Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol Watch 2009

It was Motown night on 'Idol' yesterday and Smokey Robinson, who wrote a good chunk of the label's 1960s and '70s hits, was the guest mentor. He didn't really have much to say to the singers though.

Adam knocked another one out of the park with a quietly affecting take on "Tracks of My Tears." Matt exuded the right amount of sensuality for "Let's Get it On." And Kris' "How Sweet it Is" was joyfully endearing (his outfit reminded me of a G.I.).

I don't know what was up with Paula and Simon. First she pulled out a coloring book and markers for him and he later used them on her face. The judges went a bit overboard with their praise of Alison. I find her grating. None of the remaining gals are very interesting at all.

It was surprising to see Danny actually getting advice from Smokey on the taped intro to sing some background parts on "Get Ready," looking like he agreed, then totally disregarding it onstage. And none of the judges called him on it!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

American Idol results show

If I was Randy Travis' manager, I'd be a little mad that Ryan Seacrest didn't even mention Travis' new "Hits" collection on air. When Kelly Clarkson was on last week, her new album definitely got airtime. Then again, she's an 'Idol' alum. Still, any exposure by an established act on 'Idol' makes their albums/singles sales go through the roof. So I won't feel sorry for Travis or Brad Paisley.

Ever notice how Ryan briefly talks to some big stars after they perform and not others?

I think Alison, Michael or Megan should have gotten cut last night.

Concert ticket rip off

Last Friday, Live Nation teamed with Ticketmaster to put a bunch of shows at several of its venues (obviously the slow selling ones) on sale for $13 for one day only. Just as I expected, all the facility fees and surcharges doubled the total price on most of them. What a rip off. If prices were lowered across the board, maybe more of them would sell out.

Let's hope the companies' proposed merger falls through!

New album review

White Lies
To Lose My Life

Dark themes don’t always equal dreary music. Take White Lies, for example. Bassist and primary lyricist Charles Cave favors morbid couplets, but on the band’s stunning first album To Lose My Life, everything is dressed up with sharp post-punk and upbeat New Romantic sounds (think old Echo & the Bunnymen and Ultravox, plus some Killers and Interpol).

The London trio, barely out of their teens, has been the toast of Britain’s overly excitable music press since two EPs came out last year. This time, the hype is justified. Life recently made its U.K. chart debut at No. 1. Frenetic opening track “Death” finds versatile singer/guitarist Harry McVeigh repeating “this fear’s got a hold of me” to ultra-dramatic synth strains and stabbing guitar lines. “To Lose My Life” is driven by a Duran Duran-styled bassline and pleas to “grow old together and die at the same time.”

Then there’s the haunting “Unfinished Business,” which revolves around doomed lovers. Here, church organ and surf guitar bursts lead the way (key line: “you’ve got blood on your hands and I know it’s mine”). Other standouts delve into a millionaire’s breakdown at a funeral (the picturesque “From the Stars”), pros and cons of Electro-Shock Therapy (austere, Joy Division-like “E.S.T.”) and a hostage drama ending in – you guessed it – murder (intense album closer “The Price of Love,” all awash in orchestral flourishes). Totally enrapturing. One of 2009’s best debuts so far.

...Trail of Dead album review

And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
The Century of Self
(Justice/Richter Scale)

Starting in the mid-‘90s, ...Trail of Dead gained a reputation for destructive live shows and frontman Conrad Keely’s autobiographical lyrics sung in a Billy Corgan manner. The Austin alt-rock band didn’t have the best experience on a major label, which tried to make their prog rock-leaning music palatable to the masses. Now the group is back on an indie with intriguing sixth album The Century of Self.

Instrumental “Giants Causeway” leads off with a noisy barrage, like some demented version of Disney theme parks’ Main Street Electrical Parade song. From there, it’s straight into the frantic “Far Pavilions.” Epic melodic maelstrom “Isis Unveiled” simultaneously recalls Muse and early ‘90s British shoegazer rock before concluding with gang vocals. The cold gloom of 6 1/2-minute long “Halcyon Days” utilizes a chorale and organ coda. Pop-inflected “Fields of Coal” finds Keely concerned about a fatal prophesy, dreaming about aliens and losing his soul amid chants.

Laid back, melodic ballad “Luna Park” finally allows some breathing room with acoustic guitar and piano leading the way. There’s a woozy, early morning vibe as Keely describes pyromaniac tendencies on this album’s standout. The energetic “Ascending,” another highlight, has dense guitars, counterpoint vocals and some Spanish lyrics.

Finally, ...Trail of Dead caps it off with the dramatic cabaret of “Insatiable Two” and another gang-styled chant (Yeasayer and Dragons of Zynth lend their pipes). All told, Self unveils more subtleties after repeated listenings.

Thursday album review

Common Existence

Serious as a heart attack, Thursday emerged from the East Coast post-hardcore scene in ‘97 and immediately stood out from the pack, thanks to its complex time signatures and literary minded lyrics (singer Geoff Rickly counts authors David Foster Wallace, Martin Amis and Cormac McCarthy as inspirations). Many fans were taken aback by the experimental tack of 2006’s impressive A Light By the City Divided, where the New Jersey group worked with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT) and the screamo elements were downplayed.

Not anymore. They team up again here and the results are mixed. Rise Against’s Tim McIllrath guests on a solid, tension-filled “Resuscitation of a Dead Man,” where Rickly yelps about wanting inside an ambulance. The muscular thrust of “Friends in the Armed Forces,” featuring Quicksand’s Walter Schriefels, revolves around war casualties as Rickly shouts that he’s “sick of tying yellow ribbons around trees.” Exotic keyboards, treated vocals and melodic washes of sound on “Beyond the Visible Spectrum” make for a welcome change of pace. Same goes for the haunting, reverb-heavy “Love Has Led Us Astray,” where Rickly is front and center, intoning “you float like a wreath in a riverbed.”

“Time’s Arrow,” with backward loops, luxuriously dense sonics and echoey vocals could almost be a Radiohead outtake. From there, it’s by-the-numbers screamo (“Subway Funeral,” “You Were the Cancer”) and hard-hitting, but average anguish (“Unintended Long Term Effects”).

Soundtrack of Our Lives album review

Soundtrack of Our Lives
(Yep Roc)

The Soundtrack of our Lives’ shaggy-haired leader Ebbot Lundberg says his band creates the musical entrance to another dimension; listening to them can be a real head trip. Formed in 1995, the Swedish sextet takes stylistic cues from Arthur Lee & Love, mid-‘60s Stones and Who and early Pink Floyd. They gained a cult following Stateside in 2002 via the acclaimed Behind the Music, delved into harder guitar grooves on Origin Vol. 1, then toured with Oasis and Black Crowes.

Buoyed by a creative streak, TSOOL came up with enough strong material to fill a double album. Not everyone can pull off such an ambitious undertaking (24 tracks in 93 minutes). These Scandinavians do so with ease on sixth effort Communion, about the eternal quest for reality. Revolving around the daily cycle of light and dark, there’s a song for every hour.

Disc 1 kicks off with the spacey, raucous “Babel On,” complete with sitar. Moody, slow-building rocker “Universal Stalker” is propelled by Doors-styled organ. An ethereal “Ego Delusion” features floating keyboard sounds and chiming guitars. The band even goes tribal (crazed “RA 88”) while primary axe man Ian Person channels Exile-period Keith Richards (hedonistic “Thrill Me”) and unleashes a spastic solo (the aptly-titled “Distorted Child”). Lundberg’s elastic voice and stream of consciousness lyrics serve the hard and soft songs well, especially the endearing horn-infused cover of Nick Drake’s “Fly.”

Disc 2 has a more of an acoustic vibe, other psych-rock gems (“Reconnecting the Dots,” “Songs of the Ocean”) and two infectious surefire hits (“Utopia,” “Saturation Wanderers”). Go ahead and share the love.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

American Idol Watch 2009

On last night's "Idol," it was country music week with guest mentor Randy Travis. I'm not a fan of his music at all, but I thought he did a decent job giving advice to the contestants.

With all the country musicians around, I thought it was redundant for there to be two songs each by Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride and Garth Brooks. If a few of the singers hadn't mentioned who they chose in their taped intro segments (or Travis making a passing reference), the audience would be totally left in the dark about who the original artist was. I think Ryan Seacrest mentioned one - the Willie Nelson popularized "Always on My Mind."

I believe it was that particular song, when the "that song is untouchable" comment came from one of the judges or Travis (can't recall which). No, it's not. It has had several popular covers over the years, including Elvis Presley and Pet Shop Boys. Even so, no song is untouchable.

Scott MacIntyre, when responding to Simon Cowell's critique, said "I've been the victim of bad hat picks." Does this mean the songs are chosen for them? I thought it was the other way around. Has Scott covered Bruce Hornsby yet? If not, he should.

Standouts for me included:

Adam Lambert(pictured above), who reinvented June Carter Cash & Merle Travis' "Ring of Fire" into a Middle Eastern tip. Randy Jackson likened it to NIN. But it was more like Marc Almond of Soft Cell. Everyone seemed flummoxed by it, but shouldn't these singers take chances?
Anoop Desai redeemed himself on the "Always" ballad, which was effective.
Kris Allen recalled Enrique Iglesias on "To Make You Feel My Love."
Matt Giraud was passionate at the piano for "So Small."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

American Idol 2009

Well, I started watching "Idol" again this week since they narrowed down the field to 13 (now 11). Some initial thoughts: Paula seems loopier than ever. I don't know how the contestants are supposed to learn anything from the judges' comments when they contradict each other.

Usually I agree with a lot of what Simon says, but not when he tells someone they shouldn't pick an obscure Michael Jackson song nobody knows. Then Randy and Paula say a couple of the hit MJ songs chosen are so ingrained in people's minds that they can't picture anyone else singing them. Talk about mixed signals!

And no, Randy, not all of us think of your sometimes employer (the wretched Mariah Carey) when we hear someone do "I'll Be There."

I was most impressed by: Adam Lambert, Scott McIntyre, Alexis Grace and Kris Allen. Danny Gokey, too - but when you get these devout Christians in the competition (like David Archuleta last season), they tend to leave out "objectionable" or sensual lyrics during the theme weeks and that bugs the heck out of me.

Q&A with Raul Malo

My feature on Raul Malo ran at this week. He plays the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Monday. Here's more from our chat:

You just returned from a press tour of Europe. What is your fan base like abroad?
The Mavericks’ “Trampoline” was a really big record over there. So we’ve got a pretty good loyal following, even still.

Since you're doing the Belly Up, got any fond memories of San Diego area shows over the years?
Oh man. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite cities and I love hanging’ out down there so much. I remember a couple years ago, we happened to be in town when the Italian Street Fest was on. That was great fun. I got to sing either “O Solo Mio” or “Santa Lucia” with one of the street bands. It was just everybody drinking wine and beautiful weather. It was just one of those nights. So that’s definitely a fun memory of San Diego.

Back in February, during Grammy Week, you did the MusicCares honors Neil Diamond event in L.A. What was that like?
You know, it was pretty amazing. I didn’t think about it too much because it’s a big event. On top of that, you’re singing a big hit for one of the world’s biggest artists. And he’s sitting right in front of you. Even though he’s an old friend and I’ve known Neil for a long time – everybody in the music business is there. It’s a who’s who of musicians and executives. I didn’t think about it too much until I was done. Then I was pretty nervous about it.

Didn’t you contribute to Neil’s country CD “Tennessee Moon” a decade ago?
I did. We wrote a song together and I sang harmonies on it.

One review I read of the new album "Lucky One" (Fantasy/Concord Records) said it comes closest in spirit to your Mavericks work. Would you agree?
Yeah, it certainly hints at some of the Mavericks album for sure. To me, that’s just a natural progression. I wrote all the songs on the Mavericks records so that’s going to come out. The “Today” record [in 2001] purposely explored the more Latin side of things. That was done that way specifically. This one, even though it hints at the Latin stuff, they’re all reflective of what I like to do. This one does hint at Mavericks work for sure.

At the end of the new song “Moonlight Kiss,” it sounds like a dinner party with all sorts of chattering and stuff. What was going on then?
There were cocktails being had and a lot of clowning around in the studio. We just wanted to evoke that sort of cabaret/Tropicana play on words.

If people listen carefully to “Haunting Me,” they can hear your dog bark.
He was on the original demo and I discovered it later as I was listening to it. He was a sweet Rottweiler and died way too young…I thought it would be cool to pay tribute to him because he was a good boy.

Do you think the fans that enjoy your songs in Spanish will get into “One More Angel” and “Lonely Hearts,” which have a Tex-Mex feel?
I hope so. I try to make the music that I like and hopefully that translates to a bunch of people likings it. The Latin side of me is always going to be there. You can’t shake that even if you don’t think about it much, which I don’t.

I read on your website journal about your dismay over the popularity of “Guitar Hero.”
[laughs] I got three boys. I think I’ve got them convinced that it actually doesn’t teach them anything. They’ll eventually figure it out on their own if they really want to play guitar, that’s not the way to go about it…I know if you play an instrument and try to play that, it’s some simulated thing and it’s not even close. If you spend four hours playing that stupid thing, in four hours you can play all the things on there.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Morrissey album review

Years of Refusal
(Lost Highway/Attack)

Whenever Morrissey returns with something new, he usually insults authority figures and put different spins on favorite topics like unrequited love, death and violence. Such is the case on the King of Melodrama’s ninth studio album, a frequently rocking affair which recalls 1995’s underrated Southpaw Grammar. Originally scheduled for release several months ago, Years of Refusal was delayed due to record company issues. Producer Jerry Finn (Rancid, AFI, Blink-182) - who died last year and helmed comeback effort You are the Quarry - recorded Moz’s band live in the studio. That injected the sound with a sharper urgency and vitality.

Impressive songs “That’s How People Grow Up” and “All You Need is Me” were carried over from the Greatest Hits collection (a strange decision, considering his prolific nature). Several of Morrissey’s acerbic lyrics are bound to provoke a few laughs (the ominous “Mama, Lay Softly on the Riverbed”), while fast opener “Something is Squeezing My Skull” finds the enigmatic Englishman singing about prescription drug addiction and hitting extremely high notes.

Meanwhile, Sixties guitar god Jeff Beck guests on the crunching stomper “Black Cloud,” Oscar-nominated trumpeter Mark Isham adds tasteful flourishes to the glorious “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” and a couple Latin-tinged tunes. Roger Joseph Manning Jr.’s vibrant keyboards/synth work gives everything an added bounce. Since enquiring minds want to know: the baby on the cover belongs to Morrissey’s asst. tour manager.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

War Child: Heroes album review

Various Artists
War Child presents “Heroes”

Whenever War Child assembles a new charity album, you can bet it’ll be worth your dough. The international organization focuses on reducing poverty, education and
human rights for children in war-torn areas of the world. The Help Album (1995) featured an all-star Britpop lineup. 1 Love (2002) sported cover songs. Help!: A Day in the Life (2005), with another crop of original British tunes, set a U.K. digital download record.

Heroes has a cool concept: 16 music legends selected one of their compositions and nominated a younger artist to do a modern day version.

Beck puts a brilliant eclectic spin on Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat”; The Hold Steady prove perfect for Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”; Lily Allen nabs The Clash’s Mick Jones on that band’s “Straight to Hell” and does an ace job at reinventing the tune. Same goes for Hot Chip’s spacey, electro-leaning “Transmission” by Joy Division and Duffy’s luxuriously retro treatment of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” Scissor Sisters take Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” in a fun, Giorgio Moroder dance direction and TV on the Radio make “Heroes” by David Bowie even more icy and detached. Rufus Wainwright, Estelle, Peaches, Franz Ferdinand and Yeah Yeah Yeahs are among the other contributors.

Cut Off Your Hands album review

Cut Off Your Hands
You & I
(French Kiss)

New Zealand has a pretty spotty track record here of successful pop/rock music exports (Neil & Tim Finn of Crowded House/Split Enz, OMC, Flight of the Conchords). If there’s any justice, that will change with You & I by Cut Off Your Hands (yes, it’s an unfortunate moniker, but 50+ years into the rock era, all of the good ones have been taken).

Ranging from the breezy, early ‘80s sounds of The Smiths and Edwyn Collins’ Orange Juice (“Still Fond”) to the Buzzcocks and U2 (“Closed Eyes”), the young Kiwi quartet makes a thoroughly enjoyable first impression. Former London Suede guitarist Bernard Butler (Duffy, Black Kids) handled the bulk of the production duties, with an assist from Stephen Street (Morrissey, Blur, Kaiser Chiefs).

Butler’s Phil Spector/Wall of Sound-styled touches on adrenaline-fueled opener “Happy as Can Be” are masterful. Then there’s “Oh Girl” and “Turn Cold,” where frontman Nick Johnston’s lovelorn lyrics - he breathlessly sings “Oh darling/Can you come over to my house/We can do things that we’ve never done” on the former - and the supple group harmonies will have you bopping around the room in seconds flat.

A couple spiritual leaning folk tunes (“Someone Like Daniel,” “In the Name of Jesus Christ”) recall early Coldplay. They break the giddy flow and should’ve been relegated to bonus track status, but overall this is stellar stuff. Dig the ingenious cover and title graphics. The first strong debut of 2009 so far.

Von Bondies album review

The Von Bondies
Love, Hate and Then There’s You
(Majordomo/Shout! Factory)

Hailing from Detroit, The Von Bondies formed at the beginning of the decade. They rode in on the garage rock wave, gaining attention after Jack White invited the band on tour and contributed to their bluesy, volatile 2001 debut, Lack of Communication. Two years later, White and Von Bondies leader Jason Stollsteimer severed ties when a nasty nightclub brawl led to lawsuits and arrests. A major label deal resulted in 2004’s uneven Pawn Shoppe Heart. It spawned the minor alt-rock hit “C’mon C’mon” (also the theme to Denis Leary’s FX-TV series “Rescue Me”) and teetered unconvincingly between punk/pop, jazz rock and garage sounds.

After a long hiatus, the group is back on track with Love, Hate and Then There’s You, helmed by the amazing Butch Walker and others. Everything kicks off with “This is Our Perfect Crime,” propelled by careening guitars and rambunctious Replacements-styled drum work. Stollsteimer has described these songs as sinister. No kidding. “Shut Your Mouth” melds a Smashing Pumpkins-style guitar crunch with a defiant chorus asking “can you say a good word about us?” and bassist Leann Banks provides ominous backing vocals.

Among the picks to click are the roaring, mid-tempo “21st Birthday,” where Stollsteimer gets dismissive (“never gonna have to see your pretty face again…there’s nothing worse than a happy soul mate”) and some fast-paced tracks where the male/female vocal dynamic works well amid power pop territory (“Blame Game,” “Accidents Will Happen”). Also noteworthy: a brisk and bratty “She’s Dead to Me” (think of much missed L.A. rockers Redd Kross).