Four Good Albums That Aren't Quite Good Enough

Ignore that date above – I had a hell of a week, so I’m writing this on Sunday, the 21st.

Last night, my team, the Boston Red Sox, forced a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series. That’s after losing three games in a row to the Cleveland Indians, and being all but written off by fans and the press. There are definitely shades of 2004 here, even if the hated Yankees are watching this game from home, and I’m on the edge of my seat again, wondering if the Sox are good enough to secure a spot in the World Series this year.

We’ll know tonight. As I write this, Game 7 starts in a little over seven hours.

Update 11:15 p.m. CST: Hell. YES.

But while I’m thinking about whether my team is good enough to be the best, I’m also thinking about my own yearly contest. It’s late October, which is traditionally the time of year when I take stock and start to seriously consider candidates for the top 10 list. I’m re-listening, re-evaluating and reconsidering some favorites – Radiohead will probably make it, while Modest Mouse will probably not – and firming up my criteria for this year’s entries.

At the same time, every new record I hear from this point on gets put through the crucible. I just don’t have time to let these end-of-the-year discs grow on me, so I try to intensely pick them apart the first time through, and see how they stack up to the records I feel confident will make an appearance in December. It’s not the best way to hear new music, unfortunately, and it’s especially complicated by the fact that I don’t think I’ve heard a clear number one album this year. I’m looking for something that blows me away, and anything short of that will probably be sidelined in favor of earlier releases. Sad, but true.

Anyway, here is a look at four also-rans, four recent releases that are good, but not quite good enough. I wouldn’t try to talk you out of buying any of them, and if they become your favorites of the year, I wouldn’t argue. But good as they are, none of them grabbed me, and none of them will appear on my list in a month and a half. At this point, I can’t definitively tell you what will be on my top 10 list, but I feel pretty confident that these won’t.

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In the liner notes of the remastered The Colour and the Shape, released earlier this year, Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel talked about how the band has never escaped the shadow of that monolithic album. It’s true – Colour, released in 1997, was the first full-band Foo Fighters album, their self-titled debut having been more of a Dave Grohl one-man show, and it remains the tightest, most energetic thing they’ve done. Grohl at the time was best known as Nirvana’s drummer, and Colour retained the sonic power of his old band while marrying it to some superb pop songs.

Mendel anticipated the reviews that would surely compare any new Foo Fighters album to Colour – at the time he was writing those liner notes, the band was recording their sixth full-length, which he called “what will surely be our finest record.” I scoffed a little at that, because despite their consistent popularity, the Foos have been releasing blander clones of Colour almost ever since. Their last one, 2005’s In Your Honor, separated the band’s louder and softer sides into two discs, and while it was a fun experiment, the basic sound didn’t change much.

The Foo Fighters are just a decent modern rock band, performing competent mainstream music with the skill of expert craftsmen. I’ll get outraged letters for this, but in another decade, they’d have been Night Ranger.

So here is their “finest record,” called Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, and despite a couple of interesting diversions, it’s just another Foo Fighters album. It contains 12 well-written songs, most of them rockers, none of them classics. It’s produced by Gil Norton, who made Colour, and the sound is similar, if a little more polished and spit-shined. There’s nothing to hate on this album, but there’s nothing to celebrate, either. There are some very good tunes, like “Cheer Up, Boys (Your Makeup is Running)” and “Long Road to Ruin,” but those songs would have fit comfortably on any Foo Fighters album to date.

The band does take a couple of left turns worth mentioning. While In Your Honor split up the electric and acoustic stuff, Echoes reintegrates them, most effectively on the epic “Let It Die,” this album’s finest moment. There are acoustic ballads, most notably the loose “Stranger Things Have Happened,” and even one nifty acoustic instrumental, “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners,” performed with guitar whiz Kaki King. And in keeping with the Night Ranger comparison, there are some piano-based power ballads too, in “Statues” and “Home,” although they sound like they were written on guitar.

But essentially, this is just another Foo Fighters album. If you liked them before, you’ll like them now, and if all you need are competently written and played rock songs, then there are very few reasons to dislike them. But Echoes doesn’t offer any compelling reasons to buy this Foo Fighters album over any other, especially The Colour and the Shape. Sorry, Nate – I know I’ve lived down to your expectations, but as nice as this new one is, Colour is still the best thing you’ve done.

As a side note, am I the only one who needed to exercise some patience and grace of my own to get this CD out of its jewel case? Anyone else have that problem?

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Continuing with the odd comparisons: the Fiery Furnaces are starting to remind me of Dream Theater.

I know, they sound nothing alike, and I’d never dream of saying they do. But bear with me. When Dream Theater broke onto the scene with Images and Words in 1992, they sounded like no one else. Here were 10-minute epic prog-metal masterpieces, full of dazzling musicianship and multi-part instrumental interludes. It was very Yes, but also very Iron Maiden too, a combination that few had tried, and none had accomplished with such finger-bleeding skill.

But here’s the thing: every Dream Theater album since then has been a variation on Images. You buy a DT album now, you know what you’re going to get – rapid-fire metal riffs, lightning-speed drumming, epic songs that stretch to 20 or 30 minutes, and an abundance of complex musicianship. If you see a 10-minute song on a DT album, you know that song will contain a five-minute section full of guitar and keyboard solos over complicated riffing. There are no surprises anymore, just refinements.

This is how I feel about the Furnaces. Like DT, they debuted with an album that barely hinted at their potential – in the Furnaces’ case, it was Gallowsbird’s Bark, a bluesy toss-off that had nothing on their second record, the mammoth Blueberry Boat. That 80-minute monster unveiled the Furnaces sound, almost a type of garage-prog. Songs stretched to 10 minutes, and sounded like patchworks, with a hundred different movements and tonal shifts. Eleanor Friedberger’s vocal melodies were amazing and memorable, but it was brother Matthew’s oddball arrangements and refusal to sit still and groove for longer than eight seconds that made the album a wondrous listen.

And since then? Well, you know what to expect now. The Furnaces’ sixth album, Widow City, follows the formula, even if the result sounds head-spinningly non-formulaic. It kicks off with “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” a seven-minute track that encapsulates the garage-prog sound the Friedbergers have been churning out for years. It starts with a spare, odd-timed guitar riff, then stops short for a harmonized section, and makes room for some piano bits and a classy melody before noodling off into the sunset. It is paradoxically like nothing anyone else is doing, and yet like everything else the Furnaces have done.

That’s not to say the album isn’t terrific. Like DT’s Systematic Chaos, Widow City is a refinement of a singular sound. The 16 songs blend together into a cohesive whole, made up of what sounds like 300 smaller parts – some of the individual songs this time are short and straightforward, like “My Egyptian Grammar” and “Japanese Slippers,” but just as many are long and constantly changing, like “Navy Nurse.” The blues influence is here, alongside more bizarre synthesizers and that old, tinkling piano they’ve been using since Rehearsing My Choir.

As usual, there are some mindboggling masterpieces. The highlight this time is “Clear Signal from Cairo,” a simple yet superb melody serving as a springboard for a six-minute, ever-fluid piece full of distorted guitar and wild drums. Robert D’Amico’s drumming is pretty much the star of this record, adding muscle to nearly every track – “Uncle Charlie” even starts with a minute-long drum solo. But like all Furnaces albums, this one takes concentration to follow and absorb, and by the end, you’re worn out and ready for it to be over.

I’m not sure what else the Furnaces can do. Clearly, this is their sound, and it’s still a unique one – Matthew Friedberger is something of a mad genius, and he knows his way around an impossible-to-play arrangement. Widow City is very good, and gets better with each listen. And how can you not like a song called “Restorative Beer,” especially one that sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll aria?

But we’re getting to the point where one Furnaces album is just as good as another, and that’s no way to be. Bands, like sharks, have to keep moving forward, or they’ll die. Here’s hoping the Furnaces find that next level before their next album.

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No one could ever accuse Sam Beam of not moving forward.

The man who is Iron and Wine has been on a constant quest to define and redefine what he does. He started out with nothing but his voice and a guitar, writing fragile, lovely folk songs. By the time of 2005’s Our Endless Numbered Days, he had that sound down, and crafted an absolutely beautiful record. Having done that, it seems, he’s moved on – like Chris Cooper in Adaptation, who was just simply done with fish, Beam is done with spare folk music.

The third Iron and Wine album, The Shepherd’s Dog, is a giant step forward. Beam’s silvery voice is practically the only element that has carried over from Our Endless Numbered Days – the songs here are covered in exotic percussion, strings, pedal steels and a hundred other instruments, all of them perfectly balanced. It is, in many respects, like an indie-folk version of a Paul Simon album – it keeps the core of Beam’s music, but explodes the sonic trappings, turning it into something else entirely.

If you’re an Iron and Wine fan, you are not ready for what Beam’s done here. A song like “White Tooth Man” would be spooky with just guitar and vocals, but here it’s a death dream, with driving percussion, nasty slide work and some nice sitar touches. “House By the Sea” is similar, if not a little better, all bongos and layered vocals, and “Wolves” is best of all, its electric piano and harmonica turning it into an otherworldly version of an Eagles song. The entire album is impeccably arranged, and even though the style switches from song to song, the whole thing wraps together well.

So why am I not completely taken with this album? I think it’s because while Beam has vastly improved as a record maker, he’s still writing songs as if he’s going to play them with just his acoustic guitar. There aren’t very many memorable tunes here, and the focus is clearly on the sound, not the songwriting. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but most of these songs have only one verse melody, repeated a few times – the songs are skeletal, and Beam is counting on the sonic tapestry he’s weaving to flesh them out.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. “Boy With a Coin,” for example, really works – it is just one verse melody repeated, but the slide guitars, the walking bass lines, and the backwards noises add so much atmosphere that it hardly matters. But something like “Lovesong of the Buzzard,” with its two chords and island music beat, is a bit boring after a minute or so. And in the end, it is “Carousel” that works best for me, a spare and lovely ballad that could have fit onto Our Endless Numbered Days with minimal changes. In fact, the “No Quarter”-style vocal processing kind of gets in the way.

I don’t want to give the impression that The Shepherd’s Dog is a failed experiment. It truly does represent a huge jump in Sam Beam’s evolution, and if you’re used to his more spare sound, its dense and intricate production will knock you flat. It’s a very good record. I just hope that next time, the songs will be as compelling as the sound. If Beam manages that, the next Iron and Wine album will likely be something to behold.

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To give you an idea how long it’s been since Marc Cohn put out an album, the entire careers of two of this week’s contestants, Iron and Wine and the Fiery Furnaces, have taken place between his last one, 1998’s Burning the Daze, and now. That’s nine years, an almost Peter Gabriel-length wait between that record and his fourth, Join the Parade.

But cut the guy some slack – quite a lot has happened to him in the meantime. A couple of years ago, Cohn was shot in the head during a carjacking in Denver, and his recovery was long and slow. The fact that we’ve got a fourth Marc Cohn album at all is kind of a miracle, considering, and the fact that it’s a very different kind of Marc Cohn album should be little surprise. This is an album haunted by the specter of death, drowned in ghosts, and it focuses on both his own life and on New Orleans, using the city as a metaphor for crawling back from disaster.

He’s shaken things up on the songwriting front as well, adding more grit and soul to his work, which can only be a good thing. Daze, nice as it was, felt a little bit overworked and underbaked. Not so Join the Parade – these 10 songs are all just right, and the production by Charlie Sexton and Cohn is warm and inviting. Within the first two tracks, he’s reclaimed his sound. “Listening to Levon” is another anthemic opener, slow yet ringing, and “The Calling” is a trademark Cohn minor-key ballad, a la “Medicine Man,” atmospheric and deep.

But from there, Cohn takes a number of fascinating chances. “Dance Back From the Grave” is a stunner, part Tom Waits and part Gospel shout, a song unlike any Cohn has done. It is, of course, all about New Orleans, and it is the song that best fits with the cover image, a photo of a jazz funeral procession. “There’s only one thing to do, in the name of every soul we didn’t save,” he sings in a newfound gruff register. “From the Ninth Ward to the Quarter to the Mississippi border, dance back from the grave…”

“If I Were an Angel” is a full-on soul song, complete with heavenly backing vocals by the Holmes Brothers, but with “Let Me Be Your Witness,” we’re back in familiar territory – the song is a great Marc Cohn ballad, with a middle eight that slips in some lovely gospel piano work. In the nine years since Cohn’s released an album, I’ve forgotten just how much I like his sound, and “Witness” is a nice reminder.

The second half isn’t as experimental, but it’s still solid. “Live Out the String” is a direct statement of gratitude for another day, another year, and it works despite a typical adult-pop arrangement. It also contains my favorite line on the album: “Maybe life is curious to see what you would do with the gift of being left alive…” “Giving Up the Ghost” is an acoustic ballad with great harmony vocals by Shelby Lynne, while the title track is reminiscent of Michael Penn.

But the final two songs contain the heart of the record. “My Sanctuary” is a mournful piece about New Orleans, and probably the best mid-tempo piece on the album. “The forgotten ones were screaming from the rooftops, a thousand souls had all been washed away,” Cohn sings, before the trombone and flugelhorn chime in, adding to the funereal atmosphere. But it’s the glorious coda, with the Holmes Brothers, that shines, and fully embodies the album’s theme of rising up from disaster.

And the closer, an understated acoustic piece called “Life Goes On,” hammers the point home – terrible things happen, but life continues, and it’s better to join the parade than watch it from the sidewalk. “You might think it’s gonna stop, just because you’re closing shop, but life goes on…”

I didn’t quite realize how much I’ve missed Marc Cohn. His “Walking in Memphis” was part of the soundtrack to my teen years, and his second album, The Rainy Season, contains a couple of songs that will always make me think of graduating and moving on. One of my best friends chose a Cohn song for the first dance at his wedding, and I’ve used “The Things We’ve Handed Down” as an audition piece several times. His music is part of the fabric of my life, and I’m happy to add Join the Parade to my Cohn collection. In another year, this could have been a contender, but don’t let the fact that it won’t make my top 10 list keep you from buying it. Welcome back, Marc. I’m glad you’re still with us.

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No Doctor Who this week – this thing is already too long anyway. Next week, maybe Dan Wilson and Justin Currie, or maybe the Autumns and Monarch, or maybe Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Who can tell. And here’s hoping the boys from Boston pull it off tonight, and the next time we speak, we’re most of the way through a Red Sox World Series.

See you in line Tuesday morning.