Monday, November 30, 2009

No More Songs About...California

Yes, that's right, here comes another new feature on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds. Following in the footsteps of 12 By... and Rock Bottom, I'm proud to introduce No More Songs About.

This one is just like its title sounds. Each time, I'll pick a topic about which I believe there are already too many songs written. I'll look at some of the best songs, some of the worst, and the ones that broke the camel's back.

My first target is the 31st state in the union, California.

Before I get into it, here's my disclaimer. I have nothing against California. I've visited twice (L.A. and San Diego) and loved it both times. I have friends who live there. Inspired by the pioneering visions of Romantic novelists, I really really wanted to move there after I graduated college. And the Beach Boys have a permanent place in my Top 5 Artists of All Time.

But I don't want to hear any more songs about it.

We've gotta start with what should probably be the state anthem, California Love by 2Pac. Over a bomb beat from Dre we learn several things, including that Englewood is up to no good. It's state pride at its best. Classics like California Dreaming, California Girls, and Wilco's California Stars also fit into this category. The excellent California by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sings the praises of the state, but does it with a little bit of humor, as Petty hopes "it don't fall into the sea."

But hearing how great a place is gets old after awhile. Thankfully there are some songs that are more ambiguous about the the Golden State.

Californication
by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Hotel California by the Eagles both imagine the state vaguely sinister place that will lure you in and trap you. California by Rufus Wainwright finds our author unimpressed: "California / You're such a wonder / That I think I'll stay in bed." A clear musical nod to the Beach Boys pervades Losing California by Sloan, who feel similarly bitter about the state's self-image. "And everybody loves it," they sing, "But nobody knows what it stands for."

In every case where a topic comes up in this particular feature, the main case against it is that there are already enough songs. Consider that the word "California" shows up in 20 titles on my iTunes alone. That's not including songs that are about the state but don't use the title (like Death Cab For Cutie's Grapevine Fires), or are about specific places in the state (like The Thrills' Big Sur, Chris Isaak's San Fransisco Days, Randy Newman's I Hate L.A., or Billy Joel's Say Goodbye to Hollywood). But there are also always specific songs that show things have gone too far.

California, by Phantom Planet, is one such song. The once-and-future O.C. theme song is not so much a bad song (or that The O.C.'s quality dropped off so shockingly fast), as it is annoyingly difficult to get out of your head. Everytime you hear someone say "Caifornia," you are then obliged to sing it in a drawn-out nasally voice. Semisonic's California is also clear evidence that things have gone too far. If you have to mispronounce the name of the state (singer Dan Wilson says it like "Cal-i-forn-eye-ah") to make your song stand out then maybe you should just write a song about something else.

You hear that musicians? I don't care how much you love your home state, or how much you've been inspired by your visits there. There's nothing new you can say about California.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Baby, I'm A Star

In July of 2004 I created a sister blog called Baby, I'm A Star. It took its name from song on/in Prince's Purple Rain album/film. The mission of the blog was always intended to be a limited one. I would watch 30 pop music movies from across various categories (biopics, fictional films, documentaries, concerts, etc.) and write a recap/review of each.

Somewhere in 2005 I lost steam and left the project unfinished.

I picked it back up this past July, 5 years later. Since then I've watched 17 additional films, bringing the grand total to 37. Having surpassed the original goal, I now bring the project to a close. It's a bittersweet feeling, and truthfully, I could have gone on forever. As it is, I missed several key films, like Gimmie Shelter, A Hard Day's Night (though I think Help! is better), and Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

From now on the results of this project can be found in the "Related Content" sidebar at the right of your screen, and you can peruse it at your leisure. The final write-up, posted today, tackles the compulsively watchable documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Monday, November 23, 2009

245. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Even Worse (1988)

Here it is, the one that started it all for me. If I gave the impression that I experienced any of the first 4 "Weird Al" albums upon their initial release (well, besides that 45 of Eat It), I'm sorry. That wasn't the case. Even Worse was my first Al album.

I don't remember what attracted me to the Even Worse tape at Kohl's (back when they actually had a music department), but it probably had something to do with the cover. I was a Michael Jackson kid and the proud owner of the Bad album, the cover of which is parodied on Even Worse. No matter, I bought it, and that was that.

But how does it hold up against the odometer of time and with a whole career perspective? Let's find out.

Song Parodies:
There's an interesting pattern in the song's Al chose to parody on Even Worse. I'll see if you can figure it out before I get to the end of this section.

First up is Fat, a take on Michael Jackson's Bad. Al admitted that he formulated the idea for this song with the visuals in mind, and to that end the video and stage performances always feature Al doing the song in a fat suit. The lyrics are pretty funny, if not always clever. The one exception is "I've got more chins than Chinatown," which I just got for the first time. The song was what Al needed after the dismal performance of Polka Party. Piggybacking on Michael's success just like he did with Eat It, Even Worse was Al's best-selling album yet. By the way, Fat is the only song that doesn't fit the pattern I mentioned above.

Next, Al tackles George Harrison's cover of James Ray's 1962 tune (I've Got My Mind) Set On You, turning it into a meta-song called (This Song's Just) Six Words Long. In it, the narrator gives a play-by-play on his songwriting process ("I gotta fill time / 3 minutes worth of time / I'll throw in a solo, a solo, a solo, a solo, a solo here.") Nevermind that the original is actually seven words long; that wouldn't have worked syllabically.

One of Al's best parodies is I Think I'm a Clone Now, a reworking of the Tiffany-popularized Tommy James tune I Think We're Alone Now. The lyrics work perfectly throughout, as the singer tells the tale of his laboratory birth ("they took a donor's body cell and fertilized a human egg") and the benefits of being a clone ("I can send myself for pizza").

Side two opens with Richie Valens' La Bamba, which had been redone by Los Lobos in 1987, reimagined as Lasagna. The lyrics are an impressive feat of rhyming, and the song features the prominent return of Al's accordion-playing (which had been relegated exclusively to the polka medleys on previous albums). Nevermind the fact that a song with Latin origins was being used to celebrate the virtues of Italian cuisine.

The final parody on the album is Alimony, which is based of Billy Idol's remake of Tommy James' Mony Mony. Al's version is about a divorcee's financial woes, and does a good job of replicating the fake live sound of the original. I also like the back and forth with the background singers on the "I'm in debt" portion.

Did you figure out the pattern? Four of the album's five parodies are based on remakes (and two of Tommy James tunes nonetheless) That says something about what was popular in the late '80s, but I'm also guessing a music-savvy person like Al knew full well what he was doing when he made his choices.

Style Parodies:
Stuck In a Closet With Vanna White kicks off the style parodies, and though it doesn't take on a single artist, it's securely in the hair band genre, most closely resembling Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, and Def Leppard. The lyrics are another example of Al's increasing proclivity toward Crazy List songs (if you remember there were two of them on Polka Party!), wherein Al rattles off a litany of improbable events.

You Make Me is a clear homage to the clanging rhythms of Oingo Boingo. It's a love song, but also a Crazy List song, with Al listing off all of the things his beloved makes him want to do, such as, "when I'm with you I don't know whether I should study neurosurgery or go to see The Care Bears Movie." Velvet Elvis is also pretty clear about its source material, bringing The Police to mind immediately. It's curious that Al would do a Police tribute 5 years after their break-up and after already taking on King of Pain (King of Suede on In 3-D).

Twister is significant in that it marks Al's first foray into hip-hop. It's basically the lyrics to the ad jingle for the Twister game over a Rick Rubin-style rock-rap backing. Al raps the song with in a clear Beastie Boys imitation (his Ad-Rock is spot-on).

What The?!
Melanie is one of Al's best original songs ever, about a stalker who can't understand why the titular girl doesn't love him. If it sounds more grim than funny, that's because it pretty much is. In fact, it ends with the narrator committing suicide (begging the question: Is he singing this song from the afterlife?). Musically, the song is the opposite of its sentiment, gentle, melodic, sweet, and harmonic, bringing to mind the '60s revivalism of Marshall Crenshaw (and ripping off at least part of the melody of Crenshaw's You're My Favorite Waste of Time, as well).

Of a piece with Melanie is album closer Good Old Days. The narrator is a complete psychopath who details torturing animals, kidnapping high school girls, and assaulting elderly shopkeepers. This would be bad enough if it weren't all done in the style of a James Taylor song. Though I admire the spot-on imitation of Taylor's gentle style and the jarring juxtaposition of subject matter and tone, it just still feels so wrong given how much I loved Taylor's music as a child.

So how does Even Worse hold up? It's no longer my favorite Al album, but it's definitely up in the top tier of his work. The parodies are funny beyond their titles and the style parodies are diverse and plentiful. The only thing that might have improved the album is a polka medley of then-current hits, though I don't blame Al for putting that gimmick on hold to make us miss it.

References to food: 4
References to TV: 2
Grade: B+
Fave Song: Melanie

Friday, November 20, 2009

244. Weezer: Raditude (2009)

Two questions:

1) Can an artist who made his name on being an awkward outsider become a everyman populist?
2) Is it possible to write a review of a new Weezer album without negatively comparing it to their first two records?

Surprisingly, the answer to both is yes.

Raditude, Weezer's new album, comes hot on the heels of last year's disappointing Red Album, and it continues (one might even say it cements) the band's curious transformation from intelligent geek rockers to block-headed geek rockers. Weezer's early appeal was frontman Rivers Cuomo's kooky outsider personality, but since the band's return to active duty in 2001, he's been steadily moving away from that. His lyrics have gotten more and more simplistic and generic, even if the sentiment behind the songs was genuine.

Now it seems the opposite has happened. Many of the songs on Ratitude contain that attention to oddly specific detail that distinguished the band's debut and Pinkerton, but what they're saying is completely different. There are odes to living a decadent lifestyle (Can't Stop Partyin' and Let It All Hang Out), randy come-ons (I'm Your Daddy and Girl Got Hot), and regressive teen anthems (If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To and Trippin' Down the Freeway). Instead of hanging out In the Garage, you can now find Weezer In the Mall. This is surprise #1.

Surprise #2 is the fact that the band brought in outside songwriters. Cuomo, who writes songs with the effort it takes most people to blink, has rarely been lacking for inspiration. And handing over composing reigns for two tunes to bandmates Patrick Wilson and Brian Bell on the Red Album didn't exactly work out (they were two of the album's worst tracks). And look who he brought in! Jermaine Dupri (Mariah Carey and Usher), Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne), Nick Wheeler & Tyson Ritter (All-American Rejects), and Dr. Luke (Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry).

Some might cry sellout, but think about that for a moment. This is a band that had former Cars singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek produce their first album. You don't hire a man who has sold more than 17 million records in the hopes of appealing to the indie underground.

But Ratitude's biggest surprise (#3 if you're counting) is that it's a pretty good album.

Laboriously-titled opener (If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To (co-written by Cuomo and Walker) is the band's best single in 8 years. It's a joyous love song, mostly, about a vegetarian boy who falls for a girl in a Slayer t-shirt. My favorite part are the barbershop harmonies that lead into the bridge. I'm Your Daddy, despite the cringe-inducing title, is actually quite infectious and likable. But what else would you expect from the co-writer of Since U Been Gone, I Kissed a Girl, and Party In the U.S.A.? I love the synth breakdown where Rivers goes all, yes, Ric Ocasek. Girl Got Hot has a shouty, marchy appeal.

Can't Stop Partying is likely to be the most divisive track. The Jermaine Dupri-assisted lyrics are pure hip hop ("I got the real big posse with me/yeah I'm deep/And if you're lookin' for me I'm in V.I.P./Just follow the smoke/they're bringin' bottles of the Goose/And all of the girls in the corner gettin' loose") and there's even a guest rap from L'il Wayne. What makes it intriguing is the minor key delivery that lends an oddly depressive air to the song, as if the partying is actually a joyless compulsion.

Completing the album's rock solid first half is Put Me Back Together, which brings us back to more familiar Weezer territory. It seems like Wheeler and Ritter (whose band is not a far cry from Weezer) took it on themselves to play the Matt Sharp role, because the synth bits on the chorus are totally reminiscent his songwriting with The Rentals.

Things falter a bit in the record's second half. Trippin' Down the Freeway is a fine enough song, but the title phrase has no relevance to the rest of the song and ends up being somewhat distracting. Love Is the Answer finds the band experimenting with Indian singers and instrumentation (Slumdog Millionaire piggybacking?). It's also a bit jarring to hear Cuomo be so heartfelt and simplistic while singing the title phrase, but he's also kinda right. Strangely, the song appears in a non-Indian version on Sugar Ray's latest album. Let It All Hang Out is another collaboration with Dupri, and it's clearly the lesser of the two, though it'd probably be fun to hear live.

The album's worst song is the Patrick Wilson-penned In the Mall. It's not awful, just pointless faux-hairband drivel. Yeah, it's fun to hang out at the mall when you're a teenager. We get it.

Closer Don't Want To Let You Go brings things around a little bit. It's a slow starter, but eventually builds into an appealing Beach Boys homage (a sure way to win my heart).

Don't get me wrong, Ratitude should not be called a comeback. Those who are still clinging to hopes of a resurrection of Weezer past are going to be disappointed, maybe even disgusted. But those whose expectations of the band have been worn down to a nub (like me), will find several simple pleasures. That's a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: (If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To

Monday, November 09, 2009

243. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Polka Party! (1986)

Into the life of every musician a little commercial and critical failure must fall, and so it was with Polka Party! It's not Al's Rock Bottom (we'll get to that eventually), but it is definitely ranks with his worst. Tellingly, he didn't even tour behind the album (though he did do a string of dates opening for the reunited Monkees). What happened? The inevitable letdown? Lack of inspiration? Burnout? (It was his fourth album in as many years).
Let's see what we can learn.

Song Parodies
The album opens with Living With a Hernia, a parody of James Brown's Rocky IV song, Living In America (in the film Brown performs it before Apollo Creed comes out and gets beaten to death by Ivan Drago). It's a spirited tune, and Al's actual research into hernias is so impressive that the song could probably be used by medical students to study for their exams (Check out the song's bridge: "
You may not be familiar with the common types of hernias that you could get /So just settle down, let me clue you in / There's incomplete, Epigastric, Bladder, Strangulated, Lumbar hernia, Richter's hernia, Obstructed, Inguinal, and Direct.") But my favorite part is when instead of Brown's famous "I feel good!" Al exclaims, "I feel bad!"

Here's Johnny takes on the theme to Short Circuit, El DeBarge's Who's Johnny. Instead of going the Shining route, Al fashions a tribute to Mr. Ed McMahon, replete with references to American Family Publishers, Clydesdales (he was a Budweiser pitchman), and Johnny Carson. A McMahon imitator even comes in and throws in a few trademark laughs and "Hi-O!"s. It's all around a good time.

Things go downhill, however with the other two parodies. A take on Mick Jagger's Ruthless People has the double handicap of being not that clever (the title, Toothless People, is about all of the joke you really need) and being based on a bad song (since it was composed by Jagger, Daryl Hall and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, it should have been much better; at least the movie was pretty good). Word is that this the first time Al asked permission to parody a song before it was even released. It might have been the last as well.

The other stinker is a take 0ff of Robert Palmer's 1985 Addicted To Love. Al plays a poor soul who loves potatoes so much that he is, yes, Addicted to Spuds. Despite a clever line here and there ("Potato bug has gotten me too"), the song is rote. It reminds me of the only fan letter I've ever written. In 1988 I wrote to "Weird Al" and told him that I thought he should turn Palmer's then-new hit Simply Irresistible into the potentially hilarious Simply Indigestible. Shame he didn't listen to me, though I should have at least taken a crack at doing it myself for a school project or something.

Style Parodies
The best of the style parodies is Dog Eat Dog, a combination of Office Space and Talking Heads. Coming THIS close to ripping off Once In a Lifetime and And She Was, Al tells the daily drama of being a cubicle dweller.

Also up there on the quality scale is Good Enough For Now, a straight-up foray into country and western. The narrator is a non-particular feller who is willing to settle for second best: "You're the woman I've always dreamed of / Well, not really, but you're good enough for now." It reminds me a bit of another Al, namely Al Green and his nonchalant Let's Get Married (basically the song's narrator is bored and proposes to his girl; "Might as well," he says.)

Less easy to pin down is Just One of Those Days, an early example of a specific type of tune Al would later rely on way too often: the crazy list song. This one reels off a litany of absurd and terrible things that happen to the narrator in the course of a day, including getting a Coke bottle stuck on his tongue, being covered in ants by Nazis, and having nothing but tater tots for dinner (obviously this isn't the same narrator as Addicted to Spuds). Though it doesn't succeed for me overall, there is sort of a satisfying absurdity to the final line: "Just before bed / The world blows up and everyone's dead." I'm also always in favor of providing perspective to people who always have something to complain about. Musically it's a generic blues-based rocker, and is very reminiscent of In 3-D's Midnight Star (though it's nowhere near as good).

Don't Wear Those Shoes is another list song with no specific genre, though it's kind of in that Rick Springfield rock wheelhouse. This one is just kind of pointless, with the singer detailing the crazy things a person can do besides wear the titular shoes. It makes one yearn for the early Al songs that actually dabbled in real social commentary.

Polka Medley
Al was three-for-three in this genre with the title track. Here he polkas up Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel), Sussudio (Phil Collins, notice the Genesis connection here at the beginning?), Party All the Time (Eddie Murphy), Say You, Say Me (Lionel Richie), Freeway of Love (Aretha Franklin), What You Need (INXS), Harlem Shuffle (Rolling Stones), Venus (Bananrama), Nasty (Janet Jackson), Rock Me Amadeus (Falco), Shout (Tears For Fears), and Papa Don't Preach (Madonna).

What The?!
I wasn't sure I'd be able to sustain this category, but so far Al has come through every time. On Polka Party, the honor goes to Christmas at Ground Zero. Sonically replicating classic '60s Christmas recordings, this gruesome ditty finds humankind celebrating Jesus' birth in the aftermath of nuclear destruction. Summing up the fear caused by Reagen having his finger on the button, Al sings lines like, "If the weather's okay / I'll go out with you and see all the new mutations on New Year's Day." The added air raid siren effects are just the bow and ribbon on the present.

Conclusion
So what's wrong with Polka Party? Taken as individual songs, the album only has a few true clunkers. And there are a couple of truly impressive tracks. But the majority of its tunes are just sort of there, mediocre and going through the motions. And if nothing else is true in this world, this is: A parodist who isn't having fun is not worth listening to.

References to TV: 3
References to food: 3
Grade: C
Fave Song: Christmas At Ground Zero

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Rock Bottom: Paul Simon

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest com
bined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

In a mini-review of Paul Simon's 2006 album Surprise, I wrote: "Paul Simon has never made a bad album, and it doesn't seem he's about to start." I still believe that, but not all fans and critics agree with me. In fact, it was quite easy to find the consensus worst Paul Simon album.

Songs from the Capeman was released in 1997 as an advance calling card for a Broadway musical that opened the following year. The musical told the true story of Salvador Agron, a 16 year-old Puerto Rican immigrant who stabbed two white boys to death during a gang fight. It was a big story in New York the year it happened (1959), and Simon remembered it well.

The album featured some of the musical's key songs performed by Simon along with various cast members. It initially received much critical praise (Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, Rolling Stone, four stars), but the play itself was a bust, lasting only 3 months and losing lots of money. Now, in retrospect, many have designated the entire affair - including the album - to be a failure, and for some very intriguing reasons.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine over at the All Music Guide gave Songs from the Capeman 2 stars (1 full star less than anything else in Simon's oeuvre) and said, "the project is a cerebral exercise, not only in writing but also in white liberal guilt, and it's an exhausting one at that." He doesn't expand that thought, but it's a loaded statement worth delving into.

Amazon reviewers, as usual, were split. There's the five star superfan contingent that always shows up, but the naysayers are numerous enough to drag the average rating down to 3 and 1/2 stars. Their complaints can be boiled down into three main categories:

1) Paul Simon is white and shouldn't be trying to write Puerto Rican music.
An anonymous review titled "Culturally Shallow Music" states, "Simon presents a very stereotyped view of Latino people in this music. He seems to be bouncing from culture to culture, looking for something new but, in this instance, skimming the surface and failing to find it." Another anonymous reviewer (there were an inordinate amount of those for this record) says, "Frankly I didn't like Mr. Paul Simon singing salsa, mambos, etc. in English."

Okay, people who don't think white musicians should attempt music originated by other cultures should probably only listen to opera, polka, bluegrass, country, or classical music. Every other genre, from rock to blues to jazz, was appropriated from a non-white culture. Nevermind the fact that Paul Simon's later solo career has been defined by his explorations of "world music," from the South African sounds of Graceland to the Brazilian beats on Rhythm of the Saints, OR the fact that he makes it a point to use actual musicians from these countries, just as he features Puerto Rican singers and players on Songs from the Capeman (most famously, Mr.Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony).

2) The record features too much cursing.
Believe it or not, this was a deal-breaker for many listeners. Yet another anonymous reviewer titled his rant "Buyer's [sic] should be made aware of the frequent profanity used," and said "Although the music is meant to be an operetta, the theme is lost in the excessive use of profanity. Shame on Paul Simon, the record company and the critics for not warning us. If I had known, I can assure you I wouldn't have added it to my collection." Steven E. Martin echoes the complaint. He writes "We buy music our kids can listen to and enjoy...if you do this too stay far away from this CD. In fact, if you love music at all stay far away from this CD. It is, by far, the worst CD we own, and we own a lot of them, including a bunch by unsigned artists who reek." I have one word for Mr.Martin: Raffi.

In any case, the use of curse words on the CD is not pervasive. Only 4 of the album's 13 songs have any objectionable language, and of those four The Vampires is responsible for the majority of it. In total, there are 6 variations of "fuck" and 3 "shits" (most rappers have that many in one verse). So anyone truly concerned with the cursing could have just followed my mom's lead. When I was young she bought Billy Joel's Greatest Hits Volumes I and II, but when she made a tape for us to listen to in the car she didn't include Captain Jack because of the drug use and masturbation.

I'm also disturbed that these morally upright Amazon reviewers were more offended by cursing than by Simon's use of racial slurs, three toward Latinos and two toward African-Americans. One could argue (I would) that the use of the words is justifiable for novelistic and historical purposes, but it's sadly telling when people can't handle someone saying "ass" but have no problem with "spic."

3) The story glorifies and creates sympathy for a murderer.
Another unidentified reviewer said, "I am puzzled by the critics' praise for this CD, and their use of adjectives like 'sweetness' when describing it. I find nothing 'sweet' about murder, profanity, and gang violence, especially when it is depicted sentimentally as it is here."
James Morello wrote: "Aside from glorifying a murderer, what's really insulting is the attempt to seduce the listener with talented singers, nice arrangements and seemingly harmless 50's doo-wop harmonies." Damn those secretly sinister doo-wop harmonies and their "seemingly harmless" facade! Elle Sanchez sums up this contingent's ultimate fear: "Paul Simon's tale will inspire the young and many others to believe that murder is cool." Yes, because there are so many youngsters out there looking to Paul Simon records for moral direction.

The real question is, does Songs from the Capeman really glorify Salvador Argon? Well, here's a better question: Can you handle some moral ambiguity in your entertainment? Does rooting for Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity make you a psychopath? What if, once or twice while watching the Sopranos, I actually identified with what Tony Soprano was feeling? If your son wants to dress up as Darth Vader for Halloween, does that mean he's headed for a life of telekinetically strangling his inferiors?

Glorify is a strong word. Sure, Songs from the Capeman tackles things from Argon and his family's point of view, and presents a somewhat sympathetic look at a boy who was illiterate, living in poverty, and joined a gang as a matter of safety, national pride, and youthful misdirection. Very few of these songs discuss the actual murders, it's more about what led to them and the aftermath of them. One device Simon uses regularly is having the older, imprisoned Argon engage in dialogue with his younger self. Time Is An Ocean is basically a duet between the two, and it tackles some questions those who were outraged might want to consider: Do you believe in redemption and rehabilitation? Should a person's life be ruined because of stupid decisions made when they were 16? Do you want to be held accountable for your actions when you were 16?

And that's not to mention the fact that Simon devotes many songs to other points of view. Virgil's narrator is a racist prison guard. Killer Wants To Go To College represents those who didn't like the national attention Salvador got for pursuing an education and writing poetry. And then there's Can I Forgive Him?, which presents the situation from the perspective of three different mothers: Salvador's and his two victims'. They all ask themselves the titular question, each coming up with different answers. So, those who dismissed the songs as glorification should have probably listened a little more closely.

Finally, let's take a look at Mr. Erlewine's loaded statement. Is Songs from the Capeman Simon's attempt to alleviate his "white liberal guilt"? That phrase has become somewhat of an epithet, seen as an ill-considered need to apologize for benefiting from being part of the dominant culture and wanting to see non-dominant cultures receive equitable treatment. Many conservatives get hung up on rehashing the past (well, when that past doesn't make them look good, otherwise they love it). There's a "what's done is done" attitude toward the racist past of our country. You might even run into some of these same people who'll tell you that Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Barack Obama solved racism.

Did racism and white privilege play a part in Salvador Agron's story and how it was portrayed and reacted to? Hell, yeah. Is Simon saying that absolves him somehow? I don't see any evidence of that in the songs, nor do I care if Simon's "liberal guilt" was a motivation for writing the musical. One can argue that guilt is a vital part of morality. If I felt no guilt over anything (or rather, had no conscience about my actions), what would stop me from doing heinous things? Some would have you believe the threat of punishment would do that trick, but history has consistently proven otherwise.

Anyway, you might think that from all of the combativeness that Songs From the Capeman is one of my favorite albums. It's not. In fact, I pretty much agree that it's Simon's Rock Bottom (it's that or the mostly-forgettable One Trick Pony). While some of the individual songs are great (especially Bernadette, Quality, Satin Summer Nights, Adios Hermanos, and Trailways Bus) and the performances are stellar, I don't really like the hybrid nature of the record. I'd rather hear a full-on cast album or Simon-only renditions of the songs.

Also, you can tell just from these 13 songs why the musical failed. Granted it's an abbreviated version of the full musical with no visuals, but there are too many characters and no focused narrative. The songs, while good, have little of the mainstream appeal required for Broadway success.

That said, I still find it to be a very intriguing addition to Simon's catalog, one most artists would be lucky to call their worst.

Author's note: This is album review #242.