The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
I could use this review as a vehicle for my rap about how the Flaming Lips are really just Phish for hipsters (nonsensical lyrics meet an overweening sense of whimsy, rabid fan followings, silly costumes on stage, too many drugs, records that fail to capture their live sound) but I won't, considering this record actually decimates that reduction by being a) not very whimsical, b) fucking strange, and c) actually important (unlike the most recent Phish record, which is a gigantic yawn). To get it out of the way: yes, it sounds exactly like Can. I mean, honestly, go find a copy of "Tago Mago" and then play this next to it -- it's so clear that Messrs. Coyne and Co. spent a LOT of time recently listening to the way the solid, robotic, polyrhythmic drumming of Jaki Leibzeit nails down the crazy frippery of the rest of the band, and virtually duplicated it across at least half of this record. But that's not a bad thing, really -- if you're gonna pick a band to rip off, definitely pick one that harnesses wild mercury in a live setting, because it's gonna make you at least try to do that yourself. Sure, there's still a lotta bullshit lyrics about turning into a frog or whatever, the band hasn't lost their occasionally vomit-inducing sense of cute, but unlike their last few, this one actually sounds sorta dangerous and weird, which renders it less Nickelodeon and more Adult Swim, if that makes any sense. In other words: they're still a cartoon, but a far more interesting, darker, weirder one with tits. A-, with the possibility of a long-term upgrade/downgrade.
Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain
On which the Bunnymen, after years spent churning out slight, disposable, unmemorable Bunnymen-by-numbers, actually discover that they remember how to write magnificent pop songs, and turn out a record that sounds like nothing so much as Echo and the Bunnymen just after their mid-80s prime, updated with some slightly crispy modern production. The guitars jangle and soar like you want 'em to, Ian McCulloch sings in his one-foot-from-the-grave cigarette rasp, and the hooks drill their way into your fucking skull and stay there. "The Fountain" contains one absolutely, staggeringly perfect song, just like their mid-80s highlights did -- I DEFY YOU, mid-80s-rock-fan, not to fall ass-over-teacup in love with "Everlasting Neverendless." It is scientifically impossible: the hook's too strong, the performance too perfect, the guitar playing too crystalline. The album's full of stuff appraching that, too -- "Shroud of Turin," lead-off single "Think I Need It Too," the title track, all amazing. Best of all, they sound alive, like the young, hungry, in-love-with-themselves punks they were in the early 80s, full of their own talent and the power of epic pop music. Dunno what's revitalized the band after years of sounding tired and worn-out and half-drunk, but here's hoping they don't lose that elusive spark too soon. Solid B.
Tokio Hotel, Humanoid
The weirdest record I picked up recently, if only for the fact that it's something engineered solely to appeal to the kids, and as a nearly-40-year-old record geek I firmly, absolutely do not understand WTF is going on here on so many levels. Tokio Hotel look like creepy fratkid B-boy raperock douchebags EXCEPT the lead singer, who looks like fucking Pete Burns from Dead or Alive. Gothy teenage girls love him, as you'd figure, but he seriously looks like he was built from spare parts from dead mid-80s transvestites. The band play music that sounds like a cross between the Jonas Brothers, Depeche Mode and Metallica (seriously) and everything is whipped around with SLATHERINGS of autotune, the way shit is anymore, but so much that you notice it. Oh yeah, did I mention they're from Germany? They'd almost have to be, they're so batshit inexplicable. And yet, I do not hate it, not at all. I find it far more appealing than 80% of generic, faceless indie rock solely on the basis that at least it is not generic or faceless -- it is fuckhead insane and, like, some of the worst, weirdest, wrongest stuff from the 80s condensed into one fucked-up little package, but it is not generic. Also, it is catchy as shit: lead-off single "Automatic" does some of the same stuff the last Jonas record was trying for, i.e. giant hooks and defiantly wussy, emotive vocals, and it digs deep, for sure, and doesn't sound like anything else on grown-up radio at all, though not a million miles off from some of the Disney camp on mescaline. Frankly, not being twelve years old, I'm not supposed to get it, and that's kinda the way it's supposed to be with this stuff. I have to whip this one a C+ on the basis of my inability to snap to, but I bet I listen to it more than I probably should.
Kid Cudi, Man On The Moon
Rap music has been stagnant stagnant stagnant STAGNANT for the last, what, eight years? When's the last time you can remember hearing a rap single and going "Holy shit, what the fucking fuck was that?" Was it maybe Outkast? I know I've had my ear to the ground with under- and over-ground rap, and haven't heard a single thing in years that's made me prick up my ears and go "okay, now this is different." If anything, rap sounds like it's moving backwards, and while love of vintage R&B is my thing, too, it's nice to hear something like this Kid Cudi record, which does sound like nothing else, so much so that rap hardcores are declaring it "not rap." Scratch that, it doesn't sound like nothing else -- it sounds like if you took Kanye's "808 and Heartbreak" and peeled off the autotune. This guy is singing his flow, which is what's causing hip-hop nerds to blanch (probably because most of 'em can't sing). It's nifty, though -- he's not the best singer, but who gives a shit? Just hearing modulating pitch in a flow is, as you'd figure, smooth. Also, he totally gets what's happening in nerdy white-guy electro rock in the way that Grandmaster Flash was digging New Order, and thus has MGMT and their ilk providing intriguing tracks to back up his interesting delivery. The whole thing is great -- and occasionally approaches fantastic pop music, as on "Soundtrack 2 My Life," or the gorgeous "Up Up & Away." When's the last time you called a rap song "gorgeous?" I mean, fuck yeah. It's not perfect by any means, but at last, a surge forward. A-.
Kiss, Sonic Boom and Ace Frehley, Anomaly
Okay, first off, to get this out of the way: fuck you if you don't like Kiss. Okay? You can take your high and mighty platitudes about how this stuff is just juvenile, second-rate, amped-up cartoon bullshit and tell me what rock and roll is supposed to be, if not exactly that. Right? I mean, sure, we can pretend we'd rather be listening to early-70s Van Morrison records (and some days we would), but if you want a distillation of the music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley -- simple to a man, cartoon bullshit to a song, juvenile DEFIANTLY -- you can look straight to Kiss, who manage to take that, package it up nice and neat in some awesome gift-wrap, and shove it straight up your fat, Chicago-music-critic ass.
Okay, that out of the way, we are talking about Kiss here, so even within the framework of that, removing "Kiss suck anyway" from the equation, there is an extreme variance in quality across their output. So where does Sonic Boom stack up, Gene and Paul's insistance that this stuff is "as good as Rock and Roll Over" aside (very aside -- they've been saying that about every album since "Creatures of the Night" in 1980)?
Good news: Sonic Boom does not suck. It's nowhere near perfect, it occasionally veers into generic mid-80s territory, the band (while finally sounding like an actual band rather than an aggregate of session jerks) can occasionally regress to the lowest common denominator arrangement-wise -- but it does not suck. Best thing: while Paul Stanley is still writing songs that sound like Def Leppard outtakes (which isn't a bad thing, given the Lep's hook-to-dud ratio), Gene Simmons is 100% revitalized and writing at the top of his game. "Russian Roulette," "Nobody's Perfect," "Hot and Cold" and "I'm An Animal" are all on a par with the Demon's mid-70s trashrock classics, not a hint of grunge or death-metal or rap amongst 'em. If only for that, the album would be guaranteed non-suck status, but even though he's still in cheeseball mode, Paul Stanley whips out a few great singles -- "Modern Day Delilah" should charm all but the most cynical curmudgeon -- and even new guy Tommy Thayer manages a great showpiece, "Lightning Strikes," cannily drawing on his predecessor's love of the electrical.
Speaking of Space Ace, he's got a new record out, too, and how does that fare in the Frehley continuum between his magnificent 1978 solo LP and his mediocre 80s comet output? Well, the good news continues: his album doesn't suck, either. The axeman's in far heavier mode than his bubblemetal compatriots-in-arms, though, and he's not holding back any punches. "Foxy and Free," "Outer Space" and the mega-epic guitarbastard asskicker "Genghis Khan" all hit super-hard the way you want 'em to. He even finds another glam-era single to update -- the Sweet's "Fox On The Run," which he actually manages to better, much like he did in '78 with "New York Groove."
I will concede, even being a rabid fan, that neither album is remotely perfect -- but I'm still giving "Sonic Boom" a solid B, and Ace a B-.