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Archive for the ‘CD reviews – alternative’ Category

CD review/ Turn Blue – The Black Keys


turnblue

Turn Blue/ The Black Keys

Genre: Rock/ alternative

Label: Nonesuch Records

Rating: *** 1/2

CALL them garage rock, blues-rock or alternative rock, it doesn’t matter. The truth is that American duo The Black Keys are on top of the circuit, specially after being twice successful at the Grammy awards. Earlier this year, vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney released their eighth album ‘Turn Blue’, much awaited by fans after a two-plus-year gap.

Yes, the band has been around for over 13 years, first attaining a cult following with the albums ‘Rubber Factory’, ‘Magic Potion’ and ‘Attack & Release’. The 2010 effort ‘Brothers’ helped them get mainstream success, thanks to the tracks ‘Tighten up’ and ‘Howlin’ for you’, and 2011’s ‘El Camino’ boasted of their biggest hit ‘Lonely boy’. Between the last two albums, they grabbed seven Grammys in the rock and alternative categories.

Like ‘Attack & Release’ and ‘El Camino’, ‘Turn Blue’ has been co-produced by the famous Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley fame. Overall, it uses less of a blues-rock element compared to the earlier albums, as some songs here get into ballad mode and more soulful territory, ostensibly because the songwriting was inspired by the rough marriages and break-ups both band members went through. And though the Keys freely experiment with their sound, the songs range from the outstanding to the insipid, making this quite a mixed bag.

The album kicks off with the six-minute, 50-second epic ‘Weight of Love’, which is a brilliant presentation of Pink Floyd-inspired psychedelic rock. A lengthy, guitar-driven intro is followed by the lines “I used to think, darlin’, you never did nothin’, But you were always up to somethin’, Always had a run in, yeah.” Heartfelt female choruses and the wailing riffs in the coda make this number a sonic treat.

‘In time’, with its melodic intro and plenty of choruses, impresses with the lines “You’ve got a worried mind, I’ve got a worried heart, You don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to start.” However, the fizz comes down on the next three numbers.

The title track sounds more like standard 1980s pop, and ‘Fever’ has shades of European synth-pop, and both songs seem aimed more at commercially-inclined tastes. ‘Year in review’ is the most unimpressive tune here, as it just doesn’t hit you.

Luckily, barring the namby-pamby and ordinary ’10 lovers’, the rest of the album contains some amazing stuff, beginning with ‘Bullet in the brain’. A song about a failed relationship, it boasts of moody guitars, a steady beat and words like “Looking back on where we used to be, Everything was clear, still I refuse to see, Hearts began to burst, The diamond turned to dust, You made me talk the pain all out of me.”

‘It’s up to you now’ steps up the tempo, has a neat rhythm guitar back-up and contains a smart electric guitar stretch. ‘Waiting on words’ is one of the more hummable tunes here, with its retro-pop feel and a farewell emotion on the lines, “Oh, goodbye, I heard you were leaving, Won’t try changing your mind, Goodbye, Don’t know where you’re going, The only thing I really know, My love for you is real, I.”

The last two tracks are delightful. ‘In our prime’ starts with soft keyboards, has a charming guitar climax and brims with nostalgia-ridden lyrics like “Like every lover hovers in my mind, We made our mark when we were in our prime. The house had burned, but nothing there was mine, We had it all when we were in our prime.” Finally, ‘Gotta get away’ is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones, with its rock ‘n’ roll flavour and Mick Jagger influence.

The end result is an album that has many highs, but sadly meanders in parts, moreso when the emphasis shifts from trademark garage rock to market-driven pop. The good news is that some of the songs – namely ‘Weight of love’, ‘In time’, ‘Bullet in the brain’ and ‘Waiting on words’ – deserve regular replays. The moment one tires of them, one can always return to the earlier albums ‘Brothers’ and ‘El Camino’.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

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CD review/ Lazaretto — Jack White


lazar

Lazaretto/ Jack White

Genre: Rock/ alternative

Labels: Third Man/ XL Recordings/ Columbia

Rating: *****

AS A part of the groups White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather, and through his debut solo album ‘Blunderbuss’, American singer, guitarist and songwriter Jack White has been recognised as one of the most versatile and accomplished musicians of the 21st century. Interestingly, he is often categorised as a modern blues musician, when in reality his music encompasses many more styles.

Check out the first three songs of White’s second solo album ‘Lazaretto’, to begin with. The opening track ‘Three Women’ is in the blues space, no doubt. An uptempo reworking of Blind Willie McTell’s classic folk-blues beauty ‘Three Women Blues’, it sets the pace for the album as he talks of having three women – “red, blonde and brunette”, in comparison to the original’s “yellow, brown and black”. But his fascination for the blues ends just there.

The second number, which is the title track, blends a hip-hop vocal line with garage rock guitars and folk/ classical violins, with an incredible distortion-filled, Led Zeppelinesque guitar solo in between. Then, on the next song ‘Temporary Ground’, he explores country ‘n’ western territory, getting in violinist and singer Lillie Mae Rische to do parts that are so reminiscent of Emmylou Harris. Add to that some crisp pedal steel guitar and lines like “Moving without motion, screaming without sound, across an open ocean, flying there on temporary ground” and you have an absolute winner.

Get the drift? Across 11 songs, White never ceases to surprise. Throughout, he moves from one genre to another, making it difficult to pinpoint where exactly his sound belongs. Even more impressive is the quality of lyric-writing on some numbers, as White talks of everything from loneliness to rejection to irony with articulate ease.

The opening of ‘Would You Fight For My Love?’ sounds like the theme music for an action movie, but slowly, he gets into a late 70s feel, with soaring back-up vocals and a driving rhythm. ‘High Ball Stepper’, the only instrumental track, is filled with trademark distortion and fuzz guitars that move between psychedelic and grunge zones.

On the Stones-like ‘Just One Drink’, White talks about a woman who’s been nasty to him, with the lines “I love you, but honey why don’t you love me?” The next track ‘Alone In My Home’ is held together by an ultimately melodic piano line, and then talks of loneliness on the lines “I’m alone in my home, alone in my home, nobody can touch me.”

For a delightful change in tempo, ‘Entitlement’ gets into folk-rock rebel mode. Against a charming piano line, White sings with the kind of raspy twang that’s so reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, and truly impresses with the lyrics “Stop what you’re doing and get back in line; I hear this from people all the time; If we can’t be happy then you can’t be too; I’m tired of being told what to do, Yeah, I’m sick of being told what to do”.

The next number ‘That Black Bat Licorice’ is a complete contrast in sound. Starting with madcap laughter and pounding garage rock riffs, it moves on to hip-hop vocals, and synthesisers, violins and guitars that sound inspired by Asian and Middle Eastern music. On the country-pop tune ‘I Think I Found The Culprit’, White smartly blends acoustic guitars with pedal steels, keyboards, violins and haunting back-up chants. The repeated line “Birds of a feather may lay together but the uglier one is always under the gun” lend a sing-along feel.

The album concludes with the wonderfully-written ‘Want And Able’, which talks of the difference between having a desire for something and actually achieving it. The words “Now, Want and Able are two different things;
One is desire, and the other is the means; Like I wanna hold you, and see you, and feel you in my dreams; But that’s not possible, something simply will not let me” talk of the irony of life.

What you have, in effect, is an album that is strong on its distinctness, its arrangements and its songwriting. Clearly, this is one of the best selections of songs released in the past year or so, proving that White is simply moving from strength to strength.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

CD review/ Lightning Bolt — Pearl Jam


pearl jam

Lightning Bolt/ Pearl Jam

Genre: Alternative rock

Universal Music/ Rs 395

Rating: *** 1/2

LET’S flash back to the beginning of the 1990s, when the term ‘grunge’ suddenly became trendy. A sub-genre of alternative rock originating in Seattle, US, it boasted of heavyweights like Kurt Cobain’s band Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. And yes, there was Pearl Jam, which took the world by storm with its 1991 album ‘Ten’, featuring the super-hits ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Alive’.

Ever since, Pearl Jam gained the reputation of being one of the most significant bands in modern rock. Each album is awaited with eagerness, and some of them, like ‘Vs’, ‘Vitalogy’, ‘No Code’ and ‘Yield’ remain fan favourites years after their release. While Eddie Vedder is considered one of the most powerful and distinct vocalists on the scene, the band has consisted of an incredibly talented bunch of musicians, comprising guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron, who came in on board in 1998.

The group’s latest album ‘Lightning Bolt’ comes four years after its commendable effort ‘Backspacer’. And like one has seen with most of its albums released during the past 15 years, there seems to be some evolution in sound while sticking to the same basic roots and rules. Yet, despite the fact that this is one of the best Pearl Jam albums post-2000, there are some basic drawbacks. Or maybe that’s where the cleverness lies.

The major flaw is that the 12-track venture starts rather predictably, in a possible bid to woo those who loved them in 1991 and haven’t matured musically or otherwise ever since. Thus, the first two songs ‘Getaway’ and ‘Mind Your Manners’ have that typical early 1990s grunge-meets-thrash sound that’s become so old-fashioned now. The younger audience should love them, but one presumes the older fans would have grown up by two decades now.

The third song ‘My Father’s Son’ is the most rebellious of the lot, as it is an ironic and hatred-filled lament of a son for his father, who also loves his mother. May strike a note with some folks, but musically again, it doesn’t offer anything new. Thankfully, it’s after this that things change, and how! Maybe that was the way the album was structured deliberately.

Among the remaining nine tracks, you find plenty of goodies, written with maturity and style. Tempos are varied, the lyrics get deeper, the instrumentation gets tighter and sheer grunge power is replaced by emotional intensity and lyrical depth. Barring the title song, which starts on a catchy note but gets raucous later on, what stays constant is the sheer elegance of Vedder’s singing. He traverses a wide range of notes, and has a distinct timbre that makes him sound so charming. The mix of rhythm and lead guitar, that has always characterised the band’s sound, is once again put to best use.

On ‘Sirens’, which has faint shades of Pink Floyd, Vedder keeps varying his pitch as he sings: “Hear the sirens, covering distance in the night; The sound echoing closer, will they come for me next time?; For every choice mistake I’ve made; It’s not my plan, to send you in the arms of another man.” A beautiful riff adorns this song.

With its haunting melody and gorgeous arrangement, ‘Pendulum’ talks of the ups and downs, and the highs and lows of life. ‘Swallowed Hole’ has an infectious hook with Vedder singing, “I can feel the dawn, I can feel the Earth, I can feel the living all around; Round round round, All around, round round round.”

The group switches to blues-rock on ‘Let The Records Play’, which talks about a person’s regular trip while listening to his favourite music. ‘Infallible’ is a symbolic number with philosophical lines like, “By thinking we’re infallible, we are tempting fate instead; Time we best begin, here at the ending.”

In terms of tempo, the three slowest songs are reserved for the end. Each one is a beauty in its own right.

‘Sleeping By Myself’ is about a man’s feelings after the end of a relationship. Vedder’s voice brims with emotion when he sings, “I should have known there was someone else, Down below I always kept it to myself; Now I believe in nothing; Not today, as I move myself out of your sight; I’ll be sleeping by myself tonight.”

‘Yellow Moon’ is probably a tribute to Neil Young, hailed by many as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, as the lines ‘Yellow moon on the rise’ are borrowed from his song ‘Helpless’ with the band Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Finally, ‘Future Days’ ends the album on an optimistic note, as it talks about how a relationship weathers all the storms. “When hurricanes and cyclones raged; When winds turned dirt to dust; When floods they came or tides they raised; Ever closer became us,” go the lines. Brilliant!

One, of course, wishes this kind of songwriting consistency was there throughout the album. It’s prominently there on half the songs, present in passing on a couple and absent on the rest. But never mind. This is an album that should please both Pearl Jam fans and those who’ve grown up on the later rock generation. And what’s most creditable is that the band is still going strong 22 years after arriving on the scene, and coming out with one lightning bolt after another.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

CD review/ Some Nights – Fun


Some Nights/ Fun

Genre: Alternative pop-rock

EMI Music/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

AFTER getting this CD from EMI Music’s Mumbai office, I didn’t bother to open it for two weeks. From the cover, I thought a strange-sounding album called ‘Some Nights’ by a stranger-sounding band named Fun would be some run-of-the-mill bubblegum pop or a poorly-made techno recording meant to be heard with 200 kg cotton in one’s ears.

But I was really hungry for some new music, and soon, Googled ‘Some Nights Fun’. Immediately, I was surprised to learn that it was an American alternative rock band. Curious, I tried it out, and my first reaction was to find huge influences of 70s and 80s acts like Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, Elton John,  Electric Light Orchestra and Men At Work, blended with a contemporary alternative pop-rock flavour that makes it sound very ‘now’.

Ever since, Fun has been regularly playing on my system. The Queen influence is very much there in the opening title track, and keeps cropping up regularly. And though it would be unfair to compare lead vocalist Nate Ruess with the great Freddie, his voice definitely has a freshness and flexibility that makes it endearing. Add to that some catchy tunes, 70s-meets-80s-meets-90s-meets -2000s melodies, charming harmonies and humorous lyrics, and this is clearly one of the better albums of 2012.

The two-part title song is the clear highlight. Part 1, called ‘Some Nights Intro’, has a neat piano line, and theatrical, operatic backing vocals, with Ruess getting into the high notes effortlessly. Very, very Queen. The main part has strong drums and infectious choruses, and here, the instrumentation takes on a Paul Simon mood.

The popular ‘We Are Young’ starts with marching band drums, a vocal intro clearly influenced by Simon & Garfunkel, a chorus reminiscent of Queen and a catchy hook throughout. ‘Carry On’ starts with a melodic vocal and piano, and gets into lines like “If you’re lost in a zone or you’re sinking like a stone, carry on; May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground, carry on’. A sizzling guitar riff completes the song.

‘It Gets Better’ is probably not one of the better bits here. Though it’s an uptempo, percussion-heavy piece with an 80s pop feel, it sort of jars, and seems a bit out of place. But ‘Why Am I The One?’ is a brilliant ballad, with smartly-done harmonies on the lines ‘Go on, go on, go on, if you were thinking that the worst is yet to come, why am the one always packing up my stuff?’ The strings at the end are super.

‘All Alone’ is a brisk piece with smooth synthesisers, and marvellous arrangements.  On ‘All Alright’, the vocals go ‘It’s all alright, I guess it’s all alright, I got nothing left inside of my chest, but it’s all alright.” Nice, sing-along tune.

‘One Foot’ is a bit cacophonous — too many vocals, horns, synthesisers and drums happening at the same time. ‘Stars’ is a wonderful composition, with a nice hook, a hummable chorus line and pleasant guitar, but one wonders why they have used so much auto-tune to vary Ruess’s voice. Finally, the bonus track ‘Out On The Town’ has tongue-in-cheek lines like ‘I was out on the town, so I came to your window last night, I tried not to throw stones but I wanted to come inside’.

All in all, an album one can hear repeatedly. And now that I’ve been listening to it so regularly, I did a bit of Net research, and discovered that while Ruess is at the forefront, Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost have played all the instruments between themselves. The group had earlier released an album called ‘Aim & Ignite’, which I’d love to hear. Till I find that, I plan to have fun with Fun on ‘most nights’ and not just ‘some nights’.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

CD review/ Superheavy


Superheavy/ Superheavy

Rock, multi-genre/ Universal Music/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

AFTER finding it super-weird on first hearing, and not being too impressed on the second and third listens, I finally began to enjoy the self-titled album of the group Superheavy. In fact, now it’s on repeat mode, and each time I hear it, I find something new.

Though the band’s name makes it sound pretty much like a heavy metal group with some superheavy vocals, superheavier guitars and superheaviest drums, the truth is that it’s not. In fact, it’s a rather unique combination of rock, reggae, soul, dancehall, ambient music, hip-hop and Bollywoodism. Which is perfectly understandable given the line-up of the Rolling Stones dude Mick Jagger, reggae singer Damian Marley, soul sensation Joss Stone (all on vocals), Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame on guitar and India’s very own A R Rahman on piano and synthesiser.

What makes Superheavy different from all the other supergroups we’ve heard? To understand that, let’s go back in time.

In rock history, ‘supergroup’ is a term that one comes across quite often. Quite simply, it refers to a band which consists of artistes who have already been famous in their respective specialities.

To begin with, one thinks of groups like Cream (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker), CSNY (David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young), Blind Faith (Clapton, Baker, Steve Winwood, Rick Grech) and the Travelling Wilburys (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne). Back in 1968, there was also this one-time instance of the Beatles’ John Lennon, Clapton, the Stones’ Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience forming The Dirty Mac for the TV show The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus.

There are quite a few cases, with the trend continuing through the ’90s and 2000s. Examples are Temple Of The Dog (which was basically a Pearl Jam meets Soundgarden outfit), Audioslave (Rage Against The Machine members with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell),  Slash’s Snakepit (fronted by Slash of Guns N ’Roses), the Foo Fighters (formed by Nirvana’s Dave Grohl), Velvet Revolver (also featuring Slash), Chickenfoot (featuring Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani), the Dead Weather (with Jack White of the White Stripes) and Them Crooked Vultures (which got Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones back in action).

All these groups have, however, primarily been rock supergroups, in that all members have essentially been rock musicians playing proper rock music. This is where Superheavy is different.

By blending various genres smoothly and seamlessly, Jagger & Co gives us a cocktail that’s quite heady in its own way. A song starts off with a reggae beat, Stonesy rock vocals follow, a soul singing stretch enters, a rock electric guitar takes over, bhangra-pop comes in, some dance beats are added here and there, a hip-hop groove comes in from nowhere, back to reggae or rock or soul or bhangra. Various permutations and combinations of them.

Confusing? Well, very confusing on the first few listens. But as I said earlier, the sound grows.  Slowly, but surely.

The title song, for instance, starts off with a typical reggae bit, after which Jagger and Stone do their bit, before Rahman sings an Indian phrase. The piece has got a catchy hook, and is probably the most commercial of the lot. ‘Unbelievable’ and ‘Miracle Worker’ continue in the reggae-based space.

Two songs, co-written by Rahman, have an Indian theme. ‘Satyameva Jayate’ begins with an Indian chant, but is also filled with some reggae, bhangra-pop-meets-Sufi-influenced and soul vocals, besides a sizzling lead guitar. The bonus track ‘Mahiya’ has a Hindi film flavour, besides doses of the other genres.

My personal favourites, however, are the ones in which Jagger takes centre-stage. ‘One Day One Night’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’ see him in Stones-like balladsy form, with the former having a marvellous keyboard stretch by Rahman. For rocksier tastes, ‘I Can’t Take It No More’ kicks off with a perfect hard rock riff, with Jagger taking a page from his Stones book.

On the more pop side, ‘World Keeps Turning’ is more of a Joss Stone gem, whereas Rahman effectively uses the fingerboard on ‘Beautiful People’, which also has a funky guitar line from Stewart.

Some of the numbers don’t feature Rahman, but are dazzling in their own right.  Marley is in top form on ‘Rock Me Gently’, and ‘I Don’t Mind’ has some amazing vocal interaction between Jagger, Stone and Marley. ‘Energy’ is a foot-tapping synth-driven reggae-rock-dance piece which pumps up the mood in the middle of the album.

To be sure, one may require a bit of patience — in fact, a lot of it — to develop a taste for this music. No point starting off thinking it will be too much of a Stones sound — or a Rahman sound, for that matter.

But therein lies its beauty. The album ‘Superheavy’ may not be an all-time classic, but it does set a trend for this kind of multi-genre sound. In an age when musical tastes are becoming more and more diverse and eclectic, this is a welcome effort.

 

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

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