Friday, April 30, 2010

269. XTC: Mummer (1983)

Mummer marks the debut of XTC as a studio-only band. In the middle of a particularly-taxing U.S. tour for English Settlement, frontman Andy Partridge swore off touring forever.

This wasn't unprecedented, and especially not among Partridge's primary musical heroes. Brian Wilson quit touring with the Beach Boys in 1965. The Beatles gave up the road in 1966. In Wilson's case, the first album of his homebody existence was a little number called Pet Sounds. The Beatles made Revolver. Both albums are perennially in the discussion for best album of all time.

Mummer is not quite in the same league as those two, but it's not a bad album. In fact. On most days I'd take it over English Settlement.

In some fans' minds, Mummer is a black sheep in the XTC catalog thanks to the presence of synthesizers on several tracks. Though the record was partially helmed by Steve Nye (who produced New Romantic faves Japan), I don't get the idea that synths were used for particularly commercial reasons. I may be mistaken, but I believe that in 1983 every band was legally mandated to use synths! Due to a variety of factors (a girlfriend in Australia, the fact that the band had stopped touring, the lighter, less band-oriented nature of the songs) drummer Terry Chambers quit in the middle of the sessions. He was replaced, though not on a permanent basis, by Peter Phipps, of Gary Glitter's backing band.

All of this lends Mummer an experimental air, and what it lacks in cohesion it makes up for with charm.

Most of the record's best songs are on its first side. In fact, all 3 singles released from the album are there. The first is Colin Moulding's Wonderland, the album's worst synth offender, but a great song nonetheless. It's about a frustrated, rejected lad whose lady has unrealistic expectations of romance (she seems to be holding out for a rich, handsome Prince Charming). My favorite part is the way he upbraids her as he spits out the final line: "Caught in your superficial, nonexistant, fairy-story, wonderland."

Andy's Love on a Farmboy's Wages sports a wicked acoustic guitar riff and an ultra-melodic bridge.  Its subject matter is not far from Wonderland's; both concern the intersection of romance and money. Partridge's narrator worries that he can't provide for his girl on a meagre income (he'd revisit the theme in Skylarking's Earn Enough For Us). One wonders if the sudden worry was bourne out of the decision to stop touring and the lost income that resulted. When he sings, "The only job I do well is here on the farm," he seems resigned to the fact that being a musician will never make him rich.

The third and final single is Great Fire, a love song that likens romance to flames burning out of control. Opener Beating of Hearts sounds ominous with its jungle drums and vaguely Indian phrasings, but it's actually a hippie anthem about love being stronger than violence and hatred.

Side one is rounded out by Deliver Us from the Elements. another synth-fest from Colin. Its a spooky (both musically and lyrically) tune, about how we're powerless before extreme weather and natural disasters. It almost seems like a prayer: "Oh Lord deliver us from the elements / We've no defence, we are impotent." The backwards guitar looping shows the band reveling in the freedom of not having to reproduce the song live.

The album's second half is a fairly steep drop off. Human Alchemy has intriguing lyrics about the shamefulness of slavery (using the metaphor of turning human beings into gold), but it's musically plodding, and I'm not a fan of the distorted vocals. Nor am I enamored of the jazzy Ladybird. Its melody is occasionally beguiling, but more often boring. The bitter break-up tune Me and the Wind is similar. The "have I been such a fool" part is very memorable and the lyrics aren't bad ("Now that I'm out and I'm shouting in doorways / Freed from a love more like murder / I should be singing but in liberation/ Feel like a ship with no rudder"), but the minimalist, amelodic verses bog things down.

That leaves Colin's war hero anthem In Loving Memory of a Name (which is very musically upbeat number considering the subject matter) and Andy's bitter Funk Pop A Roll to pick up the slack. And they do. The latter especially. It's about the general chew 'em up and spit 'em out music industry: "Funk pop a roll the only goal /The music business is a hammer to keep / You pegs in your holes / But please don't listen to me / I've already been poisoned by this industry." Ironically, it would have made a good single.

The CD contains several bonus tracks, the best of which should have been called up to the a-team. Jump is a catchy acoustic number encouraging a reluctant romantic to express his feelings. Toys finds childrens' playthings acting out adult situations like racism, sexual politics, bullying, and war, reminding us that kids are always watching and emulating. I would have taken these two and chucked Ladybird and Human Alchemy in their favor. The album would have been stronger for it.

For a variety of reasons (the lack of a supporting tour, the new sound, the muted cover art), Mummer was XTC's worst showing in the charts yet, both in albums (#51) and singles (Love On a Farmboy's Wages peaked at #50, Wonderland and Great Fire didn't chart). From this point on, XTC would never quite recover their commercial mojo. Their artistic mojo, however, was just getting warmed up.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Love On a Farmboy's Wages

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rock Solid: Billy Joel

"If you only own one album by Billy Joel 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 Th
riller 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.

* * *

Let's get straight to it. Billy Joel's most beloved album is clearly 1977's The Stranger. Here are some statistics:
  • A combined 9.5 out of 10 star rating from the All Music Guide and Amazon.com.
  • 10 million copies sold
  • 4 top 25 hits
  • 6 songs placed on Greatest Hits Volume 1 compilation
  • 2 Grammys
  • #67 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
Of course numbers do not a good album make. What do the critics and fans have to say? Well, All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine says, "Joel rarely wrote a set of songs better than those on The Stranger, nor did he often deliver an album as consistently listenable." Though I must point out that this is probably not as over-the-moon as it sounds considering STE's obvious dislike of Joel (none of his albums get 5 stars and STE writes that Joel's "lyrics are often vague or mean-spirited. His lyrical shortcomings are overshadowed by his musical strengths. Even if his melodies sound more Broadway than Beatles.").

Amazon fans were not so backhanded. Take it away The Great Me: "This is yet another album that earns my respect. It doesn't have but one of my favorite Billy Joel tracks but it's my favorite album by Billy Boy. It is a true masterpiece in which Joel weaves his audience nine Godly tracks of beauty."

Matthew G. Sherwin adds that The Stranger "is indeed one of rare albums that is a must have for any serious collector of today's music!" BillyJoelNtrDame claims, "Nearly every song shines with the glimmer of virtual perfection." And an anonymous customer with questionable priorities states: "This CD would be the first thing I would grab if the house was burning down!!"

But the best comment of all comes from Thomas Magnum, who calls The Stranger "a virtual greatest hits record." He's dead on. Let's revisit and consider that statistic from above. There were 11 songs on the first disc of Billy Joel's two volume 1985 Greatest Hits compilation. Six of them were from The Stranger. The Stranger only had nine songs in the first place. That's a ridiculously high success rate.

But what about the Thriller Test? You know, if we wanted we could just as easily call it the Stranger Test. Witness:

1) At least 3 hits
How about four? Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), She's Always a Woman, Only the Good Die Young, and Just the Way You Are. The latter won the 2 aforementioned Grammys and its sweetness helped cement Billy as anathema to rock snobs everywhere. Movin' Out is a cynical piece questioning the promises of consumerism. She's Always a Woman is a often held up as misogynistic, given the not-so-flattering list of characteristics and the title phrase that seemingly generalizes them to encompass the entire female gender. However, the "she's always a woman" lead-in is preceded by the word "but" which generally indicates that whatever follows contradicts what came before. I would actually argue that the song is the opposite of misogynistic, that it's about the emergence of women as anything other than housewives and sex objects. Either way, the song has a gorgeous melody. And the all-your-religion-has done is shelter-you-from-reality anthem Only the Good Die Young may not be entirely accurate, but it's an admirable effort nonetheless. Pass.

2) Great album tracks
Sure. The title track never charted, but easily could have. It's an incisive look at the shifting nature of identity. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant is Billy's Abbey Road moment, stitching together three distinct song bits into one epic. It's one of my favorites, even though it doesn't make much sense as a whole. And I'd put Vienna here too, even though it didn't get the attention the other two did. Interestingly, its "you have your whole life ahead of you" message is in direct opposition to Only the Good Die Young's live-while-you-can philosophy. By the way, Billy has named this one of his two favorite songs of his own (the other was Summer, Highland Falls). Pass.

3) No filler
It's easy when you keep it short. Get It Right the First Time and Everybody Has a Dream aren't in the same league as the other 7 songs, but neither are they just there to take up space. The former features more dodgy life philosophy ("you have to do this right on your first try") but is a catchy tune even so. Closer Everybody Has a Dream sounds like a treacly Disney theme, but is actually about a lost man whose only comfort is imagining being at home with the woman he loves. Pass.

4) Memorable cover art
The black and white, the suit, the unmade bed, the mask, the boxing gloves. It's self-consciously arty, but it's also iconic. Pass.

So The Stranger is basically a kick-ass album, but that's not to say that doesn't have worthy competitors in the Billy Joel catalog. Anyone looking to expand their Billy Joel experience cannot go wrong with Turnstiles (1976), 52nd Street (1978), Glass Houses (1980), The Nylon Curtain (1982), or An Innocent Man (1983). The latter, a stylistic tribute to Motown, James Brown, and doo-wop, is my own personal fave.

Author's Note: This is album review #268.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rock Solid: Elton John

"If you only own one album by Elton John 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.

* * *

Any long musical career is bound to have peaks and valleys, and Reginald Dwight has peaked and valleyed like no other. We already know from the Rock Bottom entry that his low points were low (so much so that he had two albums statistically tied for last place). But what about his highs? His run of albums in the early-to-mid '70s is mind-boggling in quantity, quality and sales. Will it be as difficult to find a clear masterpiece as it was to find his worst album?

Yes and no. Unlike his Rock Bottom, one album stands out statistically above all of the others. That's Elton's third effort, 1971's Tumbleweed Connection, a loose concept album about the American wild west. The album got 5 star ratings from both the All Music Guide and Amazon.com. The competition was not far behind, with 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road coming closest (it actually scored slightly better with the fans, percentage-wise). Honky Chateau (1972) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) also made valiant efforts. Though the choice is clear, I have reservations about it, and I'll explain why in a bit. First, let's hear some justifications.

Of Tumbleweed, All Music Guide review-writing-machine Stephen Thomas Erlewine said, "[Bernie] Taupin's lyrics are evocative and John's melodic sense is at its best." Amazon.com fans agree. Kim Fletcher opines, "At all times the musicianship and songwriting is faultless." D. Haralson believes it is "by far, his greatest album ever." And Nathan Sikes says, "Tumbleweed Connection is the yardstick by which all of Elton's subsequent material should be measured." Even Sir Elton himself singled out Tumbleweed Connection: "Lyrically and melodically, that’s probably one of our most perfect albums. I don’t think there’s any song on there that doesn’t melodically fit the lyric."

Personally, I think the critics and fans (and even Elton) whiffed this one. Though Tumbleweed is wonderful album (it's consistent and enveloping, and Come Down In Time, Amoreena, and Burn Down the Mission are all excellent tunes), it simply can't be Elton's finest work. Why? Three reasons:

1) I think a masterpiece should serve as a sort of encapsulation of an artist's talent and appeal. Tumbleweed shows off Elton's talents for sure, but in a very uncharacteristic way. Think about it. What is Elton known for besides sparkly glasses and gap teeth? Poppy hit singles, right? The man has 22 top tens on the U.S. chart alone. Tumbleweed Connection is an album with ZERO hits. And it's less pop music than it is folk-country and honky tonk. It's not representative of Elton's career in any way. And while I can definitely appreciate the irony of that, irony does not a Rock Solid make.

2) I'm afraid that Tumbeweed Connection is the rock snob's choice for Elton's best precisely because it's so unlike his other work. See, rock snobs aren't supposed to like successful artists, so Elton is off limits. But finding a good album by him that a) few people have heard of, and b) has no hits, is like striking hipster gold. Witness Amazon.com reviewer Hal Kronsberg: "Admittedly, before this album, my only real Elton John experiences came from hearing him on the radio. His most frequently played tracks out in Mississippi range from the banal Daniel or the inane Crocidile Rock and the cheese-ball Your Song. Basically, I was firmly convinced that Elton John was little more than a British Billy Joel and above all else, a world-class weiner [sic]. But hearing this album completely changed my opinion of him." And Kronsberg is not alone. Several other reviewers (Mr. King and John Stodder, I'm looking at you) wrote some variation of the backhanded compliment: "I hate Elton but I love this album."

3) Without even going through the criteria, I can tell you Tumbleweed Connection fails the Thriller Test. I don't apply this test to every artist, but if any artist's "best" album should be able to pass it, Elton's should.

Thus, to me, Tumbleweed's main challenger, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, seems a better choice. It contains the following top 10 hits: the title track, Candle In the Wind, Bennie and the Jets, and Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting. That's in addition to under-the-radar classics like the epic Funeral For a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding and pretty closer Harmony. It's a double album, over-the-top and outlandish and stylistically diverse. It was also wildly successful, selling 7 million copies in the U.S. alone. These are the things one thinks of when they think of Elton John, making it a better choice for Rock Solid. It's not a perfect album by any means, but it does encapsulate Elton John's artistry. Earlwine has my back on this. "In many ways," he writes in his All Music Review of Yellow Brick Road, "the double album was a recap of all the styles and sounds that made John a star."

My own personal favorite is neither Tumbleweed nor Yellow Brick Road. It's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a record that's somewhat a combination of the two. Like Tumbleweed it's hit-starved (Captain Fantastic at least had Someone Saved My Life Tonight) but consistent. Like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road it's representative of the Elton experience, from the lavish cover art to the songs, which range from country and folk to rock and dramatic pop balladry. Plus, I'm a sucker for autobiography and self-mythologizing.

By the way, Rolling Stone agrees with me. On its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Tumbleweed Connection placed at 463, well below Captain Fantastic's 158 and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road's 91. The magazine, though complimentary when reviewing the 2008 Deluxe Edition of Tumbleweed Connection, was not over-the-moon about the album originally. Critic Jon Landau declared it a "missed opportunity" because of overproduction. (To be fair, the original reviews of the other two albums follow this same pattern, but I guess time has been even kinder to them; once again, don't look for logic in music criticism).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

267. XTC: English Settlement (1982)

I realize I'm putting my XTC superfan credibility on the line by saying this, but English Settlement has always felt a bit overrated to me.

Others fans can (and will) go on about it. In fact, there's a large contingent that believe the band reached their pinnacle on the album. And while I agree that English Settlement is an admirable piece of work, it's not an XTC album I pull off the shelf very often. I've never really tried to articulate why that is before, but now's a good a time as any.

First, some history: English Settlement found the boys making the most of the artistic and commercial success of Black Sea. They used their new currency to release a double vinyl set (it fits tidily on one CD) featuring a layered acoustic sound. Though daring for a band who had already made the transition from jumpy punk to muscular new wave, following their creative muse paid off. English Settlement nabbed them their highest U.K. album chart appearance yet (#5) and their biggest hit to date (Senses Working Overtime made it all the way to #10).

So with all this going for it, why isn't it one of my faves? First, the positive. Sonically, English Settlement is unassailable. It's a magnificent-sounding record, which is all the more impressive considering the band produced themselves (with Hugh Padgham engineering). And there are some amazing singular songs, three of which were actually released as singles. Senses Working Overtime is an optimistic burst of energy. No Thugs In Our House is about some parents who are oblivious to the fact that their son has joined a gang. And Colin's Ball and Chain concerns the destruction of residential areas in favor of "motorways and office blocks." Had Andy written this song you know he would have found a way to make it about marriage too. All of a Sudden (It's Too Late) and Snowman are also standouts, particularly the latter, a forlorn tale of romantic abuse.

But a large chunk of the tracks on English Settlement are more ideas than they are songs. Andy Partridge's Yacht Dance, Melt the Guns, Leisure, Knuckle Down, Down in the Cockpit, and It's Nearly Africa and Colin Moulding's English Roundabout are all textural, vibey, and loosely structured. In and of itself this isn't bad, but it becomes a problem when you add vague, impressionistic lyrics. Melt the Guns' obvious anti-war message is the exception, but for the most part the lyrics and voice are just another instrument in the song. I don't believe that every song needs to be laden with meaning, but it is a stark contrast to Black Sea's lyrical excellence, where every song was ABOUT something. Also, most of these English Settlement songs are overlong, averaging about 5 minutes each (this showed once and for all that XTC had given up on punk spirit; The Ramones could bang out at least 3 songs in 5 minutes). I could stand two or three songs like this, but half the record? No.

And it didn't have to be that way. Some songs manage to be expansive and keep a focused structure. Colin's opener, Runaways, sneaks up on the listener and remains hypnotic throughout. The same goes for the propulsive Fly on the Wall. Andy's take on the Greek myth Jason and the Argonauts is the album's second-longest song at 6 minutes, but is melodically-rich enough to warrant it.

XTC would never reach the commercial heights of English Settlement again. Not coincidentally, the album would also mark the end of XTC as a traditional pop group. Soon after its release, Andy Partridge would suffer a mental breakdown and vow never to tour again and drummer Terry Chambers would quit the band. And maybe it was for the best. Though popular success would elude them, their highest creative achievements were still to come.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Snowman

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

266. The Brady Bunch: It's a Sunshine Day: The Best of the Brady Bunch (1993)

Sitcoms and music have a long, incestuous history. From Ricky Nelson and the Monkees all the way to Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, the two have made the most of being together. The Brady Bunch, however, put the relationship to the test.

Most will remember the musical episodes of the show, notably "Dough-Re-Mi" (where Greg gets a recording contract and ends up bringing everybody in, only to have Peter's voice change the night before) and "Amateur Night" (where the kids enter a talent show to earn money to have a silver platter engraved for their parents).

But did you know the Brady kids made four albums as a group? Or that Maureen McCormick (Marcia) and Chris Knight (Peter) made a record as a duo? Or that Barry Williams (Greg), Eve Plumb (Jan), and Mike Lookinland (Bobby) all released solo singles?

It's A Sunshine Day, a compilation collecting the "best" of that output, was released in 1993. I was in high school and I'm guessing I bought it out of pure curiosity and nostalgia (I was an unrepentant rerun junkie), but the fact that listened to it fairly regularly probably explains why I didn't have many friends, let alone a girlfriend. Listening now, with a more refined ear, I still find some bits of guilty pleasure, as well as a healthy dose of just plain guilt.

The album starts, of course, with Theme from The Brady Bunch with words by acclaimed lyricist Sherwood Schwartz (the show's creator, also known for his classic Theme from Gilligan's Island and the lesser-hit Theme from It's About Time). Also notable are the songs from the above-mentioned episodes: We Can Make the World a Whole Lot Brighter, Time To Change (sadly without Pete's famous voice crack), Keep On, and It's a Sunshine Day. Despite dubious vocal performances (especially check out the druggy "can't you feel the sunshine" bits "sung" by Jan and Bobby on It's A Sunshine Day), all four are hard-to-resist, bright-eyed bubblegum pop.

And the album offers less-famous examples of this as well. Merry Go Round is a joyful tune that features the kids trading lead on the verses and joining together on the chorus. The lyrics aren't half-bad either, with the narrator comparing his love to a day at a carnival. The shouty Gonna Find a Rainbow is similarly optimistic. Candy (Sugar Shoppe) is as bubblegum as it gets, and shows 50 Cent wasn't at all original in his comparing candy to sex. Sample lyrics: "Candy kisses in the moonlight / Sugar shoppin' all through the night." I suggest you ignore the fact that it's brother and sister singing this to one another (Greg and Marsha shared the lead; at least they weren't blood relations).

Other group songs (We'll Always Be Friends and I Just Want To Be Your Friend) overdose on the syrup, and still others were poor choices (the spooky, depressing Charlotte's Web theme and a horn-driven, unsubtle, off key, and truncated cover of Don McLean's American Pie). And the less said about the Susan Olsen (Cindy) solo take on Frosty the Snowman the better.

It's A Sunshine Day also includes several solo singles and they are the true curios. Barry Williams' single single (Sweet Sweetheart, a Goffin and King compostion) is enjoyable, but didn't burn up the charts. If only they'd let him put it out under the Johnny Bravo brand! Barry started - but never completed - a full solo album, and that's probably for the best judging by the unreleased Cheyenne. It's a little bit country, and a little bit crappy.

Speaking of country, even mom Carol Brady, a.k.a. Florence Henderson also got in on the recording act. It was fitting since she got her start on Broadway, but you wouldn't know that from the boring, twangy Born to Say Goodbye. That leaves Maureen McCormick's Truckin' Back To You as the final - and best - of the three solo singles. Even though the song's title and chorus would probably be more suited coming from someone who might actually drive a semi, it's still catchy.

Finally, there's Road to Love, from Chris Knight and Maureen McCormick's album together. According to the liner notes, Chris was an extremely reluctant participant in the musical side of things, and Road to Love, a warbly treat-your-fellow-man well sort of message song, is proof that his instincts were good. On the positive side, check out that cover photo!

Interestingly, the liner notes also reveal that The Brady Bunch musical act basically killed The Brady Bunch television show. During the 5th season, the Brady actors negotiated to have half of all future episodes be musically-related. Cousin Oliver had already arrived and signaled a death knell, but this was the nail in the proverbial coffin. Sherwood Schwartz decided to end the show instead of turn it into a musical showcase.

It's a Sunshine Day is a sporadically-fun and always-fascinating compilation, but it's proof positive that Schwartz was a wise man.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Theme from The Brady Bunch

Friday, April 09, 2010

Rock Solid: James Taylor

"If you only own one album by James Taylor 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.

* * *

In James Taylor's Rock Bottom we learned that he's never made a bad album. But which one is the most not bad? Well, that'd be 1970's Sweet Baby James, his third album, easily. It's his only record to receive a full 10 star combined rating from the All Music Guide and Amazon.com. The closest competitors - Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971), JT (1977), and Dad Loves His Work (1981) - were a full star behind.

What makes Sweet Baby James so good? Let's hear from the critics and fans. The All Music Guide's William Ruhlmann enjoys the record because of "its attractive mixture of folk, country, gospel, and blues elements, all of them carefully understated and distanced." Rolling Stone's Gary Von Tersch seems to have a deep-down hipster instinct telling him he shouldn't like Taylor's work, but he can't help himself. "This is a hard album to argue with," he concludes.

Amazon.com fans are won over as well. "When we speak of classic records, this is the kind of stuff we have in mind," says Dr.Music. Barron Laycock writes, "There are hours and hours of wonderful experience in store for anyone with this album, whether you've come down in a space ship and are just introducing yourself to his work, or you are an old friend stopping by to sit on the front porch for a spell while Mudslide Slim plays and sings in his unforgettable voice for you. Enjoy!" Others declare Sweet Baby James the cream of the Taylor crop. Patricia T. Ogren states, "If I were stranded on a dessert island with only one album, this would be it" and Ol' Nuff N' Den Sum believes, "If you get any of James Taylor's albums, this should be the one." Frederick Baptist calls the record "James Taylor's best album at least during his full-set-of-hair days."

Baptist actually makes another claim as well. He believes that the album contains no filler and that is what qualifies it to be a classic. This is a good segueway into the Thriller Test, since "No filler" is one of the criteria.

1) At least 3 hits
Taylor's original Greatest Hits album featured 12 songs. Four of them were from Sweet Baby James: the title track (a country folk tune that combines past and present in a beguiling way), Country Road (another searching country tune; the album version features a choir, lending a gospel feel), Steamroller (a genuinely bluesy workout, challenging JT's "sensitive" image), and Fire and Rain (an immaculately-composed and performed account of Taylor's stay in a mental institution). I'd say getting four hits on the best greatest hits album ever is a pretty good batting average (.333). Pass

2) Great album tracks
Outside of the four big hits, there should be some songs that are either accepted classics or could-have-been-hits. Sweet Baby James has 3 of them. Lo and Behold sounds like a cover of an old-timey spiritual, but is actually an original. The lyrics don't make much sense to me, but they certainly are evocative ("there's a well on the hill / You just can't kill for Jesus").
Anywhere Like Heaven is the strongest could-have-been-a-single. It's got all of the Taylor hallmarks, some great finger-picking, steel guitar, and a warm vocal. Finally there's album closer Suite for 20 G, notable for being one of the only truly happy songs on the record and for the wonderfully unexpected R & B rave-up that comprises the last 2 minutes. Pass

3) No filler
This is where the album stumbles. Sunny Skies and Blossom are pleasant but inconsequential, which is the definition of filler. And the minimal blues tune Oh Baby, Don't You Loose Your Lip On Me is too short to amount of anything. And while the album has no bad songs, Oh! Susanna comes close. Taylor has pretty good luck interpreting others' songs (You've Got A Friend, How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You, Up On the Roof, Handy Man). But this take on the light-hearted Stephen Foster tune falls closer to The Promised Land (a misguided take on a Chuck Berry classic) or his head-scratching version of (The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance. Partial Credit

4) Memorable cover art
The cover photo represents the searching, slightly depressed nature of the Sweet Baby James' songs perfectly. The colors are cool and slightly washed out. Taylor's eyes stare at you soulfully. He's not smiling but he seems at ease. His hair is long and luxurious. Girls (and some boys) swooned. Pass.

So Sweet Baby James doesn't quite
make it to classic status, but it gets darn close. And to be fair, I don't think any of Taylor's albums would have met all four criteria. Don't get me wrong. I have special places in my heart for JT, New Moon Shine (1991), and October Road (2002), but they all have their flaws. And let's face it, Taylor is a singles artist above all else. It's rare for me to recommend a compilation over an album, but Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 are truly James Taylor at his finest. Sweet Baby James is merely the next best thing.

Author's Note: This is album review #265.

Monday, April 05, 2010

264. The Bird and the Bee: Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (2010)

The cover song is one of the unsung (well, not literally) heroes of pop music. It gives new musicians a place to start, fills the empty spots on albums, and shakes up otherwise predictable concert set lists, among many other things. In fact, one might say that pop music as we know it wouldn't exist had a truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi not decided to add his hillbilly twang to some R & B songs and four lads from England not lived in a shipping town where the latest Little Richard and Miracles 45s were readily available for them to learn and recreate.

If you break it down, there are basically two types of cover songs. The Homage is a faithful reproduction, usually done out of love and admiration for the original. The Re-Thinking takes a song and gives it a semi-to-very radical new arrangement. Within these types there are lots of reasons artist choose to record cover songs. They include (but are not limited to): a) to score a guaranteed hit, b) to rescue a good song from obscurity, c) to make an uncool artist cool again, d) to be funny or ironic, e) to have fun, and f) to donate the proceeds to charity.

This is why the cover song cannot be dismissed, because it has enough appeal for everyone. The most basic and superficial of music fans love covers, because anything familiar to them is good. They prefer The Homage, for reasons a, e and f. Rock snobs tend to gravitate toward Re-Thinkings, with reasons b, c, and d considered acceptable.

Though I'd never truly dismiss covers as a viable form of musical expression, I remain wary of them. I usually have no use for faithful cover versions that are little more than note-by-note recreations. Why not listen to the original instead? That means I lean toward the rock snob mindset (though I draw the line at the ironic cover, especially when it's a white artist covering a hip-hop song as a ballad, e.g. Ben Folds' Bitches Ain't Shit. Sure it was funny at first, but once everyone started doing it, the joke got real old). That aside, there are lots of great examples of Re-Thinkings: Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah, The Black Crowes' Hard To Handle, Otis Redding's Satisfaction, every Bob Dylan cover ever. There are bad ones too (Madonna's American Pie anyone?) but I tend to love the covers that respect the original and bring something completely new to it at the same time.

So where does The Bird and the Bee's new album, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: The Songs of Daryl Hall and John Oates fit? Irony seems a likely culprit considering Hall and Oates' cheesy image, but at the same time, you don't do a whole album of songs by an artist you don't truly respect. The next logical purpose of such a project would be to point out the strong craft behind the original songs (and thus make Hall & Oates cool again) by stripping away the '80s production, but these are Homages. They don't reproduce the originals exactly, but they hew very close, even down to prominent use of synths and drum machines. Anyway, at this point only the snobbiest of the snobs still refuse to acknowledge Hall & Oates' musical cred, and those wretched few aren't likely to be won over by the faithful versions of the originals.

So it seems the album is to be taken at face value, as a band simply recreating songs they truly love. And that makes it hard not to like, even more so when The Bird and the Bee principals Inara George and Greg Kurstin sing about their inspiration on the album's lone original, opener Heard It On the Radio. The song is about the way music becomes intertwined with important moments in our lives, especially when we're young: "When we first met they were playing that song and it stuck into my head, stuck into my head," George sings. Even without a Kiss On My List mention, it's not a far jump to assume Hall and Oates were the soundtrack to many youthful days for George (35 years old) and Kurstin (39). I suppose it's the highest compliment that I actually thought Heard It On the Radio was just another H & O cover before I did a little investigation.

If I have any quibble with the album it's in the song choices. The Bird and the Bee play it ultra safe, covering only the biggest of the big Hall and Oates hits. There's not a deep cut or lesser hit to be found. In fact, of the 8 covers on the album, 5 went to #1 in the U.S.: Rich Girl, Kiss On My List, Private Eyes, I Can't Go For That (No Can Do), and Maneater. The remaining 3 - Sara Smile, She's Gone and One on One - only made it to #s 4, 7, and 7 respectively. Not that I'd have necessarily picked lesser-known-or-successful songs, just different ones, such as Out of Touch, So Close, or You Make My Dreams.

Since the songs are redone so faithfully, the main thing to latch onto is the fact that it's a female voice singing them. This leads to some interesting conundrums once again related to song choices, since Inara George is not a lesbian (she's married to Lawrence Kasdan's son Jake, who deserves to be forever immortalized for directing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). But I suppose you can imagine she is, when you hear her sing "it's you and me forever" to a woman named Sara on Sara Smile, or lament the fact that her lover has left her on She's Gone. Actually I think it's pretty cool, but one does wonder about the justification (it would have been supremely easy to change the pronoun on She's Gone). On the other hand, Rich Girl and Maneater make George sound like one of those women who can't get along with other women. And still other songs actually benefit from the female perspective, at least in my heterosexual male estimation. One on One, Kiss On My List, and I Can't Go For That (No Can Do) (especially in the "I'll do anything you want me to" bit) become exponentially sexier with a woman singing them.

In the end, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1 is a fun, if strangely-conceived, album. It doesn't reveal anything new about Hall and Oates (except maybe that Private Eyes is a better song than I remembered), nor will it win you over if you don't already like them. It probably reveals more about The Bird and the Bee than anything, that they're willing to declare their love for something uncool without trying make it cool. I, for one, am definitely hoping for a Volume 2, and wondering who might get spotlight (I suggest Tears For Fears or The Pet Shop Boys).

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Heard It On the Radio

Thursday, April 01, 2010

263. XTC: Black Sea (1980)

If XTC spent their first three albums searching, Black Sea is where they finally found what they were looking for. Sure, their early work had individual shining moments (This Is Pop, Statue of Liberty, Are You Receiving Me, Making Plans for Nigel, among others), but Black Sea is Andy, Colin, Dave, and Terry's first consistently good record, the album where they became the XTC we know and love.

Perhaps it was the threat of being overshadowed by unassuming bassist Colin Moulding, or maybe it was just creative maturity, but Andy Partridge's songwriting took a leap on Black Sea. Of the four singles released from the album (Generals and Majors, Respectable Street, Towers of London, and Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)) three were Partridge compositions. More importantly, Sgt. Rock went to #16 on the UK charts, besting Moulding's Making Plans For Nigel by one spot (that it's the worst of the four singles is of no consequence).

Black Sea's first side is flawless. The album opens with Respectable Street, a new wave pogo stick of a song about the bad behavior and hypocrisy hiding behind idyllic suburbia. Witness the scathing second verse: "Now they talk about abortions /in cosmopolitan proportions to their daughters / as they speak of contraception / and immaculate receptions on their portable Sony entertainment centers." That's followed-up by Colin's best tune yet, the anti-war Generals and Majors (who "always seems so unhappy less they go to war"). I'm sure it's no coincidence that Living Through Another Cuba follows. In it, Andy bemoans the pissing contest otherwise known as the Cold War, which was reignited in 1979 by Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Andy worries that "war is polishing his dream while peace plays second fiddle" and "this phenomenon happens every 20 years or so / if they're not careful your watch won't be the only thing with a radioactive glow." Not your typical pop song topic, for sure.

After those heavy thoughts, the next two songs tackle matters of the heart. Moulding's second (and final) song on the album is Love At First Sight, a bouncy and cutting look at one night stands. My favorite verse goes something like this: "Make a play at lust intention / Only just one thing in mind / Make a slip could be forever / Wedding bells, the shotgun kind." Andy's Rocket From A Bottle is an unabashedly joyful love song, with the chorus' melody soaring like the titular firecracker. Finally, side one wraps up with the excellent No Language In Our Lungs. It was used very effectively in a Freaks and Geeks episode to accompany a choosing-teams-in-gym-class scene, but it's actually the inability of words to express truly important moments. It's ironic coming from a band so adept at lyric-writing.

After that, side two can't help but be a bit of a let down, but it starts off strong. Towers of London is perhaps Andy's most melodically accomplished song up to that point. The lyrics concern the workmen who died building the Queen's palace. Next is Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins), a lesser piece featuring Andy's turn at expressing utter disdain for the idea of being part of the rat race (Colin had already covered this on Making Plans For Nigel). Things rebound on the breathless Burning With Optimism's Flames. Take this in conjuction with Rocket From a Bottle and you can conclude that Andy's love life going very well at this point. In fact, he was a newlywed.

Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me) was the big success but ironically not anywhere near their best work, even up to that point. Not that it's a bad song. In it, a young comic book reading lad imagines his tough-as-nails idol (in this case the DC Comics military hero Sgt. Rock) as a model for dealing with the opposite sex (rather than opposing armies). The idea is sadly relatable to me, though apparently some women took it as misogynistic, probably in the line, "make the girl mine / keep her stood in line." I see it as more pathetic than anything.


Closer Travels In Nihlion is the album's only weak point, mostly because it's too musically appropraite to its title. The lyrical message, about how the punk movement lost its way and became just another identity to try on, is lost in a grating, amelodic, and overlong song. It's not truly awful, just a step back from the great quality of the rest of the record. On the positive side, it showed the band hadn't completely given up on their experimental nature.

Ultimately, it's not just the songwriting that makes Black Sea XTC's first great album. It's also the fact that the band is so musically lock-step with one another. The performances are uniformly strong, even on the lesser songs (it helped that crack producer Steve Lillywhite was once again at the helm). Given the quality of this album, the tenor of the music business at this point, and their steadily rising chart fortunes, there was no reason to believe XTC weren't poised for superstardom.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: No Language In Our Lungs / Generals and Majors

Fun Facts: The album's original title was Terry and the Lovemen, but drummer Terry Chambers refused to wear a tuxedo for the album cover photo. The band later used the pseudonym to record the song The Good Things for their own tribute album, Testimonial Dinner (this is reason #52 why I love XTC). Under Pressure was another rejected title, thus the diver suits on the cover.