Friday, November 21, 2008

CD REVIEW: The Soulsavers' "It's Not How Far You Fall, It's the Way You Land"

Label: V2 Records

Mark Lanegan has participated in several musical projects over the years. He is remembered by most as the lead vocalist of the Screaming Trees, arguably the greatest early 90s grunge band that received no radio attention. In recent years, he has worked the Queens of the Stone Age and recorded an excellent duet record with former Belle and Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell. And, even though it has been completely ignored by mainstream radio, his phenomenal solo career speaks for itself. Solid album after solid album, Lanegan and his whiskey-and-cigarette vocals always seem to deliver.

Naturally, I was excited to hear that Lanegan was gracing us with his musical presence again. This time, he teams with British “electronic soul” band the Soulsavers, lending his quiet-yet-thunderous vocals to 8 of the 11 tracks on the group’s sophomore release, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land. The results are wonderful. It’s the most eclectic project of which Lanegan has ever taken part. It also just might be the darkest. This is no party album. This record is all about death, loneliness, hopelessness, sin, and a little redemption. And the band made the perfect choice in recruiting Lanegan. His songwriting (Lanegan co-wrote five of the songs) and vocals are ideal for the mood the band wanted to create for the record. It’s a sonic marriage made in heaven… or perhaps in hell. And as one listens to It’s Not How Far You Fall, it’s apparent that’s just what the Soulsavers wanted.

It’s impossible to categorize the sound of this Soulsavers’ album. Stylistically, it’s all over the board. Sometimes, it’s old school gospel. Other times, it’s hip-hop. You get a little bit of rock and roll and a lot of soul. And it’s all set to an electronic background. Lanegan fans will find it closest in style to his most recent solo album, Bubblegum. But it’s much darker, and it works. Borrowing a term from Black Sabbath, perhaps the greatest way to describe this album’s sound is like an “electric funeral.” Powered by dark guitar and lots of piano and organ, It’s Not How Far You Fall is desolate from start to finish. Its characters are desperate, heartbroken, and hopeless… and death seems to loom around every corner.

The “fun” begins right away with the album’s most memorable track, “Revival.” On first listen, the song may seem like any other religious hymn… complete with choir-like female backing vocals and an organ playing in the background. Upon closer inspection, however, this is no song of religious celebration. It sounds like someone is dying, and by the time Lanegan begins the final verse solo, the desperation is obvious. The same death and loneliness surrounds the hip-hop oriented “Ghosts of You and Me.” It’s the closest Lanegan has ever come to rapping, and thanks to the Soulsavers’ excellent electronic support, it’s fantastic. Eat your heart out, Linkin Park. Madness overtakes on “Paper Money,” as its Devil-possessed individual stalks a woman he wishes to love. It’s dark lust at its best. And as the record progresses, its characters hopes seem to progress towards the grave. When Lanegan sings, “Jesus, I don’t want to die alone,” in an excellent version of the hymn “Spiritual,” thanks to his creakiest vocals and sparse instrumentation, it sounds like he’s already dead. The madness returns in “Jesus of Nothing,” which by the end, features three Lanegan vocal tracks playing at the same time as he talks of losing his mind now that his “trial is nearly over.” Great touch by the Soulsavers… it duplicates the feeling of insanity well! And finally, an older Lanegan poetic masterpiece about dying love (and perhaps, a dying lover), “Kingdom of Rain,” is revived for this album. It not only fits in perfectly on It’s Not How Far You Fall, but it completely outshines the original version. Throw in a couple of great instrumentals (especially the beautifully written “Arizona Bay”) and two well-chosen covers (a duet with Will Oldham on Neil Young’s “Through My Sails” and an extremely bleak version of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations”) and you have a grim little masterpiece on your hands.

While the record has been available “across the pond” since this spring, it will not be released in the US until October 16th. This is great news, of course, for those who appreciate the Soulsavers’ excellent brand of electronic music. Unfortunately, it will likely fall on deaf ears. After all, mainstream radio even ignored Mark Lanegan’s excellent music with the Screaming Trees when grunge was en vogue! Do yourself a favor: if you are a Lanegan fan… don’t let this release go unnoticed, as the Soulsavers just might have brought out the best in him. It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land may not be the next big thing with the kiddies, and it’s definitely not going to get any parties started, but it just may be the best sparse, dark album since Johnny Cash’s original American Recordings.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

CD REVIEW: Dollar Store's "Money Music"

Label: Bloodshot Records

While traveling to my hometown a few days ago, I wandered into a truck stop, and it was an interesting environment to behold. Inside were a few truckers stopping for a quick cup coffee to keep them awake on their endless highway trip. Even though I’ve always envied their freedom, I pity their loneliness. Seems as though it’d be a one-way ticked to insanity.

Inside this truck stop was also a place to grab a bite to eat. And when you hear people use the term “greasy spoon,” this is exactly what they’re talking about. Served up 24 hours: grease with a side of food. About 15 people or so were there, all work-beaten, blue-collar folks. As I looked at them, I saw pain and hopelessness tattooed into their sunburnt faces. It was almost a perfect Southern Gothic scene… except for the music playing on the radio station. The mainstream country didn’t quite represent what I was seeing. One guy singing about sipping margaritas in Mexico. Another complaining about going to the dentist office. Yet another talking about MySpace profiles. Oh, and “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” One look at these people told me that even the most painful trip to the dentist was like a mosquito bite compared to what they go through on a daily basis, and there was NO way that they spent time browsing MySpace… if they even knew what it was. “This isn’t right,” I thought. “This music is not the working man’s music in any way.”

Fast forward to today, as I break out Dollar Store’s newest album Money Music. I had never heard of the band before, but as soon as I hit “Play” and the loud guitar of the title track fired up, I knew I was in for a treat. By the time I had finished, I had realized something else about this relatively unknown rock outfit: they were making the music that should have been played at that truck stop. And at factories across this country. Simply put, this album is blue-collar America: both musically and lyrically.

The first thing listeners will notice about Money Music is that Dollar Store is one tight band. And why not? All four members have a long history of playing in great live bands. Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Deano Schlabowske and bassist Alan Doughty made their reputations as part of the roadhouse band The Waco Brothers. Drummer Joe Camirillo broke in with the Hushdrops, while lead guitarist Tex Schmidt was a member of the German rockabilly punk band The Roughnecks. Together, they have created an album that dabbles in blues, country, classic rock, and even a little punk. In other words, this is a roots rock record in the truest sense of the word. A great mix of the glory years of The Rolling Stones, the dark, sinister edge of Black Sabbath, and the dark working man tales of Merle Haggard, Money Music is a fascinating listen musically.

Even more intriguing is the portrait that Dollar Store paints with its songs. It’s certainly not a pretty sight. Almost thirty years ago, Bruce Springsteen released a masterpiece of an album called Darkness On The Edge Of Town. That album took place in the “Badlands,” where men “worked their whole lives for nothing but the pain.” Well, Money Music takes place there too, and it’s just as brutally honest as The Boss’ 1978 record. With the exception of “Scrap Truck” and “Hurricane Charley,” which are solid metaphorical pieces, Schlabowske’s lyrics are very direct and to the point… and his Dixie-via-Milwaukee worn, soulful vocals ensure that these lyrics are effective. The Chuck Berry-esque opening title track may be a fun little rock-and-roll romp, but after listening to the whole record, it’s easy to see that the song is merely a work of sarcasm. The rest of the album shows its listeners the dark side of the blue-collar world… a world where, as the band puts it in a bass-heavy drone, “work is its own reward.” Each song is its own tragic tale. In the fast-paced “Wasting Away,” a man writes home to his woman telling her the terrible truth about his new job in a factory town, and another man that says love and life has left him hopeless in the Stones-flavored “Twisting in the Wind.” Hopelessness can also be found in “One Red Cent, One Thin Dime,” in which a man laments that his friend’s big dreams will be in vain. After all, as the band says in the Schmidt-guitar heavy punk number, the whole world has become a “Company Town,” where even beer has become too expensive. Of course, there’s a little infidelity and murder too in the countryish “In the Gravel Yard,” and even a broken down, forgotten Nashville “Star” who is not looked upon kindly by the rest of the townsfolk. Yet, at least one factory worker refuses to sign away his pride, and 10% of his soul, in the bluesy “Reserve the Right.” And, in the album’s closer,” one man actually escapes this dark world and reflects upon his days “down in the catacombs with the skulls and bones” in “Dying Light.” Is it depressing? Sure, but Dollar Store gives listeners a brand new respect for the plight of the blue-collared crowd with each song on the record.

Still, even though the album is a reality that’s hard to swallow, Dollar Store’s upbeat classic rock and roll arrangements refuses to let it become a downer. Like the factory workers themselves, their music looks adversity straight in the eye and pushes forward. Despite the pain of the lifestyle, those who live it somehow make it through, and find a way to make their lives as enjoyable as possible. That is the beauty of this album. It’s survival, and it’s a winner in every way. Money Music may not be a cure for the working man’s blues, but it sure will give them… and folks of all walks of life… a reason to rock.