Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: Spirits of the Dead

Label: White Elephant Records

Released: September 29, 2008

Even those who love prog rock often understand that its shortcoming stems from putting the head before the heart. While no genre in rock can compete with prog's technical prowess, it's still often dismissed as self-indulgent and lite where the true spirit of rock n roll is the exception, not the rule. That leaves any band that takes the prog road with quite an uphill haul.

Enter Spirits of the Dead and their self-titled debut with its own flavor of prog that endeavors to remedy some of these musical ills. They open up the prog sound with psychedelic meanderings and then ground it with 70s hard rock fuzz, giving it a spaciness to freak out to as well as a grittiness to hold on to. When they drift away from that hard rock basis, the music can wander a bit as on "The Waves of Our Ocean," but a dose of stoner rock on "Red" and the super-sludge of "Spirits of the Dead" make for a wild album that can be both light and agile as well as crushingly heavy.

Most importantly, Spirits of the Dead don't get overburdened by their own technical abilities. They show off their chops when needed, but they're just as given to slow, plodding rumblings as they are to elaborate, precise passages. They can be jarring or lulling and that fuller sound is simply the result of a willingness to get outside of the accepted boundaries of their chosen genre. While their influences lie in the past, their vision looks to the future, setting them apart from so many of their peers.

The album will apparently be re-issued on vinyl (in Europe at least). The silver foil stamped image has beautiful, intricate detail that deserves 12 inches square at least to adequately enjoy.

Satriani: 9/10
Zappa: 7/10
Dylan: 7/10
Aretha: 7/10
Overall: 8/10


If you're curious about my rating categories, read the description.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Before this film had even been released, the comparisons to Spinal Tap were coming from all quarters, including, it seems, the film's creators and promoters. There's good reason too, because the parallels between the two films are uncanny, especially considering that one is parody and the other reality. While director Sacha Gervasi surely emphasized the similarities in the two stories (did that amp really go to 11?), it worked well as a vehicle to show how life is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Anvil's story is one of amazing frustration. While early albums Hard n Heavy and Metal on Metal as well as their 1984 appearance at the Super Rock Festival in Japan made it seem like they were on the crest of a huge wave, when that wave broke the band found that they had missed it while just about every band around them got the ride of their lives. But unlike many of those bands, Anvil is still at it, enduring the hardships of touring and recording while maintaining regular jobs, engaged in what is typically a young man's game.

The film shows everything from a star-struck Lips meeting artists with whom he should be peers to him in a near brawl with a club owner who refuses to pay the band to Lips and Robb Reiner nearly in tears as they mend their friendship for perhaps the millionth time in their 30+ years together. It dabbles in their family life, giving the fullest possible picture of what their pact to rock together forever means.

I expected a good bit of comedy that this film did not deliver. Sure, there were funny parts, but to its credit, I was often far too caught up in the humanity of the story to laugh at it. By no mean an actual tearjerker, beware that the film can nonetheless get the eyes welled up in a couple spots as Anvil's desperation is much easier to internalize than perhaps anyone might suspect.

While Spinal Tap is a great rock n roll movie that manages to expose some truth about rock n roll and tops all for pure entertainment value, Anvil the Movie is an even better film. The latter might not have nearly the comedic value as the former, but it illustrates perhaps rock n roll's greatest truth: There's more to it than just songwriting and technical proficiency. Rock n roll, at its core, requires heart and soul and in that sense, Anvil is a better band than all those around them who went on to sell millions of albums. Lesser men would have given up long ago. Ultimately, this is a film that appeals not only to metal fans, but to rock fans in general and, even more broadly, to anyone who understands dreams and the struggle to achieve them.

Maybe this time, things will work out for the guys in Anvil (or at least Lips might be able to pay his sister back).

Rating: 10/10


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Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Bob Dylan - Together Through Life

Label: Columbia Records

Released: April 28, 2009

When Bob Dylan released Love and Theft back in 2001, it seemed that he had more good music left in him than anyone expected. Five years later, Modern Times said otherwise (though many surely disagree). It was tired and old and adult. Now, in 2009, Dylan offers up yet another late career album that will perhaps give a clue as to which of the previous two albums reflects his true state.

One thing that's been interesting about Dylan is that his voice, far from technically pristine, has always been, in a sense, an act of rebellion in and of itself. Even as it's changed a bit over time, it has always been something that makes his music happen on his terms. At times on Together Through Life though, Dylan's voice loses its personality and devolves into kind of a Tom Waits shtick. That's a shame, because Waits as a performer is almost pure novelty. This isn't the nod of master to student, but more the master caving in to a caricature of himself.

Still, Together Through Life is a loose, old-timey album. It doesn't quite have the urgency or poetry that marks his best work, but there is a certain spontaneity that refreshes the album whenever it's on the verge of really dragging. What really made this album interesting though was David Hidalgo's presence on accordion. It seems odd that a background instrument used sparingly would have such an impact on a record, but it's perfect in the arrangement and Hidalgo's playing is incredibly emotive, supporting the songs where Dylan fails to do so. It would be noticeable even on a great album, but really stands out on something more middling like Together Through Life.

This latest offering from Dylan falls somewhere in the middle of his catalog quality-wise. There were times when it reminded me of his mid-80s output (Empire Burlesque rang in my ears at times) and that's good stuff, just not on par with his prime (or with Love and Theft for that matter). Unfortunately, falling right smack in the middle, it gives little indication whether Love and Theft or Modern Times was the anomaly.

The vinyl release is particularly nice. Despite being a standard length album at around 45 minutes, it's issued on two slabs of 180 gram vinyl in heavy stock inner sleeves. The artwork isn't quite amazing, but well worth seeing in the larger format. For convenience, a copy of the CD is thrown in as well.

Satriani: 7/10
Zappa: 6/10
Dylan: 7/10
Aretha: 6/10
Overall: 6/10

If you're curious about my rating categories, read the description.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Live: Good Old War, Pela and the Gaslight Anthem

May 7, 2009, Recher Theatre, Towson, Maryland


The Gaslight Anthem released one of 2008's best records, were a highlight of last summer's Vans Warped Tour, released an fantastic 10" on Record Store Day and are now on the verge of opening for perhaps their biggest influence, Bruce Springsteen. There really couldn't be much more of a positive vibe or greater expectations (yeah, pun intended) coming into a show than that. Since seeing them on the Warped Tour back in August (and being out of town for their Baltimore stop a few months back), there is no band on the planet I was more excited to see again, especially as a headliner. Would it be worth the wait? I had to check out two other bands first to find out.

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Good Old War played a set of indie-folk tunes full of subtly amazing musicianship and beautiful harmonies. They're one of those bands who's playing is intricate and amazing if you pay attention, yet could easily be enjoyed directly for its sweet combination of hooks and harmony. They never overwhelmed the music with anything flashy, despite clearly having the chops to pour it on had they trusted their music less.

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Pela, who two years ago were listed by Rolling Stone as an "artist to watch" (take that however you will), were up next. Artists like Tom Petty, the Who, the Clash and the Replacements all came to mind as they ran through their set of straight-forward rock songs. That begs the question: What do these artists (Pela included) have in common? In light of tonight's performance, the answer is that they cast aside self-importance, over-indulgence and pretensions, simply letting the songs speak for themselves. And that's what made the set so powerful. The songs were solid, but more importantly, the performance made a connection. That's why their cover of "Guns of Brixton" worked so well. In fact, that one rousing cover really says all that needs to be said about their set. Even the slightest hint of dishonesty would not just have killed the song, but their entire performance. It was bolder than maybe they even realized, but they nailed it.

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Right now, the Gaslight Anthem may understand better than anyone else that there is one perfect formula for great rock and roll: Poor your heart out over a few chords and some colorful hooks and you can't go wrong. It's clear on the albums and it was clear tonight at the show. Though the two acts before them set a high bar, particularly in the way of just plain honesty, the Gaslight Anthem were still the evenings brightest light. Their honesty is, without compromise, a bit more creative and poetic than their peers. This night, they achieved an odd perfection that has nothing to do with note-for-note reproductions of the studio material. Instead, it is a perfect balance between songs, stories and a fantastic cover of "Left of the Dial." When they open for Springsteen, I hope he pays attention. He just might (re-)learn a thing or two.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Video: Dirty Sweet - Marionette

Cool song. Cooler video.

Dirty Sweet - Marionette from Dirty Sweet on Vimeo.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Review: Everyone Everywhere - A Lot of Weird People Standing Around

Label: Evil Weevil Records

Released: April 7, 2009

I'd almost forgotten what emo was like before it became a dirty word, but Everyone Everywhere is a clear reminder. Sure, the mohawk crowd is still going to find this to be too sappy, but it never devolves into the self-conscious and saccharine whine-fest that consumes the genre today. The vocals, sensitive, but never over-dramatic, ride the catchy fuzz and jangle of the guitar and a driving beat. It's been a long time since I've heard a song with the catchy punch of "Cool Pool Keg Toss Pete" that didn't seem like it was just aiming at the arenas. With just enough mix between loose and precise, each track on A Lot of Weird People Standing Around keeps the EP from getting too settled and easy which goes along way to show how emo was once kinda cool.

Grab this one quickly, because it's a nice package and it's limited to 200 (100 clear/100 blue).

Satriani: 6/10
Zappa: 6/10
Dylan: 7/10
Aretha: 7/10
Overall: 7/10


If you're curious about my rating categories, read the description.

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Video: Oceans - We Are Ruins

New Flipper mp3

Flipper will release Love, their first album in 16 years, on May 19th. You never know what you're gonna get with a band like Flipper and over a decade and a half since they last recorded, it's even more up in the air. However, you can check out "Be Good Child" to get an early taste before the release.

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