Friday, January 25, 2013

Besides the A-Side: 7 Albums with a Better Second Half

We all know those albums that are really good from beginning to finish. Every single song is wonderful and that’s that. Then we have the albums where most of the best tracks are clumped together at the very beginning of an album, making it easier to listen to all of your favorite songs since they’re all strung together. But what about those times when a band puts all of the best songs on the second half? It might not happen as often, but I can assure you that it does. It took some time and consideration, but here are 7 albums in which the second half winds up being a stronger set of songs than what can be heard on the first half.

07. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie
I want to go on record and say that I actually enjoy pretty much the entirety of Elsie. With few exceptions, the entire album is a great example of how to do a side project right: rarely do the songs sound like they were leftover Gaslight Anthem demos, but there’s still enough familiarity in the feel of the album that fans wouldn’t be turned off by it. That said, Elsie’s second half (beginning with “Ladykiller”) is a lot more solid than its first half. Both “Behold the Hurricane” and “Go Tell Everybody” are great, but if there were any tracks on Elsie that sounded like Gaslight Anthem leftovers, it would be these two songs. And then there’s “Cherry Blossoms”, which is just boring (seriously, the two songs it’s sandwiched between are both longer, but it still managed to feel like the longest track on the album because of how slow it is). The second half is what truly makes The Horrible Crowes a worthwhile project. Sure the first half has its experimentation in “Sugar” and “I Witnessed a Crime”, but the six songs that make up back half of Elsie excel in trying out new instrumentation and compositions for Brian Fallon’s familiar rasp to sing over, playing with a range of tempos from the upbeat “Crush” to the aggressive “Mary Ann”, the laid-back “Black Betty and the Moon” and the slow “Blood Loss”. The whole album is gold, but the second half is really where it kicks into gear as far as being a side project. 

06. Bomb the Music Industry! – Scrambles
I love the first three Bomb the Music Industry! releases. There’s something about the chaotic nature of those albums that just got lost when the band recorded Get Warmer with a full band lineup. Scrambles, despite being another “full band” recording, contained more of those chaotic and messy elements that made me love the band in the first place. The first half of Scrambles is promising, combining elements of both the old frantic BTMI! and new piano-driven BTMI!. Then comes the 1-2-3-4-5 punch of “Gang of Four Meets the Stooges (But Boring)”, “9/11 Fever!!!”, “(Shut) Up the Punx!!!”, “Can I Pay My Rent In Fun?” and “Saddr Weirddr” and creates one of the best string of songs on any of the band’s albums. As soon as it begins, I’m on for the ride until “Sort of Like Being Pumped” starts (not that it’s a bad song, but I can survive if I don’t finish that track).

05. Against Me! – Reinventing Axl Rose
Okay, so the first half of this album contains “Pints of Guinness Help Make You Strong” and “We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules)”, two of Against Me!’s best songs and staples in the band’s live set to this very day. But you know what it doesn’t have? “Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious…”, “Reinventing Axl Rose”, “Baby, I’m an Anarchist”, and “Walking Is Still Honest”. I have a tendency to give Reinventing Axl Rose less credit than the rest of the band’s discography for the fact that its back half is mostly made up of re-recorded songs from Crime As Forgiven By… and The Acoustic EP, but regardless of which versions of the songs you’re listening to, they’re still the cream of the crop from that era. And they’re all (mostly) on the second half of Reinventing Axl Rose.

04. The Replacements – Let It Be
Let It Be, like Elsie, is actually a pretty solid album throughout. But when it comes down to it, I much prefer the second half of the album. As soon as the first notes of “Unsatisfied” begin, Let It Be kicks off into not only some of the best songs that The ‘Mats ever wrote, but also some of the strongest vocal performances that front-man Paul Westerberg ever gave. There’s a real pain and sadness in his voice throughout “Unsatisfied” and “Answering Machine”, and even “Seen Your Video” (which is mostly instrumental) contains Westerberg’s rough shout. “Sixteen Blue” also marks one of the band’s first “ballad”-esque songs which they perfected on their next album, Tim. Now if only the band had swapped “Androgynous” and “Gary’s Got a Boner”, things would be perfect.

03. Weezer – Pinkerton
“Tired of Sex” is one of the best opening songs ever, and “Across the Sea” might be the perfect creepy love/lust song, but everything else that Weezer’s magnum opus has to offer in its first five songs pale in comparison to the next five songs. I don’t think I really have to say much because I don’t think there’s anyone who would disagree with me on that.

02. Descendents – I Don’t Want to Grow Up
Although there were hints of it on Milo Goes to College, the mature songwriting of the Descendents didn’t really blossom fully until their second album. The album starts with some fairly playful and immature songs like “Descendents”, and “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”, but as the album progresses the album begins to sober up and the songs get more serious. It’s not until the final third of the album when the band’s maturity hits its stride, but once it does it churns out five solid songs all in a row. “Silly Girl” and “In Love This Way” are still relatively light-hearted love songs, but it’s hard to believe that they’re on the same album as a track like “Pervert” from the first half. Then comes the heavy-hearted “Christmas Vacation”, “Good Good Things” and “Ace”, which are among some of the saddest songs in the band’s entire discography. For a band that didn’t want to grow up, they sure did with these songs.

01. Screeching Weasel – My Brain Hurts
Ben Weasel is a confusing man that I’m not sure I’ll ever understand, but I do understand that his lyricism on Screeching Weasel’s third album, My Brain Hurts, is some of the best that punk rock had to offer in the early 90’s. Although there are plenty of examples of strong lyrics throughout the album, the truly great songs don’t really start showing up until “Cindy’s on Methadone”, a tragic and sarcastic tale of trading one addiction for another.  Followed by introspective “The Science of Myth” (which was inspired by Dr. Frank of the Mr. T Experience turning his thesis paper into a song), the bitter “What We Hate”, and the tongue-in-cheek “Teenage Freakshow”, the rest of the album keeps going with great songs until it’s over. Technically, since this streak of songs begins with track 6, that makes this an album with the latter two-thirds being better than the first third, but that’s just a ridiculous idea for a list.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cheap Girls - My Roaring 20's (Acoustic)

A few weeks ago Cheap Girls and Quote Unquote Records released an acoustic version of Cheap Girls' second album, My Roaring 20's. Unlike the acoustic version of Find Me a Drink Home (the debut Cheap Girls album), which was essentially just singer Ian Graham singing with an acoustic guitar, My Roaring 20's has more of a full arrangement feel to it. There are multiple guitars layered throughout the song, and all the additional instruments that were in the original versions of the songs (like that accordion part in "Sunnyside") (at least I'm pretty sure it's an accordion) are still present.

Structurally, My Roaring 20's (Acoustic) isn't a whole lot different than My Roaring 20's. The songs are played at a slightly slower speed to accommodate the fully fleshed out ring of the acoustic instruments, but they haven't gone under any huge compositional changes as some songs do when they make the shift from electric to acoustic. It might sound lazy, but Cheap Girls is the kind of band that writes songs that sound good when played with acoustic guitars. Graham's vocals have a quiet quality to them, and I've met people who feel that his singing style doesn't always mesh well with the band's more explosive sounding songs (not me, but when I saw the band open for The Gaslight Anthem back in November everyone in the group that I was with felt that way). But put that same singing voice over more laid-back versions of the same songs, and it's just perfection.

I suppose the true success of My Roaring 20's (Acoustic) really comes from whether or not fans like having the drums and electric guitars stripped away. To me, the songs on My Roaring 20's just sound like they were written to be played on an acoustic guitar: the soft tones of the guitars blended with Graham's vocals help to bring out their sadness. I'm curious to see if the band will ever release an acoustic version of Giant Orange. The songs on that one feel more structured for electric instruments (for the most part anyhow), and I think an acoustic take on those songs would be interesting.

But I digress. My Roaring 20's (Acoustic) is a solid release by fantastic band. You can "pick up" (download) a copy of it over at Quote Unquote Records. By the by, right as this album was released, bassist/vocalist Ian Graham went in for knee surgery and any and all donations or proceeds for the album go toward paying his medical bills. So if you've got a couple of bucks that you can afford to part with, I recommend helping him out.

Cheap Girls - My Roaring 20's (Acoustic)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Album Review: Lasorda - Lasorda

Lasorda is a supergroup that includes members of The Get Up Kids, The New Amsterdams, fun., The Honorary Title, and Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band. But instead of using their established names to create something that the kids will eat up, they take this opportunity to experiment with new sounds- winding up with something different than from what the band's members are typically known for.

Remember when Farewell Continental formed and some press releases and/or reviews of their sound claimed that they were a more shoegaze-y version of Motion City Soundtrack with dual male-female vocals? I never really understood that, mostly because Farewell Continental never really came off as shoegaze to me. I mean, I admit that I don't really listen to a whole lot of shoegaze- but Farewell Continental really just sounded like Motion City Soundtrack with more of a 90's indie feel and a female co-vocalist. Well, Lasorda is kind of like Farewell Continental- except that Lasorda actually fits into my idea of what shoegaze sounds like (though, again, I don't listen to shoegaze so there's a strong possibility that I am way off here).

The songs are mostly even-paced, and even the more energetic of the songs on their debut album are pretty mellow. The guitars and keys have a tendency to drone on for awhile, the drums are simple and provide a sturdy structure for each song. At times Lasorda's music sounds like really dark 80's pop music- the kind of dark-sounding pop music that could fit on the Drive soundtrack. Well, maybe not as electronically distorted as that, but almost.

Lead vocalist Suzannah Johannes has a voice that suits the low-key tone of the music perfectly, singing calmly throughout most of the tracks, although she can also pick up the pace alongside the music when it's required. Johannes also provides provides a pleasant surprise for anyone expecting Get Up Kids front-man Matt Pryor to do a majority of the singing- despite being the biggest name in the band (his involvement is the entire reason I had even discovered them), Pryor really only sings lead on a single song, while the rest of his vocals, when they do appear, are limited to backups and harmonies. Considering that the man already fronts three bands and has his own solo project, it's nice to know that he's humble enough to start yet another band and not want to take the spotlight. In fact, he probably only sings those handful of times so that the Get Up Kids fans aren't left wondering if he's really playing on the album or not.

In summary, Lasorda's album is weird, but that doesn't mean it's unlistenable. Quite the opposite actually. Don't go into it thinking you know what to expect just because you know who is in the band, because chances are pretty high that you'll be wrong. These guys achieve where Farewell Continental kind of fell flat.

Lasorda is available in both vinyl or digital formats.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Albums I'm Looking Forward to Hearing in 2013

Last year, for the first time ever, I made a list of albums that I was anticipating for the coming musical year. And wouldn't you know it, five of the items on my Anticipated of 2012 list happened to find their way onto  my Favorites of 2012 list. So I decided to do it again this year.

Here are eleven albums that I'm looking forward to hearing in 2013, and one that I'm unsure of:

11. Saves the Day – TBA
Details on Saves the Day’s eighth studio album are scarce right now (I don’t think they even have a working title yet) but last year’s Pledge Music Project revealed a demo of their song “Ain’t No Kinda Love”, proving that they are working toward something new. Daybreak only took a few years to come out, so the fact that they’re already working on new material is exciting.

10. Alkaline Trio – TBA
Alkaline Trio has been done recording their album since the end of last October, so it’s only a matter of time before it comes out. The as-of-now untitled album was produced by none other than Bill Stevenson (Descendents) and features Brendan Kelly (The Lawrence Arms) doing backing vocals on some tracks (or maybe all of them, I don’t know). No word on how it will sound, but if it continues at all in the same vein as This Addiction I’ll be a happy camper.

09. Junior Battles – TBA
A lot of these albums sure are speculation, aren’t they? Junior Battles is one of the best pop punk bands out there today, combining properties and elements of bands like Latterman, Green Day, and even Fall Out Boy. Right before Fest last year the band released a two song EP previewing what their new material would sound like. Here’s to hoping that the full length will sound just like the EP.

08. Night Birds – TBA
Much like how Junior Battles are one of the best pop punk bands out there today, Night Birds tear it up as one of the best modern punk bands. Armed with a sound that is accurately described as “Adolescents meets Dead Kennedys”, Night Birds sound like they would fit in perfectly in 1980’s LA. They’ve made several announcements via Facebook that they will be putting out both a full length and a 7-inch single in 2013, and even though it remains untitled for now, I can guarantee that the album will crack my Top 10 of 2013.

07. Direct Hit! – TBA
This one is more speculation than anything else, but it’s been a few years and Direct Hit! is rumored to start recording a new album this year. Last year saw them release at least three splits (with Hold Tight!, The Haverchucks, and Braver), all three of which saw the band heading in a new, more vicious direction. It’s become apparent that Nick Woods and company have been listening to a lot of Mean Jeans lately- not that it’s a bad thing. Anything that Direct Hit! puts out is guaranteed to be a high octane thrillride, and if they manage to capture that sound while combining it with the spacey pop punk attitude of Mean Jeans I’m all for it.

06. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Descension
Finally something on my list with a title! Coheed and Cambria surprised me last year with The Afterman: Ascension. I had lost interest in the band at some point between the releases of No World for Tomorrow and Year of the Black Rainbow, but The Afterman toned things down a bit to where the songs weren’t getting high off their own story telling. The only thing that kept Ascension off my 2012 list was because it didn’t really feel like it was a “complete” album. I enjoyed it a lot, but it just felt like it was missing a crucial something. I’m hoping that this sense of being “incomplete” is just due to the fact that it Ascension is incomplete… and that the release of Descension will fix that.

05. Pure Love – Anthems
Pure Love is the new project from former Gallows front-man Frank Carter. The band’s goal is to sing about more positive things than Carter did with his previous band. They’re loud, not very punk, and incredibly anthemic (hence the album title, one would suppose). Anthems was supposed to come out last year but then for some reason it never did. However, it’s been rescheduled for a February release, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be released for real this time.

04. Broadway Calls – Comfort / Distraction
I know I just gave all my pop punk praise to Junior Battles, but I honestly believe that Broadway Calls could be the next Green Day if they want to be. They’ve certainly got the song writing chops to write catchy songs about girls and they can do it without sounding like a boy band or by having stupid haircuts. They recently took a bit of a stumble when their line-up had to be shifted, and 2011’s Toxic Kids EP saw them trying to work back into their groove a little bit. Last year’s Vision Quest split with Mixtapes was a wonderful return-to-form and reignited my hope for them.

03. Bad Religion – True North
Have you heard “Fuck You” and “True North” yet? Despite that True North is going to be Bad Religion’s sixteenth album, it already sounds more like their third or fourth album. Bad Religion is one of the few bands that doesn’t get too much hate for recording albums that generally sound the same, but True North is gearing up to be one of those rare times when a band is praised for recording an album that sounds like something that’s already been done before.

02. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
It dawned on me recently that I’ve been an Against Me! fan for almost ten years now. It was summer 2003, I was away at camp, and my friend Sabina played “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” for me and I fell in love with it. Here we are in 2013 and I’ve stuck with the band through everything. With maybe one or two exceptions, all of the band’s new songs have been pretty solid, and I’d be pumped for this even if the album wasn't a concept album about Laura’s struggles with gender dysphoria and her experience transitioning- but knowing the extremely personal nature of the album does add to the excitement.

01. Streetlight Manifesto – The Hands That Thieve / Toh Kay – The Hand That Thieves
This album was going to top everyone’s Best of 2012 lists, but then at the last second (literally) it was announced that it wasn’t ready to come out because fuck the fans, right? Allegedly the band has finished recording the album, and the mastering process has begun, but until this album is in my hands I’m not sure what to believe. Should it come out this year though, I (along with many other fans) will be an extremely happy and satisfied customer. Additionally, I have included the solo version of the album in this spot because they were scheduled to come out at the same time and I assume that this is still the case.

XX. The Ataris – The Graveyard of the Atlantic
This album has been in the works since at least 2008, while the release dates have been coming and going since at least 2009. Essentially, it has become the Chinese Democracy of pop punk. The songs that have been released so far sound pretty good (kind of like a more grand version of So Long, Astoria), but it’s taking so long that I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to hear the whole album. At the very least, there will always be the All Souls Day / The Graveyard of the Atlantic single that came out in 2010.