Steal This Song: Nitzer Ebb, “Promises”

This is one of those moments where we cannot help but think that everything is connected. Earlier this year we got our hands on Selected, a compilation of songs from onetime Depeche Mode sonic architect Alan Wilder’s new band Recoil, and on it is a little tune called “Faith Healer,” featuring vocals from Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy. It’s a great tune, and McCarthy turns in a rather impressive vocal performance for a guy who’s spent most of his career yelling. Even better, the release of this album allowed us to score an interview with Wilder (huge, huge thrill), where Wilder delivered perhaps the funniest, most understated comment about Nitzer Ebb that one could possibly dream up: “I guess Nitzer Ebb are lacking a lot of melodic content, you could say.”

Even stranger, when we spoke with Fratellis lead singer Jon Fratelli earlier in the year and asked him who he considered to be the most unheralded artist from his native Scotland, he nominated the Sensational Alex Harvey Band…the guy who wrote “Faith Healer.” Like we said, everything’s connected.

Nitzer_Ebb_01

Anyway, Wilder mentioned that he had recently remixed a Nitzer Ebb track – one with melodic content, we’re assuming – and it hadn’t even occurred to us that the band hadn’t made a record in 15 years, so him mixing Nitzer Ebb was kind of a big deal. The record is now here (Industrial Complex, due out November 9), and the first song, “Promises,” will produce involuntary goosebumps in anyone who trolled the alt-rock clubs when That Total Age was first released. The keyboard track immediately brings “Murderous” to mind but, perhaps remembering how well the “Faith Healer” cover worked, McCarthy opts for actual singing instead of his trademark yelling, and in the process fixes the one thing that ultimately kept us from listening to the band for more than 10 minutes in a row. Oh man, is this a sweet surprise.

Click to download Nitzer Ebb – Promises

Kings of Leon: Come Around Sundown


RIYL: U2, Lynryd Skynrd, The Allman Brothers

Kings of Leon must be happy that they’re no longer being called the next big thing. Their breakthrough album, Only by the Night, which featured the hits “Sex on Fire” and the Grammy nominated “Use Somebody,” put them front and center on the radio and made them stars. Now, with the release of Come Around Sundown, there are some news outlets calling this record their U2 moment. The thinking is that like The Joshua Tree did for the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers from Ireland, Come Around Sundown will propel the Kings into another stratosphere.  It’s certainly possible, but I’m not a hundred percent sold on that idea.

The new album will most definitely please anyone who just discovered the band with Only by the Night.  The songs throughout Come Around Sundown have the same power and aching moan that made its predecessor so successful. There’s no doubt that the guys in this band know how to write a great rock hook, as the new single “Radioactive” proves tenfold. Moreover, there are several songs on this album that will make fine additions to radio playlists and will translate just fine on stage, blending seamlessly with the Kings older material. I can certainly hear “The End,” “Mary” and “Pony Up” as hit songs.

However, there are points in the album in which singer Caleb Followill’s voice really starts to wear thin and the chiming guitars start to grow tiresome, primarily in the middle section of songs. However, things return to form as the record winds down, in particular with the lovely song, “Birthday.” Anyone strictly familiar with the bands radio hits will love this song. There is real depth and power on Come Around Sundown that makes it a remarkable record, despite its few flaws.

I’m not sure Kings of Leon will ever become one of the most important rock bands in the world; U2 is still around to hold that title. Until Bono and the Edge decide to hang it up, Kings of Leon will just have to remain one of the best American bands of the 21st Century. (RCA 2010)

Kings of Leon MySpace page

The Red River: Little Songs about the Big Picture


RIYL: meandering music for the mumblecore crowd

The Red River is a band that hails from Long Beach, CA with eight members and counting. Their album, Little Songs about the Big Picture, was recorded over the course of three years in their hometown and consists of simple, introspective songs that examine the everyday occurrences in life. With a band so large, you’d expect there to be a big sound coming from this record. Instead, the Red River take a minimalist approach to their music, leaving you feeling like a solo record put together by one guy and a bunch of his friends.

Little Songs about the Big Picture is upbeat and has some really beautiful moments, such as the life-affirming, “I Will Give Thanks” and the reflective “Last Night We Made Tacos,” an acoustic number that sounds like it could have been made up on the spot. Overall, this album reminded me of watching a mumblecore movie. Like those microbudgeted features full of improv and incidental moments, on the surface Little Songs about the Big Picture seems to be just a sloppy, thrown-together collection of songs. But if you stick around until the end, and dig a little deeper into the record, you’ll find that there’s something quite moving about the music of the Red River.

Silly, poignant and communal, Little Songs About the Big Picture may not be perfect, but it does make the Red River a band to keep an eye on. (2010, Brave Records)

The Red River MySpace page

Prefab Sprout: Let’s Change the World with Music


RIYL: China Crisis, Belle & Sebastian, Stephen Sondheim

Music industry cynics joke of how death is a hell of a career move, but that only applies to the maladjusted and self-destructive. What can a sane, well-balanced songsmith do to raise his profile while maintaining a pulse?

The answer: pull a Brian Wilson. Make a great record, then shelve it.

Paddy_Prefab

Mind you, this was not Paddy McAloon’s intention when he began assembling Let’s Change the World with Music in 1992. At the time, he fully expected to make this record with his bandmates Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti, with longtime producer Thomas Dolby behind the boards. He was merely assembling demo versions of the songs in his traditionally fastidious manner so the others could flesh them out in the studio…only the fleshing out never happened. The label felt the album’s religious overtones were too strong – which is pretty funny considering that the band’s previous album and BRIT Award nominee Jordan: The Comeback dedicated its final five songs to religious overtones, including one song from the point of view of the Devil begging the archangel Michael to put in a good word with God for him – and the album was scrapped.

McAloon only released two Prefab albums after that, and despite continuing to record, he has no plans to release another album. But when his former home Kitchenware begged him to let them release Let’s Change the World with Music, McAloon decided that late was better than never. And with that, Prefab Sprout has released its best album in 20 years.

Sonically, the album sounds like the tracks that Stephen Lipson produced for Prefab’s 1992 singles collection A Life of Surprises – sequencers and drum machines rule the roost, which makes sense since McAloon assembled the entire record himself – and the dated nature of the electronics works in the album’s favor, as it evokes a time when Prefab was a force to be reckoned with. (Rolling Stone didn’t write an article about McAloon, called “The Last Pop Genius,” for nothing.) Musically, the album is Jordan: The Comeback‘s kissing cousin, with a couple nods to the band’s breakthrough album Steve McQueen (called Two Wheels Good in the States). “I Love Music” is cut from the same cloth as “Horsin’ Around” (the name drop of Irving Berlin is no coincidence), while “Ride” would have been a perfect double A-side for “Scarlet Nights.” The most refreshing thing about Let’s Change the World is how hopeful it is; there isn’t a “When Love Breaks Down” or “Ice Maiden” to be found, as McAloon is too busy turning a song about the earth into a plea for affection, and he even writes a love song about music itself, where he swoons of how “music is a princess, and I’m just a boy in rags.”

The commercial prospects of an album like Let’s Change the World with Music in today’s climate are admittedly are not optimistic – though it did crack the UK Top 40, and probably would have gone higher had the Beatles not re-released their catalog the same week – but that is hardly the point; McAloon has been preaching to the choir for years, and for them, Let’s Change the World is like Santa Claus going back in time to deliver the Christmas gift you wanted 18 years ago. Proof positive that indeed nothing sounds as good as, “I remember that.” (Tompkins Square 2010)

Click to buy Let’s Change the World with Music from Amazon

Taylor Swift: Speak Now


RIYL: Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood

taylor_swift_speak_now This is what happens when you’re a 20-year-old powerhouse in an industry perilously short on power: you decide you’re going to write all the songs on your third album by yourself, and you’re going to co-produce it, too. Who’s going to stop you? Your first two releases sold a combined 10 million copies, you’re the biggest act on your label, and the last time someone got in your way, they had to go on TV – on that awful, short-lived Jay Leno show, no less – and apologize.

And because you’re only 20, and because the music industry has never really cared about artistic growth, the songs on your new album are going to sound pretty much like the ones you recorded before – which will be a very good thing, according to the record company’s accountants and the millions of 10-year-old girls who glue your picture to their binders, but also sort of troubling in terms of your long-term prospects. Because when you’re that age, you can get away with writing glittery ballads and snotty, vindictive kiss-off songs and chalking it up to an autobiographical concept – in your words, “boy-crazy country starlet tries to stop dripping tears all over her guitar” – but you should also be craving change and experimentation rather than reheated formula. And no, that doesn’t mean writing a song that sounds like you’ve been listening to a lot of Coldplay (“Enchanted”) or testing the limits of how long one boy-crazy country starlet can drag out a soggy breakup song (“Dear John,” 6:43).

It isn’t all bad. In fact, a lot of it is quite good. Your thin, tremulous vocals remain a weak point, as your critics are so fond of pointing out (and as you winkingly acknowledge in one of the album’s best tracks, “Mean”), but if a weak singing voice meant you couldn’t be a star, then Bob Dylan would still be Robert Zimmerman. The important thing is that you have an uncommon gift for melody, and even if you also have an annoying, Art Alexakis-ish tendency to repeat musical themes, there’s no arguing with your ability to put together an indelible hook. You do it on your third album, and often enough to pretty much guarantee another multiplatinum certification – but not often enough to cover up for the fact that the day is coming when your petulant rockers (“Better Than Revenge”) and unicorn ballads (“Sparks Fly”) won’t be cute anymore. And what then? No matter how many times they play Speak Now, your listeners won’t have a clue. You probably don’t either, and that’s fine – hell, that’s what being 20 is all about. But it sure would be nice if some of those scary wide open spaces showed up on your next record. (Big Machine 2010)

Taylor Swift MySpace page

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