Florence + The Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

howbighowbluehowbeautifulThis is a bit of a weird entry point for me for Florence + The Machine. I’d heard and been intrigued by parts of 2011’s Ceremonials…I think I even gave it a few spins in the dark, dark early days of 2012…but never quite worked up the momentum around it to commit to giving it a proper review. So then this follow-up album got released in May of this year, right about the time I started peppering my “to listen to” lists with more new stuff than I’d been used to. And so here I am, face to face with this big fat meh-burger of an album, not quite sure what to say about it.

Honestly, the best story I can tell about it is that I was listening to it the other day, and My Baby calls out from another room, “Is this Florence + The Machine?” And that’s not even a good story because you don’t know My Baby well enough to be surprised by that.

Or I could go with the album’s similarities to the last one I reviewed, Cop Shoot Cop’s Release. They’re really nothing alike…they just happened to get into my queue back to back and they both sound much better in earbuds than in overear headphones or speakers.

Okay, fine, let’s really write this thing. The main thing is Florence Welch’s voice, which is strong without being strident and emotive without being fey. She’s got dynamic and frequency range and rocks it over some cool, sometimes cryptic, lyrics. I think there’s a real band here…not a bedroom iPad project, though everything’s produced to sound like it was done on an iPad. There’s synths and horns made to sound like synths and drums made to sound like a drum machine and okay that probably is a drum machine doing the tambo on “Queen Of Peace.”

Everything’s pretty well-crafted, though there’s a tendency to meandering at times. The band hits a variety of tempi and keys. It’s competent. It’s distinct…My Baby can recall the band’s name after having only heard them briefly(?). And yet, despite the lush instrumentation and Welch’s voice, it still rings uninspired. It’s like too much Millenial hipster disaffected coffee shop background music, designed to signify some kind of in-crowd cred without actually snapping you out of your beard-trimming reverie.

There isn’t a bad song on here, and just over half of the 11 tracks are Like. “Caught” gets knocked down to Dislike not because the song is bad but because there’s a drone-y instrument in there that sounds like a fluorescent light, a sound that drives me batty.

When the band rocks, as they do primarily at the top of the album, they’re strongest. Rick Springfield guitars on “What Kind Of Man” and Van Morrison vocal stylings on “Queen Of Peace” are this modern band’s 70’s and 80’s touchpoints. I also hear some True Colors-era Cyndi Lauper. When they slow it down, though, I don’t get angry, I just get bored. I don’t think I could hum “Various Storms & Saints” or “Long & Lost” for you even while they’re playing.

If they’d kept this to the six Likes and then maybe”Queen Of Peace” I’d probably be tempted to push this up a half-clown. This collection as is, though…I’ve enjoyed these listens…but I’m done with this flavor now.

Like: “Ship To Wreck,” “What Kind Of Man,” “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” “Delilah,” “St. Jude,” “Mother”
Meh: “Queen Of Peace,” “Various Storms & Saints,” “Long & Lost,” “Third Eye”
Dislike: “Caught”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading


Cop Shot Cop: Release

releaseTom Waits did a show with The Bad Seeds. They added the horns from Morphine and the industrial-ish tendencies of Girls Against Boys. The result was Cop Shoot Cop’s 1994 album Release. I mean, not really, but if you just told me that’s what this album was and then played it for me, I would have no trouble believing you.

As brilliant as that sounds, all of those four artists have a tendency to clunk at times, and while this album is far from a clunker, or even containing a clunker, this album also reflects some of the limitations you’d get by mimicking those artists too closely instead of pulling in only the highlights from each contributor.

Producer Dave Sardy (who, even though I’ve never heard of him, has quite a storied discography) is a couple of decades ahead of his time here as this album sounds much better in earbuds than in over-ear headphones or speakers. The intimacy resulting from being inside your ear makes the gruff vocals, abrasive samples, and growling basses (there are two in this band) much more impactful. From further away you’re left with songs that congeal into a wash of one combined sound and groove early on and sit there…you can’t appreciate the more subtle touches underneath the more prominent milieu.

You can also tell Sardy has done some work scoring films, as he makes the band’s unique instrumentation (did I mention there are two basses and samples aplenty?) work cinematically. The horns in “Last Legs” act as sirens in a movie scene of a heist gone wrong, with first responders quickly closing in on a chaotic scene of confusion. “Swimming In Circles” is a Morphine-heavy dose of spookiness, and “Turning Inside Out,” with its prominent circular saw sample, is either some kind of dystopic industrial wasteland or a scene out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a combination of the two.

I like this a lot. And I love it when I’m listening with earbuds. But I don’t love earbuds. So for me, I’ve got to find some middle ground. And that’s three-and-a-half clowns.

Mix: “Turning Inside Out”
Really Like:
“Two At A Time,” “Any Day Now,” “Swimming In Circles,” “Suckerpunch”
Like: “Interference,” “Last Legs,” “Slackjaw,” “Lullaby,” “Ambulance Song,” “The Divorce”
Meh: “It Only Hurts When I Breathe,” “Money-Drunk”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Muse: Drones

dronesMuse’s first album came out in 1999, but I didn’t find out about them until two years ago when One Week//One Band covered them. Which is way too long to go without knowing of a band who is totally in my sweet spot. They’re like Queen meets Rick Springfield meets Queensrÿche in a melding of power pop, sci-fi fantasy conspiracy lyrics, and howling falsetto juxtaposed against choral arrangements.

Drones is the band’s seventh album, and I almost didn’t listen to it, given that I figured the band had probably started to suck by now anyway. Well, I’m glad I picked it up, because if this is a band that’s gone on to suck I can’t wait to hear them at their peak.

The titular drones in this concept album are, from what I can tell, people who have been mentally programmed to be killers for the military, which is explained in the three tracks that lead off the album, the middle one if which is the album’s low point. “[Drill Sergeant]” is the aural portion of the brainwashing, with the sergeant yelling at the drone, and it’s just so sophomoric and dumb it’s basically unlistenable. Neither actor can carry out their part and the track is only like 30 seconds long. It shouldn’t have been that hard.

Anyway, there’s some kind of conflict and by the time we get to the second half of the album, our hero is defecting and revolting, and it all lacks too many specifics, but I haven’t looked at the lyrics sheet and really who cares? There’s an emotional journey here that follows the arc of a basic story and you don’t need anything more than that. Everything you need to understand what’s happening to this character is there: exposition, development, conflict, victory. These are two-dimensional characters in a story you’ve heard a dozen times but it doesn’t matter because good god it’s catchy and dancey and fist-raisey and close-your-eyes-dramatically-while-you-sing-along-at-the-climax-y.

And then we’re not quite 75% of the way through the album and we hit the denouement. It’s a good denouement, but at like one-third of the disc’s length it messes with what could have been a more concise finish.

Muse is bold and ambitious. And because of that, they seem to come in for a lot of derision in today’s age of cynicism. And I kinda get that. Matthew Bellamy plays the part of ridiculous adolescent very well, the lyrics are naive and cover material that’s even too worn out for the science fiction genre, and they overreach, so when they miss their target it’s cringeworthy. But without overreaching they wouldn’t be as good as they are, and I’m very willing to accept a few cringes when they hit their mark as often as they do, ‘cuz it’s a damned fine mark.

Mix: “Mercy,” “Reapers,” “The Handler,” “Revolt”
Really Like: “Defector,” “Aftermath”
Like: “Dead Inside,” “Psycho,” “The Globalist,” “Drones”
Meh: “[JFK]”
Hate: “[Drill Sergeant]”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Mansun: Attack Of The Grey Lantern

attackofthegreylanternMansun’s debut effort is a Britpop album revered in the UK, so of course I hate it. At my ever-advancing age, I’ve given up on ever reconciling what it is about this snot-nosed whine that so appeals to Brits. I mean, they know they’re wrong, right? It’s all just some elaborate hoax they’re playing on us after giving us The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, just for starters, right? Right?!

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve come to the point where I can hear what they like about it, and almost step back and review it somewhat dispassionately under those conditions. And when I do that, this is quite good for its genre–it’s got some very well-sonically-crafted moments where the layers of sissy guitars, keys, and whiny vox mix perfectly with the oddball sound effects they’ve added here and there–but that’s not what this blog is about.

On this blog, I can’t get past “Taxloss,” the cryptic reference to George Harrison’s “Taxman,” whose lyrics (“Taxman”‘s) almost get forgiven because the song is so awesome. But in Mansun’s hands the gesture loses its mathematical poetry to nonsensical, directly insulting lyrics delivered in a whiny tone in a song that stretches itself twice as long as it needs to be for a breakdown that features mostly static. On this blog I can’t get past the horrid whiny penultimate tracks of the album, “Egg Shaped Fred” and “Dark Mavis,” where we’re treated to the ultimate in whine and a song that’s closer to nine minutes than eight with few bright spots on either end.

If I could get past those things I’d tell you about how four of the first six tracks are quite nice, especially the only song with some real muscle on the entire album, “Stripper Vicar.” I’d rave about album closer, “An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter,” which has a brilliant chorus about how “the lyrics aren’t supposed to mean that much/they’re just a vehicle for a lovely voice” and wonderful Syd Barrett-esque sound collages and sparse instrumentation. But on this blog I’m mostly frustrated that the best track is just something that sounds like an afterthought and may have even served as a hidden track back in the day.

Really Like: “An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter”
Like: “The Chad Who Loved Me,” “Mansun’s Only Love Song,” “Wide Open Space,” “Stripper Vicar,” “Naked Twister”
“You Who Do You Hate,” “Disgusting,” “She Makes My Nose Bleed,”
“Egg Shaped Fred,” “Dark Mavis”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Veruca Salt: Eight Arms To Hold You

eightarmstoholdyouIt’s been over five years since I reviewed Veruca Salt’s 1994 debut, American Thighs, over at an old joint. I remember loving that album and gave it four [clowns]. Given that, I’m surprised it took me so long to review what was, until this year, the only other album the combination of Nina Gordon and Louise Post put out together. Regardless, I wanted to ride the reunion train that left the station earlier this year, and so I decided to catch up.

I’m also surprised it took the band three years to follow up American Thighs with a proper album, given how hot the iron was with that disc’s hit “Seether” (a track they name-check here in the first single “Volcano Girls,” which is a bold move to say the least). It’s additionally surprising that the gap between albums was three years given that this feels tired and rushed, as if they were trying to strike when the iron was hot, right after they got off of a whirlwind tour or something. Maybe it’s Bob Rock’s typically big, empty production (not sure why bands who weren’t Mötley Crüe ever worked with him) or maybe it’s the presentation of the same symptoms that led to Nina Gordon leaving the band to pursue a solo career. Who knows? I can’t find anything anywhere that hints there was any kind of discord within the band.

They still do a lot of what they did well well [sic]. The lyrics are witty and powerful, though I can never quite get the angle, whether it’s first-person or third-person, whether it’s empowering or shameful…. Like what’s going on in “One Last Time”: “Love me like a monster/One last time/Control me like a father/One last time/Stay with me till I’m stronger”? The guitars are also still the centerpiece of the band, though instead of carrying a lot of melody, here they’re more noisy, heavy, and angry. There’s still plenty of poppy melody, but it’s usually concentrated in the verses and the choruses end up being repetitive let-downs (e.g., “Stoneface,” “Awesome”), which is a big part of why this album feels rushed, because the songs feel half-written. Song structure is still good…the bridges end up being the best part quite a bit of the time.

They’ve also ventured into new territory. I mentioned the noisier guitar feel. There’s also a broader sonic canvas, encompassing strings (“Benjamin”) and synths (“Don’t Make Me Prove It,” “Sound Of The Bell”), that are layered really nicely under the bombast (so, there you go, kudos, Bob Rock).

One of the things I said about American Thighs is that it really sums up 1994 almost perfectly. Eight Arms To Hold You‘s relationship with 1997 is more complex. They seem to reference Rocky Horror Picture Show from two decades prior with a “What’s coming over me” line in “Awesome.” In the other chronological direction, the line “volcano girls we really can’t be beat” gets at a sentiment Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” would render void of all the excitement here 13 years later. And “Loneliness Is Worse” sounds like Mutt Lange-produced Shania Twain from the same era as this record. So in the end it kind of averages out to 1997, I guess.

Sometimes bands, in inventing a new sound, need to release a mid-point album that isn’t as good as the old sound they had or the new sound is going to be once it’s developed. This might have been one of those albums, but when the band essentially broke up after this disc, we were robbed of every knowing where this was meant to go. For 18 years, then, it stood as a very good but unsatisfying swan song for the original lineup. And as such, I’m not sure if I want to let it stand as such, or if I want to throw caution to the wind and find out what this year’s reunion album, Ghost Notes, has to offer. Stay tuned, I guess.

Mix: “The Morning Sad”
Really Like: “Volcano Girls,” “Don’t Make Me Prove It,” “One Last Time,” “With David Bowie,” “Earthcrosser”
“Straight,” “Awesome,” “Benjamin,” “Sound Of The Bell,” “Loneliness Is Worse,” “Stoneface”
Meh: “Shutterbug,” “Venus Man Trap”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Mother Love Bone: Apple

appleSo here it is, the legendary Apple, Mother Love Bone’s sole album. You can read more of the band’s history in my review of their EP leading into this, Shine. The short version is that charismatic lead singer Andrew Wood died shortly before this album was scheduled to be released in March of 1990. The album was postponed until July. Then Temple Of The Dog. Then Pearl Jam. History.

It’s a great album, rivaling Pearl Jam’s best (which, for the record, is Ten). As I said with regard to Shine, you know “Crown Of Thorns” from the Singles soundtrack, but for my money the band is best on the uptempo tracks (e.g., “Come Bite The Apple,” “This Is Shangri-La”) which takes nothing away from the fantastic slower tracks (“Gentle Groove,” “Stargazer”). The disc loses half a clown due to some clunky lyrics here and there (which is surprising given how fantastically vivid the lyrics are throughout), most notably on “Man Of Golden Words” and “Holy Roller.”

It’s a testament to the talents of guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament that they went from Green River to Mother Love Bone to Pearl Jam, able to support those three very different lead singers each doing their own thing.

The album stands up well 25 (!) years later. Many have suggested this give a glimpse into an alternate history where instead of heading the grunge/alternative path we go on this glam/alternative path. With Mother Love Bone instead of Pearl Jam, things would have been quite different, but you still would have had Nevermind, Facelift, and Badmotorfinger. Personally, I prefer to just appreciate this as a really nice little recording of a place and time that was amazing and fleeting and sits chronologically right at a point where the music industry was about to get its feet pulled out from under it. Everybody thought Andrew Wood was going to do that…nobody is thinking about Kurt Cobain here. It’s just an amazing document with that perspective, and a hell of a listen even without it.

Mix: “Stardog Champion,” “Come Bite The Apple,” “Stargazer”
Love: “This Is Shangri-La”
Really Like: “Holy Roller,” “Heartshine,” “Capricorn Sister,” “Gentle Groove,” “Mr. Danny Boy,” “Crown Of Thorns”
Like: “Bone China,” “Captain Hi-Top,” “Man Of Golden Words”
Filed Between: Mother Love Bone’s Shine and Stardog Champion
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Morrissey: Your Arsenal

yourarsenalThis is my first real time spent with Morrissey (though I did review (positively) a disc by The Smiths a while back). And, yeah, the guy’s a total caricature of militant bleeding-heartness crossed with sexual ambiguity (hell just ambiguity in general) and a heavy, heavy dose of Britishness. Mopey, broody, self-absorbed. Whether he’s singing “London is dead” six times in a row “Glamorous Glue,” singing about being “the last truly British people you will ever know” in “We’ll Let You Know,” or making the phrase “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” the centerpiece of the album’s centerpiece and giving that track that phrase as it’s title, the guy is just one eye roll after another. And that’s even before we get to the laughter lyrics (“ah ha ha ha ha…”) in “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.”

But. And this is a big but. I’m pissed at all of you for not telling me that he could be like this and be awesome at the same time. I mean, even in 1992, when I was wound as tight as girls crossed their legs when I was near, I think I would have loved this. I mean, musically, it’s almost a metal album. It begins with two heavy songs that feature muscular, swaggering guitar riffs, the first with a title basically threatening the interlocutor into friendship (“You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side”).

Lyrically, Morrissey is just working on a different plane from the rest of us. Take “The National Front Disco,” whose controversy Wikipedia summarizes nicely. Moz asks the interviewers to tell him what’s racist, hateful, etc. about the song and they can’t. But I can. It’s that it’s this gorgeously beautiful song about friends and family feeling like they’re losing the son and friend to the racist, hateful National Front. And it’s purely out of love and doesn’t condemn and it’s told from the a-hole’s point of view. And it’s beautiful. And we don’t know how to make sense of that juxtaposition. And there is Morrissey’s genius right there.

And then there’s “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” and “You’re The One For Me, Fatty.” The former sounds just bonkers because, while I may be envious of their things sometimes, I don’t hate my friends’ success. And the latter is just, like, what is this, some kind of weird abusive relationship? But then you find out the former is about Morrissey’s feelings himself when his friends were successful and you realize that kind of competitiveness is inseparable from his genius and the latter is kind of a silly inside joke he wrote about a friend and you’re just like oh my god how come we take this guy so seriously let’s relax but it’s obvious why we take him seriously because just listen to him. I mean, the guy’s brilliant, but I don’t think I’d ever want to hang with him.

This album’s perfect from start to finish. Every note, every sound melded in (there’s a pretty clear line through here from The Wall to The Bends) is perfectly crafted, in the right order, at the right volume. Take Jeff Buckley’s voice, put it in the head of a genius and you’ve got Morrissey. Put that guy in a room with a couple of rockabilly and glam rock guitar geniuses, and you get Your Arsenal, an entrancing album that defies you to turn it off or stop paying attention. I can’t.

Mix: “You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side,” “Glamorous Glue,” “The National Front Disco,” “Tomorrow”
Really Like: “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”
Like: “We’ll Let You Know,” “Certain People I Know,” “You’re The One For Me, Fatty,” “Seasick, Yet Still Docked”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading