Wednesday, December 22, 2004

John Mayer - "Home Life"

When it comes to feeling settled, we all have a certain temperament. For many people, it can change depending on the situation, but you always hold a basic idea of what's most comfortable. As I face holiday travel tomorrow I'm reminded again how much I just like to stay home.

But I've already written about that (Jellyfish, I Wanna Stay Home). And though that's a part of Mayer's song, it's not the whole story.

The real story is the search for romantic satisfaction. God, how many songs have been written about it? I'm guessing that an objective overview of the history of pop music would prove that more songs have been written about the negative side of love than the positive side. As the Carpenters sang "the best love songs were written with a broken heart."

Mayer doesn't appear to have a broken heart in this song, though he's definitely resolute that he doesn't want one. "I refuse to believe," he sings, "that my life's gonna be / just some string of incompletes / never to lead me to anything remotely close to a home life." It's a statement of strength that also acknowledges failure. That's very comforting to me right now.

The song goes on to pine for a "normal" life. Mayer puts it like this in the chorus: "I want to live in the center of a circle / I want to live on the side of a square." I assume the circle is a family circle, and the square is a house. You know, the things that most of us middle class kids were brought up to expect from our life. And now, so many of us are frustrated to find it's not as easy to achieve as we'd been led to believe.

The song doesn't offer much in the way philosophy or advice. It's merely a statement of purpose. But such an un-rockstarish sentiment is what endears me to John Mayer while so many others flee from him. In fact, there's even some self-deprecation when he acknowledges that his professional accomplishments are nothing compared to the prospect of creating a happy life: "I will go to my grave / With the life that I gave / Not just some melody line / On a radio wave."

I used to think that if I was completely happy professionally, I wouldn't mind if that middle class ideal life never happened, but now I know just it isn't true. Thanks a lot, Mayer.

Album: Heavier Things (2003)
Fave moment: The bridge, when he vows, "I can tell you this much / I will marry just once / and if it doesn't work out / give her half of my stuff / It's fine with me / We said eternity." It may be a little naive, but you gotta admire the intention.

Friday, December 17, 2004

2004: Great Eight

Here it is, my favorite time of the musical year, that time when music obsessives everywhere condense all of the year's releases into a pocket sized list. It's our best chance to display our good taste, and make sense of the myriad of releases we inundated ourselves with.

I must admit that last year I was frustrated by how much time and perspective changed my list, so this year I'm playing it safe by only including 8 CDs. Most of the albums that made it were reviewed at some point in the year, on this very site, so I've included the review number and month so you can go back and read more if you choose. I've also included what number the CD was in my yearly buying. Yes, I keep a list.

Also, check out Richard Nelson's Top 10 at Highway 290 Revisited.

Brian Wilson - Smile

37 years later the Beach Boys' lost masterpiece finally arrives. Of course two/fifths of the original group are dead, and two/fifths more didn't participate, but it's still a triumph for Brian Wilson, his current band, and even The Beach Boys' legacy. Wilson and collaborators did such a good job that I can hardly bring myself to react to the album as a modern production; it takes me back to a time I never even knew.

Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
Read the review.

What more can I say? Tons of ink have already been devoted to this marriage of rap's top MC and rock's top group. It has the strange and improbable effect of making one appreciate both Jay-Z and The Beatles even more.

Olympic Hopefuls - The Fuses Refuse To Burn
Read the review.

I'll always have a weak spot for a local band that makes good. The Olympic Hopefuls make catchy power pop that holds up to repeat listenings (and viewings...I've seen them in concert twice). And you gotta love the Puma tracksuits.

Prince - Musicology
Read the review.

Don't call it a comeback, but it IS a rare return to form for an artist who always had a great form. Adroit fellow that he is, Prince also managed to keep this album in the top 10 of the album charts for most of the year. So why shouldn't it appear on this top 10 as well?

The Roots - The Tipping Point

Here's the usual line on The Roots: They're a great band who just can't get it together for a full disc. And I've gotta say, my first couple of listens to this album seemed to confirm that yet again. Why the spoken word ending on a 7-minute opener (and what exactly is "the bud of wackness")? Why the 10-minute jam at the end of the disc? But a few more listens, and I started to say I Don't Care because the middle of the album is just that rock solid. The band is locked in, every song has a clear hook, and lyricist / rapper Black Thought was clearly inspired.

(My reconsideration of this CD occured simultaneously with a small moment I witnessed outside of the Electric Fetus. As I was going in I saw a guy heading out. He'd just bought this CD and he was taking the cellophane off right by the trash can. He was that eager to listen.)

Sloan - Action Pact
Read the review.

Sometimes you just need to rock, and when you add harmony to that rock, then the volume's gotta be way up. This whipsmart CD allows me to test my pain threshold, especially in my car, where the volume is usually set at a comfortable 18. When this baby's on, we're cruising at 22.

Jimmy Eat World - Futures
Read the review.

No other album this year was as consistent for its first 8 songs. Nor did any other album manage to inspire as much passion, wistfulness, righteous anger, and steering wheel drumming.

Beastie Boys - To The 5 Boroughs
Read the review.

The hiatus is back off, again, and thank God! The Beasties first fully consistent CD in 15 years is like a great movie...full of instantly quotable lines (example: "I got a Bedazzler so my outfit's tight"). Musically, the Boys keep it simple and direct, but lyrically, it's as dizzying as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. With every listen, you hear new things.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

2004: The Best Of The Rest

It's end-of-the-year list time, and this year there are some extra categories designed to give props to music that didn't make the vaunted Top 10.

Guiltiest Pleasure:
Avril Lavigne - Under My Skin
I'd call a guilty pleasure something you are embarrassed to be seen purchasing, or to be caught listening to with the windows down. Luckily the Internet has made the buying anonymous, and air conditioning gives us comfort with closed windows. Avril's album is slickly produced, surprisingly un-annoying, and catchy as hell.

Best Soundtrack or Compilation:
Garden State
Any good soundtrack can stand on its own but also gives the listener that extra depth of experience if they've seen the movie. This does it perfectly; every song plays some significant part in Zach Braff's funny / sad / inspiring film.

Greatest Greatest Hits:
Carpenters - Carpenters Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition
Greatest hits collections serve two purposes. One is to properly introduce you to an artist - Jackson Browne's Very Best Of did that for me this year. The other is to make you realize just how good one of your favorite artists really was. This Carpenters collection does that, and it gets extra props for being the first collection that has every Carpenters song I'd like to own. As an added bonus there's a version of The Rainbow Connection that Karen made soon before her death.

Best Cover Art:
Supergrass - Supergrass Is 10: 94-04
The front is merely clever, with various vintage buttons spouting cheeky phrases like "Draft Beer Not Students." But the back is inspired, with a different button for each song title. As a font and design obsessed person, I think it's wonderful.

Best Cover Version:
The Postal Service - Against All Odds
If anyone could make hipsters embrace Phil Collins cool again, it's the Postal Service, and here they've done it with a cover that starts off low-fi and then breaks into a stuttering acoustically-driven version that improves the original by leaving the pop and increasing the cool.

Biggest Disappointment:
The Cure - The Cure
Beware when bands claim they've returned to their beloved sound after years in the wilderness. It can be a triumph, like Duran Duran's Astronaut, or a disaster, like The Cure's self-titled release. The album is mopey and grating without ever hitting on the so-gloomy-it-feels-good balance that all of the best Cure songs manage.

Best Album Title:
Bigger Lovers - This Affair Never Happened...And Here are 11 Songs About It

Best Reissue and Live Album:
Talking Heads - The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads
The one gap in their discography is now filled with this expanded release of this mostly electrifying 1982 live album.

Biggest Surprise:
The Honeydogs - 10,000 Years
Be careful who you sleep on. Minneapolis workhorses The Honeydogs always seemed like a barely better-than-average bar band, and then they came along with 10,000 Years, a stunner of a concept album that manages to shift musical styles effortlessly while also delivering a stark anti-war message. The title song is brilliant. The only reason this didn't make my Top 10 is because of its dubious status as a 2004 release (it came out locally at the end of last year).

Thursday, December 02, 2004

65. Mos Def - The New Danger (2004)

Sometimes (more often than I'd like, actually) I walk out of the record store with something I never expected to purchase. Such was the case a month or so ago when I went into the Electric Fetus and walked out with Mos Def's latest effort The New Danger.

A couple of nights before I'd seen Mos Def perform his new song Close Edge on the Chapelle Show. His performance was simple but unconventional. As Dave drove, Mos sat in the passenger seat and rapped, seeming for all the world like he was making it up on the spot. I was mesmerized.

Even so, I hadn't even thought about seeking out the album until someone came into the Fetus and asked about it. Anyone publicly expressing interest in an artist is always fascinating to me, and I eavesdropped as I heard the clerk say, "Yeah, you want to listen to it first? It's pretty weird." And that sold me.

Of course there's always bad weird and good weird. Luckily, this record falls into the latter category. It's a big old stylistic mess: overlong, sporadically brilliant and always engaging. What other rap album is going to give you lovingly crooned faux-reggae (The Boogie Man Song, The Beggar), straight-up blues (Blue Black Jack), rap-rock (Freaky Black Greetings,War, Zimzallabim), and soul (The Panties)?

The rap-rock tracks, recorded with the band Black Jack Johnson are likely to be the biggest head-scratchers to hip-hop fans who seek this out. I think they're stand-outs though, and the band recalls Rage Against The Machine, but with a better rapper/vocalist. But I must admit, hearing Mos repeatedly call out to "Jack Johnson!" brings up unpleasant images of laconic acoustic guitar players.

The raps are the best part of the album, of course. Sunshine comes in at track #9 and is the disc's first transcendent moment. Using a Hair sample, Mos claims he's "the shot clock / way above the game" and that his "style's fresh / Like I'm a day old." It's hard to argue when he flows...not angry but intense, not your typical money - guns - girls rapper but still hip-hop, a movie star but still completely authentic. Close Edge's dizzying chorus "Don't touch me 'cause I'm close to the steets, to the beats, the bitches, the niggas, the women, the children, the workers, the killers, the addicts, the dealers, the quiet, the livest, the realest...I'm like J.Brown gettin' involved" speaks for itself.

Modern Marvel is perhaps the most interesting song. It's an epic tribute to Marvin Gaye that uses a subtle-to-obvious What's Going On sample. Mos breaks off a rap that wonders how Marvin would react to our modern world, when socially-conscious masterpieces like Mercy Mercy Me, Inner City Blues, and What's Going On spoke of the exact same problems in 1971. It's an unconventional, if sobering and effective, way to put things in perspective.

At 75 minutes, I could trot out the old rap album complaint: "It's too long and overindulgent; why couldn't he have done a bit more self-editing?" That's valid, but two things set this record apart from the other albums that have to suffer this criticism. One is that Mos Def is just so damn cool (think about it... he's got a rap career, AND he's been in movies with Robert DeNiro, Eddie Murphy, Marky Mark, Ed Norton, Halle Berry, and Billy Bob Thornton and, yes, Kevin Bacon...not even Ice Cube has worked with that caliber of talent), and the stylistic changes are at least daring and different. We don't have the usual 2/4 of monotonous filler and skits that sink so many rap albums.

Is it going to be a classic? Probably not. But for a unexpected purchase, it ain't bad.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Close Edge

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Rilo Kiley - "Portions For Foxes"

Ah, a great opening line can be a work of art, and Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley's singer, obviously recognizes this. Portions For Foxes begins thusly: "There's blood in my mouth 'cause I've been biting my tongue all week."

That kicks off a catchy, guitar-driven, too-realistic rumination on romance. This isn't the typical a boy-broke-my-heart story, but instead a complex confession from a girl who knows she's just using someone to satisfy her earthly desires, and has no lasting romantic interest. She hates to do it, but she has little self control because "the talking leads to touching and the touching leads to sex." Immediately this leads to regret because "then there is no mystery left." Ouch.

The chorus, then as if we didn't know, Lewis tells us in the chorus: "And it's bad news / Baby I'm bad news."

Bad girl songs are nothing new. Fiona Apple's Criminal is probably the torchbearer. Songs like that are perfect for sensitive boys who fear they're always destined to get their hearts broken. To hear a girl admit fault is comforting.

But Lewis won't let them off the hook that easy. In the song's last verse she turns the tables and imagines how the guy might feel: "There's a pretty girl in front of you / yeah she's real pretty and she's real into you." Turns out that girl is her and she realizes (or hopes?) the guy is just as detached as she is. This makes the song infinitely more interesting, because suddenly we're wondering if she's really a bad girl, or if she just wishes she was.

In fact, the end may be a clue. Though her friends are all telling her to get out of the relationship she decides: "I don't care, I like you."

Anybody with recent experience / observation of modern romance will not be shocked by this sort of scenario but the fact that there's a song about it is pretty damn cool.

As for the title, it IS a line in the song, but that's the only cryptic thing about the whole affair. Lewis sings, "we'll all be portions for foxes." My guess is that it refers to the fact that foxes are smart animals who get the meat they want with little concern for the consequences.

Album: More Adventurous (2004)
Fave Moment: After the line "I know I'm alone if I'm with or without you" the guitar does an subtle imitiation of the Edge's riff from that song.