Thursday, December 06, 2007

2007: Top Ten

See two posts down for my thoughts on the year in music. Sad to say, there's not one homerun in the bunch, but here are a few triples:

Check out Highway 290 Revisited for Richard Nelson's picks.

Bruce Springsteen: Magic

I don't even know what to make of the Boss anymore. He goes all quiet and folky for awhile, he tours with a covers band, then he makes a record that sounds like the proper follow-up to Born In The U.S.A. All in a day's work, I suppose.

Youth Group: Casino Twilight Dogs

I saw Youth Group open for Death Cab For Cutie, and they definitely fit in that indie pop milieu. But they aren't as fussy or self-conscious. These songs stuck with me this year.

Albert Hammond, Jr.: Yours To Keep

Read the review.

Just look at that cover. Awww.

Kaiser Chiefs: Yours Truly, Angry Mob

Read the review.

Though not necessarily compelling as an entire record, this has enough amazing singles (Ruby, Heat Dies Down, I Can Do It Without You, etc) to keep it in the player.

Motion City Soundtrack: Even If It Kills Me

Read the review.

The sugar rush wears off, but it's fun while it lasts!

Sloan: Never Hear The End Of It

Read the review.

Sloan may be the most underappreciated band on the continent. Well, at least the southern two-thirds.

Jimmy Eat World: Chase This Light

If I ever go completely deaf in my old age, this band will be to thank, 'cause I always crank their records. Somehow a combination of the compelling darkness of Futures with the sunny brightness of Jimmy Eat World, this is a solid effort.

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible

There's a joy and majesty to these songs, to go along with a strong air of discomfort.

Fountains Of Wayne: Traffic & Weather

Read the review.

The Shins: Wincing The Night Away

The best kind of record, the kind that compels you to keep listening and rewards you each time, until the songs are etched on your brain.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

2007: Best Of The Rest

Biggest Disappointment

It wasn't his 2007 album Planet Earth that disappointed. It was the purple one himself, and the self-sabotaging litigious campaign against his fan sites. Completely baffling and unnecessary. Then again, if Prince's decision-making skills were sound, Batdance, Grafitti Bridge, The Rainbow Children album, and the Lovesexy cover photo would not exist.

Best Cover Art
Vicious Vicious: Parade

Lots of great design choices this year, but this one gets the nod for no particular reason. I just like it.

Best Cover Version
Robbers On High Street, Monkberry Moon Delight

A little known McCartney song that wasn't so great in the first place is resurrected and much improved by ROHS. If only their 2007 album, Grand Animals, had been as fun.

Best Title
The Pierces: Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge

They swiped it from the fictional author in Diane Setterfield's 2006 The Thirteenth Tale, but the title is an excellent description of The Pierces creepy/sweet aesthetic. Good book, too.

Best Concert
LOVE, Cirque Du Soliel
The Mirage, Las Vegas

Not technically a concert, I guess, but nonetheless amazing. The sound system was epic and the visuals were breathtaking. Oh, and the music was pretty good too. I only wish more people across the country could see this.

Best Discovery
Flight Of The Conchords

This HBO show about "New Zeland's fourth most popular folk parody act" is hilarious. It's a combination of Wes Anderson, the British Office and Tenacious D. Long live the Rhymenoceros and Hiphopapotamus!

2007 Mixes

Every June and December I create mixes to summarize the half year. Here's what made it:

2007 1
1. The Debut - Hey!
2. The Magic Numbers - Take A Chance
3. Arcade Fire - Keep The Car Running
4. Feist - 1 2 3 4
5. The Pierces - Sticks And Stones
6. The Broken West - Big City
7. Fountains Of Wayne - Fire In The Canyon
8. Lucy Kaplansky - Swimming Song
9. Bright Eyes - Classic Cars
10. Youth Group - Start Today Tomorrow
11. Brother Ali - Take Me Home
12. Kaiser Chiefs - Everything Is Average Nowadays
13. Tim Finn - Still The Song
14. Sloan - Can't You Figure It Out
15. The Shins - Australia
16. Wilco - Either Way

2007 2
1. Albert Hammond, Jr. - Cartoon Music For Superheroes
2. Paul McCartney - See Your Sunshine
3. Rooney - I Should Have Been After You
4. Jimmy Eat World - Here It Goes
5. Matt Pond PA - People Have A Way
6. Loudon Wainwright III - You Can't Fail Me Now
7. Glen Hansard & Marketa Iglova - Falling Slowly
8. Foo Fighters - The Pretender
9. Rilo Kiley - Dreamworld
10. Josh Ritter - Right Moves
11. No More Kings - Sweep The Leg
12. White Light Riot - Transit State
13. Motion City Soundtrack - This Is For Real
14. Dan Wilson - Easy Silence
15. Lewis Taylor - Say You Love Me
16. Bruce Springsteen - Your Own Worst Enemy
17. Vicious Vicious - Girl, What's Your Name?
18. Robbers On High Street - Monkberry Moon Delight

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Requiem For 2007

I think I can finally admit it: 2007 sucked.

Don't misunderstand me. On nearly every count, this was the best year of my life. I switched from a miserable job to a dreamy one. I moved to a new place for the first time in 8 years, saying a final goodbye to karaoke Daryl and miserly landlords. And a romance that began late in October 2006 deepened and grew. As of last month, I'm engaged.

That's a year no one could complain about. And yet...

If you follow the music industry it's been impossible to miss the growing sense of doom. I am not a naysayer by nature, but I can't help but believe that the music industry as we know it is dying, slowly-and-surely. I guess part of me wanted to believe that digital and physical sales would continue to co-exist, each feeding off the other. But with CD sales dropping by the week, it appears that the future of music is in downloads. And that has big implications on how we experience music and on the future of the album itself.

But that's not even what I want to write about. I have no doubt that we're in an awkward transitional phase and that the changes ahead will result in a new status quo for music lovers. It just so happens that this coming change made itself clear during the least exciting musical year I've experienced since my obsession began 11 years ago.

This is probably no surprise if you follow 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds regularly. I post when I'm excited. This year that has happened only 17 times. That's a pathetic number. Consider that in the first TWO months of starting this blog, I posted 22 times!

Some might say that my own domestic bliss is a factor. It's the Hornby Theory: Pop music is best experienced in times of trauma and unhappiness. There's also the question of whether or not my musical obsession was just a placeholder, a substitute for love. I seriously considered both of these possibilities. But recently, after watching the excellent Peter Bogdonavich documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I set off on a minor two week obsession with their music, including the requisite trip to Cheapo to dig up some of their old LPs. It was a welcome reminder that I could still connect.

It leads me to the conclusion that I stated at the beginning: This has been a blah year for my relationship with music. I used to not believe in that sort of thing, bad years for entertainment. I used to think there were always gems to be found. I can't deny that certain songs and albums have spoken to me this year. It has just been much quieter than usual, less lasting and less frequent. Albums by perennial favorites such as Prince, Foo Fighters, Kelly Clarkson, Bjork, and even Spoon and Crowded House have disappointed to varying degrees. What's worse, precious few new artists insinuated themselves into my playlists.

In a couple of weeks I'll finalize my end-of-the-year favorites list, and I'm afraid that we may not even get to an even 10. It's tempting to look at it as a sign o' the times. Luckily, a new year is a time of fresh starts and renewed hope. Here's to 2008!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Defense of Matt Pond PA

This Pitchfork review of Matt Pond PA's new album, Last Light, has me all riled up.

I love the idea of Pitchfork; daily reviews, news about bands you wouldn't otherwise get news about, the occasional enlightening feature article. That's all really cool. But, whether by design or circumstance, the site has evolved into a haven for indie rock snobs

When rock 'n' roll was born, so was the rock snob. This type of person has an innate need to actively dislike any music which the majority of others enjoy. There's no sense of artist loyalty in the rock snob. They'll go cold on a band in a New York minute (and don't even get them started on Don Henley), but, hypocritically, will demand full fan loyalty from the artists they support. They are never short on opinions; and sometimes their opinion even has factual basis. Some rock snobs don't even really like music all that much. To them, music is a matter of identity more than anything else.

A lot of rock snobs, like Adam Moerder, become music critics.

Mr. Moerder approaches his Matt Pond PA review with a couple of chips on his shoulders (another rock snob specialty). The first is an obvious dislike of mainstream rock, as his references to Dave Matthews, David Gray, Howie Day and Phil Collins will indicate. He doesn't actually say anything bad about these artists. Rather, he assumes his audience is composed of fellow rock snobs who will understand innately that these are not artists to be taken seriously (note: they're all popular).

Moerder's other burden is simply that he doesn't like or respect Matt Pond PA. This is fine as an opinion. But, then, why agree to review their album? If you are going to review records by artists you hate, your review need only be the following sentence: "It has always been my belief that this band sucks, and this album did nothing to change that belief."

Unfortunately the rock snob mentality is not so simple. In fact, if rock snobs were not able to go on in detail about why certain artists are terrible, their whole reason for existing would be thrown into question.

So Moerder tells us that Matt Pond PA are fundamentally flawed in many ways. For one, he says, they have no clear audience. For another, their relevance is in serious doubt. I don't know about you, but when I am looking for a really good song or album, the first thing I think about is audience and relevance, certainly not lyrics, melody or production.

When Mr. Moerder actually does spend a couple of sentences discussing the album's songs, he offers nothing more insightful than three artist comparisons, which as I've said before, are the haven of the lazy critic. By the way, sort of counter to his point, he compares the songs to Elliot Smith, Pulp, and Polyphonic Spree respectively. All three, coincidentally, are rock snob approved artists.

Moerder is also upset that the band doesn't experiment enough. To punctuate this, he points out that the band doesn't have enough fans, so there's no one to offend if they branch out. If you take that logic and apply it backwards, he's saying the Beatles should have never made Revolver or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band because their fan base was too big to support such experimentation.

Finally, Mr. Moerder suggests that the "indie universe pull the plug" on Matt Pond PA. Does this actually happen? Can an outside party decide to pull the plug on a band? Does the band get official notification? And what exactly is the indie universe? Does it have a board of directors? I'd like more information.

I saw Matt Pond PA perform this past Monday night. The audience greeted them enthusiastically and sung along to the songs they knew. The new songs from Last Light sounded great live. Of course, you won't find anyone ready to declare them the best or most original band in the world, but neither do they deserve the kind of hatefulness in Adam Moerder's review. In fact, when it comes down to it, Mr. Moerder's review is just as bad as the bland music he and his rock snob ilk deride. It seems fine on the surface, but when you really think about it, you realize it has no substance.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

154. Motion City Soundtrack: Even If It Kills Me (2007)

Let's say you have a band. The main lyrical appeal of the band is your acerbic stories of bad choices, your sad/funny tales of girls and substances you like more than you should.

Now let's say you get sober and fall in love for real. Sure, you're happy, but what's a songwriter to do?

Even If It Kills Me kicks off with Last Night I Fell In Love Without You, and it seems that all is still right (wrong) with Justin Pierre's world: "I waved goodbye to that heart of mine beating solo on your lawn." It's the sort of I-don't-care-but-I-do broken heart song that the band has made its trade.

But the second track quickly reveals a new dimension, that things are not the same as they ever were. This Is For Real is not only about cleaning up your act, but also about the person who inspired you to do it. "You smoked the demons/ Gave me back my feelings / Now I am good to go." It's the most unabashed thing they've ever done, at least until you get to Antiona. Were I a betting man, I'd say the songs are probably about the same person. Pierre describes the titular woman in amusing detail, telling us of her love for Captain Crunch, snowmobiles, stray cats and Ben Folds Five. As the song ends, we learn that Antonia is pregnant, and Pierre confesses that he hopes the baby "will be just like her mother." Were this a James Blunt song, the masses would collectively reach for vomit bags, but listeners who know MCS well should be touched.

Antonia's love of Ben Folds must have rubbed off. The album's most musically surprising song, The Conversation, is a voice and piano ballad that could have appeared on Rockin' The Suburbs or Songs For Silverman. Even though it's essentially a sad goodbye letter, he song still comes off as sweet, mostly because of the final line: "Don't ever change / the way you are / I've never loved anyone more."

If you are getting worried that the album overdoses on sugary sentiment, don't fret. There are plenty of other pleasures to be had. It Had To Be You is the requisite I-never-realized-you-were-the-one-for-me song, but the nonsensical lyrical details make it something original. Example: "Let's fight crime with mangoes and limes and join the PGA / Let's win big with every spin / But hurry / I can't wait." Point Of Extinction and Broken Heart are perseverance songs, and you can feel the bluster especially on the latter when Pierre vows to "destroy this useless heart" and "fuck it up so it'll never beat again." Finally, Last Night is an oddly compelling analogue to The Strokes song of the same name, with its boppy rhythm.

The album's songs do move briefly away from matters of the heart. Calling All Cops is a general condemnation of some of the more corrupt influences in our society ("Sever all ties to satellites that broadcast worthless words / You're extrapolating nonsense / And it really hurts"), but it's hard not to see it in the light of the recent I-35W bridge collapse, especially when it speaks of "saving victims from the wreckage" and ends with the words "and everything just falls apart." Hello Helicopter is a kin to that song, but instead the target appears to be the continuing war in Iraq. "In several years no one will care / They'll all be rich and dead / So let some one else devise a cure for it."

Musically, the album is poppy and hook-filled, exactly like the first two MCS albums. It leads one to believe that, as good as the end results sound, that all-star producers Ric Ocasek (formerly of The Cars) and Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains Of Wayne) were almost superfluous. That's a compliment all around. A good producer, when he or she is working with a truly talented band, should have an invisible hand.

So, did maturity kill the band we loved? Even Justin Pierre seems worried about that. On Where I Belong, he sings, "This is where I run out of words to describe how I'm so damn hurt" and "I can't stand the thought of losing everything I ever thought that I knew." But on the album closer and title track, he knows he (and his band) will survive. "For the first time in a long time," he tells us, "I can say that I want to get better and overcome each moment in my own way."

If Even If It Kills Me is any indication, he's on the right track.

Grade: A+
Fave Song: Broken Heart

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Put A Fork In 'Em

I almost never post links, but this is too good to pass up.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

153. Rilo Kiley: Under The Blacklight (2007)

Reviewers of Rilo Kiley's 5th-album-major-label-debut Under The Blacklight have exhausted their already dog-eared copies of the All Music Guide trying to come up with musical comparisons. Though often guilty of this strategy myself, I am not at all a fan of it.

I'm quoting myself here, from this blog, circa summer 2004:
"Just a glance through the latest issue of Spin reveals that the prevailing method of describing an artist is comparing them to another artist. You know: This songwriter has the lyrical dexterity of early Dylan combined with the gloomy soundscapes of the Cure, or that band takes the pomposity of Tattoo You-era Stones and adds the sensitivity of Dashboard Confessional. Or: It's like Trout Mask Replica as recorded by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds.

At some point descriptions like that just make me glaze over, especially when I'm only vaguely familiar with the reference points themselves. But as I try to write about music myself, I find that making comparisons is the easiest way to give a reader and idea of what to expect. Writing about the actual instruments and feelings takes much more effort and thought."
So here goes a review of the stylistically diverse album, free of artist comparisons.

Who are Rilo Kiley? Former child stars turned indie rockers. Yes, though the band's sound has never been easy to describe. It was a little bit pop, a little bit low-fi, a little bit country, a little bit folk and not limited to any of that. After 2004's rockier, attention-getting More Adventurous, principal members Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis went and did their own thing. Jenny made a countrypolitian record with harmonizing twins from Kentucky, and Blake made a second album with his country rock band The Elected. So it wasn't out-of-line to expect some twang on their major label debut.

But Under The Blacklight defies expectations, even considering how hard-to-pin-down the band is in the first place. The band's style has not so much changed as it has simultaneously compartmentalized and expanded. Listening to the album is almost like listening to a mix CD, a really good one.

Style shifts are nothing new in pop music. We've seen them from David Bowie to Madonna, but usually it doesn't all happen in the same album!

The record opens with Silver Lining, a handclappy, funky, gospel tune that wouldn't have been out of place on Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat CD. In the lyrics, she sarcastically celebrates the end of a relationship: "Hooray, hooray, I'm your silver lining."

Close Call
uses an impressive vocal performance and echoey guitar to tell the first of a few sordid tales on the album. By all counts it's a warning against prostitution. That seems to be a bit of common sense to me, but whatever. It's even more baffling given its juxtaposition to The Moneymaker, a sexy, heavy, insinuating track with a brief-but-killer bridge.

Breakin' Up is a catchy disco tune with a high-pitched background vocals and a great opening line downplaying the end of a romance: "It's not as if New York city / Burnt down to the ground / The day you went away." It's followed by the title track, a pretty folk song that could make Lewis an instant hit on the melancholy coffeehouse circuit.

Dreamworld is Blake Sennett's requisite composing / singing spotlight and boy does he make the most of it. True to the title, this is an immaculate, dreamy pop song with ringing guitars and hushed vocals shared with Lewis. The two should sing together more often.

Dejalo sports a vaguely Caribbean beat mixed with an '80s pop bounce, as Jenny urges "dejalo, nuestra costa" which by most, but not all, accounts means "leave us alone, this is our thing" in Spanish. No matter the meaning, this is a song you can dance to!

That's followed by 15, another coulda-been-an-outake-from-Rabbit-Fur-Coat. Over soulful horns, Lewis tells a simile-rich tale of an underage romance. Smoke Detector keeps things lurid ("I took a man back to my room / I was smoking him in bed") albeit over a '60s dance-craze backdrop. Finally, the album closes with two pretty tunes, the straightforward country of The Angels Hung Around and the electronica-lite, drum-machine-driven Give A Little Love.

The sellout watchdogs have already decried Under The Blacklight for being purposefully commercial. They're always on the lookout for a cool (or formerly so) band who seems to be valuing success over artistic integrity. That criticism simply doesn't hold up here. For one, it's true these songs would sound good on the radio, but so would songs from hipster darlings like Arcade Fire and The Shins. Even given the variety of styles on the album, I refuse to believe this is Rilo Kiley's idea of what's popular.

On the contrary, Under The Blacklight is a tight, focused work by a talented band showing off their range, and doing it with style (even if it isn't necessarily their own).

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Under The Blacklight

Friday, August 31, 2007

152. The New Pornographers: Challengers (2007)

The unique thing about The New Pornorgraphers is that there's no clear hipster consensus on which of their albums is best. One camp says their debut, Mass Romantic, was the bee's knees, and subsequent albums have been a disappointment. Others find the first album too strident, and believe the group really got it together on Electric Version. Still others feel Twin Cinema was where it all came to fruition.

Critics and the fans who care about them love nothing more than a good galvanizing mass opinion, regardless of whether or not there's any truth behind it. This would seem to speak well of the Pornographers, saying that each of their albums has merit. And go ahead and try to find me a critic or fan who has bad things to say about band leader A.C. Newman's solo jaunt The Slow Wonder. You won't be able to do it.

The New Pornographers' new album Challengers, is actually getting some comparisons to The Slow Wonder. This is good. But in the same breath, many reviews repeat the exact same sentiment that was trotted out about Twin Cinema: It's too slow and melancholy, not as joyous as past efforts.

While context is important, sometimes I'd like to invent a drug that makes critics temporarily forget an artist's previous work and judge a new record on its own merits. While I'm at it, I'd outlaw the phrase "I like their first EP best." That said, the criticism of Twin Cinema is even more applicable to Challengers. This is not an album that will grab you by the collar and shake you. More likely, it'll sidle up and insinuate itself slowly.

The CD features several mid-to-down tempo songs: the title track, My Rights Versus Yours, Failsafe, Unguarded, Go Places and Adventures In Solitude. While not attention-grabbing, these songs have a beauty to them, especially with leads and harmonies from Kathryn Calder and Neko Case (about whom no one disagrees; she's h-o-t).

Of course there are the requisite New Pornographers stompers: All The Old Showstoppers, All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth and Mutiny, I Promise You. I assure you, they still have that old sugar rush.

Finally, I've never found Dan Bejar's compositions, sung in a pinched voice, to be of the same caliber as A.C. Newman's. I don't blame him; Newman is a wonder. Nevertheless, on Challengers Bejar finally delivers a song that's as good, if not better, than any of Newman's. Myriad Harbor, with its call and response vocals and pounding backbeat is one of my favorite songs on the whole record.

I guess that's a lesson to those critics. You've gotta give a band a chance to surprise you, to allow them to win you over anew with each record. When the dust settles, I'm guessing Challengers will be regarded as yet another challenge to create a consensus about the New Pornographers' recording career. There's not the constant energy of the first two records, and nothing as amazing as the last 2 minutes of Twin Cinema's The Bleeding Heart Show, but the new album is still something special, and better than lots of other records you'll hear this year.

On that, I hope, we can all agree.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Myriad Harbor

Monday, July 30, 2007

151. Rooney: Calling The World (2007)

It's safe to assume that the Schwartzman household had a pretty good record collection, including - but not limited to - Cheap Trick, The Raspberries, E.L.O. and early Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Rooney frontman Robert Schwartzman's songwriting owes a huge debt to these power pop powerhouses. So did the sound and sensibility of his brother Jason's old band, Phantom Planet. The cover art for Calling The World even looks like a Badfinger album.

Rooney's first record was a keeper. It was one of those CDs I kept trying to leave off my end-of-the-year top ten but just couldn't. On first blush, Calling The World is even better, more varied, layered and mature. And it better be! Word has it that the band recorded TWO albums between their debut and Calling The World, and weren't happy with either. Only three songs survived from the two interim albums.

As a result, Rooney sound much more seasoned than any band on its sophomore record has any business sounding. The change is especially evident in Robert's voice. He matches his delivery to the song, sounding achy on the ballads and bratty on the kiss-offs. He also changes his inflection on lines that repeat, just to keep the listener off balance. It's what you might expect from a singer that's been on the road with these songs for awhile and is intimately familiar with them.

And after working with two other producers, Rooney hit the jackpot with John Fields, a Minneapolis product with a keen ear for melody and clean sounds. Outside of Ric Ocasek, there's no better producing match for the band.

Highlights of the record include When Did Your Heart Go Missing, a propulsive, dancey lament with a great ad lib in the outro, Tell Me Soon, the kind of power ballad you feel a little bit guilty about liking and What For, a second person country excursion with a chorus-sung ending.

There's also Don't Come Around Again, a I'm-a-bad-boy song, wherein the narrator warns "Ohhh, you're asking for trouble" though the accompanying harmonies tend to undermine the sentiment. Are You Afraid Of Me really shows off Schwartzman's afforementioned vocal talents. It comes on like a lounge ballad, then goes into Styx Mr. Roboto territory, with a repeated key riff and synthesized voices.

But the best is the epic I Should Have Been After You. It's a about a boy who realizes that the girl who was hooking him up with all of her friends was really the one he wanted. As the song goes on, through three bombastic movments, you realize he has missed his chance and is kinda bitter about it. Jellyfish singer Andy Sturmer offers backup vocals.

However, not all is well. Love Me Or Leave Me is the rare song where the verses and bridge are much better than the repetitive, unimaginative chorus. Paralyzed could come from the cookie cutter new new wave factory and is, surprisingly, one of the three holdovers from previous sessions. Album closer Help Me Find My Way is a string-laden tribute to Schwartzman's father. It's hard to hate on a tribute, but there's no avoiding the fact that the song is slow and that the emotion doesn't really come across.

No matter. If papa Schwartzman was indeed the one who bent his sons' musical tastes toward power pop, Calling The World is a record he'll be proud of.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: I Should Have Been After You

Friday, July 20, 2007

150. The Bacon Brothers: Getting There (1999)

Writer's Note: This was the second album review I ever wrote. I composed it at work one February day to amuse myself and my friend Shalini, who found the record for cheap and loaned it to me.

The Bacon Brothers' 1999 album Getting There is further proof that entertainment crossovers are just a bad idea. Just as Britney Spears' acting failed to redefine cinema as we know it, no one should expect much from a musical project by Hanes pitchman Kevin Bacon.

Surprisingly, this is actually the second effort from the band (which is filled out by bassist Paul Guzzone, drummer Marshal Rosenberg and Kevin's brother Michael). Lest you think this just the whim of a bored star, consider that Kevin himself wrote or co-wrote 9 of the 15 songs on this album. He appears to be at least as serious about being a rock star as Keanu, Jared, Minnie, Juliette or Russell.

The album isn't unlistenable, but it isn't good either. The opener Ten Years In Mexico has a pleasant James Taylor sort of vibe, complete with harmonies and thoughtful acoustic guitar. But it's all downhill from there. As the album progresses you realize that the brothers can't decide if they want to be Taylor, Alabama or Bon Jovi. The result of this musical identity crisis is a bevy of jarring stylistic shifts, often within the same song. There are poppy harmonies, country rock cliches and even the occasional outbreak of an '80s electric guitar solo, just to be hilarious.

The slow songs are nearly unbearable, mostly because they allow you to focus on the inane lyrics. Example: "Now you can build yourself a monument / Yeah you can write your name in stone / But you're checking out like you checked in / naked and alone." Most of the lyrics are along these lines, hackneyed attempts to evoke a wizened worldview.

Perhaps that's why the Brothers aren't nearly as bad when they cover other artists, such as Smokey Robinson's Don't Look Back and Tom Waits' Jersey Girl. But even these performances are hampered by bland vocals and boring arrangements.

One tune, Not Born To Beauty sums up the Bacon Brothers experience. I kid you not, this song is a lament for musical performers who have great talent but are not handsome or beautiful enough to become stars. Maybe the Bacon Brothers should check their black kettles and their glass houses, for they are part of the problem: A mediocre act who gets by on having a movie star in the band.

Avoid this record. Go rent Apollo 13 or Diner instead.

Grade: D+
Fave Song: Ten Years In Mexico

149. Wilco: Summerteeth (1999)

Writer's Note: This was the second album review I ever wrote. It appeared in the Augustana Observer on March 26, 1999.

Wilco is one of those rare prolific bands that never seems to run out of quality material. From 1995 to 1999 the band released the equivalent of a record per year and always managed to show up on critics' end-of-the-year lists.

Wilco rose from the ashes of country rock darlings Uncle Tupelo. The group's two songwriters started rival bands, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, Jeff Tweedy (and drummer Ken Croomer) formed Wilco. Both bands continued the roots rock sound of their former group, with a bit of twang and a debt owed to Neil Young.

Summerteeth, Wilco's fourth album, found the band sneaking away from the genre that defined them, showing barely a hint of twang. Instead of Hank Williams, it seems Tweedy was listening to the Beach Boys. The band still made singable songs with lyrics that are sweet ("When I forget how to talk I sing") and scary ("I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me") but this is the album where they discovered the wonder of the studio. Much of country rock's appeal is based in the visceral experience of the live performance, but Wilco layers sounds like multi-tracking was just invented yesterday: guitars sigh, keyboards tumble, bells sway, birds chirp and horns jump.

The catchy choruses and high harmonies belie the sometimes hopeless lyrics. ELT boasts a rocking riff with the repeated warning: "Every little thing is gonna tear you apart". The plaintive How To Fight Loneliness begins with a pretty acoustic guitar and Tweedy's raspy voice telling us to "Smile all the time / Shine your teeth till meaningless / Sharpen them with lies."

Even so, observations of life's problems are tempered with messages of perseverance, and it's no more apparent than when Tweedy proclaims, "Nothing's ever gonna stand in my way again!"

Other highlights include the bonus track Candyfloss, which bops along like a lost '60s bubblegum hit, and I'm Always In Love, a peppy rumination on the contradictions of romance. If you think about it, Wilco themselves exemplify contradictions, quality and quantity, rootsy and poppy, depressed and hopeful.

Summerteeth stands in my mind as Wilco's best record, in a field with strong competition. It's an album for those who relish the art of song; for those who love to listen again and again and discover new surprises every time.

Grade: A
Fave Song: ELT

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

2007 Mid-Year Round-Up

145. Brother Ali: The Undisputed Truth (2007)

No doubt Brother Ali is talented, with a gift for narrative and a mesmerizing tone, but the real star on The Undisputed Truth is beatmaker Ant. Even Ali knows it: "Ant give me 10 beats a week / so fuck it / I put the record how it need to be." Need further proof? Try Watcha Got's early '80s hip-hop throwback of a bridge, the Bollywood bounce of Truth Is... or Freedom Ain't Free's reggae-with-strings backing. No other hip-hop producer works with such a wide variety of sounds while still building such coherent, even commercial, songs.

The highlight of the album is a final suite of autobiographical songs. Walking Away details the dissolution of Ali's marriage with brutal honesty and a little bit of controlled anger. Faheem is a love song for his son and avoids being cingeworthy by being straightforward and brief. And finally the '80s soulfulness of Ear To Ear allows Ali's to get his priorities straight and give thanks for his successes and the new lady in his life.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Take Me Home

146. Albert Hammond, Jr.: Yours To Keep (2007)

Had this record come out as the debut of a promising new singer-songwriter rather than as a solo-album curiousity from a guy who plays guitar in The Strokes, it'd already be near the top of all the critics' 2007 lists. As it is, we've heard some of these tricks before (the chugging/ringing/bouncing riffs on In Transit and Everyone Gets A Star) and that lessens its impact.

But it doesn't make Yours To Keep any less of an excellent album. And some of it IS relevatory, like the whimsical opener Cartoon Music For Superheroes or the fact that Hammond sounds like a less drunk version of Strokes singer Julian Casblanacas, or the gentleness that pervades, from the sweet album title to the too-cute cover art to the could've-been-a-Herman's-Hermits-hit closer Well...All Right.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Well...All Right

147. The Click Five: Modern Minds and Pastimes (2007)

These Boston-based boys with a sweet tooth only satisfied by sugary hooks cooked up their sophmore CD with a wider variety of ingredients (and a new lead singer). Presumably they've realized power pop will never win them radio play or sales, so they throw in a pinch of emo (the Fall Out Boy-channelling When I'm Gone) and a tablespoon of new new wave (the sythtastic Addicted To Me) for good measure. It's a good instict and the payoff is a more balanced record than their 2005 debut.

The problem is their lyrics. Happy Birthday and Headlight Disco are happy exceptions, but for the most part the words are generic, unrevealing and about girls ("You've got me on my knees", "You keep me hanging on", "gotta start somewhere", etc.) and the songs suffer for it. Not every tune needs to be ABOUT something, but at the least I need some cute phrases that stick in my craw. There're none here. Brevity, handclaps, synth fills and harmonies will go a long way to mask underwritten songs, but when you consider that clever lyrics are a hallmark of the power pop elite, The Click Five don't measure up yet. Maybe they should spend more time on the words and less on their overly-styled hair (check out that cover!).

Music Grade: B
Lyrics Grade: C -
Fave Song: Addicted To Me

148. Mandy Moore: Wild Hope (2007)

Amanda Moore has improbably become the most respectable of the four blond-headed pop tart attack of the late '90s. Unlike Christina, she never went through a stripper phase. Unlike Jessica Simpson she doesn't come off as cold and calculated. Unlike Britney Spears, she still has her hair and sanity. Instead, she has proven herself a gifted comic actress and an adaptable musical artist.

On 2003's Coverage, Moore used well-chosen cover songs to demonstrate that her tastes were more '70s and singer-songwriter than '80s mall pop. On Wild Hope she follows through with 12 originals that, at their best, recall Saturday mornings listening to Carole King while mom cleaned the house and at their worst recall the guy in the dorm room next to you who was way too into Jewel.

Moore even wrote the relationship-centric lyrics herself, which adds an extra level of intrigue. If you weren't paying attention, she has a few high-profile exes, including Zach Braff, Wilmer Valderrama and Andy Roddick. That means you can, You're So Vain style, spend some time thinking about which bitter kiss-offs are about which exes. Kind of a fun game. Nothing That You Are, Latest Mistake, Ladies' Choice and All Good Things are prime candidates for dissection.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Looking Forward To Looking Back

Friday, June 15, 2007

Justifying My Love

I've been away from music writing for over two months, though not purposefully. I have been ensconced in major life changes: turning thirty, moving for the first time in 8 years, and finding a new job. Call me crazy, but having several aspects of my life in flux is just not conducive to creativity. That doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about and listening to music just as much as usual. I just haven't been putting those thoughts into words.

And maybe that's good.

Okay, I'm being dramatic with that. I love writing album reviews and have no intention of stopping. But I must admit to lately finding it difficult to truly express how certain songs and albums make me feel.

I don't think I'm alone in this. Even in some of the great books about pop music (Song Book by Nick Hornby, anything by Chuck Klosterman, Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield) the rate of me truly identifying with the author's love of a song or album or artist is alarmingly low. And if it's about a song or album or artist I don't know, that already low number is halved.

I guess it's less important to share exactly what a music writer is feeling than it is to appreciate that they could put those emotions into words. And yet, I've found lately that any time I try to explain what a piece of music does to me, I'm met with distant agreement or outright disagreement. Roughly 97% of the time I share some random but consistent inner thought about a song I end up regretting even trying to put it into words.

This is why those of us who like to write, talk and think about music rarely bring emotion into the conversation. Instead we talk about band line-up changes, record labels, inter band feuds, kick ass shows we saw, which album is better than which album, what b-sides are the best, and selling out. These are vital parts to the machine that is pop music, but feelings - the songwriter's and performer's and the listener's - are the engine.

These days, long past my only-child introvert phase, very few of my thoughts and emotions stay bottled up. While this is an overwhelmingly positive development, it occurs to me that perhaps I should keep a little something for myself. And the imaginary harmonies I hear on a certain song, or the additional word that completes the rhyme in a particular lyric, maybe those things should just belong to me.

As I already stated, in no way does this mean the end of my reviewing days. Just get back to me when I've signed a new contract, and the boxes are unpacked!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

144. Fountains Of Wayne: Traffic And Weather (2007)

Fountains Of Wayne have taken some unexpected lumps lately. The former critical darlings' 4th release, Traffic And Weather, has been met with some harsh assessments, especially from Paste and Pitchfork.

Paste writer Marc Hirsh claims that the band has run out of steam. Pitchfork reviewer Matt LeMay concludes that the album finds FOW "treading water in the worst possible way." Both of them give the Traffic And Weather one of the most insulting comments an album can recieve, that it's mediocre and boring.

But is it true?

After a few listens, carefully aware of his own bias, this long-time diehard Fountains fan is happy to say no, it isn't true at all. Of course, that leads to another question: What's wrong with Marc and Matt?

I've prepared a list to try to suss out their problem.

1) They hate Fountains Of Wayne and always have.
Right off we get Marc out of the way, because this is obviously his issue. Read how he begins the second sentence of his review: "Still writing songs as if the goal was simply to get from rhyme to rhyme, they remain far too impressed with their own cleverness..." Lyrical judgements aside, just look at his use of the words "still" and "remain." That says it all. Listen, Mr.Hirsh, if you don't like a band don't agree to review their record. Save us the trouble.

Matt LeMay is not so easy to peg. He claims to have enjoyed Fountains Of Wayne in the past, especially their first album. Which leads us to...

2) The critic thinks the past is always better than the present.
It's a patented jackass rock snob move to claim an artist's new album is not as good as their first. But let's give Mr.LeMay the benefit of the doubt an assume he did at one time hold genuine affection for the band.

3) The critic wants to punish Fountains Of Wayne having success.
Now we're getting somewhere. Ohh, the indie hipster guys hate it when you have a hit, get a video in rotation and appear on a Now! compilation. It makes them seethe.

Matt's problem mainly seems to be Stacy's Mom, which he harps on for a paragraph, claiming that its success pushed Fountains Of Wayne into a formulaic, derivative songwriting approach that values style over substance. He says the song's verses were "tossed-off filler" (which is kind of a mixed metaphor, but anyway). Um, what?
Sidebar on Stacy's Mom: The first time I heard this song on the radio I was esctatic. I was already a fan of the band, and the fact that their new song was SO good just thrilled me. It has an undeniable Cars vibe without being a rip-off. The chorus is simply killer. And the verses tell a story, with details like "since your dad walked out..." painting a precise picture. Not to mention the psychological implications of this deluded boy narrator and Stacy, who may or may not have her own crush.
Okay, so Fountains Of Wayne had a hit. They deserved it. After 7 years of toil, one of the band's songs was embraced by the public! This used to be how it worked, and how it sporadically still does. Why begrudge them that? It's not as if they capitalized on it in a soulless way. They just rode the wave and went back into relative obscurity, where good power pop bands belong.

4) The critic has personal problems and is not a happy person
I'll give him this one. Tough times can affect every aspect of your life, even enjoyment of pop music. I hope you work it out, man.

Okay, that solved, let's talk about the album itself.

First off, this is a solid Fountains Of Wayne record. If you liked their first three, then you'll like this. That's basic. Since the beginning Adam and Chris have been storytellers in the Billy Joel vein (legend has it that they performed in an all-Joel covers band together, and both this album and 2003's Welcome Interstate Managers have contained small musical tributes to the piano man). That continues here. And the band make hook and harmony filled pop songs reminiscent of Cheap Trick and The Cars, with a bit of country rock thrown in sporadically. Still true.

Even the good reviews of Traffic And Weather have thrown out words like snark and smirk, all claiming the band is having a laugh at its own creations. I don't understand this at all. The Blender review even summarizes its review thusly: "Stacy's Mom guys snicker at Coldplay fans." Let's look at how the Coldplay reference is made: In the dancey Someone To Love one of the lonely main characters "puts Coldplay on, pours a glass of wine, curls up with a book about organized crime." If there's judgement in that, I'm hard pressed to find it. If the listener hears a judgment, maybe its his or her own, because Adam and Chris unfailingly paint their characters with detail, empathy and care.

As on Red Dragon Tattoo, Hackensack, Marureen and countless other past Fountains Of Wayne songs, the characters in Traffic And Weather are searching for something to make their lives better. The narrator of Yolonda Hayes just wants a date with a comely DMV worker. The waitress in New Routine decides to travel and finds herself still wanting after many sojurns. In I-95 the narrator just wants to get home to his long-distance baby. Sure, some of the characters may be slightly self-deluded, but raise your hand if you have at least one self-deluded person in your life. Now hands down.

The album is not perfect. I have two problems. One is the rightly-derided Planet Of Weed, which is neither clever nor compelling. But it is mercifully short, and continues the band's odd fascination with stoners (see Go, Hippie and Peace And Love for further details). My other problem with the record is that they didn't tribute the Talking Heads by calling it More Songs About Traffic And Weather. Maybe that's implied.

Fountains Of Wayne were never going to save the record industry or please every fickle indie rock hipster, but I'll bet there won't be too many pop albums released this year that are as enjoyable as this one.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Fire In The Canyon
Fave Line: "Ohh, we belong together, like traffic and weather."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

In Brief

139. Kaiser Chiefs: Yours Truly, Angry Mob (2007)

Ignore the ass-backwards review on Pitchfork and enjoy zippy XTC-derived pop from a group that has improved on its exciting but uneven debut. Ruby is joy and fear all mixed together, Heat Dies Down is as good of a meet-then-break-up-messily song as you could ask for, and the thrilling Everything Is Average Nowadays is anything but. On album closer Retirement lead singer Ricky Wilson claims, "I want to retire" but let's hope it doesn't happen anytime soon. Grade: A

140. The Broken West: I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (2007)

Mining the same indie power pop territory as The New Pornographers is a good approach, and Los Angeles' The Broken West do it well, even without Neko Case's gorgeous voice. The album never quite acheives full lift-off, but nevertheless cruises at a smooth, enjoyable altitude. Check out Brass Ring or Abagail. Grade: B

141. Alexa Ray Joel: Sketches (2006)

Billy and Christie's little girl, who was previously only known in pop music for being named after a boat which was featured in a song (The Downeaster Alexa), is trying her hand at being a singer songwriter. The results on her debut EP are promising if not spectacular. The good news is that she's got talent as a performer (especially evident on a cover of Neil Young's Don't Let It Bring You Down) and as a writer (see the excellent Now It's Gone). Grade: B

142. Elliott Yamin: Elliott Yamin (2007)

The most likable American Idol contestent since Kelly Clarkson makes his white soul debut. As much as I'd like to report otherwise, this is still an American Idol album, which means it has its share of cringeworthy ballads (One Word), an out-of-comfort-zone embarassment (Alright) and an obligitory cover (a too-showy version of his staple A Song For You). Even so, if Elliott charmed you on the show you'll embrace the hand-clappy Movin' On, the gospel-y Find A Way and the Stevie Wonder-evoking Free. Grade: B-

143. Robbers On High Street: The Fatalist & Friends (2006)

On this cheaply-priced ($0.99!) EP, the Robbers offer a sassy and groovy preview of their upcoming album. Judging by the chugging The Fatalist and jabbing Married Young, the band is more Spoonish than ever. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Most surprising and electrifying is a loose-limbed cover of Paul McCartney's little-known Monkberry Moon Delight. A good appetizer. Grade: A-

Friday, March 23, 2007

138. New Monkees - New Monkees (1987)

From the Department of Everything Old is New Again:

In 1987 Coca-Cola and Warner Brothers put together a can't-miss proposal: Considering the renewed popularity of The Monkees with America's young people - thanks to MTV's airings of the old TV show and a 3/4 reunion tour - let's update the concept for our modern times and laugh all the way to the bank!

Thus were born the New Monkees: Marty, Dino, Jared and Larry. Much like the original Monkees, they were given their own television show and a record to promote within said show. And much like New Coke, everyone still preferred the original.

How disrespectful of a concept was this? Imagine a band coming along and saying, "We're going to call ourselves the New Rolling Stones." Granted, The Monkees were never known for integrity. They were soullessly manufactured to capitalize on Beatlemania and their managers had no respect for musical creativity. The band succeeded artistically despite this, thanks to a stellar group of songwriters feeding them material. The original four deserved more than to have their name copped.

Stunning lack of conceptual originality aside, the New Monkees could have filled a boy band void somewhere between New Edition and New Kids On The Block, had they only produced some good pop songs. Instead, the album is just shy of terrible. The lyrics are strangely obsessed with sex and the music is strangely intent on being Bon Jovi lite.

Before discussing the songs, it's worth mentioning that all four members did actually play on the album. In true Monkees fashion, two vocalists share the duties: Guitarist Larry Saltis and bassist Marty Ross. Unlike the Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, their voices are barely discernable from one another. Drummer Dino contributes Springsteenish vocals on the closer, Turn It Up. Apparently Jared was only there as a pretty face. He's only listed for "background vocals."

The album kicks off with What I Want, a sordid tale of a fast woman, a la Little Red Corvette. That's all fine and good, but I wonder why a project obviously aimed at a child and teen audience didn't contain lyrics more friendly for that audience. The New Monkees were horny, judging by the terrible The Way She Moves, the icky Burnin' Desire and I Don't Know, an ode to ambivalence that features the line: "I don't know how I feel about her / Is it love or only the night?".

A couple of one-hit-wonders contributed to the songwriting. St.Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion) guy John Parr co-wrote Do It Again, another inappropriately suggestive tune that rips off David Bowie's China Girl hook. Tom Cochrane, who later told us about life being a highway, serves up a plate of cheese called Boy Inside The Man.

Perhaps the worst song on the album is Affection, a shouty affair about, not kidding here, lonely people who resort to suicide and rape.

There ARE actually some highlights. Whatever It Takes, despite featuring a keyboard line that sounds like the Perfect Strangers theme, is catchy and features no inappropriate come-ons. Ten-to-one this was the single. Carlene features a great chorus, and Corner Of My Eye has Cars keyboards and an appealing "I'm a wanderin' man" mentality. The latter is the only song to feature a writing credit from one of the four New Monkees (Larry again).

Album sales suffered, rightfully so, the show only produced an unlucky 13 episodes, and the New Monkees returned to the primordal ooze. Just as well. Perhaps the funniest thing about the whole project is that it's not even as good as The Monkees' own 1987 album, Pool It , which easily ranks among the worst things they've done.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Whatever It Takes

Sunday, March 04, 2007

21. No More Kings - "Sweep The Leg"

I'll start by stating unequivocally that The Karate Kid is my favorite movie ever. No one can convince me there's a better film. I'm also a big fan of the novels of Gregory Maguire, wherein the author typically reimagines an existing story from another point of view, usually that of the villain.

So this surprise piece of nostalgia pop by No More Kings is right up my alley. It concerns the inner thoughts of Johnny Lawrence, the blond black belt ex-boyfriend who made Daniel LaRusso's life so miserable.

We all know that Daniel defeated Johnny at the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament, and in the process earned Johnny's respect. "You're all right, man" Johnny says as he hands Daniel the trophy. It's one of the many intriguing moments in the film. Johnny, who through the whole film shows no hint of being anything but a conscious-free bully, suddenly has depth.

To be fair, it's not a complete turnaround. Earlier, when Johnny's coach, Martin Kreese, tells him to sweep Daniel's injured leg you see a look in Johnny's eyes, a look that shows he knows this has gone too far. Later (actually at the beginning of The Karate Kid Part II), Johnny stands up to the coach with disastrous results, but we are able to see that Johnny does indeed have some modicum of decency in his character.

The song continues this sort of unexpected redemption. Johnny obviously regrets his fall from grace and feels manipulated: "I was a superhero / King of 1985 / I showed no mercy / I was always Cobra Kai / But I caught a crane kick to the face / Uh-huh/ I guess he sealed my fate when he said / Sweep the leg Johnny."

It's true, to be reduced from an ace degenerate who was going to make everything work to a has-been with a broken second place trophy must have been hard. We all have lessons to learn.

Too often, funny songs are doomed by repeat listens, so big props go to songwriter Pete Mitchell for being able to evoke a smile while still treating his subject matter with reverence. As for the accompanying music, it sounds like Maroon 5's Adam Levine fronting Living Colour. Or Stevie Wonder doing vocals on the Chili Peppers version on Higher Ground.

To check out the video, starring and directed by William Zabka (the actor who played Johnny) and featuring a cameo from Ralph Macchio, click this link:

Friday, February 09, 2007

137. America - Here & Now (2007)

Raise your hand if you've seen Time Life's 30 minute infomercial for their Classic Soft Rock collection, hosted by the guys who were in Air Supply.

I was mesmerized when I saw it one night, mostly because of great songs by the likes of Hall & Oates, Todd Rundgren, Little River Band, England Dan & John Ford Cooley, Player and, of course, America. I started to think about how it has become cool to like what it wasn't cool to like at the time.

Take America's new album, Here & Now, as an example. The record was produced by two guys with plenty of hipster cred: James Iha (he of Smashing Pumpkins fame, with a soft rock solo album to his name) and Adam Schlesinger (he of Fountains Of Wayne fame, a band unafraid to pilfer the '70s). What's odd is how they haven't updated Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell's songwriting or sound at all, and yet the album still sounds so very modern.

What's up with that? Well, believe it or not, soft rock is still alive and thriving today. In fact, it seems a huge majority of popular artists who fall under the "alternative" banner are actually purveyors of soft rock, especially those acts with country leanings. Sheryl Crow, John Mayer? Soft rock. Wilco, James Blunt? Soft rock. Coldplay, Jack Johnson? Soft rock. Dave Matthews Band, Belle & Sebastian? It goes on and on. Sure, these artists may throw in some keyboard or electric guitar or disembodied voices every once in ahwile just to shake things up, but their DNA is comprised purely of strong melodies and emotions-on-the-sleeve.

Thus, America sounds of-the-times in 2007 because so many current bands are using their blueprint. And it's a sturdy one. Here & Now is a strongly gentle, gently strong record. It features more than the requisite amount of pretty, harmony-laden songs, including One Chance, A Walk In The Woods, This Time, and Chasing The Rainbow, a potential gay pride anthem built on a skipping acoustic guitar lick remeniscent of the one in Ventura Highway.

There's also a trio of surprise covers, each featuring the original songwriters as session players. The first is Indian Summer, from a 2004 retro-leaning album by a group called Maplewood. It's a gorgeous tune, which manages to sound exactly like its title feels. Even more surprising is an understated take on My Morning Jacket's beautiful Golden. It seems like it could have been an America song all along. And finally there's Always Love, which originally appeared on Nada Surf's excellent 2005 album The Weight Is A Gift. While it doesn't suit the America sound as well as the other two, it's no less thrilling.

Other surprises:
  • While Adam Schlesinger did pen one song for the album (Work To Do, which could have easily slotted on a Fountains Of Wayne album), Gerry Beckley's Look At Me Now seems more like the ironic smartass sort of thing Schlesinger would write, especially in the line "shining my shirt/ironed my shoes."
  • Bill Mumy (he of Lost In Space fame) co-wrote the dour, thoughtful Love & Leaving!
  • Both Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller serve as session musicians on the stand-out Ride On. The "sha-la-la-la-la" chorus is a big plus.
Let's face it, even with a hipster-assisted, modern-sounding quality record to their name, America is unlikely to become the next big thing on blogs (save this one) and in indie record stores. But perhaps Bunnell and Beckley can take solace in the fact that their legacy is cooler than they ever were or will be.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: This Time

Though the album's title is appropriately of-the-moment, the CD is packaged as a two disc set, the second featuring a live perfomance of twelve of America's classic hits. Though the disc is pleasant enough, it seems like a record label idea if there ever was one.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

136. Sloan - Never Hear The End Of It (2007)

There are 30 songs on Sloan's new album, so here are 30 reasons you should give a listen:

1. Canada. They can use our love and support.
2. The album's title is the second line of the song.
3. The artificially-colored band portrait on the cover; every one of their 8 albums has featured some sort of depiction of the band.
4. The pink background on the cover. Who says it's for girls?
5. The non-stop programming, a la side 2 of Abbey Road.
6. Every time you use a urinal made by the Sloan company, you'll have songs to hum.
7. All four band members write songs (though they are all credited to the band), switching vocal and instrumental duties. If you listen enough, the individual composing styles begin to emerge.
8. The harmonies in Listen To The Radio and Right Or Wrong.
9. For those of you who believe cheapness is indeed a sense, the album is a great bargain at 76 minutes of quality at the price you might pay for an album half that long.
10. The Dylan sneer in Who Taught You To Live Like That. For some reason it's ten times more charming when singers OTHER than Dylan do it.
11. The mini rock opera of Fading Into Obscurity, which packs 4 separate musical movements into 4 minutes.
12. Husker Du and Gremlins 2 both have shout-outs in Someone I Can Be True With.
13. The fact that Ana Lucia has nothing to do with the annoying Lost character played by Michelle Rodriguez.
14. Can't You Figure It Out?, the Sloan sound summarized in 2 and one half minutes: chugging guitar, aching soft-rock vocal, tinkling piano and ohhh-ohhh's.
15. Set In Motion, a story song on the universal theme of dealing with having to play yourself in the movie version of your life.
16. The way Love Is All Around appropriates Edwyn Collins' underappreciated 1994 hit A Girl Like You.
17. Ill-Placed Trust sounds like it could have come straight off 2004's excellent foot-stomping album Action Pact.
18. The harmonies on Before The End Of The Race and I Understand.
19. There's a twisty premise in Last Time In Love, wherein the narrator laments that now he has found someone to spend the rest of his life with, he'll "never get to fall in love again." Way to find the cloud in the silver lining!
20. Rarely have the seasons been so well-used as a metaphor for a failed relationship as on It's Not The End Of The World. The song is gentle, subtle and effective.
21. The way It's Not The End Of The World transitions into the boppy Light Years.
22. With 30 songs in 76 minutes it's a necessity to have some short songs. It's a credit to the band that these short songs don't seem truncated but instead serve almost as segues between the longer tunes.
23. Be thankful that the album's worst song, the short, punky HFXNSHC is not any longer than it is.
24. The glockenspiel that mimics the guitar line in Another Way I Could Do It.
25. How the different singers have distinct voices but not distinct enough that you can always tell the difference, just like The Beatles or Teenage Fanclub.
26. Did I mention Canada?
27. The way Right Or Wrong and Something's Wrong were placed next to each other. Similarly, I Know You and People Think They Know Me share spots adjacent.
28. The harmonies on Will I Belong and Live The Life You're Dreaming Of.
29. When you buy the album, there are two additional songs available to download through the Yep Roc website, the gorgeous Even Though and the fuzzy The Best Part Of Your Life.
And, finally...
30. Sloan held off the release the album in the U.S. until January 7th, so it could be the first great record of 2007!

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Can't You Figure It Out?
Fave Line: "Remember I already told them once / I don't do nude scenes or my own stunts / the speech is a failure on all fronts." (from Set In Motion)