Wednesday, May 30

Dan Deacon's Electronic Summer Blockbuster

Artist: Dan Deacon
Album: Spiderman of the Rings

Comments: Take one look at the title of the record I am about to review.

Look again, just to be sure.

It’s called Spiderman of the Rings, in case you missed it.

This is not going to be a serious, society altering piece of music. And sure, maybe it’s cynical of me to judge an album based solely on its name, or at least it would be if this record wasn’t such a silly work of giggly fun. Dan Deacon is not going to change the world or your life, but he has made the first truly fun record of this summer.

A little background on Deacon: He’s from Baltimore, where he lives in an art convent with a bunch of painters, authors, and guys with beards. For the last few years, he has been working almost solely on running this convent and making music. Based on some choice youtube videos, it is safe to assume that the man doesn’t take himself or the world around him all that seriously; in one video he is balding, beer bellied, and bespectacled dancing to his own music on an NBC morning show.

None of this matters at all to the music, of course, but it might help to get an idea of what Spiderman of the Rings sounds like. Like the title suggests, the album is both grand and relentlessly silly, and it packs all the entertainment and fun of a blockbuster summer movie.

Deacon makes electronic pop music. This album is all keyboards and synths and vocoders and drum machines and samples. The album opener “Woody Woodpecker” boasts some really good sample use, as the entire song is built around Deacon’s distortion of the famous cartoon character’s laugh. Tracks like “Crystal Cat”, “Okie Dokey”, and “Snake Mistakes” are all dandy fun tracks, each one relatively simple, but with interesting little flairs to them, like the toy ray-gun noises in the beginning of “Snake Mistakes” or the nonsensical repetition of the lyric “I’ve got a rattlesnake gun” on “Okie Dokey”.

Throughout the album, Deacon proves that he is a master of building and relieving tension. Tracks like “Jimmy Roche”, “Pink Batman”, and “Wham City” are epic pop numbers that slowly build on themselves as Deacon adds more and more electronic harmony to the tracks until they threaten to explode completely. Theseis big, swelling tracks dare you not to get up and move your feet. “Wham City” is particularly excellent; it builds and crashes twice in its 12 minute run time, and boasts an anthem that will bury itself in your head and drive you mad with its simple joyful nonsense.

If it doesn’t sound like it makes too much sense, that’s because it doesn’t. But this is a record that must be taken at face value to really be enjoyed. One must be aware that this is supposed to be fun, simple music. Deacon simple sythnesizers and keys and turns them into delightfully goofy pop songs. The whole thing is very appealingif you’re willing to let go of all you know (or don’t know) about music and just dance. The number one summer fun album is here, and it is Spiderman of the Rings.

Raiting: 7.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Crystal Cat, Wham City, Pink Batman, Jimmy Roche

Worth The Money: Yes, but understand that this is a silly record for silly people in a silly mood.

Thursday, May 24

Strong Debut From Philly's Own

Artist: Clean Guns
Album: Sometimes There Is T.R.O.U.B.L.E

Comments: Sometimes There is T.R.O.U.B.L.E by underground hip hop duo Clean Guns ranks as one of the most difficult albums I’ve tried to review in a long time, and until tonight, I couldn’t for the life of me explain why.

From the production, which is mostly done in-house by the group and has an interesting electronica element to it, to the wordplay and lyrical content, which is intricate, descriptive, and referential (like much indie hip hop), there was a lot to like about Sometimes. It had all kinds of things going for it, but that wasn’t the reason I liked it. Or rather, that wasn’t the reason it was hard to review.

Even its style is to my liking. The album is straight up hip hop. There is no snap music or big rhythm dance tracks on this record. There are no R&B singers laying down 3rd rate croons over nickel and dime jazz samples. There are no callout tracks to big name performers in an attempt to further a career. That isn’t what Clean Guns are about. Sometimes is what hip hop aspired to be when it was created. It’s not showy or preachy, and there isn’t necessarily a life changing lesson to it, but it’s expressive and descriptive and maybe, just maybe, it can communicate better the intricate details of city living better than actual conversation ever could.

Still, there are hundreds of records that accomplish this and sound better than Sometimes. While thematically on the same page as classics like Illmatic and Labor Days, Clean Guns lacks the same all-or-nothing punch of these records. Their delivery isn’t as developed as Nas, and their flow isn’t as rewarding as Aesop Rock. But still, there was something about Clean Guns that made me pause and thing that they could develop into something like those two.

It wasn’t their hard edge, which shows through excellently on the album opener “Blast Off”, and it wasn’t their willingness to reflect on tracks like “Beautiful You” and “These Words I Write”. What set Clean Guns apart is a much more visceral and intangible thing; Clean Guns sounds legitimate.

Listening to Sometimes There is T.R.O.U.B.L.E is like listen to the heartbeat of the city. And even though they hail from Philadelphia, it is a much more universal appeal. Clean Guns could be from anywhere and anywhere and still sound like the authentic mark of urban life. It’s in their lyrics, their delivery, and their production. Everything from dirty streets at 2am in West Philly to a cloudless sunny day downtown lives and breaths in this music. Clean Guns doesn’t describe the street; they are the street, and they embody all of the successes and failures that dwell there.

You may never hear Clean Guns. Right now, they get by on local buzz and college radio. But in a hip hop landscape that is dominated by flash-in-the-pan imitators who attempt to manufacture a demographic sound for profits; Sometimes There is T.R.O.U.B.L.E is a dirty, dusty, exhausted filled breath of fresh air.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Key Tracks: “Blast Off” “These Words I Write” “Knives on Trains” “Good Clean Fun, Good Clean Guns”

Worth The Money: Yes

Tuesday, May 22

Worst Nightmare Isn't Brits' Best Stuff - By Joe Gilson

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Album: Favourite Worst Nightmare

Let me say one thing straight off: I like the Arctic Monkeys. I really do. I was one of those people pushing them on my friends when they came onto the American scene. You see, I was in Ireland when they blew up so I got to witness the British explosion firsthand. It is for these reasons that I feel a little bad about what I am going to do.

Jack Johnson was new for me when I first heard him. I had never heard anything quite like what he was doing in the context of a major album release. For that reason, every song off of his debut album is memorable for me. Then his second album came out and, frankly, it was more of the same. Ask me how any song off the first album goes and I’ll know it instantly. Second album? Not so much. Because essentially they are the same album with only a few differences. For this reason, if you ask someone what their favorite Jack Johnson album is, it is going to be the one they heard first. Unfortunately, the Arctic Monkeys have fallen into this trap for me.

The Monkeys’ 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was an immediately memorable listen. It was visceral, grating and laid-back, accessible and exclusive at the same time. Listening to that album made you feel “in” on some kind of idea, but an idea that you knew people would be getting behind in the near future. Which makes sense; Favourite Worst Nightmare is pretty much everyone getting in on the idea, after its become slightly worn down and a bit more universal.

I know why Whatever never took off in America. It was simply TOO British. I got it because of the time I spent immersed in the culture. Nightmare, on the other hand, is far more general in it’s language. Songs from Whatever like “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured” and “A Certain Romance” which specifically detailed British pub culture have been forgone for songs and lyrics which detail handling fame and being looked at as an icon, something these 21-year-old kids from Sheffield cleary have trouble dealing with. The problem is, a lot of people in the position of the Monkeys have dealt with fame. Not many have been so good at detailing the like of a 21 y.o. in Sheffield.

Does this mean that Favourite Worst Nightmare has no redeeming value? Absolutely not. “Teddy Picker” ranks up there among the best on Whatever and the song “Flourescent Adolescent” is a very catchy, very memorable tune. At the same time, there is a lack of consistency. Their debut was reliable from track to track for a few good hooks in each song, from “View From The Afternoon” to “A Certain Romance.” Even the singles were excellent. Which brings us to Favourite Worst Nightmare in a nutshell. I was waiting with baited breath to hear the new single, “Brianstorm.” I played it on my computer, then had to play it again, and again, and again. Not because I liked it so much. Because each time it came on, it finished without me ever really getting sucked into it. I realized that there was nothing grabbing, nothing instinctive that pulled at my guts and made me remember it. That is the real problem.

Is it a bad album? Definitely not. Is it as good as Whatever? Definitely not. Is it fair to compare the two? Maybe. But lead singer Alex Turner says it himself on the first album: “Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment.”

Plus, when you have a band so new and so different, who else can you compare them to?

Worth it to buy: Eh, probably. Try to find it online though.
Stars: 6.5

Thanks to Joe Gilson for the review, and for implementing a new rating system here at LOTD (6.5 stars? Yowza!). Updates continue tomorrow.

Monday, May 21

Wilco's Latest Lacks Teeth, Isn't There

Artist: Wilco
Album: Sky Blue Sky

Comments: Ever since the decompression pop of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s critically acclaimed 2001 release, the band has been unwilling or unable to recapture their edgy experimental sprit. Their follow-up, A Ghost is Born was an underrated album of guitar driven, country kissed poetry mixing the country / folk twang with a 80s guitar hero bigness, but it couldn’t match the grand opus that was YHF. Still, the band should be given credit for not willing to settle. After all, it was Wilco’s ability to turn themselves from an alt-country band into a phycadelic pop band that made them such critical darlings and fan favorites in 2001. Fans looking for Sky Blue Sky to rival YHF will have to keep looking. Despite (or perhaps because of) a return to their rootys country ways, this is a flat record, and, despite the consistency of the music, their worst since A.M.

The record plays out like A Ghost is Born recorded for adult contemporary stations. It starts off with the charming but mild “Either Way”. The song starts with a nice little guitar riff and piano melody, but never really takes off. It sets a precedent for the record, because a lot of songs on this record are like that; they never take off. Songs like “Sky Blue Sky”, “Please be Patient With Me” , “Hate It Here”, and “Leave Me(Like You Found Me) are all nice little songs but they are soft, reserved numbers that never explore, never develop, and just play like b sides and filler. It’s hard to believe that this is the best Wilco could do.

The guitar work from voodoo witch doctor Nels Cline is as good as it has ever been, and local genius Tweedy still has got an ear for pop and a pen for songwriting, but the band can never really find a balance between the two. In other words, it seems like the songs with the best guitar work have the worst lyrics, and the ones with the best one lines and turns-of-phrase feature crummy song development. Everyone just sounds asleep on this record.

Thankfully, the band does wake up from time to time. The silly honky-tonk of “Walken” is one of the few times on the record where everyone sounds like they’re paying attention (or awake). The song itself isn’t anything special, but compared to the rest of the album, it sounds fresh and alive. “What Light” is the best soft song on the record, reaching back to Wilco’s early days as an alt country band. It’s a soft pop number but, like “Walken”, its got an edge to it, as if there is more under the surface than just poppy gloss and studio-like musicianship. Elsewhere on the record, “You Are My Face” and “Side with the Seeds” feature some really excellent breakdowns, and some truly superior guitar work from Cline, and both are worth a listen just for that. Cline always seems to be trying to push himself forward, and the rest of the band just seems content to listen. Hard to blame them though.

With the exception of a few songs on the album, Sky Blue Sky sounds empty, like it’s missing something. It’s hard to define what exactly; all the songs feature some sharp musicianship and good singing on the part of Tweedy (his voice sounds fantastic on this record). Despite Tweedy’s emoting, the album sounds like it lacks emotion, almost as if Wilco just phoned something in. Tweedy said in a recent interview that this record was the most civil and easy Wilco record ever made in the bands ever-changing lineup. Sky Blue Sky sounds like a comfortable, easy, safe record. Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps Wilco has just become too comfortable together. Sky Blue Sky may sound pretty, but it is the sound of a band losing its edge.

Rating: 5.5 out 10

Key Tracks: “You Are My Face” “Walkin” “What Light”

Worth The Money: Only for die hards.

Thursday, May 10

Amy Winehouse Might Get Drunk and Sleep With You

Artist: Amy Winehouse
Album: Back to Black

Comments: Amy Winehouse is a paradox.

On the one hand, she is very modern. Winehouse is very much in control of her own music. Her strong voice commands every song with the confidence of someone who knows she can belt it out with the best of them. Her subject matter, getting drunk, getting heartbroken, and looking for comfort in the earthly garden of physical pleasures (and ultimately, finding those pleasures to be hollow), is normally reserved for the men of rock and roll, not the women of pop. It’s very feminist in her brash self-damaging empowerment.

On the flip side, Winehouse can’t get herself out of the 50s. The backdrop for her stories of low self esteem and booze fueled mistakes is the golden era Motown sound. Despite some very modern hip hop influenced drumming, the horns, bass lines, and keyboards are all classic soul. These two things, the modern stories of morning after regrets coupled with the classic sound of the Supremes or Aretha Franklin, is the main appeal of Back to Black; she makes music for the modern fuckup with classic tastes.

I have to confess, I didn’t like Winehouse when I first heard her, and I had no intention of giving this record a good review. The reason for this is the video for her lead single and thematic mission statement “You Know I’m No Good”, which features Winehouse in a bathtub, at a b, and drinking on the floor of a kitchen. I have no problem with this, but I do have a problem with her poor choice in facial accessories; she’s got this big ass lip stud, and for reasons I cannot fathom, it bothers the fuck out of me.

But once I got over my own absurdity and listened to the album, I was pleasantly surprised. Winehouse has got some really good pipes, so much so that she is able to pull off what many pop stars have tried and failed to do; she is able to pay a fitting tribute to the pop stars of the past. A big complaint about modern pop is that the people who make it can’t really sing. This is not the case with Winehouse, her voice is as strong and unique as the ones she pays tribute to. On tracks like “Rehab” she belts out with defiance and confidence, while on “Love is a Losing Game” and the excellent “Back to Black” she is able to show restraint and emotion in her singing. Her vocal control is impressive.

The album is not without its limitations, however. Winehouse is a lovesick puppy, and that is really all she sings about, giving the record a definite theme at best, and a one track mind at worst. And there is a really shitty use of the song Ike and Tina Turner made famous (Ain’t no Mountain High Enough). Also, because Amy is mining classic production, songs tend to run together, and there really isn’t much room for musical growth. In other words, I don’t think Winehouse has got enough to talk about, or enough to back her up, for a second album. But that’s a bridge she’ll have to cross some other time. For right now, for what it is, Back to Black is a better-than-average pop record with a darker-than-average subject matter that is both refreshing and charming in its direct nostalgia.

Forget tomorrow, put on some soul, and make some mistakes.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: You Know I’m No Good, Back to Black,

Worth The Money: Yes, but be aware of what you are getting; an album of modern songs that sound classic by design, not through their own merit.

Tuesday, May 8

Tom Morello Quietly Rages Against The Machine

Artist: The Nightwatchman
Album: The Nightwatchman

Comments: I find the timing of this album rather dubious. Perhaps it is just coincidence that Tom Morello’s solo project gets released within days of a Rage Against The Machine reunion at the Coachella festival in California, but I suspect that it is not. Now, whether this is a ploy of the record company, a move masterminded by Morello himself, or just one big happy coincidence, I will never be sure. However, I will say that Morello has always struck me as an activist with a mind for marketing, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that a big time reunion and a solo album involving the same man both take place in the same week.

But this is a record review, not a conspiracy theory essay. And all money making schemes aside, The Nightwatchman is a throwback to a now defunct style of protest music, which is the everyman folk song.

This kind of guitar based story telling was best used by the flower loving, poorly kept hippies of the 60s. Say what you will about the peace loving, drug addicted children of the greatest generation, but it cannot be ignored that they got shit done, and acoustic folk music was the soundtrack to their peaceful, noisy revolution. 40 years later, those kids all have mortgages and mini-van’s, and the protest music of today wedged between flaccid, shallow hip-hop and flaccid, shallow rock music.

Because of this social situation, The Nightwatchman is good in the context of our times, but not in the context of history. In other (less pretentious) words, this album is a fitting tribute to a time when protest music meant something, and people actually believed things could get done.

People familiar with Morello’s guitar work in Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave might be surprised to hear his songs on The Nightwatchman; the entire CD is acoustic, and features none of the over-the-top, synthetic guitar screams that made him a cultural icon. Instead, The Nightwatchman is a stripped down and intimate record where most tracks only feature Morello’s baritone voice and lonesome guitar chords.

The songs on the record seem to fall into one of three categories; there are the faster paced “angry” tracks, the slower, more poetic “sad” tracks, and there are the anthems. “Angry” tracks, like the steady thump of album opener “California’s Dark” or the violent call-to-arms of “One Man Revolution” preach violent rebellion and civilian upheaval. The “Sad” tracks, like “No One Left” are sung like dirges to fallen friends, slain by an oppressive fascist state. The anthems like “The Road I Must Travel” play like campfire sing-alongs to inspire revolution.

If the subject matter sounds repetitive, that’s because it is. The album is one dimensional in it’s smashing of the state and lamenting the oppression of the proletariat. Morello is over the top at every turn; through The Nightwatchman’s eyes, we are living in the end of times, and there is almost no hope for any of us. This is the biggest problem I have with The Nightwatchman; there is an undertone of hopelessness that lies under every song. It’s almost as if Morello doesn’t think we can win, no matter how many of us rise up.

There is a lot to dislike about this record. I’m sure Ann Coulter’s head would explode if she heard this CD. Still, this is great protest music in a style that few artists dare use today. And, even with it’s one track mind, it’s nice to hear someone speak so boldly about what he believes, with no waffling or compromise. Morello has his vision of right and wrong, and if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. At the end of the day, that is what makes this CD worth a listen; The Nightwatchman actually gives a shit, and its good to hear that someone, somewhere does.

Raiting: 6.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: The Road I Must Travel, Union Song, No One Left

Worth The Money: Yes, for all you godless liberals

Friday, May 4

Latterman: Making Sure Punk is Still Alive - By John Adams

Artist: Latterman
Album: We Are Still Alive

Comments: For a band with such silly song names, Latterman might be one of punks best kept secrets. Their most recent release, We Are Still Alive, is defiantly their best album to date.

The CD starts off with bells that explode into a monstrous bang and never looks back. “Water Manes at the Block’s End” starts with a guitar/drum intro that is reminiscent of Whippersnapper and breaks into a catchy pop-punk anthem and the reoccurring theme on the album (“searching for a home where we won’t die alone”). The next 3 songs keep the same energy and desperation that “Water Manes” started and runs right into “Dr. Sudholt and His Double Glasses”, which is almost a reprise of the introduction to “Water Manes”.

In the second half of We Are Still Alive, you can really start to hear the Jawbreaker influence. Things are slowed down a little bit, but just because things slow down doesn’t mean that Latterman lose their edge. The guitar and vocals are still sharp and the music is more challenging, but the songs have a little more poppy and feel to them. Latterman finishes the cd just as big as they started it. “Will This Be on The Test?” brings the closure that you need on this cd with a chorus of people singing “If today the ground gives in/hope we won’t fall alone.” We Are Still Alive is really is an album full of anthems that Latterman never intended to sing alone. Few punk bands still have the same sense of community and friendship that Latterman has, and is trying to rebuild in the punk scene.

Bands like this just don’t exist anymore, and weather you like the band or not it’s refreshing to hear music that makes you feel like you belong. Now this cd isn’t perfect by any means. While in places there are flashes of brilliance most of the lyrics seem a little childish and forced, and the music could probably be tighter. Another draw back people might have from Latterman is that the music sounds like it could be written by the Lawrence Arms and the vocals sound like they’ve been listening to Smoke or Fire’s “Above the City” for a little too long. Latterman is far from reinventing punk rock, but on We Are Still Alive, they’re on the cusp of breathing life back into it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Key Tracks: Water Manes at Block’s End/ Goodmorning, Here is Jan/ and Will This Be on the Test?

Worth The Money: Most Definitely

(oh man, another 8 out of 10? We're really dealing out the feel-goods here at Left of The Dial this month. See you monday.)

Wednesday, May 2

Quick Hits - Cold War Kids, Silversun Pickups, The Fratellis, Panda Bear


Artist: Cold War Kids
Album: Robbers and Thieves

Comments: Earlier in the year, this band got the entire blogosphere’s gears a-turnin’ with rumors of their bananas live performances. Since then, they’ve come to town twice. Based on the opinions of people I trust, the rumors about these guys ruling a stage are true. Plus, I saw them on a late night show, and they were rocking the house (which is very rare for those late night shows; the performances are often stale as hell). And to the band’s credit, this really carries over into the music. They are playing the hell out of their songs, loving every second for it, and what Robbers and Thieves lacks in tightness it makes up for in exuberance.

Still, a good live performance does not an album make, and most of this album is flat, recycled indie pop rock. The single “Hang Me Out to Dry” and album opener “We Used to Vacation” are both good, but the album can’t hold up. Songwriting is hit or miss; there are a lot of good one liners here and there, but no standout songs besides the two mentioned in the last sentence. Same goes for the music itself. It’s a start, and I feel like this band could really be something in time. But for right now, they’re nothing to get excited about. Unless they’re coming to your town.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Artist: Silversun Pickups
Album: Caravans

Comments: Another band that, like the Cold War Kids, built up their reputation on live performances and underground buzz. Though they had less internet frenzy upon their release of Caravans, Silversun Pickups are similar to CWK in that their record is good, but not great.

Their sound harkens back to the early days of the Smashing Pumpkins, but with less angst and more melody. The lead singer even sounds like ol’ Billy C. at times. First listen does not yield too many rewards, but repeats highlight things like the professionalism of the band, and the power in the lead singer’s voice (the guy sounds like a woman, but goddamn can he belt that shit out if he wants). Songwriting is alright, and I think it is only going to get better with time. Songs like “Lazy Eye”, “Melatonin”, and “Well Thought Out Twinkies”, with their grunge thump and solid lyrics suggest that maybe, just maybe, this band could be the next big thing.

But not yet.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Artist: The Fratellis
Album: Costello Music

Comments: Are you sick of euro pop yet? I’m sick of euro pop. This mini-invasion from bands like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, and the 10,000 other bands that can be described by comparing them to the first two has more than outstayed its welcome. Still, it’s time to make some room on the bandwagon, because the Fratellis refuse to be denied.

Sure, this record is tight. And sure, it sounds like all the other brit-pop that is flooding the radio right now. But there is something different about these lads. Maybe it’s that they borrow more from The Sex Pistols than they do Wire or Joy Division. Maybe it’s the sing songy chorus to lead single and Ipod commercial jingle “Fathead”, or the 90s sunshine guitar in “The Gutterati?”, but something about these young snots is damn exciting. The Costello Music on this record is fun, fast, brash, and a fun listen. Throw this on and have a drink with some friends. Then let’s crash this bandwagon into the barging bin.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Artist: Panda Bear
Album: Person Pitch

Comments: I had no intention of listening to Person Pitch. I don’t listen to Animal Collective (Panda Bear is the drummer’s side project), and I’m not really all about psychedelic music. Plus, Pitchfork loved it and nothing against Pitchfork, but I don’t want their tastes to be my tastes; they like some awful shit in those Chicago offices. No, Panda Bear and I never should have crossed paths. Imagine my surprise when I not only listened to Person Pitch, but liked it.

Person Pitch is a psychedelic trip of sincerity and confidence, and Panda Bear is able to lead us through his foggy swap of ethereal, ambient nonsense with a tender hand. The entire album is about making music for the sake of making it, with nothing else in mind. There is no motive behind this album, other than love of creation, but the subject and the act of. “Comfy in Nautica” eases the listener in with it’s repetitious chorus “try to remember always / just to have a good time”, and it’s chorus of angels urging us to “Try!” The titanic “Bros” starts out at Beach Boy style trip-pop before melting into an explosion of sampling and relaxed urgency that would make the Arcade Fire jealous. The only misstep on the 7 song album is the stumbling thump of “Good Girl / Carrots”.

Somewhere, Brian Wilson is listening to this record with a smile on his face. Panda Bear is able to take the torch of the cracked genius and carry his memory on into a new millennium on the strength of sincerity and joy. Great sampling. Great songwriting. Great anthems. Great album.

Rating: 8 out of 10

The Good Time Are Killing Me

Update coming later this afternoon. Chill

Tuesday, May 1

Three Easy Steps

Step 1) Go buy the newest Don Caballero album, World Class Listening Problem.

Step 2) Listen to the last 1:39 seconds of the song "Railroad Cancellation."

Step 3) Joy.

Reviews tomorrow.