Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Different Kind of Truth -- Van Halen -- Review

A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
Rating: 7
"You wanna be a monk, you gotta cook a lotta rice"
Best Song: Blood and Fire
Worst Song: China Town, maybe...

       Well they heard you missed 'em, and they're back. Apparently time heals all wounds, and thus Diamond Dave rejoined forces with Eddie, Alex, and Micha--...oh, wait. Michael Anthony's still missing, leaving Eddie's son Wolfgang Van Halen (I'm still torn as to whether that's an amazing name, or a terrible one) to take over the duties on backing vocals and bass. And hey, he's great! I actually saw this lineup live last year (great show, by the way), and Wolfie absolutely tore it up -- he's a fantastic bass player, one that's easily as talented as Michael in my opinion.
       And as for the other band members, geeez these guys are on fire. Alex hasn't lost a beat since the band's glory days (pun most certainly intended), and Eddie, well, he might sound even better than he used to! Okay, his tone on the album is a little too "generic heavy metal" for my tastes, but as far as sheer chutzpah and talent is concerned, he's at the top of his game. Roth, on the other hand...well...
        ...he kinda sucks. Actually, "kinda" is too nice of a word; he really sucks. I would go as far as saying that his voice actually downgrades the album by a decent amount. For starters, he's mixed really loud, so it's virtually impossible to look over him. For the entire fifty-minute running time, he sounds like an old man trying ridiculously hard to be hip, and it's very, very painful -- especially on a song like "Stay Frosty", where he attempts to reach back into the showman shtick of tracks like "Big Bad Bill" or "Ice Cream Man" to particularly embarrassing effect. It's bad. Really bad. And the rest of the band, while certainly professional and talented, don't really sound like Van Halen. There's none of the winking irony, the interesting sonic techniques, or the unique instrumental ideas. Eddie's playing is impressive, yes, but it's not that enjoyable. It's just a lot of showboating wankery, and it just doesn't quite work for me.
       The songwriting here isn't exactly aces either. Some tracks, like the pummeling "She's the Woman" and "Blood and Fire" were written back during the band's early years, and these are the clear highlights ("Blood" is actually a near-classic, a powerful "we're the best!" anthem that actually lives up to its slightly self-aggrandizing lyrics) -- the newer material, though, like the afore-mentioned "Stay Frosty", sticks out like a sore thumb, and even some of the older tracks come off as stilted and awkward thanks to Dave's paltry delivery. It also doesn't help that the band is in full-on "RAWK" mode for the entire record, leaving you completely bored after about four tracks. I've heard worse reunion albums, sure, but I've also heard much better, and unless you're a really big fan, I wouldn't go for it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Talking Heads -- Album Reviews

Talking Heads -- Complete Discography
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'77 -- Talking Heads -- Review

Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
Rating: 11
"Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good!"
Best Song: Tentative Decisions
Worst Song: First Week/Last Week...Carefree

       A wonderful debut. It doesn't reach quite the heights of the band's later work, and the production isn't nearly as special as it eventually would be (don't worry, Eno will be here soon!), but the songwriting is already at a high level, and the band is already startlingly sharp in their precision. This is essentially an album of nothing more than quirky, catchy guitar-pop songs, but they're nearly all classics on one level or another, and there's a surprisingly great deal of diversity to be found here.
       Not to mention that the album's guitar work is uniformly brilliant. Most reviewers seem to skip over this fact, opting instead to fawn over the band's guitar style on the famed live album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. Don't get me wrong, the '77 tracks found on Name of This Band are wonderful, but the guitar interplay here is just as excellent. The only difference is that the guitars aren't mixed nearly as loud, leading to a good deal of people glossing over them. But don't! -- the riffage on tracks like "New Feeling", "Don't Worry About the Government", and "Psycho Killer" is of a jaw-dropping quality. The band also indulges in a great deal of instrumental experimentation here that they would eventually abandon, for better or worse. You get some nice steel drums on the opening "Uh-Oh! Love Has Come to Town" (giving the track a wonderfully bouncy reggae feel), some tasty saxophone solos on "First Week/Last Week", some barroom piano here and there...it works wonderfully, and these little instrumental touches often provide a great boon to helping distinguish the various tracks and making them stand out even more.
       Highlights include the classic "Psycho Killer" (it of the infamous "oh-ho-ho-ohhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHH, AY-AYE-YEAH-YEAH-YEAAHH-OOOOOOOOoooooo" chorus) which has, for some odd reason, become one of the band's best known songs; the aforementioned pop of "Love Has Come to Town; and the AWESOME "Pulled Up", featuring some of the best New Wave riffs imaginable along with one of Byrne's most inspired deliveries ever.
       Hell, this whole album features some of Byrne's most inspired deliveries ever. Aside from "Pulled Up" and "Psycho Killer", he's also excellent in the hysterically quirky "Happy Day" (I love how it almost sounds like he's in serious physical pain as he squeals "it's such a happy...DAYYY-AY" in such a disturbing way, giving the otherwise pleasant ballad a touch of menace and dark irony) and the wondrously geeky love song "The Book I Read".
       On the bizarrely anthemic, multi-part "No Compassion" (which just so happens to feature a brilliant mid-song instrumental breakdown and some of the album's very best guitar lines), Byrne takes on the guise of one who is constantly looked to for answers, and he doesn't necessarily like this position. "Talk to your analysts!" he sings, "Isn't that what they're paid for?" He plays a similar character during the WONDERFUL "Tentative Decisions", another song that one could easily describe as anthemic. David dishes out romantic advice in the way that only he can as martial drumbeats, skitchy guitar lines, and infinitely catchy backing vocals (good luck getting the chorus out of your head -- I've been humming "Oh, the boys...want to talk..." for a good two weeks) accompany him. A criminally underrated track, and in my opinion, it's secretly one of the band's very best.
       Yes, it's a great album. A few songs might be a little forgettable ("Who Is It", "The Book I Read", and "First Week/Last Week" don't do a whole lot for me in particular) and the sound gets a *bit* samey after a while, but the vast majority of the material here is pretty freaking delightful. It might not be their greatest album, but it just might be their most fun. Get it soon.

Talking Heads -- More Songs About Buildings and Food -- Review

  
More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
Rating: 12
"I wouldn't live there if you paid me to"
Best Song: With Our Love
Worst Song: I have no idea.

       As you probably know, after the debut the band met a young producer by the name of Brian Eno. For those not in the know, Eno is one of the most brilliant and influential figures in pop music history, a force to be reckoned with as both a producer for many other successful artists (Devo, U2, and obviously Talking Heads) and in his own solo career (a series of reviews dedicated to said career will be written in due time). His influence on the Heads is immeasurable, and a great deal of their best material came as a result of his own direct involvement. While not nearly as revolutionary as the later Talking Heads/Eno collaborations, More Songs About Buildings and Food is a major step forward for the band. Eno took the quirky guitar-pop of the debut and forced the band to partake in an endless series of overdubbing sessions. Thus, the sound of the album is ridiculously dense with chugging guitar rhythms, synth effects, and bass grooves, and it works excellently, especially when compared to the relatively spare sound of '77
       The opening "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" demonstrates this new style with a surprisingly high level of force. The name of the game here is momentum, as the band pummels (okay, that might be a bit too harsh of a word for Talking Heads, but you get the idea) over a powerful drumbeat and what is quite possibly the album's best vocal melody. It's nothing more than two straight minutes of pure exuberance, and it's a GREAT start to the whole affair. I'm especially fond of those ridiculously empowering guitar strums during the chorus -- "Yes you can *BANG* walk! You can *BANG* talk just like me!".
       "With Our Love" is another obvious highlight, featuring a great vocal melody along with some BRILLIANTLY layered guitar work and an amazing bass line. I also love how the first verse/chorus of the track is completely happy and chipper, but the second repetition of this section (which is musically identical to the first) comes across as moody/eerie/anthemic/whatever simply by the addition of a hardly noticeable, slightly ominous synth line. That's Eno for you -- completely redefining what a song is like by merely adding a subtle change in sound.
       "The Good Thing" combines some hilariously academic, geeky lyrics with a strangely inspiring chorus (Tina's backing vocals work excellently here) and a wonderful ending as the band jams out behind Bryne screaming "Watch me wooork!" over and over again. And don't forget about the subtly brilliant "Warning Sign"! Byrne's vocal melody isn't especially memorable here, but the instrumental texture is fantastic. The bizarre, echoey drum sound works together with a small army of disorienting guitar lines and an incessantly catchy bass groove to absolutely wonderful effect. Oh, and the creepy filter on David's voice is another excellent touch. "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls" would be notable enough just for being one of the first-ever LGBT anthems, but it also includes some wonderfully bouncy keyboard and an excellent guitar-driven after-chorus.
       The lyrics in "Found a Job" are some of the band's wackiest ever -- it's the story of a couple who save their marriage by creating their own television show; however, the contents of the show are left to the listener's imagination. Of course, the fact that "Judy's in the bedroom inventing situations" is a prominent line in the chorus gives us a hint, but who knows. The song's lyrics aren't the only objects of note, however; the guitar interplay here is at an all-time-high for the band, and the lengthy coda where Jerry and David jam over a wonderful steel drum melody is one of the greatest moments in all of Head-dom.
       "I'm Not in Love" isn't an especially memorable tune, but it seems that Eno noticed this and decided to dress it up in as dense an arrangement as possible -- as a result, the track still works, if only because the band flat-out COOKS during the instrumental sections. I also like the oft-hated "Big Country"; maybe it's just because the mere idea of Talking Heads doing a country song makes me slightly giddy, but I definitely enjoy the song more than not. Sure, the live version on Name of This Band is a definite improvement, but at least the original has some wonderful slide guitar work, eh?
       There are some other highlights here ("Stay Hungry" is another especially good one), but you get the idea -- this is a classic album through and through. The only reason it gets a slightly lower score than you might expect is that it's very samey throughout and the highs, while wonderful, aren't *quite* classic enough to put it over the edge. And, for the record, Eno produced ANOTHER post-punk album in 1978 that's even better than this one, but...that's a story for another time (I've got a gut feeling it'll come up again at some point in the future....*wink, wink*) . The band was soon to leave the world of minimalistic guitar rock behind, but their time in the genre was certainly not a waste. An excellent effort.

Fear of Music -- Talking Heads -- Review

Fear of Music (1979)
Rating: 12
"It'll be over in a minute or two..."
Best Song: Life During Wartime, Electric Guitar, or Memories Can't Wait
Worst Song: Air
 
       A major left-turn -- whereas the previous albums were pretty much nothing more than extraordinarily well-done, happy guitar-pop, this album seems to mark the point where Eno's vision exceeded the band's. The guitar interplay of old, while still certainly present, is nowhere near the foremost element of the Heads' sonic palette on Fear of Music. The album's cover is actually pretty indicative of its sound -- dark, stark, and a little creepy, something like a paranoid conspiracy theorist's Dark Side of the Moon. Echo effects abound throughout the LP, and Byrne's voice seems to weave itself in and around all sorts of sounds. His "raving maniac" shtick reaches an absolute peak here, and it fits -- just look at the title! He's afraid of everything: animals, cities, drugs, war, his own memories, the air, heaven, and even paper....yes, paper.
       As silly as these lyrical ideas may seem, they actually work well in context; the continual theme of paranoia and fear works well to make all the songs fit together quite smoothly. Of course, this also leads to a mild case of the dreaded disease "Same-itis". One can only take so much of Byrne's caterwauling and Eno's eerie synth treatments. I suppose that's why I like the more unique tracks the best -- "Life During Wartime" is a deserved classic, a ridiculously fun dance groove with a wonderful guitar riff. Sure, David's ravings are as present as ever, but in context they seem almost empowering -- there's something wonderfully ironic about him warning victims of war that "this ain't no disco!" while singing what is essentially a New Wave-tinged disco song. I also love the GORGEOUS "Heaven", where the band sets aside their worries for a moment and focuses on creating one of the greatest ballads of the 70s. And it's not like the lyrics aren't interesting -- David humorously notes that a place as perfect as Heaven is "a place where nothing ever happens", and he even manages to bring romance into the whole situation. Of course, I'm not exactly sure what the "When this kiss is over..." section has to do with Heaven, but it does add a good deal of emotion and beauty to the song, so who am I to complain?
       "Electric Guitar" is a track that no one seems to make sense of, featuring a hilariously fractured melody and some of the absolute strangest production I've ever heard from Eno. Admittedly, I hated it the first five or so times I gave it a listen, but now I think it's one of the album's greatest moments -- those synth blurbs are almost triumphant in their absurdity, and the "This is a criiiime....against the staaaage!" hook in the chorus is as catchy as an outfielder. I'm also fond of "Memories Can't Wait", which is a great deal more typical of the album than the other tracks I've mentioned as of yet. Hell, I'd say that "Memories" sums up Fear of Music better than any other song here -- great guitar riffs, INTENSE synths, downright frightening Eno effects ("I'm sleeping, I'm...flat on my BACK-back-back-back-back"), a wonderfully manic performance from Byrne ("I'M IN HERE...AAAAAAALLL THE TIIIIIME"), and one of the most anthemic endings I've ever heard in a Talking Heads song.
       Yet another highlight is "Drugs", a relatively unaccessible track that's certainly worth getting into. Byrne's delivery is REALLY cool (I feel like I'm beating a dead horse by continually congratulating the man's vocal talents, but MAN, I love hearing him sing), but the real star of the show here is the production. Sampled voices pop in and out (ah, cue another Dark Side comparison), creepy keyboard lines slowly unfurl themselves, and Byrne's vocals echo, twist, and collide all over the place, leading to a track that's just as befuddling and addictive as its titular subject. There's also the album's opener "I Zimbra", the band's first ever world-beat experiment (and a major sign of things to come). David and the band scream a load of nonsense (literally -- the lyrics are all gibberish) over a boogieing bongo rhythm, manic bass lines, and a series of wonderfully interlocking guitar lines from Byrne, Jerry, and none other than guest guitarist Robert Fripp. It's an incredible groove, and a wonderfully energetic way to kick off the album.
       Everything else is fairly interchangeable to me. I don't *hate* the rest of the songs, but with the exception of the OUTSTANDING piano-rocker "Cities", most of the other tracks seem to fall into background music territory fairly easily for me (I never feel guilty about skipping "Air" or "Paper", for example). Nevertheless, this is an extremely solid addition to the Heads pantheon, and one that I endorse heartily. It's not an easy listen at first (some listeners will definitely find it too cold and paranoid), and it's a somewhat low 12, but every decent collection of 70s music should have more than enough room for this.

Remain in Light -- Talking Heads -- Review

Album cover containing four portraits covered by red blocks of colour, captioned "TALKING HEADS" (with inverted "A"s) at the top and (much smaller) "REMAIN IN LIGHT" at the bottom.
Remain in Light (1980)
Rating: 14
"Same as it ever was..."
Best Song: Any of the first four tracks
Worst Song: The Overload
 
       I don't even know what to say. The thought of reviewing Remain in Light has single-handedly scared me away from writing any more reviews for a good five months. Considered by many to be the greatest album of the 80s, there are literally hundreds of reviews out there already saying the exact same things that I would like to say. I could easily sum up the review in one quick quote -- if you don't own it, you should. That's it. But of course, I could never do that, and thus I'm stuck, just waiting to tell you something you probably already know. At any rate, Eno's back again, and his production here is quite possibly the highlight of his entire career; hell, I'd say that this is the best thing ever released with the words "Brian Eno" listed somewhere on the packaging (it's at least in a dead heat with Before and After Science).
       Every instrument is manipulated to the point of it hardly sounding like its original incarnation; it sounds like an album delivered from an alien planet. If it had somehow gone unreleased over all these years and the band were to put it out next week and act as if it were a brand new album, the musical press would wet itself over the "forward-thinking, futuristic" ideas contained herein. It literally hasn't aged a day, simply because it really isn't based on any trends; the synthesizers here sound nothing like the New Wave-y, poppy synths that have become synonymous with the 80s. We're dealing with a truly before-its-time album, one that I predict will sound just as fresh and unique fifty years from now.
       And on top of all the sonic experimentation, it's just a flat-out fun album to listen to. Obviously the chorus of "Once in a Lifetime" is one of the greatest moments in pop history, but tracks like "The Great Curve" and "Crosseyed and Painless" are completely accessible pop songs, just pop songs that have been twisted, rearranged, and tinkered with to the point of complete perfection -- you can listen to the album thirty times and still be discovering new ideas, melodies, and noises.
       Of course, not everything is completely catchy radio fare -- the opening "Born Under Punches" can be a bit overwhelming at first, due to Byrne's "manic, raving preacher" shtick and the disorienting nature of the percussion. Not to mention that the chorus and various vocal melodies can seem a bit atonal until the ending, when all the song's disparaging elements and fragments come together; oh yes, the glorious cascading vocals and triumphant chants of "AND THE HEAT GOES ON!" that take up the last half of the track might just be the Heads' shining moment as a band.
       "Listening Wind" and "Houses in Motion" might be viewed as relatively mellow and dull, especially compared to the catchy dance-grooves that make up the album's first half, and while I don't like them quite as much as I do those, I still enjoy them quite a bit. "Wind" in particular is a great track with a memorable chorus, chilling synth textures, and a fascinatingly eerie, uneasy mood. The spoken-word "Seen and Not Seen" can also be slightly off-putting, although the groove that backs up Byrne's story is PHENOMENAL, and the story itself (about how humanity subconsciously either accepts or attempts to change the way they look) is rather thought-provoking.
       The only track that doesn't completely work for me is the band's Joy Division tribute "The Overload" -- it's too dreary to be enjoyable, and too bland to be depressing. The production is still plenty interesting, but as far as experimental closers to Talking Heads albums go, I'll take "Drugs" any day. Other than that, though, I'd be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with Remain in Light. It's an extremely high 14, almost a 15, and easily my favorite album of the 80s. Go into it with an open mind, but give it a shot -- adventurous listeners will be rewarded. There's certainly nothing else like it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads -- Talking Heads -- Review

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982/2004)
Rating: 12
"Make a clean break, wipe that love away!"
Best Song: Love -> Building On Fire/Memories Can't Wait/Heaven
Worst Song: I'm Not in Love

       The gap between Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues was filled in by this, the band's first live album. It's been slightly overrated over the years, but I can't deny its power; this is a document of a brilliant band at the height of its powers. Name of This Band isn't a single, complete show; it's actually a compilation of several different Heads performances over the first four years of the band's existence. This definitely makes for an interesting listen, as the tracks are sequenced chronologically -- the tightly-wound guitar interplay of '77 leads into the mild synth touches of More Songs and Fear of Music, but the real shock comes when we hit the Remain in Light tour, as stalwarts like Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell, and Nona Hendryx (along with a number of other backing members) join the band and effectively create a massive, all-encompassing dance-machine that just barely resembles the nerdy pop-rock shtick of the earlier tracks. 
       The album starts off with an absolute bang, a mini-set the band recorded live in the studio featuring tracks from 77. The group's energetic, David's vocals are in wonderful shape, and the interplay between David and Jerry's Fenders is even more mind-blowing than it was on the album -- in short, it's pretty much early-Heads-heaven. There's even a non-album rarity that made its way on here; it's called "A Clean Break (Let's Work)", and it's positively brilliant. Why it was left off of 77 is anyone's guess -- it's probably the best track here, topping even the infamous "Psycho Killer" in melody, performance, and sheer enthusiasm. The riffs are absolutely AWESOME, David's vocals are AWESOME ("Wipe that love awaaaaaAAYYYYYYY!"), and all in all it's easily one of my favorite Heads songs. Of course, this entire set of performances isn't quite perfect -- "Who Is It" is completely unnecessary, "The Book I Read" is pretty underwhelming (I was never crazy about it to begin with, but for some reason I really end up disliking the song in this context; chalk it up to my quirks, I guess), and "Pulled Up", while still great, doesn't quite match up to its studio incarnation. Everything else is gold, though.
       The album then takes a slight turn for the worse. It doesn't help that my two least favorite tracks from the 77 performance are placed right in a row at the end of the set, but the next few songs (all recorded during the More Songs About Buildings and Food era) after this dry spell also do a great deal of damage to the album's pacing. I like this version of "The Big Country" quite well out of context, but in context it sorta drags; same with "I'm Not in Love" and "The Girls Want to Be With the Girls" -- I like both of these songs, but the way they're structured in the album's overall flow just doesn't work well for me at all. It all gets really samey really quickly, and since none of these tracks are downright classics from a songwriting standpoint, it gets a little old. I do enjoy this early version of "Drugs", though; it's called "Electricity", and it replaces the creepy production and vocal effects of the original with a more traditional, riff-rocking style to great effect. "Found a Job" is next, and while I do miss those steel drums during the outro, it works just fine.
       The style completely shifts with the next few tracks, thankfully; I can't quite place my finger on it, but the rejuvenated guitar tones and added synth layers utilized by the band on the Fear of Music tour breathes a new layer of life into the album, one which it thankfully keeps for the rest of its running time.  There are some completely competent renditions of "Mind" and "Air" here, but the real meat comes in the three-track-stretch of "Love -> Building On Fire", "Memories Can't Wait", and "Heaven". "Building On Fire" is yet another non-album track, and it's nearly as good (if not just as good) as "A Clean Break"; the guitar lines are killer, the bridge is hilariously fun ("We go 'tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet!' like little birds!!"), and the main "It's not loooove!" hook in the chorus is ridiculously pleasing to the ear. "Memories" is done up in a hard-rocking, uber-dramatic fashion to great effect, and "Heaven" is given the room to breathe in a live setting that it never quite had on the original. Oh, and Byrne's delivery on the last verse is absolutely HEART-WRENCHING.
       And so ends the first disc. The second disc is completely different -- here we get a look at the Remain in Light band, a gigantic conglomerate with all sorts of guest musicians. Adrian Belew is a particularly inspired choice; his guitar effects help spice up nearly every song, and he's an invaluable addition to the group. Things start out well enough with another rendition of "Psycho Killer" followed by a decent run-through of "Warning Sign" and a particularly inspired "Stay Hungry". "Cities" is next, and...uh...what's that in the chorus? Oh yeah, that's Nona Hendryx singing backup. She sounds a little off-key, I'll admit, but she's in the background for the most part, so...she's fine. Besides, "I Zimbra" is next!
       ...aaaand she completely ruins it by shrieking like a dying wildebeest throughout it. Okay, she doesn't completely ruin it; the guitar interplay is AWESOME here, as Jerry, Adrian, AND David all swap licks and atmospheric touches. The vocal melody, however, is essentially left lying dead on the floor -- why couldn't they get Eno to sing backup on tour instead of HER? I mean, I guess she's fine as an over-the-top soul singer -- she was a member of the band Labelle back in the early 70s (most famous for the infamous "Lady Marmalade"), and as such, she's actually pretty great in "Take Me to the River" -- but when she tries to sing on something like "Houses in Motion" or "Once in a Lifetime" it's just flat-out painful.
       I can't blame her, though -- part of the allure of something like "The Great Curve" on Remain in Light was in Eno's intricately-constructed vocal arrangements, and those would be nigh-impossible to recreate in a live setting. And the guitars and rhythm section serve these tracks just fine -- yet another feat one would consider quite difficult given Eno's production, but the band members take up the job admirably. Of course, I'd be hard-pressed to call any of these repurposed songs better than their originals, and they generally work more in a "Wow, they were able to decently recreate *insert Light song here* in a live setting! How impressive!" way than in a "Wow, this is an awesome song! I feel the need to listen to this regularly!" way. That said, certain tracks are pretty cool -- the groove on "Crosseyed and Painless" is pretty freaking great, and this version of "Drugs" is flat-out AMAZING, combining the creepy effects found on the studio version with the liveliness and rocking guitar lines of the "Electricity" rendition found earlier in the album. "Take Me to the River" is a load of fun too, as the band delivers a more straight-forwardly thumping version than the quirky, awkward original.
       So it's not quite uber-essential listening, but it's still an interesting artifact of one of the best live bands ever. The first disc is certainly more pleasurable than the second, but I would whole-heartedly recommend the entire thing to any fans of the band. I'm not quite as in love with it as everyone else seems to be, but there's some great stuff to be found on here. Get it after you get a few studio albums, but still definitely get it.