Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kid Rock - Born Free [album review]

* Released in November 2010
Kid Rock lost me for a good ten years after I first discovered him (along with the rest of the world) back in 1998 on Devil Without A Cause. His rap-metal hybrid style initially had an oddly appealing meatheaded quality to it, but coupled with Rock's in-your-face "stone cold pimp" persona, it got tiresome very quickly. A succession of interchangeable albums followed and I simply lost interest. Fast forward to 2007 and I'm watching the video for "So Hott", the first single off Kid Rock's humbly titled newest album, Rock N Roll Jesus. I was amazed, quite frankly, at how bad the song (and video) was. It features one of the most unoriginal guitar riffs I'd ever heard and, along with the drooling lyrics, sounded like the epitome of lowbrow, lowest common denominator rock (as the extra "t" in the title might have suggested). A few months later I heard "All Summer Long", his huge hit that sampled and mashed up Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama". Decent, not to mention an extremely clever musical idea, I thought. Fast forward again to the Grammy Awards in early 2009 and Rock won me back in a big way with his uplifting medley performance of Rock N Roll Jesus' "Amen", "All Summer Long", and the album's title track. There was a much more interesting, soulful element to his music that I hadn't heard before and it lead me to pick up Rock N Roll Jesus, which turned out to be a revelation. A diverse range of styles covering blues, country, pop, hard rock, classic rock, southern rock, rap, metal, and even touches of gospel, added up to a surprisingly strong collection of songs. Even "So Hott" grew on me a little, albeit in a "guilty pleasure" sort of way.
For Born Free, his eighth studio album, Rock enlists the services of über producer Rick Rubin to assist in the next step of his musical evolution. Additionally, he shook things up in the studio by replacing his normal band with a group of seasoned musicians, including Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers on keyboards. The results fall significantly short of the high water mark set by its predecessor, however. There's a more mature sensibility to the work (as evidenced by the virtual dearth of heavy rock or rapping), but the songs just aren't there. Mostly, Rock indulges his classic rock fixation, with the man responsible for being his biggest influence from that genre, fellow Michiganian Bob Seger, even contributing piano to the song "Collide". The track also features Sheryl Crow duetting with Rock and is by far the best song on the album, not to mention a marked improvement on the pair's 2003 collaboration, "Picture".
Little else on Born Free makes much of an impact, with the bulk of it feeling hollow and weightless. The handful of songs that deviate from a 70's heartland rock sound include the sappy "Care" (featuring an odd pairing of musicians in singer Martina McBride and rapper T.I.), a sleepy, stoned-out old school country number featuring country artist Zac Brown ("Flying High"), and a forgettable blues shuffle ("Rock Bottom Blues"). I will give Rock credit for pulling off a ballsy falsetto throughout the entire vocal delivery in the song "For The First Time (In A Long Time)" - too bad that's the only notable thing about it.
The album's other glaring problem are the trite lyrics that rarely stray far from the well-worn cliché path. A song like "God Bless Saturday" has as much depth as Loverboy's similarly themed "Working For The Weekend", for example. Other songs like "Care" or "Times Like These" that take a more serious lyrical approach (caring for your fellow brothers and sisters, the economic downturn) can't match their weightier subject matter with a remotely original lyrical idea. The days of singing about banging strippers may be gone for Kid Rock now, but a more mature approach fails to translate into a memorable result on Born Free.
Rating: ★★★

Friday, April 15, 2011

Foo Fighters - Wasting Light [album review]

* Released April 12th
Hot damn, the Foo Fighters finally went and made another killer album. It's been some time since we got one of these - by my estimation, you'd have to go all the way back to 1999's There Is Nothing Left To Lose. This viewpoint would surely spark a heated debate amongst Foo fans about the merits of the three studio albums that followed, but I feel each of those coasted by on a handful of good-to-excellent songs and were mainly loaded with far too much filler (as I stated here when I reviewed their 2009 Greatest Hits album). Foo guitarist, lead singer, and head honcho Dave Grohl even admitted to the now-defunct Blender magazine in 2005 that shortly after the release of 2002's One By One he realized "half of it was chud". You can forgive me if I had attached a "boy who cried wolf" attitude to this album's pre-release hype and mid-recording interviews with Grohl, where he enthusiastically labelled it the band's heaviest and strongest album yet. Some factors that did up the ante in the interesting department was the news that they were recording in Grohl's garage strictly on old school analog equipment and tape, with Butch Vig producing. Vig, of course, produced the landmark Nevermind from Grohl's former band, Nirvana, and also produced new tracks "Wheels" and "Word Forward" from the Foo's Greatest Hits. Whether Wasting Light is the group's heaviest release is debatable; to be sure, it emanates with massive walls of guitars that'll shred your face off (see "White Limo"), but so did previous albums. I mean, you can't get a whole lot heavier than the title track from 2005's In Your Honor. A strong case, however, can definitely be made for Wasting Light, the group's seventh studio album, standing as their finest yet. In fact, I'll just flat out say it is. From opener "Bridge Burning" through to closing track "Walk", it's an amazing assemblage of consistency and quality that doesn't remotely let up until about 40 minutes into the album's 48 minute running time. Here's the track-by-track breakdown:
"Bridge Burning": A simplistic, yet killer guitar riff propels this standout album tone-setter, with some subtle stylistic elements from their 2002 hit "One By One" evident on the verse guitar parts. Grohl's unique vocal style, which can find him effectively going from restrained melody to guttural scream at the drop of a hat, is on full display here. Rhythm guitarist Pat Smear, who was with the band from 1994-1997 before quitting and returning almost a decade later, makes his first full return to a Foos album since '97's The Color And The Shape, and it fattens up an already muscular sound. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the group is rounded out by guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer Taylor Hawkins.
"Rope": The album's first single opens with a clean guitar sound touched with an echo effect, offset by a dirty buzzing riff that leads into the main guitar section. Although the Foo Fighters are a guitar-based band, their secret, unsung weapon lies perched on the drum stool. Drumming in a band where Grohl is the boss can't be the easiest job (just ask previous drummer William Goldsmith, who Grohl fired), yet Hawkins has managed to establish himself as one of the finer rock drummers around. I love the heavy hitters and Hawkins is just that, but it's also the canny, artful touches to his playing that make him stand out. Examples: the busy ride cymbal pattern Hawkins plays during the chorus here, or the extra snare drum hits he lightly throws in during the last half of the verse sections, which subtly up the song's groove factor. After the first live performances of this song, the blogosphere was buzzing about how the Foos had gone full-on Rush, which was way overstated. Granted, there are some prog rock influences here, though (Hawkins gets a couple of brief solo interludes à la Neil Peart).
"Dear Rosemary": One of the more melodic numbers on the album, which is saying something. More great guitar interplay, as the verse sections feature three guitars playing tastefully different parts that steer the song into a big, tuneful Foo Fighters-101 chorus. One of Grohl's musical heroes, Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould, adds some nice harmony background vocals and some limited lead vocal lines at the end of the song, adding a fresh vocal element to the band's sound.
"White Limo": Just a straight-up kicking and raw song that shows Grohl's hardcore punk roots. On an album steeped in monster guitar riffs, this one leads the way. The vocals are mostly distorted beyond comprehension - I mean, I've already listened to this album a good 30-40 times since getting hold of an early online leak a couple of weeks ago and I still have no idea what Grohl is singing (nay, screaming) during most of it. You can make out bits and pieces when the distortion effect is dialed down somewhat during the chorus, otherwise it's pretty much just sit back and let "White Limo" pummel you. Reminiscent of "Weenie Beenie" off the debut album.
"Arlandria": "Loud-quiet-loud, etc.", or an inversion of that familiar Foos formula makes up the framework of this and many of the other tracks on Wasting Light. Don't mistake a reliance on comfortable, old songwriting habits for a band coasting, though - nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the familiar tricks, there's still a freshness to it, with a seemingly renewed energy radiating from the group.
"These Days": This one leans a little to the poppier side, which should translate to a wider crossover appeal if it gets released as a single. I can totally hear this playing on one of those retail music services that places like Walmart or Home Depot use. The mainstream musical leanings belie a dark bitterness to the lyrics, which pointedly reference someone who one day will get their own comeuppance.
"Back And Forth": It's a clear measure of the album's strength that nearly every track on it (including this one) could be released as a single. If it was the 80's, I could see a Thriller or Hysteria-like half dozen singles come off Wasting Light.
"A Matter Of Time": Further inventive guitar teamwork, particularly during the pre-chorus section, before getting hammered home during the chorus by quaking power chords and Hawkins' jackhammer bass drum.
"Miss The Misery": Good Lord, we're nine songs in and still batting 1.000.
"I Should Have Known": I spoke too soon. This one is Wasting Light's moodiest and most restrained song (at least the first half of it), not to mention its weakest. Truthfully, it isn't even all that bad - it just stands out because it isn't downright great like the other ten tracks surrounding it. Grohl states in the just-released band documentary Foo Fighters: Back And Forth (review coming soon) that the lyrics are derived from numerous situations in his past, including his relationship with former Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain. Coupled with the presence of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic (on accordion and bass) and Vig, this tints the track with a somewhat "full circle" spirit. This suggests Grohl, who has always been uneasy with living in the long shadow cast by Nirvana and the tragic circumstances that ended the band, is better coming to terms with his legacy.
"Walk": A slow builder surges towards an amped-up finish that finds Grohl screaming "I never wanna die" at the top of his lungs. There's a healing, optimistic tone to the lyrics that make it seem like the appropriate choice to close the album. Like any number of these tracks, it could become a staple in the Foos' setlists for years to come, residing comfortably alongside old standbys like "Everlong", "Times Like These", "My Hero", or "Learn To Fly".
2007's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, the group's last studio album, was by far their weakest yet, which makes the accomplishments here stand out even more. Wasting Light almost immediately had that intangible "special" quality to it that fundamentally hits me at my core whenever I play it, burrowing deeper than most of the music this jaded music junkie's ears hear. It's a feeling I haven't experienced in almost three years, since Metallica's Death Magnetic album, and one that comes along very rarely for me. It may only be April, but if I hear a better album this year I'll be stunned...and over the bloody moon that lightning struck twice in one year. Am I gushing too much? Well, Wasting Light is most certainly gush-worthy.
Packaging and bonus tracks: Grohl came up with the brilliant marketing plan of cutting up the complete analog master tape the album was recorded on into a million pieces measuring about 1" by 2", with one piece each being included in the first million copies of the CD packaging, making a nifty keepsake for fans. Digital backups of the masters were made, of course. As Grohl recently told L.A. Weekly magazine, "People will probably get one note, or one drumbeat...if a million people got together and put it back together they'd get the whole album". The CD booklet is nothing special, even a little on the lame side. Lyrics would have been preferable to the dull, pixelated photography the band decided to use. Bonus tracks available on both the Best Buy and iTunes deluxe editions include "Better Off", an average sounding classic rock throwback that they were wise to relegate to "b-side" status, and a remix of "Rope" by deadmau5, which is about as pointless and uninteresting as I would have expected coming from a (ugh) DJ who performs while wearing a huge costume mouse head. Other bonuses on the iTunes deluxe edition include the videos for "Rope" and "White Limo", the latter of which features bad acting from Motörhead's Lemmy, is super low-budget, intentionally cheesy, and, magnificently, makes no sense.
Rating: ★★★★★

Monday, April 11, 2011

Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane [album review]

* Released tomorrow
Paper Airplane is Alison Krauss' first album with Union Station since 2004's Lonely Runs Both Ways and her newest since pairing with Robert Plant for 2007's multi-platinum Raising Sand album. Raising Sand was a staple on music critics' "best of" lists that year and won six Grammys, including Album Of The Year. The duo attempted to record a followup, but failed to capture the same magic and decided to shelve the results, with a plan to revisit the project some time in the future. Speaking of Grammys, would you believe that Krauss has more of them (26) than any other female artist in Grammy history and the third most of any artist? An early start in the music business (signed at age 14, released her debut two years later, and joined Union Station in 1989) translates into a lengthy discography (this is her 14th release) and musical experience well beyond her 39 years.
The members of Union Station, all of whom have successful careers outside of the band, include Barry Bales (bass), Ron Block (banjo and guitar), Jerry Douglas (Dobro and lap steel guitar), and Dan Tyminski (guitar, mandolin, and occasionally lead vocals). All contribute harmony vocals and Krauss rounds out the band's instrumental sound with her accomplished skills on the fiddle. Tyminski, by the way, was the real voice behind George Clooney's singing performances in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. That soundtrack, along with the group's work on the Cold Mountain soundtrack and their steadily building commercial successes from their regular albums, helped bring bluegrass music back to a mainstream audience.
Krauss and her band are at their best when she gets the vocal spotlight, as Paper Airplane once again proves. Of the eleven tracks, she sings lead on eight, with Tyminski assuming vocal duties on the other three ("Dust Bowl Children", "On The Outside Looking In", and "Bonita And Bill Butler"). As with past AK & US albums, I find myself skipping the Tyminski-sung tracks because they tend to adhere closer to a traditional bluegrass sound, which means the banjo is usually front and centre. I'm simply not predisposed to appreciating the sound the instrument delivers. I respect its history and the skill it takes to play one, but too much of it just gives me hillbilly music overload. Combine that with the fact that Tyminski, while a capable enough singer, simply pales in comparison to Krauss' uniquely graceful and haunting voice. It leaves me with the same reaction I get when I listen to a Gun N' Roses album where bassist Duff McKagan spells Axl Rose on vocals, or an Aerosmith album where guitarist Joe Perry takes the lead mic for a song: this is not why I listen to this artist.
Focussing just on the songs Krauss sings, the group doesn't stray far from the sound they've perfected on previous releases. There's a "stripped down" component to their work (derived from the use of mostly acoustic instruments and general lack of percussion) that belies the many musical layers and textures at the heart of their music, which does a masterful job at combining elements of bluegrass, country, and pop vocal melodies. The title track was written by frequent AK & US collaborator Robert Lee Castleman and is essentially a pop tune wrapped in a Nashville-style dressing. Lyrically, it addresses the raw emotions concerning a dying relationship and the song is downright goosebump-inducing. "Lie Awake", written by Krauss' brother and another songwriter named Angel Snow, has somewhat of a plodding rhythmic feel that Krauss salvages single-handedly with her sweet voice. "Lay My Burden Down", "My Love Follows You Where You Go", and "Miles To Go" finds the group at their most upbeat when Krauss is singing lead, which is still relatively restrained (Tyminski's lead vocal songs usually find the group amping up the song tempos). The album's starkest song is a cover of Richard Thompson's "Dimming Of The Day" and it's one of the highlights here, as is album closer "My Opening Farewell", written by Jackson Browne.
Paper Airplane contains mostly great songs, flawless musicianship, and one of the standout voices in contemporary music in Krauss, yet there are a couple of big obstacles I just can't overcome in appreciating the album a little more. Aside from the lead vocal issue, I can't look past the fact that AK & US, throughout their career, rely almost exclusively on outside songwriters for their material. I know this is a Nashville tradition and a lot of superstars (like Elvis and Frank Sinatra, plus many of today's pop artists) don't write their own songs, but something about it just doesn't sit quite right with me. Perhaps I should just appreciate the end results and give Krauss and company credit for knowing their limitations and sticking with playing to their strengths.
Rating: ★★★★★