blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
In their element
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Given that, even in their earliest days, R.E.M. depended heavily on acoustic coloring for their finest material, it's not a surprise that MTV Unplugged would fit them like a glove. These two Unplugged Sessions, which include 11 performances not featured on either of the original broadcasts, offer both empirical evidence that - in both of their decades - R.E.M. could evoke all that was good about indie bands in the 80's on.

Split between a 1991 show behind "Out Of Time" and a 2001 show behind "Reveal," they augmented their sound with guests like Peter Holsapple (the 1991 set in particular) and Scott McCaughey (who played in the pick-up band The Minus Five with Peter Buck). It also showcases how important Mike Mills' harmony vocals were with Michael Stipe's idiosyncratic leads. Given the time between the two sets (long enough to include the R.E.M. post Bill Berry), there's a lot of ground to cover. It actually makes the 2001 disc a more satisfying listen, as they include favorites like "South Central Rain," "The One That I Love" and the oddness of "Country Feedback" sitting next to songs like "Imitation Of Life" and "Sad Professor," which are improved in this setting. They also went for the lesser known songs, like "Belong" and "Rotary Eleven" at the expense of some more obvious selections ("Radio Free Europe" doesn't show up on either disc, although "Losing My Religion" made both shows).

Fans made distraught by the band's break-up can now content themselves with vintage material such as "Unplugged: The Complete Sessions" and the online clear-out of B-Sides and outtakes for the real devout. However, as dual snapshots in the R.E.M. timeline, "Unplugged: The Complete Sessions" is a feast in a drought. I am willing to bet that there's still more in the vaults that will arrive over time. One can only hope.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Throw a Handful of Glitter in the Air
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Doylestown, Pennsylvania's greatest musical export has earned a spot of artists worthy of a solid "Greatest Hits...So Far!" Initially a teen-pop sensation (as shown by the easy to digest party anthem "Get The Party Started," she ultimately broke free of that label and came to the front of female rockers with both a mature voice and viewpoint. She was soon tackling songs about family discord and political commentary.

This diversity serves her well. The tongue in cheek "So What," tackles the over the top world of stardom yet it is soon followed by the emotional masterstroke of "Glitter In The Air," The pointed "Dear Mr President" expresses her political views with help from the controversy friendly Indigo Girls. I like that Pink isn't scared of a fight, be it the fictional one she uses on an unwanted suitor in the funny "U and Ur Hand" or the confused little girl of "Family Portrait." She is a multifaceted performer and - if you've ever seen her live - dynamic on stage.

You'll find it all here. The confessional of the bonus track "F---ing Perfect" or the affirmation of "Raise Your Glass," the second of the extra songs. She does it all, from hard rocker to thoughtful. "So Far!!" is an apt title, as her latest album "The Truth About Love" carried her farther along her path to artistic validation. Just one more point; the Parental Advisory" label is warranted in this case as there are plenty of F-Bombs to annoy the ears of the sensitive.


     
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
The Rumbling Undertones of Folk Rock
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Tao Rodriguez Seeger is the grandson (in-law) of the late icon Pete Seeger, and has been serving as his Grandfather's musical director on Pete's latest tours. That was where I first heard Tao play, at Newport Folk Festival in 2009. About a year later, Tao performed a solo-band set at Philadelphia's World cafe, We enjoyed his work at Newport so much that I decided to check him out. As you would likely guess by his affiliations with Pete, Tao is a folk-lefty. What I (and I think, most of the other attendees) did not expect, is that Tao is a LOUD folk lefty. Where Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" covered Pete like it was a hootenanny, Tao makes Pete sound like The Clash. While he's not hitting the punk rock stills on "The Anarchist Orchestra," you can feel that he's ready to.




Rodríguez-Seeger and Jake Silver also perform together in The Mammals, here they team up with Laura Cortese and Robin McMillan. This 7 song EP melds folk and bluegrass with some hard rock undertones. "Fascist State Breakdown" sticks to the hootenanny, but don't be fooled. It comes just before a feedback and echo-laden "Roving Gambler." This is a record that likes its guitars as much as it digs those fiddles. It's a good introduction to what these somewhat radical folkies can do, although I'd recommend "Rise and Bloom," billed as the Tao Seeger Band, but is the same band line-up, and is a more enjoyable/focused album.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Hungover
3 Out Of 5 Stars

In the span of time from their debut to their second album, "Love Drunk," Boys Like Girls jump from punk-pop emo band to all out boy band power pop. This is not a completely bad thing, as the super sugar choruses and duet with Taylor Swift show. But the evolution is not without some speed bumps.

First off, the good stuff. The lead off track, "Heart Heart Heartbreak" is pure adrenaline hormonal rush. The repetitive title kills it in the chorus, making for a great little earworm. Then the title track revisits the zing of their debut. Then comes the head scratcher. "Two Is Better Than One" is a ballad, but strip some of the electricity out of it and factor in Taylor Swift, and you have a country tune that would have fit just as nicely on one of Swift's albums than it does here. It also shows that lead singer/guitarist Martin Johnson can work his way around a sappy ballad with the best of them. It's the hookier tunes that play to the band's punkier roots, like "Contagious" that work the best.

That's where things go somewhat awry. Propulsive emo-pop and power pop are great for the guys that need girls and the girls that break their hearts. But the new addition of strings and syrup (like the closer, "Go," which limps the album to its end) make for the kind of song the band isn't quite up to yet. Add a southern accent and ditch the auto-tune, and these would be country ballads. While they make this country pop hybrid work much better on the follow-up, "Crazy World," it's a tough sell on "Love Drunk." It's as if Boys Like Girls suddenly took on a split personality and couldn't decide it they wanted to stay true to their Boston Emo roots or just pack up the cats and relocate to Nashville.

That's the issue with "Love Drunk." You get two distinct bands on this album, the whiz-bang pop of the debut, and the country-pop that would dominate the next album. Boys Like Girls were in transition, and while "Love Drunk" did debut in the top ten, their three albums are essentially the work in progress of differing mindsets. There's plenty to like on the album. What there isn't? Consistency. Hence the solid C grade.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Very Evenflow
4 Out Of 5 Stars

What Pearl Jam did, maybe even unwittingly, was to weld the thick sludgy minor-chord sound (and general angst) of grunge to arena size rock choruses and guitar power. In doing so, they managed to quickly outshine their nearest peers (Nirvana) commercially and ultimately become the vanguard for rock through the 90's. Along with Red Hot Chili Peppers and maybe Soundgarden, they shaped the sound of a decade and thrived to see their success sustained creatively.

"The Essential Pearl Jam" (a repackaging of Rearviewmirror, as reflected in the title) reflects (har har) that 12 years between Ten and Binaural in solid fashion, even if does lean heavily on the first three albums. It also offers a dozen later track to show that, even while the band's spotlight had faded somewhat, albums like No Code were better even while the band purposely was making music that antagonized fans expecting more of "Jeremy." Treats like "Do The Evolution" and "Man Of The Hour" sound just as powerful as any of the pre-Vs. material.

And for those who argue that Eddie Vedder is a big old sourpuss, they miss out on fun stuff like the tribute to old 45's "Spin The Black Circle" or the totally un-ironic cover of "Last Kiss" (that actually hit the top ten in 1999). Guitarist Stone Gossard rips some particularly innovative riffs through the proceedings here, and it's worth noting that Goassard (as well as the rest of the band) usually co-wrote the band's songs. On "Rearviewmirror," they are divided into two CD's, with an "Up" disc of rockers and the "Down" side of more pensive or acoustic material.

It is the second disc where more of the interesting material lies for me. I've always personally felt "Better man" to be the best song Pearl Jam ever wrote, and the closer, "Yellow Ledbetter" is a damn good blues number with Mike McCready hitting a terrific facsimile of Jimi Hendrix. There is plenty of meat spread between the two discs, and for the casual radio fan of Pearl Jam, this is a great sampler at a fine price.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
A great collection of 90's singles!
4 Out Of 5 Stars

This entry into the budget priced "Icon" series features the same track listing as No Doubt's "Singles Collection - 1992 - 2003." So if you already have that set, you can pass on buying this CD and from reading the accompanying review. Otherwise, read on, gentle rocker.

Remember around 1996 and 1997, the period of the great third wave ska revival? All these southern California bands that were aping two-tone bands from the eighties - like Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris? Like most trends, it was over pretty fast. But it was also the breakthrough of "Tragic Kingdom" by No Doubt. And while the ska influenced pop of "Spiderwebs" and "Just A Girl" may have been the initial attention getters, it was the ballad that took them to the top of the charts. "Don't Speak" was a perfect slice of teenage heartbreak and sounded sweet on the radio. Quite frankly, I wasn't expecting them to go much farther after that.

Was I wrong there! While I have yet to really enjoy any of No Doubt's full length albums, their singles were guilty pleasures on the radio. So while the other one hit wonders from the same period faded away, it was No Doubt that continued to grow and create. In many ways, Gwen Stefani reminds me a lot of that other great girl rock band icon, Debbie Harry. Where No Doubt is undoubtedly a band (like Blondie), it is their front person on whom the attention is primarily focused. And like Blondie, No Doubt kept their punky ethos intact while exploring other sounds (dancehall, new wave, etc.). It made for such sublime singles like "Hella Good" and the inescapable "Hey Baby."

The inclusion of the newly recorded version of Talk Talk's "It's My Life" is a perfect match for No Doubt. It utilizes the band's melding of sounds to a pouty song that's tailor made for Gwen's voice. It puts a strong crown on No Doubt's first decade, and with the Grammy for "Underneath It All," and the successful comeback of "Push and Shove," my guess is there will be plenty of material for the inevitable second Icon of hits.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Lou Reed. March 2, 1942 - October 27, 2013
5 Out Of 5 Stars

There aren't too many figures in America Rock and Roll that have a footprint quite like Lou Reed's. From his start as part of Andy Warhol's factory band to his later status as a sort of NYC Poet Laureate, to even recording and album in cahoots with Metallica (not represented here, though), he is one of the USA's predominant rock icons. Or as he put it on one of his live albums, a Rock and Roll Animal. This "Essentials" set is a repackaging of "NYC Man," but still a great set if you don't already own that older package.

The tracklist is a varied set and covers most of his time with various incarnations and major labels (RCA, Arista and Warners). There are excellent liner notes courtesy of Lou himslef, describing the thought processes behind the songs. The sequencing is a bit odd, as the first song here is from "The Raven" (his adaptations of Edgar Alan Poe) and then ends on disc two with "Transformer's" "Pale Blue Eyes." Reed describes his concept for the sequencing as "the point of view which songs relate to each other in the best fashion." Because of the really sweet remastering job (mostly from 2003), many of the songs, even from the Velvets, slip into the others sounding as contemporary as ever. There's the basic rock of "Dirty Boulevard" to the atmospheric guitar the grinds through "Rocket Minuet," which Reed viewed as worthy of following each other. (Minuet" also featured his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson, on violin.) He could make any sound he wanted, and he did, without compromise.

I have my own personal favorites here, especially from the albums "Magic and Loss" and "New York," which in my opinion, were brilliant even if it took a few years for an audience to catch up to them. And while the Arista albums tended to get slagged, selections from the likes of "The Blue Mask" and "Legendary Hearts" are here and deserve a re-listen. Of course, there are the magical songs from "Transformer," including "Perfect Day." As a compilation, it's a great starter kit, although I'd recommend any of the albums mentioned here (and "The Velvet Underground and Nico") as perfect albums in their own right. "The Essential Lou Reed" is a terrific overview of one of Rock's greatest cantankerous characters, and the world is a slightly less interesting place because of his passing.


   
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Don't Hate Yourself for Loving Her
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Joan Jett is a true rock and roll survivor. After the crash of The Runaways, who were often derided as some kind of stunt/joke from Kim Fowley, she rose from the ashes, got rock impresario Neil Bogart to sign her, and released "Bad Reputation." While it was the second album, "I Love Rock and Roll" to really make the breaks happen, Joan rose from the ashes and has kept her career going into the next century. This two disc Greatest Hits anthology is a super way to find out just how (and why) she never went down without a fight.

First off, she dusts off a couple of Runaways tracks, "Cherry Bomb" "School Days" and "You Drive Me Wild" show that The Runaways were perfectly capable of turning out decent rock songs, and Jett takes them over with authority. She's had a knack for doing that from the start, as her choice selection of cover songs has always shown. Here you get "Do You Wanna Touch," "Crimson and Clover," "Everyday People," "AC/DC" (the Sweet song, not the band, although her version of "Dirty Deeds" could have fit nicely), and her explosive version of a song Bruce Springsteen handed over to her, "Light Of Day." Oh yeah, and an obscure song from a band called The Arrows, "I Love Rock and Roll." OK, so we've established that Jett has eclectic tastes in rock artists, but what about her own songs?

"Why should I care about a Bad Reputation?" she barked out on her debut LP. Indeed, she rocks without giving a darn about what the world thought of her. She mixed hard rock, punk energy and glam, sometimes in the same song. There's a direct line from "Do You Wanna Touch" to "I Hate Myself for Loving You." You can't deny the kiss off of "Fake Friends." Or a subversive sense of humor by recording "Love Is All Around" (the theme to the Mary Tyler Moore show) and punking it up. Jett proves she can still cook with a pair of songs from 2006's "Sinner," one of which is a gas of a redo of The Replacements' "Androgynous."

"Greatest Hits" has 21 songs between the two CD's, so there's not much to quibble about (and I am guessing Epic records kept control as very little of those years are represented). But for an enduring talent of Joan Jett's caliber, you'll get your money's worth from this set.


   
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Fifth Planet Out
4 Out Of 5 Stars

For their second album, Train broadened their sound out to a more contemporary sound, losing the alternative leanings of their debut and adding rock that was more reminiscent of Counting Crows than the rootsier vein of the debut. The tightening up paid of in a big way, when "Drops Of Jupiter" and its title song went top ten and the album sold almost three million copies in 2001. This comes in on two levels; Pat Monahan is an effective pop songwriter, and the eclectic mix of instruments (a mandolin here, a vibraphone there) helped the songs stand out when mixed with the usual radio fare. It's one of many elements that made the stately single almost omnipresent when it hit the top 40 and started getting massively played.

But Train is more then just power ballads and guitar strumming. They've got a knack for poppier rock hooks (helped along by producer Brendan O'Brien, whose credits range from Pearl Jam to The Black Crowes, whose work does get some echoes here), the kind that turn into ear-worms with ease. This is not to confuse Train with a true rock band, when they try to actually rock (on "Respect"), it's not entirely convincing. The other unfortunate thing is the band is kind of faceless. Did you know Train has multiple top ten albums? Probably not. But the good thing is that, even with an album as even and decent sounding as "Drops Of Jupiter" is, Train got better as the albums progressed, even managing a comeback when many pundits had written them of. "Drops of Jupiter" is a good starting point if you want to find out how Train managed to be both massively popular and yet under the radar at the same time.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Got Love If You Want It
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Philadelphia Singer/Songwriter Josh Zuckerman tries a bit more rocking for his third CD, "Got Love?" It seems to be a pretty good fit. Even more fun is that Josh also gets into the funk. Add some solid social messaging, and you've got "Got Love?".

Josh is a confident singer and he aligns his songs to his voice, making the album fit the artist. He's punchy without meriting a migraine, so the buzzing lead guitars of "I Thought You Love Me" convince you that they belong and aren't an annoyance. He even does the love ballads well, as the string saturated "Fall In Love Again" (shades of Five for Fighting here) prove.

My favorite though is the title track. Asking why anyone's love should be considered different from another's, "Got Love" lifts a bass-line from Cameo's "Word Up" and asks the always pertinent question...why isn't all love equal? It's among the best songs here, and given that he's working on a follow-up (this was released in 2009), I am eager to hear more about love from Josh Zuckerman.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Richard Thompson's Best Live Album
4 Out Of 5 Stars


Recorded for the "Austin City Limits" program, "Live From Austin Texas" is Richard Thompson playing in a trio setting (drummer Michel Jerome, upright bassist Danny Thompson). Spare as that sounds, Thompson's muscular guitar cuts to the front of the line every time. Released in 2005 on the NewWest label, it boasts a clear sounding mix, a great selection of songs and Thompson is fine form.

You'll get songs that range back to "Shoot Out The Lights" to material from the then new "Mock Tudor." Some of the songs I kind of thought were lesser bits on previous albums, like "Al Bowlly's In Heaven" - terrific bass solo by Danny) - sound great in this context. Of the newer material, the ballad "Persuasion" (written by Split Enz's Tim Finn) and the ripping opener, "Cooksferry Queen" are stand outs. But my favorite is (and likely forever will be) the magnificent "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." It is one of the few songs that consider to be a flawless bit of writing and playing, and on "Live From Austin, Texas," it again fails to disappoint. The outstanding version of this song alone would rate the album three stars, and here it and his band give it due justice. Simply put, "Live From Austin, Texas" is the best of Richard Thompson's many live solo albums.


   
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The Queen of New Age Romanticism
5 Out Of 5 Stars

After serving time with some family members in the Celtic pop band Clannad, Enya decided they were becoming too pop and set out for a solo career. It may have taken her two albums to perfect the sound she's become famous for, but when "Orinoco Flow" became an international hot single and propelled her 1988 album "Watermark" to multiplatinum status, Enya became an international pop star. Which is something of a misnomer, as what Enya records is anything but traditional pop. She utilizes old folk and Celtic sounds, lush overdubbing and multi-layered harmonies to create music that no-one else has ever come close to duplicating.

That is why "The Very Best of Enya" is essential listening. The songs on this CD bent the arc of popular music and she became the best known musician of what was then called "New Age" music. More to the point, she transcended the faddish nature of the movement and continues to make music that resonates with the public to this day. While her music is gentle, she still has a dynamic sound. "Storms in Africa" ebbs and flows, building to its climax. "Only Time" (made popular after 9/11 as something radio used to calm listeners) gently lulled it's way into the top ten Billboard charts. her music is graceful and never disruptive, but she does so without resorting to the kind of Adult Contemporary radio bombast or condescending wimpiness. Enya creates music that comforts and brings the listener an experience in elegance.

If there are any qualms here, it's that I probably would have been just fine without the Christmas Carol "Oiche Chiuin," as it disrupts the originality of the rest of Enya's work. Also because the elegiac goodbye of "May It Be" would have brought the collection to a far more satisfying conclusion. "The Very Best of Enya" is music that transcended all the tropes of modern pop music and still stands as fresh and gorgeous as it has on the albums it's been culled from.


   
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The Queen of New Age Romanticism
5 Out Of 5 Stars

After serving time with some family members in the Celtic pop band Clannad, Enya decided they were becoming too pop and set out for a solo career. It may have taken her two albums to perfect the sound she's become famous for, but when "Orinoco Flow" became an international hot single and propelled her 1988 album "Watermark" to multiplatinum status, Enya became an international pop star. Which is something of a misnomer, as what Enya records is anything but traditional pop. She utilizes old folk and Celtic sounds, lush overdubbing and multi-layered harmonies to create music that no-one else has ever come close to duplicating.

That is why "The Very Best of Enya" is essential listening. The songs on this CD bent the arc of popular music and she became the best known musician of what was then called "New Age" music. More to the point, she transcended the faddish nature of the movement and continues to make music that resonates with the public to this day. While her music is gentle, she still has a dynamic sound. "Storms in Africa" ebbs and flows, building to its climax. "Only Time" (made popular after 9/11 as something radio used to calm listeners) gently lulled it's way into the top ten Billboard charts. her music is graceful and never disruptive, but she does so without resorting to the kind of Adult Contemporary radio bombast or condescending wimpiness. Enya creates music that comforts and brings the listener an experience in elegance.

If there are any qualms here, it's that I probably would have been just fine without the Christmas Carol "Oiche Chiuin," as it disrupts the originality of the rest of Enya's work. Also because the elegiac goodbye of "May It Be" would have brought the collection to a far more satisfying conclusion. "The Very Best of Enya" is music that transcended all the tropes of modern pop music and still stands as fresh and gorgeous as it has on the albums it's been culled from.


     

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blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
No Better, Really
2 Out Of 5 Stars

Back in 2008, I gave John Mellencamp's "Life Death Love and Freedom" a four star rating. He mixed up his styles enough to keep the disc from becoming flat, and added a few hopeful songs like "My Sweet Love." A few years later and that hope is sucked clean out of "No Better Than This." Recorded in mono at several classic locations (mainly Sun Studios in Memphis), Mellencamp is going for a starker sound than before, even more bare bones that "Life Death" or his madly underrated "Big Daddy." It's just that, as spartan as the CD is, the songs aren't all that memorable or inspiring. He may want to be a classical folkie, but it just isn't there. You can record in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936, but that doesn't mean you've been to the crossroads.

The idea of the CD is interesting enough; Mellencamp recorded "No Better Than This" while touring with one microphone, directly onto a vintage Ampex 601 tape recorder, no remixing or overdubs. It does give the album a sense of immediacy, but not warmth. Just because you're making an album the way Johnny Cash or the rest of the Sun studio cats, he's still Mellencamp. Some of the songs are vintage lyrical Mellencamp, like "No One Cares About Me," the closing "Clumsy Ol' World" and the bar brawl that he narrates in "Easter Eve." It's just me, but I really yearned to hear Mellencamp do "Clumsy Ol' World" and maybe "Save Some Time For Me" with a full band and in a modern setting.

As it is, "No Better Than This" can't elevate itself to more than a curiosity in Mellencamp's storied discography, and you have to hand it to the man, he's long ago decided he's going to follow his muse to any place it leads him. Having pretty much given up on rock and roll, "No Better Than This" will likely only please die-hard Mellencamp followers, extreme folkies, or lovers of what T-Bone Burnette does to artists when he turns his producer's cap towards stripping his subjects musically naked.


   
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No Better, Really
2 Out Of 5 Stars

Back in 2008, I gave John Mellencamp's "Life Death Love and Freedom" a four star rating. He mixed up his styles enough to keep the disc from becoming flat, and added a few hopeful songs like "My Sweet Love." A few years later and that hope is sucked clean out of "No Better Than This." Recorded in mono at several classic locations (mainly Sun Studios in Memphis), Mellencamp is going for a starker sound than before, even more bare bones that "Life Death" or his madly underrated "Big Daddy." It's just that, as spartan as the CD is, the songs aren't all that memorable or inspiring. He may want to be a classical folkie, but it just isn't there. You can record in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936, but that doesn't mean you've been to the crossroads.

The idea of the CD is interesting enough; Mellencamp recorded "No Better Than This" while touring with one microphone, directly onto a vintage Ampex 601 tape recorder, no remixing or overdubs. It does give the album a sense of immediacy, but not warmth. Just because you're making an album the way Johnny Cash or the rest of the Sun studio cats, he's still Mellencamp. Some of the songs are vintage lyrical Mellencamp, like "No One Cares About Me," the closing "Clumsy Ol' World" and the bar brawl that he narrates in "Easter Eve." It's just me, but I really yearned to hear Mellencamp do "Clumsy Ol' World" and maybe "Save Some Time For Me" with a full band and in a modern setting.

As it is, "No Better Than This" can't elevate itself to more than a curiosity in Mellencamp's storied discography, and you have to hand it to the man, he's long ago decided he's going to follow his muse to any place it leads him. Having pretty much given up on rock and roll, "No Better Than This" will likely only please die-hard Mellencamp followers, extreme folkies, or lovers of what T-Bone Burnette does to artists when he turns his producer's cap towards stripping his subjects musically naked.


     


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What's a Flag to a Pawn Shop
4 Out Of 5 Stars

When John Ondrasik embarked on the fourth album as Five For Fighting, he made his most obvious move into piano soft pop to that date. "Two Lights" follows in the path of Billy Joel and Elton John. and ay his quirkiest, Ben Folds. It's also the first album he recorded after the birth of his son. So gone are the rocking instincts and in come the falsetto-ed songs to fatherhood. The top 40 single, "The Riddle," epitomizes these emotions, as he imagines his son growing up with the questions every parent must answer, backed with string and John's ever-so-sincere singing.

Not that any of this should surprise previous followers of Five For Fighting. He's been getting mellower and mellower as each album passes, and "Two Lights" is a continuation of that path. What makes his albums consistently is how much of an ear for earnestness and production he's got. Strings swell at just the perfect moment, and there's still plenty of populist lyrics like the kind that made him a star with "Superman" in 2001. It's all very sweet, with the occasional tip of the hat to Americana.

That lineage is explored by the lead track, "Freedom Never Cries." Using the metaphoric imagery that starts with taking a flag to a pawnshop, John tracks that flag's path along the road where "I only talk to God when somebody's about to die" before ultimately hoping for a world of peace for his newborn and the thought that he "never loved a soldier until there was a war." It's a moving (if obvious pull at the heartstrings) song, and among his best. Yet he doesn't forget about the not so distant past, as he longingly recalls his "65 Mustang." The only time this point of view falls flat in "Johnny America," which overworks its premise.

Then there's "Policeman's Xmas Party," a total fiasco. Since John signs mostly in a high register, here he intentionally sings above his range and phrases the song in a grating way. If there was any song that cleaves to the Ben Folds analogy, this is one of them. Too clever and overtly annoying, it makes one wonder why it made the final cut. Better, however, is "California Justice," a road trip gone wrong. The combinations on "Two Lights" don't always work, but John is a strong enough singer/songwriter to skate above the lesser of the numbers here (except "Policeman's Party"). making "Two Lights" land in the middling area of Five For Fighting's discography.


   
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What's a Flag to a Pawn Shop
4 Out Of 5 Stars

When John Ondrasik embarked on the fourth album as Five For Fighting, he made his most obvious move into piano soft pop to that date. "Two Lights" follows in the path of Billy Joel and Elton John. and ay his quirkiest, Ben Folds. It's also the first album he recorded after the birth of his son. So gone are the rocking instincts and in come the falsetto-ed songs to fatherhood. The top 40 single, "The Riddle," epitomizes these emotions, as he imagines his son growing up with the questions every parent must answer, backed with string and John's ever-so-sincere singing.

Not that any of this should surprise previous followers of Five For Fighting. He's been getting mellower and mellower as each album passes, and "Two Lights" is a continuation of that path. What makes his albums consistently is how much of an ear for earnestness and production he's got. Strings swell at just the perfect moment, and there's still plenty of populist lyrics like the kind that made him a star with "Superman" in 2001. It's all very sweet, with the occasional tip of the hat to Americana.

That lineage is explored by the lead track, "Freedom Never Cries." Using the metaphoric imagery that starts with taking a flag to a pawnshop, John tracks that flag's path along the road where "I only talk to God when somebody's about to die" before ultimately hoping for a world of peace for his newborn and the thought that he "never loved a soldier until there was a war." It's a moving (if obvious pull at the heartstrings) song, and among his best. Yet he doesn't forget about the not so distant past, as he longingly recalls his "65 Mustang." The only time this point of view falls flat in "Johnny America," which overworks its premise.

Then there's "Policeman's Xmas Party," a total fiasco. Since John signs mostly in a high register, here he intentionally sings above his range and phrases the song in a grating way. If there was any song that cleaves to the Ben Folds analogy, this is one of them. Too clever and overtly annoying, it makes one wonder why it made the final cut. Better, however, is "California Justice," a road trip gone wrong. The combinations on "Two Lights" don't always work, but John is a strong enough singer/songwriter to skate above the lesser of the numbers here (except "Policeman's Party"). making "Two Lights" land in the middling area of Five For Fighting's discography.


     

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Tempering The Rage, Unslaving The Audio
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Tom Morello's first album under his Nightwatchman persona was out to destroy his old reputation as an electric guitar gunslinger for Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave. While he keeps the political bent of RATM in full blast, he's decided that a whisper will work better than a scream. So now he's channeling Woody Guthrie, Pete Seger and Bruce Springsteen ala "Ghost of Tom Joad." This is one wicked lefty political diatribe, and Morello is relishing the part.

I really enjoy what Morello is doing with this phase of his career. I've seen him live twice now, and he's got one charismatic stage presence. However, his songwriting here is not as good as the albums that followed. While I do not underestimate his commitment to this new-found folk music, there's only about half that really catch fire. There's too many songs that merely offer up slogans instead of songs, an issue that he'd overcome in spades by "The Fabled City" a couple of years later.




It's the songs that hit the bulls-eye that really impress. The title song blasts through any complacency the acoustic guitar based songs might lull you into. "The Gardens of Gethsemane" is a powerful narrative of a revolutionary on the prowl, haunted by "I've seen the things I should not see." Offering no viewpoint, you have to ascertain for yourself what kind of man he's singing about. With a haunting guitar whispering behind Morello's strumming, it packs a velvet wallop. "One Man Revolution" needed more of these songs. Like I also said, by "The Fabled City," his songwriting had evolved to the point where every song was an acoustic hand grenade. I'll recommend this to current fans of the likes of Steve Earle or Billy Bragg, but better was on the way.



   
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Putt Putt Putt
3 Out Of 5 Stars

An Electric Light Orchestra album in name only, 2001's "Zoom" actually sounds better via this remaster than it did on initial release. If there's one thing Jeff Lynne really comprehends, it's sound. Which means what you're really buying here is a fantastically mastered Jeff Lynne solo album. Factor in that Lynne basically arrested his musical development at The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour," and you'll get a much greater understanding of what "Zoom" is all about.

After all, classic ELO was a band. Only Richard Tandy is on board from the old hands and he is a guest on two of the songs. Ringo Starr shows up just as often as Tandy does. Sadly, some of George Harrison's final work is found on "A Long Time Gone" and "All She Wanted." Harrison gave his Traveling Wilbury buddy some tasty work to go out on, which adds to "Zoom's" charm. And yes, "Zoom" is a charming album. You'll hear a lot of Beatles touchstones, maybe even more than you'll reflect on actual ELO albums. Because after sound, the second thing Lynne understands is his way around a decent pop song.

That's what you'll find scattered around "Zoom." "Easy Money" is Lynne's typical take on rockabilly, while "Just For Love" at least brings in the string section to accompany the Beatles/ELO sound. The leadoff single from 2001, "All Right," is an OK guitar rocker (but it's no "Do Ya"). There's also the lovely "Melting In The Sun," which does sound like latter day ELO. What kind of undermines "Zoom" is the bonus inclusion of a live "Turn To Stone." When you listen to that particular song, it reminds you of what is missing from "Zoom." Lynne used to be able to knock off an entire album of sugary hookfests like that 1977 gem, with a band to make them sound like magic, and there isn't anything on "Zoom" that comes close. Which, again, is what determined my thoughts in the first part of the review. Call "Zoom" an extension of the Wilburys. Call it a decent Jeff Lynne solo project. Just remember that, despite the labeling, this isn't really an ELO album.


     

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Magnum Toxic
4 Out Of 5 Stars

"Toxicity," System of a Down's second album, remains their best effort. They mashed together thrash metal and melodic hard rock (yes, I said that seriously) to the point that Serj Tankian, could jump from his harsh shouting to the tuneful but complex "Aerials." Guitarist Daron Malakian even picks up an acoustic for "Chop Suey!" And like brothers in arms Rage Against The Machine, System of a Down weren't afraid of taking on political rocking, as in the CD's opening "Prison Song." At the same time, there's a weird sense of humor, like in "Bounce," where the bans seems to be taking a whiz at their own brand of metal, or using a flute in "Science."

It helped that a producer like Rick Rubin could come in and make order out of chaos, much like he did with Slayer's best albums. He's one of the few producers who can take bands that make music as jagged as SOAD create and stitch it into a complete and coherent album. When this kind of sound was all the rage in 2001 (think Korn, Rage and Deftones), "Toxicity" was the album that stood above the crowd in terms of sheer originality and stylistic verve.


     


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