Friday, June 29

Linkin Park's Gravy Train Might Be Minutes From Midnight

Artist: Linkin Park
Album: Minutes to Midnight

Comments: If you are between the ages of 18-25 and you claim that you never liked rap-rock music, then you are a fucking liar. I know this because I used to love, LOVE rap-rock, and now I am the most pretentious guy on the block. With the exception of LOTD writer Joe Gilson, who was a child of grunge through and through, I don’t know another person who can honestly make the claim that rap-rock never meant anything to them.

In my opinion, the entire musical sub-genre gets a bad rap. People forget just how well received and important “Walk This Way”, by Aerosmith and Run DMC, and “Bring The Noize” by Anthrax and Public Enemy were, not only to the revitalization of rock music, but to help legitimize rap as an important genre and an art form. People forget that, from 1992 until 1999, the only band making consistently good and relevant protest music was Rage Against The Machine. Rap-rock is not just some useless, angry, frat nonsense like people seem to think it is.

At the same time, this is also the genre that produced Crazy Town, so I’m not giving it a free pass.

My whole point here is that rap-rock might be more relevant than people think, even in the 2000s. In 2003, about three years after the rap-rock bubble burst, Linkin Park released Meteora, a record that replaced the blind rage of 90’s acts like Limp Bizkit and Soulfly with the heartbreak and isolationist angst of emotional bands. Meteora went on to peak at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Number one on the Billboard 200! In 2003! A rap-rock record! If anyone stood a chance of keeping the dwindling rap-rock genre alive, it was Linkin Park.

Sadly, that pipe dream is over. Minutes to Midnight does the worst thing possible and ditches what made Linkin Park bearable, the rap (and to a lesser extent, the rock) aspect of their music.

Here’s my take on Linkin Park: They are a mildly talented band that was able to tap into something in America’s youth that would allow them to sell records. They were able to strike a chord with the people who still buy records (12-15 year olds) with songs about being frustrated, angry, and heartbroken. And while their stuff was never fantastic, it was just good enough to be listenable (unless you were angry, frustrated, or heartbroken and never got in to punk. Then this shit was right in your wheelhouse). No matter how angsty they got, there was always a balance. No matter how cheezy Chester Bennington’s lyrics were, there was always Mike Shinoda and Mr. Han to balance it with rap. And when Shinoda’s grade-school flow got soft, Bennington would come in with a well placed scream to shift the focus. They worked well together, and if it wasn’t always great, it was always listenable. And it always sold.

Not the case on Minutes to Midnight. There are only two songs on this record that feature Shinoda vocally at all, and one of them, the anti war track “Hands Held High”, is more Fort Minor than Linkin Park. Without Shinoda, its all Bennington on this one, and that is never a good scenario. Bennington is still screaming about the same insecurities and isolation that he’s been toting since Hybrid Theory, only now they sound a little less sincere. Where his angst sounded born from experience on earlier releases, here it just sounds like he doesn’t know what else to say. Worse still is the production of the record, which cuts the guitars and the low end almost entirely out, so even the songs that are meant to be heavy sound hollow and tinny.

Basically, what we have here is a record from a rap-rock band that neither raps nor rocks with any kind of conviction. Sure, maybe Linkin Park are tying to expand their sound, but if that was the case, why not try to expand their songwriting too? Is Shinoda too busy with Fort Minor to focus on his (former?) full time band? I had hopes that Minutes to Midnight would stay the course, not give in to the times, and be Hybrid Theory pt 3. Sadly, nothing lasts forever, not angst, not heartbreak, not even rap-rock. Maybe this record will sell, but it wont sell as much. And if this is the last we hear of Linkin Park (as I suspect it might be), I just wish they had made a more fitting eulogy for rap-rock.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Key Tracks: Bleed it Out, Hands Held High

Worth The Money: No

Wednesday, June 27

Talkin' About: Icky Thump

We're trying something new here. This is a conversation between myself (noted below as Mr.D in red) and Dr. Max H (noted below as Max H in blue) regarding the new White Stripes record Icky Thump. The conversation is real, and only midly edited for space, good taste, and to make us look less like idiots. Enjoy.
Artist: White Stripes
Album: Icky Thump

Max H: My brotha.
Mr. D: Maxwell. You ready for this?
Max H: Lets do this like a prison break.
Mr. D: How's that? Loud, messy, and with lots of shiving?
Max H: Mmmmm, shiving.
Max H: I’d like to start things off by saying that Jack and Meg should just get it over and
come out with a sex tape.
Mr. D: That'd be a pretty taboo sex tape, no? What with the whole sister / lover thing?
Max H: Incestuous rock n' roll.


Mr. D: Are you surprised to see Jack back with the White Stripes? It seemed to me that he'd outgrown that shtick a little bit and I fully expected he'd be a Raconteur for the rest of his life, for better or worse.

Max H: I think he's very much in love with the White Stripes, and think that might be kind of an ego thing. The Raconteurs were a band, but The White Stripes is Jack White, and I think he enjoys that spotlight.

Mr. D: You’re right about that. Meg White brings nothing, NOTHING to the table. But then again, she doesn’t really have to. She’s just there for Jack to have something play off of, I think

Max H: You're right, and they do have great chemistry. It shines through on Icky Thump as well as it has on any of their pervious stuff. Lots of monster guitar riffs over loud, jamming drumbeats.

Mr. D: Speaking of the old stuff, do you know anything about their post White Blood Cells stuff? I listened to Elephant a few times, but I never caught on to Get Behind Me Satan.

Max H: Get Behind Me Satan was, without a doubt, a setback in the White Stripes catalogue. Interesting, but lacking in substance and, for the most part, boring.


Max H: On Icky Thump we see a lot of new territory. Jack White’s first political statements are all over the title track. He comes off smart and funny rather than whiny….

Mr. D: ….Which is a tough thing to do with his voice. I haven't really looked too far into the lyrics in “Icky Thump”, but I think it is an interesting choice for first single. Bold at best and foolish at worst, but interesting none the less. It is polarizing to me, and the keyboard riffing might be much for some people. At the same time, it’s the most alive I've heard J White sound since “7 Nation Army”. And when the man is into it, he is FUCKING in to it.

Max H: Haha. That’s funny that you say that, because he's recently quit smoking to improve his vocals. Jack isn’t known for his voice. But, yeah, I agree. There are definitely better choices on the album for the first single.

Mr. D: So what do you make of "Conquest" and that other Celtic sounding song, “Prickly Thorne, But Sweetly Worn”?

Max H: I was feeling it, man! On Get Behind Me Satan, Jack was exploring with marimbas and shit like that, and it came across as filler and uninteresting. On the other hand, the mariachi horns and bagpipes on Icky Thump really bring something to the table. Those two Celtic songs right in a row in the middle of the album are real psychedelic. They break the album up nicely.

Mr. D: I’ll tell you, at first I was not all about it. My first impression was that he was out of ideas, so he was fucking around with some other stuff that sounded okay, but came off to me as somewhat desperate. But now it’s grown on me, and it’s one of my favorites on the album. That second song is ass, however.

Max H: Haha. To each his own.


Max H: What's your favorite track?

Mr. D: It’s another one that I thought was stupid at first; that blues-y one, “Rag and Bone”

Max H: Haha, I thought that song was cute.

Mr. D: Cute? You did not just say cute.

Max H: It was adorable, is that better?

Mr. D: I guess it’s better, but not by much.

Max H: We've got a little negative Nancy over here. Either way, I love when Meg gets into the singing. If you play the record real loud, you can hear Meg harmonizing on a bunch of the songs.

Mr. D: Listen, you being a girl aside, you’re right about Meg. It is nice when she gets into it. I like how her voice plays off Jack. Ying and Yang sort of thing.

Max H: I’m kind of sensing you don’t think much of the album on whole?

Mr. D: No, I do like it! I think it’s their best since White Blood Cells by far, and I like that they keep moving their music moving forward, even thought it’s just the two of them.

Max H: I think it’s as good as any record they've made and, one of the best albums of the year so far. Toss up between Icky Thump, Neon Bible, and All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone.

Mr. D: Now I’m not quite with you on that. This strikes me as the kind of album that needs to get some momentum to really be appreciated, and for me, as of right now it’s not one of the best. I can see it growing on me in the future though.

Max H: They should have released "You Don't Know What Love Is" as a single. It’s a great pop song with some awesome guitar. And speaking of awesome guitar, “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” blew my mind apart.

Mr. D: I’m still not sure Jack is as great a guitarist as people say he is, but he does do some pretty neat stuff on this record.

Max H:
You need to check out their live DVD, Under Blackpool Lights....It’s pretty convincing. It’ll remove any doubt from your mind. He’s the real deal.


Mr. D: So what would you give this record out of 10?

Max H: 8.5; I think the most significant thing about this album is the way it proves the inferiority of the Raconteurs.

Mr. D: Meh, I never took them seriously, they were just some fun thing to do.

Max H: Yeah, never made me stiff

Mr. D: Hah! I’m going to go with 7.5; for pushing things forward, but losing a little tenderness along the way.

Max H: What do you mean?

Mr. D:
One thing I always liked about the Stripes is that no matter how reckless the songs got, no matter how raunchy, there were always the tender tracks to ground the record. Those were always my favorite ones, and that is kind of missing here.

Max H: Oh so you're looking for a "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" or "I Think We're Going to be Friends"

Mr. D: Exactly.

Max H: Well I think a lot of hardcore Stripes fans are going to like the way this album kicks you in the balls. This is some heavy, groovy, bluesy shit. And like you said, its real impressive the way they've pushed forward... they could have chosen to keep things retro and do some house covers for the rest of their career, but they've decided to redefine rock n' roll in production and songwriting. Exceeded expectations.


Mr. D: Any last words?

Max H: My thought to leave you with is this: when I finish listening to this album, all I can do is hope that Jack invests a majority of his focus in this project. It would be for the better

Mr. D:
And my final though is this: whether or not you like the direction that they're going in, this proves that the White Stripes are more than just a shtick; they aren’t going away. When they put their minds to it, they can make some damn fine music.

Max H:
If this was their last album, what would their place be in rock n' roll history?

Mr. D: That’s an argument for another day.

Dr. Max Rating: 8.5
Mr. Dogg Rating: 7.5
Total Rating: 8 out of 10

Key Tracks: Icky Thump, Rag and Bone, Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn, Conquest, You Don't Know What Love Is.

Worth The Money: Yes

Tuesday, June 26

Kings of Leon Hold Their Throne

Artist: Kings of Leon
Album: Because of the Times

Comments: This review was supposed to go up on Friday. I had written up an original, sent it to my proofreader, and added some final points to it. All I had to do was press the “send” bottom on my screen.

But I couldn’t do it.

There is something go in here. The Kings of Leon are up to something, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Something in the music; some great intangible, immeasurable thing that I could not grasp told me to wait for a while, and to listen again.

So I did. And what I found is that Because of the Times is a sprawling, massive, heavy album that was worth the extra time invested in it.

The Kings of Leon are a hard band to review. When I was writing up my first draft, I had a friend of mine listen to Because of the Times with me, hoping a pair of fresh ears would yield new ideas and, perhaps, an explanation as to what this band sounded like. Because, honestly, I was befuddled as to how I should classify the Kings of Leon. Other critics have penned them as staunchly American as apple pie, but listening to them I could hear fragments of new wave, British surf pop, and Interpol-like guitar work.

What my friend said was this: “There isn’t anything wrong with it. But at the same time there really isn’t anything great about it either. It just sounds like a bunch of guys who are really good at their music and who play really, really well together. It’s mediocrity to the point of excellence.”

She’s right, of course. Because of the Times won’t bowl you over with complex musicianship or overwrought construction. No, they go a quieter route of being impressive; their memorable attribute is their confidence and their cohesiveness. The Kings of Leon play fantastically off of one another. There are no mistakes; there is nothing that doesn’t fit. Alone, they are just four guys. But together, it fucking works. Because of the Times is the sound of a band in total control of their music.

There are times on this record when you can hear something special happening. The album opener “Knocked Up”, is a 7 minute relaxed rocker that sounds like it was recorded on a space station. Minimal drums slowly purr as a repeating bass line anchors the song, and an ethereal, distant guitar melody plays off of everything like sunlight dancing on the hood of a car. Even when the song kicks in at the 4:30 mark, the band still sounds relaxed and in control.

Longtime fans of the Kings might take issue with Because of the Times because it is somewhat of a departure from their other records. Where fan favorites like Aha Shake Heartbreak have instantly catchy songs and a sort of down home, basement-recorded, stuffy production, this album sounds like it was produced in outer space by comparison. Everything is turned up crisp and clean, and the music echoes off the walls of the brain when played in headphones. But those who would complain about the grandness are missing the point; those who would lament the lack of singles are not listening hard enough. This record takes Aha Shake Heartbreak, makes it grow up, matures it, and makes it better.

But at the end of the day, it is the great intangibles in the music that make it so good. I cannot explain what is going on in this music, but there is something here on Because of the Times that demands to be heard, and will not be denied. The Kings of Leon have made one of the best rock records of the year, and I have no idea how. But that doesn’t matter. Mediocre to the point of excellence? How about just excellent?

8.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Knocked Up, Ragoo, Fans, The Runner

Worth The Money: Yes

Wednesday, June 20

The Fargile Army Uses Sunshine Warfare

Artist: The Polyphonic Spree
Album: The Fragile Army

Comments: Here is a short list of facts about The Polyphonic Spree that I feel should be stated before we move forward.

1) The Polyphonic Spree is a 24-piece band that includes a choir and a woodwind section regularly in their touring and recording.

2) The PS used to all wear white robes on stage. They looked like a cult.

3) For this record, the PS changed their look from white robes to black military-ish uniforms.

I mention this, not because it is important, but because it seems to be all people can talk about when discussing this new record, The Fragile Army. People are getting caught up in the spectacle, the gimmick of the Polyphonic Spree, and focusing less on the actual record.

(And yes, I realize that my point, which is that people are focusing too much on the appearance and not the substance, is ruined seeing as my opening paragraph is all about how people are focusing on the appearance and not the substance. I could do this all day. Let’s move on.)

Clothes aside, The Fragile Army is the Spree’s most focused and streamlined work to date. They have taken their larger-than-life orchestra rock, reined it in, and fit it all on to one CD.

All the problems with the earlier Spree records are addressed and fixed here on this record, except for one. A big complaint about the Spree was that their sound was almost TOO big, TOO joyful. Band leader Tim DeLaughter’s sunny pop songs were all muddled by the sheer numbers in the Spree. Everyone would play all at once, making it hard to focus on individual harmonies or drum fills or horn flourishes. Because no one was allowed to stand out, nothing stood out. That problem is solved on The Fragile Army. Band members wait for their moment, then, come in strong with a horn blast or a string flourish or piano note that strengthens the songs more with their restraint than their excess ever could.

And as far as the criticism that their music is just too damn happy, The Spree have darkened their scope a little bit; taking their pill-popping, reckless, cult-like, sun-worshiping happiness and applying it in a more political way. The general feel of the record screams “Hey! Ok, sure, things aren’t going too great. But don’t worry! Everything will be fantastic tomorrow! Oh, hey, look how pretty that rainbow is! Kittens! Weeeeeee!” If this kind of sugar pop is to your liking, then look no further than the Spree.

Still, for all the improvements in sound, The Fragile Army still sounds lacking. For a band built around joy and exuberance, this record is missing that breakout, big swelling pop song that can really sell the point. That’s why people could enjoy The Beginning Stages… and get over the muddled orchestra pop/rock; there was the big joyous payoff of “Follow the Day”. The closest the band can get to that on this record is the first single and album opener; “Running Away.” This is a swelling rock track with all the right lyrics, guitar solos, and beautiful instrumentation to almost sell the joy of the Spree. Almost.

There is a lot to take in on The Fragile Army. Between the sheer numbers, the upbeat pop construction of the songs, and the multiple instruments on this record, I am 100% sure that these guys are a phenomenal live act. With their over-the-top happiness and wall of sound quality, I’m sure that a tour with Andrew W. K and The Flaming Lips would solve all of the world’s hunger problems. But despite their best efforts, the Spree can’t translate that on to their record. The Fragile Army was shooting for jubilant rapture. It will have to settle for pleasing satisfaction.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Running Away, The Fragile Army, Mental Cabaret

Worth The Money: Sadly, I don’t think it is for the casual fan.

Sunday, June 17

So Misunderstood: A Defense of Sky Blue Sky and an Attack on the Self-Consuming Indie Culture

I am likely to hear it from all of you on this one, so I’ll apologize…for coming to bat for Sky Blue Sky by Wilco. More specifically, I want to assert the point that perception is key and ignorance may be bliss on this one.

Fact: Wilco’s sound has evolved in some way for almost every, if not every, album thus far.

Fact: Sky Blue Sky is not A Ghost is Born or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Cue indie-pop-rockster panic button.

The quest to repeat an album’s effect on its audience is the Grail quest of the music world. From New York to LA, Detroit to Compton, Seattle to Chi-town…the myth persists that an album’s success is often derived from the repetition of a previous album’s “x-factor.”

I’m no different, by the way. The first words out of my mouth in an indie rock dick-measuring contest are “Oh it’s not (insert album)” or “It’s better than (insert album).” It just feels good to say it. I know it. You know it. Unfortunately, in this musical culture, nitpicking an album is the next best thing to actually liking it.

However, we are talking about Wilco here, a band whose catalog is an exercise in evolution. Not to mention their front man is Jeff Tweedy.

Tweedy has been here before, he has seen this and already moved on. From Uncle Tupelo to Wilco, he has been reviewed badly, he had been reviewed wonderfully. Is it insulting to some people to think that maybe, after nipping at more and more of the charts in their past two albums, Wilco might be playing for a broader crowd? Possibly. This is especially the case after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made cultured rockers around the scene moisten with its dexterous leap from alternative country to Indie rock gold. And especially after the tremendous follow up that is A Ghost is Born.

That’s right, I almost forgot: A Ghost is Born didn’t suck. Again, and most importantly, the album known as A Ghost is Born did not suck. Think about that. You impress the snottiest and most cannibalistic reviewing culture in American music and then you release an album that doesn’t suck (and definitely might be great)? Throw up the horns, Tweedy. You can use your other hand to polish the Grammy this album won for best Alternative Music Album.

Sky Blue Sky? Well, I’m wagering that it also doesn’t suck. Also, I think it’s at least good enough, probably just flat out fucking good. Still, it has issues, as do all albums. Its main problem is that the strengths of both Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born are present in the album. Sounds like a good thing, right? Not necessarily. When aspects of both albums have previously done something new for the band, the employment of such devices again here will be subdued. Not only that, the DNA of both albums is polarized, never in the same place at the same time. Sometimes they are even in the same song, but the boundary is oftentimes clearly visible. In other words, the atmospheric, transient, shoe-gazing qualities of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are contained in parts of the album yet held separate from the shock-rocking, sharp-twilled, and delightfully off beat Nels Cline solos that ring clearly of Tweedy’s strides on A Ghost is Born. This failure to move as a whole is really the album’s greatest detriment if what you were looking for was another reinvention or transformation.

By the way, the key words in the previous sentence were “if what you were looking for.”

But does the album literally sound bad? I don’t think so. But, it may not sound new to a lot people. Again, keep in mind that Wilco might be playing for a wider audience now. Look what happened to Modest Mouse when they were nominated for a Grammy.

So in the case of Sky Blue Sky, gauging the steps made by the band is more difficult than with previous albums. In all honesty, I think the move to consolidate the band’s sound is what terrifies longtime listeners and critics, not necessarily the softening of the sound.

The Yankees might possibly not win the pennant: fire Torre.

And it’s not as if the band has ever had a fear of changing their sound, and incidentally their lineup, or that their evolution has ever been predictable. Just go pop A.M. in and tell me you could tell they were going to end up sounding like this. Arguably that’s what makes Wilco great. In other words, as the late, great Bruce Lee said, “True form is to have no form.”

Still, in Foxtrot, we heard ghosts being born in songs like “I am trying to break your heart” and “I’m the man who loves you.” And Sky Blue Sky can be traced from songs like “At least that’s what you said”, “Hell is chrome” and “Company in my back.” No definite road maps or giveaways, but you can see certain seeds being planted and nurtured for various reasons, ranging from the addition of a band member to the addiction of another.

Also, I’ve noticed that when a band pursues the same sound, one of two things happens. Either they end up sucking or the focus of their albums begins to land on singles, not entire albums. On the flip side, when a band continually pushes their sound into new areas, the risk of alienating fans is ever present. Sucks, doesn’t it?

As for the passiveness in Tweedy’s writing that seems to be pestering the general listening public: go figure. Winning a Grammy and going into rehab all in one stint…sounds like a recipe for some seriously upbeat and poppy indie innovation…right? Not so much. It does sound like a recipe, however, for a quieter retrospective on an already accomplished catalog.

Sky Blue Sky, with its scenic piano scores and daring leaps into solo riffs, draws on a number of the strength’s that have stayed with the band despite everything else. As for the effect an album has on you the listener? No matter what, the first album you heard that made you listen to the band on a consistent basis, made you respect the band and learn the names of people in it, will never come around again for you. I’m sorry, I really am, but everything aesthetic will depreciate.

So, if you followed Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo and dug A.M., you may have been so pissed for so long that you aren’t even reading this. If you caught the Wilco scent because you read about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on Pitchfork and needed it desperately to go with those thick rim glasses and zip-up hoodies you just couldn’t seem to match (and are still pissed about the fact that you can’t actually play guitar)…you’re doubly disappointed because, despite the improbability, A Ghost is Born was almost what you were looking for and that gave you hope that maybe, just maybe, the next album would do it.

Me? I came on at A Ghost is Born. I knew that “I’m the man who loves you” was sassy and that “Heavy Metal Drummer” was catchy as all hell, but I wasn’t really sold until Tweedy went into a room by himself and smacked his guitar around a little. And even though I went back and listened to everything I could find, I also know that I missed the boat, and I’m cool with that. Still, I lack a foundation in the band’s roots in country as well as their aura before their edgy makeover. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them second hand, but the reckless style in A Ghost is Born is what finally grabbed my attention.

So I guess it’s all about perspective. We’re not in Wilco and we don’t have a say in the intention and execution of the band as a project, which can be upsetting to some of us. However, perspective wise, we are all sitting proudly right where we were when we saw the Wilco train go by for the first time. That pristine memory of unadulterated and accidental perfection is what persists in our perception of what Wilco is and should be, as is the case with anything else we’ve ever loved.

And we’ll probably stay there. Really, though, that’s not such a bad thing. After all: “What would we be without wishful thinking?”

by James Keough

Thursday, June 14

Homme Can't Usher In Era Vulgaris Alone - By Max Orenstein

Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Album: Era Vulgaris

In January of 2004, Queens of the Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri was fired from the band after frontman Josh Homme had become convinced that Oliveri was physically abusing his wife. By this time, Homme and Olveri’s psychic musical connection was legendary having spawned both the stoner rock genre with the band Kyuss and later a masterpiece- Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf. In one deliberate line-up decision, Homme found himself the sole leader of one of rock’s most important bands, a band that had always relied on a partnership for its brilliant results. With fans and critics anxiously anticipating a follow-up to Songs for the Deaf, Homme and his ever-changing line-up charged back with the criminally underrated Lullabies to Paralyze. The album received mixed reactions from fans and critics, with most of complaints revolving around Nick Oliveri’s absence.

Many forget, however, a very important piece of the beloved Songs for the Deaf puzzle: Dave Grohl on drums. Dave Grohl brought Queens of the Stone Age to a level that no one could have imagined possible on Songs for the Deaf. Grohl’s involvement in the band was never believed to be permanent. After the recording of Songs for the Deaf and a brief tour, Grohl returned to his main project, Foo Fighters. Joey Castillo quickly replaced him on the drums in Queens of the Stone Age. Only since Grohl’s departure has Queens lacked the muscle to match Songs for the Deaf.

Which brings us to Queens of the Stone Age’s latest release, Era Vulgaris. To say that Era Vulgaris lacks the immediacy of any previous Queens album is an understatement. It might seem that, for the most part, whatever psychic connection Josh Homme lost with Nick Oliveri’s departure, he has regained with multi-instrumentalist Troy van Leeuwen. But Joey Castillo’s weaknesses are right out in the open in the bridge and outro on the otherwise awesome opener “Turnin on the Screw.” Castillo lacks the ferocity and power of Grohl, leaving much of the album trudging along in the mud. Era Vulgaris best tracks are bluesy numbers “Make it Wit Chu” and the moody “Suture Up Your Future,” where Castillo is simply expected to keep time. These are the only songs on the record where Queens of the Stone Age’s swagger seems natural rather than forced.

Even though Castillo brings nothing to the table, most of the blame for Era Vulgaris’ failure falls on the shoulders of Josh Homme. QOTSA’s frontman makes several poor decisions in songwriting, production, and style. Songs like “Into the Hollow” and “3’s and 7’s” have groovy verses but weird, aimless choruses. It’s hard to be certain what he was going for on “Battery Acid,” but it sounds like shit. A reoccurring problem on Era Vulgaris is Homme’s tendency to pack too much into one song by attempting to be creative with awkward rhythms, exaggerated dynamics, and bridges that drift off into some dissonant oblivion. This leaves little to sing along to and, even worse for a Queens of the Stone Age album, nothing to dance to.

Contributions from Julian Casablancas and Mark Lanegan are inaudible and irrelevant. The hardware bought in stores is inexplicably void of four bonus tracks. One such track features Trent Reznor, not that it matters. He’s probably drowned out by misplaced, distorted sludge and obtrusive slide guitar.

On the unmelodic Zeppelin romp wannabe “I’m Designer,” Homme sings, “How many times must I sell myself until my pieces are gone?” It won’t matter if Homme fails to pick up those pieces and regroup after his band’s first disappointing album.

by Max Orenstein

Max Orenstein as a freelance writer who cares almost as much about Philadelphia sports as he does music. Not to mention, he's an avid Buffalo Bills fan. You'll be seeing more of Max in days to come, so you'd best get used to him. We're off until Monday. - Mr. Dogg

Wednesday, June 13

Feelings + Springsteen = The Gaslight Anthem

Artist: The Gaslight Anthem
Album: Sink or Swim

Comments: Something must be in the water in New Jersey. Like the DC area before it, New Jersey has become a breeding ground for the second wave of poppy, emotional hardcore acts. From being the home state of bands like the Early November and Senses Fail, to hosting the yearly emo-fest that is the Bamboozle Festival, NJ seems to be the new home of double guitars, shouting, and heartbreak. Oh, and it’s the home of The Gaslight Anthem.

While it does share some similarities in theme and instrumentation with the bands mentioned above, Sink or Swim is a much more mature and rewarding look at love, life, and relationships that can usually be found under the “emo” umbrella.

Two things set this release apart from the pack, and keep it from being just another emo release. The first, and most obvious, is where the Gaslight Anthem gets their influences. Sure, it’s got that post hardcore / emo sound that bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and the Get Up Kids perfected, but more than anything else TGA takes their notes from NJ’s most famous musical export, Bruce Springsteen. Singer / guitarist Brian Fallon’s lyrics are Springsteenian in his delivery and ability to mix working class escapism with lovesick romantics. He maintains a gruff delivery that is jarring at times, but still miles away from the usual nasal whine that plagues the genre. Simply put, TGA are able to take ancient romantic sentiments and tell them from the perspective of a grown man who has seen the world and forgiven it of its shortcomings, not as an adolescent dealing with his first encounters with romance.

The second, and perhaps less obvious thing, that sets Sink or Swim apart from the crowd is how the band plays the music. Pop chords and catchy riffs are all over this record, and like I said in the opening paragraph, it does have that double guitar harmony that permeates the modern emo genre. More than that, however, it’s the classic rock feel that plays out on the record. These are not 18 year olds with faux-hawks and devil spikes. These are people with diverse tastes, and who know more than one or two tricks on the guitar. By taking classic rock sensibility and merging it with modern youthful delivery, it sounds both fresh and instantly welcoming.

While not a perfect album, Sink or Swim is able to take NJ’s two biggest musical themes; youthful emotion and working class stadium rock, and turn them both on their ear for a release that is both exciting and catchy. It’s a good trick, but I am looking forward to seeing if they can continue to develop their sound. But for now, the throaty delivery, furious instrumentation, and mature poetry of the Gaslight Anthem not only floats, but swims.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: We Came to Dance, Wooderson, I’da Called you Woody Joe, The Navesink Banks

Worth The Money: Yeah, I recommend it.

Monday, June 11

Maroon 5, Nose Candy, and T.I

Artist: Maroon 5
Album: It Won’t be Soon Before Long

Comments: This album isn’t very good.

Rather than go through the reasons why this album stinks, I think I’m going to use this space instead to describe a new sub-genre of music that I have been talking about with friends for the last few months. I’m going to do this because A) I think that It Won’t be Soon Before Long falls into this sub-genre, and B) I can just describe this genre off the top of my head, whereas if I were going to do a proper review of this album, I would have to listen to it again. And, quite honestly, that is something I am not really interested in doing.

I have never done cocaine. I have seen cocaine, I have seen people use cocaine, and I have been given multiple opportunities to use cocaine. Still, it remains a drug that I have no hands-on experience with. In books and film, characters in the throws of a cocaine high are often hyper-active, energetic, and completely deranged. While this is obviously exaggerated for theatrics, it is not too far from the truth; people high on cocaine are friendly, if not sadly intense. A character shift occurs while people are on cocaine. They turn into sped up, cartoon distortions of themselves.

This is not the only change that occurs. Music taste also shifts along with character. People who would usually have no interest in what DJ Tiesto is doing are suddenly screaming for his songs so that they can dance. People who despise club mixes like Danger Mouse and Girl Talk eat that sort of high paced nonstop mixing up. Tastes shift to take the form of something fast, big, glossy, and cheap. People on coke want music to match their good mood; people on coke want Coke Music.

Now, it is true that almost any dance music will appeal to someone on a coke binge. However, this does not mean that all dance music is Coke Music. For example, I love listening to Night Ripper by Girltalk, and we have already established that I have never done coke. And, as much as I dislike trance music as anything more than a passing interest, not all ravers and housecats are dabbling in nose candy 24-7. So what then is Coke Music?

On the surface, Coke Music seems fun. It is upbeat, sunny, and (much like a coke head) ready to party. It is well suited for dancing, drinking, kissing, and lovemaking. However, as it plays on, the fun upbeat feeling gives way to something a little more sinister. Depression starts to appear under the glossy disco funk. The music begins to sound hollow, sterile, and lifeless. The high-hat snap and funk guitar that only moments ago served as the soundtrack to fun are now the deflated blasts of soulless sadness made up with designer hair and top-of-the-line makeup. What once was fun, happy music, is revealed to be a distorted mask of joy over a sad, hurtful face of meaningless destruction.

This is the core of what Coke Music is; dance music that is not fun, but soul crushing and lifeless.

Oh sure, the new Maroon 5 CD isn’t as bad as all that, and I am in no way trying to suggest that anyone in Maroon 5 has a drug problem or supports that kind of thing. But it doesn’t even have the benefit of being catchy or accessible like the best singles off of Songs About Jane. It Won’t be Soon Before Long is about as close to the personification sterile desperate Coke Music as I have heard in a while. I am sure there are some tracks on here that people will like, but for the most part sensible people will pass on this record.

Then again, people who use coke have never really been considered sensible.

(On an unrelated note, I am about 8 months late getting King by T.I, but it is a fierce fucking album.)

Rating: 2.5 out of 10

Worth The Money: Ha.

Wednesday, June 6

Mr. Dogg Says - Summer Play Lists

Apologies to everyone expecting a review of the Gaslight Anthem today. There was a snafu, and the review will hopfully be going up sometime tomorrow, followed by a maroon 5 review on friday. In the mean time, cats and kittens, dig on this fresh jive!


Cars are packing up and heading east as soon as Friday hits, hotdogs are flying off the shelves faster than grocery boys can stock them, and people who have no business going shirtless in public (like myself) are showing the general populous more skin than they’d care to see. Yes, children, summer is once again upon us. And, as any good red blooded American worth his or her patriotic salt well knows, barbeque season is also upon us. This year, however, will be different than other years. This year, you (yes, you) will be known around the block as King of the Charred Meats. Not because of your great uncle Chet’s super secret burger recipe, but because you are going to have the most excellent summertime BBQ play list. And I am going to help you make it.

Step One: Come Out Swinging

The first song on your BBQ play list is arguable the most important song on the entire damn thing. The right song will draw people in from across the street, next door, or anyone who is in earshot. The wrong song will start things off with a thud, and insure that your BBQ will suck some serious ass. It’s best to start off with a classic song that will be instantly recognizable to anyone passing by. This song should also scream “PARRRRRTY!”, but with a little more subtlety.

Mr. Dogg Recommends: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen - Almost everyone with a pulse can get behind this song, especially if you’re in NJ.

Avoid: Don’t Stop Believing by Journey – My deep hate for Steve Perry aside, this is more a drinking song than anything else, and will send the wrong message. I’m not saying don’t use it later on (people go ape shit for this song), just don’t kick things off with it.

Step Two: Appeal to the Golden Age

This step requires that you know who is coming to your BBQ. If you have an idea of what the people are like, you’ll be able to better design a face melting play list. For example, if its going to be a younger, (arguably) hipper crowd of people, I would recommend some classic 90s songs, in the vein of “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms or “Good” by Better than Ezra, or even something like “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers. However, if the crowd skews slightly older, something like “Goodbye Stranger” by Supertramp might be in order.

Mr. Dogg Recommends: Circles by Soul Coughing (90s), Come on Eileen by Dexi’s Midnight Runners (80s), anything off of Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy (70s), Tighten Up by Archie Bell and the Drells – Any one of these songs will do very nicely in the core of your mix tape.

Avoid: The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Duran Duran, The Scorpions, Momma Cass.

Step Three: Train in Vain by the Clash

Just fucking put it on there. Trust me.

Step Four: The Climax

Good play lists, like good movies and literature, work on a scale of rising and falling action. Ideally, the best play lists build and relieve tension, culminating in one massive, grand musical statement. This should be at the point when everyone has had their food, and everyone has had at least two beers. Now, it doesn’t have to just be one song, but it is important that people realize (maybe not consciously) that this is the high point of the mix.

Mr. Dogg Recommends: Layla by Derrick and the Dominoes – arguably the best song of all time, it has a place on any play list.

Avoid: Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin – I love Led Zep as much as the next, but this song is as played out as any song. Besides, chances are good you could find this song on the radio at any time of the day. A good mix should offer something familiar, but still unique; kind of like a mango.

Step Five: Hey, who is this band?

This one isn’t set in stone, but it is my feeling that every good play list should have at least one song on it that is new to most people. Falling in love with a new song is always a great experience, and there is a certain satisfaction that comes with showing someone a new song. It’s like a good deed, without actually having to help someone. This is a good spot for deep cuts from established bands, or your friend’s sick demo tape.

Mr. Dogg Recommends: Nosebleed by Illinois, A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill by Jens Lekman, Let Me Go by Cake, Dig for Fire by Pixies – These are all relatively unknown songs that come pre packaged for summer ass kicking.

Avoid: Radiohead – Radiohead is just not summer music. Get over it, nerds.

Step Six: Get the fuck out of my yard.

It’s not a party if your doing it alone, so you should find a song that will quietly urge the stragglers to move on to the next free meal. You don’t want to go overly abrasive, but you should go for something with a slow tempo and a mildly offbeat rhythm to it. Remember, people will never leave a place when they can dance there.

Mr. Dogg Recommends: Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd – You run the risk of stoners saying how beautiful it all is, man, but this is as good a song as any to end a play list to.

Avoid: The Final Countdown by Europe – Sorry, but this song at the end of a play list will just kick start the party all over again.

Step Seven: Give the people credit

Don’t ever be afraid to take a chance on a deep track or a lesser known band. Chances are good that someone else at the party has heard it before, and even if they haven’t, mot people will be having fun playing Frisbee or whatever. And remember, the perfect play list is a never ending quest, so don’t get upset if you don’t get it on the first time. Finally, always ask the people what they want to hear. This mix isn’t for you, it’s for the world at large.

With these hints, you are sure to be the Cat’s Meow around the fire pit.

Mr. Dogg’s Summer Play list

1) Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen
2) Wayward Son - Kansas
3) Better Man – Pearl Jam
4) Hey Jealousy – Gin Blossoms
5) July July! – The Decemberists
6) Back and Forth – The Dismemberment Plan
7) Let Me Go – Cake
8) Substitute – The Who
9) The Jack of Hearts – Bob Dylan
10) Girls Like Status – The Hold Steady
11) Take on Me – Aha
12) Flagpole Sitta – Harvey Danger
13) Sunflowers – Everclear
14) Rapper’s Delight – Sugarhill Gang
15) Lola – Kinks
16) Come On Eileen – Dexi’s Midnight Runners
17) Only in Dreams – Weezer
18) Hard To Explain – The Strokes
19) Getting Better – The Beatles
20) Float On – Modest Mouse
21) You Can’t Always Get What You Want – Rolling Stones

Monday, June 4

Ladyhawk is Like A Hurricane, There Is Calm In Their Eyes

Artist: Ladyhawk
Album: Ladyhawk

Comments: You know, sometimes I feel like a pretentious asshole.

Who am I to spend all my time scaning these albums with a fine tooth comb and passing judgment on their worth using some ever changing and undefinable scale that measures and quantifies that which is, by definition, incalculabel? Is it possible for me to just listen to a record and enjoy it without having to look for the deeper meaning, hidden symbolism, or ulterior motive? Isn't there something I can just listen to and not have to think about?

The answers to these questions are "No one", "Yes", and Ladyhawk's self titled album.

Don't misunderstand me. When I say that Ladyhawk is easy to listen to, I do not mean that it is shallow or brainless. I simply mean that Ladyhawk is an album that makes no promises, offers no archaic message, and requires no effort to listen to. Ladyhawk is a good rock record, and nothing more.

The Vancouver based four piece specialize in big guitar driven bar room rock songs and lyrical metaphors, and both can be found all over the record. Tracks like "The Dugout", "My Old Jackknife", and especially "Came in Brave" are reminiscent of big guitars bands like Dinosaur Jr. or Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The record maintains a classic feel throughout; it plays like a bunch of guys who like to get together in someones garage, drink a few too many, and cover all their favorite rock songs from the 70s. Which is not to say that the production is bad, it just sounds like these guys are relaxed and having a blast.

The subject matter of the songs is the usual rock fare; women, booze, and women who drink booze. At times the band can sound alt-country, at times indie pop, but always good. Ladyhawk is a seasoned bunch of musicians, and the rhythm section always anchors the music, which gives the guitarist room to play, and gives the lead singer room to let his voice go for a walk. Some songs are a bit overblown, like the jammy slow burning roots rock of "Long 'Till the Morning". But for the most part, the album is strong.

Ladyhawk is not reinventing the wheel on their self titled debut. They aren't going to be your new favorite band, and you aren't going to tell all your friends about them. They won't be selling out stadiums, and we won't see them on MTV. Not to say that they couldn't get to that level; Ladyhawk shows great promise, and leaves the band with a lot of room to expand. But for right now, Ladyhawk is a collection of barroom swagger that flirts with intimacy, dances with brilliance, and above all else is just an easy and fun listen.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: The Dugout, My Old Jackknife, Came in Brave, Advice

Worth The Money: Might not stick with you forever, but still worth it.

Friday, June 1

Sundowner Sprouts An Introspective Branch On The Lawrence Arms Family Tree

Artist: Sundowner
Album: Four One Five Two

Comments: Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. Sundowner is a one man singer / songwriter side project of Chris McCaughan, who is known for his work in punk bands like the Broadways and The Lawrence Arms. As a matter of fact, McCaughan is the lead guitarist and co-song writer for the Lawrence Arms. I only mention this because I am a big fan of the Lawrence Arms, and if my review seems sympathetic or biased, it is because I was unable to detach my feelings.

That being said, Four One Five Two is a good, if not great record and serves to further prove what listeners have always suspected about Chris McCaughan; he was always a singer / songwriter at heart.

Four One Five Two came about while McCaughan was recording Oh! Calcutta! with the Lawrence Arms. McCaughan wrote a bunch of songs that didn’t fit on the album, so when TLA went out on tour, McCaughan would warm up by playing these songs at coffee houses and other places where acoustic guitars and emoting lyrics are welcome. The gigs were so well received that McCaughan recorded them on to a CD, and Four One Five Two is the result.

Anyone familiar with McCaughan’s songwriting in his other bands will know what to expect here. McCaughan is a very urban songwriter; his songs are post-industrial anthems for the average man who struggles with everyday city living. McCaughan loves the city, but he wants to leave it. He feels lonesome and detached, but he loves independence. He’s sick of not having a safe place, but he loves the freedom it gives him. These are the contradictions that make up the core of McCaughan’s song writing. He explores these issues with great success on the tender and restrained “Midsummer Classic”, and the more mobile “The Sea of Lights”.

McCaughan never really comes right out and tells you what he means. Instead, he speaks in poetic metaphors and personal reflections, and allows the listener to fill in the meaning. This makes for a very cathartic experience, at the expense of making it emotionally accessible. In other, less pretentious words, you have to be in the right mood to fully appreciate this record.

As much as Four One Five Two establishes McCaughan as a singer / songwriter, he has some trouble at times breaking out of his punk shadow. Songs like “Traffic Haze” and “Jackson Underground” are good, but ultimately sound more like acoustic Lawrence Arms songs, and not McCaughan. Chris even covers two Lawrence Arms song on the record, “Boatless Booze Cruise” and “100 Resolutions”. Both sound good unplugged, with “100 Resolutions” sounding better of the two, probably because McCaughan wrote it and not “Booze Cruise”. Also, the second half of the album has a little filler in the form of “Cold White North” and “Your Self Portrait”.

If Four One Five Two has any big flaw, it’s that it still feels very tethered to The Lawrence Arms, both thematically and sonically. Still, Sundowner is a side project, not a new band, so the connection is expected and even at times welcomed. Four One Five Two is a catchy acoustic album that can appeal to anyone who is a fan of that genre. While not indispensable, it is certainly enjoyable, and only helps to further the songwriting development of McCaughan. And if nothing else, it is a good hold over until the next Lawrence Arms album comes out.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: “The City of Lights” “Midsummer Classic” “100 Resolutions”

Worth The Money: Yes