Friday, June 29, 2007

Review: Bad Brains - Build a Nation

Label: Megaforce

Released: June 25, 2007

For a band with a history that spans nearly three decades, the Bad Brains have a fairly small studio catalog. They released four full-length studio albums over their first decade, but only four more since then (including the hardcore-free, dub-only I & I Survived). Needless to say, the first ten years didn't just provide greater frequency of recordings, but greater quality as well. There are few punk albums that can touch their first three releases and the influence of these records extends well beyond the punk scene that produced them. Beginning with 1989's Quickness, line-up changes and recording lulls made several albums seem a bit like reunions. It's now been five years since they've recorded and 12 years since they've recorded a hardcore album, so Build a Nation feels the same. With Beastie Boy Adam Yauch producing, expectations should be pretty high this time, even though they haven't made a truly great record since 1986's I Against I.

Build a Nation doesn't burst out from the start. The chanting that kicks off "Give Thanks and Praises" doesn't necessarily bode well, but the song does get into gear, tapping into an I Against I vibe that's promising. Over the course of the album, the Bad Brains manage to revisit their prime with varying success.

"Jah People" finds the Bad Brains returning to the controlled explosion that they perfect on I Against I. Dr Know shows some of the chops that make him one of the hardcore's all-time best guitarists on the brief burst of energy that is "Pure Love." "In the Beginning" bridges the gap between these songs and the unbridled approach that they reproduce on much of Build a Nation.

Most of the album successfully shows that they still have the energy to make great hardcore. The title track simply goes off with as much force as anything they've ever recorded. "Let There Be Angles (Just Like You)" and "Send You No More Flowers" both tap into that same energy without losing the Bad Brains’ essential vibe which is what always set them apart form hardcore in general.

They include five reggae tracks, none of which matches the forays into reggae on their early albums. They are generally good songs, but over-production strips them of the raw honesty of "I Love I Jah" or "I & I Survive." The organ in these tracks was a nice touch, but otherwise, the instrumentation was a bit too full. With the exception of "Until Kingdom Comes" which is just a dull track, they're good songs that suffer from a little too much meddling.

Clocking in at under 40 minutes, there shouldn't be any filler, but they do come up short on a few tracks. "Expand Your Soul" tries to capture the I Against I era, but lacks any spark and falls more along the lines of Quickness or even God of Love. Adam Yauch shouldn't put this album down on his production resume anyway, but he's particularly weak on this song. "Universal Peace" finds Dr Know tapping into generic riffs rather than his own distinctive sound, resulting in lackluster track, at least by Bad Brains standards.

The album finishes up with its best reggae track, "Peace Be Unto Thee." Not only is it a fine ending musically, but it also leaves the Bad Brains positive message on the table rather than wrapping it up in a blast of energy.

Most hardcore bands would be proud to create an album like Build a Nation. For better or for worse though, the standard is quite a bit higher for the Bad Brains (perhaps higher than for any punk band other than the Clash), because they are both a social and a musical revolution. It is interesting that this is the second time that a high-profile musician has filled the production chair (Ric Ocasek produced 1983’s Rock for Light) and both times the production wasn’t particularly good. Perhaps it is because each came in with a vision for the respective albums, but were unable to get control of music that defies any vision other than its own. Even though this album is clearly in the musical wake of the Bad Brains’ past, it shows that they still have all the passion that makes them great even if they can't quite hit the high bar they've set.

Rating: 7/10

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Myspace: The Explicits

The Explicits are a hardcore band. Usually, that means the same old thing which is both good and bad. In this case, it means some of the same with a few different angles.

The Jacksonville, FL based trio consists of Renee (vocals/guitar), Jeff (bass/backing vocals) and Jarrod (drums), all 19 and all currently enrolled at the University of North Florida. Listening to the songs they have on their page, it seems like their influences might be fellow Floridians Hot Water Music, a touch of Rancid and a healthy dose of the Exploited and GBH. According to them, influences range from Slipknot to Garbage to Avenged Sevenfold, but I have a hard time hearing it. However, a second listen does have hints of 90s alt rock under the surface, but it's far more subtle than the straightup hardcore element.

All four songs on their page come from their 2007 demo recordings. "Indestructible" kicks off with the unbridled energy that is essential to hardcore. Nothing about the song shows any hint of restraint. It's all breakneck rhythms and power chords, but well-done and passionate. Since it's the first song on there, I had to check again to verify that Renee is the singer, because she has the best growl I've ever heard from a female vocalist. I must not have been the first to wonder, because they explicitly state, "And to answer the most popular question...yes, that's Renee singing...she has a metaphorical dick, but a real vagina." It is near impossible to tell she's a woman by her voice, but she's definitely got a fine voice for the music.

"Idiopath" is a bit slower, but every bit as raw. Renee's vocals keep it hard, but the song as a whole is certainly lighter. The verse seems to get a bit of groove going, but the chorus kills it with a bit too much bluster. The lyrics, though short, are interesting.

Maybe it's just the power of suggestion, but "No Remorse" reminds me a bit of early Motorhead. The guitar riff in the intro touches on Fast Eddie Clark's playing. The drumming is pretty solid, but I could do without the brief drum solo. This song has potential and might need just a little more work to make it more cohesive.

"Static" walks a strange line between GBH and Rancid. As I've said before, I'm not a big Rancid fan, but it works pretty well on this song, adding an edgy hook to the more abrasive hardcore sound.

The Explicits are remarkably good for being together only about nine months. They're all pretty competent musicians for their age and as a drummer, Jarrod is particularly well-suited for the road the band is taking. If they can draw (but not force) a few of their personal influences in more prominently, they could become an exceptional band. As it stands, they're a very good young hardcore band that has the potential to a find a sound that's fully their own.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Review: White Stripes - Icky Thump

Label: Warner Bros.

Released: June 19, 2007

Is there a tougher position to be in than following up a near perfect record? Probably not, but the White Stripes did a fine job by not trying to remake the stellar Elephant and instead stretching out even further on Get Behind Me Satan. While the latter was a half step down from its predecessor, it wasn't a let down because it was its own record and was still amazing. Now, that leaves the White Stripes in yet another difficult situation. Do they stretch out again or do they try to settle down into their sound and play it safe (or at least safer)?

On Icky Thump, the White Stripes keep the same course, but play it anything but safe. The album sticks to the same heavy, loose riffs and plodding rhythms that have worked so well for them, but the details change. The title track has the same Blue Cheer heaviness of "Blue Orchid," but adds a hooky riff and a prog break. "A Martyr for My Love for You" has a slow groove that builds and releases its energy and accents with organ. The amps are up to 11 for the heavy throb of "Little Cream Soda." "300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues" is mellow with a restrained energy that only hints at its power, letting loose for only seconds at a time.

Other songs really go out on a limb. "Conquest" is a Spanish-influenced piece that retains its heaviness. It features great horns that accent wihtout beocming overbearing as well as Jack White's best vocals to date. While it doesn't really stand on its own, "St Andrew (The Battle is in the Air)" is an excellent album track freakout with bagpipes looped backwards and Meg's talking vocals. Just preceding it is "Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn," a delicate folk song with bagpipe and deceptively good percussion. It sounds traditional without sounding old.

There are a few songs that don't quite live up to the White Stripes' standards. "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" stays close to the plan. It isn't bad by a long shot, but it doesn't challange anything either. While they regularly borrow from 70s rock, they usually choose from the best. On "You Don't Know What Love Is," they opt to lift a bit from Bad Company's "Shooting Star," a middling song that is anything but the cream of that decade's crop. Icky Thump's closer, "Effect and Cause," is a lighter blues rock song. It may not be the strongest song on the album, but it's a perfect finish that let's it down easy.

Once again, the White Stripes deliver, and thrive even, despite high expectations. Even though Elephant still remains their creative peak, Icky Thump raises the question: Can the White Stripes do any wrong? So far, it seems that they can't.

Rating: 8/10

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Review: My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

Label: Reprise

Released: October 31, 2006

Often when a band takes steps to broaden their appeal outside of their core audience, they flounder. This is particularly true if the band strongly rooted in personal appeal and emotional energy. They can fall into the traps of over-production and self-importance and the result is usually an uncomfortable, lackluster effort. After the success of My Chemical Romance's 2004 major label debut, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, they were in just such a position. They not only faced the challenge of following up that album's success, but also of leveraging the new opportunities that success brought rather than getting bogged down in them.

Ironically, the album opens with "The End." That irony, the sound of the respirator and the whine of Gerald Way's voice leaves little question that this an emo album, yet the Queen-like theatrics right out of the gate show that it's so much bigger than just emo. From there, the band follows that lead. Sometimes the result is relatively straightforward, only tweaked slightly for a larger audience. "This is How I Disappear" is essentially an emo song with a bigger sound and a bit of a metal edge. Their sound is blown up for a bigger stage with the arena rock, guitar driven hooks of "The Sharpest Lives." Huge, manic riffs take "Famous Last Words" to the next level. And these are the songs that play it safe.

"House of Wolves" and "Teenagers" are rockers with the swagger of garage rock. The former's punk rock energy rolls out in thumping drums and ringing guitars. The latter is a lighthearted blues rock number with a bit of swing. Both of these songs are fairly standard rock songs, yet sound completely like My Chemical Romance at the same time.

Like any big rock album, The Black Parade has its share of ballads. "I Don't Love You" is a slow anti-ballad that crosses emo's sad drone with hard rock's soft side. "Cancer" has many of the qualities of a power ballad with a dash of Supertramp, but the lyrics tie it tightly to the band’s maudlin roots. Even "Disenchanted," one of the album's weaker tracks, takes the old My Chemical Romance and reinvents them with big guitars and string accents. While they aren't my favorite tracks, they serve to give the album the texture that a great rock should have.

The whole album sees My Chemical Romance stepping out of their former, smaller selves, but there are a few tracks that illustrate that more than others. "Mama" goes back and forth between quiet parts that hint at old world folk and loud crunch they've taken from punk. Throw in the affected vocals reminiscent of Roger Water’s work on the Wall and the result is a song well beyond the reaches of any other band from the emo explosion. As if that isn't enough, My Chemical Romance creates a rock masterpiece in "Welcome to the Black Parade." It’s gentle and passionate, melancholy and angry at the same time. It has emo roots, but the guitar work would make Brian May wonder if it was his own. It is, quite simply, an anthem, a song whose bombast resonates rather than alienates.

The album finishes with "Blood," a hidden track mixing vaudeville goofiness and emo darkness. It's not quite the same, but to some extent it plays the role of "Her Majesty" on Abbey Road, a light note to end on just in case someone takes the whole work too seriously.

My Chemical Romance has managed to make an album for both the masses and their core fans and it will satisfy both camps. Rather than dummying their sound down to sell more records, they've stretched out beyond the Smiths, beyond punk rock, beyond the confines of emo. At its best (and it is at its best throughout most of its 50+ minutes), it hints at Queen in both sound and ambition. At its worst, it’s the album that makes emo matter in the great big world of rock n roll.

Rating: 9/10

Note: For another take on this album, check out Chuck's review over at Pratt Songs.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Review: Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full

Label: Hear Music

Released: June 5, 2007

Paul McCartney's solo career has been erratic to say the least. His first solo effort shows us both that he's a great pop songwriter and that he’s willing to stretch out and take chances at times. Sometimes those chances worked, but often they were too slick for their own good. From the mid-70s until the mid-90s, it seems that even his hits were really misses, at least artistically. His misguided belief that he should be writing more than pop songs culminated in the disastrous Liverpool Oratorio which went way beyond the watering down of decent songs. At that point, he was just out of his league. Then, beginning with 1997's Flaming Pie, McCartney seemed to rediscover himself. His pop sensibilities were still present, but he abandoned the slickness in favor of a raw and genuine approach. The results were solid and even excellent albums where he sounded far more alive than he had in his 30s and 40s. That brings us to his latest release, Memory Almost Full. His recent run of critical success would lead one to expect more of the same, but McCartney opts for some changes, returning to some of his earlier ambitions with varying success.

Generally speaking, there are no really bad songs on here, only some bad moments. The album actually has some tracks that nearly rank among his best. The opening track, "Dance Tonight," is upbeat folk with a stomping rhythm, some mandolin and a catchy hook. It certainly raises expectations for the rest of the album. Things take a definite turn with "Ever Present Past," which gets a bit glossy much in the vein of McCartney's 80s output. Still, the hook is strong enough that the gloss isn't overbearing. He tries a bit of blue-eyed soul on "See Your Sunshine." (Seriously, I checked the songwriting credits to see if Paul wrote this one with Daryl Hall.) It's a good pop song, but lacks the teeth of his recent releases. "Only Mama Knows" tries to recreate some his best rock bombast. It falls significantly short of that target, but still ranks as a solid, energetic track. "You Tell Me" is one of several tracks that sound like it may have been an Abbey Road outtake. Far from being a knock, his ability to recapture any elements of the Beatles' most complete effort is amazing almost 40 years down the road. McCartney has slight hints of hip-hop in the odd cadence of "Mr. Bellamy," but it doesn't work very well and the result is one of the album's real orphans. "Gratitude" also captures some of that Abbey Road essence. It's an oddly sweet and loving send-off to Heather Mills. As such it is one of his best love songs, being completely devoid of the saccharine nature that invalidates so much of his worst work. "Vintage Clothes" is more solid upbeat pop, but suffers somewhat from heavy-handed production and corny lyrics. To be fair though, McCartney has gone much farther down this road in the past and he at least showed some restraint here. "That Was Me" has a bit of an awkward modern arrangement, but makes up for it with jazzy pop energy. The album is reined in a bit on the folky "Feet in the Clouds." The strings are a bit too much, but once again McCartney's return to his more polished former self doesn't do the damage that it once did, resulting in another decent song. "House of Wax" is unusually weak songwriting for McCartney coupled with overwrought production and way too much ambient noise. There's a decent guitar solo, but that is by no means enough to save the song. If there is any doubt that Paul is facing his own mortality, "The End of the End" sufficiently dispels it. It's a low-key piano-driven piece that is part last wishes and part end of life optimism. It's more subtle than a lot of the album, but really sinks in as one of the best tracks. To avoid ending on anything remotely melancholy, Memory Almost Full closes with "Nod Your Head," another fine McCartney rocker that falls only a tad shy of "Live and Let Die."

There is a consistent feeling that Paul sees the end of his career (and possibly even his life) approaching. Yet, he doesn't greet it with trepidation. Rather, he embraces the past and pushes on toward the future openly and willingly, albeit not flawlessly. The touch of sadness to Memory Almost Full is countered, though not overwhelmed, by its good vibe. Over the course of the album, McCartney borrows from some of his most ambitious work, some of his worst work and some of his most genuine work. The results vary as he falls short of his best, yet even shorter of his worst efforts. While this may be his worst album in ten years, it's as good or better than anything in the 20 years before that.

Rating: 6/10

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We've all seen Enhanced CDs...

...but what about Enhanced LPs? Check this out.


Myspace: Overlord

Overlord has an image problem. Their myspace name (overlordisnotmetal) shows that they are consciously aware of it. Even though I found this band through one of my favorite indie rock bands, Palomar, I still wondered, "Is this a metal band?" The answer is most stridently "no." While that might put off those who find them haphazardly, this band's catchy, sixties inspired indie rock is worth a listen.

Overlord has four songs on their page, three of which appear on what seem to be actual releases* and the fourth on a demo. "Oh My Mechanical Heart," from 2007's Pictures from Anhedonia, has slight country tendencies that call upon the days before rock had seperated itself from its parent. The song is memorable without relying on an overt hook. Another 2007 release, Alps, I Did It Again, offers "Nothing is Wrong," another sixties influenced pop piece that captures the smooth balladry of the Moody Blues without seeming quite so light. Overlord pulled "The Family Plot" from last year's Ticker Symbols. Once again, the band reaches back 40 years for their influences, but this time they filter it through 80s jangle a la the Church. The final song, "Back to the Big Lie," comes from a recent unreleased demo recording. At first, it seems to drag a bit, but its subtle atmospherics make it the strongest track posted on their page.

Overlord is more established than the other bands I've reviewed from Myspace, but they're still not a major act by a long shot. Still the expectations should be higher for a band at their level than for a band that has just formed. Overlord are clearly better than a lot of what's out there, but perhaps not quite as good when experience is considered. While they were a good listen, I don't see anything that will necessarily change with more time under their belt. Indie rock fans who like a healthy dose of sixties pop should check out Overlord, but don't expect them to get their big break anytime soon.

*Their myspace page indicates that they are from albums, but their regular website makes no mention of the first two of these albums.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Attention Punk Rock Historians

I found this online archive of old issues of Maximum Rock n Roll and Flipside all in PDF format. Now I know what I'll be reading for awhile. You know, I was checking out issue #1 of Flipside and reading their reviews of the brand new Clash self-titled LP and the Jam's In the City and it's amazing punk ever went anywhere. They're barely literate! Still it's pretty amazing that anyone could get a zine going and distributed to anyone in 1977. It's not like today where we can all play rock journalist on the internet. These guys had to do the interviews, write the reviews and articles, type it up, photocopy it and then get it out to people somehow. They must have survived on sheer DIY determination (or maybe just boredom). I guess that's why punk stuck around after all.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Album Track: Ian Hunter - "Standin' in My Light"

Album: You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979)

Ian Hunter is best known as the singer for Mott the Hoople, but he's also released a number of fine solo albums, not the least of which is You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic. There's a largely forgotten tune on side two called "Standin' in My Light." It starts off with subtle organ in the background and Hunter's raspy vocals. As it progresses, acoustic guitar and a high-hat come in. Next is a bit of understated lead guitar and then finally, the whole band. A lot of songs do the same thing, only they do it much quicker to get to the meat of the song. Hunter and company take their time though, using nearly all of the song's four and a half minutes. Only the last 30 seconds or so returns to the sparse beginnings before fading. The build up isn't part of the song, it is the song. What's also interesting and adds to it's emotional appeal is how this bitter song has a distinctly gospel feel.

You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic is a pretty good album, but "Standin' in My Light" is the one song that really stands out. Yet it wasn't a single, doesn't get any radio play and has never had a high-profile cover like another of Hunter's songs.

Hunter also performs this on his 1980 live set, Welcome to the Club, which is worth checking out.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Review: The Saints - (I'm) Stranded

Label: Sire (re-issued on Captain Oi!)

Released: 1977

The Saints first popped up outside of their native Australia in 1976, somewhere between the demise of the pre-punk era of the New York Dolls, MC5 and Stooges and the punk explosion that would occur the following year. Their now classic "(I'm) Stranded" b/w "No Time" self-released single made it to Britain just as British punk was gaining steam with the likes of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned. The single was such a hit that EMI-Australia quickly signed the band and rushed the recording of the (I'm) Stranded LP (released in the US on Sire) which came out the following year. As a result, the two songs from the first single were a bit more polished than the rest of the album. Nonetheless, the album is a great example of early punk rock in its purest form.

The title track kicks the album off with an energetic, raw pop song. The band is pretty tight on this one, but not too tight. The better recording is evident, yet it likely wouldn't make anyone's list of great moments in production history. It remains one of my favorite songs from the early days of punk and is the Saints' entry on the seminal punk compilation, Burning Ambitions: A History of Punk. The opening ringing chord on "One Way Street" is all that's needed to know that it came from a different session than the opener. Even with lower production value, the song has fantastic intensity relying on the breakneck rhythms and power-chord punch that comprises so much of what's great about punk rock. The sneering version of Elmore James' "Wild About You" continues in much the same vein and includes a guitar solo that, unlike James, demonstrated little technical skill, but, very much like James, shows all kinds of passion. Although the Ramones did have a few slower songs, they really didn't have a bona fide ballad until 1978's "Questioningly." None of the British punk bands did much in the way of slower songs either, but the Saints pull it off. "Messin' with the Kid" is a slow bluesy ballad that still retains the rawness evident throughout the album despite nearly stretching to the very un-punk six minute mark. The pace picks back up again with the unrelenting "Erotic Neurotic," a classic example of punk's ability to demonstrate alienation in all facets of life. The production improves momentarily for "No Time," the b-side from their earlier single. Once again, the better production does little constrain their energy and coarseness. "Kissin' Cousins" is a cover of the Elvis song from the movie of the same name. When the Saints take hold of it, you'd never know it was from Elvis' dismal movie period. "Story of Love" is the album's second ballad. Not so bluesy as the "Messin' with the Kid," it's a much better prototype for the low-key punk tune. "Demolition Girl" is a faster tighter song that actually hints a bit at punk's hardcore future. The original release's closer, "Night in Venice," is a longer song (over five and a half minutes) that shows a bit more songwriting complexity, at least by punk standards. It may hint at the Saints’ departure from punk rock a year or so later. The re-issue also includes two bonus tracks, a hopped up version of the Connie Francis classic "Lipstick on Your Collar" as well as punk rock take on "River Deep, Mountain High." Bother are fine recordings, but do little to enhance the near punk perfection of the original release.

Perhaps the greatest testament to (I'm) Stranded's status as a punk classic is that the Saints are mentioned among the early greats of punk even though they hailed from Australia rather than England or New York City. Other great centers of punk creativity were still a year or so away when the Saints made their noise out of Brisbane thirty years ago. Their sound fell somewhere between the musical embodiment of anarchy that the Pistols and Damned represented and the hook-laden AM pop-influenced sound of the Ramones. The Saints’ closest ties musically were probably the edgy yet melodic Buzzcocks and (particularly) the Jam. While their punk years didn't last as long as some other bands, the Saints have continued to record on and off over the years with a fair amount of their work receiving positive reviews. Still, none had the impact or energy of this first release.

Addendum: I did a bit more research and the two bonus tracks were recorded four months after the LP in April 1977 for the "1,2,3,4" double 7".

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Myspace: Salute 27

Salute 27 takes their name from the many rock n roll deaths at the age of 27 (Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson). After listening, it's kind of appropriate that their name is a tribute to the past, because their music definitely is.

"Going to the Lake" is pure 70s hard rock from their 2006 demo. The riffs are solid though unoriginal. Nonetheless, it can't be simply dismissed, because Salute 27 does inject fresh energy that makes me expect they're a fine live act. "Acoustic Ride" is a preview of their forthcoming EP. It's country blues feel doesn't feel quite so regurgitated as the previous track, but it's not as instantly likable, either. Still, there's something interesting going on that becomes evident over the course of the song. "Right On," also from the 2006 demo, is back to the 70s hard rock angle, but is once again played with some passion that gives it great energy where it lacks creative spirit. "Take Me Home," from the demo once again, is probably their weakest track. It's bluesy rock that reaches back more to late 80s hard rock than it does to the 70s. As such, the band's enthusiasm isn't as evident here. If they're going to copy a style, they should at least make sure it's worth copying.

Salute 27 has only been together since last summer and they do sound very tight as a band for such a short existence. Their fervor goes a long way to make up for their conventionality and perhaps time with open up new avenues of creativity for them. The music is good and I suspect translates very well in the live show. While I don't expect their EP to shake the foundations of rock music, I do suspect that it may be very enjoyable for anyone who hasn't already had enough of the riffs of the 70s.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Discography: Dag Nasty

Rising out of the ashes of DC's Minor Threat and Boston's DYS, Dag Nasty at least initially met the challenge that they were left by their previous bands' legacies and even laid the groundwork for what would become emo long before it became a genre full of cry-baby guys whining about their girlfriends. Their positive anthems of belief in yourself and the straightedeg lifestyle still resonate with me (and with the current generation of kids) today.

Can I Say (1986)
Dag Nasty's debut is one of the most perfect hardcore records ever made. It has all of the energy of the band's predecessors, yet adds melodic accessibility that Minor Threat only hinted at on Out of Step. Songs like "Values Here" and "Under Your Influence" struck blows against the old ways of punk nihilism while "Never Go Back" opened the door to emocore with a sentimentality that is emotional but never maudlin. Can I Say is undoubtably one of the greatest punk/hardcore albums of all time and ranks among the best releases ever out of the DC scene, a scene which is one of the most creative in history.

Rating: 10/10

Wig Out at Denko's (1987)
Dave Smalley's exit was a definite blow to Dag Nasty, because they lost a passionate and righteous voice. Rather than try to replace him with another hardcore singer, they opted instead for Peter Cortner who was more of a pure singer. Roger Marbury was also repalced by former Descendents and future For Love Not Lisa bassist Doug Carrion. It certainly changed the direction of the band, but not for the worse. Dag Nasty became more melodic and tended more toward what would later be known as emo. They used the story of the Little Engine That Could in "The Godfather" and got away with it. "When I Move" is an acoustic piece that still fits the flow of the album. The title track and "Lies" have some of Dag Nasty's best lyrics. Wig Out was certainly a change in direction, but not in quality.

Rating: 10/10

All Ages Show EP (1987)
This stellar 7" EP included the excellent original title track as well as a fantastic cover of the Ruts' "Staring at the Rude Boys." The third track, "You're Mine," is a slower, straightforward song that is a step down from the other two, but still solid. The tracks form this EP were later included in the CD version of the Field Day, but they don't hint at the lackluster affair that album would be. It was however, their first record away from Dischord as they had just signed with Giant.

Rating: 9/10

Field Day (1988)
Before Field Day, Dag Nasty moved from DC out to LA. They were out of place and rather than capitalize on that adversity, the album suffered. There are some real gems to be sure. The title track has teeth. They get even more emo on "Things That Make No Sense" and "Typical Youth," but both show that emo once produced really good songs. Dag Nasty also managed to foreshadow just how sappy emo would become on self-consciously emotional tracks like "The Ambulance Song" and "La Penita." While most of the rest is of average quality, they stoop pretty low with the remake of their earlier classic "Under Your Influence," which makes a complete mockery of the straightedge anthem. There were good ideas on Field Day, but thin production and a lack of punch take their toll. This was the last album of their first run as they broke-up some time later. The CD includes the tracks from the All Ages Show (albeit with an inferior version of "Staring at the Rude Boys") and Trouble Is EPs.

Rating: 5/10

Trouble Is EP (1988)
The best thing about this 12" EP is that it's on green vinyl. "Trouble Is" is a decent song from Field Day, but the other two are throwaways. "Never Green Lane" is in the same almost adult-alternative vein as "The Ambulance Song" and even their cover of Wire's classic "12XU" isn't all that exciting (and pales in comparison to Minor Threat's cover of the same).

Rating: 4/10

Four on the Floor (1992)
After six years apart, the original (recorded) lineup got back together (with Brian Baker forced to use a pseudonym due to contractual obligations from his ill-advised stint in the generic metal band Junkyard) to record this Brett Gurewitz produced piece of crap. I'm not sure why they got together to record this one, but it certainly wasn't because their hearts were in it. It's the only Dag Nasty release that I don't own.

Rating: 3/10

Minority of One (2002)
Few reunion albums are truly worthwhile and I suspect the success rate is even lower for second reunions. However, Dag Nasty is the exception. Minority of One is their most energetic album since their debut 16 years earlier. From the title track that opens the album through the unlisted cover of Generation X's "100 Punks," this album is tight and full of passion. While the world had caught onto emo in the intervening years, Dag Nasty abandoned it to make another great hardcore album. While the first two are essential albums in any punk/hardcore collection, Minority of One isn't far behind. Not bad for a bunch of guys around 40.

Rating: 8/10

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Albums that should have stayed on the shelf

One of the explanations offered for Prince's 1987 shelving of his Black Album project was that he felt it was of inferior quality and didn't want to release it. Considering that he released Lovesexy instead might be a good reason to doubt the rumour (along with the other, more interesting explanation that he had a religious experience related to it), but true or not, it does bring up the topic of albums that should have remained on the shelf. The list is endless, I'm sure, but I'd like to know what albums by bands that should have known better saw the light of day when they should have remained on the tapes. Here's a few I could think of off the top of my head, but the list is probably endless:
  • The Clash - Cut the Crap: This wasn't even a real Clash album and it certainly sounds it. It has none of the passion that made the Clash "the only band that matters."
  • U2 - Zooropa: It's okay to experiment, but when the experiment goes awry, it's a bad solution to unleash it on an unsuspecting public.
  • The Police - Every Breath You Take - The Singles: Aside from the fact that everyone should own all of the regular studio albums, the only new song here is a putrid remix of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" that makes me dislike Sting more than usual just thinking about it.
  • Mudhoney - Piece of Cake: I remember talking to someone at Sub Pop Records about this one and their name for it was a piece of something other than cake. It lacks all the bizarre, psychotic energy of both their earlier and later releases.
  • Nirvana - In Utero: I think this album would get the beating it deserves had Kurt Cobain not been murdered by his wife.
  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Love Beach: What's worse than mixing prog rock and palm trees? Mixing bad commercial rock and palm trees.
  • COC - Deliverance: Why would a great hardcore band want to become a bad stoner rock band? Ask Pepper Keenan.
  • Pink Floyd - The Final Cut: Roger Waters' self-indulgence had gone too far with The Wall, but at least it had a few good songs and worked with the movie. The Final Cut's only saving grace is that it's shorter.
  • Joy Division - Still: I don't know if Joy Division was a bad live band or if their show just didn't translate well to record, but Still is a terrible live album.
  • Guns n Roses - The Spaghetti Incident - Throwing in a cover here and there is one thing, but I think we all could deal without a whole album of GnR trying to show the world that they liked some real bands. They didn't trust that we could hear their influences.
  • Judas Priest - Turbo - Why would a band who had done so much to define heavy metal choose to embrace such a watered-down version of it here?
  • Kiss - The Elder - There are a number of Kiss albums one could make a case for nixing, but this one is clearly at the top of that list. At very least, it would have saved us from seeing Gene, in makeup, with tears streaming down his cheek in the "A World Without Heroes" video.
  • Rolling Stones - just about everything after Exile on Main Street: With few exceptions, the Stones didn't do anyone any favors over the last 30-some years. They're now the world's greatest Stones cover band and that's pretty sad. If I had to single out one of their albums to be removed from circulation, I think it'd be Steel Wheels, but there's a lot of competition.

What albums would you add to the list?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Album Tracks

I'm gonna give something new a try. Instead of reviewing a whole album, sometimes I'll pick a lesser known album track that maybe most people don't know or haven't heard in years and I'll review just that song. I'll probably kick this off late in the week with Ian Hunter's "Standing in My Light."

Friday, June 08, 2007

Review: Ride - Nowhere

Label: Sire

Released: October 15, 1990

Ride's Nowhere is an album you can learn a lot about from the cover. Like the wave depicted, it may seem like a small ripple, but there is an underlying force behind it that can't be measured on the surface. This is an album of contrasts between walls of jangley guitar, droning vocals and animated, but sometimes subdued rhythms. Taken seperately, no part seems particularly special, yet they form a cohesive whole that is perhaps the shoegazers' finest hour.

Nowhere jumps right in with "Seagull," as fine an example of what the album has in store as any track on there. All the elements are there: a wall of noisey, phased jangle, flat, yet evocative vocals and vibrant rhythms. The song's hook is actually in the bassline which is catchy, but understated. The song has an increasing chaos that nearly takes it over as it draws to a close. "Kaleidoscope" scales back the noise without abandoning Ride's basic musical direction, taking a distinct British Invasion flavor. The intro to "In a Different Place" is very close to ripping off the Bealtes' "Baby, You're a Rich Man," but the song doesn't continue in that vein as almost all of the layered noise is stipped away but for the chorus. Unlike the first two, this track is more Britpop ballad than manic dance rock. The big sweeping guitar sound returns on "Polar Bear" which finds a happy medium among the tracks preceding it. As the drums kick in for "Dreams Burn Down," there is the expectation of something more along the lines of "Seagull," but this is another low-key piece. There is , however, a fair amount of downplayed guitar noise that comes and goes throughout to make this better than the average British pop ballad. "Decay" starts out with a decidedly different approach, having a smaller staccato sound rather than big, ringing chords, but slowly gives way to the album's established direction. "Paralysed" is a standard rock ballad on the surface with ambient keyboards filling out the background. The guitar solo ties it into the rest of the album as it teeters on the edge between structure and cacaphony. The album returns to jangley guitar riding on interesting upbeat rhythms on "Vapour Trail," a song that is easy to imagine as a single. "Taste" is difficult to separate from it's 60's pop influences as it could just as easily be the Byrds or the Hollies. The controled chaos returns on "Here and Now," which even manages to fit a bit of harmonica into its layers. The album closes with the title track, a trippy affair with an electronic drone around which they contruct psychedelic soundscapes. As the sounds fades into water, it is clearly a worthy conclusion to the body of the album that was largely descibed in the album's first track.

Nowhere is an album defined more by its noise than its hooks. What makes it so exceptional is Ride's ability to use that noise to create cohesion rather than dischord. The shoegazers produced a fair amoun t of really great rock n roll and Nowhere may just be the most perfect example.

Rating: 9/10

Check out the review of the cover over at Whole Lotta Album Covers.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Review: Retro Grave EP

Label: Retro Grave Music

Released: June 15, 2007 (stream is available at now)

Retro Grave is Trouble drummer Jeff Oly Olsen's side-project. The five song EP, which should be followed by a full-length release sometime next year, is entirely written and performed by Olsen. Working alone may have some benefits, but likely more drawbacks. This isn't a big departure from Trouble, but does seem somewaht limited by the lack of collaborative effort.

The 12 minute "Pyramus & Thisbe" opens the album. Just due to its length, it seems an odd choice for the first track, but while it is inconsistent, it is varied enough to avoid getting bogged down early. There are plenty of heavy, sludgey guitars as well as some more delicate parts that keep it interesting. It has some cumbersome parts, but isn't nearly the burden that a track of its length could be. "Five Sentences" is a pretty straightforward, medium-paced tune. The riff is solid but not all that interesting and the song breaks down a bit in the middle as if Olsen wanted to break things up, but wasn't sure how. "Utopiotomy" is a step back in the right direction with heavy Sabbath riffs. Olsen makes up for his vocal shortcomings by speaking more than singing and adding a creepy flange effect. The song finishes with a manic, noisey crescendo which helps make it the album's strongest track. The simple organ intro of "Birth Death/Retro Grave" slowly mixes with more guitar heaviness and then spoken vocals. Everything but the vocal drops out by the end of the song's first part. It's not great stuff, but passable as an intro into the rest of the song. The song itself makes up for the intro with throbbing riffs over a string part that adds nicely to the doom effect. The EP finishes up with perhaps its most macabre piece, the droning "Stone Head" which finds Olsen repeating the title over and over, oddly reminiscent of "redrum" from the Shining.

All in all, this EP is a bit disappointing considering the expectations raised by Trouble's output over the years. It is clear that Olsen's preference is percussion, because the drums are significantly tighter than everything else. The vocals are often flat and the guitar work, while usually adequate, never really shines. The production is poor which doesn't help bring the album together. Still, Olsen does hit stride often enough to make this a worhwhile listen for doom fans.

Rating: 5/10

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Review: Time Again - The Stories are True

Label: Hellcat Records

Released: April 25, 2006

I know why Tim Armstong's label signed Time Again: They love Rancid. The trouble is, I'm not a big fan of Rancid, so why would I want to listen to band with Rancid stamped all over them? Well, for one thing, I saw them live and their performance was inspired. For another thing, I'm not sure why I don't really care for Rancid. Generally, the music is actually well above average (and sometimes even excellent). While The Stories are True isn't all that original, it is consistently good with a few moments that really shine.

When I saw them live, the Rancid sound didn't come across. They sounded more like a hardcore band with some more melodic parts. They certainly tend toward harder stuff than Rancid, but not to the extent that the influence isn't completely clear. By and large, the album is full of solid punk rock with the regular punk lyrical cliches about the alienation, strength, the scene, etc, etc. The first few tracks are fairly common fare, but as the album moves along, a many songs do stand out nonetheless. "Broken Bodies" has a great sing-along chorus. The title track is a catchy punk ballad that you just want to believe. "Cold Concrete" is more catchy, high-energy punk that really doesn't get old. The breakneck pace of "Lost in Hollywood" and "Criminal" both have a decided 80s LA punk appeal. "Fallen Nation" keeps the pace up with a bit more melody and a positive, albeit unoriginal, message. More than the rest of the album, "Kenny" and "Life on the Run" make me wonder if they were written by Armstrong & company. The album's finish isn't a big surprise either: a punk/ska tune about a dead prostitute.

The problem with Time Again isn't that they aren't good, it's just that they aren't particularly special. I think that's what I don't like about Rancid also. They're both better than average, but they don't consistently do anything new. The thing with punk though is that your heart alone can make you special and, especially after seeing them live, I think that might be Time Again's strength.

Rating: 5/10

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Myspace: All Ships at Sea

Hardcore is a genre in which it is really difficult for a band to distinguish itself. You have be heavy, you have to be fast, you have to be agressive. There aren't that many ways to break that mold and stand out, musically or philosophically. Nonetheless, All Ships at Sea is a young hardcore band from Middletown, CT that is struggling to do just that.

All Ships at Sea have four songs up on their page (two of them downloadable). All fit the hardcore mold, being downtuned and angry with growling vocals. Yet they also break the songs up with some slower parts, some more melodic parts and some attempts to be more technical. The recordings are raw and the ideas seem to still be forming, but they do seem somewhat fresh and could develop into a sound that sets them apart. Philosophically, they aren't necessarily breaking new ground, but they could as they develop. Christian hardcore isn't new territory and most of those bands can be pretty overbearing. Because hardcore lyrics are so difficult to discern, I can't tell if All Ships at Sea fall into this trap. I'm a churchgoer myself, but I prefer to be shown the path of righteousness (no matter what the religion), not told it. I hope All Ships at Sea tend more toward showing than telling.

They have four songs up on Myspace. "Plagued by Visions of Confederate Horsemen" is the kind of title that certainly piques my interest. Unfortunately, it's a fairly standard piece that stays within the hardcore box. It does have decent raw energy, but could benefit from a tightening up of their sound. "Invocation and Doxology" does a better job with pace changes and the result is a more interesting song without any decrease in the band's punch. "Darling Hollywood..." shows potential for the band to get a bit more technical and also breaks out some of their best straightforward writing. The more technical parts include some stuttering rhythms that work very well and contrast nicely with some of the more basic punk parts. Everything isn't quite in place, but this track shows the most potential. Their final song, "Kids Play With," is another step forward in both production and playing. They seem to have developed a feel for the power of pauses, but not full mastery of it.

All Ships at Sea are not a great hardcore band yet, but they show some promise to develop into something special in the sea of typical. It looks like they'll be coming to Baltimore on June 26 and I'd like to catch them. Maybe I'll be able to say, "I saw them when..." or maybe not. Time will tell, but they're still young and time is on their side.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Such-and-such is the so-and-so of today...

I've often thought about what current bands come closest to filling the roles that older bands filled in the past. For instance, I wonder who are the Beatles of today? Or the Led Zeppelin? Or the Pink Floyd? Etc, etc, etc. While it is important, I don't think their superficial sound should be the primary consideration. I'd give more weight to their impact on music and their energy and their abilities to convey their music. So, who do you think comes closest to being the current version of the following bands?
  1. The Beatles
  2. The Who
  3. Velvet Underground
  4. Pink Floyd
  5. Led Zeppelin
  6. Rolling Stones
  7. Allman Brothers
  8. Black Sabbath
  9. Ted Nugent
  10. The Clash