Sunday, March 28, 2010

262. Broken Bells: Broken Bells (2010)

Broken Bells is a collaboration between Shins frontman James Mercer and producer extraordinaire Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton. The latter has already had great success as half of a super-duo, teaming with Cee-Lo to become Gnarls Barkley.

And though it contains no breakout hit on the level of Crazy, Broken Bells' debut album is an enjoyable piece of work.

However, that assessment is mostly dependent on you holding Mercer in high regard, since his voice and sensibility stand at the center of the record. In fact, it's easy to view Broken Bells as a James Mercer solo album with production by Danger Mouse. Sure, Burton cowrites every song and brings an experimental spirit with him (especially in the diverse instrumentation), but this is Mercer's show.

In fact, those hoping for something that doesn't sound mostly like The Shins will only have one song to latch onto. That'd be The Ghost Inside, which is the strange amalgam of indie rock and futuristic R & B that post probably expected from this collaboration. Over a Neptunesish keyboard line, Mercer employs a heretofore-unheard syncopated falsetto. It's all well and good, but I must admit a sense of relief when Mercer goes back to his regular singing voice in the song's final minute. I guess that means that, overall, it doesn't really work for me.

On a handful of other songs, Burton's free-wheeling production touch is evident as well. Your Head is on Fire has a decidedly dreamy '60s feel to it, especially in the freakout opening and the harmonies-and-shakers outro. Sailing To Nowhere stitches together bossa nova, opera, soul, and classical to no great effect, thus making the title especially appropriate title. For quality neither of them matches Mongrel Heart, an '80s dark synth pop tune with a detour into a spaghetti western Ennio Morricone-style breakdown.

But the rest of the album is basically straight-up enigmatic Shinish pop that falls into one of two categories: pretty good and okay. In the latter category we have Trap Doors, Citizen, and October, any of which would sound nice on the soundtrack to Zach Braff's next movie (I don't mean that sarcastically, by the way). Leading the "pretty good" category is opener and first single The High Road. The highlight is the singalong ending with a choir of Mercers: "it's too late to change your mind / you let loss be your guide." Vaporize sports some groovy organ and horn bits, and strong closer The Mall and Misery is a little bit punk and a little bit new wave.

Sometimes side projects transcend their nature and become the center of attention. Others live up to the description exactly, offering a pleasant diversion and little else. Broken Bells is one of those.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Mongrel Heart

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rock Solid: Beach Boys

"If you only own one album by The Beach Boys it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Far be it from me to propagate the same old story of rock history. The established Beach Boys narrative would have you believe that 1966's Pet Sounds is not only the band's clear masterpiece, but also one of the best albums ever recorded. Mojo, the British music magazine, in fact, named it "the greatest album ever made." Rolling Stone placed it at number 2 in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Beatle Paul McCartney has declared Pet Sounds his favorite record and said, "I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album." But would you believe that it's NOT The Beach Boys' Rock Solid?

Nope, that honor goes to Pet Sounds' 1965 predecessor, Today! Both albums received full 5 star ratings from the All Music Guide. On Amazon.com, however, Pet Sounds sits at a 4.5, Today! at a 5. The former had 72% of reviewers giving it perfect marks, the latter 81%.

I can guess what you're going to say next, that I'm letting one critic and a minority of fans override the majority opinion. And I see that, especially since my own preferences lean toward complete adoration of Pet Sounds (I even own a box set of the recording sessions). But, out of academic curiosity and a sense of fairness, let's entertain the notion that Today! could be Pet Sounds' superior. In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to do a Dr. Jack Ramsay style breakdown (with apologies to Dr. Jack and Bill Simmons, from whom I stole this format.)

THE CRITICS
All Music Guide's Richie Unterberger says Today! is "the first Beach Boys album that is strong almost from start to finish." He praises the record's "sophisticated themes" but complains that the album's version of Help Me Rhonda! is an older, inferior one. Rolling Stone placed Today! at #270 in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, calling head Beach Boy Brian Wilson a "genius" and claiming, "the haunting She Knows Me Too Well hits as deep as anything on Pet Sounds."

Speaking of that, Unterberger opens his Pet Sounds review with the following sentence: "The best Beach Boys album, and one of the best of the 1960s." He goes on to lavish praise on every facet of the record: the melodies, production, composition, vocal performances, lyrical themes, spirituality, and influence. In his 1972 Rolling Stone review of Pet Sounds (better late then never) Stephen Davis has the benefit of hindsight. He writes, "This trenchant cycle of love songs has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel, and by God if this little record didn't change only the course of popular music, but the course of a few lives in the bargain." His conclusion is as follows: "It is by far the best album Brian has yet delivered."

Edge: Pet Sounds


THE FANS
Today! may have a host of 5 star reviews, but nearly every review mentions it in comparison to Pet Sounds. Witness:
  • "Many Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fanatics rank Today! as their second favorite album after Pet Sounds, and who could argue with such an assessment?" (Anonymous)
  • "After Pet Sounds, I believe that The Beach Boys' Today! is their greatest album." (J.Thomas)
  • "I agree with the general consensus that Today! is the Beach Boys' best album after Pet Sounds."
  • "I don't know how many people agree with me on this, but I really enjoy this CD at least as much as Pet Sounds." (R. Stauffer)
But will anyone make a convincing case for it actually being better than Pet Sounds? Z. Higlefort starts off promisingly. "In many ways," he writes of Today!, "This is the quintessential Beach Boys album because it covers both the extroverted, good timin', rock n' roll spirit of the band taken to new heights on side one, plus, more importantly, the introverted, maturing, genius heart of Brian with the string of sophisticated ballads on side two." It's the best argument I've heard in favor of Today!, because Pet Sounds doesn't contain the fun, loose aspect of The Beach Boys' sound. However, Higlefort ends his review thusly: "An unforgettable album, and second only to Pet Sounds, in my opinion."

Usually those Amazon.com reviewers who are prone to hyperbole (which is to say 99.44% of them) are content to name an album a personal best by the artist. In the case of Pet Sounds, fans weren't content to limit themselves to the Beach Boys catalog. Consider:
  • "The Beach Boys created brilliance. Those who do not get it are not listening or do not understand the history of music." (All Powerful Wizard of Oz)
  • "It is the best album ever recorded." (Luke Wienecke)
  • "It it NOT possible to find a better musical masterpiece..." (Radio Jeff)
  • "Quite possibly the greatest moment in popular music history." (Lambi)
  • "It really is the greatest popular recording to date." (Bob Penn, who sees hope for the future, which I like)
The appropriately-named Saintsmen says of Pet Sounds, "If Heaven had music, this would be Earth's attempt to copy it." And Anastasia Smith opines: "It is essential for anyone who has ears, as well as anyone willing to explore sounds that reach the same level of depth and complexity that the emotional lyrics convey" (I'm very interested in how that second group explores sounds without actually having ears, but I digress). As if that weren't enough, Eidolon ties it up with a bow for us. He says, "the truth is that Brian Wilson's gorgeous Pet Sounds is by far the finest Beach Boys album ever produced. "

Edge: Pet Sounds


THE HITS BY THE NUMBERS
Today! had four charting singles. Do You Wanna Dance went to #12, When I Grow Up To Be a Man actually hit #9, and Dance, Dance, Dance got as high as #8. Help Me Rhonda was a #1 hit, but the version that's on the album isn't the version that topped the chart. It's a different mix, with less baritone vocal and no guitar solo. So I won't count it. That gives Today!'s hits a 10 average.

Pet Sounds had three charting singles. The mournful Caroline No got to #32, the traditional Sloop John B was a #3 hit, and wistful opener Wouldn't It Be Nice made it to #8. That's a 14 average.

Edge: Today!


THE HITS BY THE QUALITY
Of course chart performance doesn't necessarily speak to quality. Do You Wanna Dance and Dance, Dance, Dance are both fun and well-constructed, but are ultimately fluff. On the other hand When I Grow Up (To Be a Man) is actually pretty deep, man. It's framed as a teenager's musings on what he'll be like as he ages, wondering about his future wife, if his kids will think he's cool, if he'll keep his sense of humor, or still like new music. There's excitement there, but a clear fear of mortality as well, especially in the outro and the repeated line "won't last forever / it's kinda sad."

Speaking of growing up, Wouldn't It Be Nice is about a young couple yearning for the freedom of adulthood, mainly the simple pleasure of waking up with the one you love. It's a great love song. Caroline No is the exact opposite, a fascinating elegy for a failing relationship. Exactly why things have gone wrong is unclear, but it appears to have something to do with the fact that the titular Caroline has cut her hair short. Finally, Sloop John B is a new arrangement of a classic maritime folk tune. It's enjoyable, but lightweight.

In the end, both albums have hits that offer a mix of fluff and depth, each with a different balance; it just depends on which you value more.

Edge: tie


THE NON HITS
Today! contains some killer tracks that never were never released as singles. Namely, the sublime Pet Sounds-presaging She Knows Me Too Well and Please Let Me Wonder. Other songs, like the remake of The Crystals' Then He Kissed Me (Then I Kissed Her), Good To My Baby, and I'm So Young move things along, but don't necessarily stand out. The only truly weak moment is the closing interview segment Bull Session with Big Daddy, wherein we learn little more than the band likes Europe and hamburgers.

Pet Sounds is considered such a great album because it's a true album: Songs meant to be heard (both musically and thematically) as one suite, not as individual singles. So it's amazing that not only does it work as a whole, but that nearly every song is able to stand on its own as well. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), and That's Not Me are all perfect examples. And then of course there's God Only Knows, the gold standard of love songs (despite the confusing opening line "I may not always love you" which is immediately negated by "but long as there are stars above you / you'll never need to doubt it"). The only true drawback to Pet Sounds is the instrumentals. They work well in context, but I'm not necessarily excited to have them come up on my iPod shuffle.

Edge: Pet Sounds


COVER ART
Today!'s cover features a classic '50s influenced design, with the brown top and bottom bars, and the song titles listed. The photo of the Boys by a swimming pool is pretty goofy. Consider the identical sweaters of different colors, the awkward positioning (are their feet dangling in the water, or are they on a long innertube?), the squinty eyes, and the leering smiles.

Pet Sounds' cover is equally well-designed and equally goofy (but perhaps intentionally so). The color bar and song titles remain, but in a wonderful green and yellow combination and an eye-catching font. The picture of the boys feeding goats may match the album's title, but it's absurdly incongruous with the serious and high-minded music contained within. But, it is memorable, and has become iconic despite itself.

Edge: Pet Sounds


ALBUM CHARTS and SALES
This depends on whether you look at it as a 100 meter dash or a marathon. Initially Today! was the better performer, reaching #4 on the U.S. Billboard album chart. Pet Sounds was a relative disappointment upon its release, only making it to #10 on the same chart. However, total sales tell a different story. Pet Sounds has since gone Platinum (1,000,000 sales), while Today! is still only certified Gold (500,000 sales). Consider also that Pet Sounds has seen multiple re-releases in various formats, while Today! was out-of-print for awhile and was released most recently on CD as a two-fer with Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!).

Edge: Pet Sounds


FINAL VERDICT
Though Today! gave a valiant fight, the winner is clearly Pet Sounds by a final score of 6 to 2. And all is right with the world again. However, Today! is not a bad place to go if you'd like more Beach Boys beyond their masterpiece. I'd also highly recommend Sunflower (1970) and Surf's Up (1971). And of course Brian Wilson's finally-finished Smile (2005) is also essential (in fact, had it been finished by the whole band as originally planned, it might have been a serious contender in this very spot).

Author's Note: These are reviews #260 and 261.

Monday, March 22, 2010

259. XTC: Drums and Wires (1979)

Barry Andrews, whose keyboard was an integral part of the early XTC sound, left the band in 1979 due an internal struggle with guitarist/songwriter/singer Andy Partridge. Andrews saw them as equals; Andy saw himself as the leader.

So it's ironic that the first post-Andrews album, Drums and Wires, finds a new challenger to Partridge's supremacy. Bassist Colin Moulding, who had contributed 3 awful songs to White Music and 3 mediocre ones to Go 2, made an amazing leap in songwriting on the album. In fact, he wrote all of the album's singles, including the song that stands as the band's third-biggest hit, Making Plans for Nigel.

Mostly thanks to the catchiness of that song (and Life Begins at the Hop) and the introduction of talented guitarist Dave Gregory as Barry Andrews' replacement, the common belief is that Drums and Wires was the debut of XTC as a guitar-based melodic pop group (rather than a new wave punk band). But the full album doesn't quite support that theory. It's actually a transitional work, with the post-punk/new wave sound of their first two albums mellowing only slightly. The album's second side is especially filled with manic, rhythmic, off-kilter, and borderline-experimental songs.

All of those side 2 songs happen to be Andy compositions. And if he was taking baby steps musically, lyrically is where he was making true strides. Of course there are the requisite girl songs: In Helicopter he compares a particularly elusive woman to the titular vehicle, and throws in a bad pun for good measure ("I object to all the air male that she pick up"); the jagged When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty is a love song, listing the ways the narrator is affected by a certain girl: "When you're near me I have difficulty concentrating, When you're near me I have difficulty respirating." But on other songs, Partridge looks beyond romance and to the larger world.

Real by Reel seems to eerily predict the rise of reality television, but Andy was probably writing about the rise of Big Brother style privacy invasions. Witness the final line of the song: "Now I lay me down to sleep / Knowing that your lenses peep / Now I eat my daily bread / And into the tape spool I'll be fed." It's a catchy tune, with a sprightly solo from Gregory. In Roads Girdle the Globe Andy likens driving to a religious experience, but given his views on religion, it's hard to see this as positive. And Complicated Game, which Partridge sings with short staccato breaths as if someone is patting him on the chest while he performs, is seemingly about the pointlessness of divisive politics (hmmm, sound timely?). Like Swift before him, Andy masks his views in allegory: "A little girl asked me should she part her hair upon the left, no / A little girl asked me should she part her hair upon the right, no / Someone else will come along and move it."

Outside World confirms his disenchantment with the state of existence. The song's narrator is enamored of a woman who's oblivious to the troubles of the world. Instead of condemning this ostrich-like behavior, Partridge wants to join her: "Just make a little space for me," he sings, "I'm coming in."

Andy's contributions are rounded out by fluffier fare. Scissor Man is a fun and creepy take on the story from the morbid children's story collection Struwwelpeter. It's a great song. Millions, however, is Andy's worst song on the album, is musically repetitive, with mostly inscrutable lyrics about China.

As for Colin, his two afforementioned singles, Life Begins At the Hop and Making Plans For Nigel, are mini-masterpieces. On the former, Gregory's guitar sound plays a prominent part right away right away and "ooh-ooh-ooh-oo-oo" background vocals add to the party atmosphere. It's a song about going out and listening to music. The latter is a bit deeper, concerning the titular Nigel, whose parents want him to get a factory job. Colin's dismay at the prospect of a life of blue collar labor is palpable, though Nigel himself remains silent on the subject. The album's third, final, and least commercially successful single is Ten Feet Tall, a charming little love song with not one but two great guitar solos.

Colin finishes his contributions with two lesser tunes that are repetitive of themes in Making Plans for Nigel, Day In Day Out (about the monotony of a factory job) and That Is the Way (a list of parental dos and don'ts). Both are both musically uncompelling, though the fugelhorn on the latter is a nice preview of XTC's mannered future.

Overall, Drums and Wires is an enjoyable album that feels somewhat like an unfinished sketch. It sounds great, and the production by a then-untested Steve Lillywhite (he'd go on to produce Talking Heads, U2, Dave Matthews Band, and Peter Gabriel among others) is strong, but as an XTC album it's not quite there yet. in some places the pop instincts are there, and in others the lyrical complexity is, but rarely do they meet. It wasn't until XTC could combine the two consistently that their true brilliance would emerge.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Ten Feet Tall

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In XTC

For one shining moment in 1976, everyone thought the band Klaatu were the reunited Beatles in disguise. It turned out to be a false rumor based on some far-fetched and not-so-far-fetched coincidences, as well as some vague musical similarities.

What does that have to do with anything?

When my dad first told me about this, on a summer day in 1996, I wondered why more bands didn't release music under pseudonyms, just for the fun and freedom of it.

And then my dad told me about the British band XTC, who in the '80s had released an album as The Psonic Psunspots. He described their "Dukes of Stratosphere" album as Beatlesque and Beach Boyish. Sufficiently intrigued, I asked if I could borrow it sometime. But my dad didn't own the album; he'd checked it out from the Bloomington Public Library back when it was released in 1987.

That was the first time I'd heard of XTC, let alone the Psonic Psunspots, but I had a new mission. I vowed to find that record.

I was initially frustrated in my search. The Interweb was still in its infancy, so my only course of action was to scour the vinyl shops (I figured it was a fat chance that the record would be available on CD, but that didn't stop me from checking at Best Buy anyway). No luck, no Psonic Psunspots. At first I blamed the smallishness of my hometown, but when I repeated my search in the larger Quad Cities (where I was attending college), I was similarly skunked.

As my fruitless quest went on, I bought my first XTC album instead, 1989's Oranges and Lemons, at Target for $5.99. I loved it immediately, and from there, the dominoes fell. In quick succession I got Waxworks (a collection of early hits) and Nonsuch (1992) and then began filling in the band's back catalog.

But the Psonic Psunspots continued to elude me. It wasn't until I got my hands on the All Music Guide that I discovered exactly why. There was no band by that name. My dad had actually gotten his facts reversed. XTC's psychedelic stand-ins were The Dukes of Stratosphear. The ALBUM was called Psonic Psunspot (if you look at the cover to the right you can see why my dad got confused; the album title is above the band name).

The next chance I got, I bought Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, the CD compilation of that album and its predecessor, 25 o'Clock, at Deadpan Alley, a record store in Normal, Illinois. I remember I purchased that and The Clash's London Calling at the same time. The hipster clerk was suitably impressed.

Since then, XTC have been firmly enshrined as one of my top 10 musical obsessions of all time, along with The Beatles, The Monkees, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Talking Heads, Prince, Billy Joel, Elton John, They Might Be Giants, Matthew Sweet, and The Beach Boys. If you've been following 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds for awhile you'll note that the first 4 have been the subject of every-album-reviewed projects. Now, XTC is going to be the fifth.

I've already got a nice little headstart. I covered their 1977 debut, White Music, in 2004. Their second album, Go 2 (1978), served as the band's Rock Bottom entry. Oranges and Lemons and Wasp Star (2000) reviews came as part of my yearly one-decade-ago series. Finally, I wrote about their 1999 live box set Transistor Blast in my college newspaper. Over the next few months I'll fill in the gaps. I'm looking forward to spending some quality time with each of their records, and sharing the results with you.

Oh, and about 6 years after my dad introduced me to XTC, he and I attended a remaindered book sale at the Bloomington Public Library. They were selling off most of their vinyl, and there, for the price of $1.oo, was The Dukes of Stratosphear's Psonic Psunspot, the very copy my dad had checked out in 1987. They had a couple of Klaatu albums as well, but I passed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

An Open Letter to "Weird Al" Yankovic

Dear Mr. Yankovic,

Do you remember me? I last wrote you in 1988, suggesting that you parody Robert Palmer's hit Simply Irresistible using the title Simply Indigestible. I don't blame you for not taking my suggestion, but I still think it would have been pretty funny.

I'm writing now because I've just spent the past 5 months reviewing every single one of your albums on my blog, and I've got some thoughts and advice I'd like to share with you.

Let me start by thanking you for the joy you've brought me over the years. There have been laughs, of course, but you also introduced me to the kaleidoscopic menu of pop music. I'm guessing my tastes would be much more limited if not for your genre-hopping. Viewing your career in whole has been like taking a tour through the last 27 years of pop music history.

But I've also noted some disturbing trends in your career that I'd like to address. And remember, all of this is meant in a constructive way. I'm here to help.

1) Get some new themes. Everybody knows you have a food and TV fixation. I counted; in your catalog there are 31 songs that reference food and 25 that feature some mention of TV. You've even released compilation albums on each theme. There's nothing wrong with having motifs in your work, but I think this is excessive. The most disturbing repeated theme in your career is more under the radar; it's what I call the Crazy List. You know what I'm talking about. You pick a subject and then just list absurd events related to it. It's not that great of an idea in the first place, yet you've done it 24 times! That's an average of 2 per album. It's time to retire that schtick, or at least use it more sparingly. Oh, and you know there's more than just the first person perspective, right? I mean, a couple of your songs use the second, and a few less use the third, but the majority of them are all about I, I, I.

On a positive note, keep doing the polka medleys. I love 'em.

2) Deepen your sense of humor. Al, you're 50 years old now. Believe me, I'm all for staying young at heart, but often you're still writing jokes for 12 year-olds. I understand that this is part of your ongoing appeal, but you've shown yourself capable of so much more. In fact, your first album had some examples of sly social commentary (Happy Birthday, Buckingham Blues). And the songs where you tone it down a little bit (Frank's 2000" TV, Airline Amy, Skipper Dan, and others without people's names in the titles) are often your best. Don't be afraid to add some complexity and layers to your humor; don't always go for the easiest, basest joke. Specifically, would it kill you to tone down the violence (I'm thinking The Night Santa Went Crazy here) and fat jokes?

3) Remedy your cultural short-sightedness. Speaking of base, there's a small number of your songs that make you seem kind of like an ignorant dick. Or at least someone not aware of his own privilege as a white, heterosexual, protestant, and upper class male. So, Amish Paradise, Pretty Fly For a Rabbi, Whatever You Like? Throw them out. Dropping the names of other countries because they're "funny"? Forget it. I hope that you realized this yourself, because Canadian Idiot was an awesome condemnation of jingoism.

4) Stop stealing musical ideas. Before I embarked on this reviewing project, I would have defended you to anyone, pointing to your non-parody songs as a proof-positive of your limitless creativity. I've been especially enamored of your style parodies, where you write a song that sounds like it could have been by a certain artist, but is really completely original (Dare To Be Stupid, You Make Me, Everything You Know Is Wrong). But lo and behold I discover that many of these songs bear an uncanny resemblance to pre-existing songs. Take The Biggest Ball of Twine In Minnesota for example. Lyrically, it's brilliant. Musically, it's nearly a dead ringer for Harry Chapin's 300,000 Pounds of Bananas. Really, Al? Really? It kind of sours me on the whole thing. There are at least a dozen other similar examples in your song catalog. I don't mind so much that you pay homage, but in every case the only songwriter listed is one Al Yankovic. That means you are taking credit for musical ideas that were not your own. I'm surprised you haven't found yourself in a George Harrison vs. The Chiffons sort of situation because of this. My advice: Cut it out.

In conclusion, I'd like to thank you again for your work. I can tell you have great fun doing it, and that goes a long way. Please keep challenging yourself as you head into the future. Oh, and here's a list of your own songs that I think you should hold up as a standard.

Sincerely,
Paul Allen
A Close Personal Friend of Al

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rock Solid: "Weird Al" Yankovic

"If you only own one album by "Weird Al" Yankovic it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

If anyone is qualified to tell you about "Weird Al" Yankovic's Rock Solid, I am. I've spent the last 5 months listening to and writing about every note Al has recorded.

And yet, I'm completely baffled by the fan and critic choice. There's no way I would have picked 1992's Off the Deep End as Al's best album. When I reviewed it, I gave it a C+, which puts it no better than 7th place in his catalog. And yet, that's the clear winner. It got a 4.5 star rating from the All Music Guide, and the same from Amazon.com reviewers. Its closest competition was 1984's In 3-D, which clocked the same AMG rating, but a half star less from Amazon reviewers (and a much smaller percentage of 5 star ratings as well). Even Worse, from 1988, came in a distant third.

But I want to trust my Rock Solid-determining methods, so, with a slightly open (ajar?) mind, I'll let the critics and fans try to convince me that Off the Deep End is Al masterpiece.

Barry Weber's amateurish All Music Guide review doesn't do the trick. In fact, it nearly cements me in the opposing view. He finds Smells Like Nirvana, a song about not understanding Kurt Cobain's lyrics, to be the height of "cleverness." No, it's not. He also calls Trigger Happy, When I Was Your Age, and You Don't Love Me Anymore Al's "best originals ever." Well, I'll give you the last one, and reluctantly support the first one, but When I Was Your Age? No, uh-uh. It's a rip-off of Don Henley and grandpas everywhere. Weber also labels Taco Grande a "satire." Satire is a form of ridicule, and I fail to see what a list of Mexican food (for that's all that Taco Grande really is) is ridiculing.

It's never a good thing when you're relying on Amazon.com reviewers for logical and well-articulated criticism, but let's see what they have to say about Off the Deep End. Well, no less than three of them (Lawrance Bernabo, Cooper Cornelius, and Memoria) declared it Al's best work. Scott Basler said, "This is my favorite CD EVER of ALL TIME!" James Simpson titled his review, "greatest album ever made in the history of music" and concludes his review with, "Unless you are deaf you will want this album." So, um, yeah.

Matthew Paul Fryman declares the album to be "Pure genious [sic]" and Matt Sz claims that "Weird Al's brand of magic has transformed a previously un-musicked person into an avid listener." Another Matthew brazenly plagiarizes the All Music Guide review, word for word! It probably says something about Barry Weber's work that it doesn't seem completely out of place there. Finally, brad78 writes that, "Off the Deep End is a monolithic, paradigm shifting work of undeniable genius that, because of its unparalled crafstmanship, and razor sharp humor, will and must stand alone in the pantheon of pop music." It's never a good thing when a glowingly positive review could easily be mistaken for sarcasm. At least he spelled "genius" right.

At any rate, none of this justifies the existence of the New Kids on the Block-copping The White Stuff or the Milli Vanilli parody that fails in any way to make fun of the fact that they were musical frauds. Nor does it forgive the fact that the music for When I Was Your Age and I Was Only Kidding is ripped off from other artists. I do have some affection for Off the Deep End; and I loved it when I was 14, but it's not Al's best by any stretch.

This is what happens when you put your fate in the hands of Amazon.com reviewers. God love them, but while reading through all 42 (!) 5 star reviews I think my IQ went down by about 5 points.

My choice for Al's best? In 3-D all the way. There are no weak links in the parodies and the originals are all inspired. The humor is by turns absurd and over-the-top, but never stupid, and there's even some subtle social commentary in Nature Trail to Hell and Gonna Buy Me a Condo. AND it marks the first appearance of the polka medley. Trust me on this one.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rock Solid: David Bowie

"If you only own one album by David Bowie it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Thriller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Shows what I know. Before researching I'd have told you that David Bowie's Rock Solid was definitely going to be Ziggy Stardust, the 1972 album that catapulted him to fame. I was wrong; that record actually came in second place. The real honors go to Ziggy's predecessor, 1971's Hunky Dory.

Bowie actually had 6 albums in the running. In addition to the two I've already mentioned, Station to Station (1976), Low, Heroes (both 1977), and Scary Monsters (1980) also got high marks. Of these, only Hunky Dory received perfect 5 star ratings from both of my sources, the All Music Guide and Amazon.com. Let's get to specifics.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the grand poobah of the All Music Guide, calls Hunky Dory a "kaleidoscopic array of pop styles, tied together only by Bowie's sense of vision." And then he really gets his prose revved up, labeling the album "a sweeping, cinematic mélange of high and low art, ambiguous sexuality, kitsch, and class." Or something like that.

Fan reviewers on Amazon.com got themselves in a similar lather. Eric N. Andrews claims, "This album still rewrote the rules of pop music." Pieter calls it a "timeless classic." Jerayr Haleblian writes, "I would probably rank it as the single best album of the '70s." Ericross asks and answers, "Want to make an album? Here's your textbook!" Adios_kansas remarks, "Nothing gets me through the day quite like Hunky Dory. Red Bull aside." Morton writes, "Hunky Dory by David Bowie is easily the best lyricly [sic] written album of all time!"And Rygel concludes, "It's very easy to get into, relatively poppy and brilliant." I've always wanted to be relatively brilliant.

So sure, it's a great record, but is it Bowie's BEST? Ruben I. Thaker informs us that "a recent British survey of 'greatest records' accurately and surprisingly rated this the highest of Bowie's masterpieces." Howzat titles his Hunky Dory review "Bowie's Undisputed Masterpiece", heaps generous praise on the album and then says, "I'm not sure if I'd call it his best album but its up there with his finest efforts." Wha-huh? Both of these comments highlight the need for a clear definition of the word "masterpiece." Does it mean a piece by a master, or a piece that is master of all others? I tend to think the latter, therefore there can only be ONE masterpiece, right?

But I digress. Let's put Hunky Dory to the Thriller Test.

1) At least 3 hits
Hunky Dory features no less than 3 stone cold Bowie classics that even your mother will probably know. Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes is traditional and modern all at once. It's also Bowie's theme song, given how many times he has reinvented himself and his music. Plus, it'll forever be immortalized thanks to being quoted in the intro to The Breakfast Club. The piano-driven Oh! You Pretty Things and Life On Mars, with its pleading chorus, also helped to define the Bowie aesthetic (the fixations with androgyny and science fiction, to be specific). Pass

2) Great album tracks
Queen Bitch has gained some notoriety but you're not likely to find it on a Bowie best of. Nonetheless, it's a fun rocker, and where else could you find Bowie copping lines from Disney's Cinderella (bippity boppity bam)? Kooks sounds is equally good but couldn't be more different than Queen Bitch. It's less a rocker than it is an old-English pub song. Quicksand is a pretty power ballad complete with strings. Song for Bob Dylan only makes sense when you know that the revered Dylan of the early-to-mid '60s was in an artistic wilderness in 1971, culminating in the awful Self Portrait album (the song addresses this in the line "Then we lost your train of thought, the paintings are all your own"). Plus, the tune also contains probably the most fitting description of Dylan's singing style as you'll find ("a voice like sand and glue"). Finally, The Bewlay Brothers and acoustic tour-de-force with impenetrable, imagery-filled lyrics. It's captivating until the weird singalong Pink Floyd ending. Pass

3. No filler
This is where Hunky Dory, in my opinion, falters. Fill Your Heart is a cover of a song written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams and previously recorded by, get this, Tiny Tim! It's styled as '20s jazz. Bowie gives it his best falsetto, but it's still fluff. Andy Warhol has an appropriately experimental intro and a great acoustic guitar part from Mick Ronson, but is far from a classic (Bowie later portayed Warhol in the film Basquiat). And the brief 8 Line Poem, which segues from the end of Oh! You Pretty Things, is similarly indulgent. But to make this a little less subjective on my part let's hear from Rolling Stone's John Mendelsohn. In his 1971 review of the album he feels that Hunky Dory "falters" on Andy Warhol and Song for Bob Dylan and writes in his conclusion that Bowie has "a couple of pretentious tendencies he'd do handsomely to curtail through the composition of an album's-worth of material." Fail

4) Memorable cover art
I'd say the unnatural color and fuzzy androgyny of the cover definitely puts it on the list of most iconic Bowie images. Pass

So Hunky Dory gets admirably close, but doesn't quite pass the Thriller Test. Thus, I can't fully support the fans and critics on this one. I'm still more inclined to give the nod to Ziggy Stardust. It's short on hits, but doesn't have a weak moment. Or consider 1983's Let's Dance: Four huge hits (the title track, Modern Love, China Girl, Cat People (Putting Out Fire)), Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar, and great cover art. My personal favorite, however, is actually Bowie's Rock Bottom, Never Let Me Down. Shows what I know.

Author's Note: This is album review #258.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

257. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Internet Leaks EP (2009)

One of the modern day raps against "Weird Al" has been a lack of timeliness. Given the increased speed of media, the songs and topics Al parodies can become passe by the time he gets around to putting out an album. Seemingly acknowledging this, Al has spend the last year releasing advance singles from his next album. In turn, those songs have been packaged together as a digital EP called Internet Leaks.

Though this solution may allow the songs to be more topical, it doesn't necessarily make them better (as we'll see) and it certainly doesn't increase excitement for an album. Who wants to buy a CD when they've already paid for half of the songs?

Parodies
Whatever You Like is a parody of T.I.'s 2008 hit...Whatever You Like. If I'm not mistaken this marks the first time Al has used the same title and lyrical concept in a parody. In T.I.'s song he promises his girl all sorts of great things (a private jet, a 5 million dollar home, a Bentley, etc.). Al does the same thing in his version, the difference being that he's ballin' on a budget. So he promises things like ramen noodles, a trip to the laundromat, a shopping spree at Wal-Mart, bus tokens, a dinner at White Castle, and a pair of thrift store jeans.

The joke behind the song is the same as nearly all of Al's rap parodies: A boastful rap from someone who really has nothing to boast about. And he's done it better elsewhere. More disturbing is the seeming contempt of those living along the poverty line. It's not especially funny coming from someone who is likely a millionaire, nor is it easy to ignore the racial implications (Al's parodying a song by a black artist, and making fun of the economically disadvantaged, a group into which many black Americans fall). In that light, the mention of government cheese is especially damning. Not cool.

Style Parodies
CNR borrows the blues metal stomp of The White Stripes to tell ridiculous tall tales about the actor Charles Nelson Reilly. Reilly died in 2007, and this song could be seen as a tribute if it wasn't so mean-spiritied in places (Al claims, among other things, that he had a third nipple, had sex with a manatee, and liked to hit people with a shovel). Who knows, maybe Reilly would have loved the song, but I think a more straight-forward bio would have been just as interesting. Afterall, this guy had a successful career on Broadway, played Hoodoo the wizard in an awful, awful Sid and Marty Kroft show called Lidsville, was a game show and Tonight Show regular, and did a voice for SpongeBob SquarePants.

Craigslist takes a Doors groove and puts it with a Crazy List of things you can get / do on the titular Internet site. The list is fairly funny, including setting up a strange rendez-vous, giving away a garbage can full of styrofoam peanuts (but not the can itself), or writing an open letter to a rude barista, and the vocal parody of Jim Morrisson is right on.

Ringtone is a Queen soundalike about a guy who bought a bad ringtone that everyone hates. The lyrics are not especially funny, but they're somewhat salvaged by the music itself.

That leaves Skipper Dan as the only true selling point of the EP. It's a power pop rocker about a promising Julliard-trained actor who can't get work and is reduced to telling bad puns on the the jungle cruise ride at Disneyland (I've been on this ride and the jokes are pretty funny, but imagine telling them over and over all day...). The song details his hopes and dreams (a film with Quentin Tarentino, a photo shoot with Annie Liboweitz, awards at Sundance) and how they've given way to small potato monotony. The song owes an obvious debt to Fountains Of Wayne, not just musically, but lyically as well. Like a FoW tune, the song finds the pathos in the main character's story without belittling him. This is a big accomplishment for Al, who almost always goes for the easy joke. If Al wanted a more mature direction for his career, Skipper Dan wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Conclusion
If Al's true goal was to be more timely with his parodies, this is a curious selection of songs, ill-suited to that purpose. Only Whatever You Like was topical. In the other cases, sure ringtones and Craigslist are hot topics, why use the musical styles of artists who were popular 40 years ago? And The White Stripes are still sort of popular, but why make the song about a semi-obscure actor whose popularity peaked in the '70s? As a simple collection of songs it fares better, but only slightly.

References to food: 1
References to TV: 1
Grade: C-
Fave Song: Skipper Dan

Saturday, March 06, 2010

"Weird Al" Yankovic - "You're Pitiful" (2006)

Weird Al's career is littered with parodies that didn't get released because of artist or label refusal. Thus we've been spared Snack All Night (Michael Jackson's Black or White), Chicken Pot Pie (Wings' Live and Let Die), Laundry Day (The Offspring's Come Out and Play), Gee, I'm a Nerd (The Beatles' Free as a Bird), I'll Repair For You (The Rembrandts' I'll Be There for You), Fast Food (Alanis Morissette's Thank U), Bad Date (Daniel Powter's Bad Day).

While working on Straight Outta Lynwood, Al recorded You're Pitiful, a parody of James Blunt's ubiquitous 2005 single You're Beautiful. Before the album was released, Blunt's record company protested. Because he had Blunt's permission, Al released it on the Internet for free download instead.

Al's version features a narrator who dresses down an unnamed "you", a poor schlub who doesn't have a lot going for him. Among other things, he can't dance, get a date, has the nickname Farty-Pants, works at a convenience store, is a Trekkie and a video game junkie, and still lives with his mother.

Actually, lyrically, it's along the same the same lines as White and Nerdy, the song Al recorded quickly to take You're Pitiful's place on Straight Outta Lynwood. Seeing that You're Pitiful is pretty much just a serviceable parody and White and Nerdy is transcendent, I guess it's actually a good thing that Atlantic Records refused.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Rock Solid: R.E.M.

"If you only own one album by R.E.M. it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

I've just started this new feature and I'm already I'm questioning my methods. It's R.E.M.'s fault. See, by the ratings, one album stands above all others with a perfect 10 out of 10 rating. That would be their 1983 debut, Murmur. By no means do I deny its quality, but my research has given me misgivings about declaring it their definitive best.

I'm not going to explain just why yet. That's just what we call an introductory teaser.

Let's look at the statistics first. The All Music Guide bestowed perfect 5 star ratings on three of the band's albums: Murmur, its 1984 follow-up Reckoning, and 1992's Automatic For the People (which featured the hits Everybody Hurts and Man In the Moon). Amazon.com breaks up the logjam, with only Murmur getting the full five stars. The other two had meager 4.5 averages. So that puts Murmur as the clear winner, especially when you consider that 150 of the 169 reviewers gave the album 5 stars. That's an unprecedented 89%.

Without a doubt, Murmur is a great album, from the immortal opener Radio Free Europe, to
the ringing Talk About the Passion, to Catapult, still one of the band's most thrilling songs. All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine praises the "remarkably accomplished songwriting." Amazon.com reviewers broke out the hyperbole. Evan Streb says, "It's the greatest album ever made ever in the history of music since the beginning of time." Dale Chapman finds Murmur to be "a sanctified relic. The songs breathe life, poignantly document what it felt like to be a young person toward the end of the 20th century." And C.Garces claims, "This album should be mandatory to every human being, there would be no war in the world."

Others are on to my game. Prymel thinks Murmur "completely dwarfs everything else in the R.E.M. catalog" and Brian Rubendall paraphrases the Rock Solid motto:"If you own only one R.E.M. album, this should be the one."

So what's the problem? Well, in my mind, a band's masterpiece should be an album that's great outside the context of anything (genre, the rest of the artist's catalog, time period). Of course removing all context is impossible, but when a lot of the praise heaped upon a certain album mentions a certain context, that gives me pause.

In the case of Murmur, it's the fact that the album not only represented something so completely different from what was popular at the time, but that it predicted what was about to become popular. An inordinate number of reviews, both professional and amateur, picked up on this. The All Music Guide's bio of the band opens with the line: "R.E.M. mark the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock." Rolling Stone's review of the 2008 deluxe edition calls Murmur the album that invented 'alternative rock.' (giving short shrift to The Replacements, Husker Du, and other bands who married a punk spirit with melodic song structures.)

Many Amazon.com reviewers took the same line of reasoning while praising Murmur. Vinny Mac recalls: "I remember playing this CD for a friend of mine last year and his response? - 'That's not that original. It's just average, highly melodic pop-rock'. This is true, but when I told him it was made in 1983, his jaw dropped." An anonymous reviewer writes: "To fully appreciate the beauty of Murmur, you have to remember the creative wasteland from which it emerged. Between the macho, guitar-posturing of hair metal and the pretentious pap of new wave, the only real alternative in 1982 (remember?) was the punk scene. While many found an oasis in the underground-spirit of hardcore,those of us who occasionally enjoyed some semblance of melody and songcraft were still without a voice." Rocky Racoon simply titles his review "Resuscitated the Heartbeat of Music"

While I don't necessarily disagree with any of that, I also don't know that it automatically makes Murmur R.E.M.'s best album. Most significant? Sure. But as anyone who has read an old book that's considered "significant" and been baffled by it knows, cultural impact and great art aren't always the same thing. As I said before, Murmur is a great album, but it's not necessarily an original one (certainly not as original as some of the above reviewers might believe). The early R.E.M. songs had a direct lineage from the 60's melodic sounds of The Byrds (Laughing) Beach Boys (Pilgrimage) and especially the melancholy '70s jangle of Big Star (Talk About the Passion, Moral Kiosk, Sitting Still, etc.).

My personal favorite R.E.M. album (just behind 1996 dark horse New Adventures In Hi-Fi) is Automatic For the People, and one can make a good case for it being the true Rock Solid. See, Rolling Stone, my usual tiebreaker, was actually a tiemaker in this case. Steve Pond's original 1983 review of Murmur bestowed it with 4 stars, but the aforementioned 2008 review pumped it up to 5. That's a 4.5 average. Automatic For the People, on the other hand, got a 5 star rating from the magazine at the time of its release. If you're fast with math then you realize that makes it 14.5/15 for Murmur and 14.5/15 for Automatic.

And consider that Erlewine is not unequivocal in his praise of Murmur. He actually writes, "R.E.M. may have made albums as good as Murmur in the years following its release, but they never again made anything that sounded quite like it" and then in his Automatic For the People review he calls it a masterpiece and says, "R.E.M. have never been as emotionally direct as they are on Automatic for the People, nor have they ever created music quite as rich and timeless, and while the record is not an easy listen, it is the most rewarding record in their oeuvre."

The reason Automatic For the People is my favorite is the sheer number of classic tunes (Everybody Hurts, Man In the Moon, Find the River, Drive, Nightswimming, Sweetness Follows, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight). It's an assured album, an excellent balance between the early R.E.M. sound and their later, more pop-oriented one. It's by turns absurd and fun and deeply affecting, and it feels completely original, save for the purposefully derivative bits (the "hey kids / rock and roll" line on Drive is from David Essex's hit Rock On and the title and vocal on The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight of course recall The Tokens' The Lion Sleeps Tonight).

But it's not R.E.M.'s Rock Solid because when we turn to my final tiebreaker, the percentage of 5 star reviews on Amazon.com, a winner emerges by a nose hair. I already told you about Murmur's 89%. Automatic For the People's score is 302 out of 369. That's 82%.

So, my methods may have let me down slightly on this debut outing, but I'm going to stick with them. Though it's fun to consider as an academic exercise, thankfully, there's no such rule that you can only own one album by any given artist. So why not get both?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Best. Album. Ever.

The sun is rising and a new day is dawning.

I've spent the past 17 months on this blog researching, listening to, and writing about "bad" albums. In case you weren't following along, the Rock Bottom project found me picking a musician and then determining which of their albums was the worst in the eyes of critics and fans. Though it sounds somewhat torturous, it was actually a blast uncovering the various reasons why an album was so hated, deciding whether I disagreed or not, and then writing about the whole process.

It took me 16 of those 17 months to come up with the logical companion project (I never claimed to be a quick thinker). Now that we know the worst of an artist, why not look at their best?

This, I'm discovering, brings up a whole different set of issues. How do we quantify what is ultimately an opinion? Sales? Critical reaction? Cultural impact? Fan response? My solution is to look at all of them. I'm going to rely on my trusty sources, the All Music Guide for the critical perspective, and Amazon.com's user reviews for the fan side of things. Rolling Stone will be thrown in as a tiebreaker. And in an added bit of egomania, I'll be sharing my own personal favorite album by each artist.

The line-up is going to be the same 23 artists for whom I wrote Rock Bottom entries: Beach Boys, Beatles, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Elton John, Madonna, Monkees, Tom Petty, Prince, Paul Simon, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, James Taylor, U2, Van Halen, Weezer, XTC, and "Weird Al" Yankovic.

And since the first Rock Bottom featured R.E.M., that's where we'll start this time as well. Oh, and the name of this new feature? Rock Solid, of course (thanks to the wife for that one).

It starts tomorrow. Thanks for reading!