Friday, January 29, 2010

252. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Running With Scissors (1999)

When "Weird Al" Yankovic's first album came out I was six years old. When Running With Scissors came out, I had just graduated college. Though I had outgrown Al's sense of humor by this time (detailed in my review of Bad Hair Day), I didn't really know that then.

So was ignorance bliss? No, not really. I found some minor pleasure in the album, but mostly Running With Scissors sat on the shelf, and with good reason. Though better than Bad Hair Day, it's not a good album.

Once again, I'm aware that I bring a jaded adult bias to these later Al albums. Had I been 12 years old in 1999, I probably have been floored by Running With Scissors and played it incessantly. So that's something to consider as you read. However, I think I would have hated the cover art no matter what. It's overly obvious and not very well composed either. And what's with that band of track running along the right third of the cover? What's the purpose of that? I vote this for Al's worst cover art, hands down.

Parodies

Running With Scissors is the third in as many Al albums to feature a song about a blockbuster movie. It began with Jurassic Park on Alapalooza, continued through Gump on Bad Hair Day, and officially becomes a pattern with The Saga Begins, a parody of Don McLean's classic American Pie. Instead of telling a cryptic history of rock 'n' roll, it's all about Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. As usual Al does an impressive job of making the lyrics fit, but the problem is that there's no real commentary or opinion interjected. Instead, it's just a straight-forward recounting of the film's plot. And this movie was BEGGING for some commentary. Perhaps Al feared the wrath of George Lucas and played it safe. Anyway, it's worth noting that this song was released only a month and a half after the film opened! Al claims to have gleaned most of his details from Internet leaks, but he also got to see an advance screening.

Pretty Fly for a Rabbi is a take on The Offspring's hit Pretty Fly for a White Guy. The original was already pretty funny, putting an uncomfortable spotlight on white middle class kids co-opting black culture. Al makes the song much less interesting by making it about the Jewish culture. And as with Amish Paradise on Bad Hair Day, he makes disturbingly broad generalizations about a religion/culture. Sure, he throws in lots of Hebrew and Yiddish words, but the heart of his song is still based on stereotypes, "he'll make you such a deal" and the like. And what's with the "Meka-leka-hi-meka-heinie-ho" reference from Pee-Wee's Playhouse? As far as I know, Jambi was not Jewish. Terrible F.

Things do get slightly better. Jerry Springer and Grapefruit Diet are entertaining tunes, despite the fact that they recycle older ideas. The former is a parody of the Barenaked Ladies' hit One Week. Al makes it about Jerry and his cavalcade of human misery, but it ends up being very lyrically similar to Talk Soup, from Alapalooza. Grapefruit Diet originates in Cherry Poppin' Daddies' hit Zoot Suit Riot from the short-lived swing revival of the late-'90s. Al's version is about a hefty man who tries the titular diet. The jokes could have come straight from Fat, though I admit to getting a laugh out of, "I think I'd sell my soul for a triple patty melt / But I need a boomerang when I put on my belt".

The album's best parody is It's All About the Pentiums which has Puff Daddy's It's All About the Benjamins (the rock-oriented remix) as source material. Here, Al pairs two seemingly incompatible things, rap and tech geeks, with hilarious results. Though the Sarah Michelle Gellar reference dates it a bit, the song is full of great lines: "You're just about as useless as Jpeg's to Helen Keller" or "You said you've had that desktop for a week / throw that junk away it's an antique" or "If I ever meet you I'll control alt delete you."

Style Parodies
My Baby's In Love With Eddie Vedder is a zydeco tune about, well, you get it. Why write a song about Eddie Vedder when Pearl Jam's success had peaked by this point? Well, Al has an ax to grind with Eddie's attitude toward his chosen profession: "What a pain in the butt to have so much success / Spending all his time moping and avoiding the press" and "Now every time I see him, well, he looks so grim / I guess it must really suck to be a rock star like him."It's a deserved roasting, even if is a bit tardy. Also clever: A Ticketmaster reference, and the fact that the jilted narrator ultimately decides to develop his own crush, on Alanis Morissette.

Germs is done in the classic style of Nine Inch Nails, and concerns those not-visible-to-the-naked-eye organisms that wreak havoc in our lives. The song's narrator probably should seek some help, and the song brings to mind germophobe episode of Seinfeld ("I prepared it while I bathed"). Though musically convincing, it doesn't beg for repeat listens.

Your Horoscope For Today is a ska-style list of star sign predictions. Of course they're all wacky: "Taurus! The stars predict you'll wake up do a bunch of stuff and then go back to sleep" and "All Virgos are extremely friendly and intelligent - except for you!" At least the song's bridge addresses the notion that astrology is ultimately dubious.

Finally, your reaction to the country tune Truck Drivin' Song all depends on how funny you find the idea of a transvestite truck driver. Myself, not so much.

Other
Running With Scissors includes the theme song to The Weird Al Show, a Saturday morning kids program that ran on CBS for one season in 1997. I never saw it, but the theme, telling a wacky origin of Al himself, is pretty good as far as TV themes go.

Polka Medley
Another album, another medley of then-popular hits. I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me nostalgic for the late '90s. Here's the list: Wannabe (Spice Girls), Flagpole Sitta (Harvey Danger), Ghetto Superstar (Pras), Everybody (Backstreet's Back) (Backstreet Boys), Walking on the Sun (Smashmouth), Intergalactic (Beastie Boys), Tubthumping (Chumbawumba), Ray of Light (Madonna), Push (Matchbox Twenty), Semi-Charmed Life (Third Eye Blind), The Dope Show (Marilyn Manson), Mmm Bop (Hanson), Sex and Candy (Marcy Playground), and Closing Time (Semisonic).

What The?!
In latter days, it seems the artistic success of The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota created in Al a troublesome proclivity for overlong songs. Albuquerque is an 11 1/2 minute stream-of-consciousness talk-sung tune about, well, Albuquerque, I guess. More concerning than its length or lack of real content is that it's almost an exact musical copy of a song called Dick's Automotive by The Rugburns, a short-lived '90s punk group (they also, probably not coincidentally, had a song about Eddie Vedder). This is only the latest in a growing list of songs in the second half of Al's career that are basically parodies without credit given to the original artist (see also: The Biggest Ball of Twine In Minnesota, I Was Only Kidding, When I Was Your Age, Traffic Jam, The Night Santa Went Crazy). I used to think Al was unsung musically because his own non-parody work had such breadth and depth. To find out that many of them are basically plagiarized is disheartening.

References to TV: 2
References to food: 2
Grade: D+
Fave song: It's All About the Pentiums

Monday, January 25, 2010

Rock Bottom: Madonna

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 pers
pective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about 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.

* * *
Let's get right to it. I'll let Amazon.com reviewer Gergy350, do the honors. Her review of 2003's American Life reads, "Oh my God...Madonna has hit rock bottom with this totally empty album." There's no doubt that the album is Madonna's worst-selling, least-loved, and most-panned. But does it deserve it?

Our go-to critical source, the All Music Guide, is curiously silent on American Life. Despite the fact that the title of the guide seemingly promises coverage of ALL music, there's no review of the album. All we get is a 2 1/2 star rating (which is actually not the worst rating in Madonna's discography on the site). Stephen Thomas Erlewine, why have you forsaken us?

We look to Rolling Stone for consolation. Reviewer Ben Ratliff gave American Life 3 stars and, despite finding it laden with personal and social commentary (seriously), he concludes of Madonna's lyrical bravery: "One hopes it's a principle she applies to the work that lies ahead of her -- which could be writing children's books or producing movies or running a record label. Making records, it seems, may not be her strong suit anymore." Notice he didn't mention acting there.

And the fan reviewers on Amazon.com? D. Coronado found the album to contain "too much self-commentary that wasn't done in a very interesting or unique manner." And Distant Voyageur thought the lyrics were "incredibly childish, negative, and absolutely depressing to listen to." A. Brown, in a review titled "American Strife", says, "I bought this because I am a big fan of the artist, but this is the most boring music Madonna has ever created. She sounds like she wants to say something important, but doesn't quite have the vocabulary to get her point across." Finally, R.J. Marques remarques (sorry) that, "I will keep this CD so my Madonna discography stays intact, but I sincerely doubt I will ever give this CD another spin..."

I even got into the act. Now I love Madonna, especially pre-2000 Madonna. So my disappointment was palpable when I reviewed American Life on this very blog (it was my fourth review; I was just a babe). I gave the album a "D" and said that it had no transcendent moments, nor anything to remind me why I loved Madonna so much in the first place. In my conclusion I stated, "The second worst criticism I can level at an album is that it's boring. The worst criticism is that I can't even find one song that I'd put on a mix CD. In this sad case, it's both."

Relistening to the album 6 years later (for the first time, tellingly), I find my opinion has changed pretty dramatically.

Here's the problem: Madonna is the Stephen King of music. Both have wild popularity in their fields, and neither were taken very seriously in the beginning and middle of their careers. In Madonna's case, she's not an especially gifted singer. No one ever looked to her for her thoughts on political or social issues. Her lyrics were about love and dancing, not philosophy: ("gonna dress you up in my love"; "holiday, celebrate"; "I'm crazy for you"; "you've got to let your body go with the flow"; "music makes the people come together", etc.). But she had the image and performance thing down pat, and she was shrewd enough to stay one step ahead of musical trends. And that led to lots of hits.

Her albums Ray of Light and Music (1998 and 2000, respectively), found her stretching artistically, writing more personal and reflective lyrics, to positive acclaim. For critics and hipsters, this newfound depth was excuse enough to bring their once-secret love for Madonna into the open. As also happened to King, the general view of Madonna began to change from a vapid populist to a valid artist.

I'm not positive, but I think that went directly to Madonna's head (it was probably a short trip). She already knew we loved her body, but could it be that we loved her brain, too? Why not find out, and make a singer-songwriter album? That's what American Life is. Every other Madonna album was all about music and melody, with the lyrics built to service the song. American Life is the opposite. The music is designed to showcase the lyrics.

The shocking thing is that once a person gets over the idea that this isn't a Madonna pop album (I clearly hadn't when I wrote my review), American Life is 70% good. The six songs from I'm So Stupid through X-Static Process are actually quite strong, as is the closer, Easy Ride. Mother and Father gets points for its tantalizingly strong chorus, but the rest of the song falls a bit short. Hollywood could have been great if it had been about anything other than Hollywood.

It's that other 30% of the album that proves the most problematic and puts American Life in the Rock Bottom slot. The title track sports a memorable chorus, but becomes inexcusable in the rap at the end. Sample lines: "I drive a Mini Cooper and you know I'm super duper" and "I got a lawyer and a manager, an agent and a chef / Three nannies, an assistant and a driver and a jet." The inclusion of Die Another Day, the theme to the 2002 Bond film of the same name is also ill-considered. Despite somehow making it to #8 on the charts, it's not a very good song, nor does it fit with the theme and mood of the rest of the album.

I fully believe that the album art has something to do with the negative reaction to the album as well. From the inexplicable Che Guevara-copping cover to the liner notes laden with pictures of Madonna wearing fatigues and holding automatic weapons, it's all very confusing. What exactly was she trying to say? That she's a revolutionary? That Americans like guns and war? One idea is ridiculous, the other is obvious. I'll believe this until the technology exists to upload music directly into our brains: Cover art does matter.

But does bad album art, low sales, and two (really 1 1/2) awful songs a Rock Bottom make? By the numbers yes. The only other contenders were 1990's Dick Tracy soundtrack I'm Breathless and 2008's Hard Candy. Each got a full half-star higher on the ratings scale. The former has Vogue on it, so I can't hate on that. The latter is the only Madonna album I don't own (I couldn't get past the ugly cover...see?) so I can't make a proper judgment.

At any rate, Madonna seems to have learned a valuable lesson from American Life. Namely that her fans will abide introspection and reflection as long as it's put to music they can shake their asses to. The title to her 2005 follow-up even seemed to acknowledge that. It was called Confessions on a Dance Floor.

* * *

Author's Note: Madonna's recent hits collection, Celebration, mistakenly includes TWO tracks from American Life (Hollywood and Die Another Day). For my own take on what that compilation could have been, click here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

251. Duran Duran: Liberty (1990)

Since we only get a year that ends in 0 every 10 years, I thought it might be fun to look back at interesting albums from 1980, 1990, and 2000. Next we have...

When I chose Duran Duran's Liberty as 1990's representative, I didn't really know what I was getting into. I picked up the album very cheap at the end of last year, and it spent a couple of weeks on repeat in my CD player. Since I'm pretty much ignorant of Duran Duran beyond their hits, I thought it'd be a fun album to investigate and review.

Wouldn't you know that in the course of my research, I discovered that Liberty is considered Duran Duran's worst album! Now, I'm not really including it as part of the Rock Bottom feature for a couple of reasons. One is that I don't have an enough expertise on the band's oeuvre to make a good judgment call, and the other is that Rock Bottom rule about "missing vital members." Duran Duran has a complex personnel history, but there's an agreed-upon Fab 5 (even though that line-up was only responsible for 4 of the band's 12 studio albums). That makes it tough to truly compare their albums. In Liberty's case, Andy and Roger Taylor were not with the band. They had been (seemingly) permantly replaced by Warren Cuccurullo and Sterling Campbell on guitar and drums (the latter stayed only a year; the former was with the band until 2001).

Regardless of its circumstances, fans and critics did not enjoy Liberty. The AllMusic Guide gave it one star. Amazon.com fans found countless ways to name it the band's low point. Even singer Simon LeBon said of the record: "I don't think we got it right; I don't think we were paying enough attention." But you know what? Maybe I need my ear checked, or maybe my Duran Duran ignorance is preventing me from seeing the whole picture, but overall, I think Liberty is a pretty good record.

The ballad Serious is the album's calling card. Though not a big hit, it was included on their 1998 Greatest compilation and is one of their best songs. It's also a clear precursor to the thoughtful, mannered sound of subsequent hits Ordinary World and Come Undone (both from 1993's Duran Duran album). My Anarctica is along the same lines, a great lost ultra-melodic ballad from the band, with dreamy shades of Avalon-era Roxy Music. I think it's about a girl who's cold and unexplored, but that's all I can really discern.

The biggest surprise of the album is the band's use of '80s stye funk. It suits them well. Opener (and semi-successful first single) Violence of Summer (Love's Taking Over) has a loose feel and a keyboard line worthy of Prince. The chorus, however, is pure Duran Duran. The excellent title track is an R & B / synth-pop hybrid in the George Michael manner. The pre-chorus sports a strong, memorable melody, while the chorus itself is all about the horns and background vox. Lasting First Impression and Can You Deal With It mine similar territory.

The socially-minded Hothead features samples, a funky guitar lick, and a brief attempt by LeBon to rap. Even if it doesn't quite work, I give the band points for trying something new.

Though its spirit of experimentation is admirable, Liberty stumbles when it puts trickery before melody. Think U2 on Zooropa. All Along the Water is as percussive and propulsive as it is repetitive and insubstantial. Read My Lips has its merits, but is a bit too tricked up, to the point that it becomes undistinguished dirty rock. Album closers Venice Drowning and Downtown are best forgotten all together.

Again, since the only other Duran Duran albums I've heard in their entirety are Duran Duran (The Wedding Album) and Astronaut, I'm in no position to declare Liberty either their best or worst. But it is an album with at least 6 good songs and only two kinda awful ones. Plus,the title track, Serious, and My Antarctica all deserve to be in any discussion of the band's greatest singles. It just goes to show that the difference between "worst album" and "forgotten gem" is in the ear of the behearer.

Grade: C+
Fave Song: Serious

Sunday, January 17, 2010

250. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Bad Hair Day (1996)

Between the ages of 17 and 19 I really got into Kurt Vonnegut's novels. I bought and read every one of them, finding that each one more revolutionary and spell-binding than the last. During that time, one of my dad's friends, a bookstore owner said, "Ah, I remember my Vonnegut phase too. I'm glad I outgrew that."

I was kind of stung by that at the time, at the idea that my interest in this great and important author was nothing more than a developmental stage. And though his comment was mostly callous and condescending, it had a patina of truth. Namely that lots of forms of entertainment are developmental.

I bring that up because Bad Hair Day is "Weird Al" Yankovic's ninth album and yet it shows very little evolution from his first one. And I don't mean that musically; Al has had the luxury of being able to evolve along with the musical times. It's his sense of humor has remained exactly the same throughout. And if I had to put a number on it, I'd say it's the sense of humor of a boy between the ages of 10 and 15 (From 16 on, most of us move on to things slightly more sophisticated, like dick jokes).

The question is this: Does Al actually have the sense of humor of a 15 year old, or is he just shrewdly good at knowing and appealing to his audience? Either way, it's a striking thing. Bad Hair Day is an especially good example of Al's arrested sense of humor, and it's no coincidence that it marks the point where my love for Al's music became compulsory rather than passionate (I was 19 when it came out). Sure his songs continued to give me a chuckle, maybe a guffaw or a snort now and then, but never the belly laughs that his earlier work elicited.

Parodies:
The most notable parody on Bad Hair Day is Amish Paradise, a spoof of Coolio's 1995 hit Gangsta's Paradise (which itself is an interpolation of Stevie Wonder's 1976 tune Pastime Paradise). In the song, Al takes on those goofy Amish and their old-timey ways (they don't have electricity, they're peaceful, they have Biblical names). It's an easy and unnecessary target. Had Al done some true research into his subject and made the content more than stereotypes, I might admire the song a bit more. As it is, the only true humor in the song comes from the juxtaposition of style and content. It's also worth noting that Al incorporates the Gilligan's Island theme song ("there's no phones, no lights, no motor cars, not a single luxury") basically recycling a joke from Isle Thing on UHF.

The next three parodies are obvious in subject matter if not in conception. Usually Al takes a song title, finds a phrase that matches the rhyme and syllables, and goes from there. And usually, the song title gives away the whole joke. But in the case of Cavity Search and Syndicated, Inc. he approaches it differently. Cavity Search is a parody of U2's Batman Forever theme Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me. As you might have deduced, it's about a visit to the dentist (not, as you may have guessed, about a trip through airport security). The title phrase becomes Numb Me, Drill Me, Floss Me, Bill Me on the chorus, but why Al didn't use that as a title is a mystery. Syndicated Inc. is also oddly-titled, but that's because its source, Soul Asylum's Misery, is oddly-titled itself. That song featured the words "frustrated incorporated" in its chorus. Not surprisingly, Al makes it a song about watching reruns and daytime talk shows. It doesn't seem like he was exactly keeping up with the times though, because most of the shows he lists are old and likely weren't even available in reruns in 1996 (Mayberry RFD, All In the Family, Dynasty, etc.)

Phony Calls, a parody of TLC's Waterfalls, is not obvious either, but mostly because no one calls them "phony calls". They're called prank calls. Either way, it's not a good song. Al's version just made me want to hear the original. Notably, he replaces Left Eye's little rap with a clip of Bart Simpson prank calling Moe, but even that's not enough to make it funny.

Finally, there's Gump, a take on the President of the United States of America's hit tune Lump. And, yep, it's basically a rehashing of the plot of Forrest Gump. It's somewhat impressive how Al made it all work, and the "Run, run now Forrest run" chorus is cute. It's probably the best parody on the record, even if that's not saying much.

Style Parodies:
Thankfully things get a little bit better on the style parodies. Well, at least after you get past the warmed-over Nirvana of Callin' In Sick. It's a Crazy List song about a guy who'd rather spend his day at home doing ridiculous things rather than going in to work. From there, things are pretty good.

I'm So Sick of You is an anti-love song. The theme is nothing new for Al (see You Make Me, Good Enough For Now, You Don't Love Me Anymore, etc.), nor is the format (yep, it's a Crazy List song), or the humor (in fact, with the references to back hair and butts that jiggle like Jell-O, it's even more sophomoric than usual), but the whole thing is mostly salvaged by the music, which apes the organ-driven style of Elvis Costello and the Attractions circa This Year's Model.

Since You've Been Gone takes the same theme with better results. In a capella doo wop style, Al compares his heartbreak to various forms of physical pain (e.g. ice cream headaches) before declaring in the song's final line: "I feel almost as bad as I did when you were still here." It's a pretty good punchline.

And saving the best for last we have Everything You Know Is Wrong, a song that mimics They Might Be Giants musically and lyrically. That might seem strange at first, but think about how much "Weird Al" and TMBG have in common: Both are stylistically diverse, feature accordion as a prominent instrument, and have an affinity for the absurd, though TMBG's humor is a bit more cerebral and subtle. In fact, a fan who finds himself growing out of Al's humor might find TMBG to be a logical follow-up crush (I certainly did). Anyway, Al does a decent impression of John and John without being completely derivative, and the melody is one of his all-time best.

Polka Medley:
The Alternative Polka finds Al blending together some songs from the fruitful mid-'90s scene. Here they are: Loser (Beck), Sex Type Thing (Stone Temple Pilots), All I Wanna Do (Sheryl Crow), Closer (Nine Inch Nails), Bang and Blame (R.E.M.), You Oughta Know (Alanis Morissette), Bullet With Butterfly Wings (Smashing Pumpkins), My Friends (Red Hot Chili Peppers), I'll Stick Around (Foo Fighters), Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden), and Basket Case (Green Day).

What The?!
I dropped this category out on the last couple of reviews, but it roars back for Bad Hair Day. I Remember Larry and The Night Santa Went Crazy are both unsettling and disturbing. The former is a Lemonheadsish rumination on the titular Larry, a complete jerk and borderline psychopath whom the narrator ends up murdering. Yes, you read that right. And the latter is a Christmas song wherein Santa loses his shit and opens fire on all the reindeer and elves. Yes, seriously. Al describes the scene in graphic and gleeful detail. If a song making fun of workplace killings was in poor taste in 1996 (and I think it was) it certainly is now after the shootings at Columbine in 1999 and the multiple similar scenes that have played themselves out in the manner the song describes. Icky. Add the fact that the melody is a nearly direct rip-off of Soul Asylum's Black Gold (TWO Soul Asylum parodies on one album, really?) and I nominate this for worst "Weird Al" song ever.

So that's Bad Hair Day, the grab bag of overly-obvious jokes, tasteless jokes, and small flashes of brilliance that typify Al's later work. Or at least that's the view of an adult. If you're a 13 year-old-boy, add at least one letter to the final grade at the end. I certainly don't mean that in a condescending way.

References to food: 0
References to T.V.: 4
Grade: D-
Fave Song: Everything You Know Is Wrong

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rock Bottom: Talking Heads

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.

* * *

Back in 2005 I reviewed every single Talking Heads album, but that predated the Rock Bottom feature. So here it is retroactively.

Talking Heads, despite their storied career, had two albums in a statistical dead heat for Rock Bottom status. Perhaps not coincidentally they're also the band's final two albums, 1986's True Stories and 1988's Naked. The band were in an intrapersonal decline by this point, with the divide between big head David Byrne and the rest of the group getting larger and larger. Their music, which had so thrived on chemistry and cooperation, couldn't help but be affected as they limped to an inevitable break-up.

So which one gets the nod? Though each received a score of 6 1/2 out of 10 stars on the combined All Music / Amazon.com scale, Naked received kinder reviews overall, including an absolutely glowing piece by Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis. That makes True Stories our culprit.

True Stories was accompanied by a Byrne-directed film of the same name, but it isn't the soundtrack. Rather, it's Talking Heads' versions of songs that were sung by actors in the film (a real soundtrack featuring those versions was released as well). Reportedly, Byrne didn't want it to be that way, preferring to distance the film from Talking Heads as much as possible. But ultimately he gave in, realizing it might mean more exposure for his movie. So, to start with we've got an album that the principal contributor didn't want to make. That's never a good sign.

There's also the matter of artistic growth, or the lack thereof. After a series of masterpieces, the Heads took a diversion into simple pop on 1985's Little Creatures. True Stories didn't feature a return to the band's innovative ways. In fact, it was just the opposite. The band seemed to be getting MORE conventional. To hear All Music's Michael Hastings tell the story," its songs were dismissed as self-consciously quirky retreads of other, better material." Now Hastings isn't necessarily a proponent of that view. In fact he thinks the album, while not up to the usual Talking Heads snuff, has its charms. He even says, "the band's skill at arranging an album and maintaining a mood remains intact."

Rolling Stone reviewer Mark Coleman goes even farther. Check out this statement: "Talking Heads continue to delve into their American musical roots, and for my money it's a more sensible and successful mission than their pith-helmeted foray into Africa on Remain in Light." Did he just say what I think he just said? Did he just say that True Stories is better than what most consider the band's best album? This alone is enough to dismiss Coleman's credibility. Let's just move on.

What about the Amazon.com reviewers? Michael Stack concludes that the record, "sounds and feels nothing like a Talking Heads album and falls far short of delivering the goods." Okay, that didn't tell us much. Tashcrash gets a bit more specific: "There is something rotten at work here, from the stiff-rock opener Love for Sale to the made-for-MTV schmaltz of Wild Wild Life to the brain-dead closer City of Dreams." K. Peterson declares, "Even the swan song Naked is better than this one. If you like early/mid era Talking Heads, skip this one, or get it cheap if you must. I have nothing against Americana, or even attempts at arch commentary on the ersatz quality of much that comprises Americana; but dull is dull." (As an aside, seeing a phrase like "arch commentary on the ersatz quality" in an Amazon.com review is kind of like seeing a 6th grader in a Kindergarten classroom.)

I think Fabian Valdivia says it best. This is translated from the Spanish: "The only good thing that I can say of this disc is that it gave the name to the best group of the present time (Radiohead)." He's referring to the True Stories song Radio Head, by the way.

Personally, I think that while True Stories is Talking Heads worst album, I don't think it's necessarily a bad one. It only suffers a bit in comparison to the, yes, heady heights of the Talking Heads' career. If you want a true Talking Heads related debacle you have to go outside the confines of my the above-listed rule #3 and listen to 1996's Byrneless No Talking Just Head. That record makes True Stories sound like, well, a good album.

Monday, January 11, 2010

249. Billy Joel: Glass Houses (1980)

Since we only get a year that ends in 0 every 10 years, I thought it might be fun to look back at interesting albums from 1980, 1990, and 2000. First up...

Billy Joel had wowed the pop music audience with the one-two punch of The Stranger and 52nd Street in 1977 and 1978 respectively, and the big question surrounding his 1980 follow-up, Glass Houses was: "Will success ruin Mr. William Joel?"

The answer is no, success didn't ruin him. But certainly didn't make him happy, either. Glass Houses' songs are full of doubt, alienation, anger, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Just a Fantasy finds Joel lonely on the road and pleading to his girl for relief: "I know it's awful hard to try to make love long distance / But I really needed stimulation / Though it was only my imagination" (Yep, he's asking for phone sex). All for Leyna concerns a young man who has become hopelessly obsessed with a one-night stand who wants nothing more to do with him. In Sleeping With the Television On the narrator tries to get up the courage to approach a girl, but just can't do it: "I really wish I was less of a thinking man / And more a fool who's not afraid of rejection." I Don't Want To Be Alone is about two lovers who are together for all the wrong reasons. And in Close to the Borderline, Joel straight-up admits he's losing it. And you thought Weezer's Rivers Cuomo pioneered the art of uncomfortable pop confessions!

Even the hits on the album trade in turmoil, self-doubt, and anger.

Opener You May Be Right challenges the "piano man" tag, with a memorable guitar riff and a complete lack of ivory-tickling. The lyrics are addressed to an unnamed "you" who suspects the narrator is mentally unbalanced. While he declines to confirm or deny her accusation, he believes she prefers him as he is. In this way it's like a twisted, unhealthy version of Just the Way You Are.

In the Latin-tinged Don't Ask Me Why the "you" is also unspecified, though the person in question has achieved great success ("All the waiters in your grand cafe / Leave their tables when you blink"). At first it seems like a withering putdown of an uppity woman, a la 52nd Street's Big Shot and Stiletto, but I suspect Joel wrote the song about himself, questioning the reasons for his sudden stardom and the perks that came with it. This self-reflective interpretation also fits with the album's title and the idiom it comes from: "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." The house on the album cover? It's Joel's. Yep, he's throwing stones at his own glass house.

The final hit of the album is It's Still Rock and Roll To Me. Widely interpreted as a cynical response to the rise of punk and new wave, in wider view it's also a commentary on the fleeting nature of "cool." Musically, it sports a throwback rockabilly strut, so it's ironic that the song rocketed up the charts and became Joel's first #1 single.

Only the Freaks and Geeks-utilized C'Etait Toi (You Were the One) and the closer Through the Long Night are anywhere near life-affirming. The former is a love song wherein Joel sings the three verses in English and translates those same verses into French. (Note that Don't Ask Me Why featured the line, "Now you parlez-vous Francais," further proof that Joel was singing to himself.) Through the Long Night isn't exactly a happy tune, what with all the lines about bad dreams, old fears, and past sins, but it's a comfort and a love song and a lullaby all in one. Check out this ending: "No I didn't start it / You're brokenhearted / From a long, long time ago / Oh the way you hold me / Is all I need to know / And it's so late / But I'll wait / Through the long night / With you." The multi-tracked Joel harmonies are mighty pretty too.

Despite its many charms, Glass Houses is definitely the weakest album in Joel's amazing 1976 - 1983 run (Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd Street, Glass Houses, Nylon Curtain, An Innocent Man; 35x platinum sales, 7 top ten singles) but that's okay. It's kind of like being the worst player on the team that wins the World Series. You're still a champ no matter what.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Through the Long Night

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Rock Bottom: The Beatles

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.

* * *

Back in 2008, when I reviewed every single Beatles album, I hadn't started doing the Rock Bottom feature. So, let's retroactively find out which of the Fab Four's records is their worst.

Determining Rock Bottom has been very difficult for certain artists, some because they had too many contenders, others because they didn't have enough. The Beatles have the latter problem, magnified. See, since they're the Greatest Pop Group of All Time, and they had such a short career, many critics and fans are hesitant to label any of their work sub par. This is where it's important to note that Rock Bottom doesn't always mean an album is awful, just that it's worse than anything else that band released.

This would be easy if we could call the Yellow Submarine soundtrack a real album, because it'd be the clear Rock Bottom, with only 3 stars from the All Music Guide and a 3 1/2 star customer rating on Amazon. However, Yellow Submarine is not a true Beatles album. It features two recycled songs (the title track and All You Need Is Love), 4 new songs, and a bunch of instrumentals composed by producer George Martin. So we have to look elsewhere.

According to the All Music Guide, every true Beatles album is a five star album, save one. That'd be 1970's Let It Be, which reviewer Richie Unterberger gave a measly 4 and 1/2 stars. The average Amazon review for Let It Be is 4 stars, a full half star less than every other album. When the album came out, Rolling Stone critic John Mendelsohn was not exactly pleased with it either.

So let's look closer at what makes Let It Be the Beatles Rock Bottom.

Traditionally, blame for the disappointment with Let It Be falls on one man: Producer (and convicted murderer) Phil Spector. After the Beatles had released Abbey Road (their true final album), they hired Spector to go back and work with tapes from the mammoth Get Back sessions that predated Abbey Road. Fans and critics, angry about the Beatles break-up (which happened a month before Let It Be's release) and refusing to believe the boys were capable of subpar material, made Spector's production and arrangements their scapegoat.

Take Amazon reviewer Denzel Lockheart for example. He says, "All songs are good, but Phil Spector did NOT need to put so much orchestratian [sic] in the album. I still like the Beatles, but i jsut [sic] think that Spector should not have left this album the way it was and leave the orchestra alone." So, um, yeah.

Rolling Stone's Mendelsohn certainly prescribed to that viewpoint. In his review he plays role of producer, scolding Spector for adding strings here and choosing the wrong take there, he concludes, "Musically, boys, you passed the audition. In terms of having the judgment to avoid either over-producing yourselves or casting the fate of your get-back statement to the most notorious of all over-producers, you didn't." He seems to believe that within the hours and hours of tape, there was brilliance lurking.

It's a tantalizing prospect, the idea that the world's best band left something both wonderful and unheard. That idea tickled Beatles' fan's fancy for many years, especially in regards to Let It Be. Bootleg albums made the rounds, fans traded "original Glyn Johns" mixes (like the planned-but-scrapped version to the right) and argued over what might have been.

And then, in the ultimate acknowledgment / debunkment of the Phil-Spector-ruined-the-album criticism, the Beatles released Let It Be...Naked in 2003, which featured a re-jiggered track listing, no Spector choir-and-orchestra touches, and no between-song banter. If Spector's production had really been the "problem" with Let It Be, then fans and critics should have embraced the new version as a classic, right? Well, that didn't happen. Reaction was decidedly mixed.

That brings us to theory number 2 about Let It Be, which is that the original album sessions just weren't very good. Unterberger is a proponent of this view
: "The main problem," he writes, "was that the material wasn't uniformly strong, and that the Beatles themselves were in fairly lousy moods due to intergroup tension."

Some Amazon reviewers share this perspective. Asher Steinberg remarks, "You shouldn't blame it on Spector; it's the Beatles' fault. Dig It is idiotic, [One After] 909 is idiotic, Maggie Mae is trash, and Get Back (Juju the monkey?) is a little dumb." G. Cooper adds, "The songs (most of them, at least), are insensitive, hurried, and, worst of all, shallow." And Quasar 909 piles on as well. He says, "Let It Be is an amalgamation of choppy, incoherent pieces that just don't add up. The material on this album sounds like it came from the editing room floor at Abbey Road studios and that's where it should've stayed!"

Lennon himself backed up this view in a 1980 interview. Of Spector, he says, "He was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it."

Either way you look at it, Let It Be is clearly the most divisive and disliked Beatles album.

As for me? I don't really subscribe to either theory. For one, I kind of enjoy Let It Be. It's got the requisite stone-cold classics such as the title track, Get Back, Across the Universe, and Two of Us. And even the non-hit songs have grown on me, especially after playing Beatles Rock Band and finding that I Me Mine, Dig a Pony, and I've Got a Feeling are some of the most fun songs to perform. Sure, as I said in my review, I hate The Long and Winding Road, but I think I'd hate it with or without Spector's help.

But, once again, we're looking at the worst for the Beatles, which would be the best for many many others. Even considering that dynamic, I still wouldn't give Let It Be Rock Bottom status. That I'd reserve for either With the Beatles (a pale imitation of their debut) or Beatles For Sale (great originals, lifeless covers), but probably ultimately give it to Magical Mystery Tour because the album was a mashed together version of leftover (albeit awesome) singles and song ideas that had been better executed on Sgt.Pepper's. Plus, the film was terrible.

Monday, January 04, 2010

"Weird Al" Yankovic - "Headline News"

Headline News was the only new song on Al's 1994 box set Permanent Record: Al in the Box (it was also released as a single and on Greatest Hits Volume II). The song is a parody of Crash Test Dummies unlikely hit of the same year, Mm Mm Mm Mm.

That song detailed three stories about children, one who is so traumatized by an auto accident that his hair turns white, another who is embarrassed to undress for gym class because of her birthmarks, and another who goes to a Pentecostal church. It's a strangely elliptical tune with a wordless chorus, sung in an improbably low baritone. What can I say, the mid '90s were heady musical times.

Al's take on the song finds him substituting the children's stories for, as you might have guessed from the title, popular news stories of the time. First up is Michael Fey, the American youth who got caught for vandalizing cars and stealing road signs in Singapore. He was sentenced to be caned, a routine punishment there. Next is Tonya Harding, an ice skater who arranged an attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Finally there's Lorena Bobbitt, who severed her husband's penis in a fit of rage. All three of these incidents happened in either '93 or '94.

Besides just describing the stories, Al also sneaks in some commentary about our culture of glorification. He sings on the bridge, "They got paid for their sound bites / And sold their TV movie rights." I also like how he recycles a line from the original song in the final bit. In reference to John Bobbitt waking up to find his penis missing, Al sings, "He couldn't quite explain it / It'd always just been there." One might quibble about the stories only being funny in the context of their times (I'd argue that only the Harding story has lived on beyond its momentary infamy), but apparently Al has taken to updating the lyrics when he performs the song live.

The song is also notable because Al doesn't change the chorus at all, and for being the first Al song in many years to feature both the accordion AND the hand farting noises that so characterized his early parodies.

All in all, Headline News is one of Al's better parodies, both in conception and in execution.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

248. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Alapalooza (1993)

Even for "Weird Al" Alapalooza is a weird album. A surprising contender for Rock Bottom status (though it fell just short), this 1993 opus contains some of Al's best work, as well as some of his most puzzling.

Song Parodies:
We start with Jurassic Park. Sometimes Al's parodies are all about the subject matter and sometimes they're about the song (in rare cases it's both). Jurassic Park is all about the subject matter; the movie was a massive hit in 1993. The song (Richard Harris' 1968 hit MacArthur Park), though it fits very well lyrically, is in odd choice, mostly because it's so anachronistic in context with the other, more modern, song styles on the album. It's also strange that Al chose to sing the song from Jeff Goldblum's character's point of view ("I admit it's kinda eerie / But this proves my chaos theory"). And remember what I've said before about a bad song making for a bad parody? It holds true here.

Achy Breaky Song ALMOST breaks that rule. While Miley Cyrus' dad's song was never very good, Al's take is interesting because he doesn't pull any punches and ends up being somewhat hypocritical. For one thing, he makes the song about not wanting to hear the song, which is enough to give you a slight headache if you think about it too much. It's like hiring Dick Cheney to write a criticism of George W. Bush's presidency. Also, the song's narrator lists supposedly bad musicians he'd still rather hear over Billy Ray, including Donny and Marie, New Kids on the Block, Barry Manilow, Village People, Bee Gees, Slim Whitman (the second time he's been referenced in an Al song, by the way), Yoko Ono, Tiffany, Vanilla Ice, ABBA, Debbie Boone, and Gheorghe Zamfir. It saddens me a little bit to hear Al buy into the hipster "uncool" dynamic because I like to think of him as someone who loves all kinds of music (and it's worth pointing out that Al had already parodied three of those 12 musicians). Of course none of this makes Achy Breaky Song good, it's just interesting to think about.

Next is Bedrock Anthem, another tune in the grand tradition TV show descriptions put to pop songs (see also: Ricky, The Brady Bunch, Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies, and Isle Thing). This time it's a mash-up of Red Hot Chili Peppers' Under the Bridge and Give It Away, with mildly funny lyrics about The Flintstones ("Got a neighbor by the name of Barney Rubble / He's a midget but he makes a lot of trouble / Doesn't like to shave; he's got caveman stubble").

Finally there's Livin' in the Fridge, a take on Aerosmith's 1993 hit Livin' on the Edge. I know it's shocking to hear Al take a pop song and make it about food, but it did actually happen. As it is, it's the least interesting and clever of the four parodies on Alapalooza, and falls victim to the eternal "Weird Al" parody problem. Say it with me: The title is the extent of the joke.

Style Parodies:
Here's where things get really weird.

The album's first style parody is Young, Dumb, & Ugly, which would seem to be about the grunge trend that had overtaken pop music by '93, as well as an indictment of commercialized, suburban rebellion. It would seem to be a no-brainer to use a Pearl Jam / Soundgarden musical landscape and call it a day, but instead Al does the song in an AC/DC / Twisted Sister style.

And then there's Traffic Jam, about a poor soul who is, yes, stuck in traffic. Musically, Al goes back to Prince's 1984 hit Let's Go Crazy, not parodying but getting so close to that song's distinctive keyboard line as to risk plagiarism. Why choose a song that was, at the time, 9 years old? Maybe it's because Prince had declined to allow Al to parody the song in the past.

So we have two songs with poorly off-kilter style choices, and then things get even stranger. Alapalooza features not one, but TWO songs based on Peter Gabriel's style. Talk Soup, believe it or not, was written as a theme for the E! show of the same name. In the spirit of In 3-D's Midnight Star (which listed crazy tabloid topics), Talk Soup lists the ridiculous themes of episodes of Rikki Lake, Maury Povich, Sally Jesse Raphael, Phil Donahue, etc. (eg. "I'm just a cross-dressin' alcoholic neo-Nazi porno star"). Musically the song is a sibling to Gabriel's 1992 hit Steam. Waffle King is the other Gabriel-by-way-of-James-Brown tribute, this time to 1986's Sledgehammer. Lyrically, it's about a guy who makes good waffles and is proud of it.

We also get Harvey the Wonder Hamster, a very short theme from Al's MTV hosting gig, and She Never Told Me She Was a Mime, a Rolling Stones-indebted tune that's about...well...reread the title.

Overall, a very poor showing on the style parodies, which is sad because 1) They're the majority of the album, and 2) they're usually Al's strong point. We could write Alapalooza off as a fluke if not for the final style parody, Frank's 2000" TV, which is one of my top 5 Al songs of all time! Done in a clear-but-not-derivative R.E.M. style, the song details the story of the titular Frank who buys a ginormous TV. The song is strangely spiritual, while at the same time making a clear statement about our proclivity for excess and to keep up with the Joneses.

Polka:
It's just "polka" this time, no "medley" because for the first time Al decided to do an entire song polka style. That song? Queen's 1975 hit Bohemian Rhapsody, which had been repopularized by its use the movie Wayne's World in 1992. Al's version is faithful and fun.

And there you have it, one of Al's strangest albums, and not necessarily in a good way.

References to food: 2
References to TV: 3
Grade: C-
Fave Song: Frank's 2000" TV