Newsong: Swallow the Ocean

Release Date: Feb 26, 2013

Newsong is a curious case study. They were founded in 1981 as vocal group that would most likely dwell in the Phillips, Craig, and Dean or 4Him domain. Over the last 32 years, founding members Eddie Carswell and Billy Goodwin have welcomed a variety of partners into their musical legacy and weathered the changing tides of the music industry by adapting their sound to fit the times.

Over the decades, they have launched solo careers (Russ Lee and Charles Billingsley), provided a home for floundering solo artists (Michael O’Brien) and passed their musicians on to greater success (Scotty Wilbanks to Third Day). They’ve gone from four vocal members to groups of seven or eight including musicians. And they’ve adapted from the sounds of early 80’s CCM to playing their own instruments on stage and leading their own brand of worship concerts. It’s a system that is rarely employed, but occasionally works to great advantage (see also Gaither Vocal Band).

I fell in love with the group when they were fronted by vocalist Russ Lee in the mid-90’s. Lee has one of the most unique voices in Christian music and when he left to pursue his solo career, I lost interest in the group. Even though they did add the aforementioned Michael O’Brien (whose solo work I loved) and achieved their biggest hit, “The Christmas Shoes” with him on the team, I just never latched on. Since Russ Lee’s return two albums ago, I’ve found my interest renewed.

Sharing in the vocal duties are Goodwin, Carswell, and Matt Butler who kicks things off on the album’s lead single, “Swallow the Ocean.” It’s rare that you find a group that is able to deliver the vocal chops of a traditional quartet along with solid musicianship. “Ocean” allows Butler the opportunity to showcase what he can do while the other vocalists play their respective parts seamlessly. Viewing the music video for the song, the group appears completely credible as a “rock band” while delivering vocally in a way that most rock bands simply can’t.

The record drives hard with straight forward, up-beat music and intentional, direct lyrics. As with any band with multiple lead vocalists, everyone is going to have their favorite. Butler handles the bulk of the lead vocal duties throughout the record with Lee and Goodwin taking turns throughout. The extended digital version includes an additional three songs not found on the CD. One of those bonus tracks, “Furious,” features Russ Lee’s best performance on the record.

When I noticed “In Christ Alone” on the tracklist, I was desperately hoping for a Lee-led cover of the Michael English classic. Rather, what we get is the Stuart Townend worship song of the same name (equally a classic) led by Goodwin. While he is the right choice for the track, once I had imagined the former, I just couldn’t give up the dream. Other standout tracks include Lee’s “As it is in Heaven” and Butler’s “Creator” (bonus track).

Listening to this album, you would not imagine that it came from a band that has been around for 30 plus years. The entire package is utterly (to borrow and over-used term) relevant; musically, lyrically, and vocally. While they may not be an A-list group whose records people are waiting for with bated breath, all of those A-listers would be lucky to have a career half as long as Newsong.

While doing research, I stumbled across this phenomenal video of Russ playing a needtobreathe song all alone with his Alvarez.

The Mavericks: In Time

Release Date: Feb 19, 2013

I’ve previously mentioned my jr. high foray into country music. Those were the days when the country airwaves were ruled by the likes of Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Reba – this is “Don’t Take the Girl”-era Tim McGraw. From that time, there are 3 bands that really stand out to me: the ironically big hair of Little Texas, the sleeveless pearl snaps of Blackhawk, and the incredible music of Raul Malo and The Mavericks.

I feel it necessary to call out lead singer Raul Malo because his voice makes the band. This is extremely apparent on their earliest records that seem to be built around his vocals. As they went on, they came together and established a collective sound: retro Cali-country, with a hint of mariachi, and a voice stolen from Roy Orbison – not bad for a country band from Florida.

They put out a half-dozen albums throughout the 90’s and very early ’00s. They never broke huge, but had some songs you might remember, “Oh What a Thrill”, “There Goes My Heart”, “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down”. In 2003 they called it quits and mostly went quietly into that dark night with the exception of Malo who released his own half-dozen records (mostly Roy Orbison-crooner-style fare).

Before I get into this record, I have to voice one complaint. Last year, the band released a 5 song EP, Suited Up and Ready. All 5 of those songs appear on In Time. I’m all about whetting the appetite by releasing an EP 3-6 months prior to a full-length. I’m even ok with all of the songs being re-used, so long as the EP is offering up some sort of unique content, such as acoustic versions of those songs and maybe a track or two that didn’t make the record. Frightened Rabbit offered one album track and four non-album tracks on their state hospital EP. Hanson offered acoustic versions of 4 album tracks and one full version of a non-album track on their These Walls EP. Someone made a bad call with this one, expecting people to pay for the same songs twice – especially when those are the five best tracks on the album.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit disappointed with this record. After such a long hiatus, I was hoping for at least one or two really killer tracks that could live on for years and years, and I just don’t think I found any. The band has really moved into a much more mariachi-influenced sound. Honestly, the sound is multi-generational and multi-ethnic. What does that sound like? Well, the organ, trumpets, and accordion are ever-present. The super-clean, whammy-laden electric guitars are abundant. And the entire record is marked by syncopated rhythms throughout. And that’s all good stuff, but it just means that there’s really no place for this record in the mainstream. It’s a record for the band and it’s truest fans.

The strongest stand-alone track is “Born to be Blue.” (If I can say one thing, the theme of the record is really consistent throughout: failed love and heartbreak.) “Come Unto Me” sounds like it would fit perfectly into a Quentin Tarrantino western. “That’s Not My Name” honestly sounds like it was recorded in the 50’s. The bulk of the album is up-tempo, but there are a few slowed down tracks including “In Another’s Arms” that showcase the smoothness of Raul Malo’s voice. The band is comprised of great musicians who play their roles well in all contexts, but shine brightest on the most expansive tracks such as “All Over Again.”

In short, you can roll the dice on each track and you’ll either come up with modern Tejano rockers or Richie Valens flavored ballads. I just wish we’d come away with something on the level of “Oh What a Thrill”.

As an aside, I was really excited to see the band advertised both on the end cap at Target for the last month and in the Target circular this past Sunday. I really appreciate Target for embracing, supporting, and raising awareness for great music.

Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreak

Release Date: Nov 24, 2008

Before you tune me out, hear me out. I know it’s Kanye. I know you probably hate him. Let me dissuade you of your preconceptions for but a moment. You’re probably saying, “But Ryan, I just hate that hip hop/rap nonsense!” This isn’t rap. “Well, I don’t want to hear all that foul language and misogyny.” There are ZERO curse words and if comparing a woman to the titular character of an 80’s action film about a police officer who becomes a robot is misogyny, well, you’ll have to make your own mind up on that…

These are the songs of a broken-hearted man, or if the cover image is any indication, a deflated man. A guy who rose up too quick and missed out on some of the more important things. Of course, he did go on to steal the stage from Taylor Swift and impregnate Kim Kardashian, but let’s try to focus on this album. Ok? At this point, his mother had just died and his long-time fiancee had just left him. He retreated to Hawaii and created this masterpiece.

This is absolutely one of my favorite records. It is so unlike anything else he had done up to that point. Artists in general and rappers in particular have to put on something of a characterization of themselves. Every now and then, you’ll see that get stripped away and usually only for a moment or two. Here, Yeezy gives us almost an hour of real talk.

The thumping opening of “Say You Will” is brilliant. It’s sparse, it’s tense, it’s painful. I knew that I was really in for something different when “Welcome to Heartbreak” presented an unheard-before picture of self-loathing and personal emptiness. Chased the good life all my life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / where did I go wrong. This is not rap music. You’ve heard “Heartless” and countless covers of it (William Fitzsimmons’ is the best) and you’ve probably heard “Love Lockdown” (Pentatonix killed this one on The Sing Off) so I won’t spend any more time on those tracks.

My favorite track on the record is “Robocop” mainly because it is lyrically so absurd but still relevant. Basically, his girl is watching his every move and it’s driving him crazy. The best part is the subtle robotic sounds in chorus. His vocal is mostly unprocessed and just very endearing. The whole track is fairly childish and playful which makes it fun. The “L.A. girl” tag at the end is hilariously layered over the string section.

If there’s a “miss” on this record, it’s the final track “Pinocchio Story (Freestyle Live from Singapore)”. If Kanye is going to sing, he needs the AutoTune. The track itself is rambling and dis-jointed, meanwhile the recording is just terrible. I don’t really know why it was even included.

So, there’s your 6th grade persuasive argument essay. All I’m saying is, even if you don’t like the guy, give this record a chance. If you don’t want to support him then listen to it on Spotify and he’ll only get 1/32 of a cent for each song played.

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

Released Date: May 16, 1966

One of the hallmarks of this site is the mission to bring you classic records that – for whatever reason – you may be unfamiliar with. What better way to start than with an album that was heavily influenced by the Beatles and has inspired countless artists over the decades including Mick Jagger, Elton John, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney who was quoted as saying that he weeps every time he hears it? It is #2 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. This is Pet Sounds.

My journey to the album began with a compilation record called Artist’s Choice: Rolling Stones. There was a series of these records that Starbucks put out for several years that directed me to a number of other great artists. The Stones chose the very deep track “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and reference the influence that the entire Pet Sounds record had on the band. Such high praise alongside my familiarity with several of the tracks (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”) made the purchase a no-brainer.

Chief songwriter, Brian Wilson, had been profoundly impacted by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, noting that it was an album with a unified theme and thought, rather than just a collection of songs. (This is an age-old battle that continues today and will be addressed in more depth as more records are reviewed). Wilson then set about to write the greatest rock album ever.

“For me to say that I was enthralled would be an understatement. I had never heard such magical sounds, so amazingly recorded. It undoubtedly changed the way that I, and countless others, approached recording. It is a timeless and amazing recording of incredible genius and beauty.” – Elton John

What he ended up with flew in the face of everything that the band had spent 5 years building their reputation on – those classics like “Surfing U.S.A.”, “Surfin’ Safari”, “I Get Around”, and “Help Me Rhonda”. Compared to those surf tunes, Pet Sounds was the 60′s version of “emo,” a collection of songs about teenage life and the search for meaning. Wilson wrote and recorded most of the record himself with studio musicians while The Beach Boys toured without him. When they returned from tour, he merely brought them in to contribute ad-hoc vocals. For the most part, the rest of the group didn’t “get it.” Lead singer Mike Love was perhaps the most vocal in his stance against the album and the album almost went unreleased – it’s intended follow-up SMiLE did go unreleased and was locked in a vault for some 44 years before being released in 2011.

Ok, so all of that was really just history. Can I tell you what makes it so good? No. Wilson is to music what a master painter is to the visual arts. He is someone who works without a box and without a safety net. He knows that if he hears it in his head, he can make it happen and he didn’t let anything stand in the way of that. In truth, even with the recording equipment and technology available to us today, a lot of what Wilson was doing over 40 years ago would still be difficult and his type of creativity is not something that can be born out of “hit machine” in a studio. However, unlike many of music’s strange musical mad scientists (Prince, I’m looking at you), Wilson crafted songs that had a universality about them that has resonated with people for nearly half a decade.

“I think I would put him up there with any composer – especially Pet Sounds. I don’t think there is anything better than that, necessarily. I don’t think you’d be out of line comparing him to Beethoven – to any composer.” – Tom Petty

Listen to: “Caroline, No”, “God Only Knows”, “I Know There’s an Answer”, “Sloop John B”

Gary Allan: Set You Free

Released: Jan 22, 2013

I’ve been a Gary Allan fan since I heard his track “Songs About Rain” off of the See If I Care album back in 2003. I had gone through a Nashville country stage in my jr. high years and Texas country during college. At the time that I came across Allan, I had pretty much limited my country music listening to Pat Green and The Mavericks. “Songs About Rain” struck a chord and when I finally popped in the album, I was pleased to find that it didn’t sound like every other country record out there.

Hailing from Southern California, Allan is clearly not the typical country artist. He brings back the Bakersfield sound of the late-50s – rockin’ roadhouse country – which influenced artists as far and wide as Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and even The Beatles. Add to this Allan’s life experience (his wife committed suicide while he was on tour promoting See If I Care) and you’ve got a country artist who can convey pain and loss unlike anyone else out there. [Bias: Now, normally I don’t care much for artists who don’t write their own material – and over the years GA has taken on more writing and producing duties – but the songs he chooses are solid and he makes them his own in a thoroughly believable manner, so I let him slide.]

His latest album opens with the Gary Allan Trifecta: A twangy Bakersfield rocker, “Tough Goodbye”; a silver-lining heart-tugger, “Every Storm”; and an angry ass-kicker “Bones”. “Every Storm”, the lead single, is taken up a notch by the addition of a female background vocal not often found in Allan’s work. While “Bones” has a great sense of immediacy and paints a really clear picture, it lacks the heart of “Just Got Back from Hell” (a song with a very similar sound) off his Tough All Over record.

Gary Allan albums usually follow a pattern: 2-3 really great tracks, 2-3 really bad tracks 4-6 mediocre tracks. This album is no different. I did read an article that talked about how the entire album tells a complete story and I picked up on bits and pieces of it as I listened through several times, but it didn’t “jump off the page” to me. While I hate the idea of stripping tracks out of their album context to make a Greatest Hits record, GA is one of those artists that I’m just never going to pop in his album and listen all the way through. I’m going to pick and choose my favorite songs and enjoy the heck out of those 2-3 each album. That said, I’m going to continue to support him because what he’s doing is so different than everything else out there, and he makes me feel it.

“It Ain’t the Whiskey” is probably my favorite track on the album. If it weren’t for the drunken fools cheering every time he says “whiskey”, this would be an awesome performance. I’m afraid that for the audience, whiskey is the problem.

Dashboard Confessional: So Impossible

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: Dec 18, 2001

As is often the case, for some reason, I was aware of the name Dashboard Confessional before I ever heard a note of their music. I eventually came into contact with the song “So Impossible” around the fall of 2002 and at first it really didn’t resonate with me. (Certainly, it’s the weakest track on this record it does set the stage for the rest.)

You might say, “Ryan, come on, this is a 4 track EP from 12 years ago. The whole thing clocks in at less than 15 minutes! Why does this warrant a review – the first week the site is open?” Well, the fact is, Chris Carraba conveys a better story and more emotion in 14:11 than many artists do in their entire career.

The record is the story of a presumably overlooked and awkward teenage guy who is invited to a party by a girl he likes. It’s full-on emo-teenage-angst-romance-hope-fear-awkwardness-triumph. It’s amazingly relatable and while the songs form a story together, they each can stand on their own. Now, it’s not been my style to do a song by song breakdown, but with only 4 tracks, I think I will.

“For You to Notice” – But for now I’ll look so longingly / wait up / for you to want me / for you to need me / for you to notice me – Refined, low-key verses leading to a great rising riff in the pre-chorus and mini-solo. Choruses begin to push the vocal tone and layer on harmonies for added internal conflict.

“So Impossible” – I’ve been scheduled to work, but I’ll call in / and my friend isn’t busy, he’d be happy to join me / and maybe my friend and your friend will hit it off / or maybe / we will – You can almost feel the tension/hope/courage building throughout the song. As mentioned previously, the song itself is weaker than it’s companions, but it provides requisite setup for the following two.

“Remember to Breathe” – So, sneakers or flip flops? / I’m starting to panic (wait, wait) / remember, she asked you / remember to BREEEAAAATHE / and everything will be OOOOOKKKKKK – This is easily one of my all-time favorite song. The sparse piano, lead acoustic guitar part, and lack of chorus keep it from ever getting stale and maintain a sense of immediacy throughout the composition. The lyrics paint as vivid a picture as possible.

“Hands Down” – My hopes are so high that you kiss might kill me / so won’t you kill me / so I’ll die happy / My heart is yours to fill or burst / or break or bury / or wear as jewelry – They actually re-recorded this track with a full band, made a music video and got some MTV play out of it. Maybe that’s why it’s my least favorite. The first three songs being so anxiety-filled make this songs joyousness seem a little out of place – not that we would have wanted any other outcome.

Frightened Rabbit: Pedestrian Verse

Release Date: Feb 5, 2013

There are a number of bands that I’ve simply happened upon by some chance thanks to iTunes’ “Listeners Also Bought” feature. Frightened Rabbit is definitely at the top of this list by way of an iTunes suggestion stemming from an equally fantastic band, The Frames.

Pedestrian Verse is the fourth album by these lads from Scotland and their first “major label” release. They gained much critical acclaim for their incomparable 2008 release, The Midnight Organ Fight which was built upon a foundation of incredibly strong lyrics. Their 2010 followup, The Winter of Mixed Drinks brought a marked change musically to a more “plugged-in” sound and perhaps lost some of the lyrical immediacy of it’s predecessor. Unfortunately, I’ve always had some trouble getting into their 2006 debut, Sing the Greys which seems to me very rough and unpolished. This new record brings together the lyrical depth of MOF and continues the musical development of WoMD with a few nods to StG.

Acts of Man opens the album with a simple piano melody that serves as a pleasant welcome to both returning fans and first time listeners. From the get-go, songwriter Scott Hutchinson proves again that he writes the most poetic curse words in the music business. I had the chance to “interview” Scott about this song. Below is the full transcript of that conversation.

@owljohn is that you singing at the start of Acts of Man or are we hearing one of your wonderful bandmates – sounds a bit unfamiliar.

@ryanbrymer it’s me. Aye.

Scott Hutchison (@owljohn) January 29, 2013

The standout tracks State Hospital and The Woodpile have both been previously released as part of an EP and as a single, respectively. State Hospital is perhaps the most defining piece the band has ever crafted – a heartbreaking story wrapped in simple, engaging production. It’s not fair to say that there is an “explicit content” warning. The content is not explicit, he just happens to use some language that may be viewed as offensive to more conservative listeners. He’s from Scotland – they do things different over there. Craig Ferguson shout out.

The Woodpile is a great example of the band’s sonic progression – scaled-back verses making way for driving choruses. The official video is below, but Scott also recorded an amazing acoustic version for a UK website.

There’s some great work here and I’ll be curious to learn more of what drove the record’s thematic development. There is a mild dose of religious imagery sprinkled throughout that I would love to have some answers on. Musically, though, I’m more a fan of the stripped-down approach. Hutchinson is a storyteller and most of his stories are fraught with pain and loss and I don’t feel that driving rock instrumentation lends itself well to that. I find that the vocal gets lost in the production making it harder for me to draw conclusions or fully grasp what is being conveyed without months and months of listening. While it doesn’t answer all of my questions, here’s a great article that Scott wrote about the album’s development.