Friday, June 23, 2006

Primacy and Recency

Two bands to whom I have been introduced over the last year have recently released new CDs. Here follows the reviews of both of them.

First, a bit about steak.

I ate dinner at a restaurant called Stoney River yesterday. A steakhouse, kind of a hunting lodge style atmosphere, with standard fare. Lots and lots of wine, probably very good, which I will be more qualified to comment on in a year and a half. Salads and appetizers, from which I chose the lobster bisque. Wonderful, and along with the bread, a great first course to the meal. A page of "entrees" including chicken, fish, etc. dishes, which might be decent, but I'll never know because eating anything but steak at a steakhouse is heretical.

The steak I ended up with was advertised as the house special. (No, it wasn't cojones, for those familiar with one of my favorite jokes. If you've not heard the cojones joke, ask me to tell it to you sometime.) This steak, a filet, was very good. Stoney River apparently has a Secret Blend of Seasonings they put on all their steaks, and it was delicious. But eating this filet just served to confirm for me that I like the ribeye a lot better. A filet is probably a better cut if you want a single piece of ultra-high quality meat. It's probably healthier, as a large portion of the ribeye's flavor comes from the marbelization (ie, the fat). But as long as I'm going to order three quarters of a pound of meat anyway, I'll take the ribeye and six dollars over the filet any day.

Now, a bit about quasi-coffee.

Starbucks, contrary to popular opinion, is only halfway a coffeehouse. The other half is "purveyor of all drinks wonderful, warm, and cold, that may or may not tangentially involve coffee as one of their ingredients." One of these (that can either be ordered with or without a coffee base), new for and limited to the summer, is the banana coconut frappucino. I've had both the coffee-based and the creme-based, and it's hard to say which is better. But it doesn't matter, because both are amazingly good. It's refreshing, perfect for 96-degree summer days. This is the sort of thing that probably actually exists in the Caribbean, except it's probably half rum and half all that other stuff. Despite its lack of rum, the Starbucks version is certainly worth a drink, with the caveat that if you don't like coconut, you may want to request the drink without it, and if you don't like banana, stick with something else. All in all, though, this (in addition to the Blackberry Green Tea frappucino) makes summer second only to Christmas as Starbucks' best season.

Review: Ganging Up on the Sun

Guster's latest release was sadly underreported. I looked in a Best Buy ad, and saw that the CD was now for sale. I thought this was probably a recent development, and headed to iTunes to buy it. As it turns out, it had been out for like two weeks already, with no iTunes coverage at all. (And yet, we see Nelly Furtado's mug all over that enterprise. That "Promiscuous" song really, really grates on my nerves. It needs to go away. And is it just me, or does she look positively mentally retarded on the cover of her new album? I digress.) Some of the user comments said that this was a slight departure from old Guster, but most everyone gave it a really great rating.

Deservedly so. Ganging Up on the Sun a worthy followup to Guster's other great albums. My biggest (and really only) complaint is that it lacks the band's trademark bongos in most of the songs. But aside from that, nothing to complain about at all. "Manifest Destiny" is the mosy readily listenable song on the album, with a pleasantly pop-ish piano line in the background for almost the entire song. Think Ben Folds, or maybe the Decemberists at their most bright and happy. Interestingly, the parallels to other songs does not stop there. "The Captain" is a Western fantasy, and would be as easily in place on a Rilo Kiley CD as where it is. We even get a female vocalist (but she's probably not as good as Jenny Lewis). Subsequent songs evoke Coldplay and Muse in places and Sufjan Stevens in others.

Remarkably, all of the songs have a stylistic element in common. They all sound like Guster. The band's sound is there on all of the tracks (minus the bongos), the vocals are still solid, and the styles are more varied than they've ever been. Fans of the band, assuming they're not stuck-up "purist" fans of the band, as in "they don't sound exactly like they used to so I don't like them anymore" will love this release.

Review: Under the Iron Sea

Keane's second release has been lauded as being more adventurous than the band's first. That's probably true, if only marginally so. The album has a different collective "feel" about it, but the actual sound of what's going on it largely the same as it ever was. For the unfamiliar with Keane, think Coldplay minus a guitar, and you've got it. There are people out there who would decry that estimation as ignoring certain nuances of sound, and they might be right. But that's the parallel that I drew upon hearing the band, and that's the one that makes the most sense to the most people.

Some of the tracks on this CD fail to deliver. The first, "Atlantic," is steeped in tritonic dissonance and gave me serious doubts about the ultimate quality of this album. Most of the middle of the album--after "Is It Any Wonder?" and before "Crystal Ball," is okay but rather uninteresting. But there is a lot of good to hear as well. The aforementioned "Is It Any Wonder?", which will probably become the best-known and most-played track on the CD, is a fun one to listen to. And the album gets really good toward the last few tracks. "Crystal Ball" all the way up through "Let it Slide" (which apparently is an iTunes exclusive?) is awesome. My favorite track is "The Frog Prince" which is musically superb and tells a fascinating story at the same time.

I suppose this entire album can appeal to certain people, though probably not all at once. There are tracks that I find boring and unmusical, but that others can probably draw a parallel to Radiohead (which I also find boring and unmusical) and immensely enjoy. The ones I like, certain fans are probably going to denounce as being too "mainstream" and easily musical. The point is, any given listener is going to like at least half this album.

Currently listening: Under the Iron Sea, Keane

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