10/16/2006

Random Reviews

BECK
The Information
[Interscope/DGC-2006]

If Beck Hansen had been a baseball player he likely would’ve been a pitcher specializing in curveballs. Once again this is not the oft-rumored garage rock record supposedly in the wings for some time now. No, this more or less is a continuation of the musical stew he gave us last time on Guero (2005). But while that album’s reunion with producers The Dust Brothers—who helmed his ‘90s classic Odelay (1996)—represented a return to the diminutive one’s decidedly diverse roots, The Information brings back Nigel Godrich, producer of Beck’s more singer/songwriter-type outings (1999’s Mutations, and 2002’s soon-to-be-classic Sea Change) and a premier sonic architect.

What all this translates to is a well-crafted record with a rich, crisp sound that flows effortlessly. Unfortunately, it is these same characteristics that betray the at times mundane and uninspired nature of a good chunk of The Information. Fear not, Beck didn’t phone this one in—he’s too good for that and Godrich is too much of a taskmaster to let that happen on his watch—but this album is definitely a grower. The question is, though, whether it deserves the extra effort it demands.

Highlights: “Soldier Jane”, “Think I’m In Love”, “New Round”, “Movie Theme”.


CANDY BUTCHERS

Hang On Mike
[RPM-2004]

Despite a long career writing funny, self-deprecating, witty pop songs, NYC’s Mike Viola is far from a household name—his greatest claim to fame is still having sung “That Thing You Do”, the Top 40 theme song to the 1996 Tom Hanks film of the same name—his small, but dedicated following has been in on one of the best kept songwriting secrets of the past decade plus.

Chock full of hooks, clever lyrics, and just plain solid songwriting, Hang On Mike is nothing short of a gem. In a just world the purveyors of OC-type schlock would slog through each day in a dead-end fast food hell existence, while Viola and his Candy Butchers would rule whatever airwaves are left at this point. A fascinating listen for anyone that enjoys a less smart-alecky Ben Folds, digs Jon Brion, and wonders what happened to good ole, non-contrived pop songs. Damn, straight!

Highlights: “Nice To Know You”, “Unexpected Traffic”, and the ode to teenage friendship “Kiss Alive II”.


THE CURE
Head On The Door
[Elektra-1985]

By the time Head On The Door was released, Robert Smith and co. had gone through numerous personnel changes and put out a series of albums that slowly established them as one of the most durable and successful acts that followed in the wake of punk. And becoming a seminal part of what later became referred to as post-punk in the process. At this point they’d accumulated a decent of amount of noteworthy singles under their collective belt—“Boys Don’t Cry”, “A Forest”, “Primary”, “Let’s Go To Bed”, “The Lovecats” to name a few—but this is when they became a hit-making machine and at the same time ushered in what can be arguably recognized as their most important period, which would include the next four studio albums.

Head On The Door also represents a shift in The Cure’s sound and approach to recording and performing in the studio, making it the first album on which the band would adopt what latter-day fans would come to know as their signature sound. Many of these elements had been there before—on Faith [Elektra-1981] most noticeably—but a new lineup consisting of drummer Boris Williams, guitarist Porl Thompson, alongside Smith, bassist Simon Gallup, and founding keyboardist Lol Tolhurst gave the songs a bit more of a muscular foundation while accentuating the darkness and gloom they had traded in for some time.

Of special note are the rockers and playful, upbeat love songs, some of which—“In Between Days”, “Push”, “Close To Me”, “A Night Like This”—remain favorites to this day. A classic.


FISHBONE

Give A Monkey Half A Brain And He’ll Swear He’s The Center Of The Universe
[Sony-1993]

Long derided as Fishbone’s so-called “metal record” Give A Monkey may not be an overlooked masterpiece but it is not the unmitigated disaster it was labeled as upon its 1993 release. Coming off the highly-acclaimed The Reality Of My Surroundings [Columbia-1991], itself preceded by the much beloved Truth and Soul [Columbia-1988]—one of the best albums of the ‘80s—much was riding on the record that was to bring Fishbone to the mainstream in grand style. It didn’t happen: critics lambasted the album, sales were poor, and the band lost their major-label deal.

So, what happened? For starters, Fishbone’s social commentary was much more somber (“Servitude”, “Black Flowers”, “End The Reign”) than on past albums, which may have been partially due to the hard-edged production courtesy of Terry Date (Pantera, Soundgarden); their trademark ska/funk (the excellent “Unyielding Conditioning”) and elastic grooves (“Lemon Meringue”) were in shorter supply; and the major internal struggles that may or may not have been caused by these changes culminated with the departure of key members.

But a decade and a half later with the dust having long settled and the purported demise of the band brought on by this album is by now a faint memory, Give A Monkey’s shining moments may not be the mass sing-a-longs some thought they could become but are, nonetheless, up there with some of Fishbone’s finest work.

Highlights: See above.


THE LEMONHEADS
self-titled
[Vagrant-2006]

Released almost 10 years to the day of their last studio album—the spotty but noteworthy Car Button Cloth--The Lemonheads return with a gem of a disc that recalls the joyous, infectious sound of their '92 classic It's A Shame About Ray. Sure, there's nothing groundbreaking or
innovative to be found at this late date in the work of an aging Gen-Xer and notorious screw up like Evan Dando except...the tunes are on the money, baby!

Oh, yeah: Dando's often remarked upon sporadic songwriting brilliance reaches remarkable consistency on this batch of catchy rockers seeped in hooks and full of vigor. (Kudos to guest axe-slinger J Mascis on his always excellent lead guitar fireworks.) Hell, we'll just echo the All Music Guide in calling it "the right kind of return for a band that should never have gone away in the first place." (Even though these are the same people that referred to tone-deaf howler and Kiss frontman Paul Stanley as being “in fine voice” on his recent solo album. Oh, well…) Welcome back, Mr. D. Mas, por favor.
Highlights: “Black Gown”, “Become The Enemy”, “Poughkeepsie ”, "December".


BADLY DRAWN BOY
Born in the UK
[Astralwerks-2006]

…and while on the subject of Evan Dando, the title of his 2003 solo album perfectly describes how we feel about this one.


ROGER JOSEPH MANNING JR.
The Land of Pure Imagination
[Cordless/Warner Bros-2006]

After years of beefing up the ole resume with the likes of Air, Beck, and his own Imperial Drag, Moog Cookbook and the beloved Jellyfish, multi-instrumentalist Roger Manning has decided to finally go solo with impressive results. The spirit of the latter San Francisco retro-popsters is quite prevalent throughout this disc, especially the occasionally child-like, Saturday morning vibe of Spilt Milk [Charisma-1993].

But without the input and participation of co-leader Andy Sturmer—who brought a bit more of a rock and roll attitude to the proceedings—it would be a little off the mark to suggest that The Land of Pure Imagination is what the third Jellyfish album would’ve sounded like, but it comes mighty close. Unfortunately, despite superb songs with appealing melodies, addictive choruses and first-rate playing, The Land of Pure Imagination can at times make one long for a bit more oomph, while in other spots it veers dangerously close to Burt Bacharach territory. That said, fans of Ben Folds, Todd Rundgren’s classic period (1970-72), and of course Jellyfish, will find very little to dislike about Manning’s initial solo outing. About time, man.

(Note: Completists might want to seek out the Japanese version—released there earlier in the year as Solid State Warrior—which shares the bulk of the songs on the US version but differs on three tracks.)
Highlights: “Too Late For Us Now”, “Wish It Would Rain”, “You Were Right”, the title track.


THE MARS VOLTA
Amputechture
[Universal-2006]

Another Mars Volta album, another dense, insular epic. Great. No, really. It’s just that listening to Amputechture reminds us of the third and final Rage Against The Machine studio album,The Battle of Los Angeles. No, Cedrix Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopezhaven’t started writing socially conscious rhymes to rap over Zeppelin riffs and phat beats. And there is no talk of them parting ways as far as we know. But like The Battle of Los Angeles,Amputechture is a solid album that somehow feels like there might not be much left in the formula for them to continue growing and building on. It does indeed deliver—although not as strongly as their two previous albums, De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances The Mute—but there seems to be a whiff of wheel-spinning in the air, a certain weariness, perhaps.

The level of work involved in writing and crafting such high level concept albums as these must be staggering—especially when the last two have been released in back to back years. Who does that anymore?—and it would not be at all surprising if some fatigue has set in. Maybe it’s time for The Volta to change course a bit. Or not.

Highlights: “Tetragrammaton”, “Vermicide”, “Meccamputechture”.


VHS OR BETA
Night On Fire
[Astralwerks-2004]

Like their fellow countrymen The Killers, a knack for replicating early New Order, The Cure, Duran Duran, and certain staples of late ‘70s disco permeates every nook and cranny of VOB’s first full-length release. But where The Killers and their ilk can seem blatantly derivative and even off-putting in their approach towards danceable post-punk, the Louisville, KY quintet comes off a bit more honest and even adventurous in their efforts. But don’t be misled, there isn’t a novel idea or concept to be found among Night On Fire’s 10 tracks. However, the execution is practically flawless and there does indeed beat a heart underneath the cold shiny surface, making this album one of the more worthy releases in this particular vein.

Highlights: the title track, “You Got Me” and “Irreversible”, the nine-minute instrumental that closes out the album.

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