Sunday, May 31, 2009

222. Say Anything... (1989)

It was 20 years ago today. Jethro Tull won the first Grammy for Heavy Metal performance and hundreds of demonstrators were killed by troops in Peking's T'ien-an-Men Square.

This is the fourth in a series of 5 reviews of seminal (well, depending on your definition of the word seminal) albums from 1989. View the first three here, here, and here.

Now...

The soundtrack is an artform. A really good soundtrack can be enjoyed equally by those who haven't seen the parent film and by those who have. For the latter, the soundtrack is akin to a really good mixtape. For the former, it's a memento, an evocation of the film. The soundtrack for the 1989 Cameron Crowe film Say Anything... is a really good soundtrack.

Case in point: I bought it without having seen the movie, intrigued mostly by the diverse combination of artists represented. I enjoyed the soundtrack enough to watch the film, and at that point it was all over. I loved the movie, absolutely. My fondness for the soundtrack only grew after seeing how the songs slotted into the film, some simply as background noise, others as accompaniment to major plot points. From then on, listening to the soundtrack gave me the same nice feeling I had when I watched the movie.

The album opens with the movie's theme song, All For Love by Nancy Wilson. In case that name isn't familiar, she's one of the sisters in the band Heart, and she's also Crowe's wife. Not only did Wilson contribute this song, but she also provided instrumental music for the film. All For Love is a ballad with a big '80s sound, and it achieves that cheesy-but-enjoyable balance of so many of that era's songs. Even so, Crowe originally commissioned The Smithereens to pen a theme. That song, A Girl Like You (which later appeared on the Smithereens album 11, and became a minor hit), besides being a better song, would have fit better with the rest of the soundtrack.

That's not to say that the soundtrack has a consistent sound. In most cases, all the songs have in common is their high quality. Genre-wise, they're all over the map, from rock to power pop to punk to ska to electropop. Consider that after Wilson's power ballad comes Living Colour's dynamic Cult of Personality. The band, one of the first African-American rock groups, was new on the scene at the time, but had no shortage of confidence or talent. From there we get One Big Rush, a bit of rock guitar pyrotechnics from virtuoso Joe Satriani. In the film, main character Lloyd Dobbler listens to the song while he psyches himself up to cold call his crush, Diane Court.

Cheap Trick's You Want It is next, and though it's not anywhere near the best of their songs, it does represent a return to power pop form following their sappy 1988 smash The Flame. The rock portion of the record closes out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers' funky Taste the Pain, which Lloyd Dobbler rocks out to on his cassette deck in his Malibu on the way to graduation.

The record's second side begins with the money song, In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel. Even people who haven't seen the film can tell you that Lloyd Dobbler holds up a boom box to play this tune in an attempt to win Diane Court's heart back. It almost didn't happen. According to Crowe and star John Cusack, they almost chose To Be A Lover by Billy Idol to be the boom box song. Though choosing All For Love over A Girl Like You was an iffy decision, this was definitely the right one. Since we can never truly know, I feel safe claiming that the scene (and the film) would not be anywhere nearly as fondly remembered without Gabriel's song. But at the same time, the film made the song as much as the song made the film. In Your Eyes was 3 years old in 1989, and had only been a modest hit upon its release (getting to #26 on the Billboard Hot 100). It gained another life thanks to Say Anything....

From there it's all gravy. Depeche Mode chimes in with a live version of their 1984 song Stripped. It's not one of their most memorable tunes, and the fact of it being live takes away some of the creepy mystery, but it's still a good addition to the soundtrack. Fishbone, a ska rap band (and one of Cusack's favorites; he can be seen in a Fishbone t-shirt at the end of the film) offers the fun Skankin' To the Beat. Minneapolis' Replacements are here too, with Within Your Reach. It's from 1983's Hootenanny, when the band were in the midst of their shambolic period, but Within Your Reach is surprisingly mature and controlled, presaging the band's later, more commercial, output.

The soundtrack wraps up with Keepin' the Dream Alive by Freiheit. This McCartney-esque song has always been a bit of a mystery to me, so I did some research. Apparently in their home country of Germany the band is known as Munchener Freiheit. This song is from the second of their three English-language albums, 1988's Fantasy. It was a big hit in Europe where, strangely, it's regarded as a Christmas song. At any rate, it's a pretty good closer, fitting with the theme and events of the film quite well.

And actually, it's not quite the end. The album contains a bonus track in the form of a rap from the famous Gas 'N' Sip scene ("Lloyd, Lloyd / All null and void / Listen to the truth / Tryin' to avoid / Lloyd", etc.). It always brings a smile to my face.

In fact, you could say that about the soundtrack as a whole, as well as the movie itself. Really, they're inseparable, just as they should be.

Grade: A+
Fave Song: In Your Eyes

Sunday, May 17, 2009

221. Tinted Windows: Tinted Windows (2009)

Early in rock history and on into its mid-point, the supergroup was a viable second act in a musician's career. In fact, in many cases the supergroup became more notable than the original bands the members hailed from. Take Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Asia, and Bad Company for example.

In modern times the supergroup has not only gotten rarer, it's become more of a lark, something intended to kill time between projects. The Traveling Wilburys, Golden Smog, and the Thorns were all great, but temporary. Some would define Velvet Revolver and Audioslave as supergroups, but I wouldn't. To me those bands were rock 'n' roll Frankensteins: Same body, different head.

A couple of years ago I wrote this post, wherein I ran with Chuck Klosterman's challenge to build an ideal supergroup. My answer now would be a little bit different than it was then, but I can guarantee you, I would have never have thought to put James Iha (guitar), Adam Schlesinger (bass), Bun E. Carlos (drums), and Taylor Hanson (vocals) in the same band. On first blush it seems an unlikely combination, but with a little more thought it all makes sense.

Carlos' Cheap Trick has been carrying the power pop torch for over 30 years. Schlesinger and the Fountains of Wayne were a power pop band in disguise for their first two albums. They ripped off that disguise in 2003, and had a big hit called Stacey's Mom. Smashing Pumpkins certainly weren't about harmonies and handclaps, but guitarist Iha did release a '70s styled pop album called Let It Come Down in '98 and he and Schlesinger have been business partners in Scratchie Records since '95. Of course the wild card is Taylor Hanson's inclusion. But even this makes a weird kind of sense. Besides the tiny fact that he's a damn good vocalist, most folks ignore that Hanson were more authentic than your average teen sensation. They wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, and as adults developed into a strong power pop group. That's how it all fits.

No further proof is needed than the unified sound of Tinted Windows' self-titled debut. The songs are full of clean, buzzy guitars, tight harmonies, and strong, memorable melodies. There's not a stinker in the bunch. Schlesinger takes the bulk of the writing load, which helps that unity, but contributions from Iha and Hanson fit in seamlessly.

Of Schlesinger's nine songs, five are variations on the following theme: I like this really hot girl even though she's bat sh*t crazy and won't give me the time of day. One wonders if Schlesinger's love life is really that rough, or if he's just writing these kind of lyrics because he knows that's the best power pop songs are always about making bad romantic choices The song titles tell the story: Messing With My Head, Can't Get A Read On You, and Take Me Back. The best of the bunch is album opener Kind Of a Girl, which takes three mere minutes to trace a progression of intrigue to obsession to annoyance to abborhance.

Taylor Hanson also gets in on the act with this only solo composition (he co-wrote Take Me Back). Nothing To Me is a bitter kiss off that hews a little closer to a Hanson-sound than the rest of the record, but the melodic shift on the chorus is pure Cheap Trick.

Schlesinger also offers some positive love songs, including Dead Serious, Doncha Wanna, Without Love, and We Got Something.

Iha's new offerings, his first solo songwriting efforts in 11 years, are somewhat surprising. Cha Cha is a chugging little ditty that could be about a special someone or a car. Back With You, which is slightly more representative of his occasional dreamy contributions to Smashing Pumpkins albums and his gentle solo work, is the closest the band comes to a ballad. It lulls in the verses and soars on the chorus.

The iTunes download of the album includes New Cassette, a tune that's not about romances, good or bad. Instead, it's all about the joy of being a music fan. The song's narrator has procured a copy of a band's new album (on cassette, naturally) and though he isn't bowled over at first, his feelings change after multiple listens. "Now I can't get it out of my head / And I'm sure it's your best one yet / Yeah there's ten songs I'll never forget / on your new cassette."

If you're a power pop fan, it won't take you multiple listens to declare your love for Tinted Windows. They're not going to single-handedly bring the supergroup back to prominence, but they've still done the concept proud.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: We Got Something

Saturday, May 09, 2009

220. The Monkees: Head (1968)

In 1968, the Monkees TV show was over and the band was musically fragmented. Their public popularity was on a downswing and they certainly weren't a favorite in rock circles. But someway, somehow, they were allowed to make a movie. Maybe the studio saw it as one last cash-in, or maybe they thought the franchise could be revived. Who knows? The movie was a flop.

I won't spend much time on the movie in this review, because I already wrote about it here.

I'll wait while you go read it.

Suffice to say, it's probably my second favorite rock 'n' roll movie ever made (after Purple Rain, of course). It takes equal parts Marx Brothers zaniness, '60s psychedelica, and self-aware post-modernism and mixes them into one tasty stew.

The soundtrack (compiled by Jack Nicholson, who also co-wrote the film) is similarly high-quality, a sharp turnaround from the two limp albums that preceded it. The record does a good job of capturing the free-flowing nature of the film, with snippets of dialogue woven in throughout. Now let's look at the songs:

The Classics
For the purpose of these reviews, I've defined a "classic" as a song that is instantly recognizable to the majority of rock listeners. There are none of those on Head.

The Pleasant Surprises
The movie and soundtrack open with Porpoise Song (Theme from Head). Gerry Goffin & Carole King (the same team responsible for Pleasant Valley Sunday) wrote this dreamy attempt to embrace the LSD '60s. Sample line: "Riding the backs of giraffes for laughs is alright for awhile." In the movie, the song plays as the Monkees swim around in multi-colored water with mermaids.

Ditty Diego - War Chant was written by Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson, and basically addresses the band's poor image among the hipsters of the time. "They say we're manufactured / to that we all agree / so make your choice and we all rejoice in never being free / Hey, hey we are the Monkees / we've said it all before / the money's in / we're made of tin / we're here to give you more." The words may have been somewhat at the band's expense, but they're delivered by all four Monkees with zeal.

Circle Sky is featured as a live performance in the film, with the band playing to a frenzied crowd of teenagers. As the song wraps up, fans rush the stage and rip the boys limb-from-limb. The song itself is foot-tapping and full of energy, with lyrics that make absolutely no sense (unless you know what "wing tip smile / sees for miles" means).

The percussive, middle-eastern-flavored Can You Dig It rescues Peter from the Monkees album obscurity he had been languishing in. Though Mickey takes the lead vocal, Peter wrote the song and plays guitar. The other Peter sighting comes on Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again. He wrote, plays on, and sings the rocked-up tune. It even gets a little bit heavy in the bridge. Sadly, it would be Peter's swan song with the band. He quit the Monkees at the end of 1968.

Comme Ci Comme Ca
The other two proper songs on the soundtrack are just okay. As We Go Along is another Carole King contribution, and it's more in line with what you'd expect from her. King leads a talented list of session players that also include Neil Young and Ry Cooder. The song moves the Monkees prematurely into the soft-rock '70s, but overall it's not outstanding, lyrically or musically.

Musical chameleon Harry Nilsson wrote Daddy's Song, and Davy performs it as a dance number in the film, with choreography by Toni "Mickey" Basil. Lyrically, the song is the flip side to Nilsson's theme to The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Instead of it being about a father who's a best friend, it's about a father who has abandoned his family. Frank Zappa shows up after the scene and rightly declares it to be "pretty white" (the soundbite is also included on the album), but it actually fits Davy's theatrical background.

WTF?
There are tons of WTF? moments in the movie, and many of them are used as between-song sound bites. But it this case WTF is actually a good thing.

The Bonus Tracks
As is sadly typical of these Rhino releases, the bonus tracks offer very little outside of alternate versions. BUT, at least in this case, the versions are significantly different. Circle Sky is presented in a live take, featuring the Monkees playing everything themselves. There's no discernable loss in quality between this and the studio version on the proper album. Both Can You Dig It and Daddy's Song are featured with different vocalists, Peter on the former and Mike on the latter. The results are mixed. Peter was clearly not as strong or natural of a singer as Mickey, and thus his version is worse than the original. However, Mike bests Davy on Daddy's Song, though that may just be a matter of personal preference. Either way, his vocal is processed to sound like it was recorded 40 years earlier on inferior equipment, which fits with the '20s style of the song.

There's also a studio rehearsal of Ditty Diego - War Chant that offers a few lines that didn't make the final version (Mickey delivers them: "to mix it all together pictures sounds and songs / in time and place and weather / and even rights and wrongs"). More interesting is the insight into the individual personalities. Mickey cuts up, Peter and Mike offer suggestions to the producer, and Davy proves once again to be a studio space case again, flubbing his lines. It also shows the band working together in the studio, which had become a rarity.

So the only truly new content in the bonus tracks is a short version of Happy Birthday from the film and a radio promo for the movie. The former opens with some creepy chanting, and the latter shows why the movie didn't do so well at the box office. As was typical of the marketing campaign for the film, the ad mentions the movie's name, but offers nothing else but a head-scratching mix of ambient sounds from the movie and song snippets with no mention of the Monkees.

Head, like the film it comes from, is a fascinating mess, representing the last time the four originals would work as a unit (at least until the mid-'90s). Fittingly, it's one of their best efforts.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Circle Sky

Sunday, May 03, 2009

219. XTC: Oranges and Lemons (1989)

It was 20 years ago today. The RIAA first warned parents about explicit content, the Cold War ended, and Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Over the next few months, I'll be looking back at 5 seminal (well, depending on your definition of the word seminal) albums from 1989. Now...

Oranges and Lemons was the first XTC album I bought. It was 1996, and I found it in the discount section at Target. I knew of the band, but hadn't heard a note. All I needed was that cover art to convince me to pony up my $5.99. It's some of the best money I ever spent.

Recorded in L.A. with producer Paul Fox (10,000 Maniacs, Phish, Semisonic, Bjork, They Might Be Giants), Oranges and Lemons was the band's 9th album, and a thoroughly successful attempt at making immaculately-produced, commercially-viable music without sacrificing the incisive lyrics and ultra-melodic songwriting that the band had made its trade for the 12 previous years. As such, and given the momentum and recognition the band had thanks to the success of Dear God on their previous album, Oranges and Lemons should have been the album that finally moved XTC's beyond cult status and made them a household name.

We all know it didn't happen that way. Though XTC did everything right (great production, several potential singles, lots of promotional appearances), the pop gods simply didn't deem their work worthy of superstardom and international acclaim. That doesn't change the fact that Oranges and Lemons is a very good album, as colorful and imaginative as the cover art.

The album found lead songwriter Andy Partridge confronting fatherhood. Though he had a daughter, Holly, earlier, the arrival of son Harry seemed to stir up some strong feelings. Album opener
Garden of Earthly Delights is a joyous celebration of the event. Andy welcomes his son into the world and tells him it's his oyster. Besides a list of some of the pleasures available in the so-called garden, there's also some fatherly advice, including: "just don't hurt nobody / unless of course they ask you." Pink Thing, likewise, is about a newborn child. But since Partridge is a perpetual 13 year-old, he fills it with double entendres that could also be referencing a penis. Once you get over the icky factor of that, it's actually pretty funny, especially the line, "I wanna take you out and show you to the girls." Finally, there's Hold Me My Daddy a musically-strong, lyrically-open song addressed to Partridge's own father. Perhaps inspired by his own experiences with being a father, he acknowledges his debt to his father, and pleads for an open exchange of emotion.

The album is also, as mentioned, rife with potential hits. These are led off by the almost-actually-was-a-hit
Mayor of Simpleton. Here, Partridge plays a man who, though not book-smart, is confident in his abilities as a lover. Though Partridge is obviously not as unintelligent as his narrator, he certainly wasn't fronting on the line: "Well I don't know how to write a big hit song." Maybe it was wishful thinking that irony would prove him wrong.

Merely A Man is a cousin to that song. Once again, Partridge's narrator downplays his individual significance in the face of love's power. But rather than romantic love, Partridge is focused on self-love and inner-divinity: "I had no message and the message was / we're all Jesus, Buddha, and the Wizard of Oz." There's also some guitar-playing that's hair-band worthy AND a trumpet solo. Finally, there's the singalong The Loving, which continues the hippieish vibe: "All the rich and poor / Even those we fight in war/ need the loving." It's as optimistic and open as a cynic like Partridge gets.

Speaking of that, bassist and second songwriter Colin Moulding offers three uncharacteristically dour tunes: King for a Day, One of the Millions, and Cynical Days. The first was another single, and though it sounds radio-ready, the lyrics are about the rat race, corporate greed, and the futility of working a job you don't love. Not your usual pop song fodder. One of the Millions is similarly non-traditional; Colin's personal rebuke to himself about not standing up for himself more often. It's not a typical rock-star sentiment, especially when he says: "I won't rock the boat / 'cause I'm scared what might happen." Finally, there's Cynical Days, a jazzy tune about the darkness Colin sees in the world. He's not completely hopeless, though, as he pleads, "help me through these cynical days."

Oranges and Lemons also finds Partridge showing off his ability to make social commentary through fanciful extended metaphors, like a children's author (I'm thinking Lewis Carroll or Norman Juster). It also happens that the three songs that feature this device are also three of the best on the record. First is Here Comes President Kill Again, a screed against world leaders who would use their position of power to promote anything but peace. The song hit way too close to home the last few years. The additively percussive Poor Skeleton Steps Out is a commentary on equality, portraying skeletons as the ultimate subordinate group, with no control over any aspect of their existence. "Poor skeleton steps out, dressed up in bad blood, bad brains, bad thoughts, and others deeds / poor skeleton no doubt, one of these days, you can cast aside your human, be free." The best of the three is Scarecrow People. The listener finds herself on a visit to the land of scarecrows, which is eerily similar to ours: "There's lots of waste and razor wire and no one gives a damn about the land, we just stand around and stare like you folks do." The scarecrows want advice, too: "Now while you're here, can you advise us on a war we'd like to start / against some scarecrows over there, a different shade?" The best part of the song is when the fiddle comes in to give the whole thing a hoedown feeling. It's as close as XTC ever got to a country song.

The album wraps up with some challenging songs, proving the band weren't totally selling out. Across This Antheap features a kitchen sink full of sounds: trumpets, keyboard flourishes, hissy background vocals, and a clanging, persistent rhythm. It's almost difficult to listen to. Miniature Sun is the album's second jazzy tune. It features a great bridge, and the joy and sorrow of love all mixed up in 4 minutes, but still seems to meander.

The album wraps up with Chalkhills and Children, a gentle, subtle (unlike the Dukes of the Stratosphear song Pale and Precious) Beach Boys tribute. The titular Chalkhills are in his XTC's hometown of Swindon, and the children obviously refer to Partridge's own offspring. In the lyrics, he wonders whether or not he can continue to be in a band and strive for success while life pulls him in other directions: "
I'm soaring over hushed crowds, I'm propelled up here by long dead dreams / Still I'm getting higher, Icarus regrets and retires puzzled?" If I had been a fan when this actually came out, I would have worried that it signaled the end of the band. It sure sounds like a swan song. Luckily we'd get three more albums out of the band before they called it a day.

Oranges and Lemons
may not have brought platinum sales, but it's still a very showy feather in the amazing cap of XTC's career.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Scarec
row People