Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eddie Goes Solo, the Murphys Come Roaring Back, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Continue to Impress

‘Into the Wild,’ Eddie Vedder

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: “Into the Wild” is not an Eddie Vedder solo album. It is most definitely a soundtrack—a very good soundtrack—but not an album. It’s more like a solo EP, with a few really good songs and a few more really good ideas for songs that were never finished.
While there are 11 tracks listed on the back of the CD, four of the cuts don’t even hit the two-minute mark, and of those only two have lyrics. I love the wide-open vibe of opener "Setting Forth" and the banjo work on its follow-up, "No Ceiling," but both of these just sort of … stop. Abruptly. This happens, apparently, because Vedder wrote this music for specific points in a film with very specific purposes; it’s not like he delivered a batch of songs inspired by “Into the Wild” and then let director Sean Penn edit them and weave them into a score. From what I understand, it seems Vedder watched pieces of the film Penn needed music for then molded these tunes around those frames.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the marketing machine from pitching “Into the Wild” as a “solo album,” a point backed by the leaked single “Hard Sun,” which is a brilliant five-minute epic. For anyone expecting more of the same—forget it. Because of the hype, my expectations were way too high, leaving my initial reaction to the CD somewhere between frustration and disappointment.
Fast-forward two weeks and much of that chagrin has melted away as I’ve gotten used to what “Into the Wild” is, rather than what it isn’t (taking the CD in the car with me a couple times certainly helped). When “Hard Sun” hit the Internet several weeks ago, its naked, raw, powerful beauty knocked me back a step, a feeling that certainly hasn’t diminished in the interim. This is without question one of Vedder’s best vocal performances on record in any format; the first verse/chorus still gives me chills, with his voice settling into an absolutely perfect groove of previously unheard depth and worldweary richness. And then later when the electric guitar kicks in and he layers a wavering moan on top of it … wowowowow.
Vedder’s voice is in top form throughout “Into the Wild,” in fact, and it is the No. 1 reason that makes this, er, album a worthwhile addition to his body of work; his delivery throughout brings mostly mediocre songs up several notches. This is most notable on “Society,” another cover, whose rather terrible lyrics are nearly forgotten in the wake of Vedder’s “Ghost of Tom Joad”-style interpretation.
Other standouts include “Far Behind,” a galloping acoustic rocker that stands as the only song here I could picture Vedder performing with Pearl Jam. “Rise,” meanwhile, marks his best work on the ukulele to date; I haven’t really liked any of his previous uke songs, but this one is downright gorgeous. “Guaranteed” closes the set on a graceful note with just Vedder picking on an acoustic guitar as he explores every nook and cranny of his range.
I haven’t seen “Into the Wild” yet, so I’m sure some of the shorter cuts will sound better after they’re put in context. But even without the movie, Vedder’s work here is a sign of good things to come—it gives me hope for what he’s capable of when Pearl Jam finally runs its course (not that I want that to happen any time soon, mind you). It’s not the pure solo effort I was hoping for, but his voice reaches out and virtually demands listening through a good pair of headphones.
Grade: B+

‘The Meanest Times,’ Dropkick Murphys

The Dropkick Murphys’ new album opens with a school bell ringing and children screaming in delight at their release. It’s an apt metaphor for this Celtic-influenced punk band from Boston, because their albums are nothing if not pure, freewheeling fun.
This is the Murphys’ follow-up to 2005’s “The Warrior’s Code,” whose classic “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” was used to such great effect in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” When I first heard the band was releasing a new album this fall, my first thought was: Can they possibly do anything to top that? The answer is, well, no, but they come darn close with “The State of Massachusetts,” the best song on this 15-track set. With its bouncy mandolin-led melody and dueling vocals from Al Barr and Ken Casey, “Massachusetts” is four minutes of pure energy (despite its rather melancholy subject matter).
Even though “Meanest Times” isn’t quite as exhilarating as its excellent predecessor, there are plenty of highlights here, including “Fairmount Hill,” “Flannigan’s Ball,” and the Irish-folk-on-steroids of “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya” (the track most reminiscent of fellow Celtic punkers Flogging Molly). The Murphys don’t really change their winning bagpipes-and-blasting-guitars formula from album to album (or from track to track, really), but it’s refreshing to let them get your blood pumping anew every couple years.
Grade: B+

‘Is Is,’ Yeah Yeah Yeahs

With this five-song EP (released this summer), the fiery New York trio provide a perfect mix of the thrashy, trashy garage punk of 2003’s “Fever to Tell” and the art-punk glory of last year’s “Show Your Bones.” Every song on this release is an absolute gem, perfectly mixing the contrasting styles of band’s two previous albums into one glorious whole.
“Rockers to Swallow” opens the set with the staccato interplay of drummer Brian Chase and one of rock’s most underrated guitar virtuosos, Nick Zinner, who plays the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ The Edge to lead singer Karen O’s Bono. “Swallow” leads into the shimmering “Down Boy,” one of the best songs in the band’s quickly deepening catalog.
Middle track “Kiss Kiss” is a thrill ride in 2 minutes 45 seconds, merely serving to whet the appetite for the stomping fury of “Isis.” Karen then opens final track “10X10” with a lilting intro before making way for a roiling brew that does Led Zeppelin proud.
“Is Is” will be one of the best 17-minute stretches of rock music you’re likely to hear all year—or any year, for that matter. Combine this quintet with the equally stellar epic “Sealings” from the “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are having one heck of an “off” year.
Grade: A

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