So far I’ve been reviewing albums in the order they were released. To mix things up and keep myself motivated, I’m adopting a theme for this one: reunion albums and farewell albums. Herein you’ll find Hot Water Music, Redd Kross, No Doubt, Further Seems Forever, and Thrice.
Hot Water Music – Exister
May 15th, Rise Records
HWM folded in 2005 when singer/guitarist Chuck Ragan went back to nature. Seriously, IIRC at the time he said something about farming. The remainder of the band continued on as The Draft, staying in the same musical vein, while Ragan launched a solo career of acoustic-driven folk/alt-country music. He also launched the Revival Tour, so we have him to thank for the punk-dudes-go-acoustic-folk trend of recent years. Drummer George Rebello also did a stint in Against Me! HWM reunited in ’08 but, aside from a b-sides collection and a couple of singles, Exister is their first record of new material since 2004’s The New What Next.
Old punkers who’ve put down everything the band has done since 1997 for not sounding exactly like that year’s excellent Fuel for the Hate Game likewise won’t be too pleased with the matured sound displayed on Exister. But for latecomers like me who are more familiar with the band’s 2000s work—particularly 2002’s fantastic Caution—there’s plenty to like on this album. Ragan’s trademark gruff vocals are even moreso this time around, and his delivery on opener “Mainline” is particularly powerful. Second singer/guitarist Chris Wollard takes the mic on the more melodic tracks like “Drown in It” and “Wrong Way”, and he and Regan take their guitars in some experimental directions on “Boy, You’re Gonna Hurt Someone”. “Drag My Body” is a highlight and one of the band’s best songs of the last 12 years, with some insane bass work from Jason Black (listen closely around the 1:10 mark).
Exister isn’t going to win back the curmudgeons, nor is it the best record for new fans to start with (those would be the aforementioned Fuel for the Hate Game and Caution), but for those who’ve missed the band over the last 8 years it’s a welcome comeback. 4/5
Redd Kross – Researching the Blues
Aug. 7th, Merge Records
Punk rock history lesson: Brothers Steven and Jeff McDonald started Redd Kross in 1978 when they were 11 and 15, respectively. The early lineup included guitarist Greg Hetson and drummer Ron Reyes, and they practiced in “The Church”, an old Baptist church in Hermosa Beach repurposed as a low-rent space for artists (Reyes lived in the basement). The band’s first gig was opening for Black Flag, who also lived and practiced there. When BF’s original singer, Keith Morris, quit in ’79, Reyes was recruited to replace him. Hetson split to join Morris in his new band, the Circle Jerks (later joining Bad Religion). The McDonalds kept Redd Kross rolling over the next 2 decades with various other members, releasing 6 studio albums, but put the band on hiatus in ’99 when their guitarist OD’d. In 2006 they reconvened the group’s late-’80s lineup with guitarist Robert Hecker and drummer Roy McDonald (no relation) for sporadic live dates. These days Steven also plays in Keith Morris’ new band, Off!, keeping the hardcore family tree intact.
Thus Researching the Blues arrives as Redd Kross’ first new material in 15 years, and the first by this lineup since 1987’s Neurotica. This is the first Redd Kross album I’ve ever heard, and from the mini-bio I just gave you might assume them to be a hardcore outfit (or possibly Kiss imitators or a black metal group, judging by their love of white & black face paint). They’re not. They started out in the late-’70s punk rock camp, but the McDonalds were born in the Beach Boys’ hometown and started writing songs before they hit puberty, taking as much influence from Saturday morning cartoons as from the Ramones. On their early records they covered everyone from Bowie to the Brady Bunch. On Neurotica they had a song comparing a girl to breakfast cereal. In the late ’80s they did Beatles-parodying covers albums under the name the Tater Totz, featuring former Partridge Family kid Danny Bonaduce.
Researching the Blues is chock full of power-pop vocal harmonies and guitar hooks reminiscent of the popular rock & roll of the ’60s as well as ’90s college rock. The album’s opening trio of the title track, “Stay Away from Downtown”, and “Uglier” are its harder rock side, the latter co-written with Jeff and Steven’s respective wives: Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s and Anna Waronker of That Dog. “Dracula’s Daughters” is a softer ballad while “Meet Frankenstein” is as sugary as The Monkees or early Beatles. The second half of the record is equally good, alternatingly bouncy and chimey. There’s a great balance on this album between the sweet, light numbers and the heavier, fuzzier ones, demonstrating the McDonalds’ knack for great power pop. A fantastic comeback that’s hooked me into checking out their back catalog. 5/5
No Doubt – Push and Shove
Sept. 25th, Interscope Records
No Doubt’s return album finds them continuing down the dance-pop trail they first embarked on with 2001’s Rock Steady. Added to their dancehall-influenced mixture is every trick in the 2012 pop handbook: ultra-slick computerized production, layered vocals, guest stars, dubstep breakdowns (see the title track’s choruses), plenty of electronic blippity-bleeps, and a whole lot of boom in the back. While this may sound weird from a band whose biggest career hit is the soft rocking ballad “Don’t Speak”, it makes sense considering where the band was in ’04 at the conclusion of the Rock Steady touring cycle, and the members’ projects during No Doubt’s ~5-year break: Gwen Stefani was the most visible, of course, with her 2 chart-topping dance-pop albums; Tony Kanal also worked on Pink’s ’08 album Funhouse. Taking those records into account, the path from Rock Steady to Push and Shove becomes much clearer.
And that’s what this record ultimately sounds like: A Stefani album that just happens to feature her bandmates. In its quest to get everyone body-shakin’ and on the dance floor through overt pop trappings, Push and Shove sacrifices almost any sense of band dynamic. No Doubt have always been genre-blending style shifters, which worked to their advantage on their skatastic breakthrough Tragic Kingdom and its new wavy follow-up Return of Saturn by molding the individual members’ musical inclinations into something unique and interesting. This album takes Rock Steady‘s inflection of dancehall reggae to the extreme, but piles on so many studio elements that it sacrifices nuance and lacks cohesion. It’s heartwarming to see the four bandmates all reuniting and getting into a group hug in the “Settle Down” video, but I just don’t feel that same vibe from the album through its thick production sheen. It’s hard to hear four songwriters working together, balancing and blending their musical ideas, when the whole affair is buried under so much boom-boom-boom-boom and bleepy-bloop-blip.
The irony being that the four musicians in No Doubt are strong songwriters. Strip away the layers of studio magic and the songs on Push and Shove are still pretty darn good. For evidence see the acoustic versions of 4 album cuts included on the deluxe edition. Stefani is in fine vocal form, even when contemplating whether she can keep up her fashion icon status in her 40s: “Do you think I’m looking hot? Do you think this hits the spot?” she asks on “Looking Hot” (the answer, judging by the photos in the album booklet, is a resounding YES). Taken both alone and in the context of their career, Push and Shove is a strong No Doubt album. It’s primarily a massive, room-shaking dance record, and thus it’s fairer to judge No Doubt as more a dance group than a band at this point. On that basis it succeeds, even if some of us may wish for less digital slickness and more organic nuances a la the No Doubt of our youths. 3/5
Further Seems Forever – Penny Black
Oct. 23rd, Rise Records
Talk about a band with turnover: During FSF’s initial run (1998–2006) they just couldn’t hold onto a lead singer, to the point where one of the band’s defining characteristics was the presence of a new frontman on each record. Chris Carrabba appears on 2001’s The Moon Is Down, but by that point had already decided to leave the group in favor of his burgeoning solo project Dashboard Confessional, which went on to fame and made him emo’s poster boy. Guitarist Nick Dominguez also jumped ship after that album, and the two were respectively replaced by Jason Gleason and Derick Cordoba for 2003’s How to Start a Fire. It wasn’t long before Gleason ditched, and Sense Field singer Jon Bunch helmed the mic on 2004’s Hide Nothing. After a reunion show with Carabba in ’05 to perform their debut album front-to-back, the band called it quits in ’06. 2010 brought about a reunion of the original lineup with both Carrabba and Dominguez, but until Penny Black they were sticking pretty much to their early material.
Further Seems Forever were lumped in with the millennial emo crowd due to the Carrabba connection, their indebtedness to Sunny Day Real Estate, and the fact that their first song came out a compilation series called The Emo Diaries. It’s that emocore sound that dominates Penny Black. The Christian rock overtones that marked the Gleason and Bunch years are seemingly absent. Musically, the album plays to the band’s strengths: dynamic, melodic arrangements smoothed out with pop sensibilities. They sound as powerful here as they ever did in the past, especially on the title track and “On the Outside”, the latter being the closest in character to The Moon Is Down.
There are 2 tracks that feel out of place: “A System of Symmetry” is a sort of spacy electro-rock number that just doesn’t carry any weight in comparison to the album’s stronger tracks. Closer “Janie” is an acoustic lullaby, and while that’s not terribly out of character for the band—especially Carrabba—it feels like the album should close out on a more exciting note (then again, they have a tendency to end their albums with lighter fare). My only real complaint, though, is whatever special effects are going on with Carrabba’s voice. Don’t get me wrong; his vocals are fierce, especially those huge choruses on “So Cold”, “Rescue Trained”, and “Staring Down the Sun”, but I hear some sort of studio manipulation going on that sounds like more than multitracking. Listen for it in the chorus of “So Cold” and see if you agree. I saw the band perform this material live exactly a month ago and lemme tell ya, the man doesn’t need any digital wizardry to sing the hell out of these songs. As anyone who’s seen him before (especially in Dashboard) can attest, this guy can sing. I’d rather be captivated by his powerful, unfettered voice than be wondering what studio tricks were used on it. 4/5
Thrice – Anthology
Oct. 30th, Staple Records / Workhorse Music Group
For their spring 2012 farewell tour, Thrice let their fans vote on which songs from the band’s catalog would make the setlist. Recordings of the 24 most-played tunes, taken from select shows on the tour, comprise the 2-disc live Anthology. As the title suggests, the band’s swan song is a career-spanning effort including selections from all phases of a 14-year career that saw them evolve from metalcore/screamo favorites to post-hardcore/alt-rock experimenters. All six studio albums are represented, as are all four EPs of their element-themed Alchemy Index project. Thrice already did a double-disc live album in 2008, but it was heavy on Alchemy Index material while Anthology aims to be a true career retrospective, adding in their two subsequent studio albums.
Fans who’ve already absorbed the band’s studio albums won’t be getting any new material here, but can revel in some powerful live performances that demonstrate this band going out at the top of their game. And those dissatisfied with the lack of early material included on Live at the House of Blues (delivered at a time when the group was eschewing their screamo past in favor of experimental art-rock projects) will find their frustrations ameliorated as every record gets its due in a set that continuously moves between eras. Fan favorite “Deadbolt” arrives late in the second half, followed by a slaying rendition of “To Awake and Avenge the Dead”. Tracks from the band’s debut, 2000’s Identity Crisis, are saved for the encore, with the audience singing along at the top of their lungs to “Phoenix Ignition” and “T&C”. Not to be overlooked, of course, is the material from 2009’s Beggars and last year’s excellent Major/Minor, which found Thrice arriving comfortably in the position of being post-hardcore statesmen with a devoted fanbase willing to follow them down each new musical path.
In all, Anthology provides a nice stroll through Thrice’s constantly-evolving musical career. For those (like me) who were at the shows on that final tour, it’s a great reminder of how well this band delivered live. 4/5