Remember when Zack de la Rocha was relevant?

With memories of Rage Against the Machine’s brilliance in mind, few names were as irritatingly elusive throughout the Aughts as Zack de la Rocha’s. For years on end, word of any new material from the Rage Against the Machine vocalist didn’t simply raise brows, but set off fireworks amongst the media and fans alike. As time passed, rumors escalated about what would become of de la Rocha’s mysterious solo debut, and as the list of potential all-star collaborators grew, so too did the hype surrounding one of the most anticipated albums of the decade. Names such as El-P, DJ Shadow, Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, DJ Premier, DJ Muggs, Roni Size, Trent Reznor & ?uestlove of the Roots all came up over the years in terms of who de la Rocha was working with, but unfortunately little to any of that material actually saw the light of day.

While it’s rumored that Trent Reznor produced some 20 tracks for de la Rocha, only one was ever released: “We Want It All,” which appeared on the supplement to Michael Moore’s 2004 film, Songs and Artists that Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact, aside from de la Rocha’s One Day as a Lion EP with one-time Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, and a couple of cameo spots on tracks by such artists as Roni Size/Reprazent, Saul Williams & Blackalicious, little original material has actually been released by the vocalist since The Battle of Los Angeles.

Last year Sole Sides dropped a previously unreleased collaboration from DJ Shadow’s 2006 Outsider sessions. The track is good, and certainly better than most of the material that actually made it onto the album, but as with “We Want It All,” de la Rocha seems to have been worked into a pre-casted mold with the track. In speaking to the LA Times in 2008, he touched on this somewhat, “When I was working with Trent and Shadow, I felt that I was going through the motions.” This isn’t to say that the two tracks are bad—they aren’t, by any means—but they don’t compare to something that preceded them: the song which remains the best offering from Zack de la Rocha during the entire decade, “March of Death.”

Previously discussing the song for Prefix in 2008, I wrote, “Distributed for free via, the song focused de la Rocha’s anger and frustration into roughly four minutes of pounding beats.” Lyrically the song is aimed at the Bush administration, calling the President a “Texas furer [sic],” and lashing out, “Who let the cowboy on the saddle/He don’t know a missile from a gavel/Para terror troopin’ flippin’ loops of death upon innocent flesh/But I’m back in the cipher my foes and friends, with a verse and a pen.” Whether it have to do with the aggressive beat or de la Rocha’s continuously sharp flow, but “March of Death” remains one of my favorite tracks from the decade. My feelings don’t necessarily reflect those of the masses though. The American Prospect‘s Chaweon Koo reflected on the song, focusing on the weight behind its verbal punch, calling it a “lyrical letdown” and adding that “‘March of Death’ seems more like a knee-jerk reaction to George W. Bush’s Iraq War than a thoughtful punch to the face.”

In the dying moments of the 2008 documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Thompson’s ex-wife looked back on his life and reflected, “I think this is a time when Hunter Thompson could make a difference in this country.” Moments later Jimmy Buffett—of all people—added his thoughts, “He could wield a pretty effective sword against what’s going on right now.” Carrying a similar tone, in his 2007 essay, “An Open Letter to Zack de la Rocha,” Esquire‘s Jason Notte wrote,

“After a summer spent flipping off cops and raising a ruckus at the 2000 party conventions, you totally bailed… just as the Bush administration came into power. Then September 11 went down, Clear Channel yanked Rage songs off the air, and you? Nothing. After spending seven years sending your fans into street fights with Howitzers, you left them unarmed on D-Day… And when the U.S. went into war in Iraq based on sketchy intelligence and utter ignorance of the inherent religious and ethnic conflicts that could arise during an ensuing occupation? That Web-only release of March of Death was more than adequate. The thirty-two people who heard the song were moved. Why should you use the deplorable Capitalist machine to broadcast your position to millions when you can do the technological equivalent of handing out fliers?… With minorities being treated like fifteenth-class citizens during Hurricane Katrina, habeas corpus being tossed aside like Kim Kardashian’s underwear when a camera turns on, Guantanamo Bay being used as a kennel, Enron mugging employees for their life savings while folding in disgrace, Jack Abramoff playing Texas Hold ‘Em with the concept of Congressional ethics, Mark Foley hitting on anything that looked like a mid-’90s Lukas Haas, George Allen reintroducing “macaca” to the national lexicon…”

Unlike Thompson, Zack de la Rocha is obviously alive and well. A little over a week ago he and Jon Theodore took to the stage for the duo’s first ever live performances as One Day as a Lion (which were generally well-received: Spinner‘s Steve Baltin went as far as saying that they “have the potential to be a powerful force in rock”). But for a decade he has had the ability and opportunity to step up and continue the standard that he set with Rage Against the Machine. And with the talent that was supposedly joining him to produce this music, it looked as though he was willing to claim his place on the front lines for years to come; no matter how misguided some of his causes might be. As a vocalist, activist, and poet, Zack de la Rocha will continue to be revered as one of the strongest voices of his generation, and the argument could be made that he never stopped doing his best to make sure that many injustices are being addressed and corrected (which he should still be applauded for). But even if Rage releases a new album, One Day as a Lion pushes on, or a solo record sees the light of day, he will never be able to wield his sword with the same force that he once could. In that sense, “what could have been” takes on a whole new meaning.

Avenged Sevenfold “Nightmare” Review

To say that a lot has happened since the release of Avenged Sevenfold‘s self-titled 2007 album would be doing the band a great disservice. On the shoulders of the album’s five singles, Avenged Sevenfold went gold and was later honored as the “Album of the Year” by Kerrang! magazine. In 2008 the band hit the road as one of the headlining acts on the Taste of Chaos tour alongside such acts as Atreyu and Bullet For My Valentine. The following year vocalist Matthew “M. Shadows” Sanders joined Slash in recording vocals for a track that would be featured on the legendary guitarist’s 2010 solo debut, and the band collected themselves and began the process of writing songs for what would later become Nightmare. But none of this would impact the band relative to the life-shattering tragedy that would come later that year, as on December 28 drummer James “The Rev” Sullivan would be found dead in his home. In a statement released in days following Sullivan’s death, the band expressed their utter devastation, “…Jimmy was not only one of the world’s best drummers, but more importantly he was our best friend and brother… Jimmy you are forever in our hearts. We love you.” In the coming months the band’s remaining members were faced with a number of decisions: should they continue as a band… do they continue under the same name… do they continue with the album that Sullivan had such a heavy hand in writing? In short, the answer to all of the above was yes. But the issue remained, could the band move ahead and retain the same level of craftsmanship as displayed on their past albums despite losing not only a key songwriter and one of the world’s most acclaimed drummers, but a brother. Moments into Nightmare‘s title track, which subsequently leads the album, that question is also answered with an emphatic response. Yes.

After a menacing guitar introduction, “Nightmare” summons the heavy metal gods with a brooding riff, a scorching solo, and M. Shadows’ fist-pumping call and response chant. Shadows recently explained in an interview with Las Vegas’ X107.5 how the song wasn’t originally meant to make the album, but to honor how much The Rev loved the song’s lyrics, the band went ahead with it. “Welcome to the Family” follows, opening with a rhythmic bounce before returning to an aggressive pace while Shadows’ lyrics lean heavy on the feeling of defeat, “We all have emptiness in side, we all have answers to find, but you can’t win this fight.” “Danger Line” introduces a wartime narrative, following a soldier’s thoughts as he embarks on battle, “My 16, locked and loaded/All fear has been avoided/You say the words and my weapon is drawn.” A rumbling guitar line breaks restraint for the chorus, but the song fails to lose focus on the theme, eventually finding the soldier desperate and on his deathbed, “Now I find myself in my own blood/The damage done is far beyond repair/I never put my faith in up above/But now I’m hoping someone’s there.” A drum beat and trumpet offer a salute as a blazing solo takes over in the later stages of the track, only to fade out with the faint cry of Shadows whistling.

The quiet lead-in of “Buried Alive,” combining a stadium-sized beat with a solo, sounds too familiar to that of classic Metallica to not make the comparison; later the similarities continue through the song’s chugging guitar line and another solo. As with the rest of the album though, the band’s energy overpowers any comparisons: the result being a comfortable blend between the past and present. “Natural Born Killer” continues with guitars and a double kick-drum blazing at a hellish speed. Not to discredit any songs to this point, but with this track it becomes quite clear as to how difficult it was to replace The Rev, and furthermore how important it was to find someone as talented as Dream Theater‘s Mike Portnoy to stand in on the album. Even with good intentions in mind, without someone of Portnoy’s caliber filling in, Nightmare would be an entirely lesser album.

An acoustic guitar introduces “So Far Away,” before Shadows’ poignant lyrics hit: “How do I live without the ones I love/Time still turns the pages of the book it’s burned/Place and time always on my mind/I have so much to say but you’re so far away.” Brian “Synyster Gates” Haner takes the lead in the later stages of the song, further lending his skills to the solo-rich album. Described by Shadows as being a Far Beyond Driven-era Pantera-sounding track, “God Hates Us” continues as the most confrontational song on Nightmare. As with the previous two tracks, “Victim” follows by opening with soft guitar. This time, however, a soulful wail floats over the instruments before the song returns to a similarly morose theme as “So Far Away.” While the statement of “We’re all just victims of a crime” is repeated throughout, in following “God Hates Us” the lyrics almost suggest that the band feels as though they’ve played victim to crimes committed by God; regardless of the intention, the songs following one another is an interesting juxtaposition. Returning to the voice that opened the track, “Victim” eerily fades away with Shadows repeating “I’m Missing You.”

The acoustics return for “Tonight the World Dies” before the album sinks into the rolling piano of “Fiction,” a track originally called “Death” when written by The Rev. The title was changed to honor the band’s fallen brother and to reflect his belief that his life was like a book of fiction; it would be the final song he ever wrote. The album closes with “Save Me” which finds Shadows adding a lyrical exclamation point to the 11 minute track by singing “Tonight we all die young” as the album comes to a close.

While performing for his most recent DVD, Stark Raving Black, comedian Lewis Black explained how he’d been tapped to perform at an animal rescue benefit, where he was to follow a performance by country musician Vince Gill. Through his long-winded anecdote about how mesmerized both he and the audience became by Gill’s set, he explained, “And then, Vince began to talk about his father. His dead father.” Black continued, “As his father got sicker and sicker, he pulled Vince aside and told him that he had an idea for a song that he always wanted Vince to write. And Vince couldn’t get it written before his father died, but after he died he found the inspiration to write that song. And now, he was going to sing it.” Standing in defeat, Black slumped and continued, “Who’s not going to like that song?” Admittedly, there’s something similar going on here. If you take the time to listen to the band reflect on their love for James Sullivan, how much he meant to them, and how difficult it was to even approach creating music again: who’s not going to like this album? Concluding the story, Lewis Black explained, “And it was a great song: it was sad, and—son of a bitch—it was funny. It was really funny.” That’s what made the difference between that song being something special and being spectacular, and that’s what makes the difference here. If Nightmare ended up being a hot mess of emotion that failed to stand up to the musical pedigree exhibited by the band on past releases, Avenged Sevenfold would still deserve props for making an effort to honor Sullivan’s legacy. But as with Lewis Black’s story, what puts the album over the top is that it was not only created with heart-wrenching purpose, but that it’s good. And when you combine those factors, a good album and purpose, you’ve got a recipe for something that will touch the hearts of fans and non-fans alike; and something that is ultimately going to define how people remember the band for years, if not decades, to come.

Remember Ween’s failed Pizza Hut jingle, “Where’d The Cheese Go?”

Escape with me to a simpler time: a time when Rolling Stone offered readers such amusing features as “Modern Trivia” (ex: Michael Jackson claims he wrote many of his hits in a tree), and restaurants were reinventing the way people thought about eating pizza by rolling out such innovative dishes as the “Insider” (a pizza with cheese INSIDE the crust!). Yes, indeed, 2002 was a good year.

To help publicly promote the “Insider,” Pizza Hut hired an advertising agency which was to search far and wide for musicians who would be able to channel the spirit of the pie and produce a song that would help to ceremoniously unveil the dish. Based on the suggestion of a forward thinking visionary (personal speculation), they hired Ween. The “brothers” accepted the position and proceeded to create what they thought to be the perfect complement to the tantalizing dish, a jingle which they called “Where’d The Cheese Go?”

Dean and Gene submitted the track, along with five others including “everything from spaghetti western to stuff that’s really mysterious rock that’s over the top shit,” to the agency with the belief that they had triumphantly completed the task at hand. Success! But they were sorely mistaken as each and every song they produced was harshly rejected. So what is one to do when at first you don’t succeed? That’s right: get all gangsta wit’ it! Ween returned to the studio with the belief that “Where’d The Cheese Go?” was more than sufficient, but it apparently lacked what the company was looking for. And what did Dean and Gene Ween think the company was looking for? An edgy theme song with elements of The Street so deeply embedded that Pizza Hut would then have enough street cred to choke a camel. This belief manifested itself in a track called, “Bitch, Where’d The Mother Fuckin’ Cheese Go At?”

Dean and Gene Ween were promptly dismissed from the project.

The Rolling Stone article “Just Not Cheesy Enough” (2003) documents Ween’s failed attempt at lending the “Insider” its theme song. While enthusiastically revealing to the magazine that, “It’s our illest record in a really long time,” Dean Ween’s stance on the situation would change over time, later condemning the song’s existence in an interview with Flak Magazine. “I’m done with the Pizza Hut thing. Every-fucking-body keeps asking about it. It’s the most publicity Ween has gotten in the last two, three years, and it has nothing to do with Ween or what the band is. Tuesday night, we’re doing an all-request concert broadcast on and we let the fans vote online for the set list. And, as of last night, the fuckin’ Pizza Hut song is number two on the list. It’s like, oh, great. The fuckin’ Pizza Hut song.”

That “all-request concert broadcast” was recorded and released as All Request Live in 2003. In his review of the album, Pitchfork‘s Dan Miron (who gave the record a 7.7, for those keeping score) followed his reflection on the recording by describing its climax, “We’ve been through the tunnel of Ween, and the absolute highlight is waiting: ‘Where’d the Cheese Go?’ ” He continued, “[The song] is a rendition of the duo’s notorious rejected Pizza Hut jingle that’s been upped to nearly six minutes. It may be the best balance of idiot/savant they’ve accomplished to date. The music is burbly Cars intro meets chicken-scratch JB’s guitar, double-dating Cameo’s vocoder and the ‘Purple Rain’ guitar wind-up—and it’s all anchored by a bass so fluid I barely believe it has strings.” “Never mind how warped the lyrics are,” Miron concluded, “I could attempt excerpts, but without the accents, it’s pretty pointless.” And how.

By many accounts, Ween and “Where’d The Cheese Go?” are now connected no more. But while the band has distanced itself from the jingle, a cult-like following of fans have continued to pay tribute to the celebrated theme song. That’s putting it nicely though, as the aforementioned “tributes” come in the form of a cesspool of terrible fan-made videos created by people whose time is clearly of little to no value to them. For the sake of not letting things get out of control, the embeds of the videos will be limited to the “best” fan video. Oh, and as much as it pains me to say this: you can, in fact, blame this one on Canada.

(Caution: before proceeding, please keep in mind that this video is the “best” of the bunch.)

For a while the tributes are cute enough, as the people being recorded simply ham it up a bit for the camera:

Some adorable children bounce around while someone, presumably their parent(s), plays the song for them.
A slightly older cheese craving gremlin child’s poor attempt at keeping in time with the song.
• A pair of ladies performing both versions of the song, redeemed only by the girl not wearing the clown wig (who will from this day forward be referred to as “the hot one” of the friendship). (link 1 | link 2)

But from there the videos quickly turn into burning hellish nightmares produced by the creatively handicapped:

• A crudely assembled dual-tribute video to both the song and a “cheese-eating friend.” (video deleted)
A stuffed moose being humped by some dude who’s lip-synching the song.
A stop-motion Lego video…
Or how about a video made from repurposing footage from the creepy old Zelda cartoon?
• And then there’s this asshole: I’m not sure what’s worse about this one, the fact that the guy dancing in the video is likely fertile, or that there’s someone behind the camera encouraging this bullshit. (video deleted)

There are also a few musical tributes:

• A remix by DJ C0LDFISH (not to be confused with DJ COLDFISH), which isn’t so much a remix as it is playing the song once through while adding a few tweaks before brutally raping its dissected pieces for the next minute. (track deleted)
• And lastly, there’s Pterodactyl Rider, a band who felt their performance of both versions to be such an important moment in history that they needed to be documented and uploaded to the grand Internet Archive so they could live on for the rest of time. (If for some ungodly reason you wish to listen to the rest of the band’s show, you can do so at

Think about it… all this, simply because Ween’s artistic direction was in conflict with the image of the “Insider.” As weird as this piece of history is, just imagine how strange it would have been to hear Ween blaring at you with a spaghetti western-themed “Where’d The Cheese Go?” jingle every time Monday Night Football went to commercial. Come to think of it, that actually sounds kind of cool.

Rick Ross “Teflon Don” Review

Ultimately Teflon Don is about two things: Rick Ross flossin’ his wealth and Rick Ross flaunting his friendships. For those of you with no interest in listening to someone take the better part of an hour to reaffirm their self-worth by showcasing how hard they’re shining: Teflon Don is going to be lost on you. But if you have no qualms with returning to an era of rap that celebrated ridiculous levels of decadence: you’ve come to the right place.

“Blast my record out the windows of your Honda Accord,” Ross recently suggested in an interview with Billboard. “And if anyone gives you grief, you look them right in the eye and tell them Rick Ross told you wealth begins in the heart.” That’s fine advice, but once you’ve reached such a level of wealth as Ross has, he’d likely suggest you ditch the heartfelt sentiment, get some iced out jewelery, and start ridin’ deep. Opening with the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League-produced “I’m Not A Star,” Ross wastes little time in showcasing his egocentric view on the world, casually revealing his self-perceived place in the the industry, “If I died today remember me like John Lennon.” Despite its title, “I’m Not A Star” is essentially just three minutes of Ross explaining why, in fact, he is a star. Then there’s “Maybach Music III,” the third in a series of songs copping its name from the absurdly elite German car (though to say they’re just “cars” would be doing a Maybach a disservice), “B.M.F.” (which stands for “Blowin’ Money Fast”), “Aston Martin Music,”and “MC Hammer,” where Ross reveals in detail how much money he spends, “Bitch I’m MC Hammer, I’m about cream.” But don’t get Rick Ross wrong, he’s grateful for his lifestyle. “Becoming a young millionaire you can lose sight of the things that’s important to you” he explains in the introduction to “All The Money In The World.” Then again, the references to gratitude are definitely in the minority here.

Serving to complement the album’s lyrical focus on money is the rich roster of talent that joins Ross on Teflon Don, including Raphael Saadiq on “All The Money In The World.” “I’m fortunate enough to socialize with some of the greatest musicians around” he reflected in the same interview with Billboard. Damn right he is. T.I., Jadakiss and Erykah Badu join the MC on the aforementioned “Maybach Music,” Trey Songz & Diddy accompany Ross on “No. 1,” Gucci Mane sits in on “MC Hammer,” Styles P on “B.M.F.,” Drake and Chrisette Michele on “Aston Martin Music,” and even Cee-Lo Green makes an appearance with “Tears of Joy.” Two collaborations rise above the rest however, together standing as the album’s strongest tracks: “Live Fast, Die Young” with Kanye West and “Free Mason” with Jay-Z and John Legend.

Ross isn’t a lyrical slouch on “Live Fast, Die Young,” but the song is primarily held steady due to Kanye’s verse which, while maybe not warranting a “Kanye’s Back!” chant, suggests that his upcoming Good Ass Job release will have some serious flow to it. “My outfit’s so disrespectful/You can go ahead and sneeze ’cause my presence bless you.” On “Free Mason” Ross once again leads the way, this time branding the song as being “For the soldiers that see the sun at midnight.” By no means does the Inkredibles’ production take a back seat to the two superstars however, as an inspirational feeling is added to the track with the tightly knit beat. It’s not until Jay-Z’s verse that the track really peaks though. Lashing out at the reaction which was aimed at his “On To The Next One” video—its abstract symbolism was greeted with accusations of satanism and Freemasonry—Jay immediately digs in, “Niggas couldn’t do nothing with me, they put the devil on me… Fuck all these fairy tales/Go to hell, this is God engineering… Bitch, I said I was amazing/Not that I’m a Mason… He without sin shall cast the first stone, so y’all look in the mirror double check y’all appearance…Bitch, I’m red hot/I’m on my third six, but a devil I’m not.”

While not on the same level as “Free Mason,” the most telling track on Teflon Don might very well be “Tears of Joy.” The song’s introduction casts an unusual tone early on as we hear a recording of a speech originally delivered by Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, “Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner.” This is followed by a series of statements that act as a call to violence to spark change. The words offer little but lost sentiment though as Ross fails to honestly address the recording in the song. Rather, working alongside Cee-Lo’s ever-stunning vocals, he continues with the same flow that is felt throughout various other parts of Teflon Don, appearing to show appreciation for what he has, yet still sneaking in the occasional conceited reference: “Biggie Smalls in the flesh.” By all means he’s a good rapper, but Notorious B.I.G. he is not.

The reason that “Tears of Joy” might best represent Teflon Don, despite being cast among such a quality stream of tracks, is because it displays how truly one dimensional the album is. Even when blatantly trying to shift the song in a new direction, Ross’ lyrics come back to focus on personal wealth. If you were to measure Teflon Don‘s lyrical substance on a scale of 1 – 10, you’d end up with a negative number: there simply isn’t any. But if you measure the album on its ability to showcase a non-stop flow of tremendously tight beats, mixed in with some consistent contributions from some of today’s biggest names, and capped off by a memorable showing on the mic from The Boss, Teflon Don is scoring high.

Sheryl Crow “100 Miles To Memphis” Review

While Sheryl Crow‘s multi-platinum Tuesday Night Music Club was still pumping out a mammoth wave of singles, a beginner’s guide to soul & southern-flavored rhythm and blues was released in the form of the 1994 Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation. The record attempted to glorify the depth of influence that the “Memphis Sound” continues to have on musicians by pairing contemporary country artists with traditional blues & soul legends. On the whole the album was a good listen, but the results were often inconsistent; the awkward pairings tended to fumble through the celebrated standards while attempting to find common ground. The point is that even a well orchestrated tribute to a sound that defined an era isn’t a sure-thing. 100 Miles To Memphis is Crow’s attempt to dip her toes in the same deep waters as some of popular music’s icons; a self-defined return to a sound which she grew up to listening to while living in Kennett, Missouri—which is literally about 100 miles from Memphis. The result, however, falls even shorter than Rhythm, Country and Blues did.

Sheryl Crow is a very talented singer and musician, and her records have continually been received with glowing acclaim from fans. Although her last album, 2008′s Detours, was the first of her career to fail to reach platinum status upon its release (that said, it’s still sold some 700,000 copies worldwide), she is still regarded one of the premier acts within the realm of her style. That said, both rhythm & blues and soul are genres which hardly grant artists the freedom to simply dabble in, and for better or worse, Sheryl Crow is a pop musician trying to do just that here: dabble.

“Our Love Is Fading” introduces the presence of horns and guitar noodling, but Crow’s range fails to lead the song; backup singers are eventually given center stage in an attempt to help propel the sound towards something bearing the slimmest bit of emotion. Later, Justin Timberlake joins Crow for a rendition of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name,” but the song eventually incorporates a series of “shoo-do-wop-bop”s to offset their chorus. “Stop” is hindered by it’s attempt at nurturing a series of direct breaks: the backup singers melodically bellowing “stop” as the song repeatedly halts. By the time 100 Miles To Memphis reaches the album’s title track, the record’s allusions to soul have regressed to simple harmonizations and an electric organ which quietly lurks in the background.

This isn’t to say that the entire album is purely trivial though. Aside from its clichéd breaks, “Stop” also has a swooping range and floats through a wide range of motion as Crow attempts to mirror the song’s instruments with her voice. Interestingly, the slow-to-boil “Sideways” finds more depth than the Citizen Cope original despite Cope actually joining Crow in the duet. The song’s piano and strings gracefully rest below the duo’s vocals, each part embracing one another which adds a substantial feeling of passion to the track. “Roses At Midnight And Moonlight” lurks beneath a lengthy shadow of cool organ and a lanky guitar, wah-wah-ing alongside Crow’s sultry vocals. “Turn up the heat” she moans, entangling her voice with those of her backup singers. Continuing, she croons, “Bodies on fire, go on and teach me the ways of desire.” As pleasant as these examples are, however, they are outliers on the album; for the better part of the release, 100 Miles To Memphis falls into glorified mall-pop territory.

There is nothing particularly wrong with songs like “Summer Day” or “Peaceful Feeling,” but they’re only enjoyable in the sense that the background music playing at Wal-Mart is enjoyable. “Long Road Home” adds a bit of twang on the surface and the well intentioned “Say What You Want” continues by bouncing a tacky, overproduced beat around as Crow lyrically glazes over modern dilemmas with the country’s patriotism. As far as awkward goes though, “Say What You Want” is far from the peak on the record. “Eye To Eye,” the completely unnecessary collaboration with Keith Richards, takes the cake in that regard as it carries an oddly placed reggae vibe without actually sounding anything like an honest reggae track; Richards’ guitar line could have easily been replicated by just about any competent musician. A cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I Want You Back” finds Crow forcefully attempting to strip her voice of its years rather than embracing the increasingly weathered character of her tone. The result, to put it bluntly, is actually kind of creepy. Fitting that it closes 100 Miles To Memphis though, as “I Want You Back” does well to embody the feeling that runs throughout the entire record: good intentions aside, Crow is continually unable to channel the spirit that was originally captured by the music of her past.

After all her travels, her lifetime of experiences, and her growth as both a human and as a musician, Sheryl Crow has returned to the south, settling in at an acreage outside of Nashville with her two young sons. And in rediscovering a part of her past she has also attempted to return to a sound that reflects her musical roots. With 100 Miles To Memphis however, the only point that thoroughly translates is that while Crow might have only been 100 miles from Memphis as a child, musically she now couldn’t sound any further away.

Prince “20Ten” Review

What followed the unexpected announcement of Prince’s new album in June was something that had to surprise even his most die-hard fans. (Then again, it is pretty much par for the course in terms of Prince’s career… the last decade even more so.) With less than a month’s notice, it was not only announced that 20Ten would be released, but that it would be released for free via some 2.5 million newspapers in the UK. While the prolific artist followed a similar promotional path for the release of Planet Earth in 2007, this move most certainly stepped things up; a decision which Prince considers logical despite many musicians opting to release “free” albums online rather than through a physical outlet. In fact, Prince took to condemning the digital publishing model, explaining to The Mirror‘s Peter Willis that “The internet’s completely over.” He continued, “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”

Though not released through the exact same means, Prince nonetheless made waves last year when it was announced that he would work exclusively with the Minneapolis-based retailer Target (in the U.S., at least) in releasing his new collection of music. That collection materialized in the form of the three-pack of LotusFlow3r, MPLSound & Elixer; the last being an album by his protégée and girlfriend Bria Valente. While still bearing some fantastic songs the discs were an inconsistent affair however: though it still showcased Prince’s distinctly brilliant musicianship, LotusFlow3r lacked general cohesion, MPLSound acted as more of a party record, primarily relying on its funk, and Valente’s Elixer was, well… a fine attempt at a debut album. Despite taking a risk in choosing his own adventure with the distribution of his music, the release(s) debuted at the number two position on the Billboard 200, once again reconfirming that for all his unconventional decisions, Prince still knew what he was doing. And regardless of who is fronting the bill to press a few million copies of 20Ten and scatter them across the UK, Prince is once again making sure that his music is released and heard on his terms. When all is said and done however, the standout memory many will likely have of the release won’t relate to the out-of-the-blue announcement or it being “free,” but rather something much more important: 20Ten is a remarkable step towards recapturing both a style and energy of an artist from years-gone-by, and will no doubt be remembered as one of Prince’s finest releases from the past two decades.

The album immediately jumps off with the energetic bounce of “Compassion.” The song is carried by a tinny beat while Prince and his backup singers trade spots, all coming together with the hook, “Whatever skin you’re in, we all need to be friends, all happy again: so much better than nothing.” A distorted guitar introduces “Begging Endlessly,” the instrument briefly buzzing before giving way to an equally slick synth line. Questioning the limits of the world, Prince wades through the track while relating the depth of the universe to the extent with which love can flow. Though chiming in later with a fairly basic guitar line, the instrument ultimately does little but fill a bit of time before taking a backseat to the impassioned lyrical theme of the track. Prince’s self-described favorite song on the album—”Future Soul Song”—continues by gently slowing down the pace of things.

Lifting the tempo back up, “Sticky Like Glue” interjects an upbeat pace, eventually coming to a head as Prince trumps the understated funk by flat-out-rapping. In his brief suggestive roll-out he concludes by referring to himself as a “gracious host,” and in case you were wondering, that’s about as subtle as Prince gets on the record. “Act of God” continues the upbeat rhythm that was revived with “Sticky Like Glue.” While refraining from becoming preachy, the song does relate to a number of comments Prince made to Willis about the direction of the world during their interview. Explaining the decision to name the album as he did, Prince explained, “I just think it’s a year that really matters. I think the world’s tilting on its axis, it’s fraught with misinformation. George Orwell’s vision of the future is definitely here with us. These are very trying times.” “Act of God” follows this idea as it examines the world’s financial and political turmoil as well as the crumbling level of personal freedoms in our culture, all of which Prince also scrutinizes for the transparency within the justification given by those in charge. For as explicit as Prince tends to be with his views on life, the song comes off as more of a question of what’s going on here than a statement of condemnation. “Lavaux” begins with a slapping-base and synth line as Prince opens up, “Take me to the vineyards of Lavaux.” Expanding on the Switzerland-based region before transporting to Portugal, he continues by explaining how he would go anywhere to follow the path which is right for him.

“Walk In Sand” continues by once again slowing things down. If only as a reminder of how remarkably broad the appeal of his vocal sensuality is, Prince seems to effortlessly reveal the song’s lyrics, simply crooning, “Nothing’s better than to walk in sand, hand in hand with you.” Both the romantic theme and pace of the song casually bleed into the following track, “Sea Everything.” The bouncy “Everybody Loves Me” jumps in after, awkwardly shifting the pace of the album as the simple vocals repeatedly exclaim, “Tonight I love everybody, everybody loves me.” The song shifts between a variety of phases, touching on both ’80s synth and classic saloon-sounding piano along the way while adding some of the most primitive lyrics on 20Ten, “There ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it.” “Laydown,” the album’s “bonus track,” is such an outlier for good reason; that reason, however, isn’t because it’s not up to snuff with the rest of 20Ten. The dense song is grittier than anything else on the record and offers more swagger than Prince previously exhibited throughout the album’s other songs. “You need to lay it down and let me show you how we do this thing up in funky town/From the heart of Minnesota here comes the purple Yoda guaranteed to bring the dirty new sound.” 20Ten comes to an end as a fuzzy guitar glows while the infectious echo of “You need to lay it down” floats along in the background.

Many purists and longtime fans would likely argue that, musically, Prince never truly stopped being the person that he has long-since become known and loved for. That said, as a character, the enigmatic musician has continually focused on the evolution of his sound and style; something which has often manifested itself in inconsistency. While this has taken different forms over the past decade—hell, the past three decades—with 20Ten the shift just happens to return the musician to a sound which parallels some of his finest work. Be it Musicology, 3121, Planet Earth, or either of last year’s albums, the legend of Prince’s music from yesteryear has continually remained at the heart of any discussion surrounding whatever he has recorded in recent memory. With 20Ten however, Prince has given friends, fans and critics alike a reason to not only celebrate his music once again, but also a reason to stop arguing about if and when he’d return to prominence. With 20Ten, Prince is definitely back.

The Almighty Defenders at The Royal Canadian Legion (Calgary, AB)

Video of the Almighty Defenders (Mark Sultan with the Black Lips) performing at the Royal Canadian Legion as part of the Sled Island festival in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Deerhoof at Central United Church (Calgary, AB)

Prior to the show, I overheard someone in the church pew behind me ask “Those don’t look like standard Deerhoof guitars, do they?” While I’m not sure exactly what standard Deerhoof guitars are supposed to look like I doubt that they were disappointed as guitarists Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich took to the stage, progressively introducing an electric version “Panda Panda Panda.” Following with a pair of songs, the group unexpectedly dove into a rendition of the Ramones’ “Pinhead,” led by Dieterich on vocals. Following the song drummer Greg Saunier awkwardly took to the microphone, humorously rambling while he gave the guitarists time to prepare for the next song. His charming story-telling had completely won the crowd over by the time he concluded his bit of self-deprecating commentary; he would return to the mic two more times before the night ended.

The band continued with another series of songs including “Chandelier Searchlight,” “Wrong Time Capsule” and “The Perfect Me” before vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki returned to the crowd—her, Rodriguez and Dieteric had previously ventured into the first row earlier in the set (see: video above). For “Come See The Duck” she strolled down the aisle as the band continued to roar. This eventually led to a polarizing crowd response: as Matsuzaki was seeking a bit of participation some members of the crowd enthusiastically joined in when she encouraged a response while others sat in an awkward daze.

After a break the band mixed instruments up a bit and Saunier assumed the role of the group’s third guitarist for a song before taking the lead for a rendition of Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country” with Matsuzaki taking over drum-detail. “Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back” played the band out as they left through a door at the back of the stage, though the break was a short one.

Earlier in the night, while Lorrie Matheson and Wild Choir worked their sound checks, I noticed Saunier roaming around the church. I had done an email interview with him a few years ago and after introducing myself he seemed to have a vague memory of it… which is probably for the best. He was enthusiastic about the performance and the sound in the venue, mentioning how he he hoped the band would sound as good during their show as they did in sound check. Continuously the focal point of the set, his spastic drumming was as dazzling as it was brilliant, his pre-show wishes came true throughout the set as the band’s sound translated wonderfully during the performance. The high point, however, came as Deerhoof returned to the stage and Saunier sat down at the church’s grand piano which was off-stage next to the crowd. He and Matsuzaki continued by gracefully collaborating for a touching duet, with the guitarists wisely adding but a few brushes of their strings for a bit of added depth. The crowd was left in a hush and even as Saunier walked away from the piano it took a few moments before the audience came to its senses and erupted in applause. The set closed with a roaring version of “Milking” and the band’s departure from the stage was met with a standing round of applause; a well-deserved ovation if ever I’ve seen one.