Thursday, January 27, 2005

Queensryche - "Silent Lucidity"

I have two distinct associations with this song. When it was a #5 hit back in 1990, I was 13 years old and also happened to be reading The Hobbit for the 17th or 18th time. If Peter Jackson does indeed make The Hobbit into a movie, I would strongly encourage him to use this song on the soundtrack. That acoustic guitar intro always makes me think of Dwarves turning poor Bilbo's cozy little home upside down, eating his food and singing their songs.

In college, friend / roommate Tim and I found we had a shared admiration for the song. One night, after several Dr.Peppers each, we called every radio station in the Quad Cities and requested it. We were met with a lot of stony resistance and one "oh that's a good song but I can't play it." It was a fun effort despite the failure.

The song itself is a six minute epic about dreams and nightmares. In fact, sometimes I like to consider it a cousin of Dream Police by Cheap Trick. Anyway, along with the spooky guitar line, there's a string section, including a mean cello, and some suitably pseudo-serious-but-actually-silly lyrics sung in an affected British accent (the band were from Washington state).

The sound builds as it goes, and crests with a freaky montage of voices, male and female, saying things like: "If you persist in your efforts you will achieve dream control" and "help me." Listening to this part on headphones in the dark is nearly unbearable. And, yes, you didn't misread. The song was a #5 hit; one of those wonderful fluke hits no one could predict before or explain after. But I do love it.

Album: Empire (1990)
Fave Moment: The sudden burst of "ahhh....we'll be watching over you" at the two-and-a-half minute mark.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

2004: Re-Vision Of Love

Here are two more albums that I enjoyed in 2004:

U2 - How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

I have an up and down relationship with U2. While I admire them greatly as a band, I think they are not served by the ubiquitiousness of their hit songs, which have become so familiar as to be as much admired as the wallpaper. So when I heard Vertigo approximately 679 times as part of the iPod advertisement, things didn't look good for thier new CD. But, strangely, I still haven't tired of Vertigo or any other song on the CD. For me, it's their most complete album ever. Yeah, I said it.

Green Day - American Idiot

For whatever reason I initially resisted putting this in the top 10, but now I've corrected that mistake. There's no lack of appreciation in me for the accomplishment that this album is, both commercially and (more importantly) artistically.

And you might remember the rest...

Brian Wilson - Smile
Olympic Hopefuls - The Fuses Refuse To Burn
Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
Prince - Musicology
The Roots - The Tipping Point
Sloan - Action Pact
Jimmy Eat World - Futures
Beastie Boys - To The 5 Boroughs

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Exaggerated Reports

The other night, some friends and I discussed our favorite 2004 albums over dinner. Someone brought up The Postal Service's Give Up. After anally pointing out that it was actually a 2003 release, I explained that, while I thought the CD had some wonderful moments, it didn't hold together as an album, especially at the end. She responded, simply and directly: "I don't care." Instead of appalling or offending me, the comment made me think. If there are people who don't care if an album works as a cohesive experience, then am I wasting my time thinking of them in that way?

I've always been an entire-experience sort of fellow. I like to see movies from beginning to end, uninterrupted. I can't read one book in a series; I've got to read them all. And that yearly top 10 CD list I always make such a big deal of? Almost every criterion for that list is based on the album in its entirety. A CD that's too long, or with an unfortunate reggae experiment, or with poor cover art will surely be knocked immediately out of contention. So to actually consider that the album is not the ultimate form of musical expression is radical thinking, for me.

This sort of thinking jibes well with a couple of recent developments. For one, I am now an iPod owner. The iPod is not inherently album un-friendly; you can put entire albums in there, and there's even an album category on the menu. But that's not the most exciting feature. That award goes to the Shuffle Songs option, wherein wonderful mixes of your favorite songs present themselves effortlessly. It provides some great juxtapositions. For example, Johnny Cash's acoustic version of Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus segues right into Bourgeois Tagg's 1988 acoustic gem I Don't Mind At All.

The other recent development is an article by critic David Browne in the January 14th issue of Entertainment Weekly. The two-page piece is called "Who Needs Albums?" and in it Browne postulates that the album as an artistic form is reaching its nadir. This sort of doom-saying is nothing new. How long have we been hearing about the novel being dead? The troubling thing is that Browne brings up some good points.

At least Browne is smart enough not to blame the decline of the album on the younger generation. He points out that there are still younger people becoming obsessed with the works of their favorite artists. No, he blames two things: CDs and artists. He explains that the longer format of the CD has allowed artists to indulge, ignore quality control, and create bloated albums stuffed with filler. No argument there.

The vital point Browne is missing is that albums usually take time to reach classic status. Of course it seems like the '60s, '70s, and '80s have produced more classic records, because we know what has endured. I can see why he misses this point, because he's forced to listen to so much crap for his job. But, the production of crappy music is not a modern development. Just take a look through the bargain vinyl section of your local record store some afternoon. There was plenty of crap put out in the '60s, '70s, and '80s too. So, I'm not at all concerned about the album dying.

More troubling is the changing way we experience music. Downloading has allowed us to cherry-pick our favorite songs and leave the filler untouched. In some ways I love this development. No more buying greatest hits packages for the one or two new songs, no more shilling out for a whole soundtrack just to get one song by an artist you like, no more buying an entire Europe album just to get The Final Countdown. Likewise, CDs make it so easy to find a song you like on an album, but it also makes it very easy to skip ones you aren't willing to give a chance.

Maybe I'm just naive, but I tend to trust that the majority of albums, given the right amount of time and effort, will reveal themselves as worthwhile. I don't need the songs to speak to each other, or some big over-arching story (though I do enjoy that quite a bit). All I need is a collection of worthwhile tunes.

In fact, one of the most thrilling experiences of listening to albums is finding that non-single that just knocks you out. And I'd never discount the power of repetition. Sometimes I regret having so many CDs and wonder if my relationship with music was much stronger when I only owned a few tapes that I listened to ad nauseum. I still hold great affection for those tapes I had: Collective Soul's second album, a K-Tel compilation called Chartaction '83, They Might Be Giants' Flood, the best of the Monkees, and almost all of "Weird Al" Yankovic's output. None of those items would be considered classics by any right-minded person, yet I love them because I nearly wore them out in my car.

Somewhere I lost that willingness to play every single album until it was ingrained into me. I'm much more likely to make a snap judgment and dismiss a CD. That's a little sad, because I may be missing out on some really good stuff. I worry about that. I'm consoled by the fact that when I find an album I like, I can still get really into it.

So if as a music-listening society we are moving toward that mindset expressed by my friend ("I don't care"), then I can roll with it. As many different kinds of iPods are invented and as many shell-shocked critics hold up their "REPENT" signs there will still be artists dedicated to the artform, and listeners who believe.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

67. Kelly Clarkson - Breakaway (2004)

With American Idol soon to return to the airwaves, what better time to take a look at the first champion's new release?

Out of the three A.I. winners so far, I feel the most affinity for Kelly. This is not only because I rooted for her, but because she just seems genuine. That quality allowed her first album to be enjoyable despite its completely marketed nature. The same can be said for her second effort.

That's not to say that the records are especially similar. Whereas Thankful used R & B for its base sound, Breakaway adopts more of a rock mindset, and this suits Kelly well. She's taken a page from Avril Lavigne, using many of the same songwriters and even Avril herself (who co-wrote the title track), and if she chooses to continue in this direction, she could well become a Pat Benatar for our times (and yes, that's a compliment).

The thing that strikes me immediately about this record is how every song is completely down on romance. At least three songs are about being happier now that a relationship is over, and the others are mopey about things not going right in a relationship. The only exception is the bouyant title track, which is not even about a relationship. It's one of thsoe great "moving on to better things" songs, and has a wonderful bridge (something you don't come across enough these days).

Other early highlights include Since U Been Gone and Behind These Hazel Eyes, both produced Max Martin. Martin is the man behind most of the Backstreet Boys, *N'Sync, and Britney Spears hits, and though he didn't write either of these songs, the sugar rush thrill of his past work is nonetheless omnipresent. It's even enough to overcome the truly horrible title of the latter song.

The album takes a bit of a quality break on the next trio of songs, with Addicted being the worst offender. Who really needed another song comparing a romance to a drug, especially one so musically dreary? On this song Kelly worked with Ben Moody, formerly of Evanescence. The strident, dramatic sound of that band doesn't work with someone as down-to-earth as Kelly.

Thankfully, things pick up for the last four songs. Walk Away is the second best song on the album (after the title track). Tired of wishy-washy boys, Kelly tells us: "I'm looking for attention / not another question / should you stay or should you go / if you don't have the answer / why you still standing here?" It's perfect for Kelly, because she's great at being sassy, as her multilple renditions of Respect on AI proved. You Found Me, I Hate Myself For Losing You, and Hear Me round things out nicely.

The only curiousity is the live version of Beautiful Disaster (a track from Thankful ) tacked on at the end. What is the purpose of this? If it's to showcase her live voice, that was unnecessary. We already knew she had a great live voice...we watched her sing live every week under great pressure. The other idea might be to dramatically reinterpret the studio version, but it actually sounds identical. I hate it when quality control fails so blantently.

Barring that, this is another strong entry in the case for Kelly as the first and still the best. (This case holds up as long as you pretend the film From Justin To Kelly never existed.)

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Breakaway

Saturday, January 01, 2005

66. Talib Kweli - The Beautiful Struggle (2004)

I get frustrated by friends who don't like rap.

I mean, here are intelligent, well-educated, open-minded people who will dismiss an entire genre of music with a couple of words, words like "annoying" or "trashy." Yes, some rap music is annoying and / or trashy. But so is some rock, pop, country, jazz, classical and world music. Like any subset of music, rap is large, it contains multitudes.

Talib Kweli is one of those artists who deserves more attention for bringing something different to the game. Though commercially unknown, he's nonetheless highly respected for his verbal skills. On Get 'Em High from The College Dropout (considered by many the best album of 2004) Kanye West uses him to try to entice a woman, to which Talib responds "quit twistin' my arm / I'll assist with the charm."

Jay-Z, considered by himself (and others, but mostly himself) to be the best MC in the game, gave us this lyrical tidbit on The Black Album's Moment Of Clarity: "If skills sold / truth be told / I'd probably be / lyrically / Talib Kweli." A bold compliment, and you can tell Jay meant it because the line before he'd just been talking about how he dumbs down his lyrics to sell more records. (As J.R.Ewing once said: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.")

On Ghetto Show, from his new album The Beautiful Struggle, Kweli doesn't quite return the favor. Instead, he agrees with Jay, saying: "If lyrics sold / then truth be told / I'd probably be / just as rich and famous / as Jay-Z." The message in this delayed call and response is clear; being a smart rapper (or rather, showing your intelligence in your lyrics) is not exactly lucrative. And we can hear Kweli dealing with this all over the CD. On I Try he tells us: "the label want a song about a bubbly life / I have trouble trying to write some shit to bang in the club through the night / while people suffer tonight."

Thankfully, what he seems to have realized is that songs about struggles don't have to be a struggle to listen to (thus the title of the album). The CD is filled with toe-tapping beats and catchy hooks, and barely drags throughout its 13 tracks. But at the same time Kweli doesn't sacrifice the lyrics. It can be an intoxicating mix.

Take the song Broken Glass. It's a sordid tale of a young girl who comes to the city with dreams of fame and ends up strung out and stripping. Nothing too surprising, save the fact that its set to a typically insinuating Neptunes track. Though that duo have produced a ton of recent hip-hop classics, it's easily their most affecting song, lyrically. And there's no happy ending: "She needed a ticket home if it's the right cost / instead she bought a ticket to ride the white horse."

And though there are a couple of self-aggrandizing songs (Back Up Offa Me, A Game), there's much more postulating than posturing. Other tracks approach the usual struggles of inner city life, politics (great line from the title track: "you try to vote and participate in the government / and the motherfucking Democrats is acting like Republicans"), love, and even the struggles of black women. Black Girl Pain actually celebrates the strength of African-American women (not their physical attributes, though when Kweli does that it sounds like this, from Never Been In Love Before: "thick like bifocals / stacked like 2 Pac vocals her body so loco.")

Unlike his Black Star partner Mos Def, Kweli has given us a concise, consistent, skit free long player. Less adventurous? Yes. More appealing? For sure.

Oh, and to those friends who don't like rap... all I ask is you add this small resolution for the new year, borrow this CD from me and give it a chance.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: We Got The Beat