Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Memory almost grandé…

Paul McCartney
Memory Almost Full
Hear Music
Released 6.5.07

Rating: 5 out of 10

Some of the first people to hear Memory Almost Full, Paul McCartney’s latest album, were getting their morning coffee and were on their way to somewhere. 10,000 stores nationwide, all providing cream and sugar for the coffee and some artificial sweetener for the ears.

After leaving EMI, longtime label of the former Beatle, Paul decided to be the premiere act for Starbuck’s record label, Hear Music, the coffee gods’ foray into something more than caffeinated consumer culture. As a result, Paul = Coffee. He’s Paul McCoffee. No longer will the general public associate Paul with walruses, death and lefties. No! I think Paul; I think coffee. Paul is dead, Paul is dead, misshimmisshim…now I’m dying for some fucking coffee. Maybe that was the Starbucks plan. I’m not sure if it was Paul’s, but he has left chaos and creation for the sake of marketing. And that’s why Memory Almost Full sounds so Starbucks appropriate.

With 2005’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, Paul could’ve ended on an amazing note. He was finally honest and open, almost sympathetic and so fully tapped into his undeniable brilliance that it was shocking to listen to. With producer, Nigel Godrich’s help, Paul had, for a little while, abandoned his public persona as Sir Safe&Bland. But, I’m not sure he saw it that way. The experience for Paul was unfortunately exhausting and frustrating despite the final product being as good as it was. I guess, at his age, it only makes sense to keep the work environment serene, and the music too. Maybe there was something to Paul’s “Mr. Bellamy,” where he sings: “I’m not coming down/no matter what you say/I like it up here without you.”

The first three tracks are what you expect to hear at Starbucks: smooth, light, and mass-produced. “Dance Tonight” at least has personality and means well, but it’s not really much of a draw. “Ever Present Past” is disingenuously upbeat, almost like Paul’s just going with the motions. “See Your Sunshine” suffers from the same posture, positioning laid-back basslines with faux-rock delivery and cheesy hooks.

“Only Mama Knows” feels like a song that Paul considered. Beginning with orchestrated strings that then lead into some fairly loud rock guitars, (loud for this album anyway), it breaks a little into Journey territory when it goes into very desperate reprises of “hold on” over chilling harpsichord. It’s not perfect, but at least it feels like Paul is awake.

It isn’t really until after the slow and morose “You Tell Me” that some inventiveness comes into play.

“Mr. Bellamy” kicks some life into the mix, utilizing catchy piano loops and some playful melodies, invoking a sound and style almost reminiscent of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” After seeming to end, the song then kicks into a minute long instrumental outro that makes you wish there were more moments like this to be had.

“Gratitude” and “Vintage Clothes” exploit some interesting ideas but get weighed down by clichéd lyrics and lack of direction. The latter track leads directly into “That Was Me” which at least inspires the ears to pay some attention. It’s a simple track but it wears that familiar pleasantness that McCartney exudes and it winds up being somewhat redeeming.

“Feet In The Clouds,” an otherwise upbeat little ditty, might’ve been excusable if not for the unnecessarily long section toward the end of the track where the line ”Yes, I find it very, very, very, very, very, very, haaaaaaaaard” is repeated ad nauseam in an array of stupid vocal effects, one of which recalls Cher’s horrible dance song about “life after love.” That’s all I could hear once that effect came into play, proving that, sometimes, producers should leave certain buttons untouched.

The emotionally epic “House Of Wax” and mortality-based “The End Of The End” at least provide some honest depth and allow the string section some music they can actually enhance. “Nod Your Head” comes off like an afterthought and Paul tries too hard to kick some life into the final act. It was disappointing coming out of my stereo but, emanating from Starbucks speakers, providing background noise for the morning rush, it makes perfect sense. It was, for the most part, made to ignore.

”…no need to be sad/with the end of the end...”

The version of Memory Almost Full that I purchased came with three additional tracks that were played solely by McCartney. These tracks by themselves are better than the album and thankfully remind the listener that there’s a still a good songwriter in there somewhere. Instrumental track “In Private” plays like a variation on the road song. Clocking in at barely 2 minutes, the track sets a mood with minimal effort. “Why So Blue” could easily be a stray track from Chaos and Creation as it carries with it the emotion and lyrical depth of 90% of that album. “222,” one of the strangest and most expressive tracks I’ve ever heard come from McCartney, has one verse that is sporadically sung in a despairing high pitch three times over hi-hat taps and walking piano notes. One verse; no chorus. It’s a mesmerizing track.

I really hate not liking this album, especially when I know what McCartney is capable of. But, unfortunately, Memory Almost Full fails to captivate and doesn’t really give me a whole lot of optimism in terms of what to expect from the Hear Music label. It really feels like its sole purpose is to release albums that’ll sound okay being played at a reasonable level, which isn’t what you’d call very rock n’ roll. I just hope that Paul’s memory isn’t too full. Full? Full. Yeah, I could use a refill.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Battery powered eccentric…

Released 5.8.07

Rating: 7 out of 10

Listening to “Earth Intruders,” all I can think is that Timbaland really stretched his button pushing to encompass more than “promiscuous girls” and “bringing sexy back.” But, I do have to wonder if he does it better than Tricky did in ’95 and if this was a chance for him to appeal to a more art-based sect of the music consuming populace. Or, maybe there was just a lot of loot involved and a chance for him to scrawl some credits on a new set of liner notes; in the case, notes that display the ever-eccentric Björk with an azure visage and some funky fuckin’ threads (possibly pretending to do the medieval “Volta” dance she mentions on her website). And then there’s the sticker: sole enclosure device for the CD that features Björk dressed as an inverted, but festive, light bulb with feet. The sticker’s losing its adhesion. As far as the record, that’s not completely the case.

Volta brings back the electric, trip-hop, and instrumentally-adventurous Björk after her trip into vocal music. 2004’s Medúlla is one of my favorite records of all time. From start to finish its very being seemed designed to enhance, bum or blow minds, and the fact that most of it was propelled with a seeming wealth of throat-born possibilities made it a complete departure for her, though, at the same time, it made complete sense that an album like that would be crafted by her hands. So, with Volta, I almost feel like the wad has been completely blown; as if nothing Björk does from now till she lays the throat to rest will ever effect me as much as Medúlla. But, my job is to be objective, despite my urge to be a complete fanboy.

As I mentioned earlier, Björk sought some production wizardry via Timbaland, who powers the aforementioned polka-march, “Earth Intruders,” and bleep-addled “Innocence.” His most interesting track, “Hope,” is also his most minimal. As a producer, he does successfully pull together appropriate backdrops for Björk’s prose. But, where anything electric is concerned, he doesn’t really stand out. For me, the album’s stands out when the brass section makes its boldest contributions, acting as the common factor this time around as the vocals had been in Medúlla.

“Wanderlust”’s majestic brass, for instance, keeps the track’s chaotic trip hop elements from burying itself in a sonic heap. Not that those elements aren’t well produced and interesting, but any feeling that isn’t already being generated by Björk's voice, is owed to those horns, which wind up making another appearance in the album’s next track, Alt Disney-bred duet, “The Dull Flame Of Desire.”

Apparently a reinterpretation of a poem/piece of music that had appeared in the film, Stalker, “The Dull Flame Of Desire” pairs Antony Hegarty, (from band, Antony & The Johnsons), with Björk in a highly romanticized and operatic exchange, momentarily diverting Volta’s trip hop base into Andrew Lloyd Webber territory. Strangely enough, it works and is perfectly sequenced with the chaotically charged and plugged in “Innocence.”

“Vertebrae By Vertebrae” and “Pneumonia” pair up Hitchcock-ian suspense with modern day production, creating an unsettling, but mesmerizing atmosphere. Bernard Herrmann could’ve composed these tracks, sans the pulsing industrial churn.

Plucked strings, possibly offering an alternative to beats, keys and brass, make appearances in the Asian-flavored and mellow, “I See Who You Are,” then later accent the anti-violent musing in “Hope.” Album closer, “My Juvenile,” reunites Antony Hegarty with Björk, and is carried solely by clavichord and the intertwining of two voices.

The album’s sole misstep belongs to “Declare Independence,” an overlong and annoying anthem of sorts, repetitiously struggles to start a revolution:

”…declare independence/don’t let them do that to you/declare independence/don’t let them do that to you/make your own flag/make your own flag/make your own flag/make your own flag/raise your flag (higher, higher)/raise your flag (higher, higher)/raise your flag (higher, higher)/raise your flag (higher, higher)…”

Belting out the mouths of mall-walking malcontents, hungry for their identities and the opportunity to piss off their parents, may get away with lyrics so obtuse. Here, they fail to impress and succeed at making the eyes roll sky high.

Volta, taking its name from the Italian inventor that gave us the battery, despite being a return to roots of sorts, (that is the roots of just about every album she’s done up to this point), isn’t the best she’s done. But, Björk does continue to create some of the most vocally entrancing, if not audibly enticing, albums, essentially molding her own subgenre within the incredibly broad, and not always accurate, alternative niche. She’s a unique voice and that’s probably all that matters. I’m just thankful she gave us Medúlla.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Josh Homme: “…The world is round/My square don’t fit at all…”

Queens of the Stone Age
Era Vulgaris
Released 6.12.07

Rating: 8 out of 10

Author’s Note: This write-up was born out of a discussion with my brother, a die-hard fan, upon first listen of Era Vulgaris. Some of his observations on the album made their way into my review, most notably the opinions related to the song, “Make It Wit Chu.”

Right now I’m really wired on coffee and my attempts at diluting the effects with water have been worthless, despite the fact that I’m on my third fucking bottle. I’ll blame the music. I’ve been listening to Era Vulgaris all day with intense concentration because it’s the only album that I’ve really been looking forward to all year.

Anyone reading this may wonder what it is about the Queens of the Stone Age that I find so captivating and important in regards to mainstream rock n’ roll. Simply put, QOTSA is the only reason mainstream rock n’ roll is alive. Keep in mind while I boldly make overreaching statements like this that I’m not including any underground or independent music scenes. I’m speaking in terms of radio, NOW radio, and saying without any hesitation that Josh Homme is the guy worth paying attention to, even if all the accessible rock print these days is reserved for wiping Jack White’s overly-kissed peppermint eye. There’s no gimmick in play here. No charming aesthetics or nostalgic reminiscence of some bygone era. Homme plays rock n’ roll that belongs in THIS era with a zero-bullshit factor that screams, “Hey, man…I’m just making music.” I won’t be TIME magazine about it and call him the “future” of rock music, but I will definitely call him the “present,” and I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who stretches the brittle boundaries of the MTV attention span as much as he does.

Having said all that, I’ll admit that Era Vulgaris, the fifith full-length from Homme and his consistently inconsistent line-up, is not my favorite of their albums. But, his mission has essentially been to not write the same album over and over again while maintaining the band’s overall identity, essence and experimental nuance that subtly weave through every song like sonic thread. With Lullabies to Paralyze, QOTSA lightened their hardest elements but expanded on the intellectual ones, creating a beautifully haunting and eerie album that shouldn’t have been as good as it was, and probably wasn’t in some people’s vapid estimations. Vulgaris capitalizes on the Lullabies aesthetic, but gives it a rougher edge and accentuates its rhythm. Homme is mostly meant to accent. Drummer, Joey Castillo, is the main focus here as every track clings itself to the rhythm section. Atmospherically, Lullabies probably triumphs over Vulgaris, and that may have something to do with the fact that this is their most stripped line-up since QOTSA’s debut album. Not many guests are featured here and, when they are, it's fairly inconsequential (which is okay, especially with Julian Casablancas’s involvement). But, there’re enough newly hatched ideas and straight-ahead rock moments to keep the record clinging to those lucky eardrums.

The opening riffs on “Turning On The Screw” sound like they’re played with a violin bow. Laid back, but assaulting, Homme’s harmonies sound slightly more alto than usual as the synthesized buzz and six-string howl carry the track into unexpected territory, ultimately leading you into the album’s first rock-as-fuck single, “Sick, Sick, Sick.”

”My generations for sale/It’s a steady job/How much have you got?” inquires Homme in falsetto before offering “Counter proposal: I go home and jerk-off” in the amusing, “I’m Designer,” a track that juxtaposes raw garage riffs with an adeptly conceived hook. Homme’s lyrical wit also plays in “Misfit Love” wear he notes, ”Transforming is becoming/Transforming is becoming…on me” over a fuzzed bass and tom-heavy backdrop.

Keeping up with the high dose of rhythm and hard rock, “Battery Acid” pounds along before breaking into harmonic strings for the song’s bridge, changing things up just enough so as not to bore. Second single, “3’s & 7’s,” similarly plays with time changes, but more often, leading me to believe that this song won’t last too long on the airwaves without some casual radio-listener going “HUH?”

Getting away from the hard rock and humor, “Into The Hollow” and Mark Lanegan-accompanied “River In The Road” break into emotional territory while Castillo steps up his game, establishing an interesting backbeat to some otherwise straight-forward songwriting.

“Suture Up Your Future” is one of the best songs Homme has ever committed to tape, exploring a musical avenue they haven’t really touched since maybe “In The Fade.” The notes are just perfect. Homme’s voice beautifully carries the song through to its cymbal-heavy hooks before it splits into a cacophonous guitar/drum storm, ending in then in an isolated wave of dissonant strings. It’s a beautiful track.

Ending the album, “Run Pig Run,” revisits “Song For The Deaf” territory, beating the life out of the drums and carpel tunneling its way to string-bending fury.

The inclusion of rehashed Desert Sessions track, “Make It Wit Chu,” is the only time a track feels out of place. In instances where Desert Sessions tracks were clearly improved upon, as were Songs For The Deaf’s “Hangin’ Tree” and Lullabies’s “In My Head,” it made more sense. “Make It Wit Chu,” aside from a couple solo notes being rethought, is essentially the same and winds up acting more as filler. Plus, it breaks the album’s flow. While listening to this with my brother, we both sort of forgot what we were listening to once “Make It Wit Chu” presented itself despite having heard the song a million times.

To be honest, even if QOTSA put out a piece of shit, I’d still try and sell the band to anyone willing to listen. Speaking critically, yeah Era Vulgaris doesn’t quite live up to past albums. However, as with all their albums, QOTSA refuse to shy away from risks and convey a genuine desire to do something different. Few bands can do what QOTSA does and maintain such a strong foothold in both mainstream AND underground channels, which only means that they are the real thing. Not that it matters what I say: The White Stripes have a new album coming out in less than a week.

Letters From A Tapehead

New Selections — Emma Ruth Rundle, Tropical Fuck Storm, Primitive Man, Private Life, Uniform, Erika Wennerstrom, Djrum, Windhand

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