Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Column: The Passion of David Bazan

This week at, I took a long look at David Bazan's new album Curse Your Branches. It is, essentially, Bazan's breakup album with God, after years as one of Christian music's most elegant and honest songwriters. He's still honest, and his writing is still elegant here, but the subject matter - the pain of losing something that once defined you - is tough and uncompromising. Couple that with Bazan's struggles with alcoholism, depicted in similarly forthright detail, and you have one of the most emotionally devastating records of the year.

It's hit me pretty hard, since I have gone through the same theological back-and-forth Bazan is wrestling with now. David Bazan has long been a songwriter worth noting, but this is the first time he's written something that has found me locked in my own head for hours, thinking about it. It's one of my favorite albums of the year.

Click on over to read the review, then come back here to leave me a comment. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

New Column: Little, Big

This week at I looked at two bands that have taken exact opposite paths.

Pearl Jam started as one of the biggest bands in the world, and have since worked overtime to get smaller, a feat they appear to have finally achieved on Backspacer, their ninth album. Meanwhile, Muse started so small that they were insignificant, but they've expanded their sound and scope each time out, to the point where The Resistance, their fifth effort, may be 2009's most ambitious record. Both of these albums are very good, which proves it's about individual comfort levels - Eddie Vedder and company just aren't as cozy with the idea of being enormous as Matt Bellamy and his cohorts.

Anyway, click on over to read my reviews, as well as a small glimpse of what's been going on in my life lately, and then head back here to leave me a comment.

Monday, September 21, 2009

First Listen: Megadeth, Endgame

I will probably do a Dear Dave Mustaine letter on this album, but just in case I don't get to it, I wanted to go on record here: Endgame is great.

For the third time in a row, Dave Mustaine has put out his best record since Rust in Peace. I don't know where the 48-year-old Mustaine is finding this late-career energy, but he absolutely shreds on this album. This is raw, fast, powerful thrash metal, the kind I once thought we'd never hear from Megadeth again. Now it's becoming a regular thing.

Highlights? After the instrumental opening "Dialectic Chaos," the band just erupts into "This Day We Fight," an awesome old-school head-banger. There are two melodic singles, the sort-of-catchy "44 Minutes" and the half-acoustic, string-laden "The Hardest Part of Letting Go... Sealed With a Kiss." But the rest of this album is just metal, plain and simple. "Head Crusher" is fantastic, "Bodies" just rocks, and closer "The Right to Go Insane" is one of those mid-tempo melodic stompers Mustaine does so well. And the solos are blistering throughout. (And like on United Abominations, there are a lot of them.)

If you dug '80s Megadeth and haven't heard the last few albums, seriously, check this out. It's as good as you're hoping it is.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New Column: You Say You Want a Revelation

Okay, kids, here's the big Beatles column. 4,991 words, all about the remastered editions of the Fab Four's 13 albums (and one singles compilation). I've been fully immersed in these discs for a week now, and they're masterpieces. I realized, looking back through my archive, that apart from a couple of references to Sgt. Pepper as the Best Album Ever, I hadn't gone on record with my thoughts about each Beatles record. So I've taken the time to correct that oversight this week, and tell you about the vast improvements in sound quality and detail in these new editions. Short version: it's so very worth your $200.

Click on over to read this monstrosity, then come on back here to leave me a comment.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First Listen: Jandek, Portland Thursday

Do you believe this guy's up to 60 albums?

Jandek, as I've mentioned before, is a Texas musician who has been self-releasing his work since 1978. His stuff is not for everyone. It's atonal and depressing and completely improvised, and on first blush, it sounds appallingly amateur. But the guy knows what he's doing. I think, to him, music just sounds like this.

Album 60 is another live effort. Once a noted recluse, Jandek's been performing around the world since 2004, usually with local musicians, and ordinarily with a minimum of rehearsal time. This show was recorded in 2006 in Portland, Oregon, and features Sam Coomes on bass, Emil Amos on drums, and on one song, Liz Harris and Jessica Dennison on backing vocals. It runs nearly two hours, and if you think you can't take two hours of Jandek, you're probably right.

But I quite like this one. I originally described it as the Cure forgetting how to play their instruments, but that's not exactly right. The music is dark and spooky, made ever more so by Jandek's deep, reverbed guitar tone. Coomes and Amos lay down some interesting grooves, on top of which Jandek then slashes erratically, but in this context, it really works. These songs are long and sinister - the first disc is four tracks, and it runs 54 minutes. And on "Whose Mister is This," Harris and Dennison add a whole other layer of eerie.

Jandek's live albums always find him in new and interesting settings, and this one delivers. I certainly couldn't make a steady diet of this, but compared to some of the Rep from Corwood's other works, this one's riveting.

First Listen: Third Eye Blind, Ursa Major

Apparently there's a lot of buzz about this record. I'm not sure why. Third Eye Blind tapped into a very specific moment in the early '90s, when they scored their biggest hits, but since then, they've been plying the same trade, and Ursa Major, their much-vaunted comeback album, makes no strides in any other direction.

Basically, what you have here is a set of semi-tuneless pop-rockers stuffed with things that could be hooks, if they were more interesting. Some of it, like the swirling "Bonfire," stands out above the rest, but most is just the same three or four chords we've heard again and again, propping up "shocking" lyrics that have no real impact. It is exactly what I feared it would be - godawful boring.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

First Listen: Collective Soul

This is Collective Soul's second self-titled album. Fans are referring to it as Rabbit, because the front cover is adorned with a picture of a white chocolate rabbit. Why a white chocolate rabbit? I have no idea.

Here's what I do know: I keep getting suckered into buying Collective Soul albums. I was all done with Blender in 2000, the one that featured Elton John as a guest star. If there's anything that says "we're corporate rock," it's an appearance by Elton John. But then they surprised me with the glam-rock Youth in 2004, and the subsequent acoustic EP From the Ground Up. I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

But other than band loyalty, there's no reason to buy Rabbit. This is middle-of-the-road Collective Soul, full of mediocre hooks and faceless, mechanical playing. Things get slightly more interesting in the second half, and closing ballad "Hymn for My Father" is nice, but this record is almost entirely forgettable. So forget it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Do Believe in Beatles

So I took the plunge. I am now the proud owner of the entire Beatles catalog, remastered in stereo.

I haven't had nearly enough time to properly assess this thing, but I can tell you, the packaging is glorious. The outer box is understated and sturdy, with a magnet clasp, and the individual sleeves for each album are exactly right. The liner notes are informative without being sycophantic, and the discs themselves are designed like the vinyl records - Parlophone up through Sgt. Pepper, Apple Corps after that. They even get Magical Mystery Tour right: the version that eventually became canon is the U.S. release, so this reissue gets a Capitol Records design.

I've heard very little of it so far. I did listen to most of Abbey Road, and the sound quality is amazing. Details pop out now, and I heard things, even in minor songs like "Octopus' Garden," that I'd never heard before. The big improvement is in Paul McCartney's bass, which can now be enjoyed without straining your ears, and in Ringo Starr's drums, which are clean and separated.

I did, however, play some of Please Please Me, and it has convinced me to buy the mono box, when I have another $200 lying around. The stereo master of this album (and presumably the first four albums) was an afterthought - the mono mix was "the mix," and the stereo version simply put the instruments in one channel and the vocals in the other and called it good. The remastering team did not create new stereo masters for these albums, although George Martin did for Help! and Rubber Soul back in the '80s, thankfully. The not-quite-stereo mix of Please is somewhat disheartening, especially when the mono tracks ("Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You," which were never mixed in stereo) come in. They are bright and brilliant, exactly the way I want this album to sound.

But despite that, I am very happy so far with the box set. I spent $200 on music I already own, and yes, I understand how crazy that must seem to some people, but thus far, it was absolutely worth it. The best catalog in popular music now sounds renewed, rejuvenated, and ready to be discovered by generations yet to come. That's pretty awesome, if you think about it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New Column: Back in Black

Another week has passed me by. My insane schedule should be clearing up soon. But of course, I said that last week, and look what happened.

Regardless, I did find time to write another (brief) column at, this one all about double albums and the Black Crowes. I have long maintained that the Crowes are the best rock 'n' roll band in the world, and they've done nothing to dissuade me this time. Their new record Before the Frost... Until the Freeze is a 20-song collection of new stuff recorded live, and it positively crackles with energy. While I like the first disc better than the second, the way they've chosen to release this thing leads to all kinds of philosophical discussions on double albums and why they still excite me.

Click on over to read it, then come back here and leave me a comment.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New Column: Nothing In Common

I can't believe it's been another week already. I have four or five First Listen posts ready to go, but just haven't found the time to scribble them down. I need to make a better effort here.

Anyway, I am keeping up with my regular gig at This week's missive contains my thoughts on three very diverse albums: Owl City's one-man electronic poptopia Ocean Eyes, Mew's towering weird-prog excursion No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World is Grey I'm Sorry They Washed Away, and David Mead's wonderful acoustic love letter Almost and Always. These three have absolutely nothing in common (hence the column title), except for the fact that I really like them all.

Click on over to read, then come back here to post comments.