Sunday, December 21, 2008

200. Kaiser Chiefs: Off With Their Heads (2008)

Off With Their Heads, the new album from Leeds band Kaiser Chiefs, finds the band moving forward by looking backward. I occasion my 200th review by doing the same.

By now there's no doubt that the digital revolution has drastically changed the music business. And though album is not dead yet, it's clearly on life support, and has been for awhile. This bugged me enough that I felt the need to defend the album on this blog. Nearly 4 years later I don't know that I can completely stand by my own words. I'm more and more convinced that the album is a casualty of the digital revolution, killed by a buyer's ability to pick and choose songs.

Some perspective might help. It is tough for me to say this, but I think I'm ready to admit that the album is not the primary way people experience music. It never has been, despite the best efforts of critics and and diehard obsessives like myself. No, the single is king. Downloading didn't cause that, it only made it more apparent.

Think about it: Popular interest in (and sales of) music has always been driven by single songs. Albums that have sold well have done so because they had multiple hit singles. And singles endure longer than albums. Ask the average person to name a Beach Boys album and they might come up with one or two. Ask the same person to name a Beach Boys song, and you're guaranteed a minimum of 5.

Consider also that the notion of the album as a complete artform, as anything but a collection of singles, didn't really come about until the '60s.

So why then is the whole notion of pop music criticism based on the album? Why have I devoted 5 years of my life to that very notion? Well, you might say that it's simply specializing. Diehard music fans aren't average people. They want their music in 30 to 80 minute blocks, well-sequenced and filler-free. They want albums.

I could stop there and consider the album (and my own blogging habits) justified. Dust my hands and move on.

And yet...

The Kaiser Chiefs have caused me to take pause and reevaluate my own views and habits, and I'm ready to admit some things. While my fundamental appreciation of the album remains the same, my criteria for good albums and my approach to listening and experiencing them have changed.

To whit, I rarely listen to an entire album in one sitting anymore. It just doesn't work with my lifestyle. I'm much more likely to listen to individual songs on my iPod or laptop. When I do listen to albums it's in 10 minute segments on my way to and from work (see, a short commute can have a downside). As a result, what I value in an record has shifted. Shorter albums are much more preferable. And it used to be that an album that had very strong individual songs but no cohesion as a group would never make my favorites list. Now, I'm much more susceptible to these sorts of records.

Case-in-point: The Kaiser Chiefs previous album, Yours Truly, Angry Mob. While it contained its share of filler, the record was also home to attention-grabbing standouts like Ruby, Everything Is Average Nowadays, The Angry Mob, and Heat Dies Down. Taken in whole it lacked cohesiveness, but that wasn't enough to keep me from giving it an A and putting it in my top 10 for the year.

Off With Their Heads takes the opposite tack, sacrificing some of the wow factor for 11 succinct and sturdy songs that flow like wine at a dinner party.

Another interesting aspect that puts Off With Their Heads in direct opposition to Yours Truly, Angry Mob is the lyrical conceit. The latter album's songs were largely concerned with love-or-lack-thereof. Off With Their Heads has zero songs on that theme, and it's kind of refreshing.

The album's opener, Spanish Metal, reminds me of a game I sometimes play called Imagine How They Came Up With That Song Title (it also works with band names). Though the words "spanish metal" never appear in the lyrics, they are an apt description of the song itself. In my imagination this comes from an offhand studio comment by one of the band members. Never Miss A Beat is a fun call-and-response about young people: "What did you do today? / I did nothin." Being a teacher of middle school, I can appreciate the picture painted, as well as the astute choral observation about how many kids manage to be trendsetters despite their apparent apathy toward everything. Plus, there's a bit of a guitar bit that is a dead ringer for ELO's Don't Bring Me Down. Listen for it!

Addicted To Drugs mines similar lyrical and thematic territory, but it seems the kids have grown up only to find themselves still mired in a haze. The song somehow manages to evoke Robert Palmer's Addicted To Love without plagiarising.

Good Days Bad Days offers up some cynical-but-pragmatic life lessons about the nature of luck and fate. "Sticks and stones and animal bones / Can't stop me from havin' a good day or a bad day / There's good days and bad days."

Those examples aside, most of Off With Their Heads' songs don't have a specific theme or narrative. Instead, many songs are simply a collection of well-turned phrases or images, such as "Like a beetle on it's back / I've got to get back on track" (from Tomato in the Rain) or "I will not lie to you / But I'll definitely only give you half the truth" (from Half the Truth). It leads me to believe that there was a concerted effort to focus more on the music and performances. That part certainly works. With Black Sea/English Settlement-era XTC being the band's most obvious musical template, there are plenty of thrilling moments.

As much progress as Off With Their Heads shows in terms of Kaiser Chiefs becoming artistes, making an ALBUM certainly seems to be going against the times. I find myself wishing there were more songs that stood out from the crowd. As much as I hate to say it, I could see Off With Their Heads becoming a fondly-remembered but rarely-played album in my collection, while Ruby continues to be staple on my iPod.

As I wrap-up my 200th review and move on to the next 200, I can't help but wonder about the future, and how this changing consumption and reaction to music will change my blog, a blog initially built on the sanctity of the album. It feels scary to say, but perhaps it's time to reassess my criteria for what makes good music. For now, I'm going to continue to do "album" reviews, but with a very keen eye put on the individual songs. In general you can expect more focus on the twisted and interesting history of pop music; looking backward as I move forward.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Good Days Bad Days

Monday, December 15, 2008

2008: Top Ten

Nada Surf: Lucky

With 3 winning albums in as many tries, Nada Surf continue to be one of the most surprising bands to come out of the mid-'90s. Lucky is a winner from beginning to end. Though it contains many radio-ready tunes, my favorite is Ice on the Wing (any song that mentions the Sopwith Camel wins my heart).

Kid Dakota: A Winner's Shadow

Though I adore Darren Jackson's work in The Hopefuls, I was never a fan of his Kid Dakota persona until this album came along. It spent a solid 6 weeks on repeat in my car. Favorites include Chutes + Ladders, Transfusion, Stars, and Puffy Jackets.

Sloan: Parallel Play

"Sloan are one of the few bands that might not be capable of making a bad album."

Read the rest of the review.

Jeremy Messersmith: The Silver City

Dan Wilson produced this collection of shimmery folk-pop. It's a concept album of sorts about finding magic in the mundane. My favorites are the middle three songs The Commuter, Miracles, and Love You To Pieces. The cover of the Replacements Skyway wisely stays faithful to the original, and slots in perfectly.

Kathleen Edwards: 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."

Read the rest of the review.

Ben Folds: Way To Normal

Read the review.

While it is perhaps the weakest album he's ever made, many of the individual songs are as sharp as ever. The internet release of 5 hastily-recorded "fake" versions of the album's songs (at least 4 of them better than the album versions) was a stroke of genius.

Alanis Morissette: Flavors of Entanglement

"Flavors of Entanglement is varied enough to come off as an alternate reality greatest hits package, encompassing all of Alanis' past musical moods and lives."

Read the rest of the review.

Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid

"The sound is big and majestic; the lyrics are up-close and personal."

Read the rest of the review.

Supergrass: Diamond Hoo Ha

"Songs are propulsive and unpredictable, with discoey choruses, indie rock verses, harmony-laden pre-chourses, marching band intros, and keyboard solo bridges."

Read the review.

The Broken West: Now or Heaven

Read the review.

2008 was one of the happiest years of my life. I got married and I'm basically constantly pinching myself. So why did I pick such a lyrically negative album to represent the year? Nostalgia? I don't know, but what's clear is that these are the songs that played on constant repeat in my head when I wasn't listening to the CD itself.

Friday, December 12, 2008

2008: Best of the Rest

This Year's Musical Pet Peeve
Conversing during concerts

Unlisted bonus tracks could win this category every year, as long as artists keep doing them, but I've already railed on that topic.

Instead, I turn my ire toward people who get into loud, long, involved discussions with their friends at concerts while they are standing in close proximity to me.

Steps on soap box.

I understand that maybe you agreed to go to this concert just to have something to do and you may only know one or two songs by the artist. I also understand that alcohol removes some of your self-awareness. I understand that you like to talk to your friends. But, please, consider others who paid their ticket price plus an additional 40% of the face value in Ticketmaster fees to HEAR THE MUSIC, not your conversation. If you want to talk to your friend and drink and hear music at the same time, save yourself some money and go to a bar with a jukebox. The ultimate lesson is one you can apply to all aspects of your life: You are not the only person on the planet. Thank you.

Steps off soapbox.

Best Cover Art
Flight of the Conchords

Look back at the past winners of this category, and you can basically guarantee I'm almost always going to pick a colorful hand-drawn cover. But a little predictability in a crazy world can't be a bad thing, can it?

Best Title
Sloan: Parallel Play

Parallel play is a developmental stage wherein children will play in proximity without interacting. Each member of Sloan writes and sings his own songs, so it's an apt description if you ignore the amazing synergy they have as a band.

Best Concert
Rufus Wainwright
State Theatre, Minneapolis

Just Rufus, a piano, and a theatre full of adoring fans. I didn't have much expectation for this show. Honestly, I halfway expected to be bored. But Rufus impressed me with a informally professional performance that kept everyone rapt, me included.

Best Trend 1
Earth-friendly Packaging

Yes, I still tend to buy physical CDs (though this year I bought and downloaded more whole albums than ever before)
, and I've noticed that jewel cases are becoming as rare as CD shoppers. At least half of the CDs I bought this year were packaged in thin cardboard sleeves (or digi-paks) instead. No more broken tabs or center circles? I'm all for it.

Best Trend 2

Consecutive Year Releases

The Broken West, Kaiser Chiefs, and Sloan all doubled our pleasure by following up excellent 2007 albums with excellent 2008 albums. I hope more artists follow this lead by ignoring the label-driven 3 year gap and putting out new sets of songs whenever they're ready.

Biggest Surprise
Kings of Leon: Only By The Night

I bought into the hype on Kings of Leon and their first album, but found it lacking. Their second and third also failed to grab me, despite the critical lauds. So the last thing I expected was to fall in love with their 4th album, and yet that's exactly what happened. Only a small part of me wonders what fans of their first three are feeling about this record.

2008 Mixes

Every June and December I create mixes to summarize the half year.
(I pilfered the cover art from the prolific Sam Brown.)

2008 a
1. The B-52's - Hot Corner
2. The Old 97's - Dance With Me
3. Liam Finn - Energy Spent
4. Nada Surf - I Like What You Say
5. Chris Walla - Everybody Needs a Home
6. Kathleen Edwards - Oil Man's War
7. Tift Merritt - Another Country
8. Kid Dakota - Stars
9. The Republic Tigers - Weatherbeaten
10. Dave Dill - Never So Beautiful
11. Supergrass - Rebel In You
12. Gary Louris - To Die a Happy Man

2008 b
1) MGMT - Electric Feel
2) Kaiser Chiefs - Good Days Bad Days
3) Sloan - Witches Wand
4) The Futureheads - Radio Heart
5) Bon Iver - Skinny Love
6) Kings Of Leon - Sex On Fire
7) Ben Folds - Bitch Went Nutz
8) The Broken West - House Of Lies
9) Teddy Thompson - In My Arms
10) Keane - Better Than This
11) Jeremy Messersmith - Miracles
12) Q-Tip - Believe
13) Alanis Morissette - Giggling Again For No Reason
14) Elbow - One Day Like This

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rock Bottom: The Rolling Stones

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.

Confession: I don't like the Rolling Stones all that much.

I don't mean their music. I enjoy most of their singles. I went through a phase of fandom, during which I ponied up to see them play Soldier Field (it was 1997's Bridges To Babylon tour). I think Some Girls is a great album. I certainly appreciate their longevity and their place in rock 'n' roll history.

When I say I don't like them, I mean personally. I don't find either of their two principals, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, all that compelling. Besides the fact that Richards is still alive despite years of abuse to his body, there seems to be one unique storyline to the band's 45-year career: Mick and Keith fight but make beautiful music together.

Well, this Rock Bottom entry is about a time they did the former but forgot to do the latter. The year was 1986. The album was Dirty Work. Fans and critics agree that it's the Rolling Stones' lowest musical moment.

The All Music Guide actually gave it a mediocre-but-not-terrible 3 stars (3 other studio albums by the band also received the same rating); most of their 8 live albums ranked lower. But in his comments, Stephen Thomas Erlewine belies his rating by using the word "undistinguished" twice, along with "uneven", "dated", and "forced".
Rolling Stone typically worships the ground the band walks on, so much so that if Mick Jagger released an album of himself flushing every toilet in his mansion, the magazine's publisher, Jann Wenner, would write the review and give it 5 stars. But somehow Jon Pareles was allowed to be negative about Dirty Work. He called it a "Stones album for the yuppie era" though it's not clear whether or not he intended it as an insult. He also is clearly disappointed, pointing out that it doesn't live up to his high expectations as a fan, nor does it compare to the band's best work (always an unfair line of criticism, but an effective one nonetheless). Finally, he says the album "sounds like it was made on a deadline."

Fans on expressed their disappointment with Dirty Work in a myriad of ways. Mr. A. Pomeroy says, "In the context of the Rolling Stones' rich back catalogue it is a stunted little twig." Other fans were insular and obscure with their criticism. "This makes Goat's Head Soup look like Sticky Fingers," finulanu tells us. An anonymous reviewer takes it a bit further: "Dirty Work" he says, "makes Undercover look like Let it Bleed."

Finally, Christopher Bushman shouts out to this feature when he states that "the only good thing you can say about this record is that everyone, fans and band, realized it was rock bottom and they had nowhere to go but up."

Here's some background before I get to a review. Dirty Work was was the first album of a big shiny new deal with CBS records. It was released after three years of band inactivity and Mick Jagger's 1985 solo album, She's the Boss. Apparently Keith wasn't at all happy about Mick's straying from the band, and he was even less happy that the solo album was well-received. This exacerbated the tension between the two and made the Dirty Work sessions difficult. Most of the album was recorded without Jagger, who added lyrics and vocals later. Several high-profile guests appear, including Jimmy Page and Tom Waits. Producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, XTC, Talking Heads) manned the boards.

Dirty Work isn't just one of those "bad in retrospect" albums either. It was a clunker from the beginning, failing to go to number one in both the U.S. and the U.K., the first Stones studio album in 17 years not to hit the top spot. The band didn't tour behind the album, and one could assume it's because they knew they'd laid a rotten egg, and that it'd be better to lay low for awhile.

After listening to the album, I don't quite understand the reaction. It's definitely got some middling tracks, and an unfortunate reggae experiment, but to my ear it's not drastically less listenable than, say, Voodoo Lounge or Her Majesty's Satanic Request (if we're going to get insular here).

To me, this is all about the cover art. Go back and take a look at it. I'll wait. Pretty bad, isn't it? Given the brain's natural tendency to make connections and draw conclusions, you might assume Dirty Work was the Stones sellout record, full of polished, keyboard heavy pop-rock. No one would blame you for thinking that. The thing is, the bright colors of the sleeve (and the band's outfits) might have represented 1986, but it certainly didn't represent the music on the album. In fact, it's nearly the opposite. Despite Erlewine's claim, the production of Dirty Work is not dated. And despite the ennui on the boy's faces in that cover photo, most of the songs are angry and aggressive.

So as unlikely as it sounds, I really do believe the cover photo affected fan and critical reaction to the record. Additionally, the back cover lists the songs in the complete wrong order, and that couldn't have helped anything. In short, I think people judged this book by its cover. Thus, you are probably wondering, is this simply another case of "the band is so good even their worst album isn't so bad"? Well, no. If you're a reluctant admirer like me, it's a case of "the band is not as good as you think and this is just simply an average effort by them." But if you're a huge Stones fan, it's kind of like watching home movies from the time period when your parents almost got a divorce.

Opener One Hit (To The Body), which most fans find to be the one light in the dark, is a solid rock song, somewhat catchy, and perfect to start things off. The lyrics track a love affair turned to an obsession, but could just as easily be about drugs as they could be about a woman: "Oh your love is a sweet addiction / I can't clean you out of my veins."

The band's cover of a 1963 R & B song by Bob & Earl, Harlem Shuffle, was the first single off the album. While it isn't a bad tune, it's easy to see why it didn't catch on. It's just not attention-getting. However, I do give props to the groove, which seems more-or-less lifted from Talking Heads song Life During Wartime. Back To Zero also seems Heads-influenced. It's a rhythmic rumination on the apocalypse, and my favorite song on the album.

Winning Ugly is not bad, though in both lyrics and style it seems like a song that would play over the closing credits of a sports movie. Fight is like a featherweight boxer, short and feisty.

But some songs fall flat, for various reasons. There's that reggae experiment I mentioned, Too Rude. Keith takes lead vocals and does a fine job, but doesn't it seem like he's about 7 years behind the dub trend that overtook bands like XTC and The Clash in the late '70s? Keith's other showcase is a ballad called Sleep Tonight, a piano-driven country tune that somehow makes the phrase "you better get some sleep tonight" seem menacing.

The remaining songs are overly long and repetitive and suffer from strained vocals by Jagger. This list includes the title track, the bluesy Had It With You, and especially Hold Back, wherein Jagger does his best Dee Snider. In fact, this is actually the case even on the good songs; it's as if Mick voice only had one setting: Scream. It's so bad that I began to wonder if, considering the tension in the band and his newfound solo success, Jagger was intentionally trying to put some nails in his own band's coffin.

That's never a good thought to have when you're listening to an album, and that's probably why most Rolling Stones fans would like to disown Dirty Work. It reminds them of tough times they'd rather forget. That's why, for lack of a considered alternative, I'll agree that it's the band's Rock Bottom. The writer James Baldwin once said, " Great art can only be created out of love." And while I don't think that's a universally-true statement, it certainly seems true in this case.

Author's Note: This is album review # 199.