Supergroup Showcase: John Legend & The Roots

THE PLAYERS: John Legend (vocals) and The Roots (everything else)
THE STORY: Inspired by his experience campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, John Legend decided he wanted to make a record with The Roots that reflected how he felt at the time. They got together, recorded a series of covers and one original track and the results was the 2010 album Wake Up! (via Wiki).

Like a lot of posts, I’m going to kick this one off with a story from my past. It’s not too long, so don’t worry, I’ll get to the music shortly. Like a lot of colleges, my school Ohio Wesleyan University held a yearly concert on campus for the students called SpringFest. I never actually went to one because I either didn’t care or had something better to do (seeing Everclear with my buddy Jeff instead of watching The Counting Crows). But there was one year that I really wanted to attend and that was when The Roots were playing. I’d never actually listened to the funk/hip-hop group’s records at that point, but I knew of Questlove from that hilarious Chappelle Show skit with him and John Mayer and the band from my buddy Toth who’s always been a lot more tapped in than me. I was all set to buy my ticket after Easter, but on the way back to school after heading home for the weekend, I got a crazy speeding ticket. Money was tight in college and the speeding ticket completely wiped me out, so I couldn’t go to the show. Wah wah.

Fast forward to modern times. Jimmy Fallon scores Conan O’Brien’s old spot on Late Night and he makes the ingenious decision to hire The Roots as his house band. Not only did he instantly score the best band in late night, but also gave me and millions of other night owls the opportunity to become familiar with the group. After being so impressed by their chops I went out and bought one of their albums Phrenology, but it’s more of a slick hip-hop record and that’s not what I was looking for. I wanted something a little more soulful and funky. I didn’t have to wait too long because, soon enough, Jimmy was talking about a new record featuring an epic team-up of soul singer John Legend and the band called Wake Up!

I didn’t run out immediately and buy the album. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw the digital version on sale on Amazon for $5 that I bit. Man, what a fantastic use of a Lincoln. Like The Roots, I’ve long admired and appreciated John Legend from a distance either through live performances on TV shows or guest spots on other records, but I never jumped in and got one of his records. Wake Up! seems like the perfect entryway to both bands but also offers up all the soul/funk/rock/hip-hop stew that I could want from this collaboration. As far as supergroups go, these are two great tastes that taste great together, almost like they’d been playing together for years.

I even dig the fact that they went after lesser known songs to cover for the most part. I’m no soul/funk aficionado, but even I have heard “Wholy Holy.” The rest though are mysteries that feel both historical and fresh at the same time, making me want to check out the originals. It should come as no surprise that every track on the record had me bobbing my head along to the groove. Heck, it even calmed me down as I wrote this post in a coffee shop right next to a pair of teenagers who couldn’t keep their paws off of each other and kept playing with the girl’s hair RIGHT NEAR MY COFFEE. Okay, well, it didn’t calm me down too much I guess.

If you’ve never gotten into but always been curious about soul music of the 60s and 70s, The Roots or John Legend, Wake Up! is essentially the perfect mix of all three. The record can act as a gateway, but also stands as a fantastic, sometimes funky sometimes mellow but always sonically pleasing  listening experience for pretty much any kind of mood. Feeling down? This record will cheer you up. Feeling good? You’ll feel even better. Seriously, the original track “Shine” is really helping to calm me down about those teenagers. They left by the way. Good thing too, or I was going to blare Husker Du in their ears. In conclusion, Wake Up! is a rad record, but it will not help you chase away teenagers who won’t stop playing with their hair. It will probably just make them want to make out, which is far worse. This ends the review as well as the cranky old man portion of the proceedings today.

Record Review: Matt and Kim’s Sidewalks

A lot can be said about enthusiasm. That’s what attracted me to Matt and Kim in the first place…thanks to a commercial. Even though I’m old (28 is old right?), I still watch more MTV than I should. A few months back, MTV was doing a huge ad campaign leading up to an indie music awards ceremony called The Woodies. To get people psyched (or something) they interviewed different musicians briefly about road trips and driver safety. One such ad featured Matt and Kim, a band I had heard of, but not knowingly heard up to that point (they’re probably in commercials and whatnot). A brief search on YouTube didn’t find me the video, but basically they were talking about road trips. Matt absolutely oozed an enthusiasm and sense of fun that you don’t see a lot in music anymore. Kim fit right along with him, wondering why her hypothetical future children weren’t taking their cool mom on their musical road trip. I was kind of smitten with these two. Then I saw the actual Wooodie Awards which made me feel ancient because I hadn’t heard of half these kids, but it also made me even more curious about this dynamic duo.

Fast forward a few weeks and I find myself in a Borders on its last day of existence. It was kind of a sad affair, but with everything marked down to $0.50, I didn’t feel too bad. As it turned out, in addition to a copy of Craig Thompson’s Blankets which I haven’t had the chance to dive into yet, they had Matt and Kim’s most recent record Sidewalks for sale. There aren’t many records I wouldn’t buy for half a buck, so I jumped at the chance to actually listen to this group I had been kinda sorta interested in from afar. I was not disappointed.

Note, the following video is surprisingly violent and bloody. But MAN is the song rad.

I haven’t had this much fun with a record in I don’t know how long. I’m not sure how their other records sound, but Sidewalks is filled some very well put together beats and electronic elements that rival some of the bigger hip hop and pop tracks I hear on the pop stations, especially “AM/FM Sound” and “Cameras.” As if that weren’t enough, the songs themselves are filled with the kind of optimistic lyrics that can only be written by kids in their 20s. But, I don’t want to give the impression that they’re just a couple of impressionable kids singing about rainbows and flowers, the general theme of the record seems to be grabbing life by the horns and taking full advantage of it. “So many books that i didn’t read/but there’s so much air i chose to breathe./How about the colors that I’ve seen?/So i’ll leave these pages in the trees.” I like that sense of wonder with the world but also the knowledge that it might come at what others might see as a cost. That combination of hot beats and sunny optimism might seem contradictory, but the results are infections, foot tapping (sometimes stomping) anthems that make me want to follow my dreams and kick life in the junk (whatever that means).

There’s some NSFW talking at the end of the following video, just FYI.

I dig all 10 tracks on the record, though “Northeast” is a bit of a bummer. But, hey, it’s also the shortest track on the record, so I can’t be too miffed. If you’re like me and have an unnecessary predisposition to dislike anything that comes out of Hipster Brooklyn, I encourage you to still give Matt and Kim a try. If they’re being ironic, they’re either really bad at it or incredibly good actors because I think that kind of enthusiasm is difficult, if not impossible to, fake.

Music Musings: Foo Fighters

It’s funny, if you watch the below trailer for the recent Foo Fighters documentary called Back and Forth, Foo Fighters lead singer and guitar player Dave Grohl says something along the lines of there being  a lot of people who resented him for carrying on with the Foo Fighters when Nirvana ended. I was definitely one of those people. As a teenager, I couldn’t get past the idea that he should have just been the Nirvana drummer forever, as if all of his own dreams and aspirations would just disappear when Kurt Cobain did. So, initially, I wasn’t a fan and did my best to avoid the Foo Fighters as a band. I would occasionally see videos of theirs for songs like “Big Me” and “My Hero” among others, but didn’t think too much of them because they were so goofy. Even after my shortsightedness wore off, I had trouble getting past the goofiness and just moved on, leaving the Foo Fighters behind and moving on to other bands. I wish I hadn’t been so close-minded because, I missed out on really experiencing the evolution of a true rock and roll band.

Towards the end of high school and into college, Grohl showed up on my radar all over the place and my respect for him grew. Within a pretty short period of time I heard that he played drums in bands like Tenacious D, Queens of the Stone Age, Tony Iommi’s solo record which featured a series of different singers, a metal supergroup-ish project called Probot and a lot more. He was all over the place and for whatever reason those projects sparked my interest more than anything he did with the Foo Fighters. In fact, I love the Tenacious D record, couldn’t get into QOTSA’s Songs For The Deaf (though “No One Knows” is an excellent song all around) and also that Iommi record called, of course, Iommi though I have no idea what happened to that disc.

Then, in 2002 they released their fourth record One By One which included songs like “All My Life” and “Times Like These.” These songs absolutely captured my imagination and wouldn’t allow me to ignore the Foo Fighters any longer. Around the same time, the self-titled Nirvana record that served as a greatest hits disc came out. I have very distinct memories of being in the shower in college with the radio blaring and hearing “All My Life” and then the unreleased-until-then Nirvana track “You Know You’re Right” within moments of each other. Hearing the tracks so close to each other made me realize that Grohl was carrying on the legacy of Nirvana really well. Also, by then, I wasn’t so pigheaded, which also helped. I should have picked that record up, but to be honest, I was a poor college student and not really looking to spend what little money I had on something I didn’t know if I would like.

In 2005, they put out their double record In Your Honor and once again I was excited. This time, I had a better plan for getting into the band though. The extended family on my dad’s side does a Secret Santa every year now where the names of everyone who will be at the Christmas Eve celebration gets their name put in a hat along with a few things you might want under a certain dollar amount. That year I put something very simple: Any Foo Fighters CD(s). Since I didn’t have any of them, it’s not like I would have gotten a double and figured this would be a good way to start off. And it did. My grandpa got me and picked up In Your Honor and their second record The Colour And The Shape. I really enjoyed both records, though didn’t get into the mellower second disc from In Your Honor until recently.

There’s a very simple reason why I’m drawn to Foo Fighters now: they rock. That sounds pretty simple and not very descriptive, but they seem like one of the few 90s rock bands to still be around kicking ass and making relevant music. My other favorites from around that time include Nirvana (done), Red Hot Chili Peppers (currently lacking a guitar player, I believe and nowhere near as funky as they used to be) and Green Day who actually keeps making records I like, but that’s a different kind of music.

A few weeks back the missus and I caught the second half of the Back And Forth documentary on VH1. I had a strange feeling while watching it, as if I was watching a movie about some kids I went to school with, but didn’t really know who had made good. I knew the basics of the story, but not the details and felt a weird sense of pride for people I never really knew. I think a big part of that is how accessible Grohl seems. He might look like a crazy metal caveman, but he’s just as likely to write an ass kicking rocker as he is a mellow track that rivals some of my favorite more laid back artists. Then you watch the documentary and you see him getting up early to get his daughter cereal and it brings a human elements to everything. I was also really taken by the idea of the Fighters recording their latest record, Wasting Light, in Grohl’s garage. Mind you, it’s a garage packed with cool gear and producer Butch Vig (who did Nirvana’s Nevermind among others), but the family aspects of the proceedings appeal to my increased age and soon-to-be-a-dad mentality. I also liked that guitarist Pat Smear was brought back into the fold (he had been in Foo Fighters and Nirvana at different times) and also the inclusion of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic on a track. It’s kind of like a tour down memory lane for grunge, but with a brand new tour guide taking a familiar but different route.

I recently purchased Wasting Light, but haven’t gotten all the way through it yet. I have loved what I heard and really like how the guys are playing with guitar lines and riffs and taking real advantage of Smear’s addition to the group. I will be keeping my eye out this flea market season for the Foo Fighters records I don’t have yet and also really want to see the first half of the doc because I’m most curious about the very early days of the band and what happened with the various personnel changes that I know almost nothing about. So, while I do regret not giving the band the time of day before the mid-2000s, I do find myself in the enviable position of having a good, but not overwhelming amount of material to track down as well as history to learn.

Supergroup Showcase: Blind Faith

THE PLAYERS: Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals (The Yardbirds, Cream), Ginger Baker on drums (Cream), Steve Winwood on guitar (Traffic, The Spencer Davis Group) and Ric Grech on bass (Family).
THE STORY: Clapton and Winwood started jamming while Winwood was on a break from Traffic. One day Baker stopped by, but Clapton wasn’t sure about starting a new band with him a few months after officially disbanding Cream. He also had made a deal with Cream’s Jack Bruce that, if two of them got back together, all three of them would reunite. Grech left Family to join the band, they recorded an album, toured and broke up within a year. (via Wiki)

When I started really getting into Supergroup Showcase, Blind Faith was definitely a band and record I wanted to check out. Not only is it yet another Eric Clapton supergroup, but I also have almost zero experience with Winwood, so I was excited to get a taste of his talent. It’s kind of handy that they only recorded one album, because it makes the whole thing a little easier write about. The record has six tracks and I’m split right down the middle on liking and not liking them.

The album kicks off with “Had To Cry Today” which has a fun riff, but it got to be really repetitive and boring in the song’s nearly nine minute length. The vocals also have a high-pitched wail on this song which I’m not really down with. With Winwood, Clapton and Grech all singing, I’m not sure who to blame. “Can’t Find My Way Home” takes a more mellow approach which I like, but again, the vocals didn’t appeal to me. This song’s the shortest on the whole record at just over three minutes, but still feels repetitive. The thing I noticed two tracks into this record is that it doesn’t really feel like a cohesive record and these two songs don’t feel very well thought out. I like the idea of experimentation but they don’t sound like they’re doing anything different. Maybe that’s because I’m listening to this thing in 2011 and it was recorded in 1969 and a LOT of music has come out in between.

Things get a little more cohesive with “Well…All Right” which has a great riff, more integrated vocals and results in a song that feels like an actual song instead of a recorded jam session. “Presence Of The Lord” continues on that same track and includes an excellent wah wah fueled solo. But then things go downhill with “Sea Of Joy” for me. It sounds like the the vocals were sung in an echo chamber or something, that really makes the voice akin to a caterwaul. The album ends with “Do What You Like” which I didn’t think I would like because it’s just over 15 minutes long. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of long jams, but I do appreciate good ones. And luckily, this turns out to be a pretty good one because it’s not only based on a solid riff, but also has a pretty bitching organ solo followed by a great guitar one. There’s even some repetitive chanting type stuff, but even that didn’t get on my nerves. It reminded me of a Santana instrumental.

Ever since iTunes came along I wind up judging an album by the $0.99/song rule. Essentially, if an album has enough tracks that I like and add up to what I paid for it, it’s worth keeping. I’m not quite sure where Blind Faith winds up on the scale, partially because I don’t remember how much I paid for this used disc online, though I’m guessing it was more than $3. Those first two tracks really don’t work for me. I mean, they’re not “so bad I have to skip it” bad, but I also didn’t enjoy them. Sometimes I can ignore vocals I’m not into and just dig the music, but not always. I’ll probably keep this one around for now at least kind of like my copy of The Firm’s Mean Business which I don’t listen to very often. Or, listening to Derrick And The Dominoes might bump it out of the ol’ collection.

Music Musings: The Vines

I’ve been thinking way too much about how best to write about music on the blog here. Every week, I move the “Music Musings” block further and further into the week on my calendar checklist, usually to wind up deleting it. It’s strange because, unlike movies and comics which I absorb and then write about, I feel the need to write about music while I’m listening to it. There’s so much going on on every CD that I find it hard to focus on things to write about, plus I worry that I’m just saying that same stuff that’s been said by others. I also have a different relationship with music than I do those other formats of entertainment. To me, movies and comics are an experience that I live through, meaning, I absorb them and then move on to something else, but I live with music. It stays with me and it’s more readily absorbable to me. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Anyway, I’ve decided to play Russian Roulette with my iPod to figure out my weekly music subject. This week it’s Australian retro rockers The Vines who made a big splash in the early 00s only to completely fade away from my personal memory. I picked up their first two records Highly Evolved and Winning Days and apparently my iPod wanted me to listen to them today, so that’s how it went down.

Like a lot of other people, I first heard The Vines thanks to their first big single “Get Free” which was all over the place in the summer of 2002. That was such a strange time in music because it seemed like rockers might actually be taking over pop music. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing someone talk about The Strokes (a band I never personally got into). Plus, bands like Jet and The Hives were getting some much deserved notice thanks to the surge of garage-influenced rock. Of course, it wouldn’t last, but some really interesting music came out of it. I remember purchasing the black plastic-covered CD while visiting the missus-to-be in New Hampshire, but the record didn’t make quite the impact on me I thought it would have. I think a combination of negative thoughts about the follow-up Winning Days and reading about lead singer Craig Nicholls losing his mind thanks to touring put me off to the record. Plus, you know how it is, there’s always more music out there to listen to, so unless something really smacks me in the face and demands my attention and devotion, I’m probably going to move on to something else.

With that in mind, I was a little skeptical about listening to Highly Evolved again, but that was all for naught because this is a pretty good record. The Vines did a great job in the early days (I can’t speak to their more recent albums because I haven’t listened to them) of combining some of the more psychedelic sounds of the 60s and 70s with the raw energy of punk rock and funneling all those obvious influences into something that sounded both modern and complimentary to their influences. The album starts strong with the title track, shows off its mellow side with “Autumn Shade,” a track that I probably didn’t like in my younger, more straight-up rock oriented state of mind but dig now and then kicks it back into high gear with “Outtathaway!” For me, the high point of the record is “Factory” with it’s bounciness and walking bass line.

There’s a few missteps, though. “In The Jungle” has some great musical ideas and riffs in it, but they don’t feel connected enough to be an actual song. This one really feels like several other song segments that were kind of mashed together without much of a through line which is too bad, because I think they could have been broken down and turned into even better songs than the last three tracks which are kind of boring to me. I dig 60s and 70s rock, but not so much the droning stuff. Anything that’s too repetitive gets on my nerves. I wouldn’t say tracks like “1969” and “Mary Jane” get to the annoying place, but they verge on it. Overall I was kind of surprised with how much I liked this record.

Unfortunately, Winning Days doesn’t seem to hold up nearly as well, even thought it starts pretty damn strong with a great rock song like “Ride.” This isn’t a bad record by any means, it’s just not the kind that I’m super interested in listening to over and over again. Like with their previous effort, the musical talent of The Vines–who I should mention are Nicholls on vocals and guitar, Ryan Griffiths on guitar, Brad Heald on bass and Hamish Rosser on drums–is very clear on this record, I’m just not sure if the place their at with their music is one that’s super interesting to me. They seem more intent on exploring slower, more melodic compositions, which is great for them as artists, but I’ll be honest, I want to rock! Instead of the psychedelic tinged rock songs I want to listen to, I’m getting alright explorations. I think the problem might be that the songs might be new ground to the band, but they’re not for me as a listener, so I kind of gloss over them in my head.

But how awesome is that video? The record is kind of a bummer because it’s bookended with such great songs. “Ride” very simply kicks ass and the final track “F.T.W.” which stands for what you think it does, is so much fun. It’s too bad the middle of the record is filled with stuff that isn’t super interesting. I found it interesting that the track “TV Pro” shares some of the same problems to my ear that “In The Jungle” did on the previous record: too much crammed into a small space with no through line. Again, there’s elements in there that could have made for a few different great songs. Instead we get one that’s uneven and other tracks that don’t really do much for me.

Even as I write this, I feel apprehensive about posting because writing about music is such a different animal to me. I didn’t take nearly as many notes while listening to Winning Days as I did to Highly Evolved. Was I being lazy or were there just fewer noteworthy elements to talk about? Am I being fair? Does any of it matter because I’m writing about six year old records that don’t seem to come up in regular music discussion? Those kinds of thoughts don’t really plague me when I’m writing about movies, but I do like writing about music, so I guess I better get used to it.

Favorite New Old Albums Of 2010

After listing my favorite new albums of 2010, I figured I’d also have some fun with a list of records I really dug that I bought this year, but didn’t come out in 2010. I’ve mentioned this before, but I buy a LOT of CDs on the cheap at garage sales, yard sales, flea markets and at stores. I rarely spend more than $7 on something new and get all kinds of deals at those other places, so I’ve been able to acquire lots and lots of music I missed out on in previous years. This list has a whopping 12 records and/or bands on it, but I’ve written about a few of them previously, so I won’t get into too much detail on those. Hit the jump for all the goodness you can handle! Continue reading Favorite New Old Albums Of 2010

My Favorite New Albums Of 2010

I actually had a pretty good time compiling last year’s list of my favorite albums of the year and figured now’s as good a time as any to get around to this year’s. The funny thing about this year is that, while I probably acquired more CDs than I have in quite a while thanks to flea markets, garage sales and sales, I didn’t actually buy a lot of new music. New to me of course, but not new new. So, with that in mind, I’ll probably do another post about my favorite new-to-me discs of the year next week. Anyway, my favorite records of the year are a mix of smokey rockers, soul sisters, pop rock stalwarts, metal dudes, collaborators, introspective song writers and more. Hit the jump for the full list! Continue reading My Favorite New Albums Of 2010