I Shall Be Released: New Music Reviews

A critical look at new and recent releases from Leonard Cohen, Imperial Teen, Ringo Starr, Fionn Regan and others

click to enlarge Imperial Teen's 'Feel the Sound' (Merge Records)
Imperial Teen's 'Feel the Sound' (Merge Records)

What a strange winter it’s been so far. As I formulate this intro, there is less than an inch of snow on the ground, which raises our total for this season to not quite 3 inches. That’s unbelievable. I grew up in Michigan. You know what we called 6 inches of snow? The first day of spring. Last February, we’d had so much snow at this point in the school year that the district had used all of its calamity days and they called off the Presidents’ Day holiday, which forced me and my daughter to cancel our annual long weekend north to visit family and friends. With this year’s mild winter, her four-day Presidents’ Weekend is intact, so we're headed to the Winter Wonderland as you read this. Michigan isn’t very wondery itself this winter; they’ve had more snow than us, but it disappeared within a day or two. Of course, there’s nothing like scheduling a mid-February trip to tempt the gods of precipitation. Back when I was doing the drive to Michigan on a monthly basis to see my then-young son, my grandmother used to say, “Brian, you bring the weather with you,” and it certainly seemed true. Once, when Josh was 7 or 8, I ran into 6 inches of snow in the late afternoon in Ann Arbor that was on its way to being over a foot of the white stuff by morning. They’d had a long snowless stretch back then, too, as I recall. You never know.

In any event, we’ll have a blast. In the meantime, there are these piles of CDs to keep me and you all busy and warm, so put another snow shovel on the fire and curl up with these current and late-but-great reviews.—-

• Whatever Faith No More fans might have expected from a side project featuring keyboardist Roddy Bottum, it’s safe to assume that the guitar/synth Indie Pop and gay-friendly lyrical content of Imperial Teen was not their first inclination. Bottum, who came out in 1993, has been hailed as one of the vanguard musicians who not only lives out loud but works there as well, writing love-and-sex anthems with masculine pronouns that could easily be programmed alongside the best hetero Indie Rock around.

Bottum hasn’t really tinkered with the Imperial Teen formula — infectious ’60s guy/girl harmonies surrounded by equally addictive bubblegum Pop hooks and fourth gear rhythms — to any great degree since the band’s 1996 debut, Seasick. The problem in the new millennium has been the frequency of new material; the band’s excellent The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band in 2007 was the follow-up to 2002’s On. Music as good as what's found on those album and the group's latest, Feel the Sound, needs to surface more than once every half decade.

“Runaway” starts out like an Indie Rock homage to Supertramp but quickly accelerates into a danceable cross between The New Pornographers and Foster the People, while “No Matter What You Say” clips along on a synth riff and sounds like an ’80s Sparks demo mashed up with a soaring, hooky Pop song that radiates effervescence. “Last to Know” bops to a chunky, fuzzy synth hook in the service of lyrics that seem to hint at the pitfalls of being an unwitting beard (“Pumped up pecs and sticky skin/Floors unswept and walls are thin/Were you the last to know?/Were you the last to go?/Steroids in the cabinet/The trophy wife with benefits/Were you the last to know?”). Elsewhere, “The Hibernates” and “All the Same” shimmer like a sedate and mature B-52s, while “#5” and “It’s You” bounce along like Neko Case tributing Here Come the Warm Jets.

Feel the Sound appends the middle-aged crisis theme explored on The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band, but this time the band seems slightly more comfortable with the prospects of growing up and growing older, perhaps because they intend to do it like they’ve done everything else — on their own singular terms.

• At 77, Leonard Cohen is one of a very few legendary singer/songwriters that can lay claim to once owning the title of America’s Rock poet laureate (even though he’s Canadian). Over a career that spans five decades, Cohen has written more than a few stone classics (“Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Hallelujah,” “Death of a Ladies Man”) and influenced a couple of generations, who have repaid their debt with a number of appropriate tributes. And while Cohen has shifted his methods of delivering his contemplative masterpieces over the years, the legend has never strayed far from the Folk roots that seeded his earliest work.

There are a great many familiar themes on Old Ideas, Cohen’s 12th album since his debut, 1968’s Songs of Leonard Cohen. Love and loss, redemption and accountability, life and death, sex and intimacy — all are issues that have intrigued man since the dawn of his consciousness. Likewise, they've been dissected on Cohen’s lyrical lab table from the start. At the same time, the span of his career has obviously necessitated a shifting perspective to these age-old concerns; Old Ideas couldn’t be more aptly titled.

Cohen gets self-deprecating about his life and reflective about his truncated future on “Going Home,” referring to himself as “a lazy bastard living in a suit,” while on “Banjo,” he rides the delicate tension between the wisdom of old age and the sad reality of obsolescence. And if you’re going to turn any 77-year-old loose on the subject of sex, let it be Cohen, who sounds not nearly as lecherous as the lyrics of “Anyhow” might have you believe, because they ring true at every age.

Musically, Cohen relies on familiar melodicism and arrangements that are neither too spare nor too ornate, often slipping into the hymnal style that he’s done so well for so long. Vocally, Cohen employs a gravelly rasp that only occasionally defines a song’s melody, as he prefers to offer his lyrical observations in a near-spoken word context, perhaps a full circle homage to the poetry career he attempted before retrofitting his poems into lyrics.

Although these ruminations come in the twilight of Cohen’s career and existence, Old Ideas is not somber, bleak or depressing as a whole; he is as forceful, engaging and passionate on this album as on any of the other dozen in his estimable catalog. Like Tom Waits or Marianne Faithfull or Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen is not a particularly easy listen, especially for the casually interested. And while Old Ideas may not stand as the best album in Cohen’s canon, it is the best album he’s made as a 77-year-old elder statesman and pillar of all that is right and good about contemporary music.

• Speaking of elder statesmen, Ringo Starr’s solo career turns 42 this yea. In a lot of ways, he’s had the easiest path of any of the men who had been Beatles. Ringo always was and continues to be grossly underrated as a drummer. And, as little more than an occasional lead vocalist in the Fab Four’s power structure, there were very few expectations attached to his solo work, allowing him to explore a variety of musical options without worrying about the critical repercussions.

Of all the solo albums that have been birthed since the Beatles’ demise in 1970, Ringo has produced the most musically malleable and purely entertaining of the bunch. Unfortunately, they’ve also been the most spotty in terms of quality.
After the relative triumph of 2010’s Y Not, Ringo 2012 is something of an oddity. Sporting just nine tracks and clocking in at under 29 minutes, it barely qualifies as an album in today's terms, hewing closer to an EP (or perhaps it hearkens back to The Beatles’ golden age, when full albums were no more than 14 to 15 minutes per side).

Then there’s the matter of the album’s set list. Two of the tracks, the lead-off single “Wings” and “Step Lightly,” are both revisits from Ringo’s back catalog, while the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Think It Over” was included in last fall’s Holly tribute album, Listen to Me. The half dozen new songs on Ringo 2012 (a reference to his 1973 album, Ringo) are quite good — the thumping and aptly titled “Anthem,” the slinky Pop/Rock of the Starr/Van Dyke Parks co-write “Samba,” the punchy Pop love song “Wonderful,” the signature Ringo lope on the Joe Walsh co-written/guitared “Slow Down,” the familiar-themed “In Liverpool” and the album’s other cover, a spritely Skiffle-esque cover of “Rock Island Line.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Ringo 2012 beyond its brevity. It’s a prudent man who can resist filling up a 79-minute LP because he can, but another three or four tracks (even more covers or do-overs from earlier albums) wouldn’t have hurt.

• Irish singer/songwriter Fionn Regan became a global sensation with his 2006 debut, The End of History, which earned scores of year-end-best honors, a hit single in “Be Good or Be Gone," a nomination for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize and reinforced comparisons to Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Regan initially wanted to move away from The End of History’s acoustic base and incorporate more electricity and volume, but those recordings were shelved by his American label, Lost Highway. Regan abandoned the project, split with the label and then recorded and released the sophomore album he wanted to make, The Shadow of an Empire, on London’s Heavenly Records.

For his third album, the gorgeous 100 Acres of Sycamore, Regan puts the pure acoustic direction of his debut in the more arranged context of his second album to create a set that is less connected with Dylan and more in tune with the Chamber Folk of Nick Drake or the beautiful Pop melancholy of Ron Sexsmith and Iain Matthews. Using lyrical allusions to the natural world to spice his musical narratives, Regan expands his acoustic boundaries in every conceivable way, surrounding himself with swelling strings that break hearts without overpowering emotions (the title track) while tastefully highlighting his brilliantly understated guitar ministrations (the mesmerizing and not-nearly-as-misogynist-as-it-seems “Sow Mare Bitch Vixen” and the quietly compelling “Dogwood Blossom”).

With 100 Acres of Sycamore, Fionn Regan provides solid evidence that the lofty comparisons accompanying his first three releases are fitting and well deserved and that Regan is well on the way to being a comparison himself.

• Steve Five used to work alongside and take coffee breaks with revolutionary Television guitarist Tom Verlaine. That would be plenty of Indie Rock cred for most 21st century resumes, but Five clearly wants more, having released a quintet of acclaimed lo-fi recordings with his trio, The Library is on Fire, including the most recent, Works on Paper.

There are times when Five’s trebly and vulnerable vocal style gives off a Paul Westerberg vibe while the band (Five, new bassist Travis Tonn, drummer Peter Sustarsic) works an oblique Guided By Voices angle, like on the adrenalized “Basquiat” and the stripped down “Stranded on Monster Island." That isn’t particularly surprising considering the first TLIOF recordings were helmed by GBV’s Todd Tobias while Five was attending college in Kent, Ohio, in 2007. On “They Don’t Know You Like I Know You,” the band channels John Lennon and “Fly Sucka on the Score” lopes along a moody Wilco path while “The Broken Guitar” careens and crashes with the Indie Rock verve that might be expected of someone who has ingested caffeine with Tom Verlaine.

Five claims influences as broad as Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Matthew Sweet and Fugazi, but he’s also a collage artist and he named his band after a line by his favorite French poet, so everything is grist for the Library is on Fire’s mill. Given Five’s impressive transformative abilities, Works on Paper may be a mere hint of where he and TLIOF plan to go from here.

• The end of anything good has a bittersweet edge — the last forkful of a really great meal; the last night of a relaxing vacation; the finale of an excellent film; the closing song of a spectacular album.

That last metaphor has a specific resonance when discussing the new Glen Campbell album, Ghost on the Canvas. When Campbell began working on it three years ago, the lauded Country/Pop superstar didn’t intend for Ghost to be his swan song. But an early stage Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis means that Ghost and its subsequent tour will be Campbell’s farewell to the studio and the road.

And what a magnificent send-off it is. A stunning companion to 2008’s excellent Meet Glen Campbell, Ghost on the Canvas is a work of incredible verve and poignant passion, once again featuring a brilliant cast of musical guests and a stellar set list of covers and originals. Campbell’s songs, co-written with Julian Raymond, are among the best in his estimable catalog, from the heartbreaking prayer of “A Better Place” and the classic twang Pop swagger of “A Thousand Lifetimes” to the expansive love letter “It’s Your Amazing Grace” and the exquisite Beatles/ELO pop swell of the album’s emotionally appropriate closer, “There’s No More Me … Without You" (with guitar cameos by Billy Corgan, Brian Setzer and Rick Nielsen.

For the covers, Campbell chose well and does what he’s always done better that most others, augmenting the songwriters' work with his own creative spirit and making them his own. The album’s title track sounds like a classic Jimmy Webb composition done in classic Campbell style, but few will recognize it as Paul Westerberg’s work, while Campbell’s take on Guided by Voices’ “Hold on Hope” is absolutely revelatory, as is the gorgeous melancholy hymn of Jakob Dylan’s “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” and the propulsive Traveling Wilburyesque snap of Teddy Thompson’s “In My Arms” (featuring Dick Dale’s snakebite guitar).

It’s hard to know whether to be jubilant over the brilliance of Ghost on the Canvas or devastated by its unintended position as Glen Campbell’s last studio statement. It seems only right to accentuate the positivity of the former and wait, hopefully a good long time, before we mourn the latter.

• I’ve been pushing Tommy Keene’s brilliant Pop agenda for so long it seems like a part time job. His well-documented back story of indie potential and major label malfeasance contains enough drama to fuel a Hollywood biopic, but no more people would see its premiere than have bought his last 10 should-have-been-a-hit albums. Keene’s last in this string, 2009’s In the Late Bright, was a majestic marvel even by his consistently high standards, a typically contemplative and moody hookfest that couched his longstanding influences (Beatles, Who, Byrds) in a soaring jangle, representing some of his best-ever songwriting.

Keene’s latest, Behind the Parade, stands as something of a bar-setting experiment that he conducted on himself. Imposing a limit of 10 songs for the album, Keene forced himself to severely self-edit his songwriting as well as his song selection. As a result, the follow-up to one of Keene’s acknowledged masterworks is its total equal.

Parade kicks off with the solid one-two punch of the horn-flecked Burt Bacharach-on-steroids ’60s Pop rush of “Deep Six Saturday” and the signature melancholy jangle-and-jump of “Already Made Up Your Mind,” which this time features an undercurrent of Bruce Springsteen’s populist anthemics. On the wonderfully wistful title track, Keene channels The Byrds and U2, creating a sound that is both epic and intimate, a sonic presence that carries over to “Nowhere Road.” And Keene was so emboldened by his first instrumental recording on In the Late Bright — the Psych Pop jam “Elevated” — that he comes back to the concept on the synth-drenched and moodily cinematic “La Castana.”

The brilliance of Tommy Keene is that no matter how many influences he incorporates or how many other artists he might reference, he never strays too far from his distinct identity as a powerful purveyor of muscular guitar Pop. It’s almost become a cliche for those of us who so totally believe in Keene’s astonishing craft to christen his latest album with the holy sword of This-Will-Be-The-One. Behind the Parade fits that pattern to a sadly familiar degree, made all the more impressive considering he recorded it at home (with incomparable mixing by Walt Vincent).

Each successive Keene album should all have been another rung in the ladder of his ascension to Hall of Fame status. His fans know it, there just ought to be a few million more of us.

• With Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello set his leftist politics to a visceral soundtrack of thrashy Punk and Hip Hop. With Audioslave, any possible political message was lost in the thundering ’70s bron-yr-aur stomp. In 2003, during the Rage hiatus and following the dissolution of Audioslave, Morello brought his views back into clearer focus and began killing fascists with Woody Guthrie’s guitar under the banner of The Nightwatchman.

With his third album in this form, World Wide Rebel Songs, Morello continues in the direction of 2008’s The Fabled City, with a distinct balance between acoustic and electric accompaniment in the service of his wake-up-and-smell-the-right-wing-bullshit lyrical content. Whether folkily unplugged (“The Dogs of Tijuana,” “The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse”), amped to a Zep-like Ledness (“It Begins Tonight”), raising consciousness and hell with street choir joy (the title track) or preaching with the fervor of Reverend Dylan (“Save the Hammer for the Man,” “Speak and Make Lightning”), Morello leaps onto his soapbox with both his blazing guitar and righteous outrage dialed up to a needle-pegging intensity. The new generation’s protest party starts now.

• If Robert Earl Keen had been noted for little more than being Lyle Lovett’s neighbor/front porch jam pal at Texas A&M in the ’70s and writing “The Road Goes on Forever” (from his 1989 sophomore album West Textures) and “Merry Christmas from the Family” (from his 1994 album, Gringo Honeymoon), his status as a Lone Star legend would still be well secured. Of course, those are mere bullet-point accomplishments at the top of a long and illustrious resume. Keen is a Texas music icon of almost unassailable proportions with a catalog that may not be platinum in terms of sales but is solid gold as far as influence is concerned.

On the basis of 10 critically hailed studio albums and a half dozen representative live releases, Keen is one of the rare artists to earn and completely deserve the esteemed title of songwriter’s songwriter, as his songs have been covered and his style emulated by dozens of acknowledged greats.

On the nudgingly/winkingly titled Ready for Confetti, there’s little that Keen hasn’t already done on previous outings. He delivers his stock-in-trade bouncy Country odes with detailed observations that illuminate life’s quirkier characters and moments (“Top Down,” the title track), as well as more serious, furrowed-brow takes on similar subjects (“I Gotta Go,” “Black Baldy Stallion,” “Paint the Town Beige”). All are typically great, but the real talking point on Ready for Confetti is “The Road Goes On and On,” Keen’s pointedly personal response to Toby Keith’s royalty-skirting rewrite of “The Road Goes on Forever." It's a thinly veiled putdown of epic proportions (“You’re a regular jack-in-the-box, in your clown suit and your goldie locks/The original liar’s paradox, you’ll have to Google that”).

The song is Keen at his most scathingly brilliant, doing best what he’s always done well and offering further evidence that his durable songwriting road could indeed go on forever.

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