Saturday, February 27, 2010

256. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Straight Outta Lynwood (2006)

Straight Outta Lynwood, Al's 12th (and newest for now) album is, thankfully, a minor return to form. After getting bogged down in increasingly uninspired parodies and increasingly juvenile humor, Al reigns in some of those bad tendencies, remembers that humor doesn't have to be completely devoid of social commentary, and delivers his best album since Alapalooza.

Parodies
White & Nerdy, the album opener, is a parody of Chamillionaire's Ridin'. Right away a renewed energy is apparent. Yes, the lyrical conceit (a narrator brags about the breadth and depth of his social ineptitude) is similar to that of All About the Pentiums, but it's nonetheless clever, and Al is fully committed. As a measure of the song's cultural impact, I actually saw students in the middle school where I teach wearing shirts sporting the title phrase.

Canadian Idiot, a take on Green Day's American Idiot, at first seems like one of Al's annoying blanket cultural generalization songs (see Amish Paradise, Pretty Fly for a Rabbi, and Genius In France). The song does have that aspect, as Al lists the usual Canada stereotypes (they like beer and hockey, etc.) but it also goes deeper. There's actually some lyrical evidence that Al is actually taking a sarcastic dig at xenophobic American "patriots." Witness the line: "Sure they got their national health care / cheaper meds, low crime rates, and clean air / Then again well they got Celine Dion." The call for a preemptive strike at the end of the song could be seen as a dig against the war-happy Bush administration.

Confessions Part III, Al's version of Usher's Confessions Part II mostly mocks the fact that a song called Confessions needs a sequel. It's a Crazy List song, of all of the ways the narrator has done his woman wrong, but a fairly funny one.

Things aren't so great on the album's other two parodies. Do I Creep You Out is a stalker song along the lines of the Even Worse classic Melanie, but it has one big problem: The original (American Idol Taylor Hicks' Do I Make You Proud) is not a good song to start with. When I listen I like to think the song is about Hicks himself.

That brings us to the album's worst parody and worst song, by far. Trapped In the Drive-Thru is a way overlong (10 minutes, 45 seconds) parody of R.Kelly's 12-part "hip-hopera" Trapped In the Closet. Al's version, about a couple who goes out for an ill-fated dinner, tries to make fun of the original's level of detail, but his mistake is that he makes it the details excruciatingly boring ("so we head out the front door / Open the garage door / Then I open the car doors / And we get in those car doors"), thus committing a worse sin.

Style Parodies
The style parodies start off well with Pancreas, a mid-period Beach Boys homage in several movements. In writing an ode to the internal organ, Al shows off some in-depth research. Medical students should use the song to study. Like too many of his other style parodies, it owes a little too much to the original songs (various tunes from Pet Sounds and Smile), but for a Beach Boys fan it's thrilling nonetheless.

I'll Sue Ya is a Rage Against the Machine-type rap-rock tune. It's a Crazy List of things the narrator is going to get litigious about, including getting his finger stuck in a Coke bottle and a late pizza. There's some social commentary about a lack of self-responsibility, especially in the opening line, "I sued Taco Bell / 'Cause I hate a half a million chalupas / And I got fat", echoing a less exaggerated lawsuit against McDonalds a few years back. Then again, maybe RATM should sue Al for ripping off their guitar riffs.

Virus Alert is yet another Crazy List song, done in the style of a glam pop band called Sparks (though to my ear there's some ELO thrown in). The list is of the consequences of a nasty computer virus is sort of ho-hum, and the song is only saved by the spirited guitar.

Close But No Cigar is a dead ringer for the band Cake, more specifically their song Short Skirt/Long Jacket. It's about a guy who's looking for the perfect girl, literally. In each verse he dismisses a different girl for a different reason (one always uses "infer" when she means
"imply", one owns Joe Dirt on DVD, one has earlobes of different sizes). Overall, it's pretty funny, even with the tasteless pop culture similes ("she got me all choked up like Mama Cass").

Finally, there's Don't Download This Song, an overblown ballad making fun of celebrity charity singles (We Are the World, Do They Know It's Christmas?, etc.) and the ultimately self-serving and sanctimonious nature of them. This one is about illegal downloading, obviously, and exaggerates the severity of possible punishments. Of course it wouldn't be complete without the line "even Lars Ulrich knows its wrong."

Polka Medley
Polkarama, the latest in a long line of hit song medleys done polka style, features: Let's Get It Started (Black Eyed Peas), Take Me Out (Franz Ferdinand), Beverly Hills (Weezer), Speed of Sound (Coldplay), Float On (Modest Mouse), Feel Good Inc. (Gorillaz), Don't Cha (Pussycat Dolls), Somebody Told Me (The Killers), Candy Shop (50 Cent), Drop It Like It's Hot (Snoop Dogg), Pon de Replay (Rihanna), and Goldigger (Kanye West).

What The?!
Weasel Stomping Day is a movie musical style head-scratcher about a holiday where people murder weasels. As if that premise wasn't bad enough, the sound effects of crunching bones and high pitched squeals make the song completely tasteless. I'm guessing PETA has Al on their hit list now.

References to TV: 0
References to food: 3
Grade: C+
Fave Song: White & Nerdy

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rock Bottom: Jay-Z

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 All Music Guide (for the critical
point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). 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.

* * *

Shawn Carter's last 11 releases (every album since 1998's Vol.2...Hard Knock Life) have gone to number one, but don't let that fool you into thinking they were all created equal. There's a clear hierarchy, and the low man is undoubtedly 2004's collaboration with R. Kelly, Unfinished Business. However, that's not Jay-Z's Rock Bottom, mostly because he only deserves half the blame. So which album is the next-most-hated?

When the chips fell out, there were really two contenders for Jay-Z's worst. One was 2002's double-disc sequel The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse. The other was his 2006 return from "retirement" Kingdom Come. Statistically, the two are dead even. Kingdom Come gets the low marks in the All Music Guide with 2.5 stars, while B2 gets a half star more. Rolling Stone flipped that, giving B2 3 stars to KC's 3.5. Finally, Amazon.com reviewers gave the two identical 3.5 star averages. That adds up to 9.5 each. The tiebreaker? Well, when it gets this close we have to split hairs. So we look at Amazon.com and the percentage of reviewers who gave one or two star ratings. For KC it's 19%. For BP2 it's 32%. That makes The Blueprint 2 our winner by a nose.

Not that Kingdom Come gets off so easy. The All Music Guide says it's "a display of complacency and retreads. Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield writes that "the highs are really high and the lows are really low." Amazon.com reviewer AD Guillen gets in the best dig: "Hov proves he's the Mike Jordan of the game as he comes back from retirement pushing a 45 performance when everyone paid to see 23." He's referring, of course, to Michael Jordan's return from "retirement" wearing a number 45 jersey and his subsequent failure to get the Bulls past the Orlando Magic in the 1995 NBA playoffs. A Washington Wizards reference might have been more apt.

But let's take a look at The Blueprint 2. All Music Guide's John Bush offers a strangely-worded compliment to the album, "No one else in hip-hop possesses enough power of personality to carry a 110-minute double album, and if Jay-Z can't quite manage it either, he certainly delivers some solid material in the process." So since Bush is saying Jay can't "manage" to pull off a double album, his opening line should really read: "No one in hip-hop possesses enough power of personality to carry a 110-minute double album, but Jay-Z gets close."

(Despite this mostly positive review, Bush sings a different tune in his write-up of 2003's The Black Album, where he calls The Blueprint 2 "the most deflating sequel since Star Wars: Episode I." I get his point, though The Phantom Menace was technically a prequel. Overall, I'm not a big John Bush fan).

Rolling Stone's Christian Hoard was downright giddy about the album despite his 3 star rating. Sounding more like a publicist than a critic, he writes, "Jay-Hova ups the ante, producing something of a hip-hop White Album: two discs worth of party anthems and serious songwriting." He sums The Blueprint 2 up as "one more strong record from hip-hop's most dependable voice."

So "solid material", "strong record", and a Beatles comparison? Sounds like a terrible piece of work, right? I'm sensing some dissonance here. Maybe our Amazon.com reviewers can shed some light on what exactly makes this album so unlovable.

First there are the haters, like Ken. He writes,
"If any rap fans out there want to know what a commercially Straight-Wack album is, this is the one you need to take note of." Mrvillain simply says the album is a "Blueprint to people who need to stop rappin'." Anthony Ian gets a bit more specific in his review. "This album," he writes, "is a tragic example of what happens when you take a big star, big producers, big guest stars, a big video to launch it... when you have no decent material."

Many reviewers found outrage in the song '03 Bonnie and Clyde, the duet that samples Tupac's Me & My Girlfriend. Unknownhook's thoughts are typical of the complainers. He says, "Pretty sad when the best song on the CD is a RIP off of the greatest rapper of all time (who HATED Jay Z)." I don't buy this criticism at all. First, any rap fan complaining about copping hooks from other songs has zero firm ground to stand on. Second, the songs aren't similar beyond their choruses. Tupac's track was an extended metaphor about a gun. Jay's is about Beyonce. I also noticed that no one complained about Beyonce appropriating Prince's If I Was Your Girlfriend in the song.

Are you still confused about exactly why The Blueprint 2 is Jay-Z's worst album? Me too. The album certainly isn't one of my favorites, but it's not an embarrassing piece of work either. The first disc is up and down, containing the set's best (The Watcher 2,'03 Bonnie and Clyde) and worst (A Dream, I Did It My Way) songs. The second disc is solid straight through, at least until you get to the three "bonus" tracks.

While I'm on the subject, I wouldn't count Kingdom Come as the worst either. If I'm picking, 2000's Dynasty: Roc La Familia gets the nod. That album has exactly 2 good songs (I Just Wanna Love U and Streets Is Talking) and 14 mediocre-to-awful ones. That means it's only 12% worthwhile.

Even so, there's one reason I don't feel bad naming The Blueprint 2 as Jay-Z's Rock Bottom. It's a little something called The Blueprint 2.1. Yes, that's right. Mindful of the prevailing critical opinion that a double album was too much, Jay whittled it down to a single disc and tried again 4 months later. Nobody took the bait. In fact, Rolling Stone changed its positive tune. Reviewer John Caramanica said, "The new album does little to redeem its predecessor; it merely replicates its unevenness." For the All Music Guide, John Bush stepped in again this time with diminished enthusiasm. He concludes that the album, "lacks the creativity of The Blueprint."

While I love the fact that Jay-Z proved the "this double album would be better as a single album" critics wrong, I don't think that was his intention. What's the opposite of "So nice, he made it twice"?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Remake Second Take: We Are the World

In case you haven't heard, a bunch of singers recently got together to make a new version of We Are the World, that classic schmaltzy superstar balled written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The impetus was to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti. I have problems with this. Well, not the disaster relief itself, but certainly the remake.

1) My criticism of the original stands: If these multimillionaires really want to help they could donate their time and money rather than recording a song asking lower and middle class people to do the work. Charity singles always seem to me to spring more from an egotistical place rather than a compassionate one.

2) From a creative standpoint, I agree with Jay-Z's recent comments about the remake. He said, "So I appreciate the efforts and everything, but We Are The World is untouchable like Thriller is untouchable." He added that he would have preferred a new song over a remake. Me too.

3) Finally, and most importantly, is the questionable artist selection. The original We Are the World featured a collection of heavyweight hitmakers, with a surprisingly small number of flashes-in-the-pan (sorry Al Jarreau and Kim Carnes). I mean, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and Paul Simon all on the same song?!

This may just be me and my advancing years. Maybe the kids of today are swooning over the inclusion of Pink, Akon, Lil' Wayne, Jaime Foxx, Justin Bieber, Josh Groban, Usher, Enrique Iglesias, Fergie, T-Pain, Nicole Scherzinger, Miley Cyrus, and Jennifer Hudson on the new version. But how many of these singers have established their places in pop music history? I'd argue none, with Fergie and Pink coming closest. The exception on the new version is the surprising inclusion of stodgy vets Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, and Celine Dion.

Of course, I think I could have done a better job of choosing singers for the project. I have three simple criteria: 1) The artist has to have an established track record and be on his or her way to a permanent spot in pop music history, 2) In keeping with the original, the artist has to be American, and 3) the racial and generational needs to stay the same, so you'll see that I tried to find modern analogues to the 20 singers on the 1985 version (my choice is in bold, with the original in parentheses). Here we go:

Will Smith (Lionel Richie), Ben Gibbard (Paul Simon), Garth Brooks (Kenny Rogers), Jay-Z (James Ingram), Beyonce (Tina Turner), Ben Folds (Billy Joel), Jennifer Hudson (Diana Ross), Alicia Keys (Dionne Warwick), Vince Gill (Willie Nelson), Wyclef Jean (Al Jarreau), Billie Jo Armstrong (Bruce Springsteen), Eddie Vedder (Kenny Loggins), Axl Rose or Scott Weiland ( Steve Perry), Justin Timberlake (Daryl Hall), Rob Thomas (Huey Lewis), Gwen Stefani or Lady Gaga (Cyndi Lauper), Kelly Clarkson (Kim Carnes), Tom Petty (Bob Dylan), and Afrika Bambaataa (Ray Charles).

I'd also throw Prince, who had been scheduled to participate in the original 1985 version, but missed the session, in Stevie Wonder's place. And I like the idea of having Janet Jackson take Michael's part. The Haiti version does this but has her duet with his '85 vocal instead of letting her take it solo. I'd fix that. Of course some of the verses would have to become raps (I don't want to hear Will Smith or Jay-Z sing), and Bambaataa would have to throw some scratching on there, and Prince needs a lengthy guitar solo.

Even with this talent, the results would probably be pretty awful, but in a really cool way. Just like the original.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rock Bottom: "Weird Al" Yankovic

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 All Music 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. If that's the case, I'll 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.

* * *

And so we've reached Al's worst album. If you've been following me on my journey through his catalog, it's probably not a surprise. Things have taken a downward turn in his last few albums (Alapalooza, Bad Hair Day, and Running With Scissors). I guess I'm not alone. According to my research Al's three worst albums are Alapalooza, Bad Hair Day, and Poodle Hat. The All Music Guide gives all three of them 2 star ratings (Running With Scissors got 2.5). Amazon.com reviewers were kinder, giving all three contenders 4.5 star averages. Despite that, 2003's Poodle Hat takes the cake, barely, with the highest percentage of one and two star ratings.

All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine offers an uncharacteristically in-depth analysis of Poodle Hat's (and Yankovic's) faults. He feels that, "Al's sensibility has been...thoroughly assimilated by mass culture" and says that this has led to predictability. He also writes that on most of the songs Al "seems removed from the culture he's commenting upon" and that this makes him seem "old and out of step."

Amazon.com reviewers were no kinder. Allen Slea picks up on the exact condundrum I myself have been wrestling with on these later albums, namely the idea of a 44 year-old (at the time, now he's 50) with a 12 year-old sense of humor: "Who is Al trying to appeal to anyway?" he asks. "Does he expect kids to know Piano Man, or be familiar with Frank Zappa or Bob Dylan? Does he expect adults to laugh at junior high stuff like Party at the Leper Colony?" The former question is less disturbing to me than the latter. Other reviewers, also like me, find themselves tiring of Al's songwriting formula. Fred7890 has a long list of complaints, including a complaint about lists: "Second, enough with all the 'list' songs. One per album is enough." AshleyMorgan17 adds that, "All he can do is list things and put it to someone else's music. See, Banana, Detroit, marmoset, rubber ball, toilet, I can list things too. Not funny."

Now, on to my review, in the same format I've done my previous "Weird Al" reviews:

Parodies
The parodies on Poodle Hat are mostly tired and uninspired. Here we have Couch Potato, originating in Eminem Lose Yourself. Guess what? It's about watching TV. Al says nothing here that he didn't already say in Cable TV or Syndicated Incorporated, he just updates the shows and networks. A Complicated Song is a parody of Avril Lavigne's Complicated . In it, the narrator eats too much pizza and gets constipated, finds out his girlfriend is also his cousin, and then gets decapitated. So yep, poop, incest, and violence. Al's song is only clever in its use of multiple 4 syllable words that end in -ed. An Ode to A Superhero is the latest in Al's series of film plots put to music. This time it's Spider-Man to the tune of Billy Joel's Piano Man, and like the others in the series (Jurassic Park, The Saga Begins), it's tiresome.

Trash Day, a parody of Nelly's Hot In Herrre, illuminates a new problem for Al. The song he's parodying is actually funnier than the parody. Nelly's tune was full of intentionally funny moments like the "Girl, I think my butt's gettin' big" and "I got a pole in the basement" bits. Al's is just a list of garbage, which Shel Silverstein did better in his poem Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.

The only bright spot in the parody front is eBay, a take on one of the best pop songs ever written, Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way. This song is so good, you could put any lyrics to it and it'd be enjoyable (the nonsensical lyrics of the original prove that). Al's take is a Crazy List song of things the narrator got on eBay (an Alf alarm clock, vintage tube socks, a Kleenex used by Dr.Dre, etc.).

Style Parodies
Hardware Store, a fleet tune that uses power tool noises for rhythm is the best of the style parodies. The narrator is excited about the opening of a hardware store, and then he lists items that he'd like to buy. Despite the somewhat boring subject matter, musically it's one of the most memorable songs on the album, a throwback to earlier, better, Al originals. As a bonus, it has no direct musical lineage, though the harmonies on the chorus are vaguely Queen-like. This is comforting after learning how many of Al's originals have actually been uncredited parodies.

Bob is another gem. It's a homage to Dylan, a harmonica-driven rave up full of palindromic lyrics like "rats live on no evil star" and "may a moody baby doom a yam." Of course the joke is that there isn't much difference between the nonsense phases and real Dylan lyrics.

But not all is well. The pick-up-line-laden Wanna B Ur Lover revisits the problem of Trash Day. See, it's done in the style of Beck on his Midnite Vultures album, which itself was a tongue-in-cheek homage to James Brown and Prince. So the original was already funny, and thus a parody was unnecessary. It'd be like someone making a parody of Airplane! At six minutes plus, it's also way too long.

Why Does This Always Happen To Me
is in the same category for the same reason. It's done in Ben Folds' style, and Folds himself is no slouch when it comes to writing funny songs (see Uncle Walter, Song For the Dumped, Your Redneck Past, Bitch Went Nutz, etc.). Why Does This Always Happen To Me is a tale of a self-absorbed man whose minor setbacks bother him more than major tragedies. This is also the second song on the album to feature decapitation as a major plot point. The only plus here is that Folds himself adds a great piano solo, and that Al returned the favor by providing back-up vocals on Folds' excellent Time (from 2005's Songs For Silverman).

Finally, there's Genius In France, a multi-part tribute to Frank Zappa. Musically, it's somewhat interesting, running through several different styles. Lyrically, it's the story of a guy whose a complete loser but is revered in France. Is this supposed to be an insult to Jerry Lewis, France, or both? At any rate, count on Al to make broad generalizations about a culture that isn't his own. Like Running With Scissors' Albuquerque this song is too long (nearly 9 minutes) to truly be effective, especially since we all got the joke in the first minute.

Polka Medley
Several reviewers (including Erlewine) pointed out that the title of Angry White Boy Polka is inaccurate, lumping the new garage band movement in with the rap-rock revolution. I don't have so much of an issue with that myself. Here are the song's Al polkafies: Last Resort (Papa Roach), Chop Suey (System of a Down), Get Free (The Vines), Hate To Say I Told You So (The Hives), Fell In Love With A Girl (The White Stripes), Last Nite (The Strokes), Down With the Sickness (Disturbed), Renegades of Funk (Rage Against the Machine), My Way (Limp Bizkit), Outside (Staind) Bawitaba (Kid Rock), Youth of the Nation (P.O.D.), The Real Slim Shady (Eminem). This tune is worth noting for the awesome doo-wop style on Last Nite and the fact that it's the only polka medley Al has done where I didn't know most of the songs.

What The?!
Blues tune Party at the Leper Colony is juvenile. It's full of bad puns ("another pretty lady got her eye on me", "don't you give me no lip") about the titular event. The less said about it, the better.

Conclusion
So, we have an over-reliance on Crazy List songs (a whopping 6 of them), recycled themes, less funny versions of already funny things, and base humor. It sure sounds like a Rock Bottom to me, so I don't dispute the fan's and critic's choice. However, if I'm being completely fair, I have to say that for my money Poodle Hat is actually a slightly better album than Bad Hair Day.

References to food: 2
References to TV: 2
Grade:
D+
Fave Song: eBay, I guess

Author's Note: This is album review #255.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rock Bottom: They Might Be Giants

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 combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases. 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.

* * *

Pop duo They Might Be Giants are up to their quirky ways again.

Consider that in the several Rock Bottom features I've done I've never seen more dissonance among my three sources than I have in the case of They Might Be Giants. Amazon.com fans apparently love all of TMBG's albums, but the two lowest-rated (at 4 out of 5 stars each) are 2004's The Spine and 2007's The Else. The All Music Guide can't even decide among themselves. They give 1996's Factory Showroom a discography-low 2 star rating, and yet reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it "a stronger album than its predecessor," referring to John Henry, an album the guide gives three stars and reviewer Rick Anderson calls "one of the more satisfying They Might Be Giants projects." Rolling Stone somehow manages to be even more baffling. By that magazine's ratings, Flood (1990) is the worst TMBG album, with a meager 2 star rating. That album, by the way, is the group's best-seller and contains the classics Particle Man, Istanbul (Not Constantinople), and Birdhouse In Your Soul.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, I'd dismiss Flood as a candidate outright even if it didn't have a 4 and 4.5 rating from All Music Guide and Amazon.com, respectively. Neither John Henry nor Factory Showroom have the numbers to justify Rock Bottom status. Besides, they're both personal favorites of mine. That leaves us with The Spine, the only TMBG album to receive middling reviews across the board. Can a Rock Bottom album really be one that nobody hated and nobody loved? Let's investigate.

Heather Phares' All Music Guide review of the album calls it "relatively disappointing" in light of the band's previous work. She labels it "uneven" and singles out the '30s-styled tune Stalk of Wheat for special derision: "they've never written a song about a creative drought that sounded so much like a creative drought before." On the other hand, Barry Walters' Rolling Stone write-up on the album is nearly all positive. He says The Spine finds the band "growing up without growing old" and that it sounds like they could keep going another 20 years.

As with Phares, the key word for many Amazon.com reviewers was "disappointing." Many cite a lack of oomph in the album, as well as a general decline in the band's songwriting. D. Bagatelle wrote, "Aside from the fact that it was short, which wouldn't be a complaint if the album was good, there was NOTHING on this album that was fun, funny or original. No catchy songs, No energy." Sarah adds, "The whole thing feels like their hearts weren't really in it this time."

Gareth de Korte feels TMBG have lost their direction: "They need to stop, critically reassess their songwriting formula, and just do what they want to do and to hell with everybody else." Even without a clear grasp of superlative adjective forms, Jay O. gets his point across when he writes: "Worse TMBG album, EVER!"

Without giving myself over to the cynical and cliched theory that all pop artists are destined to decline in their later years, I have to agree with the Amazon reviewers for the most part. Once a huge They Might Be Giants fan, I started to drift away with The Spine. And once we drift away from a once-beloved artist, it can be difficult find our way back. Sure, we still love the old stuff - nostalgia makes sure of that - but the new stuff is always approached with caution. In 2004 it was hard for me to quantify exactly why I didn't connect with The Spine. With perspective, it just seems like the album is missing its spark. Sure, it has some moments. Experimental Film, Prevenge, It's Kickin' In, Damn Good Times, and Broke In Two all have that certain TMBG magic.

However, other songs on the album seem almost like self-parody. If you think about it, it's a very fine line John and John walk with their sensibilities. Of course their lyrics are absurdly funny, but their best songs also have undertones of melancholy, cynicism, or philosophy. Their signature song, Birdhouse In Your Soul, is a perfect example. At first it seems like little more than evocative nonsense, but a line like, "while you're at it, leave a nightlight on inside the birdhouse in your soul" can seem fraught with meaning if it catches you in the right mood. So while we don't want deadly serious They Might Be Giants, we also don't want them grasping for laughs the way they do on songs like The World Before Later On and Au Contraire.

There's also the issue of thematic repetition. A band with a 20 year history and a certain shtick is bound to get stale sometimes. Songs like the lyrical Mobius-strip Wearing A Raincoat or I Can't Hide From My Mind are clever enough, but nothing we haven't heard before.

I read once that disappointment is the most powerful negative emotion we have. So it makes sense that an artist's worst album is often the first one that failed to meet your high expectations. For They Might Be Giants, The Spine is that moment. So it goes. As John and John themselves once sang, "If it wasn't for disappointment, I wouldn't have any appointments."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

254. Motion City Soundtrack: My Dinosaur Life (2010)

Note: My opinion on this album has changed since the publication of this review. Read this for more detail.


In a recent interview, Motion City Soundtrack frontman Justin Pierre said his Minneapolis pop punk band's new album, My Dinosaur Life, is an "all in" moment, a shot at the big time.

I have to assume he was talking about the business side of things (this is their first album on a major label) because creatively, MCS has been all-in from the beginning. The band's 2003 debut (I Am the Movie) was embryonic and uneven, but still had a fair share of notable moments. The next two albums, 2005's Commit This To Memory and 2007's Even If It Kills Me were outstanding. They were perfectly-paced, energetic, and deeply catchy.

Ironically, My Dinosaur Life is none of those things.

Where Even If It Kills Me left off, MCS were finding a balance between their cold-weather cynicism and a growing sense of hope and happiness. It makes sense: Lead singer and lyricist Justin Pierre fell in love, got sober, ended a relationship, and fell off the wagon all in the course of recording the album. The album also found the band moving lyrically outward, writing a couple of songs that were about social ills instead of personal ones (Calling All Cops and Hello Helicopter).

My Dinosaur Life fails to build on that progression. Like its predecessors, the album documents bad choices, relationships that have ended, and the eternal lure of alcohol and drugs. Unlike its predecessors, most of the songs fail to document those things compellingly.

Actually, things start off fairly well. Worker Bee is short, snappy, and optimistic: "It's been a good year / A good new beginning" Pierre intones. A Lifeless Ordinary (Need A Little Help) continues the sunshiney mood, with Pierre acknowledging on the memorable chorus that he can't figure things out all by himself.

From there things decline, for various reasons. On some songs the problem is the lyrics. The catchy, self-loathing duo Pulp Fiction and Her Words Destroyed My Planet can't quite overcome their awkward extended metaphors. @!#?@! is a throwaway that seems somehow beneath MCS. I mean, the chorus goes: "You all need to go away / you motherfuckers / you all need to leave me and my sensitive homeboys alone." Ironic or not, it's unfunny. A few songs throw in off-kilter pop culture references (Veronica Mars, Busta Rhymes, Miami Vice, Inspector Gadget) that add nothing.

Elsewhere, the problems are musical. On Disappear and History Lesson Pierre's voice sounds eerily like Monkees' singer Mickey Dolenz. It's so jarring that I had to look at the liner notes to see if a different band member had taken over vocals on those songs. I like Dolenz, but it's just distracting. Delirium and Stand Too Close are little more than generic pop punk. So is Hysteria. You know things are off when you find yourself wishing a song were a Def Leppard cover.

Thankfully, things wrap up on a slightly better note. The album's best song is Skin and Bones. Lyrically, it tackles life's big questions and the fear the unknown brings, and the chorus is a killer: "Will we be all right left alone tonight?" Closer The Weakends isn't bad despite the stupid title, but it would have been one of the weaker tracks on either of the band's previous records.

And that's the problem in microcosm: It's not so much that My Dinosaur Life is an awful album, as it is that MCS are capable of so much better. Last month I reviewed Duran Duran's Liberty, an album hated by the band's fans, and I discussed how my ignorance of their catalog actually helped my view of the album. In this case, it's the reverse effect. Maybe I'm too familiar with Motion City Soundtrack to judge My Dinosaur Life fairly. All I can say to that is that I really did want to love this album. It just didn't cooperate with me.

Time will tell if Motion City Soundtrack's "all in" moment leads to a commercial breakthrough, but believe me when I tell you it's definitely not an artistic one.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Skin and Bones

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rock Bottom: Van Halen

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.

* * *

Rock fans are often divided on which Van Halen incarnation was the best, the original David Lee Roth years or the later Sammy Hagar ones. They are not, however, conflicted about which one was the worst. That'd be former Extreme singer Gary Cherone's short-lived tenure as the band's frontman. The resulting album, Van Halen III, is the band's clear Rock Bottom.

But for our purposes, I think it's better to consider that album an aberration and exempt it under the "missing a vital member" exception. That leaves us to find a true Van Halen Rock Bottom. And since I myself can see the appeal of both incarnations of the band, in this case it seems fairest to declare a Rock Bottom from the Roth years and one from the Hagar years.

By the ratings 1982's Diver Down is the clear low point of the (first) Roth era. Amazon.com reviewers gave it a paltry 3 1/2 star average rating. The All Music Guide gave it the same rating. Rolling Stone was even harsher, handing out only 2 stars.

But you know something is wrong when the fans on Amazon.com are the most consistent in their rating and appraisal. Most of them took exception with the brevity of the album (29 minutes) and the lack of original material (of its 12 songs, 5 are covers). The sarcastic Misfit Kid writes, "Dancing In The Street"? Are you kidding me?! CRAP!!! Yeah, that really rocks, guys! Good job!!" (You should note that Van Halen's version of the song is actually pretty good, and waaaaay better than the awful Jagger/Bowie take). Gergellor claims, "This is a product clearly released in a hurry, just to satisfy record deals with the record company" (I think I know what he means, but technically, aren't all albums released to satisfy record deals?). Lloyd Benjamin breaks out the thesaurus and the obscure references when he remarks of Roth, "He sounds so unctuous, I expected him to break into Hennie Youngman jokes mid-song."

Things get more confusing when we look closer at our other critical sources. The All Music Guide calls Diver Down "one of Van Halen's best records, one that's a pure joy to hear." This is in spite of it being the lowest-rated Van Halen Roth album in the Guide. At least Parke Puterbaugh of Rolling Stone is consistent in his rating and summation. He says, "There's a little Van Halen in everybody, these guys are fond of saying, but there's too little of them in Diver Down." He also calls the album "consumer fraud" (in addition to the 5 covers, 3 additional tracks are instrumentals, giving us only 4 true Van Halen songs). HOWEVER, the recently-published Rolling Stone Essential Album Guide says that the album "Finds the band back in top form", which would seem to indicate that something before it was worse, wouldn't it? But I digress.

What these contradictions really highlight is rock's eternal struggle between gravitas and frivolity (in fact, Van Halen's entire career has been about trying to balance that dynamic). Is Diver Down an important album? No way. It ends with a cover of Dale Evans' Happy Trails, for goodness sake. When compared to its predecessor, the darker, heavier Fair Warning, it seems like fluff. But as musically significant as Fair Warning may be, it's not a fun listen, nor can you dance to it. Personally, I'll take Diver Down.

*

On the Van Hagar front, things were also pretty clear, and surprisingly so. Had you asked me before I did the research I would have guessed that 1995's Balance was the least-loved. It's not my least favorite, but I thought it would be others'. Afterall, the three other Van Hagar albums had all produced bigger hits and sales. But I would have been wrong. It's actually Balance's predecessor, 1991's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge that gets the dishonors.

The All Music Guide gives F.U.C.K. 2 1/2 stars. The stalwart Stephen Thomas Erlewine compares the record to Sammy's solo work, then writes that it's "undeniable that his limited vocal power had a great deal to do with the obvious nature of most of this music." He then gives feint praise, saying that the band is "tight and professional" and the guitar work "impressive," but that the songwriting is "undistinguished." To me, that's basically a coded way of saying that Hagar is dragging the band down and that Eddie needs a better songwriting partner. (By the way, the site also incorrectly lists For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge as a live album). Rolling Stone comes to a similar conclusion. In a 2 star review, John Milward says "F.U.C.K. is so overstuffed with zigzagging guitars and blustery vocals that it almost forgets to rock." He also thinks that Sammy Hagar is a better singer than Roth, but a more pedestrian a frontman as well.

But what if you actually like Sammy? What will you make of it then? Amazon.com reviewers should be able to shed some light. They gave the album a 4 star average. Wouldn't you know that all of the 1-star reviews are incoherent and/or Hagar haters? The 2-stars are a bit more enlightened. AsTheWorldBurns writes, "Although Hagar's lyrics are more mature than Roth's, they are also much more bland. Eddie seems to have turned in to more of a rhythm guitarist here as his crazy guitar solos and tapping segments are absent here." An anonymous review does my work for me: "This is by far the worst of the discs with Hagar as singer. With the exception of Right Now and Top of the World, the rest of the disc is just plain boring."

And that seems to be the most apt word. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is a tiring disc. Songs run an average of 5 minutes each and very little about the album is subtle. The hits, Right Now, Runaround, and Top of the World, are good and helped propel the album to 3X platinum sales and a Grammy for best hard rock performance, but still aren't enough to buoy up the rest of the songs. In this case I think the fans and critics got it right.

*

So that's Van Halen. Three singers, three Rock Bottoms, but still worth hiring to play your birthday party when you get a bunch of reward money for saving Brooke Shields from drowning.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Rock Slide

You're about to be inundated with Rock Bottom entries.

When I started a feature investigating artist's "worst" albums I had no idea how much fun it'd be! Though I had originally only intended to do an unlucky 13 artists, I've kind of been on a roll (so to speak) lately.

So you've already seen entries for The Beatles, Talking Heads, and Madonna this year, and coming up in the next few weeks we've got Van Halen, They Might Be Giants, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Jay-Z. These four will bring the number of entries up to 22.

(Click here for an index.)

And it's all a precursor to something new I have up my sleeve. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

253. XTC: Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000)

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. Finally...

After 7 years of being unable to officially record because of a dispute with Virigin Records, British power pop group XTC finally returned to the scene with 1999's Apple Venus, Volume 1. The songs were lush, acoustic, and pastoral. XTC's sound had included that element in its later years, but never had it been so pronounced.

2000 saw the companion album, Wasp Star (the Aztec name for Venus) released. Its songs showcased the rock-oriented XTC we were more familiar with. Both records were heralded by critics and fans as a triumphant return. Little did we know that they were also a triumphant, two-volume swan song.

I guess we should have known; there were clues. Longtime guitarist Dave Gregory had quit the band before they'd even finished Apple Venus. XTC had not had a permanent drummer since Terry Chambers left in 1982. Though bassist and second songwriter Colin Moulding didn't quit the band until after Wasp Star, his interviews around the time revealed that he had all but lost his interest in being a rock star (figures, his two songs on Apple Venus were about gardening and going out for a drink at the pub). That left lead singer and songwriter Andy Partridge as the proverbial cheese standing alone.

Wasp Star, despite Gregory's glaring absence, does not sound like a last gasp. Though not in the pantheon of XTC's great albums, some of its individual moments stand with the band's best work. Opener Playground is a singsong examination of the ways childhood and adulthood run parallel: Dealings with girls are complex, bullies persist in better disguises, and conformity is valued above all else. The propulsive Stupidly Happy is as joyous a love song as you'll find and the jazzy You And the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful mines similar romantic territory. Church of Women strikes a reverential tone toward the fairer sex. It's appropriately hymn-like.

I'm the Man Who Murdered Love, also known as The Ballad of Dick Cheney, is cynical Partridge at his finest. It concerns a narrator who has assassinated the underapprecited Love: "I put a bullet in his sugar head / He thanked me kindly then he lay down dead / Phoney roses blossomed where he bled." Finally, Closer The Wheel and the Maypole is an mash-up of two song parts. The first finds Partridge indulging in his trademark double entendre (e.g. "I've got the seed if you've got the valley") while the second shifts tone into a philosophical rumination on the end of a relationship ("Wedding cake begins to must and moulder / And what made me think we'd be any better"). It's the yin and the yang and the perfect way to sum up and close out XTC's career.

We're All Light are not on the same level as those six, but it does have its charms. It's a collection of barely comprehensible pick-up lines using junk science. However, I do like the bridge quite a bit. Partridge's famous libido is on display in a limber rap: "Don't you know where you itch there's a little tiny switch / And if you let me in I can show you just the pin / That you put in the slot where the element gets hot and the stuff just pours out."

Unfortunately Partridge's wordplay isn't as strong or clever on My Brown Guitar or Wounded Horse. Both are fine musically, but the former seems to be reaching for some sort of extended metaphor that escapes me (and if it's supposed to be sexual, I don't wanna know what the brown guitar stands for). The forlorn Wounded Horse is clumsy, with the narrator comparing himself to a horse to describe his pain upon discovering his girl "riding another man." It's a mixed metaphor, and crude to boot.

Finally, there are Colin's three contributions. They don't match up with his greatest songs (Making Plans For Nigel, Ten Feet Tall, Wake Up, Grass, King For a Day, etc.), but they're enjoyable. In Another Life is a window into a long-term marriage and the way love can give way to familiarity. Moulding imagines different ways he could spice things up, like showing up in a candy commercial or a romance novel. Boarded Up is similarly realistic and personal, detailing the ways a small town has deteriorated culturally and given over to generic big box stores. XTC are from Swindon, England, a town that by many accounts has seen better days. Finally, there's
Standing In For Joe, a devilish tune about a guy who moves in on his pal's girl.

In retrospect, it's hard not to feel bittersweet about Wasp Star. Despite its pleasures, it represents the end of one of the best bands of the punk / new wave era, and the pop world is all the worse for the loss.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful