Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The boys (and girls) of 2005

I had one of the longest CD-buying droughts of my life in the winter of 2004/2005. After picking up U2’s “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” in late November, I went without new music until April.
Yes, that’s a really, really long time. For me.
But a few months ago, all of a sudden the floodgates opened and it’s been a veritable avalanche of new music, most of it pretty doggone good. Here’s a quick recap:

• Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, “Cold Roses”—After wandering away from his alt-country roots and experimenting with retro rock and roll, Adams came back to his forte in a big way with this double-disc effort (one of three reported releases this year). While “Roses” doesn’t quite match 2001’s “Gold,” which put Adams on the map, it’s pretty close. Standouts abound, such as “Let It Ride,” certainly one of his best songs, or the achingly quiet “Rosebud.” Overall “Cold Roses” doesn’t have quite the energy of “Gold,” but this is a sliding scale. Compared to the rest of the field, any Ryan Adams is better than just about anything else out there. A-

• Sleater-Kinney, “The Woods”—If you don’t like this fantastic new effort from the Seattle female power trio, you’re never going to like them, so just give up. A decade into their career, Sleater-Kinney have produced the most rawking album in their catalog (and that’s saying something), evoking everyone from Nirvana to Led Zeppelin. “Let’s Call It Love,” an 11-minute epic toward the end of the album (the band’s first on indie legend Sub Pop) is Sleater-Kinney’s “Born To Run” or “Kashmir” or … well, you get the idea. A

• Dave Matthews Band, “Stand Up”—I was pretty pumped for this release because of all the hype about how the whole band really “collaborated” on these songs, supposedly producing some of the band’s favorite music of its career. Bollocks. The name of this band has never been more appropriate, because Matthews’ supporting cast barely make a dent in this set of rather dull tracks. I’m all for experimentation and not relying on past success, but when the best player in this band—violinist extraordinaire Boyd Tinsley—is almost non-existent, there are major problems. “Stand Up” doesn’t sound much different from Matthews tepid solo album from a few years back, and it’s way too reminiscent of 2001’s awful “Everyday.” There are a few catchy gems, such as the stomping “Louisiana Bayou” and the quiet “Steady as We Go,” but overall these songs are just … boring. C

• Alkaline Trio, “Crimson”—So let’s just get this out of the way now: At3’s “From Here to Infirmary,” released in April 2001, is one of my favorite albums of all time, punk or otherwise. With that kind of baggage, it’s hard for any new Trio album to measure up. I once thought Alkaline Trio was the Ramones of my generation, but two albums on from “Infirmary,” I see I’m wrong. Now, let’s be realistic: Matt Skiba and Co. are so talented and so good at what they do, I can’t see how I would ever dislike one of their albums. “Crimson” is a nice collection of songs, to be sure, but it just lacks the certain umph that this group is obviously capable of. B

• Fall Out Boy, “From Under the Cork Tree”—Now THIS is the album I was expecting from Alkaline Trio. This pop/punk outfit has made what is certain to be one of the best albums of the year—or any year. Every song is so infectiously catchy, it’s impossible to pick only one or two highlights. Suffice it to say “Cork Tree” is a perfect complement to driving with the windows down and the volume turned up to 11. Go buy this record, NOW. A

• The White Stripes, “Get Behind Me Satan”—Remember what I said a few lines ago about “From Here to Infirmary”? Well, multiply that by about 100 and that’s how much I love the Stripes’ 2003 masterpiece “Elephant.” “Satan” is the logical follow-up, from a certain point of view. It’s like Zeppelin turning the amps off after their second album and coming up with “Led Zeppelin III.” Jack White’s thrashing electric guitar is barely here, as he turns instead to acoustic guitar, piano, and even marimba. The results are not as good as the critics have led you to believe, but they are indeed admirable. “My Doorbell” will stay in your head forever after you hear it just once; “Take, Take, Take” is a rather self-conscious look at celebrity life, but the musical foundation is more than good enough to make it worth the listen; and trio that closes the album—folky “Ugly As I Seem,” electric blues number “Red Rain,” and piano ballad “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t that Lonely Yet)”—showcase how versatile Jack is as a songwriter and musician. What I miss most from “Satan,” though, are the guitar riffs that seem to roll over one another, a la Jimmy Page. Here, Jack’s experimentation sacrifices melody and flow in several spots (check out the non-starter “The Nurse,” for example). In the grand scheme of the Stripes’ career, we’ll probably look back on “Satan” as a necessary sidestep to keep Jack’s fires stoked. But I just don’t see myself coming back to these songs on a regular basis. Jack White may be the guitar hero for a new generation, but there’s only one “Led Zeppelin III.” B

• Billy Corgan, “TheFutureEmbrace”—Wow, what a difference a concert makes. I was lucky enough to see Billy in D.C. last month as he hits small venues to play a much smaller post-Pumpkins sound. Maybe it was the simple fact that I liked seeing how these songs could actually be played live (two keyboards, an iMac, an electric drum set and Billy’s guitar), but the show was so good, it probably jumped my thoughts on the album a whole letter grade. Here Corgan fully embraces his electronic tendencies, first explored on the Pumpkins’ 1998 “Adore.” The results are interesting and rather compelling, creating what feels like one 45-minute wall of sound in 12 parts. B+

• Coldplay, “X&Y”—The hype on this band has been so huge for so long, I just stayed away. “X&Y” is the first album I’ve listened to from the Brit heroes, and now I see what all the fuss is about. I obviously don’t have anything to compare this effort to, but this is an altogether pleasing collection of songs. To me, the uneducated, Coldplay seems to be a conglomeration of sounds I’ve heard before, but I can’t really place where the individual parts come from. Chris Martin’s voice reminds of a mixture of Sting and Michael Stipe, and yet it’s something new altogether. Martin’s music is instantly likeable and appealing for a mass audience, which can be a bad thing, but you gotta respect a guy who can get the piano over on pop radio. I think this is a rather excellent album, actually, but the reviews have been just OK. If this is just “pretty good” from Coldplay, then I can’t wait to hear what has come before. Plus, I just can’t seem to get sick of “Speed of Sound.” A-