John Mayer Needs to Stop Wearing Cowboy Hats

John Mayer – Paradise Valley

I like John Mayer’s music.  It took me a long time, but I really took a shine to it once I gave Where The Light Is an honest listen.  His pop icon status during his Room For Squares years made me quite the cynic.  Throughout that time, I had absolutely no idea that the guy is a virtuoso on a Strat.  I knew he was over-confident, and every word out of his head is stupider than the last, and that only compounded my distaste.

But then I heard a friend cover “Who Did You Think I Was,” and I was inspired to give Mayer’s catalog another chance.  The song is one of the John Mayer Trio‘s biggest, and for good reason.  Squirrely hammer-ons give the song’s main riff some sauntering confidence unheard in other pop music.  Steve Jordan’s aggressive, yet classic drumming drives the track with a perforated backbeat.  Pino Palladino on bass?  It goes without say.  The bassline crawls about the room, undulating but never out of control, like a pot of water at a rolling boil.

John Mayer Trio’s album, Try!, has some real gems on it.  With “Out of My Mind,” a tremendous slow blues, and a grooving rendition of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” the album is the first appearance of Mayer’s standards, “Vultures,” and “Gravity.”  Damn, “Another Kind of Green.” (Spotify link) Just give it a spin.

But “Gravity” really comes into its own on Mayer’s monumental Where The Light Is.  The concert was a one-off triptych, a multi-act show that showcased three distinct facets of Mayer’s talent.  A tender acoustic set opens the concert.  Mayer’s ridiculous fingerstyle talents amaze on “Neon,” and “Stop This Train.”  If you ask me, the cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” while a nice rendition, is a bit cheezy for my likes.  But I digress.

Then the real deal happens.  The John Mayer Trio takes the middle set, dressed in sharp black suits and skinny ties.  Start to finish, their set is absolutely incendiary.  Listen to their cover of Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.” I’m serious, listen to it. He’s playing that verse and singing at the same time!  Even Hendrix slowed that whole thing down a bit.  “Come When I Call,” shows a less fuzzed-out side of the Trio, Mayer’s neck pickup draping super-sweet lead tones about the Nokia Theatre.  “Out Of My Mind,” gives me chills with every listen, thanks in large part to a perfectly feedbacked note in Mayer’s solo that rings out for a robust 10 seconds.  Even Mayer shook his head in amazement when he played it.  The only thing that kind of irks me is the unrelatable speech about love that Mayer babbles throughout the bridge of Hendrix’s Bold As Love.  Like I said before, everything this guy says needs an editor.  Talented as hell; not much of a philosopher, though.

After the Trio’s set, John Mayer graces the stage with his usual backing band to play his pop standards.  Opening with the crowd-pleaser, “Waiting on the World to Change,” this set is positively littered with guitar changes.  That’s one of the things that amazes me about this concert.  Every track has a different guitar! I understand that there are technical needs for this.  Different songs are in different tunings, and I know very well that each guitar is a different tool, with its own sound and own personality. If I was John Mayer, yeah I’d have a different guitar for every song, too. That said, goddamn this guy has a lot of guitars.  Beautiful Stratocasters not to mention a Monterey Pop Strat, and his custom-built “Black One,” let alone more Martin acoustics than I can differentiate. He must travel with at least 25 guitars.  That’s a conservative estimate.

The crown jewel of the set is “Gravity.”  The climax to the live track’s guitar solo is ethereal.  Halfway through the solo, the drummer breaks open the vibe, splashing his crash cymbal to give the track a little more simmer.  Then Mayer bends a chromatic walk up his Strat’s neck, and erupts in a positively ghostly note I swore I had never heard before this solo.  It’s the sound of a guitar weeping, truly. After this, Mayer furiously slides triads past the twelfth fret and descends down the neck to join the rest of the band.  The solo leaves the audience, myself included, clutching for a cigarette.

Where The Light Is is an exercise in excellence.  Borne of the same creative vein which sprouted Continuum, it is a note-for-note masterpiece.  It made me delve deeper into his back catalog.  I listened to “My Stupid Mouth,” and “Why Georgia.” I grew accustomed, and I liked it.

Battle Studies came and went for me.  The high points of the album were “Assassin,” and a competent interpretation of “Crossroads,” though it took a little growing on me.  I’m not asking for a Continuum 2, as so many are, but Battle Studies felt a bit limp to me.  It lacked a pulse.  While the album has substance the form of layered instrumentals, it has a very subdued vibe throughout.  A talented work, but I wanted something else out of it other than what Mayer had intended.

It’s the same situation with Born & Raised.  Subdued, a little more mellow.  While you listen, you take a deep breath and remind yourself that beauty is in the details.  That said, my opinion is that the mellowness is overstaying its welcome.  Is it just me, or is “Shadow Days” the same song as “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” and “In Repair?” There’s a very distinct sound that all three of the tracks share, and I wonder if we’re kind of just following through the motions.

Gotta give it to him, he’s got a good sense of humor.

“Paper Doll,” the first single off Paradise Valley makes me feel that this new album will be strikingly similar to Born & Raised.  A spiritual successor, perhaps.  It is only a year after the release of Born & Raised, so these songs are a peek into the same window of Mayer’s life. I’m quite alright with him exploring this cowboy phase, releasing tracks that sound like he draped leather chaps over B-sides off Room For Squares.  John, just know that the next time you want to plug your black Strat into a cranked-out Blues Reverb, we’re all listening.

Shakey Graves – Unlucky Skin

Shakey Graves has released his first music video, made for the track “Unlucky Skin” off his album Roll the Bones.  His live performances are stellar, otherworldly one-man acts that leave you feeling both immensely satisfied, and sad that you will never achieve such greatness.

I could go on about the beauty of his music, but I’ll let it speak sing for itself.

His two albums are available for purchase at www.ShakeyGraves.com.

I Bought Some CDs and That Made Me Really Introspective

This weekend, I found myself safely in the confines of a bountiful Wal-Mart, nestled deep in the bosom of the Susquehanna River Valley.  I knew I had to purchase at least one item while I was in the store; that was the entire reason why I went there.  Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience.  On subconscious autopilot, I wandered my way through the men’s underwear section and found myself at the foot of the Electronics/Tech/Videogames/TV section at the back of the store.  I went to one of the few CD racks, and sure enough, Mr. Timberlake had a stack of albums prominently displayed at eye-level.

Retail: $11, marked down to $7.

Seven dollars? Seven dollars!  Was this some stack of damaged copies? Was this the clean version? Do they even sell physical singles any more?

Seven dollars? Why the hell did I ever purchased music on iTunes?

Seven dollars.  I wanted to buy it just because I could.  The album turned from a sort of impulse buy/experiment to a birthright.  “Oh, right. That’s why I drove here.”

I picked up the Timberlake CD, and let my eyes roam over the rest of the CD rack’s meager offerings.  Taylor Swift’s RED.  Done.

My Wal-Mart purchases.

I haven’t purchased a CD in years.  The most recent physical music media I’ve purchased are some limited-edition vinyls a few months back.  I have an AUX jack in my car and Spotify on my phone, so I have no real reason to go out of my way to buy/burn CDs or even get a Sirius/XM subscription.  Spotify has (thankfully) ended my horrible habit of buying only complete albums on iTunes, which used to be a terrible thing for my wallet.

Why did I buy these CDs? Good question.  Even I’m not sure exactly why, but I do know that I don’t regret the purchase.  Let me walk you through my thought process.

The reason why I went to Wal-Mart was to buy The 20/20 Experience.  I felt that it’s a big-deal kind of album.  It’s one of the biggest pop stars of the millennium releasing only his third album over 11 years.  At the very least, a listen to 20/20 would keep me current in the pop-culture scene.  Without fail, it’s going to seep into all forms of media over the next year.  Imagine my red-faced embarrassment if someone would have thrown out a reference to “Spaceship Coupe” in a few months and I was left blubbering like an idiot.  It’s worth $7 to stay relevant.

Why else did I set out to buy 20/20? I heard big things about it.  Justin Timberlake was quoted in interviews drawing parallels to a Pink Floyd experience; an album of select tracks, each long in duration, concise, yet dense in meaning.  He wasn’t that obnoxious in the interviews – I’m paraphrasing – but either way, he was talking about bucking the trend.  A pop album where the shortest track is almost five minutes long?  The average track length is seven minutes?  Ballsy.  If anyone could do it without suffering total critical backlash, it would be JT.  He could release an album of him belching the entirety of the Bible and it would go triple platinum.

Another reason for purchasing the album? Timberlake rebooted his social networking site with exclusivity to the first single from the album.  Goddamn record resurrected Myspace.  I’ll tip my hat to that.

So those were my reasons to purchase the record, but why a physical copy over a digital copy?   It has “Experience” in the album title.  I figured if the album was half the experience it was heralded, I’d be faithful to the message.  It might be some sort of misplaced nostalgia for an era I didn’t live through, but part of me misses the idea of artists making records that flow.  I half-remember/imagine some world where you’d go home and throw the album on the stereo and just listen, while analyzing the gatefold album art.  Reading the liner notes.  Dissecting lyrics.  I like the idea of people getting wrapped up in the listening experience, instead of buying singles because the song has some ridiculous hook.  (See: Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been?” Holy Hell, I love that hook.)

Also, I had no idea until I picked up the album in the store, but $7? Is Wal-Mart subsidizing this or what?  How does that work?  Is it just on sale this week?  What’s it going for at other stores?  (The copy of RED that I picked up was $13.88 plus tax.  Why wasn’t T-Swift in on the deal?)  That’s the shit that keeps me up at night.

Granted, I was near a Wal-Mart, so it’s not like I was horribly inconvenienced by driving to the store.  For the sake of my argument, it was only marginally more difficult to go to the store than to use iTunes.

So – for the last time – the album was seven dollars at Wal-Mart, whereas its “Mastered for iTunes” counterpart is fetching $10.99.  At the very least, I got a higher-quality version of the album for four dollars.  I ripped the CD to my iTunes library, so now I’ve got infinite DRM-free digital copies, and a hard copy to keep warm in my car’s stereo.  Win-win…-win-win-win, etc.

Okay, now why RED? My only reason for buying it was to remedy the fact that I’ve been on Vevo all last week, streaming “I Knew You Were Trouble,” because it’s not on Spotify.  Pardon the tangent, but I honestly thought she had some exclusive tie-in with Target for rights to the album because it’s called RED and Target’s logo is a big red target, and Target has been pulling power moves like that lately.  My mind goes to dark places. (Like when AC/DC released Black Ice and the Iron Man 2 Soundtrack at Wal-Mart exclusively.  Something like that.)

But I saw RED in Wal-Mart, so I figured T-Swift’s allegiance to Target fell through at least for the weekend.  (If you take only one thing away from this essay, don’t let it be that Taylor Swift has an exclusive deal with Target. That’s a lie I told myself to come to terms with the fact that I can’t blast “I Knew You Were Trouble,” via Spotify while driving around.)

I felt like I was getting ripped off, paying $13.88 for the Taylor Swift album, while other, unnamed mega-super-pop-stars can offer their latest record for $7.  But just now I’m checking the iTunes Store and RED is going for $14.99!  I get that it’s 16 songs – but shit, Taylor, I’m not made of money.

So, I bought RED because it’s got one track that I find particularly captivating, along with a few other charts-topping singles which don’t have the same spunk in my eyes (ears?) but, regardless…  I enjoy exposing myself to music I wouldn’t typically find myself listening to.  If I was following my heart of hearts, (my classic-rock-devotee-ramshackle-percussion-and-bass-groove-loving heart) I’d have already posted reviews for Sound City Real to Reel and the new Bowie album, but I’ve been in a transitional period with my tastes lately.  I haven’t even given either of those albums a complete listen yet.

My buyer’s high from 20/20 bled into my decision to purchase RED.  I thought that JT’s album was a sound purchase, so why not T-Swift’s? I trust her just the same.

Lets talk about the music on these CDs.

The thing is, these two albums are so different from each other its outrageous.  Polar opposites.  RED is a heartfelt pop effort.  I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, Taylor Swift wrote the majority of the songs on the record and it’s a catchy record.  Songs like “Red” and “I Almost Do” are more mature than her past offerings, the logical progression from “Love Story” and the rest of Fearless.  In the liner notes to the album, Taylor writes about how RED is meant to encapsulate a feeling of love so emotional it has no name, so visceral it’s scary.  She writes about the turbulent and beautiful first days of new love that are terrifying and exciting because they are unknown.  I find that really endearing.  That’s the heart of being a singer/songwriter; she’s putting into music that which can’t be stated.

And RED is just that: a snapshot of young love.  You listen to the entirety of the album, and you feel like you just listened in on an hour-long phone call where some young girl told you all about her summer fling.  Tracks like “22” and “Stay Stay Stay” keep the mature songs from making the album too serious.  Though RED was undoubtedly produced by however-many Nashville record execs, they managed to keep Taylor’s youthful energy at the forefront of the record.  But I guess that’s what those guys get paid for.

Adorable.

If someone asked you what the state of pop music was in March 2013, RED would be a very good cross-section of the times, barring one cross-genre song with a hip-hop cameo.  RED is formulaic, but that doesn’t hinder its artistic effort, it just doesn’t tread new ground.  RED plays by the rules and does well for itself.

Then there’s The 20/20 Experience.  I’m not trying to say that Justin Timberlake isn’t as entrenched in pop-money as Taylor Swift; he has even more clout.  And that has its benefits.  I’m not trying to give it some unwarranted rock-and-roller status, but 20/20 is a real big middle finger to the pop format right now.  JT was able to make this album because of who he is.  I’m not saying he did it just because he could, but it’s evident he’s one of the few who could pull this off successfully.

The 20/20 Experience Back Cover

Though the entire 20/20 Experience has the same vague vibe, or feel, each song is notably different from the last.  A few of the songs on the album, such as “Mirrors,” or “Blue Ocean Floor,” are fairly sparse, whereas other tracks are just dense.  Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” is alive and well in the 20/20 Experience.  “Tunnel Vision,” the fifth track on the album grows exponentially from start to finish.  From a small R&B sample with garbage-can percussion in the opening seconds, the song morphs with each chorus, adding mellow bass, staccato strings, and beatbox percussion over each chorus.  Eventually, the song transforms from a sweet message of monogamy to an almost unnerving admission of infatuation. By its fifth minute, the song is a towering mountain of synths and samples that whittles itself back down before its end.  It’s really an impressive track.

The only thing that I feel could be a possible fault of the album’s grand scope is its structure.  Each song is composed of at least three movements, some connected by nothing more than a measure of rest.  Those transitions feel a little cheap at times.  I wonder if maybe things could have been layered a little more smoothly to make the songs have a more natural progression.  Or perhaps they could have broken some songs into two or three tracks, for example: “Strawberry Bubblegum Pt. 1 and 2.”

But for every transition that feels a little forced, there is another that is absolutely tremendous.  Personally, one of my favorites is in the album’s first single, “Suit & Tie,” when Jay-Z takes the mic.  The song’s main groove, a bouncy bassline brightened by a glass-bottle backbeat drops.  “Get out’cha seat, HOV.” And then shit goes haywire.  The song sounds like audible illness.  The bass wobbles like a drunkard.  The backbeat has slowed down to a snail’s pace.  “Time for tuxedos for no reason.”  It’s pretty great.

Spaceship Coupe” is another track that held my attention on Timberlake’s album.  Its message is simple: let’s get in my two-seater spaceship, and get romantic in space.  The first time I listened to it, I kept thinking that it was teetering on the border of cheez.  But, no! The instrumentation saves the track.  Since when was sawtooth bass ever sexy?  It’s a lot of things, (amazing, namely) but sexy wouldn’t have been high on my list of descriptors for heavy sawtooth bass.  However, this track makes it work!  I think it’s the broken nature of the bassline that makes it work.  It’s got a smooth little pickup, ironed out by a bit of portamento that holds the root notes for just long enough, and then departs for a measure.  Repeat ad infinitum, or until a Grammy appears.  Rather than mash on the low-end of the synth for five minutes, the bassline’s silence is just as important as its presence.  It hangs around for the entire track, but never overstays its welcome.

There’s this thing that happens when I hear a bassline I really like.  I reflexively scrunch up my face and exhale slowly.  A breathy whistle escapes from time to time.  Listen to some Bill Withers if you want to get the general idea of it.  Something about a tight, effective bassline makes me a puckered mess, unable to do anything but listen in admiration.  It happened to me on “Spaceship Coupe,” and another song on The 20/20 Experience, “That Girl.”

That Girl” is an excellent song.  From the faux-live opening that pits you in some dark, underground club on the edge of some city, a horn pickup and an impossibly sweet guitar hook captivates for the duration of the track.  The shortest track on the album, clocking in at just under five minutes, “That Girl” quickly comes to a simmer and goes down smooth.  It is also the least “processed” sounding song on the album, or the song which could probably be closest replicated with a live band.  While I think that is one of its qualities that makes me like it so much, it is also interesting to note how it feels right at home as track seven out of ten on an album rich with samples and unabashed over-production.

And that over-production is what brings me here: an aspect of the music business has really interested me lately.  Not really the music business, but the business of making music.  I’m not talking about the music industry as much as I’m talking about how music gets made.  I left Wal-Mart, opened The 20/20 Experience, and put it in my car stereo as I idled in the parking lot, leafing through the CD booklet.  The liner notes on JT’s album are really fascinating when you think about it.  Each of the 10 tracks has its own unique credits, written-by, produced-by, recorded-at, etc…  Each song was its own production.  As each song on that album is its own experience, each track had its own undertaking.  He didn’t record the album in a week, laying down all the necessary tracks and only then head to mastering.  It feels as though each track was built piece-by-piece in the studio, not sketched out in a singer-songwriter fashion with an acoustic guitar and a notepad.  Each track is obviously intricately produced, but lovingly so.  I have no idea how Timberlake will recreate the album live (I’m sure he’ll do it successfully, with his trademark charm and panache, as he does anything) but it really is an experience borne of the studio.  It’s a testament to modern music production.

Keep an eye out for the spice at 2:32.  “Charm and panache” might honestly be selling him short.

Jay-Z’s rap in “Suit & Tie” has an interesting line: “Nothing exceeds like excess.”  I think that notion represents The 20/20 Experience pretty well.  20/20 is definitely best served as a whole album, and when consumed as such, it feels downright decadent.  There’s a whole lot of content on that one disc.  Each song has dark corners that open up with repeat listens.  It is not excess for the sake of itself, but for the sake of living well.  Like a musical feast, it leaves you feeling satisfied in ways you never knew you needed.  An exercise in decadence, JT’s new album is well worth a listen.

Two CDs well worth my time.  Will I start buying CDs exclusively? No.  Spotify is very near and dear to my heart.  I will buy CDs again for a favorite artist’s new album, or maybe when people start delaying releases to Spotify.  But until then, I’m glad there’s choices for the music consumer, modern, oldschool, or otherwise.

Always Alright – Alabama Shakes

 

I hate to force my readers into watching an ad at the behest of Vevo, but it was the highest quality video I could grab from YouTube.

Here’s a live version of Always Alright by the ‘Bama Shakes on SNL.  I thought it should get a little press, considering that these guys are way more than just “Hold On.”  Brittany Howard’s voice (goes without say) kicks ass.  She’s a relic from a simpler time.  A powerful female presence that absolutely kills it on “Rise to the Sun.” (See below; see also “Hang Loose.”)

I swear, you can hear her vocal cords being stretched on every last damn track.  They kill it live.

 

Can we talk about killing it live?

(Pardon the quality; CBS and the Grammy folks aren’t too keen on sharing their content.)

Though the whole tribute to Bob Marley was fantastic, Bruno Mars stole the show.  “Locked Out of Heaven” is a really interesting track in its own right, what with the classic Police-esque verse (Sting was the obvious choice to sit in) that flies into a modern-pop chorus and breakdown, but Mr. Mars et al are such damn showmen.

I first started really appreciating Bruno Mars when I saw his tribute to Amy Winehouse on the VMAs a few years back.  What a breath of fresh air it was to see classic showmanship on the stage.

It makes me smile to see a 20-something trombonist dancing in unison with his guitar player.  These guys look so dedicated to the art of music, like they actually care and want to be on stage.  In recent music (and I’m talking like at least the last 30 years,) it has become status quo to get on stage and act a little holier than thou when it comes to the audience.  It’s refreshing to see a group that wants to get up and put on a show.  I know that groups like Vintage Trouble do the clap-your-hands-let-me-hear-you-say-yeah thing to an absolute T, but to see a real prominent figure in the pop scene partake is reassuring.

Justin Timberlake at the 2013 Grammy Awards

To give credit where it’s due, I know that Justin Timberlake had a similar vibe going with his big band setup – JT and the Tennessee Kids – at the Grammys, but lets just mention that Bruno Mars wasn’t on hiatus for the past six years.

Vintage Trouble

 

Last night, I had the privilege to see The Who in Newark, at the Prudential Center.  The opener was this fantastic band, Vintage Trouble.  An edgy take on 60s pop and R&B, these guys rocked the Rock.  The group’s lead vocalist, Ty Taylor (a New Jersey native), positively oozes charisma.  Between songs, he turned the stadium into a chapel choir of call-and-response All Rights and Amens.  His stage presence is reminiscent of James Brown, peppered with impressive footwork.  His voice is equally impressive, filled with soul, and shows the tenderness of Al Green when the songs permit.

The band’s rhythm section puts the “Vintage” in Vintage Trouble.  I was happy to see how reliant they are on their bassist, Rick Barrio Dill, which would be typical of any four-piece outfit, but there’s a real classic inspiration there.  In their songs “Nancy Lee” and “You Better Believe It,” the bass rolls around the track, with walking basslines that show impressive talent, while keeping the two-guitar band far from going stale.  Dummer Richard Danielson’s opening of “Jezzebella” is almost a Four Seasons B-side, and his perky beats kept my hands clapping through their album.

The “Trouble” comes from Taylor’s sizzling attitude and guitarist Nalle Colt’s searing fretwork.  Colt gets about as close to shredding as possible without overpowering the vintage vibe of the band, and tastefully walks the line between retro and raucous.  See the above video for “Blues Hand Me Down” for a taste.

I’m always happy to see a modern band take the classics to heart.  The Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr. have company in Vintage Trouble.

Their album, The Bomb Shelter Sessions, is available on iTunes and Spotify.

Shakey Graves

Roll the Bones:

Did I mention that Hurricane Sandy hit?  It’s been a month since my last post, and lets just leave it at that.  If I don’t have inspiration to write, then I shouldn’t.  It would just water down my blog with… I should stop now.

SHAKEY GRAVES.  This guy is amazing.  Such gravel in that voice.

His album, Roll The Bones, is a fantastically textured walk through fields of sparse folk and blues.  He works with really interesting rhythms.  Listen on Bandcamp, and maybe throw the guy a few bucks.

This video came courtesy of my friend Andrew, author of Pucky The Whale.

Bad Books – II

There’s a type of music that I like which I haven’t been able to put a finger on. In my own mind, I call it “Intricate Rock,” but that name is silly and not quite descriptive enough. Bands like Queens of the Stone Age (and transitively Them Crooked Vultures), Modest Mouse, Manchester Orchestra, and Bad Books satisfy my craving for Intricate Rock. There are distorted guitars in this genre of music, and it would completely fall into the genre of Rock, but there is a substance there that other rock bands lack.

I swear, it’s something in the percussion. These bands have incredible drummers who can add such beautiful texture to the songs that it would spiff up any chord progression. Of course, Queens of the Stone Age had Dave Grohl on Songs for the Deaf, who provides enough texture for twelve albums, but there’s an intricacy in the music of these bands even when the bombastic choruses die out.

Last week, I sang the praises of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the last album by Modest Mouse, and perhaps in that full review, I’ll be able to piece together the X Factor in these bands, but until then, I’m left grasping at straws, knowing Intricate Rock only when I hear it.

II – Bad Books

Bad Books has been described as a supergroup, and it is such in the literal definition of the colloquialism: a band formed by members of other bands. In this supergroup, we have singer/songwriter Kevin Devine and singer/songwriter Andy Hull. The majority of Hull’s band, Manchester Orchestra, fills out the rest of Bad Books.

But Bad Books is a supergroup in another sense. I haven’t heard any other rock band – apart from Manchester Orchestra – make emotions like loneliness and desire sound so downright incredible. Devine’s songwriting lends layers of lyrical tact and pop vibe to Bad Books’ work that might not have been as noticeable on a Manchester Orchestra recording (noticeable in “No Reward). Devine brings Hull’s work to an area more reminiscent of I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child than Simple Math. More “Wolves at Night” than “April Fool.” The combination of Hull and Devine is “super,” to say the least. Having two experienced songwriters at the helm seems to be working splendidly for Bad Books.

Bad Books’ eponymous first album was pretty quiet and folksy, though interesting. I have not given it many listens, but my experience with their newest album, II, is telling me I better go back and give their debut another chance if I know what’s good for myself.

Key Tracks:

Honestly, I could write about each track on this album. I can only recommend this album as a whole, for a real deal listening experience. These, however, are the tracks which have stuck with me the most.

The After Party – Opening quietly with guitar and drum backed by an ethereal synth, you can hear the loneliness hanging in the air. The riff is simple and clean, but rhythmic enough to let you know it has bite. The drums are plain, but precise and intricate, very Manchester Orchestra The first chorus has lazy guitars slithering around the framework. The synth returns in the second verse to add body.

The second next chorus ends with a deep power chord, and you know something’s not right. It’s the feeling when you are worried sick and your stomach drops out. A buildup to another chorus is topped with a single filtered guitar note, vibrating high over the rest of the track like a satellite. Finally, the track explodes into a full-force set of choruses intermixed with snippets of the verse.

Forest Whitaker – With a pop chorus like “I’ve Got Friends,” “Forest Whitaker” is the first single off II. According to Hull, this song is about two people who hate each other but are completely invested in their counterpart’s actions. It’s a sweet-and-sour black comedy; it has a sad core, but is sugar-coated to go down easier. The lyrics play out a story that, to me, sounds like two scorned lovers following each other, post-breakup, and sneering at the successes of the other party. It really is a delightful look into the distorted relationship of “frenemies.”

The harmonized guitars have a light processing that makes the song feel like an 8-bit romp through an NES love story. The song stays restrained and the drums compressed through the duration, relying on the whistle hook to keep ’em coming back for more. It works.

It Never Stops – This is my most listened-to track on the album right now. It opens serenely and sensitively, with an innocent yelp to get things cooking. The triplet-based rhythm guitar lays a textured bed for the synth later in the song. The chorus is supremely catchy, and some great work on the cymbals really puts import on the lyric, “Honey it never stops.” The lead guitar work by Robert McDowell lends great melody to the chorus, and makes it interesting enough to warrant repeat listens.

The third verse is backed by a gang vocal harmony, which is one of my favorite parts of the song. There’s an energy in a sustained vocal harmonization that a synth doesn’t possess. The song then takes us through one more raucous chorus and ends abruptly, slightly off-kilter, which perfectly suits the vibe.

Underneath, I’ve posted a live acoustic version of this song, which shows the brilliance Hull and Devine have. To take a song so complete in its studio form, and make it a wholly separate song in another style is real talent.

No Sides – Here’s the pop sensibility that Devine lends to the record. The double backbeat during the verse makes this track sound like some B-side from a discarded British Invasion band. Like many of the other tracks on the album, synthesizers, guitar melodies, and vocal harmonies are used to great effect during the chorus.

I particularly enjoy this track, because (like “No Reward,”) it gives a chance to hear the band in a little less-serious light. The song is deceptive like that, though. During the bridge, there is enough change and texture that you can’t catch it all on the first listen through, even though you might think you’ve got it all figured out. After multiple listens, I’m still picking apart the vocal and instruments on this track.

Petite Mort – A solemn baroque ditty, “Petite Mort” is another look into mortality, a black comedy along the lines of “Forest Whitaker,” but almost Shakespearean in tone. The verse is fantastically textured, instrumentally, partly thanks to the tone of the guitars, but also the bassline, which you can tell wants to walk right off the map. The guitars in this track, plucked arpeggios backing the verse and single note harmonies after the chorus, are sparse and hauntingly simple. A sweet and simple track, it leaves you feeling solemn and thoughtful.

Afterthoughts:

I would like to note that the tender songs on this album (“Pytor,” and “42,” namely) are tremendously beautiful, lyrically and instrumentally. They have stayed out of my Key Tracks because I think it is the personality of these songs to stay as deep cuts, and not have a spotlight shone upon them. These songs become the quiet gems on the album, thought provoking and with substance, and provide a fantastic way to cleanse your aural palate between the harder rocking tracks on the album.

All in all, II is a fantastic album. Every track on it is worth a listen, and repeats at that. I’ve been listening to the album for over a week now, and I’m still finding emotion in the smallest crevices. I greatly recommend a listen.

Lake Street Dive

What’s with these bands with street names?  Is that the secret to soul?  First I find Ann St. Soul, now I find Lake Street Dive.  These bands have heaps of talent and style.  I love it.

First impressions: What is this? I’m so used to the “I Want You Back” bassline being a bouncing, rollicking exercise in pure joy.  This chilled-out rendition was not what I expected, but, wow, is it amazing.  The song turns from a pop classic to a deep cut from a dive bar at the end of the night.  The lyrics take on new meaning.  No longer does the song conjure thoughts of a teen testing the waters of puppy love, but real yearning and desire.

The harmonies in the chorus are beautiful, and add a maturity that the original song never had.  It goes without say that the lead vocal is spot-on, a soulful alto (? I know next to nothing about the technicalities of the female voice, but that sure isn’t soprano).  The bassist’s work is most likely my favorite part of this rendition, however.  She manages to bend and slide tones with such precise intonation that you hear all the notes of the original bassline, but it is infinitely smoother, especially off a double bass.

I can heartily recommend a listen to the rest of their EP, Fun Machine.  They have equally lovely interpretations of four other songs, with an original track in the mix as well.  What’s exciting is their website says they just got in the studio to record a new album.

This is the other YouTube video I’ve been poring over, simply because of the sheer talent it contains.  I’m not going to act like I know much about Eric Krasno & Chapter 2, but holy hell can these guys get down.

The bassist’s name is Chris Loftlin, and he has just become a personal idol of mine.  I’ve got to get out to the Iridium one of these days.