On the Record: Patrick Stump – Soul Punk

On the earlier Fall Out Boy records, singer Patrick Stump’s undeniably powerful voice seemed confined by standard pop-punk/emo vocals. With the last two releases from the band, 2007’s Infinity on High and 2008’s (excellent) Folie à Deux, Stump began moving away from those trappings, experimenting with different styles, adding R & B and soul textures to tracks like “What a Catch, Donnie” and “I’m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off.” When the band went on hiatus, Stump forged ahead, and 2011 saw the release of his full-length solo debut, Soul Punk.

Those R & B and soul textures are brought to the forefront on Soul Punk. There’s absolutely nothing here that resembles Stump’s work with Fall Out Boy, and the album is all the better for it. Though it sounds thoroughly modern in its production, with Soul Punk Stump digs deep into exuberant Michael Jackson and Prince territory on floor-filling tracks like “Greed,” “Spotlight (New Regrets),” and the phenomenal “Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers).”

Stump refines his songwriting skills here, too, embedding each song with catchy melodies and bright, anthemic choruses, such as on lead single and Chicago love letter “This City” or the Hall & Oates circa H2O “The ‘I’ in Lie.” Stump is a charming singer, and the positive messages on “This City,” “Spotlight,”  and the album-closing “Coast (It’s Gonna Get Better)” come across as wholly genuine and never crass or baiting (as, say, Lady Gaga sometimes does). He’s able to change mood o the stop of a dime, though, being alternately sexy (“Allie”) and sardonic (“Run Dry”) without breaking the flow of the album. Stump has managed to produce an engaging mainstream pop record that doesn’t feel calculated or mechanical, which is a feat in itself, considering Stump wrote, produced, performed the album himself.  This is how a pop record should sound in 2011.


On the Record: Nirvana – Nevermind

Quite surprisingly, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s groundbreaking Nevermind doesn’t make me feel as old as the fact that it’s also the 10th anniversary for The Strokes’ Is This It? and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived with Nevermind so fully since it seemingly single-handedly changed the face popular music in 1991. It arrived a full-fledged, timeless classic. When it debuted Nevermind sounded like nothing on mainstream radio or on MTV. Through the album’s B-sides, and the band’s other recordings, Kurt Cobain’s influences become clear, but Nevermind never sounds like anything else. Coming off of 1989’s Bleach, Nevermind finds the band in full form, and at their creative peak – no matter how good Bleach and In Utero are.

In the years following the album’s release, Cobain rallied against the sound of Nevermind, likening it to a Mötley Crüe record, but it sounds absolutely perfect in it’s final product. For contrast, the newly minted “Super Deluxe Edition” of the album comes with a disc labelled the “Devonshire Mixes,” early mixes done up by producer Butch Vig. These mixes don’t sound drastically different, though it’s a little rougher around the edges. Funnily enough, Vig’s mixes sound more dated than the glossed up Andy Wallace ones. Yet, what comes through no matter how you listen to the album, is that Nevermind is a pure and perfect pop record at its heart. Big singles like “In Bloom” and “Lithium” have huge, infectious choruses, but so do the album’s deeper cuts like “On a Plain” and “Lounge Act.” Cobain’s personal, off-beat lyrics are alternately harrowing, frightening, and surprisingly, fun.

I’m pretty sure at least two songs from Nevermind have been played on rock radio every single day in the two decades since the album’s release, which might make listeners not take note of this re-release as they should. Sure, it’s reassuring to hear “Come as You Are” on the radio on the drive home from work, but it’s not the same as revisiting the album in its whole; it’s a captivating, haunting, and energizing listen. Nevermind turned heads and made the world take notice in 1991, and it still has that power today – it’s a self-assured, magnificent album from start to finish. The rest of Nirvana’s catalogue is all essential, but there are few albums as singular, staggeringly brilliant, and timeless as Nevermind.

On the Record: Butch Walker & The Black Widows – The Spade

In some alternate universe, Butch Walker is a critical darling and a household name. In our universe, however, he’s merely the former. Cutting his teeth with the hair metal outfit Southgang in the late 80s, moving to power-pop trio Marvelous 3 in the 90s, and graduating to solo artist in the 00s, Butch Walker has remained one of the best, most consistent American songwriters of his generation, and his sixth album, The Spade, continues down that same path turning out a contender for the best straight-up rock ‘n’ roll album of 2011.

Walker’s style may not have changed very much since his Marvelous 3 days, though the modern-sounding studio polish of Left of Self-Centered has been toned down, opting for a more “classic” sound that began with 2006’s (phenomenal) The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites. Where that album saw Walker and company high on T. Rex and glammed to the nines, The Spade is littered with a heavy 70s Stones vibe; tracks like “The Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find” and the album-closing “Suckerpunched” would sound at home on any post-Exile Stones record, while the sexy swagger of “Sweethearts” channels “Beast of Burden.”

Walker has never achieved the success of his peers and the artists he’s produced (he’s never cracked the Billboard 100), but that has never stopped him from making the best and catchiest rock music possible. First single “Summer of ’89” gleefully employs a “Whoa oh ho oh oh whoa!!” Def Leppard-like refrain while looking back at his youth. Elsewhere, Walker explores new musical territory with the folky “Dublin Crow” and manages to amalgamate John Lennon and Ben Folds on the upbeat and catchy “Synthesizer.”



Lyrically Walker explores the same territory of albums past – mixing poignant observations about lost souls and unrequited love with smirking wit – ett he does it in such a way that it never feels forced or stale, thanks to his enthusiastic vocal performances and the sheer tightness of backing band The Black Widows. It’ll be hard pressed to find a better rock ‘n’ roll record in 2011.

On the Record: The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul

When The Replacement jumped to Sire with the release of Tim in 1985, they had the hopes and critical praise to make them superstars, though it never materialized. 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me was met with the same hope, yet success never found the band. So for their third major label outing, the band pulled out all the stops. On first listen, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul is far cry from the band that released classic albums like Tim or Let it Be. Gone is the sharp and often times silly sense of humour. Gone are the sloppy punk outbursts like “Tommy Get’s His Tonsils Out.” Don’t Tell a Soul is sharply crafted, polished, and the sound of a band desperately trying to sell out.

Seeing other college rock acts like R.E.M. find success in the mainstream, coupled with the band members’ sobriety led to Don’t Tell a Soul‘s creation. This is college rock at its most calculated and commercial, but coming from one of the genre’s pioneers, it still feels a little more authentic. Taking the place of the ragged punk of earlier albums, there’s a new-found sense of maturity in Paul Westerberg’s songwriting (and for better or worse points toward his solo material). Tracks like “Talent Show,” “Asking Me Lies,” and “We’ll Inherit the Earth” show an awareness – be it of self, political, or environmental – previously not seen.

But make no mistake, the album sounds forced, though it it works the majority of the time. Driven by the want – no, sheer need – for success finds the band pushing harder to develop fully realized songs than ever before. In lieu of tossed-off covers like Kiss’ “Black Diamond” from Let it Be, there’s the delicate, almost waltz-like ballad “They’re Blind,” one of the album’s strongest tracks. You can hear the desperation and sadness in Westerberg’s voice on “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” “I’ll Be You,” and “Darlin’ One,” as if the album is the band’s last chance at some semblance of success. Indeed, Don’t Tell a Soul was the last full-band effort; 1990’s All Shook Down was recorded primarily by Westerberg and studio musicians, and is The Replacements in name only.

Although, the album is not entirely successful. Songs like “Back to Back” and “I Won’t” are pretty weak and fairly unmemorable. Yet, the album marks an important chapter in the band’s history that would eventually lead to the band’s demise. It may still divide critics and fans 20 years on, but it does have a handful of great tracks (I’ll also mention the single “Achin’ to Be”) and is worthy of being acknowledged in the band’s stellar discography.

On the Record: The Afghan Whigs – Black Love

Record label Elektra was never good at handling any of it’s “alternative” acts (and they had some good ones). They botched the promotion of terrific albums like Marvelous 3’s ReadySexGo, as well as Third Eye Blind’s Blue and Out of the Vein. Those albums – polished, catchy, and radio-ready should’ve been successful. So, I can only imagine what sort of head-scratching went on when The Afghan Whigs delivered Black Love – their second album for the label – in 1996. While the Whigs’ previous album, 1993’s excellent Gentlemen, subtly flirted with soul/R&B textures, Black Love outright co-opts them into the band’s sound. At the height of Brit-pop and the rise of post-grunge, Elektra’s execs must have been baffled by this dark, challenging album.

While not a concept album per se, the songs on Black Love do have similar thematic preoccupation – with betrayal, deception – that serve as the album’s through-line. Given the Black Love‘ssubject manner and it’s generic influences, the album plays like the soundtrack to some fictional blaxploitation/ film noir (a film I would love to see, by the way). The notion that Black Love works as a soundtrack of sorts isn’t too far off, even the liner notes say the album was “shot on location” (also, according to Wikipedia, frontman/songwriter/producer Greg Dulli attempted to produce a noir film).

Black Love opens with the high melodrama of the widescreen “Crime Scene, Part One,” which establishes the themes of the album, as its line “A lie, the truth, which one should I use?” is echoed later in the funk/rock workout “Blame, Etc.” Throughout the album, the Whigs move between the cool confidence of swaggering rockers (the singles “Going to Town,” “Honkey’s Ladder”) and smokey ballads (“Step Into the Light,” “Night by Candlelight”), until concluding with the epic “Faded” (which also caps off their ‘best of’ release Unbreakable).

Dulli has always worn his influences on his sleeve, whether it through his own songwriting or the covers that punctuated the band’s live set, which is partially why this album has aged remarkably well, despite the fact that critics and fans were divided upon its release in 1996. Black Love is dark, at times difficult, and the band’s most ambitious record. The could have easily followed up the success of Gentlemen with more of the same, but this album shows The Afghan Whigs had no interest playing it safe.

On the Record: Green Day – Warning

Who would’ve thought – of all bands that broke out in the 1990s – that Green Day would become mainstream superstars of the 21st Century? The massive success they’ve achieved in the last decade from only two albums (2004’s American Idiot, 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown) seems mind-boggling. Yet, Green Day filled a specific need for anti-establishment, vaguely-dangerous rock music during the Bush administration. However, between their breakout success with Dookie (1994) and their superstardom in the 2000s, Green Day were at the brink of becoming has-beens.

Before their 2000 album Warning, Green Day’s success had dwindled significantly. Their previous two albums, Insomniac (1995) and Nimrod (1997), sold only a fraction of Dookie’s numbers, and without the crossover hit “Good Riddance,” Nimrod likely would’ve tanked altogether. Green Day seemed almost archaic in 2000 with a new crop of snotty pop-punks sneering their annoying faces into the record industry, and Warning didn’t help that.

At the time, Warning was considered Green Day’s “mature” record: the tempos are slower, it’s littered with acoustic guitars, the lyrics are a little more thoughtful, and there are no songs about masturbation. Now, more than a decade on, Warning is still their most mature record, and I think, their best, thanks to the band’s well-crafted, unpretentious – even workman-like – set of songs. Even the middle-finger to authority that is the title track sounds down right blue-collar.

Much of the direction the band takes in the ensuing decade can be found on Warning. The vague anti-establishment sentiment of the title track is reproduced ad infinitum on American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. The winding story song “Misery” – at the time Green Day’s longest track at a whopping five minutes – lays the groundwork for the multi-part epics that dominate the band’s next two records as well.

However, unlike the Idiot and Breakdown, Warning isn’t trying to turn any heads or get attention by being high-concept, nor does it try to be as blatant in trying to repeat the success of “Good Riddance.” No, Warning has no pretentions, and is only interested in producing twelve catchy power-pop anthems that are more informed by The Kinks than the Buzzcocks, which is probably why the album holds up so well a decade later. It sounded near-timeless upon its release, and sounds even better now as future hits like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” sound dated a mere half-decade later. Standouts include the charming “Church on Sunday” and low-charting single “Waiting,” which is one of the best tracks the band has recorded (which cleverly cribs from Petula Clark’s “Downtown”)

When American Idiot appeared four years later, Green Day emerged as more serious and ready to tackle the Bush administration with three chords and a snotty attitude. And while their success is well-deserved, they have yet to release an album as consistent, accomplished, and unassuming as Warning.

On the Record: R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

Since drummer Bill Berry’s departure from R.E.M. after 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band has been searching to find a new sound. After 15 years and four albums, turns out that new sound is their old sound. 2008’s Accelerate proved R.E.M. still knew how to be immediate and urgent, and critics hailed it a comeback. That album’s aggressive attack and succinct songs was really just prelude to what I’m calling their true comeback, 2011’s Collapse Into Now. I hate using the buzz-phrase “return to form,” so I won’t, but Collapse has the band sounding the way they did during their 90s heyday.

Opening with the chiming, Monster-sized guitars and glimmering keyboards, “Discoverer” announces R.E.M.’s comeback in a big way. Exuding the kind of balls-out confidence Stipe had on track like New Adventures‘ “The Wake-Up Bomb,” the song urges listeners dig deep – discover – the rest of the record. It’s as good an opening salvo the band has ever produced. Through the remaining 11 tracks, the band hits (mostly) highs, synthesizing Out of Time, Automatic for the People, Monster, and New Adventures. Perhaps to the detriment of the album, many of the tracks look to specific songs from these albums as starting points: The otherwise gorgeous “Oh My Heart” recalls Out of Time‘s “Half a World Away,” “All the Best” and “Mine Smell Like Honey” echo “Departure,” “Überlin” sounds like a sequel to “Drive” and the album-closing “Blue” feels like an extension of “Country Feedback” (my favourite R.E.M. track) and “E-bow the Letter.”

Yet, this are just minor quibbles from a long-time R.E.M. fan who never thought they had another classic in them. To be sure, Collapse Into Now is not a classic, but it is probably the closest the band will ever come again. And really, how close can any band come to matching something so strikingly brilliant as Automatic for the People? I’ll take what I can get.