Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Patrick Stump - "Truant Wave EP"

I thought I'd kick this week's blog off with an EP that I had been anxiously waiting for.

Last week, Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy fame released his debut solo EP, Truant Wave, on the iTunes store.

I'll admit, the joy I've gotten out of Fall Out Boy in the last few months have come mostly from Patrick's Joe Cocker-y mannerisms on stage and in studio. Admittedly, I've been following his "Spotlight (New Regrets)" vs. "Spotlight (Oh Nostalgia)" single battle and his YouTube acapella videos (Patrick's Grammy MedleyPatrick's Tribute to Michael Jackson) just waiting and waiting for Soul Punk to hit the market.

Thankfully,  Patrick's release of the Truant Wave EP gives fans a possible sneak peak of what Soul Punk will be.

I will say this outright; this album sounds very Top 40/generic soul. However, fans of Patrick can and will overlook that blandness. Just knowing that he produced, wrote, and composed on all six tracks puts me more at ease and reinforces Patrick's mystique as a maverick in the music industry.

Truant Wave echoes early 90's Michael Jackson, with new jack swing rhythms galore, MJ's stutters, rasps and gasps, and some great rappers putting in their 16 bars. There are even Daft Punk-y lines of bass and string sections supporting most tracks on this album. But there's still this sort of DIY-punk rock feel to every track. It's a little inspiring after a couple of listens.

Flashing back to what I said earlier, there are some bland tracks that sound just a hair too generic to be considered classics. "Big Hype" and "Love, Selfish Love," while great tracks to get lost in, don't stand out from the Top 40 songs that always manage to fade into obscurity after a year or two. But the standout tracks, like "Porcelain" and "As Long As I Know I'm Getting Paid," have enough flair and memorable lyrics ("Let me say this/ you'd look better famous" probably being the one line I'm currently obsessed with) to keep your feet tapping while you hum along to these jaggedly melodic tunes.

The EP does have a fantastic flow to it, however. This might be due to the fact that amidst the electro-pop, sci-fi soul feel there's a loose concept album hiding behind the bright lights. In Patrick's own words, "... I took this idealistic, naive little character, and at the beginning of the record, he has the best intentions, the highest hopes, and, as you get towards the middle of the record, he's just such an asshole. And then the character gets really dark, and then, at the end, I envisioned him being really down and out in Hollywood, like drunk and telling someone, 'Look, kid, don't make the same mistakes I did.'" When you take that into consideration, there might be a little more to the sparse lyricism spattered onto a complex backdrop.

I'm not saying that this should be used a tool to estimate what Soul Punk might contain (Patrick certainly isn't), but I'm excited to see the production value and lyricism that might appear on the final product. Truant Wave makes for a great appetizer, though, so hopefully within the next few months we'll be able to see where the music goes.

Letter Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ben Folds - "Way to Normal"

Alright, back from my short hiatus. Sorry for the wait, folks, but a major move and a few rough weeks of work and travel have kept me away from the keyboard. Hopefully, I'll be posting much more regularly from here on out.

I've been a big Ben Folds fan since I was 15 and a friend of mine lent me Ben Folds Five's eponymous debut album. After that, I picked up the rest of the BFF studio discography (Whatever and Ever Amen, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner) and both of Ben's solo albums (Rockin' the Suburbs, Songs for Silverman) and have listened to all of them on a pretty regular basis, letting those little earworm tracks take over my brain for days at a time.

So when I heard Ben was dropping Way to Normal in 2008, I was pretty excited. However, after downloading the album a week after its release I wasn't as excited as I was in the months leading up to it. Something about it just seemed... Dull. The album was, figuratively, left to gather dust on my iPod for the next few years.

Recently, I decided to give it a second chance and see if distancing myself from it would have changed my opinions. Overall, I'm less displeased with it, but it definitely does not live up to the legacy of Ben's first two solo albums.

There are still flashes of Ben's acerbic wit and outlandish humor on some tracks, like "You Don't Know Me (feat. Regina Spektor)" and "Bitch Went Nuts," yet there is still something missing from most of this album.

Perhaps that geeky tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that I got so used to with Ben's other albums has finally gotten stale after all these years. The opening track, "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hits His Head)," is probably the best example of how relatively corny some of the lyrics on this album are. Yes, Ben fell and hit his head during a Japanese tour and decided to write a song about it. Sadly the song just sounds like a grimy bar story with Ben desperately attempting to bookend the song with his shy, wandering dialogue.

I really think that Dennis Herring's (Elvis Costello and The Imposters, Modest Mouse, Wavves) production took away from the potential this album had. It's hard to say that when you look at Dennis's track record, but after hearing the scratchy and somewhat "glitchy" sound on "Free Coffee," I really started forming some negative opinions on Ben's decision to let Dennis produce the whole album. Mind you, this is the first solo album Ben didn't have any production credits on.

Then there are the handful of tracks that are almost, almost classic Ben Folds tracks, but lyrically fall short of what Ben is capable of. "Effington," while it is a jumpy and upbeat critique of small American towns, some of the lyrics hold no water. Coming from Texas, though, the line "If there's a God/ He's laughing at us and our football team," brings a little smirk to my face whenever I should hear it.

Thankfully, the slower songs polish up an otherwise lackluster album. "Cologne" is reminiscent of Songs for Silverman's quiet and subdued sound, and "Kylie From Connecticut" almost sounds like something could have come from way back in the Whatever and Ever Amen days. The placement of these two tracks ("Cologne" near the middle and "Kylie..." closing it out) acted as something of a palate cleanser for me, taking me away from the more mediocre tracks and letting me enjoy Ben's work as a whole.

On the whole, Way to Normal isn't a bad Ben Folds album, it's just a slightly less exciting one. For the casual fans of Rockin' the Suburbs or the older BFF catalog, you may want to either steer clear of this one, or at least go into it without any expectations. For the diehards, this would probably go well for a few rotations before you'll need a break.

Letter Grade: B-

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Just a Quick Notice

I know that I haven't posted a new review of an album in quite some time now, but recently I've been moving into a new apartment. I'm trying to get everything settled in there before getting a new article posted (crap happens fast, you've gotta admit), so hopefully by the end of next week I should have a relatively steady stream of reviews coming out.

But, in other music news, I'll be seeing Max Bemis live tonight at The Loft in Dallas, so I'll probably find a way to crank out a small review of that show after getting back to the hotel.

Thanks for reading, following, and (maybe) recommending me to your friends.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Fall Out Boy - "Infinity On High"

Recently, I've been looking back at a band that I absolutely could not stand when they first came out. On August 25, 2005, Fall Out Boy dropped their first single, "Sugar, We're Goin' Down," from their major label debut From Under the Cork Tree. From that day forward, I thought it was the end of music as I knew it, and I've held that mantra until about a month ago.

My girlfriend wanted me to give Fall Out Boy a whirl, just for the sake of finally being able to form a solid opinion on the band and their music. Since 2005, I've mellowed out a little, I'm more open to bands and genres of music that I usually would not be into, and smoking a little weed every now and again didn't hurt my appreciation of music.

So, taking the Fall Out Boy discography that my girlfriend keeps in her room, I decided to go through all the albums over the course of a week and see how I felt about them. On the whole, I'm actually surprised that I've been able to get into them as much as I have been. Recently, I've found myself performing acoustic renditions of their songs at open mic nights at the coffee shop I work at, singing along to the songs in my car, and hell, even getting into the side projects of some of the members, namely Patrick Stump, Joe Trohman, and Andy Hurley.

However, I will forever and always be a vehement protester of Pete Wentz. He may have been the primary lyricist for the band (and I use the term lyricist very loosely), but the fact that this man could only play very simple root notes, could not sing to save his life, and essentially left composition duties with Patrick and the rest of the band really just gets my goat as to why he was seen as something of a frontman for the group. But, I won't go off into my regular anti-Wentz rant for the time being.

Instead, I want to focus on a Fall Out Boy album that really caught my ear: Infintiy on High. 

There really is a kind of funky, soulful undertone to the whole album, and it definitely does a fantastic job of separating Fall Out Boy from other pop-punk and "scene" bands that were starting up at the same time. There are moments of genuine brilliance and slick production sprinkled throughout the album and with Babyface and Butch Walker working on the album, it's not hard to see where there influences shine through.

Songs like "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race," "Hum Hallelujah," and "I'm Like a Lawyer With the Way I'm Always Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)," show an exhaustive understanding of structure, melody, and to a degree, a phenomenal reboot of the mid-90s "post rock" sound. Butch Walker's production skills shine through on many of the later tracks, such as "The Carpal Tunnel of Love" and "Bang the Doldrums," at least to my ears. Babyface's input definitely gave the album that little bit of soul that was needed to let Patrick Stump break out of his slurred pop-punk whine and evolve into a sort of punk Joe Cocker. There's a swagger in his voice on just about every track throughout the album and without that swagger, this album probably would have just been tossed away and forgotten as "that band's major label sophomore slump."

Lyrically speaking, there are moments of truly decent songwriting. "Hum Hallelujah" is a brilliant little tune full of whimsical analogies, "Thriller" felt like a great little retrospective on the massive success of this formerly little-known band (Jay-Z's voice came as a welcome surprise), "This Ain't a Scene..." a damn fine critique of the "scene" (whatever the hell it was at that time and place), and "Don't You Know Who I Think I Am?" contains a great deal of little witticisms emboldened by the catchy hand-clapped rhythm. Overall, the lyrics and content of this album are very diverse and almost unorthodox to a degree. I will give Pete Wentz a lot of credit for his growth on this album. Does it mean I respect him? Not at all, but the fact that he was willing to grow with the band's sound is respectful.

I was really blown away by this album, and I will admit to being something of an admirer of Fall Out Boy. I wouldn't say I'm a fan, but I do appreciate the work they've done over the course of seven-odd years. This album ranks high on my list of "Great Listens All the Way Through." So, until Patrick Stump drops his solo album, I'll be more than content with Infinity on High.

Letter Grade: A-