Monday, December 29, 2003

18. Donnie Iris - 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection

I was going to review the new Eagles compilation, The Very Best Of, but realized that I didn't have much to say beyond praising the prowess of their early singles, griping about the placement of Hotel California, commenting on Don Henley's sometimes retreaded lyrical territory, and giving the album an A-.

Instead, I thought I'd give some space to a guy who hasn't had a millionth of the success of The Eagles. I came across Donnie Iris recently, two times. The first was when I was researching my eighties compilations and the charts listed a minor 1980 hit called Ah Leah! The second mention was a recent Fountains Of Wayne interview in which one of the members joked that they were planning a tour with Donnie. The interviewer went on to explain that Iris was an early '80s nerd-rocker.

Well, this got my attention. All you have to do is put the words nerd and rock together and you've got me. If that seems odd, think about the nerd success rate in pop music: Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, Weezer, They Might Be Giants, and so on. So I bought this compilation.

Before I go on, just let me explain that these 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection things are a blessing and a curse. They are put out by MCA Records and usually contain no more than 12 songs, far from the full capacity of the disc. Now there are certain groups, like Head East and ABC, that you don't really need more than 12 songs from, so these collections are good to have. But when you have Marvin Gaye or The Temptations it's just ridiculous to limit yourself to 12 tracks, and definitely not a good deal for the consumer.

Anyway, back to Donnie. I was very surprised to find that I love every one of these 12 songs. But of course I can't just enjoy them without any context.

So it's time for Rock History. I did some research on Donnie, starting with my dad and step-mom, both of whom are really into music and who would have been in their prime in the early '80s. They only had vague recognition. So here's what I found from a combination of the CD liner notes, the Ultimate Band List, and Amazon.com. Donnie is from Pittsburgh, and he had a hit song in 1970 called The Rapper. How Nostradamus is that?! Actually the song is not about an MC, but instead concerns a mack daddy. So, it's still ahead of its time.

In the late '70s he joined a band called Wild Cherry, who'd just had a huge hit called Play That Funky Music. Yes, the white boy song. The band soon broke up and Donnie teamed up with its keyboardist Mark Avsec to write songs. It worked well, so along with the band The Cruisers, they recorded several albums in the early '80s including Back On The Street, King Cool, The High And The Mighty, and Fortune 410.

The music itself is in line with similar new wave sounds of its time, such as Devo and The Police, but also has overtones of mainstream bands like Journey. The most distinctive aspect is the vocals. Donnie's singing voice is somewhat gruff, but the backgrounds and choruses are layered into large choirs of harmonies. The combination of sweet and tough is very appealing, and the production on most of the songs is very detailed. I'm struck that this formula was subsequently taken all the way to the bank by groups like Def Leppard and Chicago. Maybe Donnie Iris is really producer "Mutt" Lange's former identity. Lange, who is Mr.Shania Twain, doesn't like to be photographed, and was played by former nerd Anthony Michael Hall in a VH1 movie about Def Leppard. Food for thought...

Seriously, I don't know much about where Donnie has been lately, but apparently he continued recording into the '90s and plays shows in Pittsburgh, where he's still a draw. How many musicians do you suppose are out there like him, going ignored by rock 'n' roll history, slipping through the cracks? I'd say thousands. I guess that's part of the thrill of being a music fan; discovering quality artists who few have heard of. It's also part of the frustration of being a music fan; that such great pop music could be so easily ignored.

Rating: A
Fave Song: That's The Way Love Ought To Be

Sunday, December 28, 2003

17. Ruben Studdard - Soulful (2003)

Here's why I believe Ruben's American Idol win was justified, even though Clay Aiken has proved more popular since the show ended: From the first auditions to the final episode, Ruben was was consistently great, seemingly without effort. All of the other contestents had at least one (but usually several) cringe-inducing performances. But Ruben stayed true, and by the end seemed to be competing against nothing but the sense of inevitabilty surrounding him.

So, I hate to say that I'm quite disappointed with his debut album, Soulful. The voice that Ruben showcased on AI was a throwback to traditional soul men like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Luther Vandross, and perhaps it was too much to expect a similarly old-school album. That sort of thing just doesn't exist in today's R & B; guys like R.Kelly, Musiq and D'Angelo are the closest we've got.

Soulful tries to please both sides, the old school and the new jack, and in the process loses any sense of, well, consistency. In the former style there are mostly covers, by the likes of The Bee Gees, Westlife, and The Carpenters (he covers Superstar, and just to add confusion names one of the originals on the album For All We Know, also the name of a Carpenters hit). These are just okay, but they're the best the album has to offer.

The more modern tracks are useless. Songs like Take The Shot, Play Our Song, and the embarassing What Is Sexy (featuring Fat Joe) are not only forgettable lyrically and musically, but they do nothing to showcase Ruben's voice. Only the opening track, Sorry 2004, demonstrates what might have been. It's got a nice melody and a funny concept (apologizing in advance for an entire year's worth of wrongdoings).

What this album makes me realize (much later than I should) is that American Idol is a flawed concept. Sure, the show is finding talented singers, but so far they've all lacked any sense of artistic vision. To this point, the best AI album is Kelly Clarkson's Thankful (does anyone else think that all of the winners should have to name their album with a -ful adjective?). It's short, catchy, sassy and listenable. Not to say that Kelly had artistic vision, but whoever put her album together did a good job. Whoever did Ruben's was asleep at the wheel, because there's no unified sound and (to quote one of the song titles) no Ruben, aka personality.

So, yes, Ruben's voice deserved to win the competition. There's no doubt about that. Unfortunately, he still needs to find an album full of deserving songs.

Rating: C
Fave Song: Sorry 2004

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Honorable Mention #4: Zwan - Mary, Star Of The Sea (2003)

This was the hardest one to omit from my final list. Zwan came to us in January, riding on a white cloud. This was Billy Corgan's chance to start over, without the weighty commercial expectations of The Smashing Pumpkins. The cover was bright, with bubble letters and a rainbow-colored seventies style graphic. There were free stickers included in the CD case. A couple of songs even had exclamation points in the titles!

Despite the mod-goth image they had, the Pumpkins always had a wide-eyed innocent side, witness Today, 1979, or Stand Inside Your Love. It was this kind of music that Zwan focused on and the optimism was evident in the sound of the guitars and the female harmonies on songs like Honestly and Heartsong.

Unfortunately, the record sold poorly, interest in an acoustic side project was minimal, and Zwan broke up this fall. All we have left is one great album to remember them by. It might be the answer to a trick trivia question someday: Name the band Billy Corgan was in before his solo career took off.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Come With Me

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Honorable Mention #3: Nada Surf - Let Go (2003)

A thoughtful, poppy return from a group that still holds minor-one-hit-wonder-from-the-nineties status. If you remember said hit, Popular (which featured droning guitars underneath a recital of a '50s etiquette manual), you'll barely recognize the band on this record.

The songs are still on the clever nerd rock side of things. There are tunes about Bob Dylan albums, fruit flies, and playing soul records at the wrong speed. But there is also a song completely in French, Cheap Trick paraphrasing, and introspective numbers like Inside Of Love, wherein the singer wonders what it'd be like to "be a me with a you."

This is a great record, released in the cold of January 2003. Similar to the Oscar race, albums released later in the year have a better chance of getting recognition, but not in this case. It just barely missed the top 10.

Rating: A
Fave Song: The Way You Wear Your Head

Honorable Mention #2: Gavin DeGraw - Chariot (2003)

The sticker on the cover of this 20-something's debut record compares him to Billy Joel and Van Morrison. Others have likened him to Stevie Wonder and Jeff Buckley. Sure there are similarities, but he's not exactly like any of them. He doesn't have Joel's flair for storytelling, or Van Morrison's esoteric nature, or Stevie's funkiness, or Buckley's sense of drama.

What he does have is a great voice and a gift for melody. Over music that's piano-driven and muscular, he emotes without going over the top. Lyrically, it's a lot of the same old girl-boy romance dynamics stuff, but if he really does idolize Elton John and Billy Joel, that will change as his songwriting matures. For now, as he sings on the opener Follow Through, "this is the start of something good."

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Meaning

Monday, December 08, 2003

Honorable Mention #1: Liz Phair - self-titled (2003)

Okay, so she tried to sell out, and it didn't really work. Snobby fans wanted Exile In Guyville all over again, and the buying public really couldn't handle a mainstream radio artist who had a song as explicit as HWC. Always striving for that middle road, I happen to like the album quite a bit.

I believe that it's an artist's perogative to do what they will with their career, and Liz decided that she wanted to try to sell some more records. So she wrote some songs with Avril Lavigne's producers, and came up with a semi-hit that sounds like Complicated (Why Can't I). Critics ignore that the other Matrix collabos are sharp, especially Rock Me and the opener, Extraodinary.

If you don't like the results, fine, but I think an artist wanting to become more commercial is less silly than a fan expecting their favorites to stay the same and not take chances. Besides, there have been much worse "sell-outs" in rock & roll history. The Flame, by Cheap Trick anyone? Liz's personality is all over this record.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Red Light Fever

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

16. The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)

Though they come off as rock 'n' roll minimalists, I believe The White Stripes are actually very shrewd businesspeople. They came to prominence a couple of years ago with an awesome Lego-animated video, a white and red wardrobe, a cockamamie are-they-husband-and-wife-or-brother-and-sister controversy, and no bass player. All were gimmicks designed to get attention, and it worked.

Critics have fallen all over themselves about the band. I think they were on 9 of this year's 12 Spin covers, and the other three months they were on Blender's. And you know it got out of hand when Rolling Stone named Jack White the 17th greatest guitarist of all time (ahead of George Harrison, The Edge, and Eddie Van Halen…please). So let's cut the crap. The most important question is: Does the music live up to the spectacle?

Well, usually, but I don't believe that Elephant is all that and a side of fries. Yes, there are lots of things to love about The White Stripes and this record. For a two instrument band they sure make a righteous noise. Songs like Seven Nation Army and There's No Home For You Here almost match the power and intensity of Led Zeppelin…no small feat. They also don't take themselves too seriously. Well It's True That We Love One Another is a cute goof with guest singer Holly Golightly, and Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine and Ball And Biscuit are rockin' and funny.

But what I like most about them is their soft side. I got into the Stripes last year when radio started playing We're Going To Be Friends, a sweet, gentle, unaffected song from their last album, White Blood Cells. There are a couple of songs like that here, and this is where the band really shines. I Want To Be The Boy Who Warms Your Mother's Heart, besides having an unnecessarily long title, is a simple love song that feels completely genuine and gimmick-free.

There need to be more moments like it. For a record to transcend good for great I need to be able to buy completely into band and what they are putting across. The White Stripes' gimmicks are at times just too distracting for me, their songs too self-aware. As a result, the music is overshadowed. And though it doesn't seem to bother critics who'll call this the best album of the year, that's the deal-breaker for me.

However, if they can come up with an equal number of good songs for their next record, finally drop the brother-sister ruse, and stop wearing red pants, I'll reserve a place for them in the next top 10.

Rating: B-
Fave Song: I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart

Monday, December 01, 2003

15. Outkast - Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (2003)

The standard critic line for a double album is as follows: It would have made a brilliant single album. Everybody with the audacity to put out two discs, from the Beatles and Clash to Smashing Pumpkins and Jay-Z has had this criticism leveled at them. (Jay-Z even tried to take the advice last year, putting out the revisionist The Blueprint 2.1, which critics promptly dismissed). But when Outkast released this double album, the line was nowhere in sight. Why?

Well, for one this isn't a double album strictly speaking…it's two solo discs packaged together. But Outkast is also that rare group that can stimulate both the minds of the critics and the bodies of the people. Critics love them because they are so adventurous and different. They have a vision and a style and they are bringing it to us as they see fit. Now fans might love them because of that, but mostly I think it's just because they make awesome singles. One need look no further than 2001's Dre and Big Boi Present... for proof of that.

But should Outkast be exempted from scrutiny just because they are so far ahead of everyone else in hip-hop? It's always good to reward those who take chances, but when you're throwing so many ideas out, there are bound to be some bad ones. So what I'm saying is, these albums are far from flawless.

Speakerboxxx, suprisingly, fares better to my ear. Disregarding skits (which both records are unfortunately overfull on) there are 13 songs here, and 10 of them are pretty killer. Ghettomusik is full of crazyfast rapping, Reset is just plain soulful, and War is a furious protest. The album is a bit top-heavy though, and the end is saved from being a complete drag only by the catchy Flip Flop Rock, featuring Jay-Z.

The Love Below is a bit trickier. Hey Ya! is brilliant, without a doubt, and its uncategorizable nature is pretty typical of the whole album. The sound is a mix of hip-hop, R & B, big band, jazz, and dozens of other genres. Unlike Speakerboxxx, the skits are a bit more obtrusive and the songs a bit more meandering. Almost every song is funny, intentionally or not, especially Roses and Dracula's Wedding (which features the lyric: I wait my whole life to bite the right one / Then you come along and that freaks me out). Most intersting is the spoken piece A Day In The Life of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete) which is an enlightening autobiography that comes long after the album's energy has waned.

So, would I like to say that the best songs from both discs would make a masterpiece of a single disc? Yes, but I won't. We know where that leads. I love Outkast because they do things with music that no one else has even thought of yet, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't edit their output. Nor does it mean that they get a free pass into the top ten. However, number 11 is open.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Hey Ya!