This is my least favorite kind of column to write. The limbo kind.
There’s really only one album I want to talk to you about this week, and that’s the long-delayed, I-still-can’t-believe-it’s-real monstrosity called Chinese Democracy. After 15 years of work, Axl Rose has finally delivered, and I’d love to tell you all what I think of it. However, it’s not yet Sunday the 23rd, and Democracy has not found its way here yet. (And I refuse to write a review based on the album’s MySpace stream, although you’re welcome to hear it yourself.)
It’s also not yet Tuesday the 25th, officially the last major new music day of the year. We’ve got new ones from Kanye West, Scott Weiland, David Byrne and Brian Eno, an EP from Coldplay, some more electronic doodlings from Paul McCartney in his Fireman guise, a new set of demos from Rivers Cuomo, a remix record from Moby, and a three-CD box set of ‘60s stuff from Frank Zappa. That all sounds great, doesn’t it? I haven’t heard any of it yet.
And! I’m still waiting for my copy of the deluxe reissue of Daniel Amos’ 1987 opus Darn Floor Big Bite. This was a pivotal album, not only in the history of DA and their brilliant leader, Terry Taylor, but in that alternate history of the music biz that took place in the Christian ghetto. You’ve never heard an album quite like Darn Floor. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard the remaster, or the bonus content, so I can’t babble on about that.
So there’s nothing left but to scrounge around in my 2008 CD collection and find some gems I never reviewed. Problem is, there just aren’t many of those. At this point in the year, my top 10 list is fairly well set (barring, of course, something unexpectedly amazing on Tuesday). I’ve talked about every life-changing record I heard in 2008, and the rest, like most music, kind of slipped by me without leaving much of an impression. I’m not sure what I’d say about most of the stuff I bought, although the 52 best of them will get their brief moment in the sun on December 31, also known as Fifty Second Week. (Check the archive for details.)
Don’t worry, though, I’ve thought of something. I have a couple of fairly recent CDs, one feted by the music press and one criminally ignored. (Guess which one I like better.) Neither of these discs rocked my world, but they’re worth hearing, and hence worth talking about. Make no mistake, though – this is a limbo column, and the flood starts next week. I think I know what I’m writing about each week until the end of the year. That’s a good feeling. But if I’m surprised, that will be an equally good feeling.
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I think I can safely say, five albums in, that I don’t really get Snow Patrol.
I’ve tried, believe me. The first two albums of theirs I heard, 2003’s Final Straw and 2006’s Eyes Open, came accompanied by a slew of glowing notices from otherwise trustworthy critics. So I bit, and both times I came away bored and puzzled. It’s pleasant enough stuff, this pretty noise Gary Lightbody and his crew makes, but there are half a million bands who do the same thing better. Plus, I’m an avowed melody addict (there’s a 12-step program), and I didn’t find a single compelling hook on either album.
Couple that with the inescapable plague that was “Chasing Cars” after its appearance on Grey’s Anatomy, and I was about done with Snow Patrol. I’d even gone back to pick up their first two albums, and found them similar, if louder and sloppier. I was totally done, finished. You won’t find me buying any more Snow Patrol CDs, ever again. Wait, what? The new one’s really good? An A from the Onion AV Club? A swell review from Entertainment Weekly? Allmusic calls it their best work yet?
All right, fine, so I broke down and bought A Hundred Million Suns, the band’s pretentiously-titled fifth album. One thing that sold me – from the name to the cover art to the song titles, everything here pointed towards a Definitive Statement, towards a band working hard to deliver not only the best record they’ve ever made, but the best record anyone’s ever made. The second thing that did it was “The Lightning Strike,” the final track – it’s a 16-minute, three-part epic, which is a very un-Snow Patrol thing to do. I was curious, okay? I thought I was out, and they sucked me back in.
Happily, A Hundred Million Suns is Snow Patrol’s best album, as close to a Definitive Statement as I think we have any right to expect from these boys. Unhappily, a good chunk of it remains boring and lifeless to these ears. There has been significant improvement from the repetitive gauze of Eyes Open, but that improvement is entirely in the sound and feel of this record, not the quality of the songs that comprise it. Lightbody has once again turned in a bunch of circular tunes based around unimaginative guitar lines and elementary chords, with no real melodies to speak of.
The best songs on Suns are the quieter, moodier ones. “Lifeboats,” “The Golden Floor,” “Set Down Your Glass,” “The Planets Bend Between Us” – these songs revolve around acoustic guitars and atmosphere, and their simple melodies work very well. When Lightbody chooses to rock, however, the weaknesses of his songwriting come to the fore. “Take Back the City” is pretty boring, but nowhere near as rough a slog as “Engines,” or “Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands.” (Great title, by the way.) The production, handled once again by Jacknife Lee, does its best to pop fireworks in front of your face, but they’re not quite distracting enough.
But then, there is “The Lightning Strike.” It’s made up of three smaller songs, all segued together into a seamless suite, and here, I can somehow forgive Lightbody’s repetitive nature. “What If This Storm Ends” is just four chords over and over, but it does a terrific job of building tension over the suite’s first four minutes, as strings and brass wail away in the background. “The Sunlight Through the Flags” weaves a disarming web of pianos and guitars, and finale “Daybreak” lives up to its title, spreading rays of sunlight in a slow burn. It does end up sounding like Snow Patrol, but after eight minutes of buildup, it works.
So the moral here is, repeat something for four minutes and it’s boring, but do it for 16 and it’s great? I don’t know what to tell you – “The Lightning Strike” is my favorite Snow Patrol song, capping off my favorite Snow Patrol album. Lightbody is still not writing compelling songs, to these ears, but this time, he’s latched onto the ambient potential in his style, delivering a slower, more deliberate, more peaceful sound.
I still don’t get the acclaim, mind you – these songs remain pretty basic, and there isn’t much feeling behind them. But with A Hundred Million Suns, Lightbody’s turned his weaknesses into… well, not exactly strengths, but not liabilities, either. I suppose only time will tell whether I buy album six, but I think I will need an actual change in direction, not another gleaming refinement, which album five is. This is, to me, as far as Snow Patrol can go with this sound.
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I’ve decided that Kip Winger’s single biggest problem is the fact that his name is actually Kip Winger.
Suppose this “Kip Winger” was his stage identity, back when he donned skin-tight leather pants to lead his namesake band, Winger, through three albums of sex-metal in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And let’s say his real name was something that didn’t contain the word Winger. It would certainly make the transition to serious (and seriously talented) solo artist a lot easier.
Unfortunately, Kip Winger’s his actual name. So it doesn’t matter how good his solo records are, no one will give them even half a chance, because the guy once sung a song about 17-year-old girls while writhing around on stage, being extra careful not to mess up his crazy ‘80s hair. Oh, and also, because Stewart, the geeky neighbor on Beavis and Butthead, was always depicted wearing a Winger shirt. Okay, I know, it’s a lot to get over, but I promise you, Kip Winger’s solo albums are very, very good. And the new one, called From the Moon to the Sun, may well be his best.
Let’s get this out of the way, because I can hear you snickering already. Kip Winger is a fantastic musician. His previous solo albums have concentrated largely on progressive pop music, with a focus on the acoustic guitar (which he plays brilliantly). Here, though, Winger goes all out, showing off just what a songwriting force he is. Opener “Every Story Told” and follow-up “Nothing” are pretty similar to Kip Winger tracks of old, with jangly guitars and great melodies, but from there…
Take “Pages and Pages,” a six-minute near-ambient piano ballad with a melody out of the stratosphere. Just when you think it’s winding down, the percussion and strings pick up, and Alan Pasqua delivers a great piano solo. That’s followed by “Ghosts,” an honest-to-God string quartet ballet, written and arranged by Winger. It does nothing for the album’s momentum, but it’s a lovely, complex piece. And that’s followed by “In Your Eyes Another Life,” a spooky, orchestrated reunion song, featuring a choir of Kip Wingers on its chorus. Three songs, almost no similarities between them.
The second half of the album is one great acoustic pop song after another, as if Winger, satisfied that he’s showcased his diversity, decided to loosen up a little. “Runaway” is a mid-tempo breeze with a nice piano line and a good vocal. “California” starts with a bed of percussion and then lays down a nice synth-and-guitar foundation, Winger dropping a great little melody on top of it. The pace picks up for the Beatlesque “What We Are,” with its awesome string breaks, but it drops back down for the last few tunes. “Why” is a particular late-game highlight, with its soaring chorus.
If I have any complaints about From the Moon to the Sun, it’s that sometimes it sounds a bit too polished and precise. “One Big Game” is a bit of a letdown, too, with its lazy funk groove and synthetic saxophone sound. But that’s it. This is yet another surprising, sterling release. It doesn’t have the emotional anguish of Songs From the Ocean Floor, but its pure musical range more than makes up for that. If you’re interested in serious-minded progressive pop music at all, you should check out Kip Winger. I do wish that wasn’t his name, but he shouldn’t be penalized for it, especially when his music is this good. Go here.
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So next week, Chinese Democracy. In the meantime, here’s how to get your free Dr. Pepper on Sunday the 23rd.
Just to recap, some genius at Dr. Pepper decided to offer free soda to everyone in America if the 15-years-in-the-making Chinese Democracy was released anytime in 2008. Axl Rose has called the company’s bluff, and now they’re making good. If you log onto www.drpepper.com on Sunday, you can download a coupon for a free 20-oz. bottle. But you can only get the coupon on Sunday, the album’s release date, and it’s only good through March. I don’t even like Dr. Pepper, I just think it’s funny that they bet against Axl, and he won.
Chinese Democracy is actually coming out. I can’t believe it.
See you in line Tuesday morning.