2009’s Last Gasp
Three New Records Ring Out the Year

Welcome to 2009’s last gasp.

Oh, I know we still have about five weeks before the year officially ends, but if you’re a music fan like I am, it’s already over. I bought one new album this week. I have two more on the schedule to pick up before December 31: an EP by Animal Collective and the fifth album by Lifehouse. Suffice it to say, I’m not expecting any last-minute additions to my top 10 list.

Ah, but every year around this time, there’s that last week full of promise, the last time half a dozen or so potentially excellent records drop all at once before the year peters out. The last gasp, if you will. For 2009, the last gasp came last week – I bought eight new albums and one deluxe edition re-release, and among them were three potential game-changers. Of course, none of them actually changed the game, and barring one British import I’ve just ordered, my top 10 list is set in stone. But they’re all worth talking about.

So we will.

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This has been a year for supergroups – see Tinted Windows, Monsters of Folk, the Dead Weather, and (if you stretch the definition of “super”) Chickenfoot. Still, when I first heard the lineup of Them Crooked Vultures, I nearly spit my tasty beverage all over my shirt.

Half the fun of these supergroups is imagining what their recombinant musical DNA might sound like, just from reading the names. To wit, then: Them Crooked Vultures is a power trio. On guitar and vocals, we have Josh Homme, of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. On drums, Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters (and four dozen other bands, including Queens). And returning to heavy-as-hell bass playing, we have John Paul Jones, of some little band called Led Zeppelin.

I know, right? The best part is, Them Crooked Vultures sounds pretty much like you’d expect it to – heavy, groovy, spacey, nimble and thunderous. Homme takes the lead here, so much of the Vultures’ self-titled debut album sounds like Zeppelin’s most punishing stuff, like a steamroller dancing, if you can picture it. Wide-ranging grooves that zip from note to note, and yet still crush you under their mammoth weight.

The first dancing steamroller moment comes two minutes and 44 seconds into the opening track, the wittily-titled “No One Loves Me and Neither Do I.” Those first 2:44 are a phenomenal fake-out – the production is flat and thin, the bass nearly inaudible, and what should be a knockout rock song just kind of hangs there. But then, just as you’re resigning yourself to the idea that the whole album will sound like this, the Vultures tear the roof off. The riff that comprises the second half of the song is an absolute monster, and they’re content to pummel you with it for about a minute before flipping it over and inverting it, Grohl doing his best John Bonham as Homme and Jonesy mess with your head. It’s awesome.

Half of the album is given over to stomping rockers like “Mind Eraser, No Chaser” and “New Fang,” but the other half is complex desert blues-prog – no less heavy, but more atmospheric and mind-expanding. “Elephants” opens with an explosive instrumental workout before settling into its mid-tempo thump. (Jones brings his mellotron along for a minute too.) “Bandoliers” adds color and shade, bouncing around on a neat riff for a while before Jones’ keyboards start up a dogfight.

It’s a push-pull tension between the two styles all the way through. The apex of the spacey blues stuff is the nearly eight-minute “Warsaw, or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up.” The high-pitched backing vocals, the boogie piano, the dirty solo – this thing is just neat. And two tracks later, you get “Gunman,” sporting the nastiest, most powerful riff of the record, and Grohl’s most danceable beat. Through all of these musical acrobatics, the Vultures lock into a groove, playing like one three-headed rock beast.

This album isn’t the undiluted knockout one might expect from a band of this pedigree, but for an awkward nice-to-meet-you debut, it’s pretty great. And it’s proof undeniable that John Paul Jones still has it – his work truly holds this thing together. Them Crooked Vultures is one of the most successful supergroup projects of the year, and a damn fine rock record in its own right. I sincerely hope the three Vultures follow this path wherever it leads.

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Well, here we go again with John Mayer.

I’ve come to accept that Mayer live is a completely different animal than Mayer in the studio. On stage, Mayer is a guitar player of remarkable skill and fire, ripping through blues classics and keeping up with the other two-thirds of his trio, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. Those guys have been around, and can really play, but Mayer is the leader on stage – the result is a lot more like Cream than any of Mayer’s detractors would like to admit.

But in the studio, Our John goes all mild-mannered, and becomes a latte-sipping lite-FM adult contemporary milksop. The blues goes away, the fire in his playing goes out, and you’d never know just how talented the guy is from the simple and tasteful pop he churns out. Worse, he’s been prefacing his albums of late with excited speeches about how he “took the reins” and “made the music he feels” and “unleashed his creativity.” I should have learned my lesson with the affably bland Continuum three years ago, but he did it to me again with his fourth, Battle Studies.

Now, come on. The album is called Battle Studies. Virtually every song features Jordan and Palladino, and Jordan helped produce the thing. And it includes a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” I can be forgiven for thinking that maybe this would be the one on which Mayer busts out, right?

Not so much. This album is actually more straightforward and less bluesy than Continuum. It’s chock full of VH1-ready hits (one of which is a duet with Taylor Swift), and it never, ever, not once even implies that it might rock. Mayer spends much of his time on acoustic guitar here, augmented by slick strings and occasional Clapton-esque electric accents. (But middle-aged Clapton, not Yardbirds Clapton.) The whole thing sounds like a warm fire.

Is it bad? For all of that, not really. It’s not quite as good as Continuum, but better than Heavier Things. It’s full of perfectly sweet little songs, played very well. Mayer lets his smartass side out here and there, especially on “Assassin” and the snarky single “Who Says.” (The former is a minor-key mid-tempo wiggle, while the latter is a paper-thin acoustic folk ditty.) The aforementioned “Crossroads” cover is the album’s most ubpeat moment, and even that never gets above a slow simmer. (It does contain Mayer’s best solo this time around.) Most of it, though, is like “War of My Life” – clean-toned, neatly pressed, almost cute in its maturity. And sounding nothing like war, or battle.

Am I disappointed? Well, not any more – as I said, I’ve grown to accept Mayer’s two different approaches, much as I wish he’d meld them a little. I like some of the songs on here, especially “Assassin” and the bittersweet “Do You Know Me.” But I don’t love anything here, and I wish I did. It’s become clear that this is how John Mayer wants to sound in the studio, and he may even consider Battle Studies his masterpiece. But when the supple tones of “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” fade away, I find myself yearning for something with more of a pulse.

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Like, for example, the new Switchfoot album.

You can admit it. You’ve written Switchfoot off as a radio-ready alt-rock act, an all-too-typical group of hitmakers with six-strings. I did it too, at first, when I heard their singles “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move.” But I soon discovered how underrated they are, and they just keep on rewarding my faith. Their sixth album, 2006’s Oh! Gravity, was full-on wonderful, nimbly skipping from style to style – it was practically a mix tape, and it was full to bursting with really good songs.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Switchfoot, but they’ve been busy. (As has leader John Foreman, collaborating on the Fiction Family album and releasing four solo EPs.) First, they extricated themselves from their Columbia Records contract, and I’d like to think the label’s utter mishandling of Oh! Gravity had something to do with it. And then they spent some time in the studio. So much time, in fact, that they’ve completed their seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth albums.

Yeah. Four new albums at once. Of course, the question is, can they maintain quality control over that much new material? We’ll see in the coming months – Foreman and company are releasing their four new records one at a time, in stages. The first one, Hello Hurricane, is here. The next, Vice Verses, is scheduled for early next year. It remains to be seen if they’re splitting the sessions up by style, or by some other method, or if they just recorded 50 or so Switchfoot songs and put them on four different discs.

Hello Hurricane offers no clues. This record sounds like Switchfoot to me, albeit somewhat louder and rawer. It’s not another exploration of diversity – its dozen songs stay within the band’s established framework, with a number of driving rockers and an equal number of slower, more tranquil pieces. And it preserves the band’s gift for intelligently-constructed pop, although you’ll probably have to listen a couple of times to absorb just how well-written something like “Free” is. Oh! Gravity was a whiz-bang showcase, but Hello Hurricane is a Switchfoot album – a cut above most alternative rock, but in the same ballpark.

And so we have first single “Mess of Me,” and “The Sound,” and the title track, all of which are loud and proud, yet sport convincing melodies. “Hello Hurricane” especially takes a U2-ish framework and runs with it, segueing a sweet chorus into an “oh-oh-oh” refrain, and then building an awesome bridge. And we also have the quieter moments, like “Enough to Let Me Go” and “Always.” That song is one of the simplest things here, almost old Coldplay in its plaintive yearning, and yet it’s lovely. Every breath is a second chance, indeed.

I could have done without “Bullet Soul,” a garage-rock outing that misses the mark. But I could never do without songs like “Sing It Out.” The album’s epic at 5:17, it starts with a keyboard drone and Foreman’s emotion-packed voice, and then builds in intensity, finally cresting like a wave before crashing down and ending where it began. The chorus is moving, the bridge even more so. I’m a sucker for big-hearted songs like this, and this is one of Switchfoot’s best.

The album isn’t, but that’s all right. Hello Hurricane is a solid return for a band that too often gets lumped in with lesser lights. There isn’t a single song here that rewrites the rules, but these dozen tracks stand as further proof that Switchfoot is vastly underrated, and deserves better. I can’t decide whether its consistent quality is a good or bad sign for the three forthcoming records, but on its own, Hello Hurricane is quite good. Other bands of this ilk, in fact, should take notes.

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Next week, some people I know. Only five more columns this decade. That just feels weird. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.