Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Against Me! - White Crosses/Black Crosses

Against Me! digitally re-issued last year's White Crosses today. I know a physical copy is going to follow at some point in August, but I'm definitely more of a digital guy so I jumped on the opportunity to get it now instead of waiting.

The album is split into two discs, the original White Crosses which also has the four bonus tracks tacked on to it (effectively making it chock full of nothing new) and then a second disk, entitled Black Crosses, which features 9 studio demos from before Warren Oakes left the band and 5 acoustic songs. Since at this point everybody has already formed an opinion on White Crosses [generally people either love it, hate it, or think that it's just okay] I will spend most of this entry discussing the Black Crosses disc. And for the record: I reluctantly love White Crosses. When I first heard it, I was caught off guard by some of the new sounds and I did nothing but listen to it on repeat while drinking rum for a whole week (those college spring breaks were wonderful). I've grown to enjoy most of the tunes, although the two or three I don't care for greatly reduce how much I like the album- hence my reluctance to admit that I enjoy listening to it. But I digress. Maybe I'll write about White Crosses later. For now, it's all about Black Crosses.

If you saw my previous entry, then you may be aware that I think Warren Oakes was a perfect fit for this band. Maybe it's just because he was a part of the line up for so long, but I've grown accustomed to his style when listening to Against Me!. He just fit and sounded right, you know? His replacement, George Rebelo (from Hot Water Music) is a fantastic drummer but he just didn't really mesh in well with the rest of the band. He's a tight drummer, but there's just something about his playing that made Tom Gabel's songs less exciting sounding. (It should be noted that George has since left the band and his replacement, Jay Weinberg, adds a whole new level of intensity to the band, particularly their live show).

Anyway, my main point is that it's nice to hear some "new" recordings with Warren behind the drumkit.

However, the fact that these are demos and not fully polished recordings means that there are some pros and cons to them. Since these were not the finished products, the songs sound less produced and slightly more raw than their White Crosses counterparts. This of course, will please the fans who hated White Crosses for its clean and overproduced sounds. Unfortunately, since they are demos, it also means that they're just a showcase for what the song was supposed to sound like. This leads to some songs lacking a certain "punch" to them, especially in the vocal department, "White Crosses" in particular. Some of the songs still have that perfect Tom Gabel cry, so it's not all of them. Other songs, of course, have different lyrics but the only really noticeable changes belong to "Spanish Moss."

But I can look past some of these quiet vocal bits or lyrical differences. It's not a hindrance to enjoying the songs, assuming you enjoyed them in the first place. They're demos, they're supposed to sound different, if not worse, than the album versions. The sequencing on the album, however, is structured awkwardly and that does kind of distract from enjoying the album. The songs are put into as close of an order to the original tracklist, which makes sense in terms of Black Crosses being an inverse version of White Crosses. Yet this also means the acoustic tracks are mixed in with the full band tracks switching back and forth between them without any fluid transitions. I know it's an album full of demos, so it doesn't necessarily have to flow well but having that fluidity would only help to give it a more cohesive feel as an album as opposed to a collection of songs thrown together.

I think it's hard to review an album full of demos and acoustic versions. On one hand, you automatically want to compare the songs to their album counterparts because they're pretty much two sides of the same coin. On the other hand, it's hard to take the album seriously as its own entity because it is under constant comparison. With that taken into consideration, I don't think Black Crosses really stands out very well on its own, unlike Against Me!'s previous demo collections (The Original Cowboy and Total Clarity) (though to be fair, The Original Cowboy didn't really sound that much different from the actual album and was kind of pointless). I think the band knew that, too, and that's why it was attached to White Crosses. Don't get me wrong here, -there are some solid tracks ("Hot Shots" and "Soul Surrender" are great, unreleased tunes) but it definitely feels like a collection of songs instead of a standalone album. Not that it was meant to sound like one, so perhaps I'm just being overly critical. I'll leave it at this: it's definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of the original White Crosses.

‪Against Me! - White Crosses (Goldentone Studio Version)‬‏

‪Against Me! - White Crosses (alternate version)‬‏ - YouTube

I'll review the newest Against Me! release later, but for now... GODDAMN JUST LISTEN TO THAT DRUMMING.

Warren Oakes may not be the world's greatest drummer, but his style just fit so well with Against Me! and I don't think that can be argued.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Top 10 Green Day B-sides.

Had I been the one Mitch Clem asked to cover for him, I would have made the exact same comic.
The original strip can be found here: 

Green Day is one of my favorite bands. Just in case I haven't made myself clear, I'll repeat: It is 2011 in the post-American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown era, and Green Day is one of my favorite bands.

Now that we have that settled, I'll be first to admit that while I've been listening to Green Day for a good ten years or so, my collection of their music is fairly limited to songs that can be found on commercial releases and the b-sides from their two most recent studio albums. A good number of any other non-album tracks they have are generally a live fan recording or a collaboration with U2 and generate no interest for me. However, I still have a decent number of their b-sides or non-album tracks and I have compiled a list of my ten favorites. It should be noted that a few of these appear on Shenanigans, but that's a compilation album of a bunch of their b-sides and none of the tracks make an appearance on a proper studio album, which was my only real criteria when making this list.

10. Governator
From: The American Idiot CD Single, 2004

This song, pulled from the American Idiot sessions, actually sounds very similar to what the Network's album (Money Money 2020) sounds like. Mike Dirnt even handles the lead vocals (he and Billie Joe have very similar singing voices) just like a good number of songs by the Network. The song takes a break from the American Idiot story and is very obviously about (at least a fictional version of) the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. From the song's title to the repeated line "I'll be back" in the chorus, it's one of the actual political songs written during Green Day's "political" album.

09. Like a Rolling Stone
From: 21st Century Breakdown, 2009

It's a Bob Dylan cover only available as a bonus track from the iTunes edition of the album. Imagine Billie Joe singing the original version and you've got a good idea of what it sounds like. It's nothing super special; I just really like the song.

08. Espionage
From: Hitchin' a Ride CD Single, 1997; Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me OST, 1999; Shenanigans, 2002

A very simple, but cool spy-themed instrumental from the nimrod-era. I guess since it's an instrumental I don't have a whole lot to say about it, but it shows off a bit of surfier side to Green Day- something that doesn't pop up much elsewhere (save for their other instrumental, Last Ride In, from the same time period).

07. Lights Out
From: Know Your Enemy CD Single, 2009.

This one might be controversial to include. It reminds me a lot of a Warning-era song, dressed up in some distortion. No, really. Listen to the chorus of Fashion Victim and then the chorus of Lights Out and try to tell me that they aren't even the slightest bit similar. Given that 21st Century Breakdown was 18 tracks long, I don't know why this one wasn't put on the album in another song's place. This one is a solid tune and it gets buried from the general public. It's a damn shame.

06. The Ballad of Wilhelm Fink 
From: Short Music for Short People, 1999.

A short song. Acoustic. It's good.

05. Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely
From: Warning CD Single, 2000.

In the Nothing Nice 2 Say strip that I put at the top of this comic, Zach Miller writes that Green Day did the best Ramones cover when they covered Outsider. Now, I think Outsider is a fine cover, but I find that this Hüsker Dü cover is much better, if only because I find that Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely is a better song than Outsider. It doesn't do much to change the original, but why mess with perfection? 

04. Scumbag
From: Warning CD Single, 2000; Shenanigans, 2002.

Here's a little secret: I think Mike Dirnt writes some of the band's best songs. Unfortunately, he doesn't write too many. It's obvious why this song didn't wind up on Warning: the lyrics are far too pessimistic and the music is much too distorted. Imagine, if you will, that Insomniac's songs were a little poppier and then this song would've fit right at home.

03. Shoplifter
From: American Idiot CD Single, 2004; Shoplifter iTunes Digital Single, 2004

I got this one as a free download for buying my copy of American Idiot at Best Buy. In terms of story continuity, it could be about Whatsername before she ended up on the streets where she met Jesus of Suburbia/St. Jimmy. It's a fun song about a girl who (surprise, surprise) shoplifts and gets caught. I know that I've heard another song that sounds just like it before, but I just can't remember what that other song is right now.

02. Do Da Da
From: Brain Stew/Jaded CD Single, 1996; Shenanigans, 2002.

This one has an interesting story to it. If you listen to the song, you'll probably pick up on the fact that the chorus repeats the line "well, now you're stuck with me" a few times. You also might notice that this song was released on the Brain Stew/Jaded single, which comes off of 1995's Insomniac. Lastly, you'll probably think to yourself "Hey, didn't Insomniac have a song with the title Stuck With Me in which the lyrics never say the words 'stuck with me'?"  That's because this song was originally given the titled Stuck With Me and the band toyed with the idea of putting it on Insomniac. After they decided against it (I'm assuming because musically the song is much more upbeat than the rest of the album), it was too late and the cover sleeves for the album had already been submitted. So the band just decided to stick their as-of-then-untitled song onto the album, which became the Stuck With Me everyone knows while the original was re-titled to the oddly childish Do Da Da.

01. Ha Ha You're Dead
From: Shenanigans, 2002.

I'm not sure if this one counts because it is only available on the b-sides collection and nowhere else. Either way, this is a great song. Very hateful, but that's one of the things Green Day does best.

I told you Mike Dirnt pens some of their best songs.

XX. Paper Lanterns/2000 Light Years Away
From: Awesome As Fuck, 2011.

Their new live album features them playing a bunch of songs from throughout their career, unlike Bullet in a Bible which was mostly American Idiot songs. One of the iTunes bonus tracks is a live cut in which they play Paper Lanterns (originally from 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours) and 2000 Light Years Away (from Kerplunk). I love both of these songs and I do think it's cool that Green Day still plays them live. These aren't really b-sides... just live versions of songs from the band's studio albums, so I didn't include this on the main list. I just wanted to include it somehow so here it is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fireworks - Gospel

Fireworks is a group that is often packed in with the slew of modern day pop punk bands that have been getting bigger in the scene these days by ripping off New Found Glory, Lifetime and The Movielife. As I've mentioned sometime ago earlier in this blog, pop punk can be a difficult genre to define and I often use the "90's Lookout Records" as my definition (another would be "Ramones-core" but that's kind of dumb).

Anyway, this new style of pop punk has become increasingly more popular, with acts such as The Wonder Years, Four Years Strong and Set Your Goals paving the way. I don't necessarily hate this style of pop punk, but I can only take so many "pop punk with breakdowns" when New Found Glory has already done it so much better than the rest. From what I know, these guys all work hard and it's great that they're getting some attention but it's just not really my thing.

And yet, for some reason I was still compelled to check out the new album by Fireworks despite my indifference toward the scene that they're so often associated with. I'm not sure what drew me to it- but something did and I'm kind of glad I gave it a try.

The disc (*ahem*) starts off with the lead single(?) "Arrows" which sets the tone for the album. Bear in mind that this is my first Fireworks album, so maybe their debut sounded much like this, but I was kind of surprised. The music is more laid back in comparison to their contemporaries, although lead singer Dave Mackinder's soft and welcoming vocals help give that "laid back" feeling. The band still has their energy-filled moments, but they don't rely on the same "pop punk for hardcore kids" gimmicks (palm muted breakdowns, throaty vocalist screams, etc) that so many bands do these days and it's very refreshing.

I'm under the impression that a lot of bands in this new pop punk scene predominately sing about staying positive and having a good time with friends. In this aspect, Fireworks doesn't break any new ground lyrically as a lot of songs on Gospel cover these themes, but I'm very drawn to the way they make their words fit in so well with the music. Fireworks don't go for opened-ended metaphors like some artists may, but that doesn't mean they don't use some damned good imagery. The chorus of "We're Still Pioneers" in particular, when Mackinder declares "I don't want to let go of this minor key- makes sense to me/I don't want to let go, knowing what I know." speaks volumes to anyone who listens music mostly written in a minor key.

While the first couple of tracks are good, I don't think the album really takes off until track 5, "Teeth" in which the band combines a song about a standard tooth removal process with a song about a girl. From there the album only explodes (sorry, I had to) with young summer anthems and gang vocals galore. Once again, the band isn't doing anything that hasn't been done before but they do it in a way that makes it really fun to listen to anyway.

If the Wonder Years are the next New Found Glory and Set Your Goals are the new Movielife, then I don't think it would be a stretch to say that Fireworks are this decade's Saves the Day. And why not? The album is chock-full of powerful hooks and visual lyrics, much like Saves the Day albums tend to play out. The music is mellow, but still has a certain punch to it and the vocals are very nasally, both of these things are very reminiscent of Saves the Day, specifically 2003's In Reverie. In fact, if you were to imagine that the songs from In Reverie had more of a teen angst feel to it, you might have a fairly good idea of what this album sounds like. I mean that in the best way possible. This is a fun summer album and if the band continues to head in this direction with their music then they've got themselves a new fan.

Friday, July 15, 2011

blink-182 - Up All Night

blink-182 premiered their first new song, Up All Night, in 8 years last night. The online music community is a-buzz, with people arguing left or right whether or not it's any good, whether or not it was worth the wait, whether or not it would be obvious that it would sound kind of like Angels and Airwaves and whether or not the band was good in the first place (generally "punks" and people who generally jaded by anything considering "popular" fall into that camp).

I should note that I grew up with blink-182. I was in middle school when Enema of the State came out and became a hit, so I was impressionable enough to get into their brand of major label punk rock. To this day I still enjoy it, even if it isn't the most profound music. It's always baffled me how people can call blink-182 "shitty" for making dick and fart jokes, but then adore NOFX or the Queers when they do the same thing (granted, both NOFX and the Queers will also make other sentiments with their music, but I digress). But I never listened to blink-182 for their outstanding political statements or direct opposition to social injustices. It's fun, silly music. Sure sometimes they hit a heavy subject, but it was always just enjoyable music so long that you didn't care that you were listening to something that was popular on the radio.

Anywho, I'm getting off topic there. The new song. The first new song they've released since their untitled album (oft-referred to as their self-titled although Travis Barker has gone on record saying the album doesn't have a title) in 2003. I can't speak for anyone else, but I was actually pretty excited even though my interest in the band had died down in the past few years. It was exciting. Like, there aren't many extremely popular bands from my lifetime that have broken up and then gotten back together like they have. Maybe the Backstreet Boys? No, I wouldn't count that (although some would argue blink-182 started the whole "boy band with guitars thing"). They weren't even broken up for that long, but it's the words they traded back and forth that made chances of a reunion seem hopeless and yet not only are they back together, but recording new music. So I found it to be a very exciting moment, even if I ended up not liking the song.

And do I like the song? I'd be lying if I said I didn't. Does it sound great? I don't think so. But I don't really care, because as I said before I never listened to blink-182 for any Bono-like Humanitarian rants (funnily enough, the spacey, U2 guitar sounds is what turned me off from Angels and Airwaves). It's a far cry from what the band is best known for, but it's actually a very logical next step for the band all things considered.

If you haven't listened to it, here a brief description with my personal thoughts. Keep in mind I'm slightly biased. It starts off with a heavier-than-usual (for blink-182) riff that is very reminiscent of Boxcar Racer (particularly the Instrumental track at the end of the album). When I first heard the opening, I got excited because I absolutely adore the Boxcar Racer album. Then the verse came in and it mellowed out a bit. Naturally, since Tom has been singing in Angels and Airwaves for the past five years, I heard a bit of AVA vocals, but I tried not to think much of them. Tom and Mark trade off, so it's not quite AVA and still unquestionably a blink-182 song. But when the pre-chorus/chorus kicks in, Tom's voice gains a whole new level of reverb to the point of where it sounds like you're listening to the first AVA album again. But I think that's to be expected- like I said, he's been fronting that band for the past five years so of course it's going to have an affect on his singing. I'm not saying that's why people should like it, but I am saying that there's a good reason why it sounds that way.

Whether or not people think it's a good song is entirely up to them, for their own reasons. However, I do think that last night's premiere was a lot more significant for today's pop music scene than people are willing to give it credit for. I don't think blink-182 are the saviors of rock and roll but I do know that to discredit them and say they won't important somewhere down the line is just internet flaming at best. Maybe I'm wrong. In 40 years or so if they aren't remembered by anyone at all, I'll admit my lack of judgement concerning the issue.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Alkaline Trio - Damnesia

Quick summary for those who don't know what Alkaline Trio's newest release is about: It's called Damnesia and it's a collection of songs from throughout their lifespan as a band, "re-imagined" alongside three new tracks. It can sort of be seen as a Greatest Hits, although it could also be said that since it omits a lot of classics it's not really like a Greatest Hits at all.

In short: If you haven't been too fond of the band since Maybe I'll Catch Fire, there's a good chance you aren't even reading this. However, if you already enjoy most of Alkaline Trio's discography chances are you'll like this one, too. It's not the "perfect, must-have" album that sums up their entire career (it's hard to reach that status when 80% of the material is pulled from previous releases) (actually... I guess that kind of does mean it sums up their career) but it doesn't really do any harm to the band either. 

The acoustic guitar on the cover should have tipped me off on what was to come.

So how do the songs sound? Mostly the same- just acoustic arrangements. With all the press releases pushing that the album is full of "re-imaginings" it gave me the idea that the songs would be drastically different... maybe a new vocal melody arrangement in the chorus or verses that were taken out when recording the original. What listeners are treated to instead is a good number of the songs being played in the same way, but with acoustic instruments and an occasional, minor lyrical change. This works fine for some tracks because the song translates well to the format ("Clavicle," "Radio" and even "Mercy Me"). Other songs just don't really cut it. Do we really need an acoustic version of "Blue in the Face" when the original was already acoustic? What about an acoustic version of "We've Had Enough"? It's a fun song, and it still is, but if it's supposed to be a re-imagined version, why it is played the same way but with an acoustic guitar? Okay, so the singing is a bit cleaner, but it could have easily been substituted for another track like "Trouble Breathing" from Goddamnit, "Crawl" from From Here to Infirmary or even Crimson's "Sadie" all of which have the potential to sound beautiful if given an acoustic rearrangement.

One more major gripe before I get around to the good things: the track listing. There are fifteen songs, three of which are brand new in terms of studio release (more on them later). That leaves twelve tracks pulled from their seven studio albums. It's fair that not everyone's favorite songs would be present, because it'd just be impossible to please everyone. I can also handle that most of the songs are from 2003's Good Mourning because I know a good number of their fans would cite that album as what turned them on to the band in the first place. What's disappointing is the lack of Dan Andriano songs. No doubt that a lot of Matt Skiba's songs are the ones released as singles and the ones that people would be more familiar with, but while I think a majority of Alkaline Trio fans first come on board for Matt's songs, they stay because of Dan's. They're both solid song writers, but I think that only having three tracks in total sung by Dan (four if you count the end of the chorus to "Mercy Me") is a gross misrepresentation of the band.

Enough of the negative critique. Right now I'm coming off as if I hated listening to this, when it's been almost the opposite. Some of the songs did actually get some neat rearrangements. "This Could Be Love" gets a whole buttload of pronounced strings (guitar) (and piano, too, I guess if that counts as a string instrument) layered on top, so even though it keeps the same melody and chord progression, it sounds good. "Nose Over Tail" gets slowed down a bit in the process (as acoustic songs usually do) but it still remains one of the finest songs the band has ever performed. "You've Got So Far to Go" is updated in a way that makes it sound oddly similar to "Fine" (it's probably not a coincidence that both songs are Dan's songs). Even "Clavicle" sounds good, although being the lead "single" has given it time to grow on everyone. "Radio" kicks off with a light drum intro before going back to the song we all know and love, featuring a slight improvement in the lyrics (from the original "it helps you to rule out the sorrow, it helps me to empty my mind" to "it helps you to rule out the sorrow, it helps me to drown out mine"). However the song that sounds the best here, at least in terms of being rearranged to sound brand new, is (ironically?) "The American Scream" from last year's This Addiction. The guitar is replaced almost completely by a piano and the tempo is slowed down to make the song become a ballad. Maybe it's not the best song on the album but it's no argument that it's one of the most drastically different sounding from its original.

At this point, you might be thinking "That's great about the re-recorded tracks, but what about the new ones?" and to that I say: pretty good. "Olde English 800" is a tune that Matt Skiba wrote around the turn of the century (when the band would have been about a toddler's age) and it's a jingle. A jingle for what? Try Olde English. It's a fun, catchy tune about alcohol, as Matt's songs tend to be. The band also tackles "I Held Her in My Arms" a cover of the Violent Femmes song from their 1986 album, The Blind Leading the Naked. It has a high energy to it with a very twangy sound (probably the first time that "twangy" would ever be used to describe Alkaline Trio) Once fans learn the lyrics, and if the band plays it live, will be a fun sing-along at shows to come. The other new contribution, "I Remember a Rooftop" is a classic Andriano tune about a failed love. Interestingly enough, while the other two new songs feature full band instrumentation, this song is performed solely by Andriano and an acoustic guitar- perhaps this was done on purpose as a foreshadowing to his upcoming solo release.

What is the final verdict? I have two. As an album that I was expecting to be full of completely new arrangements, I think it is a little on the weak side and disappointing. If you've ever heard the Acoustic in London bootleg that was released around the same time as Crimson, a lot of the songs from that set list make it on to here and sound very similar. However, as an album full of new versions of songs that I (mostly) love, I think it's a wonderful addition to my collection and it will help tide over Alkaline Trio fans until the next proper album. Or at least until Hurricane Waves by Dan Andriano in the Emergency Room drops.