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Big Troubles – Romantic Comedy review

What will Big Troubles sound like five years from now? Ten years? Fifteen? With bands that have logged decades in the business it’s easy now for all involved to look back and understand how each one came about in the context of a particular era in music, how each influenced, and was influenced by, its contemporaries, and how each cultivated its own identity across time and genres.

Big Troubles have committed two years so far. A drop in the bucket, though an eventful drop, to be certain. New Jersey natives Alex Craig and Ian Drennan began recording music on their own in their bedrooms, added two more members and cut a debut album, Worry, late last year and a second album last month.

Genre-wise, Big Troubles are pop-rock. And yet it possesses that rare ability to draw out the best aspects of the musical movements that preceded it. The result is something unlike the current commercial pop music. It shows a deeper appreciation of music.
Stylistically, the new album, Romantic Comedy, doesn’t differ from Worry. Both albums owe a great deal to 80s synth-pop, grunge and post-grunge alt-rock and ambient and chill-out music. Craig and Drennan trade vocalist duties and sing with a breathy, far-away tone that could have been employed, at one time or another, by acts as diverse as The Cure, The Gandharvas, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck or Nada Surf.

Technically, Romantic Comedy is head and shoulders above Worry. Due to the limitations of available equipment, the vocals on the first album are all but lost amidst the swirl of fuzzy guitars, keyboards and pre-programmed drum beats. Romantic Comedy’s higher production value allows Craig and Drennan’s starry-eyed, yet well-written lyrics to stand out against the echoy, uptempo compositions.

The album is a lot of fun and comes across as the soundtrack to a summer romance or road trip while still channeling the young-adult emotional turmoil brought about by facing an increasingly uncertain future.

So what will Big Troubles sound like years from now? One hopes the band continues to develop its sound and identity by incorporating the best parts of future musical styles, whatever they may be.

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Brett Anderson – Black Rainbows review

Had Suede continued releasing music instead of breaking up in the early 2000s, an album like former frontman Brett Anderson’s Black Rainbows could easily have been the band’s current offering. This isn’t a bad thing, though. Anderson’s solo work in these intervening years honors his former group.

With Black Rainbows, Anderson carries on many of the structural and aesthetical elements that characterized Suede’s songs and set the band apart from its ’90s Britpop contemporaries. His high, clear vocals come to the forefront of each track but are never in opposition to the music.

The arrangement of songs on Black Rainbows is like the ebb and flow of waves, taking listeners up to the peak of joy or anger before sliding into troughs of introspection or sorrow.

The slow burn of the opener, “Unsung,” rises and makes way for the thoughtful “Brittle Heart,” and the The Cure-inspired pop rocker “Crash About To Happen.”

Back down again to “I Count the Times.” A buzzing guitar and pinging keyboard accompany Anderson as he sings “There’s patterns in your hair. The flowers faint when you’re near. You don’t understand me. I don’t pretend to be that clear.”

The scalding “The Exiles,” gives way to the solemn “This Must Be Where It Ends,” about the bitterness, mistrust and infidelity that eventually destroys so many relationships. Anderson cries out, “You cannot stop the tide from flowing. You can’t hold back the sea. This must be where it ends.”

The album takes the listener back up one last time with the cocky and fun “The Actors,” and the melodious, clanging “The House of Numbers,” before breaking upon the nasty-natured “Thin Men Dancing.”

The end comes in the resonant embrace of “Possession.” Anderson’s voice, and the harmony vocals, rise one last time in the repeated, climatic refrain of, “For her….,” before falling away into single notes on a piano. This is the true emotional peak of the album and I was moved literally to tears by this song.

Black Rainbows is powerful stuff and deserves to be listened to again and again.

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James Morrison – The Awakening review

Looking like Chris Martin and with a voice like Ray LaMontagne, English folk/soul rocker James Morrison writes songs about new love, lost love and everything in between. “You Give Me Something,” the only track from his debut album, Undiscovered, to go on the charts in this country, was an incredibly soulful power ballad reminiscent of fellow Brit Adele’s “Chasing Pavements,” with its symphonic backdrop.

Two years later, Morrison’s sophomore effort, Songs for You, Truths for Me, featured an epic duet with Nelly Furtado as well as the funky “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You.”

Morrison’s new album is a far cry from these previous projects. The musical competency of Morrison and his band mates is not in question. But Morrison seems to have run out of things to say after five years of churning out songs about nothing but the above-mentioned new love,lost love and everything in between. This formula has gotten old by the third album.

The poor quality of the songwriting is the main point of contention. Over the course of 13 tracks Morrison give the impression that he was really hard up for some better material, going about the construction of lyrics in a very amateurish, Dick-and-Jane fashion. By way of example, the first two tracks, “In My Dreams,” and “6 Weeks,” open in an almost identical manner. “Since you’ve gone nothing seems to fit no more. Nothing’s as it was before,” and “Six weeks since I let you go and I still feel the same,” respectively.

The only track I feel elevates itself above the mire is the second-to-last one, “Right By Your Side.” It features Morrison’s voice, a single guitar strumming a blues melody, organ, and smoky female backing vocals. Just those four points and no percussion. It’s a beautiful song. I’m not saying I could do any better. Not being a musician or lyricist, I know I absolutely couldn’t do better. But Morrison shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that, after a certain point, his fans will listen to anything he puts out simply because it’s by him.

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Blink-182 – Neighborhoods review

My appreciation of Blink 182’s music has been hit-or-miss, fluctuating on an album-by-album, or even a song-by-song basis. For example, I could, at one time, wholly relate to the inner turmoil expressed in a song like, “Wasting Time.” I still find the sheer, crazy energy of “Josie” irresistible.

A couple years later, though, I couldn’t wait until Enema of the State’s singles finally stopped getting airplay, although “Adam’s Song,” had a certain appeal. The Mark, Tom and Travis Show didn’t do anything for me, either. 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket was a good album, with “Stay Together for the Kids,” striking a personal note that stays with me to this day.

With Neighborhoods,the band reemerges after eight years sounding like a much, much scarier version of The Killers. The album opens with “Ghost on the Dance Floor,” wherein the band reflects on the loss of its longtime friends, DJ AM and producer Jerry Finn.

From here, the album is a mixed bag. Two tracks, “Natives,” and “Heart’s All Gone,” are sharp indicators of the band’s straight punk upbringing. “This Is Home,” is a playful tune in the vein of “Rock Show.” “Up All Night”,the first single, is definitely the most listener-friendly track, but it’s still a slight pop-punk tune and not the best the album has to offer. For me, the two best tracks were the contemplative, but still upbeat “Wishing Well” and “Fighting The Gravity,” with its crunching riff.

The lyrics are dark, too. Far darker than on any other Blink-182 album, even when the band was singing about divorce or suicide. “Something’s swimming in my blood. Something’s rotting in my brain,” “Let’s drink ourselves to death,” and “I caught a short ride to the grave and back this season,” are a few examples.

Neighborhoods is uneven, but shows great promise. I appreciate toilet humor as much as anyone, but it’s nevertheless interesting when a band decides things like that no longer have a place in its repertoire. It’s not a stretch to say the trio truly has matured.

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Pink Skull – Psychic Welfare review

Pink Skull’s strengths lie in creating tripped-out jams that can stand alongside the best of psychedelica and house music. The band’s sound has so much in common with psychedelic powerhouse the Chemical Brothers that it’s uncanny. “Zing Zong,” from its 2008 release, Zeppelin 3, could be the spiritual twin to the Chemical Brothers’ “Lost in the K-Hole,” to give just one example. Julian Grefe and Justin Geller clearly know their stuff when it comes to being faithful to this branch of techno.

But Julian Grefe doesn’t possess the vocal range to bring an interesting new element to the third album. When his voice shows up in some of the tracks he sounds less like someone singing with real emotion and giving it all they’ve got and more like a bar patron on karaoke night staring intently at the screen so as not to miss any of the lines.

Psychic Welfare’s sound also differs greatly from that of Zeppelin 3. Whereas that album was truly a funky psychedelic odyssey, Psychic Welfare jumps ahead twenty years from ’60s experimentation to ’80s puff pop. My impression was of elements that could have been culled from movies like Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, or a bounty of video games and cartoons from my childhood.

“Bee Nose(Put Yr Face On)” has been released as a single, but other tracks like “Mu,” the darkly-beautiful “Salamanders,” or the bizarrely-titled “Human Hair Disco,” are much stronger pieces. Also, the album hardly sticks around being a scant 33:17 in length.

Taken on its own merits, Psychic Welfare still has a lot going for it, but fans who appreciate the group more for its earlier work will find the album lacking.

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St. Vincent – Strange Mercy review

St. Vincent wasn’t on my radar prior to late spring of 2009, even though the band had already released an album two years before. My wife and I were set to head to Bonnaroo in a couple months and, in preparation, were listening to as much music as we could get our hands on from dozens of bands in the lineup, St. Vincent being among them. So, Actor was in the rotation.

I wasn’t sure what to make of St. Vincent’s sound initially and still was uncertain weeks later as we watched the band live at Bonnaroo. Annie Clark cut quite a profile though; a dark-haired, slight figure dressed in what appeared to be slacks and a puffy, floral-print blouse, looking like a mid-80s housewife while head-banging and shredding on her guitar.

Clark’s presence and musical acumen suffuses St. Vincent’s third album, Strange Mercy. The major descriptive term that came to mind was “wall of sound.” There is no simple, unaffected playing. Each song is literally saturated in effects that could point to some interesting and diverse influences.

The pulsing, layered percussion on the third track, “Cheerleader,” reminded me of the lush, ambient soundscapes created by the duo Air. The funky, looping guitar licks and trilling synthesizer on the next track “Surgeon,” could have been made by the hands of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker themselves.

“Northern Lights” has a ’90s Stereolab sensibility. Three-quarters of the way through, the album gives way to the curiously somber and understated “Champagne Year,” with Clark singing “It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s what we got” with a sadness and dry wit that channels Aimee Mann.

I found myself enjoying the album more for the inventiveness of the compositions than for the relatability of the lyrics. Although “You’re like the party I heard through a wall. I’m always watching you through a keyhole,” from the song “Dilettante,” stuck in my head. I’m curious to find out what Clark has up her sleeves for the future.

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Bush – Sea of Memories review

Having never been much of a fan of Bush, it was challenging to approach the band’s new album from a critical standpoint, rather than dismissing it out of hand as I’d done with its other albums.

It wasn’t a question of disliking the music. The sound Bush presented in the context of grunge rock wasn’t better or worse than any of it’s contemporaries. It was a question of what I felt was needless and deliberate lyrical obscurity.

A verse like, “Rain dogs howl for the century. A million dollars a steak. As you search for your demi-god and you fake with a saint,” meant nothing to me. I became convinced Bush was blowing smoke in it’s listenership’s collective face. To me, it was the worst kind of musical pretension and I was loathe to pay attention to subsequent albums.

But as I went further into “Sea of Memories,” I found myself enjoying it more than I thought possible. The album is a solid effort. Gone are the stringing together of pseudo-symbolic imagery. Instead, the lyrics are thoughtful, even introspective.

In the opening track, “The Mirror of the Signs” Rossdale sings, “You can’t run from what’s inside you and what don’t kill will set you free. All those days, I felt the rage but I found the strength to be me.” That sounds like soul searching to me. Another stand-out was “All My Life” with its declaration, “We’re running out of time. We’ve got to get this right. Here we are. Here we are. We’re ocean-sized.”

The fuzzy, churning guitar sound from previous songs is still here, but it’s cleaner and sharper on this album, stripped to its bare bones. Rossdale’s vocals are clearer, too. The new album is very accessible. However, this accessibility leads to some unfortunate questions. Does this represent a new direction for Bush,or a compromise? Is Bush now trying to draw listeners like myself who just didn’t “get” it before, but at the expense of its integrity?

“Sea of Memories” made me,a non-fan, pay attention. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.