Being freshly unemployed, I now have more time to devote to I Rock Cleveland. That’s good news for you. Starting today, I’m going to work my way through the big stack of cds which have been collecting on my coffee table and all those new releases which are taking up hard drive space on the rock machine. These reviews may be a little more informal than usual, but don’t worry. That won’t stop me from putting a number on each and every one of them. Enjoy.
Boston Spaceships The Planets Are Blasted (GBV Records) No review of a Robert Pollard solo album, or a Robert Pollard band (In this case Boston Spaceships), is complete without the perfunctory mentions of Guided by Voices and/or Bee Thousand and Pollard’s habit of releasing on average what seems like six albums a year. It’s about time we get over these points. Yes, Pollard has a classic album or two in the bag (I’d add Propeller) and yes, he releases an absurd amount of music. Yet, you shouldn’t let either of those facts dissuade you from checking out his latest band, Boston Spaceships.
Following last fall’s entirely enjoyable Brown Submarine, Pollard, Chris Slusarenko, and John Moen are already back with album number two, The Planets are Blasted. Part low budget Tommy, part At the Budokan, and part early American indie rock, it may lack some of the charm of Brown Submarine (see “Soggy Beavers”), but it’s more cohesive than its predecessor, louder, rowdier, and catchier. “Tattoo Mission” and “Keep Me Down” provide an early one-two kick of good time Rock ‘N’ Roll with robust rhythms, big melodies, and gnarled, squawkish guitar solos. Later, “Big O Gets an Earful” and “Heartache Revolution” both hint at the grandeur of the Who’s opus, but without any of the pompousness generally associated with the words rock and opera. While songs like “Queen of Stormy Weather,” “Catherine From Mid October” and “The Town That’s After Me,” will likely remind you of those quaint, sub two-minute pop songs which used to be so abundant during Pollard’s GBV days.
Like Brown Submarine, Pollard and the Spaceships save one of their strongest numbers for the set closer. “Heavy Crown” finds the band returning to the power pop found earlier on, but this time its juxtaposed with the recurring line, “In this city there is nothing to cling to,” adding some gravity to what should be a rousing, beers in the air moment. Still, you shouldn’t read too much into that line. It’s not like Pollard is saying goodbye. Hell, Boston Spaceships third album, Zero to 99, is already scheduled for an October release, and if it’s anything like the first two, it will provide many more rowdy moments to raise a Miller Lite to an American legend. (8/10 on the Rockometer)
Heartless Bastards The Mountain (Fat Possum) With the release of their third album, The Mountain, Heartless Bastards’ lead singer Erica Wennerstrom has started to gain favorable comparisons to the woman with the biggest voice in the history of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Janis Joplin. Not that I believe this comparison is that valid, but when you hear how Wennerstrom puts every ounce of her soul into her achy and weathered yowl, there are few, if any, other names which come to mind. As Wennerstrom recounts her regrets and resigns herself to soldier on with the spiritual howl of “Hold Your Head High,” you want to believe in her, and more importantly, you want to believe in yourself. Even if the words themselves, “Hold your head/Just as high as you can/Things are gonna work out soon/Things will come round again,” read a bit cliche, when you hear them sung with such devotion, you’re left with no choice but to believe better days will come.
With Wennerstrom’s voice so prominent in everything the Heartless Bastards do, the songs which work the best on The Mountain are often the ones where the music provides some balance. On “The Mountain,” the Bastards’ rustic rock is augmented by slide guitar and a big heap of fuzz. Similarly, the first half of the album (“Early in the Morning,” “Out at Sea,” and “Nothing Seems the Same”) follows this big voice and big guitar formula, and the results are as powerful as all get out. However, when the tempo slows, and the stacks of amps are traded for more traditional Americana arrangements, as on “So Quiet,” that voice, which is the band’s biggest asset, strains in vain to match the more delicate backing band. “Had to Go” nearly suffers from a similar problem, but the interplay between banjo and fiddle is so exquisite, that you easily look past Wennerstrom’s slow tempo struggles. Perhaps aware of her limitations, or more likely, ready to rock again, the Bastards plug back in to close the album with two blustery, bluesy numbers in “Witchypoo” and “Sway,” proving again, that when they match Wennerstrom’s big voice with guitars just as big, they’ve got something quite special. Maybe not Joplin special, but then again, there can only be one Janis Joplin. (8/10)
Dan Auerbach Keep it Hid (Nonesuch) While Dan Auerbach’s best work can be found on those early Black Keys’ albums, Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory, his recent moves away from the basic, two man, blues rock set up have been a welcome change. First, he and Carney, booked time in a studio and brought in a big name producer (Danger Mouse) for the last Keys’ album, Attack and Release. Now, for his solo debut, he’s done the unthinkable (As far as The Black Keys are concerned) and brought in the boys from Hacienda to act as his backing band. Consequently, Keep it Hid features some of Auerbach’s most diverse songwriting. Along with the bluesy jams you’d expect from any Auerbach associated record (“The Prowl” and “Street Walkin'”), there’s quaint folksy moments (“Trouble Weighs a Ton,” “When the Night Comes,” and “Goin’ Home”), and some sounds of late Sixties psychedelia (“I Want Some More,” “Heartbreak in Disrepair,” and “Mean Monsoon.”) Just one problem. At one point during this album you’re going to miss Carney’s drumming. The kick drum won’t be thumping and rumbling enough, or the snare, won’t hit with the same tooth splitting rattle, and for all those steps forward, you may find yourself pining for the past. (7/10)
P4KTV: Dan Auerbach – Trouble Weighs a Ton
The Drones Havilah (ATP Recordings) At their best, The Drones’ combination of off kilter, jagged rhythms, and spirited, spontaneous blasts of guitar, provide the ideal setting for Gareth Liddiard’s sketchy, sordid tales of Australian life, simultaneously reminding you of the country’s convict past and its present, a country like any other, which is far more nuanced than the one portrayed on the Discovery Channel.
Havilah is not the Drones at their best. After a spirited start to the album with “Nail it Down” and “Minotaur,” two songs which prove Liddiard and his mates can still make as fine a racket as any, they remove all traces of aggression from their sound and spend the remainder of the album meandering around in mid-tempo hell. Now, those jagged rhythms are awkward, the jarring guitars gone missing, and Liddiard’s jaded delivery is softened to a harmless slur. (5/10)
YOUTUBE: The Drones – The Minotaur
Phosphorescent To Willie (Dead Oceans) Due to purely personal reasons, Phosphorescent’s folksy album of Willie Nelson covers, To Willie, has been the most difficult disc I’ve listened to in years. I no longer have a woman, and I no longer have a job, and Willie, god bless his soul, has a way of making all that heavy sh*t feel even heavier. You don’t know how glad I am that I don’t have any cocaine or whiskey or guns in the house, ’cause when Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent takes on songs like “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” I have this insatiable urge to join them on the road to the absolute bottom of life.
Musically, these covers stay pretty close to the originals, as Houck eschews the depth and experimentation, which made his previous album, Pride, such a wonderful listen. Where once he worked with a wonderful palate of Southern Gospel, African tribal rhythms, and rapturous harmonies, he now works with Willie. Consequently, as an ode to the songwriting genius of Willie Nelson, To Willie succeeds on all levels, but as a Phosphorescent album, you’ll be left wishing he’d been more adventurous with the source material. (6/10)