Thursday, May 29, 2014

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes - Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! (Album Review)

Just as your looking around for that perfect summer album, punk rock super group cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are back with another genre-honoring release of amped-up singalongs and killer karaoke classics. Their seventh studio album Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! celebrates the big voices (and even bigger attitudes) of some of the music world’s biggest divas. Cher, Celine, Babs, Whitney – they’re all represented here in glorious punk rock revelry!

But first, if you’re not familiar with Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, here’s a quick refresher. The tongue-in-cheek super group is made up of Spike Slawson (Swingin’ Utters) on vocals, Fat Mike (NOFX) on bass, Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters) on lead guitar, Joey Cape (Lagwagon) on rhythm guitar, and Dave Raun (Lagwagon) on drums. They released their first album Have A Ball in 1997 and it focused on songs from the 60s and 70s (plus an 80s Billy Joel number, but who’s counting). Since then, they’ve released albums covering showtunes, country, R&B, and more, as well as devoting a couple EPs to covering Australian and Japanese bands. Put on any of their releases and your immediately guaranteed to know a handful of songs, if not the whole album entirely.

While the foundational punk rock elements drive the fun nature of the album and give it its identifying heft, Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! shines brightest in its surprising moments. For example, they way they cycle through a couple different changes before landing on the disco-punk feel of Gloria’s Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the folksy Celtic-stomp of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the ukulele-sax mash-up of Madonna’s “Crazy for You,” and the warbly, underwater guitar lines on Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Moments like these provide a super cool contrast alongside the pedal-to-the-floor tempos and top-of-your-lungs vocals.
As is common with a covers album, your individual enjoyment of Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! will probably depend on which original versions you connect with most. As an 80s skater-rink kid, their breakneck takes on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” rank pretty high for me. However, ask me on the right day and I might say that their tried-and-true runthrough of The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” might actually be my overall favorite. But hey, if Lady Gaga, Donna Summer, or Christina Aguilera are more your taste, they’ve got you covered there as well.

The final note on this great band is the continued game of finding the little punk rock easter eggs they throw into some of the songs on their albums. To me, the most obvious ones here are when they use the intro of 1977 punk rock classic “Sonic Reducer” by Dead Boys on Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and when they use The Buzzcocks’ “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” on “Karma Chameleon.” I’m sure there are a few more I missing though, so feel free to leave one in the comments. It’s just another layer of musical shenanigans and goofball fun on an album that’s already spilling over with both.

1. “I Will Survive” (originally by Gloria Gaynor)
2. “Straight Up” (originally by Paula Abdul)
3. “Believe” (originally by Cher)
4. “Beautiful” (originally by Christina Aguilera)
5. “My Heart Will Go On” (originally by Celine Dion)
6. “I Will Always Love You” (originally by Dolly Parton, covered by Whitney Houston)
7. “Top of the World” (originally by The Carpenters)
8. “Speechless” (originally by Lady Gaga)
9. “Karma Chameleon” (originally by Culture Club)
10. “Crazy for You” (originally by Madonna)
11. “On the Radio” (originally by Donna Summer)
12. “The Way We Were” (originally by Barbara Streisand)

Monday, May 19, 2014

R.E.M. - Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions (Album Review)

In 1991, just two years into the MTV Unplugged series, a little college rock phenomenon from Athens, GA was riding the ever-growing wave of their very first #1 album. R.E.M. had released Out of Time earlier in the year and the stripped-down acoustic performance format of MTV Unplugged seemed perfectly suited for the new folksier, country-tinged sound they had begun to experiment with. The first single from Out of Time was “Losing My Religion” and the mandolin-led juggernaut had become their biggest hit on the back of extensive radio airplay and its iconic accompanying music video. But in a surprising move, R.E.M. decided not to tour behind Out of Time. 

MTV Unplugged had not yet achieved the level of fame it would garner in just a short year or two with shows from Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, 10,000 Maniacs, and Nirvana, the opportunity was perfect for R.E.M. to display their new sound and their new songs in a (relatively) new setting. What followed was nothing short of the televised maturation of a band endearing themselves further to their current fans and gaining new ones with every song they played. Any worries of them not touring was seemingly put to rest as R.E.M. performed their songs on their own terms on one of the biggest stages available to them.

However, when you look at the list of MTV Unplugged shows that have gotten physical releases, it’s pretty surprising that R.E.M. – the only band to headline MTV Unplugged twice – has never had either one of their performances released in full. Sure, a few of the tracks have been released individually on various compilations over the years, but there has never been any legitimate way of getting either one of the complete shows. However, thanks to the band and Rhino Records, that has all changed with the release of Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions.  

Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions shows R.E.M. at two decidedly different, but equally important, stages of their career. The 1991 show is marked by goofy smiles and the “happy to be here” vibe that contrasts interestingly with the amazing songwriting craftsmanship, while the 2001 show is a testament to the band’s ability to continually evolve after the departure of original drummer Bill Berry, who left the band in 1997. Not only does this album showcase both of those performances, there are a total of 11 new tracks included that were never in the original broadcasts. With a whopping 33 songs between the two shows, Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions captures two very important chapters in the band’s illustrious story.

The 1991 show appropriately opens to thunderous applause and a folksy “howdy” from frontman Michael Stipe. Alternating between new songs from Out of Time (“Half A World Away,” “Radio Song,” “Low,” “Belong,” “Endgame”) and older songs from their earlier albums (“Disturbance at the Heron House,” “Perfect Circle,” “Fall on Me,” “Pop Song 89,” “Swan Song H,” “Rotary 11,” “Get Up,” “World Leader Pretend”), R.E.M. showed the impressive sonic roadmap that had gotten them to that point. However, it is the middle trio of songs – a cover of The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” (featuring bassist Mike Mills on lead vocals), a playful run-through of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and their newest hit “Losing My Religion” – that most eloquently snapshots R.E.M. at that point in their career.

The 2001 show features a different R.E.M. who was 20 years down the line from its debut EP Chronic Town and now functioning with only three original members. Their last two albums, 1998’s Up and 2001’s Reveal, received volatile reviews of varying degrees of critique and praise, but there was no denying that the same spirit of aural adventure and originality was still strong within the band. Just as with the 1991 show, the 2001 show opens with a new song from their most recent album, “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star).” Instead of being a pretty even mix of old and new songs though, R.E.M. decided to play seven career-spanning back catalog songs before returning to Reveal with “Imitation of Life.” They then played “Find the River” from 1992’s Automatic for the People and fan-favorite “The One I Love” from 1987’s Document before closing out with a foursome of Reveal tracks – “Disappear,” “Beat A Drum,” “I’ve Been High,” and “I’ll Take the Rain” – and a dour “Sad Professor” from 1998’s Up

Get More: R.E.M., MTV Shows

In the decade between the two performances, much had transpired within the band and across the mainstream musical landscape as a whole. However, as Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions clearly shows, R.E.M. managed to remain R.E.M., while never having to remain the same. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Interview with Jack Parker + Homegrown (Album Review)

For years, Jack Parker has been the ingenious six-string slinger interpreting other people’s songs from the side of the stage. Bands like New Old Stock, Rocky Point All-Stars, Tumbledown, MxPx, and others have proven to be ample sonic stomping grounds for his agile guitar licks and his spot-on vocal harmonies. However, with Homegrown, Parker has taken center stage to write, sing, and play his own songs in his own way.

Homegrown kicks off with “It’s So Good,” an exciting opener that mixes the attitude of Parker’s Tumbledown twang with his meticulous ear for melody. One of the things that immediately strikes you about Parker’s debut is his vocals, which are a blend of Glenn Frey and James Taylor with his own Northwest inflections. This folksy tone carries through the rest of his songs, shining most clearly and plaintively on “The Mountain” and “Gone.”

Parker’s guitar skills – both acoustic and electric – also make Homegrown a must listen. Whether he’s strumming a backporch ballad or firing off greasy licks and solos, his attention to phrasing and tone are top-notch. Even for non-guitar players, the overall sound and feeling of Parker’s guitar-playing sticks out above the majority of what’s out there. Parker has years of experience under his belt and he knows when (and what) to play and, more importantly, when (and what) not to play.

I recently interviewed Parker about Homegrown, his move to front man, and his recent hand injury.

MSCS: You've been playing music for quite a few years. What made now the right time to release your own solo debut?
Jack Parker: I guess in my younger years I was more focused on being the best guitarist I could be. I wasn't as concerned with writing songs, so I have never really been a prolific songwriter. I had always played in bands that already had a prolific songwriter, like KW Miller (Rocky Point All-Stars) or Mike Herrera (Tumbledown, MxPx), so I was comfortable being a sideman. It wasn't until about 3 or 4 years ago that I started feeling the urge to write some songs of my own. I was already very familiar with the basic elements that made a well-written song by being around such great songwriters for so long. After coming up with a handful of what I felt were pretty decent songs, I figured I had better record them! 

MSCS: What does the album title Homegrown represent to you?
Parker: I wrote all of the songs at home in Bremerton, WA. I recorded at Monkey Trench Studios here in Bremerton, WA. I had it mastered by a good buddy Tony Reed (Mos Generator, Stone Axe) in Port Orchard, WA. I had the cover art drawn by my buddy Bo McConaghie (Black Dragon Tattoo) in Poulsbo, WA. Plus, my songs all kind of have a "homey/earthy" vibe... hence Homegrown.

MSCS: Your lyrics have an air of longing for home and a desire for settledness. Does that come from touring and everything that goes along with a musician's life?
Parker: Yeah, I suppose so. I've always loved traveling, but my favorite place to be in the world is at home... or at Mount Rainier. That place is heaven on Earth.
MSCS: You've played in a lot bands as a guitarist. How does it feel taking the lead on songwriting and vocals?
Parker: Honestly, a bit scary. Playing lead-guitar was always very natural and comfortable to me because I wasn't the main focal point. I didn't start playing solo acoustic shows until just over two years ago, and at first it scared me to death. However, I've gotten a little better at getting over my fear over the last couple of years. Singing very personal lyrics is tough sometimes, especially if people aren't paying attention. It's hard, but I just close my eyes and go for it.

MSCS: You recently injured your hand pretty badly. How did it affect your playing and the recording process?
Parker: Fortunately, the injury to my left hand happened after all the tracking had been completed, because I couldn't even play at all for about a month. That was a really hard month for me emotionally, because playing guitar has always meant the world to me. I didn't know when or if I would be able to play at all or with the same proficiency. It's been three months now and my index finger is still stiff and sore, but once it's warmed up I can play okay. There are some movements I can't do anymore, but I'm relearning how to play certain things differently so that they sound close to how I want them to. It may never be completely "normal" again, but I am very thankful that it wasn't worse, and that I can still play. Musicians shouldn't play around with sharp objects!