Maurice's Music Reviews for 2003


Santana
Shaman
(Arista)

Original Release Date: October 22, 2002
Review Date: January 3, 2003

"I say come back
 Come in from the cold
 Into the warm
 I feel like fire
 Guiding you back home
 As darkness falls"
 -- from "Feels Like Fire" featuring Dido

    The band Santana, led by Carlos Santana, has been around for 3 decades. Santana, after reissuing remastered earlier works in the late 90's, reinvented themselves by releasing Supernatural, a Santana album which drew upon the vocal talents of many popular artists. The smash hit "Smooth" from that album put Santana back on the map, and once again into pop music. Santana follows the same formula for Shaman.

    It is not surprising that the first single from Shaman is the pop song, "The Game of Love", featuring Michelle Branch. Whether a manipulation of the record industry, or merely one of Carlos Santana's favorite songs on the album, the song was written to have a wide appeal, as "Smooth" did. But where Santana really shines is the latin-flavored, horn-infused songs with the unmistakable Carlos Santana guitar solos. "Sideways" combines Santana's signature electric guitar with an acoustic one under Citizen Cope's melancholy lyrics. Songs such as "Foo Foo" and "Aye Aye Aye" are the band's energetic contributions to world music. Santana tells a story with his guitar in the somber instrumental "Victory Is Won". Macy Gray ("Amore (Sexo)") and Dido ("Feels Like Fire") contribute their lyrics, vocals, and individual flavor to enhance the diversity of the songs on the album.

    While the variety on the album maintains interest throughout the long 75 minutes of Shaman, a couple edits may have made this a better album. Wyclef Jean returns to contribute again, penning "Since Supernatural", an up tempo hip-hop attempt at social commentary, which is only saved by Santana's solo. P.O.D. contribute the hard rock track, "America", which is out of place on this album. The piano-driven "Novus", which features Placido Domingo just doesn't seem to be the proper vehicle for Santana's guitar, and thus a mysterious choice for a closing track.

    Whether Santana's comeback with Supernatural was a contrivance of the record company, or whether it was truely created for art's sake, Santana turned it into a success. That success continues with Shaman. While longtime fans with not find as much classic Latin-fused-with-rock sounds as on earlier albums, Santana has no doubt reached many new fans, and will continue to do so with Shaman. Many of the longtime fans will be happy to hear new songs, and could even produce their own edit of the album, removing 3 or 4 undesirable tracks would still leave a full album's worth of material.

Grade: B


Matchbox Twenty
More Than You Think You Are
(Atlantic)

Original Release Date: November 19, 2002
Review Date: January 17, 2003

"Maybe, you'll find something
 That's enough to keep you
 But if the bright lights
 Don't receive you
 Turn yourself around and come on home"
 -- from "Bright Lights"

    Matchbox Twenty arrived on the scene in 1996 after releasing their first album, which had the popular hit, "Push", propelling them to multi-platinum status. Their second album, Mad Season was met with skeptics saying they couldn't break out of the mold they had made for themselves in the first album. Matchbox Twenty are now back with a third album, hot off singer Rob Thomas' smash collaboration with Carlos Santana, and their new album, More Than You Think You Are, breaks their mold.

    The criticism of Matchbox Twenty's sophomore effort stemmed from its similarity to the first album, and the homogenous rock ballads therein. More Than You Think You Are has much more variety than their previous efforts. The album opens with two fast-paced, rocking tunes, "Feel" and the hit single, "Disease". These get the album off on a good foot. The slow, piano-driven, "Bright Lights" continues the difference. Then the guitar ballads begin to settle in, and it becomes apparent that Mr. Thomas isn't feeling quite up to par, he's a bit "Unwell" (well, what do you expect with that "Disease" he has?).

    But instead of falling into the same routine, along comes "All I Need", which is an up tempo song of hope, reminiscent of The Travelling Wilburys. "Could I Be You" is a cleverly-disguised verse-chorus-verse song, masquerading as a ballad. Thomas turns the trite into something almost spiritual in "Downfall", where a gospel choir sings, "Only love can save us now" while he opines, "Be my savior/And I'll be your downfall." "You're So Real" gets the head bobbing again with the fast-paced rock. The end of the album would have been marred with another ballad, except that there's a bonus track, "So Sad, So Lonely", that pulls a couple pace changes to keep things interesting. However, they threw some studio commentary after it that can only be described as "lame lame lame".

    Matchbox Twenty has made an effort to do some evolving with More Than You Think You Are. With fewer ballads, and more songs that show that they know how to both turn it up a notch and tone it down a bit, the album could be considered more interesting musically than previous works. The lyrics are nothing to be amazed by, but are sufficient enough that the newfound styles can carry the album from beginning to end. If Matchbox Twenty continues their evolution, their next album should be something to look for.

Grade: B



Alice Peacock
Alice Peacock
(Aware/Sony)

Original Release Date: September 3, 2002
Review Date: January 24, 2003

"Some things get lost
 Some things just disappear
 But not my love for you
 I'll keep that close and near
 Some things just fade
 Like scars and dreams
 But I'll keep your heart right here with me
 You said you'd realized in life
 That chances pass you by
 And what you thought was yours
 Slowly fades before your eyes
 And part of growing up
 Is that you can't go back in time
 You have to live with your regrets
 The things you leave behind"
 -- from "Some Things Get Lost"

    The self-titled album of thirty-two year old singer-songwriter Alice Peacock is her second album, but only the first on major indie Aware Records (distributed by Columbia). Peacock moved from Minnesota to Chicago to get a leg up in the strong folk scene in that city. There, the early recordings of the songs on this album were heard by Gregg Letterman of Aware Records, which also houses John Mayer, Train, and Five for Fighting. Her songs were rerecorded and remixed to make them more radio-friendly, and the results are sure to be another hit for Aware.

    By nature, Alice Peacock is a folk singer. Her songs tell stories, with very intricate and meaningful lyrics. Like Michelle Branch, Peacock is an artist that writes her own lyrics and music. Though more often compared to Sheryl Crow (especially the more personal songs on her 2002 C'mon C'mon), Peacock does not have the strong pop sensibilities of Branch or Crow. But what she lacks in pop sensibility, she makes up for with folk charm.

    Hope and regret play a large role in the lyrics of the songs on the album. In "Parallel Life", Peacock daydreams of what it would be like to have the courage and strength to be who she wants to be. She expresses her carefree optimism for a new relationship in "Leading With My Heart", accompanied by a country twang. The piano ballad "Some Things Get Lost" is an intensely sorrowful song about the longing for a past relationship. In "I Will Be the One", she explains why she must end a relationship, in a light-hearted, upbeat pop-lite tune.

    While Peacock did write all of the songs, she did have a little help along the way. Labelmate John Mayer contributes his voice to the ready-for-radio "Bliss", which compliments her her own, while folk singer John Gorka sings harmony on a couple songs, but his voice detracts and distracts from the beauty of hers; the album would have been better off with her singing her own backup. Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers helps out in the socio-political critique of America turned self-motivational inspiration, "I'll Start With Me".

    Alice Peacock has the skills to write songs with great lyrics and music. To become a popular artist, she needs a little extra production to give her songs that intangible quality to put them on the radio, but make no mistake, the heart and soul of the songs beat with her blood, sweat, and tears. This album is a very good one, and shows the enormous potential of Peacock, should she care to release it upon the pop music masses.

Grade: A-



Kathleen Edwards
Failer
(Rounder)

Original Release Date: January 14, 2003
Review Date: January 31, 2003

"Do you think your boys club will crumble
 Just because of a loud-mouthed girl?"
 -- from "Hockey Skates"

    Newcomer Kathleen Edwards blows on in from Canada with her debut album Failer. Her music is an amalgamation of country, folk, roots rock, and even a little blues. Edwards wrote all of the songs on the album, and scraped together enough to visit last year's South by Southwest music festival, where she was courted by Rounder Records, which features "alt-country" artists on the label.

    With the melding of the various styles of music, Edwards keeps the songs interesting, but without getting in the way of the lyrics, which tell tales of adversity and deep emotional conflict. The twangy opener, and first single of the album, "Six O'Clock News", is about a police standoff, from the perspective of the girlfriend of the gunman. In "Lone Wolf", the steel guitar adds the emotional edge to the rhythm acoustic guitar as Edwards tells the story of a one-night stand matchmaking. The electric guitar and saxophone drive the sexually-charged "12 Bellevue", where Edwards is the aggressor, taking advantage of one whose heart she has broken. The raw lyrics of "Westby", in which she puts herself in the position of being "the other woman" in an affair, contrast the upbeat, almost poppy, guitar that accompanies them.

    Relationship songs fill the album, many of which are so personal they could only have come from experience. Being jilted by an alcoholic music industry maven is all the more reason to write "One More Song The Radio Won't Like". The bitter resignation of a relationship ruining her life could not be told better than in "Hockey Skates". Edwards deals with her father's disapproval in her choice of career in "National Steel". She feels deep sadness for leaving her "Sweet Little Duck" of a boyfriend, but makes the decision to do so because she can no longer live with their stalled relationship.

    Kathleen Edwards pulls out all the stops in the lyrics of Failer, one can't help but to wonder if she's exhausted everything she has. It will be interesting to see what comes from her next. But the mere fact that the album evokes such a question is a sure sign that she's done something right. Failer may not be the best album of recent note, but it certainly presents more raw emotion and angst than most that have preceeded it.

Grade: B+


Zwan
Mary Star of the Sea
(Warner Brothers)

Original Release Date: January 28, 2003
Review Date: February 28, 2003

"I dream about you every night
 'Cause when I do you hold me tight
 I'd love somebody like you in my life"
 -- from "Baby Let's Rock!"

    Billy Corgan was the Smashing Pumpkins. As much as he tried to hide the fact that he had complete control of that band, it was all too obvious and true. Corgan's new band, Zwan, is so similar in that respect to the Smashing Pumpkins, that I do not understand why he even bothered to change the name of the band. Mary Star of the Sea very well could have been the next Pumpkins album. It has the same qualities as earlier Smashing Pumpkins albums, especially Siamese Dream.

    On the surface, Mary Star of the Sea is a sappy, feelgood album. On "Honestly" and "El Sol", Corgan sings of content, happy relationships. But it's not Corgan's style to present us with only one simple happy concept. Like in the classic Smashing Pumpkins song, "Today", not all things are as happy as they seem. There is a veiled conflict or struggle in many of the songs. This is where Corgan's lyrics shine.

    The music accompanying Corgan's lyrics is pretty typical of Smashing Pumpkins works. If you've heard practically anything by the Pumpkins, then nothing on Mary Star of the Sea will surprise. Corgan's preference for fuzzy lead guitar and guitar solo bridges is just as apparent here as on previous works. There are quite a few ballads, but certainly some of the songs, especially, "Baby Let's Rock!", simply do just that, rock. However, the opus "Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea", clocking in at 14 minutes displays Corgan's utter hubris. Sure, he created something he must believe to be good, but is there any reason this couldn't have been two 4 minute songs instead? Sure, Corgan, in his own Christian way, wants to present his version of the story of Job, starring himself, of course, but is it necessary? Does he think we'll feel sorry for him?

    Billy Corgan should not be penalized for not creating a breakthrough album. But at the same time, he should also not score points for rehashing ideas that have already been used in his previous works. Mary Star of the Sea is merely the first album from a reborn Smashing Pumpkins, and while it takes some of its cues from the uber legendary Pumpkins album Siamese Dream, it is by no means as good as it. This is not a bad album, but it could have been far better if the band had either built significantly on the past work, or left it behind entirely.

Grade: C+/B-


The Ataris
So Long Astoria
(Sony)

Original Release Date: March 4, 2003
Review Date: March 14, 2003

"If I died tomorrow, would this song live on forever?
 Here is my ... unopened letter to a world
 That never shall reply"
 -- from "Unopened Letter to the World"

    The Ataris hail from Santa Barbara, California, where they were formerly one of the most popular bands on the Kung Fu label. So Long, Astoria is the major label debut for The Ataris. The Ataris have taken their punk rock made it more pop-punk on this album.

    This album doesn't really have much to contribute to the crop of punk bands that have hopped to major labels over the past few years. The music is nothing exceptional, although the drummer, Chris Knapp, does hit the skins hard with great effect.

    The lyrics are just a bit too cheesy for punk, even pop-punk. Most of the songs are all too conscious of the fact that they are songs. It is as if the band sat down and made an effort to write the "greatest American punk album". The songs run the gamut of the classic punk quandries. Is growing up better than being an adult ("In This Diary")? Don't you remember that cool summer we had ("Summer '79")? Can I write a song that will outlive me ("Unopened Letter to the World")? Well, I guess that last one isn't so punk, now is it?

    Sure, there's songs like "The Hero Dies in This One", which promotes the message "just be yourself". But largely, the lyrics mostly pine for the past and the "better times we had back then". And what's with the fascination of Don Henley's "Boys of Summer"? Bree Sharp also covered this song, and hers was better because she tried to do something with it. The Ataris merely played the song faster (oh yeah, they did replace "Dead Head sticker" with "Black Flag sticker", big difference there).

    The Ataris create inoffensive, watered down pop-punk that was easy for Sony to swallow. They have energy, but not much substance. Perhaps the label did some of the watering down, or perhaps the band just doesn't have the same zeal they used to, but either way, they have to take the blame, this album is "safe punk", nothing more.

Grade: D+


Everclear
Slow Motion Daydream
(Capitol)

Original Release Date: March 11, 2003
Review Date: March 21, 2003

"I don't care where we go
 I don't care what we do
 As long as I can be with you
 I just want to be with you."
 -- from "A Beautiful Life"

    Veteran three-piece Everclear. led by singer/songwriter Art Alexakis, have released their latest work, entitled Slow Motion Daydream. Alexakis is the main driving factor behind the band, since he writes all of the songs. Past albums have been heavily influenced by Alexakis' personal life, and this album is no different.

    Previous works by Everclear have been grungy pop-punk with clever lyrics. Slow Motion Daydream shows some significant mellowing of Alexakis' writing. There aren't as many rocking songs, and those that exist are a bit plodding in pace. The opening track, "How to Win Friends and Influence People" steals a riff from "Father of Mine" of 1997's So Much for the Afterglow, but song almost dies in the soft verse between the loud choruses. The first single from the album, "Volvo Driving Soccer Mom", rocks but also has pop sensibilities, and an interesting story to tell, but while it is a great song, it is probably the best of the rocking songs.

    On the slower, more ballad-like songs, the lyrics aren't strong enough to support the less driving, less interesting music. Alexakis' lyrics are pulled from personal experiences, but it seems as if he is very near being tapped out. However, there is a gem among these songs, and it is the desperate pining of "TV Show" for one of those perfectly happy television show family lives. "A Beautiful Life" is meant to evoke emotions about the relationship he was stuck in, but it is a bit hollow, as it seems as if he wasn't sure he wanted to save the relationship himself, which tempers the love song it seems to have been meant to be.

    Art Alexakis has evolved his music over the course of his career. He has gone from "good time" pop-punk to thoughtful, more insightful songs. This is a big change to go through, and required the full dedication Alexakis has put into Everclear. Perhaps he is still working out the kinks in this effort. Alexakis is a serious artist, and as such, will likely work even harder on the next album when this one doesn't do as well as previous efforts.

Grade: C+



American Hi-Fi
The Art of Losing
(Island/Def Jam)

Original Release Date: February 25, 2003
Review Date: March 28, 2003

"Don't tell me what to do
 I don't wanna be like you
 Can't you see it's killing me
 I'm my own worst enemy
 Knock me down I'll keep on moving
 It's the art of losing"
 -- from "The Art of Losing"

    Ex-Letters to Cleo and Veruca Salt drummer Stacy Jones fronts the band American Hi-Fi, which released its self-titled debut in 2001. American Hi-Fi is back with their second album, entitled The Art of Losing. American Hi-Fi have made their sound a little heavier, perhaps a bit more serious over their previous album.

    The pop rock/punk style of American Hi-Fi begins with the first track and continues through the end of the album. On that first track, "The Art of Losing", the pop rock starts with power chords aplenty. A punk pace underscores the conflict and strife contained in the broken relationship that won't end in "Beautiful Disaster". The aggressive guitars in "Happy" mirror the emotions conveyed in the lyrics. One can't help to bob ones head to the beat of the grungy "Rise".

    While most of the album rocks, there are a few tracks that really detract from the whole. "Nothing Left to Lose" is a angry, juvenile breakup song (another one?), which resorts to calling women "bitches". There's also an excess of swearing throughout the album, garnering the parental advisory warning. The boys show that they watched too much music videos as kids with a riff stolen from the early days of MTV on "Teenage Alien Nation". "This is The Sound" is a blatant ripoff of Oasis, an attempt to not only imitate their music, but also their lyrical style.

    While the lyrics are rather weak, and there's a lot of rock posturing occuring on many of the tracks, the album is merely mediocre, saved by the tight arrangements, superb production, and the fact that the boys of American Hi-Fi can rock. For a formulaic pop album, it's not too bad, just don't listen too deeply to it.

Grade: C-



The All American Rejects
The All American Rejects
(Dreamworks)

Original Release Date: February 4, 2003
Review Date: April 4, 2003

"Swing swing from the tangles of
 My heart is crushed by a former love
 Can you help me find a way
 To carry on again
 -- from "Swing Swing"

    The All-American Rejects hail from Oklahoma. The high school graduates originally released their self-titled album on the indie label Doghouse, but due to buzz created by a review in AP, Dreamworks picked up the bank and re-released the album.

    The All-American Rejects combine watered-down punk with strong pop sensibility all rolled up with "loser chic" lyrics. The pop is the Rejects' best asset, the keyboard additions to many of the songs give them something interesting when the guitars and drums begin to sound the same as the other songs. The standout track of the album, the one which put them on the map, is "Swing Swing", an infectious, toe-tapping, foot-stomping song one can't help but to sing along to. Not that the lyrics are superb, they're merely incredibly catchy. The first track of the album, "My Paper Heart" almost achieves this same pop fun, but to a bit of a lesser degree.

    The rest of the album is a collection of songs about lost loves and loneliness. "One More Sad Song" is a fairly typical adolescent pop-punk whine over a girl, albeit with a good fast-paced beat. "Don't Leave Me" also has a good fast-paced beat, but it uses a tired chord progressions that displays a lack of creativity. The slower songs, like "Time Stands Still" and "Too Far Gone" lose the power of the pop and can't quite be carried by the self-pitying lyrics.

    The All-American Rejects show some great pop potential in their debut. Their weakness lies in the plain punk riffs that don't compliment the pop. Either a full shift to pop period, or a revamp of their punk to something more driving or original would vastly improve their sound. Experience in songwriting will come over time, as the band matures; the lyrics are not entirely bad for a first effort. They have the potential, it will be up to the band as to where they go from here.

Grade: C-



Ministry
Animositisomina
(Sanctuary)

Original Release Date: February 18, 2003
Review Date: April 18, 2003

"The only world I know is drowning in rage
 I'm underwater from my dreams to the stage
 In any language that you learn to speak
 Love is listed and defined as weak"
 -- from "Animosity"

    Al Jourgensen, frontman and lead creator of the music of Ministry, is angry. Jourgensen's ability to channel his rage into his music was what made the heavy industrial music Ministry produced in the early 90's the standard for American industrial music. While Jougensen's and co-conspirator Paul Barker's last couple albums have not been as popular as their early works, they are back with a vengeance with Animositisomina. Jourgensen describes the album's title thusly, "It's the word 'animosity' spelled forwards and backwards, minus the 'y'. It's double the hatred." Indeed, the album burns with a seething fire, showing Ministry can still make good music.

    Ministry's greatness on previous albums was fueled by their unholy marriage of heavy guitars, menacing synthesizers, and superb Pro-Tools sampling and production. From the opening track, "Animosity", they slam you with a sonic wall of daggers, piercing your eardrums with heavy riffs of hate. "Unsung" is to this album as "Hero" was to 1992's Psalm 69. Jourgensen's arrests on drug charges and resulting legal troubles are angerly recalled in "Piss". The furious driving of "Broken", a commentary on strip clubs and the sex industry, is a classic Ministry combination of synth and guitar.

    While this album is not for the weak of hearing, it does take some slightly toned-down diversions. The cover of Magazine's "The Light Pours Out of Me" takes the album on a New Wave spin. Similarly, the slow and plodding "Shove" gives the ears a small reprieve, blending Ministry's groaning guitars with Jourgensen's story of going through detox during the making of the album. The instrumental track, "Leper", also the final track, an industrial equivalent to "Night on Bald Mountain" if there ever could be one.

    Many have said Ministry had gone downhill since Psalm 69, with Filth Pig being a large disappointment to many. Animositisomina picks up where Psalm 69 left off. With Jourgensen drug-free with the making of this album, he has gotten his edge back. At a point where Jourgensen and Barker were about to stop making music, this album is a big surprise and a sign of good things to come from Ministry.

Grade: B


Evanescence
Fallen
(Wind-Up)

Original Release Date: March 4, 2003
Review Date: May 9, 2003

"Hold onto me my love
 You know I can't stay long
 All I wanted to say is I love you and I'm not afraid
 Can you hear me?
 Can you feel me in your arms?"
 -- from "My Last Breath"

    It may seem strange for a band to name itself a word that means the act of fading away. But Evanescence has little chance of that at this time. Propelled by having two songs on the Daredevil soundtrack, their debut has gotten attention it otherwise might not have garnered. The Arkansas quartet was first formed when guitarist Ben Moody met singer Amy Lee at a youth camp. They discovered they like the same things in music and began writing songs together. Fallen is the culmination of that effort.

    The most striking aspect of Evanescence's music is haunting vocals of Amy Lee. Her beautiful voice sends shivers down the spine and raises goosebumps on the skin. When Lee sings of pain and despair and thoughts of suicide, but hope for salvation, in "Tourniquet", every emotion felt is conveyed in her voice. Similarly, the goth-like music and lyrics on "My Last Breath" clutch the heart with a tight grip that just won't let go. Her vocals are backed by a choir (arranged by Lee), adding a haunting quality on "Whisper", which is a contrast to Lee's supportive begging, "Don't turn away / Don't give in to the pain". The menacing guitars fight to push Lee back down as she tries to keep herself from "Going Under" in the opening track.

    Evanescence are at their best when Lee's vocals are supported by Moody's strong, driving guitar. However, the two songs that were included on the Daredevil soundtrack are the weakest on Fallen. The first single from the album, and perhaps weakest song on it, "Bring Me To Life", features metal-hop backing vocals by Paul McCoy of 12 Stones, which is the only song on the album to feature such backing, giving a constructed-for-radio-airplay quality, putting it completely out of place of the rest of the set. The other, the piano ballad, "My Immortal", while featuring Lee's lovely voice, slows the album down too much at a point where the album should be cranking the energy higher. Fortunately, the track which the band considers to be to sound they strive for, "Haunted", is one of the best. It combines strong lyrics and Lee's soaring vocals, setting the mood with forboding guitars and eerie backing choir.

    Evanescence breaks from the norm and brings out a great sound on their debut. Amy Lee's vocals are the shining jewel in this surprise treasure chest. While many of the songs deal with dark subjects, Evanescence does not write songs of angst for angst's sake. Their songs are heartfelt expressions of sorrow and pain, but also contain the hopefulness that things will get better. This is not just another teen angst album, it is far more complex than that. Lee and Moody have created something exotic in today's music industry, a refreshing dose of good music.

Grade: A-


Blur
Think Tank
(Virgin)

Original Release Date: May 6, 2003
Review Date: May 16, 2003

"The trees are spitting oxygen
 They're the rockets we should fear
 If we go and let them off then
 we will disappear"
 -- from "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club"

    British alternapop rock band Blur have been around since the early 90's, each album released paving a slightly different path than the previous. With Think Tank, Blur continue to change direction, this time primarily due to guitarist Graham Coxon leaving the band partway through the recording of the album. This removes most of the guitar rock quality to the music, leaving a slower, more somber feel to the album.

    Damon Albarn is the lead singer and main creative force behind the band, was also the co-conspirator for cartoon rock band Gorillaz. Some of the songs on Think Tank show a relation to tracks on the Gorillaz album, when Gorillaz had cranked it down and weren't being as manic. That being said, this isn't just a continuation or rehash of that sound. The first single, "Out of Time", is a touching discussion about a relationship that may have run its course. Similarly, the requiem "On the Way to the Club" is a pining for his love. The lamenting guitar and piano of "Battery in Your Leg" contrasts the opening line of the song, "This is a ballad for the good times", which underscores heartache within the song.

    But not all of the album is slow or somber. "Crazy Beats" is a frenetic, catchy tune complete with hand claps and "yeah yeah"s. A cross between the tune on a snake charmer's pungi and lo-fi punk rock, the short "We've Got a File On You", also kicks it up a notch. The funky "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club" is a postmodern "save the planet to save ourselves" folk song. There is also a completely wacky bonus track called "My White Noise", hidden before the first track on the CD.

    Blur have survived and thrived because of their ability to change. Of all of the "alternative" acts in the last ten plus years, Blur have been one of the few bands which have been able to set themselves apart by not sounding like any other band out there. They define alternative with each new album, and Think Tank is no different. While the album has a much more subdued tone than previous works, it is still a quality effort.

Grade: B


Radiohead
Hail to the Thief
(Capitol)

Original Release Date: June 10, 2003
Review Date: June 20, 2003

"Maybe you'll be president
 But know right from wrong
 Or in the flood you'll build an Ark
 And sail us to the moon"
 -- from "Sail to the Moon. (Brush the Cobwebs out of the Sky.)"

    Radiohead continues to be one of the most popular of the true alternative bands, using the narrow defnition of alternative, those bands that have a different sound than the norm. They continue to be unique with their newest album, Hail to the Thief. While this album isn't as experimental as earlier albums, it does take advantage of previous experiments and uses them in different ways. So while they don't stretch their talent as much as they did with Amnesiac, this album is much more cohesive than their last album.

    There is a strong undertone of fear, sorrow, and desire for change but feeling of helplessness to do so that runs throughout every song on the album. The album opens with "2 + 2 = 5", which, like a few songs on the album, starts slow, introducing the problem, and then picks up the pace as the conflict within the song begins to rage. "Sit Down. Stand Up" continues this pattern, with its ominous threat, "We can wipe you out." Thom Yorke's voice floats above the driving drums as he describes the gaping hole in the relationship in "Where I End and You Begin".

    "Sail to the Moon" is a slow beautifully picked space rock guitar dream of a day when the world would be run by someone truly good. Tape looped samples enhance the warning that the end is near in "The Gloaming". The reason why they chose to mention the rabbit disease "Myxomatosis" is probably just as odd as the lyrics in that track. The gentle soothing guitars contrast the horrors of war described in "Scatterbrain". And if the album had not depressed or distressed you enough, "A Wolf at the Door" forces one to be all too keenly aware of the scary realities of life, until Yorke begs, "I wish you'd get up go over & turn this tape off."

    Hail to the Thief isn't a groundbreaking album as previous Radiohead works have been. However, while it may lack some of the experimentation on previous albums, it makes up for it with its reoccuring theme and sense that the songs on the album were meant to be together. Still, Radiohead goes further out on a limb than just about every other band out there. And they seem to have picked a strong branch that continues to bear fruit.

Grade: B+


Jewel
0304
(Atlantic)

Original Release Date: June 3, 2003
Review Date: June 27, 2003

"Say hello 2 the room where the party's jumpin'
 Where the boys all freak cuz the boots are bumpin'
 Where the girls are naughty and always saying
 'Yes u can, yes u can, yes u can'"
 -- from "Yes U Can"

    Jewel Kilcher is that sweet young innocent folksy singer from Alaska we've all come to know from her previous hit singles. Or is she? Jewel takes a big risk on her fifth album as she dives headlong into the arena of pop and dance music, a crowded arena with so many Britneys and Christinas. The risk of fans claiming sellout is huge, but Jewel has explained she's just having fun with her music and trying something new. Can you blame an artist trying to broaden her horizons?

    Unlike the aforementioned pop artists, Jewel still writes all of the lyrics to all of the songs on 0304. She does, however, receive musical and production help from Lester Mendez, who has worked with pop artists like Shakira and Enrique Iglesias. The combination of Jewel's lyrics and Mendez's style makes for an upbeat, fun spin throughout the CD. Don't be fooled by the backbeat in the opening track, it may be a pop song, but Jewel is asking you to take a "Stand", referencing Woody Guthrie, no less, more than any bubblegum pop princess would do. The infectious beat and Jewel's cooingly angelic vocals have already made the first single, "Intuition" a pop hit. "Sweet Temptation" is likely to be released as a single, it has everything needed to be a hit, a beat that can be danced to, music with tempo changes, and longingly beautiful lyrics. Or could the next single be "Yes U Can", with its disco dance beat and sexually-charged lyrics?

    There is also more than just the pop and dance music on this album. "Leave The Lights On" is a big band-inspired straightforward expression of love. Speaking of love songs, Jewel's sweet lyrics express pure love in the same way she has on previous albums (see, she didn't forget what made her popular in the first place) in other songs like "2 Find U" and "2 Become 1". Jewel pulls a Tori Amos with the first-person stalker account, from the stalker himself. She closes the album by expressing the feelings she felt in making such a drastic change to the style of her music on "Becoming".

    Jewel's experiment to break into new territory is a complete success. She has claimed this album was her way to show that "even smart girls can be sexy", and while many would say her previous honest, heartfelt works were just as sexy, this new side of Jewel adds one more dimension to her abilities. No matter what production any song has, the lyrics are what make great songs, and lyrics are where Jewel excels. This album is no sellout, but rather proof that Jewel can do much more than simply write folk songs.

Grade: B+


Michelle Branch
Hotel Paper
(Maverick)

Original Release Date: June 24, 2003
Review Date: July 11, 2003

"Chaque fois que tu t'en vas
 You just bring me down
 Je pretend que tout va bien
 So I'm counting my tears
 'Til I get over you"
 -- from "'Til I Get Over You"

    After achieving star status with her debut album, Michelle Branch toured, made a guest appearance on Santana's latest album, and even sang at the Super Bowl. So it's no wonder when Branch sings on the title track of her new album, "I write mostly on hotel paper." Unlike The Spirit Room, this album was written more with the production in mind, rather than consisting of mostly vocals backed by an acoustic guitar, most of the songs have full rock or pop arrangements.

    Many of the songs on Hotel Paper are about the trials and tribulations of relationships, not unlike The Spirit Room, though distance plays a role in a few on this one. The longing of being on the outside looking into a relationship comes through in the title track. If the first single, "Are You Happy Now?", with its angry guitar and loud chorus, is the start of a breakup, then "Empty Handed" is the end of it, as Branch is through with the relationship and back to the acoustic guitar driving the song as she is ready to move on. Another classic Michelle Branch song, "Desperately" combines the passion of hopes with the reality that some things are not meant to be, while fusing her acoustic guitar with simple organ and percussion.

    Not all of the songs on the album are sad. "It's You" is a very straightforward love song. "Tuesday Morning" is a folksy song, accented with hints of both rock and country, as reaches out for the comfort of another. The Nickel Creek-sounding rhythm of "Love Me Like That", combined with the duet with Sheryl Crow is sure to make it to the radio. However, the best, and most heartwrenching song on the album, "'Til I Get Over You", even sadder than The Spirit Room's "Goodbye to You", will probably never make it to American radio because it has two lines of French lyrics in the chorus.

    While Hotel Paper is a very moody album, and may only be at its best when the listener is in a similar state of mind, Michelle Branch does overcome the sophomore slump. The album is very strong and solid, great lyrics just like her first, and the unmistakable musical style of her acoustic guitar is still ever present. Branch is showing her maturity as a songwriter, and again puts her heart on her sleeve for all of us to see, to the benefit of album.

Grade: B+


Liz Phair
Liz Phair
(Capitol)

Original Release Date: June 24, 2003
Review Date: July 18, 2003

"Oh baby you're young, but that's OK
 What's give or take nine years anyway?
 I'll bet your last cigarette
 You won't regret my time
 I want to be with a guy like you
 So uncomplicated, so in tune
 Just take off my dress
 Let's mess with everybody's mind
 I gotta tell you
 Baby baby baby if it's alright
 Want you to rock me all night
 -- from "Rock Me"

    Liz Phair burst onto the scene in the mad Chicago band grab of early-mid-90's. Her debut Exile in Guyville back in 1993 caught many critics by surprise, and many granted her alt-goddess status. Her unabashed lyrics were more explicit long before Alanis Morisette sang about going down on someone in a theater. However, Phair's commercial success was never quite there. This album comes 4 years after her last, and looking for a popular boost, and possibly more record sales, Phair turned to The Matrix (see Avril Lavigne's Let Go) for a boost on four of the songs.

    Since it is readily apparent that the songs in which The Matrix assisted on are the ones meant to be radio-friendly singles that attract listeners to the album, they should be dealt with separately. It's amazing how this production team can create toe-tapping beats and interesting arrangements. "Why Can't I?" on the surface is a top 10 single, but when examined, it closely resembles Lavigne's "Complicated". "Extraordinary" has Phair's brazen lyrics, but they are cushioned by the pop treament of the producers. The song least touched by The Matrix is the sexually charged "Rock Me", where Phair rocks out with her guitar, making fun of herself, while hoping to be rocked by a younger man. Phair compares a faithful lover to her favorite underwear in "Favorite", while The Matrix adds their usual production touches throughout the song.

    The rest of the tracks on the album were produced by Michael Penn or R. Walt Vincent, who produced Pete Yorn's indie rock albums, which prove a much better fit for Phair. Continuing her legacy of female power, and with a good beat and cool guitar riffs to go with it, "My Bionic Eyes" is one of the better songs on the album. In one of her most explicit songs since Exile, she sings of the benefits of oral sex in "H.W.C." Unfortunately, this song also emphasizes Phair's weakness, her warbly voice, which The Matrix covered up so well on other tracks. "Love/Hate" is a battle of the sexes with a strong hint of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" in the tune.

    It's too bad that that such a wordsmith as Liz Phair had to resort to a production team to beef up her songs. Whether it was at her record company's recommendation for want of radio singles, or whether she felt she couldn't do it by herself, the tracks assisted by The Matrix stand out like sore thumbs. What is worse is that these at best can be called diversions because they are only four of the fourteen songs on the album. Their impact, however, is that they break up the listening experience, preventing the album from being a cohesive work. Perhaps this will give Phair the resolve to stick to her own sound in future work, or perhaps to give up and give in to the massive machine the record industry is.

Grade: B-


Jane's Addiction
Strays
(Capitol)

Original Release Date: July 22, 2003
Review Date: August 8, 2003

Grade: C+


The Dandy Warhols
Welcome to the Monkey House
(Capitol)

Original Release Date: August 19, 2003
Review Date: August 22, 2003

"In me the scientist
 Always gets stuck on always trying this
 I try to live on science alone
 Analysis and freaky sensitivity
 We've got to live on science alone"
 -- from "Scientist"

    The Dandy Warhols, hailing from Portland, release their fourth album with little fanfare from their label, Capitol (who has released their last three albums in a similar way). Perhaps Capitol understands that The Dandy Warhols have a unique sound and therefore a niche market. The band has a special brand of psychedelic pop that combines some flavor of 60's guitar with 90's Brit Pop synth.

    The lead singer/songwriter Courtney Taylor-Taylor is the driving force behind the band. His lyrics are often odd or eccentric. The album opens with the title track, a short diatribe revolving around the music industry, using some fairly insular references. "Scientist" combines the strange lyrics inspiring monotonical vocals with a clever attempt at role-playing the scientist trying to be cool. The Dandys show they still know how to rock out with the first single and the best, most original track from the album, "We Used To Be Friends".

    Unfortunately, many of the other songs sound like something else. A disco backbeat runs through "Wonderful You". "The Last High" could very easily have been a song on any of New Order's recent albums. Combining some Rolling Stones rhythm with a Lou Reed-style cadence, "Rock Bottom" is slow and deliberate. "Plan A" sounds somewhat like one of Damon Albarn's recent projects. So while there is variety, the influences are so obvious, it's hard to call some of the music original.

    While The Dandy Warhols do try to do something different from the mainstream music that is out there today, the music does show its influences. Where they are little different (or strange, to be precise), the music is original. The Dandys can rock when they want to, but they just don't do enough of it to keep things interesting. So while their hearts are in the right place, as far as creativity and non-conformity are concerned, the album as a whole can't really be called anything better than average.

Grade: C-


Fountains of Wayne
Welcome Interstate Managers
(S-Curve Records)

Original Release Date: June 10, 2003
Review Date: August 29, 2003

"Stacy's mom has got it going on
 She's all I want, and I've waited for so long
 Stacy, can't you see, you're just not the girl for me
 I know it might be wrong but I'm in love with Stacy's mom"
 -- from "Stacy's Mom"

    Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are the songwriting team that that make up Fountains of Wayne. Welcome Interstate Managers is their third album, after being dropped by Atlantic and doing some soundtrack work. Their previous works included mostly power pop, and this album is similar in that respect, though it contains quite a few slower or acoustic numbers.

    What most of the songs have in common is that they are each tell a short story. At times this story leads to something insightful, such as in "Fire Island", where the story of teens being left in charge of themselves throwing a huge party while their parents are away poignantly shows how an opportunity for responsibility goes horribly wrong. The love of a girl is the only thing that gets the narrator through the day in the peppy acoustic "Hey Julie". The New Wave and Cars influences shine through "Stacy's Mom" as they perfectly compliment the American Pie-inspired verse and chorus. A country music tale of a broken heart is related in "Hung Up on You", with clever lyrics to go with the steel guitar.

    But the majority of the tales on the album are really just rhyming couplets about the mundane suburban world. The opener, "Mexican Wine", would be an exceedingly annoying set of rhymes if the song didn't have a great melody and beat. "Bright Future in Sales", a rant about a crappy job, which would be medioche but for the fact that it has a catchy tune. Daydreaming about a former classmate in "Hackensack" is an unexceptional tale of halfhearted longing. "Valley Winter Song" almost stirs an emotion, but again, it's just more rhymes about events that are unnoteworthy to the listener. Does the listener care the service is so bad he can't get a cup of coffee in "Halley's Waitress", especially over its 70's lounge styling?

    Overall, the Fountains of Wayne created a solid album. However, the stories of ordinary events begin to become rather dull by the sixteenth song on the album. There is a bit of an effort to break things up on the album (acoustic, lounge, country), which prevents it from becoming completely boring. More of the songs either need hooks or simply lyrics that affect the listener more, something to draw you in and keep you listening over and over.

Grade: C-


John Mayer
Heavier Things
(Columbia)

Original Release Date: September 9, 2003
Review Date: September 12, 2003

"You can be mad in the morning
 Or the afternoon instead
 But don't leave me
 98 and 6 degrees of separation from you, baby
 Come back to bed
 Don't hold your love over my head"
 -- from "Come Back to Bed"

    Singer and songwriter John Mayer returns with his second major label album, Heavier Things. Signed to indie label Aware in 2000, and picked up by Columbia the following year, Mayer is still a fresh talent. Mayer draws his influences from both the blues, what he learned to play first on the guitar, and 80's pop music, especially The Police.

    While the album is a little short at 10 songs, Mayer writes longer songs, averaging over four and a half minutes each, he goes against pop standards. That being said, many of the songs are structured for easy listening on the pop airwaves. The first single, "Bigger Than My Body" demonstrates this with its "I know I'll be somebody someday" lyrics and upbeat tempo. Bluesey rock gets the toe tapping in the extremely radio friendly "Only Heart". Mayer shows that a slow song with sensitive lyrics can still rock in "Come Back to Bed".

    But Mayer isn't just about making music, he can also write intelligent lyrics. "New Deep" has a great, yet simple, guitar riff which mirrors the message in the lyrics, to not get too bogged down in overanalyzing things. In the acoustic "Daughters", Mayer begs parents to lay the proper foundation for their children's future relationships. Mayer sings of when that clear moment of understanding is achieved in "Clarity", backed by some smooth horns that help punctuate the song.

    John Mayer shows why he was nominated for Best New Artist in 2002, he can write good lyrics and a catchy tune. While his music is good, and has that hint of blues that makes it a little different, it doesn't distinguish itself enough from the Dave Matthews of the world. The well-written lyrics do tip the scales in his favor, but it's hard to be successful on lyrics alone. On a non-musical note, the liner notes are quite clever and provide interesting facts and interpretations of the songs.

Grade: B/B+


Dido
Life For Rent
(Arista)

Original Release Date: September 30, 2003
Review Date: October 10, 2003

"Who makes you feel the way that I make you feel
 Who loves you and knows you the way I do
 Who touches you and holds you quite like I do
 Who makes you feel like I make you feel"
 -- from "Who Makes You Feel"

    It has been 4 years since Dido released her first album, No Angel, which needed a little luck to bring her songs to popular radio. That luck was tied to the song "Here With Me" becoming the theme to the television show "Roswell". The album surged in sales almost two years after it was released and Dido gained popularity for her unique style, a combination of etherial pop and trip-hop, with the occasional acoustic number thrown in. Dido continues on this theme with her new album, Life For Rent.

    One of Dido's best abilities as a singer is the way she conveys emotion with her voice, and this album is full of opportunities for her to do so. In the opener, and first single, "White Flag", her voice both surges with strength and trembles with sorrow over the loss of a relationship, while the trippy backbeat makes it ideal for radio airplay. Dido's vocals envelop the senses like a warm blanket, as she comforts us, promising that things will get better in "See the Sun", as the intensity of the music grows until it reaches a crescendo at the end. In the title track, you can sense her desire to change her apathetic ways, knowing that if she doesn't want anything, that she'll have nothing. Dido becomes a vixen trying to reign in a straying boyfriend in "Who Makes You Feel", with sexy vocals and a beat ripe for dirty dancing.

    There is much variety in the music on the album to keep things interesting. The acoustic verse alternating with the string and backbest chorus of "Don't Leave Home" make it an obvious choice for radio, with its warm and uplifting lyrics. Techno beats assist in creating the mood around the dire request to repair a stalled relationship in "Stoned". The snare and bass-driven "See You When You're 40", is a "Dear John" letter to someone she suddenly discovers is not the person she thought he was. "Sand in My Shoes", with its dance beat, is a prime candidate to be remixed for clubs. A hidden track, a simple acoustic guitar and piano love song, is a true bonus and a great denouement after the concluding song "See the Sun".

    If you were not convinced by Dido's first album, Life For Rent surely proves Dido's abilities as a singer-songwriter. Co-produced with her brother, Rollo Armstrong, whom she says she could not have made the album without, the album does show his influence. But make no mistake, the beautiful vocals are all hers, no need for production tricks here. Dido proves with this album that she has enormous talent and will be bringing us outstanding music for some time to come.

Grade: A


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