Thursday, January 29, 2004

23. The Costello Show - King Of America (1986)

In a competition to determine which album is Elvis Costello's masterpiece there would be several contenders. There's the compact power of This Year's Model, the propulsive maturity of Armed Forces, the underrated brilliance of Trust, and the eloquent bitterness of Imperial Bedroom.

I love all of those records, but for my money, none of them beat King Of America. Released in 1986, the album represented a sort of break for Elvis. He'd gone through a divorce (already well-documented on Imperial Bedroom), and just released his first disappointing album in 9 tries (Goodbye Cruel World). So he grew a beard, put his longtime band The Attractions on hold, and went to America to record this album.

The results really represent where he was at, both literally and figuratively. For one, its sound is firmly in the genre of American blues and country-folk. Elvis has tried many many genres in his career, and I think this one suits him best. Then again, maybe it just suits the content. Just as the political lyrics of Armed Forces were served up with a candy-coating of sweet melody, songs about broken hearts always sound better with an acoustic guitar and a twang.

So songs like Lovable, The Big Light, and Indoor Fireworks all hit the mark perfectly. The latter captures everything that's great about Elvis when he writes about ruined romance: bitterness, sorrow, nostalgia. It's about a doomed couple who are full of sparks and combustion. My favorite line: Everybody loves a happy ending but we don't even try / we go straight past pretending / to the part where everybody loves to cry."

And lyrically, America and Americans come up in several songs. There's the cover of Eisenhower's Blues of course. And the title of the album comes from the opening line of the opening song, Brilliant Mistake (which is one of my very favorite songs to sing to myself). But American Without Tears seems to be the centerpiece, encapsulating the entire concept of the album. It's very autobiographical: "Now I'm in America and running from you."

In a body of work filled with an astonishing number of great songs, I think this album has the most in one place. The only Attractions number, Suit Of Lights, reminds me of a They Might Be Giants song. Poisoned Rose is so good it almost kills me. And Jack Of All Parades may be as close as Elvis will ever get to a Beach Boys tribute and features the classic line "I can't forgive you for things you haven't done yet."

And that's why it wins the match, by technical knock out.

Rating: A+
Fave Song: Brilliant Mistake

Monday, January 26, 2004

Wyclef Jean - "Industry"

It's interesting that The Fugees were considered a rap group, because really the group was only one-third rapper, and their biggest hit was a faithful cover of an R & B classic (Killing Me Softly) about singer-songwriter Don McLean. When the group broke up, Lauryn Hill went on to make one of the great soul records of the last ten years, and Wyclef immediately scored a folk-rock hit called Gone 'Til November.

So I guess it's fitting that this song is "dedicated to everybody who loves hip-hop music" but isn't actually hip-hop itself. Maybe Wyclef's vocal tone is just too melodic to really ever rap, or maybe it's the catchy choruses (with whoa-oh-ohs), but this is not a rap song.

Amidst paens to fallen rappers such as Biggie, Tupac, and Jam Master Jay, and pleas for beefs (P.Diddy vs. Suge Knight, Jay-Z vs. Nas) to be killed with skillets, is a song calling for unity and revolution in hip-hop and in black culture. Not to mention the fact that it includes a shot at those who would blame hip-hop for some of society's ills: "What we sing is what we see / and what we see is reality."

Notice that phrasing...he says "sing" not "rap." I think it's refreshing that a joint all about hip-hop doesn't have to be hip-hop itself, at least not by traditional definition. Thankfully, along with Missy Elliot and Outkast, Wyclef is helping to expand that defintion. That's what will keep hip-hop alive and thriving more than anything else.

Album: The Preacher's Son (2003)
Fave Moment: The line about wishing there were still four survivors in Destiny's Child.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Simon & Garfunkel - "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or, How I Was Robert McNamera'd Into Submission)"

An oddity in the mostly gentle and humor-free ouvre of S & G, this song serves as both great parody and social commentary. The former takes aim at Bob Dylan, who at the time was Paul Simon's chief folk-poet rival (and who would undoubtedly but unfairly receive more serious analysis). So here Simon proves he can do Dylan. The music is organ-tambourine-harmonica driven in the obvious style of Mr.Zimmerman. The title too seems to be a swipe at Dylan's thesaurus-searching style. Translated it means "a random verbal insult."

The lyrics even reference Dylan twice, once condemning someone for confusing Bob Dylan with Dylan Thomas and again in the stolen combo line: "It's alright ma, everybody must get stoned!"

In terms of social commentary, the lyrics turn many of the leading proper nouns of the current youth culture into verbs, including The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Phil Spector, Andy Warhol, Ayn Rand, Lenny Bruce, and even Art Garfunkel. The narrator seems almost put-out to have to pretend to either admire or loathe all of these people. It really hits at the essence of hipsterdom

I must say that though I like this song very much, I like it even more because of where it's placed on the album, right between two great sensitive songs, Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall and For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her. It really breaks the mood, provides a laugh, and best of all, uses Dylan's own tricks against him! (Dylan fired back by covering The Boxer on his worst album, Self-Portrait.)

Album: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966)
Fave Moment: The outro, where Simon shouts "Folk Rock!" followed by "I lost my harmonica Albert."

Thursday, January 22, 2004

22. blink-182 - self-titled (2003)

One of the greatest currencies of pop fandom is the ability to say you knew about a band before they hit it big. (Of course, this sort of braggery pretty much annoys everyone, even other pop fans.) Personally, I can lay claim to Third Eye Blind, Jimmy Eat World, The Strokes, and the band whose new album is the subject of this review.

Actually, I owe blink-182 to my junior year roommate, Nick. He was obsessed with their album Dude Ranch, and listened to it at least once a day from September to December 1997, well before they had their 1999 breakthrough. blink was the perfect band for Nick, because they captured the same balance he did, that is, a sensitive soul with a sick sense of humor.

I liked them too, especially songs like Dammit and Josie. They sang catchy songs about how fucked up girls can make you feel, and I really connected with that. But I could do without a song like Degenerate, which is as far as I can tell is about having your nuts attacked by rats. They continued this trend on their next two albums Enema Of The State and Take Of Your Pants And Jacket which featured songs about teenage suicide, dedicated girlfriends, and divorce alongside songs about masturbating in a sock, diarrhea, and your dad being gay.

I always demurred a bit from the crude side of things, so a new album that promised the band finally maturing was very welcome. blink-182 is that album, for better or worse. There are absolutely no references to bodily functions, self-pleasure, or how much of a slut your mom is. To fill the space alongside the usual catchy, sensitive songs (of which I Miss You and Always standing out especially) there are some stabs at evolution.

Now evolution is different from growing up. I would say that things like the solemn spoken word intro to The Stockholm Syndrome and the instrumental The Fallen Interlude are attempts at growing up, though they really just end up seeming overly serious. But there's evolution here too. Violence and Feeling This are prime examples of where the band could be headed. They feature shouted, nearly angry verses alternating with nice harmony-laden choruses, and tricky time signature shifts, all of which are hallmarks of the harsher side of punk.

A whole album of that would have been very interesting.

Ultimately, this is the sound of a band getting a little lost in the process of finding its way again. Because of the strange new earnestness, the old-style, the new style, and a Robert Smith guest vocal (on All Of This) that is great but is out of place, the album never seems to find an identity.

I never thought I'd say it, but I might be missing the nasty humor. As much as a song like Dysentery Gary (from EOTS) bothered me, it made me appreciate Going Away To College that much more. I'm confident that blink will regain their balance, and I'll be there when they do. I think they'll soon realize that growing up should never have to mean that fart jokes aren't funny.

Rating: B-
Fave Song: Feeling This

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Justin Guarini & Kelly Clarkson - "Timeless"

Okay, so I promise to cut out the American Idol stuff now (at least until season 3 is over), but this is a great song, perhaps the best to come out of the AI experience thus far.

It has the unfortunate distinction of being featured in the stinkbomb film From Justin To Kelly (which I saw in the theater...how many people can actually say that?!). Actually, I think its inclusion in the movie is one of the reasons I like it so much, but I'll get to that soon.

First off, I hated Justin on American Idol. I thought he was cheesy and pandered to the crowd. He seemed like that guy at work who will do whatever it takes to get in with the boss. He seemed shady. So I shed no tears when I heard recently that he was dropped from his label. But I won't deny that he has a good voice.

The song itself is a passionate dramatic love duet, the likes of which we haven't seen in ahwile. The art form flourished in the '70s and '80s, and continued through the Disney movie ballad trend in the early '90s, but since then has been neglected. Had the movie been a hit, this song might have single-handedly resurrected it. Both singers are in rare form, and their voices sound great together.

The lyrics are all about a timeless love, and not letting the moment slip away, holding tight, baby, not letting it fade out of sight, etc. In the movie, this song was performed at a crucial moment when Justin and Kelly were on a sailing date. While they sing, he's piloting the boat, and she's sitting on the bow with her back to him. I believe he was wearing some sort of sailor's cap at the time. It was priceless, let me assure you.

So when I hear the song, I picture that scene, and I can't help but smile. I don't know if that was the intention, but it works for me!

Album: Justin Guarini (2003)
Fave Moment: Justin sings with intense conviction: "Don't let it fade out of sight!" In the movie, his face twists up and looks almost menacing.

Monday, January 12, 2004

21. Pernice Brothers - Yours, Mine & Ours (2003)

In High Fidelity, John Cusack's character gives his list of best side one, track ones and then gets blasted by Jack Black for playing it too safe. But he lists instant classic songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Let's Get It On. The first track of an album is very important. Joe Pernice of Pernice Brothers knows that. The first song on Yours, Mine & Ours is called The Weakest Shade Of Blue, and it's an absolute pop gem that sets the tone for the album to come.

(My side one, track one top 5 is in the Misc. Lists section.)

The album is just over 30 minutes, 10 songs, every one of them a keeper. Joe Pernice's voice is at once familar and engaging, weathered enough to lend gravitas but still light enough to hit those sweet high notes. The music is well-crafted, unobtrusive. Some of the reviews I've read call the lyrics poetry. I can see that, if you think poetry is mysterious and undecipherable lines full of lots of outstanding imagry (I kind of do think that). I have no clue what most of these songs are about, but they all have moments that jump out at you and stick, lines like: "an intense night of fake sleeping," and "it would feel so good to see you cry."

There's one song that I do know what it's about, kind of. It's called Judy, and the narrator mentions watching TV on which "she fills the screen with ruby and emerald green." He goes on to wonder about the "the 'somewhere' in her song." With those two clues and the title I assume it's about The Wizard Of Oz, but other than that I'm lost. The narrator is upset about something, possibly a divorce, and someone is sleeping, and he wants someone to tell someone else to "tell her that you saw me." Good stuff.

Again, it doesn't really matter so much what it all means. At times things seem emotional and troublesome, other times they seem happy, and it's nice to just be along for the ride. Like the lyrics, I don't really know anything about the Pernice Brothers, but I do know that I really like this album, and I read another review that said this isn't even their best one!

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Sometimes I Remember

Elton John - "Funeral For A Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)"

Blowing in like a brisk north wind, this opening song from Elton's 1973 epic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album is really two songs in one (as the parenthetical title would indicate). The instrumental funeral really does sound mournful, as well as creepy. The first swell of synthesizers forms the basis for the entire Blade Runner and Legend scores (shame on you Vangelis).

About three and a half minutes in, the funeral gets crazy and hyper, with pounding piano and fuzz guitar, and then about two minutes later, the second song takes over:

"The roses in the window box have tilted to one side
Everything about this house was meant to grow and die..."

So goes a strangely peppy song about a failed relationship. As usual, lyricist Bernie Taupin gets in some great lines, like "I was playing rock 'n' roll and you were just a fan / but my guitar couldn't hold you so I quit the band."

(Here I'd like to stop and marvel at the Taupin/John partnership. As someone who has no clue how music is created, their working relationship is even more astounding to me. How can one person just do lyrics and one just do music? Are you really telling me that Bernie never comes up with melodies for these things, and Elton never changes a word here or there? Neither has ever gotten credit to indicate as such. I'm assuming that Elton writes the music to the already-written lyrics, and that is just so impressive to me, that so many classic songs have been created that way. What if they'd never met?)

Taken as a whole, the song effectively sums up every emotion a person might experience in a romantic break-up, from deep sadness and self-pity, to anger and over-dramatics, to defiance and acceptance. I can safely declare this hands-down, my favorite 11 minute song ever!

Album: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Fave Moment: The "whoa-whoa-ohs" that come in at about the 10 minute mark.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Tom Petty - "Walls (Circus)"

"Some days are diamonds / some days are rocks."

I can't tell you how many mornings and evenings that line has gone through my head. In the morning, it reminds me that every day has its possibilities, even though I don't want to even be out of bed. In the evening, if I had a bad day, it's easy enough to chalk off.

Walls can be found is on the only-Petty soundtrack to the Jennifer Aniston movie She's The One, which I've never seen. The soundtrack is very good and unjustifiably ignored, probably because I'm not the only one who didn't see the movie. So it might be Petty's great lost single.

It's got all of his laid-back, California-rock, pseudo-Dylan hallmarks: harmonica, piano, acoustic guitar, harmonies. And after that great first line, plenty more Zen wisdom follows, such as "some doors are open / some roads are blocked," and "half of me is ocean/half of me is sky."

I'm not one who looks for life advice in my music, but I do look for truth. Nothing in this song is profound or original, but when the song is nearly over and Petty tells us that "some things are over / some things go on," you can't help but think, 'true dat, Tom, true dat.'

Album: She's The One (1996)
Fave Moment: When Tom calls out "Yes they do!" right before the guitar solo.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

The Carpenters - "I Need To Be In Love"

In Bridget Jones' Diary, Bridget wallows in romantic self-pity by listening to All By Myself at obnoxious volume. This is a totally relatable moment, though I don't listen to much Jamie O'Neal. My song of choice is I Need To Be In Love. Before I get to any lyrical content, check out that title. It's not I want to be in love. It's I need to be in love. Right there it doesn't seem like this is going to be a level-headed affair.

But actually it kind of is. That's the beauty. In my mind, this song is the ultimate for romantic losers, because you've got overdramatics, but they're balanced by a certain weary pragmatism.

The opening line indicates a certain degree of rationality: "The hardest thing I've ever done is keep believing there's someone in this crazy world for me." But as the song goes on we get such "poor me" sentiments as: "it took awhile for me to learn / that nothin' comes for free / the price I've paid is high enough for me," and "so here I am with pockets full of good intentions/ but none of them will comfort me tonight / I'm wide awake at 4 a.m. / without a friend in sight."

But the best is the chorus.

"I know I need to be in love
I know I've wasted too much time
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
And fool enough to think that's what I'll find"

Those of you who have never had trouble making romantic connections will have to trust me when I say that these lines perfectly describe what it feels like when your love jones is on the fritz.

In typical Carpenters fashion, the music ushers the proceedings along with delicate piano, sweeping strings, and Karen Carpenter's jaw-dropping voice; a voice that feels to me like wrapping up tight in a warm blanket. It's just what you need when your world is feeling a little cold.

Album: A Kind Of Hush (1976)
Fave moment: The final chorus, where the drama has built to its zenith and you have no choice but to close your eyes, throw your arms out Broadway style, and sing along.

Monday, January 05, 2004

20. Dannii Minogue - Neon Nights (2003)

Pop is littered with brothers and sisters, but usually they're involved in the same enterprise: The Kinks, Oasis, Heart, The Beach Boys, Hanson, etc. Very rarely do you see siblings of established artists come out alone and make a go of it. Andy Gibb (younger brother of The Bee Gees) did well with his career, and Janet Jackson hasn't done too poorly for herself, but a more typical story is Solange, Beyonce's sister. What do you mean you haven't heard of her?!

(Of course kids of popular artists are a somewhat different story...witness Nancy Sinatra, Jakob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, Wilson Phillips, et al.)

So Dannii Minogue is Kylie's little sister, and not only is she aiming for similar pop stardom, she's also decided to occupy her sister's electro-disco sex kitten niche. A curious move, and one that makes comparisons unavoidable. So...

1) Is she as hot?
Judging from the plentiful assortment of bedroom shots included in the CD booklet, she's quite attractive. But in the video that accompanies the disc, it's obvious that she isn't as gifted at dancing.

2) Can she sing as well?
Yes, but her voice is less distinctive than Kylie's, except when she sounds like Kylie.

3) Is she as sex-obsessed?
Oh yeah, even more so than Kylie, which is saying something. The aforementioned video features her frolicking with a stripper pole and being molested by ghostly hands. And here are some lyric samples: "it's like I'm dripping," and "I'm caught in the push of your big red love." We'll come back to this topic momentarily.

The album starts off with three killer tracks, Put The Needle On It, Creep, and I Begin To Wonder. All of them have great melodies and bleeps, beats, and bloops that make you want to bust a move. All are easily worthy of her sis. The next few songs muddy it up though. None are bad, but nor are they especially memorable. They are just exercises in bland seduction.

But things really heat up with Vibe On. It's an ode to, yes, her vibrator: "Jump on top it, sit right on it / plug it in gimmie my vibe on, gotta have vibrations." Later, she declares herself a "vibraholic." It's worth noting that Dannii wrote the lyrics herself, and she should be proud. It's not easy to tackle the topic of self-pleasure, but she's added a formidable entry to the canon (see the Misc. Lists section for others). I ask, no demand, that her record company release this as a single. It would go through the roof!

From there, it takes the last three songs (and an overlong bonus track) just to come down.

Ultimately, a Kylie fan could do much worse when they need a break from listening to Light Years or Impossible Princess. It's an excellent record for driving or doing the robot to, and I'm glad to own it. But if Dannii is hoping to blaze territory her sister hasn't she's in the wrong line of work!

Rating: B-
Fave Song: Creep

Sunday, January 04, 2004

U.S.A. For Africa - "We Are The World"

Recorded in 1985, this started the benefit single trend that continues half-heartedly to this day, most notably on the Bono, Gwen Stefani, Mary J. Blige, Michael Stipe and friends collabo What's Going On, done to raise money for AIDS research.

The interesting thing about these benefit singles is that you've got a bunch of filthy rich people who decide to raise money for a cause, not by giving any of theirs away, but by recording something that will entice other (poorer) people to spend their money. Very odd.

Anyway, We Are The World is great fun to listen to for a plethora of reasons. First, it's a very meta song. That is, basically the lyrics are about how the artists have decided to record the song. Kind of mind-blowing, huh?

Equally impressive is the assemblage of artists: Dylan, Springsteen, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, etc. (the latter two wrote the song; no wonder that it's both catchy and shmaltzy at once).

But what's even more amazing than the star power represented is how many of them are still household names. The requisite '80s folks are there, like Hall & Oates, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis & The News, and Kim Carnes. But these are still fairly respected artists. It's not like Murray Head or Rockwell were on there. The one disadvantage is that two major people are missing: Prince and Madonna. I don't know about the Material Girl, but reportedly Prince was supposed to be on the song and missed the session accidentally. Too bad...it would have been wild to hear him on it.

My favorite thing about the song is trying to sit and identify who is singing what. It's hard, even for someone with a sharp ear. There were almost forty people on the thing, with 20 of them sharing lead vocals and even at a lengthy 7 minutes, no one has much space. And I'll be damned if I can tell the difference between Tito and Marlon Jackson!

Album: We Are The World: U.S.A. For Africa
Favorite Moment: The bridge, where Michael starts it off, "when you're down and out, there seems no hope at all..."

Thursday, January 01, 2004

19. Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism (2003)

"So this is the new year / and I don't feel any different." So goes the first line of Transatlanticism, in what seems like a statement of jaded ennui. But the narrator goes on to reveal that though the new year is so celebrated as a time for fresh starts, it means nothing to him because he's still separated from someone he loves: "I wish the world was flat like the old days / So I could travel just by folding the map / No more airplanes or speed-trains or freeways / There'd be no distance that could hold us back."

This whole album is really about travel and distances, both literal and figurative. There are two songs (Title And Registration and Passenger Seat) using cars as scenes for romantic despair and contentment, respectively. The title track, fittingly, is the center of the theme. A piano-driven, slow-burning epic, the song uses an extended geological metaphor to build to the final lines. After describing the ocean that has formed between them, songwriter Ben Gibbard tells the object of his affection that "the distance is quite simply much too far for me to row / I need you so much closer."

I've written before that lyrics don't really matter in pop music. You don't need to be able to understand them to enjoy the song, they just have to sound good and be easy to sing along with. I stand by that, but I won't deny that really good lyrics are so much icing on the cake, ice cream on the pie, marshmallows in the hot chocolate, etc.

Gibbard, DCFC's main songwriter, is a gifted confectioner. Every song contains at least one line that stands out in a good way. Take this one from Lightness for example: "Your heart is a river that flows from your chest through every organ/ And your brain is the dam and I am the fish who can't reach the core." It sounds odd, but the melody and music really sell it to the point that I feel like I know exactly what he's trying to say.

The Postal Service, Gibbard's side project, recieved space on several end-of-the-year-lists, and I think that's a great record. But I like this one even more. The lyrics on both albums are equally top-notch, but where The Postal Service backs Gibbard's wonderful melodies with electronic blips and beats, DCFC's sound is much more organic. Traditional guitar, piano, drums, and bass are all important, as are subtle background harmonies. This is definitely indie-rock, but there's a balance of delicate and powerful, loud and soft that keep the album fresh.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Death Of An Interior Designer