Friday, October 29, 2004

60. Dogs Die In Hot Cars - Please Describe Yourself (2004)

Poor Chomsky. They try their hardest to pattern themselves after early-period XTC, even going so far as to reference White Music lyrics and titles in two of their songs (Herod's Daughter and Animal), and here come Dogs Die In Hot Cars, stealing all the buzz and glory. Admittedly, DDIHC have an advantage. Singer Craig Macintosh's voice is a dead ringer for XTC singer Andy Partridge's. It's uncanny.

The current Neo New Wave movement in music needed this. If Interpol are Joy Division, The Killers are Duran Duran, The Libertines are The Clash, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are Blondie and TV On The Radio are Genesis, then why not have an XTC?

DDIHC don't seem very shy about the comparison. One of the songs on their excellent debut is called Apples & Oranges, which is the also the title of a 1989 XTC album. (It makes me wish a band would make a whole album of songs with titles named after albums without title tracks). And their songs are not a far cry from XTC's Drums and Wires era, when XTC's music was still somewhat fast and angular but they'd learned to inject real emotion.

Please Describe Yourself was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the pair responsible for many a pop success, including all of Madness' output, They Might Be Giants' Flood album, and Bush's Sixteen Stone. They also produced two consecutive Elvis Costello albums, Punch The Clock (1984) and Goodbye Cruel World (1985). The former is one of his better efforts, and the latter is widely considered to be his worst. So in case you think the producers were brought in on this project to turn crap into gold, realize that they can only guarantee a pop sheen, not good songwriting.

That's not a problem here. The record speeds by without a weak moment. From the obvious singles Godhopping and Lounger (both are quite Madness-centric, with barked lyrics, a fast, piano-driven tempo, and stacked vocals on the choruses) to the clever / affecting Celebrity Sanctum (wherein the narrator compares his girl to his celebrity crushes) this is an exhilirating consequence-free listen.

Like Franz Ferdinand, Dogs Die In Hot Cars are Scottish and have four guys in the band. Unlike Franz Ferdinand they have one woman in the band, have normal haircuts and are accessible and fun. It seems like this time every year I get one pleasant, unexpected musical surprise. This is it.

But I still feel a little bad for Chomsky.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: I Love You 'Cause I Have To

59. XTC - White Music (1977)

It's somewhat reassuring to know that even the most accomplished people in the world have certain aspects of their past that they'd rather ignore. XTC are a band whose sophistication and vitality cannot be called into question, but did their 1977 debut album indicate that in any way? No.

It's not that the album is bad - it isn't - but compared to their later work it's pale and primitive. It's as if they only had 8 crayons to color with. Later albums like English Settlement (1982), Skylarking (1986), and Nonsuch (1992) were definitely the results of a box of 64.

Still, there are flashes of the brilliance that would fully emerge later. Radios In Motion and This Is Pop, both songs about songs, have a primal thrill: fast tempos, manic performances, punchy harmonies. Statue Of Liberty is a clear standout. It's a catchy mash note to the titular figure, and is filled with clever double entendre (singer/songwriter Andy Partridge's specialty). Check out these lines: "You've been the subject of so many dreams / since I climbed your torso" and "Your love was so big it made New York look small" and "In my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt." Great stuff.

But the rest is damn near useless. There's a curious harmonica-driven cover of Hendrix's All Along The Watchtower. It stretches nearly five minutes and features a psychedelic freakout ending which indicated right away that XTC weren't your garden-variety new wave punk band (granted, that was a damn cool garden). By the way, it's also the only cover to appear on a proper XTC album.

Perhaps the most tell-tale indication of this album's first draft status are bassist Colin Moulding's compositions. On later albums he was responsible for some of the band's most complex, pastoral, and appealing songs. That's NOT the case here. X-Wires, Do Wot You Do, and I'll Set Myself On Fire are all borderline annoying as well as lyrically block-headed. Compare the latter's "Oh strike my head / On a stone Joan / God knows this is yuk / Do it all in unison" to "Everyone's creeping up to the money god / putting tounges where the didn't ought to be / on stepping stones of human hearts and souls / Into the land of nothing for free" from King For A Day. Both lyrics mention gods and stones, but they're light years apart artistically (even if in actuality only 12 regular years).

As they say, you gotta start somewhere.

Rating: C-
Fave Song: Statue Of Liberty

Monday, October 25, 2004

58. Jimmy Eat World - Futures (2004)

Is it possible to be proud of people you've never met? I first started listening to Jimmy Eat World in 1996, and they were just one of the unknown bands my roommate Nick had turned me on to. We went and saw them a couple of times in '96 and '97, in small venues with crowds of no more than 50 people. I listened to their 1999 album Clarity obsessively and for awhile I thought it brought me good luck (I was listening to it when I got the phone call telling me I got a job in Minneapolis).

So when the band blew up in 2001 with the album Bleed American and the hit The Middle, it was strange, but satisfying. Suddenly here they were performing on Saturday Night Live and MTV, their songs being used in the Super Bowl, and friends were actually asking me about them. Emo fans are notoriously hip and fickle, and, unlike myself, some fans felt the pop-oriented material on Bleed American was an obvious stab at stardom. The fact that it was semi-successful burned them even more. According to them, the intention to sell out was bad enough, but the fact that it made your little sister like the band? Unforgivable.

It's hard not to hear the new song Nothingwrong as a reaction to this. The aggressive track features the lyrics: "Turn them off, our blacklist singers" and not long after, "don't make a scene / on 45." Now it could just be taken as an anti-censorship song, but they sing with so much conviction, you've gotta think it's about something more personal, a defiant statement of purpose.

If they could find it in their hearts to forgive, I think fans would find this record to be much more in line with the Jimmy they loved. Things are darker and more passionate and powerful than on Bleed American, and while the songs don't have that immediate sugar rush, they insinuate themselves. When discussing first impressions of the album with a friend I told him that no one song had grabbed me the way Blister, Opener, Lucky Denver Mint, or A Praise Chorus had on previous albums. On my next listen of the album, things started to take hold!

Take the title track for example. It opens the album with these lines: "I always believed in futures / I hope for better / in November." Is there a more topical sentiment among truly concerned citizens right now? I can only hope those lines won't ring hollow come next Wednesday. The song itself represents that optimism with a soaring chorus that's becoming a Jimmy Eat World trademark.

Work employs that same trademark, with a hook that pleads: "Can we take a ride / get out of this place while we still have time?" Even when I'm completely happy with where I'm at, this sentiment will always connect with me, because I know how it feels long for escape. Liz Phair provides very understated backing vocals to this one.

The World You Love would have fit very nicely into Bleed American, and is, to my ear, a clear choice for a single. As I've heard, Pain isn't doing too poorly for itself, but this one might have knocked it out of the park. It's one of those songs that sounds happy but really isn't. In fact the chorus claims: "We're only just as happy / as everyone else seems to think we are."

The epic center of the album is a 6 minute piano ballad called Drugs or Me. The title really sums it up. I've never had anyone close to me addicted to drugs, but I imagine I'd feel exactly like this. The narrator tells his loved one that he barely recognizes her anymore and asks, his voice barely holding on, that she "keep [his] heart / somewhere drugs don't go." It's the aural equivalent of a really good, bracing movie... it lets you actually feel something you've never actually been through.

Polaris is the album's best song. The guitars are atmospheric, the lyrics anguished, the vocals passionate, the drums and bass pounding, and the chorus, of course, soaring.

After 8 strong songs, the album's only stumble is the pairing of Nothingwrong and Night Drive, the albums weakest cuts, in the 9 and 10 spots. The latter is a sentimental retelling of a dalliance in a car (I'm assuming it's nostalgic because the guys in the band are a bit too old to still be going to Makeout Point). It's one of those things that probably means a lot to the person who wrote it, but just doesn't translate well to the rest of us. Anyway, Death Cab did it better with We Looked Like Giants.

Luckily, the album closer, 23, gets things back on track. An epic (over 7 minutes) rumination on a lost relationship, it connects where Night Drive doesn't.

I find it interesting that an album called Futures ends on two songs so concerned with the past. I guess that should tell us something. In the past, Jimmy Eat World were a band I worshipped, and the same is looking to be true in the future.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Polaris

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Short Stack

In a blatant attempt to reach review number 60 by the first anniversary of this blog, I'm offering up some brief reviews of recent releases.

54. Ben Folds - Super D (2004)
This is the final EP in a series of three meant to tide us over until Folds finishes working with Captain Kirk and releases his second solo record, and Folds saved the worst for last. It kicks off with a bombastic cover of The Darkness' Get Your Hands Off My Woman. From there we have three sub-par original compositions (the most interesting of which, Kalamazoo, features a disco bridge) and a brief live cover of Ray Charles' Them That Got. The other two EPs each contained at least one sublime moment, but this one has none, giving the whole project a cast-off feel.

Rating: C
Fave Song: Get Your Hands Off My Woman

55. Duran Duran - Astronaut (2004)
Are your vinyl copies of Rio and Notorious wearing out? Here's a new album from a fully reunited Duran Duran. The band were responsible for their fair share of giddy musical highs in the '80s, and had this shocking time capsule of an album been released then it would have surely been a blockbuster. But unfortunately it's 20 years later and few will likely care. Everyone loves a comeback, but Duran Duran are not a band that either critics or the record-buying public are likely to embrace again. It's a shame, because (Reach Up For The) Sunrise, Want You More!, What Happens Tomorrow, Astronaut, Nice, Bedroom Toys, and Finest Hour are all highlights. And yes, that's most of the album.

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Want You More!

56. The Rosenbergs - Department Store Girl (2004)
It's strange how many so-called power pop bands miss the point. They are either way too twee (Candy Butchers) or way too serious (Candy Butchers) or not (gasp!) catchy enough. The Rosenbergs are not guilty of any of that. In fact, based on this album, their only active competition is Fountains Of Wayne. The Rosenbergs lack F.O.W.'s finely detailed lyrical prowess, but share the sweet, bursting melodies, crunchy guitar riffs, and delicious harmonies, as well as the ability to both croon (Blue Skies, Woods) and rock (Bulletproof Vest, the title track). The only fault on this CD is the fact that you have to wait 5 or so minutes for the gentle bonus track...it's just one of my pet peeves.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Crockett & Tubbs

57. Carbon Leaf - Indian Summer (2004)
What's refreshing about Carbon Leaf is that there's no veneer of hipsterdom to them. The Virginia band prides itself on wordiness and musical virtuosity and is not dissimilar to the Dave Matthews Band, save their catchiness, harmony, and likablity. After seeing them live I woke up the next morning singing songs from this album. There's a certain joy in the performances, even in the ballads, and it shows that producer David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) did his job well. I love it when something so unassuming can assert itself so firmly.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: What About Everything

Sunday, October 10, 2004

53. R.E.M. - Around the Sun (2004)

Pre-release reviews can play a large part in how I view an album. I'm usually optimistic about any new effort from an artist I love, and reviews can either feed that optimism or diminish it. A bad review especially can drop the status of a new album to just above that of a Maroon 5 live album. The obsessive part of this is that VERY rarely would I avoid a new record by an artist I like just because of a bad review (or several). And no matter what, I'll usually be hard-headed when I get the album and insist that the critic was full of it.

The story can go two directions from there. One, the critics' complaints actually have merit and will eventually creep into my perceptions of the album. Or, my hard-headedness sticks and I love the album.

I mention all of this because the early words on R.E.M.'s latest effort have not been kind. As I see it, the main grievance is that the band hasn't made Automatic For The People again. This is a little sad to me, considering that album came out 13 years ago! I guess in some eyes, the last four albums have been complete disappointments. So why hasn't the band become completely irrelevant? Why does their record company even still allow them to make CDs?!

Now one could argue the merits of Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi (both are close to my heart), but critics mostly focus their rancor on the post-Bill Berry albums, Up and Reveal. They claim the band has lost the ability to make anthemic catchy songs because they don't have a permanent drummer. However, last I checked all the post-Berry albums do have drums on them. Okay, Up (1998) was a languid, electronic-based record, no doubt about it. But it was also sporadically wonderful, with songs like Suspicion, Walk Unafraid, At My Most Beautiful, and Parakeet (the latter two showing that the band's new template is the Beach Boys). 2001's Reveal was more pastoral and organic, consistent but mostly inconsequential. The reviews have Around the Sun following that same trend.

Don't believe the hype! After listening to all three albums in a row, I feel safe declaring that Around the Sun is firmly in the middle of the pack. It's not as good as Up, but it beats Reveal by a few paces. It definitely has has more vitality (the current events-concerned Final Straw and I Wanted To Be Wrong) and immediacy (Leaving New York gets stuck in my head all the time...it's their best single since The Great Beyond, easily) than its predecessor.

No, as an album it's not at the level of Automatic, or Out Of Time. But that's difficult to expect, from any band. What we do have are some great songs: Electron Blue is reminiscent of New Adventures (and, coincidentally, the same color I'm painting my bathroom...Neutron Yellow was too dull), Aftermath and Boy In The Well could both be future singles.

The Outsiders contains the album's most thrilling moment. Guest star Q-Tip (formerly of A Tribe Called Quest) drops the final verse of the song and does a bang-up job. The fact that what could be a horribly contrived or embarrassing moment turns out to be my favorite is a testament to Q-Tip's MC skills. I could have lived without Biz Markie's appearance on Radio Song (from Out Of Time) but this makes me want to hear a whole album of R.E.M. / Q-Tip collabos.

There are a couple of songs the album might have done without, but overall Around the Sun is an effort any open-hearted R.E.M. fan should be pleased with.

Final thought: You know, there are some bands that just seem intent on pushing their fans' limits (paging Wilco and Radiohead) but R.E.M. doesn't fit in that category. So what is it? I truly believe that if they wanted to write Losing My Religion or Man On The Moon again they could, but I think they simply don't want to. I mentioned that more and more they seem to be patterning themselves after the Beach Boys (true on Around the Sun in Aftermath's buoyant harmonies and in the ba-ba-ba coda of the title track), but maybe it's not just musically. Think about it, get a lot of early acclaim and success and then make a series of respectable but ignored albums... in fact, my reissue of the Beach Boys 1977 oddball effort Love You has liner notes by R.E.M.'s own Peter Buck. Hmmm.

Rating: B
Fave Song: The Outsiders

Saturday, October 02, 2004

James Taylor - "Baby Boom Baby"

This is my confession: My mom is the single biggest influence on my musical tastes. It's not cool, I know. My dad is the one who was hip in the '80s. When I was ready he turned me on to Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, XTC, Roxy Music, Marshall Crenshaw, and many other great artists.

My mom, on the other hand, was square. Her tastes ran in directions generally reviled by my dad: Elton John, Billy Joel, The Carpenters, Lionel Richie, and James Taylor.

(In college my parents went to see James Taylor in concert. It was today's equivalent of a guy having to go to a John Mayer concert with his girlfriend. My dad just barely stomached it; my mom loved it.)


Just as with their politics and religious beliefs, I feel I've greatly benefited from having two vastly different viewpoints presented to me. About 90 % of the time, I lean toward my father's views, but on music, my heart will always truly lie with the artists my mom introduced to me. That will always be where I go for comfort.

This particular James Taylor song is like a cocktail. It's as though someone took everything that makes the James Taylor sound (complex acoustic guitar picking, faux-jazz, gospely background vocals, introspective lyrics) and put it in a blender. The result is not exactly uniform, but it is smooth. I first heard this song via my second college roommate, Tim. He had a compilation CD used for testing high-quality sound systems (how he came across it I'm not sure...he's the type of person who just comes across things) and this song was on it. We both loved it and we'd play it over and over again.

Given that my mom played James Taylor's Greatest Hits to death, I know every lyric back and forth, so it's something when I say that this song has the most memorable lines of any of his songs, lines that recur to me at the most random of times:

  • "Somehow the season always brings a picture of you"
  • "Worked on a letter / But it never made it out of my head"
  • "How come I miss what I never knew / Drag out the past just to paint it blue"
  • "I work hard to see that you remember my name / Do all I can to make you want to see me again"
  • "My feet are frozen and my heart's on fire"
As far as I can tell there's no real story to the lyrics; maybe it's about a past romance or friendship, or even a family member. Clarity isn't the point. Instead, the song creates a feeling; a general sense of resignation and thoughtfulness that suits any sort of reflective mood.

Album: Never Die Young (1988)