Freshly Unwrapped: New Music Releases, 6/30/08

Written by Freshly Unwrapped, Music

Alkaline Trio, Agony & Irony (Epic)
purchase this album (Amazon)

These Chicago-bred emo pioneers have been gradually sanding down the rough edges of their sound for years — and with their Epic debut, a glossy sheen is officially all that remains. Longtime fans are already grousing about Agony & Irony, but the album’s FM-ready sound is already yielding dividends for the band: Alkaline Trio was featured on an episode of The Hills in May. That won’t be of much comfort to those pissed-off purists, but it should give a pretty big boost to the band members’ bank statements. By their next album, their transformation into the emo version of the Goo Goo Dolls should be complete; in the meantime, they should get a semi-credible hit or two out of Lit-esque tracks like “Love Love Kiss Kiss.” (MySpace)

James Brown, Gravity (Volcano)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Not James’ finest hour, to be certain — but it does contain his last major Top 40 hit, the Rocky IV soundtrack anthem “Living in America,” and it probably represents his last more or less consistent album. It’s hard to decide which is more surprising: That Gravity was out of print, or that Volcano — the imprint that once was Scotti Brothers — is still in business. Those Survivor and “Weird Al” Yankovic royalties must be more lucrative than anyone could have imagined…

John Coltrane, Dakar (Prestige)
purchase this album (Amazon)

One of Coltrane’s earliest albums gets the Prestige reissue treatment here — no bonus tracks, but it’s remastered, and considering that these sessions were recorded in 1957, the difference is probably noticeable, to say the least. Coltrane’s foils for Dakar are Cecil Payne, Pepper Adams, Mal Waldron, Doug Watkins, and Art Taylor — and though Adams and Waldron contribute some solid songs, this isn’t one of Coltrane’s essential releases (check out the way his solo trips and falls down a flight of stairs on “Witches’ Pit”). For completists and jazz fanatics only.

Miles Davis, The Musings of Miles (Prestige)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Six early sides from Davis, recording here with most of what would become his First Great Quintet (FGQ member Paul Chambers hadn’t yet been added to the mix; the low end is held down here by Oscar Pettiford). Nothing spectacular here, really; if it wasn’t Miles’ name above the title, there’s no way this set would be seeing its umpteenth reissue this week. (Prestige is handling the honors this time around, but there are versions of The Musings of Miles with the DCC, Fantasy, JVC, and Original Jazz Classics logos on ’em too.) Like Dakar, this one is for the fan who has to have everything Miles did.

George Duke, Faces in Reflection (Verve)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Zappa sideman’s classic 1974 release has shockingly never been issued domestically on CD — a situation rectified this week by Verve, which offers a remastered version packaged in a gatefold sleeve. Duke would go on to record plenty of radio-friendly stuff later in his career, but not here — this is a boiling blend of funk and fusion, with a little bit of soul on the side. (Title of the fourth cut: “Psychosomatic Dung.” It’s as funky as you’d hope.) With drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and bassist John Heard providing an anchor, Duke is free to wander all over the map, largely via experiments with an early ARP synth. The $23 price tag will be enough to scare away anyone who isn’t already a (big) fan, but if you don’t care about owning the gatefold, you can just pick up the mp3s.

Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets, Talk to You By Hand (Hepcat)
purchase this album (Amazon)

He’s far from a household name, but jump blues fans have been well acquainted with Anson Funderburgh and his Rockets for years — since 1981, to be exact. That was the year the band helped launch Black Top Records with his debut, Talk to You By Hand. Black Top’s catalog has been a horrible mess since the label folded in 1999, which is why this album is seeing reissue via Hepcat, an imprint I’ve never heard of. No matter which logo is being slapped on the back, though, this is a set well worth owning for fans of Louis Jordan or Roomful of Blues. (Fun Funderburgh fact: Beavis & Butt-Head creator Mike Judge played bass for the Rockets in the late ’80s.) (MySpace)

Go West, Futurenow (Borough)
purchase this album (Amazon)

In which the onetime Kings of Wishful Thinking regroup after a 16-year absence to bring the world more of the machine-driven white soul it didn’t ask for. Let’s give ’em credit, though: At least they didn’t slap a “2008 version” of “We Close Our Eyes” onto the album, right? (MySpace)

Vanessa Hudgens, Identified (Hollywood)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Remember when Hollywood Records was the Disney-funded joke of the record industry? Well, it still is — but at least the label has figured out how to sell something besides Queen product. Unfortunately, that “something” consists mainly of an endless stream of plastic-coated tweeniebopper pop from the likes of Ashley Tisdale and Vanessa Hudgens, the Betty-and-Veronica duo from The Disney Channel’s insanely successful High School Musical franchise. Identified comes hot on the heels of 2006’s V — and not a minute too soon for Disney, which has probably been counting down the seconds until it could drop something in the marketplace that would make people think of something other than “naked photos” when they hear Hudgens’ name. Identified won’t displace memories of Hudgens’ naughty bits, but it’s perfectly competent dance pop for kids who aren’t quite sophisticated enough for Christina Aguilera. Virtually guaranteed to go at least gold. (MySpace)

Kansas, Two for the Show: Legacy Edition (Legacy)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Setting aside the fact that it’s ridiculous for any live album without the words “Frampton” or “Budokan” in the title to receive a deluxe “30th Anniversary Edition” reissue, Legacy’s Two for the Show upgrade restores the album to its original running order for the first time on CD — and then some. Originally a 14-track double live LP, then a 13-track single CD, Show is now a 24-song remastered double CD. Is any of it essential? Certainly not, but it at least continues Legacy’s recent streak of using the reissue market to correct old mistakes. (If only it could make Drastic Measures retroactively disappear.)

Los Lonely Boys, Forgiven (Epic/Or)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Speaking of Forgiven, I will never forgive this band for recording its horrible hit single “Heaven.” But that’s just me, and judging from the number of units Los Lonely Boys have sold, you’re probably excited to hear their Steve Jordan-produced third studio album. (MySpace)

John Mayer, Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles (Columbia)
purchase this album (Amazon)

You know, in my day, an artist had to put in a few decades of hard time before he started dropping a live album after every new studio release (see: Stones, Rolling). And as much as this shit pisses me off, I have to admit it makes a certain amount of sense where John Mayer is concerned — since scoring big as an adult contemporary balladeer with his first full-length, he’s worked overtime to establish his credentials as a blues-loving guitar god, and continually recasting his catalog in a live setting is one of the best ways of doing that. Where the Light Is captures Mayer live at L.A.’s Nokia Center last December, performing three sets — one acoustic, one with a full band, and one with his blues trio. Needless to say, “Your Body Is a Wonderland” isn’t here. The double-disc set includes one new track, “In Your Atmosphere,” which I haven’t listened to even though I’ve got a copy of the album sitting right here next to me. It’s nothing personal, John. (MySpace)

Van Morrison, Various Reissues (Universal)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Last year, we spent the month of March looking at a different Van Morrison album every day, and I was surprised to discover how many of Morrison’s records had fallen out of print — and now we know why: Universal was prepping remastered, bonus-tracks-included versions of those titles, and the first batch of them (Veedon Fleece; Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; Enlightenment; A Night in San Francisco; and The Healing Game) arrives on shelves this week. Adjust your budget accordingly.

My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade Is Dead (Reprise)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Speaking of acts that release too goddamn many live albums, here’s My Chemical Romance with a live CD/DVD extravaganza, offering a song-for-song live performance of The Black Parade, recorded in Mexico City last year, paired with footage of the show — and a show from Hoboken. It might be filler, but at $18, fans get plenty of bang for their bucks here. I personally have no use for MCR, but my esteemed colleague David Medsker enjoyed The Black Parade, and he’s pretty smart, so maybe they don’t totally suck. (MySpace)

Night Ranger, Hole in the Sun (VH1 Classic)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Over a year after everyone who wanted it paid import prices for it (or just downloaded it illegally), the ’80s hitmakers’ decade-in-the-making quasi-reunion reaches American retailers courtesy of VH1 Classic, the cable station/label dedicated to providing limited promotional resources to new music from old artists. Hole in the Sun was recorded without longtime keyboard player Alan Fitzgerald — and was completed just prior to the firing of guitarist Jeff Watson, a sacking that kicked off a rotating door of guitarists and keyboard players. Granted, there can’t be very many people who really give a shit who’s in Night Ranger at this point — and they were never exactly the Velvet Underground — but it’s at least somewhat telling that, since 2003, Fitzgerald, Watson, Michael Lardie, Reb Beach, Joel Hoekstra, and Christian Matthew Cullen have all cycled through the lineup alongside Jack Blades, Kelly Keagy, and Brad Gillis. Hole in the Sun was almost universally panned when it was released in Europe last year; at least this time, the band can count on almost nobody noticing it’s out. (Those of you who paid extra for the import, take heart: the new version includes marginally less horrible artwork and a pair of acoustic versions of old hits. Added value!) (MySpace)