Monthly Archives: November 2014

November 2014 Quick Takes

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“Quick Takes” is a monthly feature on Faint Uproar where we play catch-up with a few albums that slipped through the cracks and didn’t get a full review on the blog.

Alone for the First Time – Ryan Hemsworth

His latest LP may be a lean 27 minutes long, but Ryan Hemsworth doesn’t waste a second of that run time. On Alone for the First Time, the Halifax DJ weaves a smooth, layered collection of songs that often flow right into one another. And while Hemsworth’s beats aren’t quite groundbreaking, Alone for the First Time creates an effective atmosphere that lives up to the LP’s name. The music is sad, shimmering, brooding, and often frantic; it’s danceable, but hardly party music. It seems like 24-year-old Hemsworth is highlighting how lonely today’s cluttered, buzzing digital landscape can feel.

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Four – One Direction

My biggest takeaway from Four is that the members of One Direction seem to have to hit their quarter-life crisis. This is slightly alarming on a cultural level, but, as it turns out, also doesn’t make for very interesting song lyrics. On “Night Changes” the wizened Harry Styles (all of 20 years old) croons, “We’re only getting older, baby.” Similarly, “18” is a nostalgic, rose-coloured look at the long-lost carefree days of being 18. Because, in case you weren’t aware, these guys are adults now. And accordingly, this album does feel surprisingly sombre. Other than the boppy “No Control” and the woozily anthemic “Clouds” (easily the two best songs on Four), there is a lot of earnest pleading and far too many stately mid-tempo offerings. I suppose the assumption is that 1D’s fanbase is aging right along with the band, but I’m not sure if these overstuffed, somewhat laborious songs are what any One Direction fan wants from the band’s music.

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Content Nausea – Parquet Courts

Parquet Courts (or Parkay Quarts or whatever the band has decided to call themselves today) made quite a splash with Sunbathing Animal earlier this year, so it’s a bit surprising that they’d want to follow it up so quickly. But here we are, five months later, with another LP. I seem to be in the minority, since Sunbathing Animal didn’t do a whole lot for me, but Content Nausea still somewhat pales by comparison. If you like Parquet Court’s laconic style, you’ll probably also enjoy this album, but to me, it feels like more of the same. The snaking guitar jangle of “Slide Machine” and the unexpected melody of “Pretty Machines” is great, and as usual with Parquet Courts, there are elements at play here that I like. But for me, it doesn’t all come together to form a fully satisfying whole.

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Seeds – TV on the Radio

The last time people got particularly excited about TV on the Radio was probably somewhere around 2008. However, the incendiary and soulful “Quartz”, the opening track of the band’s latest album, is reason enough to recall some of that excitement. Seeds shows that even if TV on the Radio isn’t as topical as they once were, they’re still one hell of a great band. “Lazerray” and “Winter” offer spiky punk rock, while more mellow offerings such as “Careful You” feel just as vital. This is a band that has always seemed startlingly self-assured, and this fifth studio album may be their most fully-realized and enjoyable offering to date. The musicianship is impeccable as always, and Seeds proves to not only be dynamic, but also surprisingly relevant.

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Ixora – Copeland

From the slinky, pulsating R&B of “Like a Lie” to the sighing indie balladry of album opener “Have I Always Loved You?” the newly reunited Copeland have created a dreamy fifth album with Ixora. The electronic-heavy instrumentation (which becomes more pronounced as the album progresses) adds an interesting element to the album, but even with only 10 tracks and a 40-minute runtime, Ixora still feels a bit bloated. Singer Aaron Marsh’s earnest, emo-ish vocal delivery sometimes feels at odds with the distant, cool production. There’s some good songwriting to be found here, but the slick presentation seems to undermine some of the potential for genuine emotion.

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Ranked: Foo Fighters Albums from Best to Worst

A couple of days ago, I posted a fairly scathing review of the Foo Fighters’ new album, Sonic Highways, saying that it didn’t live up to the band’s past work. This got me thinking about the general arc of the Foo Fighters’ career, and I thought I’d take a look back at their output.

As I said in my review, the Foos haven’t broken many boundaries, but they’re a solid rock band. At least in my mind, Dave Grohl is capable of writing better singles than almost all of his contemporaries. And throughout the Foos’ lifespan – from back when it was Grohl recording a debut LP on his own right up to now – the Foo Fighters have always been one of the better radio rock acts. Here’s a look back at the highs and lows of their nearly 20-year career via my personal ranking of all their studio albums.

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1. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007)

Echoes tends to fly under the radar within the Foos catalogue, but it my mind, it contains some of the prettiest songwriting Dave Grohl has ever done. “Stranger Things Have Happened” has a yearning quality that is all too rare from the Foos, as well as a delicate vocal performance from Grohl. “Summer’s End”, meanwhile, is pop-rock at its finest, offering both a hooky rock riff the earnest romanticism that Grohl tends to sprinkle in at the most unlikely of moments. Elsewhere, you’ve got the solid singles “Long Road to Ruin” and “The Pretender”, the pleading “But, Honestly”, and the poignant instrumental “Ballad Of the Beaconsfield Miners”. Anyone who thinks the band is too one-note should check this one out.

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2. There is Nothing Left to Lose (1999)

I’ve always thought that There is Nothing Left to Lose was severely underrated. To me, it does a great job of showcasing everything the band can do. From the snarling album opener “Stacked Actors” to the lightweight (but very enjoyable) hit “Learn to Fly” to the power-pop perfection of deep cut “Headwires”, Grohl seems to be at the top of his musical game. There is Nothing Left to Lose is the perfect transition between the band’s shaggy ‘90s beginnings to their more polished post-2000 offerings, offering the best of both worlds.

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3. The Color and the Shape (1997)

Ah, yes. The big album. And it certainly contains several of the band’s career highlights. There’s no point denying that “Everlong” is the band’s de facto “moment”, but “February Stars” and “My Hero” are arguably just as vital. And the band feels fresh and energized throughout the album, which hasn’t always been the case on later releases. However, I think the Foos are best when they’re concise, and a few of the album’s 14 tracks could easily have been trimmed off to make a much stronger collection.

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4. In Your Honor (2005)

This might be the band’s most maligned album to date, but I happen to love it, despite its flaws. (Let’s not talk about “Virginia Moon”.) Not only was it the album that got me into the Foos, but they pull off the potentially cheesy double album gimmick (one disc electric, one disc acoustic) quite successfully. The stripped-down aesthetic of the second disc works adds a wonderful vulnerability to songs like “Over and Out” and “Another Round”. Meanwhile on the electric side, the blistering “Best of You” might be my favourite Foo Fighters single, and “The Deepest Blues Are Black” plays squarely to the cheap seats and somehow makes it work.

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5. Foo Fighters (1995)

It feels odd to rank it so low, but this album never did much for me. “Big Me” is a scrappy, tossed-off little pop gem and “This is Call” effectively sets the blueprint for what was come from the Foos, but about half of the album’s other tracks just aren’t compelling to me. A lot of people love this album, but to me, it shows what Dave Grohl was capable of but had not yet managed to actualize in a solo project.

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6. Wasting Light (2011)

Wasting Light is a tight if somewhat uninspired collection of songs. “Rope” is a loping, catchy single that ranks among the band’s best and “Arlandria” showcases the sweeter parts of Grohl’s voice that we don’t often hear, as well as his signature howl. This is a solid rock album, but the workmanlike feeling of the sound keeps the listener at a distance.

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7. One By One (2002)

This has always been the album that I couldn’t get into. There are songs that I like, such as the melodic “Times Like These”. But on the whole, I find the album much harsher than their others, and not to successful effect. Hard rock is not the band’s strength, and the interesting parts of their music are the shades of grey – the unique tone that sometimes comes out in Grohl’s voice, the turns of phrase, the tightly woven guitars. Here, it feels like they skipped over some of the finer details. “Disenchanted Lullaby” kicks ass, though.

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8. Sonic Highways (2014)

If the concept of In Your Honor worked, the “eight cities” concept is unfortunately not as successful here. Grohl starts to live up to the “stodgy old school rock fogey” accusations that are being lobbed his way, which is never a good thing. It has a few bright moments, but Sonic Highways feels like watered-down Foo Fighters, which is problematic when the band was already pretty accessible to begin with.

Album Review: Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

sonic highwaysHave the Foo Fighters become a parody of themselves? Their latest LP, Sonic Highways, makes a very compelling argument that this may be the case. Or, at the very least, it seems to be the final confirmation that Dave Grohl has befallen the same fate as so many musicians before him: Once at the cutting edge and involved with something big, his music now feels both hopelessly out of date and like a airless echo of what it once was.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Foo Fighters have ever been a groundbreaking band. Their sound vacillates between “accessible alt rock” and “accessible hard rock”, and there’s a good chance that your dad likes “Everlong”. Additionally, Grohl had the “misfortune” of having come up through the ranks by drumming for Nirvana – arguably the most revered rock band to emerge in the past 25 years – thus unknowingly ensuring that anything he did afterwards would pale by comparison. But considering that the Foos have now been releasing music for nearly five times as many years as Grohl spent in Nirvana, the band has had amazing longevity. Early hits like “Big Me” and “Learn To Fly” are still in high rotation on alt rock radio, and their past two albums (2011’s Wasting Light and 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace) were generally well-received. But whether it’s just the fact that Grohl’s straight-ahead brand of rock has fallen out of favour and or if he’s aging out of relevance, Sonic Highways is easily the most out-of-touch thing the band has done to date.

The album’s most befuddling and boated offering is its ill-advised medley, “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness”. The first half sounds like much of the bland cock rock that makes up the rest of the album, while the second half stretches into a drawn-out torch ballad that finds Grohl declaring over and over again, “With God as my witness/I’m going to heal my soul tonight”.

The Foo Fighters have for the most part avoided the dreaded “post-grunge” label, likely thanks to Grohl’s own legit grunge pedigree. But this album is undeniably post-grunge. From blandly chugging tracks like “Outside” to the frantic, screechy lead single “Something From Nothing”, this whole album is the sonic equivalent of someone taking a Ferrari for a leisurely drive around a retirement community and thinking that they look really cool as they do it. The genuine urgency and excitement of older Foo tracks like “Best of You” and “Headwires” is nowhere to be found. Nor is the more varied, thoughtful introspection of songs like “Stranger Things Have Happened” or “Next Year”. Grohl and company instead seem to operate on one gear for the duration of Sonic Highways: generic guitar rock.

However, the album is not without its bright spots. The sprawling “Subterranean”, while still a bit overblown with its soaring electric guitars, comes the closest to the textured mid-tempo offerings that the Foos have done so well in the past and offers a nice reprieve from all of the album’s riff-heavy offerings. “Congregation”, meanwhile, successfully achieves the arena rock sound the bands seems to covet by offering a strong hook and an impassioned vocal delivery from Grohl.

With this latest collection of songs, Grohl seems like he’s both grumbling about “kids today” not appreciating rock & roll music while still making a slightly desperate grab at relevance. I don’t know if there’s still a place for the Foo Fighters’ music in today’s musical landscape, but such a middle-of-the-road album certainly isn’t a great argument for why we should make room for them.

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Ryan Adams @ Massey Hall, Toronto (12/11/14)

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Ryan Adams was in full-on Ryan Adams Mode at last night’s Toronto concert. His nearly two-hour set – and his stage banter between songs – was cantankerous, scruffy, and funny all at once. With a career-spanning setlist and a solid band backing him up, it was a show bound to please any fan, but also one that seemed to highlight Adams’ own frustrations.

At his more petulant moments, Adams casually eviscerated a heckler (though not before declaring that they were “best friends again” moments later) and was clearly a bit exasperated with the results of the audience “vote” to decide the concert’s final song, which inevitably fell in favour of “Come Pick Me Up”. (Massey Hall has a strict 11 p.m. curfew, so Adams had to cut things a little short.) However, his somewhat cranky persona is what fans have come to expect and, if not wholeheartedly love, at least accept in exchange for great music. (And, to be fair, Adams is arguably much harsher on himself than any drunken goon in the audience. “Here’s another song about my feelings,” Adams deadpanned at one point.)

With the full band backing him, Adams’ heavier material really shone. The few songs that he played from his recent self-titled album were among the night’s highlights, especially the swirling “Stay With Me”. He also dipped into 1984, his punk-y EP from earlier this year, to tear through through “Rats in the Wall” and “When the Summer Ends” with a crackling urgency that’s difficult to capture on recording. Earlier cuts like “This House is Not For Sale” and “Do I Wait” also felt propulsive and fresh in the “rock show” setting.

His mid-tempo material generally didn’t come across as dynamically and “Dear Chicago”, one of his most searing songs, felt surprisingly watered-down with a full band. However, it was undeniably exciting to hear “When the Stars Go Blue” live. Adams mixed up the ballad’s arrangement just enough while still staying true to the song’s original lovely (and, admittedly, slightly hokey) sentiment.

A real highlight of the show was the debut of a new song, “Do You Laugh When You Lie?” It’s part of his just-announced 7” and based on the live rendition, it feels very much in line with Adams’ latest LP down to the hooky guitars and anthemic chorus. Despite his fears of messing it up live, the song sounded great and offered a strong indication that the ever-prolific Adams still has a ton of exciting music in him.

Musically, Adams was in top form last night. And while the vibe of the show was more laborious than the last time I saw him live – in 2011, when he played a loose and spontaneous solo acoustic show and seemed to be in a more laidback mood – it still had the snarling energy that is key to Adams’ music. As fans we come for the Puddle of Mudd anecdotes, the life-sized stuffed tiger that adorned the stage, and, most importantly, a night of great music. And on all of these fronts (and many more), Adams certainly didn’t disappoint.

Album Review: Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy

mfffFor people of a certain age and a certain propensity for melancholy, Damien Rice was and possibly still is a big deal. (Just ask Josh Radnor.) I’m one of those people. After I caught up with his 2003 debut, O, I spent more hours than I care to admit alone in my room basking in teenage/Damien Rice-induced dramatics. I then went out and bought 2006’s 9 as soon as it was released, and I slowly grew to love it, too. I waited eagerly for his next album. But as the time passed, my enthusiasm waned. And eventually, after five years or so, I sort of stopped waiting altogether.

Eight years later, we finally get a follow up.

Sonically speaking, Rice’s new LP, My Favourite Faded Fantasy, more or less picks up where his last album left off. 9 saw Rice add lush string arrangements and more general bombast to his already dramatic sound. But for me, 9 works so well because it’s unpredictable. One minute, it’s just Rice and an acoustic guitar. The next, it sounds like all of John Williams’ orchestra is backing him up. The beauty of that album is that the drama can come and go in the blink of an eye and that it somehow never feels incongruous with Rice’s authentic singer-songwriter persona.

Now, My Favourite Faded Fantasy ups the production values and the bombast even more, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Every song on this new album seems to trace a similar path: it starts with a whispery Rice backed by gentle strings and then builds to a big crescendo before eventually fading out by the end. It’s not only a more predictable and less interesting format, but it also gives credence to one of the criticisms that’s frequently lobbed Rice’s way: it all gets a bit maudlin. Take “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man”, for instance.  At nine and a half minutes, it’s the album’s longest track (though not by much), and even the song’s spare piano outro grows into an unbelievably drawn-out, horn and electric guitar-tinged affair. If I could wish one trait upon this album, it would be restraint.

The production boost on this album also tends to obscure Rice’s voice, which is arguably his strongest suit as a musician; the bare ache in his vocals is what made O so dynamic. I dare say that he’s lost some of the vulnerability in his delivery since then. Maybe he’s just out of practice after eight years, or maybe he’s mellowed with age a bit. Neither option is a bad one. But rather with working with what he has, Rice seems to overcompensate with somewhat overbearing instrumentation. Even on one of the album’s simplest and most lovely songs, “The Greatest Bastard” (which sounds like a parody song title, doesn’t it?) Rice can’t seem to resist throwing in soaring strings by the end. It makes it seem…well, a bit cheesy.

However, this isn’t to say that the album doesn’t have some really strong moments. “Colour Me In” is sparse and quiet (at least for the first half of the song), beautifully showcasing both Rice’s bellow and his wounded whisper. As well, “I Don’t Want to Change You” is one of My Favourite Faded Fantasy’s tightest offerings and its mournful string backing comes across as dynamic and lovely, rather than overwhelming.

As a fan of Rice, it’s undeniably exciting to have an album’s worth of new material from him. There’s a lot here to like, and as with his previous albums, it’s likely to reveal new facets and depth on subsequent listens. However, it’s also hard not to hear My Favourite Faded Fantasy as an album shrouded in uncertainty. I’m all for a comeback, but perhaps Rice has been out of the game a bit too long.

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