Thursday, October 11, 2012


The last few weeks have brought not only a surge in personal activity that hadn't yielded much opportunity for reviewing (Nats pennant run, new dog, etc), but at the same time, a slew of new records have been released I had intents on reviewing here. Due to those confluence of trends, this post will be substantially different from most. I'll be offering snapshot assessments of six new albums, with each including a brief overview of the band and the direction the new material is taking them, continuation of my previous "Come for," "Stay for" and "You'll be surprised by" selections along with new categories for "Sounds like" (some peer comparisons of the band/artist), "Solid efforts" (quality tracks that didn't make my previously established selection standards), "Meh" (so-so tracks that I didn't love but didn't hate) and "Skip to next track" (songs I'd avoid if I were you). Of course – like usual – these are just my opinions and reflect my deep-seeded preferences on the type of music I like. I'd encourage you to listen to these records in their entirety in case something appeals more to you than I. Additionally, there are several other recently-released albums (Grizzly Bear, Mumford & Sons, The Killers, Muse) that many readers of this space might enjoy that I have no plans on reviewing, so you might want to check those out, as well.

A couple other quick notes: 1) these snapshot reviews are arranged according to my familiarity with the band/artist prior to the new material's release. Don't read any other preference into the order of the reviews; 2) I'll do my best to include brief, illustrative comments on each song in parenthesis; 3) There will also be some additional / related thoughts after some reviews that don't quite fit in this format at the end of each review. Those thoughts will be designated with an asterisk (*).
The Tragically Hip
New Release: Now For Plan A
Release Date: October 2nd
Record Label: Universal Music
Sounds like: R.E.M., Pearl Jam
Location: Kingston, Ont.

As Canada's premier modern rock band for nearly three decades, the Tragically Hip (or The Hip to longtime fans) has built their extensive catalog (a full dozen records including Now For Plan A) on a foundation of straightforward rock with undercurrents of murky blues and experimental grunge. This is a band I've desperately wanted to cover in this space, but their most recent output (2009's We Are The Same) predated this blog's creation. While often labeled as Canada's R.E.M. (NMT) due to frontman Gordon Downie's poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics in comparison to Michael Stipe, the twin lead-guitar approach of Paul Langlois and Rob Baker ofter mirrors the same output as Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. For Downie, a good portion of understanding his words is borne out in the group's live shows – they're currently on an extensive North American tour – where Downie fuses much of Eddie Vedder's conviction with a Mick Jagger swagger. For the larger unit, the band's sound has transitioned from their early, chugging blues rockers of their early years through the alternative arena-rock found on Road Apples thru Phantom Power, followed by the aimless early millennial efforts of Music @ Work, In Violet Light and In Between Evolution and the transformational pairing of the Bob Rock-produced World Container and We Are The Same. The new work is not quite as cohesive or revelatory as their efforts with Bob Rock, nor as sturdy as its foundational collections, but not quite as meandering as its early-2000s period.

Come for: "The Lookahead" (crisp, but potent)
Stay for: "The Modern Spirit" (emphatic!)
You'll be surprised by: "Goodnight Attawapiskat" (starts like a slow, bluesy chugger like their early stuff, builds to forceful; continues Hip tradition of obscure geographic references ["Bobcaygeon," "Chagrin Falls," Moonbeam, Ontario; Mistaken Point, Newfoundland])
Solid efforts: "Streets Ahead" (brisk, charging); "About This Map" (who doesn't like a song about a good map*); "Take Forever" (heartland rock, spirited)
Meh: "We Want To Be It" (overuse of "drip, drip, drip" just grates on my ears and mind, but the chorus is decent); "Done And Done" (not much happening)
Skip to next track: "At Transformation" (too sludgy*); "Man Machine Poem" (too preachy); "Now For Plan A" (I'm glad this wasn't their actual Plan A)

* Notes: Other good map songs – "Law Abiding Citizen," Southeast Engine (NMT), "Lost Coastlines," Okkervil River (NMT); "At Transformation," in particular, is one track I didn't particularly enjoy on the record that might be rejuvenated in a live setting.

Green Day
New Release: "¡Uno!"
Release Date: September 24
Record Label: Reprise / Warner Brothers
Sounds Like: The Who, Cheap Trick, The Clash, NOFX
Location: Oakland, Calif.  

Before the creation of this blog, two records especially convinced me to begin a regular stream of reviews of new material I was interested in sharing with people: The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love in 2009 and Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown that same year. While the former group afforded me the opportunity to review The King Is Dead (NMT), Green Day – like The Tragically Hip – has waited three years between records to deliver new material. Without spending much time on frontman Billy Joe Armstrong's recent onstage meltdown in Las Vegas and subsequent trip to alcohol abuse treatment, ¡Uno! represents the first of three new albums that are a return-to-basics approach of swift, hooky power-punk following the group's politically-driven concept albums, American Idiot (2004) and 21st Century Breakdown. It's an ambitious effort for a band that seems to work best with ambitious goals: the shift back to the snotty, three-chord punk rompers that launched the trio's mainstream popularity in the early-to-mid '90s while producing a similarly high level of output that defined the American Idiot-21st Century Breakdown era.

Come for: "Let Yourself Go" (punchy, driving)
Stay for: "Angel Blue" (hard-nosed, snappy chorus hook)
You'll be surprised by: "Oh Love" (recalls the very The Who-inspired sound of 21st Century Breakdown*)
Solid efforts: "Nuclear Family," "Stay The Night" (slight nod to "Christian's Inferno" off 21st Century Breakdown); "Fell For You" (lots of Cheap Trick sound going on here); "Loss Of Control" (good platform for drummer Tre Cool's talents); "Sweet 16" (fits nicely with American Idiot's "Whatsername")
Meh: "Carpe Diem," "Troublemaker" (both are a bit cliched in lyricism); "Rusty James" (a poor man's substitute for American Idiot's "Letterbomb" and too long for the new album's style)
Skip to next track: I didn't find anything I'd outright avoid.

* Notes: Green Day was on quite The Who crush on their preceding record, so much they recorded a pretty faithful version of their idols' "A Quick One While He's Away" on the extended version of 21st Century Breakdown. Here, through, "Oh Love" is just too recidivist. 

A.C. Newman
New Release: Shut Down the Streets
Release Date: October 9
Record Label: Matador Records
Sounds Like*: New Pornographers (NMT), Camera Obscura, The 1900s (NMT), 10,000 Maniacs, Essex Green
Location: Woodstock, N.Y.

Longtime readers of this space will note your blogger's love of the Canadian indie-rock supergroup, The New Pornographers. Their chief songwriter, Allan Carl (A.C.) Newman, adds to his impressive portfolio this week with third solo release, Shut Down the Streets. Newman's work with The New Pornographers is defined by a quirky, electric/electronic foundation that spreads the wealth equally among the band's eight members. In contrast, his solo material is much earthier, with acoustic guitars receiving the main treatment, and strings moving ahead of keyboards and computers as his main flourishing elements. Still, the gap between the two sounds is more of a lake than an ocean, and his chief vocal foil in his main band – the omnipresent indie queen, Neko Case – adds her talents throughout the 10-track collection.

Come for: "I'm Not Talking" (refreshing, full; hints of Camera Obscura)
Stay for: "Encyclopedia Of Classic Takedowns" (would not be out of place on any New Pornographers record, but with mandolin)
You'll be surprised by: "Hostages" (a great blend of his more rustic solo sound and New Pornographers indie-rock)
Solid efforts: "Do Your Own Time" (intricate, fun, well-paced); "Strings" (measured; the banjo is nice); "There's Money In New Wave" (a good transition piece for New Pornographers fans); "The Troubadour" (if there was rock in the Middle Ages, it might have sounded like this; I like the banjo again, then the chorus picks up with good orchestration)
Meh: "Wasted English" (would be pretty tedious without Neko in the background); "They Should Have Shut Down The Streets" (he does some interesting things with unusual instruments and sounds, but otherwise, it has too much of a death march vibe for my taste) 
Skip to next track: "You Could Get Lost Out Here" (sounds like A.C. did get lost on this one, far too meandering)

* Notes: if you noticed, the groups listed in the Sounds Like references all include strong female singers (a nod to Niko's involvement here), but also mark an arch of lushly-orchestrated compositions. If you're unfamiliar with any or all of these acts, you may want to check them out if you enjoy this new stuff from A.C. Newman.

The Wallflowers
New Release: Glad All Over
Release Date: September 28
Record Label: Columbia Records
Sounds Like: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan*, Counting Crows
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Back after a much longer hiatus than either The Tragically Hip or Green Day are The Wallflowers, who return to the studio after seven years. In recent years, the band had gone without seminal organist and keyboardist Rami Jaffi. Jaffi's wafting organ parts added warmth and texture to Jakob Dylan's gravely voice and plow-ahead song structures (much in the same manner Franz Nicolay had done with The Hold Steady until his departure prior to Heaven Is Whenever (NMT), an absence that band has not yet rectified). Here, the five-piece returns with its Americana style, with some western and country flair likely influenced by Dylan's solo records released during the band's time off.

Come for: "Hospital For Sinners" (harder edge than much of the band's catalog; outlaw temperament)
Stay for: "Have Mercy On Him Now" (Springsteenian, driving)
You'll be surprised by: "Constellation Blues" (light, good hitting-the-open-road tune)
Solid efforts: "Misfits And Lovers*" (prickly, but with backbone); "It's A Dream" (another western tableau, but good pep); "Love Is A Country" (bright, uncomplicated Americana); "It Won't Be Long (Till We're Not Wrong Anymore)" (see "Have Mercy On Him Now" and cross-apply here)
Meh: "First One In The Car" (good narrative, but not much instrumental imagination); "The Devil's Waltz" (there might have been a good concept here, but it comes across too unfocused); "One Set Of Wings" (classic not great, not awful last track)
Skip to the next track: "Reboot The Mission*" (Dylan and company can't pull-off fake funky, stick to the sincere stuff)

* Notes: If you're reading this blog, you're probably aware enough of contemporary music to know that Jakob Dylan is Bob Dylan's son. If you're not, now you know. Also, both "Misfits and Lovers" and "Reboot The Mission" feature vocal contributions from Mick Jones, former guitarist in The Clash.
Band of Horses
New Release: Mirage Rock
Release Date: September 18
Record Label: Columbia Records
Sounds Like: Neil Young, The Eagles, Uncle Tueplo, Son Volt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Replacements
Location: Charleston, S.C.

Band of Horses is the type of band that's skirted on the periphery of my awareness for the last few years, kind of like Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, The Walkmen and a few others. I'd heard a few things before and they were alright, but nothing to captivate my attention in the way that less established acts like .fun (NMT, NMT) and The Sheepdogs (NMT, NMT) have done. But, with Mirage Rock, the alt-country quintet from Charleston-by-way-of-Seattle has delivered an effort in line with what I enjoy most in music: its original while incorporating appropriate nods to their predecessors in their genre, has a cohesive sonic and lyrical approach and matches that approach with the latent talents of its members.

Come for: "Knock Knock" (gnarly, but a kicking vibe; great opening or closing live number)
Stay for: "How To Live" (countrified twang with stripped-down rock core; good harmonies)
You'll be surprised by: "Slow Cruel Hands Of Time" (honest and beautiful, somewhere between "Here Comes The Sun" and The Sheepdogs' throwback motif; touches of both Neil Young and Glen Frey; Mainstreet USA narrative)
Solid efforts: "A Little Biblical" (muted but crunching guitars, hooky chorus; strains of early Jeff Tweedy songwriting); "Shut-In Tourist" (the type of front porch ballad Rascal Flats wishes they could write; heavy CSN&Y vocals); "Dumpster World" (should lose points for a near carbon-copy ripoff of "Horse With No Name," but the mid-track electric kick-in is a new twist, and they execute the whole thing very well, although it might be a challenge to recreate live); "Electric Music" (look up "Take It Easy" and fun.'s "Benson Hedges" in your chosen music library and play this between those tracks; road anthem); "Everything's Gonna Be Undone" (fantastic harmonies in this campfire singalong); "Feud" (loud and boisterous in the tradition of Neil Young's best rockers); "Long Vows" (dusty trails ballad in the same vein as Father John Misty's (NMT) "Every Man Needs A Companion," but with – surprise – Neil Young structure and Eagles' vocals); "Heartbreak On The 101" (guitarist Tyler Ramsey takes a turn at the lead mic on this dusty ballad with swirling strings at the end)
Meh / Skip to next track: I didn't find a thing I didn't like

Rah Rah
New Release: The Poet's Dead
Release Date: October 2
Record Label: Hidden Pony Records
Sounds Like: Cowboy Junkies, Great Lake Swimmers, The Replacements, 54-40
Location: Regina, Saskatchewan 

What's the deal with Canadian indie-rock outfits with large numbers of co-ed members? The previously-referenced New Pornographers, The Arcade Fire (NMT), Broken Social Scene, Library Voices (NMT), Hey Rosetta! (NMT) and others all feature at least five members (on average, a big band) and feature both guys and girls in pivotal roles. Add to this list is another sprawling, mixed-gender unit: the currently six-member alt/indie country act, Rah Rah. On their third full-length release – which includes most participants switching instruments regularly – the group parlays 10 tracks of chugging indie-rock flavored with country influences via accordions, various strings and mandolins. While it's hard to say precisely who does what, I'd like to hear a little bit more of Erin Passmore's rich alto and a little less of Marshall Burns' nasally whine. Passmore's turn on first single "Prairie Girl" is the standard the group should reach for going forward. They also could have done a better job in separating Burns' and Passmore's tracks in the record's mid-section. A new album should never have back-to-back numbers with "Dead" in the title.

Come for: "Prairie Girl" (confident, builds to a heartland rock masterpiece)
Stay for: "Art & A Wife" (tongue-in-cheek clever; slows down Nirvana's three-chord sequence in "Sliver"; brief fragments of what made The Arcade Fire so successful)
You'll be surprised by: "Saint" (far more depth than one normally expects in a closing track)
Solid efforts: "First Kiss" (builds as it goes); "20s" (anthemic, but wish the mix was more clear to refine the chaos going on); "Run" (as kinetic as its title suggests); "Fake Our Love"
Meh: "The Poet's Dead" (kinda bland); "I'm A Killer" (its fine in the middle, but the programmed drum track at the beginning and end is annoying)
Skip to next track: "Dead Men" (its not as grand an opus as they seem to think it is)

The Tins
New Release: Life's A Gas
Release Date: October 2
Record Label: self-released
Sounds Like: Primus, M83, moe., Grouplove (NMT)
Location: Buffalo, N.Y.

No one should be surprised to find a Buffalo band receiving coverage here given its your blogger's home and native land, but this actually marks the first bonafide act out of Nickel City to find attention here. The trio mixes layered, jam-style riffs with hooky indie pop and dashes of electronica on their first full-length release. There's odd themes and instrumental concepts that point back to similar well-executed absurdity you may familiar with via groups like Primus and The Flaming Lips, but deployed in a more accessible manner you might expect from more contemporary, poppy peers like Grouplove and Library Voices

Come for: "Please Be Kind" (bouncy, with a meaty riff from guitarist Adam Putzer; if it's the first single, why is it so buried on the tracklist?)
Stay for: "Hit And Miss" (intro's a little trippy, but merges into something far more jubilant, like Grouplove's "Tongue Tied")
You'll be surprised by: "Midnight Crowd" (a touch silly, but definitely an interesting idea)
Solid efforts: "Taking Liberties" (old school, lo-fi vibe with organ part by keyboardist Mike Santillo and stabbing guitars by Putzer); "Spies" (exuberant harmonies, arena-sized riffs); "16 Colors" (fun and offbeat); "Whiteout" (a nice change of pace with a more straightforward approach)
Meh: "Vicki" (not crazy about the off-kilter organ here and the bridge just rubs me the wrong way); "Shozo Hirono" (I expected more from this track); "Halo" (its a bit thin at first, and the organ is too strong in the mix, but not bad conceptually)
Skip to next track: Nothing I outright disliked, but I could understand if the overall sound is a bit too far out there for your taste

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