Ed Kowalczyk: The Flood and The Mercy

Release Date: October 29, 2013

If you don’t recognize the name Ed Kowalczyk, you’ll surely recognize the voice if you spent any time around rock radio in the 90s. As the lead singer of the band Live, which he co-founded in 1988, Kowalczyk released 7 albums in 20 years. While never reaching the levels of success seen by some of their contemporaries (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana), Live released a solid string of hits throughout the mid-90s. Although “Lightning Crashes” is probably the only single that has  maintained a spot on some radio playlists, during the golden years of alternative rock in any given hour you would easily hear “I Alone”, “All Over You”, or “The Dolphin’s Cry”.

In 2009, the band went on a hiatus that eventually devolved into a break up and Ed set out on his own path releasing 2010’s Alive and The Garden EP (2012). Also in 2012, the other members of Live returned under the same name with new lead singer Chris Shinn (YouTube it if you want, but I don’t recommend it). And now, Kowalczyk returns with his latest solo effort, The Flood and the Mercy.

With the first words of the opening track, “The One”, you feel like you’ve reconnected with an old friend as though no time has passed since you were last together. Ed’s iconic voice has held up better than that of many of his peers. The sound and lyrics are definitely reminiscent of Live. Track 2 (and the album’s first single), the slow-burner “Seven”, incorporates a few more electronic elements, but maintains the same tone. “All that I Wanted” is another excellent mellow effort.

There are a few missteps along the way. “Parasite” is a typical late-90s album track. More aggressive than the rest of the album, it feels a bit out of place. In recent years, Kowalczyk has been open (if not outspoken) about his return to the Christian faith. The album closes with the potentially promising “Cornerstone”, a hymn-like, piano-driven ballad.  The lyrics – referencing Psalm 118:22 – start out strong, but quickly become over- simplified and trite.

I had really hoped to speak with Ed before writing this review, in order to learn more about his writing – specifically. His lyrics have always been rife with analogy and epic, metaphysical language. And for this, we’ve never really slighted him. Consider these

Lightning crashes and a mother dies / her intentions fall to the floor / the angel closes her eyes – Lightning Crashes It’s easier not to be wise /and measure these things by your brains / I sank into Eden with you / alone in the church by and by – I Alone It was an evening I shared with the sun / to find out where we belonged / from the earliest days / we were dancing in the shadows – Lakini’s Juice Love will lead us (alright) / Love will lead us, she will lead us / Can you hear the dolphin’s cry / see the road rise up to meet us – The Dolphin’s Cry

Similar methods are found on The Flood and the Mercy. Honestly, they remind me of early metal (but then, I’m a sucker for Dio). In a lot of cases, I have enough background info on an artist that I can surmise what they are trying to say, or making reference to, but I simply don’t have that with Ed. So, if given the opportunity, I would have to ask him what the message is that he’s trying to send because I find I simply can’t discern it for myself from the lyrics.

You know, around 2001, Alternative as a genre fell off. A lot of bands called it quits and a few have continued to limp along when they should have turned in years ago. There have been a few bright spots along the way – Third Eye Blind’s Ursa Major (2010) comes to mind. But for some reason, the last couple of months have provided a wealth of new releases from the likes of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots (now with Chester from Linkin Park), former Creed frontman Scott Stapp, (his former bandmates now called) Alter Bridge, Dustin Kensrue (of Thrice), and a collaboration between Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones. It seem like there’s still a place for the music of Ed Kowalczyk – even if he’s only reaching a fraction of those he once reached. It seems that he still plays a good portion of Live hits at his concerts, so one can only imagine that the results would be stellar, if not nostalgic.

Film Review :: Broadway Idiot

Release Date: October 11, 2013 (in theaters and on demand)

When I first heard about a musical based on Green Day’s Grammy Award winning, magnum opus, American Idiot, I was pretty skeptical. When I finally heard the cast recording soundtrack – I’ll be honest – I was underwhelmed. The album is so iconic that it’s hard for much of anything to measure up. Earlier this summer, however, I found my interest in the musical renewed when I learned that two artists whose work I have followed sporadically were part of the original cast: John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom) and Tony Vincent (recording artist, NBC’s The Voice) playing lead characters “Johnny” and “St. Jimmy” respectively. Earlier this week when I learned of the new behind-the-scenes documentary Broadway Idiot I found my chance to finally get a look at what this whole thing was all about.

In general, I think that stage theater is under-exposed. Down here in Texas, it’s mostly unheard of but for the local high school production of The Music Man. So, for the uninitiated, it should be noted that the pop music theater musical is something that has been growing in popularity. In recent years Mamma Mia (music of ABBA), Jersey Boys (Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons), and We Will Rock You (Queen) have all graced the stage. All that to say, the concept in and of itself wasn’t completely original – thought it may have garnered more public awareness on the back of a Grammy Awards performance featuring Green Day and the cast.

Broadway Idiot takes us not just behind the scenes, but deep into the inner workings of the theater. We hear songs as the arrangements are being written and we learn why certain creative choices are made. We see the actors learning their parts and creating their characters. We sit down with the director, the choreographer, the music director, and the author himself, Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day. While we don’t witness the entire performance of American Idiot, we see enough to understand the story and gain a new found respect for the creative process and the end result.

The high points of the film, in my mind, center on the development of the musical numbers. The stage show contains the entirety of the American Idiot album, as well as a large portion of Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown record. While the cast performs with much gusto, the vocals still lack the brilliance of their source material. The best moments, though, are when songs are brilliantly re-imagined such as the Beach Boys-inspired take on “Last Night on Earth”.

Director Doug Hamilton also takes us back in time to learn more about Billy Joe’s history with theater and singing lessons as a child. We’re also able to experience a certain sense of catharsis as Armstrong hears his own material afresh and realizes how much more there is to it. In a pivotal moment, he states that the best thing about the musical is that is a source of affirmation and validation of his songwriting – something that isn’t talked about a whole lot in rock music.

If the film is lacking in anything, it is its engagement with the cast. While actors names do flash on screen and several one or two sentence statements are made by the actors, they are surprisingly silent in the story-telling element. This was particularly disappointing to me given the fact that there is so much fertile ground including actors making their Broadway debuts, or the simple fact of working with an artist like Green Day. In the director’s defense, he does present the movie as “following Billy Joe Armstrong’s journey from punk rock to Broadway.” That goal is certainly accomplished.

Ben Folds Five: Live

Release Date: June 4, 2013

Some artists just sound better live: Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, Edwin McCain – and for me, Ben Folds.

I first gave Ben Folds Five a listen in college because one of my closest friends was a fan and had all their records. I was unimpressed. While sojourning in a far away land (Portland, OR), I came across Folds’ solo Live album at the neighborhood library. It wasn’t until watching the DVD portion that I finally “got it.” I went out immediately and bought that record for myself. I love his (solo) Songs for Silverman album, but everything else has been very “meh” to me. The recent reunion record, The Sound of the Life of the Mind with the other two who form the “Five” (Robert Sledge – bass, Darren Jessee – drums) had a couple of solid songs, but wasn’t interesting enough on its own accord to warrant a review.

In delving deeper I realized that the work of the Five is a bit more jazz-based in its composition than Folds’ solo work which has more of a traditional pop structure. There’s nothing wrong with that, but placing the non-sequitur lyrics Folds is known for over the non-traditional pace of jazz arrangement can make for a very busy experience. Further, I feel that the piano is a very “honest” instrument (along with the banjo and cello). This allowed even the most absurd songs from Folds’ solo Live to have a warmth to them. I feel that adding the bass and drums takes away from some of that transcendence and brings you back to reality, which is a pretty major loss.

My final complaint is the structure of the album. I love a good live performance album recorded on one night in one location where you really get to experience the show as it was. The compilation live album – with songs culled from multiple performances across varied locations (as heard here) just doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe if I didn’t know it was that, I wouldn’t care so much. A good live performance album should show introduce new listeners to old material, former listeners to new material, and lifers to some hidden gems and new takes on old favorites. A compilation live album tends to be more “greatest hits”-ish and presumably seeks to cover up flaws. It’s just not as real to me.

Two standout tracks from last years The Sound of the Life of the Mindshine here. The lyrics of “Erase Me” are not as buried as they were on the studio version and paint a saddened picture that was not previously evident to me. “Draw a Crowd‘s” already sophomoric lyrics are augmented by an instrumental mishap that plunges Folds deeper into his humorous self.

Classic Five tracks which were also included on the solo Live are part of the setlist. “Narcolepsy” allows the band to showcase their skills with great solo interludes. More great jams occur on “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces“. Although “Dwarf” is the penultimate track, it closes with the classic “Thank You, Goodnight”, though followed by a final cut. We could chalk this up as an encore, however, the fan fave “Song for the Dumped” ends with a call for even more encores – and leaves us unrequited.

Of course, a Folds collection (soloed or Fived) would be incomplete without “Brick” which is helped along here by the additional musicians who keep it from moving beyond depressing. Perhaps Folds’ most relatable, radio-friendly track (and my personal favorite from the catalog), “Landed” is also present. It seems that Folds’ voice falters several times during the performance and leads me back to the studio version.

All in all, the record is a great introduction or re-introduction to the group. While I would lean more heavily toward the solo Live record, many will probably gravitate toward the more robust sounds of Five Live.

Eisley: Currents

Release Date: May 28, 2013

When I first encountered Eisley as an unsigned band, I was extremely impressed – and not just because they were fronted by 3 sisters ranging from 15-19 years old (Stacy, Sherri, and Chauntelle DuPree). Their first major-label full-length record, Room Noises satisfied expectations while smoothing out some of the rough production of their indie releases. On Combinations, their followup, it felt a bit like someone was telling them to smile real hard and make music that will make sense to the masses – I’ve never connected with it. Then they released their master-work, The Valley, which blew all previous accolades out of the water. So, how do you follow up such an album?

For Currents, the band took full control of the production. They involved more of the family in the process with brother Weston (drums) and cousin Garron (bass) contributing to the writing and recording on a level that they hadn’t before. (They are also joined by their additional siblings Christie and Colin of Merriment on a track.) And they took their sound back to the beginning while infusing mature lyrics to their already amazing harmonies.

The result is good on its own and exists on almost a whole different plane than what the band has done before. If it’s possible to reboot a band without changing the lineup, Eisley has done it. They exorcised their demons on The Valley and have emerged re-energized, wiser, and perhaps more excited than ever before… That said, I can’t help but be a little disappointed to hear them not continue in the same vein as the sound of The Valley – a heavier (sonically and thematically), emotion-filled attack on the senses.

The themes here have a much more positive vibe than anything the band has done in the past. While some of the lyrics are difficult to make out (more on that later) there seems to be a couple of common themes: love and faith. In fact, this record seems to show the band putting their faith on display more than they ever have. It’s always been a part of who they are, but has not blatantly seeped into their records – to be fair, it’s hard to talk about faith when singing about winter wizards, candy forests, a gumdrop mountains.

The biggest standout track is “Millstone“, the first full lead vocal track from the eldest Dupree sibling, Chauntelle. While each sister (including Christie on “Wicked Child”) has a very similar voice, Chauntelle’s tone brings a welcomed groundedness to a previously airy collection of tracks. The sparse production on “Millstone” also serves as a nice change of pace for the record and allows Chauntelle’s voice to be on full display.

The biggest successes here ride on the vocal interplay of the singers. The simple addition of a heretofore unheard male vocal on “Save My Soul” is a welcomed gift. Sans liner-notes, I’m left to believe that this is the previously stated guest vocal from Max Bemis of Say Anything (and husband of Sherri). I’m a huge fan of Christie’s voice and her placement opposite Sherri on “Wicked Child” creates a wonderful balance.

The misses for me on the record are really in the production department (a responsibility that the band was excited to have full ownership of this time around). Save for a couple of standout tracks (“Millstone”,”Find Me Here”) the vocals are very buried in the mix making the lyrics a bit harder to comprehend.

While I’m glad to see the guys take more of a leadership role and get the recognition they deserve for their years in the band, the production on the bass and drums is a bit much for my taste. It reminds me of the re-formation of Ben Folds Five who offered pretty balanced mixes in their first incarnation, but crank the bass and drums up to 11 on their reunion album with previously Five-less Folds.

While it lacks the urgency of its predecessor, Currents succeeds far more than it fails. It doesn’t try to recreate the simplicity of the past, but it pays homage to a deep history as a band and as individuals while clearly stating, “this is where we are in life, we know who we are, and we know what we’re about… but we may still be discovering ourselves musically.” And maybe they always will be.

Thirty Seconds to Mars: Love Lust Faith + Dreams

Release Date: May 21, 2013

Let’s get right to this: I love the This is Warrecord. I wasn’t as impressed with the Up in the Air single that came out a few months back, but maybe it was just out of context at the time. One thing is for sure. Going from a growling tiger (This is War) to a technicolor dot pattern cover here does not bode well.

Here’s the thing, as far as I’m concerned, if you can vocalize emotion and utilize grand archetypes then your lyrics don’t really have to mean anything in order to be meaningful. Jared and company did this masterfully on This is War – specifically their massive single, “Kings and Queens“.

On this effort, Thirty Seconds to Mars, looks for ways to blend their emo-sensibilities with anthemic rock and 80’s epicness. At some points they succeed, at others they fall short. On the whole, they fail to reach the place of transcendence that they found on their previous release.

The lead single, “Up in the Air” has grown on me more as familiarity has developed. It really feels like the only radio-ready track on the record. Its trouble – and the trouble with much of this record – is its busy-ness. It’s almost as though the bpm subconsciously puts the listener on edge.

Warning: This is a wigged out video with a single expletive and some absurd visuals.

City of Angels” is the first point of resonance for me. Rather than utilizing noise to propel the track forward, Leto’s vocals are allowed to shine. The steady beat and strings section keep it grounded. The lyrics, while still somewhat ambiguous, rely on familiar tropes that are repeated throughout the album and weave a thread back to the bands earlier work.

Going in a completely different direction, “End of Days” almost has a Soul sound to it which is a welcomed change of pace but not something they should make a habit of. For some reason they decided to allow Cutting Crew to remix the “Imperial March” for Star Wars (no, not really) then let Jared sing in a traditional Indian style over the top of it for “Pyres of Varanasi“. “Convergence” is a rather playful instrumental which serves as a late-set, much needed palate cleanser. A fairly odd move, “Depuis le Debut” (from the start) closes the album, but sounds more like an intro.

In my opinion, the band best finds their stride on “Do or Die“. Building on a base of heavy use of the floor tom and U2-esque guitars is the right choice. Jared’s voice is allowed to rest at home base during the verses, making it relatable. It kicks into high gear on the chorus and is augmented by the emo-choir-style vocals that really made This is War such a great work. Personally, I like this better as the album closer, perhaps with an epic drum and guitar instrumental followed by choir vocals acappella to close.

With the title, the flow, and the fact that some girl randomly intones “Love” “Lust” “Faith” “Dreams” intermittently throughout, I know there’s some sort of thematic intent here. I just don’t hear it. The record feels disjoint as though every 3 songs is trying to squeeze one of these big concepts into a short movement – yet there seems to be a lot of lyrical overlap. Maybe it would have all made more sense as a set of 4 EPs? That is to suggest that there is any sense to be made of Jared Leto. At points it feels like he’s mad-libbing his way through a choose your own adventure of songwriting – here let’s all try. Choose A-D from line one and match with A-D from line two to start your own Thirty Seconds to Mars song:

I feel like A) a king, B) an angel, C) nothing, D) a mystery / lost on my own.

Fighting A) my feelings, B) these strangers, C) for something, D) my history/ so far from home.

Of course, I jest. I like these guys and I like this genre (I’ll lump Angels and Airwaves in with them). I just was hoping for more.

Eisley: The Valley

Release Date: March 31, 2011

With a new record on the way next week, I wanted to go back and review Eisley’s previous record, The ValleyPersonally, I think that they will be hard-pressed to surpass this near-flawless work of art, but we shall see.

There are some songs and albums that are incredible, but enter a whole new echelon when you begin to grasp where they originated from. Several that come to mind: Ben Folds Five’sBrick” telling the story of an actual abortion, Gary Allan (covering Vertical Horizon) on “Best I Ever Had” following his wife’s suicide. These are abysmal circumstances but as the writers and performers exorcise their inner demons and turmoil, we experience our own catharsis. Such is the case with this entire record.

Following the release of 2007’s Combinations, the band entered into a lengthy struggle with their parent label, Warner Bros., which eventually led to their release. Add to this the ugly divorce of lead singer Sherri Dupree and the late-stage-engagement breakup of sister/guitarist Chauntelle and the band found themselves clearly in the proverbial Valley.

With a couple of years to recover which saw all three sisters (including chief songwriter Stacy) get married and sign with a new label, they had no lack of material. They masterfully took every drop of angst, heartbreak and recovery and filled every song to over-flowing with emotion. The results: a near-masterpiece.

The album opens with it’s title track, an overview of the journey that has been and which we are being invited into. The sparse intro with vocals over strings is one of the truly transcendent moments in music and is quickly jolted forward with the driving kick drum and soaring vocals.

Smarter” is possibly the closest thing to “diss track” that this band will ever put out. It shows Sherri as strong and (unironically) smart, but there’s still a sadness or disappointment that makes this very aggressive song still heartbreakingly vulnerable.

When hosting the other Dupree siblings (Merriment) for a performance at a corporate event last year, I had the chance to talk to their mother who gave me a little more insight into the events that precipitated the song “Ambulance“. As she told (and forgive my hazy memory), Sherri had gone to visit her husband while his band was on tour. She found him with another woman and he told her to get out of the hotel or he would have security remove her.

I need an ambulance / I took, I took the worst of the blows / send me a redeemer, let me know /if I’m gonna be alright / Am I gonna be alright… ‘Cause I was told to get out / told to leave / told to have my things in the parking lot…

In my mind, the fact that Stacy was the one to pen these words on her sister’s behalf makes it even more impactful.

Other great tracks round out the collection including “Mr. Moon“, “Better Love“, and “Oxygen Mask“. I’ve never really noticed any failures on the record, it’s just that some resonate more soundly than others. If have one complaint about the production, it’s not really about the production but about live performance… this is a great rock band, but as the videos above showcase, they are equally astounding in an acoustic environment. In live, full-band performance, some tracks are used to recreate sounds on the record that were not replicable live – namely: strings section on several tracks. My philosophy: in the studio, create to your heart’s content but when you hit the stage only give me what you can actually play live. It may not sound as full as the record, but I’ll respect you more for it.

I wrote before of how I was introduced to this group very early in their career when their ages ranged from 15 to 21, when perhaps innocence and naivete abounded . I would never wish the circumstances that precipitated this record onto anyone. However, I’m encouraged to see a close-knit family wrap around one another and carry themselves through the valley to a much stronger place on the other side.

Charlotte Church: Two

Release Date: Mar 4, 2013

The vision of this site is to introduce people to great music. You may have seen me post several videos now from a UK site called “The Line of Best Fit“. They are for me what I hope this site is for you. When I rolled into my desk yesterday morning and saw them posting a video by Charlotte Church (yes, that Charlotte Church), I was obviously taken aback. Then I was devastated by some of the best music I’ve heard this year.

I have a thing for powerful vocalists and so I appreciate what folks like Josh Groban and Church have done. And I desperately hate to see such talent wasted (Christina Aguilera). But at the same time I’m not a fan of classical or classical-inspired pop. And all of those things make this project amazing. For full background, I’ll let you read Best Fit’s article, I’ll just focus on this EP.

TWO is the aptly-titled second of five EPs to be released over the course of the next 12-18 months. ONE is more of a straight-forward indie-rock sound while TWO is more ethereal. As with the previous EP that I reviewed, I’ll just go through this one track by track because it works that way.

Glitterbombed: With the title and the cover image, you might expect some sort of  trance/house sound. Let me allay your fears. This is synth heavy, but but the toms on the chorus keep it grounded while Church’s sweeping vocals carry you away. The song is interspersed with interview in the video below.

Breach of Peace: This track ebbs and flows. It begins really straight-forward, then develops some more elemental sounds. The vocals on the chorus just take it to a whole other level.  Having read a few words about her journey in recent years, I find that the lyrics are probably very personal and that only adds to the quality of the vocal.

Mistress: I don’t know about this one and why it’s here. It doesn’t sound like it belongs and so I can only guess that it means something in a bigger context that’s yet to be revealed/understood.

Nerve: This is the song that Best Fit introduced me to. It has a Fiona Apple-esque sensibility to it. It’s art-alternative to the core. But most importantly, the passion bleeds from every pore in both it’s strongest and most delicate moments.

Last, or Eschaton:  It’s probably a faulty comparison, but for some reason Beth Orton comes to mind (at least songs like “Paris Train” and “Daybreaker.”) The closing minute and a half of the record takes a decided turn with a fusion of dubstep buzzes, sitar, atmospherics, driving drums and guitars. Beautiful.

[Aside: After posting this album on Facebook yesterday, a little conversation arose about some comments that Church made following 9/11/01. I came to her defense by saying, at the very best, she was only 15 and should get a modicum of grace. This led to a discussion of people’s personal life and their music, etc. For a reflection on how personal life and music cross paths, let me direct you here. For a great video about celebrities screwing up, doing stupid things, and finding grace let me direct you here.]