Posted 04/15/2010 by cal
I think I heard more new music in 2009 than any year ever, and between
show reviews and lists and life, there are a few albums that have been
sort of stewing in my brain for months. So, I’m opening up the fridge,
poking around and deciding finally what’s edible and what’s garbage.
Featuring quick reviews of Pearl Jam, Brett Dennen, Orba
Squara, Them Crooked Vultures and more.
Pearl Jam: Backspacer (Monkeywrench)
I’m just not sure where Eddie Vedder’s head is at these days. I
think it’s been too long since I’ve seen Pearl Jam live. I recall a lot
of big, epic rock songs with multiple different moods and phases within
them, and plenty of room for huge Mike McCready guitar solos.
Sure, there are the straight-up rockers, a ballad or two. I also feel
like there were a lot of cleverly poetic political statements mixed in
with a lot of personal stories. Music and lyrics ripe for
interpretation so you want to keep listening. Backspacer never
sinks in any deeper on repeated listens; what you hear is what you get.
Is it just me, or do the first three songs seem like drug songs? “Gonna
See My Friend”, pretty much in its entirety, seems like a failed
attempt to kick. “Got Some” might be a bit of a stretch but Vedder
comes off like a drug dealer (and regardless of what exactly he’s got
some of, the lyrics of this song are bunk), and no matter the context,
you can’t get around “When something’s low/I wanna put a little high on
it” (“The Fixer”). Are we trying to pander to the new converts picked
up at Bonnaroo, or what?
Okay, forget about the drug thing: these tunes play like a bounceback
from the anger that boiled over on the self-titled album from 2006.
I’ve got nothing against buoyancy and positivity, but Vedder’s usual
sense of poetry seems totally absent here, and the push/pull tension
that Pearl Jam has historically been so good at crafting is nowhere to
There are a couple of anthems, well conceived but poorly executed:
“Above The Waves” seems designed to be a slow-burning swell of emotion
but they only manage a generic three-chord strum for most of it.
“Unthought Known” features some great vocals from Eddie but the rest of
the band is utterly lethargic, basically on autopilot. I’m willing to
put a sizeable chunk of the blame on the colorless production of Brendan
O’Brien, who is in danger of becoming the next Glen Ballard,
but he’s not writing the songs, and if this is all you’re going to give Matt
Cameron to do, I wouldn’t blame him for defecting back to Soundgarden.
I’m also a sucker for a good love song, and I don’t begrudge Eddie some
syrupy sentimentality. Actually, I think the “Dust In The Wind”-style
“Just Breathe” is my favorite song on the album. But it really
shouldn’t be. It just highlights the fact that the multifaceted gem of
Pearl Jam has been splintered into its individual parts. I just hope
they’re all on the same page if they manage to put together a tour one
of these days, because I’ve listened to this album a heck of a lot and
in the end it just bores the shit out of me.
with Forro In
The Dark: Live Session (iTunes exclusive)
Is Brett Dennen’s voice enough to make you go crazy? He takes that
annoying tendency to make his A’s sound like E’s even further on this
loose little EP, but he also injects a stronger dose of spontaneity and
soul, so basically if you liked him before, you will really like him
now, but if he bugged you before…
Stripped of the overt pop gloss of his studio albums, augmented by the
laid-back tropicalia of Forro In The Dark, the happy-go-lucky tunes
don’t seem at all contrived, making this an ideal collaboration for
Dennen. His overflowing positivity is more at home in this setting.
The lone new tune here, “Joan Of Arc”, seems custom-made for the
equatorial percussion treatment, and the sprightly flute and sax help to
make this the highlight of the collection.
The duet with Jason
Mraz, “Long Road To Forgiveness”, is devoid of the smartassery
both singers sometimes succumb to, and their voices blend very
naturally. “Make You Crazy” is the only track that isn’t improved here,
mainly because Dennen is so hemmed in by his signature vocal
affectations that he misses the opportunity to reinvent the song.
Otherwise, he seems more in his element than ever before. Fans should
hope for this stripped-down approach to continue.
Orba Squara: The
Trouble With Flying (Res Freq)
Mitch Davis writes songs of almost Tiny Tim-caliber
preciousness, complete with pure organic instrumentation and lilting
(though not nearly so ridiculous) vocals. These are mainly love songs,
whether to a guitar, a woman, or the world in general, and they are
filled with the kind of sentimentality that will make some people laugh,
creep some out, but melt the hearts of a certain stripe.
The overall bent here is happiness, goodwill, and tenderness, without
guile but sometimes without evidence of conviction. Davis’s voice
sounds at times like he’s about to collapse from malnutrition. The
instrumentation is sparse and extremely tasteful, nothing wasted but not
so fluffy that it’ll float away. You can’t help but bounce along to
it, and you couldn’t possibly come away from it feeling angry or
depressed. It’s pure spirit cotton candy, and totally guilt-free.
Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures (Interscope)
This album is, sort of paradoxically, exactly what I expected, and
better than I expected. It’s essentially a Queens Of The Stone Age
record, only with one of the best rock drummers of all time (Dave
Grohl) filling in, and the glue that held Led Zeppelin
together (John Paul Jones) presumably reprising his role as
mediator of colossal egos. Don’t believe the hype: comparisons to
actual Zeppelin are ridiculous. But there are some top-notch Josh
Homme riffs, a real-band collective energy, and the overall
irreverence that is the hallmark of Homme’s best work.
The thing I hoped for most came true: Grohl keeps his mouth shut and
just wails on the drums (sure, some backing vocals, but the point is he
doesn’t wag his increasingly Gene Simmons-esque
tongue). The disappointing part is the frequently juvenile subject
matter and the glossy production, which completely fails to capture the
thunder Grohl is capable of. Homme likes that slick, FM-ready treatment
on his vocals and guitar, so ultimately he’s to blame for castrating
what could have been the balls-out rocker of the year. But he’s also
the one to thank for bringing this power trio together, and I have a
feeling they’re killing it live.
With Therapy?, it’s always either a “return to form” or a “new
direction”, the only real constant being the unmistakable venom of Andy
Cairns’s vocals. Crooked Timber is the biggest return-style
album the band has done this decade; it hearkens all the way back to
the golden age of Therapy? (mid-90s), but I still wouldn’t call it a
retread. This isn’t a group that ever really fit in with the trends of
the day; they were pissed off and vulgar before grunge hit, cynical
without the benefit of lofty ideals, and they’ve been mixing this bleak
worldview with varying degrees of punk, metal and Beefheart
for their whole career.
This latest treatise reaches out more to the unity of humans than usual,
but only to reaffirm how fucked up we all are. But this is also the
group’s most overtly accessible work since 1994’s Troublegum,
that patented angst-pop hobnobbing with a bit more world-weariness but
no loss of energy. The album also contains the band’s first great
instrumental (“Magic Mountain”) since “Big Cave In” (from 1999’s classic
Suicide Pact--You First). All things considered, it ranks among
the band’s best work of the decade, even though it probably doesn’t
increase the chances that we’ll see an American tour…
This is one that barely missed my best-of list. If you have heard the
album I’m always raving about, imagine if they had decided to dig a
little deeper philosophically and get a little heavier guitar-wise while
retaining the dreamy atmospherics. And also, they got a different
singer who’s a little too emoish for my general tastes but at least has
the ability to be gentle sometimes. Then you’d have Thrice. They don’t
have quite the nose for pop perfection that MuteMath used to have, nor
the amazing drummer, nor the tendency to sound like the second coming of
The Police, but they essentially fill the same void, preventing
the pop music world from imploding, I guess.
Timber Timbre (Out Of This Spark)
I kept hearing a couple songs from this album on my favorite radio show (The Jing Jong Triple Play
with Dr. Fell, Fridays 6-9 a.m., WMSE),
and never managed to catch who it was by until early January, when Dr.
Fell pronounced it probably his favorite album of 2009; those are words
not to be taken lightly in this household.
There’s a pretty solid sonic statement stringing all these songs
together. It’s a little overbearing at first, except it’s such a unique
and rich landscape, vaguely tribal but not really exotic, highlighted
by soulful old-school organ that would sound equally at home on a Booker T.
record. The guitar is reverb-laden and clean, as is Taylor Kirk’s
froggy baritone, echoed by distant harpsichord flourishes and faint
bass thuds. Its essence is in the most sinister aspects of
tortoise-speed blues, and the gospelly choir that appears in “We’ll Find
Out” and “I Get Low” is as disturbing as it is beautiful.
But I can sum the album up in one word: ghostly. Let it haunt you.