Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cash delivers parting message with "Ain't No Grave"

Genre: Country
American Recordings/Lost Highway
Running Time: 32:23

In 1994, Johnny Cash was looking to resurrect his career. After dominating the American music landscape for the three previous decades, Cash was faced with a major lack of support throughout most of the 80s. Then came Rick Rubin, and the beginning of the American Recording series.

This year saw the release of the sixth and (supposedly) final installment in the series, American VI: Ain't No Grave. Cash's American Recordings have become famous for its stripped down approach - most songs feature just Johnny and his acoustic guitar. After the release of American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, Cash began recording material for one final album.

Following his death in 2003, that material was released on American V: A Hundred Highways and now on his latest album, American VI: Ain't No Grave. Fans of Cash will not be disappointed; here is an opportunity to hear the man in fine form for one final time.

If you're familiar with Cash's past few American Recording albums, you'll know what to expect. Music or style wise, he hasn't changed it up very much. Most of the album is cover songs, but he makes them his own with his mournful voice and acoustic guitar. It's a true spectacle.

Cash is known for covering songs from many different genres; some of these include The Beatles "In My Life" Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and most famously, Nine Inch Nails "Hurt." Here, Cash sticks mostly to Country, Western, and Folk material.

It seems almost every song contains some type of life lesson. Ed McCurdy's "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" is a hymn to ending war; Porter Wagoner's "Satisfied Mind" warns that money isn't everything; Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" teaches us to appreciate life's finer moments.

There are also major spiritual elements present on the past few Cash albums, and those pop up again here. The title track sees Cash fully prepared to meet his savior. The haunting melody, coupled with Scott Avett's banjo performance make this song the centerpiece of the album. Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" is a thoughtful track that looks forward to the next world.

There is one Cash original, "I Corinthians 15:55." The lyrics portray Johnny as a ship captain, sailing into eternity. The Bible passage to which the title refers is quoted in the chorus. I found it a nice touch.

American VI: Ain't No Grave will stand as one of Cash's most introspective albums. It's very somber in tone, and as a result, perhaps lacks some of the variety that his previous albums had.

There's no hint of Cash's grit or humor that was seen on tracks like "Delia's Gone" or "Tennessee Stud" from the first American Recordings album. There aren't any real upbeat tracks, like "Sam Hall" or anything with the groove of "Like the 309," both from American V: A Hundred Highways.

Though perhaps this is what gives American VI: Ain't No Grave its identity.

It's a touching, poetic, and revelatory piece of work. Cash knew his time was short when he made these recordings. This was his final message to the world.

Check out these tracks:

Ain't no Grave
For the Good Times
I Corinthians 15:55

Lyric to use as your Facebook status:

Oh let me sail on
With my ship to the East
And keep my eye on the North Star
When the journey is no good for man or for beast
I'll be safe wherever you are

Score: 83/100

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Big Boi makes big waves with solo debut

Genre: Rap
Def Jam Recordings
Running Time: 57:43

On Sir Luscious Left Foot… Son of Chico Dusty, Big Boi says he’s got a back up plan for his back up plan. Why? To back up his back up plan! But first let’s back up and explain a few things about this album.

Big Boi rose to fame as a member of the rap group Outkast, serving as one half of the outfit that turned out some of the biggest hip-hop albums of the last decade, Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Now the son of Chico Dusty puts his best foot forward to establish his own identity, but will Sir Luscious prove to have two left feet? One thing’s for sure: Big Boi has produced a big time, radio ready record filled with catchy hooks and some of the smoothest flows we’ve heard in the mainstream rap genre.

But therein lies the problem. Sir Luscious Left Foot isn't quite what I would call a mainstream rap album, but it has many elements of mainstream rap that I feel drags it down. I feel like a lot of the tracks sound like they were meant to be played at a club or a party, and that type of sound doesn't appeal to me so much.

Most songs on Sir Luscious Left Foot follow a formula of having a ear-grabbing sing along R&B hook with smooth laid back rapping in the verses. The album as a whole has a very slick commercial feel to it. Nothing makes this more evident than the opening number, Daddy Fat Sax. Big Boi comes out in grand style, dropping a few verses that sound ready for BET.

If there’s ever a video made foe this song, I can see it taking place during a pool party at a fancy mansion, while scintillating honeys are getting crunk on Corona.

On “Follow Us” Big Boi lays down some great verses, then you have a chorus that sounds like something pulled straight from an Usher track. One of the best examples of this style can be found on “Turns Me On,’ sounds somewhat more Outkast inspired. Sleepy Brown lays down a mellow, relaxing chorus while Big Boi and Joi lay down some chill raps in the verses. It reminds of “I Like the Way You Move.”

Another highlight is “Be Still” with Janelle Monae, who dropped her own critically acclaimed debut album, The ArchAndroid, back in May. Monae’s smooth R&B vocals coupled with the verses Big Boi lays down brings to mind some of 2Pac's collabos with female artists, like "Run Tha Streetz" from his All Eyez on Me album. Albeit much less thuggish.

But the real stunner here is the beat in the chorus. It has got some groove! It actually reminds me of something Aphex Twin would do. Think "4" or "Fingerbib" off The Richard D. James Album.

Tangerine, featuring Atlanta bred rapper T.I., also stands out, although the lyrics are a little less than desirable. Jamie Foxx croons some sweet R&B vocals on Hustle Blood, and Gucci Mane delivers a memorable guest performance on “Shine Blockas.”

He hits a clunker with "You Ain't No DJ." Annoying beat, annoying cliched lyrics - you get the picture. I hit the skip button on this one.

Big Boi himself proves that he’s still a great emcee, consistently doing a great job with his rhyme, flow, and delivery. I feel as though his lyrics aren’t as relevant as they were in his days with Outkast, however.

On Speakerboxxx, he was rapping about things that mattered – politics, religion, being a single father, etc. Here, most of that is gone. On “For Your Sorrows,” he addresses the issue of how many young people don’t read or keep up with the news. “Call it a fiction addiction cause the truth is a heavy thing,” he declares.

Outside of that there’s not too much substance. Most of the lyrics are about money, clubbing, jewelry, and being from Atlanta. I like this album, and I think Big Boi is one of the better well known rappers today. But I think it’s clear he was going for a commercial hip-hop type of sound.

Outkast was always about trying to be different and stand apart from the mainstream trends. I think it would have been better if Big Boi would continue to carry that torch. It’s missing the Outkast zaniness and originality that was present even on Speakerboxxx.

If you have any interest in hip hop you should definitely check this out. If you’re hoping for this record to sound similar to Outkast, you may find yourself in need of your own back up plan.

Tracks to check out:
Turns Me On
Be Still
Shine Blockas

Score: 78/100

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Eminem recovers nicely on Relapse followup

Genre: Rap
Aftermath Records
Running Time: 77:06

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Eminem released some of rap's greatest albums. The Slim Shady LP and the Eminem Show were startling displays of Em's lyric writing, and his mastery of rhyme and flow. But it was his 2000 album, Marshall Mathers LP, and all the controversy surrounding it that lifted Mathers to superstardom.

Which is why it was no surprise that when the rapper made his comeback with 2009's Relapse album that there was a lot of buzz. In the opinions of many, he fell far short of the mark. Which is part of what makes Recovery so interesting. Just when it looked like Mathers was done, he returns with a remarkable return to form that is sure to shush the critics.

One of the great things about Recovery is that Mathers has regained his old form in terms of rhythm, flow, and delivery. The tacky accents that marred Relapse are gone. Even better, he's ditched a lot of old topics he discussed on previous albums.

No more Kim, no more drama with his mom, no Ken Kaniff, and no more cussouts from Steve Berman. It's great to see him try to move on because those were subjects that were honestly run into the ground.

So, you may wonder, if Mr. Mathers isn't discussing his family issues, etc., then what exactly does he rap about? Well, that's kind of the kicker. He doesn't have all that much to say. Some of his most interesting material sees him discussing the turmoil he was going through while he was trying to ditch drugs. On "Talking To Myself," Em reveals that he considered recording diss tracks against Lil Wayne and Kanye West.

He also admits that his last two albums, Recovery and 2004's Encore, weren't that great.

Outside that, a lot of his subject matter revolves around - what else? Women. Either he's banging your girlfriend or he's being ditched by one. In some respects it's interesting, because he talks about relationships on this album in a way that he hasn't done since his debut, Infinite.

But there are a long run of tracks where he gets a little too into the melodrama of bad relationships. Save it, Em. I have a feeling I'll get plenty of that when I review the Taylor Swift CD.

Eminem's lyric writing skills just aren't what they used to be. Some of them are just downright corny. On "Not Afraid," he says he's going to go into a club and lift up the liquor stand because he's "raising the bar." Get it? It's a steep decline for the man who used to stand out like an orange hat with a green bill. Also, he talks about dicks a lot.

There are a couple of other things he does on this album I find interesting. First, his voice sounds a little different on this album. It's like they pumped his vocals up a little too much in the mix. Not a huge deal, but it would have been better if they'd toned it down a little in production.

I haven't heard Em use samples of other songs very often, but he does it on a couple of tracks here to varying degrees of success. On "Going Through Changes," he samples Black Sabbath's "Changes." I don't think it works to well; Ozzy's voice sounds totally out of place on a rap song. However, on "No Love," he uses a sample of Haddaway's "Don't Hurt Me" to summon his inner mojo. It's very effective at giving the track a club feel without being tacky.

Other highlights include "Cold Wind Blows," which may be the album's best song, with its sing-along chorus. "Won't Back Down" has a clunky but infectious beat with loud drums. On "Almost Famous," he waves a Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towel while name dropping Austin Powers and Verne Troyer, and other pop culture references.

"No Love" features Lil Wayne's southern drawl on full display. But the real stunner is Rihanna's performance on "Love the Way You Lie." The R&B/pop starlet brings the house down, while Em tales a tale of domestic violence. Overall, it's Em's most real and visceral album since The Eminem Show. It has some flaws, but it certainly is a solid addition to his catalog.

Score: 82/100

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Avenged Sevenfold's Nightmare serves as moving tribute to fallen drummer

Genre: Hard Rock
Warner Bros.
Running Time: 66:45

On December 28, 2009, the face of popular rock music changed forever when James Owen Sullivan died. Better known as The Rev, Sullivan served as the creative glue that helped mold Avenged Sevenflod together. In addition to being a standout drummer, he had a large hand in composing the band's material and providing backup vocals.

His passing had an undeniable effect on the band's sound as they released their fifth studio album, Nightmare. Filling in for Sullivan on this album is Mike Portnoy, the virtuoso drummer from Dream Theatre.

Since Portnoy first announced his involvement on this album, one of the major questions was how well of a job he could do of filling Sullivan's shoes. I'm glad to say that Portnoy's drum work hits the spot. If you didn't know better, you might almost think the Rev never left.

Musically, Nightmare is noticeably mellower than their previous efforts. It seems like almost every track was meant to pay tribute to The Rev. "Tonight the World Dies," "Victim," and "So Far Away" are uplifting power ballads featuring mellow acoustic guitar work and fantastic solos.

Guitarist Synsyter Gates may be best known for his shredding guitar solos, namely the "Afterlife" solo, but "Buried Alive" has perhaps the best solo I've heard him lay down. But of course, the band also comes through with some great hard rock material. "Buried Alive" and "Natural Born Killer" will really get your pulse pumping, but Avenged Sevenfold really kicks it up another notch with "God Hates Us."

When the opening riff kicks in, you'll wonder if you're still listening to the same band. Singer Matt Shadows employs a screamo style on this track similar to his style on the band's first two albums. If you were a fan of Avenged Sevenfold's Sounding the Seventh Trumpet or Waking the Fallen albums, you will likely dig this track.

Elsewhere, the title track offers up a catchy lead single in the vein of "Afterlife" and "Almost Easy" though not quite as compelling. "Danger Line" mixes it up a bit with horns and a piano in the outro.

But nothing on the album is quite like "Fiction," the last song penned by Sullivan before his death. The track kicks off with a haunting piano melody. Shadow's vocals plays off the piano part in a way to create a very unique melody.

Overall, Nightmare is a solid album for Avenged Sevenfold. It sees them leaving behind their headbanging anthems to a certain extent, but they prove capable of churning out some very heartfelt ballads.

Granted, it is music made for mass appeal which means this album may not be for everyone. If you liked the sound of their first two albums but felt left in the cold by City of Evil or the self-titled album, then Nightmare may not do much to win you back.

Likewise, if you tend to prefer more underground metal, you may want to stick with that. However, any fan of heavy rock or metal music should at least give Nightmare a chance to witness Avenged Sevenfold's parting ode to their fallen bandmate, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan.

Monday, September 6, 2010

M.I.A. is missing in action on latest effort

Genre: Electronic/Dance
Interscope Records
Running Time: 41:42

In the latter parts of the last decade, Maya Arulgrapasm, better known as M.I.A., was establishing herself as one of the most exciting and exhilarating new artists in music.

As the British born daughter of Sri Lankan refugees, Maya had a way of connecting two vastly different cultures and brought a bit of eastern flair to her exotic electro-hip hop tinged compositions. Helped out by her appearance on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, her single “Paper Planes” became a smash hit and lifted Arulpragasm to superstardom.

With the release of her new album, /\/\ /\ Y /\, in July, expectations were high. However, this time around it seems like she’s gone from being a bamboo banga to a club banga. Perhaps spurred by her recent entry into the spotlight, M.I.A. goes for more of a mainstream approach here and strips away almost everything that made her previous releases so intoxicating. It’s a disappointing dropoff from an artist who had shown so much zest and creativity up to this point.

On her previous albums, 2005’s Arular and 2007’s Kala, Maya established three traits that made her great. She effortlessly mixed a hip-hop/rap style with wild electro dance music and paired it with exotic tribal beats. It created a sound kaleidoscope that was both alluring and intoxicating. The political overtones served as the cherry on top.

On her latest record, /\/\ /\ Y /\, Ms. Arulpragasm has abandoned almost everything that made her a success up to this point. The tribal element is totally gone. The hip-hop stylings are virtually nil. What does that leave you with? The sound kaleidoscope is still there, but the soul is stripped out. And as for Ms. Arulpragasm herself, the poor girl is so washed out in a myriad of vocal effects that it’s a crying shame.

That brings me to another point that made up M.I.A.’s appeal – her charm. Maya was never a fantastic rapper from a technical standpoint, but she had a certain girly/Londoner charm that made up for it. Take a song like Hussel from the Kala album. Her flow on the rap part is totally cheesy, but also infectious.

On Mango Pickle, she’s telling us about how much she likes fish and mango pickle, and how she had to leave town because she couldn’t pay rent. Not exactly Illmatic, but the lyrics have a charm because she’s putting herself out there, and you can connect with it. Expect none of this on Maya. This time around it seems she’s aiming for more of a club appeal, evidenced by the fact that half her song titles are now written in txt talk – It Iz What it Iz, Teqkilla, and XXXO.

Given this, you might think she’d just drop her political act, but apparently she thinks the political diatribes and her tekquila binges can go hand in hand. It comes off hiralously. In her liner notes, she even brags about talking to the FBI, CIA, and Chinese Government on AIM. When she’s on there they probably think they’re talking to Ke$ha.

The first song following a brief intro is “Steppin Up,” which features the sound of a power drill along with other electronic effects. It isn’t bad, but lacks the addictive creative qualities that made her last album a hit. This leads into XXXO, which actually is one of the few standouts on this record. It starts off slow, but the spiraling melody in the chorus backed by a wall of shiny synthesizer beats make this track a gem.

The only other major standout to be found is in the lead single, “Born Free.” I’ve been skeptical of all the different effects put on Maya’s vocals on this album, but I have to admit that this is one place where the effects actually work to some degree. The echo on Maya’s voice creates a very ominous feeling that is effective in setting the mood for the song.

It’s also propelled by a buzzing bassline that reminds me of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” on steroids. There’s also a great drum track that grabs your attention. Lyrically, Maya goes for more of her political bent, declaring that she’s got something to say. Although you never really find out what that is.

Most of the remaining tracks slog by at a pretty brisk pace without ever leaving much of an impression. Lovalot has some low key hip hop going on and it’s pretty chill until you get to the chorus. There’s some funky beats that clash with the rest of the song; so much so to the point where it’s really jarring at first. And the stuttering stop/start effect on Maya’s vocals is really offputting. It sounds like something mixed by an amateur DJ to play at someone’s house party.

“It Takes a Muscle” is an uninspired attempt at a club hit. Tequkilla, an ode to all the different brands of alcohol, may be one of the true low points not just on this album, but of the entire year: “I got some sticky sticky icky ikcy wid!/ I got a shot of tequila in me!” My keyboard died a little inside just from having to type that out.

But still worse is “It Iz What It Iz,” one of the most musically grating and totally frivolous songs I’ve heard in a while. There are a couple tracks near the end where Maya tries to sing, and both tracks have an eastern flavor to their melody. Unfortunately, these tracks expose that Maya isn’t a particularly great singer, and she has trouble carrying the tracks on her own.

Many of the lyrics are pretty hilarious also. On “Tell Me Why” she says, “You can take me courthouse/you can take me jail/you can take me anywhere but/you can’t get me there.” What? In the very same verse, she brags about drinking alcohol and knowing the words to Wonderwall.

As a whole, Maya isn’t a horrible album. The main problem is she’s abandoned what made her great in favor of trying to pull a pop/chic appeal, and it isn’t really flying. At her worst, she captures the most overdone party/club clichĂ©s in the book.

Even the tracks that are somewhat good on this album can’t hold a candle to the creative forces that propelled the Kala album. This album seems like – dare I say it? Maya’s attempt at selling out. I still have faith in Maya, though, and I’m hoping she gets it back together for her next release.

Three Favorite Tracks:

Born Free
Steppin Up

Lyric to Use as Your Facebook Status:
Don't kid yourself, there's nothing here

Score: 52/100