Thursday, January 26, 2006

98. The Heads - No Talking Just Head (1996)

Let me start with a disclaimer: I have never been in a band, so I do not understand the mentality of people who make music as part of a collective. Thus, it is completely beyond my comprehension why bands soldier on when they lose their lead singer.

I can understand getting a new singer and renaming yourself. I'm fine with that. Audioslave came out of Rage Against The Machine, Love And Rockets came out of Bauhaus. It's all good. And okay, some bands have even had success keeping their name and just getting a new singer. AC/DC, Van Halen and Genesis come to mind.

But for the most part, it's just ridiculous. Did you know The Doors made two albums without Jim Morrisson, and are still trying to keep the strange days alive even as we speak? Have you heard that The Cars are reuniting, without Ric Ocasek?! Have you seen the Steve Perry clone that Journey tours with? Did you watch Rock Star: INXS or Are U The Girl? this summer? How can these bands not realize that they are embarassing themseleves?

Maybe it's all about the benjamins, but it has happened to the best of bands. Consider The Heads, an ill-advised 1996 project by Chris Frantz, Tina Weymoth, and Jerry Harrison, three-fourths of Talking Heads. When David Byrne spurned their offers to reunite, they recruited 11 different singers and made an album. I know I said I was fine with a band going on under a different name, but I can't count this project in that category. Beyond the brief "oh that's clever" factor, is The Heads really the best name they could come up with?

And why did it even need to happen in the first place? Frantz and Weymouth could have just stuck with the Tom Tom Club. Harrison was on a hot streak producing albums for Live and Crash Test Dummies. Who knows, but it happened, and while the results are not enough to soil the Talking Heads name, they are nonetheless best forgotten.

What's strange is they recruited some pretty good singers, people like Debbie Harry of Blondie, Michael Hutchence of INXS (ironic, huh?), Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays, Maria McKee of Lone Justice and Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes. What's stranger is that they didn't play to those singers' strengths at all! Harry's charisma and sex appeal is wasted on the plodding title track, The King Is Gone is too slow and boring for Hutchence (they should have known; Never Tear Us Apart is the only good slow INXS song), and McKee's country background should have been perfect for the sometimes twangy Heads, but instead No Big Bang is just a bland rock song. Similarly, they must have decaffinated Gano before they brought him in to sing on Only The Lonely.

But the problem is more than "right-singer-wrong-song." The music is also to blame. Instead of sounding like Talking Heads with a different singer, a lot of the songs sound strangely like Depeche Mode in their rock phase. Especially guilty of this is the opener, Damage I've Done, with Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde.

In my mind, only five songs are anywhere close to okay. Punker Richard Hell does fine on the definitely-not-punk-but-still-groovy Never Mind, and Gavin Friday's closer Blue Blue Moon lands somewhere between Tom Waits and David Bowie, though not as good as either.

Surprisingly, the one of the best tracks features a non-singer. Malin Anneteg was a Swedish spoken word artist discovered by Frantz and Weymouth and her No More Lonely Nights manages to be hypnotic and engaging. And how could I ever hate Andy Partridge's Papersnow? This track actually sounds like it should, like XTC and Talking Heads got together to jam. The music is insinuating and Partridge basically shouts out nonsense, but it's still heads above everything else.

Well, everything but the biggest surprise on the album. Who would have guessed that of all these well-respected singers, Ed Kowalcyzk of Live would have produced the best song of them all? Indie Hair is funny and catchy and weird. Not what you'd expect from Kowalcyzk, but definitely what you'd expect from Talking Heads.

Despite the sporadic quality, the project was not a success and thankfully did not spawn a follow-up. Again, I have never been in a band, so I don't know what it's like. But I'd like to think that I'd know when to just let a good thing stand as it was. Maybe The Heads learned that the hard way.

Grade: D+
Fave Song: Indie Hair

Sunday, January 15, 2006

97. Morningwood - Morningwood (2006)

It takes a certain kind of band to write their own theme song. Self-aggrandizement is practically a requirement in R & B and rap (see My Name Is Prince, Motownphilly, or Public Enemy #1 for the tip of the iceberg), but it's rare in rock 'n' roll and pop.

There are always exceptions. If a rock or pop artist uses their name in a song, it's usually in one of two ways. Some groups have fun putting their name in the title of song or in a lyric, even if the lyrics have nothing to do with the band itself. Examples include:

Big Country - In A Big Country
Chicago - Take Me Back To Chicago
Counting Crows - A Murder Of One ("casting shadows on the winter sky as you stood there counting crows")
Hem - Lazy Eye ("I can still see the hem of your dress")
Minor Threat - Minor Threat
Queen - Killer Queen
Talk Talk - Talk Talk
Thorns - Thorns

The other way is more audacious. It's probably The Monkees' fault. With the exception of Pearl Jam, what band wouldn't want their own TV show?! So several have written their own theme song, either celebrating how great they are, or telling us a little about themselves. In this category we have:

Bacstreet Boys - Everybody (Backstreet's Back)
Devo - Jocko Homo ("are we not men? / we are Devo!")
The Hold Steady - Positive Jam ("I got bored when I didn't have a band / so I started a band / gonna start it with a positive jam / Hold Steady!")
Living Colour - What's Your Favorite Color? (Theme Song)
The Rosebuds - You Better Get Ready ("with The Rosebuds on the radio she'll be yours forever more")
The Sounds - S-O-U-N-D-S
They Might Be Giants - They Might Be Giants
Wang Chung - Everybody Have Fun Tonight ("everybody Wang Chung tonight")

Other self-referencers include Lisa Loeb (Lisa Listen), The Dandy Warhols (The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone), Jimmy Ray (Are You Jimmy Ray?), and Annie (Anniemal). The latest to join this exclusive club are Morningwood, whose irresistable first single, Nth Degree, is as great of a theme song / introduction as a band could ask for. For one, they spell their name over and over again. There's no way someone could hear the song on the radio and say "who is this?". And they also describe themselves humorously: "he bangs the drums, she's V.I.P., he never stops, got O.C.D." They also claim to love each other and sleep in one big bed. Who could resist?

Well, Morningwood may inspire some scoffing and/or backlash from stuffy critics and hipsters. In addition to talking themselves up, their name, album cover, band constitution (three older vets from other bands, one young hot female singer), logo, and even web address (www.morningwoodrocks.com) make them targets for those who take themselves too seriously and think everyone else should as well.

And that's the thing. The band's debut album is nothing but fun, with a good sense of pop music history. Choosing to rock 10 times out of 11, the CD sails along without a weak track or showy experiment. By turns they recall Hole, Garbage, Blondie, No Doubt, and The Pixies.

Yeah, there's some silliness, like Take Off Your Clothes (where lead singer Chantal argues with bassist Pedro about whether or not they should get naked; she's ready, he wants to "get a little more aquainted"), Body 21 ("my body's 21 but my mind is ageless / my memory is M.I.A.") and New York Girls (do we need another song about how great New York is?).

But other songs, like Televisor, Jetsetter, and Babysit are prime pop rock. For me, Easy is the standout. Chantal's voice is gritty and strained on the verses, but the boys come in as a smooth new wave choir on the chorus. It sounds like Courtney Love doing a song with Donnie Iris (I'm sorry about the obscure '80s reference, but it really does sound like Donnie's synth-driven blues with Courtney's almost-shot voice on top). The album ends with the irresistable shout-along Everybody Rules (warning: more spelling), and the only medatative number, Ride The Lights, which may be about drugs, or someone dying, or both.

Lately my music tastes have gravited toward the unflashy and sincere. Still, I have my lapses. Morningwood remind me that not every band should have its own theme song, but we need those that do.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Easy

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

96. The Honeydogs - Everything, I Bet You (1996)

I owe The Honeydogs an apology.

While praising their 2003 album 10,000 Years the back of my hand got a little sore. I couldn't be content with just declaring the album a wonderful piece of work. I had to add that the astonishment I felt. THIS band made an album THAT good?! You're kidding me.

My surpise was genuine, but it came from an undereducated place. When I first heard 10,000 Years I had knew a total of three Honeydogs songs. It's sort of like someone who has never eaten an olive in their whole life, and in fact has claimed to dislike them, and is then surprised when they try one and like it!

So I've educated myself. I've started filling in the back catalog (where I discovered that the band's 2001 album Here's Luck had some unexpected daring of its own), and I've seen them in concert three times. The first time I saw them, last November, I was impressed with how good their old songs sounded next to the new 10,000 Years tunes.

One of those old songs was a run-laps-around-your-brain country rocker called Tell Me. It appeared on their second album 1996's out-of-print Everything, I Bet You, which I picked up recently in the used racks at Cheapo. And, at the risk of reinjuring a knuckle or two, I was surpised again! Where 10,000 Years was complex, daring, and stylistically diverse, this album is simple and direct, country-folk-rock. But damn if it isn't just as effective.

The CD opens with the twangy harmony of Your Blue Door, a song the band liked so much they reused it on their major label debut, Seen A Ghost. Highlights over the next 11 songs include the quiet lament of Miles Away, the country shuffle of Kandiyohi and a randy celebration of monogamy called Busy Man.

For me, the record's standout is not Tell Me. Nope, it's Over You, a folky statement of independence. The narrator is tired of the relationship he's in and trying to convince himself to be done with it. But he's not that strong yet. He's not saying he IS over her, but that he WANTS to be. He even sounds like he's seeking permission: "Give me the strength to walk out the door / and feel the shock of the cold air of loneliness / I wanna try and stand the test of the blues."

Moth continues that theme, detailing the frustrations of dealing with a romantic lead who can't learn her lines but won't give up the part. It's a bit more complex than Over You, but the narrator is still looking for strength, this time to resist.

That song ends with a sort of slow dance breakdown, which gives off just a hint of compositional ambition. If you take it along with the finely written tribute Miriam, you can almost see Adam Levy's songwriting developing into what it eventually became on Here's Luck and 10,000 Years.

That's NOT to say there was anything wrong with it back in 1996. While I love the idea of personal growth, I hate the idea that musicians MUST make big leaps in sound and style with every record. Everything, I Bet You proves you can do it up simple and still rock the show.

I hope that's as unqualified of a compliment as I can give the boys, even if it is 10 years late.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Over You

Other Business To Discuss

Some house-cleaning items:

1) Just like my compadre Richard Nelson does on his blog, Highway 290 Revisited, I'm going to use the side column keep track of all the 2006 albums I buy. That way you can witness just how ridiculous my CD purchasing habits really are.

2) Also joining the side column is what I like to call The 3:49 Club (which is nearly half of The 700 Club). It currently has 20 members, songs that actually ARE 3 minutes and 49 seconds long. If you come across songs of this length, feel free to alert me!

3) Since it's 2006 and one of my goals is to write more, I'm going to embark on a project where I review ten albums from 10 years ago, 1996. I was a freshman/sophomore in college at this time, and that's when my CD collection began to grow exponentially. A heady time. The first review will be up tomorrow.

4) Finally, beacuase there's no search function on this site, I'm going to create a Review Index under the Offshoots heading. There you'll be able to see what has been reviewed and where to find it. That'll be helpful for me more than anyone.

Friday, January 06, 2006

95. The Strokes - First Impressions Of Earth (2006)

What do we expect from The Strokes?

When they came out in 2001 they were new and exciting and people went crazy for them. Their mix-and-match image and slurry-but-catchy sound happened to be exactly what people wanted at the time. I remember rolling around in December of that year with Is This It on an endless loop in my car. That album will always remind me of snow and bitter cold.

In 2003 Room On Fire came out. The critics all said it was Is This It, the sequel. And we know sequels not only copy the original, but don't do it as well. Personally, I always thought that was an unfair rap. Maybe there was nothing as immediately thrilling as Hard To Explain, but it was a solid record. Still, sales suffered and the fanbase shrunk.

But I don't think that was Room On Fire's fault. I think what critics and fans were responding to was the fact that The Strokes had already become kind of irrelevant.

Without going on too much of a tangent, I just want to explain myself a little bit. There are certain artists from whom we expect constant hit singles. If they don't produce them they have MAYBE a one album grace period before they are fed to the fish. It's all very short-term. I think the music industry would be content to produce ONLY these kinds of artists. Thankfully there are other artists who are in it for the long haul. They aren't going to give you a hit single every time, but they'll give you a solid album on nearly every try.

When a group like The Strokes comes out hyped up right away - there were national magazine articles about them before they'd even recorded an album - it's hard to tell what kind of artist they'll be. Room On Fire was a good indicator that they were looking at a career, and their new album, First Impressions Of Earth cements it.

Even so, the band obviously paid some attention to the critics. There are songs that are a marked departure from The Strokes' sound. Some of these departures don't work. Heart In A Cage and Vision Of Division both seem influenced by the dark '80s revival sound of bands like Interpol (ironic, because The Strokes pretty much kicked open the doors for bands like that). Ask Me Anything and Killing Lies are both slow burners, but don't offer much save boredom.

But other songs do manage to do something different and still work. Ize Of The World, despite having a clumsy lyrical premise, is arena-worthy, something I would never have thought to call The Strokes before. Electricityscape sounds like 21st Century Cars, which could never be a bad thing. And 15 Minutes comes on like The Strokes covering John Denver, but it builds in tempo, volume, and excitement.

Even so, the best songs on the album are the ones with that trusted Strokesy sound. These include the excellent opener You Only Live Once, the pretty ballad Evening Sun, and the modern rockabilly of Red Light. My favorite song is Razorblade. It has your expected skipping guitar part and marching drums and a lyrics that defraud a selfish girlfriend. And yes, the melody of the chorus is totally ripped off from Barry Manilow's Mandy. I'm not the first to point this out, but damn if it doesn't sound great.

So what do we expect from The Strokes? After this album, I'm going to expect a long satisfying career.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Razorblade

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

In-rap-curacies

Lately I've come across several examples of inaccuracies in rap lyrics. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't concerned. I ask you, if we can't rely on rapppers to provide us with pop culture smilies and metaphors then who can we rely on? To prevent the whole system from breaking down, I've decided to become a rap fact-checker.

We start with the most recent offender, Common. On the final track from his excellent 2005 album Be, It's Your World (Part 1 & 2), he compares his Chicago childhood to the television show Good Times. He says he was skinny like J.J. Nothing wrong there. But he goes on to mention "girls with Penny figures." Okay, Penny was played by Janet Jackson, but she was quite young on the show and at that time didn't have a figure to speak of. I'm fairly sure Common intended to refer to Thelma, who, ahem, certainly did have a figure worthy of notice.

Next we consider the Beastie Boys, who have a long history of executing flawless and hilarious pop culture references. Shazam, from 2004's To The Five Boroughs puts a tiny smudge on their track record with this line: "On a track so sick, it'll make you feel all queasy / Make you feel like Fred Sanford with, 'I'm comin' Weezy!'" I believe it's Mike D who delivers this line. Like Common, Mike is obviously confused about his '70s African-American sitcoms. Sanford And Son featured Fred Sanford, who during times of distress would fake a heart attack. He would call out to his dearly departed wife Elizabeth with the line: "I"m comin' 'Lizbeth!" Weezy, of course, was George Jefferson's wife on The Jeffersons.

Moving on from sitcoms to sports. On their 1998 collaboration Money Ain't A Thing Jay-Z and Jermaine Dupri trade boasts about their wealth, skills and appeal to women. It's all in good fun until J.D. gets a little overexcited, declaring that he's "the truth like A.I." Now we know he isn't referring to the 2001 Stephen Speilberg film, so you have to assume he means Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson. And we all know that Iverson's nickname is "The Answer." Paul Pierce, from the Boston Celtics, is "The Truth."

Finally, a lot of people bought Outkast's 2003 album Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, but how many of them knew that it contained inaccurate information?! The track Flip Flop Rock features both Jay-Z and Killer Mike as guests. The latter is the troublemaker here, when he states: "You can follow or lead like Commander Picard." This is where the geek alert goes off, I know, but any semi-faithful viewer of Star Trek: The Next Generation could tell you that Patrick Stewart's Picard was a Captain, NOT a Commander.

Whew! I feel much better having done my small part to rectify these mistakes. If you are worried about inaccuracies in your rap lyrics, please know that you are not alone. I will remain vigilant.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year, New Title

After a good couple of years with the title Pop Life, I've decided to retire the name. It was an accurate title, but not all that original. Plus, Prince threatened to sue me. Just kidding.

As for the new title, I derived it using a complex mathematical process called "averaging." I took 10 of my favorite songs,

The Beatles - The Ballad Of John And Yoko
Beach Boys - Don't Worry Baby
Neil Diamond - The Boat That I Row
Jay-Z - 99 Problems
Elton John - Your Song
Elvis Presley - Suspicious Minds
Smokey Robinson And The Miracles - Tears Of A Clown
Simon & Garfunkel - America
Talking Heads - This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)
Toto - Africa

and I added up their running times. Then I divided that number by 10. Et voila, 3 minutes, 49 seconds!

Happy New Year...