Yo Gabba Gabba: Music Is…Awesome! Volume 2

RIYL: hipster bands, watching your kids dance

Landing a cool 10 months after the release of Volume I of Yo Gabba Gabba’s Music Is…Awesome! series, this set rights some of the wrongs of that first album by including some of the bands they overlooked the last time (Jimmy Eat World, MGMT, Datarock, and thank God they finally released the Ting Tings’ cover of “Happy Birthday”). The catch with this set is that the songs by the contributing rock bands are much better, but the songs from the show are, well, not. Yes, “Hold Still” finally makes an appearance, but it’s the lesser of the two versions that have appeared on the show. Meanwhile, the “Freeze Game” song here does not measure up to the ‘you can’t catch us!’ ‘Freeze’ song from another episode. (Perhaps they chose the version they did so they didn’t have two songs that featured Brobee whining about not being able to keep up.) Alas, the Aggrolites’ song “Banana” is still nowhere to be found, nor is GOGO13′s song “Pick It Up” which, years after their debut on the show, are still the two most commonly sung “Yo Gabba Gabba” songs in this writer’s household. Their exclusion from these sets is bordering on comical, if it weren’t so tragic. Still, the Weezer song (“All My Friends Are Insects”) is great, as are the songs by Hot Hot Heat (“Time to Go Outdoors”) and the Apples in Stereo (“That’s My Family”). In the end the album, much like the show, has some moments of genius, surrounded by stuff that you merely tolerate for the sake of your kids. No excuses, guys: put “Pick It Up” and “Banana” on the next set, or there will be hell to pay. (Filter 2010)

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The Black Crowes: Croweology

RIYL: Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Derek & the Dominoes, The Derek Trucks Band

The Black Crowes are going on hiatus in 2011 and already delivered a great new double album with last year’s Before the Frost… Until the Freeze combo. You can always count on these guys to mix things up, though. So instead of issuing a standard greatest hits package to tour behind, Croweology finds the band delivering newly recorded acoustic versions of two albums’ worth of material. The songs run the gamut from classic hits to deep album cuts. There aren’t as many rarities as one might hope for, but there’s a strong variety of material, some cool new arrangements and some great jams that are unusual for studio albums.

The set opens with a pretty standard rendition of “Jealous Again,” but this is the song that put the band on the map, so it’s an appropriate opener. But a new arrangement of “Share the Ride” demonstrates how the band is out to try some new things. The beat is based on a drum machine and hand claps, which make for a particularly funky groove. Guitarists Rich Robinson and Luther Dickinson throw down some great six-string interplay here and put on a clinic throughout the album for how two-guitar bands should operate.

“Non-Fiction” takes on a more majestic aura, while “Hotel Illness” smokes with some extra bluesy harmonica and a back yard sort of vibe. “Wiser Time” – perhaps the band’s ultimate jam vehicle – features more superb guitar interplay on a stellar spacey jam. “Cold Boy Smile” is the only previously unreleased tune and features a mystical type of intro jam that recalls the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” before shifting into more of a Crowesy blues vibe with Chris Robinson offering some of his most heartfelt vocals. “Under a Mountain,” a barnburner on the band’s underrated Three Snakes and One Charm, receives a new arrangement that transforms the song into Led Zeppelin IIIterritory with gorgeous results. And that’s all just on disc one.

“She Talks to Angels” kicks off disc two and features some extra fiddle that gives the song an Americana flavor. “Morning Song” is one of the shining gems of the set with its warm groove, sparkling slide guitar and more of that backyard honky-tonk rock vibe. It’s also got a great hand-clap breakdown jam in middle with Chris singing about how “music got to free your mind.” “Downtown Money Waster” is another highlight with some great banjo and fiddle that make for a fresh, higher energy arrangement. “Thorn in My Pride” – the band’s other supreme jam vehicle – receives deluxe treatment as the band blends their Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead and Clapton influences together for another stellar jam on this perennial fan fave.

The entire set features a slew of subtle embellishments that feel like fresh paint strokes on classic art work, just little enhancements that ring with tasty new flavor. The CD version also tries to keep the old school album vibe alive with beautiful psychedelic fonts and a picture inside that turns into a pop-up book with two crows sitting by a campfire in the forest, smoking a spliff while some purple mushrooms grow nearby. It all enhances the band’s classic rock vibe that is sadly all too rare these days. (Silver Arrow Records 2010)

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Iron Maiden: The Final Frontier

RIYL: Dream Theatre, Savatage, Queensryche

Looking for another set of covers by an established act? How about a band looking to completely re-invent itself by offering up Bossa Nova versions of its classics (Rundgren did it in 1997 on With a Twist)? That ain’t happening here. Iron Maiden offers up 76 minutes of progressive metal, professionally and unapologetically on the very good The Final Frontier. The shortest track is 4:29, two tracks are slightly over 5:19 and the rest are in the six-to-11-minute range. Frontier has the necessary Maiden ingredients; song titles like “The Alchemist” and “The Talisman,” theatrical vocalizations by Bruce Dickinson, the monster guitar work, the rolling, rumbling bass lines and the kinetic drumming of Nico McBrain.

This is a 2010 release but sounds like a classic. With a loose galactic theme running throughout, Dickinson really lets it fly with his best vocal performance on “Coming Home.” That track joins Bowie’s “Space Oddity” or Planet P’s “Why Me?” in the pantheon of great space pilot songs. One wonders how Dickinson just doesn’t collapse because he sounds as if he puts everything he has in every note. He doesn’t have the vocal pop of Geoff Tate or Rob Halford, but he certainly makes up for it with passion and a delivery that lets it loose at the very edge of his range. As usual, the guitar work – and there is plenty of it as the keyboards are very subtle – from Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers is terrific, coming up with small nuances and solos making the material sound fresh and never tired. The first four minutes of dissonance and drum work from McBrain on “Satellite 15…The Final Frontier” grabs the listener by the throat before breaking into a fabulous rolling metal tune. Several of the songs set up with a slower, more methodical beginning, before the guitars soar and Dickinson’s starts to extend his voice. Maiden’s Frontier is full of delicious progressive work which demonstrates there is plenty of gas left in the old warhorses’ tank. (Columbia Legacy 2010)

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Goo Goo Dolls: Something for the Rest of Us

RIYL: Bryan Adams, The Plimsouls, Richard Marx

61luGSOu-WL._SCLZZZZZZZ_[1] The Goo Goo Dolls have, at this point, been an adult contemporary recording act longer than they were Buffalo’s answer to the Replacements, so the time has probably come to stop using each new album as an excuse to whine about how much cooler they used to be, and lament what might have been if only Superstar Car Wash had been a hit. At this point, everybody knows exactly what they’re going to get from a Goos record, and if you’re looking to the fellows who brought you “Iris” for hungover blue-collar rock, well…that’s your problem, not theirs.

What we have with Something for the Rest of Us, then, is what sounds like – please, Lord, let it be – the final step in the Goos’ decade-long sanding down of their old sound. They’ve been inching this direction since they released Dizzy Up the Girl in 1998; 2002′s Gutterflower and 2006′s Let Love In were each slightly slicker, duller versions of what came before them, and Something out-slicks and out-snoozes them all. According to John Rzeznik, the more tuneful Goo with the Bon Jovi pout, the songs on this album are supposed to address the trying times we’re living in, but if there’s any topicality here, it’s so buried in snuggly layers of radio-ready gloss that it hardly matters.

When it comes to the Goo Goo Dolls, all that matters anymore is the ratio of sweeping Rzeznik power ballads (ten) to slightly punkier, slightly snottier Robby Takac rockers (two), and how soothing/vaguely dramatic it’ll sound in your car while you’re driving home from a long day of answering phones or filling out spreadsheets (very). There isn’t a line, chord, or cymbal crash that will change your life, or hit you anywhere but the soft, nougaty part of your cerebral cortex where you hide your secret affection for Lifehouse and Three Doors Down. It’s a very boring album, in other words, but who needs excitement? Excitement is messy, and it doesn’t have Rzeznik’s artfully tousled hair. (Warner Bros. 2010)

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Paul Manousos: C’mon C’mon

RIYL: Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Paul Westerberg

San Francisco Bay Area troubadour Paul Manousos is back with his third solo album, on which he continues to distill a seasoned approach to rootsy rock and blues. Manousos has a voice that oozes classic rock, at times recalling such legends as Mick Jagger, Tom Petty and even Otis Redding. The talent is definitely there. But this album isn’t likely to make much of an impact due to how it’s filled with too many slow songs, mysteriously camouflaging Manousos the rocker.

Opening track “Getting Better” is an exception, a mid-tempo rock number that holds much promise. Things slow down on “Outside of Town,” a soulful tune where Manousos does some fine crooning. This is cool too, but the album eventually becomes too heavily weighted in this direction. “One Eye Open” is an upbeat mid-tempo rocker that lifts spirits and sounds like a cross between early ’70s Stones and modern Texas troubadour Ryan Bingham.

The rest of the album is filled with heartfelt vocals, but not much rock. “R.E.D.” is an acoustic tune with some bluesy harmonica, while “Kindly Said” offers a stripped-down romantic ballad. “The Way You…” features some bluesy riffs, but it’s yet another slow tune. A cover of Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb number “Wichita Lineman” is a well done romantic lament, but again seems to show that Manousos is more into the country-ish flavor than the rock these days. “Getting Out” is deep bluesy cut that sounds like a soundtrack song from a cool noir flick, with some fuzzy guitar and swirly organ. “Long Long Way Back Home” closes it out with a mercifully rocking tune that sounds kind of like a lost Heartbreakers song.

Manousos does the whiskey-soaked bluesy balladeer thing very well but the lack of sonic diversity here will probably prevent this album from taking off. It seems like he’s doing himself a disservice by pigeonholing his sound in this narrow direction, which is hard to understand if you’ve seen him rock out live. (Shock & Fall Recordings 2010)

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers: Classic Albums: “Damn the Torpedoes”

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers entered the studio to record their important third album, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, they hired Jimmy Iovine, the brash New Yorker who had been involved with several other important third records, like Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (as an engineer) and Patti Smith’s Easter, to co-produce the album. Iovine’s drive and perfectionism were ideal for bringing out the best in the band and capturing the Heartbreakers’ blend of British Invasion rhythms and Byrds-like jangle and help them rise beyond cult favorites to superstar status. The making of Damn the Torpedoes would become an enormous challenge for the band, not only in the studio, as egos clashed, but with their record company, who at one point threatened not to release the album. The story behind this important album, one that is credited with “saving rock ‘n roll” from disco, is laid out in this superb Classic Albums DVD from Eagle Vision, another in their long line of excellent documentaries about important records in rock history.

You know the songs: “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers.” To this day, these songs are played constantly on rock radio. What’s fascinating about this DVD is learning how those songs came together, to hear Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and Iovine discuss the methods they went about piecing the songs together from riffs, to getting the band to play them just right during the recording process. It’s also nice to hear from the engineer on the record, the legendary Shelly Yakus, on how he came up with some of the record’s signature sounds, including the distinct quality of Stan Lynch’s drums.

The feuds between Lynch and Iovine were constant, with the producer grinding the band’s drummer about the way he played. At one point, Lynch left, was fired or quit. As Tench makes clear, many talented drummers came in to audition, but none of them were right for the Heartbreakers – none of them were Stan Lynch. Unfortunately, Lynch is the only original member of the band who did not provide a current interview for this DVD. As we understand it, he has a “been there done that” attitude about discussing his days with the Heartbreakers (he wouldn’t even get involved with “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the monumental Peter Bogdanovich-directed documentary from 2008). However, the producers dug up some old interviews with Lynch to insert at the right moments so that the accounts of making this historical album were not one-sided. It was also nice to hear Tench and bassist Ron Blair speak so fondly about Lynch, with Blair even holding out hope that someday he may jam with them again.

In addition to the details about the making of Damn the Torpedoes, getting to watch the band members listen to the original tapes for the first time in years and to have Tench explain how he and Yakus happened upon some of the beautiful textures Tench added to the mix, there is the history of the band’s struggles with their record company. When the band’s original contract with ABC records was sold to MCA, Petty refused to just join the new label (especially a huge corporation) without his consent. At one point he filed for bankruptcy as he battled MCA, who threatened to not let him release Damn the Torpedoes.  Fortunately, Danny Bramson’s fledgling label, Backstreet Records, stepped in to help foster a deal between Petty and MCA and things were smoothed out.

Of course, the album was released to great critical acclaim, it spawned numerous hits, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers broke through to the mainstream. The DVD captures all of the joy and excitement of the band’s success and is a must-see for any fan of the Heartbreakers and good music in general. (Eagle Vision 2010)

Click here to purchase Classic Albums: Damn the Torpedoes from Amazon

Megan McCormick: Honest Words

RIYL: Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi

Megan McCormick’s debut album Honest Words is a blend of guitar-driven, bluesy rock and a dreamy Lilith Fair vibe.  Her voice falls in a pleasant, Sheryl Crow range, but with less cigarette smoke grit. Meanwhile, her guitar playing has the passion and technical prowess that should call the attention of people who dig the likes of Susan Tedeschi and Jimmie Vaughan.

The album kicks off with “Shiver,” a funky groove set against a blues riff that finds the singer suffering from the fever of a new love – simultaneously exciting and scary. This song is quickly followed by “Things Change,” a poppy song that begins with a traditional Texas blues arrangement before quickly becoming a peppy pop song. It has a chorus that would make Bonnie Raitt proud.  “Do Right” is nice enough, but a tad too generic with lyrics like “sold my soul to rock ‘n roll” and what not. “Wreck” is poignant, full of regret and heartbreak; “Oh My Love” is a shuffling, acoustic country tinged ballad and “Driveway” is slow and mournful; a tale told from the perspective of a woman dying at the wheel of her crashed car.

There are plenty of wonderful sounds on Honest Words: beautifully sung vocals, exemplary guitar playing and lyrics that are, for the most part, cliché-free. Unfortunately the album is a little too sleepy. For an artist who seems so grounded in the blues, a few more up-tempo rockers would have been welcome. After a string of slow songs, “Addiction,” a crunchy rock song jumps in as a much-needed wake up call. But then things slow right back down again. Bummer.

Nevertheless, McCormick is a nice discovery when so many female artists are either extremely pop or acoustic singer songwriters. For her next effort, here’s hoping she cuts back on the ballads and kicks it up a notch or two. (Ryko 2010)

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Street Sweeper Social Club: The Ghetto Blaster EP

RIYL: Rage Against the Machine, The Coup, System of a Down

Whether or not the world will ever receive a new Rage Against the Machine album remains a mystery. But in the meantime, Rage guitarist Tom Morello is giving us the next best thing by continuing his incendiary work with Boots Riley in their group Street Sweeper Social Club. Morello has thankfully put his Night Watchman acoustic folk project, a noble experiment, on the shelf and gone back to what he does best – laying down “revolutionary party jams,” a kick-ass blend of rock and hip-hop with a socially conscious vibe. This follow-up to 2009′s eponymous debut keeps the fire burning by kicking out the jams with block-rocking beats, heavy riffs, smoking guitar solos, and in-your-face vocals from Boots Riley.

The title track comes out guns blazing with a heavy Rage vibe. Riley takes no prisoners with lines like “We’re canon fodder for dollars / Both under Bush and Obama.” Riley continues to deliver venom on “Everythang,” slamming bankers, sellout mayors and the like. Morello gets his whammy bar going at the end, conjuring his trademark sound of guitar pyrotechnics with anti-establishmentt flavor over another heavy groove.

The band strikes sonic gold on “The New Fuck You,” a song of the year contender with its infectious groove, smoldering riffs and killer lyrics including the instant classic chorus of “Fuckin’ is the new ‘Hey, how do ya do?’ / And revolution is the new fuck you.” Morello throws down one of his best solos in recent memory, while every line from Riley resonates with the zeitgeist of an MC lamenting his ride on the Titanic through the decline of Western civilization.

“Scars” continues in a similar vein with another high-energy track about hard living, showing the band hasn’t forgotten their roots. The disc wraps up with “Promenade (Guitar Fury Remix),” a reprise of a monster groove from the band’s debut album with Morello adding some extra guitar tricks to elevate the song higher.

The EP also includes two covers with mixed results. The first is of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” which seems an odd selection that doesn’t really fit in musically with the rest of the disc. But the cover of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” is a barnburner, a track that seems tailor-made for this crew to crank out with maximum style and energy (as they did at Stubbs BBQ in Austin during this year’s SXSW festival, where the crowd was literally bouncing in response.)

Morello produced the EP himself for the band’s own SSSC independent label, so this is an anti-corporate joint all the way. Is musical revolution still alive in 2010? Street Sweeper Social Club answers affirmative with resounding solidarity. (Street Sweeper Social Club 2010)

Various Artists: Going the Distance Soundtrack

RIYL: hip new indie rock, your kids

If Drew Barrymore and Justin Long make a movie together, you better believe that they are going to see to it that the soundtrack is stuffed with bands so hip it hurts, and that is exactly what Going the Distance is. Indeed, some people may view a band’s inclusion on this soundtrack as a sign that said band or artist is no longer cool, and it’s officially time to stop listening to them. If you’re friends with one of those people, do yourself a favor: stop being friends with them.

All kidding aside (Psssst! We weren’t kidding), the soundtrack plays out much like the one for “500 Days of Summer,” blending cutting-edge indie acts like the Boxer Rebellion (they’re here a whopping three times, but there’s a reason for that – they’re a key piece to the movie’s plot) with first-gen alt-rock bands like the Cure, the Pretenders and the Replacements. The end result is a more enjoyable experience than the movie itself, consistently engaging and high-brow. (Don’t get us started on the spray tanning scene.) It’s most likely to appeal to alt-rock suburbanites in their 30s and 40s, and that might sound like a death knell on paper, but here’s the thing: there are tons of people who fit that description, and while they may no longer be the hippest demographic in the world, they’re one of the most passionate groups of music fans left that actually still pay for music. And they love stuff that makes them feel cool again. Well played. (Water Tower Music 2010)

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The Best of Soul Train (3 DVD)

RIYL: ’70s soul, really bad fashion, Afro-Sheen

Prior to MTV (to say nothing of the network’s lack of acceptance for soul and rap music for half a decade or so) and BET, or for those of us who just didn’t have cable for a long time, “Soul Train” was the primary destination for soul music lovers looking to check out their favorite artists. Running for over three decades, just about everyone who was ever anyone in R&B or hip-hop stood on the hallowed “Soul Train” stage and performed as dozens of young, stylish dancers showed off their latest moves.

Time-Life has recently opened the “Soul Train” vaults and unleashed a nine-DVD set containing hours of performances, interviews and legendary routines, and even more recently, some of the all-time classic performances have been compiled onto the “Best of Soul Train” DVD.

This 3-disc set contains performances from some of the all-time greats of soul music, and almost all of them come from the show’s first few years, 1971-1979. (Stevie Wonder provides the only content coming from a later date, with a 1991 medley of his hits.) Although many of “Soul Train’s” guests lip-synched, this set is heavy on the rare live performances. They include a sweaty run through “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers, riveting performances of “Use Me” and “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, an impromptu duet of “Ooh Baby Baby” by Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, and a performance by Barry White and a huge orchestra that must have required Don Cornelius’s production company to expand the Soul Train stage.

In addition to those performances, you get mimed but still incredible performances by the Jackson 5, the Commodores and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (featuring a frighteningly dressed Teddy Pendergrass). There’s also interview footage from those shows (worth the cost for the Marvin Gaye segment alone) as well as several dance routines that show how ahead of their time the Soul Train dancers were (in addition to how horrendous some of the fashions of the time were). You also get to see some of the groundbreaking commercials that ran during the Soul Train episodes, among the first ads to feature products geared exclusively towards a black audience. Bonus footage includes interviews with Soul Train creator/host Don Cornelius, the legendary Smokey Robinson, and Soul Train dancer-turned-Grammy winning singer Jody Watley.

As an admitted “Soul Train”-aholic, I’m hoping that eventually the highlights from every episode (up until the mid-Nineties, when I pretty much stopped watching) gets released. However, if you are a fan of soul music in any one of its incarnations, you need to have this DVD in your collection. So throw on your tightest bell-bottoms, pick your afro, and take a ride on the funkiest train in music history. As Don famously stated at the end of each episode, “you can bet your last money that it’s gonna be a stone gas, honey!”
(Time-Life 2010)

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