Wednesday, April 23, 2008

12 by The Wallflowers

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

Week 16

Underrated is a difficult word to use when you're referring to a mainstream pop band with at least two huge hits and a lead singer sired by Bob Dylan, but The Wallflowers definitely don't get enough credit.

1. One Headlight (from Bringing Down The Horse, 1996)
I remember hearing rumors that this was about a man who'd had a testicle removed. It's funny to listen to the lyrics with that interpretation in mind ("we can drive it home with one headlight") but I don't really buy it.

2. 6th Avenue Heartache (from Bringing Down The Horse, 1996)
This was huge in college thanks to the fact that we had a row of party houses on 6th Avenue. They definitely saw their share of heartache, on a nightly basis. Thankfully, I lived on 7th Avenue.

3. The Difference (from Bringing Down The Horse, 1996)
Rami Jaffe's organ was really integral to the band. He was Steve Nieve to Jakob Dylan's Elvis Costello. Jakob starts to show a bit of lyrical punch: "The only difference that I see / is you are exactly the same as you used to be."

4. Letters From The Wasteland (from Breach, 2000)
The second (in this case third, I guess) album is where the band puts the proof in the pudding. Breach, while at first just merely whelming, proved itself over time. Letters From The Wasteland manages to be open and claustrophobic all at once. Plus, Jakob has been sharpening his pencil even more: "It may take two to tango, but boy, just one to let go."

5. Hand Me Down (from Breach, 2000)
Jakob Dylan spent most of his early interviews dodging questions about his father. Whether that was well-advised or not, it's refreshing to hear him finally address it head on. Playing the role of the son who will never match up, he's heartbreaking: "Look at you with your worn out shows / Living proof that evolution is through." One gets the idea that he's confronting (and conquering) his inner demons.

6. Sleepwalker (from Breach, 2000)
Finally, a sense of humor emerges! "Cupid don't draw back your bow / Sam Cooke didn't know what I know"

7. When You're On Top (from Red Letter Days, 2002)
I absolutely hated this song when it came out. Then the verses started to remind me of the elder Dylan fronting Talking Heads. The chorus opens up a great can of melody and makes this a weirdly satisfying single.

8. How Good It Can Get (from Red Letter Days, 2002)
This is more familiar musical territory (it could have easily fit on Bringing Down The Horse), but the lyrical optimism is refreshing.

9. If You Never Got Sick (from Red Letter Days, 2002)
This is the story of a bad relationship. What's interesting is that he's obviously conflicted about the whole thing. The verses are mostly about how terrible this person is ("It's the invisible breath of a storm on the rise / that I feel whenever you arrive"), but the chorus is almost sweet in a weird way ("Baby if you never got sick / I wouldn't get to hold you").

10. See You When I Get There (from Red Letter Days, 2002)
If you think that all The Wallflowers are capable of is sturdy country rock, take a listen to this poppy gem. It's not a major departure, but it does sound like it might fit on Elvis Costello's Get Happy album.

11. The Beautiful Side Of Somewhere (from Rebel, Sweetheart, 2005)
Rebel, Sweetheart was an all-around triumph. The lyrics were sharp, the melodies memorable. Nearly any song from the album could slot into this 12, but I picked this one because of the title.

12. All Things New Again (from Rebel, Sweetheart, 2005)
Jakob was obviously in a happier place on this record; there's nothing more inspiring than a new beginning. "I'm an unpainted portrait / I am staring at a new sunset / without any memories yet."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

12 by Jay-Z

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

Week 15

In honor of his recent nuptials, this week we look at Jay-Z. Just so you know, I decided to focus on tracks that feature Jay-Z as the clear center of attention. I could make a completely different list of his guest appearances. Stay tuned on that...

I also avoided his big hits, for the most part. I don't think they're truly representative of his abilities or sensibilities. Finally, instead of offering my usual pithy commentary, I'm going to let the man speak for himself.

1. Can't Knock The Hustle (from Reasonable Doubt, 1996)
"I got extensive hos with expensive clothes and I sip fine wines and spit vintage flows."

2. Streets Is Watching (from In My Lifetime, Vol.1, 1997)
"If I shoot you I'm brainless / but if you shoot me, you're famous."

3. Hard Knock Life (from Hard Knock Life, Vol.2, 1998)
"I gave you prophecy on my first joint, and y'all lamed out / Didn't really appreciate it 'til the second one came out / So I stretched the game out, X'ed your name out / Put Jigga on top, and drop albums non-stop."

4. Izzo (H.O.V.A) (from Blueprint, 2001)
"Cops want to knock me / D.A. wanna box me in / Still I beat them charges like Rocky / Not guilty / He who does not feel me does not exist / So, poof, vamoose son of a bitch."

5. Ain't No Love (Heart Of The City) (from Blueprint, 2001)
"Can I live? I told you in '96 / that I came to take this shit and I did, handle my biz / I scramble like Randall with his / cut in hand but the only thing runnin' is numbers fam' / Jigga held you down six summers; damn, where's the love?"

6. Song Cry (from Unplugged, 2001)
"We used to use umbrellas to face the bad weather / So now we travel first class to change the forecast."

7. '03 Bonnie & Clyde (from Blueprint 2, 2002)
"Cause mami's a rider, and I'm a roller /Put us together, how they gonna stop both us? / Whatever she lacks, I'm right over her shoulder / When I'm off track mami is keepin' me focused / So let's lock this down like it's supposed to be /The '03 Bonnie and Clyde, Hov' and B, holla!"

8. Punjabi MC - Beware Of The Boys (Jay-Z Remix) (from Beware, 2003)
"Checkin' in daily under aliases / We rebellious, we back home, screamin' leave Iraq alone / But all my soldiers in the field, I will wish you safe return / But only love kills war when will they learn?"

9. 99 Problems (from The Black Album, 2003)
"So I, pull over to the side of the road / I heard, 'Son do you know why I'm stoppin' you for?' / Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hats real low? / Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don't know."

10. Change Clothes (from The Grey Album, 2004)
"Best believe I sweat out weaves, give afropuffs like R-A-G-E"

11. Dear Summer (from Memphis Bleek's 534, 2005)
"I got a brand new bitch, corporate America / She showing me a lot of action right now."

12. Lost One (from Kingdom Come, 2006)
"And me? My timing is on me it serves / So I have to allow she, HER, time to serve / The time’s now for her, in time she’ll mature / And maybe we can be we again, like we were."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

170. The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Now we continue our journey through the back catalog of a little-known '60s band I've recently discovered.

Just as quickly as The Beatles made their definitive album statement with Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they immediately took it back with the cobbled-together Magical Mystery Tour. Maybe that's why they never got famous.

Magical Mystery Tour was the brainchild of Paul McCartney, conceived primarily a film project. It was to be a surreal journey across England with a bus full of musicians and carnies, with the results edited into a one hour special for the BBC.
Why people kept giving such a commercially unproven (some might say failed) band chances to make films is beyond me. Of course, the lads created some new songs for the film.

Well, the movie turned out to be terrible. The songs were not, but the album still suffers in comparison to its predecessor. In fact, many of the songs have analogues to Sgt.Pepper or Revolver compositions, and are usually weaker, sullied-up versions.

The album's first side, consisting of songs from the film - is most guilty of this. Witness:

Magical Mystery Tour = Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
Both songs are title tracks, and serve as meta-introductions to the album. Both have a fun, spirited nature.

The Fool On The Hill = Nowhere Man

Blue Jay Way = Within You Without You
More swirley navel-gazing from guitarist George Harrison.

Your Mother Should Know = When I'm Sixty-Four
Both charming throwbacks by McCartney.

I Am The Walrus = Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Both full of trippy surreal imagery.

The instrumental Flying is the only exception. It's minor, but notable in that it features the first full-band composing credit. It's also worth noting that I Am The Walrus is John's only writing contribution to the album's first side. The band, for now at least, had become McCartney's show.

The album's second side is a collection of singles and b-sides from 1967. McCartney's Hello Goodbye features a more straightforward sound for the band, though the chanted outro does get slightly freaky.

Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were a double A-side single actually recorded before Sgt.Pepper. Like A Day In The Life before them, the two songs serve as a fascinating windows into the styles and temperaments of Lennon and McCartney. Both songs are on the same theme of childhood nostalgia, and each focuses on a place, but the results couldn't be more different. Lennon's Strawberry Fields Forever is a masterpiece of editing, evoking the feeling of being awoken just at the moment you enter R.E.M. sleep. McCartney's Penny Lane, on the other hand, is predictably chipper, cheery and catchy.

Side 2 is rounded out by Baby, You're A Rich Man and its A-Side, All You Need Is Love. The former is slight but fun, and the latter is a simple clomping, affecting singalong featuring a supporting cast far more famous than The Beatles themselves, including Graham Nash, Keith Moon, Marianne Faithfull and members of The Rolling Stones.

Magical Mystery Tour now exists as a contradiction worthy of Hello Goodbye itself. The first side is just shy of inessential. The Beatles never mailed anything in, but here they did send it by messenger. The second side, however, is invaluable for any Beatles cultist. If the band was well known enough to warrant their songs and albums being put on iTunes, I would tell you to cherry-pick only the best tracks. Instead, you'll have to make the decision, all or nothing, for yourself.

Grade Side 1: C
Grade Side 2: A
Fave Song: All You Need Is Love

Thursday, April 10, 2008

12 by The Get-Up Kids

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

Week 15

Missouri's The Get-Up Kids came on the scene with an appealing pop sense slathered with rawness. As I stated in my Promise Ring feature, I'll forever regard them as part of the Holy Trinity of Emo. After 4 memorable albums, they broke up in 2005.

Bonus: While researching this piece, I learned that bassist Rob Pope is now in Spoon!

1. Woodson (from Woodson EP, 1996)
Noisy guitar soundtrack for your miniature mental breakdowns. Matthew Pryor shows off his knack for memorably tortured lines: "You build me up / And break me down again / And I take it."

2. No Love (from Four Minute Mile, 1997)
At this point the band were like a cool little drawing you made while daydreaming. The lyrics are pure emo, lamenting a relationship that can never be: "If I came home one last time / Think of what the two of us could do / I guess we'll never know."

3. Shorty (from Four Minute Mile, 1997)
I saw this band about 5 times during their career, and this one never failed to garner a collectively-wonderful crowd reaction. Imagine 200 sweaty hipster kids bobbing their heads in rhythm and you'll get the idea.

4. One Year Later (from Red Letter Day EP, 1999)
I have to tell you that I was verrrry close to including all 5 songs from this EP. I wore that sucker out! This one has to be the first song they play at the inevitable reunion show.

5. Red Letter Day (from Red Letter Day EP, 1999)
This is about the point where Pryor's lyrics began to become more puzzling. They were clearly ABOUT something, but it wasn't as easy as girl-I-love-you or girl-I-love-you-but-you-don't-love me.

6. I'm A Loner Dottie, I'm A Rebel (from Something To Write Home About, 1999)
One of the best titles ever. I never noticed this until now, but Pryor's singing voice sounds a little bit like Pee Wee Herman's speaking voice on this one. Coincidence?

7. Ten Minutes (from Something To Write Home About, 1999)
The best song from their best album? I love the line, "It's like you're fallin' in love while I just fall apart."

8. Up On The Roof (from Eudora, 2001)
The Kids got some shit for adding keyboard James Dewees to their permanent line-up, but the results showcased here make it hard to knock.

9. Overdue (from On A Wire, 2002)
The Kids got more shit for going acoustic on On A Wire, but you'd have to have a block of ice for a heart not to be affected by this tearjerker.

10. Hannah Hold On (from On A Wire, 2002)
Another beauty, but you can see why some fans cried foul. Really, at this point what was the difference between The Get-Up Kids and Pryor's side project The New Amsterdams?

11. How Long Is Too Long (from Guilt Show, 2004)
12. Sympathy (from Guilt Show, 2004)
The boys successfully married their punk and acoustic sides on their final album, which makes it that much sadder that their break-up came so soon after. These two songs are polished and charming and show what might have been.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

169. Counting Crows: Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (2008)

Factoring in varying degrees of dedication, I've been a Counting Crows supporter from the beginning. Furthermore, in my many conversations and readings about music, I've never run into anyone willing to completely dismiss the band. In fact, the worst I've heard is that they're frustrating in concert because lead singer Adam Duritz constantly changes his phrasing and makes it impossible to sing along.

So it was somewhat surprising to read the recent Rolling Stone interview with Duritz in which he lamented the poor reputation of his band. "For some reason, everyone decided we were a piece of shit," he claims. I don't doubt that he's heard his share of heckling and naysayers, probably directed toward his emotional delivery and sometimes overworked lyrics, but this seems an exaggeration.

The ironic thing is that the Crows' new album - depicted in the article as a response to his detractors - features several songs that clearly spotlight Duritz's worst tendencies as a writer and performer. It's also the most wildly diverse thing they've done, closest akin to Recovering The Satellites, their dark and inconsistent sophomore effort.

Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is broken into two "sides." The Saturday Nights side is generally more rocking, with production by Foo Fighters / Pixies man Gil Norton. It starts strong with the speedy and seedy 1492. The song has a sense of self-awareness and danger that few would associate with the Counting Crows. It's anchored by a strong chorus and a crackerjack band performance throughout.

Hanging Tree has a little more room to breathe and a mile-wide chorus, but the loose atmosphere and wailing guitars seem indicative of a sea change. Are we looking at the new, improved, won't-take-your-shit Counting Crows?

Not so fast.

Los Angeles is the first of those aforementioned "worst tendencies" songs. It's perfect fodder for haters. Self-pity? Check. Complaining about being a celebrity? Check. Whining about a city you choose to live in? Check. On the plus side, the band works up an appealing country lope.

Sundays falls into the same boo-hoo category with Duritz repeatedly reminding us, "I don't believe in anything." However, Insignificant and Cowboys are enjoyable enough, with some good lines and crisp instrumentation.

Things start to go really wrong with the Sunday Mornings side, which was produced by Brian Deck. You remember, of course, when Duritz said he wanted "to be Bob Dylan" on Mr. Jones? Well, he's finally gives it a real college try on the second half of this record, and it doesn't go so well. Of the last 8 songs, 4 are meandering, boring and self-indulgent. They reach for depth but fall short. Ballet D'Or actually features the line "I would be lying if I didn't tell you the truth." Really.

You Can't Count On Me, Anyone But You and When I Dream Of Michelangelo are not part of that frightful 4, but each is just barely redeemed, by an appealing chorus, harmony, and guitar picking respectively. In fact, the only truly great song on side two is the final one, Come Around. Gil Norton produced this one, wrecking the two-sides-two-producers conceit. Perhaps the band realized, smartly, that they needed to end the album strong. At any rate, Come Around calls to mind the Crows of old, and, dare I say it, might have fit well on August And Everything After.

So what conclusion can we draw? Ultimately, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, like the band that made it, cannot be dismissed outright. It features some genuinely thrilling and lovely moments and showcases the strength and versatility of the undersung band behind Duritz. However, the album won't go down as one of their best, at least not on my list.

I have no doubt that this is a very personal record for Adam Duritz, and that he put his heart into all of his songs. And perhaps he made the healthy decision to confront his detractors by ignoring their complaints and doing what pleases him. But when a fan like me has trouble with some of the results, it's clear that a little bit of self-reining-in is never a bad thing.

Grade: B-
Fave song: Come Around

Thursday, April 03, 2008

12 by Nada Surf

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

Week 14

An underrated band if there ever was one. And, yeah, that's right, I'm leavin' Popular off. Sure, it's clever and all, but it just doesn't represent who they are.

1. Zen Brain (from High/Low, 1996)
The song from their debut that most predicts the band they'd eventually become. While still ensconced in the Weezer-esqe fuzz, the searching lyrics and strong melody are clear harbingers.

2. Hyperspace (from The Proximity Effect, 2000)
Wherein the band is revealed as the power-poppers they truly are. Hyperspace also shows a clear jump in polish - just listen to the bass and drums - despite the fact that The Proximity Effect was more DIY than their first album.

3. Amateur (from The Proximity Effect, 2000)
My favorite part is when Matthew Caws lyrical disco ball reference gets a disco beat response from drummer Ira Elliot.

4. Blizzard of '77 (from Let Go, 2003)
A swift acoustic barn-burner with great imagery, i.e. "the cars were just lumps in the snow."

5. Inside Of Love (from Let Go, 2003)
This used to be my theme song, pre-Wendy. You can really feel Caws when he sings: "I'm on the outside of love / always under or above / must be a different view / to be a me with a you."

6. The Way You Wear Your Head (from Let Go, 2003)
Great rocker with a Cheap Trick paraphrase and a car alarm rhythm.

7. Concrete Bed (from The Weight Is A Gift, 2005)
It's rare to find a songwriter who can turn a philosophical phrase without coming off like a prick. Bono and James Taylor can do it, and so can Matthew Caws. "To find someone you love," he tells us, "you've gotta be someone you love."

8. Do It Again (from The Weight Is A Gift, 2005)
In the midst of an on-again-off-again involvement with a girl (which was a bad idea all around), I found great solace in this song. I always tried to interpret the line "maybe this weight was a gift" as "maybe this wait was a gift."

9. Always Love (from The Weight Is A Gift, 2005)
More philosophy: "always love / hate will get you everytime." Okay hippie, whatever, I guess it's kind of true. By the way, America covered this song. How weird is that?

10. Blankest Year (from The Weight Is A Gift, 2005)
"Oh, fuck it!" Just like Miles (Curtis Armstrong) pointed in Risky Business, they can be very liberating words.

11. Whose Authority (from Lucky, 2008)
Holy cow, have they been listening to Teenage Fanclub or what?!

12. Beautiful Beat (from Lucky, 2008)
Used in How I Met Your Mother (a show you should be watching if you aren't already) a couple of weeks ago. It's an ode to the power of song and itself could be the kind of song that inspires. Just like the snake eating its own tail.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

168. The B-52's: Funplex (2008)

The B-52's are simple and complicated all at once. Their party-all-the-time persona belies a tough, resilient history. The runaway success of 1989's Cosmic Thing album pegged them as a mainstream commercial band, but at heart they are an innovative group with avant garde influences.

And here we have Funplex, their first studio album since 1992's Good Stuff, and the first with the full band since Cosmic Thing. It's one of those comebacks you didn't even know you wanted. Who knew how much we missed the strong melodies and harmonies of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, non sequitur shouting from hype man Fred Schneider, and the garage rock and rhythm of Keith Strickland?

While Funplex isn't a masterpiece, credit has to go to the band simply because it seems more like 16 months than 16 years since we've heard new material from them. The old musical chemistry obviously never went anywhere.

Pump kicks it off, surprisingly distorted and unsurprisingly off-kilter. There's some surf guitar and the whole affair brings to mind the Black Eyed Peas song Pump It. That would be an unpleasant association, until you realize how much better the B-52's are than Will.I.Am and Fergie. And if you really think about it, you realize the band's sound is wholly unique and has never been replicated, save by "Weird Al" Yankovic (on the excellent Mr. Popiel).

Hot Corner is the first high point. With its gleeful allusions to illicit behavior, it's a spiritual successor to Love Shack. On the chorus, the girls state: "I'm looking for some fun, waiting for that bus from Winder to come." Winder is located in the band's native Georgia, and according to the website, is the "city of opportunity."

Juliet Of The Spirits is also strong, an ultra-melodic tune in the vein of Summer Of Love, She Brakes For Rainbows or Roam. Fred Schneider is no doubt integral to the band, but things sure get pretty when he stays quiet for a song.

The title track is an infectiously sad story of a breakup at a mall. Eyes Wide Open is a hypnotic change of pace that takes the torch back from new new wave bands like Franz Ferdinand. The track is saved from monotony by a discoey chorus.

Unfortunately, not everything works. Love In The Year 3000 is tedious, a 4 minute sci-fi fantasy that offers little you couldn't have gotten from simply reading the title. And the band has always been horny, but songs like Ultraviolet and Too Much To Think About take it a little too far with repeated mentions of stroking and g-spots. I'm all for some well-placed entendre, but that's just dirty talk.

Finally, despite the vow to "take this party to the White House lawn" on Keep This Party Goin' On there's nothing on Funplex of any true lyrical weight, a la Channel Z or Revolution Earth. Granted, no one is looking to The B-52's for deep meaning. Afterall, this is a group that wrote a song about a miniature green poodle named Quiche Lorraine. More than likely, the band wanted some fun songs to perform on a summer tour. On that count, mission accomplished. But I would have liked to have seen the facade come down just a little.

Despite the faults of Funplex, the highlights make it well worth a listen. Thus, The B-52's can definitely mark me down to get their next offering, even if it doesn't come out until 2024.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Hot Corner