Friday, June 30, 2017

Review of Hey Violet's "From the Outside"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: The music is mostly lethargic, and a lot of the lyrics are kind of creepy. So why do I still sort of like these guys?

You've probably heard of "The Lost Boys", either from Peter Pan or from the tongue-in-cheek vampire movie of the same name. I've come to think of Hey Violet as "The Lost Girls", even if they now have a pair male members to go with the founding female trio. They don't know who they are. Or worse, maybe they've finally figured it out, and it's this.

They started life as Cherri Bomb, four middle school girls who played a generic mix of hard rock and punk. They put out one mediocre LP. Then they canned their lead singer, reformed as Hey Violet, and morphed into a pop punk band -- a really good one. In 2015, they released an excellent 5-song EP called I Can Feel It, and I couldn't wait to see what they'd do next. In 2016, they veered in more of an electro-pop direction with an EP called Brand New Moves. It seemed like a step backwards, but I tried to reserve judgment. And now we get From the Outside, their first full-lengther as Hey Violet. Ho boy. Where do I start?

This isn't a good album. It's average at best, and I'm probably being kind here. In 2015, they were working in the tradition of bands like The Go-Go's, The Runaways and Sleater-Kinney. Now they're aiming to be Halsey or Charlie XCX. Maybe it's a good move financially. Pop sells. But it makes me feel sad. It's like that kid cousin who was always so sweet. But now she's swearing like a sailor, staying out all night, and into all kinds of stuff you shudder to even think about.

The music here is mostly lethargic. Almost every song is slow-to-mid-tempo, and filled with those cutesy little electronic vocal effects that are so prevalent on second-rate pop albums like the new one by Linkin Park. It sounds like 3 AM in a seedy stripper bar -- music to pole dance to. Even on the one track that shows a little energy, "This Is Me Breaking Up With You", I get the feeling they were trying more to channel Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" than their own exceptional "You Don't Love Me Like You Should" from their better days. It's like they're trying to be The Spice Girls for a new generation.

As for the lyrics on this LP, they're often kind of creepy. Cherri Bomb formed in 2008, so I'm thinking even though they started as pre-teens, these girls have to be at least 20 now. But the songs are aimed at teens and tweens, and the subject matter ranges from boys begging for nude photos, to getting with older men ('cause "Guys my age don't know how to touch me"), to Celebratory Cutting for Couples 101. I know these are things high schoolers deal with in real life, but too often, the songs are written as smarmy seduction songs without an ounce of sincerity. One Sputnik User recently wrote "This album has about as much emotional depth as a badly made ham sandwich", and on too many of the songs, he was right on target.

So why do I still like these guys? And why did I rate the album as "average" instead of "poor" or worse? I'm not entirely sure myself, but here are a few thoughts. For starters, Rena Lovelis is a pretty good lead vocalist. She shows a strong but likable voice on the numbers where she's singing seriously. And she's also capable of the kind of vocal playfulness that singers like Gwen Stefani or Deborah Harry have gotten so much mileage out of over the years. She might not be as successful as, say, Halsey, but she's a thousand times more interesting.

Also, not all of the songs are just trying to be edgy -- a few feel more authentic. "O.D.D." is sung from a perspective many of us recognize, that of being a complete outsider. "I'm the girl in the back of the class," Lovelis explains. "Blank stare, don't care, don't ask." "Hoodie" is another song that feels real. It's sung from the perspective of a girl who's been dumped, but she just can't let go of that one last memento: "I'm still rocking your hoodie/And chewing on the strings/It makes me think about you/So I wear it when I sleep." Yes, this kind of thing has been done before. But it's done pretty well here.

Even a couple of the sleazier songs are at least catchy, like "Guys My Age" and "Fuqboi" (Get it? F-u-c-k-b-o-y! Get it?!...Please kill me.) They might make me want to take a shower. But damn it, I can't get them out of my head. And believe me, I've tried.

There are also small things that give the album what advertising double talkers like to call "added value". Like when they suddenly swerve way outside of the pop lane and throw a song such as "Like Lovers Do" at you, which almost sounds like gypsy folk music. Or when they use unusual turns of the phrase, like "When you spill your guts they don't go back in" on "Consequence", or the tacky "I'd rather cut out my tongue/Than let you kiss me with yours" on "Fuqboi". And when they do finally cut loose on "This Is Me Breaking Up With You" at the end of the album, it feels like a cooling rainstorm on a humid, steamy day.

All of which is to say I'm conflicted about this album. It's certainly not the musical direction that I hoped to see Hey Violet travel in, and there are a lot of things to criticize here. On the other hand, in fairness, I'm clearly not the target audience for From the Outside. And even with all of its low points, there are just enough little nuggets of gold here to make me want to hang in there with this band. Guess I'll have to wait to see where they go from here.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review of He-Bird, She-Bird's "He-Bird, She-Bird"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a little earlier tonight. Credit where credit is due, I borrowed ("stole" is such a judgmental term) the Review Summary quote, and I'm pretty sure it was from that fiery genius Mike Ferrari. (Wasn't that the Aural Fix tagline?)  Haven't seen him in ages, but I'm sure if he ever sees this review, it will bring a smile to his face and warmth to his heart.

The mid-'90s was the point when the national music scene went south for me. Prior to that, I always prided myself on remaining open to new music. While many in my so-called cohort group jumped off of the tunes train at various stations along the way, I stayed on board, savoring each new musical genre I passed through. In the early '90s, it was the whole grunge scene, which reminded me of punk, slowed down and turned inside out. I thought that would last for a bit longer, but then Kurt Cobain blew his brains out, and grunge as a national obsession ground to a halt. For a year or so after that, alternative rock was on the rise, and all of the music papers swore that it was the next big thing. The record sales just weren't big enough to satisfy the major labels, though, so alternative rock quickly became indie rock, and got shuttled off to college radio. 

After that, it all went to doggy doo. The Spice Girls in 1996; Britney, Christina and The Backstreets at the end of '90s, American Idol and all of those vomit-inducing Disney pop kids in the early 2000s -- add all of them together with the rise of hip-hop, a musical genre that I accept as genuinely artistic but I nevertheless take little personal pleasure in -- and I ran for the hills. I retreated, first into college radio, then eventually into my own local music scene, where I learned that not only was there quality music being created in virtually any genre I could ask for, it was available abundantly, inexpensively, and right in my own backyard. A wise man once said that every band is a local band from somewhere. People are out there every night, creating and performing music that comes from their hearts, unaided by expensive recording studios and huge marketing budgets.

Which brings me to He-Bird, She-Bird. This is a local band from my own hometown of Long Island, NY, that just released their first album, a self-titled LP in the country/folk/Americana genre. The band consists of one he-bird, Todd Evans, and two she-birds, Terri Hall and Christine Keller. And like Godzilla's old foe Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, these guys are a triple threat -- each of the trio sings lead on different tracks. Evans has what I think of as a traditional male country voice -- smooth sometimes, gravelly others. As for the ladies, Keller's sound is sweet and earnest, while Hall's has a little more of a kick to it. And man, can they harmonize.

The music throughout is mostly a product of acoustic stringed instruments. There's a light sprinkling of electric bass, organ, hand percussion and drums. Mostly, though, it's all about acoustic guitars, accompanied by various fiddles, mandolins, banjos, violins, etc. The result is a light and down-to-earth sound that complements the vocals rather than competing with them. And if you're thinking that indie band equals less-than-professional recording, in this case, banish the thought. This is a polished album, especially for a debut.

All of the music and lyrics throughout were written by Ms. Keller, who manages to mix it up enough to keep the sound consistently interesting. There are fast and slow songs, folk ballads and gritty blues songs, even a little bluegrass and honky-tonk. Between the different styles of music and the individual fortes of the three vocalists, He-Bird, She-Bird engages the listener from beginning to end.

He-bird Evans takes the lead on six of the album's twelve tracks, while Hall and Keller sing three apiece. Each of the three has their share of nice moments. Evans' best track is probably the one that leads off the album, "Once I Called You Mine". The one-sheet describes it as a "wistful love song", and that's a pretty accurate description. It's a sad but fond look back at a relationship that didn't work out. I also like "Spark", a darker number that's as elemental as a dance around a campfire, and "She Got Married", the musical tale of a young spitfire of a gal who's her own worst enemy.

My favorite track on the whole album is one where Keller sings lead, "Someone Said a Prayer". It's a simple, pretty song with an upbeat outlook on life. In contrast, "Call It Love" is a brooding, more turbulent number. It's about a passionate romance that seems to be equal parts love and pain. As for Hall, her strongest track is "It's Just Me", a slow, soft song about an entirely more wholesome relationship. "Don't Tempt Me", a brassy, more country-flavored offering, is also strong.

Wherever you live, if you don't have the big bucks to shell out to catch whatever musical superstar the industry happens to be hawking these days, or if you live somewhere where the big acts don't come anywhere near your hometown, take heart. Odds are that somewhere nearby, in a small club, a coffee house or even a garage is a band making music not because they expect to sell a million units, but simply because the music lives in their souls. Some of it is as good or better than the stuff that gets all the airplay. He-Bird, She-Bird is a band like that, who I'm proud to say comes from the Island I call home. If you happen to like folk, country and roots music, you might give them a listen. And while you're at it, don't be afraid to check out your own local scene. There's good music out there, if you're willing to go and find it.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of The Monkees' "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd."

I've been slowing up a little with my reviews lately. Maybe a little summer (or almost summer) funk. But I posted this one on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning. This one is especially nostalgic for me -- it was the first album I ever owned.

Review Summary: "Another Pleasant Valley Sunday here in status symbol land. Mothers complain about how hard life is, and the kids just don't understand".

In the mid-1960s, The Beatles reigned supreme in the music world, particularly in the singles market. They sold so many records and raked in so much money that it was inevitable that challengers would pop up to try to cash in on their popularity. Perhaps the strangest of these would-be rivals was The Monkees. Formed by a pair of television producers for a slapstick comedy show meant to appeal to kids and teens, The Monkees consisted of four young actors/musicians (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork) who initially weren't even allowed to play any of the musical instruments on their records. Although they were derided by many as the "Prefab Four" in mockery of their faux-Beatles status, much like Disney's Pinocchio, they eventually evolved into (sort of) a real band. And Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. was arguably their finest album.

Pisces was The Monkees' fourth album, all four coming within a two-year span. By the time of its release, the four band members had successfully lobbied to gain some control over the choice of material on the LP, and to be allowed to play at least some of their own instruments. Nesmith even wrote one of the songs, and he and Jones each received partial songwriting credits on other numbers, while Tork was credited with the authorship of the comical story of "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky". 

The album featured two hit singles. "Pleasant Valley Sunday", sung by Dolenz, is one of the band's best. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the song envisions suburbia as a soul-crushing lotus land, with "Rows of houses that are all the same/And no one seems to care". "Words", the lesser of the two singles, is also sung by Dolenz with an assist from Tork. Written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote many of the songs on the band's first two albums, this one is notable for some dark and vaguely psychedelic music on the verses that works pretty effectively. Unfortunately, it's marred by a below-average chorus.

The real secret of Pisces' strength, however, is that to a far greater extent than on previous Monkees' albums, Nesmith is set loose here. While most of the leads on the first three LPs were split between Dolenz and Jones, on Pisces, Nesmith sings lead on five of the thirteen tracks, and he generally makes the most of the opportunity. Particularly strong are "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round" and "The Door Into Summer". Both are songs of regret. In the first, a brash Yankee protagonist laments a lost romance with a beautiful Mexican girl, while the second tells the story of a man who chooses money and a career over true happiness, only to realize too late that he's wasted his life. 

Two of Nesmith's other numbers are also pretty strong. "Don't Call on Me" is a sad pseudo-lounge song that finds him finally breaking free from an exploitive relationship, while "Love Is Only Sleeping" is a more optimistic tale of patience that is ultimately rewarded with the growth of love. His only misfire is the album-opening "Salesman", a country-rock novelty track that's just a little too bloated with corn pone.

Jones does a serviceable job with his four leads, although nothing here approaches the level of his later hit "Daydream Believer". His best number on the LP is probably "Star Collector", a somewhat flip dismissal of a groupie who's only interested in the rich and famous. "Cuddly Toy" finds him playing the role of a smarmy Casanova explaining to his latest conquest "I never told you that I'd love no other/You must have dreamed it in your sleep." Nice guy. "She Hangs Out" finds him cautioning a girlfriend that her baby sister is growing up a little too fast. Finally, "Hard to Believe", a slow, rueful love song, is probably the weakest of his tracks, although it's the songwriting and not his vocal that's at fault.

As for Dolenz, in addition to the album's two singles, he also contributes "Daily Nightly", a song actually written by Nesmith, which is an admirable, if not completely successful, attempt at a more psychedelic brand of rock.

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. will be fifty years old come this November. Even today, there's a playfulness to the LP that still makes it enjoyable. It serves as a fine example of '60s pop-rock in general, and also gives a good flavor of the what the Monkees phenomena was all about. The band might never make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Pisces is solid proof that while The Monkees were often funny, in a silly, lighthearted way, their music was never a joke.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review of The Prodigals' "Brothers"

I posted this review on the Sputnik music website earlier this morning:

Review Summary: "Brother, father, husband, son; mother's cake and the morning dew. The candle lit to all you've done, and we bow our heads as we think of you."

The Prodigals are a rock band from New York City who combine traditional Celtic songs and melodies with rock rhythms. They describe their music as "jig punk". Unlike some of their contemporaries such as Black 47, Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, they're somewhat unknown beyond their home city and the American Celtic/Irish festival circuit. Nevertheless, they're certainly no less talented than their better known Celt-rock brethren.

Brothers, released in 2016, is The Prodigals' sixth studio album. The band on this LP consists of Gregory Grene on lead vocals and button accordion, Dave Fahy on lead vocals and guitar, Alex Grene (Gregory Grene's nephew) on fiddle, Trifton Dimitrov on bass and Brian Tracey on drums and percussion. Brothers contains thirteen songs, including six original songs, plus six traditional Irish pieces and one American standard rearranged in the band's own unique style.

For whatever reason, many of the more popular Celtic rock bands in the U.S. seem to feature lead vocalists with voices that challenge the ear, like Shane MacGowan of The Pogues or Larry Kirwan of Black 47. This isn't the case with The Prodigals. While Fahy has more of the traditional gruff voice often associated with Irish rock, Gregory Grene, who sings lead on approximately two thirds of the songs on Brothers, has a sweet, smooth voice that goes down as nicely as a pint of Guinness. He's also the songwriter for all six original tracks.

Brothers is one of the band's best albums to date. It does a stellar job of showing off their versatility on fast-paced classics such as "Tell Me Ma" and "Jug of Punch", as well as on slower, more sentimental numbers like "Snow Falls on Derrycark" and "Eileen Aroon". Alex Grene's fiddling is a particular joy throughout.

While the standards are well played and enjoyable throughout the LP, it's Grene's original numbers that give Brothers that little extra oomph. Particularly memorable are the album's opening track "Home to You" and the third track, "Song of Repentence". "Home to You" is a simple but wistful song sung by a well-traveled protagonist to his beloved homeland, while "Song of Repentence" is a track laced with both regret and acceptance, sung by a penitent man to the wronged lover he knows will never forgive him. Also of special note is the album's closing track "Candle", an a cappella tribute to Grene's deceased twin brother Andrew, who perished during the 2010 Haitian earthquake while he was working for the United Nations. (Hence, the album's title). 

The only real misstep on Brothers is its second track "Kansas City", a cover of the 1952 blues rock standard by the American songwriting team of Lieber and Stoller. While the song does allow the band to rock out a little and flaunt their musical chops, it's a case of "which doesn't belong and why" -- it just doesn't go with the rest of the LP. Even so, by any reasonable measure, you'd have to say that Brothers is a successful album. It will please people who are fans of the band already, and make new fans out of those who give it a chance. Admirers of bands like The Pogues, The Mollys, The Murphys or Black 47 would be likely to find this album a treat.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of Joe Jackson's "I'm the Man"

I posted this a little while earlier on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: This is as fine an example of late '70s new wave pop as you could find, featuring songs full of working class themes and working class dreams.

I'm the Man, released in 1979, was British musician Joe Jackson's second LP. It built on the success of his debut album, Look Sharp, which had been released earlier that same year, and helped to make him an international star. In later years, Jackson moved into other genres such as jazz and classical, much like Elvis Costello, the artist to whom he is most often compared. At this point in his career, though, his music was firmly in the new wave category, with just a pinch of punk attitude.

Look Sharp brought Jackson fame largely on the strength of the hit single "Is She Really Going Out With Him?", and to a lesser extent, to significant U.S. FM radio airplay of tracks such as "Sunday Papers" and the title track. In contrast, I'm the Man, scored slightly lower on the U.S. album charts but significantly higher in the UK, and featured a single that did less well in the U.S. but hit #5 on the British charts, "Different for Girls". It also had a number of other tracks that received frequent FM airplay , including "On Your Radio", "I'm the Man", "Get That Girl" and "Friday".

In many ways, I'm the Man is about as fine an example of new wave pop rock as you could find. The music is dominated by frequently-rapid guitar licks, and by Jackson's brash vocals, with sprinklings of harmonica, piano and melodica just to give it some flavor. Many of the more striking songs are faster numbers -- tracks such as "On Your Radio", "I'm the Man", "Don't Wanna Be Like That" and "Get That Girl" almost race each other, as they give the album a sometimes breathless pace. Nevertheless, slower tracks like "It's Different for Girls" and lesser known gems "Geraldine and John" and "The Band Wore Blue Shirts" add depth and heart.

Lyrical themes vary throughout I'm the Man. "On Your Radio" is essentially an extended middle finger to everyone and anyone who made Jackson's life miserable in his early years. "I'm famous now, so bite me!" is the main message here, and let's face it -- given the opportunity, who wouldn't be tempted to do the same? "Kinda Kute", on the other hand, is sort of a benevolent stalker song. On this one, the track's well-meaning protagonist likes to sit in the club and watch his would-be paramour dance, or to show up unexpectedly in places he knows she'll be, but it's all okay because she mostly finds him amusing. And "Get That Girl" takes the whole dance theme in a different direction, as Jackson threatens to use his charm and superior dance moves to steal the girl of his dreams away from a less-deserving competitor. Finally, "It's Different for Girls" plays around with traditional gender role expectations -- on this one, it's the girl who's just out for a good time, while her used and confused boyfriend tries to have the dreaded "love" conversation.

The title track of I'm the Man is one of the album's best. It's a frenzied tribute to a huckster, the kind of guy who can sell anything and everything to an increasingly gullible public, creating new trends such as hula-hoops and kung-fu at the time of the LP's release, (and if the song had been written today, he'd have doubtlessly been responsible for those annoying fidget spinners as well). On a different note, "Friday", follows the life-changes of a fun-loving flower child who leaves her care-free youth behind for the drudgery of a 40-hour work week. "She don't care no more," Jackson explains, "she gets paid on Friday."

I'm the Man makes no claim to be high art. It's a pop LP filled with working class themes and occasionally working-class dreams, all of which contributed to its popularity. It's also a miniature time capsule of what pop rock music was like as the world prepared to enter the 1980s. Mostly, though, it's just a strong album full of fun songs, the majority of which still hold up pretty well today.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars