REVIEWS WRITTEN BY SEAN HICKEY
Goo Goo Dolls
Summertime always means a fun time for those of us who love music! What could be better than riding around with the top down, soaking up the rays, and blasting great pop tunes out of the box? Bands like Journey have made summer music great – Heck, Jimmy Buffett practically built an entire career on the premise – That’s why we were so pleased to check out the newest one from the 1990’s fav Goo Goo Dolls titled Boxes.
As with their past efforts, this veteran, Buffalo-based pop-rock band is a well-oiled machine of positive vibes and optimism in the midst adversity. It’s a theme that is summed up nicely by bandleader John Rzeznik on “Souls in the Machine” when he sings; “every breath’s a moment, every moment is a chance to live again.” However, Boxes adds unexpected flourishes to the Goos’ usual strident acoustic rhythms and chiming electric guitars. The minimal, piano-brightened “Flood” prominently features Sydney Sierota of Echosmith, who meshes perfectly with Rzeznik, while “The Pin” – which is reminiscent of an earlier summer sound hero of ours called Jack’s Mannequin – boasts subtle, sighing background harmonies and an aggressive, roller coaster of a chorus melody. Additionally, bassist Robby Takac chimes in with a couple fine songs of his own, with the earnest, rough-hewn anthem “Free of Me” as the highlight.
In terms of songcraft, the Goo Goo’s are a model of consistency: Few bands have amassed a catalog with so many solid, well-written tunes. And while not every track is successful on Boxes, most of them (like “So Alive,” “Reverse,” and “Lucky One” will definitely put a smile on your face. As has been the case with Goo Goo Dolls over the years, every song has seamless arrangements and a distinctive approach that leaves the listener hungry for more – In that regard, Boxes will not disappoint. As they recommend on the opening track “Over and Over,” “Turn it UP!”
“Brilliance” is not a word we toss around carelessly in this column, but it’s the word that most aptly fits this amazing record that teams indie country/pop singer/songwriters Neko Case and Laura Veirs with veteran vocal chanteuse k.d. lang.
The opening “Atomic Number” introduces all three voices individually and places their tight harmonies in your ear before you even get a chance to realize how collaborative and seamless the vocals will be before making way for ghostly strings in an arrangement that’s exquisitely written and breathtakingly realized. Whether its lang’s slightly retro approach on her 60s slow dance inspired “Honey and Smoke,” Case’s swampy, typically torchy “Delirium” or Veirs’ folksy dreamscape with orchestral flourishes for “All the Greens of June,” this is a mesmerizing, wonderfully synergistic team, perfectly attuned to each other’s strengths, where no one artist steals the spotlight. You get the feeling they all know and appreciate the music of under-the-radar folk icon Judee Sill, the subject of Veirs’ appropriately titled and melancholic “Song for Judee.”
The 14 original songs were specifically written for this album which makes the harmonies and concepts feel even more jointly owned. The bluesy swagger of k.d. lang has seldom sounded as rich and pure as on her “Why Do We Fight” and even when they go for pure, fun confection on “Best Kept Secret,” a mainline of jubilant chamber pop replete with “ba-ba-ba” backing harmonies, soaring strings and the requisite horn section. Credit Veirs’ husband Tucker Martine (Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, many others) who, as producer, brings a clear, crisp, beautifully nuanced balance to the recording which was anchored in Portland, Oregon where he, Veirs and lang live. But most of all, nothing feels forced here – The ease with which the compositions flow and lyrics are sung is something any aspiring musician should hope to accomplish.
It’s impossible to overstate how marvelously moving and purely enjoyable the end result is, paving the way, we hope, for a follow-up. The collaboration works not just on a vocal level, as the women share lead and backing chores, but on a conceptual one as well since their occasionally offbeat Americana sensibilities also dovetail perfectly. Brilliance? Indeed!
Ben Arnold is one of the best-kept musical secrets in the Philadelphia area. Immensely talented and always ready to deliver an incredible performance, Arnold deftly splits time between his own solo work and his collaborations with other local bands such as US Rails and In the Pocket. His latest release, Lost Keys, continues a long list of musical successes and should command more attention from the music-loving people from our area.
The record opens with the fun Randy Newman-esque “Stupid Love” and takes the listener on a roller-coaster joyride that often mirrors the ups and downs in life and love that all of us experience from one time to another. Arnold doles out his wry observations in ten doses of an intoxicating amalgam that includes blue collar rock, pop, blues, funk, Philly International strings along with a nice dab of Memphis blue-eyed soul. He has described this latest venture as “an homage to the golden years of Motown, Stax, Philly soul and doo wop” – And boy, does he ever deliver on that! After the first track, we’re hit with the funky “Cannonball,” the bar-sy blue-sy “Nobody’s Hurtin’ Like Me,” the soulful croon of “Freedom,” and “Detroit People,” a sweet and uplifting gift to the spirit of the folks that inhabit the Motor City.
Joining Arnold on the album is Matt Muir on drums and assorted percussion, Phil D’Agostino on bass, with Eric Bazilian and Matt Kass on electric guitars. Also lending a hand is a veritable who’s who of Philly-based players that include Scott Bricklin on bass, Kevin Hanson on guitar, and Jim Hamilton on congas. Strings were provided by Rachel Massey, Sarah Larson, and Rachel Icenogle. Also, Zach Djanikian, Mutlu, Tony Reyes, Jeannie Brooks, and Carol Brooks Meyners on backup vocal duties as well as the aforementioned Djanikian , Jay Davidson, Adam Flicker, and Larry Toft creating their own ‘Philadelphia version’ of the Memphis Horns. These musicians have been playing together off and on for several years, a fact that is reflected in their tight, unified sound on Lost Keys. Add to that some superb production and recording from a Grammy Award-Winning fellow named Phil Nicolo (among others), and you can see why this record is such a gem. In fact, the whole record is another scrumptious, satisfying treat from one of the best artists that Philadelphia has to offer. Seek out his show; buy his records; call him your very own – A talent such as his should be cherished and celebrated.
Ben Arnold plays at the Eagleview Concerts on the Square up Rte. 100 near Lionville on Aug. 30. So mark those calendars – Make those plans!