Saturday, May 26, 2012

John Mayer - Born & Raised

Columbia Records, 2012
Four and a half stars

Connecticut-born-and-raised singer/songwriter John Mayer may have started out as a teen-pop heartthrob, slinging sugary sweet acoustic jams like "Why Georgia" and "Your Body is a Wonderland" (from his 2001 major label debut album, Room for Squares) toward the radio airwaves, but right from the beginning, it was clear that Mayer was an artist fighting to emerge. It only took five years for him to morph from his initial teen idol image into a guitar god and a blues-rock superstar, delivering one of the best albums of the past decade with 2006's Continuum, and making himself the leader of a tight-knit jazz trio (alongside seasoned vets Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan). In between, he hinted at his move to maturity on the hooky, heartfelt, and criminally underrated Heavier Things (the first album I ever bought with my own money), and afterwards, he made a trip to break-up album territory with 2009's Battle Studies, which blended his blues direction with his pop roots for a maze of deep grooves, infectious hooks, night-time atmospherics, and dizzying guitar solos. Now, Mayer is undergoing another metamorphosis, holding onto the blues, shedding the pop, and moving towards classic folk-rock and alt-country on his long-awaited fifth studio album, Born & Raised, and the result, while not his best record to date, is another great work from one of mainstream music's most ambitious players.

Mayer and guitar-legend B.B. King exchange guitar picks.
Mayer is arguably the greatest guitarist of his generation: he dropped out of the renowned Berklee College of Music after two semesters, but that hasn't stopped him from collaborating with (or convincingly borrowing from) such legends as Eric Clapton and B.B. King. When he lets loose on the electric, the results are chilling and mind-bending (see the stratospheric and emotional solo he laid down on "Edge of Desire," the key track from Battle Studies, or his emulation of Jimi Hendrix's "Bold as Love" on Continuum), but he doesn't do a whole lot of that here. There are a few solos throughout, but on the whole, Born & Raised is a more chilled out, laid back, lyrically driven record. It's also the furthest Mayer has strayed from his roots yet, and I would go as far as to say that there isn't a single outright pop song on the whole disc. First single "Shadow Days" is the most blatantly countrified moment of the entire album, with Mayer's weather-worn vocals and regret-laced lyrics surrounded by a web of instrumentation, from sweeping flourishes of pedal steel to the centerpiece guitar solo, all coming back to a dusky chorus. Elsewhere, "Speak to Me" is an acoustic-based number that recalls his Room For Squares sound, but with a distinctly more folk-driven lilt. Both songs find Mayer rebelling against his fame and image, battling the douchebag reputation that has formed around him in the wake of controversial interviews for the likes of Playboy and Rolling Stone. Interestingly enough, those songs are probably the ones with the most mainstream appeal, as the rest of the disc finds Mayer experimenting with every aspect of his music. Opener "Queen of California" sounds like it came straight out of the '70s folk/rock scene (think Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Young, or America), with twangy harmonies and another vintage guitar solo; the shapeshifting sensibility of "If I Ever Get Around to Living" references every era of Mayer's career, recalling, at different moments, the brassy build-up of "Clarity," the funky grooves of "83," and the blues/jazz feel of Continuum, while still coalescing into something that sounds distinctly new for him; album-highlight "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967" kicks off with a trumpet intro before launching into a storytelling opus, laden with distant harmonies, church-bound organs, and a consistant snare-drum march, that instantly sits among Mayer's finest displays of songwriting to date. Mayer has never been content to make the same album twice, but he's also never been one to write a record full of sound-alike songs, and his experimental drive here makes for one of the most involving, eclectic, and interesting listens that any album this year has offered thus far.

But even with all the evolution and experimentation represented on Born & Raised, most of the record still has that definitive John Mayer sound. Folk music, with its lyrical structure and evocative orchestration, fits Mayer's songwriting sensibilities like a glove, lending songs like "Age of Worry" (another one of the more mainstream offerings) or "Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey" (a perfect night-time driving song, right down to the pervasive, Ryan Adams-esque harmonica solos) with a distinctly timeless quality. The folkiest groove is left to the campfire confessional that is the title track, a deeply moving and mournfully nostalgic song that seems to encompass 30 or 40 years of the genre into five minutes: Crosby and Nash actually make an appearance here, lending their vocals to the rich harmonies that play throughout, while an explosive B3 organ interlude recalls more modern folk masterworks. And the ghost of Dylan never wanders far as Mayer delves further into his past than ever before, marveling at the swift decay of time, revisiting the places and pieces of his life that he has forgotten, and referencing the powerful personal impact his parent's divorce had on him. It's a lyrical masterclass from a guy who has been responsible for some cringe-worthy moments in his time ("Your body is a wonder, I'll use my hands"), and it comes in the middle of a record full of songs that crackle with maturity and heart. It balances the record's dualities: the past with the present and the experimentation, the alt-country, and the folk with Mayer's more traditional tendencies (see songs like "Something Like Olivia," a bluesy, jazz-trio based song that was recorded almost entirely live, or "Love is a Verb" a slow-burn of a ballad that could have fit easily on any of his last three records). In other words, it's the crux, and the album doesn't quite work without it.

Born & Raised is a record full of contradictions: Mayer ditches his pop music background, but still has some hooks up his sleeve; he goes acoustic for most of the songs, but still has some shining displays of guitar brilliance here and there (just in case anyone ever doubted his talent); he moves in a new direction, making a record that is, overall, nothing like any of the four that have come before it, but there are still countless moments that recall his past; and it's probably not his best work, but after about ten listens, I started feeling the temptation to call it just that. Everything collides on the climactic swell of "A Face to Call Home," the album's proper closer. Acoustic strums mesh with a rousing electric guitar line as Mayer layers numerous vocal parts on top of one another: it's a splendid moment, with such melodic and sonic splendor that it begs to be played at maximum volume. It's also the perfect conclusion to one of the two or three best records I've heard all year, an album that is a stellar step forward for one of today's most intriguing and artistically-driven superstars, and a flawless summer-evening soundtrack. I'd love to hear a record where Mayer really leans on his abilities as a guitarist, but if allowing him to expand his songwriting horizons and explore a wider range of influences sounds as good as Born & Raised does throughout, then I'm on board, all the way. He may have had (relatively) humble beginnings (Squares is still a very solid record), but Mayer is making albums today that will be considered classics 30 or 40 years down the road, and I know I'll be listening to this one, not only for the rest of the summer, not only until it lands somewhere in the upper-echelon of my year-end list, but for as long as I continue to adore music the way I do now: I can hardly give higher praise.

Keane - Strangeland

Island Records, 2012
Four stars

Keane's Hopes and Fears, which dropped all the way back in 2004, was one of the handful of records from that year that turned me into an obsessive music fan. It was an album full of soaring choruses, emotional lyrics, and truly spectacular vocal acrobatics (courtesy of lead singer Tom Chaplin), and I fell in love with every one of those songs throughout the end of that year and the beginning of the next. A lot of people would have derided that album as "dull" or "repetitive," and they would certainly have a compelling argument for either case: Chaplin and co. didn't write with a lot of sonic variation. They were a three-piece band, with drums, piano, and voice, and no guitars anywhere in sight, but that wasn't even all of it: the songs generally were built around the same formula, and could easily have run together (in fact, I think they did at first). But that was a time when there were fewer albums at my disposal, and I spent a lot of time with that one: it grew on me, attached itself to a thousand different moments in my life, and became one of the most nostalgic records in my collection. It was a serendipitous connection that the band could never duplicate, and I enjoyed each of their releases less than the previous (though I always appreciated that the band did evolve on each of them). The dark atmospherics of 2006's Under the Iron Sea gave way to a more dance/pop-based sound on 2008's Perfect Symmetry and an EP a couple of years later, always with diminishing returns, and I became certain that, while I would listen to the band's future music, it would never have the impact of their debut.

Where their contemporaries in Coldplay have moved from their piano-rock roots towards a more fully orchestral, U2-esque sound, Keane has constantly delved further and further into the nuances of Brit-pop, and Strangeland is their poppiest record yet. Where their first two records were grounded in emotional piano-balladry, their latest finds them more bent on creating echoing pop soundscapes, full of sweeping choruses and wide-open production. Bassist/guitarist Jesse Quin, who joined the band fairly inconspicuously for Perfect Symmetry, helps with that task, but his presence also moves the band further away from what made those first two albums special for me. When I think of Keane, it will always be of the bombastic piano chords of "Somewhere Only We Know," or the cold synths of the power ballad that was "She Has No Time," both furnished by keyboardist and composer Tim Rice-Oxley. While both of those things are certainly present here, the wider array of instrumentation and electronic influences that the band has acquired over the past few records has turned them into a completely different musical force. But while that may hinder my nostalgic enjoyment of this record, it only enhances its pop music value, and make no mistake, this is one of the catchiest, most addicting collections of songs that anyone has made all year. Look no further than the opening trio (the introduction of "You Are Young" and the one-two punch of singles "Silenced By The Night" and "Disconnected"), all of which feature high-rise choruses and expansive, enthralling production. The gorgeous 80s AM-pop of "Sovereign Light Cafe" is a highlight and wouldn't sound out of place on a classic Elton John record, while the driving rhythm of "On The Road" sounds equally out-of-time. One of my biggest problems with Perfect Symmetry was that it seemed like the band was selling out, giving up on their own sound and major influences, and veering towards modern radio's obsession with electronic, dance, and hip-hop music; Strangeland finds the band melding their old sound with a more classic, radio-pop approach, and the results are both reminiscent of a past age and refreshing for the current one.

But while Strangeland is loaded with hooks and stirring pop songs, what is lacking is what Keane have always been the best at: the piano ballads. The album's poppier tracks crackle with life and energy that have been lacking from the band's sound since Iron Sea, but the slower moments, like the tepid "Watch How You Go," which has great verses but a snoozer of a chorus, or the forgettable "Black Rain," which actually gets buried in Dan Grech-Marguerat's reverb-soaked pop production, take an otherwise terrific album down a notch. That's not to say that, when the tempo drops, so does the quality: songs like "Neon River" and album-closer "Sea Fog" are less rhythmically driven than much of the record, but still have the same addictive pop sensibility, but it is a bit of a disappointment, as lyrical balladry has always been one of the band's biggest strengths in the past. Still, even as things have shifted within this band, one aspect, at least, has remained constant, and serves as the same "secret weapon" for these songs as it has for the band's entire output: that ingredient is the voice of Tom Chaplin, which soars, lilts, breaks, and cuts through every stratospheric arrangement and subdued moment that Strangeland has to offer; it lends songs like "In Your Own Time" and "Day Will Come" a palpable climactic energy, and imbues "Sea Fog" with a sense of resignation that carries the album out in haunting fashion. Chaplin's delivery, his ability to tap into the emotional core of every song Rice-Oxley pens, and his sheer vocal range, have always baffled me and kept me coming back to this band's music, and probably will continue to do so as long as they record it. People have mocked, derided, and written this band off from the get-go, but at very least, the vocal prowess has always been untouchable. In that sense, he's their Bono.

I received Hopes and Fears for my fourteenth birthday, along with Green Day's American Idiot and Sister Hazel's Lift, sandwiched between the weeks and months when I purchased Jimmy Eat World's Futures and The Killers' Hot Fuss, and in the same year that birthed Butch Walker's Letters and Arcade Fire's Funeral. That list of records constitutes some of my favorite music ever committed to tape and represents the backbone of explosive growth and musical discovery I went through in the fall of 2004. To put it lightly, Keane, no matter the direction they have taken since that release, remain one of the most important figures on my own musical timeline, and because of that, they have earned my attention for life. Only time will tell whether Strangeland will, like Hopes and Fears, stay in constant rotation and pop up on my end-of-the-year list, or be forgotten in the midst of superior records, but for now, it's one of the finest and shiniest collections of pop songs I've heard so far this year, and represents the sound of a band struggling with their influences, indulgences, and yes, hopes and fears, to get back on their feet and deliver a triumph. My belief is that, like their debut, it will only continue to grow on me.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Good Old War - Come Back As Rain

Good Old War - Come Back As Rain
Sargent House, 2012
Three and a half stars

It may have dropped two months ago, but Philadelphia's Good Old War, with their lush harmonies and sun-soaked folk-pop music, were simply meant for this time of year, and their latest record, evocatively titled Come Back As Rain, is no exception to that rule. Two years ago, they released their self-titled album, a reasonably solid set of songs with a handful of terrific stand-outs that became summer soundtrack staples for die-hards and casual fans alike. Undoubtedly, the highlights here will see a very similar fate as the weather continues to warm up, but Come Back As Rain is a better record than its predecessor was, with bigger hooks, more fully realized arrangements, and most of all, with a higher standard of consistency that suggests that those who haven't checked this band out before should certainly do so now. Look no further than the tremendous opening trio, which presents the infectious lead-off single, "Calling Me Names," between a rousing introduction ("Over and Over") and a gorgeous, Beach Boys-esque piece of mid-tempo balladry ("Amazing Eyes"). Lead-singer Keith Goodwin has a way of delivering melodic lines that have an innately pleasant and soothing lilt to them, especially when cushioned by the vocal harmonies of his fellow bandmates, and those three tracks present that technique flawlessly.

There aren't any "bad" songs on Come Back As Rain, but there's not a whole lot of variation in the sound either. Good Old War establish every cornerstone of their sound in the first three tracks, and then essentially aim for that same beachy atmosphere throughout the entire record. That's not to say that there aren't other terrific compositions on display here, though: "Not Quite Happiness" features some nicely textured guitar playing and a terrific vocal burst from Goodwin near the song's climax, while the electric guitars that cut through the mid-sections of "Touch the Clouds (Taste the Ground)" and "It Hurts Everytime" inject a welcome (but all too brief) sonic variation into the proceeds. The rapid-fire drum beat of "After the Party" lends the song a surging energy that is especially refreshing after 25 minutes of tracks with similar tempos, while the breezy singalong aesthetic of "Loud Love" would have made for a terrific closer (it's actually the penultimate track), especially with the way that the group's members pass around the lead vocal line throughout. Those are just a few highlights from what is actually a very solid collection of songs, but overall, there simply is not enough variation on display here, whether in instrumentation, vocal range, or tempo, and the result is that Come Back As Rain has a tendency to blend together, especially in its middle section.

Come Back As Rain is a worthwhile release from a talented trio of musicians; it's just not a great one. Those who have listened to the band in the past should know exactly what to expect, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, one just wishes that they had taken a few more risks. Still, as uplifting, summer-ready indie folk-pop, Good Old War do their jobs satisfactorily, with terrific vocals, crisp acoustic guitars, lively percussion (and occasional handclaps), and a true gift for melody. Those qualities will undoubtedly land any number of these songs on summer playlists and mixtapes (my own included) for anything from beach parties, to road trips, to bonfires, and maybe a few will even become favorites. But at the end of the day, Come Back As Rain still suggests the same thing I've thought about Good Old War from the first time I heard their music: that, as talented as they are and as many good songs as they are capable of constructing, they are one of those bands that is better in smaller, individual doses than in full album-length ones. It's a shame, because I think someday they could make a truly great record, but for now, is there anything really wrong with being a "playlist band?"

Counting Crows - Underwater Sunshine

Counting Crows - Underwater Sunshine
Collective Sounds, 2012
Four stars

I always enjoy when an artist reinvents another performer's song, either in live performance or as a b-side, bonus track, or soundtrack contribution, but really, do full-length cover records ever work? Whether it's a question of poor song selections, the artist not making the song their own, the artist doing TOO much to make the song their own, or just the fact that there are some songs out there that simply should not be re-done, cover albums are the single trend in the musical world that have pretty much universally disappointed me. All that said, if I had to pick a single band that I thought could perfect the art of the cover album, '90s alt-rock veterans Counting Crows would certainly be high on the list of nominees. Frontman Adam Duritz has always exuded a geek-level obsession and respect for music of all genres, and has been toying with the idea of making an album of covers for at least a decade now. The result, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) is not only my favorite covers collection of all time, but one of the finest records of the year, and, though not quite among the band's best work, a more than welcome addition to their legacy

Duritz and company have had an interesting history, from the days of their (utterly fantastic) debut, August and Everything After, which spawned the single "Mr. Jones" and rocketed them to superstardom, to their rebellion against fame on the follow-up, 1996's Recovering the Satellites, to their renowned and emotional live show, where the band tends to re-invent their own songs with astounding regularity. They were also probably my first "favorite band," and their records, when I re-discovered them about eight summers ago, launched me into a musical obsession that I've carried around with me and nurtured ever since. But the last decade was not the best time for the Crows, seeing only two releases from them (2002's gloriously poppy Hard Candy and 2008's lukewarm, split-personality LP Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings), and Duritz's increasingly difficult struggles with a dissociative disorder that left him feeling alone and depressed after nearly every show the band played. Since the Crows wrapped up their last tour in 2010, Duritz has even gone on record saying that he may never write another song. Naturally, it was the perfect time for the band to attempt the covers album idea that they'd been tossing around for so long, and Underwater Sunshine was born.

One of the most fascinating things about this record is how unfamiliar most of these songs really are. There's a cover of "You Ain't Going Nowhere," written by The Byrds and popularized by Bob Dylan, who has been one of the band's biggest idols all along, but beyond that, most of these songs are gems that many listeners will never have heard before, and that gives the band a liberating freedom to make them completely their own. Of course, they do just that: from my first listen, whether I was listening to Duritz belt out the line, "throw your arms around my neck," from opener "Untitled (Love Song)" or the nostalgic B3-organ flourishes on Dawes' "All My Failures," this collection sounded like it could have been written by the Crows themselves, circa 1998. A lot of these songs have been making appearances in live sets for years now (like the incredibly loose take on Gram Parsons' "Return of the Grievous Angel," which kicks the album into its final leg, or the gorgeous alt-country sweep of "Four White Stallions" that follows), or have even been recorded as b-sides in the past (I stumbled upon a studio version of "Start Again," with the same sunny harmonies and keyboard licks, almost a decade ago). Across the board, these songs have a live and organic feel to them, and that atmosphere, combined with the Crows' customary layer of studio sheen, makes for a magnetic and involving listen.

But even for a die-hard Counting Crows fan such as myself, there are plenty of musical discoveries to be made here and plenty of nuances to explore. Undoubtedly, the band plays mostly in the comfort zone, picking songs that work very well within their wheelhouse, and taking few actual "risks," but I actually think that's a good thing for a covers record. That the band never resorts to gimmicky song choices or to the kind of ironic pop-music covers that have become customary in the Youtube and American Idol age, is testament to their love for music and their respect for the artists that have chosen to cover here. And it doesn't matter whether they're paying tribute to more established acts, like Dylan or Big Star, or tackling artists who fall into the realm of the obscure (like Coby Brown on the tumultuous "Hospital," or Kasey Anderson & The Honkies on the entrancing "Like Teenage Gravity," which is arguably the album's biggest triumph), because no matter what song they're performing, they do so with incredible musical skill, innate emotional connection, and palpable energy that begs to be witnessed in live format. It's not just that there isn't a bad song on "Underwater Sunshine," it's that the band makes each of them sound like an instant classic of their own devising, sequencing them into an album of perfect length, flow, and personal impact, and transforming them into a something that fits perfectly into their own body of work; clearly, Adam Duritz has made more than a few mixtapes in his time, but this is one that deserves to be played on repeat…well, at least until he decides to write another album.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

On the majestic, bombastic sounds of the summer album...

*I wrote most of this in a one-night creative/nostalgic burst that I had earlier this spring, back when the weather first started to warm up and summertime seemed imminent. I left it behind, thinking it was unfinished, but I read it over and liked it to much not to put it up.

It happens every spring: as inevitably as the blooming of the trees, as sure as that first 60 degree day, where myself and thousands of others jump the gun, throw on shorts and a t-shirt, and roll down the windows in the car, pretending like it's May or June instead of March or April. I am speaking, of course, of my tendency to anticipate summer through music. And it always happens on nights like this: nights where a warm breeze blows through the trees, nights where the ghost of winter finally lifts, disappears, and is replaced by evocative smells and rivers of nostalgia; it happens on nights where my neighbors shoot off fireworks and scream in celebration at two in the morning, on nights where the people on the porch across the street drink beer and shout through their intoxication, and on nights where those things, for whatever reason, don't bother me, where I realize (to quote The Dangerous Summer's "I Will Stay"), "oh my God, it's almost summer."

Summer music is my favorite kind of music: I don't know why that is, but it's most certainly true. Every year, most of my favorite albums seem to drop in the summer (last year, I believe eight of my top ten came into my life between leaving school in the spring and returning in the fall); so many of my favorite songs or records recall glorious moments of summers gone by. And every year in recent memory, it hasn't felt like spring or summer until I've given some solid play time to a few key records. The most obvious is Jack's Mannequin and Everything in Transit, with its whirlwind depiction of a California summer and its power-pop aesthetic. It's a record that has served as soundtrack for a lot of important moments in my life over the past few years, and which has even served as a welcoming committee of sorts for Earth's most flawless season. This record has an interesting connection to the summers that followed my two freshman years: first, when I was fifteen years old, I was a year late to the party (Transit released the summer before), but that turned out to be okay, because the season that it did end up soundtracking instead was remarkable. I still remember long evening runs on the golf course near my house, with the sun setting over the hills and the sounds of that album blasting through my headphones. Andrew McMahon has a lot to say about being young and completely alive on Everything in Transit, and that was a theme that I related to that summer and during every single one after it. The other freshman year, the college one, included probably the most definitive experience I ever had with the album (which, for a record that had been one of my all-time favorites for four years at that point, was saying something). It was two years ago this month, and I'd just wrapped up the last exam of my first year in college. The weather was glorious, with sun streaming down from the sky and the temperature rising. And when everything was packed and I'd checked out of the dorm, I got in my car, scrolled through my iPod, and picked this album out. What followed remains one of my most fondly recalled road trips: the weather, the music, the anticipation to be going home for the entire summer, it all made me feel immortal: it was a great start to what turned out to be the best summer of my life.
But even though it might always be the definitive summer record for me, Everything in Transit is merely one of many that fit that qualification. Perhaps the first was either Counting Crows' Hard Candy or Sister Hazel's Chasing Daylight: I don't quite recall which I snagged first, but I know for certain that both came into my life in the summer of 2004, and both were instrumental in shaping my love for music: they're still among my all-time favorites. Hard Candy has probably the best summer bookend lyrics out there: "Up All Night" and the line "we could drive out to the dunes tonight, 'cause summer's almost here" still drives my anticipation for the season to a fever pitch when the temperature starts to warm up, and the part in "Miami" that goes "the bus is running, it's time to leave/this summer's gone, so are we" transformed the song into my definitive, bittersweet end-of-summer ceremonial for years on end. But after those two came along, there were plenty more to come, and I can still hear pieces of my past in each of them: childhood memories echoing through The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse and Third Eye Blind's self-titled album; a perfect family vacation in the strains of Better Than Ezra's Before the Robots; the angsty remains of my first summer with a job and a car in Safetysuit's Life Left to Go; the duality of the summer that followed my graduation, the balance between victory and uncertainty, unbridled freedom and fear of what my life would bring, and of course, day and night, represented by Mat Kearney's City of Black and White and The Dangerous Summer's Reach for the Sun; the first love that I discovered to the final two tracks of Dashboard Confessional's Dusk and Summer; and, though it seems like it was only a couple of months ago, last summer, completely encompassed in the flow of The Dangerous Summer's War Paint.

All of those records have played a massive role in my life, and each is at least partially responsible for my infatuation with this so-called "summer music," but even after getting the "soundtracks" out of the way, there has still been so much more: the boozy bombast of The Hold Steady's Boys & Girls in America,  the soaring voice of Chad Perrone, on his solo records and on Drawn to Revolving Doors with his old band Averi, which still take me back to the beginning of summer 2010; a slew of classics from last year, from the lovelorn pop symphonies of Matt Nathanson and Mat Kearney, to the dusky jams of The Damnwells' No One Listens to the Band Anymore; from the immaculate midnight atmospherics of Bon Iver's last record, all the way to Butch Walker's The Spade, which played as soundtrack for my farewell from town at the end of last summer, and will do the opposite upon my return for this one. And of course, there's Springsteen: Born to Run, which hardly left my stereo for the entire spring of my senior year of high school, soundtracked my graduation, and remained in constant rotation all summer long, and The Wild, The Innocent, The E-Street Shuffle, which is about as perfect an inaugural summer record as any I know.

When I look back at the summers of my life, I do so through the eyes of the songs that latched themselves onto moments from each and immortalized them. When I hear these records, they take me back to hundreds of reflective late night drives, to every brilliant moment spent outside in the glorious weather, enjoying the company of the people I love, and cherishing every splendid moment. I don't know what this summer will bring: I know that it could very well be one of the last I spend in my hometown, this place where I grew up and where so many amazing moments of my life have played out. If it is the last one, if a big chapter of my life ends in four months time, I can only hope that it's one of the greatest as well. And whatever record that comes along to encapsulate that? It's going to be one that I treasure for the rest of my life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On the Horizon: My Most Anticipated Albums for the Rest of 2012

2012 has been a pretty solid year thus far, as far as music releases have been concerned. The overall output of great records to grace my ears this year has actually surprised me quite a bit, considering the fact that a large percentage of my favorite artists put out material in 2011, and I thought for awhile that last year's embarrassment of riches my lead to a dearth of greatness for this year. But I should have known better: I've been discovering progressively more music than ever before during each of the years since 2008 or so, and this year has been no exception: making my end-of-the-year list is already going to be a battle. As close as I can figure, about 3 or 4 of the slots in my top ten are already spoken for, with Springsteen almost guaranteed to be sitting in the top spot. That leaves plenty of room for great new discoveries, not to mention late-year arrivals of favorite artists. And of course, there's the summer season, which generally brings out the albums that capture my consciousness the most.

Anticipation is a difficult thing: expectations can color your opinion of an album to a degree that it would never hit you as hard as it could have otherwise, but they also lend a valuable aura to the releases they surround. Very often, an artist can never top the "first" album you heard from them: I know this has proven true for a number of my favorite acts, Butch Walker, Jimmy Eat World, and Jack's Mannequin, to name a few, and year after year, I start my listens to albums from artists of that level with disappointment, and move toward elation as time goes on. I always need a few listens to shed my pre-ordained expectations of what the album should be so I can start to appreciate what it actually is. And although there are some albums that do, ultimately, end up on the "letdowns list" at the end of each year, more often, the albums that I looked forward to the most end up somewhere near the top to the list. Which brings me to the topic of this post: my top five most anticipated full-length releases on the horizon for the remainder of the year. For this group, I tried to steer towards albums that had titles, tracklists, and release dates already announced, and left the more "speculative" picks for the section at the bottom, but in a few cases, my adoration for a specific artist, plus a few hopeful indications, overpowered that impulse.

1. The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten (out July 24th)

It's only taken about four years for Brian Fallon to evolve from a respected indie-punk frontman to a potential savior of the rock 'n' roll art. That transformation began on 2008's massive The '59 Sound, where Springsteen references, big choruses, and Fallon's desperation-laced vocals built a nighttime drive record for the ages. 2010s American Slang and last year's side project, The Horrible Crowes, were only slightly less stellar, but if "45," the first single from Handwritten, is any indication, Fallon and company might be poised to drop their masterpiece. The song sounds like vintage-Fallon, channeling equal parts Springsteen and punk-rock, and delivering an opus of crisp electric guitar tones, elegantly nostalgic poetry, and soaring vocals that suggest that, yes, Brian Fallon really might be the guy to save rock 'n' roll. I've been dying to see these guys live since the first time I heard "The Backseat," the colossal and emotional closer from The '59 Sound, and I'm hoping this record will finally bring them close to me (or, at very least, SOMEWHERE IN THE UNITED FUCKING STATES), but if nothing else, I have a very strong feeling that Handwritten could end up playing the part of my fabled "summer soundtrack" record this year, and if that's the case, then it could even have a shot at my album of the year title (against, who else? Springsteen).

2. The Wallflowers - TBA (out Fall 2012)

It's been 7 years now since The Wallflowers moniker got its last full-length release. They've toured since (I saw them for the first time in 2009), and frontman Jakob Dylan was been busy (he's released a pair of folky, acoustic-based records), but for a long time, it seemed like the '90s alt-rock band was just going to fade off into dust. That last record, entitled Rebel, Sweetheart saw The Wallflowers at the top of their game, with Dylan embracing the poetic style of his father's writing, but doing so in a context and sound that never sacrificed the band's roots. Their breakthrough album, 1996's Bringing Down the Horse will always be my favorite work of theirs, but Rebel was a terrific and lyrically brilliant set of songs that, in the many times I have listened to it since then, has both made me yearn for new material and ruminate on how, if the band were to never reunite, it would be more than an appropriate swansong. But that's all for naught now, since the band has been in the studio all year, and plans to release a new record this fall. And while I enjoyed Dylan's solo material, he never sounds better than when he's got ringing electric guitars and Rami Jaffee's soulful B3 organ swelling behind him.

3. The Killers - Battle Born (tentative title, out Fall or Winter 2012)

It's been a long time since Day & Age topped my list of biggest letdowns for the year back in 2008, and a lot of things have changed since then, including my opinion of that album. While it's certainly their worst (and that ranking includes frontman Brandon Flowers' stellar 2010 solo debut, Flamingo), Day & Age still contains a lot of great work, and I rather unfairly wrote it off back in the day. Still, I'm hoping for a return to form on the follow-up, though I must confess, I don't really know what that form would be. The band traversed a lot of musical ground, from the new-wave synths and dance-floor beats of Hot Fuss, to the Bruce Springsteen worship of Sam's Town, all the way to the eclectic and bizarre collision of those things that took place on record number three. There's not a lot that's known about their fourth, but I think we can be pretty sure of one thing: Flowers' and co. love to surprise their fans, and even if there's a return to form here, anyone looking for Hot Fuss 2 or Sam's Town 2 is setting themselves up for disappointment.

4. John Mayer - Born and Raised (out May 22nd)

Ever since I bought a copy of Heavier Things back in 2003 (which, I'm fairly certain, was the first album I ever purchased for myself), Mayer and his music have been completely entwined in my musical evolution. Since then, he's dropped an album every three years, like clockwork, but his albums have always been September, October, or November releases, and never spring/summer ones. Mayer's records have always been the kind that I'm more likely to get lost in on a long autumn day than to blare, full volume, on a summer's night, but Born and Raised, with it's promised alt-country and folk tendencies, may make a compelling argument for the contrary. Mayer has never been content to make the same album twice, and I have very little idea of what to expect from this album, whether it will be full of sunny, folky jams, or steel-guitar laden slow-burns perfect for late-night drives, but either way, I can't wait.

5. Green Day - ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡TrĂ©! (out September 25,  November 13, and January 15, 2013, respectively)

I think it's audacious for bands to attempt double albums, but the concept of a triple-album goes right past that into insane territory. Because of that fact, and because all of Green Day's contemporaries that have attempted the double album (The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters) have done so with distinctly mixed results, I have my reservations about this project. Green Day's last album, 2009's 21st Century Breakdown was decent but disappointing after the masterful American Idiot, and we don't know anything about this project, whether the albums will span the musical influences of the band's three members or just contain a bunch of songs from the same writing and recording sessions. Either way, the three album sequence, which will span a four month period and produce a pair of records eligible for 2012's end-of-the-year lists, is most certainly an indulgence in pop-music excess, and I'm excited to see what comes of it. It's doubtful that the band has a masterpiece on their hands here, but my highest expectations envision a ridiculously eclectic set of songs from a band that most people have always written off as distinctly one-note. Only time will tell.


The two without release dates and titles present a difficulty for a list like this, since it's easy for a band to promise a release one day, and change their mind a few months later. That said, the word from The Wallflowers just broke today, and I have faith in them, since they've been posting pretty regular studio updates on their Facebook all year, and since Jakob Dylan isn't a guy who tends to disappear for long periods of time. I'm a whole lot less sure about The Killers, since we haven't seen any decent updates since January (or so). But Flowers has released an album every two years like clockwork since Hot Fuss broke back in 2004, and you'd think that Island would be keen on getting one of their biggest properties back into action: my guess is that we'll see that record in November or December, right in time for the Holiday Season and the sales boost it provides.

Beyond those albums, the year is still a pretty open slate, but there are some pretty exciting things on the horizon, both confirmed and scheduled (Motion City Soundtrack's Go, The Tallest Man On Earth's There's No Leaving Now, Glen Hansard's Rhythm and Repose, Sun Kil Moon's Among the Leaves, among many others) to the much more speculative list (New stuff from U2, Matchbox Twenty...I'll believe that one when I see it, and Mumford & Sons). U2 has been all over the place in terms of release rumors recently, from saying they had three different albums in the works a year or two ago, to Bono hinting that the band might be ready to call it a day. In the wake of the biggest rock 'n' roll tour in music history, it's safe to say the band has earned some time off. But since they've been toying with releasing Songs of Ascent, an album of material from around the No Line On The Horizon era, since 2010, and since they teased fans with the interesting prospects of a Danger Mouse-produced reinvention, it would be a shame for them to close the doors before at least seeing where those roads might lead. As for Matchbox Twenty, it's been ten longs years since the '90s alt-rock darlings dropped their last full-length (More Than You Think You Are, which was also their best work), a hiatus that saw both a Greatest Hits collection and a pair of decent solo offerings from frontman Rob Thomas. If the band finally makes their return this year, it will be the long overdue arrival of an album I've been waiting for since I was 11 or 12 years old, and while I'm certainly not in the same place I was back then, musically or in any other way, I'd certainly welcome a new record from those guys any day of the week.

As of now, I don't think this year will be quite the illustrious display for music that 2011 was, but if all of the albums listed above live up to expectations, and if a few albums come out of nowhere and knock my socks off (which has been happening more and more recently), then who knows?