[Album Review] “Music From Another Dimension” (Deluxe Edition) – Aerosmith

Album Title: Music From Another Dimension

Artist: Aerosmith

Year: 2012

Running Time: 80m 38s

Track listing: 1. LUV XXX; 2. Oh Yeah; 3. Beautiful; 4. Tell Me; 5. Out Go the Lights; 6. Legendary Child; 7. What Could Have Been Love; 8. Street Jesus; 9. Can’t Stop Lovin’ You; 10. Lover Alot; 11. We All Fall Down; 12. Freedom Fighter; 13. Closer; 14. Something; 15. Another Last Goodbye [Deluxe CD] 1. Up On The Mountain; 2. Oasis in the Night; 3. Sunny Side of Love

I’ve finally unveiled rock legends Aerosmith’s grand plan for protecting their legacy – subliminal revisionism.  I recall being somewhat underwhelmed by 1997’s “Nine Lives”; a brash, sprawling follow-up to multi-platinum mainstream hit-machine “Get a Grip”.  Four years later it seemed like a minor classic in comparison to the eclectic “Just Push Play”.  Now, in 2012, even “Just Push Play” may be considered under-appreciated when laid side-by-side with “Music From Another Dimension”.

It’s the record that almost never got made what with Steven Tyler falling off stage, Steven Tyler going to rehab, and Steven Tyler becoming a mainstream TV star.  In fact the only time the other band members entered public consciousness was when Steven Tyler was talking trash about them or they were threatening to form some sort of New Aerosmith without him.

And if you thought all that tension and middle-aged angst would translate in to an inspired, angry opus, you’d be dead wrong.  The presence of Jack Douglas – legendary producer of “Toys in the Attic” and “Rocks” – suggested a return to the attitude and swagger of the mid 70s.  But there’s very little he can do with the dearth of strong material and a band that seem at odds with themselves.

It’s part-Aerosmith album, part-Joe Perry solo record, part-Steven Tyler solo album and the deluxe version even features a debut lead vocal from bassist Tom Hamilton. If it sounds like a patchwork, it really is – an overlong one.

There are high moments for sure.  Joe Perry’s infectious, Stones-inspired “Oh Yeah”, enhanced by horns and female backing vocals, finds the group in their element.  Similarly, the seven-minute “Out Go the Lights” recalls the good-time groove of “Get the Lead Out” and “Lick and a Promise“, while Brad Whitford’s “Street Jesus” is a very good 21st century “Jailbait“.  “Lover Alot” – in spite of it’s seven (!) co-songwriters – is an efficient rocker without pretensions and I’m willing to admit that its complete antithesis – Diane Warren-penned ballad “We All Fall Down” – does overwrought sentiment very well.

Then there’s the near-misses.  “Beautiful” combines a punchy rhythm, with Tyler’s menacing semi-rap (‘I was earjacking, eavsdropping/down on my knees so I can hear what she was sayin’ … Now I got to thinkin’/About my high-speed, dirty deeds’), a fantastic guitar section from guitarists Brad Whitford and Perry but just when the song should be exploding with a crescendo, it gets dragged down by an insipid chorus.

Opener “LUV XXX” is a little lackluster in spite of its crunching riffs and reasonable hook, while the formulaic “Legendary Child” walks that fine line – a lazy rehash of “Walk This Way” or a sassy tribute to their own history?

But the ballads, oh the ballads.  In isolation any one of the country-like “Tell Me”, the uplifting but by-numbers “What Could Have Been Love”, Carrie Underwood duet “Can’t Stop Loving You”, or piano-driven album closer “Another Last Goodbye” would be fine.  But there’s five of them.  On a fifteen track rock album.

The end of the record seems almost like it was tacked on when no one was looking.  Two sturdy Joe Perry vocal vehicles (“Freedom Fighter”, “Something”) and the noirish curiosity “Closer” (co-written by Joey Kramer) are okay but don’t seem very necessary.

And if it seems like the album will never end you can make it last even longer by shelling out a few extra bucks for the deluxe edition.  Hamilton’s 80s rocker “Up on the Mountain” is a victory for the popular axeman who survived throat and tongue cancer while Perry picks up the mic again for “Oasis in the Night”.  The eighty minute carnival ends with the “Jaded“-lite pop song “Sunny Side of Love”; a surprisingly good radio-friendly hook – certainly miles better than those “Girls of Summer“.

The album lacks hits.  There’s not really anything as good as “Beyond Beautiful” or “Jaded” and in fifteen years time we’ll still be hearing “Pink” on rock stations.  But for all that, it’s encouraging to see Tyler and Perry writing together again (“Luv XXX”, “Out Go the Lights”) and great to hear meaningful contributions from Whitford, Hamilton and Kramer.

It’s overlong, clunky and mostly average but I’m sure in a decade I’ll wonder how it wasn’t considered for a Grammy.

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Yeah, so I went to see Rascal Flatts…

Rascal Flatts. The musical act who, until a few short weeks ago, I thought was a rapper

Some rascals. Easily confused.

What do you do when someone offers you a free ticket for a band – the aforementioned Rascal Flatts – you’ve never heard before?  I mean I’ve turned down free tickets before, notably to see The Corrs (after all, I had heard their music) and U2 (well, you know, Bono).  But gigs in America are usually a big event due to the fact that just about any moderately-talented band can attract about half the state to massive venues.

I did a little research. Rascal Flatts are three blokes, play country, have a string of platinum albums and are very popular with the 10-12 year old demographic – High School Musical, Justin Bieber, John Cena, that sort of thing.

Doing some research with Rascal Flatts fans.

And having never even heard a song before I decided to fly blind (deaf?) rather than potentially spoil the surprise and anticipation of hearing the majesty of their music for the first time.

Let’s cut to the chase. It was like a flipping playground there.  Thousands of teen and pre-teen girls confidently strutting around in cowboy boots, with cut-off denim shorts to their pubis and perfect, matching tans that you’d swear came straight from a bottle.  This was in marked contrast to the awkward strut of their male counterparts, desperately trying to put their best foot forward but hamstrung by confused cross-genre  haircuts, acne and an uncertainty as to how far they should push their chest out in order to look manly.

The organisers do attempt to stop underage people drinking by issuing “over 21” wrist bands to anyone with valid ID – and by pricing a pint at $13.  It wasn’t 100% successful as a number of fairly young people looked a little worse for wear; one blonde girl falling on her arse in front of us and getting to her feet with blood pouring down her leg.  But if someone wants booze they’ll get it – and it’s a rite of passage so we should probably let them get it out of their system.

Just a bit more research there.

After several warm up acts, the best of which was the Eli Young Band (a relative assessment), the headliners came out.  Joe Don Rooney, Jay DeMarcus and Gary LeVox (Gerald Wayne Vernon might be the only person in the world whose stage name is worse than his real name) launched in to a short 80 minute set that was everything I expected – a steady string of middle-of-the-road country anthems and ballads.

LeVox was notable for being quite unremarkable – capable voice but little charisma or stage presence (outside of his stout frame).  Rooney was the best thing on the stage and I was only ever interested when he was allowed to let loose and play some lead licks.  If this lot hit the skids then he could be the breakout Robbie Williams of the band.

Of course safe, unit-shifting music like this was never going to be my scene.  They all seem like nice boys, especially Rooney (whose wife is a former Miss Georgia, Miss USA and Playmate of the Year): “We’re Christian men with families and children and with deep faith in God and country”.  And they underlined how thoughtful they are by issuing the honourable trumpet call of “God bless America!” near the end, inadvertently forgetting about blessing the other 6.7 billion people on the planet, a percentage of whom buy their records.

Bland, tedious multi-platinum musicians.  Yep, Rascal Flatts are the Nickelback of country music.

[Album review] “Super Delux” – Terrorvision

Album Title: Super Delux

Artist: Terrorvision

Year: 2011

Running Time: 35m 18s

Track listing: 1 Demolition Song; 2 Hold Tight; 3 Neighbourhood; 4 Pushover; 5 This is Suicide; 6 Babylon; 7 All the Girls Wanna Dance; 8 Friend in Need; 9 Rock Radio; 10 Shiny Things; 11 Run and Hide  

Ten years on from their last album release (“Good to Go“), high-energy UK rockers Terrorvision have reformed (sans drummer and founding member Shutty) and returned to the studio.  Best known for a slew of hit singles (“Alice, What’s the Matter“, “Oblivion”, “Perseverance”, “Tequila”) and an ability to write infectious rock and roll, their sixth album “Super Delux” shows that they’ve hardly missed a beat.

“Demolition Song” (which could easily remind you of the theme from 80s kids show “The Banana Splits“) has classic Terrorvision character: ridiculously catchy riff, hand-claps, na-na-na backing vocals and a snappy lyrical trip.  Lead singer Tony Wright recounts the changes he saw in childhood: “I remember the day when they pulled down the school, the hospital too and they built the new flats.” Seems like progress, but not when he talks about how “the theatre died when the fire tore through it” and that “the parks now a car park, no ball games allowed”.

“Hold Tight” rides a roll call of vehicle-related terminology – or are they vehicle-related metaphors: “Take it easy, calm down/Let’s live a little longer/Cos the needle’s off the dial/Doesn’t make you stronger”.

“Neighbourhood” brings the smoky menace that we probably haven’t heard since “Regular Urban Survivors”.  The neighbourhood Wright sings about is full of “busy bodies” and “nosey neighbours” and he comes to the conclusion that “with friends like that, who needs enemies”.  With a police-siren backing for the refrain of “somebody call the cops, it’s never gonna stop” and a terrific solo from guitarist Mark Yates, “Neighbourhood” can proudly take its place alongside their best material.

The pace barely lets up with “Pushover” (aided by what sounds like a few borrowed notes from their 1994 hit “Middleman”), a groovy mid-tempo number with typical Terrorvision humour (“you told me you’re a rocker but I caught you dancing to Madonna”) and another fine solo.  And even within their unique, fast-paced style of rock, the band can knock out distinct genres.  We go from energetic punk number “This is Suicide” to harmonica-led rocker “Babylon” to the fifties-inspired “All the Girls Wanna Dance”. And with no track reaching four minutes in duration, the pace is relentless.

“Friend in Need” is more sedate as Wright warns us not to “believe all that you read/Don’t take for granted/That what folk tell you/Is what folk really mean”.  But it’s not long until the band kick in and thrash along with Wright’s sentiment about how he’s a “layabout and expensive to feed/But I’m still a friend in need/And if you do need me, then lean on me”.  Excellent tune.

Any fan of rock music will appreciate their complaint about today’s “Rock Radio” (“Hey rock radio, play the songs that I know”) and admire their jaded observation about what passes for entertainment these days (“I really loved Ozzy, not so sure about Kelly/I want Sabbath on the wireless, not Sharon on the telly”).

Some people have “Shiny Things” while others are “held together with bits of string”.  I doubt that Tony or anyone else in the band is short of some shiny things but it doesn’t stop them travelling the well-trodden road of there never been enough money to last the week (“You gets your money/You pays your rent/By the time you get to Monday/Then the money’s always spent”).  Another classic groove.

The album closes with “Run and Hide” as we finally see the band take a breath with the only track that could be described as being anywhere close to a ballad.

It may only be thirty five minutes of new music but Terrorvision have managed to fill that time with terrific, catchy, personality-filled rock music.  Great to have them back.

[Album review] “Mirrorball” – Def Leppard

Album Title: Mirrorball: Live & More

Artist: Def Leppard

Year: 2011

Running Time: 1h 59m 17s

Track listing: [Disc 1] 1 Rock Rock Til You Drop; 2 Rocket; 3 Animal; 4 C’mon C’mon; 5 Make Love Like a Man; 6 Too Late for Love; 7 Foolin’; 8 Nine Lives; 9 Love Bites; 10 Rock On  [Disc 2] 1 Two Steps Behind; 2 Bringin’ On the Heartbreak; 3 Switch 625; 4 Hysteria; 5 Armageddon It; 6 Photograph; 7 Pour Some Sugar on Me; 8 Rock of Ages; 9 Let’s Get Rocked; 10 Action; 11 Bad Actress; 12 Undefeated; 13 Kings of the World; 14 It’s All About Believin’

Hard to believe that the Sheffield rockers have managed to make it over 30 years without releasing a live album.  But here it is, a two-disc collection of their greatest hits along with three new studio tracks (and a bonus live DVD featuring four live performances and two music videos) to give those completists a reason to buy.

The recordings are taken from various shows on their 2008/9 “Songs from the Sparkle Lounge Tour”.  This means that we get three tracks from that album, two of which are rather good (“Nine Lives’ and “C’mon C’mon”) with the only throwaway live recording on the entire record being the awful “Bad Actress”.

But the band don’t ignore their early days.  Five classics are included from 1983’s diamond-selling album “Pyromania” and – possibly the stand-out performance on the entire album – “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” from 1981’s “High N’ Dry”.

Their world-domination period is almost without omission.  “Rocket” and “Animal” are out of the starting blocks early-on, both sounding as energised as they did almost a quarter of a century ago, with “Love Bites” and “Hysteria” providing some respite before the frenzied guitar licks of “Armageddon It” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.  Their nineties hits “Let’s Get Rocked” and “Makin’ Love Like a Man” – overshadowed at the time by grunge’s emergence – are concert mainstays, and both are great fun.

Considering that you’re getting 21 live tracks for $12 (exclusively at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club right now) the three new studio tracks can be considered a bonus.  And it’s probably a good thing.  While US radio chart #1 “Undefeated” is a nailed on late-era Def Lep rocker, “Kings of the World” and “It’s All About Believin'” are forgettable pop songs.

But whatever way you look at it this long-overdue live album is a must-buy for even the most casual fan.

[Album review] "This is Gonna Hurt" – Sixx:A.M.

Album Title: This is Gonna Hurt

Artist: Sixx:A.M.

Year: 2011

Running Time: 48m 49s

Track listing: 1 This is Gonna Hurt; 2 Lies of the Beautiful People; 3 Are You With Me?; 4 Live Forever; 5 Sure Feels Right; 6 Deadlihood; 7 Smile; 8 Help is on the Way; 9 Oh My God; 10 Goodbye my Friends; 11 Skin

Many side projects don’t create more than a ripple on the musical landscape so when Sixx:A.M. (lead singer James Michael, Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx, and guitarist DJ Ashba) sold almost 350,000 copies of their 2007 debut album “The Heroin Diaries”, many people (most notably record executives I’m sure) sat up and took notice.

The record served as a “soundtrack” to Sixx’s New York Times Best-Selling book of the same name – a memoir chronicling Sixx’s addiction to cocaine and heroin in the mid-80s. And, just like the debut, new album “This is Gonna Hurt” follows the same template. The new book of the same name has reached #4 on the NYT list while the album debuted at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“The Heroin Diaries” was a fascinating project. It mixed powerful rock tunes (“Life is Beautiful”, “Pray for Me”, “Courtesy Call”, “Heart Failure”) with more mid-tempo rockers and ballads (“Tomorrow”, “Accidents can Happen”) and punctuated it with semi-spoken-track numbers that acted as an album narration (“X-Mas in Hell”, “Intermission”, “Life After Death”). “This is Gonna Hurt” is a more conventional record.

This is Gonna Hurt
The title track draws on Sixx’s own experience with being down and out (“Feels like your life is over/Feels like all hope is gone”) but offers a message of hope (“Rise against your fate/Nothing’s gonna keep you down/Even if it’s killing you”) and, ultimately, redemption (“There’s a devil in the church/Got a bullet in the chamber/And this is gonna hurt…Keep your secrets in the shadows and you’ll be sorry”). Fast, crunching guitars meet irrepressible melody.
Rating: ****

Lies of the Beautiful People
The lead single and #2 mainstream rock hit takes a not-at-all-thinly-veiled swipe at those who think “real beauty’s on the outside”. Inspired by one of his photo subjects – Amy Purdy, an athlete who lost her legs at 19 – Sixx rails against the media-driven obsession with glamour and external beauty. Lead singer Michael laments how many of us are “outside the velvet rope/standing there all alone”, are “grotesque and ashamed” and insists that the beauty we are force-fed (by the likes of People Magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People”) is “a far cry from the truth”.
Rating: ****

Are You With Me?
It might be doing a disservice to “Are You With Me?” to suggest that this could be mistaken for a Daughtry track. The singer recounts the early days of a relationship (“Laughing like we’re crazy/Nothing mattered, nothing fazed me/We were younger then”) but acknowledges that things are not what they were (“have I judged a book by how its bound/am I lost or am I found/and are you with me?”). He encourages his partner to “come back from the dead/you’ve been inside your head for too long…Find the places that scare you/Come on I dare you”. Yes, it’s radio-friendly and familiar but it works.
Rating: ***1/2

Live Forever
Sticking with the subject of relationships, “Live Forever” compares the carefree early days (“You and I never really gave a damn/We spent our lives running through the wastelands”) to how the protagonist feels now (“Now, you’re the only thing left worth dying for/You give me a reason I can’t ignore/And make me wanna live forever”). From being “so independent, so high on ill intentions” to being “everything I’ve been waiting for/for all these years and a thousand more”). “Live Forever” is an exceptional rocker with a soaring chorus.
Rating: *****

Sure Feels Right
“Sure Feels Right” takes it down a notch, a pseudo-country ballad with reflective lyrics (“The traffic’s backed up on the 405/And the smog’s so thick you could cut it with a knife/But it gives me time to think about my life”). With snappy references to diverse subjects like Sunset Boulevard, Sex Pistols, Jesus and Hollywood vampires. Nothing wrong with this whatever.
Rating: ***1/2

Deadlihood
So just who is the “you” in “Deadlihood”: “I swear you told me, that you’d be my life support/Guess I misunderstood, you were my deadlihood”. Maybe it’s not a you – maybe it’s an “it”. Maybe it’s heroin. It could be the “insanity” that’s driving him insane and now its “star is burned out for good/Somewhere in Hollywood”. Sonically dramatic, convincingly powerful, this is another fine track.
Rating: ****

Smile
A gentle acoustic ballad that wonders “What’s an angel like you/Ever do with a devil like me”. Michael shines on vocals (as he does throughout the album) and it’s punctuated by a sweet guitar solo by DJ Ashba.
Rating: ***

Help is On the Way
If “Smile” is anything it is perfectly placed on the album as a buffer between “Deadlihood” and the rocking “Help is On the Way”. The hand-clap intro, ‘do do doo do’ refrain and soothing bridge give the track something a little different. The singer talks about troubled times – like when he feels he is “a paralyzed soul” and “a left out only child” who is “so unaware that my heart’s about to stop”. But he says we’re all the same and that “everybody cracks and bleeds/So hit your knees and pray/That help is on the way”.
Rating: ****

Oh My God
After lashing out at the “beautiful people”, Sixx and Co take aim at society as a whole with the socially conscious “Oh My God”. Using the street birth of a baby (presumably to a homeless, teenage mother) as a symbol, the band underline our apathy towards such reality (“the truth is that we’ll never know her name/’Cos as long as we can fill our glasses up, we’ll look the other way”) while also addressing major global events (“it’s not far from here to New Orleans/Where the seemingly forgotten people are still foreclosen on their dreams”). The song reaches a stadium-anthem level crescendo (think U2 or Bon Jovi) with the chorus of “Oh my God, this is insane/How’d it get like this?/Or has it always been this way?”. Epic.
Rating: ****1/2

Goodbye My Friends
The piano intro suggests a halcyon ballad might be on the way but a thrusting riff and dramatic, brooding verse (very reminiscent of Muse) carry us to the hard-hitting bridge (“Isn’t life lived right at the edge/And when it’s not that’s when you’re dead”). The subject, seemingly in his final moments of life with “friends and lovers” gathered around him and “piles of roses” at his feet, tells us that there’s no need for be mournful (“Goodbye my friends/To hell with the sorrow/We have made amends…by this time tomorrow/It will be the end”). Fantastic arrangement, great guitar work again from Ashba – another winner.
Rating: ****

Skin
“Skin” is a beautiful piano ballad. For those scared to be themselves, afraid of what others think, Michael suggests that you should “paint yourself a picture/of what you wish you looked like” and urges the fearful to “come in to focus/step out of the shadows…kill them with your kindness/Ignorance is blindest”. “You are not your skin”, he sings as the final chords close out the album.
Rating: ****

Summary
If “This is Gonna Hurt” doesn’t find itself in the mix at Grammy time, I’m a monkey’s uncle. Sixx:A.M. are an act that are comfortable in their material, tight and focused as a band and, quite simply, write excellent rock songs. There will be trolling I’m sure about how the social justice and anti-A-List stuff is all just populist fakery from Sixx. But this would be a distraction and an irrelevance. A great record is a great record and this is one of the best in my collection.

Poll: a-ha – the final song of the final show of the final tour

After 25 years in the industry, a-ha will sign off on December 4th 2010 with their final ever show.  The Oslo gig – which sold out within two hours – will be attended by fans from all over the world and promises to be a very emotional occasion for both fans and the band.

So, with that in mind, what song would you like to hear Morten, Magne and Paul sign off with?  Feel free to discuss further in the comments section below.

The right time for a-ha to say goodbye

Morten and PaulDepending on which re-written press release you read today you’ll learn that a-ha were formed anywhere from 25 to 27 years ago, split up in the nineties for anywhere from five to seven years and got back together in 1998 – or is that 1999?  No, it was 2000 apparently.

What you will unanimously learn and can safely take as fact is that the Norwegians have decided to retire as a band in 2010, marking the 25th anniversary of the release of their first album “Hunting High and Low”.

There are a significant number of people raising their eyebrows pondering how it is that the day they find out a-ha are still together is the day they find out that they’re splitting up.

But for many who stuck with a-ha through the last 25 years this announcement will have come as a shock.  Didn’t they always reason that the band would split when they stopped selling records and people stopped coming to see them?  Why would a band who have just claimed their highest charting UK album in over two decades, a succession of #1 albums in Europe and a stream of long-overdue critical acclaim from the media and – more importantly – their peers, pack it in?

Well those achievements are exactly why this is the right time to say goodbye.

In the brilliant rockumentary, “The Making of Pump“, Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford says of the recording process: “You can record with 48 tracks, 96 tracks, you can start tying tape machines together.  You got to know when to stop.”

The music industry is full of acts that didn’t know when to stop.  A-ha made that mistake before, rendered irrelevant by the grunge explosion of the early nineties just at the same time they were growing their hair and growing up.  They endured dwindling sales, smaller live venues and bruised egos, and went one album too far with 1993’s (admittedly excellent) “Memorial Beach” before splitting to work on solo projects.

Their 2000 return was a huge success in mainland Europe and they scored their first UK top ten hit single for 18 years in 2005 with “Analogue“.  Yes, they recorded a big hit album this year but that accomplishment almost seems incidental compared to the reaction they received.

Looking at their positive demeanour in interviews and on stage it seems that the genuine warmth they’ve experienced from the media, the public and the many acts of today who have publicly heralded their influence, has completed the circle for the band.

What else is there to achieve?  Where else can they go?  If respect and appreciation was measured in record sales then a-ha have just had their biggest hit in 25 years.  And shouldn’t everyone quit when they’re on top?

Personal addendum

I opened the Google News email alert for “a-ha” that arrived in my inbox and kind of squinted at it.

a-ha to split

It didn’t make any sense to me initially.  And even after I clicked on it my mind was calculating that somehow I had received some old news story from the mid 90s.  Although I’ve no time for overt obsession with something as relatively meaningless as a musical act, I felt my chest tighten as the news started to sink in.

I grew up with a-ha; the soundtrack of my formative years.  I’ve probably mentioned it somewhere on the site – and I’m sure there are hundreds of similar stories out there somewhere – but when you’re 12 and unsure of yourself, songs like “Here I Stand and Face the Rain” articulate what you’re feeling when you are too young to understand.

The Blue Sky“, from their debut record, resonated with this insecurity: “I find it hard to breathe as life just eats away…The lady at my table doesn’t want me here/I just want to talk to her/But would she laugh at my accent and make fun of me?…Though i’m older than my looks and older than my years/I’m too young to take on my deepest fears“.

So here we are almost 25 years later and I’m not sure that I would have the level of understanding and self-awareness that I do if it wasn’t for a-ha’s influence (alongside John Hughes movies and Nirvana).  I’m trying to avoid being mawkish in closing but the fact that their music has endured with such meaning for so many people, means that Morten, Magne and Paul can stand in the doorway of the darkened studio for the final time, look around, smile and say “our work is done here”.

Edit: Please see Karen’s blog on the same subject.  Some very personal memories from their mid 80s touring.