Monday, May 31, 2010

Jack Johnson - To The Sea (Album Review)

If you're familiar with Hawaiian singer/songwriter Jack Johnson's music, the first thing that will probably strike you about his new album, To The Sea, is the presence of electric guitars throughout it. While not as significant as say, Dylan plugging in at Newport, it’s just not quite what we’ve come to expect from the laid back musician. Don’t get me wrong, his casually strummed acoustic, relaxed vocals and barefooted vibe are all still present. For me, there’s just the slightest hiccup every time a jangly electric chord hits or a distorted solo kick in. It’s not enough to jar you out of the effects of Jack’s patented chill out powers, but it’s just enough to nudge the mental hammock he so masterfully creates. After five acoustic-driven albums under his belt, Jack has decided to step out just a little bit with the instrumentation and vibe on To The Sea. It’s definitely enough to keep things interesting without trying to reinvent the musical wheel.

"You And Your Heart" kicks off the album with a duel acoustic/electric riff and Jack's voice setting the sun-soaked stage for the upbeat summer jam it turns into. Next is the title track and this is where Jack really starts introducing the electric guitars into the mix. The song opens with some clean, chorus-effected guitar and closes with a cool, cranked-up guitar solo. By the time "At Or With Me" kicks in, he's no longer worried about trying to ease the transition any longer and really uses the electric to mimic the vocal and propel the song forward to a different level than he usually hits. There's also another great guitar solo on this one too. For every new direction though, there's enough songs that remain in his wheelhouse to please long-time fans. Songs like "Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology" and "No Good With Faces" would've fit in nicely on any of his other albums. He even adds some nice recorded outdoor nature sounds to "When I Look Up" just to remind you that this lifetime surfer is still more at home on the beach than on stage. It's always nice to see an artist take chances and risks in an attempt to stretch their creativity and levels of comfort. It's also nice when in cases like this, it pays off for them.

To The Sea hits stores this Tuesday, June 1st.

"At Or With Me" - Jack Johnson (To The Sea)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Month of May" - Arcade Fire

It’s a magical moment when you’re excitement for a new album shifts from “Man, I really enjoyed their last album” to “Good Lord, have you heard the new tracks!” It’s been three years since Arcade Fire released Neon Bible and thanks to radio station 107.7 The End in Seattle, the wait for new Arcade Fire music is now over. A couple of days ago they posted two songs from Arcade Fire’s new album, The Suburbs, that’s due out on August 3rd. To say that this album has been one of the most highly anticipated albums of the last few years is an understatement. Now that new material has surfaced, the buzz should hit astronomic levels. After listening to the two tracks a few times, I think any fervor and hype is well deserved. These songs are absolutely gorgeous and they embody what we’ve come to expect from Arcade Fire. I couldn’t be more excited to hear what the full album is going to sound like.

My favorite of the new tracks is “Month of May.” It’s the heavier, more guitar-driven of the two and it really captures Arcade Fire’s unique spirit, energy and power. Lead vocalist Win Butler’s frenzied yet focused delivery is always the anchor for the band’s whirlwind of music. There are so many things happening in an Arcade Fire song and when you try to listen for all the layers, it makes the song as a whole that much more impressive. Win’s lyrics usually contain some pretty amazing thoughts masquerading as simple, sing-a-long lines and “Month of May” is no exception. How easy is it to convey that apathy and a jaded outlook can make you unnecessarily criticize everything and cause you to be completely unimpactful and ineffective? How about “Some things are pure and some things are right but the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight” and “So young, so young, so much pain for someone so young, well I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light, but how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?” I’m always impressed and encouraged when a band has the ability to inspire me with their words and slay me with their music. With “Month of May,” Arcade Fire once again lights me up in both categories.

The Suburbs is set to be released August 3rd on Merge Records.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Dead Weather - Sea of Cowards (Album Review)

Putting out two albums within a year is unique enough nowadays. Putting out two quality albums within a year is downright unheard of! Jack White, the busiest man in music, worked hard with his band mates in The Dead Weather to be able to release Sea Of Cowards only 10 months after last year's debut smash, Horehound. Where Horehound was the sound of talented friends getting together and trying something new and creative, Sea Of Cowards is the sound of a band who has spent time playing together, writing together and gelling together to form a seamless unit bent on musical innovation. Sea Of Cowards dances back and forth between heavy riffs and spacious moments while maintaining an anticipatory edge. You'll find yourself nodding your head and holding your breath. The Dead Weather do their best to grab you by the throat and not let go for the all too short 11 song set.

When I saw The Dead Weather at the beginning of this month at Third Man Records, I was struck at how well the band plays together. Jack White's unconventional drumming really sets the tone for the rhythmic identity of the band and bassist Jack Lawrence somehow locks right in while still laying down some sick lines of his own. Dean Fertita jumps back and forth between guitar and keys and keeps each song moving and powerful. I can't stress enough how well these guys exemplify an actual band. They aren't just a group of musicians who happen to be playing the same song at the same time. These guys seem to be in each other's heads and can anticipate what each other is going to do. Plus, they have a great time doing it and it totally comes across on each track. Their prowess really causes main vocalist Alison Mosshart to have to deliver on her half spoken/half sung vocal lines and her Joplinesque wails. She not only holds her own but establishes a strong presence within the band, especially in how she commands the stage at their performances.

As an album, Sea Of Cowards is an amazing foray into greasy, riffy rock that will have you moving the whole time you are listening to it. The ebb and flow of each track blends into the next and on the first few listens, you may have to follow along in the liner notes to know when the songs change. The first single from the album, "Die By The Drop," is a great example of the danceable heaviness, the bombastic choruses and the trade off vocals between Alison and Jack that The Dead Weather so deftly offers up. My favorite track on the album is probably "Gasoline." The verses feature a killer bass line, the choruses are easy to sing a long with, Dean lays down a fiery guitar solo and Alison is at her howling banshee finest. Sea Of Cowards captures a band firing on every cylinder and we can only hope that they will continue in their current pace and perfection of releases.

"Gasoline" - The Dead Weather (Sea Of Cowards)

Friday, May 28, 2010

"This Is A Call" - Foo Fighters

I distinctly remember some of the press that came out around the release of Foo Fighters’ debut album in 1995. While most of it was positive and optimistic, there was a certain faction of reviews that were dripping with a condescending tone of “how nice to see Dave Grohl trying to cope by starting a new band.” While music fans were still reeling from the death of Kurt Cobain, journalists were trying to gauge what Nirvana’s remaining members would do. Dave Grohl had already been learning guitar and writing his own songs while Nirvana was still together, even putting together a project called Pocketwatch under the name Late! in the early 90’s. Understandably, he has said he felt too intimated to really bring much of his stuff up to his band mates though. Once Cobain’s death brought a startling halt to Nirvana, Grohl decided to record a full album of his songs. Grohl played and sang every note on the album except for one guitar solo by The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli on “X-Static.” Not wanting to put out an album under his own name, Grohl released it as Foo Fighters in 1995. To tour behind it, he selected some big guns from other defunct bands; Pat Smear from The Germs and Nirvana, and William Goldsmith and Nate Mendel from Sunny Day Real Estate.

Being fifteen and the prototypical Nirvana fan, I was ridiculously looking forward to this album coming out. Thanks to my hefty Kroger bag boy paychecks, I was able to buy it the day it hit stores. For some unknown reason, I picked it up before my shift and therefore had to carry it around in the pocket of my khaki shorts the whole time I was shlepping groceries and trying to keep old ladies from putting dollar bills in my pockets for tips. Although I was super careful and it made it home uncracked, it was still not one of my brightest decisions. “This Is A Call” had been on the radio for a few weeks already and I still remember my exact thoughts when I heard it for the first time. I thought it had mind-blowingly awesome music but really dumb lyrics. No offense, Dave! He’s really written some absolutely amazing lyrics since then and even some of the other songs on the album were great, but when I heard “Them balloons are pretty big and say they should ever fall to the ground call a magic marker” I was slightly confused to say the least. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big lyrics guy and I’m all for creative imagery and poetic representations, but what does “Venison is pretty, venison is good, seems that all the cysts and mollusks tend to barter” actually mean? But who am I kidding? Dave gets a pass because the song absolutely rocks! The guitar riffs are some of the best to come out during that time and the drumming is just as powerful as anything he did in Nirvana. 15 years later this song still gets me going and even though I may quibble at the lyrics, I still sing along at the top of my lungs every time.

"This Is A Call" - Foo Fighters (Foo Fighters)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Jayhawks - The Jayhawks (The Bunkhouse Album) (Album Review)

If you ask most alt-country fans who their favorite artist is, you’ll probably get answers ranging from the 70’s and before (Gram Parsons, Pure Prairie League, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, etc.) or the 90’s and forward (Uncle Tupelo, Old 97’s, Wilco, Ryan Adams, etc.) with a startling void for the 80’s. The Jayhawks hope to remedy this situation with the re-release of their 1986 debut album, The Jayhawks. Initially released on Bunkhouse Records (causing the album to also be called The Bunkhouse Tapes or The Bunkhouse Album by most fans) The Jayhawks stands out as a strong alt-country, roots based album during a time when country music was at its shmaltziest zenith. While the albums coming out of Nashville at that time were layered with string sections and were becoming more pop-oriented, these Minnesotans were eschewing glossy production techniques, cranking up the electric guitars and singing harmonies that would’ve made The Carter Family smile.

The re-release of The Jayhawks, courtesy of Lost Highway Records, is remastered from the original tapes and the warmth and spirit of the recording really comes through. This is the kind of album that really benefits from not having to be broken down into digital ones and zeroes before it hits your ears. The lead guitar lines on songs like “Falling Star” and “Tried And True Love” slide and crackle like you’re hearing them coming directly out of the guitar amp. The beautiful harmonies that are sung throughout the album are distinct enough that you can differentiate between Mark Olson and Gary Louris, the two singers/guitar players, who both having their own unique sound and delivery. Marc Perlman’s bass and Norm Rogers’s drums create a solid backbeat for these down home songs to cut loose and romp over. Lyrically, all of the standard ingredients for a good, old-fashioned country song are present. Heartache (“Let the Last Night Be The Longest” and “Good Long Time”), booze (“The Liquor Store Came First,” “Misery Tavern” and “Six Pack On The Dashboard”), prison (“Behind Bars” and “(I’m Not In) Prison”) and even a little religion (“People In This Place On Every Side” and “King of Kings”) all get their own mention throughout the album. The Jayhawks even try their hand at a little rockabilly on the infectious “Cherry Pie.” Besides their Music From The North Country compilation album in 2009, The Jayhawks have not released an album of new material since 2003’s Rainy Day Music and with no news of any end to their self-imposed hiatus, The Jayhawks reissue may have to be enough to give fans a fix for awhile. With how well this reissue was handled though, hopefully we can expect the same treatment for re-releases of their other albums.

"Cherry Pie" - The Jayhawks (The Jayhawks)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Part-Time Cover: "When Doves Cry"

I've professed my love of the movie Purple Rain on here before, so today's cover song should come as no surprise. "When Doves Cry" is one of Prince's signature songs and it plays heavily into Purple Rain's sub-plot of parental fighting, domestic abuse and instability at home. Although the subject matter may be bleak, the song jams. Opening with a squealing line from Prince's guitar, the drum machine quickly takes over and lays down the simplistic dance beat that carries the song. In fact, the drums hold down the whole rhythm section of the song because Prince deleted the bass track he had created for it. That's right, no bass guitar on a 80's dance track. Crazy? Yes. Typical Prince move? Absolutely. If you were anywhere near MTV in the 80's, you saw this video a ton with it's trendy choreography, it's many "Prince-looking-too-serious-in-a-bathtub" shots and enough flying dove montages to make John Woo giddy.

"When Doves Cry" - Prince (Purple Rain)

So how would you possibly cover this song, give it the love and respect it deserves, and still put your own spin on it? By replacing all of the synthesizers, drum machines and electronic elements with earthy, folky instruments of course! That's exactly what The Be Good Tanyas did on their 2006 album, Hello Love. The Be Good Tanyas was an all girl, alt-country group from Vancouver, British Columbia that put out 3 albums in their all too short career. I like to describe them as "Canadian Americana" because they incorporated acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, stand up bass and sparse drums into their 3 part harmony-ladened songs. Many bands have attempted to cover Prince over the years to varying degrees of success. The Be Good Tanyas really got it right on their version of "When Doves Cry" though. Hearing the song in this format really shows you how much of a musical poet Prince was. Some electronic-based songs do not translate well at all. The Be Good Tanyas help show that "When Doves Cry" is simply just a great song, no matter what genre you thrown it into. They even make sure to get their stand up bass line front and center!

"When Doves Cry" - The Be Good Tanyas (Hello Love)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Karen Elson - The Ghost Who Walks (Album Review)

Karen Elson's debut album, The Ghost Who Walks, is an ambitious slice of gothic folk goodness that mixes the blues, murder ballads, folky country and some theatrical elements to create a restless and unique musical experience. Karen has flirted with a musical career before when she recorded a duet with Cat Power in 2006 and also founded the cabaret inspired The Citizen Band, but she has finally pulled the trigger by writing and recording The Ghost Who Walks. Produced by husband Jack White, who also plays drums on the album, and backed by a stellar band consisting of Rachelle Garniez (The Citizen Band), Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather), Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) and Jackson Smith (Back In Spades, Patti Smith), Karen weaves her vocals and guitar playing through a 12 song set, of which she wrote all but one song.

Any raised eyebrows or condescending whispers of "Mrs. Jack White" are quickly squashed as soon as her reverb-drenced voice echoes out over the organ lines of opening track "The Ghost Who Walks". This haunting murder ballad shows Karen's knack for storytelling, as well as her ability to command a song, no matter how eclectic the instrumentation may be. As the album progresses, she effortlessly slips in and out of many musical vibes without ever losing the common thread of her wispy delivery and her narrative songwriting. Some songs evoke the ghosts of old country music ("The Last Laugh" and "Cruel Summer"), some sound as if they are echoing from an abandoned Parisian cafe ("Stolen Roses" and "Lunasa", which was written by band mate Rachelle Garniez) and some sound like they could be played as intermission music at the most interesting carnival you could ever hope to attend ("100 Years From Now" and "The Truth Is In The Dirt").

Although the songs are brand new, they feel passed down and lived in. They are from the same fabric as old spirituals or A.P. Carter standards, but they still have their own hues and designs with which to create their own spaces. These are the kinds of songs that take root in you and last long after the record has stopped spinning. Although each song can easily be enjoyed on it's own, this is not an album of disjointed singles. It's an album meant to be listened to, and is best enjoyed, in whole. The Ghost Who Walks is the musical equivalent of opening up an old steamer trunk that's been stored away for generations and finding styles and designs that no one has ever seen before. The instruments, the stories and Karen's voice all mix to create an antiqued freshness that is rarely found on albums made within the last 50 years or so. Who needs ghost stories when you've got ghost songs?

The Ghost Who Walks will be released on May 25th on XL/Third Man Records.

"The Ghost Who Walks" - Karen Elson (The Ghost Who Walks)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

John Prine - In Person And On Stage (Album Review)

John Prine's debut album was released almost 40 years ago and with his latest offering, In Person And On Stage, he refuses to show any signs of hanging it up. As the title suggests, this is a live compilation album showcasing John's songs and stories in front of a few different engaged and enthusiastic crowds. John is solidly backed up by a two piece band that would make Johnny Cash proud consisting of Jason Wilbur on lead guitar and mandolin and Dave Jacques on stand up bass. On a few of the songs, John is joined by some amazing guest; Emmylou Harris, Sara Watkins, Iris Dement and Josh Ritter. All of these ingredients combine together beautifully for an intimate and fun record of live songs.

In Person And On Stage turns out to be a nice retrospective of John's catalog as he does a great job of picking songs from throughout his long and storied career. He evens brings out 4 songs from his 1971 debut album John Prine. One of John's most well known songs, "Spanish Pipedream," opens the album to a spirited crowd who only stop cheering long enough for him to get the words out. Clearly they are enjoying themselves and their response immediately draws you in to the show. John is infamous for his story songs and we are lucky enough to get some of his finer examples in "The Bottomless Lake" and "You're Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" complete with story introductions. John's sense of humor and wit really shine through in his lyrics and stage banter, especially in these two songs. Whether stomping through A.P Carter's "Bear Creek Blues" or providing a subdued backdrop for John's own "Long Monday," Jason and Dave tastefully create beautiful spaces for the songs to exist in.

John Prine will always be worth the price of admission on his own, but the duets capture some special moments that really make the album a must have. Emmylou Harris joins John for an ethereal version of "Angel From Montgomery." Sara Watkins lends her voice and a weeping violin solo to "The Late John Garfield Blues" that makes the song even more heartbreaking. Iris Dement duets on "Unwed Fathers" and the hilarious "In Spite Of Ourselves" to stunning and entertaining results. Josh Ritter does his best to match John's delivery of "Mexican Home" and really brings a level of respect and presence to the performance. John's first album came out 5 years before Josh was even born, so it's nice to see two singer/songwriters from different eras share the same stage and sing together like they've been doing it for years. Some may see it as an aural passing of the torch, but as John shows in every heart felt performance on In Person And On Stage, I really don't think he's going to be ready to hand it over any time soon.

In Person And On Stage will be released this Tuesday, May 25th on Oh Boy Records.

"Mexican Home" (featuring Josh Ritter) - John Prine (In Person And On Stage)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Band Of Horses - Infinite Arms (Album Review)

With Infinite Arms, the third full length release from Band of Horses, a lock seems to have finally been placed on the revolving door of band members, resulting in a stellar, cohesive musical effort. Falling somewhere between 70's country rock and modern day alt-country, Band of Horses flow between back porch ballads and simmering rockers without ever going too far on either side. Every song has a distinct groove and Ben Bridwell's airy vocals maintain a yearning bite as they float above the rootsy foundation laid down by his band mates. It was a great idea for Infinite Arms to be released in May because this album was made for summer evenings when you want to barbeque with friends and hang out late into the night. Settling on that fine line between exciting and relaxing, it somehow makes time not fly by so fast so you can enjoy things just a little bit longer.

Opening track, "Factory," sets the mood for the album with it's sweeping string section and it's soaring vocals, letting you know that the album is going to be as laid back as it is ambitious. The reverb drenched vocals may draw some comparisons to My Morning Jacket for some listeners but Ben's distinctive voice really shines on it's own. "Laredo" cranks up the energy without confusing it for tempo and has a lot of movement and momentum. The guitars and drums pulse without ever pushing the song out of it's zone. This song is a perfect accompaniment for a muggy June night, laughing with your friends on a back patio somewhere. Stripped down songs like "Older" and "For Annabelle" are great laid back gems and could've easily held their own on an old AM radio station back in the day. "NW Apt." rattles in just in time to make sure you didn't get too comfortable and then "Neighbor" calmly closes the album out with guitar, piano, organ and drums slowly fading into the night. Band Of Horses have significantly grown and gelled as a group since their last album and Infinite Arms is a mature and fresh sounding offering created by a truly collective group effort.

"Laredo" - Band Of Horses (Infinite Arms)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Richard Julian - Girls Need Attention (Album Review)

There are some artist who seem to be unable to process their art through a filter or postulate behind a facade. Instead of ink they choose to write with blood and tears. Not because they are trying to be novel or cool but because they don't know any other way to do it. Richard Julian has always been fearlessly confessional and frank, but on his newest album he seems to have hit a deeper vein to draw from. Girls Need Attention seems to either be birthed from, or attempting to document, a break up. There is rawness, sadness, and even resignation beautifully dripping through all of the tracks. You might actually even start to feel a little down if it weren't for his coy delivery and his bouncy guitar playing. The players behind him, including producer Lee Alexander and Wilco's Nels Cline, cleverly surround the melancholy lyrics with bright and spacious arrangements.

After listening through the album, "Sweet Little Sway" was the first track I went back to. The song has a great rhythm and vibe to it, even though the lyrics describe a relationship that seems to only have a chance when it's away from the day to day. The simple tongue in cheek lyric "We ain't been getting along the way lovers do in a song" is great example of Richard's sense of humor and irony. "Girls Need Attention" is a whimsical reminder that...well, girls need attention. You could maybe read into it that he is speaking on the other side of a learning experience and not necessarily just offering some sage advice. Either way, it's true and once again he allows the upbeat music to buoy the weightiness of the lyrics. Some other great stand out tracks on the album are the bluesy "Words" and the Randy Newman cover "Wedding In Cherokee County."

Although he never really lands on the touchy-feely side of love, Richard's song are amazingly romantic due to their honesty and authenticity. He doesn't shy away from the directness of what he is trying to convey and that in itself is something that all relationships could benefit from. His albums have always proven to be really cool date night backdrop music and Girls Need Attention is no exception. Just make sure to pick the right lyrical moment when going in for the kiss or you could find yourself locking lips to a line like "The world we made can't be reconciled with the one we've come to know." Not exactly a hallmark card, but still a heartbreakingly beautiful line from a heartbreakingly beautiful album.

"Sweet Little Sway" - Richard Julian (Girls Need Attention)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Strange Currencies" - R.E.M.

Tomorrow marks 10 years of wedded awesomeness with my lovely so today's post is going to be about another memory involving "us". I'll do my best not to get too mushy.

The first time Amanda and I performed any music together was totally spontaneous and totally awesome, just like her. In the spring of 1995, just a few months after I first started learning how to play guitar, our friend Rebecca asked my "band" (that is code for a group of friends who are learning how to play their different instruments at the same time) to play at her birthday party. We learned a bunch of killer covers by Nirvana, Green Day, The Offspring, Stone Temple Pilots, The Cranberries, and a few other 90's alternative gems. We pulled it off about as well as we could for some struggling teenage wannabes and the crowd went nuts. Sure, the crowd was made up of friends and family, but still. We were just shooting for getting through all of the songs without any massive screw ups and hoping no one would walk out while we were playing. To our surprise the deafening chants (okay, the random outbursts) of "encore" threw us for a loop. We had already played every song we had practiced together. I quickly tried to think of other songs that I knew all the way through on guitar. The first two that sprung to mind, "Blister In The Sun" by Violent Femmes and "Self Esteem" by The Offspring, didn't exactly seem appropriate to sing in front of Rebecca's parents. I had been dissecting R.E.M.'s Monster album pretty heavily at the time so I started playing the opening riff to "Strange Currencies" and asked if anyone wanted to come up and sing. Enter the future love of my life.

Amanda and I had a year of high school under our belts and we were already pretty good friends by this point. She came up and started to sing and I distinctly remember that I was struck with the sound of her voice. This was no run of the mill Mariah Carey shriek fest. She had one of those low, smokey voices that I love like Liz Phair, Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) or Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star). Her voice really got to me and I was so stinking impressed! On the ride home that night I kept hitting repeat on my cd player over and over again trying in vain to mentally capture what I had just heard.

To this day I can't hear the regular version of "Strange Currencies" without hearing Amanda's voice singing it. Luckily for me though, I don't have to try to remember what it sounded like. I can just pick up a guitar and hear the live version any time I want. We've played this song a lot together and we've practiced and played countless other songs over the years, but the memory of hearing her voice gliding over my playing for the first time is rooted deep, deep down in my brain and my heart. I'm not going to lie and say that I knew exactly what was going on between us at the time but thankfully my heart was paying attention.

"Strange Currencies" - R.E.M. (Monster)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Waterdeep - In The Middle Of It (Album Review)

Uprooting and moving to another state can result in any number of positive or negative outcomes. For Don and Lori Chaffer, the husband and wife duo behind Waterdeep, the trek from Kansas City to Nashville seems to have not only been successful, but has resulted in a great album as well. In The Middle Of It was recorded in both places, before and after the move, but it retains the cohesiveness of a unified vision and spirit. I don’t mean in an intentional concept album sort of way, but in more of a focused creative approach. Even after 11 albums, Waterdeep knows how to surprise and inspire with a mixed bag of playful rock and relaxed folk tunes.

Just look at Johnny and June, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Arcade Fire, Low or Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken and you’ll see that the right married musical team can really conjure up something unique and interesting. Don and Lori are no exception. Their contributions to each others songs, both vocally and instrumentally, weave together well and create a musical dance that never suffers from overstepping or confusion about who is taking the lead. They remind me a lot of Buddy and Julie Miller in the way that even though the liner notes may say the song is written by only one of them, both seem to know exactly what the song is saying and what it needs. In my opinion, it goes beyond just musical knowledge and performance though. Married couples have the deeper understanding and the history to know where a song is coming from and where it’s trying to go. The stories, the trials, the hurts, and the laughs have all been shared and experienced together. Plus, they aren’t afraid to tell you when it’s crap because they know there’s a better one inside you.

Over the years Waterdeep has been a folk duo, a southern-fried jam band, an acoustic worship team and more. They continually stretch themselves, without ever losing the point, and keep progressing into a newer and more nuanced version of Waterdeep. For In The Middle Of It, they’ve added synths and even more electric guitars to the mix to really keep things vibrant and energetic. “Haven’t You Always” is one of the more ambitious songs off the album and is probably my favorite. Telling the story of a Franciscan monk drop-out and a rock star who run away to Mexico to get married, “Haven’t You Always” has a great sing-a-long chorus and a bridge that switches time signatures to a waltz and features a string section playing over the noises of sirens and bombs. Can’t wait to see how they pull this one off live! Another standout track is “Gimme My Walkman”. It’s a laid back rocker where a walkman is used as a defense mechanism/security blanket for when parents are fighting. The song's nods to Simon and Garfunkel, Cream, The Who and Led Zeppelin are pretty cool too. For longtime Waterdeep fans, the last few songs on the album will feel comfortable and the most like previous Waterdeep albums. However, I think Don and Lori have enough confidence to be able to push the walls out a little and still have their fans journey with them.

In The Middle Of It can be purchased from Waterdeep’s store here.

"Haven't You Always" - Waterdeep (In The Middle Of It)

"Gimme My Walkman" - Waterdeep (In The Middle Of It)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Part-Time Cover: "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"

I really, really love a well done cover song. Most bands do cover songs in concert for fun or as a nod to a musical hero but actually recording one for an album takes a little more gumption. Especially if you are covering a well known song by a well known artist. It opens you up for immediate scrutiny because people are so used to the original and will undoubtedly put the two versions up against each other. When Social Distortion’s front man Mike Ness decided to record an album that was more roots-rock based, he decided to cover Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and a song usually associated with Johnny Cash. That, my friends, is gumption.

Bob Dylan wrote “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in 1962 during a tough time in his relationship with Suze Rotolo. It was written as a kiss-off to make himself feel better about her wanting to stay in Italy without him. Accompanied by only a finger-picked guitar and a harmonica, Bob delivers the stinging lines with the perfect mix of attitude and apathy. He really captures the hurt, anger and feigned detachment that goes along with a break up. It’s really cool to get a glimpse of Bob’s personal side on an album that was so full of political and societal giants like “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall,” “Master Of War” and “Oxford Town.” Ironically, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” appears on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which features Bob and Suze walking arm in arm on the cover.

"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" - Bob Dylan (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)

Mike Ness released his version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (shortened to just “Don’t Think Twice”) on his first solo album, Cheating At Solitaire, in 1999. Social Distortion always has flavors of country and blues in it’s punk offerings, but Mike really wanted to do a proper rockabilly/country/rock/roots album. Picking up the tempo and adding a full band, Mike creates even more snarl to go along with the lyrics. I think he really holds true to the original sentiment of the song while still being able to put his own spin on it. I still remember where I was when I first heard this song. I was a cook at Buffalo's Cafe and Mike was on the radio doing an interview for 99x. He played it acoustically and then they played the album version. I must admit, the customers had to wait just a few minutes longer for their food that day because I was momentarily distracted by a song that is still, to this day, one of my favorite covers.

"Don't Think Twice" - Mike Ness (Cheating At Solitaire)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Changing Horses - The Nashville Sessions EP (Album Review)

While some artists are content to just dip their toes in the pool of creativity, England’s Changing Horses chooses to disregard the “No Horseplay” sign and go straight for the running cannonball approach. Consisting of the duo of Richard Birtill and Francesca Cullen, Changing Horses fall somewhere on the musical spectrum between an amped up Sufjan Stevens and a lower head count version of Arcade Fire. For their first release, The Nashville Sessions EP, they use every instrument they can get their hands on to pull off their unconventional, yet still ridiculously catchy, orchestral-flavored songs.

The Nashville Sessions EP was birthed when producer Chris Donohue, who has worked with such heavyweights as Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris, was given some of Richard’s demos and convinced him to fly all the way to Nashville to do some recording. Richard brought along Francesca so they could record as a duo and they ended up with a very cool and very ambitious debut EP. Album opener, “Cut All Strings,” uses mandolin, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums and a string section to create a really smart pop song that won’t leave your head without a fight. It’s one of those songs that you find yourself singing along with before you even know all the words. “I Don’t Need It” is probably my favorite track of the bunch. It’s got a lot of movement and personality and it would be easy to see a song like this get some well-deserved exposure for the band. “’Till Death” is a hilarious tongue-in-cheek ode to that special someone that can drive you crazy like no other and it sounds like it could have been played at a 17th century ballroom dance. Drum loops and synthesizers show up on “Tom Brown” without being overused or sounding abrasive against the other natural sounding drums, guitars and strings. Even with all of the instruments that show up on The Nashville Sessions EP, the star of each song is Richard’s voice. The way he sings and franticly delivers his lines makes each song a little more interesting and a little more dangerous. It works really well within the context of these songs and creates a nice dynamic to listen to. There are so many impressive things packed into these six songs and I’m excited to hear what Changing Horses has in store for the future.

You can find out more about Changing Horses at their website here and you can purchase The Nashville Sessions EP at iTunes here.

"Cut All Strings" - Changing Horses (The Nashville Sessions EP)

Monday, May 10, 2010

"Bad" - U2

Our beloved Mr. Paul Hewson, aka Bono, turns 50 today. Regardless of how most people felt about their last album, No Line On The Horizon, (me excluded, I enjoyed it) you can’t deny that the man can still wail. For all the activism and political moving and shaking he’s involved in, he can still hold an arena full of people in the palm of his hand, deliver an outstanding rock show, and somehow pull off the “shades all the time” look. So in honor of Bono’s birthday, I’m going to feature one of my favorite U2 songs, “Bad”.

“Bad” is from U2’s 4th album, The Unforgettable Fire, released in 1984. After touring the world behind their previous album, War, which was full of harsh guitar tones and militaristic drumbeats, U2 decided to change directions for The Unforgettable Fire. If War was a bombastic call to arms, The Unforgettable Fire was a hushed meditation. The musical foundation laid by Larry Mullen’s drums and Adam Clayton’s bass became more fluid and subtle and The Edge started really experimenting with delay, echo, and reverb effects. Ambient keyboards and looser arrangements provided more of an “atmospheric” feel for Bono’s new ambiguous lyrical direction. All of these new sonic ingredients are married together perfectly in “Bad”.

Written about a friend’s struggle with heroin abuse, “Bad” starts with a beautiful guitar riff, builds into an explosive crescendo of instruments and voice and then ends as calmly as it started. Whether it’s due to the personal subject matter or just the confidence brought along with experience, Bono gives one of the most emotional vocal deliveries of his recording career. Seriously, it’s that strong. If the hairs on the back of your neck aren’t standing up by the time he starts belting out “I’m wide awake,” you may want to ask the wizard for a heart, Tinman.

Although “Bad” never made a huge splash on radio when it was released as a single, it remains one of U2’s best-loved songs. They continue to play it to this day, almost always going into an extended jam while Bono sings lyrics from some of his favorite songs. Some of the more popular examples of this can be seen during their 1985 Live Aid performance (“Satellite of Love” by Lou Reed, “Ruby Tuesday” by The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones, and “Walk On The Wild Side” by Lou Reed) and on the film version of Rattle and Hum (“Ruby Tuesday” and “Sympathy for the Devil” again). In fact, their Live Aid performance of “Bad” went on for so long that they only got to play 2 songs instead of 3. Although the other band members weren’t very happy about this, it easily became one of the most memorable performances associated with Live Aid.

"Bad" - U2 (The Unforgettable Fire)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"Honey, We Can't Afford To Look This Cheap" - The White Stripes

Amanda is out of town for Mother’s Day and I can’t think of a better way to drown my sorrows until she returns than by doing a little record shopping. I had a few errands to run today but I was still able to slip in a trip to Third Man Records and Grimey’s to make it a good Saturday. Since I am not currently “rolling in it” as they say, I tried to practice both cash flow management and moderation. All in all, I think I made a pretty decent haul without having to spend too much money.

At Third Man I picked up The White Stripes “Conquest” 7” single featuring one of my favorite B sides, “Honey, We Can’t Afford To Look This Cheap” on white vinyl. I absolutely love it when Jack White taps into his country side and as a bonus, Beck shows up to play slide guitar on the track. I also picked up a “Broken Boy Soldiers” 7” single by The Raconteurs. At Grimey’s I scored U2’s “In God’s Country” 7” single, Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” 7” single and Dave Bazan’s most recent Christmas offering “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on gold vinyl. In the age of Ebay, I know it’s easy to buy pretty much any record you could ever want, but I’ve always wanted to find a Joshua Tree-era single hidden in the stacks of a record store. I can now cross that one off and move on to the next item on the list, Sharon, Lois & Bram's Elephant Show Record. One day, Elephant, one day. In the words of Ice Cube, today was a good day.

"Honey, We Can't Afford To Look This Cheap" - The White Stripes (Conquest single)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Dead Weather @ Third Man Records

So, Monday was pretty awesome. Amanda and I got to go to The Dead Weather show at Third Man Records and it was incredibly awesome and incredibly loud. I’m pretty sure my ears are still ringing. It was a small scale, guest list only show to promote their new album, Sea Of Cowards, which comes out on May 11th. They streamed it live for a few different places online and also recorded it to analog tape for a vinyl only release. Those of us who attended the show got the chance to purchase a copy on dual-colored black and blue vinyl and they are also going to sell a black only vinyl through the Third Man shop. Those Third Man folks really know how to do things up right!

It was announced that they would play the new album straight through and that’s what they did, stopping only to allow the recording engineer to change the tape. I had already heard each song a few times since they streamed the album for a 24-hour period a couple days before the show, so I was really excited. The two songs I was looking forward to the most were “Old Mary” and “Blue Blood Blues”, if for nothing else than to hear Jack White’s delivery of the line “All the white girls trip when I sing in Sunday service.” Hearing it over some computer speakers was nothing compared to how it sounded live though. I know it sounds oxymoronic, but these guys played so tight and so loose at the same time. They laid such a solid groove and the crowd was moving the whole time. Jack White seems to be having a great time behind the drums and he is certainly the heart beat, musical and otherwise, of the band. Jack Lawrence is one of those unsung bass players who is really, really good but doesn’t seem to get enough credit. He veers enough from the typical root note approach to keep it interesting without sounding like he’s playing a completely different song. One of the more complex riffs he played even involved his thumb climbing over the neck to hit the low string. Intricate and tasty, one of my favorite combos! The one I was most impressed with though is Dean Fertita. Playing both keys and guitar, usually in the same song, he really is responsible for holding down the melodic vibe of the songs. He was zoned in all night and there were times where each hand was on a different instrument. It was an impressive performance to say the least.

They played the entire album, in order, and then came back for a three song encore consisting of “Hang You From The Heavens,” “I Cut Like A Buffalo” (my personal favorite) and “Treat Me Like Your Mother.” The encore was as blistering as the opening set and everyone, band included, seemed to have a really good time. I’ll post a picture of the black and blue vinyl once it gets pressed.

Sea Of Cowards will be released on May 11th and if you like bluesy, riff-based, groove rock, you will love this album. I highly recommend picking it up!

"Hustle And Cuss" - The Dead Weather (Sea Of Cowards)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Homeward Bound" - Tumbledown

Some musicians can be quite proficient and have to find additional outlets for the songs they write that don’t necessarily fit the context of their current band. Sometimes it works (I love me some Traveling Wilburys, Temple Of The Dog and The Raconteurs), sometimes it doesn’t (here’s looking at you Power Station, Velvet Revolver and Chickenfoot) and sometimes it creates something just crazy enough to be awesome (Tom Tom Club anyone?). Mike Herrera has enjoyed years of success as the lead singer, bass player and songwriter in the punk band MxPx, but feeling the urge to trade in his bass for an acoustic guitar, he formed Tumbledown in 2007. Tumbledown mixes the energy and fun of punk with the musicianship and heartbreak of country. Imagine putting an old Hank William’s record on to play but choosing the wrong speed. They are really, really fun to listen to and are really good musicians. The drums are as steady as a locomotive, the bass gets you moving, the electric guitar sounds like a bluegrass wild fire, and Mike added just enough twang to his distinctive vocals to sound authentic. So far they’ve released one EP, Atlantic City, and one self-titled full length.

“Homeward Bound” is probably my favorite song off Tumbledown. The imagery in the lyrics and the catchy melody make it impossible to not sing along with. Even if you can’t sing harmony, this song will make you think you can. I love the third verse’s shout out to Mike’s hometown and to the county fair. I have such great memories of going to our county fair when I was in high school. It always took place in the fall (my favorite time of year) and the snuggly weather and squished together physics of the rides make it perfect for a date. Plus, there is no denying that classic rock anthems sound better and hot dogs are tastier at the fair. The guitar solo and bass breakdown on this song are absolutely amazing as well. Last month I saw some pics that showed Tumbledown being pressed on root beer colored vinyl. It looked really great and hopefully it will be released sometime soon.

"Homeward Bound" - Tumbledown (Tumbledown)