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

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)

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

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

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

I Can't Let Go (overdramatic)

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

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

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

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.