Monday, October 31, 2011

THE AGE OF ADZ - Sufjan Stevens (2010)

Cop Rock.

New Coke. 

Heaven's Gate.

The Edsel.


These are just some of the landmark errors in judgement that spring to mind whenever I listen to Sufjan Stevens's The Age Of Adz. 

And while Stevens is hardly popular enough an artist for this work to reach the same level of cultural notoriety, The Age Of Adz is the exact same type of flamboyant misstep that only the genuinely ambitious and gifted...blinded by a self-confidence/sure-mindedness won through past success...can produce. 

For like those other historic failures, there really isn't a questionable creative choice made on The Age Of Adz save one...the core idea that led to the project's creation in the first place.

"Let's make a hard-edge police procedural where the cops regularly break into song."

"Let's arbitrarily change the flavor of the world's most popular soft drink."

Or in Steven's case, "Let me take all these awful misogynistic and suicidal thoughts I've been having since the breakup of my last relationship and give them vent through a metaphorical exploration of the schizophrenic, woman-hating mind of African-American folk artist and religious crackpot Prophet Royal Robertson."

I know, sounds charming, but it's not the first time Steven's has taken this tack, and it's worked extraordinarily well for him in the past. 

Check out the haunting John Wayne Gacy Jr. off of 2005's celebrated Illinois, where the openly Christian Steven's had the audacity to compare his positive qualities to the perceived positive qualities of the famed serial killer and then muse that "In my best behavior / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floor boards / For the secrets I have hid!"

That approach is repeated here, and while it feels like a stretch for Stevens to elevate merely being upset at his ex to the level of anger exhibited by the sign-maker Robertson, who after being left by his wife of nineteen years spent the rest of his life creating vivid paintings portraying women as ghoulish, cartoony, threatening science fiction monsters, the truth of the matter is from a simple songwriting level, this album works fairly well.

It's with Steven's decision to instrumentally suggest Robertson's schizophrenia by diving into chaotic electronica where everything falls apart. 

Steven's has proclaimed this as his electronica album, but that's disingenuous.  This is not an electronica album. 

It's a fully orchestrated, naturalistic, already overstuffed album in Steven's traditional vein, that's then had an additional layer of cheesy, Flash Gordon-esque elecro-beeps and farts slathered over the entire affair. And no matter how logical it might have seemed to suggest Robertson's schizophrenia in this way at the time, Steven's failed to take one thing into account when making this core creative choice...just how dopey and goddamn ridiculous the whole thing would sound in the end.

It's as if having already crafted an album that played fairly well, Steven's flew to England, tracked down a drunken Keith Emerson at some pub at 4 a.m., immediately dragged him into the recording studio and importuned..."Now give me some of that Karn Evil 9 shit!"

Still, as bad as most of these tracks play in their final form, The Age Of Adz rates, like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, as one of the more interesting failures in rock history, with a few of its tracks rising far above the din.

Futile Devices, the lovely opener, succeeds because it's designed as a feint, hewing closely to Steven's trademark sound of the past before the electronics kick in on second track Too Much.  The far too long but engaging closer Impossible Soul also works because of its more naturalistic sonic design.

The Idioteque-ish I Walked, and to a lesser degree Vesuvius, succeed for the opposite reason, being the two tracks that feel entirely electronic in nature.

And then there's I Want To Be Well, the album's one near masterpiece, and the one true success of this mergist style.  A terrifying cry for help from a suicidal mind, it builds to such a searing emotional climax with its desperate closing refrain of "I'm not fucking around" that no flaw in sonic design can stand in its way.

So in the end, as much as I personally disliked The Age Of Adz, it's hard to feel much in the way of anger or disappointment towards Stevens.  Far better to dare big and fail occasionally than play it safe.

He took a huge stylistic risk, saw it through to its natural conclusion, and in the end that risk didn't pay off.

But imagine if it had.

Status: Not Recommended.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Futile Devices, I Walked, I Want To Be Well, Impossible Soul.

Here's the bizarre stop motion official video for Too Much which clearly conveys both the album's overwrought ambition and cacophonous sonic design.

Component Breakdown:
1. Futile Devices - 8
2. Too Much - 4
3. Age Of Adz - 6
4. I Walked - 7
5. Now That I'm Older - 5
6. Get Real Get Right - 5
7. Bad Communication - 3
8. Vesuvius - 6
9. All For Myself - 5
10. I Want To Be Well - 9
11. Impossible Soul - 8
Intangibles - Very Low.

What are your thoughts on this controversial album?  Let readers know!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Still Surprising After All These Years: Unexpected Covers Highlight Paul Simon's Endearing October 23, 2011 Set At The Santa Barbara Bowl

Here's the thing. 

When you've been at it...and been good at it...for as long as Paul Simon has, putting together a killer set list is a relatively pedestrian task. 

But putting together a set list that fully satisfies the appetite of the hits-craving fan and still manages to surprise the more adventurous listener, that's something else entirely, and that's exactly what Paul Simon accomplished on this gorgeous, foggy night at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

Taking the stage fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, Simon and his nine piece backing band broke into a rousing, pitch-perfect version of Graceland opener The Boy In The Bubble.  As would be the case all night, the sound was fantastic...a credit to both the venue, my new L.A. area favorite, and Simon's mixer, who did a dazzling job coordinating the interplay of the ten men on stage, all multi-instrumentalists.

Following that opener, the concert hit its weakest stretch, with Simon choosing to ease into the night with a string of very mellow offerings...Dazzling Blue and So Beautiful So What off of his latest release, a funked up but still low key version of 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, and Mother And Child Reunion.  None of these songs came off poorly, but none really impressed either, with the band's playing clean but slow, as if everything had been worked down a few beats per minute to accommodate the advancing age of some of the musicians on stage.

But as with Paul McCartney's 2009 Coachella show, once Simon was sufficiently warmed up, the concert took flight.  The transitional moment here came six songs in with a return to Graceland (which was definitely the star album of the night) and a lively, jug band-flavored rendition of That Was Your Mother, which then immediately flowed into excellent covers of Junior Parker's Mystery Train and Chet Atkins's Wheels.

From that point forward, the show became one of constant change and surprise. 

Among the 27 song set's other highlights were a knockout solo acoustic version of The Sound Of Silence to start the first of two very long encores (featured in the Youtube video above), an acoustic duet cover of George Harrison's Here Comes The Sun, an extended jam on Late In The Evening, a rocking Bo Diddly cover in which Simon allowed his drummer Jim Oblon to take lead vocals, and my favorite of the night, a surprise performance of The Only Living Boy In New York, one of my very favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs, but the last song I expected to hear on this night.

Finally, after two-hours and ten minutes, Simon and the band settled in for one last number, fittingly Still Crazy After All These Years, which ended on a fabulous sax solo so worthy of Clarence Clemons, I wondered if it was intended by Simon as a tip of the hat to the recently deceased "Big Man." 

Regardless, it was a wonderful close to a magical night.

Here's a fan captured video of the last number and that awesome sax solo.

Friday, October 14, 2011

HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO - The Beastie Boys (2011)

Well, they definitely got the title right.

The beats on The Beastie Boys's latest release, the partyriffic Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, are dynamite...bubbling lava...boiling marinara...a "meat"-ballsy, red hot sauce of screeching synths, over-processed samples, and who knows what else they decided to throw into the mix.

If the Flaming Lips had decided to convert their 2009 skronk fest Embryonic into a party rap album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two would have been the result.  And like Embryonic, at least on a micro level, Hot Sauce borders on near masterpiece territory. 

Studio wonks are going to get off on this album for years, so impressive is the production, so clever the dial tweaking.  This is an album where no recorded element has been allowed to exist in a natural state: everything...voices, instruments, subjected to multiple layers of studio manipulation, making for an incredibly dense, lively bed of detail that continues to cough up revelations even after dozens of listens.

Unfortunately, this massive attention to nuance does come at a cost. 

For all its micro-layer dynamism, on a macro level, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two can be frustratingly static.  Like that sauce boiling in a pot, there's a ton of vertical bubbling and popping in the beats, but little to no horizontal movement, no sense of musical progression.  The Beastie's vocals, overflowing with energy and attitude, but near incapable of carrying melody, only reinforce this limitation.

What one's left with, then, is a collection of fun, vibrant, similar sounding tracks that are hard not to like, but even harder to love.

The two divisive exceptions to this pattern are the reggae-tinged, Santigold collaboration Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win and the driving, punkish Lee Majors Come Again. 

Dismissed by some critics for being out of step with the rest of the album, I think they rank among the album's most important tracks for the exact same reason...they're the only tracks that deliver what the album most sorely needs...melody and forward momentum.  Lee Majors Comes Again, in particular, hits with a rejuvinating forcefulness that seems to adrenalize the album's entire back third.

Of the more straight forward rap numbers, I like lead single Make Some Noise, Here's A Little Something For Ya, and the slow, low chugging Nonstop Disco Powerpack the best.  I'm also a big fan of the instrumental Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament, which highlights the band's unique sense of groove.

But in many ways, the album's finest moment is also its simplest, the all too brief interstial The Larry Routine, one of the goofiest...and funniest...rap skits I've heard in quite some time.

So in the end, a split vote.

Thumbs up for the album overall, thumbs way, way up for the production.  It's one of 2011's best party albums, but is just a little too infatuated with texture at the expense of movement to warrant a strong recommend.

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Make Some Noise, The Larry Routine, Lee Majors Come Again, Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament, Here's A Little Something For Ya.

Here's the celebrity-stuffed video for Make Some Noise.

Component Breakdown:
1. Make Some Noise - 8
2. Nonstop Disco Powerpack - 8
3. OK- 8
4. Too Many Rappers - 7
5. Say It - 8
6. The Bill Harper Collection - 7
7. Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win - 8
8. Long Burn The Fire - 6
9. Funky Donkey - 7
10. The Larry Routine - 9
11  Tadlock's Glasses - 6
12. Lee Majors Come Again - 9
13. Multilateral Nuclear Disarmanent - 8
14. Here's A Little Something For Ya - 8
15. Crazy A** S**t - 7
16. The Lisa Lisa/Full Force Routine - 8
Intanglibles - Average

What are your thoughts on The Beastie Boys Hot Sauce Committee Part Two?  Let readers know.

Friday, October 7, 2011

WAKE UP THE NATION - Paul Weller (2010)

I wish I could like Paul Weller more than I do.


There's so much about his talent and his dedication to craft that I admire.

A golden-voiced lifer who's been at it for more than thirty years as both a solo artist and a key member of The Jam and The Style Council, he's a wonderful lyricist and a daring, restless musician possessed of remarkable stylistic range. 

Blue-eyed soul, Brit-pop, prog, Celtic folk, experimental rock, metal, jazz, punk, adult contemporary, psychedelic jams...the man can truly do it all, and has delivered impressive songs in just about every modern genre.  I haven't heard him take on electronica, dubstep or a Joanna Newsom cover yet, but I'm sure such efforts are just another release or two away.

But in the end, Weller's stylistic wanderlust, while often his greatest strength, can also be his greatest weakness.

He's the classic "jack of all trades, master of none," consistently generating solid material in an astonishing range of niches, but only occasionally producing genuinely memorable songs.  After thirty years and dozens of LPs, he's had enough at bats to make for a killer live set list, but on individual albums, the results are often mixed, and that is definitely the case here.

Following 2008's better 22 Dreams, an expansive, theme-based album designed to take maximal advantage of Weller's natural eclecticism, Wake Up The Nation finds Weller trying to prove he can still rock it as well as the kids.  It's not a straight foray into punk, but it is a much harder rocking and stripped down album than 22 Dreams, with many of it sixteen songs clocking in well under three minutes.  As a statement of elderly swagger, it's not quite as successful a 2010 outing as say Grinderman II or especially OFF!'s First Four Eps, but it's a game effort nonetheless.

And as implied above, a few of the songs are fantastic.

Opener Moonshine, the title track, and the five-part Trees are all lively, effective rockers.  No Tears To Cry is even better, a stirring take on late 60s, Vegas-y kitsch, and then there's Aim High, one of the very best songs of 2010, just a monstrous three-minute slab of classic Curtis Mayfieldish falsetto-driven soul.

The remaining eleven tracks deliver on a variety of traditional rock flavors, many with deft, imaginative touches, but few made much of an impression on me despite the consistently high energy level.

A handful of the experimental rockers (Fast Car / Slow Traffic, She Speaks and 7 & 3 Is The Striker's Name) are outright clunky, and because Weller can't resist the temptation to add orchestral touches to even the most streamlined of his rockers, the faint scent of adult-contemporary genericism permeates much of the affair.

So just a mild recommend from me, but in fairness to Mr. Weller, most reviews of this album have been far more positive, so if you have any interest at all in hearing Wake Up The Nation, please don't let me be the one to dissuade you.

Like I said, despite my personal misgivings, there's so much about Paul Weller to like and respect.

Status: Mild Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Moonshine, No Tears To Cry, Aim High, Trees.

Here's the official video for Aim High.

Component Breakdown:
1. Moonshine - 8
2. Wake Up The Nation - 8
3. No Tears To Cry - 9
4. Fast Car / Slow Traffic - 5
5. Andromeda - 6
6. In Amsterdam - 7
7. She Speaks - 5
8. Find The Torch / Burn The Plans - 7
9. Aim High - 10
10. Trees - 8
11. Grasp And Still Connect - 7
12. Whatever Next - 7
13. 7 & 3 Is The Striker's Name - 6
14. Up The Dosage - 6
15. Pieces Of A Dream - 6
16. Two Fat Ladies - 7
Intangibles - Average To Low

What are your thoughts on Paul Weller's Wake Up The Nation?  Let readers know.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

SCANDALOUS (DELUXE VERSION) - Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears (2011)

There's a guitar solo that kicks in around the three minute mark of Since I Met You Baby, the tenth track on Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears's second LP Scandalous. It's hardly the most spectacular solo, but it feels perfect for that moment, and every time I hear it, all I can think is "this is exactly what contemporary music needs today - this sheer, old-fashioned love for the jam!"

And jamming, fellow listeners, is what Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears do best.

A blues/funk/garage act forged in the fires of Austin's fertile UT bar scene, The Honeybears can deliver the crisp discipline of traditional soul when it suits them, but it's their college band roots, their youthful eagerness to just tear down the house, the sets the band apart.

They're more than happy to steal riffs wholesale from past favorites (in one three song stretch alone you'll encounter blatant lifts from CCR's Suzie Q, Led Zeppelin's Communication Breakdown, and just about every riff from John Mayall's 60s classic Blues Breakers), and unlike other contemporary soul revivalists like the Dap Kings or Mayer Hawthorne, who seem to wear their restraint as badge of honor, The Honeybears openly welcome the mess that comes with going unrelentingly full throttle.  You can practically hear the band tripping over each other, so eager do they seem to rip into the next solo, the next killer brass run, the next vocal howl, and this enthusiasm imbues the entire album with a raunchy exuberance that's impossible to resist.

Lyrically, the band has only one classic theme on its, which Black Joe ponders
in all its permutations, sometimes quite humorously (i.e. check out the band's late night road trip to a Nevada brothel in Mustang Ranch)...but this isn't an album you throw on for the lyrics, this is an album you throw on to get the party started, and no record this year offers a better collection of bluesy party anthems than Scandalous.

There have been a handful of better releases in 2011, but I can't think of one that's more fun.

One final sure to buy the fifteen track Deluxe Version of this record rather than the original eleven song release.  Those four extra tracks are every bit as good as the original material and not to be missed.

Status: Strong Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Booty City, She's So Scandalous, Mustang Ranch, Snatch It Back And Hold It.

Here's the official video for Livin' In The Jungle.

Component Breakdown:
1. Livin' In The Jungle - 9
2. I'm Gonna Leave You - 8 
3. Booty City - 9
4. Black Snake - 8 
5. She's So Scandalous - 9 
6. Messin' - 7
7. Mustang Ranch - 9 
8. You Been Lyin' - 9
9. Ballad Of Jimmy Tanks - 7
10. Since I Met You Baby - 9
11. Jesus Took My Hand - 6
12. Stop Breakin ' Down - 8
13. What Love Is - 8
14. Funny Bone - 9
15. Snatch It Back And Hold It - 9
Intangibles - High.

What are your thoughts on Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears's Scandalous?  Let readers know!