album review

Conor Oberst – Salutations

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It’s always hard for me to write about Conor Oberst albums because he’s my favorite songwriter (probably my personal GOAT). I’ve liked every single album (song, really) he’s ever released. So is it worth anybody’s time to read about his new album from my perspective, probably not, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Conor Oberst’s last album (Ruminations) was his most critically acclaimed album since I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. Ruminations is personal, heartbreaking and sparse. It’s a masterpiece of self reflection and a glimpse into the personal anguish Oberst suffered from health problems, false rape allegations, and insomnia. When I heard that these songs were being re-recorded with a full band along with 7 new songs, I was excited and also really confused. Why did these songs need to be re-recorded? Why release them again less than a year latter? But I’m conditioned to be excited over any new Conor Oberst release.

After listening to Salutations nearly nonstop since it’s release I’m less confused (but not entirely). The full band versions of the songs from Ruminations are well done. Musically, they sound better. Ruminations was haunting and Salutations makes the pill easier to swallow.

Maria Taylor’s angelic voice turns “Counting Sheep” into a lullaby instead of a suicide note. The lyrics are still heartbreaking, but the music and the backing vocals ease the pain of the song. Tachycardia comes to life with a full band. I always felt the last verse needed a full band to really drive home the idea the light bulb being lit for the first time at the World’s fair. The only song that loses just a little bit of it’s appeal is “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out”. It was a perfect ending to a great album and on Salutations it seems kind of lumped in without much thought.

The seven new songs belong on Salutations and probably wouldn’t’ have fit very well on Ruminations (The title track “Salutations” being the exception). “Napalm” is a rock country song that has Oberst sounding a lot like John Prine. My two favorite new songs are “Overdue” and “Anytime Soon”. Both sound like Mystic Valley Band B-sides.

Is Salutations a necessary album? Probably not. But it’s still a great album and an important addition to an already stellar discography. The enamored and admiring fan in me will probably place this album way too high on my end of the year list, but that’s fine with me. I’m a loyal fan and I don’t care who knows it.

Love,

Zach

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Ryan Adams – Prisoner

I’m not going to write a lengthy review of Ryan Adams’ fantastic new album Prisoner, I’m just going to share some quick thoughts.

  1. Ryan Adams isn’t quite the songwriter that he used to be. I think he reached his poetic pinnacle at Cold Roses. The lyrics aren’t terrible, but there’s some cheesiness and cliche that aren’t found on some of his earlier albums.
  2. Musically, however, he’s the best he’s ever been and I think that’s what carries this  album. The alt country days are far behind him. This album is more an ode to The Replacements and Tom Petty than to Willie and Waylon.
  3. Everyone see’s this as a comeback album, but common the last album was nearly as good.
  4. This is a solid record by a prolific musician.
  5. Listen to it.
  6. These got shorter as my list grew.
  7. Love, Zach

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Japandroids – Near To The Wild Heart of Life (Album Review)


We’re only two months into 2017 and no album release (in my opinion) has been bigger than Japandroids third album, Near To The Wild Heart of Life. There had to be serious pressure on the Vancouver, Canada duo to follow up not only the best rock album of 2012, but arguably the best pure rock album of the decade. If Celebration Rock was their magnum opus then Near To The Wild Heart of Life is their Tunnel Of Love.

The album starts with “Near To The Wild Heart of Life”, the perfect rock anthem to kick off the album. I wrote about how great this song is a few weeks ago. You can read it HERE.

The rest of the album takes a more subdued tone than it’s predecessor.  Celebration was 35 minutes of pure adrenaline; it rocked so hard you barely had time to catch your breath. In contrast Near To The Wild Heart of Life mellows out just a little bit. It still rocks, but not as hard and that’s not a bad thing.

However, there is one exception, “Arc of Bar”. This song (simply stated) rocks. There is a lightning-like synth glitching through the background, and at nearly seven and half minutes I wish it would go seven and a half more.

This is an album every lover of rock and roll needs in their life. Is this as good as Celebration Rock, no. But it’s the follow up we deserve.  I wish I could sing “No Known Drug” to my wife every night before we go to sleep. Every song is that good, actually. Listen to it now. 

-Zach

 

 

 

Pinegrove – Cardinal

I’ve read lots of reviews that have tried to categorize this album as alt-country and emo, which are two genres that don’t seem to go together at first thought. But if you go back to Omaha, Nebraska in the early two thousands Saddle Creek was doing just that. Bands like Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley were emo(ish) bands that had very distinct country influences. Pinegrove fits that narrative perfectly. It’s rock music that makes you feel mixed with a few banjo riffs and a country draw. I can even hear early Wilco and Heartbreaker era Ryan Adams.

“Every outcome’s such a comedown” is the refrain of Pinegrove’s Evan Stephens Hall on the opening track, “Old Friends”, off their excellent new album Cardinal. With lines like that one and “I should call my parents when I think of them; I should tell my friends when I love them” this song had me hooked from the beginning. It’s a sad and sentimental song; two of my favorite themes wrapped up into one song.

Other stand out tracks on the album include, “Size of The Moon”, “Aphasia”, and the bookend to “Old Friends”, “New Friends”. Next to “Old Friends”, “Size of The Moon” is the other stand out track. It’s a break up song that starts soft and builds to fuzzy guitars.

If I were to pick an early favorite for album of the year this would top my list. It sounds like all my favorite records, but at the same time feels fresh and inventive.

 

 

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book (A.K.A. Chance 3)

As far as hip releases in 2016 go they don’t get much better than Chance the Rapper’s third album, Coloring Book (4th, if you count Surf). I’ve heard lots of critics call it a hip hop gospel album and I’ll echo that critique. I’ve never felt so spiritually up lifted listening to a rap album. There’s gospel choirs throughout but it’s much more than a gospel album; it’s an album about friendship, love, family, and staying true to yourself. Chance is only 23 but his words are wise beyond his age. He’s preaching and I’m affirming his words from the congregation with a strong, AMEN!

The album starts with “All We Got” (my personal favorite song on the album) a bombastic ode to family and most importantly music. The chorus (sung by Kanye) chants the refrain, “Music is all we got, so we might as well give it all we got”. For music lovers (I’m not talking about your casual music appreciator; I mean people who live and breathe music) this mantra will send chills through your entire body.

Each song is a carefully crafted ride through the south side of Chicago. “Summer Friends” in an ode to summer relationships that come and go, hard work, and family ties. “Same Drugs” which seems to also be a parallel of the movie Hook  is about growing up and changing. On “Angels” Chance raps about cleaning up the streets and how hopeful he is about violence ending in his city.

Chance The Rapper, along with rappers like Kendrick Lamar, is the voice of a generation who wants peace and change for their race and for their communities. This is an album about hope for a better future and it’s damn fun to listen to as well.

Car Seat Headrest – Just What I Needed

 

I first heard Car Seat Headrest on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. Will Toledo (lead singer and band leader) caught my attention because he looked like a young Conor Oberst and he was surrounded by what seemed like a bunch of homeless teenagers and one out of place high school football player who was playing the tiniest drum set in the world. As they started playing and Toledo’s voice cracked in and out of falsetto I was captivated. The three songs were all acoustic so I was pleasantly surprised when I searched for their their album Teens of Style and it was a fuzzy lo-fi rock n roll album that sounded like something I might have listened to in High School. It’s a collection of songs re-recorded from Toledo’s vast collection of self recorded Bandcamp albums. But it was just a glimpse into his potential as a songwriter and musician.

In June they released their second album Teens of Denial. It’s more polished than Teens of Style, but that doesn’t mean the band has lost it’s edge or that the songs of lost their angst. Lyrically Toledo is at his best. Besides Courtney Barnett he’s the best wordsmith in rock n roll right now. Listen to “Drugs With Friends” and you’ll know exactly what I mean. He combines humor and despair as he documents his struggle with depression, drinking, and drug use. It’s a little self loathing but that’s what makes it so great. It’s honest.

It’s not hard to hear Toledo’s rock influences in these songs. The opening guitar riff of “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” sounds like it could have opened on In Utero. Throughout the album you can hear echos of Pavement and Pinkerton’s best songs. Sadly The Cars sample had to to be taken out of “Not What I Needed” (originally titled Just What I Needed/Not What I needed), but it’s just an internet search away and necessary to listen to.

This is the best album of the year so far not put out by Chance The Rapper or Radiohead. It rocks, it’s smart, it’s funny, and it’s just the beginning and of what is hopefully a great career for Car Seat Headrest.

 

Zach’s Top 10 Albums of the Year

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  1. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens – It’s difficult to say that this is my favorite Sufjan album. Since Michigan every release has been unique, gorgeous and groundbreaking. Don’t get me started on how wonderful (and unappreciated) The Age of Adz is. On Carrie & Lowell Sufjan pours is heart out. These songs are about his estranged mentally ill mother who passed away sometime last year. He’s never been so personal. The songs are heartbreaking, honest, and beautiful. It’s a step forward in an already wonderful catalog of music.
  2. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty – This album continues to impress me. They’re love songs, but it’s more than that. It’s a hilarious take on love, society, and culture. The song writing is clever and honest.
  3. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly was by far my most anticipated album of the year and it lived up to the hype. I was lying in bed at 12:30 am when I read on twitter that it was released early. I put my headphones on while my wife was out cold beside me in bed and embarked on a funkadelic journey led by one Kendrick Lamar. I’m still deciphering the deeper meaning of the songs. No album meant more to a movement this year. Hearing people chant the lyrics to “Alright” at Black Lives Matter rallies was chilling. Kendrick Lamar made his most important album when it was needed the most.
  4. Payola – Desaparecidos – It might be the fanboy in me, but I loved this album so much. Every year a Conor Oberst album winds up my end of the year list. I was surprised to have liked this one so much. Conor Oberst is a chameleon; he can make whatever type of music he wants and it works for me. This is a punk rock album in every sense. It’s about inequality, politics, and frustration.
  5. 1989 – Ryan Adams – The internet had a field day with Ryan Adams’ recordings of 1989. I thought they would never be released. When they were they didn’t disappoint. I won’t lie, I’m not a Taylor Swift fan. I don’t hate her, I just don’t go out of my way to listen to her music. But her influence on pop culture is undeniable. Ryan Adams’ interpretation of 1989 is a fantastic tribute to a pretty good pop album. He made me love these songs.
  6. The Bearer of Bad News – Andy Shauf
  7. The Desired Effect – Brandon Flowers
  8. Star Wars – Wilco
  9. No No No – Beirut
  10. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

Beirut – No No No

It’s safe to say Zach Condon, who operates under the moniker Beirut, has never put out a bad album. Whether it’s an album of all mariachi songs or crooning with his deep baritone, he makes music that rarely misses. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert of Eastern European music, but that’s what his music reminds me of; that mixed with a little Sufjan. All of his albums are highly instrumental (lots of horns, and instruments that aren’t in your average rock band).

After a long gap between releases Condon is back with No No No, his most unique album in an extensive catalog. Unlike previous releases this album is simpler and at times poppy. Simple and poppy aren’t two words that usually come to mind when you listen to a Beirut record. The songs are shorter. There’s hardly a song over three minutes, yet through all this Condon retains the integrity and even familiarity of his past albums. It’s just packaged a little different.

For example, the album titled song “No No No” sounds like a Beirut song musically, but the lyrics sound like they were written for Miley Cyrus. That’s an extreme comparison, but it works. Everything about this album works. I went in thinking it would be a disappointment and I’m pleasantly surprised with every listen.  Sometimes simple is better.

Ryan Adams – 1989

I’m sitting here listening to Ryan Adams’ version of 1989. It’s late (10:01 to be exact, which is late for me late for me now). I’m the only one awake. My son and wife are out cold. I’m in my pjs with my feet propped on the coffee table absolutely loving what I’m hearing from my cheap little bluetooth speaker. This is probably the 70th time I’ve listened to it from start to finish in the two weeks of it’s release. I’m eleven songs in and every time I get to this part in the album I completely forget this is a Taylor Swift cover album. By this point all that are playing are the deep cuts; the songs that never made it on the radio or at least I’d never heard them before and they all sound like Ryan Adams’ originals.

Like everyone else who follows Ryan Adams on Instagram and Twitter I was intrigued by the snippets of songs he would release from the 1989 recording sessions, but intrigue was all it was. Then the internet started buzzing with excitement, but I never believed the recordings would ever be released into a full album. Then one day to my amazement it happened. Ryan Adams’ announced the release of a full cover version of TS’s 1989.

. . . And I’ve been listening to it nonstop ever since. Readers of this post, it’s a good album. I feel like it’s not even a cover album. I feel like Ryan Adams wrote these songs himself. His interpretation of the album is spot on. I’m not saying it’s better than the original. I don’t even think you can compare the two. As hard it is for some people, this album needs to be seen as a Ryan Adams’ album. Just sit back and close your eyes and pretend that you’ve never heard “Welcome To New York” and you’ll think you’re listening to a track from Ryan Adam’s album Rock n Roll. A friend of mine commented, “I thought, if I were completely unaware of Taylor Swift, would I have been able to distinguish this from Adams’ other work? And I honestly wasn’t sure.” That pretty much sums it up.

The Desired Effect

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Brandon Flowers is a polarizing rock star. The Killers are one of the best alternative rock bands of this decade, but because Flowers can say some pretty douchey things and because of the band’s mainstream popularity, he and the Killers tend to get overlooked. Love em or hate em, they’re good and that’s probably where most of the hate comes from. This might be an unfair comparison but B. Flowers reminds me a lot of Kanye. They both say a lot of arrogant things; both are massively popular and talented; both are hated and scrutinized by the media.

Like with Kanye, I just look past the arrogance and enjoy the art. Brandon Flowers, I can’t quit you. That leads me to Flowers’ new(ish) album The Desired Effect (thanks for listening to my rant ⬆, I had to gather my thoughts first). To say I love this album would be an understatement. I more than love this album. Is there a word for more than loving something? It’s his best album with or without The Killers since Sam’s Town. In many ways it’s the best combination of old and new Killers packaged as a solo album. There’s 80s synth and Springsteenian vocals (and even lyrics). When Flowers is doing his best Boss impression, I feel he’s at his best.

The album is bookended with “Dreams Come True” & “The Way It’s Always Been”. “Dreams Come True’s” horns and catchy guitar make it sound like a Born To Run throwback and “The Way It’s Always Been” sounds straight from The River (Sorry for another Springsteen comparison).

Lyrics on The Desired Effect get personal. He deals with everything from religion to trying to be a good husband and a father. Each song is a well told story, which according to my dad are the best songs.

This album is a must buy, stream or steal (Do people even steal albums anymore?). It’s the farthest Flowers’ has ever pushes himself lyrically and musically and the result is his best album in years.