Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bob Dylan - Tempest

Columbia Records, 2012
Four stars

Of the living legends still making music, none have created a legacy as remarkable, as challenging, and as endlessly rewarding as Bob Dylan. Since releasing his debut in 1961, Dylan has recorded 35 studio albums, altered the boundaries of both folk music and rock 'n' roll, won a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrical prowess, been the subject of numerous fascinating (and baffling) accounts, both in writing and on film, and morphed his sound, voice, and writing style on countless occasions. Along the way, he's made almost as many disappointments or duds as he has classics, but as of late, he's settled into a groove that it's hard to find much fault with. Ever since he entered his "late career renaissance" with 1997's Time out of Mind, Dylan’s output has been solid and occasionally brilliant. It’s also been relatively safe, resting mostly within a comfortable blues-rock tradition that suits his increasingly raspy voice incredibly well.

His 35th album, evocatively entitled Tempest, doesn’t look or sound too different on the surface. Songs like “Early Roman Kings” and the incendiary “Narrow Way” offer up the same kind of enjoyable yet derivative blues-rock exercises that have made up the bulk of Dylan’s last few albums. But as one delves further into the dense lyrical matter of these songs, or into the musical sweep of the album’s finest moments, they will find a collection that feels remarkably unsettling and resoundingly final. Rolling Stone called it Dylan’s darkest album to date, and the assessment isn’t far off the mark. The songs on Tempest are deeply mournful, saturated with death, doom, and defeat. “Long and Wasted Years” plays like a sequel to Time out of Mind’s masterful “Not Dark Yet,” from the warm, muggy instrumental atmosphere to its minimalist musical structure and meandering lyrical form. “We cried on a cold and frosty morn, we cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years,” Dylan growls at the song’s conclusion. He sounds resilient, even in the face of regret and death, and that resilience is one of Tempest’s most palpable themes, as well as its greatest strength.

But while “Long and Wasted Years” may show off the album’s triumphs, from the aforementioned themes to Dylan’s strangely wry sense of irony, and especially to the warm and full-bodied musical backdrop (the band is in top form here, adding violins, banjos, mandolins, and steel guitars as the texture requires), it is also a textbook example of its greatest drawback. “Meandering" is a term that could be applied to much of Dylan’s work, even in his heyday. It’s that excessive aspect of his songwriting, along with his rough and unorthodox vocal style, that makes his music divisive for many listeners. And Dylan’s excesses are alive and well here: the average song length is just shy of seven minutes, and too many of them overstay their welcomes. There are exceptions of course: sometimes, Dylan’s strophic manner of songwriting works perfectly, like on the rollicking first single and album opener that is “Duquesne Whistle,” or with the haunting murder tale that he constructs on “Tin Angel.” Elsewhere, Dylan shows that he is capable of being concise, like with the gorgeous romantic sweep of “Soon After Midnight,” or the dusky guitar-driven “Pay in Blood," but occasionally, he just sounds like a broken record. Take the lurching, interminable weak point that is “Scarlet Town,” or even the centerpiece title track, which clocks in at just under 14 minutes. It goes on for twice as long as it should but it's still a vintage Dylan ballad that needs to be heard. A fiddle intro lends the song a lovely Irish lilt, and Dylan’s lyrical narrative – all 45 verses of it – gives the Titanic disaster the epic folk legend it deserves...right down to a referential appearance from Leonardo DiCaprio. It sounds like the kind of song Dylan would have written decades ago, more reminiscent of his folk-music roots than his rock ‘n’ roll revolution or his latter-day blues, and the return-to-form is a welcome change of pace. It’s too long, but that’s part of the form.

When Dylan announced the name of this record, many speculated that it was a curtain call. After all, Shakespeare’s final play bore the title The Tempest, and it seemed that, if the rock ‘n’ roll poet was going to go out on his own terms, he might as well do it in a similar fashion to the legendary artist with whom he shares the most in common. Dylan was the first to point out the lack of the word “the” in his own work, stating that its absence resulted in two different titles and no connection between them, but throughout, Tempest sounds like a man who is about ready to pull his last job. If that’s the case, then the gorgeous closer that is “Roll on John” functions as the perfect finale. “I heard the news today, oh boy/They hauled your ship up on the shore/Now the city’s gone dark, there is no more joy/They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core,” Dylan sings, over a ringing organ that evokes church scenes, and in the same ragged, Tom Waits-esque vocal style that has marked every line of the record. He doesn’t sound tired: he doesn’t sound broken or used up or even particularly old, but he does give off the air that he knows something we don’t. It’s in the manner that he references and borrows from old Beatles songs without pause, in the potentially parodic way that he eulogizes a man who has been dead for almost 32 years; and it’s certainly there in the music, a simple wistful melody which recalls that moment in a film right before the credits roll. If Tempest is the last piece of Dylan’s untouchable legacy, then it’s almost the perfect cap, one last curveball from rock ‘n’ roll’s most uncompromising figure. If it’s not, if he still has a few more surprises left in him, then it’s still his best record since Love and Theft. Coming along 11 years to the day after that record hit the streets, 11 years after it coincided with the most tragic day in recent American history, it seems like that might have been the point. But you can never really know with Bob Dylan.

Ryan Bingham - Tomorrowland

Axster Bingham Records, 2012
Four stars

Ryan Bingham’s career received quite the jolt of electricity back in 2010, when his song “The Weary Kind” was suddenly echoing from the sound systems of every movie theater in the country. It was a lucky strike, the kind of breakthrough any wandering troubadour would kill for, but for those of us sitting in those darkened theaters, it wasn’t hard to see why Bingham had won the lottery. The movie was Crazy Heart, a tale of a washed up, hard-driving, big-drinking country star, played so memorably by Jeff Bridges in a performance that won him an Oscar. But movies like that don’t work without the perfect song to build them around, and that’s where Bingham came in. The movie revolved around a relationship that Bridge’s character, “Bad Blake,” had with a much younger woman, how that relationship reinvigorated Blake’s songwriting, and how he lost the girl in the end. I can still remember the first time I saw it, how “The Weary Kind” soundtracked the final frames of the film (as performed by Bridges and co-star Colin Farrell), and how it perfectly switched over to Bingham’s original as the credits started to roll. I couldn’t help but sit and listen to the whole thing play.

Bingham may have won his own well-deserved Oscar for that song, but he also won my allegiance. I rapidly immersed myself in his discography, in his masterful alt-country debut (2007’s Mescalito, whose track “Southside of Heaven” now sits as one of my all-time favorite openers) or in the faster and looser rockers of 2009’s Roadhouse Sun. It wasn’t hard to see why Bingham had been chosen for the film, since his drifter/cowboy persona recalled some of the greatest artists to ever grace the country music genre. Legendary producer T. Bone Burnett, known for his work with Americana and bluegrass artists, must have picked up on that too, since he followed Bingham to his solo project after producing the Crazy Heart soundtrack. The resulting album, Junky Star, released that fall to mixed reviews, but the best moments, stuff like “Hallelujah” or “The Poet,” sounded like the work of a seasoned veteran rather than a scrappy newcomer, and it was clear that Bingham was a songwriter to watch.

Tomorrowland, Bingham’s fourth full-length and the first on his own label, is the best front-to-back album he’s made to date and a payoff on all the bets ever made on him. Junky Star suffered from a lack of variation: too many sad, slow, acoustic songs and hardly any of the rockers of Roadhouse Sun or the twangy, heartland highway anthems of Mescalito. Here, the change of direction is evident right away, with the chromatically descending guitar riff of “Beg for Broken Legs” which kicks off the record in rousing fashion. Played first on acoustic and then electric, that riff forms the backbone of a song that builds swiftly into a potent rocker. Crashing violins drum up intensity as the song barrels on, and Bingham himself sounds revitalized, singing with the force, rage, and conviction that Junky Star’s more tepid moments lacked completely. By the time the song ends, with a chaotic instrumental ascent that evokes a similar moment in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” listeners won’t want to let go.

Bingham has gone on record to say that he wanted to make an album that was fun to play live, and it’s clear from the very beginning that the songs on Tomorrowland are meant to scorch the stage in bars and clubs all over the country. The lush and gorgeous “Western Shore” is triumphant piece of heartland rock that would have fit perfectly on Mescalito. Powerful acoustics and lovely electric guitar flourishes turn the song into an anthem, and one can just envision fans belting along with it in some sweaty, middle-America honky tonk. First single “Heart of Rhythm” is another full-bodied rocker, more in the tradition of Lucero than go-it-alone Ryan Adams (one of Bingham’s former labelmates), while the sweeping guitar line in “Keep it Together” evokes imagery of expansive desert vistas and sun-burnt freeways. Bingham’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude doesn’t always work though: the loud and angry “Guess Who’s Knocking” is more grating than gratifying, and the perpetual call-to-arms that is “Rising of the Ghetto” stops the album in its tracks. Much of Tomorrowland finds Bingham examining the life of the everyman, railing against unemployment, homelessness, and economic hard times, and “Ghetto” aims to be the big epic centerpiece protest song. But the thing is eight minutes long, adding to an already lengthy 62 minute runtime, and its lack of interesting musical motives make it a big, ugly misstep.

But rest assured that Bingham doesn’t rest on his laurels most of the time. Tomorrowland is his most varied and eclectic work to date, with highlights that range from the hopeless desolation of “No Help From God” to the almost arena-ready “Never Far Behind.” The latter is up there with the aforementioned “Southside” as the best song Bingham has ever written. Born amidst a web of echoing guitar sounds (U2, anyone?) and building into to a cathartic wall of sound, “Never Far Behind” crackles with a climactic energy that is hard to top. “How many times can I forget you if you are always on my mind?/I’ve tried so hard to outrun you, you are never far behind,” Bingham repeats throughout, as the music swells around him and brings the album to its emotional and musical peak. The only questionable thing about the whole production is why it doesn’t serve as the album’s send-off.

It’s hard to come down after a song as grandiose as “Never Far Behind,” and Bingham regresses accordingly on Tomorrowland’s closing trio. “The Road I’m On,” “Never Ending Show,” and “Too Deep to Fill” are all perfectly adequate additions, boasting the same driving tempo and derivative country-rock textures that have marked many of Bingham’s songs. But sequencing must be called into question when it dampens the impact of an album’s conclusion, and that is precisely what happens here. None of these songs are highlights, and “Too Deep to Fill,” while it certainly has some air of finality to it, feels lightweight in comparison to the emotional peak Bingham reached less than ten minutes before. This record could have been a bona-fide classic with some trimming and restructuring: ten songs, a killer opener and closer, no bloated eight minute centerpiece, and a little less filler. As is though, it’s still solid, and even some of the more “middle-of-the-road” tracks are damn good. Bingham has never sounded this lively or centered in his songwriting: he’s rarely carried so much anger and emotion with his voice, let alone on every song, and his melodies have only reached these heights on a few occasions. Chances are, his best work is still ahead of him, but for now, Tomorrowland is another fascinating statement from one of music’s most promising young players. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Band of Horses - Mirage Rock

Band of Horses - Mirage Rock 
Columbia Records, 2012
Three stars

Band of Horses are one of those bands that, at least in my experience, are easy to like and hard to love. Over the course of three albums, they’ve made a lot of music I adore, but they’ve also constructed a fair number of songs that I don’t particularly care for. The haunting and bombastic “The Funeral” got my attention back in the fall of 2006 after they dropped their debut, Everything all the Time, but it’s still the only song from that record I come back to with any regularity. 2007’s Cease to Begin was their peak, with great singles like “Is There a Ghost” and “No One’s Gonna Love You,” and a consistently solid set beyond them, while 2010’s Infinite Arms took a stab at alt-country and came up short with lukewarm reviews. Contrary to popular belief, that one actually felt wholly organic and enjoyable to me, and the highlights (“Evening Kitchen,” “On My Way Back Home,” “Trudy”) were textbook summer night serenades.

The band’s fourth full-length, titled Mirage Rock holds onto the alt-country and folk influences, but melds them with the more indie-rock/chamber pop-based tradition that they had going on their first two records. Case-in-point is the first single “Knock Knock,” which bursts out of the gate with fuzzy guitars, “woah-oh” vocal lines, and an infectious refrain melody. “How to Live” is even better, boasting a vintage southern-folk lilt and a dusky, wistful guitar solo that recalls ‘90s Wallflowers records with effortless grace. Things go downhill after that though. “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” shows promise, but never goes anywhere, and “A Little Biblical” is a thoroughly disposable piece of filler. “Shut-In Tourist” is an improvement, offering gorgeous vocal harmonies, a pristine melodic line, and a cascading musical accompaniment that lends it an almost otherworldly feel. But the problem with Band of Horses, at least this time around, is that their music doesn’t really engage. There’s no measure of intensity or power here, no trace of the band that got their start by kicking down the door on “The Funeral.” On Mirage Rock, frontman Ben Bridwell and Co. seem content with just making glorified background music.

The record gets shaken awake somewhat during its second half, thanks largely to the propulsive “Electric Music,” which sounds remarkably like a Rolling Stones number. The credit for that goes in part to legendary producer and recording engineer Glyn Johns, a guy who made his name working with The Who and the Stones themselves, and who mans the boards here with seasoned assurance. You can hear the same throwback sensibility in “Feud,” which keeps the amplifiers turned up, but sadly the song ends up as an angry, melodically-challenged mess. Its still more appealing than “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone,” though, which returns to the same kind of safe, complacent, and sleepy songwriting style that killed the momentum of the record’s first side. Everything undone indeed, and back to square one.

Luckily, penultimate cut “Long Vows” is a sweeping alt-country ballad that could have fit on Infinite Arms, and the haunting “Heartbreak on the 101” closes the album out on its highest note. Bridwell splits vocal duties with lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey, only coming in at the two-and-a-half minute mark to carry the album out, but Ramsey’s ragged vocals do the song a huge favor. “Couldn’t really think that I’d just stand aside/Take up something new or start another life,” he growls, channeling some shattered cross between Johnny Cash and Tom Waits. An unsettling cello line gives way to a full-fledged string section once Ramsey passes the baton off to Bridwell for the anchor leg, and Bridwell’s usually pleasant and lilting vibrato sounds mournfully unsettling, only ratcheting up the tension further. It’s an eerie fade-out to a frustrating album, a break-up song where sadness and rage bubble just below the surface, and it gives the otherwise tepid Mirage Rock a note of redemption and electricity just before the needle lifts.

Unfortunately, a handful of good moments aren’t enough to outweigh an album jammed with songwriting that just doesn’t amount to anything. Bridwell’s voice is as distinctive as ever and the band is still the tight musical outfit they have always been (even though the members have constantly rotated), while Glyn Johns lives up to his legacy, making everything sound authentic and nostalgic. But all of that means when the material isn’t strong, and for most of Mirage Rock, it isn’t. I’ve hoped for a long time that Band of Horses would eventually make a classic, a record that would blend their indie-rock and Americana influences to the perfect degree, and one whose mix of melancholic strains and brash chamber pop ideals would channel all of their best qualities into one place. But ever since Cease to Begin, they’ve fallen into a trend of diminishing returns, and with Mirage Rock, they’ve finally crossed into mediocrity. Worse, they've lost sight of what made them special in the first place, and what they found to replace it just rings hollow. Looking forward from their worst release to date, it’s getting harder to believe that a magnum opus is anywhere in the future of Band of Horses, but at least their Greatest Hits will still be killer.

The Killers - Battle Born

Island Records, 2012
4.5 stars

Brandon Flowers is a machine. Since The Killers’ debut LP Hot Fuss exploded back in 2004, he’s released a new album every two years like clockwork, always in the fall, and always preceded by an anthemic lead-off single. It’s worked well: the first two are modern classics, Hot Fuss a pristine example of what radio-rock should sound like and Sam’s Town a stunning work of Springsteen-esque heartland rock and towering hubris. Things got a little more confusing on album number three, 2008’s Day & Age, which tried to blend the Vegas-centered new wave of Fuss with the arena-sweep of its follow-up, to mixed results. Looking back, Day & Age was nowhere near the disaster that many listeners made it out to be, but it was unquestionably the weakest album Flowers and company had put out. Even worse, its scatterbrained musical styling and bizarre left-turns suggested that either the band was getting restless with their image, exhausted from the nonstop, marathon schedule they had been operating on since they stumbled upon fame, or just running out of ideas. Most of them needed a break, but Flowers kept on trucking: he made a masterful solo album called Flamingo in 2010, a record that went back to the Vegas roots of the first album and maintained the epic scope of Sam’s Town, but drenched them both in Americana textures.

For those of us who wondered what Flamingo would have sounded like with the full force of The Killers behind it, the question is ostensibly answered with Battle Born. Largely, the songs here have the same wandering, soul-searching tendencies that developed on Flowers’ last two albums, but the style is refined. Take the meandering “Heart of a Girl,” which channels The Velvet Underground with a bass-heavy opening, ringing keys at the break, and Flowers’ best Lou Reed impression. “A Matter of Time” kicks off as a retread of Flamingo’s “Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts” before exploding into a cinematic rocker that could easily have been on Sam’s Town. “When we first met, headstrong and filled with doubt/Made just enough hustling tables that summer to take you out/I was fallin’ back on forever when you told me about your heart/You laid it on the line,” Flowers belts out halfway through. It’s a song rife with the euphoria of first love, but it’s also a shape-shifter, and as the tension builds throughout, we feel the relationship evaporate before our eyes. By the time Flowers reaches the “wreckage of broken dreams and burned out halos” waiting for him in the final lines, everything has changed.

Thematic connections begin to form between the songs on Battle Born as one delves further into them. The rousing “Miss Atomic Bomb” reflects on the naivety of the characters in “A Matter of Time” (“You were standing with your girlfriends in the street/Fallin’ back on forever, I wonder what you came to be,” Flowers sings at the outset), but also plays as a sequel (or rather, prequel) of sorts to “Mr. Brightside.” “I was new in town, the boy with the eager eyes,” he states in the first verse, calling back to the hit that made him a rock star. We already know that the girl in the story ends up cheating, but “Miss Atomic Bomb” examines the narrative on a more personal and nostalgic level. The song builds to a multi-tracked vocal climax, Flowers baring his soul in a maze of anguish accentuated perfectly by the song’s tumultuous and bombastic musical structure. It’s the closest the band has come to the sound and feel of Hot Fuss in years, and for many, that will be the biggest selling point of Battle Born. The same can be said for the synthy 80s pop of “Deadlines and Commitments,” a dark spiral of song which serves as the perfect bridge between the album’s two thematic pillars, or “The Rising Tide,” which gives Dave Keuning a roaring and disorienting solo: this is the band people fell in love with eight years ago.

But while musical and thematic elements from both Hot Fuss and Flamingo are revisited here, Bruce Springsteen is clearly still Flowers’ go-to musical influence. He’s all over these songs, whether we’re talking about the two aforementioned narratives of young love or the skyscraping lead single “Runaways.” Perhaps it’s not so surprising for a band that has made their name on larger-than-life chart toppers, but “Runaways” is arguably the best song you will hear on the radio airwaves this year. This is the “When We Were Young,” the “Read My Mind”; in Boss terms, the lyricism falls someone between “Born to Run” (“Let’s take a chance baby we can’t lose”) and “The River” (“There's a picture of us on our wedding day/I recognize the girl but I can't settle in these walls”), but the ultimate impact is universal either way. Once the explosive third verse crackles through the speakers, all influences and preconceptions are rendered moot by the overwhelming power of the Herculean arrangement; a lot of bands attempt the arena-sized anthem, but almost nobody does them better than this.

Speaking of arena-filling choruses, album-highlight “Here With Me” has a mammoth one. It’s a shameless 80s-style power ballad, more reminiscent of Journey or Foreigner than Springsteen or U2, but Flowers pulls it off. Piano chords and reverb-drenched vocals serve as the commencement, a fitting kick-off for a tune that builds into a modern-day cigarette lighter love song. “I don’t want your picture on my cell phone/I want you here with me,” Flowers proclaims on the chorus, wearing the potentially hokey line proudly and somehow transforming it into a transcendent battle cry. That’s the thing about Flowers: for all of his egotistical remarks and conflict-inciting interactions with other bands, you never doubt his conviction. He has the voice, the charisma, and the searing emotional audacity to give an epic classic rock record (which is essentially what Battle Born builds into) its gravitational pull, and while the contributions from his band are very obviously instrumental here, it’s his heart-and-soul dedication to these songs that ultimately makes them work.

It’s fitting that Battle Born closes with its title track. From the resounding guitar hits (culled directly from The Who's “Baba O'Riley”) to the “Bohemian Rhapsody”-flavored back-up vocals, all the way to a verse that apes Woodie Guthrie’s “The Land is Your Land,” “Battle Born” is one hell of a climax. When the song finally shatters into a gospel-flavored coda, a minute and a half from its conclusion, it’s hard for me not to think of Battle Born as the greatest record these guys have ever made. Its certainly the most cohesive – an album about the euphoric innocence and the crushing heartbreak of young love, an album about the inequities of the American dream, but also one that, like Springsteen’s best, finds hope within the darkness in the end. Battle Born is the kind of rock ‘n’ roll record that almost nobody makes anymore: it’s bombastic and excessive and oversized, but it’s also a grand and universal statement, a master class of album structure and sequencing, and a culmination of everything Brandon Flowers and The Killers have done up to this point. There will always be detractors, but to me, The Killers are the best band in the mainstream right now, and this record deserves to be celebrated. Just make sure you play it loud.

Monday, September 17, 2012

"We wait for kingdom come with the radio on": The Gaslight Anthem Live in Detroit

The Gaslight Anthem
Live at St. Andrews Hall, Detroit, MI
September 14th, 2012

(Check this out over at as well)

Disclaimer: This is going to be long.

The last time I saw a show at Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall, it was 2006: I was 15 years old, lining up for my first real concert, and temperatures had been hovering around 100 degrees all day. Needless to say, the heatwave turned that small and cramped club into a sauna, and I left the building soaked in sweat, smelling worse than anyone has the right to, and dehydrated to a dire state. But the night was legendary: I saw Butch Walker, one of my first and foremost musical heroes, give a show full of raucous antics and emotional intensity that cut through the heat and straight to the core of me. I’ve been to a lot of shows since then, big and small, from stadiums and arenas to the smallest clubs in Michigan, but that first one still has a spark about it that takes me back: my brother’s best friend making a wrong turn and ending up in some shady back alley (in Detroit, this is not a good thing); some homeless guy named Papa Smurf (who later ended up in the pages of Sports Illustrated) trying to bum a few bucks; the opening acts, which included a pre-fame Boys Like Girls and an energetic southern-rock act called As Fast As; Butch’s back-up singers spraying the crowd with hoses; and yes, one of the best setlists and shows I’ve seen by the guy who plays club shows better than anyone.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that my first appointment with the Gaslight Anthem bore a lot of similarities to that show. Over the past few years, Brian Fallon has slowly wormed his way into the ranks of my favorite frontmen in rock ‘n’ roll, and Gaslight’s latest, Handwritten, is likely to take the top spot on my album of the year list. In the time I’ve been a fan, it’s also become a joke of sorts between my brother and I that Fallon was never going to come back to Michigan. We missed out on his visits in 2010, in support of the band’s third album American Slang, and he’s spent most of the intervening years touring Europe, both with Gaslight and side-project The Horrible Crowes. When dates finally started coming out for the Handwritten tour, we were further disappointed by the fact that the band would be supporting Rise Against (along with rockers Hot Water Music) rather than going it alone. The tour included a Grand Rapids date, a short drive for both of us, but the prospect of paying double or triple our usual ticket price to see Gaslight play 12 or 13 songs didn’t seem too appealing.

Then, finally, our prayers were answered. Rise Against was taking a night off on the Friday before that GR show, and Gaslight and Hot Water Music each decided to do one-off tour dates in Detroit. So it was that my brother and I ended up in St. Andrew’s Hall, a sold out crowd swelling around us, waiting for Fallon and company to take the stage. Doors opened at 8, and with the stage already bedecked in Gaslight regalia, it was fairly clear that there was no opening act tonight. No nonsense, straight-to-the-point: the way Springsteen does it and the way I like it.

It was 9 p.m. on the dot when the band took the stage. Opener “Boomboxes and Dictionaries,” the lead-off track from the 2007 debut Sink or Swim announced two things: first, that this was going to be a concert of deep cuts and old songs, meant for the die-hard fans, and second, that the St. Andrew’s Hall sound set-up was abysmal. Fallon’s vocals were far too low in the mix, to the point where anyone unfamiliar with the songs would have had a hell of a time figuring out what he was singing about. The blend was messy at best, sacrificing clarity for sheer volume, and as the show went on, Alex Rosamilia’s lead guitar lines seemed to get sharper and sharper. All of these problems were consistent ones, a shame because the band played one hell of a setlist. Still, the atmosphere was electric, with a crowd full of people who clearly loved this band and these songs as much as I did, and with sing/shout along sessions that rocked the very foundations of the place. While I went back and forth on whether or not the trade-off was an even one (more on that later), The Gaslight Anthem didn’t disappoint.

The best songs in the setlist, almost unanimously, were those culled from the band’s latest record. Call it whatever you like, but the band was clearly the most at home with their latter-day material, and songs like “Howl,” “45,” and “Handwritten” set a high-water mark very early on in the night. That’s not to say that their earlier work fell flat, though. Classics from their 2008 album, The ’59 Sound, formed the backbone of the set, and the inclusions of “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues,” “Meet Me By The River’s Edge,” “The Patient Ferris Wheel,” “Film Noir,” and “The ’59 Sound” all gave way to triumphant sing-alongs. Speaking of those, “Keepsake” was a set highlight, with a skyscraping chorus that rang through the venue like a battle cry, and “American Slang” scorched like the anthem it is, with its massive guitar riff and yet another fist pumping hook.

But the poor quality of the sound definitely took its toll on what was otherwise a nearly spotless performance. I’ve often thought that I would like the songs from Sink or Swim a lot more if they were recorded now. The fidelity of the original recordings makes them sound like demos, but the actual songs are masterful, with more punk edge than the ones from The ’59 Sound, but very obviously cut from the same nostalgic cloth. With five of the album’s 12 songs represented here (“Boomboxes,” “Wooderson,” “Angry Johnny and the Radio,” “1930,” and “We Came to Dance”), this should have been a perfect opportunity to see those songs reborn. Unfortunately, the fuzzy and muddy sound production lent them nothing new, and while they were still fun, welcome additions to the set (especially the last two, which the band pulled out as the show entered its final act), they did not end as highlights for me. Furthermore, I don’t know if Alex Rosamilia was having an off night in general or if he just couldn’t hear his own instrument (I wouldn’t blame him), but the guitar solos were off-the-mark and strangely ineffective for most of the concert. They ranged from too quiet (the riffs on songs like “Keepsake” and “Mulholland Drive,” moments that define those songs on record but were almost inconsequential here) to sloppy and out-of-tune (the sweeping transitions in “Mae,” which disappointed live after being one of my favorite songs they’ve ever written). It was a bizarre and unfortunate enigma for the band member who really makes Handwritten what it is, and I didn’t quite know how to take it.

But overall, the great moments far outweighed the disappointments. American Slang highlight “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” was a definite treat, slowing down the tempo for a subdued moment late in the main set. Handwritten b-side “Blue Dahlia,” with its rousing chorus and perfect bridge, got the live feature I never thought it would. And finally seeing “The Backseat” live, as the first curtain call, was as euphoric and emotionally visceral as I always knew it would be. There are moments from every live show I’ve been too that I will remember for the rest of my life: looking around me as the house lights went up during “Born to Run” at my first Springsteen show and seeing the ranks of the Palace of Auburn Hills rising around me, all of us screaming along at the top of our lungs; the opening guitar riff of “Where the Streets Have No Name” echoing through a flawless summer night at Spartan Stadium a week or two before the end of U2’s 360 tour; Butch Walker gesturing to my brother and I to help him down into the audience at one of the concerts where we had ended up front and center. Belting along with “The Backseat,” shouting about how “we rode the fever out of Austin” and “dreamed of California lights,” was absolutely up there, and I realized that, ultimately, my complaints about the sound and about how Rosamilia’s guitar didn’t sound quite as pitch-perfect as it does on record didn’t really matter at all. This show was all about the atmosphere: it was about the electricity of the crowd, about the gleeful performance from the band we all loved, and about the setlist that traveled to every corner of their discography. It was about rediscovering the power of rock ‘n’ roll, and I didn’t want that last song to end because I just wanted to keep on cherishing it.

Luckily, that wasn’t the last song. Not by a long shot.

After much racket from the crowd, The Gaslight Anthem re-took the stage and rocketed into a pair of ‘90s covers (Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust” and Nirvana’s “Sliver”). While I don’t particularly care for either song, the band was visibly passionate about both and Brian especially looked like he was having a ball with them. “Biloxi Parish,” despite being considered by some as one of the weaker points of Handwritten was nothing short of potent and transcendent here, resulting in one of my favorite moments of the set. And “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts” provided a note of emotional weight and solemnity to an encore that was otherwise about big, brash rock songs. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the best and most enduring things that Fallon has written to date.

I’ve seen artists skimp on the encore a lot of times before. A year and a half ago, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam brought my disappointment in his live show full-circle by doing a cop out, one-song encore that wasn’t “The Trapeze Swinger.” Ryan Adams took intimacy to a new height during his show at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last winter, but left it feeling truncated and unfinished when he departed the stage after “Come Pick Me Up” and didn’t come back. The best shows are the ones with the artists who just keep going, the ones who come back for “one more song” three or four times and act like they never want to leave the stage. Bruce Springsteen is famous for this, and on Friday night, Brian Fallon and the guys in the Gaslight Anthem channeled that stamina in spades. The house lights didn’t go up after the band’s second departure, and even though many of my fellow audience members started moving towards the exits, I was holding onto hope that they still had a little more to give. Lo and behold, after copious amounts of shouting, screaming, clapping, and stomping, the boys were back onstage one more time, for that elusive second encore.

As I mentioned before, the band kicked off their final stand with a pair of Sink or Swim songs (“1930” and “We Came to Dance”), both of which crackled with the same energy and force that they had been channeling all night. “The Diamond Church Street Choir” took one of the evening’s few trips into American Slang territory (suffice to say that I could have done with a few more), and “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” functioned in much the same way as “Blue Jeans” had – as a gorgeous, sobering torch song. When the guitar riff for ’59 Sound opener “Great Expectations” echoed through the hall, there seemed to be an agreement of sorts between the band and the audience that this was the grand finale, and both parties acted accordingly. The crowd surged forward, transforming the venue’s floor into a riotous mosh pit. In situations like this, you have no choice but to give yourself over to the insanity of it all, to go with the ebb and flow of the crowd, hang on for dear life, and hope you don’t die. But one last explosive, sweaty, communal sing-along was just what the set needed to send it off, and even though I didn’t get my choice for a closer (the latest single “Here Comes My Man,” which was surprisingly absent from the set), you can’t complain too much with a song as good as “Expectations.”

At two hours and 29 songs, with a pair encores and more memorable moments than I can possibly expound upon here, Friday night’s gig was the longest show The Gaslight Anthem have played all year. It was longer than the Handwritten album release show or any of the concerts they played in Europe. It was certainly more sprawling than all of their supporting dates with Rise Against and Hot Water Music, past or future, or any of the slots they played on the festival circuit. It was also a textbook example of the age-old rock ‘n’ roll show agreement between a performer and their audience: the band gave fans an epic marathon show that covered deep cuts and greatest hits alike, and in turn, we gave them a chance to let loose, have fun, and own the room like the rock stars they deserve to be. Five years into their career, The Gaslight Anthem are already building a legacy of great songs, better albums, and evocative classic rock traditions, and their live shows follow suit with all of that. Had the sound in St. Andrew’s Hall be a bit better, I might have been ready to proclaim this concert as one of the greatest I had ever seen; even with that, though, it’s still pretty damn close, and that’s worth an awful lot.


1. Boomboxes and Dictionaries
2. American Slang
3. Howl
4. Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
5. 45
6. Handwritten
7. Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?
8. Wooderson
9. Meet Me By The River's Edge
10. Keep Sake
11. Angry Johnny and the Radio (with Brand New - Jesus Christ tag)
12. The Patient Ferris Wheel
13. The '59 Sound
14. Film Noir
15. Senor and the Queen
16. Blue Dahlia
17. The Queen of Lower Chelsea
18. Mulholland Drive
19. Mae
20. The Backseat


21. State of Love and Trust (Pearl Jam cover)
22. Silver (Nirvana Cover)
23. Biloxi Parish
24. Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts

Second Encore

25. 1930
26. We Came to Dance
27. The Diamond Church Street Choir
28. Here's Looking At You, Kid
29. Great Expectations

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Matchbox Twenty - North

Atlantic Records, 2012
Four stars

Well it's certainly been a year awash in '90s nostalgia. Before 2012 is out, we will have heard new work from Counting Crows, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Wallflowers, Green Day, Dave Matthew's Band, Eve 6, Our Lady Peace, No Doubt, Ben Folds Five, and probably a dozen more acts that I can't name off the top of my head. Most of those artists have been gone for at least three years, several have been flitting in and out of operation for the better part of the last ten years, and a few of them are releasing their first full-length albums in a decade.

The last time Rob Thomas made a genuine album with his band, it was 2002. The album was called More Than You Think You Are and it released the day after I turned twelve. Back then, I hadn’t become the music enthusiast I am now, but I still loved Matchbox Twenty: I always had, ever since the days when my brother used to play Yourself or Someone Like You on car rides to school in the morning. Their brand of easily digestible, melodic alternative-rock appealed to me greatly, and the fact that they had three albums where I liked ALL of the songs (a common occurrence for me now, but not so much back then) made them, fairly easily, my first "favorite band." If the charts were anything to go by, a lot of people agreed with me. Over the next year or two, More Than You Think You Are would spawn a handful of singles that became nearly ubiquitous. You couldn't turn on the radio without hearing the elegiac banjo acoustics of "Unwell," the Mick Jagger-assisted blues-rock of "Disease," or the piano-laced bombast of "Bright Lights," and I was glad for it. In a sea of pop, rap, and R&B that I didn't care for at all, Rob Thomas and the boys were an old standby that I was happy to see achieve continued success.

As I got more and more into music throughout 2003 and 2004, Matchbox's records remained in fairly constant rotation, and I remember anxiously hoping for the day that the band would announce their plans to put out another LP.

I didn't know that I was about to wait for a long, long time.

Rob Thomas went solo in 2005, delivering the lukewarm ...Something to Be, but promising that Matchbox Twenty would be reconvening once they all got their "go-it-alone" urges out of their systems. That reunion finally happened in 2007 - almost exactly five years after More Than You Think You Are dropped - but even then, it wasn't the day that I had anticipated back in my musically formative days. Rather than releasing a full-length follow-up to their 2002 smash, they announced that they were readying a greatest hits collection (to be called Exile on Mainstream, in another hint to Jagger) that would feature an EP's worth of new material. The greatest hits tracklist was safe, marking off all the requisite radio staples and ignoring the deeper cuts; the new songs, meanwhile, ranged from solid to great, but only made me want more. I wondered if these guys would ever make another album together, and if they did, whether or not it would just sound like a Rob Thomas solo effort.

Luckily, North is the best record Rob Thomas has made since 2002, and offers rock-solid evidence that the frontman is always better with his trusty band of brothers at his back. Opener "Parade" is an achingly gorgeous ode to the times of our life that fly by far too quickly, and it instantly recalls the best moments of the MB20 discography. "When the slow parade went past/And it felt so good you knew it couldn't last/And all too soon the end was gonna come without a warning/And you'd have to just go home," Thomas croons, seemingly bottling up a decade's worth of bygone memories and missed opportunities into one knock-out beauty of a song. The same can be said for "Overjoyed," a signature Rob Thomas love ballad that could have fit easily on the band's last album. Both tunes are safe, playing to the same formula that the band has utilized throughout their entire career: emotional, heart-on-your-sleeve pop-rock that's easy to like and hard to hate. Surrounding the lead-off single (the insanely catchy "She's so Mean") at the album's kick-off, "Parade" and "Overjoyed" struck me as exactly what I wanted "North" to be, and exactly what I thought it would fall short of being: nostalgic while also sounding fresh, reminiscent of past glories while also forging new ones. And most of all, NOT like a Thomas solo album. I thought that, if the album stuck in that same safe but oh-so-appealing vein throughout, it would be on the fast-track towards my end-of-the-year top ten.

Sadly, "North" has a couple missteps. The jarring "Put Your Hands Up" is about as bad as you would expect a song with that title to be, and breaks the reverie of the opening trio with an incredibly misguided attempt at a dance anthem. The lyrics are Rob Thomas's most cringe-worthy to date, a mélange of outdated pop music clichés that would fail even with the most tongue-in-cheek delivery, and with an earworm hook so gratingly catchy that listeners might do better just to delete the song and replace it with a bonus track. Luckily, the other two tracks in the “dance” vein, the groovy synth-based "How Long" and the dark-flavored pop of "Like Sugar," work out much better, successfully blending that old '90s radio rock sound with today's more electronic influence. The former, especially, is infectious.

Still, the best songs here are the ones that land closest to the way the band used to do things. "Our Song" and the brassy "Radio" both have the kind of driving beat and rock sensibility that Thomas's solo records mostly lacked, while the ringing guitar lines and expansive atmospherics of "The Way" (which sees guitarist Kyle Cook taking lead vocals) make the song an undeniable highlight. “English Town” is the set’s most adventurous moment, an orchestral, multi-layered mid-tempo rocker that builds from a haunting piano intro (straight out of Sia's "Breathe Me") into a haunting but all-too-brief explosion of horns. And "Sleeping at the Wheel" closes the album in the same vein that "Parade" opened it - with a gorgeous ballad that is very much in the band's wheelhouse, but which hits hard nonetheless.

It's never easy for a band to come back after an extended absence, be it four years, eight years, or a decade. With North, there's some obvious rust that Thomas and co had to shake off, and the result, while very enjoyable, doesn't quite live up to the stuff they were putting out in their heyday. That said, there are a lot of great songs here, and in a year that has been lacking in great pop and pop rock albums, this record is a very welcome addition. At their best, the songs from North can still stand up against anything Rob Thomas has ever written: "Parade" is as solid as "3AM" ever was, "Radio" could go shot for shot with "Long Day" any day of the week, and if "Overjoyed" doesn't replicate the smash hit success of "Unwell," then you can only blame the shifting music scene. There are a few duds here, but what Matchbox Twenty come up with the rest of the time is a lovable bunch of songs that will almost certainly land somewhere on my end-of-the-year list, a collection that is better and more consistent than either of the ones Thomas put together on his own, and one that announces the return of one of the best bands in radio rock: I only hope that, this time, they don't spend a decade on the bench.

The Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania

EMI, 2012
3.5 stars

It’s weird: I’ve been listening to The Smashing Pumpkins for almost seventeen years, ever since my brother added the sprawling double album that is Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to his CD collection. In that time, I’ve pretty much gone along with the crowd, adoring the band’s revered songs and albums, spurning their indulgences and failures, and basically writing off Billy Corgan (and his ego) after it was clear that his glory days were behind him. In that sense, I guess I’ve never really become a true fan of the Pumpkins, even in all the time that I’ve been familiar with their music. That makes a certain amount of sense, since I spent my childhood far more enthralled by mainstream roots/country influenced music (The Wallflowers, Counting Crows) than by Corgan’s brand of dark alternative rock. I loved the hits, stuff like “1979,” “Disarm,” and “Tonight, Tonight,” songs with big sweep, great melodies, and fairly safe, accessible structures. I struggled more with the harder rock songs, and moments like “XYU” or “Tales of a Scorched Earth” were ones that I almost always skipped on my listens through Mellon Collie.

It’s not surprising that Corgan’s suffocating, totalitarian band-leading style led to the destruction of the original Smashing Pumpkins. It’s well known in Pumpkins lore that Corgan went back and re-recorded the guitar and bass parts on Siamese Dream, thinking – probably correctly – that he could play them better himself. The band went their separate ways shortly after the turn of the century, and only drummer Jimmy Chamberlain returned in 2006 when Corgan decided to make a “comeback” album. The result, Zeitgeist was arguably the worst album Corgan ever made, with or without the Pumpkins moniker: a dull, self-indulgent mess of a record, with metallic production and songs that, even at their best, just weren’t very good.

Chamberlain called it quits in 2009 and Corgan replaced him too: he kickstarted a series of conceptual EPs (called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope), and for the first time, he was the only original member left standing. But The Smashing Pumpkins, at there core, were always Corgan’s brainchild anyway, and for the eighth full-length album under the moniker, Oceania, he sounds largely re-energized and reborn. It doesn’t hurt that the band, made up of a trio of young guns, acquit themselves remarkably well, or that Corgan actually has the musical means to go after his more ambitious ideas (look no further than the sprawling, nine-minute title track, a gorgeous suite of a song that actually justifies its length, unlike the painful “United States” from the last record). All told, Oceania is the best Corgan has sounded since Mellon Collie, the first time in a decade where the use of The Smashing Pumpkins name doesn’t feel like an embarrassment to his legacy, and, perhaps most importantly, a set of songs worth hearing and replaying.

Make no mistake, Oceania is still far from perfect. It’s too bloated and overlong for its own good (at almost exactly one hour, the album will lose listeners at its less compelling moments), and Corgan often seems like he’s trying to recreate songs from previous albums – albeit, less successfully. But the fact that the frontman keeps his ego in check and dodges his hubristic indulgences throughout, even if the result comes across as relatively “safe,” could also be viewed as the key to the album’s ultimate victory. Judging from the journalistic response to the post-glory days Pumpkins output, from Adore to the Machina albums, and certainly to Zeitgeist, it almost seemed like listeners were yearning to hear Corgan to do things like he used to. He does his best to satisfy that desire here, conjuring up Siamese Dream’s fuzzy-guitar fury on opener “Quasar,” delivering a less theatrical re-write of “Disarm” on “The Celestials,” the acoustic-based first single, and bursting through the gates on “The Chimera” with a “the-90s-called-and-they-want-their-guitar-sound-back” style riff thrown in for good measure.

Musically, Oceania is fairly captivating throughout. Haunting synth-lines drive highlights like “Violet Rays,” “One Diamond, One Heart,” and album-closer “Wildflower,” while “Pale Horse” has a chiming romantic sweep that is nothing short of cinematic. The centerpiece, a liltingly gorgeous power ballad called “Pinwheels,” builds from yet-another synthesizer intro into an anthem, showcasing ringing guitar lines (including a stunning slide-guitar that serenades the arrangement) and a bed of strings that give the song an orchestral sensibility. In fact, the music is so stunning that Billy Corgan ends up being, rather ironically, the weakest player in the entire production. Corgan has never been a great singer, but his tortured delivery was perfect for connecting with listeners in the old days, and his unique nasally tone only ever added to the mood that the band’s music was going for. This time around though, something feels off: maybe it’s the production, which is too slick to lend the record a true throwback appeal; perhaps it’s the mix, which places the vocals at an awkward level throughout; or it could be the lyrics, which generally come across as insipid and uninspired. Regardless of the cause, Oceania lacks the emotional force that it needed to transcend what it is: a former rock star trying to sound vital again. Corgan makes big steps towards that goal, and it’s clear that he has the musical integrity, the arrangements, and especially the supporting talent that he needs get there, but for now, he’s still stuck in the waiting room.

John Mayer - The Complete 2012 Performances Collection

Columbia Records, 2012
3.5 Stars 

Back in May, John Mayer delivered one of the best albums of the year (and one of his best to date) with Born & Raised. A couple months later, it remains an exquisite collection of infectious folk rock (“Queen of California”) and dusky alt-country (“Shadow Days,” the title track), and an indelible left turn for one of pop music’s most talented and consistent stars. True to form, Mayer landed the number one spot on the Billboard charts after a solid first week of sales, but the victory came with a bittersweet aftertaste: for the first time in his career, Mayer wasn’t able to ride out and meet his fans. Sidelined by a vocal condition called granuloma, the 34 year old guitar hero was forced to cancel the entirety of his summer tour, taking him away from the fans and the songs during what was arguably the creative peak of his career.

Mayer clearly felt the pain. Despite a vocal surgery looming (his second in less than a year), he couldn’t stay away from the music. Immediately following the release of Born & Raised, Mayer set a wildfire of rumors by commenting that he might just go ahead and begin work on the follow-up, and while the chances of him making good on those speculations and finishing an album by next summer seem doubtful now, he’s done the next best thing: released an EP before this summer even runs out. That EP, titled in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner as The Complete 2012 Performances Collection, features acoustic renditions of four of the tunes from Born & Raised, plus a previously unreleased b-side. And while this may not seem like anything to write home about in a day and age where bands release entire acoustic renderings of their albums, Mayer shows here that, even vocally impaired and left to his own devices in the studio, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

Certainly, a full unplugged re-imagining of Born & Raised would have been even more welcome, but what we get here are four exquisitely re-imagined gems that, at worst, offer an interesting perspective on their more full-bodied counterparts, and at best, surpass them. Fitting into the former category is “Speak to Me,” already the original record’s weakest song, and one whose acoustic arrangement had little need for being stripped down further. Mayer speeds up the tempo here, his voice sounding loose, raspy, and rough. It’s an interesting take, but the re-arrangement misses the gorgeous backup vocals of the original, and ultimately comes across as a glorified demo. Slightly better is “Shadow Days,” which doesn’t thrive the same way it does on record (due mostly to the lack of steel guitar), but which is more than adequate nonetheless.

The treasures come with the other three tracks, however. Opener “Something Like Olivia” is a revelation in acoustic format, sporting an “Into the Mystic”-esque guitar part and a spontaneous, jazzy feel that allows Mayer to show off his chops. We often get to hear him wailing away on his electric, but up to this point, his acoustic moments have been relegated to balladry or to the adventurous “opening set” from 2008’s Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles. The songs here are very much in the vein of the latter, and just as that set gave deep cuts a chance to shine (the definitive recording of “Neon” can be found there), this one allows “Olivia” to reach new heights. “Queen of California” is another home run: the instrumentation translates fantastically, bringing out a countrified twang that the original, with its rousing guitar solo, didn’t really have. Mayer also cleverly rewrites the vocal melody, avoiding the higher notes and giving the song a dark edge that the sun-drenched album version lacked. As for the b-side, “Go Easy on Me” is a pleasant piece of traditional folk music, and while it’s not too hard to see why it didn’t make the record, it’s an undeniably gorgeous extra with some dependably nice guitar work and a Dylan-ish harmonica solo.

Mayer has come a long way in the past few years, working to shed his bad reputation and forced into a humbling situation with his vocal issue. Luckily for us, the music has only benefited from the change, and with this collection, it’s clear just how much the man’s fans mean to him. These five songs won’t make up for the canceled shows or satisfy all of the would-be ticket buyers, but it’s nice to know that Mayer is trying to make things right. The Complete 2012 Performances Collection is the sound of a guy who has no greater desire than to be out on the road, playing his songs, baring his soul, and making lots of other people happy. It’s little more than a supplement, but even with a handful of songs and half a voice, Mayer is still better than most of his contemporaries.