Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

The Hold Steady are a rock band with two main strengths: they are America's current reigning bar band and they are lead by Craig Finn, our premiere lyrical mythologizer. His lyrics can often be as blunt as they are poignant, but accepting Finn at face value leaves one appreciating that he is one of the most ambitious lyricists working today. The irony is his ambitious undertaking has been to create a fully-realized universe of characters that drunkenly stumble through a haze of partying, hooking up, searching for religion, and summarizing what they've learned on hungover Sunday afternoons. Or, as Finn might call it, a "unified scene." (Not for nothing is that phrase the band's Twitter handle.)

Their second album, Separation Sunday, was a loose concept album about lapsing drug-addled Catholics starring characters that continued to pop up in their next two albums. Boys and Girls in America opened up the stories to include less religious partying, more heartbreak, and rebirth; it remains the band's most impressive work. Stay Positive varied the band's sonic textures a bit and hit and missed in equal portions. Now, without keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who left the band prior to this album), the Hold Steady turn their eyes to the skies, declare that Heaven is Whenever and keep on rockin' their way through a world of starry-eyed innocents and glassy-eyed veterans.

Unlike their previous albums, Heaven is Whenever doesn't start with a rock-radio-ready lead single. Instead, it opens with a mid-tempo number, "The Sweet Part of the City," replete with steel guitar and sounding more southern rock than bar band. It's an unexpected introduction, but indicative of the continually-brightening mood in the Hold Steady discography to date. Whereas before his characters slumped into an alcoholic Hell and barely survived to rehabilitate in the morning ("How a Resurrection Really Feels,") lately they've been more reflective and spending more time thinking about Heaven than sliding into Hell, no less introspective, but more content and less catastrophic in their social lives. Perhaps it's the inevitable maturation as Finn grows older and wiser with each album while the oft-referenced "kids of today" continually stay the same age. Finn isn't telling the stories of jaded youths anymore; they've survived to grow up, learned their lessons, and now he's overflowing with advice to the next generations on how to make it out alive themselves.

So "The Sweet Part of the City" is nostalgic instead of exuberant. It's followed by what would have been an excellent lead-off rocker, "Soft in the Center," where Finn repeatedly asserts, "I'm just trying to tell the truth, kid." One of those outstanding Hold Steady sing-along choruses follows, with the backup singers warmly chanting in full harmony, "You can't love every girl. / You'll get the ones you love the best. / You can't get every girl. / You'll love the ones you get the best." This is where the Hold Steady transcends the potential clunkiness of the bar-band sound and reach for the euphoric joy of a man who's learned just enough to finally be happy with his life and not drown his potential with sorrows.

This is where the Hold Steady, and Craig Finn, are at in the world these days. "We Can Get Together" proves to be the de facto title track, floating over a blissed-out and peaceful light rock track that almost sounds like Counting Crows. It's a track that references Cheap Trick, Hüsker Dü, Meat Loaf, Todd Rundgren & Utopia in the lyrics, eventually concluding that, "Heaven is whenever we can get together." In the sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, and not-necessarily-in-that-order history of the Hold Steady, it's a surprisingly affecting sentiment.

Those still looking for the familiar Hold Steady rock will find it on tracks like "Rock Problems," "Hurricane J," and "Our Whole Lives." Heaven is Whenever was recorded without Nicolay, whose often epic piano was central to many of the Hold Steady's anthemic highlights, so the guitars do take center stage more often, especially when they're rocking. He is certainly missed, however, as none of the rockers quite ascends the heights of previous standouts like "Chill Out Tent," which positively rippled with Nicolay's ecstatic piano. The album isn't without the occasional keyboards, however, showing up to accentuate the dramatic moments. "A Slight Discomfort" is this album's entry in the band's tradition of down-tempo, high-drama balladry that usually is the highlight of any given Hold Steady album. If it suffers from the absence of Nicolay's transcendant piano dramatics, substitute pianist Dan Neustadt (who, like Nicolay, is an alum of the World/Inferno Friendship Society) to find his own brand of theatrics by track's end.

Heaven is Whenever is another successful entry from America's reigning bar band, while also representing an intriguing new step in their career. The band is evolving. Finn is maturing as a philosophical beat poet, continuing his development as a paternal influence for the kids of tomorrow. The grand tradition of rock and roll lives to see another day, Wherever this band goes next, they seem sure to share a little slice of their own heaven whenever they get there.

(Note: this review originally ran on BlogCritics, but I never copied it over to this blog. I figure it works as an effective stop-gap until I write more new reviews. Patience, dear Reader, they are coming, and you can treat this post as a pledge to that effect!)<

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Burning Down the House

The Vagabond regrets to inform his surely rapt audience that the much-threatened return to the Journey will be delayed, unfortunately, as last week a fire destroyed much of the apartment from which the Journey was proceeding. I am ok, my love of music is ok, so the Journey will continue at a later date... and in many ways may be more important now than ever before, but I beg your patience, and your best wishes.

Friday, June 11, 2010

...Radio Silence...

The Vagabond has been rather silent lately, for which I humbly apologize, but as it so happens, I haven't listened to many new albums as a whole lately. In all honesty, the initial flurry of listening activity that started this music blog was inevitably going to be unsustainable, and I expect to gravitate towards a happy medium here eventually. I do have albums to listen to in my queue, including Jónsi's solo debut, Go; the Penguin Café Orchestra's first abum, Music from the Penguin Cafe; the Decemberists' rock opera from last year, The Hazards of Love; and I anticipate I'll be eager to review the new Stars record, The Five Ghosts, when it comes out next month along with other new releases as I hear them.

The Journey isn't over, it never is, but it comes and goes sometimes with the tide. Stay tuned...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lala update

So, as some of you undoubtedly have heard, Lala is shutting down come the end of May. I don't know if I'll update the old entries to with new widgets for listening, it may depend on how much attention this little blog garners.

More importantly, I've begun using Grooveshark, another online streaming service that allows for custom playlist widget embedding (imagine that phrase five years ago!) The main appeal, on your end, is that now my blog is no longer America-centric as Grooveshark is available (to my knowledge) worldwide, without memberships required. Plus, the widgets are color-customizable, which is fun on my end. So expect to see Grooveshark from now on, as you hopefully have been enjoying!

And look for more reviews in May, and as the summer goes along get ready for the long-awaited new albums by The Hold Steady and Stars!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bayou Country

Now, this is the Creedence Clearwater Revival I was looking for! CCR's second album, Bayou Country, opens with the droning organ of "Born on the Bayou" emerging from the blankness of silence like a cloaked figure stepping out the thick swamp fog and into the sharp focus of morning light. That figure then proceeds to play a cyclical, deep-fried electric guitar riff calling out from the past like all timeless classic rock riffs. A vibrant mix of hand and kit percussion joins the bass to form the rhythm section as CCR chug-a-chugs into its laid-back, hazy groove. Then comes the casual shout of John Fogerty's voice, riding the groove and calmly belting out one of those immortal opening lines from the blues lineage: "Now when I was just a little boy, / standin' to my daddy's knee..." It has the grand sound of a moment of heraldry, signifying the arrival of a great band discovering its eternal sound, while somehow also sounding paradoxically like he's just continuing a story that he's been telling all his life.

That's the appeal of Creedence Clearwater Revival in a nutshell. They didn't create a sound so much as tap into something already extant and primal. That they were based out of the Bay Area is of no mind; CCR stand tall as an early titan of Southern Rock. Departing from the psychedelia of the late '60s and taking their cues from their British blues-rock peers, they simplified rock 'n roll to it's barest elements and, in doing so, found something universal. It had only been 11 years since "Good Golly Miss Molly" first hit the charts, but the music world of 1969 was changing so rapidly that CCR's cover of Little Richard's signature rave-up feels like an entire generation had passed before they breathed new life into the classic. That is, of course, probably a ridiculous statement to make, but part of the CCR mystique is this mythology about them.

They existed as a rock band for less than half a decade. As I flesh out my knowledge of them by listening to their discography, I find myself actually hearing the songs that I had supposed existed. I knew about a dozen of CCR's more famous tracks before diving into their catalog. For Bayou Country, that means "Born On the Bayou" and "Proud Mary." I imagine most of you know those two songs, too. They are the easy peaks of this album, and they deserve their legacy. So listening to the lengthy blues workouts "Graveyard Train" and "Keep On Chooglin'" or the electric-acoustic rock hybrid "Bootleg" is like opening a wrapped present whose contents I'd correctly predicted. I knew the CCR sound more than I knew their actual songs. I imagine it's why I was thrown in reviewing their first album. I was expecting this when I heard that. Now that I'm hearing what I was looking for, it's a more comfortable fit.

That doesn't mean this is a stellar, amazing album. It's very good, but not a stone-cold classic. For one, it's too short. There's only seven songs, and I know this is a problem that will recur as I continue through the Creedence catalog. They preferred two or even three short albums a year, instead of larger releases less often. It does mean there's more CCR to digest from their incredibly short period of productivity. It also means there's less margin for error or, in relative terms, less room for mediocre. Besides the two aforementioned classic hits, much of Bayou Country is exactly what I'd expected. No bad songs on here, but not any hidden classics either. Here's the thing, though: with CCR, they hit on something so wonderful that mediocrity is still worth seeking out. It's why I've decided to acquire their full back catalog. Bayou Country is the first real link in a chain of classic albums that, altogether, are greater than the sum of their parts. It's what I find romantic about listening to a full discography, throwing light into all the back corners of a band's work. It allows greater context both to respect their hits more fully and also to illuminate their legacy in rock history. I look forward to the next one.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Darkness - Permission to Land

Remember the Darkness? "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" was a smash hit not so long ago. Actually, it was seven years ago. Time flies when you're a one-hit wonder with really energetic falsetto-driven pop-metal. That song was a breath of fresh air and it seemed like even those who couldn't shake it's irony-free rendition of glam rock as filtered through heavy metal guitars still fell under it's blisteringly whimsical spell. Sitting squarely at the intersection of AC/DC, Queen and Boston, the Darkness nailed their one-hit moment for all its' three-and-a-half minutes' worth of glory and kept on rockin' as the world's attention boogied on elsewhere. What the world missed out on was a surprisingly good album resting beneath the one-hit surface.

The Darkness are unabashedly a fun rock band. They play with aggressive guitars and pulsing drums, but their songs aren't of the against-the-world antagonism cloth most of the post-grunge rock sound is cut from. That isn't to say they're a straight up revival of the '80s hair metal they visually most recall, because their songwriting most recalls the late '70s pop/classic rock melding of Boston and The Cars. These are rock songs with pop structures and occasionally soaring melodies. If I keep referring to the same bands over and over again, it's because the Darkness wears their influences on their sleeves. There's the AC/DC routine, with big open guitar riffs kicking off songs that pound forward with metronomic drums mercilessly thumping onwards. There's the Boston sound, with a falsetto vocal melody trading verses for cacophonous overdubbed guitar solos that ascend to heaven. Then there's the Queen influence. (It should be said, along with the Boston references, that the Darkness are aping from the early work of these bands, before the '80s convinced them that synthesizer pop was where it's at. Not to take anything away from those bands' '80s sound, but the Darkness are squarely in the late '70s on this count.) The Queen numbers take a threatening guitar riff and subvert it with a danceable backbeat and falsetto exclamations few this side of Freddie Mercury would even attempt.

Where the Darkness succeed is in effortlessly combining their influences. For much of the album, it's a game of match-the-sounds. "Givin' Up," starts off in the AC/DC mode before the Boston-esque guitar solo rises to take it away. "Stuck in a Rut" could have been a Queen song cut off of Sheer Heart Attack that AC/DC oddly decided to cover. "Friday Night" is the Boston tribute the Cars never wrote. "Growing On Me" drops a lost Bon Jovi call-and-response chorus on top of a thundering AC/DC groove. For good measure, the Darkness aren't above coralling multiple reference points from the same artist. "Black Shuck" sounds a bit like an all-AC/DC mashup, with "T.N.T" and "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" swapping choruses with the guitar stylings of "Thunderstruck."

The cynic could say this game belies a fundamental problem with Permission to Land: pointing out the sounds of all the bands mentioned above goes to prove that the Darkness have no sound of their own. They are a personality-less entity, shuffling and recycling their favorite songs until they emerge from a bubbling rock cauldron as new. There's a certain accuracy to the cynic's point. One's mental map of these songs tends to place them closer to their ancestral parentage than to the band that actually is credited as writing and playing them on this album. Lyrically, the band treads heavily through re-treaded territory (quick, name the other hit rock song about that "Thing Called Love!") The cynic would then argue that Permission to Land amounts to nothing but nostalgia specialty; a poorer recreation of great bands gone by.

The cynic would be wrong there, however. Yes, at their worst, the Darkness seem like a credible cover band blessed with an inescapable chart-topping hit. If these songs were to be written out mathematically as formulas of their influences, they inevitably end up equalling less than the sum of their parts. But Permission to Land is a celebration of a style of rock music that is, on it's own terms, larger than life. This isn't music for the music snob. It's arena rock, and there aren't enough snobs to fill arenas. Sky-high guitar hooks and epic chord progressions are easy to mock because they come off as either simplistic or bombastic. In a time when arena rock is dying, however, there's no need to scoff at its new blood. Yesterday's arena rock gods are too old to be hip, and the hip kids are too cool to be arena rockers. They may not ever ascend the Billboard heights again, but Permission to Land is a welcome addition to any listener's catalog because they infuse a genre being left behind with a breath of new life. Who cares if its unoriginal? It still rocks, doesn't it?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bettye LaVette - The Scene of the Crime

I've written previously about the inspiring trends of music in the 21st century. My reviews of albums by Rodrigo y Gabriela and Vampire Weekend have touched on the global-is-local quality of music being made today that's free of previous geographic constraints. My review of She & Him's latest touched on the loving re-construction of earlier generation's sounds. My review today hits on a similarly inspiring trend to that of re-creating genres of the past; the resurrection of forgotten stars.

The mainstream music industry has been doing this for a while now, probably since Elvis' big "comeback." We saw Johnny Cash's career resurrected by Rick Rubin's American series, and Santana unexpectedly crashed both the Billboard charts and the Grammys a decade back under Clive Davis' management. While those were major label projects, smaller labels have been doing their fair share of reclamations, also. Chief among them is ANTI- Records.

The ANTI- label has been attracting some major talent. In addition to a growing roster of contemporary acts like Neko Case, Jason Lytle and Islands, ANTI- has also signed a spate of music veterans that go back decades, regardless of their genres. Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Marianne Faithfull, Solomon Burke, Os Mutantes, Booker T. and Mavis Staples all call ANTI- their current home. What these artists share in common is a lifetime of acclaimed music without regard to mainstream popularity. They bring a veterans' grizzled wisdom to their contemporary work that often puts up-and-comers to shame. It's a quality that Bettye LaVette's The Scene of the Crime has in spades.

LaVette's recording career has been long and filled with many more downs than ups. I'll leave it to her own biography to fill in those interested in her personal trials and travails, because what I want to focus on here is this album. Assisted by the Drive-By Truckers, one of the best southern rock bands out there today, she assembles a terrific collection of covers [with the pointed exception of the rip-roarin' original "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)", which is biographical self-aggrandizing of the best kind.] She effortlessly bounces back and forth between bluesy rockers (letting the Truckers run wild) like the opening track and then quietly soulful ballads. Her voice, aged by both years and pain, is tough. It evokes heartbreak, anger, pride and eventually ecstasy over the course of the album.

LaVette's profile has been raised significantly in the last decade. From the incredibly unlikely resurrection of her unheard full-length album Child of the Seventies after 30 years to her recent appearances at the Kennedy Center Honors (singing the crap out of the Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me") and the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, LaVette is now poised as a soul veteran with a life's worth of lessons to teach today's younger musicians. It's a good thing, too, because the soul revival has been another exciting genre revival among the many going on right now. It's a good time to be listening to music, and for LaVette, it's high time we listened to hers.