September/October Album Reviews

Rock Cellar Magazine StaffCategories:Music

Bob Dylan Tempest

It’s 2012, and we’re still living on “Desolation Row.”
Or so Bob Dylan argues on his 35th album, Tempest, a firestorm of a record that plays like the apocalyptic cry of an old, gravelly-voiced prophet wandering a desert of broken relationships and lost political hopes.
Opener Duquesne Whistle, a country-flavored tune, is really just a tease.  Its breezy, fun feel makes you think Dylan may simply be rehashing 2009’s lively but light Together Through Life.  But at its center beats the heart of a woman who refuses to end the singer’s blues despite the fact that she’s “the only thing that keeps me going.”
Doomed romance pervades the other four songs on the record’s first side. Narrow Way is a standout.  Like all the songs on Tempest and much of Dylan’s music since the early 2000s, it owes a lot to pre-rock ‘n’ roll American music.  But lyrically the song considers how salvation can arrive in the form of a woman or God.
The record’s second half includes the harshest and most sustained condemnation of American society since his masterworks of the 1960s.  Scarlet Town deals with racial issues and goes over all the things that the singer wishes we, as a country, didn’t do.  A hard rain falls all over this track.
The title track is especially cool because it’s just as much about James Cameron’s film as it is about the actual wreck of the Titanic. Leonardo DiCaprio appears as a character, as does a watchman, who prophesizes the sinking of the ship.  An early Dylan image of America, the Titanic, which set “sail at dawn” way back in 1965 on Desolation Row, has finally sunk – and no one has yet to listen to the prophet of its demise.
John Lennon, the hero of the moving Roll on John, is another unheard prophet. Lifting lines from Come Together and A Day in the Life, Dylan imagines his friend as an endlessly shining light. Somehow Lennon survives death: “The sooner you go, the quicker you’ll be back.”
Perhaps Dylan wishes the same survival for himself. But Tempest shows no sign of him slowing down.  It proves without a doubt that Dylan, well into his eighth decade, is making some of the strongest music of his career. — Paul Gleason

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Ben Folds Five The Sound of the Life of the Mind

Ben Folds Five Sound Artwork
Ben Folds wears many hats – he’s a front man, solo artist, producer, talent judge, and so on. Some of his strongest musical output, though, has come from his stint as a front man, and that’s why the Ben Folds Five’s new album The Sound of the Life of the Mind is so damn good.
It’s been a long time since a BF5 album (13 years), but this one kicks off with a bang – the schizophrenic quiet-loud-angry aggressiveness of opener Erase Me blends Folds’ requisite bitter lyrics mixed with some theatrical piano and Queen-like background vocals. It’s killer.
BF5’s musical storytelling chops shine on songs like the stomping Michael Praytor, Five Years Later (more group vocal hooks),  the title track (co-written by author Nick Hornby), On Being Frank (sung from the perspective of Frank Sinatra’s manager), and Hold That Thought.
Draw a Crowd is one of the best songs on an album filled with gems, its soulful piano-funk summed up with Folds’ line I always wanted to be Stevie Wonder/But I got to settle for this vanilla thunder. Its more subdued foil, Sky High, (written by drummer Darren Jessee) showcases BF5’s ability to slow down and get melancholy – and it works exceedingly well. The song is just gorgeous.
The album concludes with string-laden Away When You Were Here (about a fictional father figure who died young) and the tender Thank You For Breaking My Heart.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind is everything longtime fans could possibly want – wit, wordplay, and the same emotive songwriting that has exemplified Ben Folds Five throughout their career. Far more than a ‘reunion’ album, this is a record that can easily be considered among their strongest to date.
Welcome back, Ben, Darren & Robert. Don’t go away again anytime soon, okay?
For more on the album and the band’s reunion, re-visit our interview with Folds himself. –A.G.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
No Doubt Push and Shove

No Doubt Push and Shove
What a difference a decade doesn’t make.
No Doubt’s comeback album, Push and Shove, is the logical follow-up to 2001’s Rock Steady – synth-soaked, breezy alterna-pop from the former ska/rock band that took a long break to be parents and solo artists before kicking things back into gear.
The good news: some of these songs are pretty good. The bad news: longtime fans swayed into anticipation by the band’s claims of a “return to our roots” sound have not been rewarded with a full-on reformation of the band’s 1990s ska/rock days.
Yes, the horns show up on a few tracks (most notably the dancehall-tilted title track), but this is much more of an album from No Doubt the Pop Band than No Doubt the Alternative Band. It isn’t shocking, considering where they were headed with Rock Steady, but it would have been nice to hear them rewind the clock to 1995 again.
That said, some of this stuff is pretty solid: Looking Hot has an infectious quality (and a great melody) to it, although the lyrics are a bit trite. The New Wave-ish One More Summer is another key track, while Sparkle brings back the horns and reggae with solid results (with Gwen Stefani detailing a troubled relationship a la Don’t Speak). Another high point is Heaven, which glides by on the strength of its extra percussion and a driving bass line from Tony Kanal.
The rest of the songs more or less flow together into a good-spirited menagerie of keyboard pop. Musically, No Doubt has released better records, without a doubt. But this is a different band – they’re very far removed from Tragic Kingdom and their old alternative-rock guitar chords.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to the listener – longtime fans will probably relish in this album because it’s a new record from No Doubt. Others may take issue with their musical direction, which has been shifting toward straight-on pop music since Return of Saturn. In that context, the mainstream pop approach of Push and Shove can’t really be considered that surprising, can it?  –A.G.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Green Day ¡Uno!

Green Day Uno
For their new album ¡Uno!, Green Day had to make a decision: continue with the (at times) overwrought bombast of their last two records or  return to their East Bay roots and play more fast, snotty punk-pop-rock tunes. Thankfully, they chose the latter.
Fans that were in their teens in the late 1990s will take to opener Nuclear Family, its Nimrod-esque melodies and rhythms at times sounding like the sequel to Nice Guys Finish Last. Stay the Night starts with bombastic power chords not unlike those featured on American Idiot, before charging ahead with a riff reminiscent of the band’s work on 2000’s Warning.
Throughout ¡Uno!, front man Billie Joe Armstrong sounds young, energetic, but angry – perhaps explaining the album’s heavy volume of four-letter-words. Carpe Diem dabbles in Cheap Trick power-pop with great results (and one of the album’s strongest melodies). The pissed-off punk energy comes through on Let Yourself Go, Loss of Control, and Angel Blue, while the band explores its tried-and-true alternative rock radio chops with Fell For You (another warm nod to Nimrod) and Sweet 16.
The only real misstep on the record is Kill the DJ (an unabashed Clash homage with a pleasing guitar lead but repetitive lyrics), while Troublemaker (handclaps and a familiar riff) allows the trio to get a bit goofy.
Rusty James, however, is one of the strongest songs here – and probably one of the better songs Green Day have produced in a while. It blends nostalgia, reminiscing about the past, and another infectious melody set to Dookie-era power chords.
As you know, ¡Uno! is the first in a trilogy of new Green Day albums. Two more are on the way, which could be a good thing. The way ¡Uno!  blends the styles of Nimrod and Warning is a positive (and, frankly, unexpected) angle from the band, and definitely shows promise for the next two records.
Of course, two more records of songs just like these may grow tiring, but there’s enough good material on ¡Uno! To keep fans excited for more.  –A.G.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Dave Matthews Band Away From the World

DMB - Away From the World
With their new album Away From the World, the Dave Matthews Band was reunited with producer Steve Lillywhite for the first time since 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, and the result is one of their strongest studio albums to date. The band sounds refreshed, alive, and vibrant once again, as exemplified by the urgency of the opening track Broken Things.
Horns and an aggressive funk rhythm make Belly Belly Nice a standout, the ‘classic DMB’ style on display when Matthews’ chorus kicks in. Tender lead single Mercy calls to mind past DMB singles like Where Are You Going? due to its laid-back feeling and uplifting, introspective lyrics meant to channel the inner goodness in people.
The sprawling Gaucho is led by a Rodrigo Y Gabriela-like finger-picked guitar progression, and undergoes so much tempo-changing in its four minutes that it’s another of the album’s best songs. The band really lets loose and gets innovative with this one, and it works.
Sweet slows things down to allow Matthews to look inward (I’m too high to want to come down/I’m too old to want to be younger now), The Riff does the quiet/soft dynamics thing well.
The final two songs, Snow Outside and Drunken Soldier, are among the band’s best material in a long time: Snow Outside clocks in at over six minutes in length, not constrained by the limits of conventional song structure. Drunken Solider is even more expansive, morphing and changing for nearly ten minutes – this one should end up becoming a fan favorite live.
The familiar pairing of Lilllywhite and DMB paid off exceedingly well with Away From the World. Longtime fans should be very pleased to hear the band return to their roots. –A.G.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Bob Mould Silver Age

Hanging out with the Foo Fighters for their 2011 album Wasting Light may have been a blessing for Bob Mould.
The Hüsker Dü/Sugar songwriter’s new solo album, Silver Age, is a return to the full-on alternative/rock stylings of much of his 1990s output – and it sounds fantastic.
Opting for straightforward, riff-heavy rock delivered as only Mould could, Silver Age features some of his most solid material in at least a decade. Opener Star Machine sets the mood perfectly, the quieter verses exploding into a vintage ‘90s rock chorus. The same can be said for the title track that follows, a blistering riff giving way to Mould’s unmistakable vocals.
The album’s lead single, The Descent, is a highlight, its guitar lead reminiscent of much of Mould’s back catalog – and the song’s melody is among the finest composed in recent memory. (Watch the music video here). Bob knows what he’s doing.
The “Bob knows what he’s doing” theme can be expanded to refer to the album as a cohesive unit – at 51, Mould is the definition of ‘seasoned’. While many have tried to forge unique takes on rock music, Mould’s is all his own. While Silver Age might sometimes remind the listener of Sugar’s album Copper Blue, the new material still manages to sound more like a unique piece of work rather than a continuation of past projects.
Simply put, Silver Age is one of the finest things Mould’s ever attached his name to, and it should appeal to younger listeners just as much as fans of his various projects over the years. Perhaps guesting with Dave Grohl & the Foos helped re-energize his rock appetite, or maybe it was a natural progression that would have happened regardless.
Either way, Silver Age is excellent – so give it a shot. –A.G.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Propagandhi Failed States

propagandhi failed states
Formed as a progressive thrash band, Canada’s Propagandhi has been producing high-energy, thought-provoking political hardcore punk music since 1986.
The past 20 years – since the release of their first full-length record – have seen Propagandhi’s music become heavier and more technical, with increasingly intelligent and articulate song lyrics.  The sprinkling of bratty melodic pop-punk ditties intertwined with harder songs on earlier records has been completely phased out of their formula.
Propagandhi has just released their 6th full-length record, Failed States – the band’s first for Los Angeles based Epitaph Records.   According to the guys, the new album feels like their magnum opus, and we listeners are not likely to disagree.
Heavily influenced by bands like Rush, SNFU, NoMeansNo, Sacrifice, and Voivod, their stated objective with each release is to create a “no-holds-barred, forward-thinking, tip-of-the-hat” to those bands.  Vocalist/guitarist, Chris Hannah, claims that Failed States is Propagandhi’s “most formidable,” and “a surprising attempt at conjuring the numinous from the quotidian.” Hannah admits he had to look those words up.
Lyrically, Failed States is a critique of the failure of humanity – from the failure of our governmental entities, to the failed state of human nature evident in modern culture and throughout history.  Hannah is specifically critical of our modern internet-based social media era and its detrimental impact on the connections between people.  He and bassist/vocalist Todd Kowalski’s lyrics focus on that disconnect:  the coldness of human interactions with one another, and the hostility of humans toward other beings, in general.
Sonically, Failed States is Propagandhi’s darkest and heaviest album to date.  It could be described as a melding of the progressive rock of Rush (listen to opener Note to Self) and the technical speed metal of Slayer (Rattan Cane), with hints of Mastodon-esque prog-metal (Cognitive Suicide intro), and the punk rock/hardcore tendencies of the band’s last three records.  The song Rattan Cane is easily the heaviest and most “metal” song in the their extensive catalog.
There is no filler whatsoever on Failed States. It is Propagandhi’s best record yet, lyrically and musically, with every song effectively hitting its mark. — Rob Schromm

Rating: 4 out of 5
Grizzly Bear Shields

Grizzly Bear Shields
Brooklyn-based quartet Grizzly Bear’s previous two records – 2006’s Yellow House and 2009’s Veckatimest – shared a baroque-pop sensibility that got them on the indie map.
Filled with beautiful songs, even more beautiful vocals, and sophisticated arrangements and instrumentation, these two records resided in a timeless past somewhere between the classics of the 1960s (The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Love’s Forever Changes, The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle), and the folky experiments of Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, and Sufjan Stevens.
The most striking aspect of Shields – Grizzly Bear’s latest LP – is that it’s a rock record.  No, the band hasn’t abandoned the baroque-pop styling that made Yellow House and Veckatimest such wonderful listens, but now they’re paying more attention to their guitars and drums.  And that’s a good thing.
Take, for example, Yet Again.  Co-frontman Edward Droste takes the lead vocal here, delivering a languid and melancholy melody that simply aches.  His fellow Grizzlies back him with one of the coolest – perhaps angriest – guitar riffs that they’ve ever come up with.
Droste and Daniel Rossen share most of the lead vocals – the “Lennon/McCartney” of GB. Droste’s voice is deeper and lends sadness to his tracks; in addition to Yet Again, he heads up the introspective ballad The Hunt, the electronica-tinged gun-shy, and the harmony-drenched Half Gate –  self-deprecating explorations of broken relationships.
Rossen takes over lead vocals on the first single Sleeping Ute, Speak in Rounds, What’s Wrong, and the epic album closer Sun in Your Eyes.  His higher voice is no less passionate than Droste’s and perfectly fits the despondent aesthetic of Shields.  Sun in Your Eyes precisely encapsulates GB’s vision, with Rossen realizing the end of a relationship, as deft drummer Christopher Bear delivers a march beat that leads his bandmates into a dramatic ecstasy of horns and vocal harmonies.
A crucial and necessary record, Shields highlights a band that isn’t merely resting on its pop laurels and indie cred.  The guitars ring true and confirm Grizzly Bear’s evolution into a rock band to be reckoned with.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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