Rolling Stones, "A Bigger Bang"
On "A Bigger Bang," the Rolling Stones have given fans what they want: a return to what made them the Rolling Stones. No slick producers, no unnecessary instrumentation or elaborate production, just straight-ahead blues-rock with good old Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron. And the critics are pleased -- mostly. Rolling Stone is very enthusiastic about the album, giving it four and a half stars out of five and calling it "just a straight-up, damn fine Rolling Stones album, with no qualifiers or apologies necessary." USA Today is similarly excited, giving it three and a half out of four stars and exclaiming that "the original bad-boy band is once again hot stuff ... a jolting reminder of the iconic British rock band's indestructible chemistry and primitive instincts." Jon Pareles of the New York Times is a bit more tempered in his praise, defining the formula of the Stones' success: "A riff, a catchphrase, a smidgen of melody, an attitude, and there's a Stones song." This recipe, which produces the "more immediate pleasures" of "a twang, a beat, a moan, a laugh" might be tired, but on the new record it still proves to be "enough to keep a great band going." Formulas aside, "A Bigger Bang" still does have some surprises, as Mick "emerges as an instrumentalist" and adds "crucial slide guitar on 'Back of My Hand,' the Stones' best nod to the delta blues in a couple of decades," according to the Boston Herald. Everyone seems glad that the Stones have abandoned their trendy inclinations production-wise and most agree that their hype-inducing "Sweet Neo-Con," a non-veiled swipe at the Bush administration, is "a neo-dud," as the Chicago Tribune eloquently puts it. The Telegraph is a bit more personal in its attack, gibing "it is hard to take seriously lectures on foreign policy from a man with Mick's dubious domestic record."
Aside from the raves of Rolling Stone and USA Today, though, most of the reviews are generally medium-cool about the album, remarking, as the Guardian does, that "the songwriting runs out of puff long before the performances do, lending a hammy tone to the album's weaker moments." The Chicago Tribune captures this sentiment of pleased but not overwhelmed critics, calling "A Bigger Bang" basically the best we can hope for from the Stones at this point: "a blessedly stripped down, no-frills album: not quite vintage Stones, but close enough."
-- Joe Charap
North Mississippi All Stars, "Electric Blue Watermelon"
The passing of legend R.L. Burnside last week was only the most recent loss the blues has suffered recently, but as the N.Y. Daily News notes, it's too early to start getting all weepy about the death of blues music. "Don't cry for the blues. Its original stars may keep dying off. Its middle-aged '60s avatars may stray from its roots. And too often, its younger proteges come to it with more eagerness than skill. But groups like the North Mississippi All-Stars have a sure enough hold on the genre's grit to keep its flame flickering." The new album from the blues/rock group is being greeted almost as a hero coming to the rescue, saving the blues from falling out of touch. A review on Popmatters raves that "no blues band marries the past and the present the way the North Mississippi Allstars do," with the Daily News agreeing that main singer/guitarist Luther Dickinson (son of Rolling Stones sideman and Replacements producer Jim Dickinson) and his band "should be lauded for both honoring an old style and making it still sound with-it."
At the very least, the Times states, it's the band's "strongest statement about who it is and where it lives." As any fan would expect, says Rolling Stone, "brothers Luther and Cody (drums), and Chris Chew (bass) continue to lace their brand of blues with a rough rock & roll edge (witness the searing guitars on 'Moonshine'), and 'Electric Blue Watermelon' is often as eclectic as its name." Most reviewers single out the collaborations on the album -- the two tracks featuring rapper Al Kapone, and "Hurry Up Sunrise" with Lucinda Williams. "But," says the Times, "'Electric Blue Watermelon' is an eccentric, personal record, full of references to the past that they might expect far fewer people to catch. There are versions of the old song 'Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues,' done in the style of Charley Patton, and of Odetta's 'Deep Blue Sea.'" Popmatters says "Mississippi Boll Weevil" gets to the heart of the band's strengths: "Luther's vocal phrasing channels another Mississippi legend, Charley Patton, the primary dobro melody echoed by a snarling, distorted slide guitar, as Cody sets up a thumping backbeat, enhanced by washboard and the Rising Star band, all anchored by bassist Chris Chew, who delivers one nasty mother of a blues-funk bass line. It's the kind of ferocious performance that first turned heads five years ago, and fans will be thrilled to hear the band has returned to that form once again."
-- Scott Lamb
Against Me! "Searching for a Former Clarity"
If don't listen to much punk, chances are good you've never heard of Against Me! -- and if you do, chances are you don't like them. But all that may soon change. As Spin bristles in its review of their newest album, "There's no better example that the underground rock scene has its head up its collective ass than the lack of appreciation for literate, thrashing Florida folk punks Against Me!" The Times hopes that will change now: "The group's strong new album, 'Searching for a Former Clarity' (Fat Wreck Chords), is by far its grandest yet, and it should turn one of the country's most important underground punk bands into something even bigger." It's not so much that the band's sound has grown by leaps and bounds, writes Exclaim -- "Gabel and the rest of the band have fought to retain the spirit and values that have always defined their music" -- but that, as Spin argues, they've tapped into punk's vein of anger: "On 'Searching for a Former Clarity,' the band's third full-length, Gabel's protestations are all bitter, no sweet. While the lead track, 'Miami,' uses a horn section to offset barbs about useless antibiotics and ballots drifting out to sea, elsewhere the songs clang with a raw scowl." With their newest release, Against Me! has just grown up that much more according to Punk News: "Unlike the simple shout-along melodies that adorned previous albums ... 'Clarity' demands repeated listens far more than any previous album. When I first heard a few tracks from the album, my immediate reaction was to compare the band to the Replacements, and I think the comparison still stands; like Westerberg's seminal band, the band seems to incorporate punk rock, country and folk, but with 'Clarity' it seems the band has finally managed to fuse these elements seamlessly." The Mammoth Press review echoes the general sense of praise and increased expectation: "'Searching for a Former Clarity' gets it all right. It rages for the punkers, provides intelligent lyrics for the indie kids, and just flat out rocks for the rest of us. Listen to this record, so when your kids ask you about Against Me! like you did your folks about the Clash you'll be able to say you remember back when."
-- Scott Lamb