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Album Review: The Horrible Crowes – “Elsie”

"The Horrible Crowes" (Sideonedummy Records 2011)

“Elsie”, the debut record from Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon’s side project the Horrible Crowes, offers a wide range of sounds: half of the record picks up where Gaslight’s last record, “American Slang”, left off; while the other half dives deep into new experimentation.

The Horrible Crowes project is essentially a duo consisting of Fallon and longtime friend and guitar tech Ian Perkins. The group began writing songs on the last Gaslight Anthem tour, influenced by PJ Harvey, the National, and other moody artists. On “Elsie”, each player’s role is clearly defined in the group: Fallon sings and forms the songs’ structures; and Perkins adds the flourishes that define the music, like slide guitar and organ.

The result of the collaboration is, when compared to Gaslight Anthem, both familiar and new. “Elsie” songs “Crush” and the leadoff single “Behold the Hurricane” recall recent Gaslight tunes “Bring it On” and “American Slang,” respectively. These are the most straightforward and upbeat rock songs on the album, which says something about this project: The Crowes at their peak volume recalls some of Gaslight’s more subdued moments. “Go Tell Everybody” is another rocker, this one with a great melody and more organ and R&B conviction than Gaslight could ever offer.

The experimentation is heavy on other “Elsie” songs; Fallon seems eager to delve into other genres without the burden of writing for a straightforward rock band. “Mary Ann” is rough and heavy, with Fallon delivering his vocals in a nearly Tom Waits fashion. “Black Betty and the Moon,” on the other hand, is all texture, with light drums and acoustic guitars. “I Witnessed a Crime” is a barroom ballad, with tons of organ and slide guitar. And “Ladykillers,” one of the best songs from “Elsie”, recalls latter-day U2, with Fallon doing his best Bono-ballad impression on the first verse.

The ballads are the real focal point for “Elsie”, as they directly contrast most of the Gaslight repertoire. The album’s opening two tracks set the tone for the whole record: the short intro “Last Rites” gives way to the impressively somber “Sugar.” The beautiful “Cherry Blossoms” sets the record’s low point, at least as far as mood and energy go, until the album’s closer “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together” brings the record to an end in a slow, spare way. “We Did it When We Were Young,” Fallon’s lament from American Slang, suggested that these ballads were coming, but nothing on American Slang was this moody or desperate.

That’s not to say any of the songs on “Elsie” are bad. If anything, they offer a larger picture of what exactly Fallon is capable of. Gaslight’s punk rock blues from Sink or Swim and hero worship of The ’59 Sound have given way to a more introspective, diverse sound, and that sound translates into the Horrible Crowes music. Side projects are usually written off as unnecessary or obscure, but “Elsie” is definitely a record to check out, and not for just the die-hard Gaslight Anthem fan.

 

(Kent Montgomery is a Staff Writer for the The Wittenberg Torch. He can be reached at s12.kmontgomery@wittenberg.edu)

13

09 2011

30 Years in the Making: R.E.M.’s New Sound

R.E.M.’s latest record, Collapse into Now, continues the high-energy rock of the band’s excellent 2008 release, Accelerate, peppered with other musical elements from the band’s back catalogue.

Collapse into Now has a lot of hype to live up to. The album was partially recorded at the legendary Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin, Germany, which gave us classic records from David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and U2. As if that wasn’t enough to get fans excited, as the band was recording they likened the sound of the record to that of their 1992 classic, the folky Automatic for the People.

Collapse into Now landed somewhere in between Automatic for the People and Accelerate. On songs like “Oh My Heart,” “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I,” and especially the harmony-driven “Überlin,” R.E.M. delivers. As promised, they rekindle the folk that made them huge with hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Drive.” These songs mark the return of the mandolin, organ, and the accordion that dominated Automatic for the People. These songs display R.E.M. at its stripped-back and melancholy best since Automatic was released in 1992.

Other songs on the album evoke different music eras in R.E.M.’s history. The piano ballad “Walk it Back,” with its atmospheric strings and reverb-laden guitar, fits in nicely with the band’s late-90’s electronic experiments. And the closing track “Blue” is a blatant re-hashing of New Adventures… single “E-Bow the Letter”: the songs are similar in their spoken-word vocals, ambient instrumentation, and a guest lyric from Patti Smith.

However, the real winners on Collapse into Now are the rockers. Much of the album continues the high-energy rock of Accelerate. Opener “Discoverer” kicks off the album with a jagged guitar line, before roaring into a muscular chorus. “All the Best” pounds away with more loud drums and guitars, before climaxing in a fury of harmony vocals set to a pulsating beat. And “That Someone is You” and “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” have the band sounding like it’s 1983 all over again, featuring the Byrds-y jangle and sweet harmony that the band first became known for.

Overall, Collapse into Now solidifies a new era for R.E.M. that began with Accelerate. This era (in contrast to the band’s cryptic garage-rock 80’s, folky 90’s, and experimental electronic 00’s) boasts big guitars and drums, tons of studio experimentation, and just enough folk to keep fans sane. The songs show a band revitalized and excited to be making music, and optimistic about the future. Collapse into Now is a fine example of the music R.E.M. wants to be making in 2011, which (along with Accelerate) represents the best music they’ve made since 1992.

05

04 2011

Go-Go Boots, Drive-By Truckers Album Review

For their latest record Go-Go Boots, southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers ditch the dark, noisy tendencies of last year’s The Big To-Do, and opt for a cleaner, brighter collection of soul and country tunes.

From the start, it is clear that Go-Go Boots is not a typical Truckers album. “I Do Believe,” a great retro-pop tune, shows front man Patterson Hood at his most carefree and weightless. The song opens the album with Hood’s a cappella vocals: “I do believe I saw you standing there, sunlight in your hair.” The band then bursts in, offering bright guitars and organs that compliment the light subject matter (which includes a shout-out to 60’s R&B singer Percy Sledge).

The Truckers make good use of their influences throughout Go-Go Boots. On bassist Shonna Tucker’s bar room ballad “Dancin’ Ricky,” the lead guitar lines are practically lifted from an Otis Redding record. Organ parts in “Used to Be a Cop” and the title track owe some debt to Tom Petty’s “Breakdown.” The album’s closer, “Mercy Buckets,” seems to be a culmination of all these influences: the song contains a few blistering guitar solos, some organ and piano parts, and a chorus that explodes into a sweet harmony.

Elsewhere, courtesy of guitarist Mike Cooley, the Truckers sound more like a country band than they ever have before. Cooley’s three songs for the record (“Cartoon Gold,” “The Weakest Man,” and “Pulaski”) each maintain a stripped back, classic country vibe. The use of acoustic guitars and traditional bluegrass instruments like banjoes and steel guitars adds to the stripped down atmosphere here. The best of Cooley’s tunes here is “The Weakest Man,” which evokes, through a harmony-fueled chorus, any great up-tempo Willie Nelson song.

The original songs from Go-Go Boots are rounded off by a pair of covers by songwriter Eddie Hinton, who was a close friend of Hood’s father. “Where’s Eddie” is a quiet rocker sung by Tucker, who comes alive as the song explodes with organ in its last minute. The other Hinton tune, “Everybody Needs Love” is the Drive By-Truckers at their best. Hood is forced to break out of his Southern drawl and display a little soul on this tune, and he does so with flying colors. The band plays along with its best 60’s-soul tribute (organs, guitars, and tons of reverb) and the result is superb.

Overall, Go-Go Boots is a fine example of the Drive-By Truckers’ ability to expand their sound and adapt to different genres. This is a band with a great deal of musical knowledge and experience, and Go-Go Boots is the sound of the Truckers realizing their potential.

22

03 2011

Super Bowl Music Review

For this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, the Black Eyed Peas’ wishy-washy hip-hop show brought about change of pace from the anthemic classic rock of the football game’s last 6 years. This performance, along with a bumpy game-opening rendition of the US national anthem from Christina Aguilera, made up a lackluster night of music for the normally majestic event.

Overall, the Black Eyed Peas seemed more focused on the show’s visual effects than on their performance. As the group members emerged from the ceiling to the opening bars of their 2009 hit “I Gotta Feeling,” elaborate, Tron-like glow costumes and stage pieces were revealed. The music, however, was not so dazzling: the instruments were much too quiet, will.i.am’s vocals were soaked in Auto-Tune processing, and the volume on Fergie’s microphone was late at the beginning of her first solo.

The group progressed from “I Gotta Feeling” into an abridged version of 2009’s “Boom Boom Pow,” which contained the only solo vocal contributions of the night from group members apl.de.ap and Taboo. Adding to the visual effects on the stage, light-laden dancers on the football field created various shapes using their costumes, a procedure that would continue in various forms for the remainder of the show.

After several more Peas hits and guest spots from ex-Guns ‘N’ Roses guitarist Slash (the Fergie-led rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) and Usher (his hit “OMG,” edited here to “Oh my gosh”), the group tore through recent hit “The Time,” which unfolded into a finale reprise of “I Gotta Feeling.”
Ultimately, the Peas’ hip-hop did not hold up as well as previous acts such as Prince, the Who, or Bruce Springsteen. The guest stars were understated, and Fergie’s singing often seemed to break into a shout. This was perhaps to compensate for the lack of choreography in the band’s set: the Peas seemed to be standing and yelling at the audience for nearly the entire 13-minute show.

The weak halftime show was augmented by a painful opening performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Christina Aguilera. During the song’s performance, Aguilera confused several lines in the song, mixing up the line “O’er the ramparts we watched” and accidentally repeating the line “At the twilight’s last gleaming.”
The Black Eyed Peas are the first hip-hop group to perform at the Super Bowl since the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Halftime Show, (which also featured Nelly, Justin Timberlake, Kid Rock, and P. Diddy). Although the Peas did nothing to upset the FCC with this performance, they did not live up to the legacy created by the acts of the past few years, and hopefully next year will bring a return to the rock bands of yesteryear.

09

02 2011

Thank You Happy Birthday

With Cage the Elephant’s sophomore album, Thank You Happy Birthday, the band strays away from the straightforward blues and punk inspired rock of its self-titled debut, instead opting for a very diverse and much more modern-sounding record.

From the opening track, “Always Something,” it is clear that Thank You Happy Birthday isnot an attempt to repeat the mold of the band’s debut. The mid-tempo song boasts a syncopated drum beat and an effects-driven lead guitar riff that wouldn’t seem out of place in a James Bond film. Overall, the song carries a dense atmosphere, and its production is much more advanced than the stripped-back sound of the band’s previous record.

Throughout on Thank You Happy Birthday, there is hardly any trace of the slide guitarblast of the band’s 2009 hit single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” In fact, the record seems to owe more to late-80s Pixies records than to early Rolling Stones singles. Vocalist Matthew Shultz’s shrieks in songs like “Indy Kidz” and the frantic “Sell Yourself” are reminiscent of Surfer Rosa-era Frank Black. The lead guitar lines in “2024” are pure Joey Santiago. And “Aberdeen,” with its strong melody, pounding bass guitar, and feedback-laced guitar solo, could pass for a Doolittle outtake.

The band also seems much more in tune with its softer side this time around. “Rubber Ball” revolves around strummed electric guitar, relatively subdued vocals, and hardly any drums. The album’s closing track, “Flow,” is only slightly more upbeat, with shakers and hand drums serving as percussion.

Of the Thank You Happy Birthday’s highlights, which include the record’s first two singles, “Shake Me Down” and “Around My Head,” and the aforementioned “Aberdeen,” the track “Right before My Eyes” stands out as the album’s best. The song is one of the catchiest by the band, and plays as a fairly simple rock song with a great melody. The song can be heard in its original version, and as an acoustic hidden track following the album closer. The acoustic version is particularly great: it shows the band at its most personal, without tons of studio production to muddy the emotion in Shultz’s voice.

Overall, Thank You Happy Birthday goes beyond the expectations for Cage the Elephant’s sophomore release: it shows the band reinventing its sound by incorporating new influences into its palate and even taking a few risks. The result is positive, and it will offer the band a chance to transcend the “one-hit wonder” label and make more great music in the future.

26

01 2011