You Always Run Around Breaking All the Rules with It

Some of my co-workers and I started sharing some of our favorite music. We’ve been doing it for a while, but now we’re actually reviewing them and sharing those reviews with one another. Here are the two albums that were suggested to me this week.

A note on how I rate things. One star means I don’t think it qualifies as music. Five stars mean I wish I wrote the thing. Most music for me is a three.

The Black Keys – El Camino (2011)

I had heard of The Black Keys years ago (maybe when Brothers came out), but I’ve never given them a listen. I’m not sure why. Maybe I associated them with The Black Eyed Peas? I don’t know. As soon as I turned on this album, I knew I had made a huge mistake in not listening to The Black Keys these past few years.

This album is great. It is straightforward, earnest, bluesy and a little rough.

It is garage rock.

Let’s start with the album artwork, though. First, that is not an El Camino. In fact, the whole booklet is filled with ’80s and ’90s minivans photographed “in the wild.” There’s not a single El Camino in the lot. And apparently, that was the point.

Most of the album is just like I said, great garage rock. But they also add in some softer moments, like the front half of Little Black Submarines, which has a great, slow-moving organ sound. It’s almost a soul song, but then they pull out all the stops and remind you how they’re actually rockers. They said this album had a wider influence than previous music, including surf rock and rockabilly. I didn’t hear any of that. Although Stop Stop did have a ’50s, early rock ‘n’ roll feel with a little funk/soul flavoring thrown in. But mostly it was modern garage rock. In fact, Run Right Back sounded like it was a Queens of the Stone Age song (which I think is a good thing).

This is one band I am going to dig into more. This gets a 4/5 and more play in my Spotify playlists. I have really done myself a disservice not listening to them.

Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror (2012)

I told Chris it was a crying shame they aren’t called “Slay Bells.” It seems like they missed an opportunity there.

I say that because this seems like it started out has an ’80s metal record, which was remixed at the time into a more synthpop record, then has been buried for the last 25-30 years, then found by some indie artists and remixed again with some modern ethereal noise. Some songs stay more metal (the guitar hook starting in the middle of Born to Lose) and other songs are more pop (Crush), all with a background of noise.

It’s not horrible, but it’s not really my thing. I was prepared to just end my review there with a 2/5. But starting with End of the Line, I really started liking this album. They brought it all together, and it worked. And it rolls right into Leader of the Pack, which juxtaposes the heavier beats against a celestial synth voice in the chorus. And they keep it going through Comeback Kid, the lead single off this album.

But then they lost me again with Demons. You Lost Me wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t as good as the three song set earlier in the album. It was stuck in the middle of songs I probably won’t listen to again.

It’s not a bad album. It is one I didn’t expect to like as much as I do. In the end it gets a 3/5 from me.

Streetlight Manifesto – Somewhere in the Between (2007)

I shared this with my coworkers partly in response to Tim’s review of Less Than Jake. If you thought that LTJ didn’t have enough brass, I now give you an album with some real horns.

First let me say that I don’t always love Tomas Kalnoky’s gravel-y vocals. But he does write some pretty mean songs, so it fits. Prepare for some loudness; while they do get soft at times, it doesn’t last long on this album. And if you’re sensitive to some … “strong language” or if you’ll be listening to this album around little ears, just go ahead and skip The Receiving End of It All.

‘90s ska (like LTJ) has been closely tied to the punk scene, but that hasn’t always been the case. Streetlight Manifesto certainly retains their ska punk roots, but also adds some eastern European influence. And just some crazy prog elements. Punk tends to have pretty formulaic song structures: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, chorus, chorus. Streetlight gets a bit more diverse than that. Some of their songs seem more like two or three songs mashed together. And their arrangements are pretty complex. Sometimes there’s a lot going on; there are a lot of layers. And other times, they strip it down and get very simple.

Let me tell you about my absolute favorite moment. In the middle of the title track, the horns have a little back and forth solo. Then the rhythm section backs out and the horns have a little soli. Not only is their trombone player one of my personal musical role models, but I love. Love. LOVE that you can hear the bari sax player’s keys (the things he uses to change notes, not the things he uses to open doors) click as he changes fingerings. Listen close. Then back it up 30 seconds and listen again. Just like some Led Zeppelin recordings, you can tell it’s a real dude. It’s not some synthesizer with no soul. It’s a real musician making real music. I love the bari sax in general anyway, but I really love what Mike Brown (Streetlight’s bari sax player) makes it do. 4/5

Here’s what my coworkers thought:

“My review is going to sound contradicting, I know, but bear with me. I was hooked right in with the first song of this album, and was ready for a good ride. But after about the fourth track it suddenly lost its flair. I couldn’t figure it out, and literally thought about it all day once the album was finished. All I can think of is that the album was too much of the same. You couldn’t appreciate the great moments because their wasn’t down moments to act as contrast. I think they would be great live, and I think the album in its entirety, in that setting, would be very satisfying. But as an album to listen to casually it really doesn’t work. So my two star review has more to do with the album itself, rather than the individual songs and artists, which I think fall firmly in the four star range.  I just don’t think the music makes any kind of connection, but rather is more ‘in the moment.'” 2/5 -Tim

“The trumpets were pretty sweet, that’s for sure. I  was blown away by some of the riffs and solos happening throughout the entire album.

With that said, this wasn’t really a genre I’d pick. The trumpets were impressive, but I wouldn’t listen to this regularly. I think this genre was so popular when I was in high school, and I remember some of their tunes from my high school days. You know how people have memories with a certain song or artist? I think I have high school memories with this genre all-together! HA! That might jade me a bit when it comes to this album.

I really liked Down, Down, Down to Mephisto’s Café – the guitar in that song was pretty cool! Forty Days was actually pretty sweet too. I was a huge fan of the trumpet in that one. I do think Forty Days bumped my appreciation for this album from a two to a three.” 3/5 -Kari

“So, to be honest, I really haven’t cared much for Ska for about 15 years. I always attach it to the sounds of high school, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but by default it sounds like “adolescence.” As a music fan, I’ve just changed so much over the last decade and a half and this sound was one that was left behind. Having said all that, I enjoyed this album.I’ve heard of them, but never really listened to them. In fact, I didn’t realize they were ska. But I like my ska a little heavier (sort of like Less Than Jake), and these guys are fairly similar in their approach. While I can’t say there was any one track that stood out for me, it was a pleasant and energetic listen. And bands like this are usually incredible live. I imagine their live shows bring a whole new element to their sound. So while it’s not usually a sound I’ll gravitate towards these days, I had fun with it.” 7/10 -Chris

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