2015 Album Review Potpourri 1 (Imagine Dragons, etc.)

2015 started slowly for me for new music, but it’s finally rolling with some fine new albums to review so it’s time for the rockin and rollin dentist to drill down on new releases:

Imagine Dragons – Smoke + Mirrors (deluxe edition)

Their new album went right to #1 which is good news for rock bands that play guitars.  Unfortunately their singles have bombed pretty much which shows the disconnect today between the sales of albums and the top 100 pop charts for songs which is still dominated by dance rhythms.  Night Visions had it’s moments but as an album wasn’t nearly as strong as this impressive sophomore outing.  This, however, is an odd amalgam – downer singer/songwriter lyrics fused to a more up 21st century groove (meaning dance beats and shimmering production).  The songs all sound great, but if you listen hard to the lyrics you would have to put singer Dan Reynolds on suicide watch.  Right off the bat the retro 80’s synth-pop of “Shots” grabs you like an amped up Human League song with guitars.  Lyrically, however, you get “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done” – really?  Again the next two songs are catchy (“Gold” and the title track), but the singer keeps longing for something more as everything crashes down around him (“I’m dying to feel again”).  The closest thing to a hit was the mid-20’s charting “I Bet My Life” which has a dance-pop sheen to it (save a quiet breakdown in the middle which may have hurt chart success) and could have been from their first record.  If you don’t believe how down the lyrics are, try out these: “I’m a reckless mistake” (from “Polaroid”), “life ain’t what it seems (from “Dream”) and “it’s not a picture perfect life, not what I had in mind” (from “Hopeless Opus”).  If radio played ballads that didn’t involve fake drum clicks and Beyonce my pick for a leftfield hit would be “It Comes Back To You” which a shuffling beat driving a nice guitar riff and synth strings.  Oddly, my fave song on the whole record is only a bonus track so you need to get to Target or find a download to get “Thief” which has a U2 feel (and no dance beats).  Gorgeous almost prog rock touches in the middle give way to stabbing guitar lines.  The other bonus cuts are pretty good as well (“Release” is a nice acoustic ballad).  All in all a very adult album (and a great cover) so here’s hoping Reynolds’ outlook improves.

The Mavericks – Mono

Two albums into their comeback finds Raul Malo firmly in control writing or co-writing every song except the bonus track.  Sadly original bassist Robert Reynolds is out (personal problems) but the rest of the band returns – one of the coolest live acts you’ll ever see if you get the chance (Jerry Dale McFadden on keys looks like a new wave refugee having a great time, Eddie Perez is all Chicano flash dressed to the nines playing Duane Eddy twang, Paul Deakin on drums looks like a drill sergeant beating out time while Orbison sound-like Raul Malo seems to be having the time of his life).  Originally labelled a country band, these guys don’t really fit a label unless there is a retro-latino-classic rock category.  I liked the last one (In Time) better, but this is still a good record.  Generally the songs seem to fall into three categories: Latino pogo ska, countryish rock shuffles and retro 50s ballads for Raul to croon on.  The first category is what gets your rock and roll dentist jumpin’ – songs like “What You Do To Me”, “Summertime (When I’m With You)” and “(Waiting For) The World To End”.  The classic 50s slinky “Riot In Cell Block #9” groove of “The Only Question Is” has a great growly vocal from Malo while “Stories We Could Tell” mixes a country shuffle with jump-jive organ stabs.  The bonus track “Nitty Gritty” is a fine Doug Sahm cover giving it a Sir Doug “She’s About A Mover” feel with those Augie Meyer-style cheesy organ bits – classic.  Wish they’d expand a bit like they used to, however, playing Springsteen and oldies.

JD McPherson – Let The Good Times Roll

Sophomore album from rocker McPherson – best album so far this year.  The man flat out rocks and this is the kind of record that keeps getting better each track – no real clunkers save maybe the odd cover painting that has nothing to do with the music.  The sort of album you gots to crank up and call your friends, hypein’ them to a red hot artist.  On his second album, McPherson comes across more Eddie Cochran than Little Richard this time though he still can get that gritty “Tutti Frutti” scream to his voice when he wants to.  Boy was it great to see the man tear it up on stage with his crack band in DC and even better to see it was a sellout crowd that was much younger than expected.  Jimmy Sutton plays some authentic stand-up bass while Jason Smay (late of my fave raves Los Straitjackets) is a whip-crackin’ hot drummer.  Add in some classic sax honkin’ from Doug Corcoran and spif 50’s rock triplets on Raynier Jacildo’s keys and you has yerself some classic rocks.  Normally I’d skip the ballads on these sorts of albums, but dang if one of the best tracks isn’t the Flamingos-like “Bridgebuilder” with moody “I Only Have Eyes For You” piano triplets.  At 2:19 they suddenly kick in to a fantastic loud riff for 30 seconds that you wish could go on all night then it’s back to the mood.  “It Shook Me Up” has that Richard Penniman “Jenny Jenny” rock thing goin’ (like “Fire Bug” from Signs & Signifiers) while “Shy Boy” snakes in with some nasty bluesy guitar and some cheesy Sam The Sham organ.  “Mother Of Lies” coulda been by the great blues group the Paladins adding handclaps to a hot guitar riff.  The title track, “Bossy”, “You Must Have Met Little Caroline?” – they all sound like classic oldies but are from the pen of the artist.

Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Wilson remains a one-man progressive rock army – thanks to him for keeping the genre new and fresh.  He’s incredibly prolific which so far hasn’t meant a drop in quality – but it’s hard to keep up with all the releases (from solo to Porcupine Tree & Blackfield not to mention his work with Opeth and remasters of classic prog albums).  You tend to look for similarities to classic prog bands which isn’t to denigrate his talents, but shows how seamlessly he can move from King Crimson menace to Pink Floyd guitar scream in the same song.  The lovely piano opener “First Regret” moves into the 10 minute  Fragile era Yes feel of “3 Years Old” – you can almost hear Steve Howe playing these guitar parts himself.  Adam Holzman seems to echo Rick Wakeman on piano and Hammond organ (or maybe it’s Tony Kaye?)  while there are some fine vocal harmonies – but have you ever heard another song that uses the word “sinecure”?  The title track might be the most accessible song Wilson has ever done with sort of a “Turn It On” Genesis feel – almost a single candidate but only if it was 30 years ago.  “Happy Returns” is the other standout that starts gentle and simple but builds with screaming guitar and ethereal chorus.  The rest of the album is a bit harder to digest, but no less rewarding save the lone misstep of “Perfect Life” which starts as an ambient sort of thing with a dull female reading about a lost sister (Wilson’s?).  If you bail on the track before the 2:30 mark (which I assume most will), you miss out on the song getting alot better when Wilson starts singing and the instruments get louder.  The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is a better album overall, but this is a fine addition to your collection.

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