Tuesday, September 29, 2009

State Radio - Let It Go (September 29th, 2009)

This is a bit more of an obscure one, and probably relevant to much less people than Pearl Jam, but I wouldn't be being true to myself if I didn't review it as well. State Radio's music has been a large part of my life for half a decade, and I'm more partial to them than I should probably admit to.
For those unfamiliar with State Radio, they were formed in 2002 by guitarist/songwriter Chad Urmston, who had just broken up with his previous band, Dispatch. For those unacquainted, Dispatch was probably the most popular independent band of all time, with a following so fervent that their last performance drew a crowd of over a hundred thousand. State Radio was founded with entirely different musical goals in mind, combining elements of punk, reggae, folk and ska with searing political views, as their latest's cover art would suggest.
//side note: the artwork actually terrifies me now, as my place of residence was recently invaded by riot and army squads dressed exactly like that, donning tear gas and sonic guns

State Radio's latest, entitled Let It Go, was arguably the most anticipated album the band has ever released, due to its material being popular at live shows as far back as 2002 (Blood Escaping Man) or 2004 (Held Up). The folk/acoustic element of the band is noticeably missing here, focusing almost entirely on their reggae and punk aspects.

The opener, Mansin Humanity, is a sprawling, distortion-laden five minute epic about the Armenian Genocide. This is State Radio at their best; featuring a harsh, in-your-face devastatingly loud sound, a slow, mournfully melodic chorus, and the political implications they've been known for for so long. The recording is near perfect, with guitar tone just harsh enough to drive the topic home, and a perfect, blood-curdling screams near the end by bassist Chuck Fay.
Calling All Crows, although not necessarily a bad song, suffers from odd production, and an almost unbearable bell ring at the opening provides the worst transition from the previous track I could possibly imagine. It showcases the reggae side of State Radio, along with a call to action for woman's rights in Africa, further supported by the band's excellent organization of the same name. When performed live previous to its release, this was one of my favorites in the band's catalog, but the recording just doesn't cut it.
Doctor Ron the Actor is a true gem. It leans more towards the Ska side, evoking the likes of Streetlight Manifesto with a terse, traditional ska verse and a roaring horn-backed chorus. Chuck Fay absolutely shines here, as the basswork really is the driving force behind the song. The percussion is also absolutely top notch (kudos to Mad Dog), as are the vocal harmonies. Nothing about this song isn't perfect, except for some strange mixing on the cymbols in the chorus.
Held Up is probably one of the best songs State Radio has ever written. Its vocal melodies are some of the catchiest Chad has ever penned, with some of the most powerful music in their catalog. The guitar roars stronger than ever before, and the percussion is absolutely devastating. This one needs to be heard to be believed.
Still and Silent features a completely new sound for the band, integrating something that sounds more like modern alternative bands into State Radio's traditional punk roots. The percussion is absolutely fantastic here as well, although mixed towards the back more often than not. The songwriting is Chad at his best, demanding how one can stay "Still and silent" with the world functioning as it is.

Arsenic and Knights are both solid songs, the latter adopting the feel of an anthem that many a Bostonian would be proud to don. Blood Escaping Man features a fantastic harmonica intro, and is by far one of my personal favorites.
Evolution is an attempt to directly emulate the old Jamacian reggae style, which it does rather nicely. That being said, it seems terribly out of place, and feels nothing like its surrounding songs. Bohemian Grove is also reggae, but feels a lot more organic, and fits much more nicely. Its entirely chorus driven, with a slow, droning verse lasting until almost halfway into the song before its amazingly catchy chorus takes over. The title track, in direct contrast, is entirely verse-based, with only a three-word chorus of (you guessed it) Let It Go. It starts very strong with a highly melodic verse before diving into a surprisingly rough chorus, and an outro that feels like a loose jam.
The hidden track (Indian Moon) is actually not a new song at all, but a reggae version of an acoustic song released years previous. It was apparently recorded 'live' in the studio, with the bassist and drummer switching instruments. Although it definitely could have been edited into a solid track, there's something raw and just plain fun about this recording. It hasn't failed to bring a smile to my face yet.

Let It Go has some very strong parts, but also suffers from a few awkward points. Nonetheless, its very much worth checking out, and is highly recommended to both newcomers to State Radio and devoted fans alike. Vinyl lovers of the world will be thrilled to see their own release, the first of its kind available from the band

Track Listing:
  1. "Mansin Humanity" - 5:07
  2. "Calling All Crows" - 3:38
  3. "Doctor Ron The Actor" - 4:02
  4. "Arsenic & Clover" - 3:06
  5. "Bohemian Grove" - 4:35
  6. "Knights of Bostonia" - 4:26
  7. "Let It Go" - 3:12
  8. "Evolution" - 3:55
  9. "Held Up By The Wires" - 4:37
  10. "Blood Escaping Man" - 3:32
  11. "Still & Silent" - 4:06
  12. "Indian Moon (Reggae) (Hidden Track)
Highlights: Doctor Ron The Actor, Held Up By The Wires, Still & Silent
Overall: ★★★★½

Pearl Jam - Backspacer (September 20th, 2009)

I'll admit, when I first got this album I was pretty apprehensive. Pearl Jam's nearly flawless 2006 self titled has influenced me so much that anything less than perfect would never suffice. This sense of foreboding was not helped by early reviews declaring Backspacer was heavily influenced by Pop and New Wave. Now, one can absolutely take new wave influences and craft them into something wonderful (see the Red Hot Chili Pepper's excellent 2002 release By The Way), but this seemed like such a strange fit for the group that brought us Even Flow or Animal. Pop, on the other hand, just terrified me. I'd seen their performance of Got Some on Tonight Show on June 2nd (link), and was rather confused. This was not the rough-and-ready Pearl Jam I'd known and loved in 2006, this was something else entirely.
Needless to say, the curiosity was killing me all summer. So, when I finally got my grubby little hands on this album, I was ready to be shocked, confused and upset. The real surprise here was that I was not, at all.

Backspacer is a very different album from anything else Pearl Jam has ever released for one reason: its happy. From their very inception as a band, Eddie's lyrics have always been very deep. From the terrifying story of Jeremy (Ten) to the politically charged World Wide Suicide (self titled), no Pearl Jam album has been without some angst, until now. Instead of loud, angry anthems, Backspacer features shorter, more concentrated material with an element of fun so large it works its way into your mind until you can't put it down.
As soon as the first track (Gonna See My Friend) began to roll, all my fears of anything too pop-ish melted away. Matt Cameron absolutely outdoes himself here- the percussion is top notch, the guitars roar as loud as they always have, and Eddie's screams are as powerful as ever. This is Pearl Jam as we've always known them, just a little happier.
Got Some is a bit more of a departure. Its verse is rather sparse, and more rhythmically based on a funk-like guitar riff by McCready. Its chorus roars as loud as the last song, and sews the piece together nicely. The Fixer, the next track (and their first single from the album) is about the happiest track Pearl Jam has ever released. Here, the feel of the album really shines through: the lyrical optimism, happy-go-lucky feel, a few poppish-claps even a synth (1:17) leave the track feeling like nothing Pearl Jam has put out yet. Many fans have been immediately turned off by this one, but don't judge the entire album because of it.
Its at this point I realized something, each track I'd head thus far all clocked at almost exactly three minutes. In fact, almost every song on the album is very short; then entire album clocks in at just shy of 37 minutes. Without a doubt, the theme of this album is tighter, undiluted songwriting.
Just Breathe is another departure. It heavily evokes the feel of Eddie Vedder's 2007 soundtrack to Into The Wild, to the point where it would feel almost more at home there. Featuring Eddie solo on acoustic guitar backed up with some strings (and attributed entirely to him,) I consider this one of Eddie's solo pieces. It still serves as one of Pearl Jam's most tender moments, and its placement on the album is near perfect.
Amongst the Waves is pure optimism, and Supersonic is a loud, happy harder rock tune about one's love of music. Speed of Sound feels somewhat out of place, and is the only track on the entire album that hasn't grown on me. Force of Nature is a loose, fun, more laid back tune that feels like it should be longer than it is (4:05). The album ends on a low key. Its final track, "The End", is another Vedder-penned solo acoustic song, featuring some of the most emotional, powerful lyrics on the album.

When I first picked up this album, I wasn't expecting to rate it more than 2/5. However, its proved itself a very strong addition to Pearl Jam's already impressive catalog. Fans may fear it, as its definitely the most pop-ish album by the Seattle quintet yet, but don't fret, its more raw than The Fixer would have you believe.

Track Listing:
  1. "Gonna See My Friend" - 2:49
  2. "Got Some" - 3:02
  3. "The Fixer" - 2:58
  4. "Johnny Guitar" - 2:50
  5. "Just Breathe" - 3:36
  6. "Amongst the Waves" - 3:59
  7. "Unthought Known" - 4:09
  8. "Supersonic" - 2:40
  9. "Speed of Sound" - 3:34
  10. "Force of Nature" - 4:04
  11. "The End" - 2:58
Highlights: Got Some, Amongst The Waves, Supersonic
Overall: ★★★½

Music Vs. Jesse

I haven't looked or even thought about this blog since I created it, mostly out of laziness. However, the absolutely fantastic slew of releases this year have forced me to reconsider.

The late great Frank Zappa once said "Writing about music is like tapdancing about architecture," and I'm inclined to agree with him. Music is so subjective that no one person's review is really relevant to what people will get out of it. That being said, I think this blog could be a fun medium to express my own personal taste, and who knows, maybe some people will agree with me.

As I previously mentioned, I'm convinced 2009 was one of the best years for music in recent history (or at least since 2006,) so I figured I'd start writing reviews now, but just in case I can't catch up here's a few of the year's highlights (roughly in chronological order):
And the year isn't over yet, I'm still looking forward to the likes of Between the Buried and Me's follow up to their excellent 2007 release Colors, The Great Misdirect on October 27th.

Please check back later, and I might actually begin writing. After a while, the reviews might actually be good, too.