Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Collected Reviews

This is my place to post various reviews I've recently written. I'm very proud of them, though most aren't available in any written form online or in print. With each review, I've included a short description of the podcast or publication for which they were written as well as a link to the specific episode/issue online, if available. Enjoy.

Rise Against
DGC/Interscope Records

Written for Review Rinse Repeat during the spring of 2011.

When they signed with Geffen in 2003, many expected Rise Against to tread a well-traveled course—one in which, for four or five years, the band would release records that, one by one, distanced themselves from the palpable passion that earned them critical acclaim in the underground, after which the A&R rep that courted them—their only advocate—would be absorbed by some other appendage of the parent company (or laid off altogether) and the band would be spit out by the mainstream machine, thankful for their experience, but without the rights to their own records. It's the same old story, isn't it?

Except, four albums and eight years later, Rise Against hasn't succumbed to this cliché. The band has remained on their major label, becoming more popular than almost any modern American punk-rock band, and managed to maintain the explosive essence that made them meaningful when they were still playing bowling alleys in Chicago at the turn of the millennium. Endgame, Rise Against's sixth full-length, doesn't sacrifice their thoughtful, poetic take on politics for this popularity and, for the most part, preserves the punch that inspires audience members to lose themselves in the madness of a pit.

Side A of Endgame starts with “Architects”, an energetic and galloping track that shows the band at their best. After a rising transition from verse to chorus, vocalist Tim McIlrath's lyrics strike at their full rhetorical force, asking, “Do you care to be the layer of the bricks that seal your fate / or would you rather be the architect of what we might create?” These sorts of inspirational, positive lines are the reason why Rise Against can appeal simultaneously to the political-minded and the pop-oriented; they are general enough move listeners to make an impact in whatever way they can, but don't necessarily ask them to throw a rock through a Starbucks storefront. Of course, one can't help but wonder about his intent when, during a bridge driven by the rhythmic throb of bassist Joe Principe's trademark clank, he belts, “Don't you remember when we were young / and we wanted to set the world on fire?”, lines lifted almost word-for-word from Against Me!'s “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”, and what McIlrath means when he follows with, “Because I still am, and I still do.”

Architects” sets the bar for the four tracks that follow, including the first single “Help Is On the Way”, whose lyrics are as thought-provoking as they are poignant. The song eventually ventures towards a stirring, halftime bridge that, with the help of a curtain of dark chords and a wall of “woahs,” evokes the sensation of seeing someone abandoned on their rooftop at the peak Hurricane Katrina. Later, “Disparity by Design”, a song that speaks on behalf of the homeless, and “Satellites” are lively tracks that keep Endgames engaging.

It's at the end of side A that the record takes a turn in another direction. “Midnight Hands” loses sight of the straight-ahead punk-rock that Rise Against does so well; instead, each verse is burdened by a bluesy swagger and spineless sway during each chorus. Two tracks later, “Broken Mirrors” seems to suffer from a similar mood shift. During pre-choruses and bridges, these songs attempt to return to form, but the energy that makes Endgame so exciting at its start seems to evaporate; even spirited tracks such as “This Is Letting Go” and “Survivor's Guilt” seem to lose something—an urgency, maybe or an edge—just being on the record's second side.

There's something to be said, though, about the energy that makes up most of Endgames. At this point, it would be easy for Rise Against to pander to the pre-teen fans that frequent Warped Tours across the country; to dilute their politics with songs that bewail the woes of growing up white and entitled; to slow down their sound, clean up their chords, add a keyboard, and allow their punk-rock credibility to crumble. Despite the one or two sections of one or two tracks that weigh the record down, Endgames is consistent with 2003's Revolutions Per Minute and 2006's The Sufferer & the Witness, which serves as evidence that, mainstream or not, Rise Against is right where they should be.

Make Do and Mend
End Measured Mile
Paper + Plastick Records
Written and recorded for Rock and Roll Brunch episode 1 during the autumn of 2010.

It would be too easy to compare Make Do and Mend to Hot Water Music, and such a comparison would seem like an incomplete and lazy appraisal.

Sure, singer James Carroll’s coarsest cries lie somewhere between Chuck Ragan’s and Chris Wollard’s, the two vocalists of Hot Water Music. And, yes, many of Make Do and Mend’s melodies feel influenced by this band; it might be that each song is layered with the same sort of fierce, snarling guitars, or propelled by the same sort of pent-up (or pending) punk-rock energy for which their Floridian counterparts were famous.

Still, there’s something about End Measured Mile, Make Do and Mend’s first full-length, that sets them apart from any band that might bare comparison—something that makes them better.

Most likely, it comes from Carroll’s lyrics, which are poetic, but unpretentious, and inspiring. The opener “Unknowingly Strong” encourages listeners to hold on when times get tough, to “keep swimming ‘till [they’re] dead”, though most tracks are less direct. In “Oak Square”, Carroll sings about the frustrations of holding a day job to finance the pursuit of his passions; he confronts his faithlessness in “Transparent Seas”, a song where he addresses God directly, and initiates a melodic intervention to an addicted loved one in “Ghostal”. Though Carroll wrestles with his own personal demons in these songs, they’re easy for many listeners to relate to.

These lyrics only become more powerful when matched with Make Do and Mend’s capacity for constructing a musical mood. The band doesn’t solely rely on tempo to set the tone of their songs; in fact, their fastest and most ferocious are among their saddest.

“Firewater”, the second-to-last song on End Measured Mile and the record’s climax, is also the album’s most spirited song. The song begins with a steady string of snare hits before launching into a torrent of chords, a rhythmic and melodic rain that’s as relentless as it is expressive. The storm continues during the verses, but the mood feels more ominous; dark, almost dissonant chords rumble in background behind Carroll’s lines, exploding only as the chorus return. It’s during this chorus that Carroll laments the pain of a long distance relationship and screams, “No matter how hard that we beg, the miles take you away, / and there’s nothing that we can say. / You’re leaving me and I realize this, Hell has an address / and I’m standing on its doorstep.” The storm breaks at the bridge and the sad sobs of a string section builds up to a heavy-stepping halftime break-down; “Firewater” ends with an ancient cello rising from the final chord like a string of smoke.

Too many will draw the conclusion that Make Do and Mend is just another punk band influenced by that Central Florida sound, and that’s too bad. Carroll’s lyrics are, at once, personal and universal and, when one considers the emotional tone and consistency of each song (especially considering the way in which the end of sides A and B refer to one another), End Measured Mile becomes a subtle and sophisticated record beneath its surface. Maybe it’s a bit bold to say that Make Do and Mend do more than draw from their influences—that, instead, they build upon and out-do them—but those who give this record several spins will sense it for sure.

John Moreland and the Black Gold Band
Things I Can't Control
Written and recorded for Rocket Fuel Podcast episode 41 during the summer of 2010.

It kills me to use the term “alt-country” to describe any kind of artist. The connotations of “country” music, frankly, are confusing enough, since it can be applied to both Hank Williams and Lady Antebellum in the same breath. The prefix “alt” only confuses further; because country, like so many other musical categories once rigid with conventions, has lost meaning as a signifier, it’s difficult to imagine its alternative.

But, then, how else might one describe John Moreland and his Black Gold Band? The thirteen songs on Things I Can’t Control, his second full-length, are rich with the kind of thick Telecaster chords that are rarely found in any other sound. These riffs, in fact, hang heavy with a drawl similar to Moreland’s, whose low, husky howl has a knack for crafting catchy melodies. Songs like “Black Cloud” and “Ruin My Night” are hard to listen to without imagining a whole barroom singing back to him, which makes that country aura even more palpable.

Likewise, Moreland’s lyrics express small town wisdom without succumbing to the clichés often associated with country. In “Pretty Much Empty”, for example, Moreland sings, “But, you know, / the way I see it, girl, if I can’t take it with me, / it ain’t meant to be. / It’s pretty much empty.” Throughout
Things I Can’t Control, Moreland preaches the virtues of simplicity and life on the road, using rural images to make his stories and scenes feel simultaneously familiar and romantic.

Though the songs on
Things I Can’t Control fit together to form a full and unified record, such consistency can have a downside. Most of the songs have a similar mood, pace, and punch, so it takes several spins for each song to emerge from the others. Of course, it’s worth it; with each listen, this record feels richer, each refrain feels more philosophical, and each riff feels grittier and more emotional. Still, the highs on Things I Can’t Control could be higher, and the lows lower.

Things I Can’t Control couldn’t really be considered an energetic record, it’s propelled by a passion and soul that seems missing from modern country music. Maybe that makes Moreland and his band a fulfilling alternative, though this thought—that “alt-country” feels more genuine as a genre—seems to confuse this whole country thing further, doesn’t it?

Go Rydell
The Golden Age
Black Numbers
Written and recorded for Rocket Fuel Podcast episode 40 during the summer of 2010.

The Golden Age, the first full-length from Orlando, FL’s Go Rydell, is exhausting. Don’t misunderstand me—it’s not exhausting to listen to, as in it’s boring or a chore of some sort. Let me put it this way: after plunging through these ten songs in less than fifteen minutes for the first time, I had to sit down and catch my breath.

It’s partly because of singer Chris Scaduto’s melodic growl. He doesn’t merely scratch-up his singing voice; he purges his words, expels them with such power that his lyrics hit his listeners like chunks of concrete. This barrage is especially present on “Suck Brick Kid”, one of the record’s bouncier tracks. Scaduto sings about living life to the fullest—a theme he sets by stating, “These are those kind of nights / that I will never mention to my kids / because I want them to find out themselves / the right way to live” in a scream so fierce, it’s easy to mistake his melody for shameless shouting. The melody is always there, though; Scaduto’s voice is always in key as slices through the groaning guitars.

If Scaduto is the spark, the rest of the band is Go Rydell’s engine. There’s really nothing elaborate about the band’s style or sound. The guitars are always distorted and dense; they stack as thick chords and rarely climb across each other, ivy-like, as leads. Go Rydell clearly prefers power to finesse, which is excusable since they express power expertly, often using the momentum generated though rapid tempo and mood changes. Songs like “Last Call” and “MTA” move from mid-tempo and bouncy to ballistic and back in the blink of a beat. What’s remarkable, though, is the clarity and control captured on
The Golden Age. Go Rydell is never wild; even when careening at top speeds, they remain tight and never seem sloppy.

The problem with power is that it’s difficult to maintain. Maybe that’s why all ten songs from
The Golden Age are less than two minutes in length. Because of this, some of the songs feel underdeveloped; choruses and melodies rarely repeat and Go Rydell’s potential sadly goes unrealized. Of course, it leaves the listener salivating for more. I could only imagine what a four-minute Go Rydell song would sound like; I would probably pass out.

Despite these bursts of energy being so short, Go Rydell expresses a vitality more powerful than most punk-rock bands have been delivering these days—so much so that listeners should consider stretching and readying a Gatorade from the fridge before dropping the needle on
The Golden Age.