Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New Music, 2007-2008 - Part 3

Yes! The third of three parts. Onward:
  • Burnt Fur - Unfurl (2008). I listened to their tunes on their myspace page, and was duly impressed. So I figured it was worth the plunge to get the album. Describing themselves as Electro/New Wave/Experimental (and who am I to argue?), this Boston band's release is a tale of two albums: there's the half that sounds good, and there's the half that doesn't. When they are good: great mix of guitar, keyboard, and vocals that blend together. When they are not: the music and vocals don't jibe, and/or the music nudges over the fine line between "not complicated" and "simplistic." Overall, it's a nice listen, but you're clearly slumming. It's terrible in the car; it's good on my office boombox. Tracks 1, 3, 6, and 8 are, respectively, pedestrian; not bad but not good, and therefore not good; ripping off a band who was, in turn, already ripping off Nine Inch Nails; and awful. Tracks 2, 4, 5, 7, and 9 are, respectively, reminiscent of very early Ministry and therefore decent; pretty solid both lyrically and musically; ripping off Pearl Jam’s opening to “Corduroy,” with a solid (and original) remainder; good; and why I bought the album. There's something here, just not enough of it, or enough variation.
    Verdict: It's close. Recommended for the five tracks that are good. CD Rack.
  • The Cribs - Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever (2008). These guys are the real deal -- excellent musicians, smart lyricists, and thoughtful arrangers. Three is the magic number here. Three brothers from England, this is there third album and it boasts three great (and I mean great) tracks: the angular "Men's Needs"; the cacophonous "Ancient History" (chorus: "I drag up ancient history/Hope that they'll forgive me"); and the spoken word missive "Be Safe" (which features Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth). And the rest of the songs are either good or very good. The production is excellent -- they get a dynamic mix of sounds out of all of their songs, despite the standard rock instrumental setups. Quite impressive. They seem to be approaching alternative rock at its logical extension, and I think they've got a serious future ahead of them.
    Verdict: Highly recommended. You're damn right this is a Car CD Changer album.
  • Crooked Fingers - Forfeit/Fortune (2008). Eric Bachmann, the frontman and sole songwriter for this outfit, is pretty prolific to be flying under the radar: between Archers of Loaf, Barry Black, his solo work, and Crooked Fingers, he has now released sixteen albums and EP's since 1993. Not bad for a guy still living out of his car. Of those sixteen, I'd only call two pedestrian: his soundtrack Short Careers in 2001, and this effort. Neko Case injects some life into the last song on the album, but by then it's too late. Not bad, just not great. I'd characterize it as "pretty bland."
    Verdict: Not recommended. I'll keep it in my CD Rack out of respect to the man, but expect it to be gone by the next culling. The Archers of Loaf albums Icky Mettle and White Trash Heroes, Barry Black albums Barry Black and Tragic Animal Stories, and Crooked Fingers s/t debut are better places to start than this.
  • Millencolin - Machine 15 (2008). The eighth album by everyone's favorite Scandanavian skatepunks. Usually their albums consist of one or two mind-blowing tunes and the rest not hitting the mark, but here they are a little less aggressive and a little more consistent, which makes the album a nice listen front-to-back and surprisingly solid as a whole.
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.
  • The Roots - Rising Down (2008). The veteran Philadelphia jazz-rap outfit is back, following up on 2006's brilliant Game Theory. Evan tried to get me to listen to these guys for years, and I can see why. This is very solid, although it's a little more mellow and a little less aggressive musically, and thus I prefer Game Theory.
    Verdict: Recommended. CD Rack.
  • Bruce Springsteen - Magic (2007). I heard "Radio Nowhere" and loved the song -- Bruce is back! So I bought the album... and not so much, unfortunately. Great song, though.
    Verdict: Not recommended. Sell-back pile 1.
  • Tapes 'N Tapes - Walk It Off (2008). Following up on their impressive 2005 debut The Loon, the boys clean up their sound with an overly produced effort. Sometimes production makes an album (like The Cribs, above); sometimes it completely takes the edge of the music and sanitizes it in a horrible, horrible way, wringing the life out of the music until the sponge is dry. You may have guessed -- this is the latter. It's just too clean; there are a few excellent songs here, but they rest have been polished to death. Did I mention I loved their debut?
    Verdict: Not recommended. Sell-back pile 1.
  • Weezer - Red Album (2008). Now the first thing with this album is to listen to it in the correct order -- start with track 3 ("Pork and Beans"), play it straight through to the end, then play the first two tracks; "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" is a final track if I've ever heard one, but an odd choice for the second track of the album. Their track ordering choices are not good, but otherwise this is their best album since Pinkerton. "Pork and Beans" is absolutely fantastic, which always helps; the rest of the songs seem really autobiographical, which in this case works. It's really remarkably good, especially since (IMHO) they launched three bombs in a row before this one. It's an impressive return to form -- classic Weezer, which inevitably is good sounding, guilty pleasure rock. They do what they do, and they do it well.
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.
  • Wire - Object 47 (2008). Wire's story follows a bit like the Buzzcocks: Wire released three seminal albums in the late 70's, went on hiatus, then released some tired-sounding albums from the mid-80's and early 90's before re-forming at the beginning of this decade. (Granted, in the Buzzcocks case they had a longer layoff to the early 90's, and a shorter time to reforming early this decade, but you get the idea.) Here's the difference between the two: the Buzzcocks have not been able to recapture the magic, but Wire has. At a Buzzcocks show, you feel the electricity through the old songs, and the lack thereof in the new ones; at a Wire show, it's a blur of electricity, front to back, no matter what era is being played. And this album is great. Anchored by the three great tracks ("One of Us," "Perspex Icon," and "All Fours", the latter starring Page Hamilton from Helmet), this album is a good listen. They're art rock at its finest, and have proven they still have their game after all these years, despite guitarist Bruce Gilbert leaving the band. Close your eyes -- you'll think it's a lost classic.
    Verdict: Highly recommended. Car CD Changer.
- Snilch

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Music, 2007-2008 - Part 2

Part Two of our look at new music. Onward:
  • The Black Watch - Icing the Snow Queen (2008). One of my all-time favorite groups -- it's just too bad that no one has ever heard of them. They have an amazing story, which will have to wait until their next album, but here's a quick synopsis: The Black Watch (essentially John Andrew Fredrick and J'Anna Jacoby) had ten releases over a 14-year period, before Jacoby left to tour with Rod Stewart (!), leaving Fredrick on his own to release four albums and one EP since 2003. It has felt like a bad breakup; of the four post-Jacoby albums, this is closest to the classic Black Watch sound. Think The Cure meets My Bloody Valentine with pop sensibilities. I may enjoy Tattermedallion a little more this one in the post-Jacoby era, but this album is really nice -- if you like your music a little folkier, this is a great place to start with your first Black Watch album. And if this were a breakup, I think Fredick has finally been able to push past it.
    Verdict: Highly recommended. This album, Amphetamines, The King of Good Intentions, Lime Green Girl, Tattermedallion... I just named five of my favorite albums. Get one of them if you can find them (although Lime Green Girl is probably the best place to start). Portable CD Case "with privileges."

  • The B-52's - Funplex (2007). Hard to believe, but this is only their seventh album, and the first since 1992's Good Stuff. As usual,The B-52's bring incredible harmonies to the table to contrast with Fred Schneider's delivery (his best line: "I am a fully eroticized being!"). This does not feel like an album that they've been creating for 16 years, more like picking up where they left off with Cosmic Thing: danceable, poppy, quirky fun. No huge hits here, but enjoyable.
    Verdict: Recommended. CD Rack.

  • CSS - Donkey (2008). Album #2 from everyone's favorite Brazilian dance troupe finds the band adding a little more musical oomph to their sound, with mixed results. My favorite song is "How I Became Paranoid," which properly marries indie rock sensibilities, pop harmonies, and a dance beat (I give it an 89, Dick!) into a great pop song. That's a really tough thing to create. If they continue on this trajectory, I would not be surprised if their next album was landmark in quality. Still, this album is very very good and quite a fun listen. Hop on while they're still incubating.
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.

  • Nerf Herder - IV (2008). Most famous for writing the title theme for the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the nerd indie rock boys are back. They've always struck me as being on the cusp of something really great, but that promise has never translated into a great album. That's the case here once again -- bits and bobs are decent, but the songs themselves are just lacking. I think they want to be this generation's Devo; they need to be smarter both musically and lyrically to get there.
    Verdict: Not recommended. Pile of death.

  • R.E.M. - Accelerate (2008). Let me start by stating that I am not an R.E.M. fan. I associate old R.E.M. (i.e.,1983-87, the I.R.S. records) with visiting my brother at Kenyon College in the early 90's -- that was the vibe of the campus and it seemed like we heard them everywhere we went. I associate Green (e.g., "Orange Crush," "Stand," "Pop Song '89") with my freshman year in college; when I hear anything from Out of Time (e.g., "Losing My Religion," "Shiny Happy People"), I think of my senior year in college. And when I hear anything else (1992-2007), I think of a band that lost its way (i.e., crap). This album makes me think of Kenyon. It's not quite as jangly as that era but it has that vibe. No real "hits" here, but I like this better than anything since Out of Time. Minus the regrettable last song, I think they've done what U2 has failed to do: recapture their magic from the 80's. (IMHO, of course!)
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.

  • Sloan - Parallel Play (2008). Sloan was on a bit of a run: the career compilation A-Sides Win was fantastic, the follow-up Never Hear the End of It (reviewed here) was absolutely great -- the best, most consistent album they've ever done -- and the show that followed it was a great mix of their new and old material. Their show on this tour (reviewed here) was a step back; Parallel Play (reviewed... well, I guess right here) is a further drop-off. I would not be surprised if these were castoffs from the aforementioned NHTEOI sessions... two excellent songs, the rest completely pedestrian and sadly disappointing.
    Verdict: Not recommended. Sell-back pile 1.

  • TV on the Radio - Dear Science (2008). When Scott and I saw these guys at the Boston Music Awards a few years ago, we were blown away by the first couple of songs, then not so much by the rest. And their Return to Cookie Mountain album (although it was universally praised) just didn't move me. But I heard something in their music that I liked, so when Chris Dahlen's review for Pitchfork said this was catchier than their previous albums, I felt I needed to take the plunge. And this is very good. It's like Bad Brains decided to mellow out and try to mimic Prince; at other times that have moments that recall Morphine, Hybrasil, or The Michael Stanley Band. (Okay, the latter is quite a stretch, but I couldn't resist the reference.) This may not be exactly up my alley, but it is really good. Headphones or big stereo listen for this one for sure.
    Verdict: Recommended. CD Rack.
- Snilch

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New Music, 2007-2008 - Part 1

I'm sure most people want to know what new music I'm listening to -- that's usually what they ask me about as a starter. To be honest, I've done a pretty piss-poor job of spelling that out lately; so I'm going to make up for it and play catch-up with a bunch of albums from 2007 and 2008.

I'd like to make one general comment before beginning: the radio is terrible, and the current state of music is extremely pedestrian. There is a little voice in my head that keeps saying, "Guitar music is done, something else is next," but I can't see what or who that might be. This has been an incredibly stagnant decade for pretty much all forms of music, and thus nothing I'm going to review over the next few posts is revolutionary by any means. There is a lot of good music out there, just not the next Nirvana or My Bloody Valentine.

That being said... I've heard a lot of very good music this year, so I really shouldn't complain. Yet I still do. Ah, poor Mrs. Snilch Report...

In alphabetical order:
  • The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (2007). Now when I asked for any thoughts on this album last year, what I got back was resounding silence. So when I saw the album cheap, I figured I would give it a shot. This album is very good; it's just that their first (Funeral) was epic. And this is not. If you've never heard Funeral, it's similar to listening to U2's October without hearing Boy: on its own, it's a very good album; when compared with Boy, its warts begin to show. A couple of classic songs, but I'll pick up Funeral again nine times out of ten over this one.
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.

  • Battles - Mirrored (2007). At times this sounds like a demented version of Jesus Christ Superstar; other times it sounds like Mars Volta. In either case it's a highly pleasing cacophony of sound.
    Verdict: Recommended. CD Rack.

  • The Big Sleep - Sleep Forever (2008). At that start, it appears this is album plodding and full of itself; the first three songs are instrumental. By the time the album hits track 5, the brilliant "Pinkies," it's apparent that this is more of a single thought stretched over the glorious map of an album. There's a wistfulness and an epic quality to their ambitions as a group that come through -- a little shoegazer, a little prog rock, and even a little stoner rock. (Okay, light stoner rock.) A little slow at times, and it feels longer than it really is, but still... Winner. Winner. Winner.
    Verdict: Recommended. Car CD Changer.

  • British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music? (2008). Album #3 from this English band, still trying to measure up to their impressive debut album from 2003, The Decline of British Sea Power. I like this album but it overstays its welcome a tad. It sounds very familiar, very safe, very 80's -- it's very "pleasant" music. Probably would be perfect to impress your new potential girlfriend or boyfriend that you're hip, while safe (i.e., not living in your mother's basement planning horrible revenge on people who wronged you in the fifth grade). Great for doing dishes or playing in the background while you're doing something else. I know it sounds like I'm damning this album with faint praise -- I like it more than that. Sort of. How about this: I'm glad I bought it.
    Verdict: Recommended. CD Rack.

  • M83 - Saturdays = Youth (2008). After the bomb that was Digital Shades Volume 1, I honestly wasn't sure whether M83 would ever touch the heights of Before the Dawn Healed Us. This one is not quite there, but it's a step in the right direction. This has a depth and a vibe to it that DSV1 did not; I don't like primarily keyboard music unless it can capture a spacey/dreamy aspect while having at least a slight edge. This does. I will still be enjoying this in ten years.
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.

  • Jay Reatard - Matador Singles '08 (2008). This is a CD compilation of a series of limited edition 7"s released by Matador this year. If you don't know his work... well, let's just say Jay Reatard amuses me -- he writes bent pop songs. Great disc but definitely not for everyone. Generally pretty simple musically and lyrically; think Andrew W.K. with more wit and musical chops. He's mid-tempo indie/pop/punk rock... tough to absolutely classify, which is reason #212 I like him.
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.

  • Teddy Thompson - A Piece of What You Need (2008). This is Teddy's third album (fourth if you count his album of country covers), and his best one yet. The only son of Richard and Linda Thompson, this album sees Teddy sounding absolutely confident, and surprisingly establishing his identity as a crooner. Think Eric Matthews meets Jens Lekman. Not my kind of music but my kind of album. I find myself shocked that he's progressed this far in such a short period of time. It's nice to hear him find his voice and his own identity outside of his famous folks.
    Verdict: Recommended. Almost CD Changer worthy, but ends up in the Portable CD Case.

  • The Thalia Zedek Band - Liars and Prayers (2008). Thalia Zedek has been fronting bands in Boston since the late '70's, including Uzi and Come, and I've always felt I should like her stuff on principle... but it's never happened. This album is where I can happily meet her halfway. Sounding like Courtney Love in about another ten years of serious smoking, minus the haughtiness, Zedek has a lot more life in her. Musically, it's a standard three piece plus a viola and a piano, which sound great. Vocally, she goes for it as well -- she's got the voice of wisdom combined with the earnestness of youth. The small complaint I'd lodge would be that there is not much variation from song to song musically; but, in the end, I still feel this is an under the radar, great sounding album.
    Verdict: Recommended. Portable CD Case.
Wow... uniformly positive. How did that happen?

- Snilch

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Wax Ecstatic

I'm not sure if you've heard... vinyl is back.

CD shoved past vinyl in the late 80's, relegating the survival of the format to audiophiles and DJ's; now, in what might be a "Rocky"-type comeback, vinyl may now be spelling the end of CD's.

Yes, that's right. Those same large black coasters that have existed in your domicile primarily as nostalgic references to a time gone by... are now potentially pushing their commercial successors out of business. For the first time in the last 20 years, sales of vinyl are going up significantly.

How is this possible?

This is how we got here: in the past ten years, people who wanted the flexibility of music in an electronic format have turned to mp3's, which has (for quite some time) been driving CD sales downward. As the convenience that CD's has offered has been supplanted by mp3's, the audiophile vinyl-only purists (living amongst us like recessive genes) have kept the format on life support, evangelizing that a CD could never match the richer sound quality of an album.

So now we've come to the tipping point, where audio purists are becoming a larger segment of the record/CD-buying public. Don't believe me? The next time you go into Newbury Comics, look at the vinyl section. It's growing.

But the proof is in the pudding.
Having owned it for six months, it seemed like the right time to finally open the wrapper on the LP version of Bob Mould's Body of Song. I was shocked at how much fuller the sound was than on CD (the song "Paralyzed" in particular). So, a few weekends back, Scott, Bubba, and I got together to take a larger listen for ourselves. Cranking the stereo (with Mrs. Snilch Report wisely taking cover at the Jersey shore), we ended up finding that the music did sound at least as good, and often better, on LP than on CD. A few notables:
  • Hüsker Dü - Warehouse: Songs and Stories. (1987) I always wondered how this band went from a small label to a major, yet saw the quality of its mastering plummet. Well, here is the answer: the CD mixes were crap, the vinyl mixes were great. I've been listening to "Could You Be the One?" for 20 years now, and swear it never sounded as good as when I heard it on record. The drums sound much less tinny, the guitar much more rounded and full -- it's almost as if the album was originally "digitally sanitized" for CD. The other Hüsker albums we sampled (Metal Circus, New Day Rising) were also better than their CD counterparts, but not as strikingly better as Warehouse was.
  • The Dandy Warhols - The Dandy Warhols Come Down.(1997) This was a complete shock. I've always preferred their self-titled 1995 debut as an album front-to-back, and (confession time) I even made this CD a Sell-back Pile 1 victim. On vinyl, I was finally hearing the album as it should have been presented. It has a much fuller sound and a much better bass response than its CD counterpart, which is key to the their sound. My impression now? It's a totally dynamic album, probably CD (LP?) Car Changer worthy. I'm still in shock. I'm glad Scott brought this along, as it may have been the highlight of the day for me.
  • Sleater-Kinney - Dig Me Out. (1997) This is, IMHO, S-K's tour de force in a great catalog of albums, and yet I felt like I was listening to it again for the first time on vinyl. There was great sound separation and a clear bass sound (despite the fact that they don't use a bass, but a guitar with bass pickups). You could really hear the Rubber Soul guitar sound come through very clearly on "Turn It On." A very enjoyable listen.
And I could go on and on.... In the end, our small sample size revealed the ultimate advantages of vinyl to the ear: a richer, more rounded guitar sound; better bass separation and response; and a more "forgiving" and warmer overall sound. I think it's like watching film versus video: there is something inherent in the medium that adds to the viewing/listening experience and the overall enjoyment. I've always maintained that film "emotes" to some extent; I think vinyl does the same from a sound perspective.

So I'm sold. Dig out your turntable, hook it up to your stereo, and listen for yourself. Of course, there is one drawback: great turntables haven't been in production for a number of years... I actually only have mine as a result of Sean's leaving for Portland back in the day. And even that is having some issues; I am hoping it's simply a result of not properly grounding it and thus causing my left channel to freak out. (As opposed to being an issue with my receiver, but I'm not sure how to test that precisely.) But when I get that fixed -- it's back to the vinyl. Again.

- Snilch