Wednesday, February 28

Yoko Ono Gets a Face Lift

Artist: Yoko Ono
Album: Yes, I’m a Witch

Comments: Here are the facts.

1) There once was this band back in the 60s named The Beatles. They were from England.

2) They came to America and took shit over. To use the parlance of our times, they were kind of a big deal.

3) This guy in The Beatles, John, met this girl named Yoko and they fell in love. She was an artist.

4) A little bit later, The Beatles broke up, and John and Yoko made an album called “Plastic Ono Band”. People hated Yoko, and later, John died.

I don’t really have an opinion on weather or not Yoko Ono had anything to do with The Beatles breaking up. In my mind, most of it is probably just outrage at such a widely loved act splitting up and the need for a reason. However, there’s always the chance that Yoko cast some sort of spell on John that hypnotized him. Yoko always kind of struck me a fruit loop, and I wouldn’t put hypnotism past her. Regardless, 37 years after John Lennon turned Yoko from some nut-bar, post-modernist into a recording artist, we are given “Yes, I’m a Witch”.

Feelings on Yoko Ono aside, I really have to give her some points. For this record, she did something that is undeniably cool. See, this isn’t a new record of songs from Yoko; it’s more of a career spanning compilation that is meant to bring her into the 21st century, and maybe even get her some young, new, scarf wearing, coffee house hoping fans. But this isn’t the usual mass collection of pre-recorded songs. Allow me to explain; 17 different acts signed on to do a reworking of some Ono songs. This album brings together a mix of indie darlings (The Flaming Lips, Cat Power), dance DJs (Peaches, Le Tigre), a bunch of cats I’ve never even heard of (who the fuck is Shitake Monkey??), and Sleepy Jackson. Ono opened her entire catalogue of songs to these people, and told them to take whatever they wanted. As a result, most songs just feature her original vocals, while the music itself is completely reworked. This is a pretty excellent way to make a compilation in my opinion, and I give Ono credit for giving these acts access to all her work, warts and all.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I know a damn thing about anything Yoko Ono has ever recorded. I think I have “Plastic Ono Band” somewhere on my computer, but I’ve never listened to it. So I can’t provide any sort of commentary on how these new remixes stack up next to Yoko’s actual work. The only context I have to work with is what I’ve heard, and what I hear is a pretty good remix album that may not gain a whole lot of new fans, but has a few nice songs on it.

First, the goodness. “No One Can See Me Like You Do”, which is reworked by The Apples in Stereo, lays Ono’s vocals on top of a tender love song layered with strings, bells, and minimal drums. The song works really well, and creates a real emotional response. This song would sound good in a movie soundtrack somewhere, when two lovers are pining over each other; likewise with Cat Power’s “Revelations”. DJ Spooky reworks “Rising” into a trippy electronica track, using synth and background howls to create some pretty good tension, only to relieve it with scratching as the song breaks down. “Yes, I’m a Witch” , which appears to be Ono’s career manifesto, is reworked with surprising skill by the Blood Brothers. Considering how abrasive and absurd the Blood Brother’s albums usually are, this is a surprisingly accessible remix that sticks to traditional rock and serves as a reminded that maybe rap rock COULD work, if done in the right hands.

The rest of the album is pretty good, if not nessisarily standout. There are a few miss-steps. “Cambridge 1969/2007” is just a straight up Flaming Lips song; it has their usual “wall of joyful noise” style of play, and, unlike the other tracks on the album, I cannot really tell where Ono is being used on this song. It’s not bad; it just doesn’t fit with the album. Peaches’ rendition of “Kiss Kiss Kiss” is pretty awful; it not only features some really shaky minimal production, but it also features the erectile-dysfunction-triggering sound of Yoko Ono having an orgasm, which is about number 4 on the “top ten things I’ve never wanted to hear” list. And Sleepy Jackson’s disco soul rendition of “I’m Moving On” just falls on its face.

Maybe to you, Yoko Ono is the evil, twisted bitch who ruined one of rock music’s most important groups. Or maybe, she’s just a misunderstood artist who will forever have to deal with the public opinion that she ruined her dead husband’s life. Regardless, “Yes, I’m a Witch” won’t change your opinion of her either way, but it may start a conversation about her with a whole new generation. If nothing else, it’s a pretty good electronic record.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Key Tracks: Rising, No one can see me Like You Do, Yes, I’m a Witch.

Worth The Money:
Only for some, not a must have

Tuesday, February 27

A Band from New Jersey That Doesn't Suck!!!

Artist: Lifetime
Album: Lifetime

Comments: When Lifetime broke up in 1997, they stepped away at the top of their game. Lifetime gained cult status in the early 90s with their positive and uplifting lyrics, which was in stark contrast with other hardcore acts of the 90s. Throughout the decade, Lifetime moved away from the hardcore scene, focusing more on pop punk, but keeping their music energized, upbeat, and tight as hell. 10 years later, New Jersey’s best dancers are back to remind you that, yes, it is going to be alright. And they are going to do it by punching you in the face.

A lot of albums can be described as a blast, but this is one that actually backs it up. The entire self titled album clocks in at just under 25 minutes, but more gets done in that time than some bands can do in an entire double album. The album opens up with “Northbound Breakdown” which sets the pace of the record, which is fast. Despite the 10 year break, Lifetime sounds tight as they ever did; they never miss a beat, even at their breakneck pace. This record is pure pop punk, full of songs about breaking hearts, being heart broken, girls who love boys, and boys who love girls. However, unlike the current emo acts, which seem to only paint bloody pictures of girls violently ripping out the innocent hearts of guys with bad hair cuts, Lifetime prefer to imagine a world where the boy gets the girl, and everyone goes home happy.

With an album this fast and tight, it’s sometimes hard to pick standout tracks. However, there are some songs on here that seem to stand a cut above the rest. Besides the aforementioned “Northbound Breakdown”, “Just a Quiet Evening”, “Haircuts and T-Shirts” and “Yeems Song for Nothing” sound good not just in the context of the album, but as stand alone tracks.

The album isn’t without its flaws; any record that goes as fast as this one runs the risk of becoming repetitive and just sounding like one big long song. This happens a little bit toward the end of the record. And as it plays, I can see how some might want one slow track, just for a break. Lifetime could benefit from at least one break in stride. However, to their credit, Lifetime sticks to the only speed they know, and that speed is “ROCK!”. The only noticeably weak track on the record is the mercifully short “Song for Mel”. By the time the record is over, you’ll just want to listen to it one more time.

The real triumph of this record his how the band is able to walk away and come back a “lifetime” later (ba bud bum) and pick up right where they left off. There is no rust, no kinks, and no growing pains. They’ve matured, but they are able to let that maturity work for them and help them sound as fresh as ever. Lifetime by Lifetime is as good a pop punk record as any, but it’s not really universal. Fans of pop punk would do well to pick this up, but the general speed at which the album is played can be off-putting for casual fans.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Northbound Breakdown, Yeems Song for Nothing, Just a Quiet Evening

Worth The Money: Yes


NOTE: There's gonna be a new scheduel for reviews here at Left of The Dial. It's gonna go like this. Every Thursday, Sunday, and Tuesday, there will be new updates. So....check them out, if you want to, I-I guess.

Lineup for this week is as follows:

Thursday: Yoko Ono
Sunday: Smoke or Fire
Tuesday: Do Make Say Think

Sunday, February 25

Explosions in the Sky Suddenly Miss Everyone

Artist: Explosions in the Sky
Album: All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone

Comments: How exactly do I go about reviewing a post rock album, especially one like an Explosion in the Sky album? Going song by song is out the window, because each song is part of a larger theme, like movements in a symphony. And I can’t comment on the song writing, because there are no words. No, all I can really say about this new album is that it’s good music to compress to, it’s good music to write to, and it follows the same formula that all Explosions in the sky records follow.

For the uninitiated, let my try to explain the genre of post rock. On the surface, the simplest explanation is that it is rock songs without words. However, that is not really accurate as it paints a picture of 3 and a half minute rock songs with no words, like a Foo Fighters song with the words removed, and who would want to listen to that? So post rock is more than just wordless choruses. Good old Wikipedia claims that post rock is characterized by the “use of rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes”. I suppose that is true. However, I think that it is more accurate to say that post rock that works to convey emotion without the use of words; to make someone feel something without having to tell them what to feel. And for music that is based on catharsis, no band creates that landscape better than Explosion in the Sky.

More than anything else, Explosions in the Sky arrange their albums in an almost orchestral manner. As I said in the first paragraph, each song could be taken on it’s own, but the album is more effective not as a collection of songs, but as a series of movements in a much larger work. The album is almost a narrative; each song independently creates some tension, often with repetitious guitar work and minimal rhythm, before exploding into a climactic and cathartic chorus and coming back down, just in time to start the next chapter of the same story. The only way to really get the full experiences is to listen to the album in one sitting, and let the story wash over you. Then, the crescendos and climaxes, the risings and fallings really get a chance to set in.

I don’t want to try to categorize what one should be feeling when listening to this album, but I get a sense of tragic beauty. Explosions in the Sky have always made records that focus on harmony melodies to create very beautiful musical landscapes, but this record has a much darker edge to it. It is hard to explain in print without lyrics to back it up, but the use of more drums and electronic fuzz give the album a very dark beauty. This is normal for Explosions in the Sky; their focus has always been to craft songs that songs that can sound like melancholy works of art; they use their instruments to tell you that it’s dark right now, but don’t worry, because the sun is coming up tomorrow.

The only problem with this album, this band, and this genre in general is that it is based on a formula or creating and relieving tension. And while it may sound nice, it’s still a formula, and even the best formulas get old after a while. If this album is not creating the emotion that it intents, there is no way that it will hold the listeners attention; if you are not drawn in by the catharsis of the album, it just sounds long and repetitious. Another problem I have with this record is that it sounds almost exactly like one of their previous albums, “The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place”. It’s not a huge problem because both albums are beautiful sounding works, but it just seems to show that Explosions in the Sky might be running out of ideas.

More conventional bands will tell you what their message is. They will explain it in very plain terms, and they will tell you how you should feel about it. Explosions in the Sky don’t do this; they give you only the idea of emotion, then leave you to figure out the message yourself. And as a musical guide through a journey of our own emotions, “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone” is a success. It’s not something you can really just throw on and listen to, but when the time is right, this will be an album that you will fall in love with.

Rating: I don’t have one

Key Tracks: It’s pointless to try to isolate a single track.

Worth The Money: Yeah, this is an album that I would recommend.

Wednesday, February 21

Mr. Dogg Can't Understand A Weekend in the City

Artist: Bloc Party
Album: Weekend in the City

Comments: This album has been, without a doubt, the hardest to write a review for in the one year history of Left of the Dial.

And really, there is no reason why it should be so hard. Bloc Party’s “Weekend in the City” is a good record.

When “Silent Alarm” came out in 2005, it was a breakout success, and not only in independent circles. The album received praise from critics all across the board, and even got some significant press from MTV; the band was featured on their “10 Spot Drop” (and fuck if I know that that is), and many of their songs are used as background music on their various “Whore my Children” type shows. “Silent Alarm” was a declaration of Bloc Party’s unique sound, which blends Cure influence with Wire-style brit punk. On “Weekend in the City” Bloc Party returns with more of their angular polish and rhythmic ferocity that made “Silent Alarm” such a good listen.

For me, Bloc Party tracks have always been broken up into two subgroups; the rockers and the swooners. Bloc Party has never been afraid to rock out, and that is no different on this album. Tracks like “The Prayer” and “Song for Clay (Disappear Here)” are full of fiercely jangled guitars and the driving, steady drum work that has always been the backbone of the band. While these songs are good, they sounds almost a little too polished, a little too planned. They lack the sense of feeling that comes through on tracks like “She’s Hearing Voices” and “Luno”.

While the rockers are good, it’s the softer numbers where Bloc Party have really shined in the past. The crooners are also here on the album, but not without flaws. The best example I can give of this is the paradox of “Waiting for the7.18”. The song starts out sounding almost exactly like “This Modern Love” or “Blue Light” with the delayed guitars and high keyboard notes. The song features a very mature production; I can almost see the band in the studio, hunched over a sound board, playing parts over and over again, tweaking every frequency and layering every note. It shows love, but it’s the kind of love an overprotective parent might give to a pre-mature child. The song is so planned, so polished, so loved, that I has no room to grow, and threatens to be suffocated under the weight of its own design. But then the chorus kicks in, and the band launches into the kind of cathartic hooks and harmonies that make Bloc Party so good. The song is full of longing, hope, love, loss, and pure character. Then it snaps back into the sterile production. It’s a confusing song, but a good one none the less.

My favorite track on this album is the first single “I Still Remember”. It has more of the mature production and painstaking analysis, but still sounds lively.

I guess the reason that I’ve been having so much trouble reviewing this album is that there isn’t anything wrong with it, and yet it is not as good as “Silent Alarm”. I don’t know if that is because the post-punk European wave has crested, or if the production is too stifling, or if the tightness of the band is just too oppressive to allow the songs to take a life of their own. But at the end of the day, this is a good record with good songs. Maybe that should be enough, and I should leave my personal feelings at the door. At the same time, how good can this album be if I never play it again?

Bottom line: This is a good record, but I don't feel good about it.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: Waiting for the 7.18, I Still Remember, The Prayer

Worth the Money:
I honestly don’t know.

Tuesday, February 13

Alkaline Trio Keep Their Remains Fresh

Artist: The Alkaline Trio
Album: Remains

Comments: Seeing as tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, I’m going to offer a tip out there to all the ladies: Don’t date the Alkaline Trio. Oh sure, their songs about heartbreak and wounded souls might make you swoon and pine for their ruined livers and bald heads, but you’re just going to end up dead with your body hacked to pieces and buried under floor boards. But by all means, listen to their newest collection of B-sides (yes, this is their second helping).

The album opens with the one two punch of “Hell Yes” and “My Standard Break From Life”; two excellent, if not more common B sides. The former features the usual from Skiba (which is blasphemy, betrayal, and badass yelling) and the latter is classic Andriano (full of self depreciating woe and baldness). These songs serve as more than a good introduction to the album, they are a microcosm for the Alkaline Trio as a group. Their music has always been fueled by heartbreak, an interest with the occult, and alcoholism. What keeps them from being the next hardcore/punk Victory records band is their song writing and their pop chops, both of which are reflected on these first two songs.

It gets better from there as the album starts to dive into more of the mid period Trio work. Despite a mis-step in the form of a cover of Berlin’s “Metro”, the first 7 or 8 songs are air tight pop punk. Standouts of this first half include the Hot Water Music cover, the excellently done “Rooftops”. The real triumph of that cover is that The Trio owned it, and what could have been a sloppy chord swap into a song that is really their own. The other big fish from this first batch of excellence is the balls out rhythm of “Naked on Green Beers”. This song is a furious punch of rolling drums and pounding bass while Skiba and Andriano scream “I hope this is goodbye” at the top of their lungs. In the hands of others, this would come off as nothing more than the whining of an angst-y teen. In the hands of the Trio, it sounds like death threat.

This album is littered with good tracks. “Warbrain”, which first appeared on the “Rock Against Bush” comp still sounds crisp three years later. “Fine Without You”, while it tends to emote a little more than others, features a great hook on the chorus and some tasty drum rolls. As the record rolls on, some later period “Crimson” B-sides pop up, which make me both wonder why they were left off of crimson, and give me comfort that the Alkaline Trio hasn’t lost a step after a near 10 year of cranking out consistently excellent pop-punk.

It’s not without its problems. Because it’s a B-side comp and not an actual record, it lacks a thematic feel to hold it all together. Also, it runs a little lone, and some of the songs toward the back of the record cannot hold up against the first two thirds of the record. Where the majority of the songs sound like they could be album material, some stuff in the back, like “Don’t Say You Won’t” and especially “Buried” play like real b-sides. They aren’t bad, but they cannot hold up to the older stuff. The live tracks are all from the most recent tour with Against Me!. They sound OK, but don’t add much. The only track that really interests me from that crop is the acoustic rendering of “Standard Break From Life”

The bottom line is this; The Alkaline Trio have released a better B-side album than most modern pop punk bands can hope to release. Much like Less Than Jake’s “B is for B Sides”, bands would kill to write songs as good as these. The real impressive thing is that this is the band’s scraps, and that alone should give you an idea of how consistent these guys have been. This album of second hand songs is a breath of fresh air among a world of lesser band’s best stuff.

But under no circumstances, ladies and gay dudes, should you ever date the Alkaline Trio. You’ve been warned.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Key Tracks: “Hell Yes” “Naked on Green Beers” “Rooftops” “Warbrain” “Fine Without You”

Worth The Money: Yes Sir

Thursday, February 8

Incubus Phones in a Dud

Artist: Incubus
Album: Light Grenades

Comments: Okay, everyone. Raise your hands if you remember the band Incubus.

That’s right, ladies. You should all have your hands up. If you were between the ages of 14 and 45 in the late 90s you should remember Incubus. You gals were all over their softer, romantic ballads, like ‘Stellar” and “I Miss You”. You ladies got off on lead singer Brandon Boyd’s skinny frame and droopy earlobes. Chances are, you’ve still got a copy of “Morning View” floating around somewhere in your apartment. But you weren’t the only ones who like the band. Who else remembers Incubus? Anyone?

Ahh, don’t be shy, you metal heads and rockers out there. Incubus’ first few records were full of funk-influenced shredding and hard rocking mixed with a healthy dash of electronic and some above average DJ work. These guys were a cut above the rest of the rap-metal bands that have long since dissipated in the wake of new millennium. I’m sure some of you still put on “Fungus Amongus” and listen to “You Will be a Hot Dancer”. It’s rough, but it showed promise.

So we’ve got the romantics and the alt-rockers who admit to at one time being into this band. Well, believe it or not, you both have more in common that you think. I’m willing to bet that the reason both of you groups liked Incubus in the first place is because of something intangible. Regardless of what they were playing, be it nu-metal or California surf pop, Incubus always sounded into it. They never sounded like the were phoning it in; they loved what they were playing, and they were pouring all they had into.

Well then, you guys should stay away from this new CD, “Light Grenades”, because any inspired moments here are few and far between; separated in seas of shallow, un-ambitious, and indifferent rock. The only song on this entire LP worth listening to is the first single “Anna Molly”, and only because it is the only song on the record that sounds like the band even gives a crap about what they’re playing. There are some ok moments, but they come in flashes and drips latter on the record. This record is nothing more than filler from a band that is too stubborn to realize that they’re already in the land of irrelevance, and threatening to fall into the obscure. This one is a flop in every sense.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Key Tracks: “Anna Molly”

Worth The Money:
Heavens no, download Anna Molly and forget this mess.

Monday, February 5

Clap Your Hands Say Slump?

Artist: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Album: Some Loud Thunder

Comments: It’s kind of hard for me to really put my finger on what made the first CYHSY record so good. I mean, sure, it was a fun pop record and all, but a lot of fun pop records suck. It sounded original, but originality doesn’t guarantee success, accessibility, or even quality. I’m confident that if I were to record an album of children banging on pots while I blow on a jug and read Plato’s Republic, it would be both original and awful. No, what really made Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self titled debut so good was how spur-of-the-moment, “come out of nowhere” it was. This was an album that was recorded, produced, mixed, edited, pressed, and sold entirely independently, with the band paying for everything. It sounded like it was recorded on some ancient 8-track in the drummer’s basement, and it was still able to sell over 100,000 copies, and not sound like garbage. It was unpredictable, and an absolute blast.

But the secret is out now, and CYHSY have either got to shit or get off the pot. So they release their sophomore effort, “Some Loud Thunder”. This is by no means a sophomore slump, but it finds the band doing the best that they can in a tough situation. I feel bad for bands like this. Their situation is one in which they will never be able to please everyone; if they make an album that is sonically and emotionally the same as the first, people will call them a one trick pony and ignore the record. If they try to move in a different direction, people will say that they’ve sold out or lost their magic, and will ignore the record. In this way, CYHSY have almost shot themselves in the foot by making a debut record that was so embraced by the people. Their only success would be to break up and be another “what could have been” band.

There are two big problems with this record, that in my mind keep it from being as good as their first effort. The first problem is sonic problem, and that is with the new production. Part of CYHSY’s appeal to me was how lo-fi the first record was. It sounded like music that was recorded with limited equipment, and the band was still able to make the songs work. The jumped out of the speakers and danced in front of you, bearing their warts and scars with a confidence and abandon that made them more attractive. On this record, however, the production is stepped up. It’s full of different layers and more textures. I guess that this isn’t really that big of a deal for most people, it still sounds good, but I think some of the charm of what CYHSY stood for to me is lost.

The second, and really the much bigger problem with this record, is that the fun is gone. Listening to their first record, everything from everything to the vaudevillian opening track to the repetition of the phrase “child stars!” on the last track was full of life and real joy for what was being done. The lead singer’s voice would warble and wail and move in spontaneous ways that some found irritating, but also had their own charm. The band would kick in together at certain times, and you could almost feel the love for what they were playing. Sadly, this love for their craft seems to be missing from this record. The best example of this is the titular track, “Some Loud Thunder”. Musically, there is nothing wrong with this song; it’s a guitar driven track that features the lead singer’s David Byrne like croon. But this time around, the jams sound forced, and the vocal fluxuations sound planned. Instead of accidental or half hearted, things sound workman-like. The spontaneity that I loved so much on their first album is all but lost on this record.

Even with these two problems, the album still delivers some really good tracks. The disco groove of the quirky “Satan Said Dance” is a personal favorite, because it is not only the most fun song on the record, but it is also the only one to benefit from the extra production. “Yankee Go Home” is another winner, with lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s polarizing croon warbling all over the place in an authentic way. The album closer “Five Easy Pieces” is an ethereal track that takes the listener on a journey that is both parts soothing and troubling. “Emily Jean Stock” is one of those rare songs that is able to build but not crest without sounding incomplete. It also features some of the awful band backup singing that is either a guilty pleasure or a deal breaker depending on your preference.

I really hope that these guys keep making records, and I hope that some day they can move out from the shadow of their first release. After recording what I consider a Lo-Fi classic in their first record, there was really only one way that this review could go. And while it doesn’t live up to the standard set by their first record, “Some Loud Thunder” ultimately has a charm all its own. Maybe someday I will be able to stop comparing a band to their best work, but until that day comes, I’ll keep listening to these guys and hoping.

Rating: 7 out of 10
Key Tracks: “Satan Said Dance” “Yankee Go Home” “Five Easy Pieces”
Worth The Money: Yeah