Echo and the Bunnymen, Dashboard Confessional, Bon Jovi and Morrissey

We're slowly inching our way toward the bleakest of release months, and so, if the sheets prove to be as sparsely populated as they seem to be now, I will be perusing the back stock (i.e., the piles of unreviewed material that teeter precariously in the

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If you think you’re sick of hearing about kidney stones after three weeks, imagine having one (and possibly two) for that long. I’m ready to bungee jump off the Big Mac bridge if that’s what the urologist tells me is necessary to shed this thing (or things … I had a CT scan done on Tuesday, so we’ll see which thousand words are contained in that picture).

I feel your pain in having to deal with this by proxy since I’ve been detailing it for you for the past three weeks in this forum. But if you ever get the sense that a wolverine is trying to eat its way out of your kidneys, you’ll think of me briefly before blacking out from the pain.

We're slowly inching our way toward the bleakest of release months, and so, if the sheets prove to be as sparsely populated as they seem to be now, I will be perusing the back stock (i.e., the piles of unreviewed material that teeter precariously in the Bunker) to find some things to talk about in the absence of actual new releases in December. In the meantime, let’s see what the mailman (or the Internet) brought this week.

I was visiting a college friend in the months after our graduation in 1980 and he started playing DJ with some singles he’d picked up from an import shop. In that stack was Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Rescue,” and I was hooked from the second that stabbing intro guitar riff spiked out of the speakers. The music was compelling and engaging and sounded dangerous, like a polite threat, but Ian McCulloch’s darkly honeyed voice was the mesmerizing centerpiece, like an uncertain promise of protection in a dicey situation. Hearing “Rescue” (and ultimately the rest of Crocodiles, the album that spawned it) reminded me of hearing The Doors for the first time a decade and a half previously, and being pulled into their similarly structured vortex of poetic menace.

Over the past 30 years, Echo and the Bunnymen have endured many tribulations, not the least of which were McCulloch’s departure for the solo life in 1988, the death of original drummer Pete DeFreitas in a motorcycle accident and the dissolution of the band in 1993. McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant reunited as Electrafixion in 1994 and bassist Les Pattinson rejoined three years later but left after the triumphant Evergreen to care for his mother. Since then, McCulloch and Sergeant have employed a rotating cast to flesh out their vision of Echo and the Bunnymen in the new millennium.

For their 11th studio album, The Fountain, the original duo follows the arc of their previous two releases (2001’s Flowers, 2005’s Siberia) toward a poppier, arena friendly version of E&TB. This hasn’t endeared them to critics who want them to endlessly revisit Crocodiles and their 1984 masterwork, Ocean Rain. Thankfully, McCulloch and Sergeant haven’t fallen into that trap and continue to chart a fresh course for E&TB. While it’s sometimes a disconnect to hear major chords emanating from McCulloch and Co. — a device that gives them more than a passing resemblance to U2 — there are still flashes of the old Echo, particularly on the moody and insistent “Shroud of Turin” and the propulsive “Think I Need It Too.” The departures are interesting, from the dance-fueled turn of “Life of a Thousand Crimes” to the Mott/Roxy Music glam Pop swing of “Proxy” to the swelling finale of “The Idolness of Gods.”

Forget the critics; it’s a rare band that can adapt over three decades and find a way to appeal to old fans while attracting new ones. Echo and the Bunnymen have found a compelling way to do both.

If Emo needed a poster boy to get a toehold nearly a decade ago, it couldn’t have done any better than Chris Carrabba. Tattooed, soft spoken, sensitive and cute, Carrabba was tough enough to present himself as an acoustic guitar balladeer and open for Punk thrashers like New Found Glory and Snapcase, and good enough to not only survive the rain of nickels that pelted him on the first song but win over audiences by the end of his set. That was the crucible that Dashboard Confessional was forged in when Carrabba left Further Seems Forever in 2000.

Since then, Dashboard has moved from one-man Emo outfit to full band and become a commercial juggernaut without compromising Carrabba’s original creative vision. He still writes intensely personal and literally directed songs that work in nakedly acoustic or full throttle electric arrangements, which is a point well made on Carrabba’s latest Dashboard offering, Alter the Ending. And while it’s cool to hear Carrabba’s new songs in a solo acoustic setting and with the current Dashboard band (John Lefler, Scott Schoenbeck, Mike Marsh) available on separate discs, the beauty of Carrabba’s songwriting is that, alone with an acoustic or surrounded by his plugged in mates, Carrabba sounds equally vulnerable and affecting in either presentation.

Already a viral Web hit, “Belle of the Boulevard” has a swelling power wrapped around an afterschool special message (Taylor Swift could take this to No.1, no problem), but there are plenty of potential chart toppers here — the coma recovery anthem “Until Morning,” the Emo/Pop ache of “Blame It On the Changes,” the New Wave-flecked “The Motions,” the angular guitar pulse of the title track.

While Alter the Ending’s stacked set could easily translate into Dashboard’s biggest commercial success, it will start, as always, with the intensely loyal and committed fanbase that Carrabba has cultivated from the very beginning.

The great thing about Jon Bon Jovi is that he’s never seemed to take himself too seriously. Although there has always been a certain sense of earnest Rock bombast in Bon Jovi’s recorded work and stage presentation, the band’s working-man’s-Rock stance has made them fan favorites; their circuit supporting 2007’s Lost Highway was the fifth-highest grossing tour in 2008. At the same time, the band clearly is enjoying themselves; when Jon Bon Jovi hosted Saturday Night Live two years ago, three of the shows sketches were based on ribbing the band about their image and history (Jon stepped out of Amy Poehler’s bedroom wall poster in 1987 to assure her that she’ll turn out to be a cool adult, then he guested on an Italian talk show with a fake robot horse, an homage to “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and finally starred in a look back at how the band came to the decision to christen themselves Bon Jovi, a poke at Jon Bon Jovi’s suspected egotism). Although the reviews of the last few Bon Jovi albums have been mixed, sales have remained strong (2005’s Have a Nice Day and 2007’s Lost Highway were both certified platinum). Not bad for a band forged two and a half decades ago, in the era of New Wave and Hair Metal.

For their eleventh studio album, The Circle, Bon Jovi beef up the Rock quotient but largely stay the course that they’ve charted in the new millennium; anthemic songs about the tribulation and triumph of everyday life, big sing-along choruses, crunchy guitars, a thunderous rhythm section. A good deal of The Circle is boilerplate Bon Jovi, whether bombastic (“We Weren’t Born to Follow,” “Work for the Working Man,” “Thorn in My Side”) or balladic (“Live Before You Die,” “Happy Now,” “Learn to Love”), but “Bullet” finds Bon Jovi pushing into Metal territory with a murderous guitar presence and a tribal rhythm.

The band might not be breaking any new ground with The Circle, but Bon Jovi knows what resonates with its fans and that formula has worked for them since Ronald Reagan’s first term. Who’s to argue with a band who’s seen a million faces and rocked them all?

Compilations of B-sides and rarities are problematic in general, as they’re commonly populated with session cast-offs that were rejected for the album but deemed good enough to flesh out a single. And the idea of collecting scattered lesser material in one place to hoover up fans’ money, a second time in most cases, is the thing that’s tarnished the concept most of all.

Given the slavish nature of Morrissey fandom, it seems unlikely that many of the songs on Swords have escaped the attention of the most faithful, particularly considering that the album’s 18 tracks span just the past three albums (You Are the Quarry, Ringleader of the Tormentors and Years of Refusal) and five years. For the casual Morrissey fan, Swords is a fascinating document on two levels; as proof of Morrissey’s continuing strength since his 2004 “comeback,” and as evidence that Moz’s B-side material carries as much weight as his album tracks.

Whether it’s the neo-psychedelic Pop of “Good Looking Man About Town” or the epic guitar-sparked synth Pop balladeering of the Middle Eastern tinged “Ganglord” or the Bowie/Eno romantic Pop swell of “The Never-Played Symphonies,” Swords is populated with amazingly powerful songs that would have been standouts on the albums from which they were left off. Like the best of Morrissey’s catalog, Swords exhibits his musical power and range, his wryly serious humor (“Don’t Make Fun of My Voice,” “If You Don’t Like Me, Don’t Look at Me”) and his casual lyrical profundity (from “Christian-Dior”: “Drawn to what scares me and scared of what bores me/Years alone will never be returned.”).

Swords has all the appeal of Morrissey’s last three releases while offering hardcore fans two clear enticements — the convenience of having all the single tracks on one album and the limited edition eight-song live album which will accompany the album’s early pressings.

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