Miggs: Wide Awake


RIYL: Butch Walker, Matthew Good, Bon Jovi

Apparently Don Miggs has been making music and touring for several years, but as the bio for Miggs’ eponymous trio proclaims, they may be one of the “best bands you’ve never heard of.”  That’s a blessing and a curse, yet in today’s indie music scene, maybe more of a blessing if you can be heard.  Indie rock/pop label Rock Ridge was impressed enough with Miggs’ accessible, hard-edged alternative pop.  Miggs’ latest, Wide Awake, is 12 songs that ride as a roller coaster might – from addictive anthems like “Let the Games Begin” and the title track to Butch Walker-esque ditties like “Fire” and “Sincerity,” to balls-out rockers such as “Enemy,” with a positively stunning keyboard-driven ballad, “Crawl Inside,” to close out the set.  Miggs the vocalist sounds at various times like Jon Bon Jovi, Walker and Canadian rocker Matthew Good, and those are all guys with pipes.  Add in the production expertise of Ken Lewis (Fall Out Boy, Kanye West) and the rough edges of the band are captured on this release, yet effectively smoothed out as well. Intrigued?  You should be, because this is easily one of the best albums of 2010 that you….wait for it…..have not heard yet.  So do yourself a favor and go hear these guys.  (Rock Ridge 2010)

Miggs’ website: www.miggsmusic.com

Crowded House: The Very Very Best of Crowded House


RIYL: The Beatles, The Everly Brothers, Squeeze

Picking songs for a Crowded House compilation is a fool’s errand. The British press was only slightly kidding when they said that Neil Finn pisses genius; the first three albums he made as Crowded House after dissolving his brother Tim’s band Split Enz in 1984 (Tim had left the band earlier that year) are about as perfect as pop records get, and the band’s fourth album, 1994′s Together Alone, is pretty damned good, too. This compilation, the second attempt to condense the band’s best work to a single disc, has an even harder task in that it includes tracks from the band’s fifth album, 2007′s Time on Earth. Five good to great albums, sliced and diced to one disc, and it’s supposed to be the very, very best of the band.

Nope.

Still, The Very Very Best of Crowded House is no misfire either, since it would have been filled with beautiful, haunting melodies and Finn’s trademark lyrical paranoia regardless of which songs had made the cut and which ones had been forsaken. But at this stage in the game, this is a two-disc affair no matter how you slice it, and as luck would have it, Capitol has released a two-disc version of this set as well. For newbies, that is the way to go, as the single-disc version of this set is simply missing too many great – and nearly all of the upbeat – moments. The band’s first two albums are reduced to a mere four songs, only one of which came from the criminally underrated Temple of Low Men (1988). Together Alone and 1991′s Woodface, meanwhile, account for over half of the songs here. Perhaps they chose to favor the later material of the Capitol years in order to keep the set more in step with the band’s recent work, but doing so makes for the most dour collection of the Capitol years that one could assemble.

The Very Very Best of Crowded House is a four-star collection of a five-star catalog. Go for the two-disc set instead; it costs more, but with the addition of “Hole in the River,” “World Where You Live,” “Now We’re Getting Somewhere,” “Into Temptation,” “Whispers and Moans” and “I Feel Possessed,” that set opens doors to the band’s work that the single-disc set doesn’t even acknowledge. This is good, but more – and more balance – would have been better. (Capitol 2010)

Crowded House MySpace page
Click to buy The Very Very Best of Crowded House from Amazon
Click to buy The Very Very Best of Crowded House (Two-Disc set) from Amazon

My Chemical Romance: Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys


RIYL: Queen, Cheap Trick, Oasis

My Chemical Romance have balls of steel. They shed their pissed-off jilted lover skin in favor of a full-blown rock opera (2006′s The Black Parade), even though they could have made millions mining teen angst for the next ten years. Then, perhaps to diffuse any overblown build-up over their new album, they release a breakneck rave-up as the first single, and gave it the ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ title of “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na).” It’s a genius move, really – sneak in the back door, despite being one of the biggest bands on the planet. It makes them look like they’re still hungry, and God knows the pop world (and the world in general) could use a little humility.

The problem is, it may have worked a little too well. With Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys just now hitting shelves and e-servers, “Na Na Na” has already peaked at a slightly disappointing #10, and the label has moved on to the second single. Flash back to 2006, when “The Black Parade” dominated radio for months. You have to think that the label is a little nervous at this point, though they shouldn’t be: Danger Days is a powerhouse of an album, positively stuffed with potential singles and shows the band once again exploring new territory, both sonically (keyboards!) and musically.

The band has cooked up another gonzo concept for the album – a group of desert renegades fighting a massive company in 2019, accordingly to Wikipedia – but it doesn’t weigh down the individual songs. “Sing” is a reach-for-the-rafters singalong, while “S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W” out-Oasis’ Oasis. “Party Poison” is another power pop-ish rocker, and “Summertime” is downright tender, if bleak. The band’s reach had been a bit farther than its grasp in the past, but the songwriting steps up in a big way here.

It would have been easy for My Chemical Romance to shy away from the epic scale of The Black Parade and opt for a minimalist approach to the follow-up, so it is to their credit that they not only went for it on Danger Days, but pulled it off. For all the bashing that the major labels take these days, it’s nice to see one of them take off the reins and let their horses run free. (Reprise 2010)

My Chemical Romance MySpace page
Click to buy Danger Days from Amazon

Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday


RIYL: Rihanna, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim

Kick off your first album with a track titled “I’m the Best,” and you’re making a hell of an announcement — either you’re more gifted than your peers, or you’ve just got the biggest balls. With Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj displays a bit of both: though it’s admittedly an uneven affair, this album contains some of the best hip-hop/R&B you’re likely to hear in 2010, and while it doesn’t play to Minaj’s otherworldly rapping talent as often as many fans would no doubt prefer, it still makes for an intoxicating, eclectic debut.

minaj

Of course, unlike most new artists, Minaj has the advantage of being a known quantity before her album even reaches shelves; she’s been all over the charts as a guest artist for months, popping up on songs by Lil Wayne, Trey Songz, M.I.A., Drake, Usher, and others – including Kanye West, whose “Monster” features an incendiary Minaj verse that outclasses everyone else on the song, including Jay-Z and Rick Ross. Nothing on Pink Friday comes close to “Monster” – not even “Roman’s Revenge,” her profane, rapid-fire showdown with Eminem – but that isn’t really the point. Minaj has a lot of weapons in her arsenal, and this album is meant to display them all, while aiming directly at Top 40 radio.

What’s somewhat surprising, given her aggressive/aggressively weird image, is just how savvy Minaj’s pop instincts are – and how successfully Pink Friday makes room for them while incorporating plenty of singularly Nicki moments. This is an album that makes heavy use of Buggles and Annie Lennox samples, and features will.i.am, Rihanna, and Natasha Bedingfield cameos – but it takes the fetid roar of “Roman’s Revenge” and “Did It On ‘Em” to tell the whole story, and she brings both halves together in the stunning “Right Thru Me,” which takes breathless verses about reckless love and leads them into a chorus that brilliantly, nakedly asks: “You see right through me / How do you do that shit?”

That kind of duality is hard to distill in a pop song, and with Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj doesn’t always succeed. But her punches connect more often than they miss – and if that’s mostly because she never stops throwing them, well, that only makes it that much harder to stop listening. Her peers had better lock in those guest spots now – a few more albums like this one, and the words “feat. Nicki Minaj” will be a lot more expensive than they are now. (Universal/Cash Money 2010)

Nicki Minaj MySpace page

Steal This Song: Destroyer, “Chinatown”

For the last five years, there has never been any question that when it came to the songwriting powers that be behind the New Pornographers, I am a Carl Newman guy. It’s not that I disliked Dan Bejar’s stuff – “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” is still my fave – but his songs never scaled the dizzy heights of pure pop tunes like “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” “The Bleeding Heart Show,” “Stacked Crooked” and “These Are the Fables.”

You’ll notice that I only listed songs from the New Pornographers’ 2005 album Twin Cinema. That’s because I’ve been largely underwhelmed by the band’s work since then. And it appears that Bejar is ready to take advantage of my wavering loyalties.

Armed with yet another album under his day job Destroyer (his tenth in 15 years), the band’s new album Kaputt, set for release in January, might surprise some people. Bejar forsakes his usual disjointed pop for something more casual, like he’s been listening to a lot of ’80s-era Bryan Ferry (which he cops to in the press release), and perhaps even Al Stewart. It seems an odd match on paper, but his voice is actually well suited for the genre, and the tunes he came up with are gorgeous. We’ve been given permission to share the album’s opening track, “Chinatown,” and it’s a must for anyone who digs the Blue Nile, China Crisis, and their ilk. Dig in.

Destroyer – Chinatown

Syd Barrett: An Introduction to Syd Barrett


RIYL: early Pink Floyd, Robyn Hitchcock, The Flaming Lips

Fans of Pink Floyd’s original frontman, the late Syd Barrett, will no doubt look at this latest collection of some of the man’s greatest musical moments and wonder why on earth they should be expected to fork out several more dollars for songs that they already possess in their collections. Indeed, a cursory glance at the track listing would lead one to believe that the only possible merits to purchasing An Introduction to Syd Barrett are these: it’s the first time that there’s been a Barrett collection which also included highlights of his work with the Floyd, and there are a handful of tracks…five, if we’re to be precise: “Matilda Mother,” “Here I Go,” “Octopus,” “She Took A Long Cool Look” (note the title change, as the look in question used to be cold), and “Dominoes”…which bear parenthetical assurances that they have been either freshly mixed or newly remixed in the year of our lord 2010. Is this really enough to make An Introduction worth your while, let alone your money? Before you make that decision, it’s worth considering that the purchase of the CD, whether in digital or physical form, also grants you the opportunity to download “Rhamadan,” a heretofore-unreleased instrumental from the Barrett vaults.

That’s got you, hasn’t it? And don’t think EMI doesn’t know it.

It might also up the credibility of this collection to know that the mixing and remixing has been done at the hand of one D. Gilmour, with assistance from Damon Iddins and Andy Jackson. Gilmour also added a bit of bass of “Here I Go,” despite the fact that the song had successfully remained bass-free for 41 years, but given that he and Roger Waters probably had as much (if not more) to do with The Madcap Laughs getting finished as Barrett himself, it’s hard to begrudge him the opportunity to fix something that he’s apparently always heard as broken.

While it’s not hard to accept that the world might be a better place with a collection that covers both Barrett’s work as a solo artist and as a member of Pink Floyd, the choice of material to represent the latter could’ve done with a bit more expansion. Presumably, EMI didn’t want to lose possible future purchases of A Saucerful of Secrets by including the only Barrett composition from that record, but given that “Jugband Blues” stands as his final song to be placed on a Pink Floyd album, its absence can’t help but be felt. And when in Syd’s name is someone at that label going to wise up and offer official release to “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream”? Surely this was the time and place to finally make it happen, but, no, they dropped the ball, much as they’ve continued to drop it for…wow, has it really been 43 years since those songs were recorded and locked in the vault? How time flies.

If you’ve yet to be introduced to the strange and psychedelic world of Syd Barrett, this is certainly a way to go, but if we can pretend for a moment than An Introduction to Syd Barrett is about bringing new fans into the Barrett camp (as opposed to getting existing fans to spend more money on old material), it’s not likely to do any better or worse than any of the existing albums. Underlining Barrett’s place in Pink Floyd’s legacy is a noble gesture on Gilmour’s part, but Syd’s still going to be the same acquired taste that he’s always been. (EMI 2010)

Syd Barrett official website

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy


RIYL: Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco

In these days of PR flacks and image groomers, the era of the divisive, unpredictable pop star is almost a distant memory – now that we’re living in a world of infinite niche audiences, conventional wisdom says the only safe bet is to try and be all things to all people. But then there’s Kanye West, a guy whose propensity for water cooler-worthy gaffes seems to grow along with his sales; one of the few true stars left in the music industry, he’s also one of the least “managed” celebrities around, and while his actions have a tendency to alienate and offend, there’s something undeniably refreshing about a guy who blurts out whatever’s on his mind.

As an artist, West has always been just as messy – and just as captivating. It’s a shame that some people will never listen to his albums simply because of the things he’s said and done outside the recording studio, but part of his music’s appeal is how unfiltered it feels – the dude just can’t shut his mouth. In fact, for most of his fifth studio outing, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he sounds so blanketed in creative impulses that he can barely breathe – this is a record that careens from one emotional extreme to the next with dazzling urgency, so stuffed with ideas that it takes an army of guest stars and a series of wildly inflated running times to get them all out. On paper, it’s an ungodly, unwieldy mess, and further proof that West desperately needs an editor.

But through the speakers – where it counts – Fantasy lives up to each of the words in its title in equal measure: it’s a startlingly rich artistic outburst from a guy who’s made a career out of exceeding expectations, no matter how high they get. An about-face from 2008′s cold, insular 808s & Heartbreak, it signals a return to the anthemic, eclectic form he displayed on 2007′s Graduation, but it isn’t a retreat; rather, it’s a deepening and an extension of West’s playfully broad aesthetic. An album that incorporates a King Crimson sample, Bon Iver cameos, and a Chris Rock skit before closing with a dose of Gil Scott-Heron shouldn’t work; a song featuring Rihanna on the hook, Elton John playing piano, and Fergie rapping should collapse under the weight of its own ridiculous ambition. Fantasy contains all these things and many more, and defies the laws of pop physics as it goes – it’s the kind of record that keeps the ideas coming so quickly you don’t even notice the songs routinely stretch out past the five-minute mark. (In fact, four songs clock in over six minutes, with “Runaway” leading them all at 9:08.)

If there’s any real negative to draw from Fantasy, it’s the overriding sense that West is frantically pouring out ideas as quickly as they come; he’s too captivated by his muse to slow down – or to consider the consequences of failure. He won’t be able to maintain this pace forever, and when he finally does take a breath, it might be hard to resist the urge to think before he speaks. That’s just nervous nitpicking, though – and there’s no reason to waste your time with it when one of the best albums of the year is waiting to swagger its way into your brain. God only knows how West will top this one; here’s hoping it isn’t long before we get to hear him try. (Roc-a-Fella 2010)

Kanye West MySpace page

Frank Zappa: The Torture Never Stops

Please don’t get me wrong. I love Frank Zappa. I think he should be in all those stupid lists of “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” that people love to compile. I sing his praises to those who “don’t get” him and have turned a number of those same folks on to his work. After all, it’s just a matter of finding the Frank Zappa for You. There are tons of Franks, and it took me three solid tries throughout my existence so far to “get” him as well. The first was a failed attempt with Them or Us when I was in my early teens. Later, I tried again with Uncle Meat and Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets and You Are What You Is to a little greater appreciation. Finally, somewhere in my 20s, Zappa congealed for me and I became a Fan.

Suffice it to say, then, that knowing how Frank was about his own work and music in general, that he would appreciate it more that a fan was honest about his take on Zappa and not just being some boot-licking savant who thinks everything should be five-star-worthy and 10 out of 10, etc. So after having viewed Eagle Rock’s new reissue of “The Torture Never Stops,” a video previously only available on Zappa’s on website and featuring a 1981 Halloween concert at the Palladium that was broadcast and rebroadcast on MTV way back when, I can only say that I am bowled over in the average three out of five star sense.

It’s not that the performance is bad or the band or set list is lousy. This is the group that featured Steve Vai on guitar, along with Ray White on vocals, the (in)famous Chad Wackerman on drums, Ed Mann on percussion, Scott Thunes on bass, and Tommy Mars and Bobby Martin on keyboards. They play with the stunning precision and humor that was part and parcel with any touring group of Frank’s. Most of the material here is drawn from the then-new You Are What You Is LP, one of Frank’s finer concepts from the ’80s, along with tracks from other albums such as “Over-Nite Sensation” and “Sheik Yerbouti” sprinkled throughout.

So what’s the problem? Well, I would suppose that as an overall visual piece of entertainment it’s just not exactly rip roaring to these eyes. Now I’m sure all the crazy “true” fans of Frank’s will scream blasphemy, and that’s fine. But everything is so well calculated here that it’s like watching an atomic clock tick away flawlessly. Personally, I feel that the exceptional “Baby Snakes” flick is a much more enjoyable view, it being interspersed with random zaniness to break up the performance bits into nice sized chunks.

Plus, I have to be honest and say that after watching a recent documentary on the original Mothers of Invention on Netflix that it’s hard not to agree with what Jimmy Carl Black said in regards to those days, that the Mothers were Frank’s greatest band and that they could have kept on going to create who knows what. Not to take away anything from all of the great stuff Zappa did after he broke up that band, but in a way he almost became Steely Dan-like in his work afterward, which is not an insult from me as I love the Dan as well, but Frank was Frank and that batch of original Mothers albums is some of the most groundbreaking work to come out of the mid-to-late ’60s. In the ’70s the work became a different beast of sorts, but one could only ponder on what it would have been like had it involved the original guys.

So yes, “The Torture Never Stops” is a well-oiled machine with not many shots of the crowd or a lot of interaction with it. Unfortunately, Frank also seemed a little intent on barreling through some of the older stuff like the great “Montana” than letting it groove and breathe. But it looks good, with nice sharp quality, and the sound is tasty as well. And this is the longest version of the document released, with bonus tracks “Teen-Age Prostitute” and “City of Tiny Lights,” as well as some early video, a discography and other tidbits thrown in.

The superfans with love it. The people who don’t get Frank may or may not after viewing this, and the other people may fall into the same category I do here. It’s good, it’s precise, and it rocks at times, but it’s also definitely a little hollow in parts. Nevertheless, Frank is still definitely missed. (Eagle Rock 2010)

Black Sabbath: Paranoid Classic Albums DVD

It’s been said that Black Sabbath’s landmark Paranoid album spawned the genre of heavy metal, and if you watch this awesome video from Eagle Rock Entertainment, you can see why.  The four members of Black Sabbath – Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward -created music their own way, and it was a powerful sound that appealed to stoners and those craving stuff equal to or heavier than Led Zeppelin.  The band also appealed to the masses who were protesting the Vietnam War in 1970, because making music that went against the grain was something these folks could relate to.  But this DVD is just outstanding in that every member of Black Sabbath is interviewed, as well as folks like sound engineer Tom Allom and long-time fan and recording artist Henry Rollins.  There is awesome archived footage of the band playing live, and detailed descriptions of how each song on Paranoid was written or how it began.  Fans of Black Sabbath, or anyone who is too young to remember them but curious, should all grab this DVD, because not only is it a history lesson, it’s a lesson on how music should be made – with the artist driving the proverbial bus.  (Eagle Vision 2010)

The Macrodots: The Other Side


RIYL: Tears for Fears, Scandal, Matthew Sweet

When was the last time you heard a really good power pop record? When the last time recorded music compulsively dictated your feet to tap from the beginning of track one to the end of the last song? When was the last time you heard a disk that sounded fun, nearly flawless and still had enough of a left hook to knock you out? Boys and girls, that record has arrived and it is the brainchild of two music vets who absolutely and unapologetically have made a tremendous pop record.

Zack Smith is the founder of Scandal, which launched several tracks into the collective consciousness of the ’80s, including “Goodbye to You,” “Love’s Got a Line on You” and “The Warrior.” Cathy Richardson has released five studio discs, including the masterpieces Road To Bliss (2003), Delusions of Grandeur (2006) and Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty (2008) as part of Jefferson Starship. The collaboration here is nothing short of magically delicious (well, it may not be Lucky Charms but it is one hell of a record). Vocally, Richardson has always shifted in and out of styles gracefully with tremendous command and presence. The Other Side features her staying in the power pop realm from beginning to end. This is demanding material and she is up for the challenge. This statement is one that is difficult to make considering her tremendous reputation, but it needs to be said; this is her best vocal performance to date.

“Beautiful Girl” mixes two parts Beach Boys with two parts late-period Beatles with just a splash of Tears for Fears to create a powerful ambiance and a brilliant canvass for Richardson to blast out the dreamy lyrics. Much like the rest of the record, Smith and Richardson create arrangements that are devoured by the ear. “Everything” begins with a dreamy effects laced introduction before building into an arena-sized chorus and features some very clever guitar work. It is such a perfectly crafted song that it begs to be placed on permanent repeat status. The power ballad “If I Could” caresses your heart and kicks you in the gut at the same time. Studio vets Michael Lockwood and Jude Gold, along with Smith and Richardson, create enough guitar crunch to give the record the kick that provide the perfect complement to Richardson’s monstrous vocal talent. I am hoping that this is not a onetime project. This is a record that begs for a sequel. (Cash Rich 2010)

The Macrodots Website

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