Monday, September 27, 2004

52. Green Day - American Idiot (2004)

Many people seem blindsided by the fact that Green Day is still making relevant music, but to me it came clear with the last album, Warning. For whatever reason, anytime an artist seems to hit their prime early (Counting Crows, Weezer, etc.) it's hard to accept that they'll ever make something listenable again, let alone gripping. Warning wasn't a groundbreaking record, but it was highly enjoyable.

Now comes American Idiot, which to those who haven't been paying attention seems like an out-of-nowhere return-to-form. It's easy to attribute this to righteous anger about our current times, especially in light of the lead single, American Idiot. If there's one good thing to say about the Bush administration it's that they've given us some great reactionary music. In fact no two lines can sum up the Bush approach to "protecting" the country better: "Can you hear the sound of hysteria / The subliminal mind-fuck America" By the way, I always want to add some well-placed background vocals the chorus after Billie Joe sings "o.k."

Holiday is another song in this mold, and features the great reproach: "Zieg heil to the President Gasman / Bombs away is your punishment / Pulverize the Eiffel Towers / Who criticize your government."

But despite appearances, the album is not strictly about the current times. In a more general sense it's a return to that hoary old concept of the rock opera. This means that there are character names that recur throughout the album (in this case, Whatsername, St.Jimmy, and Jesus Of Suburbia). This also means, in the grand tradition of rock operas, that the story is all but indecipherable. As far as I can tell, Jesus of Suburbia might be the same person as St. Jimmy. Both are disaffected youth. Whatsername is "symbol of resistance" and a rebel who's "holding on to my heart like a hand grenade" (we have a cover image!). Apparently she leaves St. Jimmy though, and he kills himself. That's about as far as I've gotten (seriously, someone needs be hired full-time to figure out the "stories" of both this album and The Honeydogs' latest).

But, like 10,000 Years, the album survives beyond it's rickety premise and thrives because of a thrillingly diverse sound. There are no less than 5 songs that represent a major artistic leap / departure for the band, including the ultra-harmonic and U2ish Boulevard Of Broken Dreams and the power-poppy would-be TV theme Extraordinary Girl.

What's been getting the most ink are the 9 minute song suites, Jesus Of Suburbia and Homecoming. It's nothing new for an artist to take several song snippets and marry them together. Of course, it goes back to The Beatles. A Day In The Life was one of the first multi-song songs (with the "I read the news today" parts belonging to John Lennon and the "Woke up / Got out of bed" bridge thanks to Paul McCartney). That was followed quickly by Good Vibrations. Artists from Matthew Sweet and XTC to The Who and Queen have done it since. Green Day do a good job with the idea, especially on Homecoming, which is nothing short of epic.

Instead of being surprised at how in-the-now the band is, I'm more shocked at how beautiful they sound. I was never a huge fan nor detractor of Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) but two songs on here easily trump it. Wake Me Up When September Ends may or may not be about September 11th, but it's heartbreaking nonetheless, and the looking-back-without-anger closer Whatsername is so emo that under duress I might mistake it for The Get Up Kids.

Okay, so maybe I can give those surprised folks a bit of leeway, afterall Warning was not a groundbreaking record, but this one just might be.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Whatsername

Note: Word has it that the band are considering offers for a musical film version of the record. For reasons why this should NOT happen, check out Baby, I'm A Star.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

51. The Thrills - Let's Bottle Bohemia (2004)

I would never begrudge another music listener their opinion, but some opinions fly so brazenly in the face of truth that one can't help but react negatively. Witness Jody Rosen's review of The Thrills' new album in the October 2004 issue of Blender. She (or he?) uses adjectives such as "overwrought," "strained" and "self-serious" to describe the effort. He (or she) seems to think that the band has become pretentious and full of itself. I don't know what album Jody Rosen listened to, but I just don't hear it.

Instead, I would use these words to describe the album: "loose," "effortless" and "charming." And clearly no band high on their own importance would name a song Whatever Happened To Corey Haim?, nor would they write a line like "I'm too vain for greatness." Maybe Jody Rosen has some secret grudge she (or he) is playing out in print, because the only whiff of pretense on this album is the brief orchestral reprise of Found My Rosebud that ends the affair.

The greatness of a song can be measured by the presence of at least one memorable moment. You know the moments I'm talking about...the ones that you point out to your friends, the instrumental touches or great lines that really stick out and make you want to listen again. Each of the ten songs on this album have at least one of those moments. From the way the melody downshifts unexpectedly on the word "night" in Saturday Night, to the sudden swell of synthesizers on The Curse Of Comfort, to great lines like "I guess everybody went to a better party" and "your frat boy past could be president."

Usually, the sophomore album tends to be a huge burden for a band. In fact, The Curse Of Comfort appears to be about that very it's hard to make relevant art when you are fat and happy and praised for your work. Their solution is to "hope love gets in the way." But scanning the lyrics, I think I may have discovered the source of Jody Rosen's anger: "the suburbs dream tonight of finding their muse / damn those rape victim writers and their five star reviews." Okay, that's a little harsh, but get over it!

At any rate, comfort obviously hasn't harmed them yet, and The Thrills have shambled right past the potential sophomore slump. And they did it quickly! It was just last November that I reviewed their first album. In that review I wondered if the band could forge their own identity outside of the California / Beach Boys / Neil Young thing. The answer is a resounding yes! In fact, I would go so far as to say that not since Weezer has there been a more promising debut /follow-up pairing.

So the fact that singer Conor Deasy claims they're just getting started ("Let's bottle bohemia / and start a career") might be a bit boastful. But bravado is definitely not the same thing as pretense, Jody Rosen!

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Not For All The Love In The World

Sunday, September 12, 2004

50. Matthew Sweet - Living Things (2004)

Matthew Sweet has worked with lots of notable people through out his career: Aimee Mann, Hanson, Mick Fleetwood, Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins, members of The Attractions, The Bangles, Big Star, The B-52's, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Television, and Voivoid, as well as session musicians who played with The Rolling Stones and Beach Boys.

On Living Things, he adds another name to that resume. Van Dyke Parks is an idiosyncratic musicial prodigy who has done critically acclaimed solo work, but is best known for working on the songs that were to make up Smile, the Beach Boys' never-released (at least until the end of this month) follow-up to Pet Sounds. Matthew appears to be doing whatever he can to become this generation's Brian Wilson.

What Parks apparently brought to the table was a diversity of instrumentation. The gripping opener The Big Cats Of Shambala (I looked it up...Shambala is a wild animal preserve located on the edge of the Mohave desert, not far from where Matthew makes his home, Los Angeles) makes prominent use of steel drums. Elsewhere there're accordian, theremin, mandolin, and clavoline, as well as more organ and piano than we've ever heard on a Sweet album.

That said, this record isn't anywhere near the Wilson / Spector wall-of-sound used on 1999's In Reverse. That is Matthew's most controlled and focused album to date. Living Things is the loosest and most carefree album in his ouvre. There are snippets of conversation here and there. The solos seem slightly off-kilter. Songs end as they see fit, sometimes going off into jams that don't quite know when to end. It's nice that Matthew isn't afraid here to let things get a bit out of hand (such as on the almost dissonant Dandelion), because we know he'll always pull in the reins when it's needed.

The combination of the diversity of sound along with the shambling attitude make it a bit of a jarring listen the first few times through. After that, the beauty of the songs begins to emerge.

One high point for me is the long-delayed appearance of Matthew's sense of humor. He's never been known as a funny or clever lyricist. At best you might have called a handful of his songs "wry." Cats vs. Dogs is thus easily the funniest and most whimsical song he's ever done. Over a piano bar melody, the verses examine the pluses and minuses of both types of creatures, while the chorus tells us: "you're going to have to decide which one are you in your heart." Compared to the generic sentiments of all of the songs on last year's Kimi Ga Suki* Raifu, it's a welcome change.

The CD was recorded two summers ago, probably after Kimi Ga Suki* Raifu but before The Thorns side project. It's a logical progression, a melding of the straight ahead rock of the former and the harmonic gentleness of the latter.

True to the album title, song names mention trees, seasons, dandelions, and sunlight. We hear the sounds of lions roaring and bees buzzing. There even seems to be a structure at work. The first half of the CD contains 6 songs, culminating in Cats vs. Dogs. The second half is solid, kicking off with the Altered Beast-recalling anger anthem I Saw Red and ending with four pretty songs, In My Time, Sunlight, Season Is Over, and the optimistic Tomorrow. All could have slotted easily onto In Reverse and they end the record on high note. I'm a sucker for that, since so many albums start off strong and fritter their energy and quality away as they go on.

Overall, if I were to put all of Matthew Sweet's albums into categories of Great, Good, Okay, and Pass, this one goes firmly in Good. And Sweet's Good is a few light years ahead of most artists' Great.

Rating: B+
Fave Song: The Big Cats Of Shambala

Saturday, September 04, 2004

The Smashing Pumpkins - "Ava Adore"

Here's a secret: Adore is an awesome album. Created in the wake of the massive success of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and the temporary firing of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, it's the Pumpkins gloomy gothic eletronic Depeche Mode record.

Many say that the band went in this direction as a direct result of Chamberlain's abscence, but there's actually evidence that they were headed this way no matter what. The two soundtrack songs that directly preceded Adore, Eye and The End Is The Beginning Is The End, were completely different from anything the band had done before. It's as though Mellon Collie was the band's late '70s power rock album and these singles were their shot at early '80s new wave. The first time I heard Eye on the radio it was a thrilling moment to hear the band trying something so different.

Anyway, Ava Adore is the best song of this Pumpkins phase. Musically, the marching beat (not unlike Chamberlain's usual style) is played on a set of eletronic drums, the bass is dirty, and the guitars are spiky (and sporadic; they only appear on the chorus). Lyrically, it's a valentine that Charles Addams might have written. Ostensibly it's a love song, but our twisted narrator tells his beloved she's a "gun to (his) head" and "the murder in my world." He even says she'll always be his whore. 'Scuse me?! Last time I checked this was not the preferred method of wooing a lady.

But, strangely, it works. This is mostly because there are also sweet sentiments, such as "in you I count stars" and "in you I taste God." But it also works because love is an extreme emotion. It reminds me of the movie Punch Drunk Love, when Adam Sandler tells Emily Watson that he loves her so much he wants to "smash your face in with a sledgehammer" and she comes back with "I want to scoop your eyeballs out of your sockets and chew and suck on them." Love isn't always pretty.

Album: Adore (1998)
Fave Moment: They way Billy says the word adore, with the perfect combination of distaste and longing.