Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
June 30, 2009
Victim of Loudness War? Yes
Wilco has certainly gone through some significant changes since their creative breakthrough, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was released in 2002. The band was let go from Warner Bros. Records after refusing to alter the aforementioned masterpiece to a more commercial standard and parted ways with key member Jay Bennett not too long afterward. Then came the beautifully complex A Ghost Is Born in 2004, followed by the overly-simplistic Sky Blue Sky in 2007. It seemed that despite including a strong group of new faces interpreting frontman Jeff Tweedy’s ever-growing songwriting ability, Wilco could just never reclaim the spirit that made their records up to Foxtrot such underground successes. Until now, that is.
Enter Wilco (The Album), the band’s latest entry into their massively accomplished repertoire. It is here that Wilco is finally able to recapture the magic included on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in spirit if not in approach. Let there be no misunderstanding: Wilco (The Album) is not a continuation of Foxtrot‘s mixture of ambient noise and pop-rock sensibility. Rather, Wilco (The Album) builds upon the more straightforward approach of Sky Blue Sky, adding more colors to the palette to make it a more effective piece of straightforward rock. This could be attributed to the fact that for the first time, Wilco has retained the same membership from one album to the next, resulting in a six-piece band that is really comfortable feeding off of one another. The current line-up of Wilco is perhaps their most cohesive, the best example of a full band at work. Although the presence of Jay Bennett is still missed to a degree, Wilco (The Album) is the first proof that the band is capable of achieving a similar creative success without him as they did with him.
The album opens with “Wilco (The Song),” a quick piece of pop magic that provides the band with somewhat of an anthem and a title song for their fan base. In true Wilco style, however, the song gives way to “Deeper Down,” a complete 180-degree turn from its predecessor and proof that Jeff Tweedy still possesses the tools to write a song that can simultaneously break your heart and refill your hope. These two tracks give the album an amazing foundation upon which to build its incredibly strong structure.
“You Never Know,” a jangly track filled with Beach Boys-esque harmonies, could have come straight off of Summerteeth, yet never once leaves the listener feeling as though the band is trying to recapture their past glory. Rather, they are dabbling in familiar territory, proving that even though they have the astute ability to wander into very experimental territory, they can still pen a song that is filled with undeniable hooks. The same can be said for “I’ll Fight,” a beyond-catchy gem that could stand right alongside “Heavy Metal Drummer” as the band’s best pop-based tune. It’s this simplistic approach that makes the album such a success – the songs aren’t overwrought with the weight of their outlandishness. Instead, they are concise little grooves that demand multiple spins, a quality that was attempted on Sky Blue Sky but were not as successful as here.
The bottom line is that in their fifteenth year, Wilco is still crafting albums that are both melodic and relevant. Where most bands don’t possess the creative wherewithall to sustain themselves with such success past their second or third album, Wilco has kept things fresh and interesting throughout. Wilco (The Album), while not their most ambitious or creative, is certainly the band’s most consistently coherent album to date. And even though the hope that Jay Bennett would return has now sadly been ended with his untimely passing earlier this year, one gets the feeling that for the first time all the magic he bestowed upon Jeff Tweedy during their tenure as a songwriting team has finally emerged in his absense. And that is the most wonderful thing.
To purchase Wilco (The Album), please click here.
– Ian Rice
Nirvana – Bleach
June 15, 1989
Sub Pop Records
Victim of Loudness War? No
Music is a very subjective entity, with opinions on the topic varying from person to person. Very few statements about music can be taken as absolute fact, simply because there will always be advocates and detractors for any thought voiced on the subject. There are, however, some concrete truths about music and its vast history that can be stated without fear of backlash. Among those statements: Nirvana changed the musical landscape with the release of their 1991 album, Nevermind. The rock scene was forever changed by Cobain and Co. with their sophomore record and it hasn’t been quite the same since.
But before that monumental album became a fixture of record store racks, Nirvana released a little-known and still overlooked gem by the name of Bleach. Emerging on the small but essential Sub Pop label in the early Summer of 1989, Bleach remains the blueprint for where Nirvana would take the entire rock music genre a couple of years later and truly gives hint to just how powerful a songwriter Kurt Cobain was. Although it does not possess the superior production values or start-to-finish cohesive nature of its successor, Bleach is a fine collection of songs that remain just as important as those that would follow them on subsequent Nirvana records.
On the surface, Bleach comes across as a raw nerve, an unhinged piece of punk rock that risks having its wheels come off at any turn. But right from the first song, Cobain demonstrates there is depth to his noise. Album opener “Blew” is riddled with subtle vocal harmonies, which make the chorus catchy and memorable, even amongst the scathing guitars and pounding drums. “About a Girl,” which saw later recognition when included in the band’s set on MTV’s “Unplugged” television showcase, shows a pop sensibility that mirrors that of The Beatles or early Rolling Stones and instantly glues itself to your memory. The album is simply loaded with hooks and memorable lines, establishing Cobain as a songwriting force to be reckoned with.
But that’s not to say that the album is secretly a piece of pop, easily digested and disposed of. On the contrary, Nirvana managed to balance their pop sensibilities with an astute ability to incorporate some heavy instrumentation into the mix. Classic track “Negative Creep” is a prime example of this, with its raspy vocals and blistering guitars masking the sheer hook of the song as it would appear on paper. “School” follows along these same lines, as does the mid-album favorite, “Paper Cuts.” All of these tracks lay the foundation for Nirvana’s other strength: the ability to keep things heavy without alienating the listener in the process.
The bottom line is that although they would go on to reach greater plateaus in the brief but prolific period the band existed, Nirvana has rarely sounded more appealing than on their lesser-known debut. Sure, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” would become the songs the band would be most identified with. But a fair number of their true classics, the songs that really define the band and its approach, are contained on Bleach. The album deserves to be in every record collection and needs to receive the attention it deserves. After all, there would be no Nirvana without it.
– Ian Rice
To purchase a copy of Bleach, please click here.
Chickenfoot – Chickenfoot
June 5, 2009 (Best Buy Exclusive)
Victim of Loudness War? Yes
While most of them look extremely promising on paper, modern-day rock supergroups usually prove to be a letdown. The whole is never greater than the sum of its parts and the various styles and personalities involved never seem to fully mesh into a cohesive unit (Audioslave, Velvet Revolver, Army of Anyone). So, when it was announced that former Van Halen band mates Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony were teaming up with guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani and funkified drum extraordinaire Chad Smith, the excitement of the prospect was certainly blended with some apprehension. After all, the four came from some seriously varied stylistic backgrounds, ones that wouldn’t be considered for combination despite their collectively residing under the rock umbrella. Luckily, the four went ahead with the plan anyway, bestowing Chickenfoot upon the listening public.
Don’t get carried away, though. Chickenfoot is not a perfect album, but that often proves to be part of its charm. In a band comprised of four of rock music’s most key players, it’s nice to see they’re not afraid to fall on their face once or twice throughout the proceedings. Listeners have come to expect Joe Satriani’s guitar playing to be flawless, especially on a studio recording. But here, Satriani lets some of the warts remain, which provides a much more suitable backdrop for the ever-gritty voice of Sammy Hagar. Otherwise, songs like “Sexy Little Thing” and “Soap On a Rope” might not have the raw, spontaneous musical backdrop it takes to carry off some of Hagar’s often-silly lyrical lines (“I got a woman, she fine too/Let me do anything that I wanna do/Got it all, still want more/Come on, baby, show me what I’m lookin’ for” from the latter, for example).
But the real magic of Chickenfoot comes when the band hits the mark. When these four giants are on, they are on, a fact which is evidenced on such thrilling tracks as “Down the Drain.” Allegedly recorded in one take of a spontaneous in-studio jam, the track features one of Satriani’s meanest riffs to date, smothered with a snarling vocal line from Hagar. It’s tracks like “Down the Drain” that make the whole project worthwhile, showcasing not only the individual but the collective talent of the band. In fact, if the entire album relied on the improvisational, off-the-cuff approach used on this track, the album would certainly rank as a masterpiece.
That’s not to say that Chickenfoot isn’t enjoyable when more calculated. After all, it’s hard to ignore such great tracks as “Learning to Fall” and “Future In the Past,” which also include great guitar lines and convincing vocal deliveries. But their sound is more akin to Satriani’s solo work – precise, pristine and without any bumps in the road. Hopefully after a few months on the road supporting this release, some of Hagar’s looser sensibilities will rub off on Satriani’s approach within this setting and get him playing a little further from safe on the next release.
And that’s the key thing: Chickenfoot leaves the listener wanting more from the band. While most supergroups can’t hold either the listener’s or their own attention for more than one record, Chickenfoot seems to have the potential, passion and collective admiration to keep the momentum going well into the future. That’s what makes it easy to overlook their flaws – you don’t get the feeling that this is a cash grab or a half-hearted attempt at relevancy. As is the case with the more successful supergroups, Chickenfoot is a genuine article, formed out a desire to make music they care about. If they were in it for a buck, Chickenfoot would be blatantly obvious. But they’re not in it for the money, they’re in it for the music – and hopefully there’s much more of that to come.
– Ian Rice
To purchase Chickenfoot, please click here.
311 – Uplifter (Deluxe Edition)
June 2, 2009
Victim of Loudness War? Yes
One thing has to be said up front regarding Uplifter, the latest release from California’s 311: all hail Bob Rock. Without him behind the board, the album certainly wouldn’t have come out as stellar as it did, featuring some of the band’s best material in years. As he did with Metallica and Motley Crue (among many others) before, Rock has quite obviously pushed the band to explore the absolute heights of their varied talents and did not allow them to rest on their established laurels for one second. This, in turn, has left 311 sounding fresh, revitalized and ready to reclaim their place amongst the rock music elite.
The album opens with “Hey You,” a catchy pop-rock tune that was understandably chosen as the first single. Although the band stands on familiar ground here, the song does not once come off sounding stale or rote throughout its three minute length. Instead, the band sounds like its kicking off a new battle with a familiar cry, getting the listener ready for the determined assault that’s on the horizon. The next two tracks, “It’s Alright” and “Mix It Up,” continue along this same path, further preparing for what’s to come with concise and catchy rockers that will undoubtedly end up in steady rotation in the band’s live setlist.
“Golden Sunlight” is where 311 really takes off into their collaboration with Bob Rock. Never before has S.A. Martinez pushed his vocals so far and the result is amazing. It’s a trend that he continues throughout, both in the powerful lead vocals and expert background harmonies scattered over the course of the record. Bob Rock has always been known for his vocal focus and for his ability to dig out performances many singers didn’t realize they had in them and his work with S.A. Martinez is no exception. Where he once lingered in the background and added color to Nick Hexum’s always-spot-on lead singing, Martinez has now been pushed into the spotlight more often to a very positive result. In fact, Martinez becomes somewhat of the breakout star of Uplifter due largely in part to his strong and determined vocals and multi-layered harmonies.
This does not mean the rest of the band is overshadowed. As usual, 311 remains a group affair, with all members performing and contributing fairly equally. Lead singer/guitarist Nick Hexum, as usual, has come loaded for bear in terms of melodies (“India Ink,” “Never Ending Summer”), Tim Mahoney lays down some truly shimmering guitar parts (“Daisy Cutter,” “My Heart Sings”) and P-Nut and Chad Sexton are the ever-reliable-yet-thoroughly-intriguing rhythm section (“Golden Sunlight,” “Get Down”). Never once does any member stand down, giving the band a strength and focus they haven’t seen since 2001’s From Chaos.
Many people accuse Bob Rock of overproducing the band’s he works with, a complaint that might have merit given a cursory glance. After all, he does spend a great deal of time in the studio with a band, encouraging them to take several stabs at their part of the song until a near-perfect performance is achieved. He also tends to record drums with a heavy thump and kick and his guitars with numerous layers, giving them an arena-ready force. But ultimately these approaches strengthen the records they are used on and serve not to sterilize the record but to make it the best possible statement the band can make. In fact, Chad Sexton’s amazing drum abilities are only enhanced by Rock’s production and have rarely sounded better on record, which can also be said for Hexum and Mahoney’s guitars which have never sounded punchier or as grandiose.
The bottom line is that after a couple of somewhat lackluster releases (2003’s Evolver and 2005’s Don’t Tread On Me) and a subsequent extended break, 311 has returned with a record that is full of life and unquestionably returns them to the glory they had built for themselves from their 1993 debut, Music through the aforementioned From Chaos. One can only hope that Bob Rock remains tied to the band for their future releases (as he did for fifteen years with Metallica), as his contributions are undoubtedly what aided the most in putting the band back on the map. If you haven’t checked in with 311 in a while, now is the time to do so. You certainly won’t be disappointed.
– Ian Rice
To purchase 311’s Uplifter, please click here.