Tuesday, February 27, 2007

America - Here & Now (2007)

America, one of the most successful and famous soft rock bands of the 70s, is back with their sixteenth studio album, Here & Now. Original members Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell (who are two thirds of the original trio) stay true to their trademark sound while injecting new life into the music by working with some prominent names of the current alt-rock and modern rock communities.

America was one of the many bands who forgot their roots and fell prey to the synthesizer craze of the 80s, but older fans will easily and happily embrace Here & Now. The new CD has more in common with their mid-70s middle-of-the-road music than it does with their first two albums, the 1971 self-titled debut and its followup, Homecoming, released a year later. Those two LPs featured songs and arrangements that were heavily accoustic in their foundation yet went well beyond the light fare most soft rock albums offered. The trio's music became more pop oriented as the decade progressed but their fine singing and musicianship prevented their songs from becoming overly treacly.

Here & Now was produced by lifelong America fans Adam Schlesinger of Fountains Of Wayne and James Iha, formerly of Smashing Pumpkins. They used their talents to make a CD that never strays too far from America's classic sound. Alt-country bad boy Ryan Adams plays on one track, as does Ben Kweller. They cover My Morning Jacket's "Golden" with head Jacket Jim James, another fan, playing sideman. Ira Elliot and Matthew Caws of Nada Surf help out on a cover of their own "Always Love." One of America's contemporaries, Rusty Young of Poco, plays on two tracks. Young doesn't play on "Ride On," a song that sounds like vintage Poco, but Adams and Kweller do.

A live bonus disc makes this a double CD release. The second disc is a twelve song concert recorded in XM Radio's performance studios in October 2005. The show is almost a live greatest hits album but the concert also includes the forgotten country-rock gem "Don't Cross The River" and a harder rocking arrangement of "Sandman" that is different than the original from their debut album.

It seems, just as Burt Bachrach suddenly became cool when he teamed up with Elvis Costello, that America's critical stock has risen by working with the younger, cooler guys.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Los Lobos - The Town and The City (2006)

Los Lobos has always been one of the best bands of the post-classic rock era and they are one of my personal all time favorite bands from any era. The consistency of their work over their twenty-four year recording career has been astounding and their latest, The Town And The City, is another critically acclaimed batch of songs. Some reviewers even rank it alongside their universally agreed upon masterwork, Kiko. However, despite its seriousness and worthy subject matter I find The Town And The City to be one of the band's more disappointing efforts. While I like this disc, I don't grant it the exalted status that almost everyone else who writes about music has assigned to it.

The thirteen songs form a loosely based concept album about the Mexican-American experience including the travails of the ultra-controversial illegal Mexicans that are becoming more and more a part of American society. You can guess that the band is sympathetic towards their brethren but that isn't the problem here. The presentation is. The music supporting the lyrics just isn't as interesting as on almost all of their previous efforts. Most bands that adhere to the same tried and true formula over long careers tend to get stale in the process but for Los Lobos the formula works. Only "The Road To Gila Bend" fits nicely into the mold that holds their classic rocking sound. It's the album's only full bore rocker and it's easily the best song on the disc.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Shins - Wincing The Night Away (2007)

The Shins newest CD Wincing The Night Away, debuted nationally at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its release in January. The album is The Shins first new music since two of their songs appeared in the movie Garden State in 2004 and made them stars. After that unusual boost you would have thought the band would have struck while the iron is hot but instead leader James Mercer and company waited three years to release the band's third CD. It was worth the wait.

Paste Magazine, who featured the band on the cover of its latest issue, suggested that The Shins are really nothing more than a vehicle for Mercer's songs. He is the lead singer, composer, and guitarist but the quartet has been happily playing together since before the release of their first CD Oh, Inverted World in 2001 and they function as a well-oiled, cohesive unit. Mercer likes the idea of having a band instead of being just a singer-songwriter. I agree that the format suits him well.

What a pleasure it is to listen to Wincing The Night Away. This is some of the most melodic and joyous sounding rock to come our way in a long time. At different points on the album The Shins can sound like Keane, Brian Wilson, or Squeeze. "Pam Berry" offers us some surfer guitar." The opening to "Turn On Me" is a dead ringer for the introduction to the old 60's hit "Then He Kissed Me" by the Crystals. "Sealegs" has a heavy bass line, synth drums, and a funky beat bordering on hip hop. There are touches of 80s synth rock all over the album. There are obvious influences everywhere. The often upbeat arrangements belie the seriousness of Mercer's obscure lyrics. It's almost as if he doesn't want you to know what he's writing about. Is he burying heartache in his lyrics and the gorgeous sounding music?

Nevertheless this is a very fine set of songs. When I compile my list of the best CDs of 2007 I'm sure I won't find five better ones than Wincing The Night Away.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Los Lonely Boys - Live At Blue Cat Blues (2006)

Live at Blue Cat Blues is Los Lonely Boys second live album in less than a year's time following 2005's Live at The Fillmore. It is rare that an artist issues two live albums before a second studio album ever hits the stores but that is exactly what the band did before releasing Sacred last year. Marketing two live CDs may seem a bit too much with only one studio release on their resume but since demand for their work is high, and there was no new studio material ready for release, mining early archival performances such as this one is the result.

Live at Blue Cat Blues has a different sound than Live At The Fillmore. It was recorded on the evening of November 30, 2000 four years before the release of their self-titled debut. During this formative period you will find their music sounding less "Texican" and more in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan. The concert features only a small handful of songs the boys recorded in the past (either live or in the studio) so duplication can not be used as a reason to pass on this album. "Dime Mi Amour" and "Senorita" are both present here and the show opens with their hit "Heaven" that JoJo Garza dedicated to their Grandmother who passed away earlier in the day. "I'm The Man To Beat," that appears on Fillmore, is the only other song on this disc to make it to CD previously. Most of the rest of the evening provides a perfect showcase for their instrumental and vocal chops. The highlight is the eleven minute slow burning blues "Cottonfields and Crossroads" where Henry Garza's guitar soars along with those of the best electric blues men and Ringo Garza proves he is an absolutely amazing drummer.

The performance is studio quality because the concert was recorded from the band's soundboard. There are no overdubs or studio enhancing of the audio, just the trio live. Despite a sold out house the recording has virtually no crowd noise. The audience is so faint in the background that the band's banter and the extraneous guitar noises emanating from their instruments between songs sound a little odd. You may think you're listening to an unedited studio recording similar to The Beatles' Let It Be with it's between song chatter. It often seems that the brothers are thanking an empty room.

Despite their loss earlier in the day the brothers performance is full of life. It is the sound of a young and hungry band giving the audience all they've got to give. Having seen these guys live, and now having heard both of their live CDs, I'm convinced that as good as they are in the studio, Los Lonely Boys are better, and far more at home, on stage.

Live at Blue Cat Blues is available from Amazon.