Thursday, December 08, 2005

2005: Top Ten

It was an atypical year in many ways. I bought a lot of CDs in the middle of the year but almost none at the beginning or end. I got an iPod, and that has brought me closer to my music than ever before. I wrote very few reviews, and I don't really know why. And there was very little agonizing about this top ten list. In fact, I could have given you this exact same list about a month and a half ago. Believe me, that's strange.

Before we dive in, I'd like to give props to those albums that fell just a bit short, works by Fiona Apple, Spoon, Kathleen Edwards, Aimee Mann, The Hold Steady, and Common.

Ben Folds - Songs For Silverman
Read the review!

If you like Ben Folds in ballad mode, then this is the album for you. I do, and it is.



The Perceptionists - Black Dialogue

DJ Fakts One, Mr.Lif, and Akrobatic team up to make the year's most fun rap album. Mixing bravado (Blo!), social commentary (Memorial Day), romance (Love Letters) and humor (Career Finders) the CD is tight and enjoyable throughout.


The Wallflowers - Rebel, Sweetheart
Read the review!
CD #: 36
Another solid effort filled with memorable melodies and lyrics. The hipsters aren't likely to catch on, nor is the mainstream public. But rest easy Jakob, I'm listening.


Erasure - Nightbird

An unlikely story. Who would have guessed that in a year where synth bands like New Order and Depeche Mode put out new work, the lightweights of the movement would produce the best record? Showing little interest in modernizing their sound, Andy and Vince give us 11 songs that sound like the could be the soundtracks to important moments in '80s teen flicks. And yes, that's a good thing.


Atmosphere - You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having

Slug and Ant had a busy year with their label (Rhymesayers) and side project (Felt) but the duo still found time to build on past successes with this disc. Ant's beats are varied and soulful and Slug tackles his demons: girls (Smart Went Crazy), family (Little Man), addiction (Pour Me Another) and tragedy (That Night). And though the title is likely ironic, the album isn't a drag at all. I swear it isn't the white rapper thing, but Slug reminds me of Eminem, albeit a less crass and psychotic version.


The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema
Whatever it was that prevented me from going as gaga over their last album as everyone else did is gone now. Though early reports that the album was slower and more introspective had me worried, it's "slow songs" like These Are The Fables and The Bleeding Heart Show that I find the most thrilling. But I still can't figure out the lyrics.

Vicious Vicious - Don't Look So Surprised
Read the review!

I can handle a year without a new Hopefuls disc if the solo members put out work this good in the meantime. Just barely more than an EP, these seven songs tell a sad story of a relationship that was doomed from the start.

Nada Surf - The Weight Is A Gift

Maybe Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla shouldn't have done such a good job of producing this album, since it's actually better than his own band's latest. Here, Nada Surf finally fulfill their power pop promise on songs like Concrete Bed and Always Love. The only flaw in the album is the extended time on the end of the final track. Why do bands continue to do this?!

Motion City Soundtrack - Commit This To Memory
Read the review!

Was it slavish of me to buy this CD and then promptly follow the directive given in the title? Maybe, but I have no regrets.


Glen Phillips - Winter Pays For Summer
Read the review!

This CD is a lot like my year: A little bit of the unexpected, a little bit of the familiar, thrilling in places and slow in others, but always benefiting from the presence of good friends. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

2005: The Best Of The Rest

It's that time again. I'll be posting my top ten albums of the year this Friday! But in anticipation, here are some other noteworthy 2005 releases.

Also, check out what my pal Richard Nelson picked in similar categories on Highway 290 Revisited.

Guiltiest Pleasure:
The Click Five - Greetings From Imrie House
You know when you're eating chocolate chip cookies and don't know when to stop? The Click Five are like the last cookie that was one too many. The debut album from this mall-hopping, Boston-based power pop outfit is sugary and addictive, but also likely to give you a bit of an ache, be it in the tooth, stomach or head.





Best Soundtrack:
Various Artists - Walk The Line
The actors sing, and do a bang up job. Like the film, the idea isn't to exactly reproduce the originals, but to make us appreciate them in a new light. Mission Accomplished.







Best Compilation:
Various Artists - The Bootlegs Volume 1: Celbrating 35 Years At First Avenue
You don't have to live in Minneapolis to appreciate the music recorded at the city's most famous venue. Sure, seven local artists (including Husker Du, Jayhawks, and The Replacements) appear, but there's a wide variety of other interesting artists such as Patti Smith, Ween, Richard Thompson, and Old 97's. Highlights include an audience participation version of Joe Jackson's timeless Is She Really Going Out With Him? and The Suburbs' Every Night's A Friday Night (In Hell).

Greatest Greatest Hits:
The Roots - Home Grown! A Beginner's Guide To Understanding The Roots, Volume One
A strange greatest hits collection from a band that only has a couple of them anyway. You Got Me is here, but in its original Jill Scott form. It's surrounded by a few recognizable album tracks and some stuff that has never before been released. It's not necessarily the best of their work, but it definitely lives up to its title; if you want to know what The Roots are about, it's all right here.




Best Cover Art:
Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings - Naturally
Nothing really stood out this year, but this retro cover represents the music as well as any cover possibly could. And that's the idea, right? The fake liner notes essay is an added bonus.







Best Cover Version:
Halloween Alaska, I Can't Live Without My Radio
Local "super" group and OC favorites take the first 41 seconds of the LL Cool J classic and turn it into a 3 minute electronic mediation.







Best Album Title:
Jack Johnson - In Between Dreams
While it's not especially original or clever, the title does describe how my life felt in 2005.








Best Live Album:
Morrissey - Live At Earls Court
Focusing mostly on his latest album (which I don't have), Moz sounds worthy of his cult worshipers. He also includes a Patti Smith cover (Redondo Beach), some Smiths' classics and endearingly brief song introductions. The best moment comes in Bigmouth Strikes Again, wherein Joan Of Arc's walkman has become an iPod.





Best Reissue:
Elton John - Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy
Okay, I already own three versions of this album (vinyl, CD, SACD) but I had to buy this anyway. Why? Well, you're always looking for excuses to buy your favorite albums again, but in this case it's a really good excuse. Not only does the packaging exactly reproduce the original LP (down to a miniature comic book and poster) but it includes a second disc with the entire album performed live in 1975 (the year of its release). It sounds magnificent, even if Elton sounds terrified. Note: Isn't it weird that this came out the same year as Springsteen's Born To Run? It seems like they're from two completely different eras.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Heads Up!

Talking Heads finally got around to remastering their albums and have released the results as an 8-disc set called The Brick. The albums were remastered by Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison and feature expanded artwork, bonus tracks, and extra DVD content. This is heaven for a Heads enthusiast such as myself. But one quibble: For a band that always prided themselves on their artistic sensibilities, it seems ludicrous to put these albums out with no back artwork or side labels. It's all just white, making the albums indistinguishable from one another on the shelf.

That aside, I thought I'd guide you on a tour through the Talking Heads recorded career. It's a journey that spans 11 years, countless musicians, and 1 big suit.

87. Talking Heads - Talking Heads: '77 (1977)

In artistic terms this is a rough sketch for the larger masterpiece. It features the building blocks of the band's future structure: rhythm, live energy, strange lyrics and goofy singing. Though they came in right on the heels of the punk movement, the most punk thing about the band was the fact that their songs sounded nothing like punk. And their look! Take a peek at that back cover image. These guys are nerds! Short hair? Izod shirts?

The album includes their signature tune, Psycho Killer, as well as some overlooked gems like Don't Worry About The Government and the opener, Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town. The latter has to be one of the best first-song-first-album titles for any band ever.

Overall, much less embarrassing than other debuts from the Heads' contemporaries (sorry XTC). The new version features some great bonus tracks, and is basically the only disc that does. No alternate versions, just rare early songs, including the band's first single Love - Building On Fire.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town


88. Talking Heads - More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)

First there's that title. What does it mean? Is it referring to the fact that two early Talking Heads songs were about a building (Love - Building On Fire) and food (Sugar On My Tongue)? Does it even matter? It's a great title. And then there's the cover image, a life-size distorted mosaic of the four band members created with close-up polaroids. It's amazing.

If anything, those two attributes showed that this was going to be an interesting band, especially after the bland first album title and artwork. But musically it's almost a continuation of the first album, and those with a casual awareness of the Talking Heads would find only one song they recognize, the jolting cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River.

But there's some great work here, including the paranoid Artists Only ("You can't see it till it's finished!") and the somber closer The Big Country. Previously, David Byrne's lyrics seemed to hold a wide-eyed innocence but this is the first time we see melancholy, even pessimism, creeping in. The weary narrator of the song is up in a plane, surveying the land below, and he doesn't like what he sees. "I wouldn't live there if you paid me," he keeps saying. The song has a twangy Americana sound that the Heads would soon completely abandon, only to pick up again later.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Artists Only


89. Talking Heads - Fear Of Music (1979)

Like the black metal siding on the cover of the album
, this CD presents a more obscure and enigmatic Talking Heads. Singer David Byrne experimented with French phrases on Psycho Killer, but in the opener I Zimbra he abandons English altogether. It's a startling start. The standout Life During Wartime is appropriately apocalyptic, at least until Byrne starts shouting "this ain't no party, this ain't no disco," and namechecks CBGB's.

And I guess that's the theme throughout. Things are kinda dark, but humor shines through. Cities gallops along as it tickles the funnybone, especially when we learn that a dry ice factory is a "good place to get some thinking done" and that Memphis is the "home of Elvis a
nd the ancient Greeks."

Heaven is the first authentically soulful Talking Heads song, imagining that heaven is a bar that everyone wants to get into, but also where "nothing really happens." Howev
er, something was obviously happening with the Heads' sound. They opened up into something more on this album, and would explore that even further on the next. It's what the critics might call "transitional."

Grade: B
Fave Song: Cities


90. Talking Heads - Remain In Light (1980)

If the quality of the Talking Heads' recorded output is a bell curve,
and I guess I'm saying it is, then this album shares the top of the curve. Though the hit Once In A Lifetime claimed "same as it ever was," that clearly wasn't the case.

To start we have the cover image, four closeups of the band members, with their faces digitally scribbled in red. You might see them as masks, or as a way to depart from
their past. They didn't really need to make it obvious, because the music took care of that well enough. Though it contains a couple of standout singles (Lifetime, and Crosseyed And Painless) the album is a whole listening experience from beginning to end.

The influence on these tracks were African rhythms and '70s funk, neither of which was absent from their early work, just not as obvious or embellished as they are here. The results are ass-shakingly good, and in some cases quite creepy as well. The one-two punch of Seen And Not Seen (a weird spoken fable) and The Listening Wind near the end of the record is haunting.

The only drawback to this album is the relative lack of humor, especially when compared to its predecessor. Oh, Byrne gets a couple of good ones in, calling himself a "government man" on Born Under Punches and the famous "this is not my beautiful wife" rant in Once In A Lifetime, but overall these are SERIOUS lyrics meant to accompany the artistic leap
made by the band.

Mission accomplished on that.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Once In A Lifetime


91. Talking Heads - Speaking In Tongues (1983)

The band's high point continued through this 1983 opus, which comes on like a looser, more fun version of its predecessor (you wouldn't have found a line like "I got a girlfriend with bows in her hair / and nothing is better than that" on Remain In Light). The band suddenly bloomed into 9 members, adding a second guitarist, keyboardist, percussionist, and two backup singers.

Kicking off with the hit Burning Down The House, the album is groovy and energetic from start to finish. Making Flippy Floppy is so propulsive that Byrne sounds like he's making up the lyrics just to keep up with the groove, though he does get one lucid shot in, and a depressing one at that: "Our president's crazy / did you hear what he said?" Girlfriend Is Better is one of th
e most intriguing songs they ever created, and Swamp is like some futuristic version of the blues.

But the best song comes last. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) is my favorite Talking Heads track ever. In contrast with the rest of the album, the tone of the song is meditative, but there's still a very strong groove behind it. And the lyrics! When Byrne sings them, they don't sound like a mash note, but read them and you'll find they are. Or just listen to Shawn Colvin's version.

The band would tour behind this album and create the definitive
concert film Stop Making Sense, released in 1984. The soundtrack to that movie is not included with these Talking Heads remasters, but it is essential to any Talking Heads collection, and may be the album I would recommend if you were only getting one.

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


92. Talking Heads - Little Creatures (1985)

After the extended triumph of Remain In Light, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (a 1982 live album), Speaking In Tongues, and Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads took a curious step. They downsized and started writing pop songs again. It seemed almost as if their ambition was tapped out. That's not to say this is a bad album, just a tiny bit disappointing.


Highlights include And She Was, which is about a girl who disappears. Strangely the music and lyrics find the joy and freedom in it. Stay Up Late is a disarmingly direct and simple song about playing with a baby (what?). Creatures Of Love is basically a country tune (hearkening all the way back to 1978 and The Big Country; I told you they'd pick it back up). And Ro
ad To Nowhere is a grandiose epic that captures some of the energy the band displayed so much of in 1983.

But other songs fall just a tiny bit flat, as though the band were just going through the motions. In retrospect, this can be seen as the beginning of the end.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: And She Was



93. Talking Heads - True Stories (1986)

In 1986 David Byrne decided to become a film director, and his first effort was a kind of charming semi-musical about odd characters living in a Texas town. That movie was called True Stories, and the album of the same name features the Talking Heads' versions of songs from the film. Despite that complicated origin, the album is basically of a piece with Little Creatures. That is to say, these are pop songs.

This album is largely regarded as the band's weakest, even despite some strong
moments. Love For Sale kinda rocks, and so does the hit Wild Wild Life (though the guitar bit is a dead ringer for the one in The Rolling Stones' Shattered). People Like Us is a sweet country tune in the vein of The Big Country and Creatures Of Love. And City Of Dreams is a sister to Road To Nowhere, but cops a much more optimistic tone ("if we can live together / the dream might come true").

Other songs just kind of blend in, the only other real notable tune being Radio Head, but only because it gave a name to a different pioneering band. And while True Stories is not a bad album, it suffers in comparison. Pop songs were simply not what fans looked for in a band like Talking Heads, especially when there were countless bands doing pop so much be
tter at the time.

Grade: C
Fave Song: City Of Dreams



94. Talking Heads - Naked (1988)

The Talking Heads' swan song was an attempt to reclaim the innovation of their peak of the early '80s. It was a minor return to form for the band, combining the pop elements of their previous two records with the groove-oriented style of Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues, sometimes to exciting effect.

The best songs are the first two. Blind and Mr. Jones are a return to the days when the Heads made music to shake your ass to. The grooves come on strong, the horns are hot, and David Byrne's lyrics are once again a series of images and bon mots and onomatopoeia, and he delivers them with a renewed energy.

Unfortunately that doesn't last. After eight years under Reagan, it seems Byrne was pissed. Songs like The Democratic Circus and Facts Of Life are shocking in their bitterness ("and now who's boss / and who's he leaving behind?" or "we cannot resist so I will not fight"). This might be palatable, or even exciting, if the music behind it wasn't so laborious and dark and at times even grating. Another tune, Bill, even seems to be about a child molester. It's disturbing, especially from a band that used to tell give us such funny lyrical fodder.

(Nothing But) Flowers is also socially-minded, but handles itself much better. The music and melody are catchy, and the lyrics are a completely ironic rumination on nature overtaking civilization ("this was a Pizza Hut / now it's all covered with daisies.")

Frankly though, this album is not a deserving final chapter for a band that gave us so much. Too many songs are non-descript and boring. The new remastered version salvages things slightly by adding the lively bonus track Sax and Violins as a closer, but it's not enough to overcome a lackluster tone that likely reflected the nature of the band's inner conflict than anything else. After four years of inactivity they would officially break up in 1992.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Mr. Jones

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Robbie Fulks - "Fountains Of Wayne Hotline"

Another from the curiosity department:

I came across this single on iTunes and was immediately intrigued. For one thing, Robbie Fulks appeared on my radar this year with Georgia Hard, a better than decent country throwback album. Also, who what Fountains Of Wayne fan could pass up that title?

Turns out it's basically a metasong, a song about writing a song. That's not especially rare, especially if you're a Weird Al Fan ("This Song Is Just Six Words Long" anyone?). What's so curious is that one can't tell if Fulks is paying tribute to FOW, or deriding them for being formulaic.

The song is broken into three parts. The first is a quiet verse wherein Fulks tells us he's tired of having zero success as a country music writer/performer and needs a new sound. So he calls the Fountains Of Wayne Hotline, a musical advice service. He speaks to Gerald, who tells him to spice up the second verse with a "radical dynamic shift" and a "full band entry."

At this point it basically becomes Fountains Of Wayne song, and Fulks doesn't pull any punches, saying he'll now be "beating these three chords into early middle age." Again, is he making fun of the guys from FOW? From my perspective, they've had relatively little success and don't deserve to be a target, especially with so many truly crappy bands out there making it big (sorry Nickelback fans).

After an announced "slightly distorted melodic guitar solo" Fulks calls the hotline again and this time gets Grant, a Jack Nicholson soundalike who works in the Department Of Bridges And Infrastructure. Fulks gets technical on us, describing the chords and textual variations he's used in the song so far. Grant suggests that he keep the same chords, and "slather the whole hell out of the thing with a semi-ironic Beach Boys vocal pad."

That's just what Fulks does. And it's pretty thrilling. If he really is making the point that this is just a formula and anyone could do it, then why does he make it sound so good?!

On the Yep Roc website, Fulks claims that the single was done out of admiration, and the Fountains Of Wayne website is even promoting the song! But I think there's something else bubbling underneath. We may never know the true story.

Album: Single Only
Fave Moment: The harmonies on the line: "turn my muddy waters into sweet Mexican wine."

Saturday, October 15, 2005

86. The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers (2005)

Very few things in life can sustain the same level of excitement from beginning to end, and The Magic Numbers' debut album is no exception. Like a party that's loud, full and hoppin' from the get-go and then eventually dwindles down to a quiet few, the CD makes its statement early and then fades away.

Mornings Eleven is a helluva opener. It consists of two separate sections; the first makes you want to shake your ass, the second makes you want to swoon. Going from country-rock boogie to '50s doo-wop harmony, the two movements spend the song alternating back and forth, and it's effective enough to make the 5-and-a-half minute running time seem too short.

As the album continues that becomes a recurring theme. The songs are long, but rarely overstay their welcome. That's a tribute to Romeo Stodart's compositions, but another factor may be that the group consists of two sets of brothers and sisters (the Allman Brothers would be proud). I believe that familial synergy adds a bit of, well, magic to the arrangements.

Second song Forever Lost at first seems like your typical uptempo '60s style British Invasion stomper, and then around the two minute mark it gets all introspective and anthemic, building to a very satisfying crescendo before returning to the familiar territory of the beginning, just a bit more weary. The Mule manages to conjure up a hypnotic power without being a standout track, melodically or lyrically. Long Legs shimmies and shakes like a Partridge Family classic; it's a multi-colored bus that runs on skipping guitar, tambourine and handclaps. The you're-better-than-the-one-I'm-with theme Love Me Like You continues that vibe, encapsulates everything that's great about the first four songs, and brings it all to a peak. You might feel a little exhausted after listening to it.

And honestly, the album never fully recovers its stamina after delivering this 1-2-3-4-5 punch. Which Way To Happy is meditative and rootsy. I See You, You See Me is a (bitter)sweet duet that opens up into a counterpoint expression of devotion in the bridge. The countryish plea Don't Give Up The Fight is the last gasp before the last five songs blur into a (mostly) delicate and mellow coda. None of them are bad (though Hymn For Her is a terrible title), they just don't match the level of quality set in the beginning of the record.

But I suppose The Magic Numbers can be forgiven for that. Any band that can manage to generate as much excitement as they do at the start of their debut, and manage to sound like The New Pornographers if Pete Droge handled the lead vocals in the process, deserves props. Ultimately, we should be happy for the joy they've given us, and not rue its departure. And even the best party can't last all night.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Love Me Like You

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Fountains Of Wayne - "Troubled Times"

I consider this the final installment of a sporadic episodic sequence, starting back in December with my thoughts on John Mayer's Home Life and continuing in March with the Robbers On High Street's The Price & Style. I never planned to use these song essays in an autobiographical manner, but essays and songs can be tricky like that.

When writing about Home Life, I wrote about how the song spoke to me exactly. The Price & Style found me interpreting non-specific lyrics to fit life experience. This time I want to ponder how a song's lyrics can suddenly become relevant. Take Fountains Of Wayne's Troubled Times, from their second album, Utopia Parkway. It's a lush, harmony-driven ballad that has always stood out on that album as a shoulda-been hit.

The song has a story, but unlike FOW's other work, it's not so easy to figure out. It can be impressionistic at times. The narrator regrets that things have gone sour with a certain someone in his life, someone that was or could have become very special to him. We don't know what kept them apart. Maybe he treated her wrong, maybe she didn't give him enough of a chance. But suddenly our hero has hope again, and the chorus repeatedly claims: "Maybe one day soon / it'll all come out / how we dream about each other sometimes."

I always liked the song, but not until recently did I identify with it. Let's just say the idea of two people looking for romantic redemption is very relatable to me right now. Now lines drop in and speak to me. Things like, "all you imagined / fit so well into your plans" and "start with a weak foundation / it will lead to ruin."

Where the first two installments of this trilogy ended on notes of regret, this one is fittingly more upbeat.

Album: Utopia Parkway (1999)
Fave Moment: The background vocals at the end of the bridge.

Friday, August 19, 2005

85. The Click Five - Greetings From Imrie House (2005)

I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not The Click Five's target market. They are currently touring the mall circuit and have opened for Ashlee Simpson, Aaron Carter, and Backstreet Boys, there are ads for their album on MTV, and the CD comes with a "collectable trading card" (I got the drummer). On the band's website, three of the five members declare "world domination" as one of their musical goals. Yes, The Click Five are unabashedly courting a teen audience. How much do you wanna bet they show up on an O.C. episode this season?

On one hand the Boston band seem to have what it takes. The members are all young, good-looking guys. They dress well and play their own instruments. All but one of the 11 songs on their debut mention the word "you" (some say The Beatles' early success was contingent upon their use of that pronoun, because teens thought they were singing directly to them). They are getting a ton of media attention, and the Best Buy I visited had at least 50 copies of the album the day it came out.

And that's strange, because their music is power pop in its purest form. And let's face it, playing power pop in the '00s is a one way trip to critical praise and commerical obscurity. So you've gotta admire their ambition, but also question it at the same time. Is gambling on building a fickle teen audience really the best career move, especially when you are almost assuredly going to permanantly offend the eternally-sellout-conscious hipster contingent?

Judging from their debut album, Greetings From Imrie House, the band may not have to worry. They're one of those bands that are likely throw reviewers into an orgy of comparisons. I'll get mine out of the way: Fountains Of Wayne, Jellyfish, Rasberries, Queen, Cheap Trick, The Cars, Silver Sun, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles. Even indie kids have to admit those are killer influences. Is it possible that they could be good enough to win everyone over?

Well, they might just earn a little indie cred just by picking good collaborators. The first single, Just The Girl, is a winning composition from Fountains Of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger. Adam also co-wrote another song, I'll Take My Chances, which features guitar work by The Cars' Elliot Easton. Easton also provides a signiture hook on Angel To You (Devil To Me), which was co-written by Paul Stanley from KISS. Impressed yet?

Though I've become wary of albums that you fall in love with instantly, I'm still inclined to say that this album sounds more like a greatest hits compilation than a debut. A couple of listens and the hooks will be battling it out in your head. There's helium singing, five-part harmoines, skipping guitar solos and catchy keyboard flourishes. Not one song is a let-down, and even the two ballads are mid-tempo.

Highlights include the exuberant Catch Your Wave, the lighter-waving Say Goodnight, and a cover of the Thompson Twins' 1983 hit Lies. I'm especially won over by the latter, because it was on the very first tape I ever owned, a K-Tel compilation called Chartaction '83, and is therefore imprinted in my musical DNA. Word has it that the album had originally included a cover of (I Think) We're Alone Now. It was a good choice to replace that, as I don't think the world is ready for a cover of a Tiffany cover.

(Aside...though they cover the Thompson Twins (who actually had three members) the Click Five do indeed have five members. If they start covering Ben Folds Five tunes, things will get confusing.)

Even if their plan to take over the charts and hearts of the world fails, the boys in The Click Five can rest assured that they've made a Herculean effort to bring power pop back out of obscurity. And as one of the power pop fans who constantly thinks, "this belongs on the radio," I know that's a noble mission. Hmm, maybe I am in that target market afterall...

Grade: A
Fave Song: Just The Girl

Friday, August 12, 2005

Sound Bites

Though I've been buying music at an alarming clip this year, lately I just haven't encountered any discs that are screaming for a full length review. BUT, here are some brief thoughts on what's been spinning in my head.

80. Teenage Fanclub - Man-Made
The Scottish rockers' 7th album is not as immediately satisfying as their previous two (1997's Songs From Northern Britain and 2001's Howdy), but give it time and you'll find their gifts for gentle melody and harmony are just as sparkling as ever. This band is a real treasure.

Grade: A
Fave Song: Flowing



81. Michael Penn - Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947
Mr.Aimee Mann is not prolific or flashy, but he is a craftsman. His first album since 2000 (only the fifth in his 19 year career) is another solid effort. Unfortunately it's also just as unexciting as the rest of his catalog. This one attempts a theme around events that happened in the title year. I can't really follow it, and I'm puzzled as to why there are two tracks of white noise (The Transistor and 18 September).

Grade: B-
Fave Song: On Automatic

82. Fall Out Boy - From Under The Cork Tree
You can never have enough emo. These guys love a long, funny song title (e.g. A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More "Touch Me"), but thankfully they keep the songs mostly serious. The album bops along singable and irresistible until it loses just a tiny bit of momentum on the thirteenth and final song.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy And All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me

83. M.I.A. - Arular
Sometimes I wonder if critics will ever get tired of collectively going completely apeshit over a certain artist. For the music fan, hearing the actual album usually ends up feeling a empty after the avalanche of glowing reviews. But M.I.A. isn't your usual indie collective with oblique songs and an oboe player. Instead she's a British-by-way-of-Sri Lanka kitchen sink mix of dance, international, and hip-hop. It's definitely something new and arresting. U.R.A.Q.T. even appears to sample the Sanford and Son theme!

Grade: B
Fave Song: Bucky Done Gun

84. The Wallflowers - Rebel, Sweetheart
This album solidifies The Wallflowers as a trusty rock 'n' roll unit who can be counted on to produce quality albums. That's a rarity. While nothing is as thrilling as the best songs from Red Letter Days, it's a stronger album as a whole. The melodies are insinuating, and Jakob Dylan consistently shows a gift for clever turns of phrase ("who will ignore me when you're gone?"). Wonder where he got that?

Grade: A-
Fave Song: The Beautiful Side Of Somewhere

Friday, July 22, 2005

79. Acceptance - Phantoms (2005)

With the wide diversity that now exists in popular music, I must admit that I feel a little guilty when I buy an album by a white male rock band. In fact, it seems almost quaint to still do the guitar-bass-drums-singing thing with no frills or stylistic ideals. As such, I rarely seek out straightforward rock albums.

I first heard Acceptance via iTunes' great "Free Download Of The Week" program, which is exactly what it sounds like. Acceptance was represented by the single Different, a piano-driven piece of passion. Though I dug the song, I felt I could not support another Coldplay clone, especially when the real thing isn't exciting me all that much lately.

But then on a whim I looked up Acceptance's debut album on Amazon.com and decided to take a listen. What a pleasant surprise to discover that the rest of the album has much more in common with Jimmy Eat World than it does with Travis. Indeed, a quick scan through the "thank yous" in the liner notes reveals a host of emo bands to whom Acceptance offers gratitude. And the "Customers Who Bought This Title Also Bought" section on Amazon reveal more emo CDs.

That said, Acceptance is a bit *ahem* different, from your usual emo band. Different may be the odd man out on the album, but it is followed by an instrumental titled Ad Astra Per Aspera (Latin for "through our endeavors, the stars") which shows Rush-like aspirations. Even so, those two songs are surrounded by 10 others that display the hallmarks of emo. Most songs at the three minute mark? Check. Dueling vocals and harmony? Check. Passionate, earnest lyrics about bad relationships and the coldness of life? Check.

Whew, in my twisted categorical mind emo bands don't count as straightforward rock, even if all the members are white boys. That's a load of guilt off my mind.

Standout songs include Take Cover, The Letter, and In The Cold, but I certainly don't admire them for their lyrics. They say almost nothing interesting or arresting (instead we get strings of cliches, like the ridiculous chorus of So Contagious: "Could this be out of line? / To say that you're the only one breaking me down like this / You're the only one I would take a shot on / Keep me hanging on / So Contagiously"), but are still excellent to sing along with, especially on a nice summer day with the windows rolled down.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: The Letter

Saturday, July 09, 2005

78. Vicious Vicious - Don't Look So Surprised (2005)


Don't Look So Surprised is any indication is the second best album I've heard all summer (after Motion City Soundtrack's Commit This to Memory).

Through seven interconnected songs, the CD follows a doomed relationship between our narrator and a girl named Jenny. In the opener, It's A Serious Thing, the protagonist speaks directly to Jenny, telling her "it's time we forget about the days that you used to be mine." And then he spends the next 6 songs remembering.

2 Much Time On My Hands uses a laid-back seventies shuffle to tell the story of how they met, at a swimming pool party where she talks about "hot sex" with her ex-boyfriend. Still, they end up going to a drive-in movie and things begin to snowball. (My favorite part of this song is the repeated line "the cigarette refuses to burn," which seems like an echo of the Hopefuls' - Appelwick's other band - album title, The Fuses Refuse To Burn).

Here Come Tha Police is catchy and funky and expands our knowledge of the characters. We find out they are both musicians from a small town. They like to cruise and play music loud and raise the ire of the "men in blue." As much as the song seems to celebrate these times, the next song longs for a place where there'll be "no more hiding from the police / no more hanging on these dead end streets." Thus, Under California Skies is a lush pop number about that hope-filled time in a relationship where you believe everything could be forever perfect under the right circumstances.

After this trilogy of positive songs, the wheels begin to come off for the final three. Truth Or Dare already sounds regretful, even though things are just beginning to go wrong. Appelwick's narrator just wants to kiss, but Jenny likes the danger: "I say spin the bottle / And you say truth or dare."

The spacey, piano-driven Castaways brings that danger: "The sea turned green with jealousy / And the waves crashed down and the oceans heaved / And our little boat struggled to keep itself afloat." Jenny is described as a "detention kid known for her bad behavior" which may account for the problems that have arisen.

Finally, the title track suggests that our narrator just can't keep up with Jenny and her internal struggles anymore. He compares her to a butterfly (which harkens back to a line in the opening tune), a beautiful creature that never stays in one place for long. This makes the line "I swear to God I'll stop your bleeding / if you can keep your wings from beating" that much more heartbreaking.

Filled with little connections like that, this is one of those rare concept albums that actually hangs together while still allowing the songs to stand alone. In a recent interview, Appelwick claimed that's why he kept the CD so short; it clocks in at about 34 minutes.

No matter how long, it's a great accomplishment.

Grade: A
Fave Song: Castaways

Friday, July 01, 2005

77. P.M. Dawn - Jesus Wept (1995)

In case you aren't a fan of bad television, let me tell you that P.M.Dawn were on the show Hit Me Baby One More Time last night. In this show, musical acts from the '80s and '90s perform two songs, a hit of their own and a hit from today. Then the studio audience votes on who was the best. P.M. Dawn managed to brush off competition from Missing Persons, Shannon, Animotion, and Juice Newton to win the favor of the voters.

In celebration I drug out my copy of P.M. Dawn's third album, Jesus Wept. Of all of their output, this CD intrigues me the most.

We know that P.M. Dawn came onto the scene with Set Adrift On Memory Bliss, a piece of dreamy pop that sampled Spandau Ballet's True. We also know that their second album was an even bigger success, with the ultra-melodic hits I'd Die Without You and Looking Through Patient Eyes. That makes Jesus Wept the classic "artistic statement" record, wherein, feeling assured of their commercial viability, the performer does whatever the hell they want.

So P.M.Dawn abandoned all pretense of being rappers, went even further into a synthesizer-and-melody driven sound, wrote articulate but nonsensical lyrics like "Angels always saturate your schemes", and recorded silence at Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave.

And then there's the God thing. Being a mainstream popular group and calling your album Jesus Wept is either bold or stupid. We all know, when it comes to pop music, albums about the J-man belong in their own small section of the music store. The thing is, Jesus is not mentioned by name anywhere in the songs, nor is this a Bible-thumping album. In fact, the lyrics raise more questions about spiritual matters than they dole out answers. And even though this is an "artistic statement" album, the statement seems to be: I don't really know anything except the fact that I don't know anything.

In fact, the whole album is about searching. The opening song, Downtown Venus, is an electric guitar-driven ode to self discovery: "I could be into me but I don't know what I'm like." Other songs, like My Own Personal Gravity and Apathy...Superstar!? continue this theme. On the latter Prince Be even talks to himself: "Am I unsure? Absolutely."

And in the chorus of that song he tells us, "I think everything's okay / I mean everything's all right / almost everyone I know believes in God and Love." Notice he doesn't say which God; this is not necessarily a Christian spirituality. Why God Loves You is the most direct statement on this topic (and also the catchiest song). Rather than moralizing, Be is tells us to find our inner divinity. It's hard to argue with that.

Other songs seem to approach God in a nearly romantic nature. I'll Be Waiting For You, Forever Damaged (The 96th), and Sometimes I Miss You So Much (which makes good use of an Al B.Sure sample) could all be heard as songs about earthly love or heavenly love. Your choice.

Add in a couple of straight up folk tunes (Sonchyenne, A Lifetime) and a head-scratcher of an album-ending medley that combines Prince' 1999, Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, and Harry Nilsson's Coconut, and you have one of the strangest hip-hop albums ever released. It's a ultra-spiritual, non-Christian album called Jesus Wept by a rap group that doesn't drop a single verse on the whole album.

Is it any wonder that it still intrigues me?

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Why God Loves You

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

76. Black Eyed Peas - Monkey Business (2005)

After two listens to their new album, Monkey Business, I was ready to give Black Eyed Peas a black eyed review. After breaking through with their 2003 album Elephunk, the Peas seemed to have let the success corrupt their music. The follow-up seemed mindless, and even worse, boring.

But then something strange happened on my third listen. I was a little bit charmed by some of the songs.

What is a reviewer to do when he feels so conflicted? I decided to break the album's tracks into three categories to better articulate my feelings:

1) The Songs I Like

Pump It is a fun party tune set to the surf guitar and horns of Dick Dale. You've heard this song in Best Buy commercials. Don't Phunk With My Heart is the first single, and it does its job just fine, though I could live without the Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam lift from I Wonder If I Take You Home, especially since Kylie Minogue did it better on her last album. Don't Lie is a less-exciting sequel to Shut Up, from Elephunk. The guys explain themselves in the verses, and Fergie doesn't want to hear it on the chorus. Gone Going takes the head-scratcher of an idea to sample a Jack Johnson tune, but the song itself is an effective cautionary tale about someone who lets success go to their head. Finally there's Like That, the best song on the album. There's a guest appearance takeover by Q-Tip, Cee-Lo, John Legend, and Talib Kweli and the result sounds like classic hip-hop.

2) Songs That I Hate

There are only four of them, Dum Diddly, Disco Club, Ba Bump, and Audio Delite At Low Fidelity. The reason I hate them is the same. They are all ridiculous. When I reviewed Elephunk, I praised the Peas for marrying their socially conscious lyrics with party time melodies. Here they haven't even bothered with the socially conscious lyrics. In fact, they've barely bothered with lyrics at all. The rhymes on these songs are repetitive, lazy, thoughtless and wack.

3) Songs I'm Ambivalent About

My Style and They Don't Want Music both feature high-profile guests (Justin Timberlake and James Brown, respectively) who are wasted with one-note performances, in both cases just repeating the title phrase. However, neither song is outright bad. Bebot is very interesting. It's sung in Filipino and sounds very cool. Even your snobby world music friends might like it. I just wish the Peas didn't feel the need to shout out the word "Filipino" as much as possible; it nearly ruins the mood. Union continues Sting's fearlessness about farming his songs out for hip hop samples (I'll Be Missing You, Roxanne '97). I kind of admire his forward thinking, one just wishes the results were good. This time the sample is from An Englishman In New York, and all it does is make me want to listen to the original song again.

My Humps gives me the most inner turmoil. One part of me just wants to blindly embrace this catchy ode to Fergie's ass. But another part of me is deeply bothered. I'm not only bothered by the completely unsexy use of the term "humps" to describe butt cheeks (it's only slightly better than Sisqo's "dumps like a truck"), but also by the content. I don't want to become a prude as I get older, but as I teacher I know kids listen to this stuff. I don't want 10 year olds going around singing about their "lovely lady lumps."

Finally, there's Feel It, which just makes me go "eh" but does illustrate something very interesting about this album. Fergie is now the breakout star, which is not so surprising considering she was brought in to sex up their image. The surprise is that she has become artistically invaluable. Many of the songs on Monkey Business would simply sink without her interesting vocal contributions.

So what's the final verdict? Six songs out of fifteen that I like. And, to be generous, let's add three more from the ambivalent list. That brings us to 9 out of 15, or three-fifths, or 60%. That means:

Grade: D
Fave Song: Like That

Sunday, June 12, 2005

75. Motion City Soundtrack - Commit This To Memory (2005)

Is emo over? Did someone forget to notify me? I only ask because I swear the other day I read the words "post-emo" somewhere. I thought we were still in the midst of it. Aren't bands like Fall Out Boy, Taking Back Sunday, and My Chemical Romance still making waves? Isn't the Warped Tour still making the rounds?! Then again, Promise Ring, Blink-182, and The Get-Up Kids have all called it quits.

Ultimately, I guess it doesn't matter. Emo is probably the first pop music movement that no actual band would admit to being a part of. And that's a shame, because it's a good, non-trendy sound: harmony, keyboards, fast guitars, emotional lyrics. In fact those exact same words could be used to describe power pop, or the new new wave movement.

You could also use it to describe Motion City Soundtrack. And no matter what category you want to place it in, their second album is a corker!

Produced by Blink-182 singer/bassist Mark Hoppus, Commit This To Memory finds the middle ground that made Blink sometimes great; not too funny but not too serious. There are no scatalogical jokes and no experimental gothic punk, just great melodies about fucked-up relationships. Nothing captures that spirit than the third track, When "You're" Around. "I'm so full of love it deeply sickens me" singer Justin Pierre tells us. Isn't that the exact problem all of these emo kids have?

The album encapsulates the emo experience in other ways. Feel Like Rain bends Pierre's voice into a longing reminiscent of Jimmy Eat World. Hangman brings to mind the keyboard-driven whine of The Get-Up Kids. Producer Hoppus offers vocals to that track, as well as a Blink-182-esque drum and guitar breakdown at the end of Time Turned Fragile. But it's not all-emo-all-the-time. Resolution and L.G. FUAD both bring up fond allusions to underappreicated '80s outfut The Outfield.

Also, you know me, I can't go without mentioning the fact that MCS are from Minneapolis. If you didn't know that there are a couple of clues, one overt and one covert. The less direct reference is this great line from Time Turned Fragile: "How it got so cold / That words just froze / We had to wait 'til summer / To find out what was said." That's a Minnesota thing, for sure. Better Open The Door is not only the most raucous song on the album, but it also contains three Minneapolis references. "Frank fails to see the humor in / my sad attempts at break dancing / In every bar along Lyndale Avenue" and "Liz likes to liquor up my thoughts / From the C.C. Club to the Triple Rock."

A gift for melody and songwriting is in abundant evidence on Commit This To Memory, from the two (TWO!) choruses on Better Open The Door to the float-away-on-a-cloud bridge on Make Out Kids that could have been its own song. MCS are obviously a band reaching for their prime. If there really are those who believe that we are in post-emo era, this is the kind of album that proves the rumors of its demise have been grossly exaggereated

Grade: A
Fave Song: Better Open The Door

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Da na na na na na

I was born 28 years ago on this day! And in the way time works, that day was also a Saturday. I'd like to thank my mom and dad, especially my mom!

In celebration I present my Top 10 Favorite Birthday Songs:

10. Neil Diamond - Desiree (I know that in no way is this song about a birthday. It's really about Neil losing his virginity: "The time was right / The night was long". But the second verse begins, "Then came the 4th of June.")

9. 50 Cent -In Da Club (Okay, also not technically a birthday song. But since this was released, how can we get through a birthday without mentioning shorties, Bacardi, and not giving a fuck?)

8. Lesley Gore - It's My Party (Speaking of not giving a fuck: "I'll cry if I want to".)

7. Alice In Wonderland Soundtrack - The Unbirthday Song (A classic! I had this on a vinyl album of Disney's best movie songs and always asked my mom for unbirthday presents after listening to it).

6. Blur - Birthday (Droning Brit-pop for your friends that hate birthdays. "I don't like these days / They make me feel so small.")

5. Pet Shop Boys - Birthday Boy (This is an epic track from their last release, Release. I can't quite figure it out. It may be about Jesus; it might be about being gay. Hard to say.)

4. Stevie Wonder - Happy Birthday (Actually about declaring Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. How can you not love that, Arizona?!)

3. Ronnie Milsap - Happy Happy Birthday Baby (Not one of my favorite Milsap songs, but still a great downer of a birthday tune. The narrator writes to wish his ex a happy birthday, even though she broke his heart.)

2. The Beatles - Birthday (Somehow this song has become an acceptable alternative to the actual Happy Birthday, despite the most likely untruthful line: "It's my birthday too, yeah!")

1. No Doubt - Six Feet Under ( First of all I love any song that cops The Cars' sound. And that chous: "Today is my birthday / And I get one every year / And some day... / Hard to believe / But I'll be buried six feet underground". It's the best 23 word summation of adult birthday thoughts ever put to music.)

Sunday, May 15, 2005

74. Weezer - Make Believe (2005)

It's not easy to admit that one of your favorite artists has made a bad album. Initially your hopes are so high, they will buoy you up for awhile. When you start to sink, you try to stay afloat by telling yourself that the album is one of those that takes time to reveal its charms, that in a few months you'll love it. But when that doesn't happen, you realize that you've been deep-sixed.

This was my experience with Weezer's last album, 2002's Maladroit. After releasing two stone-cold classics and one solid power-pop gem maybe the law of averages doomed the band to a let-down. Maladroit was unfocused and uninspired, musically and lyrically.

Thankfully,on Make Believe everything feels fresh again. There are several factors that might have contributed to this, but I've boiled it down to two main reasons:

1) It was produced by Rick Rubin. Can I just take a couple of moments to marvel at this guy's output? Consider that he has produced great work from LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, RUN D.M.C., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, and Public Enemy. Word has it that he has recently worked with both Neil Diamond and Dixie Chicks. To put it simply, he's gonna be a legend someday.

2) The lyrics actually say something. Both 2001's green album and Maladroit suffered from generic lyrics. Unlike the latter, the former benefited from a fast pace and producer Ric Ocasek's melodic sheen. Though Make Believe's songs still come off a bit on the non-specific side, they at least convey genuine feeling.

The album kicks off with Beverly Hills, fueled by handclaps and wah wah guitar solos. The album's review in Entertainment Weekly said the band was too old to take on easy targets, but to me it doesn't sound ironic when lead singer / songwriter Rivers Cuomo sings "my automobile is a piece of crap / my fashion sense is a little wack." Instead the song fits in the outsider mentality that Cuomo's fostered on Weezer's first two albums. It's a song about wishing to belong, and it seems oddly sincere.

The other obvious single, We Are All On Drugs, could also suffer if viewed ironically. To me, it seems to be simplistic social commentary. At any rate, you're not likely to hear the song in ads for Alavert or Advil or Paxil or Viagra.

I guess the reason I'm willing to take these songs at face value is the complete honesty that permeates the rest of the album. As Cuomo himself says on My Best Friend, "I speak sincerely." That song may or may not be about masturbation, but elswhere on the album Cuomo twice admits he's "insane" and also owns up to being selfish and mean and shy. Thankfully, he's looking for forgiveness (Pardon Me, which may be for his beleaguered bandmates), peace (Peace), and comfort (Hold Me).

My two favorite songs are Damage In Your Heart and This Is Such A Pity. Both songs mourn failed relationships. The former, with its harmonies and power chords, could have slotted easily on the green album. This Is Such A Pity sounds so much like The Cars it's amazing that Ric Ocasek (who produced Weezer's two self-titled albums) didn't have a hand in its creation. It's all skipping guitar, chugging bass and synth flourishes. Cuomo lowers his voice a couple of registers and there's even an Elliot Easton-esque solo. The Killers would die for this song.

Somewhat like their fellow geeky Star Wars fans, it's probably time for Weezer fans to admit their beloved artist will likely never again reach the heights of their early work. But there's also reason to hope. On Make Believe the melodies and perfomances are tight and focused and the sequencing is nearly perfect. That's enough for me. And, had any of the twelve tracks on this album appeared on Maladroit it would have easily been the standout. I can admit that now.

Grade: B
Fave Song: This Is Such A Pity

Sunday, May 08, 2005

73. Ben Folds - Songs For Silverman (2005)

What would all the Billy Joel fans do without Ben Folds? Aside from wearing out our copies of 52nd Street and The Stranger, we'd be completely bereft of piano-based pop storytelling.

Songs For Silverman is the official follow-up to 2001's Rockin' The Suburbs. In the 4 year interim Folds has kept busy with live album, a series of EPs, and collaborations (William Shatner, The Bens). Those projects were mildly satisfying, but I'm guessing this is what most of us were waiting for.

Folds' musical act has always been one of balancing the silly and the sublime. Even in the Ben Folds Five days straightforward ballads coexisted with irony-and-expletive-laden outbursts. I've always been a fan of the former more than the latter, and thankfully, SFS is ballad-heavy. You could call it maturity, or you could just call it keeping the tone consistent. Without exception, the 11 songs are built with the trademark Folds sound, lots of percussive piano, great melodies, and generous harmonies.

Bastard is a questionable choice for opener. It's not the immediate knockout punch you expect from a first song, and it's not easy to figure out. By turns the song appears to speak to an old man who's past his prime, and a young man who will become that old man some day. Both are very clever, but have trouble admitting fault. Best line: "They get nostalgic about the last ten years / Before the last ten years have passed." I Love the '00s anyone?

You To Thank is the first of many songs (see also: Landed, Trusted, Give Judy My Notice, and Time) that reference failed / failing relationships. I read somewhere that Folds has been married three or four times, so we know he has a lot of material to work from. This song is about a doomed wedding, and Folds shows off a startling ability to say a lot with very few lines: "As they danced and drank / We jumped off the deep end."

Jesusland is an ode to Bush's second term America. Fittingly, the tone is not angry. Instead, it's sad and resigned. I know that's how a lot of us have felt since last November. When Folds sings, "You hang your head and pray for Jesusland," it makes me think about how Bush and his cronies have even co-opted religion.

Landed, the first single, is an instant classic. It has a piano tone that instantly brings to mind Elton John in his '70s heyday.

I keep thinking of Gracie as a companion piece to Rockin' The Suburbs' Still Fighting It. That song was from Folds to his son. This one is about his daughter. As I've written before, creating songs about children is generally a bad idea. This one manages to walk the razor thin line between sweet and too sweet, and just barely manages not to fall into the river of chocolate.

Give Judy My Notice first appeared on the Speed Graphic EP. I liked it okay there, but it's my favorite song here. Why? Who'd have thought that some added background vocals and a pedal steel could improve a song so dramatically?! This song is a perfect kiss-off to a relationship. The best line: "Tears fall / But that don't mean nothing at all / It's just 'cause I said it first / Yeah, that's why it hurts ya."

Late is a mostly unsentimental, yet completely affecting, tribute to the late Elliot Smith. Instead of the usual words we say when someone dies too early, Folds mirrors his experience as a touring musician with Smith's. He uses the song to speak directly to Smith: "The songs you wrote / Got me through a lot / Just wanna tell you that." When I saw Folds perform at First Avenue a couple of years ago he covered a Smith song, so this just makes complete sense to me.

Sentimental Guy could be heard as another paean to an old romance, but I imagine that its about Folds' father. It also seems to go well with Bastard. Musically it sounds like Randy Newman jamming with the Beach Boys.

Time marks the serious musical debut of Al Yankovic (sans the "Weird"). He contributes very effective background vocals to another regretful hymn. What are the odds on Folds' producing Yankovic's first grownup album? If it worked for William Shatner...

The album ends with Prison Food, which is quite lyrically mysterious and quite musically Vince Guaraldi-esque.

Overall, this is a stellar effort. Rarely would I care enough to write about every single song, but this feels like an album that will be special to me for a long time. Maybe not as special as An Innocent Man, but that would be a near-impossible feat. Let's just hope Folds never decides to give up pop music for classical composing.

Grade: A
Fave Song: Give Judy My Notice

Sunday, April 17, 2005

72. Ryan Lee - The Pride Before The Fall (2004)

I knew Ryan as a friend before I knew him as a songwriter / performer. Take my word for it, he's a warm, caring, funny, guy. He's easygoing and easy to talk to. But look at him scowling on the cover of his first full-length CD and take a listen to some of the mysterious, dramatic songs he writes and it seems like the work of a completely different person!

But that's what artists do. They take the troublesome stuff in their heads and get it out in their work. If I think of it that way, it's not such a jarring disconnect. And anyway, this should be all about the music, not my issues.

I've seen Ryan perform in a variety of settings: Solo shows in coffee shops, loud full-band shows in bars, and stuff in between. Thus I've heard many of his songs performed in drastically different ways. What's amazing is how great they all SOUND here, not just arrangement and performance wise, but also from a production and engineering standpoint.

I've always known Ryan was talented, but the treatment given to these songs really allows their complexity to be appreciated. Many of the tracks manage to marry several musical ideas together without any hint of difficulty. The opener I Pretend, with its Middle Eastern-style chanting and instrumentation also gives us a sudden, welcome bed of female harmony in the bridge. Similarly, the clanging Guilt opens its second half with a riff worthy of an arena full of delirious lighter-wavers.

Ryan's songs manage to avoid typical pop structures without sacrificing the melodies. For proof listen to the brief, thrilling sketch Soulstrings. I hate to make comparisons, but his work reminds me most of Joseph Arthur, with the senses of sweetness and menace, the elements of gentle melody and clanging mechanics put in a musical mixer with amazing results.

The album itself doesn't make a false move from the beginning through the powerful Policia Falsa and Guilt. Though, it rounds itself out well with the hits What's Worse, Too Close To Home and If Anything, my only quibble is with Too Little Too Late. The vocal processing doesn't seem to serve the song and there isn't enough musical variety to keep it from sinking under its own weight. But that's only 1 out of 13, my friend. Anybody would take those odds.

With all the work he's done, it's nice to see Ryan Lee getting some local recognition and actually going out on tour! If you'd like more information, please visit www.ryanleemusic.net. Check out the bio, find tour dates, listen to the songs, and e-mail Ryan to tell you how much you like them. If you do, maybe it'll even make him smile!

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Soulstrings

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Shufflin' On Down

As I've stated before, one of my favorite iPod features is called "Shuffle Songs." It takes all of your songs and plays DJ. It makes strange choices, and sometimes gets fixated on a certain artist. And often it does not consider flow, and I mean AT ALL!

But sometimes wonderful things happen. As I've used the feature, I've found myself attempting to make mental connections between the songs. You know, lyrically, historically, geographically, thematically, etc. It has become sort of a game for me, so I thought I'd detail a recent example:

1. Prince - Movie Star. A great start is always impotant, and this funny, spoken-word b-side delivers.

2. Olympic Hopefuls - Stoned Again. The iPod wisely decides to stay local.

3. Johnny Cash - Hurt. Of course you know that Johnny mentions St.Paul in his song Big River?

4. Neil Diamond - The Boat That I Row. Johnny Cash was known as the Man In Black, and Neil pretended to be a black man in The Jazz Singer!

5. Henry Mancini - Moon River. Speaking of The Jazz Singer, it was directed by Richard Fleisher. He also directed 1967's Doctor Doolittle, starring Rex Harrison, who played opposite Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Of course, Moon River is from Audrey's film Breakfast At Tiffany's. Whew!

6. The Replacements - Achin' To Be. Ah, going local again! Breakfast At Tiffany's, we all know, featured a main character named Paul. The Replacements featured a lead singer named Paul.

7. Semisonic - This Will Be My Year. I am loving this obsession with local bands! Way to go iPod!

8. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives - Heading For A Breakdown. Semisonic are from Minnesota, which is known for its strong Swedish heritage. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives are from Sweden!

9. Brian Wilson - She Says That She Needs Me. Can I get serious here for a moment? I'd like to acknowledge that Brian Wilson has written many songs that have become the soundtrack of our lives.

10. Semisonic - Chemistry. See what I mean about artist fixation? Anyway, Brian Wilson wrote lots of songs about California, and the lyrics of this song mention California! Coincidence?

11. Aimee Mann - Lost In Space. It's a fact that Semisonic man Dan Wilson went to Harvard. Where did Aimee Mann and 'Til Tuesday get their start? Boston!

12. The Thorns - Think It Over. Matthew Sweet was in The Thorns. He also co-wrote the title track to 'Til Tuesday's final album Everything's Different Now.

Sadly, the next song was Jadakiss' Why and it messed everything up!