U2: Songs Of Innocence

songsofinnocenceThe last time U2 released an album was so long ago that I was still over at the old place. I was also childless, which seems like a world ago. Anyway, when I reviewed 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, my take was that a U2 album now is just about setting up the live experience. That they were so much more than a studio band and, while the riffs were great, I felt like I was missing something hearing them not bouncing off of a stadium wall. Listening to that album again, I feel like that was accurate, but I also ended up being too harsh on them for what was a really good album.

All of which is to say that Songs Of Innocence is not No Line On The Horizon. This feels much smaller, very solitary. It’s headphones music, night driving music. It’s not big, ringing epic rock and roll, relying more on atmospheric synths than their recent records have. (The lead single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” is their closest thing to that, and it’s not enough to hold a crowd live.) In line with that, it’s also kind of boring. Most of these songs are good, and they’re all at least fine-with-good-parts. But, and this is crazy for an album that took five years to make, many of them sound half baked. There are stretches mid song that meander aimlessly, unsure of what they want to say or be. Bono’s lyrics are probably the worst of his career, and their badness is reinforced by him resorting to melisma and “whoa whoa whoa” and “oh oh oh” too often. Also “ooh ooh ooh.”

Another break from the typical U2 album, where the best songs are front-loaded, is that the best half of this album is its latter. There are only two likes in the first five tracks and then five of the last six get that rating.

I haven’t been giving out many “and-a-half” ratings lately. I had been agonizing too much over whether something was, say, three or 3.5 clowns. And I just decided that if I could clearly distinguish between the integer clown values that I would go with that. But an album like this is exactly why I brought in the half-clowns in the first place: it has too many faults to be a four-clown album, but I enjoy listening to it more than a three-clown album, which is a bit more of a begrudging like. Still, we’re probably in the bottom third of U2’s catalog when ranking by quality here. Now, that’s obviously a very big handicap for a new release of theirs, but, well, what else are you going to compare it to? They’re kind of their own center of gravity, you know?

Like: “Every Breaking Wave,” “California (There Is No End To Love),” “Volcano,” “Raised By Wolves,” “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight,” “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” “The Troubles”
Meh: “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” “Song For Someone,” “Iris (Hold Me Close),” “Cedarwood Road”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading


Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion I & II

useyourillusioni useyourillusioniiMan, this is an intimidating review. Conceptually supposed to be two albums, but come on, I don’t think anybody really treats them as anything other than one monolith, this is two packed CDs, each almost seventy-six(!) minutes, with a total of 30 tracks. This felt ridiculous at the time, but now, good God, nobody would get away with this kind of indulgence. I mean, this isn’t like one CD and then a deluxe CD with alternate mixes, this is, with the exception of the two versions of “Don’t Cry” (there’s an indulgence that should have been left behind), all entirely new material.

This is where Axl really starts to get weird, like in the super famous can’t handle it Michael Jackson kinda way, but swap out the pedophilia for misogyny. Before the Chinese Democracy craziness and delays, which put these to shame, there was the Use Your Illusion era of delays and craziness. The album was delayed several times with Axl reportedly scrapping entire albums’ worth of finished work at least once. Then he jumped into the crowd in St. Louis to fight somebody taking a picture (just re-read that sentence in 2015, good God) and the place rioted when the band quit because, again, somebody was taking. his. picture. I can’t even. And then, and this could only have happened in the CD-crazy 90’s, the band announced they’re going to release two albums, both with the same name, on the same day.

The anticipation was nuts. I remember this being one of those CDs I bought at midnight (remember that tradition?). And my initial reaction was that I hated them. Looking back, I hated them, for the most part, because, while the overall proportion of filler isn’t all that bad, when you have this much content a small proportion adds up to a decent amount. They were getting away from their guitar/drums hard-and-fast recipe, and when they did it wasn’t always all that good, and so I rejected it. And the better songs took a little longer to sink in.

But here’s the thing. These albums are really fucking good. I mean, no, they’re not as good as Appetite For Destruction, but in the annals of bands trying to follow up impossibly good albums, this is a damned fine entry. (Off the top of my head, Nirvana’s In Utero leads the class and I can’t think of any others I’d place as high as this one.) And, yeah, 30 tracks is way too many, but if you took, say, the best 15 tracks here and made an album with just those, well, for one it would be more than 80 minutes, but it’d be right up there with Appetite for quality, and I think you’d still be leaving quite a bit of good stuff on the cutting room floor.

And these discs are just steeped in legend. For example, it’s often said that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out on the same day. It was actually a week later, but Nirvana also gets associated with Michael Jackson’s Dangerous which came out a couple of months later, but that’s the holiday season during which Nevermind was blowing up.

Good God, I’m this far in and I still haven’t started the review proper. Okay, let’s firebomb our way through this thing. And, hell, I’m just making this up as I go, let’s just do this like White Album style and do it in like four sides.

We’ll call side one from “Right Next Door To Hell” (obvs) through “Back Off Bitch.” Okay, so right there, the misogyny. And I’ll be honest, it didn’t really strike me when I was 16. But it bothers me now. Anyway, Axl has some issues with women, and they are not represented well here. There’s no excuse for it, and I don’t mean to sidestep it, but I’m going to be here forever if I spend more time on it, so let’s just agree it’s a big black mark on his musical legacy and move on. Now, the thing about side 1 is that it’s the most bluesy, roots-rocky of all of them, which was something I was really rejecting at this point in my life, being more into alternate tunings and the like. But here you’ve got a very bright sound, and kind of a punky aggression to things that also didn’t fit with my broody metal mood. But I like almost all of these songs. I never need to hear “You Ain’t The First” (I could go on a tangent about how they cycle through lead singers on this album–it’s Izzy here–but I won’t) again and I’d like to change the lyrics to “Back Off,” but I want seven of these modified eight tracks in my collection. They’re great. And that still makes it like only the third-best side of the four.

Then side two is the rest of Use Your Illusion I. In these eight tracks, we have six really likes, one mix CD candidate, and the best song ever, “Coma,” which is 10:08 and, amazingly, justifies every second of that length, an excellent marathon of rhapsodic bliss, except the parts where all the women are stereotypically nagging him non-stop (see Rose, Axl – misogyny) and the doctors have some office politics tension in their voices. This is my favorite side. Take away “Garden Of Eden,” which has its place (but not here), and it’s just non-stop awesomeness for seven straight tracks. The last four are an amazing journey that should never have been buried so deep behind so much roots rock.

That brings us to side three, or the first side of the “night album” of the two. We’ll say this runs from “Civil War” to “Shotgun Blues.” This is the worst of the four sides. Their version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is great, and the first three tracks are very good, except the lyrics to “Civil War” are so naive and linguistically confused that it’s tough to listen to. After those four, though, we have two of the worst songs in the bunch. “Get In The Ring” is actually a pretty good song, but the lyrics are so petulantly juvenile with the band swearing so often in so much manufactured rage it feels like one big testosterone-filled stupid fest. “Shotgun Blues” keeps up the hating on other people (Axl really had some issues), but is another fine-but-not-great entry into Guns N’ Roses efforts to occasionally be a punk band (their next release The Spaghetti Incident, comprised a set of punk covers).

Now, the next two songs, “Breakdown” and “Pretty Tied Up,” respectively, lead off my side four. And, if they’d been reversed, I would have had the a-little-bit-silly, a-little-bit-misogynstic “Pretty Tied Up” close out side three. But I can’t have “Breakdown,” which is either the second,  third, or fourth best song on the album (“Coma” of course, “Dead Horse”, and “You Could Be Mine”) not be on side four, the second best side in the bunch. Totally epic with a great piano line, this one’s buried in the middle of the second album right behind a song where the band thinks we want to hear them yell at the editors of Circus and Spin magazines by name while pretending to care about the “kids spending their hard earned money.” “Breakdown” is almost certainly the best GnR song nobody’s ever heard, though that might also be “Locomotive,” which so wonderfully nearly falls apart at the “run off the tracks” lyric. Take a breather for “So Fine,” the Duff-sung song that would be a lot better if it weren’t for those orgasm-like sighs, which are just super uncomfortable to listen to with their close-mic’d moaning, in the beginning. “Estranged” is wonderful, if a bit too long, and completes the trilogy begun with “November Rain” (see, I didn’t even have time to talk about “November Rain” back on side two, that’s how much there is here) and “Don’t Cry.” Then there’s “You Could Be Mine.” A bit about that song: it was the first single off the albums and featured in Terminator 2. It came out before the albums did and, to take you back to the level of anticipation…imagine that all you’ve ever heard from Guns N’ Roses was Appetite, Lies, and then this song. This song is amazing and totally in the vein of Appetite but just a bit older and wiser. I mean, I think people forget how amazing this song was and what we thought it meant that we were going to get two albums’ worth of material this good in just a few months. And it’s basically buried as the last song in the collection because then you have the alternate version of “Don’t Cry,” which, I mean, why bother, and then Axl’s “My World” rap, which is mostly unfortunate though Axl’s ridiculous levels of talent keep it from being a total disaster in spite of his efforts. Reportedly the rest of the band didn’t know the song existed until the albums came out.

Anyway, there’s no way to appreciate this from a review. I don’t even think you can appreciate it all in 20 listens. I’ve been listening for over 20 years and I’m still not sure I’ve got it all.

Rating (applies to each album separately and both together):

Filed Between: Guns N’ Roses’ Lies and Chinese Democracy
Best Song Ever: “Coma”
Mix: “Dead Horse,” “Breakdown,” “You Could Be Mine”
Love: “Locomotive”
Really Like: “Right Next Door To Hell,” “Live And Let Die,” “Don’t Cry (Original Version),” “Double Talkin’ Jive,” “November Rain,” “The Garden,” “Don’t Damn Me,” “Bad Apples,” “Civil War,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Estranged”
Like: “Dust N’ Bones,” “Perfect Crime,” “Bad Obsession,” “Garden Of Eden,” “14 Years,” “Yesterdays,” “Shotgun Blues,” “Pretty Tied Up,” “Don’t Cry (Alternate Version)”
Meh: “You Ain’t The First,” “Back Off Bitch,” “So Fine,” “My World”
Dislike: “Get In The Ring”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Thurston Moore: Psychic Hearts

psychichearts“A lot like Sonic Youth without Kim Gordon,” reads my very first note on this album. And then I find out that Steve Shelley is on drums and Lee Ranaldo engineered and mixed the album. So it basically is Sonic Youth without Kim Gordon.

My next note says, “less noisy/experimental, more slacker.” I think that basically says what it needs to, though it may not be completely obviously that’s another comparison to Sonic Youth. This fits right into the Sonic Youth catalog circa 1995, the year this album was released. Except, of course, it’s missing Kim Gordon.

It’s like this is Thurston Moore’s weekend away from the wifey, cavorting with other women on almost every song, including Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, “See-Through Playmate,” “Cindy (Rotten Tanx),” “Cherry’s Blues,” and “Female Cop.”

The first 14 tracks feel long. Not so much individually, but as a whole you’re pretty worn out by the time you get through that stretch. And then there’s a 20 minute track at the end that does things like sit on the same strumming pattern for the first three-plus minutes of the song. And the amazing thing about Thurston Moore is that it ends up being not nearly as bad as it sounds. Many of these songs are pretty good, and all of them are listenable, though maybe not all in a row.

Still, it feels like Moore runs out of ideas after the first seven tracks or so, save the late-in-the-album gem “Cindy (Rotten Tanx).” You know what would have been nice and added some variety? If you’d done something like have a female vocalist sing about half of the songs.

Really Like: “Cindy (Rotten Tanx)”
Like: “Ono Soul,” “Psychic Hearts,” “Patti Smith Math Scratch,” “See-Through Playmate,” “Cherry’s Blues,” “Female Cop”
“Queen Bee And Her Pals,” “Pretty Bad,” “Blues From Beyond The Grave,” “Hang Out,” “Feathers,” “Tranquilizer,” “Staring Status,” “Elegy For All The Dead Rock Stars”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Melvins: Stoner Witch

stonerwitchI have to imagine that the club of boys clueless enough to purchase this album for their girlfriend is very small. And I am a member. I think I thought at the time that any woman who would be into me must have the same obviously infallible taste as me. And, to be fair, crossing the rubicon of being into me, I mean, you’ve gotta pass quite a few filter traps I’ve unintentionally set up around me. But still, why did I ever think she’d appreciate this?

Well, if you’re an “everything happens for a reason,” it was all leading up to this very moment when I’m writing this review. See, I’ve never been able to get her one sentence review out of my head: “This is a great album to listen to at night.” That one sentence was a complete bomb in my head as far as what music was. Up until then, I just thought music could be rated on a linear scale and you wanted to listen to the best music most of the time, the very good music slightly less, the pretty good music sometimes, and so on. The idea that you might want to listen to different music based on different times of the day or different activities…this was absolutely crazy to me. And completely explains (at least part of) why nobody wanted me picking music at school dances and parties.

There are three-and-a-half tracks that put it squarely into the the night listening genre: the slow and quiet “Shevil” and “Lividity” (two of the last three tracks on the album), the bluesy “Goose Freight Train,” and the first half of the noisefest-cum-rocker “Magic Pig Detective.” And the rest of the album, which features some of the best intro-to-Melvins rockers in their entire catalog, fits just as well into a party-hard night situation as it does a morning-coffee-let’s-kill-this-thing vibe.

Most of the rockers are front-loaded and most of the sound experiment stuff is back-loaded, making this a bit of a tale-of-two-bands kind of thing. Looking back, after the commercial disappointment of the Atlantic debut, Houdini, and the band’s disappointment with Kurt Cobain’s “production” of that album (he was notoriously and allegedly nodding off on heroin the entire time) this feels like the band showing two very different faces,  both very different from the much grungier, dirtier, punkier feel of its major label predecessor. Here they’re both more accessible, catchy, and rockingier while also being more experimental, slower, sludgier, and trippier.

In the way that it shows those two sides of the band, it’s almost a perfect introduction to Melvins’ discography. Don’t enter unless you both (i) like the rockers and (ii) can at least stand the experimental stuff. Natch, I love both. And I really like examplars from both sides on this disc. Still, something about the two-sidedness of it–and maybe some of it’s sequencing, though I don’t think that’s all of it–makes it fall just shy of something that carries me through on a start-to-finish journey.

Mix: “Queen,” “Sweet Willy Rollbar,” “Revolve,” “Roadbull”
Really Like: “At The Stake,” “Magic Pig Detective,” “June Bug”
Like: “Skweetis,” “Goose Freight Train,” “Shevil,” “Lividity”
Filed Between: Melvins’ Prick and Queen single
Song Notes: After the jump
Continue reading