DVD: Jimi Hendrix - The Guitar Hero

Label: Image Entertainment

Released: September 14, 2010

Some documentaries are for casual fans, others are for more serious fans and others are almost for musicians themselves. This one falls into the latter two categories. There is a bit of narrative that takes him from childhood to the London of 1967 and a bit more that surrounds his death, but the focus is more on his music, his legacy and the many wild guesses as to what he would have done had he lived.

In light of that focus, what makes this documentary really worthwhile is the tremendous amount of first hand accounts offered from the people who were there, whose musical lives were shaken, in most cases quite suddenly, by what Hendrix was doing. It does lack a lot of the clips of interviews and live performances that a more casual treatment would have offered, but the insight of those who knew and worked with Hendrix made this a deeper and more interesting look at his life and music. Best of all, it wasn’t simply an ode to the dead. The film treated Hendrix respectfully enough to be honest about who he was and where he might have gone on to become had he lived.

Rating: 7/10

Review: Robert Plant - Band of Joy

Released: September 14, 2010

Label: Rounder Records

A couple years back, so-called Led Zeppelin fans were disappointed by Robert Plant’s decision to forgo any full-fledged Led Zeppelin reunion. Of course, any truly discerning fan who has taken a good listen to Plant’s solo career, particularly the three albums preceding Band of Joy, including his 2007 collaboration with Allison Krauss, should feel otherwise. What made Zeppelin great wasn’t so much the riffs or the voice or one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections; it was their unrelenting drive to push the limits and constraints of rock music. A reunion wouldn’t have that same spirit, but Robert Plant has had it all along…perhaps, now more than ever.

If you thought that Raising Sand, Plant’s dabbling in country, with modern bluegrass great Krauss, was an unlikely musical success story, Band of Joy will be every bit as much of a pleasant surprise. The album is largely made up of covers, with a few new arrangements of traditional songs and a single original. The song selection is easily a front-runner for the most diverse and perceptive since Rick Rubin worked with Johnny Cash. Opener “Angel Dance” takes on a earthier vibe than Los Lobos’ original, making for an even fuller, more human experience. Two Low songs also found their way into the mix. While Plant humanizes both beyond the limits of their slowcore bounds, it is “Monkey” that really stands out. This is a song that takes its cues from shoegazer and ambient coldness and Plant transforms it by juxtaposing those elements against the sensuality that he naturally emanates. Barbara Lynn’s “You Can’t Buy My Love” gets a bit of a jump blues treatment with an arrangement that simultaneously modernizes it. Even the more standard treatments, such as Townes Van Zandt’s final song, “Harm’s Swift Way,” afford Plant the opportunity to draw on the very full musical tradition that he has come to embody over time. The album nearly comes to a stark close with the traditional “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” but it is the closer, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” a 19th Century poem arranged by Plant and Buddy Miller, that brings the album to a strangely hopeful, though certainly not overtly happy, close. Throughout, Plant still sounds great and the musicianship and arrangements on Band of Joy bring out a full range of song dynamics and emotion, but it’s really the breadth of the song selection that makes this album such a full experience, an experience that can’t be appreciated in merely one or two listens.

Band of Joy is a name Plant has used for past projects dating back to the days before Led Zeppelin became a household name, but it’s important to recognize that it is not an historical artifact so much as a nod to Plant’s own vision that runs from the past to the present and into the future with a sense of continuity that keeps it all interconnected. At times, he leans toward history and at others he leans toward the here and now and yet to come, but mostly Plant transcends time altogether. What’s more amazing still, particularly about his recent direction, is that he maintains enough of his own artistic self to draw listeners in, but moves forward so boldly that the album takes time to sink in and go from “good” to “great.” But what really sets him apart from the handful of other artists who manage to re-invent themselves over and over (such as Bowie or U2 or Madonna) is that Plant’s catalog has more continuity. He isn’t so much re-inventing as he is writing new chapters in a long, rich and colorful story. And what a chapter Band of Joy turned out to be!

The album will be released on vinyl on October 26, 2010.

Satriani: 8/10
Zappa: 8/10
Dylan: 8/10
Aretha: 9/10
Overall: 9/10

“I got rock n roll…”

“I got rock ‘n’ roll, to save me from the cold
And if that’s all there is, it ain’t so bad.”
- Motorhead, “Rock n Roll”

When I first heard those words in 1987, they resonated with me. I was a lonely kid with only a few friends and no real expectation that life held much for me outside of the awkwardness of that age. Rock n roll was something I could cling to and trust. It had real meaning to me and, at the time, it certainly seemed like that wasn’t so bad.

As the years have gone by and life has opened up beyond my wildest 16 year-old imagination, I have a different take on those words. Over the years, I have often referred to rock n roll as my “secular religion” and it has, in its best moments, approached being a religious experience, particularly at shows. A band as mundane of the Foo Fighters even had a moment of transcendence when, during “February Stars,” the white stage lights turned on the crowd; or the Mars Volta playing their whole set without a word to the crowd, because they didn’t need to speak any more than their music did. I still feel the humanity of Efrim Menuck answering questions, both serious and silly, at a recent Thee Silver Mount Zion show and the raw energy of singing “Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa” along with the MC5 on their “reunion” tour a few years ago. Perhaps now more than ever, I find myself at a show, whispering up a prayer of thanks to God for this music that I love.

Why then do I find it leaving me empty with its pop culture mores that pass as rebelliousness and in some cases, even revolution? Why is it that the comfort of my record collection is no longer…well, comforting?

In my basement, I have shelves that hold over 4500 vinyl records. It wasn’t that long ago (months, not years) that I was drawn down there to immerse myself in the pleasure of the sounds cut into those grooves, enjoying flipping through a shelf-full as I listened. It was for me almost a shrine of sorts…and that’s what now bothers me about going down there. That’s what bothers me about the time I spend with music. Have I forsaken things that matter for things that I know? Things that are safe? Jesus said, in St Matthew’s Gospel, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” And where is my treasure? Is it in the basement, made up of round plastic discs in cardboard sleeves, carefully stored in polyethylene bags? Is it in the selfish pursuit of more and more, despite the fact that I have more than I could ever play? Despite the fact that I am largely the only person who ever hears them?

I wonder now if I have built a monument to myself or worse still built a trophy and awarded it to myself for my own non-accomplishment. How different is my collection, my selfish life pursuit, from an expensive car bought to bolster the idea that one can be satisfied by things? I don’t think it is very different and that’s what’s really getting under my skin.

But I’m lucky, because I’m realizing this now. I’m realizing this while my kids are young enough. I’m realizing this before it’s sucked me in entirely. I’m lucky to find that those records aren’t my treasure and now Lemmy’s words are a different kind of comfort, reminding me rock n roll is not “all there is.”

Review: Campaign - It Likes to Party

Label: self-released

Released: April 20, 2010

Campaign’s It Likes to Party EP is as full of gritty half-harmonies and beer-soaked melodies as any punk rock out there. The tunes are raw and in your face with hooks sneaking in that almost require a singalong. There is a certain drunkenness to this record, yet it is not steeped in the stupidity of common inebriation and it proves, as well as anything, that the Hot Water Music well is pretty deep and still full of life. The final track, “Bored to Death,” is less dense than the rest, leaving the album more open. That always seems to bode well for the future.

You can stream this one over at Punk News or download it for free from the band’s website (along with last year’s H1N1 EP).

Satriani: 6/10
Zappa: 6/10
Dylan: 7/10
Aretha: 7/10
Overall: 7/10

Review: Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier

Released: August 17, 2010

Label: UMe

After waning over the last couple of albums during Bruce Dickinson’s first stint, two ill-conceived releases with Blaze Bayley and a lackluster return for Dickinson on Brave New World, Iron Maiden stormed back to life with their last two albums and an outstanding tour documentary. Perhaps no other band in their third decade could raise such high hopes for a release, particularly after a four year layoff from the studio.

Right from the start, it’s pretty clear that The Final Frontier is not going to follow the formula of the last two albums. Throbbing, tribal drums and airy guitars make for a spacier tone and even as the intro moves into the more traditional body of the song, it, like the album as a whole, is both distinctly Iron Maiden and very much its own album. Overall, there are moments where they bring passion, excitement and technical prowess together as only they can, but few songs maintain that throughout. “Coming Home,” for instance loses some of its intensity in the chorus and the leads are too dull to justify their three guitar attack. While “The Talisman” is a bit of a slow-starter, it makes up for a lot over it’s nine minutes as it gets Maiden closer to chaos than perhaps ever before and they still shine like no other metal band. To lesser extent, “The Man Who Would Be King” does the same and this is a welcome new angle to the Maiden sound.

Their last album, 2006′s A Matter of Life and Death, got more than its share of flak for its “epic” songs. It was an unjust attack considering that, despite their length, none of the songs felt long, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that it didn’t deter them from keeping most of the tracks over the seven minute mark. Few bands have mastered Maiden’s art of going over five minutes without meandering through filler and this set, despite a few tedious moments, did nothing to disprove that.

In many ways, this album has some points in common with 1986′s Somewhere in Time. Both follow a run of outstanding albums (though the recent run is half as long) and, while remaining musically challenging, the fire that sets Maiden apart from any other band at their technical level burns just a little bit dimmer. Both albums’ biggest problem isn’t their content, but the incredibly high bar set by their predecessors. For any other metal band, The Final Frontier is an outstanding record. For Maiden, it’s merely very good.

Although Maiden would still be great even if the albums came in a blank sleeve, there is no denying that the album art is a big part of who they are. Since parting ways with Derek Riggs, nothing has been quite the same. While The Final Frontier cover isn’t their worst (see 2003′s Dance of Death which looks like CGI from about ten years earlier), it’s definitely not up to par. I mean, I guess the alien is Eddie, but it’s a stretch. C’mon guys, patch things up with Derek so that the cover art once again matches the music inside!

Satriani 10/10
Zappa 8/10
Dylan 8/10
Aretha 7/10
Overall: 8/10

If you’re curious about my rating system, it’s explained here.

Review: Go Rydell - The Golden Age

Released: August 24, 2010

Label: Black Numbers

It seems like a strong sense of melody is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the raw, tattered edges of pure passion, but the two do in fact occasionally find common ground…like they do on Go Rydell’s The Golden Age. What’s particularly interesting is how the band’s sense of both melody and passion co-exist without one being enslaved to the other. Right off the bat, “MTA” takes off in a bolt of hardcore energy only to have more than a hint of catchiness follow along shortly, settling itself into the song before it takes off again. This is the blueprint for the album and they execute it extremely well. In addition to the ebb and flow of hardcore rage and Face to Face-ish hooks, Go Rydell tackle the past from the misery of today with enough hope for tomorrow that it’s hard to say which is really the “Golden Age.”

The Golden Age is available for donation-based download until August 16th (so hurry!). The limited vinyl (100 Blue, 150 White, 250 Green) and hand-screened CDs are available for pre-order now at the Black Numbers site.

Satriani: 6/10
Zappa: 7/10
Dylan: 6/10
Aretha: 8/10
Overall: 7/10

If you’re curious about my rating system, it’s explained here.

Review: Frontier(s) - The Plains

Released: June 29, 2010

Label: No Sleep Records

Frontier(s), featuring Elliott / Falling Forward front man Chris Higdon, offers two strong tracks on this 7″ that are reminiscent of TSOL’s often under-appreciated mid-80s period where their meanderings into art punk began to take on a bit of a hard rock edge. In fact, this EP’s dark, haunting sound would have fit nicely into the Enigma Records catalog with those TSOL albums as well as the likes of Jet Black Berries and Rain Parade. The thick fuzzy leads of “The Plains” have more than a hint of Dramarama, but they ride a harder edge. “Radiomine” steps back a bit, dabbling in trippy ambiance, reverberating with the best sounds from the basements of 25 years ago.

Finally, a band has drawn inspiration from something in the 80s worth a second take. Best of all, the sound wasn’t overdone the first time around so Frontier(s) has plenty of room to continue making their own mark and bringing a neglected past into the present.

The EP comes on green, white or black vinyl and is limited to 1000 copies. The tri-fold letter-press sleeve has the appearance of a leather-bound book. The whole package offers the best of both worlds, combining great vinyl packaging with a free download for convenience.

Satriani: 6/10
Zappa: 7/10
Dylan: 7/10
Aretha: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

If you’re curious about my rating system, it’s explained here.

Live: Warped Tour 2010

Merriweather Post Pavilion
Columbia, MD
July 20, 2010

Despite the encroachment of corporate sponsors (which in this case is not really as bad as it sounds) and the shift away from its old “punk rock summer camp” ethos that dominated my first run of attendance (1997-2002), the last three years have still been a lot of fun and I’ve seen far more good performances than bad. Warped Tour 2010 was no different.

Because there are so many stages (six) and they’re spread across the venue at Merriweather, there are always bands that get missed entirely. This year, I was disappointed to miss Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and the Casualties in particular, but such is Warped Tour.

Anarbor opened the Teggart (main) stage with a solid set of good time tunes that walk the line between down to earth fan connections and arena-sized ambitions, proving that the sound they’ve cultivated in the studio works great on the stage. That being said, it’s good for them that they went on before Andrew WK and not after. Anarbor is a good band and they seem to be getting better with each release, but they aren’t masters of the game yet. Andrew WK is. While his party anthems are a bit far from where I’m at personally, I’d heard he puts on a great show, so I was sure to catch his set. His band is a motley bunch, including a sequined backup singer/aerobics instructor/cheerleader with perhaps more energy that AWK himself. His mix of hard rock and Elton John is about as far from Warped Tour’s punk rock roots as it could be, but the crowd responded. The thing that makes AWK such an amazing live performer goes beyond his music and beyond the surface of his “party hard” mentality. Beneath all of that is a love of life that, if you miss it in his music, he spells out in his words. “I want you to understand,” he said, “That I’m happy. I’m happy, because we’re alive.” Even more telling was, “Life is too good not to live.” If these truisms weren’t backed by his unabashedly fun show, they might have seemed overly simple. As it stands though, they were nearly profound.

This was probably the leanest year yet in terms of punk, but the sets I caught from Face to Face and Flatfoot 56 were great. Face to Face, on their first extended tour since 2004’s farewell trip, showed no signs of rust as they crossed the country with the Warped crew in anticipation of the Fall release of Laugh Now, Laugh Later. In fact, despite Trever Keith’s repeated remarks about being old and playful jabs at current hairstyles, they seemed anything but tired and worn out.

The price to see Flatfoot 56 over on the Kia/Kevin Says stage was high: I missed most of Dillinger Escape Plan (playing the Teggart stage). In fact the last few songs in DEP’s set of near complete madness made it quite clear just how high that price was. However, the boys of Flatfoot 56 made it just as clear that I chose wisely. Their old school hardcore mixed with Scotch-Irish folk (including bagpipes and mandolin) was full of the wonderful camaraderie that is present in punk at its best. Their raging good nature created fun based not just on good times, but on good people. I don’t know that anyone could have walked away not feeling at least a little better about being human. That they engaged a crowd of mixed faiths (and likely no faith in some cases) in a sing-along of “Amazing Grace” was nothing short of an amazing.

Every Time I Die, who was off-the-hook amazing at Warped 2008, didn’t disappoint. Few bands bring the same level of raw intensity and remain an incredibly tight, flawless unit. Guitarists Jordan Buckley and Andy Williams cover a lot of stage as they pump out the riffs while singer Keith Buckley’s hard rock stage presence grounds the performance. Any opportunity to see these guys live should not be missed.

While I was familiar with Pierce the Veil, their metalcore/screamo leanings didn’t really have them at the top of my list, but, just as the schedule means missing some bands, it also means catching some unexpected bands as well. So, Pierce the Veil ended up filling a lull in my day. From the Dia de los Muertos character that introduced them to their enthusiasm and chops, they proved to be much more exciting than I expected.

Despite my general misgivings about the last 20 years of ska, I decided to take a chance on Tip the Van. That chance panned out well as they mix ska, reggae, 80s-leaning pop and general fun into a surprisingly interesting mix. Strong vocals from Nicole Oliva, often harmonized with her rhythm guitarist/sister Simone’s voice, carried strong melodies over the band’s upbeat sound. The components of Tip the Van’s sound have been done many times by many bands, but they managed to make it fresh and fun.

The Warped Tour’s increasing reliance on corporate sponsorship has drawn flak from some quarters and, while most examples of corporate involvement in music justify the skepticism, tour organizer Kevin Lyman and company prove year in and year out that they are the exception to the rule. Reasonable ticket prices, the $5 double CD tour compilation and $10 Vans shirt/hat deals have been mainstays of the tours, but a great example this year is that the main stage’s “sponsor” wasn’t corporate. It was named for longtime Warped stage manager Stewart Teggart who passed away in March. Lyman seems to know exactly where to draw the line between the corporate money needed to put on a travelling fest like this and the need to do the right thing by fans, bands and all the people involved.

Warped Tour 2010: Andrew WK

Andrew WK @ Warped Tour 2010
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Columbia, MD
July 20, 2010



Review: Carrie Rodriguez - Love and Circumstance

Released: April 13, 2010

Label: Ninth Street Opus

Carrie Rodriguez’s last effort, 2008′s She Ain’t Me, was an album full of potential, but good as it was, it suffered from restraint. Her voice needed to soar. It yearned to soar. Yet, it never quite did. Two years have passed between that album and Love and Circumstance and if anything, Rodriguez’s voice is even stronger. More importantly though, the band frees her rather than restraining her. To boot, the material is bolder and more natural.

Rodriguez sticks to the folksy country that works so well for her. However, she also stretches the sound at times. While “Wide River to Cross” is not a shocking departure, it subtly taps into the vibe of U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” “I Made a Lover’s Prayer” has more rock elements, but Rodriguez makes the transition well. While the production occasionally errs on the side of slickness, she overcomes that and gives the song life. Even songs that stick to more traditional country arrangements are intriguing. On “Eyes on the Prize,” Rodriguez borrows just enough from Patsy Cline without trying to be Patsy Cline. “La Puñalada Trapera,” the closer and perhaps the album’s strongest track, allows the beauty of her voice to shine in an equally beautiful language.

Love and Circumstance is a more open, less restrained set of songs and that really releases Rodriguez’s voice to be unique and compelling. She conveys a very pure emotion and doesn’t merely rely on her technical excellence. In the more natural setting of this album, Rodriguez makes it quite clear that she has more than just potential.

Satriani: 9/10
Zappa: 7/10
Dylan: 7/10
Aretha: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

If you’re curious about my rating system, it’s explained here.

I am no longer writing. You're still welcome to contact me HERE, but odds are I won't be able to review your material as much as I'd love to hear it. I have had reviews and articles published in AMP and Glide magazines as well as FensePost.