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Review – Melissa Auf der Maur’s Out of Our Minds

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Note: Last year, when the “This Would Be Paradise” EP was released, I reviewed that as well.

In 2004, Melissa Auf der Maur released her first solo album. While being fantastic on a musical front, it was a little… well, we’ll say immature. The lyrics, in particular, have a certain art-school pretension to them. “Surely,” I thought, “someone with as much education and talent as Melissa Auf der Maur can come up with things that don’t sound like they came out of a middle school girl’s diary. If she moved past that, this album would be amazing.” Considering Auf der Maur’s massive bass chops, fantastic voice (her harmonies were the best part of Hole’s Celebrity Skin album), and knack for surrounding herself with other talented musicians, I still stand by that opinion.

Yet now, six years later, I have much the same feeling. Though, thankfully, most of it has filtered out of the music, and into other projects in the same orbit as Out of Our Minds, Auf der Maur’s newest release. The album itself is a mild concept album that fits into a full array of media, including a full-length feature film (which is where most of my feeling that things haven’t changed much comes from) and a graphic novel.

The irony is that since most of that artsy stuff has leeched out into other media, the music that is left is much more focused. The songs are definitely there, and the more questionable lyrics simply seem cryptic here than on the last record, where they just seemed bloated and heavy-handed. Now, that’s not to say that Auf der Maur doesn’t lay it on thick now and then, but overall it’s a much less infuriating experience than the 2004 release, and that’s a great development.

Musically, there’s a lot to be happy about on this album. Melissa’s melodic and rhythmic sensibilities are still as pleasing as on the last album. While this leads to a feeling of familiarity, it’s not boring by any stretch. While the last album was a fairly straightforward rock record, this has more of a prog feel, and there are some other incorporations like electronic drum loops in a few songs, and some pretty interesting instrumentation. There’s some interesting harpsichord-like sounds on “Meet Me on the Dark Side,” and the instrumental “This Would Be Paradise” features what I think is a glockenspiel, or at least a sampled, processed one. The latter also features some tape loops of late Saskatchewan politician Tommy Douglas, who spearheaded the national health care movement in Canada in the 1960s. The inclusion is an obvious reference to the US health care reform, which Auf der Maur wrote in support of several times on her blog. While this is the obvious reference, it’s also a great plea for equality and basic human rights in general.

The album also seems a bit heavier than the last album, and I expect a lot of it comes from playing in her Black Sabbath tribute band Hand of Doom. I wouldn’t say Out of Our Minds sounds particularly doomy, or even sludgy, but it definitely has more weight than its predecessor. Part of that is because Auf der Maur’s bass tones play a much larger part of the mix than previously, but some of it is composition, as well. The title track, for instance, has some rather Mastodon-like moments (not the chorus so much, but most of the rest of it. If Brann Dailor was drumming. Instead, it’s “only” Josh Freese on most songs.)

While a few of the cuts, including the title track, are damn good, the duet with Glenn Danzig(!) is far and away the best song on the record. “Father’s Grave” is a brooding, expansive song, with Danzing singing the part of a gravedigger with whom Auf der Maur seems to build a relationship with. I’m still not sure exactly what the implication is from the story of the song, but honestly, the thing I’m most enthralled by is the performance. Both Danzig (who I don’t follow terribly closely) and Auf der Maur are riffing off each other, and this is well and truly a duet. The chemistry they have is quite evident, the song just builds and builds on itself, and I recommend getting this album even if this is the only song you listen to. It’s that good.

Overall, the album doesn’t particularly drag, and it’s a satisfying length. Clocking in at just under an hour, it’s certainly not as jam-packed as many albums are these days, but its relative brevity does sort of make me wish there were another song or two to make up for the six-years between albums. Though, to be fair, she was also touring, performing in Hand of Doom, traveling, and shooting a movie to go with the project, so I’ll let it slide.

Finally, the full album is up for streaming and purchase at the MAdM website, and is available from most online retailers. Unfortunately I can’t seem to get it locally, and I haven’t settled on whether I want it on vinyl or not. In any case, I whole-heartedly recommend this album.

I think I might give the movie and graphic novel a miss, though.

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Ashes Divide: Band, or Solo Project?

April 24, 2008 Leave a comment

I have to admit, when I first heard that Billy Howerdel of A Perfect Circle was working on new music for a new band, I was excited. In fact, the idea is still exciting, considering the people he has working on his new album, Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright by Ashes Divide. Danny Lohner, Josh Freese, Devo Keenan, Alan Moulder, Paz Lenchantin… wait. Wait, wait, wait. This is another A Perfect Circle album, right?*

Well, yes and no.

At first listen it sounds much like Howerdel’s former band. But for most of the tracks on the album, the guitars are heavily subdued, and Maynard James Keenan’s darker vocals have been replaced by Billy’s own brilliantly keening tenor. For what it’s worth, the band sounds almost as much like 30 Seconds to Mars or Abandoned Pools (another Freese studio drumming project) as it does APC. While I appreciate the amazing musicianship on the album, and the production, and, well, everything but the songwriting, it can’t hold up with his better work.

The most disappointing part of the album is the frightening similarity all the songs have to each other. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the guitars are buried in the mix. Buried. The layers of reverb, delay, synth pads, and vocal processing gets in the way of the harmonic content of the songs, especially on the first half of the record. While Billy’s pitch-perfect vocals rise above and give the songs melodic flair, the entirety of the album seems so homogeneous that it’s difficult to tell one track from another. Therefore one has to wade through the washes of atmospherics to decipher the lyrics, because they’re really the only way to tell the songs apart.

The album does have some shining moments, though. I think that “A Wish” and “Ritual” are two of the best songs that have come out of Howerdel’s brain. And there’s the lead single, “The Stone,” which is easily the most single-like song on the album, and, unfortunately, one of the two remotely heavy songs on this outing. “The Prey” is the other, and sounds almost like Prong in the intro riff and structure. The album closer, “Sword,” is a good condensation of the album.

But, sadly, the lack of real variety on the album keeps it from being a truly great release. I’m hoping that the sales for it are high enough to allow Howerdel to keep churning out releases, though, because I like the direction he’s heading in, but not necessarily the execution. So I guess that’s a plea for you to go out and get Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright, if only to support a dude posing as a group so that maybe he can actually get the group together and get some outside input on his albums.

*So you don’t have to look those names up, they’re all people he’s worked with in A Perfect Circle.