Album Review: Joe Bonamassa – Different Shades Of Blue

Despite the fact that rock and metal, the music I spend most of my time listening to, was formed on the basis of the blues, I’ve spent shockingly little time exploring that sort of music.  For one thing, I only have so much time I can devote to music, but mostly the blues have never appealed to me on the fundamental level of what I want out of music.  For me, music is all about melody, and the majority of blues music I’ve heard over the years is bare-bones in that regard.  There are players of enormous talent, but the hooks in their music are lacking, which makes it hard for me to get into it on anything but a cursory level.

Joe Bonamassa is one of those players with seemingly limitless talent as a player, and he is one of the few blues players who I feel has something to offer me.  I first heard him through his side-project Black Country Communion (whose demise seemed to come only as a shock to Glenn Hughes), but was disappointed to discover how much of his solo repertoire is composed of covers.  There’s nothing wrong with covering classics, but I tend to prefer original material, so I can get an understanding of who the artist I’m listening to is.

“Different Shades Of Blue” is Bonamassa’s first solo album of solely original material, which is a perfect entry point for me.  I saw the studio videos before the album’s release, and the title track when it was released as a single, and to say my interest was piqued is an understatement.  That song is the crowning achievement of Bonamassa’s career to date, a stunning example of how the blues can be blended with melodic songwriting.  It has fiery guitar leads, and a strong chorus.  In other words, it’s just about a perfect song.

The rest of the album caught me off-guard.  I was expecting the deep blues of “Oh, Beautiful”, which is about as boring a song as the album provides, given its adherence to the tropes of the blues.  What I didn’t expect was how much of the album would be colored with strings and horns, sounding almost like a continuation of the big bang meets soundtrack feeling of Brian Setzer’s underrated “Songs From Lonely Avenue”.  In that regard, I was quite impress by what I heard.

On the other hand, the songs themselves aren’t developed in the way I would prefer. Bonamassa manages to avoid using his songs as excuses to solo, although there are plenty of those to go around.  He builds complete songs around them, but for focusing on writing melodic songs, the hooks don’t work as well as they should.  Bonamassa’s tone and playing are stellar, and his voice is every bit as good as you could want it to be, but the songs themselves don’t have the power and bite of his guitar.

There are a couple of gems in the middle of the record, but when taken as a whole, there aren’t enough of them to make the record the gem it should be.  The opening and closing are noticeably weaker than the middle, and that colors the impression I get.  The album takes time to get going, and then lingers on with a sub-par finish.  Together, they make it hard to be gripped by the excellent material in-between.

“Different Shades Of Blue” is a good album, but it’s a showcase of how good Bonamassa could be if he took a slightly different direction.  I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed, but I’m left wondering “what if?”

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Album Review: Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In The End

My history with Weezer is long and tortured.  There was a time when they were as important to me as any band, and the people I met through their music meant the world to me.  I can’t pretend that Weezer’s albums occupied a treasured part of my life, and they still maintain a place in my heart and memory.  Everything through the oft-maligned “Make Believe” are albums that I still have great affection for, even if I don’t listen to them very often anymore.  Those five records stand up, to me, as great examples of what Weezer was so good at; writing catchy music that was able to straddle the line between rock and pop.

Unfortunately, Weezer and I went through a tough breakup. They are the only band to win my award for the worst album of the year more than once, and in consecutive years, no less.  As they pandered to the changing pop music crowd, I was left scratching my head, wondering how the band I loved so much could become purveyors of such rank stupidity.  I was embarrassed to be a Weezer fan, and I was insulted when I listened to “Raditude”.  It was one of the rare times when I would actually say a band needs to apologize to its fans.

In a way, that’s what Weezer is trying to do here.  Several of the songs on this album do just that, directly addressing their own shortcomings in recent years.  “Back To The Shack” and “Eulogy For A Rock Band” deal directly with Weezer’s history of disappointing their fans, but while lyrics about wanting to rock out again might be honest, they’re also juvenile.  Writing “maybe Pat should play the drums” comes across like a tongue-in-cheek quip, but it reveals the hollow attitude Weezer takes towards their music.  Rivers says he wants to “rock out like it’s ’94”, but they do absolutely none of that on the album.

Rivers hasn’t learned anything about why people abandoned his band, which is evident from so much of this album.  Whether it’s the closing trilogy (only one section of which is actually listenable) that borrows the melody from their own “Freak Me Out”, or the endlessly repeating phrases that fill many of the choruses, Rivers is still writing infantile songs that lack any of the personality that marked their earlier works.  If this is him trying to emotionally connect to his songs again, after years of purposely writing impersonal numbers, I fear for him.  There is no emotion in these songs at all, which makes the whole album come across as a demo session written for some other band.  If Rivers believes in these songs, he doesn’t convey that in the slightest.

Worst of all, Rivers fills the bridge of “Cleopatra” with the lyrics “5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40”.  Seriously?  I try not to expect songwriters to engage in high poetry.  Simple writing can sometimes be the most effective, but this is ridiculous.  Many of Rivers’ lyrics are written at a fourth grade level, which makes it nearly impossible for anyone who isn’t in junior high to relate to any of it.

A lot of that could be forgiven if the songs were strong enough, but they aren’t.  The whole of the album is made up of washes of chords.  There’s nary a riff to be found, and Rivers’ melodies are rarely catchy enough to have been b-sides to their earlier albums.  There’s nothing compelling to listen to here, nothing that will make you remember it once the shock of the record was worn off.

To be fair, this is a better record than “Raditude”, but it would have taken a conscious effort to make something worse than that.  Rivers might have tried his damnedest to make this a great record, but he obviously doesn’t have it in him anymore.  As the years have gone on, he has regressed, to the point that I wonder if he wouldn’t be better off writing soundtracks for children’s books.  Rock music is no longer his forte, and intelligent songwriting is now a thing of the past.  Weezer died years ago.  Listening to this album is digging up the corpse to make sure it hasn’t become a zombie.

Album Review: Mr. Big – … The Stories We Could Tell

Everyone knows the cliche “they’re big in Japan”.

That might have been coined to describe Cheap Trick, but it also applies to Mr. Big, one of the under-appreciated rock bands America turned their backs on during the time when being a straight-ahead rock band wasn’t cool.  Given the sheer amount of talent Eric Martin, Paul Gilbert, and Billy Sheehan possess, it’s amazing that they weren’t able to crack through and make an impact in America with anything besides “To Be With You”, the ballad that has been the center of jokes for as long as it’s been on the airwaves.  That is as much a shame as their relative anonymity, since it is one of the best songs of that decade.  Yes, I said it, and I’m not ashamed of it.

After reforming, Mr. Big put out a decent album in “What If…”, one that reminded people that they had missed out on the band the first time around.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with it, despite its charms, because too much of the album was spent proving that Mr. Big was a rock band, to the detriment of the songwriting.

“… The Stories We Could Tell” rectifies that problem, showing that Mr. Big still has what it takes to make great rock records.  There’s not a single waiting to happen like the unbelievable “Undertow”, but this album is a more consistent set of songs that plays to the band’s strengths, balancing their massive instrumental prowess with melodies that bury themselves in your mind.  Songs like “East/West” and “Satisfied” are everything that’s good about Mr. Big, and they’re fleshed out with an album that rarely stumbles.

This time out, even the most rocking tracks have sharper hooks.  A song like “The Monster In Me” stomps all over your ears, but Eric Martin keeps the song from getting away from the band by altering his delivery to heighten the rhythmic attack.  It’s a change from the wide-open melody in a song like “Just Let Your Heart Decide”, but it’s equally effective.  That was the area where “What If…” was lacking, but this album doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Everything about this album is a step up, from the songwriting, to Paul Gilbert’s tone.  His guitar is sharper this time out, the tone slightly brighter, a decision that makes the songs easier to get into.  He and Billy Sheehan retain their uncanny ability to make the difficult seem easy, filling the songs with little moments that come out of nowhere and baffle you.  They play a brand of rock that doesn’t really exist anymore; heavy, melodic, and intricate.

From top to bottom, “… The Stories We Could Tell” is a rock solid record, and rivals the albums the band made in their heyday.  A lot of bands have reformed in recent years, but not many have managed to make an album this strong.

The cliche is that they’re big in Japan, but “… The Stories We Could Tell” proves Mr. Big should be more acclaimed everywhere.

Album Review: Flying Colors – Second Nature

I knew from before I spun the first Flying Colors album that I was going to like it, because I trust that anything Neal Morse has a hand in will turn out well.  What I didn’t realize was how much I would wind up loving that album, because it was one of the few examples of mature pop music, the kind I treasure, that I had heard in a long time.  Yes, there were songs that I didn’t think worked as well as they should have, but there were a handful of tracks that were as good as anything the members of the band had ever accomplished.  Those tracks made me come back to the album again and again, and it made my expectations for “Second Nature” sky-high.

The main takeaway from “Second Nature” is that the band has grown tremendously in the time since their debut, now that they are actually a band.  There is a level of detail and intricacy in these tracks that outpaces anything on the first record, and reinforces the reputation these men have as some of the finest in the world at what they do.

That growth is important, but it’s also a bit confusing.  The debut record was pop as played by prog musicians, while “Second Nature” sounds more like prog as played by pop musicians.  The focus of the album has shifted from putting together short and sweet songs that showcased both melody and playing, to a sound that is more in line with traditional prog rock.  As a fan particularly of Neal Morse’s brand of prog, both in his solo work and with Transatlantic, that should mean this album sits squarely in my wheelhouse.

The funny thing is that I’m not sure it does.  There are moments of pure genius on the record, some songs that rival the best tracks from the debut.  “The Fury Of My Love” is a stunning ballad, packed with drama and a fantastic melody, and “Peaceful Harbor” is unlike anything else I’ve heard from these guys, but is a beautiful example of the power music can have.  In fact, the meat of the album is every bit as good as the debut, and is eminently satisfying.

The slight letdown of the album are the opening and closing numbers; the longer, more progressive ones.  Even in these tracks, there are moments that are beyond description.  Casey McPherson’s vocals on the final section of “Cosmic Symphony” are incredible, and they close the album in a deeply emotional way.  I just think that section would have even more power if it was self-contained, and didn’t require wading through seven minutes of music before getting to it.  That section of music deserves to be showcased, because it is utterly captivating.

“Second Nature” is a little bit tough to judge, because it wasn’t what I went into the album expecting.  I had been awaiting another album like the first, but that’s not what the band had in mind.  The first listen or two were disappointing because of this, but time has let the album grow.  “Second Nature” is mostly a fantastic sophomore effort, one that I hope marks the outer limits of the band’s prog identity.  Flying Colors can do prog well, but so can dozens of other bands.  Far fewer can do what Flying Colors can with simpler songs.

Album Review: Slash – World On Fire

With “Apocalyptic Love”, Slash made what was probably his best record since “Appetite For Destruction”, because he finally had a singer by his side who was capable of complementing his guitar.  Instrumentalists hate to admit it, but vocalists are what make or break mainstream bands, and Slash’s first solo albums were killed by his inability to find someone who could provide the melodic counterpoint to his guitar pyrotechnics.  Myles Kennedy has proven to be that singer, bringing a knack for catchy melodies that only Axl Rose has been able to match in Slash’s career.

“World On Fire” is both the best record Slash has made since “Appetite For Destruction”, and a frustrating combination of horrible decisions.

The good news is that Slash is in fine form, and this collection of songs sees his playing on fire, ripping up riffs and solos that make more polished players look like fools.  Coupled with one of the greatest guitar tones I can remember being committed to tape, Slash is a force to be reckoned with throughout the album.  He runs the gamut from slinky, sexy riffs, to chunky slabs of power chords, always wringing the best from his instrument.  This is an album of riffs, all of which blend into the larger focus of the songs with aplomb.

Myles Kennedy does his job, backing Slash’s compositions with some truly fantastic melodies.  He was good on the previous album, but he comes into his own this time out, providing some songs that would have been massive hits back when rock music was capable of getting radio play.  Listening to songs like “Wicked Stone” and Shadow Life”, the hooks are irresistible and immediate.  For a good portion of the record, the songs are every bit as good as the best Guns N Roses material.

The bad news is that Slash ruined this record with an unforgivable decision.  At 17 tracks, and 77 minutes, the record is intolerably long.  There is no excuse for a record of this kind being so long, and the fact that there are at least four obviously weaker tracks on it, cuts the record off at the knees.

If I chop four tracks off, I still have a full hour of songs, but they are then packaged as a fantastic, albeit long, album that showcases everything that Slash and Myles Kennedy do well.  It is a clear step up from “Apocalyptic Love”, and is in the same ballpark as Guns N Roses.  But when I remember that those other songs are there too, and that getting through the entire record is nearly impossible without checking my watch, my enthusiasm dies quickly.

I understand that in this day, giving your fans as much as possible is necessary in order to get them to actually buy the album, but there is also such a thing as overkill.  “World On Fire” is an attempt to give the fans the best bang for their buck, but it puts commerce over art, which is always a dangerous thing to do.  I don’t know if it will sell any more copies of the record, but it certainly makes it a lesser piece of art.  The defining characteristic of the record is its length, which is not a good thing to have to say.

I like “World On Fire” a lot, but I can’t say I love it, because it could have easily been so much better.  At an hour long, it would be a phenomenal record.  But as it sits, it’s a bloated album that needs to have the air let out of it.

Album Review: Flyleaf – Between The Stars

When I reviewed Flyleaf’s previous album, I did so by more or less declaring that Flyleaf was one in the same with singer Lacey Sturm. She was so much the focal point of the music that it was hard to distinguish the band from her as a single entity, a view that I still feel comfortable with. With Sturm now having departed the band, and a new singer stepping in to fill her shoes, there was a gaping question in my mind whether or not Flyleaf could survive such a drastic change to their identity.

What “Between The Stars” proves to me is that Flyleaf can indeed endure without Sturm, but not for the reasons you might think. The album is modern alternative rock to the core, with the same brand of barely there riffs and focus on vocals that marked Flyleaf’s previous incarnation, which is a move that underscores how limited this genre can be. The fact that the band had stepped out of the shadow of their front-woman should have been taken as an opportunity to show what they could do, but the album is so rigidly formulaic that it reinforces the beliefs I had about them the first time around.

That formula is entirely dependent on a charismatic singer who can deliver hooks that elevate the music above the standard radio fare. New vocalist Kristen May is one of those singers. Her performance is the centerpiece of the album, and she grabs the opportunity to shine and makes the most of it. Her voice is not a dynamic instrument, but her tone cuts through the low-tuned guitars, and her melodies are familiar and strong. When “Set Me On Fire” introduces the record, there is little about the arrangement to make it stand out from any number of songs by any number of similar bands, but May’s vocals take it to another level. By the end of that first song, it’s obvious she is the right fit for Flyleaf.

Throughout the album, the songs follow that familiar path, marrying two note riffs to big melodies, and for the most part they work. May sings with the passion of a newcomer, and even when the band feels like a bunch of professionals going through the motions, she gives the songs the energy to sound powerful. Her melodies on “Thread” and “Marionette” are the kind of sugary hooks that this kind of music requires. She was faced with the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the band’s most important member, and she knocks her role out of the park.

Unfortunately, the rest of the band isn’t able to match their new singer. There’s nothing at all wrong with these songs, from an instrumental perspective, but there aren’t any riffs or bass-lines that are going to stand out and make you think about how interesting they are. Modern rock is not a place for particularly inspired playing, and Flyleaf doesn’t escape from that box. The jangly chords in “Platonic” and the thundering blasts of “Traitor” are both ripped from the modern rock playbook, and while Flyleaf does them well, they do feel a bit predictable.

Ultimately, “Between The Stars” needs to be judged in two ways. As a statement about the band’s future, it is an undeniable home run. Flyleaf has found a worthy singer to lead them, and May seems poised to continue the band’s run as a band of note. As an album, though, it falls a little bit short. There are some really good songs on the record, and May does as much as she can with them, but if I didn’t know that she was new to the band, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. That might be considered a good thing, depending on your feelings for the band, but I was hoping that fresh blood would at least lead to a few new wrinkles. “Between The Stars” is good, but it’s exactly what I thought it would be.

Album Review: U2 – Songs Of Innocence

The one thing you can say about U2 is that they seldom do the expected thing.  After a run of massive success, they abruptly changed course and tried to become an electronic pop band.  After that, they staged one of the most successful comebacks of all time, defying all expectations.  That record, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”, redefined not only who U2 was, but what adult-oriented pop music was going to be for the next decade.  They couldn’t keep up that energy, and their next two albums were clearly inferior, but the bag of tricks was not yet dry.

U2 made their new album, “Songs Of Innocence”, free to the world, immediately.

Without the usual run-up, it’s easier to listen to the music without the fawning adulation that surrounds every U2 album.  The odes to their genius would all have to be written post-hoc, which means that possibly for the first time, we get the chance to listen to a U2 album without having to think about who U2 are.

The result of the release strategy is important, because I’m not sure “Songs Of Innocence” could stand up to the scrutiny of being a U2 record.  When you talk about a band of that magnitude, who has been around so long, the expectations become unrealistic.  Everyone expects them to release albums that are as good as ones that come once in a lifetime, and that simply can’t happen.  The fact that U2 was able to escape from the grave with “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” was a miracle.  Asking them to repeat the trick would be demanding the impossible.

What “Songs Of Innocence” is, however, is an enjoyable album that sees the band continuing to make solid music, even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel.  There’s nothing about this record that you can’t hear on any other U2 record, but the familiarity is part of the charm, the expectation that you know what the band is going to deliver.  When you hear those trademark guitar lines from the Edge, you don’t want them to step out of that comfort zone again.  This is what U2 is good at delivering, and it’s what they should stick with.

There are two sides to this album, one of which is clearly more successful than the other.  The first few tracks show U2 as a rock band, with muscular guitar lines, and Bono singing for the mountaintops.  Though they delve into some lyrical tripe, these are the kinds of anthems U2 is so good at writing.  They deliver, they echo, and they remain.  “Cedarhouse Road”, which anchors the latter half of the record, may just be the best song the band has written since “Walk On”.  It has a Zepplin-esque main riff, a sweet melody, and a sincere lyric.  In a nutshell, it’s a perfect U2 song.

There’s a run of songs in the middle of the record that don’t fare as well, the ones that dip their toes into electronic flourishes and drum loops.  U2 the modern pop band didn’t work the first time, and it doesn’t work here either.  U2 is so big that their songs have to match.  when they play smaller music, and when Bono isn’t reaching for the stars, they are decidedly average.

“Songs Of Innocence” is going to be remembered for being the album U2 gave away for free, but it’s more than a gimmick.  It’s U2 trying to remind people what a vital band they can be, and nearly succeeding.  They have a few new concert staples, and we have a record that shows U2 might just have a third act to their career.  They aren’t done yet.