Thursday, January 31, 2008

12 by Kenny Loggins

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

Week 5

I'm doing this one for Wendy, my fiancee. She loves her some Kenny Loggins. Of course, As a child of the '80s, I can't help but have a soft spot for the king of '80s movie soundtracks. Listening to these 12 songs prove Loggins to be surprisingly versatile and eclectic.

1. Danny's Song (from Loggins & Messina Sittin' In, 1972)
A sweet little tune, not to be confused with Annie's Song or Danny Boy or Anne Murray's version.

2. Whenever I Call You "Friend" (from Nightwatch, 1978)
A duet with Stevie Nicks with a Beach Boyish opening and a Grease-like chorus. But why is the word friend in quotes?

3. This Is It (from Keep The Fire, 1979)
Is that a little bit of Blacksploitation funk I hear in there? Michael McDonald provides some white soul background vocals and you gotta love any song with a pre-chorus.

4. I'm Alright (from Caddyshack, 1980)
Anyone who can listen to this and not think "Hey everybody, we're gonna get laid!" and then picture a dancing gopher puppet is a better person than me. Bonus, the song is 3 minutes, 49 seconds long.

5. Heart To Heart (from High Adventure, 1982)
If you have any doubt about Loggins' vocal prowess, listen to how he transitions out of his falsetto on the verse into the lower range chorus. A jazzy little ditty that's probably my favorite of his songs.

6. Don't Fight It (from High Adventure, 1982)
Two Caddyshack soundtrack veterans combined their powers on this rockin' duet with Steve Perry of Journey. Another vote of confidence for the strength of Loggins' voice, that he can hang tough with Perry's legendary pipes.

7. Footloose (from Footloose, 1984)
As a 7 year-old I could have cared less about the movie, but I couldn't get enough of the "Jack, get back" part. Kids love songs that involve rhyming names. If you can't guess, I was also a big fan of 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.

8. I'm Free (Heaven Helps The Man) (from Footloose, 1984)
This one reminds me of a Chicago tune from the same era. Another great vocal showcase.

9. Vox Humana (from Vox Humana, 1985)
Obviously feeling his oats and obviously newly possessed of synthesizer technology, Kenny made this weird song that comes on like a new wave and finishes up like country.

10. Forever (from Vox Humana, 1985)
I can't help but picture 1985 Richard Marx hearing this power ballad and screaming "Eureka!".

11. Danger Zone (from Top Gun, 1986)
This is a long way from his soft rock beginnings. Granted, it's not death metal, but it rocks slightly, and gets you pumped up to do some test piloting.

12. Nobody's Fool (from Back To Avalon, 1988)
This Outfieldish rocker (seriously, listen to this and Winning It All back to back) doubled as the theme to Caddyshack II. It's probably the only thing worth remembering from that film.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

158. The Beatles: Please Please Me (1963)

One of the joys of being a music obsessive is discovering new bands, and recently, I've come across a doozy! They're called The Beatles, and they're not new, only new to me.

In my countless trips through the used CD and LP bins, I would occasionally come across one of their albums, but I always passed them by. I wasn't into obscure music, especially obscure music from the '60s. But one day, out of boredom, I picked up an album called Revolver. And like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill, it grew from there.

Now, having investigated their entire body of work, I undertake the mammoth task of reviewing every single one of their albums. My hope is to bring them a little bit more exposure than they received in their brief, prolific career.

The Beatles introduced themselves in 1963 with Please Please Me, a lively affair dominated by harmony and energy. The band display a surprising depth of talent, with all four taking turns on vocals and two of the band members showing promising compositional skills.

At a time when rock 'n' roll bands were certainly not expected to write their own songs, The Beatles must have made a bit of a fuss, considering 8 of the 14 songs on the album are the work of bassist Paul McCartney and guitarist John Lennon. These include the opener I Saw Her Standing There, which is built on surf guitar and innuendo. Did anyone blink in '63 when these young men sang about a girl, "She was just 17 / You know what I mean"? Is it bad that I don't know what they mean? In a similar vein is the title track, depending on your definition of the word "please." "Like I please you," indeed.

Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You are strong, if minor, ditties. And Do You Want To Know A Secret finds young lead guitarist George Harrison on charming nasal vocals.

As for the covers, the boys showed themselves to have excellent taste, and a deft ability to choose material that suited them. Drummer Ringo Starr takes the stage for a raucous interpretation of The Shirelles' hit Boys. Lennon attacks Arthur Alexander's Anna (Go To Him) with a passionate lead vocal. There are also versions of songs by some of the eras most talented songwriting duos, Goffin & King's Chains and Bachrach & David's Baby It's You.

The only misstep is an overly mannered A Taste Of Honey, which Paul McCartney approaches as though he were singing it in a film. However, that is quickly remedied by the album's closing number, a take on the Isley Brothers-popularized Twist And Shout. Lennon sounds like his vocal cords will tear apart at any second as the band stomps up a storm. The girls must have loved that one.

All in all, this was a promising debut, smartly produced by George Martin. Many bands show all of their cards on the first hand, but not The Beatles. One gets the idea they were just getting started, and they knew it themselves.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Please Please Me

Stay tuned for more reviews of albums by this great lost band.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

12 by Dave Matthews Band

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

Week 4

Disclaimer #1: I don't own any of the 152 live releases this band has put out and I don't play hackey sack, but I have still managed to quite enjoy their music through the years. Disclaimer #2: My favorite DMB album is Before These Crowded Streets, if that tells you where I'm coming from.

1. What Would You Say (from Under The Table And Dreaming, 1994)
Along with Wonderwall by Oasis and Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio, a song that can instantly bring up memories of my freshman year of college. Dig the John Popper harmonica solo.

2. Satellite (from Under The Table And Dreaming, 1994)
It has become a completely overused concept, but this is still a beautiful song.

3. Ants Marching (from Under The Table And Dreaming, 1994)
Does anyone else appreciate Dave's rapping turn ("Candy man/tempting the thoughts of a sweet tooth...") on the bridge of this song as much as I do?

4. So Much To Say (from Crash, 1996)
Claustrophobic, swampy and bringing to mind allusions to Peter Gabriel to Talking Heads? Rarely has the band been looser or sounded better.

5. Crash Into Me (from Crash, 1996)
Wonderful guitar bit, mildly disturbing lyrics.

6. Too Much (from Crash, 1996)
A sense of humor and a hoedown atmosphere make this one of my favorites.

7. Seek Up (from Live At Red Rocks 8.15.95, 1997)
Had this live version of a song from their self-released first album (Remember Two Things) pointed out to me as part of the Top 200 Songs Of The '90s project I did a couple years back. It has, to paraphrase Quincy Jones, an intro you can shave on, but at 13 minutes somehow manages to jam without feeling overindulgent.

8. Crush (from Before These Crowded Streets, 1998)
Come-ons are not Dave's strong point, but the melodic chorus redeems this one from creepville, and there's no denying the hypnotic mood of the tune.

9. Don't Drink The Water (from Before These Crowded Streets, 1998)
This is pretty typical of the songs on this album. It's slightly sinister, long (8 minutes!) and mesmerizing. Plus, Alanis Morissette adds her trademark wail.

10. Sweet Up And Down (from The Lillywhite Sessions, 2001)
Yes, I'm in the camp who believes officially unreleased Steve Lillywhite sessions were excellent, and that Busted Stuff (a rerecording of those songs) is completely superfluous. This is actually a standout that didn't make it onto the official album.

11. Everyday (from Everyday, 2001)
Dave does gospel! There was no real way to recover from The Lillywhite Sessions debacle, and articles that painted this as a record with minimal contributions from the band members didn't help. Even so, this song shines through.

12. Dream Girl (from Stand Up, 2005)
Dave admits his creepiness, so that's an start to solving the problem. Seriously, this is a heartfelt ode, even if the music still hews a bit too much to the overly controlled Everyday sound.

Monday, January 21, 2008

157. Alanis Morissette: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998)

Ah, the album after the squillion-selling smash hit album. Artists generally react to massive success in three distinct ways. 1) They simply try to replicate the previous record. Examples: Michael Jackson's Bad and U2's Zooropa. 2) They make a slightly or significantly better album. Examples: Nirvana's In Utero and Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. 3) They get completely overindulgent. Examples: Oasis' Be Here Now and Fleetwood Mac's Tusk.

Alanis' follow-up to the massive critical and commercial success of Jagged Little Pill falls squarely into the latter category. Not only is it 17 songs long, many of the songs flirt with dissonance and showcase Morissette's tendency to force a lyric to fit a melody.

As with any overlong album there are three categories: 1) the good (which we'll save for last), 2) the neither good nor bad (a majority in this case) and 3) the interesting. As I wrote when I reviewed Robbie Williams' Rudebox, an indulgent album can be a litmus test for an artist. It can either completely kill them or it can make them more intriguing. And Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie definitely does the latter for Alanis. At times it seems she just opened up her journal and started singing, and that leads to a startling sense of voyuerism.

To wit, the first song, Front Row, is about a romance gone wrong. If I'm remembering my rumors correctly, it was supposedly about her failed relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio. Interesting, right? Especially when she says, "I'm in the front row / The front row, with popcorn / I get to see you / See you close up" as though she never did when they were dating. The rest of the song sounds like a spill of words, like someone who has just been through something and hasn't processed it all yet.

The whole record is pretty much like that. Unsent is a collection of letters to ex-lovers. Baba is a '90s version of The Beatles Sexy Sadie, a scathing condemnation of a false prophet. The Couch is an obtuse tale of therapy which may-or-may not be about Morissette's father.

And then there are a few absolute gems, and I'm surprised to find that there's a theme to them. First is Thank U. I was completely enamored of that song when I first heard it. It spoke to me in ways I couldn't quite articulate, except to say that inner calm is something I've always worked toward. I still get chills, because Alanis sounds so heartfelt.

The next standout is That I Would Be Good, a simple, understated (!) song of self acceptance. "That I would be good if I got and stayed sick / That I would be good even if I gained ten pounds." The warts and all flute solo at the end proves the song's point.

Finally, Joining You is cast as a message to an old friend, basically trying to give him/her a bigger perspective on life's problems. While reminiscing about their relationship, she wisely points out that outside labels and inner demons don't define us. Imagine that, Alanis telling someone else to chill!

Despite the high points and the personal insight into Alanis herself, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is not what I'd call a good record. Listening to it all the way through is a chore, and many songs are grating. Even so, I'm guessing that it was a necessary stepping stone for Morissette as an artist. Thankfully, with 10 years of perspective, it's clear that Alanis learned her lesson. The two albums since this one have been strong, focused, and succinct (11 and 10 songs respectively).

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Thank U

Thursday, January 17, 2008

12 by Aimee Mann

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

Week 3:

Aimee Mann is the poet laureate of the broken heart.
Picking 12 from her is tough. If you include her work with 'Til Tuesday, as I have, Ms.Mann is one album away from being too big for this feature. She's actually due to release a new record this year, so let's enjoy this while we can!

1. Voices Carry (from 'Til Tuesday, Voices Carry, 1985)
When I saw them in concert together, Aimee's husband Michael Penn did the "this little hobby of yours..." monologue from the video. It was great.

2. Coming Up Close (from 'Til Tuesday, Welcome Home, 1986)
This was an early indication that Mann's talents lay not in new wave but in bittersweet singer-songwriterly ruminations.

3. (Believed You Were) Lucky (from 'Til Tuesday Everything's Different Now, 1988)
Mann is definitely not the type to let someone off the hook. Though it starts as a lament, the song quickly reveals itself as a kiss-off. She's basically saying: "You messed this up for us. Why do you suck so much?"

4. Why Must I (from 'Til Tuesday Everything's Different Now, 1988)
One of the best lines she's written: "Why must I take it so hard / Other people get by with either bourbon or God."

5. I've Had It (from Whatever, 1993)
This meditative tune sounds like a typical Mann break-up song, but it's actually a simple story about a gig in New York.

6. Long Shot (from I'm With Stupid, 1995)
Mann joins the fuzzy alternative '90s, with her own spin of course. Great opening line: "You fucked it up / You should have quit."

7. Save Me (from Magnolia, 1999)
An excellent Jon Brion production that perfectly sums up the themes in Paul Thomas Anderson's film.

8. Wise Up (from Magnolia, 1999)
This is the showstopper. When the characters sang along with this song in the movie, film and music had rarely combined so well.

9. Ghost World (from Bachelor No. 2, 2000)
A novel in 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

10. Red Vines (from Bachelor No. 2, 2000)
As a candy freak, how could I pass on this one?

11. Invisible Ink (from Lost In Space, 2002)
If, after listening to an artist's newest album, you are actually kind of worried about them, then you know they really put something across with their songs.

12. Little Bombs (from The Forgotten Arm, 2005)
A shuffly little ditty that shows off Mann's deft way with words: "While perspective lines converge, rows of cars and buses merge / All the sweet green trees of Atlanta burst like little bombs".

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

156. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (1988)

It's a shame how certain artists get taken for granted. It's hard to call an artist with two inescapable hits (Fast Car and Give Me One Reason) undervalued, but that's what she is. The fact has been mostly lost to time, but but when Tracy first came out, people were amazed by the maturity in her voice and her songs.

Listening to her self-titled debut album, it's easy to see why. There's an assurance and self-possession rarely seen in new songwriters. And it's worth noting that, though Chapman was 24 at the time of the record's release, some of the songs were written as many as five years earlier.

Obviously, that makes the maturity of subject matter even more impressive. Talkin' 'Bout A Revolution, while bemoaning plight of the economically oppressed, doubles as a threat: "Poor people gonna rise up/ And take what's theirs." It's slightly chilling, especially when she advises us to "run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run"!

Other songs on the record are similarly socially-minded, if not as direct. Across The Lines, Why and If Not Now are all earnest and questioning. Behind The Wall, startling for it's a Capella presentation, is in the same vein, but is more specific. It's sort of her version of Public Enemy's 911 Is A Joke. And Mountains O' Things is a clear standout, with great percussion and a tongue-in-cheek approach to materialism. Even Fast Car for all its radio friendliness, is a story of people who need more than they have.

The record isn't all public service announcements; Tracy also takes on matters of the heart. The solo closer For You is pretty. For My Lover shows her reaching out, writing from the perspective of a person jailed, though it may also be an extended metaphor about being in the closet. And the minor hit Baby Can I Hold You is a great tune, but suffers from dated production (a.k.a. keyboards). However, it does make you appreciate the timeless quality of the rest of the album.

I'm sure there are many who would lament this record as an undelivered promise. But as I listen today, it seems to me that Chapman followed the exact path she set out for herself here. She is a talented woman who writes interesting songs and sings them with a soul full of blues. If 20 years of familiarity makes that seem like less of an accomplishment, well, that's not her fault.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Fast Car

Sunday, January 13, 2008

155. Billy Joel: 52nd Street (1978)

You know you really like an artist when you can't decide which album is their best. In the past, Billy Joel has had no less than 4 albums (Turnstiles, The Stranger, The Nylon Curtain and An Innocent Man) contending for the top spot. Recent listening has led me to add a 5th consideration, 1978's 52nd Street.

The follow-up to Joel's 1977 smash The Stranger (featuring no less than 5 outright classics), this one is a bit more challenging and diverse, but that didn't stop it from winning the 1979 Grammy for Album Of The Year.

Of course, every one of Joel's albums has the requisite hit singles. In this case we have Big Shot, that ode to a bad night with a uppity companion, and My Life, the once-and-future Bosom Buddies theme. Honesty, a bitter, pretty ditty, also got airplay. Interestingly, these three hits are also the first three songs on the record.

But, as with any album, the proof is in the pudding, a.k.a. the non-singles. And there're some great ones on 52nd Street.

Zanzibar, which takes its name not from the country but a restaurant/night club in New York, contains some of the strangest lyrics Joel ever produced. The main thrust of the song is a story about wooing a waitress, but also included are verses about Muhammed Ali and Pete Rose. The latter verse is one I'm sure Billy wishes he could have back, at least partly: "Rose he knows he's such a credit to the game / But the Yankees grab the headlines every time." I guess he can take solace in knowing the second line will be eternally true.

Stiletto is a companion piece to Big Shot, in that they could easily be about the same woman. Over boppy piano accompaniment, Joel tells the tale of a heartbreaker who you just can't walk away from. This type of subject matter is what makes Joel so great. Instead of simply vilifying the woman, he make it clear that her vicitims are equally to blame. The slasher metaphor deepens the song even more.

Also top-notch are the sweet, swooning Rosalinda's Eyes, which was used to great effect in Freaks and Geeks, and the bombastic closer Until The Night.

The album is unique in Billy Joel's ouevre. For one there's a distinct jazz influence as on the outro of Zanzibar, the intro to Stiletto, and the brief closing, Ray Charlesesque title track. Horns show up on other songs too, like Until The Night and Big Shot. Maybe that's why Joel is holding a trumpet on the cover. Either that or they couldn't get his piano out into the alley.

But does 52nd Street deserve the top spot? On certain days I might say yes, but not today. Even so, the fact that it's even in the conversation is a testament to Mr.Joel's talent, 30 years on.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Honesty

Thursday, January 10, 2008

12 by Foo Fighters

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

Week 2

This may be the easiest list I ever have to make.

1. This Is A Call (Foo Fighters, 1995)
"Fingernails are pretty, fingernails are good." Preach on Dave! He definitely grew as a lyricist. Great song though.

2. Big Me (Foo Fighters, 1995)
Hey the drummer from Nirvana has a new band, let's take a listen. Wait, what is this, did I accidentally put in that Del Amitri CD?

3. Monkey Wrench (The Colour and the Shape, 1997)
This is probably more what the Nirvana fans expected...

4. My Hero (The Colour and the Shape, 1997)
The fact that this incarnation of the Foos contained two members of Sunny Day Real Estate is quite apparent on this early emo track. Ironically, Grohl would later rib the emo movement with the fantastically-titled Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up Is Running).

5. Everlong (The Colour and the Shape, 1997)
Hypnotic. Probably their finest moment.

6. Breakout (There Is Nothing Left To Lose, 1999)
Probably the most controversial choice on the list, but it's a fine ode to teen years by a man well beyond them.

7. Learn To Fly (There Is Nothing Left To Lose, 1999)
You gotta write a song about flying if you are gonna to be a real rock band.

8. Next Year (There Is Nothing Left To Lose, 1999)
The theme song to Ed, right? It's a sweet one.

9. All My Life (One By One, 2001)
A slow burn from an album that Grohl later dismissed (I'm still not happy with him about that).

10. Best Of You (In Your Honor, 2005)
If Grohl's vocal cords aren't completely beyond repair, it's a...

11. Miracle (In Your Honor, 2005)
Proving the Foos versatility, an unabashed, mostly acoustic ballad that plays it straight.

12. The Pretender (Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, 2007)
Nothing like the Jackson Browne song of the same name, or like the Pretenders for that matter. It's just a quiet/loud screamer with a great chorus.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

12 by Fountains Of Wayne

Here's the drill: 12 songs to sum up an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

Week 1

The key with FOW is to create a good balance between their rocking songs and their ballads, while also representing their variety of styles.

1. Radiation Vibe (Fountains Of Wayne, 1996)
Their opening song is still one of their best.

2. She's Got A Problem (Fountains Of Wayne, 1996)
This was the first inkling of FOW as songwriters in the Billy Joel-character-sketch vein.

3. I've Got A Flair (Fountains Of Wayne, 1996)
A rare narrator of unabashed confidence.

4. Red Dragon Tattoo (Utopia Parkway, 1999)
On the other hand, the first of many self-deluded, well-meaning narrators.

5. Troubled Times (Utopia Parkway, 1999)
The poster child for all of those "why wasn't that a hit?" songs.

6. Stacey's Mom (Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003)
And then the actual hit.

7. Hackensack (Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003)
The best song containing a reference to Christopher Walken ever written.

8. Hey Julie (Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003)
Ever had a crappy job and a happy home life? This sparkling song is about that.

9. Maureen (Out-Of-State Plates, 2005)
An ode to that self-involved female friend who knows you have a crush on her but will never give it up.

10. I Know You Well (Out-Of-State Plates, 2005)
I picked this sweet ditty mostly for the bridge, which sticks in my craw.

11. Yolanda Hayes (Traffic & Weather, 2007)
In its own way, as scintillating a come on as Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On. Plus, horns!

12. Fire In The Canyon (Traffic & Weather, 2007)
Eagles eat your heart out.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

12 by...

In an effort to 1) make sure this blog has more regular content and 2) roll with the digital times, I'm instituting a new feature. So in addition to my sporadic reviews of albums, and the occasional rant about whatever is on my mind, you can look for 12 by... every week.

But what is it all about? Well, any music obsessive worth his or her muster has made at least one custom "best of" mix for his or her favorite artist, right? Best of collections are a tried-and-true tradition, and yet they are so often poorly done. (Read extensive thoughts on the matter here).

My idea is that there are many many artists who only need a 12 track best-of, and nothing more. Consider those 20th Century Masters Millenium Collections. Certain artists (Donnie Iris, Go West) are perfect for it and others (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) are not. You can't summarize Elton John or David Bowie in 12 songs.

Ironically, the number 12 comes from James Taylor's Greatest Hits album. I cannot imagine a more perfect summary of his music, even though he has put out many enjoyable songs since its release. I wouldn't pick an artist of his caliber for this project, and yet he sets the standard.

So I'll be giving you an artist, and the only 12 songs you need to know by that artist.

As for what to do with my opinion? Maybe it will serve as a good place to start downloading a certain artist's work. If you already have all the songs I mention, you could use it to make a playlist in your iTunes. Or you could argue with me about the exclusion of your favorite song. Or you could just read and enjoy.