Sunday, May 28, 2006

Fun-Sized Reviews

109. Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere (2006)

I can't believe that it has taken me this long to reveal my ultimate criteria for a good song: It should sound awesome playing over the loudspeakers in a store. This collaboration between Danger Mouse (he's the D.J.) and Cee-Lo (he's the soul singer) contains a goodly number of songs that fulfill that criteria. Both the songs and the CD make their point quickly, while managing to be both innovative and accessible.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Storm Coming

110. Glen Phillips - Mr. Lemons (2006)

Ack! The artist behind my favorite album of 2005 returns, but all is not well. He's left the big-name collaborators behind, along with his electric guitar and the hooks. The songs are mostly quiet, and have a tendency to meander. A disappointment, but at least the title is accurate.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Everything But You

111. Paul Simon - Surprise (2006)

Paul Simon has never made a bad album, and it doesn't seem he's about to start. On Surpise, he plays around with both traditional song and lyrical structure, but still manages to sound like himself. As the blue water/baby face cover indicates, the songs are concerned mostly with parenthood (7 of the 11 songs contain a word such as father, mother, children, baby, etc.), but nature imagery abounds (every song mentions some form of water). It's a few steps above his last couple of efforts.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Everything About It Is A Love Song

112. Rock Kills Kid - Are You Nervous? (2006)

Who ever thought Duran Duran would become so influential? The latest stylish pop synth band is Rock Kills Kid. They've got chops and songs and an ace producer (Jimmy Eat World maestro Mark Trombino) . Songs like Hide Away, Midnight and Hope Song provide thrills, but downer lyrics such as the ones on Life's A Bitch and Run Like Hell dampen the mood. The band should take some advice from Duran Duran themselves: "it doesn't have to be serious."

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Midnight

113. Dixie Chicks - Taking The Long Way (2006)

Rick Rubin and a host of famous helpers (John Mayer, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Finn, Sheryl Crow, Gary Louris, and Dan Wilson) are along, but the disc is all Chicks. The tempos are snappy (for the most part) and the lyrics sassy. The girls address their new Nashville outcast status at length, but not too much. There are love songs too! Though lots has been made of their move toward a poppier sound, the album seems most akin to their first effort, Wide Open Spaces. Both that record and this one are full of highlights and harmonies.

Grade: A
Fave Song: So Hard

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

108. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Stadium Arcadium (2006)

It takes audacity to put out a double album of original material. Let's face it, single albums are often overlong and inconsistent. In the age of single track downloads, putting out two full CDs just seems like shooting yourself in the foot.

Music critics even have a patented cliche to dust off whenever a double album arrives. It goes like this: "With a little editing, it would have made a superb single album." Not only do critics have a limited attention span, many of them like to fancy themselves better decision-makers than self-indulgent rock stars.

As a result, very few double albums manage to become hits commercially, critically and artistically. And thus there have been very few classic double albums released in the CD era. A short list: Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Prince's Sign O' The Times, Wilco's Being There and Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below. And even with these albums, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who would stand behind every single track, and this probably includes the artists themselves!

This is all to say that the odds are not with the Red Hot Chili Peppers' latest release. Not only is rock history against it, but so is the Peppers' own personal history. Sure, they made an impressive career comeback with Californication (1999) and By The Way (2002), but both albums had their share of filler. That's why it's so surprising that Stadium Arcadium manages to stay consistently intriguing throughout 28 songs!

First some general things about the album. For one, it sounds amazing. The music jumps out from the speakers; the bass and drums crack and snap, the guitar pops like the color in a Warhol print and the vocals are warm and clear. And on the topic of vocals, Anthony Kiedis' singing voice is ever-improving, and when you add guitarist John Frusciante's airy harmonies, the results almost make me feel squirmy. Imagine Bohemian Rhapsody on every song!

A strong, nearly overwhelming sense of melody has been the Peppers' calling card since mad scientist Frusciante's return to the band in 1999. The band continues that on Stadium Arcadium, but brings back the sense of fun and funk. That combination of old and new obviously inspired them. It's nice to listen to a double album and discover that the question in your mind isn't "What songs should have been left off?", but instead, "Which disc is better?".

The first disc, titled Jupiter, makes its case early with a string of 4 near-perfect songs, from the strong single Dani California to the delicate Snow (Hey Oh) to the dancey Charlie to the title track ballad. These four songs taken as a whole almost form a microcosm of everything the Peppers' music represents. From there, I'm hard-pressed to find a throwaway. Every time a song seems like it might be disposable, it bursts into an irresistable bridge, coda or guitar solo. Standouts include Slow Cheetah, Especially In Michigan, and the jazzy closer Hey.

Mars, the second disc, comes on a bit more subtle, opening with the power ballad Desecration Smile. That's followed by Tell Me Baby, which is probably the best fusion of old school and new school Peppers. The verses are funky and comprised of rhyming dictionary lyrics, while the chorus comes on sweet and melodic. Then we have another strong ballad, Hard To Concentrate, which is contrasted nicely with the crazy bass-driven Flea-showcase 21st Century. Other highlights on disc two include Make You Feel Better and So Much I.

I can see the band's delimma. I suppose, if you were really looking to cut some fat, most of it would probably come from the second half of disc two. But that's being quite brutal. There's no one song that obviously lags behind the others. So, ultimately, Stadium Arcadium is the rare double album that seems warrented and worthwhile.

Of course, I'm obliged to say this: With some editing, it would have made a superb single album.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Tell Me Baby

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

107. Secret Machines - Ten Silver Drops (2006)

In All You Get From Love Is A Love Song, Karen Carpenter tells us that "the best love songs were written with a broken heart." And that's pretty true. Songs about heartbreak are nearly always more genuine and interesting than your average love song.

This is good news for Secret Machines. Apparently before the recording of their second album, all three band members went through break-ups. And while their happiness was temporarily sacrificed, Ten Silver Drops is the beneficiary. It's my favorite kind of record, a break-up album.

There are a couple of rules to making a good break-up album. First, it can't be too depressing (Beck, I'm looking at you here). Second, it has to cover a variety of moods and emotions. I don't care to listen to an all angry album, nor am I especially fond of sad sack self-pity albums (Beck, I'm looking at you here).

Ten Silver Drops meets both criteria. The music is cold but the melodies are warm, served on a bed of Beatlesque harmonies, making it exceedingly interesting to listen to. And the songs run the gamut of emotional experience. In fact, though the lyrics are often vague and impressionistic, they almost tell the story of an aftermath.

Like any good opener, Alone, Jealous And Stoned sets the tone for the record. Starting out as a piano-based swaying rumination, it temporarily blossoms into a propulsive guitar-driven movement right out of a Who song. This is the beginning of the end; the fact that his relationship is over seems to catch our narrator by surprise: "Must've lived so long with covered eyes / When did you say goodbye?".

Questioning soon turns to frustration. Musically, All At Once (It's Not Important) manages to gallop and soar all at once, showing the contrasting emotions of the lyrics. As the title indicates the song is about that feeling of waste and loss when a relationship ends, the idea that you put so much thought and effort into nothing. But you only have these thoughts because there's a longing to hold on to what you've shared. The next song, Lightning Blue Eyes, explores that longing and romanticizing in more depth. The drums are cracking, the harmonies are dreamy and the singer is confused again. "What changed?" he asks, as he reminisces about his love.

Daddy's In The Doldrums and I Hate Pretending are two mildly creepy songs that address the low point, the sense of hopelessness, and the anger, this time bare of any fondness. Not coincidentally, these two songs are the low point of the album musically.

Faded Lines brings things back with a roar. It sounds like Jimmy Eat World at their best as two guitars chime and slash against one another and the background vocals moan: "ahhh-ahhh." This seems to be about the tricky time when your ex has suddenly begun to show tenderness to you again and you think that maybe you could be together again. Fittingly, the song sounds hopeful, but our narrator is urging decisiveness and attempting to downplay the importance of the decision. "Make up your mind," he says, then adds, "'cause it's only love, that's all."

I Want To Know If It's Still Possible shows that he's only fronting when he says that. The title says it all, as hope for reconciliation becomes a direct question, though the answer is obviously no. The song is the best kind of slow jam, and features a catchy accordion performance from The Band's Garth Hudson.

Finally, we reach acceptance. 1,000 Seconds, a piano-driven musical bookend to Alone, Jealous And Stoned, looks unflinchingly at what was wrong with the whole relationship in the first place (as is often necessary for the healing process). These are the words of someone who is moving on: "I need love / That don't mean I need you."

Time will tell if Ten Silver Drops can join 'Til Tuesday's Everything's Different Now, Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and Vicious Vicious' Don't Look So Surprised in the pantheon of great break-up albums. Right now, I'd say it has a really good chance. The CD makes me feel that even if all you get from love is a love song, that's not such a bad deal.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Faded Lines

Check out the Misc. Lists section for my 15 favorite "We're Through!" songs!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

106. Teddy Thompson - Separate Ways (2006)

Teddy Thompson is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, and this begs the question, what would it be like to be the scion of the couple that made one of the best break-up albums of all time (Shoot Out The Lights)? Strange, I'd guess.

Children of rock stars who try to make a go of it on their own have approached it in a multitude of ways. In Jakob Dylan's case, he purposefully distanced himself from his father as he tried to make his own name. At the other extreme there's Ben Taylor, who just flat out imitates James.

Teddy doesn't sound like Richard, nor does he run away from the relation. In fact, it seems life can be good when you have a widely respected guitarist / songwriter for a dad. The impressive list of guest players on this album includes Garth Hudson (The Band), Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, XTC) and, on five songs, Richard himself. What's more impressive is that Teddy still manages to show he has the chops to make it on his own.

As an album, Separate Ways is well-sequenced and varied in mood and style. In terms of individual songs, standouts include the musical self-pep talk I Should Get Up, the lost Crowded House hit Altered State and You Made It, a pop rocker that includes the line "you're so good looking," which will have a nice double meaning for any Seinfeld fan.

The title track serves as a centerpiece for the album and for a trilogy of songs about the end of a relationship. Separate Ways manages to be both earnest ("not all who love are blind / some of us are just too kind") and funny ("I don't care about you / If you don't care about me"). That's actually a combo that shows up a couple of times on the record, and Thompson handles it quite well.

To wit, I Wish It Was Over (the first part of the trilogy) injects humor into the serious matter of bad relationships. Basically, he tells his lover he can't stand her anymore and says, "this bein' together / is tearin' me apart." Similarly, the opener, Shine So Bright, sounds like a serious meditation, complete with heavenly background vocals from fellow musician offspring Martha and Rufus Wainwright. But a close listen to the verses and you realize that Teddy has his tongue firmly in cheek while wishing for a ludicrous level of fame.

The funny lyrics / serious delivery method wouldn't work for a whole album. And why would you want it to, when a country tune like Sorry To See Me Go (the final part of the break-up trilogy) can be so stirring in its simplicity? Or a song like That's Enough Out Of You, which is just straight up funny, and foot-stomping to boot? It's such an effective kiss-off, it makes me wish I was really pissed at someone!

As he proves on Separate Ways, Teddy Thompson knows how to use his music to work through negative emotions. I guess he comes by that pretty honestly.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Altered State