Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kings of Leon, ‘Only By the Night’

I’m a fan of the Kings of Leon’s progression as a band over the past several albums, going from down-and-dirty semi-garage rockers to down-and-dirty spacey rockers. Their latest release, “Only By the Night” continues that evolution; it definitely sounds more like the last record, 2007’s “Because of the Times” (my KOL favorite) than 2004’s “Aha Shake Heartbreak.”

“Only By the Night’s” first half is particularly compelling in its variety, moving from arena-ready opener “Closer” to the one-two punch of grab-you-by-the-throat “Crawl” (one of the band’s best-ever tracks) and sinewy lead single “Sex on Fire.” “Use Somebody” is another winner, a chiming mid-tempo anthem that sounds like KOL’s take on U2’s “Beautiful Day.” “Manhattan” is catchy as all get-out with its off-kilter bass/percussion rhythm, and “Revelry” is probably as pleasant a ballad as the band can write.

It’s the second half of “Only By the Night” where things start to slip. None of the remaining five tracks are bad, necessarily, but they don’t do much to stand out from the pack, either. They’re the kind of songs that wouldn’t get skipped if they shuffled up on my iPod, but wouldn’t do much to keep me awake on a long car ride—all a bit slow and dirge-like. “Be Somebody” is probably the best of the bunch, especially when it breaks down into something reminiscent of Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose.”

Overall, the album still holds together well, and marks a continued transition for the four bandmembers (three brothers and a cousin) as they begin to leave their raucous and reckless 20s behind and figure out how to settle into their 30s and still write music they like. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go from here.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 25, 2008


"Look at them. The man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he's honest and he derives his self-respect from that, second-hand. The man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own. He knows himself to be mediocre, but he's great in the eyes of others. The frustrated wretch who professes love for the inferior and clings to those less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparion. The man whose sole aim is to make money. Now I don't see anything evil in a desire to make money. But money is only a means to some end. If a man wants it for a personal purpose—to invest in his industry, to create, to study, to travel, to enjoy luxury—he's completely moral. But the men who place money first go much beyond that. Personal luxury is a limited endeavor. What they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others. They're second-handers. Look at our so-called cultural endeavors. A lecturer who spouts some borrowed rehash of nothing at all that means nothing at all to him—and the people who listen and don't give a damn, but sit there in order to tell their friends that they have attended a lecture by a famous name. All second-handers. …

"In the realm of greatest importance—the realm of values, of judgment, of spirit, of thought—they place others above self, in the exact manner which altruism demands. … It's so easy to run to others. It's so hard to stand on one's own record. You can fake virtue for an audience. You can't fake it in your own eyes. …

"[Second-handers] have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They're concerned only with people. They don't ask: 'Is this true?' They ask: 'Is this what others think is true?' Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull. What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce? …

"Second-handers have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation—anchored to nothing. … Opinion without a rational process. Motion without brakes or motor. Power without responsibility. … He's not open to reason. You can't speak to him—he can't hear. …

"Notice how they'll accept anything except a man who stands alone. They recognize him at once. By instinct. There's a special, insidious kind of hatred for him. They forgive criminals. They admire dictators. Crime and violence are a tie. A form of mutual dependence. They need ties. They've got to force their miserable little personalities on every single person they meet. The independent man kills them—because they don't exist within him and that's the only form of existence they know. Notice the malignant kind of resentment against any idea that propounds independence. Notice the malice toward an independent man."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

‘Dance Upon the Architecture’: The Gaslight Anthem, Live in Virginia Beach, 10.18.08

In the current issue of Alternative Press, The Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon says the music he writes is intended to help lift people’s spirits in these turbulent times and remind them life is something to still be enjoyed.

Those aren’t empty words.

Saturday night Fallon and his bandmates put on an incredible live show at The Jewish Mother restaurant in Virginia Beach, the most fun I’ve had at a concert since Fallon’s musical hero, Bruce Springsteen, brought his Seeger Sessions Band to the D.C. area two years ago.

Gaslight have been the opening band of a four-act punk tour this fall headlined by Rise Against, so they used this off night in the schedule to, as Fallon put it, “get a workout” as headliners again. The Jewish Mother, a longstanding Va. Beach establishment, is the smallest place I’ve ever seen a concert—there couldn’t have been more than 150 people crammed into the tiny room (if that), and the place could barely contain the band. Seeing such an accomplished group in such a small place was a rare treat. I can’t wait to hear these guys again through a soundsystem that actually works.

One of the things that struck me the most about Saturday’s show was how much fun the bandmembers seemed to be having. Fallon, of course, was into it—he’s a terrific lead. But we were standing just off the corner of the stage next to bassist Alex Levine, and he was grinning widely the entire night; once I glanced back at drummer Benny Horowitz (who at one point flung a splintered drumstick that hit my wife—a well-earned souvenir), and he was singing along for all he was worth … and he didn’t even have a mic!

And the music … wow. The new songs are incredible, and this show cemented a notion I’d already basically acknowledged: “The ’59 Sound” is even better than the band’s 2007 debut, “Sink or Swim”—and the three tracks they didn’t play off the new album are a trio of my favorites (wherefor art thou, "Meet Me By the River's Edge"?). I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that all of the 18 songs played Saturday night were excellent; there was simply no letup the entire way as they powered through a 75-minute set. Forced to pick a favorite section, I’d definitely point to the three-fer of “We Came to Dance”/“Miles Davis and the Cool”/“The ’59 Sound.” “Dance” is my favorite track from “Sink or Swim,” and it kills live; the final minute of “Miles Davis” simply exploded off the stage; and, my goodness, “The ’59 Sound” is just … amazing—it got the strongest reaction from the crowd last night and was one of the most powerful moments of the show.

Other favorite moments include:

• Throwing a snippet of The National’s “Start a War” into the middle of “Old White Lincoln”
• “The Patient Ferris Wheel”—This might be my least favorite track on the new album (it's kinda like asking to pick your least favorite child …), but it is insanely good played in front of an audience
• Fallon’s intro to “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts” was honest and unassuming (a description that could be applied to the entire night—what a refreshing change to see a band set up their gear in 10 minutes and just play); he said he spends more time than any normal person should visiting New Jersey haunts cited in Springsteen songs and trying to recreate for himself what The Boss saw in those places—this song was written for the Asbury Lanes bowling alley
• “The Backseat” is a brilliant set closer, the final minute building to a perfect climax for both the record and the concert.

And then there’s “Senor and the Queen.” At just two minutes long, this song comes and goes so quickly it’s easy to miss what a finely written lyric it offers; Fallon’s vocals were very clear during this one last night, and the second stanza stood out as particularly brilliant:

And in every sad, sad country song
Is there a little bitty piece of ’em still hanging on?
You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine, my dear
Then we’ll bury these old ghosts here

No better summary could there be of what The Gaslight Anthem are all about, both on record and in concert. Saturday night was just pure, authentic, unadulterated … joy.

The Gaslight Anthem
The Jewish Mother
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Great Expectations
Casanova, Baby!
Old White Lincoln/Start a War (snippet)
We Came to Dance
Miles Davis and the Cool
The ’59 Sound
High Lonesome
Angry Johnny and the Radio/What Becomes of the Broken Hearted (snippet)
Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts
Senor and the Queen
I Coulda Been a Contender
The Backseat

The Patient Ferris Wheel
Here’s Looking at You, Kid
Say I Won’t (Recognize)

***On a final note: Fallon hung around outside the venue for a little while after the show, chatting with friends and fans. The guy could not have been nicer or more down to earth; talking to him, you’d never know he’s fronting one of the hottest bands in the country right now. We talked for five minutes or so and he was just, you know, a regular guy. Again, refreshing.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

'Attack and Release,' The Black Keys

I was all ready for producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse to take The Black Keys' hardcore blues sound into the stratosphere with this new album. That didn’t happen, which makes “Attack and Release” a bit disappointing at the outset.

It seems Mouse was content to, for the most part, let the Keys do what they do and add a few little touches around the edges. They work more often than not, like fiery lead single "Strange Times," the ruminating “Psychotic Girl,” or blues-with-flute rocker "Same Old Thing." Elsewhere, not as much, like the dreadful two-fer of “Lies” and “Remember When (Side A)" that turns the middle of this record into a black hole.

My instant negative impression may actually be a result of poor sequencing. With hopes so high, starting the CD off with one of its weaker tracks—country ballad "All You Ever Wanted," which doesn't really get interesting until the final 30 seconds—was not a good choice. It sets a poor tone right away. Perhaps it would have been better to open with the album's second track, "I Got Mine," which is the most traditional, straightforward Keys track here—give the listener a baseline, a touchstone of the familiar for the more experimental stuff to come.

In the end, "Attack and Release" suffers under the weight of its expectations. It's certainly a fine album, but Mouse played it a little too safe; I don't finish listening to this record with a "wow" on my lips the way I do, for example, with 2004's incredible "Rubber Factory." Rather than adding little flourishes here and there (though I really like the chiming tone in "Oceans & Streams," for instance), I'd have rather seen him go all the way and really shake things up. Instead, the album feels disjointed, a little constrained, and lacks the energy and suppleness of the group's previous recordings.

Still, put three people of these considerable talents in a room together and it'd be nearly impossible not to come up with something really good, which they have (despite my, rereading now, rather negative review). I guess I'll just always be wondering what might have been.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Airborne Toxic Event

The Airborne Toxic Event? Really? That's your name? The Airborne Toxic Event? Come on …

Ordinarily this is the type of screaming-indie band moniker that would send me in the other direction, but this California band caught my attention (and the attention of many others) last month when they took a freakin' scalpel to the ridiculously harsh review of their debut self-titled record by Pitchfork. Anybody who will stand up against those insufferable snobs with such class and craft has to be doing something right, I figured.

Ironically, "The Airborne Toxic Event" couldn't be a bigger misnomer when it comes to the band's music; it's anything but toxic—downright gorgeous in spots, actually. The Pitchfork reviewer was right in citing the band's obvious influences. The CD's opening notes do sound quite reminiscent of the intro strains of Arcade Fire's "Funeral," and about half of "Toxic Event" follows in that vein. But let's be clear: It's not like following in Arcade Fire's footsteps is the easiest feat in music. As the band says in its rebuttal, there are much worse bands to be compared to. The best song along these lines—and the best song on the album—is the swirling "Sometime Around Midnight," with its mournful violin intro and soaring climax.

When they're not working in Fiery territory, The Airborne Toxic Event offer up a lo-fi, uptempo, rather thrashy sound that mixes Franz Ferdinand and the Strokes with a dash of The Clash around the edges. The top song in this category is sinewy rocker "Gasoline," but there are several here worth your time ("Happiness Is Overrated," "Missy").

Two such distinct styles make for a rather disjointed experience as a whole, but each are good in their own respects, and they're not merely aping other bands' sounds, either; "Gasoline" and "Midnight" are two of the more memorable songs I've heard this year. There seems to be an intelligence and sense of endeavor at the core of this band, and that's enough for me.

Screw Pitchfork.

Grade: B+