It’s always been kind of easy to knock Norah Jones.
While 36 million records worldwide would seem to contradict that, Jones has always seemed to inspire hatred among music purists in spite of her populist appeal. She’s too young. She has many songs written for her. She’s not a true “jazz artist.” The list goes on and on for her detractors, but on her new record The Fall, don’t be surprised if certain purist start bagging on Norah because there’s “not enough Norah Jones sounding piano” on it.
Instead, The Fall finds Jones asserting more control over her songwriting (Writing or co-writing each track here), while gently shifting her pop jazz influences closer to American roots music. While Jones is no stranger to experimentation (The folk influences on Feels Like Home, and the southern jazz touches of Not Too Late come to mind), this is the first time since her debut that Jones seems comfortable with the direction. As a result, The Fall showcases Jones in a variety of moods and emotions, while coming across as a rich and lush dream.
The first single “Chasing Pirates” is a great indication of Jones’ newfound autonomy. Held together with ebbing Wurlitzer, snappy drumming, and Jones’ molasses thick voice, the track balances hooks with a bubbling effervescence. The overall affect is as buoyant as Jones is coy, but provides a certain amount of depth that’s mostly lost in pop music.
However, if there’s one thing The Fall excels in, it’s in drifting atmospheres that envelop the listener. On The Fall, guitars chime, fading in an out with rich reverb and soft distortion. Bass lines like the slinky crawl found on “I Wouldn’t Need You” pull listeners in as Jones weaves tales about love lost. Elsewhere, the smoky barroom stomp of “It’s Gonna Be” is peppered with rough blues guitar and pulsing drums, conjuring images of Bourbon Street dives and long nights.
While Jones surrounds herself with some fine musicians, her choice to hire producer Jacquire King was a gamble that paid off in spades. Known for his work with Tom Waits and Modest Mouse, King’s knob twisting makes The Fall dense without feeling cluttered. His soft, but never murky production suits Jones’ rich voice as she balances her frailty with longing, creating sounds as surreal as her prose.
The Fall might come across as sonically smooth, but it’s Jones’ stories that bear her sharp teeth. More so than ever before, Jones wears her heart on her sleeve in singing about her flaws, her insecurities, and her struggle with relationships. On “Light As A Feather,” Jones croons “While the seasons will undo your soul/Time forgives us and takes control/We separate our things to put us back together…” This sense of decay runs rampant throughout The Fall, and rather than simplifying heartache into an “Us vs Them” war of words, Jones is careful to grant weight to shared intimacy.
Ultimately, Jones’ more mature look on loss keeps her stories fresh without being preachy. The climbing blues of “Stuck” creates an awkward late night rendezvous between two people don't know how to really co-exist with each other. Lines like “I’m sitting here stuck/Plastered to me seat/I think up a reason to leave/When you finally stop speaking…” show Jones is interesting in exploring human frailties as opposed to surface level bursts of frustration. The result makes her storytelling on The Fall as captivating as the music it accompanies, perhaps the rarest feat of all in pop music.
While it’s a bit unusual to have a Norah Jones album that is so light in ivory, it’s refreshing to find Jones daring to experiment with a myriad of sounds as well as her lyrics. Yet what makes The Fall truly shine, seems to be the balance with which Jones pulls these parts together. There is not one thing, one musical slant, one lyrical idea, that overpowers the rest. Instead, The Fall comes across as a fully realized work, one where modest means and honest parables come together seamlessly, and without pretension.
On the jumpy piano of “Man Of The Hour,” Jones softly whispers about the only kind of man that could truly capture her heart: Her dog. She confesses, “You never lie/And you don’t cheat/And you don’t have any baggage/Tied to your four feet...” showing that it’s not perfection or the ideal that she’s searching for, but authenticity. Through her charming honesty, Jones hits on what we’re all searching for: The chance to live with who we truly are, without the push to be labeled as something we’re not.
But don’t worry; plenty of people will hate her for singing honestly as well.
Key Cuts: Chasing Pirates, Light As A Feather, I Wouldn't Need You
Sounds Like: Field Manuel (Chris Walla), The Remainder (Feist), Girls & Boys (Ingrid Michaelson)
Click on the artwork to sample The Fall for yourself!
Saturday, November 28, 2009
It’s always been kind of easy to knock Norah Jones.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Pay close attention to the cover art on John Mayer’s latest album, Battle Studies.
Notice his gray-scaled physique, his purposefully tussled hair, and his wistful stare, the target of which is decidedly out of frame. Soak it in, let John Mayer’s singer-songwriter plight consume you through the sheer force of his gaze.
Perfectly constructed sadness never looked so real.
The problem is that Battle Studies is all style, with only flashes of substance, from a musician that really started to get serious with his last album. 2006’s Continuum was a breath of fresh air for Mayer, who’d been making good but not great music for a few years prior, and put him in the realm of serious music makers. His decision to focus on his arrangements and stretch his sonic palate made for an engaging listen, and won him heaps of praise for people that thought he was just a pop dandy.
Yet instead of continuing that trend, Mayer seems more concerned with appearing sophisticated rather than actually engaging his listeners. On Battle Studies, Mayer takes his jazz/blues soft rock to Prozac-laden proportions, focusing on half-baked atmosphere and ambience rather than storytelling and song craft.
Things get off to a rocky start, the Edge inspired guitar and lush backdrop of “Heartbreak Warfare” offering listeners a massive sonic experience, but a fairly shallow song. Mayer caps it off with a strained solo, one that’s as frustrated as we’re lead to believe he is, but his lyrics that feel painfully trite. Against a symphony of anguish, Mayer amateurishly tackles the universal with no brainer hooks such as, “Once you want it to begin/No one really ever wins/In heartbreak warfare…”
And it’s only track one.
Make no mistake, Battle Studies is an immaculate sounding record. It's bass is warm and thick, it's drums are deep. The rich syrupy solo on “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” and the delicate acoustic melodies on “Do You Know Me” prove that Mayer enlisted some studio muscle, but there’s a tradeoff. There aren’t very many moments where the music feels organic. The digital funk of “Crossroads” flirts with a decent groove, Mayer’s southern rock delivery holding it all together, but it all feels calculated, pieced together to sell John Mayer rather than music John Mayer made.
What the record lacks, and what ultimately made Continuum so captivating, was Mayer’s ability to create intimate portraits while keeping his arrangements lively and evolving. On Battle Studies, Mayer opts to phone in his melodies, allowing songs to meander while their crispness carries them. Considering what an accomplished guitarist he is, it’s a real shame to see that potential go to waste, especially when his solos remind you that you’re on a different song.
Predictably enough, Battle Studies is best when Mayer forgets about how glossy he can make his music. The simple acoustic pluck of “Who Says” is a standout gem, a song that feels more inline with his feelings than the grandiose balladeering he’s become fixated with. Against softly brushed percussion, Mayer’s nimble melodies give way to lines like “It's been a long night in New York City/It's been a long time since 22 /I don't remember you looking any better/But then again I don't remember you…” It’s not that Mayer sounds more convincing, it’s that the words have more weight in subject matter, tackling the ambiguity that comes from fractured relationships rather than the heartbroken absolutism that peppers the rest of the album.
Battle Studies finds Mayer preoccupied with either showing how macho he is, or how torn up the ladies have made him. “Assassins” is a heavy-handed parable about encountering his heartbreaking female alter ego, while “Half Of My Heart” would make even Charlie Brown wince awkwardly. In short, John Mayer lashes out because he has a persona he wants to maintain, and it’s this persona that gets him in trouble.
Still, the record has its bright spots. “Crossroads” proves that the ghost of Al Green looms behind Mayer’s fretting fingers while the spinning melodies of “Edge Of Desire” help listeners drift into a delicate dream world. It’s clear that Mayer can write a melody, and write them well, but on Battle Studies he seems to have forgotten how to make them consistently memorable.
But fear not, because John Mayer has provided listeners with something that he feels trumps a solid record any day, his sensitive side. Battle Studies won’t change any notions or leave a lasting impact, but listeners are left with a sad breathy croon and purposefully constructed hair. Ultimately, it's the sound of plastic emotion, and of a gifted player putting his potential on the shelf.
Key Cuts: Who Says, Crossroads, Edge Of Desire
Sounds Like: The worst parts of KOIT radio.
Click on the artwork to sample Battle Studies for yourself!
Thursday, November 12, 2009
By a band’s fourth record, certain things are more or less figured out.
The sound has been solidified, eventually earmarking what future listeners will remember them for, and the line-up is usually cemented as the "classic" line-up if it hasn't been already. Think about this: The Beastie Boys released Ill Communication, Korn released Issues, and blink 182 broke into the mainstream with Enema Of The State. Clearly, fourth records are standard bearers and legacy makers, making them extremely important to musical artists.
By the fourth record, fans have an understanding of what a particular band is about, so it’s important for that band to put forth a tremendous effort, or risk fading into obscurity.
Whether or not Max Bemis of Say Anything was conscious of this trend is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that he set out to make a defining record for himself this time around. On Say Anything, Bemis leads his band like a pop-punk general, burning social inequities and salting the Earth with big hooks and big rhythms. Fragile neurosis in step, Bemis and his crew march through 13 larger than life tracks that focus on everything from relationships, to society, to the great big afterlife.
Fans turned off by the shear breadth of the band’s 2006 double album In Defense Of The Genre will find that Bemis has narrowed down his sights this time around. The hooks grab more immediately, and his mixing of sounds continues to uniquely color Say Anything’s music within a stale genre.
The record hits its stride early with the playfully nihilistic “Hate Everyone,” featuring snappy acoustic melodies, chunky guitar lines, and cartoony keyboards. Elsewhere, “Crush’d” flips the Say Anything sound to it’s electronic indulgences, featuring fluttering beats and crisp synthesizers while “She Won’t Follow You” sinks its teeth into melodic walls of distortion. Additionally, Neal Avron’s clean, but not compressed, production keeps a consistent feel throughout the album, even when the songs are stylistically different.
While there are a few bombastic missteps (The carnival interlude on “Mara & Me” comes to mind) Bemis seems to have settled down his musical ADD when it comes to genre splattering. It’s not that Bemis has necessarily turned a blind eye to the musical experimentation of In Defense Of The Genre, it’s that he approaches his songwriting with greater discipline and restraint this time. And after two full discs of pushing the band’s sound to its limits, Bemis has identified and refined what works for the band on Say Anything. While the record doesn’t do anything to win over new fans, Bemis’ singular vision and “evolution without self-consciousness” attitude give the album life and energy.
The album’s standout “Do Better” exemplifies this, taking a pulsing dance beat and covering it with smooth, quirky strings and a twangy guitar solo. Juxtaposed with clever word play like “Life is not a spark in space/An episode of Will & Grace/Controversial yet mundane/Debra’s messing with your brain…” it’s clear that Bemis’ sense of melody allows him some interesting sonic luxuries that accentuate his thoughts.
Bemis' thoughts, however, take this album from simply being a great sounding record into something with a bit more substance. While Bemis has matured from his is first musical outings (Finding a wife and keeping his bi-polar disorder in check) it’s clear that he approaches life with a new sense of perspective this time around.
The second half gem “Cemetery” shows Bemis at his most confessional with lines like “There's a cemetery deep below the sea/There is spaces reserved for fools like me…” Against sparkling acoustic guitars and a grinding, distorted build up, Bemis seems to be taking responsibility for the anguish in his life rather than shifting the blame onto something else as per the genre staple. In the end, he comes to the realization of “Should He asks what got me through?/If He asks me, it was you…” which illustrates Bemis’ new found faith in making human connections.
It is no longer binge and purge writing from Bemis. Instead, cuts like the military drum themed album closer “Ahhh…Men” revels in his new found self-awareness, his comfort in letting that which he doesn’t control, run its course. Bemis sings, “So can I lie in your grave at the edge of the end of the world?/Where I will sit with my love in this fluorescent swirl/Eat us up, break it down to the tiniest cell/In a room with a view and a window to hell…” finding comfort in that all things end, and all things decay, but it’s not to be seen as a failure on his part.
This ultimately creates a record that extends itself organically, while allowing Bemis’ personal growth paint vivid portraits about universal truths.
There are some missteps, “Eloise” goes on for far too long and the chorus on “Death For My Birthday” becomes a bit redundant, but those are small prices to pay for such a consistent record. While listeners will cry out that Bemis has swindled them once again in not rehashing …Is A Real Boy, Say Anything succeeds because Bemis has been able to transfer his matured voice into a greater sonic palate. The result is a record that can stand next to the best of Say Anything’s canon, and in the future, define it.
Key Cuts: Do Better, Cemetery, Ahhh…Men
Sounds Like: Catalyst (A New Found Glory), Interventions & Lullabies (The Format), Pasadena (Ozma)
Click on the artwork to sample Say Anything for yourself!
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Since 2001, one thing has remained constant about Weezer: They’ve pissed off all the critics and fans that fell in love with them in the 90s, and they’ve seemed to take pleasure in doing it.
While bands evolved and lose followers over time, none of them inspire as much hatred and betrayal that Weezer’s ex-fans seem to exhibit. Old followers and rock snobs have collectively disowned Rivers Cuomo, the supposed geek rock equivalent of Anakin Skywalker, accusing him of shifting to the pop music Dark Side with his penchant for hooks and loud guitar. By their standards, The Green Album was too slick, Maladroit was too dull, Make Believe was too poorly written, and The Red Album, for lack of a better way to say it, was just too goofy.
And now, they have Raditude to hate as well.
With 10 tracks, and a fleet of songwriting partners, Weezer’s Raditude effectively ends the hope that Cuomo will ever revisit the mindset that made Pinkerton such a cherished record. Packed to the brim with sugary hooks, punchy rhythms, and squealing guitar, Raditude revels in everything a 13-year-old boy could love about rock music, and everything a 40-year-old man needs to feel young. The result is a record that indulges in ALL of Weezer’s cheesy tendencies, but with half the fun and absence of wit.
On the surface, however, the record is certainly crisp sounding. “I’m Your Daddy” features chugging guitars and thick moog synthesizers, reminding fans that Cars-inspired power-pop never quite goes out of style. Elsewhere, the squealing pseudo metal of “Let It All Hang Out” and the acoustic backed “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” inject the disc with plenty of big sing along moments while proving that Weezer is the Bruce Lee of crunchy rhythms.
However, there are some musical detours that bog the disc down, the saccharine quality of such leaving a poor taste in some listeners’ mouths. The Sugar Ray original, but Cuomo penned, “Love Is The Answer” mines a Bollywood aesthetic that feels out of place and inauthentic to really be construed as actual experimentation. Additionally, Cuomo and producer Jermaine Dupri transform the quiet/acoustic Cuomo demo “Can’t Stop Partying” into a bombastic electronic number, with bristling club beats and dance-ready synthesizers.
Oh yeah, and Lil Wayne spits on a verse.
Weezer have always toyed with arrangements, subject matter, and song styles that weren’t native to pop-punk, but this is the first time they fail to be ironic. Raditude’s glaring weakness is its transparency; the disc’s shallowness precludes it from being an astute observation about feel-good culture while relegating it to overwrought, and juvenile, clichés. It’s not that Lil Wayne is on a Weezer record, it’s that listeners can’t take Cuomo’s party anthem about feeling lonely in the club seriously because the music has been constructed too closely to the ideas he rails against.
Additionally, Weezer’s obsession with adolescence is neither clever nor nostalgic. In fact, it comes across as lazy. “Trippin’ Down The Freeway” features an explosive chorus and strong sense of melody, but the lyrics of “I told you that you had put on some weight/You went out with somebody named Kevin Green/You preferred to go to a volleyball game/I told you that you couldn't be more lame…” offer no insight from lost youth love. Much like the Pat Wilson penned clunker, “In The Mall,” it seems like the band is stuck in their Happy Days inspired music video, and cannot move past that when it comes to their subject matter.
Ultimately, Raditude provides a fun listen if an empty one. While it’s all well and good to parade a set of songs that sound like a band enjoying themselves, there is also an issue of really looking at the quality of said songs. Again, the group banishes their best track from this era (The thick, stompy power-pop number “The Prettiest Girl In The Whole Wide World”) to the deluxe edition b-sides, and they fail to exercise any restraint when it comes to their song craft.
In short, the band needs to go back to producer Ric Osseck.
While it’s far from the end of the world, it’s frustrating to see a band just coast on their talents. Raditude is fun in the way 80s hair metal is fun, but never feels as intimate as Weezer’s past catalog. It tragically fails at making listeners think whilst they’re having fun, a hallmark of Weezer’s brightest material. This is partly because of the collaborative song writing process, and the lack of a unified voice, but also because the band seems to be through with painting intimate portraits of their lives.
Gone is the Weezer that toured as metal cover band Goat Punishment, fronted by the Havard student that painted his room all black. Instead, listeners have to accept that this is a Weezer that likes feel-good tunes while hocking Weezer brand Snuggies. While it’s always true that bands evolve and change overtime, it’s fairly uncommon to see a bad relive their teens more than two decades into their career.
Then again, maybe only a band with this much raditude is gutsy enough to try.
Key Cuts: I’m Your Daddy, Let It All Hang Out, The Prettiest Girl In The Whole Wide World (Deluxe Edition only)
Sounds Like: The Cars (The Cars), Hysteria (Def Leppard), Pasadena (Ozma)
Click on the artwork to sample Raditude for yourself!