Playlist: September 2015

W.A.S.P., “Scream” (2015)

After six tumultuous years for Blackie Lawless (if the monthly feature on his website is anything to go by), the long-promised and long-awaited fifteenth W.A.S.P. album, Golgotha, is out on October 2nd – a very busy day for yours truly, as it turns out, with Clutch, Queensÿche, Eagles of Death Metal, the Winery Dogs and Federal Charm all dropping new records as well. Based on the strengths of this song alone, though, W.A.S.P. might be the one I’m looking forward to the most. It’s the typical W.A.S.P. formula, but if I had a formula this good I’d never break from it either. Loud, passionate, gutsy and insanely catchy.

More than a few commenters have pointed out its similarities to “Crazy“, the opening track from previous album Babylon, and I have to agree to some extent – they’re really very much alike, right down to the chorus lines: “scream if you love me” and “you’d have to be crazy to say that you love me”. I’d say “Scream” is a little better, though, if only for a better chorus and that infectious guitar figure between the lyrics in the verses.

LYNYRD SKYNYRD, “Saturday Night Special” (1975)

I’m going to tell you a little secret here: I first became aware of this song through the Armored Saint version which is, to put it lightly, a bit more gung-ho than the original. It’s also given me a newfound appreciation for Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band I’ve never really had much time for before, which is weird for a couple of reason: one, I’ve been reading Saving Country Music for over a year now, despite still not having much of a vested interest in the genre; two, I really enjoyed the new Blackberry Smoke album and they’ve been referred to as “the new Lynyrd Skynyrd” in the past; and three, Skynyrd’s music is surprisingly heavy. Even “Simple Man” has those crushing chords that border on, I don’t know, some sort of Southern metal – and of course, there’s “Free Bird” with its relentless, immortal solo.

This has to be a favourite of mine, though, with a bit more of a kick to its riff than their usual fare. Oddly enough, too, the “new” Lynyrd Skynyrd released a song a few years ago called “God & Guns” which seems to contradict the anti-firearm message of this song, though frontman Johnny van Zant (brother of their late vocalist Ronnie – funny, I always figured the latter was the former’s father) has explained that the song is actually not so – kind of. I don’t think the issue really needs any explanation, honestly, given that Johnny and Ronnie were and are different people. In fact even Johnny isn’t all that pro-gun by his own admission, though he does keep a few.

GENTLEMANS PISTOLS, “The Searcher” (2015)

I put Gentlemans Pistols’ new album, Hustler’s Row, in my Top Ten Anticipated Albums of 2015 list a little while back, and now we’ve had the lead single and opening track “The Searcher”, which Setlist.fm tells me the band have been playing for a good two years now (along with most of the songs from the new record). I wouldn’t have pegged it as an opening track, to be honest, but I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s just something I heard in their other openers “Just a Fraction” and “Living in Sin Again” that I’m not quite hearing here, or maybe it’s because the song as a whole took a little while to grow on me.

Make no mistake, though, it is growing on me – the riff is classic Gentlemans Pistols, and it’s good to hear James Atkinson’s wonderful vocals haven’t changed a jot, even if they sound a little buried by the guitars here. Still, it’s warm, joyous and raucous, and everything good timeless rock and roll should be. Meanwhile a couple of the morons in the YouTube comments can’t quite believe that their metal label Nuclear Blast has been invaded by something with comprehensible vocals, which is always funny to read.

EAGLES OF DEATH METAL, “Complexity” (2015)

And here’s where I have a little bit of a moan. The new Eagles of Death Metal album, Zipper Down, is out very soon, and it’s their first album in seven years. This is the first single from the album, “Complexity”, and if you’re a loyal reader of these playlists you might be having déjà vu right now. That’s because I mentioned the song months ago in my April playlist as a Boots Electric song, Boots Electric being the solo moniker for EODM frontman Jesse Hughes and the song being the lead track from his 2011 record Honkey Kong. I’m allowed to be disappointed by this, aren’t I? Especially as the track listing for the new record seems to suggest we’re getting a mere thirty-five minutes of music, one song being a cover and at least three others being reworkings from a four year old album.

Okay, so it’s difficult to really get truly angry about any of this. The song is still maddeningly catchy, and there are some minor changes made to the music: the electro-rock gloss has been stripped away, replaced with the candied scuzz-rock stomp EODM do so well, with an additional verse slipped in, while the instrumental outro that ended the original on a bit of a flat note has been capped with a repeat of the chorus, making for a more satisfying listen. In a way, too, it’s good that this is finding a wider audience as an EODM song, rather than fading into obscurity as it was probably destined to do as a Boots Electric number.

But I have one question: if they were always going to rework some of Jesse Hughes’s solo stuff, couldn’t they have at least considered tackling “Trippy Blob“?

JUDAS PRIEST, “A Touch of Evil” (1990)

September 3rd marked the 25th anniversary of Judas Priest’s Painkiller, the album that brought them back from the brink of irrelevance with a supercharged aggressive speed metal sound (which, in fairness, they’d already been hedging towards on previous release, 1988’s Ram It Down). It’s known as a fast and heavy album, but what’s probably not as well realised is just how dark it gets. Take “A Touch of Evil”, a high point on an already rock-solid set. Priest have always had a high sense of drama in their music, and here the sense of theatricality is elevated to magnificent heights with Don Airey’s swirling, creeping keyboards.

Lyrically it doesn’t stray too far from the Priest mold of kinky loving, but the words take on a much more ominous meaning when matched up with that marching groove and those wonderfully Gothic chords. The words “death approaches” leap to mind, probably because I have a strong image of listening to this song in my sixth form study room back in 2011 while reading The Girl Who Played with Fire and worrying about my own mortality. Don’t ask. Listen instead.

SCORPIONS, “In Trance” (1975)

Another anniversary inclusion, funnily enough falling on my 23rd birthday, so I had two things to celebrate that day. Lucky me, I guess. Scorpions’ In Trance turned 40 on September 17th, making 2015 the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation, the 40th anniversary of this album, the 30th anniversary of World Wide Live, the 25th anniversary of Crazy World, the 20th anniversary of Live Bites, the 10th anniversary of Moment of Glory, the 5th anniversary of Sting in the Tail and the 0th anniversary of Return to Forever. I might be a touch obsessed with anniversaries.

Anyway, this is the title track from that album and is often cited as one of the best songs Scorpions ever recorded, if not the best. I’m not so sure I’d agree completely. It’s certainly got one of the best choruses of any Scorpions song, right up there with “Rock You Like a Hurricane“, but the rest of the song is a little too reminiscent of their early psychedelic sound for me. In fairness they were moving away from that sound with songs like “Robot Man” and “Dark Lady“, and the moodier passages do build a nice atmosphere for the chorus to erupt from. The album artwork is also worth noting as being somewhat notorious, back in its day at least, for showing the cover model’s bare breast, a controversy that seems oddly quaint given their next bold choice of album art – and besides, would you expect anything less from the band whose biggest hit features the line “the bitch is hungry, she needs to tell / so give her inches and feed her well”?

Please also enjoy some complimentary naked ladies staring at you in blurry black-and-white, as provided by the video. I don’t get the concept myself. Are they entranced? Are they trying to entrance you? Who knows.

REVEREND AND THE MAKERS, “Black Widow” (2015)

I’ve been a Reverend and the Makers fan since “Heavyweight Champion of the World” first hit the radio and even I was surprised at the announcement of new album, Mirrors, even though it’s been nearly two years since the last one came out. With that album, ThirtyTwo, I kinda got the impression they were spinning on their wheels a little bit, eager to push themselves forward but unsure of where to go, and on the merits of “Black Widow” (and the other couple of free downloads you got with the Pledgemusic pre-order) they seem to have found a new direction: throwback psychedelic rock, a little like their second album A French Kiss in the Chaos but without any trace of the funk elements that made their name (which that album still tried to maintain to some degree).

In other words, they’ve completely overhauled their sound for their second decade of activity, and on the basis of this song I kinda dig it. It’d have been nice for them to come up with a more substantial hook, but the impression I get from this new album is that it’s going to be more of an atmospheric, immersive experience, rather than the big ol’ bag of songs The State of Things was, so it might be best judging it in context of the whole record.

BILL WARD, “Bombers (Can Open Bomb Bays)” (1990)

Have you guys ever checked out Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward’s solo career? It’s probably the most interesting stuff put out by any of the original four members. I checked out his most recent album, Accountable Beasts, and it’s really experimental stuff, with elements of Gothic and classical music interwoven into some truly heavy metal. Ward isn’t the strongest of vocalists but I always enjoyed his singing on Sabbath’s “It’s Alright” and “Swinging the Chain“, and even on his newer stuff there’s a charming genuineness, like he’s putting everything he has into it.

Maybe it was best, though, that he handed the mike to old bandmate Ozzy on this tune from his first solo album, Ward One, because Mr Osbourne’s sinister tone really helps to sell the menace of the music in a way I’m not sure Ward’s voice could. And yet for a song about war it’s surprisingly hopeful, and don’t say you don’t well up a little inside at the simple beauty of lyrics like “don’t hurt them, just hold them, make someone happy” when set to those chords. Just lovely. As for the music, well, it’s just unmitigated awesomeness.

FEDERAL CHARM, “Hercules” (2015)

You know, I’d forgotten how much I loved these guys. A blues-rock band from Manchester, they released their first album back in 2013, which I’m not ashamed to say I bought solely on the strength of the band name. Federal Charm: sounds like a vintage whiskey, doesn’t it? The album actually didn’t do much for me at first, but I gave it another listen a while later and something just clicked, and it’s easily one of my favourite albums released that year. They’ve got another one now, Across the Divide, coming in October, and “Hercules” is the lead single.

It only struck me after a couple of listens just how simple this song is, and yet the repeated ideas never get old somehow. The riff is ridiculous in how catchy it is, the groove is smoking hot, and all in all it’s just a good old jagged, danceable blues stomp. You know, one of those. I still haven’t figured out what “so hot, she’s Hercules” means, either, and I’m not even sure I care. As far as I’m concerned this is a great primer for the new album.

BLACK SABBATH, “End of the Beginning” (2013)

“Is this the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?” Well, as if it was ever really going to be the former. Yes, after several mentions here and there from the band, Black Sabbath have finally announced their farewell tour for 2016. Now, if you know anything about “farewell tours” you’ll know they tend not to stick. KISS went on a farewell run at the turn of the millennium and they’re still packing stadiums. Scorpions spent three years on the road “retiring” before doing an about-face and calling the whole thing off. Even Ozzy went on at least one of those in the Nineties, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t Sabbath’s first farewell either. That said, the three band members left (Bill, we’re all rooting for your return, buddy) have a combined age of 199, and given Tony’s still tenuous cancer status maybe it’s best that this really be the end.

I’m not sure how long the tour will last – I mean, Mötley Crüe have been trotting out their farewell bash for two years now, and that’s with a contract over their head legally prohibiting them from playing together again after the tour’s over. There also doesn’t seem to be any mention of that mooted final album either, though to be honest I always found that prospect a little unlikely, given that a good chunk of 13 was clearly written as a send-off to their career. Still, it’s a shame to see one of my favourite bands finally hang up their hats, even if I’d only been following them since 2009 (hey, sue me for being born late, why don’t you?). The good news is that Rival Sons will be supporting them on at least one leg of this tour, which should expose them to the larger audience they deserve.

Playlist: August 2015

KADAVAR, “Last Living Dinosaur” (2015)

Did you feel that? That was the earth rattling beneath your feet. Kadavar’s third album, Berlin, was released this month and it’s a wonderfully meaty slab of riffing, roaring rock ‘n’ roll, and while it doesn’t have the immediate charms of their debut it’s a lot better and tighter than previous album Abra Kadavar. “Last Living Dinosaur” is an early highlight that sets the pattern with a simple but infectious riff riding a terrific, headbanging groove. The vocals are a little murky in the mix, though, which makes the lyrics difficult to hear – an ongoing issue I have with Kadavar albums – but regardless it’s a great little number.

BLUES PILLS, “High Class Woman” (2014)

I took a trip out to Liverpool recently to see Blues Pills perform at the O2 Academy 2. I’ll tell you something: these guys are something else. Guitarist Dorian Sorriaux might be young but he’s already on another level of playing, not just in terms of skill but the sheer electric atmosphere he conjures in a crowded room, and if you thought Elin Larsson kills it on record, wait till you see her on stage. Weird venue, though, the Academy: the floor in front of the stage was raised slightly, so half the time I could barely see the band over a sea of silhouetted heads.

Anyway, I thought I’d revisit their debut album, released last year, while I was at it. I put it at #4 in my Top Albums of 2014 list back in December and, despite the samey-ness of some of the bluesier songs, I think it deserves to keep that spot, partly on the sheer trippy thrills of opener “High Class Woman”. They opened the gig with this as well, the band transcending the restraint of the recorded version and pulling it apart into what felt like a fifteen-minute storm of psychedelic electricity (psychedelictricity?). The record gave me a glimpse of their Sixties influence and that performance took me right back in time to the decade. If you haven’t already, go check them out live.

BUCKCHERRY, “The Madness” (2015)

This isn’t the first song to be released from Buckcherry’s new album, Rock ‘n’ Roll. That would be “Bring It On Back,” but I decided not to include that in a playlist because I haven’t yet decided whether I like it or whether it’s the worst lead single Buckcherry have ever released. It’s not bad, I guess. It’s just so average that I have nothing to say about it.

“The Madness” is a little better. It’s faster, certainly, which always works in their favour, with a touch of menace conveyed by those descending chords in the riff, and the rhythm is just the right tempo and beat to stomp your feet and bang your head to, provided you’ve downed enough Stellas in preparation. The verses aren’t too memorable but the chorus is pure Buckcherry, striking the neat balance between rock rawness and pop infectiousness of their last great album, 15.

RUBY THE HATCHET, “Heavy Blanket” (2015)

A recent discovery for me and one I’m thoroughly glad I made, Philadephia stoner/doom rockers Ruby the Hatchet released their second album, Valley of the Snake, back in February. The album immediately grabbed me with opening track “Heavy Blanket”, a massive, groovy and insanely catchy number that sets the bar high straight away. The fuzzy marching guitar riff is accented nicely by the electric organ, but it’s Jillian Taylor’s haunting and strangely soothing vocals that take the charge. A lot of bands in this genre go for a more sinister, ominous sound (Mount Salem comes to mind), but there’s something wonderfully warm about Ruby the Hatchet’s approach that makes for an epic and psychedelic journey that would fit both dark and sunny days.

CLUTCH, “X-Ray Visions” (2015)

Remember in last month’s Playlist when I said that Jackaman’s “You Can’t Take Back” was my favourite song of 2015 and that it was going to take something “extraordinary” to replace it? Well, I think I might have found it. The song wastes very little time with its opening, pounding chords before bounding right into a raging, rip-snorting blinder of a heavy rock tune. The Earth Rocker template of no-nonsense riffage is very much in place, but seeing as it’s the template that arguably brought Clutch back to relevance in the rock community I don’t fault them one bit for sticking with it. The chorus is surprisingly catchy but it’s Neil Fallon’s glorious bellow that sells it for me, riding that galloping riff like a Norman warrior charging across the field of Hastings on his majestic steed. Fun with a capital F-U to anybody who thinks otherwise.

GRAVEYARD, “The Apple and the Tree” (2015)

Hm. Well, this is certainly a change of pace. The Seventies vibes are still there in the ringing guitar and cooing backing vocals, so this is still unmistakably Graveyard, but even the moodier, mellower Lights Out wasn’t as laidback as “The Apple and the Tree”. Joakim Nilsson takes a very different approach to his vocals on this track, too, opting for something approaching spoken word rather than his usual, glorious bluesy bluster (which, to be fair, does come in towards the end of the song). I don’t mind it too much, but Graveyard work best when they’re either conjuring an atmosphere or kicking up a storm, neither of which I hear going on here. Yeah, yeah, I know, “musical evolution”, but if that means sacrificing the strong melodies that make listening to this band such a joy then I don’t want any of it.

IRON MAIDEN, “Speed of Light” (2015)

The new Iron Maiden album, The Book of Souls, has been getting extremely warm early press, as has lead single “Speed of Light.” At first listen, though, I’m not sure how I feel about this. The opening riff has promise but the verses feel a little off to me, though the chorus is tremendously catchy and feels a lot like classic Iron Maiden – perhaps a little too much, actually. I also have to give credit to the dual guitar solo, which isn’t just a great bit of noodling but also comes off as a dead ringer for Thin Lizzy’s signature sound (which puts Maiden in with The Sword and The Strypes for bands taking a more-than-generous dose of Lizzy influence recently).

People are calling this one of the best Maiden singles in years but I’m not quite hearing it. I do like it but  there are parts that feel a little too Maiden-by-numbers for my tastes. It’s also caused a weird number of people to start dumping unceremoniously on 2010’s “El Dorado“, which personally I think is a far better and more interesting song than “Speed of Light.” Kudos to Bruce Dickinson, though, for still delivering the goods with a then-undiagnosed tumour on his tongue.

CHRIS CORNELL, “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” (2015)

We all remember Chris Cornell’s last venture as a solo artist, right? Or has your brain deleted those memories to save you the grief? Well, it’s been six years now since Scream and… this, and one Soundgarden reunion later Cornell is back with a new solo album, Higher Truth. It’s said to be mostly acoustic, so already we can see a different direction being moved in here, but it also helps that the song is just so freaking lovely. The guitar is gentle but crisp and sharp while Cornell’s voice is as commanding as ever, albeit with its new husky tone, but the song’s strengths lie in its folksy swagger and simple, Beatlesesque melody, resulting in probably my favourite Cornell solo song since “Mission“. Terrific stuff.

SHINEDOWN, “Black Cadillac” (2015)

You might recall my gripe about “Cut the Cord”, the lead single from Shinedown’s new album Threat to Survival, in last month’s Playlist and how I worried it was going to set the precedent for the album. Well, thankfully that fear has been assuaged by new song “Black Cadillac”, a complete departure from not only the rap-rock of “Cut the Cord” but the typical Shinedown sound in general. The electric organ, Brent Smith’s spacey vocals and the thumping drums all cry change for what ends up being a moody but weirdly uplifting song, a little like Slash’s “Back from Cali“. I’m actually having a trouble coming up with a reference for this style they’ve gone with, though. I know I’ve heard it done before but I can’t put a name to it, so for now let’s call it “space cowboy homesick honky-tonk.”

In all honesty I wish they hadn’t released this as a preview track. That’s not a comment on its quality… well, actually it is, but in the best sense, because this is such a cool departure for Shinedown I kinda wish I’d been able to discover this as I listened through the album for the first time.

Pop Song Review: Demi Lovato, “Cool for the Summer”

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in terms of British weather this has to go down as one of the weirder summers of recent memory. I expected to be paralysed by August heat and yet I spent most of the month with my nose pressed to the window watching the rain. But anyway, enough about my sad life. Today’s pop song review is “Cool for the Summer” by Demi Lovato.

First impressions: My gut is telling me that I should dislike this song intensely, and yet I don’t. What could it be? The bizarre vocal inflections in the verses? The aggressive synths in the chorus? The fact that Ms Lovato looks really rather fine in that outfit? Could be anything, I suppose.

The music: I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed a Demi Lovato song since “La La Land” back in 2008, and I especially don’t like that she’s jumped on the EDM bandwagon when her earlier guitar pop sound was far more interesting, but “Cool for the Summer” is easily among the better efforts she’s put out recently.

The song takes, for the most part, a very typical dance-pop route from a performer not exactly known for stretching the envelope, even for former Disney wunderkind, but in a lot of ways, though, it’s also quite atypical. It starts out generically enough with the piano line establishing the motif before we sink into a plastic, sticky clomp of a beat with a very faint New Wave influence in the moody synths. With atmosphere and the beat established it’s up to the melody to carry the actual “music” quotient, and it’s here where the song starts taking a couple of intriguing turns. The way Lovato intones the words in that breathy voice… okay, it’s not exactly original, but it’s different enough to make an effect on me, especially that strange way she flattens the note at the end of each line.

Then we get to the bridge, which drops the beat briefly as the melody repeats the motif, eventually crashing right into the chorus where that same motif is transformed into an explosive, abrasive synth riff that borders on being some sort of dance metal (and don’t laugh – tell me you couldn’t headbang to that chorus) – and I really like it. Seriously, as out-of-place as it is with those verses, I do like it. In fact, maybe that’s why I like it, the fact that it’s just so odd for a song like this. I mean, name another song this summer that just goes for it in the chorus the same way this song does. I even like the second part of the chorus where the music mellows out a bit and Lovato cries out the melody the way she does. It’s catchy, it’s different, it’s… it’s downright likeable.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, though. I may have praised this song for taking a few more risks than others in its genre, but it almost certainly wasn’t written with that in mind. The likelihood is that this song was churned out, just the way all EDM pop songs are, to fill dancefloors, executive wallets and the heads of exhausted parents whose kids insist on playing Capital FM in the car on their drives to the beach. But there is enough going for “Cool for the Summer” that makes it stand out from the pack in my opinion, and if it weren’t for the fact that it’s nearly September I could easily see myself listening to this more often.

Mind you, summer doesn’t officially end until the autumn equinox on September 23rd, so this song’s still good for another month or so if you choose to see it that way.

The lyrics: I just realised that Demi Lovato is only a month older than me. That’s weird. That’s pretty weird, guys. I could’ve sworn she was about 26 or 27, which admittedly isn’t that much older than 23, but still, that means I was about 16 when she first broke out. I’m getting old. Bones are creaking, the hair’s getting all grey and wispy, it’s taking longer than ever for me to complete a sudoku, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all downhill from here. We make our own ghosts, people, and mine is slowly taking its ghoulish shape, reminding me of who I am and how fragile it all really is, this strange obligation we call existence. There’s nowhere to run to, either, and nowhere to hide when the thing you’re running from, the thing you’re trying to escape, is the very thing you’re so desperate to hang on to: yourself. It makes you think.

…Hm? The lyrics? Oh, they’re about love or something.

“Got my mind on your body and your body on my mind / Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite.” The cherry… hm. Okay, I know what the traditional metaphorical meaning of “the cherry” is, but what’s it alluding to in this lyric? If we’re talking about sexual temptation then surely “the apple” would have been a better choice of imagery. You could’ve gone with “the peaches” as well – you know, in the Stranglers sense – but I don’t think she swings that way. Unless she does and the other, traditional meaning is what she’s talking about, in which case, for the love of all that’s good and pure, Ms Lovato, reconsider the biting part of your plan.

“Take me down into your paradise / Don’t be scared ’cause I’m your body type.” Down into paradise? Wrong direction, surely, unless Lovato is also coming out as a Satanist (which, let’s be honest, is probably the crux of at least a couple of conspiracy theory websites out there). Also, I have a body type now, it seems, and if Lovato is anybody to go by my type is apparently “physically fit and highly appealing.” That’s, ah, that’s probably a few peoples’ body type, come to think of it. I’m beginning to think this song isn’t addressing me personally.

“Don’t tell your mother / Kiss one another / Die for each other / We’re cool for the summer.” It’s like Romeo and Juliet summarised in one pop song lyric. Well, the first three parts, anyway, unless there was an epilogue where Friar Laurence discussed his holiday plans.

Also, curious phrase, that, when you think about it. “Cool for the summer.” Does she mean a bodily coolness or an acceptance/preparedness of the situation? You know, when you’re cool about something, like you’re not massively fussed about it but you dig it nonetheless? A little like me and this song, actually. Wait, does that mean I’m cool for “Cool for the Summer”?

Verdict: I really don’t mind “Cool for the Summer” too much. I mean, sure, there’s nothing great about it exactly, but if you had to go with one EDM-pop song to soundtrack your summer this was about as good as it got. 3 out of 5.

Today’s double-up is “Summer’s Almost Gone” by The Doors, because this is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end. Of summer.

Album Review: Vintage Trouble, 1 Hopeful Rd.

vintage-trouble-400x400

Calling Vintage Trouble a ‘retro’ band is redundant at this point – the word “vintage” is right there in the band’s name – so it’s no surprise that these Los Angeles soul-rockers once again return to the classic blues, soul and R&B that have influenced them from the off on second album, 1 Hopeful Rd, released shortly after a major support stint with AC/DC. I find that last detail quite interesting, actually, because on this new release Vintage Trouble seem to have dialled back a touch on the ‘rock’ quotient of their sound, or at least given more attention to their mellower side with a greater emphasis on husky blues and soul.

It certainly doesn’t start that way, though. “Run Like the River” (originally released as a bonus track on the Encore Edition rerelease of debut album The Bomb Shelter Sessions a few years back) is a firecracker of an opening track: a clattering surge of handclaps, pounding drums and soulful cheering, and despite being a minute longer than its predecessor retains its visceral charm while opening the album in fine fashion.

The album soon settles into a smoother groove, and by ‘settles’ I mean ‘jackknifes’. The opener is followed by “From My Arms” a sensual slow jam whose subdued crooning and gentler instrumental performances, though impressive, risk diffusing the album’s momentum too early. “Doin’ What You Were Doin'” is better, personally speaking anyway, a head-bobbing strut with a wonderful guitar line resting on some terrific syncopated rhythms, capped off with a lovely uplifting melody.

The opening triplet, you find, comes to define the record as a whole: mellower numbers punctuated by an occasional explosion of energy. I’m not sure how I feel about this, to be perfectly honest. While Vintage Trouble’s soulful vibes only previously accented their sound, adding texture and depth, on 1 Hopeful Rd. they come close to defining it, which is a problem because these guys have always worked best when they sound like they’re about to break into some of that trouble their name promises. Unlike The Bomb Shelter Sessions, too, which generally found a neat balance between hard and soft, the tracks on 1 Hopeful Rd. almost universally have one foot very much in one camp or the other, and as a result this constant switching between sounds can make for an inconsistent, even jarring listening experience.

That’s as an album, though. Song for song 1 Hopeful Rd. is still pretty great, and when they do get some fire under their feet they really do cook, as proven by the hip-swinging, high-kicking soul-splosion of “Strike Your Light”, an early standout ever since they performed it on The Tonight Show back in 2013. And though the album is, for the most part, a holding pattern for their sound, they do take the time to play with some, if not “new” as such, then certainly different influences, summoning the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the Southern stomp of “Angel City, California”, whose lyrics take a refreshingly rosy-eyed look at L.A. (an anomalous approach in rock music, for sure). “Before the Tear Drops” is also great, hearkening back to Fifties doo-wop with a modern polish, while “Soul Serenity” closes the album with a nice acoustic flourish, though with the wealth of ballads the album has already laid on us at this point it doesn’t come off as the breather it should.

Typical of this band there’s nothing wrong with the performances either. Vintage Trouble are renowned for being a merciless live presence, and while that force doesn’t quite translate to plastic they still pack a fair punch. Ty Taylor’s vocals are as jointly nuanced and powerful as ever, while the band provides a tight sonic backdrop that impresses without ever showing off or trampling over the music. The Don Was production is clean and punchy while being just spacious enough to lend the songs a real depth and atmosphere: there’s a wonderful snap to the drums, while the guitar is given the room it needs to cut, crackle or croon however it needs without ceding any ground to the other instruments.

Ultimately 1 Hopeful Rd. is a rewarding listen, and even if it is ‘more of the same’, when the same is this good it’s hard to quibble. To me, it just feels less like a coherent album and more like one of those singles compilation that passed for LPs back in the Fifties – which, given the band’s vintage approach, may actually be quite fitting.

Favourites: “Run Like the River”, “Angel City, California”, “Strike Your Light”, “Before the Tear Drops”

Pop Song Review: Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye” (feat. Meghan Trainor)

Piggy-backing on more popular artists: like snail gel masks and proper bantz, it’s what all the hip young kids are into these days, specifically hip young pop artists looking for an easy road to a wider audience. Case in point, today’s pop song review is “Marvin Gaye” by professional hang-on-wasn’t-he-the-one-playing-piano-in-that-Fast-&-Furious-7-song-yes-I-think-he-was, Charlie Puth, featuring Meghan Trainor who, as far as I’m aware, has not sung for any car movies to date. But the century is young.

First impressions: Oh, it’s that song. You know the one.

The music: Like a lot of Meghan Trainor’s music, “Marvin Gaye” is an upbeat, midtempo pop song whose retro-Fifties sound and aesthetic fits in well with her catalogue so far. The problem: this isn’t a Meghan Trainor song, or not technically at least. No, this is a Charlie Puth song, a performer you know so little about you’re not even sure how to pronounce his last name.

What I’m getting at here is that Mr. Puth (Mr. Pooth?) doesn’t have much of a musical personality or resumé beyond being the chorus guy on Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again.” Now admittedly that song did do very well in the charts, so on achievements alone he’s doing okay for himself, but it’s still only one song in which his contribution basically amounted to plonking out a few piano chords while doing a passable Sam Smith impression.

Speaking of that impression, I can’t say it fits the music too well here. You can tell Puth is doing his best to rein in his vocals, presumably so as not to overpower the melody, but as a result he never sounds like he’s particularly enjoying himself, which you kinda need to in order for a song this exuberant to really work. Instead he goes for this husky, yearning baritone (is it a baritone? Sounds like a baritone) that’s all out of place. He does at least employ a higher register for the chorus, but it still sounds like he’s being coerced into his performance by a hefty-sized producer with a knuckle-duster.

Is it me or is the beat really askew in Trainor’s verse, too? Puth’s verse has a decent plod to it that, while not too exciting, is at least consistent. I can nod my head to it. But then Trainor’s verse comes in and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, sure, her voice fits the music more than Puth’s does, but for a woman who sang that she was “all about that bass” there sure isn’t much of it around when she’s taking her turn at the mike.

So, some positives? Well, the chorus hook is memorable, if not terribly catchy, and the production is generally quite smooth. And, er, the video has some pretty people in it. I… look, I’m sorry, guys, but this sounds like something that was written for a Disney movie. It’s simplistic, competently produced and just pleasing enough to the ears that you won’t even realise you’re sick of it until it’s lodged in your brain like an ice pick.

And by the way, if this is supposed to be some sort of tribute to the man, it’s a weird one. I haven’t actually heard a lot of Marvin Gaye’s music beyond the hits, but the little I have heard this doesn’t sound anything like. Marvin Gaye sang sensual R&B slow jams, not bouncy bubblegum pop with a vague whiff of doo-wop.

The lyrics: “You got the healing that I want.” Oh jeez, is that what this song’s going to be? A series of Marvin Gaye puns? If it is, I’m out. I’m out, people. There’s the door, right over there, and these boots? Pfft, well, they’re just doin’ what they do. Bootz, start a-walkin’! I’m-a coming, door! I’m-a… okay, fine, let’s give it a chance.

“We got this king size to ourselves / Don’t have to share with no one else.” I… that… what does this mean? “Don’t have to share with no one else”? Was that ever a possibility? What couple shares their bed with… I’m overthinking this, aren’t I?

“Don’t keep your secrets to yourself / It’s kama sutra show and tell.” Show and tell: a school exercise, common at elementary level, in which one pupil presents a personal item to their class and discusses it for a few minutes. The Kama Sutra: a popular ancient Hindu book of sex positions popular with married couples looking to spice up their love lives. These two things are a lot like sushi and ice cream: separately, fine enough, but put them together and you create something… unspeakable.

“And when you leave me all alone / I’m like a stray without a home / I’m like a dog without a bone / I just want you for my own.” Bet you really burnt the midnight oil on that one, didn’t you, guys?

“Just like they say it in the song / Until the dawn, let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.”

Geddit? Because Marvin Gaye sang “Let’s Get It On.”

So yes, this might just top Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” for Dumbest Pop Song Lyrics of 2015, but is there really any point in analysing it further? It’s a doofy line in a doofy song. But let’s poke it a little bit. This line is the chorus hook of the song. It’s where the perfect cadence – you know, that bit at the end of the chorus where it sounds really good and satisfying – is created by the final two notes. This is the part of the song that your ears are waiting for, the part that makes the build-up of the verse and chorus worthwhile for them, and it’s hinged on a reference to another, better song. A gold star for anyone who can point out why this might not have been a great idea.

So from what I can see, the songwriters came up with one bad joke and built a song about it. How much money did they funnel into this? That much, huh? Jeez, that’s depressing. And how much did it make back? That much? Seriously? Where’s that door again?

Also, “just like they say it in the song” is a weird line. It’s just clunky and awkward to say, let alone sing. So… yeah. Let that one sink in.

Verdict: Again, here’s another song that isn’t overly good or overly bad but is more or less just there. It’s catchy enough but you wouldn’t miss it if they took it off the radio tomorrow, and while it might have a small nostalgic following years down the line I think even Heart FM might find it a little too sugary for their future playlist. The healthiest afterlife this song can have is as “that song that tried to make Marvin Gaye into a verb and failed.” A meh out of 5.

Today’s double-up would logically be some Marvin Gaye, but instead I’m going to go for a song that has about as much to do with the man as this song does: “Vincent Price” by Deep Purple, which at least makes the most of its own tongue-in-cheek premise. It also has a sexy nun doing a pole dance, so top that, Charlie Puth.

Pop Song Review: Little Mix, “Black Magic”

It’s August 2015, and at time of writing I’m about to reveal some astonishing information: I don’t know what a “little mix” is supposed to be. It’s just… it seems like a pointless name to me. Their former name, Rhythmix, was at least a spin on the word “rhythm”. I get that. But a Little Mix? Like a… like a smaller mix than a regular-sized… mix? Do mixes even come in sizes? Who can say. Well, maybe the person who came up with the name. They might be worth asking.

So to sum up, Little Mix is a weird name. I’m glad we could come to that conclusion. And what was the point of me saying all that? There wasn’t one, but hey, it got the review started, so who’s complaining? Anyway, today’s pop song review is “Black Magic” by Little Mix.

First impressions: Huh. For a song that, by its very name, evokes the dark arts, it’s awfully cute.

The music: So after listening to this a few times, what do I have to say about it? Well, the music is mostly forgettable, assuming you realised it was even there in the first place. There’s a strong Eighties influence, if I’m not mistaken: the song is fairly standard, synth-structured candy-pop with a whiff of Cyndi Lauper in the melody, if I’m not mistaken (though i probably am), while the ska-styled bass line in the verses is a near-blatant rip-off of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”. I feel like I’m the only person who’s noticed that, too. I don’t know how to feel about that.

The song kicks off with another barrage of stomping beats and chanted vocals that I’m sure I’ve heard before in another Little Mix song, if not all of them, heralding another round of finger-wagging female empowerment ahead. For me it outstays its welcome pretty quickly but if they had to have a musical calling card it’s not a bad one to go with. This time around, though, even they don’t really sound all that into it, and given how much force and pep they usually put into their performances, yes, it is noticeable. I get that there’s a posturing sense of girl power to this music, but they could at least make it sound a little more fun. When Cyndi Lauper sings that girls just want to have fun, I believe her. When this lot sing about the girls knocking on their door, I’m wondering if it’s because they haven’t been out in a couple of weeks and their friends are calling to make sure they aren’t dead.

(And yes, I’ve referenced Cyndi Lauper twice in this review. Three times if you count that namedrop right there. And yes again, it’s also the first time I’ve ever mentioned her on this blog. Like buses, they say. Well, I say. Anyway, pointless digression aside…)

And here’s another problem I have with the singers in Little Mix, because ragging on young women is what blogging was designed for, apparently: technically, they’re all good vocalists. They hit the notes fine, they blend well into a nice chorus, and they can even throw off a few acrobatic moves without much effort. The problem is twofold: one, their voices still have that “stagey” quality typical of reality show singers, like they don’t actually care what the words are coming out of their mouth because they’re too busy trying to force the notes out with “feeling”; and two, none of their voices have any individual character. I can’t tell a single one of these women’s vocal styles apart from the others apart from the fact that one’s is a little squeakier than the others. They don’t even harmonise for the chorus: they just sing the same note, so my brain doesn’t believe me when I tell it that that actually is four women singing now instead of the same woman who’s been singing all along, except it wasn’t one woman all along either, and then my brain gives me a migraine because it hates me.

The lyrics: Well, the song is called “Black Magic”, so I’m guessing it deals with the allure of love in a symbolically dark, mystical way, possibly leaning on Gothic influences and the writings of Alesteir Crowley to create a foreboding aura of oh who am I kidding here it’s freaking Little Mix.

“All the girls on the block knocking at my door / Wanna know what it is make the boys want more.” Oh boy, I’m getting “Milkshake” flashbacks. No, 2004, you stay where you are. You were fun while you lasted but I have no intention of reliving you again. Actually, BIONICLE had a pretty great story that year and.. no! No, stay where you are. Stay.

“Is your lover playing on your side?” Sorry, what are you asking me here again? Are you suggesting my lover plays for the other team? What do you know that I don’t?

“Take a sip of my secret potion / I’ll make you fall in love.” Oh boy. Right, okay. I think you know what’s wrong with this line, don’t you? Now, I’m not one of these people who go looking for problematics, as the Everything’s a Problem Tumblr might put it, in everything I see, hear and read, but this lyric still gives me a bad feeling in my stomach, especially when coupled with lines in the chorus such as “get your boy on his knees” and “if you’re looking for Mr Right / need that magic to change him overnight.” And while I’d like to think that the song’s younger audience probably wouldn’t even realise the darker connotations a lyric like this might give off, with the access to the internet and social media young adolescents have these days I can’t convince myself of that.

Let me give you a firmer idea of why this is bothering me so much. I know swapping the gender is a pretty lazy way of pointing out this king of thing, but here goes anyway: just imagine a man singing these lyrics about a woman. In fact, let me do it for you:

“Full of honey just to make her sweet / Crystal balling just to help her see / What she’s been missing.”

Creeped out yet? Here’s some more:

“If you’re looking for Mrs Right / Need that magic to change her overnight.”

One more?

“Get your girl on her knees / and repeat after me.”

Sounds more like a fraternity kegger gone way out of control, doesn’t it? “But hang on,” you say, “didn’t you say you’ve been getting into the band W.A.S.P. recently? And didn’t they have a song called “On Your Knees“? Double standards much?” True, true, but there’s a crucial difference here: W.A.S.P. were actually trying to be offensive. The blatant chauvinism wasn’t an overt display of masculinity, it was an effort to peeve off your parents. Also, they weren’t singing to teenage girls. At least, I hope they weren’t.

Look, I don’t actually believe that young girls en masse are suddenly going to start drugging boys in school because of this song. That’s PMRC-level logic. Plus, the love potion angle has been used in countless pieces of entertainment going back to Medieval storytelling, probably even further. A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind, but at least there was a sense of flawed motivation and consequence there. This song and this band are just a bit too squeaky clean to pull off something like this.

The thing is, this could actually have worked out all right, which I know because it’s been done before. You might remember a Leiber/Stoller song from the Fifties called “Love Potion No. 9“, a neat little pop rock number in which the protagonist tries to procure a love potion from a gypsy. Not only is that song actually about black magic, with much smarter and more in-depth lyrics, but it also has a funny twist at the end that gives the song a wicked punch that leaves the protagonist the same desperate yearning fool he was at the beginning. There’s an actual story told here, and it’s told in half the time taken for “Black Magic” to repeat the same sentiment over and over again: you’re going to fall in love with her. That’s it.

Also I now wish it was 1959 and I was reviewing that song.

Verdict: This wasn’t a great review for me, I’ll admit, but to be fair I’m a little out of practice. For all my complaints the song is… well, it’s not good, but it’s not really bad either. It’s just there, you know? It exists and has continued to exist since its release, which is about as high praise as I can give it. So, 2 or 3 out of 5. You pick.

Today’s double-up is, obviously, “Love Potion No. 9”, here performed by Ronnie Dio and the Prophets (yes, that Ronnie Dio).

Playlist: July 2015

ORCHID, “Sign of the Witch” (2015)

If you thought the last Black Sabbath album didn’t sound Sabbath-y enough for your tastes, you should really check out Orchid, who are basically Black Sabbath if the synth-speriments of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and everything that came afterwards never happened. This is the title track from their latest EP, another snaking beast of doomy blues metal with your typical raw riffage and squealing soloing, not to mention some cracking vocals from frontman Theo Mindell. It’s all quite evil and very tasty indeed.

Now, Orchid have had a fairly steady release cycle of alternating EPs and albums for several years now, so the release of Sign of the Witch could indicate a new full studio record for 2016. I hope it does. I didn’t care too much for debut album Capricorn, save a few tracks, but their last LP The Mouths of Madness was really rather great, so even if the formula doesn’t change much their songwriting does seem to be improving with each release, so the next album, should it surface, could be something really rather special.

BLACKWOLF, “Kiss the Fire” (2014)

Hard rockers BlackWolf recently kicked off a PledgeMusic campaign for their second album which I think is actually about done being recorded. This song, however, was released as a standalone single last October, and at present I’ve no idea if there are any plans to include it on the new record. I hope they do, though, because it’s an absolute stonker of a song. I don’t know if you can describe a riff as both “grinding” and “sticky”, but I like to think they apply to “Kiss the Fire” and its danceable, hummable grooves. In fact it’s always a sign of a good song when you don’t know whether to hum the melody or the guitar. For a three minute rock song there’s a surprising amount going on in here, from the softer bridges to the tambourine touches in the verses to the jazzy break towards the end, but it’s all very good indeed.

If you like what you hear, please consider supporting BlackWolf’s PledgeMusic campaign here and get yourself some goodies.

ARMORED SAINT, “Can U Deliver” (1984)

I meant to include this one in last month’s Eighties Metal Binge edition but it slipped my mind during the writing process. It doesn’t help that WordPress has a nasty habit of forgetting to save your drafts if you’re not careful. But it’s a shame I forgot to include this song because it was actually the song that made me decide I should put that playlist together in the first place. Weird how things work out sometimes.

I mean, come on. Bizarre replacement of “you” with that big dumb “U” aside (which somehow predates the Nineties pop craze of substituting words with letters and numbers by a good ten years, not to mention from an entirely freaking different genre), this song just is Eighties metal, from the lusty themes to the tough guitar sound and John Bush’s wailing vocals, and it’s all so, so much fun. For some reason the video version starts with a fifty second instrumental that isn’t on the record, but once you get past that and into the huge crunching riff it’s nothing but pure New Wave of British Heavy Metal bliss from there on in. Does it matter that Armored Saint are actually American? Probably, but let’s pretend it doesn’t.

THE STRYPES, “Get Into It” (2015)

Now this is more like it. In May’s playlist I mentioned my fears at The Strypes diluting their sound to appeal to a wider indie rock/mainstream market, and while I can’t say recent single “A Good Night’s Sleep and a Cab Fare Home” has done anything to assuage those concerns with its mellower sound and generic, teen-pleasing “one night stand” theme, “Get Into It” is a more promising offering, its coarse guitar tone, syncopated bass and strutting melody finding a neat middle ground between the throwback R&B of their first album, Snapshot, and the indie rock direction they seem to be pushing towards.

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing them live yet but apparently they’re a ferocious stage presence, and you can tell from these videos of theirs that these guys have serious musical chops that deserve to be shown off. Why on earth Catfish and the Bottlemen are getting so much attention when these guys are out there ripping it up is completely beyond me.

SHINEDOWN, “Cut the Cord” (2015)

And of course, in keeping with the need for balance that permeates the very fabric of our existence, as the lessening of my anxiety for the future musical direction of one artist alleviates, so must it intensify on another. I should first make it clear that I actually do like this song a lot – it has some great vocal and guitar work, a sick groove, and the message is a welcome one – and it isn’t as though Shinedown haven’t flirted with this sort of quasi-rap rock before (“Sound of Madness“, anyone?).

It’s just… I don’t know. I guess I feel that rock has already had to cede so much ground to rap already over the past couple of decades that the few bands that do enjoy that wider audience, like Shinedown, should be fighting to preserve its identity rather than blurring the lines further. The world left nu-metal behind for a reason, after all. I mean, “I’m gonna make it rain?” Really? And what’s with those hand gestures Brent Smith throws out at about 1:46? (Though I suppose you could write a small book on the weird stuff Smith does in this video.) As a one-off on the album I can take this gladly. If the whole record ends up sounding like this, though… hm.

SPIDERS, “Shake Electric” (2014)

Have I mentioned how healthy the European rock scene is right now before? I could write an entire Playlist based on bands solely from that scene (and I might just do so) because I’m constantly discovering new and awesome bands from the continent. Case in point, Sweden’s Spiders, whose single and title track from their second album, “Shake Electric”, is a wonderful little slice of candied scuzz rock, like a less bluesy Blues Pills.

Like a lot of the bands from this scene it’s very retro – there’s a touch of that yearning Sixties baroque pop sound to the riff and melody, while the harmonica solo at the end is pure Dylan – but there’s something about the sheer, youthful vibe of the thing that, for me, brings it right into the twenty-first century. I will admit that Ann-Sophie Hoyles’s vocals took a little bit of time to grow on me, as strong as her voice is, for the way she intones some of the words, but after a few listens they bed in perfectly to the sound. Great stuff.

DIAMOND HEAD, “Helpless” (1980)

I had the opportunity to see Diamond Head at the Chester Live Rooms back in June with their new frontman, Rasmus Bom Anderson. I can’t say I was ever too bothered about “Helpless” but they played it as an encore at the show and, somewhere in that performance, I found a love for the song that I’d never felt before. From that initial riff to the little bass lick halfway through to the shifting time signatures and constant sense of propulsion, you can hear thrash metal being born in seven glorious minutes. I got into Diamond Head the way I imagine most people did, through Metallica’s cover versions, but I can honestly say I prefer the originals. They might not have the sheer heaviness of Metallica’s recordings but they do have Sean Harris’s vocals, and you can’t fault those.

In some surprising news, too, it’s been announced that Diamond Head are recording a new album after years of stating explicitly that they weren’t going to do that. Obviously I’m thrilled, especially as I got to hear two of the new songs at the gig (spoiler alert: they’re great), but I’m also a little concerned about how former frontman Nick Tart must have taken that news, given that the very reason he left the band (back in 2014) was that he wanted to record a new album and the other members didn’t.

JACKAMAN, “You Can’t Take Back” (2015)

I don’t suppose you remember Saint Jude, this bluesy soul rock band that Classic Rock Magazine were pushing intensely around 2010-11? I couldn’t tell you what the current state of the band is. Their guitarist Adam Green passed away in 2012, and though they released a new EP in 2013 it doesn’t seem like anything else is happening on that front. In fact according to Wikipedia the band broke up last year, though there’s no source cited to back that up, natch.

Singer and frontwoman Lynne Jackaman (who you might also remember from her co-lead vocal spot on The Answer’s “Nowhere Freeway“) has been very busy indeed, however, performing gigs and releasing a new EP, No Halo, under her own name. “You Can’t Take Back” is the closing track (which was also released as a single earlier this year) and it’s fantastic. Not just Jackaman’s vocals, which are amazing, but everything from the melody to the groove to the atmosphere of the thing… I’m not going to say too much else in case I start embarrassing myself. Just know that this is probably my favourite song of 2015 so far, and it’s going to take something extraordinary to take its place.

OPERATION: MINDCRIME, “Re-Inventing the Future” (2015)

Ever since the whole Queensrÿche v Geoff Tate soap opera came to an end last year, with the Wilton-Rockenfield-Jackson-etc. line-up getting to keep the name and Tate getting… some other stuff that I forget, the latter’s been working hard on a conceptual trilogy of albums, the first of which, The Key, is set to be released 18th September. Geoff Tate’s telling stories again? I’m game.

Frontiers Records released an album teaser to YouTube a little while ago with snippets of four songs from the album and the reaction was pretty divisive, at least going by the comments and rating the video received. However the video for new single “Re-Inventing the Future”, while still not overwhelmingly positive, does seem to be getting a better reception. Turns out it’s a pretty good song and, as I pointed out in my “Albums I’m Looking Forward To in 2015” list, more reminiscent of the classic Queensrÿche sound than anything Tate put out with the band since at least Promised Land. I’m even getting a whiff of “The Mission” in that riff.

I’m not sure about Tate’s vocals, though. I appreciate his voice isn’t what it used to be, but couldn’t it have been given a bit of a punch-up in the mix? I feel as if it just disappears into the noise when the chorus kicks in. Then again, this is only a YouTube video played through my cheap PC speakers, so hopefully the album played through a set of decent headphones will have that missing boost.

RUSH, “One Little Victory” (2002)

I’ve been giving Rush’s back catalogue a bit of a closer look recently and… actually, you know what? Sometimes words just won’t do it. Sometimes you just need to sit back, press play and enjoy.