Tuesday, August 31, 2010

David Gray: Foundling (75%)

I've followed David Gray throughout his career, from 1993's A Century Ends, to Draw the Line in 2009. Fortunately for Gray's fans, his new album, Foundling was released on August 16th, 2010; not even a full year after its preceding album.

Gray is a master at his game. He's a folk/rock singer-songwriter who repeatedly shows off his affection for language, melody, and simplicity in his music. Though many of his albums have received critical acclaim, Gray seems to garner fairly modest radio play.

Foundling opens up with “Only the Wine”. A beautiful sounding song, simplistic and bare bones, this track's lyrics are just vague enough to evoke a number of different images. A forest with leaves glistening with dew. A drunken evening of love-making. An alcoholic asking for help. In fact, this isn't the only song on this album with lyrics open to a wide variety of interpretation. “Only the Wine” clocks in at two minutes and fifty-two seconds, and seems the perfect length for this album's opener.

The second track, “Foundling”, intros with a thrumming organ and some hand-slapped drum-skins. A sharp sounding guitar chimes in, and then Gray's voice finds it's place. Although this is another song with wildly unclear lyrics, he manages to belt it out like it means something, like it means everything at this very moment. This is one of Gray's talents; writing nearly incomprehensible lyrics, and yet still making us feel like we're getting it.

Following is a deep and heartfelt song, “Forgetting”. The whole song plays through with simple piano chords and vocals and begins a crescendo at the end, and easily emulates the feeling of the song's apparent content; a failed or abusive marriage or relationship. You won't walk away with a happy feeling from this tune.

“Gossamer Thread” picks it up just a bit, giving little relief from the woe of its preceding track. “The Old Chair” is a metaphor for yet another broken relationship. Like a chair being used, torn, split at the seams, unwanted, and discarded. We hear Gray singing with a strange electronic distortion on his vocals in “What in God's Name”, which leads into “We Could Fall in Love Again Tonight”, and it becomes more clear that this album is taking us through a story arch of love gone wrong, and the possibility of rekindling the fire.

The album wraps up with “A New Day at Midnight”, a song title that shares the same name as his 2002 album, and then closes with “Davey Jones' Locker”.

Foundling is a bittersweet journey of sweet, simple, subtle music and ambiguous but unmistakably sad lyrics. But then, if you're a David Gray fan, you probably saw that coming. Foundling, as a closing chapter to 2009's Draw the Line, should please long time Gray fans, but likely won't do much to introduce him to a new audience.

Personal Rating: 68/90 (75%)

Ratings Breakdown

1: Lyrics: 7/10
2: Significance: 8/10
3: Music: 8/10
4: Freshness: 5/10
5: Production Quality: 8/10
6: Composition: 8/10
7: Dynamic Range: 9/10
8: Humanity: 8/10
9: Cohesiveness: 7/10

Article first published as Music Review: David Gray - Foundling on Blogcritics.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lynyrd Skynyrd: God & Guns (47%)

With their roots in the mid 1960's, and their heyday in the mid 1970's, Lynyrd Skynyrd has reached a status that few bands can even hope to attain. A plane crash, killing three band members and a roadie, stopped the band in it's tracks in 1977. In spite of this (or possibly because of it), Lynyrd Skynyrd has become an icon. In 1987, the band decided it might be a good idea to enlist Johnny Van Zant (Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother) for the position of lead vocals/frontman. They began touring, and have since produced a handful of albums. Unfortunately, the only original band member still alive and playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd is Gary Rossington.

In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album entitled 'God and Guns'. I'll be honest, Skynyrd was never my 'favorite' band, but I liked them. I respected them. I enjoyed their southern rock sound, and their sometimes political and sometimes just plain funny lyrics. But God and Guns has come along and tarnished the name of Skynyrd.

The album kicks off with a tune called 'Still Unbroken'. From the title, I'm sure you can figure out that this is one of those 'raise your fist in the air because you're still alive and kicking' songs. It's a fast driving song full of thudding drums and splashing cymbals and distorted guitar chords. Okay, so far it sounds like I'm describing a typical rock song, but actually it sounds like I'm listening to a hard edged Montgomery Gentry. A commercial country track with a slightly harder bite. It's hard to decide if I'm listening to country radio, or a Nickelback CD.

Track 2 starts up, Simple Life, even more mainstream country than the last. The first line, a little too many syllables but jammed in there just the same, sounds something like this, 'Hey when was the last time you sat down and had dinner with your kids, talked about what's goin' on in their lives'. And then on to 'well a lot of people are saying we're changing for the better, but that don't interest me. I like the simple life, the way it used to be...' and so on. The lyrics in this album, for the most part, are awful. They're blatant, obvious, and often painful. And this isn't the only time in this album when we learn of Van Zant's aversion to 'change'.

The third track, Little Thing Called You, almost tricks you into thinking you might actually be listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. It opens with a southern rock sound, some interesting guitar. But then the vocals come in and destroy the illusion. Surely the next song, 'Southern Ways' will redeem the album. It's about a young man who decides to leave home, but then misses his green grass and tall pines, and the southern winds kissing his face, and punctuated with the odd 'yyeahh' from Johnny. It's amazing how many songs a person can write about how they miss the old days and the simple life.

And track 5, Skynyrd Nation, comes next. This song actually does have a classic southern sound. It brings to mind several southern rock bands from the 1970's, but one band it does not bring to mind is Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Song 7, Floyd, is actually not so bad. It's got an interesting feel, at least until it gets to the chorus, where it just turns into another Nickelback clone.

Track 8, 'That Ain't My America', pretty much sums up the feel of the whole album. These guys don't want change. The first line talks about how he wants to light up underneath the no smoking sign,and then, 'You can take your change on down the road and leave me here with mine, cause that ain't my America, that ain't this country's roots. You wanna slam old uncle Sam but I ain't letting you. I'm mad as hell, and you know I still bleed red white and blue'. Then there's the obligatory line about an old man saying thanks to a soldier returning from war. And here's a line... honestly, it's really a line in the song; 'It's to the women and men in their hands they hold a bible and a gun, and they ain't afraid of nothin' when they're holdin' either one, woooahhh, uh huhhh'. I'm pretty sure these guys all voted for Bush. I wonder how they feel now that uncle Sam is of ethnic background.

The album's tenth track, also called God & Guns, is yet another proclamation of just how much the modern Lynyrd Skynyrd hates the idea of change. They inform us that 'God and guns keep us strong, that's what this country was founded on'. Then, for the second time on the album, he let's us know that there was a time when you could sleep with your doors unlocked. But this time he adds something about a peacemaker in the dresser drawer that makes him feel safe. This song is a far cry from the original band's 'Saturday Night Special', which was actually an anti-gun song. This album defines the term narrow minded.

God & Guns is a commercial album aimed toward right wing conservatives who believe only in God and country, and who blindly believe that 'uncle Sam' shouldn't be questioned or condemned. I long for the simple life as much as anyone, and sure, policies and red tape government crap sure ticks me off from time to time. But I'm not narrow minded enough to believe that time should just stand still, or reverse. We have to try and move forward while still retaining the simple things that we enjoy.

My dislike for the political and social messages in this album are not my only reasons for putting it down. It's overproduced, it sounds way too much like a clone of twelve dozen other rock/country bands, and it is NOT Lynyrd Skynyrd. Being that only one original band member remains, they probably shouldn't be using the name at all. Lynyrd Skynyrd should've been put to rest when half of the band tragically passed away in that fateful plane crash in 1977 so these replacements wouldn't be able to tarnish such an iconic name.

(footnote: Let me clarify this as well. My aversion to this album is actually based very little on what I think a Skynyrd album 'should be'. If this was a completely different band with no relation to Lynyrd Skynyrd at all, I still wouldn't like it.)

Release year: 2009

Click here to check out Skynyrd's wikipedia page.
To hear some samples from this album, click here.

1. Still Unbroken
2. Simple Life
3. Little Thing Called You
4. Southern ways
5. Skynyrd Nation
6. Unwrite That Song
7. Floyd
8. That Ain't My America
9. Comin' Back for More
10. God & Guns
11. Storm
12. Gifted Hands

Rating: 43/90 (47%)

1: Lyrics: 3/10
2: Significance: 2/10
3: Music: 6/10
4: Freshness: 3/10
5: Production Quality: 8/10
6: Composition: 5/10
7: Dynamic Range: 3/10
8: Humanity: 5/10
9: Cohesiveness: 8/10

Saturday, August 28, 2010

New Rating Scheme: Qualifiers

What makes music good? What makes it interesting, pleasing to listen to, enjoyable? The question, actually, is impossible to answer. Not everyone enjoys the same songs, bands, or even genres. Some people despise country, other people loathe hip hop. The fact of the matter is that 'good music' means something different to everyone. People's tastes develop as they mature, and they often reflect that person's life and experiences. Any given song will offer up something just a little different to every listener.

In turn, I've decided to change the format that I use for album ratings. My initial posts (which I will re-rate) used a simplistic '5/5' rating scheme, which actually wasn't a scheme at all; just a random number out of 5 that I felt reflected my opinion of the album. After some consideration, I realized that I could better explain my ratings, and my reasoning behind them. Thus, I have created 9 qualifiers, each qualifier also being rated out of 10. The total of all qualifiers adds up to 90, which means I could give each album a possible score from 0 to 90, and then an average can be taken from the final number. Obviously, these are simply some of the basic traits that I look for in a song or album. You may not agree, and that's perfectly okay. After all, differences are what make the world go 'round.


1: Lyrics
2: Significance
3: Music
4: Freshness
5: Production Quality
6: Composition
7: Dynamic Range
8: Humanity
9: Cohesiveness

Lyrics: They tend to be the very core of most modern music. Whether good or bad, lyrics generally display the intent of the song, the point the artist is attempting to get across. A low score in the lyrics category probably means that the lyrics were shallow or poorly written.

Significance: An album doesn't have to be filled with politics or opinions to be significant. It just has to be real. An album should feel like it has a purpose, and a reason that it was made. If an album feels like it was made solely to make money, without any other purpose behind it, it makes the album feel insignificant to me. A low score in the significance category probably means that the album felt shallow to me, or that it was pushed out by the great commercial music machine for one purpose: to bring in cash.

Music: This section takes into account the precision of the music, the arrangement, and the talent behind the instruments. This category is mainly of a technical consideration (which of course in and of itself does not make music good or bad, but it should be considered). A low score in the music category likely means that the album was made by somewhat unskilled musicians, or is filled with obvious technical errors. It could also mean that the musical arrangement was poorly put together, or bland sounding.

Freshness: Just what it sounds like, freshness is how unique an album or piece of music feels. Of course, there isn't much left these days that is unique, but some bands/artists can pull it off better than others. A low score in the freshness category means that a particular album sounds tired, overdone, repetitive, and uninspired.

Production Quality: Production quality, in this instance, refers to the quality of the audio itself. Is the audio clear? Is it mixed well? A low score here likely means that the album sounds muddy, dirty, or undefined.

Composition: Composition takes into account the harmonies, and the melodies of the music. It also takes into account the relation of verse to chorus, etc. Composition is about the formula (or lack of) that is put to use in the music. A low score here means I found the album to be devoid of melody and harmony (of course I have a sliding scale built into my brain when it comes to things like rap and hip-hop), and the musical formula used feels worn a little too thin.

Dynamic Range: Dynamic range refers to differences in volume. I believe dynamic range is important in music, but unfortunately most albums released today have very little dynamic range. Instead, most music released today has been 'normalized', meaning that there is little difference between loud sounds and quiet sounds. Think back to albums like Crime of the Century by Supertramp, (or anything by a classical composer), and you'll discover that a ton of emotion and feeling can come from simply allowing differences in volume. A quiet piano followed by a blaring horn section. If you're unfamiliar with dynamic range in music, do a google search on the 'loudness war' currently taking place. A low score here means that the album has been squashed, that every sound on the album is roughly at the same volume level.

Humanity: Humanity can come into play as the opponent to precision. Humans are fallible. We make mistakes. Sometimes leaving mistakes in a recording brings a feeling of humanity to the music. Humanity also means that nobody 'cheated', digitally or electronically, to make the album sound good (ie., autotune). Sometimes autotune can be difficult to spot (hear) but I will do my best to find out if autotune was used during production of a particular album. Personally, I would rather hear an imperfect vocal recording than perfect vocals that got that way through dishonest means. A low score here means that the audio/vocals were tampered with after recording to correct pitch, or instrumental discrepancies. (I am aware that nearly every album produced has some form of correction, so this will mainly apply to autotune, or other such cheats.)

Cohesiveness: Cohesiveness is all about the flow and momentum of the album. Were the tracks laid out poorly on the album? Could the tracks have been rearranged to form a more pleasing listening experience? At times, albums can become bogged down in their own depression or sad state of mind. Sometimes, listening to too many slow, sad songs in a row can really hamper your mood. As well, some songs just don't flow into each other very well. Sometimes a contrast between songs is better than a similarity, and sometimes it's the other way around. A low score here simply means that I found the album didn't flow very well, or that it included songs that didn't feel cohesive with the rest of the album.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Isobel Campbell/Mark Lanegan: Hawk (83%) {2010}

Hawk is the name of the collaborative album by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. Campbell and Lanegan have both been successful in their own right. Campbell was a member of the indie band Belle and Sebastian from 1996 until 2002, and Lanegan's most notable success comes from his time (2000-2005) as a member of Queens of the Stone Age. This is their third album together, preceded by Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006), and Sunday at Devil Dirt (2008).

Hawk's opening track, titled 'We Die and See Beauty Reign', brings a feeling of ethereality. Vocals melding and harmonizing over thrumming electronic strings, crystal clear acoustic guitar standing out amidst it all. Some of the lyrics become difficult to decipher, but this slow, simple song invites you to take an interest in it.

The second track, 'You Won't Let Me Down Again', informs us quickly that track one was not at all indicative of the rest of the album. It begins with some country sounding rhythm guitar, and then comes Mark Lanegan's lead vocals, gruff and bluesy, with Campbell's harmonizing night club voice playing the background. It's as though she just isn't satisfied unless she's able to add some sultry, otherworldly harmonies. And it works.

'Come Undone', track 4, takes a walk back through time, to the roots of soul and R&B. Starting off with some staccato piano and strings, this tune adds yet another element of depth and variety to the album. We begin to see just how varied these two artist's can be, and from how many genres of music they draw their inspiration.

The next track, 'No Place to Fall', caught me off guard. It's a cover of a Townes Van Zandt song, and it's incredibly well done. It doesn't lose any of the heart that Van Zandt put into it. It is a worthy cover.

'Get Behind Me' moves the mood to old style rock-a-billy, pushing the album ever forward on it's sonic journey. The journey, I might add, is quite a successful one, barring track 8, 'Hawk', which I would suggest not listening to at loud volumes. It's a very experimental sounding tune, with screeching sounds and background noise in place of vocals. At two minutes and twenty-eight seconds, it's just a little too long for what it is; a segue into the next song.

'Sunrise' brings to mind the imperfect voice of Meg White, filling the room with a nearly creepy sounding mirage of music. 'To Hell and Back', sounds very familiar. In fact, you could replace the vocals of this song with Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'.

'Cool Water', could easily be a lost Townes Van Zandt song, with it's simple folk melody and guitar. 'Eyes of Green' is reminiscent of a 60's pop song, and the closing song 'Lately' is a nice bookend to the album, sounding like a cross between Bob Dylan and Dire Straits.

This album seems to work it's best when Campbell takes a backseat. Lanegan's vocals are stronger (along with guest singer Willy Mason), and Campbell's seem to work better as accompaniment, or harmony.  Too many bands are too caught up on 'genre', and it gets tiring when an entire album sounds the same. Thankfully, that isn't an issue here. Not one song on 'Hawk' is quite like any of the others, and I applaud them for the variety. I'll be looking forward to the next collaborative release by these two, when and if that ever comes along.

Check out Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan at their respective wikipedia pages.


1. We Die and See Beauty Reign
2. You Won't Let Me Down Again
3. Snake Song (Townes Van Zandt)
4. Come Undone
5. No Place to Fall (Townes Van Zandt)
6. Get Behind Me
7. Time of the Season
8. Hawk
9. Sunrise
10. To Hell and Back Again
11. Cool Water
12. Eyes of Green
13. Lately

release date: August, 2010

Rating: 75/90 (83%)

1: Lyrics - 9/10
2: Significance - 10/10
3: Music - 8/10
4: Freshness - 7/10
5: Production Quality - 8/10
6: Composition - 9/10
7: Dynamic Range - 8/10
8: Humanity - 8/10
9: Cohesiveness - 8/10

Thursday, August 26, 2010

James Hand: Shadow On The Ground (92%) {2009}

James Hand is a throwback to everything good about country music; everything that we seem to have become disconnected with in this modern day of pop-country crossover stars, and the all too false passion and emotion that they bring with them to country radio. James, in his late 50's, is only now starting to receive recognition for his music, even though he's been playing and singing in Texas most of his natural life. James Hand is a slightly more modern, slightly more creative Hank Williams Sr.

Most recently, (2009) Hand has released his second album, “Shadow On The Ground”. This album is simply incredible. Shadow On The Ground starts out with a song called 'You don't Want Me Too', a song about a simple idea; a man still in love with a woman who doesn't want him anymore. Maybe that sounds a little bit cliche, but this guy can pull it off. The reason he can pull it off is because for James Hand, it's all real. He doesn't try to sing about anything he hasn't experienced first hand. He's also got an amazing knack for taking a song full of sad lyrics and making it upbeat and fun.

The second track of the album is Hand's rendition of 'Mona Lisa', originally made popular by Nat King Cole in 1950. It's also been covered by bands and artists too numerous to count, including Elvis Presley, Me First and the Gimme Gimme's, and Willie Nelson. Hand's interpretation is fairly unique, turning Nat King Cole's version, (which sounds much like any other 50's standard music) into a swinging, upbeat cover with a bit of a salsa beat. It has to be heard.
Even his slow songs, like 'Just A Heart' and 'Don't Depend On Me', flow with melody. They keep you tuned into the music and the lyrics, waiting to hear what happens next. You can tell this is a man who has a story to tell, his haggard voice wavering and just a little gravelly.

Other songs like 'The Parakeet' and 'What Little I Got Left' just fly through, leaving you wishing they weren't over quite so quickly. 'Floor to Crawl' takes us back to the time of the alcohol soaked country singer, visions of a dusty bar with sawdust on the floor and a set of swinging double doors.

Every song on this album is good. Every song is meaningful, real, and country. If you've ever enjoyed the roots of country music, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, then you'd do best to check out this album.

Click here to listen to some short sample clips from this album.

For more info on James Hand, check out his official website at www.jamesslimhand.com


1. Don't Want Me Too
2. Mona Lisa
3. Just A Heart
4. The Parakeet
5. Floor To Crawl
6. What Little I Got Left
7. The Pain Of Loving You
8. Ain't A Goin'
9. Midnight Run
10. Leavin' For Good
11. Don't Depend On Me
12. Men Like Me Can Fly

release date: 2009 

New Rating: 83/90 (92%)

1: Lyrics - 9/10
2: Significance - 10/10
3: Music - 9/10
4: Freshness - 8/10
5: Production Quality - 10/10
6: Composition - 10/10
7: Dynamic Range - 7/10
8: Humanity - 10/10
9: Cohesiveness - 10/10

Ray Lamontagne:God Willin' and The Creek Don't Rise (74%) {2010}

“God Willing & The Creek Don't Rise”, is the title of the newest album by Ray Lamontagne. Backed by his studio band, dubbed The Pariah Dogs, Lamontagne has created an album that deserves attention. Nicely enough for those of us who still use record players, this album has also been released on vinyl (and they were nice enough to throw in a free mp3 version with the vinyl purchase).
The album begins with Repo Man, a lesson in groovy blues with the flavour of Stevie Ray Vaughan thrown into the mix. Definitely one of the better songs on the album, Repo Man is the perfect song to accompany Lamontagne's raspy voice. It's quick, it's got kick, and it's the perfect opener for the album.
'New York City's Killing Me' is a contrast to the preceding song. Ray slows it down here with a heartfelt tune about feeling out of place, or rather a song about being stuck in a place he doesn't belong, or doesn't want to be, longing for change and freedom. Unfortunately, it brought me down, way down from the high I got from 'Repo Man'. It's almost too much of a jolt to enjoy it.
Track three, which shares it's name with the album itself, feels even slower. The tempo, the raspy voice; it almost feels like I'm back in the 80's with a Bob Seger tune playing on the radio. This trend toward slow songs with a lilting, depressing feel become the albums weak points.
The fourth track, Beg Steal or Borrow, is the only song I've heard on the radio from this album. Someone purchasing the album based solely on this song may find themselves wishing for more tracks of this calibre on the disc. Fortunately this one speeds it up a little bit, something much needed on this album. Beg Steal or Borrow has a country/folk sound to it, and along with Repo Man, it is one of my favourites.
I've listened to this album a handful of times now, and I find myself often skipping tracks simply because they are so slow and lacklustre. It feels like Lamontagne was in a sad sad place when he wrote these songs, and he wanted us to be right there with him. I just can't sit through songs like 'Are We Really Through', and 'This Love is Over' because it feels like they're trying to pull me down into a place I don't want to be. A place of despair that doesn't do me any good at all. These songs aren't bad, but I'd definitely have to be in a low and reflectively silent mood to enjoy them.
Old Before Your Time picks it up again, starting out with a plucking banjo and a simple beat and nice clear, defined guitar work. It's one of those songs that you tap your foot along to, and makes you feel fairly good about life. Again, his raspy voice works very well here, creating a picture of an experienced man singing the wisdom learned through life's hard lessons.
The last tune on the album, The Devil's in the Jukebox, is a song with depth. Backed by a beat, rhythm guitar, and harmonica that actually sound somehow further away than the vocals, this song puts you right into the middle of the band. It feels more like a group of pals playing music out in a field by the light of a campfire, a little unpolished, and a whole lot of real feeling.
God Willing & The Creek Don't Rise is a good album. It's worth a listen if you enjoy folksy/bluesy music, but the momentum of the album is definitely a drawback for me. Overall, it simply seems plagued by depression. For this reason, the album is definitely not useful as background music. When used as background music, all the slow songs seem to drag together, creating the feel of one very long and whiny episode.
The album gets a 3 out of 5, though I wish I could give it a higher rating because Ray seems like a likeable, down to earth sort of guy.
  1. Repo Man
  2. New York City's Killing Me
  3. God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise
  4. Beg, Steal or Borrow
  5. Are We Really Through
  6. This Love is Over
  7. Old Before Your Time
  8. For the Summer
  9. Like Rock & Roll Radio
  10. The Devil's in the Jukebox

For more info on Ray Lamontagne, check out his official website, or his wikipedia page.

release date: August 17th, 2010 

New Rating: 67/90 (74%)

1: Lyrics - 7/10
2: Significance - 9/10
3: Music - 8/10
4: Freshness - 6/10
5: Production Quality - 7/10
6: Composition - 9/10
7: Dynamic Range - 5/10
8: Humanity - 10/10
9: Cohesiveness - 6/10