Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke’s Mag Pai Zai is an album I kept meaning to review but never seem to remember until I stumble upon it again. The problem is the standout tracks are so brilliantly amazing they cast a very dark shadow over the weaker tracks. Subsequently, the album is not very memorable as a whole. But those standout tracks are truly stellar: the mellow acoustic folk opener “Time Machine,” the gentle, tinkling tune “Dancing Song,” the string-accented rumination on “Galileo” and especially the astounding, mesmeric acapella ballad “Marrying The Sea.”
Elton John released The Diving Board, his first solo album in seven years, back in September but I only recently bothered to listen to it and now I’m kicking myself for taking so long to hear this beautiful, masterful record. Elton is one of those artists I often take for granted, mostly because his public persona has overshadowed his music in the past decade. I almost always like his music – particularly his ’70s and ’90s releases – but for whatever reason never of him as a favorite artist. But that may change with this album. Produced by T Bone Burnett, The Diving Board finds Elton John making a welcome return to his musical roots with a basic piano-bass-drums set-up and features some of his finest piano playing in the past four decades.
While Elton John’s musical compositions and vocals are impressive and breathe life into this new song cycle, the album’s true backbone is Bernie Taupin’s substantial, poetic lyrics. As Brendan said when we first listened to the album, it’s a sadly rare album these days with lyrics that actually mean something.
Elton’s piano wizardry is especially spectacular in the fantastic, uptempo, piano pounding standout “Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)” and the latter half of melancholy ballad “My Quicksand.”
The world weary first single, “Home Again,” is another major highlight and the reason I became interested in the album. You can watch the video for the track below.
Other tracks of note are the album’s jazzy title track and the festivally militant instrumental “Dream #3.”
But there’s really not a weak moment on the album and it’s positively addictive, we in the Muruch household love it more with each listen. The Diving Board already sounds like a classic and is a worthy release for the man behind “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer.”
As I wrote when Richie Havens died earlier this year, the legendary folk singer – best known for opening the original Woodstock festival – had one of the most distinctive and lovely voices in all of music history. Before his death, Havens completed recording two final studio albums: Mixed Bag for Kids and …His Last Songs.
Richie’s warm rasp and unique phrasing give new life to the cover of “I Can See Clearly Now” which opens …His Last Songs. You can stream the song below.
The album’s centerpiece is a lovely acoustic rendering of “What a Wonderful World,” which also appears on Mixed Bag for Kids.
Aside from those two songs, I was shockingly disappointed with this album. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is a favorite of mine and Havens’ rendition, while not bad, lacks the buoyant charm of the original. The repetitive “It’s Better Together” and the somewhat cheesy cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song” also weigh down what should have been a worthy final collection of such a substantial artist.
I usually adore anything by Richie Havens and I hate to give this album a less than raving review, but there’s just something that seems rushed and incomplete here. I’m reminded of Jeff Buckey’s Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk) and Jimi Hendrix’ Valleys Of Neptune – as much as we crave new music by beloved, departed legends, sometimes I feel it’s better to not to posthumously release a work-in-progress.
Still, if nothing else, I highly recommend buying the individual mp3s of “I Can See Clearly Now” and “What a Wonderful World”. And check out Havens’ older releases and writing, his was an extraordinary talent.
Seesaw is the follow-up to Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa’s 2011 album, Don’t Explain, and features a diverse selection of covers originally recorded by artists such as Tina Turner, Al Green, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Ultimately, it’s a hit and miss collection, but the hits will knock you out.
Seesaw includes a superb version of Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” and powerful performances of Al Green’s “Rhymes” and Buddy Miles’ “Miss Lady.”
I much prefer when the duo lets loose on the bluesier tracks. The decision to use nature sounds in the “Strange Fruit” cover feels like a misstep to me, and something more than a strong voice is needed when tackling a song made famous by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. .
Hellogoodbye’s third album, Everything’s Debatable, will be released on October 29th via Old Friends Records. Everything is Debatable resurrects the electro-pop style of their debut, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!, and adds a strong dose of New Wave and Neo-Disco to the mix.
It may surprise some readers to learn that I like Hellogoodbye. They aren’t a band I listen to often, but they are one whose songs I always like when I hear them. I especially enjoyed their electro-folk sophomore album, Would It Kill You? (currently only $4.49 at Amazon!).
Hellogoodbye sets themselves apart from other pop bands with sentimentally clever lyrics and a multi-instrumental approach to their arrangements. They are as accessible as any other band on the radio, yet there always seems to be an extra element of sincerity to their music…Hellogoodbye creates pop music with heart. Perhaps this is due to lead singer-songwriter Forrest Kline’s tendency to base his songs’ lyrics on his own romantic life.
I can’t say Everything is Debatable grabs me as much as its predecessor and at times I find the overt electronics a bit irksome (particularly the fingernails-down-the-chalkboard noise that opens the album). Nevertheless, the album is certainly catchy and enjoyable when you’re in the mood for light electro-pop. I especially like the sparse electro-piano track “I Don’t Worry (As Much as I Should).”
You can stream the track “The Magic Hour is Now” and watch the dreamlike video for the album’s title track below.
Buy Album @ Amazon (available Oct. 29th)
Hellogoodbye are currently on tour with Paramore and Metric. Tour Dates:
October 22 Fresno, CA Save Mart Center
October 23 San Diego, CA Viejas Arena
October 26 Dallas, TX Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie
October 27 Houston, TX Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
October 29 Kansas City, MO Independence Events Center
October 30 St. Louis, MO Fabulous Fox Theater
November 1 Austin, TX Austin 360 Amphitheater
November 4 Fort Lauderdale, FL BB&T Center
November 5 Orlando, FL UCF Convocation Center
November 8 Camden, NJ Susquehanna Bank Center
November 9 Fairfax, VA Patriot Center
November 11 Behtlehem, PA Sands Bethlehem Event Center
November 13 New York, NY Madison Square Garden Arena
November 15 Worcester, MA DCU Center
November 17 Uncasville, CT Mohegan Sun Arena
November 18 Montreal, QC Bell Centre Theatre
November 20 Toronto, ON Theatre at Air Canada Centre
November 21 Auburn Hills, MI The Palace of Auburn Hills
November 23 St. Paul, MN Roy Wilkins Auditorium
November 24 Chicago, IL UIC Pavilion
November 26 Nashville, TN Bridgestone Arena
November 27 Duluth, GA The Arena at Gwinnett Center
Allison Crowe has been a very busy girl this year. After a surprise cameo in the summer blockbuster movie Man of Steel and the release of her exquisite traditional folk covers album, Newfoundland Vinyl, Allison quickly rushed back into the studio to write, record, engineer, produce and create the cover art for her upcoming album, Heavy Graces. She only announced the album’s existence at the end of last month and Heavy Graces will be released tomorrow, October 15th, via Allison’s own Rubenesque Records.
Heavy Graces is comprised of five new, original Allison Crowe songs, a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” and two versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Allison’s delving into traditional folk music for Newfoundland Vinyl seems to have influenced her own songwriting. Songs like the opener “Through These Heavy Graces” and “You All Haunt Me” layer Allison’s lovely voice over simple but heartfelt folk acoustic arrangements. You can see the premiere of the “Through These Heavy Graces” video, featuring footage from Buster Keaton’s classic film The General, below.
Though Allison apparently only took up the fiddle for the recording of this album, she already sounds like a folk fiddle pro in the standout track “Words.” What a lush piece of work that song is! There’s a touch of Celtic folk in the instrumentation, haunting backing vocals and a slow building, seething tension until Allison unleashes her wail toward the end of the song. I’m very happy to be able to premiere and share the mp3 with you below. Update: I also created and premiered a new video for “Words” on November 22, 2013 and added it to the review below.
As I wrote when we premiered the video for her choral version of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” I couldn’t imagine even someone as talented as Allison successfully matching, let alone improving, Cohen’s original or Tori Amos‘ beautiful piano rendition. Yet where Cohen took the song to a melancholy depth and Tori gave it a bittersweet wistfulness, Allison gives the song a new feeling of suspense with a slightly faster pace and choral embellishments. Her cover at times recalls the elegance of Joan Baez‘ operatic folk rendering. And, as always, Allison’s vocal is gorgeous, multi-faceted and full of emotion and grace. You can stream the track and watch the video below.
Allison’s piano makes a very welcome return on her striking cover of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man.” I’m a Pearl Jam fan, so I don’t say this lightly: Allison Crowe’s cover of “Better Man” is better than the original. You can watch the video, featuring footage from the classic silent film Broken Blossoms, below.
On those two covers as well as the captivating original “Dissolve,” Allison once again uses layers of her own voice to mimic a backing choir. It’s a technique she developed for Newfoundland Vinyl, but she seems to have perfected it on Heavy Graces.
The original song lyrics on Heavy Graces seem to deal most often with regaining control of one’s own life, venting anger at and breaking free from oppressive influences and starting fresh with integrity intact. Whether such fierce and independent themes were born from the death of a relationship or Allison’s brief brush with Hollywood, it seems our favorite independent singer-songwriter is more determined than ever to forge her own path. I predict we’ll be seeing Allison Crowe not once but twice on our best of the year list.
Janelle Monáe’s sophomore album, The Electric Lady, was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. This followup to her exquisite debut, The ArchAndroid (one of Muruch’s Top Albums of 2010), continues the bizarre, enthralling tale of time travelling android Cindy Mayweather – first introduced in Janelle’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP. However, you needn’t have heard the previous two albums in Janelle’s mythic trilogy to enjoy The Electric Lady. The music on the album is as interesting, diverse and addictive as we’ve come to expect from Janelle and finds her collaborating with Prince, Erykah Badu, Solange, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding.
I’m not usually a fan of instrumental intros, but Janelle’s anticipation-building “Suite IV Electric Overture” is an exception. The liner notes say it was “inspired by the idea of Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington.”
The standout track “Give Em What They Love” is exactly the kind of fun, multi-layered funk duet you want from Janelle Monáe and Prince. The clip on Amazon does not do the song justice, it needs to be played in full on high volume through stereo speakers.
Almost as good is “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Janelle’s quirky, melodic, semi-rap defiance and a guest appearance by Erykah Badu. I first posted the video here last May and you can watch it again below.
The album’s title track has a slightly more traditional R&B dance sound with guest vocals by Solange.
Another major highlight is “Primetime,” a sultry, soulful ballad duet with Miguel. You can watch the brand new video for the track below.
“Dance Apocalyptic” is a fun dance tune, though it’s not nearly as crazy as the title suggests. You can see the video below.
“Look Into My Eyes,” “It’s Code” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” show off the lovely, gentler side of Janelle’s voice.
Janelle’s ode to “Sally Ride” is quite the fantastic journey, the ultimate futuristic soul song. And Esperanza Spalding’s voice is the perfect match for Janelle’s in the Neo-Soul song “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes.”
Though I can’t say I enjoy listening to the somewhat jarring pseudo-radio interludes interspersed throughout the album, I do love that Janelle still makes actual albums. Her fantasy concepts aside, Janelle obvious wants her fans to play her albums in their entirety and take them as a whole listening experience rather than a collection of singles with some filler.
That kind of artistic attention to detail combined with a gorgeous voice, a flare both for the dramatic as well as the funky and a science fiction churning imagination continue to put Janelle Monáe into a category all her own: Cyber-Soul.
Since the 2008 release of Golden Animals’ debut album, Free Your Mind & Win a Pony, I’ve been eagerly awaiting new music from the band. The wait is over as Golden Animals just release their sophomore album, Hear Eye Go.
Like their debut, Hear Eye Go starts strong with a blues-rock gut punch. Though “All Your Life” sounds more like The Black Keys than The Doors-like sound of “The Steady Roller.”
“Most My Time” follows in the same bluesy rock vein, but the swirling “The Letter” and “You Don’t Hear Me Now” herald a subtle shift into a slightly more languid, psychedelic rock style. Not so much retro psychedelica as a catchier, modern indie-psych-surf style akin to Dengue Fever.
The middle of the album lags a bit, but then the sultry, noirish rocker “Save Your Love” churns the blues guitars back up and “Sun Moon Star” gives the album a surf rock sendoff.
Vienna Teng is the kind of musical genius who can really do no wrong. I own and love all of her albums and had the privilege of witnessing two of her astounding live performances at Mountain Stage. Unfortunately, I think my opinion of her new album, Aims, suffers (only partially) from falling in the shadow of the brillance that preceded it. There are still flashes of genius, just not as many as I expected.
I love the first half of the album – especially the soaring pop opener “Level Up,” the claphappy, quasi-rap “In The 99″ and the exquisite, electro-choral masterpiece “The Hymn of Acxiom.” I also like the finale “Goodnight New York.”
The rest of the album, though, is far too slick, stylized, radio-friendly, mostly computerized pop for my taste and seems a waste for such a talented singer-songwriter. The fault lies in the production and mixing, not the songs themselves. “Landsailor,” for example, was beautiful when Vienna recently performed it at Mountain Stage, but is flattened down on the recording. “The Hymn of Acxiom” is also smoothed out more than necessary (Vienna’s voice is best when unrestrained), but is a strong and interesting enough song to withstand the extra studio polish.
Other than the four tracks mentioned above, Aims just doesn’t captivate me as intensely as its predecessors did – particularly the moody Dreaming Through the Noise and the ethereal, elegant, astonishingly excellent Inland Territory. Though perhaps comparing Vienna to herself is unfair, she still outshines the rest of the music industry.
Oh Yes We Can Love: The History of Glam Rock is a five-disc, ninety-one track boxset, which will be released on October 28th in the U.K. and on November 5th in the U.S. As the title suggests, the boxset is intended to bring together the entire history of Glam Rock in one handy collection. I’m a big Glam Rock fan, so I expected to love this set and was a bit shocked that I didn’t at least like it more than I do. While I admire the concept of tracing the roots of Glam Rock as well as exploring its subgenre spawn, I wonder what exactly the criteria was for most of the songs included here. Glam Rock can describe a sound or a visual style (preferably both) and the majority of the bands on this compilation don’t really fall into either category.
The first disc especially stretches the definition to questionable boundaries. Who would ever call Chuck Berry a Glam Rocker? He was as pure rock ‘n’ roll as it gets. I’d think there’d be a better case for including Elvis than Berry.
Even the acts that most definitely do belong here – Adam & the Ants, Dead or Alive and most notably David Bowie – aren’t represented by their most iconic, Glam Rocky songs. Bowie’s “London Bye Ta-Ta” is not the song that brings his glittery Ziggy Stardust persona to mind. More puzzling is several Bowie covers are presented rather than the Bowie originals – such as Mott the Hoople’s cover of “All The Young Dudes,” Lulu’s take on “The Man Who Sold The World” and Bauhaus’ cover of “Ziggy Stardust.” Elton John’s original “Benny & the Jets” is included rather than a cover, but I hate that song so it does me little good. The one track they clearly got right was “Looking for a Kiss” by The New York Dolls.
I’m guessing licensing rights have a lot to with all of my complaints, a truly definitive cross-decade Glam Rock boxset would have to be culled from many major labels and that’s not even considering its subgenres. Or perhaps it’s an age difference between myself and the set’s compilers, though it’s difficult to discern whether I’m too young to understand their choices or they are. Some of the songs seem to have been selected simply for including the word “glam” or “glamorous,” even if they belong to an entirely different genre. Others are an obvious attempt to pay homage to the multitude of styles influenced by Glam Rock, but that just results in several glaring omissions…
The inclusion of Little Richard is understandable and welcome. He is, at least in my opinion, the grandfather of Glam Rock. But if Little Richard is here, where is Prince? If Adam Ant and Ultravox, why not other noteworthy New Romantic and New Wave bands like Culture Club, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and INXS? Brit Poppers like Pulp and Seude made the cut, so why not Placebo – who, after all, covered T Rex in Velvet Goldmine?
Granted, Blondie and ELO did have origins in the Glam Rock scene and Blondie has straddled many a genre in its long career, but both bands are far better known for their bland disco hits. The bawdier, much more glammy sounds and styles of Grace Jones and George Clinton would have been more appropriate. And between such disco-esque inclusions and the apparent attempt to capture Glam Rock subgenres, why not Art Rockers like Lene Lovich or Cyndi Lauper?
Then there are the occasional detours into Goth, Industrial and Shock Rock (Morrissey, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Marilyn Manson) without even a hint of makeup maven Siouxsie Sioux & the Banshees, original Shock Rocker Alice Cooper or anything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the pinnacle of Glam Goth and actually referenced in the liner notes essay) or Hedwig & the Angry Inch (Punk’s answer to Rocky Horror). Perhaps musicals don’t count? And why bother with Briel, but not his exquisite punk cabaret progeny The Dresden Dolls?
Nazareth slips in and Kiss is understandably included, but not Queen, Aerosmith, Meatloaf or any of the late 80s/early 90s hair bands (the true heirs of Glam Rock) like Motley Crue, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Poison, Ratt or Warrant.
Goldfrapp and The Darkness are appropriate modern picks (though again I’d have chosen different songs by both bands), but absent is the most Glam Rockiest album of the past decade, The Rise & Fall Of…Butch Walker.
And despite some very loose ties between Glam Rock and the early Punk Rock scene, I’m pretty sure pure punk rockers Patti Smith and The Ramones would be insulted to be called Glam Rockers. Of course, I’m glad to hear those favorite bands on any album. But if the point was to include androgynous bands (as the liner notes confirm), that just leaves empty spaces where The Eurythmics, The Cure and Garbage should be.
All that being said, there are quite a few gems, both Glam and not, to be found here. The highlights are:
Little Richard: Ooh My Soul
Jacques Briel: Amsterdam
The Velvet Underground: I’m Waiting for My Man
Curved Air: Back Street Luv
T Rex: Hot Love
Lou Reed: Walk on the Wild Side
Dana Gillespie: Andy Warhol
Suzi Quatro: Can the Can
New York Dolls: Looking for a Kiss
Sweet: Ballroom Blitz
Sparks: This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us
Hello: Tell Him
Bryan Ferry: The ‘In’ Crowd
The Glitter Band: Angel Face
Arrows: I Love Rock & Roll
The Runaways: Cherry Bomb
Sisters of Mercy: Emma
Morrissey: Glamorous Glue
Suede: Metal Mickey
The Fall: Glam Rocket
Pulp: We are the Boys
The Darkness: Growing on Me
Goldfrapp: Strict Machine
So there are plenty of diamonds in the rough and I’m sure many will love this boxset without being so nitpicky as I. I just think either a smaller, more specifically Glam Rock collection or an even larger, more extensively experimental multi-genre one would be more interesting.