Artist: Album (label, release date) 1-5 stars
Avail: Dixie (Jade Tree, April 11, 2006) ****
Queen: Stone Cold Classics (Hollywood; April 11, 2006) ***
Sun Ra: Concert For Comet Kohoutek (Esp Disk, Ltd. April 11, 2006) ****
Maroon 5: Songs About Jane [Bonus Tracks] (BMG International, April 11, 2006) **
Avail, from Richmond VA, is a DC-scene hardcore act formed in 1988, when the most interesting punk in America was coming from that region. They toiled in relative obscurity for years on Lookout Records, and later on Fat Wreck Chords, releasing eight albums over the years, half of them live. Dixie, their sophomore release from 1994, is generally considered their best. It, 4AM Friday, and Over The James have been re-issued on Jade Tree in order to capitalize on a 2006 tour with the Pink Razors and The Draft. As with all 90’s punk, studio albums seldom capture a band accurately; Avail’s loyal fans have always claimed they are a band to see live. Still, this is pretty good stuff. “On The Nod” begins with hardcore drumming from Erik Larson, some guitar from Joe Banks that hints at a few classic rock cues while rmaining propulsive and forward leaning. Tim Barry’s vocal is nuanced and has a formidable howl to it. Gwomper works the bass. As the tunes roar past, 12 songs in about half an hour, culminating with a version of John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses”, there’s little variation on this essential approach, but the forward momentum is palpable; it’d make a good soundtrack to a skateboard flick, or something. Not much in the way of politics; most of it is dropout loserism, as befits punk in the alt-rock era. But tracks like “25 Years”, which starts off slow, has a convincing angst, and “Clone” is a good anti-social rant. “Pink Houses” itself makes a good closer.
Queen: Stone Cold Classics
Queen, as everyone knows, is the British hard rock/pomp rock band; known for Freddy Mercury’s operatic histrionics and Brian May’s colorful guitar playing. Infamous for love-them-or-hate them hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are The Champions”, the band was both loved and reviled in its day, an assessment that remains largely unchanged now. For sure, nobody ever expected Queen to revive itself after Mercury died in 1991; Queen without Mercury fronting it would be like well, maybe Bad Company without Paul Rodgers fronting it. That Rodgers, known for his macho cock rock strutting with Free and Bad Company ultimately joined Queen, isn’t really a big surprise; fading rockstars need fresh paychecks too. On paper, it almost makes sense; they were contemporaries, if Rodgers wasn’t very glammy he worked with musicians who were. So this disc makes a case for why it should work; underneath all the opera and double entendres and dance moves and concepts and silliness Queen always was a good hard rock band. Stone Cold Classics re-imagines Queen’s history as if they were only a slightly fruitier version of Bad Company; what’s included are the more hard rock leaning guitar-driven nuggets of the 70’s in lieu of their more dance-oriented 80’s material. So we get 12 hits; most perennials like “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Another One Bites The Dust”, “Tie Your Mother Down”, “We Will Rock You” and the like, plus two Paul Rodgers-led live cuts: “All Right Now”, his biggest hit with Free, and “Ready For Love” an early Bad Company hit. Neither have improved on the originals; Rodgers’ voice isn’t what it used to be, and Brian May is no Mick Ralphs, which is probably the point. So they sound tacked on and vestigal. What’s missing is Rodgers doing a Queen song, which would have demonstrated the validity of the concept a whole lot better. So if you want the more rock oriented Queen hits in one place, here they are. The add-ons make a stronger case that Queen has replaced Bad Company than Rodgers has replaced Mercury, however. And both bands have seen far better days, as Stone Cold Classics inadvertantly reminds us.
Sun Ra: Concert For Comet Kohoutek
Sun Ra albums are always an uncertain combination of extraterrestrial genius and down-to-earth put-on. Concert for the Comet Kohoutek, recorded in 1973, a little after the Arkestra’s peak, offers up an ample sampling of both; from the goofy burlesque of “Astro Black” to the mindwarping tribal rhythms, harsh electronics, and insane improv of “Unknown Kohoutek”, there’s no telling what lies around each corner. When the music is on, it’s transcendent. When it gets bogged down in its profundo pronouncements, it flags. “Discipline” both lives up to and makes a mockery of its title, whereas “Space Is The Place” makes Sun Ra’s interplanetary free-jazz seem like the place to be. There are much better Sun Ra albums than this one, but for the already initiated, this is worth picking up. If you’re new to Sun Ra, imagine a cross between Ornette Coleman, Martin Denny, and Funkadelic. And then forget it; that doesn’t even begin to capture it.
Maroon 5: Songs About Jane [Bonus Tracks]
Never let it be said that I live in the past; I’m as curious about the zeitgeist as anyone, and when the mood strikes, I’ll check out whatever was The Next Big Thing, albeit a year or two late. So when Maroon 5’s Grammy winning Songs About Jane (originally released in 2002) got its re-release this week, with bonus cuts, I figured I’d settle in and see what all the fuss was about. Maroon 5 is the grown-up version of the late 90’s band Kara’s Flowers, formed by a quartet of junior high school friends led by Adam Levine. Maroon 5 is the same quartet plus a fifth member; guitarist James Valentine, who joined them in 1999. By 2005 they were big enough to open for the Rolling Stones, although apart from two live albums, they still haven’t followed up this one. So how is it? Well, the angular guitar and hip-hop sensibility on “Harder to Breathe” starts things off agreeably, even if the melody seems received and the vocals are a bit overwrought. By the time of the second song however, “This Love”, I already get the feeling I’m listening to a teen band in disguise; “Shiver” almost screams N*Sync or Backstreet Boys. The album works best when it gets off its urban beats; the slower, melodic ballad “She Will Be Loved” sounds closer to Dave Matthews, “Secret” has a nice minor key lilt, but is done in by its silly lyrics. Ultimately, Songs About Jane is a triumph of style over substance; well-produced and well sung, it offers little in the way of originality or meaning. I haven’t checked, but I could see this as being a popular record among American Idol fans. For diehard rockers, there isn’t much here. And the bonus tracks? Two additional versions of “This Love” (one live), a live “Harder to Breathe”, and a tune called “Rag Doll”, which isn’t Aerosmith’s. Or even the Four Seasons’.
Also out this week: Three classics from art-punk legends Wire, Pink Flag, 154, and Chairs Missing on Pink Flag; Talk Memphis a minor 1981 offering by singer/songwriter Jesse Winchester on Wounded Bird; Essential Judas Priest on Sony; four albums by minor league 70’s arena act Fandango on Wounded Bird; Donkeys by 70’s mod-revivalists The Donkeys on Antenna Farm; My Way: Very Best of Paul Anka on BMG Germany, and Sacrifist by Praxis, an abrasive avant-metal project featuring Bill Laswell and Buckethead on Subharmonic.