Thursday, August 07, 2008

Welcome to Hip Hop Week

I'd like to start by thanking the people that could make this special week come to fruition. Without their semi-constant antagonizing I probably would have put this off for a little while longer. As it is, I've actually been wanting to do this for a number of months. The reasons it hasn't happened till now is a mix between personal circumstances, procrastination, and just a difficulty in finding at least five albums I'm excited to talk about and review. Those two dudes know who they are, so I'm not going to acknowledge them by name for fear of increased fame, notoriety, or incrimination or drive-by.

During Hip-Hop Week, Vol. 1 I plan to review a few albums that have been bumping my car speakers to their tipping point, explore some general ideas on the state of the genre, along with some thoughts on what I perceive makes hip-hop worth listening to then and now. I know that my loyal familial readership probably won't "get" a lot of what I'll be speaking about, or will have preconceived notions of the genre as a whole. That's okay. We're trying to expand the palette of listening. Take a dip in unfamiliar water. Give some added culture to the daily routine. You don't have to like it, you don't have to agree with it, you don't even have to read / listen if you don't want to. You could even consider these next few days as a sabbatical from reading my blog, (but please come back!) but I would ask that you give it a shot. You may learn something, or heaven forbid hear something new that you actually enjoy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

Take a good look at these (semi)merged album covers. Notice something? Well, you should. When oriented correctly they line up nicely to form a pretty cool double-album. Now you may ask, "Didn't the album on top come out around this time last year?" Why yes, yes it did. Okkervil River put out one of the best albums I heard last year called The Stage Names. At the time I had no clue that it was actually the first disc of a planned double album. If I had known this fact I would have been even more excited to get its companion titled The Stand Ins. As it was I was thrilled to get a listen a full month before its retail release. Few bands even consider the concept of a double album these days. Just the thought of 20 - 28 tracks of original material is probably a headache to most bands. After all, there's a reason why most albums are a certain length. It usually takes a set amount of time to get all a band's musical ideas onto one disc. Recent failures in double discdom include such missteps as Stadium Arcadium by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Come to think of it, what was the last double album that was truly worth both discs? Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? That's the only one I can think of off the top of my head, and that came out in 1995! The reason they (double albums) don't often work is actually the freedom that comes with so many tracks and so much time to fill. The operative word being "fill." There is way too much free-wheeling with 20+ tracks at a band's disposal. Having constraints of 12-14 tracks makes the band winnow ideas and attempt to throw away the mediocre tracks. On bad double albums (which is most of them) bands throw in multiple filler songs to go along with the gems, leaving the compilation full of ups and downs. Most often the effort gets dragged down by those lowlights and leaves fans saying, "this would have been a great single album without these 8-10 mediocre/bad/b-side/demo-quality tracks." So, where does this leave Okkervil River? Glad you asked.

Thankfully, this final half to to their double album was well worth the wait. Lead singer-songwriter is the one who could pull this off. His deliberate lyrics and songwriting lends itself to the idea of a double album. He was able to see the whole picture and make sure it was executed in a near-perfect manner. I'm sure he even thought about the cover art being linked/matchable. It shows the cohesive thought that is necessary to pulling off such an endeavor. Judging the albums back-to-back is fair and actually work quite well together. They sound like they were conceived as a unit with maybe a little respit in between to recharge the batteries. One its own The Stand Ins is quite a good album. It's less edgier than it's older brother, but harmonically sound through and through. Another idea worth noting is the fact both albums have legs of their own. Like a perfect pair of twins; they're perfectly fun together, but individually they have their own great personalities and you can enjoy them both ways. So, people that are worried that this follow-up (more like continuation) is a bunch of glorified b-sides can rest easy because it's not.

"Singer Songwriter"

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst is normally known as Bright Eyes with his usual band, and has received numerous accolades for being the next generation's best songwriter. I know there are people that worship his music and others that despise it with a passion, I usually fall someplace in between. I can appreciate much of what he sings about, and his unique way of delivering a message which can sometimes be overly dramatic. Bright Eyes delivers gestures in grandiose style. Not so much in your face, but when all is said and done there is no confusion about his stance or feelings. His previous album Cassadaga came out last year and was pretty good, so to have another album out in such a short period of time would normally be a point worth noting except Oberst has always been a prolific song writer.

Conor Oberst is a self-titled release from an artist that has put out a few records already and is looking to partially re-invent himself. I don't really understand this strategy. The album was recorded in Mexico with a different bunch of friends comprising his new band. Their style is much the same as Bright Eyes if more tempered and laid back. When you listen to the new album there isn't anything drastically different that when it's over you'll think, "that was a Conor Oberst album" versus a Bright Eyes album. It's still mostly acoustic folk/country-rock with Oberst trying to use really large words when little ones would do just fine. The album has only a slightly different feel than before, and not nearly enough to warrant the name "change." Overall, it's a pretty solid album. It's laid back and more subdued with a slight Mecican twinge. If you like Bright Eyes, then you'll like Conor Oberst. If you don't like Bright Eyes, you probably already knew who Conor Oberst was, and have little interest now that he's officially out from behind his "group's" moniker.


Monday, August 04, 2008

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls In America was one of my favorite albums of 2006. So, their follow-up was highly anticipated because I thought Boys and Girls was highly accessible and the album The Killers had tried to make (and failed) with Sam's Town. Basically, it seemed that The Hold Steady was hitting their stride. Let me jog the memory about what I said about the previous album:
'Boys and Girls in America' is an achievement in Rock music. Finn creates drama, suspense, and genuine feeling on this record. Stand-out tracks include: Chips Ahoy, Hot Soft Light, and Massive Nights (and check out the great harmonica solo on the closing track 'Southtown Girls'). This record should be welcomed with open arms for one reason: it's REAL rock & roll for the current generation. Finn explains in both first, and third person the meaning of growing up here and now in suburbia. He is filled with angst, but brushes it off with equal parts humor and a band that really knows how to rock out. This doesn't have to be considered an "indie" record for it to be "cool" or "hip." With any moniker, it's just damn good.

Whew. I quoted myself again. Back to the album at hand. Stay Positive is another achievement. While it's still distinctly from The Hold Steady brand it's slightly different than the aforementioned "Boys and Girls" album. The keyboards are toned down a bit and there are less sing-along songs with booming choruses that are endlessly catchy. One of the album's strengths is also one of it's flaws. These songs are way more polished and put through the studio machine than any previous effort. Part of The Hold Steady's allure is their rough-around-the-edges spontaneity. The feeling that anything could happen and that the albums cuts were just the tip of the iceberg when compared to the live show. The majority of Stay Positive's songs feel finished, framed, and ready to be digested by the fans. The only problem with this is the fact that I don't want this polish from this band. I want some grit. I want the frayed corners. I want to hear songs that are just on the edge of being perfected. Not only does it effect the songs, it goes against the grain of what The Hold Steady represent and where they've come from. This was no more evident than when I saw them in concert here in L.A. on July 30th at Avalon. I had seen them last year when they played at The El Rey theater, and that previous show was quite a bit better for various reasons. They ran through almost all of the new album last week, and there were only a couple songs I found myself singing along and yelling loudly during the choruses. In contrast, when a song like "Chips Ahoy" or "Boys and Girls In America" were played I was going nuts. Not only because they were familiar, but because there was just a different energy from everyone in the room including the band. So, while the concert was great, it just reaffirmed my belief that this newest album may be seen as a lesser achievement than their previous work.

"Sequestered in Memphis"