Archive for Sirens Call

Live – The Turn (Album review)

Posted in Album Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2014 by Traces of Waste

Preamble 

2u6jp8pIt has technically been 8 years since Live released an album (2006’s Songs from Black Mountain), but to many it has actually been 14 years. The last time Live wrote an album as a cohesive collaborative effort among all band members was 1999’s The Distance to Here. Since then they have released 3 albums each one with increasingly less input by Chad Taylor (guitars), Chad Gracey (drums) and Patrick Dahlheimer (bass). Former singer Ed Kowalczyk took over all song writing duties and changed the entire course of the band’s sound. It created a huge divide in the fan base – those who fell in love with the sound of the band writing as a unit in the 1990s, and those who preferred Kowalczyk’s solo writing of the 2000s. Among many creative differences and legal issues it lead to not only a steep decline in the quality of the music being produced, but a strain on the relationship between Kowalczyk and his band mates which resulted in Kowalczyk essentially being fired from the band.

Taylor, Gracey and Dahlheimer were starved of creative opportunities and felt such a strong desire to continue the band they started 30 years ago that they contacted former Unified Theory singer Chris Shinn to join them and front the band. That was back in 2011. Since then they debuted live on stage with Shinn in 2012 before buying an abandoned warehouse in their home town of York PA. They turned this into their own state of the art recording studio where they were free to record whenever and however they wanted. The Turn was a long time coming, painstakingly the band did it bit by bit which drove fans mad with anticipation, but the band would not be rushed. They allowed themselves time to gel with Shinn, to fit in family and business commitments, and most of all, time to develop new material. Familiar faces were brought in to help out, former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison returned as producer; a sign Live truly was returning to their roots. Harrison produced Live’s previous albums; Mental Jewelry; Throwing Copper; The Distance to Here; as well The Gracious Few’s debut album (a super group comprised of Taylor, Gracey and Dahlheimer as well as Kevin Martin and Sean Hennesy from Candlebox).

So with the stage set back in their home town, with the old production team, the old values the band originally adhered too, it was clear Live were serious about erasing the past 14 years which took them further and further away from where they wanted to go. The biggest unknown was how a huge new element – a new singer, would mesh with the old.

My expectations for this album were pretty damn high. I highlighted in my previous post what Live means to me and a little bit of my history with the band without going into too many specifics. So it is safe to say that this release meant a lot to me. I tried my best to keep my expectations and emotions in check though when it came to this album – to not expect miracles and to be as fair and level headed as I could without either going too far one way or the other (ie. “This is what I have been waiting for, Live can do no wrong!” and “My expectations were so ridiculously high this could never live up to them”). As I’ve done with previous reviews I’ll try and break this down track by track. At present I have only had the album for little over 24 hours, so these are only initial observations, but we’ll see how we go!

Review

Siren’s Call: I don’t think they could have picked a better song to come back with to open the album. This one debuted mid-year on tour and even through poor youtube recordings the anticipation for this was high. The album opens with this slow to mid-paced rocker. It is heavy, gritty, and loud. It is everything which the previous 3 Live albums were not. It reminds me a lot of the transition between Throwing Copper and Secret Samadhi. The biggest single from Throwing Copper was Lightning Crashes, it was so huge it catapulted the band into a place where they briefly occupied the status of “biggest band in the world”. So when they released their follow up album in 1997, many people were expecting them to capitalise on that sound of Lightning Crashes. Instead, what they got was the loud, crunching riffs of Lakini’s Juice which blew everything people expected from Live away. To me, that is what Siren’s Call does at the beginning of this album. It is a message that says “remember The River? Mystery? Heaven? Forget that, check this out!” The song was tracked live, very basic and the production is a bit rougher here than it is with most of the rest of the album (which I sort of wish the rest of the album followed). The live tracking gives the song a real sense of energy, there isn’t any studio trickery here with overdubs and an unnaturally sounding song pieced together bit by bit. There is just such power to this song, you want to turn the volume up to 11 and have it blast through you. Shinn immediately shows off his credentials with a powerful gritty chorus. My main complaint about this song is the effect given to Shinn’s vocals when he sings “Crack of the whip, taking the hit, I’m caught in your grip”, especially the line of “crack of the whip”. In the live version he really delivers this line with such power, his delivery of the word “crack” actually sounds like the cracking of a whip. On the album that is somewhat diminished by taking him lower in the mix through distortion. However, it is far from enough to ruin the song. Far from it, it sounds great, I just prefer the live delivery better. The song itself calls on the imagery of Greek Mythology and the Sirens in particular who would lure sailors to their death who could not resist following their song. Beautiful creatures to first glance at who turned to horrifying beasts upon closer inspection. Yep, there is definitely a metaphor being used there! I love Greek mythology, so the use of it here really works for me and gives the song a really dark and ominous vibe. Basically, this song alone is absolutely everything Live was not for the last 14 years. Fantastic opening song!

Don’t Run To Wait: The second part of an amazing opening one-two punch. Siren’s Call sets us up for the ride, it revs the engine and then Don’t Run To Wait slams us into full throttle. This track harnesses the drive and the frantic urgency and power contained on older tracks like Stage, Heropsychodreamer and Iris. It is the band in full flight, they’re really letting us know that they’re back and this is exactly what so many fans were craving for years. The guitars here are biting and frantic, they’re chunky and crunching working in tight unison with the bass. Gracey’s drums are driving the song just like he did with Iris. Shinn is almost totally indecipherable in the verses as he growls his way through the song like a revving motorbike. Yet to me, this is the first taste we get of Shinn understanding Live. Live weren’t always all fire, even in their heaviest moments they would often still show that pinch of sugar. The vocals over Lakini’s Juice for the most part are not as harsh and biting as the music. Waitress has a chipper whistling interlude. In the chorus here, Shinn’s gruffness gives way to just a hint of beautifully delivered softer melody as he sings “Don’t run to wait, don’t shy away” before upping the aggression once again with “Now that you need it, it’s all right in your face”. If I had one complaint it would be that the production could stand to be a bit rougher around the edges, but again, it isn’t enough to put a dampener on the song and after a couple of listens you sort of ‘accept’ that it is how it is and can’t really imagine it any other way. This one is pure adrenaline and testosterone. The song’s message is simple and inspirational – if you want something, go and get it. There is no point running somewhere just to pull back at the last second. One of the contenders for best song on the album for me. So far, Shinn is absolutely killing it.

Natural Born Killers: We take a step back here and slow the pace down. This is one of the tracks I struggle most with. It isn’t bad by any means, but I think it is just missing … something. The lyrics here are dark, but I don’t know if I particularly like them all that much. I think the concept is great, but not sure about the execution. We have a pop song, perhaps the ‘brightest’ sounding musical melody on the album, with perhaps the darkest lyrics. A concept I usually love (hell, my favourite band is The Smiths, after all). The song details an abusive relationship where the protagonist is watching on as a girl he loves is nothing more than a punching bag to her boyfriend, but the protagonist isn’t interested in having her escape or calling the police, he’s going to plan with the girl to kill the boyfriend. There are some interesting lyrics such as “I clocked his every movement, his collections all through town, honey leave the back door open, at 3 we’ll take him down”. But I sort of wish we could hear more of that, I wanted to hear more about how the killers operated in this story, instead I feel the rest of the lyrics are a bit bland, especially the chorus. It feels a little messy, he sings “See me tonight, you can stop your running, open your eyes, you should have seen it coming, see me tonight, we can put him down”. He’s obviously talking to the girl in the chorus, telling her to meet him tonight and she can let him take care of things. But if they’re natural born killers, he’s implying she hasn’t seen it coming, killers imply they do it together and if she doesn’t see it coming, that isn’t very natural. He surely isn’t referring to the abusive relationship as what she should have seen coming as that would almost come across as victim blaming. Likewise there are other lyrics like “I never hesitate to tell you just how it is, even if I think it might upset you” … it just feels a little convoluted and like wasted lines when they only have a finite amount of time to tell this great story and it could have been used to say something else. Of course, this is just my perception and taste. Music-wise, the verses are good … they’re softer and laid back and allow space for the story to be told. The chorus is powerful, but has too much of sense of inspirational-power-rock. It’s a fist in the air, lets burn our bras, nothing can hold us back, kind of sound, As I say, normally I like the mix of dark lyrics on a bright canvas, but this one just doesn’t work so much for me. What is interesting is that this is the first song on the album where a bit of a theme emerges for me where the music from the chorus sounds utterly different from the verses. I’m not sure if it is a conscious decision, but as we go on, I noticed that if you heard clips from song’s choruses and verses you’d swear they were from different songs. Sometimes it is pulled of amazingly, other times not so much. Its a trick in music I really like when done well and keeps the songs twisting and turning, but here, yeah, not so much.

6310 Rodgerton Dr.: We move straight on from one of the weakest to one of the strongest songs on the album. Another contender for best song on the album. This song is another beast with a huge crunching loud mid-paced riff intro. The volume of the verses turned right down with Shinn on acoustic guitar singing perhaps the most personal song on the album. Details sketchy, but the song outlines a personal story for Shinn from a time in his past when he was living in an old house once occupied by Humphrey Bogart which burnt down while Shinn lived there. Such an event is a huge personal life altering moment for Shinn who could have easily kept this song for part of his solo work but I think it shows a massive commitment to Live that he is willing to bring something really personal to him to the band and pour it into this song which Jerry Harrison helped him write. This is my favourite story on the album, and when you can tell a singer is singing something so personal to them it really stands out. The chorus is simple but catchy as hell with just a tiny country-tinge to it as Shinn sings “they don’t know it’s taking fire”. The way the second delivery of the chorus transitions back into opening riff is one of the best “fuck yeah!” moments on the album. But the real highlight is Shinn’s delivery of the middle verse where he screams his delivery in the most desperate way – “As the monster came alive, I count four not five, the news teams and the camera crews, I can’t hear myself scream as I’m calling for you, and the master tapes of the songs you’ll never hear, and the neighbours they just stand and stare, and the blisters on my hands and bleeding feet as I drag you out through the broken door”. It isn’t poetic, it isn’t pretty, its desperate and it captures the feeling of a man standing watching his house burn as he frantically realises someone is still inside … it’s emotive as hell. If anyone doubts Shinn’s commitment to Live, all they need to do is hear that one verse as he pours his heart and soul into it. I love the way it bounces around between everything he’s seeing, the news crew and then “oh shit, the master tapes!” and then that thought goes and you just get this insight into a distressed mind. Brilliantly delivered. I guess unlike other tracks where I had even just a minor criticism, I can’t find one here, so I guess that makes this my favourite so far!

By Design: Or maybe I spoke too soon, this could be my favourite on the album. By Design begins with pounding drums and one of the most unique guitar riffs Taylor has produced. It’s an odd sounding riff, it is up and down and quirky, yet dark and ominous. The verses really have a feel like something from Shinn’s Everything is Energy album. The verses really show something that has also been missing from Live since 1999 – the rhythm section, specifically Dahlheimer’s bass. For 3 albums, for God know’s whatever reason, the bass has been buried in the mix … why would you play a game and bench one of your star players?? Like the guitars, the bass is up and down and the drum beats are working perfectly in unison with the bass, but everything just feels a little left of center and wonderfully so. But the real treat in this song is the way that weird really not very radio friendly verse segues into probably the most melodic, pop-driven and catchy chorus on the whole album. This is another example of the chorus and verse sounding like they are from utterly different songs, except in this case it is one of the best uses of this technique I have ever heard. The chorus just makes you want to sing along and you find yourself doing so even on the first listen as Shinn sings “We leave behind, we leave behind all the you and I’s, we burn the fields for Rome to grow, it’s by design, we leave behind all the desperate you and I’s, we burn the bridges back to you, it’s by design.” And then we are straight back into a quirky beat again, or even a quirky guitar solo. Hell, even one of the verses has an almost dub-like feel with the reverb on the guitar. This track just has so much going on musically, it is one of the best pieces of music the and has ever created. The lyrics aren’t entirely clear cut in their meaning – something else which was a hallmark of Live in the 1990s and totally disappeared on the last 3 albums. Shinn’s vocal delivery matches the instrumentation on this song – it’s all over the place, in a good way. There will be the odd falsetto peak of a couple of words or a sinister, almost whisper of others … it’s genuinely a really interesting vocal delivery. The outro is one of my favourites they have ever done too, the fuzzy blended guitar solo and the band is just jamming and what started out as a quirky, dark, brooding song finishes as an upbeat almost feel-good track. Take a bow, guys!

The Way Around is Through: The first single from the album is wisely chosen as it is perhaps the most radio friendly song on the album, that doesn’t mean the best as radio-friendly generally isn’t what I like best, but a smart move. The intro is more than just a touch nostalgic as it uses the same (or at least extremely similar) sample as the intro to The Dam at Otter Creek; which is a really nice little nod to the old fans in a “we’re back!” message.The song itself is a little bland I find. It has grown on me a bit though given that it was the first song released ahead of the album. The extended intro is undoubtedly the best part, it just builds and builds and then rather than explode it transitions into a more cruisey tune you can bop your head to. The chorus again sounds nothing like the verses in a continuing theme for the album. This time, not done so well, in fact I think the choruses are the only thing letting this song down for me as the verses are really good with some great intensity displayed by Shinn on top of a grooving beat by the band. The chorus again is a little bit too “epic” or “fist in the air” for me. Strangely, there are live versions of the song on youtube where Shinn sings the chorus in just a slightly lower tone and that actually really improves it. Not that Shinn is a glaring problem with the chorus, its just that something doesn’t quite work for me, and suddenly in a slightly lower tone the whole thing sounds a lot better. But alas, that is not how it ended up on the album. Still, the song is probably the most accessible on the album and it is a good little pop-rock tune. I almost feel like if Live were to make that kind of music which Kowalczyk wanted them to make in the mid 2000s that this might have been the sort of music they would have wanted to at least put forward behind his vocals and lyrics. It is like a louder, rougher version of what some of those songs could have been, but instead we got a much much more watered down radio friendly version of the band back then. So it is a good reminder that anyone who thinks a song like this might be a bit too pop-rock for Live, you only need look back at their last few albums to see that even this, probably my second least favourite song on the album, is still better than 99% of what Live produced between 2000 and 2006.

Need Tonight: Interesting song this one, there is lead-in intro to this one like there has been with most of the album, it’s straight into it. The track itself is a slower paced song but not exactly a ballad, it has quite a bit of power to it. Shinn’s vocals are beautiful on this, his delivery of the very simple chorus of “if you believe in it” is really nice the way he is able to make very simple words repeated 3 times actually sound quite different and he manages to fend off boredom. What I mean is, that it could be very easy for the chorus here to be repetitive and boring but, it just somehow, isn’t. The song itself builds quite nicely, it starts off with Dahlheimer and Gracey working nicely in unison once again over a delicate guitar piece but it certainly does build. The pace doesn’t really increase, but the power certainly does. It doesn’t immediately grab me as a stand out track on the album, but at the same time it doesn’t strike me as a song that doesn’t quite work. It is a grower and I could easily see over time it shooting up the list of ranked songs on the album.

The Strength to Hold On: This one starts out very much like either a Shinn solo or Unified Theory song. Shinn’s influence is really being felt here. His vocals at the start are delicate, fragile almost. They sit lightly atop a lightly strumming guitar with just pinches of slide guitar effects swaying in and out of the mix, giving it just that slight country twang which also appears briefly on Shinn’s solo album, which isn’t surprising when you live in Nashville like he does, easy to be inspired by all the great music there. But it is by no means a country sounding song, these are just little cameos in the verse. The drums come in and suddenly kick the song up a couple of gears and we are in the midst of a semi-heavy song. The drums really drive this song, they dictate the pace like a traffic controller letting everyone know when to pick the tempo and volume up and when to lower it. There is a really odd effect though right at the 2:27 mark of this song which I am not really happy with. The song itself is really beautiful to listen to, however there is this moment where it is almost like someone jumps in the room and the needle on the record skips. It has to be intentional because something that big would just not slip by a veteran band and producer like Harrison. It is almost like just a semi-pause before the drums kick us back off. But there is just something off about its timing of when it cuts out. Either its not quite long enough of a pause, or more to the point, perhaps just a little too early and it feels like it is cut off. Whatever it is, I am sure there is a reason behind it, and while I am usually a fan of unusual things put into songs to give them a bit of spice or unique quality, I don’t think the execution worked quite as well as the idea here. And because of that, I feel I am temporarily jolted out of enjoying a really good song and it takes a couple of seconds to adjust and get back into it. It probably doesn’t bother a lot of people, some may quite like it, but doesn’t quite work for me. But, over time I may just get used to it, I hope I do because it’s really the only issue I can come up with for this track. It isn’t an absolute stand out, but it is just really solid track.

We Open the Door: Chad Taylor stated that after they wrote this song it was the first time he realised that they really have a Live record happening. I find it hard to disagree with him. This song is quintessentially Live. If the last track had the Shinn influence, this is definitely all classic Live. It is by far the grooviest bass line on the album which drives this song. Dahlheimer is such a great bass player and this one just makes you want to groove along to it. It is the driving instrument through the verses. The hint of flavour with the guitar in the intro is perfect. I’m not sure exactly what the influence is; indian, middle eastern… something. But it definitely taps into that slightly mystical/spiritual vibe that the band has been known for. It is what I love about Taylor’s guitar playing. He may not be the most prolific solo guy, but the way he just knows how to add these little touches here and there are just the right spots (another that comes to mind on this album is the outro to By Design). Lyrically the song has what must be considered hints to some of the band’s earliest work in there. You have references to “10,000 years of mistakes” and even a part about “seeing the black and the white” could evoke memories of Beauty of Grey. The opening line is probably one of my favourites of any Live song, it sounds like a metaphor for birth, but could also be about the return of the band as Shinn sings “We open the door, and as real as it seems, are we really, really here?” The downside to this track is perhaps the overuse of the word “now” in the chorus. I think I counted something like 26 of them throughout the whole song … just, too many. Although on continued listens you sort of get used to them and just find yourself singing along, I could see how it may be a bit off putting for people on their first couple of listens, however I would implore anyone to push through that as once you are used to it, like an acquired taste, you’ll hopefully really like it as I do. The song builds like a classic Live song as the intensity lifts and Shinn’s singing almost becomes totally indecipherable in the end. The outro is one of my favourites on the album. Again, Taylor’s guitar creates a gorgeous melody which Shinn hums along to and it just feels like a Live song. Somewhere in a weird mix between Throwing Copper and The Distance to Here with a touch of Mental Jewelry thrown in. It feels like it is definitely another “we’re back!” song, and in a really good way.

He Could Teach the Devil Tricks: The bass on the intro and verses to this just plodding along is really nice, it just has a steady rhythm, it is lulling you into a sense of false security that this will be a groovier song like the previous and that if it builds it will build in a slightly standard pop-rock kind of way. But really, this is probably the most aggressive and heavy song on the album. It isn’t in the same league as White, Discussion, but, it definitely has that end of album punch which White, Discussion had for Throwing Copper. This is where Gracey absolute explodes and becomes the beast that Live fans know him as. He is absolutely pounding the ever loving fuck out of the drums on this track, he is relentless the longer the song goes. Shinn’s vocals in the chorus of a simple “I never really saw it coming” is delivered with such ferocity, angst, anger and desperation that scratches that itch Live fans had for those old Throwing Copper vocal tones. He has a real energy to him, singing his guts out on this one. There are a couple of mini guitar solos at various parts of the song which just rock and I only wish the song had a longer outro where the band just jammed and jammed for a couple of minutes. There is a part towards the middle of the song where there is just this intense build up and explodes into the chorus again upon machine gun fire-like drumming from Gracey that is one of the best moments on the whole album. The song title, well, I think a lot of Live fans may think it could allude to Kowalczyk, maybe part of it does … “I never really saw it coming” being how the band never saw the way things turned out with him ahead of time when they started out as brothers. But it isn’t explicitly about Kowalczyk, as there is no hard unmistakable reference to anything specific, which I like because it keeps the interpretation open for others to apply it to themselves and their lives. In all, this song is just bad ass and a really powerful way to end the album. Well, almost because there is one more.

Till You Came Around: This is a really subdued way the end the album with a country tinged acoustic track which could easily come from Shinn’s solo album. It’s a gorgeous little come-down after such a high intensity album, and a beautiful love song to boot. The slide on the guitar is more prominent here than on Strength to Hold On, and it really works. Live always had the ability to do a little country as songs like Horse have shown, and even their cover of Supernatural at times had a country tinge in the vocals, so this isn’t unexplored territory for them, but they haven’t gone here often and I kind of wish they would a little more in the future because they do it really well. Not a lot can really be said about this one, it is a simple song but it is the way the album had to end I think. This song probably wouldn’t have fit in that well anywhere else but it is a perfect book end.

Conclusion

I love it. Is it perfect? Nope, but what is? It isn’t without its faults, but the highest highs far outweigh the lowest lows. Its lows are so far above the material produced between 2000 – 2006 that it isn’t even funny. Live poured their heart and soul into this album and it really shows. They aren’t looking to take over the world again, they are hardly even putting together a big tour for it (but they better come to Australia!), they’re just making music that they want to make for the band that they started as kids and have such love for, and I really respect that. It is so refreshing to hear powerful drums on a Live album again, and to hear groovey bass lines which aren’t buried in the mix, and loud biting guitar riffs. It isn’t like any other Live album, but then again, Throwing Copper wasn’t like Mental Jewelry, The Distance to Here wasn’t like Secret Samadhi. It doesn’t need to be like them. But the spirit and the vibe of those times is still there. The writing has matured and they’re happy experimenting with a few new sounds too. Shinn, I think has been a wonderful new addition to the band. No, he’s not Ed Kowalczyk from the 90s, but neither is 2014’s Ed Kowalczyk. And personal, I’ll take 2014 Shinn over 2014 Kowalczyk. Shinn really gives his everything into this album, after all, he has a lot to prove not only to win fans over but to himself I’m sure. It wouldn’t be easy or 100% comfortable walking into an established band of 30 years, it takes a hell of a lot of guts, but I think he’s handled himself exceptionally here. What I love about this album which has been missing from Live albums for years is the diversity in the tracks. Specifically, the subject matter of the songs. From Greek Mythology metaphors, to fictionalised murderers, the personal accounts of a distressing life event, to a sweet love song, to a message about standing up for what you want, to an angry romp … the albums jumps around a fair bit, but it still feels like a cohesive album. I am bored of albums which just become a game of how many times can you sing about love (or water, in Live’s latter days) and get away with it. I love that it has that old album feel, it isn’t a collection of songs they’ve just been working on. This took a long time to come together and it feels like a real complete set of songs which belong together. I think this album will surprise a lot of people. Many who jumped off the ship during the 2000s with the direction the band went in, and some who have misconceptions about what sort of band Live are. There is just a lot of seriously good music here that people should really give a chance.

So yeah, while it isn’t perfect, there are some songs I don’t quite gel with, it’s impossible to say they are bad songs, they just don’t quite work for me. But the ones that do, really do – Sirens, Don’t Run to Wait, Rodgerton, By Design, Strength, Need Tonight, Open the Door, Devil and Came Around … I can see myself listening to these songs for a very, very long time.

Overall, Live, take a bow. I have been a fan since I was 6 years old, through the best of times and the worst, and I’ve technically been waiting 14 years for the band to write together again as an actual unit and I can honestly say that I do not feel disappointed at all. I feel thoroughly satisfied and like it was worth the wait.  Welcome back!

Advertisements