August Album Reviews

Rock Cellar Magazine StaffCategories:Music

Alanis Morissette Havoc and Bright Lights

With her new album Havoc and Bright Lights, Alanis Morissette re-affirms herself as a music icon with a vibrant message and fierce spirit, more than fifteen years since she popped onto the scene in the 1990s.
Lead single Guardian features crunchy guitar riffs, a massive chorus and her requisite sing-the-verse-and-shout-the-chorus structure (the kind that obviously inspired legions of Avril Lavignes over the years).
Woman Down is another defiant Alanis anthem, while ‘Til You features shimmery production and lyrics about determination and how she’s “dodging bullets” until the right moment comes.
Musically, Havoc and Bright Lights is highlighted by some wonderfully thick guitar chords (such as on Guardian), while Morissette’s typically snarly wailing comes across the best on tracks like Celebrity (a middle finger to society’s obsession with ‘fame’ – Give me celebrity/my kingdom to be famous, she demands).
Other bright lights on the record (pun intended) include Empathy (nice piano touches), Lens (a religion debate), the dark Numb (sample lyric: I feel smothered and encumbered), Receive, and the sweeping closer Edge of Evolution. In all, Havoc and Bright Lights is an impressive effort all-around, one that should please long-time fans.
Alanis Morissette has endured over the years, from her precipitous rise to the top with Jagged Little Pill to finding herself as a creative artist, so to speak. She didn’t succumb to the buzz of being “cutting edge” in the 1990s, and instead has forged her way into a more-than-respectable place in the music world.
This album should further cement her as one of the more important female solo artists of all time, and who knows, maybe it’ll get her another radio hit or two?  –A.G.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Slightly Stoopid Top of the World

Slightly Stoopid
For their sixth studio album, So Cal-bred reggae/ska outfit Slightly Stoopid deliver more of the jammy, Sublime-influenced reggae/rock that has helped them become the icons they are today.
Of course, the band was signed by the late Brad Nowell when they were teenagers, and it’s obvious that they (and their peers) might not exist if not for the trail-blazing that the original Sublime did to the music world.
That said, Stoopid have been able to craft a unique sound throughout the course of their seventeen-year career, blending blues, acoustic folk, and dub into their beach-ready rhythms.
Top of the World is a long album, at 21 tracks, but it isn’t without its highlights – album opening title track is vintage SS – rap/talk vocals, laid-back guitars and an almost hip-hop beat lay the foundation for the album solidly. Devil’s Door lets them experiment a bit, jazzy horns and a bevy of percussive instruments leading the charge. The horns also take center stage on Way You Move.
Barrington Levy stops by for the old-school sounding Ur Love, which creates a massive groove with its dub/dancehall touches. The appropriately-titled Ska Diddy (as well as Underneath the Pressure) continue the good vibes, while Just Thinking (featuring Chali 2Na) is one of the album’s best moments. There’s even a space-y cover of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire, for good measure.
The main criticism of the album is its length – 21 songs take a long time to get through, and some are stronger than others. But few bands do this kind of music better than Slightly Stoopid, and Top of the World is reflective of the pedigree they’ve developed over the years. –A.G.

Rating: 3 out of 5
The Darkness Hot Cakes

The Darkness
Whoever said taking a 7-year break between albums was a bad idea?
The Darkness, whose last studio record was 2005’s uneven One Way Ticket…to Hell and Back, took time off to charge the batteries, get clean, and focus, and are celebrating their revival with a great new album, Hot Cakes. Featuring eleven new recordings seamlessly pairing the band’s infectious combination of bombastic riffage and front man Justin Hawkins’ falsetto, the album finds them refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to re-assume the throne they vacated with their hiatus.
Hell, there’s even a gloriously cheesy speed-metal cover of Radiohead’s somber Street Spirit (Fade Out), which you should play for any Radiohead fans you have in your life (to see their reaction).
The Darkness’ last album varied too far from the good-natured and lighthearted hard rock that put them on the map with 2003’s Permission to Land. Hot Cakes returns to the original formula, chock full of the same blazing guitar licks, arena-rock choruses and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that you’ve come to love from them.
Key songs include the AC/DC-ish With a Woman, Keep Me Hangin’ On, Living Each Day Blind (this album’s equivalent of Love is Only a Feeling), Concrete (which features a great vocal hook by Hawkins), and lead single Everybody Have a Good Time.
Hot Cakes doesn’t quite have the same power and dynamism of Permission to Land, but that’d be a tall order. Instead, Hot Cakes is a mature, relentlessly catchy album from one of rock’s most entertaining bands. Sure, they aren’t for everyone, but if you’re in on the joke and like your rock ‘n’ roll fun (and oh-so-British), pick up Hot Cakes and revel in its carefree attitude, hooks, and riffs.  –A.G.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Toadies Play.Rock.Music

The Toadies released their fifth studio album, Play.Rock.Music, earlier this month.
If you only know of them due to their 1990s radio hit Possum Kingdom, let this serve as your awakening.
They’ve always churned out high-energy, grimy alternative music with an edge, and this album is no exception. Opener Rattler’s Revenge boasts a lead riff that calls to mind the Foo Fighters’ All My Life, before drifting into a Queens of the Stone Age-like groove.
Get Low follows suit, with vocalist/guitarist Todd Lewis’s customarily aggressive vocal style leading the way, all while another crunchy hard rock beat whips around accordingly. It was smart picking Summer of the Strange as the album’s lead single, its rhythmic pull mixing with cymbal crashes and a steady bass line solidly.
The fun continues with Magic Bullet, more dirty guitar licks matching up with Lewis’s story about how’s were all in search of the titular magic bullet. More storytelling is the focus of Epic Castle, which uses quirky guitars to add an element of eccentricity to everything.
Overall, Play.Rock.Music is just as volatile and attention-grabbing as their 1994 debut Rubberneck, indicative of the band’s ability to pump out some seriously killer post-grunge anthems for more than twenty years now.
The best aspect of the album is that it never lets up – many times, records like this could be top-heavy or only peppered with solid jams. On the contrary, this one flows together seamlessly, grabbing you in with each listen.
Toadies have always been one of those “under-the-radar” bands, but that’s a disservice to the quality of their music – so listen up, give this a spin, and get educated.  –A.G.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Susanna Hoffs Someday

Susanna Hoffs - Someday
With a voice that’s perennially young and sweetly melodic it’s easy to forget that Susanna Hoffs has been singing and creating music for over 30 years.  The hottie front-woman from the all-girl Bangles band is a mature mom and seasoned musical veteran now, although by outward appearances it appears she’s been tossing back a lot of fountain-of-youth-infused martinis.
Her fresh new album Someday is her 3rd solo record and unbelievably, her first in 16 years.  Not that she hasn’t been busy:  aside from being wife to director Jay (Austin Powers/The Campaign) Roach, and mom to 2 teenaged boys (“why do your friends always want to come over to our house?”) Hoffs has continued to record and tour with the rejuvenated Bangles, and recorded and toured with power-pop icon Matthew Sweet as “Sid and Susie.”  Their two records together – Under the Covers 1 and 2 are love-paeans to 1960s and 1970s pop-rock music and their third will embrace their favorite 1980s cover songs.
Someday is – by design – a nostalgic 1960s pop record with Hoffs, co-writer Andrew Brassell and producer Mitchell Froom pulling from the Burt Bacharach trick-bag – simple lightweight structure layered heavily with strings, horns, woodwinds and (yes!) the under-used harpsichord.
Despite the heavy 1960s influence, this is no Bangles record.  There is no rock, few harmonies, and only a hint of the Byrdsy Rickenbacker that Hoffs loves. (Shockingly, she doesn’t play any guitar at all on this album.)   Many of Hoffs’ favorite bands and influences are evoked:  Jackie de Shannon, Marmalade, Big Star, Petula Clark, Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys, the Monkees, the Bee Gees, even Glen Campbell.
The great news is that there isn’t a false note on Someday.  Its airy melodies are sweet yet are nicely counteracted by a minor-chord twist here and there insisting that there is loneliness and a dose of melancholy rain amid the warm sunshine.  Yet Someday does feel like it’s missing something.   Not just Hoffs’ guitar playing. Not just more songs to its 31 minutes that end too soon.  It seems to want for that ache that the great, memorable ‘60s melodies make us feel.  The deep lyrical and urgent musical longing, or the bittersweetness that makes – for example – Aimee Mann’s (or Matthew Sweet’s) folk-pop so wrenching and shiver-inducing.   Those hooks that infect long after the song is over, like the best of her Bangles songs.
But that’s just picking nits.  Someday is without a doubt Hoffs’ best solo record and only makes us crave more from her.  Unlike the similarly-aged Madonna – whose regression into puerile cheerleader music is sad and pathetic – Hoffs’ mature pop music is vibrant, truthful, and speaks to fans of all ages.  –J.C.
Read our fresh, fun interview with Susanna Hoffs – HERE.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Dispatch Circles Around the Sun

The wait is over –Boston-based indie/roots band Dispatch finally released their long-awaited new studio album, Circles Around the Sun.
Their first album since re-forming in 2011, and first since 2000’s Who Are We Living For?, the new album finds them mostly sticking to their established brand of heart-on-sleeve roots rock, but with a slight twist.
Past albums like Bang Bang and Silent Steeples were marked by raw production styles, but this time around you can tell they really put a lot of effort into making the songs sound as vibrant and rich as possible. Lead single Circles Around the Sun, led by a grabbing guitar riff, is notable for its pairing of Chad Urmston’s vocals and Irish-sounding flourishes in the background.
Other songs, like Not Messin’ (and its slick groove), Get Ready Boy (jangly acoustic guitars), Sign of the Times (a group vocal effort from Urmston, Pete Heimbold and Brad Corrigan), and the bluesy Josaphine exemplify the album’s depth, but the second half of the record should really resonate with longtime fans.
Flag, for one, is arguably the strongest song on the record – urgent guitar picking builds with Urmston’s voice until the song takes off to its powerful resolution. The same can be said for the storytelling that characterizes the Heimbold-led Come for Me.
Never or Now and the experimentation of We Hold a Gun form the album’s best back-to-back moment, the latter shifting tempos and moods affectingly.
Despite the long break, Dispatch seem ready to continue right where they left off, as Circles Around the Sun stands up well against their earlier material. They’ve created more of the socially-conscious, passionate music that helped them conquer the world as an unsigned independent band – and they don’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.  –A.G.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Steve Vai The Story of Light

steve vai story of light
Guitarist Steve Vai has never been afraid of experimentation, and his latest album is no exception.
The Story of Light, which is the second of his three-album new age set, combines the best of Vai’s shredding with spirituality. He doesn’t go totally Enya, but listeners expecting Passion and Warfare, Vai’s seminal 1990 release, will be disappointed. He continues to prove he’s not a one-trick pony.
The album opens with the title track, a sweeping melodic number. The song shows off Vai’s plentiful chops; as usual, his notes dance all over the guitar. But he is backed by a pleasant piano part, so the six-string attack isn’t overwhelming. A woman speaking in an Eastern European dialect gives the song a worldly feel, much like The Blood and Tears, a track from Vai’s 1999 release, The Ultra Zone.
On the mostly acoustic number No More Amsterdam, Vai takes over as vocalist, and is joined by none other than singer Aimee Mann. Mann’s delicate voice harmonizes perfectly with Vai’s, and she also sounds at home singing over his guitar lines (Mann has lent her voice to virtuosos before; she guested on the Rush track Time Stand Still in 1987).
Vai’s music had become convoluted in recent years, but The Story of Light is refreshingly cohesive. Each song flows into the next, and none are overdone. The tenderness of Creamsicle Sunset mixes well with the sinister Gravity Storm.
Other standout tracks include: the soulful John the Revelator, which marks a guest appearance by The Voice finalist Beverly McClellan, and Sunshine Electric Raindrops, a smooth rocker with some tasty guitar licks. In Vai’s world, it all makes sense.   —Michael Sandler

Rating: 4 out of 5

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