And here we are: the last great new music week of 2010.
Trust me, I’ve seen the future. Or at least the release schedule, as I noted last week. Jimi Hendrix fans have a good week coming up on November 16, with re-releases of Live at Woodstock, Blues, BBC Sessions, a Christmas single and a new four-CD, one-DVD box set called West Coast Seattle Boy. Some of that is unreleased, none of it is new. (For obvious reasons.) After this week, it’s Cee-Lo, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, My Chemical Romance and maybe The Violet Burning. And that’s it.
So this week is the last celebration, the final hurrah for what was, in retrospect, a pretty great year. This week we got three highly-anticipated new records, and I like them all. Now, I don’t know how many of you have seen my blog. I think of it as a supplement to the main column, although I haven’t made much use of it lately. (I’m busy!) One of the main things I do there is first-listen reviews, posting my immediate impressions of records after only hearing them once.
Well, this week’s column is like that. I’m going to listen to each of these new records only once before reviewing them. Don’t expect any kind of in-depth analysis this time, particularly since one of them was written by one of our best lyricists, and no doubt rewards repeated listens. (You’ll know which one. No, not the Weezer.) This is going to be like a fly-by, a quick-hit series of instant thoughts. At least, that’s how I’m envisioning it. Let’s see how I do.
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It’s sometimes easy to forget that Elvis Costello isn’t American.
I say that because he has a deep, abiding love for American music. He’s made country records and southern folk records and jazz records and records inspired by ‘50s California rock. He’s recently collaborated with New Orleans great Allen Toussaint, and he’s in the midst of a fruitful partnership with T-Bone Burnett and a terrific group of old-school Nashville musicians. One of his career goals seems to be to get an entry in the Great American Songbook next to some of his idols, like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
Looking over his body of work, that doesn’t seem like an outsize ambition. I consider Costello one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, and he’s shown a remarkable ability to hit balls out of the park in a head-spinning array of styles. And yet, there are some who still want to pigeonhole him as an angry, twitchy rocker, referring to everything that doesn’t sound like My Aim is True as a “genre exercise.” I think this misses the fact that the rockabilly and organ-fueled punk of his early efforts are just as much about genre as anything else he’s done.
Costello believes in the album, a trait I admire, and everything he’s done for some time has centered around a sonic concept. The orchestral maneuvers of North and Il Sogno, for example, or the smash-and-grab rock of Momofuku. His latest forays have been populated by a stunning set of Nashville session players, like Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan and Dennis Crouch. Google a couple of those names, and you’ll find a curriculum vitae that could only have been assembled by the very best.
On last year’s Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, those players joined Costello, his Impostors, and producer Burnett to add bluegrass and country flavoring to some older originals. Now here’s the companion volume, in a sense: National Ransom, a collection of 16 new Costello songs performed with the same lineup. Everything about the way this one’s being marketed screams, “If you liked the last one, you’ll like this one too!” It even sports another cover illustration by comics artist Tony Millionaire.
And it’s true, except for a couple of things. For one, National Ransom is miles better than its predecessor. While Secret, Profane cast old songs in new settings, these tunes were clearly written for Costello’s hand-picked backing band, and they sound more comfortable and confident. For another, these songs are largely terrific, even on first blush.
You’ll find a lot of reviewers calling this a country album, and this is incorrect. There are a few solidly country songs on here, like the rowdy “I Lost You.” But this album pulls from jazz balladry, bayou music, a little Motown, and some plain ol’ rock and roll. It’s as diverse as the previous album, and while it doesn’t have as many hooks as I’d like (Costello, when he wants to, can write hooks), the result is a thoughtful, complex record that tours a dozen American musical forms.
Highlights? After one listen, I would point to the jaunty “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” the rough-and-tumble “Five Small Words,” the gorgeous “Bullets for the New-Born King,” the haunting “One Bell Ringing” and the unendingly lyrical “All These Strangers” as clear favorites. I would say this, though: the overall quality of the songs is consistent, if not extraordinary. This is Elvis Costello proving his mettle 16 more times, and doing it with some of the best players he’s ever had on record.
Lyrically, this record is a series of vignettes set in different periods of history, each about man’s inhumanity to man. The thumping title track sets the tone, taking aim at the fatcats: “They’re running wild just like some childish tantrum, meanwhile we’re working every day paying off the national ransom…” (This one’s setting is listed as “1929 to the present day.”) “Stations of the Cross” is another burst of anger at the government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, among other things, while the deceptively tender “You Hung the Moon” eavesdrops on families awaiting their loved ones’ return from World War I: “The shore is a parchment, the sea has no tide since he was taken from my side…”
I don’t even feel like I need to qualify this next statement: Costello is, without a doubt, one of the best lyricists working today. National Ransom is a typically dense piece of work, the songs sometimes working as delivery mechanisms for the words. The six-minute “All These Strangers,” near the end of the album, is a perfect example. Over a honey-rich folk backdrop, Costello spins a tale of paranoia and infidelity: “I saw my baby talking with another man today, speaking softly in a confidential way, I saw a shadow pull his glove off as a bluebird flew over, life’s no pleasure when you doubt the one you love…” By the time it finishes up, it’s surprisingly intense, and it’s undercut somewhat by the sing-song finale, “A Voice in the Dark.”
But all together, National Ransom is yet another splendid Elvis Costello album. Essential? Probably not, but that’s just because he’s so good so often that this album is somewhat typical. It’s going to take me several more listens to absorb everything Costello’s laid down here, and unravel his finely-woven themes. But Costello is an artist that has never made me regret following him down every highway and byway he travels. His catalog covers a lot of ground, and National Ransom annexes some new territory (a remarkable statement on its own, 32 albums in), but his grasp has never exceeded his talent. He’s one of the very best, and National Ransom is further proof.
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If it seems like just a few weeks ago we were discussing Weezer’s eighth album, Hurley, well, you’re not insane. Hurley hit stores on September 14, and here we are, a month and a half later, with the band’s ninth effort, Death to False Metal.
I’m going to repeat that title, because it’s 40 kinds of awesome: Death to False Metal.
So okay, technically this isn’t a brand new Weezer album. These 10 songs were written and recorded at various points in the band’s career, and were excluded from their proper releases for reasons unknown. The newest is opener “Turning Up the Radio,” written in 2008 (and we’ll get to the origin of this song in a bit), and the oldest are “Everyone” and “Trampoline,” which date back to the post-Pinkerton hiatus, around 1998. The songs were rescued from obscurity and re-worked in the studio, polished up to sound like modern Weezer.
The result is inconsistent, of course, but so is every Weezer album since Make Believe. The record mostly sticks to the thick, guitar-heavy pop Rivers Cuomo and company do so well, and though you’ll have to wade your way through some Cuomo-rific lyrical disasters (“It feels good to be a jerk, I’m just a loser on his way to work…”), the melodic sweetness the band lays down is, more often than not, worth it. Admittedly, it’s a little less worth it this time, but if you’re a Weezer fan, there are still some good tunes on here.
Take “Blowin’ My Stack,” written during the Make Believe sessions. This song is idiotic – the above lyrical snippet calls this track home – but the riffs are convincing, Cuomo bellows his way through it with a newfound energy, and Brian Bell whips out a flailing guitar solo that’ll make you smile. It’s stupid, dumb, moronic, completely un-smart. But it is fun, like most of this album. The one real speed bump is “Losing My Mind,” another Make Believe relic, which finds Rivers plumbing the depths of his soul to come up with lyrics like this: “I’m running out of energy and I have to lie down, right here on the sidewalk next to the Shoe Town.” I’m serious, he really sings this line like he means it.
Those of you who believe Pinkerton was the last Weezer album worth a damn will probably expect “Everyone” and “Trampoline” to be highlights. You’d be half right. “Trampoline” is a bouncy delight, but “Everyone” has nothing but rawness on its side. (“Everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone suck a thumb, suck a thumb, suck a thumb…”) You’d probably also expect “Radio” to be a disaster – it’s the finished product of Cuomo’s “Let’s Write a Sawng” project, for which he enlisted fans to submit ideas at every stage of the composition. In the end, 16 people are credited as writers, on what is essentially a typical melodic-pop ditty. But it’s fun.
Things I quite like: “I’m a Robot,” a piano-fueled surprise that rips modern life in the most obvious way possible, but has a super-swell beat and gang vocals; “I Don’t Want Your Loving,” a Maladroit-era track that could easily have fit on Hurley; and most bizarrely, a full-rawk cover of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart.” (Yes, that’s real.) At the very least, I hope Death to False Metal puts lie to the idea that Cuomo’s just been getting worse – the latter stuff is, on the whole, better than the earlier stuff here.
But the album is disjointed, and in the final analysis, seems inconsequential. Some of these songs are definitely worthy of rescue, and while the spit-shining might irk some, I’m all right with it. It’s fluffy nothing, just like everything Weezer’s done, and if you’re looking for some hidden depth in the band’s cast-offs, you won’t find it here. Death to False Metal is silly, hummable fun, and if you don’t expect anything more from Weezer, you’ll dig it.
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Consistency is one thing, but there’s little I like more as a music fan than a good ol’ redemption story.
Last year, William James McAuley, better known as Bleu, released his third record, A Watched Pot. The album was tangled up in record label red tape for ages, and it took years for Bleu to get the rights back. And if you ask me, it wasn’t worth it. A Watched Pot is a maudlin and overproduced collection of ballads, belying the sheer songwriting talent of the man behind it. His voice was still in good form, but that was about it.
Which is a shame, because I think McAuley is a terrific artist. Both Headroom and Redhead are power pop gems that too few have heard, and his work as L.E.O. is amazing. I criticized A Watched Pot for not playing to Bleu’s strengths, for going for the pop radio hit instead of aiming for the best music he could make. I got some shit for that, but I told everyone who lambasted me that if Bleu decided to make an album worthy of him again, I’d praise it to the skies.
The time has come.
Bleu’s new record is called Four, and he’s releasing it independently on his own The Major Label. He used Kickstarter to fund it – he asked fans for $8,000, and got more than $39,000. That had to be a nice dose of confidence, and the album reflects that. Four is a return to form in every way possible, the best record Bleu has made, and one of the coolest pop albums of 2010. It’s superb, and if you like well-written pop music, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I like all of these songs, but I have a definite weakness for “B.O.S.T.O.N.,” the best song about my former home town I’ve heard in years. It’s autobiographical – McAuley was born in Green Bay, and now lives in Los Angeles, but he’s known as a Boston songwriter, and here he reaffirms his love for Beantown: “If you ask me where I’m from, Boston,” he shouts, as the backing vocalists launch into an absolutely exultant na-na-na-na refrain. This song makes me want to punch the air.
“Dead in the Morning” is a full-on gospel party, choirs of vocalists chiming in over pounding piano. “I’ll Know It When I See It” breaks out the vintage synthesizers, draping them over a dynamite acoustic guitar rhythm and some well-placed percussive exhales. The song takes off at the bridge: “Absolutely positively definitely yes, or maybe in the end it’s just anybody’s guess…” “I’m in Love With My Lover” is Bleu’s one foray into romantic balladry this time, but its sparse production gives it a spectral quality, the opposite of the glossy strings of A Watched Pot. And the closer, “Everything is Fine,” is a sweet ditty with a big heart..
Bleu gets some help on that song from Jellyfish’s Roger Joseph Manning Jr., who knows a thing or two about great power pop. And really, that’s what you’ll get here, almost without exception – great, melodic, catchy, quirky, utterly terrific power pop. Bleu is back in the game, and as I promised, I’ll be the first in line to say so. I love this little record, and I hope it’s just a sign of great things to come from a guy who should be much more famous than he is.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.