It is mystifying to think that the immediate association one conjures up when confronted with the idea of pop music is the illiterate, cheeseball humdrum manufactured to satiate our most drab of senses. Yet underneath the rather thin bubblegum layer of the pop vernacular lies a truly rich history that sees its roots reach back to music’s earliest forms. And whether it is in the shape of rock, country, blues, soul, dance- or to some of the more traditional sounds of gospel or even the stage- pop music’s legacy is one that is intertwined with every aspect of our own. From Elvis recording his first single to when a seemingly outcast kid from Washington State wrote an anthem inspired by a deodorant stick, there has been no greater source for bringing together entire communities than popular music.
One of pop’s most endearing subjects has of course been love- the coming together of a more personal kind. Whether it is for the heart of another, for music itself, or some twisted, tangled tale of romance, love has been one of popular music’s thematic centerpieces touched upon time and time again by some of the most enduring artists in our musical history. For Montreal-based pop collective Stars, it has been no different. Their fantastic 2003 effort Heart began with each member’s declaration of it, and since their 2001 debut Nightsongs, they have never strayed too far from the comforts (and discomforts) of the subject. It has a lot to do with the sophisticated nature of their music- the softly hued strings, the chamber-like electronics, the charming dual vocals, all rolled together in lush orchestration- that undoubtedly becomes synonymous with our most ambitious imaginings of affection. And anyone who has heard “Elevator Love Letter” is sure to understand how effective they are at bringing across these emotions in a perfect three to four minute slice.
A little more than a year removed from Heart, Stars return with their latest offering, Set Yourself On Fire, and immediately set the tone with the single “Ageless Beauty.” Much like “Elevator Love Letter,” the track is buoyed by great pop sensibilities, addictive hooks, and Amy Millan’s sweetly tinged tone. Like it’s previous, it is the album’s finest offering, and further extends Stars’ rather immaculate track record at writing the picture-perfect pop song. However, while Heart is filled with an endless array of wonderful outings, Set Yourself On Fire is a rather more subdued effort. And while still filled with moments of brilliance, it is a little lacking in the charm and exuberance seen in the former. This isn’t to say the album isn’t without its gems; other than its preceding single we get the delicate touch of the closer “The Calender Girl,” a sad tale from the depths of loneliness buoyed by lyrical histrionics (“I dreamed I was dying as I so often do / and when I awoke I was sure it was true / I went to the window threw my head to the sky / said whoever is up there please don’t let me die”) and a remarkably beautiful instrumental palette.
These are the moments where they outshine their more recent counterparts. There seems to be an underlying sense of convention (mostly topical), yet they successfully meld them with some of music’s best forms of advancement. In “One More Night,” the grand beginnings of high-arching strings are a mere prelude to the delicate indie-pop leanings employed throughout the song. The balance found between Stars’ obvious tendency towards the modern aesthetic and their (the pun is very much unavoidable) love for popular music with soul is seamless. “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” and “The Big Fight,” are great examples of this infusion of Marvin Gaye / Al Green sparked urban soul, and a big reason why they are so much more than the standard.
So how much better is Heart than Set Yourself On Fire? It’s enough to separate the two. The latter is by no means a poor effort, it is just without the additionally wonderful sparkles- tracks like “Life Effect,” and “Look Up” that made Heart just as enchanting to listen to during an afternoon stroll through a leaf-littered park as it is underneath an exquisite moon lit evening. Yet on a greater scale, it is not what is most important; what is perhaps most striking is the idea that the musicians involved here may possess that irresistible charm akin to some of music’s greatest affairs- an ageless beauty that sees Stars spearhead their self-professed “soft revolution.” Their latest then is like the sequel to that one incredible moment; more than capable of capturing the genuine quintessence of togetherness but never quite exploring the nervous passion and enthusiasm of that one timeless romance.
(Arts & Crafts)
Alice Cooper – Breadcrumbs EP
Few frontmen of rock will ever be as enigmatic and as timeless as Alice Cooper
For a large number of Alice Cooper fans who didn’t experience everyone’s favorite snake-adorned shock rocker at the height of his powers through the ’70s, most probably were introduced to Cooper through 1989’s hair-metal infused generational breakout album Trash. That was at least, my introduction to Vincent Furnier, at the age of 9 years old, seeking for something to satiate my love of hair metal and shock rock. Trash was everything Bon Jovi’s New Jersey was- big, radio-friendly- but had that added sense of danger and darkness that didn’t come with the pretty side of hair metal. However, as sure as songs like “House of Fire“, “Bed of Nails“, and the ubiquitous hit “Poison”, are still great today, long-time Alice Cooper fans know that Cooper is at his most enthralling is when he taps into his garage rock lineage, cut from the same mold that was paved by bands like the MC5.
So for those born in the early 80s like myself, the initial foray into the world of Alice Cooper meant that you had to work your way back into this long-running discography to find the rich, often timeless work Cooper is best known for. In 2019 Alice Cooper himself is working his way back on his latest EP, the aptly titled Breadcrumbs. The 6-song EP finds Cooper revisiting music and artists connected thematically by what ties them all together- the Motor City. This Detroit-centric EP features Alice Cooper’s take on songs by Suzi Quatro, The Dirtbombs, Motown soul singer Shorty Long, and of course, The MC5 (the EP also features guest guitar and vocal work from Wayne Kramer). Included in the mix are a reworked version of the 2003 Alice Cooper song “Detroit City” and one new cut, “Go Man Go”.
On his reworked “Detroit City”, the song is given a rawer makeover, sounding far less produced than the original. Gone are the orchestral overdubs with the song relying more on the loud bluesy guitars- perhaps the way it was meant to sound. Suzi Q’s “Your Mama Won’t Like Me” stays fairly faithful to the original, but Quatro’s vocal sneer is replaced with.. well, Alice Cooper’s vocal sneer. MC5’s “Sister Anne” is almost as great as the original 1971version, with the added benefit of today’s production qualities.
The EP’s one new track, “Go Man Go”, is very much Detroit, and very much Alice Cooper. It’s rock n’ roll roots are coated with a little bit of rockabilly, a little bit of garage, a lot of attitude. Like this EP, the track should be a precursor of Alice Cooper’s anticipated next album. The hope is that he continues this work of keeping things dirty rock n’ roll as the results are more often than not, pretty great.
Few frontmen of rock will ever be as enigmatic and as timeless as Alice Cooper. Breadcrumbs is a noble effort meant to tease and build anticipation than satisfy your craving for all new Alice Cooper material. It’s done just that, hinting at what could be around the corner. On top of which it shows that there are few rock stars who will ever reach the status and longevity of everyone’s favorite rock n’ roll snake charmer.
Goo Goo Dolls – Miracle Pill
The Goo Goo Dolls have always just written good music for people who cared only that the music was good
One of the most remarkable things about the Goo Goo Dolls is their steadfast consistency amongst the ever-changing backdrop of popular music. Six years ago when they released Magnetic, I wrote that the band remained unchanged in the face of their supposed “waning popularity” in the eyes of pop culture and radio charts. It’s true that many of their contemporaries that made it big alongside them in the late 1990s are long gone, but for the Goos, they’ve quietly continued to be above everything else, themselves, just older, wiser, and continuingly more refined. Miracle Pill is their 12th studio album and is the natural progression from 2016’s Boxes. Like their previous release, Miracle Pill continues their musical evolution away from alternative rock to the more serene territory of adult contemporary. Sure, it may sound like a bad thing, but like everything the Goos have done over the past 25 years, it’s supremely confident and composed.
They may not write songs with the caustic bite like “Here Is Gone” anymore, but they have been finding comfort in the more introspective pop-strewn melodies found in songs like “Lights”. Similarly, in the new album’s lead single and title track, the Goos tap into bouncy, easy-to-digest pop empowerment. Songs like “Indestructible” show that the band haven’t put down their guitars just yet, constructing songs that are still fond of their alternative rock roots but have found comfort in grander, more expansive sounds.
The album’s best moments are when the Goo Goo Dolls unashamedly tug on the heartstrings like they’ve done so many times before. The quiet jangly nature of “Over You” does this particularly well, while the bigger, electronic-infused arena rock of “Lost” shows that this type of music is just done extremely poorly by bands like Imagine Dragons. “Autumn Leaves” is a throwback to the kind of songs found on Let Love In and Dizzy Up The Girl, sounding organic and wistful, while the closing of “Think It Over” is the kind of song they’ve been hinting at since Something For The Rest Of Us. It’s part quintessential Goos, but contemporary and timeless at the same time.
Credit to the Robby Takac songs of the album too- “Step In Line”, “Life’s a Message”- both some of the finest songs Takac has written. He is often cast in the shadow of John Rzeznik’s more recognizable sound, but on Miracle Pill, his work is the best its sounded since Dizzy.
The Ringer recently wrote a piece titled ‘The Goo Goo Dolls Were Never the Cool Kids, but They’re Still Standing’. I echoed these sentiments in that Magnetic review years ago, but if there was anything long time Goo Goo Dolls fans know is that the band were never concerned about popularity or being “cool”. The problem with being cool in music is that it fades. The Goo Goo Dolls have always just written good music for people who cared only that the music was good. Not much has changed in that sense, and really, that’s much better than being cool.