Last week, I mentioned some of the first concept albums I encountered, the ones that convinced an impressionable young northeastern lad that the album-length statement is where it’s at. It’s just an accident of birth that one of them happened to be Queensryche’s 1988 opus Operation: Mindcrime. I was 14 at the time, with long hair and a love for classic metal, and Mindcrime was the smartest album I’d ever heard.
That record left an indelible impression on me. To this day, anytime someone says “I remember now,” I am compelled to respond with, “I remember how it started. I don’t remember yesterday. I just remember doing what they told me… told me… told me…” Of course, I never get all that out before the weird looks (and occasional acts of physical violence) start, but it’s almost Pavlovian. I can’t help myself.
As a consequence of my misspent youth, I’ve been conditioned to take Queensryche at face value. I understand why people think they’re ridiculous. Honest, I do. Geoff Tate’s over-the-top operatic voice, the band’s love of cheesy metal riffs and long, flailing guitar solos, and the unfailingly self-serious nature of their material – I get it. But I just don’t automatically hear it. Because of my teenage obsession with Mindcrime and Queensryche in general, my first instinct is respect. I approach each new Queensryche album blind (or deaf, as it were) to the things that turn off most other people.
In some cases, that’s a detriment. I posted a full dissection of 2007’s Operation: Mindcrime II, for instance, comparing it to the original and examining it as a work of art, without ever really conveying the truth – it’s just not very good. But in some cases, such as the new American Soldier, I think my automatic respect for Queensryche is an asset. It allows me to see past the sometimes clumsy execution to the honest, earnest intent, which in this case is surprisingly admirable.
You will laugh at this record’s conceit. I laughed, and I love Queensryche. American Soldier is a concept album told through the eyes of (you guessed it) American soldiers. Main songwriter Tate spent months interviewing real-life members of the armed forces, and veterans of several past wars. He used these interviews as source material for his lyrics, which tell tales of soldiers going off to war, fighting, and returning home. It is meant, Tate says, as a tribute to the men and women who defend our country, day in and day out.
This is Queensryche, of course, so the record has all the subtlety of a brick to the face. When I first heard that Tate would sing a duet with his 10-year-old daughter on a track called “Home Again,” him playing a soldier at war and her playing his child left behind at home, I groaned audibly. The finished track is exactly as sappy and cringe-inducing as it sounds, just one of the ham-handed, overly-literal moments that have always defined this band, like it or not.
But you know what? American Soldier is far better than it has any right to be. It’s probably the strongest record Queensryche has made since leaving their major label 10 years ago, propelled by its concept and the band’s total commitment to it. As hard as it may be for those not raised on operatic metal to take some of this seriously, it’s clear that the band took it seriously, and did everything in its power to make this album the tribute they intended it to be.
Without question, the smartest decision Tate and company made on American Soldier was to include snippets of the actual interviews with the veterans and soldiers they talked to. The second track, “Unafraid,” is almost entirely made up of these interviews, and you get the immediate sense that these are real people with real stories, and a real love of their country. A few of them are given extended spotlights here – “If I Were King” begins with a man who lost a friend on the battlefield, while “At 30,000 Ft.” starts with an infantryman’s perspective on air combat. These are very affecting moments, and some are genuinely haunting.
Tate is not a natural storyteller – his lyrics are mainly devoid of detail, and he always takes the path of least resistance when it comes to word choices. But he handles this material well. With a concept that could have led to 12 versions of Kid Rock’s putrid “Warrior,” Tate finds the searching heart, the wounded self-doubt of his subjects. “The Killer” has a pounding rock base, but its narrator refuses to just go with that energy, instead debating with the voices in his head before taking a life. “I’ve got to be the killer,” Tate sings, and his words drip with regret.
“A Dead Man’s Words” is the story of a man left behind in the desert to die, and of the rescue party that goes after him. The music mirrors the endless expanse of sand as Tate really digs into this man’s experience. He does the same with the haunted bomber pilot of “At 30,000 Ft.,” who ends the song screaming, “I’m the creator of this new promised land, and I wonder, what the hell did I make?”
“If I Were King,” “Man Down” and “Remember Me” tell stories of soldiers who made it back home, soldiers full of guilt that they survived while their comrades did not. And closing song “The Voice” explores what it’s like to die with that pain and regret still staining your soul. Despite a few false moves here and there, I am impressed at Queensryche’s sensitivity, their willingness to make an album about warriors that explores the consequences of war. The album does so without judgment, balancing a gung-ho opening salvo with a dark and painful denouement pretty gracefully.
Oh, there are missteps. The record opens with “Sliver,” three minutes of cock-rock boot camp with guest vocalist Jason Ames shouting his bone-headed rap-rock idiocy all over it. Yes, he’s meant to be a drill instructor. No, it doesn’t work, and it sets exactly the wrong tone for this album. I’ve already mentioned “Home Again” – the on-the-nose lyrics and weepy music aren’t helped at all by Emily Tate’s shaky-kid voice. It’s not her fault, she’s 10, but unless you buy into this idea from the outset, the song will make you giggle and sigh.
And the music is late-period Queensryche, far removed from the buzzsaw guitars and energetic choruses of their early stuff, including Mindcrime. These songs are all mid-tempo, crawling pieces with little variation and no hooks. It is the strength of the concept and Jason Slater’s remarkable production that make them hang together – this is closest to Promised Land from the early days in sound and scope, and it takes a few listens to hear just how much is going on in these tracks. Tate’s voice is strong throughout, despite not having much in the way of melody to work with, and the band locks into a groove more often than not.
But the music, it’s clear, is secondary here. This album is all about the stories it tells, all about the real-life soldiers it works overtime to immortalize. If you’re worried that this is a pro-war album (or even an anti-war album), don’t be. This is Queensryche, after all. This is an album about people, about what it takes to put your life on the line, and what it eventually costs you. If you think the very idea of Queensryche and the music they play is ridiculous, then this won’t do it for you. But the band has taken this responsibility seriously, and crafted this tribute to the best of their ability. American Soldier should suck out loud. That it doesn’t, and that it in fact approaches its subject matter sensitively and unflinchingly, makes this Queensryche’s best album in a long time.
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Ten years ago, I called Prince a musical genius and a marketing moron.
This was back when he was using an unpronounceable symbol as his name and releasing three- and four-disc boxed sets regularly, with some of his best material shunted off onto bonus discs. The man’s always known how to attract attention, but he doesn’t make it easy to be a fan. Fortunately, his music has usually been worth the time and expense it takes to keep up with him.
Lately, though, Prince has been figuring out some interesting ways to get his new music out there. He knows, despite having released at least one album every two years since 1978, that some people still consider him an ‘80s throwback. Despite his brilliant musical chops and his continued exploration of the jazz-funk-soul intersection, his new stuff doesn’t get a fair shake. People want to hear “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy” and “1999,” and they won’t spring for new Prince tunes, no matter how good they are.
So five years ago, he decided to give away a copy of his remarkably strong Musicology album with every concert ticket he sold. And two years ago, he bundled copies of his last album, Planet Earth, inside a major London newspaper, to build interest in a European tour. He’s been releasing albums and jam sessions through his website for years. And now, with two very cool new records hitting the streets, he’s unveiled yet another interesting marketing strategy.
First, he signed an exclusive deal with Target to sell his new albums. These deals have worked very well for every act not named Guns ‘n’ Roses, and Target is marketing this one well. Second, he bundled his two new full-length records together, along with a third album by his new protégé, Bria Valente. The trilogy comes in one compact package. And finally, he set the price for that package at $11.98. That’s 12 bucks for two hours and 20 minutes of new music.
It would be hard to quibble with such a bargain even if the music were mediocre, but it isn’t. The two new Prince albums here – the guitar-driven Lotusflow3r and the dance-funk MPLSound – find the Purple One bouncing back nicely from the mild disappointment of Planet Earth, and delivering in spades.
The main attraction is Lotusflow3r, and if you still have doubts that Prince is an amazing guitar player, these 48 minutes will dispel them decisively. He hasn’t shredded like this since Chaos and Disorder, back in 1996, and hasn’t sounded this confident in his own abilities in ages. This is guitar-pop Prince at his finest – “4Ever” could have fit nicely on the third side of Sign O the Times, “Dreamer” kicks off with a pure Jimi Hendrix lick before it explodes into a six-string extravaganza, and “Love Like Jazz” gives Prince the chance to show off his more tasteful, yet no less excellent rhythm playing.
And those aren’t even the standouts. The one that really grabs my ear is “Colonized Mind,” a slow, minor-key blues with some outstanding lead work. Prince is in fine voice throughout this record, singing about love and God and the state of the world, as always, but the sweet instrumental “77 Beverly Park” provides a nice oasis. This is like something Phil Keaggy would play on one of his acoustic albums, and it forms a nice bridge between the more rocking sections of this album – the next track, “Wall of Berlin,” crashes to life with a thunderous drumbeat.
Lotusflow3r is top-notch Prince-pop – he even makes a cover of “Crimson and Clover” work – but very little of it is danceable, strictly speaking. For that side of the man, put on MPLSound, the second full-lengther here. This one’s a party, a genuine throwback to his ‘80s sound. Here are the electronic dance beats, the pitch-modulated vocals, the funky synth bass lines – this is music that would not have been out of place on 1999. Can he still do it? For the most part, yes.
Observe “Chocolate Box,” all six minutes and 13 seconds of it. Opening with a classic Prince harmonized intro (“I got a box of chocolates that’ll rock the socks off any girl that want to come my way”), the song is basically made up of a two-note synthesizer bass wiggle and a thudding computer beat, while Prince, his voice processed, folded, spindled and mutilated, breaks out his old horny club groove. It’s been a while since we’ve heard this from him – not since his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, in fact – and it’s surprising just how well he slips back into this sound.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that MPLSound is one of the many finished records Prince has had in his vault for 10 or more years, honestly. “Dance 4 Me” is another helium-voiced ‘80s club track, and the frequent references to God that pepper it are nothing new for Prince, and not necessarily indicative of his more recent conversion. And “U’re Gonna C Me” is an old song, first surfacing on One Nite Alone, a collection of piano performances released in 2002.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Prince does this sort of thing so well, so convincingly, that I’m just glad to have another 48 minutes of it to listen to. MPLSound closes with the upbeat stomper “No More Candy 4 U,” in which Prince shouts, “We’re too funky, you can’t handle our groove.” And after the retro electro party he’s just thrown, it’s hard to argue.
Of course, if you buy Lotusflow3r and MPLSound, you do have to bring home Elixer, the debut from Bria Valente, as well. I’ve never been a fan of Prince’s protégés, and Valente is just another in a long line. The album benefits from Prince’s production work, and the jazzy playing is sweet, but the songs aren’t remarkable, and Valente just isn’t a compelling enough singer to make them work. It’s nice enough, and maybe worth one listen, but it wouldn’t be worth buying on its own.
Interestingly, though, while Prince has been reluctant to sing his trademark dirty sex lyrics for some time, Valente has no such qualms. A song called “Here I Come” is exactly what you’d expect, and her references to being “deep enough” on “All This Love” aren’t referring to the bass line. Initially, I thought the typographers had misspelled “Elixir,” until I heard the song, and realized it’s a bad oral sex pun. It’s just funny to me that Prince won’t sing these lyrics himself any more (with the exception of his vocal turn on the title track), but he still writes these songs for someone else.
Still, I find it hard to complain that Prince has given me too much music this time. The Lotusflow3er package is some of the best music Prince has made in a while, for a very affordable price. Twelve bucks for three CDs is a bargain, especially when the Princely One’s two contributions here are as good as they are. He’s still a musical genius, but his marketing acumen has picked up nicely, and I hope he’s able to get this music into many more hands as a result. He may not be as relevant as he once was, but Prince’s music remains as superb as ever.
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Three Yeahs, Three Albums
I may have mentioned my Third Album Theory before. Put simply, it’s my belief that a band’s third record is the one that defines them, that opens up the directions they will go in the future. Musicians have their entire lives to write their debut albums, so those are usually about where they’ve been. The second album is ordinarily a reaction to the first, and can sometimes be either a carbon copy or an extreme change of direction. But the third one, that’s the album on which a band usually finds its feet, finds its confidence, and creates its own identity.
The other two acts we looked at this week fit into that theory nicely. Prince’s third album was Dirty Mind, on which he fully established his computerized sex-funk sound, and it followed two more tepid, soulful records that didn’t sell nearly as well. And Queensryche’s third is still arguably their best, the rock opera Operation: Mindcrime.
And so it is with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the acclaimed New York trio that exploded onto the scene seven years ago. Their first album, Fever to Tell, is a barely-contained ball of energy, jerking from one yelping garage-band throwaway to another. It gets by on character, particularly that of singer Karen O., who practically redefines the concept of throwing yourself into your music. On Fever, she screeched, gasped, cooed and snarled her way through otherwise unremarkable two-chord trash-rock, but it was the comparatively subtle “Maps” that made the band’s name.
Hence, the band reined in that energy for Show Your Bones, their surprisingly pretty (and pretty solid) sophomore album. Here were acoustic guitars, synthesizers, squeaky-clean production and sweet melodies, but many complained that the tradeoff wasn’t worth it, since Karen O. was reduced to a faceless frontwoman. I didn’t really think so, and I appreciated the maturity the YYYs were trying to bring to their work, but there’s no denying Bones was a reaction to Fever. This is perfect Third Album Theory territory.
At first, it seemed like the Yeahs would be going back to their old ways on record number three. It’s called It’s Blitz, for one thing, and the cover is a closeup of Karen’s hand crushing an egg. For another, it follows the Is Is EP, a definite attempt to be more raucous while retaining the leaps in songwriting the band made with Bones. But to my surprise, the Yeahs have thrown a curveball – their third album sounds almost nothing like either of their first two. Thankfully, the new direction they’ve chosen works, and It’s Blitz is pretty damn wonderful.
First single “Zero” sets the pace. It opens with a machine-gun synth bassline and a few electronic percussion whispers, but right where the guitars should come screaming in, the band adds more keyboards, turning out a dancefloor epic. By the end, Karen O. has well and truly sunk her teeth into the soaring melody, and the effect is invigorating. The band keeps this up for the first few tracks, replacing their guitars with keyboards and their drums with computers, but you’ll notice pretty quickly that they haven’t really touched their basic alchemy. The webs of guitar they used to spin are now webs of synthesizers, but otherwise, they’re still the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
And they’ve clearly learned from Show Your Bones – Karen O. is the main attraction here. They resist turning her into Cyndi Lauper, although she comes close on some songs. “Heads Will Roll” is simply awesome, Karen shouting “Dance, dance, dance ‘till you’re dead” while the guitars and keyboards battle. “Dull Life” is the closest to a guitar-driven song here, a nice look back at their old sound – until the sprightly melody kicks in. Nothing on the first two albums sounded quite like this.
But just when you think you have It’s Blitz figured out, the Yeahs take a turn for the atmospheric. The last few songs are all beautiful and expansive, with synth beds meeting guitar landscapes straight out of Hammock. Still, amidst all this pretty din, Karen O. stands out. She nails the melody of “Hysteric,” gets her slinky on for the verses of “Dragon Queen,” and brings real heart to the confessional closer, “Little Shadow.” Her voice is perfectly imperfect, if that makes sense – she can sing, but it’s the moments when she cracks or slips off a note that give her voice its compelling humanity.
Going all synth-pop is becoming an unfortunate cliché, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have pulled it off remarkably well with It’s Blitz. It’s a surprising album, deeper and wider in scope than any they have made. I am not sure it fits the Third Album Theory, but it does seem to open new doors for them – there are a hundred different directions they could go from here. These 10 songs are all impressive, but what this album says about the possible future of the band is even more impressive.
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That’s a lot of words. Next week, something shorter, featuring some Marillion, and some other things.
One last thing before I go. You may have heard that the Chicago Sun-Times filed for bankruptcy last week. The Sun-Times owns the paper I work for, and there have been some disheartening announcements about where we go from here. I expect a pay cut is in my future, in addition to some other sacrifices. As you may know, I pay for just about all the music I review on this site, and if money tightens up the way I expect it to, I may not be able to buy all the things I want to discuss here. Just warning you that there may be some lean times ahead, although I will certainly try to keep up with the big releases over the next few months.
Gonna be a rough summer, I can just tell.
See you in line Tuesday morning.