September Album Reviews I

September 16, 2012

I have to admit my entries here have been sporadic as of late; it turns out balancing full-time work with my first PhD-level coursework as well as the usual obligations, interests and minutiae that consume most of our time in life make it easy to go quite a while without thinking about refining something to throw up on a free blog that 10 or 15 regular readers and a random number of stumbler-ons peruse. That said, it’s always been fun for me to write random things here, to work through political, religious, or sociological issues that can occasionally lead to further writing I do elsewhere (especially when I have to defend something I write) and it’s been just as much fun (and a bit more relaxing) to rate, review, and keep up to date with the music, movies, comics, and books I review and compile lists of each year. So today I’m going to post a music article a bit different and more free-handed than I usually do. A number of notable albums have been released so far this month, with more on the way as the fall begins. Rather than do a track by track analysis of them, I’m going to give some quick, first impression notes on a few from last week and later on I plan to do the same for others as they come out. I’m sure my opinion is apt to change or become more focused as the end of the year approaches and I begin ranking my best-of lists, but for now here are a few thoughts on September’s new music.

 

1) Bob Dylan – Tempest

Dylan is quite simply amazing. For someone who could have disappeared from the music scene forever at the end of the ’60s and still be a cultural icon today, Dylan has instead found a way to constantly stay relevant, creative, and unburdened by anyone else’s expectations of what his art should be or sound like. Who would have thought that one of the best creative runs of his entire career would begin in his sixties? Since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Dylan has been on a creative high. Love and Theft, Modern Times, and Together Through Life were all terrific, and none of them sounded alike–each was its own stand alone classic. As with this, his latest. The title, Tempest, is not the only thing that hints at Shakespeare. Dylan is rock and roll’s own Shakespeare, a genius force whose medium is really undeserving of such excellence. What stands out on this new record for me is its accessibility. Great as it was, an album like Love and Theft required a bit of work sometimes to truly appreciate. An album like Time Out of Mind required a certain mood to really click, at least for me. Together Through Life hinted at this straight-forward act of song-writing joy, but nothing there (perhaps excluding “Beyond Here Lies Nothin”) quite soared out of the park like practically all 10 songs here. Sure, the epically long title track goes on longer than anything Dylan has done before, but it doesn’t feel that way really. The music on every track shows off Dylan’s love of all American styles of song, Dylan’s voice projects world-weary well-used beauty, and his gift of wordplay is stronger than it has ever been.

first impression rating: 10/10

Dave Matthews Band – Away From the World

Not to as much extent, but as with Dylan’s new record, there was a lot of pre-release buzz and hype suggesting Dave Matthews new record was his strongest in years. Which struck me as odd considering how great his last, Groo Grux King, was. For me, that was arguably the best studio album in DMB’s career. I think the most underrated aspect of DMB is Matthew’s skills as a lyricist. Most observers look to DMB for the qualities that make them great as a jam-band, a multi-instrumental band, or for their occasional middle-of-the-road pop staples. The moments in the band’s career that have really made me a fan, however, have occurred when that excellent band is backing some equally excellent, astute, and emotional lyrics, be they the barely restrained anger of “Don’t Drink the Water,” the apocalyptic ruminating of “Bartender,” or the heartache of “Grace is Gone.” DMB nail this on several songs per album, usually, but have only sustained it for entire albums, in my opinion, on Busted Stuff and Groo Grux. So, perhaps what this “return to form” hinted at by some music journalists regarding the band’s latest, Away From the World, concerns some of the sonic similarities to the period of time in which the band experienced it’s popularity highpoint circa Under the Table and Dreaming. Which is not to say that that or this new record are bad in any way; they just miss a bit of the bite that really catches me when Dave is at his best as a songwriter. There are great moments of jam-band pop, there are sentimental notes and lyrics of cautious hope which beg to inspire (“Mercy,” If Only”), there are a few tracks to showcase Dave’s horndog sensibilities (“Belly Belly Nice”), and there are polished yet pleasant sounds across the whole thing. I have a feeling this one will eventually grow on me, but as of right now it doesn’t stand out nearly as much as its predecessor in the band’s catalogue.

first impression rating – 6.5/10

Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

I’m trying to think of how to review this album fairly. For one, I love the Drive By Truckers and I think Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are at the very front of this generation’s best songwriters and that their work as the Drive By Truckers is a gift to music fans right now that far too many are even unaware of. Anyway, what I’m trying to determine in reviewing this record is how a non-convert to the DBT gospel would hear this record. Patterson Hood has made two prior solo records, both solid, and the last of which (Murdering Oscar) was much closer to the story-songs and socio-cultural observations Hood does in his day job with the Truckers. This new record is a very personal, quieter affair. It’s the result of a shelved book Patterson worked on during a touring break with the band. It ended up as this album, a chronicle of a low-point in his life in which he was a late twentysomething dealing with a crumbled marriage, a broken band, and a severe depression told now in hindsight as a happily married father. Getting to know Patterson as much as a fan can through albums, concerts, and the like, this was a nice gift to hear, an album with real, personal perspective and personality. There are pretty ballads,  brutal reflections, and a general sense of interpreting what major life events meant for him now that he can look back on them with some sort of perspective. The songs are minor masterpieces in that Patterson can make a catchy song out of the most unlikely of subjects and can turn a phrase that would fall flat from another singer into southern gold. If this was the first thing you heard from him, I’m not sure that you would love it nearly as much as I do, but if you like quality songs I can’t help but think you would certainly appreciate the heartfelt ballad with Kelly Hogan  “Come Back Little Star,” the gravel in your guts character portrait of “Depression Era,” or the tragic “Better Than the Truth.”

First Impression Rating – 9/10

Okay, before the month is up the best rapper recording for a major label, Lupe Fiasco, released his eagerly awaited Food and Liquor II, right on the heels of last years Lasers (and this site’s 2011 Album of the Year), as well as a new record from Green Day. I also missed the new Avett Brothers release, which also came out last week, and I hope to hear it and include it on the next recap post. In October, young rising Blues star Gary Clark Jr. finally releases his next full length studio album, which I have been waiting to hear since last year’s excellent Bright Lights EP. Also out is perhaps the most hyped Metal release of the year, the VA based grindcore band Pig Destroyer’s Book Burner, which comes on the heels of key Metal releases from everyone from Testament to Nile.

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