Scroll down for the latest releases by Frisbie,
Crowded House, The Effigies, Maximo Park, Jason Falkner, Dolly
Varden, Ian Hunter, Paul McCartney, The Pillbugs and The Bees
Frisbie had to take a detour in order to
get to this point, the release of their second studio album.
Band leaders Steve Frisbie and Liam Davis had to take detours
caused by bad luck and the resulting personnel changes. That
the new record sounds, for the most part, like a logical progression
from 2000's The Subversive Sounds Of Love is a testament to
both the talent and perseverance of Frisbie and Davis.
Frisbie and Davis are joined by a new rhythm
section B drummer Gerald Dowd (best known for his work backing
Robbie Fulks) and on bass, Matt Thompson (who also deserves
kudos for his fine production). Dowd and Thompson insure that
there is no drop off in the quality of musicianship. The Frisbie
sound is part of the tradition of great melodic pop that the
Beatles beget in the 60s. The reference points are familiar,
Big Star, The Beatles, The Posies, Matthew Sweet. What gives
the band an identity are the individual and collective vocal
talents of Frisbie and Davis. They prove yet again that a
special blend of voices can make a band stand out right away.
On this album, Steve and Liam carry on what I would imagine
to be the Frisbie mission statement to build on the traditions
they embody, while twisting them with lyrics laden with imagery
and unexpected rhythms, melodies, and timbres.
This is evident right from the get-go on
New Debut. This song may or may not be alluding to the band
itself, as certainly this album represents the debut of the
Mach II version of Frisbie. There are allusions to bitch[ing]
about stolen stripes and how others are dyin to
see whats left of you, and in the telling middle
eight: and the kids are all carryin on/when you
come round/will the kids even know you were gone? Does
this represent a worry as to whether the fans will stick around?
Beyond this guessing game, New Debut embodies
the musical principles I referenced above, the mid-tempo verses
with creative drumming, a sparkling lead guitar line (kind
of a less glammy Elliot Easton-type part), and a chorus dependent
upon the extremely special blend of the voices of Frisbie
and Davis. Moreover, the production is a bit stylized, compressing
the vocals in one spot, highlighting the woodblock elsewhere,
little touches to be sure, but much appreciated. Where the
song goes from good to great is after the final instrumental
break, when it slows down, with Frisbie singing dolefully
over an acoustic guitar and some keyboards, as the song goes
to a sudden fade out. Competing emotions wrestle here, as
hopefulness competes with trepidation.
Coming right after the New Debut the band
takes a look back at its true debut, reviving the Davis sung
Disaster. Whereas the Subversive Sounds rendition
of this song was lilting and loping, this rendition takes
a more straightforward pop-rock approach. The guitars are
crunchier, and the whole thing is a bit more forceful. The
song is equally impressive in this new version. Another older
Frisbie song, Yes Impossible, finally makes it
onto a recording, sporting a new arrangement. For years, the
band did the song in a classic Britpop shuffle style. Now,
its more of a driving guitar pop song. Under this new
arrangement, the melody is not as rooted to the rhythm, so
much as it is laid on top of it. Yet, the middle eight is
still the same as the original. This recording will likely
divide long time fans those new to the song will likely wonder
what all the fuss is about, and just smile and bop their heads.
But no one will disagree about Lather, the album
closer, which is simply a classic Frisbie track, which sounds
like it could have come off of the debut.
One thing hasnt changed one bit. Frisbie
still can raise the roof with an anthemic crescendo, sometimes
building to it and sometimes making seem like it came out
of nowhere. For example, I Speak Your Mind is
a pulsing, urgent number, Davis belting out the verses, littered
with cool internal rhymes. It's a great combo of frantic melody
and galloping rhythm. The trick of the song is it slows down,
after speeding up, and then...explodes in grandeur in the
chorus. The song is already insinuating and memorable and
that great chorus takes it to the heights.
Its interesting how some of the same devices
are used on The Main Complaint, yet the song has
a whole different feel then anything the band has done before.
The song comes in on clipped guitar chords that show a bit
of an art-pop bent (if you knew that theyve been dropping
Brian Eno covers in their live sets, that might help explain
things) -- this could turn into a Mission Of Burma song. Well,
until the falsetto vocals kick in, again grounding the song
in rhythm, while accenting the vocal line with cool distorted
lead guitar lines. The rhythm slows and picks up a bit, back
and forth. The song simply builds tension, releases it a bit
during the Beatle-y middle eight, and then they head back
to the killer main riff, throw in one more verse, and pick
up the tempo slightly at the end. This builds the tension
that doesnt quite release and then...scene! So much
happens in just over three minutes on this excellent song.
Its appropriate that what might be
the most accessible song on the disc is subverted by the lyrics.
Or rather, one word in the lyrics. S.F.B. sounds
like a radio hit. Mixing Who-inspired keyboards (sometimes
they sound like the repeating patterns found on the classic
Whos Next album) with a modern adult power pop groove
that is akin to Semisonic, yet not imitative, the song swells
to a chorus that anyone can sing along with...though not everyone
will. Youre so fucking beautiful/its hard
to be in a room with you/and I want to get/want to get out
now. Its so radio ready -- do you bleep it out? Substitute
friggin or fricking? Thats for others to figure out
the easy part is that I cant get the chorus out of my head.
(Note the band will be releasing this as a single,
blanking out the ucking' part.)
New Debut affirms that Frisbie is still on
the right path. The strongest criticism I can level at this
record is that it's a bit skimpy with only 10 tracks. But
the 10 tracks are memorable, imaginative and affecting. Let's
just hope that the wait for the next Frisbie album isnt
Time On Earth
Not only was Crowded House was consistently
excellent over the course of its first four albums, each album
was distinctive. The debut was simply a matter of establishing
the bands style and sound, and was, of course, a runaway hit.
Temple Of The Low Men was infused with more darkness and mystery,
at times displaying a seething intensity. Things got a bit
poppier during Tim Finns stint with the band on Woodface.
And working with Youth gave Together Alone its own character
After the death by suicide of drummer Paul
Hester, Neil Finn and Nick Seymour are back together once
more, with Mark Hart, who played keys on the last album, back
in tow, and new drummer Matt Sherrod playing drums on some
tracks. This project started before the reformation, and it,
in some respects, is more in line with Finns two solo
albums than the four prior group efforts. But the somber mood
is fitting for an album dedicated to Hester, and, yes, makes
this a distinctive fifth album.
It is not, however, an immediately compelling
album. Indeed, after a few listens, I was wondering if this
was the first dud released under the Crowded House name. The
album unfolds with more plays, and is particularly strong
in the second half. Finns lyrics are a bit more direct
than usual and the songs are so plaintive. Moreover, the reserved
mood of the album becomes an asset when more time is spent
Hesters death permeates this album,
and a number of songs seem to allude to it, in some fashion.
This is immediately apparent on the opening number, Nobody
Wants To. This song could certainly be interpreted as
coming from the perspective of someone suicidal: nobody
wants to think about it/nobody wants to talk about it...they
make it go away/pretending that its all OK. The
song is typical of Finns work the past decade (or two),
with an effortless melody and empathetic vocal that shows
a subtle defiance as the song progresses, as Finn sings about
the importance of talking things out.
While sung to a lover, a change of gender
could easily turn the powerful Silent House into
a song about a former comrade. The gentle guitar playing and
steady build of the song, as Finn surveys a room with objects,
swells into the chorus: I will try to connect/all the
pieces you left...Ill remember the years/when your mind
was still clear/all the laughter and light/that filled up
this silent house. What really hits hard about this
song is how big Finn could have made it -- this melody could
raise the rooftops -- but its all measured, with large
emotions made startlingly intimate. This ranks with prior
classic Crowded House songs.
Walked Her Way Down is on par
with Hole in the River, as it is cut from the
same cloth as that great tune from Crowded Houses 1986 debut.
This song illustrates an ability that few songwriters possess,
as Finn pulls an unbelievable chorus melody out of a foreboding
musical setting. The verses are claustrophobic and rooted
in the steady rhythm, and then it turns into something lovely
and comfortable. I may have written this before, but Andy
Partridge may the only songwriter who is better at marrying
difficult musical ideas with smooth melodic ones. This song
also has some illusions to the drummer, though I dont
know if they have anything to do with Hester.
Although this album isnt wholly somber,
only two songs could really be considered upbeat. Even
a Child sports ringing guitars and is full of positive
vibes. Finn is singing again about opening up and believing
in yourself, while providing as much support as possible.
Then theres the outright poppy She Called Up,
which is downright bouncy, in the tradition of Finn tunes
like Something So Strong and She Will Have
Her Way. Both of these songs are on the first half of
the disc, and well positioned, to keep things from getting
too serious too early.
Near the end of the disc, this isnt
an issue. The album ends with three fantastic songs. Transit
Lounge is atmospheric, with Beth Rowley playing the
role of an announcer over an airport announcement system (and
later as a stunning backing vocalist). After a chilly beginning,
the song actually has a light R & B rhythm as Finn seems
to posit being stuck waiting for your airplane as a metaphor
for sitting around figuring out what to do with your life.
The layers of sound and twists and turns of this song make
this one of the best band efforts, boding well for future
releases. This is followed by the striking You Are the
One to Make Me Cry, a downcast ballad with Finn singing
in a lower register. Its a very intimate recording that
is extremely well produced, from the reverb on the electric
piano to the distant strings that melt into the foundation
of the track. Finn has never sounded so soulful, moving up
higher in his range to where you think his voice might crack.
This sets up the brilliant closing track,
People Are Like Suns. This is a summation of Finns
musings on life and mortality throughout the album, confronting
the temporal nature of everything. Over stately music (similar
to Last Day in June from the first Finn Brothers
album), Finn celebrates and mourns the fact that we are all
here for such a fairly short time. On one hand, people
breath[e] into life/all thats good in us but they
come and the go/like the blink of an eye. This cant
be helped, but he wants to help: Doesn't stop me thinking
out loud/I couldve done something. (which has
to be referencing Hester). This song is wall-to-wall brilliant
lyrics, perhaps my favorite being: Better take all the
love you got/in a single hand. A great end to the album.
And, I wish, a beginning of another run of
great albums from Crowded House. While this is their least
accessible record, it is their most emotional. It just takes
time for things to penetrate below the surface.
The Chicago punk scene developed much differently
than those on the coasts. Things seem to come a bit more slowly
to the Midwest. There may have been some Chitown bands who
were punking things up as soon as they heard the Ramones and
The Sex Pistols, but those bands apparently did so in basements
and garages. It was a few years later that punk emerged in
the Windy City. The classic Chicago punk scene was made for
a town famous for its slaughterhouses and factories, with
music that was furious and righteous.
Along with Naked Raygun and Big Black, The
Effigies fought the angry fight. Led by future prosecutor
John Kezdy, their early recordings mixed some metallic edge
into music that stood up with the likes of Raygun, Mission
Of Burma, and Wipers. Kezdy harangued about oppression and
corruption and fighting back, while the rhythm section of
Paul Zamost (bass) and Steve Economou (drums) rumbled away
and Earl Letecq played the guitar hero. The band evolved and
eventually went in more of a true post-punk direction (quite
well, I think) and eventually evaporated, but for the a few
reunion shows over the years.
Maybe they would have reformed years ago,
but they needed a steady guitarist. Veteran Robert McNaughton
has stepped up into that role and after nearly two years of
gigging, The Effigies are back, and have reverted back to
their early sound. Rarely has the band sounded more authoritative,
as if the music they played was an aural representation of
the fury of Kezdys thoughts and observations.
The band harkens back to classics like Were
Da Machine on The Guvner. Its a stomping
mid-tempo song that affords Kezdy a platform to decry corruption
and cronyism, which is a way of life in Illinois, where three
of the last five governors have been convicted of felonies
in federal court (and the current governor is under investigation).
The song has a certain military edge, as Kezdy calls out Republicratic
swine...banging shoulders at the trough, while he proclaims
this is war/weve had enough. Amen, John.
This vim and vigor is welcome on an album
which opens with a track called The Full Weight of Failure.
McNaughtons opening guitar line is bright and welcoming,
but the drums and bass take this into tenser territory, the
bass supple and slinky. Kezdy looks at the shards of past
hopes and dreams, and just cant shake not getting things
done. This is punk brooding at its best, and shows that its
not just a young mans game the older you get,
it's easier to get really pissed off at yourself.
Many of the songs feature a mix of guitar
roar and angular leads that are the essence of The Effigies.
I cant dole out enough praise to McNaughton for fitting
right in and helping the band sound the way they are supposed
to sound. On tracks like The Rake of Autumn Light
and Night Train, among others, he sets the mood
and provides the crucial textures. Most of these songs arent
about complex chord changes (okay, maybe none of them are),
they are about tone and feeling, and with the rhythm section
chugging along, the guitar plays such a big role, and that
role is fulfilled here.
On a couple of songs, the band shows they
still have some strong melodies in them. Haz-Mat
is the usual hard punk rock in the verses, but the chorus
has a delicate lead guitar part riding over Economous
steady back beat and Kezdys typically urgent vocals.
Scarecrow is even better. This song actually reminds
me a bit more of vintage Mission Of Burma or Naked Raygun
than prior Effigies material. The chorus on this song is as
catchy as anything they have ever done, and perhaps even catchier
than anything they have ever done. Theres even an excellent
instrumental break, where McNaughton plays a great solo.
Much like the recent Burma and Radio Birdman
discs of the past few years, this isnt so much a reunion
record as a resumption. The Effigies still have it, they still
sound like one of Americas most menacing punk bands,
and they have the songs to back it up. If you missed them
the first time around, youre lucky to get a second chance.
Our Earthly Pleasures
The second album from Maximo Park doesnt
really expand their artistic reach so much as polish it up.
This isnt such a bad thing, as the bands strengths
are still intact -- sharp, angular new wave-type tunes, crisply
played, and the distinctive vocals of Paul Smith singing articulate,
witty lyrics. The bands sound makes the album immediately
appealing, although its not as memorable as their debut.
This is because there simply arent any songs on par
with knock outs like The Coast Is Changing and,
especially, the sublime Apply Some Pressure. Nevertheless,
there arent too many bands out there now who are as
consistent in knocking out breezy and taut three minute or
so confections like this band.
Working with veteran producer Gil Norton,
the band polishes its sound without sacrificing the crucial
mix of pop savvy with a little post-punk nerviness. The band
sets things up with slightly (very slightly) jagged rhythms,
and then finds a way to incorporate their considerable melodic
acumen. Often, guitarist Duncan Lloyd plays in lockstep with
drummer Tom English, while Archis Tiku negotiates his bass
parts in between the two. On most songs, they find a way to
interlock their parts, while Lukas Woolner is free to add
color however he likes on his keyboards.
Maximo Park certainly travels in the same
musical circles as The Rakes, The Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand
and The Long Blondes, but they have an identifiable sound.
Part of it is the interplay of the band. Most of it is due
to Paul Smith. Hes a font of young adult wisdom, dryly
commenting on the modern battle of the sexes, knowing, observant,
and either trying fruitlessly or already defeated.
Smith shows his flair for the dramatic on
two back-to-back tracks early on in the disc. Russian Literature
is sung from the point of view a pretentious man who is jilted
by his library liason. She doesnt show and suddenly
the world comes crashing down, and everything goes to shit,
leading to observations like familiarity still ends
in contempt and our earthly pleasures/distract
us against our will. Meanwhile, the music swells and
builds and crashes to reflect the rising temperature of the
Karaoke Plays is in the mold
of the superb The Coast Is Changing from the debut
album. It starts out modulated and controlled, with a nice
warm pulse. The bridge then builds up the intensity a bit,
and Lloyd nails a hooky guitar figure, finally culminating
in a big chorus. Yet again, Smith is stood up, as he is abandoned
by a lover. All he can do is miss her: Every night weve
got so much to say/I want to hear all the things you did today.
I don=t want to make it sound like Maximo
Park is all work and no play. On A Fortnight=s Time, they
work up a good deal of urgency, a la late 70s Joe Jackson
or Elvis Costello & the Attractions, and then get downright
playful on the swooping melody of the chorus, asking dont
you know your times tables by now. Smith then breaks
himself down, hitting the nail on the head when he sings when
it comes to girls/Im truly theoretical.
These arent songs about awkward teenage
crushes. The guys that Smith is representing are young adults
who are simply overwhelmed by responsibility. Trying to muck
out a career and an identity at 20-something is daunting when
you couldnt come close to doing that in school. Any
confidence or bravado in his singing is merely because his
wit is all he has to live on.
This feeling that life is going too fast
is captured well on Our Velocity. Smith is an
angst filled worker who is pretty convinced that nothing is
right with the world. The song has a slight electronic edge
(a la early Devo) with a more explosive rock sound in the
vein of Wire or Magazine. Smith is full of philosophical musings,
all which are a by-product of his isolation, at one point
all ego (I buy books I never read/and then I tell you
more about me) at another just crushed (Love is
a lie, which means Ive been lied to/love is a lie, which
means Ive been lying too). This may be the best
song on the whole platter.
I suppose it would have been nice if the
band showed some more signs of musical progress. Then again,
they were pretty advanced to begin with. The twists and turns
of the music echo the frustrations and occasional joys Smith
sings about. This is the rare clever band that has a lot of
I'm OK, You're OK
So pop wunderkind Jason Falkner, the intelligent
power pop fans (both female, and as Gregg Easterbrook
would say, non-traditional males) heartthrob of choice, has
finally gotten an album out, after spending time working with
Air, Beck, and Paul McCartney. Not a bad life. Yet this album,
Falkners third album of original material, is, so far,
only available in Japan. Whats up with that?
Is it worth expensive import prices? Is anything
nowadays? There are enough cuts of basic Falkner that a true
fan will have to get it. But this isnt just a repeat
of the prior two albums, as he explores some new territory.
The thing that strikes me the most is that
a lot of these songs are emotionally resonant in a way that
I hadnt experienced from Falkners other work.
The slow songs here are the key to liking the album. To Falkners
credit, when these songs stretch out beyond three or four
minutes, they dont feel padded or directionless. Instead,
he is letting melodies breathe and take root. When they do,
which is often, it can be quite affecting.
This is especially true of the closing track,
I Dont Mind. This is a classic 70s styled piano pop
ballad. The track starts out with Falkners voice and
the piano in a stark setting. He sings, rather unconvincingly,
that hes okay. Cue a swelling melody and swirling instrumentation,
as Jason sings that I havent smiled since yesterday/its
alright, Im O.K. This is a tender song about putting
on a brave face when things have gone bad after a break up.
Of course, the middle eight is heartwrenching, as he sings
its not me/its not you/maybe there are just
some things that we just cant live up to. This
song really nails the loneliness and resignation that can
go with a relationship falling apart. Its one of Falkners
Falkner mines similar musical (and melodic)
territory on Anondah. This is another piano ballad,
and hits on another bad relationship. Why should we
change/when change is so painful? he sings, and thats
enough to let you know that things wont change. I had
never thought of Falkner as a singer-songwriter type (although
he is, of course, a singer and a songwriter), but he shows
that he is very effective with this direct emotionally charged
material. Not that a guy who can whip up superlative pop confections
has to have depth, as, in my opinion, pop is its own reward.
But the added dimension is the biggest sign of artistic growth.
Whereas a foray into glam rock is merely
a sign of artistic mirth. On The Knew, Falkner
gets the syncopated drums going and throws in some giddy rhymes.
I cant suss out all that Im hearing, but this
song seems to actually have some political intrigue going
on. Were not talking Ted Leo or The Clash here
its more vague drama in the vein of The Hollies
Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress. Whatever, the
beat gets going, the guitars are glossy and riffy, and the
song is loads of fun.
Falkner moves towards the Air and Beck side
of the spectrum on the cool Hurricane. Falkner
sings over an electronic drumbeat, with synth-y sounds in
the background, carrying the melody with his voice, meshing
well with the insistent mid-tempo rhythm. His voice is so
up front in the mix, and he coasts along, the nuances and
phrasing sounding great. Eventually, the song gets to a hooky
chorus that again is rooted in rhythm. Id like to hear
more of this modern new wave electronic stuff from Falkner.
Fans of prior Falkner albums will find some
songs that sound like they were inadvertently left off those
releases. Contact is yet another steady building
song that rewards the listener with a well-structured chorus.
If you want a lovely, happy pop song, look no further than
Stephanie Tells Me. Its the kind of song
you can take home to mother. And NYC is one of
those power pop guitar rock numbers that Falkner seems to
toss off effortlessly, every part of the song flowing perfectly
into the other, and one lyric I love: Shes had
eyes that fascinate/representing the lower Haight. Maybe
its just me.
It is frustrating that, as I write this,
this album is not being released domestically
album shows that Falkner is growing artistically, while retaining
the primary qualities that have given him such a devoted audience.
If hes relegated to cult status, I hope that he can
make it easier for his cult to buy his new album.
The Panic Bell
When I picked up this disc at the record
release show, Dolly Varden frontman Steve Dawson told me that
this was a poppier effort. In comparison to its more soul
oriented predecessor, Forgiven Now, I suppose it is. Yet,
as always, there is no easy genre label that can adequately
encapsulate the Dolly Varden sound. And thats one of
the reasons they are so great.
One thing about Dawson -- he makes everything
sound so effortless. In fact, Im sure if I checked my
review of his excellent solo album, I used the word effortless
there too. This is probably another way of saying that the
blend of influences that forms the foundation of the bands
sound is so well developed, that everything comes off organically.
It certainly helps that the musicianship is so stellar, particularly
the versatile guitar work of Mark Balletto, whose colorful
leads and pedal steel work are always spot on.
So what do we have here? Some songs that
are kind of Beatleesque, a couple rootsy rockers, two Diane
Christiansen numbers which, as always, remind me primarily
of Roseanne Cash, and songs that spotlight Dawsons honeyed
R & B inflected voice, while hitting other traditional
Lets start with one of those songs.
Sad Panda Clowns Lament, in addition to
being a great title, is a nifty art-pop tune that really sounds
like no one else out there right now. The song is a soulful
lament (yep, its a great title) wrapped in psychedelic
and country musical elements. The arrangement alone is fascinating.
The first instrumental motif involves distant backing vocals,
a reverberating electric piano and subtle electric guitar
embellishments. This sets up a chorus that has almost a gospel
music quality to it, particularly in the first chorus where
the band drops out and they sing the indelible chorus lines
a capella: Only a fool would run/only a fool would run
to me. In the second chorus, the intensity and tempo
picks up, yet the song then goes back to the initial musical
theme. Inventive yet really accessible stuff.
Even when a song seems straightforward, it
veers somewhere else. Everything is a happy as
hell love song...on the surface. The brassy big chorus certainly
fits the bill -- Dawson radiates joy (though it sounds like
Christiansen is singing back up through a bullhorn in the
distant background -- odd effect). But the pithy verses are
somewhat paranoid. Its a big contrast. The song then
slows down for the soothing harmony vocal coda: At every
given moment I am right right where I belong. One straightforward
song that doesn't deviate is You Never Will, a
winning jangle rocker that is to the point -- things are going
so good between us, baby, that theres no need to analyze,
we should stay together.
The band moves to moodier territory on the
superb opener, Complete Resistance. This song
has a bit of a John Lennon/latter day Beatles vibe (or T-Bone
Burnett in his more melodic rock phase). The song is foreboding
and the poetic, impressionistic lyrics go well with the darker
tones. Yet the release in the song comes from the chorus,
where Dawsons hits the high end of his range, sounding
so pure in the face of the ugliness the song conjures up.
Other highlights include The Truth
Is Told, a quiet showcase for Christiansen, who sounds
pure, vulnerable, and defiant all at the same time. This song
sounds a bit like a slowed down 70s Laurel Canyon special
-- maybe Linda Ronstadt for the 21st Century? The band stretches
out a bit on Triumph Mine, Idaho, a bluesy number
that sounds like an outtake from Forgiven Now. Indeed, the
structure of the song, both rhythmically and melodically is
very familiar its quintessential Dolly Varden.
The band extends the coda of the song, letting the band pick
up some steam and rock out a little bit.
This album is just more great stuff, and
as good a place as any to venture into Dolly Vardens
music. You really should start somewhere.
Memory Almost Full
Two performers, one a lower case l
legend, the other one of the most famous songwriters ever.
Both are still out there making records. Hunter has flown
under the radar for years, and some of his albums havent
even been released in the United States. Meanwhile, McCartney
has gone through a bit of a renaissance, primed by some successful
tours where he has played lengthy sets hitting on all parts
of his career.
Musically, neither Hunter nor McCartney break
any new ground at all on their new discs. For Hunter, this
means the usual rock moves that have served him well since
his Mott The Hoople days. This doesnt make his album
sound dated -- the line between dated and timeless is as thin
as the line between clever and stupid. Likewise, Macca evokes
some of his older songs at points on his new disc.
What makes the difference between these two
albums is in the inspiration. Hunter still has a lot to say,
while McCartney just isnt all that focused. To put it
another way, Paulie is close to tapped out as a lyricist,
and often reduces the words to bare outlines. He actually
would benefit from some outside help -- not necessarily to
pen the words, but to draw more out of him. And in saying
that, Im not one of those folks who thinks that Macca
has always been a bit of a simp -- he has penned tons of great
lyrics, from Yesterday to Penny Lane
to Juniors Farm to Put it There (a
gem from Flowers In The Dirt).
Only once does McCartney really hit hard,
on the moving The End of the End. This is R &
B rooted piano balladry, leavened with a really strong melody.
This is cut from the same cloth as Maybe Im Amazed
and Hey Jude. But instead of going to high emotional
heights, McCartney is contemplative, simply stating that when
he is dead and gone, he just wants people to swap stories
and celebrate him. The spare musical backing (beyond the piano,
producer David Kahne adds some strings) and McCartneys
slightly weathered voice front-and-center in the mix, make
for an affecting track that manages not to be maudlin.
However, McCartney cant quite achieve
such resonance on another soulful number, Gratitude.
The song does for actual gratitude what Freedom
did for actual freedom. This song, an appreciation to his
soon to be ex-wife Heather Mills, is not so much straightforward
as it is banal. Its great that Paul can seemingly be
so forgiving, but this is so superficial, its annoying.
I think one thing that makes it hard for
McCartney to consistently hit deeply with his music is that
his life is about being Paul McCartney. Yes, he has his vegetarian
thing and the anti-land mine campaign, but he really doesnt
look outward much. Hunter is much more successful because
he has concerns beyond his mortality and legacy.
One of those songs is the title cut, which
evokes the epic ballads that he used to sing with Mott The
Hoople. Hunters tortured Dylan-esque vocals still are
masterful on this cut, where he chronicles urban decay, apathetic
leaders and the lack of upward mobility: where youre
born is the luck of the draw. Yet this song is fairly general,
and carried a bit more by the performance. Thats not
the case with the upbeat acoustic strum of Soul of America,
where Hunter gives his expatriate perspective on whats
gone wrong in the U.S. of A since 9/11. The music evinces
hope, while Hunter eviscerates them good old boys in
their three piece suits/feathering their nests, while theyre
rallying the troops. You tell em, Ian.
When things get more personal, Hunter still
has a sense of humor. The gentle back porch boogie of I
Am What I Hated When I Was Young is a brilliant piece
of self-awareness. Hunter chronicles all of the stupid things
he doesnt do anymore, which leads to a realization as
to his younger self: I dont holler, I dont
hoot/I dont act like a nincompoop/I dont hide
when the police come/I am what I hated when I was young.
McCartney is looking back frequently too, but with a different
take on things. Vintage Clothes mixes a typical
McCartney melody with interesting percussion and rhythm effects,
as he notes that we hold onto our youth by dressing younger
-- or having trends come back around to our era. Musically,
this is one of the more creative tracks on the album, but
the observation just doesnt sustain the song. This song
segues into the funky acoustic That Was Me, where
he lists off a bunch of his past accomplishments, which only
makes me want to listen to his past accomplishments.
That is really a big difference between these
two records -- most of the McCartney record, as well crafted
as it is, cant seem to find a way to get back to the
big hooks and indelible melodies. In this context, as slight
as the first single, Dance Tonight, is, it at
least really drives the hook home, and isnt that what
Paul McCartney should be doing? Meanwhile, Hunter may not
be breaking new ground, but theres just a bit more going
on here, since he is much more driven, and not just playing
around. Compare Gratitude, where McCartney really
pushes himself vocally, yet doesnt seem fully engaged,
with the closing track on Hunters disc, Read em
n Weep, a love lost song in the vein of
classics like The Easybeats Falling Off the Edge
of the World, where Hunter pours his heart out.
Bottom line -- the new McCartney album is nice, and maybe
youll pull it out from time to time. Hunters new
disc is probably just a notch below his best work (and I didnt
even get to fun rockers like Hows Your House
and Brainwashed) and shouldnt collect too
much dust on the shelf.
Buzz For Aldrin
The Pillbugs are a psych-pop band that generally
gives you plenty of both sides of that hyphenated phrase,
mixing crazy kaleidoscopic music with classic melodies and
hooks. I suppose if youre not into retro you might not
find much here, but The Pillbugs arent mere imitators.
They are keeping alive a great musical form, and Id put this
two disc set up with many of the reissues getting praised
in any of the last few issues of Ugly Things.
That being said, I want to make two observations
up front about this collection. First, on this album, the
bugs delve a bit more into the proggier aspect of psychedelic
music, with some stretched out instrumental sections and more
complex songwriting. In so doing, they never veer off into
the land of self-indulgence. As always, their instincts are
perfect. Second, while Ive always found Jeff Lynne,
especially his late-60s and early 70s work (spanning
The Move and early Electric Light Orchestra) to be a major
influence on the band, they really top themselves here. I
could probably make a 10-song CD-R compilation of tracks from
this album and market it on Ebay as the great lost ELO album,
and Im sure Id fool people. I cant think
of a much higher compliment to give these guys.
Right now, as Im typing, Im listening
to one of those Lynne-escent tracks, Sidecar.
The only thing that I suppose gives it away is the actual
lack of an orchestra. The song starts out with a guitar part
(which is later used as the underpinning of In the End
(Youre Moving On)) that has heft and importance, joined
then by some slightly bluesy licks which lead into the verse.
Here, we get a sound reminiscent of Lynnes R & B
excursions like Showdown, building to an intense
chorus, and the bridge out of the chorus a lovely melodic
interlude. The bridge melts perfectly into the sunshiney middle
eight. This song contrasts the pretty and the intent, while
the central lyrical conceit (sidecars never run away) is a
bit silly -- and I dig it all the more for that.
The Pillbugs reach levels of sophistication
that other psych-pop acts dont usually achieve, while
never losing their sense of fun. So when they knock off an
epic track, such as the title cut, they indulge themselves
without being pretentious. Buzz for Aldrin begins
with an Eastern sounding psychedelic motif, and the song is
effectively a series of movements. Its not just verse-chorus-verse,
as there are two different extended instrumental breaks that
are essential to the song. These breaks dont overstay
their welcome, adding to the power of the song. Every time
they do come back with a verse or chorus, its just that
much more powerful. And the guitar work on both breaks is
great. The first interlude mixes more Middle Eastern guitar
with some piano, the second is simply the band rocking out,
sending the song into overdrive, though it winds into more
places in the last couple of minutes. Great stuff. And the
other epic track on this collection, Brilliant But Late
Advice, is also terrific and works in the same lyrical
theme about the sky, sea, and summer rain. This song actually
works in some musical motifs that seem folk and classical
inspired, while later throwing in some Beach Boys styled ba
ba ba harmony vocals and prog rock keyboard ornamentation.
Still, it all gets down to the bands
ability to craft killer pop hooks. And they have those in
spades. Shes In Style comes in all bouncy
and sweet, like The Turtles, but the chorus is pure E.L.O.
-- swirling and wonderful. Instantly memorable stuff. Meanwhile,
Milkmans Wife is classic British pop (circa
1967) style whimsy, as the band takes a basic arrangement
and decorates it throughout the track. The Last Confederate
Soldier is a good piano based song, a bit bluesy, with
a very playful feel. And Make Like Arthur Lee
is a good demonstration of how to let a song build -- and
that sky, sea, summer rain lyric comes into play yet again.
Since I am lost without a lyric sheet, Im
not sure if the recurring lyrical and musical themes are evidence
of a true concept album. But if so (and Im reviewing
off an advance copy) then there are even more levels to enjoy.
Regardless, The Pillbugs are one of the premiere modern psych-pop
bands, so full of ideas (and with the ability to execute them)
that a double album isnt excessive its
really the only realistic way to allow them their due.
The Bees (a/k/a Band Of Bees)
On their first album, The Bees sounded liked
they smoked a lot of weed, and the haze was palpable on a
bunch of shambling songs with reggae and funk overtones. It
was very early 70s in its orientation. On the second
Bees album, the band moved a bit further back in time, playing
a mix of great psych-pop and 60s R & B fueled rock
and roll. On their latest effort, the band somewhat splits
the difference, staying a bit more true to the last album.
However, this is bit more groove based like the debut. The
downside is that there arent as many killer hooks as
on the wonderful Free The Bees. However, thats about
the only bad thing I can say about this very listenable album,
which finds the band again sounding like a blast from the
past, unearthing what sounds like lost gems.
Indeed, many of these songs sound like a
what if experiment such as what if reggae had been
a crucial part of late 60s psychedelic music? Sometimes
the rhythm section is in full skanking mode, other times,
its just the bass lines. Its a subtle twist on
familiar sounds and is just one of the reasons that The Bees'
music is not merely retro worship. They are actually finding
new ways to gussy up the old sounds.
Left Foot Stepdown sounds like
a song that would have influenced The Clashs reggae
aspirations, had it been released 40 years ago. The song has
so many great touches, from the warm Hammond organ (yes, thats
redundant), to the smart driving horn arrangements, to the
rasta vibe that morphs into more of a standard R & B pop
vibe for the chorus. There are even dub effects in the instrumental
break, which spotlights the tight rhythm work of Michael Clevett
and Paul Butler, before introducing a jaunty piano line that
is contrasted by a reverbed guitar. The Specials (during their
Ghost Town days) are another good reference point
for this song.
Another song also shows a Specials influence.
Stand sounds like its right out of the Terry Hall/Jerry
Dammers playbook, musically. The band mixes mournful choral
vocals, steeped in folkie psychedelia with lots of reggae
tricks. Lead vocalist Butler even sings with a bit of a patois
in spots, with the type of urgency Hall displayed on those
Two-Tone sides roughly three decades ago.
I got a job back in Texas/cutting the
grass before breakfast/cleaning the ?/and Im saving
up for a Lexus. Okay, I cant make out all of the
lyrics, but these lines illustrate two things: 1) these guys
arent making Bob Dylan sweat, and, 2) they are having
fun. These lines open Got to Let Go, a song that
manages to sound dramatic, due to the strong horn lines and
accompanying organ part, yet it has a moving rhythm and overall
jazzy funkiness that comes off as playful.
Fans of the last album will gravitate towards
the front porch atmosphere of Love in the Harbour.
This song has a bit of a country-rock bounce, but the washed
out vocals add a garage rock gloss to the rustic underpinnings.
Its like the city meeting the country on somewhat equal
The songwriting flags just a bit towards
the end of the proceedings. Closing track End of the
Street is simply silly, using sound effects to finish
off lines in what sounds like the poor mans Bonzo Dog Band.
That being said, it still forces a bit of a smile. Its
preceded by Hot One, organ fueled psych-pop that
allows Butler to practically scat sing during the instrumental
break (which follows the police siren and the screeching brakes,
At ten cuts, this album verges on skimpy,
but there are enough highlights to avoid this accusation.
While not quite up to the standards of the last album, this
record shows The Bees have really mastered the styles that
have inspired them. The result is a very enjoyable album.
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