Music review entries

March 23, 2008

Serj: Making Life More Tolerable

4 out of 5 stars

System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian has determined to take time out from his band to wear more top-hats, to sing less about porn, and to compose melodious meditations on antelopes. Elect the Dead is a likable record, constructed meticulously of layered of vocals and instruments, but at its heart pop melodies drive the songs along.

‘Empty Walls’, the opening track and first single, demonstrates the album’s best characteristics; it’s catchy and intense, it layers melodies effectively, and the vocal sounds unique in its blend of accent and crazed delivery. It’s a quirkiness that distinguishes ‘Lie Lie Lie’ also. By contrast, ‘Saving Us’ is quite straight-forward; the backing vocals and extra guitars don’t bring much to the table, but its core, the acoustic guitar-part and lead vocal, demonstrates strong song-writing. ‘Baby’ and ‘Sky is Over’, while not ground-breaking, are decent tracks, reminding me of Muse a little.

In turn, ‘The Unthinking Majority’ typifies the less-memorable songs on the album. The tune is plodding – deliberately, but not endearingly – and the transitions, to the loud chorus and to the to the low-key second chorus, don’t succeed dynamically, so the song feels disjointed. The lyrics, in straining to be topical, are laboured in places; ‘controlling tools of your system’, for example, is unnecessarily wordy (‘controlling’ is redundant in the phrase for starters) and comes across clumsily. Similarly, ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ is awkward, and in the album’s title track, ‘All I want is me’ is an exercise in inexcusable lyric. Lyrically, ‘Honking Antelope’ is grating political allegory. Let me tell you something about Hunters Becoming Hunted, Serj; it is one of the most worn-out allegories in the Annals of Cliché. In its alternative-rock context, the conceit reminds me of a Queens of the Stone Age video and I don’t think it’s desirable to echo such mighty competitors when making a case for your own music. But if I criticise the lyrics severely, I emphasise that it’s refreshing, and necessary, to find and encourage a song-writer who explores beyond the despair-inducingly narcissistic pop themes of doing people and tediously predictable teenage defiance.

Overall Elect the Dead is a rewarding record. Serj has an ear for a tune and the addition of piano, string and electronic parts to crunching guitars makes for a richly-produced album. Bonus points for naming a song ‘Beethoven’s Cunt’.

Download: ‘Empty Walls’, ‘Lie Lie Lie’, ‘Saving Us’

February 07, 2008

Road to Ruin

2 out of 5 stars

[To determine the rating of two stars I have devised a formula whereby Number of Stars = Utility ÷ Price where a utility score of 10 gives multiple orgasms, but a score of 1 results in the CD being thrown out the window.]

The scope of consumerism has been broadened in recent years as a matter of conscience. We no longer see the purchase of an item or the use of a service as an interaction solely between consumer and provider, but we consider the wider consequences of each transaction. The carbon footprint is a topical example, a term carrying an alarming sense that the pollutants emitted by our means of travel will have permanent consequences for the environment. Food miles too are totted up in view of the fuel consumption in their transport and the cost to local producers of similar goods. Fair trade is a movement that reminds us that the lowest prices usually imply that, somewhere along the line, someone is getting a bad deal.

In the spirit of this enlightened capitalism I have invented what I term the Grohl Input Level. It measures what effect an individual’s activity as a consumer has on Dave Grohl’s life. For example, I have a quite comprehensive Nirvana collection, including singles and duplicate copies on vinyl and CD, every Foo Fighters album, many of their singles, a live DVD, and I have seen the band live on five occasions, as well as patronising some of Grohl’s side projects. Hence, I’d like to think that there is some tangible evidence of my custom in the Grohl estate. Perhaps the furry dice in his BMW can be attributed to my purchases. Or maybe when he has dinner guests over he asks Taylor Hawkins to be careful with the Chris Murray candlesticks, for crying out loud.

My latest doorstop chez-Grohl will be purchased when Dave and co receive their per diem royalty cheques for their latest record, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. The opening track, ‘The Pretender’, is typical, high-octane Foo Fighters, with Chris Shiflett providing some rockabilly-tinged guitar that I’m not sure about. It draws from a familiar vocabulary of aggression and contrariness. The second song, ‘Let It Die’ is great, building up gradually from pretty acoustic picking to enraged racket. ‘Erase/Replace’ bears the influence of producer Gil Norton, working with the band for the first time since 1997’s excellent pinnacle for the band, The Colour and the Shape. It’s really track 4, ‘The Long Road to Ruin’, that sets off the alarm bells.

I have tried hard to love this record.

‘The Long Road to Ruin’ is an objectionable piece of work. The lyrics are staggeringly awful lists of clichés that don’t mean anything:

Dear God, I’ve sealed my fate,
I’m running through hell,
Heaven can wait!

It’s also in this song, indicative of the band’s arena rock status, that for the first time we hear the Foo Fighters delivering a straight-up, scale-based guitar solo, which is like a slap in the face. It’s small fry, however, compared to the Leviathans of Wrong that are the two piano songs, ‘Summer’s End’, and ‘Home’, weepy and Springsteen-esque. Of the instrumental ‘Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners’ I ask what entitlement one has to name something a ‘ballad’ that does not have any words, and while I commend the dedication of music to two imperilled fans, I wonder whether it is a fitting tribute to commemorate them in a track that is devoid of emotion.

On Kerrang’s TV channel, the video for ‘The Pretender’ has been aired with a banner featuring Grohl’s comment that the band ‘threw this song together in the studio’. I think it’s indicative of the problem with this record: the songs are not written well, and this may be because they don’t put enough time into it. All the high studio-production available doesn’t paper over the cracks in this record. And so we leave them to their arena tours. Next time he’s out this way, I think Grohl owes me a coke.

October 11, 2007

Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist

1 out of 5 stars


I’m not interested in the altered line-up of this band, which has been the subject of endless debate in reviews and online forums: I don’t care if the absence of D’Arcy or James Iha disqualifies this as a ‘true’ Pumpkins album. To be honest, I’m glad to see the back of Iha, who threatened to destroy the worth of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by putting a song on it that ended, There’s a love that God puts in your heart. D’Arcy I am fairly indifferent to, knowing little about her other than that she gets her rack out in the liner notes for Adore.

My focus, rather, is on the trajectory of Billy Corgan’s songwriting output. The trend has been downward since 1995: a mediocre ‘mellow’ Pumpkins album, a patchy, Gothic concept-album, Machina, that didn’t quite reach the heights of the Pumpkins’ best, a Zwan album with a handful of good songs, a diabolical solo effort, a book of tortuous poetry entitled Blinking with Fists, and now this.

And now this.

Zeitgeist is a droning bore of a record. The only thing about it that stands out is that, remarkably, Corgan’s vocals are more irritating than on earlier records. This is due to his decision to overdub some harmonious ahh-ing on a few tracks: OK if you are Mark Lanegan or Dave Grohl; not so if you possess the most nasal voice in rock.

Kafka would be proud, he bleats.

Most songs on this record are nondescript – ‘Doomsday Clock’, ‘Bleeding the Orchid’, ‘That’s the Way (My Love Is)’ and more pass like a Show of Spectres without leaving much of an impression. ‘Tarantula’ might have been a great song was it not ruined by its confusing structure of post- and pre-choruses in no coherent arrangement that I can discern. And, of course, the Nasal Overdubs.

Corgan: short a few mil

There are reasons, too, to hate this record. To get all of the tracks you need to buy four different versions of Zeitgeist. Not that, on hearing this one, I would want to.

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