Thursday, August 09, 2007

Music Reviews: Summer 2007

Ryan Adams, ‘Easy Tiger’
Is it possible for an album to be too good for its own good? If so, then it’s fitting the prototype for such a paradox should come from the untamable Ryan Adams and his new release, “Easy Tiger.”
The record’s quite amazing in that its 13 tracks offer an effective snapshot of the many different facets of an artist who’s issued nine albums since 2000—and in less than 40 minutes, much less. The results certainly seem a clear sign that the recently-sober singer/songwriter has a newfound focus. This is the sharpest Adams has sounded since his 2001 breakthrough “Gold,” and lead single “Two” is a pitch-perfect pop/rock ditty that would have been right at home on that record. “Goodnight Rose” and “Everybody Knows” are reminiscent of the rockabilly shuffle from 2005’s glorious “Cold Roses,” while “Halloweenhead” is as good (or better?) a dirty rock song as anything on 2003’s “Rock N Roll,” an album full of dirty rock songs. And “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.” offers up the quiet intensity found on Adams’ 2000 breakthrough classic “Heartbreaker.”
These songs comprise the first five on the record; unfortunately, after that Adams takes the foot off the gas, to the album’s detriment. Don’t get me wrong: There isn’t a bad song on “Easy Tiger,” but there is a definite downshift in momentum for the remainder and he’s never quite able to recapture the wide-open energy of the album’s opening sequence. Highlights from the second half include bluegrass ballads “Pearls on a String” and “These Girls,” as well as “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old,” the mellow set-closer that could have been straight out of the sessions for 2003’s “Love Is Hell.”
Again, “Easy Tiger” certainly is a strong effort from Adams—the best since “Cold Roses.” But it’s just a bit too quiet for my liking. Ironically, an alternate take of “Whatever, Etc.” floating around the Internet offers exactly the type of uptempo vibe I’m talking about—for a track that works perfectly well as a quiet, contemplative number. Too bad he didn’t test that tack with a couple others, but, as usual, Adams confounds as much as he inspires.
Grade: B+

Feist, ‘The Reminder’
One of the year’s most highly acclaimed albums didn’t exactly live up to the hype for me, but that’s no surprise given my aversion to “indie” music.
Leslie Feist’s sophomore solo album, “The Reminder,” reminded me why I don’t particularly care for the genre. It’s too precious, too pretty, too cute, too perfect, and too restrained. That being said, the style works better for women than men; where guys like Sufjan Stevens or Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard come off sounding wimpy, the quiet atmosphere suits Feist’s silken voice much better. Still, even on this album’s breakout hit, the undeniably catchy and fun “1 2 3 4,” I wish she’d just let it rip a little more.
Naturally I’m drawn to “The Reminder’s” more romping numbers, and there are plenty of goodies here, including “I Feel It All,” “Sea Lion Woman,” “Past in Present,” and “My Moon Man.” After “1 2 3 4” in the ninth slot, though, the record drips to a close through four barely distinguishable mopey tracks.
“The Reminder” brings up another interesting issue, though: Songs in commercials. U2 took a hit from many back in 2004 for appearing in an iPod promo featuring their new song “Vertigo” (the commercial was awesome, by the way—better than the “official” video they shot for the single). The “sellout” hubbub was squelched somewhat when it came out the band didn’t take any money for the ad; since rock and roll on the radio is basically dead, U2 saw the iPod ad as a new way to reach new fans. And it worked, of course, as “Vertigo” and the album it’s found on “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” were huge hits.
Some never forgave them, though, for appearing in a TV spot, but it’s interesting now to see the Irish supergroup was, yet again, ahead of its time. Look no further than Feist and Wilco—the latter allowed Volkswagen to use cuts from its new album, “Sky Blue Sky,” in various commercials. And I would never have bought Feist’s record (“1 2 3 4” didn’t wow me that much) without hearing “My Moon Man” on a recent Verizon spot. I don’t know if Feist or Wilco took the money or not, but I can’t say I blame them for following in U2’s footsteps—they are in the business of selling records, and these commercials give them way more exposure than they ever would have gotten on their own. I admit hearing the Wilco songs on a car commercial is off-putting (I tend to switch them off), but I guess these are the times we live in. Listening to their respective albums, I don’t think of Feist or Jeff Tweedy as compromising any of their artistic integrity, and it’s not like the commercials splashed their names all over the screen (which U2 did, actually). It is no doubt a tricky line to walk, and will be an interesting trend to observe in the future.
Anyway, back to “The Reminder”: I give it a B+

The Gaslight Anthem, ‘Sink or Swim’
I don’t actually buy much music from iTunes (other than hard-to-find b-sides, for which the online provider is brilliant). But the digital store does play a very important role in my musical decisions, as I constantly use its 30-second preview feature when investigating potential purchases. This isn’t a full-proof method, of course—sometimes those 30 seconds can sound better than the band actually is, and other times it’s not nearly enough to get an adequate sense of a band.
And then there are those times when I know I’m buying the album from the first five seconds.
Such was the case with The Gaslight Anthem, a New Jersey punk/rock band I’d never heard of until it was recommended to me earlier this summer. It only took the first few bars of opening track “Boomboxes and Dictionaries” to know I was buying this record. When I finally got to hear the entire thing, it didn’t disappoint.
The Springsteen influence is undeniable, and not because the band hails from the Garden State; “Sink or Swim” is populated with common-man manifestos in the Boss tradition, with songs about driving all night, listening to the radio, and “jukebox Romeos” who “dance with the girls with the stars in their eyes.” Frontman Brian Fallon’s gravelly voice also hints at Springsteen along the way, and the Boss’s galloping, epic musical style a vital part of the Anthem’s core. On the surface, the band is more like a mix of Hey Mercedes, the Dropkick Murphys (without the bagpipes), and New Jersey legends The Bouncing Souls (reviewers also cite punk rockers Against Me!, but I can’t confirm as I haven’t listened to them).
There’s only one subpar track on the whole record, the annoying “Red in the Morning,” but that single flaw is more than made up for by the fact that every other song basically rocks your face off. And “Sink or Swim” scores extra points for its closer, “Red at Night,” an artful homage to “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” from the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration “Mermaid Avenue.”
This is a stunningly mature debut for a band that’s only been together for a couple years. I can’t wait to hear what’s next, but The Gaslight Anthem certainly have set the bar high.
Grade: A
Note: Last I checked, “Sink or Swim” wasn’t available at major retailers. To find it, go to the band’s web site, where there is information on how to purchase the record. There’s always iTunes, I guess, but I still prefer the real thing.

Gasoline Heart, ‘You Know Who You Are’
It’s nice to see we’ve gotten far enough away from the seminal modern rock acts of the ’90s that new bands can be legitimately influenced by them, as opposed to the cashing-in hack clones that populated much of the late-’90s and early part of this decade (that’s you Creed, Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, and oh so many others).
Florida-based Gasoline Heart is as good and straightforward a new American rock band as you’re likely to hear. Their sound is a mix of Tom Petty and the lighter side of Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters (think “Betterman” or “Learn to Fly”), while lead singer Louis Defabrizio’s voice sounds like a perfect blend of Petty and Dave Grohl. It’s also worth noting “Who You Are” was produced by Steve Albini, who was responsible for Nirvana’s swan song classic, “In Utero.”
This album actually came out last August; it’s been one of my favorite records of the past year, but for some reason I never got around to writing about it despite a bevy of quality tracks—“All the Way” and “Steam (A Well Dried Up)” are particular favorites, but there’s really not a bad song on the whole thing. “Who You Are” doesn’t break any new ground, but it might just be revolutionary for reminding you of what traditional American rock and roll has to offer. Another awesome debut.
Grade: A-
Go to (the band’s label web site) to download a few free tracks—including the aforementioned “Steam” (you have to register first, though).

Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band, ‘Live in Dublin’
And to think I almost didn’t buy it.
When this two-disc live compilation was announced, I wasn’t overly excited because the Seeger Sessions songs that appeared on last year’s stellar “We Shall Overcome” were recorded almost live anyway.
Then it hit me: Duh, there are Springsteen originals on here, too, dummy! Like, say, a little ditty called “Atlantic City” that just happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time, Springsteen or no. “Further On Up the Road” continues to climb that list, as well; this “Rising” rocker was remade beautifully by Johnny Cash on last year’s posthumous “American V,” and it gives me goosebumps here, too. And there’s no need to even comment further on the awesomeness that are “Open All Night” and “Blinded By the Light” in their Sessions Band incarnations.
Not to be outdone, the songs from “Overcome” offer new quirks, too. They’re all even more raucous, fun, and freewheelin’ here; Springsteen’s stompin’-and-hollerin’ enthusiasm comes through just fine, and the crowd is even mic’d nicely.
My only complaint is the track list, which is expected, I guess, considering this is an official Boss live compilation and that’s ALWAYS the complaint. I fail to understand why “Highway Patrolman,” “Long Time Comin’,” and “Growing Up”—three cuts that vary little from their original versions—made the record while more dramatic reworkings of “The River,” “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “Bobby Jean,” and “Johnny 99” were left on the bench. And even worse is leaving off “John Henry,” one of the best tracks off the Sessions album.
That said, “Live in Dublin” remains an excellent collection documenting Springsteen at a new artistic height.
Grade: A-

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