Wednesday, June 24, 2009
(NOTE: Since posting this, I received the disc and read consumer posts which indicated that the disc sounded fine and the package was acceptable. This turned out to be the case. That being said, I think that Amazon still should have been more upfront about things.)
When Cheap Trick announced that it was initially selling its new album, The Latest, exclusively on Amazon.com, I wasn't really keen on the idea. But after hearing a clip of the track "Sick Man Of Europe", I didn't care. I had to have the album.
So I signed in to Amazon.com and ordered the album. The price: $12.99 plus the $2.98 shipping cost. Not a bargain, but I had demand and they had the supply.
To get to that point, I entered the appropriate search terms: Cheap Trick The Latest. This took me to this page. As you can see, after offering the album as download for $8.99, there is a listing for an audio CD.
I clicked on that link, which took me to this page. Scroll down to Product Details, and Amazon again refers to this as an "Audio CD."
This would lead most people to believe that one would be buying an ordinary audio CD. You know, like the one that you can buy in a store.
However, that's not the case. Keep scrolling down the page. Past the sample clips, down to Editorial Reviews and the product description. This is where Amazon advises that "This product is manufactured on demand using CD-R recordable media. Amazon.com's standard return policy will apply."
And apparently, according to one reviewer (the one who gives the disc one star, only due to this deception) the packaging is also substandard. This reviewer gets a lot of grief from Cheap Trick fans, many who ask if this guy could read.
Well, I think he can read. And I think he is perfectly justified to complain, being that Amazon represented in the first two places a person would look, that this was a CD and then squirreled away the truth about what it was selling more than halfway down the main page. I certainly didn't look this far down -- I thought I was buying a CD.
Had they priced this at a price more commensurate with a budget CD-R, I probably wouldn't be ticked off. But $16 for a half-assed package and product? No way.
Moreover, Amazon also blew the release date. The release date was Tuesday June 24, 2009. Considering that Amazon was cheaply pressing up the CD-Rs themselves, they certainly could have found a way to get those CDs in the hands of those who preordered it on that date. Instead, Amazon shipped it on that date. This means folks who bought it from the only website selling it (other than Cheap Trick's website) won't get it until the weekend, at the earliest.
Now Cheap Trick shouldn't be let off the hook either. I would think that the band (or its representatives) would have known about this arrangement. This is based in part on the fact that it has been reported that those who ordered directly from Cheap Trick's website received the actual CD, not a CD-R. If the band did know, then fans should have been alerted to this distinction on the website. But there would be a disincentive to do so -- ordering from Amazon drives up the CD's sales ranks.
As a consumer, I like Amazon.com, even though I realize it has an unfair competitive advantage on retailers, and pretty much does zilch in the way of philanthropy. Jeff Bezos is no Bill Gates in the doing anything good for society department. But this leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
And I'm a big fan of Cheap Trick. I hope that there is a sufficient outcry that the band realizes that you have to be more upfront to your fans. I'm going to return the inferior version of The Latest I'm getting any day now. I can wait until the July release of the proper CD. But I'll be a bit bummed out until then, and that may color my ability to enjoy what many are touting to be the band's best release in decades.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Madness -- The Liberty Of Norton Folgate (Lucky Seven)
The first album of original Madness material in almost a decade finds the Nutty Boys tackling a concept album. Here, the band looks at the Norton Folgate neighborhood. Quite frankly, as concepts go, this doesn’t force the band to stretch itself too much, as Madness has always excelled at chronicling life in London in small slices. But the concept inspires Madness to do what it does best -- chronicle life in London in small slices.
The only concession to the level of pretentiousness that should accompany a concept album is the title track, which a series of tiny songs strung together. As discussed further below, not only does Madness earn the right to a bit of Brian Wilson level ambitiousness, the number is a complete success.
It should be no surprise that Madness could age well, since the band’s last few albums were dominated by mid-tempo songs that were inspired equally by music hall sounds, The Kinks and ska. This album proves that they can continue to take this approach for as long as they want.
This means hooky pop songs galore. Just between you and me, most of these songs aren’t really part of the concept. What I mean by that is that observational pop is observational pop, no matter how you couch it.
Two stellar examples of this are “Dust Devil” and “Sugar and Spice”. The former is the first single off the album. The song is keyed by a supple reggae based rhythm with winning lyrics about a twenty-something gal who is burning the candle at both ends: “On top of the day break/and the last one to bed.” The song has two insidious hooks -- Mike Barson’s keyboard line that snakes through the verses and the superb singalong chorus. Brilliant.
“Sugar and Spice” shows that Madness has retained its mastery over the bittersweet that was typified on songs like “Grey Day”. Musically, this is Madness at its Britpoppiest, the type of song that launched a thousand Blurs. The jauntiness of the melody of the chorus is undercut by the portent of the piano and the resignation in Suggs’ voice as he chronicles the rise and fall of a couple for whom everything seemed possible when they were in high school. This is basically the response to The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.
Oddly enough, one of the most affecting tracks on the album is about escaping from London. “Africa” is simply a beautiful piece of music, with the band turning to some light percussion, creating a languid groove with a melody that meshes music hall with a bit of Brazilian flair. In this song, Suggs is a guy who has woken up from a bender who “couldn’t get to work if I wanted to,” who just wants to go back to sleep and dream of going to Africa. This is just plain lovely.
I’m just scratching the surface, as there are so many other strong songs, such as “Rainbows”, “Idiot Child”, “On the Town” and “Forever Young”. But, as I noted earlier, it all leads up to the title cut.
In the liner notes, Suggs describes the literary inspirations for this album, William Taylor’s This Bright Field and Peter Ackroyd’s A Biography Of London. That’s what Madness aims to equal on “The Liberty of Norton Fulgate”.
The song winds through ska and klezmer and Eastern European sounds, among others, while walking through the neighborhood and chronicling its history. Africans, Chinese, Malaysians, Welsh, Irish and others find their way to “Shadwell’s Tiger Bay.” They all end up there selling their wares by day and dancing in the streets by night.
While moving from style to style, the band keeps coming back to a definable chorus that centers the whole epic. This is Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and Randy Newman rolled up into one, with the liberal spirit that fueled the whole Two-Tone movement coming through loud and clear.
The song reaches a thematic climax near the end with the simple refrain, “In the beginning was/the fear of the immigrant.” But they all moved by the Thames and look at what we have now. As this song reveals, not only were the fears unfounded, they should give anyone all the more reason to cherish London, or any place where the whole world lives in one city.
With this song, and the whole album, Madness has put an exclamation point on its career, releasing a definitive statement (even though it wasn’t absolutely necessary). If they weren’t already considered pop royalty, this album should tip the balance in their favor.
[NOTE: This album is apparently coming out in the U.S. on Yep Roc. Also, there is a deluxe version with more tunes that did not make the final release. Based on this, I'm hoping Yep Roc gets that out so I can buy it at a reasonable price.]
Friday, June 12, 2009
Jarvis Cocker -- Further Complications (Rough Trade)
If Bryan Ferry was the ultimate lounge lizard, Jarvis Cocker is becoming his sleazy alter ego, just a lizard coming onto 20-something year old girls. Call him Buddy Lust.
Don’t believe me? Check out the opening lines of “Leftovers”: “I met her in the Museum of Paleontology/and I make no bones about it/I said, “If you wish to study dinosaurs/I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted.” Musically, “Leftovers” is a bluesy take on early-‘60s pop, allowing Cocker to persistently try to bed the young lady he is singing to, whether he’s putting down her boyfriend (“He says he wants to make love to you/But instead of ‘to’ shouldn’t that be ‘with’") or being brutally honest (“This is no ‘mouth-watering proposition’/make no mistake: you’re in big trouble little lady.”). The romantic spell of the music seems like wishful thinking as it doesn’t seem that Jarvis is going to get the girl.
He’s more aggressive on the buzzing rocker “Angela”. Cocker is all unbridled lust waxing ecstatically over a modified glam rock stomp: “She is mobile poetry/and she’s nearly 23.” This is one song where the stamp of Steve Albini (who, as always, recorded -- not produced -- this plate) is apparent, as this has a sleazy live rock feel through and through.
Cocker was wise to tab Albini to work on this record with him, as the performances are really crisp and immediate and the record is not overly slick. Musically, this album covers the same territory that Cocker has been mining for years, especially since the final Pulp album, We Love Life. It's a mix of dramatic R & B fueled balladry with some forays into actual rock music. The biggest departures, other than “Angela”, come on “Homewreckers”, which sounds a lot like the old Batman TV show theme and “Fuckingsong”, which is a brute rocker that could have come off an early PJ Harvey record.
The lyrical conceit of “Fuckingsong” is fairly clever too. Cocker wants to seduce everyone and this song is the vehicle. He can touch women with the song, and there’s a big advantage to this method: “Always eager, always ready, always in tune & always primed/& I’m always there for you -- I’m always on time/unlike in real life.” But in the end this substitute isn’t quite what he would like it to be.
Cocker is really on his game, as the lyrics are witty, his performances are consistently engaging and his core band is up to the task of performing what is sometimes fairly layered music in what is essentially a live setting. Whether it’s the soft-disco on the epic length finale “You’re in My Eyes (Discosong)” or the atmospheric and romantic “Slush” (“My heart melted at your touch/turned into slush”) or the show stopping “I Never Said I Was Deep” (where Cocker proclaims “I am profoundly shallow”), Cocker is ably supported.
I think that Cocker’s days riding the UK charts are well past him, but he is still making intelligent pop records. I already made a Bryan Ferry comparison, which is somewhat on target, and he mixes that suave approach with the ability to play characters and skewer pomposity on par with Randy Newman. I think that’s a great combo. But will the little girls understand?
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Bat For Lashes -- Two Suns (Astralwerks)
It’s pretty hard to write about Natasha Khan without mentioning Kate Bush. Khan is not an imitator of Bush so much as she is following the trail blazed by the queen of British art pop. Other artists, from Tori Amos to Sarah McLachlan, have garnered comparisons to Ms. Bush, but no one comes quite as close to putting together the package of music and imagery the way Ms. Khan does.
Khan’s music often sounds like The Dreaming/Hounds Of Love-era Bush if it were melded with some more modern sounds, such as trip-hop. And while Khan doesn’t have the pipes of Bush, she certainly has a winning voice.
This sophomore effort shows no signs of a slump. There is beauty and mystery lurking around almost every bend. And some hooks too.
This album starts strong and peaks in the middle with two songs that show Khan’s musical mastery. The dramatic “Pearl’s Dream” is an exquisite piano driven piece. Apparently, Pearl is an alter ego that allows Khan to express a different point of view. Whatever. The song starts with Khan accompanied only by a piano. The song turns from melodic to more percussive, with tympanies and drums and more keyboards building up in the refrain as reverb is added to Khan’s voice. She climbs up to the top of her range...and then things quiet down again. This is a very affecting song.
This is followed by “Good Love”, which is slinky and sexy. With keyboard lines on the top and an insinuating rhythm below, Khan is given room to narrate and emote. All of this leads into a delectable chorus, Khan multi-tracking her voice to great effect. As the song moves along, there are some creative arranging tricks that make it all the more interesting.
Khan has a wide array of colors on her palette. “Sleep Alone” manages to sound like a collaboration between Clinic and Annie Lennox, with a tense electronic drum beat mixing with angelic singing. Again, Khan takes a very captivating foundation and then embellishes with various instruments to give the track texture. This is topped off with another memorable chorus.
It should be no surprise that the first single from the album, “Daniel”, is also pretty memorable. This is a mid-tempo slow build song and despite all of the keyboards and other modern trappings, this is really just a good folk-pop song without any of the instrumentation that one would associate with that type of song. It’s as if Beth Orton went a couple steps further with her approach.
The only song that isn’t fully realized is the closing track, “The Big Sleep”, which features guest vocals from the legendary Scott Walker. Although his spectral crooning melds well with Khan’s pretty voice, the song itself doesn’t go much further than the main piano figure that defines it. It’s not a bad song by any means, but in the wake of what proceeded it, it’s a bit unsatisfying.
This exemplifies how strong the rest of the album is. The next step for Khan is stronger lyrics and to continue to grow and challenge herself. I look forward to following her on her journey.
Friday, June 5, 2009
Brakesbrakesbrakes -- Touchdown (Fatcat)
There’s nothing particularly original about the sound of Brakesbrakesbrakes (who I will refer to for the rest of the review simply as Brakes). This is British guitar pop that is capable of pleasing fans of Oasis, Cast, Nada Surf (not British, but sounds close enough for me) and others of that ilk. In fact, capable is putting it mildly.
These boys got some songs. And they know how to play them. Good songs well executed. That’s an unbeatable combination.
This is apparent from the get go. “Two Shocks” is a swell opener. It starts slowly, with singer Eamon Hamilton intoning gently in a manner of fact manner over percussion dominated backing, as the guitars reinforce the drums and the vibes. The music breaks down a couple of times for Hamilton to sing, “All I grow is disillusioned”. The intensity subtly builds until the guitars explode in the manner of classic shoegazer rock. This is a heck of a way to start.
The best song on the disc is so simply constructed and relies to a degree on the same slow build. “Crush on You” matches pithy unrelated lyrics (proper names, catch phrases and what not: “Vampire/snake eyes/snake face/ooh I got a crush on you.”) to a basic rhythm guitar pattern. As with “Two Shocks” the intensity of the playing builds to what the constitutes the chorus, a true release with a great lead guitar figure. In a better world, this would be a big hit.
Fans of Nada Surf would really enjoy “Ancient Mysteries”, a punchy pop tune that mixes verses that smack of ‘72 era Bowie and Roxy Music, into a guitar fueled chorus. The song is barely shy of two minutes and does what it needs to in that time.
“Worry About it Later” is equally brief. It’s a playful jangle pop song that would have sounded great between The Hummingbirds and The Housemartins on a 1987 college radio show.
That late ‘80s college radio era is also evoked on “Oh! Forever”, which rumbles with the majesty of The Jesus And Mary Chain, but with the dignity of Darklands (as opposed to the squalling feedback of Psychocandy). Like “Crush on You”, the Brakes have confidence in the strength of their melodies and rhythms, allowing them to build and build. This time the release doesn’t come in the form of a chorus, but in an extra layer of a strummed electric guitar. The song becomes a mantra of devotion.
There is nothing on this album that is less than listenable and there are a few more highlights that I'll let you discover. This is just a rock solid enjoyable record and there can never be enough of those.