Music Diary Semi-Quavers: Quick Looks at Recent Releases in Pop & Rock

As I have mentioned, I love listening to loads of new music across a variety of genres, and have very much appreciated how many folks have shared new music with me since I have started writing music reviews for Gear Diary. I started off with full, large song-by-song reviews (whole notes), and then started to also do somewhat shorter reviews that don’t pick apart each song (half-notes). Then I started a series where I would have a shorter review for a number of albums that also targets a favored song and target audience (quarter note), but have found that process to be too intense and time consuming for me to continue. Most recently I have pulled the core of those reviews and individually looked at a recording in brief, such as my recent review of Gary Burton’s Common Ground (eighth note).

But what I have been missing was looking at a wider swath of music that comes my way – I loved doing those group reviews, so I decided to scale back even further. The result? Music Diary Semi-Quavers! A semi-quaver is a sixteenth note, and like that brief moment in musical time, I will give each new recording a simple paragraph summary with a bit of context and a bit of opinion and a link to either Amazon or iTunes. If the album is very good I might highlight a song, but if not I will quickly dismiss the entire thing.

To start off, I am finishing up a set of pop music reviews I had started in the old format, and adding more recent releases. From there I will look at recent jazz releases and some reissues I have been listening to recently.

  • Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 (2011, Rap / Hip-Hop): The Beastie Boys are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their debut License to Ill featuring the iconic ‘Fight For Your Right’. They are also celebrating their first release since AdRock had to take time off to address his cancer, and their first real release since ‘To The Five Boroughs’ in 2004. In spite of all of these events and the passage of time, they managed to release their best album in nearly two decades! My favorite song is Make Some Noise, but the entire album is worthy of a good listen. This record shows that as relevant as the Beasties have been, they are also timeless. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.
  • Deadmau5 – 4×4=12 (2010, Electronica / Dance): If someone were to tell me that this type of music – repetitive beats, minimalist structures, no vocals, long songs – would be one of the largest growing segments in 2011, I wouldn’t have believed them. But acts like Deadmau5, Skrillex, Daft Punk and so on producing high quality and infectious beats, there are more and more music fans ready to accept lyric-less tunes. You have likely heard music by Deadmau5 somewhere – I encountered it recently at the beginning of the game Test Drive Unlimited 2. My son argues this isn’t his best work, with that nod going to 2009’s ‘For the Lack of a Better Name’, but this is a strong second. There are infectious beats, strong melodies, slowly evolving sound-scapes, and even a few vocals along the way – but always in service of a greater goal. The use of retro-synths allows Zimmerman (Deadmau5 is Joel Zimmerman) to take advantage of phased timing of oscillators to present patterns that drift in and out of phase, presenting an intriguing rhythmic development. People criticized Wendy Carlos for Switched on Bach, but then realized that she managed to get some fine music out of those damned machines. And while Deadmau5 isn’t operating at that level, beneath the veneer of club and house music there are some interesting musical things happening. Definitely worth a listen. My son picks ‘A City in Florida’ as his fave track, I would go with ‘Sofi Needs a Ladder’.
  • Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math (2011, Rock) – As Arcade Fire reminded us at the Grammy Awards, there is more to music than what the major labels stuff down our throats. Manchester Orchestra is a prime example of that. I had heard of them and heard some of their stuff, but I held off buying until my brother went to see them live and was trumpeting their virtue. Since he often grabs stuff I talk about, I decided to check out Manchester Orchestra when it was on sale – and I really enjoyed the recording. There is an elegance and subdued power to the songs and presentation – things are well produced without being overwrought … most of the time. There is some clear indulgence and self-important rambling and the strings get a bit much at time, but overall the recording is enjoyable and rewarding. My favorite song remains the first one I heard – the title song, Simple Math.
  • Diftery – Trepanation (2011, Brutal Death Metal): When I saw the listing for this one, recommended by a friend from the EU, I simply had to grab the CD (since it wasn’t available on iTunes or Amazon MP3) – the group came highly recommended from someone whose tastes told me I wouldn’t be bored, and the genre listing was ‘brutal death metal’. I used to enjoy college radio from UMass Lowell and Harvard University when in the Boston area, and each had some wild segments of various genres, and death metal was always intriguing – super-speed drumming, thrashing guitars, all tight and ferocious, with growling lyrics I was generally glad I couldn’t understand. All of that is on display here – there is incredible musicianship on display, and I have no idea what any of the songs are about – something I think it of as ‘a good thing’. The audience for this music is narrow, but if it sounds interesting, give it a shot – or wait until the MP3 listings come to the US.
  • Weird Al Yankovic – Alpocalypse (2011, Parody): If you are a fan of Weird Al, as I am, you simply buy each new release and assume you’ll find a few songs to enjoy. He has long past the heyday of the late 80’s, but it seems that each album has at least one gem – and Straight Outta Lynwood had a bunch like White & Nerdy, which is one of those great songs that makes you forget that there is an original. Alpocalypse is a solid effort and more consistent than most of his stuff from the last two decades, yet it lacks a real scorcher. Songs like Craigslist and CNR are Weird Al originals and probably the best stuff. CNR is a hoot, as it is about Charles Nelson Reilly – but done in a way that is reminiscent of the internet fascination in Chuck Norris. And Craigslist is a great Doors-meets-Zappa parody of the online market. The rest – parodies of Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, B.O.B., T.I. and others – are solid songs. But in terms of parody, the ever-present polka song, Polka-Face, serves things up fast and funny from Kid Cudi to Ke$ha and more. Overall a solid effort, if not his best.
  • Joss Stone – LP1 (2011, Blues-Pop): I enjoyed Joss Stone on Jeff Beck’s Emotion and Commotion, and decided to give the bluesy pop singer a chance. Apparently Stone is trying to break out of the ‘Janis-alike’ niche and carve out a pop singer image for herself. Sadly the results make for an uneven effort, despite the efforts of former Eurythmics co-leader Dave Stewart at the helm. There is no sense of consistency or purpose – these are just a bunch of songs by someone unclear if they want to be a diva or a club singer, and as a result sound more like a parody of both. My family couldn’t stand this one – they called Stone a ‘screech hawk’, and would never listen to more than a few songs. I managed the whole thing a couple of times just to be sure … and then removed it from my iPod forever.
  • Panic! at the Disco – Vices & Virtues (2011, Rock) – Panic! at the Disco had a huge splash with their debut in 2005, but it was critically panned as just yet another wannabe Emo group interchangeable with stuff like Fallout Boy and so on. (I still get them confused). For their follow-up in 2008 they dropped the ! and attempted a more serious recording … with results that got a bit more critical praise but were much less fun for fans. Now only the two founding members remain (neither of whom were primary songwriters) as they add the ! back to their name and release a set of songs much closer to their origins. The result is a more mature version of the original recording that also borrows elements from everything they have done in the several years since their debut. At times that results in music better than anything they have done in the past, but too often it is a bit of a confused mess that doesn’t know what it wants to be other than popular, reminding me of Avril Lavigne being a married late 20’s mother still trying to sing 16-year old teen angst songs. As my kids said ‘we wish we had MOG when this came out so we could have saved the iTunes gift card for something better’.
  • Radiohead – The King of Limbs (2011, Rock) – Remember when Radiohead was cool back in the 90’s with songs like Creep and High & Dry? Or when they were cutting edge by giving away their album for free online? Apparently those guys took their own press too seriously and decided that they were serious art music … or something. There has to be an explanation for this dreary set of same-sounding songs. With that intro you might wonder why this album is in the middle of my review list rather than the bottom – and it is basically because the ‘one trick pony’ that Radiohead rides for this entire set is not too bad. It is uninspired and uninspiring to be sure, but there is a solid quality and craftmanship to the entire production that is at least admirable.
  • Gorillaz – The Fall (2011, Rock) – The big news is that this is the first major release to be created entirely on an iPad. Yay. How nice. Unfortunately the story pretty much begins and ends there – there are a bunch of grooves with some light structures laid on top and some singing. None of it feels finished or memorable, though the grooves are decent when listening. Well … that is true for a few songs, by which time the sameness of each track takes over and you switch to something else. Calling this ‘The Fall’ is appropriate, as it seems like they would have been better off putting more work into it and releasing a finished product in ‘the fall’.
  • Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011, Pop) – It might seem like I have a thing against Lady Gaga, but as a pop star her first album had a load of catchy songs that deserved their hit status. My issue is that she represents everything wrong with the music industry – as exemplified by the over-the-top campaign before this record launched. If you didn’t get this for $0.99 on Amazon during the release week … I’m sorry, unless that means you didn’t buy it at all. Most anyone who turns on the radio has heard the title song – which is a blatant Madonna rip-off … and the best song on the record. There are a few other catchy songs, but nothing that approaches the high-quality pop onslaught expected based on ‘The Fame Monster’. The thought was that ‘THE MESSAGE’ would be the big draw – but it really doesn’t pervade the album, instead just appearing on a few songs, with everything else easily dismissed as what my kids call ‘GPT’ (generic pop trash). There is a reason that the sales were massive and then took a historic nose-dive – this album is mediocre at best.

That is all for this time – next time I will be looking at recent jazz releases, and once again there are some solid releases and some underachievers. Until then, let me know what you think about these and other recordings!

Categories: Music Diary, Reviews


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