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Small Faces: Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake reissue review

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(9.5 out of 10)

Over the years, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake has been reissued on CD seven different times by the same label, so any skepticism regarding whether or not this most recent 3-CD “deluxe edition” by that same label is the ultimate/definitive/perfect/never-to-be-topped version is well-warranted.

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Silversun Pickups: Neck of the Woods CD review

(8.5 out of 10)

It’s 2012. Let’s not go down the road of determining whether or not Silversun Pickups sounds like or doesn’t sound like Smashing Pumpkins (they do, and it’s okay). Let’s instead talk about why Neck of the Woods is the best mainstream rock album of the year.

Granted, there’s not a whole lot of real competition out there in the category, given the sheer dominance that reductive butt-rock has in the genre. But, with Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups not only reminds listeners of what a particular band in the ‘90s sounded like, but also how refreshing rock ’n’ roll sounded at the time. Today, with “cooler” bands gravitating toward either the raw/abrasive or the bland/sleepy poles of rock’s axis, there’s very little action in the vast middle, where power and accessibility can combine with smarts and style (but often don’t, resulting in, well, butt-rock). Silversun Pickups has been digging around in that chasm for six years now, and while the band’s debut was too clearly beholden to the Pumpkins and the second album was too ambitious in its attempts to escape them, Neck of the Woods finds the band taking a much more natural approach.

By infusing some space-rock elements and moving away from an all-dynamics-all-the-time bombast, the atmospherics here are more subtle, but also much more effective. There’s a warmer, less clinical sound to the album’s most straightforward and rocking tracks (“Mean Spirits”) as well as on its more nuanced numbers (the album-closing mini-epic “Out of Breath”); even when Silversun threads synth-pop textures into “The Pit,” the result still manages to have a human heart beating at its core. Of course, there are some predictable forays into shoegaze-y sounds (“Bloody Mary [Nerve Endings]”) and blunt-force Pumpkins homages (the main riff and chorus in “Gun-Shy Sunshine”), but, if you’re truly being honest, it’s impossible to deny that not only has Silversun Pickups definitely arrived at their own sound, but that they’re one of very few bands around who is finding new ground to break in a genre that most have given up for dead. And that’s not just commendable, it’s damned near heroic.

First appeared May 8, 2012 in Paste.

Jens Lekman: An Argument with Myself CD review

 

(7 out of 10)

It’s understandable that lots of folks like to draw parallels between the music of Jens Lekman and, say, Morrissey or Belle & Sebastian. Why? Because there are a whole lot of similarities there, to be sure. But more than either of those two indie mainstays, the artist that Lekman most reminds this writer of is Steely Dan. This is not because Lekman’s voice is reminiscent of Donald Fagen’s, or that his arrangements evoke fern-bar coke binges in the same way that Steely Dan’s does. No, it’s because, more than anything else, Jens Lekman’s music is uncannily precise. His lyrics (florid, yet specific) and his music (expansive, yet tightly-wound) combine to make songs that unspool themselves in a way that’s rooted in a precision that makes it clinically effective, while being somewhat emotionally detached—much like the entirety of Aja.

That’s not to say Lekman doesn’t know how to have fun; in fact, this EP’s opening track comes off like a seriously goofy flight of lyrical fancy. But while the title track has a from-the-hip vibe—”fuck you, no you fuck you”—Lekman’s dense construction of words and sounds begs for closer inspection; he’s telling a story and he really wants you to pay attention. And, for the most part, An Argument With Myself is definitely worthy of a closer look. Although it only clocks in at 17 minutes, this five-song EP is a pleasantly jumbled affair that shows Lekman’s lyrical facility continues to improve, while his stylistic palette continues to broaden; he has moved well beyond the simple, twee clone-work of his earliest releases. Little filigrees of baroque pop decorate stiff, self-conscious funk (“New Directions”), while gently warm acoustic numbers like “Waiting for Kirsten” are rendered into slow-burning, handclap-ready tunes.

First appeared Sept. 20, 2011 in Paste.

R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant 25th Anniversary Edition CD review

(7 out of 10)

For many people, Life’s Rich Pageant is the last “real” R.E.M. record.

Although it shines a giant and unmistakable signal toward the direct and poppy approach the band would undertake on their next few albums, Pageant still retains the mumbles of Murmur, the jangles ofReckoning, and the rustic tones of Fables of the Reconstruction. But it bundles all those things in a cheerful and expansive sound—courtesy of producer Don Gehman, best known for his work with John Mellencamp—and, at the time, it seemed less like a definitive change in direction than just another example of R.E.M. trying a sound on for size.

Yet, this was the record that saw the band metastasize from the biggest band on the college-rock scene into a band that was on their way to becoming one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. This reissue offers an appropriately beefy remastering job, one that highlights the sinewy strength of tracks like “Hyena” and “Begin the Begin,” but doesn’t quite do justice to the more gentle textures of “Swan Swan H,” a song that shouldn’t give you goosebumps 25 years later, but does. The bonus tracks here, like those on last year’s reissue of Fables of the Reconstruction, are all demo versions, including quite a few (unremarkable) songs that didn’t make the album.

First appeared July 13, 2011 in Paste.

Ty Segall: Goodbye Bread CD review

(7.5 out of 10)

Goodbye Bread is an album that unfolds almost imperceptibly. But by the time the eighth track, “Where Your Head Goes” comes along, you will almost certainly have noticed that the mood has evolved from the inward-looking lo-fi of the opening title track and into something darker, more full-bodied and electric.

This sonic diversity isn’t a new thing for Ty Segall, but the way that Goodbye Breadreveals itself shows a marked increase in thoughtfulness when compared to the San Francisco psychedelic songwriter’s previous five albums. Not that Segall decided to make Goodbye Bread some sort of concept album, but there’s a definite tightening of the screws here, and much less of a sense that the entire affair will go careening off the rails at any moment.

The way Segall has always — both on his solo records and his sundry full-band work — touched on various styles is evidence of his love for the DIY spirit of garage rock and the deep and weird legacy of decades of Bay Area musicians before him. However, his execution of those styles has always been as unique as it has been a little bit half-assed. On Goodbye Bread, there’s no sense of the latter. Sure, Segall’s voice is still a weak and warbly instrument, and his guitar playing — even at its most forcefully imitative of his mentor, Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer — has yet to explode with the power he clearly wants it to. But the honest and personality-rich vibe he gives to a knuckle-dragging bit of boogie-rock like “You Make the Sun Fry” or the snarling simplicity of “California Commerical” somehow manages to make those songs as arresting and unique as more traditional and jangly lo-fi numbers like “Fine.”

First appeared June 21, 2011 in Paste.

White Denim: D CD review

(7 out of 10)

At what point does a waterfall of surprises become just another drowning crush of predictable unpredictability? It’s a question that Austin-based White Denim has been wrestling with for much of their five-year existence, and it’s one that they’ve yet to come to answer completely. On D, the band’s fourth full-length album, they once again seem determined to jam just about every sonic element from all the FM-oriented records released between 1966 and 1976 into a vaguely modernized template. Yes, “Street Joy” quotes the melody from “Hey Hey, My My,” the band busts out a Jethro Tull-style flute riff on “River to Consider” (and it’s not Tull-style just because it’s flute … it legitimately sounds like a bit that Ian Anderson would play), and a cut like “Bess St.” splits the previously vast canyon of difference between Foghat-style boogie-rock and the noodly tempo complexities of King Crimson.

So yes, just as with White Denim’s previous releases, there’s a lot to unpack on D — if, of course, you even want to bother. The alternative is to just give up on trying to figure out exactly where these guys are coming from and just let their relaxed rock ’n’ roll virtuosity work its magic. Because at the end of the day, D manages to show White Denim doing one very specific thing: being White Denim. At this point in the game, all those influences and touchstones have jelled into a sound that’s both easily identifiable and quite unique, and though it’s still occasionally jarring in its schizophrenia, it’s one that manages to be consistent on its own terms. In fact, the few moments when D missteps most obviously are those when the band settles into a relatively straightforward and conventional groove — like, say, the gentle, Blitzen Trapper-ish acoustica of album-closer “Keys.”

First appeared May 25, 2011 in Paste.

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi: Rome CD review

(5.5 out of 10)

What’s most shocking about this long-gestating collaboration between the increasingly polymath-tastic Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi is how un-cinematic it is. To be sure, Rome is designed to be taken in like it’s some sort of Cinemascope of Sound — hell, the album took longer to make than most of the classic Italian films of the ‘60s from which it draws inspiration — but the end result is much smaller, more intimate, and far less gregarious than the Cinecittà movies or spaghetti westerns of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Although Danger Mouse and Luppi go right to the source for Rome’s sonic bona fides by utilizing some of the same studio musicians, singers, and even equipment that giants like Morricone did, those tools still don’t keep the album from sounding more like bedroom-based baroque pop than the swinging grandiosity of the era they’re trying to emulate.

In fact, it’s truly remarkable how much work went into the making of this album — we’ve heard tales of bartering bottles of wine for vintage equipment, recording with analog tape in the famed Ortophonic Studios, calling out of retirement the elder statesmen who played on the soundtracks of films like Once Upon a Time in the West. Yet all of that fetishism is quickly and completely eclipsed by the jarring presence of the distinct voices of Norah Jones and Jack White (each of whom appear on three tracks) and the plodding, midtempo modernity of the songs composed by Luppi and Danger Mouse.

The combination finds none of the elements complementing one another, resulting in an amorphous and unchallenging bit of pleasantry, rather than the ambitious result of, as the marketing materials say, “a half-decade of hard work and unstinting perfectionism.” Actually, I take that back. Rome does sound like the result of five years of Very Serious Effort, except instead of honing a few rough spots, the hubris-driven tinkering ended up chipping away all the soul from what could have been a jaunty and lively homage to some of the best movie music ever made.

First appeared May 17, 2011 in Paste.