The Critical Optimist

Home » Music Reviews

Category Archives: Music Reviews

Profile: The Edge

The Edge Performing In 2009

I have a certain respect for guitarists that sound like themselves; Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix.  Players who have an instantly recognizable sound.  Those tend to be the ones I enjoy listening to the most.  Nobody sounds like himself more than the Edge.

Born David Evans, The Edge is a fascinating musician.  Unlike most mainstream guitarists, listeners actually have the ability to chart his evolution as a player.  We hear his novitiate playing on Boy become the digitally processed sounds on Songs of Innocence.  On Boy’s live recording of “Cartoon World” there is constant feedback, a whine that carries throughout the song.  We hear The Edge audibly screw up; it is one of the most natural instances of musicianship ever committed to vinyl.

Edge plays a kind of power chord that is very rare in rock, in general really.  He cuts out certain notes from the chord, the ones that make it sound full and whole.  Without the low end, the chord sounds purer, and more striking.  11 O’clock tick tock for example, is the song it is because of Edge’s chord structure.

The heart of Edge’s playing is his intimate understanding of the guitar, both its inner workings and sounds, as well as how those things can be used to augment a song.  his first guitar was one that he and his brother Richard built from scrap.  He does more than just play his instrument, he fine tunes it to make exactly the sound he wants.  One of the most amusing parts of It Might Get Loud is when Edge, during his sound check spends a solid fifteen seconds searching through his 100 plus effect presets muttering “where’s pride?”.  His songs are so varied in terms of effects, assaulting the listener with a bevy of different sounds, many of which are largely unnoticeable.  “Get On Your Boots” begins with a fuzzed out riff, which is quickly silenced.  The guitar’s output becomes reduced to strummed ghost notes and a sound that can only be described as walrus-like.  In the chorus, he goes for sustained one-strums with heavy distortion.  At about 1:20, he plays an instrumental interlude with only about twelve notes, adding the perfect touch to the song.

The Edge singing in London (also 2009)

Also characteristic of Edge’s sound are lead parts absolutely drenched in echo.  Songs like “Wire” tend to be delayed to a dizzying degree.  Aside from sounding cool, it greatly increases the effect of the songs rhythm.  In a way, it is Edge, not Adam that is the band’s rhythm player.  In “Where the Streets Have No Name” Edge’s intro carries the whole song looping back, and repeating notes, as though some ghost guitarist is playing along, repeating his notes a beat or two afterwards.  Edge is simply a master of the delay effect.  It’s not something he uses for added sustain, or a cool sound (the limit to which I’ve taken it in my own playing) instead, the delay, and any effect he uses are as much a part of the instrument as the strings and the pickups.  Rather than a filter thrown over the pictures he paints, his uses of effect are entities within the shots themselves.

Above all the Edge does not rely on spectacle.  I’ve never heard him shred on a song though I’m sure he is more than capable of carving up the fretboard with ease.  His solos are not an exercise in self-gratification, they just happen to be what the song needs at that very moment.  He metes out just the right amount of miracle into everything he does.  He can play a spectacular solo, but you can be sure it isn’t about him, it’s about the song, and the atmosphere that his playing adds to.  He creates sonic landscapes with his solos, auras of completion; little bows that wrap up the song perfectly.

The reason I like the Edge is a nebulous, ill defined, and ever changing thing.  I respect his dedication and his humbleness; I am constantly floored by his inventive guitar tones; but most of all, I like listening to the Edge because I know that there is more to come.  He is no one trick pony, he wears many hats, and still has yet to try them all on.  He has imparted nearly 40 years of musical beauty upon the world of music, but he’s not done yet.

Nelly’s Echo: Live at the Avenue

From left to right: Thomas Morris (drums), Jordan Parks (bass), Kameron Ralls (keys), and Nelson Emokpae (guitar/vocals)

The website describes Nelly’s echo as “neither a band nor a solo musician, but a concept of the musical experience associated with its creator and led by guitarist and vocalist Nelson Emokpae”.  This is definitely evidenced by the band’s ever revolving lineup.  I’ve seen the band three times, and to the best of my knowledge it’s been a different assortment of musician’s each time, with the only player in common being Nelson Emokpae, its frontman.

I saw the band for the third time on friday night, on “The Avenue” in White Marsh, Baltimore.  The newly renovated plaza has had its brick covered ground replaced by a giant turf field.  People sit on blankets in front of a small, slightly elevated stage.  A local high school rents out lawn chairs, while neighboring restaurants hawk beer and pretzels under tents along the edge of the field.

When the band finally takes the stage, they play The Cure’s “Lovesong”.  It takes a moment to recognize the song as it is.  It is restyled as a soulful reggaefunk jam, with the familiar synth progression, replaced by intonations of ooohs and aaahs.  With scarcely any pause, they launch into “Waiting on the World to Change” a John Mayer hit.  You haven’t heard the song until you’ve heard it with a go-go beat.

Nelly’s Echo play a variety of covers throughout the night.  They range from the touching rendition of “Hallelujah” to the bizzare “Fast Car” with a verse from “Uptown Funk” inserted midway through.  No genre of music is out of bounds.  Emokpae & Co. cut songs up and twist them beyond immediate recognition before weaving them together into a patchwork quilt of music that is somewhat original, somewhat borrowed, and all excellent.

Midway through, the band takes a break.  Pop music blares from the speakers as Emokpae steps down from the platform and mingles with the crowd.  A young boy runs over to request a song.  Nelson smilingly obliges.

It’s almost definite that not everyone there is a fan of reggae or funk, and yet, looking around, I saw nobody that wasn’t having an absolute blast.  Emokpae, Morris, Parks, and Ralls radiate passion in their playing, something that the crowd can clearly detect.  As they play “Purple Rain” near the end of the show, Ralls half-jokingly waces his arm too and fro in time with the music.  Phones are produced, and brightness levels are turned to the maximum.

The atmosphere Nelly’s Echo creates live is a powerful but intimate one.  I’d love to see them blow up, and be recognized for their great music, but for the time being I’ll take them where they are right now; small, but formidable, playing great music everywhere they perform.

Profile: Jack White


If you’ve been to a sporting event in the last ten years or so, seen a movie trailer, or just possess a set of ears, you almost definitely have heard the opening riff to “Seven Nation Army”.  The real irony is that Jack White, writer of the most famous chord progression in music is a name unknown to many people.

White is a guitarist with a distinct sense of style.  The problems come, not when he plays music, but when he opens his mouth otherwise.  He simply feels like a remarkably inauthentic person.  In It Might Get Loud he expands upon a number of suspicious sounding events from his childhood.  He talks about his seven brothers and sisters, but the only one he really mentions by name is Meg White, who we now know to be his ex-wife.  He also discusses his living situation as a kid — sleeping on a mat so he had room for all of his instruments.

In a New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson, published in March, White claims to have almost become a priest.

White was an altar boy, and during high school he was accepted at a seminary in Wisconsin. “I was thinking I might become a priest,” he said. “At the last moment, I learned I couldn’t bring my guitar.”

Check out this tidbit of insanity from the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Yeah, because that’s definitely how a stewardess would talk.

If indeed White’s backstories are a giant web of fabrications (a fact of which I have little doubt) he probably isn’t the first musician that this is true of.  However, he is without a doubt the most painfully obvious.  By the way, did I mention his real name isn’t even Jack White?

These are just personal details though, and they are of minimal importance to the music.  When it really becomes bothersome is when Jack’s inconsistencies relate to his music.  In It Might Get Loud he explains his choice in instruments.  He plays an Airline — a plexiglass guitar that supposedly came from a department store — and stresses a minimalistic approach to rock.  His influence is Son House, specifically his song “Grinnin’ in Your Face”, which consists simply of clapping and singing.  It is while listening to this record in the film that he talks through technology, and its role in making music.

“Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Auto-tuning doesn’t do anything for creativity. Yeah, it makes it easier and you can get home sooner; but it doesn’t make you a more creative person. That’s the disease we have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.”

This standpoint could be rebellion against The Edge, whose style relies almost entirely on technology — or simply his grab at anotherness.  What I do know is less than an hour of film later, White shows the camera a custom-made guitar that has a green bullet microphone installed into its body.  Don’t get me wrong, this is awesome; but you know what else it is? Ease of use.  Rather than interest, White’s statements only confuse.  What exactly is classified as ease of use?  The octave pedal that He uses to create the low bass sound in “Seven Nation Army” certainly wasn’t around during Son House’s time.  Technically, if one were to completely shun everything that was considered to propagate “ease of use” they should be slicing their speakers with razor blades to create distortion, or — jumping even further backwards — playing resophonic guitars, electrics are too accessible.

In the film, white takes his cheap guitar, and drops it on the floor.  He begins stomping on it, running his foot up and down the frets almost as if he is finishing off a vanquished enemy.  An ear grating sound comes from the amp.  He looks like he’s in a fight, because, well, he is.  In an interview with Guitar Player, he said “I always look at playing guitar as an attack. It has to be a fight. Every song, every guitar solo, every note that’s played or written has to be a struggle.”  This is not idle talk.  the violence of his M.O. comes across in his playing.  “The Switch and the Spur” by the Raconteurs is a prime example.  When White plays his solo, his solo has the feel of a near finished struggle; of choking the life out of something.  Watching him play this song, you can even see the aggression in his movements on the fret board.  Pay attention to just how high he bends the string at 2:45.

What White lacks in profundity of speech he makes up for with great, and well varied music.  White has made himself a part of a great many groups and projects over the years.  The White Stripes, of course, but also the lesser known Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, as well as his own solo material.  His multifariousness is clearest on “Yellow Sun” a Raconteurs song that features springy keyboards and acoustic strumming.  The chorus is sung in harmony, with what seem to be three voices, one of which is ridiculously high.

Another great song is “Steady as She Goes”.  The song opens with a bass riff that sounds like a slower more subdued take on “Superfreak” by Rick James, followed by a chilling tremolo riff on the guitar.  This song goes to show how well Jack White’s playing can work with other people.  The Raconteurs are really the first time White has worked with a group of more than two for an extended period of time, and I’ll always argue that its the best music he’s ever produced.  Something about creative control being divided must bring out the best in him.

White’s forays into electronic music are not remotely displeasureable either.  The Dead Weather’s “Bone House” is rife with artificial drum sounds and buzzing synthesized chord progressions.  This music violates the very principles Jack White claims to stand behind, but it is great stuff nonetheless.

The thing about Jack White that I hate is not necessarily his eschewing technology, but the fact that he claims to, but doesn’t.  If he were to abandon this bizarre and falsified musical code, I would be very grateful, but White is a man of showmanship, and his propensity for charade will likely never cease.  My resolution, is to ignore his theatrics, and simply enjoy the great music he produces.

As for anyone looking to delve into White’s vast musical catalogue, I recommend Consolers of the Lonely, by the Raconteurs as a starting point.

Profile: Jimmy Page

Few Guitarists have had an impact upon music as profound as Jimmy Page.  He has a propensity for riff driven rock, of which the influences can be heard as far and wide as Rage Against the Machine, to the revivalist blues of The Black Keys.

It’s not the riffs that make his music great however, (well, maybe a little) Page’s playing is driven by tension and dynamics.  In “Ramble On”, the rapid crescendos and decrescendos make it more than just another rock song.  The soft strumming shifts to crunching distortion like a punch in the face.

Much has been made of “Stairway To Heaven’s” resemblance to “Taurus” by the band Spirit.  The similarity is fact, indisputable, but Taurus’s lethargicity Page’s interpretation of the melody.  The song builds over five minutes of quiet arpeggio.  The listener at the edge of their seat, they wait impatiently for John Bonham’s flam, followed by a descending tom fill, and they want to jump for joy when it finally does.

Page is an exceptional talent, one of the best to ever pick out a tune on six strings.  Paired Bonham’s thumping, deliberate rhythms and Robert Plant’s vocals, (which would sound horribly out-of-place anywhere else), and you get a rock band with a certain Je ne sais quoi not found among many of its contemporaries.  If you’ve never given Led Zeppelin a shot, please, enlighten yourself immediately.  (Zeppelin IV is a great place to start).

Adam Harkus: This Is Who I am

Today I’d like to take some time away from established artists, and acknowledge the talents of an artist whose noteriety is still in bloom.  Adam Harkus, or “The Blogging Musician” as he is known on wordpress is a writer and musician whose popularity is constantly increasing.  Just recently he reached 1,000 total followers, and is at 1,150 as I write.  His site is a treasure trove of helpful articles imparting knowledge on things ranging from guitar soloing, video games, and world travels.  By far, the best thing on his site though, is his record, This is Who I Am.

 Better Man kicks off the eight song album.  Beginning with a very 90s-esque chorus laden arpeggio, the song soon escalates to include drums, then harmonic vocals in the chorus.  The guitars get heavier, and the music escalates into an oughtright shredfest.  Making this all the more agreeable is the excellent mixing that goes into these songs.  Drums, vocals, and multiple guitar tracks are all layered together with a remarkable smoothness.  (As I write this, I am no doubt demonstrating my utter lack of experience regarding the recording process.  All my primitive musical mind can come up with is that it sounds good.)

Harkus isn’t all hard-rock and soloing though.  His music also has a softer, more elegant side, which he demonstrates most obviously on You’ll Find A Way.  His copacetic voice serenades the ears to the equally proficient acoustic playing.  It’s this sort of differentiation, I think, that really lends this album its edge.  Harkus is a player capable of wearing many hats, which heightens the listening experience tenfold.

The final track Never Be the Same Again treats the ears to a savory drum intro, that caries on while lightly strummed guitar fades in.  This song features a song that begins tactfully; deliberately; sliding up and down the neck, hammering on, pulling off.  Suddenly Harkus turns it up to eleven and begins finger tapping.  For the uninitiated, this is that thing Eddie Van Halen does on eruption.  In this moment, the album goes from a well crafted, infectious rock vehicle, to a peice of mind blowing work.  I kid you not, my jaw dropped when I listened to the song for the first time.  I hope your’s will too.

Check out Adam’s album here

It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud is an excellent documentary by Davis Guggenheim, released in 2009.  It charts the musical history and style of Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White.  The three meet up in a soundstage to share techniques, stories, and songs.  While these are some admittedly awkward moments, the film is an excellent example of what a musical documentary should be.  Incorporation of plenty of musical samples, vintage and current musical footage, and personal interviews make it an incredibly immersive and fascinating experience.  It is as fascinating for guitarists as it is for those who prefer merely to listen because it focuses not just on how the songs are played, but their history.  the most touching example of this is the Edge, expounding upon the crisis in Ireland that inspired Sunday Bloody Sunday.  Whether or not you are a fan of the guitar, this is still something you should check out if you care about music at all.  It Might Get loud is an excellent documentation of rock’s past, its present, and its future.

That is about all that can be said about the film without merely regurgitating the ideas found within.  However, as a fan of all three of these musician’s, I’ll never pass up the opportunity to write about them.  Coming soon, are profiles of Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White; touching upon their music up to the point of this films release, and what they have done creatively since then.

Remembering Chris Cornell

It’s really sad how standard the death of a beloved artist feels at this point.  Nonetheless, the sting of this loss is no less powerful.  Chris Cornell wasn’t the cultural icon that Prince was, but personally, this one feels worse.  Cornell is one of the few artists that, no matter what he did, I was a fan.  He had an incredibly diverse career, and I really enjoy the music from every part of it.

Cornell has been one of my favorite artists, pretty much since I was old enough to choose what I listened to.  Few other artists were capable of working so well, with so many different people.  He was rock’s rennaissance man; a pioneer of grunge in Soundgarden  and Temple of the Dog, bringing rock sounds to the music of Rage Against the Machine, and eventually showing us a melower — but no less intense — side.  Sometimes soaring, sometimes somberly crawling, Cornell’s voice was simultaneously ugly and beautiful.  His octave spanning screams captured the grief and struggle of human existence.

Soundgarden may have been one of the first grunge rock bands, but its musical complexity set it apart from the rest of its genre.  There was always an otherworldly quality to the music of Soundgarden; Kim Thaylil’s shredding felt very oriental — probably a result of his Indian upbringing — as though he were playing a distorted sitar, the perfect accompaniement to Cornell’s wavering croons.

The music that Cornell produced with Temple of the Dog, was insignifigant in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time, oh so signifigant.  Formed out of the ashes of Grunge group “Mother Lovebone”, the band’s hit “Hunger strike introduced the band to Eddie Vedder; the rest was history.

In 2001, Cornell joined forces with Brad Wilk, Tim Commerford, and Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine.  The band aimed to make apolitical music, built upon the counds that made both Soundgarden and Rage great.  The result was a musical wonder.  The equivalent of kinking a hose till a powerful aquatic deluge rushes force, the shift from boundless hip-hop, the outlet showed Morello’s proficiency at maintaning key signature, and complementing harmony.  Naturally, a hose can only withstand such pressure for so long; the band’s last record was in 2007.  Leaving behind, among other future classics, “Like A Stone” which may be the most sonically staisfying rock track ever to grace our inner ears

By far, Cornell’s most profound work was his 2016 record Higher Truth  It clearly owed its style to 30 years of experience, but when I heard it for the first time, It was the freshest, newest thing I had ever heard.  Overwhelmingly simple, but with soulful vocalization, and acoustic guitar, the album still gives me chills.

There is no glorifying the way Chris left.  Yes, he’s left behind plenty of great music, but I am almost certain he wasn’t out of ideas.  He was a seasoned rock veteran, but I can’t help but feel as though he still had his whole career ahead of him.  Alas, the bigger and better things Chris was destined for, will never be reached.  I think that, as an observant person, Chris saw through society’s facade, and realized the existence of a great emptiness in the world.  A lack of meaning; something that is all too present if one has no purpose.  So, if this tragedy can teach us anything, it is that we must find our purpose –whatever it may be — and never lose sight of it.  As writers, artists, or just citizens, whatever we may be, we must pour ourselves into it; seize the day.  Always remember that as terrible as this life is sometimes, it is beautiful at others, and that this world is not all there is.