Sunday, December 21, 2008

200. Kaiser Chiefs: Off With Their Heads (2008)

Off With Their Heads, the new album from Leeds band Kaiser Chiefs, finds the band moving forward by looking backward. I occasion my 200th review by doing the same.

By now there's no doubt that the digital revolution has drastically changed the music business. And though album is not dead yet, it's clearly on life support, and has been for awhile. This bugged me enough that I felt the need to defend the album on this blog. Nearly 4 years later I don't know that I can completely stand by my own words. I'm more and more convinced that the album is a casualty of the digital revolution, killed by a buyer's ability to pick and choose songs.

Some perspective might help. It is tough for me to say this, but I think I'm ready to admit that the album is not the primary way people experience music. It never has been, despite the best efforts of critics and and diehard obsessives like myself. No, the single is king. Downloading didn't cause that, it only made it more apparent.

Think about it: Popular interest in (and sales of) music has always been driven by single songs. Albums that have sold well have done so because they had multiple hit singles. And singles endure longer than albums. Ask the average person to name a Beach Boys album and they might come up with one or two. Ask the same person to name a Beach Boys song, and you're guaranteed a minimum of 5.

Consider also that the notion of the album as a complete artform, as anything but a collection of singles, didn't really come about until the '60s.

So why then is the whole notion of pop music criticism based on the album? Why have I devoted 5 years of my life to that very notion? Well, you might say that it's simply specializing. Diehard music fans aren't average people. They want their music in 30 to 80 minute blocks, well-sequenced and filler-free. They want albums.

I could stop there and consider the album (and my own blogging habits) justified. Dust my hands and move on.

And yet...

The Kaiser Chiefs have caused me to take pause and reevaluate my own views and habits, and I'm ready to admit some things. While my fundamental appreciation of the album remains the same, my criteria for good albums and my approach to listening and experiencing them have changed.

To whit, I rarely listen to an entire album in one sitting anymore. It just doesn't work with my lifestyle. I'm much more likely to listen to individual songs on my iPod or laptop. When I do listen to albums it's in 10 minute segments on my way to and from work (see, a short commute can have a downside). As a result, what I value in an record has shifted. Shorter albums are much more preferable. And it used to be that an album that had very strong individual songs but no cohesion as a group would never make my favorites list. Now, I'm much more susceptible to these sorts of records.

Case-in-point: The Kaiser Chiefs previous album, Yours Truly, Angry Mob. While it contained its share of filler, the record was also home to attention-grabbing standouts like Ruby, Everything Is Average Nowadays, The Angry Mob, and Heat Dies Down. Taken in whole it lacked cohesiveness, but that wasn't enough to keep me from giving it an A and putting it in my top 10 for the year.

Off With Their Heads takes the opposite tack, sacrificing some of the wow factor for 11 succinct and sturdy songs that flow like wine at a dinner party.

Another interesting aspect that puts Off With Their Heads in direct opposition to Yours Truly, Angry Mob is the lyrical conceit. The latter album's songs were largely concerned with love-or-lack-thereof. Off With Their Heads has zero songs on that theme, and it's kind of refreshing.

The album's opener, Spanish Metal, reminds me of a game I sometimes play called Imagine How They Came Up With That Song Title (it also works with band names). Though the words "spanish metal" never appear in the lyrics, they are an apt description of the song itself. In my imagination this comes from an offhand studio comment by one of the band members. Never Miss A Beat is a fun call-and-response about young people: "What did you do today? / I did nothin." Being a teacher of middle school, I can appreciate the picture painted, as well as the astute choral observation about how many kids manage to be trendsetters despite their apparent apathy toward everything. Plus, there's a bit of a guitar bit that is a dead ringer for ELO's Don't Bring Me Down. Listen for it!

Addicted To Drugs mines similar lyrical and thematic territory, but it seems the kids have grown up only to find themselves still mired in a haze. The song somehow manages to evoke Robert Palmer's Addicted To Love without plagiarising.

Good Days Bad Days offers up some cynical-but-pragmatic life lessons about the nature of luck and fate. "Sticks and stones and animal bones / Can't stop me from havin' a good day or a bad day / There's good days and bad days."

Those examples aside, most of Off With Their Heads' songs don't have a specific theme or narrative. Instead, many songs are simply a collection of well-turned phrases or images, such as "Like a beetle on it's back / I've got to get back on track" (from Tomato in the Rain) or "I will not lie to you / But I'll definitely only give you half the truth" (from Half the Truth). It leads me to believe that there was a concerted effort to focus more on the music and performances. That part certainly works. With Black Sea/English Settlement-era XTC being the band's most obvious musical template, there are plenty of thrilling moments.

As much progress as Off With Their Heads shows in terms of Kaiser Chiefs becoming artistes, making an ALBUM certainly seems to be going against the times. I find myself wishing there were more songs that stood out from the crowd. As much as I hate to say it, I could see Off With Their Heads becoming a fondly-remembered but rarely-played album in my collection, while Ruby continues to be staple on my iPod.

As I wrap-up my 200th review and move on to the next 200, I can't help but wonder about the future, and how this changing consumption and reaction to music will change my blog, a blog initially built on the sanctity of the album. It feels scary to say, but perhaps it's time to reassess my criteria for what makes good music. For now, I'm going to continue to do "album" reviews, but with a very keen eye put on the individual songs. In general you can expect more focus on the twisted and interesting history of pop music; looking backward as I move forward.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Good Days Bad Days

Monday, December 15, 2008

2008: Top Ten

Nada Surf: Lucky

With 3 winning albums in as many tries, Nada Surf continue to be one of the most surprising bands to come out of the mid-'90s. Lucky is a winner from beginning to end. Though it contains many radio-ready tunes, my favorite is Ice on the Wing (any song that mentions the Sopwith Camel wins my heart).

Kid Dakota: A Winner's Shadow

Though I adore Darren Jackson's work in The Hopefuls, I was never a fan of his Kid Dakota persona until this album came along. It spent a solid 6 weeks on repeat in my car. Favorites include Chutes + Ladders, Transfusion, Stars, and Puffy Jackets.

Sloan: Parallel Play

"Sloan are one of the few bands that might not be capable of making a bad album."

Read the rest of the review.

Jeremy Messersmith: The Silver City

Dan Wilson produced this collection of shimmery folk-pop. It's a concept album of sorts about finding magic in the mundane. My favorites are the middle three songs The Commuter, Miracles, and Love You To Pieces. The cover of the Replacements Skyway wisely stays faithful to the original, and slots in perfectly.

Kathleen Edwards: Asking For Flowers

"Sharp lyrical storytelling has always been Edwards' calling card, and her skills are in full bloom here. Intertwined in her tales of angry, abused, underappreciated and lonely women is commentary on war, pollution, race, and death."

Read the rest of the review.

Ben Folds: Way To Normal

Read the review.

While it is perhaps the weakest album he's ever made, many of the individual songs are as sharp as ever. The internet release of 5 hastily-recorded "fake" versions of the album's songs (at least 4 of them better than the album versions) was a stroke of genius.

Alanis Morissette: Flavors of Entanglement

"Flavors of Entanglement is varied enough to come off as an alternate reality greatest hits package, encompassing all of Alanis' past musical moods and lives."

Read the rest of the review.

Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid

"The sound is big and majestic; the lyrics are up-close and personal."

Read the rest of the review.

Supergrass: Diamond Hoo Ha

"Songs are propulsive and unpredictable, with discoey choruses, indie rock verses, harmony-laden pre-chourses, marching band intros, and keyboard solo bridges."

Read the review.

The Broken West: Now or Heaven

Read the review.

2008 was one of the happiest years of my life. I got married and I'm basically constantly pinching myself. So why did I pick such a lyrically negative album to represent the year? Nostalgia? I don't know, but what's clear is that these are the songs that played on constant repeat in my head when I wasn't listening to the CD itself.

Friday, December 12, 2008

2008: Best of the Rest

This Year's Musical Pet Peeve
Conversing during concerts

Unlisted bonus tracks could win this category every year, as long as artists keep doing them, but I've already railed on that topic.

Instead, I turn my ire toward people who get into loud, long, involved discussions with their friends at concerts while they are standing in close proximity to me.

Steps on soap box.

I understand that maybe you agreed to go to this concert just to have something to do and you may only know one or two songs by the artist. I also understand that alcohol removes some of your self-awareness. I understand that you like to talk to your friends. But, please, consider others who paid their ticket price plus an additional 40% of the face value in Ticketmaster fees to HEAR THE MUSIC, not your conversation. If you want to talk to your friend and drink and hear music at the same time, save yourself some money and go to a bar with a jukebox. The ultimate lesson is one you can apply to all aspects of your life: You are not the only person on the planet. Thank you.

Steps off soapbox.

Best Cover Art
Flight of the Conchords

Look back at the past winners of this category, and you can basically guarantee I'm almost always going to pick a colorful hand-drawn cover. But a little predictability in a crazy world can't be a bad thing, can it?

Best Title
Sloan: Parallel Play

Parallel play is a developmental stage wherein children will play in proximity without interacting. Each member of Sloan writes and sings his own songs, so it's an apt description if you ignore the amazing synergy they have as a band.

Best Concert
Rufus Wainwright
State Theatre, Minneapolis

Just Rufus, a piano, and a theatre full of adoring fans. I didn't have much expectation for this show. Honestly, I halfway expected to be bored. But Rufus impressed me with a informally professional performance that kept everyone rapt, me included.

Best Trend 1
Earth-friendly Packaging

Yes, I still tend to buy physical CDs (though this year I bought and downloaded more whole albums than ever before)
, and I've noticed that jewel cases are becoming as rare as CD shoppers. At least half of the CDs I bought this year were packaged in thin cardboard sleeves (or digi-paks) instead. No more broken tabs or center circles? I'm all for it.

Best Trend 2

Consecutive Year Releases

The Broken West, Kaiser Chiefs, and Sloan all doubled our pleasure by following up excellent 2007 albums with excellent 2008 albums. I hope more artists follow this lead by ignoring the label-driven 3 year gap and putting out new sets of songs whenever they're ready.

Biggest Surprise
Kings of Leon: Only By The Night

I bought into the hype on Kings of Leon and their first album, but found it lacking. Their second and third also failed to grab me, despite the critical lauds. So the last thing I expected was to fall in love with their 4th album, and yet that's exactly what happened. Only a small part of me wonders what fans of their first three are feeling about this record.

2008 Mixes

Every June and December I create mixes to summarize the half year.
(I pilfered the cover art from the prolific Sam Brown.)

2008 a
1. The B-52's - Hot Corner
2. The Old 97's - Dance With Me
3. Liam Finn - Energy Spent
4. Nada Surf - I Like What You Say
5. Chris Walla - Everybody Needs a Home
6. Kathleen Edwards - Oil Man's War
7. Tift Merritt - Another Country
8. Kid Dakota - Stars
9. The Republic Tigers - Weatherbeaten
10. Dave Dill - Never So Beautiful
11. Supergrass - Rebel In You
12. Gary Louris - To Die a Happy Man

2008 b
1) MGMT - Electric Feel
2) Kaiser Chiefs - Good Days Bad Days
3) Sloan - Witches Wand
4) The Futureheads - Radio Heart
5) Bon Iver - Skinny Love
6) Kings Of Leon - Sex On Fire
7) Ben Folds - Bitch Went Nutz
8) The Broken West - House Of Lies
9) Teddy Thompson - In My Arms
10) Keane - Better Than This
11) Jeremy Messersmith - Miracles
12) Q-Tip - Believe
13) Alanis Morissette - Giggling Again For No Reason
14) Elbow - One Day Like This

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rock Bottom: The Rolling Stones

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect
that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

Confession: I don't like the Rolling Stones all that much.

I don't mean their music. I enjoy most of their singles. I went through a phase of fandom, during which I ponied up to see them play Soldier Field (it was 1997's Bridges To Babylon tour). I think Some Girls is a great album. I certainly appreciate their longevity and their place in rock 'n' roll history.

When I say I don't like them, I mean personally. I don't find either of their two principals, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, all that compelling. Besides the fact that Richards is still alive despite years of abuse to his body, there seems to be one unique storyline to the band's 45-year career: Mick and Keith fight but make beautiful music together.

Well, this Rock Bottom entry is about a time they did the former but forgot to do the latter. The year was 1986. The album was Dirty Work. Fans and critics agree that it's the Rolling Stones' lowest musical moment.

The All Music Guide actually gave it a mediocre-but-not-terrible 3 stars (3 other studio albums by the band also received the same rating); most of their 8 live albums ranked lower. But in his comments, Stephen Thomas Erlewine belies his rating by using the word "undistinguished" twice, along with "uneven", "dated", and "forced".
Rolling Stone typically worships the ground the band walks on, so much so that if Mick Jagger released an album of himself flushing every toilet in his mansion, the magazine's publisher, Jann Wenner, would write the review and give it 5 stars. But somehow Jon Pareles was allowed to be negative about Dirty Work. He called it a "Stones album for the yuppie era" though it's not clear whether or not he intended it as an insult. He also is clearly disappointed, pointing out that it doesn't live up to his high expectations as a fan, nor does it compare to the band's best work (always an unfair line of criticism, but an effective one nonetheless). Finally, he says the album "sounds like it was made on a deadline."

Fans on expressed their disappointment with Dirty Work in a myriad of ways. Mr. A. Pomeroy says, "In the context of the Rolling Stones' rich back catalogue it is a stunted little twig." Other fans were insular and obscure with their criticism. "This makes Goat's Head Soup look like Sticky Fingers," finulanu tells us. An anonymous reviewer takes it a bit further: "Dirty Work" he says, "makes Undercover look like Let it Bleed."

Finally, Christopher Bushman shouts out to this feature when he states that "the only good thing you can say about this record is that everyone, fans and band, realized it was rock bottom and they had nowhere to go but up."

Here's some background before I get to a review. Dirty Work was was the first album of a big shiny new deal with CBS records. It was released after three years of band inactivity and Mick Jagger's 1985 solo album, She's the Boss. Apparently Keith wasn't at all happy about Mick's straying from the band, and he was even less happy that the solo album was well-received. This exacerbated the tension between the two and made the Dirty Work sessions difficult. Most of the album was recorded without Jagger, who added lyrics and vocals later. Several high-profile guests appear, including Jimmy Page and Tom Waits. Producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, XTC, Talking Heads) manned the boards.

Dirty Work isn't just one of those "bad in retrospect" albums either. It was a clunker from the beginning, failing to go to number one in both the U.S. and the U.K., the first Stones studio album in 17 years not to hit the top spot. The band didn't tour behind the album, and one could assume it's because they knew they'd laid a rotten egg, and that it'd be better to lay low for awhile.

After listening to the album, I don't quite understand the reaction. It's definitely got some middling tracks, and an unfortunate reggae experiment, but to my ear it's not drastically less listenable than, say, Voodoo Lounge or Her Majesty's Satanic Request (if we're going to get insular here).

To me, this is all about the cover art. Go back and take a look at it. I'll wait. Pretty bad, isn't it? Given the brain's natural tendency to make connections and draw conclusions, you might assume Dirty Work was the Stones sellout record, full of polished, keyboard heavy pop-rock. No one would blame you for thinking that. The thing is, the bright colors of the sleeve (and the band's outfits) might have represented 1986, but it certainly didn't represent the music on the album. In fact, it's nearly the opposite. Despite Erlewine's claim, the production of Dirty Work is not dated. And despite the ennui on the boy's faces in that cover photo, most of the songs are angry and aggressive.

So as unlikely as it sounds, I really do believe the cover photo affected fan and critical reaction to the record. Additionally, the back cover lists the songs in the complete wrong order, and that couldn't have helped anything. In short, I think people judged this book by its cover. Thus, you are probably wondering, is this simply another case of "the band is so good even their worst album isn't so bad"? Well, no. If you're a reluctant admirer like me, it's a case of "the band is not as good as you think and this is just simply an average effort by them." But if you're a huge Stones fan, it's kind of like watching home movies from the time period when your parents almost got a divorce.

Opener One Hit (To The Body), which most fans find to be the one light in the dark, is a solid rock song, somewhat catchy, and perfect to start things off. The lyrics track a love affair turned to an obsession, but could just as easily be about drugs as they could be about a woman: "Oh your love is a sweet addiction / I can't clean you out of my veins."

The band's cover of a 1963 R & B song by Bob & Earl, Harlem Shuffle, was the first single off the album. While it isn't a bad tune, it's easy to see why it didn't catch on. It's just not attention-getting. However, I do give props to the groove, which seems more-or-less lifted from Talking Heads song Life During Wartime. Back To Zero also seems Heads-influenced. It's a rhythmic rumination on the apocalypse, and my favorite song on the album.

Winning Ugly is not bad, though in both lyrics and style it seems like a song that would play over the closing credits of a sports movie. Fight is like a featherweight boxer, short and feisty.

But some songs fall flat, for various reasons. There's that reggae experiment I mentioned, Too Rude. Keith takes lead vocals and does a fine job, but doesn't it seem like he's about 7 years behind the dub trend that overtook bands like XTC and The Clash in the late '70s? Keith's other showcase is a ballad called Sleep Tonight, a piano-driven country tune that somehow makes the phrase "you better get some sleep tonight" seem menacing.

The remaining songs are overly long and repetitive and suffer from strained vocals by Jagger. This list includes the title track, the bluesy Had It With You, and especially Hold Back, wherein Jagger does his best Dee Snider. In fact, this is actually the case even on the good songs; it's as if Mick voice only had one setting: Scream. It's so bad that I began to wonder if, considering the tension in the band and his newfound solo success, Jagger was intentionally trying to put some nails in his own band's coffin.

That's never a good thought to have when you're listening to an album, and that's probably why most Rolling Stones fans would like to disown Dirty Work. It reminds them of tough times they'd rather forget. That's why, for lack of a considered alternative, I'll agree that it's the band's Rock Bottom. The writer James Baldwin once said, " Great art can only be created out of love." And while I don't think that's a universally-true statement, it certainly seems true in this case.

Author's Note: This is album review # 199.

Monday, November 24, 2008

198. Dan Wilson: Free Life (2007)

All things reconsidered:

It's nearly time to unveil my top ten favorite albums of 2008, and as I ponder on those choices, I think back to lists of years past. It's a good idea to revisit these every so often, because my musical tastes can be mercurial. I almost always find a few omissions and errors. Maybe something I loved at the time just didn't hold up. Maybe an album that didn't hook me at first ingratiated itself and become a favorite.

It's definitely the latter case with Semisonic singer/songwriter Dan Wilson's first album, Free Life. You'd think an album full of love songs by a sensitive, intelligent performer would have gotten to me right away, but Free Life took its time. It happened bit by bit. I'd find myself seeking out the album specifically amidst the 1,800 other CDs in my collection. I'd catch myself humming or singing bits of this song or that one.

In retrospect, it makes sense. Wilson is not the kind of artist who's going to dazzle you; he's not Bowie or Prince. He's much more in the school of James Taylor or Paul Simon. You take their songs for granted at first, before you realize how exquisitely they're written and how you never really get sick of them.

Free Life's highlights are many, including All Kinds, the searching title track, Sugar (featuring uncharacteristically-understated vocal support from Sheryl Crow), and the driving Against History. I also like the solo version of Easy Silence - a song Wilson wrote with the Dixie Chicks for their Taking The Long Way album - that puts the focus squarely on the melody and lyrics.

There's also a pseudo-reunion of Semisonic on Baby Doll (with the other two Semisonic guys, John Munson and Jacob Slichter, on bass and drums respectively), and even though I think calling someone "baby doll" is creepy in any context, I can't deny the musical chemistry.

Speaking of creepy, I just can't get past the title of Golden Girl. Maybe Wilson should pay a little more attention to pop culture and realize we don't want to hear a love song and think of either a) Bea Arthur or b) Thank You For Being A Friend. While I'm complaining, the chorus of She Can't Help Me Now is a little too E.L.O. for comfort. Don't get me wrong; I like E.L.O., just not in this context.

But overall, this is simple, excellent album with songs that won't let go once they get ahold of you.

And of course, this reconsideration means someone's gotta get the boot from my 2007 top ten. Bruce Springsteen, I'm looking at you.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Sugar

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rock Bottom: Billy Joel

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

This is a story of a very gifted and wildly popular pop musician/composer who walked away from it all.

River of Dreams was released in 1993; it is Billy Joel's 12th album, and his final one as well. It's also his consensus worst.

AllMusic Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls the album "labored" and says that "by the end of the record, he [Joel] sounds as exhausted as the listener feels." He says it's an unfitting end to a strong career. On T.Gore writes, "Every artist lays an egg with an album sometime, and this was Billy's EGG."

A superficial look at the facts would seem to create a simple narrative: Artist with fragile ego and an improbable run of success realizes he has made a below-par album and has a crisis of confidence that leads him to call it quits to preclude any future failures.

But it isn't that simple. For one it's pretty clear that Joel's early retirement wasn't a reaction to the album's reception. River of Dreams
sold 5 million copies and produced the top ten title track. Further, there's evidence in the album itself that Joel is considering calling it quits. This is no more obvious than on the album's final song, Famous Last Words. In the final verse of that final song, Joel sings: "And these are the last words I have to say / It's always hard to say goodbye / But now it's time to put this book away / Ain't that the story of my life."

Finally, if Joel truly did retire because of this record, it was a huge overreaction. It's not a bad album by any objective criteria. In fact, Joel never made a truly terrible album; some are better than others, for sure, but none of them sound dated or out of character, and none failed to sell well and produce at least one hit single.

So why the negative feedback from some critics and fans? Perhaps they were simply reacting to the tone of the album. It's possessed of anger, cynicism, and resignation. These emotions and themes were nothing new for Joel, but not since 1982's The Nylon Curtain had he released such a downer collection. In fact, the three songs that got radio play (the title track, All About Soul, and Lullabye) are the only fully positive songs on the record.

It also doesn't help that the album is a slow starter. Opening song No Man's Land is a guitar heavy condemnation of modern society. Billy had written eloquently about societal ills before (such as the plights of working men and women on Allentown and The Downeaster "Alexa"), but here ham-fistedly takes lower-rung topics like mega-malls, tabloids, and television.

Great Wall of China is similarly bitter, and at first blush appears to be a pretty good break-up tune. However, further analysis points to the song being about a business partner or manager of some sort, given that it's addressed toward a man, and the line "In lieu of diamonds, gold, and platinum / Reminders will still shine bright." The song is quite strong melodically, with a definite mid-period Beatles feel. Blonde Over Blue is in that same musical vein, and alternates despairing verses with buoyant choruses about a girl who inspires him.

A Minor Variation has a groovy, blues-based sound and lyrics that are not the words of a well man. The final lines of the song go: "Until I'm through with this blue situation / Pass me the wine, it's just a minor variation." It wouldn't be so bad if Joel's alcohol addiction and depression issues weren't a matter of public record.

Shades of Grey just beats out No Man's Land as the album's worst moment. It's an awkward rock song with strained vocals and lyrics that don't say anything that Davy Jones didn't say better 27 years earlier in the Monkees song of the same name.

Of course, the hits of the album are strong, especially All About Soul (a love song for wife Christie Brinkley, though they would divorce the next year) and the title track, which pays homage to African music, and The Tokens.

The album's last two songs round out a strong finish, mostly because they are a return to the piano-based songwriting that is Joel's strength. Two Thousand Years is sort of a spiritual sequel to the apocalyptic Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Down On Broadway), looking forward to building a bright future on a crummy past. Billy wisely dusted this off for his millennium concerts.

Finally, we come to Famous Last Words. As I said before, it seems that Joel has already made his decision to call it quits, and it almost seems that he already knew his future held a series of never-ending tours: "These are the last words I have to say / Before another age goes by / With all those other songs I'll have to play / But that's the story of my life." It's worth noting that he also says, "There will be other words some other day." A Joel fan can only hope that that line is similarly prophetic, but with every passing year, it seems less likely we'll ever see another pop album from him. I suppose that's the true shame of River of Dreams.

But is River of Dreams the worst Billy Joel album? I don't think so. No doubt it's lower rung on on a very tall ladder, but I'd actually nominate The Bridge as the worst. It features blah cover art, a two duets (one with Ray Charles, the other with Cyndi Lauper), and has been labeled by Billy himself as disappointment. And we all know the man is is own worst critic.

Author's Note: This is album review # 197.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

5 Years: A Brief But Indulgent History

When taken in whole, my life has basically been an endless series of obsessions supplanting obsessions. Some last briefly and are overtaken, left behind. But others soldier on, sometimes toiling quietly in the background, sometimes stepping to the fore. On November 1, 2003, I took two of those ever-present obsessions - writing and music - and married them. And it's been domestic bliss ever since.

I had two inspirations. One was friends who constantly asked me for my thoughts on new albums and artists. The other was Richard, whose foray into blogging (Highway 290 Revisited) showed me a forum I could use.

I had hoped, by this anniversary, to reach review #200, but I'm currently stalled at 196, so we'll save that celebration for later. Instead, I offer a brief, link-riddled series of reflections, recollections, and revelations:

The Name:
At first I called the blog Till My Head Falls Off, after the They Might Be Giants song and my opinion column in the Augustana Observer. I quickly decided to change it to the more appropriate Pop Life (after the Prince song). Unfortunately, the Minneapolis Star Tribune soon appropriated the name for their music blog, so on January 1, 2006 the current and final name took over. 3 minutes, 49 seconds is the average running time of ten of my favorite songs (the list is here).

Blog Fever:
In July of 2004 I started Baby, I'm A Star (also named after a Prince song). The idea was to watch pop music movies and then write about them. It was always intended as a finite project, but it's not done yet. I must admit it's one of those aforementioned obsessions that fell by the wayside. However, I have every intention of completing it. I even daydream about it being published as a book.

Other blogs followed. Brain Clouds features a one-panel gag comic I've been doing since 1996. Though I haven't drawn any lately, every printworthy cartoon I've done is there. Try is the newest addition, a collection of essays that I update sporadically.

3 Minutes, 49 Seconds has changed designs more than a couple of times. I've refined it along the way. I figured out how to add pictures (a big moment for me), and at Richard's clever suggestion, I added a review index (I probably use it more than any reader ever will).

My productivity has varied wildly. From 2003-2004 I wrote 87 entries! Looking back, I think album-reviewing was my mental escape from a rough first year of teaching. I hit a low in the unusually dismal 2007, which I wrote about here, posting a measly 20 times. I'm happy to say that 2008 has been my most productive year ever.

You Mean People Are Actually Reading?
Blogging has brought me to some interesting places. One year, I exchanged mixes one year with Betty Rocker, a fellow music blogger who found me thanks to Rilo Kiley. A Swedish online magazine mistook me for an actual journalist and asked me to become a contributor. The Star Tribune's Jon Bream found my blog and e-mailed me to participate in their Pick 6 feature. It was less than 200 words, unpaid, and he hasn't asked me to do it again, but I was published in the newspaper, writing about music, and that was exciting. I responded to an unnecessarily hateful Pitchfork of Matt Pond PA's Last Light album and sent it to the band, receiving a terse but gratifying thank you from Matt himself. A handful of local bands contacted me, either thanking me for a shout-out or soliciting one. I even had a free CD sent my way for review, like a real music critic (that was Dave Dill's excellent Follow the Summer, by the way).

But the most embarrassing moment was discovering that Vicious Vicious (a.k.a. Erik Appelwick, the former Hopefuls principal and current Tapes 'N' Tapes bassist) had posted my glowing review of his Don't Look So Surprised on his MySpace page. Very cool right? Except in the review I called his first album "almost exclusively unlistenable." It was one of those over-the-top cliche reviewer assessments without much thought behind it. Oops! I wrote him and apologized and since have chosen my words very carefully, at least when I think the actual artist might read my words.

Cringing and Crowing:
Looking back on past work, there are always moments of embarrassment, but I'm proud to say that I can stand by every review I've written. Maybe I was a little overzealous about some albums that I've never really listened to since, like this one, this one, and this one, but I meant it at the time.

I have much more to be proud of, from the week that I did a review every single day, to the massive decade lists ('70s, '80s, and '90s) I made with the help of several friends, to the review of every single Beatles album, to the 12 By lists, to the New Monkees review that continues to elicit comments and reaction.

The Future:
Obsessions are strange, not only for how they dominate our thoughts, but for how easily they dissipate. My dad, who is very similar in mental constitution, used to be a big pop music fan. In the last 10 years or so, I've watched him drift away. Now he likes jazz and bird-watching and says rap isn't real music. Will I meet the same fate?

The good news is that for now, I'm as inspired as ever. As the year wraps up, I'm going to continue the very fun Rock Bottom entries, and the 2008 End of the Year lists are just around the corner. In the new year, I plan to review every single Monkees album, take a look back at 1979, 1989, and 1999, as well as start work on a multi-part guide to music criticism. And of course I'll continue to post reviews. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Did!

A Change Is Gonna Come
by Sam Cooke

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movies and I go downtown

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Born to Run

Music has crept into the 2008 election in interesting ways, with some curious song choices at John McCain rallies (I heard one report of Danger Zone being played; I think maybe it was chosen because it's from Top Gun, which features a character called Maverick, but if you're suggesting to your supporters that you'll take them "right into the danger zone" I don't think that's a message you want to convey). I don't know about Kenny Loggins, but many artists have taken exception to their songs at being used at McCain/Palin rallies, feeling that it indicates some level of endorsement.

Barack Obama has unabashed love from many artists, including the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, and Bruce Springsteen, all of whom are doing concerts in his honor. On one hand the notion is laughable, as evidenced by this Onion article. But I can't blame the artists for doing these benefits. Everyone wants to feel like they're contributing.

That's why I feel I need to say something in this forum. I recognize that we all have a tendency to get caught up in the drama of the moment, which right now happens to be the presidential election. So I won't say that it's the most important election of our generation or any other sort of hyperbole, but it does matter to me. A lot.

In 2004 when George W. Bush was reelected, I limited my agony to a post titled Wrong Choice, America, wherein I simply printed the lyrics to XTC's 1989 song Here Comes President Kill Again. One thing about bad presidents; they're good for music. But I will gladly sacrifice that for a president like Barack Obama. I've read his biography and followed him closely throughout this never-ending campaign, and I'm convinced that he's the most fundamentally decent presidential candidate we've seen in a long time. He is sharp and open and he truly believes his message of hope. It's not calculated, it's who he is.

For 8 years the Bush/Cheney/Rove combo has played and preyed on Americans' fears, and now there's daily evidence that McCain and Palin will do the same. If you are voting for McCain, I hope it's because you agree with him on abortion or the war in Iraq. I don't share your views, but I understand that. But if you are considering him for any other reason, please evaluate your own reasons. If one of them is fear, take pause.

Fear is very necessary (I wrote all about it here), but it's not a way to pick a president. If Obama loses this election, look for me to post another set of lyrics on November 5.

Now that I've made that promise, I'm off to find the saddest song ever written.

Postscript: I know you don't need me to tell you this, but I'd be remiss if I didn't: PLEASE VOTE!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rock Bottom: Elton John

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

Sir Reginald Dwight is so prolific, he doesn't have just one worst album, he has two! In every statistical category (basically AllMusic and ratings) 1979's disco experiment Victim of Love and 1986's Leather Jackets are tied. I thought listening to them would clarify things, but it really didn't. So my only option is to break it down, borrowing a page from Bill Simmons (who in turn is borrowing a page from Dr.Jack Ramsey). The idea is to create "bad album" component categories, grant an edge (which is actually bad in this case) to one of the albums in each category, and see who comes out on top (or bottom, as it were).

So, let's break this baby down Dr.Jack style:


AllMusic Guide's Lindsay Planer labels Victim of Love a "dismissable platter," while Rolling Stone's Stephen Holden adds "the album is empty of ideas." He also calls it "anonymous" and "derivative."

Planer breaks out the hyphens for her Leather Jackets review, calling it out "less-than-inspired" and "half-hearted."

Edge: Victim of Love

THE FANS fans were full of bon mots about Victim of Love. David Insignia says, with the kind curious grammar that only Amazon reviewers can muster, "if Elton John wanted to piss off any of his beloved fans this album could do it." The single-monikered Hapworth states: "The only reason to own this terrible disc is if you wish to experience, first-hand, what it must feel like to be trapped in Hell." Nevin tells us that "what makes Elton John's Victim of Love so, well, horrible, isn't just that the music is atrocious (which it is) but that it was so desperate." But maybe the worst that can be said of a disco album by a gay artist is as follows: "This album does not even work as kitsch or camp." However, Gary Gardner informs us that Victim of Love is "not Elton's worst album (Leather Jackets still takes the prize), but comes close."

So what about Leather Jackets? Hapworth gives this advice, "Stay Away!" He also calls it a "stinker." D.R.Hayes points out that "there is no traditional piano on this as it sounds like all keyboards and machines. It really zapped out the beauty of what these songs could've been." S.J. Buck backs that up: "There are some good songs buried behind the monstrous production."

Well, despite Gardner's assertion, at least Leather Jackets gets some qualified praise.

Edge: Victim of Love


Vicitim of Love,
as I mentioned, is Elton's disco album. What I didn't mention is that Pete Bellotte, a producer/writer most famous for his work with Donna Summer created and wrote the album. Elton is little more than a voice (though I can't believe he didn't contribute slightly to the melodies). So if the album is bad, is it really Elton's fault? It does have his vocals, and his name is on the cover, but I have to absolve him somewhat.

Leather Jackets, on the other hand, has little excuse. Granted, the album was comprised mostly of outtakes from 1985's Ice On Fire, and was released to fulfill a contract with Geffen Records. However, Elton has his classic '70s band almost fully in tow, along with producer Gus Dudgeon. Elton and faithful lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote all the songs. So if the album is bad, it is definitely Elton's fault.

Edge: Leather Jackets


What I mean by this category is basically this: Does the production distract from otherwise good songs?

In the case of Victim of Love, no. If I were making a film noir, I'd have to have a central mystery, murder, a femme fatale, and a strong light/dark contrast in the cinematography, right? Those are the rules of the genre. This is a disco album, so the songs use the production techniques that these types of songs call for. Yes it's dated, but it's also appropriate, thus this album is exempt from this criticism.

Leather Jackets is also a product of its time, namely the '80s. This means that many of the songs feature "synth programming" on the credits and lack bass and real drums. As hinted at by some of the reviewers, this causes one to expect that the songs would sound much better when stripped of the of-the-moment production choices.

Edge: Leather Jackets


Did you ever wonder what it would sound like if Elton covered Johnny B. Goode, disco style? You don't have to; it's the opening song on Victim of Love. Elton's version is actually fairly faithful to the original, if the original had the sax from the Cosby Show theme, a slap bass solo, and was about three times longer. It's definitely crappy. I don't think the other 6 songs can quite be defined that way. They have pretty good verses, but unimaginative choruses (usually the title phrase shouted by Elton and a trio of backup singers).

Leather Jackets has twice the number of sucky songs: Go It Alone opens like incidental music from Miami Vice before it begins to "rock" and Memory of Love features a weird voice emulator (kind of like Steve Winwood) and is slightly countrish and unintentionally depressing.

Edge: Leather Jackets


Pop music needs to be catchy. Victim of Love suffers on that point, with none of the songs sticking in my craw.

On the other hand, Leather Jackets has at least three songs that I found myself singing after the record was over: Hoop of Fire (a more classic-sounding, Beach Boyish tune) and Don't Trust That Woman (Elton emulates Billy Ocean, with writing help from Cher). Gypsy Heart also rattled around a little bit.

Edge: Victim of Love


Neither song has a hit to speak of, though Victim of Love at least landed the title track in the top 40 in the U.K. Leather Jackets wasn't able to do that in the U.S. or U.K., and was in fact the first Elton album since 1970 not to. In terms of album sales, Victim of Love reached #35 in the U.S., but Leather Jackets only made it to #91.

Edge: Leather Jackets


Elton John is gay. I don't want to hear him pretend not to be, even if a straight man does write his lyrics.

Victim of Love
only has one incident, Warm Love in a Cold World. It's a love song featuring the repeated line: "girl we gotta make it."

Angeline, with two members of Queen playing along, is Leather Jackets' most egregious offender. "Talk real dirty and I'll make you scream Angeline," Elton offers. Heartache All Over the World has a chorus that goes "girls! girls! girls!", bringing to mind the far superior Island Girl. Elton got married to a woman in 1984, so this is definitely a product of its time.

Edge: Leather Jackets


Greg Brady, reviewer, had this to say about the Victim of Love cover: "The album cover says it all...Elton closing his eyes to what he's created, hoping if he looks away it will cease to exist."

That considered, it's still a much better cover than the one Leather Jackets sports. And if you add the fact that the back cover has a truly laughable portrait of Elton and the band dressed up in, you guessed it, leather, then you have a truly terrible package. Remember, he was pretending to be straight here.

Edge: Leather Jackets


Admission: If you told me I could only own one Elton John album and these two were my only choices, I'd pick Leather Jackets. That means it can't be the worst right? Well, in this case I am done in by my own system. The categories don't lie. By a score of 6 to 3 Leather Jackets is Elton John's rock bottom.

Author's Note 1: UPDATE: In the January 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, Elton calls 1997's The Big Picture his worst. "That was just making a record to make a record," he says. In my opinion, that album is not great, but neither is it terrible. Elton is probably not the best judge of his own work.

Author's Note 2: These are album reviews 195 and 196.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rock Bottom: XTC

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

* * *

On this there can be little argument. Even the most die-hard XTC fan will not bend too far backwards defending their second album, 1978's Go 2. Nor will critics. AllMusic Guide's Chris Woodstra says: "Recorded in a rush... Go 2 predictably suffered...the material is considerably weaker this time out." At the time of the album's release, British magazine Trouser Press pointed out that the sound of the record seemed more important than the songs themselves.

While there are some supportive fans, the reviews of Go 2 can be summed up by an anynomous poster who said, "it falls short from the usual excellence with which XTC has rewarded its admirers."

And once again, as has happened on a surprising number of these entries, we have the artist weighing in. Lead XTC man Andy Partridge summarized Go 2 like this: “Four weeks worth of songs, hastily scribbled on hotel notepaper and beermats. We were living out of carrier bags and in rental vans, making nasty noises at each other and with each other. Something had to give and here it is.” reviewer J.Garratt paraphrases a Partridge interview: "he likens seeing a copy of Go 2 in a Virgin Megastore to seeing a blown up photo of your teenage self being projected over Times Square. The whole world can see your messy hair, your acne, your yellow teeth, etc."

The album definitely represents growing pains. There's a line of thought that says an artist's true mettle is revealed on their second album. A songwriter has his or her whole life to write a first album, and 6 months to write a second. The logic goes that if there's true songwriting talent in the artist, the second record will be better, not worse.

XTC is an exception to that all around. Their first album, White Music, had its moments but was nothing spectacular. Go 2 was more of the same. The band's true evolution came once manic keyboardist Barry Andrews left the band and was replaced by gifted guitarist Dave Gregory. They subsequently blossomed into one of the most lyrically intriguing and melodically rewarding bands to come out of the New Wave movement.

That leaves Go 2 as little more than a prologue, a preview, a warm-up act. By all accounts (most of them in Neville Farmer's XTC: Song Stories) the recording of the album was difficult. The rest of the band had no love lost on Barry Andrews, leading to lots of arguments. Additionally, songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding were still learning their craft. Go 2 is the sound of a band in an early chrysalis stage, still mostly what they were but with hints of what they would become.

Opener Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!) is one of the best songs on the album. It's all about the going out to a club and dancing. Over a strong rhythm and melodic baseline Partridge barks: "Alcohol is an easy key / It helps you unwind / And dance with me!" The melody on the pre-chorus ("Can't wait until the weekend comes / I wanna be with all my chums") presages the band's tuneful future. Moulding's The Rhythm is in a similar lyrical vein. It's catchy but unsubstantial, only made interesting by Andrews' very un-punk piano flourishes.

At the least, one can say that Moulding, the band's soft-spoken bassist, was making progress in his songwriting. While his White Music contributions were forgettable and/or annoying, his songs on Go 2 are at least servicable, but his themes are extremely limited. Basically all of his songs are about being in a band, be it life on tour (Buzzcity Talking) or playing to an unpredictable crowd (Crowded Room and I Am the Audience). I Am the Audience provides some intriguing snatches of melody and inventive production from John Leckie, again showing the path to the band's future.

Go 2 also sports some unexpected ska-influenced tracks. First is the chaotic Red, which shows that even when going off the rails, the band can't help but be a little bit pretty. The other is the irrevrant Jumping in Gomorrah, in which Partridge exclaims, "I'm religion-free!" Dear God would come along 7 years later.

Barry Andrews' two songwriting contributions, while maybe not the worst songs on the album, are definitely the most out-of-place. My Weapon sports purposefully misogynistic and crude lyrics, but is musically varied, sounding like corporate rock on the verses, with a little bit of disco thrown in for good measure. Supertuff is a slow, contemplative ode to thuggery. Out of the context of the album, no one would identify it as an XTC song.

The album's remaining songs are surprisingly experimental for a band just starting out. Beatown, Life is Good in the Greenhouse, and Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian) are all interesting in theory more than practice, but they do show that Partridge's imagination stretched far and wide, both musically and thematically. The best song of the album was not really on it until CDs came along. Are You Receiving Me is an energetic blast of New Wave attitude. It's a paranoid plea from a man who suspects his girl is cheating, and one of XTC's greatest early singles.

Partridge's teenage photo comparison is very apt. Everyone goes through their awkward years. These years are often full of strange excitement and experimentation, with sporadic flashes of the future. It's easy to be embarrassed about these times, but hard to disown them, because they were so necessary. Go 2 is a lot like that.

Author's Note: This is album review #194.

Friday, October 10, 2008

193. Ben Folds: Way to Normal (2008)

All hail the King of the Break-Up Song.

Many have vied for the throne, but all are pretenders when compared to Ben Folds. On his 1995 debut, Alice Childress and The Last Polka worked their regretful way into our hearts. 1996's Whatever and Ever Amen stepped it up a notch, with Fair, Selfless, Cold, and Composed, Smoke, Evaporated, and Song for the Dumped each addressing broken relationships in their own unique ways. 1999's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner gave us the grandeur of Mess and Don't Change Your Plans. Folds only gave us Gone on his first solo effort, Rockin' the Suburbs, instead focusing on character pieces and love songs. He came back with a vengeance on 2005's Songs for Silverman: Landed, Give Judy My Notice, Trusted, You To Thank, and Time all explored the fineries of romantic failure.

Anyone can write a lot of songs on the same subject, but Folds' genius is a gift for devastating detail that makes you feel like he has lived every moment. (And maybe he has; he's currently on his fourth marriage.)

Way to Normal continues the trend, with no less than 4 new additions to the Ben Folds Break-Up Canon. But something is slightly different here. With the exception of the hilariously bitter Song for the Dumped, the tone of the above-mentioned tunes is resigned and/or sad. On the new album the dominant emotion is anger.

The musically buoyant You Don't Know Me sounds cheery enough, especially with the irrepressible Regnia Spektor on co-vocal duties. But the lyrics are cutting: "If I'm the person that you think I am / Clueless chump that you think I am / So easily led astray / An errant dog who occasionally strays and needs a shorter leash, then / Why the fuck would you want me back?" He picks up on that particular lyrical strand on Errant Dog, expanding it into an entire song. It's a confusing tune until you realize he's writing from the perspective of a woman who is comparing her cheating man to a runaway dog. Lest you think this is a sensitive move by Folds, it's really just another way to portray his ex as heartless: "I know I said dead or alive / But really dead is fine."

Bitch Went Nuts is the harshest of the lot. Folds described the title in a recent interview, saying that when a break-up occurs, women will give you a variety of complex reasons for it. Men, on the other hand, usually boil it down to those three words. The song itself is boppy, but the lyrics are dark. He admits fault ("I made my bed / I lie in it") but is dismayed by how his ex has spread her newfound animosity among so many other women in his life ("They're at my door with torches").

Interestingly, there's a completely different song of the same name, Bitch Went Nutz, which serves as a bonus track on the iTunes version, and can currently be heard on his MySpace page ( It's one of 6 "fake" analogue versions of songs from the album that were leaked early, and it's even better. While not strictly a break-up song, the couple in it don't seem long for the world. The conservative narrator is livid that his liberal girlfriend did a line of cocaine at his office Christmas party and then proceeded to, among many other things, yell "Fuck Dick Cheney!" The song is hilarous, whether you bleed red or blue.

Cologne is more of a "typical" Folds break-up song, with a balladic pace, strings, and a "what just happened?" air. The title refers not to the fragrance but the German city, apparently the place where things became final. The narrator's wonders about his ex's thoughts on Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove from Texas to Florida in diapers to confront a colleague's girlfriend. Bizarre as it is, his musing perfectly illustrates his sense of loss.

Two other songs address relationship drama more peripherally. Kylie From Connecticut is a tearjerker about an older woman who suspects her husband of cheating, leading her to guilty/longing remembrances of her own affair years ago. Brainwascht is not about the break-up itself, but an intriguing side plot. It's a scathing diatribe against a former friend who apparently wrote a "bad country" song about Folds after his latest divorce, taking the ex-wife's side. Remind me not to piss Folds off, but it does provide some of the record's best lyrics: "Isn't there something in the Bible about forgiveness and love / And more importantly about throwing stones and what your house is made of / You might reflect upon your own arrangement / In '94 getting blown in your basement (While your wife slept!)"

As a whole these songs provide a gripping narrative of a relationship gone very sour.

The rest of the album is not so cohesive. In reviewing 2005's excellent Songs For Silverman, I pointed out that Ben Folds' music always straddles the line between the silly and the sublime. Some of the tunes on Way to Normal cross the line. Songs like Dr.Yang, The Frown Song, and Free Coffee, while all melodically solid, are aimed at easy targets (mainly the rich and uppity) and ultimately feel empty.

Others fare better. Opener Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head) cleverly recalls the old Elton John hit, with a percussive piano and fake live audience and tells a true story about Ben's tumble off the stage while performing in the titular city. In Effington Folds namechecks my hometown of Normal, Illinois while pining for a simple life in a small city and providing the title for the album. I can assure him, people aren't normal in Normal either, but he probably already knows that. Musically, the song is very reminiscent of the The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner era, which is a very good thing.

And while Way to Normal can't approach the the entire album listenability of that 1999 masterpiece, it's still another fine entry in the catalog of pop music royalty.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: You Don't Know Me, Bitch Went Nutz

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Rock Bottom: James Taylor

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted three sources, the AllMusic Guide and Rolling Stone (for the critical point-of-view) and (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

* * *

Maybe this is where my methodology fails me. I love James Taylor a little more than the next guy, but even I was shocked at what my research turned up. Basically, there is no bad James Taylor album. And if you are in disbelief, consider this: In 40 years of recording, the man has only released 16 albums. Elton John has been recording a comparable amount of time, and he put out album number 16 in 1981. He's at 30 now. Besides proving that Taylor is definitely not prolific, it's also evidence of strict quality control.

As it is, only two of his albums can reasonably contend for the title of "worst." The AllMusic Guide gives 1972's One Man Dog and 1974's Walking Man each 2 1/2 stars. reviewers were hesitant to disparage either, feeling mostly adoration for the former, and directing some gentle letdowns toward Walking Man ("mixed bag" and "good not great" are as bad as it gets). That, added to the fact that it remains his poorest selling album, lead it to get the nod as "worst."

I can see why. Don't get me wrong; Walking Man is far from a bad album. In fact, it received a rapturously wordy review from Rolling Stone. AllMusic Guide's William Ruhlmann was not so kind, writing that the record "sounded like the statement of a songwriter who either had nothing to say or didn't know how to say it." While I don't agree with the first part of that assessment, the second part is right on. Walking Man's problem is not one of substance, but of style.

Some artists are eclectic and experimental by nature. James Taylor is not one of those artists. Over half of Walking Man features the warm, mannered types of songs you expect. Some of them are pretty great. The title track, of course is a classic. It's an earthy, enveloping song about the titular character, a man with no true place. Rather than painting the walking man as spiritually beyond the rest of us, Taylor makes it clear that he has no true direction or destination. It's a song about being lost.

Other traditional Taylor tunes include the folk-pop Let It All Fall Down (featuring background vocalists Carly Simon and Paul and Linda McCartney), the hoedown Me and My Guitar, and the catchy Ain't No Song.

I'm not a person who blames production for the problems of an album or song. I'm too much of a pragmatist. But as I wrote in the Bowie entry, production is only a problem when it mars a good song. That's what happens here, on two songs. Hello Old Friend, about returning home from tour, sports a great melody and above-average lyrics. Unfortunately, the presentation makes it sound like a Bette Midler or Barbara Streisand showstopper. That's simply not Taylor's strength.

Similarly, Migration has a good melody, a great vocal, and mysterious lyrics. But once again, the arrangement is misguided, sounding a little bit Pink Floyd, a little bit Spinal Tap's Stonehenge. The song makes needless use of a Vox Humana, a ghostly pipe organ sound.

Those two added to a lifeless take on Chuck Berry's The Promised Land help to sink side two of the album. Thankfully, things come around at the end with the closer, Fading Away. Serving as an informal bookend to Walking Man, the two songs could conceivably be about the same character: "You can strike up the band without me / You can have your doubts about me / But I'm just fading away" Taylor sings. They aren't the words of someone who's got it all figured out.

Taylor himself wasn't quite as lost as the characters he wrote about, but Walking Man was obviously a searching sort of album. And ultimately, James found what he was looking for. He learned his lesson, and never again strayed too far from his signature sound.

Sometimes you have to leave home to truly appreciate it.

Author's note: This is album review #192.