Wednesday, October 31

Tankian Leaves his Running Mates at Home on Solo Record

Artist: Serj Tankian

Album: Elect the Dead

Comments: Back in 2001, when their second album Toxicity was tearing up the radio, System of a Down’s lead singer Serj Tankian stated in an interview that his lyrics were not political. Despite references to prisons, evil governments, suicide, and child abuse, Tankian maintained that his lyrics were strictly auditory; he said this stuff because he liked the way it sounded, not because the words were symbols for something else.

Six years later, Tankian completely balks on this claim with his hyper political solo album Elect the Dead. To go through all the personal politics on this album would be an exercise in futility; there are so many causes being taken up on this record that it would confused even the most staunch political observer. With titles like “The Unthinking Majority” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” it’s safe to assume that Tankian slants pretty well to the left. Because every song is it’s own little public service announcement, Elect the Dead suffers under its own bombast. No one likes being preached too, at least not on a hard rock record.

However, those who can find their way past the soap boxing and propaganda will find a pretty decent hard rock record that fits in somewhere between Toxicity and Hypnotize /Mesmerize. Tankian has always had an interesting voice; it was made for the quite/loud mentality of System of a Down’s spastic throat rock, and he is belting out the jams all over this record. The majority of the songs just have him in his usual fast-talking speak sing; this trope is used best on the album opener “Empty Walls.” Still, he shows his chops on tracks like “Sky is Over” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” which allow him to do more than just pontificate over power chords.

Fans of System of a Down’s earlier albums will find a lot to like here. The crazy time signatures are back, as well are songs that seem to slow and speed up with almost no warning. Still, where the album falters is not in Tankian’s self righteous politics but in the music itself. The studio band that Tankian grabbed for this record is no doubt accomplished; they are able to handled his blinding time changes with relative ease, but the band never establishes themselves. What makes SOAD so good is how no one part of the band is ever the main focus, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. On Elect the Dead, it’s all Tankian. But then again, this is his solo album.

At the end of the day, Elect the Dead is a hard rocking album that will leave the listener confused. Sure, the songs are good and yes, Tankian sounds as good as he ever has, despite his recent foray into vocalizing his politics. Still, one has to wonder what these songs would sound like with a proper band belting them out. If the rest of SOAD came along for the ride, I have no doubt in my mind that this album would be in a completely different class. As it stands, Elect the Dead is a good album to waste time on while people wait for the next System of a Down album.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Key Tracks: Empty Walls, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

Buy, Steal, or Skip: SOAD fans won't regret buying this record

Monday, October 29

Japanther Plays the Hits but Can't Stick - By Stu Romanek

Artist: Japanther
Skuffed up my Huffy

Comments: I'm going to be up front about this: I'm not a writer, and I don’t pretend to be. There was a point when I weighed it against other options, but as I sit here in a Starbucks across from a highway in beautiful Bensalem, I think I made the right choice. Something about the girls to my left yapping about the painfully corporate Starbucks artwork hanging on the walls makes me want to forget I agreed to do this. But as the warm fuzz of Japanther’s latest effort Skuffed Up My Huffy pushes them to the background, I press on.

There are a few things to note about me and Japanther that might make this article a little biased. First of all I’m a sucker for duos. Japanther is a two piece from Brooklyn relying on super fuzzy bass, spazzy tight drums, and what is probably a second hand Casiotone. Oh, did I mention both members sing through telephone receivers? On paper I was already in love with the band, but I’m a man who’s had his heart broken before. Would Japanther squander the perfect DIY low-fi setup?

As the rapid fire bursts of dance punk chug through the headphones, I don’t really have a chance to consider it. Japather is busy playing a brand of low-fi pop punk that’s as toe tapping as it is smart. Coupled with the Wu Tang-style movie dialogue bits in the intro of almost every song, the band makes a musical aesthetic that’s sadly being forgotten in a time of all-too-serious indie rock. There is something about Ice Cube telling some "motherfucker" he "aint no criminal. He can read" is happily disarming as the drum driven "Cable Babies" kicks in. The song itself demonstrates Japanther’s ability to take the stripped down instruments and influences that often result in abrasive noise rock (think DFA1979, Lightning Bolt) and turn it into a fuzzy, saccharin sweet pop tune. ‘One Hundred Dollars’ mixes up tape loops of the band messing around over-top hip hop bass beats and miscellaneous scratch samples only to revert, jarringly, back to the drum and bass chug they’re known for. Their ability to keep the listener on their toes works well for the track but falls flat in tracks like "Vagabond" and "Tender People."

So by now you might be thinking “I’m totally stealing this album!” or “Hey Stu, how about not writing anymore reviews, okay?” and that’s all well and good, but there’s always a catch. Japanther’s is that they don’t lay down roots. Almost every song would fit on a party playlist or a mix cd, but Japanther would still be that band you only have a handful of tracks of on your iPod. None of the tracks really make you yell, “This is fucking awesome!” except for the first one you heard.

In terms of an album, Skuffed Up isn’t one. The band’s website calls the album ’13 new songs’ and a more fitting description, it could not be. Go ahead, mix up the order, play it backwards; it doesn’t matter. In fact, by the time you figured out the track list was wrong the album would be over and you’d already be looking up the band’s tour schedule. Continuity aside, Skuffed Up makes your remember a time when you didn't have to pour over music for hours on end to decide if you really like it or not. From start to finish this half hour long gem will keep your head bobbing and your mind wondering who the hell in this age would dare to make something so simple and have it seem so fresh? Go ahead, impress your friends by slipping some of this into rotation and remind them music is fun again. Just don't expect to find in on their a few months down the road.

Mix CD tracks: River Phoenix, Challenge, One Hundred Dollars

- by Stu Romanek

Thursday, October 25

Band of Horses Cease to Excell

Artist: Band of Horses
Album: Cease to Begin

Comments: Band of Horses is the answer to a question that no one ever asked; what would happen if My Morning Jacket and U2 had a baby? Taking the woodsy jam rock of MMJ and the grand guitars of the Edge, Band of Horses found success on their 2006 release Everything All the Time, an album that somehow managed to have a stadium grandness while maintaining a soft, intimate feeling one might find walking in the woods alone. That album could be played at parties or at late night snuggle-fests with equal success. One year later, the equestrienne collective have returned with Cease to Begin, an album that doesn’t detract from their sound, but doesn’t do much to move the band forward sonicly.

The album has a promising start, opening with the rocker “Is There a Ghost.” The grunge groove of the song sounds triumphant, as if Band of Horses has never been more confident in their craft. Lyrically, it’s a turd of a song, but the celebratory nature of the track makes it one of the best on the album.

With such a rocking opener, one would expect the album to be nothing but fist pumping anthems of love and success. However, after that first track, the album falls into a droning funk of groovy tunes that all sound nice, but never establish themselves. This has been the problem with Band of Horses; too many of their songs can run together. On Everything All the Time it wasn’t much of a problem because there were always standout tracks that would break up the muddy drone of the guitar. Sadly, there are no such songs to break up this four song mire on Cease to Begin, and the album progresses with a sense of repetitive acceptance. It isn’t that the songs don’t sound good, they just all sound too similar to matter.

The plus side is that the songs that break up the monotony on Cease to Begin sound even better in stark contrast with the droning middle of the album. Islands on the Coast,” for example, is a hurried little rocker that propels the sometimes sluggish album. Elsewhere, the jumpy folk of “The General Specific” is a treat for the ears. Driven by a 60s style handclap beat and the yearning Neil Young-esque vocals of lead singer Ben Bridwell, “The General Specific” is a country sing-a-long for city living, and one of the most fun tracks on the record.

While not a step forward, Cease to Begin is a good second album for Band of Horses. By maintaining their lush sonic density and earthy tenderness, the band is able to grow up some in their music, even at the loss of some fun. What is really impressive about Band of Horses is how they are able to capture the subtle beauty of nature in their music. If Everything all the Time was a snowstorm that blanketed the woods, Cease to Begin is the morning after. Long, smooth, sometimes daunting, but always beautiful, Band of Horses is able to stay the course. Still, it wouldn’t hurt the band to stop admiring the snow so much and just make some friggin’ snow angels. After all, what’s the use in beauty if you can’t enjoy it?

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Is There a Ghost, The General Specific, Islands on the Coast

Worth The Money: Nope, but I recommend their first album, Everything all the Time.

Wednesday, October 10

Vedder Can't Tame Wild Soundtrack

Artist: Eddie Vedder
Album: Into the Wild: Music from the Motion Picture

Comments: When deciding how to score his recent film Into the Wild, first time director Sean Penn had to try to find someone who could convey the lonesome, sometimes oppressive beauty of the natural world in a purely auditory medium. His answer to this paradox was the lead singer of the prolific rock powerhouse known as Pearl Jam, the often moody but always talented Eddie Vedder. Vedder’s Into the Wild: Music from the Motion Picture, while no doubt an adequate companion to the film, fails stand on its own as an independent work.

While this is a soundtrack / film score, it is also Vedder’s first solo album, with “solo” being the main idea both thematically and in practice. Besides two cover songs and two guest vocalists, Vedder wrote every piece, sang every line, and played every instrument on the album himself. The arrangement of the album is very stripped down; most tracks are just acoustic guitar, minimal drums, and Vedder’s voice. This minimalist sentiment in songwriting is not only miles away from Pearl Jam’s usual grandiose stadium grunge, but serve to remind the listener that this is an album for a film about a man crossing the country alone.

Still, it is telling that the two best songs on the album are the ones that sound the most like Pearl Jam. Album opener “Setting Forth” is a restrained song that serves very well as a starting point for an album about isolation. “Hard Sun” is a mid-tempo rock track with minimalist drums and a classic folk-rock guitar riff that allows Vedder’s voice to draw in the listener and keep them interested. The song is, hands down, the anchor of the album as it allows Vedder to stretch his vocals some, and it is the only song on the album that really has the time to develop.

Still, the small scope of the album does more harm than good for Vedder. His styles have always been more breathtaking in grandness than in restraint. Most of the tracks on Into the Wild are pleasant and agreeable, but often too much so to be anything more than white noise. The only song that sticks out is the over-trebled “Rise” which works by playing Vedder’s low growl off a high pitched mandolin. Another problem is that most of the songs on the album don’t break the three minute mark, save for “Hard Sun” and “Guaranteed.” While length is not usually a problem with Vedder, the brevity of the songs hold them back, keeping potentially good songs from growing and forming. The most obvious offender is “Tuolumne,” which takes an excellent folk riff and cheats it out of greatness by making it nothing more than one minute interlude.

In spite of all this, it’s hard for me to fault Vedder for such an underwhelming album. After all, this is not so much a solo album as it is a film score, and for a movie about man finding his way in nature, Vedder’s folk songs are the perfect soundtrack. But a good soundtrack and a good album aren’t interchangeable, and without the support of the film Into the Wild is nothing more than a hollow collection of nice folk songs. When Penn asked Vedder to score his film, he probably thought he was doing Vedder a favor. What he did was cheat Vedder and Pearl Jam fans across the globe of a proper outlet for the rock front man. One can only hope this isn’t Vedder’s lone solo attempt; he deserves better.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Rise, Hard Sun
Worth The Money: Nah. For what it is, you can get better easy listening, soft rock albums

Sunday, October 7

No One is Passing Aesop Rock

Artist: Aesop Rock

Album: None Shall Pass

Comments: In the realm of hip-hop, few artists are as verbally dense and original in their delivery than the mighty Aesop Rock. The NYC MC, long known in the independent hip-hop world for his complex wordplay and delivery that is equal parts confusing and rewarding, returns with None Shall Pass, his first album since 2003's Bazooka Tooth.

Those looking for a run-of-the-mill hip-hop album to throw on as background music should look elsewhere, as Rock's music require a more refined ear to appreciate. Rather than rely on commonplace boasts and obvious self-referencing, Rock uses complex literary and pop culture references in a non-linear delivery to convey his message. In other words, his lyrics are so dense and layered that it takes a few listens for everything to sink in.

That isn't to say there are no immediate successes on the album. Lead single and title track "None Shall Pass" finds Rock juxtaposing a relaxed tone with an accelerated delivery. He sinks into the production, making his syrupy lines harmonize with the woodwind and bass of the beat. "Catacomb Kids" is another song that strikes right away, dancing the line between somber reflection and boastful acclimation, guided by a fuzzy beat featuring some nifty guitar distortion. It's also one of the few songs on the album that features a proper hook.

The production on this album is top-notch. Each beat serves as a sonic setting for Rock's riddles and musings on everything from other rappers being wack to the planet formerly known as Pluto. Rappers returning is old hat as far as topics go, but Rock's octopus flow gives the subject new legs, proving that interesting style can make anything worth a listen.

Where None Shall Pass falters is in the demands it puts on the listener. Because there is so much going on, it can be hard to take everything in on one listen. Some of the best tracks on the album ("Fumes" and "Citronella") are slow-burning growers that people may not have patience for.

Still, hip-hop fans who are willing to stick around will be treated to one of the year's finest efforts. Dense without ever seeming crowded, and deep without ever seeming pretentious, Aesop Rock's None Shall Pass is another success from underground hip-hop's best.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: None Shall Pass, Catacomb Kids, Fumes

Worth the Money: Yes, but I'd recommend Labor Days if this is your first experience.

Wednesday, October 3

Freak Folksters Want You to Love Everyone

Artist: Akron/Family

Album: Love is Simple

Comments: The popular new trend in indie rock music is the movement toward collective, freak-folk music. In other, less pretentious words, the new hotness is to use multiple people, chant style vocals overtop of back-woodsy, acoustic guitar led music. If a group of monks decided to live in the words, take mushrooms and make music with guitars and keyboards, they would probably end up making freak-folk music. The latest band to be hopping on this trend is Brooklyn, New York’s Akron/Family. On their latest effort Love is Simple, the band finds themselves walking the line between accessible country rock and nonsense ambient chant.

The record has a definite tone to it, and that tone is “Be excellent to each other.” From the starting line, this album has a compassionate, friendly tone to it; when the band tells the listener to “go out and love / everyone” on the opening track, the keenly titled “Love Love Love (Everyone)” one gets the sense that the band really means it. Musically, the track is a slow, quiet pop song that is not at all in touch with the rest of the music.

For a band that is making a name for itself using a collective style of music, much of Love is Simple is based on more mainstream elements. Songs like “I’ve Got Some Friends” and “Phenomenon” would be straight up classic rock songs if not for the occasional chorus in which everyone sings, or the spastic folk breakdown in “Phenomenon.” Elsewhere, on the quiet pop ballad “Don’t be Afraid, You’re Already Dead,” which sounds more like the Beatles and Devandra Barhart, the band reinforces their “love first” mentality, claiming that it can overcome even death.

These songs are nice, but one’s opinion on the album will be made or broken on the two songs that make up the middle of the album, and serve as the band’s declaration to all things collective. The first of the two, “Lake Song/New Ceremonial Music for Moms,” starts out as a neat little folk song, the kind of thing you would head at a campfire, before melting down into a chanting drum circle that is either poetry or madness depending on personal preference. This hippy chant-fest turns into the slow rocker “There’s so Many Colors.” The two songs are set up so that the end of the first seamlessly combines with the beginning of the second, making it one 15 minute long artistic statement. For some, this middle section will be the best thing they’ve ever heard, but for most it will just be too much of nothing.

That being said, this album does yield one song that gets it right. While the middle of the album may fail to combine collective freak-folk with mainstream convictions, the seven-minute country bump of “Ed is a Portal” succeeds in all the right ways. The song opens with a room full of people clapping and chanting before kicking in with the danciest banjo melody I’ve ever heard. Drums follow soon after, as the entire band chants the chorus and turns the song from formless chant into bluegrass boogie. Featuring two separate breakdowns before returning to the main riff, “Ed is a Portal” is not only the best song on the album, but it’s a song that is infectious enough in its message of love that anyone, anywhere could listen to it an enjoy it.

While the overall album may leave people baffled, the good vibes theme of the album, combined with the presence of one of the best songs of the year make Love is Simple an album worth looking into for those with any interest in folk or collective music. If Akron/Family can improve upon this work in years to come, don’t be surprised to find them creating their own fad instead of working off of one.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: Ed is a Portal, Don't be Afraid You're Already Dead, Phenomenon

Worth the Money: Yes

Monday, October 1

Irish Punks Band Together for The Meanest Times

Artist: Dropkick Murphys

Album: The Meanest Times

Comments: Longevity is not a word that people used when talking about punk bands. A genre based on living fast and dying hard, thousands of punk bands implode into themselves every year. The ones that don’t break apart under their own intensity often hang around far too long, becoming sad shadows of their past selves. This fact only makes Dropkick Murphys’ The Meanest Times more impressive; it may not re-invent the wheel, but it maintains level of consistency that the Murphys have been able to maintain since 1998. Rather than a return to form, The Meanest Times is a re-commitment to their craft.

Meanest Times finds the Murphys once again balancing their punk anthems with Irish sensibility, although this album leans much more on the Celtic side of the line than past efforts The Warrior’s Code and Blackout. The one two punch of “Famous for Nothing” and “God Willing” both feature prominent bagpiping that will stir up the red-haired drunk inside everyone. Both songs are pure fist-in-the-air anthems, one about being famous for nothing and one about the dearly departed, which set the scene nicely for the shit-kicking thump of “State of Massachusetts,” a modern reworking of the Irish protest song.

If those three songs tire you out, you had best buckle up. The album rolls at a breakneck pace, going at light speed for nine songs before finally slowing down on “Fairmount Hill.” What the song lacks in speed, it makes up for in weight. Mandolin cries along side guitar as the band unfolds a tale of nostalgia and the tyranny of both time and distance. Things cool off again on “Rude Awakenings” which is about rude awakenings. The song is one of the best on the album, delivered with the force and sincerity of a dockworker signing at a bar after hours.

Fans of the band will know what to expect from this album, and the band delivers on all fronts. The dual vocal attack that is trademark to the Murphys is all over the album, as is the “Pouges-meets-Sex Pistols” punk sound that is their trademark. Still, some might be turned off by the frantic pace of the album, which does give songs a tendency to run together. The album also features one pretty lame song, the poorly managed “Johnny, I Hadley Knew Ya,” which takes the tune of “When The Saints go Marching In” and turns it into a faux-funeral march. The song marks the only time on the record when the Murphys’ Irish pride sounds manufactured instead of sincere. There are also some pretty lame quasi-political songs on the album, with the biggest offender being the unfortunate “Shattered.”

As the album draws to a close with the piano ballad “Forever,” one can’t help but appreciate how consistent the Dropkick Murphys have been since their inception in 1995. For a band to maintain such a high level of quality music for over ten years is a hell of a feat for anyone, let alone a band operating the volatile world of punk rock. With The Meanest Times, an album about family, friendship, history and the passing of time, the Dropkick Murphys show that they will always produce, come whatever.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: Forever, God Willing, Famous for Nothing, Loyal to No One

Worth The Money: Yes, but barely.