U2 – Songs of Innocence
I admire U2 for dispensing with the usual endless fanfare and just dropping the album on us out of freakin’ nowhere. Technical issues aside (people who don’t want the album getting it downloaded to their iTunes anyway, people who do want it not knowing how to enable the Cloud, etc.), it’s reassuring to hear U2 having this much fun after a few albums where they were starting to grow a bit stiff. Don’t get me wrong – I think there’s excellent material to be found on even the weakest U2 album. But I can’t say that I listen to any of their 21st century efforts all the way through terribly often. This disc, which isn’t a return to their old sound per se, but which does seem to circle back on memories of their humble beginnings as teenagers who got excited by rock music and outraged by war for the very first time, feels like the band had reignited some secret light within themselves that had almost burned out. There are playful love songs and serious love songs and wide-eyed songs about travel and heavy-hearted songs about the troubles in Ireland and soul-searching songs about the troubles within one soul. I won’t say it’s perfect – at times I have to wonder if they hadn’t fully finished mastering a few of these songs before they sprung them on the world at large. But I’m imagining the physical release of the album in October (which promises some bonus tracks and other doodads – they’ve gotta make up for giving this thing away somehow, I guess) will answer that question.
Maroon 5 – V
If I were to make a list of “Bands I keep getting tricked into expecting great things from even though I’ve known better for several albums now”, Maroon 5 just might be at the top of that list. Superficially, they’re a fun band. I like Adam Levine as a singer, and while I’m not into “egomaniac sex symbol” persona he seems to put out in nearly every song he writes, he actually seems to be a genuinely nice guy off-stage. I still think Songs About Jane is a solid record, one of those nice little coincidences where what was changing tastes in the mainstream just so happened to coincide with what I enjoyed listening to. Ever since that record, they’ve been edging closer and closer to sounding like an Adam Levine solo project with a super-high pop production budget to support him, though. These guys can appear on a late night talk show and sound like a halfway decent live band, but the funk/rock feel and the live instrumentation that once propelled their sunny and sexual mix of pop, funk, and R&B has all but been replaced with generic and annoyingly synthesized club music. That was already a problem on Overexposed; now they’ve managed to tone down the energy of that record without bringing back any of the soul that they lost in the process. The songwriting here may be some of Levine’s worst yet, and the rest of the band sounds like they could easily be replaced with hired-gun studio players at a moment’s notice and nothing would change. Even a ballad with Gwen Stefani tacked on to the end can’t save it. One good record followed by four mostly bad ones (I guess Hands All Over was OK, at least until they went and tacked “Moves Like Jagger” on to it) adds up to a band that I really should have given up on a long time ago.
House of Heroes – Smoke EP
A set of six solid rock songs to tease us for the group’s upcoming “concept album”, currently being funded via Kickstarter. These guys are probably one of the best straight-up rock bands that I’m still following nowadays – while I mostly prefer groups that do more acoustic or exotic things instead of relying largely on the old faithful drums-bass-electric guitar arrangement, HoH has gotten an impressive discography out of that, largely due to their brutally honest and clever songwriting and their knack for a killer power pop hook. There’s some rock solid stuff here, particularly the first two tracks, and while I have no idea if we’re hearing a part of the new album or just some tracks that would have otherwise been left on the cutting room floor. Either way, we win, because if these are just the dregs, then we’re in for some amazing stuff when that album drops!
Switchfoot – The Edge of the Earth EP
A set of seven songs cut from Fading West – an album which I initially disapproved of, but which has grown on me. The band is at its weakest when it’s simply regurgitating its Top 40 pop/rock formula, and this EP demonstrates how much material they ended up dropping from the tracklisting because it clashed with that vibe. I’m not prepared to say that this makes all of the mostly dark, down-beat, and/or acoustic tracks on this EP superior by definition, because listening to all seven of these in a row can be somewhat tiring as well. But a mix of moods would have served Fading West better, especially since it was touted as a documentary soundtrack that saw them significantly changing up their recording process. Evidence of that claim is backed up by some of the moodier and more atmospheric songs heard here, especially when they go so far off of their beaten path as to give Tim Foreman a lead vocal on one track. It’s also backed up by tracks like “Ba55” on that album that I think would have meshed better with the material here. Somewhere within the sum total of the eighteen tracks from these sessions lies a combination of ten or twelve-ish that would have made Fading West a much stronger album.