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 be found.
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.
Brett Dennen 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.
Them 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.
Therapy?: Crooked Timber (Demolition)
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…
Thrice: Beggars (Vagrant)
This is one that barely missed my best-of list. If you have heard the first MuteMath 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: 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. or Portishead 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.