Archive for September, 2007


Dream Theater – Score DVD

September 29, 2007

I had the privilege of seeing Dream Theater play in Chicago during the 2007 Systematic Chaos tour. I am not even that huge of a fan of Dream Theater, but I will admit, I got my ass kicked by that concert. It was just one of those concerts that everyone should go see just because of the technical proficiency involved in the playing. Even if you find it hard to sit through a Dream Theater album, a Dream Theater concert will rock your face off. John Petrucci was, as always a beast, and his solos were top notch, faster and more blistering than usual. As a bass player, my eyes are always half glued to the axe wielder, and John Myung is an intense player, always standing stationary like some kind of ghostly brigger nailing out progressive grooves on his massive six string. I don’t think I need to say how ridiculous drummer Mike Portnoy is. He has to be one of the greatest drummers ever. His stage presence is massive, if nothing else, because his kit seems to take up half the stage anyway. Keyboard player Jordan Rudess is probably the least rocking member of the band, mostly because he spends most of his time on stage either reinforcing Petrucci’s already powerful chords or producing some cheesy, unnecessary solos of his own. But I was still impressed with his various keytar solos, even though they lasted far longer than they should have. He is the weakest link, if Dream Theater even has one. I used to think James LaBrie was the weakest member of the band. His vocals always annoyed me. But at that concert, he was impressive. His voice has not declined in twenty years, and he brings a certain amount of clarity to the music.

Despite the fact that Dream Theater are a rock band, they do have that clarity about them. Which is a big reason why people dislike them. Even for a progressive rock band, they always sound clean cut. They have the long, cheesy, cliche solos. LaBrie is, in many respects, too good of a singer and is not interesting in his delivery. Either you appreciate Dream Theater, or you don’t. Either you find them entertaining or trashy, both reasonable opinions.

So if you don’t like Dream Theater, this won’t convince you of anything, except maybe that they know how to produce a concert well. If you do like Dream Theater, Score is an asset, more so than any other bootleg or DVD, just because this is the band at their tightest and best sounding, with their most rounded set to date. If you don’t know Dream Theater, I guess this is as close as you can get to a greatest hits, because this is a 20th Anniversary concert and the band stretches out their entire career into the set.

But you have to consider two things here…The music and the video. You can buy the Score 3 CD set or the 2 DVD set.

For listening, Score is a real winner for Dream Theater fans. The setlist is really balanced. The first portion of the concert contains songs from the bands first ten years or so, hitting favorite numbers such as The Root Of All Evil, Under A Glass Moon, and the power ballad classic The Spirit Carries On. If you are the kind of person that appreciates that signature Dream Theater cheesy solo heroism, you will find some really good stuff here. After the first set, the Octavarium Orchestra is introduced, a full orchestra that accompanies the band for the rest of their set, for two disks, playing massive epics such as the forty minute long Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Octavarium, Metropolis, and some other good ones. The orchestra adds an extra level of talent and puts new angles on all of the songs. Their inclusion is the most appreciated part of the concert. The music here is great for what it is.

But what I found while watching the DVD was… It was a task. I mean, it was impressive, but there isn’t much to see, except all the solos. The show is so massive that it is really hard to hold ones attention through the whole thing unless you are big enough of a fan to recognize all the songs. I am not THAT big of a fan. And to be honest, each Dream Theater song develops in so many different directions that no matter how much I listen to them, I doubt I will ever become truly acquainted with their catalog. It’s not that Dream Theater are a band that you either love or hate. Of the ten people who I saw the concert with, only two of them were truly fans, and the rest of us just casual listeners. We really liked the concert. And if you like Dream Theater, you really should see them, because their live experience is half of what makes the band who they are. The energy of the concerts are really amazing. There is no replacement for hearing those opening bass licks of Panic Attack and just watching the whole venue light on fire with enthusiasm. When you are in the middle of them, Dream Theater concerts are fast, relentless, impressive. Pretty damn metal.

But I didn’t get much of that excitement from the Score DVD. You really have to be there to feel the energy. The visual component of Dream Theater is the live shows, but it only works if you are actually there. It’s really something I can’t explain any better, the energy just doesn’t translate to recording. Watching the band do what they do best on DVD boils down to one succinct advantage. You can sit on your ass and watch the carnage. It’s just not the same though. Especially this concert. It’s just to well produced, too perfect to feel like an authentic, dirty, dark rock and roll show. And besides, if you aren’t actually there, what you will be watching from a DVD like this is just what the musicians are doing with their hands, and your mind could have filled in those blanks anyway. I guess you can say that about any band though. In any case, the DVD didn’t impress me that much.

For the music, Score is a real winner. You can’t argue with a thirty piece orchestra doing that much collective damage and sounding completely tight, playing with the worlds finest progressive rock band. It adds a whole new angle to the music. But for the DVD, save your cash unless you are a big fan. If you are a casual fan like me and want to relive the concert experience a little more accurately, there are better options. I enjoyed it, but not THAT much, not more than Budokan anyway. A good release from a good band that won’t please everyone.


The Velvet Underground – Loaded

September 27, 2007

By the time Loaded came out, The Velvet Underground were essentially out of commission. Upon it’s release, Lou Reed followed John Cale and split, leaving the band without it’s two most important members. The story behind Loaded is one that fans know all too well. Asked to make an album “loaded with hits,” they did just that and candy-coated their last real album for mass consumption. It worked, to some extent, but Loaded always felt kind of dull, and really didn’t come anywhere close to the other albums.

The Velvets follow through with their promise with the first three songs, arguably their three most popular and likeable songs ever. Who Loves The Sun is a personal favorite VU track, a really nice, longing love song. The little sparkly interlude at the beginning of Sweet Jane is just as memorable and momentous as the brilliant hook itself. Rock and Roll is also an easy winner. But then things crash, really fast.

The album gets more flak than it deserves, that much I will admit. It is still, in retrospect, a really solid album, but it’s pretty obvious that for VU fans, it is sort of a broken blessing. It has some of the bands most traditional, popular songs, but it also lacks any real contour or interesting twists or anything, which was essentially what the band had been known to do at that point. After making The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light / White Heat, two of the most progressive and unique albums of their generation, it would be unreasonable to expect the trailblazing to continue. You can’t win them all. By the time Loaded was released, it is pretty obvious that everyone is just tired and wants to crank out a record. Bassist Doug Yule was given some significant songwriting and vocal duties here, and to be honest, he was pretty disposable. The album dips dangerously low around the middle with the trifecta of mediocrity that is Cool Down, New Age, and Head Held High, three of the Velvets most forgettable songs ever.

There is a bounceback. I’ll admit to liking Lonesome Cowboy Bill, even though I know it’s cheesy. The same goes for I Found A Reason. It falls into the much sought after It’s So Cheesy It’s Good category. At the very least, it’s fairly unique. I’ll also give it to them, they made one hell of a last song, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’. It has a really classic, tired, conclusive, slow groove to it that is really fitting. Both Sweet Nuthin’ and Who Loves The Sun were included on the High Fidelity soundtrack, and rightfully so, because they are both classic VU.

It’s alright. I’ll give it one thing. I have never seen an album more shockingly broken than this. It’s high points are sheer brilliance and it’s low points are almost embarassing. What is in between feels like it should be leaning towards one direction but can’t convince the listener either way. It’s definitely a good album. But there is not much here that is challenging or pushes any of the bands limits like the other albums did. My favorite thing about the Velvets, and what makes VU&N one of my absolute favorites, is how individual all of their songs are, but this album has a style that is easy to pin and rather forgettable. For a last album, it’s respectable, though.


Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead

September 15, 2007

I have a six month old, gorgeous baby cousin. He is truly the biggest miracle to happen to our family in a long time. I haven’t seen my family so closely knit and generally respectful to one another since we older cousins were kids. My grandmother’s house is like it has never been. While my aunt and cousin visit, the house is the center of attention. On any given night, eight people might be in the house all at once if not more. This is exactly the way my grandmother likes it. She loves attending to people and letting them into her home. It means the world to her that we are all here. Even more interesting is how much this baby has changed everyone individually. Even people who are at first glance too worn out for any significant change have been transformed by him.

While browsing at my local Best Buy a week ago, I checked the fairly large section of Radiohead CDs. Typically they just have the main albums, but for some reason lately most major electronics stores have had a lot of other stuff, namely the longer EPs, Airbag/How Am I Driving, My Iron Lung, and Com Lag. But I also saw Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead on the shelf and I got kind of confused. I had heard of it once before, but I assumed it was an import and that I would never see it on the shelves. I didn’t know anything about it. At first I dismissed it as a novelty and went on my way, but then I remembered my aunt and my little cousin who were currently in town and I found myself unable to resist dropping $15 on this thing. Half of me felt like I was doing the good thing by getting a gift for the little tyke, but I also felt guilty, as if I was kind of playing into my own interests by buying a Radiohead CD for someone who probably would not be able to appreciate it.

What I discovered upon giving it to my aunt was that she was elated and excited. She had already bought Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of The Cure (my aunt grew up in the eighties and has a high appreciation for the sublime melodies of The Cure) and was very pleased with it. Apparently, there are actually a ton of these CDs, for what seems like almost every major artist in a long time. Well, maybe not, but there are certainly a lot of these things.

They have Lullaby Renditions of U2, The Beatles, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, Led Zeppelin, Nine Inch Nails, Pink Floyd, Bjork, The Beach Boys, Queens of the Stone Age… The list goes on. I was skeptical, because to be honest, the majority of those bands just don’t sound suited for lullabies, but what I found after sampling many of the songs was that these albums are very, very good. Apparently this is all done by one guy, who takes melodies by bands and weaves them into calm instrumentals played with glockenspiels, very soft beats, bells, and vibraphones. Some of these albums work better than others. Playing The Beatles, U2, or Smashing Pumpkins in this way is pretty safe, and pretty effective. However, when you start doing bands like Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, and Tool, you are going to end up with some fairly perverse, subtly evil sounding music that you probably wouldn’t want your little one falling asleep to. But I’m going to be honest here, who ever makes these knows what the hell he is doing. While Tool or Nine Inch Nails are not good for a child to fall asleep to, somehow this musician has been able to coax simple, driving melodies into very effective formats, and I have enjoyed the samples of both of those artists in lullaby format.

However, I have to remember what goals were set in place by this particular collection in the first place. It sounds like a good idea that would translate well. Radiohead have always been very melodic and at times relaxing while staying emotive. Second guessing isn’t good enough. I went to my grandmothers house a few nights later and tested the product. The baby started to cry uncontrollably at around seven or eight, and at that point we went into my grandmothers room where the crib is and flipped on the Radiohead lullabies. After my aunt put the kid down to rest and he was all snuggled up in his crib, she let me sit in the room and do my homework while listening to his lullaby CDs.

I know Radiohead’s music like second nature. I have listened to all of the albums more times than I can count, so I didn’t have to look at the back of the CD case to know what each song was. But this also comforted me, because I knew that the songs were given treatment that is faithful to the originals. The song selection is a little broken. The farthest back in Radiohead’s discography that the collection goes is OK Computer, so there is nothing from Pablo Honey or The Bends. But what is there feels natural. Some of Radiohead’s songs, Let Down, No Surprises, and Sail To The Moon, translate extremely well, and the new lullabies sound like they could be the true originals.

There are a few weaker selections. Why 2+2=5 was included is beyond me. It’s minor tonality is not suited for putting a baby to sleep, and while it is nice for adults to hear it, babies won’t be able to appreciate it very much. What I really love about these collections is how songs in minor keys sound completely different and creepy when played this way. But once again, not for the kids. Knives Out is another one that should not have been included. It is also a great Radiohead song, but it’s purpose is to confuse and disturb. For that reason, you kind of need to keep in mind what the actual agenda of the album is. Is this meant to be a collection of Radiohead lullabies for everyone, or a collection of Radiohead lullabies for babies?

But the best songs on here are almost too good for words. Not only will babies thoroughly enjoy these, but Radiohead fans of any age will be surprised and impressed. My favorite ones are the always lovely Airbag, There There, and an eye popping version of Everything In It’s Right Place. These versions are stripped down but still retain their original form, making them arguably even more moving than the originals.

While I sat there in bed watching my cousin, the treasure of our family that has been waiting to be discovered for years, listening to this little collection, I made a lot of realizations. I realized that my family wasn’t half as screwed up as I have always thought they were, that every one of us actually do appreciate each other deep down, and that things were really just beginning. I used to think that everyone was just going to grow old and things would fade out, now that all the children were essentially grown up. But I was wrong. Very wrong. This hour spent in my grandmothers bedroom doing homework will most likely be a fond memory to me years from now. It will also be remembered that I discovered a medium of music that truly interests me (I assure you I will be purchasing many more of these collections both for the baby and for myself), and that the baby did not wake up or stir even once.


Portishead – Portishead

September 12, 2007

With Dummy, Portishead cemented their niche in the world of trip hop, and honestly had no obligations to carry out afterwards. Dummy was a fantastic album, good enough that even if the group had stopped there and made it a one time deal, the album would not have faded into obscurity. In any case, Portishead’s early end has always felt slightly unrealized. Portishead only made two studio albums, one live album, and a few stray singles, b-sides, and rarities. It takes a very special band to be this appreciated with so little for fans to go on.

The self titled album has always been the overlooked one. Dummy was clearly the better album, and considering the band only really had two albums, that makes Portishead the bands worst album. This curse of relativity is unfortunate. The truth is, it’s a great record that appeals to fans way more than direct connection with the masses through the radio.

In comparison to Dummy, Portishead is darker and more adventurous. It is more elaborately produced, detailed, and complex. While Dummy had some more tender moments (the sublime It Could Be Sweet and the jazzy Sour Times), Portishead is a blistering, difficult album that pulls no punches. In that way it is a logical step forward from Dummy, but it lacks some of it’s simplistic charm. Then again, listening to a follow up to an album as iconic and popular as Dummy entails some unfair expectations. This album was never supposed to be a direct sequel. It has it’s own identity. While it may be lacking in comparison, it stands pretty strong on it’s own.

Or at the very least it expands on Portishead’s repertoire in a way that gives the short lived group more form. The opening song, Cowboys, pins the albums style, to a certain extent. Beth Gibbon’s voice is now more jazzy, regal, and brave. The music that accompanies it is significantly darker and more big sounding. What accompanies the signature heavy beats and well placed scratching are more disjointed and disturbing melodies. Even when Gibbons is belting out some of her more positive lyrics, the music is disturbing and perverse enough to warp the end result.

This switch from melancholy to disturbing is interesting, even compelling. Being partial to the fact that this really isn’t supposed to be Dummy 2 doesn’t hide the fact that the albums most interesting and compelling moments occur when the music gets vulnerable. Mourning Air makes use of cold, chilling cymbals and subtle horns. This is surely almost as breaking as Roads, which is a pretty great accomplishment. Undenied is also a slower, more touching venture, which somehow manages to feel somewhat warm with it’s loneliness. That meaty bass thumping always does the trick. The closing Western Eyes is a really shockingly vulnerable way to end Portishead’s last album. After gently introducing a piano melody and one of Gibbon’s most beautiful performances, a jazzed little piano roll is the quaint, subtly biting end to the album. These songs make a little more sense, and give the album clarity.

But no less important are the muscular, more big sounding songs that are distinct to the album. Cowboys is a fantastic opener, and is only complemented by the skilled use of strings and horns on All Mine. Seven Months is actually a fit of anger, in a sexy sort of way, and is about as liberating as Portishead gets.

While Dummy might be the focal point of Portishead’s short lived career, it is really a shame to stop there when such a good album is up for grabs for further listening. On one hand, the bands self titled sophomore album has some uninspired moments, specifically Half Day Closing and Only You, two easy picks for worst Portishead songs. The flipside is that there are many songs here that stand very tall and give the band more depth. It is a little more difficult, but it yields great rewards upon further exploration. Despite the fact that it is miles behind it’s predecessor, this is an album that is worth attention for reasons other than the fact that Portishead had very little material for people to feast on.


Rilo Kiley – Under The Blacklight

September 1, 2007

Taking steps into opposite directions simultaneously is a brave move. A band such as Rilo Kiley, who is usually credited for making very approachable and traditional music, would not be expected to make a move such as this, but then again the band is used to big changes and refuse to stay the same as they progress. The hell of it is that the move is parallel, making the release of Under The Blacklight some sort of wild triple entente. As the music enters the world of major label releases, the biggest change is in accessibility. Under The Blacklight is easily Rilo Kiley’s most approachable and immediately enjoyable record yet. And yet it still holds some dark secrets, and feels in some ways more sophisticated than it’s predecessors.

It’s a good sign when you get done with the first half of the album, and the majority of the songs sound so naturally catchy that you feel you must have heard them before at some point. And it’s an even better sign when this consistency pushes through the last half just as strongly. It’s easy to say that this is Rilo Kiley’s poppiest record, or most catchy, but really what is pop? The fact that most every song is lovable is due to simple talent here. To be sure, the band are in better shape than they have probably ever been. Jenny Lewis is at what might as well be her vocal peak, and sounds great. Blake Sennett has never seemed to be more in control. Just about all of his performances here are spot on, and creative as well. The latin heel tapper Dejalo is an especial highlight for him with a relaxed but ultimately impressive guitar solo near the end. And many of his melodies are precise and staccato this time around. Close Call and The Moneymaker come to mind in that respect. The song structure, however, is rather predictable. The repetition makes everything seem more level headed and natural, but at the same time one might have expected for Rilo Kiley to pull a few more risky cards than they do. This makes the album feel like it has a bit less to offer over the long term, at times, despite the quality of the music.

That’s where the upshot comes in. Rilo Kiley proved their music to be largely about the lyrics on the last album, More Adventurous. The lyrics were not only meaningful, but also compact and large in number. Those lyrics were enough to keep fans more than entertained, but mesmerized, until this album. On one hand, the lyrics here are much less creative. Many songs are simple repetitions of the song title. And yet while they might hold significantly less sentimental value, they are still the keystone to the music. The catch here is that while the lyrics are more simple and singable, their subject matter is very dark. On almost every song, Jenny pulls this trick in her favor and sings about prostitution, statutory rape, and pained relationships, all in a happy way. Possibly the most obvious and standout is Breakin’ Up, probably the happiest breakup song you have ever heard. When someone as pretty sounding as Jenny Lewis starts singing about dark things in a happy setting, you start to hear a really interesting, almost perverse contrast.

This might also be Rilo Kiley’s most diverse album. There are reoccurring themes in the record, namely a gospel theme that works really well on the opening Silver Lining, The Angels Hung Around, and Give a Little Love, but for the most part every song feels like an original work. Possibly the most innocent the album gets is the title track, but to be fair, the Blacklight is, at least from what I have gathered, a hub for transsexual hookers in L.A. But small details like this being open for interpretation makes the listening experience that much more delicious. My favorite song might be Dreamworld, the rare case in which Blake sings, which Jenny accompanying in a hazy harmony. This lyrics here have more imagery and depth than anything else on the album.

But I’m going to be quite honest with you here. Rilo Kiley’s style has never been something that interested or compelled me. I didn’t really want to like this album as much as I did, but hey, the end justifies the means, and now I am in the process of working my way backwards in the discography and am finding that everything that at once bored me is making me genuinely interested. As a Rilo Kiley expert has divulged to me, Under The Blacklight is different than the records that preceded it, enough so that the comparison is like apples to oranges. My complaints about this record are few and far between, even when I seem to be looking for them. The only one that really holds any leverage from me is how some of the lyrics are a little bit shallow, but this is nothing that will prove to be significant to Rilo Kiley fans, especially when there is another lyrical theme that sticks out. I am also lucky enough to be attending the next Rilo Kiley concert in Chicago on the 15th, and I’m sure it’s going to be a blast. I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t include this in my top five of the year thus far. I mean, seriously, I have searched at length for a bad song and have given up empty handed. Really solid record. Rilo Kiley wins.

BOOBS. That is all.