Friday, July 31, 2009

Radio, Radio: A Scientific Study of Cities 97

To start, I want to make it clear that I'm not going to write a comprehensive screed about the state of modern radio. Whatever problems radio has, it's had them for many years, and there are people who are much more informed and insightful on the topic than I am. Of course, you may wish to apply the conclusions drawn below more broadly, but that's out of my hands.

Instead, this piece is a scientific experiment of sorts, a detailed analysis of Twin Cities station Cities 97 (KTCZ-FM), a Clear Channel joint.

Why, you may ask, if I didn't not have a theory to prove about the state of radio, did I decided to perform this experiment? Well, basically it comes out of 10 years of tumultuous Twin Cities radio. When I first moved here in 1999, there were a few good choices for hearing new pop and alternative music. There was 104.1 The Point. It didn't last long and soon became an '80s station called Mix 104. Now it's 104.1 Jack FM. The 105.3 signal was Zone 105 when I moved here, a good mix of new music and older alternative. It changed to a smooth R & B format (V105) briefly before going back to alternative (Drive 105). Currently it's an oldies station called Love 105. And I witnessed the birth of public alternative station 89.3 The Current, which has its supporters and detractors (I lean more toward the former). The one constant through all of this has been Cities 97. I've had a lot of time to study this station.

Cities 97 is one of the longest-running pop radio stations in the Minneapolis / St.Paul area, having started out as an AAA (adult album alternative) format in 1984. In the mid-'90s the format shifted to AC (adult contemporary), which despite its misleading name means that they started playing more light classic rock. For several years now the station has been attempting to find a balance, which they label LA (light alternative). That mission is spelled out in their motto: "Music from then - music from now."

I admit that I was not the most objective of scientists. I had some opinions formed previous to my experimentations. Or rather, I had some questions that I thought I knew the answers to. See, Cities is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) pop radio station in the area. It's certainly one of the most visible, with a series of live samplers that sell out each year, and a huge annual two day block party at the downtown Minneapolis Basilica of Saint Mary. Its listeners are often rabidly faithful (including some folks I call friends).

Before I get to my questions, let me give some a clear disclaimer. I am not at all attacking the type of music Cities 97 plays. I enjoy and own many albums by the artists they favor (U2, Counting Crows, Coldplay, etc.) This study was not done out of snarky hipster condescension.

The questions I chose to investigate are as follows:

1) What is the balance of new music to old music on Cities 97?
2) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain artists?
3) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain songs?
4) Is the station really "about the music"?

What I Did:

I listened to Cities 97 for approximately 12 hours over the course of two two-week sessions. The first was this past March. The second was this month, July. I listened at various times of the day and days of the week. As I listened I wrote down the song title, the artist, and the year the song was released. I entered this information into a database that allowed me to sort the information in a variety of intriguing ways.

As I listened I heard 205 total songs (including repeats), and countless ads for Leinenkugel's, Slim 4 Life, and Hair Restoration of Minnesota.

The Results:

Let's take these question by question.

1) What is the balance of new music to old music on Cities 97?
Let's count any song as new if it was released in 2008 or 2009, okay? There are a couple of numbers to look at here. First, let's look at them without repeats. The station played 30 new songs out of 155 total songs. That's 19%. With repeats included, the percentage goes up a bit. Those 30 individual songs actually accounted for 51 out of the 206 total plays. That's 25%. That means that when the station writes its motto ("Music from then - music from now"), the "then" should be three times as big as the "now."

To be a little fairer about this, let's look at the breakdown by decade (not including repeats). Then things seem a little more balanced.
Number of songs from the '60s, '70s, and '80s: 39
Number of songs from the '90s: 43
Number of songs from the '00s: 73

I listened on two New Music Mondays, a self-explanatory weekly event. Despite the name, the station did not play more new songs on these days. The only difference was that the DJs seemed to make more of a special point to mention that a song they were going to play or had just played was new.

Finally, let's get to the most disturbing aspect of the new song issue. 25 songs Cities 97 played were older tunes by an artist with an new album released in 2009. If you expand this out to artists who had a new album out in 2008 (remember, we're still counting those as new), the number jumps to 34. Of that 34, only one new song was played in addition to the old ones (Jack Johnson's Go On). This just seems wrong to me. The station obviously has favorite artists that its listeners love (more on that in the next section), so why not play their new material? This is my sorest point with the station.

2) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain artists?
I put the word overplay in quotes because I realize that it's a relative concept. If you are obsessed with a song or an artist, as tends to happen, you can't hear or get enough of them.

So, yes, the station makes little secret of the fact that it has pet artists. Its billboards and website even advertise them: Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Sarah McLachlan, U2, Coldplay, Sheryl Crow, Matchbox Twenty, John Mayer. In my 16 hours of listening, I heard 108 different artists. That's not bad, right? But consider the following: Of those 108 artists, I heard 20 of them more than 3 times. All told, these 20 artists accounted for 82 of the 206 total songs. So, basically, 19% of the station's artist pool is responsible for 40% of the songs played.

I'd say that means certain artists are overplayed.

But who got the most plays? U2 is the far and away winner. Even without a SINGLE SONG from 2009's No Line on the Horizon (still upset about that), the boys from Dublin were heard 10 times! David Gray comes in a surprising second with 6 plays. Jack Johnson and John Mayer tied for the bronze with 5 plays each.

One other thing that needs to be mentioned here. Cities 97 features VERY little racial diversity in the artists they play. I only heard 8 songs by non-white artists. That's a measly 3 %.

3) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain songs?
In short, yes. In total, 49 of the 206 plays were repeat plays. That's 1/4 of the total playlist that was not unique.

The three month gap may account for for some of the repeats, especially the songs that were played twice. It's entirely possible that Big Head Todd and the Monsters' Bittersweet was only played two times between March and July, and I heard them both. But, given what I know about the station, it's also entirely unlikely.

Which songs were played the most? Crack the Shutters by Snow Patrol (from their 2008 album A Hundred Million Suns) was the winner, with 5 plays. The runner-ups all tied with 4 plays each: U2's Beautiful Day, James Morrison's Nothin' Ever Hurt Like You, and Colbie Caillat's Fallin' For You.

Three of those four songs are new, so the repetition is understandable. People request the songs, DJs are usually required to play them at least once a set. And frankly, drilling a song into an audience's consciousness is what creates hits.

But the older songs that get continuous plays? That seems unnecessary. I understand comfort songs and the power of familiarity, but there are literally thousands of hit songs that fit within Cities 97's format. I like U2's Beautiful Day, but do I need to hear it once every 3 hours? Not really. And there's no reason for me to hear Howard Jones' Things Can Only Get Better, Tom Petty's Free Fallin', or Sting's Fields of Gold twice (each) when all of these artist have catalogs of excellent songs to choose from.

4) Is the station really "about the music"?
Cities 97 likes to use the tagline "It's about the music." And yes, it really is. Despite all other complaints one might make about Cities 97, they do stay focused on music. Their morning show doesn't center around practical jokes, call-in topics, or inane discussions of celebrities. They do have entertainment news and recipe segments but they're thankfully brief. Much more time is spent discussing the latest concert ticket giveaways or music news.

The station heavily promotes their endeavors, like the aforementioned Basilica Block Party. Often they air Studio C performances, where artists come in and do live sets for a small audience. These sometimes include artist interviews as well. Additionally, Cities 97 is also locally famous for their annual sampler, a collection of those Studio C tracks and other live tracks, often from artists the station rarely plays. The proceeds go to charity.

Sundays Cities 97 deviates from its usual format. There are also two one-hour shows devoted to local and independent music: Minnesota Music and Freedom Rock. The day begins and ends with Acoustic Sunrise and Acoustic Sunset. This has proven popular enough that the station has instituted an Acoustic Cafe everyday over the lunch hour. The problem here is that the DJs don't seem to quite understand the definition of the word acoustic. Often to them, it just means live, even if the instruments are plugged in (as was the case when I heard Tim Mahoney's fairly rockin' Talk to Me) or "light" as in the case of the Beatles' Because, which features an ELECTRIC harpsichord as its only instrument.

But anyway, yes, quibbles aside, the station really is true to the music. For this, I applaud Cities 97.

In Conclusion:

Cities 97 actually fared better than I expected in nearly every category. However, they have some big improvements to make. Here are my suggestions:

1) If you aren't going to play a larger variety of artists, at least play a larger variety of songs by those artists.
2) If one of your pet artists has a new song out, PLAY IT!
3) Play more non white artists, for god's sake.
4) Look up the definition of acoustic.
5) Keep it about the music.

Monday, July 27, 2009

231. The Monkees: Then & Now...The Best of the Monkees (1986)

I've told this story before, but it bears repeating, especially because now it can be seen completely in context.

In the summer of 1986 I was 9 years old, and my mom shipped me off to Kentucky to spend two weeks with my grandparents. I was terribly homesick, and my mom tried to assuage this by sending letters and postcards. My step-dad also got into the act, sending me a tape for my Walkman along with a note that read, "I saw this and got it for you because I know they're one of your favorite groups." The tape was Then & Now...The Best of the Monkees.

That was the summer that The Monkees experienced a 20th anniversary career revival, courtesy of reruns on MTV and Nick at Nite. In fact, that revival was the reason for the existence of Then & Now.... The album was a cash-in. It also contained the first new Monkees songs since Changes in 1970: That Was Then, This Is Now, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, and Kicks.

In a continuation of their twisty band-member history, Davy Jones chose not to participate in the recording of the new songs. According to Mickey's autobiography I'm A Believer, he and Davy had a falling out not long after the release of Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart and hadn't spoken in the 9 years since. There was no official kiss-and-make-up between the two, but both recognized that a potentially lucrative reunion tour was worth an attempt to co-exist. Peter Tork had been lured back as well, and though he was lukewarm about the idea of recording, Mickey convinced him to participate. Michael Nesmith was reportedly amenable to a reunion but too busy to commit to it.

So the three new Monkees songs are really just Mickey with Peter on background vocals. Davy refused to help promote or perform the new songs, and even went so far as to block the release of a second single after the success of That Was Then, This Is Now (the song reached a respectable #20 on the Billboard chart).

In addition to cassette and LP, Then & Now... was also released on CD with 11 (!) additional songs. The original tracklist (the one that I burned into my brain that Kentucky summer) was as follows:
1. (Theme From) The Monkees
2. Last Train to Clarksville
3. Take a Giant Step
4. I'm A Believer
5. (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
6. A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
7. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere
8. That Was Then, This Is Now
9. The Girl I Knew Somewhere
10. Pleasant Valley Sunday
11. What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round
12. Daydream Believer
13. Valleri
14. Kicks

Of the 11 songs the CD adds, 8 are solid choices (For Pete's Sake, Words, Listen to the Band,
She, Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow), Randy Scouse Git, You Just May Be the One, and Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)). I would have made picked three different songs to replace Sometime in the Morning, Goin' Down, and D.W. Washburn, but that's quibbling. The only clear snub is the absence of the lovely Shades of Gray.

Since I've already written about most of the songs already, there are only five that need discussion. The three new ones, of course, and two songs that had never before made an appearance on a Monkees album. Let's start with the old ones first.

The Girl I Knew Somewhere is a Mike Nesmith composition that was released as a single in 1967 (between the releases of More of the Monkees and Headquarters). Mike writes in a pleasantly melodic bubblegum style (there's not a trace of country, save the natural twang in his vocal). That song's B side, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, is even better. The third (and final) song Neil Diamond wrote for the Monkees cribs its handclaps and tambourine from Cherry, Cherry, but manages to charm despite being derivative. Davy's vocal is especially noteworthy, as is the prominent organ. Both of these songs are treasures and the decision to include them on Then & Now... was a smart one.

It's hard for me to look at the new songs subjectively. Yes, I recognize that the modern production sets them far apart from their predecessors, but you have to remember my perspective. I heard them for the first time alongside the original hits, so to me they were as much a part of the Monkees tapestry as anything else. In short, my estimation of the three newer songs may be a little higher than that of a person who had been a Monkees fan back in the '60s.

That Was Then, This Is Now is a faithful cover of a song by a New Wave garage band from New York called The Mosquitos. The band only released one 5-song EP and never made it big, but they can settle for joining the ranks of the many fine songwriters who provided material for the Monkees. The song itself is a tough guy's apology for his past misdeeds and a promise of undying love. Peter does well on background vocals.

Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere was, fittingly, co-written by Bobby Hart. The keyboards are prominent, but not cheesy, and the lyrics are bittersweet and full of nostalgia for a past relationship. In further evidence of how pop music twisted my romantic views, I used to imagine myself as the song's narrator, in the aftermath of some romance I wished to rekindle. I was 9 years old.

Finally there's Kicks, a remake of the 1966 Paul Revere and the Raiders hit. The arrangement and production are beefed-up '80s style (though the original wasn't exactly wimpy), and Mickey's vocal is as strong as usual. The cautionary lyrics probably spoke to Mickey, who had recovered from drug addiction in the '60s and '70s (though apparently succumbed to them once more once fame called his name again). It's the weakest of the three new cuts, but not by much.

By nearly every criteria (song selection, sequencing, worthwhile new songs), Then & Now... is a very very good greatest hits package. The only real drawback to the album is the fact that the artistic and commercial success of the three new songs led directly to the recording of Pool It!, the band's rock bottom. Stay tuned for more...

Grade: A+
Fave Song: all of them

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hot Action Cop: An Interview

There are a couple of main themes in this story, and it's an old story told many times. One theme involves the pitfalls of perception, while the other concerns the elusive nature of dreams. The twin morals of the story are nothing we haven't heard before (don't be quick to judge and sometimes what you think you want isn't really what you want), but the specific players and events are, as always, new.

Consider Hot Action Cop, a Nashville band who in 2003 found themselves with a hit, Fever for the Flava. By all accounts the song was a wild success. It appeared on the soundtracks to several films, including American Wedding (aka American Pie 3). As of this writing the song has over 4 million plays on the band's MySpace page. If you go to YouTube and type "Fever for the Flava" into a search, you'll find videos of people using the song to test out their car stereo, middle school girls doing dance routines to it, and multiple videos where folks lip-synch the song's unique call-and-response.

The aesthetic of Fever for the Flava was, to put it delicately, frat-boy rap-rock. The song itself featured funky rapped verses and a soaring melodic chorus with the line "what do I have to say, to get inside you girl?" The words "coochie" and "hoochie" were rhymed. The band's self-titled debut album (released that same year on Lava/Atlantic records) played up the sex, with a cover that depicts the well-toned backside of female police officer in Daisy Duke shorts.

Here's where that "quick to judge" moral comes in. It's easy enough, based on the evidence above, to write Hot Action Cop off as band for meatheads and move on, right? Not so fast. Pop music consumption is, unfortunately, often about quickly oversimplified categorization. Unless you're a huge star, there's little tolerance for being eclectic or multi-faceted. And that's not really fair, because art is rarely about formula. Some artists make it seem that way, but they're rarely the good ones.

There was some evidence on their first record that Hot Action Cop didn't exactly fit in with the Bloodhound Gangs and Limp Bizkits of the world, but it's become as clear as day with the new six song EP they've recently released. Upon first blush, the songs seem so removed from Fever for the Flava as to be the work of a completely different songwriter. The thing is, they're not. In fact, one might say that the lyrical detail and hookiness of Fever are the seeds that grew into the band's new work. The new songs are generally more serious, the vocals a bit more ragged and real, and there's barely a rap in sight (a brief interlude on Face Down is the only one). Standouts include La Dee Da, which shows off a strong falsetto, catchy chorus, and by turns invokes '70s funk, '80s pop metal, and '90s grunge. Open Your Eyes is an alt-pop kiss-off that wouldn't sound out of place on your favorite radio station. The ballad Tomorrow's Gotta Secret features slow, contemplative verses, with a powerful Beatles-on-steroids chorus. With these new songs, Hot Action Cop seem determined to follow their muse, building upon their success by tearing it down and starting fresh.

It's a good story, one with common themes that have been played out in a million different ways, but I was lucky enough in this case to get a first-hand account. As follows is an interview with Hot Action Cop singer/songwriter Rob Werthner. He talks about his influences, his success, what happens when you reach your ultimate goal and discover it wasn't quite what you expected, and the nature of his artistic process. The answers were often pleasant surprises, driving home the point once again that you just never know unless you ask. Enjoy!

Paul: How did the band form?

Rob: Hot Action Cop came together when I wrote and recorded some demos that started to turn some heads back around 2000. I put together a band from people I met by word of mouth. Tim Flaherty joined on in 2000. He's a Louisville, Kentucky native and we travel back and forth between Nashville and Louisville to rehearse the band. The rhythm section (Kory Knipp on drums and Luis Espilliat on bass) came to me via the engineer that cut my first demos. Kory and Luis are no longer part of the band. The rigors of being in a traveling rock band that can't pay well took its toll. Timmy has been, and remains, the other consistent member of the band. The current line-up includes Bardstown, Kentucky native Juan Chavolla (I was meant to work with a Latino bass player) and Nashville native Johannes Greer on drum set. Both are great performers and players.

Paul: What are your influences?

My musical influences consist strongly of British rock from the sixties: The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. The music from these bands make me want to create my own music. I don't copy or recreate their sound, they are simply inspirational and a muse for the mood. I'm also constantly influenced by modern pop music, especially quirky pop that cuts into the mainsteam every now and then, e.g. How Bizzare from OMC, or Electric Avenue from Eddie Grant. Granted these fall into the novelty category, but they do something utterly unique for me as a listener.

Yellow Submarine, Sweet Virginia from the Stones, Bike from Floyd, and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 from Dylan have a certain flippancy that I relate to. Quirky, silly moments from some of the greatest artists of all time. I am however, a sucker for the sad and somber as well (comedy/tragedy perhaps?). Songs like Yesterday from the Beatles, Angie from the Stones, Mother from Pink Floyd, Stairway to Heaven from Zep, are absolutely the ones I always come back to as a listener and fan. I guess I'm very song oriented, and have trouble packaging myself in my own sound consistently. Kind of White Album-ish in my own modern ADD sort of way. Only thing is, I'm the sole writer.

Lately I've been a bit more inspired by literary writers. Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson, for their scathing wit and dark sardonic humor, Frank Herbert for his intimate understanding of economics and ecology, and of course their uncanny abilities to tell wonderful, epic stories. I go back and forth between Lennon and McCartney in music. Still love how Dylan affected '60s rock.
I've been really listening to Robert Plant's vocalizations lately, in my opinion he is the ultimate rock benchmark. Have you ever listened to the Yardbirds before Jimmy Page brought Robert onboard? It's mind blowing what his vocals do to the music.

Paul: How did Fever for the Flava come about?

Rob: Fever for the Flava happened after a strange night out at a top 40 dance club in downtown Nashville. The club is not there any more, one of the many "ephemeral establishments" in Nashvegas that pop in and out of existence like particles in theoretical physics. I'm more of an observer than a participant in social scenes, I'm not sure how I ended up there, although I'll guarantee alcohol and some cute girl were involved.

As I watched tweens sex themselves into a drunken frenzy it set the ball in motion. I drew upon those images as the song developed. (I should mention that I also have a guilty pleasure for pop dance and rap, although it is based mostly in '70s and '80s songs of that ilk.) I was having tongue-in-cheek fun with the people that inhabit that "weekend party-dance-meat market world." The style of the music for Fever was the right cover for the book, so to speak. It was the proper vehicle to tell that story, it also inadvertently became the most identifiable part of the Hot Action Cop sound.

Paul: Describe the success of Fever for the Flava.

Rob: Fever for the Flava is one of those songs that hits people in a strange place. It's very polarizing, and very demanding right out of the box. I am often amazed at the viral spread of the song on the Internet. It keeps attracting legions of listeners day after day, year after year. It has a 2 Live Crew sort of appeal, except that I never use any profanity, it is only lyrically suggestive. It was written off by the Illuminati as a quick burn novelty, which I get, but 6 years later it still gets 6 to 8,000 spins a day on MySpace, and the demographic of the listener is from 10 years to 60 years of age. I realize that it has lyrical and melodic hooks, but the song really took on a life of its own. It flew to the top of many pop charts around the world, it was an overnight sensation in Australia when a DJ heard it and spun it. Cult status is the only way to correctly describe the song these days as it just keeps gaining fans with out promotion, it just sells itself.

Hot Action Cop's first record was released on Lava/Atlantic. There was heavy promo for it, but many different music directors in movies, and television and video games didn't have to be sold hard on it, so it was licensed heavily. The song met a lot of resistance at American radio. It was simply the wrong time for a rock/pop record with that sound and content. It was a number one hit for weeks on end in many American cities. But New York and Los Angeles wouldn't spin it. Someone at K-ROCK [a New York alternative radio station] found it offensive and shut it out.

Paul: Have there been any major changes for you or the band since Fever for the Flava?

Rob: I think I wasn't ready for what my first record did to people back in 2003. I took it very personally that people thought of me as a block-headed misogynist because my music. I remember Blender magazine referring to it as a great dick and fart joke. They obviously never listened to the whole record. Never caught its diversity, they simply got caught in the more over-the-top sexual subject matter.

People miss the whispers in today's digital explosion, but ultimately no one twisted my arm to write that album. I've learned how to deal with critical noise. We had a song on the first record called In A Little While [an acoustic ballad with contemplative lyrics]. The label tested this song on Hit Predictor or some other service like that. It tested really high and showed strong hit potential. It is so different from the sound and energy of Fever that they didn't know how to deliver it. So it, like the band, fell between the commercial cracks. I think that whole label/commercial experience messed with my head. It made me very guarded and self-concious.

I found it to be a profound and awesome experience. The personal emotional and psychological exploration it engendered were intense. I've gotten passed the negativity of it and got back to making music. I made a deliberate attempt to make a more rock-oriented record. I've got a ton of songs recorded. The 2009 EP was what I could afford to finish right now. I did what I did with the first Hot Action Cop record. I don't need to make part 2 of that record. I realize this can be disasterous from a marketing/branding perspective, but I write all over the map, I hope people can follow portions of it. Fans of the band seem to be responding well to the new music. Fans that have seen the band live know that we are a quirky rock/pop band, and they appreciate the diversity. It's tough to be well known for one song. But it's better than not being known at all.

Paul: Tell me a little bit about your musical goals.

Rob: My musical goal is to have music of my own creation be heard around the world. I've achieved that thus far, however I feel very incomplete. My new goal is to have music connect that feels closer to my heart, music that can do to others what my favorite bands have done to me. Songs and sentiments that are of a more serious nature or sound. Writing songs is a habit for me, kind of like nail biting. I can't stop doing it, so with a little luck and persistence I will be heard on the world scene again. I'm doing a rock acoustic night in Nashville, my first one ever, I can't wait to play some new material to a small crowd. It's the only way to step outside ones own head and see how a song is really hitting people. I have got to learn to awaken the P.T.Barnum within me and engage the public.

I have fans in many countries around the world. I'll try not to confuse the living shit out of them with my eclectic offerings, but I think confusion will be a part of the process, as it is a very big part of my own artistic exploration. My self definition lacks the "proper" outline. In that respect, I'm a true Hessian character. It's probably my greatest flaw as a commercial artist, but one I know myriad creative souls relate to.

Paul: Anything else you'd like to add?

Rob: I hope I remember to enjoy the artistic journey, the discovery, the occasional "Eureka!" moments. I remain humbled by the whole artistic experience.

Check out Hot Action Cop and their new songs at

Sunday, July 19, 2009

230. Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart (1976)

If you, like me, thought it was weird that the Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones made an album as the Monkees (Changes), then wait till you get a load of this.

In 1976, the Monkees had been dormant for 6 years. However, reruns of the old show were airing on Saturday mornings, generating some renewed interest in the band. An offer came around, as offers will, for the band to reunite. Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith, the two Monkees who quit the band, declined.

So instead, Davy and Mickey got together with Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the duo who wrote many of the Monkees' hits. Unable to use the Monkees name, they choose to go by their last names (though I think Mickey, Davy, Tommy & Bobby has a certain ring to it). Billed as "the guys that sang 'em and the guys that wrote 'em" the band went out on a yearlong tour, which led to an album of new material. There's not much information about how successful the whole operation was, but obviously it wasn't lucrative enough to continue. Their self-titled album serves as a fascinating artifact of the time.

Interestingly, Boyce and Hart only wrote 5 of the album's 12 songs, with 3 more coming from Dolenz and/or Jones, and the rest from various sources. It's also worth noting that Mickey is the lead singer on 7 of the 12 songs, with Davy only taking lead on 1 song (the others either feature shared vocals or Boyce or Hart). Not that I'm complaining, but one might have expected more balance.

The Classics
Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart features no lasting additions to the Monkees catalog. However, there is a version of the classic Dion and the Belmonts tune Teenager In Love. It's a curious choice, considering that all DBJ&H were all in their 30s, but it's actually a very fun version, with Mickey on lead vocals and a banjo serving as the primary instrument.

The Pleasant Surprises
The Dolenz/Jones composition You and I is NOT the same song that appeared on Instant Replay (which was, oddly, also co-written by Jones). Instead, it's a soft rock charmer with a great vocal from Mickey and an infectious chorus.

It Always Hurts the Most In the Morning is another pop standout, with Boyce (who co-wrote the song with Mickey) on lead and Mickey helping out loudly on the chorus. The choral bit at the end is especially nice.

The album's clear winner is I Remember the Feeling, a song that manages to dabble in nostalgia without being derivative. Davy takes the verses while Mickey handles the chorus. Strong background vocals and handclaps drive the proceedings ahead. It's also one of those sounds-happy-but-is-really-sad, as the lyrics reveal that the feeling he remembers is obviously gone. Just an all-around great effort.

Comme Ci, Comme Ca
These songs are just sort of there:

Album opener Right Now is basically a power ballad at heart, with a passionate, warbly vocal from Davy, strings, and a fuzzy guitar solo.

I Love You (I'm Glad That I Said It)
is an overwrought ballad from the sadsack perspective (sample lyric: "And if they ever gave rewards for the loneliest story / I'd be there when they give 'em out / And I'd win without a doubt"). Hart (I believe) takes the lead vocal and his voice has a definite Neil Diamond quality right down to the rasp, talk-singing, and emoting.

Sail on Sailor is NOT the Beach Boys song from the 1973 Holland album. It's the second time in two albums the band cops a Beach Boys title (the other was was You're So Good To Me on Changes). Here's a note to aspiring musicians: Don't steal a song title unless you're sure that your song is better. This one isn't, but it is an island tune. The presentation is intriguing in that each band member takes a verse, joining all together on the chorus. Or at least that was the intention. Mickey's verse is missing from the song, even though it appears on the lyric sheet.

Side two opener Moonfire owes something to Yes, with its heavy electric guitar, strong rhythm, as well as the dreamy, sci-fi bent of the lyrics. It was written by Bill Martin, a songwriter who had written a couple of earlier Monkees tracks (All Of Your Toys and The Door Into Summer, notably).

A couple of songs truly feel like The Monkees 2.o. The laboriously-titled You Didn't Feel That Way Last Night (Don't You Remember) is like (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone with keyboards and worse lyrics (if you wrote the song you're ripping off, does it count as plagiarism?). Even so, Mickey tears into the vocal. And Sweet Heart Attack doesn't bring to mind any specific Monkees song, but has that same feeling, only with a '70s production sheen.

Along Came Jones... the Leiber and Stoller song originally done by the Coasters and covered by Ray Stevens in 1969 is a curious addition to the record. It's a western comedy tune, and an excuse for everyone to ham it up. I'm sure it was fun for the band to perform live, but the novelty wears off very quickly.

Savin' My Love For You, the other Dolenz / Jones compostional collabo is the only truly dated song on the album. It's the Monkees do disco, something that was probably inevitable if you think about it. Thankfully, this song seemed to get it out of their system.

Also worth a head-scratching mention is that the second side of the album features weird between-song segues, with things like Davy Jones reciting a nursery rhyme, dolphin noises, and a creepy electronic voice that thanks you for listening. It presages the skits that pervade rap albums, though I don't like it here anymore than I do there.

Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart is far from a perfect album, but it is fun and enjoyable for the most part. The band were probably never going to become a permanant replacement for the Monkees, but their work is a significant footnote, especially considering that it's a better album than at least 5 of the proper Monkees releases.

Grade: B
Fave Song: I Remember the Feeling

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

229. XTC: Transistor Blast (1999)

Author's Note: While sorting through my files recently I came across the following forgotten review. I had previously labored under the delusion that my first album review was Wilco's Summerteeth, but this one preceded it by two months. It first appeared in the January 15, 1999 issue of the Augustana Observer.

Though they were on the brink of international success, the British band XTC were in serious trouble. It was 1982 and the band were in the middle of touring behind English Settlement, their most mature and best-recieved album yet. However, singer Andy Partridge had begun to have on-stage panic attacks. After one particularly bad spell of this gripping fright, Partridge told his bandmates he was finished touring, forever.

Now XTC have released Transistor Blast, a four-CD set comprised of some of the band's best live performances. Leave it to an unconventional group like XTC to release a live compilation 16 years after their last concert.

When the Beatles stopped toruing in 1966 it led many to claim that it would be the end of their career. And this was directed toward a band who were the biggest and most popular in the world! Imagine then, XTC, who'd had only a couple of minor UK hits and almost no US exposure (though English Settlement's catchy Senses Working Overtime did get some airplay). To stop touring, which is the way bands generate fans, sales, and income, was most certainly career suicide. In some ways, it was. It's probably the reason you've never heard of XTC.

But the band has somehow survived, growing quirkier and more complex, and even scoring minor US hits with Dear God, Mayor of Simpleton, and The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead in 1986, 1989, and 1992 respectively. And though they've grown consistently better as a recording band, XTC have languished in relative obscurity, and were even dropped from the Virgin label in 1996. One wonders if they had simply toured behind their wonderful records, they would have become stars.

Transistor Blast certainly makes a case for that arguement. Consisting of two discs worth of BBC Peel Sessions (in-studio live performances) and two discs of actual live performances from 1978 - 1982, the whole set is electrifying. The band attacks every song with methodical fervor, often speeding up and improving upon the studio versions. Nearly every performance showcases the sharp and focused musicality of the band as a performing unit. As a result, the quality song-writing of Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding stands out as bright as the neon packaging of the discs themselves.

Discs one and two contain the Peel Sessions and range in time period from 1977's jumpy Statue of Liberty all the way to 1989's amelodic Garden of Earthly Delights. Though these are live performances, they were recorded in a radio studio with a small or nonexistant audience. One of the few drawbacks of Transistor Blast is that these tunes aren't presented in any particular order. It would have made more sense to arrange them chronologically, given the varied styles and evolutionary nature of the band's musical progression. Nevertheless, as presented, the songs accurately demonstrate XTC's eclectic nature.

Disc three is a complete concert from 1978, and it casts a different light on the band's somewhat underwhelming first album, White Music (which is performed here in its entirety, along with early singles and B-sides). Disc four presents another full concert, this one from 1980 (it was previously available as a somewhat-rare disc titled, appropriately enough, Live in Concert). This one is the best of the bunch, and showcases how far the band had advanced with two additional years of performing together. It doesn't hurt that it features songs from their superior third and fourth albums (Drums and Wires and Black Sea).

Despite its excellence, I cannot recommend Transistor Blast to a listener who's new to XTC. Of course, for diehard fans like myself it's a treasure trove, and even those with only a casual interest in the band will probably find it worthy. But a new listener should start with a proper album like Skylarking or Nonsuch. Unless I miss my guess, anyone who enjoys those albums will want to buy Transistor Blast eventually.

Transistor Blast is XTC's first release on their new label, and serves as a warm-up for their next album, Apple Venus, Volume 1. It's due in February, and promises to be another Beatles and Beach Boys-inspired dose of pop grandeur. And no, a world tour will not follow. As XTC continues on as a brilliant studio band, they've given us a four disc epitaph for the brilliant live band they once were.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

228. The Monkees: Changes (1970)

Really? That was my reaction when I first learned that Mickey and Davy made a Monkees album as a duo. Really?

Changes, the final Monkees album of the initial run, was recorded with Jeff Barry. Barry was a producer and songwriter who had previously worked with the group on More of the Monkees. Singer/songwriter Andy Kim (who later went to number 1 with Rock Me Gently) also helped out.

It's also worth noting that Barry and Kim were the writers behind a little song called Sugar, Sugar, by nonexistant band The Archies. It's hard to see this as anything but desperate. Afterall, the Monkees made such a valiant effort to be seen as credible artists on Headquarters. Hiring the men responsible for a bubblegum hit by a cartoon group seems to undo that work. Even though the group spirit of that album disappated, all four Monkees continued to write or co-write significant amounts of their own material on subsequent albums. Not so on Changes. Davy and Mickey are back to the way it was in the beginning, just voices.

Even so, considering that the band still contained my favorite Monkee (Dolenz) and my least favorite Monkee (Jones), the album has to be at least half good, right? Well, consider that Davy himself, who often has a tenuous grasp on what makes quality material, disowns the album. That should tell you something. It's not the band's rock bottom (believe it or not, that was still to come), but it's definitely the most generic and dated of their initial nine albums.

In fact, I'm not sure it's even worth writing in the usual categorical format I've used for this review series. There are zero classics
on the album, and only one pleasant surprise, Midnight Train. Is it a coincidence that it's also the only song on the album not written or co-written by Jeff Berry? Probably not. Mickey sang and wrote the harmonica-heavy travelin' tune.

The rest of the album is just sort of there, not terribly offensive, nor terribly memorable. There are minor pleasures, such as the melodic shifts of Ticket On a Ferry Ride, the spirited bridge of All Alone In the Dark, the shared vocals of I Love You Better, and the swampy acoustic guitar lick of Oh My My. But overall the songs are a mishmash of sixties popisms: Doorsish organ, handclaps, electric fuzz guitar, and kazoo solos (!).

Mickey actually dominates the album, taking lead vocals on eight of the 12 songs. Normally this would be a good thing, but late-sixties Mickey had proven himself to be a bit erratic. On songs like It's Got To Be Love and Acapulco Sun, he sounds bored and disengaged. What happened to the Mickey who absolutely sold any song he took on?

Davy, by comparison, actually does okay. Two of his songs You're So Good To Me and Do You Feel It Too are passable pop, and the old showtuney Davy reappears on album closer I Never Thought It Peculilar. He only fails somewhat with his shouty vocal on 99 Pounds. The song itself, about an underweight girl who toys with men, manages to squeeze every sixties pop cliche into just two and a half minutes.

The bonus tracks are basically more of the same. The melodic soft rock tune Time and Time Again, originally intended to be on this album but later cut, previously appeared on the Missing Links compilation. The final two songs are Do It In the Name of Love and Lady Jane, the A and B side of Mickey and Davy's first (and only?) post Monkees single. Both feature the pleasure of hearing the boys sing together, something that didn't happen nearly enough on other Monkees songs. Otherwise, they are more of the same dated pop of the rest of the album.

Changes, while not the complete embarrassment that it could have been, is an album for Monkees completionists, those fans who need to own every note the band ever recorded. The rest of you can safely forget that the album exists.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Midnight Train

And thus ends the first chapter of the Monkees saga. Like the ghosts in a Dickens tale, the band would appear three more times. Keep reading!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Baby, I'm a Star

If you have ever perused the sidebar over there to your right, you may or may not have noticed a blog of mine called Baby, I'm a Star. You may have visited once or twice. If you're especially astute, you probably noticed that I haven't posted anything there in 3 years.

The goal of Baby, I'm a Star is simple: I watch some of pop music's most famous and infamous films and then I write about them. Since there are literally hundreds of films to choose from, I initially picked 30 in 6 different categories (The Pop Music Movie, the Starring Vehicle, the Biopic, the Documentary, the Musical, and the Fake Band) to focus on. When I left off in 2006, I had written about 20 films.

In returning to the project, my ambition has expanded. So in addition to the 10 from my original list, I'll be watching and writing about 6 more films. My new mission is to post one per week, until the project is finally finished. I've also slightly redesingned the blog, and added an index for easy browsing through the archives.

The marriage of pop music and cinema is a volatile one. For every glimpse of true love, there's an awful spat brewing. I hope you'll join me in watching it all unfold. The first of the final 16 films is Spiceworld, a 1997 gem featuring everyone's favorite British singing group phenomenon. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

227. Paul McCartney: Flowers in the Dirt (1989)

It was 20 years ago today. Seinfeld and The Simpsons debuted, and the Detroit Pistons, Calgary Flames, Oakland A's, and San Francisco 49ers were all champions.

This is the fifth in a series of 5 reviews of seminal (well, depending on your definition of the word seminal) albums from 1989. You can read the other four here, here, here, and here.

At one point, I was so consumed with Beatlemania that I made a goal to track down any Beatle-related album, including tributes, albums by offspring (which is how I came to own The Secret Value of Daydreaming by Julian Lennon), and especially the solo albums of the four lads.

What eventually led me to abandon this goal was Paul McCartney. Let's face it, the solo work of the Beatles is largely mediocre, with occasional flashes of brilliance. Paul has contributed his fair share of both the former and the latter, but what makes him more problematic than the others is the sheer volume of his work. While the other three have all released approximately 15 solo albums, Paul's number well over 20. Frankly put, that's a lot of crappy albums to have to seek out. So even though I abandoned my goal halfway thorough, I still ended up with an interesting collection, and some undiscovered gems. Flowers in the Dirt is one of those.

Though exceptions to the generalization abound, McCartney has gotten a rap as a sappy pop songwriter. It's true that his lightweight melodies often need an anchor (something Lennon provided that so well during that their time in the Beatles). Rarely has McCartney acknowledged this, but for Flowers in the Dirt he brought in the acerbic Declan MacManus, a.k.a. Elvis Costello, to be the Yin to his Yang.

The two co-wrote four songs on the album (four additional collaborative efforts appeared on Elvis' albums Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, including the hit Veronica), and as you'd expect, they're among the most memorable on the album. Though That Day is Done and Don't Be Careless Love both sound like Costello album filler, My Brave Face and You Want Her Too have a little more to offer. The former is a polished break-up tune with an ultra-melodic bassline, and the latter is a duet, with Costello playing the cynical foil to McCartney's optimist. For example, Paul sings, "My intentions are quite sincere" and Elvis follows it up with, "That's not what you said the other night." Sound familiar? It's the same dynamic Lennon and McCartney used, especially on songs like Getting Better and A Day In the Life.

Without Costello egging McCartney on, one might expect the other nine songs to suffer in comparison. They don't, mostly because this is the most eclectic McCartney album you'll find. Sure there're the expected would-be showtunes (the loungey, Wingsish Distractions) and cheesy-but-enjoyable pop (the brief, acoustic Put It There), but there're other pleasures too.

Some credit for that can go to Trevor Horn (a former member of the Buggles, Yes, and Art of Noise and producer for ABC, Frakie Goes To Hollywood, Seal, Pet Shop Boys, and many others), who worked on four songs. How Many People, about the death of a Braziallian rainforest conservationist) features a reggae beat. Rough Ride sound smore than a little Bowie-esque. Figure of Eight could be another lost Wings tune, with handclaps and a strong melody, but McCartney's loose vocal (even somewhat pitchy, if I'm being honest) keeps it from sounding too canned.

But the final Horn-produced tune is the most intriguing. Nowadays, McCartney is no stranger to experimentation (his electronic alterego The Fireman has put out three albums since 1993), but in '89 it was something new from him. Ou Est Le Soleil, the album closer, is chugging and funky, and wouldn't sound out of place in a club. The haiku-like lyrics are in French. Here they are, translated (who said 4 years of high school French were useless): "Where is the sun? / In the head / Work!"

Not every song works so well. We Got Married marries happy lyrics with heavy, dark music. Maybe it was Macca's attempt to show he could be could get down-and-dirty on his own, but it doesn't work. Motor of Love is a little bit like a prayer, but sounds like it should be playing over the end credits of a bad '80s movie. It's the only truly dated moment on an record released in a year crowded with dated albums (maybe that's because of the sighing synths of The Cars' Greg Hawkes).

Believe me, I learned through trial and error that most of the Beatles' solo albums are really not worth owning. Put this one on the short list of those that are.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Figure of Eight / Ou Est Le Soleil