Hold Steady Lite

The Hold Steady have been described as America’s the greatest bar band. With lead singer, Craig Finn’s, penchant for choruses Springsteen-esque both in their sweeping appeal, and Finn’s gruff intonation. With an amazingly consistent track record of creating excellent meat and potatoes rock it’s hard to argue against this distinction.

However, as surely as the King of Beers has it’s lite counter part, so too do The Hold Steady have a similarly flavored albeit watered down counterpart. Cheap Girls are Hold Steady Lite.

The similarities are striking. Crunchy guitar riffs and tales of drunken, possibly unrequited emotion delivered in a flat, but emotive midwestern dialect. Whereas The Hold Steady deal in pseudo concept albums and tell seemingly personal tales drawn from the experiences of following cool music, Cheap Girls spin cautiously optimistic yarns about dysfunctional relationships with a sardonic edge. Both bands know their way around a shout-along chorus, but you won’t burn any calories getting through a Cheap Girls song.

If you’re predisposed toward finding merit in every little guitar-band-that-could I reall recommend diving into the works of Cheap Girls. My personal favorite is 2012’s Giant Orange.

Second impressions of Earth

When The Strokes’ third full-length album, First Impressions of Earth was  released in 2006 it received mixed reviews and garnered international commercial indifference.

First Impressions of Earth was considered a step backward from The Strokes’ well-received sophomore effort, Room on Fire, and it was particularly brutalized anytime it was compared to the beloved Is This It.

The album was considered too long, too disjointed and the tales of the laborious recording sessions that produced it are well documented . Also, First Impressions did not sound like what an album by The Strokes was expected to sound like.

In an interview with Pitchfork Gordon Raphael, said he thinks the sound change was the result of a change in producers and a desire to monetize.

“I believe they saw all the bands that came in the door behind the first record that were selling three times more than them and were wondering if it was a production thing,” says Raphael. “At the time, they were getting married and having children and wondering how they could go higher than they did.”

The Strokes attempted a two producer approach, but David Kahne, who has produced albums for Tony Bennet, Sublime and Sugar Ray, would ultimately handle the brunt of the producing duties.

With Kahne’s production First Impressions of Earth sounds slicker and slightly heavier than any entry to The Strokes’ body of work so far.

First Impresions of Earth is by most of the band’s admission an overgrown jumble, but even a casual reveals at least a handful of good songs and a few excellent songs.

The opening four tracks of the album oscillate between some of the most joyous pop-rock The Strokes have made and the hardest rock The Strokes ever experimented with.

You Only Live Once, Juice Box, Heart in a Cage and Razorblade are all enjoyable listens.

It takes until First Impression of Earth‘s fifth track for the album to truly misfire.

The ska aping, midtempo number On the Other Side just does not have much juice. Casablancas’ drunken boredom becomes contagious, and it’s difficult to make it through the four-and-a-half-minute song.

Luckily, the album’s next song is a respite.

Vision of Division is a cleaned up take on the sound The Strokes had mined successfully in their previous two albums. The song coils, building tension and releases it expertly, and Albert Hammond Jr’s guitar sounds furious when its given free reign.

Unfortunately, there is another third of the album until the next truly worthwhile song, but it’s a doozy.

Ize of the World might just be the best song on First Impressions.

 Ize moves at a brisk pace, and is anomalous in feeling much shorter than its actual running time. The song is basically build around the lyrical conceit that verbs ending in “-ize”– an egg to fertilize, a pulse to stabilize, a body to deodorize, etc. It’s tongue-in cheek, musically interesting and features a bizarre, abrupt ending. Ize of the World is the most successful experiment on this album by far, and it would have served as an excellent closing song.

However, First Impressions still has two more inessential songs to go. Evening Sun and Red Light aren’t offensively bad, but they aren’t wonderful either. They’re symptomatic of the perplexing inclusion of entirely too much filler, which kept First Impressions from being the third unimpeachable entry into The Strokes cannon.

Despite the album’s flaws, it hits on almost half of the songs on the album, and it isn’t hard to see how if First Impressions of Earth would have been greatly improved if it had been pared down.

It is still absolutely worth a listen, but after the first run through it’s probably best to stick to the seven or so songs that you actually like.



If it Saint Baroque Don’t Fix It: Annie Clark’s latest complex pop offering rocks

Annie Clark, best known by her performing moniker St. Vincent, has always displayed impressive rock’n’roll chops for someone who primarily trades in dreamy, baroque pop, but the opening one-two punch on her new self-titled album ramps things up considerably.

Album opener “Rattle Snake” and  the proceeding track”Birth in Reverse” both vibrate with an electric energy entirely befitting Clark’s  recent switch to shock-white hair.

“St. Vincent” then moves on to spacier territory, which will be familiar and pleasant for fan’s of 2011’s superb “Strange Mercy”.

The strange, tuneful art-pop on this album will make her collaborator David Byrne proud.

Genre bending also abounds throughout “St. Vincent”. “Bring Me Your Loves” flirts with an industrial sound, “Digital Witness” is a brassy dance song with hints of Prince-like funk and closer “Severed Cross Fingers” is a fairly straightforward ballad.

The humor and genuine feeling present in this album provides warmth to the angular music on this album, and a pulsing energy gives this excellent album a sense of momentum, even if it never quite tops its opening rush.

Re-done dance

It’s not uncommon for a band to reuse a song released on an EP as a track on a full-length album,but sometimes too much tinkering can cause an EP standout to lose its appeal the second time around. These songs are songs bands got right the first time.

1. Magic Wands- “Teenage Love”

This song appeared on both “Magic, Love & Dreams EP” and on the bands debut album “Aloha Moon”. Both versions are intentionally kitschy, ironic takes on bubblegum love songs, but the first version did it better. The album version isn’t bad, but The EP version’s vocals are more subdued, drumming has a little more snap and synthesizer intro is less prominent.

For a song that’s essentially a stripped down, sneering take on “Genius of Love” less is more.

2. Ra Ra Riot- “Can You Tell”

The best version of “Can You Tell” appeared, fittingly, on the 2006 “Can You Tell EP”, and is technically a demo version of the song. It also appears on Ra Ra Riot’s 2008 album, “The Rhumb Line”. The earlier version has a rougher string section, and the word babe is used as a holding place for about a fourth of the simple song’s lyrics.

This is a schmaltzy, short love song, and it lose virtually no meaning by having a term of endearment stand in for a few lines. However, “Can You Tell” gains a lot of character by stripping a coat of varnish off of its strings.

3. The Givers- GIVERS

Four of the 10 songs on The Givers’ debut album “In Light” are contained on the band’s EP “GIVERS”. The band is bubbly and energetic, but dialed it up to 11 for their album. Every redundant song was better in its original iteration, and the remix of “Up Up Up” is also very enjoyable.

“In Light” is a fun, afrobeat inspired collection of indie pop songs, but the band from Lafeyette, La., did better with the material on their first try.



JEFF the Brotherhood- “Hey Friend”

The opening track from Tennessee sludge-rockers JEFF the Brotherhood’s album “We Are the Champions”  opens with a stuttering air horn blast that would not be out of place kicking off a Drake single.

It is quickly followed by lurching muddy, guitar before shifting gears toward a much sparser sound.

The song is an interesting expression of lust and jealousy for the different members of a friend’s family.

Some examples include: “I’ve been thinking about your mom/ You can tell me if it’s really wrong”, “I’ve been thinking about your sister/You can tell me if I shouldn’t kiss her” and “I’ve been thinking about your dad/ You can tell me if it’s really bad.”

If you’re looking for a genuine laugh, some genre subversion and some great guitar work “Hey Friend” is a solid choice.



A tough concept to grasp

There are few traditions in music as openly derided as the concept album.

They have a reputation for being too long, too verbose, grandstanding too much and sacrificing song quality to serve an album’s theme. These perceptions are considered doubly true when the concept album in question is a double album or rock opera.

Even legendary efforts such as The Who’s “Tommy”and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” are usually used as shorthand for overstuffed bombast or to exemplify empty calories music.

However, there are exceptions to the rule. This is a short list of some good, great and all-time classic concept albums.

These are concept albums for people who normally hate concept albums.

1. The Beatles- “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

A psychedelic, classic rock album is typically not the direction one should look when searching for a lean listen, but “Sgt. Pepper’s” clocks in at just under 40 minutes. The album is filled with classic songs, poppy hooks and is one of the most exalted albums in the oeuvre of the greatest band ever. Only the Beatles could close an album with a song featuring an orchestra and dog whistle without feeling even slightly excessive.

2. Cloud Nothings- “Attack on Memory”

Cloud Nothings started as a catchy, lofi solo project by Dylan Baldi, but on “Attack on Memory” they had matured into a full-fledged band. As the title suggests this album set out to attach previous conceptions of what the Cloud Nothings were. Also, songs tend to be thematically focused on battling with the past. This theme encapsulates everything from overcoming lingering memories of failed relationships to accepting failure to realize past goals. Sludgy guitars and Albini-produced dry drums let the sound quality match the quality of the song writing. “Attack on Memory” is a hook-laden, angry, wonderful concept album,

3. Fucked Up- “David Comes to Life”

With blaring guitars, multiple characters and female guest vocals there is no mistaking this for anything than a Rock Opera.

However, “David Comes to Life” is to Rock Operas what Thomas Pynchon is to novelists. There are multiple unreliable narrators, the fourth wall is shattered and substantial stylistic shifts. Without a guide it is almost impossible to actually follow the plot.

Also, the topics of death, love, loss pessimism and faith are dealt with in a mature measured way. This is particularly surprising for a band called Fucked Up.

4. Candy Claws- “Ceres and Calypso in Deep Time”

This albums is the chronicle the adventures of an adolescent girl and her prehistoric seal-like companion through time. It is entirely impossible to deduce this from listening to the album. This dream-pop album is so reverb intensive the vocals are barely present over the shimmering buzz. Just kick back and enjoy the pretty grooves.

5.   Titus Andronicus- “The Monitor”

This is a gruff, thoughtful punk album with a novel premise. “The Monitor” takes its name from a Civil War era submarine, and it is a breakup album that parallels a relationship’s end with the war between the states. The album is funny, painful and honest. Its references range from Shakespreare to the Gettysburg Address to “The Dark Knight” to Bruce Springsteen. Plenty of the songs have a running time in excess of five minutes, but they never wear out their welcome.

6. The White Stripes- “Elephant” 

According to Jack White this album is dedicated to the death of the sweetheart. This theme is far from heavy handed, but it does provide a thread through all of its songs. I’ve extolled this album’s virtues many times, but I can never recommend it enough.

7. Jay Z- “American Gangster” 

This is definitely Jay Z’s best post-“Black Album” work. It loosely mirrors the Denzel Washington movie of the same name, but instead of real-life gangster Frank Lucas it focuses primarily on Jay Z’s own meteoric rise. It features some of latter day Jay Z’s hungriest rapping and slick production. The songs even hold up when performed live.