Thursday, September 25, 2008

Record Reviews: Fall Edition

I haven't expressed my thoughts on any new music releases in a while, so here's some quick hits without all the bullshit:

Okkervil River-The Stand Ins

The Stand Ins, a continuation of sorts to last year's The Stage Names, shows a mature take on the often immature trappings of being in a touring rock band-- a topic certainly familiar to the road-weary dudes in Okkervil River. Write about what you know, right?

Singer Will Sheff's voice is akin to John Roderick of the Long Winters, and they also happen to share a knack for keen storytelling. The lyrics effortlessly convey all the themes of loneliness, isolation, exhaustion and fleeting relationships that are shared in all great road songs (like Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead Or Alive", Bob Seger's "Turn The Page", or hell, even Tenacious D's "The Road".)

The instrumentation is quite varied, often accentuating the usual rock fare with the use of horns and strings, but never weighing down the arrangements with an unnecessary pastiche of sounds. I haven't heard anyone do it this well since Neon Bible.

A late contender for best album of the year. Yeah, I said it.

Standout tracks: "Lost Coastlines", "Blue Tulip", "Pop Lie", "On Tour With Zykos".

TV On The Radio-Dear Science

Hot off the presses with a release date of just a few days ago, I've only listened to this album thrice the whole way through, but I'm already loving it. TVOTR's back to their Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes form-- hypnotic, throbbing beats overladen with simple, electro-funk melodies and topped off by stunning falsetto vocals.

This album doesn't feel as heavy on the ambiance as their last, Return To Cookie Mountain. That definitely makes it more fun and infinitely more palatable. It's good when a band decides not to overthink it and just lets the songs flow effortlessly.

Not to say that Dear Science doesn't sound well-thought out, it's quite the contrary-- it's a focused and precise refinement of the band's aesthetic.

Another late entry to the albums of the year list.

Standout tracks: "Halfway Home", "Dancing Choose", "Golden Age", "DLZ".

Dr. Dog-Fate

I didn't know much about Dr. Dog before listening to their new album, Fate. I gotta say, I'm a big fan. Much like Wilco as of late, there's a timeless feel to their sound and production that borrows heavily from the Band, Dylan's early electric work and Lennon's solo catalog, all without sounding overtly derivative.

There's a big contrast between the songs sung by vocalists Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken; the ladder especially stands out with a soulful, Joe Cocker-like growl that really elevates the songs past simple indie rock tributes to the height of ageless anthems.

I'm pretty sure that if you play this album for that old dude next door who stopped buying records after 1978 and has a jacket that perennially smells of weed, he would probably approve. He might even invite you over to get high and listen to some "real" records afterward.

Standout tracks: "The Breeze", "Hang On", "The Old Days", The Ark", "The Beach".

Conor Oberst-S/T

It's easy to see that Conor Oberst wanted a clean slate for his latest work-- he dropped the Bright Eyes moniker for the first time in over a decade, moved to Mexico to record with a new set of musicians, didn't record with longtime producer Mike Mogis, and elected to release the album on Merge instead of his own Saddle Creek/Team Love imprints.

It's not so easy, however, to see why he would go to great lengths to remove himself from what's become so familiar to him, especially when the record sounds inexplicably like a wonted Bright Eyes outing.

The production, however, is more bare-bones than his last release, Cassadega, and it actually helps the songwriting shine through a bit more this time. Oberst has always been a great lyricist and although he's moved away from the blunt personal style of his youth to more ubiquitous and covert subjects, his phrasing and metaphors are still top notch.

Although this in not his best work, he's always worth a listen.

Standout tracks: "Cape Canaveral", "Get-Well-Cards", "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)".

Fleet Foxes-S/T

This album is here to fuck with me. Some of the songs on Fleet Foxes sound so much like At Dawn-era My Morning Jacket that a lawsuit from Jim James doesn't seem entirely out of line.

The thing is, the songs on Fleet Foxes are still really good. They, in fact, seem to sound more like My Morning Jacket than My Morning Jacket has of late. So, I'm forced to face the age-old musical conundrum: Is it acceptable to embrace a band whose sound is so blatantly derivative of another band?

Well, in this case, the answer is yes. Especially since in my elder years I'm trying to live by the motto, "A good song is a good song, no matter what." I mean, all music is derivative of something else, that's how it works. I shouldn't let minor details get in the way of enjoying a tune. Life's too short.

Standout tracks: "White Winter Hymnal", "Ragged Wood", "Your Protector".

Metallica-Death Magnetic

I've already expressed my love for metal and especially for Metallica's output in the mid-to-late Eighties. So, when I heard that über-producer Rick Rubin was helming their new album and that it was going to be a return to past form, I got giddy. After all, Rubin produced the last few Slayer albums and they've been mercilessly brutal. Even his work with System Of A Down was admirable, just for the drum and guitar sounds alone.

So, the first time I sat down with Death Magnetic I felt a sort of nervous anticipation; bracing for the worst while desperately hoping for the metalhead in me to be blown away.

Well, as it turns out, my feelings lie somewhere in between. In many ways the album is a return to form-- Kirk Hammet's leads are once again featured on every song after being complete ly omitted on 2003's St. Anger and the "snare drum in an aluminum trash can" sound that haunted said album is now thankfully absent. Even James Hetfield's excessive vocal stylings have been finally restrained after reaching laughable levels, almost bordering on parody, on St. Anger. The lyrics are quintessentially metal (pain, depression, evil, death, rinse, repeat) as well. There's even an extended instrumental, "Suicide & Redemption", à la Ride The Lightning's "Call Of Ktulu", Master Of Puppets' "Orion" or ...And Justice For All's "To Live Is To Die."

So while the songs are essentially satisfying to my innate metal aesthetic, they left me a bit flat. Never mind the fact that the mastered sound of the album has its problems, I just think I'll probably never be as excited about this kind of music as I was when I was 15 years old. And that really has nothing to do with Metallica and everything to do with me getting older.

Standout tracks: "That Was Just Your Life", "All Nightmare Long", "The Judas Kiss".

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