June Album Reviews

Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel…

Fiona Apple

The exhausting title of Fiona Apple’s new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is excused because of its haunting beauty.

It’s been seven years since her last record, 2005’s Extraordinary Machines, and she sounds as vibrant as ever with this new material.

On opener/single Every Single Night, Ms. Apple alternates between whispered, pained vocals and a loud, barreling, throaty howl, all while chimes and delicate piano plucks flitter about.

The challenging song structures continue with Daredevil, as offbeat percussive touches provide the background for Apple’s refrain of Don’t let me ruin me/I may need a chaperone.

Each song here takes on its own unique mix of fragility, precision and understated beauty. Most adopt a stripped-down, piano-vocals-and-maybe-bass-guitar method. The benefit of such arrangements is the accentuation of her vocals, which are really otherworldly.

Claustrophobic keys give Left Alone its urgent tone, with Fiona’s question of How can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be loved? casting a sense of self-reflective despair on everything.

Questions directed at men/discarded lovers, always a favorite theme of hers, are again the topic of much of the album, including the songs Werewolf, Regret, and Anything We Want. On all of them, Apple reaches into the deepest depths of her soul with her customarily raw, open-hearted earnestness.

The album finishes with Hot Knife, arguably the strangest song on the album, due to the multi-tracking of Apple’s voices (all saying different things). I’m a hot knife, he’s a pad of butter, she sings, as the track closes out the album triumphantly.

Bravo, Ms. Apple, and welcome back. The wait was well worth it.

– Adrian Garro

Rating: 5 out of 5
Rush Clockwork Angels

Rush Clockwork Angels

I suppose one could forgive the guys in Rush for finally taking it easy and resting on their well-earned musical laurels after four decades and twenty studio albums. If at this point they phoned one in, could we really blame them? The good news is we don’t have to forgive Rush anything because Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart make it clear with Clockwork Angels, the band’s 20th studio record, that they have no intentions of taking anything easy or phoning anything in. The energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration with which they are still attacking their music is impressive.

Clockwork Angels continues the band’s latter day fusion of melodic and rhythmic intricacies with the thick, heavy guitar riffs that have defined their sound ever since 1993’s Counterparts left behind the classic Rush synth-scape of the 80’s in favor of a more stripped down power-prog approach. The band’s signature virtuosic playfulness is on full display here, beginning with an extended instrumental section near the end of the opening track Caravan and carrying over into songs like Headlong Flight and the title track.

Lee, Lifeson, and Peart are clearly having fun with this record, flexing their considerable musical muscles without ever actually succumbing to full-blown, self-indulgent wankery. In fact, there is a noticeable focus on melody with this record; this is the most musical Geddy Lee’s voice has sounded in years, and he really shines as a vocalist on tracks like “Carnies” and the album closer “The Garden.”

The guys are in top form, both as players and composers, and the result is a record that sounds fresh and inspired, while still feeling familiar enough to please longtime fans. Clockwork Angels is an answered prayer for the legion of Rush fans who patiently endure the wait between albums. In Carnies Geddy sings, “Sometimes the angels punish us by answering our prayers.” Thankfully, this isn’t that kind of answer.

Eric Kohn

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Smashing Pumpkins Oceania

Smashing Pumpkins

Oceania, the ninth album by The Smashing Pumpkins, isn’t short on the bombast.

We all know SP mastermind/only remaining original member Billy Corgan is an alienating, polarizing figure who says what he wants, does what he wants, and doesn’t care what people think. It’s ballsy (and to some obnoxious), but you do have to give him some credit for sticking to his guns for all these years.

Despite his mercurial personality, though, Corgan is still a pretty solid songwriter, and some of the songs on Oceania are rather impressive – take the opener, Quasar, which nods to Cherub Rock, from 1993’s iconic Siamese Dream.

Panopticon continues album’s strong opening, and The Celestials has some nice buzzy guitars in the bridge, but then things slow down a bit. The next few songs meander by, bits and pieces of them sticking out but more or less rolling into one big glob, albeit a shimmery, dramatic glob.

My Love is Winter does brighten the mood a bit, at least temporarily – its synth and accompanying guitar lead combine to form one of Corgan’s most impressive songs in recent memory. The nine-minute title track is just as exhausting as it sounds, but it has its moments, as do the album’s final few songs.

Overall, Oceania definitely qualifies as Corgan’s best work in years, but his Achilles heel remains his inability to self-edit: some of these songs are just too damn long. A little trim here and there would help the power of the strong moments, and would do away with some of the unnecessary over-the-top flourishes.

But then again, without those flourishes this wouldn’t really be a Billy Corgan record, would it?

– Adrian Garro

Rating: 3 out of 5
The Cult Choice of Weapon

The Cult

The Cult may be approaching their thirtieth year of existence, but they’ve still got it.

The British alternative rock band’s newly-released ninth album, Choice of Weapon, is a mostly solid collection of songs produced by Bob Rock that showcase the band’s two most engaging characteristics effectively. Both Ian Astbury’s unmistakable voice and Billy Duffy’s guitar playing sound crisp, inspired, and focused throughout the record’s ten songs.

As fans know, the band has undergone enough personnel changes over the years to make Spinal Tap proud. Bucking that trend, Choice of Weapon marks the first time in the Cult’s career that two consecutive albums have been created by the same lineup (accompanying Astbury & Duffy are bassist Chris Wyse and drummer John Tempesta).

Songs like Lucifer (with its vintage Cult riff and melody), opener Honey from a Knife (chunky chords, a bouncy rhythm and handclaps), the brooding and ominous Elemental Light, the groove-laden The Wolf, and the dramatics of the slower-tempo Life > Death help make the album shine, with Wilderness Now being strong enough to garner consideration as the best song here.

I can’t wake from this dream/death walks right beside me/the light shines bright behind me, Astbury sings in the song’s opening, a somber tune accentuated by similarly affecting guitar chords. It’s a gem, and should appeal to anybody that has appreciated the band at some point in their career.

With Choice of Weapon, The Cult have re-asserted themselves into the rock world. While a few songs drag it down in parts, others more than make up for it. In the end, the band is left with a record that more than capably stands up well to their older, more classic material.

– Adrian Garro

Rating: 3 out of 5
The Beach Boys That’s Why God Made The Radio

I saw Van Halen the other night and there’s a reason that I mention it at the start of the review for the new Beach Boy’s release, That’s Why God Made The Radio.

Rumors are flying that David Lee Roth is totally burnt out and is a shell of his old self. Well, for the most part, that’s true. But then all of a sudden, David would perform something that would remind you of the old DLR – when he was one of rock’s most dynamic frontmen.
“Not quite done.”

Well, in That’s Why God Made the Radio, the same thing is happening. Just when you think that the Boys are all Kokomo‘d out, you hear a track like Summer’s Gone or the exquisite From There To Back Again and it occurs to you that it’s not quite time to pull the curtain on the Brian Wilson show. Not quite yet.

I always wonder if great artists just tap out at some point, and the last several years have done nothing to dissuade me of that as it relates to Brian. Have all those beautiful melodies and arrangements just vanished? Was it the drugs? Does sobriety allow for artistry? Don’t know.

But I can tell you is that even though there’s no Feel Flows here, this is a pretty damn good album with just enough classic Beach Boys/Brian Wilson moments to treasure.

Interestingly, if you take Brian at his own word- in the song Pacific Coast Highway, he may been pulling his own cord…

Sometimes I realize my days are getting on.
Sometimes I realize it’s time to move along.
And I wanna go home.

Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say
My life, I’m better off alone
My life, I’m better on my own

Drivin’ down Pacific coast, out on highway 1
The setting sun
Goodbye

Maybe he also realizes that there’s only so many classics floating around in the master’s head, and if you can capture most of them and get them recorded and heard… you’re doing pretty good.

– Kevin Wachs

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Translator Big Green Lawn

Translator - Big Green Lawn

Big Green Lawn is the first album of new studio material for the band Translator in 26 years.

With that rare fact comes a couple of fears and/or expectations: that a) this “new wave” band – broke and aging – is attempting an ill-advised comeback after not touching their instruments since digital music was invented, or b) that they actually will stay true to formula, thereby rehashing dated music and making all of their old fans feel…well, really old.

No worries. Translator never really fit in with the 1980s glam/synth-pop/orange-pantsed/mullet-haired new wave of the time anyway – owing their sound much more to mid-1960s jangle-rock and late-1960s psychedelia. Which, as we all know, never goes out of fashion.

(Ok, maybe a couple of them had the floofy mullet haircuts.)

Anyway, it’s remarkable, really: this album sounds as if it came out 6 months before their first hit record Heartbeats and Triggers, (1982) or, maybe, 6 months after their last studio release 1986’s Evening of the Harvest. Which, in Translator’s case, that’s a good thing. It hasn’t hurt that they continued to play together live during this extended recording layoff.

The band (all original members of it) still writes intelligently-crafted pop songs with an off-setting moody complexity. The band still pushes their sound like a skier on a downhill propelled by drummer Dave Scheff. The band still mixes its Steve Barton’s heartfelt hippie poetry with some guitar attack from Robert Darlington. But perhaps best of all, Big Green Lawn is the type of record that just might appeal to a younger cross-over audience as well as their geezed-out older rock and roll fans.

There are a couple of mild criticisms – first, there are only 7 songs on Big Green Lawn making it feel like 7/10ths of a “real” album. More importantly, though – the sound of this digital-only release is a bit thin – not worthy of the big sound these guys can still make. Here’s hoping they can release a higher quality digital version soon, or better yet – a day-glo vinyl version.

– Mass Ferguson

Rating: 4 out of 5
Giant Giant Sand Tucson

Giant Giant Sand

There is no “acquired taste.” You either have enjoyed most everything that Howe Gelb (individually) and Giant Sand (bandly) have done over the past 27 years, or you’ve scratched your head and wondered how anyone would even want to wipe their behinds with the records. This review is for the former; the rest of you can move along…

Sometimes, making music for Howe Gelb seems so matter-of-factly easy that it appears he doesn’t even try – that it’s an accident that happens while he’s doing something else. With that said, here comes the newest Giant Sand record, or rather Giant Giant Sand record – Tucson.

The title “Tucson” teases that it’s just the kind of hometown intimacy that one would hope for from the Arizona-based band, and on that note it delivers. However the extra Giant in Giant Giant Sand teases us that this will be a bigger, louder, wider sound with more people, more guitar noise or overtures of bombast. Afterall, this is a “Country Rock Opera.” With that expectation in mind, this album disappoints.

Though the band may be bigger, the sound continues to remain typically sparse. Notta lotta “rock.”  Tucson maintains the shuffly jazz waltzes, twangy lo-fi desert-billy, plinky-plonk piano and spoken-word abstractions that have been the Howe Gelb oeuvre for the past 12 years, give or take a track or two.

Even Blurry Blue Mountain had its Brand New Swamp Thing. It’s All Over the Map had its Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle, but there really isn’t a track on Tucson that rocks the way that Howe can, and used to do all the time in the olde tyme days of Giant Sand. Gone are the frenzied electric rock-guitar excursions that used to charge life into Singular-Giant Sand’s sonic palette and live shows.

That’s not to say this is a failure by any means. For those of you who put on Giant Sand like an old comfortable flannel shirt, Tucson will still fit real good. Hell, Chris Isaak only wishes he could capture the sexy nostalgic drift of this band’s alt-country… and Gelb’s lyrics remain as evocative as ever.

But albums help fulfill moods, and there is nothing on Tucson to distinguish it from the mood of any other One-Giant Sand record.

– Mass Ferguson

Rating: 3 out of 5
Maroon 5 Overexposed

Maroon 5 - Overexposed

Overexposed, Maroon 5’s fourth full-length album, is perfectly titled.

A decade after their hit-soaked debut Songs About Jane, Maroon 5 are now fully ingrained in their position as one of the biggest pop acts in the world. The band more or less put themselves on autopilot for Overexposed, a bland collection of by-the-numbers pop-rock anthems sung by sex symbol/The Voice judge Adam Levine.

The band’s funky creativity on Songs About Jane, headlined by hit singles This Love and Harder to Breathe, has been watered down by each subsequent release, and Overexposed continues the downward trend.

Opener One More Night dabbles in reggae rhythms and boasts a pretty solid hook, but once it ends the album begins its precipitous dive. Lead single Payphone is a cliché pastiche of “troubled relationship” lines set to an FM-radio friendly vibe, Daylight sounds like Maroon 5’s version of a Coldplay song (read: BIG hook), Lucky Strike uses shimmery guitars as the backdrop to another dance-floor ready jam, and so on. You get the picture, don’t you?

Overexposed is a deftly-produced example of glammy, crowd-pleasing pop that will probably result in another few million records sold for the band, but it’s a far cry from what put them on the map in the first place.

It’s hardly surprising, considering how well this formula has worked for them in the past, but to anyone more interested in their early sound, this record is nothing more than an example of playing it safe. It’s well-crafted (Sad is especially solid) and will have its share of radio hits, but at its core Overexposed is really just the equivalent of musical cotton candy.

– Adrian

Rating: 2 out of 5

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