This weekend, CSU was invaded by celebrities as Eva Longoria, Kal Penn and Lupe Fiasco came to campus. About a year ago, it was Tom Morello.
Though Morello earned his fame playing electric guitar for a quaint little band called Rage Against the Machine, he rocked a jam-packed Lory Student Center Theater last year as The Nightwatchman: his acoustic folk side project.
While the performance was riveting, The Nightwatchman’s first album, “One Man Revolution,” was anything but.
The album’s tired, empty anthems and vague, self-important lyrics found Morello channeling Woody Guthrie to little avail.
Thankfully, Morello’s follow-up, “The Fabled City,” boasts better songwriting and a richer sound, including piano, bass, cello, percussion and a mélange of other instruments to keep his acoustic guitar from getting lonely.
This much-needed variety shines on “The Lights Are On In Spidertown,” in which a piano, flamenco guitar and a ferocious backbeat converge for the album’s most rambunctiously catchy three minutes.
Then on the lead single “Whatever it Takes,” Morello shouts “I’m here until the front line breaks” over a stomp-along guitar riff that would feel at home on an Audioslave song.
These meatier songs lend more weight to the few bare-bones acoustic numbers like “Midnight in The City of Destruction,” which has to be the most morose song ever to feature a chorus of, “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.”
But even the best moments on “The Fabled City” are dogged by a handful of chronic problems. Take, for instance, the hauntingly beautiful guitar and string arrangement of “Lazarus on Down.”
The tune’s potential for epic grandeur is ultimately undermined by tastelessly prominent backup vocals and clunky lyrics (“Is that hope in the shepherd’s eyes / Or just another little dark surprise?”).
Here, as ever, Morello is held back by the limited range of his low, gruff baritone and his inability to turn his potent, far-left politics into equally potent lyrics.
Even his fretwork, which in the past has earned him number 26 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The Greatest Guitarists of All Time” is unremarkable at best and often amounts to little more than the type of stagnant folk progressions that would leave your grandpa feeling nostalgic.
Of course, these problems are nothing new for The Nightwatchman. More worrisome is the fact that Morello seems to have lost much of the conviction and intensity that was the saving grace of “One Man Revolution.”
If you want genuinely incendiary, galvanizing music with a lucid political message, The Nightwatchman’s “The Fabled City” won’t satisfy. But hope remains: maybe Morello’s next album will be with Rage Against the Machine.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at email@example.com.