Taylor Swift - Fearless - album review

You know, I pretty much had my mind made up when I picked up the latest release by Taylor Swift titled Fearless . It’s easy for anyone to categorize Swift as an over-glamorized cross-over princess, hyped up and marketed by the big corporate machine. In fact, her record label is even called “Big Machine”. heh. And yes, she’s only nineteen and her vocals on the album are auto-tuned to death. So, as you can see there’s a lot going against her at least on the surface. But interestingly enough, it turned out that I really enjoyed listening to her album these last few weeks. Forget for a minute that the corporate big-wigs are running the show and that her heavily processed vocals make her sound like all the other female pop acts on the charts. Even with all that, there still remains some credibility since she writes her own songs, plays guitar (and you know how I have a soft spot for girls with guitars!!) and is even a co-producer on her latest live jasmin album.

I do have to mention though that her lyrics are filled with cliches and “young love” angst that sort of limits the scope a bit on these songs but obviously they connect with millions of teenaged girls across the U.S. looking at her incredible sales figures in 2008. Having said all that, the girl knows how to write a big hook. The big choruses and the sing-a-long simplicity in her songs sink right into your skull and remain there for days on end. The whole album is pleasant to listen to with no obvious clunkers to mar the experience. Standouts include - “Hey Stephen”, “Fearless”, “Forever & Always” and “the Best Day”.

Lastly, if I did have to nitpick, I would have left things a bit more open-ended in the song “Love Story” instead of tacking on the happy ending in the last chorus. It feels a bit hokey especially since the tragic love stories “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Scarlet Letter” are referenced in the song. But it’s a moot point I suppose since the song is a number one hit.

Chicago - Stone of Sisyphus

Kudos to Rhino Records and Chicago for finally getting Stone of Sisyphus (XXXII) out to the fans after 15 years in limbo. Back in 1994, Warners/Reprise opted not to release the record stating that it wasn’t marketable at the time. and like most unreleased albums by major artists, the legend surrounding Stone of Sisyphus grew from that point on. Over the years fans clamored for its release, believing it to be a creative milestone for the Jasminlive group. ultimately the album’s backstory overshadowed the actual content. Listening to it now after all these years, Stone of Sisyphus sounds dated and a bit weak from a commercial standpoint. one can see Warners/Reprise’s side of the argument especially with subpar material like “Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed” which features some awful rapping and forgettable ballads like “Let’s Take a Lifetime” and “Here With Me”.

Also unique to this record is producer Peter Wolf. Wolf’s signature sound is all over this record. Wolf’s recognizable synth patches, mechanical drum & percussion programming and overly compressed sound made Chicago sound more like Starship, Go West or Wang Chung (Wolf’s other productions). overall, the album is a mix of weak material with a few good ones sprinkled here and there. the title track “Stone of Sisyphus” is a strong rocker but again, it sounds more like Starship than Chicago. “Bigger than Elvis” is a nice pretty ballad that was written for Jason Scheff’s dad. ironically the song is ruined by Scheff’s screeching vocals. “The Pull” has a great verse and chorus but unfortunately the awkward bridge in the middle brings the song to a grinding halt. “Plaid” is probably my favorite off the album. the song features a great groove and a fantastic instrumental break. if they just had a couple more like “Plaid” the album would have been so much better.

All the negatives aside, it’s great to see an album like this finally get officially released. not a lot of albums get a second chance like this. Stone of Sisyphus isn’t the long lost masterpiece that legend would have you believe but viewing it as a snapshot of the early nineties version of the group Chicago, it’s a nice document to have.

Michael Gungor - Ancient Skies

Ancient Skies by the Michael Gungor Band has an interesting history. The bulk of the album was initially released last year under the title “All I Need Is Here” but apparently ran into some distribution issues. I’m not totally sure what happened but my guess is that the independent label that was handling the album failed to make the CD widely available. I was fortunate enough to get ahold of a copy last year and was very pleased with what Michael Gungor and company had put together. Thankfully the folks over at Brash Music recognized the quality of the album and have rescued it from obscurity.

To add value to the re-release, two songs (”Spotless” and “Heaven’s Song”) have been replaced with three new tracks - “You are the Light”, “Say So” and “White Man”. With a new album cover and title, Gungor’s album is now ready for mass consumption!! Ancient Skiesdefinitely deserves some attention. The songs and the performances are top-notched, full of big choruses and intricate arrangements. Be sure to listen to these songs with some high-end headphones to catch all the subtle instrumental details Gungor slips into these songs. If I do have to nitpick though, I’d have to call attention to the recording quality of the Live Sex Chat record.

Michael Gungor’s previous solo album, Bigger Than My Imagination was recorded beautifully with Israel Houghton at a real recording studio. Sonically Ancient Skies is a step down with it’s overly processed Pro-Tool-ed sound. And with the drums sounding like muffled cardboard boxes, my guess is that the recordings took place at a project studio or maybe even Gungor’s garage. Whatever the case may be, the overall sound quality is the limiting factor on this album. The songs are great but everytime I listen to them, I keep on wishing that they were recorded with Houghton in a nice sounding, high-end studio. But I suppose in this day and age, big recording budgets are becoming quite rare especially in the P&W genre. I would give this album an “A” but I have to take points off for how heavily Pro-tool-ed it sounds. And don’t get me started on Gungor’s use of auto-tune here. The tell-tale signs are evident at various places on the album and it just gets on my nerves. But fortunately, the songs overshadow those technical flaws and are still worth seeking out. My personal favorites include: “Ancient Skies”, “Glory is Here”, “Say So”, “Grace for Me” and “Fly”.

Todd Rundgren - Arena Promo - Cooking Vinyl

Well, it looks like Cooking Vinyl is on the ball in terms of promoting the upcoming release of Todd Rundgren’s latest album,Arena. After recently announcing that they’ll be releasing the CD over in the U.K., they now have promo copies ready to be sent out to radio stations and the press. Pretty impressive. Check out some photos of the new promo CDs.

It’s definitely great to see that the U.K. record label is excited about Rundgren’s new album. U.K. fans can even pre-order the CD right on their chaturbaterooms.com website. But here on the other side of the Atlantic, there hasn’t been any noticeable activity from U.S. record label - HiFi Recordings. Well, actually, that’s not TOTALLY true. The lawyers representing the record company recently banned Todd fans from trading all Rundgren related live recordings on the popular online website - Dime-a-Dozen. For some odd reason, they believe that trading fan-made live recordings will negatively affect the sales of official studio releases. Obviously they’ve been mis-informed.

But other than that, we haven’t seen any type of promotion from the record label as of yet. And it’s less than a month away from the U.S. release date!! Thankfully Rundgren has a great network of fans online where the latest info can still be disseminated in a timely and efficient manner. and that definitely helps when HiFi Recordings won’t step up to the plate. …well, .. they still have some time left to turn it around… Let’s get the promotion/marketing team up and running, HiFi!! Let’s see some action! and while I’ve got your ear, how about showing the fans a bit more respect?

Martha and the Muffins - Danseparc

Long time fans of Toronto-based band Martha and the Muffins are probably rejoicing over the reissue of the group’s 1983 album,Danseparc which comes out August 4th after years of being out of print. Newly remastered by producer/engineer Peter J. Moore (Cowboy Junkies), the Cherry Red reissue features three bonus tracks including the 12″ Dance mix of “Danseparc (Every Day It’s Tomorrow)” and a B-side track “These Dangerous Machines”. But Martha and the Muffins fans have even more to rejoice about. The group recently finished recording a brand new album with grammy-award winning producer David Botrill titled “Delicate” which is scheduled for release toward the end of 2008.

I recently had the chance to listen to the remastered version of Danseparc and I have to say that the album still sounds fresh and inventive to this day. Early eighties recordings tend to sound dated with the heavy use of synths and drum machines that were in fashion at the time but producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan) and the group wisely chose to minimize the use of those synth patches of the day and kept things more organic. Most of the songs have a quirky edge to them that places the group’s sound somewhere near the Talking Heads/the B-52s realm. My personal favorite off the album is “World Without Borders” which features a strong melodic bridge that reminds me of XTC or even Roxy Music.

I love the fact that the group had the freedom to experiment on this album. A lot of bands on the charts today seem to cut songs out of the same mold. But Martha and the Muffins made an effort to explore new and different sounds. Singer Martha Johnson even went as far as to play Mark Gane’s guitar upside-down in order to find alternative chords to play. Their willingness to take risks while recording makes Danseparc an absolute joy to listen to. Gane’s inventive guitar playing keep things lively and interesting throughout the album. plus the percussion and drum work are top notch. The David Byrne-esque track “Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing” features a nice little syncopated drum fill right before one of the choruses that is pure genius in my book, especially for a song done in the early eighties. Other highlights on the album include: “Walking into Walls”, “Danseparc (Every Day It’s Tomorrow)” and “What People Do for Fun”.

Lincoln Brewster - Today is the Day

It’s hard NOT to like Lincoln Brewster. He seems like a down to earth, all around nice guy. It’s interesting to note that even though he’s got the chops to be in the upper echelon of the Guitar Rock Gods, Brewster chose a more low-key, more humble approach to his musical career. Now that’s pretty impressive in an industry where vanity and narcissism run rampant. Instead of being a celebrated “guitar hero” for the masses, Brewster seems content simply being a worship leader for Bayside Church near Sacramento, California. Of course he’s still known to many for his guitar skills, but through it all Brewster admirably tries to keep the focus solely on God.

Same goes for his latest album, Today Is the Day , where he keeps things pretty restrained to keep the focus on the songs and not his amazing guitar abilities. Unfortunately, Brewster plays it a bit TOO safe which makes for a dull listen. He doesn’t cover much new ground here and stays well within the tried and true “Lincoln Brewster formula”. the album is just a bit too “cookie cutter” for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad but for once, I’d love to see Brewster simply *rock out* and not be so self-conscious about his God-given abilities.

We get a glimpse of this on the last song “Let Your Glory Shine”. For some reason he lets his guard down on this song and plays some of the *rawest* guitar licks he’s ever done on any of his albums. This particular track is also unique in the fact that he put aside his usual Fender Strat to utilize the fatter sounds of those humbucker pickups on a Gibson guitar. His playing is upfront and passionate and the upbeat guitar break in the middle section is just *through the roof*!!! It’s too bad he lets loose on only one song. It’s just too little, too late.

Katy Perry - One of the Boys

Katy Perry’s new album One of the Boys has got to be this summer’s biggest guilty pleasure. Just forget about artistic integrity for a moment, shut off your brain and let your ears enjoy some sonic candy for a while. The music off of “One of the Boys” is the audio equivalent of fast food - quick and easy to enjoy. and just like fast food, it’s not something I’d want to consume over and over again on a regular basis. But for now, it’s a fun listen.

As you’ve probably heard, Katy Perry started out in the contemporary Christian genre under the name Katy Hudson. Her 2001 album didn’t go anywhere and after her record label closed up shop, Katy had to re-group and figure out what to do next. And if Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” was still around, she’d say at this point that Katy went off and sold herself to the devil. And that’s because the “Katy Perry” image is an absolute “180″ from her days as a Christian artist. One can only wonder now if “Katy Perry” is simply a made up corporate marketing scheme to sell records or a truthful maturation of lil’ “Katy Hudson”.

If I had to guess, I’d lean toward the “marketing” aspect but like I said earlier, forget all about integrity here and just enjoy the music. Her team of producers, including Glen Ballard, Butch Walker and Greg Wells, must have some sort of specialized Pro Tools plug-in to help create radio-ready songs because this album is bursting with ready-made hits. Imagine them dialing in the “Alanis Morissette” setting for songs like “Thinking of You” and switching to the overused “Avril Lavigne” setting for the songs like “One of the Boys” and so on. It’s not the most original or creative by any means but producing “cookie-cutter” pop-rock can definitely help you land a spot on corporate radio rotation. And that seems to be the basic goal here: getting on the radio and selling millions of units. Hey, you can blame the girl for wanting to be successful. The hard part will be sustaining a music career beyond the initial 15-minutes.

Short takes for January

I was intending to finish off 2008 with a bunch of CD reviews here on retroblog but time just wasn’t on my side. I managed a “short takes” entry last month that included brief reviews for Charlie Haden, Brad Paisley and Jenny Lewis. And now I have a few more leftovers from 2008 for today’s “short takes” entry.

Girl Talk - Feed the Animals

This was probably my favorite album of 2008. Over the years, I’ve heard a ton of mashups and a lot of the time the results ended up a little grating and harsh on the ears. But here, Gregg Gillis manages to make mashups a legitimate art form with a lot of creativity, musicality and a whole lot of fun. It’s an amazing accomplishment and the disc keeps me coming back for more. the CD is a *must have* in my book!

Yo Yo Ma - Songs of Joy & Peace

The most well known Cellist in the world attempts to bridge the classical world with pop in this holiday CD. It’s pleasant listening but a bit bland and non-descript at times. It’s just another one of those CDs you put on in the background and not pay a whole lot of attention to. The big names that are along for the ride on this album include Diana Krall, Alison Krauss, Chris Botti, Dave Brubeck and James Taylor.

James taylor - Covers

Here we find another legendary artist on autopilot. Taylor is simply “phoning it in” with an album full of unremarkable covers. The album works well as background music at the local coffee shop but it really doesn’t stand up on its own. I have to say that Taylor’s voice sounds great though after all these years but I’d much rather hear him sing new original music than stuff like “On Broadway” or “Hound Dog”.

Almost Alice – CD review

It’s pretty much expected nowadays to have a tie-in pop album of some sort following the release of a major motion picture. I suppose it’s one of those on-going synergisticrelationships between the music and film industries. Unfortunately, sometimes, the product ends up being no more than an afterthought where the record label simply cobbles together unrelated leftovers by artists currently on their roster. But thankfully, Disney put some thought and effort behind the new album Almost Alice which is a collection of songs inspired by Tim Burton’s latest film “Alice in Wonderland”.

For Almost Alice, Disney commissioned a select group of artists and bands to come up with original material related to the story. What could have been a meandering mish-mash of styles and perspectives, actually turned out to be a pretty engaging and tuneful set of songs. Avril Lavigne kicks off the set with a catchy ditty titled (what else?) “Alice”. Tokio Hotel, 3OH!3, Franz Ferdinand and All-American Rejects also contributed strong material in this set.

With a slant toward the radio-friendly teen market, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Robert Smith (of the Cure) mixed in among the younger groups. Smith does a great rendition of “Very Good Advice” (from the 1951 animated movie). Like most various artist discs, we do end up with a few duds (Grace Potter’s carbon copy of “White Rabbit”, for instance) but all in all it’s a pretty enjoyable album.

Jimi Jamison - Crossroads Moment

The memorable voice behind big 80’s hits like “High on You”, “The Search is Over” and “Burning Heart” is back with a new album titled, Crossroads Moment . Jimi Jamison, best known for his stint as frontman for Survivor, is out on his own after leaving the group in 2006. The interesting thing about this project is that former Survivor keyboardist and songwriter - Jim Peterik is on hand as producer and main collaborator. So as you might imagine, the songs on the album sound a lot like Survivor.

In fact, the album sounds too much like mid-80’s Survivor right down to the pseudo-metal guitar sounds and Peterik’s signature keyboard patches. I’m not sure if it was their intention but the limited sound palette that they utilized on the album unfortunately made listening through the whole album a bit monotonous. After listening to the same guitar/bass/drums/piano arrangements over and over again, you just wish for some new sound elements to appear but they never come. It’s too bad because there are some nice gems on the album that could have been HUGE hits back in the day. Ballads like “As Is” and “Lost” sound like they could have come straight out of Survivor’s hey-day back in 1986. “Crossroads Moment” and “That’s Why I Sing” are two other well written songs found on the album.

The downfall of the record are some real cheesy moments including the “We are the World” for 80’s rockers anthem titled “When Rock was King”. It’s an absolute cringe-fest with lame lyrics sung earnestly by a bunch of long-lost singers including Dave Bickler, Mickey Thomas and Mike Reno. You simply can not keep yourself from laughing whenever this song comes on. It’s unintentionally hilarious. I feel bad to see the cheese factor come into play here since I like Jimi Jamison and Jim Peterik. When the songwriting and the performances come together, the magic is still there. If they could only dial down the cheese, things would be so much better.