I’m Shakin'” (which also gives a quick glimpse into White’s humor as he squeals “I’m noy-vous!”), the swirling country-tilted lullaby of the title track, the multi-layered, multi-faceted gem of “Take Me With You When You Go.” Yet also like Revolver, the album holds together as the coherent vision of a singular artist.

    Much is made of the lyrical content of the album, with comparisons to Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. White divorced singer and model Karen Elson last year, and the lyrics on Blunderbuss could easily be seen as emanating from the broken-hearted aftermath of a marriage gone wrong. That may be too simple. If true, then Karen Elson gets the Good Sportmanship of the Year award for singing backup on the album. Whatever her singing talents are, it is simply impossible to imagine Sara Dylan singing backup vocals on “Idiot Wind”. Of course, breakups happen in other ways, too, and the other relationship of White’s that ended last year is the White Stripes. In some ways, it’s easier to see Blunderbuss as an embittered reaction to the ending of that relationship: “you betray your dead brother with another hypocritical kiss,” “black hat, white shoes, and I’m red all over”, “and you’ll be watching me, girl/taking over the world/let the stripes unfurl” all could tie back to the myths and image of the White Stripes. At the end of the day, though, it’s not that important. What is important is that the words are good, and the music is restlessly inventive and creative. For a Jack White record, what is possibly the strangest thing is that the main instrument is Brooke Waggoner’s gorgeously cascading, tinkling piano runs. Waggoner eschews the traditional rock piano sound of banging chords or Jerry Lee Lewis-style freneticism in favor of elegant runs. Also of note is drummer Carla Azar who plays everything with a wild, shuffling sound. Even on the heavier, rockier songs Azar provides a groove that simply will not quit. Her drumming is astounding throughout as she, as Waggoner does on piano, avoids rock music drumming clichés. Where almost any drummer would pound, Azar glides effortlessly. Waggoner and Azar, as much as White, make the sound of the album, and their refusal to play in the way a million rock pianists and drummers before them have played, makes Blunderbuss prime material for multiple listens. It’s difficult to imagine a better album than this coming out this year, or maybe this decade. Blunderbuss towers over its competition. The rich, subtle, and powerful instrumentation, the timeless lyrical concerns, the stubborn refusal to sound like any other rock album within earshot make this one a modern classic that will most likely stand the test of time. You know…like Revolver.
    Grade: A+
  • What Kind Of WorldBrendan Benson. Sometimes it’s difficult not to feel bad for Brendan Benson. His solo career has never risen past the small cult status, and the band in which he’s an equal partner (the mighty Raconteurs) is routinely referred to as a “Jack White side project” as if Benson didn’t write and sing half the songs. Now he’s released one of his best albums and it comes out the same day as…well, there’s that Jack White fella again, hogging the spotlight. But Benson has no reason to hang his head. What Kind Of World is an excellent album. As is typical of Benson albums, there are a couple of songs could have been better. “Keep Me” is a good little ditty that never rises past faint praise. “Bad For Me” swings perilously close to late 70s MOR and isn’t helped by a lackluster vocal and occasionally clumsy lyrics (“she sucks my soul”? Really?). But as downers go, both of these songs are pretty darn good. They’re just not up to the standard of the rest of the album, where Benson lets his hard-charging power pop flag fly. The album has more hooks than a tackle box, and Benson’s great achievement is remembering that “power pop” is supposed to have “power”. So in between the hooks are plenty of charging guitars, slinky bass grooves, and raucous vocals. Benson’s tunes are as catchy as the Spanish flu, but he never fails to remind you that he’s a rocker to the core. What keeps the album interesting are the brief detours like the country-flavored album closer “On The Fence” or the synth textures on the twisted tone poem “Pretty Baby”. Elsewhere, songs like “Here In The Deadlights”, “Met Your Match”, and “Come On” are more than ample evidence that Benson is a performer to be reckoned with and it is his sound and vision that the “Jack White side project” most closely emulates.
    Grade: A
  • Medium RareFoo Fighters. This is a largely unknown collection from Dave Grohl and company. It was released as a vinyl album in 2011 to celebrate Record Store Day, and it was a CD for subscribers to Britain’s Q magazine. This is a collection of cover songs that, with three exceptions, have all been released as single B-sides, soundtrack songs, and random non-Foo compilations. It shows the depth of the influences that run through the Foo Fighters. Kurt Cobain, despite his admitted Beatle fixation, would probably be appalled at Grohl’s choices here, but then Kurt sadly never took the opportunity to mature out of his indie/punk credibility issues. Grohl, however, has always been less shy about acknowledging his debt to rockers of the past. On Medium Rare he tips his hat to classic rock (Paul McCartney’s “Band On The Run”, Thin Lizzy’s “Bad Reputation”, Cream’s “I Feel Free”, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”, a beautiful acoustic version of the Zombies’s deep cut “This Will Be Our Year”, and Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar”), 80s New Wave (Gary Numan’s “Down In The Park”), early MTV (Joe Walsh’s “Life Of Illusion”), funk (Prince’s salacious “Darling Nikki”), old school punk (“Danny Says” from the Ramones), and both the melodic (Husker Du’s “Never Talking To You Again”) and blistering (“Gas Chamber” by the Bad Brains) sides of hardcore punk. There’s also a sloppy but reverent live version of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” that the band did for VH1 Rock Honors The Who. Of the tracks, only “Darling Nikki” misfires. The band plays it well, trading in Prince’s funk for Foos rock, but Grohl’s vocal—especially his throat-shredding screams of “Nikki!!!”—don’t serve the R-rated humor of the lyrics. Otherwise, these are all excellent covers. Drummer Taylor Hawkins sings “I Feel Free”, “Life Of Illusion”, and “Have A Cigar” and it’s a shame that the Foos don’t use him to sing one or two tracks per album. Vocally he could be the Keef to Grohl’s Mick. There’s really nothing mind-blowing on Medium Rare, and yet this is one of the most consistently good albums in the band’s repertoire. There is nothing that will make you reach for the “skip” button, either. The best of these performances are, no surprise, the best songs. “Band On The Run” is heavier than McCartney’s original, but Grohl wisely allows the arrangement to remain unaltered, and while “Baker Street” misses that justifiably famous saxophone hook, the guitar that takes its place does no harm. The songs are great and well-chosen, the performances are rock solid. What’s not to like?
    Grade: A-

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+

The Listening Post: July 2009

Quickie reviews of what’s been rockin’ the Odd Pod this month…

  • The Pipe Dreams Of Instant Prince WhippetGuided By Voices. Robert Pollard’s Guided By Voices was one of the more frustrating acts in popular music. At their best, they did hard-edged power pop that was absolutely sublime. At their worst, they did half-written songs lacking tune or melody. Like Ryan Adams on speed, Pollard was ridiculously prolific. Because Pollard lacked an editor to weed out some of the lesser songs, GBV albums tend to be hit or miss. Some, like Isolation Drills, are start-to-finish great. Composed of outtakes from Isolation Drills and Universal Truths and Cycles, the 23-minute, 10-song Pipe Dreams falls on the underwhelming side. Most of the songs are half-baked and feel decidedly incomplete. “Visit This Place,” “Dig Through My Window” and the title track are superior songs, and “For Liberty” is a a good piece of filler, but much of the rest just drags. There’s nothing really awful on this disc, but there’s nothing within a mile of Isolation‘s or Cycles‘s best moments, either. Grade: C+
  • 21st Century BreakdownGreen Day. Never before has a band gotten so much mileage out of the word “Hey!” There are currently two bands aiming to pick up The Who’s crown, now that The Who is The Two. The first of these is Pearl Jam, who carry the mantle of The Who’s stadium ready anthemic rock songs. The second, surprisingly, is Green Day, the punk rock trio from Berkeley, California. Green Day’s come a long way from the days of three minute pop punk songs about marijuana and masturbation. Now they’re writing honest-to-God rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. The first of these, American Idiot, was a powerhouse collection of songs and performances. The latest, and what could be termed a sequel, or perhaps the flip side, of American Idiot, is 21st Century Breakdown. I’ve been listening, and I’ve read the lyrics. There’s a theme of alienation and disenchantment with the state of America today, and characters with actual names (Christian and Gloria), but I’m damned if I can figure out what the actual plot is (but then, I still don’t know the plot of American Idiot, either). As songs, most of them are really solid. The title track is a heavily charged anthem fueled with punk rage, while “Christian’s Inferno” crackles with demonic laughter and a ferocious performance. Perhaps strangest of all is “Peacemaker” which sounds like a Jewish folk song fueled by amphetamines, like an outtake from Fiddler On The Roof played by The Clash. There are some complaints: at over an hour, it’s a whole lot of Green Day; there’s a certain sameness to a lot of the songs; the first single “Know Your Enemy” goes nowhere, and the ballads “Last Night On Earth” and “Restless Heart Syndrome” only prove that Green Day’s strength is in short, sharp, and aggressive songs. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that type of song on this album. Grade: B+
  • Flop & The Fall Of The MopsqueezerFlop. An unknown gem, the 1992 debut album from the Seattle band Flop is a strong collection of catchy power pop tunes played with a relentlessly hard guitar edge. From the opening guitar crunch of “I Told A Lie” to the joke album ender “B” (a simple count off followed by one crashing chord), the energy of the album remains high. There are punk rock ravers like “Zeus My Master,” hard-edged pop songs (the irresistible “Tomato Paste”) and one perfectly chosen cover song, the Kinks obscurity “Big Sky,” that is played in a heavy, amped-up style far removed from the Kinks’s far gentler version. The album lacks the brilliant vision of their Seattle peers Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, but compares favorably to better-known Seattle bands like The Posies or The Young Fresh Fellows. Grade: B+
  • One MisssissippiBrendan Benson. Another debut album, this one from the power pop songwriter currently adding light to Jack White’s shade in The Raconteurs. Benson’s solo albums are all pretty similar. That said they’re also all really good and One Mississippi is no exception. There’s a delightfully surreal aspect to much of Benson’s songwriting. The guy’s got a warped sense of humor. A title like “Sittin’ Pretty” evokes all sorts of images. The catch line of the chorus (“My baby’s tied to a chair/Don’t she look pretty/Just sittin’ there”) is not one of them. But when the lyric is matched to a great, catchy pop tune it’s almost impossible not to sing along. Similarly, who would believe that there would ever be a really great song written about insects taking over the world (“Insects Rule”)? There’s also “Got No Secrets,” a great parody of the “too much information” types who remain an annoying presence in the media (“When I was a young boy/I was beat up by my dad/I grew up fast/I took drugs/And now I’m in rehab”). From start to finish, the album contains one pop gem after another, despite a couple of songs that aren’t quite top quality (like the album opener “Tea” and closer “Cherries”). Like a combination of Paul McCartney, the Raspberries, and early Who, Benson writes smart, catchy songs that rock. Grade: B+

Consolers Of The Lonely, by The Raconteurs

Consolers of the LonelyBack in 2006, the White Stripes’ Jack White, solo artist Brendan Benson and The Greenhornes rhythm section of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler released Broken Boy Soldiers, the soundtrack of four immensely talented friends hanging out and writing and recording music.

Soldiers was a gem of an album. It clocked in at about 35 minutes, full of tight performances and gritty work. Along with Pearl Jam’s eponymous disc, it was one of the great records of 2006.

Two years and one White Stripes album later, they have returned with a more serious effort. Consolers Of The Lonely is the band recording in a professional studio (as opposed to Brendan Benson’s attic), and taking the time to write songs. The result is the best album of 2008 so far and, barring a miracle, the best album of 2008 when the calendar rolls around to January of 2009.

While Soldiers was a great, loose recording by four friends, Consolers is the sound of an actual band firing on all cylinders. Soldiers sounded like a side project for the musicians involved; Consolers sounds like a mission statement.

Where the songs on the first album sounded, in some cases, like sketches and ideas, the songs here sound like they’ve been crafted with loving hands. The fact that at this point in time both White and Benson seem to be in the zone where everything they touch turns gold certainly helps.

The album starts with some of the same looseness of the first album. There is studio dialogue, and a little girl’s voice asks to be told the story about the chicken. Then the title track comes roaring in like a typhoon of crushing riffs. More studio chatter as someone says, “We’ll doubletrack that.”

Over the course of the next 55 minutes, the Raconteurs open up the textbook about everything good in rock music. Three part harmonies; swapped lead vocals, guitar crunch, punchy horn sections, a mix of rockers and ballads, cool lyrics, diverse instrumentation, great melodies. If you are a fan of rock music in general, and not hung up on one genre or another (“I only listen to Metallica, man!”), then there is absolutely nothing on this album not to like. Every song should please the average rock music fan. It is more melodic than the White Stripes (thanks to Benson), heavier than Benson (thanks to White), and has a rhythm section most bands would kill for.

Benson and White complement each other as perfectly as Lennon and McCartney. Lennon was the literate rocker who wrote some great ballads; McCartney was the consummate romantic balladeer who wrote some brutally heavy rockers. Similarly, White brings the heavy to the Raconteurs while also writing great ballads and melodies, and Benson brings a golden ear for melody, a rich strong voice, and a willingness to turn the amps up to 11. Or even 12 in some places. Together, and all but one song are co-written by White and Benson, they have written the finest songs to appear on a rock album in years.

From the Sergio Leone feel of “The Switch and the Spur” to the riff-o-rama of “Salute Your Solution” and the title track to the neo-soul of “Many Shades Of Black” to the intense balladry of “You Don’t Understand Me” to the manic “Five On The Five” to the smartly chosen cover of Terry Reid’s “Rich Kid Blues” to the epic Gothic murder ballad/story-song “Carolina Drama,” Consolers Of The Lonely is as close to perfect as an album gets. Not only are there no bad tracks, there are no missteps at all. This is smart rock music, lovingly crafted, and meticulously recorded.

This is not simply a good album or even a great album. This is a classic album.