Friday, July 30, 2004

47. Paul Simon - Hearts And Bones (1984)

In the grand tradition of singer-songwriter divorce albums (Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello, Shoot Out The Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson) comes Hearts And Bones. (This is actually Simon’s second divorce record; the first was Still Crazy After All These Years.) Originally begun as a Simon & Garfunkel reunion record after their triumphant 1981 return, things quickly soured. Art's vocals were erased, the album went out as a Simon solo project and promptly crashed and burned, commercially speaking. Too bad. Listening to the record, it's somewhat hard to imagine as a S & G effort, the songs are so personal. Ironically, had it been released under the Simon & Garfunkel name it probably would have been a massive hit.

Being a divorce album the theme is, of course, heartbreak and loss. Allergies opens the album with the buzz of technology (robot voices!) and big drums. Simon likens the falling in love to an allergic reaction. After two divorces it seems he was tired and worn out, but humor shines through on the great line: "It's a question I often repeat / where do allergies go / when it's after a show / and they want to get something to eat?" It's difficult to imagine where Art Garfunkel harmonies fit into a song like this.

When Numbers Get Serious, Song About The Moon, and Cars Are Cars are all bouncy tunes that stretch metaphorically. They are respectively about divorce settlements, writing about your pain, and wishing for simplicity.

There are two songs called Think Too Much, (a) and (b).  In fact, Think Too Much was the original name of the album. (b) has a slow African groove and is about the overanalysis one goes through following a love affair gone wrong. (a) is the faster, catchier sibling. Nile Rodgers (of Chic, Madonna, and Duran Duran fame) plays guitar on this dance number about letting go of your thoughts ("Have you ever experienced a period of grace / when your brain just takes a seat behind your face?")

But the album really gets down to brass tacks with a trio of songs that led me to the statement above about this album having great commercial potential as a Simon & Garfunkel product. Simon's writing is in fine form on Train In The Distance, Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War, and the title track, and Art's harmonies (or even lead) would have suited them perfectly.

Train In The Distance is a grass is always greener rumination on Simon's first marriage. According to the very autobiographical details of the song, she was married when they first met, and he continued to pursue her. But after he won her over and they began their life together, things went wrong. The metaphor of the title is apt. Hearing a train whistle far away might bring up a feeling of comfort, like things are going as they should, but compare that with a noisy freight train rattling past your window. It's not so great.

Rene And Georgette... first seems like a thematic oddity, a song about the painter and his wife listening to '50s doo-wop music (the song also adopts that musical style for itself). But the bridge gives it away: "Side by side / they fell asleep / decades gliding by like Indians." It's about a lifetime love, one Paul obviously admired, but also felt was beyond his reach at the time.

Finally, Hearts And Bones sums up Simon's marriage to Princess Leia, wherein the couple falls in love, runs into trouble, then splits to "speculate who had been damaged the most." It's the kind of story song Simon excels at, and is very sad. My question is, if you were involved with someone, would you want a song like this written about you? On one hand it would be kinda nice to have inspired such beauty, but on the other hand, it has to cut a little to know that you can't express your side of the story in anywhere near such an elegant fashion.

The album ends with The Late Great Johnny Ace, a meditative number that has absolutely nothing to do with the album's theme (save the idea of loss). It's Paul's tribute to both the title figure and John Lennon (who was killed in 1980). It's a little belated, but Simon didn't put out an album in those four years.

Though it's sad to see an album of such great quality go underappreciated, Paul got his commercial revenge two years later with Graceland.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Think Too Much (a)

46. The Cars - Heartbeat City (1983)

Heartbeat City was The Cars' fifth album and the blockbuster hit of their career. In overview, The Cars could be fairly summarized as a singles band. This means that they made better individual songs then they did albums, not that their music is especially appealing to people that are uninvolved romantically.

With 5 of the songs on Heartbeat City serving as singles, that gives them great odds that the album was going to turn out good by default. And it is!

The Cars always had an infectious sound. The combination of the warm, complex, keyboard-dominated music with the detached alien yelp of singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek gave them an upper hand on many bands. Putting them with uber-producer Robert "Mutt" Lange, well known for his meticulous, layered approach, was a dangerous move. Really, how many layers does a song need? But the pairing paid off; Lange seems to have simply added sheen to the band's approach. (In fact, Ocasek must have been inspired: Though they didn't work with Lange on their next release, the single Tonight She Comes, they still spent 4 weeks getting it right.)

The singles are humdingers. Magic is a giddy pop song in the tradition of giddy pop songs with "magic" in the title (America, The Lovin' Spoonful, Olivia Newton-John). Hello Again is a strangely melancholy greeting in the tradition of strangely melancholy "hello" songs (Neil Diamond, Lionel Richie, The Beatles). You Might Think is the OBVIOUS HIT, three minutes long and containing approximately 15 separate hooks (that's five hooks a minute). I lament that pop songs this naturally good are the exception rather than the norm these days. Drive is a sensitive ballad sung by bassist Benjamin Orr. All the girls swoon on this one, but like Every Breath You Take, which sounded like a love song but wasn't, this song is actually about a girl who people have had it with. Finally, Heartbeat City (originally called Jackie, you can tell from the way Ocasek says the name) shows how to use synthesizers correctly (along with layers of background vocals and understated guitar). It's evocative.

The five non-singles don't have a stinker in the bunch. Looking For Love has that Motown spirit. Stranger Eyes, I Refuse, and It's Not The Night are all catchy enough to keep things moving along. But the superstar of the bunch is Why Can't I Have You, a majestic icy/hot ballad of longing. Many have speculated about how gangly, goofy Ric Ocasek ended up married to the super-hot Paulina Porizkova. Some might say money, but I like to think she just saw him perform this song, and that did the job of winning her over.

The album's cover is a 1972 painting entitled "Art-O-Matic Loop Di Loop." It features a Plymouth Duster, various flying car parts, and a flexible, buxom woman with a sinister look on her face. It definitely captures the album's Pop Art sensibilites (Andy Warhol even directed a video for Hello Again).

Rating: A+
Fave Song: Heartbeat City

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

A Change Is Gonna Come

I have just completed a thorough and exhaustive spreadsheet cataloging of all of the CDs I own, and as a result I've been inspired to reconsider my yearly lists (located on the sidebar to your right), as well as my overall list of favorite albums (also conveniently located on the sidebar to your right).

One revelation: 1966, 1982, and 1999 were awesome years.  Another revelation: 8 is almost always better than ten.  Once I got to the revision process I realized that several years had some padding in their top ten lists, and would benefit from some belt-tightening.  So you'll find now that years will have a top 5, 8, or 10.  Years that had less than 5 don't get any love. 

This process has set about a series of thoughts that may or may not be worth following through on.  Namely, do prefrences change based on the season?  Would these lists be completely different in the dead of the Minnesota winter?  Though most lists did not change much, the 2003 list once again metamorphisized and took on records that did not even get much consideration in December / January.  Is it the wisdom of time or the effect of the sun's rays on my brain?

Anyway, check it out!

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Baby, I'm A Star

Please help welcome into the world a new sister site for 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

It's named after a Prince song, from the best rock 'n' roll movie ever made.

Curiousity piqued? Check out Baby, I'm A Star here!

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

45. Van Halen - The Best Of Both Worlds (2004)

I detailed the history of my relationship with Van Halen fairly extensively in my review of Van Halen 3 back in February. At the end of that piece I mused about how great it would be for Sammy and the band to reconcile and that I'd be there for it if it happened. Well, it happened, and keeping my promise, here I am.

To coincide with their current tour with Sammy, the band have released this two disc retrospective, bolstered by three new studio tracks by the mighty Van Hagar. This is a great title: The Best Of Both Worlds. Of course it's one of their song titles, but it also plays off the "best of" idea as well as the fact that there are two singers (worlds) represented. The artwork is also great, basically a recreation of the Frankenstein guitar that Eddie made so famous in the early years. The inside features new photos of the band with Sammy, which is a little odd, but cool to see.

Okay, so there are a lot of fun subplots to discuss here, mostly involving the tracklisting. You may recall that the straw that broke Van Hagar's back originally was an argument over Best Of, Volume 1. Reportedly, Sammy didn't want to put it out. He didn't want his songs next to David Lee Roth's, or to be underrepresented. But that's exactly what ended up happening, with Roth getting 10 songs (including two new ones) to Hagar's 7. Sammy came off looking like a jealous second husband.

It's not a surprise that Sammy wins the battle here. Twenty of the 36 songs are Van Hagar. The curious part of this is that instead of separating the singers into Disc One and Disc Two, the collection mostly alternates between the two in no discernible order. First a song with Dave from 1984, then a song with Sammy from 1991, then a song with Dave from 1978, and so on. But it's not consistent; at the end of disc two we get two Sammy, then two Dave. It's so strange. It's like I took all 11 VH discs and put them in a changer on random, and only the hits came up.

The company line on this will probably be that the band were looking to create a flow for the listener, but I wonder if there isn't something else at work. As far as I can figure, maybe Sammy was afraid that an all Roth disc would completely blow away an all Hagar disc. But is he really that insecure? He should take heart: Maybe the wife has fond memories of husband number one, but she's married to husband number two. He has already won the war.

I'll admit my bias: I prefer Sammy over Dave. Not by any great margin, but I do. And thus I believe a Van Hagar disc would have been just as enjoyable as an all Roth, if not more. But really, what would have been the most preferable for me is a simple Best Of, Volume 2. There were plenty of great songs (even hits) left off of the first one, and you could have thrown the new songs in at the end. Of course that wouldn't make as much money, but here's what it might have looked like:

1. You Really Got Me
2. Jamie's Cryin'
3. Beautiful Girls
4. Everybody Wants Some!!
5. Dancing In The Street
6. (Oh) Pretty Woman
7. Hot For Teacher
8. I'll Wait
9. Love Walks In
10. Best Of Both Worlds
11. Finish What Ya Started
12. Feels So Good
13. Runaround
14. Top Of The World
15. Not Enough
16. It's About Time
17. Up For Breakfast
18. Learning To See

That would have been art, man!

Okay, order (and fantasy world) aside, here are some thoughts on the tracks themselves:

For the most part I have very little qualm about the tracks selected. Nearly every notable Van Halen song is here, and I can't blame the band for choosing to pretend that Van Halen 3 never happened. Here are some favorites of mine: I'll Wait is a gem from the 1984 album. It's totally uncharacteristic of the band, and sounds like a lost new-wave hit from an obscure British synth-pop group. There's (gasp!) no guitar on it. Likewise, the band's 1982 cover of Dancing In The Street is an unconventional treat. It's got two things you don't tend to associate with VH: great background vocals and a smokin' groove. I'll go out on a limb and call it my favorite version of the song (over the original and especially over the Bowie/Jagger edition). Finally, I've got to give props to Love Walks In, a wonderfully strange power ballad that I once tried to base a novel on. I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit that.

However, I will complain, and to anyone who'll listen, about the three live tracks at the end of Disc Two. I'd like to pretend that the completely lackluster live album Right Here, Right Now doesn't exist, but yet here the band tortures me with reminders. If they were intent on including something from it, why not the Who cover Won't Get Fooled Again? Instead, they have now twice preserved in plastic Sammy's inane musings during the instrumental break on Panama. I've transcribed his soliloquy for your enjoyment:

"Yeah, that's right. I'll tell you, we've been looking forward to this show. We were off last night sittin' around here in Fresno with nothin' to do, so was all I was doin' was thinkin' about tonight, you understand. That's what happened: Was when I was busy thinking about tonight, the boys in the band were having a party over at the hotel. They had about 15 fucking chicks up there and I was sittin' in my room watching T.V. (pause) If that ain't a bunch of bullshit I don't know what is, you know. See the problem is, is I learned my lesson real quick because I was worried about tonight last night. Last night I should have been worryin' about last night. And the night before that I should have been worryin' about that night. Because worryin' about tomorrow is a bunch of shit. 'Cause tomorrow may not never come. Tomorrow? There's no guarantee about tomorrow! Fuck tomorrow! (pause for audience applause, mostly at the use of the f-bomb) You dig what I'm sayin'? And yesterday, shit. Yesterday, that's history, that's dead and gone. Yesterday ain't worth nothin'! That's gone, man! 'Cause all you got to worry about is right here, right now."

I hope you're still reading.

As for the new songs, they tend to sum up Van Hagar in three fell swoops. It's About Time is the mindless catchy rocker, Up For Breakfast is the innuendo and entendre-filled rocker, and Learning To See is the rocking power ballad. Almost every Van Hagar song can fit into one of these categories. Yet, musically, the band continue to define the sound they began on Van Halen 3.

I said in my review of that album that the more experimental nature of the music could have benefited from the pop sensibility Sammy's melodies would bring. That's exactly the case here; the songs are heads above anything Cherone would have come up with. Still, it's surprising that the band didn't go for the traditional all-out commercial appeal, especially considering how many other concessions have apparently been made for money's sake. Eddie's solos have never been conventional, but he sounds like a mad scientist here, even on the sensitive Learning To See. It's light years away from something like the clean-picked blues guitar of Finish What Ya Started. I'm almost inclined to call these songs artistically forward-looking, as strange as that is to say about Van Halen.

Final verdict? Any true VH fan will buy it for the new songs. Any casual fan would probably still be content with Best Of, Volume 1, but this collection is very worthwhile for someone getting into the band and willing to spend a little more cash. What is of more consequence to me is this: Will the reunion stick? Will we see a new Van Hagar studio effort? I really hope so, and guess what? I'll be there.

Rating: A-
Fave Songs (one from each singer): I'll Wait / Can't Stop Lovin' You

Saturday, July 17, 2004

44. Chomsky - Let's Get To Second (2004)

I came across Chomsky in that accidental way I often seem to encounter bands. I first heard of them in 2001, when they were featured in the recommendations on the XTC website, Chalkhills. Not a week later a friend told me about this new band that was named after the liberal theorist Noam Chomsky. Taking these two signs to heart, I decided to seek out their record, Onward Quirky Soldiers, sound unheard. My search became the perfect illustration of why playing hard-to-get works. The more I struck out in finding it (even from online sources), the more I wanted it.

And then one day in the used Cheapo bins, there it was! I got home, peeled the price sticker off, opened the case, and found nothing there. I went back, but the CD itself was nowhere to be had. I decided to keep the case and, rather than resuming my frustrating search, download the songs and burn the CD myself.

Of course this also proved to be an ordeal. When I searched Kazaa for their songs, I found countless snippets of speeches by the aforementioned Mr.Chomsky, but precious few songs by the band. When I did find them they would sometimes break off in the middle of download, or be so slow that I simply couldn't wait for the download to finish. Sometimes I'd get the song only to discover that it was a murky live version. It was several weeks before I was finally able to complete my task. By that point I was too spent to enjoy the results. And I wasn't the only one. I'm assuming that first record did absolutely nothing commercially since people who wanted to buy and download it had such a hard time, and I never heard about the band again.

Now with the neo-new-wave movement (Interpol, The Stills, !!!, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Franz Ferdinand) quickly overtaking the neo-garage-rock movement as the primary focus for magazines and critics, Chomsky have an ideal opportunity with their new record, Let's Get To Second. This one I came across a couple of weeks ago at a listening station at the Electric Fetus, completely unaware it had been released. There were several copies awaiting purchase, and when I got home the CD was in the case. We were off to a much more promising start!

To describe their sound, the Dallas band cheekily call themselves alt-reggae. I think robot rock works better. The guitar riffs are choppy but constant, and the rhythms are stuttering. Even lead singer Sean Halleck yelping voice sounds like it's been programmed. But I can't stop listening to this album. It insinuates itself. Every song has multiple memorable layers, a keyboard part, a guitar riff, a harmony vocal, a melodic shift. Tunes like Doves, Animal, and Clockwork might not wow you on first listen, but the next thing you know, you're hitting the repeat button.

Three songs are recycled off of their previous album (as well as one from their debut) and have been given a production spit-shine. The build-it-up-break-it-down dynamics of Light especially benefit from the polishing. It turns the song into a perfect opening tone-setter.

Given that the band's music is so mannered and mechanical this album is not the place to look for passion and emotion. Therefore, most of the lyrics are very utilitarian, designed to move the melody along and not be too distracting, but Doves is almost the exception. It seems to be a straightforward sad song. The opening lines: "Can't get my hand around my heart / Will it live or break apart / fall away and float off in the dark." But as the song goes on we don't get much more than that. The narrator doesn't even seem completely clear what's happening. Our hero could easily be a robot who has experienced emotion for the first time but doesn't know what to do with it.

The album cover is a black background with a hypnotizing wallpaperish pattern of shiny silver overlapping circles. And there's a song on the album called Circles. Coincidence? On the inside tray there's an Asteroids-looking spaceship shooting a circle of transparent blocks. The photo of the band on the back features spacesuits penciled over them. This is exactly in line with the retro-futuristic style of Chomsky's music. In fact, maybe they should have called themselves Asimov or Heinlein instead.

Rating: B+
Fave Song:

Fun fact: All of the songs have a one word title. AND, their first album would have earned the same distinction if not for the pesky Herod's Daughter and Straight Razor.

Monday, July 12, 2004

43. Mutual Admiration Society - Self-Titled (2004)

From the curiosity department:

Mutual Admiration Society (MAS) is a musical Frankenstein with the body of blugrass trio Nickel Creek and the head of Toad the Wet Sprocket (lead man Glen Phillips). What mad scientist dreamed this up? What was the intention behind it? Was it for art's sake? Or are there plans to unleash it and attempt world domination?

Disregarding questions about its origin, the album is a surprise in a few ways. For one, it's not as twangy as you'd expect. This is a mostly quiet, ponderous set, and the Nickel Creekers' contributions are quite subtle and understated. In fact, it's almost like a Toad album with a bit more mandolin, fiddle and harmony.

There are 11 songs. Two were written by Sean Watkins (the pretty La Lune and the instrumental Reprise), three are covers, and the remaining six are Phillips originals. Of these, it's perhaps not coincidental that the two standouts are the two sole uptempo tracks on the record, Sake of the World and Be Careful. The other four, as mentioned above, could have easily slotted into a Toad album like Pale; they're slow and a bit aimless, but cast a light spell nonetheless.

The covers are more interesting. One, Trouble, is a Jon Brion tune from his self-released 2000 album Meaningless. (In case you don't know Brion has produced and written with lots of artists, including Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann.) The group displays great taste not only in choosing this song but also in sticking with the original arrangement. Phillips' voice is better than Brion's so that's a plus for this version; the minus is the fact that Brion's lyrics are so focused and wry that they create a sharp contrast to the other songs on the record, which tend to be more lyrically obtuse and earnest.

The other covers are a Harry Nilsson tune (Think About Your Troubles) and a new version of Toad's Windmills (from my personal fave Toad album, Dulcinia). What strikes me about the latter is that given a chance to do something dramatically different with the arrangement, MAS chooses not to. Instead, the song is almost exactly like the Toad version, but with a bit less production and a bit more harmony. It makes me wonder why they did it at all.

And that's kinda how I feel about this whole project. Yeah, there's nothing wrong with it, but I still wonder why it happened. Adding to this is the fact that the album isn't even fresh: the liner notes say it was recorded over six days in 2000. Think about that! Several bands have come and gone since then!

Even more damning is the package design. It seems to have been created without the input of the artists by someone who didn't listen to the record. The cover features a man (none of the band members) looking out the window of a meeting room. There are coffee and donuts on the table, as well as an agenda. I suppose it's a play off the band's name (get it, a mutual admiration society meeting where only one member shows up?). It's mildly clever, but doesn't suit the mood of the music one bit. This bothers me.

So in the end, MAS is a pretty little album of very little consequence. It's really hard to hate but equally difficult to get excited about. In other words, a curiosity.

Rating: B-
Fave Song: Be Careful