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