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!

Monday, April 04, 2005

71. Glen Phillips - Winter Pays For Summer (2005)

I was not always the music-savvy person you see before you today. For most of high school, my CD collection consisted of the entire ouevres of The Monkees and The Beatles and nothing else. I listened to the radio, but I had no idea what was popular with those "in the know." That began to change in the mid-to-late '90s, but not without some bumps along the road.

In 1994 I saw Toad The Wet Sprocket on David Letterman and was mesmerized by their performance of Fall Down. I went out and bought Dulcenia immediately (well, the next morning). You have to understand that this was revolutionary for me at the time. Buying a CD by an "alternative" band with a strangely indecipherable name? That wasn't my style back then. But I loved the CD. It led me into the false belief that I was now approaching that elusive cutting edge. I remember telling a K-Mart co-worker who loved The Misfits and Husker Du that I'd bought a Toad CD. I guess I thought it gave me some sort of credibility with him; we both liked strangely-named bands. I now realize I was SO wrong, but he was polite about it. He just gave me a weird look and an "okay."

That didn't stop me from getting every one of their CDs and enjoying them thoroughly. I've missed Toad since their '98 breakup. Oh there was the satisfying 2003 reunion tour, but we haven't had any recorded music to equal the band's best work. Lead singer Glen Phillips' first solo album, 2000's Abulum, was likeable but unremarkable. His collaborative 2004 Mutual Admiration Society (see review #43) release was toothless and a bit boring. Thankfully, third try is the charm with the newly released Winter Pays For Summer.

The album was produced by John "Strawberry" Fields, who is quickly making a name for himself as a producer. He is already responsible for two albums I enjoyed very much: Mandy Moore's Coverage and The Honeydogs' 10,000 Years. One reason I'm so ready to worship at Fields' alter is that he's managed to bring former Jellyfish drummer/singer Andy Sturmer out of hiding. Sturmer provided backing vocals on both albums mentioned, and this one as well. Other contributors include Jon Brion, Ben Folds, Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, and a couple of Minnesota folk: Kristin Mooney and Dan Wilson. Obviously, Phillips has fallen in with the right crowd.

The collaborative spirit buoys up some of Phillips' best melodies and lyrics since the Toad years. Sturmer's background vocals on Thankful and Falling will warm the hearts of any Jellyfish fan (the latter song even contains the Jellyfish-esque turn of phrase "High Priestess of Bitterness"). Similarly, Ben Folds' and Kristin Mooney's extended undertones on Courage lend a contemplative air. Semisonic's Dan Wilson gets co-writing credit on three songs, the best of which is the hymn-like True. It sounds like it could slot easily onto Semisonic's last album, the overlooked All About Chemistry (which, not coincidentally, Fields also had a hand in producing).

As you'd expect, there are about four slow ponderous numbers, but none of them are enough of a killjoy to dampen the spirit of the other 9.

My favorite song is called Easier. Over a semi-funky guitar lick, declares his love, telling the object of his affection that he'd like to be "the toy in your cereal box / the Carter in your peace talks." The rest of this fearful love song is just as specific and surprising. The songs on Abulum were just as lyrically interesting, but for the most part they didn't have the catchy melodies to match. This one does.

One other thing Phillips does in Easier is coin himself as a "geek rock dude." Consulting my inner musical category encyclopedia to find the proper way to describe Toad The Wet Sprocket I came up blank. But "geek rock" is perfect. If only I'd known that in high school.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Easier