As I write these words, the 2010 MidPoint Music Festival is already a vivid and exhaustive memory. Sweet fancy Moses, I love those three days. For a music maniac of my admittedly staggering proportions, it’s the equivalent of a junkie’s long heroin weekend in Bangkok. And now I’m teetering between the afterglow of a succession of great shows and the inevitable gravitational pull of this column.
Luckily, this is the perfect time to get back on track — as usual, November and December are the time of year when the release sheets are skimpier than a pole dancer’s wardrobe budget. As that scenario occurs more frequently, I’ll start dipping back into weeks and months past for the titles I didn’t have time or ability to cover when they were new. All of this, of course, as we barrel headlong toward the holidays and the end of 2010, which, as usual, doesn’t nearly seem possible. Time enough to think of that in the future, and no time to waste right now — here’s this week’s reviewage.
The solo album has always been a tricky proposition. Even members of hugely popular bands have found middling sales and less than glowing reviews down the solo path; just ask Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or Kiss or Joe Perry. There are exceptions — power couple Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani have found equal or greater success in their solo roles — but they are rare. There are clearly motivations — to break from a longstanding band gig and try something new, to stand alone out of the group context, to write chancier material without the band safety net. All are valid reasons, but few will justify the potentially small return on a relatively big risk.
What then to make of Flamingo, the new solo effort from Killers frontman Brandon Flowers? Rules don’t seem to apply to The Killers at any level. After two studio albums, they put out a live album and a rarities/B-side collection, releases that don’t typically occur until late in a band’s career. Likewise, a solo album generally appears well into a band’s existence, but here is Flowers putting his name above the title just seven years after The Killers’ debut album.
For Flowers, Flamingo accomplishes a couple of things. First, it allows him to purge his recent emotional upheaval (his mother battled brain cancer for two years, passing away in February) in a grandly ambitious fashion without jeopardizing The Killers’ Alt Rock cred. Perhaps most importantly, it gives him a free hand to work in new modes that could conceivably have a big impact on the band down the road.
There are songs on Flamingo that are clearly cut from The Killers’ cloth, from the bombastic energy of “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” to the forced gambling metaphors and Big Country bluster of “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts.” But there are fascinating departures, like the twangy ambience of “Playing with Fire,” co-written with Daniel Lanois, the stirring Synth Pop balladry of “Hard Enough,” a duet with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, and The Cure-does-’80s-Pop swing of “Was It Something I Said?” All of it serves as a suitable frame for Flamingo’s first single, the expansively epic “Crossfire,” a Springsteen-esque examination of love surviving the modern pressures that afflict us all.
Flamingo has its flaws but surmounts them with emotional and musical honesty, giving Brandon Flowers an opportunity to become one of the rare solo success stories.
When Richard Barone started The Bongos in Hoboken, N.J., nearly three decades ago, music was in the throes of Punk’s writhing birth as young bands sought to shake up the moribund state of Rock with an old-fashioned speed-and-volume beatdown. There were certainly elements of that in The Bongos’ presentation, but to Barone, the more prudent path was not to eschew Rock’s past but to embrace it with Punk’s new vigor, creating a hybridized blend of melodic Punk, Avant Pop and tribal Dance music in the process. When The Bongos called it a day in 1987, the work that Barone had done in the group context perfectly teed up his subsequent solo efforts, with a fascinating Chamber Pop ethic rising to the surface.
Barone’s solo output has been sporadic in recent years while he’s kept busy producing and songwriting for other artists, as well as penning his 2007 memoir Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth. After pushing out three studio albums in fairly rapid succession (1987’s Cool Blue Halo, 1990’s Primal Dream, 1993’s Clouds Over Eden), followed by the live Between Heaven and Cello in 1997, his only releases have been a 2000 box set of his first three albums and a 2003 compilation of his favorite songs from his catalog. That makes his latest, Glow, his first new studio album in 17 years.
Sticking with the gorgeous Chamber Pop he championed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, GlowGlow is outstanding from beginning to end, but a few tracks rise to the top — the atmospheric piano/acoustic guitar Pop balladry of “Silence is Our Song,” co-written by Pop icon Paul Williams, the skewed Pop lesbian anthem “Odd Girl Out,” co-written by Jill Sobule, and the T. Rex-meets-Sgt. Pepper-in-the-21st-century swaggering Rock of “Sanctified,” co-written with legendary producer Tony Visconti. is an almost seamless progression for Barone, from the album’s soaring opener, “Gravity’s Pull,” to the Michael Penn-channels-Marc Bolan baroque Folk Pop of “Girl” (an actual T. Rex cover) to the brooding Bongos-flecked beat of “1-2-3 ... Infinity.”
Hopefully, Glow has inspired Barone to resume his desperately missed recording career — 17 years between albums this good is 16 1/2 years too long.
Austin’s Black Angels have been one of the leading lights of the Neo-Psychedelic scene for long enough that the quintet attracted the attention of Blue Horizon for the release of the Angels’ third album, the swirlingly retro Phosphene Dream. The band has earned any number of comparisons to The Warlocks and Black Mountain, which are appropriate, but namechecks to the 13th Floor Elevators (the Angels served as Roky Erickson’s backing band on a West Coast tour in 2008) are perhaps closer to the heart of the sunrise, given the Angels’ equal passion for Garage stomp undertones to drive their psychedelic bubble machine, as evidenced by “Bad Vibrations,” the surf dirge “The Sniper” and the title track.
But there is plenty more going on with The Black Angels, from the early Doors funeral pyre of “River of Blood” and the Garage Psych balladry of “Yellow Elevator #2” to the go-go beat of “Telephone” and the swampy reverb Pop (complete with Mamas and the Papas harmonies and acid freak out guitar solo) of “Sunday Afternoon.” As an unsigned indie band, The Black Angels managed to raise their profile to an amazing level — they’ve had film and TV placements, from soundtracks to Manson and While She Was Out to episode features on Fringe, Californication and Dirt — which bodes well for the spiraling fantasm of Phosphene Dream.
The year of the “Mature Rocker,” storms along with an entry from a pair of the biggest names from ’70s Classic Rock, Randy Bachman and C.F. Turner, former co-frontmen of the wildly successful Bachman-Turner Overdrive. That “biggest” reference is as literal as it is figurative; the pair were no slim-jims in their heyday (Bachman-Turner Overweight was a common jab in the late ’70s), but in recent years, Turner had topped 300 pounds and Bachman was closing in on 400. The pair has lost nearly 300 pounds between them (Bachman through gastric bypass, Turner through diet and exercise), and they sound appropriately streamlined and recharged on Bachman & Turner, their first album of new material in nearly 20 years.
BTO was never a band with a flash image, even though Bachman has always exhibited better than average guitar chops. The group found an enormous and loyal following with little more than standard Riff Rock and thunderous volume (although their eponymous debut featured the smoky cool Jazz-tinged “Blue Collar”) as the soundtrack for their universal and simply drawn tales of the road. B&T’s eponymous debut follows that simple formula, with a few interesting twists.
The album’s first single and lead-off track, “Rollin’ Along,” is a boisterous, anthemic rocker that could have been the follow-up to “Roll On Down the Highway” three and a half decades ago, followed by “That’s What It Is,” a jazzy fist pumper that sounds like a mind meld of BTO, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. The blazing “Slave to the Music” and the thumping “Rock and Roll is the Only Way Out” marry the Riff Rock exuberance of BTO’s 1973 debut with the hard won experience that Bachman and Turner have absorbed over the subsequent 37 years.
BT (no O) isn’t breaking any new ground here, to be sure, and yet it’s heartening and a little amazing that two guys within sight of 70 can still write a relevant and authentic young man anthem about the power of Rock and Roll and play it with the same conviction and passion. In today’s youth-based and all-too-disposable culture, that kind of quality longevity is surely something to celebrate.
Anyone diving into the new Sam Prekop album, Old Punch Card, looking for the ethereal Indie Rock beauty of the Sea and Cake, or the lilting Indie Pop of his solo explorations, is likely to be disappointed. Prekop’s latest work, done entirely on modular synthesizers (save for one guitar appearance), sounds like someone trying to tune into a single analog radio signal among a cluster of competing transmissions cross-channeling Tangerine Dream’s Ambient drones, Edgard Varese’s Ionisation, Bill Nelson’s electronic tone poetry, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s blip-bloop shadow plays, a sound effects record of household appliances and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.
Clearly there’s nothing wrong with any of the above in a linear fashion, a fact borne out by the album’s final track, “The Silhouettes,” which is similar in tone and fashion to Nelson’s late-’80s/early-’90s explorations in his Trial by Intimacy box set or with his Orchestra Arcana project. Like a good deal of musique concrete, perhaps it takes time to absorb the subtleties that Prekop has woven into the noisy fabric of Old Punch Card, but I’ve already spent a lot of time with Fripp and Eno’s “Swastika Girls,” and I don’t have to figure it out, so I’ll probably just stick to what I know. And a small cautionary reminder to Sam about the process — sometimes a noise is transformative, and sometimes it’s merely a distraction.
Jukebox the Ghost is under the sway of so many influences, they probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive. And another thing ... what’s with the Philadelphia trio absolutely jacking its sophomore album, Everything Under the Sun, all the way out of the ballpark? This is the sort of album a band works toward for a decade or so, not a mere two years after a pretty swell debut (2008’s Let Live and Let Ghosts). This brand of mature and diverse and arresting Pop typically takes more than 24 months to properly percolate.
Lyrically, JTG disguises their darkly tinted, slyly pessimistic messages with an irresistible icing of sweet sonic sunshine, a shovelful of sugar making the bitter medicine go down. That’s not to say that JTG is overly sweet. Although these guys are, without question, among the most brilliantly gifted melodicists to come down the Indie Pop pike in a good many years, there is a distinct edge to the sugary musical buzz they provide, like a licorice pistol with a cotton candy silencer and a full clip of peppermint bullets.
JTG plays with the breakneck passion and crisp contemporary edge of their Emo Pop peer group on Everything Under the Sun — Motion City Soundtrack comes to mind — but they hit so many classic reference points that if they’re not influences, they should be. JTG exhibits the hypercaffeinated quirk of Sparks, the Prog/Pop majesty of Jellyfish and The Grays and the piano Pop sophistication of Ben Folds, but keeps it grounded with an abiding respect for the foundational architecture of the individual and collective Beatles and the bombastic cathedral painting of Queen.
But like all good craftsman, the seams don’t show when Jukebox the Ghost stitches this all together to create their manic-to-moody songbook, and that may be their greatest talent in the long run. After the infectious Pop exhilaration of Everything Under the Sun, here’s hoping that a long run is Jukebox the Ghost’s destiny.