Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brand New Music From Julian Lennon: Lucy EP

Tuesday, December 15 marks the release of new music by John Lennon's son Julian for the first time in 11 years with the release of the Lucy EP.

The back story of the four-track EP goes back as far as The Beatles' legendary Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band record and as recently as a couple of months ago. The song "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" was recorded by John Lennon for Pepper's upon seeing a painting Julian did of his childhood friend and classmate Lucy Vodden.

During a conference call with journalists around the world last week - which including this author - Mr. Lennon revealed that he met a "developing artist" named James Scott Cook in New York just a couple of months ago and soon started recording new music. They eventually co-wrote what became the pop rocker "Lucy," a tribute to Lucy Vodden, who died of Lupus disease during the recording sessions. By coincidence, Cook's 89-year-old grandmother also suffers from Lupus.

Starting December 15, the Lucy EP can be purchased through Lennon's new full-service, musician-based company and website The Revolution, as well as through Amazon.com. A copy of Julian Lennon's original watercooler drawing of Lucy Vodden comes with all physical releases. The title track itself will be sold via iTunes exclusively from the 15th through the end of the year.

The EP also features an acoustic version of "Lucy," a Cook-only composition ("Sober") that will appear on his solo debut next year (via The Revolution), and Lennon's sentimental piano-based number "Beautiful," from his sixth album Everything Changes, also to be released in 2010.

It will be Julian Lennon's first studio release since 1998's Photograph Smile. He has been recording records sporadically since his much lauded 1984 debut record Valotte, which spawned radio hits including the title track and "Too Late For Goodbyes."

Fifty percent of all proceeds of the Lucy EP will go to Lupus causes such as St. Thomas' Lupus Trust and Lupus Foundation of America.

Note: First posted at Blogcritics December 14, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: Wicked Good Year: How The Red Sox, Patriots & Celtics Turned The Hub Of The Universe Into The Capital Of Sports by Steve Buckley

Posted at Blogcritics December 9, 2009

Steve Buckley has been a sportswriter for 30 years, the last 15 for the Boston Herald, and has also been a frequent face on local TV and radio sports talk shows in Boston, MA, and author of several books, the latest of which is called Wicked Good Year.

Chronicling the highly successful 2007-2008 seasons of the Boston Red Sox, Celtics and New England Patriots, Buckley uses historical research and personal stories from athletes, coaches, team personnel and fans to paint a narrative as to how extraordinary a time it was to be a fan of major Boston sports teams between October 28, 2007 and June 17, 2008. That seven-month span is when the Red Sox won the ’07 World Series, the Patriots achieved an undefeated 16-0 season (before losing the ’08 Super Bowl) and Celtics won the ’08 NBA title.

Doc Rivers' Motivational Techniques

The book starts out with the history of “Duck Boats,” first their use for transporting American soldiers in World War II and starting in 1994, its use as a tourism vehicle in and around Boston. Rivers also knew the Patriots and Red Sox rode them in celebrations of championships in 2002, 2004, and 2005. So just as Celtics training camp for the 2007-2008 season got underway, Doc took the new Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen on a private Duck Boat tour so they can see what it means to win a title in this town.

The C’s coach also found a way of stressing team unity via the South African word “ubuntu,” which means “I am because we are.” Buckley writes that (professor) Rivers even had the rookies, led by Glen “Big Baby” Davis do a presentation of the importance of ubuntu in front of the veterans during training camp, which they aced, of course.

The Fan Perspective: The Nantucket Gals, Andrew J. Urban II & Donnie Wahlberg

Perhaps more unique in the telling of Boston sports success stories than most other Boston-based sports books is the view of it all through the eyes and ears of dedicated fans. Whether it was pro autograph collector Andrew J. Urban II, former New Kids On The Block and avid Celtics fan Donnie Wahlberg making front row friendships with fellow C’s enthusiasts Marty Joyce and Mike Rotondi, or 1995 collective Patriots Fan Of The Year, the Nantucket Gals (sisters Jane, Jeanne and Joan), Buckley masterfully writes of their life stories and perspective on the successes, setbacks and controversies of their favorite teams.

One fan moment among many stands out in this book. Wahlberg, it turns out, not only knows his Celtics past very well but this Boston native predicted the future as well. During an ESPN interview that took place before Danny Ainge traded for Kevin Garnett, he declared with a straight face that Boston would have three championship teams in one year, including his beloved Celtics and the Red Sox – he was a few minutes and an incomplete pass to David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII away from being incredibly correct on all three fronts.

How Dustin Pedroia Came To Boston

Throughout Wicked Good Year, Buckley does a page-turner of a job of writing how the C’s, Pats and Sox planted the seeds of success, which is to say that he writes of the dark years, disappointments and trades and draft picks that eventually paid off. His insight into the Randy Moss trade with Oakland is excellent but the most revealing story is how second baseman Dustin Pedroia got drafted to Boston out of Arizona State. The Sox scouting department initially looked at teammate Jeff Larish as its potential pick from the squad, Buckley reveals, but took a closer look at him after 2003 draft pick Jeremy West told an intern at the scouting department in the fall of ’03 that Pedroia was ASU’s best player. In the 2004 baseball draft, Epstein chose Pedroia after all, passing on catcher Kurt Suzuki as well.

Useful And Obscure Patriots, Red Sox And Celtics Facts

One thing readers of this book will notice is that there are more useful factoids than you’ll know what to do with. For example, the Red Sox won the first ever World Series in 1903 vs. Pittsburgh as the Boston Americans, 5 games to 3. The New England Patriots were the Boston Patriots of the AFL until the 1970 merger with the NFL, which permanently placed them in the AFC East division. The Boston Patriots, with Gino Cappelletti and the late Ron Burton as star players, played at Nickerson Field, formerly the home to the Boston Braves, in its first three seasons (1960-1962) and then played six seasons at Fenway Park.

On the more obscure front, Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s father Tito was part of a Cleveland Indians team that hit four homers in a row off of LA Angels pitcher Paul Foytack on July 31, 1963. In April 2007, Terry himself saw four Sox hitters accomplish this same feat for only the second time in MLB history, off of young Yankees pitcher Chase Wright. Buckley not only relays these facts but was able to find out that Foytack (then age 76) watched this game and felt compelled to write Wright a letter of encouragement afterwards, having gone through this rare shellacking himself.

Also, the official NBA logo’s white silhouette you see on the bottom-left of every NBA game backboard was modeled after Lakers great Jerry West. This is barely scratching the surface of fascinating sports facts, and reading this book will reward you far more than I could ever list here.

Nobody’s Perfect

With all the great research and game recaps of C’s/Pats/Red Sox 2007 regular season and playoff games, interview quotes and historical analogies in this book, there are some errors to point out, however trivial they are. First, Buckley contradicted himself in Chapter 5 (“Savior?”) by writing on page 46 that the late former Sox owner Tom Yawkey bought the “laughingstock” that was the Red Sox in 1932, then (correctly) saying he bought the franchise in 1933 on page 49. Also, 110-85 was not the score to “Game 2” of the ’08 Eastern first round playoff series between the C’s and Hawks, it was Game 5.

Also surprising was some contextual omissions on Buckley’s part in regard to the “Spygate” chapter 12, and his insight and recap of the ’08 NBA Finals. First, the author does an excellent job in laying out the similar background Pats coach Bill Belichick and his once protégé Eric Mangini have but makes no mention of his Jets’ own questionable taping of the Patriots in a wildcard playoff matchup in January 2007 at Gillette Stadium, which the Pats contended the Jets never got permission from the Pats to do in the end zone.

The chapter focuses on a lot more subjects than Spygate itself (and thus should’ve had an expanded title), and I’m not about to rehash the whole thing. But as Buckley wrote, the Jets-Pats ’07 opener that turned into the Spygate game was dedicated to the late Marquis Hill, a young Patriots player who died in a tragic accident earlier in 2007. His telling of Patriots players who paid tribute to Hill throughout the season by wearing in games some of the late player’s equipment, including Super Bowl XLII is valuable and powerful insight.

With regard to this respected sportswriter’s analysis of Game 1 of the ’08 Finals between the C’s and Lakers, I would respectfully argue that his declaration that Paul Pierce’s dramatic comeback from injury in the game the Celtics would later win at home was either a great miracle or one of the best “acting jobs” in modern sports history is way off.

The truth is, The Truth never asked for a wheelchair and drama that made his knee injury seem worse than it was. As he would later say, he was hurting but could still play; Pierce just could not bend the knee down all the way without pain. It was the Finals and he did play through whatever ailed him to lead his team to victory in Game 1 and eventually the NBA title in six games, after which he was named Finals MVP.


All told, Wicked Good Year accomplishes the tall task of weaving together the necessary facts and inside (athletic and fan) stories of the successes of three of Boston’s major sports franchises that occurred in a span of seven months and twenty days. It goes well with other Boston championship-minded items like the fan-centered DVD Return To The Rafters, about the Celtics’ 08 NBA title run, Red Sox Rule, Michael Holley’s semi-bio and story of Terry Francona and his Red Sox’s ’07 World Series run, as well as another excellent read, Peter May’s comprehensive recap of Celtics title #17, Top Of The World.

Buckley uses tons of historical facts to put present-day accomplishments in perspective – and perhaps to show off his thorough research skills as well. And they’re not just Boston-related ones but pro baseball, football and basketball facts in general. It might actually take you multiple reads of the same page just to digest them all. And it is fascinating, enjoyable material to read if you’re an avid sports lover. Even Yankees fans like author Jonathan Eig raved about this book. And enjoying what you read is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

Boston sports fans and other curious minds, get yourself ready to set aside enough time to get through this 317-page journey, because reading Wicked Good Year will be time well spent. In fact, “Spygate” and Super Bowl XLII aside, you’ll definitely have a wicked good time reading it all the way through.
4 1/2 stars

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Music Review: Kiss - Sonic Boom

Rock ‘til you drop. Or at least until you can’t do it anymore. For B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Daltrey and so many other active icons of rock and blues circuits, those are words to live by. And 35 years after influential NYC quartet Kiss came on the scene with its self-titled debut and immediate follow-up Hotter Than Hell, they too are back touring the world and releasing new music.

Released last month exclusively to Walmart as a three-disc set, Sonic Boom is Kiss’s 19th studio album and first since its 1998 album Psycho Circus. Disc one has 11 new tracks, disc two has 15 re-recorded Kiss Klassics, and disc three is a six-song excerpt from a Kiss show this past spring.

Age is of no concern to this band – half of whose members are pushing 60 years of age. Nor does it show on record or in concert for these make-up-wearing mega rock stars. Founding member and rhythm guitarist/singer Paul Stanley still has his dynamic vocal range and knack for writing instant hard rockin’ classics, like album opener “Modern Day Delilah.”

Co-founder and bass machine Gene Simmons still effortlessly spouts out groove-laden licks (not to mention fire, in concert) and gruff vocals. Guitarist Tommy Thayer, who plays a similar style of lead guitar as the “space man” he replaced, Ace Frehley, does a more than admiral job throughout the album of playing exciting leads and fills, as on “Delilah,” the excellent ‘80s-ish “Danger Us,” and the Simmons-sung “I’m An Animal.”

Not all 11 tracks are A-material, however. Recycling is good for the environment but doesn’t always work in a musical setting. For example, the Thayer-sung and cowbell-strong “When Lightning Strikes” again recycles the same old AC/DC chords and rhythm in its chorus you’ve heard before. Thayer’s ascending guitar solo is the song’s pure highlight. “Never Enough” has an anthemic-sounding chorus but from its beginning sounds like “Rock And Roll All Nite” if it was written by AC/DC or Ozzy (think: “Flying High Again”). And silly, clichéd lyrics like “If it’s too hot, then you’re too cold” drag down “Hot And Cold” a bit.

Disc two’s Kiss Klassics compilation was, before this release, exclusively sold in Japan in 2008, along with a live 11-track DVD of a Kiss show in Budokan in 1977. Most of these re-recorded Kiss Klassics don’t veer much from the originals. But, the new version of fan favorite “Black Diamond” (with drummer Eric Singer replacing Peter Criss on drums and lead vocals) is an improvement over the original simply because the slowed down tape at the end lasts for under 30 seconds now instead of going on and on for nearly two whole minutes.

Disc three, the six-song DVD, is a short excerpt of a Kiss show from Buenos Aires, Argentina in April of this year during its KISS Alive/35 World Tour. And the selections from it are all aces, from “Deuce” and “Hotter Than Hell” to “Watching You” – one of Kiss’s most underrated hard rockers – and closer “Rock And Roll All Nite,” the band’s signature party rock song. Also included is a stretched out version of “100,000,” which on record and on stage still has a vintage Black Sabbath-type rhythm to carry it along.

The only disappointing aspect of the DVD portion of this release is that it is only six songs long. Ones guesses that the band had to resort to the short DVD in order to keep this three-disc set at a reasonable price. Kiss fans can certainly live with and appreciate that. And besides, any fan looking for a full Kiss show has decades of live albums and bootlegs to choose from. Ones does hope that eventually Kiss will release this full Buenos Aires show, as the rowdy, enthusiastic fans down in Argentina always seem to bring out the best in bands who play there, especially metal bands.

In short, Sonic Boom, even with its few flaws, is a fun, sleazy hard rock and roll record mostly in the vein of its ‘70s material. In other words, it’s the album Kiss fans have been wanting the band to make for over 20 years and likely wondered would never be made.

With 33 tracks for a recession-friendly price of $12 at your local Walmart, it’s one hell of a bargain (though one wishes it was available at this price at other actual music stores). Nonetheless, if you’re a new or longtime fan, you’d be a fool to not pick it up. And with the holiday season fast approaching, Sonic Boom will make a great stocking stuff for dad as well.
3.5 stars for the album
4.0 stars for the whole package

FYI, Kiss will continue its current tour in the USA and Canada in November and December. For dates and more info on Kiss, visit KissOnline.com.

Please note: This article was first published by Blogcritics 11/5/09

Monday, November 02, 2009

Bushisms & Bidenisms: The Gifts & Gaffes That Keep On Giving

I had originally planned on doing a comparative summary of the worst political gaffes ever made by ex-president George W. Bush and current vice president Joe Biden for Suite101.com. It would've been a Bushisms v. Bidenisms type of piece. But that article ran WAY too long, to the point of becoming nearly unreadable.

Therefore, I put together two distinct Top 10 compilations of Bush and Biden's weirdest, funniest, and most embarrassing statements ever uttered in public - who knows what kind of buffoonery they've engaged in private over the years.

These are by no means the "ultimate" lists, since neither of these politicians are capable of going a year without making another political gaffe and thus will likely continue to make embarrassing remarks for years to come. These lists, however, are up-to-date, through comments made in 2009.

First, here's my best of Bushisms article, followed by a best of Bidenisms article.

Note: The articles in the above links were originally published at Suite101 in late October.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Music Review: Imogen Heap - Ellipse

Published originally by Blogcritics Magazine October 22, 2009

English songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Imogen Heap is a one-woman machine. For over 11 years, she has made a distinctive brand of music that is a mix of electronica, experimentalism, electro-pop, and rock.

Sound-wise and vocally, her songs range from the dramatic to the majestic, and contain hints of everyone from Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Tori Amos, to Annie Lennox and Bjork. In fact, Heap’s ex-Frou Frou partner Guy Sigsworth co-wrote songs with such noted non-conventional pop artists like Seal and Bjork in the early and mid-1990s before co-producing Heap’s 1998 debut album i Megaphone with Lennox’s Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart.

Since then Heap has made three records, one with Frou Frou (2002’s Details) and two more solo full-lengths, including the two-time Grammy nominated Speak For Yourself (2005) and its eagerly anticipated follow-up, Ellipse (RCA/White Rabbit).

Her new album debuted at a personal career-high #5 on Billboard’s 200 chart last month and also debuted #1 on Billboard’s Internet album and Dance/Electronic album charts. When you take a close listen to the album’s 13 tracks, it’s not hard to see why.

To start, the warm electro-pop track “First Train Home” retains the infectiousness of Heap’s prior album’s hit single “Goodnight and Go” and is an instant album highlight.

Besides being a call-to-action to clean up our planet, “Earth” is an experimental all a cappella track with a digital vocal harmonizer coloring its melodies, much like Speak For Yourself hit “Hide & Seek.” It also contains some of the oddball lyrics Heap is known for coming up with, such as her imagination of “lego land empires.”

The album loses steam for a bit on the calm but largely unmemorable electronic track “Little Bird.” It picks up its perkiness once again with the slightly spooky electro-pop love song “Swoon.”

Ellipse was recorded in various places around the world, including Hawaii, Japan, China, Thailand and at her newly built studio inside the basement of her family’s 18th century home in London, England. The new album’s name is a reference to the “elliptical” shape of this house.

“Bad Body Double,” written in Japan, is about looking at oneself in a bathroom mirror one day and not liking the image staring back at you. The sight of healthy and fit Japanese women surrounding Imogen Heap and the sudden realization that her own body was out of shape inspired this album highlight. Besides its overtly catchy rhythm, it features brilliant production, complete with actual bathroom-sounding reverb for a short stretch early on and a snare drum made via a sample of Heap slapping her own buttocks, according to an interview of Heap in The Sunday Herald in August. (Talk about experimental sounds!)

The romantic number “Between The Sheets” features some of the catchiest piano phrases Heap’s written yet, but is over before you know it (and seems a lot shorter than 2:54).

“Aha!,” with its brooding synths and Middle Eastern-sounding and cinematic strings is a typical enchanting Imogen Heap track, one clearly ready for a future soundtrack to a scary film. In fact, “Aha!” appeared in a 2009 episode of the new Melrose Place, and “Bad Body Double” appeared in the current (and fourth) season of Heroes, which is no surprise given her contribution of the song “Not Now But Soon” to the 2008 soundtrack to this hit NBC show.

Heap has become a master of marketing her music to TV, films, and soundtracks over the years, from the Garden State soundtrack (with Frou Frou) to The Chronicles of Narnia and the teen drama The O.C. being just some examples.

Elsewhere, spacey, warped beats accompany the romantic cellos of “2-1,” while “The Fire” recalls “Candlelight” from her debut album, as well as Under The Pink-era Tori Amos, due to its ghostly melodic piano runs. Album closer “Half Life” has delicate strings and Sarah McLachlan-esque piano chords - think “Angel” – but doesn’t actually sound like the Canadian songstress overall.

In all, Ellipse is a well-written and arranged album (by Heap), at least 80% of which is worth re-experiencing again and again. Compared to the British songwriter’s other two solo works, this one is, relatively speaking, her quietest collection, even if at least half the material is full of upbeat music.

It’s the first album in which she does not have at least one outright rocker to shake things up a bit, even if "Tidal" does rock a bit towards its end. It’s not a disappointment but a sign of a new direction. And with a batch of engaging songs like Ellipse has, Heap’s rabid fan base will surely continue to follow her career in whatever direction it takes her.
4 Stars

Stream Imogen Heap’s entire Ellipse album at her website, and in exchange for one tweet, download the "Canvas" video to your computer. You can also view a recent video interview from Shockhound.com.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Music Review: Radiohead - Hail To The Thief: Collector's Edition

Radiohead is such a powerful and insanely creative force that in 18 years of recording, it has not and probably can not repeat itself from album to album if it tried. Even if its much hailed early 2000s works Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) shared a common theme of experimentalism, almost every song was a new revelation. The same was true for the recently reissued follow-up to Amnesiac, 2003’s Hail To The Thief, now complete with a second bonus disc of live tracks, remixes and demos.

When you read critics or fans say – as they have - that Hail was, among other things a slight return to the more guitar-heavy sound of Radiohead’s 1990s output, this should not be taken to mean it sounds like old material, though there are a couple of hints of older songs to be found. The “slight return” really means that pure, delicate acoustics, clean and distorted electric guitars, and actual solos via Jonny Greenwood are present here more than on the band’s previous two albums.

In fact, guitar-centered tracks are a significant minority - six by my count - on Hail but are nowhere near as numerous as they are on the band’s first three records, Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer.

At nearly an hour in length and 14 tracks long (plus 14 more on a bonus disc), Hail To The Thief is at its core a healthy, complex mix of forward-looking experimental beats, electronics and other synth/keyboard-heavy technology and more conventional instruments like guitar, bass, drums, and Thom Yorke’s methodical piano work. In political terms, it has bipartisan appeal, with just enough guitar work to satisfy old fans and a lot of creative, adventurous sounds for the more versatile music fan.

Looking back, this is a stronger and more consistent album than I originally thought it was, with guitar-central tracks “There, There,” “Go To Sleep,” “2+2=5,” and “A Wolf At The Door” not only being the album’s highlights but among true Radiohead classics. The latter track ("Wolf"), with Yorke's rambling and frantic lyrical verses that give way to the band's swirly melodies in the refrains, along with Yorke's gorgeous falsetto at song's end all combine for a soothing and well selected way to close out the album.

As impressive as it is, Hail has just a few clunkers that prevent the album from being one of Radiohead's best: the deep bass booming and tape loop-dominated “The Gloaming,” which is a noble experiment but in the end an uneventful track, the funeral music/vocals of “I Will,” and the slow and sour piano-based “We Suck Young Blood.” Not that they are bad songs, but the latter two tracks may suck the life out of any room they're played in and would’ve been better off as b-sides.

On the newly included bonus disc, highlights include the lovely, folky acoustic "Go To Sleep” b-side “Gagging Order,” a live acoustic rendition of its A-side, the Four Tet remix of “Scatterbrain” and an exciting live 2003 performance of “2+2=5”. Other tracks are fairly intriguing at first but lose its cool upon repetitiveness or lack of substantive content, like the strange strings and funky bass of “Paperbag Writer” and the quasi-industrial experiment “I Am Citizen Insane.”

This 14-track bonus disc complements HTTT pretty well as a total package but isn't quite as essential as it would be if it contained a full show or comprehensive disc of demos and b-sides from the era.

HTTT was the last proper album Radiohead recorded specifically for a record label (EMI). And though it may not be the band's very best CD, its inventiveness and songwriting depth was truly remarkable for a sixth album and should not be under-appreciated. In that respect, it’s at least better than debut Pablo Honey, which itself is an underrated album. Radiohead, you see, doesn't make bad records.

In sum, if you’re a Radiohead or alt-rock fan who missed HTTT the first time around, it would be an unwise move to miss out again on an album with as much rich music as this one has.

Note: Originally published October 2, 2009 in Blogcritics Magazine

Dead Red Special Edition: A Sunday Afternoon with the Lowell Spinners

Note: Originally published September 5, 2009 in Blogcritics Magazine as part of my "Dead Red" weekly Boston Red Sox column

The Boston Red Sox may have their share of pricey free agents on its roster, but from Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury to Jonathan Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen, a growing amount of essential players are in fact, homegrown. This season, especially has seen a plethora of talent come up from the minors to help the big club, including Josh Reddick, Chris Carter and perhaps most notably, Daniel Bard.

As fun as it is seeing players like these develop on the big league level, I thought it would be a great idea to see and cover some of these future big leaguers in their own element someday. That someday was last Sunday.

It was around quarter-to-four on the afternoon of August 30, with nary a cloud in the sky in Lowell, MA when I arrived at LeLacheur Park, home to the Lowell Spinners. It is a Red Sox single-A affiliate that has seen future stars like Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury play there, among many others.

Game time was set for 5:05 pm, but as a credentialed media member, I was there to get my media pass and hopefully make my pre-game time eventful. In other words, I was hoping to interview at least one Spinner before game time.

Once I got my pass and went upstairs, I saw a guy writing out in blue marker the starting lineups of the Spinners and their opponent, the Brooklyn Cyclones. To my surprise, local product Alex Hassan was written into the lineup, starting at RF. He grew up next to my hometown of Quincy, MA in Milton, so many in my town are quite familiar with this hitter/pitcher’s success at BC High, then Duke University and now career with the Red Sox, whom drafted him in the 20th round of the 2009 draft.

Hassan was previously in Lowell for a few weeks before getting promoted to single-A Greenville. I didn’t see any pregame reports mentioning he was back in Lowell for Sunday’s game, but was glad he was there.

One of my goals was to interview the biggest name and prospect on the Spinners, Ryan Westmoreland, an outfielder who unfortunately broke his collarbone trying to make a play in a game two days earlier. I saw him walk across the field minutes after I arrived but found out later he left the premises soon after.

So my next choice to interview was, you guessed it, Alex Hassan. After asking an usher when and how the media does interview players here, she radioed down to Jon Boswell, the head of media relations for the Spinners and had me meet with him downstairs.

Next thing you know, I race downstairs and the two of us (Boswell and I) walk past the tunnel area that leads to team locker rooms, and into the Spinners dugout, where I awaited Alex Hassan to interview. At this point I didn’t keep track of time but it was before 4:30 pm and I was about to accomplish my main goal of scoring a player interview.

He came out a couple minutes after Boswell left to get him. The rightfielder was taller in person than I thought but he was a low-key kind of guy, which made the interview experience less intimidating. After telling him how pleasantly surprised I was to see him in today’s lineup, he told me that he and Chris McGuiness were told to report from Greenville to Lowell today. He didn’t look at this move as a demotion when I asked him, just looked at it as “a chance to play.” When asked, he was also happy with his progress offensively and defensively, though is always looking to improve. And no, he’s not going to pitch anytime soon.

After a couple more minutes of questions (including what it was like to play for Duke, which he loved and elaborated on for a bit), the interview was over. Boswell tried to get me another interview, with the speedy leftfielder Wilfred Pichardo, but he (much like the rest of the team) were busy getting ready for the game. So one interview was enough for me. Mission Accomplished.

It was then time for me to decide where to sit for the game, as the Spinners staffers let me know I had that freedom to go anywhere I liked. Should I sit with the sold-out crowd of over 5,000 in the hot sun, or take advantage of my press pass and see if there’s room for me in the (cooler) press box. And the press box is indeed where I spent the game, taking notes on my laptop and note pad, chatting with the other couple of staff members and media members who were there, all of whom were friendly and very much into this well-played game.

As I sat down to set up, everyone in the ballpark roared for the ceremonial first pitches, thrown by newly re-signed Boston Celtics big man, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and legendary Celtic JoJo White. The crowd gave a mixed response to Davis bouncing his pitch to home plate while cheering for the older but still very strong-armed Jo Jo White’s excellent throw. Then it was game time.

The Cyclones got to Spinners starter Pedro Perez early, scoring one run in the first. He had control issues over his four innings, allowing five walks. And the Spinners had little answers for their starter Brandon Moore, who’s only run allowed over six innings occurred in the bottom of the fifth inning when Pichardo scored on a double by shortstop Derrik Gibson.

But as the lights came on and the evening got dark, the Spinners bats got hot. In the bottom of the eighth, this 1-1 game became untied when centerfielder Ronald Bermudez singled home designated-hitter Drew Hedman, who doubled to start the inning. Alex Hassan, who reached first on a throwing error, scored the insurance run to make it a 3-1 game. And with Cesar Cabral pitching four score innings in relief of Perez, and closer Jordan Flasher pitching a scoreless top of the ninth, that’s how it stayed, with Cabral getting the win.

It was one heck of a game, and manager – former California Angels player and Massachusetts native – Gary DiSarcina deserves credit for his part on managing the pitching staff, the clear strength of this year’s team.

Getting to cover the Lowell Spinners was a truly eye-opening experience for me. And did I mention fun? I wasn’t the only one, of course, as Glen Davis had a ball with the fans in between innings, throwing them souvenir balls, dancing around and then helping to give away an autographed basketball to a lucky fan. The friendly atmosphere extended to the stands as well, as one lucky handicapped kid got a foul ball handed to him from a fellow fan he didn’t know. And all the kids got to line up and run the bases after the game was over.

It’s no wonder why the Spinners sell out their games year after year. That and the fact they are now a playoff team for the second year in a row helps too, having clinched the Stedler Division in the NY/Penn League on Wednesday.

When it was time to pack up and leave for the night, some kid with an autographed baseball asked for my autograph (and those of anybody coming out of the media room) which I politely declined, telling them I’m nobody that special, just a member of the media for a day. If I become the next Sean McAdam or Peter Gammons, then that’s different. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and for me, that was Sunday, August 30 at LeLacheur Park in Lowell, MA, covering the Lowell Spinners.

Music Review: Blur - Midlife: A Beginner's Guide To Blur

Though largely underappreciated by the States for much of its career, British rock quartet Blur was one of the biggest and most versatile bands the UK produced in the 1990s and into the current decade before going on hiatus in 2003. With seven studio albums to its name over a 12-year span, plus a best-of album that was released three years before its last LP, 2003’s Think Tank, there has yet to be a compilation that encompasses highlights from all of Blur’s works. Until now.

The Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide To Blur (Capitol/EMI) collection, which hit stores during the heart of summer in late July, features 25 tracks spread over two discs. It contains most of the usual hot tracks that put Blur on the map, including “Girls And Boys,” “Song 2” and “She’s So High.” But the band members themselves selected the tracks for both discs. Thus, there are some serious gems here, but in a couple places, curious choices as well.

Not so unpredictably, CD 1 starts out with the opening track from Blur’s most popular – at least here in America - self-titled 1997 album, “Beetlebum.” Graham Coxon’s zigzag guitars carry the core of this easygoing pop song that also has musical refrains and chord progressions underneath singer Damon Albarn’s falsetto that are not too different stylistically from British rivals Oasis.

Of course, there’s no mistaking these two seminal groups - Blur was the more consistent and musically adventurous force. One need not look any further than the inventive (and lyrically regret-filled) “Death Of A Party,” another ’97 self-titled album essential track on CD 1 to prove this point. It features some of the leanest and meanest Coxon guitar sounds in Blur’s catalogue. And its scary-to-bright melodies – the verses being spooky and choruses more pleasant-sounding – go back and forth like they were always meant to be together. It’s bloody brilliant, as British lads might say.

There really is no apparent chronological sequence to the tracklisting of both discs, but again, plenty of variety of sound. So on CD 1, you’ll hear the noisy “Bugman” (from the 13 LP) after hard-chargin’ sports stadium smash (1997) hit “Song 2,” both of which come after the lovey-dovey “Blue Jeans.” And, the near disco-dance pop of (1994 album) Parklife standout “Girls And Boys” comes right after “Beetlebum.” Elsewhere, the celebratory and horns-filled (1995 album) Great Escape single “The Universal” appears directly after “Death Of A Party,” and the early shoegaze-ish sounds of (debut 1991 album) Leisure track “Sing” appears near disc’s end.

The gospel/soul pop of (1999 album) 13’s lead single “Tender” leads off Midlife CD 2, and is followed by the only other Leisure track on the compilation, the dreamy guitar pop of “She’s So High.” The once out-of-print 1992 single “Popscene,” which later made its way onto the 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish, also appears on CD 2, along with excellent choices like the electric/acoustic straight out rocker “Chemical World” and “Advert” from that same record.

In fact, if you count “Popscene,” five tracks from Modern Life appear on Midlife. Four tracks each from Parklife, Blur’s self-titled 1997 CD and follow-up 13 album are included, along with three each from The Great Escape and final album Think Tank, and two from Leisure.

Aside from its non-chronological track list, this new compilation has a couple of minor flaws worth noting. First of all, most of the selections are either no-brainers or smart choices by the band. But given the fact that Blur released a best-of in 2000 that featured 18 studio tracks – 10 of which are repeated on the new disc – plus 10 more live ones, at 25 tracks, Midlife could’ve used a few more tracks, deep album cuts in particular, like “Jubilee” or the exotic punk rockish “We’ve Got A File On You.”

Also, though it may mean something to the band (which also includes bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree), I don’t think most fans would view “Strange News From Another Star,” from the ’97 CD, as an essential Blur song. And though “Battery On Your Leg” has memorable dark and Cocteau Twins-esque guitar lines, Blur could’ve chosen somewhere else for it other than ending CD 2. Perhaps the loud ‘n’ fast guitar licks of ’97 self-titled standout “M.O.R.” could’ve both substituted for “Strange News” and closed this compilation out with a bang.

Alas, as the title of this collection suggests, Midlife is only an introduction to Blur. It is most likely geared towards newer fans who know Damon Albarn mainly from his post-Blur group Gorillaz, and perhaps for those only vaguely familiar with the Blur catalogue – which probably includes Gorillaz fans as well. Its release coincides with the band’s short-lived reunion tour, which took place over the summer, with shows in native England, Ireland and Scotland in June and July.

The band may or may not tour or record again anytime soon and go on another extended hiatus, but in the meantime, if you need a comprehensive course on Blur’s rich library of music, Midlife is the right two-disc collection for you, either on its own or as a complement to its best-of release from nine years ago.

This review was originally published in Blogcritics Magazine 9/12/09

Music Review: The New Up - Better Off EP

Note: Published originally 8/20/09 in Blogcritics Magazine

San Francisco’s The New Up is a quintet of alt-rock rockers that have quickly made a big impression on the indie rock world. Having recorded three EPs worth of music in 2008 - because albums are so yesterday – and releasing Broken Machine, the first of them last year and second one Better Off this week, the female-fronted group was recently picked as one of three finalists for MTV’s “Best Bay Area Breakout Awards.” The winner will be announced during the live broadcast of the annual MTV VMA’s on Sunday, September 13.

This is quite an accomplishment for a group with only a couple of EPs and one album out (2007’s Palace Of Industrial Hope).

They are led by ES Pitcher, a talented front woman and guitarist who has been compared to everyone from Chrissy Hynde and Metric’s Emily Haines to Gwen Stefani. I’m not sure about Stefani but certainly the Haines comparison is apt, especially on New Up tracks including “Top of The Stairs,” a power-popper from Broken Machine.

While that first EP was a fine first outing in this trilogy of EPs, the brand new Better Off EP shows a stronger sense of musical melody and vocal harmony than anything The New Up’s released in the past.

Opener “Dear Life,” with its crunchy power chords, rocks like a cross between The Pixies and a faster version of the refrain of Weezer’s beloved hit “Say It Ain’t So.” Only this hot track hits hard right from the get-go and features a flute and wah-wah-pedaled guitar in the bridge section that is purely The New Up. Bonus points for the cowbell in the choruses.

The title track of Broken Machine sees Pitcher singing of “taking chances.” But on the quintet’s latest, its willingness to diversify its sound is more conspicuous the deeper you go into the EP’s five tracks.

Better Off’s namesake shows off Drew Bertrand’s percussive skills, a little sitar and Hawk West’s ever melodious flute. But the sure-to-be showstopper of this release is third track “Bitch,” with its pinnacle being the mid-song bridge that features a steady, dance floor-ready beat followed by a Kirk Hammett-like guitar solo by lead guitarist Noah Reid. The hard rocking guitar riffs that set up the solo are as memorable as those on older New Up tracks like “Chewbacca’s Garden.” Reid also does well on vocals, joining Pitcher as co-lead vocalist, singing the lower harmonies while she handles the high ones.

Though not as instantly memorable as others on this EP, “F*** You Roger (Until Further Notice)”, with its hypnotic and psychedelic single note guitar lines and strong group vocal harmonies that end it, it’s still a great number that exemplifies how The New Up has not only grown as a band over the years but why they can’t be boxed into any particular genre. The New Up brings something different to the table not just with every release but with every new song.

Broken Machine had a relatively soft and lovely closing track called “Just Because” whose melancholic feel isn’t too dissimilar from fellow female-fronted San Francisco group Minipop’s “Precious.” On Better Off, The New Up again chose a chill-out track to close an EP. “Wait” reveals the group’s urban mid-western roots and charm, with ES Pitchers’s Chrissy Hynde-like vocal prowess soaring above dense piano chords and Hawk West’s serene flute lines truly standing out on this, the softest – and depending on your preference, weakest – number on the EP.

The New Up’s sound may recall familiar rockers from the past at first but after the EP is through, it will be clear as day to you The New Up is their own band, and getting better at what they do all the time.

In sum, Better Off is a versatile and mostly rockin’ EP. If you liked the first one (Broken Machine), you’ll definitely love this second one. The third EP in this trilogy will hit shelves in 2010. (4 stars)

For more on this buzz band, including a full stream of this EP and current tour information, check out thenewup.com or visit its Myspace page.

Music Review: Beastie Boys - Ill Communication (Remastered, 2-CD Edition)

Ill Communication took on a whole new meaning when Adam Yauch (aka MCA) announced through a Youtube video post July 20 that he had a form of throat cancer that is localized in one area in the neck but which miraculously doesn’t affect his voice and is “very treatable.”

As a result, the Beasties have postponed all concert dates as well as the release of new album Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 1 until late in 2009. Yauch says he will be fine after surgery and radiation treatment. Here’s to hoping he does indeed make a full recovery.

Debut record Licensed To Ill introduced the world to the Beasties in the mid-‘80s but between 1989 and 1994, the young (and healthy) Beastie Boys departed from party rap-rock hero status and instead became ambitious, influential innovators of hip-hop. While the masterpiece and sample heaven of 1989 sophomore LP Paul’s Boutique was the trio’s artistic statement, the 1992 follow-up Check Your Head and 1994’s Ill Communication in particular solidified their coolness and success in hip-hop and alternative rock circles.

Originally released in May 1994, I.C. was well timed to be unloaded on the masses, as America (and the entire rock world) was still coping with the loss of Kurt Cobain over a month earlier. It rocked alternative rock radio (as well as MTV via the “Sabotage” video) and came out during a memorable year in rock that saw the rise of the likes of Weezer and Hole, the Smashing Pumpkins co-headline Lollapalooza (in place of Nirvana) with the Beasties, modern and classic rockers coalesce for Woodstock ‘94 and Pearl Jam take on Ticketmaster.

Produced by Mario Caldato Jr. (aka Mario C.) and remastered by the Boys and Chris Athens, Ill is a relentless and remarkable mixture of cutting edge and old-school style hip-hop, cop-show themed proto-metal (“Sabotage”), jazz-funk fusion and Buddhism-inspired soundscapes (“Bodhisattva Vow”). It is available to buy on vinyl, 2-CD and eco-friendly digital formats.

Early standout “Sure Shot,” with its bluesy looped flute is a freestyle joint which name drops Rod Carew and Caldato, among others. And in an instance of lyrical maturity not found in a lot of mainstream rap records out there, it features a call by MCA for “disrespect to women” to stop and an offer by him to respect all the “mothers” and “sisters” to the end. Of course, the Beasties themselves threw in some immature (though admittedly fun) lyrics into some of its early, classic cuts (i.e. “The New Style”) but here and elsewhere, are lyrically bold and clever without being classless.

With CYH and I.C. having been released closer together than any other two Beastie Boys studio albums, one would rightly think they share some common characteristics (besides being multi-platinum records). For one, the cowbell-dominant “Alright Hear This” and “The Scoop” from I.C. have the same distorted mic sound that worked so well on C.Y.H. hit “So What’cha Want.”

Number two, both LPs contain short, raw skate-punk cuts: I.C.’s rough and tough “Tough Guy” and “Heart Attack Man” aren’t too dissimilar from the prior album’s “Time For Livin.’” Even more important, both records also feature more organic sounds than the Beasties’ first two (‘80s) albums, via the multi-talented MCs’ ability to play their own instruments live and sample their own creations.

Also, where the Dust Brothers were the secret to the success of Paul’s Boutique, producer Mario C. and keyboardist “Money Mark” Nishita were unheralded significant contributors to the Beasties’ next two records, with the latter shining on hits including C.Y.H.’s “So What’cha Want” and Ill’s “Root Down.” And on Ill’s many instrumentals (i.e. “Sabrosa,” “Futterman’s Rule,” “Shambala”), session musicians like percussionist Eric Bobo and Nishita gel well alongside MCA on bass guitar/upright bass, Ad-Rock on guitar and Mike D on drums.

From the downloadable hour-long audio commentary the Beastie Boys recorded to accompany this remastered LP, you learn among other facts that the many sounds of “Root Down” were “chopped up” from just one record, and the group’s favorite loop on this album is the one that carries the ultra cool (and foul-mouthed) “Get It Together.” This bass and beat-heavy track, featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, was one that could’ve fit just as well on a Tribe record as this one.

“Get It Together” may have an old-school feel to it, but with the four-man tag team trading rhymes back and forth here, it still sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1994. Speaking of old-school, friend of the Beasties Biz Markie cameos on the standout body movin’ track, “Do It.”

On the half hour-long bonus disc, you get rarities like a laugh-filled live acoustic version of “Heart Attack Man,” b-sides that should’ve been album cuts like the killer telephone signal-looped “Resolution Time” and “Dope Little Song.” And if they could have cleaned up the rough production of the rockin’ punk of “Mullet Head,” which features one of the first known uses of the term “mullet,” it too would’ve been a solid album track for this or any Beasties era.

There’s amusing but non-essential filler too, including “Atwater Basketball Association File No. 172-C,” which is just audio of the Boys playing an intense game of b-ball, a favorite pastime of theirs. But flaws like this are few and far between on this release.

Ill Communication was then, as it is now, a record full of the cool, crossover and kickass hip-hop you’ve come to expect from the NYC trio. As a re-issued set with a bonus disc of rare mixes and some golden b-sides, this essential collection of 32 tracks has even more gems now than you bargained for. All told, this LP was the Beasties’ third instant classic in three tries and listening to it all over again without hitting the skip button once only confirms that it was and still is one of the top hip-hop records of the 1990s.
(4 1/2 stars)

To get more info on the remastered Ill Communication, stream all 32 remastered tracks and download the Beasties’ recent audio commentary on the making of the album, visit this link.

Note: This review was originally published at the website of Blogcritics Magazine

Product Review: Digitech HarmonyMan Intelligent Pitch Shifter Pedal

Note: Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine

Whether it’s the Whammy pedal or the GNX 3000, Digitech has a long history of designing quality floor pedals and boards, particularly ones that help take a guitarist’s sound to unforeseen levels (think Tom Morello). And while Digitech’s invention, the HarmonyMan carries over certain characteristics of Whammy pedals of old, this bright red box is a whole other beast.


The HarmonyMan has four different types of pitch-shifting effects, all of which can be seen through alphanumeric displays above the “Voice 1” and “Voice 2” knobs: triad-centered (for three-part harmonies), scale-based (key harmonies), chromatic (or “fixed), and detune. The last of these four effects is a group of four distinct “detuned” chorus-like effects found at the end of the “Voice 1” or “Voice 2” knobs, which are used to select all harmonies. The four detuned/chorus choices are labeled “D1,” “D2,” “D3,” and “D4.”

It also contains a built-in guitar tuner (via holding down the left black footswitch, which doubles as the HM's on/off switch). The tuner uses seven LEDs at the pedal’s center and the “Voice 1” note display window above the “Voice 1” knob for accurate tuning. The pedal features four memory locations (via the pressing the black footswitch on its right side), viewed via four LEDS, and a “store” button to store your harmony presets to these memory locations. In all, the are 42 different voicings/effects in the pedal's Voice knobs, including 24 semitones.

Other features include the “musIQ” button (for key recognition), a “Mix” knob (which controls the mix between lead guitar and harmony effects), “Distortion Send/Return” loop (for stompboxes), “Harmony Key” display, and “Sidechain Input/thru” jacks (for a rhythm guitarist to be the chord recognition source).


Before trying out the HarmonyMan, I needed three quality instrument cables to connect my guitar to it, another floor pedal (for distortion, reverb) and an amplifier. Therefore, I plugged my Fender Stratocaster into the HM’s guitar “input” slot, then connected the “Left (mono)” output of the HM to the guitar input of my Digitech GNX3000 Multi Effects Pedal, then cabled the GNX’s “Left” balanced 1/4'' slot to one of the “Line In” channels on my Behringer KX1200 Keyboard/PA system. Of course, if you want just a clean signal, you can always plug the HM straight into an amp, using the “Left (Mono)” or “Right” outputs. On occasion, I connected my pedal to an old Marshall amp.


I was excited to try out the pedal for its ability to create triad-centered (a.k.a. three-part) harmonies. For those not theory-trained or who may need a quick refresher course, triads are created by hitting/fretting three notes: the root (the bottom or first note), the third (a major or minor sound), and the fifth (perfect/P5, diminished or augmented).

And the first foray into this territory, as well as all subsequent ones did not disappoint, no matter what setup I used. Since you the reader (and guitarist, presumably) do not have the pedal in front of you, keep in mind that there is only one way to create triad-based harmonies, and that is to use both the “Voice 1” and “Voice 2” knobs on the left side of the pedal.

For instance, turning the “Voice 1” knob to “5H” (a perfect fifth above the root note you are playing, plus that root note) and turning the "Voice 2" knob to "3L" (a major or minor third interval below the same root note you are playing) gives you three distinct notes, thus a three-part harmony/triad. As you play around the guitar neck using this setting, you’ll find yourself sounding a bit like Brian May of Queen (without having to double or triple the guitar parts yourself, of course) or the Allman Brothers. Talk about instant gratification.

One can still create the same kind of two-part harmonies found on Whammy pedals of old using one Voice knob at a time. But what makes the HarmonyMan different and powerful is its ability to recognize the chords and keys you are playing. The aforementioned black footswitch on the HM's right side can be pressed on while hitting any major or minor chord and when you let go of it, the circular display of all 24 major and minor keys, called the “Harmony Key,” will instantly and correctly light up the key you are playing the chord in.

This is highly impressive and indeed, it is where the “Intelligent” aspect of the pedal truly manifests itself.

Using the “musIQ” button on the right side is also smart, as it automatically figures out the scale and key you are playing in. One can use this feature when a second guitarist plugs into the “Sidechain” input/thru channels, so while he/she strums chords that the musIQ uses to identify the chord's key, you solo over but in key with that other guitarist. This full and loaded sound will definitely turn some heads.

With 42 different voicings, there’s a ton of creative possible harmony combinations guitarists can come up with. For example, though there are four distinct “detuned” effects here (from swirly-sounding to warbly), a basic chorus effect can be created instantly by turning both Voice 1 and Voice 2 knobs to the same pitch-shifting voice, whether they are both set to “5L,” “3H” or other voicings.

About the only slightly disappointing feature of this otherwise brilliant pedal is that one can only store up to four harmony presets at one time. With the many voicing combinations one can play around with using the two Voice knobs, storing four of them at a time seems a little small.

That said, playing guitar with this pedal, clean or distorted, is a trip. And the real-time left-side footswitch that turns the HarmonyMan on and off instantly is another plus, whether you want to flash your stored (or experimental) harmonies for seconds or several minutes at a time. So is the pedal’s realistic bass guitar replications (“2o,” as in two octaves below and “8L”). The high Whammy-like octave voicings can be a bit warbly but have high-class tone and accuracy.

Bottom line: Digitech’s HarmonyMan pedal, since it’s release last year can be purchased at a reasonable price these days (in the $300 range). But the creativity one can engage him or herself in using this pedal is priceless. Therefore, it is definitely a keeper.

For a quicker overview and demonstration of how the HarmonyMan pedal works, check out this video.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Music Review: Silversun Pickups - Swoon

Please note that this review was initially posted on the website of Blogcritics Magazine 5/27/09

After touring their collective butts off for over three years behind debut EP Pikul (2005) and the ensuing debut record Carnavas (2006), Los Angeles foursome Silversun Pickups found themselves being rewarded with critical praise, a couple of hit singles and an expanding fan base drawn to its rocking yet atmospheric dream pop sound.

For a band with only a couple of EPs and records out, Silversun Pickups have already mastered the art of studio recording and production, with the help of Dave Cooley and mixer Tony Hoffer. Their Carnavas songs had a healthy amount of depth and repeat-worthy material (“Rusted Wheel,” “Three Seed,” and “Lazy Eye” being among them). The same team of musicians and producers helmed its follow-up Swoon (Dangerbird Records). Although there is arguably more layers of sound on the new album, the difference between it and the first record is that this new effort is just a few truly captivating songs short of being a truly great record.

Before the review itself goes any further, setting the record straight is in order here. SSPU may use Siamese Dream-like levels of distortion and fuzz on their records, but comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins are overstated and in fact, should be minimal. Bandleader Brian Aubert is flattered by the comparison but has told the media over the last couple of years (myself included) he never really understood it and didn’t listen to early Pumpkins material until well after Carnavas garnered critical praise and was made aware of such a comparison.

The band is instead more influenced by the master of over-distorted guitars Kevin Shields/My Bloody Valentine, along with Secret Machines and Sonic Youth. FYI, one of the main reasons Siamese Dream has the overloaded guitar sound it has is because the Pumpkins dug MBV and its mixer Alan Moulder so much they hired him to mix the now classic alternative rock record.

Thus, anyone who still insists SSPU are or were influenced by the Pumpkins frankly has no idea what they are talking about. Carnavas never truly did sound like Siamese Dream. It just so happens that this group has brief similarities to the Windy City alt-rock legends here and there – “Lazy Eye” at times perhaps has a tiny weenie bit of “Quiet” in it.

Likewise, Silversun Pickups’ new album has maybe just one Pumpkins-esque song as well, the opener “There’s No Secrets This Year,” which has chord progressions mid-song that sound like a sped-up version of the early Billy Corgan/James Iha b-side "Plume." Other than that, it’s hard to pick up other obvious influences on the record, though thick, Kevin Shields-type guitars can still be heard at times, as on album closer "Surrounded (Or Spiraling)".

Swoon’s best moments are when it gets a little epic, a little sassy, or aggressively heavy. Where “Draining” exemplifies the group’s newfound grand ambition, with its delicate and dark guitars that contrast with bright strings, “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone” represents SSPU’s sexy side (particularly when bassist Nikki Monninger takes the mic). The betrayal-themed “There’s No Secrets This Year,” fuzzed-up loud rocker “Panic Switch,” and the crunchiest parts of “Substitution” represent the best of its heavy material. Speaking of “Substitution,” one of the many tracks that alternate between the light and the heavy, its lighter parts lead you to believe this could be seen as the peppy sequel to Carnavas track “Three Seed.”

Overall, there are no turn-offs or unlistenable tracks on Swoon, just a few songs that test your patience as you wait for the big, loud and fuzzy payoff. The fearless “Growing Old Is Getting Old,” which sees Aubert singing with a pre-pubescent-sounding tenor, is one such track.

All of the subtle and sonic elements of Carnavas are still present here (courtesy of keyboardist Joe Lester). What there is less of on this album is the shoegaze-like material of its earlier work. It instead has a mix of soft and loud guitars with lots of strings weaving above and below them – at least half of Swoon’s ten tracks contain some level of strings. Still, the music here is quite dramatic and dynamic, just not quite as dark as in the past.

Swoon is not exactly SSPU’s answer to The Verve’s Urban Hymns but the heavy amount of strings on this album makes you wonder what direction SSPU is going in. It’s their own sound for sure (despite the influences you may hear), one which could be categorized as soft-to-loud ‘n’ heavy chamber or dream pop. Whatever you want to call it, Swoon is a fine follow-up to Carnavas and the band itself is still exciting to follow. [4 stars]

Key tracks: “There’s No Secrets This Year,” “Substitution,” “Sort Of,” “Panic Switch,” “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone.”

For tour and other Silversun Pickups info, click here.

Music Review: Royksopp - Junior

Note: Yeah, I've been neglecting my blog while attending to other duties. Unfortunately, it happens. But now, here's my Royksopp review originally published in Blogcritics Magazine 5/20/09

It is hard to believe four years have passed since Royksopp dropped their second LP The Understanding to the masses and that it’s been eight years since the native Norwegians graced the world stage with the magnificent debut record Melody A.M..

For its third release (with a fourth planned for later this year), Royksopp’s Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland came up with some instrumental gems, but opted to make a mainly vocal-based record, with their own pipes alongside guests including long-time collaborator Anneli Drecker (on "Vision One"), rising young Norway pop star Lykke Li (“Miss It So Much”), Robyn and others.

Cutting right to the chase, Junior is simply the most consistent and playful album Royksopp has recorded yet. Let me count the ways.

The clap-happy first single and mind-trip of a video “Happy Up Here” is chock full of light-hearted electronics and vocals, and also features a Parliament sample. Thus, it’s a proper introduction to a record full of coolness.

The hot dance track “The Girl And The Robot” sounds like a New Order “Blue Monday” remix-meets-Madonna’s “Hung Up.” It also sees the recently resurrected Swedish pop star Robyn making a cameo and singing about loneliness and frustration about her man working like a robot. It’s a situation so bad she goes “mental” over it and later resorts to watching MTV, which does nothing for her: “Fell asleep again in front of MTV…No one’s singing songs for me”.

On “Vision One” (and to a lesser extent “Happy Up Here”), Royksopp prove they are on the cutting edge in synthesizer technology. The deep, expanding and contracting synth used here is more than rad cool. It’s bleepin’ awesome, especially when heard through high quality headphones or stereo system. The amount of well-produced and structured otherworldly soundscapes on this album is enough to make the likes of Daft Punk and Air jealous.

“This Must Be It,” featuring the passionate and breathy vocals of The Knife’s Karen Dreijer-Anderson and oceanic wave-like synths at its end, is arguably the most blissful house number Royksopp’s written to date.

“Silver Cruiser,” the most peaceful and trippy track and instrumental on the album sounds like electronic Radiohead if they were inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

The rest of these tracks are enjoyable to listen to as well, though "True To Life" may test your patience, as it doesn't veer all that much from its initial melody and take off into flange-aided psychedelic territory until its last minute or so. And a corny lyric or two on “Tricky Tricky” may make you wince for a couple of seconds, but this slice of synth-heavy electronica is an otherwise effervescent rave-up.

In all, Junior not only keeps its streak of extraordinarily produced records alive, it bridges the divide between the lovable instrumental soundscapes of its first record and the more pop vocal-oriented material from its second, only with better results this time around. In other words, it’s a must-have for any serious Royksopp fan. [4 stars]

Key tracks: “The Girl And The Robot,” “Vision One,” “This Must Be It,” “Silver Cruiser”

Click here to watch Royksopp's "Happy Up Here" video.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Music Review: Tinted Windows - Tinted Windows

Posted originally on the Blogcritics web site 5/15/09

Fountains of Wayne/Ivy co-founder and bassist Adam Schlesinger and ex-Smashing Pumpkins/A Perfect Circle guitarist James Iha may have started out on different paths along the alt-rock spectrum, but since the mid-1990s these two well-respected musicians and producers have been close friends and collaborators.

In addition to co-founding the Scratchie Records imprint and Stratosphere Sound studio in New York City, these two have toured together – Fountains of Wayne opened for the Pumpkins in the mid-1990s – and guested on many of their respective bands’ albums over the years. Iha has played guitar or added vocals to Ivy and FofW albums, while Schlesinger contributed piano/bass guitar on Iha’s lone solo record Let It Come Down and piano on Pumpkins tunes, including the Iha-penned "The Bells."

Schlesinger has also been longtime friends with Taylor Hanson of the Hanson Brothers, and Iha with Cheap Trick through the iconic Chicago group’s longstanding friendship with members of fellow Chicago natives, the Pumpkins.

Somehow, Schlesinger found time between FofW and other projects to get this odd mix of friends and associates together to form a supergroup of sorts, record a self-titled album and tour behind it, including a stop at SXSW and an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman in recent months.

Leadoff track "Kind Of A Girl" was written by Schlesinger, yet sees Hanson asserting himself as a frontman and Iha turning up his guitars to make his presence loud and clear as lead guitarist, something he hasn’t been since his pre-Pumpkins days (if you don’t include his one-off solo project in 1998). Catchy "uh ohs" and "whoas" carry the choruses while a short, phaser-propelled flashy solo by Iha hints back (barely) to his early Pumpkins contributions (think "Plume").

After this strong start, there isn’t anything particularly memorable until the frustrated pop punk of "Can’t Get A Read On You" and the lovely, steady Iha-penned "Back With You" counter-balance each other as a solid one-two punch.

The problem with this record isn’t necessarily that the songs are bad. They’re all easy on the ears, but too often there isn’t many points that catch your ear by surprise. It’s meat-and-potatoes power pop. For much of it, Iha and company play it safe, so-to-speak.

Perhaps one notable exception is the almost bluesy pop of "Cha Cha," with some surprisingly bluesy guitar licks by Iha, the song’s author, and glistening acoustic guitar tracks underneath to round out the sound.

Last track "Take Me Back," a Hanson/Schlesinger collaboration has Hanson singing in David Bowie fashion with his "Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes"-like refrain "T-T-T-Take Me Back" and some simple yet memorable guitar work to end the album.

As a frontman, Taylor Hanson may give his new group the kind of rock star sex appeal Cheap Trick thrived on but on this record, he lacks lyrical depth and charismatic skills of the likes of Robin Zander. That said, Tinted Windows as a band have created an easy-to-swallow record, but one that’s lacking in truly unforgettable material.

Thus, they need to raise the bar a little for power pop in order to separate themselves from the hundreds of other (much younger) similar acts. Star power alone won’t be enough for them to be mainstays in the mainstream and indie rock circuit like the members’ full-time acts have been.
[3 out of 5 stars]

For more info on Tinted Windows, visit its Myspace page.

Michael Goldfarb Forwards NRO's "Ethnicity-Hustling" Attack on Sotomayor to Readers

I realize this is my first political-related blog entry in a long time. But the following just made me mad enough to write about and ask accountability for (even if it has a faint chance of actually happening).

First, over the weekend the conservative Weekly Standard writer Michael Goldfarb was proven dead wrong in a blog post about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor teaching and grading her own seminar, "The Puerto Rican Experience" at her alma mater Princeton University in the mid-1970s, where she graduated at the top of her class and summa cum laude. Neither hers or the other 131 (at the time) Princeton student-initiated seminars were taught or graded by the proposing student. [It goes without saying that the courses' integrity would be a joke if students were allowed to do either]

Then, we get an "updated" email that not only doesn't correct the record, it makes Goldfarb's short blog entry on Sotomayor even worse: "I thought the same thing about that bit of ethnicity-hustling that Sotomayor engaged in as a Princeton student—that she and her classmates got to run the whole show themselves when they got their seminar on “the Puerto Rican experience”—until I saw the press release from 1974 that the Daily Princetonian dug up. It seems they applied for a class of their own, and even got to set the readings and syllabus, under a loopy 1968 policy that handed this kind of curricular initiative over to students. But they did get an assistant professor of history to “teach” the class, after they designed it. (Some academic freedom he had!) Presumably he handed out the grades, but since he was (conveniently) an untenured assistant professor running a little class with some experienced Mau-Maus, you could almost predict the A’s all around from day one."

You see, not only does Mr. Franck not think the "Puerto Rican Experience" seminar Sonia Sotomayor and other students took was legit, he thinks it was the result of "ethnicity-hustling." Of course, using the term "hustling" here in reference to a minority should raise eyebrows. So should his use of "Mau-Maus", which can be slang for a Puerto Rican street gang and was definitely used to smear "The Puerto Rican Experience" seminar's professor, Dr. Peter E. Winn.

If these aren't racist comments on Mr. Franck's part, I don't know what are.

Apparently Goldfarb approves of these comments, otherwise he wouldn't have forwarded this email to his readers. Or, he somehow overlooked or thought nothing of them.

Either way, important clarifications about Sotomayor's Princeton days and an explanation about Franck's racist-sounding email he added on to his blog entry is warranted, not necessarily to me but to his readers. Even though I disagree with their writings more often than not, The Weekly Standard and NRO (National Review) are better than this garbage - the glaring falsehoods and racist language - and they should dispose of it immediately.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Music Review: Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique (Remastered 20th Anniversary Edition)

Note: First posted on the recently face-lifted Blogcritics Magazine site on 5/10/09

Twenty years after its initial release, the Beastie Boys’ second full-length Paul’s Boutique stands tall as the trio’s most diverse, fun and innovative album of its career. Around late January/early February, the group, via its website gave it new life as it released a remastered version on vinyl and eco-friendly CD form with the option of downloading digital versions (while you wait for the physical versions to hit your mailbox). You could also get this release in pure digital form (320 kbps mp3, plus interactive 3D digital artwork).

These New York City natives were recording in Los Angeles in 1989, but as the album cover suggests, this epic release thematically was an ode of sorts to their home state and life – “Hey Ladies” was the exception, as it was geared towards California girls.

In many ways, P.B. was different than its smash debut Licensed To Ill. While the latter was both a pioneering and ultimate party rap/hard rock record, Paul’s Boutique was wild in a unique way, and its secret weapon was the Dust Brothers, E.Z. Mike in particular.

MCA (Adam Yauch), Mike D (Michael Diamond) and Ad-Rock yelled or smoothly rapped endless amounts of clever rhymes throughout the album, while E.Z. Mike scratched, sampled and cut tons of records to provide a mixture of sound unlike anything you’ve ever heard before or since. In all, there are reportedly 105 songs sampled on P.B., and they run the gamut from jazz, R&B, country/bluegrass and funk to hip-hop, reggae, soul, and hard rock. Listening to these songs and samples is still a trip all these years later.

The only live instrumentation comes from Yauch’s bass guitar and Ad-Rock’s guitar parts on track “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun,” also the only rap/metal track in the vein of Licensed To Ill on the record. It’s simple yet impressive, especially given the fact that rappers weren’t known for playing their own instruments back then. The Beasties, who started out as hardcore punk rockers, would only increase their level of hands-on musicianship on future albums.

The optional 50-minute-long P.B. audio commentary you can download from the Beastie Boys website as an mp3 is very revealing, as the trio goes through what they remember about the recording process of all 23 songs. Here, the aforementioned E.Z. Mike is much heralded by the Boys for his work on the record, along with Matt Dike and other behind-the-scenes people who helped shape it.

Among many facts (too many to mention here), you learn from the commentary that “Egg Man” was partly inspired by these young rappers’ history of throwing eggs at people, and that what they call the “crazy retarded scratch” in the middle of “The Sounds of Science” was based on a vinyl record that kept skipping on E.Z. Mike. It sounded so humorous to the Beasties that it was included on the record. Also, this essential P.B. track included samples of a few Beatles tracks. Indeed, the Dust Brothers brilliantly mixed in samples of “Sgt. Peppers,” “The End,” and “Back In The U.S.S.R.” while the Beasties gang-rapped all over it.

In addition to being remastered, this seminal record was also resequenced. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” was originally a bunch of short recordings grouped as a suite for the 15th and final track. For the 20th Anniversary edition, it was separated into 9 separate tracks, giving the album 23 in total, with track 19, the bass-booming “Hello Brooklyn” being its explosive highlight. What a relief it is to not have constantly press the REW/FWD buttons on your CD player (or cassette tape deck for those of you who had one of those back in the day) anymore to hear your favorite tracks from this formerly 12-minute suite.

And with that, arguably the strongest Beastie Boys record from start to finish just got even better. Thus, the 20th anniversary edition of Paul’s Boutique deserves and has truly earned my first-ever perfect (five-star) rating.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Music DVD Review - Metal Machine Music: Nine Inch Nails And The Industrial Uprising.

Originally posted on the NEWLY revamped website of Blogcritics Magazine on 5/1/09

Industrial music has been underground for most of its three decades of existence. And the artists who inhabit it would love for it to stay that way. But sometimes a musical genre contains a break out artist who can simultaneously reinvent, revitalize and reel in hundreds of thousands of new fans into it. For industrial music, that artist was Trent Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails.

The important history of industrial rock before Nine Inch Nails, the artists who influenced Nine Inch Nails, along with a verbal biography of NIN’s leader Trent Reznor is the main focus of this long but extraordinary DVD entitled: Metal Machine Music: Nine Inch Nails And The Industrial Uprising.

It features numerous rare live clips of premier industrial artists including Einsturzende Neubauten, Ministry, Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy, NIN and pre-NIN Trent Reznor as well as extensive interviews about their impact on industrial music with NIN biographer Tommy Udo, ex-NIN member Richard Patrick (1989-1993), ex-NIN drummer Chris Vrenna (1989-1997), Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle, and journalists from Metal Edge and Revolver magazine, among others.

In the DVD, you learn from Throbbing Gristle’s P-Orridge that a depressed economy in England, construction outside its surroundings and a desire to create a type of original music that incorporated disturbing art was what inspired his group’s sound and performance in the mid-‘70s, the same period punk rock came into being. In fact, true to punk rock/DIY form, TG made it a point to play without a drummer, which was an unoriginal instrument to P-Orridge and instead used special effects and homemade tape-based samplers to create much of its sound, which the group called “industrial” via its own label (Industrial Records).

TG’s self-created sound proved inspirational to later industrial acts and its label, along with Mute Records, finally gave a home to similar experimental industrial acts (Fad Gadget, Cabaret Voltaire, Einsturzende Neubauten), according to the narrator. A black-and-white photo of the latter group in the DVD standing in front of machinery further illustrates its true industrial creations.

One of the key expert points on the formation of industrial music in this DVD comes from Ned Raggett of Metal Edge, who states that not only can it not be defined as a particular set of sounds, but that it has roots in everything from disco and avant garde (i.e. Fad Gadget), and jazz to Kraftwerk and other early electronic experimentalists.

After going through the history of early Industrial Records and Mute Records acts and the more aggressive, bludgeoning music of early ‘80s industrial acts that followed, including Skinny Puppy and Ministry/Revolting Cocks, you realize the purpose of this narration was to explain how most of these aforementioned groups had a profound influence on the early Nine Inch Nails sound, on its debut record Pretty Hate Machine in particular. After all, as Richard Patrick (Filter, ex-NIN) recounts, Reznor once told him during a Revolting Cocks concert that its (and Ministry’s) lead singer Al Jourgensen was his “f-ing idol.” Interestingly, music experts in the DVD say David Bowie is also considered an influence on Reznor. The fact that the two toured together in 1995 and recorded together in 1997 provides further evidence this is not a far-fetched claim in the least.

Speaking of 1995, by this time period NIN went from being a theater-touring big name to an arena-level power player in rock and roll, thanks not only to the rough and raunchy Downward Spiral hits “March of the Pigs” and “Closer” but to an unforgettable, mud-and-rain-soaked show at Woodstock 1994 in front of 300,000 fans in New York, according to Vrenna. This is when industrial rock started to go mainstream (for a short period of time). NIN’s success helped open the doors for other industrial metal acts including Marilyn Manson, Stabbing Westward and Richard Patrick’s post-NIN band Filter, though they are only briefly mentioned here. Perhaps more about those bands’ impact on industrial music could’ve been explored on this DVD.

The rest of this film explores the importance, meaning and circumstances regarding later Trent Reznor/NIN albums, including what critics, including those at Metal Edge consider the most “revolutionary” release in any kind of music, the Ghosts I-IV album. With Reznor’s decision to self-release it in many forms, some limited (and sold-out), others more inexpensive, it was a successful album that netted more than $1 million, even if it was also the quietest, least abrasive release of his career. Even if the critics on the DVD don’t think Reznor’s recent output is his best, they all praise his creative marketing skills and ponder the influence it will have on the music industry in general.

Another highlight, and an unexpected one at that occurs when Chris Vrenna, looking into the camera, nearly gets emotional talking about Johnny Cash’s stunning cover of the drugs-and-pain-themed NIN hit “Hurt,” recorded in 2002. Cash knew he didn’t have long to live at the time, and Vrenna knew that as well. But that Grammy-winning cover not only “one-upped” Trent’s original version according to him but actually brought the musician to tears knowing Cash’s condition. At this point you wish Reznor himself would make an appearance and comment about this cover, but such is not the case since the DVD is technically not “authorized” by him.

In all, the Metal Machine Music DVD is essential for Nine Inch Nails fans, not just for all the rare live and backstage footage of a young and current Trent Reznor but for the insight into his music by authoritative sources. Moreover, it was made for those NIN fans who may have missed out on or underappreciated the industrial pioneers who came before and inspired Reznor. The DVD may be over 2 hours long, but viewing it in its entirety is time well spent and serves as both an introductory education class in industrial music and credible biography of Nine Inch Nails, the most successful industrial act of all time.

Music DVD Review: Fountains of Wayne - No Better Place: Live In Chicago

Originally posted on the NEWLY redesigned Blogcritics Magazine website 4/19/09

New York’s veteran aces of power pop Fountains of Wayne have been putting out records for thirteen years, but this spring saw the release of its first ever live DVD, entitled No Better Place: Live In Chicago. In fact, it was released within days of its short east coast winter tour that started in January and finished up in Massachusetts on March 1.

The main portion of the DVD was recorded in Chicago in October of 2005; the bonus 5-song acoustic set was filmed in December of 2008 in New York.

Cutting right to the chase, this DVD is grade A material, as it contains performances of nearly all your favorite FOW songs, plus a few newer tracks that sound pleasantly folky and Americana-esque in acoustic form. The slide guitar-propelled “Fire In The Canyon” in particular comes to mind.

Culling much of the 16-song main set from the band’s arguably best two records – the self-titled 1996 debut and 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers - was a smart decision, as essentials like “Stacy’s Mom,” “Hey Julie,” “Radiation Vibe,” “Valley Winter Song” and “Sink To The Bottom” were included and sound vibrant here. Other notables include the Elvis Costello-ish-punk-meets-doo-wop hit “Denise” and the light and breezy “Hackensack,” which was as gentle as the warm summer wind. Less popular but no less lacking in hooks, the rollicking “Maureen” and “Janice’s Party” are from the leftovers cd Out-Of-State Plates 2-CD compilation from 2005.

On the bonus acoustic session from last year, singer/rhythm guitarist Chris Collingwood definitely looks a bit older with his fully grown beard and moustache, but he and his band still perform as if it were 1999 all over again. The oldie “Joe Rey,” even on acoustic and piano (courtesy of bassist Adam Schlesinger) sounds energetic and punk-ish, while the Beatles-esque “I-95,” “Someone To Love” and the ex-lovers-based and Gram Parsons-ish “Fire In The Canyon” are from the group’s fourth studio album Traffic And Weather, released in 2007. Though clearly not the group’s best and most memorable album, these selections sound grand and tight.

Other than saying it was an “honor” to play in Chicago, FOY didn’t talk much between numbers or banter with the audience all that much, though there are a couple of between-performance moments worth noting. After Collingwood teased the crowd with an impromptu riff of the Kansas ballad “Dust In The Wind,” Schlesinger joked: “Kansas just got like $300 because he did that.” After some laughter, the singer said: “They deserve it.” Speaking of classic rock, it wasn’t lost on this reviewer that FOY brilliantly snuck in a riff or two of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” during an early performance of “I’ve Got A Flair”

Another odd moment happened early after the drinking-party-themed b-side “Janice’s Party” when Collingwood stated: “Contrary to popular belief, not all of our songs are about drinking.” His songs are more about life’s everyday issues and themes including work, travel, girls and such, and so knowing full well that not many fans think what Collingwood stated was true, an audience member appropriately shouted “Huh?” before FOY continued on.

There are hardly any outstanding issues or flaws to be had with this release, but the run time of +/- 75 minutes seems a little short for a band approaching its fifteenth year in existence. Then again, much of its material is in the typical three-minute pop song range and hardly ever stretches beyond the four-minute mark. Sure, oldies like “Leave The Biker” were left off the set list, but at 21 songs total between full rock band mode and an acoustic set, there are plenty of performances here to satisfy curious and casual Fountains of Wayne fans alike.

Taking a closer look at the performing side, though Jody Porter’s guitar showmanship is impressive given the constraints of a pop band, there is a bit of a lack of excitement and energy coming from most other members. The band, and especially Collingwood, keeps its collective “game face” on the whole show with seeming ease, choosing to reveal personality traits between songs instead of in-song. But make no mistake about it: Fountains of Wayne is a seriously fun power pop band. They just apparently feel like letting the audience show them how much fun they’re having while the band simply concentrates and rocks out the jams.

Overall, Fountains of Wayne’s No Better Place DVD is a fun and timely release from a band who writes nothing but timeless pop rock numbers. Musically, a song like “Radiation Vibe” is still as edgy and rockin’ – in a Radiohead “Bones” kind of way – now as it was in 1996. Indeed, many of their older songs would no doubt still sound like hits today, in a rock world that still values power pop acts (Weezer comes to mind, for one).

The 5-song bonus acoustic set is also a treat and acts as a well-timed preview for fans heading out to see FOW on its acoustic tour this summer (if you missed them earlier this year). So pick up No Better Place if you’ve ever been a big Fountains of Wayne fan or into good time, summery pop rock in general.

Here’s a clip of the Chicago performance of “Stacy’s Mom” for your enjoyment.

Be sure to check out fountainsofwayne.com for a full list of tour dates as they become available.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Music Review: Wild Light - Adult Nights

Originally posted at Blogcritics 4/6/09

“Go and get your things now/We’re going for a ride,” says Wild Light on “Call Home,” one of many merry poppy tracks from this New Hampshire-by-way-of-Quincy, MA quartet’s debut album Adult Nights (StarTime International/Columbia). It is a trip indeed, through two decades of anthemic, jangle-ish and folky indie rock that is as nostalgic as it is modern-sounding (thanks to former Beck and Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf).

Formed in 2005, Wild Light has been building a buzz in the periphery of the mainstream rock terrain for some time now. Having released a self-titled EP in 2007 and played the annual SXSW festival each of the last couple of years, the foursome never stopped building momentum and winning new fans, and has toured with and opened for an impressive roster of breakthrough indie rock acts including MGMT, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and others. In fact, bassist Tim Kyle was in an early incarnation of Arcade Fire before leaving to co-found his current group.

With the March release of its long-awaited debut full length, Wild Light is poised to make a big splash on the mainstream alternative rock scene itself. And after many listens to the 13-track effort, it’s not hard to see why.

Leadoff track “California On My Mind,” with its capo-fretted jangle guitar rock – in the vein of a more upbeat Phantom Planet – and expletives sung with a smile on singer/guitarist Jordan Alexander’s face, gets things off to a care-free, sunny start.

Utterances of car crashes and family lead the despair-driven “New Hampshire” for a little while, but the group’s harmonized vocals and “nah-nah-nah” choruses turn it into a pop anthem before long, capped off by buzzing guitars and MGMT-like synths.

The first seven tracks on Adult Nights have their moments of joy but tracks eight and nine (“The Party” and “My Father Was A Horse”) are largely forgettable. Along with “California,” the jittery, summery guitars of “Surf Generation” and the out of this world Jonny Greenwood-esque production on “Heart Attack” highlight the first half, while the twinkling atmospherics and simple ascending/descending electric guitar notes and Killers-like vocals on “Lawless River” highlight the late portion of the disc. And speaking of 1980s influences, the “ooh-oohs” on “New Year’s Eve” recalls vintage New Order.

For all the hoopla regarding the band’s connections to the Arcade Fire, there is surprisingly little material on this disc that sounds like the Canadian rockers, the somber album closer “Red House” – not a Hendrix cover – being the most notable exception.

Wild Light has spent time living or recording on the west and east coasts, and the music on this disc largely reflects that, with the greater balance going toward warm and fuzzy feel-good songs, though you may hear some colder, shivery tracks with sleigh bells from these Northeast natives at various spots (ex. “Future Towns”).

Thus, Wild Light’s first disc Adult Nights, besides having only a few subpar tracks out of thirteen, will soundtrack more warm spring days than cold ones. Be sure to pick this disc up now before they, and the weather really heats up.
Recommended If You Like: The Shins, Arcade Fire, MGMT, Phantom Planet, Brit Pop

To stream the full album, click here.

For more info on the band, go to their Myspace page.

Charlie Doherty's Favorite Releases of 2008

Originally posted at the Blogcritics site 3/25/09

Believe it or not, albums that came out in the last year are still finding my inbox, mailbox and CD player. You could say 2008 is the year that keeps on giving us great music. But with the first quarter of 2009 about to close, at some point you have to come to an end point on the year that was if the intention is to make a list of your favorites. For me, now is that point.

And what a year for music 2008 was, rock and roll especially. January started out with releases from alternative rock staples Radiohead (the official release of In Rainbows on XL Recordings), Smashing Pumpkins (the overlooked American Gothic EP), and new rock by the likes of Athens, Georgia-based The Whigs. By the time this January came around, I was still discovering new and great music – the Gaslight Anthem being the highlight of this bunch.

In my opinion, 2008 was a heck of year for Southern rock bands (including The Whigs), with the reemergence of that other Athens band (R.E.M.), pleasant discoveries of newer groups such as North Carolina’s The Sammies, and new albums from veterans My Morning Jacket and Kings Of Leon (who also won a Grammy this year for the hit single “Sex On Fire”). Read on to see which of these bands made my favorites list.

The metal world saw veterans take over, with killer releases by everyone from Metallica and Yngwie Malmsteen to Nevermore’s Jeff Loomis, but newer acts like Torche impressed me as well. Though Judas Priest came back with an ambitious and to critics, a “mixed” effort with the double LP Nostradamus, more impressive to my eyes and ears was the Halford Live At Rock In Rio III DVD/CD package, which featured a remastered Halford solo CD Resurrection together with an hour-long concert from the 2000-2001 “Resurrection World Tour,” a lengthy documentary of it featuring Rob Halford in studio with Bruce Dickinson, and much more. This package largely summed up the best material Halford did outside of his Priest work and is no doubt my favorite non-Judas Priest release.

Other favorite music DVDs that came out late last year include the Radiohead-heavy and Nigel Godrich-produced From The Basement – Various Artists live performance DVD (which was released again in March), and the legendary pre-synthesizer-era The Who shows of 1977 and 1969 – featuring the band’s raw and first ever performance of rock opera Tommy - as captured on Live At Kilburn: 1977, a must-have for any The Who fan.

With so many very good-to-great releases to consider for a list of favorites, it was not an easy task to nail it all down to a Top Ten list, so I’ll give you around ten (ok: lucky thirteen) releases that really made a large impression on me and my mp3/CD/DVD players, and then a short list of some other releases I liked.

10. Filter - Anthems For The Damned
Not too many people I know heard or talked about this album, but Richard Patrick made one of may favorite rock-out-with-your-headphones-on releases of the year. Whether it’s radio-ready rockers like “Kill The Day” and “Soldiers of Misfortune” or the dreamy soundscapes of “Only You” and its instrumental companion “Can Stop This,” it’s the best album Patrick has done since 1999’s career-defining Title of Record.

9. Putumayo Presents - Euro Groove
It was through an e-card that a PR rep sent Blogcritics last year that I got to sample the first three tracks from this awe-inspiring compilation of great music from around the world. But I wasn’t happy with just samples and so went to a local store and tracked down this classy, varied and strong collection of ten tracks by artists from Italy, England, Lebanon, Germany, France and elsewhere.

Euro Groove was an eye-opener for me to be sure and more compilations like this will surely redefine what has been described as “world music,” (which would no doubt please David Byrne). The gorgeous strings on the jazzy fusion track “Destins Et Desirs“ by Lebanon’s Toufic Farroukh, the seductive and electronic ambience of “Nuit Magique” by Jazzamor, the ambient funk of “Superwhirly” by Guateque All Stars and the urban pop of “Check In” by Fiamma Fumana are my favorites, though all are enjoyable.

8. Gigantour 2 by Various Artists CD and DVD
The Megadeth-centered tour of a few years ago (2006) featured some of the best up-and-coming acts in heavy metal, including Lamb of God and Into Eternity as well as veterans like Arch Enemy, Overkill and Opeth. For me, the Opeth contributions made me a bigger fan of the band and inspired me to check out some past albums. For that alone, these releases deserve mention in this list. Both discs contain multiple and equally power-packed Megadeth performances as well, including a live version of Megadeth classic “Peace Sells.” Overall, the Gigantour 2 CD and DVD (sold separately) is one hell of a one-two punch.

7. Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
To say that a band like Death Cab has “grown” as a band over its decade-plus years of existence would be an insult. They have been great songwriters since its inception, starting with 1998’s garage-esque-produced Something About Airplanes 1998 debut.

With Narrow Stairs, its sixth album and second for a major label (Atlantic, after spending its formative years with Barsuk Records), you see the band trying its hand at prog rock-ish material (“I Will Possess Your Heart”) and exotic/tribal beats and loops (“Pity And Fear”). Then there’s the romantic violins that carry “Your New Twin Sized Bed,” literary references to Jack Kerouac (“Bixby Canon Bridge”) and one of the best singles of 2008, “Cath.” Simply put, DCFC is just a great band that finds new ways to get even better than you thought they could be.

6. The Gaslight Anthem – The ‘59 Sound
These Jersey boys don’t need absurdly loud guitars or a nine-piece band to make a great record. With lyrical prose and storytelling that is Springsteen-esque and a Replacements-like punkish aura throughout the band’s second record, The ‘59 Sound is filled with one rockin’ or catchy winner after another, its celebratory title track included.

5. The Sammies – Sandwich
Sometimes, you discover great new music. Other times, new music discovers you. Such is the case here. After doing a Blogcritics review of The Whigs - Mission Control album, a PR rep from The Sammies tracked me down to offer up this album for review, since the two bands not only share southern rock roots but are good friends with one another. I took a chance on them and it surely paid off. A little bit of retro, cool ‘80s rock (in the vein of Echo & The Bunnymen), blues-influenced ‘70s rock and modern rock, it’s a consistently enjoyable and varied record. A great discovery, indeed.

4. Metallica – Death Magnetic
This magnificently back-to-basics thrash metal release is a great album, but also one of the most aggravating ones to come out in some time. Songwriting wise, Metallica has remastered the long and the heavy, the type that made them a household name in the metal world in the 1980s. And though some fans still complain about the thin mix of And Justice For All, the digital distortion you likely experienced listening to this album means Death Magnetic takes the cake for Worst. Production. Ever. It’s not enough to make you want to stop listening altogether, but does make for a disturbing/unsettling listening experience at times.

Worst of all, Metallica stands by it, saying that to clean up the mix would mean taking out the liveliness of the album’s overall sound. Since when do you have to choose between a lively record and digital distortion? Hopefully someday James Hetfield and crew will think differently and remix the album, because one this relentlessly rockin’ and consistent certainly deserves better production than this.

3. The Whigs – Mission Control
Here’s a young southern rock group that has fast become a household name in alternative rock this past year, thanks in part to exposure to late night TV, including on Late Night With David Letterman. The Whigs have a couple of albums to its name, but Mission Control’s catchy, My Morning Jacket-esque sound and at times early ‘90s-ish material doesn’t have a weakling among its eleven tracks. They may not be breaking new ground here but provide a refresher course to remind people – as my next pick surely will as well – that a great band doesn’t need much more than a bass, drums and single guitar attack to attain a full and dynamic sound.

2. The Who – Live At Kilburn: 1977
For you older folks out there and the younger ones (like me) who were not alive when The Who were at the peak of their live and studio wizardry and powers, this two-concert DVD captures the original four members loud, rude and proud. The 1969 show, though grainy in video quality, is a true treasure, as the band performs favorites and a couple of operas (“A Quick One While He’s Away” and “Tommy”), a novelty during this time period. They do so with nothing but the sounds of their collective voices, drums, electric bass and Townshend’s roaring Gibson guitar – no piano/keyboards wanted or needed. The same is true for the 1977 show, one of the last filmed shows with the drugged up mad man behind the kit, Keith Moon before his death the next year. Lively and energetic doesn’t begin to describe how powerful these performances are, not to mention influential.

With the likes of U2 taking the crown of being one of the last great innovative guitar-centric arena rock bands on Earth, this DVD is a reminder of who, along with Led Zeppelin deserved such a title.

1. Radiohead – In Rainbows/From The Basement DVD
What else can you say about Radiohead that hasn’t been said before? It is a group that, far from past its prime, mixes the loveliest melodies (“All I Need,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”), the hard charging (“Bodysnatchers”) and the deceptively heavy (guitar-tuning-wise) “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” the best emotional-but-not-emo song I’ve heard Yorke and co. write in years. After seeing the band live in the summer of 2008, and praising to others how cool and solid the experience was, it was only afterwards you realized that the entirety of In Rainbows was performed.

When fans can get behind and excited for the new material – even if much of it was at least two years in the making – as much as the old material live, you know you’ve accomplished something special. ‘Enuff said.

The From The Basement DVD is an all-star roster of alternative rockers live and in a basement studio in Britain. It is a brilliant, though couple of years old series recently released on DVD – reviewed here – that features nothing but pure, uninterrupted (though audience-less) live performances from the likes of Beck, Jamie Lidell, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, The White Stripes, and of course, Radiohead and Thom Yorke solo. It is truly a must-have for those who grew up in the ‘90s and early 2000s with these alternative music heroes.

Semi-Favorites of 2008: TAB The Band – Pulling Out Just Enough To Win, Baskervilles – Twilight, R.E.M. – Accelerate, SP – American Gothic EP, Torche - Meanderthal, Halford – Live At Rock In Rio III DVD/CD, Ryan Adams - Cardinology, Clutch - Full Fathom Five: Video Field Recordings