History provides a deep well of leaders and followers working together, like… Caesar and Brutus. That’s true in the world of cinema as well, with great teams of actors and directors. What’s that? Filmmaking is a collaboration? Don’t tell that to John Ratzenberger, that poor guy’s been the indentured slave of Pixar for years. Let’s instead focus on the actor-director teams that brought out the best in each other, whether that be true love or murderous rage.
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Being a Jack White Fan is exhausting. If he’s not recording with The Raconteurs or The Dead Weather, he’s off collaborating with artists as diverse as Danger Mouse and even The Insane Clown Posse. I’ve grown weary of following all his side projects, but this is a solo album. Blunderbuss is pure unadulterated Jack White, but it’s nothing we haven’t already heard. Jack has shown hints of his appreciation for eclectic roots music on past albums, Blunderbuss just happens to be a bigger dose of that. The results are enjoyable enough, but I’m not sure I understand all the hubbub surrounding Blunderbuss.
Blunderbuss is a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, and a whole lot of Jack White. I’ll give it to Jack, he has quite a presence on these recordings. His howling vocal delivery is unmatched and the same could be said for his guitar work. He self produces and commands the studio like a musical Swiss Army Knife. So Blunderbuss maybe his best work as a producer, but certainly not as a songwriter. Strip away all the production and these songs are fairly standard and even predictable.
“Sixteen Saltines” is easily the best track on the album. It’s a track that calls back to both the heaviness and simplicity of The White Stripes and frankly, really makes me miss that band. That group built up the heaviest songs with so little, and that’s really when Jack’s at his best. It’s a shame that Blunderbuss doesn’t have more riff heavy hard rockers. Jack has a unique approach to country, but it’s not nearly as captivating as his approach to hard rock.
There’s not a whole lot that differentiates Blunderbuss from Jack’s work on Consolers of the Lonely with The Raconteurs. That was also a very southern-flavored rock record. So Blunderbuss isn’t anything considerably new. That aside, Blunderbuss is still enjoyable for Jack White fans. He’s clearly made an effort to make these songs as polished and complete as possible. I enjoy the feel of this album and I commend the production. All I wanted to do here was present my case as to why I feel this album isn’t the masterpiece everyone seems to be saying it is. This is a solid entry from White, but I hopes he gives me a little more time to breathe before releasing any more recordings.
Favorite Tracks: “Freedom at 21”, “Missing Piece”, “Sixteen Saltines”
New Comic: The Vacation’s Over
The Band – The Band (1969)
I almost did this album for a Classic Album Tuesday a few weeks ago, so it was quite a shock when drummer/vocalist Levon Helm’s ailing health came up in the news not long after. Rock has lost a powerful figure with Levon’s passing, but at least I can come back to this album for comfort. The Band’s eponymous second album has always been my favorite from the group. It’s hard to believe any band could follow up a debut like Music from Big Pink with an album that in many ways is just as good. For one, this album has four of my favorite Band songs in a row; “Rag Mama Rag”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “When You Awake”, and “Up On Cripple Creek”. All together it’s like a rootsy history lesson, rich with stories about the American landscape.
I’ve always found it surprising that The Band (with the exception of Arkansas native Levon Helm) were from Canada. Maybe it’s because guitarist Robbie Robertson’s songs captured the beauty of American culture better than most American musicians could. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a fine example of Robertson’s fascination with old time America. The song is such a hauntingly beautiful story of the hardships of the Civil War, and one of the most affecting songs I’ve ever heard. Of course it helps when you have an extraordinary voice like Levon Helm belting out the lyrics with such sincerity. Though you can’t overlook the other voices in The Band. Bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel both brought a great deal of heart and soul into their performances.
The musicianship harkens back to turn of the century folk with hints of modern rock and blues. This is convincing due to the fact that every member is so versatile. Take into account a song like “Rag Mama Rag”. Here we have Robbie Robertson on guitar, Garth Hudson on piano, Richard Manuel on drums, Rick Danko on fiddle, Levon Helm on vocals/mandolin, and producer John Simon playing the bass line on sousaphone. How many bands can so seamlessly switch around the lineup and still be so cohesive? Everyone here brings so much, it’s no wonder they were known simply as “The Band.”
There’s so much to say about this album that I can’t even express with the words. So I’m going to take the easy way out and wrap this up. I’ll always love both Band albums, but this one was my introduction to the group, so it will always have a place in my heart. This album is simply one of the best of it’s era and one of my all-time favorites.
Favorite Tracks: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Rag Mama Rag”, “Up on Cripple Creek”
The Shins – Port of Morrow
It took listening to the a new Shins albums a few times to remind myself that I actually really like this band. I was even a fan of the Broken Bells, even though it seems most people consider that a waste of James Mercer’s time. After reading about how Mercer fired members of the band a few times, I got it into my head that he was a big jerk. Then I finally realized it’s not really my problem how he runs his band, really all I’ve got to do is listen to the music and see if I like it. So I downloaded Port of Morrow and…
I think it’s pretty good. Port of Morrow isn’t my favorite Shins album, the identity of which I will keep a secret, but it’s another great release from a band that has yet to disappoint. That the band here has nothing in common with the original Shins lineup save for Mercer is obvious from the very first song, “The Rifle’s Spiral,” which sounds like it could be off a new Broken Bells LP. But the very next track, “Simple Song” picks up where Wincing the Night Away left off, a joyous pop party.
The rest of the album holds up as well as the first couple tracks. I particularly like the first half of this 10-track collection, but the back half has a few gems as well, including the nostalgic “Fall of ’82.” The Shins are a neat project by a guy who makes music I like. I’m glad I was able to remember that.
Favorite Tracks: “The Rifle’s Spiral,” “Simple Song,” “Fall of ’82”
Why would I have any interest in the latest album from an artist I was never that big a fan of in the first place? I like some of Dr. John’s hits, I have the In the Right Place album and I was content with that. Then somehow I heard a cut off of Locked Down and was impressed by how retro it sounded. In my experience whenever you get the latest from an artist who’s been around for awhile it does whatever it can to sound contemporary. Locked Down on the other hand uses tons of retro sounds and vintage instruments. It’s almost like Dr. John is trying to travel back in time on this one. I was curious as to why this sounded so different yet familiar and then it all made sense. Locked Down was produced/co-written by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach who also plays extensively on the album.
Listening to Locked Down now, it almost sounds too much like The Black Keys. Auerbach’s influence is awfully strong, so much so that I wonder if Dr. John even knew what was going on. I get the feeling at times that Auerbach may be carrying too much of load due to the fact that Dr. John just isn’t as sharp as he used to be. Then again that’s all just speculation, so I should probably just focus on the songs.
The songs on Locked Down are fairly standard bluesy, funk numbers. Dr. John’s Cajun drawl is still as stylish as ever and there some delightfully old school sounds surrounding him. I only wish there was more new to offer in the songwriting department. Most of the songs on Locked Down are likable enough, but too derivative of not only past artists, but of past Dr. John material.
All in all it was an interesting experiment. I never thought I’d check out anything by a post-seventies Dr. John, so that’s saying something. I know some critics have really enjoyed this new album, and I’m happy for them. I’m also glad to see that Dr. John can still be critically relevant in 2012. Still I am no more than mildly pleased with Locked Down.
Favorite Tracks: “Eleggua”, “Locked Down”, “Revolution”
M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion
I don’t know why it took me as long as it did to check out an album by singer-songwriter M.Ward. I enjoy both his work with Zooey Deschanel in the band She & Him and his work in the supergroup Monsters of Folk. A Wasteland Companion is M. Ward’s seventh album and it does bear a lot of resemblance to his songs with those other groups, maybe even too much. Wasteland sounds like half of the songs here could of been done with Monsters of Folk and the other half with She & Him and I was really hoping for something different.
M. Ward’s songs shift between folky and 60s style pop. I can hear that Ward is trying to diversify, but I would much rather have either a folk album or a pop rock album. I don’t feel like there’s any real direction here other than “I’m just going to throw together all the songs I haven’t used yet for my other projects.” Don’t get me wrong, there are some nice songs but some fairly forgettable ones as well.
I like M. Ward’s breathy vocals and laid-back disposition, apparently the only disposition he’s capable of. I just wish Ward would stop relying so heavily on Zooey Deschanel. Of course Zooey Deschanel sings on a couple songs that sound exactly like She & Him songs. If I wanted to listen to She & Him, I’d be listening to She & Him. It’s crazy that even on an M. Ward solo album I still feel like I’m listening to some kind of group or collaboration.
A Wasteland Companion is fine, but in the grand scheme of indie pop forgettable. Next time I’d like to see M. Ward focus most heavily on his 60s style songs, at least that’s what I like hearing him do the most. At least I now have a general idea of what he’s all about, so there’s one mystery solved.
Favorite Tracks: “I Get Ideas”, “Me and My Shadow”, “Primitive Girl”