Tuesday, December 19, 2006

135. Vince Gill - These Days (2006)

In country, artists who compose their own material are the exception rather than the rule. And yet here we have Vince Gill, who has not only released 4 albums simultaneously (a feat not even matched by Prince), but also had a hand in writing all 43 songs.

As many admirers as Gill has (myself included), none would have considered him an artistic force. Maybe it's time to change that. As with any sprawling project, there are some duds, but there are also plenty of gems. Here's the scoop on the four discs, by the numbers:

Disc One: Workin' On A Big Chill (The Rockin' Record)

Happy Love Songs: 5
Sad Heartbreak Songs: 2
Church Songs: 0
Murder Ballads: 0
Wanderin' Man Songs: 3

Guest Artists: Gretchen Wilson, Rodney Crowell, Bekka Bramlett, Michael McDonald

Lowlights:
Cowboy Up (bravado-laced hick song more suited to Toby Keith)
Workin' On A Big Chill (a beach bum tune more suited to Jimmy Buffett)
Rhythm Of The Pourin' Rain (uncomfortably horny and unsexy)

Highlights:
Love's Standin' (horns and a delicious '60s guitar lick)
Nothin' For A Broken Heart (like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis doing a duet)

Summary: Gill stretches a bit too much out of character. It's the worst disc of the four.
Grade: C

Disc Two: The Reason Why (The Groovy Record)

Happy Love Songs: 5
Sad Heartbreak Songs: 5
Church Songs: 2
Murder Ballads: 1
Wanderin' Man Songs: 0

Guest Artists: LeeAnn Rimes, Alison Krauss, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, Jenny Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Amy Grant

Lowlight:
Tell Me One More Time About Jesus (then again, don't)

Highlights:
What You Give Away (inspiring gospel-tinged life advice)
Time To Carry On (haunting I'm-getting-over-you tune)
How Lonely Looks (vintage Gill falsetto)
Everything And Nothing (Elton John should record this)
Which Way Will You Go (sort of an inverse Goodbye Earl)

Summary: This is where Gill's strengths lie and is thus the best disc of the four. The songs are gentle, mannered and full of hooks, the guests slot in perfectly without being distracting, and the two jazz forays prove Gill could have a second career as a crooner.
Grade: A-

Disc Three: Some Things Never Get Old (The Country & Western Record)


Happy Love Songs: 3
Sad Heartbreak Songs: 5
Church Songs: 0
Murder Ballads: 0
Wanderin' Man Songs: 2

Guests: Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Phil Everly, LeeAnn Womack, John Anderson

Lowlight:
I Can't Let Go (overdramatic)

Highlights:
This New Heartache (lots of references to old C & W artists and songs)
Some Things Never Get Old (includes a jarring shout-out to John Prine)
Take This Country Back (a plea to reclaim country music, with the line "how we gonna face the man in black?")

Summary: The second best disc of the four and also the twangiest.
Grade: B

Disc Four: Little Brother (The Acoustic Record)

Happy Love Songs: 4
Sad Heartbreak Songs: 2
Church Songs: 1
Murder Ballads: 1
Wanderin' Man Songs: 2

Guests: Jenny Gill, Del McCoury, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Guy Clark

Lowlights:
Sweet Augusta Darlin' (forced and unoriginal)
Almost Home (a weird song; I think Guy Clark is supposed to be the voice of God)

Highlights:
Ace Up Your Pretty Sleeve (the title phrase doesn't work for me, but the song is very nice)
Molly Brown (first rate blues murder ballad about a white / black romance)
Little Brother (a sweet family reminiscence)

Summary: It's hard for this disc to avoid becoming samey throughout.
Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

134. Robbie Williams - Rudebox (2006)

Talk about contrast. Robbie Williams' previous effort, 2005's Intensive Care, was the most focused of his career. Now we have Rudebox, which is easily the most all-over-the-map album he's made.

I should be in no way surprised. Williams has proven himself an adept musical chameleon over the years. There was the Eltonesque balladry of Angels, the faux-hip-hop of Kids, the 50s crooning of Swing When You're Winning, the cock rock of Cursed, the Bowie posing of Radio, the ska experiment of Tripping, and so on. The difference with Rudebox is that all of those styles and more are compressed into a single album.

The record features 5 unexpected covers, along with 11 original collaborations with various electro-pop producers/composers. On the surface it seems like a completely overindulgent project, but if you take each song individually, it's clear that Williams' gift for pop magic is fully intact.

More than anything, this is a dance record. It starts with the early '80s hip hop of the title track. Over a Casio keyboard run courtesy of composing team Soul Mekanik, Robbie "raps" ridiculous lines like, "old school 'cause it's the best, TJ Maxx costs less, Jackson looks a mess."
Lovelight is a 2003 disco pop composition by Lewis Taylor. It sounds like it was written specifically for Williams. More unexpected but just as successful is Bongo Bong / Je Ne T'Aime Plus, a 1998 release by French Latin folk singer Manu Chao. And the dance floor fillers Kiss Me and Never Touch That Switch will get you up up and movin',

Elsewhere Robbie stretches, if only somewhat. Viva Life On Mars is nearly a country hoe-down. She's Madonna is the first of two collaborations with The Pet Shop Boys. Let's see, teaming up with electro-pop's preeminent gay statesmen to make a song about Madonna? Robbie's not really working too hard to dispel those "he's a puff" rumors, is he? Their other collaboration is a fitting cover of the My Robot Friend love song/tribute We're The Pet Shop Boys. And The Actor is a scathing cut-down that should make anyone in the title profession reconsider his or her motivations and any notion of self-seriousness. As Robbie states in the breakdown at the end "In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes."

Of course indulgence has its drawbacks. Keep On, Good Doctor and Burslem Normals have high spirits but no lyrical or musical draws. And the overlong nature of the album inevitable discourages it as a complete listening experience.

But among all of the left-field highlights and failed experiments, the album drops two tunes that might be the most intriguing of Robbie's entire career. The '80s and The '90s are baldly autobiographical story songs, spills of lyrics offered up in a delivery halfway between Dylan and The Streets.

The former concerns Robbie's youth, troubles in school, experiments with sex, death in his family, abortion, drugs, fashion and, of course, music. Williams cleverly weaves in references to Beastie Boys, R.E.M., A Flock Of Seagulls, Wham! and Berlin. The latter focuses on Robbie's time in the boy band Take That, from the fist blush of stardom to the heights of success, from his troubles with his bandmates to his decision to leave the group.

The songs are illuminating and double-handedly take Rudebox from "pleasant throwaway" status in Robbie Williams ouevre to vital for anyone who ever enjoyed his work. There are certain artists who can get away with indulgence by sheer force of personality and melodic talent. We don't know who they are until they test us and themselves. Well, Robbie, you passed.

Grade: B
Fave Song: The '80s
Fave Line: "Dance like you just won at the Special Olympics" (from Rudebox)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

2006: Top Ten

It's once again that magical time when we summarize a year's worth of music consumption into a couple of handy lists.

Check out my pal Richard Nelson's picks on
Highway 290 Revisited.

Soul Asylum – The Silver Lining

read the review

A Twin Cities supergroup featuring an ex-Prince drummer, an uber-producer, an ex-Replacement, a member of Golden Smog and a guy who dated Winona Ryder make the best album of a 20-year career.





Dixie Chicks - Taking The Long Way

read the review

After the gentle, easy-going Home, it’s nice to hear the Chicks get fired up and passionate. I guess Bush is good for something.







Ronnie Milsap – My Life

read the review

I actually hate 2 of these 11 songs. But I love the other 9. In fact, they stand with any other of the other fine tunes Milsap has recorded in his long career.






The Roots - Game Theory

read the review

One of the rare rap albums that manages to give an instant thrill but also deepens with every listen.







Elton John - The Captain & The Kid

read the review

Comeback number 19 goes forward by looking backward and becomes a classic to add to the canon. And when that keyboard gets going in Just Like Noah’s Ark, I’ve just gotta bop.







David Mead - Tangerine

read the review

I didn’t think it was possible to be both shambling and virtuosic at the same time, but Mead does it with style. A sense of adventure and an unerring knack for melodic guide him on his merry way.





The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America

read the review

You know a band is good when your mom says, “ I liked the groove, but I got less excited when he started to sing."







The Honeydogs - Amygdala

read the review

Sometimes I wonder if the local boys don’t get a leg up on others simply because of my geographical loyalty. Then they put out a set of melodies like this one, and I know I’d put them against any other artist or album in the land.





Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah

read the review

It took them a couple of weeks, but once the Sisters got their hooks in I couldn’t resist. Plenty of dance tracks but an equally impressive number of thoughtful ballads.






Rhett Miller - The Believer

read the review

5 killer songs surrounded by 7 merely great ones, this album stuck with me from its release, seeing me through ups and downs and always seeming applicable in either place. And his First Avenue show in April was a barn burner.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

2006: Best Of The Rest

#11:
Regina Spektor – Begin To Hope

Some years it’s very easy to make that cut at 10, but when you have an eccentric, varied, mysterious album like Begin To Hope, it’s almost painful! Witness the demented nostalgia of That Time, the heart-broken beauty of Samson and the irresistible bounce of Fidelity. If Bjork and Fiona Apple recorded an album together, this is how it’d turn out.


Biggest Disappointment:
Glen Phillips – Mr. Lemons

Last year’s number one artist took a frightening tumble with an all-too-appropriately-titled effort.


Biggest Surprise:
Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

Every year seems to produce at least one left-field success story. Who would've thought it’d be Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse teaming up for an exceedingly weird vanity project that could have just as easily slipped into obscurity? If you’d told me that at the beginning of the year, I’d have called you, well, crazy. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)




Guiltiest Pleasure:
Corinne Bailey Rae – Corinne Bailey Rae

Why should I feel guilty? When you hear about an artist via VH1, she reminds you of the love child of Sade and Norah Jones and all of your female friends go ape the minute they hear her, the cool factor drops to an alarming low. But Ms. Rae’s breezy-summer-evening voice and cozy grooves are enough to ease my shame.



Best Cover Art:
Keane – Under The Iron Sea

Tapping the (admittedly limited) potential of the CD booklet, an amazing flat color drawing with waves and sea monsters folds out to reveal an undersea world of evil owls, castles, skulls, squirrels, an ice queen, whales, totem poles and flowers.






Best Cover Version:
Mary J. Blige & U2 – One

Technically this came out at the end of 2005, but it easily bests any cover I heard in 2006. Without the showiness that sometimes sinks R & B singers, Mary makes the melody her own and cuts to the heart of the lyrics. Listen to her get worked up on “You ask for me to enter / but then you make me crawl / And I can’t keep holding on / When all you’ve got is hurt.” And having U2 and Bono actually back her up doesn’t hurt a bit.


Best Album Title:
L.E.O. - Alpacas Orgling

Orgling is the mating noise of the male alpaca. It's always nice when an album title makes you giggle and expands your vocabulary at the same time.


Best Concert:
Semisonic, Minneapolis Aquatennial

It’s hard to top seeing Richard Thompson, Soul Asylum, Cake and Tapes N Tapes in one day. Or folk singers Teitur and Tobias Froberg giving their all to all of 40 people at a hip-hop club. But it was Semisonic reuniting for the Aquatenniel on a hot August night that ruled over all others. It was a free show, the excitement was as palpable as the humidity, and the band sounded tight, especially considering the three-year layoff. And could you believe no one would go with me?


Best Discovery:
The Old 97s

It wasn’t their Chili’s commercial or their appearance in The Break-Up that did it, but 2006 was the nevertheless year I succumbed to the Dallas quartet’s charms. I started the year owning nothing by the band and will end it owning 7 of their 9 albums. My faves: Satellite Rides and Fight Songs.



Best Trend:
Break-up albums

Nina Gordon, Sean Lennon, Jon Auer and The Secret Machines all put out impressive records about the end of relationships. As long as the romances keep going bad, that’s good news for music fandom.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

133. The Honeydogs - Amygdala (2006)

You don't need a dictionary to enjoy The Honeydogs' new album, Amygdala, but it might help. As you listen, you'll come across words like algorithim, veneer, placebo, zeitgeist, apotheosis, serotonin, atavistic, basura and microphage. Clearly, singer/songwriter Adam Levy utilizes the most obscure vocabulary in rock.

Thankfully, Amygdala is also the most melodically pleasing, if not straightforward, set of songs The Honeydogs have created in their 10-plus years. The band is coming off an excellent concept album, but somehow that accomplishment has the effect of making a collection of unconnected songs seem that much sweeter.

That's not to say that the songs don't speak to each other. A trio of the album's tunes are simultaneously informed by the politics of the world and the politics of the heart. Opener Too Close To The Sun could be read as a break-up tune or as a condemnation of the leadership of our country: "After all of these sweet years / Came the tooth decay." Belle Epoque ("beautiful era" in French) echoes that sentiment in its chorus, "oh, there she goes Belle Epoque's left us again." And the most affecting and straightforward of the triumvarate is Truth Serum. The song is addressed to Levy's teenage son, who expressed an interest in fighting in Iraq: "But you're too young to die / for something you don't understand, why? / I've loved you since you were born / Don't go." Later, he asks in a very fatherly tone, "What's the b-plan?"

But, dare I say it, most of the songs seem to exist just for the fun of it. Rattling My Tin Cup and Devil's Advocate are all wordplay and rockin' out. Don't Cut To The Chase revels in handclaps and harmonies. Elan Vital is an old-fashioned sing-along.

There's pretty stuff too, the title track for one. Heads Or Tails features a charming lead vocal by guitarist Brian Halvorson. And Ms. Ketchup and The Arsonist (one of three songs with Honeydogs fan Aimee Mann on vocals) is jazzy, light-heartedly cruel and novelistic.

I couldn't be more impressed with this effort from a band that gets better with every album. Adam Levy's songwriting is nonpareil, the production is benignant and the perfomances are paradisiac. In other words, it's damn good.

Grade: A
Fave Song: Elan Vital
Fave Line: "And I have no regrets / Only epithets" (from Too Close To The Sun)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Top 200 Songs Of The '90s

We're at it again! My group of intrepid contributors and I have made a list of the Top 200 Songs Of The '90s!

Again, this is by no means a definitive or comprehensive list, just some of our favorite songs of that bygone decade.

I'll put up 10 new songs every other day until all 200 are listed. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

132. The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America (2006)

The Hold Steady are not a band everyone is going to like.

Musically their sound - pristine piano runs, wide open guitar riffs - is as populist as rock 'n' roll gets. Vocally, well, that's where the problem comes in. No one will ever mistake Craig Finn for a talented singer. As my buddy John astutely observed, "He sounds like Randy Newman on crank."

The band's first two albums concerned the hard-partying and salvation-seeking exploits of three characters, Charlamagne, Gideon and Holly. The songs rarely had choruses; the lyrics flew at you like you were Tippi Hedren. As Finn explained in an interview last year, he had so much to say that repeating himself hardly seemed worth it.

On the excellent Boys And Girls In America (named after a line in Kerouac's On The Road), that's all changed. Sure, Finn still sounds like a man ranting on a street corner, but he has freed himself from his characters, and found joy in repetition.

He takes advantage of it right away. Album opener Stuck Between Stations concerns John Berryman, a poet and University of Minnesota professor who committed suicide. And while there's no lyrical chorus to speak of, certain lines repeat: "These Twin Cities kisses / sound like clicks and hisses / And we all come down and drown in the Mississippi river." It's effective and affecting.

But even the new world order is quite familiar. Despite the lack of a concept, Finn's lyrics are still centered on drugs, alcohol, and parties. In nearly every song someone is high, on a trip, OD'd, blacked out or just getting drunk.

And though Finn and co. have all relocated to New York, the Twin Cities are all over this record, with so many streets (France, Lyndale, Nicollet, Lowry, Columbus) and places (Bloomington, the Quarry, the Grain Belt bridge, the Southtown Mall) mentioned, the CD could double as a metro area map.

Among the many highlights there's a funny reminiscence about prom night called Massive Nights, a twisted love story that takes place after two concert festival goers overindulge and meet up in the Chillout Tent, and the cynical You Can Make Him Like You, which is about girls who lose themselves in their boyfriends' identities.

Though Finn gets all the attention, I can't say enough about the musical backing of these songs. First of all, we see some evidence of stretching: The woozy, piano-based First Night (which briefly revisits Holly, Gideon and Charlamagne) is best described as "pretty." And Citris is an acoustic ballad with some impressive finger-picking by guitarist Tad Kubler.
The band can also just flat-out rock. You'll no better example than Chips Ahoy!, the tale of a girl who intuitively knows which horse will win at the track. The organ rolls, the power chords shred and the back-up vocals encourage you to shout along: "Whoa-oh-ho!" The amazing Hard Soft Light is a close second for king of rock status.

In the end, I believe it's the musical and lyrical balance that makes The Hold Steady so intriguing. If they had a polished singer there would be little to differentiate them from the Nickelbacks of the world. With Finn and all of his idiosyncrasies, the band are something truly unique.

And that's more important than having everyone like them.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Southtown Girls
Fave Line: "She was a real cool kisser but she wasn't all that strict of a Christian / She was a damn good dancer but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend." (from Stuck Between Stations)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

131. Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah (2006)

What's wrong with America?!

Sorry, that's kind of a broad question. I'm specifically referring to the fact that our pop music consumption is seriously low on fun.

I've written before about how we've unjustly turned away poor Robbie Williams. Kylie Minogue only gets American love once every 15 years, it seems. And then there are the Scissor Sisters, who, while being mostly ignored here in their own homeland, have become stars in the U.K.

Now the British charts can be a wacky place, so success there is not necessarily a banner of quality. But Scissor Sisters are far from a novelty act. Okay, so they use stage names and they dress like the Village People after a long hard night. And their lyrics, while funny and self-aware, are far from deep. None of that matters, because the band is deadly serious about creating perfect pop music, and they succeed more often than not.

The opener from their new album, I Don't Feel Like Dancin', could well become their signature song. It lifts the piano hook from December 1963 (Oh What A Night), as well as vocal tics from Andy Gibb, Elton John and George Michael and still manages to kick ass. The narrator may feel like sitting still, but the song will not allow the listener the same luxury.

Other early highlights include the gender-bending She's My Man and Lights, which is basically NC-17-rated Bee Gees. Land Of A Thousand Words is a big ballad that comes off as a little silly, if only because 1,000 words just won't get you as far as they used to. Even so, there's some nice slide guitar that recalls no less than George Harrison.

The album lags a tiny bit on the '30s styled Intermission and the Ana Matronic showcase Kiss You Off, but like a championship basketball team, but the band puts together a flawless second half.

Ooh
and Paul McCartney belong on any Saturday night DJ playlist. The Other Side goes for gravity and achieves it, ruminating on mortality and devotion. Might Tell You Tonight is a sweet tune about monogamy that seems to me to hinge on that indecisive word "might" in the title. And Everybody Wants The Same thing is a peace/love/tolerance message that should never go out of style (and speaking of style, Robbie Williams might want to ask for his back after hearing this tune).

Grade: B
Fave Song: Paul McCartney
Fave Line: "Oh I could throw you in a lake or feed you poison birthday cake / I won't deny I'm gonna miss you when you're gone" (from I Can't Decide)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

130. Elton John: The Captain & The Kid (2006)

In 1975 Elton John released Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. It was the very first album to debut at the top of the Billboard charts. And it wasn't even a commercial album! Instead it was an autobiographical song cycle, the type of complete listening experience that record affeciandos such as myself tend to completely geek out over.

That album told tales of two men, Elton and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, struggling together on the precipice of fame.

As the 2006 sequel The Captain & The Kid begins, they've fallen over the side.

Postcards From Richard Nixon finds Bernie and Elton arriving in America and heralded as heroes. They're amazed by what they find there, beautiful people, Steve McQueen in a red Porsche and open arms of a president who never failed to try to ride coattails of a popular culture he was completely out-of-step with. My favorite moment is when Elton describes California as "Brian Wilson's promised land" and the band responds by reeling off some Beach Boys harmonies.

The next song contiunes to document the dizzy heights. Just Like Noah's Ark is a foot- stomping pub rock number documenting the ass-kissers and panderers that surround the famous. Here we not only get a rollicking organ solo, but also the first of many self-refrences in the line: "But for every Tiny Dancer there's a dog that's had his day."

The final song the album's opening trilogy is I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way (NYC), a piano ballad akin to Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters. The world REALLY didn't need another tribute to New York, but I can forgive it because of the sense of contentment that's so palpable in both the lyrics and the music.

Too bad it couldn't last. From there the album tells us how it all fell apart. Tinderbox, one of the album's strongest tunes, finds the men coming down from an impossibly successful and prolific run (circa 1976's Blue Moves). According to the song they were done in by personal friction (in the homoerotic line: "rubbing up together around the clock") and flagging interest ("a wind of change blew across our sales"). Musically the song features and harmonic vocal "ohh-oh-oh-oh" hook quite akin to Captain Fantastic's Curtains.

Rock bottom comes next, in the form of And The House Fell Down, which tells in detail of the drug excess and isolation that seem to be a part of every massively successful musician's story. Ironically the song may be the album's high point!

From there the tone turns reflective. The Blues Never Fade Away is a song of survival, wherein our storytellers begin to wonder why they made it when so many others didn't. It recalls other euolgistic songs by the duo, including Candle In The Wind, Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes and Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny) (the latter especially in the line: "I miss John Lennon's laugh.")

That's followed by another tune of mortality, The Bridge. Though it's the album's most generic song lyrically, I have to admit there's a beauty in the minimalism. Combined with I Must Have Lost It On The Wind - a nice tune that seems lyrically out of place - the album flags in momentum here.

Thankfully it all comes right back with Old 67, in which the two old friends get together to reminisce about how far they've come. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and I fully admit to getting chills when the song recycles the line "it's a little bit funny this feeling inside" from Your Song.

And finally the story ends with the title track. The intro to The Captain & The Kid reuses the acoustic strum that opened the title track to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Fortunately, the tune that emerges from it is completely different and nearly as memorable. More than any other song on the album, this one refrences their past catalog, as in the line, "you a tumbleweed and me on a yellow brick road." As the song ends, that familiar strum comes back again, bringing it all full circle, 31 years later.

Clearly, self-mythologizing suits the boys. Despite the mostly serious tone of the record, they obviously had fun. In the liner notes they even throw in lyrics to a couple of songs (River On The Thames and 12) that aren't on the album, just like they did with Dogs In The Kitchen on Captain Fantastic. They obviously knew this was going to be something special.

Even so, Taupin and John allow themselves surprisingly little triumph, instead stating in the chorus of the final song: "Well you can't go back and if you try it fails."

Judging by sales - the new album debuted at number 18 with less than 50,000 copies sold - maybe they're right. Of course, artistically, they are completely wrong. You can go back, and you should, at least once in awhile.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: And The House Fell Down
Fave Line: "We heard Richard Nixon say / I gotta go, but you can stay."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Top 200 Songs of the '80s

I promised a big project was in the works, and now here it is!

Inspired by Pitchfork's recent Top 200 Songs of the '60s, I thought I'd try my hand at putting together a list for the '80s. I sought out the expertise of some music-lovin' friends and the list was born! The idea was not to create a definitve list, but rather to pick songs from the decade that mean(t) something to us.

I'll be posting them on a subsite, Top 200 Songs of the '80s. The plan is to post 10 new songs every other day until all 200 are there! I hope you enjoy reading the list as much as I have enjoyed putting it together (though I can't speak for my collaborators)!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Shorties


126. P.O.S.: Audition (2006)

Though it doesn't hang together as an album, Audition has a surplus of excellent tracks. P.O.S. approaches his raps with the mentality of a punk singer and the beats match his intensity. Stand Up (Let's Get Murdered) is a signature example, turning an funky horns and soulful backup vocals into something akin to doomy metal. De La Souls is his life story mixed with a statement of purpose. There are guest stars too: Safety In Speed (Heavy Metal) features Hold Steady singer Craig Finn, and Slug (from Atmosphere) shows up on a couple of tracks.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Bleeding Hearts Club (Mpls Chapter)
Fave Line: "First of all, fuck Bush, that's all, that's the end of it" (from Half-Cocked Concepts)

127. Leroy Smokes: Love Hustle Theater (2006)

This multi-culti Twin Cities rap-with-instruments crew returns with a new long-player, emphasis on the long. The 22 tracks are all over the place both in quality and style, but there's a lot to recommend, including the old school dance number Two Step and the soulful Without You. Inside Out sounds like Hey Ya's little brother and Ya Llego La Hora (The Time Is Now) is good enough to make the Black Eyed Peas a little green-eyed. Though the band laments the lack of good music on the Radio, it's hard to take that seriously when their catchiest song features the chorus "Put your hands up / Fuck that / put 'em down / 'cause too many bullshit records spinnin' around" and is titled Kill The DJ.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Kill The DJ
Fave Line: "And watch the President pull his tricks out of his sleeve / In a world where we kill everyone left to feed / Now let's all gather 'round and celebrate the greed" (from Never Scared)

128. Outkast: Idlewild (2006)

Life's not fair sometimes. Outkast's last album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was one of those rare albums to succeed both critically and commercially, and we all know there's no proper way to follow that up. So the poor sales and critical lashing met by Idlewild should be no surprise. What makes it unfair is that it's actually a better album. Of course, this is Outkast, so the album is far from perfect. The skits are stupid, Macy Gray's guest spot is horrendous and the unbearable closer A Bad Note takes its own title too literally. But unlike other Outkast albums, this one actually hangs together, thanks to its mining of '20s and '30s musical styles and lyrics that find the boys consantly reflecting on the end of relationships, friendly, working and romantic.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: When I Look In Your Eyes
Fave Line: "I'll hurt you like the President's approval rating" (from Mighty "O")

129. The Roots: Game Theory (2006)

Following a move to President Carter's Def Jam label, The Roots have made their most consistent, succinct and straightforward album. There are no overblown guest spots, no overlong jams and no overwrought spoken word pieces. Instead, the songs make their points quickly, with clear, memorable hooks and above average (no mater what any other Black Thought-dissing review might say) raps. The CD's only handicap is the closer, an 8-minute tribute to deceased rapper/producer J.Dilla. The sentiment is admirable, but doesn't hold up to repeated listens, unlike the other 11 songs.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Long Time
Fave Line: "I don't think old men ought to provoke wars for young men to fight" (from False Media)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

125. Soul Asylum: Silver Lining (2006)

My dad was a pop music obsessive in the '80s and has stacks of Rolling Stone, Spin and Musician magazines to prove it. Every so often he passes on a few of these old chestnuts to me. I always get a kick out of looking at the reviews of "new" albums, at who was a big deal at the time, who was up and coming and who never came. Recently, I found an especially interesting issue of Musician, dated May 1987 and featuring a triumphant U2 on the cover. In the Faces section, which highlighted new musicians, we find profiles of not only Minneapolis pre-Semisonic group Trip Shakespeare, but also of a young new band called Soul Asylum.

The brief article finds the band already on their second full album, While You Were Out, facing comparisons to The Replacements and Husker Du and lead singer Dave Pirner declaring that he has no interest in stardom. The writer makes it clear that Pirner expects their career to burn out any second. In fact, he claims he will not be quitting his job mowing lawns.

Here we are in the present tense and not only does the band still exist, they've had two major labels, a #5 chart hit and the obligitory Winona Ryder involvement. There's also The Silver Lining, a top-notch new album that by all rights probably shouldn't exist. It's been 22 years since their first EP, 9 since their last album and bassist Karl Mueller died of throat cancer in 2005.

And while that latter occurrence might have effectively ended the already dormant band, it actually seems that the new album wouldn't have happened without Mueller. He wanted to have one more go around, and he plays on 5 of the 12 songs. And the band has moved on in his memory. Having picked up Replacement bassist Tommy Stinson and former Prince drummer Michael Bland, as well as producer John "Strawberry" Fields, the band has become somewhat of a Twin Cities supergroup. It's an unlikely resurgence.

But it's also a welcome one. They sound great. Soul Asylum were always hard to categorize. Were they post-punk, grunge or alt-country? On The Silver Lining they are none and all of the above. The trio of songs that open the album all share a similar country rock sensibility. The raggedly-sung Stand Up And Be Strong is an anthem whose message is hard to divorce from the band's tribulations. Lately is an upbeat John Mellencampish study of a soldier and his family's thoughts in the midst of war. Crazy Mixed Up World features the priceless chorus, "It's a crazy mixed up world out there / someone's always got a gun and it's all about money / you live with loneliness or you live with somebody / who's crazy / It's a crazy mixed up world." It sounds depressing, but in practice the song is comfortingly accepting of life's ups and downs.

The album also offers some prime pop rock. All Is Well is one of two songs that finally justify those 19-year-old Replacements comparisons. It shows a sense of humor you don't expect from Soul Asylum: "All is well here in hell / I wish you were here." Bus Named Desire is another one that could have appeared on Pleased To Meet Me. It's the timeless tale of someone who has wised up to a less-than-ideal romance: "I've paid my dues underneath your tires."

After the upbeat barrage of the first five songs, things slow down a bit. Watcha Need, Standing Water and Success Is Not So Sweet are ballady, but still feature strong memorable choruses. Success features the mildly disturbing line "You want a baby/I know you do/Well, I'll be your baby/And I'll take care of you." Somehow I don't think that's going to appease the woman it's directed toward.

The highlight of the album's latter third is Oxygen, which features hushed, haunting verses and a chorus that gets more powerful as the song goes on. It's easily the equal of anything else they've done.

The worst offense committed by The Silver Lining is the presence of a bonus track after the punky Slowly Rising. We only have to wait about 30 seconds for an acoustic ditty about the hypocrisy of Christianity and politics, featuring a chorus that states "heroes will never let you down / just as long as they're dead." It's a worthwhile, if cynical, tune, but should have had its own track number.

This isn't an album that'll save the world or even take it by storm, but the survival, endurance and unpredictable nature of life that it represents definitely makes me smile.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Bus Named Desire
Fave Line: "I think I'd be good for you / like orange juice / or a walk around the lake" (from Good For You)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

An Open Letter Regarding Hidden Bonus Tracks

To All Musicians:

I'm fired up!

Recently, Soul Asylum, Boy Kill Boy and The Rewinds have chosen to raise my ire by tacking hidden "bonus" tracks onto the end of their respective albums. You know what I'm talking about? The last listed song ends, but then there's a period of silence - sometimes as short as a minute, sometimes as long as 30 - followed by an additional song.

I hate this practice absolutely. In the past, artists have tested my patience by tacking on a ridiculous amount of dead air only to be broken by studio chatter, a bit of acoustic strumming or some symphonic bullshit (The Rewinds, Robbie Williams, Ok Go and Jars Of Clay should all be guiltily avoiding eye contact right now).

Other artists give us real songs after our wait, artists like Atmosphere, Counting Crows and the above-mentioned Soul Asylum and Boy Kill Boy. I use these as examples because the bonus songs are actually somewhat worthwhile in each case. But let me make this clear: It has nothing to do with the quality of the song! You could put something wonderful like Dream Police by Cheap Trick as a bonus track and I'd still be pissed. As I see it, bonus tracks are indulgent and unnecessary and compromise the integrity of your album.

So here is my plea: STOP IT! The idea is played out and it was never a brilliant practice in the first place. I know Nirvana did it on some pressings of Nevermind and Alanis Morissette did it on Jagged Little Pill, and the Beatles invented it accidntally on Abbey Road, but I'm sorry, a bonus track is not going to get you multiplatinum sales. It just makes you seem kind of like a jerk.

If you want to add an extra song to your album, go to town! I don't even care if you choose to keep it unlisted on the album artwork, give it its own track number and let it play immediately after the "final" song (as The Clash did with Train In Vain on London Calling). Please! I implore you.

Thank You,
A Music Fan

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

124. David Mead - Tangerine (2006)

Why on Earth did I buy a David Mead album?! I first heard of him in 2001 via a kind review of his second CD, Mine And Yours. I intended to buy that record and even listened to it at a listening station a couple of times, but never pulled the trigger.

Then I saw him in concert, as an opener for Hem. It was just him and a guitar and I was unimpressed with both his songs and his attitude. He seemed miffed that the audience was more interested in talking to one another than listening to him. And rather than getting over it, he just kept sniping. Okay, I get annoyed at indifferent concert audiences too, but he was the opener, for goodness' sake!

So why did I buy his new album, Tangerine? Maybe it was more good reviews, or the whimisical cover art or the low introductory price. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I did. It's an unassuming gem of a pop album.

The opening title track is a piano-driven instrumental with lush harmonies. It's a nice little intro, in more ways than one; the final melody line at the end of the song apes the opening line of the second song, Hard To Remember. That tune is a wry ditty with carnival organ and some great lines. My favorite: "I'm trapped in the orbit of your rolling eyes."

The Trouble With Henry is not about a dead body that keeps showing up, but it's almost as seedy. Mead tells about his problematic friend using a '70s lounge vibe. As you might guess from that description, Tangerine covers a lot of ground in a short time. Chatterbox reveals Mead to have the heart of a power-popper. Reminded #1 is a nearly a capella rumination on a dead romance. Hunting Season comes on like a jazz standard but blossoms into a Beatleish ukelale stomper. And Suddenly, A Summer Night wouldn't be out of place in a stage musical.

Other highlights: Fighting For Your Life has one of those immediately familiar choruses. It's one of those you hear and think "where did he steal that from?"; Making It Up Again is as pretty as pop music can get; and Hallelujah, I Was Wrong is my favorite, a 2 and a half minute TV theme in waiting. It hits more melodic highs than most songs do with twice the running time.

This is a shambling, off-the-cuff album. It's almost as though Mead and his players went unprepared into a studio stocked with instruments and came out with an album. And I don't say this much anymore in the iPod era, but I'm less struck by individual songs as I am by the whole 12 song experience. I couldn't be more impressed by Tangerine, or surprised that it came from David Mead.

Grade: A
Fave Song: Hallelujah, I Was Wrong

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

123. Robbie Williams - Intensive Care (2005)

One can't really blame U.K. pop star Robbie Williams (or his label) for giving up on an American breakthrough. His first American release, The Ego Has Landed was actually a combination of the best songs from his first two U.K. albums. It arrived with high praise and a couple of ready-made hit singles: Angels and Millennium. There was minor success, but not as much as expected.

His next effort, Sing When You're Winning, was even stronger, just as critically adored, and performed even worse. His unfortunate final attempt to make an American splash was 2003's Escapology, a passable album that was clearly not strong enough to grab the ears and wallets of U.S. buyers.

So his latest record, Intensive Care, will not even be released stateside. And that's a shame, because it's his best one yet. Perhaps that has something to do with who he's working with. He has left behind longtime collaborator Guy Chambers (like an inverse version of pop star he's most often compared to, Elton John, Robbie seems able to only write lyrics, not music). His new partner is Stephen Duffy, an original member of Duran Duran, leader of The Lilac Time and co-writer of many Barenaked Ladies' tunes.

And ironically, the album is littered with American session players. Greg Liesz, Buddy Judge, Davey Farragher, Matt Chamberlain have played with the likes of Beck, Wilco, Aimee Mann, Smashing Pumpkins and They Might Be Giants.

So the music is top-notch. And Williams' lyrics are his typical combination of sublime, clever and ludicrous. Take the opening line of the album: "Here I stand victorious, the only man who made you come." Obviously, he hasn't lost any confidence. Some other prime lyrical nuggets include, "Oh Lord make me pure, but not yet" (Make Me Pure), "She asks me how I'm feeling / Well, I don't wanna think that hard" (Your Gay Friend) and "Just relax / It's what Jesus would do" (Sin Sin Sin).

Highlights abound. Tripping is ska-flavored, features Robbie both "rapping" and singing in falsetto, and yet somehow manages to not be disastrous. Maybe that's because the melody brings up fond allusions to Eddy Grant's 1983 hit Electric Avenue. And I almost wonder if it's intentional, because the lines "I know it's coming there's gonna be violence" matches well with "down in the streets there is violence." It's not the only place that Williams uses lyrical familiarity to his advantage. In Random Acts Of Kindness he twists AC/DC when he says "For those about to die, we salute you." And the opening line of Advertising Space, "There's no Earthly way of knowing / What was in your heart / When it stopped going" brings to mind Willy Wonka's nonsensical rant during the boat ride down the chocolate river. The song itself is as stately and mannered as a late-period Elton John ballad.

Please Don't Die is another Elton-a-like, and also a frank expression of love. Though Williams can often come off as cheeky, he obviously has his serious side. Like a spiritual successor to God Only Knows, the song expresses love through the fear of loss: "If you die before I leave," Robbie sings, "What on Earth becomes of me?" Tasteful piano and orchestral flourishes underscore his plea.

Your Gay Friend is the album's most intriguing song. Not only is it done up in the modern style with an angular guitar line and swollen synths, but it also has a twisty story. I believe the song is about an ongoing affair, with Robbie playing the part of the gay friend to fool the husband while he gets down with the wife. The song is also notable considering the gay rumors that have dogged Williams. He's bold to fly so close to the topic, but I suppose he has never really been shy, referring to it in the earlier songs Kids and Me And My Shadow.

Finally, A Place To Crash rides a Keith Richards riff and "ow-ow" shouts to summarize the joyful pop spirit of the entire album. Among the expletive-laden lyrics we get a glimpse of a more generous and humble Robbie and a nice contrast to the opening line: "If not for you I wouldn't come at all."

It seems to me that if Williams continues to make albums of this strength and consistency, he won't have to worry about breaking in the U.S. America just may come knocking on his door. Until then, I'm happy to pay import prices.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Please Don't Die

Thursday, July 13, 2006

122. Dashboard Confessional - Dusk And Summer (2006)

Dashboard Confessional are a polarizing group. Their fans worship them. In concert, the audience shouts along to every word Chris Carrabba utters, verse to chorus and back. To their detractors, they embody the worst of emo's whiny, self-absorbed tendencies.

I've always been on the more positive side of the pole, mostly because I could relate to Carrabba's tales of fucked-up girls. The band's 2003 album, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, contained a satisfying number of pissed-off odes and ruthless condemnations, such as Rapid Hope Loss, So Beautiful and Hey Girl. In the latter Carrabba used his anger to display a clear worldview, "Where I'm from we live like it's the latest attraction."

Unfortunately he's gone fuzzy on the band's new album, Dusk And Summer. Strange to say, but it seems that as Carrabba's love life has improved, his songwriting has suffered. A full half of the album consists of over-dramatic odes to the power of love and sex. Sounds nice, right? In practice, it's annoying.

That's partly because his joy is rarely unconditional. There always seems to be some sort of obstacle harshing his ardor: time, distance, another guy, or reluctance. And there's an undercurrent of creepiness in his approach, especially in the way he describes sex. On the title track we learn that, "she kissed your teeth" and in The Secret's In The Telling he claims, "I can taste you in my mouth."

Clearly, the guys in The 40-Year-Old Virgin would chide Carrabba for "putting the pussy on a pedestal." In Reason To Believe it seems he'll die without his sweetheart: "My heart is sturdy but it needs you to survive." And in Heaven Here, he likens sex to salvation. Take that, religious right!

Even stranger is Currents, which doubles as an ode to a lover and to smoking. Yes, smoking. "The air is visible around you / Rising up and off your lips," it begins. And it ends thusly: "So hot with love / It burns our hands."

At least it isn't ALL bad. In the ballad Stolen, a single encounter leaves a strong impression and Carrabba comes off as understated and sweet, for once. Opener Don't Wait is catchy and lyrically obtuse, leaving the focus clearly on the music. So Long, So Long is a slightly overcooked duet with Adam Duritz about saying goodbye. It contains some nice lyrical detail; a busted speaker in one car door makes it "so nothing sounds quite right."

Finally, there's Slow Decay, a bracing tale of a soldier returning home from war. It's told as a dialogue, first a father speaking to the soldier, reassuring him that he's "safe now" and the son responding with the guilt he feels at the death he's seen and dealt. As you listen to the song, it sounds like a songwriter who has found his purpose, as though Carrabba's innate sense of drama can finally express itself properly.

Too bad it's only one song out of 10. As it is, Carrabba's talent seems somewhat wasted on an album that will keep his detractors detracting, and may just add to their number.

Grade: C+
Fave Song: Slow Decay

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

121. Kubla Kahn - Lowertown (2006)

A sense of humor is not valued in rock 'n' roll. Spinal Tap aside, I understand why. As a kid I worshiped "Weird Al" Yankovic; I wore out his tapes in my Walkman. However, as an adult, I can only take him in small doses. Repetition isn't what it used to be, and the jokes tend to wear thin.

The best way for bands to get around this institutionalized stoicism is to be "quirky." It's as though the rock establishment has said, "Be clever or weird or surprising, but don't TRY to make us laugh. We want to laugh on our own terms."

Bands like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies have mastered this by balancing their cheek with serious sentiment. And Twin Cities natives Kubla Kahn follow that path nicely on their new CD Lowertown. Of the seven songs, at least four are pretty damn funny, in unexpected ways.

In the opener, Memory, the singer is having trouble remembering a girl's name, despite meeting her a few times. As the song progresses, he runs through some potential choices that make me giggle every time: Susie, Bobbie Sue, Lorraine, LouAnn, Molly, Tina and Mary Jane. Despite his lapse, the song is kind of sweet, especially when he tells her he'll be sure to remember her heart and soul. And that sweetness is what saves the song from becoming a gimmick. Skate works similarly. It's a nostalgic teenage date fantasy where narrator is psyching himself up to ask a girl on a date: "I'm gonna make a move to ask you out to skate / And if you say yes, then life is great." While the mentions of arcades, stonewashed jeans and concession stands bring a smile, the situation is universal and the heart-on-the-sleeve sentiment is endearing.

Nels is the tune that most closely walks the edge between song and joke. "My friend Nels is a cellular biologist," goes the chorus over a swampy roadhouse blues beat, "And when he gets some time off to himself / He takes that Double K off of the shelf." (I have to admit that I did some research to discover that Double K is a vodka drink with kiwi and kiwano.) The funniest part of the song is the bridge "When the lab is empty / And the e-mails have all been checked / And the cells are sleeping for the night / And it's all right."

Finally, there's Couch, which features a jazz intro and a Beatles horn revelry outro. The narrator realizes that he's getting old when he finds himself in a conversation about his couch. This sets him off on a litany of complaints: "My metabolism's slowing / I need to get more sleep / I hate that radio music / The stairs are getting steep." It's funny, yes, but wholly relatable.

The other 3 songs, What Did I Do, Catch The Show and Strange New Town are straight ahead rock tunes, not funny at all, but enjoyable just the same.

I have to say that Kubla Kahn's sound is strongly reminiscent of Phish (with an added horn section). Where that band could only sporadically get it together in the recording studio, Kubla Kahn seems much more suited to it. That's thanks in part to good songwriting, but also to the expert production of Hopefuls vets Eric Fawcett and John Hermanson (who also both play on the CD) and the mixing genius of Alex Oana.

The band is also similar to Phish in that their songs are tailor-made for live shows. You can just envision the crowd dancing and singing along faithfully to most of the tunes on Lowertown. Apparently the band still all have their day jobs and only play a couple of gigs a month. It's a shame they can't go out on the road, because I have a feeling if they did it wouldn't be long before they had an army of faithful followers.

And that's no joke!

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Skate

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

120. Ronnie Milsap - My Life (2006)

I'll admit Ronnie Milsap is one of the odder musical obsessions of my life. It all started when I sat two rows behind him on an airplane that was en route to Nashville. I wasn't impressed; I didn't even know who he was. And my thoughts were elsewhere anyway, since I was headed to my grandfather's funeral.

Later, I decided to check out Ronnie's music. It spoke to me immediately. Which is strange, since I'm not much of a country fan, and Ronnie's popularity seems to have peaked in 1983. But there was something about the soulfulness of his voice, and the way the songs were so earnest, simple and straightforward. I became an immediate fan, and Ronnie rocketed into my top 10 favorite artists, an ascent rarely seen before or since.

That's why I was a bit more nervous than excited about his new CD - the first country album he's done since 1993 - especially after hearing the Jimmy Buffet-lite lead single Local Girls. I was afraid the album would be an embarrassment.

Turns out I needn't have worried. Of the 11 new songs, Local Girls is by far the worst. The rest of the album is exactly what you'd expect: Lyrically simple, passionately sung and timelessly arranged. In fact, at least 7 of the songs could fit seamlessly on Ronnie's 40 #1 Hits compilation. Ronnie doesn't write his own material, but he's a sure hand at picking songs for himself.

Some artists tend to specialize in either love or heartbreak. Ronnie can sell you both. The funky hillbilly opener, You Don't Know My Love is actually a challenge to a reluctant lover: "If you think I'm lonely, only talking trash / That my mouth's writin' checks my heart can't cash / Then here's my number, baby, call my bluff / 'Cause you don't know my love." There's also an excellent backup vocalist who REALLY gets into it. On the flip side, there's If It's Gonna Rain, a cry-into-your-beer lament. Ronnie is completely resigned to heartbreak over a lost love. "I'm gonna cry a river of tears," he declares over a weepy fiddle, "It's gonna rain and rain and rain 'round here for years."

A couple of other standouts deal with that time when you know a relationship is over, you just aren't quite ready for it to be over. In Every Fire, he tries to move on but just can't. "Every time I go and find a tiny spark / I'll say something wrong / And it's easy to tell that it's still raining in my heart / And that's been putting out every fire I try to start." The narrator of Why Can't I is struggling as he sees his ex move on with her life and wondering why he can't. The song is done in Ronnie's storyteller style, where he almost talks the verses, and then wows us on the chorus by opening up his voice. It's very effective, especially with a great pedal steel guitar accompaniment. I must also mention that the song is exactly 3:49 long!

It strikes me that Ronnie picks songs that speak for him. Time Keeps Slippin' Away is a rockin' reminder that we always need goals. It's sort of a country version of Bruce Springsteen's Hungry Heart. The title track is all about living a life you can be proud of: "I wanna be an open book / Say I gave more than I took." And It's All Coming Back To Me Now is a celebration of good karma. Ronnie supposes the new love he's found is payback for living right: "It's all those hearts I never broke / And it's all those days I prayed and hoped / Yes it's all the love I spread around / Yeah it's all coming back to me now."

Okay, so the album isn't perfect. There are precisely two dead spots (the other being the cynical A Day In The Life Of America). But let's face it, that's not a bad success rate at all, especially for a blind sexagenarian. And considering how vibrant, timeless and singable the rest of the album is, I'm hoping it doesn't take 12 years for the next one.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: It's All Coming Back To Me Now

Monday, July 10, 2006

119. Guster - Ganging Up On The Sun (2006)

Expectation can be a bitch. I tend to believe the events, moments and experiences we truly enjoy in life are the ones that take us by surprise. The ones we count down to and anticipate and build up in our minds often manage to bring us joy, but at a higher cost. Those events, moments or experiences have to live up to the high expectations our mind has created.

This goes for CDs too. Every month there are CDs I anticipate, mostly by artists whose work I've enjoyed in the past. Sometimes I read reviews or articles in advance, and depending on what they say, that can stoke my fire even more. And then there are those unexpected gems. Something I heard on the radio, or read about, or discovered on a listening station or had recommended by a friend. These are the CDs that have a better chance of taking hold, because they carry no expectations. And to complete the circle, those artists that really impress me usually get a free pass for their next release.

In 2003, Guster released Keep It Together and I discovered it through a friend. In my review at the time, I said it was one of those unexpected musical joys that seem to land in my path every so often. Now here we are three years later, and Guster's new album is one I marked on the calendar. On the plus side, that means the band automatically gets my $11. On the downside, it also means the album has its predecessor to live up to. It won't be so easy to earn my good graces this time around.

It looks like Guster were set on learning that the hard way.

To be fair, let's look at my expectations, and see how the album fares against them. For one, I expected Guster to give me some unabashed sunny pop music. How did they do? Well, the first song, Lightning Rod, is an immediate let down. It's languid, comprised mostly of accordian and wordless harmony. It'd be fine as a mid-album breather, but as an opener it can't even live up to its title. Another underacheiver is Ruby Falls, an indulgent 7 minute epic that's too long to be rocking and too noisy to be touching. There's also Empire State, which despite an interesting lyrical structure can't really get past boring.

The band doesn't let me down completely though. Satellite is everything you love about Guster: reverberating guitar, bongo beat, well-placed harmonies, carnival organ. (But did we really need another "satellite" song?) Manifest Destiny comes on like a Ben Folds b-side, with some fleet-fingered piano and a horn section. And Dear Valentine is a fine power ballad; I've found that a band can rarely go wrong writing a song with the word "valentine" in the title.

My other expectation of a new Guster record is that it contain some clever wordplay. On this count the band fails even more disasterously. Only the single One Man Wrecking Machine gives us the sort of memorable smartass lyrics that were all over Keep It Together. Though it does lose points for being fixated on high school; these guys have to be in their 30s. Manifest Destiny manages to use the word "secede" and that's a plus. And Empire Falls gets this nugget in: "Been talking to Jesus / He's not talking to me." But otherwise the record is all bland nondescript phrases like "hang on", "c'mon" and "you're my satellite." And who is The Captain? We never really find out.

Unfortunately, it seems Guster is the latest victim to have fallen under the weight of my expectations. But the band can take heart; I'm well aware that all artists' careers have their peaks and valleys. And guess what? When their next album comes out, my expectations will be pretty low.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Dear Valentine

Sunday, July 09, 2006

118. Jon Auer - Songs From The Year Of Our Demise (2006)

Paul Simon once sang, "Losing love is like a window in your heart / everybody sees you're blown apart." This is especially true for singer/songwriters. Those of us who can't express our sorrow ourselves turn to song. The musicians have to create them for us. I'm forever fascinated with the transformation of pain into art. When a songwriter can synthsize their heartbreak into something that others can relate to and take comfort in, that's special.

Jon Auer has done that on his new solo album, Songs From The Year Of Our Demise. Auer has been making clever power pop since 1990, first with The Posies, and also as part of the new line-up of Big Star, but never has he been as personal and engaging as he is here.

On the surface, Songs From The Year Of Our Demise seems to be a morbid break-up album. Opener Six Feet Under serves as a thematic overview of what's to come. The narrator mournfully accepts that a relationship is over: "There's no time machine to take us back / No scientist to change the fact / We say our lines and fade to black." It's too bad that this song came along too late to be the theme song to the HBO show. The chorus would be killer with credits rolling by: "So don't get mad and I won't cry / And don't expect a long goodbye / I'll call you when we're six feet under ground."

So there has definitely been a break-up. Other songs address this too: Four Letter Word uses sinister, bopping piano and a marching beat underscore a rather bitter note to the ex-lover: "I'm not ashamed that I treat your name like a four letter word now." Rocker My Sweet Unknown is another obvious relationship song steeped in macabre imagry: "Together you and I / We could watch each other die / And be happy." Angelita seems to address the child of divorce, acknowledging how much she has been hurt.

But things get thorny with some of the other songs. Having established that he's not above using death as a metahpor, it's difficult to tell on some songs whether or not Auer actually IS singing about death. Take Song Noir, a wallowing bit of regret that packs a powerful punch. A picked guitar line, a glockenspiel and a cello accompany lyrics like: "And how I hate that I still wait for you to call" and "Would you appear if I said your name again and again and again and again?" It could go either way.

Cemetary Song is a countryish rumination on loss: "There's no wondering where you are now / You're so far now / But you can't get any farther away." That describes death pretty darn well. What's more, the line, "in your arms I learned to breathe" makes me think that the song is about a mother.

And there's are at least two more songs that support the mother theory, the tortured Jospehine contains the lines "I saved your chromosomes unknowingly" and the epic You Used To Drive Me Around is obvious just from its title. That song also contains the repeated lyric: "I've had enough of all your bribery and mimosa" which hearkens back to the album's second song Bottom Of The Bottle, which by all rights is about an alcoholic. If I were to guess, I'd say these songs address an estranged relationship with an alcoholic mother who eventually passed away. If you assume Auer is writing from real life, he really did have a bummer of a year.

With such heavy topics, you'd think the album would be a bummer too. Thankfully, it's not. Auer does a masterful job of allowing the songs to be catchy and powerful while still keeping the focus firmly on the lyrics. Only one, the this-sounds-like-a-Brian Wilson-in-bed-demo Adios, drowns in its own tears.

There's even some lyrical hope as the album wraps up. Sundown gives up words for a "sha-la-la-la-la-la-la" chorus and the phrase, "I'll believe if you believe." Wicked World is a love song imagined as a novel, sort of a subdued companion to Elvis Costello's Everyday I Write The Book. And closer The Year Of Our Demise is a eulogy that could apply to both the mother and the ex-lover, "And I want you to know / That I loved you so."

This definitely isn't the album I expected to grab my attention this summer, not a mysterious, knotty journey into the dark night of the soul. But luckily we don't always get to choose what grabs us, because those windows in the heart can be pretty revealing.

Grade: A
Fave Song: My Sweet Unknown

Friday, June 30, 2006

Quatre Petites Revues des Femmes

114. Nelly Furtado - Loose (2006)

Something is off about this album. Don't get me wrong; mindless, sexy albums are all well and good. In the summer, you need to be able to roll down your windows and foist your music selctions on other drivers. Mindless, sexy music is perfect for that. I guess what's bothering me is that this is not really a sexy or mindless album at all. In fact, there's actually an undercurrent of meloncholy that pervades even the upbeat tracks. Maybe producer / co-writer Timbaland has finally gone too far with the minor key thing, or maybe Ms. Furtado didn't really feel as sexy and free as she has claimed in all of her recent interviews.

For example, why did it take Chris Martin to co-write All Good Things (Come To An End), basically a late '90s Madonna ballad? Maneater has an appropriately '80s chorus, too bad Hall & Oates did it better IN the '80s. And the worst offense is the downer opener Afraid. Note to all parties interested in making a summer jam album: Your first song should not be depressing. Promiscuous is a classic, of course, the lyrics are blah, but the give and take is perfect. Download it from iTunes, along with the dancey Do It and the Juanes duet Te Busque, and forget the rest of the album.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Promiscuous

115. The Wreckers - Stand Still, Look Pretty (2006)

Michelle Branch, apparently tired of being solo and singing with Santana, has recruited friend Jessica Harp and refashioned herself as half of a country duo. And I'll be roped and tied if it doesn't work quite well. In fact, the girls could almost be a streamlined version of the Dixie Chicks.

There are two missteps. One is the Patty Griffin cover, One More Girl. Their performance is fine, I just don't like the song. And the other is the title song, a poor-me rumination on fame. Branch even acknowledges in the self-aware chorus that she's just complaining for complaining's sake. Not good.

But the rest is top notch, from the power country of Rain to the hoe-down My, Oh My to the sweet harmonies of Tennessee. The killer is Leave The Pieces, as fine a break-up / moving on country song as you will find. "Just take your love and hit the road," indeed.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Leave The Pieces


116. Damone - Out Here All Night (2006)

If you want a sugar rush look no further. This band takes Weezer's hair-band tendencies up a couple of notches and puts a sweet female singer in front of it. Morningwood probably kind of wishes they were this band.

Granted, the metal guitar god riffing can be a bit much, but it's a surprisingly effective contrast when combined with lead singer Noelle's pop star voice. The album's first three songs are your party-starting bludgeoning shouty anthems, but the CD really comes to life with the fourth song, Stabbed In The Heart. The band actually tones down the volume for the verses while still rocking on the choruses. Yes, it's a power ballad, and afterall, weren't they really the best part of the whole hair metal movement? Things get even better with On Your Speakers, which has an undeniable Bangles vibe.

There are other highlights too, but the album could live without a couple of songs, namely When You Live and the closer Wasted Years. Both reach into Avril Lavigne book of tricks a little too far for comfort. Even so, this is a solid record. And, hey, you've got to love a band named after the ticket-scalping lowlife from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Maybe they should tour with Rooney.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: You're The One


117. The Concretes - In Color (2006)

Mix a little ABBA, a little Carpenters, a little Rilo Kiley and a little Belle And Sebastion and you get The Concretes, a Swedish group with 8 or so members. There's a kind of carnival atmosphere to these tracks, a swirl of '70s pop and country. It's sort of like the band doing their version of the Grease soundtrack. There's even a duet with Romeo Stoddard from The Magic Numbers.

Fittingly, the best songs are about music itself. On The Radio is a number one hit in a pop-dominated alternate universe; all plinking piano and harmonies. Song For The Songs is 3:49 of celebration and steel guitar. Other highlights include folk songs Grey Days and Sunbeams, as well as the chilly, Ivy-style Fiction. The album suffers slightly from too many languid songs and sequencing that doesn't cover it well. Even so, the highlights get pretty high and bright.

Grade: B
Fave Song: On The Radio