Queens of the Stone Age – “Villains”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Head Like A Haunted House,” “The Evil Has Landed”

Whenever Josh Homme is involved with a new project, it’s always telling to look at who he has chosen to surround himself with. Although the band’s current line-up has stayed mostly intact since the “Era Vulgaris” days of a decade ago, Homme’s albums have always reflected those around him. He’s worked with everyone from Dave Grohl to Iggy Pop to John Paul Jones to Lady Gaga to Elton John, and often reflects back on them. This album, though, has no features – not even Mark Lanegan. It only takes one person out for a spin, but that person is Mark Ronson. Ronson met Homme while producing Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” which Homme guests on. Ronson is known for his diverse collaborations, often wringing the best possible work out of acts like Bruno Mars, Mystikal and Amy Winehouse – but a hard rock band like Queens of the Stone Age was still a bold choice to produce.

QOTSA really thrust themselves in a new direction on “Villains,” their seventh album. Their first six albums, though all different, set a template for the band that gets largely demolished here. Gone are the hard-rock crunches of “Sick Sick Sick” and the blunting tempo changes of “Song for the Dead.” Instead, we get (mostly) some danceable rock. Quite frankly, “Villains” sounds like the meeting point between Ronson and QOTSA that we were expecting. Opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” really sets the tone, with an almost silent intro that leads to a midtempo, synth heavy beat that’s a far distance from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” The party hits its peak halfway through the album, on “Head Like a Haunted House,” a disco-y track with an almost circus bassline that gets so party that it becomes a little draining.

Regular ol’ grinding QOTSA still works their way into the album, too. “Domesticated Animals” is an exploration into what it’s like to play the same three chords on repeat for over five minutes and, as far as QOTSA album tracks are considered, it’s as successful as you might expect. The album’s best track (and second single) “The Evil Has Landed,” is the only song that actually features the all-out one-chord guitar attack we love from QOTSA. And, as the album’s penultimate track, it comes as a prodigal return. Closer “Villains of Circumstance,” a song that’s existed in the QOTSA canon for at least a few years now, lets some of Homme’s deeply underrated vocals shine (although the song does die out on a disappointing finale).

Unfortunately, there is some dead weight. QOTSA have never really been a band to attempt slow songs, and on “Villains” we find out why. “Fortress” starts with promise but hits a real sour tone when the pace never picks up. Also, “Un-Reborn Again” is a track that starts out as a ton of fun, but well overstays its welcome. 6:41 isn’t exactly a foreign length for a QOTSA song, but at the four-minute mark I was already finding myself waiting for the end. Even if the new, upbeat turn is refreshing, there is a lack of the guitar bashing we expect. “Villains” feels like a balanced effort that doesn’t quite make the correct scale at times.

All of that said and done, Mark Ronson producing a Queens of the Stone Age release is an equally wild and understandable effort, and it’s pretty full of jams. This album might not have any of the best QOTSA songs – and they exist on every album – but it is mostly consistent throughout and certainly stands out as their most unique effort so far. The band might not ever put out another “Songs For the Deaf,” but this content is more than acceptable. Just don’t take so long next time.

-By Andrew McNally

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Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally

Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

(Photo Credit: JamBase)Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Picture That” “Is This the Life We Really Want?”

It feels dishonest to talk about the solo works of Pink Floyd members and compare them to “The Wall,” but in this case, Roger Waters might want us to do that. This album is reminiscent of that behemoth in many ways, most obviously in a political sense. Waters hasn’t released an album in nearly a quarter of a century, and for a while he seemed more than content doing tours of both his own work and Pink Floyd’s. But in the age where fascism has seen a sudden, scarily impressive rebound, Waters followed closely behind.

People talk about Pink Floyd’s politics, but it’s still often obscured by (clouds) talk about the more avant-garde, experimental music that dominated their discography. Still, their tenth and eleventh albums, “Animals” and “The Wall,” feel eerily relevant in 2017 (“Animals,” as it happens, turns 40 this year). “Animals” is easily the bleakest album the band put out, a deeply anti-fascist album with a famously grayscale cover and extremely long, grinding songs. “The Wall,” as we know, is a much more cinematic album (and literally a movie), but hardly less political. Both albums were rooted in anti-authoritarianism, something Pink Floyd did even more than other classic rock bands.

Waters exploits the albums’ best qualities for his new work, wonderfully titled “Is This the Life We Really Want?.” Waters, even more than most musicians, is not shy about his personal politics, and they are on full, angry display across the album’s twelve tracks. Even the opener, “When We Were Young,” is miserable in its worldview. “I’m still ugly, you’re still fat,” a man says flatly to an unknown listener. “Was it our parents who made us this way, or was it God? Fuck it.”

Waters goes past the point of being blunt and gets downright confrontational on the album. The best example to go back to is “Mother,” from “The Wall.” That song includes direct lines like “Mother, should I trust the government?” Musically, much of this album resembles that song – airy guitar, strings, a lot of acoustic elements. The music is not nearly as urgent and frantic as the lyrics, which turns out to be effective, because it comes off as more honest and less theatrical. Waters’ voice also sounds similar to that era, almost like he’s been frozen in time. His sort of powerful-whisper thing is still front and center, only sometimes allowing itself to grow huge.

Again, to drive this home, this is the fiercest political work we’ve seen since the Trump campaign started, and I’m not forgetting YG’s song “Fuck Donald Trump.” This album is absolutely littered with profanity and extremely specific references to all of the world’s current ailments. Nowhere is this as direct as on the title track, which has a set of lyrics that go: “Fear keeps us all in line / fear of all those foreigners, fear of all their crimes / is this the life we really want?” Soon after, he sings, “every time a Russian bride is advertised for sale / every time a journalist is left to rot in jail / every time a young girl’s life is casually spent / and every time a nincompoop becomes the president / every time someone dies reaching for their keys / and every time Greenland falls into the fucking sea.” The whole song is a direct message to those who are blind or ignorant to the problems in the world. The song also opens with a brief Trump audioclip. Sure, calling Trump a “nincompoop” ranks down with Kendrick Lamar’s “Trump is a chump” as a pretty low-level insult, but it still gets the job done. And it’s okay, because on the equally great “Picture That,” he sings “picture a shithouse with no fucking drains / picture a leader with no fucking brains.” While not directly about Trump, he’s absolutely one of the potential ‘leader’s mentioned.

The album ends on a beautiful three-song suite that comes kind of out of left field, but works as an effective finale nonetheless. “Wait For Her” is an emotional pseudo-ballad centered around a heavy guitar crunch. The song transitions into “Oceans Apart,” a minute-long interlude that changes pitch and sheds most of the instruments, before bringing them all back in and returning to the central rhythm for closer “Part of Me Died.” Although Waters all but sheds the politics that infiltrate every other track, it’s still a beautiful addition. Otherwise, the album is all about the bleak state of the world today. “Smell the Roses” starts off sounding optimistic, before diverging into lyrics about terrorism ruining the world’s beauty.

I mentioned stylistic similarities to “The Wall,” and there’s definitely some easter eggs throughout that will please Floyd fans (like myself). “The Most Beautiful Girl” is one of the album’s lesser tracks, but it does feature Waters painfully sing “I’m coming home,” just as he did on “Hey You.” “Bird In A Gale,” one of the album’s most urgent tracks, has Waters repeat the word “floor” just like how David Gilmour repeated the word “stone” on “Dogs” back on the “Animals” album. “Déjà vu,” a brutally confrontational song, has the sound of a wall crashing in the middle. And, lastly, “Smell the Roses” has references to money and a rhythm similar to “Money.” Some or all of these may be unintentional, but when multiple major powers have descended into the world Floyd sang so strongly against on “Animals” and “The Wall,” it makes sense for Waters to pat himself on the back for the 40-years-early predictions. A lot of this album is “I told you so, now here’s what happened.” The album isn’t so much an emotional roller coaster as much as it is an abrupt freefall. The album is immediate, outright, furious, and downright necessary. It has more urgency and necessity than many of Pink Floyd’s albums, and even outranks some of them. Necessary times call for necessary measures, and sometimes, just like with A Tribe Called Quest last year, we have to call on the veterans to fully ground us. Waters is about as anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, anti-everything bad as they come, and this album is a lyrical ground-pounder that we need to level us in 2017.

-By Andrew McNally

Blondie – “Pollinator”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Already Naked,” “Fragments”

Certain bands hit a legendary status where they can have others write music for them. We saw it last with the proto-new Monkees album that had contributions from both Harry Nilsson and Rivers Cuomo. Well, Blondie have hit that status. Although they don’t have the amount of material or the longevity (remember their 15 year break), Blondie shook music so much that they’re able to have outside help.

But before we discuss the non-Blondie elements, we should discuss the band itself. This album has a renewed energy and a consistent groove to it, and it’s safe to say it rivals that of their original late ’70’s run. The band is locked in on every song. And, as with any great Blondie album, there’s a respectable mix of new wave, ballads, disco and punk. The album is bookended with two great rock songs, “Doom or Destiny” and “Fragments,” the latter sporting an unexpected and effective tempo change. “Long Time” balances out a pleasantly bouncy beat with a delicate bridge. “When I Gave Up On You” is a great ballad, and one that brings the album’s momentum down a bit. And although “My Monster” might not be the best track, the blending of guitar and synth over unexpectedly monotone vocals makes it arguably the most interesting. Debbie Harry hasn’t missed a beat – her voice dominates the album. It hasn’t changed in the slightest – modest, but dominating. Only in “Already Naked” does it feel like the band relies on her, though, which is good. In the album’s other ten tracks, her voice patiently but strongly leads the band.

After a fairly mediocre outing where the band took on a more electronic approach, Blondie decided to tag in to some other writers for this album. This isn’t to say they’ve given up – merely that they felt fans would rather appreciate great songs written by other people to decent songs written by them. And the person who shows up the most in the songwriting credits is indeed Debbie Harry. The classic duo of Harry and guitarist Chris Stein penned two tracks on this album: opener “Doom or Destiny” and “Love Level.” Harry also has a credit alongside Blood Orange on “Long Time.” Keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife Laurel are credited on two songs as well. Other songwriters that aided include Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Charli XCX, The Gregory Brothers, and Adam Johnston, a writer for YourMovieSucks.org. Almost ironically, the album’s weakest track “Best Day Ever,” was written by Sia and Nick Valensi of the Strokes.

Despite the credits, the album is somewhat sparse on actual guest appearances. Joan Jett (who is not credited as a songwriter) appears on opener “Doom or Destiny.” Johnny Marr, Charli XCX, the Gregory Brothers and Adam Johnston appear on the songs that they co-wrote. The sole other appearance is that of John Roberts. Readers may know Roberts as the voice of Linda Belcher on the unbelievably great FOX animated show “Bob’s Burgers.” I do not know the circumstances that led him to appearing on a Blondie record. The track he shows up on, “Love Level,” is the only one that approaches hip-hop in any way. Admittedly, it’s pretty jarring, because it’s not only the only pseudo-rap heard on the album, it’s also the only prominent male voice. As a song, it works, but in the context of the album, it’s a little much of a curveball.

At the end of the day, this is just a very good Blondie album. For a band that spent their heyday trying everything, they sound comfortable going back to some basics. They nail both the jams and the ballads, and they sound great as a collective. The energy is there, the diversity is there, and Debbie Harry’s vocals are there, so there is reason to rejoice. Forty-three years and eleven albums in, Blondie still sound young and fresh. And really, isn’t that what Blondie is supposed to be?

-By Andrew McNally

Metallica – “Hardwired…To Self Destruct”

(Photo Credit: Metal Injection)Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Atlas, Rise!” “Moth Into Flame” “Spit Out the Bone”

Do you ever just stop and marvel at Metallica? I sure as hell do. They not only helped bring metal into the mainstream, they’re the faces of the genre. Metallica are considered one of the “big 4” thrash-metal bands of the 80’s that helped popularize metal as a whole. But, unlike Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, they’ve stuck. All four bands are still active, and have been since the early 80’s. But the other three, in their own distinctive styles, have stuck to their bases in order to not lose credibility. Metallica have done anything but that. They’ve always taken risks, knowing full well they could jettison their core fans. Their first four albums thrust thrash metal into the spotlight, but their 1991 self-titled album was a divisive affair of radio-friendly hard rock that proves to still be radio-friendly 25 years later. It was significantly lighter than previous work, putting focus much more on production and and the lumbering elements of the songs; it is beloved by music fans, and hated by many thrash metal fans. (This reviewer personally finds it very boring, but sees its value.) 2003’s disaster “St. Anger” ditched guitar solos for a garage-rock sound (and the crappiest production in the land), and failed on incomprehensible levels. And 2008’s “Death Magnetic” brought the group back around to their thrash roots.

Their highs and lows are higher and lower than most bands can claim, so in the rare days when Metallica actually releases new music now, there’s the see-saw teetering worry if it will actually be any good or not. Well much like their last album, “Death Magnetic,” there isn’t much reason to worry, but not much excitement either. All of the elements are present: hard-hitting riffs, James Hetfield’s sometimes-dopey-sometimes-effective lyrics, Kirk Hammett’s bulging guitar solos, Rob Trujillo’s thundering bass and Lars Ulrich’s no-frills, rapid drumming. The production is, thankfully, excellent – the first time since ’91, an issue that most big bands never face. It’s just that the music itself is lackluster. Despite the band’s claims, it’s easy to think they’re losing steam.

This album was billed as a double-album. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason why, exactly, other than to be different and maybe provide a fabricated moment of relief. It does indeed clock in at 77 minutes – but their previous album clocks in at 74. Splitting the album into two doses of 6 songs does seem to send a message though – a message that fans, and the band, might not want to be pummeled with sound anymore. These dudes are aging, whether they like it or not, and an inconsistent energy throughout shows.

The album’s first half is absolutely stronger than the back half. The album opens with what is actually their second shortest song – “Hardwired,” an absolute bruiser with the energy of anything from “Master of Puppets.” The lyrics are among some of the dopiest that James Hetfield has ever written – but spin the song a few times and you won’t really care anymore. “Atlas, Rise!” follows, with significantly better lyrics (best of the album), and the second of two already punching Kirk Hammett solos. Follow-up “Now That We’re Dead” suffers from Metallica’s biggest problem – the long intro. They made needlessly long intros work in the 80’s, but ever since then they’ve made long intros by just…playing the same thing over and over again. And that’s how this track starts. The track itself is enough of a puncher, but loses faith in taking too long to get to a point. Second single “Moth Into Flame” is probably the best work on the album, a truly ripping song that showcases everything the band does best. Hopefully, it will go down in the Metallica canon as an all-time great. Watch them rip apart Jimmy Fallon’s set to see how great the song is. The first disc closes out with “Dream No More,” a song that would seem fairly bland if not for Hetfield’s excellent vocals, and “Halo On Fire,” the album’s longest song, and a very effective pseudo-ballad that harkens back to their best tracks from the self-titled album.

The second disc falters, though, with nearly every track sounding like one that just made the cut. “Confusion” isn’t a particular winner, with dumb, overused lyrics complementing some less-than-engaging music. “ManUNkind,” bad title and all, is just boring through and through. “Here Comes Revenge” overstays its welcome, but has more of an energy to it that is lacking in the previous two songs. It’s a fun track, one of the album’s many that might sound better live. In a very similar vain is “Am I Savage?,” a bruiser that ultimately isn’t interesting enough to make the first disc, but still plenty enjoyable. Penultimate track “Murder One” is aided by being the only track on Disc 2 that’s under 6 minutes; it feels comparatively brisk, and the beat, although not inherently interesting, feels stronger because of it. Finally, though, comes the closer, “Spit Out the Bone.” Oh man. The song reinterpolates the opening track, “Hardwired,” taking a song that’s already very quick and playing it even faster. Much more than any other song on the album, “Spit Out the Bone” is pure thrash. It ultimately goes on far longer than necessary, but it’s the first time in many, many years that Metallica have proven they can cause whiplash in listeners.

Metallica don’t have anything to prove in 2016. They haven’t had anything to prove in a long, long time. They’re the only one of the “big 4” that’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it’ll likely stay that way. They’ve outsold the other three, combined. They’re still one of the best live bands, ever, and yeah – they can make every track on this monster sound great. So when you listen to this album, keep in mind everything Metallica has been able to accomplish, everything that has led them to be able to make an album like this so far into their careers. No, it’s not perfect, and it’s not even great. But damn, when these dudes want to, they still go hard, and they’re still great guys. This won’t win over any new fans, and it’s by no means a classic. In fact, they should have cut multiple songs and/or twenty minutes of runtime. No Metallica album needs to be as long as it is. But, by default, it’s the best Metallica album in a long, long time. It’s a mixed album, for sure, but one that will likely improve with the band’s incredible live show. And for now, best to just sit back and strap in.

-By Andrew McNally

Dinosaur, Jr. – “Give A Glimpse of What Yer Not”

(Photo Credit: Dinosaur Jr. bandcamp page)Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Tiny,” “I Walk For Miles”

It’s taken a while, but it seems like Dinosaur Jr. are finally getting their due praise. On their new album, their 11th and their 7th with the original line-up, the Massachusetts rockers double down on what made them so influential in the first place. Yes, they’re the band that did “Feel the Pain” in 1994, but they still rock harder than most young bands do nowadays.

The band’s 2005 reunion was unexpected, to the point where people mentioned them in the same breath of the Smiths in bands that would never reunite. Since then, the band – in its original three-piece lineup – has maintained a consistency in songwriting, and has delivered a number of albums as intense and interesting as those released in the late 80’s. Although their first post-reunion album, “Beyond” set a high watermark, the albums they’ve released since – including “Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not,” have been nothing other than advertised – 40-odd minutes of great rock jams and crazy guitar solos.

Dinosaur Jr. is basically a template by this point. The best radio rock is. Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters – bands that have a “sound” and make songs that are interchangeable among decades, but still feel the urge to include some little unique tick in every track they can. And, truthfully, those bands might not have existed without Dinosaur Jr. They were deeply influential to grunge, but even more so to bands like Foo Fighters, who dominate the alt-rock hybrid radio stations today. Dinosaur Jr. are one of a few bands alongside the likes of Pixies, Mudhoney, Meat Puppets and Green River, among others, who influenced the grunge movement and had their own twilight after the fact. Well, Dinosaur Jr. are still going strong (as are Pixies, Mudhoney and Meat Puppets), and it would be easy to confuse “Glimpse” as an album that came in ’88.

The trio wastes no time getting to the point on the album – the opening and best track, “Goin Down,” starts with a quick second of amp feedback before getting right into one of the simplest and best riffs J. Mascis has written in years. The song transitions nicely into “Tiny,” by all means a catchy and great rock song that ends in a mess of feedback. The album gets somewhat inconsistent from there, but even at it’s dullest it’s still engaging. Tracks like “Good to Know” and “Lost All Day” aren’t particularly memorable, but still stand as great, fuzzy jams. And on the flipside, “I Walk For Miles” and “Knocked Around” both have tempo and mood changes that make them among some of the most memorable songs the band has ever recorded.

The lyrics to Dinosaur Jr. songs have never been typically interesting, and it’s fair to say that continues here. “I Walk For Miles” is also a lyrical highlight, with an ode to a friendship or relationship of some kind falling by the wayside. But even when the lyrics aren’t interesting, J. Mascis’s vocals continue to be. The chorus to opener “Goin Down” is sung straight even when the rhythm doesn’t fit with it. His vocals sound more strained than ever on “Tiny,” and forlorn on “I Walk For Miles.” Still, having Lou Barlow pop up twice on vocals – on tracks 5 and 11 – is a welcome relief, as Mascis’s voice can prove decisive over 5 or 6 songs.

Also, the guitar playing. Oh man. It’s no secret – that’s what makes Dinosaur Jr. great. Simple rhythms and fuzzy 70’s throwback melodies get wrecked by J. Mascis, who solos on what I believe is 10 out of the album’s 11 tracks. On Rolling Stone’s 2011 re-ranking of the 100 Greatest Guitarists, Mascis jumped in to the 88th spot, beating the likes of Carl Perkins, Springsteen, Thurston Moore and my favorite guitarist, Tom Verlaine. It’s noteworthy that in lieu of a third single, Dinosaur Jr. just put all of the guitar solos as one track online to stream in advance of the album. One great thing about Dinosaur Jr. is knowing that even if it’s one of the less interesting tracks, there’s still a killer solo coming up.

This might not go down as a classic Dinosaur Jr. album. But it is great, nearly every song is worthwhile. It serves as a testament to the bands duration, their influence, and their energy, that they’ve kept this act up for so many years now. While they might not be the most popular rock bands, they’re one of the most influential. Buy it, stream it, do whatever pleases you: just please listen to Dinosaur Jr.

-By Andrew McNally

AJJ – “The Bible 2”

(Photo Credit: AJJ)Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Cody’s Theme,” “Terrifyer”

Sometimes, punk bands grow up. There’s nothing that can stop a natural aging process. The Clash embraced reggae, the Offspring started writing about suicide, Green Day wrote a Broadway musical. What often gets mistaken as “selling out” is usually just a band’s members realizing their image is going to fade, and jumping the gun to adopt a new one. AJJ had hinted at this transition on their last album, the excellent “Christmas Island.” It opens with “Temple Grandin” and “Children of God,” two songs that are prime AJJ – fast, acoustic guitar mixed with lyrics that more-than-border on violence and gross imagery. But the album also included songs like “Linda Ronstadt,” which touches on the same loneliness that the band usually touches on, but with less violence, less disguises, and more palpable humanity. Sean Bonnette is better than anyone else in music at masking his own insecurities, faults and dark desires through characters, satire and overblown odes. But that started to chip on “Christmas Island,” and it gets stripped away on “The Bible 2.”

The band, sporting a new drummer, have awarded themselves a re-baptism: they abbreviated their name. AJJ, of course, used to stand for Andrew Jackson Jihad. But now it’s just “AJJ.” Partially because of maturity – I mean, their name was kinda racist for a bunch of Arizona white guys – partially because of an increase in actual Jihadist violence, and partially just because it’s what everyone called them anyways.  Eleven years after their first album, they’ve been re-christened, and it’s allowed them to expand, or decompress their sound and explore what they’ve previously ignored – their stance as an actual, successful band.

AJJ’s most progressive songs on “The Bible 2” aren’t necessarily the most interesting, because they’re slower and more adult than we’re used to. But this isn’t a bad thing; a lack of humanity, although AJJ’s strongest weapon, is also their biggest downfall. “American Garbage” is downright an indie song – a different cry than “American Tune” from only a few years ago. Slap a different band’s name on the song and it might pick up some airplay on college radio. Same goes for “Small Red Boy,” and “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread,” which seems like a sequel to 2007’s “No More Tears,” but really isn’t. In fact, those two songs work together for a more honest, painfully aware song than any of the early guitar blasts.

All of this isn’t to say that old AJJ doesn’t pop in, too. Songs like “White Worms” and “Junkie Church” have lyrics that could’ve easily passed on any earlier album. “The waiting room was pissing in my ear / So we went and bought ourselves a can of beer / Steel Reserve,” Bonnette sings on the latter. The former: “My teeth are brown / My lips are blue / The grass is green / My tongue is too.” The horrors on this album don’t come as frequently. After years of songs like “Bad Bad Things,” “Back Pack” and “Dad Song,” there’s little that AJJ can sing in a song that’s still shocking. So, they reserve those moments. Opener “Cody’s Theme” has such lyrics, with the chorus: “I had to talk to the teacher / She had to talk to my mom / We had a real long talk / I had to talk to the teacher / She had to talk to my mom / They made the visions stop.” While this is nothing compared to the lyrics of, say, “Darling, I Love You,” they do announce that even if AJJ is growing, changing – they’re still the same at heart.

The secret weapon of “The Bible 2” is actually the songs that manage to place themselves in between ‘old’ and ‘new’ AJJ. “Cody’s Theme,” “Golden Eagle” and lead single “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye” all sound strangely reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel, with wickedly distorted guitar playing alongside acoustic. These songs almost act as the torchbearers, saying that yes, AJJ is transitioning, and no, they’re not changing completely. They could pass as indie songs, in a way, but it might not be a comfortable passing. “Terrifyer” might be one of the most interesting songs because its use of melody sounds pretty satisfying, while still giving in to the sound of “Sense & Sensibility,” in the best way possible.

Although I personally think the band hit a highest high with 2011’s “Knife Man,” this might be their most cohesive album. Musically, it hits more different territories than ever before. The album’s first half starts with guitar, dips gradually down into piano before revving back up for “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye.” And although the lyrics do once again embrace religion, mental illness, and deathly imagery, there’s broader topics at play. By shedding away the masks the band has previously used to hide their desires and delusions within the confinements of people worse then them, they’ve humanized themselves, fully, and even the first-person songs feel more real because of it. This isn’t a criticism of their older music – far from it, what they’ve done lyrically with the use of satire, violence, and irony is amazing – but simply an awareness that it was starting to get old. AJJ ran that line as long as they could, and, now that it’s over, they’re switching gears. While this is a transition album of sorts, there’s a lot to like, and it proves that AJJ might be able to bridge a gap that a lot of punk bands have previously failed – stay yourselves, stay interesting, yet change.

-By Andrew McNally