Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Album Reviews

Counting Tides & Black Crows! No, wait...
Strike that. Reverse it.

Today's album reviews are a little something old and a little something new. I'll begin with the old.
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Counting Crows are back again with Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings - their 5th studio album since their debut back in 1993!

Coming almost 6 years after the release of Crows' last album of new material - Hard Candy (2002) - SN&SM is an album with 15 years of band history now behind it, but finds the band returning to an older sound - a classic gravity perhaps not heard since 1996's Recovering the Satellites. Gone is the cutesy CG cartoony band that makes songs for animated movies, and back is the band that we remember from the mid '90s. These guys just got serious again.

The album as it stands is what's left of an initial plan for a double album (and it seems they kept the title) and the single disc of 14 tracks is split into two distinctly different moods. The first six tracks are "Saturday Mornings", the upbeat, frolicking rockers, even if the lyrics suggest desperation and drunken reasoning. The "Sunday Mornings" is the sober heartache behind all the flashing lights and so far feels like the weaker part of the album (but these things often grow on me).

Adam Duritz, the musical genius behind the band's sound and direction all along, waxes philosophical and attempts to justify all of his lyrics in a video interview sold as a part of the iTunes deluxe edition of the album. I'll use some of his own definitions to describe the songs here, but personally, I feel like the music is much more interesting and exciting than anything he can tell me about the motivations behind it. (Maybe that's why he's a singer and not a noteworthy orator.)

The album opens strong with perhaps the most aggressive Crows tune ever, "1492", which uses imagery of Christopher Columbus' quest for glory and fame in correlation with Duritz's own emotional voyage, and how it "all gets screwed up along the way."

A song of self-validation in the face of rejection, "Hanging Tree" is a tune littered with "clunkily-played guitar, and pianos that are tinkling through dissonant notes" that eventually meet in a harmonious power-chorus, which hears the singer proclaim, "this dizzy life of mine keeps hanging' me up all the time... This dizzy life is just a hanging tree!" The image of Icarus, a figure flying toward the sun, falling down through the sky, is heard first in this song, but not for the last time on the album.

"Los Angeles" is a loud, bluesy roller about Duritz and his old friends Ryan Adams and David Gibbs - the story of each of them coming to L.A. from different parts of the country with dreams of musical stardom and success, and finding themselves "in this city full of dreamers." "I'm pretty sure I was drunk when I sang the ending," recalls Duritz, "and it's completely taken from the Rolling Stones' song, 'Shattered'; there's not doubt in my mind that it was inspired by that."

"Sundays" is a sad and lonely song disguised in a poppy and fun musicality that reminds me sonically of the previous album's "New Frontier." As a song of disillusionment, Duritz croons over jangling guitars and mystical chimes, "I don't believe in Sundays and I don't believe in anything at all."

"Insignificant" is a classic Crows mid-tempo rocker and definitely one of my favorites on the album. With its upbeat chorus, it's a feel good tune about not feeling so good. Duritz sings about his life-long fear of leading an unimportant, insignificant life but finding a balance between that and being too different from everyone else, desperately crying out, "Could you see me? I'm one in a million! I am Icarus falling out of the sun."

Bringing about the end of Saturday Night, "Cowboys" is a passionate and imagery-laden five-and-a-half minute sonic movie that tells the tale of a man driven crazy with jealousy and heartache. It flies and falls at a break-neck speed between loud and quiet, soft and hard, desperation and surrender. More imagery of Saturdays, Sundays, satellites, an assassinated President Lincoln gives this disjointed rocker a sense of absolute madness in the face of overwhelming pressure.

Then, things come to a crashing halt on Sunday Morning and things get really heavy. As I've said, a bit too slow to draw any immediate attention, but that's not to say, however, that they're not good songs.

"Washington Square" is a quiet, mellow, autobiographical "sad song about leaving things behind; a decision to change." It has a sweetness in the end as the character of the song realizes "that it's okay to leave some things behind... as long as you come back."

"On Almost Any Sunday Morning" is a song of the sober realization of one's foolish acts in the name of loneliness and longing. It's the songs like this one that I feel could have been left off the album all together as it slows things down to a snail's pace with long, slow vocals dripped over a strumming acoustic guitar and the sleepy howling of a harmonica.

Along with the opening song, "When I Dream of Michelangelo" was offered as a free sample of the album almost a month before its release on the band's website. Seemingly the mellowed out sister of the rocker "Angels of The Silences" from Recovering The Satellites, this song takes some of the same lyrics and images of angels fluttering around a bedroom while the singer recalls laying in bed watching them. It's "a song about trying to make something beautiful out of nothing. What's Michelangelo thinking (while) painting that picture of Adam reaching out his hand and almost touching God?"

"Anyone But You" has a nice mellow rhythm, but might lull you gently to sleep. I like the keyboard sound in this... some sort of Korg synthesizer or something, I don't know, but it reminds me of the french horn from their song "Carriage" from their last album. The lyrics depict a man trying to convince a loved one that he thinks about her, but that "it's not safe", because he'll think about anything. (Zzzzzzzzzz....)

The only iTunes single released before the album, "You Can't Count On Me" is a half-assed Crows song sung by an almost evil character, confessing about what a jerk he can be to women who want to be close to him. The chorus is very cliche - to the point that it's somewhat hard to listen to. Perfect for a single, though, in this digital day in age, as it saves the best stuff for those who really check out the full album.

A sort of turning point in the record, "Le ballet d'or" is a dark, mystical tune about what a sin it can be to let your life slip you by, and reminding you to lose yourself and just enjoy it all. The chorus seems to be building to a powerful dissent into musical mayhem, but only hints at this logical conclusion for a moment at the end. It benefits from the idea of "always leave 'em wanting more."

"On A Tuesday Long Ago In Amsterdam" is a heartbroken love song of longing and loss, painting images of slow-motion beauty now long past. Just Adam and his piano. he's always gotta throw one like this on his albums, but I say save it for a sweet moment in the live show.

Things pick up again in the end on "Come Around", the most optimistic tune of the day, and very reminiscent of their earliest albums. It's an upbeat, happy rocker with a chorus that reminds us why things will all be okay, and why we'll always come back to the places we need to be.

I think this would have been a better album if it had just been "Saturday Nights," as the latter "Sunday Mornings" half of the album just crashes it all to the ground and has a hard time picking things up again. And even as it stands, they could have mixed up the hard and soft songs a bit to give us a better ebb and flow rhythm, instead of this "ebb, ebb, ebb... flow, flow, flow" feeling.
But you can't argue with a good collection of songs, and the Crows have yet to put out a bad record. I give this album 3 and a half stars out of five. It's always great to hear these guys put out new music. Check it out.

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And now some new stuff!

Metal-heads... I give you the new kings!

BLAAAAAACK TI-I-I-I-I-IDE! (rawwwwwwr!)

None of these bad-ass rockers are, as of yet, old enough to buy beer. (Hell, some aren't even old enough to drive! The lead singer just turned 15!) But, fortunately for them - and ultimately, for all of the world - there's no age limit or license needed to ROCK!

Upon first listen (before I knew how young these kids were)I liked the heavy instrumnetal sound combined with some classic, almost 80's-style, high-end vocal wailing - something that I believe has been sorely lacking in hard rock for years! It's all cookie-monster guttural growling and lyrics I couldn't decipher if my life depended on it (- which it did, once... funny story. Remind me to tell you sometime.) An image of a big, tattooed, pierced, angry, bald guy with the microphone completley inside of his mouth always registers when I hear those bands - and they do nothing for me. This sounded different, thank God! (The God of Rock, that is... Zeus, is it?)

Their single for "Shockwave" was handed out via iTunes as the free "Single of the Week" a while back, (something I think everyone should take advantage of each week, for the obvious reason that once in a while it does indeed pay off,) and it was a breath of fresh air for my hard-rock-craving lungs. Great, solid, classic guitar riffs (a'la George Lynch, Nuno Bettencourt or Randy Rhodes), a competent rhythm section, scorching vocals (not unlike a young Axl Rose, Sebastian Bach or Bruce Dickenson) and a production that is neither over- nor under-done in any capacity.

The single alone makes their debut album - Light From Above - worth checking out. And as it turns out, the rest of the tracks do not disappoint. These kids take their cues from the greats of yester-year (Iron Maiden, Dokken, Black Sabbath, etc.) with honor and discipline, giving the likes of Megadeth and even Metallica a run for their money.

Without going into too much detail, I will just say that this is a great debut for a bunch of teenagers. But isn't this how a lot of the greats start out? Guns N' Roses? Aerosmith? Just a bunch of kids upon their debut! If these little ankle-bitin' metal-heads can keep the hits coming, they may just save rock music for another generation... and not a minute too soon!

Basically, this is what I wanted Hanson to be 10 years ago!

4 out of 5 Stars!

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