Whenever there is a new Strung Out album, my first inclination is to look out for the “Strung Out song”. While arbitrary, it’s been a staple of the Strung Out discography and always a good sign that the record will be a great one. From Another Day in Paradise (1994), the band crafted songs that were the sum of the their best parts; urgency, melody, and emotion. These were songs that didn’t care that they were melodic to the point of balladry, yet still had the razor-sharp mix of high-octane riffs, high-energy percussion (that beat!) and Jason Cruz’s vocal anguish. What songs do I mean? It was “14 Days” in Another Day…, “Solitaire” in Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues, “Paperwalls” and “Matchbook” in Twisted By Design early on while their latter discography was punctuated by the superb “Andy Warhol” in Agents of the Underground and “No Apologies” in Transmission.Alpha.Delta. My long-winded point is that when Strung Out forgo their love of metal for their love of melody, the results are always great.
Case in point the solitary 2017 single “Crows”, which would have been the best song on any of their albums but remain left off all. It’s these kinds of songs that Strung Out are at their best and in Songs of Armor and Devotion, we get the terrific “Ulysses”; a song of manic energy, superb melodies and yes, that sense of melancholy that all its “Strung Out song” brethren have. Criteria met.
So is Songs of Armor of Devotion a great Strung Out album? In a word, yes, and it’s been a steady ship since 2009’s Blackhawks Over Los Angeles after a few years of fluctuating returns and flirtations with more metal and less punk. Their latest builds on the terrific work they showcased in Transmission.Alpha.Delta, ratching up the melody as showcased in the opening salvo of “Rebels and Saints”. The nuanced harmonies play well with the blistering solos and make for the strongest opening track since Exile In Oblivion’s “Analog”. The album is buoyed by some strong percussion work again, and while this is the first album since the departure of long-time drummer Jordan Burns, newcomer RJ Shankle is no downgrade behind the skins.
There is still plenty of fire (“Monuments”), touches of metal (“Daggers”), and many instances of the band being great at who they are. But the strongest aspect of the album is the album’s consistency and tone- it’s good all throughout, with plenty that still stokes the energy and electricity they blazed on to the scene with. They’re a little more composed now, and there’s a level of introspection and maturity that keeps the more ruthless vitriol they showcased in Twisted By Design a little at bay. But for a band to be this well into their career to still be writing songs like great “Strange Notes” (hectic guitar solo work over razor-sharp punk “gimme gimme more” vocals and d-beat percussion work) is a testament to the band.
Longevity may not always be a musician’s strongest trait, but for Strung Out, it isn’t just about being the last one standing- it’s their continued ability to write songs that connect, that the listener can relate to. They write songs of loss and heartbreak, anguish, and anger, songs that incinerate as well as they reflect on life, and all these years later, they’re still doing it with fire and fury. For many, Twisted By Design is still the band’s apex, but remarkably, Songs of Armor and Devotion has come the closest to emulating it, with moments on it inching close to surpassing it. In “Andy Warhol”, Cruz sang “You can’t write a song if you’ve never lost anything you’ve truly loved”, and it always sounds like the band have loved and lost better than so many.
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.