Thursday, July 31, 2008

12 by Wilco

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

Week 23
Wilco is definitely due for a best of package. As you'll soon see, I am a man partial to their early work; I wish I could have included most of A.M. and I happen to believe they peaked creatively on Summerteeth. But I definitely don't deny the merit, relevance, and innovation of their post-2000 work.

1. I Must Be High (from A.M., 1995)
Country-pop goodness with some great lyrics: "You never said you wanted this / You're pissed that you missed / The very last kiss / From my lips."

2. Casino Queen (from A.M., 1995)
Rocky, raucous, loose and fun.

3. Box Full of Letters (from A.M., 1995)
More memorable lyrics, from that time before Jeff Tweedy got all abstract: "Just can't find the time to write my mind the way I want it to read."

4. Outta Mind (Outta Sight) (found on Being There, 1996)
Being There is a two disc set and each disc contained a version of this song. The other is called Outta Sight (Outta Mind) and has a more straightforward commercial sound (in fact, I believe it was a single). Both have their merits, but I give a slight edge to this slower Pet Sounds version. It presages their Summerteeth sound.

5. Forget the Flowers (found on Being There, 1996)
Wilco show off their country roots on an old-timey banjo-driven tune about a broken relationship. Maybe it's just the use of the word "flowers" but this one always reminds me of the Statler Brothers.

6. California Stars (found on Mermaid Avenue, 1998)
For this project, Wilco joined with Billy Bragg to put music and melody to Woody Guthrie poems. California Stars has a shambling, unrehearsed feel, and Tweedy's vocal sounds like it's coming from the distant past.

7. ELT (found on Summerteeth, 1999)
For me, their most thrilling moment on record. From the multi-tracked lead vocal, the background echo on the word "wishing" to the descending/ascending piano to the spooky steel guitar, it's perfect.

8. A Shot in the Arm (found on Summerteeth, 1999)
Played with the crack professionalism of an old Motown track, as Tweedy's lyrics start to become more impressionistic, though it's hard to miss the drug imagery.

9. I'm Always in Love (found on Summerteeth, 1999)
My own personal theme song for more years than I'd like to admit.

10. Secrets of the Sea (found on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2, 2000)
Another song built from Woody Guthrie's words. I love the use of stringed instruments (too many to list) and the non-traditional structure (there are basically no verses).

11. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (found on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2001)
Druggy, sprawling, overlong but hypnotic all the same. Plus, it's got one of the best song titles ever.

12. Either Way (found on Sky Blue Sky, 2007)
A supremely pleasant return to their lucid, pop-oriented early days. I love how the minor piano chords sneak in there to add a little darkness; the song is about balance, after all.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

182. The Attractions: Mad About the Wrong Boy (1980)

It's a story as old as time itself: Lead singer of a band, for whatever reason, leaves the band to strike out on his/her own. Slightly younger than time itself is the idea of said band moving on with a new singer. But rarely do you hear about a backing band simply making a record without their main guy. In 1980, Elvis Costello's backing band, the Attractions, did just that.

While they'll probably never get much credit for Costello's success, there's no denying that Bruce Thomas' melodic bass-playing, Pete Thomas' propulsive drums, and Steve Nieve's whirly organ/piano helped define and drive his nervy new wave pop sound.

In later years, the Attractions would show themselves to be gamely adept at keeping up with Costello's genre-bending ways. But Mad About the Wrong Boy shows little evidence of that diversity of skill, instead focusing on the new wave punch of Get Happy and This Year's Model (Armed Forces' sophistication is only slightly glimpsed).

Replacing Elvis Costello as a singer is really not much of a feat; his main draw as a vocalist is not his technical skill but his distinctiveness. As it is, both Nieve and Bruce Thomas (who share vocal duties on the album) are serviceable. The true shoes to fill are the melody and lyrics; Costello is one of the most celebrated songwriters of the modern age.

Obviously, the songs don't measure up, but that doesn't make them bad, just mediocre. Steve Nieve takes the bulk of the songwriting, composing 11 of the album's 16 songs. Some of these are listed as being written by Brain and Hart, which means Nieve wrote them with a girlfriend (some reports call her his wife) Faye Hart. Some notables include Straight Jacket, Talk About Me, Camera Camera, and the title track, all of which sound like they could have been The Jam b-sides. Single Girl incorporates the old "missed me, missed me, now you have to kiss me" melody. Taste of Poison is a truly weird song with a harsh lyric: "Wanna die in your car crash baby...all I need's a car...and you." Sad About Girls is the only one of these songs to be done by Elvis himself; you can find it as a bonus track on some of the Trust reissues.

Bruce and Pete Thomas (no relation, by the way) teamed up to write 5 songs, and theirs take advantage of the freewheeling spirit of new wave. Little Misunderstanding recalls E.L.O., Oingo Boingo, and Devo with an odd countryish guitar solo thrown in. Lonesome Little Town brings to mind the pastoral story songs of the Kinks. And La-La-La-La-La Loved You avoids any comparisons to other artists, but tells a kicky tale of lost love. The lyrics are the most coherent on the album (along with Nieve's brutal look at domesticity, Highrise Housewife), with intriguing details about a chaste night spent together watching silent films.

Since this album is not readily available (you can get it on CD as an expensive import; I found it on vinyl at a church rummage sale ), the real question is, should it be? Well, considering that My Aim Is True (and several other albums in Costello's early catalog) have seen multiple, superfluous, reissues, it does seem slightly unfair. It should at least be available for download. But unless you're a completest who has memorized every one of the 10 or so albums Costello made with the Attractions albums, Mad About the Wrong Boy is inessential listening, a curiosity more interesting for its existence than its content.

Grade: C
Fave Song: La-La-La-La-La Loved You

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

12 by Tom Petty (post-'93)

Here's the drill: 24 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

Week 23
Petty already has a definitive best of. In fact, the classic 1993 Greatest Hits album has been re-released in an improved 2008 edition. The cover art is better and the band wisely replaced the boringish Something in the Air with the initially criminally omitted Stop Draggin' My Heart Around. One might also argue about the still unrectified omissions of Rebels and Southern Accents, but those are minor complaints, since they weren't really hits.

My purpose here is to focus on Petty's post '93 career. Some may complain that he has lost his fire, but take a listen to these 12 and I think you'll agree that quality and consistency have yet to lag.

1. You Wreck Me (found on Wildflowers, 1994)
An open-road-foot-on-the-pedal anthem if there ever was one. Check that solo by Mike Campbell and tell me what really differentiates Petty's "solo" albums from his ones with the Heartbreakers.

2. You Don't Know How It Feels (found on Wildflowers, 1994)
Considering the success of this song and Blues Traveler at the same time, the harmonica really had a renaissance in the mid-'90s, didn't it? Plus, we got the shocking admission that Petty smokes pot. What?!

3. Wildflowers (found on Wildflowers, 1994)
One might read it as romantic, but I see it as parental, letting someone grow up. At any rate, it's as pretty as its title.

4. Walls (Circus) (found on She's the One, 1996)
I wrote extensively about this song awhile ago. It's still one of my favorites, and still plays in my mental jukebox frighteningly often.

5. California (found on She's the One, 1996)
A short, sweet, and playful ode to Petty's adopted home state: "California's been good to me / I hope it don't fall into the sea".

6. Swingin' (found on Echo, 1998)
One of Petty's patented tales of rebellious women, Swingin' plays of the multiple meanings of its title by namechecking Benny Goodman and Sonny Liston, among others.

7. Room at the Top (found on Echo, 1998)
Echo alternates between songs of rebellions and songs of sadness. This one is a heartbreaker. Just check out these lines:
"I wish I could feel you tonight,
Little one, you're so far away
I wanna reach out and touch your heart
Yeah like they do in those things on TV, I love you
Please love me, I'm not so bad
And I love you so"
Bonus for incorporating the quiet loud dynamics of '90s alternative bands into the Petty structure.

8. The Last DJ (found on The Last DJ, 2002)
Petty's concept album about the sorry state of the record industry gives in a little too much to righteous anger, and could be read as sour grapes (considering the downturn of Petty's popularity post-'95). Even so, it's hard to deny the point of this title track, namely, that the business of radio has subverted the rebellious, free spirit of rock 'n' roll.

9. Have Love Will Travel (found on The Last DJ, 2002)
The Last DJ had some sweet, positive songs too.

10. Square One (found on Highway Companion, 2006)
The world will forever need starting over songs, and this is a great one.

11. The Wrong Thing To Do (found on Mudcrutch, 2008)
Petty reunited his original band and made an album not much different from any of his solo or Heartbreaker efforts. This rocker is fairly standard musically, but is notable for the rare autobiographical detail.

12. Orphan of the Storm (found on Mudcrutch, 2008)
Loping country tune wherein Petty takes his gift for story songs and applies it to current events, namely the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

12 covers of Beatles songs

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

Week 22


If there's any doubt about how influential The Beatles are in pop music, one only needs to look at the long and ever-growing list of covers that have been done of their songs. Like the young painter who recreates a masterpiece or a budding film director who breaks down their favorite movie shot-by-shot, musicians can't resist trying to put their own spin on the sublime compositions of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. What's amazing is that The Beatles inspired cover versions not only by those artists that came after, but by their contemporaries and predecessors as well.

The best cover versions are the ones that the artists make their own, the ones that sound like they were written for or by that artist. So, behold, the 12 best covers of Beatles songs!

1. Vince Guaraldi and Bola Sete - I'm A Loser (from Live At El Matador, 1966)
Two dominant forces of '60s pop culture - The Beatles and Charles Schulz's Peanuts - combine in this track. Guaraldi is the jazz pianist responsible for the unforgettable music in the Peanuts animated specials, and along with guitarist Sete, he makes Lennon's Beatles For Sale into a bossa nova composition wholly his own.

2. Joe Cocker - With a Little Help From My Friends (found on With a Little Help From My Friends, 1969)
The once and future Wonder Years theme does something few other Beatles covers have done, namely become the definitive version of the song.

3. Chubby Checker - Back In The USSR (from single, 1969)
The Twist maestro does a punchy, energetic version of The White Album standout that'll lead you straight to the dancefloor.

4. Marvin Gaye - Yesterday (from That's the Way Love Is, 1970)
Imagine Yesterday as a Motown ballad and that's exactly what you get here. Marvin's amazing vocal, ranging from clear and pure to ragged and tortured, belongs in a guarded vault somewhere.

5. Elton John - Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (from single, 1974, reissued on CD version of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy)
John Lennon played back-up, and Elton still managed to make this his own, incorporating a reggae feel. The trippy slow-moving vibe of the original is replaced with clarity and pep, and a modified melody on the bridge.

6. Earth, Wind & Fire - Got To Get You Into My Life (from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol.1, 1978)
A rare case where the cover has more recognition than the original;
I'm guessing there are many many people who don't even identify this as a Beatles song. However, the Beatles version is not as far off from this horn-happy remake as you might think. The only bad thing you could say about this song is that it appeared in the stinkbomb flim Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Siouxsie and the Banshees - Dear Prudence (found on Hyaena, 1984)
Siouxsie put her spacey/dreamy mark on John Lennon's pretty plea and made a hit out of it. My favorite part is the echoing background vocals that follow the title phrase.

8. P.M. Dawn - Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (from The Bliss Album...?, 1993)
Bringing The Beatles into the hip-hop nation subtly, with just a little bit of scratching. Wisely, the Corday brothers kept the focus on the melody, and even prettied it up with their harmonies.

9. Willie Nelson - One After 909 (from Come Together: America Salutes the Beatles, 1995)
One of the earliest Lennon/McCartney compositions suits Willie perfectly, falling squarely into that "it could have been one of his songs" category. The arrangement is wisely sparse, with a little bit of guitar, piano and percussion, matching the simplicity of the lyric.

10. Phil Keaggy & PFR - We Can Work It Out (from Come Together: America Salutes the Beatles, 1995)
This Christian rock outfit takes on one of my favorite Beatles songs, and expands the intro into an appealing classical guitar/string quartet showcase before exploding into the familiar. The chorus becomes Queen-esque, with multiple vocal lines and melodies swirling together.

11. Art Garfunkel - I Will (Live) (found on Across America, 1997)
Originally done for an album dedicated to his son, Art's version of I Will is a perfect illustration of the often-repeated American Idol credo: "It's all about song-choice." You'd be hard pressed to find a better match for Garfunkel's choirboy voice, and he can even be forgiven for flubbing some of the lyrics in this live version (another Idol mainstay, come to think of it).

12. Rufus Wainwright - Across the Universe (found on I Am Sam - Music From and Inspired By the Motion Picture, 2001)
Lots of artists put their all into the I Am Sam songs and came up with great versions (Ben Folds, Eddie Vedder, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, and Paul Westerberg all come to mind), but Rufus wins the gold star. The guitar accompaniment (instead of his usual piano) has the effect of grounding the song, giving it a live feel. It doesn't really matter anyway, since Rufus' distinct vocals are the main draw.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

181. Refrigerated Love: No Expiration Date (2008)

Pop music is built on the unexpected. Superstar artists and hit songs come out of seemingly nowhere, established bands reunite long after their fans have given up on the idea, band members die, careers turn on a single bad album or public incident, and some artists have fluke hits or make spectacular albums many many years after the height of their popularity. The one thing you can say about music is that there's always a second, third, forth and fifth chance waiting.

Perhaps more than any other artist, British "heavy new wave folk" band Refrigerated Love has taken advantage of this. If a cat has 9 lives, then RL represents approximately 2 1/2 cats. If you need proof, please read the history and discography I typed up a few years ago, then take a look at my review of their last album, 1999's We're Actually Serious, Really.

Most onlookers thought Refrigerated Love were gone for good after that effort, which was well-received but not well-purchased. However, in 2oo5 they sprung back to life, reuniting and touring. That year and the following one found them criss-crossing the globe on their "Warm-Up Farewell Tour" and "Penultimate Farewell Tour". While fans of the band who lived in or near cities with an arena or stadium and who possessed disposable income enough to afford to pay an additional 50% of the ticket face-vale extra in Ticketmaster "processing and convenience fees" were able to see their heroes again, they were not treated to any new music.

This was a purposeful decision by the band. "We've got plenty of new songs ready to record," singer Colin Porthorn reported in a 2006 Pitchfork interview, "but it's just not a financially viable decision for us. The guys at the record label tell me records don't sell anymore, that kids load all their music off video games." Porthorn's tenuous understanding of technology aside, Refrigerated Love seemed resolute in their commitment to stick to the old songs. Guitarist Nigel Hornblower addressed this in a recent interview with the Onion AV Club: "Fans want to hear things they've already heard before, so that's what we'll give them. I'm just glad they've heard the old songs already, or we wouldn't have anything to play."

The decision to avoid new music seemed to be cemented even more by the events of 2007. While taking time off to prepare for 2008's "Say Goodbye Again Tour" the band took up a lawsuit against (taking the language directly from court documents) "all stores that sell used CDs and records, Amazon Marketplace, eBay, and anyone who has ever sold a CD, LP, cassette or 8 Track at a garage sale." In a separate suit, the band also went after those who had dubbed copies of Refrigerated Love's music onto cassette tapes, either fully or as part of a mix. The band claimed that these dubbings and second-hand sales were negatively affecting the number of Refrigerated Love songs downloaded from Kazaa and Gnutella. Feisty drummer "Pasty" Pete Pockhorn acted as the band's representative, even appearing before a congressional committee on the topic. The band's dogged pursuit of fairness was rewarded when each guilty party was ordered to pay $0.099 per unit resold.

Morally redeemed and flush with money, but now devoid of fans, the band reversed position and rushed into the recording studio.

The result is No Expiration Date, the band's 35th album, but if you're looking for the CD in stores, be prepared to wait. There's no release date on the schedule. Instead of issuing the album traditionally, the songs from No Expiration Date will initially appear as background music in commercials for companies such as Big Lots, Old Navy, Kia, Sears, KFC, Orkin, T Mobile, Ameritrade Financial and Dress Barn. The only way to collect all the tracks is to purchase something from each of these businesses, at which time you'll be given a coupon for a song from the album. These coupons, once collected, can be sent in for a shiny CD copy of the album, which will be delivered in 6 - 8 weeks. In a press release announcing the album, the band says the chose this method in order to "take the music directly to the fans."

Fans who make the effort will be well-rewarded. There's a lot of the old Refrigerated Love magic smeared all over these songs. The album begins with a spacey 12 minute instrumental jam called Landing On the Sun. Most bands would have difficultly sustaining a listener's interest over such a long, meandering tune, and this case is no different. It probably wasn't a good choice for opener, but it holds with the longstanding Refrigerated Love philosophy of, as lyricist Elvis Hornman once put it, "getting our worst song out of the way right off."

Thankfully, things pick up immediately with Hair Gel, a punkish new wave blast sung by band keyboardist Hornel Lieberman. Some critics may mistakenly take this song as being about a girl: "You hold me up / You don't let go / I'm tangled up in you / Don't you know?" However, seasoned Refrigerated Love followers know that the band never uses metaphors in their lyrics.

Speaking of lyrics, Elvis Hornman (whom many have called a "Bernie Taupin for those who have declared bankruptcy") doesn't shy away from topical matters. The heartbreaking I Don't Know What's Real Anymore, So I Guess That Means I'm Psychotic documents Colin Porthorn's short-lived VH1 show Making Out With Colin Porthorn wherein the singer looked for love among a group of randomly-chosen girls with self-esteem issues. The show was canceled before he could hand out his "final kiss" due to poor ratings and Porthorn's wife taking exception to the show's concept.

Similarly, Hey, Fever retells the story of "Pasty" Pete's nasty addiction to Claritin, for which he spent December 2007 in rehab. The song is raw, with jagged guitar from Hornblower and tortured vocals from Porthorn: "Throat is strained / Nose won't drain / I'm on the run like a thief / My head's in a cloud / I need some non-drowsy relief / But I can't have you / You're o-o-over the counter and I'm uh-uh-under your spell."

Believe it or not, all of the members of Refrigerated Love have now procreated. Song For the Next Generation (You Can Thank Us Later), in a rare lead vocal appearance from Nigel Hornblower, addresses that fact. "We made ourselves a little band" he sings, "And we will take them by the hand / It's on us now to teach them our ways / So they can rock in future days" It's affecting and creepy all at once.

Other highlights include What If, Maybe and I Suppose, an old-style crooner, the electronica-tinged and tabla-driven Plant One In Me, which brings up fond allusions to the band's 1982 masterwork Plant Lives, and We're All One Race, a soulfully good-hearted, if misguided, plea for tolerance.

Not everything works. The final song, Released, aims at a poetic finish to their career, a la The Beatles The End or Billy Joel's Famous Last Words. However, perhaps the band should have reconsidered some of the lyrics: "That's it / It's all over / Finished and done / So get off of me / And get dressed / I'm released / And so are you." The buzzy, feedback-heavy industrial sound of the song doesn't help matters, nor do Porthorn's screeched, filtered vocals. Plus, the band ruins any effect of saying goodbye by including an additional 15 minutes of tuning up and indecipherable studio banter after the songs conclusion.

If No Expiration Date is unlikely to return the band to the top of the charts, gain them more fans, or reverse their poor standing with critics, it can at least be counted on to put Refrigerated Love back on people's lips. For those who choose to give it a little bit of their time, they'll find it's the best we can reasonably expect from a veteran rock band looking to reclaim past glories: It's not that embarrassing. And if you believe that this is the last time we'll hear from Refrigerated Love, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Grade: B -
Fave Song: Hair Gel