Saturday, August 28, 2004

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

Two things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B
Fave Song: Probably

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Dreams So Real

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

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

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

Damn him for picking those last two!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 22, 2004

'83 Going On '87

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Shins - "Gone For Good"

I keep pulling The Shins' album Chutes Too Narrow out and listening, and that's strange because my feelings about it have been so ambivalent. I think the reasons I keep getting drawn back in are: 1) the outstanding package design, and 2) other people like them so much (critics, friends, Natalie Portman in Garden State). For awhile I was afraid the album would become one of those things I enjoy in theory more than in actuality, like Woody Allen movies and the Notorious B.I.G. But it's growing on me, and this song is one of the main reasons.

The ten songs on Chutes Too Narrow are varied in style but all share a dense lyrical barrage that takes time and will to penetrate. Gone For Good is the odd-man-out in the album because it is this short of being a straightforward country song. The pedal steel rings out loud and clear, and the lyrics, while still clever and metaphoric, are not a puzzle. It's a break-up song, plain and simple.

In a creative writing class I took in college the professor stressed that trouble is always more interesting than contentment. Sadly, this is completely true; when I think of my favorite songs they're ones about broken hearts. Gone For Good is a doozy, but also a convention-breaker. Instead of lamenting his girl leaving him, the narrator of the song is actually the one doing the dumping. He's gone along with this relationship and then reveals: "Until this turn in my head / I let you stay and you paid no rent / I spent 12 long months on the lam / that's enough sitting on the fence / for the fear of breaking dams."

The "turn" he's singing about is his decision that they can't be together anymore. Thematically, it's like an update of Elton John's Someone Saved My Life Tonight, especially when the lyric gives you the idea that marriage is involved: "I've got to leave here my girl /and get on with my lonely life / just lay the ring on the rail / for the wheels to nullify." The difference is, in Elton's song we know why he was breaking off his engagement to a woman, even if he didn't. In Gone For Good's chorus the narrator tells us, "I find a fatal flaw / in the logic of love / and go out of my head." What that fatal flaw is, we just don't know.

But what I love most about this song is the fact that it's a country song on an album that countless hipsters will pride themselves on owning. And we know what hipsters love to say, don't we? "I like every kind of music but country." (Spin writer Chuck Klosterman wrote that people who say this are "the most wretched people in the world.") Maybe they'll open their minds a bit.

Album: Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Fave Moment: Near the end, the song seems to be going into the chorus again, but instead goes into a completely different set of lyrics sung to the chorus melody. Ingenious!

Saturday, August 14, 2004

48. Brandy - Afrodisiac (2004)

Reviews are a relative thing. A praiseful review is only as effective if the reader is receptive to it. If you absolutely despise an artist or a genre nothing is going to convince you to give it a chance. For example, the Blood Vultures of F**king could put out "the best death speed metal album ever" but I could care less. That's like someone saying to me: "This is the best mushroom you'll ever taste."

Modern R & B is a genre that I usually find little connection in, especially when the artist is male. Usually I find it too generic and processed. But I'm not outright opposed, and thus I can sometimes be swayed by critical praise, or a single that gets caught in my head. This explains the presence of Aaliyah, Mary J. Blige, and Beyonce records in my collection.

Moesha's new CD is the latest addition to that list. I bought Afrodisiac for both reasons: critical praise and the catchy first single Talk About Our Love (which boasts a super-smooth classic soul chorus and a Kanye West rap that includes the lines "I knew you when you was a V like Madonna / now you interfere, runnin' plays like Donovon…McNabb"). In deciding if I like it, the big question for me: Is it too generic?

The answer is yes and no. The disc's most thrilling moments are the ones that are specific and autobiographical. Back in February (in the review of Courtney Love's latest CD) I wrote about awareness of an artist's personal life adding extra dimensions to the listening experience. This CD reafirms that for me. Since her last album Brandy has broken up with producer Robert Smith, who now claims (most likely truthfully) that their whole marriage was a sham designed to keep her image pristine once she got a bun in the oven. Now she's engaged to NBA player Quentin Richardson.

Knowing this makes songs like the confessional opener Who I Am that much more satisfying. It's a kiss-off, wherein she claims she's that much stronger for "all the tears, all the stress" and says "All you did was help the next man." Later, Where You Wanna Be indicates that all may not be perfect with her new beau, if you judge by an outdated Clippers reference (Richardson left the Clippers and signed with the Phoenix Suns this summer). This is great stuff.

The album was largely produced by Timbaland and his harmony-laden, jittery-beat, layered style suits her well. Critics have pointed out that his production makes up for the fact that she's not a strong singer, and I hate it when they write backhanded shit like that. They've said it about Kylie Minogue, Madonna, and Britney Spears too and even if it's true who really cares at this point? They've all got established careers as SINGERS. It's not like someone is suddenly going to realize they can't sing and take all of their success away from them.

Anyway, we get several strong Timbo productions, including the title track, next single Who Is She 2 U, Focus, and the best of the bunch, I Tried. The latter is basically Cry Me A River revisited, albeit with a bit less punch. Still, it casts a strong spell and Brandy's voice is surprisingly raspy and soulful. There are dance songs too, most notably Turn It Up (which is the first nostalgic-for-the-'90s song I've heard) and Sadiddy (a very catchy jam, but don't ask me what "sadiddy" means…as far as I can figure it's an adjective and Brandy ain't it).

But at 15 tracks the disc begins to sag as it moves into the second half, with too many forgettable songs in a row. None of them are bad, but one is named Necessary, and just isn't. Thankfully, the album remedies the ennui with the final song, Should I Go. It samples Clocks by Coldplay, and save the fact that it's strange to hear such a recent hit sampled already, it's not a big deal; the lyrics are the draw. Once again Brandy gets personal, wondering about her career's past ("this industry was like a different world / when it was just Monica, me and baby girl") and future ("just trying to figure out what I fit into"). It's a complex, repeat listen kind of song.

If we'd gotten more of that, maybe this would be the first album to allow me to say, unabashedly, that I love Modern R & B. Instead, at half-great and half-okay it's probably just another album that'll sit on the shelf and make my tastes look more diverse than they really are.

Rating: B-
Fave Song: Talk About Our Love

Monday, August 09, 2004

Refrigerated Love: A History

I was very surprised when I heard recently that U.K. band Refrigerated Love were reuniting - after nearly five years apart - for a winter tour and possible new album. It occurred to me that RL is one of those rare beasts, a vastly prolific but vastly unknown group. So, for those of you who have never heard of them, I thought I'd shed some light on their background. I'll warn you, it's a long and convoluted history, so grab a beverage and settle in…

In 1979 school friends Colin Porthorn and Nigel Hornblower began performing in clubs as a folk duo called The Coldsmen. Porthorn's raspy choirboy tenor and Hornblower's dexterous guitar technique were a fine combination, but they were severely out of step with the times. So they wised up and recruited mates "Pasty" Pete Pockhorn, Elvis Hornman, Hornel Lieberman, and Ricky Hornblatt for drums, lyrics, keyboards, and tambourine respectively. The group took on the new-wavier name Refrigerated Love and set off on the path to stardom!

1981 saw their self-titled debut album on Polydor records. It met with little fanfare and even less success. Had the 1982 follow-up Plant Lives not contained the minor hit Sequoias Of Your Heart they might have disappeared forever. As it was, they had a string of modest successes over the next three years: Defrost Before Heating, Monster Mashers, and Gardening Secrets (which was, believe it or not, inspired by the Frances Hodgson Burnett children's classic Secret Garden).

Though they had plenty of material ready, the band opted not to release an album in 1986, mainly at the urgings of staunch numerologist Hornman. He firmly believed that because the digits of the year added up to 24 it would mean commercial disaster for the band. (In 1995 he was proven correct when the band put out A Life In A Day, an instrumental effort that Hornman refused to participate in…it tanked).

As a result the band saved their best songs for their next album (something they had never done before) and came up with the 1987's blockbuster Heart Like A Flying Car. The album sold 12 million copies on the strength of two number one singles (I Am The Robot and Inside, Outside, Upside Down), and gave the already-daring band a carte blanche for artistic experimentation. Thus, in late '87 they released 10 albums simultaneously. Each album contained only one song and their success varied wildly. While Tail (Lights) was a bonafide hit and sold 2 million, My Handlebar Mustache could only be described as a failure at 15,000 sold.

Undeterred, the band made one more risky move, switching band duties for Have We Lost Our Minds, Yes We Have, which debuted in 1988. "Pasty" Pete took on guitar, Elvis Hornman banged the drums, Colin Porthorn wrote the lyrics, Hornel Lieberman handled the vocals, and Nigel Hornblower shook the tamboruine while Ricky tickled the keys. Critics derided the result (saving their kind words only for Lieberman's vocals), and fans stayed away in droves.

Their hard-earned trust, success and goodwill now frittered away, the band rushed out a compilation in time for the '88 holiday shopping season, Worst Hits. Strangely, the album was comprised of 8 of the 10 songs that appeared on Heart Like A Flying Car, along with Tail (Lights), Sequoias Of Your Heart, and two new songs: You're My Ruler and Pillow Silence.

Going Solo
The band took 1989 off, releasing a 1982 concert recording as Live On (Live). 1990 saw the band back in action, albeit as solo artists. Every member released a solo album that year, save "Pasty" Pete who was content to play drums on all of the albums. Hornblower's Hullabulloops was chock full of lengthy electric guitar solos and had vocals that were recorded exclusively through a vocoder. Mystery Pants features the now classic cover photo of Colin Porthorn; he's standing shirtless, holding up two pairs of ladies jeans (one in each hand) with a quizzical look on his face. The album contained nothing but over-the-top power ballads named after women (Erica and Brooke both fared quite well on the singles chart). Hornman gave us Chorus Verse Chorus, a spoken word collection of his poetry. Ricky Hornblatt's surprisingly rootsy effort was entitled Fencepost and spawned the biggest hit of the lot, the story song Sam and Diane. Finally, Hornel Lieberman once again got the best of his bandmates, releasing A Warm Bowl Of Chili. The sweet blast of power pop made the critics fall all over themselves praising it, and it won that year's Grammy ® for Most Superlative Adjectives Applied (they don't give this award during the actual telecast).

Ups and Downs
In 1991, the band wisely sidestepped the onset of Grunge and filled the shelves with a hastily and lazily compiled B-Sides / Rarities collection, They Weren't Good Enough To Be On The Albums. Looking ahead, 1992 saw the release of Songs For The Year 1996. It was a modest hit, but the band couldn't strike gold twice and the 1993 sequel Songs For The Year 2006 sold poorly. This led to a safer bet, '94s We Refuse To Pun The Word Cover, wherein the band reinterpreted classics by the likes of Pat Benetar, Laura Brannigan, Melissa Manchester, Irene Cara, Sheena Easton, and others. It sold very well around Valentine's Day!

After the 1995 disaster of A Life In A Day, the band began to seriously question its ability to have two hit albums in row. If only they had known what awaited them! 1996's Underplayed rocketed the band back to the top of the charts on the back of the single Stick It To Me, which was featured prominently in a Dentyne commercial. They finally kept their momentum with Exercise Bike, the 1997 album that gave us not only a hit title track (the lyrics "Move your legs / breathe in deep" inspired that year's white dance craze), but also the new Christmas classic Santa's Lament.

Unfortunately Refrigerated Love didn't get much time to celebrate their success. In late '97 Ricky Hornblatt was killed in a freak accident while playing guitar in his bathtub. The band took 1998 to mourn, releasing More Worst Hits to complete its contract with Polydor. After a little publicized bidding war, they re-signed with Polydor and set about soldiering on.

Early 1999 saw the release of a new live album, Songs From Our Next Album - Live. Unfortunately, both "Pasty" Pete and Nigel Hornblower forgot to show up for the gig, so the album featured only vocals and keyboards. Later, Colin Porthorn would attempt to take credit for creating the whole Unplugged phenomenon, but he backed off of those claims after being informed that it had actually started 10 years earlier.

Split and Reunion
The band's next album was the surprising We're Actually Serious, Really, a sprawling set that found the band writing and playing with a heretofore unseen passion. It sold well, and seemed to indicate a bold new chapter in Refrigerated Love's history. But it was not to be. In 2000, after releasing just 34 albums, the band called it quits. The press release cited the pressures of being commercial recording artists and an intense personal dislike for one another as the primary reasons for the split.

In 2004, VH1 Bands Reunited unsuccessfully tried to reunite the band. However, it got the principals talking again, and soon a deal was struck for a reunion tour. They spent 2005 and 2006 on their "Warm-Up Farewell" and "Penultimate Farewell" tours, though the band did not release any new material. "Fans want to hear things they've already heard before, so that's what we'll give them. I'm just glad they've heard the old songs already, or we wouldn't have anything to play," said Hornblower in a 2006 interview.

Getting Litigious
In 2007 the band took up a lawsuit against "all stores that sell used CDs and records, Amazon Marketplace, eBay, and anyone who has ever sold a CD, LP, cassette or 8 Track at a garage sale." In a separate suit, the band also went after those who had dubbed copies of Refrigerated Love's music onto cassette tapes, either fully or as part of a mix. The band claimed that these dubbings and second-hand sales were negatively affecting the number of Refrigerated Love songs downloaded from Kazaa and Gnutella. They eventually won the lawsuit, though they lost most of their fans in the process.

"Creative" Renaissance
In the midst of 2008's "Say Farewell Again" tour, the band surprisingly announced a new album. No Expiration Date, which was released via send-off coupons, was a strong effort that found the band drinking from a new creative wellspring.  It spawned another collection the next year. Coming In was another cover album, this time focusing on songs by gay artists. It stiffed (pun intended, of course).

Dark Times
In 2010, Colin Porthorn appeared as a celebrity judge in the universally-reviled musical survival reality show Sing For Your Life. And though the show was swiftly cancelled, it did bring Porthorn some measure of renewed fame. His subsequent cash-in solo single, Show (Me) Your Passion, was a dismal failure, partly due to the odd punctuation, but mostly due to the awful autotuned chorus and depressing guest "rap" by Rivers Cuomo.

Not long after that, lyricist Elvis Hornman was fired. Rumors of bitter feuds between Hornman and the rest of the band members had simmered since the mid-'80s, most traced back to Hornman's penchant for indiscriminately eating food out of the tour bus refrigerator, impolitely ignoring clear shelf labels.
Apparently the boys had finally had enough. Hornman laid proprietary claim to the Refrigerated Love name and declared his intention to tour and record using the name and replacement musicians. Hornman lost the subsequent legal battle, and has been touring under the name "Elvis Hornman's Frozen Romance".

Christmas 2011, the band were unceremoniously dropped by their label, Polydor, with four albums still left on their contract. In a terse statement, the label said simply, "It's not us, it's them."

Like a Phoenix
The band regrouped and decided to release a new album label-less, but not lyric-less. After starting it as a scat project, the remaining band members wrote their own lyrics on 2011's Inmortality. The album, a typically diverse affair, has received a "Generally Unfavorable" composite score on The band plans to tour in the winter of 2011 and on into 2012. The jaunt has not been officially named yet, but fans are already referring to it as the "You Didn't Know You Missed Us" tour.