Category: First listen

First Listen: Impressions of Neil Young's 'Le Noise' (upon hearing it at Daniel Lanois' house)

Photo Nearly every decade since Neil Young launched a solo career in 1968, the Canadian rocker has put out a watershed album with which he’s upped the ante for himself.  In 1969, it was his sophomore effort, which first paired him with Crazy Horse, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” In 1979, punk rock was powerfully on his mind in “Rust Never Sleeps,” while 1989 brought “Freedom,” in which he fully assumed his latter-day role as  a state-of-the-union messenger about what’s right, and wrong, in America.

“Silver & Gold,” which was recorded in 1999 but didn’t surface until four months into the following year, didn’t quite hit the same level of accomplishment, but with “Le Noise,” which will be released Sept. 28, Young's peaking in yet another decade, and just a few months behind schedule for keeping his streak going for years ending in 9.

The title is a wink to his collaborator, musician-songwriter-producer Daniel Lanois, who premiered the album Tuesday night for a few dozen friends, music journalists, bloggers and L.A. music world denizens at his home overlooking Silver Lake.

The assembled group packed into the living room of the early 20th century mansion on the hillside, a voluntarily captive audience for Young’s subtly subversive method of forcing listeners to hear it for the first time the way he intended: on a first-class sound system, in the dark, no distractions.

What’s striking about “Le Noise” is the way it both summarizes and distills Young’s singular approach to music, predominantly just Neil and a guitar: his big, white hollow-body Gretsch electric slashing and burning for most of the tracks, a couple built around picked and strummed acoustic instruments. Both are recorded and amplified -- literally and metaphorically -- by Lanois’ signature soundscapes that  loop vocals, and enhance the guitars’ bass notes through distortion boxes, synthesizers and other electronics.

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First Listen: 'Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin'

 Brian Wilson Band Gershwin listening party 7-28-2010 
The announcement last fall that Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson would pay tribute to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, including completing songs left unfinished at George’s untimely death in 1937 at age 38, gave reason for both anticipation and consternation.

Anticipation at the prospect for a meeting of kindred but disparate spirits across time: one the quintessential musical voice of the Jazz Age in New York, the other the prime architect of the rock era’s California myth of hot rods, bikini-clad girls and fun in the sun.

Consternation because much of the beauty of Wilson’s once-wondrous voice had been ravaged for nearly 30 years by personal and professional traumas, from which he’s been charting a steady recovery in the last decade. But the question looms of what the creator of “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls” could bring to the revered canon of one of America’s cornerstone teams from the Great American Songbook.

At a listening session Wednesday night in West Hollywood, an audience of about 100 invited guests, including record company executives, journalists and others, got a listen to the result, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” the album scheduled for release Aug. 17.

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Wayne's new world: A track-by-track breakdown of Lil Wayne's 'Rebirth'

LilWayneRebirth Since the release of the single "Prom Queen" one year ago, speculation has run rampant about "Rebirth," the follow-up to Lil Wayne's multi-platinum smash, "Tha Carter III."

Reported to be Wayne's bid for rock credibility, the album has endured multiple delays, several non-starting singles and a months-early leak. Early reviews have been withering, with the album currently boasting the single lowest score on critical aggregator Metacritic. But can it really be that bad?

Is that the only way to explain why Universal would repeatedly postpone an album from one of its biggest cash cows? Can Lil Wayne really play the guitar or is this is an archetypal example of a self-indulgent and mollycoddled superstar? Is the song "The Price Is Wrong" an attack on Drew Carey? Let's find out.

1.  "American Star" featuring Shanell

Talk about telegraphing your intentions. Wayne opens "Rebirth" with a trash-rock guitar solo that would seem bombastic on an Iron Maiden album. He yells "bridge!" before the song's bridge kicks in. In the first 30 seconds, he brags that he's "born in the USA," warbles wobbly Auto-Tuned vocals and claims that he lives in six-story houses, while Shanell's hook claims she's "riding with the dope boy." Finally, we have a hair-metal album to match the ozone-killing excess that has passed for major-label hip-hop over the last few years. Unfortunately, Wayne's effort lacks the (slightly) self-aware humor and joyous buffoonery of Mötley Crüe or Poison.

2. "Prom Queen" featuring Shanell

This much-maligned first single dropped off the charts almost instantly. Over crunchy guitars and thunder-god drums, Wayne lets loose a frog-like rasp worse than Kirk Van Houten. Wayne's idea of rock seems to be a hybrid of emo, grunge and late-'90s rap-rock with melodramatic and insipid lyrics about how much he loves the prom queen's "fancy underwear." "Prom Queen" unintentionally indicts the slick trickery of modern-rock studio production: it's glutted with overdubs, ham-fisted studio axemen and voice correction.

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First Listen: Bob Dylan's 'Christmas in the Heart'


Despite some skeptical public reaction to news that Bob Dylan has made a Christmas album -- “Another sign that the end times are near,” a friend wrote in an e-mail linking to the Amazon Web page -- it’s no joke. And judging from half a dozen songs I was able to preview at a listening session Wednesday evening, it is a ton of fun.

“Christmas in the Heart” is due Oct. 13, and Dylan was still finalizing the song selection and sequencing this week, which is one reason a handful of music journalists weren’t able to hear the whole thing. 

But the Currier and Ives-ish cover image is a good clue as to what Dylan is after on this set of traditional carols and recent vintage Christmas chestnuts -- beyond the charity aspect. (All of Dylan’s royalties -- in perpetuity -- will be divvied up among three organizations that help feed the hungry: Feeding America, U.K.-based Crisis and the United Nations’ World Food Program, which made a snarky Reuters story earlier this week about an early-download arrangement between Sony Music and Citibank seem especially misguided.)

Rather than simply a tossed-off session for his kids and grandkids, Dylan seems to be offering up an astute exploration of the roots of holiday music -- Christmas records in particular -- in the same way he has returned in various albums over the years to mine pop music’s foundation in blues, folk, country and gospel.

His version of “Must Be Santa,” with David Hidalgo squeezing reindeer-quick accordion, is directly inspired by the arrangement that Texas rock-polka group Brave Combo created on its 1991 gem of a seasonal album, “It’s Christmas, Man!” Better yet, there's a video on the way, shot here in L.A. Dylan's treatment of “Here Comes Santa Claus” goes straight back to Gene Autry’s 1947 version, with a guitar solo that mirrors the original, melodically and tonally.

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First impression: New Jerry Lee Lewis single 'Mean Old Man'

Jerrylee350 It must be great, as a 73-year-old founding father of rock ’n’ roll and the celebrated “last man standing” of the stable of towering talents discovered and signed by Sun Records visionary producer Sam Phillips, to be able to snap your fingers and get new material written especially for you by the likes of Kris Kristofferson.

But that’s just what Jerry Lee Lewis has in “Mean Old Man,” the first single and title track from his forthcoming album, billed by his label, Shangri-La Music, as “his first country record since the ’70s."

That’s a tad misleading—his 2006 album for Shangri-La, "Last Man Standing," had plenty of country spirit in it, because rock as originally mapped out by Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and other Sun artists was equal parts country and rhythm and blues, primal influences those artists never fully abandoned even in their hardest-rocking recordings.

Kristofferson provides him with a song that celebrates the yin and yang of what it is to be the Killer, proclaiming himself to look like a mean old man, a good old friend, a voodoo doll and, finally, hilariously, “your uncle Bob.”

The single, which just went up on iTunes,, Rhapsody and most of the usual places, opens with the down-home twang of a tremolo-laden electric guitar over a midtempo martial drum beat. Conspicuous in its absence is any hint of the signature pumping piano work by the famous Fireball.

In recent years he’s appeared increasingly frail, but vocally he sounds very much himself and very much in possession of the telltale quaver in his voice and a take-no-prisoners, make-no-excuses authority over the material at hand.

“If I look like a voodoo doll/Who’d take his lickin’ standing tall/Who’d rather bite you back than crawl/That’s what I am,” he snarls. The ferocity he often tapped in his prime may be a thing of the past, judging from a certain thinness in his vocals, but the deliciously cocky attitude still evident here probably will be with him till the day he dies, and even then, it may not follow him down without a fight.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of Lewis performing in Spain last month by J.J. Guillen / EPA

Pete Doherty dissed me! One reporter's London odyssey


I went all the way to London to interview England's most notorious rock star and all I got was this stupid blog post.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. The plan was for me to sit down with Pete Doherty, the former lead singer for shambolic buzz bands the Libertines and Babyshambles, a skinny bloke whose tabloid renown as supermodel Kate Moss' ex eclipses his musical notoriety in this country.

The meeting place: a posh hotel in the Shephard's Bush section of the British capital where we would talk about his debut solo album, "Grace/Wasteland" (Astralwerks), which hits retail stores today. And Doherty might provide a little light diversion by doing something druggy or outrageous before our time together was up.

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Snap Judgment: the Prodigy's 'Invaders Must Die'


Just downloaded the Prodigy’s “Invaders Must Die,” the title track from the band's forthcoming fifth full-length, made available today as a freebie on the Grammy-nominated trio’s website. While I’ve listened to the track only a few times now, I’ve got to say I’m a little underwhelmed. You can check out the song -- which isn't officially a single, reps say -- for yourself here.

There has never been a better time for the Prodigy to reclaim their old-school techno throne. Aggressive-sounding dance music is once again in favor, thanks to electro artists such as Justice, who have made more inroads with American rock music fans this past year than any other outfit. But with "Invaders Must Die," the Prodigy don't reach the high bar they set for themselves with their stellar back catalog of hits such as “Firestarter,” “Jericho,” “Breathe,” "Fire," “Charly,” “Smack My Bitch Up,” "Poison" and others.

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Pop & Hiss welcomes Bronx Mowgli Wentz into this bright, cruel world

Pete Wentz & Ashlee Simpson

So, Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson have a new baby, and his name is exactly what you think it would be! The Fall Out Boy bassist and lyricist's first creative endeavor under a thousand syllables, Bronx Mowgli Wentz, came into this world Thursday night at 7 pounds, 11 ounces and a difficult middle school tenure scheduled for sometime around 2020. The 29-year-old Wentz and 24-year-old Simpson are reportedly doing just fine. Hopefully, we'll be able to catch a glimpse of the little Jungle Book hero at a future FNMTV taping.

-- August Brown

Photo by Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images

First Listen: Beyoncé's 'If I Were a Boy' and 'Single Ladies'

Beyonce360 Beyoncé may be a married lady now, but she's still all caught up in the drama of love's first glances and final door slams. It's refreshing that she's staying in character: When artists such as Mary J. Blige start making music about how happy they are with their chubby hubbies, it may be sincere, but it also serves the function of feeding the tabloids. Beyoncé and her Hova have always kept business and pleasure separate, which imparts dignity to their relationship -- and lets her be an artist first, a personality second.

Beyoncé's emotional reserve also allows for hits that still appeal to her core fan base of independent women. "Irreplaceable" was a masterpiece of that ilk, the finger-wagging summation of mercenary, "Sex and the City"-style post-feminism. That song made Beyoncé pop's Chairwoman of the Board, as worldly wise and merciless about love as Sinatra was in the wee small hours of the morning.

Her new club banger, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," elaborates on "Irreplaceable's" theme of love as sport, if not war; sounding a lot like a Destiny's Child song, it has Beyoncé doing call-and-response with her backup singers over a rump-shaking beat provided by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart. More than most female singers, Beyoncé understands the funky art of singing rhythmically, and this is a prime example.

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