Wednesday, June 30, 2004

42. Sloan - Action Pact (2004)

On paper Sloan are a band that could be a prime candidate for obsessive attention. They're 4 slightly out-of-touch Canadians who make strongly melodic, immaculately performed pop music. Three members share both vocals and songwriting duties, and as a result they're fairly prolific. All of these factors create the perfect conditions for cult status.

Their 5th album, 1999's Between The Bridges, came and went from my CD collection. Despite that I bought their next one, Pretty Together, because of good reviews and because while visiting a friend I noticed they had Sloan stickers (full body photos of the band members) on their fridge. I decided that any band that could inspire such devotion (in both the creation and the display of those stickers) deserved a second chance.

Pretty Together certainly deserved the first word of its title, but the power in the power pop equation was seriously lacking. The tunes had more ponder than power.

Now comes their new album Action Pact, whose title and cover (featuring the 4 members superimposed on one another, all in prime rawk positions) are immediately promising for those like me lamenting the lack of rock on the previous album. And boy do the band deliver on that promise! There's not one single ballad among these 14 songs.

Instead, tunes like Gimmie That, Backstabbin', and Hollow Head with their buzzing guitar riffs, spotlight solos, and pounding drums come dangerously close to being rock-for-rock's-sake. It's a precarious situation for an intelligent band; no one ever accused head-bangers of having substance. Thankfully, further spins reveal the heart beating strong beneath.

Like they say, you can take the band out of pop but you can't take the pop out of the band. Sloan's knack for creating instantly memorable hooks is in full force here; a couple of listens and you'll find your brain engaged in a war over which song will get stuck longer. Another true-color-revealer is the band's harmonies, which they have used generously in the past and sure don't skimp on here, and thank goodness! It really takes the rock sound to the next level.

Finally, the lyrics are a few steps above your typical rock junk ("you look so fine that I really wanna make you mine" and the like). While nothing is as lyrically outstanding as The Other Man from Pretty Together (which took the point of view of someone involved in an affair) take a look at the opening verse of Live On: "You're coming on way too strong / A force gale in stormy weather / A cold wave crashing on / Across the ocean building pressure." It's a metaphor Ben Gibbard would be proud of.

There are two bonus tracks. Often I find bonus tracks to be anything but bonus, as they ruin the flow of the album as it was originally intended. In this case, Fade Away would have been a perfect album ender. But Will You Ever Love Me Again is a fine, seamless addition, and Step On It, Jean is a lightning fast glam-rocker that proves - if you didn't already know - that Sloan would have been much happier living in the '70s.

Overall, an addictive effort from a band that seems intent on keeping us guessing. My only regret in enjoying this album so much is that now I've got to go seek out the rest of their back catalog. So goes the pop life.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: I Was Wrong

Sunday, June 20, 2004

41. Beastie Boys - To The 5 Boroughs (2004)

I love the Beastie Boys, but I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of their albums. I know that sounds strange, but aside from Paul's Boutique none of their records is a completely satisfying listening experience for me.

The monster debut, Licensed To Ill, has never been a favorite; it's too crass and bludgeoning. Check Your Head and Ill Communication are full of great songs, but are ultimately weighed down by the indulgent jazz and punk experiments. Hello Nasty stays strong for the entire first half, but the quality drops off drastically over the course of 22 tracks.

The good news about To The 5 Boroughs is that it avoids falling into the same category as these four. As an album it's a complete work, like Paul's Boutique. There are 15 tracks, and the vast majority of them are, to borrow Adrock's phrase, "terse and concise." No indulgence. Also like PB, the album is full of New York references, and both feature New York cover art. To The 5 Boroughs has an intricate pen drawing of the NY city skyline that stretches out a good three feet when you unfold the whole case. It's quite impressive.

But what does the record sound like? Adrock, Mike D. and MCA produced it themselves, which turns out to have been a great idea. No Rick Rubin, Dust Brothers, DJ Hurricane, Keyboard Money Mark, Mario Caldato, or Mixmaster Mike. The Boys had enough confidence to put themselves clearly in the forefront. Every track has samples, but this isn't a kitchen sink approach. It's all very efficient, using interesting hooks and beats (and robots too) but putting the focus squarely on the three voices.

Two things strike me when it comes to listening to the Beastie Boys rhyme. One is, of course, what they say. The other is how they say it.

On the latter, sometimes things are funny not so much because of what's said, but how they're said. There are plenty of moments like that on this disc:

1) On Ch-Check It Out Adrock compares himself to Miss Piggy and all three answer with a dead-on impression of the porcine muppet: "Who, moi?"
2) Mike D brags about buying his grandma a "brand new broach" in Rhyme The Rhyme Well he rolls the 'r' in broach.
3) Triple Trouble finds the Boys copping British accents to claim they are "mesmerizing, tantalizing, captivating, and devastating." British accents are not automatically funny, but if you place them in a rap song and pretend you have a stuffy nose, that's comedy gold.

Of course the Beasties have always been masters of the funny/weird simile or turn of phrase. They spout off the kind of lines you can repeat to friends in the know and always get a laugh, like a rap version of Caddyshack. (My all time Beastie fave is: "My man MCA's got a beard like a billy goat" from Hey Ladies. In case you're wondering, my fave Caddyshack line is: "Pond would be good for you.") This new album is no exception and adds some great ones to the pantheon:

1) "'Cause I've got more rhymes than Carl Sagan's got turtlenecks." (from Hey Fuck You)
2) "Try to smooth it out like Levert" (from Right Right Now Now)
3) "I'll steal your keys and then I'll check your mail." (from Oh Word?)
4) "Whether in the high rise where you live like Rhoda, or in the shack and you live like Yoda." (from All Life Styles)

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the political stance the Boys take on this album. A lot has been made of their efforts to speak out against GW. For one, they took some critical flak for being too obvious and earnest on their internet release In A World Gone Mad. No one congratulated them for speaking out in their music when so many other artists won't.

Critics are also making a big deal of their Bush disses on this record. In truth the references are just peppered lightly throughout. Only Time To Build tackles the issue full on, and it handles it well. The overall message is one of peace and tolerance, but in the last couple of verses they really take it to the current administration: "I think it's due time that we inspect how they get their information and the facts are checked / Another press conference someone's talking out their neck."

But the best moment of the song is the end, when they bring it down to a human level for their own personal press conference with Bush: "What the real deal, why you can't connect? / Why you hating people that you never met? / Didn't your mama teach you show some respect? / Why not open your mind for a sec?"

Of course this is nothing that isn't being said more eloquently (and without rhyme scheme) by op-ed columnists everywhere, but the point is that maybe it'll get through to more people when presented in a different format. Kudos to the Beasties for giving it a shot. I think the reason they've received flak is because critics can't get past the fact that these are the same three guys who, in 1986, bragged "I can drink a quart of Monkey and still stand still" on Time To Get Ill. As a matter of fact, that song title sounds an awful lot like Time To Build.

With that "coincidence" the Beasties are really saying something else: It's time to grow up without losing your sense of humor, or your edge. And they've made a complete record to demonstrate it.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Triple Trouble

Thursday, June 17, 2004

40. Delays - Faded Seaside Glamour (2004)

Lately I've had two trains of thought about music and right now they seem to be converging on to the same track.

They are whys and whats: 1) Why do we continue to seek out new artists and sounds, and 2) What is the purpose of writing about music?

On the latter I'm prompted simply by the existence of this Blog. I enjoy writing CD reviews, but sometimes find my musical vocabulary so limited as to be frustrating. I take comfort in the fact that I'm not alone. Just a glance through the latest issue of Spin reveals that the prevailing method of describing an artist is comparing them to another artist. You know: This songwriter has the lyrical dexterity of early Dylan combined with the gloomy soundscapes of the Cure, or that band takes the pomposity of Tattoo You-era Stones and adds the sensitivity of Dashboard Confessional. Or: It's like Trout Mask Replica as recorded by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds.

At some point descriptions like that just make me glaze over, especially when I'm only vaguely familiar with the reference points themselves. But as I try to write about music myself, I find that making comparisons is the easiest way to give a reader and idea of what to expect. Writing about the actual instruments and feelings takes much more effort and thought. So I've definitely been guilty of this myself.

Okay, moving on. Stick with me here; I think this will all come together.

My other contemplation concerned why we continually seek out new artists. A friend once told me that he would soon be to the point that he didn't have to buy any new CDs. He said he would have all the back catalog stuff and then would only have to buy the occasional new Radiohead or Bob Dylan album. It's a laughable notion to any true music junkie, but also a tantalizing one. Could it actually happen?

Sometimes I wish it could. Trying to discover and connect with new artists can be a taxing process, both on the ears and the wallet. For every great discovery there're two or three that just sit on the shelf and gather dust. It often seems to me that the best discoveries happen by accident, through a friend or a chance encounter. But where does that leave me when I have that urge for a new sound and don't want to wait?

So I read reviews carefully (in magazines and online), check out samples, etc. but the mistakes still happen. And really, what am I looking for? Is a new band that sounds like (insert favorite band) that much better than just listening to (insert album by favorite band)? Sadly, the answer I've come to is that my love for music is really just an extension of an obsessive personality. And you can only be obsessed with one thing for so long before you need a replacement. So I'm always looking for that new thrill.

And really, isn't saying that we shouldn't seek out new artists the equivalent of saying that new books and movies don't need to be made, because there are already so many good ones to experience?

Okay, so here's where we converge.

Ostensibly I realize that the purpose of writing about music is to tell a person if they should buy something or not. It sounds petty when put that simply, but it's really just another way to make the process of seeking out new music a bit less of a crapshoot. But I have to ask myself, is that why I write about music?

No!

I've decided my own writing should be about one thing: my personal experience with the music. If I'm passionate about my subject, and that comes through in my words, then a by-product might be someone seeks out a certain artist or album. But I don't want that to be the goal. The goal is to get across the feelings a certain song or album creates for me.

As for this tendency to compare artists, I'm going to start right now and be one small voice that doesn't do it, as strong as the temptation may be. Instead, I'm going to keep it personal, and seek out new ways to express in words what I hear. At the risk of becoming too formulaic, I'm instituting a new format. Every review I write will include these three things:

1) My personal reaction to the music (lyrics, sounds, feelings)
2) A bio of the artist, and
3) A discussion of the artwork (I know this one sounds strange, but I can't tell you how often the artwork influences my reaction to an album...when the Foo Fighters put out One By One with a black or white cover I chose the white because I wanted it to feel like a more optimistic listen).

So, now on to this long delayed review:

I discovered The Delays via a (comparison-free) mini-review in Spin. I checked them out online and liked what I heard. The band hails from Southampton in the U.K. and features brothers Aaron and Greg Gilbert on vocals/guitar/keys, drummer Rowly, and Colin Fox on bass. They formed in the late-nineties, supposedly meeting because of a shared admiration for the song Alphabet Street by Prince. (This tidbit is sure to endear them to a certain type of person, namely me). They paid their dues playing in clubs, did some demos, got noticed and scored a couple of Top 40 hits in their homeland. Now they're trying to translate over here and become, in Greg Gilbert's words, "the perfect pop band."

There's a reason this particular album prompted the avalanche of thoughts above. Upon the very first listen, the record sounded so damn familiar. And though it's soooo close, I can't pin down exactly who or what they evoke, or even what it is about them (the singer's voice? the guitar tones?) that is so evocative. At some point it's not even worth wasting the mental energy, and I might as well enjoy the songs for what they are, knowing one day it'll come to me (like the time in college that I finally realized that the guitar part in Wild Wild Life by Talking Heads is a dead ringer for the one in Shattered by Rolling Stones).

And enjoy them I do! The first four songs are a killer combo. I think there are three general places that good music hits you, the brain, the gut and the ass. This album is definitely the middle one. It's not dance music, though most of the songs have a definite spring in their step. It's not cerebral either; the lyrics are elliptical (they're not even printed in the booklet). Of course once in awhile a line will catch, such as "we'll go where there's no snow" from Wanderlust; it's an obviously relatable sentiment for a Minnesota resident.

No, the prevailing idea of this album is to move you emotionally.

This is accomplished with dreamy, chiming, open guitars and flourishes of piano, soft beds of "oooh" and "aaah" background vocals and Gilbert's oh-so-familiar singing voice (when he draws out the title line in Bedroom Scene I swear I've heard it before). Like the best charmers it doesn't matter so much what they're saying, but how they're saying it.

As an album it's a good listen. Most records that start off so strong don't maintain it, but after a short ballad in the 5 spot, the album picks back up for numbers 6 through 8, peaking with the jubilant Hey Girl. The only misstep is putting the two most ponderous tracks, There's Water Here and Satellites Lost right together. It's the equivalent of a concert where the band has just torn through a dizzying number of great tunes and then begins to indulge in a jam session so people can go to the bathroom and freshen their drinks without missing anything important. It's forgivable, mostly because the songs are short and inoffensive.

The artwork looks like a collage of old postcard images, mostly buildings and boats. It's interesting to look at and fits with the album's title (which seems apropos of nothing in the songs). The band has their own logo already, which is very important for any self-respecting Britpop group. Orange is the dominant color, and it is nice and optimistic and suits the album's mood very well.

Overall, this is a great get-lost-in-your-thoughts album and could also fall into the pleasant-background-occasional-foreground music. If you heard it in a store, you'd think: This sounds great. Just don't worry too much about who it sounds like.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Long Time Coming

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Jellyfish - "I Wanna Stay Home"

Jellyfish, mentioned here several times but never fully explained, are a mostly obscure California band who made two wonderful albums in the early '90s and then broke up.

Their first album, 1990's Bellybutton, sounded like Cheap Trick with Beach Boys instrumentation. It was immaculately written, performed, and produced and even gained some MTV exposure for the songs That Is Why and The King Is Half-Undressed. In 1993 they put out a second album, Spilt Milk, and it was weirder and more complex. It was like making the jump from Rubber Soul to Magical Mystery Tour in one album. The band added more influences, specifically Queen, and it is a beautiful record.

This song, I Wanna Stay Home, is a reflective tune, with acoustic strumming, subdued trumpet, and soaring harmonies. Lyrically, the title says it. While listening in the car today, the song really struck a chord with me. It got me thinking: To be truly happy with your home (both actual structure and city) is no small thing. People who have these things and are really happy with them tend to take them for granted, but not everyone is so lucky.

As my summer break from school has started I find myself spending more and more time in my apartment. And yes there are times I just need to get out, but for the most part, I love being there. I've always been like that. Sometimes, when I'm away, I think about being back, sitting in my recliner and reading as the sunlight pours in, or laying on the couch watching a good movie.

It's the same when I take a trip out of town. Mostly I just think about how glad I'll be to get back home.

It's not a new idea. Judy Garland said it best at the end of the Wizard Of Oz, and Diana Ross reiterated it in The Wiz with Home. Jellyfish are somewhat more cryptic. The narrator seems to miss a place he used to call home and is now looking for "the place I can take a walk on my blind side." He goes on: "When these memories fade / In my ripe old age / Please remember my dear / I wanna stay home." He's telling us to hold on to a place where we feel comfortable, and where we actually want to be.

It sounds simple, but the best advice always does.

Album: Bellybutton (1990)
Fave Moment: The middle eight; like all great bridges it's a completely different hook and, as a melody, could really have its own song.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

I Love The '80s

Summer is nearly here - it already feels like it in fact - and that always reminds me of the music of the '80s. I guess it's because the summer day care I attended from ages 5 - 9 was where I was first exposed to so much pop music. They were formative times.

A couple of summers ago I started a project to collect and anthologize the '80s music I remembered fondly. It wasn't an easy task...it saw many drafts and revisions as I continued to come across more and more songs. I shudder to think how many hours were spent in front of the computer, phone line tied up, Kazaa or Napster burning brightly on the screen.

My reason for doing this was mostly the aforementioned nostalgia, but also because I was frustrated at how rare it was to find an '80s compilation that was listenable all the way through. I know this is a matter of opinion, but there always seemed to be at least three or four songs that just didn't hold up to multiple listens. I wanted to rectify that.

My parameters were fairly simple. I would not include any songs from artists who I owned best-ofs by (so long Madonna, U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Cure, and countless others). The only exception to this was if there was a song by one of those artists that happened to be excluded from the hits package I own (such as People Are People by Depeche Mode and You Can Do Magic by America). I also ignored the charts for the most part. As long as I remembered hearing the song, and it held up to repeated listens it was given strong consideration.

I downloaded tons of songs (many ultimately unused), racked my memory banks, looked through the Ultimate Band List exhaustively, scanned the shelves at Cheapo, consulted friends and acquaintances. It was no small undertaking. As I said, I made many discs in the trial process, often throwing out the whole thing just to change one song. This went on for awhile. I finally finished the project for better or worse at the end of last year. In total it added up to 10 discs of music, arranged mostly by year.

Check out the complete track listings on the new sidebar The '80s Project.

You'll see that accordingly with my fond memories from age 5 - 9, the years 1982 - 1986 are best represented. I combined 1980 and 1981 into one tight 14 song set. 1983 and 1984 both warranted two full discs! 1987, 1988, and 1989 were all slight enough years to allow for one disc. And then of course I had to make the misc. collection to catch all the missing pieces. I don't rule out a second such volume in the future.

I had some fun with the orders, as astute readers will notice. Check out the first four and last four songs on the '80/'81 disc. Or The Karate Kid soundtrack dominated first disc of '84. Or the second person goodness of songs 14 - 17 on the '82 disc. And I discovered new things, like how great Pat Benetar was (she is by far the best represented artist in the series of discs).

1983 is my very favorite, because I used the first disc to recreate the very first tape I ever owned (it was a gift from my mom and step-dad, along with a Walkman). The tape was called Chartaction '83, and it was a K-Tel compilation purchased at Sears (the modern day equivalent would be the Now CDs). Anyway, I replicated the exact order and added an Asia song that seemed to fit.

I'm sure as you look you'll find some odd choices. Friends have chastised me for this, and for excluding other songs. But remember, this is a personal project, and one that was very much a labor of love.

Monday, June 07, 2004

39. Brian Wilson - Imagination (1998)

Though the Beach Boys are my very favorite group, I've consciously avoided Brian Wilson's solo records. There are various reasons for this, but the main one is a thoroughly depressing version of 'Til I Die that appears on the documentary soundtrack I Just Wasn't Made For These Times. It's croaking and raw and has always confirmed for me how hard it is to reclaim lost genius.

This weekend I came across both of Brian's solo studio albums at a garage sale and decided that low prices go well with low expectations. Given that, the first notes of this album this album shocked me. Your Imagination, the opener, has that classic feeling: insane melody, swooning harmony, and intricate arrangements. When Brian sings "I take a trip through the past / When summer's way out of reach" it might as well be a mission statement for the album. There's a conscious effort here to recreate the past, specifically Brian's musical past.

And though Your Imagination is the most intoxicating song on the album, the rest of the tracks aren't a let down. Nearly every song sounds like it could have been on a classic Beach Boys album (a couple of them were in fact, Keep An Eye On Summer and Let Him Run Wild are both remakes...it may be blasphemy to say so, but the latter even tops the original, sounding richer and punchier).

A couple of the songs on this album might even have made it to the A-Side of a 45 back in the day, with a cool orange and yellow swirl on the label: She Says That She Needs Me has a jaw-dropping melodic shift in the very first verse, for goodness sake! And Brian's falsetto is still in fine shape despite years of abuse. Cry is another contender, and with its bluesey guitar solo it would have defintiely been a stylistic departure from the classic Beach Boys sound, though not an unwelcome one. It's a beautiful song, with lyrics that are vintage teen romance drama.

Only two songs recall the dark edges of Brian's contributions to the Boys' '70s albums. Lay Down Burden has shades of the afforementioned 'Til I Die, but the lyrics are decidedly less ghoulish. The album closer, Happy Days, begins with a dissonance and amelody that are especially jarring given the everything-in-its-right-place sound of the rest of the songs. It reminds me of Vegatables from Smiley Smile. But that sonic chaos is part of the point of the song; it accompanies lyrics that refer to Brian's unhappy days, before falling into stride and opening up for a typically sunny melody on a chorus that declares "happy days are here again."

And there's no further proof of that for Brian than this album itself.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Your Imagination