The Nutwork’s Album Picks – March/April 2014

Posted: April 5, 2014 in Music

311-coverThere is no better way to introduce this month’s album picks than by simply stating the fact that March and April were filled with triumphs, surprises, and tons of great music in the alternative scene. While I’d like to write up about twenty records that have come across my desk, I’ll stick with what I feel were the best three, and let you do your own research on what has been the strongest four weeks of releases in a long, long time.

311 – Stereolithic (March 11th)

Placing a label on Omaha, NE natives 311 is like trying to explain the theory of relativity to a 5-year old – absolutely impossible. Over a span of 11 albums, the band has crossed over between rock and metal, to punk and rap – all the while maintaining an alternative edge with reggae-influences and soaring vocals. While 311 was definitely more “edgier” early in their career, the dedication to create fresh, left-of-center music has not only earned them a HUGE fan base, but well-deserved respect from the music writers of today. Even their last record, the less-than-stellar “Universal Pulse”, got more acclaim than it probably deserved, but I credit that to the fact that the band has put together a rock-solid career that gets a free pass now and then in light of their otherwise outstanding body of work.

This, did, however, prompt me to give the band’s latest release “Stereolithic” a more careful listen than usual. One bad album could be cited as just an accident, but two in a row would be a trend, and if 311 were on the downward spiral, I wanted to be sure to let my adoring public in on it.

Thankfully, such is not the case. The band is still the same, the inspirations are unchanged, and 311’s lineup reads the same as it did back in 1991 – yet somehow the group has found a new energy and passion that pushes “Stereolithic” to even new heights. Maybe they took the few bad reviews of “Universal Pulse” to heart, but whatever the reason, the band’s new album is nothing short of amazing.

Tracks like “Showdown,” “The Great Divide”  and “Boom Shanka” find the band returning to a more funky, rap-filled groove, while “Ebb and Flow” and “First Dimension” are straight-ahead rockers that showcase the vocals harmonies of Nick Hexum and SA Martinez, and crunchy guitar/bass combos from Tim Mahoney and P-Nut Wills.

What pushed the record past a typical 311 release, however, is the great “chill-out” moments showcased in tracks like “Sand Dollars”, “Tranquility” and “Friday Afternoon” – displaying great songwriting and tempo shifts that feel more like a musical vacation than just a song on the radio. In fact, the whole record feels like a great journey through the past present and future of 311 – and it’s a trip well worth taking.

9/10

foxy shazam coverFoxy Shazam – Gonzo (April 2)

When buying records – whether it be at the store or online – “price” does factor in. The luxury of being a music writer has its perks, as rarely do I have to buy an album (although I DO try to pick up records and support the bands I like the best). For most, the best price on anything is “free” – and that’s exactly what you have to pay for the new album from Ohio’s Foxy Shazam. Riding a wave of popularity and success after 2012’s “The Church of Rock and Roll”, the band that is so hard to explain did something that is so hard to understand. They self-released their latest album, and opted to make it free to the public via their website. This could be seen as a quite noble move, perhaps – or maybe they felt it only fair. You see, stylistically “Gonzo” is a huge departure from the album before it, and giving it away might have been the best approach, as fans won’t see this coming – and that usually means bad news. But maybe not in this case.

If you think 311 is a diverse sound, just wait until you get a load of these guys. Lead singer Eric Nally cites everyone from Evel Kneivel to Iggy Pop as influences, and his high-pitched vibrato challenges the likes of Freddie Mercury and Meatloaf. Who do they sound like? Absolutely nobody – and everybody. The title track might remind you of Sly and the Family Stone, or something out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, depending on which part of the song you are paying attention to. “Brutal Truth” almost sounds like a disorganized Joan Jett song, and  “In This Life” could easily be mistaken for a David Bowie classic. But this is no tribute album. The oddity of the structures and scrambled lyrics make for one strange-yet-beautiful soundscape – and defines Foxy Shazam the best way possible. By defining nothing at all.

While not as shiny and clean as its predecessor, “Gonzo” succeeds in being honest and true (the band recorded the album together in one-room recording sessions earlier in the year). It may not have the production value they spoiled us with last time around, but the energy and grit more than make up for it.

If you’re looking for something a little unusual, a bit chaotic, and teeming with brilliance, go download this album immediately. It’s not like it’s going to cost you anything. Worth noting is the band is going to be touring pretty much everywhere the rest of the year, so keep your eyes open for a Denver gig, an Aspen appearance, or dare I say a possible Grand Junction sighting in the not-so-distant future.

8.5/10

 

pixies_coverThe Pixies – Indie Cindy (April 19)

Alternative music has seen its share of legends over the years, but maybe none more mysterious and revered than The Pixies.  While grunge music was changing the way we listen to music in the late 80s/early 90s, The Pixies quietly went about business, releasing five albums in five short years. College radio loved them, discerning critics raved about them, and even more popular acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam credited them as influences. Kurt Cobain even went as far as to openly state that his band’s biggest hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a blatant Pixies rip-off.

Despite their growing popularity, The Pixies were faced almost immediately with one of the biggest problems in rock and roll – they couldn’t stand each other. Founder and lead singer Frank Black had one of the most interesting voices and songwriting skills of the time, but also was a complete asshole. He and bassist Kim Deal often fought over the groups musical direction, and arguments often led to Deal refusing to perform shows, skipping rehearsals, and other typical rock-and-roll behaviors. Their love for one another came to a head during a show in Germany, where Black threw his guitar at Deal mid-performance and walked off stage, bringing an end to a band that had seemingly just gotten started.

Black went on to record several solo albums, Deal joined her sister and formed The Breeders, and fans were left hung out to dry. But the music of those five albums lived on. It almost seemed as though radio and pop culture appreciated The Pixies far more after they disbanded, and after a long stint on the sidelines, Black decided to take a trip down memory lane and reform the band for a reunion tour of colleges and festivals. What was originally slated for 15 semi-exclusive shows turned in to several years of touring, as the media and fans alike welcomed the band back with sold out venues and high praises of their performances. Due to the success of these tours, Black and Deal agreed that the band should start writing new material, and while Deal left the band again in June of last year, the band has released three EPs over the last nine months, all containing new music.

If you missed these releases, don’t feel bad. The band has decided to combine them into a full-length titled “Indie Cindy”, hitting record stores later this month. The question is out there, though. How would the band’s creative forces sound after 23 years of not writing music together? Would their sound go to new places or would it rehash over new ground?

The answer? Both. “Indie Cindy” is undeniably a Pixies record throughout, with Black’s unique vocal stylings continuing to pair well with the often out-of-tune guitars and screeching feedback of bass. There is, though, a refined, refreshing feel to it all. While “What Goes Boom” opens the album in an expected frenzied nature, tracks like “Greens and Blues”, “Silver Snail” and “Andro Queen” show a much softer side to The Pixies than even I expected – and I’m one of their biggest fans.

Also, there were plenty of new tricks up Black’s sleeve. “Bagboy” is a nice fusion of guitar heavy rock with an almost hip-hop beat, “Blue Eyed Hexe”  has a distinctive underlying southern rock vibe to it, and “Jamie Bravo” might be the poppiest punk song the band has ever written – all a pretty far departure from their usual “spaghetti-western-soundtrack-on-acid” approach. While I enjoyed the fresh approach the band has taken on this record, there have been plenty of my peers that have not. Some reviews blast the band for “merely cashing in on their past success” or “making a mockery of their legacy one guitar line at a time” – but I have to disagree. Having been a long-time fan of the band, there was a high level of expectation to this release, but the flip side of that coin is that the music world has changed quite a bit over the last 20 years and getting another album like “Doolitle” simply was not going to happen. Instead, we get more Pixies music, new Pixies music, and I – for one – couldn’t be more happy about all of it.

9/10

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