Sunday, October 07, 2012

Recent Albums Fail to Transcend Great Expectations

September served as a pretty robust reminder that suggestions of rock ‘n’ roll being dead are greatly exaggerated.

In addition to attending nine concerts, including some pretty terrific ones—Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Slash, Maximo Park; click to see my reviews—I bought more new compact discs in a given month than I have in years.

These include works by five longtime favorite artists and one relatively rare newer act that intrigues me.

And especially in having read press/Amazon reviews and/or heard emphatic personal recommendations about each that ranged from strong to scintillating, I had great expectations for these recent albums:

Bob Dylan – Tempest
Bob Mould – Silver Age
Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky
The Killers – Battle Born
Green Day – Uno!
Band of Horses – Mirage Rock

So I would like nothing more than to tell you that these are all brilliant new releases, with each being a must-have addition to your music library. Except for my relatively nascent appreciation of Band of Horses, all of these are artists I have loved for a long time, and though none would qualify as complete unknowns, Dinosaur Jr. and Bob Mould have long been personal favorites despite never filling hockey arenas.

But with the caveat that I’ve come to realize that I sometimes don’t come to properly appreciate an album until it’s been around awhile, so far, after listening to each of these albums a good number of times, I can’t call any of them phenomenal.

Unless you are already an avowed fan of the given artists, I wouldn’t recommend that you spend any money—or much time—on their latest albums. And even if, like me, you are a hardcore fan, I don’t know that much here will surpass your regard for these acts’ past output or considerably enhance their oeuvre.

That’s not to say each—and all—of them don’t have merits. It’s hard for me to calibrate exact ratings for each album in “a pretty good but not nearly their best nor truly essential” sort of way—which helps to explain this combined review post.

But on the Seth Saith @@@@@ rating scale, each album likely merits @@@1/2 to @@@@.

Which doesn’t mean that you should avoid them like the plague or cringe if you happen to hear any of their songs. Each of the albums has moments that comfortably remind of the artist’s past glories, but relatively little that has me saying “I’d rather listen to this than the stuff I’ve loved in the past.”

Take for example, Bob Mould’s Silver Age. Before I heard the album itself, I heard—and read—great things about it, from heavy-duty Mould fans, the music press (see MetaCritic) and numerous glowing reviews on Amazon, where it currently has a 5-star composite rating. The common thread that runs through many of the reviews is that the new disc is Mould’s best work in years and harkens back to Copper Blue, a terrific album he released in 1992 under  the auspices of Sugar—his second great power trio, following Hüsker Dü.

But while Silver Age’s 10 songs all feature the searing guitars that epitomize many of Mould’s best and most emblematic songs, including several of those on Copper Blue, they suffer from a sameness. Not just in comparison with Mould’s past, but among each other. All of them blister and burn in a way that makes each enjoyable enough—conceivably even more so in concert—but none are melodically or musically distinct enjoy to elevate to the level of Copper Blue’s “Helpless,” “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” “Hoover Dam” or “The Act We Act.”

Even a song like “Needle Hits E,” which was left off Copper Blue, is a more enjoyable listen than anything here, as are “Your Favorite Thing,” “Underneath Days” and Egooverride,” to name just a few other hard-charging songs from Mould’s Sugar and solo incarnations.

Similarly, there are several not unpleasant songs from Dinosaur Jr., The Killers and Green Day, but even some of the better ones—”Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know,” “Miss Atomic Bomb” and “Nuclear Family,” respectively—would have a hard time playlist-supplanting “Out There,” “This River is Wild” or “Armitage Shanks,” to name a few tunes that don’t even quite top the artists’ back catalogs. I didn’t cite The Killers’ new “Runaways” just now because I do think it is a true standout, on par with their best, but I’m not even sure it doesn’t just “sound a lot like” The Killers at their best.

The Green Day and Killers albums are two that I was most looking forward to, and perhaps with time their virtues will become more pronounced, but without going through them song-by-song, both records tend to bore me more than thrill me. Neither makes me eager to throw it on at any time, which a great album should. 

There are some nice tunes on Band of Horses’ Mirage Rock—“Knock Knock,” “Heartbreak on the 101”—and I think they do enough to justify my interest among a (to my awareness) uninspiring crop of relatively recent vintage rock bands, but it’s also already become an album I listen to infrequently. Part of the problem is that rather than doing much rocking, most of the songs settle into an easy going Eaglesque groove.

Even Dylan’s Tempest, which garnered some @@@@@ reviews, isn’t an album I find myself putting on for pleasure. Yes, there are a number of quality songs from the old master, enough to make the album essential for Dylan disciples, but thus far Tempest isn’t making me forget Time Out of Mind, let alone approaching Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks or much else from Mr. Zimmerman’s glorious past.

I know I have friends who are loving Tempest, and I’m sure there are fans of each of these artists/albums who would vociferously avow that they’re far beyond run of the mill.

Of course, my opinion doesn’t matter; only yours does and my regard for any or all of these albums may change over time. But though it's possible I'm being too harsh, I recently went back to a couple other somewhat disappointing 2012 releases from longtime personal favorites--Alejandro Escovedo - Big Station; The Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania--and neither convinced me anew that they stand with these great artists' very best work.

So while The Killers' second album Sam's Town is an example of one I later came to really love despite not doing so initially, at this point I suspect that none of the six recent albums I bought will stand--at least to me--as paragons of the phenomenal from acts that have previously achieved that apex.

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