A batch of Cross Rhythms reviewers consider the merits of 25 mainstream albums
Born This Way
It's fair to say that in 'Born This Way', we have what was one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2011. And in Lady Gaga we have a popstar whose back-story is shrouded in mystery, and an image that borrows its iconography largely from Madonna and seems to unashamedly seek controversy. Not long after the album was released Mike Stock of Stock, Aitken And Waterman fame, criticised the "torrent of sex-drive imagery" in pop music now, and Lady Gaga is as responsible as others for this ongoing and spiralling trend. Yet on a purely musical level she and her writers produced some fantastic pop hits on her debut such as "Paparazzi", "Poker Face" and "Just Dance". Her second album clocks in at a laborious 15 songs worth 61 minutes and 12 seconds. Trading in synth inspired disco and electro-pop, it takes on a brasher sound than her debut and frankly seems to miss the pop hits of her former release. Redeeming moments include the feel-good "Hair" and the two closing tracks "You And I" and "The Edge Of Glory", featuring Bryan May and the late Clarence Clemons respectively. Paying little attention to the lyrics "Bad Kids" has a seductive hook and proves a feel-good tune for the dancefloor. Competing with the music for attention is the lyrical content, which broods with religious themes and sexuality. On "Judas" she sings "Jesus is my virtue and Judas is the demon I cling to". In the end, Judas and all her confused notions of sexuality seem to bear the stronger influence on the song. Earlier on in the album a liberal gospel is seemingly preached on "Born This Way" as she emphatically states that God loves her as she is, and then sings "no matter gay, straight or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life/I'm on the right track baby/I was born this way". If you want noise pollution and spiritual confusion, I can think of no greater example than this best seller.
Endgame is Rise Against's sixth album and is a return to the faster, more aggressive playing of their earlier albums. Musically the band lean away from their melodic hardcore roots (ie, there's no shouting here) and focus on straight up fast, hard punk rock. But Rise Against have lost none of their hatred at injustice, hypocrisy and compromise. A dedication to writing songs that actually mean something does not always make for an easy listen, but there is, of course, a rich heritage of the protest song that both exposes corruption and calls to action and Rise Against seem to be able to hold that torch with confidence. Opening track "Architects" is at once a statement of intent, a condemnation of compromise and a call to arms. Vocalist and rhythm guitarist Tim McIlrath spits with venom "Are there no fighters left anymore?/Our heroes, our idols have mellowed with age/They're now being led where they used to lead the way." The chief concern here is motivating a generation to be "out there on the front lines" not "at home keeping score". McIlrath pleads "Don't you remember when we were young/And we wanted to set the world on fire/Because I still am and I still do". What are the issues that we're called to Rise Against?
"Help Is On The Way" condemns the inaction of the US government while innocents died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while "Make It Stop (September's Children)" was inspired by a spate of teen suicides in September 2010 where all the victims were bullied for being gay, as well as the suicide of a homosexual friend of McIlrath's. The lyrics are challenging and at times call into question what part a "Christian nation" has played in encouraging, rather than condemning, homophobia: "I'm done asking, I demand/From a nation under God/I feel its love like a cattle prod". Elsewhere, terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ("Survivor Guilt"), the prospect of environmental disaster and political hypocrisy are deconstructed, lambasted and called to account. The themes are heavy but the attitude is defiant and often hopeful. The title track envisions a time when people resolve to live wisely in light of past mistakes: "I shed the sun clean skin/And start to feel again. . . He looked at the field and then his hands/'All I need is what I have'/Then fell a tear of happiness/She watched the world crumble away/'Is this the end of yesterday?'/'Lord I hope so' is all he said."
While the band practice what they preach - they are "straight edge"
(no drugs or alcohol) and highlight human injustice as well as
supporting animal rights organisations - it's hard for the listener to
recognise the ultimate solution to this world's problems lying solely
in the hands of people willing to fight. That's not to say that it is
not the right thing to try and do but at our core, we are a selfish
people in a fallen world which won't ever truly see an end to
injustice, hypocrisy, pain and suffering until Jesus, the ultimate
judge of sin and rebellion, returns. Our human efforts are important
(after all for the Christian, faith without works is dead) but where
does our real hope lie? Having said all that, I get the feeling that
McIlrith and Jesus would see eye to eye on a number of things, even if
McIlrith might wince at the prospect. I love Rise Against for their
passionate desire to use punk to expose darkness and promote
positivity that leads to action. And I love the fact that they
absolutely rock. Their reaction to a perceived hypocrisy in some
quarters of Western Christianity is occasionally abrasive if not
always unfounded, and their desire for justice is humbling if, like
me, you are a Christ follower who shows less concern for these issues.
For they are surely on God's heart too.
This is the (studio) follow-up to WT's breakthrough album 'The Heart Of Everything' which, in turn, was the album that introduced me to the genre of symphonic metal (which I have now been playing catch-up with ever since). 'The Unforgiving' is clearly more mainstream in sound, as the single "Faster" clearly shows, the vocals being less operatic, the guitars more refined and the choruses more pumped up and singalong. However, there are a lot of trademarks in there, the keyboards especially, and there are enough of Within Temptation's old tricks and licks to keep people like me happy. Thematically, as the accompanying DVD videos showed, the album holds pretty well to its title, dwelling on those who are wronged and cannot forgive. I therefore found some of the vengeance portrayed in the videos a bit uncomfortable and whilst I enjoyed the band's performance, I can't say I watched the story sections that came before the music more than once. The lyrics are generally short phrases, as is common in this genre, and so don't form as coherent a narrative as they might. Taken with the videos, though, they sit with the theme: people wronged (for a variety of reasons) and all unforgiving, all seeking vengeance. The theme reaches its climax with "A Demon's Fate" where the line "I don't want to be a part of his sin" shows where the protagonist has come to and his bleak realisation that it's too far and maybe too late to do anything about it. Musical highlights on the album include "Faster" with its solid rock approach, "A Demon's Fate" for the keyboard riffs and "Iron" for the keyboard/guitar interplay and its fabulous key change. It's a cut above most of the stuff I've heard this year, but those vengeance-obsessed lyrics make for uncomfortable listening.
Manic Street Preachers
Postcards From A Young Man
The most recent album from the Manic Street Preachers' was hailed by the enthusiastic Nicky Wire as "one last shot at mass communication". If by mass communication he means a collection of songs that are hook-laden and full of big choruses with lush string arrangements there is no doubt that he speaks the truth. Yet for a man well versed in propaganda, irony and the tongue-in-cheek, I'd have to doubt whether it is indeed the Manics' last attempt. There is finality to some of their lyrics that would suggest a diluting of their original vision, though their sense of personal disillusionment has always matched up to their political and societal discomfort. On "Hazelton Avenue" James Dean Bradfield sings of just this as he asks "Do I have the courage of the books I've read?" There also runs a nostalgic thread with through the title track and the "old school photographs" remembered on "Some Kind Of Nothingness". Mixed into this there seems to be a narrowing of their idealism tempered by life's realities. Touches of their angst-filled punk past still filter through the songs though and they continue to write memorable anthems with aplomb. What many newer bands lack is the ability to say anything vital to our current society. This is something the Manics have never lacked. Also, James Dean Bradfield's voice must be one of the most underrated in the music world as he soars through this album with his trademark power and authenticity. Particularly targeted in his songs is internet excess. "Virtual" is the dirty word bandied around as they attempt to speak to the generation fed and watered on the Internet. The album is book-ended with spiritual tones as Bradfield echoes "The Lord's Prayer" on the opener, singing "To feel forgiveness you gotta forgive" and on the closer as Wire writes about the evils of the corporate world, pleading "God save us all from Satan's stare". How significant this is I'm not sure. What I do know is that the Manics still seem to have plenty more to say and a powerful way of doing it.
The Defamation Of Strickland Banks
Ben Drew otherwise known as Plan B is talented, of that there's no doubt. After all, he's a singer, songwriter, rapper, actor and film director and he's a lot cleverer than you might think if you've ever heard him interviewed. 'Defamation' is his second album and a far cry from his first, 2006's 'Who Needs Actions When You Got Words' which was embraced by hip-hop and indie fans. 'The Defamation. . .', released in April 2010, took people by surprise. Instead of more of the same, Plan B delivered a concept album held together by soul-based songs not unlike something Smokey Robinson might have sung. Plan B has an exquisite voice for the task, smooth and creamy yet with an ache and a big longing, which makes it the perfect voice for the story that unfolds on the album. At the time of its release, critics were not all in favour of 'The Defamation. . .' at the time of its release but Joe Public sent Ben's second album to number one in the UK charts. Clean electric guitar loosely strummed, a fine string ensemble and some superb high-up-the-neck bass guitar playing capture what's needed for Plan B to act out the 13 songs that took us on a harrowing journey of fun which turns to darkness then moves into despair and finally into something that resembles hope. Some concept albums find it hard to link the songs in a way that gives the title of concept meaning but not so 'Defamation. . .'. Each song moved into the next following on like an episode of 24 on TV where you can hardly wait for the next one to begin.
Strickland Banks is a (fictitious) British soul singer who sings at a
gig where a girl after listening to the singer makes advances towards
him in a bar after the gig has finished. At the same time Strickland's
girlfriend is trying to reach him on his phone but he decides not to
answer and gets into a taxi with his newly acquired admirer even
though he knows he's doing something wrong. The new girl turns out to
be a bunny boiler type who brings charges against Strickland when she
realises she's not going to become his steady girlfriend. Strickland
finds himself in the dock with his true girlfriend looking on from the
gallery; no one believes Strickland and he is sent to jail. This part
of the story takes four songs, the other nine songs looking at the
horrors of an innocent man being in jail. There is some interesting
use of words going on here, with popular movies and songs brought into
play to express Strickland's feelings, which are beginning to run
riot. He ends up trading his cigarettes for a tool to stab a fellow
prisoner who is making sexual demands on him; he only wants to scare
the man but ends up killing him. He knows he's in big trouble now and
prays earnestly for help and atonement. A fellow prisoner who is in
for life says he'll take the blame, because he's in for life anyway.
Plus the fellow prisoner helped finish Strickland's assailant off, as
(probably) singers are a weak bunch when it comes to fighting.
"Praying" and "Darkest Place" are songs where much soul searching and
questioning is taking place, not unlike Job in the Bible. Why is God
allowing this unjust imprisonment to take place? Is Strickland's faith
in vain? There are some explicit lyrics on the album, particularly
earlier on in the story when Strickland gets drunk and is in high
spirits as he takes off with the girl who ends up falsely accusing
him. The final song sees him back in court as new evidence has come to
light, but this time his true girlfriend who he treated so badly is
not there to support him. It's an audio movie but the screen is in
Ray Davies, The Crouch End Festival Chorus
The Kinks Choral Collection
On its release in 2009 this project left dedicated followers of Ray Davies and The Kinks divided. One critic commented that the CD was like Marmite - you either love it or hate it and it is impossible to persuade those on the other side of the divide to change their minds. So what have we got here then? As the by-line on the CD sleeve says: "Classic Kinks' songs as you've never heard them before" which hits the nail firmly on the head. Like many great artists from the early years of pop and rock Ray Davies has a formidable back catalogue. As a songwriter he is up there with the greats. And as a social observer Davies is surely England's answer to Bob Dylan. Here we have Ray Davies going his own sweet way and adding a choir into the mix. He keeps a band too so this is not an acoustic set but, as said above, this is a collection of classic Kinks' songs with new life breathed into them if you are in favour or ruined if you are not. The set list is truly impressive, opening with "Days" and taking us through "Waterloo Sunset", "You Really Got Me" and five others, ending with "All Day And All Of The Night" plus a "Village Green Medley". If you have any sort of interest in the first flowering of British pop in the 1960s you will know these songs and our younger readers really ought to acquaint themselves with them if they are to have any sort of musical education. But does the addition of The Crouch End Festival Choir improve or detract? Cards on table here: I say that mostly they improve the flavour. "Days" could almost be a secular hymn as Davies thanks an unknown, unacknowledged something (or Someone) for the good things in life. "Waterloo Sunset" really benefits from the choral additions, bringing its wistful, elegiac lyric into sharper focus, "Victoria" sounds like a whole heap of fun and parts of the "Village Green Medley" also bloom under the choral treatment. I can hear where the detractors are coming from in some of the louder songs such as "You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All Of The Night": the band rocks but the choir seems to be struggling to keep up. But, over all, this reviewer puts up his thumb and since its release whenever I have felt the urge to hear The Kinks it has been this CD that I have picked.
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Bill, from Austin, Texas, is the epitome of the artist with a cult following. From 1990 to 2005 Bill released a shoal of albums under the name Smog that drew a small but vociferous band of supporters who found in the underground rock/alternative country man's music what one critic described as "a peep-show view into an insular world of alienation." By the time he dropped the Smog moniker Callohan was a long way from the low fi crudity of his early output and this album has, in places, lavish orchestrations with sweeping strings and eloquent French horns behind Bill's mordant, baritone voice. With this album the singer/songwriter attempted to home in on the big ideas that have obsessed all the great creative talents - nature, love and God - and in the process brought forth lavish praise from the critics - Mojo magazine even naming it a five star "Instant Mojo Classic". What was it about 'Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle' that so entranced their music palette? That is very difficult to fathom. For though Brian Beattie's intricate arrangements add depth to the songsmith's music - for instance the haunting quality engendered on "Rococo Zephyr" - Callaghan's sonorous voice begins to jar and, more importantly, his lyrics are often unfathomable. "Eid Ma Clack Shaw" finds the songwriter attempting to break free from the memory of a broken relationship and gets revelation in a dream, unfortunately encrypted in gobbledygook. One reviewer found this device "hilarious". I beg to differ. Elsewhere there is "Invocation Of Ratiocination" where a wordless female quavers while, one assumes, the listener ponders on the enigma of pure reason. That is a prelude to a 10 minute closer, "Faith/Void Here", where Callohan sounds at his most animated as he sings, "It's time to put God away/No longer must I strive to find my peace in a lie." In an interview at the time of the album's release Callohan said he'd been reading "a lot of atheist writers" including Richard Dawkins. One can only conclude that finding peace in a lie is, sadly, exactly what has happened to this particular songsmith.
Often derided as a purveyor of workmanlike dadrock, ex-Jam man Weller, on the eve of his 50th birthday, recorded his most eclectic and adventurous project since he led the musically diverse Style Council in the '80s. This double LP surprised many listeners by incorporating influences as wide-reaching as folk, Latin and electronica and is often cited as the best album of Weller's long and successful solo career. Much of the innovation came from Paul's long-term pal, producer Simon Dine whose use of drum loops and samples breathed new life into the Modfather's well-crafted, melodic songwriting. '22 Dreams' opens with the earthy folk of "Light Nights" which features the exquisite fiddle playing of Scottish multi-instrumentalist John McCusker and the mellow 12-string strum of long-time Weller collaborator Steve Craddock (who contributes various instruments and vocals across the album). Other highlights are the stripped-back "Where'er Ye Go", featuring one of Weller's greatest ever vocals; the psychedelic looping rock of "Echoes Round The Sun" (a song written with Noel Gallagher about the Biblical concept of words having resonance) and the beautiful atmospheric pop of "All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You)". Intriguingly, there's also a spoken word piece "God" written by Weller and read by one-time Stone Roses guitarist Aziz Ibrahim with the message that God is not to blame for the trouble man brings upon himself ("Don't look at me, look at you"). Amusingly God also gets a musician's credit in the sleevenotes for contributing "thunder, rain and elements" to closing track "Night Lights". '22 Dreams' is a superb album from a songwriter who clearly isn't afraid to step outside of his comfort zone.
Brit singer/songwriter David had his years of dues paying. His first three albums got him going on the folk club circuit but hardly set the record industry alight. But then in 2000 the re-release of this, his fourth album, catapulted him into the Big Time going all the way to number one in the UK charts and getting such accolades as "a triumph of songcraft" (Q magazine) and "it's a record that makes your life feel better by its mere existence" (The Times). Against such high praise there were the usual cool press snipers, NME raging, "The dilute dance rhythms of 'Please Forgive Me' and 'Babylon' offer a hand-knitted, festival-stall melancholy, while the title track might be Fleetwood Mac if they'd gone into organic farming." The truth is somewhere in the middle of such critical extremes. Gray's twangy voice conveys all the world weary pathos needed for purveyors of sad songs while his songs about optimism ("Silver Lining") and excess and cynicism ("My Oh My") shows that he has more insight into out world than many of the howling ranters so loved by NME. The production on 'White Ladder', with its subtle use of techno rhythms interwoven with Gray's acoustic guitar is just right while "This Year's Love" manages to sound both ironic and sincere ("This year's love had better last/heaven knows it's high time"). Pride of place on the set is "Babylon" which in Ireland sold 100,000 when released as a single. It is indeed a moving confessional ("You know it's clear that I've been blind/I've been a fool to open up my heart to all that jealousy"). To cop a phrase from a reviewer of another Gray album, "Gray's voice is as creased and yellowed as old love letters."
When I was 16, a college friend lent me Weezer's debut 'Blue' album (the first of three self titled albums in their career so far). The wry humour, barbershop harmonies, crunching power chords, the meticulous solo on "Buddy Holly", the exquisite bass groove of "Only In Dreams", the perfect power-pop of "Say It Aint So", all combined with the detail and finesse with which it was constructed and produced drove me to pick up a guitar and start writing songs. So when 'Pinkerton' arrived two years later it came as a shock. It was raw and gritty, painful and frank. What had they done? It was all over the place, thrashy and cacophonous and shouty. On a reluctant second listen, some lyrics began to stick out. Then followed a chorus, a chord progression, a delicate moment emerged amongst the madness. It became clear that not only was I listening to a very different beast from 'Blue', I was being exposed to the REAL Weezer, not a tidy pop-punk band but a full-on rock band - Weezer as I had never heard them before - and rarely would again.
Five seconds of feedback open the album giving way to Pat Wilson's huge drums and Matt Sharp's distorted bass while feedback from frontman Rivers Cuomo and guitarist Brian Bell drones and squeals underneath the confessional lyrics of a reluctant rock star who is "Tired Of Sex" - by 1:10 he is howling "I'm sorry, here I go/I know I'm a sinner but I can't say no", lamenting "I'm tired of having sex /I'm spread so thin I don't know who I am/Why can't I be making love come true?" The emptiness of the abandoned rock lifestyle is a theme that gives way to Rivers' social awkwardness and inability to maintain functioning relationships portrayed on "No Other One", "Why Bother?" and the sweetly naive "Pink Triangle" where our protagonist falls head over heels in love only to discover that the girl of his dreams is a lesbian. The album was named after the flawed Lieutenant Pinkerton from Puccini's 'Madame Butterfly' and is loosely themed around his character, most obviously in its numerous references to Japan and Japanese culture, both lyrically and visually. This interest in Japan coincided with the lonely moment that Rivers received a letter from a Japanese fan that formed the basis of "Across The Sea" where he laments, "Why are you so far away from me?/I need help and you're way across the sea/I've got your letter and you've got my song."