Kid Rock: Born Free

RIYL: Bryan Adams, Bob Seger, Glenn Frey

It still hardly seems possible to those of us who remember the gleefully profane, barely conscious persona he cultivated with his first four albums (including his 1998 breakthrough Devil Without a Cause), but Kid Rock has somehow become the heir apparent to Bob Seger’s Motor City rock ‘n’ roll throne. In fact, modern rock is such a graveyard that Rock is damn near an elder statesman of the genre – the kind of artist who routinely draws fawning reviews from Rolling Stone, along with interviews where he’s given a forum to roll his eyes at Steven Tyler joining the judges’ table on “American Idol.” Actually, on that last count, Rock’s no guiltier than the rest of us. But you get the point – that stringy-haired honky rapper with the glassy-eyed stare and the fedora-and-wife-beater wardrobe was never supposed to grow up and give us songs like “Rock N’ Roll Pain Train,” “Rock N’ Roll,” “Rock N Roll Jesus,” and “Rock On.”

But here we are with Kid Rock’s eighth(!) studio album, the flag-wrapped Born Free, offering up a dozen mind-numbingly bland alternatives to actual old-time rock ‘n’ roll. If Seger’s classic records are as solidly unassuming as a cold can of Stroh’s, consider Born Free the equivalent of Natty Light – it’s cheap, and it’ll get the job done if you’re desperate enough, but it really should be better. Really, for the most part, this sounds a lot like an early ’90s Bryan Adams record – which is sort of fitting, considering that Adams’ Canuck take on heartland rock was just as counterfeit as this corny, Rick Rubin-produced collection of would-be anthems and motel ballads.

It feels strange to miss the guy who made songs as proudly brain-dead as “Bawitdaba,” but at least that song had balls and a dangerous vibe, however slight; these days, Rock’s gelded, commercial-ready music is slickly competent at best. On the Born Free album cover, he’s reclining in the back of a convertible, feet up on the seats, amber waves of grain in the background. You can’t tell that the car is rolling gently down the middle of the road, but you can definitely see that no one’s in the driver’s seat. (Atlantic 2010)

Kid Rock MySpace page


Linkin Park: A Thousand Suns

RIYL: Nine Inch Nails, Guster, growing up

First, a mea culpa to Chester Bennington.

In our review of Linkin Park’s 2007 album Minutes to Midnight, we (and by ‘we,’ we mean I) accused Bennington of wearing his sadness like a cheap suit in order to remain faithful to the band’s lyrical core, and therefore make gobs more money. This was based on two things: first, the lyrics, where Bennington sings about how miserable he was. Second, Chester’s notes in the credits, where he thanked his wife (“a.k.a. The Hotness”) and his four kids. Which produced the following thought: this married father of four is whining about how he wants to die? Oh, fuck this guy.

Should have hit Wikipedia. Bennington divorced his first wife in 2005, and married The Hotness a couple years later. He has one child with each wife; the other two are The Hotness’ from a previous relationship. So it turns out that he is indeed happily married, and presumably singing about his ex-wife, not his current one. My bad.

Having said that, Minutes to Midnight was still not a great record, though it did have its moments. They were clearly trying to add stronger melodies into the music, but most of the time, they either went too far or not far enough. The band goes a long way to rectifying this problem, along with a couple of others, on A Thousand Suns, their latest. Musically, it’s their most melodic album yet, and lyrically, it’s their most contrite, which is good, because if they spent this album still complaining about some girl or another, it would have been embarrassing. Sonically, this is their most mature album (the piano was a welcome addition), but it still maintains their glitchy roots. “Robot Boy” is not tailor-made hit single material, but it might be the band’s best song, as Bennington layers vocals – actual honest-to-goodness vocals – over a simple but effective minor-to-major chord progression, and “Burning in the Skies” appears to be Bennington taking responsibility for his failed marriage. “I’m swimming in the smoke, of bridges I have burned / So don’t apologize, I’m losing what I don’t deserve.”

The most curious song is “Blackout,” which sports a borderline bubblegum pop melody with Bennington screaming his head off for the first two verses, at which point Mike Shinoda takes over and sends the song into a furious scratch and sample-driven breakdown. From there, Bennington gives the music the pop vocal it deserves. It ultimately serves as a standalone bridge between the band’s past and their present, as does “When They Come for Me,” which begins as a jungle drum-heavy showcase for Shinoda, only for the band to slip in a killer pop hook within the chaos. “Iridescent” is as big a lighter-waving anthem as the band’s ever done, and “The Catalyst” is simply huge. Several interludes fill in the cracks (lyrical callbacks and foreshadows abound), though one stands above the others: “Wisdom, Justice and Love,” where the band takes a vocal sample from Martin Luther King Jr. and slowly morphs his voice into robotic menace.

Growing up is never easy, especially when you’ve made a career out of articulating every confused thought in your head. But every band gets happy at some point if they stick around long enough, and Linkin Park finally does it here. It may have taken a decade to do it, but strangely it doesn’t seem like it took too long. If anything, it’s impressive to see a band who defined themselves with all things adolescence (angst, profanity, hip hop, hardcore) find a way to maintain those elements in their sound, yet grow beyond them at the same time. Fans of the Hybrid Theory-era Linkin Park will probably hate A Thousand Suns, of course, but that happens to every band, too. They might lose more fans than they gain in the short run with this one, but there isn’t any question which of the two albums will have a longer shelf life. (Warner Bros. 2010)

Linkin Park MySpace page
Click to buy A Thousand Suns from Amazon


Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain’t No Grave

RIYL: Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson

“There ain’t no grave that can hold my body down.” So sings the Man in Black on the opening track of what we are assured is truly the final entry in his series of his Rick Rubin-helmed American Recordings albums. It’s been six years since his death, yet if there’s anyone you could believe would make good on such a lyric, it’s Johnny Cash. In that brief interim between losing his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, and losing his own battle against the health issues which had plagued him for several years, Cash entered the studio and cut the material on both this album and its predecessor (American V: A Hundred Highways), but while the sessions may have given him the opportunity to provide his own musical epitaph, listening to material like “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” and “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” serves first and foremost to reopen the old wound left by Cash’s demise. Only after getting past the sense of loss can one truly begin to appreciate American VI…and trust me when I tell you that it’s liable to take you a few spins to reach that point.

The stomping arrangement of the opening track, “Ain’t No Grave,” is immediately reminiscent of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” from American V, but it’s hard to argue with any song which could still give the ailing, mourning Cash the chance to come across as rebellious. From there, it’s into the only contemporary cover on the collection: Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” which becomes far more ominous and foreboding when being sung by a man who knows his days are numbered. Not that Cash himself was concerned about the inevitable: his take on Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” shows a man who was aware of how little time he had left on this planet. (“Don’t look so sad / I know it’s over / But life goes on / And this old world / Will keep on turning.”)

How Johnny Cash greeted the Grim Reaper

At 10 songs and a run time of just under 33 minutes, American VI is a succinct album…but, then, the best epitaphs are. It was a wise decision to save the more maudlin songs from Cash’s final sessions until several years after his death, as releasing them too quickly after his passing would’ve made them seem like a cheap stunt. In its current context, the record at least feels like the farewell that Cash almost certainly intended it to be, and it will no doubt inspire many a toast in his memory, particularly during the surprising yet somehow perfect closer, “Aloha Oe.” Unfortunately, however, it is so thoroughly defined as a farewell that it’s unlikely to earn the same number of repeat spins as the albums which preceded it. – (American Recordings / Lost Highway 2010)

Johnny Cash’s official website
Click to buy American VI: Ain’t No Grave from Amazon