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 for a full list of tour dates as they become available.