Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Third Man Records Promotional Singles Compilation Volume One

It’s an interesting task to review a promotional disc, especially a radio compilation of artists as unique and diverse as the bands on the Third Man Records roster. Since it’s a promo, it’s not a matter of recommending a purchase and because it’s a compilation, there’s no singular unifying concept or theme to latch on to. At least that’s what I initially thought. Third Man Records Promotional Singles Compilation Volume 1 gathers together all of the 7” vinyl singles (minus just a few of the b-sides) that Third Man Records released in 2009 and put them all in one place. I was already familiar with the majority of these songs on an individual level, but after listening through and trying to take it in as a whole, there was an angle that finally struck me. Showcasing all of these singles back to back is not only a cool retrospective of Third Man’s first year, it’s a testament to the variety and creativity they are pushing for. None of the artists on this compilation could be labeled as “the next (insert big band name here)” because they are each carving their own individual musical paths. The fact that most of these are stand alone singles, instead of being attached to a full album project, allows for the “no strings attached” pressure free vibe that birthed some of the most interesting and inventive music of 2009.

Since last year was such a busy time for The Dead Weather, and maybe because Third Man is Jack White’s baby, they get 6 of the cuts. Three of the songs are from their debut album, Horehound, and the other three are non-album b-sides, including some cool covers of Gary Numan and Them. Jack also plays on most of the singles, including Rachelle Garniez’ “My House of Peace," The Dex Romweber Duo’s "The Wind Did Move” and “Last Kind Word Blues," Dan Sartain’s “Bohemian Grove”, " Smoke Fairies’ “Gastown” and “Riversong” and Wanda Jackson’s “Shakin’ All Over” and “You Know I’m No Good.” He even gets a solo cut with his on the spot creation, Fly Farm Blues, from his involvement in the It Might Get Loud documentary. Before Karen Elson recorded her full length album, she cut an interesting single under the name Mildred and the Mice called “I Like My Mice (Dead).” The two songs that are the most outside of the box, yet somehow still perfectly within the Third Man realm, are probably “Afterparty” and “A Glorious Dawn.” “Afterparty” is an incredible 70’s era funk/disco fusion song recorded by Transit, a band made up entirely of employees of the Nashville Metro Transit Authority. “A Glorious Dawn” is an autotuned creation containing samples and clips of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking and opens with the line, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Whether it’s alternative music, piano ballads, rockabilly, garage rock, Solid Gold funk, or the blues, Third Man can find the bands who are doing things well and doing things differently. Third Man’s flair for the unique even factors down to the packaging, as the cd was made to look and feel like a vinyl record. With this year being filled with great, original releases as well, one can only hope there will be a Volume 2 released at the beginning of next year.

"You Just Can't Win" - The Dead Weather (Treat Me Like Your Mother single)

Here's some pics to show the detail of the cd:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Andrew Peterson - Counting Stars (Album Review)

Here in Nashville you can throw a rock and hit enough guys with a guitar to fill an ER waiting room. So it goes without saying that you’ve got to have something special going for you if you want to stand out. For Andrew Peterson, that something special comes in the form of a poet’s language, a comic’s wit, a philosopher’s pen and a journeyman’s trunk of stories. He dishes all of these out in spades on his latest album, Counting Stars. Andrew is an engaging songwriter that can weave a story or speak a truth while evoking emotion in practically every line. He’s unafraid to be brutally honest, but he somehow always does it in an inspiring way. He’s that rare breed of writer that acknowledges both the tunnel and the light at the end of it, while never oversimplifying either one. Like Paul Simon, his unique sense of melody and chord structure allows for interesting musical accompaniments on his records, with each song still being strong enough on its own to be performed at concerts in a clean, James Taylor-style unclutteredness. Throughout Counting Stars, he manages to mine the age old themes of struggle, redemption, beauty, darkness and the purpose of life itself to uncover new found treasures and truths to share with anyone who will listen.
For the twelve songs on Counting Stars, Andrew pulls together inspirations from literature, relationships, nature, The Bible and his own roles as a husband, father and friend to pack each song with authenticity and invitation. As a welcoming introduction to Andrew and the album itself, opening track “Many Roads” is sung directly to the listener and references Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Bible and his usual “touring band,” Ben Shive and Andy Gullahorn. For the next song, “Dancing In The Minefields,” Andrew relates a little of his engagement story and sings of perseverance in the rich struggle worth fighting that’s found in all marriages. Like any good folk singer/troubadour, Andrew is also in touch with his agricultural, earthy side and uses nature as a character in songs like “The Last Frontier,” “The Magic Hour,” “Isle of Skye” and the literal and metaphorical “Planting Trees.” Andrew’s passionate faith in God and honest life journey bubble through every song and are especially compelling in the lines “I’ve got sorrow to spare, I’ve got loneliness too, I’ve got blood on these hands that hold on to the truth” (“Fool With A Fancy Guitar”), “At the bottom of this well I hear You breathing, love below me, love around me, love above me, love has found me” (“The Last Frontier”) and “So be my God and guide me ‘til I lie beneath these hills and let the great God of my fathers be the great God of my children still” (“God of My Fathers”). I’ve followed Andrew’s career since the late 90’s and he continues to amaze with his songwriting prowess and his storytelling skills, as well as his other pursuits as an author (“The Wingfeather Saga”) and an online community organizer (The Rabbit Room). If you’re already a fan of Andrew’s then Counting Stars will be a continuation of the richness you’ve come to expect from him. But if you’ve never experienced Andrew’s music before, I guarantee you will genuinely be entertained and enriched through his songs and stories.
Counting Stars will be released on July 27th through Centricity Music and can be purchased here.
"Dancing In The Minefields" - Andrew Peterson (Counting Stars)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Concrete Blonde - Bloodletting (20th Anniversary Edition) (Album Review)

Just like with R.E.M.’s reissue earlier this month, some of the best alternative albums of the pre-grunge boom are getting rereleased with fidelity upgrades and some bonus material added to them. On one hand it can make you feel a little older, but hearing some of your favorite albums in a better quality and getting additional songs from the same period are enough to snap you back to when you first heard it. Such is the case with the 20th Anniversary Edition of Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde. Not only does this amazing album finally get the remastering treatment, it also contains six bonus tracks that makes this reissue a must have for Concrete Blonde fans. In my opinion, Concrete Blonde is one of the absolute best bands to come out of the late 80’s/early 90’s and they are criminally underrated. Johnette Napolitano’s husky vocals are as powerful in her whisper as they are in her howl and she plays a mean bass too. James Mankey’s guitars have some of the coolest tones of that era and his versatility between atmospheric chords and wailing solos is as impressive as it is fun to listen to. Rounding out the trio, Paul Thompson plays powerful punk rhythms to laid back grooves with equal precision and feel. When I was starting to learn guitar, Bloodletting was one of the albums I would constantly play along with and each time I got a new guitar pedal, I would try to make sounds with it that I thought James Mankey might go for. On top of all that, Bloodletting contains “Joey,” one of my absolute favorite songs of all time.

"Joey" - Concrete Blonde (Bloodletting)

Before all the recent "Twilight" stuff, vampire love was alive and well in albums like Bloodletting. The album artwork and lyrics contain gothic imagery, some dark themes and even direct references to vampires in a few of the songs. However, Concrete Blonde always seemed to know where the line was between creative and creepy. They played up the “goth band” angle well, but at the end of the day, what’s important is that Bloodletting contains some really good songs. Concrete Blonde has always been good at immediately setting the mood with the music before the vocals even kick in. A great example of this is album opener “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song).” Within the first 30 seconds, James intros some unsettling, otherworldly sounds with his guitar, Johnette’s powerful bass and Paul’s thundering drums enter to set the groove and then James kicks on the distortion for the main riff. By the time Johnette starts singing, you already “get” this song’s eerie, shadowy vibe. The same thing can be said for the Eastern-influenced, percussion-driven “I Don’t Need A Hero” and the sitar-like guitar lines of “Lullabye.” However, in case anyone mistakes them as soft or moody, they can be pretty commanding too. Songs like “The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden,” “Days and Days” and “The Beast” are pounding reminders that this band knows how to rock it out. A couple really cool guests show up on Bloodletting as well, with Peter Buck (R.E.M.) playing mandolin on "Darkening of the Light” and Andy Prieboy (Wall of Voodoo) playing keyboards on “Tomorrow, Wendy.”

The bonus material on the album is a really cool treat for Concrete Blonde fans. Although four of the songs can be found on their Caroline EP, the other two songs have been harder to get a hold of. The four songs from Caroline are live versions of “Roses Grow,” “The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden” and “Tomorrow, Wendy,” as well as a mind-blowing studio cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” For the other two songs, there’s “I Want You,” which was originally a B-side to the “Joey” single, and an interesting French version of “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)." Instead of just taking the original backing tracks and recutting the vocals in French, the whole song has new elements, including thunder, rain and church bells added to the intro, a heavier bass track, French vocals and an overall Nine Inch Nails industrial vibe to it. It’s pretty cool to hear the song in two different versions for two different markets. The great bonus songs, along with the successful remastering job, make this album worth picking up. Even if you already own the original, it’s nice to hear such an extraordinary album get a sonic tune-up that makes it sound even more fantastic than you remember it.

"Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" (French Version) - Concrete Blonde (Bloodletting)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tracy Bonham - Masts Of Manhatta (Album Review)

When an artist starts their career with a big radio hit, they either submit to the pressure of repetition for an attempt at repeat success or they forge ahead with ambition and imagination to create fresh, new material. Tracy Bonham may have burst on to the scene in 1996 with the angsty “Mother, Mother,” but with her most recent release, Masts of Manhatta, she’s ready to once again prove there is more to her than meets the radio. As a classically trained violinist and pianist, Tracy’s musical repertoire is as extensive as it is diverse. In the liner notes, along side the traditional violin, piano, guitar, claves and Fender Rhodes, she’s even credited with playing a spaghetti pot and a cardboard box. She definitely casts a wide creative net; musically, thematically and lyrically. For Mast of Manhatta, she is joined in this endeavor by legendary guitarist Smokey Hormel, as well as Tim Lunztel on bass and the incredible Andrew Borger on drums.

After listening all the way through Masts of Manhatta, you understand that Tracy is not one to be boxed in. She can do the unconventional indie vibe of “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend” and “You’re My Is-Ness.” She can write folksy blues numbers like “Your Night Is Wide Open” and “I Love You Today.” She can comfortably slide into old country music for “We Moved Our City to the Country,” “In the Moonlight” and “Angel, Won’t You Come Down.” She even does a really good Tom Waits impersonation, both musically and vocally, on “Josephine.” Her relaxed writing style leads to great lines like “I’d like to be my own best friend, turns out there’s no reciprocal feelings, what a total snob” and “If Meals on Wheels is ever late I promise I won’t call off the date.” There’s even some interesting lyrical references to Gogol Bordello, Jackson Pollock, Johnny and June, Bartles and Jaymes and the AMC Hornet. Yet, even with all of this diversity, there are enough unifying threads running throughout the album to keep it from feeling sprawling or distracting. Tracy’s unique voice, virtuoso violin playing and unrestrained spirit make this album feel totally adventurous and undeniably “hers.”

Masts of Manhatta will be available from Engine Room Recordings on July 13th.

"Big Red Heart" - Tracy Bonham (Masts of Manhatta)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sting - Symphonicities (Album Review)

Sting is one of the few musicians out there who can put out an album like Symphonicities and have it make sense. Always one to mix an outstanding knowledge of musical theory with passionate creativity, Sting reworks some of his best songs with The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra for this imaginative album. Of the twelve songs, four are from his days in The Police, eight are from his solo work and all of them take on a new feel within this orchestral context. Instead of just adding some strings here and swapping out a woodwind for a guitar line there, Sting actually recreates new textures and moments around his already familiar melodies and lyrics.

Symphonicities opens with “Next To You,” which is coincidentally the same song that kicks off The Police’s first album, Outlandos d’Amour, from 1978. Impressively matching the intensity of the original without traditional drums or electric guitars, Sting puts to rest any assumptions that this concept might lead to stuffy, uptight recreations. This upbeat, unconventional energy is revisited throughout the album in songs like “The End of the Game” and the frenzied “She’s Too Good For Me.” When he does slow it down, the sweeping ballads are opened up even more in songs like the beautiful “When We Dance” and the haunting “You Will Be My Ain True Love.” The two songs that probably deviate the most from the originals are both well known and well loved Police songs. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is carried by plucked strings and a nice percussion bed and “Roxanne” is much more brooding with a vibraphone and a lower register for Sting to sing in. There are a few songs that already have orchestral elements in the original versions and these are the ones where Sting might run the greatest risk of criticism for phoning it in. However, a close listen will prove that fresh, new elements have been added to the standard arrangements. “The Pirate's Bride” as a duet sounds like it was reimagined for a dramatic stage presentation, the mixed metered “I Hung My Head” has a variety of melody lines weaving throughout it and one of my favorite songs from Sting’s solo catalog, “Englishman In New York,” sounds even more bouncy and soulful than the original. My one small gripe is that when I saw this song on the tracklist, I was sure that I would finally get a version without that weird, out of left field drum break that comes in after the jazzy instrumental bridge. No such luck. It’s still included here, although done with symphonic percussion, of course. Overall, this album is a great listen and it’s inspiring and entertaining to hear Sting successfully pull off different variations of his songs that were already filled with such identity and musical complexities.

Symphonicities will be released on July 13th.

"Englishman In New York" - Sting (Symphonicities)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises (Album Review)

At first listen, Admiral Fell Promises comes across as just a smooth, calming album that would perfectly soundtrack a rainy day or a slow, lazy morning. Mark Kozelek’s resonating voice, accompanied by only a nylon string guitar, glides evenly between high and low registers and never seems to rise above a conversational tone. The finger picked guitar passages give a light, trickling backdrop for his songs to float on. No matter the issue, this album could probably chill you out quicker than any other album out there. If that was where you stopped digging though, you’d be sorely missing out. With repeated listens, you start to find the layers Mark creates and you can see how each song blends seamlessly and intentionally into the next. This isn’t a collection of singles with dynamic musical shifts and attempts at genre variety. Instead of just tracks on an album, these songs feel more like chapters of the same book. They are independent in character but fused together in vision and result.

While the album is attributed to Sun Kil Moon, it’s essentially a Mark Kozelek solo album. He’s the only voice and instrument on the whole album and the effect is mesmerizing. Opening track “Alesund” starts with an expressive minute long guitar solo before his voice enters and sets the tone for the whole album. His lyrics draw you into a story, not so much as a participant, but as an omniscient character reading a personal narrative. While most of the songs have titles dealing with specific places (“Half Moon Bay,” Sam Wong Hotel,” Third and Seneca,” “The Leaning Tree,” “Church of the Pines” and “Bay of Skulls”) the tone and feel of the album allows you to choose where you want to go. There’s enough unobtrusive musical moments and spaces for you to really mentally unplug and get lost in its depths. This type of album benefits most from a straight through listen in its entirety. It’s somehow brooding, resigned and yet still hopeful from beginning to end. While this album wouldn’t be the best jumping off point to expose someone new to Mark’s work, it is incredibly poetic, transportive and a moving addition to his catalog.

Admiral Fell Promises will be available from Caldo Verde Records on July 13th.

"You Are My Sun" - Sun Kil Moon (Admiral Fell Promises)

Friday, July 2, 2010

R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction (25th Anniversary Reissue) (Album Review)

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction, the album is getting the digital remastering treatment with a bonus disc of demos, new liner notes and some other goodies thrown in. Following in line with Murmur and Reckoning already getting remastered and reissued, Fables of the Reconstruction got its sonic nuts and bolts tightened up to take us for another spin. While some audiophiles may complain that the overall volume increase causes too much compression and distortion, I think it sounds great and really full. The vast majority of listeners will definitely appreciate hearing Michael Stipe’s voice better and hearing the cleaner separation in the instruments. Fables of the Reconstruction has always been categorized as having a dense or even muddy tone to it, so there may be some fans who nostalgically love it the way they’ve heard it for years and don’t want it messed with. They have nothing to fear. The remastering is not drastic enough to change the overall feel of the album. In fact, you can tell there was much love, attention and respect paid to reissuing one of the best albums of the 80’s alternative rock scene and a prime example of the “early R.E.M. sound” period.

Fables of the Reconstruction is R.E.M.’s third full length album and it was first released in 1985. During a time of intense touring, increased social awareness and just plain getting older, Michael, Peter, Mike and Bill decided to approach their upcoming album a little different than the previous two. Where their first two albums were recorded with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon in North Carolina, R.E.M. travelled all the way to England and had Joe Boyd produce this one. The change in location and studio guidance was accompanied by a shift in their music as well. The lyrics dealt with the rural American South and had an almost homesick vibe to them, while the music was a little darker and less jangly than their previous efforts. Also, there was a little more diversity in the instrumentation with string sections (“Feeling Gravitys Pull”), banjo (“Wendell Gee”) and horns (“Can’t Get There From Here”) popping up. Overall though, this is still an R.E.M. album, one of their best in fact, and there is much to love about it. Micheal’s mumbly vocals, Pete’s chiming guitar work, Mike’s melodic bass lines and Bill’s steady drumming hold the album together and create a moody, celebratory, calm and explosive mood like only they can. Plus, my favorite R.E.M. song of their entire catalog, “Driver 8,” appears on it, so it will always hold a special spot for me.

"Driver 8" - R.E.M. (Fables of the Reconstruction)

The shining star of the reissue though is the bonus disc dubbed The Athens Demos. Back then, the practice of a band roughly recording the anticipated album before spending lots of money on a big studio was an industry standard. Before heading off to London, R.E.M. ran through the songs for Fables of the Reconstruction with Jim Hawkins in his studio in Athens, GA. Where the songs on their previous albums had been written months, and sometimes years, before recording them, these new songs were still being finished up in the studio. The raw state of the songs, the chatter before, after and during the recordings, and the surprisingly good quality of the demos make this bonus disc an exciting treat for fans. The Athens Demos contain the eleven tracks that would appear on Fables of the Reconstruction, plus three other songs that didn’t make the final cut. Of those three songs, “Bandwagon” showed up as a B-side to the “Can’t Get There From Here” single, “Hyena” was recorded again for their next album and, while it would eventually morph into a song called “I Believe” that also appeared on their next album, “Throw Those Trolls Away” had been previously unreleased. Even if you’ve already got the original version of Fables of the Reconstruction, the 25th Anniversary remaster is worth the money. As if R.E.M. needed any extra validation, The Athens Demos prove that, even in a raw, rushed and undefined state, these four guys create exciting musical alchemy inside of unconventional atmospheres like nobody else.

"Throw Those Trolls Away" - R.E.M. (The Athens Demos)

The 25th Anniversary edition of Fables of the Reconstruction will be available on July 13th.