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Music Reviews 7.05.06

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KEANE
Under the Iron Sea
Interscope

It’s dangerous when a quality “undiscovered” band gets embraced by the mainstream, especially when so much of what makes the group great is the melancholy that comes from being struggling artistes. Remember how disappointing it was when Alanis came back from swallowing her jagged little pill and started thanking India and the Easter Bunny and shit? And so I feared for Keane, the low-key Brit popsters who blew up with 2004’s Hopes and Fears and its songs (“Somewhere Only We Know,” “Everybody’s Changing”) just begging to be inserted into the latest mopey TV drama. Now that Keane has hit big, could the band continue to crank out satisfying songs and maintain the plaintive yearning that made its music so compelling?

Yes and no. Under the Iron Sea is a very good disc, full of beautiful tunes. Tim Rice-Oxley’s piano drives, Richard Hughes’ drums stabilize, and Tom Chaplin’s vocals soar, sometimes sounding like a synthesis of Bono and Freddie Mercury. Tracks like the opening “ Atlantic ” and “Hamburg Song” are somber affairs that hearken back to the Keane of yesteryear. But then singles like “Is It Any Wonder,” “Crystal Ball” and “Nothing In My Way” are so damned cheery, clearly tailored for Top 40 radio play. You can’t blame them, and there’s nothing wrong with the songs --- they’re catchy as hell --- but…happy? Keane? That’s going to take some getting used to.

--- Eric Rezsnyak

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THE BELLRAYS
Have A Little Faith
Vital Gesture/Cheap Lullaby

I dunno if bands want to hear they’ve matured or not. Most rock ’n’ rollers wanna stay in Never Never Land as long as possible. But The BellRays have a higher calling. Have A Little Faith has the band still burning hot and furious for the most part, with some of the mellower tracks hearkening back to the group’s original classic sound. String arrangements and full-bore horn passages give this album a timeless Motown feel. But the hungry slash and burn doesn’t stay in the back pew all that much. The BellRays are still as raunchy and chaotic as ever. They’ve just added some suave sophistication.

Always preaching pro-activity and revolution since their LA beginnings some 15 years ago, the band has shifted from r&b to soulful bedlam. The soul remains and live there is no escaping it as singer Lisa Kekaula incited, excites, entices, and wails in a hail of profanity and sweat.

Kekaula, simply put, is an amazing soul singer. She proves it all night, leaning sweetly into the title cut, getting funky on “Everyday I Think Of You,” and roaring all hellacious on tunes like “Detroit Breakdown.” Her vocal tone and hang time is amazing while the band teeters on the brink. Just try and get “Third Time’s A Charm”’s soulful horns and hooks outta your head once you hear it.

Have A Little Faith will get under your skin and into your bones and soul…and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.

--- Frank De Blase

 

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PAUL SIMON
Surprise
Warner Brothers

Six years after his last studio release, the so-so She’s The One, Paul Simon returns with the most interesting and inspired collection of songs he’s released since his critically hailed Rhythm of the Saints nearly 15 years ago. With noted producer Brian Eno behind the boards, Surprise sounds like a friendly, casual melding of two unlikely styles that hits its target more often than it misses.

Eno adds a much-needed pulse to the disc, and helps craft some great tunes, including the standout tracks “How Can You Live in the Northeast?”, which opens with a strong electrical guitar riff, and “Outrageous,” a playful, musing song that glides along a thumping almost club-like beat. “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love” is another funky number with a strong beat and a rhythm that you really wouldn’t expect out of Simon.

But Simon is undeniably here. His knack for writing simple melodies and crisp harmonies shines throughout Surprise, and Eno knows better than to clutter or mask them with some knob-twirling gimmicks. Instead he pulls back at times when Simon’s voice (in excellent condition throughout the disc) is enough to carry the tune.

There are a few stumbles, however, like on “Wartime Prayers,” where Simon gets too preachy, and Eno does nothing to reel him in --- and instead adds strings and a gospel choir to the mess. “I Don’t Believe” is a wandering, uninteresting tune that seems to have no point, and even worse, no end.

Overall the disc is really just more of what we’ve come to expect from Simon, but it’s at key times that Eno steps in and makes an ordinary song and takes it to the next level with just a slight tweak. “Another Galaxy” is an excellent tune because of Eno, and only because of Eno. His spacey, ambient touches save what could easily have been an otherwise uninspired, forgettable tune.

If you’ve never like Simon, this album won’t change your mind in any way. But for those who have simply grown tired of hearing the same plodding tunes come from an undeniably great songwriter, Surprise is just that, a surprise. And a welcome one at that.

--- Todd Rezsnyak

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JULES SHEAR
Dreams Don’t Count
Mad Dragon

Since the mid-1970s Jules Shear has written and performed wonderful songs as a member of the Funky Kings, Jules and the Polar Bears, and the Reckless Sleepers. He’s released a dozen albums and you probably know some of his songs, including “All Through the Night,” a hit for Cyndi Lauper, and “If She Knew What She Wants,” a hit for The Bangles. He even hosted “MTV Unplugged” for a season. Even though he is clearly among the greatest singer-songwriters of our time Shear has gravitated from record label to record label, always managing to stay under the radar.

His new album, Dreams Don’t Count, is typically wonderful. The instrumentation is unusual: guitar, accordion, cello and viola on most cuts, and the songs are haunting narratives of universal experience. You get a sense of a human being chronicling his life, coming to terms with his feelings about the past, the present and the future as he navigates through it all. The music goes just where it should to support the lyrics, accelerating or slowing, rising or falling over Shear’s distinctive chord structures. And his voice, which may at first be jarringly nasal to the uninitiated, becomes the voice of an endearing everyman.

--- Ron Netsky

 

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FRANK CATALANO
The Mighty Burner
Bright

Most saxophonists these days are so cerebral they have all but forgotten the fun, honking side of the instrument. Young Chicago sax man Frank Catalano plays with the best of the serious jazz masters, but he has also absorbed healthy doses of King Curtis and Maceo Parker. On The Mighty Burner, he comes out of the gate racing through the title tune, a tribute to organist Charles Earland. (Earland was just one of the greats this 27-year-old phenom toured with while still in his teens.)

Catalano never slows down to breathe, but he is by no means one-dimensional. In fact, when he really gets fired up on original compositions like “Love Bugaloo” and “ Tuna Town ,” Catalano can veer away from the muscular melodies right to the edge of dissonance. It’s a tour-de-force performance, effortlessly gliding through the instrument’s split personality to a perfect landing. His band-mates --- Vijay Tellis-Nayak, piano; Matt Thompson, bass; Robert Gay, drums (and Greg Spero, keyboards and Shawn Sommer, bass on one track) --- are more than up to the funky task. When the album’s over, expect to feel like you’ve run a glorious marathon.

--- Ron Netsky

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