(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Recording review: Hawk and Dove, This Yesterday Will Never End (2013)

Impressive music can't save stilted vocals and awkward lyrics

It’s a dualistic world; every entity contains its own ideal as well as its negation. Normally one eclipses the other, yielding success or failure. On This Yesterday Will Never End, Hawk and Dove hold both in near equal measure. Their music is powerful, showing off the versatility of the band, but it still can’t gloss over the stilted vocals and strained metaphors. Lead singer Elijah Miller is too consciously poetic. His lyrics favor cryptic allusion and he has a David Sedaris delivery style that turns his lines into awkward proclamations that can’t bear close scrutiny. Jim Morrison overcame bombastic self-indulgence through force of personality and Robyn Hitchcock’s eccentric charm transforms his studied quirkiness, but Miller hasn’t found his formula. Occasionally, well-turned phrases bubble up, like, “And every wall inside the house was leaking from the paint/ And every drop was practicing amnesia on its way” in “Things We Lost So Far”, but it’s hard to tease meaning from the jumbled imagery.

It’s frustrating because their instrumental work is so satisfying. In contrast to the tortured lyrics, the band’s music supports a range of nuanced moods from sparse thoughtfulness to snarling catharsis. Their arrangements evolve over the course of a song, with surprising turns. From the rising swell of feedback on the opening track, “Send Your Blood To War”. I was prepared to fall in love with Hawk and Dove. The resonant guitar whine was tethered by a thread of sustained organ as Miller’s stylized phrasing added to the strained tension. The lead off verse almost hangs in space until it drops into overdriven, shoe-gazer rock. This resolution is tainted by the contrast between Miller’s precise enunciation and the barely controlled fury of the music. Still, the slow grinding rhythm and discordant tones capture a rich sense of internal conflict, which is appropriate, given the vague and ambiguous lyrics. They could equally apply to someone joining a jihad or becoming a conscientious objector. Whether it’s a clever attempt to make a meta-statement or just to avoid commitment, it feels immature.

The band follows it up with “Song For Him”, which is just as exasperating. Once again, the music hits the spot as it borrows a sense of expectancy from the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”. Then the tune shifts through a chain of moods, with the yearning ache of violin or determined throb of drumming and staccato guitar. The lyrics run through a matching free-association set of images. The chorus offers the only hint of meaning, with Miller dealing with his daddy issues. I liked his use of biblical allusion, but the explicit contradiction is confusing: “Father Abraham, you should have followed through/ Father Abraham, you should have stopped because you wanted to.” Is he saying that Abraham should have sacrificed Isaac despite God letting him off the hook or that he should have defied God in the first place? Ultimately, the question is moot; I’d rather follow the instrumental ride and blow off the vocals.

The best melding of music and words comes with “The Space Between”. The opening drone and chiming notes are pensive, fitting the first words, “I do not know how to speak, but I can talk to you all night.” The hesitant beginning picks its way through an odd path of chords to find itself blossoming into an introspective pop groove, where female backing vocals offer a counterpoint response to Miller’s lead. The interplay of voices layer with islands of instrumental parts into a dense thicket of sound. After a contemplative dynamic drop, the tune grows in volume and chaotic energy. The vocals become hoarse trying to keep up, “I do not know how to move, but you are closer than before/ You are near the air I breath, you can warm the coming breeze.” The song swirls out in a spiraling cloud of wailing guitar, barely held together by the insistent drums. The tune fades into dying embers of reverberation.

Guitarist John Kleber has talked about Miller’s ability to hold an audience rapt and how that inspired their collaboration. Maybe that stage charisma just doesn’t come through in the studio. That said, Kleber shouldn’t sell himself short. Based on the mulligan’s stew of stylistic references on This Yesterday Will Never End – folk, garage rock, country and psychedelia – Hawk and Dove’s instrumental work could carry a whole album

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Recording review - Smoke Fairies, Blood Speaks (2013)

Shadowy reflection remains open-ended

Like a stone dropped into inky black waters, there’s no recourse but to surrender and sink into Smoke Fairies’ murky swirl of hypnotic grooves. This is shadow music where voices from the subconscious interrupt idle musings, where meditative clarity is stripped down and revealed as obsession. Blood Speaks is a stunning collection of modern and retro psychedelia, moody pop, and folk rock sensibility. Echoes of older bands, such as Jefferson Airplane and It’s A Beautiful Day, bubble up through the solemn sounds of the Cowboy Junkies as Fairport Convention nod knowingly. The songs rely on pensive, layered arrangements to support the ghostly vocals, but each is a necessary part of the whole. Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies almost merge into an amorphous entity as their guitars intertwine and their voices blend together. Their close harmonies recall Heart or Fleetwood Mac, but harnessed to a darker riptide. Their singing often drives the feel of the songs: a bruised, but detached Suzanne Vega sound on “Version of the Future” or a delicate Kate Bush warble on “Daylight.” The pair has a unique dynamic sense, less tied to volume than levels of energy and intensity.

Blood Speaks sets the hook immediately with the obsessive drone of “Let Me Know”. It’s driven and unsettled; the guitars throb against the slower swell of subliminal bass in the right speaker. The verse starts out with quiet defiance:
You’ve got the power to bring me down
But I’ve got some sense and I’m gonna let it go
I see you coming like a wave of stones
But my destruction is mine to own
But the chorus reveals the rotten core to that confidence. Like an insomniac’s vicious, circling thoughts, it’s a mantra of regret: “Let me know where I went wrong/ I want to know.

“Hideaway” is less damaged by love, but remains bittersweet. The gentle guitar sway on the verse is borrowed from Jefferson Airplane’s “Come Up the Years” while the singing leans towards Tori Amos and Kate Bush. The softer sections are bedecked with subtle details: light touches of keyboards and interlocking guitar lines build a beautiful rhythmic complexity while the vocal lines offer a taste of English folk. During the chorus intensity, strings and wordless background harmonies add to the disquiet. The tension between the lazy flowing verses and the clenching chorus accents the ambivalence in the lyrics, where relationships can keep fires alight but they tame a spirit’s wildness. Ultimately, though, the self-destructive weight of habit seems to lock the conflict in place.

Smoke Fairies have built their sound on a mix of American and English influences. Their time here, starting with a year-long relocation to New Orleans in 2002, led to recording with Jack White and breakout success at the 2010 South By Southwest in Austin. But the folk influences of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention shine through their work. Blood Speaks builds on the brooding sound of their earlier albums, but shifts away from the heavier blues vibe they’ve used in the past. “The Three Of Us” is the only holdout tune, with a mercurial slide guitar. Like Earl Greyhound’s hard classic-rock psychedelia, the deconstructed blues riffs color the piece, but it’s too rich to be pigeonholed. Davies and Blamire bring their paired voices closer then further apart as they present the Zen koan of the lyrics, where a shallow storyline delivers a set of deeper philosophical questions. Answers, of course, remain elusive. All of their songs seem to thrive on a lack of resolution.

Unlike a lot of spacy psychedelia, Smoke Fairies don’t slip into self-indulgent lead guitar posturing or epic, meandering sonic excursions. Instead, each song is immersed in shadow, a morsel of twilight texture that invites reflection, if not illumination.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 5/27


This week's bands each offer strong rhythms to get you feeling and moving, but some paths lead to catharsis while others lead to tension. A couple even promise ecstatic abandon.

Tuesday, 28 May (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Arctic Monkeys

On their amazing debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006), the Arctic Monkeys have flaunted hard-edged social commentary and danceable indie rock. Over the years, their songwriting has matured and they've opened up their sound, but their music is still marked by an assertive attitude. 

Tuesday, 28 May (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Umberto

Known for composing his own moody/creepy soundtracks for lesser known horror films, Umberto (AKA Matt Hill) weaves musical themes that reach down into the subconscious and nurture feelings of unease. Last year's Night Has a Thousand Screams (review) was full of trancy darkness and evocative sounds. It will quite interesting to see how he structures his live performance.

Thursday, 30 May (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Bombino

A friend recommended Nigerian guitarist Omara "Bombino" Moctar to me, lauding his unique sound and strong stage persona. Listening on YouTube, I really enjoy his syncopated blues and chanting vocals. Judging from this small sampling, it will be a night of swirling sound, sweaty dancing, and transcendent music.

Friday, 31 May (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Saturday, 1 June (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Bassnectar

Speaking of swirling, sweating transcendence, Bassnectar's show at Red Rocks should also deliver the goods. Unlike a lot of other electronic producers, Bassnectar brings a wide set of influences together to form unpredictable combinations. From remixes to heavily processed grooves, his work exemplifies the deep, heady power of electronic music when it steps between the dancefloor and the headphones.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Recording review: Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses), The Low Highway (2013)

Progressive icon brings humanity to his social themes

Steve Earle makes it look easy on The Low Highway as he transforms from modern-day Woody Guthrie to gritty, soulful rocker, with side-steps into bluegrass and new country. Although his gravelly voice has a limited range, he’s a strong performer and his writing continues to be impeccable. Many of his songs present interesting, realistic characters, from a meth head loser in “Calico County” to the poignant father in “Remember Me”. More than just character sketches, their stories touch on larger themes. Given his progressive politics, Earle relates a number of these tales to the economy and social issues but he shows a defter hand for crafting the songs on this offering than previous albums. In particular, his backing band is chameleon-like, adapting to the shifting genres that Earle selects for the tunes. Beautiful folk arrangements are packed with subtle detail but the group is also up for rough and tumble rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass twang, or retro Gypsy jazz.

The Low Highway begins by showing off Earle’s troubadour side on the title cut. His voice wheezes, backed by a simple acoustic guitar before the bass steps in behind him. Light touches of fiddle and steel guitar sidle into the background to join the march. An ode to the 99 percenters, the tune revisits Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”:
I saw empty houses on dead end streets
People lining up for something to eat
And the ghost of America was watching me
Through the broken windows of the factories 
The country instrumentation and folky feel are simple but not simplistic. The fiddle and steel guitar fill in the spaces between the verses but refrain from taking full-on leads. This maintains a somber tone that fits the dark State of the Union lyrics.

The next two tracks drop in on some characters along Earle’s Low Highway. The rocking “Calico County” features a solid riff and guitar tone borrowed from the James Gang. The meth-cooking lead character is trapped in his hometown:
Out of here someday
Ain’t that what I used to say?
Army wouldn’t take me
So, I guess I’m gonna have to stay 
His backstory lays out all the cards stacked against him, but the relentless vamp tells us that, like it or not, life just goes on. The protagonist in “Burnin’ It Down” is even more resigned, but he’s found a target to vent on. Sitting in his pickup truck, he’s working up the energy to burn down the local Walmart: “It doesn’t matter much how long I wait/ The door’s always open and it’s never too late.” Earle uses the lazy country arrangement and weary, slurring vocal to convey the scene of a man smoking his last cigarette. Neither of these characters is looking for sympathy but the songs hint at the stories behind what we hear about in the news.

The Low Highway isn’t all dark despair. Despite its mournful beginning, “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” is a celebration of the billionaire banker/bluegrass impresario who started the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. Full of references to classic folk and bluegrass songs, it’s a fitting tip of the hat as it alludes to the long musical chain running through the American songbook. Its traditional feel fits nicely with tunes like the bluesy cut-time of “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way,” which harks back to a 1930s sound. Like the songs in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the lyrics acknowledge life’s difficulties but they show a resilient backbone of optimism. The jazzy violin accompaniment and solo seem inspired by St√©phane Grappelli. This is one of the three tracks on the album that Earle wrote for the HBO series “Treme”, along with the Cajun boogie duet “That All You Got?” and the moody “After Mardi Gras”.

Individual tracks on the album offer immersive moments that show off the range and depth of Earle’s songwriting. Although The Low Highway is not a concept album per se, there is a narrative arc that ties these songs into a richer fabric. The dystopian snapshot of America in the title song provides the context for the dead end life in “Calico County”. And where that character sees no choices, he’s followed by a man determined to at least strike a blow, if only against a faceless corporation. From there, it’s a small step up to the defiance in “That All You Got?”, where the characters are beaten down but unbowed. Through denial, optimism, and a reminder of the alternatives, these songs eventually find strength in the universal story of tradition and a forward-looking present, even if “21st Century Blues” casts some doubt on the future. But Earle recognizes that the objective idea of a historical connection isn’t satisfying as a final philosophical answer. Instead, he ends with the elegiac tune “Remember Me”. Written from an aging father to his young child, it humanizes that generational chain. Regardless of whether we’re society’s outcasts or not, whether our problems are public or hidden, each of us loves and all we can really ask for is to be remembered, hopefully fondly

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Recording review, The Indelicates, Diseases of England (2013)

Provocative attitude and dystopian snark

Julia and Simon Indelicate follow a capricious muse, one less concerned with musical consistency than with attitude. Their projects may not sound alike beyond a love for the theatrical, but each one trolls for audience response and hopes for a certain degree of outrage. 2011's David Koresh Superstar introduced me to The Indelicates, impressing me with their surprisingly nuanced perspective and strong narrative voice. It was a provocative work, which seems to be the band's forte. Diseases of England has a similar musical theatre vibe, but it differs in a couple of key ways. DKS tells an American story and the music reflects that nationalistic sound. The new album fittingly jumps the pond back to the band's home turf and samples a wide swath of British music, ranging from Morrissey to Mumford and Sons. And rather than taking DKS's soundtrack approach, Diseases of England drops the constraint of a story, serving more as a melodramatic concept album. The Indelicates dish up a jaundiced view of modern England, highlighting cynicism, vulgarity, and disconnection as the titular diseases. Fortunately, it's no whining, petulant screed; they dodge that sin with their clever, satirical lyrics and solid musical execution.

The album opens with a great electro-rock track, "Bitterness is the Appropriate Response". Like a modern dance remix of Bauhaus, Gothic synth-pop vocals float over a beat-heavy rock mix. The band excessively packs the track with ear-catching flair: DJ-style transformer chops, grungy guitar, and shimmery keyboard layers. This sonic rejection of DKS's aesthetic makes it clear that they aren't concerned about consistency between the two albums. With that point out of the way, they really hit their stride on the second track, "Pubes", a cynical run-down of temptation and vice:
The places you'll go, the things you'll get
For a couple of pubes on the internet
The message is nothing new, everybody knows sex sells, but the tune catchy as hell. Updated power pop seasoned with a taste of David Bowie, the music holds you captive to the crass lyrics. The breakdown bridge serves up a wicked descending bass and dial-up modem chirps. I have to wonder, though, whether people even recognize that sound any more.

A couple of songs later, the Indelicates have dropped their harder musical edge to channel an emotional Morrissey vibe on "Le Godemiché Royal". The piano and bassoon initially cast the piece as a reverie, albeit one of obsessive love:
How can they hate you when you're beautiful?
And make a sewer from your scent?
How sour, how loveless these people are
How cruel, disfigured, and unspent
The track develops a lush layered sound, but the love curdles as the obsession darkens and takes on a disturbed edge. Think of this as the flip side of "Pubes". Both songs deal with allure's shadow, although the lyrics here are more circumspect (despite the title, which translates to "The Royal Dildo"). If "Pubes" warns the audience that they're being played, this piece's voyeuristic stalker perspective and his slipping control sketch out how sexual power games can go wrong.

The band continues their catalog of societal disease with a drag blues take on class warfare ("Class") and a moody gypsy blues story of ill use, packed with jaded cliches and bitter irony ("All You Need Is Love"). Their dystopian view finds its nadir with "Everything Is Just Disgusting". It starts out with a blues organ playing a saturated descending riff. The stark, echoed vocals remind me of a host of Brit-wave bands. They sound detached, loaded with ennui and a touch of contempt. As the song expands, the singing picks up intensity until the raging disdain comes to dominate. As Simon Indelicate spits out his loathing, the accompanying sweetness of the strings is like a fake smile that never reaches the eyes.

The last two tracks, "Not Alone" and "Dovahkiin", close out the album with the same kind of unsubtle earnestness that Mumford and Sons are prone to. Showing better judgement, the Indelicates show some moderation and the tunes form a nice wrap-up. "Dovahkiin" is the stronger of the two, painting its portrait of Britain as a pathetic loser in the unkindest terms. The ringing guitar solo transforms the mood into a redemptive ending that sounds beautiful, but I'm not so sure their subject deserves that closure.

Ultimately, Diseases of England is a simpler artistic statement than David Koresh Superstar, taking fewer chances. Koresh may be a bit obscure for the Indelicate's British audience, but their send-up was fairly transgressive for most Americans. Railing against modern culture, even with vulgarity and wit, is inherently less challenging. Still, it's an enjoyable romp across a wide variety of styles, with plenty of memorable songs.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 5/20


If it doesn't rain, it pours. Everything interesting this week is on Tuesday. Go figure.

Monday, 20 May (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Tuesday, 21 May (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
Opeth

Opeth's more recent work may favor progressive rock exploration over straight-on metal, but they are by no means soft. 2011's Heritage (review) showcased the change with a fairly engaging album that took some real chances. Fans can decide for themselves whether this was positive, but their two night residency at the Fox shows the popular demand for the band.

Tuesday, 21 May (Moe's Original Bar B Que, Englewood CO)
Igor and Red Elvises

The Red Elvises introduced their mash-up of retro rock and Russian culture back in the '90s. Their more recent billing as Igor and Red Elvises recognizes founder Igor Yuzov, but maintains their fun, cross-cultural exchange. Moe's is a nice intimate venue to enjoy their show..

Tuesday, 21 May (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Yo La Tengo

Cult favorites Yo La Tengo have been hanging around the edges forever. Their new album, Fade, leans toward a softer sound, with the slight exception of the noisy "Paddle Forward". Still, with a deep back catalog, their shows can be hard to predict, depending on what aspect of their music they want to emphasize that night. The band is also known for their interesting selection of cover tunes. Come on out and be surprised!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Recording review - Arbouretum, Coming Out of the Fog (2013)

Echoes of 1972 super-groups that never existed

Consider the prototypical hipster band. They're a clever duo, mining old-school sounds. They blend in a little electro-vibe synth here and there and then proudly apply a low-fi matte finish. Arbouretum is not that band. Those other cats would shrivel up against the onslaught of warm tube distortion on Coming Out of the Fog. It's not "retro"; it's a freaking secret radio station broadcasting from an alternate 1972. One where Neil Young joined Bad Company and they jammed with Richard Thompson and the Velvet Underground. Arbouretum doesn't just sound like a band from that era; they capture the exact production quality of those classic recordings. With the dynamic compression of old microphones and analog tape, the instruments all blend together into a warm, live-room mix. As nice as the MP3s sounded, I wish I had a copy on 180 gram vinyl to really soak in the period sound.

In 2011, their album The Gathering (review) instantly became one of my top recordings for the year. Coming Out of the Fog doesn't meander quite as widely as that record, but it's a strong followup. They still understand the magic of how to use a down-tempo, roaring distortion to build intensity. On "Renouncer", they set up a simple pattern of Super-Fuzzed guitar and bass that roils and swirls around the solid drum work. Dave Heumann's vocal is husky with a delicate edge, somewhere between Paul Rodgers and Warren Zevon. The steady pace fits the oblique lyrics that reference the lessons of St. Simeon Stylites and other religious figures. Even the lead is unhurried. The band takes a similar approach on "All At Once, The Turning Weather", dragging the tempo and letting the rumble of guitar and bass fill the track. This time drummer Brian Carey gets a little room to show off some sweet cymbal work, using his ride to periodically frost the edges.

While they're effective at the drag-beat crunch, Arbouretum has no problem opening up the throttle. The album peaks with "World Split Open", whose mid-tempo drive is centered around a resonant acid-rock guitar riff. The repetition becomes a saturated raga meditation worthy of the Velvet Underground, with hints of "All Tomorrow's Parties". The comparison is apt as Corey Allender's bass meshes with Carey's drums to evoke John Cale and Mo Tucker. Glimpses of feedback are scattered throughout the cushioning cocoon of fuzz. Heumann's heady lyrics have a grand feel:
To cast aside a world of lies
Where distress and trouble grows
To dispel the legends that surround
An unfolding compass rose
The solo is untethered, as if Heumann is manipulating a chaotic fountain of noise. The buffeting distortion is cathartic, but the stripped down, tribal beginning to the following instrumental track, "Easter Island", comes as relief. While it develops into its own noisy celebration, it's a calming drop-off to take us to the title track.

"Coming Out of the Fog" shows another side of the band. It's very Beatlesque, with a mix of Abbey Road's "Sun King" and the verse from Let It Be's "Don't Let Me Down". Heumann's restrained, Americana vocal sounds weary and philosophical, backed with Mathew Pierce's nuanced piano and Dave Hadley's singing steel guitar. It's a sweet decompression from the dark and exciting drama on the rest of the album. Coming Out of the Fog may be less epic than their last album, but Arbouretum have crafted a well-paced record that holds together and showcases the band's rich sound. I'd like to think that there's a 1972 out there somewhere, sending out these kind of echoes across dimensions.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Recording review - British Sea Power, Machineries of Joy (2013)

A toothless and sedate mish-mash

Borrowing a title from Ray Bradbury, British Sea Power kicks off their new album proclaiming, “We are magnificent machineries of joy.” Of course, their understated delivery guts that boast of everything but irony. Much like Bradbury’s book of short stories, Machineries of Joy is a mixed bag with an introspective bent. Dreamy pop, post-punk nervous energy and surrealism give the album too many different focal points that cancel one another. That even-handed approach appears to be the band’s intention because they’ve described the album as “warm and restorative,” as if they were releasing a new ambient collection. British Sea Power mistakes blandness as relaxation, in part because they can’t resist showing off how clever they are. Since that gives them some edgier moments, much of the recording consciously alternates between lower and higher intensity, emphasizing the artistic disconnection between the songs.

For example, the spacey tune “K Hole” is bookended by more sedate tracks that bleed off the song’s tension, abandon and chaos. The lyrics follow the internal monologue of a ketamine-tripping psychonaut: “I think I took a little too much/ We may be in some trouble/ I think I fell into a K hole/ Might be best not to struggle.” The fragility of the tightly controlled verses contrasts with the wilder chorus. The indie psych feel and that exuberant chorus with its rebel yell mark the song as an outlier cut on the album. They rise from a mellow baseline to build up a strong head of steam and then purposely dampen it back down. On the front end, the title track plays with new wave influences over a Motorik beat. Yan’s detached vocals on the verses seem inspired by Bono while the chorus finds a middle ground between Joy Division and the Psychedelic Furs. It’s packed with cool-sounding phrases, but its lyrical dissociation offers little share context between the tunes. Similarly, the lush dream pop of “Hail Holy Queen” blunts the impact of “K Hole”. Sleepy and subtle, this play order seems to sabotage any progression from song to song.

If Machineries of Joy is hamstrung by a self-defeating track list, it still succeeds on the basis of a few standout tunes. In particular, “Loving Animals” creates a strong balance of chop and flow. The staccato throb of distorted guitar and chanted vocals on the verse sound like Pavement covering Brian Eno. This slides effortlessly into the expansive vibe of the Flaming Lips on the chorus. The simply phrased anti-bestiality message, “Loving animals/ I want you to know that it’s wrong, man,” could be one of the Dude’s outtakes from The Big Lebowski. The rest of the words remain fairly oblique, but the musical flow smoothes that out. The sound finally synchronizes with the disjointed lyrics and melts down into wordless swells and then repetitive gibberish before eventually deconstructing into dreamy, defocused slurs of sound.

British Sea Power comes closest to their avowed target with “Radio Goddard”. They set a gently swaying progression, like a medicated version of the Cure. The soothing vocals capture some of Robyn Hitchcock’s mellow eccentricity with lines such as,
With baby steps
You must leave the nest
Now brace yourself for the entertainment
It’s time for you to do what you do best
The vague sense of encouragement crowns this fairly passive album. That may be what they wanted from Machineries of Joy, but it all seems a bit toothless when compared to their earlier albums.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 5/13

Not such a full collection of shows this week, but these two are guaranteed to impress.

Monday, 13 May (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO) [2 shows]
Prince

Somehow I missed this last week when I was collecting shows. Prince packed the calendar at the Ogden, with two shows a night for two nights in a row. At $250 a ticket, you better really need some purple rain in your life, but I can tell you that Prince is a consummate entertainer and he will certainly funk you up. Now, if I can only take out a loan...

Saturday,18 May (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Hot Tuna

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady were acoustic players at heart, long before they helped get Jefferson Airplane off the ground. Hot Tuna initially provided a side project for them to indulge their love of acoustic blues. Eventually the band evolved to cover acoustic and electric sets and offer a partnership beyond the Airplane.

This show will feature the acoustic version of the band with a special, one-time guest, Steve Kimock. Kimock is well known as a jam band guitarist with a special connection to the music of the Grateful Dead. This promises to be a phenomenal night of transcendent music.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Interview - Team Spirit

My first day at South by Southwest (SXSW), I had a chance to sit down with Team Spirit to talk about their eponymous EP, leader Ayad Al Adhamy’s experience playing with Passion Pit and how they approach their thrash pop sound. Prior to meeting the band, I had reviewed Team Spirit, which comes up in this discussion. Aside from Al Adhamy, we were joined by guitarist Cosmo Kilburn DiGiulio, bass player Roman Tobias (Toby) Pettigrew, and drummer Mike Addesso.

Ayad, I actually saw you with Passion Pit in back in 2010, opening for Muse.

Ayad Al Adhamy: In Colorado?

In Denver.

AA: God. That was awesome, playing in arenas.

Yeah, it was a huge venue. Passion Pit was completely different from Muse stylistically.

AA: Definitely

But it connected. You guys worked the crowd and a big part of that was your doing. On keyboards, you set up a lot of call and response that got the crowd involved.

AA: Lead keyboard playing. It’s kind of why I decided to go into lead guitar playing

How have you applied some of that to current band?

AA: I think that it actually worked in reverse. I’ve always been more of a guitar player and played in death metal bands with Toby, especially when we were in college. We’d call out, “E harmonic minor, I start on the first, you start on the third!” [makes guitar shred sounds, laughter]

Toby Pettigrew: There’s smoke coming off the fretboard.

Cosmo DiGiulio: “You start on the third. Go!”

TP: Satan was just hanging out in the corner, smoking a cigarette saying, “Nice one, guys.” [laughter]

AA: So really, starting off with Passion Pit was like me saying I’ve got to stop playing guitar for a second. I was studying music synthesis. I was doing circuit bending and keyboard stuff. “I’m going to play keyboards.” And I’m a terrible keyboard player, but I can play the leads like a lead guitarist. And that’s what worked out with Passion Pit and I did that for the time. Then came the moment when we finished touring for ages, sat down and thought, “I gotta play guitar!” That time was great. How could there be any regrets for that? I got to play arenas, but I’ve got to play guitar. I’m not a keyboard player.

So, the band was about to release…

AA: The second record, Gossamer. Right at that moment, everyone was like, “We’re all on different paths.” It was a beautiful split.

The right time.

AA: We had some drinks and it was the perfect time for all of us.

Musically and mood-wise, what you’re doing with Team Spirit has a totally different feel.

AA: Yeah, I think so.

The new band has a really interesting balance between thrash and precision as well.

AA: The metal-ness comes out in like the poppiest way! [laughs]

Yeah, it’s definitely got a pop feel to it, but you get that grinding thing going and then everybody goes off into a quick little riff thing, then back into grind.

AA: Oh, God, yeah.

It’s a very different kind of approach. Is that what you had been hoping to do? Were your roots more in that direction?

AA: It just came out that way. I mean, Prog-rock is what I was always into, back in the day, and songs like “Teenage Love” are almost like mini-prog songs, as far as like the different changes and sections.

Not a straight verse-chorus kind of thing.

AA: Yeah, where like the second verse has the weird guitar riff in the middle, which is really Thin Lizzy-inspired, since they’re one of my ultimate bands of all time.

I could hear the Thin Lizzy riff in that and I could hear J. Geils in your music.

Mike Addesso: J. Geils, wow!

AA: Who is J. Geils? I know the name…

“Centerfold”

[everyone sings]

AA: Oh, I love all that stuff!

TP: What was the harmonica player called, he kicks ass.

I can’t remember

AA: And Eddie Money…I love shit like that.

I could hear a lot of J. Geils on “Fuck the Beach”.

AA: Awesome!

CD: That’s great!

AA: There’s a lot of Chris Isaak on “Fuck the Beach” with the guitar but with a way different tonality. That’s really what I listened to a lot, learning how to play the guitar.

What got you into that? You’re a young guy…

AA: Guitar school, actually. I remember being 15. I grew up in Bahrain for high school and would spend the summer in London. I lived there when I was much younger. I went to guitar school and my teacher was like, “Here’s this band, Thin Lizzy, and we’re going to learn some stuff.” And I was like, “This band is awesome!” and I just dove into that. I just loved it all. I was a big Iron Maiden fan, Metallica…the more generic shred stuff, but Thin Lizzy has always been the most underrated band.

MA: They are pretty underrated

TP: That’s the guy, the harmonica player, Magic Dick. My dad loves him, “You gotta listen to Magic Dick wail on the harmonica.”

AA: Ahh. Thin Lizzy…I think another part of it is how Thin Lizzy are an American and British mix, with the Irish. A lot of my favorite bands and our band too are a mixture of the two. Like Fleetwood Mac are like half British. That’s one of the things that we’re stoked on. Especially Cosmo…

Yeah, I was going to ask you, Cosmo. Do you come from a similar guitar background?

CD: Yeah, a total guitar background. Same kind of vibe, too, where an older guitar instructor was turning me on to things at a younger age. It kind of marked my path early on, I guess. Getting into bands like Thin Lizzy, where it’s a dual guitar assault, but it’s two guitar players working together. Iron Maiden is the same way. They kind of have one melodic structure. It’s a lead, but it’s also very melodic.

You get those harmonized leads…

CD: Yeah. There’s something about two guitars, two harmonized guitar runs going together at the same time

AA: Oh yeah, man.

CD: For me, there’s no better feeling.

AA: It’s the best feeling. When I look to the left and Cosmo looks and I see a wink in his eye, a little glimmer. It’s gonna be a good one. We dual shred. I feel like a lot of people don’t…don’t feel good about it.

CD: It’s also cool that there’s a push-pull between our styles, where one guy might be tighter in one part and somebody else might be giving it a little more…

AA: I play ahead and he plays behind the beat and together we meet right in the middle. It’s awesome.

TP: And I have to try and fucking pull them in…”Ahh, come back!” [laughter]

AA: I don’t…That style has been kind of abandoned since the ‘90s, really, where dual guitars were prominent and melodic. Why? It’s awesome. It sounds fun. When we do it live, there’s a great response and it’s been abandoned.

CD: Trying to shoot guitar laser beams into the crowd

AA: Exactly that. The laser beams is pretty accurate.

Yeah, there is a magic to that, when you get thing locked in that tight. I was always into the Allman Brothers for that same reason. You get those harmonized lines where the guitars are intertwined and then they can shoot off in different directions. You bring the crowd in really tight. Then, when you split apart, when one person goes into a crunch and the other goes into lead, the audience just falls back, “Whoa!” I dig that back and forth kind of feel.

AA: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. You nailed it. That what the Allman Brothers did and all these great bands from the ‘70s and the ‘60s. It’s like that one aspect is being overlooked in a lot of music. That’s what we want to do. We’re not overlooking that. We love that shit and there’s others that love that shit, too.

CS: Part of it too is the trade and the craft and its practice. That’s really what it comes down to. We’ve got to hash it out together for hours in the practice space and get it right.

AA: Yeah.

How did you guys hook up as a band? I’ve read your press release.

CD: Craigslist.

AA: It’s pretty accurate. I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to start a rock ‘n’ roll band.” I’ve known [Toby] for ages, I’ve known [Mike] for ages, too. And I’ve known [Cosmo] for quite some time and I was like, “Cosmo’s not in a band right now.”

TP: Why is Cosmo not in a band?

AA: Yeah, why is Cosmo not…then we hooked up last South By down here actually. He was working and I came down to work as well. We had a really quick shoot-the-shit, then we met up back in New York. As soon as we played together we just knew, we just knew it. And then we just fell in and everybody said, “Right, cool, let’s just do this.” The EP was pretty much done at that point as well. “Alright, let’s play some shows,” and now we’re doing a full length…

Yeah, right now you have the five song EP, that’s a short set.

AA: Well it’s gonna be a short set [laughter]. Short and furious. “What the fuck was that? Awesome!” But there are other songs we play.

You guys had the EP of covers for Valentine’s, [Love Is For Suckers]

AA: Did you listen to it?

I listened to a couple of the tracks. I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet.

AA: Which ones? Do you remember?

“Stay” and one other one.

AA: You should listen to the Meat Loaf one ["I Would Do Anything For Love"], my proudest moment as a cover person.

I haven’t heard that one yet.

AA: You gotta do it. Meat Loaf is the hardest thing ever, and I was like, “We’ve got to do this Meat Loaf cover. Whenever I’ve told anyone, they’re like, “Eww, that sounds like it should be terrible,” which is maybe what you’re also thinking. But I think we captured it pretty well.

It wasn’t that I had anything against it. I had gotten your other EP and it caught me at the right moment. I gave it a quick listen and I liked it enough to give it a more serious listen. So, the EP caught my ear and I dove into that. Then I looked around and found out about the Valentine’s EP, but I didn’t have enough time to get into it.

AA: The covers were more like an homage. Three of them, like “Stay,” one of those, were done before Team Spirit started. It was kind of the inspiration for Team Spirit. Rock ‘n’ roll! It’s fun! Those guys have been doing it since the ‘50s. We should be doing this right now. Those three started it off and the other two, we worked up as a band later on. We don’t play any of that stuff live. It was just a quick thing. This music’s fun.

So, you’re working on new material for a full length?

AA: Yeah! We rented a house…well, a barn up in the Catskills. I have a recording studio in Greenpoint that’s kind of cramped. Like a three room situation with awesome gear in there. But we all got New Yorked out a little bit and, “Let’s all go to the country! To the mountains.” There’s no cell phone reception up there. It’s like totally different. We set up the studio in the basement and the whole house is for tracking. A giant barn where we’ve been tracking all the drums. We’ve just been working at that, right now. We were right in the middle of that. We came to South By after being there for two weeks, just two weeks. As soon as we’re done, we’re going right back there to finish it off.

Excellent!

AA: Yeah, I’m really excited.

I’m looking forward to that coming out. I’d like to hear what you guys can do with a full album.

AA: I’m excited, too, to hear what we’re gonna do with it.

I know that you’re out front in the band, but is everybody contributing writing or are you writing the songs? How does that work?

AA: I mostly bring like 75% of stuff and then we go through like, “What do you guys think about this?”

TP: He writes the songs and we just kind of hash it out.

AA: Cut it up, try a million things. Everyone gets their taste in it and then we’re gonna see the final product. Yes! It’s been working out that way pretty awesomely.

Before I wrap up, I want to bring up one last thing. I mentioned this in my review. “Jesus He’s Alright!

[Laughter]

AA: That was one of the funniest. Cause I…continue, I remember what you wrote.

Honestly, I had given the EP a really quick listen and decided to review it. Then I was listening to it at work, doing my day job. As I’m listening to it, it’s dawning on me. Is this like Cartman’s Jesus band on “South Park” [“Christian Rock Hard” episode]?

AA: I’ve seen every episode of South Park. I’m a huge fan by the way, so when you said that, I was like, “Yeah!”

The whole “Jesus” thing was so unexpected, so then I had to decide. Is this what the rest of the album is going to be and I just didn’t listen to the lyrics very closely? The rest of the songs didn’t hit any of that and then I read in an interview that you identified as an atheist.

AA: Yeah.

So then I had to go back and listen to that again, because this is not what I… [laughter]

AA: It’s really funny because this is like…there’s nothing specific in that song that says that what I’m talking about is not about religion. My parents are both really strict Muslims and I was brought up very…my dad’s really, really pious, he’s prayed five times a day for the last 50 years.

And from the Muslim perspective, Jesus is a prophet.

AA: Yeah, definitely. But I can’t write about Mohammed because then someone might die in the world. By writing about Jesus…

TP: Fatwa has been a thing

AA I’m not ready to die

TP: Salman Rushdie.

AA: I’d still like to be able to go back to the Middle East and hang out with my family. Just the whole concept of being saved, the whole idea is just intriguing. I don’t quite understand it. It’s a lovely idea and it just makes for a great chorus. “Come and save me, save me.” Who doesn’t want that? Yes, “Come on baby, you look so good,” cause it sounds so good. But it’s like a beautiful cake. Ah, God. We’re putting out a music video pretty soon for that song and that really is going to clarify the whole story of it.

Yeah, on the second listen, I was hearing it like a “close” personal relationship with Jesus.

AA: Like, “Hey, what’s up, Baby? I need me some more wine…” That’s really funny that you took that from it.

That was one of the more amusing misunderstandings I’ve ever had.

AA: I can understand, like Christian rock being kind of like, “Oh, God. Is this Lifehouse?”

I don’t have to hate the music just because somebody’s pushing their religion, but I don’t necessarily want to invest a lot of time into it.

AA: I’m glad you read up the “devout atheist” part. I’m glad I said that.

Well, the rest of the songs, too. “Jesus,” but also “Fuck the Beach.”

AA: But Jesus made the beach! [laughs]

I know you’re playing tonight and tomorrow [at SXSW].

AA: Yeah, we’ve got one show tonight, outside here, and then two tomorrow and two on Thursday. They’re pretty early, they’re both days, 12:45 and 7:00 p.m. We’re going to have relaxing evenings, which is the best way to do South By. Oh, God. This is my fourth one.

CD: Relaxing work-wise

AA: Yeah, but we get to actually enjoy some evenings, hang out with friends and see bands that we like and not be like, “We got to go to our seventh show today at 3:00 a.m. and I’m already drunk for the last seven hours.” I remember my first South By. After my first set, I was so drunk and heat-shocked that I threw up carrying my gear. “Oh…another show.” Never again. The worst thing is you land and free beer, free whiskey. “Yeah! It’s only 2:00 p.m.” You learn the hard way, don’t you?

Thanks for your time. I’m glad we were able to get together. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys tonight.

AA: Thanks, Jester. We’ll see you tonight.

(This interview first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Capsule review - Steven Wilson


6 May 2013 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)

Rather than a full review, I just wanted to share a few observations:

Steven Wilson was incredibly punctual. The show was scheduled to begin at 8:00 pm. At 7:59, the band took the stage and the first notes of "Luminol" started at 8:00 on the nose. Then, it was a straight two hour set, followed by a 15 minute encore of "Radioactive Toy" from On the Sunday of Life (1991).

Wilson was almost as much a control-freak in concert as he is in the studio. The bulk of the audience was seated and he directed when people could stand en masse. At one point, after they had been standing, he indicated that they should sit down for the first section of the song.

Another one of Wilson's rules was that there was to be no photography, including cell phones. That order was lightly enforced, but most people complied. Wilson has said in the past that he wants his audience fully engaged without a layer of technology between them and the show. Aside from the single shots I took at the start and finish, I left the camera alone during the show and enjoyed it all the more.

The music was phenomenal. Wilson's backing band is packed with virtuoso talent. Nick Beggs was particularly impressive. His bass playing pushes the boundaries of the instrument. He was also very adept on the Chapman stick. Wilson's recent work with surround sound remixing was also relevant. Speakers were distributed around the room and several songs, like "The Watchmaker", took advantage of the mix to provide a home theatre experience in the hall.

Wilson has grown as a performer. The show had a similar feel to Get All You Deserve (2012), a concert video made during the Grace For Drowning tour. He was much more comfortable interacting with the crowd than earlier in his career. He seemed completely relaxed and engaged, even making some self-deprecating jokes and riffing on a small raven puppet that someone tossed onstage.
 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Front Range recommended shows, 5/6


The weather has been variable and this week's offerings also come from all over the musical map. Pick your poison.

Monday, 6 May (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Steven Wilson

As a music reviewer, I get plenty of free CD and show tickets. I've been a Steven Wilson fan for a long time and I've never gotten the chance to see him live. I reviewed his phenomenal recent solo album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), and I knew that I'd have to see him this tour, even if it meant paying for a ticket. I've happily done so and I'll be at the show.

Wilson's tour keeps the focus on his music, without the distraction of opening bands. His progressive rock is well balanced, satisfying both the left and right brains.Even if you're not familiar with his band, Porcupine Tree, any fan of prog should make it out. Count on a timely start, too.

Tuesday, 7 May (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
METZ

I saw METZ at South By Southwest this year. They were billed as one of the loudest bands at the festival, but it was their high energy show that caught my ear. Punk thrash and Brownian motion on the stage is a great combination. If it's too loud, you're too old;-)

Thursday, 9 May (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
 Jim James

My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James has been making the rounds in the wake of his new, soulful solo record Regions of Light and Sound of God. It's a well-grounded album that harks back to the serious Americana roots he's been exploring lately.
 
Friday, 10 May (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
The Meter Men

The legendary New Orleans funk band, The Meters, has developed a complex lineage. The Original Meters are a separate, but overlapping line up with The Funky Meters. The Meter Men is another incarnation, focused on The Original Meters, but leaving out Art Neville. The three original members, George Porter (bass), Leo Nocentelli (guitar), and Zigaboo Modeliste (drums) are joined by keyboard player Page McConnell of Phish. The line up played a couple of shows, including B.B. King Blues Club and Grill last year and this year at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. The focus is on the funk rather than slipping off into jam band clouds, but all reports indicate that McConnell does a fine job with the band.

It's a treat that the band is coming to Denver. They don't have a huge national tour scheduled yet that I can see...

Friday, May 3, 2013

Recording review: Tom Slatter, Three Rows of Teeth (2013)

Steampunk prog: ravenous steeples never sounded so good

Musicians should leave the marketing to trained professionals. Then they’d be less likely to brag about making “a steampunk prog-rock album” or tout the dubious merits of including “ravenous church steeples” within their songs. But damned if Tom Slatter doesn’t deliver all that and more on Three Rows Of Teeth. Given that steampunk has mainstreamed here in the U.S., his timing is particularly apt, but the music might prove to be too challenging and experimental for the pocket-watch-and-goggles-at-the-mall set. The songs frequently rely on jump-cut tempo and stylistic transitions to keep the listener off-balance and to change the perspective of a given section. Although it seems like a sign of attention deficit, this technique serves these narrative pieces and their strange, dark themes.

Following his steampunk inspiration, Slatter gathers retro, bygone elements and juxtaposes them in a modern, post-rock context. Evoking such diverse artists as Mike Keneally, Gogol Bordello, Greg Lake and Blondie, the quirky music swerves between fever dream intensity, playful tension and desperate contemplation. If Edward Gorey were resurrected to develop an unsettling film project, he might well choose this music for his soundtrack. It’s a wild ride with top-notch playing that’s partially offset by the quavery vocal tone. Slatter’s voice is somewhere between Thomas Dolby and bluegrass guitarist Peter Rowan’s work with the psychedelic band Earth Opera. Despite this technical weakness, the songs stay within his range and his singing fits the feel of the collection fairly well.

Three Rows Of Teeth starts strong with its title track, which takes the form of a recurring nightmare. The theatrical beginning sets the scene of an airship journey gone awry. When the ship is attacked by toothy monsters in the clouds, the progressive rock groove and layered vocals are suitably bombastic. A sharp cut into madcap carnival music represents the panic as the airship plummets. Frantic harmonized guitar riffs chase themselves like Keneally’s spidering melodies, punctuated by tight, coordinated breaks. During this headlong rush, we encounter the ravenous steeples Slatter warned of: “this nightmare came to life to feed.” The imagery in “Three Rows Of Teeth” is vivid if somewhat incoherent, capturing the surrealistic feel of dream logic. Once the elements have all come together, the song fragments into a series of leaps: the fearful falling, remembered echoes of the journey’s start, then back again. There is no escape.

From this nervous welcome, the album opens into a hallway of disquieting songs, each with its own skewed view. A conspiracy of silence picks up a sharp edge of threat from the bounce of gypsy flair on “Mother’s Been Talking To Ghosts Again”, while “Dance, Dance, Dance” uses Dadaistic images and avant garde interludes to convey a manic desperation. My favorite stop centers on the steampunk cyborg in “Self-Made Man.” Slatter’s sampled mechanical rhythm foreshadows this tale of human augmentation where minor improvements give way to larger replacements. Even if the hubris in this Frankenstein theme is familiar – “I’m better and I no longer care” – the music makes it special. The rhythm guitar in 12/8 provides the whirring gears behind the main machine beat, while the lead guitar looses an occasional moan like the character’s shrinking humanity. The delicate bridge exposes the back story that drives the cyborg, its ragged control relieved only by the fluid bass line representing his lost wife.

The album’s most ambitious creation is saved for last. “The Time Traveller Suite” is split into three tracks, structured something like Phish’s Gamehendge saga. The first, “What We Say Three Times Is True,” toys with a psychedelic collage of sound before using a Greg Lake guitar line to begin the tale. A man wakes to a strange visitor. This girl with a missing eye greets him and disappears. As the song shifts into an art rock jam, the man’s obsession with the girl leads him to build a time machine and search for her in the future. Zooming forward in time to a dark era where the world has broken down, the tune takes on a frantic pace, culminating in an odd new wave section reminiscent of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another.” Then the song wheels around and returns to the arty narrative, rebuilding the tension anew. The second track, “Rise Another Leaf,” acts as a short, pensive guitar interlude that flips the time travel back to the past. While the first piece laid out the basic plot, this section is less clear, providing a rough sketch and fewer details. The post-rock end of the song-cycle, “Love Letter and Entropy”, weaves the themes of the first two tracks together into an epic time-loop trap where neither the future nor the past offer resolution. By this point, the refrain that “the girl with the missing eye will be mine” takes on fatalistic tone, eventually sinking into the desperate hope that we’ll
Find love if we say it three times
Find love crossing the years, you’ll be mine
We’ll find love
What we say three times will be true. 
All told, the suite spans over 21 minutes and a long medley of stylistic reinventions. The song has enough detail to intrigue, but leaves the tale quite open to interpretation.

Three Rows Of Teeth supports its experimental sound with rich imagination and fine playing. Abrupt changes and genre defying arrangements won’t work for more pedestrian pop ears, but Slatter’s madness is definitely methodical.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Recording review - Alkaline Trio, My Shame Is True (2013)

Decent music dragged down by banal lyrics

Midwest punkers Alkaline Trio have had a restless career since their start in 1996, bouncing between record labels and taking a few years to settle on their line up. My Shame Is True marks a return to new material after 2011’s Damnesia, which was a more acoustic romp through their back catalog as a gift to their fans. Looking for a change, the band teamed up with Bill Stevenson (Descendents), recording at his Blasting Room Studios in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Stevenson’s punk credentials have attracted a roster of clients like Rise Against and NOFX, which sets some high expectations for Alkaline Trio’s latest. Musically, the mix of indie rock, punk and pop-punk stands up well, but the pacing and the lyrics undercut the project.

My Shame Is True starts out with misdirection. The catchy and humorous “She Lied to the FBI” is a blatant appropriation of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. Despite the lack of originality, the clever story line and syllable-perfect phrasing manage to charm. The smart-ass attitude, chunky guitars and tight chorus harmonies make a strong beginning, but the facade cracks when it becomes clear that they don’t have much more than the initial premise as they run through the set up a second time. Joey Ramone could sell this with spastic indifference while his band dared anyone to call them on it. Alkaline Trio may have been inspired by the Ramones, but their amateur-hour send-up proves short-lived. The album quickly moves away from fun-loving pop-punk to beat its chest with confessional rockers. The snark isn’t completely abandoned, but it’s hard to find.

The second song, lead-off single “I Wanna Be a Warhol”, ramps down the wit significantly. From the perspective of a medicated, spoiled child, they alternate between surrealistic observations and begging for attention. The title says it all — maybe even more than they intended. They want the recognition of being controversial art and revel in how special they’d be, but they seem to miss the point that much of Warhol’s work was about elevating the mundane. As the rest of the album unfolds, Alkaline Trio is dragged down by their unremarkable themes of dissatisfaction, challenging relationships and the power of love.

Given that bandleader Matt Skiba describes My Shame Is True as “an apology note set to music” in the wake of a romantic breakup, it would have been better to push these first two songs to later in the playlist. Leading off with the driving power pop of “I’m Only Here to Disappoint” would have at least nipped any bait-and-switch accusations and framed the catharsis better. In this context, the group hits their stride with “The Temptation of St. Anthony”. The uptempo punk-pop beginning tries to channel Green Day, especially with lines like, “My tender carrion/ The damage has been done/ From the depths of your heart/ To the tip of my tongue.” Alkaline Trio draws on this energy to jumpstart the punk intensity of “I, Pessimist”, which features whipsaw vocals between bass player Dan Andriano and guest singer Tim McIlrath (Rise Against).

Unfortunately, these two tracks provide the best pairing of lyrics and music while the rest of the songs struggle to make their mark. From the platitudes of “Only Love” to the avuncular advice of “Young Lovers”. Alkaline Trio hardly has anything to say. Sure, “In the end, there is only love,” but the head-banging rock and dynamic shifts deserve better revelations. Suffering is supposed to inspire great art and confession may be good for the soul, but too much of My Shame Is True turns out to be banal.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)