Saturday, October 20, 2007

Puddle of Mudd- Famous

Author's Note: This review originally appeared on It can be found here:

Nearly seven years ago, Puddle of Mudd released their debut album, Come Clean. Thanks to a couple catchy singles, the album rose to multiplatinum status, briefly putting Puddle of Mudd on top of the modern rock scene. Unfortunately, 2003’s Life on Display failed to set the world on fire, and Puddle of Mudd faded into obscurity. Five years later, they hope to recapture some of their former glory with Famous.

Five years is an eternity in the world of pop music, but Puddle of Mudd lives in a world of eternal stasis. From the first power chord to the final fadeout, you immediately travel back to the early 2000s. The cleanly sanitized grunge riffs, the snarling Eddie Vedder-like vocals, and bland arrangements hearken back to a time when Creed was king. The only difference between Famous and Come Clean is the lack of decent singles.

Puddle of Mudd can’t be faulted for having a signature sound, but their signature sound belongs to other bands. Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam are all present and accounted for. Lead singer Wes Scantlin cribs freely from these bands, but fails to pick up on the songwriting behind the riffs. Nirvana was loud and distorted, but the distortion was backed up with clever wordplay, irony and genuine emotion. There is nothing clever about Wes Scantlin’s lyrics; everything he says is meant to be taken literally. This results in one missed songwriting opportunity after another.

The title track is the biggest misstep of all. In the hands of a more talented band, “Famous” could have been a sly nod the fact that Puddle of Mudd is losing ground. Nope. What we get is yet another song warning the world about the shallowness of the Hollywood scene. Gee, a song like that has never been written. The song would have comic value, except that Scantlin delivers each word with unnecessary seriousness.

The rest of the record alternates between shallow angst and shallow introspection. The problem is that it’s hard to tell what emotion Scantlin is trying to convey, since his vocal inflection never changes. The only time Scantlin’s voice shows any life is his occasional shouts of “YEAAAAAAH!”, which is supposed to signify anger. The charisma that the band showed on singles like “Control” and “Blurry” has disappeared and Puddle of Mudd seem to be content to sink into mediocrity.

Not all of the blame falls on the band. Corporate rock superman Brian Howes was brought in to give the band some hooks, but there are no hooks to be found. “Lips of an Angel” is a terrible song, but it least it was catchy. Howes leaves Puddle of Mudd to their own devices, and there is not a single memorable song on the album.

To be fair, nobody expects a classic rock album from a band like Puddle of Mudd, but the lack of singles is surprising. If the songwriting was better, if the riffs were punchier and the charisma was there, Puddle of Mudd could have made a decent little rock album. Instead, it’s just another banal slice of corporate rock n’ roll.

Rod Stewart- Every Picture Tells a Story

You think you know Rod Stewart, but you have no idea. There was a time when he didn’t sing torch songs to middle aged housewives. There was also a time when he didn’t strut around in pink spandex asking if he was sexy. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Rod Stewart was….dare I say…cool. For a generation that has only heard his milquetoast ballads or his innocuous pop songs, this may be hard to believe.

Rod Stewart has been making mediocre records for so long that it is easy to forget how good he really is. Released in 1971, Every Picture Tells a Story is what Rod Stewart is capable of when he is motivated. The album is the perfect blend of impeccable song selection, musicianship, and interpretation. Musically, Every Picture Tells a Story is hard to define. The acoustic instrumentation is from the folk tradition, but Stewart and his band are purely rock n’ roll. After a few listens, Stewart’s approach becomes obvious: Rock n’ roll and folk music are the same.

This delicate balance is kept in check by Stewart’s backing band, led by Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood. Most singer/songwriter albums from this period use quiet, reflective arrangements. Wood tosses this unwritten rule aside, playing his acoustic guitar as if it was electric. Drummer Mick Waller also ignores the conventions of the genre, pounding the drums with reckless passion.

The band is the perfect compliment to Stewart’s emotive singing. His whiskey soaked vocal cords are an acquired taste, but they have a surprising amount of range. He goes from being a nervous teenager on the title track (“I combed my hair in a thousand ways/but I came out looking just the same”), to heartbroken in “Seems Like a Long Time,” (“Hard times are only the other side of good times”) and is able to make both convincing.

When most people think of this album, they immediately think of “Maggie May,” which has been played into oblivion thanks to classic rock radio. Overexposure aside, the song still packs a punch thanks to the Stewart’s “lovable rogue” persona. He would exploit this aspect of his personality for the next three decades and gradually use it as a crutch. The Rod Stewart sleeping with Maggie Mae is not the slimy cad of later songs like “Tonight’s the Night.” Rod sounds completely innocent as he comments that the morning sun really shows her age. Unfortunately, “Maggie Mae” was such an iconic song, Stewart unwittingly typecast himself.

“Maggie May” gets all the press, but the unsung highlight of the album is Stewart’s show stopping cover of The Temptations’ “I’m Losing You.” Backed up by his mates in The Faces, Stewart manages to out-tempt The Temptations. Stewart sounds as if his heart is being ripped out of his chest, as the band chugs along. The album’s best moment comes at the end of the song. Just as the band begins to fade out, they come roaring back for one final tear-stained chorus.

Every Picture Tells a Story is proof that you can’t judge an artist for their latter day sins. This record is timeless, and yet people tend to remember his most dated work (“Infatuation” anyone?). Listening to this album, you realize why Rod Stewart is so revered. Does Rod Stewart have a good record left in him? Let’s hope so, because he is too talented to be a lounge singer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

How to Make a Mixtape

One of the best things about being a music fan is the homemade music mix. I’m not talking about putting an iPod on shuffle and randomly putting songs on a disc. A true mix requires thought, sweat and a lot of frustration. The process has gotten slightly easier thanks to the CD burner, but making a mix can be a frustrating ordeal. In this week’s column, I will try to alleviate some frustration.

Step One: Start With A Bang

The first track of the mixtape should grab the listener’s attention. If you start with a ballad, there is a high probability that the listener will get bored and not listen to the rest. Therefore, it’s always best to start with an up-tempo number, because it gets the listener involved in the record. It also sets the tone for the rest of the tape. If you have a really great opener, the chances of a great tape dramatically improve.

Step Two: Cool It Down

Now that you have attention, you need to bring things down a bit. This does not mean you come out with ballad guns blazing. The third track is a good time to break out a mid-tempo song. It gives the listener time to recover from the opening onslaught and sets up the next up-tempo song. Here is an example. If I were making an AC/DC mix, I would open up with the double whammy of “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Girl’s Got Rhythm.” Then I would cool things down with “The Jack,” which is the perfect lead in to “Givin’ the Dog a Bone.” Remember: The listener needs to catch their breath.

Step Three: Album Tracks Are Your Friend!

Let’s say you were making a Beastie Boys mix for someone who had never heard them before. Obviously you would need to include “Fight for Your Right” and “Sabotage.” However, The Beasties’ best work has always been the non-singles. Shake it up a bit! Use stuff like “Slow and Low,” or “Shake Your Rump” or “Johnny Royal.” “Fight For Your Right” is great, but it’s been done a million times. By using album tracks to your advantage, you introduce someone to songs they would never hear on the radio.

Step Four: Make Sure It Flows!

.You can have the best tracklist in the world, but if it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t work. How do you avoid bad flow? Every time you add a new track, listen to 30 seconds of the track that came before. Then listen to 30 seconds of the new track. Then ask yourself: “Do these go together?” If not, it’s no big deal. Either delete the track, or move it to a different spot. Before you burn the disc, give it a full listen. However, it should be noted that proficiency in this step comes with experience. If you don’t get it the first couple of times, don’t be discouraged.

Making a mix is not easy, but I think it is an important skill. You learn a lot about music, because it forces you to think about how each song fits within the context of a record. It’s also a great way to make friends and to introduce someone to music that they have never been exposed to. But most importantly: It’s a lot of fun.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Chaz Matthews- Amazing Graceless

Author's Note: This review was originally published on The Label Project. It can be found here:

Chaz Matthews has to be given credit for one thing: It takes a lot of balls to be a one man band. If the record sucks, you can only blame yourself. Matthews accepts this challenge with Amazing Graceless, his first solo record since the breakup of the Dimestore Haloes. The risk doesn’t pay off.

The logic behind this record was quite simple. Matthews was dealing with his personal demons, wrote a bunch of songs, and wanted to get them out. This approach often results in a classic album, because it is written and recorded in the heat of the moment. The problem with Amazing Graceless is not the music itself. Matthews is a talented songwriter, and the songs are some of the best of his career. He has a remarkable ability to put the listener in his shoes. You feel the pain, the angst and his desperation. When he croons “I need a fix and your kiss,” in “Girl From Detox,” he’s not just referencing The New York Dolls. So if the songs are good, how come the record gets a low rating?

The production on Amazing Graceless nearly kills the listening experience. One of the most appealing things about the Dimestore Haloes was Matthews’ knack for writing addictive guitar riffs. The riffs are still there, but you have to listen really hard to find them. The guitars are a buzzing wall of white noise, and it takes two or three listens before you find the riff. Matthews also makes the mistake of using a drum machine, which makes the drumbeats nearly inaudible.

The production is so bad that the sound quality fluctuates from track to track. On one track the vocals are louder than the guitar, on another the guitar drowns out the vocal. The bass is non-existent. You end up listening to the album in chunks, because you can’t take it all at once. Matthews’ ambitious decision to produce his own record and play all the instruments is admirable, but couldn’t he have ponied up the cash for a real producer and a drummer? Instead of listening to the songs, you end up thinking “Wow, I bet this sounds amazing live.”

Ultimately Amazing Graceless is an album of “What if’s?” What if The Dimestore Haloes recorded this song? How would this sound with a real drummer? Where is the bass guitar? Raw production is a good thing for punk rock, but you should be able to listen to the songs. Amazing Graceless is proof that just a little production goes a very long way.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Motion City Sountrack- Even If It Kills Me

There is nothing particularly new about Motion City Soundtrack. You’ve probably heard it before: Poppy melodies, songs about girls, layers of Moog synthesizer. The lead singer has glasses; his voice is thin and somewhat grating. The sing-song choruses mask the melancholy of the lyrics. Despite the familiarity, Even If It Kills Me is one of the best power pop albums to be released in a very long time.

The thing that sets Motion City Soundtrack apart from a million other bands is their geeky charm. There is nothing cool about Jason Pierre and Joshua Cain, which is why their music is so likable. When Pierre laments about his love life, there is nothing but heartfelt innocence. The ultimate goal for these guys is not to get the girl in bed, but to get the girl. At times Pierre sounds like Peter Noone, sheepishly telling Mr. Brown that he has a lovely daughter.

A big part of this charm comes from the producers, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, and former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek. The biggest issue with 2005’s Commit This to Memory was that the songs started to blend together towards the end. Ocasek and Schlesinger have refined the band’s sound so the mid-album lull never occurs. This results in a tighter, catchier album. Sonically, the album isn’t much different than its predecessor. Fast tempos, Moog synthesizer and fuzz-toned guitars are in abundance. The band has learned how to use these trademarks without relying on them, and it results in more memorable songs.

While the music on the album is catchy, the lyrics are what make the album stand out. On Commit This to Memory, Pierre’s lyrics sometimes had a stream of consciousness feel, as if he was trying to get as many thoughts down as possible. His pace has slowed down considerably, and it pays off with more evocative writing. This new approach is exemplified in “It Had to Be You.” Lines like “Let’s save birds from Prince William Sound/And skateboard through the mall,” come dangerously close to being corny, but are delivered with heartfelt sincerity. On “Antonia,” Pierre describes his dream girl, mentioning her love of Cap’n Crunch and her fear of cobra snakes. These details seem mundane, but they make the girl seem real. You actually want Pierre to end up with her.

The only weak link on this album is “The Conversation,” a spare, piano based ballad. Jason Pierre doesn’t have a great voice, but it fits the band’s sound. With just a piano, his voice becomes grating and thin. Pierre attempts to channel Ben Folds, but fails pretty miserably.

Despite this minor flaw, Even If It Kills Me does everything a good follow-up should do. It keeps the band’s core sound while fixing the major problems of the previous record. Motion City Soundtrack’s songwriting continues to improve, and it will be interesting to see where they take it from here. But enough pretentious rock critic jargon: This record contains 13 songs about girls. Some things never go out of style.