-- intro: With the post-holiday week, it’s a lighter release schedule this week. We’ll examine the latest from Counting Crows, Maroon 5, Australian rockers the Vines and experimental art-rock outfit Blonde Redhead.
quicklist: 1 title: Counting Crows’ “Somewhere Under Wonderland” (Deluxe) **** text: I keep waiting for Counting Crows to realize that they are at their best when they are in full-tilt rock mode and release a loud, hard-edged power-pop record. I’d much rather listen to tracks like “Angels Of The Silences,” “American Girls” or “Hanging Tree” at full blast than some of their softer ballads even though both sides of the band’s sound come with a set of strengths.
“Somewhere Under Wonderland” isn’t the rock record I’ve been waiting for, but it’s quite a strong piece of work. The band has been unusually active the last few years, releasing a covers record in 2012 and live records in both 2011 and 2013, but this is really the first proper studio record of original material since 2008’s “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.” That album divided itself in half between rockers and slower numbers with most of the successes landing on the rock side. This collection is more satisfyingly even in its tone.
This is a twang-y, roots-y record that owes more to Tom Petty and John Mellencamp than to Big Star and R.E.M., even if you can still hear the influence of the latter two bands under the surface. This is a record comfortable in its own footing. It’s one of the more focused exercises the band has ever put out and while its 9-song track-list may seem slight, it still delivers, showcasing Adam Duritz to still be every bit the rambling poetic wordsmith he was 20 years ago. “Earthquake Driver” and “Scarecrow” may have more of a country and blues core, but they are definitely cut from the same cloth as early classics like “Omaha” and “Rain King.” This is “classic rock” for a new generation and it never feels half-hearted or phoned-in. It may have not been the record I was waiting for, but it still satisfies.
Note: The deluxe version comes packaged with two additional demos as bonus tracks.
“Elvis Went To Hollywood” This is the only track on here that shows the band at their peppy best, hitting the rock and pop sides with even kicks. Bonus points for the lyrical mention of Alex Chilton. This should be a hit for them.
“Palisades Park” No, this isn’t the Chuck Barris-penned, Freddy Cannon hit. This is a nearly eight-and-a-half minute narrative tour-de-force from Duritz.
“John Appleseed’s Lament” This is a thick piece of blues that sounds like an even cross between peak Dylan and early Black Crowes. There’s also some really excellent guitar work on display.
quicklist: 2 title: Maroon 5’s “V” (Deluxe) *** text: As Adam Levine’s star rises as both a judge on "The Voice" and as People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” his music has become increasingly poppy. Let’s face it. It was always pop, but Maroon 5 are a very different band now than they were back in 2002 when “Songs About Jane” was released.
“V” has both winning and losing moments, but ultimately leaves a good after-taste. Levine is best when he sings in his lower register. He actually has to be careful because he possesses one of the most polarizing voices this side of Geddy Lee. There are moments during the songs “Animals,” “Feelings,” and “New Love” that are likely to leave some people wincing.
The disco-esque groove of “Feelings” is no doubt meant to recall the band’s “Moves Like Jagger.” And as Levine sang “Moves Like Jagger” with his fellow “Voice” coach, Christina Aguilera, he sings the ballad “My Heart Is Open” with his new colleague Gwen Stefani. Many of these songs are co-written with hired guns and Sia’s writing-presence on this track is undeniable.
This album may be more polished than it has to be and it lacks any an organic feeling, but in the end, it has enough redeemable qualities to warrant a listen.
“Maps” It is evident from the start of this track that Levine and company are aiming for an even cross between Police-era Sting and Gotye maintaining a shiny, modern radio pop spin. This song gets better with every listen and is the key highlight of the record.
“Sex And Candy” (Deluxe Edition) Yes, this is basically a straight-ahead R&B cover of the Marcy Playground classic. I don’t know if it is meant to be taken seriously or ironically, but it works. It’s also one of the few times on the record that Maroon 5 actually sound like a band and not like Adam Levine and a bunch of producers. Marcy Playground’s John Wozniak has long been an under-rated songwriter and it is really nice to see him get some mainstream love again. (This is especially true since Marcy Playground are still putting out excellent albums.) If you want a laugh, check out the YouTube comments under Maroon 5’s version of this song where eager but incorrect fans argue that Adam wrote the song a long time ago… To them, I say, “No. No he did not."
“It Was Always You” This is one of the more digitized track, but it works and it should be a big hit. It also shows Levine using his voice properly.
quicklist: 3 title: The Vines’ “Wicked Nature” *** text: Even though it seems the Vines’ Craig Nichols is trying to channel Kurt Cobain, “Wicked Nature” doesn’t fall flat. It feels casually informed by the reaches made on the band’s last record, 2011’s “Future Primitive,” which found the band stretching out a little more than before. When Nichols isn’t aping Nirvana, he has an early-Beatle-esque go-go bounce, or he’s exploring ethereal harmonies on softer, more reflective numbers. It’s the quieter, less forced offerings that push this album closer to the positive side of the scale. In fact, while this isn’t the band’s best record to date, it does at moments summon memories of their high mark, “Winning Days” from 2004.
Here’s the kicker, too. This is actually a double album made up from two different recording sessions. But why exactly is it a double album? It doesn’t need to be. Its 22 songs span less than 55 minutes. Spreading that out across two discs is almost like forcing CD listeners to get the feeling of turning over the record. In an age where most people will probably just rip the album to an ipod where it will play continuously anyway, creating a forced intermission comes off as somewhat absurd.
This is a strange collection on many counts but it does have winning moments that make it worth an overall listen.
“Funny Thing” At 3:40, this closing track of the entire set is the most satisfying track here. It also brings to mind Ty Segal at his most laid back.
“Into The Fire” From the riff, I kept expecting this to be a cover of Devo’s “Gut Feeling,” but it isn’t. But like the previously mentioned track, it is one of the longer and more relaxed songs on the set, showing that this is really where Nichols shines.
“Venus Flytrap” These quieter numbers have a haunted, troubled energy that unfolds beautifully.
quicklist: 4 title: Blonde Redhead’s “Barragán” ***1/2 text: On their ninth album, the members of New York’s Blonde Redhead are just about as far away from their initial noise-rock roots as they can get. With its use of flute-like sounds and other symphonic-leaning instrumentation, this album has a vague lounge appeal, even when it plays up a more electro-side. It can be subtle and sultry in places, delivering low-key dance grooves.
This album never fully rocks out. It’s a sparse display fueled by stripped-down riffs and quiet bits that will leave you wanting to turn up the volume. The noisy side of their sound may have subsided, but this is still highly experimental in nature. It has just become more dream-like and less dissonant. On this album, vocals are more likely to be whispered than screamed, with Kazu Makino and Amedeo Pace each maintaining a hushed mutter. This is art-rock with the goal of experimentation. If you are looking for pop hooks, this is not your record, but it still has a soft and gentle shine throughout. Don’t get me wrong, there are some moments that stick out, but this is far from pop.
“Barragán” may take a few listens to fully introduce itself, but it will ultimately reveal itself as a strangely appealing concoction.
“No More Honey” This 4-chord, delicate rocker is packed with woozy tension.
“Dripping” This sounds like a subtle dance number with a haunted glow. It is low-key dance-club material and frankly would probably do well as potential remix material.
“Cat On Tin Roof” This is another experiment with a repeated, low-key riff, proving that sometimes simplicity works best.
Next week, the release schedule picks up and we’ll have reviews from Robert Plant, Ryan Adams and more.
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