By BRUCE DENNILL
Train: Bulletproof Picasso 6.5
Lady Antebellum: 747 6
Hozier: Hozier 6.5
Kiss: 40 4.5
It’s been a few albums since Train could reasonably have been called a rock band – their last few offerings have been geared to deliver radio-friendly pop, and done so very well. But with Pat Monahan’s chameleonic voice as the band’s pivot and the proven chops of Jimmy Stafford on guitar and rhythm section of Hector Maldonado and Drew Shoals capable of providing plenty of crunch and muscle, it still feels faintly disappointing to get through a collection in which the band has not given flight to their full capacity. Their decision to change direction has, however, been vindicated by their chart success, and most pop bands who have no choice but to sound the way they do would give anything to have the songwriting nous of Monahan (the common denominator throughout) and his various collaborators. Angel In Blue Jeans and the bouncy Wonder What You’re Doing For The Rest Of Your Life are superior paint-by-numbers affairs, while Give It All is a One Republic hit Ryan Tedder forgot to write and Son Of A Prison Guard’s country pop and walking bassline chorus begs you to sing along. The lyrics throughout are peppered with pop culture references, intelligently placed so that they don’t date the songs the moment the album is released. Other themes include rueful observations on relationships handled less than brilliantly (Baby, Happy Birthday or the Killers-ish I’m Drinkin’ Tonight). Closer Don’t Grow Up So Fast is a classy country ballad directed at a child in need of a bit of a perspective (“Ain’t just the bad times; the good times too shall pass”), reinforcing Train’s reputation for versatility – and bolstering the suspicion that giving the band room to express their musicality would result in a more fulfilling outcome.
There’s a great deal of musical ability in country-pop trio Lady Antebellum, with Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott all contributing on the writing side as well as combining their voices and instruments on stage and in the studio. Now more or less a constant presence in the pop and country chart and award scene, the band are in that good-problem-to-have area: do things the way they always have and in all likelihood keep every fan they have and gain a couple more; or push the boat out a little technically and possibly lose the less sophisticated part of their fanbase while flexing their creative muscles. Lie With Me is the best of both worlds, a Fleetwood Mac-ish blend of singability and subtle skill. Freestyle, Sounded Good At The Time and She Is veer more to the tween-friendly sound of Taylor Swift – no bad thing in quality terms, though the emotional impact is far diminished. That aspect picks up again in the title track, which details the feeling that returning to a loved one always seems to take longer than you’d like. Just A Girl ends proceedings on a poignant note, with Scott giving its protagonist – a woman emotionally abused by a partner – both grit and a touch of desperation. The music here is as good as you’d expect, but there may still be some character left in the tank.
The problem – a good one to have, certainly – with having a smash hit is that if your other music sounds slightly different, it’s automatically deemed to be of lower quality. Take Me To Church is already a modern standard, an achievement made more impressive by its unusual arrangement.And, in short, there’s nothing else like it on this album. That is felt as a negative on the first couple of listens, when it seems like there’s simply a gap with nothing to fill it. But commit to a few more spins, and Hozier’s quality as a blues-, gospel- and roots-influenced musician is revealed, with Angel Of Death & The Codeine Scene (that’s a short story, not a song title) prompting enough off-beat clapping and foot stomping to almost qualify as a Southern Baptist church number. Jackie & Wilson is driven by a dirty, Jack White-ish guitar sound, but features a happy pop melody, pressed through – again, a gospel and old-school R&B filter. There’s more accessibility and a touch of soul on the catchy Someone New, while To Be Alone features atmospherics that would work for the soundtrack of a Western movie and a strong blues arrangement. For the most part, Hozier embraces a strident vocal approach, but on the rather beautiful – and slightly sinister – In A Week, he drafts duet partner Karen Cowley for a folksy love song sung from the perspective of a dead couple. Later, closer Cherry Wine further underlines Hozier’s appreciation of the power of a simple acoustic guitar and voice arrangement. Work Song would sell 20 million if Adele sang it – another dark, meditative number that allows space for vocals with the occasional instrumental swell to add dynamics. There is filler here too, but the album does suggest that Hozier will overcome the challenges of being “the Take Me To Church guy” and be appreciated for what he can offer beyond that career highlight (so far).
This retrospective is subtitled Decades Of Decibels, bolstering Kiss’ reputation as the self-proclaimed “loudest band in the world”. It’s strange, then, that the bulk of the first of the two discs is packed with nothing more threatening than a few straightforward Status Quo-style pop-rockers and some quiet piano and guitar ballads including Beth and Hard Luck Woman, which sounds as close to Rod Stewart as a supposedly hard rock band ever has. It’s a third of the way into the second disc, on Unholy, before a guitar sound emerges that might offend the neighbours. It’s not that Kiss have been operating in the shadows and none of their output is familiar, but this collection shows that the props – the stack heels, the make-up, the axe-shaped guitars, the infinite supply of groupies – and the abuse of amplifiers in the service of achieving records have created a legend that is more impressive than the source material. The songs have done the job for the band, otherwise the title of this album would be nonsense, but their longevity and success must be understood as a triumph of marketing as much an achievement in musical terms. And perhaps the biggest hit, I Was Made For Loving You, is atypical of the rest of their singles, a disco floor-filler rather than the dated rock that surrounds it. This is an interesting case study and a snapshot of a different industry rather than a greatest hits package.