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


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)