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The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Live Album Roundup: May 16th 2011

Mastodon - Live at the Aragon
Released: March 15th, 2011
Three words: “Thank you Chicago.” That’s all Mastodon say throughout their 2009 performance at the Aragon Ballroom. The Atlanta quintet has not been known to mince words, to say the least, and I had heard criticisms from people who had seen the group on their tour in support of Crack the Skye that they were too dry in their performance. In Live at the Aragon, Mastodon play the entirety of Crack the Sky, one song from Blood Mountain, one song from Leviathan, two songs from Remission and a Melvins cover. While I can get on the group for their unwillingness to deviate from their set formula, it’s hard to argue with such impeccably performed renditions of some of the most complicated metal of the past decade. People criticize Mastodon for lacking in the vocal department live (I know, because I laughed at them a lot in this video before I became a fan of the group), but the guys actually do a very good job of keeping up with the material. The “Fire in the eye” part of “Divinations” ain’t easy to perform and the guys pretty much pull it off. They’re workmanlike in their execution, but the material is so complicated, it’s just a treat to hear them perform it all so flawlessly. While the album other than Crack the Skye most represented on Live at the Aragon is my least favorite of the group’s (I find Remission too crude), the show is a harrowing hour that’s definitely worth any casual metal fan’s time. A-

Green Day - Awesome as Fuck
Released: March 15th, 2011
When I saw Green Day last summer, what I was most surprised by was how much time the group could spend going through the material from their last two albums without once playing a track released before 2004. People may have their qualms with those albums, but I actually think both are quite good, and was humbled to find that the crowd knew the words to lesser-known tracks like “Murder City” and “Jesus of Suburbia” just as if not better than I did. Awesome as Fuck will probably increase the disdain people have for Green Day for its gimmicky title and refusal to go the full Monty (You’ll notice it says Awesome as F**k on the cover), but the truth is it’s a really good live rendition of hits throughout their career being played among older songs that may even surprise longtime fans. The regular 3-hour Green Day show is cut down to a lean hour that is heavy on new material towards its opposing ends. In the middle, though, deep cuts like “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” and “Burnout” prove to be the album’s highlights for their astonishing adaptability to the arena. Billy Joe Armstrong’s all over the place, screaming his lungs out one moment then whispering tunefully the next. Awesome as Fuck is a compilation of songs from a lot of shows, so him screaming out the names of various cities can be a little confusing, but the album is a solid affair, a very good audio representation of some pretty incredible shows. B+

Billy Joel - Live at Shea Stadium

Released: March 8th, 2011

Fuck the haters; Billy Joel is one of the great American songwriters. Modern hipsters like to associate him with the bloated past, but the guy has come to represent New York’s vigor for forty years now, writing dozens of classics and at least one perfect album. True, the guy hasn’t released any new material in nearly twenty years, but the three live albums he’s released since ‘93’s River of Dreams are performances that show that the man’s fantastic songs have aged rather well. Joel can still sing the high notes in the chorus of “She’s Always a Woman” and can play that insane piano riff in “Angry Young Man” with nearly no mess-ups. The guy’s wit is also just as sharp as ever. “You gettin’ married?” he asks a couple I can only assume had gotten engaged during “She’s Always a Woman”. “Get a prenup,” he responds, the irony in proposing during that song not lost on him. As Shea Stadium’s last concert before being torn down, Live at Shea Stadium is a star-studded affair. Garth Brooks, John Mayer and Paul McCartney are competent on their respective songs, but none compare to Tony Bennett, whose duet with Joel on “New York State of Mind” is picturesque. As for the rest, it’s just Joel and his band, free to arrange his classics around any way he likes. 12 Gardens Live may be the better Joel live album to use as a novice’s introduction, but Live at Shea Stadium is still a great product if only to hear Joel reliably tell the crowd not to take shit from anyone by the concert’s end. A-

Deerhunter - Live from SoHo

Released: February 15th, 2011

I wasn’t as keen on Deerhunter’s latest album, Halcyon Digest, as a lot of other people were. While I thought it was very good, it never struck me as exemplary, too vulnerable to filler and shoegaze-y laments. Live from SoHo, Deerhunter’s iTunes-exclusive live EP, takes all the best moments of Halcyon Digest and drenches them in so much sticky atmosphere, it’s a wonder that this recording took place in an Apple Store once you get in the thick of it. With the exception of the bouncy “Rainwater Cassette Exchange” from the group’s EP of the same name, the songs performed on Live From Soho have a consistent style, which doesn’t suggest murkiness in sound, but professional cohesion in the musicians. “Desire Lines” transitions beautifully into “Hazel St.” and, true to the jamming nature of the show, closer, “He Would Have Laughed”, is expanded to over ten minutes before being cut abruptly short, as it does in its Halcyon studio version. These guys definitely have their shit down pat, and if you were already a Deerhunter fan, Live from SoHo should be all the more reason to go see them perform. Halcyon Digest didn’t knock my socks off, but Live from SoHo has inspired me to go see them before their true masterpiece is made. A-


Big K.R.I.T. - Return of 4Eva: B+

I should have seen this coming. After blowing up my car’s speaker system over the summer, “Country Shit” was released as an official single in late September of 2010. This was not particularly surprising, as the track was definitely the highlight of Big K.R.I.T.’s debut, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. However, the single’s cover was a little off-putting, given the context. The picture that was made to exemplify the toughest hip hop song of the year was not of the Mississippi rapper making some badass pose or even standing around some lavish cars like he does on the cover of his newest mixtape, Return of 4Eva. Instead, a single called “Country Shit” had the cover of K.R.I.T. facing away from the camera, a look of contemplation, almost shame, completely betraying the track’s braggadocio. The picture looked less like a countrified victory lap and more like an apology in the vein of the cover of Gucci Mane’s The State v. Radric Davis.

After listening to Big K.R.I.T.’s newest mixtape, Return of 4Eva, released a year after K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, I understand why K.R.I.T. looks far from proud on that cover. During the shooting for that cover, K.R.I.T. was most likely in the midst of writing Return and knew that the song was nothing like what he would release next. His appearance on that cover looks now to be him disavowing the boasting featured so prominently in the track, the rapper embarrassed by the song’s virile immaturity.

Return of 4Eva has no brutal barnburners like “Country Shit”, nor does it have any aggressively dedicated songs like “See Me On Top” or even mid-tempo tracks like “Hometown Hero”. The most aggressive Big K.R.I.T. gets on Return of 4Eva is the ominous bassline to “Time Machine”. Other than that, he’s in full-on relax mode, more comfortable to spit motivational rhymes and critique the rap industry over soul hooks like that of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here tracks “Neva Go Back” and “They Got US”. The man premises “American Rapstar” with a speech about how you have to listen to his songs in full to truly understand them. A song title like “Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism” gives off some pretty intense holier-than-thou vibes. K.R.I.T. has a preference for elevated criticism on Return of 4Eva and you get the impression that he wants you to be ashamed of yourself for expecting something as juvenile as another “Country Shit”. Return is Big K.R.I.T. trying to be taken seriously, and, unfortunately, he’s a lot less fun as a result.

However, the songs of Return of 4Eva are good for what they are. About half of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was made up of serious reflections on the world, his home state and hip-hop, so it’s by no means bad that he’s continued down this route. Songs like “Amtrak” and “Lions For Lambs” would fit well on his debut for their catchy laid back hooks and inventive production. Despite its heavy-handed title, the aforementioned “Another Naïve Individual” is a genuinely affecting track, K.R.I.T. telling various establishments he refuses to be pinned down as an African American stereotype. He’s relatable when he talks about how his mom didn’t want him to rap about faith in “The Vent” and when he builds up a lavish beat only to tear it down as an interrupted dream in “R4 Intro”.

The problem I have with Return of 4Eva is that it has no ballast, no significant shift in style between the romps of self-awareness. As a result, the hazy beats and pleasant rhymes tend to blend together in the album’s second half, their melodies not memorable enough to warrant second listens. Luckily this doesn’t happen enough to turn Return into a bad album, but it definitely keeps it from being the magnum opus many have made it out to be. It also doesn’t help that the times when the album tries to be somewhat rowdy fall awkwardly flat. It’s hard to get past the chorus of “Sookie Now” (add another “sookie” and you got the song’s hook), inconsequential David Banner verse and all. “I put that on my sub” is a strange hook to build a song around, and, unfortunately, K.R.I.T. lacks the charisma to pull off the track titled “My Sub”. Ultimately, many of Return’s songs lack distinction, a quality that can be crippling to an album made up of twenty-one tracks.

So my criticism of Return of 4Eva isn’t so much that K.R.I.T. is trying to separate himself from the shameless posturing of his compatriots, but that he’s trying so hard as to make himself sound self-satisfied and to detract from the core elements that made K.R.I.T. Wuz Here so refreshing. The album does yield a new and interesting face of K.R.I.T., but it is in the moments when he opts for lavish production that sounds like the work of genuine party starters. The beat that K.R.I.T. creates around Return’s intro is ultimately made to be a joke, but it’s invigorating to hear him explain what he calls the “R4 movement” over it, even if it’s for a fleeting moment. “Shake It” is a similarly excellent jam in which K.R.I.T. shows off his suave side, and it’s a triumphant success. The song is one of Return’s highlights and I would be happy to see K.R.I.T. expand upon that style in his next release. However, based on the great seriousness K.R.I.T. attempts to get across on Return of 4Eva, I wouldn’t hold my breath.