Monday, December 11, 2006

A New Mix....

For those parties interested. Check out a a new mix over at the little engine blog.

It was meant for november. another mix will be going up shortly.


dr thunder

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Osaka Popstar - Osaka Popstar & the American Legends of Punk


The rather simple concept of a "supergroup" (a band featuring members who have been previously successful individiually) leads to some logical problems: clashing egos, lack of clear direction, and high, possibly unreachable expectations.

Though Osaka Popstar is, strictly speaking, a punk rock supergroup (founded by producer John Cafiero, who sings, featuring ex-Ramone Marky on drums, ex-Misfit Jerry Only on bass, ex-Black Flag Dez Cadena on lead guitar and ex-Voidoid Ivan Julian on rhythm guitar) the band fits an entirely different vision: essentially, fun, old-school punk mixed with Japanese cartoons.

Though it sounds weird on the surface, it's not that weird when you think about it: there's a certain quirkiness and fun that you can find in both punk and anime. Osaka Popstar makes the connection explicit by covering the themes to "Astro Boy" and "Sailor Moon".

Punk music is largely built on "punks" as musicians, that is, amateurs. So in a lot of ways, the mere idea of a punk supergroup seems self-contradictory: how can successful, proffesional musicians be amateurs? However, the members still play with a lightness and fun, plus sincere enthusiasm for the subject matters (which is many times ridiculous). The band can pull out the tricks if need be, but usually they just blast the songs out, which is preferable. Cafiero is a competent, if unremarkable vocalist. Some of the leads are also highl melodic by punk standards, which help bring more personality to the songs musically.

The band's cover of the bluegrass standard of "Man of Constant Sorrow" breathes new life into an old song, though it feels overly long (not that it is in any other standards besides punk, it's only 3:20). Songs like "Insects" would sound perfectly in place as the theme to some Saturday morning cartoon.

Marky Romane gives a stellar performance, giving the music a tight Ramones beat, and it only makes sense: he invented and defined it. The christmas song, "The Christmas That Almost Wasn't" has weird percussion to it that make it interesting, but it ultimately suffers from a symptom of the whole album: a lot of it to fels too kitschy, too much like a novelty to really have a lasting value. Two back-to-back Richard Hell covers ("Love Comes in Spurts" and "Blank Generation") are standouts, especially the latter. "Monster" continues the punk rock anime theme song trend, the bizarre "Where's the Cap'n?" (about the tragedies of running out of cereal - I feel your pain, brother), and the final song "Shaolin Monkeys" sounds like another bizarre cartoon theme song.

The album suffers from too much of a gimmicky feeling; how many times can you play punk rock songs that sound like they want to be cartoon theme songs? Even still, it's a fun listen, and the musicianship is supergroup-worthy (in terms of punk music). The artwork included is also well-done and fun to look at. It all boils down to what kind of a reaction you have to the idea of "punk rock supergroup plays anime theme songs". If you think it's too stupid to listen to, stay away. If you find it to be the work of absolute genius, by all means, get it, its execution is top-shelf. If you are like most people and think "hah, that's cool", you will most probably grow tired of the idea quickly, though you will get some enjoyment from it. It's as simple as that.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Masta Killa - Made in Brooklyn


It might be a cliche to say it, but Masta Killa is, far and away, the most under-appreciated member of the Wu-Tang Clan. After being the last member to join the group, he only made one verse on the Wu's ultra-classic debut "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers", and while other members went on to various solo releases of varying degrees of artistic and commercial success, it took Masta more than 10 years to release his solo album. Suprisingly, "No Said Date" became a modern-day Wu classic.

Now, a couple of years later, Masta Killa has to find a way to follow up a great album. The suprise factor is gone, and the amount of time given to the creation of this work is a lot less. It's a difficult situation, but one which I looked optimistically towards.

"Made in Brooklyn" begins with a really nice omnious (in a Wu way) beat, although for some reason, it does not feature Masta Killa's vocals. In it's place are 4 or 5 unknown little kids rapping - he did this on "No Said Date" but it was only two or three and the song was noticeably shorter. Though the kids try their best to sound like Wu-Tang Jr., the fact of the matter is that they have yet to develop the kind of voice or lyrical ability to pull anything like this convincingly, which is a damn shame.

The album's real opener is "E.N.Y. House", produced by M.F. Doom. Doom re-uses a beat from his "MM... Food" instrumental release. It ultimately lacks enough coherence to exist as more than a sample looped over a drum machine, which of course is what it is, but it's not ultimately what it should sound like (both elements should work as a cohesive unit, not run seperately). Another shame, since the vocals here are actually good.

Raekwon and Ghostface pop up for "It's What It Is", which is cool since Masta has a tendency to shine near his crew mates. However, though the beat is alright, it is way too repetitive. The next track opens up with bits of inane dialogue, but segues into a mellow beat, which Masta Killa turns into a good love song (think "Queen" off of his first album). The Wu posse cut "Iron God" features U-God, RZA, and Method Man, which again is a good thing. A funky horn-laced beat helps a lot, although the lack of a real melody makes it seem repetitive (instead of catchy) over time

There's a remix to an old, obscure GZA song called "Pass the Bone". The soul-heavy beat helps put the song over the top, though you have to question whether life really needs another rap song about weed. Following is "Older Gods, Pt. 2" with trademark funky horns from Pete Rock. The problem: a buncha guys who I do not know talk for 4 MINUTES about god-knows-what over the beat, and it is not even slightly interesting. By the time Masta Killa steps in to deliver a few lines, the beat feels tired and it all becomes a large 5 and a half minute throwaway. It's a damn shame.

Following this is a heavily R&B-tinged song "Let's Get Into Something", with singer Startlet.
Again, it takes more than half the song for Masta to show up. Overall, if R&B/rap is your kinda thing, you will like this. I can't really take any of this modern R&B, but I do enjoy the rap portions. Following is another Wu cut - "Street Corner" featuring GZA and Inspectah Deck. Bronze Nazareth makes a good RZA impression on the beat, and the song avoids any overdone introductions, which makes for one of the album's best cuts so far. Following is another Bronze Nazareth cut - "Ringing Bells", another killer beat and another killer song (no actual bells in it though).

Next is "East MC's", which features two more obscure Wu-affiliates: Free Murder and Killa Sin. The beat uses a super high-pitched string, and the two guests do a good job. However, another overdone introduction follows. After a minute of irrelevant bullshit, the actual song, the reggae-tinged "Lovely Lady" (featuring Ski and Government Tools) begins. It's actually incredibly fresh sounding: digital strings do the familiar reggae guitar crack while the drums are done live in a mix of reggae fills and hip-hop beats. Again, it takes a little time for Masta to even show up (4 minutes!). A little out of place, but it's pretty cool.

Overall, some bad choices (wasted beats, overlong introductions) hurt throughout the album, although Masta Killa manages a good run of impressive songs to close out the album. Masta stays on top lyrically throughout most of the album, but some beats get repetitve and others aren't too good. It's a step back from "No Said Date", and sadly, a bit of a classic case of the "sophmore jinx". It's a solid effort, but nothing that would make Masta raise his profile anymore than "No Said Date" did.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Paul Dianno - The Living Dead

Al Atikins. Dave Evans. Neil Turbin. Paul Di'Anno. Rod Evans.

If you're a bit of a pop culture nerd, you might recognize the trend in that list: they were all the singers of soon-to-be wildly popular rock bands fired before the bands reached their height.
You may also recognize the outlier: Paul Di'Anno.

As Iron Maiden's first recorded singer, Di'Anno fronted Maiden during their first two albums: "Iron Maiden" and "Killers", both are now considered heavy rock classics (especially "Killers"). The group dumped Paul in favor of the more dramatic Bruce Dickinson, and achieved huge global success. Di'Anno, meanwhile, struggled to achieve any sort of success, either as a solo artist or with a band. He has more or less been reduced to singing for cheap to people wanting an Iron Maiden fix, including singing on Iron Maiden tribute albums (imagine that). But what sets him apart is that those 2 first albums are considered by some to be Maiden's best period, stripped of the bombast which later characterized them and featuring the gritty vocals of Di'Anno.

With his latest release, "The Living Dead", Di'Anno is making another reach at hardcore Maiden fans looking for a dash of nostalgia. The first thing I noticed about this new album is that it's hardly new: while now it's labeled as "The Living Dead" by Paul Dianno (which is not the way he usually spells it, but then again it's not his real name so go figure), it is mostly comprised of the earlier 2000 release of "Nomad" (credited to his namesake band Di'Anno). Odd, isn't it? Though there's new cover art (check the creepy blonde zombie or whatever), most of the rest which isn't on "Nomad" isn't exactly new - it's been released elsewhere or at least recorded a while ago.

The album opens up with a cover of Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction", which if I'm not mistaken, is culled from "Hangar de Almas", a tribute to Megadeth in which Jeriko contributed this song along with vocals from Di'Anno. It's pretty weird to open up an album with a cover and with a different band that will support the singer through the rest of the album, but I guess that's minor. The major problem with this song is Di'Anno himself: in earlier records his voice strung the balance between handsome and madman, with a gritty but not gruff vocal tone. In this song, that all gets thrown out the window in favor of a much more "hardcore" approach. The results, including some quasi-death metal vocals, are almost embarassing. The band plays the song well enough, if missing a bit of Marty Friedman's fire in the solos. Also they add a nice if unnecessary extended coda to the song.

The next song, the title track, is a power ballad, slowing everything down at first, featuring acoustic guitars and pianos. Thankfully, Di'Anno goes to a much more relaxed and much more pleasent tone. Finally, the song reaches into keyboard-soaked "hard" section and Di'Anno's gritty vocal tone which characterized him hits at full force.

On the more up-tempo songs, however, Di'Anno seems compelled at going for the death metal-ish growls, which just don't work for him. The band plays a thrash-informed NWOBHM style which is competent but far from magnificent. Di'Anno and the rest probably sound best during the slower numbers, and Paul seems more compelled to do what he does good during these songs.

The lyrics are generally not spectacular and sometimes cringe-inducing ("S.A.T.A.N."? Come on.) There is a dearth of good riffs and choruses, which could have saved the album. Di'Anno's singing is both good just because it's good but also good as a nice dose of nostalgia. He takes a few risks (the already discussed growl and some shots at falsetto). While that is commendable and all, the problem is that he doesn't really pull it off. He's talented and versatile, but he's not that talented and versatile. He's not Phil Anselmo. The album hits when it tries for quasi-power ballads or the soft-intro-to-loud-main-part bit that seems to be in every other Maiden song nowdays (ironically this almost never happened when Paul was actually in the band). And maybe part of the problem is how heavy and inaccesible it is, relatively speaking. Iron Maiden is not a really heavy band, but they are sometimes inaccesible because of their prog tendencies. Di'Anno seemed to balanced it out with a more punk-flavored Maiden, but here, none of that is present in favor of tried-and-true metal with nothing the least inventive about it. Sure, it's competently played and sung by one of the more important voices of the NWOBHM, but that's it.

For people who own Nomad, this is pretty much entirely worthless unless you really despereatly need the three or four "new" songs thrown in. But if you see this in the bargain bin and have a rush of nostalgia and curiousity to see what Paul is up to, go ahead, pick it up. Paul makes both a conscious attempt to establish himself apart from "the Beast" and to reach out to their fans, since, let's face it, they are his primary audience. Featuring a few old Maiden cuts live at the end ("Remember Tomorrow", one of his most impressive songs vocally, and "Sanctuary", which with it's almost punk-ish riffing characterized Paul Di'Anno's time in Maiden best as the "unrefined" portion of a band that is for the most part "refined", in a way) and a bonus DVD set in '79 can either be considered a fan service or a desperate grab at money using his past, or perhaps even both. The old Maiden cuts are excellent for the most part, they are classic songs and they are performed and recorded well, although perhaps they underscore the difference in quality songs from the first two Iron Maiden albums and this CD we have here. While it's commendable that Paul is trying to establish his own sound, it is unfortunate that the most glaring flaw of this album is quite simple and related: there is no Steve Harris songwritng, there is no Dave Murray on guitar. This is not Iron Maiden, nor is it near Maiden quality. In particular there is just a general lack of good songwriting and good songs on this album. Di'Anno is a great singer, but he needs the right backing and the right lyrics to establish his potential. Without great songwriting, Di'Anno is just a good singer. With it, he can be a legend. Sadly, it's not here.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Michael Franti & Spearhead - Yell Fire!


There's certain music that we all like despite the artist. For me, I was always a big fan of "Black Star" by Yngwie Malmsteen, even though he just happens to be the single biggest asshole in the universe (and I mean that quite literally, it's a proven scientific fact).

A lot of times for Michael Franti, unfortunatly, it's the opposite. He's got such an idealistic message, such an honest genre-mixing attitude, such a serious committment to his ideas and overall, he just seems like such a nice guy that it's hard not to want to like his music. A lot of times, Franti makes it easy by making awesome, soulful and enlighting music - take for example, "Sometimes" on 2001's "Stay Human". Other times, however, he falters.

As Franti returned from a 2004 trip to war-torn regions of Iraq, Israel, and Palestine, he came to the conclusion that people over there didn't want to hear that many more songs about war; instead, they wanted to celebratory music.

As such, the album is suprisingly light for the most part, stepping into balladry now and then, but avoiding any real darkness. Franti gets a crucial assist from the legendary Jamaican rhythm section of Sly & Robbie on most of the songs on the album, their contribution along with his backing band's consistentcy through bass player Carl Young, drummer Manas Itene, and guitarist Dave Shul.

Backed by a Chuck D-inspired booming yet with such a ... brotherly quality to it, Franti's assertions of peace, respect, equality and the legalization of marijuana (just as examples of this highly topical album) seem earnest and convincing (whether they are values to be agreed on is another debate).

The album is at it's best on it's faster moments, including the opener "Time to go Home", the more straightforward reggae of "Hey Now Now". Both Franti and Spearhead probably are at their best when playing reggae with elements of soul, and they still may be one of reggae's most talented acts.

It's weaker moments are when Franti tries to write 80's rock-inflected ballads that sound like second-rate U2. They are decent, but certainly not exciting.

And that last sentence may sum up this album at it's best: good, but just not excitingly so. Franti seems to make music only as a vehicle for his political message, which in of itself is completely open to interpretation and subjectivity. Franti is a good songwriter but he is by no means genius, and his inability to really make a song hit home is what ultimately holds back the album: it's an attempt at a celebration, but it's not inspiring in any way. The overall concept of this record is as likeable as the artist, but you really would have liked for a little better execution.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Motörhead - Kiss of Death


Motörhead continues an impressive run, delivering new material after only 2 years. The reason it's so impressive is because they've been on this pace for about 30 years now and lead singer / bassist Lemmy Kilmister is 61 years old. His trademark gruff voice remains in top form, it's quite a miracle he hasn't shredded his throat by now. Their hard living lifestyles haven't slowed Motörhead down, which in of itself is impressive.

Another impressive thing about Motörhead is their unrelenting insistence on the trademark loud and fast rock music they have always adhered to. From the opener, "Sucker", we are treated to a hard song playing at a punk-ish tempo, with Lemmy's voice delivering lines convincingly. Although the "classic" line-up featured Lemmy with the now-retired "Fast" Eddie Clarke on guitar and "Philthy Animal" Taylor on drums, their current line-up may be their second-most important; it features Mikkey Dee on drums and Phil Campbell on guitar. Motörhead has never been the most technicly advanced band in the world, but they never needed to be. Devoid of the over-bombastic stylings of some heavy metal or prog rock, Motörhead's punishing musical attack is best for people who don't like overthinking their rock music.

Most songs are short, and the album as a whole is good, if a little too predictable. Even the kinds of ideas that may have at some point suprised us, like their acoustic song ("Whorehouse Blues") on their last album, aren't suprising anymore (here it's the pseudo-power ballad type of thing on "God Was Never on your Side").

Some songs are a tad bitter darker than average Motörhead, with even gruffer vocals and heavier riffs ("Living in the Past"). For the most part, it's all expertly done Motörhead stuff. The main problem is that it's not particularly outstanding when compared to anything else from their catalog and it's pretty predictable, all in all. However, you'd have to think that this is exactly the way you would want them to be playing - at this stage they cannot suddenly indulge in 8 minute keyboard solos or take stabs at rap-metal - Motörhead has to be Motörhead, and we wouldn't want it other way.

The riffing is furious - for that I give a lot of credit to Campbell, but his solos are pretty meh. There is essentially no filler but hardly anything truly great - it's a pretty well done and cool package, but the fact that it doesn't hit too many high points may make it frustrating for some. Lemmy's lyrics can go along with "sex and drugs and rock n' roll" pretty well for the most part, except for the reflective "God Was Never on Your Side". I've said it before and I'll keep saying it: Lemmy writes the smartest dumb lyrics ever.

Truthfully, there's not too much to say about this album.If you like Motörhead (and if you have any common sense, you do) you'll like this CD. If you don't, you won't. It's as simple as that. Motörhead isn't out to suprise anyone, it's out to please the fans. This means that the few weaklings in this world who still do not like them won't suddenly convert. The rest of us, however, can enjoy another fine ride of good, loud and fast rock music.


Ian Gillan - Gillan's Inn


Although it's hard to tell from the inexplicably lame (and almost disturbing) cover, Ian Gillan is the legendary voice behind British hard rock icons Deep Purple (though he was also known for a one year stint with Black Sabbath and the leading role in "Jesus Christ Superstar"). This album follows a recent trend for older rock stars where small side projects are released as a way to keep diehard fans happy, although it seems they are not intended for the main part of their personal canon. Ex-bandmate Richie Blackmore did it earlier this year as Blackmore's Night (where he re-recorded the Deep Purple classic "Child in Time"), and here Ian has made an album completely comprised of re-recorded takes on some classic songs, both from his time in Deep Purple and his solo catalog (a career retrospective, as he calls it).

Gillan has enlisted some famous friends (Satriani, Iommi, Dio) to spice things up and bring a little new life into the old songs. The songs have a really polished feel to them, which may be a disappointment to some, but in a way it also adds more new sound to the old songs. Gillan has lost a step with age, unfortunatly, but he obviously still is an amazing singer. It's hard not to feel a rush of excitement when he really goes for the high stuff. "Bluesy Blue Sea", a song from his solo career now re-recorded with Iron Maiden guitarist Janick Gers, is the first song where he hits higher notes, and is greatly aided by a backing which sounds great and a nice solo from Janick.

Probably the main draw for listeners is the appearance of great guitarists playing the old songs, and thankfully the names don't dissapoint. For example, ex-Scorpions guitarist Uli John Roth adds a lot of new life to "Day Late and a Dollar Short". Although perhaps the most exciting name in the group is Joe Satriani. Best known as an instrumental rock virtuoso, "Satch" also filled in for Ritchie Blackmore during a Deep Purple tour back in the days, though he never recorded with them. Satriani is in 3 songs on here, and it's nice to hear him in a more rock band song context than a guitar virtuoso instrumental rock setting.

Ian also teams up with a few other old bandmates: ex-Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord on "Men of War" and his old Deep Purple rhythm section of Ian Paice and Roger Glover on four songs. Other former, although less "classic", bandmates join Ian, such as the beformentioned Satriani, Tony Iommi (from Ian's stinit in Sabbath), Steve Morse (Deep Purple's new guitarist), and Michael Lee Jackson (from Ian's solo band).

The new take on the Deep Purple classic "Speed King", featuring Satriani, is lackluster (especially since Gillan doesn't recreate his performance well enough). However the new take on the megaclassic, iconic song, "Smoke on the Water" (featuring essentially the rest of the current Deep Purple line-up), feels right and sounds inspired if not especially different than before. Morse's new solo and a new drum part (is that a conga?) sound good in the midst of the legendary riff, and Ian sounds as good as he did originally.

The good thing is the songs are obviously compelling, the musicianship is excellent, and the production beats any 1970's production. The bad thing obviously, is you're just getting a bunch of old songs that do not sound especially different than beforen (and you're most likely to just prefer the originals). As such, it's pretty much either for diehard fans, or perhaps for newcomers to get a taste of Ian Gillan (especially his solo career). A nice addition is the DVD portion of the album, on the flipside of the CD (it's a DualDisc). I think for a lot of people, actually seeing Iommi or Satriani along with Gillan is cooler than just listening to it. Overall, it's non-essential, but it delivers on it's premise.


Monday, June 26, 2006

Dudley Perkins - Expressions (2012 A.U.)


A genius producer teams up with a rapper-turned-singer-who-can't-really-sing for an album that's a clear throwback to the 70's. No, it's not Gnars Barkley, it's Dudley Perkins's new album, "Expressions (2012 A.U.)". Some may remember Dudley from when he got his start as MC Declaime on the Liks' breakthrough "Coast II Coast" album. Now under his government name and signed to indie rap's premier label, Stones Throw Records, he takes a stab at singing, with decidely interesting results. And who's the genius producer? Well, it's Stones Throw's in-house maestro, Madlib.

So how's his singing? Technically, pretty terrible. It's pretty obvious he has had no formal training of any sort. On the other hand, he's got something in there, maybe it's just loads of charisma, maybe it's his carefree attitude, maybe it's best described by words we cannot define but we know them when we hear them: funk and soul. You hear it in Eddie Hazel's guitar and Maceo Parker's horns and Bootsy Collins's bass, and you hear traces of it here. Actually, maybe Bootsy's singing is the best comparison, it's not so great in a lot of contexts, but in his Rubber String Band, it was incredibly appealing. It makes even Perkins himself ask, "Dudley, how'd you get so funky?", on the album's first track, "Funky Dudley".

As far as Madlib, he's only here to cement his reputation. Madlib's name might not be on the cover, but truly, this is his album. From the magnificently funky licks of "Funky Dudley" or the creeping keys and seductive bassline of "Come Here my Dear", it's all pretty incredible. Dudley wouldn't sound nearly as good over anyone else's production.

The lyrics are either sung or rapped or somewhere in between. Dudley manages to be appealing if not techinically incredible at any point (his rapping technique is by no means bad, but he's not Rakim). The lyrics revolve around different aspects of life - sadness, love, god, weed, so on. The truth is that Dudley's not an amazing lyrcist. Competent? By far. Amazing? No. However, he has a knack for honesty which works well for his delivery.

And as previously mentioned, weed plays a big part here. There's the sound - even the skit, "Domestic Interlude" has speakers which the people seemed to have intentionally lowered their pitch and appear incredibly high - and then there's direct references just in case you didn't get the clues.

Madlib has a knack for unpredictability. His beats stutter and samples come through at unexpected times. However, it doesn't sound random, just carefree. It really only adds to the whole feel of the CD. It's like he's driving a car and you're in the passenger seat: first he goes slowly, speeds up in a straight line, and just as you see your destination, he takes a sharp right turn and suddenly you're sent out flying, and just as soon as you feel like you're going to hit the ground, he's there again to pick you up, and you're at your destination. Sorry for the odd metaphor, but what I'm trying to say is this: he sets up an expectation in your mind with what he's going to do, then he does something completely different, but then somehow he always ends up where you thought he would.

While Perkins's previous album came off as a mess, "Expressions" has enough focus and organization to seem unified enough. Of course, it's by no means tight - it's way loose, actually, but there is at least focus throughout.

Although teaming up with a really capable singer with really great lyrics would have been awesome, part of the charm here is Dudley's everyman voice and his carefree honesty. Some songs, however, really suffer from a lack of a really well-sung hook, an example of this is "Inside". Then there's the "Domestic Interlude" and "The Last Stand", which have music but are not really songs, and although they're not entirely without merit, they do seem kind of pointless.

At the end, the album begins to lose focus a bit, but thankfully "Dear God" is a really strong closer, funny but at the same time touching. There's even a conversation with God about weed thrown in there.

"Expressions (2012 A.U.)" works best as a whole, and it probably sounds best while under the influence of marry-wanna. Madlib's musical recycling, cut-and-paste genius cannot be overstated here - he's really cemented his position as hip-hop's most creative, consistent producer. Dudley complements the music well, and manages to overcome technical shortcomings to sound appealing and especially entertaining. It's really just a fun, well-made, funky ride.

- Luis