LIVE REVIEW: DINOSAUR JR., RED KROSS & ROYAL HEADACHE @ THE HI-FI, SYDNEY (16.03.2013)

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Shaken not stirred. The walls of The Hi-Fi were alive with the sound of loud guitar-driven music on Saturday night while the rest of Sydney was off watching the football next door. The music came thick and fast from a slacker trinity of bands offering raw riffs and hot heat and all while they were dwarfed by one massive Marshall speaker stack. At times it was ear-bleeding loud but all of this helped to hit home the message that most music (unless it’s your grandparents’) ain’t designed to be comfortable.

Young upstarts Royal Headache kicked off the night with a heavy, hardcore sound. Their energy bucked and billowed as lead singer, Shogun sung about being real and then being tired while his band mates offered some kick-in-the-teeth punch. Shogun was especially fun to watch as he aped around the stage like Johnny Rotten  and the punks put on what was essentially a bloody good racket.

The first of the tourists – well, these Americans were once in a band called The Tourists – were Red Kross and they were like the headliners in that they straddled the lines between rock and alt-rock. Their stage show was excellent because they had the rock star posing down to a tee. They had an infectious confidence that stood up and thankfully didn’t disintegrate into madness or arrogance.

The quartet was off and racing, jumping and windmilling from early on but ‘Switch Blade Sister’ was a fine if not trashy song that won us all over. They would go on to offer their own ‘Protest song’ and others where the lights and music combined to form what can only be likened to a self-contained thunderstorm. The set only seemed to get better and harder and stronger with tracks like ‘Pretty Please Me’ and ‘Follow the Leader’. They closed with ‘Crazy World’ where the crowd sang along and agreed that this is one mad, old planet that we live on. No one would argue that there was anyone better to observe and pontificate about this.

Red Kross had energy coursing through their veins from their toes to their eyeballs but that kinda thing just ain’t Dinosaur Jr.’s game. The trio shuffled on-stage in such a non-descript way that they could’ve been a group of janitors. J. Mascis took the opportunity to have a quick swig while waiting for drummer, Murph to join Lou Barlow and him.

Opening track, ‘Thumb’ set the bar high as we all watched in awe of Mascis’ adroit guitar playing. It’s something you’d bottle if you could even if Mascis is a man of few words himself. Instead he leaves the music, warbles, distortion and all to do every bit of the talking he needs. ‘The Wagon’ is a good example of this and an early favourite that took us all back to 1990. Mascis is a grey wizard and he was on fire, performing magic with his six-stringed stick.

The last time I saw him perform was as a solo artist at last year’s Sydney Festival. It was a very different experience to The Hi-Fi show. The previous gig was at the auspicious Spiegeltent and the spotlight was on acoustics, loops and effects pedals. Although Mascis would use a veritable gun-rack full of pedals tonight, the volume often won out in the competitive stakes, with a guttural crunch almost spewing over what is some excellent musicianship when you do get the opportunity to pause and think about it.

New song, ‘Rude’ from last years I Bet on Sky record was also offered. It’s a positive testament to a band whose members are all in their late forties and yet are still producing a good array of tunes, one that was kick-started by their stellar comeback record, Beyond. This Barlow-lead track held its own among the new material. But that said, the crowd did kind of loose their collective s**t in ‘Feel the Pain’ and I’m sure I saw a security guard bopping along but don’t quote me on that.

‘Start Choppin’’ would’ve been a great song to end the proceedings with (it does have “Goodbye” in the lyrics after all) but the boys kept us on our toes and dropped it in towards the end of the main set. Another surprise came courtesy of ‘Training Ground’, a cover of a hardcore punk song from when Mascis and Barlow were in Deep Wound together. It was every bit as mighty as you could imagine.

The boys brought the set to a blistering close with ‘Freak Scene’ and ‘Forget The Show’. They did return for an encore and my heart skipped a beat when they played their raucous cover of The Cure’s ‘Just like Heaven’. It was incredibly special while the following, “Sludgefeast” was almost like a musical master class into the intricacies of alt-rock by Mr Mascis himself. And perhaps that’s the best way to sum up the night- you could dance, maybe even sing or slag off to the bar but there’s no question that we can all also learn a thing or two from a bunch of virtuoso slackers. Cool.

Originally published on 29 March 2013 at the following website: http://sludgefactory.com.au/dinosaur-jr-red-kross-royal-headache-gig-review

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ALBUM REVIEW: THE BASICS – INGREDIENTS

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The Basics may be best known as “Gotye’s other band” but they are also three well dressed men with a knack for writing heart-warming tunes soaked in sweet harmonies and pop melodies.

The Basics’ Ingredients tracks the progression of the underrated band, drawing together 20 songs taken from their first EP through to the latest one, Wait For You; a decade’s worth of work. It’s a good taste of what the band has to offer but the number of genres tackled make it difficult to like everything on offer. Are the Basics rock ‘n’ roll, pop, rock, ska or country?

It’s obvious that Kris Schroeder, Tim Heath and Wally De Backer have an affinity with retro things but this is a positive and a negative. At best it’s a loving homage – ‘I Could Go On’ is like a lost Motown cut not dissimilar to Gotye’s own ‘I Feel Better’ – but sometimes the songs come too close to being carbon copies of the past. ‘Wait for You’ is a complete Peter Gabriel rip-off while ‘She’s Gonna B. Late’ sounds like a bunch of interchangeable sixties, British Invasion bands. ‘Better’, taken from their recent self-titled live album, comes closest to capturing their energetic concerts, something that had occasionally been lacking in their recorded output.

 

Originally published on 22 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.fasterlouder.com.au/reviews/music/35275/The-Basics–Ingredientsob

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EP REVIEW: FLEA – HELEN BURNS

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I dunno how Flea does it. When he’s not being Michael Balzary and father to Clara and Sunny he spends his downtime as a member of famous supergroups (hello: Atoms For Peace). His day job also means he does hand-stands (both literal and aural) for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. And somewhere in between (sources say back in 2007) he managed to find time to record the debut solo EP, Helen Burns (one that has only just been released).

This six-track collection was recorded with the RHCP drum tech and keyboardist, Chris Warren; RHCP drummers present and past, Chad Smith and Jack Irons, respectively; and punk princess Patti Smith (who also co-wrote and sings on the title track). The EP title comes from the character of the same name in the classic novel, Jane Eyre. But anyone thinking this indulgent side project is going to sound like Flea’s work with the Chilli Peppers or classical music in general (due to the namesake) had better guess again.

By his own admission, this record is Flea’s “weird” and “arty” one (think a little like Damon Albarn’s Dr. Dee). It’s a trippy and ambient affair where progressive and psychedelic styles (read: strange noise) are offered up in droves. Lyrics are scant (as some tracks are instrumental) and there are one too many twists and turns to call this “accessible” or worthy of more attention than just one or two cursory spins.

‘333’ sets the scene with the first of many sound kaleidoscopes. It’s a busy number with more layers than an onion skin. These go from the hyper-manic to the spooky via some bubbles, fizz, beats, strings, some traditional piano and even a snake-charmer. The feeling is fast, skittish and at times rather anxious (where you could imagine one climbing up some high walls). It’s a different vibe altogether to the sparse flutter of ‘Pedestal of Infamy’ where the percussion is as light and as soft as a breath and the flute creates something rather mystical.

The title track sees Ms Smith in her element with fine, low vocals singing a sombre and sober tune about winter love. ‘333 Revisited’ is a left-turn yet again, because it is so synth-laden, it wouldn’t be out of place on a record by Depeche Mode or New Order. ‘Lovelovelove’ brings things to a close with the choir from the Silverlake Conservatory of Music (who will benefit from the proceeds of this single) offering up something both melodious and sweet.

Helen Burns may have been christened after a Charlotte Brontë character but it is actually more reflective of its mad scientist creator. The sounds are hyperactive (just like Flea) and they vary from the creative and perplexing to the inaccessible and grating in just under 27 minutes. This expansive sound may burn out and prevent numerous spins of the set, but Flea should be complimented for indulging his creative side. This was after all, a labour of love and an itch he clearly had to scratch.

Originally published on 24 March 2013 at the following website: http://thedwarf.com.au/album_review/flea-helen-burns-2

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BOOK REVIEW: LISA GENOVA – LOVE ANTHONY

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Reach for the box of Kleenex, Love Anthony is a tear-jerker. The third novel by NY Times best seller, Lisa Genova is as emotional, engaging and poignant as her previous works, Still Alice and Left Neglected. It is ultimately a tale of unconditional love that will force you to ask some big questions about yourself and life. It also means that this would make a good choice of novel for a book club discussion or two.

Genova’s background is in biopsychology and neuroscience. It comes as no surprise that her first two books have tackled areas like: Alzheimer’s and brain injury. In Love Anthony she sets the spotlight on the field of autism and just like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, she really manages to get inside the head of the child with the disorder. Anthony is in fact Genova’s strongest character and the most beautiful one offered here.

What Genova does is marry up emotional truths with scenes that are very credible in their encapsulation of benign domesticity. The story follows two distinct paths- that of mother Beth Ellis who is grappling with the demise of her marriage after she discovers her husband Jimmy cheated on her. The reader gets to follow the process of separation and the fall-out of the affair as Ellis tries to reinvent her life.

The second story is about Olivia Donatelli, another woman who recently separated from her husband after her autistic son Anthony passed away from a subdural hematoma or seizure. The lives of the two women intersect and they eventually strike up an unlikely friendship as they both share in their tragedy and grief. The set-up does take time and effort but Genova lays a solid foundation and the reader is rewarded for their patience in navigating their way through the past and present and through journal entries and traditional and imagined book chapters. There is a lot of variety here in writing structure and style.

Some of the most memorable quotes in the book are also the most relatable ones. Consider: “She’s at once hopelessly attracted to him and completely pi**ed at him”.

“It is the closest place to nowhere that she can think of. And nowhere is exactly where she wants to be today”. Hands up who hasn’t had moments like this?

Love Anthony is a convergent tale of self-discovery, love and loss. It is a beautifully- written story that has more heart than a Nicholas Sparks novel and at times is more real than an autobiography. Genova uses a deft hand to paint autism with a sensitive brush and ultimately creates something that is full of truth, beauty and a picture of a gorgeous and utterly loveable autistic boy.

 

Originally published on 24 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/reviews/lisa-genova-love-anthony

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ALBUM REVIEW: TEGAN & SARA – HEARTTHROB

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Heartthrob brings Tegan and Sara’s sound closer to the decade the Canadian twins were born in – the ‘80s. Their seventh studio album is a shift away from the folk and indie genres towards electro pop music where the gals are sitting pretty in Day-Glo pink.

Single, ‘Closer’ is a fine indication of this new sound. It’s a combination of soaring Killers-esque pop with nods towards La Roux and Roxette. The music is generally positive and that’s often reflected in the lyrics, which should bode well on the festival circuit. But it’s not all roses with ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’ and ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’ exploring darker lyrical themes: regret, loneliness, fears and general self-loathing.

‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ comes dangerously close to being a sing-song ode to breaking up and a case of your lover not seeing you in the same light as your friends. The piano ballad ‘I Was A Fool’ celebrates the stupid things people do for love and it the only track to resemble the twins’ old sound. The same cannot be said for ‘Love They Say’, which borrows too heavily from Madonna and those hopelessly clichéd Nicholas Sparks novels where everybody’s kissing in the rain.

Tegan and Sara’s casual fans may accuse the sisters of selling out with this move towards punchy synth-pop anthems. But this new sound also comes with maturity and substance, meaning that this should endure longer than those old Hypercolour tees.

Originally published on 16 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.fasterlouder.com.au/reviews/music/35194/Tegan-Sara–Heartthrob

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ALBUM REVIEW: GARY CLARK JR. – BLAK & BLU

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In many ways, Gary Clark Jr. is like Michael Kiwanuka. Both are 20-somethigs with an affinity for the old. They both have smooth, soulful voices. And they produce music that sounds like it’s come from a crisp, new vinyl record. But Clark’s craft differs in that he has been anointed the next Jimi Hendrix. He certainly knows his way around a guitar and pulls out all the right moves to make it sing.

Black & Blu is his debut album for a major label, having previously released some independent records and EPs. It is a much-anticipated effort that certainly delivers. It’s also one of the most exciting records I’ve recently had the pleasure of listening to and it covers so much ground. From new to contemporary sounds from a smooth, soulful croon to a rocking, party vocal. Plus, the amount of genres on here makes it sound like a record catalogue of its own, with: blues, psychedelia, hip-hop, pop, soul, rock and folk among this ambitious mix.

But a quick word of warning- not every song on this album will appeal to everyone, even though there are gems to appease just about every kind of music fan. “Ain’t Messin ‘Round” opens proceedings with a big, bombastic Motown sound. Clark also resembles James Brown as he thumbs his nose at approval and unnecessary rules. The following, “When My Train Pulls In” is an intense number delivered by a lonely bluesmen and a track you could imagine Eric Clapton covering. It’s the first of many occasions that a legend like Clapton and others like Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood (all of whom Clark has played with) will show up as a point of reference or three.

The title track is a tad disappointing as it’s a downbeat hip-hop number that samples Gil Scott-Heron. “The Life” continues with this soft feeling but Clark is at his best when he simply sticks to the blues. “Travis County” is some of the upbeat variety or a road trip anthem-in-the-making. “Bright Lights” meanwhile, has bursts of distorted guitar that are like Neil Young’s own, while also nodding at Led Zeppelin and The Doors when they’re off imbibing in whiskey bars.

It should come as no surprise that Clark can also play the romantic card. “Please Come Home” is a sentimental ballad where his delightful falsetto delivers something truly powerful while “Next Door Neighbor Blues” sees the venue change yet again. Here, we have Clark sitting around in his yard playing slide-guitar in a song that sounds like a Jack White demo. Clark is one talented guy and he can deftly execute many different shades of grey and emotion. His guitars are bold and polished and worthy of inclusion in a time capsule for those wanting a quick glimpse at modern music right up to this point.

Gary Clark Jr. is a versatile musician, smooth operator, guitar God and crooner. His album lives up to expectations as it shows a charismatic chameleon that is hungry enough to continue down the long and dusty road towards blues Mecca. In doing so, there’s no doubt he will continue delivering the goods for many more years to come. Because when you stop and think about it, this guy not only listens to the sound of his master’s voice, he can add it all up and play it right back to him…

Originally published on 16 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.thedwarf.com.au/album_review/gary-clark-jr-blak–blu-2

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ALBUM REVIEW: NEW ORDER – LOST SIRENS

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In recent years New Order has had more bad blood and dirty linen out in public than a C-grade horror flick. When bassist, Peter Hook left in 2007 a public slanging match ensued and his band mates would reform without him. He did hit back by performing their old albums with Joy Division and New Order under a new guise and writing two memoirs. And so we enter chapter 57 of this saga and one that could be called “The New Cash Cow”.

Lost Sirens is the band’s ninth studio record. It is a mini-album of outtakes from their underwhelming swansong, Waiting For the Sirens’ Call. It is just eight songs and one is a remix of a track from Sirens while another is an alternate version of ‘Hellbent’ from the recent, Total Best Of compilation. So talk about the words, “Scraping the bottom of the barrel”.

The fact is that these songs are on par with the Sirens material but this can be a good and bad thing. The record was originally recorded in 2003-2004 in a series of expensive sessions where Phil Cunningham replaced Gillian Gilbert who had left to take care of both hers and drummer, Stephen Morris’ daughter. The music was typical of New Order’s 21st century material in that they were dense and guitar-driven songs with occasional nods towards some earlier nostalgia via the synth. It was also a mixed bag in terms of quality and highly unlikely to influence anyone in the same way as those past, glory days.

‘I’ll Stay with You’ has some fizzy guitars from Bernard Sumner, while ‘Sugarcane’ is all glittery synth that pounds, dances and drives a disco number about rock star excesses. The rest of the tracks are polished in terms of production but ‘Recoil’ is a down-beat slow-burner and ‘Californian Grass’ borrows one too many guitar riffs from U2.

A case of lost potential is evident in ‘Shake It Up’. The music is fantastic with guitars that slam and elements that are expansive, melodic and catchy. But the biggest drawback is the tiresome and repetitive lyrics. Consider: “Shake it up, yeah/You can make it real if you want it…You can turn the wheel if you wanna”. Please.

Lost Sirens is a collection that will win over the completist and more devout New Order fans but in reality it would’ve been better placed as an accompanying disc of bonus material. It does sound half-complete and can be a let-down in parts but then half-baked New Order material does have a tendency to outshine at least some of the recent competition. They were after all, a talented singles band that produced some absolute classic hits right up into the naughties. So maybe we should just hope that the group makes up, otherwise it won’t be a fine time for anyone.

Originally published on 9 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.thedwarf.com.au/album_review/new-order-lost-sirens-1

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ALBUM REVIEW: EXPATRIATE – HYPER/HEARTS

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After kicking goals with their stellar debut, In The Midst Of This, Sydneysiders Expatriate would take some inspiration from their namesake. They’d relocate to Berlin and plug their album while playing to a whole new fan-base. It was an experience that was full of opposites or plain old ups and downs like warm summers and freezing winters when they were used to experiencing the alternative. And these encounters are the ones that ultimately colour both their second album’s title and content.

On Hyper/Hearts the boys wanted to capture the sounds and sonic trickery they love about other artists’ music. This meant they would set about painting much more detailed backgrounds into their songs. The result is 11 full-sounding tracks that come dolled to the nines and brimming with bells and whistles. These mostly fit in the camp of dark, electro pop music although occasionally it is also the sort of indie rock music you can dance to (think like Franz Ferdinand and others).

‘Miracle Mile’ immediately captures the listener’s attention by forcing them to bop along to some catchy guitars that aren’t so pretty that they avoid containing a bunch of grit. The following ‘By Design’ is all about dancing around to the kind of beat you’d normally associate with a band like The Cure. But this is then mixed with music that is more reminiscent of The Killers, had they undergone a scary encounter or two and then the guys just want to dance away their troubles in merry old Madchester on ‘Love Away’.

But the highlight of the set is definitely the single, ‘Do You Remember’. The track is perfect as it sees nostalgic lyrics combined with catchy and futuristic synth lines. The result is something that sounds not unlike The Temper Trap thanks to its soaring chorus. It’s a different feel from ‘On The Inside’ which is much grungier. It’s possible that the latter was flavoured by the experience of touring with Placebo, as you can definitely hear elements of the English band’s sound here.

On Hyper/Hearts Expatriate are like an awesome foursome of wizards returning to Oz. They come armed with plenty of ideas that are the result of lessons learned and information gleaned from the electro scene in Berlin. In short, Hyper/Hearts is full of expansive and complex beats inspired by their own strange, fruitful and exciting experiences abroad that it’ll force you to sit up and remember your own travels and good times.

Originally published on 9 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.thedwarf.com.au/album_review/expatriate-hyperhearts-1

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ALBUM REVIEW: JOHN CALE – SHIFTY ADVENTURES IN NOOKIE WOOD

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John Cale is a bit like Neil Young, seeing as he’s practically done it all. He’s created seminal albums as a member of the Velvet Underground. He’s worked with John Cage on classical music pieces and he’s produced records by a veritable who’s who of music. But it seems like Messer Cale is still a little restless for change because at age 70 his fifteenth solo album and first record in seven years shows he has absolutely no signs of slowing down.

Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is all about thumbing expectations. From the crazy title through to Cale’s divergence from the elder statesman’s more expected route. As his peers confine themselves to adult contemporary music, wistful crooning and the nostalgia trail, Cale has gone the opposite way. Instead he employs all manner of sonic gadgetry to offer something experimental, quirky and absolutely relevant.

The opening track has the Prince-inspired title, ‘I Wanna Talk to U’ and is the only song from the 12 that Cale allowed to be produced by an outsider. Here, he worked with Danger Mouse for a thumping track that starts slowly but builds into a completely groovy operatic opus. It’s also the equivalent of Cale taking the listener by the lapels as he sings: “Heya, wake up/ I wanna talk to you”.

‘Scotland Yard’ was inspired by London’s riots and it’s almost as if Cale is recording the music from the ground as the aggressive, mob spirit creates a real stomper full of gritty guitars and insistent beats. Cale also sounds a lot like Ian Curtis here, which should be taken as utmost praise. It’s a shame that during other songs his strong, baritone vocals are modified by a vocoder and auto-tune. It’s a shame because his voice seems to have escaped the ravages of time, so the technology seems completely unnecessary and overbearing.

There’s the ghost-like ‘Hemmingway’ before Cale turns his mind away from literary masters and instead settles on a German band called Can as the next source of inspiration. In ‘Face to the Sky’ some fuzzy distortion is created by layering chequer boards of electronic blips over the top of one other (these in turn, were created by pianos being smacked and some tortured viola, among other instruments).

If there’s one song that John Cale resembles Neil Young on the most, then it’s ‘December Rains’, because here he turns grumpy and attacks Google. He laments the loss of your private life in the modern world. It’s a great message but it’s a shame that such a personal note is delivered in a robotic voice (thanks vocoder) because it would’ve been more meaningful without it. On ‘Mary’ he returns to introspection in its more traditional form, with a warbling, piano ballad.

John Cale had previously described this record as: “A dark, fantastical place with a strange warm breath” and “A dark swamp where naughty things happen”. After numerous spins (that reward with some newly-discovered texture or previously glossed-over element) you can tell that Cale has got it just right. Cale’s brand of le noise is rather left-field and the lyrics are cryptic and yet the music is accessible, enjoyable and so darned interesting. This trip is one adventure through sonic kaleidoscopes that smart, rattle and rage. And by golly, Cale has STILL got it.

Originally published on 9 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.thedwarf.com.au/album_review/john-cale-shifty-adventures-in-nookie-wood-1

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ALBUM REVIEW: GLENN FREY – AFTER HOURS

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The Beatles once sang about a hit your mother should know. It’s fair to say that the music you inherit from your parents can be a pervasive thing that stays with you long after the final note has sung. It seems like this idea prevails on Glenn Frey’s After Hours because this is a musician my father loves from The Eagles doing a series of piano standards and hits from a great American songbook mostly released from when my grandfather was sharing his formative years.
Frey is not alone in putting out a record like this. We’ve already had Rod Stewart mine this particular field quite extensively. More recently this has seen Paul McCartney turn back the wheels of time and even Chris Isaak (although the latter was to a different historical point). For most people who already enjoy the easy-on-the-ear style of melodious music that Frey makes with The Eagles, it really isn’t too big a stretch to hone the AM dial into some good, old-fashioned sophistication.
Over 11 songs Frey tackles the music made famous by vocal powerhouses like Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Dusty Springfield and Tony Bennett. These prove some big shoes to fill and while Frey’s renditions don’t soar as high as an eagle to the dizzying heights of the originals, they are still faithful and well-arranged songs and a loving homage to them.

‘For Sentimental Reasons’ opens with some twinkling piano and the simple line: “I love you for sentimental reasons”. It sets the tone for the rest of the record as these cuts wouldn’t be out of place on the “Sleepless In Seattle” or “The Notebook” soundtracks, because you could imagine a young couple slow dancing away to the wireless. A waltz is certainly heard on ‘My Buddy’ although this one wallows in melancholy before the mood brightens in ‘Route 66’.

In addition to the standards delivered in a lounge-like format, Frey also tackles newer songs in a similar vein. These include Brian Wilson’s ‘Caroline, No’ and Randy Newman’s ‘Same Girl’. In producing this album, Frey has said that he never wanted to constrict himself to a specific genre or time period. Instead, the idea was more about a celebration of the sounds and embracing the learning process so he could deliver and ultimately own the tunes. The only original by Frey is the title track and this was co-written with his longtime collaborator Jack Tempchin and the song ultimately brings the proceedings to a wistful close.

Glenn Frey’s voice is warm and rich and the subtle delivery he offers proves an excellent compliment to the lush orchestral patter found on all of these tracks. For the most part this record is about gentle sleepers that celebrate tradition with some old-fashioned comfort food and romance. In short, After Hours is one for Frey’s most passionate fans, a smooth and mellow collection of romantic and misty-eyed golden oldies that your mother – or grandmother – should know.

Originally published on 9 March 2013 at the following website: http://www.thedwarf.com.au/album_review/glenn-frey-after-hours-1

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