Saturday, February 28, 2009

Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

Artist: Neko Case
Album: Middle Cyclone
Date Released: March 3, 2009
Genre: indie rock, alt-country
Rating: 8.8

Review: I usually assume the worst whenever a highly anticipated album comes out, and even though Neko Case is one of my all-time favorite artists, I couldn't help but be pessimistic about her follow-up to the fantastic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. A twisted and dark side of me didn't want to like this album. Perhaps all the hype got to me, or that I thought the whole 'recording the album in barn' seemed a big gimmicky. It might have even been the over-the-top album cover.

Or maybe it was because she's not my little secret any more; I'm having to share Neko with the tone-deaf know-nothing masses.

But try as I might I can't not like this album.

In fact, I love it. I have fallen in love with Neko all over again. Middle Cyclone doesn't match Fox Confessor for its track-after-track brilliance, but there are several absolute gems on this album: the pop-country-rock flavored "This Tornado Loves You", the hauntingly retro "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" (despite the awful lyrics), the title track, "Magpies to the Morning," and the melodic "The Pharoahs" (which was composed with the help of The Sadies).

I'm overjoyed to say that Neko is still at the top of her game. She has never sounded more beautiful and her lyrics have never been stronger: In "This Tornado Loves You" she sings:

I have waited with a glacier's patience
Smashed every transformer with every trailer
'til nothing was standing
65 miles wide
Still you are nowhere
Still you are nowhere
Nowhere in sight

Middle Cyclone will fit in very well to what will eventually become a remarkable discography.

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: The Century of Self

Artist: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Album: The Century of Self
Date Released: February 17, 2009
Genre: indie rock
Rating: 8.1

Review: The Trail of Dead have delivered yet another anthemic and powerful album. It's impossible to listen to Century of Self with the volume turned low. Century of Self's tracks are begging to be let out of their cages. The fists pump. There's no faux arena sound here; unlike Coldpay, the Trail of Dead still sound raw and indie.

But it's not all hells bells. Century of Self settles down at the midpoint as the band lays out a series of ballads. The track order may be far from perfect, but it's to be expected from a band that has rocked to their own beat since the very beginning.

Stand-out tracks: "Pictures of an Only Child, "Giants Causeway," "Far Pavilions," and "Isis Unveiled."

Morrissey: Years of Refusal

Artist: Morrissey
Album: Years of Refusal
Date Released: February 16, 2009
Genre: alternative pop/rock
Rating: 8.1

Review: Years of Refusal may be Morrissey's ninth solo album, but it's one that he describes as being his "strongest work to date." Self-accolades aside, there may be some some truth to this. Not content to put out disposable crap and ride on the coattails of his previous successes, Morrissey has weaved together a punchy, raucous and highly enjoyable album. With Years of Refusal, he has shown that he's far from irrelevant.

Much of the album's energy and tone can be attributed to Morrissey's exceptional band and the recording process itself. Years of Refusal was tracked live, giving it a garage band vibe. As band member Roger Manning noted, "I am so used to recording keyboards in the more traditional overdub scenario that being asked to invent parts "on the fly" and track with the band while Morrissey sang live was a very refreshing and challenging experience."

While Years of Refusal may not be as polished as previous releases, Morrissey's sense of humor still shines through. Now deeply embedded in middle age, he laments with tongue-in-cheek about how "You Were Good in Your Time." And on "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris," Morrissey the crooner finds himself fully immersed in his element. These tracks will undoubtedly sound fantastic when performed live -- along with Morrissey's patented theatrics and powerful stage presence.

Years of Refusal is a solid return to form for such a beloved artist.

[Note: This album features one of my favorite covers so far this year -- I love the contented look on the little guy's face.]

Stand-out tracks: "Something is Squeezing My Skull" and "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris."

Friday, February 13, 2009

M. Ward: Hold Time

Artist: M. Ward
Album: Hold Time
Date Released: February 17, 2009
Genre: indie rock
Rating: 7.8

Review: Tighter and more focused than much of his previous work, Hold Time showcases M. Ward at his compositional and stylistic best. Ward weaves and intertwines classic country and rock with West Coast folk to create a sound that is perplexingly fresh and familiar. Hold Time is a powerful statement from Ward as he establishes himself as one of the industry's strongest producers and arrangers.

Hold Time features appearances by Zooey Deschanel (who Ward recently collaborated with on She & Him) and Lucinda Williams who both add a new dynamism and dimension to Ward's work.

The tracks may not be as strong as on Post-war, but taken as a whole, this is one of M. Ward's strongest efforts to date.

Track highlights include: "Rave On,"Never Had Nobody Like You," and "To Save Me."

Heartless Bastards: The Mountain

Artist: Heartless Bastards
Album: The Mountain
Date Released: February 3, 2009
Genre: indie rock
Rating: 8.4

Review: Fantastic blues inspired rock with hints of PJ Harvey and Road Apples era Tragically Hip. Heartless Bastards are power trio led by Erika Wennerstrom who plays guitar, writes the songs and offers a powerful vocal style that distinguishes the band. The Mountain is solid, powerful and not to be missed.

The Derek Trucks Band: Already Free

Artist: The Derek Trucks band
Album: Already Free
Date Released: January 13, 2009
Genre: blues rock
Rating: 7.7

Review: An excellent album with 12 solid tracks, Already Free ventures into blues, folk and all-out rock 'n roll. It's got brilliant arrangements and outstanding performances. Recorded right in Derek Truck's home studio, Already Free features a diverse mixture of covers and originals. This could be the best blues-rock CD of the year.

Matt & Kim: Grand

Artist: Matt & Kim
Album: Grand
Date Released: January 20, 2009
Genre: indie rock
Rating: 7.2

Review: On their sophomore release, New York's Matt & Kim are loud, rambunctious, loose and sloppy as ever. But unlike their debut CD, Grand features some slower tempo pieces, experimental dynamics and even some moments of intimacy. Keep your eyes on these guys -- they're getting better.

Recent metal albums

These albums were released in 2008 with some getting wider distribution in 2009:
  • Destroy Destroy Destroy: Battle Sluts
  • Woe of Tyrants: Kingdom of Might
  • Satyricon: The Age of Nero
All three of these are definitely worth getting into, especially the Satyricon.