Outlaw country. Rockabilly. Punk. Johnny Cash. Elvis. All sifted through the lens of a Danish hard rock troupe; that’s Volbeat in a nutshell.
It’s a ludicrous combination that shouldn’t conceivably work, and yet Volbeat has been proving time and again, album after album, that they can indeed pull it off. Little has changed in that regard on their fifth album, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies.
Volbeat stylize themselves as a metal band, which is technically true, I suppose. But they are metal in the way that American Idiot-era Green Day is punk. It’s a tempered, commercialized, broader vision of the genre, with many of the edges removed in order to appeal to a wider audience and to open up many avenues of sound expansion that don’t naturally conform to the genre’s boundaries.
Volbeat certainly toys with metal (the King Diamond cameo on “Room 24″ practically screams out for metalhead validation everywhere), but I don’t think the band would have steadily risen from near obscurity on American shores to the rock radio staple it has become over the past few years if it was overtly metal. Instead, what’s got the band to where it is now is its catchiness and its accessibility. Above all else, this is a rock band that writes good songs–plain and simple.
Cold War Kids were a pretty big name on people’s lips back in 2006-07 as a hip indie rock band to be on the lookout for. Spurred forward by the relatively huge success of their single “Hang Me Up to Dry,” a lot of people envisioned this band blowing up big time.
Well, they never really broke out into huge Kings of Leon-size stars, but they’ve managed to carve out a pretty nice career for themselves nevertheless. Their first two records saw them sticking largely to the raw, white-boy rock n’ blues of “Hang Me Up to Dry,” but on 2011′s Mine Is Yours, they seemed to make the conscious decision to polish their sound and really try for that mainstream success so many thought they were destined for.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, that record mostly fell on deaf ears. It was by no means perfect, but I found it quite enjoyable. Still, whether it had been a dream of theirs to begin with or simply one foisted on them by external pressures, the group’s initial attempt to garner a wider audience failed, and its follow-up, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, seems to be a direct response to that.
I’ve got a themed triple-threat album review for you today, focusing on soundtracks. These movies and their music have nothing to do with each other, but juxtaposing them in this fashion highlights some important aspects of soundtrack construction and quality.
Let’s just jump right in, shall we?
Les Miserables: The Motion Picture Soundtrack
Notice the subtitle for this soundtrack–there is a reason I am specifying “The Motion Picture Soundtrack” for this movie, since Universal Republic engaged in the most cynical, disgusting cash grab they could in regards to releasing this film’s accompanying music. A few days before the movie’s American release date (which happened to be Christmas Day, so you know they wanted to get this CD on store shelves before the holiday), the record company slyly put out what appeared to be the movie’s soundtrack. Instead, it carried the subtitle “Highlights from The Motion Picture Soundtrack.” Well…OK, it is a 160 minute film, you say; how were they to fit it all on one consumer-friendly disc? Alright, I understand that reasoning, and this is certainly a film that does have highlights (as in, not everything is fantastic and worthy of repeat listenings). But if that is your thought-process going into the curation of a “highlights” record…you better freakin’ include the highlights!! How difficult is that to understand?!
That three-second-long shrill shriek at the beginning of “The Hell In Me” marks the very first sound of Killswitch Engage’s sixth album, Disarm The Descent. There’s no volume fading or short instrumental intro to set the scene, just pure volatility cranked up to 11 from the moment you hit play. It’s an entirely appropriate introduction to the record since it announces the return of KsE’s original singer, Jesse Leach, to the fold after a ten year absence and last year’s departure of Howard Jones.
I hope you weren’t expecting a gentle reentry for Leach. Instead of testing the waters or coasting smoothly onto the airstrip, Leach pilots a crash landing on the tarmac, sans landing gear. And while it’s an explosive reintroduction, I think Leach’s return has unfairly pigeonholed the expectations for this record. Now that the original lineup (plus drummer Justin Foley, who joined in 2003) is back together, a lot of fans want, need and expect this record to sound like 2000′s self-titled or 2002′s Alive or Just Breathing — the latter of which is held up by many fans as the best album KsE has ever made and which, not coincidentally, was Leach’s last with the band…until now, of course.
I’ve been turned on to more than a few cool new bands over the years after seeing them perform on any of Conan O’Brien’s late night platforms (Late Night, The Tonight Show, Conan). His music supervisors are good about showcasing a wide variety of genres in addition to bands at varying levels of the fame spectrum. It’s always a joy to tune in not knowing who the musical act is when the opening credits roll, but by the end of the show feeling like you’ve just discovered a gem. Some of my most memorable finds up to this point have been Diane Birch and The Joy Formidable, but the British indie rock crew Alt-J, who graced the show with a performance last week, are easily my favorite of them all.
Alt-J’s debut album, An Awesome Wave, was released here in the U.S. back in September of last year, but I don’t think I’m alone in having just discovered them. The record is so jam-packed with different sounds, styles and approaches that a granular breakdown of each would seem to suggest some unruly, unimpregnable art rock beast. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I know Matt and Kim are a moderately big band in the indie rock scene, but I’ve just never got into their music.
I do, however, remember their “Lessons Learned” music video because, well, how can you forget a video where two people strip naked and run through Times Square?
Well, now the band is back with another quirky video involving them in a semi stage of undress, though they aren’t going full on birthday suit this time. This is a really fun video. Check it out:
Cold Day Memory was supposed to be Sevendust’s return to form following guitarist/songwriter Clint Lowery’s return to the band. I know a lot of people loved that album–I wasn’t one of them (see review). I thought it was a decent but ultimately uninspiring effort that couldn’t hold a candle to the band’s earlier output.
In the interim between that album’s 2010 release and the band’s ninth studio album, Black Out The Sun, Lowery and drummer Morgan Rose took some time off to work with their new band, Call Me No One. In addition, guitarist John Connolly and bassist Vinnie Hornsby dabbled in several side projects. Poor ol’ Lajon Witherspoon was the only Sevenduster not really spending time on other projects in the past couple years.
But I think the time spent away from Sevendust, now more than 15 years into its existence, did the whole band some good. Whether the guys were able to exert some restless energy elsewhere or explore other ideas that wouldn’t have fit in with the Sevendust dynamic, the band now sounds refreshed and more in tune with its core sound than it has in some time. Lowery’s return finally seems to have registered in the songwriting. That, in addition to the band’s decision to self-produce this record (rather than their reliance on Johnny K, who manned the helm on Cold Day Memory and tons of other mainstream metal records) has this album sounding in many ways like classic Sevendust, at least stylistically if not always qualitatively.
Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men started making waves in the U.S. around this time last year when their debut album, My Head Is An Animal, was picked up by Universal Music Group for a worldwide release, six months after it had reached the top of the Icelandic charts. And with a new single on the radio and an SNL performance lined up in a few weeks, they’re only posed to gain even wider acceptance here in the states.
Coming from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun and from where the hot springs blow, this Scandinavian troupe has certainly made strong inroads to becoming the “overlords” of American alternative radio, particularly with the smash hit “Little Talks.” Chances are, if you’ve listened to the radio in the last year, you’ve come across that song at some point.
And it’s a great song. There’s no question about that. The only problem with it, if you can call it that, is that it sounds exactly like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” (minus the whistling) which gained some cultural saturation in the U.S. about a year before My Head Is An Animal. I’m not in any way suggesting that Of Monsters and Men deliberately ripped off the “Home” formula, but as the second in line, “Little Talks” inevitably forfeits some of the intrigue and splendor that it would have aroused had something so similar not already made a splash.
I caught Youth Lagoon, the one-man dream pop project of Trevor Powers, on his tour last year opening for Death Cab for Cutie, and he hooked me in pretty quick, quirks and all. His debut album lived up to the promise of his live show and provided ample reason to be excited about the direction Powers would take his project in the future.
Well, the future is now, and unfortunately Youth Lagoon hit the sophomore slump in a big way; I’m talking like MGMT’s Congratulations level of slumping here (and if you’re somebody who thinks Congratulations was a great album, well…we don’t share the same taste in music). The difference with Youth Lagoon is that Powers’ debut album didn’t make the same giant splash and set huge demanding expectations for this second go-’round. He easily could have hammered away and refined the very cool and interesting style he exhibited the first time. Instead, he put every egg in the experimental weirdness basket, leaving the pop hooks and catchy looped beats to blow away in the wind.
As I wrote in my Congratulations review–and which holds true in this case: “these boys just backed away and decided if they couldn’t make the music better, they’d just settle for weirder. And that’s too bad – because pop hooks and weirdness aren’t mutually exclusive.” It’s a lesson I wish Powers had learned before recording this record.
I’m a certified Game of Thrones junkie, and thus, like any good GoT aficionado, I spent the hour between 9 and 10 PM on Sunday night firmly anchored to the couch in front of the TV, naturally tuned into HBO.
This week’s episode (don’t worry, I wouldn’t give away any spoilers) contained a special delight for those fans who’ve read the books the shows are based on. With each massive tome coming in around 1,000 pages, there is far more detail and worldly minutiae on the printed page than can feasibly fit into the televised adaptation. But the show spared about twenty seconds to throw a bone to the avid readers in the audience, showing a rather inconsequential scene of Vargo Hoat (who for some reason goes by the name Locke on the show; same thing for Theon Greyjoy’s sister Asha, who goes by the name Yara on TV – what’s the deal with that? And let’s not even get into the whole Talisa Stark vs. Jeyne Westerling swap-out) and his crew traveling through the forest.
Seems rather dull, no? But it was the song they were singing that made it such a great scene. That song–“The Bear and the Maiden Fair”–is oft referenced in the books. It’s a fun, perhaps raunchy, song made for chanting and merrymaking, and it’s something that would only really hit home for those who’ve read the books. It was a small but meaningful addition to the episode.
But that wasn’t all! The show got the band The Hold Steady to record a version of the song, which is really quite good, and certainly in the ribald spirit of the source material. Unfortunately, I don’t think the placement of this modern version could have been timed worse within the episode. Again, I’m not spoiling anything, but this episode ends with a rather dramatic scene before cutting to black and then the credits. It’s the type of scene that deserves to be followed by silence or at least restrained, contemplative instrumental music. However, the producers thought it would be a good time to throw The Hold Steady version over the credits, and it really ruined the emotion of the moment. They tried something similar last season with The National’s cover of “The Rains of Castamere,” but at least that song was emotionally appropriate for the moment it followed. I just think GoT is so defined by its complete immersion into another world of fantasy that the show does itself a disservice by trying to shoehorn these modern rock bands onto the credits, even if the songs themselves might be pretty good.
Anyways, here’s The Hold Steady’s take on “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”: