Well, it's time to get caught up on a bit more CD swag that has fallen "Thru The Crax" before I tackle reviews of the mountain of SACDs and DVD-As sitting in piles before me. Those reviews are coming soon, I promise...so, here goes:
Matthew Sweet -- Living Things (Racm Records)
Wherein the all-of-a-sudden hyper-prolific power-pop-rocker Sweet offers 11 new songs written quickly and purportedly recorded live from the floor - thus the album title (he didn't want all studio polish, but live, living, breathing takes). Bias alert #1: one of my favorite artists. Sweet has an almost uncanny knack for pop-rock/power-pop/jangle-pop perfection and sweet, sweet harmony. Some of his discs are a bit harder-edged ('Girlfriend', 'Kimi Ga Suki') and some much softer and sweeter ('In Reverse'). And some are smack-dab in the middle ('100% Fun' and this disc under review). Whatever flavor of Sweet you prefer, he has yet to release a less-than-good disc (the oft-maligned 'Blue Sky on Mars' included).
On 'Living Things', it sounds as if Sweet is trying a bit too hard to make good material great. It doesn't quite work. There's a bit of a stranger sound here than usual - a bit more angular, less melodic. The natural symbiosis of most of his previous works is missing, the melodies and harmonies less than his usual stellar stuff. There's nothing here that's a real grabber, that sticks to the ribs, that'll grow hair on your chest...(Brian Wilson's long-time compadre Van Dyke Parks plays all manner of keyboards herein, as does Velvet Crush's Ric Menck the drums.) While still a good disc and recommended for Sweet fans and lovers of power-pop-rock, 'Girlfriend', 'In Reverse' and '100% Fun' are the discs to start with for Matthew Sweet newbies. --
Velvet Crush -- Stereo Blues (Action Musik)
Part of the Matthew Sweet, Thorns, Action Musik collective (Ric Menck and Paul Chastain [Velvet Crush] often play on Sweet's records - Menck drums on every track of Sweet's 'Living Things' - and are often part of his touring band, and Sweet has produced, written for and sat in with the Velvets). Bias alert #2: one of my favorite bands. Following the sublime soft-rocker 'Soft Sounds', and all the truly great VC records preceding it ('Teenage Symphonies To God' is considered one of the great alt-country/pop-rock/jangle-pop albums of all time), Velvet Crush are an alt-country/pop-rock/jangle-pop tri-breed that make some of the finest sounds ever heard.
Fortunately, this disc (just barely) makes that list. Released on Menck's Action Musik label, it strikes this reviewer as somewhat like Matthew Sweet's 'Living Things' - the material is good, but it sounds more "natural", not as "forced", as Sweet's latest, in comparison. Velvet Crush have always been just a bit harder edged than Sweet, and actually better Sweet and his 'Living Things" this time out. Good use of power-pop change-up in dynamics, and the sweet jangle guitar is balanced by a harder rockin' sound and razor sharp lead guitar in places. 'Stereo Blues', happily, contains alot more hooks than Sweet's 'Living Things'. Alot of catchy, rockin', janglin' power-pop to be had here. These guys never fail to deliver. Recommended. --
The Bigger Lovers -- This Affair Never Happened... (Yep Roc Records)
Bias alert #3: one of my favorite bands. Power-pop-rock masters The Bigger Lovers (out of Philly - a la Marah) are relatively new to the scene and were a grand surprise with their first release, 2001's 'How I Learned to Stop Worrying', mostly shilled thru on-line mom-and-pop stores such as milesofmusic.com, and thank God for those stores. (Their ilk sells some of the best music the big-suit-companies never heard of or "bothered" with. Check these guys out for some of the best music you'll never hear otherwise.) I sure hoped there'd be a follow-up! Welp, 2002 saw 'Honey in the Hive', a just-about-perfect record! It bettered its predecessor, which was hard to do.
On this 2004 release, the boys have become a little too light weight, too cutesy, if you will, even for pop-rock. There's not alot of weight, no staying power, to half of these songs ("No Heroics", "I Resign", "Ninja Suit", "Peel It Away", "You've Got To Pay" and "For Christ's Sake" being the exceptions). The sound recording is inexcusably thin - that doesn't help. In the liner notes, the guys thank some of the great power-pop-rock bands around (again, those DIY, indie-type greats that I love): Centro-matic, Minus 5, The Waxwings, and Court & Spark, among others. This is mighty fine company to count yourself among! If you love power-pop-rock, check it out (as well as their first two - especially 'Honey in the Hive'). --
The Honeydogs -- 10,000 Years (United Musicians)
Bias alert #4: one of my favorite bands. Now, for something, well, not completely, but, a bit, different. The Honeydogs are power-pop-rock with a twist. Their sound is unlike the others listed above in that they're less "poppy" and a bit darker in sound and lyrics. More alt-rock/pop, if you will. Ultimately, The Honeydogs are a very satisfying listen, in their somewhat skewed, down-home sound and take on things. A thicker, more fully-realized, nuanced sound, more mentally challenging, with killer fuzzed out wah-wah guitar leads and fills. More tempo switch-ups, more instrumental texture, more artistic license, alot more "groove", if you will...this disc's "Poor Little Sugar" being a perfect example, as is the following "Panhandler's Serenade". Excellent stuff! If I had to draw a comparison, I'd say, perhaps, Little Feat or The Band, maybe. Simply a cornucopia of great sounds!
Beginning with 1997's 'Seen a Ghost', The Honeydogs garnered instant interest and acclaim. 2001's 'Here's Luck' was equally as good, and another critic's (including yours truly) darling. 2003's '10,000 Years' takes all that made those albums as special as they are, and betters the lot of them. This one's an amalgam of all that came before, and the pieces of this puzzle nuzzle in together perfectly. This is their best album yet, by one of the best bands you probably never heard of. Search this one out. Highly recommended! --
Festival Express -- DVD: 2 Disc Set (New Line Home Entertainment)
In which we are transported to that magical time in 1970 when a bunch of major (The Band, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin) and not-so-major acts (Ian and Sylvia, The Flying Burrito Bros [sans Gram Parsons], Mashmahkhan) were booked on a three city Canadian tour. However, instead of the people coming to the different shows, the bands, roadies, hangers-on, gear, and everything else were loaded on to one train, named The Festival Express 1970, and the shows came to the people. As archival footage, this set is invaluable. BUT...
That is just about the only good thing we can say about this over-priced, over-hyped release. There is nothing here that we haven't seen 100 times over (except maybe some precious Janis footage - but, man, can the lady talk a three minute song into an eight minute bore!). A young Buddy Guy rips off some mind-boggling speed-riffs that one would never suspect, knowing his style today. The sound and picture are amazingly good for their age, but all of this footage could have easily fit on one dual-layer DVD (and the need for DD 5.1 AND dts is, at least, questionable). There is absolutely no need for a 2-disc set at twice the price! The choice of songs by each artist is also dubious - alot of half-assed-filler-crap.
And, I, for one, don't need to hear the promoters bitching about how they, yet again, as ALL festival producers of that era, lost their asses and made no money. I don't need to be reminded, up close, about how Janis and The Band's Rick Danko were already throwing their lives and talents away on booze. What's really astounding is that the only seemingly straight performer throughout this video is Captain Trips himself, Jerry Garcia! The almost total ignoring of The Band's irreplaceable Richard Manuel (piano and vocals) might portend, or at least have contributed to, why he took his own life in a low-rent motel room in
Don't get me wrong. I love this period in music's history. But this release is far too much of an up-close reminder of everything that wasn't good about those times. Audiences that didn't wanna pay, so busted in for free; riots and fights between cops and the "free" audience members (The Dead's Robert Weir sides with the police on this one!) The soon and/or recent deaths of Hendrix and Morrison and Joplin...then some years later Danko, Manuel, Garcia...If you have Monterey Pop and Woodstock and The Last Waltz on DVD, and various DVDs of your favorite artists as well, this is just repeating that stuff and opening old, unpleasant wounds. Unnecessary, except for archival interest. --
Check out some "new" music, folks. Stuff you never heard of before. Almost any album by any artist mentioned in this edition of Thru The Crax is sure to please. Note the recommendations and begin with those. Life's too short to miss this stuff!!