Album Reviews – Chris Cubeta, Darling, Mooney Suzuki, Sean Fournier, Freedom Hawk, The Features, Humpback Jack, Stranger Day, Smashing Pumpkins
(originally published in Bootleg Magazine, August 2007)
Chris Cubeta and the Liars Club – Faithful
By Brian Tucker
There was an illustration years ago in Rolling Stone magazine depicting a classroom with Bob Dylan in the front row and behind him sat a young Bruce Springsteen looking over his shoulder as if copying Dylan’s test answers. Behind Springsteen sat a spry John Mellencamp doing the same thing to Bruce. The illustration did much to explain the notion that a singer-songwriter can be popular and sing of substance. Dylan begat many more, like Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams.
Brooklyn’s Chris Cubeta could be drawn into a lengthy classroom illustration if it were done today. Cubeta sings about life won and lost, and the hearty day to day existence of it all on his second release Faithful. Lyrics remark on common living much as Springsteen and Mellencamp did without slipping into the jaded regions of pop or corny choruses.
Writing from the gut and the heart is something left to singer-songwriters at the moment, a way of making music that’s been lost to the backyard of popular music. One has to search for this type of clarity, this meaningful soulfulness. Eschewing stereotypes is not an easy thing to do but Cubeta delivers a genuine record with passionate vocals that ache and sooth without overselling it.
Faithful is rich in American heart and grit, dripping with working man earnestness and vitality. It’s at once romantic and honest while pleasantly rugged. Cubeta sings of fondness for substance, such as the best way to hear a song is on the radio (“Me and the Radio”) that is a distant cousin to “Summer of ‘69.” Lyrically he paints pictures of waitresses and talking heads that force many to seek solitude (“Better Alone”) and broken souls that still want to mend, only to shine again.
Minor details drive lyrics, building something even more resonant. For example, “the smell of coffee and that hardwood shine,” on “Clementine,” a beautifully sad lament about leaving someone behind after many years together. There’s a lot of distance on this record, between individuals and between the self. “Downtime Dead” is an tender number short but exhibits self imposed loneliness.
Cubeta is a modern interpretation of the aforementioned singer songwriters. He is rugged and truthful and Faithful’s tracks are anything but sugar morsels for the cheap ear. It’s rock and roll in the singer songwriter vein.
Vocals are strong, recalling Kyf Brewer from early nineties rock band Company of Wolves and the undertones of Springsteen. Cubeta delivers Middle American rock and roll and Faithful is a record that will find its way into your foot, making it stomp, and the insides that make you want to dance.
Darling – Ground is Sound
By Brian Tucker
Hailing from Chicago, Darling’s Ground is Sound is a confessional mini-epic, a quiet opera in its own right that builds and folds itself all through its seven songs. Large in scope, much in the way Smashing Pumpkins does with waves of abrasive guitar melodies and heavy drumming, Darling does so with ambient sounds – repetitive, gentle guitar strumming and somewhat minimal coarse tribal drumming. The result is a large blanket of sound constructed primarily from gentle and melodic playing.
Jeff Schneider’s airy vocals blend easily with this self-possessed style of playing. “Keyholes” is a splendid example, mixing acoustic guitar, tambourine and background ambiance with sweet and sometimes nasal vocals.
“Turning Gray,” perhaps the album’s stellar song, blurs the line between past and the modern past, where what is old is given a new coat of paint. The song is simple, echoing pre-fame INXS and more muted sounsding Wilco songs. Its counterpart, “Pulling Down,” musically pulls the insides out, a song grabbing at the heartstrings. Like something played for an emotionally defining scene in a film, it has all the right ingredients; somber guitar, gentle sonic ambiance and fuzzed out guitar strums that induces reflection. Schneider’s haunting vocals pull the song from sadness to optimism – “What’s that pulling down on me/Isn’t that life/Isn’t that life pushing me down/You got to get back up.”
Each track is less than single songs each, instead, working as pieces of a much larger puzzle. Of the seven, each plays like a different mood although sonically connected. Ground is Sound is beautifully frantic, a drawn-out eruption of restrained emotion, like a long dream laced with tension.
The whole feels deliberately imperfect, brimming with raw jangling and echoing guitar coupled with bass and drums that tend to ebb and flow. Everything eschews typical song (or album) structure, leaving the listener with emotional aftermath.
Darling’s music is devoid of bombast and raw power, seemingly for the sake of attention. That would be too easy and betrays the idea that less is more is just as powerful. Ground is Sound is special in that its emotionality is far superior to any speaker turned to full capacity to affect a listener.
Freedom Hawk – EP (re-released in 2009)
By Brian Tucker
If your taste runs along the lines of something heavy, carrying a righteous groove and raw guitar playing then there’s much to like about Freedom Hawk’s hazy sounding stoner rock. The Virginia Beach band’s EP delivers a truck load of fuzzed out jams and funk-laden heavy metal with smooth vocals. Freedom Hawk offer up heavy metal rock and roll, not just loud guitars and primal screams, but an all-out musical punch.
The quartet has crafted tunes channeling early era Black Sabbath and Fastway with added groove in the vein of Fu Manchu, ASG or Soundgarden. Singer T.R. Morton’s high pitched raspy vocals ape with uncanny familiarity to a young John Osbourne. The band puts out a wall of sound that moves like massive ocean swells, like the wake from an aircraft carrier.
“Bad Man” is thick with buzz saw guitar, just intensified. Matt Cave and drummer Lenny Hines pair up well with brother Mark Cave on bass. Matt’s solo on the song mischievously interacts with Mark’s driving bass line. For such a heavy track it drips with melody and tight, immense rhythm. The opening salvo on “Universal” is mosh-frenzy personified, a song about being a “Universal guy/In this universal world,” and alcohol, “Walking home again/Too much to drink.” Hines’ drumming on the track is in overdrive, all over the place, and his stick tapping in between guitar blasts adds to the fraught energy of the track.
“Jay Walker” begins as though Zeppelin was doing Sabbath in a fever dream, culminating like a fist fight, and the end section is all out crunch. “On the Other Side” begins with circling guitar riff lulling into complacency only to switch gears, see-sawing into a different, easy groove. It’s the album’s only laid back number.
On their EP, the band have made heavy, head bobbing rock ‘n metal that is fun and ferocious.
Humpback Jack – The Red Eye Home
By Brian Tucker
Hailing from Austin, Texas Humpback Jack is an electrified combination of The Moody Blues and jam band interplay. Opening with “Freebase Suitcase” on The Red Eye Home the band establishes a funky tone with laid back delivery.
“This Will Get You Up” is its polar opposite, a frantic keyboard heavy number and on “Will You” Nathan Carter’s vocals are central to the album’s most melodic effort. The feel of The Allman Brothers and Santana are evident on that track as well as “Easier For You” which mixes haunting piano and guitar with staccato drumming and a seventies super group soaring melody.
The album is punctuated with brief instrumental pieces setting a wistful tone that underscores the heavier nature of tracks such as “Reveal the Water.” Its opening is in contrast to the phenomenal breakdown halfway into the song only to be taken higher with Trey Burkett’s spiraling solo. “Home” may be the standout track. At nine minutes it’s the album’s more adventurous number, bridging Widespread Panic, Money Mark and soft rock superheroes.
“Sweet Root” takes a close second to “Home” with a strolling pace and playful piano notes. Its chorus, “Fallin into the deep of the ocean“ will stick in your head for a long time. The outro on it is both beautiful and dreamlike, a soft sonic lullaby in its own right. “Intelliphunk” is an instrumental in which the keys and Bryan Burkhart’s drums walk all over one another to bring home a fun and fancy groove as the album’s centerpiece. “Free” slows things down with airy vocals and subtle reggae flavor.
The Red Eye Home is a harmonious and funky journey, traveling between jam band set ups and hearty pop melodic surrealism. Never relying on one genre, Humpback Jack compound several styles to craft memorable and extremely musical songs.
Sean Fournier – Paper Tiger
By Josh Spilker
This Connecticut singer/songwriter usually plays to the coffeehouse crowd – meaning mostly acoustic. And there are some gems on here in the vein of Derek Webb and Jack Johnson – like the opener quick-step, “Step Inside,” followed by “Falling for You.”
Sean Fournier takes off though with the title track, “Paper Tiger,” which opens with a classical music sound and Fournier’s voice roughed up a bit. It’s a tasteful melody, like a less annoying Rocket Summer. The pop presence isn’t messing, and the paper tiger metaphor works perfect—as an image and as a pop chorus. A simple jingle, it picks up where John Mayer left off before diverging into his jazz trios.
Fournier’s pop sense seems real, not falsified as made up by a bunch of label execs for exclusive Top 40 play. ‘More’ follows up “Paper Tiger” with a deeper rhythm, heavily influenced by bass lines and easy keyboard melodies. Fournier’s high tenor takes a dive here, but he pulls it off well. Fournier increases the outlook with a more simple surf tune, “All I Tend to Think About,” which concentrates on the simplicity of songwriting, and repeats like a folk hymn.
Fournier shouldn’t be described as diverse, but more like ambidextrous, in the same way that the left hand and right hand sometimes do different tasks, but are part of the same body. Those interested in Howie Day and Jack Johnson will find a home here. Nothing too deep or moribund here, (though “Lie” does woe us a bit with its mournful piano) just a nice leap through spunky lovelorn singer/songwriter musings. But in a populated genre where there is more chaff than wheat, and nobody bothers to separate it, Fournier stands out as wheat. That’s a compliment, I swear.
Stranger Day – Strangers Die Every Day
By Brian Tucker
On Strangers Die Every Day Stranger Day deliver a strong dose of reality fused with clever cuts and beats. “Grenade Brigade” is relentless, crisp vocals laid down against funky beats and fresh scratches by The Royal Lord Walrus. Rap vocals recall early nineties group Urban Dance Squad with old school rap delivery.
“Last Call” is all rhyme and beats with furious scratching in between. On “Elevate & Escalate” the beats are subtle, bouncing like “Jump Around” and laid down with trickles of piano and stern vocals, “It is what you make of it, It is what you take from it.” “Burning Bridges” mixes dance music beats to great effect making a sly, club ready track. It’s refreshing to hear cold funky beats on tracks like “1 2 3 America,” a straight up reality check on social ills and getting around in the American way of life.
On “Beats, Rhymes, Die” the track opens with Al Green slowed way down and then hits the ear with swift rap delivery. Against background beats is laid back guitar playing and the track ends as quickly as it began.
Stranger Day does something that hasn’t been put on record in a while – strong vocals, strong rhymes, energetic scratches and steady beats. Hip Hop has lingered for a long time and transformation is a much needed thing, especially a return to straight up beats and rhymes.
The Features – Contrast EP
By Nathan Richardson
You could hardly blame a band for wanting to call it a day after being dropped by their label only weeks away from the start of recording sessions for their second full-length. But responding to that indignity by continuing to record and self-release music so solid, so burning and bubbling and ready to break that the suits can’t help but kick themselves because they were so ass-hatted to let you go? Over the course of this emphatic, defiant five-song EP, the Features do just that, and it’s near impossible not to cheer them on.
The Features brand of power-pop sounds like a manic roller coaster ride through ’80s New Wave and ’90s indie rock. The keys buzz brightly. The guitars chime and ring. The rhythm section thumps and chugs insistently. The melodies are dangerously catchy, taunting you to hum and howl along. And above it all, Matt Pelham’s voice is razor sharp, wailing like a banshee, yet always controlled.
This is a strong batch of songs filled with moments of sheer joy and layered with sharp hooks that grab and don’t let go. Taken as a whole, these songs blend together so well. Contrast opens with the title song, a celebratory burst of energy, complete with a joyful Hey Hey Hey chorus that begs listeners to join in. That feel-good vibe belies the conflict in the lyrics, which are appropriately full of vague tensions and mixed signals.
The band follows with ‘Wooden Heart,’ a three minute distillation of their signature sound. The fiery chorus of ‘Commotion’ presents what may very well be the greatest use ever of the phrases alright and aw yeah in any context. Unfortunately, because this is an EP, it’s over much too quickly, so you’re very likely to press play again and again. This won’t ever last / That won’t ever pass, Pelham sings in the title song, and after listening to this all-too-brief yet impossibly catchy EP, you know exactly where he’s coming from.
Mooney Suzuki – Have Mercy
By Brian Tucker
On Have Mercy, New York’s Mooney Suzuki, have done well to mix MC5 fervor and J. Geil’s Band soul to energize what remains of American rock and roll in the last decade. Several decades ago they would have made decent competition for bands like the Rolling Stones but emerged in the mid-nineties before The Strokes and years after The Smithereens, sounding like a punkier, more Detroit version of the latter.
With the new album they break consistency, mixing up the expected rock and roll songs with slower, soulful numbers such as “Mercy Me,” “The Prime of My Life” and the Elvis Costello-meets-Springsteen flavored “First Comes Love,” a broken lover’s tale in the vein of Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” and Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks.” The Phil Spector feel and fifties dance vibe shine on a mixed collection of tunes.
The band has slowed it down a bit compared the frenetic and ferocious nature of People Get Ready and Electric Sweat. The funky sadness of “This Broke Heart of Mine” is fuzzed out and laced with organ to great effect. Sammy James sings, “when it’s gone, then its gone, the loving is gone.”
Energetic numbers include “99%” whose openi guitar riff echoes The Alarm’s Change record, putting together hand claps and choruses of “Na, Na, Na,” making a great rock single. “Good Ol’ Alcohol” is a take it or leave track about alcohol and drugs, perhaps better served up as a B-side. The country flavor of “Down but Not Out” closes the album appropriately, nearly outshining everything on Have Mercy, highlighting playful and subdued electric guitar.
Have Mercy is a solid, but low key, affair, a worthy addition to their existing catalog of great rock and roll. Check out People Get Ready and The Maximum Black EP as well. No disappointments.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Baby 81
By Brian Tucker
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club remains a band constantly in motion, merging from sultry bombast on their debut to ghostly acoustic surrealism on 2005’s Howl, a brilliant introspective album that surprised many. On Baby 81 the band returns to the crash and sonic boom of early records.
“Suicide’s easy/What happened to the Revolution?” snarls singer Peter Hayes on “Berlin” whose catchy drum and guitar parts power what sounds like a sixties raw dance number, imagine Marc Bolan as guest vocalist on a Stooges record.
BRMC never fail at invoking hypnosis within their layered sound, be it maracas, acoustic or slide guitars that seem to loop in their melodies or sweetly raspy vocals. On “Windows” the stomp of drum and piano offer up a macabre carnival vibe accompanied with near whining vocals – “The spiders on the rooftops/The trapdoors in our cells.” Introspective and dark material was covered properly on Howl, but on Baby 81 it’s concocted with catchier arrangements, the subtle weight of McCartney and Alice Cooper here and there.
“666 Conducer” is an endless walk towards destiny, plowed along by heavy handed drums and the presence of prickly, devilish hands. Fuzzed out guitar on “Need Some Air” is paired with fast tempo percussion to grand effect. “All You Do Is Talk” and “Killing the Light” are slow numbers surfacing on Baby 81 and “American X” is a nearly ten minute swirling opus in which the last four minutes is a musical journey unto itself, built on guitar refrains and free form drumming. What feels like an endless jam serves as the song’s stirring dénouement.
The album closer, “Am I Only” is part melancholy and part crash and burn, Hayes sings “People are strange/Am I only one of you…There’s so much more to see/but loss is meant to be.” It travels from acoustic seething to loud, explosive dramatic
BRMC plays proudly on Baby 81 but with their heads down, no need to show off, integrity still intact, playing from a place where the sprit of music still exists.
Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist
By Brian Tucker
Seven years after their last studio album Smashing Pumpkins return to the crash and bulk of early records Gish and Siamese Dream while much of the solemn and beautiful offerings of Adore and Mellon Collie make few appearances. It’s appropriate given a band’s return, informing listeners new and old of their viability.
While neither a reinvention nor a disc filled with repetition, Zeitgeist is the many sides of Billy Corgan, the weighty buzz saw guitar (“Tarantula”), the tip toeing vibrancy of acoustic numbers (“Pomp and Circumstances”), and the electronic side found on “For God and Country” sounding new and New Wave equally.
“Starz” mixes up a hushed chorus with slamming guitar. “Tarantula” feeds on itself, the guitar playing like lightning runs tight against the drumming, echoing “Frail & Bedazzled” off Pisces Iscariot. If anything, Zeitgeist sounds like Gish and Pisces Iscariot fuzed together with less snare drum and Corgan refraining from his signature frustrated scream.
“That’s the Way (My Love Is)” is a slower track, showing Corgan’s knack for crafting a hit song while reminiscent of his previous band Zwan. The nine minute opus “United States” is the album’s centerpiece, revolution with a droning and hypnotic background. “Neverlost” mirrors Adore, highlighted by sweet vocals and staccato beats.The band (only Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain remain of the original four members) sounds much as it did in the nineties, fuzzed-out walls of sound against Corgan’s nasal vocals and Chamberlain’s bouncing drumming, in some ways the heart of the band’s sound.
Sounding like different shades of albums over the years, Zeitgeist is like as collection of songs left off each of the respective records. But that would be a misconception – Zeitgeist merely shows all sides of a band that endured several permutations (interchanging members) and digressions (Zwan, solo albums).
Depending on where you buy Zeitgeist it may have a different bonus track. One bonus track, “Zeitgeist” should have remained on each copy. It’s simply Corgan with acoustic guitar on a quick number singing, “I’m lost on this road/Are there any real souls to find?” How appropriate given the first image you see after opening the booklet is a picture of Paris Hilton and a nuclear bomb exploding in the background. The song is a beautiful way to end what will ultimately be labeled a ‘comeback’ album.