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