Monday, April 18, 2011

The Belle Brigade - "The Belle Brigade" (8.3 of 10)

Well this is why I review music, painstaking and frustrating though it is - sifting through crappy albums week after week like a Sutter's Mill miner in 1849. But then, there it is - a shiny gold nugget amidst the sediment of worthless mediocrity. I don't know anything about The Belle Brigade other than it's a brother-sister duo who are from L.A. And they are a fusion of Buckingham-Nicks, Mates of State, and the Everly Brothers if one of them was a girl. Got it? This is an amazing debut with great melodies, impeccable harmony, and enough diversity to always keep it interesting. Coming to a festival somewhere near you this summer, and when they become huge, remember I said it here first. I wish his voice was a little less nasally...but whatever.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Alison Kraus and Union Station - "Paper Airplane" (7.7 of 10)

They have forged their own sound and own genre over the years - no longer just bluegrass, not exactly country or folk, and certainly not pop- so just what ARE they? Obviously they rely upon Alison's angelic voice as well as the musicianship of Union Station. Now we just need melodies since there is no principal song writer in the group. And, it seems to me, that they have struggled to find proper songs the past few albums to make a coherent, flowing album that could stand the test of time and could be pointed to as their "classic." Hits and misses all over the place...and it's no different here. You get what you get. And it's nice enough, but name me the standout track or moment? What leaves you humming the tune as you walk away? Maybe "Lay My Burden Down" I suppose. Or "My Love Follows You Where You Go." Very nice moments there. But since Alison could sing the phone book and make it sound amazing, it's always worth the money to hear any album she's a part of.

Paul Simon - "So Beautiful or So What" (8.3 of 10)

It's just so difficult to make a new album 45 years or so after your first one and not sound tired, boring or irrelevant. Especially since you haven't put out a "decent" album in 20 years, and not a "great" one in 25 years! And count me in as someone who was skeptical when I approached this album. But this new Simon album makes me feel 10 or so - back in 1972 - listening to his first solo release. Ok, there's no "Mother and Child Reunion" here, but this is great stuff. Melodic and insightful...even joyful at times as he sings about darker topics such as mortality. Completely eclipses and makes to seem silly most of the singer/songwriters of today. They know who they are, and I suspect that you do too. Love that title track!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Strokes - "Angles" (7.9 of 10)

Reminiscent of their first 2 albums...and yet...more mature and experimental? Sort of? Ah - I am failing at this review. Just know that, for long-time Strokes fans, you will love the first 3 songs - as good as it gets from them really. Then, a mis-step on the 4th track ("You're So Right"), and then it's back to the "non-hit" type of songs formula from their 1st 2 albums. Which isn't so bad - A Cars nod here, a Blondie nod there. Production certainly more atmospheric here - Julian doesn't sound like he's singing in a box. I'm not a fan of the ballads "Call Me Back" and "Life Is Simple In the Moonlight." Honestly, if it were to me, I would just go to ITunes and buy the first 3 tracks and be done with it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bruce Cockburn - "Small Source of Comfort" (7.8 of 10)

He gets a 7 on this album just for the song "Call Me Rose" which will definitely make my "Best of 2011" songs list. But here we have a master artist, a true craftsman, working his magic in his 50's on his acoustic guitar. Nice melodies and insightful, thought-provoking (overtly political at times) lyrics. Not a boring exercise here - a fresh muse discovered and given to us as a gift. Download this and ask yourself : Is Bon Iver better than this? Amos Lee? Mumphord and Sons? What kind of a world do we find ourselves in now?!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Eisley - "The Valley" (8.7 of 10)

Magic, magic, magic. Ok, I've been waiting for this one for a couple of years now - they've had huge contract disputes with Warner Brothers but now, fortunately, have landed on another label. Plus, after their completely magical and lovely first album (Room Noises), they put out a completely mediocre 2nd effort (Combinations), so it's been quite a wait for Eisley fans. Since "Combinations," the 3 DuPree sisters have had, unfortunately, a string of broken hearts and relationships, and it all comes tumbling out here on "The Valley." In a good way. The anger, hurt and disappointment are expressed in honest ways that don't overwhelm the songs, which is an art. To say that I prefer the melodies of Stacy's songs more than the "grittier" sound of Sherri's songs is simply a personal preference, but they're all good here. And both sisters sing their hearts out...with all that they are and all they have. What a performance! "The Valley" also displays an amazing leap of growth and maturity in their songwriting without sacrificing the loveliness of their songwriting. In many ways it could be said that nobody crafts melodies today with that intangible "pixie dust magic" (Gene Simmons' description of ABBA's music) that Eisley does. And that is a gift. And it's such a plus to have their original producer back at the helm! He knows what to do with these gifts of music given to him. The album closes with a glorious flourish of 4 fantastic songs, including the best one - the finale "Ambulance." Don't miss this! Great stuff, highly recommended, and it will take a great effort from other artists to keep it out of my "best of" Top-5 of 2011 list.

Ron Sexsmith - "Long Player, Late Bloomer" (7.5 of 10)

Elvis Costello has said that Ron Sexsmith was born in the wrong era. I really didn't know what he was talking about until listening to this new Sexsmith album - his 10th. For better or worse, this would have been a mega-hit in, say, 1977 or 1978. He sounds like a combination of Morrissey and Costello, except infinitely more melodic and less quirky. If I had one theory to leave the music world before I die, it is this: If a group or artist is labeled as being "woefully neglected" or "criminally un-lauded," there's a reason for it - they suck. However, Ron Sexsmith has gone a long way of being an exception to the rule with this release. Good stuff and recommended - especially the first 3 songs.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Re-Visiting Elton John's 1970-1976 Albums

Once upon a time I owned every single Elton John album....the 1st 7 or 8 anyway. In fact, my 1st album purchase was 1972's "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player" when I was 9. Unless you are older than 40 years old (or so), you don't realize how HUGE Elton John was in the 70's. And how great many of his albums truly were (and are). So, as a favor to those of you who don't know where to start with EJ, here is a brief review of each of his 1st few albums. If your collection doesn't contain at least 3 or 4 of these, it is a deficient collection. Rather that go in chronological order, I will assort them from best to "worst."

1. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) - Has definitely aged better than any other EJ album because I would have put this maybe 3rd or 4th if you had asked me to rank these albums in college. The album artwork and liner notes, I am convinced, have lessened the positive impact of this album initially and over the years. I'm not sure I could say that about the artwork of any other album I know of! The band is tighter than ever, instrumentation perfect, production not as over the top, the lyrics are autobiographical so Bernie Taupin can't kill things with his cynicism and triteness, and the melodies are magnificent. And Elton actually sings his ass off for once. The only hesitation I have in giving this album the top rating is the last 2 songs which I find to be pretty weak.

2. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) - Makes the "100 Best Albums of All Time" lists in many publications, and there was a time when I would have told you that it was the best album ever made. The reasons for putting it #2 upon further reflection over the years are as follows: 1. Clearly over-produced 2. Bernie Taupin's ridiculously (and un-necessary) sordid lyrics and subject matters. 3. Too many fillers....I think this should have been a single album.'s difficult to find any fault with the first 7 songs....a must-listen for any music fan before they die. Just the first 7 songs anyway.

3. Elton John (1970) - Tough call here, but the beauty of most of these songs (recorded in a 2 day period with the London Symphony) is too hard to ignore. "Your Song," "Border Song," "I Need You to Turn To," "Take Me to the Pilot" - one could argue that he never again penned songs as lovely as these.

4. Tumbleweed Connection (1970) - The follow-up to the 1st is the favorite Elton John album for many bohemians and gen-Xers - maybe it's the stripped down sound and alt-country feel - who knows? The 2 highlights for me are "Where to Now St. Peter?" and the epic finale 'Burn Down the Mission" which wowed Bob Dylan when he heard Elton play it at the Traubadour Club in L.A. in 1970. Other than that, it's sort of hit and miss for me...I just think some of the songs are way too long and waaaay too dull.

5. Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player (1973) - Wow, does this album have some great, great moments. Of course a lot depends on what you think about the opener "Daniel." I'm not quite sure why this song about a Vietnam vet polarizes folks, but whatever. "Teacher, I Need You" is one of my all-time favorite songs by anybody - maybe the apex of EJ's career. But this is the point where Bernie Taupin's lyrics become a needless distraction, and "Crocodile Rock".....let's just say it hasn't aged well. "High Flying Bird" is a very nice closer.

6. Madman Across the Water (1971) - Since I was 11 I have given this album chance after chance to be great and to grow on me....but after the first 2 classic songs ("Tiny Dancer" and "Levon") the album really drags. The title track is nice, as is "Indian Sunset," but that is IT. Too bad.

7. Honky Chateau (1972) - Y'know, now that I think about it, a very good case could be made to move this up to #4 or #5 on this list. "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man" are 2 of his very best songs by a mile and that should count for something. It comes down to the "filler" songs I suppose, and I have always found the other songs on here to be depressing over the years. The tragedy here is that I love the sound/vibe/production on Honky Chateau....the last "non-Phil Spector" sounding album of this whole period.

8. Blue Moves (1976) - His last album with producer Gus Dudgeon and the curtain closer on the "Great Era." Completely over-produced....I think Dudgeon used every single knob/track at his availability on this one. the years go on this album has an endearing quality to it - hit and miss to be sure, but I really like a lot of the tunes. It's a double-album, so I'd better like SOME of it! The 1st 2 sides I like actually better than #4-7 on this list! Go figure.

9. Caribou (1974) - The first album after Elton had conquered the universe with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." I was so freaking excited when I put this on the turntable for the first time - first day it came out in fact. "The Bitch Is Back" is fantastic as is the next song "Pinky." "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" - classic. And "Grimsby" is pretty good. But oh my gosh...the rest of it is a complete mess. It gives me a headache.

10. Rock of the Westies (1975) - Elton fires his band for some reason, gets a new one, and decides to rock out. That's 3 strikes by the way. Honestly, there isn't one highlight on here unless you want to count the song about a 6-3" Jamaican hooker - "Island Girl." And yes, that sentence is accurate. A total embarrassment.

That happens to be a whopping 10 albums in 7 years. Amazing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New album reviews Feb. 15 2011

Bright Eyes - "The People's Key" (5.0 of 10) - It would be too easy for me to rip on Connor Oberst, so I will take a deep breath. A more "mature" and "accessible" Bright Eyes is on display here. The whining of earlier works are replaced on this album with (apparently) a wiser, more vulnerable outlook. He tries to go more up-tempo on most of the tracks, and that is appreciated, but his lyrics just don't connect as he crams together all sorts of metaphors and cliches that sound impressive enough, but I have no idea what he's getting at. Way too serious or vague - I guess I'd have to ask him.

PJ Harvey - "Let England Shake" (9.2 out of 10) - I wouldn't call it amazingly accessible for the general public and it's certainly not very radio-friendly. Her A and R man probably does not hear an obvious single (I'd go with "This Glorious Land" myself), and those who eagerly await a return to the stylings of 2000's "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea" will have to wait another few years at least. This is a stripped down affair from her yet again, though with a jangly guitar/snare drum in place of piano. But..... this is brilliant stuff - both lyrically and musically...the contrast between this and the Bright Eyes offering is ridiculously stark. Her socially conscious lyrics are precise and almost nursery-rhyme like, but oh so effective. "I've seen and done things I want to forget/ I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/ Blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees." And delivered in that haunting, believable voice that is unique to PJ Harvey. Love the beats/percussion she has come up with...keeping everything from descending into so much preachy sentimentality. A perfect blend and a classic album.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

John Vanderslice - "White Wilderness" (8.5 out of 10)

This is a median score (8.5) depending on what mood I was in or who I was listening to it with. That sounds like a cop-out and it is. This album was recorded with a backing symphony, which raises over-produced red flags for many (like Elton John's 1976 "Blue Moves" for instance), but I don't THINK there's an electric instrument on here. Vanderslice's acoustic guitar leads, but it's the vocal and symphonic arrangements that really make this into an artistic masterpiece of sorts. Although I'm a little miffed at Vanderslice for blatantly ripping off Belle and Sebastian's "Acts of the Apostles" on his song "Convict Lake," but no matter. That's a minor complaint. We'll let them work that out. But this is unlike any cd you are likely to hear. Without sounding like a complete poseur, it reminds me of early 20th century French composers such as Eric Satie or even Maurice Ravel. Melodic enough to keep things interesting, but not exactly tunes that you are likely to remember enough to hum afterwards. Not sure who the string arranger is, but it sounds like perhaps the son/daughter of Paul Buckmaster. If you're looking for a musical journey with lots of depth and twists and turns, then this is for you. Sounds enduring to me. This should have been the cd Sufjan recorded as a follow up to "Illinoise", so keep that in mind too. No Jetsons' era bleeps and blips on here however. Thank God.

Monday, January 24, 2011

First quick reviews of 2011

Well, here we go! Another year of music. Will there be music to lift our hearts, lyrics to make us wonder and reflect? Please, Lord, let it be a great year for music.

Iron and Wine - "Kiss Each Other Clean" (7.3 out of 10) - It is what it is...with even some Age of Adz noises thrown in for whatever reason. Do he and Sufjan hang out? There are moments of niceness to be sure, but on the whole I am pretty indifferent. Nice dinner music for indies. If it's a curry dish, I'm there!
Aaaaaand, that's all for this week. I heard nothing else worth even reviewing. Sigh.