Monday, November 24, 2008

198. Dan Wilson: Free Life (2007)

All things reconsidered:

It's nearly time to unveil my top ten favorite albums of 2008, and as I ponder on those choices, I think back to lists of years past. It's a good idea to revisit these every so often, because my musical tastes can be mercurial. I almost always find a few omissions and errors. Maybe something I loved at the time just didn't hold up. Maybe an album that didn't hook me at first ingratiated itself and become a favorite.

It's definitely the latter case with Semisonic singer/songwriter Dan Wilson's first album, Free Life. You'd think an album full of love songs by a sensitive, intelligent performer would have gotten to me right away, but Free Life took its time. It happened bit by bit. I'd find myself seeking out the album specifically amidst the 1,800 other CDs in my collection. I'd catch myself humming or singing bits of this song or that one.

In retrospect, it makes sense. Wilson is not the kind of artist who's going to dazzle you; he's not Bowie or Prince. He's much more in the school of James Taylor or Paul Simon. You take their songs for granted at first, before you realize how exquisitely they're written and how you never really get sick of them.

Free Life's highlights are many, including All Kinds, the searching title track, Sugar (featuring uncharacteristically-understated vocal support from Sheryl Crow), and the driving Against History. I also like the solo version of Easy Silence - a song Wilson wrote with the Dixie Chicks for their Taking The Long Way album - that puts the focus squarely on the melody and lyrics.

There's also a pseudo-reunion of Semisonic on Baby Doll (with the other two Semisonic guys, John Munson and Jacob Slichter, on bass and drums respectively), and even though I think calling someone "baby doll" is creepy in any context, I can't deny the musical chemistry.

Speaking of creepy, I just can't get past the title of Golden Girl. Maybe Wilson should pay a little more attention to pop culture and realize we don't want to hear a love song and think of either a) Bea Arthur or b) Thank You For Being A Friend. While I'm complaining, the chorus of She Can't Help Me Now is a little too E.L.O. for comfort. Don't get me wrong; I like E.L.O., just not in this context.

But overall, this is simple, excellent album with songs that won't let go once they get ahold of you.

And of course, this reconsideration means someone's gotta get the boot from my 2007 top ten. Bruce Springsteen, I'm looking at you.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Sugar

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rock Bottom: Billy Joel

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 main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and (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 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.

This is a story of a very gifted and wildly popular pop musician/composer who walked away from it all.

River of Dreams was released in 1993; it is Billy Joel's 12th album, and his final one as well. It's also his consensus worst.

AllMusic Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls the album "labored" and says that "by the end of the record, he [Joel] sounds as exhausted as the listener feels." He says it's an unfitting end to a strong career. On T.Gore writes, "Every artist lays an egg with an album sometime, and this was Billy's EGG."

A superficial look at the facts would seem to create a simple narrative: Artist with fragile ego and an improbable run of success realizes he has made a below-par album and has a crisis of confidence that leads him to call it quits to preclude any future failures.

But it isn't that simple. For one it's pretty clear that Joel's early retirement wasn't a reaction to the album's reception. River of Dreams
sold 5 million copies and produced the top ten title track. Further, there's evidence in the album itself that Joel is considering calling it quits. This is no more obvious than on the album's final song, Famous Last Words. In the final verse of that final song, Joel sings: "And these are the last words I have to say / It's always hard to say goodbye / But now it's time to put this book away / Ain't that the story of my life."

Finally, if Joel truly did retire because of this record, it was a huge overreaction. It's not a bad album by any objective criteria. In fact, Joel never made a truly terrible album; some are better than others, for sure, but none of them sound dated or out of character, and none failed to sell well and produce at least one hit single.

So why the negative feedback from some critics and fans? Perhaps they were simply reacting to the tone of the album. It's possessed of anger, cynicism, and resignation. These emotions and themes were nothing new for Joel, but not since 1982's The Nylon Curtain had he released such a downer collection. In fact, the three songs that got radio play (the title track, All About Soul, and Lullabye) are the only fully positive songs on the record.

It also doesn't help that the album is a slow starter. Opening song No Man's Land is a guitar heavy condemnation of modern society. Billy had written eloquently about societal ills before (such as the plights of working men and women on Allentown and The Downeaster "Alexa"), but here ham-fistedly takes lower-rung topics like mega-malls, tabloids, and television.

Great Wall of China is similarly bitter, and at first blush appears to be a pretty good break-up tune. However, further analysis points to the song being about a business partner or manager of some sort, given that it's addressed toward a man, and the line "In lieu of diamonds, gold, and platinum / Reminders will still shine bright." The song is quite strong melodically, with a definite mid-period Beatles feel. Blonde Over Blue is in that same musical vein, and alternates despairing verses with buoyant choruses about a girl who inspires him.

A Minor Variation has a groovy, blues-based sound and lyrics that are not the words of a well man. The final lines of the song go: "Until I'm through with this blue situation / Pass me the wine, it's just a minor variation." It wouldn't be so bad if Joel's alcohol addiction and depression issues weren't a matter of public record.

Shades of Grey just beats out No Man's Land as the album's worst moment. It's an awkward rock song with strained vocals and lyrics that don't say anything that Davy Jones didn't say better 27 years earlier in the Monkees song of the same name.

Of course, the hits of the album are strong, especially All About Soul (a love song for wife Christie Brinkley, though they would divorce the next year) and the title track, which pays homage to African music, and The Tokens.

The album's last two songs round out a strong finish, mostly because they are a return to the piano-based songwriting that is Joel's strength. Two Thousand Years is sort of a spiritual sequel to the apocalyptic Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Down On Broadway), looking forward to building a bright future on a crummy past. Billy wisely dusted this off for his millennium concerts.

Finally, we come to Famous Last Words. As I said before, it seems that Joel has already made his decision to call it quits, and it almost seems that he already knew his future held a series of never-ending tours: "These are the last words I have to say / Before another age goes by / With all those other songs I'll have to play / But that's the story of my life." It's worth noting that he also says, "There will be other words some other day." A Joel fan can only hope that that line is similarly prophetic, but with every passing year, it seems less likely we'll ever see another pop album from him. I suppose that's the true shame of River of Dreams.

But is River of Dreams the worst Billy Joel album? I don't think so. No doubt it's lower rung on on a very tall ladder, but I'd actually nominate The Bridge as the worst. It features blah cover art, a two duets (one with Ray Charles, the other with Cyndi Lauper), and has been labeled by Billy himself as disappointment. And we all know the man is is own worst critic.

Author's Note: This is album review # 197.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

5 Years: A Brief But Indulgent History

When taken in whole, my life has basically been an endless series of obsessions supplanting obsessions. Some last briefly and are overtaken, left behind. But others soldier on, sometimes toiling quietly in the background, sometimes stepping to the fore. On November 1, 2003, I took two of those ever-present obsessions - writing and music - and married them. And it's been domestic bliss ever since.

I had two inspirations. One was friends who constantly asked me for my thoughts on new albums and artists. The other was Richard, whose foray into blogging (Highway 290 Revisited) showed me a forum I could use.

I had hoped, by this anniversary, to reach review #200, but I'm currently stalled at 196, so we'll save that celebration for later. Instead, I offer a brief, link-riddled series of reflections, recollections, and revelations:

The Name:
At first I called the blog Till My Head Falls Off, after the They Might Be Giants song and my opinion column in the Augustana Observer. I quickly decided to change it to the more appropriate Pop Life (after the Prince song). Unfortunately, the Minneapolis Star Tribune soon appropriated the name for their music blog, so on January 1, 2006 the current and final name took over. 3 minutes, 49 seconds is the average running time of ten of my favorite songs (the list is here).

Blog Fever:
In July of 2004 I started Baby, I'm A Star (also named after a Prince song). The idea was to watch pop music movies and then write about them. It was always intended as a finite project, but it's not done yet. I must admit it's one of those aforementioned obsessions that fell by the wayside. However, I have every intention of completing it. I even daydream about it being published as a book.

Other blogs followed. Brain Clouds features a one-panel gag comic I've been doing since 1996. Though I haven't drawn any lately, every printworthy cartoon I've done is there. Try is the newest addition, a collection of essays that I update sporadically.

3 Minutes, 49 Seconds has changed designs more than a couple of times. I've refined it along the way. I figured out how to add pictures (a big moment for me), and at Richard's clever suggestion, I added a review index (I probably use it more than any reader ever will).

My productivity has varied wildly. From 2003-2004 I wrote 87 entries! Looking back, I think album-reviewing was my mental escape from a rough first year of teaching. I hit a low in the unusually dismal 2007, which I wrote about here, posting a measly 20 times. I'm happy to say that 2008 has been my most productive year ever.

You Mean People Are Actually Reading?
Blogging has brought me to some interesting places. One year, I exchanged mixes one year with Betty Rocker, a fellow music blogger who found me thanks to Rilo Kiley. A Swedish online magazine mistook me for an actual journalist and asked me to become a contributor. The Star Tribune's Jon Bream found my blog and e-mailed me to participate in their Pick 6 feature. It was less than 200 words, unpaid, and he hasn't asked me to do it again, but I was published in the newspaper, writing about music, and that was exciting. I responded to an unnecessarily hateful Pitchfork of Matt Pond PA's Last Light album and sent it to the band, receiving a terse but gratifying thank you from Matt himself. A handful of local bands contacted me, either thanking me for a shout-out or soliciting one. I even had a free CD sent my way for review, like a real music critic (that was Dave Dill's excellent Follow the Summer, by the way).

But the most embarrassing moment was discovering that Vicious Vicious (a.k.a. Erik Appelwick, the former Hopefuls principal and current Tapes 'N' Tapes bassist) had posted my glowing review of his Don't Look So Surprised on his MySpace page. Very cool right? Except in the review I called his first album "almost exclusively unlistenable." It was one of those over-the-top cliche reviewer assessments without much thought behind it. Oops! I wrote him and apologized and since have chosen my words very carefully, at least when I think the actual artist might read my words.

Cringing and Crowing:
Looking back on past work, there are always moments of embarrassment, but I'm proud to say that I can stand by every review I've written. Maybe I was a little overzealous about some albums that I've never really listened to since, like this one, this one, and this one, but I meant it at the time.

I have much more to be proud of, from the week that I did a review every single day, to the massive decade lists ('70s, '80s, and '90s) I made with the help of several friends, to the review of every single Beatles album, to the 12 By lists, to the New Monkees review that continues to elicit comments and reaction.

The Future:
Obsessions are strange, not only for how they dominate our thoughts, but for how easily they dissipate. My dad, who is very similar in mental constitution, used to be a big pop music fan. In the last 10 years or so, I've watched him drift away. Now he likes jazz and bird-watching and says rap isn't real music. Will I meet the same fate?

The good news is that for now, I'm as inspired as ever. As the year wraps up, I'm going to continue the very fun Rock Bottom entries, and the 2008 End of the Year lists are just around the corner. In the new year, I plan to review every single Monkees album, take a look back at 1979, 1989, and 1999, as well as start work on a multi-part guide to music criticism. And of course I'll continue to post reviews. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Did!

A Change Is Gonna Come
by Sam Cooke

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movies and I go downtown