- De Nova—The Redwalls. The cover of De Nova tells you all you really need to know. The cover, featuring the band and a strange symbol is a sly homage to the classic second album by Traffic. The Redwalls are an unapologetic classic rock throwback band. In spirit they’re like The Grip Weeds, but while that band focuses their sound on a Byrds/Who mashup, the real touchstone for The Redwalls is the power pop bands of the early 1970s, especially Badfinger and The Raspberries. There’s nothing original here; the album sounds like a compilation of lost tracks from the great power pop bands. But that’s okay. While originality isn’t their claim to fame, who wouldn’t want to hear a great lost Badfinger album? Hooks and catchy choruses abound, the playing is uniformly excellent, and sometimes the songs are really great, especially the slower songs like “Thank You”, “Build A Bridge”, and “Hung Up On The Way I’m Feeling”. There are a few lesser compositions that play all the right notes but sound less than inspired (“Love Her”, “On My Way”, “Front Page”, and “How The Story Goes”) and the high-energy closing track, “Rock & Roll” is about as creative as its title. Still, listening to De Nova is like listening to a great rock radio station in 1974, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
- Rocket To Russia—The Ramones. There have been attempts in the past to compile a “Best of” the brudders from Queens, but those attempts were destined to fail. The simple relentlessness of the Ramones would drive most listeners insane after 40 minutes. The Ramones are best appreciated in their early albums, especially the first four. Each of them clocks in at less than 33 minutes; there’s simply no time to get bored. Of these four, Rocket To Russia is the longest, featuring fourteen songs in a pummeling 32 minutes. It was also their first attempt at growing up…sort of: there was an actual ballad on the album, the excellent “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”. At their heart, The Ramones were totally in thrall to the early days of rock and roll. On Russia they do a blistering, yet loving, cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”. But this is still a Ramones record, where cretins hop at Rockaway Beach, where Sheena’s a punk rocker, where teenagers are lobotomized by DDT, and where a happy family gulps down Thorazine. It’s all great, great fun. A half hour of prime Ramones is almost impossible to resist: they’re like the Archies, but sped up and full of steroids. Great, dumb, fun.
- After Bathing At Baxter’s—Jefferson Airplane. Take six talented musicians and singers, fill them with psychedelic drugs, pour them into a recording studio with an unlimited budget and time, no adult supervision, and what do you get? The third Jefferson Airplane album. First, the good: the band’s innate talents are enough to get them over the finish line for much of the first part of the album. “The Ballad Of You, Me, And Pooneil” has some bizarre lyrics but the song is about folk singer Fred Neil, who was a bizarre guy. Still, there’s a great vocal attack from Grace Slick and Marty Balin, and Jack Casady starts to step up on bass. “Young Girl Sunday Blues”, the great “Martha”, “Wild Thyme (H)”, and the frenetic “The Last Wall Of The Castle” are all very good. None of them, except “Martha”, compare favorably the songs on the previous album, the classic Surrealistic Pillow, but they’re still worthy additions to the Airplane canon. The rest of the album is far more problematic. “Rejoyce” is an okay piano tune that has what may well be the zenith of hippie solipsism in the line “I’d rather my country die for me.” “Watch Her Ride” and “Two Heads” are a little beefier musically, but are held down by uninspired playing and dated psychedelic lyrics. The combination of “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” starts promisingly with the “Won’t You Try” section but collapses into boredom once “Saturday Afternoon” rolls around. Worst of all are “A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly”, a mercifully brief sound collage, and the atrocious jam “Spare Chaynge”, which is ten minutes of your life you will never get back. Those two songs make up almost 25% of the album, a mortal blow from which it can never recover. What hurts Baxter’s the most is the lack of songs from the Airplane’s best songwriter, Marty Balin, who co-wrote only “Martha”. Too much of the rest falls victim to Grace Slick and Paul Kantner at their most pretentious.
- More Fun In The New World—X. The fourth album by Los Angeles’s best punk cum rockabilly band, X, is a triumph on almost every level. The last album produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, More Fun In The New World is the album that X always wanted to make. The furious punk rock attack of their début album is still there in the form of barn burners like “Make The Music Go Bang”, “Devil Doll”, “Painting The Town Blue”, and “I See Red” but the album also features change-ups like the radio-friendly “The New World” and “True Love”, the pop catchiness of “Poor Girl”, the tone poem “I Will Not Think Bad Thoughts”, and even a cover of “Breathless” that falls short of Jerry Lee Lewis’s hit but still allows the band to indulge in their love of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. Oddest of all is the album closer, “True Love, Pt. 2” a white boy funk song that uses “True Love” as a starting point and that beats the Talking Heads at their own game. It gives the band a chance to pay tribute to some of their favorite songs, from “Be Bop A Lula” to “Land of 1000 Dances” to “Mother Popcorn” to “One Nation Under A Groove”. It also references songs as disparate as “Skip To M’Lou”, “I Been Working On The Railroad” and, surprisingly (and hilariously) Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”. It’s completely infectious and probably would have sounded great on the dance floors of 1983 America. Throughout these thirteen songs the band is as tight as Lana Turner’s sweaters, and the Slick/Balin-inspired vocal attack of John Doe and Exene Cervenka is relentless. Whether More Fun In The New World, or even X in general, should really be classified as punk is open for debate. What is settled is that when they were at their best, this was a great band with great albums. There’s not a bad track on this.
- Wasting Light—Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl’s second best band has just released their best album since 1997’s The Colour And The Shape. Maybe the best album of their career. It’s clear that spending a lot of quality time with Josh Homme has rubbed off on Grohl. The songs on Wasting Light are thick and muscular, like the best work of Queens Of The Stone Age or Them Crooked Vultures, but contain no shortage of the 1970s power pop sensibilities that Grohl brings to the table. For a guy who burst onto the scene with Nirvana, a band that wore its indie punk rock credibility like a badge of honor, Dave Grohl obviously spent an enormous amount of time listening to big 70s stadium rock. He clearly owns more than one Wings album hidden in between the Bad Brains and Black Flag LPs. The negative rap on Foo Fighters has been that they swing wildly between the extremes of stadium ready power pop like “Learn To Fly” and squalling noisefests like “X-Static.” At their best (most of their singles and a whole bunch of album tracks), they combine these elements to create heavy, driving rock music with huge, soaring hooks. That’s the sound of Wasting Light. This may be the Foo’s hardest rocking album, just as it may be their catchiest. Yes, “White Limo” veers off in the “noise” direction thanks to its heavily distorted vocals, but the rest of the songs are a complete validation of Grohl’s omnivorous approach to rock music. “Burning Bridges” rides a pummeling riff with an explosive chorus, “Rope” has a choppy, staccato rhythm for the verses and a chorus that is among the most melodic you’ll ever hear in a hard rock song. “Dear Rosemary” features a great guest vocal from Bob Mould (no stranger to marrying heavy punk with catchy choruses), “Arlandria” may be their best song since “Learn To Fly,” a near-perfect synthesis of heavy and hooky. “These Days” inverts the formula (and brings back the Nirvana formula) and presents a gentle, melodic verse and a crushing chorus. “Back & Forth” deftly blends Queen-ready verses with a Husker Du chorus: arena punk rock. “A Matter Of Time” and “Walk” mine similar territory, running Grohl’s childhood listening experiences through the prism of punk rock. “Miss The Misery” is a bit of a letdown, but not bad, and “I Should Have Known” reunites Grohl with Krist Novoselic in a heartfelt (but still hard rocking) song about Kurt Cobain, where Grohl channels all the anger and sadness that the Nirvana singer’s suicide clearly caused. Wasting Light is the Foo Fighters at their best.
- Boscobel Blues—The Greenhornes. Released in a very limited edition on Jack White’s Third Man Records, Boscobel Blues is a brief, 7-track collection of demos recorded by The Greenhornes around the time they released the great EP East Grand Blues. Three of these songs (“Pattern Skies,” “I’m Going Away” and “”Shelter Of Your Arms”) ended up in re-recorded versions on that EP, two others (“I Need Your Love,” “Saying Goodbye”) were remade for their most recent LP, ****, and the remaining two tracks have never been officially released. The difference between the tracks on Boscobel Blues and their official releases is striking. Jack White claims that these demos are his favorite Greenhornes songs and it’s easy to see why. The songs are well-recorded but far from pristine. There’s a real grit and nastiness to these versions that is toned down on the official releases. The guitar solos are more ragged, the performances are loose and raw. The effect is akin to hearing a live album, but recorded in a studio. Of the songs that are available elsewhere, these demos are at least as good as, if not better than, the official releases. Of the two unreleased tracks, the first (“Open Your Eyes”) is the weakest. It’s a good song with a great guitar solo, but maybe a bit too derivative of the Greenhornes’ garage rock influences. The second is a rip-roaring heavy garage version of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” that does for Brown what the Who did for Eddie Cochran when they covered “Summertime Blues” (or, ironically, what the Who did for Brown when they covered “I Don’t Mind” and “Please Please Please” on their first album). Excellent throughout.
- Rated R—Queens Of The Stone Age. There are some bands that seem to evoke a geographical location. A band like the Doors or the Red Hot Chili Peppers are pure Los Angeles. There’s a real Southern Gothic feel to early R.E.M. Queens of the Stone Age is a brutally hard rock band that nevertheless evokes (for me, at least) the desert. Listening to Rated R is like hearing the soundtrack of a long drive through the Southwest United States, with the top down on the car, sunglasses on, wind in your hair, and desolation on your mind. There’s nothing in the music, per se, that leads to this thought, though band leader Josh Homme is from Arizona. There’s just something about the sound. The opening riff fest “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” sets the table brilliantly. The lyrics of the verses are a simple repetition of “Nicotine/Valium/Vicodin/Marijuana/Ecstasy and alcohol” while the chorus is a stuttered “Cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cocaine” and there’s a hilariously over-the-top guitar solo. The first half of the album bounces from strength to strength. There’s the extraordinary and catchy “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” that sounds like a great lost Foo Fighters track (it’s abundantly clear why Homme and Dave Grohl united for various Queens songs and the Them Crooked Vultures project…they’re cut from the same musical cloth). “Leg Of Lamb” carries a distorted syncopation and sounds like a heavy Beck track. “Auto-Pilot” is a gently rolling song punctuated with stabs of electric guitar that creates an enormous amount of tension that breaks into a brief acoustic and harmony vocal bridge. After four excellent songs comes “Better Living Through Chemistry,” which indulges the dirge/stoner rock Josh Homme can lapse into. It’s not terrible, but it’s too long and it lays there like the bleached bones of an animal in that desert sun. Fortunately the album picks up again with “Monsters In The Parasol,” but the rest of the album is a bit of a dodgier vibe. “Monsters,” and “In The Fade” are the only songs in the second half that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those first few songs, though “Tension Head” comes close and “Lightning Song” is a very good acoustic instrumental. Other than that, “Quick And To The Pointless” is aptly named and “I Think I Lost My Headache” starts as a another dirge and ends with nearly three minutes of tuneless horns…a sad ending to an otherwise good album.
- Wild Gift—X. If Rated R was top-heavy, X’s sophomore album Wild Gift is bottom heavy. Most of the elements that made their first album Los Angeles so remarkable are back, notably the vocal attack of John Doe and Exene Cervenka and the rockabilly/punk Chuck Berry-isms of guitarist Billy Zoom. But there’s simply no way that Wild Gift can be considered on the same level as Los Angeles. The former is one of the greatest punk albums of all time and one of the great rock albums of the 1980s. The songs on Wild Gift are simply not as consistently great. Although considered by many to be a classic X song, “Adult Books” does absolutely nothing for me, “Universal Corner” and “I’m Coming Over” are performances in search of a song. These three songs, none of which are bad, per se, arrive as tracks 3-5 of the album. Surrounding these songs is greatness. The 1-2 punch of “The Once Over Twice” and “We’re Desperate” that starts the album is surpassed only by the eight songs that end the album. The buzzsaw guitar of “It’s Who You Know,” the vaguely Mariachi Chuck Berry sound of the guitar fills “In This House That I Call Home,” and the ferocious blending of Doe’s and Cervenka’s voices on “When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch” are standouts. It’s not as good as their first album. Few albums are. But despite a lackluster interlude near the beginning, Wild Gift is a stellar sophomore effort.