Sunday, October 28, 2018

Max Freeze, AWOLnation and Twenty One Pilots

Back in 2016, Denise told me she was going to get tickets to take the kids into Madison Square Garden to see Twenty One Pilots. She asked me if I wanted to go, and I told her no. I really wasn't familiar with the band at all, although I knew the rest of the family liked them. Also, at the time, my health was still fairly lousy, and even at my best I'm not that usually thrilled to haul myself into Manhattan. In retrospect, though, it was the wrong decision.

A short while after that, my daughter showed me the video for "Heathens", using my love of comic book movies as a hook (it was much the best thing about Suicide Squad), and I was impressed. (And, in fact, I wound up ranking it #3 on my Top 20 Songs of 2016 list). At this point, the tickets were bought, though, so it was too late to change my mind. They went to the concert and had a great time. (My kids came back talking about some synthesizer band that opened for them, who I later found out was Mutemath, a band I like a lot, so that made me sad to have missed the show. On the other hand, they were also talking about how much I would have hated the ride home on the Long Island Railroad, where they had to stand for the whole trip, and some girl barfed all over the car just to make things even more pleasant.)

Not too long after the concert, my son got me to listen to Blurryface, and again, I liked it more than I expected to. I'm really not a fan of hip hop, so the band's use of it was one strike against them. But I also liked quite a few of the songs, including "Lane Boy", "The Judge", and "Stressed Out". So it would be fair to say that while they're not up there among my favorite bands, I've grown to like Twenty One Pilots, and to enjoy their work.

Cut to this year, and Denise noticed that they were playing Nassau Coliseum on her birthday. Naturally, I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. So she picked up some tickets for the whole family (I got her a different present closer to her birthday), and I picked up Trench as soon as it came out.

Trench is an interesting album. It's a concept album, which is always a plus for me. The songs themselves didn't grab me at first listen, although they've been growing on me. All in all, I still like Blurryface better, but I also like Trench more than not.

I later learned that the opening band for this show was going to be AWOLnation, a band that I'm not that fond of. I've really never liked that "Sail" song, and they remind me of Imagine Dragons, another band I'm kind of tepid about. But Denise and the kids like them, so at least that was good.

It's was a bit of a difficult week again in the house, but everyone agreed that we all wanted Denise to have a good birthday. So on Saturday, we had a quiet day at home, and then decided to drive into Nassau early and get dinner before the show.

We ate at Houlihans, which was pretty good, then scooted over to the Coliseum just a little late for the 7PM start time. (We thought maybe they were bluffing, and 7PM was when the doors would open. We were wrong.)

We rushed to our seats (which involved a bit of mountain climbing, as were pretty high up), and reached them about halfway through the first set. It was a single guy, playing guitar and other instruments to a track, sort of a one-man karaoke. At first I thought this was AWOLnation, until the performer asked the crowd, "Are you excited to see AWOLnation?" (I wasn't. But obviously, this wasn't them). At this point, I noticed two neon signs to the left and right of the stage that said "Max Frost". But as I'm not that familiar with the new Coliseum yet, I thought maybe it was an advertisement for restaurant up front near the VIP section. Or even more likely, a desert place. ("I'll take two Max Frosts and a cappuccino, please!") So I asked my kids if they knew who this was, and was met with much derision. I just love family outings. (I also thought that I remembered that Max Frost was one of the villains in the iZombie series, but it turns out that was Max Rager. Whatever.)

Anyway, Max Frost was energetic enough, but he wasn't really my thing. I can't really even describe his style, more than to say it was a form of pop rock. Sputnik Music describes him as a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer/citizen of Earth. Hmm. He wasn't terrible or anything, especially for a karaoke artist. I remember when there used to be live music, though.

Max Frost finished up, and after a short delay, AWOLnation came on. Yay. I think they played as a 4-piece, but I'm not sure -- the stage was kind of dark in the back, we were pretty far away, and my eyes aren't what they used to be. Anyway, I actually liked them more than I thought I would. They started the set with a few synthesizer dominated songs, which was fine. The latter part of the set was less interesting to me -- it was a bit more guitar heavy. Of course, they played "Sail" as their closing number, which was good for me, because I used the occasion to run downstairs and use the nearly empty Men's Room. (And let me tell you, the sound was pretty good in there.)

At this point, there was a long break between sets. At times, the crowd grew impatient, chanted, stomped their feet, etc. They were just adorable. I think there might have been some equipment problems backstage, because at one point, things went black behind the curtain, which I thought was the cue they were ready to start. Then the red light back there came on again, and stayed on for a long time. (I kind of like to fantasize that drummer Josh Dunn lost a contact lens, and everyone was back there crawling around on their knees looking for it.)

Unfortunately, during the wait, my stomach started acting up. (Theres a reason why Denise and I usually get dinner after the concert). I ignored it for a little, but at one point, a couple with interior seats made me get up, and I realized I was courting disaster if I didn't go down and take care of business. I thought for sure I was going to miss the opening of the set. Fortunately, I knew the setlist (they've been playing the same one every night - it's a very choreographed show), and the first two songs weren't favorites. "Fairly Local" and "Stressed Out" were up third and fourth, and while I didn't want to miss them, I decided that as long as I was back in place for "Heathens" which was up fifth, I could live with myself. So I ran back downstairs, as two muffled (and vaguely annoying) synthesizer notes slowly pulsed again and again.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. That's how long the break was. I was long back in my seat when the place finally went black, and the crowd emitted a high-pitched shriek. (This was a house dominated by teen girls and young women). Then flames shot up, and at first I thought the drum kit was burning. But no, it was a special effect meant to call to mind the video for their first song, "Jumpsuit".

So what can I tell you about the show? I'll start with the negatives first. Even though I know there are only two official members of the band, I thought they'd be touring with a full band. I was wrong. We live in the age of tracking tapes, and Tyler Joseph and Josh Dunn take full advantage of that fact. Not that this is a totally new thing. I remember seeing Flock of Seagulls at the Beacon Theater back in the eighties, and at one point, they were halted mid-set by equipment problems. As they all stood around looking, all of a sudden, the music roared back to life, and they all had to scramble back to their instruments quickly to try to minimize the break in the illusion. It was pretty funny, and I still love Flock to this day. So I guess I can forgive Twenty One Pilots for playing to some canned music.

My second negative -- Josh Dunn needs to keep his friggin' shirt on once in awhile. (Although I mentioned that to my daughter in the car later, and judging by her reaction to this suggestion, it's probably just as well I didn't voice it out loud at the concert. I'd clearly have been stomped to death by a bunch of overheated teens and tweens. (As for Tyler Joseph, he's kind of a Frodo-looking mfer, so he kept his shirt on. I'm sure he has his share of female fans, but the other guy seems to be the preferred eye candy for the estrogen set.)

Anyway, that's really all I've got for negatives. Well, that, and also not all of the songs were great -- there were one or two down spots. For example, I would have gladly traded that stupid song about the cheetah for "The Hype", my favorite song from Trench (which was inexplicably left out of the setlist for this tour).

But now for the positives. Holy crap! These guys kill themselves to put on a great show. They played a 20-song set with a 2-song encore, so that a show that started at 7PM ran until after 11. (The set break may have been long, but they didn't penalize the crowd by eliminating any material.) And the show features two stages (there was one in the middle of the floor), so even if you're far from the main stage, you get to see them when they play the other one. Meanwhile, there were pyrotechnics, a killer light show, interesting video segments, a bridge that came down over the crowd so the band could walk from one stage to the other, and some magic with a body double that allowed Joseph to suddenly appear at one of the gates in the upper deck for one of his songs. They also had a portion of the set where they were joined onstage by Max Frost and AWOLnation for a pair of cover tunes, The Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" and The Beatles' "Hey Jude". Overall, it was pretty damned impressive, and admirable too. This is a crowd that will come back again, because Twenty One Pilots entertained the bejesus out of them, and you can't say that about every band.

I also want to mention that they did a neat version of "Heathens" that started with a slow, beautiful piano intro.

It was also a great show for fans who've come along more recently, as fifteen of the twenty-two songs they played were from either Trench or Blurryface.

Will I see them again? I'd like to, even though my daughter has banned me from any future shows by the band due to the aforementioned remark about Josh's shirt. Heck, if I could have traded AWOLnation and Max Frost in for Mutemath, it would have been a perfect show. I know the birthday girl enjoyed it, and I'm pretty sure the kids did too (even if they didn't do their homework and bone up on the Trench LP before the show like Denise and I did). It was certainly one of the better shows of the year.

The setlist for Twenty One pilots can be found at, and the set for AWOLnation can be found at The set for Jack Frost's little brother Max can't be found anywhere, because not even his mama cares.

Peace out.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of Ho-ro's "Hex"

I posted this review a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music site:

Review Summary: An album of traditional and folk music from Scotland.

This is the second album by this young Scottish band. It's filled with traditional Celtic music (including lots of fiddles, whistles, accordions, and sometimes bagpipes), as well covers of pop and folk songs by artists such as the British folk singer Kate Rusby and the Irish folk artist Barry Kerr. They also seem to be particularly inspired by the Scottish musician Gary Innes.

The music on Hex is bright-sounding, and generally quite beautiful. The band features two lead vocalists, Lucy Doogan and Calum Iain Macphail. Doogan's voice is pure and delicate, while Macphail's is a sweet male pub voice. Seven of the album's eleven tracks, however, are instrumentals. 

The instrumental tracks are mostly all energetic toe-tappers -- and why not, since they were recorded with a seven-piece band? Two of them were composed by Macphail, while the others are covers of traditional music and music by a variety of Highland and Celtic artists. The songs that stuck with me the most, though, were several of the tracks with vocals. "Raven's Wing", the sole track sung by Macphail, is a soft, desperate song about alcoholism. It might be the best song on the album, although it's pushed hard by two of Doogan's numbers, the slow, exquisite "Muinntir Mo Ghraidh", and "Puirt-a-Beul", both of which seem to be sung in Scottish Gaelic. This last one starts in deliberate fashion, then gradually speeds up as the song goes on, to the point where it's impressive that Doogan can sing it without stumbling over the words (and that she can still breathe while she's singing that fast).

Hex is actually one of the more enjoyable albums I've heard in 2018. I'd have given it an extra half-star if they'd have recorded more of their own original music, although I can't really argue with their choice of cover material. (And bonus points should be given to them for recording "Muinntir Mo Ghraidh", which is a song that Doogan found in her grandmother's attic. It was written by her great-grandmother's cousin.) I don't know how often (if ever) this band comes to North America, but this LP has given me enough of a taste of them that I'd love to catch them live when they do.

Rating: 3.5of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Aimee Mann's "The Forgotten Arm"

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

Review Summary: A touching musical story about an up-and-down relationship between two likable outcasts.

Last year, I reviewed Aimee Mann's most recent album Mental Illness (2017), a musically stark effort with songs mostly built around the acoustic guitar. Today, I'm going to write about a very different kind of Aimee Mann album, 2005's The Forgotten Arm. It's an LP that is brighter musically, but much bleaker thematically (although it does end on a ray of hope).

The Forgotten Arm is a concept album that tells a story in a series of vignettes. It's the tale of John and Caroline, two broken people who meet at the Virginia State Fair in the early 1970s, and run off together in the hopes that "sharing the burden will lighten the load." John is a sometime-boxer and a Viet Nam veteran who has come back from the war with demons and addictions. Caroline is a drifter, a marginal person who tends to run at the first sign of trouble. Together, they take off across the country in an old Cadillac, and we follow the highs, the lows and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. 

Clearly, this isn't a chucklefest. What makes it not only bearable, but actually moving, is Mann's understanding of her characters, and her empathy for the way that life grinds them down. The boxer theme is important, as the concept of the "forgotten arm" refers to a phenomenon where a fighter is repeatedly hurt with a series of jabs coming from one arm so as to get so involved with the need to block them that he forgets entirely about the other one. This "forgotten arm" eventually unleashes a blow that flies past his defenses and devastates him. As you probably guessed, it's a metaphor. (Mann was a boxing enthusiast at the time, and the LP actually won a Grammy Award for the album art, which featured a series of boxing sketches throughout the booklet.)

The heart of [i]The Forgotten Arm[i] can be found within its second song, "The King of the Jailhouse". It's a slow, mournful, piano-based number with a heartbreaking chorus, as John confesses to the sleeping Caroline, "Baby, there's something wrong with me/That I can't see." Mann's voice has never been richer than it is on this track, or more poignant.

The story can be a little confusing at times -- because Mann is the sole vocalist, it's not always clear which character is singing which track. Nevertheless, the gist of it is that Caroline gets to know John well enough that she can see he is going to relapse before he's aware of it himself ("Going Through the Motions"); John tries unsuccessfully to rehab ("I Can't Get My Head Around It"); and eventually, Caroline reverts to form and runs ("I Can't Help You Anymore"). The last song on the album makes it seem as though many years later, John has overcome his problems, and he and Caroline find their way back to one another ("Beautiful"). But honestly, I've always felt that perhaps this was a fantasy ending, and that maybe Mann came to care about her two flawed lovers so much that she just couldn't stand to give them the more probable tragic ending they were always headed towards. Because, as she explained a few songs earlier, "(That's how) I knew this story would break my heart".

For awhile, Mann and Ted Leo were working on the possibility of turning The Forgotten Arm into a Broadway musical. They even had some discussions about it with a respected Broadway producer. Then Rocky: The Musical hit Broadway in 2012, and it was decided all around that the chances of two boxing-themed musicals making it to The Great White Way anytime within the same decade of one another was unlikely, so the project was suspended. Even so, this is my favorite of Aimee Mann's solo albums, and that's saying a lot. I give it three-and-a-half stars for the songs, and an extra half-star for the sympathetic characters and the ability to pull off the overall concept.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, October 22, 2018

Review of Reed and Caroline's "Hello Science"

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

Review Summary: Future Bible Heroes meets Bill Nye the Science Guy

Reed & Caroline are Reed Hayes and Caroline Schutz. They're a New York-based electronic duo. Their sound is accessible enough -- delicate female vocals backed by synthesized instrumentation -- but they're a step or two to the left of pop. In fact, although they're proteges of Vince Clarke of the British electropop duo Erasure, their stint this past summer as the opening act for that band's "World Be Gone Tour" left many Erasure fans baffled. Eighties-based dancepop this is not. 

Hello Science is Reed & Caroline's second LP. It's a concept album centered around the worship of all things science. Hence, there are songs here about dark matter, buoyancy vs. gravity, computers and the Internet, oceanography, etc. (Actually, this seems to be a favorite theme as theirs, as half of the songs from their first release, 2016's Buchla and Singing, were also science-themed.)

The album is quite consistent throughout, and surprisingly good. Schutz's voice is pretty and precise, and Hayes' music is innovative, yet light. Once you get over your initial bewilderment at their Schoolhouse Rock! kind of approach, it's actually quite enjoyable. 

My favorite track on the LP is a little ditty called "Before". It might be the band's favorite track as well, since it's the only song that's featured on the album twice (in a regular version, and a Vince Clarke remix). It celebrates the notion that there's nothing really new in the universe -- "All the we are/And all that we adore/Is rearranged/From things that came before". OK, I can get behind that.

I'm interested to see just where this twosome goes from here. The whole science thing seems like a bit of a schtick, and I'm not sure it's sustainable beyond an album or two. Nevertheless, for me, Hello Science has been one of the more pleasing albums of the year.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review of Chvrches "Love Is Dead"

I just posted this on the Sputnik Music site, to what I'm sure will be universally positive vibes (heh heh):

Review Summary: In defense of pop.

In the world of Sputnik Music, Chvrches' new album Love Is Dead has been judged and found guilty -- guilty of "bland"ness, of "predictability", and of "repetitive"ness. The two reviews listed on the site so far rate it at 2 stars and 1½ stars respectively. But beauty is in the ear of the beholder. A quick perusal of opinions outside of the Sputiverse reveals that opinions on the LP have been a bit more varied. Sites such as Pitchfork and Slant Magazine basically agree with the previous Sputnik reviewers that the album is boring and derivative. However, other (primarily British, for some reason) publications, such as NME and The Independent have given the Scottish electropop trio's latest effort glowing reviews, with The Independent even awarding it a perfect 5-star rating. The album reached the #1 position in both the Billboard Top Alternative Albums and Top Rock Albums charts, and was #11 on the Billboard 200 chart. It also reached a very respectable #7 on the UK albums chart. I'm not trying to invalidate the opinions expressed in the earlier reviews of Love on this site. I'm just saying there's another side to the story.

I go through a fairly rigorous process for the new albums I review (or even listen too. I'm more than a little obsessive compulsive). I usually start with the CD out in my car for awhile (yeah, I buy CDs. What of it?), where I play it at least three or four times while I'm driving around living my life. Then, I take it inside, and give it another, closer, three or four listens, as I try to evaluate where it stands in relation to other albums released during the current year. For Love Is Dead, I wasn't particularly impressed with the LP during that first set of plays. I've been a casual fan of Chvrches over the years, and I always liked their basic sound. But nothing here really jumped out at me. Then, a funny thing happened as soon as I took it inside and started listening more closely. I fell in love with this album.

Love Is Dead is Chvrches' most consistent album to date. They've always had a few good songs on each release, but I never felt that they put it all together before. This LP, however, is a turning point for them. Lauren Mayberry's voice has never been brighter, and they've never before turned out such a large group of easily accessible tunes.

Here's where I think they're losing some people, and especially some critics. Love Is Dead is by far their most mainstream album to date. Prior to this, they were a quirky little band of the type that could fill small clubs, and open effectively for older and more experienced indie rock acts. It was kind of cool to like them. Love suddenly takes them to the level of a headliner. In Mayberry's own words, the album "is the most pop stuff we've ever done," and not everybody is OK with that.

The other thing that can be a little off-putting on first listen is the speed of the songs. Almost everything on Love Is Dead is either slow- or mid-tempo -- the first hint of anything that's even a little faster doesn't come until the album's fifth song, "Forever". Consequently, if you're giving it a quick listen or two, it's easy to see how everything can blend together. After a few hearings, though, the songs start to become more distinct. And suddenly, songs like "Graffiti", "Wonderland" and "My Enemy" start jumping out at you as some of the best stuff this band has ever done. (That's how it worked for me, anyway.)

Obviously, if you're not a fan of Chvrches' brand of synthpop with ethereal female vocals, you're probably not going to care for Love Is Dead. But if you're open to that style of music, I'd suggest you check it out, and also that you give the LP a chance to grow on you. Maybe you'll still wind up in the I-hate-this-album camp. But there are plenty of us who are hearing this a whole different way. As of right now, Love Is Dead has become my favorite release of 2018.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review of Bayside's "Acoustic Volume 2"

I posted this review a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: An album for Bayside completists.

In 2005, Bayside put out the original Acoustic album at a delicate point in their history. It was their first release after a tragic van accident that killed drummer, John "Beatz" Hollohan and seriously injured bass player Nick Ghanbarian. The album was a tribute to Hollohan (and Ghanbarian) -- the highlight was a track called "Winter", which was written in remembrance of him. It was also an act of defiance, a raised fist to the universe, declaring "No matter what happens, we will not quit as a band!". Curiously, it has been remembered by many as a live album, although only one of the tracks, "Don't Call Me Peanut", was actually recorded in front of a live audience. (This is probably because the CD version included a live acoustic DVD.) Most of the tracks on Acoustic were reimagined versions of songs that had been previously recorded on Bayside's 2004 eponymous album.

For years, there have been rumors of a follow-up that would feature acoustic versions of some of the songs the band has written in the ensuing thirteen years. Cut to 2018, and, to paraphrase a really bad hip hop song, "Whoomp! Here it is," in the form of Acoustic Volume 2.

Now I'm a huge fan of this band. I have been since the Bayside album, which contained not only their best-known song, "Devotion and Desire", but also a track called "Existing in a Crisis (Evelyn)" which is one of the best eff-my-ex-girlfriend songs ever written. So for me, any new Bayside album is a celebration.

But having said that, while I won't say I'm disappointed by this LP, to me, it's kind of a niche album. If you're already a fan of this band, then it's always great to have a collection of alternate versions of a bunch of songs you already love. Is it likely to do anything to expand Bayside's fan base, though?I doubt it. In virtually all cases, the original versions of these songs are superior to the new stripped-down adaptations presented here. Also, although I'm thrilled to hear acoustic presentations of tracks such as "Sick, Sick, Sick", "Duality" and "Mary", some of the song choices are more questionable. I don't know that I needed acoustic renditions of tracks like "Howard", "Pigsty" or "I Think I'll Be OK". And while I understand the urge to include another version of "Devotion and Desire", which was also recorded on the original "Acoustic" album (like I said, it's their best-known number), I'm a little more mystified about why they'd record "Blame It On Bad Luck" again (even though this is a particularly nice interpretation of the song).

There is one new track here, a slow one called "It Don't Exist". It's kind of pretty, but it's nowhere near being one of the group's best songs. (The verses also sound a little like a knockoff version of "Mary".)

A couple of things I will say in favor of this second acoustic collection, in comparison to the first one: You've got a much fuller sound here, as the full band seems to be included on every track. And for understandable reasons, the overall sound is less mournful.

As I said earlier, I'm more than happy to have Acoustic Volume 2. It helps to scratch my Bayside itch to have something new to listen to in between studio albums. If you've never experienced this band, though, this isn't the place to start. Go back and listen to their other LPs first, and then, if those grab you, you'll find this album to be a nice little bonus.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review of Melanie's "Melanie"

I just posted this review on the Sputnik Music site a few minutes ago.

Review Summary: "They say, 'Get out and sell them'/But selling's not my aim/I'm gonna sing the life I'm living/And try to ease the pain" -- from "Tuning My Guitar" by Melanie

Melanie Safka, aka Melanie, holds a special place in the history of folk music in the U.S. Starting out as beautiful teen from Astoria, NY, she was one of only two solo female folk singers (along with Joan Baez) to play at the Woodstock festival of 1969, where she first broke into the national consciousness. She played on the festival's opening night, as a replacement for The Incredible String Band, who refused to go on in the rain. As she performed, the audience lit up candles, creating an intimate and iconic moment that she later commemorated by writing the hit single "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)". 

Melanie (released in the UK as Affectionately Melanie) was Safka's second album. It was the first one to chart at all, albeit at #196. It contained her first single, "Beautiful People", which became something of an anthem for flower children everywhere. And for an album released in 1969, it still sounds pretty good in 2018.

This LP contains a nice representative sample of Safka's early work. On it, she demonstrates her ability to be both silly and serious. She also flits through a variety of styles, including folk, pop, blues, and even a little bit of country. There's a lot of quietly picked acoustic guitar, but also a surprising amount of string accompaniment. And Melanie also serves as a nice showcase for Safka's songwriting talents, and for her voice.

On the songwriting side, Melanie proves herself here to be less stridently political than many of her contemporaries, such as Baez and Buffy St. Marie. A lot of the tracks are tales of loneliness and alienation, although the pain is often hidden behind a mask of humor. Other songs contrast the joy of making music with the harsh reality of trying to make a living in the music industry, surrounded by people who only care about making money off of you. The closest thing here to a truly political song is "Beautiful People", a likable but painfully naive hippy-flavored track. Here, the artist (who was only seventeen at the time she wrote it) posits the idea that everyone is beautiful, and maybe if we all wore buttons that said "Beautiful People", we wouldn't feel so alone. Yeah, it's a little cringeworthy. However, it's sincere enough, the writer was really young, and most of her other songs show a much more sophisticated understanding of the world and human relationships, so I'm willing to just give her this one. (And maybe even enjoy it a little myself, if no one else is looking.)

As for her vocals, the 1969 version of Melanie was a singer whose vox belied her Gidget-like appearance. In a world where many of the most popular female folk artists sported exquisite high ranges that made constant use of vibrato (think Baez, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins), Melanie's voice was husky and rather throaty. In fact, the closest comparison I can find to her would be Glynis Johns, the mother in the 1968 Mary Poppins film, who also recorded the original version of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns".

Later in her career, Melanie Safka would become better known as a pop artist, with singles such as the #1 hit "Brand New Key". But Melanie provides an excellent glimpse into her beginnings as a '60s folk heroine.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, October 8, 2018

Review of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "The Punishment of Luxury"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website just a few minutes ago:

Review Summary: Intelligent synth-pop with a strong Kraftwerk influence.

For some reason, 2017 was a big year for iconic 1980s bands and artists to put out new albums. There were releases from Depeche Mode, Erasure, Blondie and Modern English, among others. But of all the LPs put out by new wave idols last year, the best of the lot might well have been The Punishment of Luxury by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. (In fact, for me, the only album that even gave it a run for its money was Gary Numan's Savage (Songs for a Broken World). But that's a review for another day.)

Punishment is the band's 13th studio album. It's named after a painting by Italian artist Giovanni Segantini. It's overall theme is about what the band describe as "first world" problems -- consumerism, alienation, technology run amok, etc. And frankly, I don't care about any of that. Because for me, it's all about the music.

The album is much less pop-oriented than a lot of their most famous '80s stuff, yet still quite melodic. And synthesizers reign supreme. OMD has always named Kraftwerk as one of their main influences, and you can really hear it on this album. I listen to some of the best tracks, like the title number, or "Isotope", for example, and I hear strong echoes of Kraftwerk classics like "Tour de France". OMD is more pop-leaning than Kraftwerk, and they're definitely more British than Kraftwerk (duh!), but Kraftwerk vibes permeate this LP.

Besides some of the more accessible and tuneful numbers (e.g. "The Punishment of Luxury", "Isotope", "What Have We Done", and "As We Open, So We Close"), there are some strange and fascinating shorter tracks that add an experimental element to the album. These include "Precision and Decay" (which sounds like a duet between Bebe Neuwirth and Walter Cronkite, or maybe Prymaat Conehead and Edward R. Murrow); "La Mitrailleuse" (which features a robotic voice repeatedly exhorting you to "bend your body to the will of the machine" transposed over a series of increasingly violent war noises; or the truly unusual "Art Eats Art", which strings the names of various painters and composers together in a constantly repeating low-to-high scale. OMD aren't just resting on their laurels here -- they're showing that even after more than 35 years as a band, they can still be pretty inventive.

If you're looking for OMD at their catchy-pop best, this probably isn't the album to go with. But if you're looking for some synth-based music that's both creative and mellifluous, you can't go wrong with this LP.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Review of Johnny Marr's "Call the Comet"

I just dropped this review a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Johnny Marr delivers another album full of strong tunes with tasty pop hooks.

Johnny Marr has had a varied and interesting career. Best known as the guitarist (and one of the two main creative forces) of the '80s British pop-rock giants The Smiths, in the thirty-plus years since that band's demise, he's been a member of The Pretenders, The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs, and has done session work with a list of artists as long as a Russian winter. He briefly formed a new band with Zac Starkey in the early 2000's (Johnny Marr and the Healers), but that project fizzled out after one album. In the last five years, though, he's finally made the obvious move, and started turning out a string of solo LPs. And damned if they haven't mostly been pretty good.

Call the Comet is Marr's third solo album, following on the heels of 2013's The Messenger and 2014's Playland. (He also put out a live recording, Adrenalin Baby, in 2015). The Messenger was absolutely first-rate, and while Playland was much less consistent, even that one had some really good songs, most notably the single "Easy Money". Call the Comet finds him back in top form.

The thing about Marr is this -- the man knows how to create tight, intelligent pop songs. It's as simple as that. Call the Comet doesn't push any boundaries, and it doesn't bowl you over with its brilliance. It merely presents you with a number of tracks that are catchy and listenable without being embarrassing. What I mean by this last part is it passes the drive-thru test -- if I pull up at the window of McDonald's, and I've got this album playing on my CD player, I don't feel ashamed if I forget to turn it all the way down -- there's nothing guilty about the pleasure. 

"Hi Hello", for example, which is Comet's second single (and my favorite track) is deliberately paced. It's a little dark sounding, and a little Smiths-like. (There's a brief synth line between the chorus and the verses that takes me back to "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out".) It's main strength is that it's constructed in such a way that it builds up a certain tension during the verses, then hits you with a chorus that releases it in a satisfying way. It's like a mini-musical orgasm.

Marr isn't as distinctive a vocalist as his erstwhile bandmate Morrissey, but he's perfectly adequate. You probably won't get addicted to the album because you love his voice so much, but his vocals won't make you think twice about hitting the "Play" button either. And as for the music, there's plenty of Marr's trademark jangly guitar, but he's not afraid to throw in a keyboard now and again either.

True confession here. Sometimes when I'm writing a review, after I've given an LP an adequate number of listens and made my own notes, I'll read some other reviews just to see if other listeners are hearing some of the same things I am, or if I'm totally out in the woods on my own. And with Call the Comet, I was shocked to learn that there's supposed to be a consistent theme running throughout, and that Comet is Marr's attempt to create a kinder, gentler world as an alternative to the supposedly horrific one we're currently living in. And I realized when I read this how much the lyrics of this album just wash over me. Some lyricists write with a bite you can't ignore -- a great example of this is Morrissey, particularly in his work with The Smiths, when he was at his most effective. The words to a song like "Light That Doesn't Go Out" are integral, and are a major part of the song's emotional impact. For better or for worse, I don't find that in Marr's solo work. I like this album a lot, but it's based almost solely on the musical structure and listenability of the songs. He could be singing out his food shopping list, and I'd like it almost as much.

(The other thing I learned from reading alternative reviews was that the guy from Pitchfork disparaged Marr as mostly a "hired gun" who is slowing down in his "middle age", to which I'd like to politely invite him to go fuck himself. When you can write an album of songs this listenable, get back to me.)

All of Marr's solo work for the last five years has been doing pretty well in the European charts, especially in the UK. (Comet reached as high as #7 on the British charts.) In North America, his following is narrower, but no less devoted -- I wasn't able to see him live this year because his show sold out in New York, and I get the sense that's the way it's been around the rest of the country.

In any event, my final report card for Call the Comet looks something like this: 

Musicianship: B+ 
Vocals: B 
Lyrics: Incomplete 
Music Composition: A (And make this an A+ for the best tracks, like "High Hello" and "Rise".)

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars