Jun 292007

Well, after much delay, my review of the new White Stripes album is up. I hope it was worth the wait.

In other news, due to an unfortunate delay, the ART238 which won the initial vote last week won’t be available until July 17th. I will be picking it up to review when it comes out, but in the meantime, a re-vote tipped the scales in favor of the new Ryan Adams disc, Easy Tiger.

Which brings us, of course, to this week’s voting. Pretty narrow field this week, with new releases from heavy weights Chemical Brothers and Velvet Revolver. So without further ado, your options:

Chemical Brothers, We Are The Night
Kelly Rowland, Ms. Kelly
Three 6 Mafia, Last 2 Walk
T.I., T.I. vs T.I.P.
Velvet Revolver, Libertad

Jun 292007

Artist: The White Stripes
Album: Icky Thump
Label: Warner Bros.
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.6.19
Score: 9/10

Jack and Meg White (better known to the world as The White Stripes) have cut a fairly good niche for themselves in the music industry by recording and peddling a unique brand of lo-fi blues rock. White Stripes fans will be happy to learn that their latest effort, Icky Thump, stays true to this unique brand of rock and roll. The album, while it briefly flirts with forays across genre boundaries, sticks to the blues-drenched rock and roll script that the White Stripes do so well.

As an album, Icky Thump is, above all, enormously fun. It listens effortlessly and enjoyably, and is the kind of rock that has a habit of prompting un-scheduled dance parties. (I dare any warm-blooded person to listen to the jaunty, classic-rock riffs of “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Do as You’re Told)” without grooving at least a little bit.) This extremely accessible quality is part of what makes the White Stripes so successful and a large part of what makes Icky Thump such a great album – regardless of the quality of the music, the album is just a great listen.

Which makes the fact that the album is also rife with extremely talented songwriting and musicianship an excellent bonus. While the arrangement and composition are both fairly minimal for most of the album (the notable exceptions being the horn-blaring “Conquest” and the two celt-folk-influenced tracks, “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn” and “St. Andrew (The Battle is in the Air)”), but manages to be remarkably expressive. The sound is dominated by simple, bass-driven drumlines and clean, bluesy guitar hooks. Tracks like “Rag and Bone” and “Catch Hell Blues” evoke the American blues tradition to a much greater extent than previous White Stripes material. The latter is especially reminiscent of the blues, (with a moaning electric guitar lines, especially during the introduction and the bridge) while still retaining enough of its rock sound to allow for pounding bass drum and a few buzz saw guitar licks.

The album also shows Jack White to be at his vocal and lyrical best. White’s voice, for as unnotable as it was for the first few White Stripes albums, has definitely developed its own sort of expressivity. Even on tracks like the repetitive “Little Cream Soda” Jack’s voice displays a range of expression that wasn’t immediately evident on previous efforts. There’s a decidedly conversational tone to many of the tunes, notably “Rag and Bone” which actually has several spoken lyrical sections. This tone gives the whole album a more human feel than the washed-out, minimalist sound of some of the more notable previous White Stripes material.

By far the most notable thing about Icky Thump is that it is an album which does a great job of playing up the blues side of the White Stripes’ unique rock aesthetic. The tonality and lyrics positively drip at times with the distinctive earmarks of American blues. “A Martyr for My Love for You” features dark, bluesy guitar-and-vocal lines interspersed with classic White Stripes thundering and growling from the drums and guitar. The title track, “Icky Thump”, is grim, noisy pyschedelia pseudo-narrative which features some solid guitar licks and one or two political side-shots (“why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant, too”). The bouncy, clever “Effect and Cause” (my personal favorite cut off the album), however, is probably the best example of the band’s new found blues mastery. It twangs along in a lazy blues groove, a vehicle for Jack’s quippy, sardonic vocals (“if you’re headed to the grave, you don’t blame the hearse.”)

I will admit that this is the kind of album for which I’m a complete sucker. Blues-rock is one of my favorite genres done well, and any group who takes such commanding ownership of the genre as do the White Stripes is probably going to score big in my book. But pushing personal bias aside as much as possible, Icky Thump is honestly an accomplished rock album. Jack and Meg definitely haven’t rested on their laurels, nor have they recycled much of anything for this new effort. Rather they’ve created an album which is classic enough to still be recognizably the White Stripes, new enough to be intriguing and engaging, and fun enough to be enthusiastically spun on repeat.

Jun 292007

This is just all kinds of awesome: a symphony written originally for orchestra and IBM 1401 mainframe. From the article:

When IBM chief maintenance engineer Jóhann Gunnarsson started tinkering with the IBM 1401 Data Processing System, believed to have been the first computer to arrive in his native Iceland in 1964, he noticed an electromagnetic leak from the machine’s memory caused a deep, cellolike hum to come from nearby AM radios.

It was a production defect but, captivated, amateur musician Gunnarson and his colleagues soon learned how to reprogram the room-size business workhorse‘s innards to emit melodies that rank amongst the earliest in a long line of Scandinavian digital music.

Fast-forward four decades, and recently discovered tape recordings of Gunnarson’s works form the basis of a touring song-and-dance performance, IBM 1401: A User’s Manual. The show was composed by Gunnarson’s son Jóhann Jóhannsson, with interpretive dance choreographed by Erna Omarsdotti, whose father is another IBM alum.

For anyone interested, here’s video of the piece being performed live in Italy:

Jun 292007

"This is a public service announcement . . . with GUITARS!"

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Hey everyone, the week from hell progresses apace. So no review again tonight *cringes and cowers*. Sorry, all! But as of tomorrow my class is over and soon, hopefully things will become more chill at work, so reviews should be on time at least for the next couple weeks.

So please, bear with me. And thanks for your patience. By way of a bone to keep your proverbial (perhaps literal?) slavering maws from ripping me asunder, here’s an object lesson in how to ruin a great song with a dumb music video:

Fall Out Boy’s “Thnks fr th Mmrs” – awesome song, stupid music video.

Jun 282007

Well, I’m gonna be a little bit more late with my review than I thought. Many many apologies. Here’s another music video to keep you occupied and to (hopefully) assuage your irritation. The Clash performing “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” live at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, March 1980.

In more bad news, the ART 238 album which was GOING to be next week’s review has been delayed until next month. So, Ann: I owe you a review of the album when it comes out, and you shall most certainly get it.

Unfortunately, Ann’s solitary vote for the ART 238 album was the only vote cast last week. So do me a favor, folks: drop by the voting post and rain a little democracy down on me?

Jun 272007

"Cold and uninviting, partially naked"

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Hey kids, I hate to do this to you again this week, but it’s looking like my review’s going to be late again this week. I have excuses about work being vicious and this being the last week of my time-intensive summer class, but I shan’t bore you with them.

By way of an apology, here’s the Jam performing “Down at the Tube Station at Midnight”:

Jun 262007

"Walk without rhythm and you won’t attract the worm"

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For no particular reason, here’s a link to my favorite music video of all time. Best? Maybe not, but one of. Favorite? Hell yes.

Let’s hear it for the Walken.

Jun 242007

"There’s a power and a vital presence / that’s lurking all around"

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I’ve been on a Bad Religion kick lately, so here’s a surprisingly decent cover of “American Jesus”, courtesy of the self-parodying fops of Simple Plan.

Jun 212007

Thanks again all for your patience. The latest Tuesday Review, this one of Queens of the Stone Age’s Era Vulgaris, is up.

Which means of course, it’s time to open a new round of voting. This week’s options are light on experienced talent, which opens the field to some lesser known acts. There’s new material from Ryan Adams, The Beastie Boys, Kelly Clarkson, and Bad Brains. Passing up a double disc of unreleased studio sessions from Sinead O’Conner and a bunch of Pentangle re-issues, I’m also throwing in some lesser-known acts pulled from the list of Billboard new releases. So here, without further ado, are your options:

Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger
Bad Brains, Build a Nation
Beastie Boys, The Mix-Up
Kelly Clarkson, My December
Besmirchers, Besmirch and Destroy
ART 238, Empire of the Atom: A Scienterrific Tale (Release delayed until July 17th)

Jun 202007

Queens of the Stone Age, Era Vulgaris

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Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Album: Era Vulgaris
Label: Interscope
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.6.12
Rating: 8/10

Queens of the Stone Age have, with their newly released fifth studio album, again shown themselves to be impressive chameleons of rock and roll. Whether it’s due to their ever-changing line-up (the number of ex-Queens outnumbers the current number by at least three to one) or to simply to the diversity and talent of their super-group lineup, Queens consistently generate a broad spectrum of amazing rock music. With Era Vulgaris, the band proves that they are just as on top of their rock game as they were five years and several line-up changes ago when their single “No One Knows” catapulted them into the mainstream spotlight. But whereas their gold-selling Songs for the Deaf had a clean, smooth modern rock sound, Era Vulgaris is an altogether messier album. A distinctively fuzzy sound pervades the whole album, and the tight grooves of discs past have largely been replaced with a much looser sound.

What’s left from previous albums are the dark distinctive hooks, the clamoring, imminately listenable rock sensibility, and the superb talent and craftsmanship that the band has consistently displayed, throughout its many iterations. The new album is full of the kind of just-heavy-enough, danceable rock that, in the words of front man Josh Homme, is ” heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls.” This dichotomy is a telling one, in that Era Vulgaris carries on a fine Queens of the Stone Age tradition of cutting albums full of rock that’s actually a pleasure to listen to. Even tracks like “3’s & 7’s”, with its Nirvana-style guitar riffs and straight-forward rock drumming, are certainly not all edge. For all “3’s and 7’s” rock bombast, Homme’s lyrical voice, along with the softer chorus give it a certain consonance that’s become rare in the harder rock subgenres these days.

The album also continues the fine traditions of musical and lyrical excellence that have made Queens of the Stone Age such a powerhouse group in modern rock. Their layered, busy sound manages to be remarkably rich without ever sounding muddied. Likewise it manages to be noisy without washing anything out. “Turnin’ on the Screw”, the opener, sets this tone well, with rough, muffled guitars sawing their way through syncopated hooks and lazy, slurred lyrics. The drums also set up the classic rock percussion sound that will bedrock the entire album from start to finish. It also front-loads the album with clever, accessible lyrics, (“you ain’t a has-been if you never was”) giving the listener a good idea of what to expect. Album single “Sick Sick Sick” similarly is an excellent example of the fuzzy-without-being-muddy aesthetic, clever lyrics, and heavy, but accessible rock rhythms and riffs.

Even the seeming exceptions to the album’s gritty sound don’t stray too far from it. “Make It Wit Chu” glides along at a relaxed plod, and while it sounds clear at first, closer listening reveals that there’s still thick, fuzzy sound and that it’s only in context that it seems to have the kind of crystal clarity one would expect from its almost-poppy guitars and its smooth, sultry vocals. Even the simple, clear-voiced “Into the Hollow” manages to sneak some distortion into the guitar and some muffling into the keyboard.

Era Vulgaris is an excellent rock album that manages to also be, for lack of a better adjective, pleasant. At the risk of abusing analogy, it’s not unlike a good scotch – enough kick to matter, but smooth enough to drink straight and enjoy. It’s an album for rock fans, Queens of the Stone Age fans, and fans of well-crafted, clever music by talented groups of people. To say this album is “solid” would seem to suggest that it’s somehow unoriginal; to call it “interesting” would risk pegging it as experimental or art-rock. But really, it is both. It’s an engaging album which both delights and rocks the listener. And while I’m sure it’s probably not everyone’s tastes, it certainly doesn’t lack for quality. So if rock is your thing, this is an album for you.