Sunday, July 02, 2006

Catching Up: Capsule Music Reviews, Spring/Summer 2006

And this great list doesn't even include Pearl Jam, Springsteen, Dashboard, Cash, and Petty. Oh, it's been a VERY good year already:

• “Decemberunderground,” AFI—It’s been three years since AFI (A Fire Inside) released their breakthrough smash “Sing the Sorrow,” and, apparently, success hasn’t really changed the California quartet. This follow-up is a strange mixture of regression and progression for a band that prides itself on continually evolving. Some entries, such as “Kill Caustic,” dip back into frontman Davey Havok’s hardcore roots more than the previous record. In other places, such as the infectious lead single “Miss Murder,” the band pushes further along on its journey toward electronica and industrial beats. And then there’s “Summer Shudder” and “Love Like Winter,” two pop/rock gems so catchy and smooth, they’re like boy band songs with street cred. Overall, “Decemberunderground” is an excellent listen and stands up well against its seminal predecessor, though this is about as hardcore as I’m willing to go. Grade: A-

• “The Gold Record,” The Bouncing Souls—About to enter their third decade, this well-traveled New Jersey quartet may finally get the credit they deserve with an extremely accessible album chock-full of great songs. “The Gold Record” is pure pop/punk genius from start to finish, shedding the Souls’ thrashing double-kick drum cadences (a form of punk I simply cannot stand) for more traditional singalong melodies and rousing anthems such as “So Jersey,” “Sounds of the City,” and “For All the Unheard”—to name just a few. Ironically, the only song here to use the aforementioned double-kick is also the most inspired cut on the record: The story behind “Letter from Iraq” runs deep but, essentially, the lyrics are culled from a letter written by a soldier serving overseas obviously disabused with the notion of “truth, justice, and the American way.” The group formed a strong bond with the serviceman after meeting him in Germany and, rather than try to summarize his sentiments in their own words, the Souls simply merged lines from one of his letters into a cohesive three-minute protest song. I don’t agree with the sentiment, but the Souls’ approach is brilliant and, pardon me, sets the gold standard in the current overflowing crop of anti-war chaff throughout the music industry (are you paying attention, Mr. Vedder?). I certainly don’t qualify as a “true believer,” but “The Gold Record” made a definite fan out of me. Grade: A

• “Broken Boy Soldiers,” The Raconteurs—What, exactly, was everyone expecting from this album? Despite Jack White’s protestations to the contrary, the Raconteurs are nonetheless, hello, a SIDE PROJECT. And as side projects go, this effort is stellar in that it doesn’t really seem like one, after all. “Soldiers” is not the guitar extravaganza I was hoping for based on “Steady As She Goes” and “Store Bought Bones” (and White’s freedom from the strict rules he established for The White Stripes), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. White’s old-school ethos mix effortlessly with co-founder/frontman Brendan Benson’s pop/rock sensibilities to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The results are, in general, surprisingly eclectic, from the aforementioned Zeppelin-esque “Bones” to the haunting rootsy title track to the synth-tweaked “Intimate Secretary” to the (and this IS a shocker) Wilco-esque “Together.” In fact, the only lackluster entry on the record doesn’t come until the ninth track with the plodding and dull Benson-fronted “Call It a Day,” a song just itching to let loose that, unfortunately, remains confined. Thankfully, White brings “Soldiers” home with the aptly titled “Blue Veins,” a wicked rhythm and blues finale that leaves you wanting more. One thing’s for sure: This is a whole lot better than “Get Behind Me Satan.” Grade: A-

• “Eyes Open,” Snow Patrol—While more polished, straightforward, and certainly more radio-friendly than 2004’s “Final Straw,” this new collection from the British quintet is nearly as good and seems to finally have broken through in the States—an occurrence long overdue. Frontman Gary Lightbody gives Chris Martin everything he can handle with tunes that are warmer and more accessible than anything Coldplay have to offer. And certainly don’t judge all of “Eyes Open” off the crooning, orchestral slow build of lead single “Chasing Cars”—there’s plenty of U2-style rock to go around, especially stellar cuts “Hands Open” and “It’s Beginning to Get to Me,” balanced by the group’s vaunted indie stylings on tracks such as “Shut Your Eyes” and the bell-tinged “You Could Be Happy.” If you like “Chasing Cars,” go buy this record—it’s not as good as “Final Straw,” but it doesn’t disappoint, either. Grade: B+

• “Louder Now,” Taking Back Sunday—It’s tough to follow a career-defining album such as TBS released in 2004 with the spectacular “Where You Want to Be.” “Louder Now” is the New York hardcore band’s first album on a major label, and some of the rough edges have been sanded off in favor of a cleaner, slightly more polished sound—and that’s not a good thing. Still, TBS nevertheless provide another strong set of muscular hard-rocking screamalong anthems on their third album. If “Louder Now” is not quite as good as “Where You Want to Be,” that’s okay—nothing could be. Grade: B+

• “Show Your Bones,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs—A strong contender for Album of the Year honors, the NYC trio’s sophomore album is almost nothing like their trashy, messy debut—and that’s a great thing. “Fever to Tell,” released in 2003 at the back end of the “garage rock” revival (whatever) was okay for what it was—a slapdash batch of dirty, guitar-heavy rockers—but didn’t come close to living up to the hype. “Bones,” on the other hand, is a masterpiece, a giant leap in songcraft that expands on the promise shown in “Maps,” the big hit from “Fever.” Opener and lead single “Gold Lion” is captivating as it adds new layers on every verse and chorus, finally exploding in the final minute. “Lion” is a sign of much to come, as there isn’t a bad song to be found on this album that steps out of the garage and into the light of genre-defying and –bending music—punk, classic rock, pop, even a little dance and country, it’s all here. All hail lead singer Karen O, whose ethereal voice will now hopefully carry the flag recently rescinded by Sleater-Kinney (may they rest in peace). Grade: A

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