Thursday, January 26, 2012

Big Wreck - Albatross - Track By track

Expect the unexpected.

This seems to be the most fun Ian has had in years and just maybe that feeling will be as contagious to the listener. You get the sense that Albatross was an unbridled joy in creation. It jumps genres with ease while remaining sincere wherever it lands.

Every song is different in texture, space, tone and feel, yet they hang together through their superior melodic quality, sophisticated composition and "tight but loose" approach to production. There's hard and soft, dark and light and enough memorable hooks to keep you listening for years.

The reverence & reference span generations of music. Ian has absorbed much and the band is able to deploy the pieces he's loved in fresh new ways while keeping genuine.

There are multiple tracks which cover the entire Big Wreck/Thornley catalog in their appeal. Fans of each phase will have something to sink their teeth into and there's even some exciting new ground being turned over, so get ready for layers, crunch, muscle, texture, nuance, beauty, hooks and funk!

I'll start from what I would consider the largely familiar or standard pieces.

Caught My Eye is a flat out dirty texas honk. It's so deliberate and bottom heavy it'll liquify your floors. Catchy as hell, memorable and true to it's ZZ Top forefather. The solos (yes there are two) are spare and measured but build within a tight sexy strut. They squeak and squeal over the top of the immense buzzing chords. The tag out reveals it all as loose jam. ZZTop this!

Rest of the World revisits a few tracks and B-sides from Thornley days. It's got a similar feel to Piss It Away, but has looser playing in a very tight composition. The drums are warmer, more natural. Written in character, it reminds me of the sentiments of Jimmy Darmody from Boardwalk Empire. It will be a definite Coma Again fan fave.

Control smoothes in with some distorted guitar and the Asian motif that keeps cropping up throughout the album. It settles into a very standard, languid, slow tempo Knopfler-esque, Horse With No Name, Big Log (minus the cheesy claps) exercise. The song is about the illusion of control that sustains us, but is shattered when life shakes us. The melody/refrain is catchy and rather standard classic rock but this style is new ground for Big Wreck. Never happy with just standard, they veer into the psychedelic Crooked Vultures section where all control is gone. Whipping through the background is some sort of theramin and slap back echo. It's jarring and disturbing. What's amazing is how Ian Thornley manages to crash the two moods into each other. The outro wind down is a cool distorted Ornette Coleman influenced guit ramble that lulls us back to cool.

Albatross, the first single, is a flat out hit. In the Jimmy Page, Stairway to Heaven, Midnight Moonlight tradition, it also recalls Ian's own Make Believe. it's a great lead in to catch the ear of the Thornley fan. But, then it drops down hard with Plush (STP megahit) inspired riffage. It rolls out with a magnificence that burns into your brain. The pre-solo, solo is a wonderfully sweet taste of slide goodness a la Under the Lighthouse. They tease us and then drop back into the verse with a couple of la da das. The infectious, poignant sing along chorus leads into the sinewy power slide which brings us to it's apex six string squiggle; That over-the-top, on the verge of losing-it note that says the artist is giving his natural all. That's that moment we guitar fans all wait for.
The outro verses are played and sung with the most incredible power and soul exhibited by Big Wreck in studio to date. This song is perfect classic rock created outside that era. Long live rock.

Next up are totally new sounds from different sections of the Thornley influence library.

Head Together, which opens the album, begins with Ian's vocals, in multi-tracked harmony emulating the droning intro of Zep's In The Light. Actually Ian's love of vocal harmonies made their way onto Tiny Pictures, but never isolated in such an abstract way. I think it's a great way to open the album, setting the tone for the listener, to expect the unexpected. Drop in a faintly Asian sounding riff (again) to soften us up for the hammer of the X. With the bouncy cadence of XTC's Stupidly Happy run through a Kings X grinder the riff bores it's way into your mind. The harmonies mixed with familiar drop D goodness makes for another memorable tune. But wait, there's more! All of a sudden the guitars go all chimey and mega multi-tracked with a sweet slide solo... and we're back to sweeping vocal harmonies to clean the palette before we're stomped back to Big Wreckville. Killer opener.

XTC - Stupidly Happy
Kings X - Other Side

Do What You Will which has been played in part live now makes it's studio debut. A pure Big Wreck romp whose riff reminds me of The Safety Dance from Men Without Hats. Preceded by Ian's goofy laugh (huh, huh, huh woody wood pecker style) It bounces into your ears with the abandon that the lyric evokes. "Do What You Will, do what you will with the pain!" In other words, kick out your inhibitions!!

The first verse breaks down to a bass line counter funk riff while never losing that Big Wreck power grind. Backbeat is steady but powerful. Parts call back to Breakthrough. However, while Breakthrough pined for acceptance DWYW says F-it lets dance! The second verse loosens up the reigns further, and the riffs fly all over and build to the chorus. "Do what you will, do what you will with the pain and my remains!!! Oh yeah!!!" All of a sudden the bottom drops out and we're in Beatle territory. Yes Lennon & McCartney vocal harmonies/phrasing. Its a bracing/exhilarating turn! The vocals and bass line warms you up and builds you up like "Boy you've got to carry that weight" off of Abbey Road. It goes to epic levels and creates a tension that can only be released by Ian's soaring vocal and and a tremendous riff!!!! Punch the air and stomp your feet!!!! Sweet harmony vocals release the tension just long enough to swing back into the main riff. Like a heavier version of Brian May's guitar in the end of We Will Rock You when it first kicks in. If you're not Angus bobbin' and air guitarrin' at the end of this you're a corpse.

All Is Fair is on the edge of expected. This one knocked me out of my chair on first listen. Expected because Zep and Big Wreck are a natural. But this side of Zep is new for Big Wreck. It's as pure a Zep interpretation as they've ever done. In fact, whether intended or not, it seems like a direct counter response to Dancing Days. The bouncy, happy, trippy, dippy summer fun that DD is, is all about potential summer romance. The mildly exotic Eastern riff, with that slippery bass line, the bright and hopeful upbeat production is all about youthful abandon and wooing that girl. Fast forward to that girl you wooed and you're 10 years married. All Is Fair's riff is similar, but hard bitten. The drumbeat and guitar more echoes Zep's For Your Life's metal winter funk than DD's summer slipperiness. The narrative is that of a young couple "married with children" devoted to their tribe and estranged amongst the busy family machinery.

As always though there is a progression in the lyric. Ian writes in a very realistic, relatable, common man way. Any honest young husband and wife can relate to the feelings expressed. The warring couple, laying out their complaints, while background vocals chime in like angels of their better virtues, trying to remind them why they must keep perspective and stay together. Pretty deep shit for a rock song. And let me say, that the groove and spikey funk is exhilarating. The bass line and drumming is kinetically stellar. The change up to the chorus is pop chimey and shiney crashing cymbals. Over it all Ian sings "All is fair, In Love and War... in this mess you made, we both know there's no one else... to blame". It's a hopeful realization but BLAME is still attached to the refrain. Another expositive verse, and that wonderfully warm chorus builds, and Ian launches into a solo that competes with his best. It's got that Page tone from Fool in the Rain. An almost bass sounding solo, (Guitarist Jimmy Page used an MXR Blue Box effect pedal during the solo to produce the octave sound.) Ian mimics the tone, but weaves the solo through funk beat, brings it to a sweet loving climax, and then extends it for another bar, soaring to represent the core love that this warring couple has. It's as beautiful a moment as Ian has ever accomplished on guitar. It fades to an Edge-like echoing pattern and harmony vocal bed to set up the intimate vocal where Ian turns it around. In a reflective tone, "All is fair, In Love and War... we both know there's no one else (they actually love each other exclusively)... my baby, it's just you... and me." No more blame, just romantic hope. Me and you against the world babe! And now it's on to make-up sex!

The funk storm that follows is spine tingling. The guitars jump in from left and right, cascade up and down scales, spike and rumble, machine gun on and off, intricately pattern behind, crunch and stomp with a facility like nothing Big Wreck has ever done on record. It's got the muscle of an Achillies Last Stand and the whimsy of James Honeyman-Scott in the pretenders Tattooed Love Boys. I wish that I could hear this over and over again for the first time. Overdid my expectations one thousand percent.

And now onto the totally unexpected! New territory mined, yet still left of center.

Wolves. This song, like so many on Albatross, is melody gold. This is a very textured piece. It starts with that banjo sparkle that dusts a number of cuts. The patterns builds a dense forest of sound that Ian's pop vocals can wind his narrative through. The drum pattern recalls a quirky Radiohead tune more than straight ahead rock. Behind it all the main guitar riff chuggs along like Ian's demo for Brit Pop did; incessantly. Simple, but with all the layers it has a wholly different feel. It's actually a combination of what sounds like banjo, mandolin, guitar, drums and bass. The bass wonderfully drives the track with a more Rn'B flavor like Why Can't This Be Love by Van Halen. This track despite having such "old school" instrumentation like Zeps Boogie With Stu (minus the piano), the modern melody makes it sound like a modern rock track. It's pure BW that could sound very at home next to a Kings of Leon track. Totally radio friendly. Lyrically, it reminisces about youthful cliques, a "packet of wolves" (kinda like the alliteration of "pocketbook brando"). It might apply to current circumstances but it talks about it in youthful terms. The chorus of "Bleed out your heart, if beats for someone else" is pure blues traditional sentiment in a soaring, sweet pop way. Now this is new territory for Big Wreck but it has all the musicianship, nuance and feeling that the old school stuff had, but in an incredibly sincere, memorable way.

Time. BW takes us on another brilliant pop journey. When I first heard it, this track by Daryl Hall came to mind.

Daryll Hall - Dream Time

Dave Stewart's production on the recorded version is great; very ELO-ish.

But Big Wreck's Time is more a majestic ballad. It's small and intimate at the beginning, just acoustic guitar and vocals for the verse. The chorus builds on it with mandolin, sounding like chiming clockworks. A delightful, glistening bed on which Ian sings the main melody "If I could go back in time, what would I change of mine". This melody sounds like it's derived from the "Tai guru dava" section of the Beatles' Across the Universe which Ian used to excerpt in the live show in the past years. Just a wonderful homage that builds on the legacy. The instrumental interplay is intricate and dreamlike. The drums tick tock, the 12 strings chime, the mandolin dusts the high end and the fretless bass does a low slide to move it all along. It's just magical.

Lyrically, Ian contemplates Time, the killer. Definitely the reflections of a seasoned man. "They say that it will heal up all your wounds, and isn't it a wound itself." Hang the chimes in echo, skip a beat and crash epic style! Now it's fully orchestration-al multi-tracked guitars doing cascading riffs and counter riffs over Ian's "I wasted way too much of it, Just wishing I could go back in it" "It takes time to figure out, why I'm always running ooouuut!" His vocals soar and lead into a section of "La, La's" that feel like Trick of the Tails era Genesis. Just so warm and enveloping. Then comes that Zep Song Remains the Same (it happens about the 4:05 mark) titanic breakdown flourish and then they switch gears, speed up and create another complete counter melody with background vocals and some furious drumming. "Left on our own, you count the moments, Time heals, it flies, it comes and goes, it takes forever, through the yeeears, we disappear." While it intertwines with the main theme it builds toward toward a massive chorus "If I could go back in time, what would I change of mine?" The two tempos dual back and forth, fast and majestic, while Ian soars above with incredible passion "Why I'm always running ooouuut!!" It hangs and the clockwork over heartbeat drums ticks us out. I get chills. This is like a movie theme, for sure.

A Million Days. Where to start? As epic as a Bond theme (Cornells' to be exact). Yet it's got quirky Tarantino movie TexMex flavors. Big slapping drums in your face, weird pinchy guitar line and Ian building the vocals around a description of some bad behavior that gets more aggressive as it progresses. Rumbling distorted guitar and heavy base underscore the rage. "Yes, one more wake up call, and my fist goes through the wall." Then It drops out to just acoustic, snare and the sweet wavey slide guitar more at home in a lullaby with Ian pleading the chorus "Stay with me for a million days." It's a revisit, thematically, to Big Wreck's Broken Hands (one of my favorites). The duality of human beings; how repellent and needy we can be from one moment to the next. Musically the two themes battle for position. The pleading "Stay" carries over as the cascading riffs build back to the fore. More description of the dark side of the more base personality traits where "And all these everythings are not enough" as the music rises again to levels of epic menace. Up steps Ian's little angel again. This time we get some mandolin sprinkles before the darkness overtakes again. This sets up a staccato solo like I've never heard from BW. It's got an ice-pick quick attack and it runs like a Steve Morse solo. As if the little angel is slaying it's evil alter ego while Ian screams in the background. The solo actually turns honey smooth by the end as the angel vanquishes the evil and the song tags out pleading us to "Stay" with Ian. He even drops in a vocal run reminiscent of Stay by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs just to tweak our openness to the musical journey. This should be the closer.

Glass Room, on an album of uniquely singular compositions, earns the spot of most unique. This will take Big Wreck and Thornley fans by surprise, for sure. There are tons of layers and flavors as we've come to expect, but these are from unexpected pages of the songbook. This band is wonderfully talented and diverse and no song proves it more than this.

After a short, dreamy start, hard strumming and crisp drumming interrupt... space, and then a sweet lead bass line dominates. Everything is very spare and tight with Ian's sexiest (dare I say) intimate vocal tone since the demo All I Need. But this is not like that iconoclastic little gem. This is a radio ready scorcher.

Reflecting about memories kept in the mind's "Glass Room," Ian muses about the reasons relationships end and how the results leave a mark; clouding the ability to experience the reflection. First reflection remembers the relationship in a lullaby and then later it becomes dressed up like a suicide, or a funeral body laid to rest in a suit and tie. He shares the lessons learned placing and accepting blame. Painful or cathartic, it's all gold when put in perspective.

The music is pure 80's high pop as the Police collide with Dire Straights. More like solo Sting and Knopfler. Cool and spare it moves along at a rapid clip changing gears in sentiment and tone, from regret to realization while the music mimics. Clever and insightful, I can just feel the way memories become idolized until reality pops that bubble. The music moves from dreamy memory, to hard cutting reality in such an integrated way that you never lose the rhythm. It's amazingly kinetic like the Police's Sychronicity from one intimate moment to the next, but there is a section at the 3:00 that kicks into a higher gear with a low end that owes more to the Pretenders Martin Chambers than Stewart Copeland and it ROCKS!

Ian Thornley in Big Wreck and solo has many times collided song types in his catalog, but this is less of a collision and more of a weaving. It's one of the most sophisticated compositions they've ever done; the musicianship is mature and restrained throughout. The guitars are so restrained; they never hit that hard spot most fans expect, but the results are sublime. Ian's solo is such a fantastic Knopfler-esque reading he might as well have gotten Mark to guest.

This is a homage to what was the cream of the early 80's. Big wreck has officially begun to mine what was singularly unique from that silly (IMO) decade and the results are amazing. Perhaps my favorite track on a stellar album. I've listened a thousand times in a short span and it still rocks.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the time and tought you put into this review. Despite not listing many flaws in your review, I took your advice and bought the album. WOW. Best album I have listened to so long. The way that each song stands out as individual accomplishments while blending together to make a cohesive album is amazing. The only critisism that I have of the whole album are of the "new territory" songs, as you put it. They each are a little light on the traditional BW guitar work, which give them a more "pop" feel. Overall these songs are still great and I will definitely recommend this album to every music enthusiast I know. Thanks BW!

BUK said...

Thank you Anon. All ya gotta do is give it a chance.