Known Johnson

January 9, 2008

Re:Collection – Rush Permanent Waves (Mobile Fidelity edition)

Filed under: Music,Re:Collection,Reviews — Tom @ 10:52 am

I’ve spent the past couple of days re-devouring my few Mobile Fidelity discs, awaiting the arrival of their latest offering, Rush’s Permanent Waves. If you’re not an audiophile, and not many people are, these discs are not for you. They’re expensive, for one – nearly $30 each when new, then usually skyrocketing in price when their limited production runs end – but they have been given so much delicate handling with regards to the remastering that they are very worth the investment.

As I said, I have been reinvestigating my MoFi discs – the previous three Rush installments, which are 2112, Moving Pictures, and Signals. I picked these up, one by one, many years ago, when I saw them used, quite cheap, I might add, but unfortunately when you give the discs a good look, it’s obvious why they’re cheap. They’re scratched. Who would buy these discs at those prices and then treat them like that is an idiot, but that’s beside the point. They’re playable, but Moving Pictures is in the most worrisome condition – it actually has pinholes through the reflective gold layer, which is a scary thing indeed. Good thing MoFi will be reissuing these discs over the next year, but unfortunately in their new “mini LP sleeve” packaging rather than the original “lift-lock” case that their discs were known for.

Life-Lock Case

I remember when my friends and I first found the elusive “gold discs,” as we simply called them. Back then, when we were teens in the late 80s, it was widely believed that the high sound quality of these releases was due to the gold reflective layer that became so symbolic of Mobile Fidelity CD products. I mean, it made sense – we didn’t understand mastering and stuff like that. We just knew that the other CDs were silver, and these were gold, and these sounded great, therefore gold=great sound quality. It turns out that the gold was used because it was a superior reflective layer – it didn’t have the tendency to age and tarnish like aluminum did in regular CDs. Oh well. It sure is pretty, however.

I picked up the Rush discs for prices between $8.99 to $15.99 over a period of a couple of years. Unknowing owners dropped them off on the trade counter at Zia, getting a measly amount of money for what had been quite an investment. I didn’t pick them up because I was any kind of audiophile. I picked them up merely because I wanted them – being a dorky completist fan, that’s all, and, really, at the time, before the remasters came out, these had better liner notes than the bland original CDs did. And, you know, they were pretty gold.

The discs sat in my collection, surpassed as favorites by the 1997 remasters, until a few years ago when I was trying to conserve space and moved them. And then kind of forgot about them. Oh, I saw them sitting up there, on top of my big CD racks, but I never grabbed them to listen to. I had already made up my mind – the remasters sounded great, why bother?

The dorky completist fan in me made me salivate over the thought of this new MoFi Permanent Waves. For whatever reason, those long-ignored gold discs on my shelf suddenly grabbed my interest again. In the days before my order arrived, I pulled those discs down and gave them a listen. Audio nirvana – all those years listening to the remasters that I thought superior was erased by the calming, soothing, beautiful mastering of the Mobile Fidelity issues. I couldn’t believe my ears. I jumped back and forth between the remasters and the MoFi discs, and, in the case of Moving Pictures, the original, unremastered CD. Things were different, very different – everything sounded better, clearer, brighter, cleaner . . . the soundstage is wider and more relaxed. Most of all, they were a pure joy to listen to. There’s that weird thing I like to call “room sound.” Some people I talk to know what I’m talking about, others don’t. The MoFi discs reveal the room in which the instruments were recorded – one can sense the walls and space around them, especially Neil Peart’s drums, which practically sound alive.

Permanent Waveshas arrived (stamped with #00398 in gold lettering – sweet!) and has gone through the same process – A/B-ing with the 1997 remaster – and the conclusion is the same. The latest Mobile Fidelity offering will not, however, find itself forgotten like the other Rush MoFi releases did. Nor will the previous three – they have found a permanent home on my Ipod, ripped in Apple Lossless format for the highest sound quality possible on that iconic little box. And what aobut you? The right listener, the picky listener, especially the Rush fan audiophile, on the right equipment, is going to have a second Christmas.

As for that new packaging style, it’s beautiful. I’ll always miss the cool and smart Lift-Lock cases, but these mini-LP replicas are very nice. But . . . unfortunately there has to be a “but” . . . for some very strange reason, while Mobile Fidelity focuses so much time and energy recreating the original packaging, with nice, sharp images used for the cover and all photos, they really fudged it when it comes to the lyrics book cover, which is the same as the album cover. Instead of being the same crisp, sharp image, it is a murky, blurry, off-color red. Truly baffling – but it’s relatively minor when everything else is so nice.

I’m older, maybe wiser, but certainly by now my hearing should be worse, not better, right? Isn’t that how things work? You get older, and time and exposure takes its toll and things start wearing out, right? Perhaps that’s not as it seems. Maybe as we get older, our hearing may start to go, but maybe there’s a grace period where we’re given a chance to really experience things the way we should. Maybe before it starts to deteriorate we get more sensitive. Or maybe I’m just lucky that I decided a decade ago to really start taking care of my hearing by watching the volume and wearing ear plugs at concerts. There are a million maybes. What’s certain is that I’m lucky that I decided to give those discs a chance again. I might have missed this window of opportunity all together.

November 27, 2007

The Breakdown: Dave Douglas

Filed under: Music,News,Reviews,The Breakdown — Tom @ 4:39 pm

Thanksgiving has come and gone, Black Friday has come and gone, the stupidly named “Cyber Monday” has come and gone . . . and now we’re left with those last few, dry weeks before Christmas where the labels don’t even feel like shoving out box-sets, best-ofs and live albums. No, what we’ll get now is stuff the big labels probably didn’t thing could sell any other time of the year, and things from small labels that realize that their audiences don’t pay attention to goofy things like the calendar. Take, for instance, this week’s one lone recommendation . . .

Dave Douglas – Moonshine: I really admire trumpeter Dave Douglas. Not only is he world-renowned as one of jazz’s best, he has taken the high and difficult road by setting out to create his own little sanctuary for musicians, a label, Greenleaf Music, where they get treated fairly and where listeners can feel the same. My dealings with them have always been nothing less than wonderful – great products and quick shipping, what more can you ask for . . . other than “more”?

Well, today we get a little more – Douglas called together his Keystone band (Marcus Strickland: saxophone; Gene Lake: drums; Brad Jones: bass; Adam Benjamin – Fender Rhodes; DJ Olive – turntables and electronics) for another album based around, like Keystone, a silent film, this time the unfinished Buster Keaton/Fatty Arbuckle project, Moonshine, from 1917.

Where the first project worked as a soundtrack to the accompanying DVD, which included Arbuckle’s “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” and a shorter video of footage compiled from “Fatty’s Tin-Type Tangle,” Moonshine is meant to stand on its own, simply using the film as inspiration, a jumping off point. And, just like the first project, you don’t really need to know the films to enjoy this – Douglas’ band is a powerhouse that will have listeners riveted with or without a concept. The result is much like the music of Keystone – gritty and urban, but filled with exactly the twists and turns one would expect from Douglas. Rooting itself in several genres and eras at once, DJ Olive keeps things firmly in the world of today with his electronic explorations while the horns display a distinctly European flair and Adam Benjamin’s Rhodes work reflects a bit of 70s fusion. Gene Lake’s drumming spans it all, tying everything together – much of the time he’s deep in a groove with bassist Brad Jones but often he’s coloring the air with little percussive fills that, you know, “really tie the room together.”

Dare I say that it’s among the best jazz of the year? It’s certainly the very last best thing to emerge this year – which is no backhanded compliment. It’s very hard to find a truly disappointing Douglas release, especially in the past few years when he seems to especially have been on his game, and that’s no different here. What’s unfortunate is that the album is out so late this year, when it will surely go ignored by many, and only available through his site until sometime in the spring when it will get wider release. Perhaps it’s a small Christmas gift from the man and the band to the fans – we get to enjoy it early. What’s more, we get to enjoy it even earlier – when placing an order, you’ll gain access to downloads of high quality mp3s of the album tracks in about a day. Not only that, but included in that is one non-album track download in the form of “Photosynthesis.” Like I said, Douglas and Greenleaf Music have been good to their supporters. Why not find out for yourself?

Samples (full-length tracks):

Dog Star (5:01)
Moonshine (7:30)

October 25, 2007

Ween – La Cucaracha

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 9:01 am

After a couple of albums that saw the band straying toward slightly more “mature” material, La Cucaracha finds Ween firmly back in Chocolate and Cheese territory – at least in spirit, if not necessarily in sound and style. If you had missed the days of Ween being wildly eclectic, jumping from genre to genre, then La Cucaracha is likely going to please you. New listeners, however, might still be left scratching their heads a bit. That is, of course, assuming that new listeners even take chances like this anymore.

The first reaction to a Ween album for the seasoned fan isn’t typically what it is for the uninitiated – who might be counted on to utter phrases like “Did they just say that?” and “This is so wrong.” No, long time fans know what to expect when it comes to the lyrical part of the equation – being offensive is simply part of the fun for the Dean and Gene Ween, and no one is exempted, which makes it fair in a perverse sort of way. What fans look for is just what the band took on as inspiration, because if one other thing is true about Ween, it’s that they’re masters at mimicking their idols – even if you can’t quite figure out who it is.

That’s not to say that everything they do is imitation, it’s just that they do it so well. On La Cucaracha, closing track “Your Party,” (which features the saxophone of David Sanborn – a fan of the band, believe it or not,) elicits the vibe of smooth early 80s pop, the kind of stuff that was soaked in coke that Bryan Ferry was so good at doing, while “Sweetheart in the Summer” sounds a bit like Nick Lowe’s brand of rootsy country-rock.

And often it’s just taking on a genre in particular – sludgy reggae in “The Fruit Man,” good ol’ country, a genre they spent an entire album exploring (1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats,) with “Learnin’ to Love,” and most surprising and entertainingly on this album, the electro-disco of “Friends,” with its ambiguously gay “let’s be more than just friends” message that is, frankly, almost entirely due to the music itself. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, you know.) “Blue Balloon,” bouncy and dreamy at the same time, bears those odd, helium-influenced vocals that marked early Ween tunes, and calls for repeated listens. It doesn’t sound like anyone or anything other than Ween – and that’s just fine.

If there’s a complaint to be issued, it’s almost solely aimed at “Woman and Man,” a meandering 11 minute Santana-esque jam that simply goes nowhere once the 3 minute mark is breached. That might be the point, that jam-band music goes nowhere. I’m not sure – all I know is that I simply don’t want to sit through this too many times. It’s just too punishingly boring to sit through to discover the hidden nugget of truth that, I hope, is buried somewhere in the song’s meaning.

As usual, there are a couple of real surprises in store. Quebec had the beautiful “Chocolate Town” and the Pink Floydian “Transdermal Celebration”; White Pepper boasted the odd mid-tempo ballad “Stay Forever” and the gentle “She’s Your Baby.” La Cucaracha is no different, except that the attitude has changed – it’s not slower, gentler songs alone being used to showcase the band’s strengths.

The first surprise opens the album: “Fiesta,” with its bright, blasting mariachi horns, is the kind of high energy, boozy party theme that could land the band more attention than ever before – it sounds like nothing Ween has ever done before. In fact, Dean Ween told the UK magazine Bizarre that they hope that Taco Bell picks it up for use in commercials. Sadly, it’s too much fun to ruin like that.

But it’s “Lullaby” that might surprise the most – the title doesn’t lie, and the song isn’t a joke. Every once in a while, the guys from Ween sober up and do something actually serious, and this is when it’s absolutely impossible to deny that these are talented musicians. “Lullaby” could nearly pass for – and I prepare to duck as I write this – Tears For Fears. Pretty and delicate, all piano, strings, and harp, it’s an actual moment of legitimate beauty from this band of known for often employing juvenile humor. It stands in stark contrast to so much else Ween does, but just adds to the reasons fans can use to refute attacks on their favorite band. Hopefully it gives someone other than the die-hards a reason to pick this one up, too.

TechnoViking loves Ween

September 29, 2007

Tesla Real to Reel 2

Filed under: Music,News,Reviews — Tom @ 6:49 pm

(I somehow managed to completely forget about adding this one to The Breakdown this week. So to give it some exposure, I just wrote a review instead.)

Tesla undertook a unique idea in releasing their latest offering – a covers album called Real to Reel. Filled with music that inspired the band to become who they are, it covers territory from Deep Purple, the James Gang, the Guess Who, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Robin Trower, the Temptations, UFO, Uriah Heep, Derek and the Dominoes, the Rolling Stones, and Traffic, and it makes a great case that when a band is really, truly honest about their influences with such a covers album, the sum is, if not necessarily greater, at least nearly as great as the parts – both in the case of the music they present and the band themselves.

Real to Reel 2 is the completion of the set that came out earlier in the summer. The tracks were listed right there on the package with the first disc, along with a space for that missing second disc, but with a warning that to obtain said disc, for free, would require getting to one of their concerts. Neat concept – free music with your ticket. The band sees ticket sales rise and concert-goers get something extra, “free” with every show. Unfortunately, it’s not a very logical way to do things. If the band were to hit every city in every state, there would be ample opportunities for fans to grab these discs. Realistically, however, most bands simply can’t do that. It was inevitable that disc 2 would find its way to store shelves, and this week is that week. The nice thing is that, instead of receiving Real to Reel 2 in a plain, artwork-less jewelcase like concert-goers did, the disc comes in a digipak with artwork that compliments Real to Reel 1. So, in a way, while you may have gotten the tunes early, you kind of missed out on something getting this disc at concerts.

And the music on Real to Reel 2? Covers of Mott the Hoople, Montrose, Bad Company, the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Sly and the Family Stone, Peter Frampton, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Skynyrd, and Sabbath. And they are fantastic covers – this now-complete set nearly equals the greatness of Def Leppard’s stunning, surprising Yeah! from last year, and that’s no small feat: covers albums typically suck. For example, ZZ Top’s “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” doesn’t sound so drastically different than the waters Tesla typically treads, but some of the fun to be had in listening to this one is hearing Jeff Keith mimic the effect of having two similar-voiced singers handling vocals. And “Shooting Star” could have been a disaster in lesser hands. Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers is blessed with a unique voice that is powerful, yet not showy in a ridiculous way, and few singers seem to be able to handle that subtle combination. But Jeff Keith manages to pull it off – his signature rasp is mellowed here. And that’s the case with all the songs. Keith and the band do these classics justice not because they try to adapt them to their own sound but because the reverence they feel toward the songs is evident in every one of the songs. What we listeners get is the rare covers album that actually does feel like the band was influenced by the music they chose, rather than what usually happens – the band picks songs that they think will score them points for the cool factor of their choices, or they choose songs that are so common that they say nothing.

Taken as a whole, Real to Reel says a lot – and it is so enjoyable that it may be all many listeners need from Tesla (I will, however, disagree and say that debut album Mechanical Resonance and sadly overlooked Bust a Nut are must-haves as well.) What’s more, the band saved the best for last – Real to Reel 2 is actually stronger than the first disc in the set. That’s not to slight Real to Reel 1. Fans of the band and fans of classic rock alike owe themselves to invest in both – it might just be some of the most fun listening we’ve gotten all year. How often can you say that – especially about a covers album?

August 27, 2007

Jeremy Enigk – The Missing Link

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 6:03 pm

I have a hard time relating the term “emo” with the music that Sunny Day Real Estate and now former lead singer Jeremy Enigk puts out. There’s something so . . . I don’t know, icky about the music that today is called emo. It’s beginnings were humble – punk music with more emotional vocal and lyrical content (not to mention less yelling.) What happened to it after Sunny Day Real Estate’s status went from active to “honorably discharged” is not their fault – and don’t let that “emo” label dissuade you from checking them out, or Enigk, for that matter.

Enigk, the former lead singer of now-legendary and defunct Sunny Day Real Estate and The Fire Theft, has put out a little album (I’m not kidding – it’s 34 minutes long) of four new songs and 5 in-studio live tracks of ornate rock. That fact left me a little iffy on this one, but regardless of it being half-new, half “live in the studio,” it’s a fantastic little release carrying on in the orchestral vein of World Waits, with a real orchestra backing the music.

The orchestra is most effectively used in the first couple of songs, which are more stripped down affairs with little “band” presence otherwise, but the orchestra is used to strong effect throughout the four songs. The most emotionally powerful tune is “Tatseo Show,” where the band itself is brought in midway through the song to drive it toward the finish. As for the live material, it simply sounds more immediate and raw than World Waits did – not that there’s anything wrong with that fine album. Somehow, for being familiar songs, they fit in very well with the four new tracks.

If there’s a complaint to be made it’s that instead of getting a full album of new material, we get what is essentially two EPs in one. This normally would have rated this release lower, because things like this are typically just time-fillers between albums (and as such shouldn’t be considered “albums,”) but I’m just enjoying this so much that I can’t hold that against it. If only more albums packed as much enjoyment into 34 minutes as this one does.

August 3, 2007

Rush: Snakes & Arrows

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 7:51 am

From the driving opening of “Far Cry,” it is obvious that the fierce stance Rush took on Vapor Trails was not a one-time diversion. Where that album steam-rolled ahead on layers of crunchy guitars and pummeling drums, Snakes & Arrows takes a more varied route through the sounds and styles of Rush.

There’s something of a return to form going on with Snakes & Arrows, the very thing many long-time listeners have prayed for, and yet, it proves slightly more prickly to deal with than any other Rush album. Where 2002’s Vapor Trails bared drummer/lyricist Neil Peart’s tragedy-battered soul (having lost first his daughter in a car accident and then less than a year later his wife to cancer), Snakes & Arrows finds Peart back in more familiar territory, writing lyrics about the state of the world today from much the same point of view that has divided listeners all along – the somewhat distanced stance on world events, which sometimes bore a sort of bemusement at them.

There is a difference in 2007’s Rush, however, and it’s one that it seems many listeners are missing while they focus on the events Peart writes about. This time around, there’s a hopeful serenity in the lyrics spoken from a perspective of one who has lost and seen the good in mankind, no matter how bad they, as a group, may seem, especially to outsiders.

The Neil Peart of “The Way The Wind Blows” is significantly different than the Peart of, say, “Distant Early Warning,” where he views us as hopeless, helpless victims of our circumstances. The Peart of today now sees, as in “Wind,” that people make the best of the situations they live in, but often can’t be blamed for the crooked, narrow views of the world they have because, well, as the lyrics say, “We can only go the way the wind blows/We can only bow to the here and now/Or be broken down blow by blow.” We, and whatever “they” that you want to apply it to, shouldn’t be to blame for not understanding the lives, practices, and beliefs of each other.

Peart also approaches the subject of faith from a new perspective – the message behind “Faithless” may seem simple on the surface, that the stance taken is an anti-religious one, but dig deeper and it reveals the message that a lack of religion doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of spirituality and, most of all, hope.

It may be easier to see both sides of the issues that are tackled on Snakes & Arrows in “Armor and Sword,” a mesmerizing and addictive combination of the elements that made Roll The Bones‘ “Bravado” and Test For Echo‘s “Driven” so rewarding for fans. Here the issue of resolve and how it stands up against the toughest spiritual tests is played against the often unfortunate fallout from failing to stand strong. It can be seen as a miniature summary of the album’s themes, addressing globally what the rest of the album’s songs will assess within themselves.

Equally fascinating is the folk-meets-world tinged “The Larger Bowl,” whose format of a pantoum (the lines of the opening stanza are repeated in different orders in following stanzas which forces the reader to take a different view of each line) allows for a hypnotically contemplative nature, or album-closer “We Hold On,” in which the everyday struggles and comforts of the modern world are called into question.

Garnering the most attention, and rightfully so, is the album’s three instrumental pieces (a Rush first.) Where “The Main Monkey Business” finds the band attacking the instrumental as a mature weaving together of all the elements in each musician’s bag of tricks, it’s “Malignant Narcissism” that showcases the band doing what made “YYZ” so great – pure, unbridled passion in the form of a short, intense blast. “Hope” gives guitarist Alex Lifeson a rare moment to shine by himself, and it’s a beautiful moment at that. Thoughtful and folky, there are moments that reveal Lifeson’s influence by Led Zeppelin’s driving, blues-drenched Jimmy Page, so obvious in early Rush outings but an element which later disappeared as the guitarist found his own sound. Here Page’s “Black Mountain Side” is revealed as an unexpected influence – not as if “Hope” were a copy, but as an homage to a favorite great.

Faith, and the circumstances through which people come to deal with the faith of others as well as their own faith, and not only that but the lives they have to fit faith into, is a recurring theme throughout the album. As the effect of the unfortunate and tragic tricks cruel fate has played on him, it’s an unexpected boon to fans that Peart has grown as life has tested him. Many listeners may be focusing on the vibrant music that evokes memories of an earlier Rush, but Snakes & Arrows offers so much more for them to dig into for the future.

July 12, 2007

Catching up (quick reviews)

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 8:45 pm

My brain seems to be swamped at the moment trying to sort out all the great new releases this year, and limited time is weighing heavily on me, so here are a few very short impressions of some of the new things I’ve gotten recently (with more due later on some if I’m feelin’ it) . . .

Crowded House – Time On Earth: It’s hard not to hear a ghost lurking in the darkened corners of this album. Whether he is a direct inspiration for the lyrics or not, Paul Hester and his suicide a couple years ago had an obvious effect on the band, who turn out one of their more serious, shadowy albums. While it’s complete with the typical Crowded House wit, there’s a melancholy pervading nearly everything, including the upbeat “She Called Up,” which I can’t help but concoct in my mind as a story about Neil hearing about Paul’s death. The album takes a sharp curve into darker territory toward the last few songs, making it a little harder to leave this album with the rush of beauty that has marked most of their material in the past. The band has grown up and they’ve presented us with something a little more difficult than we might have been expecting. That’s okay – I’ve got plenty of time to digest this one.

Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist: I really wasn’t expecting much – despite wanting to go into it as neutral as possible. And after several listens, I’m left with the impression that this is a pretty good album, despite all the negative hyperbole that has been thrown around for the past few months since news of this release emerged. Billy Corgan plugs into the vital metallic edge of Mellon Collie with touches of Machina and even a bit of his solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, and the catchy, almost sunshine-y attitude of Zwan. So fans wanting more Siamese Dream and Gish era Pumpkins best look elsewhere – this is definitely the metal-tinged band that many of you grew to hate. I, however, am having a lot of fun listening to this one.

Brandi Carlile – The Story: Man, did this one take me by surprise – never heard of this girl before, but read something about her that alluded that she was no watered down, pop princess type. You could kind of get this impression if you looked her up – she’s very young and cute, so this huge, raspy voice of hers will blow you away the first time you hear it, like it did me. Think Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt – but she’s in possession of an additional skill: she also can sing like an angel, bringing immediately to mind Sarah McLachlan in the upper register. More than that, she’s turning out the kind of country-blues that so many vocalist of this caliber skip over because it isn’t going to get them a lot of attention. Deep, soulful, and moving, Carlile brings the goods. Give her a shot.

King Crimson – May 19-21, 2000, Nashville, TN: You won’t find this one in stores, but a tape-trader has released to torrent sites this incredible 4-show set of soundboard recordings from King Crimson’s 3 night stay at 12th & Porter just days before the release of The ConstruKction Of Light. Not my favorite album of theirs, nor my favorite tour (due to Pat Mastelotto’s electronic drums), but something like this is such an incredible rarity that I can’t help but be very excited. This is basically unprecedented – guitarist Robert Fripp has been watching over the band’s shows for ages like a hawk for tapers. He’s even requested that fans in the audience be on the lookout for tapers and photographers – even going so far as to have shirts made up that said fans could buy to wear. Dorky, I know. I don’t know what the deal is here, how this happened, but these fantastic, near-official release quality tapes sure did make my week. BitTorrent and cable internet sure makes things like this easy now – I remember having to shell out BIG bucks for bootlegs not knowing half the time what you were getting. Now I just download the torrent, for free, and if it really sucks I hold Shift and Delete and it’s gone forever. That won’t be happening with these – no, these will be getting archived as their original FLAC files on DVD for safekeeping.

June 22, 2007

Tomahawk: Anonymous

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 9:29 am

Listening to Anonymous without knowing what Mike Patton project it was, those familiar with previous installments in the Tomahawk catalog might be hard-pressed to pin the work specifically on them. Where the earlier two albums focused on abrasive metal, the thematic Native American nature might cause some to assume that Fantomas was responsible, but there are also nods to Patton projects of the distant past – Faith No More and Mr. Bungle. But sure enough, this is all Tomahawk, delivering an album of music inspired by Native American Indians that befits the band name. How listeners feel about it will depend on how adventurous they are.

The Fantomas comparisons begin immediately when Anonymous opens with “War Song,” an atmospheric start to the album filled with wailing vocals and churning guitar. “Mescal Rite I” follows, lending more credence to the belief that this is a Fantomas product – all vocals are Indian chants. In fact, Patton fills many of the rest of the album’s songs with Native American chants with English vocals taking the helm on only a few of the album’s tracks. What’s most surprising is that they’re the album’s least interesting songs. When freed from typical song structure, the band seem to flourish with this material. Guitarist Duane Denison and drummer John Stanier are to be applauded for providing such stunning backing for Patton – not only is it rock that is significantly Native American-inspired, it’s not cliched or laughable as might be the result of many others’ efforts. It’s actually beautiful.

As the albums wears on, however, rather than sounding like Fantomas it becomes more obvious that it’s more that the album doesn’t sound like Tomahawk specifically. The project just doesn’t bear the stamp of the previous outings, so those picking up Anonymous looking for more in the vein of Tomahawk or Mit Gas might be in for a surprise – or disappointment. Tomahawk has evolved, it seems. In fact, “Antelope Ceremony” bears some resemblance, vocally at least, to California-era Mr. Bungle, while “Omaha Dance” sounds like it could have fit on Faith No More’s final album, Album Of The Year. Only “Sun Dance” seems to fit the mold for what a Tomahawk song “should” sound like.

That’s not to say the album is a disappointment – only that it’s very different. It might just be Patton’s most unusual project, and that’s saying a lot coming from the guy who routinely makes weird screams and gutteral sounds with his voice on outings with John Zorn. What makes it so unusual is that, while working within a basic rock format, Tomahawk manages to make something so foreign to most listeners sound so inviting. Anonymous winds up being one of Patton’s most satisfying releases in recent memory and comes highly recommended for adventurous, open-minded listeners.

April 27, 2007

Superdrag: Last Call For Vitriol

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 8:07 am

Details magazine editor Bart Blasengame claims that “If you don’t like Superdrag, you don’t like rock n’ roll,” it says that right on the sticker on the cover of 2002’s Last Call For Vitriol. I like rock n’ roll and I like a good challenge. The hyperbole amuses me. Could Superdrag possibly live up to this? I don’t feel like I have a choice – I have to find out.

Within moments of “Baby Goes To 11,” it’s pretty clear, I’m safe – I do indeed like rock n’ roll. In fact, I must love it because I love what I’m hearing. Here is what the Foo Fighters have tried so hard to be since the first couple of albums – raucous, ballsy, gritty rock – without so often overdoing it. But it’s when they turn things down that really grabs me as a listener, such as on the mid-tempo “Extra-Sensory” or the outright acoustic ballad “Safe and Warm,” where the band displays not only self-control but sensitivity. But it’s “Way Down Here Without You” that creates the album’s centerpiece. A lush tune of longing in a Beatles-meets-Beach Boys vein, it’ll have you replaying the song a couple of times to catch all the subtle nuances – I know because that’s exactly what I had to do a few times.

It’ll also have you frustrated to know that this was likely Superdrag’s final album. Vocalist and guitarist John Davis found God after years of hard drinking and put the band on hiatus, recording and releasing an album of Christian-themed music in 2005 on Tooth & Nail Records. From all accounts it is a decidedly different direction obviously, but quality music nonetheless. I think, however, it’s safe to say most fans will hope for Superdrag to continue on doing what they do best.

In the meantime, Superdrag has four albums and one compilation of unreleased material to explore. For fans of Foo Fighters, the Posies, Cheap Trick, and Guided By Voices, this is essential stuff. And, of course, fans of rock n’ roll.

April 10, 2007

Marillion – Somewhere Else

Filed under: News,Reviews — Tom @ 1:30 pm

Marillion returns three years after their epic, widely lauded Marbles concept piece with another self-produced album. While no one seriously expects them to top such a feat, all ears are curious as to how they attempt to follow up what many now consider to be the unexpected peak of their 25 year career.

Marillion spent their career in the 80s carving out a niche in the resurrected prog movement of the period, aping much of the territory that Genesis, Yes, and Gentle Giant had already covered so well a decade before. By the end of the decade, things would change drastically with the departure of their lead singer, the poetically-gifted choke-throated Fish, who would be replaced by Steve Hogarth, who brought to the band a more traditional pop-rock style of singing – not to mention the sensibilities of such a singer.

Over the past two decades since Hogarth joined the band, Marillion has slowly shifted from a progressive band into what they are now: a pop-rock band doing very intelligent music now that happens to occasionally be conceptual in nature. This album, however, isn’t, and I’m personally glad they opted for an album of songs rather than another big concept piece. Following the amazing two-disc Marbles with another big, heavy epic like that would have been a mistake – too much too soon. Instead, what we get is a lighter, airier Marillion, but no less engaging (aside from a couple of stumbles.)

Marillion have found their sound finally – what really started to take shape on 2001’sAnaraknophobia, if a little roughly, they perfected with Marbles in 2004, they now continue here, and that’s basically a good thing. While it makes for an album of no real surprises, it’s simple, smart pop with a good band and an emotive vocalist.

Where Marillion let the listener down on Somewhere Else is where they simply try too hard – “Most Toys” where they attempt to rock out as hard as they can (and mostly flail about instead of hit the target) and “Last Century For Man,” where they attempt a cautionary tale and only score with the infectious and beautiful chorus, but the song falls flat in the verses. It just isn’t a very strong message song – some bands are better at delivering straight-up messages and others are better at hinting at them creatively. Marillion should stick to the latter.

For fans, Somewhere Else makes a lovely transition out of the emotional, intense, and dense Marbles. For newbies, Marbles is going to be the place to start – and then give Somewhere Else a try as it’s easily one of their most focused and solid albums since 1995’s Afraid Of Sunlight. Songs such as nearly epic “The Wound” and the contemplative “Thankyou Whoever You Are” should quickly find themselves on many Marillion fans most-played lists, but it’s the charming acoustic closer “Faith” that could be a surprise for everyone – it’s beautiful.

Anyone interested in getting this right now with a special 3-song live bonus DVD would be wise to do so this week from Townsend Records in England, the official conduit through which Marillion is selling this special version of the album. After this week, this 3-song DVD will no longer be available.

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