Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rock Bottom: The Beach Boys

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

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

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

* * *

I guess it depends on how you look at it, but a lack of consensus about which of your albums is the worst is probably not a good thing. Starting with 1978's M.I.U. Album, The Beach Boys recorded a notorious trilogy (completed by the 1979 follow-up L.A. (Light Album) and 1980's Keepin' the Summer Alive) that have kept fans arguing.

While all three albums feature terrible cover art, unnecessary versions of '50s and '60s hits, and curious artistic choices, Keeping the Summer Alive tends to narrowly edge out the others.

AllMusic Guide's Rob Theakston finds the album "ripe with mindless throwaways and lifeless filler" and advises: "avoid this one at all costs." The reviewing fans on Amazon got out their thesaursi and came up with these adjectives: uninspired, lackluster, horrible, horrid, plodding, dull, flat, sterile, bland, lousy, and appalling.

Anyone who loves the Beach Boys as much as I do spends a certain amount of their time being a defender
("No, listen to Love You again. It's ahead of its time") and an apologist ("I know there are a lot of songs about cars and girls, but it's the style that really matters"), but there are some things we just can't justify. Keepin' the Summer Alive is one of those things.

However, I do offer some caveats to consider:

1) Pet Sounds aside, The Beach Boys will not go down in history for making artful, well-constructed albums. In fact, the term "singles artist" might as well have been invented just for them.
That is to say, the majority of their albums were brilliant singles surrounded by mediocre filler. Or, a bad album by them is the rule more than the exception.

2) The Beach Boys by design were a group with a limited shelf life. Their major subjects were the thrills of youth: crushes on pretty girls, drag races, school pride, and, yes, surfing. Even the brilliant, celebrated Pet Sounds was an album of adolescent longing and confusion. Basically, they probably shouldn't have lasted to 1980.

The first point we can't really do anything about, but the second deserves some delving into. Some history: After the triumph of Good Vibrations and the failure to deliver Smile as it was intended, the Beach Boys entered a very interesting phase of their career. Early and mid-'70s high points like Sunflower and Surf's Up showed signs of growth, into mature depictions of life and love and even a bit of social consciousness. Holland featured multi-cultural members (Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chapman)! In an alternate universe, the group could have continued on this path, making commercially-ignored but respectable albums. Unfortunately, something shifted. A yearning for the glory days of fame and commercial success seemed to take over, and thus the Beach Boys began the slow painful process of becoming a nostalgia act.

That's basically where Keepin' the Summer Alive finds the band. Consider the times: By 1980, we'd alrady seen '70s acts like the Raspberries and Cheap Trick had take the Beach Boys sound to its next logical place (and power pop was born), punk had firmly asserted itself in the form of the Ramones (who were basically a faster, dirtier version of the Beach Boys), and New Wave was in full swing (with the B-52's taking the surf sound and adding avant garde sensibilites). This is the perspective Rolling Stone reviewer Stephen Holden writes from when he says that Keepin' the Summer Alive is "anachronistic" and "unbelievably naive."

Is it fair to hold a band's new work up to their past standards, or even to those of the bands they inspired? I guess that's one of the eternal questions of rock criticism. My answer: It's not fair, but context is almost impossible to remove. At any rate, the songs on Keepin' the Summer Alive simply aren't good enough. Had they come from a young New Wave band, with sparkling timeless arrangements, they still would have been bad songs.

The title track, written by Carl Wilson with Randy Bachman, sounds like Christopher Cross doing a TV theme song. The vocals are strained and the harmony is buried and sporadic. The other song the pair created is a somewhat-charming country tune called Livin' With a Heartache that might have fit better on a Carl solo record.

Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote 5 songs for the album, and they range from terrible to okay. Sunshine sounds like a Smiley Smile reject, vaguely psychedelic, but with steel drums. Oh Darlin' has bad lyrics (sample: "To love and to be loved is so inspiring / And that's why every lover's so desiring /Of the love they're seeking never retiring") but a nice allusion to God Only Knows in the coda. The wobbly When Girls Get Together has no such salvation, being both musically and lyrically awful (apparently all female conversations center around men).

A couple of the Wilson/Love tracks fare better, mainly because they hew closer to the classic Beach Boys sound. Some of Your Love builds up a nice head of steam, evoking early feel-good singles by the group. Goin' On is even better, and is only slightly diminished by an ill-concieved saxophone solo.

A soulless cover of Chuck Berry's School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) and the boring Santa Ana Winds round it all out.

Oh, but there's one more. Endless Harmony is an intersting bit of self-mythologizing ("Ocean lovers who like to harmonize / They're all cousins, friends, and brothers /And they make their mothers cry"). Most of the song sounds kind of like Neil Diamond's Love on the Rocks, but the end bursts into a old-school style Beach Boys choral coda. It would have been pretty effective if the lyrics in the coda weren't a stiff invitation to come see their next concert.

We all know the harmony wasn't endless, and that's what gives Keepin' the Summer Alive an unintended air of sadness. It was the last album to feature all the entire "classic" line-up of the group (Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Dennis Wilson). Dennis Wilson died in 1983, Brian Wilson made one more album with them before going solo. In a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment, the band did eventually make that commercial comeback they'd been hoping for, with Kokomo becoming a 1998 #1 hit. However, it was a limited return, as 1992's Summer in Paradise became the REAL worst Beach Boys album ever, only exempted from inclusion here by the non-participation of Brian and Dennis Wilson.

The band limped along, playing the nostalgia circuit. Carl Wilson died in 1998, Mike Love and Al Jardine fought over the use of Beach Boys name. Brian Wilson, on the other hand, has enjoyed a renaissance of sound and spirit, the only one who really is keeping the summer alive.

Authors Note: This is album review #188.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rock Bottom: David Bowie

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

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

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

* * *

This one was a surprise. Like many children of the '80s, my first David Bowie love was, for better or worse, the film Labyrinth. During my musical-sponge phase, my dad gave me some old of his old Musician magazines. One of them featured a cover story on Bowie's 1987 album, Never Let Me Down. That, along with a full-page ad featuring the carnivalesque album cover, prompted me to seek it out. It was my first Bowie album, and I loved it.

But guess what? In my research for this very feature, I discovered that it is unequivocally the most hated Bowie album by fans and critics.

At the time of its release, Rolling Stone critic Steve Pond said Never Let Me Down "may well be the noisiest, sloppiest Bowie album ever." Later, he labels the record a "mess" and says it "...doesn't bode well for Bowie's present, or his future." All Music Guide reviewer Steven Thomas Erlewine is terse and non-specific, describes the album as "a jumbled mix of loud guitar rockers and art rock experiments."

Bowie fans on Amazon.com don't bother to pull their punches. In a review of 1984's similarly unloved Tonight, Cary S. Ashby says the album is "not quite the turd of Bowie's fine recording catalog that Never Let Me Down is...". Gustave O. Frey, oddly states: "This album is at times too cocky for my taste and the music sometimes degenerates into the work of baboons." And someone identified anonymously as A Customer tells us that Never Let Me Down is " ...easily forgettable unless you're a Phil Collins or Chris de Burgh fan" (those unfamiliar with rock snob shorthand should know that's an insult).

And you knew it was coming: Even Bowie himself dismissed the record, telling Charlie Rose: "My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I've gotten to a place now where I'm not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it's in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it."

Ouch.

And this is my favorite Bowie album? I could hide behind a couple of defenses: 1) subjectivity (yes, Virginia, people can have differing opinions) or 2) ignorance (I didn't know I was supposed to hate it). But I am feeling slightly feisty, so I'm going to prove here unequivocally that Never Let Me Down is in fact a worthwhile, top-tier record, despite what the critics, the fans, and Bowie himself might believe.

Seven Reasons Why Never Let Me Down is NOT the worst Bowie album.

1) Messes are fascinating.
First, is Never Let Me Down a mess? Pond says it is, because it "shifts jarringly from one style to another." Well, what's your definition of the word "mess"? To me, it indicates a lack of planning or vision. In the aforementioned Musician interview (August 1987 issue) Bowie admits: "In this particular album...there is no continuity. That was the intention." He says the album represents the many different styles of music he enjoys. So, if it's a mess, it's an intentional one. Further, while the stylistic variation sometimes prevents a cohesive listening experience, it also makes for an interesting one, from the R & B stylings of Shining Star (Making My Love) and Day-In Day-Out to the guitar rock of New York's in Love to the folk-pop of the title track. That's what happens with great artists like Bowie; when they really try, they never completely fail.

2) Bowie gave it his all.
Listening to these songs, there's no doubt they were created with care and passion. Bowie never sounds bored; in fact it's quite the opposite. His vocal performances throughout are passionate and lived-in, especially on songs like New York's in Love and (again) the title track. And the band? They're blazing, with Peter Frampton (yes, you read right; he and Bowie actually went to school together) playing a spritely lead guitar on many tracks. I don't think any album where an artist really puts effort in can be considered the worst.

3) There's a thin line between nostalgia and being "dated."
Think about the difference between a vintage 1976 KISS Destroyer world tour t-shirt and a 1998 KISS Psycho Circus world tour t-shirt. Both, at this point, are "dated", but one is inherently cooler than the other. Thanks to the rise of the synthesizer and drum machine, albums from the '80s often get accused of sounding "dated." Really, it's only a problem when the production techniques distract from otherwise good songs.

In any case, I don't agree with the "dated production" criticism leveled at Never Let Me Down. Okay, yes, if you name a song '87 and Cry, it's literally dated, but there are so many styles and sounds on the album, it's almost impossible to pinpoint it to a certain era. There's a sitar and harmonica that recall the '60s, horns and funky bass that recall the R & B of the '70s, etc. The songs are full, and built to be played live, which is the opposite of the canned '80s sound the "dated" assertions bring to mind.

4) Pretentious is as pretentious does.
Accusations of pretension have dogged Bowie, mostly because there's often a detachment in both his personal and artistic personas. Pretentious means "exaggerated importance or status." Isn't that in the rock star job description? As a fair-minded Amazon.com reviewer named Dean Dirge points out, "Bowie always has his tongue in his cheek. He acknowledges the artifice of his chosen art form. I don't think he took many of his other albums any more seriously than he took this one."

5) Bowie has changed his tune.
In the Musician interview Bowie is quite pleased with the album. He calls it "energetic and up" and seems to quite enjoy talking about the songwriting and recording process. He says he can't wait to get out and play the songs on tour. They don't sound like the words or tone of a man who has just created the worst work of his career. So what changed? Was he just faking it in the interview?

I suspect something else. In the introduction to the interview, writer Scott Isler mentions how Bowie is a canny interviewee who "invariably agrees with opinions." Wouldn't it follow then that Bowie's own current views of Never Let Me Down are shaped by the reaction of the fans and critics? It's kind of sad if you think about it that way.

6) The songs are pretty good!
An album simply can't be considered an artist's worst when it contains one of his best songs. In this case it's Never Let Me Down. It's a gentle and heartfelt love song, and Bowie even acknowledges that it was "pivotal" in his songwriting and that it was written from a very personal place. Zeroes is similarly lucid and nostalgic, looking back at his ascension to rock star royalty.

Other songs are in the more typically detached, abstract Bowie style, such as the creepy one two punch of Beat of Your Drum and Time Will Crawl. Plus there's a well-chosen cover of Iggy Pop's Bang Bang that closes out the album. There's also a "lost" Bowie song called Too Dizzy that appears on the vinyl but was removed for various CD releases; a very rare move. Listening to it, there's no apparent reason as to why it was singled out, creating an instant curiosity for any hardcore fan.

7) He's made worse albums.
Consider, these alternatives: 1984's Tonight is a close second for most reviled Bowie album, featuring two reggae-flavored tunes, a Tina Turner duet (which is nowhere as cool as it sounds), a bad-idea crooner version of the Beach Boys' God Only Knows, a rockabilly cover of a song made popular by Michael McDonald (I Keep Forgettin'), and an overall sense of ennui. The songs Loving The Alien and Blue Jean were all that could be salvaged. Great album cover though.

There's also Tin Machine I or II, from 1989 and 1991 respectively, wherein Bowie forms a band and sings tuneless, unmemorable "hard rock" songs.

* * *

Never Let Me Down is not a perfect album. The sequencing could be better; with one too many samey sounding rock songs weighing down the end of side two and all of the really diverse songs coming early. A couple of songs aspire to "jam" but are really just too long. And, yes, Mickey Rourke "raps" on Shining Star (Making My Love). But I still love the album, despite these faults. Maybe my one good ear is made of tin, or maybe, just maybe, the fans and critics got it wrong this time.

Authors Note: This is album review #187.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

186. Matthew Sweet: Sunshine Lies (2008)

Did you know that paid music critics are contractually obligated to compare every new album by Matthew Sweet to 1991's Girlfriend? It's true. Unfortunately for them, the comparison has been apples to pomegranates for the past 17 years, since Sweet hasn't even really even tried to recreate his commercial breakthrough. Each of his 8 subsequent albums has had its own identity: Altered Beast was rawer, 100% Fun slicker, In Reverse grander, etc.

Sunshine Lies is the first Sweet album where the critics might actually be justified in making that tired-and-true comparison. It's guitar-heavy, slightly off-kilter power pop, and it features a reunion of most of the Girlfriend-era players. Whether intentional or not, it seems like a willful attempt to recapture some of that early-'90s magic.

As logic would dictate, the reviews have been mostly positive.

But this Sweet fan is not so pleased. As an unpaid music critic, I'm free to say that I don't think Girlfriend is the best Matthew Sweet album. In fact, I don't think it ranks anywhere higher than 5th (I'd put the three albums mentioned above and The Thorns ahead of it). Sure, it has some classic songs, like Divine Intervention, Girlfriend, I've Been Waiting, and You Don't Love Me, but I think there's about half an album of filler there. I know, gasp and cross yourselves.

Sunshine Lies is akin to Girlfriend in more than just spirit. Not only does it contain a fair amount of forgettable songs, it also decompartmentalizes Sweet's sound again. Since Girlfriend and Altered Beast, his albums have tended to have a unified style, keeping the carefully composed ballads apart from his reckless rocking-out. Of course there were some exceptions, but this is the first record where the contrast between the two styles is so blatant and stark.

In fact, the album could be split nearly down the middle between rockers and ballads. Let's take a look at each.

The Rockers:
The rockers storm out of the gate with Time Machine, which might just belong on a future "best of" collection. Its got stuttering guitar, an intriguing premise (our narrator wants to visit the future not to see his fate or that of the world, but to escape a fresh heartbreak), and a pleasing harmony-laden coda. If only the whole affair could have gone so well.

The next two up-tempo numbers are two of the worst Matthew Sweet songs I've ever heard. One of the hallmarks of Sweet's genius is his juxtaposition of careening guitars and his pure voice. Room To Rock keeps the great off-kilter guitars, but ruins everything with a ragged, off-putting vocal. Flying, besides not being a very well-written song, is also poorly-sung. And it's a problem that recurrs at least two or three more times on Sunshine Lies. I don't know if Sweet (who produced the disc himself) was trying to give the songs a live or natural feel, but it was a misstep.

The other rockers fare slightly better. Let's Love is a hippie message delivered with muscle and a snarl (and some pretty harmonies, too). Sunrise Eyes has some charming garage rock aspirations, but goes on a bit too long. And Burn Through Love is well-constructed and will sound great live.

The Ballads:
My gold-standard Matthew Sweet album is 1999's In Reverse. No doubt the album worshiped at the altar of Brian Wilson, but it went beyond homage, as Sweet showed a clear talent for writing mannered, melodic, and harmony-filled songs. He showcased it again on the pleasant Living Things, and uses the larger half of Sunshine Lies to do the same.

As expected, some of the ballads soar. Byrdgirl is not about a girl who listens to Sweetheart of the Rodeo incessantly; that spelling refers to the musical inspiration behind the song, which is quite pretty. The title track could have been on Living Things; it's full of nature-imagery and optimism (and harmonies from Susanna Hoffs never hurt a song). Around You Now and Feel Fear are also both top-notch, with the latter especially featuring sublime vocals, all the more precious considering some of the other performances.

It's telling, I guess, that even some of the ballads are iffy. Daisychain is just sort of there. Pleasure is Mine is well-written and rich in melody, but as on a couple of the rockers, the singing is strained. At first, the laid-back vocal feels immediate and fresh, but once the chorus hits, that becomes a liability. Closer Back of My Mind suffers a similar fate.

Any time one of my favorite artists comes out with something new, I genuinely want to love it. Sometimes, though, it's more work than it should be. Sunshine Lies has a lot going for it, but it's definitely not love at first listen, and it's definitely Matthew Sweet's worst album since Blue Sky on Mars. It's a Matthew Sweet album for the iTunes era. That is to say, it's better experienced on a song-by-song basis.

But so was Girlfriend.

Grade: C+
Fave Rocker: Time Machine
Fave Ballad: Around You Now

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Rock Bottom: R.E.M.

Is there a musical equivalent to "jumping the shark"? In television, where the phrase originated, it's the point where a show's quality drops and never quite recovers. But in pop music it's trickier.

Even if an artist looks like they've completely lost their touch, there's almost always a comeback. And how do we judge an artist as no longer viable? Do the fans decide, or the critics, or the buying public? Because, there's always a critical darling that's a complete commercial failure, or a record that sells boatloads despite a critical ravaging. Or the album that all the fans just adore, but no one else has heard of.


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

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

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

* * *

R.E.M. presents a conundrum. Reader wakeupbomb suggests I don't consider the albums the band have recorded without Bill Berry. That suggestion jibes somewhat with rule #3 above (I don't want to get into a debate about the importance of a drummer). However, I feel that while the band's sound changed after Berry left, it was mostly out choice rather than necessity. So I will be considering all R.E.M. albums fair game.

As an aside, the consensus worst R.E.M. album with Berry is a tie between Out of Time (the hipster choice) or Monster (the casual fan choice). For what it's worth, I love both of them.

The actual winner is... Around the Sun, an unlucky 13th album, released in 2004. AllMusic Guide guru Stephen Thomas Erlewine's main problem with the album was this: "Here, R.E.M. write songs like craftsmen without distinction -- the songs are sturdily constructed but bland, lacking musical and lyrical hooks." He gave the album 2 stars out of 5. Other critics were similarly disappointed. Mojo called it "the first out-and-out dull R.E.M. album" and Billboard said, "the band's writing stagnates."

The 276 fans who posted reviews on Amazon.com gave it an average of 3.5 stars. There are many accolades, as one might expect, but others are nonplussed. "If Leaving New York wasn't a part of this album," Janson Kemp reports, "I would hate it." Caleb says, "I nearly cried when I heard this album," and you can assume they weren't tears of joy. And someone called Captain Scurvy states simply: "The magic is gone."

Even the band's own Peter Buck said it was made by "a bunch of people who are so bored with the material that they can't stand it anymore."

Of course that seals it. When the artist himself disowns an album there's no doubt it's a low point. But does Around the Sun really deserve such scorn? I wrote about this album when it came out (to read the entirety of what I said, click here). Suffice to say that I didn't agree that Around the Sun was a bad album. After listening again recently, I still don't. Yes, there are some plodding moments (High-Speed Train is the opposite of its title), but there are also risks (A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip rapping on The Outsiders) and textural variations, from resolute (Final Straw) to disturbed (I Wanted to Be Wrong) to optimistic (the title track). By most standards this is not an embarrassment.

Honestly, I think the problem is one of accumulated disappointment. Fans and critics lauded 1998's Up for being something new and different, especially after the rockish one-two punches of Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. There were some sublime moments on the record, but they were all quiet ones. Then along came 2001's Reveal. It also refused to get loud, and while there were no bad songs, there were no thrills either. I think that by the time Around the Sun came out everyone was sick of pretending they didn't want the old R.E.M. back. In addition to its own faults, the album had to unfairly shoulder the collected blame for everything that was wrong with Up and Reveal.

Sure, enough, the band rocked-out on 2008's Accelerate and was welcomed back with open arms by fans and critics.

Don't get me wrong. Around the Sun is a lower-tier R.E.M. album. I won't argue that. I just don't believe it's a bad record, nor do I think it's their lowest rung. That honor I'd give to Reveal. To me, it deserves the "bland" and "dull" epithets more. It's safe and tame and samey and boring. Immediately after listening to the songs, I can't remember what they sound like (All the Way To Reno and Imitation of Life are the sole exceptions).

In the end, I suppose it's a testament to R.E.M.'s talent that their "worst" album is just merely okay.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Worst. Album. Ever.

It appears my torrid 2008 posting pace has slowed, but I'd like to assure you that I have new content in the works. The 5 year anniversary of this blog is coming up in a couple of months, and it's my goal to reach review #200 by then.

So I have a couple of reviews of new albums percolating, as well as a brand new feature. I haven't settled on a title, but contenders include "When Good Artists Go Bad" and "Rock Bottom". The basic premise is this: Pick a really good, established artist, find out (via actual research) what their consensus worst album is, listen to it, and share my thoughts. There were some limits, as the following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a principal member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

I've done this accidentally a few times already, including here and here. But now look for 13 more, based on research and my own humble opinion. These are the artists I've chosen: The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, Elton John, The Monkees, Tom Petty, Prince, R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, and XTC.

Keep reading and listening!