Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chinese Democracy: One Week Later

Time for a follow-up post on the now week-old Chinese Democracy. Interesting to hear everyone's comments and I hope there will be more.

#1 song that has grown on me: Catcher in the Rye. It's definitely the most upbeat, fun song on the album (relative statement of course) and it's slowly infectious. There's no clear-cut chorus (which is the case on a number of tracks) and that makes the gratification come with time, which I like.

Other songs that have grown on me: Chinese Democracy (the song), Prostitute, and the two songs I was most dismissive of, If the World and This I Love.

Regarding If the World specifically. This melody is great. The lyrics aren't half bad either. I think the style is a little campy with the Spanish guitar and the cliché piano runs. That still holds it back somewhat for me. But this song has really grown on me. I love the way it builds over the course of the track.

Another song that I fundamentally like but have trouble with stylistically: Shackler's Revenge. I love the chorus to this song and I love that Axl uses a number of his old "voices" here-- particularly the "It's So Easy" voice. I don't love the industrial sheen and the solo is too heavy on shredder gimmicks. This one is all Bumblefoot, which concerns me because he's the only lead guitarist who's still in the band. (BTW, Alex, if you're still reading, I feel like so many of your criticisms are specifically about the production values of this one track. You should listen to the whole album several more times and get back to us.)

One element that's not holding up with repeated listens: Lyrics on Sorry and This I Love. I normally don't care about lyrics (I often don't even bother to discern them in the first place.) However, the lyrics to Sorry are almost impossible to like. Axl is always going to be self-righteous, but normally he's so much more clever about it. This one is just petty and spiteful. And This I Love has some lame rhyming couplets that remind me of Meat Loaf. Way too cliché for the guy who wrote Don't Damn Me, Bad Apples, Rocket Queen, and Paradise City.

Other criticisms that remain: Orchestral arrangements. First they're so heavily compressed that they sound like keyboard patches. This is a shame because most of the guitars and vocals aren't compressed and build really nicely. I love songs like Street of Dreams or Prostitute that don't even reach their dynamic peak until about 3 minutes in. But the "orchestra" sounds like it's coming from a different album. Also, the arrangements are boring. None of the songs truly benefit from all that extra weight. Riad N' the Bedouins comes close but that track is so damn awesome, it wouldn't matter either way.

Regarding the guitarists: I'm really impressed with Buckethead on this album. He's the most versatile of all the players. Overall, Robin Finck disappoints me. His solo on This I Love is pretty good, especially when the drums kick in, but on almost every track, the guy falls back on what I'd call "blues-isms." He shows no ability for legato phrasing, which was Slash's calling card. His (Slash's) solos weren't lightning fast like Buckethead or Bumblefoot or Butterballs or whatever, but they were so damn fluid. Robin Finck, by contrast, does the same thing every time: Bluesy bend on one note and then slide into a new one, with a little bit of palm muting for effect. He sounds more like B.B. King than Slash and I don't think it always fits.

Buckethead's stuff is better. His solos are the most "singable" of the three (though not approaching Slash) and he has the best sense of when to hold a note and when to shred. Alex, you know I hate 4-fingered tapping as much as anyone (certainly more than you do), but it totally works on Better. In fact, you couldn't have the chorus to that song without those tapping runs.

My jury is out on Bumblefoot. I like him when he slows down and plays within the guitar's normal range, but he does seem to love the squealing effects more than the other two combined. That said, he appears to be the guy going forward, so we'll just have to hope for the best.

I don't think I like Chris Pitman. He seems to be the one who's providing all the industrial elements and I'm not sure what he contributes beyond that. He's all over Madagascar, which might now be my least favorite track on the album. He's now been in the band longer than anyone except for Dizzy, so I'm guessing he's here to stay. I'm guessing that he's the guy Slash and Duff most object to when they listen to this.

I think this record is remarkably strong. I stand by my previous declaration that Riad, Street of Dreams, Better and There Was A Time are all stellar. And I'm getting ready to add Catcher in the Rye and the title track to that list. Really the only tracks that I'm not fully on board with are Sorry (for the lyrics) and Madagascar (for a variety of reasons.)

I've been listening to this record every day-- at a pace I haven't matched since Sky Blue Sky-- and I find it to be very rewarding. And no, I can't really think about the 17 years part when I listen to this, because even the worst tracks are better than anything Slash, Duff, Izzy, Steven Adler, whoever else... has done in that time.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Initial Review of Chinese Democracy

Alright, I'm ready to weigh in (for the first of what might be several times.)

I think this record is remarkably strong. The most important thing I could say for it is that there is nothing that sounds like it. Not past Guns N' Roses, nor any other rock band for that matter. Now that will disappoint some people who loved their old sound (as I did.) But I'm happy to accept this for what it is. (As if I had a choice.)

The best aspects of the album:

1. Axl's voice. I don't know whether individual tracks were recorded in 1994 or 2007, but he's never sounded better.

2. Axl the arranger/producer. There are a million things going on in each song, and he weaves them together remarkably well. Particularly impressive are the guitar solos-- played by different people and perhaps recorded years apart-- which interweave with one another almost seamlessly. You can clearly hear when the soloist switches, but the transfer is remarkably organic. Actually this award should be shared with the co-producer Caram Costanzo, who it appears took the lead with a lot of the guitar arranging.

3. Axl the arranger/producer continued. As Dr. Kittybrains and Tex Plush have noted, the album is full of dynamics. One of the reasons I keep buying CDs is because their dynamic range is superior to that of mp3 files. And I listen to them on my nice stereo system (I finally bought one) instead of computer speakers. This is a record to be heard in high fidelity; not as an mp3, which cuts dynamics and frequency range.

4. The non-industrial sound of the record. People seemed to fear that this was going to be a techno metal album based on the "Oh My God" single, and the fact that ex-NIN guitarist Robin Finck was all over this. But Robin Finck doesn't sound anything like techno metal. He's totally '70s blues rock. Some critics have compared him to Slash. That's blasphemous. But he does compare favorably with Zakk Wylde. Very similar in fact. (And Oh My God is felicitously not on the album.)

4. The two shredder guitarists are surprisingly tasteful. For the most part, they keep the crazy squealing high-pitched-rockets-going-off thing to a minimum. There is some-- particularly in the Bumblefoot solo on Shackler's Revenge-- but most of it is awesome. Buckethead isn't just a great guitarist; he's genuinely musical. He knows when to cascade through arpeggios and also when to milk a single note. Bumblefoot too. And they also thankfully stay away (mostly) from the whole two-handed tapping thing, which should be banned for all guitarists not named Eddie Van Halen.

Negative Aspects:

1. The intros to the songs. Almost every song has one (some have outtros too) and none of them make the songs better. Some are interesting, like the Queen-style vocal collage at the beginning of Scraped. But most are really gratuitous.

2. The trip-hop beat in If the World. It doesn't work, and the song is too blandly mid-tempo. It wouldn't stand out as much if the whole album weren't mid-tempo.

3. The lack of any classic GN'R-sounding songs. There isn't a single riff on here to rival Welcome to the Jungle or Mr. Brownstone, nor is there any fast-paced punky thing to rival Perfect Crime or Right Next Door to Hell. (Then again, there's nothing remotely approaching the idiocy of My World, the shlubbiness of So Fine, or the third-grade lyrics of Back Off Bitch, Get in the Ring, etc. Come to think of it, there might not be a single curse word on this album.)

4. The "string" and "orchestra" parts. Boring and uninspired. Would sound better without them, or with only mellotron in their place. (Exception: Riad N' the Bedouins)

As for the specific songs, I'd group them into three tiers:

Tier One (classic): Street of Dreams, Riad N' the Bedouins, Better, I.R.S., There Was A Time

Tier Two (great but not classic): Shackler's Revenge, Scraped, Catcher in the Rye, Sorry, Chinese Democracy, Prostitute, Madagascar

Tier Three (would be better if omitted): This I Love, If the World

But again, what stands out most about this record is that it sounds like nothing else out there. It's the death knell of the old Slash/Duff/Izzy GN'R, because it sounds like neither Welcome to the Jungle nor Estranged. And that's okay.

This isn't the band I grew up loving, but I'm totally digging it for what it is. (4.5 stars out of 5.)

So it doesn't get lost in the shuffle...

I know I probably shouldn't even be mentioning this, since with the release of Chinese Democracy Axl Rose has now officially driven the stake through the heart of the album as an art form, in one fell swoop changing the landscape of the music industry forever, and become a World Historical figure who has broken the old law tablets and ushered in a new age. Thus I do recognize that by the time this comes out on Tuesday it will be just an unmarketable, scattered collection of songs that will show up in the Music History books as a mere footnote to Axl's self-destructive triumph...but all the same, if you haven't seen this crazy shit, you should take a look:

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's time!

Really, there's only one thing to say at this point...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Final Day...

Only one more day, and so - here's two classics that capture GnR in all their insane glory:

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Most Important Chinese Democracy News

As reported... somewhere:

"We never thought this day would come," said Tony Jacobs, Dr Pepper's vice president of marketing, reports the Associated Press. "But now that it's here, all we can say is: The Dr Pepper's on us."

A voucher for the free drink will be made available on for 24 hours this Sunday at 12.01am. Those who print the coupon will have until February 28, 2009 to redeem it.

2 Days...

The countdown rolls on! Featured today – the best overlooked song in the entire GnR canon. I give you… Rocket Queen.

This is a pretty amazing pre-Illusion performance, with them in full on Appetite for Destruction mode. Skinny Axl! Stephen Adler! Seedy looking club! You love it!

And now, as promised, a semi-coherent rant…

So here’s the thing about Chinese Democracy – I’ve heard all the silly rumors over the years. That it would feature Trent Reznor. That it would feature Moby. That it would feature Shaq. I’ve heard the awful “Oh My God” single. And at first there was a part of me that was of the “Oh man, this is going to suck – it will be hilarious” camp. But my inner high schooler has kicked in. You see, before I knew any of you, I was a HUGE GnR fan. Loved them. Would have argued at one point that UYI2 was the best album of the 90s – and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s still up there.

And now, it’s a weird position. Are they dated? Undoubtedly. But at the same time, they were always insane, so has the past 15 years of insanity really tarnished their image somehow? And while maybe they’ve gotten crappy, the fact is we have nothing to base that off of, except one tossed off soundtrack song. So signs point to this not being a great album – and yet I can’t help but have faith. Faith that the band that made Estranged will show up. Faith that the band that made Rocket Queen will show up. Even faith that the bizarre band who made The Spaghetti Incident will show up, because those are all aspects of the whole GnR persona, and I love them all. Some more than others, but it is the My World’s and Manson covers that partly make them so amazing. And not, NOT, in an ironic way. This is a band (and at this point, just a single man) with huge aspirations. Sometimes those aspirations lead to crap. But sometimes they lead to brilliance. And for all the people who hold up Appetite as the pinnacle, I respectfully submit that it is those aspirations displayed on the Illusion albums that make GnR so much more than just another Aerosmith. Will there be garbage on this album? Undoubtedly. But there was garbage on every one of their albums, and that garbage just serves to make the best work float to the surface.

And so I’m probably getting my hopes up too high. But man, this is a moment I have anticipated for 15 years. 15. Half of my life. And it makes me happy to discover that, 15 years later, I’m not so jaded that I have lost that excitement.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Not to derail my GN'R enthusiasm, but.....
At Via Chicago's request - here is a little taste of the latest Deerhoof album. I fully admit that these guys are an acquired taste, but once you see them live you'll really get it.
The biggest obstacle for most people are the strange vocals and the music school eccentricities (i'm looking at you, Drischord).
Most of all, Deefhoof play the shit out of their instruments. And they write great, hooky, surprising hard rock songs.
Here are two of my favorite cuts from the newest record, though their best record is definitely The Runners Four, wherein they finally outgrew weirdness for weirdness sake embraced pop song structure (for the most part).
The Tears And Music Of Love
Chandelier Searchlight

GnR Countdown: 3 days to go...

The Countdown continues. Today in anticipation I listened to Use Your Illusion II for the first time in years and man, that thing is amazing. And so, what better way to get pumped for this weekend than Estranged:

When you're talking to yourself...

Of course, Axl is nuts, so for some reason I can't embed this, but watch it anyway. And love it.

More to come tomorrow, including an argumant as to why I am really REALLY pumped about this album, and not in any sort of ironic train wreck sort of way...

Chuck Klosterman's Chinese Democracy review sends me on a little rant.

You will all excuse me if I spend a few moments taking issue with one of the more outlandish things Klosterman said in this review.

I think we still have a long way to go before we've seen the end of The Album. Yes, things are trending away from The Album as the dominant popular music form, but Klosterman saying that Chinese Democracy will be the last "group of songs" to ever be marketed as an album sounds absolutely absurd, and strikes me more as a kind of nostalgic reverie for a lost hard-rock heyday than as an even vaguely accurate forecast. Why, exactly, does he believe this? I think Lil' Wayne would be surprised to hear that Tha Carter 4 is apparantly doomed to failure if he tries to market it as an album, like he did with his wildly successful Tha Carter 3 this year. In fact, I think everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan to Jay-Z to R Kelly to the people trying to market any Broadway (or High School Musical) soundtrack, would be surprised to learn that, with the latest release from Axl Rose of all people, the Album can officially be declared dead. That's just absurd. I know that Tex (in the comments section of Via Chicago's post) was focusing more on Klosterman's idea that Chinese Democracy will somehow be the last album to matter as a physical object like a CD...and while I could try taking issue with that as well (there are lots of huge Lil' Wayne fans out there who I'm sure just love holding the physical object in their hands and spending hours upon hours staring at the tatooed baby on the cover) I think it's kind of beside the point. Why is a CD so essentially different from a collection of sound files? Would you be content with the physical CD WITHOUT being able to play the sound files encoded thereon? Of course not- so how does it make sense to say a given album matters "more" as a physical object than as sound files? Does Sgt. Pepper matter more as a physical object than as a collection of songs? Sure they included some fancy cover art, but essentially nobody would prefer the art over the music. Certainly we of the Kittybrains Collective all listen to the great "Albums" of the past on MP3 now, right? What the hell's the difference?

And even if the long term forecast is indeed trending towards something other than The Album, we're not there yet, and I will go out on a limb and say that there WILL be albums qua albums to be released and marketed after Chinese Democracy. Among the first will be 808's and Heartbreak, the new Kanye West album. After that...I hear Fall Out Boy has a new album due in December. I'm ready to predict it will sell respectably well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More Chinese Democracy

Awesome review from Chuck Klosterman.

Chinese Democracy

Man I am pumped...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Judee Sill

Have you guys heard Judee Sill at all? Dr. Kittybrains, if you haven't, run, don't walk. She's under-appreciated in the U.S., in part because her (only) two albums were never reliably in print on CD. I'd compare her a bit to Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro (she's from the same time/scene), but she's less abstract and jazzy than Joni-- more in the baroque country/folk pop vein, and she's less soulful than Nyro-- she has a kind of pleasantly pure, flat drawl and her vocals are multi-tracked and drenched in warm echo. Apparently her life was all kinds of tragic (drug overdoses, prostitution to support the habit, early death, etc). I have a compilation that combines her two albums and it's just gorgeous music. The instrumentation is usually very spare-- acoustic guitar or piano, occasional pedal steel or tasteful strings, light percussion-- but she overdubs really beautiful layers of vocal harmonies. The overall feel is just intense sadness. I don't know if I'm selling this very well, so just trust me that it's absolutely beautiful songwriting and performing and well worth seeking out. Even though she's a girl.

I'll embed some good youtube examples (which, as usual, feature cheesy montage of still images). Unfortunately I couldn't find one of the best examples of her sound, "Archetypal Man," which is primarily a melancholy country ballad with pedal steel but then has this insane break with baroque contrapuntal wordless vocal overdubs. It's awesome. Maybe I'll upload it later.

Jesus Was a Cross Maker (one of her best, more upbeat, covered by The Hollies)

The Kiss (just gorgeous)

One More From Shudder To Think

Via Chicago, glad to hear you were already a fan. Shudder To Think's actual albums tend to be a bit weirder than their soundtrack work, but that makes them even better in my opinion. (In addition to Pony Express Record, I strongly recommend Get Your Goat.)

But on the topic of their soundtrack material, I want to post 2 more tracks... these are from the movie First Love, Last Rites, which was directed by Jesse Peretz, founding member of the Lemonheads.

I've never seen the movie, but STT wrote all the songs for it, and they're really good. Unlike the equally great Bowie stylings of Velvet Goldmine, this is all 60's pop.

Here's two cuts with very special guest vocalists. First, "I Want Someone Badly," featuring none other than Mr. Jeff Buckley. (By the way, if they ever make a Buckley movie, Craig Wedren should sing his parts.)

And this is "Automatic Soup," my favorite track on the album, with lead vocals from Cheap Trick's Robin Zander.

Shudder to Think Bonus Material

As promised in my comment here's my personal experience with Shudder to Think - their spectacular song and video from Velvet Goldmine. I haven't watched this in years and it brought a smile to my face to see it again.

And just for kicks, here's Higher and Higher:

Saturday, November 08, 2008

From the Vaults: Shudder To Think

Time to pull an old chestnut out of the archives: Shudder To Think. Originally from DC and signed to Dischord records (and now you know the origin of my internet handle-- dates back to when my family got AOL when I was 14). They released 3 albums and then moved to New York and signed with Epic Records. (They and Jawbox were the only Dischord bands to sign to a major.)

Unlike most indie "sellouts," Shudder To Think got better when they signed to the major label. "Pony Express Record," their first for Epic was completely uncompromising stylistically. If anything, it was even weirder than the stuff they'd been releasing on Dischord.

What I love about this band is their willingness to be off-kilter at any time. This is particularly true on the rhythmic front. Try counting along with the verse of X-French Tee Shirt, which was actually an (minor) alternative radio hit.

And my favorite track on the album is probably Gang of $, which is a nice showcase for Craig Wedren's bizarro tenor/falsetto voice w/ extra vibrato. Some people hate this voice; I personally love it. It's like musical theater superimposed onto indie rock, which is better than it sounds on paper! (Wedren, by the way, also writes film scores. And he wrote the incredibly catchy faux-80's "Higher and Higher" song from Wet Hot American Summer.)

Here's Gang of $

Anyway, the band is now touring for the first time in about a gagillion years, and I just missed them in LA. Boo!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Terminal 5 = Worst Sound Ever

It is official. Last night I went to see Drive By Truckers/Hold Steady at Terminal 5. I'd heard the bad reviews of the venue's sound, but i figured I'd give it a shot anyway since both bands were playing full sets.
The room absolutely had the worst sound I've ever experienced. Terrible. I had to leave in the middle of DBT's set. I'm never going back.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Back to the Music...

So, now that we can all relax a bit and breath a sigh of relief, I for one am eager to return to some sort of normalcy, where not every conversation is dominated by political talk. And so...

How about that new Deerhunter album? Anyone here like these guys and heard this yet? Seems like the kind of thing some folks around here would appreciate. I actually never got their first disc, and picked this up on somewhat of a whim, but holy crap is it great.

The first disc (which I guess is the "real" album) is quite good, although it gets a tiny but bogged down in the ambient middle section. That section is more than made up for by "Nothing Ever Happened" which is all kinds of great. Here's a live version that some of you may have seen at that Pool Party thing in Brooklyn this summer.

But the second album is really where it's at. They really embrace their inner-My Bloody Valentine here and it is glorious. Were it not for the fact that MBV are back together, I'd say thsi is the closest thing to a stylistic follow up to Loveless.

So yeah, maybe I'll be alone here, and maybe part of you are part of the weird Deerhunter backlash community, but I LOVE this album.