Tuesday, November 30, 2004

64. Shawn Colvin - Polaroids: A Greatest Hits Collection (2004)

Shawn Colvin is easy to dismiss. The fluke Lilith Fair success of 1996's Sunny Came Home has given her the aura of a mainstream artist, which in truth she really isn't. She's a wordy, guitar-playing folkie who looks like a prettier version of my college American Romanticism professor. There's a whole sub-genre of artists like this, people like Lucy Kaplansky, Claudia Schmidt, Carrie Newcomer. Who? Exactly. These are artists with a small devoted following, who sell enough records to make a living but will never enter the collective consciousness.

Sunny Came Home falls right about at the two-thirds mark of Colvin's newly released Polaroids: A Greatest Hits Collection and some might be surprised to find that it's not a stand-out track. It's simply another in a flow of great songs, not the song you wait through the others to hear.

Just for that simple fact, Polaroids should set the record straight on Colvin, for those who stumble across it. For me, it cements a radical re-thinking that began in August when I saw her perform at the Great Minnesota Get-Together (otherwise known as the State Fair). It was a clear, temperate summer evening, and Colvin came on as the sun set, just her, a mike, and a guitar. A true folkie. And she nailed the performance. She ran through her ouvre, including most of the songs on this collection, and the crowd was mesmerized. It was by far the best-behaved crowd I've seen at a Minnesota concert. My experience of Minnesota concert crowds has proven to be a strange combination of enthusiasm-free politeness and "let's have a loud conversation right now" rudeness. This crowd was neither. They were deathly quiet during the songs, and generously praiseful after each one.

The fact that Colvin could perform so minimally is testament to the strength of the songs and her talent as a performer. Indeed, my clearest memory of the show (beyond a rare sense of complete well-being) was her cover of Talking Heads' This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody). Though Talking Heads are one of my very favorite bands and this is one of my very favorite songs by them, it took me nearly half the song to place it. Like the best cover versions, it made me hear something old in a new way. In this case, it was the beauty and humanity of the lyrics, something David Byrne's voice, God bless it, could never put across.

That cover is included here in a live version and I'm happy to have it. Other standouts include the opener Steady On, the irresistable Round Of Blues, and the glossy late period Whole New You. Steady On was from her first album, Whole New You from her last, and there's not a beat skipped between them. An artist whose first hit can be as consistent as her last shouldn't be dismissed lightly.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)

Monday, November 29, 2004

63. Collective Soul - Youth (2004)

What if Collective Soul singer Ed Roland had a nasal, whiny voice instead of a booming baritone? Besides making his long hair seem silly, it would turn Collective Soul into a top-notch power pop unit. Afterall, their songwriting almost exclusively focuses on the high H's of power pop: Hooks and Harmony. Fortunately for them, Roland's manly voice has allowed them to masquarade as a hard rock band.

Forget that. Youth, their sixth album (and first since 2000), is pure pop. It begins with Better Now, as an effective "we're back" song as you could ask for. Roland tells us he's "newly calibrated" and "happy as Christmas" over a bed of praiseful vocals and saxophone (!). It sets the tone for an album that hasn't met a catchy chorus it didn't like.

Highlights include rockers Home, Feels Like (It Feels Alright), and Perfect To Stay. There are a couple of ballads, the best of which is the romantic Under Heaven's Skies. All are immaculately written, performed, and produced.

Herein lies the problem. Collective Soul is somewhat like a well-crafted dining room table. They are so well put together that you tend to take them for granted or not notice them at all. It doesn't help that Roland's lyrics are completely nondescript. There are no great lines or deep meanings. In fact, the vocals might as well be another perfectly tuned instrument in the mix. (This has been true for all of Collective Soul's albums except, oddly, for their third album, 1997's Disciplined Breakdown. That album had a very appealing spiritual focus.)

I guess that's why Collective Soul will never inspire great devotion in me. But I'll never miss one of their releases, either.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Better Now

Sunday, November 28, 2004

62. Gwen Stefani - Love Angel Music Baby (2004)

Here's why I love Gwen Stefani: It's not because she's sexy, cute and stylish (though that doesn't hurt), it's because she's so goofy and neurotic. Her lyrics have always been as transparent as a freshly-washed window. There has never seemed to be a filter or front between her thoughts and her words. Through her songs we've been made a party to her hopes, dreams, confessions and fears. No Doubt's first huge hit, Don't Speak, was cool because it was written about how pissed she was at the band's bassist. Return Of Saturn was full of songs about her desires to have a functional relationship and get married and have a baby. Even the party record Rock Steady was full of specific personal statements like Making Out and Underneath It All.

Usually when an artist goes solo, she uses the occasion to get personal, to write about things she couldn't in the confines of the band. I guess Gwen felt she had no choice but to go the opposite direction. In recent interviews she has made it clear that she wanted to make a dance record, and wasn't concerned with baring her soul. She definitely succeeded in that, in part because she continues her band's penchant for switching musical styles like Mr.Rogers switched shoes. The album makes use of multiple producers, including several top hip-hop hitmakers. As a result, the sound veers from disco to R & B to '80s pop to movie musical.

The throbbing What You Waiting For starts things off comfortingly. Here's Gwen writing a song about why she decided to do a solo album, which is so typical of her. But the program gets fuzzier from there. Faux-hip-hop songs like Rich Girl (produced by Dr.Dre), Harajuku Girls (produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), and Hollaback Girl (produced by the Neptunes) are essentially throwaways. They're catchy, inconsequential and hard-to-hate, especially the latter when Gwen says "Repeat after me / this shit is bananas / b-a-n-a-n-a-s."

Still, hearing an artist I'm so used to wearing hear heart on her sleeve be so material and mindless is slightly troublesome. It puts a little too much guilt into the pleasure.

It doesn't help that those tracks are all in close proximity to Cool, the best song on the album. A decidedly '80s synth ballad it features Gwen singing about Tony Kanal (the aformentioned No Doubt bassist) and how their friendship has settled into a comfortable place after several obstacles. It's a specific story matched to perfect music and exactly what I love about Gwen.

Speaking of Kanal and the '80s, he produces the album's second best song, Serious. Taking the lead from synth pop gods like Depeche Mode and O.M.D. it really sounds like a lost '80s hit. The best part? Gwen's voice going all Oingo Boingo on the title word in the chorus. Kylie Minogue would kill to have done this track...

The Real Thing also fares well, though it features a generic lyric. But who needs perfect lyrics when you have two members of New Order playing with Wendy and Lisa?! Now that Gwen has worked with Prince, Wendy, and Lisa, I fully expect Apollonia and Morris Day appearances on the next No Doubt album.

Elsewhere there are two collaborations with Andre 3000 from Outkast. Bubble Pop Electric is clearly inspired by Grease, as Gwen and Andre take on the roles of teenage lovers heading out on a date. It's musically-complex and melodically-pleasing addition to that time-honored tradition of songs about sex in cars. See the Misc. Lists section for more details. The other Andre 3000 track, Long Way To Go is a Prince-ly rumination on jungle love, but essentially reduces Gwen to a guest on her own album. It shouldn't have been included.

As of now, I'm really looking forward to the next No Doubt record. Love Angel Music Baby, though full of worthwhile moments, is sort of like a vacation. It was nice enough while you were there, but the biggest benefit was that it made you appreciate home more. Hearing Gwen put on a front makes me appreciate her transparency that much more.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Cool

Sunday, November 14, 2004

61. Eminem - Encore (2004)

What does a person expect when he or she buys an Eminem album? I think the answer to that has changed since 2001's The Eminem Show. After that album's ubiquitous success and then the even more ubiquitous success of 8 Mile and its accompanying theme Lose Yourself it was okay for your mom to sing an Eminem song. In a couple of fell strokes, Eminem went from a reviled fringe figure to someone who was widely embraced by the mainstream. In other words, he earned artistic capital. Now how has he spent it?

Well, if you judge from the first five songs on Encore. Evil Deeds is his typical family issues song, a sort of Cleaning Out My Closet sequel. Sign of maturity? Em says he's thankful for his talent. Never Enough features the ever-reliable Nate Dogg and a uncharacteristically tight verse from 50 Cent. Yellow Brick Road details Em's past and focuses specifically on the recently-discovered tape wherein he used the n-word. And get this: He actually apologizes! Like Toy Soldiers rescues Martika's Toy Soldiers from obscurity for the chorus and addresses the repercussions of the beefs that rappers engage in. Again, Em's tone seems conciliatory. Finally, Mosh is a strident call to action that expresses some strong feelings toward Mr.Bush and his policies. It's a great track and don't think it's not still important now that the election is over. I hope tons of young people are out there listening to and internalizing it.

Apologizing? Calling for peace? Calling for people to stand up for their rights and beliefs? This is good stuff!

But just when you're getting comfortable, the old Eminem shows up. Puke is the first skip-worthy song of many on the latter three-fourths of the album. Dedicated to his ex-wife Kim, the song details why she elicits the title reaction. As much as in interviews he speaks of wanting his daughter to have a positive impression of her mother, he doesn't really seem too intent on it. And though the song is not my thing, I can't hate too much, because he's not falling out of character, only reverting to a former one. The same can't be said for several songs that follow.

Instead of being juvenile and offensive, several of the next few songs are just plain inconsequential. My 1st Single is a messy word spill highlighted by repeating burps and farts. Big Weenie, Ass Like That, and Spend Some Time can all fall under my worst category for a song: Boring. Rain Man, a funny stream of consciousness that features Em parroting the titular figure, is an exception, but it also accidentally reveals his the strategy for the aforementioned songs when Em says: "I just did a whole song and I didn't say shit." The Eminem Show was a flawed affair, but managed to always be gripping even when it was cringe-worthy. We expected to be shocked and offended, but not bored or baffled.

One Shot 2 Shot is also completely useless. It's the obligatory D12 song and if you're wondering why he included it when a whole D12 album came out just 7 months ago, think about royalties. When Encore sells a ton of copies, those D12 can finally get enough money to feed their families (just like Latrell Sprewell).

But not all hope is lost for the album; there are a couple of gems in the rough. Mockingbird is dedicated-to-Hallie song, and while writing a song to your daughter is generally a horrible idea, this one actually works, thanks to a refusal to sentimentalize. Crazy In Love samples Heart to good effect and is a more fitting explanation of his feelings toward his ex-wife than Puke. And Just Lose It is the My Name Is, The Real Slim Shady, Without Me of the album, the insanely catchy, insanely funny single. I have it on repeat. Favorite part besides the Pee-Wee Herman laugh? "Yeah boy shake that ass / oops I mean girl, girl, girl, girl / You know you're my world."

Final verdict? I resisted liking Eminem for so long, then finally gave in and now I don't feel rewarded for that choice. I feel like that artistic capital has been misspent. Given Em's immense verbal talent and the strength of 8 of these songs this album could have been so much better. Actually, I wonder if contentment just doesn't sit right with him. Perhaps the critical lambasting he gets for this album will give him enough material and vitriol to blow us away on the next one.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Mosh

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Wrong choice, America

Here Comes President Kill Again
Written by Andy Partridge
Performed by XTC

Here comes President Kill again
Surrounded by all of his killing men
Telling us who, why, where and when
President Kill wants killing again

Hooray, ring out the bells
King Conscience is dead!
Hooray, now back in your cells
We've President Kill instead

Here comes President Kill again
Broadcasting from his killing den
Dressed in pounds and dollars and yen
President Kill wants killing again

Hooray, hang out the flags
Queen Caring is dead!
Hooray, we'll stack body bags
For President Kill instead

Ain't democracy wonderful?
Them (terrorists) can't win!
Ain't democracy wonderful?
Let's us vote someone like that in

Here comes President Kill again
From pure white house to number 10
Taking lives with a smoking pen
President Kill wants killing again

Hooray, everything's great
Now President Kill is dead
Hooray, I bet you can't wait
To vote for President Kill instead