Tag Archives: album reviews

New Music Tuesday, Vinyl Discovery Edition no. 1: The Police – Synchronicity

The Police - Synchronicity

1. The Set-up
One of the main things I did over my two week sabbatical from writing was to visit friends and family down in DC. It was a lightning-quick weekend of a trip, but a much needed break from the usual. Reunions, good food, Nationals baseball, and a few notable musical moments as well. I got to see one of my new favorite bands (Poor Old Shine) play at a club I hadn’t been to before (The Iota in Arlington), and I took advantage of being home to dust off my dad’s old Yamaha record player, test it out, and bring it and his little assortment of vinyl back north with me.

I’d always known my dad to have a good, well-rounded palette where music was concerned. While he’s a big fan of the greats like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he’s also a devoted lover of the moody, folk-rock stylings of Buffalo Springfield and, by extension, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

But it wasn’t until that weekend that I fully realized the extent of his love for other sounds like the sweet talkin’ Lionel Richie, your frisky, Purple Rain-era Prince, or the easy-going sounds of Bread (that’s right– Bread).

What’s more, my dad was a huge fan of progressive rock. Or at least, the early progenitors of the craft. Your Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Your Styx. Your Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg Twin Sons of Different Mothers. And every single album that Yes ever recorded. Ever. Groovy stuff.

These are the influences on which my own rock & roll education was founded. I know I’d seen these records before, having thumbed through them at least a few times during my childhood, but I’d never really understood what– or who– I was looking at.

And it makes sense how these seemingly disparate sounds and textures could live together in my boyhood experience. How evenings could be spent listening to the melodic, tried-and-true voices James Taylor, Carole King, or Sade, while Sunday afternoons in the car were meant for the more far-out, heady, rocking sounds of latter years Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Peter Frampton.

(It’s not his taste alone, of course, that shaped my interests. I surveyed my mother on a host of albums in my father’s collection to get a sense of her influence as well: “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer? Your father. Lionel Richie? Both of us. Little Feat? Your father. Bruce Springsteen? That was me.” Go mom.)

2. The Police
It’s because of these influences that The Police are responsible for one of my earliest known, most-beloved pop song obsessions: “King of Pain” from their 1983 album Synchronicity. Of course I probably had no idea what album it was on at all when I first heard it, which most likely happened on one of those long, aforementioned Sunday car rides. Those days we’d head further and further away from the bustling ‘burbs around DC and closer and closer to the farmlands and rolling countryside of upper county Maryland and the wild Potomac valley.

I instantly loved the song for the colorful cast of characters it contained and the way it described them in simple terms that were made all the more wonderful and fantastic with just a little imagination. “A little black spot on the sun today… a black-winged gull with a broken back.” To my young ears it wasn’t the sparse, weary observations of a man tired of a monotonous life, but a whimsical, sing-song list of the rich, beautiful, and unique characters present in the world. It made as much sense to me as any other whimsical fairy tale.

If I liked this song, I reasoned, I probably would like their other stuff too. And to an extent I did, seeing as how I came to know their other hits as well. But I never actually listened to a whole Police album from beginning to end, not even Synchronicity. My dad’s turntable had been a part of the family longer than I had, and I know he had  few of their albums in his collection, but I never actually sat down and listened to one.

And what do you know: it turns out The Police were great at turning out great records in addition to great hits, and Synchronicity is a great example of that. It’s much less a the collection 2.5 minute hot-blooded tunes about love affairs gone wrong that its predecessors were and much more an album of complex and introspective explorations of life in past, present, and future tenses.

That doesn’t mean it’s a wholly cohesive, masterful, or flawless piece of work, however. It definitely contains its own frenzied demons, particularly on the track “Mother,” which really seems more appropriate on a The Wall-era Pink Floyd album or as a Beatles White Album B-side than it does on this one. Critics and fans alike seem to be divided to this day on the merits of the song’s inclusion on the album. Some say it breaks up the monotony of the synth-infused, fairly run-of-the-mill Police hit-making machine and shows their true depth as songwriters and innovators. While I do appreciate that perspective and do honestly appreciate the track itself as a sort of “between-acts” diversion, I find it really breaks up the flow of the album as a whole, causing Side 2 to end up being the more balanced and universally more pleasing side (that Side 2 also happens to be the side with three of the four singles from the album– “King of Pain” as well as “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “Every Breath You Take”– only solidifies this feeling).

Aside from that one space oddity, the album is a treat. For me the real gem is “Walking In Your Footsteps,” an ode to one’s boyhood fascination with dinosaurs (and a happy resident of Side 1). Even as it speaks of the bygone past it also serves as a wonderful sonic sample of what’s to come in the future for these musicians as they go off into their own respective solo careers. Sting in particular has gone on to infuse his own endeavors with the sorts of world-beat rhythms and songwriting that this track provides.

There’s definitely something about the vinyl listening experience that you can’t get from listening to CDs or MP3s. Maybe it has to do with the fact that you really have to be present when listening to records, due to the obvious requirement of having to get up to change the record from side to side, but also due to the deeper, subtler sonic textures that only vinyl can afford.

At the very least, there’s nothing like hooking up an old turntable, dusting off a record, setting the needle down on Side 1, Track 1, and reminiscing about your favorite memories that happened while you were listening to Steely Dan’s Aja album.

I’m looking forward to exploring each side of this inherited collection, and to gradually adding my own pieces as well.

The Police – Synchronicity
A&M Records, 1983
Grade: A
Listen Now: Synchronicity II, Walking In Your Footsteps, Mother, King of Pain

New Music Tuesday: Dietrich Strause – Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart

dietrich strause - little stones to break the giant's heart

One look at Dietrich Strause and you know he’s got some terrific new story taking shape in that great big mind of his. It’s the eyes. Gentle, disarming, playful… ever on the look out for the next dash of inspiration.  The man has stories enough to fill his diminutive yet sturdy frame. All beautifully rendered, lovingly crafted vignettes. 

His 2011 first independent release, Laborsongs and Barkingdogs is a wonderful example of this sort of storycraft. As the the title suggests, the songs tell the tales of everyday workingmen and women of America. Many songs take place somewhere in the hills of Appalachia and rural Pennsylvania, paying homage to Strause’s boyhood home of Lancaster, PA. The settings may be pastoral or even remote, but the themes are universal.

For his second album, Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart, Strause continues this tradition of expertly crafted songs with vivid, expressive scenes that are at once simple in their structure and delivery.

Judging from the material covered on the album, Strause has been rather busy since 2011. While some tracks tread familiar territory, painting loving scenes of rural America and the people who live there (“Our Lady Ponderosa,” “Bootlegger”), many others take place on exotic even fantastical environs and show the extent of his growth as a storyteller.

There’s “Unsinkable,” which uses the classic folk song theme of an ill-fated seafaring adventure as the backdrop for the story of a man who pursues the object of his affection through three such doomed voyages– including The Titanic– even though his chances of winning his the favor of his beloved are probably only as good as his chances of making it safely to port on the same ship he sailed out on. And there’s the playful reimagining of the story of David and Goliath (“Sling & Stone”), which suggests that David’s motives for taking on the giant might not have been as selfless and virtuous as first thought (read: boys will do anything for a pretty face).

Taking well-known stories and blending them with contemporary perspective and humor. That’s where the album really shines.

In addition to Strause’s songwriting, the success of the album would not be possible without  Strause’s warm, steady tenor voice or the delicate blend of accompanying voices and sounds (tip of the hat to Strause’s fellow Boston-based producer Austin Nevins, who also provides some wonderful lead guitar riffs and flourishes to the album itself, for putting it all together).

In the sea of cacophonous, muddled noise that seems to comprise much of the popular and indie music scene these days, Dietrich Strause possesses a clear, consistent tone. In a desert of over-produced, cloying and often inauthentic story lines that are heard in these other genres of music, Strause represents an oasis of clarity and sincerity in song craft and delivery that refreshes and delights.

Dietrich Strause – Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart
Grade: A+
Listen Now: “Annie Dear”, “Our Lady Ponderosa”, “Tell Me Mary”, “Sling & Stone”

New Music Tuesday: Looking at Lorde – Pure Heroine, One Year Later

Lorde Pure Heroine

By Jon Muchin

For something so many people can so easily identify, pop music is hard to adequately define. It doesn’t conform to any real type of genre; the Beatles (at least in their early days) and Daft Punk could be reasonably described as pop artists and yet – perhaps I’m blowing some minds here – their respective music exists in entirely different sonic strata. Folk, R&B, rock, country, rap, even jazz all can coexist within this manufactured label. The name pop comes from an external definition (technically, pop music is music that is popular, in the same way that fan is short for fanatic), but pop, in its most common construction, belongs to that class of definition through distinction in much the same way as the Supreme Court defined pornography: we know it when we hear it. There is undeniably something “pop” about pop music.

And for most of my life, I haven’t really cared for pop music. Sure, I like early Beatles (and late Beatles and pretty much anything even tangentially related to Beatles) and I like Daft Punk and a lot of pop artists in between, but by and large I don’t like pop music. If you were to ask me what I listen to, I would never answer with pop. I just can’t really explain why.

But pop is genre-amorphous! I like many of the styles it incorporates, and yet I don’t identify as  liking “pop.” Some of my distaste is probably the commoditization built into the music, but I’m aware that’s an inconsistent position. Commoditization has never stopped me from blasting the fuck out of some Hendrix, even though his estate would put his likeness on Electric Ladyland Vibrating Condoms if the abundant jump in safe sex didn’t mean risking the next generation of Jimi fans.

So, in the spirit of new beginnings, I’ve decided to use 2014 to throw myself into pop music present and past to try and see what all the fuss is about. Maybe it will turn out that I’m just not a “pop guy,” but I have a feeling I’ll find that I haven’t been giving it a fair shake. This idea is loosely based on (fine, ripped off from) Nathan Rabin’s year-long series of articles acquainting himself with country music, though I don’t know how often I’ll follow up or where this will take me.

First up: Pure Heroine, the debut album from teenage megastar Lorde.

The things I knew about Lorde before yesterday: she’s 17, she writes her own songs, and “Royals” is catchy as all hell. This would be an early test – could I identify what’s pop about her sound and “Royals” in general?

That track stands out for a few reasons. The beat is monstrous from the get go, a booming bass and clipped snare sound and a simple hooky vocal over the top. On Pure Heroine Lorde spends a lot of time in a mid-alto, a place in her range where her voice sounds relatively bland. It’s in the lowest depths of her register that Lorde really stands out, and that’s where “Royals” lies. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” she struts in her Adele-light voice, kicking off with a burst a song that is both indictment and celebration of the aesthetic pleasures of being alive and a teenager. The song has you from there.

Structurally, “Royals” is pretty similar to almost every track on the album. There’s almost no instrumentation beyond a drum machine heavy on the booming bass and a dub-step-reminiscent synth that pervades nearly every song. The first I remember anything to break up that combination was the on the tenth track, “A World Alone,” which starts off with a mellowed-out Strokesian guitar riff. Otherwise, Lorde and her producers have constricted the Pure Heroine’s instrumental palette in a way that unfortunately begets monotony (the album has some hypnotic qualities, but I found my attention flagging more than falling into reverie).There’s only so much you can do with so few sounds, especially since all the songs lie in roughly the same place in Lorde’s voice (if not in the same key). In lieu of instrumental variety, Lorde offers up stacked harmonic vocals, which propel the chorus of “Royals,” but elsewhere come off sounding like nursery rhyme. Befitting that theme, she is enamored of repeating lyrics, another tactic that occasionally pays off. “White Teeth Teens” turns a repetition of its final few phrases into a beautiful swelling fugue, but also contains cringe-worthy lines like “We got the glow in our mouths. White teeth teens are out.”

The album’s main themes, the alienation-cum-celebration of modern life and consumerism, are well-worn pop tropes; Frank Ocean’s breakthrough Channel Orange returned again and again to these ideas, among other, just last year. There’s a certain sweetness, too, in the childish poetry of Lorde’s songs (and the song titles like “Ribs” and “Swingin Party”). She seems, for one, to have little idea of how to construct imagery. In “400 Lux,” she sings “you drape your wrists over the steering wheel,” though maybe she simply wasn’t old enough to drive when she wrote the track. In the interest of fairness, “Maybe the Internet raised us, or maybe people are jerks” is a great lyric.

Pure Heroine is ultimately a fusion of folky singer-songwriter music – some of these songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jenny Lewis or a Feist record if you swapped in a guitar – with pseudo-dub-step instrumentation. I’m not saying that give her a guitar and she’d run off with Sufjan Stevens to write an album about a rural New Zealand province, but she’s not too far from that world either. Most of it works, and what’s more, she’s 17 and has plenty of time to grow. A solid first effort.

Lorde – Pure Heroine
Motown / Universal, 2013
Rating: A
Listen Now: “A World Alone”, “Ribs”, “Swingin Party”, “400 Lux”

Jon Muchin is a Boston-based musician, blogger, music enthusiast, and self-professed sports junky. He intermittently posts random word associations about athletic goings on at thewhole42minutes.blogspot.com and tweets @allormuchin.

New Music Tuesday: Jake Bugg – Shangri La

It’s hard to talk about Jake Bugg’s sound without doing some A-class name dropping. No sooner had his first self-titled release hit the airwaves just over a year ago than the comparisons to Dylan, Simon, and Gallagher began to flood in. They’re worthy comparisons to be sure, and Bugg neither minds or ignores them, nor does he allow them to completely define or pigeonhole his own sound.

On his sophomore release, Bugg adds a strong set of new material that offers new insight to other influences (Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, and even Woody Guthrie come to mind) while also showcasing a wider depth of musical ability. Punk, blues, and rockabilly all get respectable airspace on the record as do other more subtle and nuanced sounds (there’s a particularly 90’s grunge rock influence in “Messed Up Kids”; also can’t miss that 60’s Laurel Canyon sound in “Kitchen Table”).

Though this strong sonic framework provides the perfect platform for Bugg’s frank lyrics and plaintive voice, there’s already a lot happening on the record and the true weight of his words can get lost in the shuffle.  Three tracks– quite possibly some of the most biting storytelling of the entire album– are posted up and gulped down in the first 8 minutes, leaving the listener to wander around, searching for musical balance  in a hangover-like state wondering what it was that just whizzed by him. Save for one or two tracks later on, the album keeps a fairly level pace from then on.

Given Bugg’s working-class roots and rough upbringing, this front-loaded, shotgun sprint of an opening is understandable, and on second and third reviews, the stories are made more clear. “Didn’t disappoint you /  Didn’t want to make you sad / Given all the choices / Good’s given from the bad.”  At 19 Bugg has had a lifetime of experiences both good and bad, and thematic musical balance isn’t at the top of his priorities.

Even as his sound echoes that of the greats of modern music, his stories and his delivery are very much his own. Just as is should be.

Jake Bugg – Shangri La
Island Records, 2013
Rating: B

Listen Now: “Kitchen Table,” “Slumville Sunrise,” “Pine Trees”

New Music Tuesday: Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack

Few things are as gratifying as finding a collection of music that you can listen to all the way through multiple times. The more you listen to it, the more the album becomes like a close friend, something– nay, somebody– familiar and comfortable.

Such is the case with the collection of songs found on Inside Lleywn Davis, the soundtrack for the upcoming Coen Brothers film. The film takes place in the early 1960s New York City folk music scene and revolves around the eponymous character, played by Oscar Isaac and loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk.

The film has already received positive press in preparation for its December 20 release due in equal parts to the reputation of its veteran directors (known for No Country For Old Men and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, among others), the strength of its ensemble cast (Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman among others), and the anticipation of a singular sonic experience with the likes of T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford as Executive and Associate Music Directors respectively.

The soundtrack, for its part, delivers on those expectations, setting the tone of the period perfectly. Continue reading New Music Tuesday: Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack