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 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 one of the best break-up albums I've ever heard.

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