Hanson: The Walk

Release Date: July 24, 2007

In anticipation of next week’s release of Anthem, I wanted to go back and re-visit my favorite Hanson album, The Walk. Following a successful (if slightly mellow) outing on 2004’s Underneath, the band removed all the speed bumps to create a timeless record, securing the place amongst the greatest rock bands on the business today. It’s a shame that too few people ever actually heard it.

The album opens with the DD Dliwayo School Choir chanting “Ngi Ne Themba (I Have Hope)” leading into the first single, “Great Divide” which features the choir as well. The inclusion of the choir was intended to help raise awareness of the band’s charity work. Sales from the “Great Divide” single went to the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, South Africa. Not that this was a one-time only event, you can still partner with the band to support their giving on the Take the Walk website.

Middle brother Taylor brings his power vocals and personal fervor strongest on “Georgia” which cleverly wordplays the Ray Charles classic. While the entire record is very radio-friendly, this may be the most consumable track for the casual listener. The children’s choir returns alongside trio vocals on the Taylor-led deep cut “Blue Sky“.

This album seems to have a wealth of lead vocals by youngest brother/drummer Zac – and shows him to be (arguable) the best vocalist of the bunch. His “Running Man” is one of the few low points on the album and provides a crystal ball glance into the future of the band’s direction. This mis-step is easily forgivable, though, when followed by the breakthrough performance of “Go“. This song is easily my favorite of anything that they’ve done and may be an all-time favorite of any artist in my collection.

Eldest, Isaac, has a few starring moments on the record as well. Another favorite throughout the band’s entire catalog occurs with him at the helm. “Watch Over Me” succeeds due to his steady, lower range that his siblings lack. He is also able to provide a tempered growl in the tag.

With 17 tracks on the extended edition (only $9.49 from AmazonMP3) the value proposition alone makes this a great record. Recently, my friend Dan and I were discussing whether or not a band can “peak.” I said, you just never know when a band is going to come back with a great record unexpectedly (and I cited Green Day‘s American Idiot) as an example. In my mind, this album is the high point of their collection, but I certainly hope to see them surpass it in the future.

Ryan Adams: Love is Hell

Release Date: May 4, 2004

Ryan Adams is on of the most prolific and diverse artists in all of music. If he hasn’t released anything under his own name or with his band, The Cardinals, in a while, start trolling the internet message boards. Chances are you’ll find a new release from any one of his many aliases: Warren Peace (rock), The Dunes (pop), DJ Reggie (hiphop), The Shit (punk), Werewolph (metal). That’s not saying that you’ll want to listen to any of them, but it’s out there. In truth, I have probably twice as many bootlegs from him as I have studio albums. (If you can find his 48 Hours bootleg record, it’s a winner.)

Coming off of the commercially and critically successful Gold album (2001) which garnered three Grammy nominations, Adams’ record label was expecting more of the same – pop-country crossover hits. What he delivered (Love is Hell) was a set stripped-down, melancholic, greatness. The label didn’t go for it and sent him back to the studio to record the songs that would become 2003’s Rock n Roll. Adams eventually convinced the label to release Love is Hell as two separate EPs. When they saw the success of Parts 1 and 2, Lost Highway agreed to release the entire album as a single disc.

It’s hard to fit this album into any genre classification. It sounds like the soundtrack to a Cameron Crowe film. Most of it is very laid back, even slow at times. There are a few more raucous numbers (“Anybody Wanna Take Me Home”, “Love is Hell”). The rest of it, you couldn’t really call “pop” or “alternative” it’s just great music. There’s not a bad song on the album, though some do shine more brightly than others, with “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and “City Rain, City Streets” landing on the more dull end for me.

There are some very awesome sonic experiences throughout the record. The opening track, “Political Scientist” begins in a very mellow mood and builds to a more driving, ethereal tone coupled with haunting, impassioned vocals. “The Shadowlands” (a personal favorite) starts out with a lo-fi tone that carries throughout the entire vocal portion until the final line when there’s a noticeable transition to full stereo sound leading into a killer 2:30 minute piano/guitar instrumental.

I’ve noticed at least two interesting homages to other artists on the record. “English Girls Approximately” appears to be a reference to Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”, though I don’t notice any similarities within the music itself. The vocal delivery on “Hotel Chelsea Nights” (great track) is very reminiscent of Prince’s classic “Purple Rain”.

Probably the most well-known track on the record – perhaps the most well-known of Adams’ entire catalog – is his cover of Oasis‘ “Wonderwall.” From time to time, an artist is able to take a well-known song and completely re-invent it as if it were their own. The song is a masterpiece of production and performance. Echoing back to my initial comments of this album resembling a soundtrack, “Wonderwall” has been featured in countless television series including Smallville, The O.C., Brothers and Sisters, and 90210.

There’s really only one problem with this record – you shouldn’t get attached to it because it is so completely un-indicative of the rest of Adams’ catalog. There may be a song here or there that harkens back to this type of sound, but most of his work is far more country or rock. I’m not sure what to do with that. I’ll listen to anything that the guy puts out, but in the end it’s always a disappointment when held up against the greatness of this record.

Jay-Z: The Blueprint

Release Date: September 11, 2001 (I didn’t realize that until I wrote this review.)

I took one performance to change my view of rap music. Prior to it, I was probably “ambivalent” at best. Then I watched Jay-Z on MTV unplugged, complete with The Roots, a string quartet, and backup singers.I was impressed throughout the program that Jay was able to edit himself and keep the program fit for TV. About halfway through “Song Cry” my ears perked as I noticed him start to let a little bit of language slip. And then I saw this transcendent moment of a songwriter being exposed on the stage in the same way you might see a guy with a guitar in a coffee shop. And in that moment I realized that rap artists are artists indeed and that their music has meaning. When I finally got to dig into the song more it cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite tracks.

I’ll admit: I may be biased due to the fact that this is the first rap record that I was really exposed to. That being said, I think it’s the best rap record ever. (There’s a pretty vocal contingent that wants to say that Illmatic is the greatest ever, but I just can’t even get past the first track on that album. And I may still be biased since Jay takes Nas to school on The Blueprint.) Every rapper tries to claim that they are the best in the business but few can back it up. Many records claim to be the blueprint (even Jay-Z tried to claim it twice after this) but this is the only one that lives up to the title. In fact, it appears on numerous year’s best, decade’s best, and even all time greatest albums lists. It’s a very big statement, but I would nearly say that it is to rap music what Pet Sounds is to Rock and Roll.

With 15 tracks (2 “hidden”) only 2 are flat out duds – “Hola Hovito” and “All I Need”. The rest of the album is a master’s class in songwriting.

The album begins with an homage to Slick Rick (“The Ruler’s Back”) followed by the aforementioned beatdown of NAS and several others (“Takeover”). Probably the most well-known track on the album (and arguably the track the validated and launched the career of Kanye West) is the West-produced “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” a semi-biographical story with a phenomenal hook. Another Yeezy-produced gem is “Heart of the City” where Hova laments the way things have changed in the ghetto and in rap music.

I’ve spoken before (twice now, even) about my love of The Temptations and David Ruffin so it should come as no surprise that the album-track “Never Change” which samples Ruffin is one of my personal favorites. Another deep track “Renegade” – written by, produced by, and featuring Eminem – is likewise great, if you can handle Eminem. In my opinion, it is one of Em’s best performances in his entire catalog as far as intensity and delivery is concerned, though the lyric is quite harsh.

I like both versions of “Girls, Girls, Girls” (Track 3 and Hidden Track 2). I’m not 100% certain where I land on which one is better, they both have their own spin. It’s exciting and intriguing to me to hear two different versions of the same concept but with completely different lyrics, beats, samples, and producers. This contradiction highlights the collaborative artistic nature of hiphop music and the influence that the producer has on the artist.

PS – Spin Magazine posted a Jay-Z Remix album this week that had an amazing re-work of “Song Cry” [explicit].

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.

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.