Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Album Review 3-Pack: New Albums By Old People

If you've been reading this blog for as long as I have (and I've been reading it for a while!), you know well that I am terrible at keeping up with modern music trends. With every passing year, I end up waiting around for the new Steve Malkmus or Dinosaur Jr. album to come around rather than actively pursuing so-called "pioneering" new indie acts. Sure, a few will slip through the cracks now and then (No Age, for example, who I should really review up in here), but when it comes down to it I just want to hear music by people I already know and love. It's the easy way out, I know, but I can't help it.

So tonight I am going to put my modern musical laziness to good use and review a few new albums from some of my favorite artists of yesteryear. These are all artists that I have loved for some years now, and as such I have anticipated these new records quite a bit. How do they fare in comparison to their greatest works?? Let's find out.

Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream

Look up, you bastard.

Working On A Dream
might be the quickest album Springsteen has released in his entire career, coming only a little over a year since 2007's Magic. This comes as a bit of a surprise from a guy who usually likes to take his time with album releases - as far as I recall, his two biggest records (Born To Run and Born In The USA) were followed by three-year-long hiatuses, and after the disbanding of the E Street Band in the late 80's he barely bothered to release anything. But it seems as if good 'ol Broos's muse has been rejuvenated since 2002's The Rising; Working On A Dream marks his fifth release of the decade, after all (if you count the Pete Seeger cover album, that is). Yes, the man is turning 60 this year, but it is nice to know that Bruce and the E-Streeters are so willing to record new music so rapidly; and if their fantastic performance at this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show is any indication, they'll be around for a while.

Having said this, I can't help but find Working On A Dream a little underwhelming. Maybe it was the laudatory reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, or maybe it was just my own desire to see Bruce continue his hot streak after the enjoyable-if-slightly-flawed Magic, but despite some lovely moments Working On A Dream does not excite me. For this record, it seems that Bruce has pulled back on the guitar-heavy mix of Magic in favor of a fuller, more orchestrated sound, full of layered backup vocals, horns, and violins. I'm guessing he's going for kind of a Phil Spector Wall-of-Sound homage, but more often than not it makes the album sound overproduced and even a little corny, especially on songs like the eight-minute epic "Outlaw Pete" or the semi-ridiculous "Queen of the Supermarket." I am not certain why he decided to go in this direction - I'm guessing he was trying to capture a classic, nostalgic sound of yesteryear, taking the Byrds-homage of Magic's "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" and running with it. But to me this overproduced sound neuters a lot of these songs and makes them feel just a bit too ridiculous for me to enjoy.

But man. I just can't get too mad at these guys - it's not worth it. I love Bruce Springsteen. I love the E Street Band. And all things considered, there is a whole lot to like in Working On A Dream. I absolutely adore the first single "My Lucky Day" - it's an uplifting, melodic rocker that doesn't suffer from the overproduction the rest of the record suffers from (it sounds like it would fit right in on Magic, come to think of it). I also dig the cutesy "Surprise Surprise" in spite of myself, not to mention the Danny Federici tribute "The Last Carnival." There's also "The Wrestler," a lovely acoustic number that probably should have won an Oscar (it at least deserved a nomination, for God's sake). There are also some goofy, weird moments on here that for whatever reason I can't resist, like the blues workout of "Good Eye" or the Pet Sounds homage that kicks off "This Life." In short, while I unfortunately think this record is a step down from Magic (simply put, there is nothing here as good as "Gypsy Biker" or "Livin' In The Future"), I still think it's worth a listen if you love Mr. Springsteen as much as I do. He sounds very happy on this record, and I am sure he will make you feel happy too.

Just... pull it back a little next time out, Bruce. You don't need all those goofy backing vocals. You're fine on your own. Remember Nebraska? Yeah.

U2 - No Line On The Horizon

The cover's about as exciting as the album

Now it is time for me to get sad. I don't think I have hid the fact that I am a U2 fan in this blog. What I probably haven't confessed is that U2 were one of the first bands I ever truly loved, predating even the Beatles by a solid year. Achtung Baby was the first album I ever really cared about from beginning to end. I find that this is a hard thing to admit, because in this decade especially there is a nasty anti-U2 vibe coming from most people my age, and with every passing year it becomes harder and harder for me to defend them (especially in the wake of the tepid How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb). And let me put it this way - No Line On The Horizon is not making it any easier for me.

Oh yes, it starts of promising enough. Very promising, in fact. No Line's title track, which kicks off the album, is one of the most passionate and propulsive songs they have written in a very long time, recalling 80s U2 in the best way possible. Bono sings in a kind of hoarse, upper-register roar, the likes of which I have not heard since War. In a word, it's an exciting song, and easily trumps anything on Atomic Bomb - and that excitement carries on into "Magnificent," another great song anchored by Edge's chiming guitar that reminds me lovingly of The Unforgettable Fire. So for two brief, shining moments, I was under the impression that No Line On The Horizon could be a great classicist U2 record, passionate yet knowingly mature. Like a darker All That You Can't Leave Behind, perhaps.

But no, no. Those two songs are the only two I completely enjoy on this album. After "Magnificent," the awkwardness begins to creep in. "Moment Of Surrender" is interesting, but doesn't justify its seven-minute running time. "Unknown Caller" is almost pretty, but is botched by a weird vocal melody and a bunch of awkwardly chanting backing vocals in the chorus. And "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," in case you couldn't tell from its title, has a bunch of terrible Bono lyrics slapped on top of unfortunately pretty backing music. So we have two great, promising songs followed by a few awkward songs that basically keep up the same graceful vibe, if not as effectively. And then, out of goddamn freaking nowhere, we have "Get On Your Boots."

Let me tell you a little story about "Get On Your Boots." It is the worst song U2 has ever recorded, in my opinion. It is a stupid, gaudy, manufactured mess of a song. It is U2 attempting to be "hip" and "rockin'" and failing miserably. If you were under the false impression that "Vertigo" was the lamest rocker U2 could ever record, you have now been proven wrong. "Get On Your Boots" is like "Vertigo" with everything salvageable taken out, presumably with Pro-Tools. Its riff is boring and annoying, its chorus is hookless and empty, and Bono's silly attempt at imitating Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in the verses - backed by an inexplicable hip-hop beat - is downright embarrassing. And not only is it lousy on its own, it wrecks the flow of the album, coming after five semi-pretty songs that sound nothing like it - it attacks you like a punch to the gut. I was flabbergasted when I first heard it. It speaks volumes about U2's current state that not only would they have this song on the album, but that they would make it their first single. My lord. My God.

"Get On Your Boots" is enough for me. I've said enough about this album. "Stand Up Comedy" is lousy too. Everything else is boring, save for "Breathe" which I like once in a while. When during the past five years or so did U2 decide to give up on melody? Simple, sweet, effective melody? That was their strongest suit. That's why I still love most U2 up to Achtung Baby, and why I still believe that All That You Can't Leave Behind was their last great album. Because those melodies were so wonderful! And they've given up on that. They're happy with being the "best band in the world" and they just don't care anymore. It's almost worse that No Line kicks off with two of their best songs in years. Wasted potential.

God you guys, I don't want to hate you. I'm your friend here! Really! I mean, didn't you guys write "Beautiful Day" not even ten years ago? I love that song! But those days are over, I guess. Whatever.

David Byrne and Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

The Sims?

OK, now it's time for me to cheer up a little. Here is a lovely album. It is completely the opposite of Byrne and Eno's previous collaboration, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts; whereas that album was a daring early 80s sample-collage, eschewing traditional song structures completely, Everything is almost completely focused on soulful melody, featuring some of Eno's prettiest melodies and Byrne's prettiest vocals. While there is a slight ambient feel to several of these songs - mostly due to the abundance of electronic beats and echoey effects to be found on the album - they are mostly used to anchor Byrne's vocal melodies, and they are used beautifully.

Hey, how about that David Byrne, huh? He's 56 now and he seems to be doing great. Because he is great! His voice sounds better than ever on this record. Absolutely heartwarming. When was the last time he's sounded this happy? I have no idea, but it's a joy, especially in songs like "Home," "My Big Nurse," "Life Is Long" and especially the gospel-y "One Fine Day." And hey, Brian Eno - you seem to be doing pretty well yourself, sir! There's a lot of interesting musical variation to be found here. "Strange Overtones" is a cool, compelling first single, featuring a thankfully tasteful electronic/funk backdrop; "My Big Nurse" is a homespun folksy shuffle; the title track is a calm, atmospheric wonder; "One Fine Day" is gospel-rock at its loveliest. This is a record made by two people who understand each other and understand what good music is, and have been humbled by their 30+ years in the industry. It's as simple as that.

One complaint - I'm not crazy about the funky, "experimental" songs on here. Songs like "I Feel My Stuff," "Wanted For Life," and "Poor Boy" - despite some occasional moments of interest - feel out of place. Not "Get On Your Boots"-caliber out of place, but awkward nonetheless. But considering that the rest of the songs on here are so remarkable, I am more than willing to forgive. Great job, David! Great job, Brian! I guess I'll forgive you for producing No Line On The Horizon and just blame it on U2. Please collaborate with David Byrne again sometime!

Yes, I don't have much to say about this album. No Line drained all my music critic energy, which is a shame because I enjoy this album so much more. And yet I have less to say about it! Maybe I am just a hateful human being. Either way, go out and buy this one if you like pretty music. Pretty music that makes you smile. You can't go wrong.


MH said...

"No Line" disappointed me too. "Moment of Surrender" was the only song that really grabbed me, and I agree that it doesn't need to be as long as it is.

I still want my Eminem review, by the way.

Sean Rose said...

Yeah I know. I've been so so bad with requested reviews lately.


Adam said...

Let's see...

"Working on a Dream" ensnared me at first listen but grew weaker with repeated plays. As much as I hate to admit it sometimes, I'm a big sucker for bombast in my records, so I do enjoy "Outlaw Pete." That pipe organ towards the end is pretty neat, and "Life Itself" and the title track and a few other ones are pretty great. Still, it's weak at points ("Queen of the Supermarket" blah) and yeah. I dunno.

Haven't bothered listening to the new U2 album. Sure I'll let Rolling Stone get away with giving the new Springsteen five stars, but once I saw this one get it as well, and then see everyone else lash out against it completely obliterated the already minimal interest I had in listening to it. "Get on Your Boots" reminds me of "Pump It Up."

The new David Byrne and Brian Eno album is great! I haven't listened to it enough though to really absorb it all, but "The River" sticks out to me as just a very relaxed, pretty song.

That's my two cents. You nailed it pretty well, as far as I know.

Sean Rose said...

"get on your boots" is like "pump it up" if "pump it up" were the worst song ever recorded