Velvet Revolver

Velvet Revolver includes founding Guns N’ Roses members Slash and Duff McKagan backing former Stone Temple Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland. In essence, it’s exactly the kind of rock and roll supergroup one would expect to release an album of soulless filler propped up by a radio-friendly single to pacify RCA while allowing Weiland to buy more drugs. And while Weiland’s lyrics are often as anonymously “dark” as your average high school poetry journal, no one can deny that VR’s debut, Contraband, rocks hard in a delightful late-’80s/early -’90s kind of way.

Contraband is enough to remind anyone that the clangy rock of The Strokes, Modest Mouse, etc. tastes great but ultimately isn’t as filling as a juicy cut of steak. Speaking of juicy, Slash’s monster power-ballad riffs on “Loving the Alien” and “Fall to Pieces” are timely reminders of just who that was up there at the top of the neck on the Gunners’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Weiland’s brash tenor-baritone more than compensates for a missing Axl Rose, even echoing Rose’s scratchy meow on the verse of the aptly titled “Big Machine.” It may take you some time to let yourself like this one, but don’t let the cynic win. You know you want it. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Pressure Chief

Cake has always been anchored by lead singer John McCrea’s uncanny ability to create bizarre mental-association pictures that seem both possible and yet slightly surreal. Case in point: On “Wheels,” the opening track of Pressure Chief, McCrea sings with deadpan sincerity: “In a seedy karaoke bar…there’s a Japanese man in a business suit singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’/And the muscular cyborg German dudes dance with sexy French-Canadians/While the overweight Americans wear their patriotic jumpsuits.”

Unfortunately, Pressure Chief contains fewer such portraits than did Cake records past, which is why the album falls short of ingenious predecessors such as Comfort Eagle and Prolonging the Magic. Instead, McCrea unloads a lot of bitching—about a failed relationship and the world in general. It’s not that Cake can’t do serious songs (indeed, “Comfort Eagle” is a harsh denunciation of American capitalism, and it supplied the creepy nü-metal to back it up); it’s just that Pressure Chief’s music remains light and airy, full of bass bubble and keyboard pop, so the lyrical bitterness is disconcerting—and not Ween-style “we did this on purpose” disconcerting, either. Cake still delivers the goods musically with the punk a-go-go of “Carbon Monoxide” and the sweeping psych-pop of “The Guitar Man,” but on the whole, Pressure Chief feels like the work of a band that’s temporarily lost its sense of humor. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Duran Duran

Having skipped VH1’s Bands Reunited and headed directly to the sold-out U.K. arena circuit, Simon, Nick and the Taylors are back together after 20 years and giving it another go. Why not? And why not give them the benefit of the doubt? Their first two albums really were excellent.

Well, the boys still have their chemistry, but Astronaut is a mixed bag of the great, the kinda rough and the downright embarrassing. Duran Duran delivers a soundtrack for a night of clubbing, fashion runway fodder, sing-alongs for pig-tailed sleepovers and a few tunes (“What Happens Tomorrow” and “Point of No Return”) that actually pull their weight and earn their places in the D2 history book. Too much studio trickery and wretched computer programming threaten the soul of the music (yes, soul, and yes I’m still talking about Duran Duran), but thank goodness Roger Taylor pounds the skins with funk fervor to match brother John’s always-righteous bass playing, giving much of the music that certain groove that Roxy Music or D2’s other main influence, David Bowie, always could muster. The boys are poised for the jetset and world domination, which they’ll most likely achieve. Again. (Bryan Ramirez)

Richard Buckner
Dents and Shells

I’ve finally forgiven Richard Buckner for allowing his song “Ariel Ramirez” to be used in a Volkswagen commercial, because the man can still write a song like no other and deliver an album as near-perfect as this one. Buckner’s contribution to the Americana scene is as good as it gets. He delivers his road-weary emotional tales in a soothing bear-brawn voice, perpetually longing for love and understanding but never far from petitioning a sunrise. He ventures into pawnshop instrumentation for the haunting “Charmers” and goes it alone on “Firsts” (a full band, including the Butthole Surfers’ rhythm section, also accompanies him for a good portion of the album), with Buckner’s guitar and voice creating the horizon ahead. Dents and Shells is Buckner’s best since his adventurous major-label debut Since, and with this new classic, there isn’t any reason Buckner oughtn’t achieve the same notice as Lucinda Williams. Now it’s up to the listening public. (Bryan Ramirez)

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