Music Reviews: The Latest From Kid Rock, Airborne Toxic Event, Alien Ant Farm and More

PHOTO: Musical guest Kid Rock performs on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on Feb. 23, 2015.
Douglas Gorenstein/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

This week Kid Rock releases his latest collection of country and blues-flavored rock, The Airborne Toxic Event go the clean, dance-pop route, hard-rockers Alien Ant Farm return, singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins explores delightfully eerie terrain, longtime associate of the Roots, Malik B, drops an album with producer Mr. Green and They Might Be Giants issues a live version of its classic album “Flood” as a free download in honor of its 25th anniversary. It’s yet another eclectic week of listening.

PHOTO: Kid Rocks "First Kiss"
Kid Rock’s “First Kiss” *1/2

Kid Rock has been releasing albums for 25 years now. He started off in 1990 with the low-grade, awkwardly leaning hip-hop sound of “Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast.” (Believe it or not, he was once championed by Boogie Down Productions-associate D-Nice!) He didn’t get his big break for another eight years with “Devil Without A Cause,” and the rap-rock hybrid single, “Bawitdaba.” Since then, he has slowly been morphing into a roots-rock troubadour with country-fried edges. His latest album, “First Kiss,” finds him waxing nostalgic about high school memories, growing up and lamenting that things just aren’t the way they used to be. The title-track sounds like a hybrid between Outfield’s “Your Love,” The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” and a variety of other previously recorded songs. Throughout the album, Rock name-checks Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and Marvin Gaye like Dobie Gray name-checked The Beach Boys on his hit “Drift Away.”

On “Good Times, Cheap Wine,” he revels in his own uncoolness. Only saying how uncool he is, doesn’t reverse that fact. Singing about how he has the “red-blooded white-boy blues” doesn’t do him any favors, either. Throughout most of this album, Rock comes off surprisingly like a curmudgeon and one that isn’t particularly exciting. These songs about nostalgia seem like they are out of a rulebook of how to pen songs about whisky-drinking, God-fearing, truck-driving “good ol’ boys.” And while the musicianship isn’t bad here, the album seems stuck in a late-seventies/early eighties rut and for the most part you can find better songs from that period that show more of a spark. This is straight-up formula.

What’s most puzzling, though, is the persona that Kid Rock now puts on. On “Ain’t Enough Whisky,” he sings “Talk about freedom. / They talk about faith. / They talk about taking my guns away. / Monkeys in suits writing laws and rules. / They just bicker and fight. / But I an’t gotta listen to the g_ddamn fools, / ‘Cuz I know what’s right.”

On “Drinking Beer With Dad,” he sings about opening a cold one on his back porch with his father, saying, “Nowadays things have changed. / This whole world’s gone down the drain. / There’s no God in schools / Totin’ guns is the latest fad. / A little discipline would sure be nice. / A little lesson in wrong and right. / Maybe it’s time, young man to have a beer with Dad.” These words create a strange juxtaposition. He’s singing about fatherly talks, or even if you stretch it out, possibly a call to prayer, but read incorrectly, it sounds like he’s saying drinking can solve your problems. No matter what the intention, he might as well be yelling at the youngsters to get off his lawn before he has to go get his belt.

The weirdest moment is when he’s singing about getting drunk and “learning how to live (his) life” from both “Jesus & Bocephus” on the track of the same name. That’s right, it’s all about drinking Jim Beam and jamming out to Hank Williams Jr. and then going to read passages from the bible. This moment might seem more genuine if it wasn’t soon undercut by the bonus track, “FOAD,” which stands for “F__k Off And Die,” on which the background singers get really into repeating the title over and over.

“First Kiss” is a heavy-handed, sometimes hypocritical nostalgia trip that summons memories of Kid Rock’s southern youth. But…wait a minute. Isn’t he from Michigan? This album feels like a calculated attempt to keep the country crowd in his fanbase. I suppose this has been the case since his Sheryl Crow duet, “Picture,” but this just comes off as Rock’s latest pose.

Focus Track:

“One More Song” The best song on this song is the admittedly generic “One More Song,” which barely squeezes by on its big chorus. It also surprisingly isn’t hurt by the dub-step-esque bass-rumble which appears at the beginning of the track and fits surprisingly seamlessly.

PHOTO: Airborne Toxic Events "Dope Machines"
The Airborne Toxic Event’s “Dope Machines” **1/2

The fourth album by the Airborne Toxic Event has them coming off a bit like a strangely glassy cross between the New Pornographers and Arcade Fire on a Friday night party trek, although the overly slick production on “Dope Machines” actually ends up muting the end result. This band possesses a strong sense of drive. Listen to a song like “Welcome To Your Wedding Day” from their under-rated classic second record “All At Once” and you hear some real emphasis. It feels like there is something at stake.

There is a touch of that element still present on “Dope Machines,” but it is so drenched in day-glow synths and larger-than life production that that sense of tension is lost in the name of volume and polish. “California” sounds like Springsteen going clubbing, while “One Time Thing” sounds like a down-and-out piece of electro-clash which is slightly marred by its octave-stretching vocal harmony. There are some decent songs here, but they aren’t executed well. Mind you, this is the band’s first release for new home, Epic. The presence of Linda Perry among the album’s contributors indicates that they are really aiming for the radio this time. After a while, all the songs become so glossy that they sound the same. When a scratchiness is introduced on “The Thing About Dreams,” it is like a breath of fresh air, and then the awkward falsetto chorus comes in and ruins the track.

In the attempt to make a journey into neon club-land, the Airborne Toxic Event have accidentally made an overproduced, monochromatic collection. It sounds uniform and ends up sounding rather sterile and surprisingly boring. I wish they’d come out with an acoustic disc of these same songs. They are a decent and talented band and the majority of these songs would probably be more powerful in their stripped down form. As is, these songs play well taken one at a time, but all together, this collection becomes punishingly monotonous. This album is a surprising misstep.

Focus Tracks:

“Dope Machines” The title-track has a slightly industrial tinge and a slick guitar-line. The guitar really adds something. Throughout most of the synth-heavy set, the guitars are turned way down and that choice doesn’t do the band any favors.

“Time To Be A Man” This is another brimming, gleaming slices of pop and it has one of the few melodies that really sticks and leaves a lasting impression. “Wrong” This isn’t a bad opener and it would make a good single. If you like it, strap in because it is immediately followed by nine more extremely similar songs.

PHOTO: Alien Ant Farms "Always and Forever"
Alien Ant Farm’s “Always And Forever” ***

I have a theory about Animal Ant Farm. They deserved a much better career than they have received and would have had a better time had they not put their metallic cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” on their major-label debut album “ANThology.” Granted that song became their biggest hit, but it turned them accidentally into a novelty act, when amazing songs like “Movies” and the criminally under-rated “Attitude” should have had them mentioned in the same breath as Incubus. Both bands were wrongly lumped into the “Nu-Metal” crowd for a brief second, when really both specialized in a brand of eclectically-minded hard rock with a slew of other influences. The Latin tinges heard on Alien Ant Farm’s next record, “truANT” and the amazing single “Glow,” should have been enough to reach them beyond the “Smooth Criminal” hokeyness, but to the vast majority of the public that cover is what resonates most. The band retuned in 2006, with the merely alright, “Up In The Attic,” which while not a bad record by any stretch didn’t help them grow any further. (It did, however feature the standout, “San Sebastian.”) After that album’s low-key release, the band went on hiatus.

The road to “Always & Forever,” the band’s comeback record was a long one. It was started a quite a while back when the band announced their reformation and launched a Kickstarter campaign. A while passed. A year-and-a-half ago, the band released a video for the admittedly lackluster single, “Let Em Know,” which is little more than a dub-step-infused crowd-psyching chant. It took a long time for this album to see the light of day. The results are indeed mixed. The choice of “Let Em Know” as a single was a poor one. It’s probably a good song to bounce off of a crowd during live shows, but they probably should have gone with something that played up their more melodic side like “Movies” or “Summer” did in the past, or something touching and tragic along the lines of the “truANT” track, “Sarah Wynn.” “Burning” would have been a much better first single. Even “Sidelines” would have been better, even with its tired sports metaphors and cheeseball pep-rally vibe. Really, the majority of “Always And Forever” shows a band at war with its own sound. While there are a few winners here, too many of these songs seem to be aimed at moving the crowd with empty clichés. It makes this a difficult album to quantify because of its uneven nature. It has a few real highs, but it also has a few disappointing lows.

What saves this album is that it has five or six rather strong, likable songs that show glimmers of the past. While the idiotically formulaic “Our Time” is dreadful, powerful opener “Yellow Pages” sets the band off initially in the right direction.

The members of Alien Ant Farm just need to securely find their footing again. They have shown themselves to be a talented and promising band in the past, and there are hints of that band still. (I repeat, even with “Smooth Criminal,” “ANThology” was one of the strongest and most engaging rock records of 2001.) Dryden Mitchell’s voice still packs a punch with its unique vibrato. While this album doesn’t completely deliver and can be at times alarmingly spotty, it still brings enough promise to recommend. I’m glad to see them back in action. I hope they continue to make more records for many years to come.

Focus Tracks:

“Yellow Pages”/”Simpatico”/”Burning” These are the first three tracks on the record, with “Burning” as the best track the collection has to offer. I am lumping them together because together they set the record off in the right way before “Let Em Know” begins a small series of duds. Later in the record there are a few more real keepers.

“Crazy Love” This track is one of two tracks that recycles a song-title of a classic hit. (The second is “American Pie.”) This surprisingly sounds like “Maroon”-era Barenaked Ladies. Laugh if you want to at the comparison, but the song works even if it covers rather basic terrain, subject-wise.

“Dirty Bomb” This grungy closer is about a destructive yet magnetic relationship. It packs a great deal of power and shows the band to be quite technically strong. This would have also been a better lead single than “Let Em Know.”

PHOTO: Elvis Perkins "i aubade"
Elvis Perkins’ “I Aubade” ****

Elvis Perkins’ third record continues to explore the eerie folk elements of his previous two records, 2007’s “Ash Wednesday” and 2009’S “Elvis Perkins In Dearland.” “I Aubade” is full of a hauntingly dark energy that both lulls and slightly disturbs. I mean this in the best way. The amazing, “My Kind” brings a kind of sad beauty similar to the energy the late Trish Keenan brought to the Broadcast classic “Tears In The Typing Pool.” (Or at least a male equivalent.) On the flipside, “AM” sounds like a tin-pan alley track backed by a warped circus band. There’s an old-timey, otherworldly quality to this album on the whole and musically Perkins sounds like the twisted descendent of Donovan and Nick Drake with a touch of Syd Barrett mixed in for flavor.

Perkins has an eloquent sense and a knack for humorously curious poetry, which combined with all the sonic hums and shifts on this record, creates a strangely effective environment. Perkins sings with a clear, distinct, slightly nasally tone that immediately demands your attention. His vocals sound like the treble level was raised and there’s usually a bit of a ghostly bit of reverb, as if he is communicating to his listeners from another time via walkie-talkie.

This is a thunderous collection which should immediately grab your interest. “Thunderous” might seem like an odd description considering this is for the most part a collection of ballads that come off like slightly gothic lullabies, but by using that term, I mean that this album nails its point down with a confident sense of authority.

Whenever pieces are written about Perkins, much is always made of his celebrity lineage. He is the son of the late Actor Anthony Perkins (of “Psycho” fame) and the late actress and photographer Berry Berenson. If knowing these background facts make you listen to this record, so be it, but if “I Aubade” proves anything, it is that Elvis Perkins deserves a high level of fame in his own right. This is a really strange, oddly beautiful, sonically imaginative collection. This is a calmingly psychedelic set of tracks which feels gently handcrafted with care.

Focus Tracks:

“AM” In addition to the above observations, I think this song perfectly showcases this album at its whimsical best. It is truly fascinating. “I Came For The Fire” Like a dark cowboy hymn, this track creeps and stirs as Perkins comes off like a folky cousin to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

“All Today” Remember Neil Young’s “A Letter Home” from last year where he recorded a batch of songs quickly straight to vinyl in Jack White’s studio? That album didn’t leave that much of an impression, but in listening to this track by Elvis Perkins, it strikes me that he could probably do a great stripped down version using that method of recording. Really, Perkins is a master of these affecting ballads that recall the lullabies of yesteryear.

PHOTO: Malik B & Mr. Greens "Unpredictable"
Malik B And Mr. Green’s “Unpredictable” ****

Malik B was co-founder of the Roots, rapping alongside Black Thought on early classics like “Do You Want More?!!!??!” and “Illadelph Halflife” before leaving the group. Malik has come back from time to time since his departure, and while he may not be a current member of the Roots, he will always be a member of their crew.

“Unpredictable” finds the Philly MC paired with producer Mr. Green. Green’s sharply-honed, ear-catching beats are a perfect match for Malik’s often raw battle-raps. There’s a vintage feeling to this hip-hop purist approach. This album stands well besides nineties classics by the likes of Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep. While this album lyrically strongly earns its warning sticker and is not for the easily offended, it recaptures something that most of hip-hop’s current crop has forgotten. If you have a bass-heavy beat that immediately grabs you, and you combine it with drive and lyrical skill, you’ll be unstoppable. On “Definition,” Malik declares, “I’m the definition of what this hip-hop s__t ought to be.” It’s hard to argue against his point. This is a collection meant for those who miss the nineties peak of the genre, and this record strongly delivers.

For fans of the Malik B’s work with the Roots, be warned, some of this album can be on the darker, more ominous side, like the murderous thoughts depicted in “Devil” or the very Wu-esque “Dark Streets” which sounds extremely RZA-influenced. All along the way, Malik brings surprises. He can drop verses for little more than a minute and still grab your attention enough to make you want to listen to such brief tracks on repeat. Listen to both “Dolla Bill” and “Rhyme Exercise,” which both are incredibly short and you’ll see what I mean. He raps in a thick Jamaican accent for more than half of “Tyrants” and sounds ready for the mosh-pit on the guitar-heavy “Crown Of Thorns.”

“Unpredictable” is a strong example of hip-hop being brought back to its rawest, fearless, street-wise essence. At just under 37 minutes, these 13 tracks make their point succinctly and economically. Malik B and Mr. Green need to continue this partnership. As I side note, if you played me, “Mellow My Man,” for instance from “Do You Want More?!!!??!” next to any of the tracks on this album and told me that 21 years of time passed between the recordings, if I didn’t already know it to be true, I probably would not believe it.

Focus Tracks:

“What Can I Say” Simply put, this is classic, gritty hip-hop built around a sped-up guitar-riff and a vocal line that asks, “What can I say to you? What can I Do?” Malik is on top of his lyrical game here, giving this track the urgency it demands.

“Crown Of Thorns” (Featuring Skrewtape) This is an epic dose of rap-rock anchored by guitars and an intermittent beat-box. It comes off like a melancholy cousin to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” sonically-speaking.

“We Gonna Make It" (Featuring Nate Green) This is one of the few optimistic-sounding tracks on the record about learning to smile and manage in the face of everyday struggles and adversity. It has a bright, R&B bounce anchored by a rhythmic piano line.

PHOTO: John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants perform during a concert on Nov. 23, 2013, in Berlin, Germany.
Adam Berry/Redferns via Getty Images
They Might Be Giants’ “Flood Live In Australia” ****1/2

If you remember, roughly a year ago, Brooklyn indie-rock legends They Might Be Giants released a live version of their first album as a free download on their website. Now, they have given the same treatment to their platinum-selling third album, “Flood” in honor of its 25th anniversary. As with the re-recording of the first record, these songs are given a striking bit of added muscle, considering back in 1990, the band consisted of just members John Linnell and John Flansburgh. In 1994, the duo began having a full back-up band to beef up their live shows and their albums. This means that the version of “Twisting” heard on this live release sounds downright mammoth-sized next to the original, and the last few seconds of “Minimum Wage” now sound like something left off of the Pixies’ “Bossanova.”

The band also made an interesting decision for this live set by playing the songs in reverse order. On the original album, most of the high points are in the first half, but with the order reversed, the other songs pop a tad more, beginning with the camp-fire country of “Road Movie To Berlin.” Oddball-gems like the one-of-a-kind “Hot Cha” and the reggae-tinged “Hearing Aid” are also given a new level of oomph. “Your Racist Friend,” which is probably still the normally jokey duo’s most serious tracks to date (about dealing with a bigoted blowhard at a party) is given a particularly blistering guitar solo.

All of this means that this set in many ways plays better than its original source and that is saying something, because its original source is widely considered a classic. And yes, there are some interesting detours to keep things interesting, like the classically-flavored acoustic guitar opening given to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” or the rev down (and back up) during “Particle Man.” If these songs sound slightly better, it may be from years of playing them as major pieces in the band’s set-list.

“Flood” is a record packed with gems. It was rightfully a hit. 25 years later, it’s excellent to have Linnell and Flansburgh not only still working at full-force, but reinforcing the immense power of their back-catalog. Though, don’t call them a nostalgia act. 2015 promises to be a big year full of more new music.

Focus Tracks:

“Birdhouse In Your Soul” Other than the theme to “Malcolm In The Middle,” “Boss Of Me,” this is most likely the group’s most famous song of their career. It’s an oddball anthem to bird-shaped nightlight and it is given a loving treatment here.

“Twisting.” If they had grunged this song out at this level sometime between 1991 and 1994 and put it on an album this way, it would have been a runaway hit. It was a standout on “Flood.” It RULES here.

“Dead” This is still quite an effective (and beautiful) funeral march. That being said, it is cartoonish and playfully silly as Linnell sings lines like, “I will never say the word procrastinate again. / I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed.”

Next Week: New releases from Kelly Clarkson, Noel Gallagher and more.

Missed last week's? Get the latest on new releases from Imagine Dragons, the Juliana Hatfield Three, Kate Pierson and more.

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