Pearl Jam – Backspacer

September 26, 2009

backspacerI never thought I’d ever describe a Pearl Jam record as being fun, as I’ve variously found their albums to be serious, earnest, weighty, political or sometimes downright gloomy, but that’s just what their latest record, Backspacer is, a lot of fun. They’re back working with Brendan O’Brien, who produced their now classic debut, Ten, and the result is a straight ahead album rock album with acknowledged pop and New Wave influences. That said, their version of pop influenced rock is as distant from Nickelback or the like as you can imagine. Most of the eleven tracks rock pretty hard, keeping it short and sweet, with most of the songs clocking in around the three minute mark. Notable exceptions to this can be found at the middle and end of the album, “Just Breathe” and “The End,” respectively. “Just Breathe” is a gorgeous track that already ranks among my favorite tracks of the year, and certainly amongst the Pearl Jam songbook, and “The End” is nearly as good, and a perfect closer. Pearl Jam in a good mood, rockin’ it hard? What’s not for a Pearl Jam fan to like? Definitely recommended. Standout cuts: “Gonna See My Friend,” “The Fixer,” “Just Breathe” and “The End.”

cheaptricksgtpeppersRecorded with an array of guest musicians, singers (including Ian Ball and Joan Osborne) and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Sgt. Pepper Live is Cheap Trick’s rendition of the classic Beatles album from 1967, done in its entirety from first song to last. Though it’s very true to its source, the band having recruited Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to oversee the proceedings, Cheap Trick (Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos) is too accomplished a band not to put their own stamp on the music, however modest and tasteful. Zander’s vocals are often astonishing in their range, and the rest of the band are in top form, with Nielsen’s supercharged guitar enhancing a number of the songs, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what a great rhythm section Petersson and Carlos make. Beatles and Cheap Trick fans alike will be delighted at the result, and as a bonus, they add the medley from Abbey Road, which concludes the proceedings on a high note. Standout cuts: “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day In The Life” and “Medley Song.”

(All artist proceeds from sales of the album and DVD go towards prostate cancer research.)

cheaptrickthelatestIf there’s anything wrong with Cheap Trick’s new self-released album, The Latest, it’s that there aren’t enough full on rock tracks like “Sick Man Of Europe,” which is a short, sweet shot to the body that sounds like their early work, albeit with a modern polish. It’s a small quibble, however, as by the end of my first listen-through, I was pretty sold on The Latest: It is, flaws and all, a pretty solid summer album, and ample proof that Cheap Trick have a lot of mileage left in them, even after thirty-five years rockin’ it hard. The first full track is a heretofore buried gem from 1976, “When The Lights Are Out,” which, fairly startingly, blends seamlessly with material recorded over three decades later. Lead singer Robin Zander sounds as incredible as ever, and the band, Rick Nielsen, Bun E. Carlos and Tom Petersson, haven’t lost a step. Sure, a lot of it is Cheap Trick in power ballad mode, i.e. the swoon-ready closer, “Smile,” but it’s such a unique pleasure listening to them play that I didn’t mind. Definitely recommended for classic rock and power pop fans. Standout cuts: “When The Lights Are Out,” “Sick Man Of Europe,” “Alive” and “Closer, The Ballad of Burt and Linda.”

My first impression of Nashville based band Kings of Leon’s new release, Only By The Night, was that it was one half of a great rock album, but upon repeated listenings, I think I was wrong about that. After five good to great tracks in a row, ranging from the slow burning, slightly spacey opener “Closer,” the soaring, should be a single “Use Somebody,” to the strangely melancholy sounding ode to partying in “Manhattan,” the album merely switches tone a bit rather than drops in quality with “Revelry.” That said, I still like the first half of the album better, but then I can have few complaints about a second half that ends with the gorgeous “Cold Desert.” They have lately been accused by some fans of aping U2 owing to their expanded sound, but lead singer Caleb Followill’s powerful, often plaintive wails and Matthew Followill’s terrific guitar work, which is sometimes so subtle that it feels like a ghostly presence somewhere in the mix, keep the music firmly rooted in their Southern rock influences. Kings of Leon are making rock that feels both intimate and majestic at the same time. If they share anything in common with U2, it’s the earnestness and passion that U2 was celebrated for when they first emerged as a young band. Standout cuts: “Crawl,” “Sex On Fire,” “Use Somebody” and “Manhattan.”

Lindsey Buckingham’s Gift Of Screws finally sees the light of day after a years-long delay during which a version of the album was leaked to the Internet, and individual tracks were released on a Fleetwood Mac record, Say You Will, and Buckingham’s last solo release, Under The Skin. The ten tracks that comprise this official release were mostly self-recorded and produced by Buckingham in his home studio, and as anyone familiar with his past solo work will expect, the music alternately explodes with pop bliss, or burns with a barely contained urgency, both anxious and erotic. And if you’ve seen Buckingham live with his band Fleetwood Mac or on his own, you’ll also know he can rock the hell out when he wants to, and he does often on Gift Of Screws with some incredible electric and acoustic guitar work. Out of his four solo releases, I’d rank this number two, just behind 1984’s Go Insane, which is perhaps a sentimental favorite, after all. The best news about Gift Of Screws is that it seems clear that Buckingham isn’t even close to exhausting his creative energy, even after 35 years of recording. In addition to Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac fans, I would also recommend this album to indie pop fans, and then advise them to go back and listen to his first two solo releases and Tusk. It will start to become abundantly clear how influential Buckingham has been on modern indie pop. Standout cuts: “Great Day,” “Did You Miss Me,” “Love Runs Deeper” and “The Right Place To Fade.”

“All these people make me feel so alone…

Written in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks and Scott Bennett, rock and pop legend Brian Wilson’s new album, That Lucky Old Sun, is a paean to Southern California, done as a sort of mini-musical. Though it’s got harmonies and rich orchestration augmenting Wilson’s piano and the rock and pop music, listeners probably shouldn’t be looking to hear a Smile 2 or a Beach Boys redux set of music. Though there are elements of both to be heard in That Lucky Old Sun, the album is nevertheless its own animal, pushing Wilson into fresh territory. It’s occasionally weighted down a bit by some sappiness, but for the most part, this is a very strong record that gets better as it goes along, its affection for Southern California and its culture and peoples warm and genuine. Wilson, at 65, obviously doesn’t the same voice he had in his Beach Boys heyday, but he uses the voice he does have to maximum effect. The several spoken word breaks that put the songs into a context are a bit disconcerting at first, but upon repeated listens, they work nicely to pull everything together. I have to admit that I may have enjoyed this album more than Smile, but then That Lucky Old Sun doesn’t come with the same baggage and the same high expectations that Smile did. I didn’t feel I had to like it, but rather I liked it because it was such a pleasant, often beautiful listening experience. It also ends with two of his best solo songs yet, “Midnight’s Another Day,” “Going Home” and “Southern California,” which look back on the past and present with a mixture of trepidation, joy, melancholy and nostalgia, not to mention surprising frankness. I wonder if that, in time, people will look upon this work with more affection and respect than Smile. Time will tell, of course, for but now, I think it’s essential listening.

Second solo album from former Kinks frontman Ray Davies, who is now mostly based in New Orleans, the city which provided much of the inspiration for the music here. The music is the sort of relaxed rock and roll heard on his first full length solo album, but what really elevates the album are the incisive, often witty lyrics and their subject matter, which, true to the title, concern the working class for the most part. Refreshingly, Davies doesn’t deal with them in the abstract, but rather his songs seem informed by close observation, resulting in the best songs here, “Vietnam Cowboys,” “Morphine Song,” “No One Listen” and the title track. All in all, this probably doesn’t quite reach the heights that his best work with the Kinks did, but it’s still a solid album by one of rock’s best songwriters.