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.

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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

Bryan Ferry: Olympia


RIYL: Roxy Music, Thievery Corporation, The Blue Nile

Bryan Ferry’s post-Roxy Music solo career exists in a coccoon of sorts, with few fingerprints from the outside world sullying their beauty and timelessness. Before anyone mistakes that for overblown hyperbole, let’s look at those words a little more closely. His records are beautiful in the sense that they are impeccably played and produced, and they’re timeless in that Olympia, his latest solo record of (mostly) original material, could have come out the same year he released his last solo album Frantic (2002), or Mamouna (1994), or even Bete Noire (1987). Likewise, Mamouna and Frantic could have come out this year without anyone batting an eye as to when they were recorded.

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So they are beautiful and timeless, yes. But truth be told, Ferry hasn’t written a really compelling song in quite a while – that might explain why he hasn’t made back-to-back albums of original material since 1987 – and Olympia does not buck the trend. There are some nice moments, like the bouncy “Shameless,” the haunting “Reason or Rhyme,” and his convincing cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” but there isn’t a “Slave to Love,” or even a “Limbo,” to be found, a point only exacerbated by opening track “You Can Dance,” which begins with a sample of Avalon track “True to Life.” Likewise, “Me Oh My” is built on the bones of “My Only Love,” from Roxy’s Flesh & Blood. Neither song is bad, per se, but they’ve been done before, and better. There is also the matter of Ferry’s voice. He sings the entire album in that whispered hush, rarely testing his upper range or even his falsetto.

No one expects Ferry to churn out hard-charging numbers like “Both Ends Burning” anymore, but Olympia is awfully sedate, even for a man known for his lounge lizard cool. It’s more or less interchangeable with his recent work, which is a bit of a letdown considering Ferry was able to get four other Roxy veterans (Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, Andy Newmark) to appear, but the overall effort is good enough. If you’re content with good enough, that is. (Astralwerks 2010)

Bryan Ferry MySpace
Click to buy Olympia from Amazon

Austin City Limits Music Festival – October 8-10, 2010, Austin, TX

The 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival continued to make the three-day event’s case as one of the best festivals on the planet. It went off with nary a hitch, and in fact, this year’s edition may have had the festival’s best weather yet. There was no dust, no rain to turn Zilker Park into a giant mud pit (like last year) and the high temperature never reached 90. The sunny afternoons were still plenty hot, but the evenings were downright balmy. Some local fans bitched about the overall lineup when it was first announced, but there truly was something for everyone in the festival’s ever-eclectic lineup. The festival once again sold out well in advance, and again proved to be one of the best weekends of the year for any serious music fan.

The tasty local cuisine available at ACL is topped only by New Orleans’ Jazzfest (although unfortunately neither fest seems willing to bring in local beer), and the football tent returned to enable sports fans to get a fix in between music sets. There were only a handful of occasions where the crowd scene proved overly massive and hard to navigate. Overall, it was three days of near-utopian rock ‘n’ roll bliss. If the word “groovy” is overused in this review, it’s only because there were indeed so many such moments. The biggest problem was choosing between competing bands in a series of mind-bending conflicts: Silversun Pickups vs Broken Bells, Monsters of Folk vs LCD Soundsystem, Phish vs The Strokes, The Flaming Lips vs Band of Horses, and the terrible three-way Friday night dilemma of Sonic Youth vs Robert Randolph & the Family Band vs Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses. Cloning technology can’t arrive soon enough.

Friday, October 8

Those Darlins, Austin Ventures Stage
This upbeat Tennessee quartet featured a relatively unique mix of country punk and garage rock to create a fun vibe. Singer/guitarist Jessi Darlin’s gritty voice recalled Courtney Love at times in its ragged splendor, but with more of a country flavor. “Red Light Love” saw the band at its best on a fuzzy, melodic rocker about the combination of good love and good music.

Blues Traveler, AMD Stage
It seemed like a flashback to the mid-’90s when Blues Traveler drew a huge crowd to the festival’s second largest stage to really get ACL going. It’s been great to see the band able to persevere through the tragic death of original bassist Bobby Sheehan and the health problems of singer/harmonica ace John Popper, who is now fit and sounding great as ever. Underrated guitarist Chan Kinchla always keeps things groovy on his PRS guitar and his brother Tad fits right in on bass. A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was a surprise crowd pleaser, followed shortly thereafter with the band’s 1994 hit “Run-Around.” But the clear peak of the set – and one of the top highlights of the entire weekend – occurred when the band welcomed 15-year-old violinist Ruby Jane to sit in on “Mulling It Over.” Jane, who would play her own set on Sunday morning, proved to be a dynamic prodigy. She immediately accented the hard rocking tune in tasteful fashion, before teaming with Popper for a superb violin-harmonica duel that won the weekend’s first huge cheer.

The Black Keys, AMD Stage
The Akron, Ohio-based blues rock duo hit the stage at 4 pm in front of a massive crowd that made it tough for anyone arriving late to get close enough to enjoy. There were so many people camped out in their lawn chairs that the entire area became quite difficult to navigate. The Black Keys are clearly surging in popularity – they played to about 10,000 fans at the 2008 Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco, but this crowd was at least three times as large. I finally gave up and decided I’d rather check out the next band on the intimate BMI stage.

ACL Black Keys


Read the rest after the jump...

Sugarland: The Incredible Machine


RIYL: Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Rascal Flatts

You can’t review a country album anymore without discussing where it fits in the “real country” versus “country pop” spectrum; the debate over what constitutes the real stuff has been raging since the rhinestone cowboy days, and now that Rascal Flatts is the top-selling act in the genre – and the closest country radio gets to trad fare is fauxdowns from rootin’ tootin’ biceps barers like Toby Keith – country seems poppier than ever.

It’s got to be vexing for listeners who like their music nitty, gritty, and dirty, but country music doesn’t have to be “real” to be really entertaining, and Sugarland’s ongoing bid for crossover success is a case in point. They’re nominally a country band, but their music has always had a strong pop component, and it’s really come to the fore over their past couple of releases, 2008′s Love on the Inside and its covers-heavy live follow-up, Live on the Inside. What can you say about a platinum Nashville act that leaves room on a live album for covers of “The One I Love,” “Love Shack,” “Nightswimming,” Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” and Pearl Jam’s “Better Man”? They’re either desperate for broader appeal, or they’re trying to make a point about the arbitrary nature of genre boundaries in the first place.

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Based on the savvy songwriting and slick, airless production on display in the band’s fourth studio set, The Incredible Machine, it seems safe to assume there’s a little of both at play. Sugarland members Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles have broad musical backgrounds, and they muddy the waters between pop and country more artfully than most; unlike, say, a Rascal Flatts record, you don’t get the sense you’re listening to a pop album that’s been retrofitted with fiddles and pedal steel to appease the county fair crowd. Instead, Machine feels like the work of a band whose singer just happens to have a gigantic, full-throated country holler for a voice – sometimes it’s the focal point of the music, and sometimes it isn’t.

On the other hand, the album’s title is perhaps a little more apt than Sugarland intended. It’s supposed to be a reference to, y’know, the human capacity for marvelous things, but it also makes sense as a statement about how the album sounds – like it was squeezed out of the same denim-coated Velveeta factory that gives us Kenny Chesney records. It’s loud and glossy to a fault, and it’s the kind of record that aspires to bigness even when it isn’t necessarily deserved. This is probably partly a reflection of Nettles’ massive voice, but there are also moments when you can feel Sugarland straining for arena-filling pop profundity, and it’s distracting. (Example: the deafening, all-cards-on-the-table clatter that closes the opening track, “All We Are.”)

It’s a formula that works, obviously – check Sugarland’s RIAA certifications for proof – and it’s hard to fault Nettles and Bush for swinging for the bleachers, especially in such a grim industry climate. Still, the album it adds up to is one that, while certainly entertaining, doesn’t resonate on the level you sense they were aiming for. An impressive machine, surely. Incredible? Maybe next time. (Mercury 2010)

Sugarland MySpace page

Zero 7: Record


RIYL: Alan Parsons Project, Radiohead, Jose Gonzalez

Zero 7, the collaborative effort between two esteemed producers, Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns, keeps chugging along with some of the most intriguing electronic mood pop out there. So it should be no surprise that when the two went back into their catalog to put a “best of” collection together for Zero 7, they had a difficult task – choosing the most awesome tracks out of an already awesome catalog. But maybe the best part of all with the final product, humbly titled Record, is that Hardaker and Binns did not choose the obvious tracks -and that alone makes Record a pretty special collection. Sure, there are the standouts like “Futures,” sung by the remarkable Jose Gonzalez; the bouncy “Throw it All Away,” and the dreamy “Home,” one of the best Zero 7 tracks of all. But then the duo dig a bit deeper into the likes of the jazz-flavored “I Have Seen,” the soulful “Destiny,” sung by the sultry Sia; and “Swing,” the best track from their latest album The Garden. There are also some tasty instrumentals here, like “Polaris” and “Salt Water Sound.” All in all, you’d have a hard time making your own Zero 7 iTunes mix that turns out this sweet. Instead, just like with the music itself, it’s better to leave this one to the experts. (Atlantic 2010)

Zero 7 MySpace page

Elizabeth & the Catapult: The Other Side of Zero


RIYL: Aimee Mann, KT Tunstall, Diane Birch

Elizabeth Ziman spent a few years demo-ing and ultimately recording and releasing her debut under Elizabeth & the Catapult, Taller Children. But the follow-up took practically no time at all, and apparently flowed out of Ziman the way great writers often have waves of new material emanating from themselves. So here was Ziman, influenced all at once by Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing, and letting the music that would become her new album, The Other Side of Zero flow from her. Ziman’s a dead ringer for Aimee Mann vocally, but musically her stuff is darker and deeper. And oh yeah, it’s really, really good.

The Other Side of Zero begins with the piano romp, “We All Fall Down” and has other quirky yet instantly catchy tracks like “You & Me” and “The Horse & the Missing Cart.” There are songs that will remind you of Taller Children – witness the alternative love song “Julian, Darling” or the electronica-driven “Dreamcatcher.” But while Ziman and drummer Danny Molad make awesome music together, the one track on here that uses drums sparsely but may not need to is “Open Book.” This is one of those songs that is rife with simple beauty, one you hear and want to keep hitting “repeat,” and that has movie soundtrack written all over it. Best of all, as with all of Ziman’s work, there are elements of alternative, jazz, and pop – all with a rainy day feel running throughout, just the way she likes it. (Verve Forecast 2010)

Elizabeth & the Catapult website

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