Thursday, February 26, 2004

28. Danger Mouse - The Grey Album (2004)

I might be risking a cease and desist order by even reviewing this album (my lips are zipped as to how I acquired it; computers were not involved), but how could I resist?

If you didn't know this album is a marriage of sorts. It takes the vocals from Jay-Z's recent Black Album (see the November archives for a review) and places them over music samples from The Beatles' White Album. DJ Danger Mouse is the mastermind behind it, and like a lot of brilliant ideas, it was a gamble. The Beatles' publishing is very tight about the use of those songs (except it seems when it comes to selling out for commercials), so you had to know it wouldn't fly.

So sadly this is a work of art that will never reach the masses.

And have no doubt, this is art. There are those who might find it blasphemous, and those who might simply argue that taking things other people have created and putting them together is not art. But these people would have never had the creative audacity to put the Mother Nature's Son and December 4th (which features Jay's mom as a narrator) together.

I first became aware of the "mash-up" phenomenon via A Stroke Of Genie-us by Freelance Hellraiser. That song took the music from The Strokes' Hard To Explain and added the vocals from Christina Aguilara's Genie In A Bottle with spectacular results. It fit so well together that I was astounded in a Pink Floyd / Wizard Of Oz coincidence sort of way. But the accomplishment was diminished when all sorts of similar tracks began to surface (including a got-to-hear-it-to-believe-it combination of Smells Like Teen Spirit and Bootylicious).

The Grey Album is a step up, because it doesn't do things so literally (despite the maternal connection mentioned above). In most cases Danger Mouse doesn't just put Jay's raps over un-tampered music. He takes guitar licks, drum fills, vocal runs, etc, and loops them to keep pace with the vocals. He even tampers with The Black Album 's original line-up, moving track order and removing one song.

Since it's unlikely that you'll ever hear this, I'll describe what happens, so you can try to imagine it...

What More Can I Say, your typical clever Jay-Z boast, is placed over the piano intro to While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Stuttering guitar from Glass Onion serve as the background for Encore, one of the many farewells on the record. The best part is how John Lennon seems to be backing up his homie Jay with a repeated "oh yeah!"

99 Problems, a sort of rap-rock throwback is suited perfectly by the throbbing electric guitars and drums of Helter Skelter.

The gentle acoustic guitar of Julia (an ode to John Lennon's mother) is used to create a sort two-step beat for Dirt Off Your Shoulder.

The most inspired moment though is clearly Change Clothes, Jay's current Neptunes-produced single that celebrates stepping out. Danger Mouse takes the bopping harpsichord from George Harrison's condemning Piggies and makes the whole affair unabashedly joyful.

It doesn't all work (the combination of two annoying songs, Lucifer and Revolution 9 just makes one more annoying song). But as I listen to this record I find myself appreciating Jay-Z's lyrical gifts more than I ever have. Also, it inspired me to go back to The White Album and marvel at how advanced The Beatles were. From a current perspective they are so easy to take for granted (because so many bands since have borrowed their stuff), but the fact that they were only 4 years out from "she loves you / yeah, yeah, yeah" makes the maturity of Cry Baby Cry (which is used on the last song, My First Song) that much more amazing.

If you're going to make something out of others' art you can't do any better than simultaneously honoring the original works and making them into something new and exciting. That is exactly what Danger Mouse has done. Now if only more people could hear it...

Rating: A
Fave Song: Change Clothes

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Billy Joel - "Summer, Highland Falls"

It's not the most rock 'n' roll thing to admit, but piano is the instrument that does it for me more than any other. It's percussive and propulsive and yet wistful and thoughtful. It contains multitudes. That's why I like Elton John, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, and Ben Folds so much.

In fact, one might argue that this song here embodies everything that's great about the use of piano in rock 'n' roll. (One might also argue that it's the prototype for about 85% of Ben Folds' career.)

The song is propelled by a quick-tempo, but the mood is entirely reflective. And though I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what the song is actually about (the title is apropos of nothing), the lyrics certainly project a sense of depth.

There are lots of memorable couplets:

"They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known / And I believe there is a time for meditation in cathedrals of our own."

"How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies / Perhaps we don't fulfill each others' fantasies."

It's the kind of stuff your average over-earnest English major jots down in her college writing class notebook. But it works in this song, mostly because along with the reached-for profundity, there's a hard-fought weariness too. It's actually almost a sense of resignation to life's ebbs and flows (or as Billy calls them "sadness and euphoria.")

It connects thematically with a line from another song on the same album, Angry Young Man. The line goes: "I found that just surviving was a noble fight." That idea has meant a lot to me in the years since my own days as an over-earnest English major, and so has this song.

Album: Turnstiles (1976)
Fave Moment: The sprightly beginning

Thursday, February 19, 2004

27. Courtney Love - America's Sweetheart (2004)

In so many ways this album is just as personal and self-absorbed as Hang On Mike, though Courtney never mentions herself by name. Then again, she doesn't really have to; anybody who has even a passing interest in celebrity news is all too familiar: naked cavorting, drug arrests, legal battles over child and music custody, famous boyfriends, etc. In fact, since '98 Courtney has been known for just about everything but music.

Actually, that year's Hole album, Celebrity Skin , was a largely (and unjustly) ignored effort. Critics thought it too poppy and fans that wanted their music poppy were already enamored with Britney and Backstreet. I found it to be the perfect balance: a facade of catchy hooks and harmony in front of world-weary and fatalistic lyrics. It's exactly what you'd expect from Courtney, a seriously messed-up woman in a beautiful package.

America's Sweetheart is hardly different, though there's definite evidence that the years have worn on Love. Sunset Strip is a perfect example on an album full of them. It starts out sweetly enough, with the narrator feeling content and confident, but as the song wears on it becomes a brutal kiss-off. The lyrics careen out of control, as does Love's voice: "Were you jerking off to her, or were you jerking off to me," she asks in a strained rasp and then continues to rant about "voices screaming in my head" and "rock 'n' roll bitches."

And so it goes. Throughout the album Courtney sneers, screams, and makes outrageous demands. It would all be a big nasty train wreak if it weren't for the fact that every song has a cruchy riff (like Mono) or gentle harmony (like Sunset Strip) to hook you in. Given the circumstances, it's a naturally harder-edged album than Celebrity Skin (she was in the middle of her Versace period when it was made), but to my ear it's no less accessible or commercial.

As for the self-reference, it's very clear: Every song is about Courtney. When she mentions "him" there's no doubt that she's referencing Kurt Cobain. When she says that nothing in her life feels as good as drugs you really believe her. The closest equivalent I can think of is an Eminem album, where you sometimes feel as though you paid to listen to someone else's therapy.

But that's somehow not a bad thing. Of course you've gotta assume that the album title is ironic, which is good because the last thing I want in an album is an out-of-control drug addict who takes herself too seriously. The second song, But Julian, I'm A Little Bit Older Than You (a funny tirade aimed at The Strokes' lead singer) is proof positive that Courtney doesn't. And since you know she has some sense of humor, Love gets away with lines like "I am the center of the universe" without inspiring disgust, and maybe even leading you to believe it, at least while you're listening.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Hold On To Me

26. Candy Butchers - Hang On Mike (2004)

The first thing we need to establish is that the Butchers' lead singer and songwriter is named Mike Viola. The second thing is that two of these 12 songs have that name in the title (with another using it in the lyrics).

With even the blandest of songwriters you have to assume they're putting something of themselves into the lyrics, some bit of emotion or life experience. But outside of rap it's rare to find this level of self-reference. And yet, it doesn't bother me nearly as much as it should, probably because this is kind of a concept album.

The concept is that Mike is just on the brink of giving up, especially on his music career, and he needs all the encouragement he can get, even if it comes from himself. Hunker Down, Sparkle, and Superkid all deal with this to some degree, but the title track is the clearest statement: "If there's one thing you're good for," Viola tells himself, "it's another song."

And he proves it too, with some non-concept fare like the power-pop gems Not So Bad At All and Nice To Know You.

Completing the opposite ends of the self-reference spectrum are Painkillers and What To Do With Michael. The former is a hushed meditation on losing someone close to you, and Viola lays himself bare on it. And then there's the latter, which is a cute summary of how he met his girlfriend (or wife?). It's a winning song whose considerable charm is only slightly diminished by the use of the third person.

But hey, they always say to write what you know.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Nice To Meet You

Thursday, February 05, 2004

25. Van Halen - 3 (1998)

Being a fan is sometimes like being in a relationship. There are bands who are like the person you'll be married to for 50 years; they just stick with you no matter what. Other artists are like one-night stands, with one good record or song and nothing else to offer. Then there are those affairs that burn bright and intense, and may last quite awhile, but are ultimately doomed to fail.

So it went with Van Halen and I. In 1996 I bought Best Of Volume 1, and fell in love. Not only did the music appeal to me, but this was probably the most interesting time in the band's already interesting history.

In brief: The group started in 1978, with David Lee Roth on lead vocals. That lineup made 6 albums together, including the classic self-titled debut and the commercial blockbuster 1984 (which featured Jump, Hot For Teacher, etc.). Then in 1985, Roth bailed on the band, and they decided to soldier on with a new vocalist, the Red Rocker, Sammy Hagar.

Improbably they got even more popular, scoring hits like Why Can't This Be Love, When It's Love, Right Now, Can't Stop Lovin' You in the course of four more albums (from 1986 to 1995). Then, they decided to put out the aforementioned hits album. There were two very different sides to the story, but apparently Sammy thought that putting out a greatest hits is a sure sign an artist is past his or her prime (nevermind that he'd put out one of his solo hits).

The band said, screw you, we're getting David Lee Roth to come back. They did, recorded two new songs, and then appeared on MTV as a "reunited" band. But wait, in classic fashion, things soon fell apart again! The Van Halens began saying that they never intended the classic line-up to be permanently back together, and Roth said they were full of shit.

Having burned both of their bridges, the band decided it'd have to just find itself a third singer. In came ex-Extreme singer Gary Cherone, and Van Halen, Mach III was born.

I followed this whole saga very closely around the time ('96 - '98), pouring over Guitar World magazine articles, visiting the band's website daily, and getting very hyped for the new record they would put out. Yes, in a relationship you do foolish things. Though I bore no ill will toward Sammy (and I still love his first post-VH album, Marching To Mars), I fully believed that since the band had survived losing one singer, it could surely survive two!

Now I cannot own up to total blindness. The fact that it was Cherone on the vocals gave reason for hope, afterall aren't More Than Words and Hole-Hearted great songs? And all these articles featured Eddie Van Halen touting Gary's lyrical prowess and calling him a second brother.

The week before the album came out, I got wind that the first single "Without You" was going to debut on radio. I taped it and listened to it obsessively. It sounded a little weird, but I blamed frequency problems, and my hopes were not diminished. I bought the album the day it came out and sat down with the lyrics sheet and just did nothing but listen.

I listened to the album a lot that first couple of months, and even went to Chicago to see the band in concert. With hindsight, it's obvious that I was in denial, but the record was simply not up to par with other Van Halen efforts, nor efforts by any other band you can name.

The problem begins and ends with Gary Cherone. Where, I ask, did the sweet vocalist of More Than Words go? In his place is a guy who sounds at every second like he's going to go out of key, and that his vocal cords are ripping in the process. Dave, of course, had a great high register, and Sammy had a rasp, but he could be smooth too (like on Never Enough from Balance). And those lyrics that Eddie thought were so deep? Try "fatman, he ordering seconds / pizzaman, just wanna slice / badman, looking for attention / a goodman, he's hard to find" from One I Want. And that's actually one of the better ones.

It doesn't help that Eddie, Michael and Alex turn in some of the least pop-oriented music since their fourth album, Fair Warning. From Afar sounds downright experimental at times. But it's interesting to sit and listen to the music and attempt to ignore the vocals. There's some really good musical backbone here, and one can't help but wonder what pop sweetness Sammy might have added, or what crazy screams and esoteric lyrics Dave might have come up with.

I'll admit, all is not lost on this album. Dirty Water Dog is actually a really cool tune, Once could be a Police outtake, and Josephina is a kind ode to a grandmother.

But in the end it's all just overserious, overearnest, and overstuffed (no song is shorter than 5 minutes). The band's stunning album-long lack of judgment comes to a stupefying climax on How Many Say I. This is a piano ballad with completely banal lyrics, and features Eddie singing (croaking is a more accurate description). When they did this live, I actually heard some laughs.

Once the world tour was over, the band knew it had made a mistake. Cherone exited the group, leaving this album (and the tour) a complete curiosity in their history.

What one desperately hopes is that it doesn't represent the end. Since '99 there have been about two-thousand rumors that either Sammy or Dave is back recording with the group. They have confirmed that they attempted it with Roth, but the latest has the Hagar back in the fold.

That would be really cool. I don't listen to Van Halen much at all anymore. In fact, I probably wear my concert T-Shirt more often than I take their CDs off the shelf. But like an old girlfriend, I still think of them fondly, and like to daydream about them making a dramatic return. Caution be damned, I'll be there when they do.

Rating: D
Fave Song: Dirty Water Dog

Sunday, February 01, 2004

24. The Bens - self-titled EP (2004)

What's with singer-songwriters and forming super-groups these days? Right on the heels of The Thorns come The Bens. Who knows how or why The Thorns got together, but Ben Lee, Ben Kweller, and Ben Folds seem to think having the same first name is reason enough to form a band.

Seriously, the conundrum when three songwriters get together is: Can they really make music collaboratively after working solo, and if they can, are the results better than the solo work would have been, or are the songs compromised?

The Thorns showed this to be a limitation; though all their songs were credited to the band, it was quite obvious who wrote what. I Can't Remember sounded like a Matthew Sweet song and would have worked on one of his albums. Runaway Feeling sounded like a Pete Droge song and could have been on one of his albums.

At first The Bens really seem to make an attempt to avoid that. On the first of the four songs, Just Pretend, the boys take turns on lead vocals. They also harmonize on the chorus, much like The Thorns.

The second song, XFire, stretches the equality, but without the Crosby, Stills, & Nash vibe. Kweller and Lee share lead vocals, but it sounds like a loose Cars tune, complete with synthesizer and robotic voices. It's quite catchy.

But just when The Bens really seem to be whipping up the community spirit, we come to the final two songs. Stop! features only one vocalist (could be Lee or Kweller...I'll be damned if I can tell their voices apart), and could be a Velvet Underground track. Though it's not bad, it features little evidence that three talented songwriters participated in its creation.

Bruised, on the other hand, is wonderful. It sounds like an instant classic, and evokes everything that was good about Christopher Cross. It has sensitive lyrics, virtuoso piano playing and great harmony vocals. But only the guitar part gives any clue that it's something more than a Ben Folds solo piece.

I guess that leads us back to my opening question. If it's so difficult to work together, why even bother forming the group? In the case of The Thorns and The Bens, it certainly doesn't seem like a commercial decision. I guess I shouldn't complain; I'm happy to have more Ben Folds songs in the world. But a new solo album would have served the same purpose.

So here's your answer. (And I haven't just been setting up straw men to knock down; I've come to this conclusion as I've been writing). If you look through your Rock History books, you'll quickly find that nearly every great band has had more than one talented songwriter. It's practically a formula for quality. Should I be harsher on this band (or The Thorns) just because they were all solo before? No.

So really, my only complaints are these: 1) It would be nice if they picked a style (and Just Pretend is a good place to start) and 2) They need to put out more songs.

I guess I could have just written that in the first place and saved the trouble!

Rating: B
Fave Song: Bruised


Note:

Here are some other lads that might consider getting a group together:

The Davids
David Bowie (lead vocals), Davy Jones (from The Monkees, tambourine, backup vocals), David & David (guitar, bass, backup vocals) and David Robinson (from The Cars, drums)

The Pauls
Paul Simon (vocals, lead guitar), Paul McCartney (vocals, bass), Paul Carrack (vocals, keyboards), Paul Stanley (from Kiss, rhythm guitar) and Prince Paul (drum machine and sampling)