Thursday, June 24, 2010

Downloads Review (a.k.a. "My Bewildering Love of Golden Earring")

I don't want to brag, but I get lots of downloads here.  And some are even free!  Here's a rundown of some of the digital-only items I've recently had the pleasure of listening to:  

No, wait, looks like it will be preceded by a rant. (Yes, I've already ranted about this twice; think of this as the "trilogy that would not finish" ending from Lord of the Rings.)

I've recently been dragged kicking and screaming into the mp3 world.  To my vocabulary this equates to "settling for crappy music that sounds about the same as AM radio."  I will not settle for this -- but I need to recognize that convenience can be a good thing too.

My philosophy is quality over quantity; I'd rather have one great sounding track as opposed to ten that sound like they're coming from the inside of a closet.  When you make a sound file so tiny in order to fit 10,000 of them on your 8GB iPod, you have to keep in mind that you are taking information out of the sound file to make the convenience factor work.  In other words, it's smaller because it's compressed.  Smaller size = greater convenience but (generally) significantly impaired quality.

With that, I've taken the following steps in preparing my digital library for iPod use:
  1. Everything on CD is imported via the Apple Lossless codec.  This is a setting on iTunes (Edit > Preferences > General (Tab) > Import Settings (button halfway down the page) > Import Using: [Select Apple Lossless Encoder]) for  importing CD's.  There are consequences to this you should be aware of:
    Pros:  This gives you near CD quality sound (I can't hear the difference) at half the size of .wav files.
    Cons:  Even at half the size, my music collection is almost 300GB.  So it ain't all going on one iPod.  Also, the .mp4a files that your tracks are compressed to are proprietary to Apple, and thus not editable by programs like Soundforge or Easy CD Creator. 
  2. I download everything at the highest possible quality.  This is a no-brainer, but you can improve quality significantly at 256 kbps as opposed to the two previous download standards (64 and 128 kbps).  Keep in mind that taking a track from CD and encoding it via Apple Lossless is five times higher quality than if you paid to download the same track at 256 kbps.  That being said, you do the best you can with what you can.  When you can.  Sam I am.  I will not eat green eggs and ham.
Thus endeth the rant.  In alphabetical order:
  • Able and Baker - Forever is Fleeting (2008).  I cannot remember where I saw this or who told me to pick this up, but they deserve a thank you.  It's indie rock crossed with either My Bloody Valentine or Longwave.  (Always dangerous to throw out MBV as a reference; those who might still be looking to avoid the genre of "college radio rock" might mistakenly give this a try.  Even though that genre no longer really exists.  But those people should avoid this.  That's quite a long aside, which does not bode well, gentle reader.)  This is excellent stuff from a band that does not appear to exist outside of this great EP; I hope they make more music.  Very smart spacey guitar rock.
    CD Placement rating: 
    I'm not feeling particularly creative at the moment, so I'm not going to add yet another ratings system to this blog.  So -- Virtual Portable CD Case.  See, I added "Virtual"!  HA HA HA!  Sigh.  Yes, I know that's lame.

  • Devo - Oh No!  It's Devo (1982).  After losing "King Nerd" status by admitting I just picked up my first Devo album last year, Ben suggested I pick this one up, as it's his favorite Devo album.  (I look forward to the endless Devo suggestions that this is bound to produce.)  I can't say that I like this more than Freedom of Choice, but I recognize that I really need to spend some quality time with this band.  The more I listen to them, the more I recognize their wacky genius.  Excelsior!
    CD Placement rating:  Portable CD Case. 

  • Golden Earring - N.E.W.S. (1984).  Sandwiched in the Golden Earring catalog between 1982's Cut (which features "Twilight Zone" but little else) and 1986's The Hole (which I bought for $1.99 on cassette in 1988, thinking it was Cut, and found it to be one of my all-time favorites), it's clear I have a softer spot for this band's 80's output than most Americans.  "Clear Night Moonlight" is a great opening track, and I love the rest of the album.  Should you buy it?  Absolutely not.  It's really not going to do anything for you except lower your opinion of me.  Even I can't defend the the album's title track.  But it doesn't matter.  I  c a n ' t  h e l p  i t.  I have a problem.
    CD Placement rating: 
    For me, CD Rack (or its equivalent).  For you, buying this would officially ruin any indie cred you ever gave me.  If you did in the first place.

  • The Information - Natural Language EP (2007).  One of my favorite local Boston bands (who I think have broken up).  I own their first EP and album (each of which are great), but I never picked up their last release as it was available in three formats:  flash drive, 8-track (seriously!), and digital download.  This release has a different approach in stretching more towards the synth side of the band, but lead singer and primary songwriter Max Fresen's mix of pathos and vitrol is still there in spades.  I'd call this less poppy than their previous two offerings, but it doesn't matter.  It's great stuff.
    CD Placement rating:  Portable CD Case.  Lame.

  • Golden Earring - Keeper of the Flame (1989).  Following 1986's The Hole (which I bought for $1.99 on cassette in 1988, thinking it was Cut, and found it to be one of my all-time favorites)... wait, have I written this already?  Wow, this is embarrassing.  I actually got more than one Golden Earring album?  (In my defense:  they are out of print, you know.)
    CD Placement rating: 
    For me, CD Rack (or its equivalent).  Once again, not for you.

  • Ladyhawke - Ladyhawke Special Edition (2009).  This I got for free by following Amazon's Twitter postings.  At some point I threw all the albums in this post onto my 8GB iPod and threw it on shuffle.  After a few hours of listening, four songs made me stop what I was doing and take notice -- one by Able and Baker, and three by Ladyhawke.  That's a good sign.  They sound like a mashup of New Young Pony Club, VHS or Beta, Berlin, and Suzanne VegaSongs like "My Delirium" are mid-to-up tempo guitar and synth dance perfection; others like "Love Don't Live Here" are smoother and poppier.  There are seriously another 7 tunes which are excellent from this album.  This album has an 80's feel to it, for sure, but doesn't drown itself in it.
    CD Placement rating: 
    Car CD Changer.
    Guess I'd better burn it to CD.  
  • Golden Earring - Prisoner of the Night (1980).  Wait, I actually downloaded THREE Golden Earring albums?  And no "Twilight Zone" or "Radar Love" amongst the lot?  I believe that Mrs. Snilch Report now has irrefutable grounds to become ex-Mrs. Snilch Report.  If that were a legal name, of course.
    CD Placement rating: 

  • Mojo Nixon - Bo-Day-Shus!!! (1987).  "If you don't know Mojo Nixon/Your store could use some fixin'."  That lyric by The Dead Milkmen was my only exposure to Mr. Nixon prior to Amazon (once again) supplying this album for free.  Here's what I've learned:  1) he's a novelty act; 2) he's definitely an acquired taste; and 3) it's not one I'll be acquiring anytime soon.  I'll take "Elvis is Everywhere" and dump the rest.
    CD Placement rating: 
    Sell-back Pile 1.  Although I didn't pay for it, so technically I couldn't sell it back, and I'm just deleting the files, so I couldn't even sell it.  This ratings system is so 2002.

  • Revere - The Great City (2010).  This is another free Amazon download (in fact, an "Amzon mp3 Exclusive"), and is full of toothless venom.  They have effort, but it has no edge to it.  Think a poppier, more sugary John Faye Power Trip.  (I'm guessing only Denis will fully understand that reference.)
    CD Placement rating: 
    Pile of Digital Death.

  • The Upper Crust - Let Them Eat Rock (1995).  Thanks to Sean for introducing me to this one.  Where Mojo Nixon fails for me, Upper Crust does quite nicely.  Sure, it seems silly that four guys should dress up as 17th (or 18th?) Century nobles, singing songs like "Let Them Eat Rock," which (as it suggests) is a play on "Let Them Eat Cake," but that's my kind of humor.  They cross the lines in just great ways, but their music is actually great as well.  I'd love to know if anyone else has picked up any of their other four (!) albums.  These guys rule.
    CD Placement rating: 
    Portable CD Case.  I am so inadequate.
- Snilch

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers (2009)

I normally like to hold my cards close to the vest when starting a review, but this album has defied my attempts to control it and has a will of its own.  To be brief: this album sums 14 years of one band's journey that has included drama, mystery, and tragedy, into a concise musical statement that exceeds any expectations I had for it.

Now, the story: and what a crazy story it is.  To sum up the Manics (I highly suggest reading the more detailed version here, if you are interested or want a refresher), you need to look at only two albums:  The Holy Bible (1994), their third (and best) album as quartet, and its follow-up, Everything Must Go (1995), their best album as a trio.  The transition element here was rhythm guitarist and principal lyricist Richey Edwards, who disappeared, never to be seen again, between albums.  His vitrol fueled Holy Bible; what he left behind (including all the lyrics) inspired the other three to follow with EMG.  

Since 1995, it's been an odyssey for the Manics; they've never recaptured the form of these two albums in their next four.  They still have moments that remind you of their previous high water mark, but both the rate of their output and the overall consistency of their albums have suffered over time.

Fast forward to 2008.  Edwards' family declared him legally dead; with the family's permission, the Manics went back to Edwards' remaining journals, which included lyrics for the album after EMG.  I can't think of an equivalent scenario; it's equally sentimental, intriguing, and (on some level) macabre.  Scott and I heard a few of the songs when we saw them live; they were clearly of quality, so I went out and picked up the album. 

The result?  Absolutely inspired.  Not only is it consistently good from front to back, but "Peeled Apples," "Journal for Plague Lovers," "She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach," and the standout "Marlon J.D." can stand on their own with any song in their catalog.  Add in bassist and Edwards' lyric co-writer Nicky Wire's first ever Manic lead vocals on the song "William's Last Words" (which seem a little simple and unprofessional at first, but as the song goes on feel more and more haunting and sentimental)... it's the kitchen sink here.  

When the Manics are at their best, they feature James Dean Bradfield screaming over a sensible but inspired Brit rock sound:  it comes off as a beautiful cacophonous rage.  It's insistent and inspiring.  The hidden track (and why, for the love of God, do these things still exist on CD's?  WHY?) is even great. 

My conclusion, rightly or wrongly, is that The Manics were always best when Edwards lyrics fueled a cathartic musical reaction from his bandmates, and it's clear that remains true even today.  They are a good band without him; they make a difference with him.  Why?  I have no idea.  That's just the way it works with these guys.

Richey Edwards final gift to the The Manics was not wasted, and completes the trilogy of his (and their) best work.  R.I.P. Richey.  (Or, if you've somehow actually successfully hidden yourself for 15 years on some deserted island, enjoy a mojito on me.)

Merch rating:

CD Placement rating: Car CD Changer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

It's Been a Long Time...

There are a lot of bands that get lost along the way:  they break up, go on hiatus, stop being relevant, change their sound... and there's too much good music out there to bother to reconnect.

All the bands in this post fit that bill -- some objectively, and others because I stopped caring long ago.  We'll see what going back to the well one more time turns up.  In alphabetical order:

  • Alice in Chains:  Black Gives Way to Blue (2009).  Hard to believe:  Alice in Chains' fourth (yes, only fourth!) full-length album is their first since 1995.  The two primary songwriters were not exactly prolific in the interim:  Jerry Cantrell recorded two solo albums (the last released in 2002), and Layne Staley recorded one album as part of Mad Season in 1995 before dying as a result of a drug overdose in 2002. So this album is Alice in Chains Dirt lineup, with Staley-soundalike William Duvall in Staley's place.  Not only does Duvall sound exactly like Staley (I literally had to check the liner notes to make sure it was not him), but this is a time machine back to 1994 for the band:  it's classic AIC without being redundant.  It definitely plays to Cantrell's more poppy sensibilities, but he's channeled some of Staley's angst as well; the autobiographical aspects of this album are impossible to miss.  A definite if you loved grunge, or if you want to point out to that idiot who likes Puddle of Mudd that this is how it's really done. One other note:  Elton John (!) makes a guest piano appearance on the title track (which is barely noticeable, to be honest).
    CD Placement rating:
    Portable CD Case.

  • Peter Gabriel - Scratch My Back (2010).  Since releasing the pop blockbuster So in 1986 (his sixth album in nine years), Peter Gabriel has surprisingly released only two proper albums:  1992's Us and 2002's Up.  (I'm not counting his soundtracks in 1989 and 2000.)  So for album three (or five, if you're picky) in 24 years... he's released a covers album.  Here's the twist:  he covers 12 different artists on this album; these artists in turn record their own version of a Gabriel song for an album called I'll Scratch Yours (get it?).  With David Bowie, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire highlighting the artist list, this looked to be quite an idea.  However, the second part of the project has proved to be a bit ambitious -- only three covers have been released; Bowie declined to participate, replaced by Brian Eno; and Arcade Fire's participation is still up in the air (more details here).  Nevertheless, Gabriel has more than held up his end of the bargain.  Orchestral covers with Gabriel's signature vocal delivery are can't miss.  He could probably cover the alphabet and I'd be talking about how emotional the letter "M" sounded.  I'm a sucker for covers, and this album works for me.
    CD Placement rating: Portable CD Case.

  • Grant Hart - Hot Wax (2009).  This is Grant Hart's first album since 1999's Good News for Modern Man, and only his sixth album since the implosion of Hüsker Dü in 1987.  (Basically the same pace as Peter Gabriel, but I'd bet PG can more afford to live off that kind of output than GH can.)  Now, GNFMM was (IMHO) the best solo album Hart has recorded (outshone only by his band Nova Mob's Last Days of Pompeii in his post-HD catalog), and received a good deal of buzz and press... that he didn't capitalize on, unfortunately.  A decade later, he has released an effort just a notch below his best offerings.  This one did not work for me on the first few listens, but after a number of further attempts (it is Grant Hart, after all), I found a very good album.  It's standard Grant:  musically smart, poppy, but still generally misses ex-bandmate Bob Mould's guitar bridges.  This is a fun, summertime album that could have been made anytime from 1970-2010.
    CD Placement rating:
    Portable CD Case.

  • Mötley Crüe - Saints of Los Angeles (2008).  I only own Shout at the Devil, but I found a new appreciation for these guys after reading Nikki Sixx's autobiography (The Heroin Diaries) and listening to the accompanying Sixx: A.M. - The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack album.  Both were excellent and startlingly honest.  With the hopes that another tell-all catharsis could propel Sixx's songwriting to that same level with the Crüe, I gave SOLA a shot.  I have to say, it's really an impressive album.  Superbly mixed, their music sounds fresh, and Sixx really knows how to write for Vince Neil's unique vocal stylings.  On the other hand, there's nothing completely surprising here, and they do tend to run the same path they always do.  What separates this album from their others is their raw energy and the very personal edge to their lyrics.  Nikki, as I'm sure you're reading this, send me an e-mail when you are looking for prime-time interview placement in an obscure blog.
    CD Placement rating: It's on the borderline between the Portable CD Case and the Car CD Changer.  (Yes, it's really that good.)  Ultimately, it's the Portable CD Case.

  • Pearl Jam - Backspacer (2009).  Eric Lax finally got through to me with this album, and it's a pleasant surprise.  True confession time:  I don't even own my favorite Pearl Jam album (Ten), although Mrs. Snilch Report does own VitalogyEddie Vedder's vocals drive me nuts, and thus it's been about 15 years since I've felt the need to give PJ a try.  But on the heels of Vedder's Into the Wild  soundtrack, hearing "The Fixer" on the radio, and the persistent Mr. Lax, I gave this a shot.  And it's very nice.  "Gonna See My Friend" is an odd choice for a lead track, but that's really my only quibble here; "Amongst the Waves" has to be a great Brad track re-purposed for PJ, and it really hits the mark.  It's a nice album that doesn't try to do too much.  In a good way.
    CD Placement rating: CD Rack.
  • The Slits - Trapped Animal (2009).  Scott and I saw this band (which is currently original members Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt, and four new bandmates) play at Great Scott in 2006. Before we move any further:  if you don't own 1979's Cut, it turns out you have a hole in your life you weren't aware of.  I really don't like reggae, much less reggae punk, but you cannot deny Cut.  (If you don't have it, go buy it, consume it, and then continue reading.  It's okay, the internet is not going anywhere.)

    Well, they blew us away at Great Scott's, and I had high expectations for their first full length release in 28 years,
    especially after the three song teaser from 2006, the Revenge of the Killer Slits EP.  I'm not sure whether this meets those expectations, but I can't stop playing it.  I seriously want to say I don't like it, but I guess the continual plays means that I actually like it quite a lot.  Revival grrrrrrrrrrl reggae punk music is often like that, or so I'm told.  Plays great on the big stereo.
    CD Placement rating:
    Who am I to argue with compulsion?  Portable CD Case.
- Snilch