California-based singer/songwriter Natasha Remi sounds so beautiful singing in the “Rain.” In this poignant single, Remi captures the piano balladry of Coldplay from a female perspective. Remi’s narrative is straightforward heartache, absent of pretension or attempts at cleverness. It all sounds pretty, especially the fragile soulfulness of Remi’s vocals. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Remi displays a higher range of musical ability than her pop peers. There is real talent here and not an empty vessel hidden beneath production sheen.
The piano playing is particularly good, capturing a crestfallen feel with some dynamic mood shifts. “Too many tears I have shed,” Remi laments. This is midnight sorrow with commercial appeal. Remi unveils tremendous potential, a young artist who is certainly worth looking out for. “Rain” is moving and bittersweet.
The self-titled, five-song debut EP from Los Angeles rockers, The Jacks, renews faith that rock ‘n’ roll is indeed still alive and kicking. The four-piece combo (who co-wrote the entire EP) is more than a band – they are best friends who cut their musical teeth on the L.A. music scene. Jonny Stanback (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), Tom Hunter (vocals/lead guitar), Scott Stone (vocals/bass) and Josh Roossin (drums/percussion) create a unique sound on their new release with catchy hooks and upbeat grooves. Influenced by such bands as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who, Oasis, Cage The Elephant, and The Black Keys, the California collective also draws inspiration from the 1960s and 70s Southern Rock era. Producer Matt Wallace (Faith No More, Maroon 5, Blackberry Smoke) sums them up perfectly: “If The Strokes, Cage The Elephant and The Stones had an equally talented, but more handsome baby, it would be named The Jacks!”
Opening with the high energy, drum/guitar-driven “Who Are You” and “Are You Looking For Love,” there’s no mistaking that the intent on this record is pure rock ‘n’ roll fun. They simply ooze The Black Keys on the debut single, “Walk Away,” a hooky, bouncy dance-fest that will get anyone moving. “Hello My Friend” has clear Oasis “Wonderwall” echoes while the final cut, “Understand,” has brief hints of Coldplay but more definitive leanings toward Jack White.
The Jacks were the first client signed to newly formed EDGEOUT Records/UMe, which speaks volumes for the label’s confidence in the band’s success. “We’re trying to push the boundaries of the rock ‘n’ roll genre by incorporating modern elements, but still keeping the core structure of a four-piece band.” says frontman Stanback. By the sound of this short EP, they are doing just that. All five of these songs will get you moving and truly were meant to be played loud and live. There is great promise here and I look forward to future full albums from this tight, talented band.
There’s a silly little scene in the middle of the first Twilight movie where the vampires are playing baseball, in the woods, during a thunderstorm. It would be a cheesy, throwaway scene were it not accompanied by Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole.”
The song’s got a sexy guitar riff, falsetto vocals, and a white hot rhythm so memorable that it stays with me long after the movie ends. It’s so good, in fact, that not even the fact that it’s in a Twilight movie detracts from its sheer awesome-ness.
When they’re not soundtracking teen paranormal romances (a Muse song appears in three of the five films), they’re filling up arenas with a sound much bigger than the sum of their parts. Three guys from England make a mega-sound that rivals their electricity-draining light show for brilliance.
Sometimes the biggest boom comes not from the final firework, but from the one that catches you off guard. For those who weren’t already poised with their eyes on the stage in anticipation, the firecracker that jolted the early birds away from the beer stands and bathrooms goes by the name of Dead Sara.
Dead Sara’s Emily Armstrong
Led by the effortlessly sexy Emily Armstrong — a woman who can belt out a heart wrenching ballad like Janis Joplin and growl and scream like Kurt Cobain without cracking or losing pitch — Dead Sara are the best ’90s band to come out of the 21st century. Their set is met with cheers, tears, and chants by fans who already discovered them this past summer on the Warped Tour, or opening up tours for The Offspring or The Used.
Their too short time on the big Amway Arena stage was split between the softer melodies that showcased Armstrong’s bleeding heart vocals (“Sorry For It All,” “Dear Love”), and the raging numbers that find the band (Siouxsie Medley on guitar, Sean Friday on drums, and Chris Null on bass) owning the room in a way few opening bands can ever hope to achieve. It’s the latter, explosive rock songs like “Lemon Scent,” “Test on My Patience,” and show closing “Weatherman” that set my heart to racing and I would have happily watched another hour, or two, or ten, of this band — and of the magnetic Armstrong. If you see the Muse tour, and you arrive late, you WILL be wondering what the hell everyone is talking about.
…Still, I wasn’t exactly heading for the door when the headliners threw their ear-shattering beauty our way. Even though some of their newer material, off of the electronic Broadway-esque (and downright dance-y, at times) The 2nd Law, doesn’t stimulate the senses quite as much as the post-grunge prog-rock they’re known for, the men of Muse still know how to turn the dial up on live performance.
Matt Bellamy’s signature MB-1 guitar
Spaceship-like stage decor, video screens, smoke machines, and lasers, that frontman Matt Bellamy can hold in the palm of his hand and refract out into the audience, color the spectacle that would otherwise be a rock concert. Whether wielding a prism of light or falling to his knees to crotch shot the fans, Bellamy has blossomed into a charismatic showman who works the crowd as effectively as he works his guitar. Even his guitar is entertaining! His signature MB-1, which features a sustainer circuit and a X/Y midi controller pad that not only can be rubbed to produce digital audio effects, but which changes colors as well, reveals itself early on during an appropriately mind crushing “Supermassive Black Hole.”
The piano balladry that shows off Muse’s Queen influence, like “United States of Eurasia,” sent many fans ducking out for a beer — which is a shame, because those folks missed an epic climax that found Bellamy stomping and jumping atop the piano keys. The subtlety of the slower songs (“Explorers,” “Madness”), as beautiful as they were, got eclipsed by the more epic explosions of “Time is Running Out” and “Stockholm Syndrome,” and especially by the surprise instrumental dubstep “The 2nd Law Unsustainable,” whose light show may have caused a seizure or two.
A dark room full of lit cell phones greeted the band for a two song encore of an old hit “Starlight” and the piano-driven 2012 Olympics them song “Survival.” Few bands can reach into such an epic stratosphere as Muse without crossing into the realm of ridiculous, but these guys manage it well. They fall in line with the likes of Queen, Radiohead, and U2 as bands willing to go over the top, at all costs.
There are no genre bins for bands to fit into anymore. Modern day musicians are all over the musical map, free to splash around in the hypno-pools of trance before diving into the crystalline waters of indie pop on their way to the moonlit lakes of R&B, where they may decide to take a quick detour into the vast oceans of radio-ready rock ‘n’ roll. It’s good for the artists’ palate, and it means unending variety for the listeners, but at what cost? If a band changes its style every other song, does it to be recognizable, but it is unrecognizable, then is it more like a cover band than a strong cohesive unit that’s able to inspire legions of fans who hang on every note?
Such are the questions that The 1975’s Sex EP arouse. After five songs (song five is a secret track at the tail end of track four), the band still feels like a mystery. Not as in mysterious, but as in who the hell IS this band??!
The dreamy electronic reverb of “Undo” is pleasing at first, but soon the R&B flavors start to sound a little too boy band-esque, and that’s just something that can’t be unheard; it tarnishes the song. “Sex,” the most solid, future-hit song on here sounds a lot like Bloc Party and has an infectious chorus of “She’s got a boyfriend now” that remains the most memorable moment of the EP even after repeat listens.
Hot on its trail is “You,” an epic rock ballad in the tradition of U2 or Coldplay that has the most potential in terms of longevity. With its poignant lyrics about a breakup, and a heartbreaking guitar riff that repeats itself until it’s embedded in your chest, “You” is the song that makes the band. If Manchester’s The 1975 decide to peel off their masks and commit to one style, let’s hope that it’s this one. Otherwise, they may just be another band with a great song in a movie trailer or a car commercial that you never learn the name of.
With their debut album, An Awesome Wave, just released in the U.S. to great reviews, and the 2012 Mercury Prize nomination for Album of the Year, the Leeds, UK band, Alt-J, is certainly riding an awesome wave of and success selling out small venues across the U.S.
As in their previous NYC appearance at the Mercury Lounge earlier this summer, their Bowery Ballroom concert was a sold-out show, and I was lucky enough to have a ticket. Why do I consider myself lucky, and for those still unfamiliar with Alt-J, what is it about this band that in such a short time has pulled in so many listeners under their musical rip tide?
Alt-J with backing chorus
Alt-J’s music has been called by a number of critics as genre-defying or unclassifiable because, like their video for “Mathilda”, the Alt-J sound is a continuous morphing of different styles — no two people, from casual listeners to formally educated musicians, can give a consistent answer of what they sound like.
-bm Yes, there are hints of Radiohead, but without the over-reaching cinematic grandeur. And there is a bit of Coldplay’s etherealness, without Chris Martin’s occasional whiny intonations. Still, it’s more than just a mash of both bands; you just have to listen to Alt-J. To best describe it, other than me banging your head against a wall until you do, I’ll have to do my best to give some notion of what you may find:
• A harmonic structure that is, as the band admits in their lyrics to “Intro,” a nod to the canon. Quite a few of their vocal harmonies draw heavily from 17th and 18th century musical canons.
• Melodies that sometimes seem like a modern twist on English folk tunes sung over a refined electronic indie-pop sound.
Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton
• Trip-hop rhythms from the highly talented drummer/percussionist, Thom Green, laced with heavily distorted synth bass lines and trippy synth chords by Gus Unger-Hamilton, and entrancing guitar riffs from Gwilim Swainbury.
• Joe Newman’s lead vocals, which have a somewhat tinny, raspy, and breathy intonation. When combined with his phrasing in songs like “Tesselate,” Joe exudes an amazingly seductive vibe (possibly explaining why there is a girl-swoon factor at these concerts).
• Smart and thoughtful lyrics with literary and historical themes that are both passionately heroic and intimate at the same time. “Something Good” seems reminiscent of Hemingway’s love for bullfighting in The Sun Also Rises amid the backdrop of a passionately dysfunctional romance in 1920’s Spain, and “Taro” recalls the love between war photographers, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.
JBM’s Jesse Merchant
Now to the event, which started very late with JBM going onstage at 10pm. JBM (the initials for lead singer/songwriter, Jessie Merchant), delivered a moving 45 minute set of melancholic songs and deep, personal reflections from his current album, Stray Ashes. Whether singing with a guitar center-stage, or behind an electric piano, JBM was well received, and showing that he is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist that can easily headline his own show.
The Alt-J set would start to an excited crowd shortly after 11pm when a neon white triangle, “Î”” (or the Apple computer keyboard symbol generated by pressing “Alt-J” keys) flickered on in the back of the stage, and an unassuming, rather nerdy-looking foursome walked up stage left to take their places.
The band started with “Intro” and then brought a female chorus out for a great rendition of the carol-like acapapella, “She, She, She” (aka: “Interlude #1” on the album). The arrangement was elevated on a grander scale with altos and sopranos to complement Joe’s tenor and Gus’s baritone voices. The set would continue on for 70 minutes with all songs from the debut album, including “Tesselate,” “Ms,” “Mathilda,” “Breezeblocks,” and their first U.S. single, “Fitzpleasure.”
Alt-J’s Joe Newman (vocals/guitar)
The audience, clearly fans, and engaged, seemed a little awkward in how to react, and limited their cheering, not because they didn’t like the music, but because there was more attentiveness to actually listening to the band more than their own voice in a sing-along. In a surprising turn, during “Dissolve Me,” the most upbeat song in their set, the quiet break two-thirds into the song starts with a whisper and builds up with emotionally powerful vocal harmonies. I could hear some of the audience actually sing along with the vocal crescendo – and it sounded great! The emotional energy at that moment made my eyes well up with tears before the uplifting keyboard riff and vocal interchanges between Joe and Gus ended the song.
Alt-J’s Gwilym Sainsbury and Thom Green
“Bloodflood” was the last song in the set, and brought the chorus back on stage for backing vocals that are similarly heard on the album. Joe’s vocal phrasing in the way he sang, “breathe in… exhale,” has one instinctively breathing with him. The effect is hypnotic and sensual. The Bowery Ballroom’s acoustics and sound engineers did a great job to ensure that such vocal nuances were easily audible, especially when so many venues tend to drown out vocals on the mixing board.
Alt-J returned for the encore and performed the song “Taro.” They were joined by a cellist and violinist who wonderfully enhanced the song’s emotive power to the very last note. It was an equally noteworthy end to a fantastic concert.
Alt-J will be touring the U.S. through the end of October before moving on to Europe, but I can guarantee that this band will be back. And like a strong wave during high tide, with each crash ashore, they’ll be pulling in those waiting on along the shore when the waters roll back to sea.
Stone Pony Summerstage, Asbury Park, NJ • July 22, 2012
In promotion of their second album Cabin by the Sea, SoCal’s reggae-rock/hip-hop/alternative band The Dirty Heads hit The Stone Pony Summer Stage by the shore in Asbury Park, NJ. Without sounding too conceited, it’s THE best place to see them in the Northeast. It’s away from where Snookie, The Situation, and the rest of the Jersey Shore trash cast lay their binge-drinking and romping grounds. And historically, it’s where great musicians like Bruce Springsteen first gave us some of the best rock classics in the last 40 years.
DH fans crowdsurfing
There, in just under one hour, the Dirty Heads ripped through 14 songs from Cabin by the Sea and the debut album Any Port in the Storm (which had an interim Special Edition of another nine songs that could have been an album on their own). The Dirty Heads (or DH) were the second of a three-act event which opened with Nashville alternative rock band Moon Taxi and headlined with the talented reggae/hip-hop musician and activist Matisyahu.
From the looks of the crowd, The Dirty Heads’ music appeals primarily to a younger generation of slackers and hipsters. And to the rest of us, it’s a bitch-slap memory of a time past when we were — or wanted to be — among them. The band stepped onstage at around 7:30pm, as the glare from a sunset washed over a crowd that mostly wore sunglasses and scorched the eyeballs of the unfortunates without them.
DH opened with “Hipster” and “Taint,” a crass but humorously figurative reference to being in an uncompromising position with the media and the music industry. Vocals frontman, Jared Watson (aka: “Dirty J”), in a scraggly beard and a beach shirt that make him look like a castaway, immediately worked the crowd. The vocal and rap interplay with Dustin “Duddy B” Bushnell was sharp and effortless. The backing rhythms were tight, held together so well thanks to drummer Matt Ochoa.
Dustin “Duddy B” Bushnell
The DH setlist was well-chosen to transition between mellow and charged. “Neighborhood,” a paean to their home of Huntington Beach, California, really got the crowd going as they packed together, waving their hands in unison. “Stand Tall” and “Your Love” then toned down the energy to chill with a more traditionally reggae style. Then with “Check That Level,” yes, the crowd heard it in the audio and in the air, it was time to start the crowdsurfing and beach ball throwing. That went on through their next three songs, “Mongo Push,” “Best of Us,” and “Spread Too Thin.” After playing the Billboard chart-topper “Lay Me Down,” event headliner Matisyahu joined DH onstage to perform their collaboration on the Cabin by the Sea track, “Dance All Night.” A very short pause led into a one-song encore, “Hip Hop Misfits,” to finish the set.
Jared “Dirty J” Watson
It’s no coincidence if you listen to The Dirty Heads and think somewhere between Sublime and Beastie Boys. Their songs break into two parts over reggae-rock guitar licks and hip-hop rhythms — melodies that mimic Bradley Nowell, and rap vocals similar to Mike D. The Dirty Heads don’t deny it at all, and instead embrace the derivative styles. Midway through their set, Dirty J proclaimed, “We lost Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys this year. If it was not for the Beastie Boys, we would not be a band and we would not sound anything like the way we do.” And with that Dirty J incited the hyped-up crowd to yell “MCA” (Yauch’s stage name) during their next song “Believe,” the Dirty Heads’ laundry list of musical inspirations, Beastie Boys and Sublime included among others. Both band and crowd chanting “MCA!” felt like a posthumous celebration of the late rapper.
Dirty Heads’ Jon Olazabal
Their admiration for these bands is genuine and it clearly shows in their music. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with derivative music as long as it’s acknowledged and somehow evolves with a personal touch. After all, Huntington Beach is only a stone’s throw to Long Beach (home of Sublime) and “Lay Me Down” was recorded with Rome Ramirez (who joined Bud Gaugh as Sublime with Rome a couple of years ago).
With such a strong derivative identity, you won’t hear much musical diversity in their songs. Almost all their songs are a jam sandwich of interchanging reggae-rock and rap interplay. Even their covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” are a re-interpretation in The Dirty Heads’ style. But, it’s a style that works, and it’s why they maintain a decent fanbase. Plus these road-warriors on their long and hot summer tour are highly entertaining.
Summer is clearly the best time to catch The Dirty Heads. If you have the opportunity, see them anywhere outdoors, preferably by a beachfront where you can taste the ocean salt in the air and hear the crashing of waves in-between songs. Check them out, gaze into the sun, down a Red Stripe, crowdsurf safely, and soak it all in.
with The Killers, Bob Seger, The Raconteurs, Kid Rock, Pixies and more
Citrus Bowl, Orlando, FL • November 12-13, 2011
Orlando called, and tens of thousands of music fans answered. NOT a small amount, considering the call was dialed by a first-time festival, but far fewer than promoter Festival Republic is used to.
Orlando fans answer The Call.
Festival Republic is the master marketer behind some of the gargantuan festivals in Europe, most notably Glastonbury (average attendance = 150,000). For their virigin foray onto American soil, they chose Orlando as the base for a two-day extravaganza that found The Killers, Kid Rock, and Bob Seger sharing top billing. If these bands sound a little less than impressive to you, you are not alone. No offense to any of them or the 75 or so other artists that rounded out the weekend, but none of these guys are popular enough to fill a football stadium. Who is, these days?!
Eugene Hutz, of Gogol Bordello
Had the main stage been out in the fields with the four smaller ones, the grounds may not have felt so sparse, and inter-stage mingling would have been more feasible. As it was, the long trek from inside the Citrus Bowl out to the farthest stage was a good 10-minute walk. Many fans just picked a stage and stayed put.
So, yes, there were logisitical problems with the way Orlando Calling was set up, but in terms of cleanliness, security, efficiency, sound quality, and even restroom offerings, the inaugural event ran as smooth as Frank Black’s head.
Saturday had the menu most appealing for the rock ‘n’ roll contingent, and so it was on that glorious 70° and sunny November day that I indulged. Gates opened at 11am and soon The Ettes were playing on the main stage, what may be the earliest show the late-night owls have ever played. The main stage gradually built up its calibre of bands as the day went on, puddle-jumping through genres as it went. The gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello gave way to the unobstrusive hip hop of crowd-drawing Kid Cudi. The Avett Brothers entertained, but lost many listeners to competing sets on the smaller stages by Iron & Wine and Pete Yorn.
The Avett Brothers
Even the locals-only stage — which hosted Kaleigh Baker, Andy Matchett and the Minks, and Less Than Jake — was jumping every time I passed by on my rounds. Stopping in to sample new sounds while waiting the hours between the bands that lured you out to begin with is what it’s all about, and the best discovery that I stumbled upon on this festival trip was Civil Twilight. A South African trio with the quiet epic grace of Radiohead and the commercial appeal of Coldplay, theirs was a set that found me parking it on the grass, grabbing a beer, and just absorbing.
Gavin Degraw, O.A.R., and The Roots all packed the second stage field as the evening drew close, but it was indie royalty Pixies that commandeered the main stage as the sun set on a perfect day. Playing their classic album Doolittle front to back, the band didn’t exactly have the same spark they had at the start of their reunion tour (which began in 2004!), nor did bassist Kim Deal remember if they had ever played Orlando before (they have), but chills were still induced upon hearing the opening chords of “Here Comes Your Man,” or vocalist/guitarist Frank Black’s cackle and howl during “Debaser.”
What every festival promoter needs to discover is that so long as you put one of Jack White’s bands on your bill, you’ll be guaranteed at least one hour of elevated magnificence. Back together after a three-year hiatus, The Raconteurs sent soaring their blues-infused rock jams — White improvising moment after moment of electric guitar prowess while co-frontman Brendan Benson kept pace as the more subtle base that keeps the sound grounded. A nearly ten-minute dive into “Blue Veins” was worth the price of admission by itself. Expecting The Killers to follow them up was asking too much, though the Vegas popstars ventured a good effort, with a big, colorful, confetti-filled set.
The future of Orlando Calling feels a bit uncertain, with a good amount of red ink marring an otherwise epic first year, but maybe if we all cross our fingers — not to mention promise to line up for tickets — the Festival Republic folks will bring it back and BIGGER for 2012.
“There are two generations in the audience tonight,” declared the youngest New Kid on the Block — who’s 38 these days — Joey McIntyre. “For some of you, it feels like 1989… for others, it feels just like 1999.”
Regardless of what class of boyband you graduated from, the New Kids on the Block/ Backstreet Boys mashup tour (NKOTBSB is the creative moniker they’ve become) is a time machine to unbridled teeny bopper adoration and, as expected, the ladies (mostly ladies) lined up like bachelorettes at a male revue to revel in it.
After a forgettable, barely-legal band of boys called Midnight Red opened the door to choreographed romantic dance pop, Glee‘s Matthew Morrison (who plays teacher Will Schuester) swung from tuxedo-ed class to watered-down hip hop and back again. The versatile singer/dancer is riding the fame wave of his superhit TV series all the way to these basketball arenas and seems to be loving every fortunate second of it.
With a full band, backup singers, and an odd dance break that gave nods to both Michael Jackson and Gene Kelly at the close of his set, the curly-haired Ken doll entertained like a Broadway pro who secretly harbors some Justin Timberlake ambitions. Much like the TV show, Morrison’s set bounced between bright, shiny patches of fun and moments of boredom… or maybe I’m just upset that Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t make a surprise appearance.
Despite whispered hopes that the Orlando date of this boyband extravaganza would bring N Sync out of retirement, the planets did not align to make that dream come true for the hopefuls — though Joey Fatone was spotted in the audience. The nine-membered NKOTBSB had to suffice and, really, I’m not sure that the Amway Center could have contained the extra flood of melted hearts and puddles of tears that those four extra boys would have inspired.
Hearts were breaking enough as the pair of record-breaking groups took turns in the spotlight, performing handfuls of hits before tagging the other group in to play, with just enough time for a costume change. The New Kids, whose reign peaked in 1989, wrapped their magic around the expected songs like “The Right Stuff,” “Step By Step” and a show-stopping “Please Don’t Go Girl.” In between, they let slip a few forgotten sugar cubes like “Games” and “Cover Girl,” which were augmented by resident rebel Donnie Wahlberg tearing off his tank top, revealing physical proof that he is definitely indeed Mark Wahlberg’s equally ripped brother.
New Kids on the Block
Backstreet Boys, whose domination of pop radio came a decade later in the late ’90s, belted out “I Want It That Way” and “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” but when they brought up four fans (well, three fans and Howie Dorough’s mom) to serenade during “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” plenty of hearts were cracking — as was evidenced by the lackluster applause for the women onstage.
“That was a really jealous applause,” joked Backstreet’s youngest, Nick Carter.
These separate medleys of hits were bite-sized nuggets of nostalgia, but it was when the groups collided to collaborate on the crowded stage that the concept for the tour came alive. Opening with “Single” and “The One” mashed-up with Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” closing with “Don’t Turn Out the Lights,” and encoring with rocked-up renditions of “Backstreet’s Back” and “Hangin’ Tough” — it was these overdosed moments of harmony that were a pop fan’s dream.
Another dream, a strange one, was the surprise appearance of Boys II Men, who showed up to perform “The End of the Road” and “I’ll Make Love to You,” inexplicably. It was beautiful and all, but you could almost hear the expressions of “Why Boys II Men?” throughout the room.
Boy band overload
Nostalgic pop concerts like this are to be had in small doses, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself. The show was so sweet, I’m still trying to scrub all of the sugar off of my teeth and skin.
The sixth studio album from the Massachusetts-founded band Guster contains some of the sweetest, most toothache-inducing pop music you’re likely to hear this year. Choirboy vocals (Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller alternate lead vocals), sing-a-long falsetto harmonies, thoughtful lyrics and impeccable arrangements (Joe Pisapia and Brian Rosenworcel round out the band) that draw on everything from synth pop to disco to Motown soul combine to make it one of the strongest of the band’s career.
The record gets off to a fantastic start with “Architects & Engineers” and the album’s sun-kissed first single “Do You Love Me?”, both of which build from casual strummers to full-blown pop songs. The latter incorporates everything from hand claps to church bells.
The bouncy, jangly “This Could All Be Yours” sounds like Graceland-era Paul Simon with a disco beat. “You come as Elvis Presley every Halloween / And dream of sing-a-longs the whole wide world will sing,” the band sings. There are several songs here that will make for fun sing-a-longs on long trips.
The relentless positivity and joyous bounce of “Bad, Bad World” is infectious. “There is love / There is peace in this world / So take it back / Say it’s not what you’d have thought / Grab a hold / Take these melodies / With your hands / Write a song to sing / Isn’t such a bad, bad world,” the song goes.
Elsewhere, the easy-going, piano and horn-enhanced “That’s No Way to Get to Heaven” would fit nicely into the canon of Tim or Neil Finn.
But things aren’t always quite so cheery or even quite what they seem under the band’s bright pop sheen.
A banjo adds a rustic touch to “Hercules.” It’s a weird little tune about “a simple love affair, dangerous and true.”
On “What You Call Love,” which features both a prominent ukulele and mariachi-style horns they offer: “Not everything is always just as it seems / What you call love is just urgency.”
The lyrics on the harmonica-tinged, disco-fied “This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart” conceal a hard-earned truth that even when you put hard work into a relationship, it can end painfully: “We’ve colored in the lines and followed all the signs / Fought a war till the war was over.”
“Jesus and Mary” talks about starting a war too. It’s not a song of praise but more about boredom with iconography of all sorts. Jesus also gets a shout out on “Stay With Me Jesus,” which pokes fun at those who believe the King of Kings is looking out for them to the exclusion of all others.
And on the set-closing synth-fest “Do What You Want,” the band proclaims “No one’s gonna care if we disappear” before the song fades away on a killer guitar line.
Actually I think a lot of folks might care if Guster disappeared after such a strong record. Though the recording process was reportedly a bit more labored than the finished product belies, this record is both easy and wonderful. Good luck trying to hit those high notes while you’re cruising down the highway. And good luck trying to get these songs out of your head.
In-between two No. 1 hits — the incandescent summer glow of B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You” and the romantic swooning of his own “Just the Way You Are” — Bruno Mars’s record label Elektra decided to toss a bone to his hungry new followers. Like Mars himself, this four-track EP arrived without a glimmer of hype. In fact, the average Joe cranking Mars’s heart-melting croon on “Nothin’ on You” in his car probably wasn’t aware that it existed. This is, after all, a snack, something to tide hardcore fans over until the feast is ready — a full-length album that hopes to continue Mars’ seemingly quick conquest of fickle teenage ears. That Mars’ sweet, soulful voice recalls that of the late Michael Jackson is partially responsible for his success.
Whether people are aware of it or not, Mars’s vocal resemblance to MJ plugs into a subconscious longing to hear the Gloved One again in the same way that Bush and the Offspring blasted into the stratosphere after their hero Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Mars’s history of impersonating Jackson as a kid is no surprise; even in adulthood, Mars shares the innocent, boyish caress of Jackson’s voice. This can be heard in the opening cut, “Somewhere in Brooklyn.” With its childlike electronics and lost-love lyrics, Mars manages to capture Jackson’s adolescent naiveté and grown-up loneliness in the same track. However, it should be clarified that Mars is no Jackson imitator. In fact, Mars is perhaps more eclectic than Jackson ever was. Nevertheless, the similarities cannot be denied. The dreamy “The Other Side” is aptly titled, a dreamy reflection on mortality that features spiraling, sparkling guitars à la Coldplay. Cee Lo Green lends bluesy depth as Mars ventures into darker territory.
By the third tune, “Count on Me,” it becomes obvious that Mars has no stylistic restrictions. Freeing himself from the R&B influences that characterize his most popular work thus far, “Count on Me” is an acoustic-pop entry that would snugly fit into Jason Mraz’s discography. Saving the best for last, “Talking to the Moon” sounds like MJ fronting Coldplay (or Coldplay covering MJ as Mars’ soaring falsetto is equal to Chris Martin’s), sobbing piano exploding into an exhilarating, life-affirming chorus. It conjures the kind of magic that pop music isn’t supposed to anymore.