Sunday, March 30, 2008

New Music Roundup

The past few weeks have seen the release of some of the most promising albums of 2008. How do they fare? Read on.....

Has there been another more frustrating band than R.E.M.? (See Counting Crows below) When drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997, I don't think any of their fans could have predicted the dire turn R.E.M.'s music would take. Since that fateful day, they have released 3 downbeat, simply boring CD's. My biggest problem with them wasn't just the lack of straight ahead melodies, the lack of decent guitar work we have come to expect from Peter Buck, or the fact that the songs sounded nothing like the same band I had been following since 1985; it was that the songs made me feel nothing at all. Something R.E.M. had always done was make you FEEL something, whether you had a clue what the song was about. The other frustrating thing was that anyone who saw the band live during the last 10 years knows that they are still one of the most best live rock bands on the planet. So why the bland studio releases?

In the months leading up to the release of 2008's 35 minute "Accelerate", I kept reading about how this was going to be the big return to rock and roll song craft the band was known for. Is it? The answer is absolutely. Starting out of the gate with the propelling "Living Well Is The Best Revenge", the band makes it known that they can still bring the ROCK. In fact, many of the 11 tracks on this disc are the hardest, most guitar heavy material Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills have ever produced. The war in Iraq, the media, and the general shitty state of the USA seem to be the prime lyrical content for Stipe. In some cases this is a good thing; in others, I long for the I.R.S. days when you couldn't understand a word he was singing.

Is this enough to change the minds of many who feel R.E.M had lost their stature as one of the best American bands of all time? The problem for me is that the two songs on the disc that rank as two of the worst in the band's cannon ("Houston" and "Sing For The Submarine") almost sink the entire thing. Take these two songs out, and you have a classic R.E.M. 28 minute EP. With them in, we have a flawed disc that I want to like more than I actually do. The other problem I have is that as much as I like the overall sound of most of the songs, they don't make me FEEL anything. Not happy, not sad, not excited, not mournful. Nothing. Maybe that is just my problem, but I fear many other fans will feel the same way. If I had to rank this with the rest of the band's discography, I would put it above "Up" and below "Green" on the scale. That would put it about in the middle of the pack. I guess the best thing about it is that it's good to hear some life back in the band. And that may just be enough for some...

R.E.M.-Horse to Water

Another huge musical frustration has been the career of the Counting Crows. When their classic debut came out in 1993, I was certain these guys were going to be as important in the history of rock as Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, or The Band. Unfortunately, The Crows not only haven't lived up to the original greatness of their debut, but their career has been plagued with some horrible decisions (think Shrek, Coke commercials, Vanessa Carlton, huge package stadium tours, and "Big Yellow Taxi"). The music on their subsequent released has ranged from great to embarrassing.

It has been 6 years since the release of their last studio disc. So was it worth the wait? Unfortunately, not really. The disc is split up into two "sections", with Saturday Nights being the rocking side and Sunday Mornings being the comedown. I like this idea in theory but unfortunately it puts a magnifying glass to a huge flaw of the band. That being that the Crows are best being mellow. They can definitely rock out as a band musically, but doing so tends to make vocalist Adam Duritz sing (yell) way out of a comfortable listening range and tends to make the content of the song sound overly dramatic.

The band fares much better when they tone it down a notch. Mid-tempo rock or acoustic ballads are their strong suite so the disc is much better towards the latter half (tracks 7-14). The best song is an "Astral Weeks"-inspired ditty called "Le Ballet Dor". It is unlike anything I've heard them try before and it's good to hear these guys exploring some new musical (and lyrical)directions.

So once again, we get another frustrating release from Counting Crows that hints at greatness but doesn't consistently achieve it.

Counting Crows-Le Ballet Dor

I have long been under the impression that Jack (White Stripes) White is one of the most talented and prolific artists to come around in many moons. He has co-written, produced, and released 8 albums since 1999. This week finds the surprise release of the new disc from Jack's "side" project, The Raconteurs. The Raconteurs are the perfect anecdote for anyone who wondered what Jack White would sound like with a bass player, background vocals, and a more technical drummer. In true Jack White fashion, the disc was recorded last month and the record label didn't find out about the release plans until the week prior to the date. With that in mind, one would expect "Consolers of the Lonely" to have a thrown together vibe to it and it does; in a very good way.

The thing I didn't like about the first Raconteurs disc is that is sounded like two separate discs. With two primary singer-songwriters, I suppose that was to be expected but the disc just does not hold together for me as a whole. I'm sure most Jack White fans have deleted the Brendan Benson songs from their I-Pods by now. "Consolers of the Lonely" is much better in that area. The songs sound like the guys collaborated together more and had a blast doing so. I'm sure people will still split the tracks up into the White/Benson catagory, but there is no denying this is now a "band" and not just a vanity project for White.

The sound ranges from early 70's Bowie-esque romps to White Stripes style blues to Brendon Benson's Beatles channelling. Not all of the tracks are stellar, but there is an overall vibe that is impossible not to like. It makes for the best mix tape you didn't have to make yourself and it's a shoe-in for my summer album of 2008. Crank it up loud and remember the days when good artists made old-fashioned rock and roll for the fun of it!

The Raconteurs-Rich Kid's Blues

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