Wednesday, December 22, 2004

John Mayer - "Home Life"

When it comes to feeling settled, we all have a certain temperament. For many people, it can change depending on the situation, but you always hold a basic idea of what's most comfortable. As I face holiday travel tomorrow I'm reminded again how much I just like to stay home.

But I've already written about that (Jellyfish, I Wanna Stay Home). And though that's a part of Mayer's song, it's not the whole story.

The real story is the search for romantic satisfaction. God, how many songs have been written about it? I'm guessing that an objective overview of the history of pop music would prove that more songs have been written about the negative side of love than the positive side. As the Carpenters sang "the best love songs were written with a broken heart."

Mayer doesn't appear to have a broken heart in this song, though he's definitely resolute that he doesn't want one. "I refuse to believe," he sings, "that my life's gonna be / just some string of incompletes / never to lead me to anything remotely close to a home life." It's a statement of strength that also acknowledges failure. That's very comforting to me right now.

The song goes on to pine for a "normal" life. Mayer puts it like this in the chorus: "I want to live in the center of a circle / I want to live on the side of a square." I assume the circle is a family circle, and the square is a house. You know, the things that most of us middle class kids were brought up to expect from our life. And now, so many of us are frustrated to find it's not as easy to achieve as we'd been led to believe.

The song doesn't offer much in the way philosophy or advice. It's merely a statement of purpose. But such an un-rockstarish sentiment is what endears me to John Mayer while so many others flee from him. In fact, there's even some self-deprecation when he acknowledges that his professional accomplishments are nothing compared to the prospect of creating a happy life: "I will go to my grave / With the life that I gave / Not just some melody line / On a radio wave."

I used to think that if I was completely happy professionally, I wouldn't mind if that middle class ideal life never happened, but now I know just it isn't true. Thanks a lot, Mayer.

Album: Heavier Things (2003)
Fave moment: The bridge, when he vows, "I can tell you this much / I will marry just once / and if it doesn't work out / give her half of my stuff / It's fine with me / We said eternity." It may be a little naive, but you gotta admire the intention.

Friday, December 17, 2004

2004: Great Eight

Here it is, my favorite time of the musical year, that time when music obsessives everywhere condense all of the year's releases into a pocket sized list. It's our best chance to display our good taste, and make sense of the myriad of releases we inundated ourselves with.

I must admit that last year I was frustrated by how much time and perspective changed my list, so this year I'm playing it safe by only including 8 CDs. Most of the albums that made it were reviewed at some point in the year, on this very site, so I've included the review number and month so you can go back and read more if you choose. I've also included what number the CD was in my yearly buying. Yes, I keep a list.

Also, check out Richard Nelson's Top 10 at Highway 290 Revisited.

Brian Wilson - Smile

37 years later the Beach Boys' lost masterpiece finally arrives. Of course two/fifths of the original group are dead, and two/fifths more didn't participate, but it's still a triumph for Brian Wilson, his current band, and even The Beach Boys' legacy. Wilson and collaborators did such a good job that I can hardly bring myself to react to the album as a modern production; it takes me back to a time I never even knew.



Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
Read the review.

What more can I say? Tons of ink have already been devoted to this marriage of rap's top MC and rock's top group. It has the strange and improbable effect of making one appreciate both Jay-Z and The Beatles even more.





Olympic Hopefuls - The Fuses Refuse To Burn
Read the review.

I'll always have a weak spot for a local band that makes good. The Olympic Hopefuls make catchy power pop that holds up to repeat listenings (and viewings...I've seen them in concert twice). And you gotta love the Puma tracksuits.





Prince - Musicology
Read the review.

Don't call it a comeback, but it IS a rare return to form for an artist who always had a great form. Adroit fellow that he is, Prince also managed to keep this album in the top 10 of the album charts for most of the year. So why shouldn't it appear on this top 10 as well?





The Roots - The Tipping Point

Here's the usual line on The Roots: They're a great band who just can't get it together for a full disc. And I've gotta say, my first couple of listens to this album seemed to confirm that yet again. Why the spoken word ending on a 7-minute opener (and what exactly is "the bud of wackness")? Why the 10-minute jam at the end of the disc? But a few more listens, and I started to say I Don't Care because the middle of the album is just that rock solid. The band is locked in, every song has a clear hook, and lyricist / rapper Black Thought was clearly inspired.

(My reconsideration of this CD occured simultaneously with a small moment I witnessed outside of the Electric Fetus. As I was going in I saw a guy heading out. He'd just bought this CD and he was taking the cellophane off right by the trash can. He was that eager to listen.)

Sloan - Action Pact
Read the review.

Sometimes you just need to rock, and when you add harmony to that rock, then the volume's gotta be way up. This whipsmart CD allows me to test my pain threshold, especially in my car, where the volume is usually set at a comfortable 18. When this baby's on, we're cruising at 22.




Jimmy Eat World - Futures
Read the review.

No other album this year was as consistent for its first 8 songs. Nor did any other album manage to inspire as much passion, wistfulness, righteous anger, and steering wheel drumming.






Beastie Boys - To The 5 Boroughs
Read the review.

The hiatus is back off, again, and thank God! The Beasties first fully consistent CD in 15 years is like a great movie...full of instantly quotable lines (example: "I got a Bedazzler so my outfit's tight"). Musically, the Boys keep it simple and direct, but lyrically, it's as dizzying as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. With every listen, you hear new things.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

2004: The Best Of The Rest

It's end-of-the-year list time, and this year there are some extra categories designed to give props to music that didn't make the vaunted Top 10.

Guiltiest Pleasure:
Avril Lavigne - Under My Skin
I'd call a guilty pleasure something you are embarrassed to be seen purchasing, or to be caught listening to with the windows down. Luckily the Internet has made the buying anonymous, and air conditioning gives us comfort with closed windows. Avril's album is slickly produced, surprisingly un-annoying, and catchy as hell.





Best Soundtrack or Compilation:
Garden State
Any good soundtrack can stand on its own but also gives the listener that extra depth of experience if they've seen the movie. This does it perfectly; every song plays some significant part in Zach Braff's funny / sad / inspiring film.






Greatest Greatest Hits:
Carpenters - Carpenters Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition
Greatest hits collections serve two purposes. One is to properly introduce you to an artist - Jackson Browne's Very Best Of did that for me this year. The other is to make you realize just how good one of your favorite artists really was. This Carpenters collection does that, and it gets extra props for being the first collection that has every Carpenters song I'd like to own. As an added bonus there's a version of The Rainbow Connection that Karen made soon before her death.

Best Cover Art:
Supergrass - Supergrass Is 10: 94-04
The front is merely clever, with various vintage buttons spouting cheeky phrases like "Draft Beer Not Students." But the back is inspired, with a different button for each song title. As a font and design obsessed person, I think it's wonderful.





Best Cover Version:
The Postal Service - Against All Odds
If anyone could make hipsters embrace Phil Collins cool again, it's the Postal Service, and here they've done it with a cover that starts off low-fi and then breaks into a stuttering acoustically-driven version that improves the original by leaving the pop and increasing the cool.





Biggest Disappointment:
The Cure - The Cure
Beware when bands claim they've returned to their beloved sound after years in the wilderness. It can be a triumph, like Duran Duran's Astronaut, or a disaster, like The Cure's self-titled release. The album is mopey and grating without ever hitting on the so-gloomy-it-feels-good balance that all of the best Cure songs manage.




Best Album Title:
Bigger Lovers - This Affair Never Happened...And Here are 11 Songs About It









Best Reissue and Live Album:
Talking Heads - The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads
The one gap in their discography is now filled with this expanded release of this mostly electrifying 1982 live album.








Biggest Surprise:
The Honeydogs - 10,000 Years
Be careful who you sleep on. Minneapolis workhorses The Honeydogs always seemed like a barely better-than-average bar band, and then they came along with 10,000 Years, a stunner of a concept album that manages to shift musical styles effortlessly while also delivering a stark anti-war message. The title song is brilliant. The only reason this didn't make my Top 10 is because of its dubious status as a 2004 release (it came out locally at the end of last year).

Thursday, December 02, 2004

65. Mos Def - The New Danger (2004)

Sometimes (more often than I'd like, actually) I walk out of the record store with something I never expected to purchase. Such was the case a month or so ago when I went into the Electric Fetus and walked out with Mos Def's latest effort The New Danger.

A couple of nights before I'd seen Mos Def perform his new song Close Edge on the Chapelle Show. His performance was simple but unconventional. As Dave drove, Mos sat in the passenger seat and rapped, seeming for all the world like he was making it up on the spot. I was mesmerized.

Even so, I hadn't even thought about seeking out the album until someone came into the Fetus and asked about it. Anyone publicly expressing interest in an artist is always fascinating to me, and I eavesdropped as I heard the clerk say, "Yeah, you want to listen to it first? It's pretty weird." And that sold me.

Of course there's always bad weird and good weird. Luckily, this record falls into the latter category. It's a big old stylistic mess: overlong, sporadically brilliant and always engaging. What other rap album is going to give you lovingly crooned faux-reggae (The Boogie Man Song, The Beggar), straight-up blues (Blue Black Jack), rap-rock (Freaky Black Greetings,War, Zimzallabim), and soul (The Panties)?

The rap-rock tracks, recorded with the band Black Jack Johnson are likely to be the biggest head-scratchers to hip-hop fans who seek this out. I think they're stand-outs though, and the band recalls Rage Against The Machine, but with a better rapper/vocalist. But I must admit, hearing Mos repeatedly call out to "Jack Johnson!" brings up unpleasant images of laconic acoustic guitar players.

The raps are the best part of the album, of course. Sunshine comes in at track #9 and is the disc's first transcendent moment. Using a Hair sample, Mos claims he's "the shot clock / way above the game" and that his "style's fresh / Like I'm a day old." It's hard to argue when he flows...not angry but intense, not your typical money - guns - girls rapper but still hip-hop, a movie star but still completely authentic. Close Edge's dizzying chorus "Don't touch me 'cause I'm close to the steets, to the beats, the bitches, the niggas, the women, the children, the workers, the killers, the addicts, the dealers, the quiet, the livest, the realest...I'm like J.Brown gettin' involved" speaks for itself.

Modern Marvel is perhaps the most interesting song. It's an epic tribute to Marvin Gaye that uses a subtle-to-obvious What's Going On sample. Mos breaks off a rap that wonders how Marvin would react to our modern world, when socially-conscious masterpieces like Mercy Mercy Me, Inner City Blues, and What's Going On spoke of the exact same problems in 1971. It's an unconventional, if sobering and effective, way to put things in perspective.

At 75 minutes, I could trot out the old rap album complaint: "It's too long and overindulgent; why couldn't he have done a bit more self-editing?" That's valid, but two things set this record apart from the other albums that have to suffer this criticism. One is that Mos Def is just so damn cool (think about it... he's got a rap career, AND he's been in movies with Robert DeNiro, Eddie Murphy, Marky Mark, Ed Norton, Halle Berry, and Billy Bob Thornton and, yes, Kevin Bacon...not even Ice Cube has worked with that caliber of talent), and the stylistic changes are at least daring and different. We don't have the usual 2/4 of monotonous filler and skits that sink so many rap albums.

Is it going to be a classic? Probably not. But for a unexpected purchase, it ain't bad.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Close Edge

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Rilo Kiley - "Portions For Foxes"

Ah, a great opening line can be a work of art, and Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley's singer, obviously recognizes this. Portions For Foxes begins thusly: "There's blood in my mouth 'cause I've been biting my tongue all week."

That kicks off a catchy, guitar-driven, too-realistic rumination on romance. This isn't the typical a boy-broke-my-heart story, but instead a complex confession from a girl who knows she's just using someone to satisfy her earthly desires, and has no lasting romantic interest. She hates to do it, but she has little self control because "the talking leads to touching and the touching leads to sex." Immediately this leads to regret because "then there is no mystery left." Ouch.

The chorus, then as if we didn't know, Lewis tells us in the chorus: "And it's bad news / Baby I'm bad news."

Bad girl songs are nothing new. Fiona Apple's Criminal is probably the torchbearer. Songs like that are perfect for sensitive boys who fear they're always destined to get their hearts broken. To hear a girl admit fault is comforting.

But Lewis won't let them off the hook that easy. In the song's last verse she turns the tables and imagines how the guy might feel: "There's a pretty girl in front of you / yeah she's real pretty and she's real into you." Turns out that girl is her and she realizes (or hopes?) the guy is just as detached as she is. This makes the song infinitely more interesting, because suddenly we're wondering if she's really a bad girl, or if she just wishes she was.

In fact, the end may be a clue. Though her friends are all telling her to get out of the relationship she decides: "I don't care, I like you."

Anybody with recent experience / observation of modern romance will not be shocked by this sort of scenario but the fact that there's a song about it is pretty damn cool.

As for the title, it IS a line in the song, but that's the only cryptic thing about the whole affair. Lewis sings, "we'll all be portions for foxes." My guess is that it refers to the fact that foxes are smart animals who get the meat they want with little concern for the consequences.

Album: More Adventurous (2004)
Fave Moment: After the line "I know I'm alone if I'm with or without you" the guitar does an subtle imitiation of the Edge's riff from that song.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

64. Shawn Colvin - Polaroids: A Greatest Hits Collection (2004)

Shawn Colvin is easy to dismiss. The fluke Lilith Fair success of 1996's Sunny Came Home has given her the aura of a mainstream artist, which in truth she really isn't. She's a wordy, guitar-playing folkie who looks like a prettier version of my college American Romanticism professor. There's a whole sub-genre of artists like this, people like Lucy Kaplansky, Claudia Schmidt, Carrie Newcomer. Who? Exactly. These are artists with a small devoted following, who sell enough records to make a living but will never enter the collective consciousness.

Sunny Came Home falls right about at the two-thirds mark of Colvin's newly released Polaroids: A Greatest Hits Collection and some might be surprised to find that it's not a stand-out track. It's simply another in a flow of great songs, not the song you wait through the others to hear.

Just for that simple fact, Polaroids should set the record straight on Colvin, for those who stumble across it. For me, it cements a radical re-thinking that began in August when I saw her perform at the Great Minnesota Get-Together (otherwise known as the State Fair). It was a clear, temperate summer evening, and Colvin came on as the sun set, just her, a mike, and a guitar. A true folkie. And she nailed the performance. She ran through her ouvre, including most of the songs on this collection, and the crowd was mesmerized. It was by far the best-behaved crowd I've seen at a Minnesota concert. My experience of Minnesota concert crowds has proven to be a strange combination of enthusiasm-free politeness and "let's have a loud conversation right now" rudeness. This crowd was neither. They were deathly quiet during the songs, and generously praiseful after each one.

The fact that Colvin could perform so minimally is testament to the strength of the songs and her talent as a performer. Indeed, my clearest memory of the show (beyond a rare sense of complete well-being) was her cover of Talking Heads' This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody). Though Talking Heads are one of my very favorite bands and this is one of my very favorite songs by them, it took me nearly half the song to place it. Like the best cover versions, it made me hear something old in a new way. In this case, it was the beauty and humanity of the lyrics, something David Byrne's voice, God bless it, could never put across.

That cover is included here in a live version and I'm happy to have it. Other standouts include the opener Steady On, the irresistable Round Of Blues, and the glossy late period Whole New You. Steady On was from her first album, Whole New You from her last, and there's not a beat skipped between them. An artist whose first hit can be as consistent as her last shouldn't be dismissed lightly.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)

Monday, November 29, 2004

63. Collective Soul - Youth (2004)

What if Collective Soul singer Ed Roland had a nasal, whiny voice instead of a booming baritone? Besides making his long hair seem silly, it would turn Collective Soul into a top-notch power pop unit. Afterall, their songwriting almost exclusively focuses on the high H's of power pop: Hooks and Harmony. Fortunately for them, Roland's manly voice has allowed them to masquarade as a hard rock band.

Forget that. Youth, their sixth album (and first since 2000), is pure pop. It begins with Better Now, as an effective "we're back" song as you could ask for. Roland tells us he's "newly calibrated" and "happy as Christmas" over a bed of praiseful vocals and saxophone (!). It sets the tone for an album that hasn't met a catchy chorus it didn't like.

Highlights include rockers Home, Feels Like (It Feels Alright), and Perfect To Stay. There are a couple of ballads, the best of which is the romantic Under Heaven's Skies. All are immaculately written, performed, and produced.

Herein lies the problem. Collective Soul is somewhat like a well-crafted dining room table. They are so well put together that you tend to take them for granted or not notice them at all. It doesn't help that Roland's lyrics are completely nondescript. There are no great lines or deep meanings. In fact, the vocals might as well be another perfectly tuned instrument in the mix. (This has been true for all of Collective Soul's albums except, oddly, for their third album, 1997's Disciplined Breakdown. That album had a very appealing spiritual focus.)

I guess that's why Collective Soul will never inspire great devotion in me. But I'll never miss one of their releases, either.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Better Now

Sunday, November 28, 2004

62. Gwen Stefani - Love Angel Music Baby (2004)

Here's why I love Gwen Stefani: It's not because she's sexy, cute and stylish (though that doesn't hurt), it's because she's so goofy and neurotic. Her lyrics have always been as transparent as a freshly-washed window. There has never seemed to be a filter or front between her thoughts and her words. Through her songs we've been made a party to her hopes, dreams, confessions and fears. No Doubt's first huge hit, Don't Speak, was cool because it was written about how pissed she was at the band's bassist. Return Of Saturn was full of songs about her desires to have a functional relationship and get married and have a baby. Even the party record Rock Steady was full of specific personal statements like Making Out and Underneath It All.

Usually when an artist goes solo, she uses the occasion to get personal, to write about things she couldn't in the confines of the band. I guess Gwen felt she had no choice but to go the opposite direction. In recent interviews she has made it clear that she wanted to make a dance record, and wasn't concerned with baring her soul. She definitely succeeded in that, in part because she continues her band's penchant for switching musical styles like Mr.Rogers switched shoes. The album makes use of multiple producers, including several top hip-hop hitmakers. As a result, the sound veers from disco to R & B to '80s pop to movie musical.

The throbbing What You Waiting For starts things off comfortingly. Here's Gwen writing a song about why she decided to do a solo album, which is so typical of her. But the program gets fuzzier from there. Faux-hip-hop songs like Rich Girl (produced by Dr.Dre), Harajuku Girls (produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), and Hollaback Girl (produced by the Neptunes) are essentially throwaways. They're catchy, inconsequential and hard-to-hate, especially the latter when Gwen says "Repeat after me / this shit is bananas / b-a-n-a-n-a-s."

Still, hearing an artist I'm so used to wearing hear heart on her sleeve be so material and mindless is slightly troublesome. It puts a little too much guilt into the pleasure.

It doesn't help that those tracks are all in close proximity to Cool, the best song on the album. A decidedly '80s synth ballad it features Gwen singing about Tony Kanal (the aformentioned No Doubt bassist) and how their friendship has settled into a comfortable place after several obstacles. It's a specific story matched to perfect music and exactly what I love about Gwen.

Speaking of Kanal and the '80s, he produces the album's second best song, Serious. Taking the lead from synth pop gods like Depeche Mode and O.M.D. it really sounds like a lost '80s hit. The best part? Gwen's voice going all Oingo Boingo on the title word in the chorus. Kylie Minogue would kill to have done this track...

The Real Thing also fares well, though it features a generic lyric. But who needs perfect lyrics when you have two members of New Order playing with Wendy and Lisa?! Now that Gwen has worked with Prince, Wendy, and Lisa, I fully expect Apollonia and Morris Day appearances on the next No Doubt album.

Elsewhere there are two collaborations with Andre 3000 from Outkast. Bubble Pop Electric is clearly inspired by Grease, as Gwen and Andre take on the roles of teenage lovers heading out on a date. It's musically-complex and melodically-pleasing addition to that time-honored tradition of songs about sex in cars. See the Misc. Lists section for more details. The other Andre 3000 track, Long Way To Go is a Prince-ly rumination on jungle love, but essentially reduces Gwen to a guest on her own album. It shouldn't have been included.

As of now, I'm really looking forward to the next No Doubt record. Love Angel Music Baby, though full of worthwhile moments, is sort of like a vacation. It was nice enough while you were there, but the biggest benefit was that it made you appreciate home more. Hearing Gwen put on a front makes me appreciate her transparency that much more.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Cool

Sunday, November 14, 2004

61. Eminem - Encore (2004)

What does a person expect when he or she buys an Eminem album? I think the answer to that has changed since 2001's The Eminem Show. After that album's ubiquitous success and then the even more ubiquitous success of 8 Mile and its accompanying theme Lose Yourself it was okay for your mom to sing an Eminem song. In a couple of fell strokes, Eminem went from a reviled fringe figure to someone who was widely embraced by the mainstream. In other words, he earned artistic capital. Now how has he spent it?

Well, if you judge from the first five songs on Encore. Evil Deeds is his typical family issues song, a sort of Cleaning Out My Closet sequel. Sign of maturity? Em says he's thankful for his talent. Never Enough features the ever-reliable Nate Dogg and a uncharacteristically tight verse from 50 Cent. Yellow Brick Road details Em's past and focuses specifically on the recently-discovered tape wherein he used the n-word. And get this: He actually apologizes! Like Toy Soldiers rescues Martika's Toy Soldiers from obscurity for the chorus and addresses the repercussions of the beefs that rappers engage in. Again, Em's tone seems conciliatory. Finally, Mosh is a strident call to action that expresses some strong feelings toward Mr.Bush and his policies. It's a great track and don't think it's not still important now that the election is over. I hope tons of young people are out there listening to and internalizing it.

Apologizing? Calling for peace? Calling for people to stand up for their rights and beliefs? This is good stuff!

But just when you're getting comfortable, the old Eminem shows up. Puke is the first skip-worthy song of many on the latter three-fourths of the album. Dedicated to his ex-wife Kim, the song details why she elicits the title reaction. As much as in interviews he speaks of wanting his daughter to have a positive impression of her mother, he doesn't really seem too intent on it. And though the song is not my thing, I can't hate too much, because he's not falling out of character, only reverting to a former one. The same can't be said for several songs that follow.

Instead of being juvenile and offensive, several of the next few songs are just plain inconsequential. My 1st Single is a messy word spill highlighted by repeating burps and farts. Big Weenie, Ass Like That, and Spend Some Time can all fall under my worst category for a song: Boring. Rain Man, a funny stream of consciousness that features Em parroting the titular figure, is an exception, but it also accidentally reveals his the strategy for the aforementioned songs when Em says: "I just did a whole song and I didn't say shit." The Eminem Show was a flawed affair, but managed to always be gripping even when it was cringe-worthy. We expected to be shocked and offended, but not bored or baffled.

One Shot 2 Shot is also completely useless. It's the obligatory D12 song and if you're wondering why he included it when a whole D12 album came out just 7 months ago, think about royalties. When Encore sells a ton of copies, those D12 can finally get enough money to feed their families (just like Latrell Sprewell).

But not all hope is lost for the album; there are a couple of gems in the rough. Mockingbird is dedicated-to-Hallie song, and while writing a song to your daughter is generally a horrible idea, this one actually works, thanks to a refusal to sentimentalize. Crazy In Love samples Heart to good effect and is a more fitting explanation of his feelings toward his ex-wife than Puke. And Just Lose It is the My Name Is, The Real Slim Shady, Without Me of the album, the insanely catchy, insanely funny single. I have it on repeat. Favorite part besides the Pee-Wee Herman laugh? "Yeah boy shake that ass / oops I mean girl, girl, girl, girl / You know you're my world."

Final verdict? I resisted liking Eminem for so long, then finally gave in and now I don't feel rewarded for that choice. I feel like that artistic capital has been misspent. Given Em's immense verbal talent and the strength of 8 of these songs this album could have been so much better. Actually, I wonder if contentment just doesn't sit right with him. Perhaps the critical lambasting he gets for this album will give him enough material and vitriol to blow us away on the next one.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Mosh

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Wrong choice, America

Here Comes President Kill Again
Written by Andy Partridge
Performed by XTC

Here comes President Kill again
Surrounded by all of his killing men
Telling us who, why, where and when
President Kill wants killing again

Hooray, ring out the bells
King Conscience is dead!
Hooray, now back in your cells
We've President Kill instead

Here comes President Kill again
Broadcasting from his killing den
Dressed in pounds and dollars and yen
President Kill wants killing again

Hooray, hang out the flags
Queen Caring is dead!
Hooray, we'll stack body bags
For President Kill instead

Ain't democracy wonderful?
Them (terrorists) can't win!
Ain't democracy wonderful?
Let's us vote someone like that in

Here comes President Kill again
From pure white house to number 10
Taking lives with a smoking pen
President Kill wants killing again

Hooray, everything's great
Now President Kill is dead
Hooray, I bet you can't wait
To vote for President Kill instead

Friday, October 29, 2004

60. Dogs Die In Hot Cars - Please Describe Yourself (2004)

Poor Chomsky. They try their hardest to pattern themselves after early-period XTC, even going so far as to reference White Music lyrics and titles in two of their songs (Herod's Daughter and Animal), and here come Dogs Die In Hot Cars, stealing all the buzz and glory. Admittedly, DDIHC have an advantage. Singer Craig Macintosh's voice is a dead ringer for XTC singer Andy Partridge's. It's uncanny.

The current Neo New Wave movement in music needed this. If Interpol are Joy Division, The Killers are Duran Duran, The Libertines are The Clash, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are Blondie and TV On The Radio are Genesis, then why not have an XTC?

DDIHC don't seem very shy about the comparison. One of the songs on their excellent debut is called Apples & Oranges, which is the also the title of a 1989 XTC album. (It makes me wish a band would make a whole album of songs with titles named after albums without title tracks). And their songs are not a far cry from XTC's Drums and Wires era, when XTC's music was still somewhat fast and angular but they'd learned to inject real emotion.

Please Describe Yourself was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the pair responsible for many a pop success, including all of Madness' output, They Might Be Giants' Flood album, and Bush's Sixteen Stone. They also produced two consecutive Elvis Costello albums, Punch The Clock (1984) and Goodbye Cruel World (1985). The former is one of his better efforts, and the latter is widely considered to be his worst. So in case you think the producers were brought in on this project to turn crap into gold, realize that they can only guarantee a pop sheen, not good songwriting.

That's not a problem here. The record speeds by without a weak moment. From the obvious singles Godhopping and Lounger (both are quite Madness-centric, with barked lyrics, a fast, piano-driven tempo, and stacked vocals on the choruses) to the clever / affecting Celebrity Sanctum (wherein the narrator compares his girl to his celebrity crushes) this is an exhilirating consequence-free listen.

Like Franz Ferdinand, Dogs Die In Hot Cars are Scottish and have four guys in the band. Unlike Franz Ferdinand they have one woman in the band, have normal haircuts and are accessible and fun. It seems like this time every year I get one pleasant, unexpected musical surprise. This is it.

But I still feel a little bad for Chomsky.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: I Love You 'Cause I Have To

59. XTC - White Music (1977)

It's somewhat reassuring to know that even the most accomplished people in the world have certain aspects of their past that they'd rather ignore. XTC are a band whose sophistication and vitality cannot be called into question, but did their 1977 debut album indicate that in any way? No.

It's not that the album is bad - it isn't - but compared to their later work it's pale and primitive. It's as if they only had 8 crayons to color with. Later albums like English Settlement (1982), Skylarking (1986), and Nonsuch (1992) were definitely the results of a box of 64.

Still, there are flashes of the brilliance that would fully emerge later. Radios In Motion and This Is Pop, both songs about songs, have a primal thrill: fast tempos, manic performances, punchy harmonies. Statue Of Liberty is a clear standout. It's a catchy mash note to the titular figure, and is filled with clever double entendre (singer/songwriter Andy Partridge's specialty). Check out these lines: "You've been the subject of so many dreams / since I climbed your torso" and "Your love was so big it made New York look small" and "In my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt." Great stuff.

But the rest is damn near useless. There's a curious harmonica-driven cover of Hendrix's All Along The Watchtower. It stretches nearly five minutes and features a psychedelic freakout ending which indicated right away that XTC weren't your garden-variety new wave punk band (granted, that was a damn cool garden). By the way, it's also the only cover to appear on a proper XTC album.

Perhaps the most tell-tale indication of this album's first draft status are bassist Colin Moulding's compositions. On later albums he was responsible for some of the band's most complex, pastoral, and appealing songs. That's NOT the case here. X-Wires, Do Wot You Do, and I'll Set Myself On Fire are all borderline annoying as well as lyrically block-headed. Compare the latter's "Oh strike my head / On a stone Joan / God knows this is yuk / Do it all in unison" to "Everyone's creeping up to the money god / putting tounges where the didn't ought to be / on stepping stones of human hearts and souls / Into the land of nothing for free" from King For A Day. Both lyrics mention gods and stones, but they're light years apart artistically (even if in actuality only 12 regular years).

As they say, you gotta start somewhere.

Rating: C-
Fave Song: Statue Of Liberty

Monday, October 25, 2004

58. Jimmy Eat World - Futures (2004)

Is it possible to be proud of people you've never met? I first started listening to Jimmy Eat World in 1996, and they were just one of the unknown bands my roommate Nick had turned me on to. We went and saw them a couple of times in '96 and '97, in small venues with crowds of no more than 50 people. I listened to their 1999 album Clarity obsessively and for awhile I thought it brought me good luck (I was listening to it when I got the phone call telling me I got a job in Minneapolis).

So when the band blew up in 2001 with the album Bleed American and the hit The Middle, it was strange, but satisfying. Suddenly here they were performing on Saturday Night Live and MTV, their songs being used in the Super Bowl, and friends were actually asking me about them. Emo fans are notoriously hip and fickle, and, unlike myself, some fans felt the pop-oriented material on Bleed American was an obvious stab at stardom. The fact that it was semi-successful burned them even more. According to them, the intention to sell out was bad enough, but the fact that it made your little sister like the band? Unforgivable.

It's hard not to hear the new song Nothingwrong as a reaction to this. The aggressive track features the lyrics: "Turn them off, our blacklist singers" and not long after, "don't make a scene / on 45." Now it could just be taken as an anti-censorship song, but they sing with so much conviction, you've gotta think it's about something more personal, a defiant statement of purpose.

If they could find it in their hearts to forgive, I think fans would find this record to be much more in line with the Jimmy they loved. Things are darker and more passionate and powerful than on Bleed American, and while the songs don't have that immediate sugar rush, they insinuate themselves. When discussing first impressions of the album with a friend I told him that no one song had grabbed me the way Blister, Opener, Lucky Denver Mint, or A Praise Chorus had on previous albums. On my next listen of the album, things started to take hold!

Take the title track for example. It opens the album with these lines: "I always believed in futures / I hope for better / in November." Is there a more topical sentiment among truly concerned citizens right now? I can only hope those lines won't ring hollow come next Wednesday. The song itself represents that optimism with a soaring chorus that's becoming a Jimmy Eat World trademark.

Work employs that same trademark, with a hook that pleads: "Can we take a ride / get out of this place while we still have time?" Even when I'm completely happy with where I'm at, this sentiment will always connect with me, because I know how it feels long for escape. Liz Phair provides very understated backing vocals to this one.

The World You Love would have fit very nicely into Bleed American, and is, to my ear, a clear choice for a single. As I've heard, Pain isn't doing too poorly for itself, but this one might have knocked it out of the park. It's one of those songs that sounds happy but really isn't. In fact the chorus claims: "We're only just as happy / as everyone else seems to think we are."

The epic center of the album is a 6 minute piano ballad called Drugs or Me. The title really sums it up. I've never had anyone close to me addicted to drugs, but I imagine I'd feel exactly like this. The narrator tells his loved one that he barely recognizes her anymore and asks, his voice barely holding on, that she "keep [his] heart / somewhere drugs don't go." It's the aural equivalent of a really good, bracing movie... it lets you actually feel something you've never actually been through.

Polaris is the album's best song. The guitars are atmospheric, the lyrics anguished, the vocals passionate, the drums and bass pounding, and the chorus, of course, soaring.

After 8 strong songs, the album's only stumble is the pairing of Nothingwrong and Night Drive, the albums weakest cuts, in the 9 and 10 spots. The latter is a sentimental retelling of a dalliance in a car (I'm assuming it's nostalgic because the guys in the band are a bit too old to still be going to Makeout Point). It's one of those things that probably means a lot to the person who wrote it, but just doesn't translate well to the rest of us. Anyway, Death Cab did it better with We Looked Like Giants.

Luckily, the album closer, 23, gets things back on track. An epic (over 7 minutes) rumination on a lost relationship, it connects where Night Drive doesn't.

I find it interesting that an album called Futures ends on two songs so concerned with the past. I guess that should tell us something. In the past, Jimmy Eat World were a band I worshipped, and the same is looking to be true in the future.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Polaris

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Short Stack

In a blatant attempt to reach review number 60 by the first anniversary of this blog, I'm offering up some brief reviews of recent releases.

54. Ben Folds - Super D (2004)
This is the final EP in a series of three meant to tide us over until Folds finishes working with Captain Kirk and releases his second solo record, and Folds saved the worst for last. It kicks off with a bombastic cover of The Darkness' Get Your Hands Off My Woman. From there we have three sub-par original compositions (the most interesting of which, Kalamazoo, features a disco bridge) and a brief live cover of Ray Charles' Them That Got. The other two EPs each contained at least one sublime moment, but this one has none, giving the whole project a cast-off feel.

Rating: C
Fave Song: Get Your Hands Off My Woman

55. Duran Duran - Astronaut (2004)
Are your vinyl copies of Rio and Notorious wearing out? Here's a new album from a fully reunited Duran Duran. The band were responsible for their fair share of giddy musical highs in the '80s, and had this shocking time capsule of an album been released then it would have surely been a blockbuster. But unfortunately it's 20 years later and few will likely care. Everyone loves a comeback, but Duran Duran are not a band that either critics or the record-buying public are likely to embrace again. It's a shame, because (Reach Up For The) Sunrise, Want You More!, What Happens Tomorrow, Astronaut, Nice, Bedroom Toys, and Finest Hour are all highlights. And yes, that's most of the album.

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Want You More!

56. The Rosenbergs - Department Store Girl (2004)
It's strange how many so-called power pop bands miss the point. They are either way too twee (Candy Butchers) or way too serious (Candy Butchers) or not (gasp!) catchy enough. The Rosenbergs are not guilty of any of that. In fact, based on this album, their only active competition is Fountains Of Wayne. The Rosenbergs lack F.O.W.'s finely detailed lyrical prowess, but share the sweet, bursting melodies, crunchy guitar riffs, and delicious harmonies, as well as the ability to both croon (Blue Skies, Woods) and rock (Bulletproof Vest, the title track). The only fault on this CD is the fact that you have to wait 5 or so minutes for the gentle bonus track...it's just one of my pet peeves.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Crockett & Tubbs

57. Carbon Leaf - Indian Summer (2004)
What's refreshing about Carbon Leaf is that there's no veneer of hipsterdom to them. The Virginia band prides itself on wordiness and musical virtuosity and is not dissimilar to the Dave Matthews Band, save their catchiness, harmony, and likablity. After seeing them live I woke up the next morning singing songs from this album. There's a certain joy in the performances, even in the ballads, and it shows that producer David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) did his job well. I love it when something so unassuming can assert itself so firmly.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: What About Everything

Sunday, October 10, 2004

53. R.E.M. - Around the Sun (2004)

Pre-release reviews can play a large part in how I view an album. I'm usually optimistic about any new effort from an artist I love, and reviews can either feed that optimism or diminish it. A bad review especially can drop the status of a new album to just above that of a Maroon 5 live album. The obsessive part of this is that VERY rarely would I avoid a new record by an artist I like just because of a bad review (or several). And no matter what, I'll usually be hard-headed when I get the album and insist that the critic was full of it.

The story can go two directions from there. One, the critics' complaints actually have merit and will eventually creep into my perceptions of the album. Or, my hard-headedness sticks and I love the album.

I mention all of this because the early words on R.E.M.'s latest effort have not been kind. As I see it, the main grievance is that the band hasn't made Automatic For The People again. This is a little sad to me, considering that album came out 13 years ago! I guess in some eyes, the last four albums have been complete disappointments. So why hasn't the band become completely irrelevant? Why does their record company even still allow them to make CDs?!

Now one could argue the merits of Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi (both are close to my heart), but critics mostly focus their rancor on the post-Bill Berry albums, Up and Reveal. They claim the band has lost the ability to make anthemic catchy songs because they don't have a permanent drummer. However, last I checked all the post-Berry albums do have drums on them. Okay, Up (1998) was a languid, electronic-based record, no doubt about it. But it was also sporadically wonderful, with songs like Suspicion, Walk Unafraid, At My Most Beautiful, and Parakeet (the latter two showing that the band's new template is the Beach Boys). 2001's Reveal was more pastoral and organic, consistent but mostly inconsequential. The reviews have Around the Sun following that same trend.

Don't believe the hype! After listening to all three albums in a row, I feel safe declaring that Around the Sun is firmly in the middle of the pack. It's not as good as Up, but it beats Reveal by a few paces. It definitely has has more vitality (the current events-concerned Final Straw and I Wanted To Be Wrong) and immediacy (Leaving New York gets stuck in my head all the time...it's their best single since The Great Beyond, easily) than its predecessor.

No, as an album it's not at the level of Automatic, or Out Of Time. But that's difficult to expect, from any band. What we do have are some great songs: Electron Blue is reminiscent of New Adventures (and, coincidentally, the same color I'm painting my bathroom...Neutron Yellow was too dull), Aftermath and Boy In The Well could both be future singles.

The Outsiders contains the album's most thrilling moment. Guest star Q-Tip (formerly of A Tribe Called Quest) drops the final verse of the song and does a bang-up job. The fact that what could be a horribly contrived or embarrassing moment turns out to be my favorite is a testament to Q-Tip's MC skills. I could have lived without Biz Markie's appearance on Radio Song (from Out Of Time) but this makes me want to hear a whole album of R.E.M. / Q-Tip collabos.

There are a couple of songs the album might have done without, but overall Around the Sun is an effort any open-hearted R.E.M. fan should be pleased with.

Final thought: You know, there are some bands that just seem intent on pushing their fans' limits (paging Wilco and Radiohead) but R.E.M. doesn't fit in that category. So what is it? I truly believe that if they wanted to write Losing My Religion or Man On The Moon again they could, but I think they simply don't want to. I mentioned that more and more they seem to be patterning themselves after the Beach Boys (true on Around the Sun in Aftermath's buoyant harmonies and in the ba-ba-ba coda of the title track), but maybe it's not just musically. Think about it, get a lot of early acclaim and success and then make a series of respectable but ignored albums... in fact, my reissue of the Beach Boys 1977 oddball effort Love You has liner notes by R.E.M.'s own Peter Buck. Hmmm.

Rating: B
Fave Song: The Outsiders

Saturday, October 02, 2004

James Taylor - "Baby Boom Baby"

This is my confession: My mom is the single biggest influence on my musical tastes. It's not cool, I know. My dad is the one who was hip in the '80s. When I was ready he turned me on to Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, XTC, Roxy Music, Marshall Crenshaw, and many other great artists.

My mom, on the other hand, was square. Her tastes ran in directions generally reviled by my dad: Elton John, Billy Joel, The Carpenters, Lionel Richie, and James Taylor.

(In college my parents went to see James Taylor in concert. It was today's equivalent of a guy having to go to a John Mayer concert with his girlfriend. My dad just barely stomached it; my mom loved it.)


Just as with their politics and religious beliefs, I feel I've greatly benefited from having two vastly different viewpoints presented to me. About 90 % of the time, I lean toward my father's views, but on music, my heart will always truly lie with the artists my mom introduced to me. That will always be where I go for comfort.

This particular James Taylor song is like a cocktail. It's as though someone took everything that makes the James Taylor sound (complex acoustic guitar picking, faux-jazz, gospely background vocals, introspective lyrics) and put it in a blender. The result is not exactly uniform, but it is smooth. I first heard this song via my second college roommate, Tim. He had a compilation CD used for testing high-quality sound systems (how he came across it I'm not sure...he's the type of person who just comes across things) and this song was on it. We both loved it and we'd play it over and over again.

Given that my mom played James Taylor's Greatest Hits to death, I know every lyric back and forth, so it's something when I say that this song has the most memorable lines of any of his songs, lines that recur to me at the most random of times:

  • "Somehow the season always brings a picture of you"
  • "Worked on a letter / But it never made it out of my head"
  • "How come I miss what I never knew / Drag out the past just to paint it blue"
  • "I work hard to see that you remember my name / Do all I can to make you want to see me again"
  • "My feet are frozen and my heart's on fire"
As far as I can tell there's no real story to the lyrics; maybe it's about a past romance or friendship, or even a family member. Clarity isn't the point. Instead, the song creates a feeling; a general sense of resignation and thoughtfulness that suits any sort of reflective mood.

Album: Never Die Young (1988)

Monday, September 27, 2004

52. Green Day - American Idiot (2004)

Many people seem blindsided by the fact that Green Day is still making relevant music, but to me it came clear with the last album, Warning. For whatever reason, anytime an artist seems to hit their prime early (Counting Crows, Weezer, etc.) it's hard to accept that they'll ever make something listenable again, let alone gripping. Warning wasn't a groundbreaking record, but it was highly enjoyable.

Now comes American Idiot, which to those who haven't been paying attention seems like an out-of-nowhere return-to-form. It's easy to attribute this to righteous anger about our current times, especially in light of the lead single, American Idiot. If there's one good thing to say about the Bush administration it's that they've given us some great reactionary music. In fact no two lines can sum up the Bush approach to "protecting" the country better: "Can you hear the sound of hysteria / The subliminal mind-fuck America" By the way, I always want to add some well-placed background vocals the chorus after Billie Joe sings "o.k."

Holiday is another song in this mold, and features the great reproach: "Zieg heil to the President Gasman / Bombs away is your punishment / Pulverize the Eiffel Towers / Who criticize your government."

But despite appearances, the album is not strictly about the current times. In a more general sense it's a return to that hoary old concept of the rock opera. This means that there are character names that recur throughout the album (in this case, Whatsername, St.Jimmy, and Jesus Of Suburbia). This also means, in the grand tradition of rock operas, that the story is all but indecipherable. As far as I can tell, Jesus of Suburbia might be the same person as St. Jimmy. Both are disaffected youth. Whatsername is "symbol of resistance" and a rebel who's "holding on to my heart like a hand grenade" (we have a cover image!). Apparently she leaves St. Jimmy though, and he kills himself. That's about as far as I've gotten (seriously, someone needs be hired full-time to figure out the "stories" of both this album and The Honeydogs' latest).

But, like 10,000 Years, the album survives beyond it's rickety premise and thrives because of a thrillingly diverse sound. There are no less than 5 songs that represent a major artistic leap / departure for the band, including the ultra-harmonic and U2ish Boulevard Of Broken Dreams and the power-poppy would-be TV theme Extraordinary Girl.

What's been getting the most ink are the 9 minute song suites, Jesus Of Suburbia and Homecoming. It's nothing new for an artist to take several song snippets and marry them together. Of course, it goes back to The Beatles. A Day In The Life was one of the first multi-song songs (with the "I read the news today" parts belonging to John Lennon and the "Woke up / Got out of bed" bridge thanks to Paul McCartney). That was followed quickly by Good Vibrations. Artists from Matthew Sweet and XTC to The Who and Queen have done it since. Green Day do a good job with the idea, especially on Homecoming, which is nothing short of epic.

Instead of being surprised at how in-the-now the band is, I'm more shocked at how beautiful they sound. I was never a huge fan nor detractor of Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) but two songs on here easily trump it. Wake Me Up When September Ends may or may not be about September 11th, but it's heartbreaking nonetheless, and the looking-back-without-anger closer Whatsername is so emo that under duress I might mistake it for The Get Up Kids.

Okay, so maybe I can give those surprised folks a bit of leeway, afterall Warning was not a groundbreaking record, but this one just might be.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Whatsername

Note: Word has it that the band are considering offers for a musical film version of the record. For reasons why this should NOT happen, check out Baby, I'm A Star.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

51. The Thrills - Let's Bottle Bohemia (2004)

I would never begrudge another music listener their opinion, but some opinions fly so brazenly in the face of truth that one can't help but react negatively. Witness Jody Rosen's review of The Thrills' new album in the October 2004 issue of Blender. She (or he?) uses adjectives such as "overwrought," "strained" and "self-serious" to describe the effort. He (or she) seems to think that the band has become pretentious and full of itself. I don't know what album Jody Rosen listened to, but I just don't hear it.

Instead, I would use these words to describe the album: "loose," "effortless" and "charming." And clearly no band high on their own importance would name a song Whatever Happened To Corey Haim?, nor would they write a line like "I'm too vain for greatness." Maybe Jody Rosen has some secret grudge she (or he) is playing out in print, because the only whiff of pretense on this album is the brief orchestral reprise of Found My Rosebud that ends the affair.

The greatness of a song can be measured by the presence of at least one memorable moment. You know the moments I'm talking about...the ones that you point out to your friends, the instrumental touches or great lines that really stick out and make you want to listen again. Each of the ten songs on this album have at least one of those moments. From the way the melody downshifts unexpectedly on the word "night" in Saturday Night, to the sudden swell of synthesizers on The Curse Of Comfort, to great lines like "I guess everybody went to a better party" and "your frat boy past could be president."

Usually, the sophomore album tends to be a huge burden for a band. In fact, The Curse Of Comfort appears to be about that very problem...how it's hard to make relevant art when you are fat and happy and praised for your work. Their solution is to "hope love gets in the way." But scanning the lyrics, I think I may have discovered the source of Jody Rosen's anger: "the suburbs dream tonight of finding their muse / damn those rape victim writers and their five star reviews." Okay, that's a little harsh, but get over it!

At any rate, comfort obviously hasn't harmed them yet, and The Thrills have shambled right past the potential sophomore slump. And they did it quickly! It was just last November that I reviewed their first album. In that review I wondered if the band could forge their own identity outside of the California / Beach Boys / Neil Young thing. The answer is a resounding yes! In fact, I would go so far as to say that not since Weezer has there been a more promising debut /follow-up pairing.

So the fact that singer Conor Deasy claims they're just getting started ("Let's bottle bohemia / and start a career") might be a bit boastful. But bravado is definitely not the same thing as pretense, Jody Rosen!

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Not For All The Love In The World

Sunday, September 12, 2004

50. Matthew Sweet - Living Things (2004)

Matthew Sweet has worked with lots of notable people through out his career: Aimee Mann, Hanson, Mick Fleetwood, Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins, members of The Attractions, The Bangles, Big Star, The B-52's, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Television, and Voivoid, as well as session musicians who played with The Rolling Stones and Beach Boys.

On Living Things, he adds another name to that resume. Van Dyke Parks is an idiosyncratic musicial prodigy who has done critically acclaimed solo work, but is best known for working on the songs that were to make up Smile, the Beach Boys' never-released (at least until the end of this month) follow-up to Pet Sounds. Matthew appears to be doing whatever he can to become this generation's Brian Wilson.

What Parks apparently brought to the table was a diversity of instrumentation. The gripping opener The Big Cats Of Shambala (I looked it up...Shambala is a wild animal preserve located on the edge of the Mohave desert, not far from where Matthew makes his home, Los Angeles) makes prominent use of steel drums. Elsewhere there're accordian, theremin, mandolin, and clavoline, as well as more organ and piano than we've ever heard on a Sweet album.

That said, this record isn't anywhere near the Wilson / Spector wall-of-sound used on 1999's In Reverse. That is Matthew's most controlled and focused album to date. Living Things is the loosest and most carefree album in his ouvre. There are snippets of conversation here and there. The solos seem slightly off-kilter. Songs end as they see fit, sometimes going off into jams that don't quite know when to end. It's nice that Matthew isn't afraid here to let things get a bit out of hand (such as on the almost dissonant Dandelion), because we know he'll always pull in the reins when it's needed.

The combination of the diversity of sound along with the shambling attitude make it a bit of a jarring listen the first few times through. After that, the beauty of the songs begins to emerge.

One high point for me is the long-delayed appearance of Matthew's sense of humor. He's never been known as a funny or clever lyricist. At best you might have called a handful of his songs "wry." Cats vs. Dogs is thus easily the funniest and most whimsical song he's ever done. Over a piano bar melody, the verses examine the pluses and minuses of both types of creatures, while the chorus tells us: "you're going to have to decide which one are you in your heart." Compared to the generic sentiments of all of the songs on last year's Kimi Ga Suki* Raifu, it's a welcome change.

The CD was recorded two summers ago, probably after Kimi Ga Suki* Raifu but before The Thorns side project. It's a logical progression, a melding of the straight ahead rock of the former and the harmonic gentleness of the latter.

True to the album title, song names mention trees, seasons, dandelions, and sunlight. We hear the sounds of lions roaring and bees buzzing. There even seems to be a structure at work. The first half of the CD contains 6 songs, culminating in Cats vs. Dogs. The second half is solid, kicking off with the Altered Beast-recalling anger anthem I Saw Red and ending with four pretty songs, In My Time, Sunlight, Season Is Over, and the optimistic Tomorrow. All could have slotted easily onto In Reverse and they end the record on high note. I'm a sucker for that, since so many albums start off strong and fritter their energy and quality away as they go on.

Overall, if I were to put all of Matthew Sweet's albums into categories of Great, Good, Okay, and Pass, this one goes firmly in Good. And Sweet's Good is a few light years ahead of most artists' Great.

Rating: B+
Fave Song: The Big Cats Of Shambala

Saturday, September 04, 2004

The Smashing Pumpkins - "Ava Adore"

Here's a secret: Adore is an awesome album. Created in the wake of the massive success of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and the temporary firing of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, it's the Pumpkins gloomy gothic eletronic Depeche Mode record.

Many say that the band went in this direction as a direct result of Chamberlain's abscence, but there's actually evidence that they were headed this way no matter what. The two soundtrack songs that directly preceded Adore, Eye and The End Is The Beginning Is The End, were completely different from anything the band had done before. It's as though Mellon Collie was the band's late '70s power rock album and these singles were their shot at early '80s new wave. The first time I heard Eye on the radio it was a thrilling moment to hear the band trying something so different.

Anyway, Ava Adore is the best song of this Pumpkins phase. Musically, the marching beat (not unlike Chamberlain's usual style) is played on a set of eletronic drums, the bass is dirty, and the guitars are spiky (and sporadic; they only appear on the chorus). Lyrically, it's a valentine that Charles Addams might have written. Ostensibly it's a love song, but our twisted narrator tells his beloved she's a "gun to (his) head" and "the murder in my world." He even says she'll always be his whore. 'Scuse me?! Last time I checked this was not the preferred method of wooing a lady.

But, strangely, it works. This is mostly because there are also sweet sentiments, such as "in you I count stars" and "in you I taste God." But it also works because love is an extreme emotion. It reminds me of the movie Punch Drunk Love, when Adam Sandler tells Emily Watson that he loves her so much he wants to "smash your face in with a sledgehammer" and she comes back with "I want to scoop your eyeballs out of your sockets and chew and suck on them." Love isn't always pretty.

Album: Adore (1998)
Fave Moment: They way Billy says the word adore, with the perfect combination of distaste and longing.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

49. Lisa Loeb - The Way It Really Is (2004)

Two things:

1) The title of this album is odd, seeing as how the opening song on her last album, Cake And Pie, had the exact same name. For me, it harkens back to the Doors and Led Zeppelin. The Doors' third album was called Waiting For The Sun, but the actual song appeared on their fifth album, Morrison Hotel. Houses Of The Holy was Led Zeppelin's fifth album, but the song with the same title was on Physical Graffiti, two albums later. In my limited knowledge, Ms.Loeb is the first artist to name a record of all new material after a song on a previous album.

2) I love those little stickers record companies put on the front of CDs to sell them. If they aren't already affixed to the actual CD case, I'll try to take them off the plastic and put them there. Usually these stickers say things like "the new album from..." or "features the hit singles..." or they have quotes from reviews. The Way It Really Is contains a non-attributed snippet that describes the album as "a premium blend of power pop and intimate acoustic music." This is noteworthy for two reasons. One, I never considered Lisa Loeb to be power pop before I read that, but now I can totally see it, and two, the description is right on.

A lot of times you'll get a new album and you're hooked immediately by the catchy stuff and the slower songs either become skippable filler, or tunes that eventually make their case. So it's a risky move to release an album so clearly divided (and obviously proud of it), but it pays off for Lisa.

There are eleven songs; five would fit under the power pop category and five would fit on the acoustic side (the bluesy opener, Window Shopping, doesn't really belong in either). I'll start by talking about the latter. Try is, in my opinion, the best of the five. It is buoyed up by strong harmony and a breathy chorus and if tackled by someone more ambitious and less wordy (such as Faith Hill) might have become an epic power ballad. As it is, it's often the song I find myself singing after I've listened to the album all the way through. Would You Wander features prominent background vocals from Indigo Gal Emily Sailers. The Accident is a well-crafted song that'd be declared a masterpiece if it were by Paul Simon. Lisa's girlish voice is appealing, but has a way of coming off inconsequential. However, her dexterous guitar work on the song is impressive. Hand-Me-Downs is intriguing because of how it might have been inspired. It's told from the point of view of a woman who's sick of her man's self-involvement and drug habits (mentions of disappearing money, "powder's in the kitchen"). Is it about ex-beau Dweezil Zappa?

The power pop songs are lighter lyrically, and provide a good balance. These are the songs you sing along to in the car. I Control The Sun is full of harmony, catchy guitar licks and Sgt.Pepper-style keyboards. Now I Understand features fantastic Beatley background vocals from power pop poster boy Jason Faulkner. Fools Like Me, the first single, comes dangerously close to sporting that programmed Matrix sound. It could be a huge hit for Hilary, Avril or Ashlee, but Lisa deserves it. She's been in the game ten years making pop tunes (Dr.Dre paraphrase there). Probably is probably my favorite of these songs, mostly because it (intentionally or not) pokes fun at the murkiness of our English language: "I probably love you / Grass is probably green / Sky is probably blue / I'd probably do anything for you."

Overall, it's a good showing from Lisa, a woman you can always count on to turn in a quality effort. This isn't an album for driving in the car, but it's more classic in the sense that you'll put it on at home and enjoy it as a whole experience. That's the way it used to be, and it's coming clear that the girl with the glasses has a strong sense of pop history.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Probably

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Dreams So Real

In the latest issue of Spin (September 2004; Pixies on the cover), my pal Chuck Klosterman issues a challenge. The challenge is to build your ideal rock band within these limitations: 1) You must have a singer, guitarist, bassist, drummer, and wild card, 2) You can only have one person who's currently active in a band, and 3) You can't pick Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham, or Animal from the Muppet show for your band.

Klosterman's ideal band would be called Doomed Honeymoon, and have the following line-up:

Guitar: Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
Bass: Bootsy Collins (Parliament-Funkadelic)
Drums: Tommy Lee (Motley Crue)
Wild-card: Prince
Lead Singer: Karen Carpenter

Damn him for picking those last two!

Of course I found this to be an extremely fun exercise, so I started making my own list. I used Klosterman's rules, but also added that everyone should still be alive, just so the idea that this band could actually get together is not as far-fetched. Anyway, I went through three drafts, as follows. My first instinct was this line-up:

Guitar: Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac)
Bass: Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Drums: ?uestlove (The Roots)
Wild card: Jon Brion (producer/songwriter)
Lead Singer: Kylie Minogue

I would call them Pop Culture and they would be a monstrous force! Could you imagine that rhythm section with Brion and Buckingham's songs and Kylie's voice? It would kill! The problem is that this violates Klosterman's second rule. Buckingham, Flea, and ?uestlove are all working with their current bands.

So I took a second try and ended up with this:

Guitar: Eliot Easton (The Cars)
Bass: Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads)
Drums: Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters)
Wild Card: Elton John
Lead Singer: Ronnie Milsap

This line-up would be intriguing, but the problem here is songwriting. Elton and Grohl can write, we know that, but would their songs suit the band? Probably not. Anyway, their name would have been The Thank-Yous.

Finally, I hit on the perfect mix. They're called Zen Garden.

Guitar: Johnny Marr (The Smiths)
Bass: Melissa Auf der Maur (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins)
Drums: Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish)
Wild Card: Carole King
Lead Singer: David Bowie

This band would be pop heaven! While I see Sturmer and King writing most of the music with Bowie providing lyrics, don't forget that Marr can write too (and his guitar tone cannot be matched). In Bowie you have a charismatic frontman who can adapt his style however he sees fit. I would worship this band, and none of them are currently with other groups, so let's get them together!

Now, if you are so inclined, it's your turn. Take some time to think about it, then use that seldom-touched "comments" link down below and tell about me your band. Don't forget to follow the rules and give them a cool-sounding name!

Sunday, August 22, 2004

'83 Going On '87

I watched the movie 13 Going On 30 last night. In case you don't know, the premise is this: On her 13th birthday, a girl named Jenna wishes she was 30, and it magically happens. The movie starts out in 1987 and makes use of several '80s songs for key plot points.

While I'm not in the business of reviewing movies for this site, I will say that I enjoyed this movie for two reasons: 1) I am in love with Jennifer Garner, and 2) for a supposedly escapist "girl movie" the film has a message that many people could use (namely, looking at your current life choices through the eyes of childhood might not be such a bad thing).

What I did not enjoy was the use of '80s songs! While none of them are bad, or anachronistic (meaning they didn't use anything from post-'87), the songs are surprisingly out of touch. Check out these four songs that play important roles in the movie: 1) Jenna is obsessed with Rick Springfield and his song Jessie's Girl (1980); 2) Jenna loves Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982), and when she's 30 spices up a party by doing the zombie dance; 3) Jenna befriends a 13-year-old girl in her apartment building and emboldens her by quoting Love Is A Battlefield (1983) by Pat Benatar (and later dancing to it at a slumber party); and 4) Jenna's friend Matt alienates a bunch of the popular party-goers by putting on Burning Down The House (1983) by Talking Heads.

Before you say "so what?"consider: How many 13-year-olds are listening to stuff that came out 4 (or more) years ago? When you're 13, you follow the latest trends! You're a demographic! Both Rick Springfield and Pat Benatar were off the radar in '86 and '87! Springfield's career died out in '84 and Pat didn't have an album out those years. Michael Jackson was the bees knees in those days, of course, but 1987 was the year Bad came out! It's much more likely she was dancing to the title track in her room, like I used to. Finally, the Talking Heads were a great choice to be Matt's favorite band (you even see him wearing a vintage TH shirt as an adult) because they are one of the coolest but idiosyncratic bands ever. The thing is, they'd had two big albums in '85 and '86, Little Creatures and True Stories. It's more likely Matt would be grooving to something from one of those.

So here is what I would have done if the producers had seen fit to consult me: 1) Rick Springfield would have been replaced with either Bon Jovi (Livin' On A Prayer was the biggest hit of '87) or George Michael (the Faith album was all the rage in '87); 2) Thriller would have been replaced with Bad (the song isn't as good, but there was a great dance to it); 3) Love Is A Battlefield would have been booted in favor of Janet Jackson's Control (it has a similar "girl power" message and was a big hit in '86); and 4) the Talking Heads song that the popular kids couldn't stand would have been Wild, Wild Life.

There are other '80s songs and references, and these are also hit and miss. For example the use of Belinda Carlisle's Mad About You (1986) and Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) (1987) were right on, as was Jenna's mention of Wang Chung (they'd just had a huge hit with Everybody Have Fun Tonight in 1986).

But we also hear The Romantics' What I Like About You (1980), Soft Cell's Tainted Love (1982), the Go-Gos' Head Over Heels (1984), and Madonna's Crazy For You (1985). With the wealth of great hits that came out in '87 I would have liked to have heard U2's With Or Without You, Def Leppard's Hysteria, Cutting Crew's (I Just Died) In Your Arms Tonight, and Madonna's Open Your Heart. Prince, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and the Smiths also had awesome stuff out around this time.

Aren't you glad I'm here to think about these things, so you don't have to?