Wednesday, March 26, 2008

12 by The Promise Ring

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).
Week 13
The Promise Ring were nearly as precious as their name, with short songs, clever lyrics and the lisp of singer Davey von Bohlen, and a proclivity for pop melodies.

To me they'll forever be one side of the Trinity Of Emo along with Jimmy Eat World and The Get-Up Kids. They broke up, unsurprisingly considering a sometimes fractious band dynamic and a health scare for von Boheln, in 2002.

1. A Picture Postcard (from 30 Degrees Everywhere, 1996)
A groovy, swooning track that, had it come along 10 years later, could have graced any Old Navy, J.C.Penney or Apple commercial. Davey's vocal is vulnerable and delicate, and the band even gets to rock out in the middle.

2. Perfect Lines (from Nothing Feels Good, 1997)
Melodic bass highlights this little rocker. Favorite line: "...from Bell South to a southern belle."

3. Red & Blue Jeans (from Nothing Feels Good, 1997)
Critics like to point to the album title (which came from the lyrics in this song) as a summary of the emo mindset. But wait, look at how it's actually used: "Nothing feels good like you in your red and blue jeans and your white and night things." Oh, and those are the only lyrics in the entire song!

4. Why Did We Ever Meet (from Nothing Feels Good, 1997)
A great band performance. Davey would later reference this one on Jimmy Eat World's A Praise Chorus. "Ba-ba-ba-da-ba-ba-ba-da-ba-da, doo-doo-doo-do-do-doo-doo-and you!"

5. Best Looking Boys (from Boys + Girls EP, 1998)
Davey cast further doubt on his own sexuality with that title (he's straight, afterall), but Best Looking Boys is really all about the groove. By the way, apparently the best looking boys go all the way.

6. The Deep South (from Very Emergency, 1999)
The Very Emergency album did set the cuteness dial a bit too far to the right, but there were some great songs nonetheless. The Deep South reminds me David Lynch, whose personal aura of innocence seems improbable. When Davey says "I think that's exciting" he puts across the same attitude.

7. Jersey Shore (from Very Emergency, 1999)
They'd been listening to a lot of Pavement, I'd gather, but this song is a charmer.

8. Skips A Beat (Over You) (from Very Emergency, 1999)
Musically sounds most like it could have been on Nothing Feels Good. The difference is that this is the rare song where Davey's lyrics are completely lucid. Such are the effects of love!

9. Make Me A Mixtape (from Electric Pink EP, 2000)
I'd like to see statistics on how many circa 2000 emo kid mix tapes / CDs featured this song as the opener. By the way, Davey asks to hear "Husker Du and something The Cars did in 1982". That latter part would be difficult since The Cars were on hiatus and didn't release an album that year.

10. Stop Playing Guitar (from wood/water, 2002)
The Promise Ring's final album, wood/water, was a departure for the band. It featured longer songs and less obvious melodies. Stop Playing Guitar displays a lyrical weariness that presages the band's break-up. Though, obviously, Davey got his groove back. He's released 4 or so albums with the bands Vermont and Maritime since the break-up.

11. Suffer Never (from wood/water, 2002)
Songs like this one make me mourn what could have been. The band sounds fuller, stronger and more mature than ever before. It even contains a zen koan for you to puzzle over: "more inside children with outdoor names".

12. Get On The Floor (from wood/water, 2002)
Wherein Davey has a dancing problem. He when he gets on the floor he "just freaks out." He also basically closes the door on the band: "In a second life I'd never become a singer /
They've all gone mad sad and angry / If it ended tonight I'd consider myself lucky and leave." And he did.

Monday, March 24, 2008

167. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Do you remember that awful 1978 movie starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees? Well, it turns out that was based on an album by a little-known rock group called The Beatles! Who knew? I'm in the process of reviewing all of their albums, so here's we go...
For an obscure band with only a modicum of success, The Beatles were kind of full of themselves. Just look at the company they're keeping on the cover of their 8th album: Peter Lorre, Marilyn Monroe, W.C. Fields, Robert Zimmerman, etc. Obviously they had an inflated view of their own significance. The music on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band suits that sense of grandeur.

Even the evolution of sound that was evident on Revolver cannot prepare the listener for the kitchen sink approach of this record. It's there right from the start, on the title track, which features an orchestra tuning up, horns, canned laughter, a searing lead guitar from George Harrison and a raspy Paul McCartney vocal. What's more, The Beatles showed they were making an ALBUM, meant to be heard as one piece. That's clear when the opening tune segues right into the singalong With A Little Help From My Friends.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds cements the anything goes vibe. If John Lennon sounded like he was on a distant mountaintop on Tomorrow Never Knows, here he sounds like he's on another planet. And I have to point this out: The initials of the song spell out LITSWD. Do you think that was intentional?

The handful of experts who have studied The Beatles often generalize by saying that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were yin and yang, rhythm and melody respectively. Truth is, musically, they crossed over quite regularly. It was in outlook and sensibility that they differed most, and there are some prime examples on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

At this point, the band's two main songwriters were participating far less in collaborative writing, instead composing independently. The optimistic Getting Better is a Paul song, but John makes his mark by adding a brutally honest bridge ("I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved") and in the sly background responses to the chorus: "I have to admit it's getting better / Getting better all the time (It couldn't get no worse)".

The album's crowning achievement, A Day In The Life, also marks clear differences. Lennon's spooky verses tell depressing and obtuse tales straight out of the headlines, while McCartney's boppy bridge details a breezy morning routine.

Even Sgt. Pepper's "lesser" songs are no less strange or innovative. Tracks like Lennon's carnivalesque Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite and McCartney's whimsical When I'm Sixty-Four are leagues away from the pop music of the time. George Harrison adds one song, Within You Without You, a continuation and culmination of the Eastern fascination started on Love You To.

She's Leaving Home is a heartbreaking, string-laden tale of a teen runaway, and her parents' shocked reactions. McCartney's lyrics do a great job of showing both sides of the story. And I've always found Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) to be underrated. Rarely are reprises more exciting than their non-reprise forebears. I think it's the guitar and harmony that does it for me. Because they're both McCartney compositions primarily, these highlights point to another storyline brewing in The Beatles' saga. After seven albums clearly dominated by John Lennon, this one is Paul McCartney's show.

It's also producer George Martin's show. To have orchestrated (sometimes literally) all of the sounds that the band wanted to create, and to have done it so cleverly, is a huge achievement. In fact, mark it down in those terms for everyone involved.

Grade: A+
Fave Song: When I'm Sixty-Four

Thursday, March 20, 2008

12 by Alanis Morissette

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

Week 12

I can never remember how to spell Alanis' last name correctly. Is it two r's and one s, or one t? Someone needs to come up for a mnemonic device for this. Note: I've opted to ignore her first two Canadian teen pop albums, including the hit Let's Go To The Mall. Oh, wait, that was Robin Sparkles.

1. Hand In My Pocket (from Jagged Little Pill, 1995)

One might generalize and say that early Alanis was tortured and angry, but Hand In My Pocket is proof otherwise. It's a song of cautious optimism, half-serious and half-funny.

2. You Outta Know
(from Jagged Little Pill, 1995)
My favorite line is "Does she know how you told me you'd hold me until you died / Well you're still alive." She could have just called him a liar.

3. Head Over Feet
(from Jagged Little Pill, 1995)
Anyone who gets as angry as Alanis does in You Outta Know also has the ability to go completely to the opposite extreme. That's what Head Over Feet is, a sappy bowing-at-your feet ode to new love.

4. Ironic
(from Jagged Little Pill, 1995)
Isn't it ironic that many of the scenarios it contained weren't true irony, thus making the song itself an example of irony.

5. All I Really Want
(from Jagged Little Pill, 1995)
This is a really weird song, from the strange talk-singing on the verses, to the off-kilter high harmonies on the chorus to the lyrics themselves ("intellectual intercourse" anyone?).

6. You Learn
(from Jagged Little Pill, 1995)
I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit that I've found this song therapeutic on more than three occasions.

7. Uninvited (from City Of Angels, 1998)
I never get sick of Uninvited. It's her Stairway to Heaven.

8. Thank U
(from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, 1998)
I wrote about what this song means to me here, so I don't have much else to say. Oh, she was buck naked in the video.

9. That I Would Be Good
(from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, 1998)
Raw, minimal and heartfelt.

10. Hands Clean
(from Under Rug Swept, 2001)
One of her catchiest melodies, Hands Clean tells a juicy two narrator tale taken right from Alanis' past. Apparently she got into a sexual relationship with an older producer/manager in her teen pop days. Isn't the fact that she says "I will honor your request for silence" kind of disingenuous? I mean, won't people who know the situation be able to figure out now that you wrote a freaking song about it?!

11. Precious Illusions
(from Under Rug Swept, 2001)
Alanis really had her compositional mojo working on this record. A great pre-chorus and chorus buoy up more self-realization lyrics.

12. Everything
(from So-Called Chaos, 2004)
As I conclude, it occurs to me that those looking to save some money on therapy just needs to get Alanis' four albums and spend some time with them. It's all there. Everything is a bonus because it's a love song too.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

166. The Beatles: Revolver (1966)

Do you remember Ringo Starr, that one-hit wonder who won our hearts (and creeped us out) in 1973 with You're Sixteen (You're Beautiful and You're Mine)? Well, he had a band in the '60s! I'm right in the thick of reviewing every single one of their albums. Check it out:

I dropped hints and foreshadowed that it was coming. And here it is is. Revolver is the album where The Beatles grew up sonically and lyrically.

There's clear evidence of that from the very first song, Taxman. For one, it's the band's cleverest song to that point, and for another George Harrison proves capable of, gasp, bettering Paul McCartney and John Lennon, if only temporarily.

McCartney's Eleanor Rigby quickly ups the stakes again, with its staccato strings and mysterious lyrical detail. However, Lennon's I'm Only Sleeping is not quite at the same level, though the backwards guitar is a sign of things to come.

Harrison's growing fascination with Eastern sounds and thoughts is showcased on the tabla-driven Love You To. Despite the interesting grammatical choices, the song comes off more as an experiment than anything else.

The middle of the album finds things a bit more predictable, especially from the McCartney camp. Paul offers two sweet, bright throwback songs, Here, There And Everywhere and Good Day Sunshine. Got To Get You Into My Life is spirited and similarly toned. I could see an R & B outfit covering this one quite effectively.

John also gets in the happy-go-lucky game with the lively And Your Bird Can Sing, even if it is a bit more lyrically shady than Paul's offerings. And George adds I Want To Tell You to the mix, thus shattering his own record by placing 3 compositions on the same record. As on most Harrison songs, the backing vocals by John and Paul are very strong, as though they didn't want to let George have too much spotlight. Is it me, or is the piano flat on this one?

The Ringo Starr-led Yellow Submarine is a whole different animal. It's almost a children's song, and like most of those, contains some trippy imagry. And speaking of trippy, take a listen to Lennon's She Said She Said, with its psychedelic lyrics about the great beyond ("I know what it's like to be dead") and nostalgia ("When I was a boy, everything was right"). It begs the question, were The Beatles on drugs?

Well, no need to wait long for your answer. Check out the Byrdsian Dr.Robert, an ode to a pharmacist, or the album's crowning achievement, Tomorrow Never Knows. The latter is ultra-rhythmic, full of strange noodles, Eastern instrumentation and backwards loops. It's a credit to producer George Martin that the song never loses focus amidst the business. John's voice is far away and full of mystical searching.

Meanwhile, The Beatles had finally found what they were looking for.

Grade: A+
Fave Song: Taxman

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

12 by Jimmy Eat World

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

Week 11

I'll always be proud of Jimmy Eat World, because "I knew them when...". Unlike Promise Ring, Get-Up Kids and blink-182 they have managed to not self-destruct. And though they are probably loathe to admit it, they remain truer to the spirit of emo than any the make-up laden followers who have claimed the genre for themselves. Also, as I've said before, I play their records so loud that if I go deaf someday, they'll be at least partially to blame.

1. Call It In The Air (from Static Prevails, 1996)
Dueling lead vocals, start-stop, quiet-loud dynamics, raging guitars and a swooning outro? This is emo.

2. Opener (from Singles, 2000)
My college roommate Nick and I originally heard this song on an obscure 1997 compilation called The Emo Diaries-Chapter 1-What's Mine Is Yours and loved it, especially the false ending with the final hurrah.

3. Lucky Denver Mint (from Clarity, 1999)
"You're not bigger than this / not better / why can't you learn" was a great message for a mildly misanthropic college student. I tried to take it to heart. Dig the drum-centric outro, too.

4. For Me This Is Heaven (from Clarity, 1999)
Songs like this ballad are why it makes me smile when the band tries to distance itself from emo. After all, they repeat the line "Can you still feel the butterflies?" multiple times. The line "If I don't let myself be happy now then when?" also spoke volumes to me when I first heard this song, unused as I was to living in the moment.

5. No Sensitivity (from Jimmy Eat World/Jebidiah EP, 2000)
I'm-writing-you-off break-up songs are great, and I love how bands keep finding new ways to say the same thing. In this case "I'm taking my kisses back from you" does quite nicely.

6. A Praise Chorus (from Bleed American, 2001)
A song about songs, and thus having the ability to make me feel squirmy and happy every time, especially when The Promise Ring's Davey von Bohlen comes in to sing lyrics from Tommy James, They Might Be Giants, Motley Crue, Madness, The Kinks and his own band.

7. The Middle (from Bleed American, 2001)
Sure it was a big hit, but it actually deserved to be. Pep talks don't get much better than the believe-in-yourself message of this song!

8. If You Don't, Don't (from Bleed American, 2001)
Do you know how some songs feel familiar and classic from the very first listen? It was that way for me with this one. Once again the emo comes out, in the I-know-we're-not-going-to-make-it-but-I'm-still-achingly-nostalgic lyrics.

9. Polaris (from Futures, 2004)
Atmospheric and haunting, to me it seemed like an authentic artistic leap for the band. Once again their penchant for nuggets of lyrical truth strike home for me: "They say that love goes anywhere / In your darkest time / It's just enough to know it's there."

10. Work (from Futures, 2004)
I can't really figure out what the lyrics are about, but the harmonies (with help from Liz Phair) are so darn pretty.

11. Over (from Stay On My Side Tonight EP, 2005)
This wrenching break-up tune is a throwback to their looser early sound.

12. Here It Goes (from Chase This Light, 2007)
Would it be weird if I said this song has a disco feel? Certainly it's as happy and carefree as we've ever heard the band. If only there were a way to bottle the feeling...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

165. Kathleen Edwards: Asking For Flowers (2008)

The personal is political, right? Kathleen Edwards illustrates that perfectly on her third album, 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. Small details are the key to Edwards' writing, allowing her to avoid preachiness and make every tale feel like she's lived it.

This balance is most evident on Oil Man's War, a tale of two young lovers. The anti-war message is subtle and tangential, with the focus instead falling squarely on character detail. The chorus is one of the best she's ever written: "I won't change my mind / keep your hand on my thigh tonight / When we get up north we'll buy us a store / Live upstairs after the kids are born."

Alicia Ross
takes a similar approach. The song is a first-person narrative from the perspective of the titular woman. And, get this, she may or may not be dead! Purposefully vague, and all the more disturbing for it, we're led to believe she's been the victim of violence. Again, the details are the key to the song, with Alicia just wishing to remember her mom's ring size and her dad's favorite song. Edwards' vocal is pure and a string section and extended coda help create the mood.

Edwards has always been a champion of forgotten women; it's nearly her trademark. Cheapest Key and Asking For Flowers continue that tradition, both screeds against unappreciative men. The latter takes an angry, rocked-up approach, while the former is melancholy and mid-tempo. Both feature strong lyrics no man should want directed at him. The title track especially, with a chorus that states: "Asking for flowers / Is like asking you to be nice / Don't tell me you're too tired / Ten years I've been working nights."

I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory is similar in theme but not content or tone. Instead it operates like a funnier, less swooning version of The Temptations' The Way You Do Things You Do or Cole Porter's You're The Top. Edwards lists all the ways she's inferior and her subject is superior (e.g. "You're cool and cred like Fogerty / I'm Elvis Presley in the '70s"). She also outs herself as a true Canadian with the line "You're the Great One / I'm Marty McSorely" referencing the Edmonton Oilers' duo Wayne Gretzky and the defenseman that helped the team win two Stanely Cups.

Other songs, like Sure As Shit, Run and Scared At Night seem to be written from a more autobiographical place, the latter two seemingly about her parents and the former about her marriage.

Oh Canada is the album's most straightforward and blistering track. A scathing subversion of Edwards' own national anthem, each verse takes on a different topic: race inequality, environmentalism (or lack thereof), and poverty. Any careful listener will have to take hard look at their own response to these problems. Heavy drums and electric guitar punctuate the message.

When you add her excellent lyrics to sensitive, no frills production and impeccable performances, this is easily the most coherent and consistent album Edwards has made, and neither of the first two were slouches. As you might guess from the subject matter, Asking For Flowers is definitely not ear candy. Instead, it's more like a tasty meal that's good for you, too.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Asking For Flowers

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

12 by Semisonic

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

Week 10

Do you like thoughtful power pop? Look no further...

1. F.N.T. (from Great Divide, 1996)
The titular initials stand for fascinating new thing, though lead singer Dan Wilson is quick to point out, "you're perfect, even when you are not new" and kind of undoes his whole point!

2. If I Run (from Great Divide, 1996)
Features not one but two great guitar solos! The lyrics put forth a universal (I think) sentiment of wanting to flee to freedom. Favorite line: "Keep thinkin' of the day I die when I lose my heavy load / but I wouldn't want to leave you behind."

3. Delicious (from Great Divide, 1996)
A groove-based sexy track. The chorus features infectious "ooh-ohs" which are always performed by the audience in concerts.

4. Across The Great Divide (from Great Divide, 1996)
An slower song, and an early indicator of Dan Wilson's solo sound.

5. In Another Life (from Great Divide, 1996)
Bassist John Munson delivers a charming vocal on this meloncholy kiss-off to a girl who has strung our poor narrator along for too long. The coda is nearly Beach Boys-worthy.

6. Secret Smile (from Feeling Strangely Fine, 1998)
Great atmospherics on this insinuating love song. Useless fact gleaned from drummer Jacob Slichter's excellent book So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star: This was actually a bigger hit in Europe than Closing Time was!

7. Closing Time (from Feeling Strangely Fine, 1998)
It doesn't even bother me that this is all most people will ever know of Semisonic, because as far as one-hit-wonders go this one stands the test of time. That is, people will hear it in a bar and say "God, that was a great song," rather than, "Can you believe we liked this?"

8. Singing In My Sleep (from Feeling Strangely Fine, 1998)
A rockin' ode to a mix tape and the feelings it evokes. When a guy made a mix tape for someone this is the swooning reaction he hoped for: "I've been livin' in your cassette / it's the modern equivalent / singin' up to a Capulet / On a balcony in your mind."

9. Chemistry (from All About Chemistry, 2001)
The boys emerged on album number three with the fuzz erased. Chemistry jumps from the speakers, an extended metaphor comparing science experiments to failed relationships. The hopeful part, of course, is that you learn a little more data each time until you finally get it right.

10. Follow (from All About Chemistry, 2001)
Sounds like a lost '70s country-soft-rock hit and tugs at the heart strings: "Take me wherever you go / Help me forget tomorrow / Love me your best and I know / All of the rest will follow." Awwwww.

11. Act Naturally (from All About Chemistry, 2001)
This ballad is strangely reminiscent of Chris DeBurgh. Lyrically it's about a couple putting up a united front. It could have multiple meanings; are they on the verge of a break-up, or is it a greater problem, like sickness? Either way, it's riveting.

12. One True Love (from All About Chemistry, 2001)
A writing collaboration with Carole King manages to capture that old Tapestry feeling. As with any great song the bridge takes it to the next level, soaring on harmonies (provided by King herself) and a string section!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

164. The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)

Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?! It's true. I've recently unearthed all of this early band's work and have undertaken reviewing each of their albums.

The haircuts on that album cover say it all, really. Just as the photo finds all four band members in an awkward state between their "Beatle haircuts" and the hippieish longer hair that was to come, so too does the music on this album represent the group's transition into hairier musical territory.

That is to say, Rubber Soul is mostly full of the pop perfection the group had become known for, but it also shows signs of the band stretching out. Once just content to be structurally innovative, now The Beatles' songs were becoming lyrically, instrumentally and vocally experimental as well.

Lyrically, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were pushing the boundries of theme, if not in the greater pop music world, at least by their own standards. First is
twist-ending opener Drive My Car, McCartney's extended metaphor of sexual politics in which feature a woman hiring a chauffeur before she gets a car. Lennon's Nowhere Man is one of the band's first songs to not feature romance as its subject matter. Instead, it's a portrait of someone who is letting the world pass him by, perhaps willingly.

Instrumentally, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) is the clear standout, thanks to the use of an Indian string instrument called a sitar. The lyrics are also unconventional, telling a true, specific, double entendre-filled tale of a one-night stand that never quite gets off the ground. John's love of wordplay and wry sense of humor shine out.

Vocally, Girl features a sharp sucked-in breath after the title phrase is uttered. It's arresting on good speakers, and replicates the sound of inhaling, something the band was reportedly doing a lot of around this time. It also features a "dee-dee-dee-dee" back-up chorus that is part-Motown, part psychedelic.

The rest of the album is more conventional,
but on many songs, it's hard to shake the feeling that instead of writing the earnest, straight-ahead pop songs of their early days, The Beatles were instead creating an ironic approximation of their own sound.

Witness the "oh-la-la-la's" on You Won't See Me, or In My Life, John's transparent (and heartfelt) attempt to replicate Paul's solo triumph on Yesterday. The Word (another Lennon gem) is playful and bright, and a million miles away from the dour sentiments on Beatles For Sale and Help!

What Goes On is the requisite Ringo showcase, featuring not only his lead vocal, but also his first writing credit (along with Lennon and McCartney). While lyrically dark and tortured, it has a rockabilly strut and a sunny performance. I don't know if Ringo could pull off a sad song
if he tried. George Harrison also throws in two more songs, the standout being the harmony-rich If I Needed Someone. The nonchalant nature of the title and lyric crack me up every time.

Almost nothing on Rubber Soul is completely straightforward.

Take a listen to the closer, Run For Your Life, with the lyrics "I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man" and "you better run for your life if you can little girl." Maybe this was another lyrical conceit, with Lennon portraying the possessive, abusive boyfriend, but it's served up with no ironic distance and thus it's hard to make a case that Lennon didn't mean what he was singing. Considering that, by many accounts, cheated on his wife prodigiously, it's also a bit of a glass house situation.

That disturbing misstep aside - all transitional phases are unfortunately marked by some awkwardness - Rubber Soul found the boys in great mainstream form. It's definitely one of the band's most spirited and happiest efforts. It was also the last time The Beatles were mostly the band you expected them to be. The transition was nearly complete.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: The Word