Catching Up Is Hard to Do
Some Albums I Really Should Have Reviewed By Now

Playing catch-up this week, with a few releases I haven’t gotten to yet. Let’s dive right in…

When I first heard that Aerosmith was recording a blues album, I had just one question: how bluesy would it be? This is not as stupid as it sounds. While Boston’s best band has certainly built its whole mansion on the foundation of the blues, they haven’t always treated it well. Aerosmith is blues-rock, with a heavy emphasis on the rock, and I’m only treading into genre waters because the band did it first. They made a big deal of calling the recently released Honkin’ on Bobo a blues album.

Is it one? Well, kind of. There’s a bit in the movie version of Ghost World in which Steve Buscemi’s record-collecting character goes to see a classic, pure blues player. This guy is the real deal – he’s ancient, he has a voice like liquid gravel, and he plays and sings real, unadulterated blues traditionals from the heart. Thing is, he’s playing in a crowded sports bar, and no one’s listening. Everyone there came to see the headlining act, a band called Blues Hammer. And when Blues Hammer takes the stage, we see that they’re a bunch of young blond frat boys who crank up the amps and play George Thorogood-style power blues tunes, with screaming guitars and shouted vocals.

Honkin’ on Bobo could be a Blues Hammer album. The Aerosmith boys are not purists in any sense of the word, and while they play traditional tunes here, they kick them up in typical party-rock fashion. So if you’re looking for a blues album, you might be better off sticking with Muddy Waters and Corey Harris. But if you’re an Aerosmith fan, then there’s no reason at all you won’t enjoy this. Once you get the genre labels out of the way, Honkin’ on Bobo is the most kickass record Aerosmith has made in almost 20 years.

The first 30 seconds are embarrassing, I’ll grant, but once “Road Runner” kicks in, it’s non-stop dirty blooze for 45 minutes. The song titles should be somewhat familiar to fans of this music – the band stomps through “Eyesight to the Blind” and “You Gotta Move” and Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready” with force and joy. There’s no question that Joe Perry owns this project, too – he hasn’t sounded this invigorated in a very long time. Just listen to his smoking work on “Shame Shame Shame.” This is the Joe Perry of 1975.

In fact, the whole band sounds re-energized. Joey Kramer hasn’t been called upon to actually be a great rock ‘n’ roll drummer in a decade or more, but he’s still got it. And Steven Tyler is having the time of his life. The band has made some interesting choices here as well, diversifying the proceedings somewhat with a creepy “Back Back Train,” a great take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Stop Messin’ Around” (from the Peter Green years, of course), and a closing acoustic rip through “Jesus is On the Main Line.”

The most important thing to note about Honkin’ on Bobo is that it’s the first Aerosmith album since Done With Mirrors that isn’t preoccupied with hit singles and radio play. Even their one original song (“The Grind”), while treading closer to the likes of Big Ones than anything else here, sticks with the blues and avoids “Cryin’”/“Crazy”/“Amazing” schmaltz. Even the title is non-commercial. (And, oh yeah, terrible.) This is the sound of Aerosmith having pressure-free fun, and even though I would have paid twice the price for an unaffected blues album from these boys, this insanely enjoyable romp is more than welcome in my collection.

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If we’re to believe the hipper-than-thou indie reviewers that scatter the ‘net like head lice, there have been very few albums this century as mindblowing and inventive as Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica. Really, you’d think that lead singer Isaac Brock went around giving each of these writers a hundred bucks. It’s brilliant, it’s breathtaking, it “justifies our existence,” as one hyperbolic hipster put it. I have to ask this: what the hell are these guys talking about?

I don’t want to crap on the album, really, because it’s pretty good. It’s jagged and raw and full of Sonic Youth-ness, but to call this disjointed, half-finished, sloppy thing any more than pretty good is overstating the case. I wonder if any of the folks who called Moon “expansive” have ever heard anything truly expansive, like the Autumns, or the Moon Seven Times, or even Sigur Ros. Modest Mouse play indie rock with potential and ambition, but that’s about all.

And when I bought The Moon and Antarctica, on the strength of a dozen glowing reviews, what I was looking for was something more like Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the band’s latest outing. Perhaps it’s the complete lack of attendant hype, but I can’t help thinking that this one is much, much better. It’s still snarling indie rock, but Brock and company have added more ambition, and explored more of their potential.

The first three songs, in fact, sound like the band has been reading their reviews. These tunes are dreamy, especially the joyously repetitive “Float On.” The amplifiers don’t even get turned on, really, until “Bury Me With It,” a song that kills the mood completely. (But in a good way.) Modest Mouse has added colors to its palette here in the form of toned percussion, horns, mellotrons and big ol’ studio productions. While Moon sounded like something they jammed out, Good News sounds like something they worked on.

Midway through the record, Modest Mouse starts letting the influences show, and they’re not who you’d expect them to be. Tom Waits gets a stylistic shout-out on “The Devil’s Workday,” and also on “Bukowski,” which sounds for all the world like Primus doing their Tom Waits schtick. Throughout the rest of this challenging album you can hear bits of David Byrne, Wayne Coyne and Joe Strummer. The Modest Mouse sound is still not quite expansive, but it is expanding.

The band has the good sense to close on a graceful note, with “The Good Times Are Killing Me.” It’s a comparatively hushed and lovely song, and Brock even reins in his caterwaul, hitting some Brian Wilson notes. Yes, that Brian Wilson. Throughout this record, Brock and company impress with the sheer number and variety of influences on display. There’s no telling where Modest Mouse will go next, but Good News for People Who Love Bad News opens lots of doors, and even steps through a few of them. It still falls far short of brilliant – the only thing truly brilliant about this album is its title – but it’s getting there.

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I don’t usually accept CDs for review.

There are several reasons for this, most of them centering around my idealistic vision for this site. I hope to keep TM3AM as free of obligations and you-scratch-my-back deals as I can, and even the very act of accepting a free CD from someone feels to me like a contract. I’m always upfront about not promising a review, which usually deters people from sending their work my way. While that obviously means I may not get to hear some music I would enjoy, it just feels better for me to work this way.

Another big reason that I don’t usually take freebies is Sturgeon’s Law, however. When I worked at Face Magazine, we got free CDs all the time, dozens each week, and 90 percent of them sucked. I have enough trouble wading through music I’ve bought. Honestly, the thought of getting piles and piles of truly awful CDs sent to my door is horrifying. So when an artist decides to send me a freebie anyway, despite my not promising a mention, I usually approach with skepticism and trepidation.

This is all to say that when one of those rare free discs makes a positive impression, it’s had to fight an uphill battle, so you know it must be pretty good. Such is the case with Jen Gloeckner’s Miles Away. This record sounded good the first time I heard it, and has only deepened since. Gloeckner could dismissively be described as a folk artist – she has a crisp, clear voice and plays acoustic guitar – but her textured music is broader than that.

Take “Nothing Personal,” a creepy bass-driven dirge with a captivating vibe. Or “Only 1,” a sweet ballad with a breathtaking vocal arrangement over minimal instrumentation. Miles Away is an album built on atmosphere and mood, and Gloeckner sometimes sacrifices melody for feeling, but it’s a sacrifice she knows she’s making. When she pulls out the melodies, as on the 6/8 gem “Glue,” they’re winners. The album is subtly augmented with cellos and saxophones, and drums and bass are used sparingly. It’s all about the mood it sets.

This album is full of little surprises. The Eastern-tinged “Clear the Sand” floats above a bed of congas and features some nifty flute solos. The beautiful “Mountains” features an airy plucked mandolin and some of the record’s best cello playing from Kameron Cole. A Stevie Nicks influence crops up on “Hazy Sky,” and later on “Otherside,” with its piano-led arrangement. There’s a simplicity to this record, both musically and lyrically, but it’s an effective one.

I know I’m setting a dangerous precedent here by giving a freebie a positive review, but Miles Away is something I would have been pleased to have paid money for. I fully expect the next nine free records I get to be terrible, because Miles Away is quite good. Check it out at her website.

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Next week, some music, some TV. Thank you for your kind attention.

See you in line Tuesday morning.