Saturday, October 31, 2009
Like a Surgeon, Al's take on Madonna's Like a Virgin, may have kept him in the spotlight, but stands today as one of his lesser parodies. Reportedly, the idea for the song came from Madonna herself, when she wondered aloud why no one had made Like a Surgeon yet. I do like the line: "I'm a quack / it's a fact / The disgrace / Of the AMA / 'Cause my patients die / Before they can pay" and the use of the EKG monitor for rhythm, but otherwise it doesn't do much for me. Then, I'm not a huge fan of the original either, though.
Girls Just Wanna Have Lunch takes Cyndi Lauper's fun original and makes it pretty boring. One just has the feeling that Al could have tried harder. It's interesting to note that Al wisely doesn't attempt to imitate Lauper's distinctive singing style.
I Want a New Duck, a reworking of Huey Lewis and the News' I Want a New Drug, fares better thanks to weird / funny lyrics about a man who wants a feathered friend. Though the "new" part of the lyrics suggest he had or has an old one, which is intriguing in and of itself. Al gets in a bunch of groaner puns too (e.g. "He'll show me how to get down...get it?!"). I'm surprised no one saw fit to use this on the soundtrack to Howard the Duck.
The best of the four is, of course, Yoda. Taking The Kinks 197o hit Lola and makes it an ode to the diminutive Jedi master. As a kid, I could think of no better subject matter for a song, so this was my FAVORITE "WEIRD AL" SONG EVER (it's not anymore, just another example of the faded luster of the Star Wars franchise). Al does a good job with the lyrics, though one can tell he wrote it much earlier than it was released (legal wranglings with Lucasfilm held things up) because of the line, "I know Darth Vader's really got you annoyed / But remember if you kill him then you'll be unemployed." By '85, Return of the Jedi (featuring Vader's death) had come and gone.
For the most part on Dare To Be Stupid, Al continues writing originals that don't owe anything obvious to a particular artist. The one exception is the excellent title track, an obvious riff on the robotic songwriting of Devo. In the lyrics, Al suggests not following fortune cookie cliche advice ("bite the hand that feeds you", "look for Mr.Goodbar", "it's time to let your babies grow up to be cowboys", etc.).
One More Minute is a '50s style doo wop song. Inspired by a real break-up, Al put his pain to song and wrote one of those I'm-claiming-not-to-care-that-you-left-me-but-the-fact-that-I'm-singing-about-it-undermines-my-message tunes. Things get more absurd and graphic as the song goes on. Sample lyrics: "I'd rather clean all the bathrooms in Grand Central Station with my tongue / Than spend one more minute with you." Love this one.
Al jumps a couple of decades even further backward for This Is the Life, a Depression era swing tune with braggart lyrics ("I hire somebody to chew my food" and the like) from a ridiculously rich narrator. The song appeared in the Michael Keaton film Johnny Dangerously. It's also notable that, as a nod to the growing popularity of hip hop, the middle of the song features some anachronistic DJ scratching.
Cable TV, extols the virtues of the titular subject (at that time still a newish invention) and appropriately sounds like an '80s theme song. It's got prominent piano, a sax solo, and a chorus of female back-up singers. Sporadically it calls to mind Ray Charles, but for the most part it's cheesy '80s rock.
The final style parody, Slime Creatures from Outer Space, is also hard to pin down. It's got a very '80s sound as well, making use of a drum machine, heavy funky bass, and computerized voices. Add in some horns and it vaguely nods to Prince's 1999 and Purple Rain sound. The lyrics concern an alien invasion, if you didn't guess.
Al obviously recognized a good thing after In 3-D's Polkas on 45, so he tried again with Hooked on Polkas. Here're the songs he tackles: State of Shock (The Jacksons feat. Mick Jagger), Sharp-Dressed Man (ZZ Top), What's Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner), Method of Modern Love (Hall and Oates), Owner of a Lonely Heart (Yes), We're Not Gonna Take It (Twisted Sister), 99 Luftballoons (Nena), Footloose (Kenny Loggins), Bang Your Head (Metal Health) (Quiet Riot), and Relax (Frankie Goes To Hollywood).
Again in this case my "what the?" reaction is not necessarily negative, but I do wonder why Al decided to record a faithful cover of the theme song to George of the Jungle (a short-lived '60s cartoon by same guys that did Rocky and Bullwinkle). Oh well, it's kinda fun.
References to TV: 3
References to food: 4
Fave Song: Dare To Be Stupid / One More Minute (tie)
Monday, October 26, 2009
Anyway, top to bottom, In 3-D may be Al's greatest accomplishment.
The album begins with Eat It, a parody of Michael Jackson's Beat It. Basically, this is the song that gave Al a long-term career; it's how most people first heard of him. And it's not even that clever of a song! Jackson's Thriller was so white hot that anything riding its coattails became popular as well. Anyway, the big story with Eat It (and the rest of the parodies on the album) is the new coat of polish on the arrangements. Unlike on the first album, where accordion dominated every song, Al's band does a great job of replicating the instrumentation. And kudos to guest Rick Derringer for taking on (and nailing) the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo!
Brady Bunch is a fun take on the already-fun original Safety Dance by Men Without Hats. After a little intro about not liking anything on TV, the song basically turns into the Brady Bunch theme song put to different music. Inspired.
Another TV tune comes in the form I Lost On Jeopardy (the source being the Greg Kihn Band's Jeopardy). This is the first instance of an eclipse-the-original parody. What I mean by this is that after hearing Al's version, you can't hear the original song with out putting Al's lyrics to it. I'm still not sure whether this is a good or bad thing or who to blame or praise.
Though you're not likely to hear it on an '80s station very often, King of Pain by the Police was a fairly big hit in 1983. Al turns it into King of Suede, featuring a vaguely foreign store owner advertising his sartorial wares. The juxtaposition of the haunted minor key music with cheery self-promotional lyrics is intriguing, as if there is a deep well of sadness underneath this businessman's exterior. This is also a good time to point out that Al's parodies are only as strong as the originals. King of Pain is a great song, so King of Suede is too. If he parodies a bad song, the parody is going to be bad. We'll see some examples of this in later albums.
The final parody is Theme from Rocky XIII, a funny take on Survivor's Eye of the Tiger (which served as the theme song for Rocky III in 1982). The song finds Rocky in retirement "fat and weak" and running a deli ("Try the rye or the kaiser"). My favorite part is how Al works in the line "not gonna fly now" an allusion to the theme from the original Rocky.
Al truly takes off on In 3-D's style parodies. Even the least of them is still pretty good. First is Gonna Buy Me a Condo, a reggae joint about a Jamacian immigrant who has completely bought into the American dream of consumerism: "Gonna buy me a condo / never have to mow the lawn / get a funny little t-shirt / with the alligator on." As with the originals on Al's debut, the social commentary is clear.
Al's first overt style parody (a song with original lyrics and melody, but still obviously in the style of a certain band) is a B-52's-copping number called Mr. Popeil. The song isn't about the Ronco infomercial guy, but his father, who started the family business. Speaking of family, taking over the Kate Pierson / Cindy Wilson role is none other than Lisa Popeil, the daughter of the song's subject!
The other two style parodies, Midnight Star and That Boy Could Dance are harder to pin down. There's no fan consensus on whose style they're taking on, and Al has never confirmed either as being a true style parody. Even so, they both clearly owe debts. The loser-makes-good tale That Boy Could Dance has a tinkling piano line and a sax solo that call to mind Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The melodically-rich Midnight Star belongs on any top 5 Al originals list. The lyrics are a list of funny/weird National Enquirer-type headlines ("Hear the story of the man born without a head!", "The ghost of Elvis is living in my den", etc.) and the closest musical analogy I can find is to the J.Geils Band, but even that isn't a clear match. No matter the inspiration, it's a great song.
On In 3-D, Al introduced a new trick, the polka medley of hit songs. He was Marty Culp before it was cool. In modern times the gimmick has evolved to include only "current" hits, but Polkas on 45 features a mix of then-new songs and classics. Here's a list: Jocko Homo (Devo), Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple), Sex (I'm A...) (Berlin), Hey Jude (Beatles), LA Woman (Doors), In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly), Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix), Burning Down the House (Talking Heads), Hot Blooded (Foreigner), Every Breath You Take (The Police), Should I Stay or Should I Go (The Clash), Jumpin' Jack Flash (Rolling Stones), and My Generation (The Who).
A "what the?!" reaction can be good or bad. In this case it's good. The album's final number is a strange concoction called Nature Trail to Hell. The song is an advertisement for a horror film of the same name about a homicidal maniac who terrorizes a Cub Scout camp. Mostly Al spoofs the thin predictable plots of these types of films, but he also gets some more social commentary in there when he says, "If you like the 6 o'clock news then you'll love Nature Trail to Hell." Musically the song has elements of metal, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and prog rock, but doesn't remain slavish to any one of these genres. And of course the film is "in 3-D". We have a title!
References to TV: 3
References to food: 6
Fave Song: Midnight Star
Friday, October 16, 2009
Who grasped the material better? Who will get the better grade from the professor? Let's find out. To make things fair, I chose reviews of the exact same album, U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind.
First, a quick review of our 8 lessons.
Lesson 1 concerned the use of figurative language and the way it can color up your writing. We focused on metaphor and simile, interesting adjectives, technical terminology, and hyperbole. Lesson 2 was about the vital importance of making comparisons and allusions to other artists, songs, and albums in your reviews. It's also important that these comparisons be obscure and that you don't waste time or energy explaining them to your readers. Lesson 3 was closely related to that, and was about the inherent dynamic of cool and uncool musicians. Lesson 4's motto was "forget joy". Reviewing music is not about what you love, it's about what you hate. And lesson 5 taught us to always seek out (or manufacture) deep philosophical, social or cultural significance in the music we write about. Lesson 6 was about using an artist's own history against them. Lesson 7 taught you to ignore the concepts of subjectivity and logic, and to always say double albums would be better as single albums. And, finally, lesson 8 told you never to apologize for, regret, or change your mind about a misguided review.
Not all lessons are applicable to each review, but my rubric awards points based on frequency and degree of implementation of the lessons that are used.
by David Browne
Entertainment Weekly, November 3, 2000
U2's current single, Beautiful Day, opens not with a bang but a murmur . Gray-sky strings give way to a faint rhythmic pulse; slipping into the track like an errant husband coming home late , a hushed Bono paints a dreary picture of traffic jams, luckless circumstances, and sundry frustrations both everyday and cosmic . Then, suddenly, drummer Larry Mullen crashes in, and the song erupts into a euphoric bellow so uplifting Day was played during the recent Olympics telecast. We know it's a corny move, and U2 know we know; as the Edge unabashedly told Entertainment Weekly last month, the song has a ''classic U2 arrangement.''  But damn if it isn't effective. For a few minutes, one is transported back to 1988 — a time when so much rock, be it mainstream, indie, or hair metalish, actually sought to be sonically and emotionally uplifting. 
For anyone still puzzling over 1997's half-baked Pop, this type of U2 song is a welcome reversal of fortune.  Even more startling in light of the band's seeming obsolescence, the mood of Beautiful Day rarely lets up for the remainder of the accompanying album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's as if the band — and Bono, in particular — left the PopMart tour's space-age goggles and inane costumes on the bus . And as hopelessly antiquated as it may sound in the year 2000, it's as if they decided it was time to write and record an album of very good, extremely substantial traditional rock songs with an underlying inspirational bent. 
Pop had its substantial moments too, but the band came across far from confident blending electronic swooshes into their songs, and the music seemed to slip through their fingers (and ours) . Starting with Beautiful Day, which opens All That You Can't Leave Behind, the new album is as unwaveringly assured as Pop was tentative . Wild Honey, all sexual charge and emotional ambivalence, finds a melodic groove and stays there; the equally lusty Elevation and Walk On (one of many songs with lyrics straight out of a self-help manual) have the charging-horse feel of U2's youth, with a bumpy-noise upgrade courtesy of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois . Not to denigrate their early-'90s one-two punch, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, on which the band let its freak flag fly to often lustrous effect, but the new work focuses on songs, not sonic gimmicks, and the difference is palpable.  Even when they frill up a track with rootsy touches, like the R&B accents of the lift-yourself-up bromide Stuck in a Moment, they shake off their stodginess. New-generation dullards like the Wallflowers would do well to scribble notes. [2,3,4]
Of course, a U2 album would not be a U2 album without assorted Bono upheavals and quests.  Here, the 40-year-old addresses a midlife crisis (complete with apparent affair) in New York and longs for ''heaven on earth/we need it now'' in Peace on Earth. The songs are heavyhearted, but the arrangements — the grimy urban beats of the former and the delicate balladry of the latter — aren't. (On New York, you even forgive Bono for describing Manhattan as hot and multiethnic, which is about as original as calling Dublin ''drizzly.'') Even the Edge dusts off his needles-and-pins leads. U2 no longer seem wary of their tendency toward the anthemic and grandiose, and they shouldn't be;  it still sets them apart from nearly everyone, with the exception of Radiohead at their loftiest. [2,3]
Unless it's on behalf of hard-to-recite album titles, All That You Can't Leave Behind doesn't stake any claims for advancing the art of pop music. At this point, U2 wouldn't be the ones to take us there anyway. But at a time when rock feels so earthbound, and dance-steeped albums like Moby's Play provide the musical exaltation guitar bands once did , U2 simply want to reclaim some of that old stomping ground. In their hands, falling back on old habits isn't cowardice, but a virtue.
Implementation tallies: Lesson 1 - 3, Lesson 2 - 3, Lesson 4 - 3, Lesson 5 - 1, Lesson 6 - 7
As you can see, Browne narrows his focus to lesson 6, casting his entire review in light of the band's past work. His title even tells you that's what he's going to do. Mentioning Pop four times shows a solid grasp of the principles of the lesson. It's not a bad idea to specialize, but you don't want to completely drop out the other lessons, and Browne is in danger of doing just that. I'm especially disappointed in his poor showing on lesson 5. He fails to imbue any deep philosophical weight on the album. The one place Browne uses it barely even qualifies, because he's talking about the meaning of one of the songs. Though he praises U2 for searching for deeper universal meaning, he doesn't heed his own advice.
One sly bit Browne sticks in that may not show from the raw numbers is a curmudgeonly disdain for modern pop music, which is right in lesson 4's wheelhouse. Just in this short review, he claims that then-current music wasn't "good," "substantial," "inspirational," or "sonically uplifting" which is a nice, sweeping, unverifiable claim. He also says new generation musicians are "dullards." And bonus points to him for managing to slam the Wallflowers and praise Radiohead (two bands that have nothing to do with U2) as a matter of course.
However, overall, Browne's work is strictly at the emerging stage. His prose in this review is too direct and straightforward, lacking the substantial, inspirational life-changing charge of the ideal album review. By my complex and secret grading system, Browne earns 8.5 out of 24. That's an F, my friends.
Now let's see how his classmate and competition did...
* * *
"Is This Desire?"
On All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 finally find what they're looking for 
by Ann Powers
Spin, November 30, 2000
Throwing your hands up in the air can be an act of faith. Stick 'em up -- there's no resisting the way life constantly robs you of control. But open those arms wider, and defeat becomes elation. "Stretch out your hands toward the sanctuary," the psalmist instructed pilgrims seeking the Promised Land. Don't be surprised when submission turns to strength. 
U2 know plenty about spiritual abandon. From their early work as flag-waving Christians soldiers through the ecstatic desert wanderings of the mid-'80s, to the fall to dirty earth that started in 1991 with Achtung Baby, the Irishmen specialized in the plunge, riding rock's gravitational pull to states of unchecked emotion.  With a force that sometimes seemed ridiculous, each album was a dunk in the river, and loving the band meant giving in -- not to God but to the problematic idea of meaningful rock.
Yet U2 have never explored their fetish for surrender with such relaxed eloquence as on All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope).  Nor has the band ever worried less about proving its genius. After Pop, 1997's uncomfortable tiptoe into techno [1,6], they've realized that the rash pursuit of the moment works only for Madonna [2,3]. Self-respect demands U2 ignore Kid Rock and eliminate the need for Creed. [2,3]
Fact is, even after Bono stuffed piety down his vinyl pants, people continued to use rock as a source of spirit-raising [5,6]. U2 light the unfashionable fire better than anybody else, and with age have become more adept at contemplation. Bono's preaching now has an air of weathered serenity. The Edge rarely careens around as if his guitar is a flame-thrower , instead stressing sharp fingerwork. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, back as producers (with Steve Lillywhite and others helping), use effects -- churchy organ, backward violin, whale sounds -- but keep the colors between the lines . The songs are still full of deep thoughts, but now they come from a quieter place.
Call it the happy aftermath of a midlife crisis. U2 is relaxing, reasserting some beliefs critics love to shove back in their face -- most importantly, that uplifting art is not necessarily dumb . The albums opening one-two-three punch irresistibly makes this point. Beautiful Day is a hip-shakingly messianic exhortation of faith found through adversity, while Stuck in a Moment takes hope higher in a gospel arrangement that fulfills the Harlem dreams the band's been chasing since Rattle and Hum.  Then comes Elevation, a flat-out sex song seductively posed in an electronica bed . But it's really about love as salvation , with Edge showing his mysterious ways, the rhythm section fluffing its funky feathers , and Bono testifying like he's dreaming of Aretha and feeling like a natural man [2,3].
A dip in energy would be understandable after this rush, but U2, being U2, wanna take you higher, as Walk On and Kite return to the desert of The Joshua Tree.  Piano, strings, and background voices expand to fill Lanois and Eno's cathedral-size mixes , and Bono's proclamations swell along with the sound. Every sentence is a proverb of wind and water, but the band offers its inspiration in a modest way, so it doesn't grate [1,5].
After these peaks, the record detours into eddies U2 have explored before [1,6]. The mellow In a Little While turns Satellite of Love into an Al Green song [2, 3], with Bono using his new and at times bothersome soul shout, and the real interest coming in the interplay between Clayton's fuzz-touched bass and Edge's Velvety guitar [1,2,3]. Wild Honey nods at the Beach Boys , and several songs revisit the darker musings of Pop , letting the album drift a bit toward inertia. This detour leads nowhere, especially on the embarrassing New York, a (hopefully) final bid by Bono to inhabit Frank Sinatra's moldering persona [2,3].
But the delicate coda, Grace, puts us back on solid sacred ground. The song is a parable about a woman saintly enough to be a Lars von Trier heroine . Such an exercise in virtue will put off sophisticates - I mean, where are the supermodels? [?] But as Edge and Clayton spool a slow dance, sparked by tiny cloudbursts from Eno's keyboards , celebrating faith, hope, and love doesn't seem that bad . In fact, it's exactly what U2, giving in to itself, is meant to do. 
Implementation tallies: Lesson 1 - 8, Lesson 2 - 8, Lesson 3 - 6, Lesson 4 - 0, Lesson 5 - 6, Lesson 6 - 9.
Immediately, it must be noted, Powers has a slight advantage over Browne. He only had 675 words to work with, where she has 731. But with those mere extra 56 words, she manages a remarkably more accomplished piece of writing.
The first paragraph alone is a masterpiece of random meaning making, a la Lesson 5. I've read it at least 10 times and I can still only find a razor thin connection to anything remotely related to U2 or their music. Well done. Also, Powers shows a remarkable dexterity with Lesson 6. She not only generalizes who exactly she thinks U2 are as a band, but every paragraph has some sort of comparison to their past history. Even the title and subtitle of the review play off of older U2 song names, which covers both Lesson 1 and lesson 6. That's worth extra credit, my friends.
Her grasp of figurative language is solid, as is her ability to allude to other bands. I'm especially a fan of paragraph 3's beatdown of Creed and Kid Rock, and paragraph 7, where EVERY SENTENCE contains an artist comparison. And check out the sly double use of lessons 1 and 2 in the line "Edge's Velvety guitar." One could take that figuratively, and say that the guitar sound is smooth, but the capitalization also allows it to serve as an unexplained Velvet Underground comparison. Again, well done.
But Powers blazes new territory in her final paragraph. The Lars Van Trier allusion is obscure and delicious, and her next line is the cherry and whipped cream on top. You'll notice I annotated it with a question mark because it is so innovative as to not even fit into any of our existing lessons. There's a vague dig at "sophisticates" (because making a reference to Lars Van Trier is certainly not something a high-minded person would do) and supermodels, and a fair amount of righteous anger. What it has to do with U2, the song Grace, or anything else, we don't know. It's kind of Lesson 5ish, with a little bit of Lesson 7's lack of logic added in, but really it's something completely different. Again, that's worth extra credit.
The one glaring fault of this review is Powers' seeming love of her job. I wonder if she forgot to study her notes on Lesson 4, or if she was absent that day. There's nothing in this review that indicates that Powers finds pop music to be a laborious burden on her life. Nothing to indicate that she actually dislikes 99% of what she hears. This is definitely something Powers should improve upon.
Powers' raw score on this review is a whopping 18 out of 24. With 1.5 points of extra credit she earned, that makes it 19.5. That's a solid B, with room to grow.
* * *
Monday, October 12, 2009
From there, I got every "Weird Al" tape I could find and listened to them incessantly. It's not odd that a prepubescent boy whose life ambition was to become Editor-In-Chief of Mad Magazine found Al's songs to be the pinnacle of comedy. But it is strange that I responded so strongly to parodies of songs I had never heard. That's right, a kind word for my musical awareness at this time in my life is "non-existent."
Now as I look at it, I wonder if I don't have Al to thank for my eclectic, expansive taste in music, heck even my interest in becoming educated about music history. Think about it, just by listening to his records, I was exposed to every pop genre imaginable. Really, studying Al's career is like doing a survey of the last 26 years of pop music. Are you ready?
I'll separate each album into three categories: Song Parodies, Style Parodies, and What The?! In addition, I'll keep a running tally of references to food and television (I may regret this).
"Weird Al" Yankovic's self-titled debut was never one of my favorites as a kid. I listened dutifully, of course, but I not nearly as much as I listened to his other albums. The easy conclusion would be that I had an innate sense that this was proto-Al, but in truth, the album presents the Yankovic shtick almost fully formed. Goofy parodies of then-popular songs? Check. Accordian? Check. Style parodies? Check. Hand fart noises? Check. However, that's not to say everything is in its right place just yet.
Ricky - the most clever parody on the album - actually improves upon its source material, Toni Basil's 1982 hit Micky. Instead of being annoying, it's about someone annoying. The Ricky of the title is Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy, and the song runs through the show's main tropes. My favorite line: "Oh Ricky what a pity don't you understand / That every day's a rerun and the laughter's always canned." Tress MacNeille (voice actor most famous for The Simpsons) does the voice of Lucy, and in especially inspired moment, the tune morphs in the the I Love Lucy theme at the end.
Sadly, not all the parodies are as inspired. Though they're all put across with great musical spirit, the lyrics are often lacking. I Love Rocky Road takes on Joan Jett's 1982 hit I Love Rock 'n' Roll. There's nothing in the lyrics that you can't get from reading the title, though when Al pleads "make it talk" during the accordion solo, it is pretty funny. Stop Draggin' My Car Around (after the Tom Petty / Stevie Nicks duet Stop Draggin' My Heart Around) is in the same boat. The narrator is addressing a repo man, and the joke gets old fast. Musically, Al misses a prime opportunity to imitate Stevie Nicks' overwrought singing style, instead doing the song as a solo (though the background vocals are pretty spot on). My Bologna, which got Al noticed early on and helped launch his career, is a parody of the 1979 Knack jailbait tune My Sharona. Once again, you get the idea once you hear the title, and a burp replaces the famous "wooo!" Classy.
The album's final parody is of Queen's 1980 hit Another One Bites the Dust (Another One Rides the Bus) and it recovers a bit. The song is simple and raw, and the lyrics are pretty clever ("The window doesn't open and the fan is broke / And my face is turning blue / I haven't been in a crowd like this / Since I went to see the Who.").
It's also worth noting that all of the parodies on this album prominently feature accordion, making them clearly discernible from the original. In later parodies, Al's band reproduced the instrumentation of the original songs a bit more faithfully.
As his career went on, Al got more direct with his style parodies (songs obviously in the style of an artist but with completely original lyrics and melody), but on his debut it's not that clear cut. Some songs fit clearly into a certain genre, but there are few that seem aimed at a particular musician.
One interesting aspect of the style parodies on "Weird Al" Yankovic is the social commentary Al manages to work in. The Kinksish (Kinksy?) Happy Birthday finds him reminding the birthday boy or girl that "You should be good and happy that there's something you can eat / A million people every day are starving in the street." One might say that it's a condemnation of comfort and privilege. That's a theme that shows up again in Buckingham Blues, another ironic juxtaposition of genre and subject along with a healthy dose of class commentary. The song tackles Prince Charles and Princess Diana (who had married in 1981) and imagines how tough their lives must be. Though the line "Bein' heir to the throne, it must be pretty hard / Gotta post for pictures out on the front lawn" is not nearly as funny now as it once was, given how Diana died.
The Check's In the Mail is a '20s style ragtime tune that addresses the go-go smile-and-stab-'em-in-the-back '80s. Over trumpet and ukulele accompaniment, Al's narrator bullshits and shmoozes ("Why don't you leave a message with my girl / I'll have lunch with your machine"). The power-poppy I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead addresses the curious rise of the yuppie / hippie hybrid. Overall, these songs show a man who's scoffs at convetions and pretense, and is in touch with the world around him.
But then you have Gotta Boogie, a disco style parody that contains exactly one joke. Instead of "boogie" meaning dance, it means a booger. Get it?! The style parodies are rounded out by the Elvis-in-Vegas tune Such a Groovy Guy, with a narrator who doesn't lack self-confidence. It's neither bad nor great.
Mr. Frump In the Iron Lung, with another self-explanatory title, was supposedly a crowd favorite at Al's early concerts (at least according to the liner notes for the Al In the Box set), and I can see it playing well in person. But on record it seems mean and callous, especially since it ends in poor Mr. Frump's death. Not cool.
References to TV: 2
References to food: 3
Fave Song: Ricky
Friday, October 09, 2009
Lesson 8: Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word
Let's cut to the chase here: Being a music critic means never having to say you're sorry.
Are you going to be flat-out wrong in your assessment of an album, song, or band from time to time? Well, yes and no. Yes, because you are, and no because you'll never admit it.
It's a music critic's job to make sweeping, definitive statements about things so it follows that naturally you aren't going to be right about all of them. Wait, you may be saying, if it's my opinion, how can it be wrong? And that's how you should be thinking, but every once in awhile all available evidence flies in the face of your opinion and makes it seem ill-considered.
Let's look at an example. Today, Prince's 1987 album Sign O' the Times album is generally considered to be one of his best. Rolling Stone's Toure calls it Prince's "masterpiece" and gives it 5 stars. AllMusic Guide gives it an identical rating, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine uses words like "tremendous", "fearless", and "liberated" to describe it. The album had 3 top ten hits, including the title track, I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man, and U Got the Look, in addition to the favorites If I Was Your Girlfriend and Adore. It's unequivocally a high point in the man's career.
But when Steve Perry (not the singer for Journey, I'm assuming) reviewed the album in a 1987 issue of Musician, he didn't see the album as anything near classic. Words like "unremarkable" and "contrived" show up. As do "lame", "masturbatory", and "scattershot." Even stranger, this is not just a good old-fashioned lambasting, wherein the critic vents his spleen (the benefits of which we learned about in Lesson 4). Perry seems to genuinely like Prince, and he rarely gets as mean as he could. He even finds some good things to say about It's Gonna Be a Wonderful Night and The Cross and a couple of other songs. But his ultimate summation of the album is unquestionably negative. In a bravura conclusion, Perry states that Prince is "the first major pop star since Dylan to make an expatriate of himself without leaving home." What he means, we're left to assume, is that Sign O' the Times is actually a sign of Prince's withdrawl from the pop mainstream.
So it's safe to say that Perry's assessment was wrong. Luckily, we critics are prepared for such occurrences. Let's say an album you trashed eventually comes to be considered one of the best albums in an artist's catalog. Fans buy it in mass quantities, radio plays the hell out of it, and even other critics start admitting it's not so bad. What do you do then? Well, this is where it's helpful to cop a rock snob persona. The rock snob creedo is as follows: "Nothing that people actually enjoy can possibly be remotely good." So if that's your attitude, you're covered when something you didn't like becomes popular.
And then there's the flip side. Every so often you will sing to high Heaven the praises of a band, song, or record that everyone else basically hates. Case in point, Mick Jagger's 2001 solo album Goddess in the Doorway. The AllMusic Guide gives the album three stars (the same as Jagger's first two solo albums and less than his third one), and Erlewine calls it "disappointing" and says that it sounds like it could have been released in 1987. Amazon.com reviewers give it 3 1/2 stars, with the lowest total of any of his four solo albums. Metacritic.com averaged reviews of the album and came up with a 62 out of 100, and a quick look at the adjectives leveled at the album reveals words like "blandness", "sub-par", "formulaic", and "unsatisfactory." The album failed to sell well or leave any sort of lasting impression on the pop music audience.
In short, in the eyes of many, many people, it's not a great album.
So imagine your surprise when you'll learn that Rolling Stone PUBLISHER Jann Wenner reviewed the album and gave it 5 stars! FIVE STARS! That means it has no noticeable flaws. That means it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Exile on Main Street, Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, London Calling, or Pet Sounds. And Wenner, one assumes, is well aware of this. In his conclusion he says Goddess in the Doorway is "an insuperably strong record that in time may well reveal itself to be a classic." Other laudatory terms Wenner employs include: "exceptional", "extraordinary", and "beguiling." Even your world-wise professor (me) was so taken by Wenner's impassioned review that I ran right out and purchased the album. My impression? Well, let's just say I disagreed with Wenner more than I agreed with him and that the album is no longer in my collection.
So Wenner went out on a limb, and it broke off. Again, the rock snob mindset offers a solution. Afterall, the opposite of the rock snob creedo is also true: "Everything that people hate is actually very good." If given the occasion, you just label the band, song, or album as one of the unders. You know, underground, underappreciated, or underrated.
Finally, you might be wondering what happens if you, *gasp* change your mind! It's entirely possible that you might, after multiple listens, or some life-changing event, come to realize that a record or band you once despised is actually kind of intriguing after all, or that something you thought was pretty good was actually kind of awful. What do you do then? Well, I'll tell you what not to do: Admit you were wrong. DON'T DO IT.
Consider the results when, in 1998, former Entertainment Weekly critic David Browne devoted an entire two pages to admitting he was wrong. The gasp of horror I emitted when I first came across this article was audible even in the outer-ring suburbs. Entlited "Second Grades," the piece finds Browne reconsidering some of the ratings he'd given out in the past. First he lists albums which he didn't rate high enough the first time around, including Radiohead's OK Computer (duh), Hole's Live Through This, and Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle. THEN, he admits that he is sometimes too kind (he needs to read Lesson 4), and therefore wishes that he'd given lower marks to Frank Sinatra's Duets and Cranberries' To the Faithful Departed.
But Browne's also violates Lesson 7 by admitting he has a bias, and that his personal feelings about Mary Chapin Carpenter and R.E.M. led to overinflated ratings for their Stones in the Road and Monster albums. And though he tries to smooth things over with a Celine Dion-sucks joke at the end, the damage is done.
I only bring this sordid affair up as a cautionary tale, and to reinforce my central point. Remember this if you remember nothing else: YOU ARE AND ALWAYS WERE RIGHT!
And if you guessed that we've reached the end of the instructional part of this feature, then you're also right. The final installment is a final exam, wherein we'll compare and contrast two different critics' reviews of the same album. We'll see what they did right and what they did wrong, and review everything we've learned over the last two and a half month. So get a full night's sleep, eat a good breakfast, and bring a sharpened number two pencil. This will go on your permanent record.
Friday, October 02, 2009
Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of Pitchfork.com. I read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.
We're nearing the end of this feature, and thus lesson 7 features three mini-lessons that serve as a catch-all. One could be a very serviceable music critic mastering only lessons 1 - 6, but the three tidbits presented here (along with the forthcoming Lesson 8) are that little something extra - the pineapple on the cottage cheese, if you will - allowing you to be in total command of your craft.
Let's take them one-by-one.
A) Policy of Truth
You should inherently know the following information, but I feel obliged to spell it out for your anyway, because everything else you do is based on this principle. I'm bolding and centering it for dramatic effect:
When the below-average to average reader approaches a music review, he or she is likely to take the critic's words as gospel. The above-average reader approaches a music review with the idea that the critic's words are simply one opinion among many. That's why you should always write to the below-average or average reader.
Once in awhile you may feel you are on shaky ground, that your experiences and thoughts about music may not be universal. But, you may say, perhaps everyone doesn't own the complete works of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefhart, every existing Neil Young bootleg, and all the Nuggets compilations. Push that feeling away. Hit it with a shovel and bury it deep. You are not writing for those people.
What do I do about those above-average readers, you might ask. If I state everything as undeniable fact, won't they think that I'm a condescending blowhard? Won't they eventually discount me completely, or read my work with the singular goal of refuting anything they possibly can? Well, forget those worries. If you put your head down and ignore these types, you'll be fine. The key is to never apologize or concede a point. Eventually, you'll be so convincing, you'll even believe yourself.
So if you just aren't feeling Jay-Z's new album, don't be all milquetoast about it and say something like, "I found the album difficult to get into for reasons x, y, and z." Instead, say, "The Blueprint 3 is so certainly Jay-Z's weakest solo album, you'll be tempted to wonder if Kingdom Come was somehow underrated" as Ian Cohen did in his Pitchfork review. His statement doesn't allow anyone to a) believe that The Blueprint 3 might be good or b) that Jay-Z might have a worse album.
Likewise, you should always avoid "I" statements and NEVER admit your bias. Lester Bangs, rock critic blueprint, didn't quite have this down. He usually didn't shy away from making his opinions appear universal and unarguable, but in his review of Public Image Ltd.'s Second Edition album he calls it "one of the best records I've heard since, oh, say, maybe White Light / White Heat." The use of "I've heard" in that makes it clear that this is simply Bangs' subjective opinion, which is exactly what we don't want the reader to think.
As for admitting bias, well, it's sort of the inverse of Lesson 4. In that lesson you learned to unapologetically embrace your innate hatred of certain bands. Well, you should also embrace bands you love and give everything they do overly-inflated accolades disguised as gospel truth. And never, never admit you're a fan. So when Nick Hornby, the novelist who briefly moonlighted as rock critic for the New Yorker, says that Radiohead's Kid A "relies heavily on our passionate interest in every twist and turn of the band's career, no matter how trivial or pretentious," it is pulling back the curtain a little too much.
B) Pretzel Logic
Supertramp aside, music isn't logical. Therefore, critics don't abide by logic either. This means that whatever rating system you use (1-5 stars, letter grades, 10 point scale) need not be anything but intuitive and subject-to-your-whims. Forget having a clear set of criteria for achieving various ratings. It's simply not necessary.
To whit, consider the AllMusic Guide. It's a trusted source for album ratings. They use the 1-5 star scale. One star, I'm assuming, being a piece of garbage, while a five star album is a classic. The Guide's guru is Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a music-reviewing machine. The organization does employ other writers, but tends to assign the same writer to review an artist's entire oeuvre. This, you might think, leads to some sort of internal consistency. So if you looked at, say, Prince's body of work, you'd be able to look at the ratings and see a clear dichotomy.
So when we look at 1985's Around the World In a Day, which Erlewine gives 3 1/2 stars and says, "The problem is, only a handful of the songs have much substance outside of their detailed production and intoxicating performances, and the album has a creepy sense of paranoia that is eventually its undoing" then we can expect that anything lower than 3 1/2 must be pretty darn bad, right? I mean, if only a few songs have substance and the album is ultimately undone, those aren't good things. So let's look at New Power Soul, which got 2 stars, and about which Erlewine writes: "New Power Soul is a tight, focused record, filled with energetic funk workouts and classy, seductive ballads. It's paced to entertain, just like one of his legendary concerts, and there's no shortage of well-crafted songs. The problem is, nothing stands out and makes itself known." I suppose that one might say that, to Erlewine a lack of substance is a lesser sin than nothing standing out, but is that distinction worth 1 and a half stars? Who knows or cares? Remember the lesson and throw logic out the window.
That's certainly what Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber does in his review of Radiohead's Amnesiac album. Based on his review, Schreiber only likes four songs on the album, and sums it up as "a thinly-veiled b-sides compilation." What sort of rating (on a 10 point scale) might you expect for an album like that, especially considering Pitchfork is notoriously stingy with their accolades? A 6, maybe a 6.6432 at the outside? Nope, Schreiber gave it a 9.
So, when you rate albums or songs, remember David Byrne's advice: "Stop making sense!"
C) Double Vision
If you take only one thing away from this entire series of lessons, let it be this: Double albums should always be single albums.
The double album debuted in 1966 with Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and it was novel enough to get a free pass for a brief while. The honeymoon was over by 1968's The Beatles, which was considered by the New York Times to be "more than half-full of profound mediocrities." This was a good start, but the newspaper had yet to master the second part of reviewing a double album. Not only should you say that it's "padded with filler" but you should also suggest that had the artist chosen to self-edit and release the best songs as a single album it would have resulted in a far superior final product.
Even albums released simultaneously are not exempt. Take Springsteen's 1992 releases Human Touch and Lucky Town. They were separate records and should have been treated as such, but it didn't stop our intrepid brethren. Anthony DeCurtis (Rolling Stone) wrote in his review of the latter that, "Without question, the aesthetic and thematic aims of Human Touch and Lucky Town would have been better realized by a single, more carefully shaped collection that eliminated their half-dozen or so least essential songs." William Ruhlman of the AllMusic Guide said Springsteen "might have been better off pulling a couple of the stronger songs from the earlier album [Human Touch], adding them to the later one [Lucky Town], and shelving the rest."
A couple of more modern examples:
In 2006 the Red Hot Chili Peppers released the double album Stadium Arcadium. A survey of available reviews of the album reveals a healthy number of critics following their obligation (also, the percentage of reviewers mentioning the fact that the group once wore socks over their penises is astronomical). Good ol' Stephen Thomas Erlewine says, "it's hard not to feel that it's the band's responsibility to take this very good repetitive album and mold it into something sharper and more effective." Raoul Hernandez of the Austin Chronicle remarked that, "The Clash crammed eight more cuts on their 2-CD Sandinista!, greatness with the mediocrity left untrimmed. Given the razor's edge, Stadium Arcadium might have been London Calling." Good grasp of Lesson 2 there, Raoul. Jeff Vrabel of PopMatters simply begins his review thusly: "The following is a message from The Society of Music Fans for the Elimination of Double-Disc Releases."
Other reviewers put a modern spin on the criticism. Michel Endleman, Tim Chester, and David Marchese all suggest that listeners download the best songs and use their MP3 player to create their own single disc version. Way to roll with the times, fellas!
Jay-Z's 2002 double disc The Blueprint 2 met the same criticism. Amazon.com editorial reviewer Dalton Higgins doesn't blame Jay-Z, but the genre itself: "Do you want in on hip-hop's dirty little secret? Well, not even rap's greatest icons have been able to pull of a memorable, fast-forward-free double disc." Marc Hill, from PopMatters, said it as clearly as a person can: "If Jay-Z had taken the top 12 songs from the two discs and made a single album, this could have been another classic."
Jay-Z, though, tried to get the last laugh on us critics here. He actually listened to us and released a condensed, single disc version called The Blueprint 2.1. The result? Critics were still unhappy. Try to parse out Rollie Pemberton's Pitchfork response to these developments: "So, for the classic bloated double-album prototype, the filler helps more than it hinders, as evidenced by the spectacular failure of the condensed version. Truly, Carter's vision of the streets had to stretch out over two discs, if only to handle the spectrum of influence he's drawn from and continues to create." It's a valiant attempt to try to justify the failure of the critics' suggestions, but in the end Pemberton undermines our fundamental stance, which is that double albums are never justifiable.
I hope you can justify coming back next week for our final lesson, Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word, where we'll learn about the greatest sin a rock critic can commit. See you soon!