Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Days like that should last and last..."

The summer of 2006, for all intents and purposes, was one of the most glorious of my entire life. I was 15 years old, I didn’t have a care in the world and I’d just escaped from my one single torturous year at the local junior high school. I felt like I’d been on autopilot for a year: my classes were ridiculously easy and viciously boring, my teachers didn’t seem to give a shit and I was moving through the most awkward stage of adolescence, where basically all my classmates were about as far from cool as they could possibly get, but didn’t seem to get the joke. I was running track and cross country, trying to follow in my brothers footsteps, but the training became so mundane that I almost immediately realized that wasn’t the path I wanted to take. I was trying to figure out who I was, but I was in the absolute worst and most confusing environment for doing so. The truth was, I’d never minded school before that year. I’d attended a small charter school for 8 years and had learned so much there that when I came to the public school, it felt like I was going backwards. I could write better than just about everyone in my year, I was re-doing math that I’d already taken and I’d already done roughly half of the stuff we studied in biology as well. Bored out of my mind, I turned to music as my only refuge, becoming passionate about singing and still listening, over and over again, to every album I could afford to buy.

By the time the year was out, I needed a summer vacation more than I’d ever needed one in my life. That school had, in one year, made me loathe the idea of public education, and a break was a necessity. Luckily, that summer was just the break I needed: a lot of rest, a lot of fun with family, and a slew of what remain some of my favorite summer records of all time. Dashboard Confessional's Dusk & Summer was one of those. For the 15 year old version of me, the title track might have been one of the greatest songs ever written. This album gets written off all the time by fans, but for my money, it might be the best thing Carrabba has ever done, because the highlights of this record (the title track and closer "Heaven Here", most notably) do as good a job of capturing a specific moment and a specific feeling as just about any I’ve ever heard.

"Dusk & Summer" is the perfect end-of-summer ballad, a slice of acoustic perfection that sounds like how the world looks in the moments right after the sun goes down on a beautiful August night. It sounds like the final nights of a perfect summer and that feeling you get when you watch the sun go down one last time, trying to hold onto the glorious season, even as it slips through your fingers and out the door. Truthfully, it’s a pretty simple break-up ballad: looking back on a relationship that ended with the summer, and wishing you could change things, but knowing you never can, but Carrabba expresses so much more than that with his softly strummed guitar and his emotional, wavering vocals. It’s about growing up, it’s about the passage of time and about love found and lost. It’s about having to say goodbye to your hometown and to the people you love at the end of a great summer, and it’s about wondering just how that summer flew by so fast. All of that hit me when I listened to this song one late night towards the end of that summer. I wanted it to last forever, to bask in the heartbreaking beauty of that song and to just live on like this for countless long, beautiful days and warm nights, but instead, the summer had flown by twice as fast as any other part of the year. Truth is, they always do.

Ever since that year, even as I’ve grown up and changed, even as friends have come and gone, that song has stayed with me like few others have. Every year on the last night of the summer, I play that song, and every year, it makes me tear up a bit. I can hardly believe it’s been five years since it first came into my life, but every time I listen, I can still hear bits of each of those summers in the bars of that song: a perfect family vacation to Palisades in 2006, running on the golf course after sundown in 2007, late night drives home from friends houses in my first car in 2008, bidding farewell to Northern Michigan as a high school graduate in 2009, kissing my girlfriend goodbye in 2010 and realizing I was in love with her, and going on one last summer walk with her in 2011, watching the sun go down and seeing the entire season flash before my eyes. That song is all of those things and more, but when I hear those first chords, strummed softly on Chris Carrabba’s guitar, the first thing I see is the way this place looked in 2006, when I fell in love with summer in a big, big way.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"You're the song I wrote that I will always love"

The Dangerous Summer -War Paint
Hopeless Records, 2011
Five stars

Two years ago, when The Dangerous Summer landed on my radar with the release of Reach For the Sun, I was checking out the record based on one great review of it, without hearing a single track and lacking any knowledge of this band's background. The band turned out to be the best discovery I made that year (and I made many), and over the course of that spring and summer, that record got to me in ways that only a few albums ever had before and maybe only 2 or 3 have since. It found me in an interesting place in my life: I was about to graduate from high school, had just received my acceptance letter into my college's music program, after a solid month on the waiting list, and I didn't have more than a faint idea of what I wanted to do with my life. Reach For the Sun came into my life and became my soundtrack: all of my uncertainty, all of the bittersweet feelings I had about graduating, and then later about leaving behind the only town I'd ever known, seemed to be staring back at me just under the surface of The Dangerous Summer's emotional vocals, heartfelt lyrics and their wall of guitars. There were songs I felt I might have written myself, songs that flawlessly described the way I was feeling, or songs that spoke of experiences like ones I had faced over the past few years. I took those songs, filled them with my own experiences, and they became immortal to me. It would quickly lead that album into my top 25 of all time.

Two years later, they're back with a sophomore record that makes me feel almost the same way, an album that is every bit as good as it's predecessor (or even a little bit better) that has become the soundtrack to my summer and unquestionably my album of the year thus far. War Paint picks off where Reach left off. Make no mistake, this isn't a departure: most of these songs would have fit comfortably on the last album (a record which wasn't notable for it's sonic variation anyway). That's not to say that all the songs sound similar, but they could easily blend together on first listen or for someone not already used to the band's songwriting style. The key to the record is frontman A.J. Perdomo, with his earnest lyrics and fiercely emotional vocal delivery (what he lacks in technical skill, he makes up for in conviction). The guitar sound on this record is massive, and though the constant presence of the instrument may be tiring for some listeners, Perdomo's songwriting is simply too good to ignore.

I could go through this album, describing bits of each song and quoting lyrics, but those things couldn't possibly express the way I feel about this album. The Dangerous Summer, more than perhaps any other artists I know, more than Butch Walker, more than Bruce, more than Jimmy Eat World, appeal directly to my emotions. When I hear A.J. Perdomo sing songs like "No One's Gonna Need You More" or "Siren" I can't help but be drawn in. And when he sings the bridges of those songs, the part of a song that seems to be his songwriting specialty, I can't help but get a little bit choked up. This isn't a record I can go through and speak at length about every single musical nuance, because honestly, there aren't many. The instrumentation is basic: guitar, bass, drums and vocals, the chord progressions pretty standard. A detractor could easily find a lot to complain about on this record, and yet, when I hit play, I can't help but be completely captured by what is coming through my speakers. There hasn't been a record this year that has been able to involve me so thoroughly. Whenever I play a track, I can't resist listening to the rest of the album from that point. And I always sing along to every word.

For as far back as I've been in love with music, a band or an album has defined my summers: 2004 belonged to the Counting Crows and Hard Candy. 2005 was ruled by Butch Walker, as was 2006, though he was joined there by Dashboard Confessional with Dusk and Summer and Jack's Mannequin with Everything in Transit. 2007 was all about Black Lab and Moses Mayfield, 2008 encapsulated by Safetysuit's Life Left to Go, 2009 by Reach For the Sun and Mat Kearney's City of Black and White, and 2010 had a varied soundtrack dominated the most by Chad Perrone.

War Paint will be the album that will always take me back in time to summer 2011: that night in mid spring when I first heard an unmastered version of the dark "Work in Progress." Rushing home to download the record the night it leaked and hearing the opening bars of the title track cascade out of my speakers. And plenty of early Sunday evenings or late weeknights, driving home with the album playing at full volume, singing along with every song at the top of my lungs and marveling at the beauty of this town, at the gorgeous night skies or the breathtaking sight of the evening sun sparkling on the water. All the time I spent with my girlfriend and her family or with mine, all the nights performing at my local dinner theater and just loving my life and all the people in it, always wishing this season could last forever, will at least be forever preserved in these songs: in the retro guitar intro of "I Should Leave Right Now," in the shattering bridge of "Miscommunication," or in the massive chorus of "Everyone Left" and the emotional release that comes during the climactic moments of "In My Room."

"Waves" is the album's closer, and I can't really imagine a better finale to my own near-perfect summer than that. When I hear that song, the entire season, from the day I left school until today, flashes before my eyes. I see the sun-drenched beach where I spent so much of my time, and for a moment, I can almost feel what it was like to be there, but then the song is over far too soon, and it's gone. And then it strikes me just how quickly this summer flew past: it seems like it was only yesterday when I took a twilight walk around campus on the first (and one of the only) gorgeous days of last spring and felt like I could almost taste the summer, like it was finally within my grasp after what had been a truly awful semester. Now, here I am, with less than a week left in my hometown and wishing with all my heart that I could go back.

But as A.J. sings in War Paint's final song, "I'll take my time and move on from all of this, it's all about the rolling waves." No matter what happens, no matter where life takes me from here, I think I really am ready to face it, it's just always so hard to say goodbye to something that feels completely safe and friendly. It's times like these where albums like War Paint come to mean the most to me, and I can guarantee this is a record I'll be listening to for the rest of my life. The best album of the year, the best album I've heard so far this decade, and probably the first new album that will join my all time top ten since Butch Walker dropped Sycamore Meadows in 2008, War Paint is a masterpiece, and means more to me than I think I'll ever be able to express to anyone. It doesn't matter to me that it isn't going to show up on end-of-the-year lists for the likes of Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, and I don't care that the vast majority of the people I know will never have any idea who The Dangerous Summer are. I don't need anyone else to tell me this album is something special: my heart's already done that for me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective, Part II: The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle (1973)

"We're gonna play some pool, skip some school, act real cool
Stay out all night, it's gonna feel alright
So Rosie come out tonight

Baby come out tonight

Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor

Closets are for hangers, winners use the door

So use it Rosie, that's what it's there for!"

Someone once told me that The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle is pretty much the perfect inaugaral summer record. We all know the type: the album you blast in your car on the first gorgeous spring day to herald the arrival of Earth's most glorious season. This year, after I finally escaped from my RA job and from my sophomore year of college, I played The Wild, The Innocent on the drive home, and despite the fact that the weather pretty much sucked and that it didn't really look a bit like summer, this record made me feel like it was. It's a record about escape, about freedom and liberation, and it stands as one of Springsteen's very best: a classic album full of massive, cinematic suite-like songs, a writing style he'd master here (and to a certain extent on Born to Run) and never revisit in his career after that, shifting towards more mainstream rock and pop music. The result is that The Wild, The Innocent is probably the most singularly unique album in Springsteen's entire catalog.

It's amazing how different this album is from Greetings, as it dropped just over 8 months after that album did. It's clear from the first jazzy notes of "The E-Street Shuffle" that this is going to be one hell of a summer party record. The E-Street band is nearly at full force here: they've officially taken the name, and use it in the opening track to create a theme song for themselves, a mission statement of sorts. The brassy opening gives way to a jangly guitar riff and what sounds like a synthesizer, before finally exploding into one of the most spontaneous songs Springsteen has ever written. The lines flow one after the other, introducing us to the kind of characters who will occupy the songs that follow, until finally, the song dissolves into one big jam session, a showcase for the myriad of talented musicians at work here. This song is the album's shortest, clocking in at just over four-and-a-half minutes. That the shortest track here would sit among the longer songs on Greetings or Born to Run is indicative of what kind of a record this will be: this isn't Springsteen writing typical pop or rock and roll songs. This is the Boss writing huge, overblown and cinematic songs, often operatic in scope; this is the Boss writing like he'd never write again.

"The E-Street Shuffle" flows perfectly into the atmospheric "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)", which still stands as one of the most gorgeous love songs Springsteen has ever written, and one of my favorites on the record. It sounds like a perfect summer night, spinning a tale of falling in love underneath the fireworks on the boardwalks of New Jersey. Organ and accordion player Danny Federici, a longtime E-Street band member who passed away in April of 2008, gives what is probably his signature performance on the song, adding greatly to it's nighttime atmosphere. The jazzy "Kitty's Back" is as close as Bruce and co. get to sounding like Greetings. It's a towering track that acts almost like this record's "Spirit in the Night". The song thrives on record, but this version still pales in comparison to the one from the famous Hammersmith Odeon London show from 1975 (which was released as a live album and DVD for the 30th anniversary of Born to Run), where the song runs for 17 minutes and gives each band member an extensive feature.

"Wild Billy's Circus Story" is probably the album's most forgotten cut, underrated simply by it's lack of importance in Springsteen's catalog and it's absence in most live sets. Springsteen's lyrics, about the magnificent but strange people you might find at a circus, float over a gorgeous acoustic guitar accompaniment, occasionally augmented by flourishes from Federici's accordion, Springsteen's own harmonica, or by bassist Garry Tallent with a marching tuba line. The song, along with "Sandy" is a welcome subdued moment amongst a record of big rockers and bombastic arrangements, and functions strikingly well as the side one closer. And although it's a song I almost never think of apart from this record, it's probably one of my favorite moments here.

Side one is nothing in comparison to side two however, which might be the most perfect side of any Springsteen record (though both sides of Born to Run could make a compelling case). Side two is comprised of three songs that amount to 25 minutes of music. All three are among Springsteen's longest, but also among his best. "Incident on 57th Street", particularly, is notable among Springsteen's discography. I've heard from several people who've said it sits among their favorite Springsteen songs: one blogger, who ranked every single Springsteen song in his own personal order a few years back, went as far as to place "Incident" at number three, trailing behind only a pair of legendary Born to Run cuts: the title track and "Jungleland." It's also a song many die hard fans would include in their ultimate set lists, and yet the song very rarely makes an appearance on Springsteen tours, even with his habit of constantly rotating his setlist selections. In my opinion, the song is terrific, but probably my least favorite of the side two masterworks. It's a true epic: a West Side Story-esque storytelling piece that hints at the perfection Springsteen would reach on his next record with "Jungleland." It's marked by swirling piano lines, a stellar bass solo by Tallent and another of Federici's most notable appearances in the Springsteen oeuvre.

"Incident" flows right into the massive, anthemic rock song that is "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," a song about forbidden love that stands as one of the most furiously energetic and uninhibited I've ever heard: it's loud, it's bold, and it's endearingly powerful. It's no wonder that "Rosalita" was, for a long time, the go-to Springsteen set closer: there aren't many songs that could close a show out better than this one. Springsteen spits off classic lyric after classic lyric, sounding more like a rockstar than he ever had before, and perhaps more that he has since. And the band never misses a beat, building a wall of sound behind him that stands up next to their best performances on record. "I'm coming to liberate you, to confiscate you, I want to be your man!" Springsteen sings to the title character, telling her to forget about her disapproving parents and just escape with him, for the night, maybe even forever. And the thing is, it's impossible to imagine her saying no. "New York City Serenade" feels almost like an encore following that scorching rocker, but it's certainly not an afterthought. The song stretches on for just shy of ten minutes, and not a second of that is wasted. It begins with pianist David Sancious strumming the insides of his instrument before launching into a piano intro that begins as baroque and fades into jazz. He's joined by an evocative acoustic guitar line and then, at last, nearly two and a half minutes in, Bruce's voice. Despite the fact that Bruce's lyrics don't make a lick of sense as a linear story (the song was composed from different pieces of earlier songs ), "New York City Serenade" is a masterpiece: equal parts "Jungleland" and "Rhapsody in Blue." Springsteen paints broad portraits of New York City and of several different characters, using such stunning lyrical imagery that it doesn't matter that a story never emerges. The song is constantly shifting, joined at points by yearning strings and the Big Man's sax, only to replaced moments later by handclaps. The acoustic guitar and the gorgeous piano remain constant throughout, and David Sancious is definitely the MVP here, which is rather appropriate, since he'd leave the band after this record (he'd soon be replaced by longtime member, Roy "the Professor" Bittan). When "New York City Serenade" finally fades away, I often have no greater desire than to just hit repeat.

The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle is Springsteen's most unique record. It's incredibly unpolished and spontaneous sounding, full the kind of songs that nobody, let alone Springsteen, are still writing nowadays. Today, it stands as one of my favorites in the Springsteen discography, but back when I was first getting into his stuff, The Wild, The Innocent... took the better part of a year to truly sink in. And yet, despite it's lack of immediate accessibility (or perhaps because of it), many Springsteen die-hards would call it their favorite record of his without a moment's hesitation. Indeed, fans grapple for these songs in concert like almost nothing else he's ever written, and despite the fact that only "Rosalita" has been a common live staple in recent years, an appearance of "Incident" or of "New York City Serenade" almost immediately grants a show legendary status, sending fans all over the world to the Springsteen bootleg exchange to get their hands on a copy of it. In that way, I'd imagine the Madison Square Garden show from 2009, where he played the entire record in full, was quite the event: not only did they get both "Incident" and "Serenade" in the same concert, they got the whole record, and they heard those songs in the context they were meant to be heard. I would have done quite a lot to be at that show.

This record comes strikingly close to perfection, and yet, despite the great songs and all the terrific talent on display, the record, like Greetings, didn't do very well. These two records are often lumped together in the eyes of lesser Springsteen fans: they were released less than a year apart and made with pretty much the same set of musicians, with the same producers behind the boards. And yet, I've never thought that The Wild, The Innocent... suffered the same pitfalls of it's predecessor: there are no songs that don't belong here, the flow is perfect, and the production, which so hampered many of the songs on Greetings, just seems to suit the songs here. And all of that ignored, the band had already gone through a massive evolution of sound in the 8 months between the two records. Gone is the Dylan-worship that covered many songs on Greetings, gone is any sign of hesitation: Springsteen and company sound completely confident here, like they're making the music they want to make and like they're doing it better than anyone else ever could. And I'm pretty sure they were right, even if the general public wouldn't realize it for a couple more years.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective, Part I: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

"I stood stone-like at midnight
Suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair till it was just right
And commanded the night brigade
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain
And I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through the fall out zone
And came out with my soul untouched..."

I said we'd get to Bruce eventually, and here we are. Next to Butch Walker, there's been no figure more important to my musical evolution or obsession than Bruce. It took me a lot longer for his music to click, but when it finally did, in late 2008, there was no going back. Over the past two and a half years, his music has defined experiences and times of my life like few other artists ever have. My story starts with Born to Run, his third LP, and, in my opinion, the greatest album in the history of rock and roll. I considered trying to write one all inclusive piece about Bruce and his music, like I did with Butch, but I concluded that he just has too many albums, too many eras, and FAR too many songs to cover in a single blog post. And while starting with Born to Run would have worked well into my own story, I figured it would only be fair to the legacy of Bruce if I started from the beginning, and that beginning is Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

Greetings is my step dad's favorite Bruce album, so even though Born to Run was the first album of his to click with me, Greetings might be the one I remember hearing first. Like I said in my Butch Walker tribute, I have very vivid memories of my step dad listening to this album on Saturday evenings while he got ready to go on dates with my mom: I most specifically remember the jazzy rush of the penultimate track, "Spirit in the Night", a Van Morrison-esque rocker that just tears the house down, and when I hear it, it still transports me back to when I was just a kid. Even though I don't share my step dad's opinion that this was Bruce's finest record, there's still a lot to love here.

Greetings generally steers closer to folk than to the nearly symphonic rock and roll that Springsteen would create on his next two albums, and that's immediately clear from the first cut, the rapid fire lyrical flurry that is "Blinded By the Light". Bob Dylan's influence is clearly on display as Springsteen tries to get out as many lines as he can, building to a killer chorus that makes quite the statement for a new artist. The song, made more famous via a lyric-botching cover version by the band Manfred Mann, is far better in it's original form, a rough hewn piece of folk-rock that opens the album with an atomic force. "Growing Up", with it's gorgeous piano intro and memorable lyrics, is even better, and remains a fan favorite even after all these years. Personally, it's probably my favorite song on Greetings. Another fan favorite is the scorching album centerpiece, "Lost in the Flood", a storytelling song with the kind of characters that Springsteen would be writing about in even greater depth on The Wild, The Innocent... and Born to Run. "For You" is almost equally terrific, another fan favorite that would remain a live staple for years. Springsteen gives one of the album's best vocal performances on that track, full of emotion and conviction that takes the songwriting to another level.

The criticism most often levied against this album is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be: Springsteen wanted to make a full band record, whereas the label wanted to play up his Dylan influence with more solo/acoustic type songs. The result is that the record is pretty much a amalgamation of the two extremes. The strongest stuff, naturally, is the full band material, where the E-Street band (an early form, at least) make their first appearances. Most impressive among these is, of course, the side 2 cut, "Spirit in the Night", which features Clarence "Big Man" Clemons in a big way for the first time (he appears on "Blinded By the Light" as well, but here he's much higher in the mix), only hinting at the partnership between the two musicians that would become the heart, soul and core of much of Springsteen's music and especially of his live shows. The song, perhaps more so than any other track on the album, sounds as great today as it ever has, not hindered by the album's dated production or by the fact that Springsteen still hadn't quite found his voice. Clemons' saxophone playing is as electric as ever, even if it's only the tip of the iceberg as far as his E-street features go. The solo material doesn't fare as well: "The Angel" and "Mary Queen of Arkansas" are more forgettable than much of the material here and they disrupt the flow a bit, but even those I think are a bit underrated. "Mary", in particular, is quite hypnotic and hints at where Springsteen would go with Nebraska a decade later , and perhaps more so with Devils & Dust in 2005. And "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" is the first in a long list of great Springsteen album closers. Indeed, I don't think there's a weak song here.

The biggest flaw with the record is not the solo songs or the occasional hiccup in flow, but the production. It's clear that Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, the producers who worked the boards for this record and it's follow-up, didn't quite know how to translate the electricity of a Springsteen live show onto a studio record. Even in those days, Springsteen and his band were destroying venues with terrific performances, and it's clear, from the few bootlegs I've heard from that time period, that these songs soared in their live setting in ways that they don't on the record. Yet even despite it's imperfections, this album is great: a nostalgic folk-rock record that only hints at the perfection that Springsteen would achieve. And the band sounds terrific, even if most of these guys wouldn't stick around as members of the E-Street band for long (only the Big Man and bassist Garry Tallent would stay on as long-term members).

During the Working on a Dream tour in 2009, Springsteen and the E-Street band shifted the focus of their shows towards playing their classic albums front to back rather than focusing on newer material. Born to Run, Darkness and Born in the U.S.A. were the albums featured at most shows, though they also did single nights of both The Wild, The Innocent... and The River at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps it's appropriate that they saved this one for last, only playing it in full a single time: on November 22nd in Buffalo, N.Y., on the last night of a tour that had essentially stretched on since the release of Magic in 2007. As they closed that show (which they seemed unwilling to do, since it went on for three and a half hours), many wondered if this would be the farewell tour for the E-Street band. Listening to the bootleg of that show, I couldn't fathom it being the end of the road for the greatest rock band ever assembled: they sound absolutely terrific, as electric and hungry as ever. And hearing Greetings in full, 36 years after the fact, with a frontman who's far more experienced than he was then and with a band full of veterans and blood brothers, is simply fascinating. These songs sound celebratory, gleeful even: I don't think I've ever heard "Blinded By the Light" sound as big as it does on this recording, and during "Growing Up", where Springsteen tells the almost mythical story of how Clemons came to join the band (an honor that was usually reserved for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"), it's just about as perfect as can be. Clarence really does sound like a force of nature, and when Bruce finally comes back in after the tale with the third and final verse, it's chilling. When I listen to the bootleg now, as I write this, I can't help but feel that it's taken on a heartbreaking layer in light of Clarence Clemons' death earlier this year. I do think the E-Street band will tour again, but without Clemons, things will never be the same. Someone brought a sign to that last show that said "It's only rock and roll, but it feels like love," and I can't imagine a better slogan for the E-Street band, who have become more of a family on the stage than perhaps any other band ever to grace one, a family that just suffered a huge and terrible loss. I count myself lucky that I had a chance to see them play one show with the Big Man. And if that Buffalo show on November 22nd, 2009 was the last time the E-Street band ever played together, I really can't think of a better ending than Greetings From Asbury Park. The end is the beginning, so to speak...

And what a glorious beginning it was...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In the City of Blinding Lights: U2 live at Spartan Stadium

U2 360 Tour
Live at Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI

June 26th, 2011

It's been less than two weeks since U2 wrapped up their record smashing (and soon to be legendary) 360 tour in New Brunswick. The tour, which was based around the massive "claw" stage that Bono reportedly designed using forks at breakfast one morning, grossed over $736 million and sold 7.2 million tickets, becoming both the highest grossing and highest attended tour in history. It's pretty clear from those stats that U2 are still the biggest band on the planet.

I had the privilege of seeing one of the dozen or so last shows of the marathon tour, and it was, quite simply, a mindblowing show: a redefinition of the concert going experience. When openers Florence + the Machine took the stage on the gorgeous summer evening of June 26th, I was filled with anticipation. U2 has been one of my favorite bands since 7th or 8th grade. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was the first album I ever downloaded onto my first iPod, and more than a handful of their songs sit among my all time favorites. And even though a lot of people my age seem to have written U2 off in recent years, the past decade has seen some of their best work, and even without that, it would be impossible for me to put down a band with a pair of albums as good as The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby under their belts. Then of course, we can't forget about their legendary live shows. Despite the fact that the idea of stadium shows have never really attracted me (I'd much prefer to be front and center in a small club), I'd always wanted to see U2 live, and after finally getting the chance to do so, I can say with some assurance that their music couldn't possibly sound as perfect as it did that night in any other environment.

Florence were decent openers. I like a few of their songs a lot, and those were the highlight of their set, but they fell victim to the common pitfall of the opening act: the sound quality just wasn't very good. No matter though: by the time U2 took the stage, the sun was setting and there was a pleasant summer breeze blowing through the stadium. I at once knew this was going to be a great night, even if Bono didn't enter from the rafters dressed as Spiderman as my brother and I had hoped he might. The band kicked off the show with four back to back numbers from Achtung Baby, which quickly became the most well represented record of the night. None of them are favorites of mine from that album, but "Even Better Than the Real Thing" was a killer opener, and "Mysterious Ways" had the crowd shouting along and pumping their fists. I could have done without "Until the End of the World", in exchange for say, "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" or "Ultraviolet," but that's a small complaint, as the four songs kicked off the set very well.

After taking their trip back to 1991, the band launched into their first hit, the dancey 1980 single "I Will Follow," yet another crowd-pleaser. Fast forward almost 30 years to "Get On Your Boots," an equally dancey number and the first single from their 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon. I've never understood why the song was chosen as a lead single, as it's probably one of the band's weakest songs, period, so I was fairly bored during that one, and found myself wondering if the entire night was going to be a rundown of songs I liked, but didn't love. Luckily, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," part of the legendary opening trio from 1987's The Joshua Tree, immediately washed my worries away, and was the first of many chill-inducing moments that night. Hearing the entire audience of 100,000 belt most of the first verse while Bono just sat back and played conductor, was one of the greatest moments I've ever beheld in a concert. And the Springsteen "Promised Land" snippet at the end, to pay tribute to the recently passed away saxophone legend Clarence Clemons, almost had me a bit choked up.

"Stay (Faraway, So Close)," an underrated gem from 1996's Zooropa, was one the biggest surprises and highlights of the night. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton took a breather as, in Bono's words, he and the Edge tried to "shrink the stadium into a small club or a pub." Bono's voice floated through the gorgeous ballad with only the Edge's acoustic guitar for accompaniment, and it was stunning. That led to a pair of songs ("Beautiful Day" and "Elevation") from their late career masterpiece All That You Can't Leave Behind, the former featuring the usual "transmission" from the International Space Station, with an astronaut speaking the bridge. "Pride (In the Name of Love)," sounded appropriately big in it's live setting, and made me wish for a few more tracks from 1984's masterful, if a bit uneven, Unforgettable Fire: "Bad" or the title track would be welcome in any U2 setlist, but alas, "Pride" would be the band's only foray into that record tonight.

The stage was a thing to behold throughout all of this: the massive multimedia screen gave everyone in the stadium a good view of the band and was often used to add extra, visual layers to songs. Lights flashed and the occasional firework shot into the air, and as the night grew darker, the stage just got cooler. On "Zooropa" and "City of Blinding Lights" (appropriately), the media screen split into hundreds of different pieces and surrounded the stage, making the proceedings look even more like an alien spacecraft than they already had. The next part of the set was pretty much an opportunity to show off the light show this stage could put on, and rest assured, pictures aren't enough to do it justice. Not even the incredibly mundane flamenco "remix" of "Crazy Tonight" could dampen my spirits, though I was happy when the band redeemed that small misstep with another classic: "Sunday Bloody Sunday," with it's persistent drumbeat and Bono's immortal vocal, certainly didn't disappoint live. And "Walk On," which is a favorite of mine that might have been the song that got me into this band in the first place, has never sounded better to me than it did as the main set closer that night. It sounded triumphant and massive, standing up next to the very best of U2's classic material.

But the encore was the highlight, with what are arguably the two best songs U2 has ever recorded, and two of the best songs ever written, period. The aching "One" is still as flawless and emotionally moving as it has ever been. I've heard better live versions of this song than the one I saw that night, most specifically the one (no pun intended) from the youtube Rose Bowl show, but seeing the song live was as great as I predicted it would be, and yet despite that song's greatness and despite how well the band played it, it still couldn't even hold a candle to what was next. The song gave way to sustained guitar chords and a brief snippet of the Shirelles classic "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", before, at long last, the Edge's legendary guitar riff echoed through the stadium, heralding the arrival of "Where the Streets Have No Name." It would be nearly impossible for me to describe how I was feeling when that sound hit my ears, but I'll try. Ever since I saw them play that song on TV at the Super Bowl in 2002, with the names of every 9/11 victim rising on a massive banner behind them, I've wanted to see them play it live. If, by some ridiculous miracle, I ever get to perform a show in a stadium, that's the song I would close with. It's just such a beautiful, massive song, and hearing it live that night moved me in a way that few songs ever have. Throughout the intro, chills shot through my entire body, there were tears in my eyes and a huge smile on my face, and then, as Bono began to sing, I belted along at the top of my lungs, as if my very being depended on it. I outstretched my arms and felt the late night summer breeze blow through my hair and I felt perfect: this is what a summer concert should be. This is what I wanted to do with my life.

In many ways, the second (and third) encores that followed were just bonuses. We got "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," a soundtrack tune from the abysmal film Batman Forever. We got "With or Without You," to complete the holy Joshua Tree trinity. And we got "Moment of Surrender," though by that point my brother and I were sprinting back towards our car so we could get out of town (or at least out of the parking garage) before it became impossible to do so. We heard the entire song as we ran across the MSU campus, but I think I still regret leaving early, as the bootleg I have indicates that, at the opening of the song, Bono asked the audience to, "just for a second, think about this beautiful man named Clarence Clemons, who we just said goodbye to. Not really a man, more of a force...a force of nature with music just spilling out of him," before launching into the night's final song. And at the end of the song, Bono railed off one last Springsteen/Clemons tribute, this time by speaking the final lines of "Jungleland," over the last stanzas of "Surrender." I, for one, can't think of a better way to describe Clemons and his Jungleland sax solo than with the words Bono used: a force of nature.

We go to concerts not to hear perfect reproductions of our favorite songs, but to hear them and, with a great band, feel them in new ways. In that way, U2 may be the greatest live band working today. Bruce and the E-Street band played a better setlist and a better show overall the one time I saw them live (and, since it's on topic, Clarence was electric that night), but something must be said for the kind of experience that U2 gives on these massive stadium tours. It's risky, because so much of it ends up being about the stage, but then again, people seem to forget how talented a band U2 really is. Even after the Edge's style has been imitated thousands of times, there's still nothing like hearing that opening guitar riff from "Streets" echo through a stadium. Any band would be lucky to have a rhythm section as rock solid as the Larry Mullen Jr./Adam Clayton team, and say what you want about Bono's constant "saving the world" shtick, but don't forget how much range and emotional power he can convey with his voice. I mean, hell, The Joshua Tree might be one of the most well sung records in the history of rock and roll. With that much talent and with a slew of great records and even greater songs, I would have been completely fine just seeing them rock an arena, no frills, like Bruce does. But then again, they wouldn't really be U2 if they weren't going for this kind of sheer excess. And I can't think of a whole lot of bands who can do it as well as they can.


1. Even Better Than The Real Thing
2. The Fly
3. Mysterious Ways
4. Until The End Of The World
5. I Will Follow
6. Get On Your Boots
7. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For / The Promised Land (Snippet)
8. Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
9. Beautiful Day / Space Oddity (Snippet)
10. Elevation
11. Pride (In The Name Of Love)
12. Miss Sarajevo
13. Zooropa
14. City Of Blinding Lights
15. Vertigo / TV Eye (Snippet)
16. Crazy Tonight / Discotheque (Snippet) / Psycho Killer (Snippet) / Life During Wartime (Snippet)
17. Sunday Bloody Sunday
18. Scarlet
19. Walk On / You'll Never Walk Alone (Snippet)


20. One
21. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (Snippet) / Where The Streets Have No Name
22. Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me
23. With or Without You
24. Moment of Surrender / Jungleland (Snippet)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New Music Review: Mat Kearney - Young Love

Album review: Mat Kearney - Young Love

4/5 (stars)

I can still remember the first time I heard Mat Kearney's breakthrough single, the title track to 2006's fantastic Nothing Left to Lose. It was an evening in late summer 2006, and my sister had just sent me a large assortment of songs she'd gotten for free off iTunes for some promotion. Out of the two or three dozen songs, "Nothing Left to Lose" was the one that caught my ear the most. It was a perfect summer song: a breezy piece of acoustic pop that fit right with my music tastes at the time and immediately became a part of my summer soundtrack. I eventually picked up the CD, and I was a bit surprised at what I heard. Roughly half the songs were straightforward singer/songwriter fare, in the vein of the title track, but on the other 6 or 7 songs, Kearney blended pop with hip hop, rapping verses that flowed and built into big pop choruses. That genre blending, which at first sounded jarring and alien to my young and not-so-experienced ears, kept me coming back years after I picked that record up, and I'm still, to this day, discovering and rediscovering favorite songs from it.

I fell so in love with the freestyle vibe of "Nothing Left to Lose" that by the time the follow up, entitled City of Black & White, dropped in 2009, I found myself furiously disappointed that Kearney (or perhaps his label) had decided to drop the hip hop element of his sound entirely. The record was a straightforward summer pop album, and I did enjoy it for what it was, but on my first few listens, I noticed only 2 or 3 standout tracks and was ready to set it aside and write Kearney off as a talented gentleman who just went in the wrong direction with his music. It was a classic example of my expectations coloring my actual opinion of an album, but thankfully, I decided to give it a few more chances, and I'm glad I did. Once I set aside my expectations for another Nothing Left to Lose, I was able to view City for what it is: a stunning collection of well crafted pop songs that is solid from top to bottom. Today, both records probably sit somewhere in my all time top 25.

Which brings me to Kearney's third full length major label effort, Young Love. Kearney changes directions once again, finding a middle ground of sorts between the hip hop influence of Nothing Left to Lose and the folk infused pop of City of Black and White. The most notable thing about these new songs is how beat heavy they are, especially on the first half of the record. Kearney has said that they essentially made this album like it was a hip hop project, focusing on the beats and production as much as the lyrics and music. That's apparent from the second track and album highlight "Ships in the Night," which with a little label push, could have been a huge hit on the radio this summer. The song is flawlessly produced, layered in synths, shimmering keys, and a persistent beat that will make sure the song earns a spot on your summer playlist. Kearney speak/sings the verses, making the track reminiscent of the best tracks on Nothing Left to Lose, and builds to the album's biggest chorus. Opener and first single "Hey Mama" gets things started with an irresistable summer-esque vibe and a classic Kearney hook, but doesn't make much sense as a lead single next to a song as good as "Ships."

"Sooner or Later" continues in the same poppy vein, with a chorus that blends the best of City of Black and White with Kearney's new beat heavy sound. On the chorus, Kearney sings in a smooth falsetto that, when mixed with the beat and production, gives the song an almost dancey vibe. "Learning to Love Again" is Kearney in his element, a laid back acoustic-based track that sounds like it could have fit with the more straightforward moments of Nothing Left to Lose or with the final few tracks of City of Black and White. The echoing harmonies throughout are reminiscent of the chilling closing moments of the last record, and add a subtle beauty to an already good song. The song kicks off the stellar second half of the record, continuing into "Down," which opens with a jangly guitar riff that recalls "Mr. Jones" by the Counting Crows and builds into an anthem, while "She Got the Honey" might have the record's most memorable hook. The song is an enormously fun, catchy jam that's almost guaranteed to make you smile, and "Young, Dumb and In Love" pulled me in with an infectious opening riff and never let go.

In true Mat fashion, he saves two of his finest, more subdued songs for last. The first, "Rochester," was released a year ago as part of the Black Swan Shadow EP, a vinyl EP that Kearney sold only at the shows on his acoustic tour last year. Mat played the song almost nightly on that tour, alongside a slowed down cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," so perhaps it's appropriate that "Rochester" finds Mat Kearney playing up his Springsteen influence in an obvious way for the first time. The song, a gorgeous piece of acoustic storytelling, is extremely reminiscent of Nebraska-era Bruce, most specifically the song "Highway Patrolman." Springsteen recorded that record on an 8-track in his bedroom, painting a stark portrait of the trials and tribulations of middle class America, and Mat's song clearly owes a lot to it, both in sound and in tone. Mat spins a tale (his father's) of escapism and redemption, two themes that Bruce is no stranger to, and the result is probably the best song on the record.

"I would hop the fence out to those government fields
Run till there was nothing left to feel
Lying there, watching planes just disappear
Knowing one day I'm gonna fly on out of here."

When Kearney sings those lines, sparsely accompanied by his acoustic and what sounds like a distant steel guitar, you can almost see the scene he's describing. Kearney hasn't done a lot of storytelling songs in this vein (the last album had one, in the form of "Annie") but if this song is any indication, he should be doing a lot more of them. If he's looking for another new direction to take his sound on the next record, I wouldn't mind hearing a Nebraska-esque album.

The gorgeous "Seventeen" closes the album out, and I can't imagine a better way to end the record. Young Love is an album about the wonderment and naivety of falling in love for the first time and about the dreams you have as a kid before life gets in the way. Kearney has said that he tried to write from a more innocent perspective, and the result is a record that is very hopeful throughout. "Seventeen," interestingly enough, comes across as the most hopeful track of all. It tells the tale of a man who, at the age of 17, gets a girl pregnant, but she has a miscarriage, he loses her and he never gets over it. The years fly by, and he meets and marries the girl of his dreams, and on the night she has a baby, he remembers a similar night when he was younger, when everything went wrong. He's scared shitless, both that something like that could happen again and at how his life is about to change forever. When the song hits the bridge, you can almost feel the passage of time, and the final verse and chorus wrap the album up perfectly. Because despite the fact that the character has experienced pain and suffering and isn't as naive as he once was, the final moments of the record find him coming back to the innocence and wonderment of young love, and there could be no more perfect finale to Kearney's record than that.

Young Love isn't Kearney's best record: I think that title still, even after all these years, belongs to Nothing Left to Lose, but Kearney has become one of my favorite artists working today, simply on the basis of two terrific albums (and now a third) with sounds and themes that are always tweaked a bit, but remain familiar enough to be welcoming. Only time will tell if Young Love will reach the same level for me as the other two, but for now, it stands as one of my favorite records in what has been an extraordinarily strong year for music (with much more great stuff on the way), and a big part of the soundtrack to my summer. And if Kearney's next three records are half as good as these three, he'll be one of those guys I follow for a long time. Here's hoping.

Butch Walker: A tribute

"And the static singes the speakers
Like a thousand hymns of inspiration
The road just winds through the canyon
Like a big black snake headed for salvation
And I'm getting closer to the truth and further from the sky"

Since he's pretty much the reason I'm as obsessed with music as I am, and since I'm borrowing a title from one of his songs for my blog, I figure there's no better place to start discussing my thoughts on music than with Mr. Butch Walker. After all, that's more or less my beginning anyway.

To say Butch Walker’s music defined that last 7 years of my life is a complete understatement. He owns half of my album of the year titles from the past decade. His music has received exponentially more play than that of any other artist in my library (except for perhaps Bruce Springsteen, but we'll get to him in good time). He’s the epitome of everything I think is right about music today. A self made, experienced professional who has gone through hell in this industry and come out with the best fans anyone could ever ask for. He’s made a career for himself in production that will allow him to do what he loves, no matter what happens. With Butch, it’s always fans first; his brilliant, life affirming live shows are evidence of this, and I count the five times I’ve seen him live among the best nights of my life. He was my first concert, and I still remember the day (August 1st, 2006, in Detroit). And, along with maybe two or three other artists, he is responsible for my passionate love of music, my thirst to hear everything I can, and my drive to become the best performer that I can be. I cherish all of his records for different reasons, and all of them have meant a lot to me at different times. However, I'll start with Letters, since that's where the whole story begins anyway.

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved music: whether it was my stepdad blasting "Spirit in the Night" by Bruce Springsteen while getting ready for a date with my mom, my mom playing the James Taylor greatest hits in the car, or sitting the basement with my brother, listening to his Wallflowers, Counting Crows and Oasis CDs, I've always been a sucker for a good song, but up until 8th grade, my interest was mostly contained to what my older brother was listening to or to the more tolerable radio fodder (except for my brief love of Creed, but the less said of that, the better.) But in the fall of 2004, something happened that made me really fall in love with music, and ever since then, there's been no turning back. The album that sparked that love, that made me realize just how powerful and life-altering music could be, was Jimmy Eat World's Futures (another long story, another blog post), but that was only step one in a longer process. I had a favorite album, now I needed a favorite artist.

That artist presented himself to me on a rather dreary day in early February 2005, when the bored 15 year old version of myself stumbled upon a song called "Mixtape" by a guy named Butch Walker in some corner of the internet. That song, with it's memorable piano line, heartfelt lyrics, and big chorus, sparked my interest, but I think it was something else that made me really want to pursue Walker's music further. The version of "Mixtape" that I had found online was a live acoustic take from an album called This is Me...Justified and Stripped. That title was a play on albums by Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, right down to the font on the cover, and the live version featured Butch bantering with the crowd in between songs.
"Mom, remember when you sat me on my knee and said, 'if you're ever gonna get laid, you'd better play some fucking Carpenters"?, he says, in a playful tone, before singing the chorus from that band's biggest hit. This guy had some serious vocal talent, that was evident right away, but he also had loads of charisma and a sense of humor that made me think he would be the kind of guy I'd want to just hang out with for hours after seeing him play a concert. He continues by saying: "and then a friend of mine at school said 'dude if you're gonna get laid, you better make some good mixtapes.' ...so I did!" before launching into the song. The performance in question isn't even Butch at his best - I've heard him do that song better on a various occasions - but the way he sounded, in a completely raw environment, with just him on an acoustic and a buddy playing the drums, blew me away and instantly made me want to hear more.

That led me to Letters, and I can still remember the first time I heard it: the soaring choruses of opener "Maybe It's Just Me" and "Uncomfortably Numb", the summer dusk vibe of "So At Last", or the chilling emotional power of songs like "Joan", "Best Thing You Never Had" and "Don't Move", where it sounds like Walker is singing as though his life depended on it. I remember laughing at the sarcastic lyrics of "Race Cars & Goth Rock", thinking "Promise" was almost the perfect love song, almost being brought to tears by the heartbreaking "Thank You Note", and immediately restarting the album after the last chords of "Stateline" faded away, leaving Walker to sing the final words of the record: "Thinking of you with my last breath."

Letters became my favorite album of all time, and Walker my favorite artist. I explored his first solo album, the power-pop inspired Left of Self-Centered and even bought the records by his previous band the Marvelous 3 for a couple of bucks off amazon: Hey! Album and Readysexgo!, the latter of which prompted my parents to sit me down and ask me if I was ordering porn off the internet. By the time Butch released his next album (The Rise & Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites!) in July of 2006, I was more than a die hard fan. Walker's music was my soundtrack and the one trump card I needed to be absolutely certain that I had better music taste than all my friends (I'm still pretty sure I do). The Rise & Fall was and is the perfect summer album: a near-flawless collection of glam-infused rock songs, Rise & Fall is all fun. From the instantly memorable opener, "Hot Girls in Good Moods", to the la-la-la chorus of "Too Famous to Get Fully Dressed", all the way to the alt-country ditty "Rich People Die Unhappy" and the anthemic singer/songwriter masterpiece "When Canyons Ruled the City" that close the album, The Rise & Fall was full of Walker trying sounds he hadn't on his past few albums. Letters and Left of Self-Centered were power-pop, but this time, he was more interested in classic rock (which was fitting, since the title was an obvious play on a David Bowie record.)

It was that tour when I first saw Walker live, and the show was one of the most unforgettable I've ever seen. The details could fill a blog post by themselves, but suffice to say that it was the hottest day of the year (temperatures exceeded 100 degrees) and that the inside of the club was, more or less, a gateway into the bowels of hell. And still, somehow, Walker managed to send chills down my neck when he kicked his band offstage to play a pair of songs - "Joan" and "Dominoes" - solo from the piano. His voice just cut right through the heat and got to me, and it reminded me of that first time I heard him banter with a crowd on the live recording of "Mixtape". Seeing him play live, it seemed to me, was the last piece of the puzzle: this was an artist I would follow and listen to for the rest of my life.

It was over two years before Butch released another album. There were a few diversions: a live album that he released for free on his site in early 2008 and a new-wavey side project called 1969, but it wasn't until November of that year that his next record, Sycamore Meadows, surfaced. He lost his home and everything he owned in the California wildfires that year, and he named the album after the street that he had lived on. The first time I listen, I knew this was a dividing line for him: gone were the traces of power-pop that had covered his first two records and parts of his third, replaced by more folk and classic rock influences. And although his signature sarcasm was still there, Sycamore Meadows was a more serious record - more in the vein of Letters than The Rise & Fall. He channeled his idols: Tom Petty on "The Weight of Her", Elvis Costello on "Passed Your Place..." and Bruce Springsteen on "Closer to the Truth & Further From the Sky", while still retaining his own persona as an artist (he tells his entire story on the fantastic "Going Back/Going Home"), and the result was, arguably, the finest collection of songs Walker has put to record to date. My brother and I saw him two more times on that tour, and then two more nights in a row when he returned to the same venues just over a year later, this time in support of his 2010 effort, I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart.

If there's one thing you can say about Butch, it's that he'll never make the same record twice. Where Sycamore Meadows moved things in a more folky and classic rock direction, I Liked You Better... is awash in Beatles pop, southern rock and country, and even though, for the first time since Walker had become my favorite arist, the album did not claim my album of the year title, it was still more than a solid effort. The best songs on the record, the gorgeous alt-country ballad "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home", the southern rock rave-up of "She Likes Hair Bands" and the bluesy, Johnny Cash referencing "Days/Months/Years" , were still among his best songs, period. And those tour dates? Might have been the best yet.

Which leads me to the present: another year, another Butch Walker record, this one dropping at the end of the month (called The Spade, and you can rest assured that I'll offer my thoughts on that one as soon as I get my hands on it.) I've spent a lot of words trying to explain why Walker and his music means so much to me, and I think it comes down to one thing: Walker is a lot like me. I see myself up onstage when he plays, I relate to his songs, I love his voice and the way he produces records, and I love his music taste. I love that every time I see him live, he somehow manages to top the previous time. And I love the fact that, even after I've soundtracked my life to them time and time again and even after hearing them each hundreds of times, I can still come back to his albums and they'll sound just as good as the day I first heard them, like an old friend. Ever since I first heard Butch Walker, on that February day in 2005, I've been looking for another artist who can do what he did for me. Someone to change the way I listen to music and the way I look at the world, someone who can put on a live show with such electricity and charisma, someone who's records I could soundtrack my life to, over and over again, without ever getting tired of them. It's only happened once, in late 2008 when I realized how great Bruce Springsteen really was.

But like I said earlier, we'll get to him in good time.