Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I'm going to refrain from using any, "It's a Shame About..." jokes

This review post is done in collaboration with the excellent Mike Hiltz over at Central Target. We both gave a listen to the new Lemonheads cover album Varshons, and are posting our first impressions. This is in preparation for our marathon listening and hype-busting extravaganza coming soon.

First things first, I like the Lemonheads. I really like the Lemonheads. I'm not as fanatical as Mr. Hiltz will likely tell you he is, but I expect that when I hear a Lemonheads record, I am going to enjoy it. That was certainly the case with Varshons. Despite the negative reviews I read from other outlets, I expected to enjoy this record quite a bit. I chalked it up to the other reviewers just not being fans of Evan Dando's style. While one can question whether a top-notch songwriter with a history of chart success with mostly covers should be playing into that by releasing an entire covers album, but that's beside the point. Good songs are good songs, and good songs played by Dando logically should make for a fun record.

Except that it doesn't. At all. This is a boring album. There is really not much more that needs to be said, and really, not much more that can be said. The song choices are fine, if fairly unexceptional. With the exception of "Dirty Robot" and "Dandelion Seeds", they are all played as acoustic country ballads. For some of them, this results in a minor change (the Parsons and Van Zandt tracks, for example); for others, it's a complete reinvention (Wire and G.G. Allin). The band plays competently, if unexceptionally. The production is restrained and tasteful. Liv Tyler and Kate Moss turn in perfectly acceptable vocal performances. Neither are going to be accused of being singers anytime soon, but I've heard much worse from starlets-slumming-as-singers (see, e.g., Ms. Johannson), though Moss is saddled with the most bizarre track on the album, the ill-advised synth-disco of "Dirty Robot" (which I will admit is more fun than it should be, maybe simply because it breaks the otherwise overwhelming monotony of the album). The problem is that nothing rises above the competent or the professional. Everything is so smooth that there is nothing to get excited about.

Dando is the worst offender on this point, contributing some incredibly sleepy and uninspired vocal performances. If Dando cannot bring himself to get excited about singing these songs, how can he expect listeners to do so? Dando is a fine singer, and could have brought these songs to life (listen to "Into Your Arms" again to see how well he can invigorate a song). He doesn't do that here, and he kills whatever interest his band creates by just not seeming to give a damn.

Covers are tricky beasts. Ultimately, the success of a cover is whether a listener would prefer to listen to the cover version over the original in any respect. This can be done by either re-imagining the song, making it different enough that it exists as a different creature altogether, or by just killing a straight interpretation of the song such that your version is simply better. I simply can't say that I will listen to any of Varshons songs over their original counterparts (maybe the G.G. Allin song, because I hate G.G., but that's a different story altogether), and for that reason, as much as it pains me, I cannot recommend this record.

I still do like the Lemonheads.

Rating: D+

Friday, June 19, 2009

I'm only going to do one post about this, unlike some other people I know

I apologize for the significant delay between posts. As most of the people reading this know (as I'm pretty sure almost all of you were there), in the interim I got married, went on a honeymoon, and moved into a new house. Kind of takes time away from randomly spouting off about music on a blog.

Anyway, for my return post, I am going to honor a request from someone who likes this subject (http://www.centraltarget.blogspot.com/) and discuss Green Day's newest album, 21st Century Breakdown. I must say, I am amazed at how much I enjoy this album. It's not a perfect album, but, considering that I was expecting an out-and-out disaster, the fact that I enjoy most of it is remarkable. Most of the reviews I have read discuss it as a slightly lesser American Idiot, but that is a bit of a misnomer. American Idiot was, if not a true punk rock album, at least owed a significant debt to indie and punk sonics, while 21st Century Breakdown ignores those tropes almost completely and goes straight for the Big Rock Album jugular. If American Idiot's target comparison was Zen Arcade, 21st Century Breakdown is Quadrophenia. It's big, it's sprawling, it's a bit messy, it's overlong, but overall it's a solid collection of arena rock songs, immaculately produced and performed. It's no longer fair to even call Green Day a punk band anymore, or at least to use any punk descriptions for this album, anymore than it is fair to call U2's latest a post-punk album. This is arena rock, shooting for that same level as 70’s-era Who, with the Big songs and the Big production to match. As such, it sometimes goes a bit over-the-top, but that’s what comes with the territory when a band aims for the rafters of bombast like Green Day has here.

It is noteworthy how bits and pieces of the band’s side projects have found their way into 21st Century Breakdown. The opening of “Christian’s Inferno” sounds like a dead ringer for some of The Network stuff, while there are elements of their Foxboro Hot Tubs garage scattered around (they also straight-up nick The Hives’ “Main Offender” riff for “Horseshoes and Handgrenades”, which isn’t a huge deal, except that I really hope The Hives get wind of it, just because I want to read the press release they would put out). Lyrically the record is a bit clunky, but pretty strong overall. While I cannot claim to fully grasp the story, it doesn’t hamper the power of the songs one bit. It is a bit strange how many reviews cite the impenetrability of the story as a major criticism, begging the question of what they are comparing this album to – the powerful narrative of Tommy and Quadrophenia? The clear story-telling of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? The well-developed characters of Zen Arcade? Concept albums are just generally not exactly well-known for their coherent stories, and holding Green Day to that standard seems disingenuous and a bit of nit-picking.

In short, while I don’t see myself reaching for this album as much as I do Dookie, Warning, or Kerplunk, that has more to do with personal preference than anything else -

What is perhaps most startling is noticing just how far this band has come since its days on Lookout! Records. While the transition from Kerplunk and their early EPs to Dookie is fairly unremarkable (it’s basically just a cleaned-up version of the same style), their finalized transition from a pop punk to pure power pop band with Warning was a much more substantial and noteworthy transformation, and they really have not made the same album ever since. The idea that a band could, in a five year span, produce a dark synth-pop record (The Network), a pure 60’s garage throw-back record (Foxboro Hot Tubs), a long-form punk rock opera (American Idiot), and a full-fledged arena rock behemoth (21st Century Breakdown) is kind of astounding. That they could do that with a consistent core trio is even more surprising, especially as this is the same trio that seemed pretty much relegated to being a band that would come out with another set of solid pop-punk tunes every few years to a steadily dwindling core base. Now Green Day, yes that Green Day, the Dookie guys, are, in 2009, the hoped-for saviors of the CD medium and the floundering recorded music industry. Just think about that for a little while.